Resilient Ecosystems- a comment on the economic crisis

I flew into Mumbai, India last year on December 21, the same day the modern wing of the Taj Mahal Hotel was re-opened after being damaged during the Mumbai terror attacks. Yes, the heritage wing of the hotel which had almost been gutted was still closed but the official re-opening in the presence of a packed crowd of India’s glitterati proved to many the resilience of the people of Mumbai.

Resilience is a word that is bandied around nowadays. Much of what we know about resilience as a science comes from a relatively new discipline in ecology which has generated many papers and books. To some, especially those working on issues to do with small island developing states (SIDS), resilience is the other face of vulnerability. Many vulnerable human and natural ecosystems display resilience, or not, when hit by shocks.

In simplistic terms a resilient ecosystem, be it human or natural, is one that can withstand shocks and rebuild itself when necessary. Just as the people of Mumbai seemingly bounced back after the horrific attacks, so it is that resilient ecosystems have the ability to absorb blows and come back to some state of “normality” without much delay. But, it’s never that simple. The state that emerges after shocks may be somewhat different. The raucous, easy, free-wheeling democracy that was previously evident in Mumbai has now given way to a police regulated city with heavy security installed at hotels, cinemas and historical sites and police check points set up everywhere.

Inevitably, we see resilience now being used in the context of the global economic crisis. Pundits, journalists and pop-economists are debating which country will be more resilient in managing the crisis. For us in Seychelles we have a double whammy to cope with; the national debt servicing plus the economic woes of the developed world which provides us with tourists, investment and development assistance.

I believe Seychelles as a nation displays many aspects of resilience necessary to rebuild its system. But not all parts of the system will end up the same as before, meaning not all parts of society will be able to withstand the blows as well. There are similar situations in natural ecosystem. Studies of impacts of cyclones and hurricanes show that water quality and phytoplankton productivity in the sea for example– a measure of the health of the food web – are impacted by winds and heavy rainfall, but return to normal within months. Not all components of the marine system are equally resilient. After hurricanes, many coral reefs suffer massive damage and the ecosystem can shift to a different regime, one that may not be as productive or diverse.

Chagos-The most pristine marine environment on earth?

Diego Garcia, in the Chagos archipelago, is back in the international news with the release of a new book in the United States entitled Island of Shame: The Secret History of the U.S. Military base on Diego Garcia, by David Vine. It is what the publishers call a “groundbreaking work that dares to expose the other Guantánamo”. The book was officially launched in Seychelles and Mauritius in June this year. The author will donate all the book royalties to the Chagossians.

Seychellois, especially those of a certain generation, have a good knowledge of the Chagos. The coconut plantation on Diego Garcia was managed from Seychelles. My father’s company on Mahe provided fuel and supplies once upon a time to the Chagos and also exported the copra from there. The Chagossians who returned to Seychelles integrated into our society, with their Association still very active.Many other people around the world, through the international media, know about the Chagossians and their fight to return to “Diego “

What is less well known is that many scientists believe that the Chagos – a UK Overseas Territory – is probably the most pristine tropical marine environment on Earth. The archipelago has the world’s largest coral atoll, its healthiest reefs and its cleanest seas, they say

A booklet was launched in March this year called The Chagos Archipelago: Its Nature and the Future, to start a discussion on a programme “to create one of the world’s greatest conservation areas”. The archipelago is described as comparable with the Galapagos Islands or the Great Barrier Reef in environmental and scientific importance.

The publication flags up the Chagos as the United Kingdom’s greatest area of marine biodiversity by far. The area is a crucial refuge, staging post and breeding ground for marine life, it says. The Chagos also provides a scientific benchmark for an environment without degradation; this is important for helping to deal with problems such as pollution, climate change and loss of biodiversity. It calls for people to support these ideas and encourage the British Government to make the conservation area a reality. This is a great start, in my opinion, as it sets aside a very important area of the planet and defers benefits to future generation – hopefully generations of Chagossians whose fate is currently a political hot potato.

Drawing on best practice from other sites, the aims of the conservation area would be: to protect nature, including fish stocks (benefiting countries such as Seychelles in the region); to benefit science, and support action against damaging climate change; and to be compatible with security and be financially sustainable. In my view, one of the major aims should be to provide livelyhood opportunities and environmental services for Chagossians upon their return.

Pollution, overfishing and climate change are affecting the oceans worldwide, but the creation of a conservation area around the Chagos will help preserve this pristine marine environment and secure rich natural heritage that many people say the Chagossians are actually the stewards of.

