Saturday, February 27, 2010

Wet, Damp Mozambiquan Forest

Lucia Mercia da Conceicao Chande and Alan Schwarz in the Nhamainga Forest in Mozambique. This little patch is a seed bank that will help replant some of the forest, providing fuel and income to local communities.

Its hot and wet in Mozambique in the southern summer. Very hot, and very wet. My hands are sweating so much as I write this at eight in the morning that I am worried they will kill the keypad on my old Macbook. I am literally sleeping in a sand box half full of water. My passport is wet, my clothes have not been dry for the last four days since I arrived, and both my cameras need urgent assistance, though surprisingly they are both still working.

This is Alan Schwarz's stomping ground. This mountain of a man, who has been running the Mezimbite Forest Project for the last fourteen years, has succeeded in saving thousands of hectares of forests, and uplifting communities in the process. He employs fifty laborers in a complex near the Beira roadside, and took this badly degraded land and replanted it with some of the forest tree species that used to be abundant here.

He started from one side of the property and its a history of reforestion, from grassland into shrubs and finally an almost-restored forest. Schwarz is a forester and architect, and does not only feel that forests are worth saving because they suck in carbon. "Communities that I work with make their money from trees. A lot of money. So when I give them the chance and the seedlings to replant them, they understand that. They get it!" He stands in the rain, his clothes molding off his back, and looks like Kurtz from Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness. But there is a method to his madness. He feels that forests can be saved, and is on the ground working, doing just that.

Imagine a forest that stretched six hundred kilometers from the Zambezi to the Save River. It covered thousands of hectares, it covered the Pungue floodplain almost all the way to the ocean. It was bigger than western Colorado. Eleven times the size of Yellowstone National Park in Wyoming.

Lucia Mercia da Conceicao Chande, at 23, takes care of what is left. Called the Nhamainga Forest, it covers eleven hectares. Almost everything else is gone. This small, precious piece harbors three different kinds of monkey and represents all the tree species that filled the massive Miombo woodland, dominated by Missanda and Misassa trees. It is now a seed bank, used by the Lusalite Life Foundation, which Chande runs, and people like Schwarz who are trying to bring back some of this vanished forest.

"Working with the communities is challenging", explains Chande, sitting on a tree stump in the forest in between downpours. "We are seeing after two years how the communities around this last patch of forest are starting to realize they have to replant the trees and replace the wood they use. It is a slow process though, and often very frustrating." Chande also teaches environmental education to the children from the local communities.

Chande wants to bring tourists from nearby Beira to enjoy this last little piece of forest, and take away a greater understanding of what has been lost to the area, so that they will help bring at least some of the trees back by replanting. But there is a problem. The signs that she and the community have made that help people find the little patch have been stolen. Its probably not malice that drove the theft, she says. "They were made from wood, so they have been used as fuel in someone's fireplace. This is what we are up against. They will sneak into the forest at night and even take the chair I am sitting on".

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Back On The Forest Trail To Mozambique

Dr. Julian Bayliss on Mt Mabu in Mozambique, with a very large chameleon.

I am sitting in the departure section of Oliver Tambo International Airport in Johannesburg. I am off to Mozambique to a project run by Ashoka Fellow Alan Schwartz, near Beira in Mozambique. Although Allan supplied a lot of background and interviews for the documentary about Forestry carbon projects that I am working on, this will be my first chance to visit his project in Mozambique.

It's very rainy there, so I have packed all manner of waterproof camera protectors and should be there about eight days. During that time I will be writing a journal that I will upload onto here periodically.

It's good to be working on this project again after a couple of months hiatus, doing good family things and trying to raise awareness and get it on the road again. Copenhagen was an education for me and the rest of the world I hope. It's clear that only by concentrating on getting the job of preserving forests today done, can we hope to influence policy makers to make sure the architechture of new agreement to replace the Kyoto Protocol includes strong provisions to protect and replant the world's forests. This project seeks to continue the sharing of information between project implementers and the voting public following projects that are already saving trees, and creating jobs and income for local communities through carbon markets.

So in that vein, I will be int he bush, visiting forest communities who have been retrained from charcoal making to forest guardians, and earned them very good money in the process.

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

The Drunkard's Walk

Echo Canyon, The Drakensburg South Africa, 2010

Leonard Mlodinow knows something about randomness. He should, he has just written a bestselling book about how it affects our lives, and why it matters. The Drunkards Walk, How Randomness Rules Our Lives is 222 pages of incredible insight.

The most penetrating part of the book is the rolling conclusion that we are in control of how many times we attempt something. This may seem obvious, but when there are literally millions of people out there striving to succeed, what separates those who do from those who do not? Mlondinow makes a very good point. Since so many random factors are at play in our lives, regular success comes not from luck, or from divine intervention, but rather from a hard-headed persistence to simply not quit.

When I was a young trainee scientist on the Juneau Icefield Research Program in Alaska, I was exposed to all manner of odd professors, who taught and fought over research in what must still be one of the world's largest and most innaccessible classrooms. The most irascable and oddly endearing was the founder of the project, Dr. Maynard Malvern Miller. M3 for short. Aside from being the man who wrote the Encyclopedia Britannica entries for Glaciers and Alaska, Dr. Miller is also part of a still-onging study that follows a group of people throughout their lives (Harvard graduates all). One of the many published studies that uses this unique data set aligns itself firmly in in the same thinking as The Drunkards Walk.

