Are Peace Parks an Answer in World Convulsed by Conflict?

Are Peace Parks an Answer in World Convulsed by Conflict?

Editor’s note: Borders are created by nation-states. If the relationship between the surrounding countries are amiable, borders serve the purpose to stop individuals from crossing over to the other side without authority. Conversely, if the relationship is hostile, borders either are an active warzone (eg. Gaza strip between Israel and Palestine), or are at the risk of becoming one (eg. Kashmir between India and Pakistan). Either of these pose a threat to the wild nature. Many species rely on periodic migration through a specific route that goes beyond the boundaries of nation-states. At its best, borders serve to stop that migration, risking the survival of the species. At its worst, borders turned into active warzones and the militarized activities are constantly destroying an entire landscape. Civilisation inherently infringes on the freedom of all living beings through these borders.

This article provides useful information from across the globe on how warzones are impacting wildlife. It also shows the threats of new projects such as the Belt and Road Initiative, purported to be based on “win-win cooperation” between countries, is still a warzone of competition with biodiversity. The peace parks proposed in this article can be used not only to rewild nature but also to deescalate conflict between neighboring nation states DGR supports and engages in rewilding the Earth. Meanwhile peace parks also pose some new questions: What happens if one, or both, states begin extracting resources beyond the regenerative capacity of the area? If one infringes the territory of the peace park, risking another conflict? What mechanisms can be put in place to deter such actions?


By Saul Elbein/Mongabay

  • Conflicts over disputed borders, increasingly exacerbated by climate change, are putting some of the world’s key biodiversity hotspots at risk.
  • Even in countries that have avoided border wars, a global campaign of fence building — aimed at keeping out human migrants whose numbers are rising in an era of climate change and sociopolitical unrest — is causing widespread damage to vulnerable natural landscapes and migratory animal species.
  • In potential conflict zones like the Himalayas, Eastern Europe, the Caucasus, and the South China Sea, this surging human march across national frontiers has already led to violence, and in some cases to open warfare.
  • Border-straddling conservation zones known as peace parks offer a more sustainable way of managing border disputes than militarization and fence building. Peace parks on the U.S.-Canada border and in the Himalayas offer successful examples.

The Himalayan high peaks serve as a jagged wall dividing nuclear-armed neighbors — a physical barrier rising in places to more than 8,800 meters (29,000 feet) separating apocalyptically equipped nations divided by religion, politics, and many decades of bad blood.

But in ecological terms, the Himalayan plateau, the “rooftop of the world,” is a place of connection, especially for the wayward snow leopard (Panthera uncia), the alpine region’s apex predator and “tiger of the high mountains,” so dubbed by Aishwarya Maheshwari, an Indian wildlife biologist who has studied the elusive species for decades.

To Maheshwari, remote Himalayan ridges and culls don’t define a political divide, but serve as a thruway linking vast, unbroken habitat. Here, threatened wildlife — including the red panda (Ailurus fulgens), golden langur (Trachypithecus geei) and Himalayan brown bear (Ursus arctos isabellinus) — roam free, crisscrossing national frontiers. That’s an example, Maheshwari believes, that ought to be emulated by the peoples claiming the Himalayas.

In 2020, Maheshwari floated an outlandish but seductive proposition in the journal Science: Declare the snow leopard’s home territory a “peace park” — a gigantic, shared administrative border zone governed by the nations whose boundaries traverse the Himalayas, including India, China, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Bhutan and Nepal.

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Photo by Frida Lannerström on Unsplash

An all-inclusive transboundary approach to conservation

For many aspects of wildlife protection, particularly tackling the trafficking of species, a transboundary approach proves highly practical. “Any kind of poaching that happens around the border areas can easily be escaped by border jumping,” explains Elaine Hsiao, who studies peace parks in Southern Africa and teaches at Ohio’s Kent State University in the U.S.

A transboundary approach, by contrast, allows for intergovernmental cooperation and the nabbing of transgressors on either side of national borders, denying criminals sanctuary.

To many experts, the peace park concept also offers an alternative to rising tensions — a shared, conflict-free administrative zone where states voluntarily surrender claims to contested territory to create an area of shared jurisdictional and ecological management.

“If peace parks were established [by following] the way of the snow leopard, we [could] achieve that peace we always talk about,” Maheshwari told Mongabay.

Several peace parks within the snow leopard’s range are already in place, including Khunjerab National Park in the Karakoram range (India and Pakistan), and the transboundary Sacred Himalayan Landscape (with multiple interconnected parks established by Nepal, India, Bhutan and China in cooperation with WWF).

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Distribution of the snow leopard as of 2017. Could this vast territory — or at least significant parts of it — become the world’s highest-altitude peace park? Image by McCarthy et al. (2017) (CC BY-SA 4.0).

Peace parks have also been proposed in disputed and transborder Himalayan areas including the Everest region (known as Qomolangma in China and Sagarmatha in Nepal); Pamir Wakhan (between Afghanistan, Pakistan, Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan), and the Altai Mountains (between Russia, China, Mongolia and Kazakhstan).

Transboundary peace parks have been shown to work: The undefended 6,416-kilometer (3,987-mile) border between Canada and the continental U.S. (excluding Alaska) was fought over in bloody intermittent conflicts for more than half a century, from 1754 to 1815. Today, four international peace parks sit astride that border: Peace Arch Park (Washington/British Columbia); Waterton-Glacier International Peace Park (Montana/Alberta); International Peace Garden (North Dakota/Manitoba); and Roosevelt Campobello International Park (Maine/New Brunswick).

Another example, far less peaceable in intent, is the demilitarized zone between North and South Korea. While still deadly to intruding troops, the nearly 70-year-old no-man’s land “has created a de facto 4-km-wide nature reserve spanning the Korean peninsula,” according to Maheshwari’s Science paper. It’s a safe haven for the endangered black-faced spoonbill (Platalea minor), Asia’s beloved wading bird.

A transnational jurisdictional agreement encompassing snow leopard habitat could serve as a means for “harmony between and amongst the countries in Central and South Asia,” guaranteeing both an ecological and economic bounty, Maheshwari told Mongabay. “We have not [fully] enjoyed being Asian — not like the neighboring continents of Europe or [North] America,” which possess a stronger sense of unity. The snow leopard offers that opportunity, he says.

But today, a snow leopard transnational park remains mostly a utopian goal. And the chances of achieving that vision seem to be diminishing, not growing.

Maheshwari laid out his plan in 2019 (it was published in 2020) against an increasingly turbulent geopolitical backdrop, as border tensions soared between nations rushing to exploit Earth’s last ungoverned border wildlands in search of scarce natural resources — in locales where wildlife unique to the world’s rooftop hold on in alpine refugia protected only by isolation and vertical terrain.

A world at war with humanity and nature

Conflict and violence are escalating in the 21st century, from the disputed battleground bordering Ukraine and Russia, to the cold war in the South China Sea; to the literal walls rising in the Sonoran Desert between the U.S. and Mexico, or similar barriers going up in Eastern Europe (between Poland and Belarus), or on the high-altitude battlefields of the Caucasus, and the India-China nuclear standoff region in the Himalayans. Such places are not only seeing intensified human suffering, but also the disruption of transboundary wildlands.

That’s especially true as weapons systems and military hardware allow combat in once inhospitable zones.

There is no more graphic example of this devastation than the current Russian invasion of Ukraine — a country holding more than a third of Europe’s biodiversity. Russian missile, air and artillery strikes targeted by high-tech drones have disproportionately wrecked Ukraine’s heavy industry, causing unbridled pollution, while ongoing hostilities have allowed for little assessment of harm to wild creatures.

Easy to overlook amid the present fighting is the ecological damage of an earlier Ukraine-Russia border conflict: In 2014, artillery duels and brutal trench warfare exploded in the Ukrainian region of Donbas, as Russian-backed separatists and the Kyiv government fought each other. This steppe-and-forest border region, with its high plant diversity, was pushed to the brink of ecological collapse by the war, according to the U.N. Environment Programme.

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Part of the U.S border wall that bisects the Sonoran and Chihuahuan deserts along the boundary with Mexico. The barrier is part of a global push by wealthy Northern countries to assert control over sparsely populated borderlands and prevent a rush of sociopolitical and climate change refugees. Image by Steve Hillebrand/U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service via Wikimedia Commons (Public domain).

Today’s fighting in Donbas is “not only creating new [ecological] problems, but also digging up old problems and making them more and more serious,” explains Olya Melen-Zabramna of Environment, People and Law, a Ukrainian NGO.

As today’s battlefront shifts across the Donetsk and Luhansk border regions — the latter of which is now fully under Moscow’s control — both sides of the firing line are pockmarked by cratered conservation areas. The war is undoing a decade of effort by the Kyiv government to remediate landscapes contaminated by the toxic residues of unregulated Soviet-era coal and iron ore mines.

