After a baby and a book Under the Banyan is back

I’ve been away from this blog for nearly a year, but I have returned today to bring it back to life. It has been a busy time. My main reason for putting the blog on hold is pictured below, hiding behind a fig leaf. My son was born in June last year and he has given me joy every day since then. I try to see the world through his eyes now. I have also been busy writing a book (more news on that soon, I hope).

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Pastoralists in the Media: Three ‘E’s please

Once upon a time, not so long ago, we were all mobile. Movement was what enabled our ancestors to track resources that were here today, gone tomorrow. In parts of the world where water, pasture or good hunting are not constantly available, mobility is still the key that unlocks scattered resources. It is the key to resilience. And as the climate changes, this ancient strategy could become more important.

Yet in many countries, governments marginalise mobile pastoralists and would prefer them to settle instead of roaming the land. Dominant policy narratives cast pastoralism as a backwards, unproductive activity that takes place in marginal fragile areas, where unpredictable rainfall leads people to overgraze and damage the land.

New research coordinated by the International Institute for Environment and Development with funding from the Ford Foundation has identified gaps in such policy narratives in the Indian, Chinese, Kenyan and global contexts. These policy narratives overlook both the dynamics of dryland ecosystems and how dryland communities have long learnt how to live with and harness variability to support sustainable and productive economies, societies and ecosystems.

The narratives ignore the ways that mobile herding can increase people’s resilience in a changing climate. They also ignore the three ‘E’s –the economic value of pastoralism, the environmental benefits that herding brings to rangelands and the equity that should be at heart of good policymaking.

The role of the media

Media stories both contribute to and reflect the dominant policy narrative around pastoralism. As part of the project, I analysed media stories on pastoralism from Kenya, China and India and surveyed dozens of journalists in those countries (see the full research paper or a four-page summary). I found significant gaps – and inter-country differences – in how journalists perceive and portray pastoralists and pastoralism.

  • In Kenya, pastoralists feature mostly in ‘bad news’ stories of conflict and drought. They appear vulnerable and lacking in agency. Stories make almost no mention of the benefits that pastoralists bring.
  • In China, the media presented pastoralists as the cause of environmental degradation and as (generally happy) beneficiaries of government investment and settlement projects.
  • In India, newspapers tended to portray pastoralists with more pity, as people whose rights to grazing land had been taken away and whose livelihoods were at risk as pastures dwindle and locally resilient livestock breeds disappear. Overall coverage of pastoralism in India was rare, however, and journalists there stated that pastoralists are ‘invisible’ to editors of national newspapers.

In all three countries, important topics such as climate change, and the links between mobility and resilience were under-reported. While 51% of Kenyan articles mentioned drought, only 3% mentioned climate change.

Very few articles in any of the three countries referred to the economic importance of pastoralism (4% in Kenya, 12% in China and 15% in India) or the fact that meat and milk pastoralists produce contributes to food security outside of pastoralist communities (1% in Kenya, 4% in China and 10% in India). The voices of pastoralists feature in less than half of the articles about them (41% of articles in Kenya, 36% in China and 25% in India). Stories that focused on women and children were even less common.

Towards improved narratives

Incomplete media coverage of pastoralism helps to sustain partial narratives that underpin policymaking and this prevent pastoralists from fulfilling their potential to provide food and sustain resilient livelihoods in a changing climate.

Yet opportunities to reframe pastoralism abound. In Kenya, for instance, an alternative narrative could show how the new constitution could work best for the drylands and their communities. In India, an alternative narrative could show how herding is part of the wider dryland agriculture system that can increase food security in the context of climate change. In China, an alternative narrative can relate how support for pastoralism can increase food security and better manage rangelands for economic benefits.

Journalists and editors can act to create more balanced, nuanced and accurate narratives around pastoralism. This will involve reporting on the economics of pastoralism, as well as on the other values of pastoralism that are harder to price. It will involve a better understanding of mobility and markets, of resilience and vulnerability. It will require journalists and researchers to communicate better together and it will require the media to give more voice to the pastoralists themselves.

Donors and development agencies can act to encourage more accurate, relevant and useful media coverage of pastoralism by supporting training programmes, opportunities for journalists to travel to areas where pastoralists live, and initiatives that bring together journalists, pastoralists, dryland researchers and policy makers.

The test of success will be whether future media reports of pastoralism do more to cover the three ‘E’s – environment, economy and equity.

This post was first published on 13 May 2013 on the Agriculture and Ecosystems Blog of the CGIAR Research Program on Water, Land and Ecosystems.

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Climate change: Teens teach where others don’t reach

A 13-year-old girl interviewed me last week about my job, through which I communicate with journalists around the world about climate change and other environmental issues. She is part of the generation that worries about such things, according to a new poll. It’s the generation from which real leadership on climate change will emerge.

The UNICEF poll – published on 17 April 2013 — found that three-quarters of British 11 to 16-year-olds were concerned about how global warming will change the world. Two-thirds of them also worried about how climate change would affect other children in other parts of the world.

