When the environment battle turns personal
Climate change protests can wait, the focus should be on saving nature closest to us.
Protests on the dangers of climate change are raging across the world as debates and opinions on rising temperatures confound and divide people. No sooner had teenage activist Greta Thunberg stolen the show with her speech at the UN than Extinction Rebellion demonstrations broke out in major cities.
Headlines scream about youth being outraged and their futures stolen by wily politicians. In this emotional environment we are being prodded to panic about the state of the world - for the sake of our children. This is a narrow agenda that is often cultist and elitist.
I may sound facetious to some but the priority should be on protecting our immediate surroundings from the 'extremists of development' - the land, real estate, logging and the sand cartels - who are aided and abetted by the corrupt in power.
Mass movements for correcting the climate can wait while natural habitats for flora and fauna are being destroyed in the name of urban growth. This is why climate change protests remain distant and unappealing to me. The focus should be on protecting the environment in our backyard, and conserving plant and animal species. But liberal Western and privileged activists are stuck on figures about global warming without grasping real world, local issues.
I am not a climate change denier nor an expert, and cannot predict how and when the earth will turn against us when we steal space that does not belong to us. So I woke up to this fragile state of the environment (not the weather) when my mom called last week from my hometown in Kochi, India. She sounded concerned about construction activity in the city. "But thanks to Coastal Protection Zone (CPZ) rules, it has been stopped, but what about innocent residents who have been asked to vacate their homes?" she wondered.
I must admit here that my understanding of water bodies where humans are restricted from constructing high-rises is shallow. There are laws which prohibit incursions into waterways. Realty dealers, however, skirt them to sell housing dreams to hard-working people.
The good news is that CPZ is spelling trouble for rapacious builders in Kerala's commercial hub. It is the hot topic of discussion from coast to coast in the south Indian state. Awareness of the protected zone and the laws that cover it has grown after a court order that demanded residents to vacate four apartment blocks.
Corrupt developers got clearances from equally corrupt politicians and took over the backwaters by launching mega housing projects. Things came to a head when the Indian Supreme Court ordered that the structures be demolished. Reports said 500 families have been affected.
Protests ensued; some residents have been compensated while others face an uncertain future. The controversy drags on as the law takes an arduous course to bring the guilty to justice.
In Kochi, construction activity has encroached into marshlands and backwaters surrounding the city. These water bodies protect the area from the sea, but they are fast disappearing. No one cares as money is being sunk into turning a green, agricultural and marine economy that relies heavily on remittances into a tourism and economic hotspot.
My folks were worried about the apartment that I had purchased near our family home as an 'investment', like a true-blue Malayalee expat. I managed to put their fears at rest and convinced them it's on solid ground and not near the coast.
The commercial region of the city is called Ernakulam - kulam meaning pond in Malayalam. However, thousands of ponds that once dotted the city have disappeared over two decades as builders covered them and built houses. When the space ran out, they constructed apartment blocks.
I pored over research by the Indian Institute of Technology Madras and found that reclamation was widespread in the wetland areas of Maradu municipality where the violating apartment towers were located in Kochi. And it happened over 12 years. The report concluded that 227 acres (the size of 171 football fields) of the Coastal Regulation Zone, was reclaimed between 2002 and 2014. Ponds, tidal zones, 40 acres of mangroves and mangrove buffer zones in the area were swamped by a sea of concrete.
Experts said "built-up area seems to have increased by up to three times over the past two decades while the vegetation area (trees and dense trees) has decreased by more than half during the past two decades."
According to the Ramsar Convention on Wetlands, "35 per cent of the world's wetlands were lost between 1970-2015, with annual rates of loss accelerating from 2000." Global Forest Watch said the world lost 30 million acres of tropical tree cover last year - the equivalent of 30 football pitches a minute.
The situation is alarming and the developments back home in Kochi have come as a wake-up call. And no, I am not joining protests led by the likes of Greta Thunberg that have gone global and viral.
For me, this environment fight is personal, and local. Sustainable conservation solutions are needed while ensuring existing laws are strictly enforced by authorities. Natural ecosystems must be first protected from the vandals of development. Save climate change protests for another day.