Tag Archives: environmentalism

Three recipes with locally sourced ingredients and single origin spices.

Mindfully Spiced Foods for a Sustainable Planet

Dig-In Meals – A column highlighting Indian spices in recipes that take traditional Indian food and add a western twist!

Every time I think about changing up my diet and incorporating more clean foods, I tend to put it off. All I can think of are buddha bowls and raw salads. Do I really have to suffer through several meals of incorporating raw kale into my meals to enjoy a delicious, eco-friendly diet?

Earth Day prompted me to rethink my approach to clean, healthy eating and cooking.

I figured it didn’t have to be all or nothing to reduce my ecological footprint and to start being more environmentally conscious in the kitchen. I began with seasonal organic and locally sourced ingredients -earth-friendly cooking doesn’t mean endless amounts of tofu or raw veggies. Instead, I hit up my local farmers’ market for some seasonal bounty. Wasting less food and cooking a tasty meal was paramount.

Spices are such an integral part of our Indian meals, that I wanted to find single-origin spices that are equitably sourced from countries with the best growing conditions, climate, and expertise to make sure that even the smallest pinch packs the biggest punch.

My friends who are chefs highly recommend Burlap and Barrel. I spoke to Ethan Frisch, cofounder of Burlap and Barrel, who used to be a chef and is working towards ending inequality and exploitation in food systems that disenfranchise skilled farmers.

“Mainstream conversations around food sustainability rarely consider the people involved in growing, harvesting, transporting, processing, and cooking food. Sustainability is discussed in terms of environmental impact, or the comfort of livestock providing meat, dairy, or eggs. We believe that the standard measures of sustainability must evolve to consider the conditions in which the farmers who drive global food supply chains earn their livelihoods. Single-origin ingredients draw attention to the unique environments in which incredible ingredients grow and to the farmers with the expertise and commitment to grow them well.” 

With all the pieces in place let’s cook with sustainable recipes that benefit the earth, are delicious and beneficial to both our health and the environment.

Lettuce Wraps with Peanut Sauce (Image by Author)
Lettuce Wraps with Peanut Sauce (Image by Author)

Lettuce Wraps with Peanut Sauce

INGREDIENTS

  • 14 oz firm tofu or Veggie Smart ground (plant-based “beef” ground with 11 grams of protein)
  • 2 Tablespoons oil 
  • ½ cup chopped onions
  • 8 oz can sliced water chestnuts – about 1 cup, chopped
  • ½ cup, chopped bamboo shoots (optional) 
  • 3 cloves minced garlic 
  • ½ teaspoon of powdered ginger (I have used Burlap and Barrel’s Buffalo Ginger)
  • 1 head Boston lettuce or butterhead lettuce
  • ¼ cup cilantro leaves for garnish

Peanut Butter Sauce

Mix together organic peanut butter (I used crunchy), honey, vinegar, olive oil, sriracha sauce, soy sauce, pepper, minced garlic, and salt.

PREPARATION

  • Heat a nonstick pan and add oil. Crumble the tofu or the Veggie Smart ground into the pan. Sauté the tofu/smart ground over high heat until the mixture starts to turn a light golden brown color. About 6/10 minutes.
  • Lower to medium-high heat. Add the onions, water chestnuts, bamboo shoots, and ginger/garlic. Sauté until the onions start to soften.
  • Season with salt & pepper.
  • Garnish with cilantro leaves
  • Layer two leaves of lettuce on top of each other and spoon the tofu filling in the center. Top with peanut sauce.

Couscous Salad

Couscous Salad (Image by Author)
Couscous Salad (Image by Author)

INGREDIENTS

  • 1 cup chicken or vegetable broth
  • 1 cup uncooked couscous
  • 1 medium cucumber, halved and sliced
  • ½ cup frozen or fresh sweet corn 
  • 1½ cups cherry tomatoes, halved
  • ½ cup crumbled feta cheese
  • ¼ cup chopped red onion
  • 3 tablespoons minced fresh cilantro or parsley
  • 3 tablespoons olive oil
  • 2 tablespoons honey
  • A pinch of ground black lime (a yummy savory, tart flavor: I have used Burlap and Barrel’s black lime)
  • ½ teaspoon salt
  • ½ teaspoon black pepper

PREPARATION

  • In a small saucepan, bring broth to a boil. Stir in couscous. Remove from heat; cover and let stand for 5-10 minutes or until water is absorbed. Fluff with a fork and set aside to cool slightly.
  • In a large bowl, combine the cucumber, tomatoes, cheese, onion, corn, and parsley/cilantro.
  • In a small bowl, whisk the oil, honey, black lime, salt, and pepper. Pour over couscous mixture; toss to coat. Serve immediately or cover and refrigerate until chilled.

Pistachio Cardamom Snowflake Cookies

Pistachio Cardamom Cookies (Image by Author)
Pistachio Cardamom Cookies (Image by Author)

INGREDIENTS

  • 1 stick soft butter
  • ¼ cup sifted confectioners’ sugar
  • ½ teaspoon cardamom (I have used Burlap and Barrel’s Clod Forest Cardamom)
  • 1 1/8 cups sifted flour
  • ¼  teaspoon salt
  • ½ cup finely chopped pistachio nuts

PREPARATION

  • In a stand mixer, mix together the softened butter, sifted confectioners’ sugar and cardamom till it’s a light and fluffy light golden color.
  • Mix in the flour and salt. Then add in the pistachios. At this point, you can mix with a spoon.
  • Once the nuts are thoroughly incorporated roll the dough into a log, wrap in plastic wrap and chill. The dough can remain in the fridge for a 1/2 hour or even overnight.
  • Preheat oven to 400 degrees F.
  • To bake, roll into 1″ balls. Place about 2 inches apart on an ungreased baking sheet (I lined it with parchment paper). Bake until set but not brown, for exactly 8 mins (depending on your oven, but no more than 10 mins).
  • While still warm, roll in confectioners’ sugar. Cool. Roll in sugar again if you want a nice even coating of sugar. I didn’t do that to cut down on the sugar.

