Nature, Inc. TV series: Exploring the planet’s largest ‘enterprise’!

Nature is priceless -- or is i? The answer might save us all!
Nature is priceless — or is it?

If we put a cash price on the economic services that, say, watersheds or insects or coastal mangroves provide, would we value Nature more? Would we be prepared to change our ways of measuring wealth and economic growth? And if we did, would that slow down the extinctions and collapse of ecosystems?

These are some of the issues that are explored in Nature, Inc., a path-breaking TV documentary series that puts a price-tag on environmental services such as forests, wildlife and coral reefs.

First broadcast in 2008 and 2009 on BBC World News, Nature Inc. broke new ground for environmental programming by seeking out a new breed of investor – those who believe they can make money out of saving the planet.

Watch Nature, Inc. series trailer:

Nature Inc. offers new insights into valuing the benefits of natural systems and biodiversity. It takes its lead from economists who have worked out that ecosystem services are worth more than the total of all the world’s national economies.

The first and second series are now available from TVE Asia Pacific (TVEAP). Each series comprises six half-hour episodes, compacting stories filmed in different parts of the world. Broadcast, civil society and educational users across the Asia Pacific may order copies at the cost of duplication and dispatch, and without having to pay a license fee.

The series was produced by One Planet Pictures of the UK, in association with dev.tv of Switzerland.

“There is new green thinking out there and some of it is grappling with pricing renewable assets. As such we felt it was a legitimate new area to take as an organising theme for the new series,” says Robert Lamb, series producer of Nature, Inc. “Perhaps the global recession has made viewers more aware of the ‘eco’ in economics”.

Robert Lamb

The series is based on new research and analysis being done on the subject. Among these new studies is the Economics of Ecosystems and Biodiversity (TEEB), a major international initiative to draw attention to the global economic benefits of biodiversity, to highlight the growing costs of biodiversity loss and ecosystem degradation, and to draw together expertise from the fields of science, economics and policy to enable practical actions moving forward.

But adding a price tag to Nature is not something that pleases all scientists or activists. Robert says the producers received “an overwhelmingly positive reaction” to the first series, but there was also a small minority who wrote in to say they hated the premise of the whole series.

He adds: “That’s good, we want to foster discussion in Nature Inc. which is why we are encouraging viewers to contribute ideas for the next series.”

Read Robert Lamb’s reflections on the Making of Nature, Inc. TV series

Here’s a sample episode from the series, titled Coral Cashpoint. In this, Nature Inc investigates a claim that our coral reefs are worth $30 billion a year. In this fourth episode, we go diving on the Great Barrier Reef, the Maldives and to the bottom of the North Sea to find out how coral reefs supply 500 million of us with food and work. But we are destroying the reefs so quickly, they could vanish entirely in less than a hundred years.

Nature, Inc: Coral Cashpoint – Part 1 of 2

Nature, Inc: Coral Cashpoint – Part 2 of 2

Exploring our crowded planet, One Square Mile at a time…

Vasanthi Hariprakash exploring One Square Mile in Kathmandu, Nepal

It’s funny how, more than a generation after most of the world adopted the metric system of measurements, relics of the earlier, ‘imperial’ units still linger in our language and popular culture.

Frequent flyers stlll accumulate air-miles, not kilometres. Disaster managers grapple with the challenges of communicating credible early warnings on that the crucial ‘last mile’ (it’s not yet the ‘last kilometre’). And many among us, including those who have grown up in a metric world, can better grasp a square mile than a square kilometre.

One Square Mile is also the name of an interesting new TV series produced by One Planet Pictures of the UK, and first airing this month on BBC World News. In this series, reporters visit a neighbourhood in different parts of the developing world and try and find out what the residents’ hopes and aspirations

Says its producer Robert Lamb: “One Square Mile is an experiment. So much in television is set up. In this series our reporters explore a small patch of a city with the aim of providing the viewer with an authentic slice of life.”

According to Robert, One Square Mile takes the lid off a neighbourhood. Reporters wander around a marked out section of a town and city and talk to the people they meet to find out what their everyday concerns are.

Of this months shows, two are presented by Zeinab Badawi . In one, she goes walkabout in Juba, capital of south Sudan which is on the verge of becoming an independent state. In the other, Badawi encounters murder on the streets in Guatemala City.

The other two are presented by my friend Vasanthi Hariprakash, whose day job is with India’s leading TV news network NDTV. These two are of particular interest to me as she travels to countries in Asia that are closer to me in distance and closer to my heart.

In one show, Vasanthi travels to Kathmandu, the capital of Nepal. The blurb says: “Despite a recent record of political instability that has seen a monarchy overthrown and an uneasy peace struck with the Maoist insurgents, reporter Vasanthi Hariprakash finds a city population surprisingly upbeat. But a long dawn queue outside the passport office tells a different story – young Nepali men are desperate to get out to find work in the Gulf and Southeast Asia.”

