"Something there is, that doesn't love a wall," waxed American poet Robert Frost. And the truth is, it's not mischievous elves and sprites mucking up your garden maintenance, it's the land itself – the outline of your nation might be strong in your mind and your school geography book, but birds, plants, viruses and weather systems are terrible citizen students. Everything of the natural world is sans frontiers, mate. Including the problems.
Because the problems that the land is increasingly yeilding to us as the 21st century unfolds are very much a product of our human behaviours, including our terrible concept of how boundary lines should work – so often drawing arbitrary lines we will inevitably cross, rather than marking out practical responses or enscribing insightful territorial identity.
From the great addictions of business voratiously deforesting our jungled continents, famously whithering the lungs of the planet, to the overfarming of landscapes turning them into deserts, to the relentless hunting of rare animals for prized trophies and medical comforts, our modern view of the land and its abundance as purely a resource to be plundered is eroding our web of biodiversity, and threatening our essential connection to it. As both populations and sea levels threaten to rise in the coming decades, the amount of land we can even viably manage will diminish further.
And as changes in landscapes force whole groups of people to become nomadic, in search of secure fertility for their lives, while rich investors sink global fiscal foundations in dicky times into dependable real estate ever more, and drive up everyone’s cost of living anywhere, on whose turf is the problem? On whose lawn should we park our septic tanks? In the global game of musical chairs, at what point do we question who the hell keeps nicking the seating?
Will earthquake or slow subsidence undermine the human-planet future? Let’s dig into it.
While Bobby Frost was swanning around New England gassing with his neighbours a hundred provincial years ago, with nothing but thoughts and feelings in his filofax, of course world politics was demonstrating humans’ inability to stick to agreed borders, as globalising ambitions and fragile egos and transnational agreements spilled conflict carelessly across the map of Europe and beyond. War, and unprecidentedly mechanised, industrialised war, transformed the landscape of northern France in particular into a monochrome lunar landscape. A stripped desert of death.
The land, of course, likes to surrender its secrets every now and then, and the fields of Verdun still sometimes share sombre stories of human suffering long after the birds returned and the trees leafed again. In a flashpoint of history, the human outlook obliterated a normal view of the land with decidedly artificial priorities, and the instant results cost us dear. It’s not hard to picture why the fractured silhouettes of trees on barren horizons became images to haunt the modern world’s artists after the first world war. And to this day, the idea of entrenching ourselves into a position and never being able to wade out of the mud is a chilling one for modern global culture’s relationship with Earth.
Attempting to explore the more hopeful human tomorrow as I am, with Unsee The Future, it’s the UN’s Global Goals that paint the most complete picture of the task in hand – and so provide us with a good working plan to ponder the various parts of, as we consider what may lie ahead for us. And it’s this piecing together some idea of the whole context we’re doing everything in, that I think holds the key to chumps like me and you actually getting inspired enough to work into a personal response. To change the gosh-darned world an actual bit. Spilling over the boundaries of our thinking to see how the various bits of our living really connect.
And it’s obvious, a fundamental thing we’ll need to do is psychologically reconnect with the dirt beneath our feet.
The UN’s Global Goal, Life On Land, aims to: “Protect, restore and promote sustainable use of terrestrial ecosystems, sustainably manage forests, combat desertification, and halt and reverse land degradation and halt biodiversity loss.”
Okay. And they don’t pull any punches in their introduction:
“A flourishing life on land is the foundation for our life on this planet. We are all part of the planet’s ecosystem and we have caused severe damage to it through deforestation, loss of natural habitats and land degradation. Promoting a sustainable use of our ecosystems and preserving biodiversity is not a cause. It is the key to our own survival.”
There’s more to soil than pulling potatoes out of your allotment plot. Because getting it under your fingers reminds you somehow – that stuff is really under the skin.
My first trip to the middle east was at the start of the century. Dear creative mates Mark and Sarah invited me to join a team making a short documentary meeting students living in one particular part of Israel. Galilee.
