Climb a Tree to Find a Fish

 In Community

The power of video and the conversation around reforestation – big ol’ trees are the key to building coastal resilience.

What is a forest? Perhaps this is a weird question to ask, but humour me for a second. Are they stage dressing for enchantments and fairy tales? Are they mere trellises for fungi and ivy? Do they exist to invoke images of mysterious legends and stories of horror?

They are none of these things, of course – yet they’ve become more of an abstraction than a thing of reality. On that note, when was the last time you found yourself in a forest anyway?

Forests are a living, breathing entity. Like any other living, breathing entity, they leave their impact on everything they interact with, including the planet and its human inhabitants. Apart from providing a home to nearly 80 percent of land-based biodiversity and helping maintain water cycle balance by releasing water vapour back into the atmosphere through evapotranspiration, forests help improve quality of soil by preventing soil erosion and helping retain moisture in the soil by blocking out the sun.

Forests are also a key source of breathable air for us, by not only pumping oxygen into the air for us, but by also eliminating low-oxygen ‘dead zones’ created by accumulation of increasingly toxin-laden stormwater. Living near trees is proven to have significant positive effect on human physiology, not only due to the quality of air, but also by somehow increasing the propensity to exercise among the laziest of us – that, in itself, is an achievement nonpareil.

Allow me to wax poetic about forests for the duration of just one more passage, before I can neatly segue into my real point here.

Prescription drugs procured from nature are used to treat a staggering 90 percent of known human diseases. From antibiotics, palliatives, oral contraceptives, anticoagulants, local anaesthetics, to drugs that avert heart failure and regulate blood pressure – the role of forests in modern medicine is quite remarkable. The Madagascar periwinkle – a shrub endemic to forests in, well, Madagascar – has rescued over 150,000 children from an early death due to acute lymphocytic lymphoma (ALL), a common type of paediatric cancer.

In spite of all this, we still manage to lose close to 18 million acres of forest. That’s the size of approximately 13,621,013 football fields.

Deforestation in Argentina, image via Greenpeace

Deforestation is driven due to many reasons – agricultural expansion, infrastructure development, timber extraction etc., all under the prospect of economic gain.

In 1987, a botanist expedition discovered the extremely rare C. lanigerum in Borneo, which displayed antiviral activity towards the HIV virus. Upon their return to the island for further sampling, researchers found all the trees had been levelled for firewood and building. Through a combination of sheer luck and intense scouring of the land, a few samples were found in the Singapore Botanic Garden. A close shave with major scientific loss was averted, except what about the times it wasn’t?

Goa has sustained merciless felling of trees in areas with relatively less dense population such as Sanguem, Sattari, and Canacona. As a coastal state, Goa stands to lose even more from this incessant deforestation because of its impact on coastal ecosystems. Underwater kelp forests rely on lichens that originate from coastal forests for food. As forests disappear, so do the lichens, followed by smaller fish that feed off the kelp, and then larger fish that feed on the smaller fish – disrupting oceanic ecology in lunges. Consequently, a staggering species of fish and mollusc have already disappeared from Goa’s waters.

Impact of resettlement and agricultural development in Bolivian forests, image via NASA

The central cause of this vigorous deforestation in Goa has been open-cast mining, which has proven disastrous in many ways for Goa. Since mining is concentrated in hilly areas, debris washes down to agricultural land and rivers, polluting them. Simultaneously, the beaches stand denuded of casuarina owing to silica sand mining. It doesn’t help that the ubiquitous coconut tree was made to renounce tree status and reclassified as grass in Goa in December 2015, in a Machiavellian display of callousness towards the environment by the Goan government.

Which brings me to the theme of this year’s Prakti film festival: forests. Taking a huge leap from last year’s singular film screening, the Prakti Tribe – with co-conspirators Vaayu Vision Collective – marshalled a 2-day festival focused on conversations around forests and preservation of ecology.