Success, they believe, is measurable. The study came up with a rough equation to explain it. Success=X(ability)times Ysquared(how hard you try). So written it looks like this:

I know, algebra was not my strong suit either, but bear with me. lets plug some numbers into the equation. So I am making a movie, and although I am published film maker, lets be realistic, I am say, a 6 out of 10 as far as skills for documentary film making is concerned. But I try really hard, to sell it, to work with the right people, to get it all together. So lets say I am a 9 out of 10 as far as how hard I try. So, it reads like this: X=6, Y=9, so square the nine to 81, multiply it times 6, and I have a success number of 486. Ok, sounds pretty good. 486 out of a thousand (the maximum number I can get). That means I will succeed almost half the time, which is about what my track record reads. But lets reverse it, lets say I am very gifted as a film maker, but not so stunning at working hard to sell it and make it happen. So lets say Ability (X) = 9, and How hard I try (Y)=6. So we plug that into the equation, and we get 324. Thats a pretty shabby score, for a gifted film maker. The less gifted, hard-working film maker will clearly outperform the gifted film maker, simply because he tries harder.

What all this gobbledy-gook means is that it matters twice as much how hard you try than how gifted you are. (Great news for many of us). This is eaxctly what Mlondonow is talking about in his book. In a world full of randomness, success goes to the person who keeps trying. Not every time, but the vast majority of the time. Don't give up.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010


Our own Pandora-like world. Gorongosa, Northern Mozambique.

Avatar is now officially the biggest movie of all time. Its impressive. It has somehow revolutionized cinema. It has brought saving forests right to the front of the world stage, in a way that only good art can.

I have seen it twice, both in regular cinema and 3-D. So what is it about this film that evokes such serious passions that after seeing it some people, CNN reports, have fallen into a deep depression, even contemplated suicide. The main issue seems to be that people’s perception of what is beautiful in Avatar is not here on Earth, and when they leave the cinema, they yearn for a land like Pandora.

Within the realms of the collective unconscious there is every reason to assume that the movie links in to a very old part of the human psyche. One of the founding parts of our minds knows that the people of Pandora's harmony with the environment is missing in our modern world, and the viewer's depression might be driven by the movie tapping into a sleeping sense of our own oneness with Earth, one that disappears when they leave the cinema. It is a feeling so out of odds with the current status-quo of a city street that anxiety and depression are both possible.

If this sounds wishy-washy, I could go into the nature of our thoughts and their quantum relationship with our environment, and about how simple perception and thought can physically change matter (the US military already uses secure codes that utilize this phenomenon). But I won't go into that particular rabbit hole.

No matter how it works, Avatar is a very powerful unifying vehicle for environmental action and thought that can help change our Earth into the Pandora we know it can be again. Essentially what I am saying is that now that Cameron dreamed it up, and we all have a shared vision, we can make it real (probably without the floating mountains, but then again...)

That may sound even more wishy washy, but every building, road, and spaceship first came out of somebody's mind, as a thought. Time and energy was all that was needed to make it real.

So what anyone who enjoyed this movie may not realize is that there are a few places, amazing places that are like Pandora, here on Earth. There are places you can swim with dolphins in the moonlight with phosphorescence glittering green around you as the stars shine white from above, and the starburst trails of the dolphins flit around you. You can enter the darkest of ancient forests, and find animals like the Okapi, half zebra and half giraffe, hiding shyly in the undergrowth. There are rookeries of albatross, millions of massive birds, hawking and sqwaking, big enough to carry off a child. These amazing places are here mostly because people fought for their preservation, each one is a victory of Avatar-like proportions, at least for the people involved in the projects.

This is our Pandora, and its up to us to create the world we most want to live in. Once wild animals of the most garish and incredible sorts roamed this planet with us. Can we bring them back? Not now, but we can imagine, and we can work with the riches we already have but are losing fast.

So anyone who liked this movie, this vehicle of thought, it can also be a call to arms, a call to action. There are big and small world-saving projects everywhere that need help, money, volunteers and simple interest. They often exist in isolation, but get involved and find out how you can be a vital part of the chance to not only save the planet from us, but be the change we need.

For my part, I am making a documentary this year that I started at the end of 2009. The film, Trading Trees, will surprise, intrigue and educate people about how the new carbon economy is making a difference among the poorest of the poor by saving forests and helping to reverse climate change. Worldwide, project developers, governments and NGOs are using this carbon trading to renew or reserve forests that mitigate climate change. This is the story of the struggles and successes of these projects, it is the story of the winnable battle for the planet’s forests.
I am making it to help share what is being done to save our world's forests, because they are like Pandora, and they are real, and they really do need every bit of help they can get.

Everyone can do something. I need cash and assistance of all sorts to get the next phases of the project completed, but I am sure that even in this economy it will come. Support my project, support your own, use your skills to get involved in the way you know best. That will beat the post-Avatar blues, and it will make a big difference to our inner and outer worlds.