31 August 2009

brown, basted and ready to be carved...

Today I submitted my thesis. I should be feeling elated, with a sense of achievement. Instead I just feel exhausted and worried. All of the literature that I read is still spinning circles in my head and I'm left wondering how many animals are in the same situation as the tuna, how many others have lost the fight like the Yangtze River Dolphin declared extinct in 2006. I keep fast-forwarding three years and speculating whether the same announcement awaits the Bluefin Tuna or the Mountain Gorilla or the Amur Leopard or the Orangutan or countless other species that live their lives on a balance.

Biodiversity loss is one of the most alarming consequence of human activities on the planet. The influence of global warming is only accelerating this. The Polar Bear which was added IUCN Red List was the first animal to be included due to direct man-made activity. The species that we aware of and have catalogued only contains a small portion of the wealth on this Earth, there are many many types of plants, animals, birds, trees, insects out there waiting to be discovered - like the renowned naturalist E.O. Wilson said "we are destroying the library even before it has been catalogued". But what we don't know won't hurt us, right? wrong!

Through the loss of species both known and unknown we are not only losing an evolutionary link, we are also losing a potential use of and for that organism. Every organism supports the fabric of life in some unique way, therefore when we lose an animal or plant, we also lose a service. It can be medicinal purposes; the service of acting as a decomposer, a pollinator, a scavenger, a top-predator etc.

Preservation of biodiversity is one of the most important aspects of environmentalism. Respecting the boundaries of the natural world is no longer just an ideology, it is an issue of morality. Our needs-based consumption patterns must be curbed and we must remember that "we do not inherit the Earth from our parents, we borrow it from our children". It does not speak well of us as a 'civilized' generation to stand idly by and condone the destruction of species for short-term economic gain. Apathy in this case may as well be akin to participation. This epoch of death will be judged harshly unless we gather forces now to persevere and preserve.

The human race is at the crux of our History, a point that is testing our mettle and our maturity. If there was ever a more louder call for action, it is now. The choice between the Kingdom of Heaven and total annihilation is out there for our taking.

26 August 2009

selling ideals

I'm puzzling about extreme environmentalism today. Is there such a thing as 'extreme environmentalism'? What does it entail? How far can environmental groups go in order to get their message across?

Most environmental groups aim for the most radical, the most eye-catching, the most headline grabbing advertisement that they can think of to get their messages across. There is a reason for this: the rationale is that unless it is that attention grabbing, people will not react. It is radical simply as a measure to over leap the bonds of apathy. However, there is a thin line between communicating to the audience and alienating them. There is also a thin line between inducing thought and invoking disgust. Where is this line? Who judges?

Greenpeace, WWF and PETA are all known for their advertisements as much as they are known for their campaigning work. Some of their ads border on creative genius, some are cryptic in their message but environmental adverts put an image to the problem. It makes it visual and sometimes, heart-wrenchingly so because everything they portray could be reality. Environmental organizations also have to be very careful in order not appear ambiguous in their campaigns. Adverts exist to get campaign messages across in a succinct manner. Being three different organizations with three different campaign goals and methods to achieve them, the common thread they have is the way they push the message out.

The recent ad campaign done by WWF to highlight global warming features polar bears, seals and penguins as homeless people due to the melting of the poles. This is both clever and gets the message across. Previous WWF campaigns have also featured the decline of wildlife, loss of rainforests and damage to oceans. More recently they focus on climate change issues. Greenpeace's ads also border on the provocative at times without directly targetting at population sector, they instead make you question your choices. The recent adverts done for the climate change campaign borders on brilliant yet they are accessible.

Greenpeace adverts include campaigns for genetically modified food, climate change, protection of oceans and ancient forests. Greenpeace adverts employ catchy slogans and like with other campaigns, stunning visuals. They sometimes have political targets but are otherwise aimed at the general public.