If there’s one bit of land that illustrates the power of geography in human identity, it’s Israel. A country of less than nine million people, it’s landmass is just over 20,000 square km, less than a tenth that of the little old UK, yet it’s impact on world politics has been enormous. Even bigger than its impact on trans-sexual euro-pop. Dana International – oh, Viva la Diva indeed. Tied to the identity of some key groups of humans, Israel is a modern democratic nation that doesn’t simply cross cultural divides like a shimmering showbiz pro, it’s at the centre of many global cultural leylines. And it’s a mashed contradiction of colours. While being one of the warmest, richest nations of hospitality, history and hopes, it’s also, I think it’s fair to say, a country that half sees itself at war constantly. With itself, and over subtly shifting borders. As a result, it currently has one of the most symbolic walls on the planet. But in a little village in the scrubby hills of ancient Palestine, a part of the world so self consciously old it has olive trees casually at the sides of the roads that some believe may have been there since the days of its Roman name, I discovered a different story of the land and its inhabitants. One that taught me a lot about our sense of roots.
Israel exemplifies this. The ancient site of many a biblical yarn, its slightly weighty role as the Jewish promised land, given to the former Egyptian slaves, Abraham’s kids, by God himself no less, has slightly loaded the conversations about who should live there for two and a half thousand years.
Nicked by everyone at some historic point, including the people of Israel themselves, it’s a location split, morphed and marched over throughout its ancient story to date, and so a place with many claims over it. Defining your personal identity and politcal purpose by a bit of jolly nice real estate may be understandable, especially if it flows with milk and honey and hummus like that balmy end of the Mediterranian. But if the way you define that bit of real estate is fundamentally ethnic, not simply geographical or even idealogical, then you’re defining yourself with a fight.
Mar Ellias school and university in the little Galilean hill town of Ibillin, is founded on a different idea of a fight. As its founder, the former parish priest of the district, now former archbishop of Galilee, Elias Chacour puts it:
“We are not condemned to live together, we are rather privileged to live together — to accept each other and to become a sign of hope for our local people, for the Middle East and for all those thousands who visit the Holy Places.”
He wrote a couple of books about his experiences as a young priest during an historic time that saw Israel in the news a bit, while he was trying to forge a more positive identity for young people who have grown to straddle two worlds in a divided country – citizens of Israel, but families of Palestinians. Arabs, but often Christian. And he founded an educational establishment on the idea of flipping how people saw their place in the cultural landscape.
It’s impossible for a sauntering post-war European like me to know what it feels like to be quite so location-locked as the many peoples of Israel do. How defined by geography. How committed. Any more than it is possible for me to know what it is like to be all but walled up in the chaotic density of the West Bank when military strikes pound your tiny civilian enclave, or what it is like to not want to let your kids ever stray to the end of the garden in case they are too far to run for cover when an ever-possible rocket attack whistles towards the subburbs Ashkelon or Beersheba. What that does to your mind, day in day out, I don’t know. Which is why I was dumbfounded by the kids at Mar Ellias, and their belief that their identity in the land of Israel was as sacred as their duty to include everyone there like family.
Land wars aren’t always, of course, about the land the wars are happening on. There are many who believe Israel has long been a sort of proxi war between the different axes of power surrounding the Persian Gulf and their respective allies. And then there is the utter desolation of some ancient and modern parts of Syria, as Russia and the West dook out a turf dance at the expense of the children of Eastern Ghouta.
It’s lead to that other great land-linked challenge, refugeeism. Thousands of people fleeing war are still washing up on Europe’s beaches, moving people into Don’t Know What To Do With Them holding camps from Greek islands to French ports. And these people will have a big psychology to deal with embedded in all their trauma and loss – disconnection from their homeland.
Refugeeism is an ache, not simply because you’ve lost your home and security, but because you have been expelled from the bit of geography that shaped you. And changes in land often trigger it before politics gets involved. Changes in land these days too depressingly understood to be brought about by the slightly bigger, complicating issue of climate change.
As Elaisha Stokes reported for Vice News, a drought stretching across the second half of the century’s first decade in the east of Syria was so bad, it may have been the worst for 900 years, according to a study of trees in the area by NASA’s Goddard Institute. The lack of rain precipitated a folding up of rural economy so bad, it: “caused 75 percent of Syria’s farms to fail and 85 percent of livestock to die between 2006 and 2011, according to the United Nations. The collapse in crop yields forced as many as 1.5 million Syrians to migrate to urban centers, like Homs and Damascus.”
The outcomes of such shifts of land use easily shift the responsibilities. Whether it’s rural to urban, or nation to nation, the poor politics of one government inevitably dumps the migrating problem on its neighbouring government. Those attempting to run healthier, better organised countries are of course where those fleeing the opposite will run to.
