Tag: climate change (page 1 of 1)

When Nature and Culture Disconnect

My book review in Biblio (Jan -Mar 2020) of Flood and Fury: Ecological Devastation in the Western Ghats by Viju B (Ebury Press/Penguin Random House India, 2019, 285 pp., Rs 399, ISBN 978-0-143-44761-0)

There are many moments in Viju’s book Flood and Fury that belie the title that this is just a book about the recent floods and ecological disasters in India’s Western Ghats mountains. One telling moment is recounted in the voice of Sandeep Sawant, a resident of Sawantvadi, in Maharashtra’s Sindhudurg — the state’s greenest district in the Sahyadri belt of the Western Ghats. As people from Asniye – a Sindhudurg village where tigers are worshipped as the Vagh Devata – perform pujas at Shiroda beach on the auspicious occasion of Somvatri Amavasya, Sawant says, “The heritage villages of Sindhudurg … are being destroyed by miners supported by our elected representatives. For us, culture without nature is as good as being dead.” Sawant’s words as recounted by Viju underscore the main point of Flood and Fury that unscrupulous and poorly- regulated exploitation of the Western Ghats both caused and exacerbated much of the death and destruction. But it also echoes the subtext of the book: all along the Western Ghats nature and culture are enmeshed, and when those connections fray and snap, disaster ensues to lands and lives.

The book unfolds with a brief introduction to the Western Ghats mountain range, its landscapes and many rivers, its diversity of plants and animals, and the peoples and problems of the region, which served as a backdrop for the extreme rainfall and floods of August 2018. Viju outlines a trajectory of decline, beginning with colonial timber extraction from forests and their conversion to large plantations, magnified in recent years by rampant and destructive development, which has transformed the relationship between people and land from one of respect and veneration to one of consumption and exploitation. In the remaining chapters, Viju attempts a view from the ground, capturing voices of local people, to understand the causes and the impacts of the floods, taking the reader to many locations along the Western Ghats from Kerala to the Sahyadri of Maharashtra. A more detailed introduction to the region and its ecological history and human diversity would have been helpful, but the reader gets a sense of an author impatient to get started on the journey.

The first six chapters focus on parts of Kerala, the author’s home state. From the mountains of Idukki to Pathanamthitta and to the Kuttanad coast, the first three chapters cover the mountains, midlands, and coastal tracts emphasising how the latter, too, are “an integrated extension of the Western Ghats” (p 86), a point that governments often seem ignorant about. The Idukki chapter outlines the five phases of deforestation that the region has witnessed due to the opening up of plantations in the colonial period, the expansion of agriculture from the 1940s, the resettlement of people in forests, the proliferation of hydroelectric projects and dams, and finally, from the 1990s onward, a phase of exploitation by illegal quarries and unregulated tourism that still threatens and sullies the mountains. From the Munnar tea plantations to the Periyar Tiger Reserve, from tribal villages in forests to expanding towns, Viju traces a litany of challenges facing the region, speaking to local people and experts to understand and document the impact of the rains and floods.

In Pathanamthitta, Viju discusses an issue that has got little attention so far: the effects of pilgrimage tourism and places of worship on the ecology and conservation of the Western Ghats. Viju’s account of the Sabarimala temple –its forest setting, myths and rituals, and the recent Supreme Court order to allow women of menstruating age entry into the temple – while a little long and digressive, brings to the forefront the disturbance, pollution, and forest degradation caused by 5 million people visiting the temple every year and the indifference of the authorities. Viju follows the Pamba River down through the midlands blasted and gouged by quarries to Aranmula at the foothills, devastated in the floods that destroyed land, property and the livelihoods of the traditional metal mirror makers. The floods did further damage downstream in the Kuttanad region, around Vembanad Lake, where agricultural expansion over the last two centuries has brought with it both prosperity and problems of pollution due to excessive use of agrochemicals.

Moving north to Chalakudi and Palakkad in the next two chapters, Viju chronicles the threats from dams proposed at Athirapilly and Silent Valley and also the resulting resistance movement that brought together tribal communities, non-governmental organisations, scientists and the lay public, which successfully opposed these patently destructive projects. Viju also swings through Attapady, the Nelliampathy Hills, and along the Bharatapuzha River giving the reader a flavour of the people and landscapes, as well as aspects unique to each place: tribal distress and forest regeneration in Attapady, destructive road expansion in Nelliampathy that has led to landslips and forest degradation, the sand mining and riparian forest loss that has affected the water availability in the Bharatpuzha and its environs.

One of the longest chapters in the book, on Wayanad, documents the multitude of issues impinging on the area: deforestation, plantations, dams, urban expansion, tourism, exploitation of timber and bamboo, land distribution and alienation of local people. Read as a series of vignettes, this brings an appreciation of how a holistic understanding of a place and its ecological and historical context is essential if the plight of Western Ghats needs to take a turn for the better: piecemeal understanding or implementation of ‘solutions’ can only lead to conflict and disaffection.