Mona Shah is a multi-platform storyteller with expertise in digital communications, social media strategy, and content curation for Twitter and LinkedIn for C-suite executives. A journalist and editor, her experience spans television, cable news, and magazines. An avid traveler and foodie, she loves artisan food and finding hidden gems: restaurants, recipes, destinations. She can be reached at: mona@indiacurrents.com


 

Melting Glacier (Image by Melissa Bradley at Unsplash)

Climate Change and…the Loss of Sukham?

Sukham Blog – A monthly column focused on South Asian health and wellbeing.

When I see or hear the words Climate Change, I conjure up mental images of global warming, rising temperatures, melting ice caps, rising ocean levels, increasing CO2 and methane emissions, more frequent extreme weather events such as flooding, drought, and wildfires, and our planet Earth rapidly becoming less habitable for present and future generations.  My mind does not turn immediately to the ongoing impact on human health, and the decreased quality of life that brings for people, something that is also happening today. Climate change is a big driver of poorer health and circumstance, resulting in hardship and loss of contentment – loss of Sukham for millions of our fellow human beings. Climate change and Sukham are intertwined.

We – the general public – need to be acutely aware of all the ways climate change can affect our health. We need to learn how we as individuals, as communities and as nations can respond.  Climate change as a current and future public-health crisis is not getting the attention it desperately needs. 

We often hear about the effects of air pollution on our respiratory system and eyes, and the need to take precautions, especially for those with asthma and other respiratory ailments. Plants produce pollen for longer periods in warmer conditions. Grass pollen and plant growth increase with increased carbon dioxide concentrations, causing longer and more intense allergy seasons. For some individuals, including this author, the allergy season now stretches from early spring into late fall.  In her 2019 Scientific American article, Emily Holden describes the associated worsening of respiratory illnesses and heart and lung disease. There are several other health impacts that we will discuss. However, climate change is not just making people sicker. Dr. Renee Salas, an Emergency Medical Physician at Massachusetts General Hospital and Harvard Medical School leads a working group of over 70 U.S. organizations, institutions, and centers working at the nexus of climate change and health. “The climate crisis is impacting not only health for our patients but the way we deliver care and our ability to do our jobs. And that’s happening today,” she says. For example, changing heat patterns affect the way in which prescription medicines work. Climate events impact the availability of critical medical supplies in hospitals. Disruption of electric power supply to homes, hospitals, and clinics puts the lives of patients at risk.  Evidence is mounting for decreased survival of cancer patients due to treatment disruption caused by extreme weather events.  These are just some of the ways the health care we receive is being impacted.

Climate Change CDC infographic
Climate Change Infographic (Image by the CDC)

The accompanying infographic from the National Center for Environmental Health at the US Centers for Disease Control (CDC) provides an easy-to-understand overview of these health impacts of climate change.   Coupled with other natural and human-made health stressors, it influences human health and the spread of disease in a number of ways.  Physical, biological and ecological systems are impacted. The four primary manifestations of climate change are portrayed in the center of the graphic. Together, these manifestations drive eight primary responses: extreme heat, severe weather, air pollution, water quality, increasing allergens, environmental degradation, impacts on food and water supply, and changes in the ecology of vectors – agents such as mosquitoes, ticks, fleas, parasites and microbes, which carry and transmit infectious pathogens into other living organisms, thereby spreading a variety of diseases.  These eight primary responses in turn result in heat-related illnesses, asthma and respiratory disease, cardiovascular disease, mental health impacts, forced migration, civil conflict, malnutrition, and a wide range of diseases ranging from diarrhea and cholera to malaria, dengue, chikungunya, and the West Nile virus. The complete list is frightening. 

The CDC points out that some of the existing health threats will intensify and new, as yet unknown health threats will emerge.  Some of these impacts are global, others are national and/or regional.  Children are disproportionately impacted by some of the health issues.  Health inequity puts parts of the population at higher risk, based on their age, economic status, geographic location, and access to resources. The U.S. Global Change Research Program published a detailed scientific assessment describing how climate change is already affecting humans, and what we may expect in the years to come. This is an excellent resource for those who want a deep dive on this subject.

What is being done about this public health crisis?  The US National Academy of Medicine (NAM) is leading the way in collaboration with the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine (NASEM).  They are developing an initiative to comprehensively assess the health risks of climate change and develop strategies to address both drivers and impacts.  In October 2020, they announced the NAM Grand Challenge on Human Health and Climate Change.  This is a multi-year strategic initiative to develop public-private partnerships with three objectives:  develop a comprehensive and long-term roadmap for transforming systems — such as health care, transportation, infrastructure, or energy – which impact or are impacted by climate change, with a focus on human health, well-being, and equity; mobilize all actors and institutions in the health community; and launch a global competition to foster innovative interdisciplinary research and actionable solutions at the intersection of climate change and human health.  Several other private and governmental efforts are underway across the world.

What can you and I do to help?  Learn more about these impacts and the response.  Inform and educate our friends and family. Support ongoing efforts and advocate for local and national programs to combat it. We cannot afford to do nothing. The health and Sukham of our fellow humans and that of future generations are at stake!


