Category Archives: Developing world

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.

Developing Gardens

School Gardens in the Developing World

School garden, South Africa (Hodge flickr/Creative Commons)

While the focus of my research has been on school gardens in cities in the United States, there has also been a movement in the last few decades to establish gardens in developing countries. These international school gardens offer many of the same benefits as urban gardens do – they provide fresh fruits and vegetables to students, they teach kids and their parents about sustainable farming, and they can enhance academic education. This blog will spotlight several organizations doing exceptional work building school and community gardens in the developing world.

The UN Food and Agriculture Organization’s Special Programme for Food Security published the “School Gardens Concept Note” in 2004, which outlines the benefits of school gardens. The FAO also created a manual for teachers, parents, and communities, Setting up and running a school garden, which provides simple yet comprehensive instructions as to how to start a garden. Most recently, in 2010, the FAO published A New Deal for School Gardens, suggesting what governments and other organizations can do to promote school gardens, including curriculum ideas for the incorporation of garden learning into schools. These resources are incredibly helpful for volunteers and community members looking to start school gardens in developing regions. In addition to informational resources, FAO also provides grants to organizations, especially through the TeleFood initiative, which provides money for small-scale farmers.

Slash and Burn Farming, Belize (Resa, flickr/Creative Commons)

Plenty International is a non-profit organization created to support economic self-sufficiency and environmental responsibility in Central America, the U.S., the Caribbean, and Africa. In Belize, they have started GATE, Garden Based Agriculture for Toledo’s Environment. Toledo is the southern most region of Belize, and its economy relies heavily on agriculture. GATE “aims to create a replicable model of local sustainable livelihood and environmental benefit based on organic school gardens”. Most of the rural populations use slash and burn style agriculture (to produce crops such as corn, rice, and beans) which uses five more times the land space than traditional gardens. GATE creates model gardens that demonstrate the benefits of organic gardens and sustainable agriculture. The program also seeks to decrease malnutrition by providing access to local, nutrition foods, and by providing healthy lunches and snacks for students in the schools that they work at. Mrs. Joan Palma, principal of the San Felipe School said, “Since the start of the program we have seen great changes in the academic performances of children. We have also observed behavior changes in having a positive attitude about school. The level of absenteeism has decreased. This program really has had a positive impact on the lives of our children in this small community.”

Seeds for Africa operates in Kenya, Sierra Leone, Uganda, and Malawi. The organization provides seeds, plants, trees, and equipment to elementary schools and community groups to help them establish gardens. All of the seeds provided come from Africa, which keeps the plants native and provides business for local farmers. Students are integrated into the process of building and maintaining the gardens planted using these seeds, which helps them learn about environmental sustainability. Like Plenty International, the gardens provide schools with fresh fruits and vegetables for student lunches. Surplus food is given to the families or sold to raise money for the school.

Students planting trees in Kenay (www.seedsforafrica.org)

Students planting trees in Kenya (www.seedsforafrica.org)

Action Aid aims to end the cycle of poverty by making systematic changes to countries and communities in order to help end hunger and poverty. One such change is the creation of a school garden in Nsanje, Malawi. Due to climate change, floods and droughts are getting worse in Nsanje, causing crops to fail. Action Aid has set up gardens in four different elementary schools to provide nutritious meals for students. The gardens also have the benefit of protecting against flooding – over 400 fruit trees and 3,000 tree seedlings have been planted in the gardens. These trees will offer protection against future flooding by providing a barrier that will hopefully reduce damage to buildings. The garden project has also attracted better teachers to the schools and caused an increase in the number of girls attending school.

As the benefits of school gardens continue to be elucidated in urban schools, they also continue to become clear in the developing world. Gardens have the potential to impact many aspects of every day life, and it is my hope that these garden projects will continue to grow and thrive as they work to end the cycle of poverty.

Organizational Organization: Approaches to Addressing Conflict Minerals

While there are many organizations that take on environmental and human rights causes, it is important to understand their unique approaches and how they can translate into action in the field of conflict minerals.

