Tag Archives: #protect

Ribbon Fish being overfished in Malvan, India (Image by Pooja Rathod under Creative Commons License)

The End of Meat and GMOs or the End of Us: Part 3

This article will be released as a three-part series on the effects of GMOs and the meat industry on our environment. Read Part 1 and Part 2!

Russia is first among the developed nations to say that they are going to be glyphosate-free by 2025.  Why are we driving our soil to extinction?  Why can’t we pledge to be a glyphosate-free and LibertyLink-free nation?  Why does our government pass legislation that makes it illegal for the Environmental Protection Agency to consider generational toxicity data?

We live in an environment where pig stool is considered such a biohazard that it’s illegal to transport it across state lines.  “Imagine billions of gallons of pig stool outside of Smithfield, North Carolina, or ten times more in Hubei province.  We have these massive pig stool lakes, every teaspoon of which has millions of microorganisms that are all under severe stress from glyphosate and everything else, and they are cranking out viruses at an astounding rate,” says Dr. Zach Bush.

Aerial view of CAFO barns and manure lagoons in North Carolina (Image by Jo-Anne McArthur from We Animals)
Aerial view of CAFO barns and manure lagoons in North Carolina (Image by Jo-Anne McArthur from We Animals)

As he untangles the workings of the virus, Dr. Bush points out that we break down our innate immune system through the mechanisms of soil, water, and air.  While 75% of air samples in the U.S. are contaminated with glyphosate, the wildfires in Australia and California in 2020 also released an enormous amount of PM 2.5 in our environment.  “Sars-COV2 + influenza viruses bind to PM2.5, and when humans experience long-term exposure to this air pollution, it lowers the innate resistance to viral infection,” he explains.  “The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention always sends out toxicologists along with infectious disease scientists to a new pandemic site.  It’s been long recognized by the CDC that the environment is a critical piece of the pandemic, but they only publish the findings around the virus, not around the toxicity in the environment.”

Setting the narrative of the pandemic right, Dr. Bush points out that rather than focusing on living in harmony with nature, we have created a perturbation in nature and our relationship to nature is expressing itself in a pandemic.  He also asserts that our reductionist belief system that pharmacy is going to fix everything is keeping the vast majority of our country’s population sick and disease-ridden.  “The human body isn’t as delicate as we are led to believe—we are actually quite resilient.  We don’t live in a world where we are under constant attack by nature.  It’s really the other way around: The destruction of nature by humankind has ultimately altered our biology to a point where we have had to maladapt to our self-created toxic environment.  The human species has become a parasite of planet Earth.  We are the disease.”  Dr. Bush makes a plea for cleaning up our soil, water, and air to prevent future pandemics and affirms that the healthcare system will right itself as soon as we fix the food system.

A nationwide study from Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health corroborates Dr. Bush’s comments on the known connections between PM2.5 exposure and a higher risk of death from COVID-19 and other cardiovascular and respiratory ailments.  The study states that an increase of only 1 microgram per cubic meter of PM2.5 is associated with a 15% increase in COVID-19 death rate.  The researchers wrote: “The study results underscore the importance of continuing to enforce existing air pollution regulations to protect human health both during and after the COVID-19 crisis.”

With the pandemic rampant last year, a TIME article questioned: “As the coronavirus has spread through America’s meatpacking plants amid growing recognition that overcrowded factory farms are risk factors for other diseases, some people have wondered whether we’ve reached a tipping point.  Might Americans finally be ready to go easy on their beloved hot dogs and steaks?”  The answer is: “Simply put, no.”  The article quotes Joshua Specht, author of Red Meat Republic: A Hoof-to-Table History of How Beef Changed America: “They (the producers) want them to imagine there’s no backstory, and for the vast majority of people, I think that is still the case.”

As if oceans belong on our planet to supply “seafood”, fish are readily offered when servers are asked for meat-free options in restaurants.  If animal agriculture has ravaged our environment, industrial fishing has been equally devastating on earth, polluting our oceans and waterways.  According to National Geographic, “more than 55 percent of ocean surface is covered by industrial fishing…That’s more than four times the area covered by agriculture.”

As the loss of ocean biodiversity accelerates, it’s predicted that in 30 years there will be little or no salt-water fish.  “Biodiversity is a finite resource, and we are going to end up with nothing left … if nothing changes,” says Professor Boris Worm, a marine ecologist.

Supermarket fish come from commercial fishing or aquafarming.  Both have devastated our ecosystems.  Industrial fishing deploys massive ships–supertrawlers–which remain out at sea for weeks and months at a time.  These ships require large amounts of CO2-producing fuel.  They catch hundreds of tons of fish every single day because they can process or freeze on the ship itself.  “The fishing nets scrape up fish—and anything else in their path—wreaking havoc on delicate ecosystems and ocean habitats.  The United Nations estimates that up to 95% of global ocean damage is a direct result of bottom trawling.”  When hauled out of the water, surviving fish undergo excruciatingly painful decompression that causes severe bladder, eyes, and stomach damage.  Fishing lines catch and kill unintended species such as different fish, sea birds, turtles, and whales.  These animals are considered “bycatch” and thrown overboard.  

Aquaculture farming raises fish in the same unnatural, enclosed conditions as the factory-farmed livestock, and produces enormous waste.  They are also fed high quantities of antibiotics and have alarming levels of harmful chemicals.  Also, it takes up to five pounds of smaller wild fish from the ocean to produce just one pound of fish meat from salmon or bass, two of the most common fish being raised on factory farms.