The book thins out as Viju journeys further north into Coorg (Kodagu) in Karnataka, Bicholim in Goa and Sindhudurg in Maharastra. While the chapters are short and sketchy, they articulate serious contemporary threats to the Western Ghats, which are increasing the risk and reducing the safety and resilience of ecosystems and people in the region. Coorg has suffered road expansion and unregulated construction on steep slopes, partly spurred by unregulated tourism, which along with the extensive replacement of forests by plantations keeps the region susceptible to devastating landslides. In Goa and Sindhudurg, mining has wrought widespread destruction, accom- panied by loss of forests (including private forests), fertile agricultural lands, and traditional livelihoods. Reading these chapters, one wishes the author had expanded his scope a bit more: on the fight led by the Goa Foundation and other groups against mining, on other cases such as the Supreme Court- mandated closure of the Kudremukh iron ore mine in Karnataka, on the distinctive geology and terrain and communities of the northern Western Ghats and their cultural connect with nature. A little bit of the wider context and a prognosis does appear, though, in the two short closing chapters.

There are a few other places where the book falters. For a book that talks of “ecological devastation” there is little accurate description of ecology or the findings of ecological research. Viju’s repeated use of “virgin” forests and streams does not cohere with current scientific understanding of forests in the Western Ghats and other tropical regions that have had a long history of human presence and association. Some of the details are inaccurate: for example, the Malabar Giant Squirrel and Nilgiri Langur are not among the “most endangered species on earth”; the population of Lion-tailed Macaques in Silent Valley region does not comprise half the entire wild population of the species, and so on. To make specific points, Viju often relies on conversations with a few experts and references to a few technical reports. Tables and Figures are inserted into the text (without being referred to or adequately explained) carrying columns of numbers (including statistics like standard deviations) providing detail that seems unintelligible. The book can stand on its own without these inserts. Many citations listed at the end of the book are to media articles rather than primary research. When he cites a scientific journal article while describing a study that established new bird genera (mistakenly referred to as ‘genre’ by the author) of Laughing Thrushes (mistakenly called laughing birds), it seems almost like an aberration to the general pattern of the book. This is a pity, since the Western Ghats is one of the best-studied regions among the mountainous regions in India, with valuable research on ecology, hydrology, climate and climate change, geology and land stability, which could have informed, enriched and supported the narrative.

In writing about the destructive development and exploitation of the Western Ghats and the resulting opposition—as at Athirapilly, Silent Valley, or mining in the Sahyadri—one wishes that Viju had explored further how different players such as tribal communities and NGOs and scientists came together to offer resistance. These were not merely protests against something, they were also vibrant movements that spoke for forests and mountains and particular ways of life in which culture and nature remain inseparable. These movements at least partly contradict a premise Viju makes in the Introduction that “Academicians too, though they conduct brilliant research and publish reports, have failed to address the livelihood concerns of the communities living in the Western Ghats.” True, there are academicians and reports viewed with mistrust, but Viju appears to paint with too broad a brush. The Gadgil Committee Report that the author lauds at several points along the book is the work of academicians, too. While scientists working in the Western Ghats could certainly do much more to communicate the pertinence of their findings for both ecology and livelihoods, a similar expectation could be placed on journalists reporting from the region and books like Flood and Fury, too.

These are minor quibbles on what is otherwise a good book and a welcome addition to the literature on the Western Ghats and on environment and development in India in the context of climate change. The reportage is easy to read and the book gives voice to myriad people from the region. It is an important book that must be read to understand the variety and immediacy of threats to the Western Ghats and the challenges faced by people living on the mountains and all the way downstream to the plains. It acquires further urgency and relevance in the light of the ongoing climate crisis. One hopes it lands in the hands of all people, including policymakers and administrators, connected with the region or concerned about the challenges and imperatives of conservation.

The Other Invisible Hand

One of the perils of ignoring the environment is the consequent failure to notice that the environment never ignores you. Healthy environments support human health and flourishing even as conservation secures natural resources and livelihoods. On the flip side, environmental degradation rebounds as economic losses, while pollution strikes at the heart of public health. Can one afford to ignore the environment when it affects both economy and health?

… This post first appeared here in the International Health Policies Blog and in my blog on the Coyotes Network on 5 June 2015. Read more in the The Wild Heart of India: Nature and Conservation in the City, the Country, and the Wild.

A red flush of leaves

By T. R. Shankar Raman & Divya Mudappa

Splashes of red dot the evergreen canopy, like blood on green canvas. The canarium, stately white and tall, holds a red flush of new leaves above verdant, multi-hued forest. Skimming spectacularly over the trees, a great hornbill brushes grandeur onto the canvas. In the company of hornbills, a new year dawns on an unsuspecting rainforest.

