Save Our Soil

Unless we are a farmer or a gardener, few of us consciously think about soil. And yet, it is soil that sustains life on earth. Scientists study biodiversity on land and in the water, but not as many look that closely at soil and what it harbours. Soil is home to more than 1/4 of our planet’s biodiversity, but we only know 1 per cent of this universe. 

December 5 is World Soil Day–an international day to celebrate Soil. This day was first recommended by the International Union of Soil Sciences (IUSS) in 2002; it was supported by the FAO and endorsed by the UN General Assembly in June 2013. The day means to raise global awareness about the importance of healthy soil and advocate for the sustainable management of soil resources. It is marked on December 5 was chosen because it corresponds with the official birthday of the late H.M. King Bhumibol Adulyadej, King of Thailand, who was one of the main proponents of this initiative.

There are more living creatures in a single teaspoon of healthy soil than there are people on Earth.

This year’s World Soil Day theme is Keep Soil Alive, Protect Soil Biodiversity. Now, more than ever before, soil biodiversity is under pressure due to unsustainable soil management that affects life belowground. This theme focuses attention on the workers belowground–from tiny bacteria to agile millipedes and slimy earthworms–all of which contribute to processes that are indispensable to life on Earth.

It is a reminder that unless people around the world proactively engage in improving soil health, soon, the fertility of soil will continue to be adversely affected at an alarming rate, threatening global food supplies and food safety.

Here is my small contribution to this day.  Giving soil a voice!

The Soil’s Lament

I am soil. Ever thought about me?

Always underfoot, you think I’m here for free.

In your fields and gardens, roads and lawns

On mountains in deserts, in cities and towns.

I can be living, feeling, strong and healthy like you

But I can also get sick, and sometimes tired too.

Then I get weaker, unable to nurture life to grow.

How can that happen, would you like to know?

Year after year, season after season

You plant me with the same crops with the reason

That the more you put in, the more you will get.

But that’s just where you will lose the bet.

In such a hurry you are, to sow and reap

Have you ever thought that I’d like time to breathe?

Ever considered that I too need to recuperate

From trying to deliver at such an unnatural rate?

Give me a break, give me a rest. Be kind to me, I’ll give you my best.

The unending cycle will sap all my strength

Suck the minerals and nutrients out from my depth

One fine day I’ll just run out of steam

Then those bountiful harvests will be just a dream.

And then you will pump me with every artificial aid

Chemicals, fertilizers, all the tricks of the trade.

Hoping the fruit I then bear will be so fast and good.

But could you thrive on pills alone, and no natural food?

Give me a break, give me a rest. Be kind to me, I’ll give you my best.

Or will you drug me with pesticides and insecticides

To destroy the “enemies”– the aphids, thrips and mites.

You don’t realize that with every deadly dose

My allies too are dying, not just my foes.  

You strip me of my protective cover

Tear away trees, shrubs, grasses, every small flower

That keep me secure with a protective cloak

From the fury of rains and the winds that blow.

You leave me exposed, vulnerable, and bare

To be blown, swept and washed away, here and there.

Or you clad me in an armour of concrete and stone

So I can no longer breathe, nor give my friends a home.

Give me a break, give me a rest. Be kind to me, I’ll give you my best.

Cover me again with a mantle of green

Let my own special magic do the job you’re so keen

To assign to the factories, the labs and the vans

And potions from bottles and boxes, sprays and cans.

Let the humus, leaf litter and the biomass,

The lichen, the algae, the roots and grass,

The bugs, the beetles, the worms and snails

Do the job they’ve always done, and that never fails.

It’s these millions of dwellers that give me life

That in turn I bestow on all plant life.

Let my friends and foes do all they might

If I’m strong and healthy, it’ll be all right.

Give me a break, give me a rest. Be kind to me, I’ll give you my best.

–Mamata

The Kardashian of Trees

Heroing and highlighting individual trees is a great way of drawing attention to trees in general, and to reinforce the value of nature, wildlife and biodiversity.

An example of a successful initiative in this direction is the  European Tree of the Year contest started in 2011, inspired by an older competition which originated in the Czech Republic in the late nineties. According to the Czech Environmental Partnership Foundation which started it all: ‘Tree of the Year is a contest looking for a tree with a story. The aim of the contest is to empower people and get local communities involved in the environmental and local heritage protection. We believe that by gathering around a tree, people are more likely to take action again in the future for other environmental causes and for the wellbeing of the community.’

The process of selecting the European Tree of the Year starts with a well set-out voting process at the national level of the participating countries (16 this year), and ends with a finale consisting of online voting to select from among the national winners.

