Rima M. | Rakesh Sharma
Today, we offer you an overview of how environmental issues have been on a boil globally. And how citizen driven activism is gradually beginning to make a difference. 16-year old activist Greta Thunberg, most notably has captured the world's imagination and has engaged people in an urgent conversation about climate change. In the process, this kind of youth activism has drawn the ire of special interest groups and even of leaders like Russian President Vladimir Putin and American President Donald Trump. Trump and Brazil’s President Jair Bolsonaro in fact deny the facts of the climate change data. Trump has infamously abandoned the international Paris Accord on climate change and taken many steps to dismantle environmental protections in the US.
The Brazilian Amazon continues to burn under the watch of President Bolsonaro as large tracts of the rainforest are even now being cleared by cattle ranchers and loggers, according to a latest report in The New York Times. Closer home though, in a feeble victory for green warriors, the Supreme Court on October 7, ordered status quo in the Aarey tree felling case in Mumbai.
As you know, the court was hearing petitions by activists, many of them students, who are protesting against the felling of over 2,600 trees in Aarey Colony for the construction of a Mumbai Metro car shed. It is to be noted that this ruling came after the apex court constituted a special bench to hear the matter since officially, the SC judges are on a vacation from October 7 to 12 for Dussehra.
The special bench comprising Justices Arun Mishra and Ashok Bhushan also said it will have to examine the entire issue in detail and posted the matter for hearing on October 21 before its forest bench. They also ordered the Maharashtra government not to cut down any more trees till the next hearing. News 18 reported that the court has asked the state government to submit a status report on the number of trees felled so far and the compulsory afforestation by the Mumbai metro.
Too little, too late?
The Supreme Court asked the Maharashtra government and we quote,"Tell us how many saplings you planted. How have they grown? What's the status of your forests?" Unquote. The questions come after Mumbai Metro on Sunday claimed that it had planted 24,000 saplings to replace the trees that have been felled, reported News 18. On the night of October 3 and the morning of October 4, over 2000 mature trees were chopped by the authorities to make way for the controversial metro shed without waiting for the SC nod in the matter. Activists protesting the move were allegedly roughed up and rounded up.
The intervention from SC though may have come a little too late as the damage has already been done. The body blow to one of the last surviving, bio-diversity rich, green lung spaces could have been avoided if the felling of the trees had not been done in such a hurry. Now in direct rebuttal to the earlier claim of the High Court that Aarey was not a forest, SC has categorically stated and we quote,"Unclassified forest is also a forest." All the 29 activists who were arrested have been granted bail.
Nature vs Progress
Mumbai has witnessed incessant flooding during monsoons because its ecological balance has been endangered by infrastructural demands. In September this year, Hindustan Times reported that a 20-acre area abutting mangrove forests in Malad has been converted into a parking lot for more than 300 taxis. Badri Chatterjee reported that environmentalists even alerted authorities about the encroachment and the debri , mud and garbage that have been dumped in the mangroves.
It is clear to see that environmental issues are increasingly becoming more important to citizens because in this case, as HT reported, The United Association for Social, Educational and Public Welfare Trust, a citizens’ group, obtained satellite images to show how the parking space and debris dumping are less than 50m from mangroves, and are eating further into the forest.
The piece quotes Reji Abraham, activist and president of the trust who said that during monsoon, truckloads of debris were dumped illegally on mangroves. We quote, "The area has been flattened and levelled by the land mafia. Repeated complaints have not been addressed by the local authorities or the state mangroves committee so far.” Unquote. As the piece points out, Aarey is not the only green zone being tampered with.
The mangrove forest falls under the jurisdiction of the district administration and destruction of such forests has been banned by the Bombay high court (HC) and yet, 15 cases of mangrove zones being turned into parking lots have been recorded, according to HT.
The Aarey movement
As the hashtag Save Aarey trended over the last few days, the stand-off between the state government and the protestors became increasingly heated. On September 12 this year, Kiran Tare wrote in India Today about the persistent citizen movement against the MMRCL's (Mumbai Metro Rail Corporation Ltd) plans of felling 2,646 trees in Aarey Colony. Even though, as we know, the protests could not save over 2000 trees from being cut, the residents did all they could to protect one of the last swathes of the city's green cover from the ongoing construction of an underground Mumbai Metro project, stretching for 33.5 km. On August 29, says the India Today report, post a clearance given by the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation's (BMC) Tree Authority to allow the Mumbai Metro to locate a key part of the project within Aarey , thousands of citizens participated in mass protests.