The ad campaign featured by PETA however antagonises a section of the public as it targets obese people. Offensive? Effective? Ridiculous? Everyone seems to have a different opinion on the billboard--no doubt one of PETA's chief aims. But referring to overweight women as 'whales' is pretty rude, no matter whom you ask. This ad campaign drew outrage from feminist groups and healthcare providers alike. PETA's never been subtle. The group's president has postmortem plans to barbeque her own body to make a point about vegetarianism.

The point to be made here is that selling a product is hard enough, selling an ideal is much much harder. If environmental groups are to continue selling ideals, they cannot afford to alienate potential target groups. Any movement is impossible to take off the ground without adequate number of people supporting the cause. The question that should be asked is whether they go after the smaller battles or the bigger wars? Should PETA be targetting animal cruelty or non-vegetarians? They are not mutually inclusive. Ambiguous ad campaigns do little to strengthen an organizations' profile and much less to convince the public of their true motives.

Photos: All images copyrighted to their organizations. Image 1: PETA©. Image 2: WWF ©. Image 3: Greenpeace©

25 August 2009

end of the line?

I'm writing my thesis on The Legal Methods to Conserve the Bluefin Tuna from Extinction - it is driving me a little crazy due to the lack of information on the topic and evidence of continued apathy not only from governing bodies but also from governments, retailers and canning companies.

According to World Wildlife Fund, the Atlantic bluefin tuna will be wiped out completely by 2012 if we don't halt fishing. The spawning population of the western Atlantic bluefin has declined 80% in the past 40 years. In 2008 the combined national fleets of Cyprus, France, Greece, Italy, Malta, Portugal, and Spain exceeded their international catch quota for bluefin by 25%—driven in part by the lucrative Japanese market, where a single 600kg fish can fetch $100,000.

The decline in Bluefin stocks started with the explosion of sushi restaurants in the 90s - traditionally only eaten in Japan it is now consumed the world over. Japan still consumes 80% of all tuna caught and imports it from the Meditteranean. Tuna also gained popularity because it is an easy absorbed source of protein which is easy to prepare and cooks fast. It is also widely recommended by doctors due to beneficial fatty acids it contains.

All 23 identified, commercially exploited stocks of tuna are heavily fished, with at least nine classified as fully fished and a further four classified as overexploited or depleted. International tuna treaty parties like ICCAT (International Commission for Conservation of the Atlantic Tuna) have totally failed to come up with ways to cap fishing capacity and are making only slow progress in reducing illegal fishing and overfishing and bycatch of other marine life, according to the new assessment by WWF.

The tuna is a keystone predator species and it is at the top of the ocean food chain and the health of the oceans very much depends on species like this. I have previously blogged about the importance of apex predators with reference to sharks. The movie that depicts the plight of the tuna and calls it the 'new blue whale' is also called End of the Line. It is a powerful story about how fishing corporations are destroying the ocean's wealth.

Mis-management of fisheries, unsustainable fishing methods, illegal fishing and lack of awareness has all led to the predicament of the ocean's dimishing stocks. Consumer awareness plays a hugely important role in choosing the right kind of food to eat. Tinned tuna is the mostly widely easten form of tuna in the US and UK. Certain retailers like Marks and Spencers and Sainburys have also become pro-active in their search and supply for sustainably fished tuna. Greenpeace, WWF and Oceana recommend that only pole and line caught skipjack tuna should be consumed, This fishing method reduces the amount of bycatch and improves socio-economic conditions of small fishermen.

Tuna fishing is a multi-billion dollar industry and this has raised the stakes for conservation. This also had led to increase in illegal fishing which reults in more tuna being caught than the numbers being officially declared. It has also led to the rise of tuna ranching which is catching juvenile tuna and fattening them in pens near the shore - this results in coastal pollution and these 'aquaculture' farms receive heavy government subsidies in the EU.

The situation is very bleak but if stringent measures are put in place now, it may not be the end of the line for this majestic fish.