Dr. Jyotsna Puri, Director, Environment, Climate, Nutrition, Gender, and Social Inclusion Division at the International Fund for Agricultural Development, finds it arrogant to make life and death decisions on the basis of benefits for humans.  “This is ironic since humans have defined a completely new geologic period called the Anthropocene, defined mainly because of the disasters we have wreaked!  THAT should have been a wake up moment for us. But it hasn’t been.  The anthropocentric view of life will have to change.  Every policy is subservient to the demands of Homo sapiens.  We have to change the way we function if we want to stave off the next pandemic.”  Dr. Puri argues that people change behavior when you set up the incentives and the infrastructure to make change possible.  She recommends creating a common global standardized measure to know a corporate’s or government’s impact on the environment and on our climate. 

“Monoculture of the mind–as I have called it–is the inability to see how ecosystems work, the inability to see how diversity is vital…Without biodiversity we will have no health,” Dr. Vandana Shiva points out.  Championing for small farmers who provide 80% of the food we eat globally, she says that if the small farmers are no more, India is not a civilization that is India.  Along with many scientists and researchers around the world, she asserts that GMO crops have brought more pesticide use and created new pests: “Genetic engineering is nothing more than genetic reductionism based on a very false assumption of genetic determinism.”

“These chemical companies cause a disaster, and then from the impacts of that disaster, they create a new market, and make a bigger disaster, and they create a new market.  So, every cost borne by the environment and by the humans becomes a new market of opportunity for the same people who cause that problem.  Right now, the health damages caused by the chemicals and GMOs in our food is becoming the biggest market for a combination of Big Pharma, Big Food, Big Tech, and Big Money.  It’s one big cancerous slop on this planet.”  Dr. Shiva refuses to be subjugated to “digital agriculture and the financialization of nature”.  One of her books, Oneness vs. the 1%: Shattering Illusions, Seeding Freedom, discusses the new imperialism of food brought on by the likes of Bill Gates, who has been pushing monoculture GMO crops around the world.  She comments that “the digital agriculture farming without farmers that he is pushing so hard and so violently is the reason that farmers protests in India are being ignored.”

In an opinion piece in The Washington Post, Purdue University president Mitch Daniels offers a plea that we embrace GMOs in agriculture, saying that “avoiding GMOs isn’t just anti-science, it’s immoral.”  The ecological and health safety of GMOs has been questioned by research across the world that has busted these two assumptions: 1) That GMOs are indeed safe, and 2) that GMOs and industrial agriculture allow higher yields. GMO Myths and Truths: A Citizen’s Guide to the Evidence on the Safety and Efficacy of Genetically Modified Crops and Foods has hundreds of citations of peer-reviewed articles that cannot be dismissed.  Since the GMOs are proprietary, and since most university agronomy departments receive massive funding from agritech companies, when a study does document harm, it and its authors are subjected to career-ending attacks. 

In spite of trillions of dollars, millions of jobs, lives, and immeasurable hours of learning lost for school children, isn’t it staggering to know that no public health agency has declared that we will be in pandemic after pandemic so long as the world is so hungry for meat?  Isn’t it criminal that the CDC, the USDA, our politicians, or public health officials never talk about closing the overcrowded and filthy factory farms? 

Yes, sadly, there are places in this world where people are so desperately hungry and live in such dire conditions that they will eat whatever they could lay their hands on.  That’s not the case with most in developed countries where there is an abundant supply of other foods.  In fact, 30% of all food produced globally is wasted, and in the United States alone, we waste upwards of 40% of our food.  

March Against Monsanto in Vancouver, Canada (Image by Rosalee Yagihara under Creative Commons License)
March Against Monsanto in Vancouver, Canada in 2013 (Image by Rosalee Yagihara under Creative Commons License)

When I hear that “We are all in this together,” or, “we all need to sacrifice and practice our shared commitment to take individual responsibility and civic accountability,” I want to cry out: “No, vegans and vegetarians have not brought this pandemic upon humanity!”  Yet, it is those who perform their civic duty toward their fellow humans and toward this planet–by choosing what they put on their plate for each meal–who are also being forced to sacrifice by locking themselves down and keeping their children from attending schools.  Why are meat-eaters commanding sacrifice from vegans and vegetarians?

Officials across the E.U. as well as in the U.S. have called upon citizens’ sense of duty and empathy, promoting messages of unity and communal sacrifice.  But, nobody is asking: “Sacrifice for whom and for what?”  Do we sacrifice for those who want these factory farms to keep butchering and producing meat for their dinner plates?  Do we sacrifice for those feeling complacent driving their Teslas and flaunting biodegradable disposables priding themselves that they are doing a huge favor to planet Earth – while completely ignoring that the most powerful choice one could make for the well-being of our planet is our food?  Do we sacrifice so that billions of taxpayer dollars continue to subsidize the factory farms and vaccines, while the Food and Drug Administration lets multibillion-dollar industries sell ultra-processed foods that keep our population sick and dependent on pharmaceuticals for a lifetime?

Do we sacrifice for the politicians and public health officials to order lockdowns while we never hear our government talk about pulling out all the junk foods, sodas, alcohol, vaping products, cigarettes, guns, disposable plastics, GMOs, and glyphosate from our stores?  Do we sacrifice for our government to subsidize Roundup Ready and LibertyLink crops which deplete our foods and hence our bodies of all the vital nutrients?  Why is there no discussion from our public health agencies about nutrition and lifestyle, guiding us on disease prevention?  