Now the competition is moving to other parts of the world: In 2016, Sri Lanka started the Asian Tree of the Year, with India, Nepal, Malaysia and Singapore joining in soon after. Canada, Australia and Russia have also held national competitions, though not on an annual basis.

Beautiful old trees, with history and cultural connections to the community have found their spot under the sun through this process, and also generated a lot of public interest, involvement and learning.

Sounds good! But what has all this to do with the title?

CF37A480-1747-49E9-9F79-48FCA5BAC580The connection is a tree that is reputed to be the most instagrammed tree in New Zealand, almost a symbol of NZ tourism. On a recent trip there, we were urged to set aside time to see the tree, specifically around sunset. So we worked around our program to ensure we got to the spot—a stretch of a beach—well ahead. We drove past a few times, keenly looking at the beach. We could see some people, but nothing special in the way of trees. We asked natives and tourists alike, and they all pointed us to the same area which our GPS had shown us, and which we had passed, looking in vain for a landmark. We decided to make our way down to the beach anyway. Lo and behold, there were many, many people there, jostling for some spot (we could not figure out what the spot was for), all setting up professional looking camera equipment. It came to a pass when we had to ask a friendly-looking lady what everyone was waiting to photograph, where the famous tree was, and what it was about. She kindly pointed to this spindly willow tree, standing a few feet into the waters of the beautiful Wanaka Lake, against a beautiful background of majestic mountains. But the tree itself? In my mind, this will forever define and exemplify ‘under-whelming’. ‘Why is the tree famous’, we asked many around us in bewilderment. While there was some story of how it was part of a fence and had survived in the water for several years, the general consensus was that it was famous because it was famous! So famous , it even has its own insta handle #ThatWanakaTree.

Does the title begin to make sense?

But yes, surely is a lesson to countries like ours, where we have such unimaginable treasures of cultural and natural heritage, but simply are not able to create anywhere near a proportionate buzz!

–Meena

 

 

Wild is Wondrous!

March 3 is celebrated as United Nations World Wildlworld wildlife day 2.jpgife Day. This marks the day of signature of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) in 1973. Every year on this day, events are held around the world to celebrate and raise awareness of the world’s wild animals and plants.

The theme of World Wildlife Day 2020 is “Sustaining all Life on Earth”. This celebrates the special place of wild plants and animals in their many varied and beautiful forms as a component of the world’s biological diversity.

India is a treasure house of biological diversity. It harbours 8% of the world’s biodiversity on just 2% of the earth’s surface. It is one of the 17 mega-diversity countries in the world with ten biogeographic zones, and an incredible diversity of habitats, flora and fauna.

Here is my small ode to this wild and wondrous land and its denizens.

I live in such a magical land

Of mountains and valleys, plateaus and sand.

Jungles and farmland, deserts, islands and seas,

Here’s to my land of biodiversity.

 

Biodiversity Biodiversity

It’s all about Life and Variety

 

In forests and fields, deserts and seas,

Animals and crops, microbes and trees.

Colours and patterns, functions and form,

To survive and thrive, adapt and transform.

 

Snow leopard and yak, and double-humped camels

The Himalayan cold desert is home to these mammals.

Shining blue lakes in the rugged landscape

Welcome winged visitors many coloured and shaped.

 

Biodiversity Biodiversity

Experience it, share it, enjoy it.

 

Where the mighty Ganga flows

River dolphins swim and gharials are found.

Proud tigers prowl, and deer abound

The fertile plains with bounteous yields

From forests and farmlands and fields.

 

Biodiversity Biodiversity

See it, taste it, smell it, feel it.

 

The North East is truly a garden of Eden

Full of priceless treasures, many still hidden.

Feathery ferns, bright orchids, bamboos tall

Where rhinos roam and Hoolock Gibbons call.

 

Biodiversity, Biodiversity

Appreciate it, savour it, explore it.

 

Discover that deserts are dry but alive,

Their dwellers have special tricks to survive

Store water, shed leaves, or burrow in the sand.

Why, even tigers and lions roar in this land.

 

Biodiversity, Biodiversity

Treasure it, enjoy it, study it.

 

In the Western Ghats meet a tahr, and a tiger too

Jumbos in jungles and a hornbill or two.

Colourful frogs that croak and call

Snakes and snails that slither and crawl.

 

Biodiversity Biodiversity

Learn from it, weave with it, heal with it.

 

Deccan highlands and grasslands, plateaux that soar

Dotted with buffalos, cows, goats and sheep galore

There grow seeds and cereals upon which we feast

And people who celebrate it all with their dancing feet.

