Archive for the ‘Climate Change’ Category

photo: travelpod.com

If you enjoy food, and really, who doesn’t, then you should be concerned about the impact of a changing climate on our food systems.  Just about anywhere you look, the wild and unpredictable weather is affecting agriculture.  From droughts in Australia to extreme tornadoes in the midwest to floods in Colombia and China, this weird weather is raising food prices and forcing changes in farming.

In India, agriculture is a crucial livelihood and industry.  India could eventually lose more than 5 percent of its growing season as a result of climate change, according to a joint report put out by international agricultural research centers.  Compounding the impact of climate on farming is the economy.  As India experiences economic growth, more people are leaving agriculture behind and migrating to cities for other opportunities.  As the number of mouths to feed is increasing, the number of farmers is decreasing.  That’s good news if you are a big industrial agriculture corporation, such as Monsanto, bad news if you’re a fan of sustainable farming and livelihoods.

Farming here and the world over has long been affected by industrial agriculture; now communities are increasingly being subjected to what is referred to as “land grabs.”  This is when farmland in (usually) poor, developing countries is bought or leased by wealthier governments, corporations and private investors in more food insecure regions to produce crops for export.  Much of this has happened in Africa, but Asia is experiencing land grabs as well. It is displacing farmers and negatively affecting poor communities dependent on the land for their livelihoods.  This is not a new phenomenon, but in an age of increasing food insecurity, along with poverty and climate change, it is fast becoming an issue we cannot ignore.

Indian farmers face not only foreign investors taking their lands but their own government is doing it too.  Taking advantage of an archaic colonial land acquisition law that gives the state broad powers to expropriate land—coupled with neo-liberal investment policies—the government is forcibly acquiring lands in the name of development.  Sleek new expressways in Uttar Pradesh, mining concessions in Orissa, and new cities such as Gurgaon, outside of Delhi, displace rural populations and force people off their lands and often into city  slums.

In the words of activist and physicist Vandana Shiva, “Land is not about building concrete jungles as proof of growth and development; it is the progenitor of food and water, a basic for human survival.”  This is true most every where you look; balancing development and sustainability continues to be a challenge for us all.


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Words such as “green” and “eco” and “sustainability” are thrown around a lot these days in terms of improving the environment and coping with climate change. Sometimes the words have positive actions behind them, and other times, well, they are just words.

If we’re going to protect our communities and environment from increasing degradation, we are going to need more than words.  Simply put, we need a shift in the way we live and interact with our world.  A paradigm shift.  In India, the shift is called “Earth Democracy,” of which I’ll write more of later.

Last week I attended Global Exchange’s Human Rights Awards ceremony.  The awards are given annually to celebrate and honor people who are giving back to their communities and beyond.  One of this year’s honorees was Pablo Solón, Bolivian Ambassador to the United Nations.  Amongst other things, Solón is working to get members of the UN to adopt a Declaration on the Rights of Mother Earth, which would complement the existing UN Declaration on Human Rights.

As I’ve written a bit on this subject before, I just want to share some highlights from Solon’s speech, some statements he made to which we should all give serious thought:

  • the biggest mistake that humanity is making is seeing nature as just a resource
  • if we don’t respect nature we will face a situation where it is impossible to guarantee human rights
  • our greatest challenge is thinking about the environment in a different way
  • we need to build a worldwide movement around human rights and nature’s rights

According to Global Exchange, Solón has emerged at the forefront of a global movement to radically change the relationship between humankind and nature.  He is not your typical ambassador, and giving rights to nature is not your mainstream issue — not yet at least.  But I’m willing to bet that if we take a hard look around at what our world is like and what are lives are like, this movement on the rights of nature may not seem that radical after all.  So many of us are so disconnected, to each other and especially to nature.   But the earth is a living system and humans are part of that system.

We need to make a shift not just in the way we live, but in how we think of our world and our place in it.  Solón’s view is that for humankind to survive, we need to develop another kind of system with a different relationship with nature.  Radical? Perhaps.  Necessary?  With a doubt.

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photo credit: pietrasik‑coal‑mining‑00e.jpg

For better or worse, India is a major coal producer and consumer.  Coal is the primary source of power generation in India with more than 70 percent of the total electricity generated coming from coal-fired power plants. With a growing population that is become more middle class, there will continue to be enormous demands on energy in a country where over 400 million citizens lack electricity.  India will not be getting off of coal anytime soon, (same as the U.S. and China), but there are reasons to be hopeful.

Last year the Indian government proposed a $1 levy on every ton of coal mined in the country or exported in an attempt to fund a national clean energy fund.  Already committed to reducing its carbon use by 20-25 percent by 2020 (from 2005 levels), the government needed to find a way to offset carbon emissions.  The coal tax will generate funds to finance clean energy technologies.  However, the government hasn’t yet specified how much it has raised or how the money will be used since announcing the tax in February 2010.  Hopefully they will toe the line and start funding clean energy projects, and in particular I would like to see the government do more to support decentralized renewable energy systems.

