Reporter’s Journal: Times are getting dark

July 29th, 2014

By Mongabay Special Reporting Initiative Fellow Ruxandra Guidi. Photo by Roberto Guerra.

Photo copyright (c) 2014 SRI Fellow Roberto Guerra.

This is the season of hurricanes and heavy storms. But the archipelago of Kuna Yala, located south of the hurricane belt, is typically spared the damage and strong winds that hit islands further north in the Caribbean, year after year. In recent years, however, rains have forced the people living in these islands — an estimated 30,000 — to start making drastic changes to their way of life.

The first time we visited the island of Usdupu in October of 2009, the water came down daily, flooding the narrow dirt paths that connect all the thatched roof homes. Kids played in the brown water half-naked, without a worry in the world. But some of their parents spoke to us about being unable to cook with charcoal on the floor, as is their tradition, due to the persistent flooding. Others showed us how they were using cement debris and even trash to create landfill on the edges of the island, which is on sea level.

But then, we also noticed other, more profound ways, in which the flooding seemed to be affecting the Kuna.

One of the traditional songs performed by their wise elders, or sahilas, described their collection of islands as “coconuts resting firmly on the sand” that would never disappear, regardless of the weather. Yet starting in the Fall of 2008, after a series of giant waves flooded most of the islands, the sahilas had began singing a new song. “Why are our mothers crying?” the lyrics went. “It is because of the hurricanes and earthquakes. Times are getting dark. Who is causing this?”

Changing weather patterns, sea level rise, and man-made climate change are three new modern-day concerns that the Kuna have had to grapple with. Sahilas, men, women, and young people alike have attended information workshops focused on these issues, and the  Congreso General Kuna, the indigenous territory’s highest authority, tackles things like adaptation and mitigation on a regular basis.

This July, we’ll be returning to some of these islands to find out more about the challenges faced by the Kuna. As it turns out, the well-preserved mainland forest — that’s less than a mile away from these islands — may be an important part of the solution.

 

Reporter’s Journal: Infant Shrimp

July 2nd, 2014

Photo copyright (c) 2014 Melati Kaye.

A technician checks on week-old shrimp larvae or nauplius, at the world’s largest shrimp and mollusk broodstock center in Bugbug, Indonesia. The center hopes to become a major supplier inexpensive and healthy “parent” shrimp to Indonesia’s domestic shrimp farming industry, to reduce reliance on pricier and occasionally disease-ridden imports from abroad. Indonesia is one of a handful of shrimp-producing countries unaffected by the outbreak of Early Mortality Syndrome, which has decimated farmed shrimp in top-producing countries like Thailand, China and Vietnam over the last two years.

This photo was taken by Mongabay.org’s Special Reporting Initiatives fellow Melati Kaye, who is reporting on the state of the fishing industry in Indonesia.

Reporter’s Journal: Fishermans’ Wives

June 27th, 2014

Photo copyright (c) 2014 Melati Kaye

Fishermens’ wives negotiate a price for freshly caught sardines in Negara, a town on the shores of the Bali Strait. The strait is about to become Indonesia’s first region to be managed under an ecosystem-based approach to fisheries management.

This photo was taken by Mongabay.org’s Special Reporting Initiatives fellow Melati Kaye, who is reporting on the state of the fishing industry in Indonesia.

The allure of the Amazon: real or imagined?

May 19th, 2014

Commentary by Nick Werber

Photo by Nick Werber.

What is it about the Amazon that fires the imagination? For as long as I can recall it has been a symbol for the Earth as it wants to be; a flourishing paradise perhaps, a place of explosive variegation, the jungle in full bloom.

Like the untamed areas outside of the cities in Brave New World, The Heart of Darkness and The Lost World, the jungle has formed an archetype for all that is natural and untouched by man. It offers us adventure and escape, as far removed from tarmacked roads and rigidly planned towns as one can imagine.

Alan Watts, the philosopher, talked of the chaos of nature, the absence of straight lines, the negation of geometrical form, the forest is “squiggly” as he might have termed it. To some this knotted mass is anathema, it offends the neat dissection of their reason, to others it is a liberation from a tyrannical mind, hell-bent on order and destruction. Through the wilderness they seek the dissolution of the ego, transcendentalists for a new age. Despite a century or more of western exploration the jungle remains tenebrous, unknowable. A thousand Victorian explorers are replaced each generation with people seeking out something, a new tale to tell, the discovery of a new tribe perhaps.

Photo by Nick Werber.