There is a wide array of rights organizations that take on the topic of conflict minerals in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). However, each one has its own unique history and raison d’être. It is important to take a step back in order to truly understand the different approaches and structures of such organizations active in the field.

A previous blog post titled, “Campaigning for Conflict-Free Campuses” highlights the Conflict-Free Campus Initiative (CFCI) developed by the organization Enough Project. CFCI encourages college students “to build the consumer voice for conflict-free electronics, such as cell phones, laptops, and other devices that will not finance war in eastern Congo.” Though this approach appears to be quite effective, it is important to note that not every organization seeks to work with students. Others focus their efforts solely on government lobbying and ground research.

As defined in an e-mail by David Spett, Enough Project Administrative & Operations Manager, the organization was founded in 2007 “on the belief that policy ideas are only as good as policymakers’ willingness to adopt them,” thereby emphasizing the governmental lobbying component of Enough. Enough Project focuses on such American policy advancement—for it is a division of the Center for American Progress; however, it also focuses on mobilizing American citizens. Spett continued, “We aim to combine the policy expertise of a think tank with the public mobilization of an advocacy organization. Our work with college students is very much in line with these core goals, as young people are some of the smartest and most effective activists around.”

Enough Project consciously views college students as an extension of their efforts. By motivating students to act on campuses across the country, they are tapping into already established communities; the organization enables these students to project their voices to a large audience of peers on campus. Whether through social media outlets, campus newspapers, or school-based e-mail lists, hundreds of students can read about conflict minerals in a short period of time. Enough Project utilizes such resources, thereby rapidly expanding its networks.

"After a screening of the documentary, 'The Greatest Silence: Rape in the Congo,' Gayle Smith, Enough's Co-founder John Prendergast, actress Robin Wright Penn, and others, discuss the film's issues." Photo and Caption Courtesy of ENOUGH Project / Flickr Creative Commons

Enough Project addresses the Congolese conflict mineral campaign specifically through its Raise Hope for Congo campaign. This campaign seeks to “fundamentally change the equation for Congo by using The Enough Project’s robust field research, advocacy, and communications to bolster a broad grassroots movement that promotes lasting solutions. [Their] initiatives work to educate and empower individuals to be a part of these solutions to the conflict.” The latter component is an important one to note. While other organizations focus on ground research and advocacy as well, some specifically steer clear of the student empowerment approach.

Jewish World Watch (JWW) is an organization based in Los Angeles that has a very different founding than Enough Project. It was co-founded in 2004 by Rabbi Harold M. Schulweis and Janice Kamenir-Reznik as the “Jewish response to genocide in Darfur.” After the holocaust, many Jews wondered why more people had not stepped forward to try to end that genocide. With this history in mind, the evident question remains: how could the Jewish people now stand idly by while other genocides take place? In reaction to this question, Rabbi Schulweis and Kamenir-Reznick decided they must act, which sparked their decision to create JWW. The organization’s model was to rally synagogues to act as members of the organization. Each synagogue would help educate their communities and encourage their congregants to take action. Since its founding, JWW has expanded a great deal. It “has grown from a collection of Southern California synagogues into a global coalition that includes schools, churches, individuals, communities and partner organizations that share a vision of a world without genocide.”

JWW takes action by partnering with other organizations based locally in the specified region of conflict in order “to develop high-impact projects that improve the lives of survivors and help build the foundation for a safer world,” in addition to “[inspire]…communities to support tangible projects and advocate for political change.” JWW’s local partnerships allow it to specifically meet the needs of those individuals in the conflict area and ensure funding successfully reaches them. While JWW originally just focused on the atrocities in Darfur, Sudan, the organization has since expanded to also address the violence and injustice in the Democratic Republic of Congo surrounding conflict minerals.

Through six partnerships with projects in the Congo, JWW raises funds to address a wide variety issues that impact Congolese men and women as a result of rape and violence. These projects include vocational training for women who have been victims of sexual violence; maternal care and agricultural development for women involved in sustainable agriculture; and burn treatment for Congolese victims of war. JWW also addresses matters in the Congo through their education programs and international advocacy campaigns. JWW runs the Activist Certification and Training program for middle, high, and religious school students in the United States to help involve them in activism at a young age.