Regarding coal’s impact on wildlife, Jairam Ramesh, India’s Minister of Environment and Forests, acknowledged that increasing iron and coal mining activities in some states (mainly Orissa, Jharkhand, and Chhattisgarh) posed the biggest threats to elephants in the country.  He said that a way of extracting mineral resources without devastating the elephant population will have to be found, stating  “We need to mine iron and coal but resources should be extracted without devastating the elephant corridor.”  (India has 88 elephant corridors.)

In an encouraging move, he launched a mass campaign called Haathi mere saathi, that means “elephant my companion” and calls for involving people in elephant conservation.  India is home to over 25,000 Asiatic elephants.

The day before, at the launch of the UN’s Decade on Biodiversity in New Delhi, Ramesh stated that “Conservation is a national imperative for us as lives and livelihoods of millions of rural and urban people are dependent on its sustainable use.”  The decade is an effort to raise awareness about the importance of biodiversity.  At the event, Ramesh unveiled the slogan – Prakruthi Rakshathi Rakshita – which means ‘Nature protects if she is protected’.  It seems that Ramesh understands the delicate dance of balancing energy demands and nature, but it will be a challenging effort for all of us, wherever we live.

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Indian Farmers (credit: indymedia.no

Two articles I recently read highlight the need to listen to and provide support to farmers in India, especially women farmers.

The first article was a short piece in the New York Times on the use of a potent pesticide called Endosulfan, often referred to as “DDT’s cousin.”  According to the Times, the chemical has been banned by many countries due to the dangers it posed to agricultural workers, “good” insects, and overall threat to wildlife and a healthy environment, yet only officially banned last week.

However, a 10-year exemption has been made for India, home of the Green Revolution, to phase out its use, because agriculture ministry officials fear a rise in prices.  They state there are no cheap alternatives. Perhaps it is time to look beyond cheap prices and consider the well-being of living things.  As I’ve mentioned before, women worldwide are keepers of seeds and protectors of biodiversity. It is a source that needs to be heard and respected.  I’m eagerly awaiting a report-back from the Women’s Earth Alliance, who just held a training for and by female Indian farmers in northern India working to protect food security and food diversity.  And others, most notably Vandana Shiva, have written about the work of India’s women farmers and their role in promoting organic alternatives.

I don’t think continued use of Endosulfan is worth the risk of deformed children, as has been reported in Kerala due to the use of this pesticide on cashew plantations.  The ministry is wrong; there are viable organic alternatives to pesticide use, just maybe not big money-making ones for industrial agriculture and chemical companies.

The second article is an homage to small farmers, giving credit to Himalayan farmers as a source for coping with climate change.  In a study by Britain’s Royal Society, the authors suggest that local knowledge may help climate and biodiversity researchers improve ways of tracking the impacts of global warming.  And they were surprised by how much people notice biodiversity loss in their regions.  The fact that they found it surprising surprised me. In my opinion, it makes sense that local knowledge trumps computer models.

We should continue using all the resources available to us, but not disregard local ways of doing things, as well as information passed down through generations.  This applies to those working the land all over the world – men and women, old and young.

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If the past week or two hasn’t made you think about the power of nature, then I don’t know what would.  Between the tragic earthquake/tsunami in Japan and on a much more minor scale, the unusual amount of rain here in the San Francisco area, we are obviously at the mercy of Mother Nature.  This past Tuesday was World Water Day, a time to reflect on how much we rely on this critical resource, but I’m a little soaked from our rain and would rather turn my attention to another vital part of our natural world that is often overlooked – mangroves.

Mangrove forests are useful because they filter out pollution, act as nurseries for fish populations, and protect shorelines during storms, including tsunamis.   Mangroves include trees, palms, and shrubs.  Unfortunately mangroves are under threat due to human encroachment and activities such as coastal development (homes, hotels), logging, shrimp farms and other types of aquaculture and agriculture.  According to the International  Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), more than one in six mangrove species worldwide are in danger of extinction due to these reasons, and 11 out of 70 mangrove species (16 percent) are on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species.

The good news/bad news is that mangroves can play an integral part in coping with climate change and the increasing amounts of carbon dioxide in our air.  IUCN states that mangroves have a staggering ability to sequester carbon from the atmosphere, and serve as both a source and repository for nutrients and sediments for other inshore marine habitats, such as seagrass beds and coral reefs.  Scientific American recently ran an article on this, noting that mangroves, along with salt marshes and sea grasses (referred to as “blue carbon”), are able to soak up to five times more carbon than tropical forests.