Why do 60% of Americans live with chronic health conditions?  Why are our politicians allowed to subsidize Big Ag that has only focused on herbicides, monocrops, and GMOs, to produce crops that grow faster and bigger but depleted of protein, vitamins, and minerals that the crops contained half a century ago?  How do the WHO, governments, and pharmaceuticals around the world get away with spending billions to invest in band-aids of vaccines after vaccines rather than address the root causes that bring about these pandemics?  Our students have been locked inside their homes because of the pandemic.  Why does producing cheap meat have priority over the well-being and health of our future generation?  Why should vegetarians and vegans bear the brunt of the irresponsibility and inhumanity of those who are not satisfied to consume the abundant plant foods that Mother Earth has to offer?  Is the U.S. the only country that has foods and drugs under the same administration?  Isn’t this counter-intuitive?  

“We need to be prepared for whatever COVID-24 is going to look like,” says  Francis Collins, the director of the National Institutes of Health.  In that case, shouldn’t President Biden prioritize banning factory farms, glyphosate, and LibertyLink, in order to prepare the U.S. for future pandemic threats?  Isn’t prevention always better than cure?  Isn’t it a global problem that we are killing 60 billion animals a year for human consumption?  As Dr. Shiva asks, are we going to have a world view of regeneration – with our role in regeneration – or a world view of conquest and war?  

Last year, with COVID raging, I couldn’t bring myself to say “Happy Thanksgiving” to anyone – mourning the millions of helpless, intelligent, turkeys that got butchered and broiled; mourning the Native Americans who lost their lives and land; and of course mourning the enormous losses we have suffered due to a pandemic.  What’s “happy” about this holiday knowing that it’s precisely this human behavior that has encouraged the meat industry to produce the cheapest, the cruelest, the most irresponsible meat that brought this pandemic?

Industrial turkey barn (Jo-Anne McArthur from Djurrattsalliansen)
Industrial turkey barn (Image by Jo-Anne McArthur from Djurrattsalliansen)

Organizations like Food and Water Watch have been calling upon citizens to ask Congress to ban factory farms as they “place our public health and food supply at risk, pollute the environment and our drinking water, and wreck rural communities–while increasing corporate control over our food.”  Activist organizations like Environmental Working Group that question agricultural practices, use of toxic chemicals, and provide information on environmental and water quality issues are being drowned by the continuous onslaught of corporate greed, while those who choose not to eat meat feel powerless about their tax dollars going toward subsidizing butchering of animals and egregious agricultural practices that are destroying our ecology.  

Mahatma Gandhi had said: “The greatness of a nation and its moral progress can be judged by the way its animals are treated.” 

Dr. Michael Greger writes: “As long as there is poultry, there will be pandemics.  It may be us or them.” 

Or, as ecologist Rachel Carlson put it succinctly nearly sixty years ago, “Nature fights back.” 

In the afterward of Dr. Greger’s book, Dr. Kennedy Shortidge–who discovered H5N1–appeals: “We have reached a critical point.  Today’s COVID-19 pandemic is just the latest in an increasingly harrowing viral storm threatening each of us.  We must dramatically change the way we interact with animals for the sake of all animals.” 

For those who reach for any kind of meat or seafood, I implore you to ask yourself: Am I bringing our planet one step closer to enormous suffering from yet another pandemic–and one step closer to extinction–with my choice?

Go back to read Part 1 and Part 2!


Paulomi Shah hopes to live in a world where not a single animal would be killed for food – so that there would be an abundance of healthy foods – and hopes for a world where all foods would be grown organically.


 

Local seeds and produce (Image by Drona Chetri from Navdanya)

The End of Meat and GMOs or the End of Us: Part 2

This article will be released as a three-part series on the effects of GMOs and the meat industry on our environment. Go back to read Part 1 or move on to Part 3!

Dr. Vandana Shiva argues that the World Bank pushed the privatization of seeds in India in 1991, introducing a very distorted model of agriculture.  It created refugees out of Indian farmers who moved to the cities, became today’s migrant labor, and are now refugees from the cities because of the Corona crisis.  With the pandemic and sudden lockdown, the livelihood of half of India just evaporated.  This India that works for its bread also suddenly added to the ranks of the hungry.  Before the pandemic, nearly one million children under five were dying of hunger annually, and there were 190 million hungry people already.  COVID added many more millions.  The farmers who went the World Bank way to grow cash crops were unable to sell when all the long-distance supply chains collapsed due to COVID.  

“We were always told that industrial food is cheap and is feeding the world.  So I started to do full cost accounting and found that there are trillions and trillions of dollars of shadow in environmental destruction, biodiversity destruction, destruction of farmers, and destruction of our health.  When we add all that together, we will realize that we would not afford industrial food pushed by the old Poison Cartel and Big Oil,” Dr. Shiva explains.  She gives an example of biofuel–which is made to look very efficient–and big government subsidies to divert food to biofuel.  But, it takes more fossil fuel to produce biofuel than its substitutes.  “We measure nutrition per acre, we measure health per care, and our work with real farmers and true cost accounting is showing that small farms with biodiversity, without chemicals, can feed two times Indian population…They take pride in feeding 1.3 billion.  I can tell you the U.S. model can’t feed 1.3 billion.” 

Defending the world’s largest protests by farmers in India against the new agricultural laws that would allow private corporations to buy directly from farmers–which would leave them at the mercy of buyers–Dr. Shiva says that in the globalized system of monopolistic buying, the original farmer gets as little as 0.5 to 5%.  Global corporations break national boundaries, they break national sovereignty, and Indian farmers are fighting for food sovereignty.  She says that in spite of the global powers wanting to grab the land and turn India into a large farm desert like the midwest of the U.S., the small farmers are fighting because of their love for Mother Earth. 

