Forget about designer handbags – designer weeds are the future

How resilient are we? The world is changing dramatically – not just politically but socially and environmentally too.

Resilience to change is becoming increasingly important, especially in environmental terms. We need to build the resilience of our environment, and our ecosystems, so that we can cope with ongoing changes in climate.

The thing is that until we find a solution, communities across the world, both human and natural, are going to continue to suffer the impact of extreme events as they happen, often with unpredictable consequences. We’re losing the ability of our environment to absorb shocks and insulate us from flood events, drought events, soil erosion and oceanic warming.

This isn’t an abstract fear: forest fires in France, cleaving of the Larsen C ice shelf, bleaching of the Great Barrier reef corals, declines in seabird populations in Scotland: they are all linked directly to climate change.

An obvious solution is to ensure we have diverse ecosystems. A diverse system is a robust system. Simplified systems and monocultures are all too susceptible to outbreaks of disease and severe climatic fluctuations. Yet species and habitat loss continues across the world to the extent that global biodiversity is no longer within safe limits and continued loss will threaten the planet’s ability to support humans and wildlife (Science, July 2016). Even in the UK, The National Ecosystem Assessments across the UK and the State of Nature reports, reflect the loss of species diversity and habitat simplification. Just as we should be protecting our species and habitat diversity, the opposite is happening.

A timely piece of work then for the new Diversify project, where the crop diversity work at the James Hutton Institute, provided a welcome space last Friday to discuss these issues and how agriculture might help.

Research shows that diverse crop mixtures increase resilience to disease and increase productivity at the same time. In addition there may be a benefit in reducing inputs, such as pesticides and fertiliser, the research on this is less clear to date. But that seems to be reflecting a lack of data rather than anything else.

What’s more, recent greenhouse trials have shown that increasing crop diversity reduces number of weeds and niche space available to weeds. So if increasing diversity in crop mixtures increases crop productivity and reduces the number of common weeds, could we develop crop and native plant mixtures to suppress common weeds, increase crop productivity and conserve native plants all at the same time?

If diversity can promote diversity – could diversity increase resilience by protecting key ecological relationships? And if it could, what role and value is there for native biodiversity?

What, for example, is the role of rare arable plants? Arable plants make up one of the fastest disappearing plant communities across the UK. Weeds that were once common in fields, corn flowers and corn marigolds for example, are now something that catch the eye because we see them so rarely. Could these plants, by taking up some of the habitat niche, limit the space for more common, and arguably less welcome, weeds? It seems unlikely, although the research would be useful. What they can do, however, is provide a nectar and pollen source for beneficial insects – both pollinators and predators, that increase crop productivity. We could, therefore, design, or encourage, native plant communities that provide the benefits to invertebrates and ecological resilience while, at the same time, increasing crop productivity? It seems counter intuitive but the evidence is not pointing away from that.

Research is showing that weed diversity benefits crop biomass. It is heartening is that this is being actively explored and the solution of increasing diversity to build resilience is becoming clearer. With the link to increased productivity as well as more resilient ecosystems, we are building a natural capital argument for agricultural subsidies that support nature not only to ensure nature remains in it full glory for future generations but also because farmers get healthier and more productive crops, while building a more resilient environment.

Is that not a win win? More useful than a designer handbag?