While mankind is only beginning to understand and appreciate the role this part of the ecosystem can play in our lives, we are at the same time busy wiping them out. For a detailed assessment of oceans, coastal habitats, and tackling climate change, see the UN report Blue Carbon: The Role of Healthy Oceans in Binding Carbon.

Specifically, in India and Southeast Asia, 80 percent of all mangrove area has been lost over the past 60 years.  Mangroves in India are under threat for all the reasons listed above, but especially due to human encroachment, including farming and reliance on firewood from mangrove forests.

Instead of degrading and destroying the earth’s ecosystems in the name of development, we should be doing our utmost to protect them, which in turn will protect ourselves.

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Lately there has been some discussion of the increasing costs of staple food items, such as wheat, being a factor in the Egyptian and Tunisian protests.  According to the Food and Agriculture Organization, world food prices surged to a new historic peak in January, for the seventh consecutive month. In a world of extreme weather it is something we need to to prepare for, as climate change has serious ramifications on food security.  And whether you “believe” in climate change or not, the fact is that changing weather patterns are deeply affecting agriculture.

In India many crops are under threat – coffee, tea, mangoes, wheat, rice, apples, cashew nuts.  Organizations are looking at ways of adapting traditional crops to changing weather patterns and lack of resources such as water.  In Tamil Nadu, in southern India,  Oxfam India is working with local groups and the rural poor to revive ancient systems of storing water.   Local communities and the government are repairing and reusing a water storage system that channels water through feeder canals and into man-made water troughs.  This is a system that has been used for hundreds of years, if not millennia, to conserve water during times of drought.

It is important to keep in mind that women are on the frontline of climate and food security.  Women are more dependent of agriculture than men. Depending on the region, women farmers account for 45% to 80% of all food production in developing countries.  In India, women comprise 72% of those employed in the agriculture sector.  Yet less than 10% of women own land and women are often excluded from decision-making processes. Increases in food prices make food more inaccessible to poor people, especially women and girls.  Moreover, it has been documented that female health declines more than male health during times of food shortages.

One way of dealing with the impact of climate change on food production is to empower women, who are traditional savers of seeds and protectors of biodiversity.   Initiatives should support tapping into women’s hands-on knowledge of ecosystems and best practices and supporting them as positive stewards of the land.  According to Berkeley-based Women’s Earth Alliance, when women are no longer marginalized from accessing land, training, markets, and policy recognition, and have the support critical to their sustainability and success, they will be able to improve their food and economic security and improve the health of their farm and natural resources.  Empowering women, especially women farmers, is a win-win for communities the world over.

(In a follow-up to my last post on climate refugees, the Asian Development Bank has a forthcoming report on the increase in migration due to climate change.  “National governments and the international community must urgently address this issue in a proactive manner.”)

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I’ve just come back from a screening of the film Climate Refugees.  It is a documentary about the increasing number of people escaping climate chaos.  Whether you believe global climate change is due to man or is a natural cycle, the fact is our climate is changing rapidly and we really aren’t doing much about it, and certainly not fast enough.  The film itself was decent but not the best out there, and a little too doom and gloom (and really, was it necessary to have Ed Begley, Jr. encouraging people to buy energy efficient light bulbs?  Aren’t we passed that stage?

Cyclone Sidr, photo credit: Save the Children UK

)  But the theme of the movie is something to give proper consideration to, as floods, hurricanes, droughts, etc. force citizens to migrate, sometimes to other countries.


Above all, it is a national security issue, as even our own Pentagon knows and is preparing for, whether it be rescuing people from disasters or attempting to deal with conflicts arising from increasingly scarce resources.

As for refugees, Bangladesh is a country one often hears about in relation to climate change.  Even a minor sea level rise could displace many Bangladeshis, a nation at sea level.  Where will they go?  Perhaps to India, though the Indian government is building a barbed wire fence between them.  Officially, the fence is to prevent smuggling and keep out terrorists and illegal immigrants (already a source of tension).  But the next big cyclone affecting a large percentage of the Bangladeshi population may force migration to safer land, namely neighboring India.  Granted, it is not a high-tech border fence that will be all that successful in preventing crossings, but symbolically it says a lot.

India is not exactly in the best position to accept refugees, be they fleeing disasters or political strife.  Melting glaciers in Tibet that feed the Ganges and Bhramaputra Rivers are starting to disappear, a serious threat to India’s water situation.  Add to that China damming the rivers, thereby reducing the rivers’ flow.  Droughts, floods, pollution, disease, population growth and a host of other climate-related impacts are all being grappled with in India.

Scientists estimate that by 2050 up to 15 million people could be displaced due to climate change.  India may not have contributed to the problem, but it will need to deal with it, as will almost all countries.  Are we all part of the human family, a point raised by a Tuvalu islander in the movie, or will it be every man, or country, for itself?

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