Tsunami predictions are plain wrong

“I just wanted to let you know to stay away from the beaches all around in the month of July. There is a prediction that there will be another tsunami or earthquake hitting on 22 July 2009. It is also when there will be a sun eclipse,”

This is a typical “Tsunami Warning” email message that has been filling my inbox over the last month. The message goes on to say that an earthquake is predicted to hit Japan on July 22nd, which would trigger a Tsunami traveling as far as Seychelles Mauritius and the East African coast.

The prediction is based on one fact: a solar eclipse will take place on July 22nd 2009 directly to the south west of Japan. This eclipse according to the prediction circulating on the World Wide Web means that the gravitational pull of the Sun and Moon pulling together will 1. Lift the earth’s tectonic plates in that region of Asia; 2. Cause the tide to rise more than usual and 3. Cause an underground molten magma tide to dip and raise the plates following the water tide.

On July 22nd 2009, according to this prediction, a 6+ Magnitude Quake will take place at 3:00PM Local Japanese time. This will be followed by two level 5+ Earthquakes and a Tsunami between 5:00PM and 7:00PM. The Tsunami will start out in the Pacific Ocean and hit all the islands to the south west of Japan , Indonesia and New Zealand and also the Western Indian Ocean to Seychelles Mauritius and East Africa.

The prediction, outlined by a computer games developer called Britton La Roche in the US, is based on the following theory. A solar eclipse means that the moon is blocking the sun. The moon has enough gravitational pull to cause the tides and other natural phenomena on earth. The sun has enough gravitational pull to keep the earth in orbit. The theory is that during a solar eclipse, the moon has the Sun’s added pull on the Earth’s tectonic plates. When the Sun and Moon are together on one side of the planet, they can supposedly pull together and lift up the tectonic plate, just beneath the eclipse. This causes the plate to shift upward, and then an earthquake is generated when the lifted plate gets the little extra push (lift) it needed to move over its neighboring plate.

But this has been pooh poohed by the scientific community. The first to react was the Earth Observatory of Singapore (EOS). Dr. Kerry Sieh of EOS affirms on the EOS website that to date, scientists have not found any significant correlation between solar eclipses and earthquakes. Since 1900, for example, of 82 earthquakes greater than magnitude 8 worldwide, only two occurred close to the time of a solar eclipse. However, these were not only partial eclipses but also far from the locations of the earthquakes. Dr Sieh is visiting from the California Institute of Technology (Caltech) in the US. His principal research interest is earthquake geology. He, students and colleagues are studying the megathrust that produced the devastating giant Sumatran earthquakes and Indian Ocean Tsunamis of 2004 and 2005.

“Earthquakes are not caused by gravitational pull”, says Dr. Kate Hutton, a seismologist also at Caltech, reported by Earthquakes are caused by the accumulation of strain in the Earth’s crust, she adds. The U.S. Geological Survey has also stated: “Neither the USGS nor Caltech nor any other scientists have ever predicted a major earthquake. They do not know how, and they do not expect to know how any time in the foreseeable future.”

Professor Ian Main of the University of Edinburgh, UK writing in the journal Nature about earthquakes says that in the USA, the emphasis has long been shifted to a better understanding of the earthquake process, and on an improved calculation of the seismic hazard. In Japan, particularly in the aftermath of the Kobe earthquake in 1995, there is a growing realization that successful earthquake prediction might not be realistic. In China, thirty false alarms have brought power lines and business operations to a standstill in the past three years, leading to recent government plans to clamp down on unofficial predictions, he says.

Dr. Chris Rowan a geologist specializing in paleomagnetism, also at the University of Edinburgh writes in his blog that “Any geologist would be celebrating a genuine, proven, method of earthquake prediction: but we’re clearly not there yet. Right now, the best we can get is a hazy view of tectonic storm clouds building on the horizon, and we lack even the equivalent of a barometer, let alone advanced tools like weather satellites, to give us a more specific forecast. It would be irresponsible to claim otherwise.”

Poor old Britton La Roche has been dropped in it because he was simply theorizing so that he or others could think about building a Game Simulator. In fact on his blog he says “This is a theory and I have no background in earth science or seismology. In short, I have no valid qualification to back this prediction.” But the media and the internet community have reacted as if this was a scientific fact and have managed to stir panic throughout Asia and the Indian Ocean region

The world has become generic

Victoria, the capital city of the Seychelles, looks as if another place has come visiting and decided to stay! This small city that I know so well from childhood wanderings in back streets, back of buildings, under bridges and even in streams is starting to look like any other town anywhere else. Large buildings seemingly from a well-thumbed architectural digest have popped up. And the landscaping, apparently originally planned by experts from Singapore, fits in this tidy and clean but bland and generic cityscape.