I’m familiar with that city having made multiple visits since 1995, and have shared the pains and anxieties of my Nepali friends as they went through political turmoil and a bloody insurgency. I saluted them when their ‘people power’ got rid of the despotic king in 2006.

Vasanthi did remarkably well in presenting her first-time appearance on a BBC-broadcast show. She came across as informed, eager and empathetic to the people and place she was exploring. Not once did I notice a hint of cynicism or condescension in her voice. This is quite in contrast to regular BBC reporters, many of who are far too judgemental and dismissive than good journalists should ever be. We can only hope vasanthi never aspires to those despicable professional levels…

Amidst political intrigue and uncertainties, life goes on in Kathmandu...

In her second show, Vasanthi travels to a small village in Laos next to the old Ho Chi Minh trail where the dominant concern is unexploded cluster bombs from the Vietnam war. The synopsis reads: “From the capital Vientiane it takes 10 hours for reporter Vasanthi Hariprakash to reach her square mile – a village next to the old Ho Chi Minh trail. Today it’s a peaceful highway for enterprising Vietnamese traders but during the war it was a target for the B 52 bombers with their deadly cargo of cluster bombs. 40% are live – called UXOs – Unexploded Ordinance – and Hariprakesh finds the villagers’ poverty leaves them no choice but to run the gauntlet of the unexploded munitions as they work in their paddy fields.”

This reminds me of a short film I saw in Cambodia many years ago about a poor, rural community who faced a similar dilemma living and working in a countryside littered with unknown and unexploded landmines. The Cold War conflicts in Southeast Asia may have ended decades ago, but local people still live in the shadow of their deadly legacies…

I can’t wait for more real-life stories in One Square Mile, and I hope Robert Lamb will send out his intrepid and charming reporters to far corners of the real world where real people are taking on life’s many challenges 24/7. These people’s resilience and resourcefulness inspire us all.

And that’s what good television is all about. Moving images, moving us all!

Safe Bottle Lamp: Life-saving bright idea wins World Challenge 2009

Dr Wijaya Godakumbura holding his invention - Photo courtesy Rolex Awards/Tomas Bertelsen

It’s easy to curse the darkness, and many among us regularly do. Only a few actually try to light even a small candle to fight it. Dr Wijaya Godakumbura of Sri Lanka is one of them – he literally lights lamps, thousands of them, against the darkness of ignorance and poverty.

But his lamps are different, and a great deal safer compared to normal lamps and kerosene, which can start fires risking life and property of users. The design is simple yet effective, inspired in part by the Marmite bottle known the world over: it’s small and squat, with two flat sides – equipped with a safe metal screw cap to hold the wick. It’s quite stable and hard to topple.

Surgeon turned inventor and social activist, Dr Godakumbura founded and runs the Safe Bottle Lamp Foundation which distributes safe, virtually unbreakable kerosene lamps to those who can’t afford electricity. For these untiring efforts that have saved hundreds of lives, the good doctor and his organisation have just been selected the overall global winner in the 5th annual World Challenge awards conducted jointly by BBC World News and Newsweek, together with Shell.

The Safe Bottle Lamp Foundation received a $20,000 grant from Shell to invest in the future of the project. The winner and runners-up were felicitated at an awards ceremony in the City of The Hague on 1 December 2009.

Now in its fifth year, World Challenge 2009 is a global competition aimed at finding projects or small businesses from around the world that have shown enterprise and innovation at a grass roots level. World Challenge is brought to you by BBC World News and Newsweek, in association with Shell, and is about championing and rewarding projects and business which really make a difference.

A record breaking 900 plus nominations were received this year and from these, twelve finalists were chosen by a panel of expert judges. BBC World News viewers and Newsweek readers then selected their favourite from these dozen unique and inspiring entries by casting more than 127,800 votes at http://www.theworldchallenge.co.uk.

Watch short film featuring the Safe Bottle Lamp when it emerged a finalist this year:

Dr Godakumbura and his foundation have been recognised many times before. Notable among these honours is the Rolex Award for Enterprise in 1998. Read Rolex profile about him and his continuing work.

BBC/Shell World Challenge series producer is my former colleague Robert Lamb, who has blazed many new trails in broadcast television and development communication. He specialises in telling complex environmental stories in engaging terms using moving images, and now runs his own independent film production company One Planet Pictures in the UK.

At the beginning of the World Challenge 2009 process, Robert wrote in the producer’s blog: “World Challenge is now in its fifth year. Over that time we have received thousands of nominations. Sadly, we have only been able to film a small selection. But it’s enough to know that there are millions of points of light out there. Watching the news is easy to forget that the vast majority of people go about their lives peacefully and productively.

