Category Archives: Conservation

Law: the Central Solution or Insignificant Facet?

For centuries, our ancestors have used plants for various purposes: for food, raw material, and for medicinal purposes. However, in our modern times we have deleted our plant resources due to our excessive over harvesting. Currently, more than 60 million plants are harvested without being replaced. This unsustainable harvesting by pharmaceutical companies and local communities are the cause of endangerment and even extinction for many medicinal plants. This then affects the local communities as they lose a source of income.  Unfortunately, the plot thickens—local peoples resort to biopiracy or the poaching or medicinal plants from both public and private lands. This simply provides as more fuel to the disastrous cycle of overharvesting herbs.

Many solutions have been suggested, such as cultivation and wild crafting, to solve this problem. Also, there are cultural influences, such as religion, that fuel local people to protect their lands. Though all of the above are necessary tools to stopping herb overexploitation, they all have deep flaws to contribute to the current problem. This is why it is important to look to the law when these options fail. Laws protect the plants and repel malevolent and selfish individuals from taking advantage of medicinal plants.

International Laws Protecting Medicinal Plants

Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) drawn up in early 1973 is one of the very few laws protecting medicinal plants globally. CITES is a treaty that regulates the international trading of threatened or endangered species. It protects endangered species by establishing specific trading laws that safeguard and sustain that particular species. All imported and exported species must be authorized through a ‘licensing system’. Each country has authorities that oversee this process. This in turn, makes it much harder for poachers to transport and sell their stolen herbs.  However, there are many flaws. CITES does not specifically have a committee or group that enforces this law, making it almost useless as it is not practiced actively. To make things worse, conflicts of interest may arise when deciding if a certain species is endangered or not. This is seen with Peru, Brazil and Bolivia, as they refuse to list the Brazilian mahogany. These three countries now hold 90% of the last mahogany trees in the world. It is obvious that this proves advantageous for them in their timber industries, and will boost their economic output—but it will be at the expense of biodiversity.

Great Smoky Mountains National Park

Great Smoky Mountains National Park

Laws in the United States

The United States are very conscious of their harvesting, due to the frequent advocating by many organizations. The United Plant Savers is a non- profit group that help to raise awareness of endangered plants and herbs and distribute seeds to gardeners and companies. Currently, the US mostly cultivates its medicinal plants, decreasing the illegal trade. This is reflected clearly as the United States does not have as many endangered species compared to other countries, such as India and China. Yet, problems still do arise with biopiracy, mostly in National Parks. In the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, commercial poachers arrive annually and steal hundreds of different plants. Commercial poachers take a special liking to the American Ginseng, a severely endangered and popular herb, as many detained poachers with over 1,000 roots in their possession. However, with a lack of total rangers, it is hard to fully enforce laws, leading to many poachers getting away with such a large amount of poaching.

The Endangered Species Act (ESA) is a law that protects ecosystems and endangered and threatened species. ESA is an excellent law that protects endangered species and their ecosystems well, but this act has a fault: it gives states to option to accept or veto the ‘plant’ part of the bill. Unfortunately, many states vetoed the ‘plant’ section of the bill, and currently have no law to protect the plants.  Even worse, each state has different endangered species lists, meaning that one species may be endangered in one state and not endangered another, leading to confusion and possible manipulation by greedy commercial poachers.

The Next Step

As shown above, the environmental laws internationally and in America have as many defects as the other solutions suggested above. Conflicts of interests i.e. Timber industry vs. conservation, could lead to a controversial debate over saving biodiversity or adding more jobs to the economy. It is also important to remember that the individuals who do enforce the law are not botanists, and therefore may not be able to confidently remember and identify each endangered plant. This also contributes to frequent poaching and the endangerment of herbs. Many lawmakers do not find this to be an issue of importance in other developing countries, such as India. Yet above all, with a lack of law enforcers for both the CITES and the ESA, the law itself only an official document, never to be implemented and practiced by the people, and therefore does not serve a purpose. “Mitigating these challenges [of the overexploitation of herbs] and consolidating the gains so far requires the formulation and implementation of comprehensive national policies for conservation of medicinal plants”, stated WHO Regional Director, Dr Luis Gomes Sambo. Without implementation, laws serve no purpose.

It is important that we pressure our lawmakers and force their attention on to this significant problem. With their support, we can increase our number of local law enforcers and have a notably better hold on enforcing the law and protecting endangered plants. Get involved by sending a letter to your local councilman. Awareness is necessary, but it is also important to take action. Please spread the word and help protect the endangered plants in your area.

The Origins of Composting

Composting is far more than a branch of the new green movement – it’s a system as ancient as life itself.

So much of what we do now we consider to be new, revolutionary even – granted, Mozart couldn’t listen to rival composers on an iPod and Newton was born centuries before the first computer came to life, but what about the green movement that’s taken hold of everything from shampoo to politics?  The majority of the contested elements involved in the movement – energy, habitat destruction, materialization – have only existed on a large scale since the Industrial Revolution began in the mid-eighteenth century.  Much of what the green movement is advocating is not new at all, but rather a return to a not-so-distant past.  Composting, in fact, has been around for longer than humans have been on Earth, the practice of decomposing organics that is now gaining ground having first started on an Earth billions of years away from needing its own movement.