“The shelling causes accidental fires in the forest, and those fires are usually uncontrolled because our rescue agencies are not able to stop them because of the risk to their life,” Melen-Zabramna said. Forests are also now being contaminated with explosive anti-personnel mines, one of which blew up a forestry crew in April. Russian forces have also blown up air and water monitoring stations, she said.

Melen-Zabramna’s organization hopes Ukraine can find its way to environmental remediation after the war, following a path blazed by the nations of the former Yugoslavia on their battlefields. But with shells still falling, the prospect of an internationally negotiated Ukraine-Russia peace park seems far-fetched, though it would certainly help heal hearts and landscapes.

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Russian missile, air, and artillery strikes targeted by high-tech drones have disproportionately wrecked Ukraine’s heavy industry, causing unbridled pollution, while ongoing hostilities have allowed for little assessment of harm to wild creatures. Image by Yevhen Timofeev via Pexels.

 

Border fences do not make good neighbors

The 21st-century firestorm now raging in Ukraine marks a grim continuation of the conflagrations dotting the 20th — which, like all wars, were ecologically destructive, but allowed a previously unseen level of devastation to be unleashed across entire landscapes.

Eighty percent of conflicts between 1950 and 2000 took place in biodiversity hotspots, Mongabay previously reported. The reason is simple: Biodiversity hotspots tend to be where humans have limited presence — often inhospitable places that mark geographically challenging boundaries between nation-states.

These border wars could soon get more numerous: A 2019 study in the journal Nature said that climate change contributed to 20% of conflicts over the last century and could lead to a fivefold increase in conflict over this century. Likewise, armed conflict is the single most important predictor of declines in animal population, according to the International Committee of the Red Cross.

With tensions rising along national borders, the U.N. has repeatedly warned there is little reason to assume that this century will experience less war — particularly if social unrest, exacerbated by climate chaos, drives an estimated 1.2 billion people from their homes by 2050.

Along rich-country perimeters, including the southern deserts of the U.S. or in the conifer forests of the eastern EU, the perceived threat of waves of human migrants has already led to new attempts to fence (and assert control over) wild areas once left in benign neglect.

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From right: President Xi Jinping of China, President Vladimir Putin of Russia, and President Joko Widodo of Indonesia at the May 2017 Belt and Road International Forum. Image by the Russian Presidential Press and Information Office via Wikimedia Commons (CC BY 4.0).

New border fences in the U.S. Rio Grande Valley and Sonoran Desert pose physical boundaries — blockages that mammal species will need to cross as global warming renders old habitats uninhabitable, according to a 2021 study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science (PNAS). That research found that increases in border fencing extent already correlate with decreasing numbers of pumas (Puma concolor) and coatis (Nasua narica) — and bisect the ranges of 180 more mammals.

In Europe, too, razor-wire fences closing the border between Croatia and Slovenia are killing herons and red deer, according to a 2017 study in the European Journal of Wildlife Research.

These barriers are just part of a rising tide of fences and border controls raised across Europe to keep out war, economic and climate change refugees fleeing Afghanistan, Syria and the African Sahel, according to a 2016 study in the journal PLOS Biology.

This increase in border fences has coincided with growing scientific recognition of the crucial role transboundary conservation plays in species migration. So even as nations aggressively try to block the flow of people over their borders, researchers are pleading the case for unobstructed wildland corridors allowing species movement to new, safer climes, according to the 2021 PNAS study.

The trillion-dollar Belt and Road Initiative promises to put China at the heart of a globally unprecedented transportation network and energy grid. Roads and railways have long provided the quickest routes by which troops move during national invasions. Image by PughPugh via Wikimedia Commons (CC BY 2.0).

The trillion-dollar Belt and Road Initiative promises to put China at the heart of a globally unprecedented transportation network and energy grid. Roads and railways, while promoting commerce, have also long provided the quickest routes by which troops move during national invasions. Image by PughPugh via Wikimedia Commons (CC BY 2.0).

 

Trouble brewing in the South China Sea

Harmful as migrant-blocking border security measures can be environmentally, they pale in comparison to the risks posed by borders that are being disputed in the name of national defense — or nationalist expansion.

In the South China Sea, for example, China has dredged up more than 100 square miles of healthy coral reef to create artificial islands, constructing airstrips and defense positions on what it considers its rightful maritime border. China is using these new artificial island outposts to assert sovereignty and flex its muscles toward its regional neighbors like the Philippines, while also helping lock down the Western Pacific for its long-distance fishing fleets that need to feed the nation’s 1.4 billion people.

As dangerous as this situation currently is, the cold war there regularly threatens to turn hot, with the U.S. and its ally the Philippines, along with Taiwan and Vietnam, unwilling to concede to Chinese claims of exclusive control over much of this part of the Pacific.

U.S. attempts to guarantee freedom of the seas “increase the risk of a [military] miscalculation or inadvertent action that could cause an accident or lead to an incident that in turn could escalate into a crisis or conflict,” according to a January 2022 report by the Congressional Research Service.

Such a conflict would raise the prospect of modern naval warfare and bombardment in a region that accounts for one-seventh of the global fish catch. A transnational marine peace park could provide an answer: a co-administered zone protecting commerce and nature.

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A CIA map showing vast contested Asian areas. China and India claim patches of each other’s territory on opposite sides of the highest border in the world, in the Himalayas, raising the constant threat of a cold war turned hot. Image by CIA via Wikimedia Commons (Public domain).

 

China’s Belt and Road: The biggest infrastructure project ever

China’s land-based interests hold equal perils. In the Himalayas, it is engaged with India and Pakistan in a complex high-elevation land rush — complete with political maneuvering, a massive road-building effort and occasional open violence — amid a labyrinth of disputed alpine borders.

India’s Border Roads Organization, for example, is slated to build more than 3,400 km (2,100 mi) of highway along that country’s frontiers to counter Pakistan’s China-backed 3,000-km (1,800-mi) China–Pakistan Economic Corridor, a road, rail, and fossil fuel pipeline network.

This infrastructure explosion will be extremely damaging to the alpine environment, Indian ecologist Maharaj Pandit wrote in Science in 2020. In the high Himalayas, road workers are already burning scarce, extremely slow-growing native plants, to melt the asphalt needed for highway surfacing — burning that is also clearing the way for invasive shrubs.

But road building is just the beginning. The broader danger is that whenever people come into closer contact on a tense border, there is, as the Congressional Research Service warns, ever more risk that something will go wrong.

Conflict already flares there: In 2020, Chinese and Indian road-building crews got into a deadly brawl along an unmarked section of the border, combating each other with fists, stones and “nail-studded clubs,” leaving 24 dead, according to the BBC. The region, along with biodiversity and the cause of world peace, could clearly benefit from cooperative rather than competing infrastructure projects and transnational conservation projects in the Himalayas.

China’s Belt and Road Initiative map

China’s Belt and Road Initiative showing China in Red, the members of the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank in orange, and the six proposed corridors of the Silk Road Economic Belt, a land transportation route running from China to Southern Europe via Central Asia and the Middle East, and the 21st Century Maritime Silk Road, a sea route connecting the port of Shanghai to Venice, Italy, via India and Africa. Image by Lommes via Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 4.0).

 

The 21st-century battlefield comes to the world’s wilds

A saving grace of past border wars was the remoteness of their battlefields: Intense conflict there required more troops, military hardware and transport than it was sometimes worth providing. This often bought time for cooler heads to prevail, as happened when leaders in New Delhi and Beijing agreed to pull back their forces from the Himalayan border in 2021.

But the range and availability of new weapons, like Turkey’s Bayraktar TB2 drone, make such destructive escalation more likely. This was demonstrated in 2020, when the small Eastern European countries of Armenia and Azerbaijan went to war over the disputed mountain valleys between them.

For almost a generation, the nations’ contested border, a Soviet-era provincial boundary, had been a largely quiet point of contact along an old cease-fire line from a previous war. But in September 2020, a skirmish broke out, and Azerbaijan, newly armed with flotillas of Turkish Bayraktar and Israeli kamikaze drones, launched a full-scale invasion into the disputed lands of Nagorno-Karabakh.Azerbaijani drones broke the Armenian army apart from the air, and burned hundreds of square kilometers of the high forests with white phosphorous bombs as they hunted disintegrating army units among the trees.

Both sides decried the resulting ecological damage. And in a bit of dark irony, the mascot trotted out in this propaganda battle was a boundary-crossing cousin of the charismatic snow leopard that biologist Maheshwari proposed as a symbol of a peaceful Himalaya.

Armenian war propaganda images featured the Caucasian leopard (Panthera pardus tulliana), Europe’s last big cat and a reclusive resident of the borderlands between the two countries that it shares with Eurasian lynxes (Lynx lynx), Caspian Sea wolves (Canis lupus campestris) and Eurasian brown bears (Ursus arctos arctos).

Rather than providing a reason to stop fighting, reports of ecological damage helped fuel it. The Conflict and Environment Observatory found that competing claims of “ecocide” became grist for the propaganda war, as online partisans on both sides blamed each other for the highlands destruction, and urged their soldiers on.