Where once we looked at native forest dwellers as quaint but primitive, there is now a new movement, looking to them for insights and hints on ways to live. Have we got it right? We ask. Our culture is not so sure of itself as it once was. In the jungle too lies hope: new medicines and new species. Scientists revere the forest for its fecundity, for every new discovery we find there is much, much more to learn. Its vastness promotes humility and yet for all its scale it is delicate nonetheless. Logging, mining and agriculture are tumorous.

“We know this” we tell ourselves: it is the stuff of a hundred lachrymose news programs, images of burned out forests branded in our minds; we have become inured and so we get on with our lives, it being just one more thing to worry about…

I dreamt of the Amazon as a child. I heard about its beauty and its imminent destruction and wanted to do something about it…but what can an 11 year old do? So, I dreamed some more…. When I actually arrived it was vastly different to the images I had seen on the news. In Manu I can see no grand scale farming, no sweeping clearances, just flecks of damage, like sun spots on an otherwise unblemished face. And yet I know that much worse is happening. In Huaypetue there is a gold mine so sprawling it can be seen from space; Hunt Oil’s unctuous presence has undermined native communities land rights; and the completion of the Pan American highway, stretching from east coast Brazil through the Madre de Dios region, threatens to enable Peru to enact a scale of destruction comparable with its neighbor.

But for all that I can do nothing but film and write. As a journalist I do not make policy or conduct scientific research. And yet I appreciate the beauty of the forest and can only communicate my reverence in the hope that others may offer change.

Red bromeliads (Racinaea) in Manu cloud forest. Photo by Rhett A. Butler / Mongabay.com

After just a few weeks in the jungle, I had forgotten what it was like to wake up without the sound of Oropendulas dropping their calls from palm tops or a night spent without chirruping cicadas, balmy heat and fireflies flickering in the darkness. Here, for the first time in my life I saw the Milky Way streaking across the night sky, and each morning watched trees held in relief against a fuchsia dawn.

Don’t get me wrong. It is not all pleasant, far from it. Trails turn to mush at the slightest sign of rain and the insects are relentless. Walking at midday seems like wading through boiling sap, my shirt turns into a sodden rag, my backpack a sponge for sweat. Still, I count myself lucky. A dream fulfilled does not always live up to the dream, but it can get pretty close, and in life I suppose that is as much as we can hope for.

Phoebis philea and Anteos menippe butterflies in large group feeding on minerals in mud in Manu. Photo by Rhett A. Butler / mongabay.com

Reporter’s Journal: Disappearing Home

May 7th, 2014

By Melati Kaye

Copyright (c) 2014 Melati Kaye.

A boy takes in the sunset on Barang Lompo, one of the Spermonde Islands in Indonesia. The loss of local reef cover from destructive fishing practices and soil runoff from the nearby city of Makassar exposes islands like Barang Lampo to extreme weather. Over the last thirty years, this tiny island, like others in the region, has lost a tenth of its landmass from the erosive force of storm surges and increasingly larger waves, according to researchers at Universitas Hasanuddin in Makassar. Island communities have built cement walls to halt the loss of landmass, such as the parapet that this boy is resting on.

This photo was taken by Mongabay.org’s Special Reporting Initiatives fellow Melati Kaye, who is reporting on the state of the fishing industry in Indonesia.

Reporter’s Journal: From Panama

April 16th, 2014

By SRI Fellow Ruxandra Guidi

Kuna historian Don Jesus Smith (left), listens to presentations next to his son, Jesus Smith Jr. Copyright (c) 2014 Ruxandra Guidi

Don Jesus was tasked with the logistics for the conference, and Don Feliciano would be taking care of all the meals for more than 25 people. This was no small feat for these two septuagenarian men, who had to do a lot of phone calling and running around in order to try to secure things like ice and a motorboat and a generator. In the end, ice was the only thing they couldn’t get — and that’s because refrigeration is hard to come by on the island. If you were to bring it by motorboat, the ice would have likely melted under the hot Caribbean sun along the way.

This was the first conference of its kind to be held in Ustupu, one of the 49 populated islands that make up the Kuna Yala comarca, an indigenous territory in Panama unlike any other worldwide. In the last decade, severe weather changes have caused regular flooding on many of the islands, and the local sea level has been increasing around three-quarters of an inch each year due to the effects of climate change. Because of Kuna Yala’s current quandary and also its unique history of land rights and forest conservation, the community was chosen as the site for a discussion about climate change focused solely on the perspective of indigenous peoples.