Moss, a bryophyte. Bryophytes are thought to be some of the first plants to colonize land. Photo courtesy of Raphaëlle Scalvenzi/Fotopedia Creative Commons

Imagine this: Earth’s crust has finally solidified and its volcanoes are spewing water vapor, which falls as rain after condensing in the atmosphere and creates the oceans.  Approximately 3,500 million years ago, the first organisms came to life in those oceans, the cycle of life and death that today allows what we know as composting to function beginning.  The first land plants appeared 445 million years ago, while humans have only been around for 200,000 years.  Throughout time, organisms have died, been decomposed, and supplemented the growth of new life, their nutrients being continually recycled.

Humans got involved in the process late but composted long before the present day.  In fact, the first account of composting dates back to the Akkadian Dynasty, which took place in a fertile area of modern-day Iraq between 2320 BC and 2120 BC.  The Greeks, Egyptians, and Romans were all versed in composting, and Cleopatra is said to have declared worms sacred after seeing them engaged in the practice.  Marcus Cato, a Roman Statesman, was responsible for the first written composting instructions and may have been the first to practice vermicomposting, which uses worms to break down organic materials.  Even Shakespeare’s Hamlet mentioned composting, advising his mother “Confess yourself to heaven, Repent what’s past, avoid what is to come, And do not spread the compost on the weeds To make them ranker” (Hamlet, Act 3, Scene 4).

Justus von Liebig, whose research led to widespread chemical fertilization. Photo courtesy of telehistoriska/Flickr Creative Commons

In 1840, chemical fertilization began to take off when the German scientist Justus von Liebig determined that plants draw nourishment from chemicals in solution.  It wasn’t until Sir Albert Howard – known as the father of modern compost making – published An Agricultural Testament a century later that organic farming found new appreciation. Howard believed that “the wheel of life is made up of two processes, growth and decay, and one is the counterpart of the other.”  He developed what is known as the Indore method of composting after spending 1905 to 1934 working in India with local farmers.  His method combines three parts organic matter with one part manure in layers, which are regularly moistened and turned until ready to be applied to gardens and fields.  J.I. Rodale imported Howard’s method to the United States, where he distributed it in his magazine Organic Gardening. Since then, vermicomposting – originally commercialized in order to provide sports fishermen with bait worms – has also become a commonly used method for breaking down organic waste for use in growing.

Composting as a human process is becoming more and more common in the present day as we fight to find ways to protect the planet and support our own habits and needs.  However, before we charge ahead into the future, embracing organics recycling as just another fresh wave in the tide of green overtaking the globe, we would do well to look back on its history and remember that we are not instating a fancy, man-made program to save the Earth – we are restoring one that functioned perfectly without our help.

Religion as a Cultural Influence on the Use of Medicinal Plants

As seen in many of my blog posts, there are many different options that may be utilized to preserve and sustain the native flora and fauna of our biosphere. Sustainability is still a primary resolution to the problem of over harvesting herbs, as our exploitation of the herbs directly affects their population total- our restraint in harvesting can preserve their population numbers, while over exploiting will lead to decreasing numbers. Therefore, wild crafting, the practice of harvesting medicinal herbs in an ecologically-friendly way, is a necessary tool to maintain biological diversity of medicinal plants, and should be coupled with other options. Another alternative is the cultivation of medicinal plants. This is a safe option, especially for large pharmaceutical companies who use a large amount of specific herbs in the production of its products. The ecological and economic rewards for both of these potential solutions makes them advantageous, serving as a catalyst, making the above idealist solutions become implemented actions the modern society and indigenous communities. However, there are also cultural agents that motivate people to sustain and conserve—religion.

Plants are used in many religions- from Hinduism to Islam. The frequencies in which these plants are used are diverse, as they can be occasionally used only for parts of rituals to being frequently used in daily prayer. Many find these plants to be holy and integral to the service of their gods. This pushes individuals to conserve those specific plants through cultivation and wild crafting, while some even go as far as to keep certain lands completely untouched by humans in praise of their deities. However, religion may also impact pant populations in a negative way, by overexploiting herbs for rituals and other religious purposes.

Religion as a Culprit

Commiphora wightii, Guggul Tree

Commiphora wightii, Guggul Tree

The Commiphora, also known as the Guggul tree/plant is important for modern medicine, alternative medicine and Islam. It is a slow-growing tree found in Gujarat and Rajasthan. Its resin, liquid in the outer cells of the tree that is only released when tree is damaged, is a key ingredient in the Ayurvedic medicine, a sector of alternative medicine in India, as it is a treatment for bone fractures, arthritis, inflammation and obesity. It is used in modern medicine for its ability to decrease heart problems. It is also popularly used for its resin, which is a gum-like substance when it hardens. In Hinduism, it is burnt as incense, also known as dhoop, on holy occasions. It is believed to drive away evil spirits and keep and evil away from home and their family members.