One of the most hotly disputed aspects of the Armenian-Azerbaijani PR war was the question of who gets custody over the highland lake of Sarsang, currently split between the two countries.

In the case of this Armenia-Azerbaijan water conflict, “the candid goal of both authorities is not to reach a resolution to address some urgent problems of the local communities, but rather use this issue as a means to win on political terms by labeling the other as an aggressor or as non-cooperative,” according to a study published in the Journal of Conflict Transformation.

The lake in question, a shared border resource demanding co-jurisdiction management, would make an ideal candidate for a transnational peace park, experts say. But bilateral bad blood and bad faith also suggest the extent to which peace, or shared administration, requires far more than the absence of conflict.

Cheap but deadly armed drones like the Turkish-made Bayraktar TB2 have helped bring newly destructive air warfare to disputed alpine and remote regions where it would have once been costly and impossible.

Cheap but deadly armed drones like the Turkish-made Bayraktar TB2 have helped bring newly destructive air warfare to disputed alpine and remote regions where it would have once been costly and nearly impossible. Image by Bayhaluk via Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 4.0).

 

Peace must be the point

In truth, proposed peace parks often fail as ecological solutions when the peace aspect is treated as an afterthought, Hsiao of Kent State told Mongabay. “You end up with these places that are kind of compromised on all the objectives.”

In Southern Africa, for example, or across South America, many countries have far better relationships with their neighbors than with many of their own citizens.

“You have high level [nation-state] buy-in and then it’s just got so many issues because things at the local level are not resolved,” Hsiao said. The result can be “paper parks,” which are colored solid green on maps but are divided by acrimony on the ground.

What works better than a top-down approach, she wrote in 2019, is a bottom-up approach: one that begins with getting local communities to agree on cross-border conservation goals. “Transboundary conservation cannot be imposed from above in violent landscapes, or it may not survive tensions,” Hsiao wrote.

Local communities also have far more skin in the game than saber-rattling national administrations: For example, tens of thousands of ethnic Armenians fled the Nagorno-Karabakh region as the 2020 war spread devastation among their homes.

The Artsakh Mountains

The Artsakh Mountains: This disputed, forested range lies between Armenia and Azerbaijan; it is controlled by the former but claimed by the latter. It was the setting for a destructive 2020 war that foreshadowed the current war in Ukraine. Image by sedrakGr via Wikimedia Commons (CC BY 3.0).

In Latin America’s Andes Mountains, another possible model of accord can be found in another high-altitude, hydrologically significant park, in a once-violent border region: the Cordilleras del Condor located between Ecuador and Peru.

Leaning on close cross-border relationships between the Indigenous Shuar, Awajun and Wampis peoples, a benefit of the region’s arbitrary boundaries, the NGO Conservation International brokered a lasting border peace that has grown over the subsequent two decades into a healthy framework of shared regional management between the two countries.

Borders can offer fertile ground for the seeds of conflict. But handled diplomatically, they can also seed peace in its most constructive, proactive form — through an ethic of cooperation between local communities and national capitals alike, say peace park advocates. Moreover, peace parks could provide a hedge against the catastrophic conflicts that may loom with destabilizing climate change.

“We as humans identify and recognize borders, but obviously wildlife don’t,” Indian ecologist Maheshwari concluded, making his case yet again for a Himalayan reserve.

“Nowhere in the conservation book does it advocate that species should be confined to one area,” he said. “Otherwise, there’s no meaning or sense to the word wildlife — animals are not wild if they’re confined to one piece of land.”

Perhaps, he argues, the time has finally arrived for the world to embrace peace parks.

Featured image: via Pexels

An Alliance Between Human and Non-Human

An Alliance Between Human and Non-Human

Editor’s note: Writing from the mountains of Kerala, rewilder and restorationist Suprabha Seshan explores the pandemic and the war of patriarchy vs. the planet. “It is my sworn mission to salvage the ones burned, maimed, poisoned or reconstituted from the living earth by the fires of industrial civilisation,” she writes. This essay was first published in Turkish in Jineoloji magazine, a publication of the women’s movement of Kurdistan.


The Covid-19 pandemic, lethal as it is, is instrumental to capital’s assault on the living world. Looming through the terrors unleashed by free-flying strands of DNA are gargantuan infrastructural projects, including medical, green and digital. These are intent on destroying the web of life. Out of this extermination project, will spew more illnesses, disorders, infections, infestations, and devastations.

I urge us to address the relation between the militarised-capitalist-supremacist mindset and the living body of the earth. The latter includes you and me, our beloved human families, friends, communities and peoples, and also our non-human kith and kin. In this essay, I refer to the former as The Patriarch.

~~~

An active extermination event is at large, distinct from previous mass deaths of species through passive geologic processes. The current event involves slavery, ecocide and genocide. To understand Covid-19 while this is going on, would be like trying to understand a friend or family member’s 0.05% chance of dying from a natural ailment, when there is a psychopath with a shotgun in the room.

Domination, disorder, disease, debilitation, torture, slavery, unhappiness, fear, addictions, death and decay are essential for The Patriarch. Assembled from the reconstituted bodies of the living world, with extermination intrinsic to his existence, he will not stop until he consumes all. Ecocide and genocide are his mission.

The fundamental driving force of capital, I believe, is the imperative to conquer all life (including human bodies, hearts and minds). Unless this is negated, we cannot nurture the more subtle aspects of the enduring relationships between humankind and other-than-humankind.

While The Patriarch reduces many persons to touchscreen modalities, he confines and debilitates others. He even suffocates entire populations in the gas chambers of modern civilisation – the polluted cities – and burns others in wastelands resulting from the furnaces of his industries.

This kind of extermination has been going on for a while, perhaps since about 1492 when Europeans gifted smallpox wrapped in blankets to native Americans. Some people think it began way before, during the birth of civilisations – of militarised-hierarchical-extractive entities distinct from the myriad small cultures growing slowly over millennia in sustaining land bases. I find the nature of capital, particularly technocratic-militarised capital, egregious to a new extreme. The Patriarch is insatiable. I also believe he is insane. He has begun to devour his own body.

~~~

I am a conservationist living in a community in the rainforests of the Western Ghat mountains in southern India. I protect endangered species, restore rainforest habitat, and educate youth. We are many women in this place. Together with the men who also live and work here, we have an intimate knowledge of the plants and animals who create this biome, who are all sovereign beings in their own right.

These non-humans – or other-than-humans – also give us our foods and medicines, our ecologies and cultures, our material and immaterial bases. In return we try to protect them, nurture them, and see them through these terrible apocalyptic times. Together we work on a collective ecology, acknowledging our inseparableness from each other in the web of life. We are deeply intertwined through our physical beings: our cells, juices and tissues, our senses, limbs and nerves, and every organ and follicle. Through our bodies we create cultures, biomes and ecospheres. All these are being exterminated by the toxic forces of technologised-capitalistic patriarchy.

It is indeed my deep and fervent wish to examine the work of an unsee-able, unknow-able micro-being on humans. But I believe this will never be wholly known, and certainly not in a reductive way.  Reciprocal mutualistic relationships rooted in interbeing grow in intimacy while remaining free and wild. They are like a dance between creatures – between men, women and others; adults and children; humans and nonhumans; between plants, animals, fungi, clouds, winds, rain, rocks, mountains, algae, forests, grasslands and oceans. This mutualism includes viruses, and the SARS-CoV-2 virus, too.

However, I believe the pandemic needs to be examined in the infernal light of omnicide (planetary to cellular). We cannot afford to ignore the background to the viral outbreak. We cannot forget the various “cides” that are going on – ecocide, gynocide, bactericide, fungicide, vermicide, infanticide, weedicide, genocide, climate-cide – and even cosmocide, the destruction of a cosmic body, the planet.

We are not at the beginning of a catastrophe, as the climate-mongers will have us believe. Rather, we are already towards the end of an altogether incomprehensible horror. The orchestration of capital through this pandemic threatens further the direct perception of The Patriarch’s endgame. He wreaks further havoc on his hapless slaves through various fear tactics. He exerts his enormous machines on all his subjugates such as indigenous peoples, marginalised classes, races and castes, women and children. He deploys them on the last forests, waters, winds and habitats. All the above, human and non-human, are swept under the rubric of “resources to be managed”. He also invents new enemies from the very body of the earth which sustains him, like the SARS Corona Virus.

~~~

As an ecologist serving the rainforests of the Western Ghats, it has been my lifelong enquiry to look at how a biome can recover from assault – from colonial-neocolonial-capitalistic-civilisational assault. I know, and the biome knows, that it can heal from most travesties and injuries, and that it will do its utmost to replenish itself and the planet. But the opposing faction, which for the moment we are calling The Patriarch, is gathering momentum. For the arsenal he has accrued – an arsenal built and assembled from the living body of the planet – is in fact, simultaneously disassembling, as he is now also turning on himself. He is running out of other resources.

In this utter disconnect, a monstrous creature devouring himself, he further debilitates humans and non-humans and the living community of earthly existence. He is not open to reason, though he sounds like he is. Nor is he open to life, though he needs it and appropriates it, particularly its very metabolic and life-engendering powers. Saying he is allied to the natural world, he severs himself from it in manifold ways. It doesn’t take much to see that The Patriarch’s language alienates him from his own body, and the body of the earth and the people. His actions separate him more and more from humans and non-humans, without whom he would perish in an instant.

There is no doubt, for me, that The Patriarch’s machinery must stop. My sincere observation is that only non-humans will stop him. Humans are at a gun point more insidious than what non-humans face. Non-humans are not hooked as humans are to The Patriarch.  None of the other species – the ones within us and the ones without, those who inhabit our human bodies (the micro-biomes and macro-biomes without whom we could not even have a so-called human existence), and those whose bodies within which we dwell – none are dependent on him. They don’t need him for anything.