Facing the crowd at barely five feet tall, and wearing his trademark baseball hat and flip-flops, Don Jesus welcomed the group with an introduction to Kuna history.

Conference attendees go for a hike in Kuna Yala’s mainland forest. Photo copyright (c) Ruxandra Guidi 2014.

“Over two hundred years ago, our great-grandparents who were living further east, in Colombia, got displaced,” he began. “So they started looking for their promised land. They were looking for not just a place to live and to grow food, but also a place where they could conserve the plants they depended on, their traditions, and language.”

According to Don Jesus, his ancestors knew “how to face change.” So rather than move to the mainland, where they’d have to contend with mosquitos, mangroves, difficult terrain, and wild animals, the Kuna decided to settle on dozens of small islands peppering what today is the eastern Caribbean coast of Panama. They would continue to live off the sea, catching lobster and octopus, but also practicing subsistence farming on the edges of the mainland forest. This is still the Kuna way of life today.

The conference attendees, young men and women from Kenya, Ecuador, Chile, Manipur, Indonesia, Bangladesh, and from the Emberá community of Panama, listened to one Kuna elder after another, their words being spoken in their native language, then translated into Spanish and English, via interpretation headsets.

For Jemimah Mattei, a Masaii activist, and Lalit Chakma, from Bangladesh, the Kuna experience was as foreign as it was refreshing. After all, both indigenous leaders had traveled a very long way to hear these older men speak about how they managed to not only hold on to land, forests, and their traditions, but also the ways in which they’re planning their future today, in the age of climate change.

Around the world, indigenous peoples are feeling the effects of climate change — sea level rise, increased rates of wild fires and drought — disproportionately. And coming up with localized, independent, sustainable adaptations to climate change is key for their survival. But as it turns out, some of those homegrown solutions to our current climate crisis could also hold important lessons for us all.

After four days of PowerPoint presentations (powered by a loud generator), group discussions about the meaning of the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, and visits to the Kuna’s mainland forest, the conference ended, and everyone started their long treks home.

This summer, I’ll return to Ustupu with photographer Bear Guerra, my husband and collaborator. We’ll reconnect with some Kuna elders, young Kuna leaders, biologists, and experts on medicinal plants and forests, to look more deeply into those lessons the Kuna may be able to share with the world.

Andres de Leon talks to two young Kuna students about his small banana farm on the mainland forest. Photo copyright (c) Ruxandra Guidi 2014.

 


Panama’s carbon in high fidelity

Reporter’s Journal: Fighting poachers and Mother Nature

April 7th, 2014

Copyright (c) 2014 Amy E. West

Fijians communities are largely in charge of managing their waterfront. Volunteer fish wardens in the village, appointed by the chief or the Minister, are the only official members of a village who can legally stop poachers. Though they rarely have any equipment to enforce protection of their tabus (swaths of temporarily protected marine areas inside their fishing grounds), they are harder pressed to fight the effects of climate change. Off the Fijian island of Taveuni sits Waitabu Marine Park, which has been closed to fishing for more than 15 years, snorkelers pay to jump in the water. Although bigger fish are abundant in this unusual long-term refuge, their coral reef habitat is suffering. Temperatures hit more than 30 degrees C (86 F) for an extended period of time earlier in the year, and roughly half of the corals experienced bleaching here, ejecting their color-giving symbionts, which can be seen in this image. Shallow areas of this protected reef are also prone to decimation from increasingly severe cyclones. To add insult to injury, the reef-eating starfish, crown-of-thorns, thrives here and munches corals faster than the locals can remove them.

This photo was taken by SRI fellow Amy West who is reporting on the state of Fiji’s coral reef fisheries.

Reporter’s Journal: The Lesser Fish

April 1st, 2014

Photo copyright (c) 2014 Amy West.

In Fiji’s capital city of Suva, middlemen buy directly from the fishers. The majority of the fish arrive early Saturday morning, indicating many of the reef fish are caught at night while many fish are asleep, making them easy targets for spearfishers.  In the past, larger quantities of fresh fish was available daily. Now the sellers make fewer catches stretch across the week. The overwhelming concern about the region’s overfishing and depleted nearshore fisheries is not always echoed by the fishmongers. When asked why fish, such as these grouper and parrotfish, were smaller and not as plentiful, they simply replied, “The weather has changed.”

This photo was taken by SRI fellow Amy West who is reporting on the state of Fiji’s coral reef fisheries.

Reporter’s Journal: Dock Boys

March 27th, 2014

By Melati Kaye

Photo copyright (c) 2014 Melati Kaye.