C.wightii’s religious importance has led to overexploitation, and is now considered endangered by the IUCN Red List and the Species Survival Commission (SSN). Despite its importance, it is still endangered due to its slow growth rate, poor seeding, and low germination. But not all medicinal plant follows the similar path of demise of the Guggul tree. Some take an opposite path- where religion leads to its survival.

Religion as a Protector

Ocimum tenuiflorum, Indian Basil

Ocimum tenuiflorum

The Ocimum tenuiflorum, also known as Tulsi plant or Indian Basil, is a very important plant for both medicinal and religious uses. Its leaves are used to promote longevity, as it relieves stress. It is used for minor aches, such as colds, inflammations, and headaches as well as serious illnesses, like malaria, and heart disease. The Tulsi plant is a very important part of Hinduism, as one prays before a Tulsi plant twice a day – in the morning and in the evening. Many Hindus believe that the Tulsi is so holy that it should not be commonly harvested. Many cultivate the Tulsi plant in their backyards or in a room, commonly surrounded by pictures of many different gods. According to Pankaj Goya, author of various agricultural articles in India, “Each house must always have a Tulsi plant…due to its great medicinal value our ancestors revered it as a most sacred plant and in this way tried conserving it.”  Here, religion protects and converses a medicinal plant, as the Vaishnavite tradition of the Hindu religion requires the worship of the gods. It is not only sustained in its wild habitat, but also rarely harvested at their homes.

Keeping the Land Sacred

The Sacred Groves is one of the most extreme examples of religious conservation. Sacred Groves are natural vegetation that is dedicated to deities or ‘three spirits’, in return for the gods’ humble support and guidance. People believe that touching the land will offend the deities and bring calamity and natural disasters. Therefore, various tribes, such as the Garo and Khasi tribes of northeastern India, prohibit anyone from entering into the sacred groves. This has led to the biodiversity and preservation of the plants and animals that reside there.

However the Sacred Groves are now in danger. Many local communities have changed as the younger generations do not follow the same belief system as their elders and ancestors. Goyal also states, “The family structure is also changing from joint to nuclear…thus creating a gap between generations.” This gap may have also lead to the change in traditions, as ones elders were not there to share it. Currently, there is a movement, emphasizing ‘temple worship’ over ‘nature worship’, taking away from the importance of the sacred groves.

As shown, religion has served as the connector between ideas and implementation, and also insignificance and importance pertaining to the sustainability of medicinal plants. However, it has been shown that this cultural connector, though a powerful tool, has failed in the past and mat be currently failing now. It is also shown with the ecological and economical influences in changing techniques used to harvest plants. So the question is what’s the next step? Who do we look to enforce, impose, and remind us of the importance of these plants and its connection to life and general? These are two questions that will be discussed in my next post.

Nature: Our Best Medicine

As news of cancer vaccines reaches the press, a future without diseases such as cancer, Alzheimer’s, AIDS, or any of the other terrifying diseases we face seems a little bit closer. But as researchers work to ensure the healthiness of the human race, it is easy to forget that nature has already spent 3.8 billion years working to ensure the survival of the world and has already found the solutions to so many of our problems.

Monkey Business

Chimpanzee, Willem Van der Kerkhof/Flickr Creative Commons

25% of modern day drugs are derived from plants and researchers are always looking for a way to sort through the thousands of plant species looking for the ones that could help modern day medicine. Fortunately we are not the only ones who look to plants for medicinal help—we have some help from chimpanzees. When sick, chimpanzees go to various plants effectively self-medicating themselves. As researchers study chimpanzees they hope to find more plants that can be used to treat diseases in humans.

Sharks: The Next Line of Defense

Although treatment of disease is important, so is prevention. Sharklet Technologies have discovered a fascinating property of shark skins. Shark skin has already lead to the development of cars that are more aerodynamic and better swimsuits, but its newest contribution is to medicine.

Aliwal Shoal Tiger Shark 33, FLeander/Flickr

The surface of shark skin is made up of microscopic diamonds that has been found to prevent bacteria colonies from forming. As the chairman of the board of directors of Sharklet, Joe Bagan says, “We think they come across this surface and make an energy-based decision that this is not the right place to form a colony.” In other words, the microscopic pattern on shark skin stops germs from sticking and spreading.

As it is that time of year to get flu shots, the spread of germs is on everyone’s mind. Tactivex has taken the Sharklet pattern and applied it to a film that can be put on basically anywhere. When put on a doorknob, for example, this means that the germs on every person’s hand that touches that doorknob can no longer aggregate—effectively stopping the spread of germs through touch transference.

The spread of germs is particularly scary in hospitals where infections can be deadly. As the Sharklet Technology website reports, every year millions of patients obtain urinary catheters and after a week 1 in 4 of those patients will get an infection associated with their catheter.

Staphylococcus aureau, Microbe World/Flickr Creative Commons

Sharklet technology is now currently working on developing a urinary catheter that utilizes the shark skin pattern which can hopefully dramatically reduce the number of catheter-associated infections.