~~~

As of this writing, 0.05% of the human population has died from Covid, according to the WHO. The BBC news earlier this week said another half-million people in Europe will die by next year, unless vaccinated. If the data are to be believed, and if the projections are to be trusted, perhaps 5 million people will die altogether from Covid-19. We must do everything to prevent such a terrible thing. Of course. But, critical to recovery of humankind from its various acute and chronic ailments is a return of habitat, of clean air, and clean water, and nature-based relationships for humans to dwell amongst. The cleansing of lungs and livers and other organs, the opening of the senses, and the revival of rivers and wetlands, oceans and aquifers, and the vast ancient forests and human-non-human relations requires The Patriarch to be stopped. Humans are more dependent on all these than we are on The Patriarch.  Whom to choose? The Patriarch, or life?

~~~

I’ve heard it said that the virus has no moral brief, but the starker reality is that it carries with it a potent ecological brief, a message saying that unless the world is fecund again, pandemics will speed up the obliteration of the human species, itself a marvelous creation of nature, already weakened by war, by generations of slavery to capital, by poison and dead-numbing effects of digital weaponry, radiation, forced migration, wage slavery, mental anguish and terrible violence on women, children, people of colour and indigenous peoples – all required by The Patriarch as cogs in his capitalist-industrial-technocratic machine.

~~~

The virus, invented in a laboratory or not, is a biological entity that enters human bodies, causes symptoms as it goes about its own mission, propagating itself, tangling with host genomes, creating new conditions, challenging us in its own way, and like any infection, or deemed infection, it pushes our immune systems. Other viruses create other conditions, many of which are beneficial. Overall, the benefits outweigh the diseases.

The virome consists of vast assemblages of viruses in each and every body, habitat and biome. It surrounds us, fills and subsumes our every thought, breath and action. Viruses are the most abundant biological entities on earth. They make us who we are. Like with every aspect of the living cosmos, much of what happens is beneficial, and viral life seems to beget more life, creating our genetic identities. Evolutionary studies show that all life begets more life, despite the occasional disruption or cataclysmic event.

~~~

If invented, then the virus is not different from other invented beings, like dog breeds, plant breeds and even the eugenist caste creations, where, through exercise of a supremacist caste or class’s control, another caste or class or creature’s love, life and passions are harnessed, culled, consumed, engineered, enslaved, extorted, and artifacted to serve the supremacist project (factory farms, factory labour, pet industry, plant industry, monoculture agriculture, industrial fishery, dams-on-rivers, humans-in-slums, human trafficking, domestic labour, untouchable peoples and many more forms of subjugation).

~~~

Domesticated dogs go feral sometimes. They attack people sometimes. The dogs get impounded, spayed or killed, and there is a furor for a while. Domesticated plants go feral sometimes, usually after generations of breeding and enslavement, or after a natural disaster, like a volcanic explosion, or the desertification caused by modern civilisation. They, too, seem to invade territories controlled by humans for other purposes, including other plants deemed more useful. The new problem plants get weedicided, eradicated, and turned into biomass for some other project. This phenomenon gets new names, such as “the science and practice of invasion biology.”

Humans too, go feral, sometimes. They try to take back the control and agency they were systematically denied. They become targets of world leaders and other supremacists.

Now the virus is going feral. Viral. The solutions to this are confinements, containments, fear-mongering and authoritarian technics such as lockdowns and mandates regarding vaccines.

In all these instances, the aggressors, the hosts, the pathogens and the victims are actually contingent to the projects of The Patriarch.  Besides, we all know that this virus and its quick evolving progeny can beat any vaccine. We all know The Patriarch needs the virus, the vaccines and human beings.

The Patriarch needs life for all his projects. It is his own dependency on human and non-human others, that he hates more than anything else. Would that we were all machines! He would not be so burdened, guilty, tormented. Machines can be turned on and off, in an instant.

~~~

During the lockdowns, the stopping of vehicles affected every human and non-human. A great number of humans were corralled in. There was no traffic. Other humans and non-humans surged onto streets. The exuberance of the latter offset the tragedy of the former (people desperate to get home). Many studies show that when air, water and land traffic stopped, biodiversity increased in most areas. This was true in our home in the Western Ghats too. Freshwater life had a reprieve from the pesticides washing into the streams and rivers. Insects bred unhindered by insecticides (momentarily unavailable because of the collapse of supply chains). Everywhere, people started gardening in balconies and yards, while others returned to hunting and foraging. Although this hurt some non-humans, overall, it was a return to another kind of life, and a far more direct existence. In the forest, friends reported seeing animals come closer, and they also reported some increase in illegal hunting. Men forced to take to the gun instead of the shopping bag. Men have always hunted for food. Now this ancient way of living is illegal only because The Patriarch legitimises another kind of degradation; the devouring of the land by his forces to feed his industrial systems and machines, including the slaves that work them and now wholly depend on them.

Actual human impact on this forest, man to tree, man to river, women to plants, people to the commons, is minimal compared to the post-Hiroshima assault on the whole biome. We cannot equate hand to hand combat to the unleashing of a nuclear or chemical arsenal, like Round up or Endosulfan or Agent Orange. Or the arsenal of earth-moving machinery.

~~~

I’ve heard that whales could once again hear each other sing underwater during the lockdowns, because of the reduction in ocean traffic. Friends say Olive Ridley turtles increased in certain coastal areas for a brief period, because of a near complete halt in trawling and netting. Air pollution dropped because of the grounding of aircraft, and great murmurations of birds could fly freely without hindrance from war planes and cargo planes and passenger planes. I know from my personal experience that I could walk through the streets of Bangalore without my eyes smarting from pollution, and I saw more birds and butterflies in the city than ever before. The resilience of life is obvious. It’s possible to see what it is capable of all the time.

I know the resilience of  my own body, of human beings, non-human beings and of the great earth herself.

~~~

The increase in human numbers by over 4% in this same period overshadows the effect of one life form on another, but is not mentioned. However, human will is even more broken and hijacked by the Patriarch’s projects, by capitalism. Furthermore, the increase in other kinds of machines, industrial infrastructure and invasive medicine (all wreaking ecocide or genocide somewhere in the world) pales, in turn, the effect of the increase in human numbers, and even more the effect of one little, invisible life form on some of humankind.

I also heard that young people turned suicidal, and that mental illness rose during this great human confinement, another term for the lockdowns. Already estranged from the rest of the cosmos, modern humans are even more lonely. Indigenous people know the antidotes to loneliness and breakdown are communities of humans and non-humans. The Patriarch and his henchmen divide millions more from their loved ones while they live and also while they die. I cannot think of anything more terrifying than this.

~~~

As a rainforest activist, it is my daily work to find alliance amongst humans and non-humans to stop further assault. This is no simple task, as most humans see the so-called benefits of capitalism as great, and that life has never been so good. The assault on their bodies through the toxification of the environment, which has led to severely compromised immune systems – a necessary precondition for new diseases to run rife – is unperceivable, because of clever filters in place, addictions, and the numbing effects of petroleum-based lifestyles. Most people are hooked to modern capitalistic systems as providers of life, healers of disease and rescuers from death. A capitalist technocrat is like God. He is a life-giver and a death-controller. He can also assuage, deprive, save, confine and kill in the name of God, or science, for whatever he considers to be the greater common good. To which we are all subject. To which we cannot say no. This great hijacking of the human will is the horrific achievement of the pandemic.

So I seek alliance amongst those not yet wholly hijacked.

~~~

As a rewilder and restorationist, it is my sworn mission to salvage the ones burned, maimed, poisoned or reconstituted from the living earth by the fires of industrial civilisation. My friends, comrades and I run refuges for non-humans, and also humans. We see the need for safe houses, halfway homes, and intensive care units for our plant and animal kith and kin, and also for women, children, marginalised and indigenous peoples, and anyone wishing to break free from The Patriarch’s projects. We need every possibility to regroup and re-enter relationships where humans and non-humans can support each other, so that we may resist the last onslaughts.  I find rewilding to be a worthy vocation.

As a member of the web of life, of the still substantial community of life, I try to unravel the effects of one member of this community, the virus, on another member of this same community, the human being.  Unfortunately, without addressing the mission of The Patriarch, of omnicidal capital, we cannot examine our true relations with our non-human kith and kin.