“Dock boys” take a swim break from sorting and carrying fish at Makassar’s Paotere harbor, where fish caught with hook and line, homemade bombs, and cyanide are brought to port and sold.

This photo was taken by SRI fellow Melati Kaye, who is reporting on the State of Indonesian Fisheries.

Reporter’s Journal: The forests of Uganda

March 26th, 2014

In late January through early February I traveled to Uganda as part of the first Mongabay Special Reporting Initiative (SRI) to report on “the next big thing in tropical forest biodiversity conservation.” I’m a world traveler, and I have a special passion for tropical rainforests — having seen them in Australia, the Peruvian Amazon, Asia, and Central America. Africa was my last continent to visit (OK, does Antarctica count? I have not yet been there). I have dreamt of tracking mountain gorillas in the wild since I was 14 years old. I grew up watching National Geographic documentaries of Dian Fossey and Jane Goodall (who celebrates her 80th birthday on April 3rd!). And so I thought that seeing mountain gorillas and chimpanzees would be the absolute highlight of my reporting adventure, but it was the people who grabbed my heart.

The Habinyanja family group of mountain gorillas in Bwindi Impenetrable Park, Uganda.  Photo Copyright (c) 2014 Wendee Nicole

My heart was torn by the poverty, particularly the Batwa people, the indigenous forest “pygmies” who were evicted from their former home in Bwindi Impenetrable Park just in 1992 — and also by the generosity, kindness and sacrifice of many Ugandans who are working to improve conditions for others. The Batwa now live in extreme poverty, in conditions that left me in tears. As a journalist and as someone who has seen a lot of poverty around the world — ranging from simple homes and dirty kids to desperate street urchins begging for cash — I have never seen despondency in a child’s eyes in the way that I saw in the Batwa children. The Batwa became “conservation refugees” when Uganda established Bwindi as a national park; they were given no land of their own. They lost their culture, their way of life, and they are still finding their way in a new world.

Although the intent of designating Bwindi as a national park was to save mountain gorillas and the forest ecosystem, research by the late Elinor Ostrom, who won the Nobel Prize in Economics in 2009, showed that “nationalizing” forest ownership often counterintuitively fails to preserve them; instead, she found that it can lead to a “free for all” on accessing forest products — such as wildlife, firewood, plants for medicine, or wild honey. Before a park gets established, villagers can usually access the forest legally and they often have rules that work for everyone, but afterwards, governments typically restrict all locals from access. This causes traditional, local rules to disintegrate, and the absence of locally agreed on rules leads to overexploitation. Intriguing.

Even more interesting, this exact scenario has been shown true for the Batwa living in forests in Uganda. Makerere University Professor Abwoli Banana studied five community-managed forests, and found that the Echuya forest, which had Batwa (sometimes called Abayanda) living within its borders at the time of his study, had the least illegal poaching and firewood harvest by other locals, who were only allowed forest access one day per week. The Batwa acted as forest monitors, keeping an eye on the forest; Ostrom herself found that having forest monitors helps people’s livelihoods and it helps forests. Professor Banana conducted the study before the Batwa were evicted, and some data suggests that poaching and other illegal activities have not diminished in Bwindi Park since the park’s establishment. The Ugandan government has started to move away from strict protectionist policies, and they now allow some people to access to the forest — though the poorest people with the most need generally have benefitted the least.

The SRI topic that I chose was how Ostrom’s groundbreaking research can be used to help save tropical forests. She outlined eight “design principles” that support the sustainable management of natural resources. Together, these principles suggest ways to resolve the apparent social-ecological dilemma between saving forests and reducing poverty. It’s a topic that has not received extensive coverage outside of select publications, but is absolutely fascinating and important. And from my reading and from speaking to her colleagues, Ostrom was a true hero, the kind of woman who comes around only rarely — a deeply kind and compassionate woman, an incredibly productive researcher, a genius, and a firebrand. She was not afraid to call out entrenched economic theories as “dangerous” — like making policy on the assumption that people can’t and won’t work together to create productive solutions that not only can conserve forests but also improve livelihoods. The best way according to Ostrom? Empower the local people. Give them a say in how forests are managed. I only wish I had met her before she passed away in 2012.

Look for my work to come in publications such as Animal Planet Online and Environmental Health Perspectives, and others. And, of course, on Mongabay.

A young Batwa boy in his home at the edge of Bwindi Impenetrable National Park — where his parents and ancestors had lived until being evicted from the forest in 1992. Photo Copyright (c) 2014 Wendee Nicole.

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