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Women, Food Security and Climate Change Training Program (photo: WEA)

The 101st International Women’s Day is March 8th.  Despite often hearing about existing obstacles to women’s well-being, there is much to celebrate this year.

Climate change, of course, is an enormous threat to just about every topic one could name.  In India, though, people are taking a holistic approach to the problem, including tapping into traditional knowledge, especially that of women.

I’ve written before on the work of the Women’s Earth Alliance(WEA) and its initiative to improve livelihoods and food security of small and vulnerable women farmers.  WEA works with a local Indian environmental organization, Gorakhpur Environmental Action Group, helping women farmers start or strengthen organic farming practices and diversify their food production.  And just as importantly, they connect women farmers, who share best practices with one another and start campaigns to create change in their communities.

According to WEA, the women they are working with are experiencing much success:

  • Soma and Thumpa in West Bengal have guided women farmers to set up 20 nutrition gardens, as well as install improved cooking stoves that reduce carbon emissions;
  • Manju Devi in Bihar has continued her training on organic farming practices and is encouraging others to plant multi-purpose indigenous trees. “My goal is to see women stand on their own feet and improve their self-reliance,” says Manju who set up her own organic kitchen garden as a demonstration site;
  • Kusum Lata in Uttar Pradesh has worked to ensure that rural women have job cards registered under their names. This enables them to get fair wages under the National Rural Employment Guarantee Act that provides 100 days of employment to rural households willing to do public work-related work, including water conservation and reforestation.

Compare this to a recent report by the development NGO Action Aid and the Centre for Sustainable Agriculture, that found that more than 80 percent of smaller farmers – who contribute to half of India’s crop production – will be affected by climate change.  One farmer quoted in the report said that “The pattern of rainfall has changed.  It is so scattered that at times it rains but fields remain dry.”

And just last week Indian researchers reported that India’s monsoonal rains are becoming less frequent and more intense.

I heard similar stories from women farmers with whom I met in India a few years back. All over the world we are seeing how changing precipitation patterns are affecting water and food security.    That’s why it’s more important than ever to empower women.

I also saw this news article by Aditi Kapoor, writing on how “Innovative measures by women farmers across India are helping several poor families adapt better to climate change and keep hunger at bay.”  Kapoor interviewed a woman farmer from Uttar Pradesh, who said “Earlier, we could not produce enough food for a year because our village would get water-logged by the flood waters. Now, using early maturing paddy varieties and organic manure to revive soil fertility, we can at least eat for all 12 months from the same piece of land.”

What is needed in India and around the world, in terms of agriculture, is support for seed and grain banks, ecological farming training, appropriate technology, education, and economic empowerment for Indian women and farmers.  This will enable them to improve their food and economic security, preserve the environment and traditional knowledge, build political will, and better their lives.

It sounds to me like we have lots to celebrate this year!

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We hear a lot about consumption in the developed world, and rightly so.  As an American, I know that the majority of my fellow citizens and I consume an unsustainable amount of goods and resources.  This needs to change, as the planet cannot support a growing global population of American-level consumers.

But of course, as developing countries grow, prosper, and move into the middle-class, they want the things that we in the developed world want and have.  Cars, computers, smartphones, televisions, lattes and most everything else under the sun. It is a contentious issue, one that has stymied the global climate talks, amongst other things.  We can only hope that we soon find a path that we can all live with and still be content.

What does the situation in India look like?  People often associate India with poverty and rural villages, but that’s rapidly changing.  It is projected that by 2030, approximately half of India’s households are projected to be in the middle class.  That amounts to close to 600 million people.

India's Growing Middle Class

[Graph:http://www.nytimes.com/2011/10/30/world/asia/indias-middle-class-appears-to-shed-political-apathy.html?pagewanted=all]

The outlook for India is that growing urbanization, a young working-age population, and higher income will result in increased spending, resulting in a consumption boom over the next two decades.  No wonder Wal-Mart is banging on India’s doors (it currently operates in India as a joint venture with an Indian conglomerate, but foreign investment rules could be on the verge of change).

I started this blog because I find India fascinating and believe that what takes place in that country not only affects the world but can provide a learning experience for us all.  How can we bring 400 million village people who lack electricity into the 21st century without creating huge amounts of carbon emissions?  Like China, India is heavily reliant on coal but is also moving ahead with renewable energy initiatives.  What happens when more and more Indians move to urban cities?  How will India balance growth, poverty, and the environment?  And what about tigers?