“Without land of their own to get these fundamentals of life, they have to rely on others to provide them. A list of factors, like war, famine and drought, complicate what countries like Greece and Uganda can choose to do with their land – an influx of refugees from Syria and South Sudan, respectively, have strained already thinly stretched natural resources.” says Richard Gray in a Future Now piece for the BBC.
And then, of course, the climate crisis is simply a global weather system problem. So land use is inevitably a trans-boundary issue.
Which means we’d better get used to people being on the move, as we plan for the future of land resources management. It might help, of course, if we didn’t keep diminishing the usefulness of land directly ourselves too.
Rainforests. ..Oh, do we have to look the facts in the eye? We’ve all known Wales has been being removed from the planet’s greatest tree systems for decades – great leafy chunks of equivalent-sized verdant land – but to really look it in the eye might be the fact that tips us over the edge of despair, far from the grapple hook of any hopey-changey bit, right?
Well, steal yourself. Because that thing you’ve been aware of since childhood, whether you’re half my age or rather more than my age, is still a thing. A horrible thing. As National Geographic puts it simply:
So that’s more than the size of Wales. And what they and others all quote is the FAO belief that at current rate of deforestation, our rainforests will be gone in 100 years.
So there’s that.
In a little round-up of past reports from the FAO on rainforests, it’s interesting to track the development of the issue as a global talking point. From the emergence of the need to see forests as more than just a plunderable resource in the 1970s, the conservation story began at that point with a recognition of the need to involve local communities in the management of the ecosystem. By the 80s, it was becoming evidential that the rainforests affected global climate and had a significant role to play in its stability, and by the mid 90s they were seen as human-natural systems that would have an important role to play in sustainable development. In the twenty-plus years since then, the global figures for how much forest life we’re losing have fluctuated a bit, as countries with the major forests have developed their wider economies, decentralised aspects of the management of the environments and grown awareness of the issues and the complexity of those issues on multiple levels. But all that chat hasn’t done much to halt the economic train bulldozing through the jungle over the last half century. As the report says, even at the turn of the century there was: “a greater recognition that policy statements mean little in practice without strong institutional capacity to implement them.”
Where is that strong institutional capacity today? Because the trend is ultimately an up slope on the graph. There are figures aplenty on this, but the WWF simply stand by the figure of some 18.7million acres of global forest loss per year, or as they put it: “equivalent to 27 soccer fields every minute”. Eco website Mongabay concurs with this as a 2014 figure, saying: “The usual suspects topped the 2014 list: Russia, Brazil, Canada, Indonesia and the United States. But coming in at number six was the Democratic Republic of the Congo, which surpassed a million hectares of forest loss for the only time in the 14-year data set. Annual forest loss in the Central African nation has roughly doubled since the early 2000s, according to the data.”
The simplest way to drop yourself into the story is visually, and Global Forest Watch’s world map will tell you much, depressingly, in less than five seconds when you press play on it’s timeline. A lot of green turns pink.
Much of the above data comes from the latest FAO State of the world’s forests report, which is from 2016. It allies itself with the SDGs by saying: “we can no longer look at food, livelihoods and the management of natural resources separately” before going on to say: “We know that forests and trees support sustainable agriculture by, for example, stabilizing soils and climate, regulating water flows, giving shade and shelter, and providing a habitat for pollinators and the natural predators of agricultural pests. When integrated judiciously into agricultural landscapes, forests and trees can therefore increase agricultural productivity. Forests and trees also help ensure the food security of hundreds of millions of people, for whom they are important sources of food, energy and income, including in hard times.”
But they get to the nub of the main challenge when they add: “However, agriculture is still the major driver of deforestation globally, and agricultural, forestryand land policies are often at odds.”
It’s interesting that while Brazil unsurprisingly tops the list of offenders here, given that the Amazon is mostly in its back yard and is still the world’s largest forest, it’s trend of clearing had been generally down from an especially hideous high of ten years ago, but it’s spiked back up again in recent years and is currently rising again rather alarmingly. Camila Domonoske quotes a report from Brazillian newspaper Estadão that shines a light on the kind of political culture the forests are prey to just in Brazil:
“The policy director of Greenpeace, Marcio Astrini, says among the causes of the increased deforestation were actions taken by the federal government between 2012 and 2015, such as the waiving of fines for illegal deforestation, the abandonment of protected areas — that is, ‘conservation units’ and indigenous lands — and the announcement, which he calls ‘shameful,’ that the government doesn’t plan to completely stop illegal deforestation until the year 2030.”