Testing times, testing biodiversity

Last week, there was a debate in the Scottish Parliament on biodiversity. It started with the Cabinet Secretary for the Environment, Climate Change and Land Reform saying:
Given that the natural environment is worth more than £20 billion per annum to our economy and supports more than 60,000 direct jobs, I welcome the opportunity to lead this brief parliamentary debate on something that we too often take for granted. We should celebrate our biodiversity, but we should also be alert and we should be acting to address challenges and issues.
This is exactly the sort of leadership that I’ve been hoping to see from the Cabinet Secretary. I was delighted.
How did we get here?
In November 2016, the Environment, Climate Change and Land Reform Committee wrote to the Cabinet Secretary following their roundtable discussion on biodiversity. They raised the question of the lack of clarity in action which is frustrating the step change we all need to see in conserving Scotland’s nature. Since then, there was a detailed written response from the Cabinet Secretary, the debate last Thursday and what looked suspiciously like cross party commitment to deliver for biodiversity.
So where are we going?
Over the last 6 years, the NGOs, specialist societies and academic institutions have worked with volunteers and staff to assess what is happening with biodiversity in Scotland and throughout the UK. This work has been published in the series of report on the State of Nature. Two reports later, this system is now identifying trends:
• One in 10 bird species faces extinction
• 13% of plant species face extinction
• Seabird numbers over the last 30 years have declined by 40%
• 14% of our ancient woodland has been lost over the past four decades.
• More than 30 per cent of native woodland is in poor condition.

Now is the time, as we heard in Thursday’s parliamentary debate: The time for talking up targets is over. It is time for action from all of us. Maurice Golden, MSP (Conservative) 9 March 2017.
With 9% of Scotland’s species at risk of extinction, the State of Nature report shows us all is not well. We are all witnesses to the decline in species diversity across Scotland: you need to know where to go to see a woodland full of native bluebells, or where to experience that wonderful scent of fragrant orchids, or where to watch otters fishing.
But it is not just about declining species. The State of Nature also measures our Biodiversity Intactness Index. Scotland is ranked in the lowest fifth of countries on the biodiversity intactness index: our ecosystems have fallen below the point at which they can reliably meet society’s needs.
So – it’s about biodiversity at all scales…. Let me introduce a biodiversity metaphor:


In April 2015, scientists sequenced the complete genome of the woolly mammoth from frozen samples released from the tundra.
If you are building a woolly mammoth do you start with making something big and grey? Is that how you rebuild a woolly mammoth? No, you need to start from its DNA and work upwards. It’s the same with conserving and rebuilding ecosystems: start with the small stuff and build them into something much bigger. We need to conserve species and join habitats into ecologically functional networks. Networks that live and breathe and are not just big.
To coin a phrase, we need More, bigger, better, joined (The Lawton report 2010).

worth more than a penny…

Let’s put it another way: how do you conserve the Scottish primrose: build a fence around each tiny individual? Or work together to conserve its habitat. Work with land managers to conserve its habitat of course. We need to work at multiple scale and in partnership. To achieve success, we need to work together. We need to draw on effort, expertise and focus from the NGOs and academic institutes and on funding, collaboration and control (on destructive activities) from government. By control, I mean of course, we need government to control the destructive land management practices that are leading to habitat loss and fragmentation and to hand control to land managers over how they manage the land to achieve healthy ecosystems and healthy land for future generations.
That’s how we will conserve biodiversity: our species and our habitats.
And how do we do that?
The only way to save a rhinoceros is to save the environment in which it lives, because there is a mutual dependency between it and millions of other species of both animals and plants… Sir David Attenborough
I have to say that going on the speeches in last week’s debate, our politicians are in front. The debate clearly showed that the Scottish Parliament is up for action. They have asked Scottish Natural Heritage to lead on delivering Scotland’s biodiversity targets. The Cabinet Secretary says they have increased resources towards meeting that leadership role. And she has asked the NGOs for a collective view on what a National Ecological networks should comprise.

We need to build up ambition and investment in our environment to protect Scotland’s habitats and wildlife for generations yet unborn. David Stewart, MSP (Labour). 9 March 2017
I believe we should all shoulder responsibility for improving and maintaining Scotland’s biodiversity. That means getting together and finding practical and workable solutions to problems, being willing to work in partnership…and ….putting aside sectoral differences. Roseanna Cunningham MSP (SNP), Cabinet Secretary for the Environment, Climate Change and Land Reform. 9 March 2017

If we are serious about saving the rhinoceros, restoring a woolly mammoth or even just conserving the Scottish primrose, now is the time to act.

North coast grassland with Mountain avens

GROWing ambitions: January 2017

At the end of January 2017, I have some great growing plans. And a plan to produce a monthly blog on my growing escapades…..

