A fig tree swallowing a warehouse

Roots ooze through windows and cracks between bricks. They pour down walls and pool on the floor. They entwine with remnant beams from the roof their weight has crushed. They seal once-busy doorways and claim the rooms they hide. It’s a strangler fig in action, engulfing an entire building in Taiwan.

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I’m always on the lookout for interesting fig trees so was pleased to learn about this specimen known as the ‘Anping treehouse’ in an article by Jenny Zhang.

Strangler figs usually grow on other trees but some are as adept at colonising buildings. This one began its assault on an abandoned warehouse in the 1950s. For decades local people avoided it, heeding folk tales that say spirits lurk among strangler fig roots. The fig was free to thrive.

Those folk beliefs themselves have deep roots. Across large parts of Africa and Asia taboos against harming wild fig trees were once common. In some places they remain. My forthcoming book Ladders to Heaven explains the ecological basis for these ancient traditions and describes how fig trees and their powerful roots could bring us future benefits.

Photo credits: Flickr: riNux / Creative Commons; Blowing Puffer Fish / Creative Commons; Alexander Synaptic / Creative Commons

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Going dotty about fig trees: Ancient and imagined images of the world’s most fascinating trees

I want to share some photos of the illustrations I am creating for my book Ladders to Heaven: How fig trees shaped our history, fed our imaginations and can enrich our future…. (watch a short video about the book, read an extract or order a copy, here) .

The pictures below are not finished but they will give you an idea of what the final versions will look like. Below and left you can see the view you can get by looking up inside a strangler fig that has killed its host tree.

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There will be 20 illustrations in the book. Some I have redrawn from very old images , such as one of Adam and Eve beneath a fig tree, which a Spanish monk created in the year 994 (see above, right).

An even older image is that found on a stone seal in the Indus Valley in what is now Pakistan. The image was created about 4,000 years ago. It shows a human figure, possibly a deity, inside another kind of fig tree. In front of the tree is a kneeling man and alongside him is a human head on a stool (see below). The book will explain what’s going on in this scene.

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The illustrations will include pictures of famous fig trees, such as the one Queen Elizabeth II was sleeping in when she ascended to the throne, and wildlife such as this rhinoceros hornbill, one of the most important fig-eating animals.

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Each of the images involves lots of dots. In the set of photos below you can see how I move from a pencil sketch to ink. .

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I will share more images as I complete them. Meanwhile, here is some more information about the book.

Ladders to Heaven will appear early in 2016. My publisher, Unbound, uses a crowdfunding model: Everyone who orders a copy in advance will be named in the book as a patron.  As well as e-book and hardback editions, supporters can choose packages that include prints or postcards of the illustrations. To watch a short video about the book, read a synopsis and summary, or to order a copy, visit: http://unbound.co.uk/books/ladders-to-heaven

Snakes and ladders and tantalising figs

… an extract from the prologue of my book Ladders to Heaven: How fig trees shaped our history, fed our imaginations and can enrich our future.

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The figs were big orange beacons that lured me from afar. The snake was lime green and venomous and just centimetres from my face.

I met them both near the top of a tree, about 35 metres above the ground in a Bornean rainforest. While the snake was safely coiled on a sturdy branch, I had only some sweat soaked fingers to save me from a fall. My heart raced. The snake’s unblinking eyes looked as patient as time.

The year was 1998 and I was falling headlong into a fascinating story. Its stars are the fig trees — the 750 or so Ficus species. Over millions of years they have shaped our world, driven our evolution, nourished our bodies and fed our imaginations.

The best could be yet to come. These plants could help us restore ravaged rainforests, limit climate change and stem the loss of wild species. They could build vital bridges between religions, and between scientific and faith-based worldviews.

Their story reminds us of what we all share and warns us of what we could lose. But these plants are under threat. We risk running out of time to learn the many lessons they have to teach us.