~~~

Humans are slaves to The Patriarch.  So is the great planet with its winds and lands and waters with trees and elephants and butterflies. So are the forests of my region. The Patriarch needs us alive and needs us dead for his project. It’s a real question how liberation will come.  With a domination imperative unique in the entire life of the cosmos, he needs dead wood and living wood and feral wood (ecosystem services of forests). He needs dead water and living water and feral water (for irrigation, tidal and hydropower). He needs dead wind and living wind and feral wind (for air-conditioning, ventilators and turbines). He needs dead plants and animals and living plants and animals and feral plants and animals (for food and medicines and now for climate-saving biodiversity). Now he even needs dead fungi and living fungi and feral fungi (for more biodiversity). He needs dead viruses and living viruses and feral viruses (for evolution and now for vaccines and the great global reset). He needs dead humans, and living humans and feral humans (for research, trade, war and terrorism and slavery).

~~~

I see Covid-19 as a project of The Patriarch, of supremacist powers in the ruling class destroying people and saving people. Our lives are clenched in their hands. They have become the arbiters of human-non-human community, of the very web of existence. They give life, and they take away the foundation of life, through creating new hooks and needs. At the same time they destroy genuine relationships and our capacity to remember what the land was once like. However, because life is as powerful as it is, and because the forests are as resilient and fecund as they are, the world leaders and technocrats aim to harness life’s myriad powers for their projects. Where before they sought land, spices,  plants, animals and slaves from the global South, and wood, water and minerals, now they hunt ecosystems and planetary forces (tides, sunshine, clouds, biomes (evolution itself) and slaves everywhere. It is the exuberance and wholeness of life that they seek to devour to fuel their existence.

~~~

I am witness to the land coming alive every moment of every day, so I know the full powers of life are still working. Life’s fecundity is unstoppable, it surges under every type of condition. Like the pigs in factory farms who have babies under impossible conditions, or men and women growing families during war, or forests having baby forests even when the whole climate is shifting, life creates life all the time and everywhere. The ever-entwining forests and winds and waters, with their immense creative forces, both tantalise and threaten The Patriarch, because life achieves with joy and felicity what he cannot ever do. He cannot create life yet, he can only try to force it to create itself. Whether under gun point or nuclear blasts, or dioxins in the cell of every creature, life is the regenerative force he wishes to tap into. Genetic and geologic engineering are only steps along the way.

~~~

I, too, am a creature of nature. Endowed with a particular passion, a wonderment of what this alive, half-alive, wild, half-wild, feral, domesticated, enslaved, tortured way of existence is. Aware that I am a part of all this through my body, my mind, my senses and other faculties, I experience inter-being in everything I do, everything I am, in every aspect of my body-being. I cannot even call it mine, as I feel the work of the forest through the lungs, and the skin and the gut and the mind of this body, itself a biome of sorts. This is the awakening from the nightmare that happened after some years of living here. I came alive to the undeniable truth that we are all inextricably intertwined. That ecology is the non-negotiable, ever-vital matrix in which I am completely held. That I also take part in it, through every action, and non-action, even in my sleep and dreams. As I awoke to The Patriarch’s shadow project, I awoke to the natural world’s life engendering service. Ecology makes more of itself and lives and thrives upon itself. Capitalism, the latest and most devastating avatar of patriarchy, and of ego, makes more of itself and lives and feeds upon its now disassembling self.

~~~

The Patriarch forms himself not in the image of some god; he tries to gain advantage to himself through the exuberance of life. His ego needs our eco.

However, he is a toxic mimic, imitating the form of creation but not its content. He is bent on destruction; total annihilation.