But it does not have to be that way. Taking a break today from the computer screen I was wandering around the native plants we have growing around our Centre at Roche Caiman, a relatively new District bordering Victoria and I noticed that the Wrights Gardenia was flowering. I already smelled the heavy scent from the beautiful flowers as I approached the tree.

Wrights Gardenia is a plant that grows only in the Seychelles (endemic in biological parlance) and is found in its natural state only on Aride island, near Praslin. I think the flower is probably one of the most beautiful of the endemic trees of Seychelles. It’s named after Edward Percival Wright who visited Seychelles in the 19th Century.

The plant we have growing was one of four, grown from seed collected by Terence Vel our Techical Officer at the forestry station at Sans Souci, Mahe, where some of these trees are growing. They had been planted there by the former forestry director.

I think we are the only organization in Seychelles that landscapes around its building with native plants. The plants we have growing in the front of the Centre are native and were collected and planted by myself, Terence and Lucina, the Centre caretaker. But buildings and public places around Victoria and environs are still landscaped with exotic plants imported from various places. This despite the Government’s own campaign to rid Seychelles of alien invasive plants.

Many alien plants not only take a lot of resources, like water, to maintain, but also gives our country the same feel and look as any other place in the world. Popular Hawaiian and South American plants have tended to homogenize the world. Everything looks the same. What has become of diversity? Is the whole world doomed to look like “More of the Same”? Or can we use our own native plants to showcase our difference and our uniqueness?

Even a so called “recalcitrant” plant like Wrights Gardenia can be maintained and used in landscaping. If it can grow at sea level mostly on coral fill at our Centre, then with some nurturing it, and many other unique plants of Seychelles, can be kept by most building and home owners. Go for it people! Let us celebrate diversity rather than uniformity!

Somali Piracy started with a fight over fish

I tried to interest a popular island biodiversity email group in the following article but the moderator said it had nothing to do with biodiversity. This shows a complete lack of understanding about environmental management because actually the Somali piracy has its roots in a war over biodiversity resources – fish – as I explain below.

The exploits of the Somali pirates as far as the Seychelles have struck fear across the board and slammed the region’s economy. The Western Indian Ocean tuna fishery fell by 30% last year owing to pirate attacks on tuna vessels. As national and international military forces scale up their responses, and national and international press give us almost blow by blow reports, we need to ask ourselves the right question so as to get the most lasting solution to the problem. And I doubt that a purely military response will solve the piracy because I think the problem has not been framed properly.

The piracy problem in Somalia has its roots in the instability of the country after the civil war but also in another form of piracy practiced by foreign nations in Somali waters. This is a dirty little secret that is not talked about in the media but lies at the core of the problem.

Andrew Mwanguru of the Seafarers Assistance Programme in Nairobi says that since the civil war began in Somalia around 1991, illegal fishing trawlers started to trespass and fish in Somali waters even within the 12 mile territorial waters. These vessels encroached on local fishing grounds. A struggle then began between local fishers and the illegal fishing vessels. The foreign trawlers used strong arm tactics against the local fishers, even pouring boiling water on them and crushing the smaller boats and killing fishers. Mwanguru says that it is little wonder that the locals began to arm themselves.

The cycle of warfare has been escalating ever since. At one time there were up to 800 illegal fishing vessels in Somali waters. Most of these vessels are owned by European and Asian companies. Once the Somalis started to seize the foreign illegal vessels to make them stop they were approached to ransom them back. Thus, their appetite for bigger and better targets started to grow.

The problem is exacerbated by the extreme poverty in the country. According to Oxfam over three million Somalis need desperate assistance and one million have fled their homes in the past two years. Oxfam policy advisor Robert Maletta says, “The piracy issue that has grabbed international headlines is a symptom of deeper issues that have gone unaddressed since the collapse of the national government.”

Brett Schaefer, Jay Kingham fellow in International Regulatory Affairs at The Heritage Foundation writes that only ground and sea based military action will not be successful at stopping the piracy but that other matters have to be taken in hand including a recognition of the failure of trying to impose a Centralized State Authority, helping local Somali authorities to improve their governance structures and mature politically, increasing international cooperation to dissuade Somali pirates, and improving the lives of poor and destitute Somalis .