In December, I started working at the GROW Observatory and am now pursuing some great ambitions to get people growing food across Europe over the next 3 years. With our first campaign due for launch in May, we’re aiming to engage growers in some soil and growing experiments, testing what we can achieve together with soils sensors, home made soil kits and growing advice.

And at home, for Christmas this year, I got a greenhouse. Which is a neat way for me to combine both home and work. Very exciting times. A new greenhouse (new to me anyway) means I’ll be able to extend my usually short growing season and maybe get some bigger crops into the bargain. The growing season at home usually starts in May and ends in September and in that time, my crops need to germinate, grow, flower and fruit. Up to now, they’ve not always made it in time.

So what have we done in January? Progress so far has been preparing the ground for the greenhouse to sit on….. greenhouse-base

The next stage will be erecting the greenhouse itself. And then organising my planting space. Of course I already have plans and some seed……
Tomatoes constitute my main plan, alongside starting off beans and sweet peas early enough that they have a long enough season to produce pods and flowers. Pre – greenhouse I have never managed to produce flowers or pods until September when they have 4 short weeks before they slow down and then get frostbitten.
So in my seed tin so far I have:
Tomato Yellow Pear
Cucumber Crystal Lemon
French bean Cosse Violet sans fils
Borlotti Lingua di Fuoco

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What else should I plant? I’m browsing seed catalogues and trying not to get carried away. I have my eye on a seed mix of edible flowers, a win win for me, pollinating insects and the salad bowl. And then I’m also looking for early ripening tomatoes. And of course, we’ll want to grow courgettes again. Never had much luck with them. Salad mixes are also always a good idea too – they grow quickly, although not always quickly enough to beat the slugs, and having a mixture looks good in the ground and on the plate. I’m also keen to try rocket again and this year may be the year I manage to grow beetroots bigger than golf balls.
Next post: February: will the greenhouse be erected?

GROW Observatory: citizen science in action

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I have just been appointed the new Programme Director of the GROW Observatory (GROW) and I am delighted to be working with such an exciting project. The GROW Observatory, an EU Horizon 2020 project, is coordinated from Duncan of Jordanstone School of Art and Design at University of Dundee. Working with 18 partner organisations from 10 countries across the Europe, the project is an innovative approach to creating a community of citizen growers, gardeners, small scale farmers, scientists and policy makers, all working together to learn from each other, provide growing and policy advice and contribute data on local soil conditions, to help validate climate change models generated by satellite.

The project vision is to support and build smart and sustainable custodianship of the land and soil across Europe and to provide an answer to the long standing challenge for space science, which is the need to validate climate change models with soil moisture detection on the ground. These data and this knowledge will in turn also be used to inform policy decisions on land use, soil management and climate change.

GROW will empower citizen growers, gardeners and small scale farmers to  understand better their environment and their impact on land and soil and to use that knowledge to address land degradation and habitat loss and fragmentation. To achieve this, GROW will deploy low cost sensing technology to gather data on key soil variables, collated via mobile phones and tablets, and large scale, world leading technology, including satellites. Growers will be empowered and encouraged to join a Europe wide network through the GROW advice service, that they will help to build by producing data and information on growing and soil management.

growprojectimage

GROW is a wide ranging and varied partnership that is working with digital communities, environmental scientists, growers, gardeners and citizens interested in the environment.

You can help the partnership take its first steps by filling in our online Growers survey: https://docs.google.com/forms/d/e/1FAIpQLSc5Ud5I4mDre5tt70kukTRJeoyUdIjTVDKHWo_Kf_mKhu2G4w/viewform?c=0&w=1

Find out more here: www.growobservatory.org and on twitter @growobservatory

Launching the State of Nature: building diversity & having fun

On Wednesday 14 September, the State of Nature partnership launched the second State of Nature report. At its launch in Edinburgh, I gave this speech. I was aiming to help people remember what fun nature can be and  inspire them to act with us to save nature. Let me know of your memories of nature and the memories you would like to foster for future generations. Here or on twitter @DeborahlLong #nature memory

(c) Plantllife; Bill Baillie
(c) Plantllife; Bill Baillie

Let me start with a massive and heartfelt thank you! THANK YOU to all the volunteers who have contributed the data on which this report is built. It would not exist without the estimated 60,000 hours of volunteer time (and that is just part of the data collecting volunteer team – there are another 66,000 getting out mending paths and fences, and leading walks) dedicated to Scotland’s nature.
They have witnessed and verified first hand the decline in species. What are they seeing? More to the point, what are they not seeing?

