“We asked all our Asian colleagues for nominations for this inaugural award, and many of them recommended Down to Earth magazine that has covered sustainability issues from a developing country perspective for 21 years,” said Alfonso Cauteruccio, President of Greenaccord.
Down to Earth is a fortnightly magazine focusing on issues of science and environment. It is published by the Centre for Science and Environment (CSE), a leading research and advocacy group in India. Founded by leading journalist and activist Anil Agarwal in May 1992, it provides reportage, analysis and commentary on a broad range of issues related to environment and development.
From the beginning, the magazine has challenged its readers to think about sustainable development. It inspires and encourages its readers to become more environment-friendly.
Darryl D’Monte, senior Indian journalist and a former editor of the Times of India, accepted the award on behalf of Down to Earth editors and publishers.
“Anil Agarwal was a trail-blazing journalist who combined knowledge and advocacy. Down to Earth, launched just before the Earth Summit in Rio in mid 1992, reflects that vision,” D’Monte said in his acceptance speech.
D’Monte recalled how Agarwal and CSE played a key role in the early days of global climate negotiations, especially in focusing global attention on per capita emissions of global warming greenhouse gases.
“Climate change is as much politics as it is science, and Anil was well aware of that. He approached all debates well armed with statistics, analysis and a southern perspective, which is also the Down to Earth magazine’s approach to issues,” he added.
Down to Earth presents accessible content intended for interested non-specialists including policy makers. Articles are often investigative, in-depth, all presented in well edited and designed form. In recent years, it has developed an extensive website at www.downtoearth.org.in.
The magazine has been an important vehicle for many CSE campaigns in the public interest, including its exposes on pesticide residues in popular soft drinks and bottled water brands, and agitation for cleaner air in Delhi and other metropolitan areas in India.
CSE’s right to clean air campaign resulted in New Delhi becoming the world’s first city to introduce compressed natural gas (CNG) for all public transport vehicles, D’Monte said.
Greenaccord is a non-profit association, headquartered in Rome, and founded to be of service to the world of information and training that deals with environmental issues. The association is made up of journalists and professionals who volunteer their time to provide training to their colleagues.
Since 2003, Greenaccord organises an annual gathering of journalists and scientists concerned about sustainability – which has become one of the largest such gatherings taking place on a regular basis.
In this Ravaya column (in Sinhala), I summarise the views of late Dr Ray Wijewardene on sustainable farming. Written to mark his first death anniversary, it is the beginning of a series of explorations of his critical thinking on issues of agriculture, energy, environmental conservation and innovation.
This first appeared in Ravaya Sunday broadsheet newspaper on 21 August 2011.
The small farmers, buffaloes and earthworms all over the world lost a true friend and spokesman this week when Lankan scientist Ray Wijewardene passed away.
Ray packed multiple interests and pursuits into his 86 years of life – including engineering, building and flying light aircraft, and Olympic-level competitive sailing. But he was happiest being a farmer and mechanic, and had strong opinions on the subject. He was vocal about misguided priorities in tropical farming his native Sri Lanka – and across the developing world.
He was especially passionate when speaking about small farmers in the developing world, with whom he worked many years of his international career as an expert on tropical farming systems.
Educated at Cambridge and Harvard universities, and with impeccable technical credentials, he was no stranger to the ways of academia. But he remained a sceptic about the efficacy and benefits of agricultural research — on which hundreds of millions of development funding is invested every year.
The main problem with agricultural research, he used to say, is that those who engaged in such studies and experimentation didn’t have to rely on farming for their sustenance. There was not enough self interest. In contrast, the small farmer had to eke out a meagre existence from whatever land, water and seeds or livestock she had. In her case — and a majority of small farmers around the world today are indeed women — it’s a stark choice of innovate or perish.
The heroic efforts of small farmers were rarely recognised by the rest of humanity who consume their produce — and the farmers themselves are too busy planting crops or raising animals to speak on their own behalf. This is where Ray Wijewardene came in: with his education, exposure and talent, he made an outstanding spokesman for small farmers all over the tropics.
In the 1960s, as the inventor and promoter of the world’s first two-wheeled (Land Master) tractor, Ray travelled all over Asia, Africa and Latin America working with tropical farmers.
For half a century, Ray has championed the lot of the small farmer at national, regional and global levels with UN agencies, academic and research groups, corporate sector and governments. But in later years, he questioned the wisdom of trying to mechanise tropical farming, and considered that phase of his career a ‘big mistake’. He dedicated the rest of his life to researching and promoting ecologically sustainable agriculture, on which he co-wrote an authoritative book in 1984.
Ray had the rare ability to ask piercing questions without antagonizing his audiences. He was an activist in the true sense of the word, but one whose opinions were well informed and grounded in reality, not rhetoric.
This comes through very powerfully in an extensive media interview I did with Ray in 1995, which I released online this week as a tribute to Ray — who has been my mentor and friend for almost 25 years.
At the outset, Ray points out where the Green Revolutionists went astray: “All along in the Green Revolution, its promoters focused on maximizing yields through massive inputs. But they forgot that what the farmer wants is to maximize profits, not necessarily yields!”
We then talked about the particular challenges faced in tropical farming, and the mismatch of temperate farming systems promoted widely in the tropics where climatic and soil conditions are different. One of Ray’s main concerns was agriculture’s profligate use of water – more for weed control than to meet the strict biological needs of crop plants themselves!
Ray wasn’t fundamentally opposed to external, chemical inputs to boost soil fertility but he advocated a mix of natural and synthetic options. In our interview, he asked: “We have multinational companies supporting — directly or indirectly — the extensive use of chemical fertilizers. But who supports cow-dung? Who extols the virtues of the humble earthworm?”