22 August 2009

celebrating responsibly

The season of consecutive festivals is upon us - it started off with Janmashtami and now it is Ganesh Chaturthi and then come the Pooja Holidays and then Dusheera and Diwali. Ganesh Chaturthi is a festival celebrated all over India with great pomp and pagentry. The birthdate of the elephant God, the destroyer of obstacles and the bringer of good fortune is an important festival in the Hindu calendar. In some parts of the country, this involves preparing huge idols of the God - previously this used to be made of unfired earthern clay and painted with natural dyes. These days, the idols are made with plaster of Paris (PoP) and painted with synthetic paint. Traditionally, after the celebrations these idols are immersed into rivers and lakes.

This year, this governments of Goa and Nagpur have taken a pro-active steps to ban PoP idols from entering the State. Some variations of plaster that contain powdered silica or asbestos may present health hazards if inhaled. Asbestos is a known carcinogen when inhaled in powder form, especially in people who smoke, and inhalation can also cause asbestosis. Inhaled silica can cause silicosis and (in very rare cases) can encourage the development of cancer.

Special cleanup methods should be used with of plaster products, as they can interfere with the flow of plumbing systems downstream of the disposal area. The residue of these products will often solidify underwater and plug up drains, stain gutters and sidewalks and spoil planting areas. Apart from the hazards of PoP, the synthetic paints that are used to paint the idol contain mercury and cadium among other heavy metals and dyes. Not only are these harmful to human health but they also affect marine life.

Mercury is also known to bio-accumulate and bio-magnify up the food chain which means it is stored in the tissues of animals. When mercury is present in water supplies, it can affect marine life and fish which is in turn consumed by humans. Whatever ends up in the rivers and lakes also eventually end up in the oceans affecting other marine life as well.

Celebrating festivals in a responsible manner is in itself a spiritual exercise. If you must purchase idols, then look for the clay ones which do not affect water supplies as much and have the ability to biodegrade in the water.

21 August 2009

there is no bread...

Increase in food prices is automatically associated with decrease in yield. However, there is another reason for this: stimulating short supply of food grains subsequently means increase in price of food even though there is no real shortage of supply. This manipulation of demand-supply is the reason for current sky-rocketing prices of foodgrains especially in the case of pulses.

In 2008, the production of pulses was 14.76 million tonnes in India. In 2009, it fell to 14.66 million tonnes, a drop of 0.1 million tonnes. The production of pulses has remained within normal limits of deviation. If demand has outstriped production then even 2008 should have been a bad year as far as prices were concerned. Some economists have projected the demand to be around 17 million tonnes and it is claimed that India has imported 2.5 million tonnes of pulses this year. This brings the total of available pulses in the market to 19.5 million tonnes, which means that supply outstrips demand and the prices should drop. Even if the imports were higher in cost, it only makes up a fraction of the total and therefore not significant to make an impact on retail prices.

According to Devinder Sharma as expressed in his blog, the reason for the rising prices is market driven by sentiments - the economic parlance used to justify hoarding and speculation. The trade has been holding up the supplies, wanting to exploit the sentiment. This year the sentiment has been the delay in monsoon, next year it may be something else. Conspiracy theory? - Then consider this: After turning a blind eye for many months, several State Governments have swung into action and raids to godowns have become widespread. In Madhya Pradesh the State found 34,000 quintal of sugar kept illegally and the market price came down by Rs.3/kg in just two days! As a result, the price of sugar in the wholesale market has come down by Rs 140/quintal. In Maharashtra and Rajasthan, the prices of pulses has come down by Rs 250 to Rs 400/quintal.

Drought and irregular monsoon has always been part of the Indian agricultural scenario. In the past we have seen gradual inflation which is a predictable economic phenomena. However, this sudden increase in prices of foodgrains has made nutrition unaffordable to many people. Populations already on the knife-edge are now under the knife. The recent increase of support prices by the Government is going to make pulses even more expensive. The Government has also proposing reducing exports of wheat to ensure higher supply within the country. But all these measures do not address the real issue and still leaves the question unanswered.