Just to give you a context, Aarey Milk Colony located at Goregaon (East) was envisioned by Dara Khurody, a pioneer of dairy sector who shared the 1963 Ramon Magsaysay Award with Dr Verghese Kurien. The colony was inaugurated in 1951 by the then Prime Minister, Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru with the planting of a sapling.
As the India Today report informs, the colony is sprawled over 1,278 hectares in the city's suburbs and is Mumbai's second largest green cover after the Sanjay Gandhi National Park.
We quote, "The MMRCL has earmarked 30 ha, or two per cent, of Aarey Colony land, for a car shed-a Rs 900 crore centre above the ground that will monitor and control all metro operations once the project is completed by the end of 2021." Unquote.
However, says the piece, the protestors argue that the trees are equally important to the city's well being. The car shed, they claim, will turn Aarey's pristine forest into a commercial hub and the immediate impact will be felt on the catchment area of the Mithi river flowing nearby, which could potentially flood the Mumbai airport.
We quote again, "The protests had begun with environmental activist Zoru Bhathena filing a petition in the Bombay High Court on September 2, citing improprieties in the BMC Tree Authority granting clearances to the MMRCL proposal. The dormant 'Save Aarey' campaign, initially launched four years ago protesting this exact move, was resurrected.
Now, with the children of two prominent state politicians-Sharad Pawar and Uddhav Thackeray-on opposing sides having joined in, the issue has become a political one and will likely be a major campaign issue in next month's Assembly Elections." Unquote.
Regardless of the political push and pull on the subject, at the forefront of the debate have been citizens who were allegedly lathi charged when they tried to stop the axing of the trees on October 3.
The hurry with which the trees were cut has riled the activists who have argued that the government could have shifted the car shed to Kanjurmarg, 7.5 km to the east of the current site, near the Jogeshwari-Vikhroli Link Road, to minimise impact on the environment. The MMRCL disagrees and the debate goes on.
Environment is now a hot button issue globally
Elsewhere in the world too, activists are trying to bring attention to the dire need to increase green lung spaces, not deplete them. NYT’s Brent McDonald reports how in early August, Brazilian journalist Adecio Piran suggested in a piece that a coordinated criminal effort among local landowners and cattle ranchers was on to burn the rainforest.
NYT added that days later, as smoke and fires across the Amazon caught the world’s attention, bringing international outrage and condemnation of President Bolsonaro’s gutting of Brazil’s environmental protections, Piran said he was threatened and told to take his article down from the Folha do Progresso news site. When Piran refused, he received death threats. He temporarily fled town and sought protection from the police.
This year alone, says NYT, the Jamanxim National Forest, a federally protected rainforest larger than the size of Puerto Rico, lost 45 square miles of forest cover, the worst deforestation among all protected lands in the Brazilian Amazon. Brazilian satellites confirm much of that cleared land was set ablaze on August 10.
When the writer of the NYT piece Brent McDonald spoke with union leaders and ranchers, they admitted to feeling emboldened by Bolsonaro's policies. The message sent by the fires was clear. Amazon will be used not according to the needs of the world but by those who can profit from it. Local ranchers and farmers, says the piece, have railed against Brazil’s environmental protection agencies and against NGOs working toward preserving the Amazon. We quote, “Regional leaders have now heralded Bolsonaro as an ally in their fight to end federal restrictions on land use and to procure private land titles. “ Unquote.
The blaze rages on
In September this year, Dan Defrancesco in Business Insider cited the data furnished by the National Space Research Institute (INPE), to state that nearly 2,000 new fires had started in the Amazon despite a ban from the Brazilian government.
Over 50% of Brazil's 88,816 fires from January to the end of August took place in the rainforest, added Business Insider.
As the fires began to erupt and rage across the Amazon, Bolsonaro not only refused to respond to the dire situation but also turned down help when countries like Canada offered their resources to stop the environmental carnage.
The land rights of indigenous people in the Amazon meanwhile have been severely compromised as precious wildlife, natural resources and 20 per cent of the world's oxygen supply is endangered.