… This post first appeared in the NCF blog, EcoLogic, and as ‘Rhythms of Renewal‘ in The Hindu Sunday Magazine on 2 January 2011. Read more, with updates, in The Wild Heart of India: Nature and Conservation in the City, the Country, and the Wild.

The edges of the earth

How far can one keep going straight up an apparently unscaled peak without falling off a precipice? How far can the march of the human footprint on Earth continue without exceeding planetary boundaries and leading to environmental catastrophe? In an important recent paper in Nature, strangely reminiscent of the publication of The Limits to Growth by the Club of Rome in 1972, a group of scientists poses and develops tentative markers of planetary boundaries being reached or exceeded.

The paper in Nature, an accompanying editorial, the seven commentaries from leading experts, available here, are worth a read for anyone who wants an overview of what the major human impacts on the planet are and where they are headed. Specifically, the authors deal with the following nine issues:

  1. climate change
  2. ocean acidification
  3. stratospheric ozone depletion
  4. freshwater use
  5. biodiversity
  6. the global cycles of nitrogen and phosphorus
  7. land-use change
  8. atmospheric aerosol loading (to be quantified)
  9. chemical pollution (to be quantified)

The paper suggests that three boundaries related to climate change, biological diversity, nitrogen and phosphorous dumping into the biosphere, may already have been exceeded. A brief summary of the findings with relevant links is also available here at the website of the Stockholm Resilience Centre where the lead author Johan Rockström is based. The seven commentaries along with some other recent research highlights are also available here. The real meat of the paper is actually in a parallel publication in the journal Ecology and Society. Although this paper is in press, it is available here and this contains the details of the issues at stake, the underlying rationales, and references to the scientific literature based on which the conclusions are drawn.

In our context, given India’s demographic profile and dependence on agriculture, the aspects related to freshwater use and nitrogen-phosphorous cycles are really worthy of note. Water shortages in the country and the severe depletion of groundwater were recently again in the news following a paper in Nature. Anthropogenic nitrogen loading is already affecting our terrestrial ecosystems, coastal and marine areas, and rivers. Reporting high values of dissolved and sediment-bound nitrogen in Indian rivers, partly due to excessive fertiliser use and associated run-off, the authors of the last study grimly conclude: “Hence, our freshwater aquatic systems can no longer be considered natural, at least with respect to nitrogen transport.”

A quick survey of the debate emerging from the papers by Rockström and colleagues indicates two main questions are being asked (among others spurred by the publications). First, is it sensible to set a tipping-point benchmark, however scientifically tenuous it may be given the current state of knowledge? There is concern that this might cause complacence among policy makers and administrators, who may avoid responding to the situation until the benchmark is reached or exceeded. The second is the issue of benchmark itself: for instance, in the case of biodiversity loss. The authors of the study use extinction rate as a measure of biodiversity loss. In Table 1, they indicate a pre-industrial value of rate of extinction at 0.1 to 1 species per million species per year. The current rate of extinction is >100 species per million per year and the proposed boundary is 10 species per million per year. What makes this an acceptable boundary or rate of loss of species?

The overall picture that emerges is alarming, to say the least. The climate crisis is familiar; our newspapers are full of it now. Other concerns appear less commonly in the media. For instance, that our oceans, which absorb some 25% of human CO2 emissions, are undergoing acidification at a rate 100 times higher than at any time in the past 20 million years. This makes a whole range of marine organisms, such as corals and molluscs, susceptible to corrosion of their shells (made of calcium carbonate in the form of aragonite). The decline of aragonite-forming organisms and coral reefs could substantially alter marine ecosystems. Another global concern is that of human tampering of the planetary nitrogen cycles. Human activities now input more reactive nitrogen into the planet than all natural processes combined. As a large part of this enters the biosphere, it alters terrestrial ecosystems, as well as freshwater and marine ecosystems.

The paper will doubtless spur more discussions and research into the various benchmarks and their utility in tracking the human footprint. Despite the debates and shortcomings, one real value of the paper as it appears to me is that it brings into one page—onto one figure even, superimposed ominously on the globe—an assessment and visualisation of the nine-fold stranglehold that humans as a species have on Earth. Looking at it we have to keep asking: is the human journey reaching the edges of the Earth?

The PEST solution

In what is being heralded as one of the most visionary efforts in recent times to stem the extinction crisis, a collaborative effort by ecologists and economists from India, Brazil, and the USA has developed a novel solution for biodiversity conservation. Announcing this amidst great excitement today at a packed press conference at the Carneghee Lemon Hall at Park Avenue in Washington, D. C., senior scientist of the Natural Conservation Fund, Dr Ramon Gonsalves, said, “This is the solution. With this, the great wave of extinction will soon be behind us.”