He then added: “For us in Asia, these elements are far more important. Indians have recognized this, but we still haven’t. As long as our agricultural scientists are trained in the western mould of high external input agriculture, this (mindset) won’t change. Cow-dung and earthworms won’t stand a chance – until some western academic suddenly ‘re-discovers’ them…“
It was Indian science writer and environmentalist Anil Agarwal who asked me, sometime in mid 1995, to interview Ray for Down to Earth, the science and environmental fortnightly magazine published by his Centre for Science and Environment. As Anil told me, “In Ray, you have not only one of the topmost agricultural experts in the developing world but one of its most original thinkers.”
By this time, I’d known Ray for almost a decade, and been exposed to several of his multiple facets. But each encounter with Ray was enriching for me, so I immediately seized the opportunity. The usually media-shy Ray already knew of and respected Anil, which helped.
The interview was audio taped over two long sessions, and I remember spending many hours transcribing it. I had to check some references with Ray, who cooperated wonderfully. I’ve been trained to observe the word limit set by editors, but in this instance, I sent in the full length Q&A, for it was so interesting. Down to Earth issue for 31 October 1995 carried a compact version, skillfully distilling the essence of that long exchange between Ray and myself — one of the most memorable interviews among hundreds I’ve done during 25 years of work in print and broadcast media.
How I wish the exchange was also preserved on audio tape! Indeed, it’s a small miracle that the original transcript survived for 15 years. The soft copy was lost in a hard drive crash of 1998, but fortunately I’d taken a full print-out. I’m grateful to a former colleague, Buddhini Ekanayake, for retyping the entire interview in mid 2008 when I considered releasing it in the wake of the global food crisis. That somehow didn’t work out, but the soft copy was ready at hand for me to rush to the editor of Groundviews on the day of Ray’s funeral. All I added was a new, 500-word introduction which tried to sum up the Ray Wijewardene phenomenon.
As I wrote at the time: “The few of us thus became the first outsiders to see the film which I found both deeply moving and very ironic. With minimal narration, he allows the local people to tell their own story. There’s only one expert who quickly explains just what is going on in this particularly weather-prone part of the world.”
The world’s rich are having a party, and millions living in poverty are the ones footing the bill. This is the premise of the film, which looks at the impact of climate change on the inhabitants of Ghoramara and Sagar islands in the the Sundarban delta region in the Bay of Bengal.
Almost 7,000 inhabitants have been forced to leave Ghoramara in the last 30 years, as the island has become half in size. The biggest island, Sagar which hosted refugees from other islands all these years is witnessing massive erosion now. 70,000 people in the 9 sea-facing islands are at the edge of losing land in next 15 years. For these people climate change is real.
As the sea level rises and takes with it homes and livelihoods in the delta, the villagers of Sagar are paying a hefty price for a problem that they did not create. Meanwhile, middle class India and the political elite are becoming aware of the problem of global warming, but prefer to look the other way.
I’m glad to note that the film is now being screened to various audiences and making ripples. By showing people – including those still not convinced about climate change – what sea level rise is already doing to poor people, the film is stretching the limits of debate and focusing attention on the need to act, not just talk.
It’s also creating ripples in environmental and/or human rights activist circles where all too often, passionate discussions don’t go very far beyond the rhetoric to bring in the real world voices and testimonies. Pradip’s film accomplishes this with authenticity and empathy yet, mercifully, without the shrill and overdose of analysis found in activist-made films. It powerfully and elegantly tells one of the biggest stories of our times.
In November 2008, Pradip showed and talked about his film at a screening organised by SACREDMEDIACOW (SMC), an independent postgraduate collective on Indian media research and production (and much more) at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) at the University of London. Before it started, Pradip told his audience to ‘forget that this is a documentary about climate change’ and just watch.
As one member of his audience, Sophia Furber, later wrote: “The film’s approach to climate change is completely non-didactic. Mean Sea Level is no acronym-fest sermon or disaster story, but an intimate portrait of a way of life which is on the verge of going underwater.”
The more Pradip shares his film, the more people who notice the irony that I experienced in Tokyo. A short review by the Campaign against Climate Change says: “There is a greater irony. These poor people got nothing out of the economy that created climate change, nor do they contribute to global warming. Mean Sea Level is a testimony of reckless political economy of our times. Climate change is real, and only a sign of our recklessness.”
Last heard, Pradip was planning to screen MEAN Sea Level on Sagar Island so that the story’s participants can see the film for themselves. The idea was to power the event entirely through renewable energy sources, such as solar power.
I hope he will soon place his film – or at least highlights/extracts – online on YouTube or another video sharing platform. This film is too important to be confined to film festivals and public screenings. Whether it would also be broadcast on television in India and elsewhere, we’ll just have to wait and see. I won’t hold my breath on that one…
The latest outlet to carry my views is Down to Earth, the fortnightly magazine on science and environment published from New Delhi, India. They have included a condensed version of my remarks in their issue for 15 December 2008, under the heading: Films chained, unchained
When Down to Earth editors first mooted the idea of carrying my views, they suggested a catchy headline: Climate’s Niros. I rather liked that…but that didn’t survive their copyediting. Ah, well…
In its preamble to the special climate change issue, Down to Earth editors say: “Eleven years after the Kyoto Protocol was signed — only to be consigned to irrelevance over the subsequent decade — nations are meeting in Poland to negotiate post-2012 action.
“The realities of climate change are clearer than ever, and the cost of action is mounting. Rich countries, historically responsible for climate change, are proposing new mechanisms to share the burden. Leading developing countries such as India and China need to negotiate hard as well and make a big push for renewables…” Read full story