The lessons from the raging inferno
"Believe science..don't believe us, " has been the message of young activist Greta Thunberg to world leaders . She demanded in a searing speech at the UN, that leaders acknowledge the severity of climate change issues with concrete policy shifts.
If we just go by what science says, forest fires in the Amazon are catastrophic in more ways than one. The fact that all this was done with the help of a complicit government is worrisome.
About the toxic smoke caused by the fire, the World Meteorological Organization tweeted, “Fires release pollutants, including particulate matter & toxic gases such as carbon monoxide, nitrogen oxides and non-methane organic compounds into the atmosphere.” Unquote. So, as Richard Howells wrote in a Forbes piece, the fires are perversely, not only generating large amounts of carbon dioxide, they are at the same time destroying millions of trees that would be taking in the carbon dioxide and protecting the environment.
What is even worse if that is possible, says the Forbes piece, is the fact that the excessive carbon dioxide will then go to also trap heat within our atmosphere due to the greenhouse effect . This could change the atmospheric circulation that causes the melting of large ice sheets and add to many other catastrophic effects of climate change.
We quote, "It gets worse. It’s also been estimated that the Amazon generates about half of its own rainfall. Less rain means dryer plants, which are more susceptible to causing even more fires. A dangerous cycle." Unquote.
The role of citizenry to mitigate the global environmental crisis
In September, Gabriella Borter, Katharine Houreld and Jake Spring of Reuters noted how millions of young people flooded the streets of cities around the world to demand that political leaders take urgent steps to stop climate change. They united in a worldwide protest inspired by Greta Thunberg.
We quote, "Alarmed by images of the Greenland ice sheets melting and the Amazon rain forests burning, students and workers abandoned schools, shops and offices in nearly every corner of the globe, aiming to stop what they see as a looming environmental catastrophe.” Unquote.
The protests, says the report, started in the Pacific islands, where rising sea levels threaten a way of life, and followed the sun across Australia, Japan, Southeast Asia and on to Europe, Africa, the Middle East and the Americas. The coordinated student strike culminated in New York’s Wall Street, where some investors have embraced the fossil fuel industry.
We quote again, “Massive crowds overwhelmed the streets of lower Manhattan, chanting “Save our planet!” while anticipating an address by Thunberg.” Unquote.
Thunberg did address the tens of thousands of people gathered at a park with a view of the Statue of Liberty and said, “Right now we are the ones who are making a difference. If no one else will take action, then we will.” Unquote.
So as is obvious, between the raging arguments of the right and left wing ideologists, there is a space for us to acknowledge the clear and present danger of a possibly irreversible, climatic tipping point if things don’t change.
Global warming, as Reuters informs citing scientific data, is caused by heat-trapping greenhouse gases from burning fossil fuels and has already led to droughts and heat waves, melting glaciers, rising sea levels and floods.
“There is no Planet B,” read a sign displayed by a young woman in London during the recent protests, notes Reuter. The writing hence is on the wall.
As youth activists say, “Our house is on fire.” And if nobody will act, then they will douse the fires and change the narrative.
And change is slowly but surely coming
Reuters states that the protest movement is putting increasing pressure on governments and companies to respond. The piece informs that German Chancellor Angela Merkel has unveiled a new climate protection package. Amazon.com Inc Chief Executive Officer Jeff Bezos has pledged to make the his company net carbon neutral by 2040. Hundreds of workers from Google, Amazon and other technology companies have criticized their industry for being slow to tackle climate change and have joined marches in San Francisco and Seattle calling for action, informs Reuters.
Closer home, we too could change things for the better by asking that state and central governing bodies treat environment and climate change as intrinsic to national policies and sensitively address issues pertaining to water and land rights, air quality and wild life protection. We could change our own consumption habits and ask companies to choose green and sustainable options.
As Richard Howells observed in Forbes, "To be truly sustainable, we need to design products that consider the world’s shrinking supply of natural resources, and growing population. Ensure that the materials and packaging we use is ethically sourced and environmentally friendly. And drive a circular economy that minimizes waste, reuses byproducts and reduces the carbon footprint across manufacturing and logistics processes.
We must do something. Your business – and the planet’s – sustainability may end up depending on it." Unquote.