Though Enough Project and Jewish World Watch have very different organizational histories and projects, one distinct commonality is that student groups are viewed as holding the potential to bring about immense change. Though these organizations both have effective approaches, there remain several other ways of structuring human rights and environmental organizations. For example, Human Rights Watch (HRW) and Global Witness (GW) have developed very different models.

Human Rights Watch’s “rigorous, objective investigations and strategic, targeted advocacy build intense pressure for action and raise the cost of human rights abuse.” Through on-the-ground, original research, HRW exposes violations of human rights abuses all around the world. The organization uses this research to create in-depth reports that describe the events, responses, and reactions of these violations and abuses. Such reports are used as evidence with which to publicly expose the perpetrators through targeted media efforts. Through this work, HRW seeks to “tenaciously…lay the legal and moral groundwork for deep-rooted change and has fought to bring greater justice and security to people around the world.”

"Jasmine Herlt, Director, Human Rights Watch Canada speaks prior to the screening of 'Last Train Home', this year's opening night film." Caption Courtesy of humanrightsfilmfestival / Flickr Creative Commons and Photo Courtesy of Jacquie Labatt, Jacquie Labatt Photography / Flickr Creative Commons

Rather than rally individuals or students, HRW focuses on systematic governmental change through exposure of violations, as well as on holding perpetrators responsible through international pressure and the challenging of governments. Because of HRW’s local researchers and country experts, the information they have published regarding the Congo is precise and up-to-date.

Global Witness (GW), a British organization that focuses on environmental exploitation, is another rights organization that has a similar model to that of HRW; however, one of GW’s main focuses is on the exploitation of natural resources, as it relates to corruption, conflict, accountability, and the environment—whereas HRW focuses on human rights abuses whether or not they are caused by such utilization of such resources. GW’s “[i]nternational campaigns operate at the nexus of development, the environment and trade. [They] are motivated by a desire to tackle the underlying causes of conflict and poverty and to end the impunity of individuals, companies and governments that exploit natural resources for their own benefit at the expense of their people and the environment.” Therefore, the topic of conflict minerals fits well into their mission, for such minerals are fueling violence and acute injustices; GW’s documentation of the matter fits well within its described area of involvement.

In terms of GW’s strategy, it appears to focus more on interaction with decision makers than with public pressure campaigns, for their unique selling proposition does not center on rallying up large groups of students. Thus, it is evident that organizations like GW and HRW differ from Jewish World Watch and Enough Project, which utilize students as main agents for advocacy work and to gaining support for a cause. That said, each of these four organizations does incorporate legislative lobbying into its work. Each values the need to communicate with government officials and policy makers—whether within the conflict country or abroad—in order to accomplish their missions and bring about change. Though they all take on the task of trying to diminish violence in Congo as a result of mineral exploitation, they each delve into and address the conflict in a unique way. This serves to diversify efforts and the way in which they address the many different components of the issue. In such a complex matter, it is important to see global, multifaceted endeavors working to address the negative outcome of mineral exploitation.

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.

Publicizing Complexity: Methods of Communicating a Multifaceted Conflict

A cause as complex as conflict minerals in the Congo requires many types of action, from both activists and governments, in order to create stability and peace. Institutions and individuals alike are being faced with the challenge of how to best communicate such a multifaceted matter.

In an era in which there are seemingly unlimited resources available on the Internet, it is easy to become overwhelmed by such an influx of stimuli. It is easy to feel that no matter how much you read there is always more information available. Therefore, it is important for those individuals who publish articles, photos, or videos on the web to present a clear and concise message that is all the while comprehensive and detailed.

This need for balance is one that environmental and human rights activists face everyday. How can one article, one video, or one photo both capture a reader’s attention as well as keep him or her engaged?

