Drought and the Ostrich Syndrome

By Rebecca Lawton, ILCW member (USA)

“The Ostrich Syndrome is a very human tendency,” said environmentalist, author, and philosopher Edward Goldsmith in 1970. Although ostriches are misunderstood—they’ll fight or flee as well as hide—Goldsmith implied that their cartoon personae resembled societal response to deep environmental crises. We lean toward wishful thinking. Or we apply superficial remedies. Ignore it, or slap on a band-aid, and we’re good to go.

Last fall, as a visitor at the University of Alberta, I shared what I knew about the extended drought in California. My colleagues had heard of our lack of rainfall but not how dire the situation had become. They weren’t strangers to dry spells themselves. They, too, have suffered devastating dustbowls. Today their prairies share the severe drought covering much of western North America. Glacier-fed water sources are dwindling as climate patterns change. Canadians know they have thirsty neighbors to the south, too, never an enviable position.

Imagine my surprise to return home after many months away to find water use unchanged and California still stymied: calling advisory group meetings, debating where cuts should be made, discussing who should be metered. Governor Jerry Brown hadn’t yet imposed mandatory restrictions, and now that he has, they don’t touch the biggest users.

Why the delay? Why the inadequacy? California’s response to crisis reeks of Ostrich Syndrome—a long time spent with heads in the sand followed by superficial remedies and, perhaps, wishful thinking. According to one of my neighbors, “We’ve been hoping for a lot of rain and snow to come along and end it.” Others claim political complexity and expediency: if you’re a government official who waits to address a natural disaster like multiyear drought, you might garner more support for grand-scale water-diversion projects you’ve wanted to complete for years. Never mind that there isn’t the water to put into them once they’re built.

It’s not accurate to say no one saw California’s dilemma coming. The current drought began in 2012. The year 2013 was the driest on record since at least 1894, according to Western Regional Climate Center. Since the 1930s, we’ve put in waterworks to rival any built any time or anywhere, using several tiers of public funding—Central Valley Project, State Water Project, Colorado River Aqueduct. We’ve been Herculean in our success moving the 75 percent of our water supply in the north to the 80 percent of our population in the south.
We’ve had no shortage of science. We’ve known California’s fresh water supply varies from 60 to 100 million acre-feet in any given year, posing unique challenges for storage. We’ve studied tree-ring data and understand that shortages can last for decades. We’ve grown accustomed to a status quo in which people use half the available water—20 to 40 percent for agriculture, 10 percent for cities and towns—leaving just half to an environment that once had it all. We’ve seen California’s cities become comfortable using twice the per-capita water that Australian cities use in comparable climates.

We’ve understood that our breadbasket Central Valley farmers, among others, have pumped groundwater to replace the rainfall we’re not getting. We’ve seen agriculture become more efficient with its water use, although we also recognize our convoluted rules force desperate and self-sabotaging behaviors: some users who must exercise or lose their rights sell water south to make up the difference. Net effect: depletion of groundwater under their feet.

In short, we’ve known we have work to do.

Drought is just one of many natural crises of which we aren’t ignorant but that we fail to face with sufficiency. I live on an active fault, part of the San Andreas system, which any day could deliver the next Katrina-sized disaster to my hometown. Citizens of Pompeii before Vesuvius knew their city was prone to devastating seismic shaking likely due to fire in the volcano. But life goes on—for some. Whether we live with drought, earthquakes, tornadoes, unlivable atmospheric CO2, or flooding, we tend to get together our emergency kits (or not) and hope for the best.

The root of the word crisis holds the key to understanding how to react. Often it’s used to mean a difficult or dangerous time, but it comes from the Greek krisis, which means decision. That sense of the word dates from the 17th century: a time at which a difficult or important decision must be made.

When we reach crisis points, when important decisions must be made, barriers block us from moving from talk to action. There are jobs at stake, homes to lose, communities at risk, ways of life to upend. There are privacy issues, property rights to observe, tradition to respect, history to study.

Meeting and conversing take patience and perseverance. There are models through history of how to do it best. In the Quaker tradition, one remains in meeting until consensus, not compromise, is reached. In the Greek tradition of dialogos, discussion is aimed at the issue at hand rather at each other in a debate to win. Facilitated meetings, committee and subcommittees, rules of order, memoranda of understanding—all are part of the fabric of civilized decision making. Without them, we unravel.

Yet meetings must lead to action. Protecting the commons. Saving resources for a (non) rainy day. Monitoring seismicity and translating data to action. Allocating the resources for suitable public works. Acting as if we had a future, for our children and the many generations ahead.

When ostriches hide, they do it in plain sight. They don’t really bury their heads in the sand, although they do collect crop stones in that familiar and much-mocked head-down posture. They lay low when sitting their eggs, flattening their whole bodies to escape notice. They hide when they have to, but as I’ve said, they’re just as prone to take critical action in their best interest.

They’re just as likely to model excellent behavior we’ve not yet grasped.


Protecting the Forest By Burning it Down

By Kaelyn Lynch, ILCW Member, (USA)
Previously published by Verge Magazine

In rural Burma, traditional agriculture practices have maintained the forest for decades, but can they endure in the face of modernization?

“Can you see the difference?” asks Mu Ohn, jolting the motorbike to a stop in the middle of the dirt path. I follow his outstretched arms to the steep banks on either side of the road, which serves as a boundary between two villages.

“This village,” he says, motioning to the lush, seemingly impenetrable forest on his right, “still burns their forest. But this one,” pointing to the ragged collection of feeble-looking trees on his left, “does not.”

“Don’t you mean…” I begin, but Mu Ohn cuts me off with a shake of his head, turning so I can see his broad smile: “You’ll see.”