John Robbins says that livestock provides just 18% of calories but takes up more than 80% of farmland.  “Right now, 81% of the world’s agricultural land is used to provide meat, eggs, and dairy products.  That’s an astounding amount of land on planet Earth.  But, plant foods, on the other hand, require far less land and far fewer resources, and can actually help sequester the carbon in the soil.  We could feed the entire world’s population, and free up so much land that could be used to grow more food for future generations…The scientific consensus is very clear that industrial meat production is responsible for a major portion of all our greenhouse emissions.”  Elaborating on the findings of Oxford Martin School researchers, he says that a global switch to diets that rely less on meat and more on fruits, vegetables, and whole grains could save up to 8 million lives by 2050 and reduce greenhouse gas emissions by two-thirds.

A calf straining against a chain from his veal crate. (Image by Jo-Anne McArthur from We Animals)
A calf straining against a chain from his veal crate. (Image by Jo-Anne McArthur from We Animals)

When Amazon rainforests were burning, French president Emanuel Macron wrote that the lungs which produce 20% oxygen for the planet were burning.  According to TIME, in 2018, Brazil exported some $6 billion worth of beef, more than any other country in history.  In Brazil, cattle account for 80% of deforested land.  Why are Brazilians cutting down their forests?  To make quick money to meet an increasing demand for beef around the world. 

There are many doctors who have been shouting out loud, along with Dr. Michael Greger, that there is no human nutritional need for any animal protein.  In fact, according to the Harvard University School of Medicine, the healthiest sources of protein are “beans, nuts, grains and other vegetable sources of protein.”  One reason India was not considered a high-risk area for novel influenza strains is because a large portion of the population is vegetarian.  But, over the past 25 years, India’s diet has changed.  The middle classes of India have been pushed into admiring junk foods, taking pride in flocking for meat at McDonald’s and KFCs, and urban populations consider a Coke-and-Pepsi-diet a declaration of being progressive.  So, India is now the capital of diabetes in the world.  The risks from COVID escalate multifold with any chronic disease, including diabetes. 

Social psychologist Melanie Joy’s book, Why We Love Dogs, Eat Pigs, and Wear Cows, offers an absorbing look at what she calls carnism, the belief system that conditions us to eat certain animals when we would never dream of eating others.  Dr. Joy says that eating animals without thinking about it makes this behavior invisible.  She calls this invisible belief system “carnism”.  There are Three Ns of justification–Dr. Joy argues–that consuming meat is normal, natural, and necessary.  She explains that “the belief that eating meat is necessary makes the system seem inevitable–if we cannot exist without meat, then abolishing carnism is akin to suicide.”  This myth of necessity has been promoted by the meat industry despite widespread and substantial evidence to the contrary.  She discusses many ways our system has made eating animals acceptable: Objectification, viewing animals as things rather than living, breathing, feeling beings;  Deindividualization, looking at animals as a group or a species rather than individuals with their own personalities and preferences;  Dichotomization, categorizing animals into edible or inedible, so that we can eat our steak while we pet our dog.

Lamb (Image by Paulomi Shah and Unsplash)
Lamb (Image by Paulomi Shah and Unsplash)

Renowned, multi-disciplinary Dr. Zach Bush proclaims that we are in the middle of the sixth great extinction on the planet and humanity is one of the countless species headed for extinction.  In 2019, Dr. Bush correctly predicted that Hubei, China would be the center of a pandemic due to its high levels of air pollution combined with the pollution from large factory farms.  “Animals around the world are largely being held in captivity, in extremely toxic and inhumane conditions.  If we see viruses coming out of that, that’s the microbiome’s check on the reality that we live in.  There are checks and balances in biology, certainly, that work better than the checks and balances in our government,”  Dr. Bush comments.

One molecule in our food and water system called glyphosatethe active ingredient in Roundup – is causing huge endocrine disruption in our bodies and poisoning our environment.  It poisons our genome and blocks the ability to make glutathione, which is our main antioxidant.  Dr. Bush says that by using antimicrobials like glyphosate, which act as an antibiotic for the earth, we have been destroying our soil and depleting nutrients from our food.  Glyphosate is only one of 260 chemicals in our food system.  “Glyphosate is at over 5 billion pounds of consumption worldwide and it is, unfortunately, a water-soluble toxin.  A water-soluble toxin is a bad idea on a planet that is 70% water not just by surface area, but for the air we breathe, for the clouds that rain it down upon us, for the plants that grow within that soil, and for the bodies that live off of those plants.” 

Our staple superfoods are contaminated because of the farming practices using so much glyphosate, and our foods are making us sick.  The third-largest crop we grow in the U.S., right behind corn and soybean, is our neighborhood lawns and it extends to our playing fields and golf courses sprayed with Roundup.  Glyphosate is destroying not just the proteins for human life but also for bacterial life.  It functions as a potent antibiotic, kills life in the soil, and also kills life in the gut.  So when we are eating, drinking, and breathing Roundup, we are destroying our gut microbiome which determines our health.  Simply put, when you harm the gut, you are harming the human.  As a result, we are experiencing an extinction of the diversity of microbes within our gut, which parallels the extinction that is gripping the planet.

Dr. Bush, who has devoted his time to soil science and regenerative agriculture, has been educating farmers on the dangers of chemical farming, making them aware that they are facing the highest levels of chronic disease in the world.  He speaks of the last 90 miles of the Mississippi river that collects about 80% of the Roundup in our environment and is now cancer alleys. 

“If you look at the graph of the growth of GMOs, the growth of application of glyphosate and autism, it’s literally a one-to-one correspondence.  You could make that graph for kidney failure, you could make that graph for diabetes, you could make that graph even for Alzheimer’s…Monoculture farms and monoculture factory farms become hotbeds of disease,” comments Dr. Shiva, on the harm caused by this Bayer-Monsanto herbicide that is commonly used with GMO crops.