The poll said these concerned children want their government to act on climate change, but they may need to do that themselves. They will need to be teachers too. This is because the British government had decided to remove climate change from the national curriculum for children under 14. It’s a move that scientists, business leaders and others have criticised as “unfathomable and unacceptable”.

It is more than this. Under the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change — which was agreed in 1992 and entered into force in 1994 — nearly 200 governments agreed to promote actions to develop and implement “educational and public awareness programmes on climate change and its effects”.

Their track record so far has been pitiful. By 2010, only Belgium (on behalf of the European Union), Colombia and the Dominican Republic had submitted reports on their activities. When I wrote about this on Under the Banyan in 2011, most of the readers from around the world who commented said their governments did little or nothing to educate their population on climate change.

More recently, some countries have begun to act. Last year, the government of El Salvador made it mandatory for all educational institutions to incorporate climate risks into their teaching materials. In March this year, the Dominican Republic launched a national teacher training programme on climate change. In the United States, new science teaching standards will include extensive lessons on human-made climate change. Suddenly it looks like British children are being left behind.

Kenya’s new national climate change action plan – unveiled in March 2013 — called for climate change and its impacts to be on the primary school curriculum. It says students at secondary schools also need “to be equipped with skills to support a future climate resilient economy” and that “at university level, climate change should be infused into the various professions.” It says:

 “Civil engineers, for example, need to learn how to design and develop structures that can withstand climate shocks. Doctors need to be aware of the effects of climate change on human health, while architects should have the skills and training to design houses that are climate-proofed and energy efficient. Teachers ought to be equipped with knowledge about climate change in order for them to be suited to teach a curriculum that integrates climate change across all subjects taught at schools in Kenya. Whereas it is already the case that climate change as a subject is now being taught at Kenyan universities, there will be a need for institutions of higher learning to develop policies to ensure that all students educated there are familiar with climate change, its impact and strategies for adaptation and mitigation.”

These are all initiatives to applaud. But given that governments took nearly 20 years to act upon pledges to educate their people on climate change, it seems clear that the people will also need to teach themselves.

While parents have a role to play in climate change education, they find it hard to be truthful about climate change without scaring their children. The Yale Forum on Climate Change and the Media published a long essay on this topic. But where governments fail and parents feel unsure, young people can talk with confidence to their peers.

They include Esther Agbarakwe, the 19-year old Nigerian who each Wednesday uses Twitter to coordinate a live conversation between climate experts and anyone worldwide who is interested (see #climatewednesday). Or 18-year old Merna Ghaly from Egypt, a leading member of the Arab Youth Climate Movement. This month Newsweek Magazine, in the United States, named her one of the top ‘125 Women of Impact’, alongside heads of state and business leaders. Or Esha Marwaha, the 15-year old student and member of the UK Youth Climate Coalition who organised a campaign that called on the UK Department for Education to reinstate climate change into the school curriculum.

These three young women are just some of the members of new band of passionate communicators who are not waiting for teachers or parents or politicians to lead the way. They are growing in number and are increasingly connected. They cooperate internationally in ways that nations will need to if they are to tackle climate change. They are the future and they are here today. More power to them.

This post is based on the 27 April editorial I wrote for The Thumb Print magazine (India).

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A changing climate demands change in narratives

Last year I wrote — here and here — about my study of how media portrayals of pastoralists in China, India and Kenya can contribute to policy narratives that limit people’s resilience to climatic variability. IIED has now published my research and a short briefing paper that presents the main findings and recommendations.

Here is a summary of the research paper, which you can download here [PDF].

Resilient food systems depend on appropriate policies that enable people to take advantage of their own adaptive capacity. Pastoralists use their mobility to take advantage of resources – pasture and water – that are patchily distributed in space and time. Pastoralism can make major contributions to food security, livelihoods and economic prosperity. However, these benefits often go unacknowledged – by policy makers, donors and the public at large. This is in part because of development and media narratives that paint pastoralism as something bad that needs to change. This paper explores how the media portrays pastoralism. To do so, we analysed the content of newspaper articles about pastoralists in Kenya, China and India, and also invited journalists in these countries to complete an online survey and telephone interview. We identified significant gaps – and inter-country differences – in the media’s portrayal of pastoralists.

And here is a summary of the briefing paper, which you can download here [PDF].

Mobile pastoralism contributes substantially to food security, livelihoods and economic prosperity, and can increase resilience to climate change; but policymakers, donors and the public at large tend not to appreciate its benefits. Policy narratives portray pastoralism as an outdated practice, and the media stories that help shape policy processes and public opinion often contribute to these false portrayals. An IIED study analysed the content of stories from media outlets in Kenya, China and India, and surveyed journalists in each country. It identified significant knowledge gaps and inter-country differences in how journalists perceive and portray pastoralists and pastoralism. The analysis also found that media outlets in these countries under-report climate change, the economic value of pastoralism and the links between pastoralist mobility and resilience. Journalists, researchers and pastoralist communities need to work together to improve media coverage of pastoralism, and by doing so highlight pastoralism’s potential contribution to sustainable development in a changing climate.