 

Biodiversity Biodiversity

Plant it, grow it, cook it, eat it.

 

Deep in the seas meet clown fish and anemone in a coral jungle

Crabs, crocs and tigers in a mangrove tangle.

On islands in waters blue and green

See a megapode, a monitor, a Nicobar pigeon preen.

 

Biodiversity Biodiversity

Track it, live with it, delight in it!

 

Biodiversity Biodiversity

It’s all about Life and Variety.

Biodiversity Biodiversity

Celebrate it, protect it, conserve it!

–Mamata

 

Institutional Campuses: Biodiversity Havens

Those who sanctioned academic, scientific and other national institutions in the days of yore, were generous in their land allocation. So you have such organizations sitting on tens, and sometimes even hundreds of acres of land.

Some institutions have built up on much of the land. But in others, the land is either landscaped, or left wild. Or a witting or unwitting mix of the two. Any which way, a boon in today’s rush for land development. Often, because these institutions are under-funded, they are not able to maintain lawns etc. and let the land go wild, which is also a good thing. These campuses are like havens, where both green cover and biodiversity thrive.

To take just one example, I go back to the campus of IIM Ahmedabad (see also my blog of last week, ‘Living in a Louis Kahn’).

I had commented in that piece that there was no landscaping to speak about on the campus. I was mistaken, as comes out from this personal communication from Prof. Marti Subramaniam, eminent academic, in a comment on the piece:

‘The high point of my contact with Kahn’s work was when I spied him with Kasturbhai Lalbhai, early one morning, walking right outside the house where we lived as students.  I quickly followed them to overhear their conversation which went roughly along the following lines:

Kasturbhai: What trees should we plant here, Louis?

Kahn: Of course, in one line they should all be of the same species.  Otherwise, how would they talk to each other?’

So in fact it seems, a lot of thought had gone into the landscape! My ignorance indeed!

IIM A campus is a mix—from the manicured lawn of the Louis Kahn Plaza, to the utter wilderness on the edges. And this mix, it seems, has given rise to a good deal of biodiversity. And the great thing is, that as part of the Golden Jubilee celebrations of the Institute, these have been captured and documented in coffee table book called Natural World at IIMA.

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A work of love and passion indeed! Close to 200 pages of colour plates, documenting the flora—trees, shrubs, climbers, sedges, grasses and herbs; as well as the fauna—birds, mammals, reptiles, insects, spiders, butterflies and moths.

One hears of pressures on several institutions to ‘not let the land go to waste, put it to use.’ Or worse, institutional lands being taken away for other uses, including commercial uses. We need to resist any such diversions. These are among the few remaining islands.

And documenting and disseminating these in the form of books, databases etc., helps to communicate the value of this diversity, and is the first step in making the campus itself an educational resource. And a matter of pride and joy for alumni.

Here is to large, unmaintained campuses, and books on them!

–Meena

Promoting GI, Protecting Diversity

Last week, I happened to go to Goa (regretfully, not a holiday!). The airport, as many airports across the country, is full of shops.

Apart from the usual brand shops and the special Goa memorabilia shops, I came across a fascinating outlet here. It was a ‘GIs of India’ shop!

Oh, I have jumped the gun! GI could stand for any number of things. I am referring to Geographical Indication, which is “an indication which identifies goods such as agricultural goods, natural goods or manufactured goods as originating, or manufactured in the territory of a country, or a region or locality in that territory, where a given quality, reputation or other characteristic of such goods is essentially attributable to its geographical origin and in case where such goods are manufactured goods one of the activities of either the production or of processing or preparation of the goods concerned takes place in such territory, region or locality, as the case may be.”. GI is a type of intellectual property right, which certifies a product as having originated in a specific geographic location—for instance, that the Mysore silk you just bought is indeed produced in Mysore; or the Jaipur Blue Pottery is indeed from Jaipur.

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Madurai Sungudi is GI registered

India enacted the Geographical Indications of Goods (Registration and Protection) Act in 1999. The first GI product to be registered was Darjeeling Tea. Now there are 330 GI registered products—a fascinating range, from the usual suspects to the completely unexpected—from Kanpur Saddlery, to Beed Custard Apple; from Coimbatore Wet Grinder, to Varanasi Glass Beads!

The shop at the Goa Airport was very new, just being set up. But the staff were extremely enthusiastic and eager not just to sell their products, but also share information on the concept of GI shops. They said that a large chain of these was coming up across the country.

Indeed an exciting way to create a market for these amazing products, and preserve the diversity, both natural and cultural.

I’ll be on the lookout for these GI shops, for sure!

–Meena