I follow and associate with groups that are doing amazing work in India.  These organizations, many focused on women (Navdanya, WEA, IDEX, GRAVIS), and others (SELCO, Husk Power Systems), give me hope that as Indians make progress they will also find a sustainable path to prosperity.  Technology will play a key role, but so will tapping into historical/ancestral knowledge and traditional best practices.

India has existed for a long time.  I’m willing to bet that there is a lot we can learn from the world’s biggest democracy.  At the very least, it will be interesting to see how it all plays out.

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photo: hdw-inc.com

India’s first anti-poaching tiger unit is now an official entity. Time will tell if it has any teeth (no pun intended).

This Special Tiger Protection Force has its work cut out for it. Stopping poaching and hunting is not an easy task. Poaching is probably a bigger threat to tigers than even habitat loss.

The BBC reports that “The 54-member force will patrol tiger reserves in national parks straddling the borders of Karnataka, Tamil Nado and Kerala states in the south.”

There are plans for a second tiger force to operate in the state of Orissa, in eastern India. The latest tiger census reports 32 tigers in Orissa, though the government disputes this number.

Officials say the unit will deal with poachers and hunters and that unit members have received training in jungle survival and weapons use, with a special course in combat training.

Overview of India’s Tiger Population:

  • India: 1,706 (estimated)
  • Karnataka: 300
  • Madhya Pradesh: 257
  • Uttarakhand: 227
  • Maharashtra: 169
  • Andra Pradesh: 72
  • Tamil Nadu: 163
  • Assam: 143
  • Kerala: 71
  • Rajasthan: 36

There were 100,000 tigers in India at the beginning of the 20th century. Today India has over half the world’s tiger population, found mainly among 102 national parks, 515 wildlife sanctuaries, 44 conservation reserves and 4 community reserves. Protecting and preserving wildlife corridors is also key to saving India’s tigers.

Demand for tiger parts – especially skins and tiger bones used in traditional medicines – comes mainly from China. The Environmental Investigation Agency reported last year that even though Chinese Premier Wen Jiaboao promised that his country would “vigorously combat poaching, trade and smuggling of tiger products”, China appears to have quietly reopened the trade in tiger and leopard skins.

What is needed is an all-out global effort to change consumer preferences and attitudes, promote education and awareness, and enforcement of anti-poaching laws to alter the situation.  Not to mention habitat preservation. The anti-poaching unit seems like a good start.  I wish it all the success in the world.

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Indian coal miners (photo: libcom.org)

India is about to move ahead with coal mining in the heavily forested central-eastern region of the country.  This, despite the fact that the industry has had a negative impact elsewhere, destroying large tracts of forests in critical wildlife corridors.  According to Greenpeace India, mining is threatening tiger habitats in Maharashtra and cutting off the forest corridors tigers use to roam.

Though India is pushing ahead with renewable energy initiatives, it is still very reliant on dirty fossil fuels such as coal.  As reported by Businessweek, a group of Indian ministers agreed to allow companies to seek approval to mine coal in some dense forest areas, overturning an environment ministry ban.  The decision will benefit companies such as Coal India, the world’s largest producer of the commodity.

Coal mining plans in this area had been on hold since 2009, due to efforts by then-Minister of the Environment and Forest, Jairam Ramesh to preserve wildlife and trees.  Ramesh had been blamed for delaying mine expansion. Yet in June 2011, one year after declaring the coalfields of the Chhattisgarh region would not be open to miners, Ramesh granted clearance. (Shortly thereafter he moved, or was forced out, and became Minister of Rural Development)

As the coal industry pushes to open up more areas, it goes without saying that it will be unfortunate for tigers and other species, as well as local communities.The Sierra Club and other environmental organizations are especially concerned for the state of Andhra Pradesh.  There, the scale of coal expansion has left local communities to face a violent onslaught of land acquisition and displacement, corruption and intimidation, and toxic levels of pollution.

No country will get off fossil fuels anytime soon.  But hopefully more attention and government resources can be focused on solar power to seriously begin the transition off of coal and oil.  Earlier this month India announced that it would generate 2 GW (2,000 MW) of solar power by March 2013.

Furthering solar and other renewable sources would be a win-win for India, and the health of its communities and the environment.

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photo credit: yourdiscovery.com

A team of divers studying sharks near an island off the coast of Colombia recently discovered that up to 2,000 hammerhead sharks had been killed for their fins and left to die on the sea floor.  The killings took place in a wildlife sanctuary.