The solution being proposed is a new scheme with an annual worth of 800 billion US dollars that has been given the moniker, Payment for Evolutionary Services and Technology fund (the PEST fund). Explaining the principle behind the PEST fund, Dr. Gonsalves said, ecstatically, “Species are the cornerstone of evolution. The extinction of a species signals the end of a long evolutionary process and deprives us of vital evolutionary resources that we could otherwise exploit for the benefit of mankind. In order to prevent the extinction of species, we have evolved a novel market-linked fund that will incentivise governments, private players, even individuals, to conserve evolutionary processes that make species what they are.”

Initiatives launched with the fund include a 10 million dollar grant to a field research centre in Ecuador to keep Darwin’s Finches evolving in the Galapagos Islands, a 2 million dollar community-based project that will enable villagers in Mexico to keep the mutualism between yucca and yucca moths going, and a seed-grant to an industrial consortium in Birmingham that will experiment with different kinds of air pollution to promote the evolution of different races of peppered moths in the region.

Laboratory-based evolutionary scientists around the world are also overjoyed at the initiative as it earmarks a full 50% or 400 billion US dollars for direct payments to labs breeding populations of the ultimate evolutionary milch-cow that never seems to run out of milk: the fruit fly Drosophila melanogaster. An additional 5% allocated just for experimentation related to tinkering of Drosophila salivary glands has left competing scientists working on other aspects, such as growing legs on fruit fly heads, virtually salivating.

Financing the fund is the world’s behemoth financial institution, the Bank of the Earth, which is providing the fund on easy terms. For implementing institutions in developed nations, it is provided as a low interest loan, while emerging economies may obtain these funds as interest-free loans or straight grants. This would be decided by economists at the well-staffed Bank of the Earth Coordination Centres currently being established within the offices of Prime Ministers and Presidents in the latter countries.

As in the case of many such large and popular schemes, the PEST fund has led to controversies in academic circles. Trenchant criticism has emerged from rival players who have tried to establish payments for ecosystem services (such as clean air, water, and carbon capture). Besides the loss of a pithy acronym to a larger project, proponents of payments for ecosystem services are worried that PEST funds will actually work against their own limited achievements thus far. The rival group is led by a group think-tank called the Coalition Against Vitiating Evolution for Monetary or Economic Net profits (CAVEMEN). CAVEMEN spokesperson, Dr. Clubb Hunter, in a press statement said, “Many evolutionary processes unleashed by humans work against nature and ecology, such as the evolution of more virulent diseases resistant to our best drugs, the varieties of invasive alien species spreading on every continent, and the evolution of couch-potato genes among certain human groups. Should we really be paying for all this, and that too in hard cash?”

Climate change nay-sayers also receive a fresh shot in the arm as aspects of human endeavour leading to further climate change that is likely to drive adaptation and evolution in plant and animal species are now eligible for PEST funds. The beneficiaries may range from airlines spewing greenhouses gases and engine fumes into the upper atmosphere over polar regions, nuclear and thermal power plants emptying warmed-up coolant water in cold rivers with endemic aquatic fauna, to those raising high-yielding, high-belching methanogenic cattle on Amazonian pastures adjoining biodiversity-rich conservation areas, observers of the PEST fund have noted.

The PEST fund has, however, won support from an unlikely quarter: social scientists and anthropologists. “This scheme is founded on well-established theory in social and human psychology”, said Dr. Eliza Doomuch, a retired social scientist and farmer in Kentucky and an architect of social revolution in the American South. “People will value things only if they are paid to do so”, she said. Taking a leaf from this successful scheme, she has founded a novel movement that promises to rid the world of racism, torture, and genocide, among other things such as parent-offspring conflict and sibling rivalry. This initiative, tentatively labeled Payments for Decency, will provide direct economic incentive to any human who shows basic decency, as defined by the International Consortium of Decent Human Beings, to other humans. Knowledgeable sources, speaking on condition of anonymity, indicated that keeping the future potential of this seminal idea to alleviate human suffering in mind, Dr Doomuch is already in the reckoning for a Nobel Peace Prize.

Yet, not everyone is happy. Among the first to raise questions about this trend to pay even for basic decency to other humans or to our planet is the Dixie Endeavor for Ecology and Population Solutions for Humanity In Transition, the only such NGO on the planet that does not use any acronym. When contacted for their opinion, this writer was told tersely, “We are refuse to accept this.”

None of these misgivings deterred the gala press conference in Washington, D. C., however. As Dr. Gonsalves said, in an euphoric tone, “We need to save species for human benefit. When humankind stands to gain so directly, it does not really matter how we do it, does it?”

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Disclaimer: All future events even remotely resembling the above fiction are entirely coincidental and unintentional.

This post first appeared in the NCF blog, EcoLogic, on 27 October 2009.