Dr. Bush explains that with every introduction of glyphosate starting with its debut in 1976, spraying of wheat starting in 1992, and the Roundup Ready GMO crops in 1996, there has been an uptick in chronic and autoimmune diseases, inflammatory and neurologic degenerative conditions.  Glyphosate was originally used as an industrial pipe cleaner as it would leach out heavy metal buildup in older pipes.  Millions of acres of U.S. farmland are now covered with glyphosate-resistant superweeds. 

Bayer, a German company, cleverly got the GMO approval for LibertyLink a year before they bought Monsanto.  They are happy to pay billions of dollars in lawsuit settlements as they very slowly phase out glyphosate while the court systems slog along, sweeping in as a savior with their jackpot LibertyLink.  LibertyLink is another GMO approved by the E.U., the U.S., and Canada.  Instead of disrupting the glycine amino acid pathway which glyphosate does, LibertyLink crops–genetically modified to handle spraying of a chemical called glufosinate–disrupt amino acids that are critical for human reproduction.  LibertyLink, unfortunately, is already growing throughout the whole midwest.  “The sperm counts in all Western countries have dropped by 52-57% over the last few decades, and we are now seeing one in three males with a sperm count at infertility level and one in four women is struggling with infertility.  We are losing the capacity to procreate, we are losing the capacity for human life.  We are failing as a biologic species because of the collapse of biology beneath our feet, beneath our gut, beneath the soils that dwell around us.” 

Talking about the “victory gardens” in World War II that provided some 40 percent of all produce consumed in the U.S., Dr. Bush says: “We stopped growing food in the United States.  If you think we have a serious crisis in our hospitals now, wait till our food system is disrupted…Our supply chains are tenuous…Kansas–our most agricultural state in the U.S. where 90% of the acreage is agriculturally managed– imports 90% of their food as a state and one in four children is going hungry in Kansas for lack of calories today.”  He laments the dramatic increase in chronic diseases we have seen so far, and notes how our children are aging fast, developing the diseases that we used to see in geriatrics. 

Dr. Bush predicts that if we just look forward to 16 years–four more American presidents–we will hit autism for one in three children, and adults with about 75% cancer rates.  “Our food system is 1.2 trillion dollars a year, our medical system is 3.7 trillion dollars a year.  We are three times outspending our food with just the cost of chronic disease care…We have a completely unsustainable model for agriculture and disease care in the U.S. which is going to drive us bankrupt as a nation…The farmer and the physician have been trained by the same chemical companies and so we have been indoctrinated into the same pharmaceutical codependence and world view, whether we be a farmer or a physician.”  

Discussing his work with his non-profit Farmer’s Footprint, he remarks: “My greatest hope is for this third generation of Roundup children.  Let’s reverse out of that epigenetic doom that we have set for them.  Let them find a pathway into a new epigenetic hope through their reconnection to real food, through a really healthy soil and water ecosystem.” 

Go back to read Part 1 or move on to Part 3!


Paulomi Shah hopes to live in a world where not a single animal would be killed for food – so that there would be an abundance of healthy foods – and hopes for a world where all foods would be grown organically.


 

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. 

The End of Meat and GMOs or the End of Us: Part 1

This article will be released as a three-part series on the effects of GMOs and the meat industry on our environment. Read Part 2 and Part 3!

“My dream in 1987 was that I will not let the Monsantos have a monopoly over the seed.  They cannot pretend they invented the seed, they cannot pretend it’s a machine that they put in place.  This illusion is too much of an abuse against the creativity and creation of the earth.  I decided to protect the seed because I didn’t accept it being in the hands of a few people just for profit and monopoly.  I could not accept the untruth of the seed being patented.  For me saving seeds and exchanging seeds is maintaining the continuity of cycles of life in farming, in nature, and in society,” says environmental activist, author, and food sovereignty advocate Dr. Vandana Shiva, explaining her life’s work.

Dr. Shiva continues: “Monsanto and Bayer have a long history.  They made explosives and lethally poisonous gases using shared technologies and sold them to both sides in the two world wars…Industrial agriculture is nothing else but a subsidy to the continuation of the war that started in Hitler’s concentration camps.  And in the process, we have destroyed the land, destroyed biodiversity, destroyed insects, butterflies, pollinators, and we have destroyed the farmers.”  She comments that it’s not going to work to have “the whole world declare a war on a little virus because humans have lost every war against microbes.  They turn out to be so much smarter…The garden is going to be our savior in the time of artificial intelligence.”

A virus that has locked down the world and robbed the livelihoods of millions for over a year now has a message for humanity, if only we could pay attention to it – we are just the tip of biology on this earth.  The pandemic is not a natural disaster, but a human-caused disaster.  If we do not respect the rights of other species or our fellow human beings, our planet will continue to evolve, even without us.

“It was a bad day for viruses,” Moderna’s chair Noubar Afeyan says about the day when he got the first word of his company’s clinical trial results.  “We may never have a pandemic again.”

As tempting as it is to believe, I find it more realistic to go with the thesis of Dr. Michael Greger’s book, How to Survive a Pandemic“When I was growing up, there was no such thing as HIV/AIDS.  Where did this virus come from?” he asks in the preface of this book.  The current coronavirus pandemic may just be a dress rehearsal for the coming plague.  We are heading toward a much deadlier pandemic–a hundred times worse than COVID-19–which would threaten our civilization, he argues.

As he delves into tracing the roots of many pandemics to industrialized animal agriculture, he also mourns the loss of more than half of the Earth’s tropical forests that have been cleared due to the expanding livestock production.  This “hamburgerization” of the rainforests has set the stage for disease emergence and transmission in many ways.  As the rainforests of Africa were destroyed for logging operations, gorillas and chimpanzees were shot and sold as food.  Tracing the roots of HIV to bushmeat, he writes: “Someone butchered a chimp a few decades ago and now thirty million people are dead.”  Human outbreaks of Ebola have been traced to exposure to the dead bodies of infected great apes hunted for food.  