Mukund Acharya is a regular columnist for India Currents. He is also President and a co-founder of Sukham, an all-volunteer non-profit organization in the Bay Area that advocates for healthy aging within the South Asian community. Sukham provides curated information and resources on health and well-being, aging, and life’s transitions, including serious illness, palliative and hospice care, death and bereavement. Contact the author at sukhaminfo@gmail.com.


 

Endangered Greater Adjutants (Leptoptilos dubius)

Hargila Stork, From Reviled to Adored: Part 2

India Currents, in collaboration with bioGraphic and the California Academy of Sciences, is publishing a 2 part series on the striking endangered stork known as hargilas, or ‘bone-swallowers’, in one of their last homes – Assam. Read part 1 to the story HERE.

Contagious obsession

By the time the Women in Nature Network conference came to Purnima Devi Barman’s hometown in early 2019, she had transformed the greater adjutant’s prospects. Not only has the number of storks in the villages of Assam more than doubled since she began her work, from 400 birds to as many as 1,200 (of which 800 are mature), numbers of nests have grown nearly 10-fold, from 27 to 215 in the villages where she has focused her efforts. And there are signs of population growth to come. Not a single nesting tree has been cut down since 2010, Barman says. One colony is producing about 85 juvenile birds a year, half of which survive. And her conservation work has also expanded to include an assisted breeding program that is beginning to show results. After not producing any viable birds during its launch year in 2017, the program released one fledgling in 2019 and five in 2020.

As Barman’s successes have accumulated, she has been able to tell an ever-growing audience about what she has been up to, and Melvin isn’t the only person who has been captivated by the biologist and her work. Another enthusiast is Carla Rhodes, a longtime comedienne and ventriloquist from New York who had recently picked up wildlife photography and developed her own obsession with greater adjutants when she got an unexpected call from a friend in the summer of 2018. The friend was a producer working on a TV pilot for a show called “Rickshaw Run,” which sends people out to navigate some of the most dangerous roads in the world in motorized rickshaws. The next season would soon be filming in India, he told her, and a participant had dropped out of the show at the last minute. Would Rhodes consider going in his place? 

Rhodes said yes, if only to get to India where she planned to stay after the filming so she could take photographs. She flew out that September and after surviving the rickshaw adventure, she went to Manas National Park in Assam. It was the rainy season in India, and the park was one of the few in the country that was accessible. She had an incredible experience in the park, where she took pictures of elephants, rhinos, capped langurs, and more. Then, on the drive back to Guwahati, Assam’s hub town, she spotted a giant, blue-eyed, dinosaur-like bird standing by a rice field on the side of the road. She asked her driver to stop. He told her it was an endangered greater adjutant and offered to show her more on their way back to Guwahati.

Expecting to be taken to a wetland, Rhodes was surprised when the car pulled up at an enormous, sprawling garbage dump. Hargilas stood on mountains of trash alongside cows, soiled white egrets, and garbage-pickers—people who make money by rummaging through the landfill. The temperature was stiflingly hot, and the smell reminded Rhodes of New York City on garbage day in the summer—multiplied by 100. The scene was both post-apocalyptic and beautiful, and although she had to fly home the next day, she felt transformed. “I was only there for about 20 minutes, but it just moved me and shook me to the core of my being,” she says. “It was at that moment I decided I don’t want to be a wildlife photographer. I want to be a wildlife conservation photographer.”

A muster of endangered greater adjutant storks stands atop a landfill.
A muster of endangered greater adjutant storks stands atop a landfill. (Image by Carla Rhodes)

Determined to find a way back to India and the birds, Rhodes began researching as soon as she returned home to Brooklyn. She learned about Barman, who she contacted by email in early 2019, around the time of the WiNN meeting there. Drawn in by the contagious nature of Barman’s single-minded passion, she was soon offering to help out. With a small grant from WiNN, Rhodes returned to Assam for five weeks in February and March, 2020—just before the world shut down because of COVID-19.  

Even though Rhodes was a stranger, Barman invited her to stay in her home, where she lives with her biologist husband and two now-teenage daughters. Rhodes spent those weeks following Barman everywhere. They went to the market, where the conservationist stuffed her cloth bag to the brim with vegetables, refusing to use plastic. They went to schools and villages, where people treated Barman like a celebrity. Rhodes even attended a wedding with Barman, who somehow convinced the couple to adorn their ceremony with statues of hargilas and to paint images of the birds on guests’ hands with henna.

Rhodes repeatedly marveled at how much influence Barman had on just about everyone, including the police. If someone reports an injured hargila, officers help them transport the birds to zoos for rehab. “You call the police about an injured animal in my area, they’re like, ‘We can’t do anything,’” Rhodes says. Barman’s group is also working with government officials to build nets under trees to catch any nestlings that fall.

Watching Barman at work, it was clear to Rhodes that Barman was the reason why the storks were thriving in a community that had had once hated the birds. Rhodes took thousands of photos, some of them featured in this story. “I thought it would just be like, you’d see a hargila here, you’d see one there. But there are so many, it’s insane,” Rhodes says. “And she is responsible for bringing them back because she convinced people to take ownership of this bird—that it’s a privilege that this bird chose your tree to nest in, and to not cut these trees down.”