This question is one worth exploring, for the effectiveness of an advertising or marketing campaign can determine whether that cause gains advocates or creates critics instead. The Los Angeles-based human rights organization Jewish World Watch has a unique approach that is effectively parceled into three different areas: education, advocacy, and refugee relief. Their Activism Certification and Training (ACT) program for high school students helps develop activism on high school campuses by focusing on these areas one at a time. By doing so, students understand the importance of each distinct area, as well as the important chronology of these three components; you cannot advocate for a cause without being educated on the matter first, and you cannot raise funds for refugees—or for any others in need—without first advocating for why someone ought to support the cause.

This three-pronged approach, however, can get lost when trying to communicate with the general public outside of a formal program like the ACT program. Thus we return to the above question: how can one article, one video, or one photo both capture a reader’s attention and keep him or her engaged?

Richard Downie, Deputy Director and Fellow of the Africa Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington D.C. proposed in an interview that the best approach is to “do your best to come out with [a] clear, concise balance…having maximum impact while also protecting the truth of what is actually happening and making sure you are not misleading people.” CSIS a non-profit organization that “provides strategic insights and bipartisan policy solutions to decision makers in government, international institutions, the private sector, and civil society.”

A "mashup" of images an individual made "after reading about the Conflict Minerals used by Nokia, Apple, Intel and many others. Which feeds the current conflict in the Congo and makes use of gang rape as a weapon in this conflict." Photo and Caption Courtesy of Daniel Crompton / Flickr Creative Commons

While Downie’s approach appears to be ideal, unfortunately it is often not utilized. For example, one tactic that counters this evenhanded and comprehensive approach is to use extremes to catch attentions. The photo to the right, for example, was created by an individual on Flickr—“almost certainly the best online photo management and sharing application in the world.” This creation combines a violent image of a rape surrounded by the Nokia logo and slogan, thereby seeking to directly connect Nokia’s purchase of conflict minerals to the rapes occurring in the Congo. The use of such a violent image produces a strong and direct message: Nokia products cause rape. As discussed in previous blog posts, such a message is certainly an exaggeration of the truth. Downie commented on polarizing advertising that uses this message saying, “Making a direct link between making phone calls on your mobile phone and impacting the conflict is a gross oversimplification.”

Because the image above portrays such a one-sided point of view, if that is the first exposure a viewer has to the topic of conflict minerals in the DRC, that individual will likely form an immediate opinion. This is unfortunate because it is misleading and does not convey the full picture. This photo does not address the fact that Nokia has taken a certain degree of initiative, as early as 2001, to try and prevent their funds from landing in the hands of ruthless militiamen in eastern Congo. It is often true that people or organizations have particular agendas they are trying accomplish. It ought to be recognized, however, that in the case of human rights campaigns, it is much more effective to keep each party involved—even the industry or entities that need improvement—so that each one can work effectively together to find a solution.

The Enough Project takes a less dramatic approach in its media. Even though the organization has also taken the approach of victimizing electronics companies, Enough Project also proposes tangible methods to try and remedy this situation. One way in which it does so is through the video below called, “I’m a Mac … and I’ve Got a Dirty Secret”—which imitates the style of the Mac commercials that sought to prove their computers were more user friendly and entertainment-focused than PCs. The video not only points out what it believes is the harmful actions committed by electronics companies that purchase minerals from conflict mines, it also asks consumers to take action by demanding electronics companies clean up their mineral supply chains.

Joel Pruce, Lecturer in International Human Rights at the Josef Korbel School of International Studies at University of Denver, commented in an interview on this type of approach used in the above Enough Project video. He explains that “the strategy is to [leverage] power of average citizens when it comes to buying power…” of electronics.  He acknowledges the effectiveness of such advertising; it first captures the viewer’s attention first because of the human rights abuses it describes and then because it provides tangible action steps for consumers to take.