As a mate of mine said to me the other night, just returned from three years living in the country: “Brazil is brilliant. It’s got everything. It should be one of the richest world leaders. But the government is so corrupted – everyone believes they’re all in the same thing the last president was impeached for”.
If true, how do the trees fight that?
Indonesia, meanwhile, is simply on a steadily rising trend of clearing it’s rainforests for that particularly big cash crop – palm oil.
You know, that stuff. That stuff people sometimes mention testily. That stuff that is so useful and so growable it has become an economic pandemic to forest land – a literal forest fire of clearing trees to plant acres of the eminently sellable vegetable oil crop. As the WWF explains: “Grown only in the tropics, the oil palm tree produces high-quality oil used primarily for cooking in developing countries. It is also used in food products, detergents, cosmetics and, to a small extent, biofuel.” As they go on: “more than half of all packaged products Americans consume contain palm oil—it’s found in lipstick, soaps, detergents and even ice cream.”
And, as Reuters simply puts it, while reporting a forecasted increase in production of the comodity for 2018: “Nearly 90 percent of global supply is from Indonesia and Malaysia.”.
The forest-clearing plantation firms aren’t companies you’ve heard of, but they supply manufacturers of products that you have.
Of course, this has an effect on biodiversity. Not just from single-crop planting which loses all the benefits of yield, efficiency and resiliance found in more integrated ecosystems, exploited positively by a more permaculture approach. It’s the wildlife. Rainforest Rescue says heatedly, as their natural habitats are cleared: “endangered species such as the orangutan, Borneo elephant and Sumatran tiger are being pushed closer to extinction.”
As Naomi Larsson reports for The Guardian: “The Leuser ecosystem, which spans 2.6m hectares (6.4m acres) of peatlands and forests, is the last place on Earth where Sumatran orangutans, elephants, tigers and rhinos coexist in the wild, and is home to more than 200 mammal and 500 bird species, many of which cannot be found anywhere else in the world.” And it’s disappearing at an alarming rate, basically.
The human inhabitants suffer too. Rainforest Alliance claims that it’s not just half the world’s animal species that live in and under the great canopies of our tree systems, some 90% of the world’s poorest humans depend on the forests for survival. As Rainforest Rescue picks up: “Smallholders and indigenous people who have inhabited and protected the forest for generations are often brutally driven from their land. In Indonesia, more than 700 land conflicts are related to the palm oil industry. Human rights violations are everyday occurrences, even on supposedly “sustainable” and “organic” plantations” they claim.
Amnesty International released a report outlining much the same. Below minimum paygrades, long hours, child labour, inadequate health and safety – all of it. And they named names.
As they conclude: “Something is wrong when nine companies turning over a combined revenue of $325 billion in 2015 are unable to do something about the atrocious treatment of palm oil workers earning a pittance.”
It’s all a bit of a bugger, eh? And not least because, apart from anything else, as the Rainforest Alliance puts it in easily social media-shareable terms, they reckon: “As much as 20 percent of the planet’s oxygen is produced by the Amazon rainforest alone” and: “rainforests are our best defence against climate change. Not only do they regulate global temperatures, they also stabilize local climates and limit the earth’s reflectivity, which in turn stabilizes ocean currents, wind patterns and rainfall.”
And that’s just the forests. We also have to worry about deserts – because we’re making more of them. Out of countryside and, arguably, city centres.
In theory, there’s plenty of land. Even to accommodate projections of 11billion people by the middle of the century. As Richard Gray says: “there are around 13.4 billion hectares of ice-free land (51.7 million sq miles) on the planet.” But we do rather need our land to do certain things for us, if we’re to live on it. And on top of this, we’re just fussy buggers – we want to base ourselves not just where the resources are, but where we fancy the action is. Or isn’t.
A lot of landmass is simply uninhabitable and or unfarmable. The middle of Australia. The back end of Siberia. Dover. By some estimates, humans already use 30-40% of practical land for farming and the demand for that is, of course, only going to rise. But it’s not simply about numbers.
“The countries where populations are growing the most are actually using the least of the Earth’s resources per person,” warns Jonathan Foley, executive director of the California Academy of Sciences, quoted in the Future Now article. “Those of us in the rich and developed world consume far more than our fair share.”