*

In Greek mythology a branch laden with sweet figs was among the temptations that teased the demigod Tantalus during his punishment in the Underworld. Each time Tantalus reached for the figs, a wind wrenched the tree’s bough beyond his reach. This tale gifted English the verb to tantalise.

Those dull orange figs in Borneo, with their guardian snake, seemed set to elude me too. I hungered to have them, though I had no desire to eat their flesh.

The figs adorned the stubby branches of a Ficus aurantiaca. This species relies heavily on primates to eat its figs and disperse the tiny seeds within. But in this particular forest Ficus aurantiaca was a plant with problems.

First, there were few primates left in the area. The national park I was in was an island of ancient forest at whose edges lapped a sea of oil-palm plantations, farms and logging concessions.

These man-made habitats posed dangers to primates and other wildlife. Like the national park itself, they were often visited by shotgun-toting hunters for whom a monkey or a gibbon would be a prize kill.

But even if primates had been abundant, something else was wrong. Like all fig species Ficus aurantiaca depends on a specific kind of tiny wasp to pollinate its flowers. That year, however, an intense drought killed off these insects.

Across the national park the same problem had stricken many other species of figs too. No pollinators meant no seeds to create a new generation of Ficus plants. It meant no ripe figs to feed hungry animals. And that would have knock-on effects for the other plants whose seeds these creatures dispersed, and for the other animals that depended on those plants.

The local extinction of tiny wasps had impacts that rippled across the forest ecosystem. That’s why the Ficus aurantiaca figs I spotted that day had made me incautious. I had never seen so many of that species before and I needed to know what was going on inside them. All that lay between my curiosity and the answers I sought was that poisonous snake and the risk of a long fall.

I was hanging on to a ladder that somebody had attached vertically to the trunk of the tree. The ladder was the last of seven that stood toes-to-shoulders, each one flush to the tree.

As I tried to maintain my grip on the metal rungs, an intense wave of vertigo paralysed me. For a moment I could no longer sense my own body. It was as if my mind was all that existed of me, and it scrambled to process the sudden danger. I held my breath. It was a long way down but I needed those figs and that meant I had to let go of the ladder with one hand to reach past the snake.

*

Tantalus never got his figs but I got mine. As I plucked each one and shoved it into my pocket, sticky latex —whiter than milk — oozed from the plant’s wounds. This gummy sap is common to all fig species. It deters insects from feeding on them and speeds recovery from wounds.

Throughout history people have discovered ways to make the latex work for them. They have smeared it on branches to catch birds, curdled milk with it to make cheese, processed it to make rubber and used it as an aphrodisiac.

I was glad of the latex that day. It covered my hands and strengthened my grip as I lowered myself down the chain of ladders and entered the murky forest again. The snake had not moved a single scale.

It may seem strange to spend time and take risks in search of rare figs but by the time I met that snake in 1998 I had come to understand three things: that fig trees can play critical roles in rainforests and other ecosystems; that they have influenced the development of diverse human cultures; and that today we are both destroying the former functions and forgetting the latter.

Back then the science was fascinating enough. But I was learning too about a chain of reverence towards fig trees that coils back in time for many thousands of years and encircles almost the entire globe.

Fig trees appear in mythologies in the Amazon and in Africa, across the Mediterranean and the Middle East, and from the foothills of the Himalayas to the islands of the South Pacific. They feature in some way in Christianity, Islam, Buddhism, Hinduism, Judaism, Jainism and Sikhism. They star in the stories of Krishna and Buddha, Jesus and Mohammed and a host of other gods and prophets.

Fig trees were inspiring, sustaining and even protecting our ancestors long before they invented writing or domesticated the dog. They were pivotal in the birth of agriculture nearly 12,000 years ago and are among the most nutritious of foods we eat today.

Our shared story stretches back beyond the origin of human settlements, back to before the birth of our species, and back to before the day our ape-like ancestors descended from the trees and walked upright for the first time around seven million years ago. In fact, fig species had begun to interact with our ancestors long before they climbed the trees in the first place – back when the closest things to modern humans were the small shrew-like creatures that scampered in the shadows of the dinosaurs.