Purnima Devi Barman presents informational posters, coloring pages, and food to the people living and working in the sprawling landfill with the goal of raising awareness for the greater adjutants.
Purnima Devi Barman presents informational posters, coloring pages, and food to the people living and working in the sprawling landfill with the goal of raising awareness for the greater adjutants. (Image by Carla Rhodes)

Non-traditional habitats

Historically, greater adjutants thrived in the vast wetlands of India and beyond, where they fed on abandoned carcasses and nested in wild trees. As wetlands have disappeared and been paved over by development, the birds have shifted their habits, building nests in the village trees of Assam and eating in the nearby landfill. For Rhodes, the landfill offered striking imagery full of symbolism: birds scavenging alongside people on mountains of discarded items. For Barman, the garbage dump is just another place to spread the word about bird conservation. One day, Rhodes watched as Barman walked through the dump, talked with people, handed out posters, and gave sweets and coloring sheets to kids.

Biologists, too, have a growing interest in places like these—often overlooked habitats in urban landscapes, where wild animals are finding new ways to adapt. And dumps aren’t necessarily all bad, according to a 2017 review of 159 studies that looked at 98 species of birds, mammals, reptiles, and amphibians found on garbage dumps all over the world, especially in Europe, North America, and Africa.

The analysis turned up plenty of negative effects, including elevated risks of infection, poisoning, and human-animal conflicts in the dumps. According to a 2016 study of white storks, birds that fed in landfills were more likely to stick around throughout the year, drastically reducing their migratory range. Living around landfills also increases a stork’s chances of picking up an E. coli infection, according to a study published in 2020. 

But dumps have also become important sources of food in changing environments. And compared to animals living in natural areas, the review found that polar bears, island foxes, bald eagles, and other creatures that fed in dumps did better than other individuals on a number of measures that included body condition, reproductive success, and survival. Among the effects that dumps had on various species, more than 70 percent were positive. In one study included in the review, dump-dwelling white storks produced more eggs compared to birds that didn’t have access to these food resources.

What rapid and urban development means for the future of any given species is still unclear. But acknowledging the hargila’s adaptability to a new kind of ecological landscape has the potential to highlight novel approaches to conservation into the 21st century, Tracy Melvin says, in part by helping people relate to species that live in their midst. “What’s so endearing about them is that they survived through habitat degradation, through illegal persecution, through everything. And they are just like, ‘Well, I’m going to eat in the dumps, and I’m fine with it.’ They’re a rugged, persistent thing,” she says, adding that there are parallels between the birds and the human garbage-pickers, who have also had to adapt to incredibly difficult circumstances. “They’re a remnant bird from this vast, once-functional landscape, and here they are. This is reality. This is what they’re dealing with now.”

Barman’s approach accepts the reality of the world as it is right now, Melvin says. Her work incorporates the idea that pristine wilderness is a false construct and that saving species requires involving the people who live alongside those species. It also illustrates how persistence and a focus on raising awareness can rapidly transform the way people think about animals: from reviled to adored in just a decade.

 Migrant “rag pickers” live and sort garbage in the Boragaon landfill where a large population of greater adjutants scavenges beside them.
Migrant “rag pickers” live and sort garbage in the Boragaon landfill where a large population of greater adjutants scavenges beside them. (Image by Carla Rhodes)

It’s hard to imagine ranchers in the American West adopting wolves as their mascots, but Barman’s work holds lessons for conservation projects around the world, Melvin adds. She made conservation mainstream from the bottom up—going door to door and person to person, hearing people out, helping people develop livelihoods, making it all happen without waiting for the government to take charge. Those are steps anyone could take anywhere. “It’s truly an example of how doing a small lift for people in their home countries can make conservation truly effective,” she says. “Maybe that’s what the world needs is people to just think less and do more.”

Enacting change doesn’t have to cost much, Flores says. With a clear objective and genuine connections, it is possible to do a lot with a little for any species. Barman has made great strides with limited resources. “As a conservationist, I used to visit fantastic, very high-level projects in Africa and other places,” Flores says. “This is a simple community project, but everyone in the community is engaged. You can see the commitment in women and the kids. Everybody is very, very proud of having that project in the community. To me, that is amazing.”

For Barman, saving hargilas by involving women has been a personal mission as much as a professional one. When her daughters were little, she used to take them into the field, where they would stay with an assistant and watch as she climbed 85-foot trees to study the nesting birds before coming back down to feed her own kids. As her daughters grew, they began to accompany her on community outreach efforts. In 2018, they watched her finally achieve her dream of earning a PhD. “I think they saw all the struggles. I think that helped them to know the life, to know in depth about wildlife,” she says. “I tell them, ‘Every day your heart should be an environmentalist. Every day you wake up, you should live like an environmentalist. It doesn’t mean you have to be a biologist by profession. But every work you do, it should be for nature.’ And they agree. They really love it.”


Emily Sohn is a freelance journalist in Minneapolis whose stories have appeared in National Geographic, Outside, The Washington Post, The New York Times, Nature, NPR, and many other publications.

Carla Rhodes is a wildlife conservation photographer. Formerly a ventriloquist, she brings a plethora of unique skills to her new career. Photographing with passion and a sense of humor, her published work includes pieces for SmithsonianMag.com. Ultimately, she aspires for her photographs to educate viewers while inspiring positive change. You can see more of her work at carlarhodes.photography.


This story originally appeared in bioGraphic, an online magazine about nature and sustainability powered by the California Academy of Sciences. 

Hargila Stork, From Reviled to Adored: Part 1

India Currents, in collaboration with bioGraphic and the California Academy of Sciences, is publishing a 2 part series on the striking endangered stork known as hargilas, or ‘bone-swallowers’, in one of their last homes – Assam.

In January 2019, graduate student Tracy Melvin traveled from Michigan State University to India to attend an annual meeting of the Women in Nature Network, a loose collection of women conservationists from around the world. The trip required multiple flights and many hours of travel, but Melvin was eager to join in on conversations about the successes and struggles of conservation projects in a supportive environment.

