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

Ensia has published a feature article I wrote about reports of growing violence against people who defend their local environments from powerful forces. I have reproduced it here under Ensia’s creative commons licence

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.

Frying eggs, flying foxes, dying wasps, crying shame

Crack an egg in a pan, turn up the heat and you can witness a kind of magic. In just seconds the viscous egg solidifies. Despite the rising heat, it’s the opposite of melting that occurs. I was a teenager when I heard a biology teacher explain this paradox: “The egg is full of proteins and the heat has denatured them”. Denatured. The word was new to me. Twenty-five years later I find it is a fitting descriptor of more than just wayward proteins.

My teacher explained that every protein has a temperature at which it will function best. Too hot or too cold and the protein’s shape can buckle or break. It will no longer be able to bond with other chemicals. It will cease to work. I think about that fried egg often when I consider what rising temperatures could mean for the planet.

We know that when people die of heat stroke, part of the problem is that some of their proteins have denatured. Could our cells become our jailors?

The proteins inside us and every other living thing vary greatly. Some tolerate heat better than others. Others begin to destabilise at just a couple of degrees warmer than normal. It is not the average protein that poses a problem, but the weaker links, those most liable to destabilise in extreme heat. We don’t know yet which of them are also critically important – to our food crops for instance.

As the world warms, what will happen to the millions of different proteins in the millions of different species, from spores to sperm whales, soil bacteria to sunflowers? These invisible structures are central to life itself. They give shape not only to hair and to horn but also to hormones and enzymes and DNA. They are the messengers and mechanics that control and correct processes in and between cells. Like the gaps in music that make the beats thrilling, these in-between places are where wonder is born.

It’s the same between species. Life is not a zoo of caged individuals living in isolation but a web of shared destiny. And while activists go on about polar bears or other creatures in danger, I am more curious about what climate change could mean for the way species interact and provide us gifts as a result. It’s been on my mind since the early years of my career when I lived in a rainforest in Borneo and studied the most fascinating of plants, the strangler figs.

Every one of the 750 or more species of fig trees depends for survival on its own species of tiny wasps to pollinate its flowers. The wasps in turn depend on the figs, the only places in which they can lay their eggs. This mutual reliance combines with the wasps’ short lifespans to ensure figs are available year-round, and because of this they sustain more species of birds and mammals than other plants. In return for the fig flesh those creatures disperse the trees’ seeds, and provide the same service to thousands of other rainforest plants. These interactions between fig trees and animals help to sustain the great rainforests of the world.

What does this have to do with climate change? Researchers have shown that just a small increase above current temperature levels will shorten a fig wasp’s life to just a couple of hours – not enough time to find a fig, pollinate its flowers and lay eggs. No pollination would mean no ripe figs for animals to eat, and this would mean fewer seeds get spread from place to place. Tree species that form a key part of the forest and its capability as an ensemble to lock away carbon are likely to suffer.

The tiny wasps are frail but some of the fig trees’ bigger partners are at risk too. They include fruit bats called flying foxes that can carry seeds 50 kilometres or more before pooping them out, making them some of the most effective seed dispersers around. Their vulnerability became clear early in 2014 when thousands of them fell dead from the sky during a blistering heat wave in Queensland, Australia. For both the bats and the fig wasps, the heat was too much. It will have interfered, at a cellular level, with proteins that cooked and then closed for business. These snapshots suggest trouble in store for the fig trees and the forests, whose fates entwine with our own.

Ecology teaches us that no species is an island. It’s a lesson our leaders seem to have skipped. It shows us we’re all in this together, the fig wasp and the fruit bat, the you and the me. That’s what makes the human fingerprints all over climate change all the more ironic. As we develop societies ever more distant from nature to protect ourselves from its wild whims, we risk unleashing upon these denatured societies powers we cannot hope to control or even predict.

This post reproduces my contribution to Culture and Climate Change: Narratives, which launched on 24 June at the Free Word Centre. The whole book is available for free and anyone can reproduces its articles under a Creative Commons Licence.

In Zambia: A moonbow, an elephant and strange toilet

Livingstone, Zambia. 2004.