In rural Burma, some farmers like Mu Ohn practice the same agriculture methods as their ancestors. Perfected over generations, their technique of shifting cultivation has allowed them to live sustainably off the land while preserving the surrounding forest in an unexpected way—by burning the trees down.

Worldwide, traditional land management is cited as a way to conserve forests and mitigate the effects of climate change in developing nations. A 2014 report by the World Resources Institute examined hundreds of previous studies and satellite images to determine that increasing indigenous peoples’ land rights helped prevent deforestation and cut carbon emissions by billions of tons.

Losing 1.3 million acres of forest each year, Burma’s deforestation rate ranks only behind that of Brazil and Indonesia. While Burma’s former military junta heavily exploited the country’s natural resources, this trend has worsened even with the charge toward democracy over the past five years, as the nation opens to outside investment.

Deforestation is known to exacerbate the effects of extreme weather caused by climate change, leading to more severe flooding, drought, disease, and soil erosion. With around 70 per cent of its population still living off the land, Burma tops the UN Risk Model as the country most vulnerable to these effects; yet, only 6 per cent of Burma’s remaining forest is officially protected.

Tucked between the folds of a mountainous part of Shan State, Konwha village owns the dense forest we saw along the road. Here, they practice a method of rotational agriculture, in which a different tract of forest is cleared and burned each year for farming. After the harvest, the area is left alone for 18 years—the time, according to village law, it takes for the forest to regrow. This way, Konhwa manages to feed its 600-person population (with some left over for sale and trade), while ensuring the forest stays intact.

The image of a recently cleared field—blackened earth dotted with stumps—is hardly a poster for conservation. In a 1957 report, the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) declared this form of farming as “backwards” and credited it with causing widespread deforestation. More recently, it has been scrutinized for contributing to climate change; the burning of forests on carbon-rich peat lands in Indonesia released more greenhouse gases than the entire U.K. last year. This criticism, however, typically refers to instances where forests are permanently converted to land for farms, ranches, or industry.

On the contrary, the rotational system practiced in Konhwa can actually save more carbon than it produces. A study in nearby Thailand of a village using similar methods puts the difference at 60,000 tonnes absorbed versus 2,000 tonnes released.

According to Dr. Jurgen Blaser, a forestry expert cited in the study, “During restoration, forests require huge amounts of carbon to reproduce. . .it is for this reason that rehabilitating forests have a high capacity to sequester carbon dioxide.”

For traditional farmers this method offers direct benefits. Burning felled trees provides the otherwise poor soil with nutrients while clearing weeds, eliminating the need for chemical fertilizers and herbicides. Keeping the forest around the village intact offers protection against natural disasters and additional food sources.

“We protect the forest for many reasons,” a local farmer tells me, “The trees give us fertile soil, plants and animals to eat, and keeps the temperature cool. It also stops flooding during the rainy season and gives us clean water and air.”

Htun Lwin, a community organizer and educator with the Burmese NGO Kalyana Mitta Foundation, emphasizes these benefits during workshops on eco-farming, climate change and disaster risk reduction throughout rural Shan State. “Farmers know about climate change, they see the effects every year,” he says. “Their cultural traditions are already good for the environment. We want to help maintain them and restore them in places they’ve been lost.” He says this outreach is especially important now, with traditional rural life coming increasingly under threat from modernization and industry. Poachers from other villages hack trees in search of roots for the lucrative medicine trade. Population increases and a shift towards a more cash-based economy also leads villagers to question how much longer their current practices can sustain them.

Their biggest concern, however, lies with land rights. According to the 2008 constitution, the state, “is the ultimate owner of all lands and natural resources,” while citizens are essentially renters that can be removed when the government sees fit. This enabled the government, military, and state-approved corporations to “grab” vast tracts of land from private owners for their own projects, often with little to no compensation. Since 2012, over 30,000 cases of unjust confiscation have been brought before the Farmland Investigation Committee, while many more go unreported by rural farmers without the means to travel or pay legal fees. Of these, only 4 per cent have resulted in remuneration for lost property.

While the newly-elected government has vowed to resolve all outstanding claims, it is unclear how much of a change in policy will occur as the nation prioritizes economic development. Today, only about 30 to 50 per cent of the rural population have formal land rights, meaning many remote places like Konhwa have no legitimate claim over the land they have occupied for decades.

This was the case in the nearby lowland village of Kon Sone, where elders recall a place once surrounded by “forest so thick, you could not see through it”—until the military confiscated the land and sold the trees as timber to China. Since then, the small farming community has suffered from mudslides, water contamination, and an ever-increasing reliance on chemical fertilizers.

Now the expansion of industry is beginning to reach further into previously untouched areas. Recognizing this, Htun Lwin is attempting to strengthen traditional methods in the face of the coming storm. He brings farmers from other regions to places like Konhwa to be trained in shifting cultivation, hoping to revive these practices elsewhere and garner them support throughout the country. He has also started to weave discussions on land rights into his trainings, encouraging farmers to petition the new government for better policies.

With support from Kalyana Mitta, Mu Ohn was able to obtain a GPS to mark the boundaries of his village’s forest, which he sees as the first step to legitimizing his community’s claim. As we scramble along steep, muddy slopes, he points out where places where boundaries were once marked simply by rocks wedged between tree branches. By officially mapping the land, he hopes to create a protected area based on the village’s customary law that will keep it from the groping arms of industry.

His work has a sense of urgency. At a peak overlooking the territory, Mu Ohn points to a nearby area recently cleared for a government-run mining operation. “If they’ve found coal, they’ll come for us next,” he says.

Admiring my dirt-stained clothes, he jokes, “You look like a farmer.” Then, more seriously, “Now that you’ve felt the land like us, it is in your heart. You can understand now why we have to protect it. If we lose it, we lose everything.”