“Increasing consumer demand for animal products worldwide over the past few decades has led to a global explosion in massive animal agriculture operations which have come to play a key role in the Third Age of emerging human disease,” says Dr. Greger.  His details on factory farming practices are eye-opening for meat consumers: “The stress associated with the routine mutilations farm animals are subjected to without anesthesia–including castration, branding, dehorning, detoeing, teeth clipping, beak trimming, and tail docking–coupled with the metabolic demands of intensive production, such as artificially augmented reproduction, lactation, early weaning, and accelerated growth rates, leave animals extremely prone to disease.”  

Dr. Greger also lays out the environmental impact of factory farms throughout this book.  He cites Robert F. Kennedy Jr. describing North Carolina’s hog farms: “Below, aluminum culverts collect and channel their putrefying waste into 10-acre, open-air pits three stories deep from which miasmal vapors choke surrounding communities and tens of millions of gallons of hog feces ooze into North Carolina’s rivers.”   What about Salmonella and E. coli outbreaks in alfalfa sprouts and greens?  The bacteria from chicken and cattle manure get onto sprouts as the level of infection in animal feces has risen with the intensification of factory farming.

“There is shit in the meat,” says Eric Schlosser, in his book Fast Food Nation.  Writing about the processing of chickens at factory farms in her book Spoiled, author Nicols Fox says that the “final product is no different than if you stuck it in the toilet and ate it.”  As he narrates the filthy conditions at factory farms, Dr. Greger argues that it is easier to blame practices that may be culturally foreign, such as wet markets and bushmeat, than it is to look at our own plates in the mirror.  The first hybrid swine flu virus was discovered in North America.  “With massive concentrations of farm animals within whom to mutate, these new swine flu viruses in North America seem to be on an evolutionary fast track, jumping and reassorting between species at an unprecedented rate.”

In a gut-wrenching account of the abuse of animals, Dr. Greger writes: “A hen needs 291 square inches of space to flap her wings, 197 square inches to turn around, and 72 square inches just to stand freely.  U.S. commercial battery facilities typically allow each bird an average of 64 square inches.  Laying hen warehouses can average more than a hundred thousand chickens per shed.”  According to the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), a single gram of manure from an infected chicken can contain “enough virus to infect 1 million birds.”

These animals are bred to be sick.  In the 1950s, the industry could raise a five-pound chicken in less than three months.  This now takes an average of forty-five days. Broilers with a faster growth rate are under physiological and immunological stress that makes them more sensitive to infectious diseases.  Dr. Greger says that H5N1 ought to have been the wake-up call to industry breeders that myopic breeding schemes prioritizing growth over health concerns threaten the continued viability of their industry.  Unfortunately, “the message does not seem to have gotten through.”  

A dead hen at an industrial egg farm in Taiwan. (Image by Jo-Anne McArthur at We Animals)

COVID-19 is not the only pandemic we have had, Dr. Greger points out:  “Bird flu viruses have been detected every year in the U.S. since the mid-1960s.  In just the last five years, the United States has suffered more than two hundred outbreaks of highly pathogenic avian influenza viruses, including H5N1, H5N8, H7N8, and H7H9, resulting in the deaths of more than fifty million chickens and turkeys.”  He explains that by adapting to chickens, bird flu viruses hit an evolutionary jackpot.  And, by adapting to chickens, the viruses may be adapting to the human race–another multibillion-host bonanza for the viruses. 

Dr. Greger also reports the meat industry’s efforts to cover up the information on disease outbreaks over the decades.  The industry’s attempts at poultry vaccinations have led to viral mutations and vaccine-resistant strains.  He quotes industry insiders who admit that truly informed consumers are the last thing they need: “If most urban meat-eaters were to visit an industrial broiler house, to see how the birds are raised, and could see the birds being “harvested” and then being “processed”….some, perhaps many of them, would swear off eating chicken and perhaps all meat.” His book presents many stories of outbreaks in factory farms from New Jersey to Oklahoma as well as of the cover-ups by corporate producers and veterinarians.

Considering the role of funding for the meat industry, Dr. Greger mentions that the World Bank, which has funded large-scale livestock projects in developing nations, has acknowledged that there is “a significant danger that the poor are being crowded out, the environment eroded, and global food safety and security are threatened” with large factory farms.  While production profitability has been the sole consideration, critics have argued that human and animal health and welfare, soil health, biodiversity, climate change, social justice, equity, good governance, and environmental stewardship have been completely ignored. 

In painstaking details throughout his book, Dr. Greger explains that reckless animal agriculture practices have given rise to endless diseases caused by humans.  The root causes behind the Third Age of human disease are “anthropogenic,” meaning human-caused.  “As climate changes and ecosystems are destroyed, pathogens will become ubiquitous, constantly mixing and mutating to find new animal hosts and new avenues of infection.”  Referring to pandemic influenza, Nobel Prize winner scientist Joshua Lederberg said: “Some people think I am being hysterical, but there are catastrophes ahead.  We live in evolutionary competition with microbes–bacteria and viruses.  There is no guarantee that we will be the survivors.”

Is it possible to prevent future pandemics?  “As hard as it is to imagine a virus more ominous than H5N1, intensive poultry production on a global scale is a relatively new phenomenon.  As poultry consumption continues to soar in the developing world, there is no biological reason that bird flu could not evolve and mutate into an even deadlier niche…Even if H5N1 never developed the capacity to go pandemic, it may only be a matter of time before the new poultry factories of the world breed the deadliest of combinations,” claims Dr. Greger.  He offers a moratorium on factory farms as one of the solutions: “If the development of animal agriculture marked the “start of the era of zoonosis,” then the scaling back of animal agricultural production may hasten its end.” 

