Saturday, December 30, 2017

Sun Sets on 2017

DSC_0876It’s a bit of a tradition by now to reflect on the past year of blogging. But this seems to have been the year of benign blog neglect. Between prepping for a PhD milestone, traveling a cumulative 3.5 months for work and leisure (actually on a wander in NZ at the moment...), and wasting considerable time reading and stressing over the news, blog posting has taken a backseat. So I snagged a few snippets from unfinished posts and from a year of tweets.

The year itself was filled to the brim. Besides an endless barrage of media attention around the demise of whatever integrity had remained in US democracy, earth, wind, and fire seemed to take out their collective rage on human beings. An unusually intense hurricane season, an untimely Indian monsoon, and drought-fueled forest forest made extreme weather a trending topic.

An erratic Indian Monsoon, the life force of much of South Asia, began this anomalous year of weather. Unprecedented flooding resulted in over 1,200 deaths across South Asia. Yet this extreme rainfall was uneven, swinging in both directions with some parts of the region receiving as little as 1/3 less rain than usual. An agricultural system highly dependent on rainfall means that crop losses this year have had substantial consequences for people's lives - hunger and health. But it was the Northern hemisphere hurricanes that made headlines in 2017, as a series of hurricanes smashed into Caribbean islands and the southern US. While not completely unheard of, warmer sea surface temperatures did make for really favourable conditions that spawned some powerful storms. The Caribbean felt the brunt of four consecutive categories 4 and 5 hurricanes, and much of Puerto Rico is still without electricity or running water.

The thing about “natural disasters” is they usually require some sort of human failing. The monsoon was tragic partly because poverty reduced people’s ability to weather losses (and many were probably  living in areas more prone to flood damage). The fires that have ravaged California in the latter part of the year were exacerbated by sprawling development patterns and insufficient fire prevention management activities (like brush clearing and controlled burnings). Puerto Rico is still like a war-torn country, because of insufficient federal emergency assistance (and a history of exploitative policies by a colonial government). And all of these events were in some way influenced by man-made climate change.

DSC_1673Speaking of climate change, I unfortunately contributed my fair share of greenhouse gas emissions via air travel. Two trips to Indonesia included a slightly longer stay in Borneo to interview people about community management of forests. A conservation conference took me to Colombia, where only this past year a peace agreement between the government and guerrilla groups was signed. Finally, a cheeky holiday in Japan highlighted the melding a nature and culture.

And just as an aside, a fellow PhD student and I started recording a semi-regular podcast this year, called Conservation Crossroads. Check it out! 

Happy New Year! Here’s to a happier and healthier one!

Read Years Passed

Monday, November 20, 2017

Lima Hal Dari Indonesia

I've started a couple of posts since arriving in Indonesia, but they both seemed too serious, too academic. It's the third time I've been in the country and, entering my fifth week now, the longest. So instead of going on about academic versus practical conferences, or the trials and rewards of social science data collection, I'm instead sharing five things that have struck me while here.

1. Jam Karet - The elasticity of time. Or literally, rubber hour. This is something I think many foreigners must come to terms with very quickly in Indonesia. In a city like Jakarta, traffic and a limited bus network mean that getting from point A to point B may take the better part of the day. I was thrilled on the days I accomplished multiple things (e.g. visit immigration and attend the second half of a conference; meet friends for brunch and visit the national monument). But, this is to some extent an infrastructure and practicality issue in a big city. The fluidity of time also seems to be more culturally embedded. My propensity for planning is next to useless here. Meetings will be set and then reset multiple times, perhaps the same day or a mere hour beforehand. Indonesians like to chitchat and socialise, and it's rude to abruptly end a meeting. Ultimately, going with the flow is both the path of least resistance and most likely to result in everyone happier. 

2. WhassssApp... Scheduling brings me to my next point: WhatsApp. Communication is important, and WhatsApp is apparently the best way to get in touch with just about anyone in Indonesia. I started using this app to communicate with friends and family on different continents and in different time zones. But over here, it goes beyond the personal. I'm sending and receiving documents, organising meetings with government staff, and generally doing all scheduling (and rescheduling) through that channel. It's brilliant! It's free. You can send whatever, to whomever, at odd hours. And it gives me a chance to craft (likely overly formal, and grammatically incorrect) messages in Bahasa Indonesia.