One of the big problems is that the land we’re already farming is feeling the strain. Desertification. As Conserve Energy Future puts it: “a persistent degradation of dryland and fragile ecosystems due to man-made activities and variations in climate. Desertification, in short, is when land that was originally of another type of biome turns into a desert biome because of changes of all sorts.”
It’s happening in various places. As Simon Speakman Cordall explains: “According to the International Fund for Agriculture Development, no continent, excluding Antarctica, is immune from the combined effects of intensive modern farming, dwindling fresh water supplies and rising temperatures, all of which can reduce fertile soil to desert. However, Africa, containing 37% of the world’s arid zones, and Asia, with 33%, are at acute risk.”
Tunisia, he quotes a local social enterprise founder, is suffering from the evolving desertification of some 95% of it’s arable land. “There is less than 1% of fertile organic material left in the soil”. Meanwhile Gadaref in Sudan illustrates the compounding of human use and climate change, as Hannah McNeish reports. A region nicknamed The Granary previously, a combination of deforestation and erratic rainfall has caused flash floods, finishing off the viability of many farming plots.
“Climate change affected the intensity of rainfall. When it is very intense, you have very quick and very high runoffs, and this is what we are seeing now,” she quotes El Gamri, a project coordinator at the Sudan Higher Council for Environment and Natural Resources. “They spoil the soil. Now you see they cannot cultivate such land, because it has lost the levelling.”
This means: people on the move. Looking for work. And fewer people feeding themselves. Which means great pressures on our cities, where people end up.
Which means… higher property prices in those cities. The challenges of our land uses are not just about dusty villages far away from your Co-Op.
If you want a poster picture of a possible human land future, it might be of Malé in the Maldives. Just go look at a typical aerial shot, like the one on the Lonely Planet page for it. A tiny island clustered with tower blocks almost to the water’s edge, surrounded by sea. It is crowded, man. And it means the rents have been heading as skyhigh as the buildings. And while the Thames Barrier has so far stopped the British capital from looking much the same, you know the score there too – it’s getting so hard to find affordable living, where will be the social biodiversity in coming decades? And who the hell can afford the property prices now?
We value land like little else. We are so addicted to the idea here in the UK where I live that landlords of empty shop units would rather keep them empty and decaying infront of everyone on the high street than lease them cheaply to creative start-ups and so ‘damage their portfolio’. It’s simply called a housing crisis here now, the ballooning property values pricing out more and more home buyers and forcing up rents. In a culture of such easy, safe money, the governement won’t even think about social rent caps or building real social housing – council houses. So we have a growing epidemic of homeless, falling out of the safety nets of work, family and home.
Yolande Barnes, head of Savills world research, said: “To give this figure context, the total value of all the gold ever mined is approximately US$6 trillion, which pales in comparison to the total value of developed property by a factor of 36 to 1. The value of global real estate exceeds – by almost a third – the total value of all globally traded equities and securitised debt instruments put together and this highlights the important role that real estate plays in economies worldwide. Real estate is the pre-eminent asset class which… has the power to most impact national and international economies.”
The clear implication is not just the gentrification of major cities, it is the hollowing out of their central lives, as the super rich buy assets to simply hang on to. In many of the new developments of rapidly expanding, globalising cities, the lights are on, but nobody is home. While the homeless sit on the pavements below.
The land bears the most visible scars of our lifestyles, and its stripes betray how we see the world. As asset to be stripped without living partnership. We dig things out of it to burn, we dig toxic things into it to hide. We bulldoze it bare, we seal it in with concrete. We work it infertile. We hunt its wildlife to extinction to eat, to sell, to hang on the wall. We kill each other to stick a flag in it.
In our views of the human-planet future, the hope gets buried here, doesn’t it?
Oh dear, I think we need to go for a ramble in the woods to clear our heads, don’t we?
Much as I owe the culture of my home country, much as I loved the view of it through the lenses of Danny Boyle’s 2012 Olympic Opening Ceremony, there are fewer and fewer moments in our public life that make me feel proud to be British. It isn’t that many things, from the British withering of most crises with humour and tea to the dogged brilliance of our medical workers’ commitment to public service in the NHS, aren’t inspiring. Such things are. And the basic freedoms I grew up with as an average white kid were historically kind of astonishing. But as I get older, the whole idea of the borders of my identity stopping at the channel seems ridiculous. I’ve long seen myself as a European, not just because I love a nice café and bonkers art in the public realm and a rigid commitment to lifestyle, but because I am ethnically that. From the continent of Europe. But I am above all from the province of Terra – I am a human of the planet Earth. And British politics seems cruelly small minded most of the time by comparison.