As the conference began, Melvin says she was impressed to hear what women were accomplishing, especially in low-income countries. But she was particularly interested when the host of the meeting, Purnima Devi Barman, got up to speak about her work with a gangly and obscure stork called the greater adjutant (Leptoptilos dubius).

Once close to extinction, the bird has rebounded in Barman’s home state of Assam in northeastern India. And that success, according to widespread consensus, is primarily because of Barman, who has single-handedly transformed the species from a reviled nuisance to a beloved cohabitant among a surprisingly broad cross-section of people, including government officials, mothers, and people who pick through garbage dumps for a living.

Hearing Barman talk made Melvin want to get involved—an effect Barman seems to have on people. More than a year later, the two women and several colleagues published a paper that looked at how community involvement has helped to advance the conservation of the striking storks. Among her most successful strategies, Barman has created an “army” of women who care for injured storks, throw celebratory baby showers for the birds, and weave stork-adorned fabrics for sale.

In contrast with decades of top-down and high-cost conservation efforts, experts say, the driving principle behind Barman’s work is deceptively simple: Saving species requires buy-in from people. Women, in particular, can be powerful partners, even—or especially—when they don’t hold traditional forms of power in their cultures. By including women in conservation projects that have simultaneously changed their own lives, Barman’s work may hold implications for similar efforts everywhere.

“She not only brought the species back from the brink, but she empowered women in a way that they probably hadn’t been empowered before,” Melvin says. “She’s not just helping the birds. She’s also helping the people. She’s giving them something to care about.”

Purnima Devi Barman, biologist and founder of the Hargila Army (an all-female grassroots volunteer conservation effort), educates and empowers the Assamese community on the importance of Greater Adjutants. Cultivating personal relationships with villagers and raising awareness are key components to Barman’s successful conservation model, especially since many residents have Greater Adjutant nesting trees in their backyards. (Photo by Carla Rhodes)

Gathering women

The greater adjutant is not a traditionally beautiful animal, and its lifestyle isn’t pretty either. A member of the stork family, it has skinny, knob-kneed legs, a relatively puny bald head, beady eyes, and an elongated orange pouch that hangs from its neck like a deflated balloon. It is awkward and large, standing about 1.5 meters (5 feet) tall. It is also notable for its smell. Traditionally called hargilas, which means “bone-swallowers,” greater adjutants drag dead carcasses into tree tops, where they eat the flesh and then drop stinky messes of poop onto the ground below. The birds also spend a lot of time in garbage dumps, where they scavenge for food.

In the late 1800s, hundreds of thousands of greater adjutants lived in wetlands across much of Asia, from Pakistan to Cambodia. But habitat destruction, pollution, poaching, and the loss of their nesting trees pushed numbers sharply downward in the first half of the 20th century. A reputation as a bad omen in many places didn’t help them in the face of these threats. By the 1990s, there were an estimated 400 birds left. They have rebounded somewhat since but the International Union for Conservation of Nature still classifies them as Endangered, with only 1,200 to 1,800 birds confined to Cambodia and two regions of India—Bihar and Assam, where Barman lives.

An endangered Greater Adjutant is pictured amongst the garbage in the Boragaon landfill. The landfill has the largest year-round concentration of Greater Adjutant storks in the world. Attracting a variety of scavenger species and encroaching upon Deepor Beel wetland, the landfill causes pollution, habitat destruction, and wildlife deaths through toxic seepage. Once covering 4,000ha, the wetland has shrunk to an alarming 500ha. (Photo by Carla Rhodes)

Despite the longstanding cultural disgust that surrounded the birds, Barman quickly began to appreciate the storks’ more appealing side. Raised for several years by her grandmother, who often took her outside and taught her songs and stories about birds, she developed a connection with nature that brought her solace during a period when her parents were away. Later, she studied zoology and wildlife biology at Gauhati University, where she earned an undergraduate degree and then a Masters in 2002. Eager to pursue a Ph.D., she gave in first to family pressures to get married and have children, giving birth to her twin daughters in 2005. She started her doctorate work in 2007, with a focus on greater adjutants.

Aware of the outsized conservation attention that goes to India’s charismatic megafauna like rhinos (Rhinoceros unicornis) and tigers (Panthera tigris tigris), Barman had started thinking about studying hargilas when she saw them in a wetland while doing fieldwork for her Masters. Why, she wondered, had she never seen them in her own village? As she began to collect data, she visited the few villages where they did live. While there, she would leave her phone number so people could call her if they had anything to report about the birds. One day at the end of the hargila breeding season in 2007, she got a call. A villager in the Kamrup District had cut down a giant tree on his property. The tree contained nine nests, filled with hargila nestlings.

Once at the scene, people gathered around and laughed at her. They jeered and teased her about her concerns. They were angry and mean. “Why are you lecturing us?” they asked her. Why should we care about such an ugly bird?  Would she pay them to care? Would she come live with them and clean up after the birds? Would she eat the birds on her way home? 

Trembling with embarrassment and dismay, Barman thought about her daughters, then just 2 years old. On the way home, she made a decision to delay her Ph.D. work. “I thought, ‘No, I won’t do it now,’” she says. “‘First, I’ll rope in all the people. I’ll win the hearts and minds of the people. We will start a people’s movement. And then, only if I’m successful with the birds, I’ll pursue my dream.”