A New York Times audio slideshow called “A Scramble for Tin in Congo,” seen here, contains images captured by Johan Spanner and narration by Lydia Polgreen. Its approach is to be very thorough in communicating what is involved locally in Congo in the conflict minerals trade; rather than incorporate an advocacy message, it focuses on educating by providing raw facts. It documents the full process of first reaching the mines from main roads, then extracting the minerals, and finally exporting them. It does not provide the viewer or electronics consumer with concrete actions to take as a result of this provided information. However, it seeks to honestly portray the situation on the ground in the Congo. While—like in any form of communication—there could certainly be some distortion of truth, the photo evidence provided seems to bring the audio slideshow greater legitimacy.

One step beyond this video in the direction of full disclosure of the conflict is an investigative report by CBS’s 60 Minutes, seen here. It provides historical analysis, documents activism of organizations such as Human Rights Watch and Enough Project, contains firsthand interview evidence, and even goes so far as to expose the Congolese government’s involvement in actually fueling the violence. While this video serves as an educational tool and does not suggest a specific course of action for the consumer, it does convey that the above two organizations are acting and involved in the cause. Therefore, if inspired to take action after watching this report, viewers and consumers could certainly become involved with one of these two organizations.

Even as seen in the few media examples provided above, there is a wide range of methods for exposing environmental and human exploitation. Advertising and communication tactics can be polarizing, can call people to action, or can be purely educational. While in depth, historical documentation is preferred for the sake of accuracy, advocacy groups and media outlets still face the challenge of how to capture attentions quickly—since there is not often the opportunity to produce a thirteen-minutes video to fully explain a conflict, as does the 60 Minutes video—without doing so in an entirely shocking or polarizing manner. How can one article, one video, or one photo both capture a reader’s attention as well as keep him or her engaged? Unfortunately, the fact of the matter is that one source might not—and so often does not—portray an entirely evenhanded and comprehensive view of the conflict minerals conflict. It is important for each person to carry out his or her own due diligence; read or view multiple sources in order to determine the truth of the matter, as well as what tangible actions can truly make a positive impact on the cause at hand.

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.

Deciphering Congo’s Government Intentions

The Congolese government acknowledges the violence in the eastern region of the country. However, its response does not necessarily promise long-term commitment.

Groupe l’Avenir, a newspaper based in the capital of the DRC, Kinshasa, published an article on October 25, 2011 called “Présentation du Mémorandum économique pays : L’importance de la gouvernance dans la gestion des ressources naturelles de la Rd Congo,” written by JMNK. This title translates to, “Presentation of the country’s economic Memorandum: The importance of governance in managing natural resources in the DRC.”

The title of the article alone reveals that the Congolese government is cognizant of its wealth of natural resources, as well as the need to actively control its exploitation of such resources. Eustache Ouayoro, Director of Operations of the World Bank and World Bank Country Director of the DRC states in the article, as translated from French,  “The mining sector occupies the news, and increased governance in the sector will help fill top newspapers.” He then goes on to say that the World Bank is planning to support the Congolese Ministry of Tourism, Environment, and Nature Conservation with its website, as well as with the publication of all signed contracts in this sector.

A statement such as this one from Ouayoro portrays Congolese efforts as addressing the protection of natural resources as a public relations matter—rather than as an environmental or human rights concern. In the following paragraph of the article, a Congolese citizen expresses the desire for more meaningful and direct action from within Congo saying, as translated from French, “From the artisanal mining exploitation… alternative activities need to be sought, even if…it is difficult for mining companies like Gécamines…” While some government officials seem to be occupied with public relations perceptions, Congolese citizens remain concerned with the status quo and are demanding change they hope the government can help bring to fruition.

"Congolese government agency for the control of minerals" Photo and Caption Courtesy of Sasha Lezhnev / Enough Project / Flickr Creative Commons

Christopher Bayer, PhD student at Tulane University, cautioned in an interview that consumers must remember: in the midst of this environmental exploitation of minerals, “lives are at stake.” This is not a topic to be taken lightly, but rather, consumers must intently observe the actions of the Congolese government and the extent to which they take action in this matter. Bayer emphasizes that the direction of this issue “depends so much on the Congolese government.” They are a key player in determining the outcome of the conflict mineral humanitarian crisis and have the potential to diminish this violent conflict.