Meanwhile people in East Africa assert that the pirates are investing heavily in some countries. In Kenya for example it is alleged that the pirates have entered the transport,housing and fuel markets in a big way. What does this portend for these local economies and societies and will it help Somalia at the end of the day?

Tagging Tuna in the Indian Ocean

Many people believe research is a waste of time and money for small countries like Seychelles. But when you are dealing with fish like tuna that can swim long distances at speeds of up to 70 kilometers an hour, that are heavily exploited and whose trade runs into billions of US Dollars, knowing more about their habits is critical to our own welfare. One of the ways to do this is to put tags on them and when they are fished to get the date of capture, the location and biological details.

I learnt to tag tuna on a Japanese research fishing vessel in the distant reaches of the Seychelles EEZ. That was back in 1987. At the time tuna tagging was only done sporadically and in fact when I returned from that long trip the French scientists working for what was then called ORSTOM were very keen to know the details of the Japanese tagging program.

Now, the results of the first comprehensive tuna tagging program in the Indian Ocean have started to come in. The Regional Tuna Tagging Project –Indian Ocean (RTTP-IO) began in 2002 with an initial tagging project in Mayotte and with feasibility studies. The intensive and large scale tagging began in 2005 and ran up to 2007.

Funding of 14 million Euros was made available by the European Union and the project was implemented by the Indian Ocean Commission (IOC) and supervised by the Indian Ocean Tuna Commission (IOTC). The success of the tagging project depends on the good will of the fishers who recover and report the tagged fish. To date, RTTP-IO says that 26,800 tagged fish have been recovered and reported. The best data comes from at-sea recoveries by tuna purse seiners where the fish can be kept and biological measurement taken.

One of the first results coming out of the project demonstrates that the Yellowfin tuna stock is close to or already being over fished. This is a serious state of affairs and matches other studies that have been done on this species. Assessment of skipjack and bigeye tuna will now be undertaken using the tagging data.

The Indian Ocean tuna fishery is one of the most lucrative fisheries in the world. The annual catch in the Indian Ocean of almost a million tons has a landed value of more than 2 billion US dollars. For Seychelles, as is the case for other involved countries, this industry plays a vital role in the economy. Knowing more about the state of tuna stocks will help us maintain their biological resilience and in turn maintain our own economic resilience.

Sustainable energy for a sustainable economy

“I’d put my money on the sun and on solar energy. What a source of power! I hope we don’t have to wait ‘til oil and coal run out before we tackle that”, wrote Thomas Edison at the turn of the 20th Century.

Well, this homily applies to Seychelles because the country’s energy bill is so large that the Government has to borrow money to buy oil. The oil bill has put a strain on the country’s finances. In fact, Seychelles probably consumes more fossil fuel per capita than any other Small Island Developing State.

Therefore a move to more sustainable energy systems would not only be good for the environment but for the economy as it would reduce the large foreign currency outlays. At the moment except for some limited photo voltaic electricity generation on some small islands the energy needs of this country are met though imported oil.

If we take a look at Mauritius we see an energy picture that is worth examining in more detail. Mauritius has adopted the “Sustainable Island” slogan to pursue a path to renewable energy. Currently, 20% of Mauritius’ electricity is generated from renewable biomass systems.

In recent years thousands of Mauritians have obtained loans at a preferential interest rate from the Development Bank of Mauritius to purchase solar water heaters. Small photo voltaic solar panels to power sodium lamps at night are a common sight in many public gardens, parks and car park areas.

Innovations like a new project to build a tidal power station to generate electricity from the sea are going ahead. A UNDP and Agence Française de Développement project is underway to provide technical assistance to install a wind turbine as a pilot for developing a larger wind farm, to develop energy audits and to use solar thermal energy in large institutions such as hospitals.
Mauritius plans to produce 40% of its electricity from renewable sources within the next 10 years. And it seems it will meet this target. As a major route to energy savings, it also introduced Daylight Savings Time (DST) in 26th October on a trial basis. Simulations suggest that the country would use 15 megawatts less of energy through DST.

Yes, Mauritius is fortunate in having sugar cane waste or bagasse since this is a vital component of the government’s national target for renewable energy. But its other energy strategies may be relevant to Seychelles. Whatever the case may be, it is imperative that we adopt a renewable energy policy and national targets and move to implementation of renewable energy programs across the board to meet these targets.