The fact that Sharklet technology naturally inhibits bacteria’s survival and prevents its transfer is particularly useful as we are encountering more and more drug-resistant bacteria. Chemical drugs kill the weakest bacteria, allowing the strongest to survive, resulting in drug-resistance. Sharklet’s natural approach can prevent the emergence of strains of bacteria that we cannot treat while still preventing the spread of germs.

Protecting our Inspiration

This is merely one of many examples of how nature has helped the medicinal world. Just by looking at nature science has found a superglue for bones derived from worms, scotch tape from bugs that could help surgeons everywhere, and much more. It is important to remember that as ecosystems are destroyed and animals and plants become extinct it is not just sad for that species, it hurts us. The world around us can hold the secrets to new technologies and medicine that it spent billions of years developing. As we disregard our environment, we ignore and destroy the inspiration that can save us from one of our greatest threats: disease. Protecting the environment ultimately protects us.

Pointing Out the Nonpoint Source: The Impact of Runoff on Coral Reefs

Non-Pointsource Pollution flowing into Florida Waters. Photo Courtesy of NOAA/Flickr.

An estimated 80% of marine pollution comes from land-based sources. Dirt, oil, nutrients, and chemicals enter the oceans as runoff; polluted liquid that flows from land to sea.  The sources of runoff are numerous, and its impacts on coral reefs, especially those in costal areas, are profound.

In elementary school, one of my teachers presented the class with a model of our costal city.  She handed a few students bottles of different colored water, and asked them to ‘water their lawns,’ ‘wash their cars,’ and ‘make it rain’ on the city.  They proceeded to drench the model.  Then she told us to watch where the water went.  It rolled down into a small pool of clear water at the bottom of the model.  We watched the pool turn to a brownish-grey hue.

Nonpoint Source Pollution. Photo Courtesy of EPA/

The point of the model was to show us how pollutants, in the form of runoff, flow from land to sea.  We couldn’t really see the ocean turn greyish-brown in real-life, so the model let us visualize where a lot of the pollution was coming from, and what it was doing to the sea water. As kids who grew up on the shore, the lesson hit home.  Most of us weren’t strangers to summer time beach closures due to high levels of pollution.

Watershed Model. Photo Courtesy of AISBWETWMS/Picasa.

Runoff poses a significant threat to coral reefs.  Pollutants such as oil, fertilizers, inorganic materials, sewage, sediments, and heavy metals are washed into oceans daily. As a nonpoint source pollutant, runoff is hard to control, precisely because it enters the water in many places and because the pollutants originate from so many different sources.  Both urban and rural environments contribute to the runoff problem.

Agricultural runoff poses a serious threat to coral reefs.  Over-irrigation and rainstorms cause nutrients such as nitrogen and phosphorus from fertilizers to flow into the sea. Ordinary levels of nitrogen and phosphorous are essential for life on reefs, but increased levels of nutrients result in algal blooms.  Algae thrive off of these nutrients, and grow at alarming rates on reefs when the water becomes over-saturated with nutrients.  Eventually the algae take over, and the coral cannot compete for resources, so they die.

As the EPA points out, “When nutrient levels increase, the delicate balance that exists between corals and algae is destroyed and the algae can overgrow the corals. When this situation is prolonged, the corals are smothered and die beneath the algal carpet. This, in turn, affects the fish and other aquatic organisms using the area, leading to a decrease in animal and plant diversity and affecting use of the water for fishing and swimming.”

Algal Bloom. Photo Courtesy of chesbayprogram/Flickr.

Katharina E. Fabricius of The Australian Institute of Marine Science has noted the impacts of nitrogen and phosphorous-rich terrestrial run-off on reefs in her paper,“Effects of terrestrial runoff on the ecology of corals and coral reefs: review and synthesis”.  She writes that “considerable effort has gone into experiments studying the direct effects of elevated dissolved inorganic nitrogen (DIN, as nitrate or ammonium) and phosphate (DIP) on coral calcification, tissue growth and zooxanthellae.”  She goes on to conclude that “chronically increased levels of dissolved inorganic nutrients may alter reef metabolism and reef calcification sufficiently to cause noticeable changes in coral communities.”

Australia’s  Great Barrier Reef is at risk due to agricultural runoff.  According to a report by students at the University of Michigan, “80% of the land adjacent to the Great Barrier Reef is farmland that supports agricultural production, intensive cropping of sugar cane, and major beef cattle grazing (GBR, 2007). These types of agriculture and cattle production pose large threats to the Great Barrier Reef close by.”  Nutrients from these farm areas reach the reef, and cause damage.

Excess nutrients also reach the sea when human or animal waste is discharged as untreated wastewater into the sea or when sewer systems overflow before treatment.  According to UNEP “around 60% of the wastewater discharged into the Caspian Sea is untreated, in Latin America and the Caribbean the figure is close to 80%, and in large parts of Africa and the Indo-Pacific the proportion is as high as 80-90%.” As the EPA describes, aside from adding excess nutrients to the water, this untreated sewage can bring bacteria and other pathogens to reefs that can cause coral disease and death.

Sewage outfall. Photo Courtesy of eutrophication&hypoxia/Flickr.