“Our aim In World Challenge is briefly to bring stories of modest scale sustainable enterprise to the screens. Every year has thrown up big surprises. The diverse ways that ordinary people go about making a living without taxing the Earth’s resources is uplifting. This year we feature the most diverse crop of stories yet…And the really good news is that they are still going strong and proving that ‘sustainable’ is a term with a lot of meaning.”

Read Dr Wiyaya Godakumbura biography

Inventor Godakumbura promotes his safe bottle lamp

‘Climate Challenge’ marks turning point in Vietnam’s climate concerns

Seeking local solutions for a global problem

Climate Challenge TV series: Seeking local solutions for a global problem

Many media reports and documentaries on climate change tend to be scary. Even the most balanced and scientifically informed ones caution us about dire scenarios that can rapidly change the world as we know it.

But it’s not all doom and gloom. Like every crisis, climate change too presents humanity with formidable challenges that can become opportunities to do things differently — and better.

Climate Challenge is a rare TV series that adopts this positive attitude. The 6-part series co-produced by One Planet Pictures in the UK and dev.tv in Switzerland, links the global climate crisis with location action for both mitigation (trying to reduce further aggravation) and adaptation (learning to cope with impacts).

It also makes the point: in the fight against global warming, developed and developing countries must work hand-in-hand to find viable solutions for all.

The film-makers of Climate Challenge focus on some of the most promising approaches to turning down the global thermostat. Climate Challenge goes in search for solutions that won’t put a break on economic growth.

The series had its original run on BBC World News in April – May 2007. Shortly afterwards, TVE Asia Pacific (TVEAP) started distributing it to TV channels, educational institutions and civil society groups across the Asia Pacific region. It has been one of the more popular items on our catalogue of international TV films on sustainable development and social justice.

Our deal with Asia Pacific broadcasters is a barter arrangement. TVEAP clears copyrights for developing countries in our region (more than 30 countries or territories) and offers films free of license fee that normally prevent many southern broadcasters from using this content.

We offer a new set of titles every two months to our broadcast partners – now numbering over 40 channels. They select and order what interests them, and often pay for the cost of copying on to professional tape and dispatch by courier.

When they receive the tapes, accompanied by time-coded scripts, many TV stations version the films into their local language/s using sub-titles or voice-dubbing. They do this at their expense, and then assign a good time slot for airing the films once or several times. They are free to re-run the films as often as they want. The only expectation is that they give us feedback on the broadcasts, so that we can report to the copyright owners once a year.

This arrangement works well, and bilateral relationships have developed between TVEAP’s distribution team and programme managers or acquisition staff at individual TV stations across Asia. Everything happens remotely — through an online ordering system and by email. It’s rarely that we at TVEAP get to meet and talk with our broadcast colleagues in person.

Pham Thuy Trang speaks in Tokyo

Pham Thuy Trang speaks in Tokyo

I was delighted, therefore, to meet one of our long-standing broadcast colleagues in Tokyo earlier this month when we ran a regional workshop on changing climate and moving images. Pham Thuy Trang, a reporter with news and current affairs department of Vietnam Television (VTV), was one of the participants. She turned out to be an ardent fan of our films.

She told the Tokyo workshop how the Climate Challenge series marked a turning point in Vietnam’s public discussion and understanding of climate change issues.

In mid 2007, VTV was one of many Asian broadcasters who ordered Climate Challenge. Having versioned it into Vietnamese, VTV broadcast the full series in December 2007 to coincide with the 13th UN climate change conference in Bali, Indonesia.

“This was the first time the issue received indepth coverage on TV,” Trang said. This was particularly significant because a 2007 survey had revealed low levels of interest in climate issues by the media in Vietnam.

Vietnam has a 3,000km long coastline

Vietnam has a 3,000km long coastline

“In fact, the World Bank has identified Vietnam, with its 3,000 km long coastline, as among the countries most vulnerable to climate change impact. Our media has been reporting some developments – such as increased coastal erosion – as purely local incidents without making the climate link,” she noted.

The series, originally broadcast in the foreign documentaries slot, was noticed by the VTV senior management who then arranged for its repeat broadcast in the long-established environmental slot. The latter slot, well established for a decade, commands a bigger audience.

“Our Director General was impressed by our receiving such a good series on an important global issue,” Trang recalled. She added: “We need more films like this – that explain the problem and help us to search for solutions.”

Trang kept on thanking TVEAP for Climate Challenge and other films that bring international environment and development concerns to millions of Vietnamese television viewers. I said we share the credit with generous producers like One Planet Pictures and dev.tv, who let go of the rights to their creations for the global South.

If only more producers of TV content on climate and other development issues think and act as they do. That was also the call we made at the end of our workshop: recognise climate change as a copyright free zone.



Related blog post: Climate in crisis and planet in peril – but we’re squabbling over copyrights!