At no time have I even considered pride in being an Englishman. Plucky as the determined cultural ignorances of a very English Empire were, brewing up with finest china and Rich Tea biscuits in some jungle in India, swanning about as though they owned the place. But this feeling changed in me recently. Wonderfully. Because I discovered a TV programme called Detectorists.
Mackenzie Crook’s half-hour comedy is gentle. Witty, clever, thoughtful, caring. But gentle. Very deliberately so. Because it is essentially a love letter to the English countryside, and the funny boobies who putter around in it.
As Lance and Andy wander the fields and pastures of other people’s land, waving divining wands over the soil to look for treasure, they discuss life amiably. Taking the piss out of each other in the language of love that only Englishmen speak so respectfully. And by the end of all 19 episodes, I felt I had been shown what it really means to be someone of my heritage – connected to the land. This ancient land, soaked with human story and natural wonder. A softly swooning lanscape of sprawling oaks and cocky magpies and flickering butterflies and buzzing bumble bees and bumbling dads and church hall nerds. It is a show delighting in the details of our very very cultivated landscape, shaped so humanly by farming and politics and finicky community into something beautiful. Even around the A-roads. Even in the rain. As Bill Bryson said, Britain is essentially one big garden. And the older I get, the more I feel the folk tales warbling up through the beech trunks, and resonnating in my chest somewhere behind the heart.
Yes, Britishness is usually a hark back to some version or other of a country that never existed so clearly in any present. But Detectorists seems to show us something truthful about us here now, for those of us who might be tuned to feel represented in it. A sense of heritage, to be lovingly located with a beep, and maybe polished up, out of the ground, and placed in a museum to be delighted in and to sing to new generations of the story of those who lived here and shaped the landscape… it’s captivating. Spellbinding, like any concievable pagan magic.
Cue the Mike Oldfield.
The land is never very far away. Especially in a country like mine – it’s everyone’s back garden. And the hope in our future use of the land has to begin in acknowledging the sheer growth of interest in all things natural conservation. The ramblers, the mountain bikers, the blackberry pickers, the horse riders, the Ordnance Survey map collectors, the wildlife reserve volunteers. The new generation of farmers, wanting to connect the story of the land to modern lives. The depth of shared knowledge in forest ranging and national parks. The runaway popularity of Springwatch on the Beeb. And if all this sounds a little unrealistically English to you, betraying my provincial roots, I’d point you at Banff Mountain Film Festival.
The lovely first lady of Momo bought us tickets to Lighthouse Poole ages before Christmas, just because a screen evening of selected shorts from a film fest touring the world from a base in an obscure Canadian town sounded intriguing. And on the night, we discovered just what a thing Banff Mountain Film Fest really is. I’d dressed as I normally do for the theatre, like I’m auditioning for an HG Welles movie. But all the ‘regulars’ had come in their away kit – ski jackets, walking boots, sunblock.
From the first moment on the big screen, I felt more alive. And more at peace. As each crafted short followed someone or other just getting out into the great outdoors – to walk a desert trail for three months with their dog, to cycle the world, to climb some impossible peak, to ski more downhill miles than anyone in a year, to make their own dugout in the Amazon rainforest and punt it downstream… it just made you want to get out of your indoors life way more, and feel okay again. Banff may be a prescription drug. None of these people were doing something worthy in the charity sense, the fixing problems sense – they were tending to their own humanity in the most essential way: communing physically with the Earth.
Don’t tell me more and more people aren’t gagging for this. Which means the basis of our hopes for cultural change is a groundswell.
Noble endeavours to buy up jungle for protection in the past has sometimes backfired as green colonialism, effectively displacing indiginous people. And running new parks and securing their borders is so costly, it is a strain for many poor nations to keep up with. What’s needed is a way to join up the already protected zones across South America, say, with much better economic viability. Mongabay’s excellent article How to save tropical rainforests lays it all out neatly. And a good starting point is their acronym for younger conservationists, TREES:
In fuller reality, it means firstly finding ways to support local farmers. Helping them tap into more traditional and permaculture ways of doing this that become marketable, while helping them gain legal entitlement to their historic lands. They need much better representation and support. But growing the sense of ‘value’ in a forest’s rich diversity is significant too – developing payments for ecosystem services the rest of the planet needs, like biodiversity maintenance, rainfall generation, carbon sequestration, and soil stabilization. Exploring ways we can fairly compensate the economies of parent nations for their global services. Along with things like eco tourism and corporate sponsorship. Inspiring more spending from those conscy types who find the rainforest inspiring. Because apart from dollars, it will help spread the story – that we are all connected to the rainforests.