Unlike life. She lives and thrives through community and love and joy and play and inter-being and fecundity and beauty.

~~~

In solidarity with Kurdish women in their extraordinary mission, and through these thoughts, joining the clarion call for Life to overrun the patriarch wholly: to dismantle every cog and wheel of his stupendous machine. Let’s unhinge him. Let’s ally with eco, not his insufferable ego!


Suprabha Seshan is a rainforest conservationist. She lives and works at the Gurukula Botanical Sanctuary, a forest garden and community-based conservation centre in the Western Ghat mountains of Kerala. Her essays can be found in The Indian Quarterly, The Indian Express, Scroll.in, Hard News, and Economic and Political Weekly. She is currently working on her book, Rainforest Etiquette in a World Gone Mad, forthcoming from Context, Westland Publishers. She is an environmental educator and restoration ecologist, an Ashoka Fellow, and winner of the 2006 Whitley Fund for Nature award.

In Ecuador, a Forest Has Legal Rights

In Ecuador, a Forest Has Legal Rights

This is a press release from the Center for Biological Diversity

Ecuador’s Highest Court Enforces Constitutional ‘Rights of Nature’ to Safeguard Los Cedros Protected Forest

QUITO, Ecuador— In an unprecedented case, the Constitutional Court of Ecuador has applied the constitutional provision on the “Rights of Nature” to safeguard the Los Cedros cloud forest from mining concessions. The court voted seven in favor, with two abstentions.

In the wake of the ruling, which was published Dec. 1, the Constitutional Court will develop a binding area of law in which the Rights of Nature, the right to a healthy environment, the right to water and environmental consultation must be respected.

The court decided that activities that threaten the rights of nature should not be carried out within the Los Cedros Protected Forest ecosystem. The ruling bans mining and all types of extractive activities in the protected area. Water and environmental permits to mining companies must also be denied.

Mining concessions have been granted to two thirds of the incredible Los Cedros reserve. The Ecuadorian state mining company ENAMI holds the rights. The new ruling means that mining concessions, environmental and water permits in the forest must be cancelled.

“This precedent-setting case is important not only for Ecuador but also for the international community,” said Alejandro Olivera, senior scientist and Mexico representative at the Center for Biological Diversity. “This progressive and innovative ruling recognizes that nature can and does have rights. It protects Los Cedros’ imperiled wildlife, like the endangered brown-headed spider monkeys and spectacled bears, from mining companies.”

In September 2020 Earth Law Center, Global Alliance for the Rights of Nature, and the Center for Biological Diversity filed an amicus curiae (friend of the court) brief before the Ecuadorian Constitutional Court. The groups asked the court to protect Los Cedros and robustly enforce constitutional provisions that establish basic rights of nature, or “pachamama,” including the right to exist, the right to restoration and the rights of the rivers, especially the river Magdalena.

“This is a historic victory in favor of nature,” said Natalia Greene from the Global Alliance for the Rights of Nature. “The Constitutional Court states that no activity that threatens the Rights of Nature can be developed within the ecosystem of Los Cedros Protected Forest, including mining and any other extractive activity. Mining is now banned from this amazing and unique protected forest. This sets a great juridical precedent to continue with other threatened Protected Forests. Today, the endangered frogs, the spectacled bears, the spider monkey, the birds and nature as a whole have won an unprecedented battle.”

“It is undoubtedly good news but the situation of the Los Cedros Protective Forest is not an isolated event in Ecuador,” said Constanza Prieto Figelist, Latin American legal lead at Earth Law Center. “This is a problem of the forests throughout the country. In recent years mining concessions that overlap with protective forests have been awarded.”

The brown-headed spider monkey, found in Los Cedros and threatened by the mining, has lost more than 80% of its original area of distribution in northwest Ecuador. In 2005 scientists estimated that there were fewer than 250 brown-headed spider monkeys globally, making the species among the top 25 most endangered primates in the world.

The case is of great significance, both for Ecuador and the world, because it establishes important and influential “Earth jurisprudence” that will help guide humanity to be a benefit rather than a destructive presence within the community of life. The proposed mining is unlawful, the groups say, because it violates the rights of the Los Cedros Protective Forest as an ecosystem as well as the rights of the many members of that living community.

The Center for Biological Diversity is a national, nonprofit conservation organization with more than 1.7 million members and online activists dedicated to the protection of endangered species and wild places.

Climate change is muting fall colors, but it’s just the latest way that humans have altered US forests

Climate change is muting fall colors, but it’s just the latest way that humans have altered US forests

This story first appeared in The Conversation.

By Marc Abrams

Fall foliage season is a calendar highlight in states from Maine south to Georgia and west to the Rocky Mountains. It’s especially important in the Northeast, where fall colors attract an estimated US$8 billion in tourism revenues to New England every year.

As a forestry scientist, I’m often asked how climate change is affecting fall foliage displays. What’s clearest so far is that color changes are occurring later in the season. And the persistence of very warm, wet weather in 2021 is reducing color displays in the Northeast and mid-Atlantic. But climate change isn’t the only factor at work, and in some areas, human decisions about forest management are the biggest influences.

Longer growing seasons

Climate change is clearly making the Northeast warmer and wetter. Since 1980, average temperatures in the Northeast have increased by 0.66 degrees Fahrenheit (0.37 Celsius), and average annual precipitation has increased by 3.4 inches (8.6 centimeters) – about 8%. This increase in precipitation fuels tree growth and tends to offset stress on the trees from rising temperatures. In the West, which is becoming both warmer and drier, climate change is having greater physiological effects on trees.

My research in tree physiology and dendrochronology – dating and interpreting past events based on trees’ growth rings – shows that in general, trees in the eastern U.S. have fared quite well in a changing climate. That’s not surprising given the subtle variations in climate across much of the eastern U.S. Temperature often limits trees’ growth in cool and cold regions, so the trees usually benefit from slight warming.

In addition, carbon dioxide – the dominant greenhouse gas warming Earth’s climate – is also the molecule that fuels photosynthesis in plants. As carbon dioxide concentrations in the atmosphere increase, plants carry out more photosynthesis and grow more.

More carbon dioxide is not automatically good for the planet – an idea often referred to as “global greening.” There are natural limits to how much photosynthesis plants can carry out. Plants need water and nutrients to grow, and supplies of these inputs are limited. And as carbon dioxide concentrations rise, plants’ ability to use it decreases – an effect known as carbon dioxide saturation.

For now, however, climate change has extended the growing season for trees in the Northeast by about 10-14 days. In my tree ring research, we routinely see trees putting on much more diameter growth now than in the past.

This effect is particularly evident in young trees, but we see it in old trees as well. That’s remarkable because old trees’ growth should be slowing down, not speeding up. Scientists in western states have even noted this acceleration in bristlecone pines that are over 4,000 years old – the oldest trees in the world.

Fall colors emerge when the growing season ends and trees stop photosynthesizing. The trees stop producing chlorophyll, the green pigment in their leaves, which absorbs energy from sunlight. This allows carotenoid (orange) and xanthophyll (yellow) pigments in the leaves to emerge. The leaves also produce a third pigment, anthocyanin, which creates red colors. A longer growing season may mean that fall colors emerge later – and it can also make those colors duller.

A changing mix of trees

Climate isn’t the only thing that affects fall colors. The types of tree species in a forest are an even bigger factor, and forest composition in the eastern U.S. has changed dramatically over the past century.

Notably, eastern forests today have more species such as red maple, black birch, tulip poplar and blackgum than they did in the early 20th century. These trees are shade-tolerant and typically grow in conditions that are neither extremely wet nor extremely dry. They also produce intense red and yellow displays in the fall.

This shift began in the 1930s, when federal agencies adopted policies that called for suppressing all wildfires quickly rather than letting some burn. At that time, much of the eastern U.S. was dominated by fire-adapted oak, pine and hickory. Without fires recurring once or twice a decade, these species fail to regenerate and ultimately decline, allowing more shade-tolerant, fire-sensitive trees like red maple to invade.

There is evidence that some tree species in the eastern U.S. are migrating to the north and west because of warming, increasing precipitation and fire suppression. This trend could affect fall colors as regions gain or lose particular species. In particular, studies indicate that the range of sugar maples – one of the best color-producing trees – is shifting northward into Canada.

Intensive logging and forest clearance across the eastern U.S. through the mid-1800s altered forests’ mix of tree species.

Forests under pressure

So far it’s clear that warming has caused a delay in peak colors for much of the East, ranging from a few days in Pennsylvania to as much as two weeks in New England. It’s not yet known whether this delay is making fall colors less intense or shorter-lasting.

But I’ve observed over the past 35 years that when very warm and wet weather extends into mid- and late October, leaves typically go from green to either dull colors or directly to brown, particularly if there is a sudden frost. This year there are few intense red leaves, which suggests that warmth has interfered with anthocyanin production. Some classic red producers, such as red maple and scarlet oak, are producing yellow leaves.

Other factors could also stress eastern forests. Climate scientists project that global warming will make tropical storms and hurricanes more intense and destructive, with higher rainfall rates. These storms could knock down trees, blow leaves off those left standing and reduce fall coloration.

Green leaves with brown-black spots.
Maple leaves infected with a fungal pathogen that can lead to premature leaf loss. UMass AmherstCC BY-ND

 

Scientists also expect climate change to expand the ranges of insects that prey on trees, such as the emerald ash borer. And this year’s very wet fall has also increased problems with leaf-spotting fungi, which are hitting sugar maples particularly hard.

Forests shade the earth and absorb carbon dioxide. I am proud to see an increasing number of foresters getting involved in ecological forestry, an approach that focuses on ecosystem services that forests provide, such as storing carbon, filtering water and sheltering wildlife.

Foresters can help to slow climate change by revegetating open land, increasing forests’ biodiversity and using highly adaptable tree species that are long-lived, produce many seeds and migrate over time. Shaping eastern forests to thrive in a changing climate can help preserve their benefits – including fall color displays – well into the future.

These Indigenous Women Are Reclaiming Stolen Land in the Bay Area

These Indigenous Women Are Reclaiming Stolen Land in the Bay Area

This story was first published in YES! magazine.

By Deonna Anderson.

On a cool morning in December, Johnella LaRose stands in a 2-acre field in east Oakland, overseeing a group of volunteers preparing a section of this land that the Sogorea Te Land Trust stewards for the arrival of a shipping container. LaRose is dressed to work, wearing jeans and boots that look broken in.

The container will serve as storage for farming equipment, she says, and in case of a natural disaster, as a safe shelter for people to gather, sleep, and access resources.