Another article regarding the Congolese government’s involvement in the topic of conflict minerals was published on October 20, 2011 by Global Witness, a United Kingdom-based organization whose “international campaigns operate at the nexus of development, the environment and trade.”  The article is called “Congo government requires domestic minerals sector to source responsibly” and reports that the Congolese government has recently decided “to compel mining and mineral trading companies operating in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) to carry out checks on their supply chains, in line with international standards, to ensure their trade is not financing the warring parties in the east of the country.” Contrary to Ouayoro’s statement in the Groupe l’Avenir article, this statement conveys that the Congolese government is indeed taking initiative to at least monitor the humanitarian implications of the mining sector.

The article contains a footnote to a document published by the Congolese Ministry of Mines on September 6, 2011 that references this governmental initiative. The document is a governmental directive that speaks, as translated from French, about the necessary “Due Diligence to promote responsible supply chains in the Congolese mining sector…”

"Arriving at the ministry of mining" Photo and Caption Courtesy of FairPhone / Flickr Creative Commons

Thus, there appears to be conflicting information regarding Congolese governmental action and its desire to quell the conflict in the Kivu Region—the eastern region of the DRC where the conflict mines are concentrated. Janice Kamenir-Reznik, co-founder and President of Jewish World Watch, a Los Angeles based organization that seeks “to combat genocide and other egregious violations of human rights around the world,” stated in an e-mail that an explanation for this inconsistency “is that in the last few months the incumbent government has pandered to the Kivus for votes, inasmuch as the national elections are happening within the next couple of weeks.” Kamenir-Reznik, who just returned from the Congo in September, continued, “So, if it appears that there has been progress, I suspect it is elusive, temporary and insincere.  It was recently confirmed that still 1100 women a day are raped in Eastern Congo. So, I do not really see that there has been any meaningful, significant governmental intervention of late.”

It is important for the consumer to be aware of Congolese governmental actions, as well as the reality of its motives and whether or not a long-term outcome is possible. As consumers gather more information regarding the conflict minerals trade, it is crucial to understand what is actually taking place on the ground in the DRC versus what selective information is reaching the American public. Thus, it is important to evaluate many different sources, including primary newspaper sources and international organization reports, as well as accounts from experts that have actually visited the Congo and witnessed its injustices firsthand.

Building a Better Future

As the 7 billionth person was born this week (or so we think), our planet continues moving closer to the point where it will no longer be able to sustain us. We are running out of room and resources. Pollution is causing global warming and freak snow storms. One way to address these issues is to change our interaction with our environment quite literally, through biomimetic architecture.

Mick Pearce

Pearce was born in Harare, Zimbabwe. In 2003 he was awarded the Prince Claus Award for his work in creating sustainable and low-energy buildings. One of his most famous buildings is Eastgate Centre, a shopping center in Zimbabwe that utilizes a cooling system inspired by a termite mound.

A Termite Mound; CCizauskas/Flickr Creative Commons

Termites in Zimbabwe farm their own food. The fungus that they grow can only survive at a temperature between 86.0 and 89.6° F, but the temperatures in Zimbabwe can fluctuate between 37.4 °F and 107.6 °F degrees every day. Over time, termites have developed a remarkable passive cooling system that maintains the temperature right around 87 °F with very few fluctuations. The termites build a system of heating and cooling vents to funnel air through the mound effectively allowing air currents to act as air conditioning.

Eastgate Centre, Harare Zimbabwe; GBembridge/Flickr Creative Commons

Pearce, inspired by this system, decided to apply it to the complex he was designing in order to save costs. During the heat of the day, the material of the building itself absorbs the heat from the sun, machines, and people allowing the temperature inside to only increase minutely. As the day cools, the warm air rises and is vented out through the top of the building (this movement is assisted by fans though it does happen naturally). At night, the cool breezes are “caught” at the base of the building (through spaces in the floor) until the building has reached the ideal temperature to begin the next day. Thus, the building mimics the termite mound’s natural air conditioning.