Day one saw Vaayu director, and local crusader for positive change, Jill Ferguson conduct a workshop on conscious consumerism. The informal format of the workshop ensured participants could not only participate through Q&A, but also venture forth wisdom of their own. There was no common denominator immediately apparent among those present, except brimming curiosity about whether they could minimise the adverse impact they had been catalysing unconsciously.

Conscious consumerism workshop by Jill Ferguson

Scheduled next was the screening of ‘Timbaktu’, a film about pesticide poisoning of farmlands in Anantapur – the second driest area in India – and the consequent sterility of this land, driving hundreds of farmers to suicide. The film chronicles the application of a scalable, practical solution to mitigate this crisis and the revitalisation of local agrarian economy and livelihood by Timbaktu Collective.

This was followed by another 20-minute feature, ‘A Living Legacy’, a documentary about Pamela and Anil Malhotra – a couple that achieved the quixotic transformation of 55 acres of land they purchased 23 years ago in Kodagu, Coorg, into a rainforest bustling with biodiversity today, by themselves. You can purchase your own land parcel that SAI Sanctuary would convert into a rainforest, or simply make a donation. You could alternatively stay at the SAI sanctuary eco-tourist cottages.

Next feature was a presentation by Jessica Mayberry, founder of the incredible Goa-based institution Video Volunteers. The parent NGO behind IndiaUnheard – a community-led news network focusing on rural predicaments – Video Volunteers has brought about a tidal shift over the past few years in news reporting from rural areas, which is where 70 percent of India’s population resides. Video Volunteers boasts of a 20 percent solution rate, what with 1 in 5 videos proving instrumental in resolving the problem it highlights. Video Volunteers correspondent Devidas Gaonkar’s video exploration of the very ill advised afforestation project in Canacona precipitated the ‘Jungle Bachao Samiti’ (Save the Jungle Association), a movement that led to the hard-won safety of Canacona forests.

Day 2 saw participants band together for a road clean up in Ashwem, where Vaayu Collective is located. It was disorienting for me to bear witness and be part of a tiny army of strangers with rubber gloves for armour. I was even more sceptical of the enormous garbage bags, confident in my naivety that there could not possibly be so much garbage in Ashwem – one of the cleaner Goan neighbourhoods. I was devastatingly wrong. Each nook was stuffed with empty bags of chips, every cranny overflowing with water and beer bottles. We barely covered about 500 metres over the next hour, collecting a mighty 12 garbage bags full of filth.

Audience during workshop on conscious consumerism at Prakti Film Festival

The festival closed with the screening of ‘Call of the Forest’, which is not much so much a documentary as it is a love note from botanist and biochemist Diana Beresford-Kroeger. Filmed over a span of 5 years, the documentary is the apotheosis of a delicate looking woman’s crusade for forest conservation. Ask anyone who has ever watched the film, and they are bound to bring up how it made them look at trees with new eyes. I sat in the corner, little geese under my skin the entire time, wondering how eerily this Irishwoman got under my skin in all of 90 minutes. She may never leave again.

It is impossible for me to gauge how my writing influences those who read it, if at all. Over my past few months in Goa, however, I have observed various residents – locals and transplants alike – toiling to ameliorate living standards here. There is a burgeoning sense of social and environmental responsibility among Goa’s people, and it’s just as well, for Goa is calling for your help to help restore and repair ecological, social, and architectural harmony. As has been illustrated by the central figures in the documentaries screened at Prakti film festival, a few determined residents can increase accountability among governing bodies. A couple of headstrong individuals can build a rainforest, acre by acre.

And so, I try.

Soon, Forca Goa will be commissioning a series of articles on conscious living to help you make small changes in your lifestyle for an effortless transition to eco-conscious living. In the meantime, you can show your support by joining the Goenchi Mati movement in petitioning for policy changes that underpin the recently revived mining operations in Goa, which are bound to be cataclysmic for Goan ecology and its people in its current form.

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