LaRose is co-founder of the Sogorea Te Land Trust, an intertribal women-led organization that is in the final stages of securing nonprofit status. It’s working to acquire access—and ownership—to land in the Bay Area, where Ohlone people have lived for centuries.

 

 

Label for buckwheat in the hugel raised bed where the Sogorea Te Land Trust grows plants native to the region. Photo by Deonna Anderson

The goal, says LaRose, is to establish a land base for the Chochenyo and Karkin Ohlone people, whose ancestral territory includes cities in the East Bay. “The land gives us everything that we need in order to survive,” says Corrina Gould, a Lisjan Ohlone leader and the other co-founder of the land trust. “That’s how people lived for thousands of years on our land and other Indigenous people’s land. … You work with the land so that it can continue to provide, but that you honor that relationship by not taking too much.”

Gould says Sogorea Te plans to steward the lands it has in a way that honors it.

Sogorea Te got access to the land in east Oakland in 2017 through a partnership with Planting Justice, a local grassroots organization that owns the property and uses it to house a nursery of edible tree crops for purchase by community members and others online. The land is also a place where Planting Justice’s reentry work takes place, because the nursery is staffed mostly by people who were formerly incarcerated.

Planting Justice plans to give the deed on the parcel to Sogorea Te—at no cost—in the future. And the two organizations plan to continue to work on the land together. In the future, Sogorea Te intends to purchase land by partnering with organizations who own land and are willing to transfer ownership.

LaRose hopes the lands Sogorea Te stewards will facilitate healing and build resiliency for Ohlone people. When she imagines the purpose the shipping container could serve, for example, LaRose thinks about Hurricane Katrina and its disproportionate impacts on poor and Black communities in New Orleans.

The Trust’s vision for this particular plot of land is to create an Indigenous cultural site.

As LaRose talks about her hopes, the volunteers build the foundation for the 5,000-pound shipping container. So far, volunteers have dug down 4 inches, removed the dirt, leveled it out, and started hauling gravel to fill in the hole. Once the container arrives, they’ll build it out with a kitchen, deck, and solar panels.

The 2-acre parcel where LaRose and volunteers are working is in the Sobrante Park neighborhood of east Oakland, which has little access to public transportation and grocery stores. It is surrounded by dense rows of apartments and houses. Train whistles and freeway noise can be heard from where LaRose and the volunteers are working.

Sage—called “miriyan” in the Ohlone language—grows in the hugel raised bed. Photo by Deonna Anderson

Near the back fence of the plot runs San Leandro Creek—renamed with its Ohlone name, Lisjan Creek, by the trust. Previous work parties have installed a hugel (short for “Hügelkultur”) raised bed where plants native to the region are growing. A no-till mound of soil and wood chips, Sogorea Te’s hugel has sage, wild onion, and milk weed, each labeled with their Ohlone name—miriyan, ‘uuner, and šiska. The plants are used for ceremony and medicine.

The trust’s vision for this particular plot of land is to create an Indigenous cultural site with a traditional arbor 9- to 15-feet tall, built out of redwoods. The arbor will be a place for ceremony that Ohlone people can pass on to future generations.

Gould says that the Ohlone never lost their connection to the land.

“We’ve been here since the beginning of time, so there continues to be a deep connection to land and how we relate on a daily basis has changed because of colonization,” she says. “It’s really been my generation that’s been able to come out and begin to speak about these horrific issues and to talk truth to history.”


Sogorea Te comes from a history of Ohlone people working to gain recognition and access to land in the Bay Area. The name Sogorea Te is the Ohlone name of a site in Vallejo, California, where a cultural easement fight took place in 2011. LaRose and Gould’s first organization, Indian People Organizing for Change, was involved in reoccupying the territorial site for 109 days. During that time, together with the Yocha Dehe and Cortina tribes, they recreated a village site with a sacred fire and stopped development of a sacred site along the Carquinez Strait.

Owned by the nonprofit Planting Justice the east Oakland plant nursery is planned to be transferred to the Sogorea Te Land Trust once the mortgage is paid in full. Photo by Deonna Anderson

The occupation led to the first cultural easement agreement among a city, a park district, and a federally recognized tribe. Gould says the easement allowed the tribe to have the same rights to that land as the other entities.

LaRose and Gould say they began Indian People Organizing for Change in 1999 to address issues relevant to their community, including homelessness and protection of sacred Indigenous sites. All of these issues, they say, are rooted in the same problem: dispossession from their people’s ancestral lands.

The issue of land return is particularly important for the Ohlone people who for centuries have had no land base and have been politically and economically marginalized. Today, the Ohlone are not on the list of 573 federally recognized tribes in the United States.

The idea behind establishing a land trust was for these Indigenous women to create a land base for their community.

Ohlone life changed dramatically when Spanish military and civilians began to encroach on the San Francisco Bay Area in the late 1700s.

Colonizers raped and forced Ohlone people into labor, brought diseases such as small pox and measles, and dispossessed Ohlone people of their lands.

Ohlone people survived and continued to live in that region, which today is one of the densest and most expensive metro areas in the U.S.

In 2015, LaRose and Gould established Sogorea Te Land Trust. It was another step in the work they’d already been doing to restore cultural access to ancestral lands.

Planting Justice and Sogorea Te Land Trust staff use this work area to store equipment sell plants and conduct portions of trainings. Photo by Deonna Anderson

Gould says they hope the land trust will allow Ohlone people for generations to come to reengage the land in the way that it was and has been done traditionally. That looks like bringing back traditional songs, dances, and ceremonies back to the land “and to try to create a balance.”

The idea behind establishing a land trust, which was sparked after Gould attended a meeting with existing Native-led land trusts in 2012, was for these Indigenous women to create a land base for their community.

“When you follow the rules, man, you’re not going to get anywhere,” LaRose said. “You really just have to really be brave and just put yourself out there and say, ‘This is what’s going to happen. This is what we’re going to do.’”


So far, the largest lot of land that Sogorea Te has access to is the quarter-acre in east Oakland.

The organization Planting Justice purchased that plot in the fall of 2015 as an additional location for its food justice work, with a low-interest loan from the Northern California Community Loan Fund and individual donations from community members. The nonprofit already owned land elsewhere in the East Bay.

Volunteers from the group Manhood Embodied moved and leveled gravel at the plant nursery stewarded by Sogorea Te Land Trust in east Oakland. Photo by Deonna Anderson

In November 2016, its founders Gavin Raders and Haleh Zandi drove North Dakota to join the #NODAPL protests in Standing Rock. On their way back to the Bay Area, they started thinking about their relationship to the land and their role in the Indigenous people in their own community.

Raders said both he and Zandi were aware of the history of colonization and genocide that happened to Indigenous people in California. But during their conversations with Indigenous elders, they began to ask themselves what it meant for Ohlone people to not be federally recognized and have no land base.

“I’m not really sure how this is going to look, but we want to be able to figure out how to give the land back to Indigenous people,” Raders remembers thinking.

Diane Williams, a friend of Sogorea Te’s founders who worked at Planting Justice, connected the two organizations in hopes that they’d work together in some capacity.

After numerous months, members of the groups, including LaRose, Gould, and Raders, finally met in August 2017 and officially started their partnership in fall 2017.

Trichostema grows in the back section of the land shared by Sogorea Te Land Trust and Planting Justice in east Oakland. Photo by Deonna Anderson

At that meeting, Sogorea Te learned that Planting Justice still owed hundreds of thousands of dollars on the mortgage but that when it was paid off, the organization wanted to sign the title over to the land trust, “which was a real surprise to us,” LaRose says.

“We want to be able to figure out how to give the land back to Indigenous people.”

That’s the first piece of land that the land trust was given to steward, with a verbal agreement between the organizations that they’d share it and work in cooperation with one another.

“It’s clearly understood by the Planting Justice board and the Sogorea Te Land Trust that this is a partnership that’s going to continue,” says Raders, a Planting Justice co-founder, who notes that his organization is committed to transfer the land to Sogorea Te ownership no matter how long it takes to pay off the mortgage. From there, the trust will establish a lease agreement with the organization so it can still have operations on the 2-acre parcel.

Planting Justice considered putting a cultural (or conservation) easement on the site, one that the Land Trust would manage, but it couldn’t because it is still paying off the mortgage of the land. Raders said the mortgage holders did not allow Planting Justice to move forward with an easement in case the mortgage did not get paid in full.

“Conservation easements last forever, no matter who owns the property in the future so those restrictions still run with the land,” said Sylvia Bates, director of Standards & Educational Services at the Land Trust Alliance, a national land conservation organization.

Johnella Larose points out the soap root plant that grows in the hugel raised bed. Photo by Deonna Anderson

In a scenario where an entity owns or is stewarding land with a conservation easement, the organization is obligated to make sure those restrictions stay in place. The mortgage holders did not want to deal with that possibility.

LaRose and Gould say that they’re figuring it out as they go along and are open to all the possibilities of acquiring land. “I don’t think that there’s one way that we’re looking at it,” Gould says. “We’re just trying to figure out, ‘how do we do that?’ and we’re bringing people along with us.”


In addition to the land in east Oakland, the trust stewards five plots of land throughout the Bay Area where they grow native plants and gather for ceremony.

Sogorea Te is also now in talks with an organization about land in Sonoma County. And in March, LaRose and Gould caught wind of a couple of vacant lots in Oakland that they might want to take into their care.

The organization doesn’t yet own any of these parcels, but they hope to soon.


Passionfruit grows along a section of the back fence on the land shared by Sogorea Te Land Trust and Planting Justice. Photo by Deonna Anderson.

In partnership, Planting Justice and Sogorea Te continue to work on the land together, as Planting Justice pays off the mortgage on the 2 acres in east Oakland and Sogorea Te raises funds to buy other parcels in the east Bay. Planting Justice plans to give the land to Sogorea Te once the mortgage is paid off. From there, Planting Justice will continue to operate on the land with a lease from the land trust.

LaRose said she’d really like someone with the resources to come in and give them the money to pay off the mortgage in full.

“Weirder things have happened,” she said.

One way Sogorea Te is raising funds is through the Shuumi Land Tax, a tax that the land trust has been implementing since 2016. It’s a voluntary tax for people who live on Chochenyo and Karkin Ohlone land, encompassing two dozen cities that make up most of the East Bay.

It was modeled after the Honor Tax that the Wiyot people started in Humboldt County, California. And there are other groups running similar taxes, like Real Rent, which encourages Seattleites to make rent payment to the Duwamish Tribe.

The Shuumi Tax is based on how many rooms people have in their home and whether they rent or own. As the value of a person’s home—or of rental costs—increase, so does the tax.