Other toxic materials also impact coral reefs. Heavy metals, chemicals, and oils runoff into the ocean from urban areas and poison corals.  The upset the chemical balance of water that is necessary for coral to live. Most of the oil in the world’s oceans does not come from large-scale oil spills, but rather from smaller sources such as runoff.  The World Wildlife Fund states that only around 12% of the oil that enters the sea each year comes from oil spills. The US National Resources Council estimates that 36% of oil that enters the sea comes “as waste and runoff from cities and industry.”

Cyanobaterial Bloom on a Coral Reef. Photo Courtesy of eutrophication&hypoxia/Flickr

The question that begs to be asked is what can be done to prevent damage to coral reefs by runoff?  For one, the US government has enacted the “The Coastal Nonpoint Source Pollution Control Program.” The program was passed by Congress in order to achieve “coordination between state coastal zone managers and water quality experts to reduce polluted runoff in the coastal zone.”

The program, which focuses on runoff-pollution prevention and is jointly administered by NOAA and the EPA, “establishes a set of management measures for states to use in controlling polluted runoff. The measures are designed to control runoff from six main sources: forestry, agriculture, urban areas, marinas, hydromodification (shoreline and stream channel modification), and wetlands and vegetated shorelines, or riparian areas. These measures are backed by enforceable state policies and actions—state authorities that will ensure implementation of the program.”  Thus the goal of the program is to give governments the tools and the power to regulate and prevent runoff.  Though these laws are significant achievements, the challenge to lessen runoff is still steep, and threats to coral reefs as a result of runoff are ever-present.

Sustainability or Livelihood? Tensions in the Uttarakhand Community

India is widely known for its large amount of medicinal plants. Approximately 7,500 species can be found there. Ayurveda, India’s oldest medical system, reported 2,000 native medicinal plant species, Sidha reported 1121, and Unani reported 751 species. All three of these medical systems rely almost entirely on medicinal plants to cure its patients.

Many pharmaceutical companies also rely heavily of India’s array of herbs. More than 95% of 400 plant species harvested from wild populations in are used in preparing medicine. Generally, one-fourth of each medicine is plant based. Some examples of plant based drugs are contraceptives, steroids and muscle relaxants for anesthesia and abdominal surgery, defenders against malaria, heart failure and cancer.

Yet, taking away 95% of the wild plant species leaves the community with barely any resources to support itself sustainably and if the pharmaceutical companies do not over exploit the native herb, it fosters tension between villagers in paying one who sells the herb it needs. Both problems are seen the Uttarakhand, a northern state in India, where the over harvesting of Taxus baccata, and Hemidesmus indicus led to economic turmoil and the need of timur by pharmaceutical companies fueled tension between the Bhotiya and the Garhwals.

Uttarakhand, India

Uttarakhand, India

The presence of pharmaceutical companies has negative consequences on the communities who reside in the area that it harvests in, leaving them in ecological, and sometimes social, ruin.  Commercial harvesting and activity is the primary factor in over exploitation of their native herbs.

Commercial activity of medicinal plants influences competition between Uttarakhand’s two ethnic groups: the Bhotiya and the Garhwal in the usage of timur, a shrub used to cure toothaches, common colds, cough, and fevers, as a flavoring agent or spice. The Bhotiyas used timur fruit, while the Garhwals collected and traded timur sticks to pilgrims visiting the shrines of Badrinath, Kedarnath, Gangotri, and Yamunotri. As they harvest different parts of timur, they were not in competition with each other, and were environmentally sustainable as it did not pressure on the wild. Yet when pharmaceutical companies started to purchase timur fruit from that region, tension emerged among the villagers, who competed fiercely to sell the timur fruit to the companies. If not controlled adequately, this could eventually lead to endangerment of the timur fruit in Uttarakhand.

Many families rely entirely on their environment for food and medicine. Villagers also use medicinal plants as a source of food. The Bhotiya tribal community uses timur fruit as a seasoning or spice. There are traditional dishes made from the fruit of timur such a ‘hag’ a soup made from the dried fruit, and ‘dunkcha’, a type of sauce or topping. They used timur in alcohol, as walking sticks, and for religious purposes. They also used timur to cure children’s toothaches by pressing it over its tooth. Timur was a big part of the people’s lives, as their source of revenue as well as food relied on it.

Timur, Xanthoxylum piperitum

Timur, Xanthoxylum piperitum

With many of the materials becoming commercially popular, more and more of the medicinal plant is harvested, eventually leading to endangerment.  This leaves communities with fewer options. Taxus baccata, or the Himalayan yew, is a tree used to treat breast and ovarian cancer, commonly used in the Himalyans.  Hemidesmus indicus is used in treatment of skin diseases, wounds, psoriasis, syphilis, in inflammations, heptopathy, neuropathy, cough, asthma and fever. It is used to cure 39 different types of diseases.

Both plants species from Uttarakhand, where the Bhotiya tribal community resides, are currently endangered. Both were commonly sold by the villagers. According to local collectors and traders of medicinal plants from North Kashmir Himalaya, the demand and supply is not in equilibrium for some medicinal plants, leaving villagers with the choice of being sustainable, or instead, providing for their families. “Today’s consumption is undermining the environmental resource base. It is exacerbating inequalities. And the dynamics of the consumption-poverty-inequality-environment nexus are accelerating”, the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) stated. And this will only become worse if we do not educate villagers like Bhotiya and the Garhwal on the negative affects their actions have on the environment and sustainable yet economically friendly ways to thrive.