“We may be one bushmeat meal away from the next HIV, one pangolin plate away from the next killer coronavirus, and one factory farm away from the next deadly flu…Tragically, it may take a pandemic with a virus like H5N1 or H7N9 before the world realizes the true cost of cheap chicken,” Dr. Greger declares as he concludes his remarkable book.

In an interview with Senator Cory Booker–who has unveiled a bill to reform the farm system–food revolutionist and author John Robbins says that 80% of the antibiotics that are used in the U.S. for all purposes aren’t used as medicines to treat bacterial infections in human beings, which is the rightful use, but they are used as feed-additives in factory farms and in concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs).  If this continues, we are heading into superbugs when no antibiotic will work on human infections.  Senator Booker says that his bill is a “real leverage point to look at our food systems in America, and to take steps to correct this injustice” where 90% of our agriculture subsidies using taxpayer money is going into four monocrops.  “A significant amount goes to feeding livestock…and the rest of it goes to things that make us sicker, like corn syrup.  That’s why my kids in Newark can find a Twinkie product cheaper than an apple…We have a savagely broken food system; these powerful interests protect it, and this is not for the small, independent family farmer.  This is for the big multinational corporations who get billions of dollars because of our subsidies.”  As someone who believes that change can start with a single person, Senator Booker quotes an old saying that change doesn’t come from Washington, it comes to Washington.  He calls on citizens to double down on their activism and find ways to demand a change by working with local legislators, house members, and senators on these issues.

Preventing farmer suicide protests. (Image by Navdanya)

As for Dr. Shiva, she took the inspiration from Gandhi’s spinning wheel–which was against the Satanic mills of England that had colonized the world and created slavery–and started saving seeds to fight American agrochemical company Monsanto’s tyrannical control of seeds, and has since worked tirelessly with small farmers.  Her organization, Navdanya, has built 150 community seed banks in different parts of India.  Navdanya means “nine seeds” (symbolizing protection of biological and cultural diversity) and also the “new gift” (for seed as commons, based on the right to save and share seeds.)   “Whenever a farmer has a seed, they are not in debt.  Because it is the seeds bred for chemicals or genetically engineered seeds that need chemicals that get farmers into debt, for seed, and for chemicals.  That’s the primary reason for about 70% of the debt…First they said without chemicals you can’t grow food.  Then they said without GMOs you can’t grow food.  And now they are saying that without digital agriculture you can’t grow food…The Corona crisis is forcing humanity to shake the myth of certainty and predictability.  The entire mechanistic industrial ideal which assumes total control, total prediction, and has got us in this mess, assumes separation that we are not part of nature and we are masters.” Dr. Shiva proclaims that uncertainty and non-separation from nature is the way the world is woven.

 Continue on to read the rest of the series: Part 2 and Part 3!


Paulomi Shah hopes to live in a world where not a single animal would be killed for food – so that there would be an abundance of healthy foods – and hopes for a world where all foods would be grown organically.


 

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. 

Treasure the Environment with Family-Fun Activities In the Bay Area

Any day is a good day to learn about protecting the environment, but this month, especially so. Earth Day takes place on April 22 every year and in “normal” times we would participate in a myriad of activities and events to help protect, preserve, and improve the planet we all share. This year has been a bit dystopian, but as we spring forward our hope is that slowly we will get back to normal and enjoy all that the Bay Area has to offer. So, whether you are looking for something to do with the family or by yourself, something quiet, or an outdoor adventure, we’ve got you covered! 

Wildlife

The Marine Mammal Center, Sausalito

The center offers daily guided and audio tours, a great way to raise awareness of environmental issues. There are also many interesting exhibits and on clear days, you’re rewarded with stunning vistas of the city.

Getting there: The Marine Mammal Center is located at 2000 Bunker Road, Fort Cronkhite, Sausalito, CA 94965.

Monterey Bay Aquarium, Monterey

From jellies to penguins to sea otters and sharks, over 200 exhibits and 80,000 plants and animals that call the Monterey Bay Aquarium home. The first museum to have a living kelp forest, the array of exhibits is sure to enthrall tots, from watching marine mammals swim about in humongous tanks that imitate their natural habitats to watching them being fed.

Member days: May 1-14, Open for all: May 15

Getting there: 886 Cannery Row, Monterey, CA 93940

Curiodessy

A science museum and zoo for children and families where visitors see wild animals up-close and play with kid-friendly science exhibits. CuriOdyssey is home to nearly 100 rescued animals, most native to California, that cannot survive in the wild.

Getting there: 1651 Coyote Point Drive, San Mateo, CA 94401

Gardens

Golden Gate Park

The 55-acre “urban oasis” with more than 9,000 plants from around the world is always beautiful, but, for obvious reasons, is the most magical in the spring when so many flowers begin to bloom. Pack a picnic to enjoy on the grounds or wander through the gardens and visit flora from Australia, Chile, South Africa, and more, all in one afternoon. April is a good time to see magnolias in bloom, but there are always really cool plants to check out no matter when you go.  

Getting there: 501 Stanyan St, San Francisco, CA 94117

Japanese Gardens San Mateo 

This Japanese garden is designed by landscape architect, Nagao Sakurai of the Imperial Palace of Tokyo, and features a granite pagoda, tea house, koi pond and bamboo grove. Visit during spring/summer to feed the koi and catch cherry blossoms in full bloom. There’s also a mini-train that’ll delight kids, tennis courts and many picnic areas.