“But a lot of people give a lot more money. A lot more money but it’s this idea that you’re really paying for the privilege of living on Ohlone land, occupied land,” LaRose said. “It’s like reparations of some sort.”


Bins of sage and other plants in the back quarter-acre of a plant nursery stewarded by Sogorea Te Land Trust. Photo by Deonna Anderson

In 2018, KALW reported that the land trust received $80,000 from 800 contributions in the previous year.

The tax funds have been used for staff, office costs, and supplies. And in the future, they will be used to buy and maintain lands that are under the land trust’s stewardship.

Back at the Planting Justice site, two hours have gone by and the volunteers’ work is almost done for the day. Their last big task begins when the contractor brings another truckful of gravel. Volunteers spread out this new load until it’s level.

LaRose says volunteers and other community members are always thanking her and the Sogorea Te team for doing this work.

“But I’m like, ‘we have to do it.’ It’s not like we want to do it,” she said. “We have to do it.”


Deonna Anderson

DEONNA ANDERSON is a freelance digital and radio reporter and a former Surdna reporting fellow for YES!

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The Problem

The Problem

This is an excerpt from the book Bright Green Lies, P. 1-7

By LIERRE KEITH

“Once our authoritarian technics consolidates its powers, with the aid of its new forms of mass control, its panoply of tranquilizers and sedatives and aphrodisiacs, could democracy in any form survive? That question is absurd: Life itself will not survive, except what is funneled through the mechanical collective.”1
LEWIS MUMFORD

There is so little time and even less hope here, in the midst of ruin, at the end of the world. Every biome is in shreds. The green flesh of forests has been stripped to grim sand. The word water has been drained of meaning; the Athabascan River is essentially a planned toxic spill now, oozing from the open wound of the Alberta tar sands. When birds fly over it, they drop dead from the poison. No one believes us when we say that, but it’s true. The Appalachian Mountains are being blown to bits, their dense life of deciduous forests, including their human communities, reduced to a disposal problem called “overburden,” a word that should be considered hate speech: Living creatures—mountain laurels, wood thrush fledglings, somebody’s grandchildren—are not objects to be tossed into gullies. If there is no poetry after Auschwitz, there is no grammar after mountaintop removal. As above, so below. Coral reefs are crumbling under the acid assault of carbon. And the world’s grasslands have been sliced to ribbons, literally, with steel blades fed by fossil fuel. The hunger of those blades would be endless but for the fact that the planet is a bounded sphere: There are no continents left to eat. Every year the average American farm uses the energy equivalent of three to four tons of TNT per acre. And oil burns so easily, once every possibility for self-sustaining cultures has been destroyed. Even the memory of nature is gone, metaphrastic now, something between prehistory and a fairy tale. All that’s left is carbon, accruing into a nightmare from which dawn will not save us. Climate change slipped into climate chaos, which has become a whispered climate holocaust. At least the humans whisper. And the animals? During the 2011 Texas drought, deer abandoned their fawns for lack of milk. That is not a grief that whispers. For living beings like Labrador ducks, Javan rhinos, and Xerces blue butterflies, there is the long silence of extinction.

We have a lot of numbers. They keep us sane, providing a kind of gallows’ comfort against the intransigent sadism of power: We know the world is being murdered, despite the mass denial. The numbers are real. The numbers don’t lie. The species shrink, their extinctions swell, and all their names are other words for kin: bison, wolves, black-footed ferrets. Before me (Lierre) is the text of a talk I’ve given. The original version contains this sentence: “Another 120 species went extinct today.” The 120 is crossed clean through, with 150 written above it. But the 150 is also struck out, with 180 written above. The 180 in its turn has given way to 200. I stare at this progression with a sick sort of awe. How does my small, neat handwriting hold this horror? The numbers keep stacking up, I’m out of space in the margin, and life is running out of time.

Twelve thousand years ago, the war against the earth began. In nine places,2 people started to destroy the world by taking up agriculture. Understand what agriculture is: In blunt terms, you take a piece of land, clear every living thing off it—ultimately, down to the bacteria—and then plant it for human use. Make no mistake: Agriculture is biotic cleansing. That’s not agriculture on a bad day, or agriculture done poorly. That’s what agriculture actually is: the extirpation of living communities for a monocrop for and of humans. There were perhaps five million humans living on earth on the day this started—from this day to the ending of the world, indeed—and there are now well over seven billion. The end is written into the beginning. As earth and space sciences scholar David R. Montgomery points out, agricultural societies “last 800 to 2,000 years … until the soil gives out.”3 Fossil fuel has been a vast accelerant to both the extirpation and the monocrop—the human population has quadrupled under the swell of surplus created by the Green Revolution—but it can only be temporary. Finite quantities have a nasty habit of running out. The name for this diminishment is drawdown, and agriculture is in essence a slow bleed-out of soil, species, biomes, and ultimately the process of life itself. Vertebrate evolution has come to a halt for lack of habitat, with habitat taken by force and kept by force: Iowa alone uses the energy equivalent of 4,000 Nagasaki bombs every year. Agriculture is the original scorched-earth policy, which is why both author and permaculturist Toby Hemenway and environmental writer Richard Manning have written the same sentence: “Sustainable agriculture is an oxymoron.” To quote Manning at length: “No biologist, or anyone else for that matter, could design a system of regulations that would make agriculture sustainable. Sustainable agriculture is an oxymoron. It mostly relies on an unnatural system of annual grasses grown in a mono- culture, a system that nature does not sustain or even recognize as a natural system. We sustain it with plows, petrochemicals, fences, and subsidies, because there is no other way to sustain it.”4

Agriculture is what creates the human pattern called civilization. Civilization is not the same as culture—all humans create culture, which can be defined as the customs, beliefs, arts, cuisine, social organization, and ways of knowing and relating to each other, the land, and the divine within a specific group of people. Civilization is a specific way of life: people living in cities, with cities defined as people living in numbers large enough to require the importation of resources. What that means is that they need more than the land can give. Food, water, and energy have to come from somewhere else. From that point forward, it doesn’t matter what lovely, peaceful values people hold in their hearts. The society is dependent on imperialism and genocide because no one willingly gives up their land, their water, their trees. But since the city has used up its own, it has to go out and get those from somewhere else. That’s the last 10,000 years in a few sentences. Over and over and over, the pattern is the same. There’s a bloated power center surrounded by conquered colonies, from which the center extracts what it wants, until eventually it collapses. The conjoined horrors of militarism and slavery begin with agriculture.

Agricultural societies end up militarized—and they always do—for three reasons. First, agriculture creates a surplus, and if it can be stored, it can be stolen, so, the surplus needs to be protected. The people who do that are called soldiers. Second, the drawdown inherent in this activity means that agriculturalists will always need more land, more soil, and more resources. They need an entire class of people whose job is war, whose job is taking land and resources by force—agriculture makes that possible as well as inevitable. Third, agriculture is backbreaking labor. For anyone to have leisure, they need slaves. By the year 1800, when the fossil fuel age began, three-quarters of the people on this planet were living in conditions of slavery, indenture, or serfdom.5 Force is the only way to get and keep that many people enslaved. We’ve largely forgotten this is because we’ve been using machines—which in turn use fossil fuel—to do that work for us instead of slaves. The symbiosis of technology and culture is what historian, sociologist, and philosopher of technology Lewis Mumford (1895-1990) called a technic. A social milieu creates specific technologies which in turn shape the culture. Mumford writes, “[A] new configuration of technical invention, scientific observation, and centralized political control … gave rise to the peculiar mode of life we may now identify, without eulogy, as civilization… The new authoritarian technology was not limited by village custom or human sentiment: its herculean feats of mechanical organization rested on ruthless physical coercion, forced labor and slavery, which brought into existence machines that were capable of exerting thousands of horsepower centuries before horses were harnessed or wheels invented. This centralized technics … created complex human machines composed of specialized, standardized, replaceable, interdependent parts—the work army, the military army, the bureaucracy. These work armies and military armies raised the ceiling of human achievement: the first in mass construction, the second in mass destruction, both on a scale hitherto inconceivable.”6

Technology is anything but neutral or passive in its effects: Ploughshares require armies of slaves to operate them and soldiers to protect them. The technic that is civilization has required weapons of conquest from the beginning. “Farming spread by genocide,” Richard Manning writes.7 The destruction of Cro-Magnon Europe—the culture that bequeathed us Lascaux, a collection of cave paintings in southwestern France—took farmer-soldiers from the Near East perhaps 300 years to accomplish. The only thing exchanged between the two cultures was violence. “All these artifacts are weapons,” writes archaeologist T. Douglas Price, with his colleagues, “and there is no reason to believe that they were exchanged in a nonviolent manner.”8

Weapons are tools that civilizations will make because civilization itself is a war. Its most basic material activity is a war against the living world, and as life is destroyed, the war must spread. The spread is not just geographic, though that is both inevitable and catastrophic, turning biotic communities into gutted colonies and sovereign people into slaves. Civilization penetrates the culture as well, because the weapons are not just a technology: no tool ever is. Technologies contain the transmutational force of a technic, creating a seamless suite of social institutions and corresponding ideologies. Those ideologies will either be authoritarian or democratic, hierarchical or egalitarian. Technics are never neutral. Or, as ecopsychology pioneer Chellis Glendinning writes with spare eloquence, “All technologies are political.”9

Sources:

  1. Lewis Mumford, “Authoritarian and Democratic Technics,” Technology and Culture 5, no. 1 (Winter, 1964).
  2. There exists some debate as to how many places developed agriculture and civilizations. The best current guess seems to be nine: the Fertile Crescent; the Indian sub- continent; the Yangtze and Yellow River basins; the New Guinea Highlands; Central Mexico; Northern South America; sub-Saharan Africa; and eastern North America.
  3. David R. Montgomery, Dirt: The Erosion of Civilizations (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 2007), 236.
  4. Richard Manning, Rewilding the West: Restoration in a Prairie Landscape (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2009), 185.
  5. Adam Hochschild, Bury the Chains: Prophets and Rebels in the Fight to Free an Empire’s Slaves (Boston: Mariner Books, 2006), 2.
  6. Mumford op cit (Winter, 1964), 3.
  7. Richard Manning, Against the Grain: How Agriculture Has Hijacked Civilization (New York: North Point Press, 2004), 45.
  8. T. Douglas Price, Anne Birgitte Gebauer, and Lawrence H. Keeley, “The Spread of Farming into Europe North of the Alps,” in Douglas T. Price and Anne Brigitte Gebauer, Last Hunters, First Farmers (Santa Fe: School of American Research Press, 1995).
  9. Chellis Glendinning, “Notes toward a Neo-Luddite Manifesto,” Utne Reader, March- April 1990, 50.