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Unhappy endlings: What tales of the last days of extinct and dying species can bring to our own story

dodoinstagrambannerThey are all now dead and can never be replaced but at least they got names. Martha, Benjamin and Incas… Booming Ben and Lonesome George. They were endlings, each one the last known member of its species. Their names remind us that we have epic tales to tell of the decline and fall of entire species.

Martha and Incas were the first to fly into my life. It was 1997 and I described and drew them both in a leaflet about extinct birds I produced for a small bird garden in the north of England. Martha’s story is best known. She was the last Passenger Pigeon, a species we reduced in number from billions to zero in just over a hundred years. She died on 1 September 1914 in Cincinnati Zoo but her body resides still in the Smithsonian Institution in Washington DC. Journalist Eric Freedman visited her there for his 2011 article Extinction is Forever. He wrote:

“Martha arrived at the Smithsonian encased in a block of ice for scientific study. There she was mounted and placed on a small branch now fastened to a block of Styrofoam. The Smithsonian custodians paired her with a male passenger pigeon that died in 1873 in Minnesota. They had no connection with each other during life and were mated only for public display, which hadn’t happened for a long time. Nowadays, Martha and her anonymous pseudo-mate spend virtually all their time in a nondescript locker next to one containing birds Theodore Roosevelt had shot, collected, and studied as a boy. Martha’s organs are preserved separately in fluid. I didn’t ask to see them.”

Freedman chose to see Martha’s body rather than visit her death-place in Cincinnati Zoo, but had he gone there he could have killed two birds with one stone. That’s because on 21 February 1918 — four years after Martha died and in the very same cage — Incas expired. He was the last Carolina Parakeet. Another species had gone extinct. Other endlings include the last known Heath Hen. It acquired the name Booming Ben because it spent years calling out in vain for a partner. More recently we lost Lonesome George, a giant tortoise from Pinta Island in the Galápagos archipelago — and, again, the last of his kind.

Freedman has tracked down other endlings over the years. He saw the stuffed body of what its Uzbek owners claim is the last Caspian Tiger. He visited the zoo in Hobart, Tasmania where Benjamin, the last Thylacine — seen in the video above — died in 1933. Freedman explains:

“To some people, these journeys of mine could seem macabre, a weird fascination with avoidable-turned-inevitable large-scale deaths. But, like a cemetery visit to read ancient headstones, there are lessons to be found in these markers to the dead. So I undertake my endling pilgrimages hoping the visits will make the reality of extinction tangible.”

Named endlings are rare. In most species that we have extinguished, the last member was gone before we even noticed. Take the dodo — Raphus cucullatus, among the most famous of all the species we have driven extinct. Here’s one I drew in 1997, a little over 300 years after the last one died.

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And here’s how David Quammen imagined that last dodo’s last stand in his brilliant book The Song of the Dodo:

“Raphus cucullatus had become rare unto death. But this one flesh-and-blood individual still lived. Imagine that she was thirty years old, or thirty-five, an ancient age for most sorts of bird but not impossible for a member of such a large-bodied species. She no longer ran, she waddled. Lately she was going blind. Her digestive system was balky. In the dark of an early morning in 1667, say, during a rainstorm, she took cover beneath a cold stone ledge at the base of one of the Black River cliffs. She drew her head down against her body, fluffed her feathers for warmth, squinted in patient misery. She waited. She didn’t know it, nor did anyone else, but she was the only dodo on Earth. When the storm passed, she never opened her eyes. This is extinction.”

“Endling,” wrote science writer Lucas Brouwers last week on Twitter. “A fine, sad word.” He’s right. Sad it may be, but fine it is too. The endlings are creatures upon whose shrugging shoulders we have thrust a kind of nobility. In naming them and in telling their stories, we have made them ambassadors of not only their own species but of all species whose numbers we deplete to the edge of existence and beyond.

Freedman says that when he considers the stories of the endlings, the “abstract becomes personal and allows me to see that these animals’ fates were not inevitable. Their endings had human authorship.” That’s it. We are writing the stories of so many other species. And while stories with endlings don’t have happy endings, they are important tales to tell. They make real our impacts on nature. They remind us that nothing is forever, that one day in some far future there will be a human endling too. What we don’t know yet is how the fate of other species will affect the date of our own departure. There’s a story there to tell.

[Update: 9 May 2013 -- Al-Bia Wal-Tanmia (Environment and Development) Magazine in Lebanon has published this Arabic version [PDF] of this article]

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Can anyone identify the two birds in these paintings?

Please help. Can anyone identify the two birds in these paintings?

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Guardian ‘international development journalism’ contest excludes journalists from developing nations — again

[I am reposting this piece from 12 March 2012 today, as once again the contest is for UK writers only.  Once again it invites writers who 'have never been to the developing world' to submit articles rather than inviting journalists who know their stories intimitately. ]

Once again The Guardian has announced a journalism competition that has international development as its theme, but which excludes journalists in developing countries from entering. Continue reading

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