Someone said it was a moonbow. The pale arc divided the night sky where the Zambezi River ran out of plateau and tumbled down for a hundred metres to form the Victoria Falls.

“A moonbow?” I’d never heard the word before, but there it was, like a rainbow in remission. In place of bands of colour were graded shades of grey. The colours were not absent, just hidden from my eyes. A camera set to long exposure could have brought them back to life.

Moonbows form when moisture in the air contorts light reflecting off the moon. The spray that rises when more than a thousand cubic metres of water falls every second makes this among the best places in the world to see one. But the moonbow was not all that made this night special.

My friends left. I lingered. I looked up again at the top of the falls and saw the silhouette of a shape I couldn’t fail to recognise. It was a big bull elephant standing side on to me, Africa’s biggest animal atop its biggest waterfall. In that moment, all of nature was perfect.

The great grey elephant stood still and silent. The moonbow’s great grey curve described a momentary collaboration between Earth and its stony-faced satellite. And the falls filled my ears with a roar that had begun as the gentle songs of several thousand distant streams. I felt as small as I should in the company of nature’s vastness.

The next day I went to a hotel in which I could not afford a room but could at least enjoy a cold beer. When I went to the bathroom I saw ice cubes heaped in each urinal, like piles of wet diamonds.

There in Zambia, just a few hundred metres away from a place where the universe’s magic had set my mind alight, somebody had decided it made sense to use energy and water to create ice so men could urinate on it.

It will take hundreds of Al Gores or millions of ‘little people’ to overcome the political inertia on climate change

Journalist Darren Samuelsohn has quoted me in a question he put to the former Vice-President of the United States, Al Gore in a rare two-hour interview for Politico magazine.

Politico Magazine: During the “24-hour project” [a Gore-led October 2013 effort to raise awareness about climate change], there were a lot of critics who said it didn’t get the right message out, that you weren’t the best messenger, either. There was one response in particular that summed it up that came from Mike Shanahan, from the International Institute for the Environment and Development: “Climate change needs a Gandhi or a Martin Luther King or a Mandela and Al Gore is none of those.” What do you say when critics note that Al Gore as a person polarizes half the country; you need someone different to lead the cause?

Al Gore: It’s not about me. And I’ve never tried to make it about me. And far be it from me to disagree with someone who says I’m not Gandhi or Martin Luther King Jr. or Nelson Mandela. I have to plead guilty to that charge. I wish that I had the greatness of those three men.

But I’m enough of a student of history to know that Martin Luther King Jr., to pick one example, was considered extremely polarizing and was by many hated and despised. And in the South it was not uncommon to hear people trying to appear reasonable on civil rights but nevertheless digging their heels in, who’d say, “Well, if King would just get out of the way this would just happen.” I think that whoever puts his head up above the trenches and says, “We’ve got to do this” is going to attract the ire of people who don’t want to do it. And there are plenty of them.

Samuelsohn had reached out to me because I had written a post here about Gore back in 2011. Ahead of his interview with Gore, Samuelsohn wanted to know if my views had changed. For the record, here’s the full text of my response to Samuelsohn.

History should judge Gore well, as someone who staked much upon his belief that climate change was an issue to tackle and who worked hard in public and private to convince people that this is a battle we can all fight together.

Too few people with his power and political connections have been so bold. That said, Gore lacks some credibility as a climate-change messenger as his interest in the subject has seemed to come and go. Nor should this task fall upon one man’s shoulders, even if they are as big as his. It will take hundreds of Gores or millions of ‘little people’ to overcome the political inertia on climate change.

Where Gore can have the most impact is not in other countries but at home, by working to show that action on climate change is a bipartisan issue that all Americans can get behind. It needs to be less about Gore the personality and more about Americans doing the right thing.

You can read Darren Samuelsohn’s full interview with Al Gore here. It is an enlightening read and it ends with Gore in an upbeat mood.

Al Gore: It’s clearly wrong to do what we’re doing. It’s clearly right to change. We will change. It’s just a matter of time. And again, how long? Not long.

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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