Because of Mick Pearce’s innovations, the Eastgate Centre uses 10% less energy than a comparable building and the owners have saved over $3.5 million just because an air conditioning plant did not have to be imported. This allows them to rent space to tenants for 20 percent less than in a neighboring building that is newer.

Michael Pawlyn and Magnus Larsson

There are too many biomimetic architects to mention them all, but both Michael Pawlyn and Magnus Larsson have fascinating TED talks that express how important it is for architects to look at the world around them for inspiration.

Pawlyn was one of the architects that designed the Eden Project in Cornwall, UK. These domes, which are in effect large greenhouses whose elaborate structures are inspired by nature, have completely transformed horticultural architecture. He has strong beliefs that if architects look at how in nature processes are efficient with their resources, utilize closed loops, and gain energy from the sun a better, more sustainable world can be built.

Larsson works with sand. Desertification is a major problem in today’s society, but Larsson is trying to look at this problem as an opportunity. He is working on using a bacteria, bacillus pasteurii, to turn sand into a solid building material. Not only would this provide more support to plants, but it could also potentially allow for living spaces to be carved into sand dunes. This would be in stark contrast to life in the desert today where people are often evacuated due to sand dune movement. This project is also cost efficient. As Larsson notes in his TED talk “for a cubic meter of concrete we would have to pay in the region of 90 dollars. And, after an initial cost of 60 bucks to buy the bacteria, which you’ll never have to pay again, one cubic meter of bacterial sand would be about 11 dollars.” (7:37-7:53) Larsson is embracing sand as a new building material and using bacteria as an inspiration for a better future.

Remember Context

Pearce, Pawlyn and Larsson are all architects who bring nature into their work on a grand scale, but architecture is an art form that is always taking into account its surroundings. Todd Rouhe, cofounder of common room and a professor of architecture at Barnard College, points out that in architecture, “context…is one of the most important things…Environment is everything, whether or not it’s even environmental. And I think that one thing that architects can do to acknowledge the environment…is to pay attention to that context and respond to it…That response can heighten the…sense of the environment.” Just as architects must keep in mind context, both natural and urban, when designing projects, so too must people remember our world and our surroundings as we build and grow.

Ultimately, regardless of scale, biomimetic architecture is a crucial way to continue working towards a sustainable future where nature is more than just an inspiration, but also a lifestyle.

Finding a Middle Ground: the UN and Dodd-Frank

The UN Group of Experts on the DRC proposes a middle ground approach to both address the side effects of the Dodd-Frank Act and to allow its enforcement. Consumers can still take action, even as large and systematic change is necessary.

Though the Dodd-Frank Act has already been passed, the debate regarding its impact on the Congo continues. Thus, it is necessary to revisit the differing views to determine the appropriate path forward. Two weeks ago I delved into these varying perspectives, but I would like to return to them with a specific letter in mind dated October 21, 2011. It is written by Fred Robarts, Coordinator of the United Nations Group of Experts on the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) addressed to Chairwoman of the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC), Mary L. Schapiro.

Mary Schapiro, Chairwoman of the SEC, Photo Courtesy of Sarah Mamula / Flickr Creative Commons

The letter predates an upcoming report from the Group of Experts that will be translated into the official United Nations (UN) languages, discussed by the Security Council, and then released by the end of November. The UN contacts listed on the letter declined to comment on it before the report was published. The timing of the letter—purposely preceding the full report—is of particular importance given the fact that the SEC will soon finalize regulations coming from Section 1502 of the Dodd-Frank Act. The Group of Experts seeks to influence these regulations; they want to ensure the SEC has as positive an impact on the Congo as possible.

The group’s conclusions come from a year’s worth of observations and investigations regarding “the activities of armed groups in the DRC and their sources of funding. The group has also evaluated the impact of due diligence guidelines for individuals and entities purchasing, processing and consuming minerals from the DRC…” Such due diligence guidelines refer to the investigation of a company’s involvement in a particular area of human rights concern.