Her plan was to start with the basics: Meet people. Build friendships. Try to understand community concerns. Remembering the comments from men in the village, she cleaned temples to earn trust and show she was listening. Her compassion ran deep. She recognized that these weren’t bad people. They thought they were doing the right thing: ridding themselves and their properties of a messy bird that was a bad omen. It wasn’t their fault that they thought poorly of hargilas. They just hadn’t learned about the value of wildlife.

Soon, Barman’s work coalesced around a single, if improbable, goal: Get people in the villages of Assam to incorporate the greater adjutant into their local culture and traditions. Since the birds spent much of the year nesting in trees on private property, she knew they were untouchable by government protections. Her only hope was to make people care about the birds like they care about their own children. That way, they wouldn’t want to cut down the trees anymore.

In 2009, Barman organized the first of what would become many hargila “baby showers.” She invited about 30 women to the event, and she made the celebration as traditional as possible. It included prayer songs, a cooking competition, and games that incorporated lessons about wildlife. Barman talked to the women about the birds and how vulnerable they are during the breeding season. She appealed to their identities as mothers, comparing the birds to women when they give birth. Acceptance came quickly, Barman says, and the popularity of the baby showers snowballed into a coalition of women who rallied behind the storks. Barman started to think of them as a “hargila family.” In 2014, she dubbed them the “hargila army.”

Since then, the army has helped rehabilitate injured birds. Using looms and yarn distributed by Barman, women have also started to weave traditional fabrics adorned with storks, which they sell to help support their families. More than 400 women take part in the conservation work on a daily basis, Barman says. More than 10,000 women and their families have participated in hargila-related activities.

Jonali, a member of the Hargila Army, is pictured sewing a tote bag with an embroidered Greater Adjutant motif to combat plastic bag usage. Members of the Hargila Army take great pride in protecting this endangered species. Greater Adjutant motifs are now sewn and loomed into their traditional textiles such as mekhala chadar and gamosas. In 2018, eighty sewing machines were donated by the New Zealand High Commission, further boosting the women’s livelihoods and source of income while advancing the conservation of Greater Adjutants. (Photo by Carla Rhodes)

With Barman’s guidance over the past decade, the stork has become a symbol and way of life, says Ana Liz Flores, a conservationist and senior advisor for the LAC-Huairou Commission, a grassroots NGO in Argentina. Like Melvin, Flores attended the WiNN meeting in India in 2019. While she was there, she visited several villages, where it was clear to her that hargilas had become integral to the identity of the community. Women and children were leading the effort. “The schools and the women are the key pieces of the whole project,” she says. “It’s the first time I have seen a community that involved with one species. That, to me, is special.”

Barman has faced plenty of gender discrimination in her career, she says, and women in her culture are not usually included in decision-making. But women have power in their households, and by reaching them, she has been able to reach their children, relatives, and entire communities. “They are rural women. They are the homemakers,” Barman says. “I think the world should know about this huge force of women.”

Read Part 2 HERE!


Emily Sohn is a freelance journalist in Minneapolis whose stories have appeared in National Geographic, Outside, The Washington Post, The New York Times, Nature, NPR, and many other publications.

Carla Rhodes is a wildlife conservation photographer. Formerly a ventriloquist, she brings a plethora of unique skills to her new career. Photographing with passion and a sense of humor, her published work includes pieces for SmithsonianMag.com. Ultimately, she aspires for her photographs to educate viewers while inspiring positive change. You can see more of her work at carlarhodes.photography.


This story originally appeared in bioGraphic, an online magazine about nature and sustainability powered by the California Academy of Sciences. 

Indian Artists Confront Fast Fashion in Desi Communities

One cotton shirt uses up to 3,000 liters of water to make. One denim jacket takes 7,500 liters. That’s enough drinking water to last one person for six years! The fashion industry is the world’s second-largest polluter. The fast fashion industry, particularly, wastes around 93 billion cubic meters of water every year, which is enough to meet the needs of around 5 million people.

Recently, seven Indian artists and graphic designers came together to create specially commissioned artworks and comic strips that underline water consumption by the fashion industry. The participating artists—Priyanka Paul, Aditi Mali, Manasi Deshpande, Mehek Malhotra, Vinu Joseph, Param Sahib, and Sonali Bhasin—launched their artworks on their social media handles. The artistic intervention was organized by The ReFashion Hub, a collective working to bring together multiple stakeholders—including fashion businesses, textile bodies, industry leaders, young designers, artisans, and consumers—invested in wastewater reuse and management in the textile industry with long-term positive climate impact.

The aim was to raise awareness around the pressing issue of wastewater stewardship with a focus on bringing climate action to fashion.

Talking about the initiative, The ReFashion Hub’s Divya Thomas says, “By 2050, fashion will become the second-largest water polluter. It’s imperative for us as consumers, to come together to talk about the consequences of fashion on climate, as well as what each of us can do to make fair fashion choices.”

The artists were invited to design comic strips that capture a sarcastic take on producing a T-shirt, and the resources that it drains, with a key focus on water wastage. The resulting works showcase the absurdity of the industry, hoping that viewers take note and make responsible decisions.

As a child, Pune-based webcomic artist and freelance animator Aditi Mali fondly recalls being more excited to receive clothes that her cousin sister would outgrow than buy new ones. In fact, she finds reusing what she has so therapeutic that she has pretty much stopped buying new clothes. “I would like to revamp my T-shirts into cute tops and make them into bags instead of buying new ones,” says Mali.