An interesting place to look is the island of Borneo. Antipodean to some of the Amazon, right on the other side of the world, the tri-nationed island in the Indonesian archipelago is home to one of the oldest rainforests in the world, estimated to be some 140million years old. And it’s home to a rich diversity of wildlife, as you might imagine. Mostly part of Indonesia and Malaysia respectively, down in the south west is North Kayong on the western border of Gunung Palung National Park. A city some five times the size of New York, it’s been the nearest place to go for medical help for those living in the forests.
The need for medical help is a significant fear for many communities in such circumstances, as Yao-Hua Law writes for Mosaic. As he says: “The obvious fact is: people need to earn a living to survive. In desperation, many fathers and sons log and burn the edge of the national park for timber and farmland. Conservationists speak of the park’s 108,000 hectares of swamp, lowlands and montane forest, which together house sun bears, hornbills, gibbons and about 2,500 orangutans. But to local people strapped for cash, the trees look like fixed deposits to be withdrawn in entirety.”
One initiative has been exploring ways to make a difference to this, and I think it’s illustrative. As Law explains: “ASRI has been working with communities around the national park to improve the wellbeing of both humans and the environment. It started by setting up a clinic that provides villagers with not just the most extensive healthcare services in the area, but also incentives to stop them from logging in the park.”
Kinari Webb instigated founding the ASRI after first visiting Gunung Palung to study orangutans. With the drone of chainsaws and the shuddering booms of falling trees always somewhere in the aural landscape, she wondered to herself if her orangutans would have any trees left to live in. But when a local friend presented her with a machete wound to his hand in abject fear, she realised how much she’d taken for granted things like tetanus jabs and access to basic medical care. For the locals here, almost any medical problem could be livelihood and therefore life-threatening. It was a revelation that was to chart a course away from her original PhD and into studying ways of combining human and environmental health. A hunch she felt would be crucial to success in this context.
Today, ASRI – Alam Sehat Lestari, or health and harmony – is a clinic in Sukadana that: “weaves healthcare, finances and conservation into one tapestry” as Law puts it. It’s a fascinating story well worth a proper read, because the clinic sees its medical support for locals as inextricable from an understanding of and even influence over the local biome. The team that grew around Webb’s work got to know the endangered species of flora in the neighbourhood and helped develop responses of both conservation and replanting.
The crucial bit, is how Webb set about the beginning of ASRI’s work. As Yao-Hua Law encapsulates:
The work that grew out of it seems rich in connected knowledge. And also seems, in the end, a small, slow endeavour – but crucially, a humanly truthful one. Responding to the socio-eco-economic context the locals are living in. It’s a project with much to learn from, I think.
As Law says: “Forests are gifts that people give their great-grandchildren. Forest regrowth, even when aided by tens of people planting hundreds of thousands of seedlings, cannot be rushed. When seedlings survive and grow into trees, the shade from their canopies prohibits weeds growing, protects other seedlings and facilitates the forest’s natural regrowth” says Law. In other words, this is really investing in the long term. But I’d suggest it’s a crucial bit of understanding of the roots of our problems that should be embedded in our outlook as we explore multiple ways to mitigate and deal with the crisis of our forests.
At the other end of the island, right up on the north-west coast, is a rather different story of the rainforest, that’s an interesting last reference. Because up there is a third national inhabitant of Borneo. A little Sultanate you will have heard of, but not really. Brunei. Less than half a million citizens, fifth richest country in the world, legend seems to have it. And yes, you’re immediately thinking of it’s ruler and his legendary wealth. Interesting that he’s so obsessed with cars, when most of his country is jungle.
Brunei is certainly two things. Wealthy, and a dictatorship. Made wealthy single-handedly by oil and gas, it’s not unlike some Gulf states in looking after its people enough that folks have essentially been happy with the status quo. And because it’s not had to try so hard economically, its incredible rainforests, covering some 70% of the country, haven’t had the same pressures on them that other similar ecosystems have. There’s been little pressure to open up logging and palm oil plantations, unlike the rest of the neighbourhood, and in fact the well-heeled Sultan felt free to declare some 55% of those forests protected.