Have you seen a moth snowstorm this summer? A murmuration of starlings? A shiver of basking sharks? A coterie of orchids?

(c) Jim Jermyn
(c) Jim Jermyn

We are all witnesses to the decline in species diversity across Scotland to such a point that 9% of our species are now at risk of extinction.
Does it matter that we, and our children are much less likely nowadays to see a curlew, a mountain pansy or a common blue butterfly? Our children are much less likely to be finding newts in their pond, collecting ladybirds from the field or making whistles from elder trees. Does that matter?
Well yes I would say. That sort of experience is what enriches a childhood and fires the imagination. But even beyond that it also matters because our ecosystems across Scotland are becoming more simplified. They have fewer species, which results in less diversity, which in turns leads to less resilience to change. A simplified ecosystem is one much more likely to fall over in times of change – times of climate change even. We have measured this through the Biodiversity Intactness Index, which in Scotland falls below the 90% levels recognised as the level beyond which our ecosystems can reliably met society’s needs. And while that sounds dry and boring, these ecosystem services include those we know about like flood prevention and fertile soils, as well as those we don’t know about but still take from granted: future medicines and alternatives to plastic for instance.
Scotland trades on our image: Scotland is renowned across the world for its majestic landscapes and species diversity.  Where else can you see alpine gentians growing next to arctic cloudberry? Nowheere else of course. But we are not doing enough to conserve it and with it our own future.
So what can we do other than drown our sorrows with the help of a Botanist gin? What can we all resolve to do so that the next State of Nature report shows us a reverse in this decline?
We need to work together. This report show how, when we work together, we can achieve good things. Look at the examples in the report. Then, if you already volunteer – thank you and please carry on. If you don’t, how about it? There is a very exciting range of opportunities out there and again the organisations in this partnership can help you get involved or inspire you to get involved.

And finally use this report, and its sister report, Response to the State of Nature, launched last year, to implement change in your own area of work. Use the report, reflect on its messages and join us in doing something about it. Biodiversity loss is the biggest threat to the world but has been largely forgotten. This report shows why that is a dangerous oversight.
We need nature – much more than it needs us. In Scotland, we’re making good progress towards climate change and the government’s targets. But we’re only tackling half the story. There are only two ways to combat climate change: one through reducing emissions and one through maintaining species diversity so our ecosystems are able to sequester carbon. Scotland has positioned itself as a world leader in setting and attaining targets on emissions reductions and it could equally become a world leader in enhancing biodiversity and its attendant sequestration capability. Until we reverse the decline in biodiversity across Scotland, our future, and our children’s future is getting less diverse, and dare I say it, less fun , every day.
So help us make a difference, bake blaeberry tarts, make nettle string, watch an eagle soar. And with it, your resolve to help halt the loss of Scotland’s amazing nature.

What is a national ecological network anyway?

There is  a lot of talk about natural capital and ecosystem services at the moment. One of the ways of protecting our capital and services is establishing a national ecological network. So what is that?

A National Ecological Network (NEN) consists of robust and healthy ecosystems, capable of sustaining the full range of ecosystem services upon which Scotland depends and which are vital for Scotland’s sustainable development.
A well planned NEN built on sound ecological principles protects ecosystems and their services through the plants and fungi that are the basis of all ecosystems. This is the mechanism that can ensure that local development management takes place within a sustainable national context.