Comics by self-taught illustrator and poet Priyanka Paul and Mumbai-based designer and visual artist Mehek Malhotra (Giggling Monkey) bring attention to the amount of water that our clothes consume. Through the project, Paul explored the ethicality and constant tryst we have with capitalism and fast fashion in terms of everyday practices and the functionality of clothing, the rise of thrift shops, and what makes up eco-consciousness. Malhotra’s artwork was made to start the conversation around the grim reality of the fast fashion cycle. “We can afford a 300 rupee T-shirt but we can’t afford to repair the damage it does to the environment. Buying responsibly and investing in the right fabrics is the key to being more understanding of the environment,” she says.

Political satirist, independent journalist, and video storyteller Vinu Joseph’s main objective was to make his audience aware of something they might have taken for granted all this while. “It’s challenging to convey something this serious in a funny comic video without losing the essence of the original subject,” he says about the experience. Designer and mixed media graduate Param Sahib agrees that millennials need to know that the damage is being done. His series is a fun take on how things are being made, and where we are going wrong—with a plea to start looking out for sustainable options.

Mumbai-based artist Manasi Deshpande’s sarcastic comic addresses the issue of greenwashing in the fast fashion industry. The ironic comic portrays a garment worker making a ‘Save Water’ T-shirt. The idea, according to her, was to show the hypocrisy of the fast fashion industry, the environmental cost, and the water pollution that tags along.

Further, Delhi-based cartoonist and illustrator Sonali Bhasin’s amusing piece has polka-dotted frogs narrating the cause of the loss of their aquatic habitat—a comment on the impact that wastewater from dyeing has on our natural environment. “What if nature talked back? What if you could see the impact of every impulse buy you’ve ever made, and how would that feel?” she asks.

The artworks are part of a series of dynamic, youth-focused programs and initiatives to raise awareness about water usage, including public video projections, installations, and the Fashion Forward Fellowship, India’s first fellowship focusing on wastewater stewardship. The five-week fellowship program ends in April with one winning sustainable capsule collection.

The next project by The ReFashion Hub and YWater launched a photo series by photographer Prarthna Singh to inspire young fashion-conscious people to rethink fast-fashion consumerism with more fair and sustainable choices. It will continue to promote traditional crafts and support local artisans through its textile exhibit Karkhana Chronicles.


Neha Kirpal is a freelance writer based in Delhi. She is the author of Wanderlust for the Soul, an e-book collection of short stories based on travel in different parts of the world. 


 

Dharmic Environmentalism

This article is part of the opinion column – Beyond Occident – where we explore a native perspective on the Indian diaspora.

The environment is a universal concern.

Universal environmentalism, however, is myopic, monopolistic, and hegemonic. It overlooks native and Indigenous solutions and, as such, is a recipe for disaster. 

We all relate to our surroundings differently. Present-day environmentalism, however, is based on the Western anthropocentric approach. According to the Encyclopedia Britannica, anthropocentrism as a religious and philosophical doctrine holds that “human life has intrinsic value while other entities (including animals, plants, mineral resources, and so on) are resources that may justifiably be exploited for the benefit of humankind.”

The destruction of ancient paganism was a turning point in environmentalism. Before the advent of Christianity, both as a religion and as a political power, there was no distinction between nature and the divine in the widespread pagan societies. Pagans believed in God’s transcendence in the elements of nature. The notion of the ‘sacred grove,’ however, is an alien concept in the West. Moreover, Marxism, Liberalism, neoliberalism, etc., too are an extension of the same anthropocentric ideology. They regard humankind as central and the most important in the world. 

What is considered modern and scientific in our day-to-day lives today, is based primarily on Christian theology. Implicit faith in perpetual progress dominates our lifestyle, our habits of action, and our planning for the future. Man’s destiny, within this paradigm, is to be hopeful of a future affected by science, technology, a promise of more progress, and doomsday prophecies. 

Modern technology too ends up being a means to an end. As the attitude and the will to exert dominion over nature becomes all the more urgent, the more technology threatens to slip from human control. We end up empowering our political class as they promise to make things better with newer progressive technologies as well as with catchy phrases and slogans.

Such thinking was unknown either to the pagan Greco-Roman antiquity or to the indigenous civilizations of what came to be known as the Orient. Indigenous care for nature goes much beyond the shrill of environmentalism. Such care is deeply rooted in culture, “religion,” and spiritualism. Native cultures, such as Hinduism, have a long history of living in harmony with their surroundings. They are mindful of ecological limits, constraints, and boundaries of nature and do not take from nature more than what is needed. There is an element of reverence towards the earth and other elements of nature that guides them. Native cultures have developed a complex system of using and preserving the ecology. Native American communities’ use of low-intensity controlled burns, regenerative harvesting, etc are examples of native environmentalism. 

Bishnoi Woman (Image from Permaculture News)

As for Hindus, much before any modern-day environmental protocol was ever signed, it is the Bhoomisuktam (hymn of the Mother Earth) of the Atharva Veda that provides a framework for environmentalism. Composed more than 3,000 years ago, Bhoomisuktam is considered the oldest environmental protocol. The Sukta is composed of 63 verses. These verses provide a framework of understanding as well as respecting Mother Earth and her environment. The Sukta recognizes the Earth for all her gifts such as plants and herbs; rivers and cultivable land for food; and animals for milk, honey, etc. But going a step further, the invoker of the verses declares that despite availing all those boons, he does not intend to hurt Mother Earth in any manner whatsoever. The Sukta gives to Mother Earth an assurance of rational utilization of her resources. 

Much of our interaction with the elements of nature, according to Hinduism, is guided by Dharma: the rules of ethical behavior. Such behaviors are guided not by rights, but by obligations. Pankaj Jain in his book Dharma and Ecology of Hindu Communities describes three communities in India that have actively and consciously worked to preserve and protect the environment as part of their cultural and religious ideology. Those communities include the Swadhyayis, Bishnois, and Bhils.