Ladders to Heaven explains why. It is a story of life and death and of a deal undone. Its cast includes kings and queens, gods and prophets, flying foxes and botanical monkeys. It features scientific wonders and religious miracles, all born from biology that seems almost impossible in its elegance.

Most of all it is a story about the connections between humanity and nature, and what the loss of those links can mean. The story stretches back tens of millions of years to the age of the dinosaurs but is as relevant to our future as to our past. As our planet’s climate changes and reminds us that nature really does matter, the story has important lessons for us all.

More about the book: Unbound will publish Ladders to Heaven early in 2016. My publisher uses a crowdfunding model: Everyone who orders a copy in advance will be named in the book as a patron. To watch a short video about the book or to order a copy, visit: http://unbound.co.uk/books/ladders-to-heaven

Photo credits: Bornean Keeled Green Pit Viper (Tropidolaemus subannulatus) juvenile (Bernard Dupont/Creative Commons). Ficus aurantiaca (Ahmad Fuad Morad / Creative Commons)

A thousand murders, a thousand stories to tell

Jurin Ratchapol showing visitors where mangrove trees had been cut down illegally. Photo: MAP-Asia

Jurin Ratchapol showing visitors where mangrove trees had been cut down illegally. Photo: MAP-Asia

Bancha Noppawong is a very rare kind of man, simply because we know his name. He hit the headlines in October 2000, in Phuket, Thailand, when he drove a pick-up truck into a motorbike and knocked the two people on it into the road.

The passenger, an 18-year old woman, sustained minor injuries to her face, knees and arms. Her uncle Siripoj Cheechang, the motorbike’s driver, lay unconscious in the road.

This was no ordinary accident. Bancha turned his truck around, accelerated and drove over Siripoj’s left leg as he lay prone. He then sped away.

Siripoj is lucky to have survived what appeared to be an assassination attempt. He was the managing editor of a local newspaper, a man with powerful enemies. They included the owner of a nearby shrimp farm, which Siripoj had campaigned against when it had expanded into the Pa Klok mangrove forest.

Was it just a coincidence that Bancha worked for that shrimp farm, or are these facts connected? Consider events just three months later, and the fate of another local man.

Jurin Ratchapol was a member of the Pa Klok Mangrove Forest Conservation Group, which had accused the shrimp farm of clearing parts of the forest and polluting its waters. On 30 January 2001 Ratchapol was collecting cashew leaves in the forest when he was shot dead. The man convicted of pulling the trigger was Bancha Noppawong.

I heard these stories more than a decade ago when I wrote a report that documented how people in at least 11 countries had been murdered for opposing shrimp farms near their communities.

It’s perverse that mere shrimp could cause such misery. Shrimp are not alone. They are members of a list that includes logs and diamonds, palm oil and beef, and other commodities produced in poorer countries for consumers in richer ones.

Last year, Global Witness published a report showing little has changed. It said that in the past decade close to 1,000 people have been murdered for defending their local environment from polluters and miners, land grabbers and loggers. The numbers of killings have risen in recent years.

A follow-up report Global Witness published yesterday confirms the trend: at least 116 more environmental activists were murdered in 2014.

In only six of the murders Global Witness documented has the killer been tried, convicted and punished. That’s what makes Bancha Noppawong so rare. He is still in jail, serving a life sentence for murder.

Perhaps he was convicted because he killed someone with a public profile. The Queen of Thailand had presented Jurin Ratchapol with an award for his efforts to protect the local environment just months before he was killed.

Most other environmental murders don’t get such attention. But as the Global Witness research shows, there are a thousand stories waiting to be told.

Related posts:

Dying to save the world

Time to join the dots on environmental murders

Journalists are dying to tell stories of environmental plunder

They kill environment journalists, don’t they?