3. Jalan-jalan...kaki? I love to walk. It's liberating and empowering to know that one's own two feet can take you places. But that is far from the case where I've been in Indonesia. Besides the insufficient pedestrian infrastructure, people generally seem more inclined to hop on a motorbike for the smallest of distances. When I proposed to walk the thirty minutes across town, I received confused facial expressions and incredulity. It contrasts starkly with my experience in Ghana, where walking was the most accessible means of transporting goods and people short distances - roads were bad and automobiles expensive. Walking from house to house there was glorious. That said, the motorbike here is definitely the most efficient means of getting around. And some of the things people manage to fit on their bikes is astonishing - anything from timber and pallets to baskets of chickens. I'm not going to lie; this trip has made me intent on learning to drive a motorbike, you know, for next time!

4. Goreng, goreng, gorengan - One thing that seems to unite humankind is our enjoyment of fried foods. As with most places with a strong street food culture, the warung (or food stalls) typically have an assortment of fried food stuffs. While nasi goreng and mie goreng - fried rice and fried noodles - are most commonly known, you can easily find fried tofu, tempeh, bananas, vegetable fritters, chicken, etc. The decided lack of vegetables in prepared foods for sale - and my inability to cook in my current living situation - is something I feel so acutely that I'm relishing every piece of water spinach or pepper that turns up in a dish.

5. Ngopi! Finally, one of the most pleasant surprises has been the vibrant and growing coffee culture. The kopi is what one might call 'sandy' ... Ground coffee is placed straight into the mug and hot water poured over. Give it a stir and then let things settle. It is commonly offered when making a visit, and is served strong and manis-manis (very sweet). Coffee shops are open late, and one of the popular evening activities even in a smaller city like Ketapang. While I'm not about to adopt the heavy smoking habit during socialising, meetings, and the like, I'll happily fuel a coffee habit!

So that's it for now. No mention of forests and conservation. No dwelling on research activities or academic pressure. Despite the stress of organising logistics and conducting interviews, doing "fieldwork" feels much more relaxed and real than sitting in the department, glued to a computer screen day in and day out. And eventually I'll elaborate on what really brings me to Indonesia.

Saturday, August 19, 2017

For the Love of Chocolate

Hola devoted readers! I’m writing to you after a little adventure in Colombia recently came to a close. While I voyaged across the great ocean in order to present at the International Congress on Conservation Biology (yes, I did do some work…), I stayed for the biodiversity and agroforestry.
Colombia is a biodiversity hot spot, with endemic species of fauna and flora, as well as a range of alluring ecosystems to explore – from montane rainforests to savannas, beaches, and deserts. Even staying along the Caribbean coast, I found the elevation gradient provided a wealth of possibilities - sandy beaches bordering bathtub-warm water; sticky tropical rainforests, and the cooler montane forests that seem perpetually on the cusp of being shrouded in clouds. While the country is a birder’s paradise (over 1900 speceies), the attraction for me was in the coffee and cacao farms scattered around.
I was won over by Minca, a town about 45 minutes drive outside of Santa Marta, which climbs into the mountains a couple thousand meters above sea level. We stayed for a night on a coffee farm, turned bed-and-breakfast/retreat, tucked into the hills. Then I trekked up the next day to La Candelaria coffee and cacao farm for a bit of a tour from bean to belly. The owner, Eugenio, inherited this 85-year-old farm from his father (and grandfather before that), which spans 10 hectares of coffee, cacao (2 ha), and fruit tree, plus pasture for mules (so about 10 sports fields...). At the moment, he is in the process of converting to organic certification, which follows three main principles:
  • To foster bird habitat on the farm, there are dozens of different types of fruit, including mangos, oranges, and ten types of bananas!
  • No chemical inputs are used, so compost replaces fertilizer, salt water stands in for the fungicide against black pod disease, and frequent harvesting saves cacao pods from pesky birds and squirrels.
  • And while he didn’t provide details, fair and safe labour practices are an element of certification. 
As a small farm, they don’t have the capacity to make and sell fully processed chocolate bars, so I escaped with bags of pure cacao (think unsweetened chocolate bar). You're not going to find this stuff in your local chocolate shop.