The Swadhyayis disavow environmentalism. Their mission is “to generate and spread reverence for humans, animals, trees, earth, nature, and the entire universe in general.”

Similarly, the Bishnoi community was founded by a 15th century Guru Jambheshwara who spread the teachings of conservation and living in harmony with nature. Bhils, on the other hand, have protected their sacred groves for generations. 

According to Indic environmentalist and the author of the book Good News India, DV Sridharan, “one doesn’t restore nature, one just keeps a vigil against interruption of Nature’s relentless act of creating the fair and rightful balance.” Hindus believe that when the imbalance reaches a critical point and equilibrium is broken beyond redemption, an avatār ‘unburdens’ the Earth.

Unless the ecological concerns do not empower individuals and communities worldwide to find their indigenous solutions at a more local level, the answer to such concerns will always evade us.


Avatans Kumar is a columnist, public speaker, and activist. He frequently writes on the topics of language & linguistics, culture, religion, Indic knowledge, and current affairs in several media outlets.

The Financial Folly of Fossil Fuels

At the Front Door  –  a column on climate change in our lives

Natural disasters are as old as our planet.  From asteroid impacts that caused major species loss, to floods and plagues of biblical proportions, to modern day hurricanes and wildfires, they have affected both plant and animal life.  Past events were viewed as “acts of God” – random occurrences, with no known cause.

Today we know better.  Astronomers with increasingly accurate telescopes can track and predict the paths of asteroids.  Plate tectonics tells us where and approximately how frequently, but not when earthquakes will occur.  Weather forecasting is increasingly precise, allowing accurate estimates of storm tracks and precipitation amounts.  Major storms and seasonal droughts are no longer totally random events; they can be predicted weeks and even months ahead.

There is one important prediction that was made over 100 years ago, based on the observation that carbon-dioxide (CO2) is a greenhouse gas:  the earth will get warmer if we continue to burn coal.  It was not taken very seriously at the time, the amount of warming, due to 19th century coal production, seemed insignificant and far into the future.  But coal consumption increased, automobiles replaced horse drawn carriages adding oil as a generator of CO2.  Coal was also used to generate gas for heating and cooking, but as coal reserves became depleted, natural gas took its place and CO° emissions grew even more.

The world is now paying the price for the emission of all that CO2 – literally thousands of millions of tons (gigatons) per year.  This has raised the concentration of CO2 in the atmosphere by over 60% since the beginning of the industrial revolution.  As predicted, the earth has warmed; currently the global average temperature is 1.2 °C more than it was 150 years ago and is rising at a rate of 0.18 °C per decade.  This may not seem much, but it has huge consequences.  Glaciers all over the world are melting, as are the Antarctic and Greenland ice sheets.  The Arctic Ocean is now virtually free of ice every summer.  Thermal expansion as the oceans warm, combined with the added volume of melted ice is raising sea levels.  Warmer oceans also result in more frequent and more severe tropical storms.  Higher evaporation rates and warmer air carry more moisture inland where temperate zones suffer also from abnormally severe floods.  Conversely, away from the normal storm tracks, warmer, drier air is causing longer and more severe droughts, deserts are expanding towards the poles, plants are stressed and dying.  As a result, wildfires, too, are more frequent and severe.

These changes in climate directly affect our food and water supplies.  Crops failures due to both floods and droughts are increasing.  Farmland is being lost to rising oceans and saltwater encroachment.  Coral reefs are dying because of warmer water, as well as acidification caused by dissolved CO2.  This in turn causes collapse of fisheries.  Himalayan glaciers that once were reservoirs, replenished by winter snows, of fresh water for much of South East Asia are no longer reliable; likewise, the snow-packs feeding the watersheds of the Caucasus, Alps, Atlas, Rockies, Sierra Nevada and Andes mountain ranges.

All this damage costs money to combat, repair and ameliorate.  In the US alone, billions of dollars are spent building seawalls, creating more reservoirs, preparing for and fighting wildfires, building levees and other infrastructure strengthening.  Adapting to the loss of crop yield, for example by planting more acreage, costs a similar amount.  The price tag for hurricane and wildfire damage, in excess of natural historical averages, is many tens of billions of dollars annually.  Overall, the cost of extracting, refining, transporting and burning fossil fuels in business-as-usual is projected to be tens of trillion dollars by mid-century.

We can continue to pay more and more every year, or we can invest now and reap the future rewards.  There are readily available solutions at hand.  Electric power generated by solar cells and wind turbines do not emit CO2, and the “fuel” is free.  Power can be distributed largely over the existing grids.  The cost is solely in installation and maintenance.  Overall, the cost of clean energy is already less than that generated from fossil fuels.  It makes no economic sense to invest further in, and even subsidize, coal, oil and gas.  There will, of course, be job losses in these legacy industries with potential disruption of workers lives, but there will be ample new opportunities for safer, healthier jobs in clean energy, retrofitting buildings for its efficient use, electric vehicle manufacture and many other areas.  The funds for retraining and relocation, if necessary, can be supplied from redirected subsidies, the enormous savings in the cost of energy and reduction of damages.

So, pay now, or pay much more later.  The choice is clear.


J. Campbell Scott, PhD. recently retired after a 45-year career as an educator and research scientist. He is currently a volunteer with The Climate Reality Project and a member of the speakers’ bureau in its Santa Clara County chapter.

Edited by Meera Kymal, Contributing Editor at India Currents.

Photo by Markus Spiske on Unsplash