The dark history and uncertain future of edible pink gold

Announcing my book: Ladders to Heaven

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I have spent the past ten years writing a book about an extraordinary group of plants that have affected humanity in profound yet little-known ways. I am therefore delighted to announce today that Unbound will publish Ladders to Heaven: How fig trees shaped our history, fed our imaginations and can enrich our future.

These trees have influenced religion, culture and history in curious ways the world over. They also play pivotal roles in rainforests, sustaining more species of birds and mammals than any other trees. And all because 80 million years ago they cut a curious deal with some tiny wasps. The best could be yet to come. These trees could also help us restore damaged forests and protect rare wildlife.

My book will tell tales of kings and queens and gods and prophets, of scientific wonders and religious miracles. It will take you to rainforests, volcanoes and ancient temples. It’s a story that can tell us much about our origins… and a lot about where humanity could go from here. The story stretches back tens of millions of years but is as relevant to our future as to our past. It even involves robots.

You can read an extract and watch my introductory video on the Unbound website. If you like what you see, please consider pledging, because now I need your support.

Unbound uses an innovative crowdfunding approach, without which special books would not be able to reach their deserving readers. What this means is that Unbound agrees to publish and market my book if enough people pledge their support in advance.

Everyone who pledges will not only get the copy of the book they order, but will also be named in the book as a patron, and acknowledged on the Unbound website. Supporters also get access to a private section of the Unbound website, where I will discuss the book and the story behind it, and share extracts and sketches (I’m illustrating the book too).

If you want to help make this book happen, please pledge here. You’ll be supporting something special and different in publishing.

Please also share this with anyone you think will be interested. The sooner I reach my target, the sooner Unbound will publish the book.

Photo credit: Cathedral Fig in Queensland, Australia (James Niland / FlickrCreative Commons)

The empty forest where 100+ bird species are feared extinct

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In the latest study to report rapid loss of wildlife, researchers estimate that 106 bird species have disappeared from an area of forest in Mengsong, in China’s Yunnan province.

The air there should be full of bird song: Yunnan lies in the zone where the tropics and subtropics meet and is one of the most biologically diverse areas of the planet.

There’s plenty of high quality habitat too. Amid Mengsong’s villages and paddy fields and plantations of tea and rubber, about 50,000 hectares of natural forest stand tall. Nearly three-quarters of this is protected in a nature reserve, created in 2009. The amount of forest cover has been stable since 1988. If anything, it has increased.

But when biologist Rhett Harrison* and colleagues spent two years looking for the birds in and around the nature reserve, they failed to find more than 40 percent of the species that should be there.

Their study, published this month in the journal PLoS One, rules out disease, habitat loss, predation and climate change as likely culprits. Instead it blames hunting for most of the losses.

Hunting pressure in Mengsong is extremely high, despite the fact that gun ownership has been illegal in China since 1996. In fact, the researchers spotted 59 hunters in just 107.5 hours of looking out for them. They write:

“In addition to people with guns, we frequently encountered hunters employing nets and snares. The use of nets, in particular, indicates that hunters are actively harvesting even the smallest birds, which they barbeque on skewers.”

In 2012, Harrison recorded a similarly rapid loss of wildlife from a forest in Malaysia. He told me he thinks the situation in Mengsong is typical of that “over all of South China and large parts of tropical South-East Asia.”

This raises questions about the value of creating more protected areas if they are not in fact protected at all. In 2010, China, along with nearly every other country, agreed a global conservation target, which said protected areas should be expanded to cover 17% of the planet’s terrestrial area by 2020, and that these areas should be effectively and equitably managed.

“Everyone is focusing on the former part but very few on the latter,” says Harrison. “People need to recognise that there may be a compromise in countries that are already struggling to deliver management of their existing reserves.”

Harrison and colleagues are keen to point out that they do not blame the authorities responsible for Mengsong’s nature reserve, as most of the local bird extinctions happened before it was created.