There have been advances in this cause. The workshop “Endangered Medicinal Plant Species in Himachal Pradesh” was held at G.B. Pant Institute of Himalayan Environment &Development, Mohal-Kullu, H.P., India in March of 2002, where NGOs, managers, funders, farmers, scientists, and policy makers came together to address these issues and to reach a “common agreement and to execute in collaboration with identified partners”. The Convention of Biological Diversity has also made some steps forward with the “Adapted Global Strategy for Plant Conservation” in April 2002, which provides a “policy environment” that addresses conservation challenges.

Bugs: More than Splatter on a Windshield

The world around us is extraordinarily complex and every organism plays a critical role in nature’s balance. For example, although bugs may seem small and insignificant, through biomimicry their contributions can help our society in a multitude of ways—from inspiring bug-robots to making shots at the doctor’s office less painful. One particularly important biomimetic advancement that bugs have contributed to is water harvesting. As many countries struggle with locating drinkable sources of water (and many groups try to help them), finding new and innovative ways to collect water has become a priority.

Inspiration from an Insect

The Namib Desert, HKervasdoue/Fotopedia Creative Commons

A desert is defined as a region that receives less than 50 cm of rain every year. The Namib desert is one of the driest deserts on Earth as it receives less than 2 cm of rain-water a year. The source of water, and therefore life, in this region is fog; consequently, organisms in the Namib desert have adapted accordingly.

One bug, the Namibian beetle  (Stenocara gracilipes), has developed a practical method to stay hydrated in these harsh conditions. The only equipment necessary is the beetle’s shell.

Namib Desert Beetle, Stenocara gracilipes, JBihn/Flickr Creative Commons

The shell is cool and covered with bumps. When fog rolls in, the beetle climbs to the top of the sand dunes and leans into the fog so that moisture from the fog condenses on the top of each bump on its shell. These bumps are completely smooth, like glass, and are hydrophilic–they attract water. Because of the hydrophilic nature of the bumps, the wind cannot blow the water away. When the droplet becomes large enough, it slides off the bump into the hydrophobic (water repelling) and waxy crevasses in the shell. In this way, water is funneled to the Namibian beetle’s mouth.

The Beetle’s Contribution

QinetiQ is a research company that has created sheets of film that mimic the Stenocara gracilipes’ shell and effectively harvests water from fog. These sheets, either made of glass balls in wax or a specific pattern printed on plastic, have been found to be an efficient alternative to harvesting fog with a net like FogQuest. When using a net, droplets can fairly easily fall through the net. By utilizing solid sheets, fog harvesting becomes much more effective.

The applications for this technology are endless. When these sheets were tested on cooling systems in an attempt to recollect water that is usually lost as vapor, tests showed that the film could recover up to 10% of the water that is generally lost from cooling systems. Since it uses no energy, the film can help lower energy costs. Moreover, this film can be placed on buildings and tents to harvest water from fog and water vapor, providing water for those in need. The collected water can be used for farming or even for drinking in environments where rain is scarce. This technology benefits everyone from hikers in the desert to people in refugee camps.

As Janine Benyus, biomimicry expert, so beautifully suggests, “…let the entrancement of the last 350 years of western science, where somehow we convinced ourselves that we’re the only one with the answers, let that fall away. And go outside and realize that we’re surrounded by genius.”

Or, in other words, remember to stop and appreciate the insects.

Inspired Activism

For this week’s post, I am going to stray a bit from the structure of my first  few blog-posts. This change was inspired by a conversation that I had with another student who uses poetry and painting to express her passion for the environment.

Pen and Paper. Photo Courtesy of LucastheExperience/Flickr.

She recently learned about the impact of climate change on coral reefs, and decided to take pen to hand, and write about her feelings on the subject.  Merav is a student and new-found coral reef enthusiast who is eager to put her artistic talent to work, in order to make others aware of the threats to survival that coral reefs face.

In light of this, this post will discuss the different ways in which young people channel their passion for coral reefs in order to make others aware of the threats that reefs face.  The methods that they use are sometimes conventional, but often unconventional.  All are equally important, and all have the ability to bring coral reefs to the attention of a broader audience. From Merav and other inspiring individuals, I have learned that environmental activism comes in many forms: the written, the spoken, the painted, and the danced, just to name a few.

Hyperbolic Crocheted Coral Reef. Photo Courtesy of stitchlily/Flickr. The hyperbolic crocheted coral reef project began as an initiative of two sisters to raise awareness about coral reefs. It uses math, science, and art to create crocheted reefs. It is one of the largest community-based art projects in the world (

The crocheted reef above is an example of an art-based project that raises awareness about coral reefs.  It is my belief, and my hope, that projects like this will enable the artists to engage the public in discourse about the threats that coral reefs face, and will inspire others to action.