But you might find the coffee ... well, you might find Colombian coffee with beans from many farms. Eugenio admitted that most of his sales are to domestic restaurants/cafes and tourists. That's because coffee gets a bit political. The Federacion Nacional de Cafeteros de Colombia controls all coffee exported from the country, requiring permissions if farmers want to ship any of their product overseas. While this is not necessarily a bad thing, as it ensures a standard of quality for coffee and helps to avoid prices fluctuations, it also can make things difficult for a small farmer who has higher marginal costs for the amount of coffee he produces.

This has some implications for the "direct trade" coffee en vogue at the moment. The idea behind this concept is to cut out the middleman between coffee farmers and roasters, so that more of the value is captured by those growing the beans. For coffee connosieurs, it also means roasters have more control over the beans they are getting and the subtle distinctions causes by soil, climate, and farming practices. While it's not without problems, for many it can mean longer-term, more trusting relationships between suppliers and buyers. For now, I'll just be satisfied with my directly traded coffee and cacao in small quantity...

Sunday, July 9, 2017

Of Rice and Men

"Fast rather than slow, more rather than less -- this flashy 'development' is linked directly to society's impending collapse. It has only served to separate man from nature."

Japanese author and farmer, Masanobu Fukuoka, wrote these telling words in his 1979 treatise, The One Straw Revolution. For many of us striving to reconcile humanity's rather large footprint on the planet, this manifesto provided a glimmer of hope for both society and ecology. Yet, rereading this prescient prose, I am struck not only by the relevance of this warning nearly forty years later, but by how pressing is the need to shift our current paradigm.

While I could point my finger to numerous places on a map that have embraced this separation from nature, we need not venture beyond Fukuoka's homeland. On a recent trip to Japan, I was struck by a tension - simultaneously, a deep rooted appreciation and ceremony around food and the environment, and a tendency toward fast, flashy, and facile. Japan is admittedly a leader in thinking around sustainable development pathways. They have hosted momentous climate change summits, yielding the Kyoto protocol in 1997, and supported biodiversity conservation, facilitating the establishment of the Aichi Biodiversity Targets in 2010. But I'll focus on two aspects of food that that seem to plague many highly developed countries (with a distinctly Japanese flavour): the distancing of people from agriculture and 'the land', and the shifting nature of diet.

As in much of the world these days, the farming population in Japan has fallen precipitously in the last half century (under 2 million in 2016). Recently, the fallout from the nuclear reactor at Fukishima has forced farmers to confront the long lasting consequences from radioactive contamination of crop land, and give up farming as well. Yet, the Japanese government has put in place policies to protect farmers and domestic production, heavily subsidizing rice growers and taxing imports. Interestingly, these policies have resulted in much rice-producing land lying fallow (40% of rice paddy terraces, in fact), in turn providing marshy habitat for migratory birds. These relics are a demonstration of the fine balance farmers had to strike between nature and needs of people, landscapes referred to as Satoyama. Even with these shifts, the relationship between people and land cuts to deeper shifts in lifestyles and livelihoods.

During a walk through the arches and woodlands of the Fushimi Inari temple outside of Kyoto, I got to talking with a gentleman* taking his late afternoon stroll. The pervasive (if subtle) influence of the indigenous Shintoism instill a particular life and spiritual meaning to natural elements, and stress living in harmony with nature. My impromptu walking companion spoke of the fox, the guardian at the temple, who traditionally protected the rice crop and helped ensure it could sustain the local population. As in most parts of Asia, the predominant land use and occupation until recently was agriculture, specifically rice paddy. Yet as this has shifted, the association with the health of the land and wellbeing has faded, with guardians rather now attended to for business success and prosperity. 