IPA Sunart eg
While a NEN can only be effective if delivered at a national scale, aiming to re-connect Scotland’s fragmented ecosystems across mainland Scotland and its islands, its delivery must be planned at a relevant scale locally. This provides a national green infrastructure, complementing the built infrastructure projects of national planning frameworks.
Designing an effective NEN, however,  requires robust understanding and modelling of the elements that support ecosystem services. These services include resistance to disease, pollination, water regulation and soil fertility for example. For these services to continue to be available to people, they require robust and diverse ecosystems, founded upon self sustaining and genetically diverse species populations. These populations and the habitats they comprise are an essential consideration in proposals for development throughout the country if we are to retain the ecosystem services we all rely on.
This approach is encapsulated by the Important Plant Areas (IPA) initiative, which meets targets 4 and 5 in the Global Strategy for Plant Conservation (GSPC), to which the UK and Scottish governments are committed through the Convention on Biological Diversity, and provides an ecological coherent basis for a green infrastructure.
Delivery of IPAs in Scotland has to date focussed on their identification and management advice, which is now being effectively rolled out, across the West Coast IPA and North Coast IPA. A funding bid is in place to secure parallel advances in the Cairngorms IPAs. However, Scotland, as a whole, is at a stage where the detail of how built development can adversely affect ecosystem functionality needs to be addressed within a national context. This could be part of the recently updated Scottish Land Use Strategy and the Climate Change Adaptation Framework, both of which look to an integrated approach for development and management in a changing and uncertain climate.
This national ecological network approach achieves 3 objectives:
1. Improving the quality and resilience of Scotland’s natural environment,
2. enabling species and habitats to adapt to climate change by linking fragmented ecosystems together and providing means for species to move from site to site
3. maintaining and protecting ecosystem services in the future.
It also provides the context for the development of effective green infrastructure in the long term.

Scotland’s international reputation for a high quality environment, itself providing a market for skills development and job creation across Scotland, will only be maintained through creating this network. We need to start to implement it across the country using the established models already in place if we are to gain from it.

Read more here:

Scotland’s Important Plant Areas (2015) Plantlife. www.plantlife.org.uk/publications/scotlands_important_plant_areas

Nature needs us to get MAD

For the last 40 years. European legislation has set a benchmark for environmental legislation. This has provided a strategic framework for national legislation that is set for the long term, and makes ecological sense. Transposed into Scots law, as a result we have some of the best environmental legislation in the world.

This is now at risk. Without this EU framework, governments across the UK could start to draw back on the legislation we have. In Holyrood, Cardiff and Westminster, domestic environmental legislation, alongside legislation on social issues, could be redrawn, not to improve the UK’s natural environment and ensure it is resilient enough for future generations to enjoy, but to meet the short term interests of those who wish to make economic gain from de-valuing our environment.

Nature needs us to get MAD about this now. Why MAD?

worth more than a penny...
worth more than a penny…

Money: let’s face it, this is all about money. Nature costs us money – think of the expense incurred through the flooding over recent years. Nature earns us money – in Scotland, the economic outputs from activities that depend on the natural environment have been estimated at about £17.2 billion a year, 11% of Scotland’s total outputs. Now, we need to invest in nature: until 2 weeks ago, the biggest, arguably only, source of funding for management to conserve nature was through the EU funded Scottish Rural Development Programme. Direct funding for biodiversity conservation has been drying up of late with all eyes now pointing at SRDP. We need to invest to increase that national output beyond 11% and we need to invest so that the costs of nature loss from flooding, ill health and lack of opportunity are reduced.
Ambition: it isn’t enough to sit back and hope someone else deals with this. We need clear sighted, ecologically literate policy makers to devise and deliver policy instruments that conserve nature for future generations of people, plants, porpoises and peregrines (for example). That’s why, Plantlife, with other eNGO partners have written to the Scottish Cabinet Secretary, asking her to commit publicly to maintaining the current suite of EU legislation as enshrined in Scottish law, and committing to the a continuing trajectory to conserve nature. Arguably that is not enough – we need to be doing more but let’s not go backwards.
Determination: if we cannot defend nature and conserve it for future generations, we are compounding the negative trends we’ve created. Nature cannot not speak for itself – it relies on those who care to speak up and protect it. However, although it can’t speak, it does act. Once a tipping point is reached, natural processes have the potential to set in motion a chain of events that we are unlikely to be able to control. Climate change is one of those tipping points as is biodiversity loss. The combination of two, already in action, is going to be devastating for the planet – unless we get MAD.