Inspite of external factors affecting agricultural production within the country - yield has not reduced by much. This basic point is something that has evaded every press release and every government statement on the issue. If supply had not changed drastically and demand has not changed drastically - why has price increased? I'm beginning to buy into the conspiracy theory of hidden piles of grains waiting to be raided.

...until then we can all eat brioche

PIL in a capsule

There are many unique features about the Indian legal system but one that stands out in the field of Environmental Law is Public Interest Litigation (PIL). The majority of the environment cases in India since 1985 have been brought before the court as writ petitions, normally by individuals acting on pro bono basis. The judiciary, in their quest for innovate solutions to environmental matters within the framework of public interest litigation, looked to constitutional provisions to provide the court with the necessary jurisdiction to address specific issues. But the fundamental rights part of the constitution of India does not have any specific mention of the environmental matters. Here the Supreme Court played a pivotal role. The Supreme Court, in its interpretation of Article 21, has facilitated the emergence of the environmental jurisprudence in India.

PIL in broad terms, means litigation filed in a court of law for the protection of 'Public Interest' on the wide variety of subjects concerning citizens. It can be broadly defined as litigation in the interest of the public in general. Prior to 1980s, only the aggrieved party could seek justice and any other person did not have this right. Because of this, there was no link between the rights guaranteed by the Constitution of India and the laws made by the legislature on the one hand and the vast majority of illiterate citizens on the other.

The efforts of Justice P N Bhagwati and Justice V R Krishna Iyer were instrumental of this juristic revolution of eighties to convert the apex court of India into a Supreme Court for all Indians. As a result any citizen of India or any consumer groups or social action groups can approach the apex court of the country seeking legal remedies in all cases where the interests of general public or a section of public are at stake.

PIL is not defined in any statute or in any act. It has been interpreted by judges to consider the intent of public at large. Although, the main and only focus of such litigation is only 'Public Interest' there are various areas where a PIL can be filed. For e.g:
  • Violation of basic human rights of the poor
  • Content or conduct of government policy
  • Compel municipal authorities to perform a public duty
  • Violation of religious rights or other basic fundamental right
PIL plays an important role in environmental governance in India. There are several cases where PIL has played a role in begetting justice in the environmental scenario. The right to environment is a fundamental right guaranteed by the Indian Constitution, yet there are many thousands of Indians without access to the basis amenities. The Delhi Air Pollution Case is one of the examples of PIL in action. In the 1990s the Supreme Court responded to a PIL petition and issued orders to the concerned authorities to tackle pollution levels in New Delhi.

The SC website has information on how to file a PIL and there are many Indians who obtain everyday justice through the use of this system.

20 August 2009

down came the engine...

Photo: Akhila Vijayaraghavan ©

This is an animal that has no natural enemies. This is an animal which was the mount of ancient Indian Kings, famed for its memory and strength, it came to symbolize the God of Warriors. This is an animal that is the mascot of the world's largest railway network. This is an animal, in a twist of irony is also being killed by the very same rail network.

Since 1987, around 129 Asian elephants have been killed on railway tracks across the country. Their biggest deathtrap is a 35-km stretch (between Palakkad, Kerala and Coimbatore, Tamil Nadu) across the Western Ghats forests through which 40 trains pass during the day and another 30 during the night. In the past year alone, eight elephants were killed and this has brought about violent protests by wildlife officials against any further expansions of railway tracks through the elephant corridor.

India is home to 60% of the Asian elephant population making their survival in the country critical to their survival as a species. Factors such as throwing waste food on the tracks, lack of awareness among drivers and not adhering to speed limits apart from steep embankments are causes for elephant deaths on the tracks. The Government is erecting electric fencing to keep the elephants from straying but alarm systems based on sensor or radar technology need to be put in place. Southern Railways have also brought down their speed limit in the elephant corridor in order to help drivers better with visibility.

