Wednesday, December 5, 2007

India Snapshots from Charity:

Sweet Taj Mahal Air

Wow. I touched the Taj Mahal today. I never thought I would say that. After walking through and admiring the amazing architecture and artistry we found a sign, much like those signs on MUNI with the red lights and the words scrolling by. The sign was about the air quality, the sulfur dioxide and nitrous oxide in the air. If I read the sign right, it seemed as though the sign was telling me that the levels were ok. This surprised me considering that I could look directly at the sun because of the hazy smog that hung in the air. The sign reminded me that the air quality used to be worse and one of the Goldman Environmental Prize winners took on the task of environmental leadership and protection. M.C. Mehta, a public interest attorney, visited the Taj Mahal for the first time in 1984, he saw that the monument's marble had turned yellow and was pitted as a result of pollutants from nearby industries. He filed the first ever environmental case in the Supreme Court of India. His work is making a difference. In 1993, the Supreme Court ordered 212 small factories surrounding the Taj Mahal to close because they had not installed pollution control devices. Another 300 factories were put on notice to do the same. His leadership and perseverance is helping protect this amazing structure and community health. With his work also come some questions: I wonder how the closure of the factories affected the livelihoods of families in the area. I wonder what the smog was like in the 1980s.

Gir National Park
Lions. Should I repeat that? Lions. Asiatic ones. Four in fact. That is over 1% of the population. There are 352 Asiatic lions in Gir and we saw 4 of them, 3 females and 1 male, on our jeep safari. We went out twice, once in the morning and once in the afternoon. The morning was a thrill. We were seeking out lions with our guide. We encountered lots of wildlife, deer, antelope, wild boars, many birds, and not until late in the morning our first lion. Our guide along with other guides were able to track the lazy beauty down and there was an excitement among them and us. In the afternoon, the safari took on a different feel as we were directed by a park official and he had his trackers find the lions and then point them out to us. Exciting to see them, but not the same as going out for the first time in the am with our guide who was also the tracker.

Gir is a success story. Not long ago, the population was around 250. The conservation and community involvement is working. There is thriving eco-tourism offering employment to many in the community. There are school programs for Gujarati students in which kids come and camp overnight for 2 nights to learn about the ecology of the park. In fact we kind of disrupted a group of boys who had just arrived. They showed us their tents, practiced their English and joked around in Gujarati. I had a couple of moments of interacting with a group, then someone would say something in Gujarati and the whole group would bust up! I just smiled and nodded and hoped that nodding was the appropriate response! There is understanding and commitment from the neighboring communities that lions, leopards and other animals are important and should be protected. In fact, the park is trying to find ways to extend the boundaries of protection. Although difficult to do, they are working with the neighboring farms and thinking about creating ecologically sensitive zones. They are also considering relocating some of the lions to other parks in the country.

Ecological Footprint
It has been pretty interesting being in India and talking about sustainable development and environmental education. I’ve been thinking about myself and my own ecological footprint on this planet. I consider myself to have a fairly small footprint at home- we compost, we conserve water and energy, we only have 1 car, most of my clothes are from thrift stores, we get our veggies from a local CSA farm. But then I come to India and am reminded that just by being American I have an ecological footprint over 10 times larger than the average Indian. How sustainable is that? Just by flying to the conference I released 6 tons of carbon dioxide- this to go to an environmental conference with a theme of climate change. This was considered by the conference organizers. One of the projects that conference set up is the opportunity to buy carbon offsets. The amount of carbon emitted is calculated according to your mode of transportation and the distance covered. To buy offsets, the carbon is calculated to be worth 15 euros per ton of carbon emitted. The money that was paid went to great local projects working to reduce carbon emissions or that naturally sequester carbon. We plan to offset at least 1 person’s emissions.

I think often when Americans hear the words “sustainable development” they automatically think of the developing world and about how the developing nation needs to clean up their act, cut their emissions, get ahead but in a green way. How often we forget how the industrialized developed nations got to where they are today- through the creation of polluting businesses and behaviors that we are now trying to clean up and fix after-the-fact. In fact, it is really nations like the United States that need to clean up our act as a nation and become better environmental and social justice leaders by cutting our ecological footprint and making sure that everyone is able to live in a healthy, safe, peaceful environment for all life. A question that I heard more than once was, “The United States has so much money- why can’t you do a better job on environmental issues?” I guess it is a matter of priorities. How can we do more with less and be satisfied with sufficient rather than always needing more?