Yes, no mebbe…does the nation care about native plants?

In Autumn every year, Scottish Natural Heritage commissions a public attitude survey about nature [1] . Scotland loves its native plants, doesn’t it?

Scotland’s informal national anthem is ’Flower of Scotland’, Scotland’s national poet had a penchant for wild flowers, his wee, modest, crimson-tipped flow’r being one of many to feature in his poems, Scotland has a national tree, the Scots pine and, as Hugh MacDiarmid had it, hills that are so much more than nothing but heather. Despite all this, it seems flowers are still not part of Scotland’s natural psyche.

Spear thistle
Spear thistle

When asked what wildlife do you associate most with Scotland, not a single plant, or even tree, was named. I find this hard to believe. Plants define Scotland’s landscapes. Where would machair be without flowers, where would Celtic rainforests be without lichens and bryophytes? Where would the uplands be without heather?

Maybe plants aren’t seen as wildlife? This survey strongly indicates this might be the case: we still not winning the battle of hearts and minds. Plants provide the backdrop but haven’t yet found their way onto centre stage. They remain the wallflowers at the biodiversity ball.

Does this matter? Yes it does.

It is resulting in wild plants being invisible. Plants are not seen as part of wildlife. In 2015, fewer people were concerned about the loss of biodiversity than in 2014. The public is becoming less engaged in biodiversity at home in the garden, fewer people see themselves as green consumers and fewer people are volunteering.

Wild plants are invisible to politicians and policy makers too. Native plant diversity is continuing to decline: in 2007, the Countryside Survey showed significant declines in plant diversity in the best places for plants, as well as in the wider countryside. Even this survey, the only one that monitored long term changes in plant diversity, is no longer funded. This is resulting in an ongoing decline that we can’t see and no longer measure.

And there is the rub. With plants and fungi being invisible to policy makers, there are fewer and fewer resources allocated to them. Funding to the Countryside Survey is being cut and governments across the UK are relying on a new citizen science project [2], run by Plantlife with CEH and BSBI, to assess changes in wild plants. It will take at least 6 years before we have enough data to detect trends, and funding for the survey is only guaranteed until next year. Funding for actual conservation projects is drying up with cuts to SNH grants and no other funders prioritise plant conservation.

The net result will be a continued decline in plant diversity and the concomitant decline in ecosystem diversity, leading to simplified ecosystems. Plantlife’s Vanishing flora report [3], showed the ongoing loss of diversity in plants. Since the 17th century when botanical records began, Scotland has lost 97 native species. And of those left, one in 4 are classified as in danger of extinction.

At Plantlife we want to celebrate our fantastic, life-supporting flora and celebrate our long term love affair with our native plants. But to do that, we need more people to notice them and to value them. That’s the only way we’ll persuade our politicians and policy makers to put resources into plants and fungi conservation. Because if they don’t we’ll continue to be witness to the ongoing loss of native plants across Scotland. That is not a legacy we should be passing on.

Want to help?

With Scottish Environment LINK, Plantlife will be asking all our new MSPs to become Species Champions. Keep an eye on progress here: www.scotlink.org/work-areas/species-champions

Take part in the NPMS to help measure plant diversity across Scotland: http://www.npms.org.uk/

[1]http://www.snh.org.uk/pdfs/customercare/Scottish%20Nature%20Omnibus%20-%20Autumn%202015.pdf

[2] http://www.npms.org.uk/

[3] http://www.plantlife.org.uk/publications/our_vanishing_flora

Mind the gap

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What’s the biggest threat to life on Earth today? It depends on the value you place on the quality of life. If we assume quality of life includes meeting the everyday requirements of clean water, clean air, productive soils, and access to food, building materials, it should also extend to having the freedom to experience a rich and varied life. These are all fundamentally based on the assets and services that nature provides us with. Yet so many of us are today are insulated against the forces that bring these assets to our doorsteps that we forget they are there.