Getting there: 50 E 5th Ave, San Mateo, CA 94401

Japanese Gardens Hayward

The garden was designed by Kimio Kimura. It follows Japanese garden design principles, using California native stone and plants. No stains were used on the wood constructions. Nails and fasteners are recessed, and all wood was notched, and aged, to simulate the appearance of a traditional Japanese garden.

Getting there: 22373 N 3rd St., Hayward, CA 94541

San Francisco Botanical Garden

Visit this beautiful garden at the peak of its bloom in spring. Situated within Golden Gate Park, the garden showcases over 8,000 species of plants. There are several different collections within the garden, such as Mediterranean and Tropical.  

Getting there: 1199 9th Ave., San Francisco, CA 94122

Boat ride along Stow Lake

Take advantage of spring in full bloom by renting a paddle, electric, or row boat to tour this hidden gem. Situated in the middle of Golden Gate Park, the lake includes a 110-foot artificial waterfall, colorful Chinese pavilion, and a 125-year-old Stone Bridge. During springtime, visitors will also get the chance to see ducklings and goslings hatch! Rentals start at $24/hr.

Getting there: 1 Stanyan St, Unit 2, San Francisco, CA 94118

Places to Visit

Soar to new heights on Golden Gate Park’s SkyStar observation wheel

The giant Ferris wheel in the Music Concourse brought in to celebrate the park’s 150th birthday will stick around for longer than planned because it wasn’t open for most of last year.  

Getting there: Golden Gate Park’s Music Concourse, 1 Bowl Drive

Hiller Aviation Museum

An AvGeek’s Nirvana. Beautifully curated exhibits show the past, present, and future of flight. Aircraft are beautifully restored and displayed with exciting angles and exceptional lighting. The museum has more than 50 aerospace vehicles along with companion descriptive displays concerning the history of flight.

Getting there: 601 Skyway Rd, San Carlos

Immersive Van Gogh

 

Step into the world of Vincent Van Gogh at this trippy exhibit with over 500,000 cubic-feet of illuminated projections of his work that will make you feel like you’re literally inside of his paintings. The “experiential journey” has been modified for COVID times, but still promises to be one of the most unusual and/or cultural things you’ve done in a very long time. The exhibit runs through the beginning of September.

Getting there: 10 South Van Ness Ave, San Francisco, CA 94103

Mission-Driven Nonprofits

Planterday: The Mission-Driven Mobile Plant Shop

 Dedicated to destigmatizing mental health and promoting mental health resources. As official sponsors of Crisis Support Services of Alameda County, they donate a portion of their monthly proceeds to suicide prevention services in the local community.

The Bay Area Ecology Center

A list of Bay Area environmental/sustainability-related classes, workshops, exhibits, tours, films, and other events. Events posted are directly related to Ecology Center’s main topic areas and located mostly in the East Bay. 

350 Bay Area

Building a grassroots climate movement in the Bay Area and beyond to eliminate carbon pollution and achieve a clean energy future with racial, economic, and environmental justice. San Francisco Bay Area residents building a grassroots movement for deep CO2 emission reductions.

They have local groups in most every county. They have hundreds of volunteers, supported by a small but mighty staff, working since 2012 to:

Raise awareness & urgency for the climate crisis; Mobilize to demand action at the speed & scale required to protect us all from the worst impacts; Support the voices of young people calling for a livable planet; Dig into policy options to get real emissions reductions actions passed

Stop and smell the wildflowers! Spring is when the landscape is alive with carpets of colorful wildflowers. Check out some of the best wildflower displays on the Peninsula and in the South Bay. 

Hikes

Arastradero Creek Loop (Pearson Arastradero Preserve)

3.7 miles Flowers peak: Late-March- Mid-April

The rolling hills in this preserve create a range of habitat types offering refuge for a great diversity of wildflowers. You’ll find the biggest patches of wildflowers along the sunny, southern-facing slopes.

Getting there: 1530 Arastradero Road, 1/4 mile north of Page Mill Road.

Bald Hills Loop (Calero County Park)

8.5 miles  Flowers peak: Late-March- Mid-April

Enjoy a large outcropping of serpentine soil, offering big, showy HALF displays of native wildflowers. You’ll also enjoy views of the southern Santa Cruz Mountains and nearby Diablo Range.

Getting there: 23205 McKean Rd San Jose, CA 95141

Año Nuevo Point Trail (Año Nuevo State Park)

1.5 miles Flowers peak: April

Best known as the destination to see 5,000-pound elephant seals, Año Nuevo is also home to a spectacular display of spring wildflowers. This easy, gentle trail is good for all ages and abilities. 

Getting there: 1 New Year’s Creek Rd, Pescadero, CA 94060

River Trail (Henry Cowell Redwoods State Park)

2 miles Flowers peak: April

Giant redwoods tower over the cool waters of the San Lorenzo River in this park. It contains one of the largest stands of old-growth redwoods in the Santa Cruz Mountains, and an abundance of spring flowers add to the beauty of this landscape.

Getting there: River Trail (Henry Cowell Redwoods State Park)

Arrowhead Loop (Coyote Valley Open Space Preserve)

4 miles Flowers peak: Late-March- Mid-April

Just a short drive from downtown San Jose, this preserve offers phenomenal views of Coyote Valley, the Diablo Mountain Range, and a plethora of spring flowers. You don’t have to

complete the full loop to get your fill of spectacular flowers.

Getting there: From Highway 101, take Bailey Avenue west, Turn left on Santa Teresa Boulevard, Turn right on Palm Avenue. The preserve is at the end of Palm Avenue.


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