Environmental activism also comes in more conventional forms; forms that are based in scientific education. I spoke with Jessica Pretty, a student of oceanography at Old Dominion University, a SCUBA diver, and an activist for coral reef preservation.  She has been an avid SCUBA diver for many years, and this has contributed to her love of coral reefs.  She sees education as a central component to environmental activism.  For this reason, she decided to get a degree in Oceanography.  She explained the link between her education and her desire to protect coral reefs.

Jessica said, “Coral reefs were some of the first things I got to explore whilst scuba diving. I was inspired to follow the dream of [studying] Marine Science/Oceanography when I realized how our oceans and the life they contain are taken for granted by the human race…the oceans have always given us plenty, but now they are in danger of being decimated by the greed of humanity and I would like to change that.”

By educating herself in a formal environment, Jessica will gain the scientific tools that she needs to work to save the marine environments that she loves.  Her education in Oceanography has given her a broader knowledge of the threats that coral reefs face, as well as a better understanding of why coral reefs are so important.  This in turn, has caused her to advocate for their protection.

Coral Reef. Photo Courtesy of USFWS Pacific/Flickr.

Dylan Vicchione, founder of the organization ReefQuest, proves that ability to act on behalf of coral reefs (or any environmental cause) is not limited by one’s age.  At the age of 12 he founded an NGO, ReefQuest.  He has been honored by the President for his efforts, and has created educational materials that thousands of other students have used to learn to protect coral reefs. Dylan is a prime example of a young person who is taking initiative to save coral reefs.  Young people like him have the power to change the world and to inspire other young people to do the same.  The video below tells his inspiring story!


ReefQuest Promo from IDEAS Quest on Vimeo.


The Eastern-Modernization of Western China

This week’s post will elaborate on the history behind the modernization plans spearheaded by the Beijing government throughout the western provinces of China for the past three decades, which then directly leads to the widespread environmental and social justice problems Tibetan traditional society is facing.

Today, the global media ubiquitously discusses about the miraculous rapid growth of the Chinese economy under the leadership of Deng Xiaoping inside the last three decades. This growth is actually centered mostly in the Southern coastal cities like Shanghai, Guangzhou, and Shenzhen. If you take a look at the earnings across the different Chinese provinces per capita in the website linked in the end of the post, you will notice that while the Southern provinces with its heavily manufacturing based economy, prosper as the richest ones in China showing drastic signs of alleviation, the provinces in the Western parts of China, Xinjiang, and Tibet, have not made any significant economic improvements in the past three decades.

(source: PRC government) In the photo above, the green indicates the areas covered by the Han Chinese, the Eastern Provinces, who make up 95% of the population in China. The yellow and pink colors indicate the areas occupied by ethnic minorities, the Western provinces of China.

According to Beijing government’s population distribution statistics, Western provinces of China make up 75% of the ethnic minority population, mainly consisting of Uighurs, Mongols, and Tibetans; these areas also include 85% of the grasslands of China.

(source: PRC government)

In order to have the Western provinces ‘catch up’ to the Eastern provinces, in 2006 led by then-Premier Zhu Rongii, launched the Beijing government launched a campaign called Xibu da kaifa, ‘Open up the West’. This was a huge initiative taken up by the government to get the Western frontiers populated by ethnic minorities of China, Xinjiang and Tibet, to catch up to the rapid modernization that was taking place especially in the rest of China. The rest of the post will be mainly focusing on the modernization taking place in Tibet.

The Beijing government’s initiative mainly involved heavy investments in the development of infrastructures such as hydropower plants and transportation. In the name of modernization, traditional cities have been razed and replaced with “modern” ones. Also, while the official State rhetoric mentions the increase of employment opportunities for Tibetans, these jobs are service sector ones directly linked to building modern infrastructures and that do not have much mobility and and are sustainable.

The most controversial of these infrastructures is the railroad built from China to Lhasa, Tibet, because it severely harmed the natural ecosystem by directly running through breeding grounds and the migration patterns of animals such as the endangered Tibetan antelope.

(Source: winner of the 2007 PRC government's photo competition) Note: this photo gained National popularity in China because it showed that the natural grassland ecosystem of Tibet and modern technology can coexist peacefully; However, the photo turned out to be a hoax and the natural ecosystem of the Tibetan grasslands is seriously threatened by these modern human interventions.

In addition to heavy investments, the government also provided many economic incentives such as advertising for job abundance so that Hans from the rural parts of China would migrate to the Tibet. Dr. David S G Goodman, Chinese History professor at the University of Sydney, interpreted this mass migration of Hans into western China as similar to “internal colonization”, in terms of subjugating the locals and having the dominant power favor its own people.

(source: This photo was taken in Lhasa, which is the cultural capital of Tibet. As a viewer can notice in this photo, all the shops of Chinese characters instead of having the traditional Tibetan letters. This shows the huge influence of the dominant Han culture over that of the local Tibetans.

In 2003, Beijing released a statistic, revealing that Tibet’s GDP was 28% higher than it was in 1978. While the government’s initial formal intention for the modernization of the West was to “reduce the socio-economic inequalities and to ensure the socio-political stability in these non-Han areas,” in reality according to an article by BBC, the Han Chinese migrants dominating the economy are the ones who reap major benefits from these growths.