Such is the threat today to nature. In the hustle of everyday life, we forget that nature plods along providing us with clean water and nutritionally valuable food every day, while we career on with today’s preoccupations. It is this dislocation between what is valuable and what is not that is starkly reflected in headlines. One day, the gap between what we take for granted and what we value is going to get so wide, we’re going to fall in.

So it is that while we continue to take nature for granted and what’s been termed the 6th extinction continues apace, we will, inevitably, reach a stage where nature no longer functions and can no longer provide us with everyday requirements we have. Studies have shown, for example that in a grassland habitat, 80% of plant species play some sort of role. What that role is and how important it is we don’t necessarily know. But what we do know is that the 80% of species all work together somehow to enable the grassland ecosystem to function. There is, as we also know, an ongoing simplification of our habitats, where we’re continuing to lose species richness and habitats are composed of fewer species. Once we get below this 80% in grasslands, the system will collapse. We may not notice for a while, but at some point, some service we took for granted will no longer be there. But by that point it will be too late.

This is why the ‘precautionary principle’ is so enlightened and brilliant. It takes account of the fact that we don’t understand how our ecosystems work and it puts in place an insurance policy to make sure we don’t squander the riches we have by accident. Despite the brilliance of the concept, the precautionary principle comes under attack on a regular basis for being incompatible with the need to continue to grow. Rather instead of being perceived as against sustainable development, it is rather the underpinning force of sustainable development. How ironic is that?

Dolpo people & landscape: a new book by Gerda Pauler

I have just finished reading Gerda Pauler’s new book Dolpo people and landscapes and it’s taken me right back to Dolpo. Gerda gets under the skin of the Dolpo-pa. She takes the reader by the hand through the dramatic Dolpo landscape, she wanders amongst its houses and temples and talks to its people.

There isn’t much text but there are lots of images and each one paints more than a thousand words. It is through the images, pages of smiling people, that we really get to experience what it is like to travel through Dolpo.

Chapters cover every aspect of Dolpo life. Life for girls and women, life at school, the culture of the Dolpo-pa, neighbours to Tibet but distinctive, religion in Dolpo, the seasons and life during the year in a Dolpo village, medicine and traditional health care, wildlife and conservation, trade and commodities, tourism and the film industry.

Although often perceived as remote and at the very edge of one of the smallest countries in the world, Gerda reveals the character and bounce of Dolpo. In spite of the dramatic landscape, the harsh environment, in the shadow of political indifference and exploited by the world, the indomitable character of the Dolpo-pa comes through. Their philosophy as a people that we need to tread lightly on the earth and their preoccupation with ice cream reflects everyday conservations, refracting from the big philosophical questions of our time to the wonder of the new.
Gerda uses quotes throughout the book and we gain through them the feeling that this is a book written by the Dolpo-pa. An authentic voice comes through:
…. life in Dolpo is hard and it is difficult to make ends meet, but I prefer it this way. The only thing I would have liked to take with me from the capital – a comfortable house with running water and heating. (Dondul)
My greatest wish is to become an amchi (doctor) like my father. In other times, the knowledge was passed onto an amchi’s son only, but my father and a group of other practitioners wanted this system to be changed. Now, everybody can join the training; also girls. (Tsering Sangmo)
….. it was tourism and not our own government that gave us schools, health posts and wind power. I am convinced that, in the long run, we will benefit from foreigners visiting Dolpo. (Tenzing Namdol)
If you want to understand a people, their landscape and their way of living in a remote and beautiful part of the world, read this. And take your inspiration to visit or support one of the projects that is building a future for Dolpo and its people:
www.drokpa.org who work with the Himalayan Amchi Association
www.actiondolpo.com
Gerda’s book is available here: http://www.gerdapauler.info/books

Building a future for wild plants

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