Nonetheless, what they show is that yet another protected forest is falling quiet with the silence of extinction. When the birds go, it is more than just their songs and calls we lose. The challenge is for us to decide how much loss is acceptable and what we want the word forest to mean.

Related posts:

The near empty forest that proves conservation is failing

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

Photo credits: Wikipedia/Creative Commons (From top left to right: Black-naped Oriole – J.M. Garg; White-crested laughingthrush – Dibyendu Ash; Rufous-necked hornbill – Ujjal Ghosh; Great hornbill – Kalyanvarma). Each of these species is among those the researchers believe to be locally extinct in their study area.

* Disclosure: Rhett Harrison is a friend and former colleague. He is based at the Kunming Institute of Botany, Chinese Academy of Sciences, and the World Agroforestry Centre, East Asia Node.

Reference: Rachakonda Sreekar, R., Zhang, K., Xu, J. & Harrison, R.D. 2015. Yet Another Empty Forest: Considering the conservation value of a recently established tropical nature reserve. PLoS One. Published: February 10, 2015. DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0117920

Dying to save the world

Jeannette Kawas was an accountant whose concept of value was broader than any balance sheet. No number could capture for her the natural wealth she saw in the forests, rivers, beaches and mangrove swamps of Punta Sal, near her hometown of Tela in northern Honduras.

In the 1980s, cattle ranchers, resort developers and loggers all wanted a slice of this landscape. As their hunger grew, Kawas formed an environmental organization, PROLANSATE, to protect the land, and in 1994, it convinced the government to allow it to create and manage a new national park there.

Within three months PROLANSATE renamed Punta Sal National Park to honor its founder, because on February 6, 1995 Jeannette Kawas was shot dead in her home. Years later a ruling from the Inter-American Court of Human Rights said Kawas’s work in defense of the environment had motivated the murder.

Global Struggle

Kawas was a victim of a largely unreported war that still rages around the world two decades later. Its casualties are women and men who through peaceful acts work to defend their local environment from polluters and miners, land grabbers and loggers. In the past decade, close to 1,000 such activists in 35 countries were murdered, according to a report published in April 2014 by Global Witness.

“This report is a good one to alert people to the sad reality at hand,” says Alfredo Quarto, executive director of Mangrove Action Project, which has documented murders of activists and community leaders who stood in the way of shrimp farmers. “In a five-year period in the 1990s, over 100 local community members and activists were killed protesting shrimp farm encroachment and mangrove loss in Bangladesh. Similar reports of murdered community leaders who stood in the way of shrimp farmers come from Thailand, India, Honduras, Ecuador and Brazil.”

To tally the body count, Global Witness researchers scoured hundreds of credible, published and publicly available sources. They included only cases that stated the name of the victim, the nature of the death and the date, and for which the murder had a clear connection to the environment or land rights. Alice Harrison, a consultant with Global Witness, says the numbers underestimate the problem because levels of reporting are low, especially in Africa.

The globally reported murder rate has risen in recent years: In 2012, the last year for which there are reliable figures, it approached three per week. Harrison says it is unlikely that monitoring has increased enough to account for this increase in reported deaths, and that the real explanation is an ever faster race to profit from ever scarcer land and resources.

The report says that what’s behind that race to profit is consumer demand for electronic goods, tropical timber, beef, oil and — thanks to the ubiquity of palm oil in modern products — even mundane things such as toothpaste and peanut butter. Contributing to the problem are cash, corruption and a culture of impunity.

Accidental Heroes

“Violence often results from powerful elites cashing in on resources for short-term export earnings from large scale production,” says Oliver Courtney, a senior campaigner at Global Witness. “This issue has its roots on our shop floors and living rooms. The growing pressure on resources that leads to conflict and killing is a product of overconsumption, largely in the rich world, driving demand for cheap commodities.”