2001, New York Times article quoted then President Jiang Zemin stating “Some people advised me not to go ahead with this project because it is not commercially viable. I said this is a political decision, we will make this project succeed at all costs, even if there is a commercial loss”.

The quote from former President Jiang is significant because it reveals that even though on the surface level the intention of heavily modernizing Tibet may have been for socio-economic advancement, in reality, it was for the political incorporation of Tibetans and other ethnic minorities into the dominant mainstream Han society. This then sets the pathway for the Tibetans to abandon their traditional lifestyles in the grasslands. Dr. Emily Yeh, Professor of Geography at the University of Colorado in Boulder, further elaborates on this point by positing that the future grassland management law of Tuimu Huancao, literally translated as “retiring the grazing to the grasslands,” is supposedly the sustainable development component of the “Open up the West” policy in Beijing’s rhetoric. Tuimu Huancao policy will be further explored in my next week’s blog post and it will elaborate on how it is the main source of grassland degradation and its social affects on the traditional Tibetan nomadic lifestyle.

(NOTE: All the statistics the author mentions in this article will be available in detail on the official People’s Republic of China government’s National Bureau of Statistics of China’s webpage)

Reefs Reduced to Rubble

What can a glass bottle, some kerosene, and a little fertilizer destroy? For one thing, a coral reef.  Blast fishing is a destructive fishing method that is practiced in many parts of the world.  In Southeast Asia, it has been responsible for the destruction of many coral reefs, and as a result, has negatively impacted vital parts of certain economies.

A Reef Destroyed by Dynamite Fishing. Photo Courtesy of Flickr

Blast fishing is a technique whereby fishermen use dynamite, cyanide bombs, or homemade explosives to stun or kill fish for collection. Fisherman blast coral reefs because large numbers of fish congregate around them.  The blasts are indiscriminately destructive. They stun the fish desired by the fisherman, kill other species, and physically turn the reefs into piles of rubble. Though blast fishing has been outlawed in many places, it continues to be practiced.

The long-term impacts of blast fishing are both environmentally and economically devastating. Indonesian waters boast some of the most beautiful and bio-diverse coral reefs on the planet.  According to the Reefbase Reefs at Risk database, Indonesia has the largest diversity of reef fish in the world, and it’s coral reefs help support a marine fisheries industry that, in 1997, resulted in 3.6 million tons of marine fish production.

The World Resources Institute estimates that blast fishing results in a net economic loss of $570 million annually in Indonesia, and as much as $1.2 Billion in the Philippines. Economic loss comes mainly from the depletion of marine fisheries.  The destruction of coral reefs contributes to the depletion of marine fisheries. With the destruction of reefs, comes the destruction of the ecosystem that supports fish populations.  When coral reefs are destroyed, the number and diversity of fish that the ecosystem can support decreases.  Healthy coral reefs provide food, shelter, and breeding grounds for fish, but when the physical structure of a reef is demolished, it cannot perform these functions.  Thus, blast-fishermen devastate the very ecosystems that sustain the fish populations that they rely on to sustain their livelihoods.

Blast fishing also harms the reef-based tourism economy.  If reefs are reduced to rubble SCUBA divers no longer have reason to visit, and even a small blast here and there can scare tourists away from SCUBA diving in an area.


The World Resources Institute argues that healthy coral reefs can contribute about $1.6 billion U.S dollars per year to the Indonesian economy. As reefs are  destroyed by blast fishing, this economic potential decreases.

Fortunately, there is some hope for reefs that have been blasted.  The long-term ecological impact of blast fishing on coral reefs is a question of major concern.  In the short term, blast fishing is clearly destructive, but in some cases there is evidence of recovery. In their article, “Recovery From Blast Fishing On Coral Reefs: A Tale of Two Scales”, Fox and Caldwell show that certain reefs areas that suffered acute blasts recovered from damages.  However, those that were extensively blasted did not recover. They write,

“Rubble resulting from single blasts slowly stabilized, and craters filled in with surrounding coral and new colonies. After five years, coral cover within craters no longer differed significantly from control plots. In contrast, extensively bombed areas showed no significant recovery over the six years of this study, despite adequate supply of coral larvae. After extensive blasting, the resulting coral rubble shifts in ocean currents, forming unstable ‘‘killing fields’’ for new recruits.”

Thus when areas are extensively blasted, an inhospitable habitat for new coral growth results, and reefs, even are unlikely to recover.

Ultimately, governments and citizens need to act in order to save coral reefs from blast fishing.  Unfortunately, the regulation of blast fishing, even in places where it has been outlawed, has proven difficult.  According to a paper published by the Conservation and Community Investment Forum, attention has been drawn to the problems that blast fishing causes, but Indonesian authorities are often unresponsive because regulation is expensive, and because political will to fight against blast fishing is lacking.

Thankfully, a lack to will to stop blast fishing is not universal. The video below is an uplifting story about collaboration between the NGO Seacology and members of an Indonesian community, to restore a reef destroyed by blast fishing.