It would be easy for me to get on my soapbox and rage at this senseless massacre. But perhaps it would be better to approach this issue from an economic standpoint. While I don’t agree with killing sharks for their fins, if you are going to do that why don’t you use the whole shark? Why waste it?  I’m aware of the value that some cultures place on fins, but surely you can eat the rest of the shark without inhumanely finning it and throwing it overboard.  It is a senseless and wasteful act.

CNN had this to say about shark fins:

Shark fin soup can be expensive. A bowl of imperial shark fin soup can cost upwards of $100. These days, shark fin soup is so fashionable that it’s becoming commonplace. Buffets serve versions of it for as low as $10 a bowl. The irony is that shark fin is flavorless — its cartilage has a chewy consistency. Tens of thousands of sharks are being killed for a gelatinous thing in a soup.

Now that I think about it I supposedly had shark tacos once in Mexico (though I don’t really believe it was shark I was eating but some type of white fish). How many people could 2,000 sharks feed?  Certainly there is a value to sharks beyond their coveted fins.

When I was in Bolivia I lived with a family that seemed to me ate almost the entire cow.  Bolivia is a poor country and you don’t waste much of anything, much to my American disgust at being served fried fat.  Still, it does underscore the point of “waste not, want not.” The world is getting to a point where we shouldn’t be wasting things.

An estimated 100 million sharks are killed each year. India is number two on the list of the top countries for catching sharks and is yet to pass any legislation protecting sharks. According to the wildlife trade monitoring group TRAFFIC, India accounts for 9% of the global shark catch, with an annual average yield of over 74,000 tons.  It is also suspected that fins are being exported illegally.

Sharks are a vital part of the ecosystem. By decimating the population of the ocean’s top predator, an essential link in the food chain, humans are altering the equillibrium and web of life in ways we don’t yet understand.

While I wonder at the waste of killing a shark solely for its fin, this “tradition” convinces me of the need to pursue a global rights of nature declaration if we are to have a chance at maintaining healthy communities and environment.  This doesn’t mean that sharks or anything else in the ecosystem are put before humans.  It does mean that we should respect the species with whom we share this planet. People can still fish, just do it in a sustainable, humane and non-wasteful manner.  That shouldn’t be too much to ask.

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The piece below was published earlier this month on Earth Island Journal.

I just spent the better part of my weekend in a class discussing a global movement springing up around the concept of recognizing rights of nature, something I have been thinking a lot about recently. The class (and the movement) addressed a big concern facing our society — that our way of living is built on a structure of endless economic growth. Yet we live in a world of finite resources and limited space. Why is there this blind faith in growth when we know that it can’t last?

Simply put, it is what we are constantly told by our leaders and media.  Corporations and economies must grow or they will fail. We must buy more stuff to support business and be happy. Somehow we choose to ignore the reality of non-renewable resources. Our way of living is on a collision course with nature. In our technology-obsessed world, we forget that humans are part of a natural system that provides for our well-being.

Science and technology will indeed play an important part in figuring out a sustainable future. But I think looking at how our relatives lived and interacted with the natural world not that long ago (and many indigenous peoples still do today) is also crucial. Acknowledging that nature has rights puts a priority on ceasing the rampant over-consumption and exploitation of natural resources and species. It is what lies beyond the growth paradigm and what I believe will set us moving in the right direction.

Respecting Nature

“Rights of Nature,” as defined by the Global Alliance on the Rights of Nature, is the recognition and honoring that trees, oceans, animals, mountains have rights just as humans do. Rather than treating nature as property under the law, rights of nature acknowledges that nature in all its life forms has the right to exist, persist, maintain and regenerate its vital cycles. People have the legal authority and responsibility to enforce these rights on behalf of ecosystems. Once nature is accepted as having standing in the eyes of the law, then when a man-made disaster occurs, such as an oil spill, a lawsuit can be brought on behalf of the polluted ecosystem.

Ecuador and Bolivia have included rights of Nature in their constitutions, recognizing the legal right of ecosystems to exist. In Ecuador, a significant milestone was achieved recently when a provincial court ruled in favor of nature, saying that the flow of Ecuador’s Vilcabamba River was being affected by a road expansion project and ordering corrective action. This is the first successful case defending rights of nature.  Other countries too, are beginning to explore legal rights for nature and what it could mean for their communities.

This will obviously require a major shift in thinking for many people, but we need something other than “business as usual” if we wish to sustain life on this planet. We can’t expect the system that caused our problems to solve our problems. The world economy is based on exploiting the earth for all that we need, be that coal, oil, trees, fish, precious metals, water and air. According to Indian physicist and environmentalist Vandana Shiva, “Further economic growth cannot help regenerate the very spheres which must be destroyed for economic growth to occur.”