The content of the letter represents a union of various views. It includes ideas aligning with both those who support the Dodd-Frank Act—demanding businesses stop purchasing minerals from conflict mines—and those who claim a diversification of approaches, especially politically, is necessary. The letter fully acknowledges the “important challenges regarding Dodd Frank” and the perspectives of those who oppose the act. Such “challenges” include the de facto boycott of Congolese minerals that the act has caused. Such an outcome occurred because smelters and electronics companies have, for now, stopped purchasing minerals from Congo—where the conflict mines are concentrated—since formal mine evaluation systems do yet not exist. Companies are compelled to end business with these conflict mines because Dodd-Frank demands they no longer conduct business with these mines. Thus, they have decided to pull out of the Congo altogether until these systems are in place and they know for certain where their minerals come from. As a result of this boycott, the letter speaks of the “increased economic hardship” faced in the Congo as a result of the Dodd-Frank legislation and the sudden lack of funds flowing into the conflict mines.

With this acknowledgment of Congolese adversity, however, the letter goes on to state that terminating or abating Section 1502 it is not the correct path. It advises the SEC to adopt the approach of mitigation, as well as to continue enforcing 1502. Rather than abandon conflict mines altogether, the smelters would reduce the degree to which they buy from such mines, and in the mean time, legitimate mine tagging and tracing processes would be established. The Group of Experts believes this mitigation tactic will reduce the impact of the de facto embargo. The letter sites the success of supply chain tagging already taking place in Katanga, Congo and Rwanda as evidence for possible success of tagging in the Kivu Region—the eastern region of the DRC where conflict mines are concentrated.

"Human Right Council - Special Session on DR Congo Sébastien Mutomb Mujing Representative Permanent of Democratic Republic of Congo ( Concerned country ) addresses during the Special Session on the "Situation of human rights in the east of the Democratic Republic of Congo." Photo and Caption Courtesy of UN / Jean-Marc Ferre / Flickr Creative Commons

This approach seeks to find a middle ground. However, it ought not be viewed as a cop-out. Such a strategy tries to establish a delicate balance between maintaining economic stability in the Kivu Region, while also trying to terminate human rights abuses by militiamen.

Even with such an approach, the Dodd-Frank Act still faces extensive blame for causing economic ruin for Congolese in the Kivu Region. David Aronson, whose New York Times article I discussed two weeks ago, as well as Joseph Paul Martin, Director of Human Rights Studies at Barnard College of Columbia University, constitute part of a group of scholars and journalists who have presented such blame. Martin stated in an e-mail, “The [Dodd-Frank Act] will have little impact on the current mineral and human exploitation in the DRC, a system which was established 140 years ago and has been reinforced and expanded over the years since.” Laura E. Seay, assistant professor of political science at Morehouse College, also looks down upon the effects of the Dodd-Frank Act: “In the mines, you can actually pay for things with coltan, so the economy is not entirely a cash economy, but that is all shut down now.”

Contrary to such points of view, the letter from the UN Group of Experts on the DRC goes on to applaud the Dodd-Frank Act for the awareness campaign it has started and that it has forced electronics companies to take responsibility for their impact on human lives. Before the Dodd-Frank Act, there was no legal obligation for companies to respond to the outcome of their Congolese mineral purchases.

The letter concludes by addressing the political changes that, along with these international business efforts, would lessen the occurrence of human rights abuses. It states, “We must keep up the pressure on the DRC authorities to prosecute and punish [the Armed Forces of the Democratic Republic of Congo] criminal networks involved in the minerals trade.”

The letter acknowledges the complexity of the conflict and that the solution will not be a simple process. Thus, it suggests a multipart approach to address the issue: both political and economic efforts must be simultaneously present to end violations of human rights—that occurred as a result of environmental exploitation—while also maintaining economic livelihoods.

This multi-solution system is directly relevant to consumer involvement. In addition to pressuring electronics companies to establish mine evaluation systems and to decrease purchases from conflict mines, consumers must also encourage U.S. legislative leaders to support Congolese government involvement.