It’s interesting evidence that economy is king, when it comes to protecting the environment. Which may prove interesting in forthcoming years because, of course, we’re looking at a an all but petrochem-free future, if we’re looking at a healthy long-term future at all – and oil price drops in recent years have made all O&G tentpole nations think again in a bit of a cold sweat. Including Brunei.
Idiosyncratically, the little country is geographically split, with the Temburong district cut-off from the western rest of the country by an historic encroachment of Malaysia in the middle. So to get around this, the government (the Sultan) wants to build a big bridge, to connect it physically at last with the rest of the country. And their aim is to encourage eco-tourism, as a way to begin to diversify the economy and attract new investment. Culturally used to looking after their rainforest national asset, they’re keen to not lose it and instead want to find better economic uses for it.
As Kate Springer reports for CNN, they want to tread a careful balancing act here. And she quotes Leslie Chiang, founder of Brunei-based tour company Borneo Guide and Sumbiling Eco Village: “We have to prepare for an influx of tourists” she says. But makes clear: “We can only pursue eco-tourism. We can’t afford to have mass tourism — it will destroy the place. Luckily, the government also focuses on eco-tourism. They’d rather have not many people come, but quality travelers who appreciate the nature and the culture.”
Like Singapore, Like Bhutan, kinda like the economic world leader China, it shows what can be done when you can single-mindedly get on with grand plans without the faff of bloody democracy. Of course, Brunei has also become the first East Asian nation to impose strict Sharia Islamic law. So, well… don’t be quick to write off the faff of democracy if you like greater civil freedoms to go with your wind turbines and ecotourism.
I don’t have the answers neatly. But something in my own spidey sense comes back to the idea of cross-phasing. Green revolutions have taken less ground than they imagined during my lifetime perhaps because they have been just that – attempts at invasion. Anexxing of the planet with forceful argument. And the imperative of the end of the world as many of us have comfortably known it may be the ultimate one for the facts-conscious. But it’s a ruddy depressing one. And far too big to engage with – not like we can engage with cheap flights to the sun to forget about the fears of climate armageddon, global inequalities, the small-minded awfulness of politics and the daily grind of doing purposeless-feeling jobs that prop up all this misery.
We’re not going to switch off the aviation industry any time soon. And, frankly, we shouldn’t neatly hope to – it’s not just our global economics built on the jet engine, it’s our global outlook. One we’ll need, if we’re to save ourselves. The question we should be asking ourselves always when traveling is: Do I need to fly? Is there an alternative? And how often do I need to fly? How much more could be done remotely? With these answered, there will be times when you need to stand on foreign soil and connect the story, and feel it, like only standing there can feel it. Perhaps a deliberately saved-up for trip to visit, support and lern from a well-managed visitor-friendly corner of a breathtaking tropical ecosystem like the Bornean forests. Or to a study team in the Amazon – it could fire you to go home more connected to it in all you do. Maybe.
Thinking of Robert Frost’s poem again, the idea of walls is a sadly regular motif in the news cycle at this point in time. Politicians believing that promising or even endeavouring to erect them will win votes. Do good fences make good neighbours, as his fellow wall mender says? It’s one of the points the American poet is actually raising, as he watches his neighbour for a moment, almost like an anthropologist might watch an earlier version of man.
“Why do they make good neighbours? Isn’t it
Where there are cows? But here there are no cows.
Before I built a wall I’d ask to know
What I was walling in or walling out,
And to whom I was like to give offence.”
Land is so often in the mind. And we like boundaries. But the truth is, any walls need to be low. Not so difficult to see over, or to step over. It’s relationship that keeps us secure – and will help us combat the true trans-national challenges of being fellow Earth citizens, which is what the lot of us really is.
The people who seem the least enfranchised to the rest of us may be those with no lands. The refugees, the homeless, the traditionally nomadic peoples. Those of us on this road have the biggest challenges the world over with being recognised, exercising rights, living well. But you might say that for nomadic peoples, their territory is simply bigger than ours – whole regions. The whole Earth. There is, I suspect, insight in such long-walked perspective.
In the border wars between the past and the future of our relationship with the planet, I would venture to say at least, let’s not give up listening out for the sound of birdsong. It carries across all boundaries, and can return when you thought you might never hear it again. Because when the turned soil underneath us surrenders its bones, it reminds us of the real truth that brings all our tribes together, on this island we, after all, call Earth.
We all belong to the land.
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