Small Norwegian town

The Growth Imperative

Economic growth has been the mantra since the Industrial Revolution, and especially so since post-World War II. Businesses, stock markets, and bottom lines must grow to succeed, and companies must explore, drill, and mine for ever-dwindling resources in order to grow. Certainly this is what we all hear in the news day in and day out.

James Gustave Speth, professor and former dean of the Yale School of Forestry & Environmental Studies, recently wrote about the need for creating a new vision of economic growth. According to Speth: “The never-ending drive to grow the overall US economy is ruining the environment; it fuels a ruthless international search for energy and other resources; it fails at generating the needed jobs; it hollows out communities; and it rests on a manufactured consumerism that is not meeting the deepest human needs. Americans are substituting growth and consumption for dealing with the real issues…”

Adopting new measures to gauge progress is important [see alternatives for measuring economic progress in Earth Island Journal’s Autumn issue], but without a paradigm shift in how we interact with nature — respecting the world we are part of and not simply exploiting it for our needs — we will be spinning our wheels. Unwavering faith in the market will not improve the sustainability and livability of our communities.

Human wellbeing doesn’t depend on economic growth and the pillaging of the earth’s resources. As Tom Goldtooth, director of the Indigenous Environmental Network says:

“Long term solutions require turning away from prevailing paradigms and ideologies centered on pursuing economic growth, corporate profits and personal wealth accumulation as primary engines of social well-being. The transitions will inevitably be toward societies that can equitably adjust to reduced levels of production and consumption, and increasingly localized systems of economic organization that recognize, honor and are bounded by the limits of Nature…”

Ultimately, the bottom line that we should care most about is that we all live on one planet, dependent on each other and a sustainable environment. The people of Ecuador and Bolivia are leading the way, showing how recognizing rights of nature can help us achieve a healthy planet. The rest of us should follow.

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Hamari Devrani is an Indian soap opera (photo: zimbio.com)

The day after I finished reading a National Geographic article on Brazil’s dramatic decrease in the country’s fertility rate, I came across something just as surprising on India.  The Financial Times recently headlined “India sees rise in one-child families.”   A decline in the number of children in Brazil is perhaps unexpected, but one-child families in India, land of 1.2 billion and growing, is remarkable.

According to a study by a visiting professor at Jawaharlal Nehru University in Delhi, eight percent of Indian households, mostly urban and educated, are choosing to have only one child.  The research shows that competition for jobs in a fast-growth economy was the greatest determinant of the single child trend in India. That, and more women are delaying marriage.

As for Brazil, it is a nation of devout Roman Catholics, with a strong machismo attitude across the land.  And still, the number of children dropped – from 5.3 in 1970 to the national average of 1.9 in 2011 (which, by the way, is lower than the U.S., which stands at 2 children per woman).  India too, has entrenched cultural beliefs, yet today it has a fertility rate of 2.6.

What factors are causing this?  Economic growth and consumerism, and in India’s case a desire by parents to attain good, white collar jobs for their kids. Of course the poorer the region, the higher the birth rate.  In Bihar, a very poor state which borders Nepal, the rate is 3.9.

India’s health minister recently listed measures that have contributed to the lowering of the fertility rate, including improving literacy levels, empowerment of women, discouraging adolescent marriages, delaying child birth, and involving village level community health workers in promoting family planning. I saw actions of some community groups first-hand and can attest that there are some very dedicated groups working on this.

All this makes sense, but there are other influencing factors at play.

Interestingly enough, one reason for the decline in Brazilian families is access to electricity and television.  In particular, telenovelas, or soap operas that showcase small families and educated, professional/white-collar working women.  These shows are extremely popular with women and men of all economic classes.  Along with smaller families, the shows also reflect lifestyles that people want to achieve.  If you have a lot of kids, you probably won’t have that nice car, home, college education, etc.

I’m really curious if Indian soap operas are similar.  One thing about Indian families is that the mother-in-law carries a lot of weight regarding family decisions.  And in a male-dominated society, mothers-in-law want sons. Perhaps that is changing as more Indians rise to “middle-class” status.  And perhaps tv will reflect that, or already does.

Both cases underscore the impact of education on family planning and reproductive health.  When families are given information to make informed choices, not to mention access to health care, it can lead to better lives.  But watching a soap opera or two doesn’t hurt.

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