In the face of loss of habitat and incidents of continued poaching, avoidable death of elephants and indeed any animal, must cease. The latest estimate according to Project Elephant is that the country has 27,694 wild elephants in the 2008-2009 period. Most wildlife experts refuse to believe this claim as they say that the numbers are for protected areas only.

In a number of areas the government has set up corridors for the elephants to travel from one area to another. Unfortunately people regularly encroach into these corridors taking matters into their own hands, killing elephants when they rampage through a settlement. As populations steadily rise, so too will conflicts. In India alone, elephant-human conflict results in about 300 human and 200 elephant deaths each year due to poaching, crop protection and any number of other accidents, including vehicle-elephant collisions.

About 20% of the worlds population lives in or near current existing habitat of the Asian elephant and the human population of these areas is growing at a rate of 3% per year. The Asian elephant is considered a keystone biological species. Because the habitat that they occupy are considered some of the richest biodiversity regions in Asia like the Western Ghats, its conservation and survival will automatically promote the survival of a variety of other flora and fauna. The elephant in its own right is a symbol of India - help protect it by affliating yourself to WWF or similar organizations.

Adapted from: "The Giant Killer" by M.G. Radhakrishnan and Abhijit Dasgupta, India Today, August 17, 2009.

10 August 2009

from garbage to garden

Household waste makes up a huge percentage of wastes that end up in the landfill. Most of this can be composted - even if you do not garden, you can give or sell this compost to local nurseries and farms. Composting upcycles kitchen and yard waste and manures into an extremely useful humus-like end product, permitting the return of vital organic matter and particularly bacteria that are essential to plant nutrition and the soil.

Managed aerobic composting arranges environmental conditions so they are optimal for the natural processes to take place. You can make your own compost box or
purchase one as this is the first step on the great journey of rotting.

Composting organisms require four equally important things to work effectively:

  • Carbon ("C" or carbohydrates), for energy - the microbial oxidation of carbon produces the heat. High carbon materials tend tobe brown and dry.
  • Nitrogen ("N" or protein), to grow and reproduce more organisms to oxidize the carbon. High nitrogen materials tend to be green (or colorful, like fruits and vegetables) and wet.
  • Oxygen, for oxidizing the carbon, the decomposition process.
  • Water, in the right amounts to maintain activity without causing anaerobic conditions.
Anyone with a few extra square feet (even inside your kitchen or out on a deck or balcony) can produce compost. Properly aerated compost does not smell like rotten food so it is possible for apartments and other small home-dwellers to create their own without making a big mess or raising a stink.

Composting microbes cannot do their work well unless they are provided with air. Without air, slow decomposition occurs but the pile tends to smell like rotting garbage. It is important to regularly stir your pile. Also a balanced mix of green grass clippings, wet fruits and vegetables, and ingredients such as straw, shredded paper or dried leaves is very helpful in allowing air into the center of a pile. To make sure that you have adequate aeration for your pile thoroughly break up or mix in any ingredients that might mat down and exclude air.

Ideally, the pile should be as moist as a wrung-out sponge to fit the needs of compost microbes. Fruit and vegetable wastes generally have plenty of moisture, as do fresh green grass clippings and garden trimmings. In hot, dry climates it may be necessary to water your pile occasionally to maintain proper moisture. If you are using dry ingredients, such as dried leaves or straw, you'll need to moisten them as you add them to the pile. For more information, look

Composting reduces the amount of methane emitted from landfills which is a big cause of global warming. As it is an excellent source of nutrients, it makes a great base for an organic vegetable garden as there is no need to add additional fertilizers. Using compost improves soil structure, texture, and aeration and increases the soil's water-holding capacity. Compost loosens clay soils and helps sandy soils retain water. Adding compost improves soil fertility and stimulates healthy root development in plants. The organic matter provided in compost provides food for microorganisms, which keeps the soil in a healthy, balanced condition. Nitrogen, potassium and phosphorus will be produced naturally by the feeding of microorganisms, so few, if any, other soil additives will be needed.

Be part of the ethical kitchen brigade and start composting!