Despite its majestic natural beauty and verdant hills, Japan is also known for its urbanisation - in 2015, nearly 94% of the population lived in cities. You can imagine why. Japan is not a big country...the island nation is a mere 378,000 square kilometres with 127 million people (that's like adding all the people in Poland to Germany). Further, the landscape itself seems to promote separation. Take Tokyo and Kobe, where 45% of Japan's population squeeze into 17% of the land area. Food has had to adapt to these conditions. While we are all familiar with sushi, miso soup, udon noodles, and the like, the ubiquity of packaged and convenience foods astounded me. Food is not cheap, and fresh produce costs dearly. This is not unique to Japanese cities, but perhaps the overwhelming number of people living in urban areas (and growing reliance on imports) probably is not helping to counteract the trend.

Going back to Fukuoka, his vision is worrisome in our modern world. We need to fight more against this tide of my last post I wrote about plastics. While there are some common goods that will require lobbying for government action, there are meaningful impacts that can result from our own decisions in the way we 'consume', being more conscious and deliberate about those 'development paths' we overtly or implicitly support.

* I lost the man on the way back to the main temple, so I never managed to thank him for the company and the insights. Hopefully, he knows how much I appreciated it. 

Monday, June 5, 2017

Sweating the Small Stuff

This wasn't exactly a glowing week leading up to World Environment Day yesterday. However, while mitigating climate changes we've put in motion requires more globally coordinated action and government intervention (... the atmosphere is the ultimate common pool resource, no?), there are heaps of other environmental travesties that emerge in large part due to our decisions as consumers. World Environment Day's theme this year is about reconnecting to "nature", which is a lovely message with very little depth. Although hitting up green spaces - parks, wilderness areas, etc. - often benefits both human health and encourages positive environmental values, this idea of needing to "reconnect" implies we live apart from nature. The ambitions of this year's World Environment Day seem a bit modest for the scale of the problem, making the proffered actions far less meaningful if not connected to the consequences of our actions during daily existence.

But it's not a huge leap to connect our daily doings with the health of the planet. In Australia - and the UK before that - a pretty nifty three part series about the War on Waste tried to expose the nature of our "Throw-Away Society" and the consequences for the environment. for Oz, the numbers are staggering, ranging from 20% of our groceries ending up in the bin to 6,000 kilograms of fast fashion in the rubbish every ten minutes to 113 take-away coffee cups discarded every four seconds (that's 2.4 million in a day)! But plastics seem to be making the headlines these days.

Australia uses nearly 4 billion plastic bags per year, the majority of which end up in landfill (or inevitably waterways). Some researchers calculated that worldwide approximately 8 million tonnes of plastic waste ends up in the oceans each year. Once some of the most pristine beaches in the world are now littered in plastic debris. While this is an eyesore, a visual reminder of our plastic addiction, there are more hidden and insidious impacts. Almost every seabird on the planet has eaten plastic - which may not always kill the bird, but can't be particularly good for it. But plastics also break down into smaller and smaller particles. These then accumulate along the food chain, similar to other toxins in our environment like mercury in tuna. We don't yet know how harmful all of this is, but we can make sure it doesn't get worse. 

This last week, UQ sustainability challenged staff and students to contain all single-use plastics in a small jar - mine was 350mL to be precise. The idea was to be more aware of our frequent and often thoughtless use of disposable plastics, and to consider steps to take to reduce. Sure, recycling is a good first step, but it's not a guiltless affair. Not every plastic is recyclable nor gets recycled, and even if it does, it takes energy to go from plastic bottle to new plastic something or other.

But the alternatives are hard, because they rely on people changing their daily actions and breaking habits ... and let's face it, even the well-meaning of us just can't be bothered if something seems like too much effort. Making your own shampoo may seem like an impossibility, but there are plenty of low-hanging fruit. Bring a cloth bag or a reusable mug, and don't succumb to the draws of straws or pre-bagged produce. It's just a matter of making simple behaviour changes part of your routine. Easy.

So on this World Environment Day, rather than just "reconnect with nature", try reconnecting with your personal impact on the planet and commit to doing something about it.

In case you're also interested in food waste, it's a favourite topic...
Jingle the Waste Away
Smashing Pumpkins
America the Wasteful