“Many of those murdered were ‘accidental’ human rights defenders,” says John Knox, a professor of international law at Wake Forest University and independent expert on human rights and the environment of the United Nations Human Rights Council. “They got involved because it was their own land, their own forests, their own water they were defending.”

“What’s really unfortunate is that the contest is so one-sided,” says Knox. “On one hand are extremely powerful economic interests. On the other are people who are often marginalized in society, people who have not got allies and who are not very sophisticated in knowing what’s going. Often they first find out they are subject to a government decision when the bulldozers arrive, or the trees start falling or they get evicted from their land.”

When such people try to protest they may be met with threats, violence, unlawful detention and even death. In only about 1 percent of the murders Global Witness documented has the killer been tried, convicted and punished.

“There’s a screaming lack of political will,” says Harrison. “Some killings are at the behest of political actors or private sector companies linked to politicians. Some are not reported and followed up. There’s a fear of reprisals.” In the case of Jeannette Kawas, several reports from government agencies, including one from the attorney general’s office, include allegations that named members of the state security forces were involved in her murder. But nobody has been tried or convicted.

In 2013, a study estimated that Jeannette Kawas National Park provides ecological goods and services worth $46 million per year. That’s close to a billion dollars of uncounted benefit since the park’s creation in 1994. If Kawas had been armed with these numbers 20 years ago, perhaps she would be alive today.

Stemming the Flow

With the death toll rising, organisations like Global Witness want to stimulate action both in countries where the killings take place and in countries in which consumers, journalists and governments can exert some influence.

“It’s a combination of working with organisations at the grassroots that encounter these crimes, raising awareness and funnelling it upwards,” says Harrison. “We want governments to monitor this and bring perpetrators to justice. We are working at the international level to do this and hold governments to account.”

Experience shows that people are generally safer if they are known internationally, so Global Witness plans to work with partner organizations around the world to develop an early warning system that can raise the profile of environmental defenders and their struggles. “We don’t want to look only at deaths, when it is too late,” says Harrison.

In a similar vein, an international network of researchers from universities and nongovernmental organizations has developed the Environmental Justice Atlas, an online map and database of stories of more than a thousand ongoing environmental conflicts that users can search by commodity, country or company.

Global Witness wants to see a fall in consumer demand for products linked to violence — such as timber, soya and palm oil. “Governments need to legislate for this and enable consumers to make informed decisions,” says Courtney. “Norway now obliges companies to disclose their environmental impacts, and its food companies now publish their use of palm oil. As a result, Norway’s food sector reduced palm-oil consumption by two-thirds in a single year.”

Rights vs. Wrongs

According to the Treaty Alliance, a global coalition of more than 500 civil society groups, what’s needed is a legally binding international treaty to address human rights violations by corporations. The alliance is urging the U.N. Human Rights Council to set this in motion. Governments, meanwhile, already have obligations under human rights law to protect citizens who speak out about development choices or environmental protection, as the case of Jeannette Kawas shows.

In a landmark ruling in 2009, the Inter-American Court of Human Rights declared that Honduras violated several rights to the detriment of Kawas and her family. It ordered Honduras to make amends in several ways.

In a public ceremony in June 2010, the Minister for Interior and Justice of Honduras apologized and took responsibility for Kawas’s death. Yet Honduras failed to meet the court’s deadline for erecting a monument to Kawas, starting criminal proceedings against her killer or carrying out a national campaign to raise awareness of the work of environmentalists in defense of human rights.

Between 2011 and 2013, the Global Witness report shows, another 74 environment defenders were murdered in Honduras alone. With vast profits at stake and powerful interests pitted against poor and marginalized communities across the world, the body count is likely to rise.

“I don’t think it is a losing battle these people are fighting,” says Knox. “It has real victories, but they need help.” It is in the power of governments, companies and consumers to provide that help and give tomorrow’s grassroots environmental defenders hope that they can be heroes without being martyrs, too.

This post was first published by Ensia.com. I have reproduced it here under Ensia’s creative commons licence.