Category Archives: Academic Notes

Representation in Ethnography: The Familiarization of the Strange Without Eradicating Its Strangeness

After reading Jeff Todd Titon’s Representation and Authority in Ethnographic Film/Video Production, I found myself pondering over the question of “how can an ethnographer [or anyone in that matter to] make the strange familiar, yet keep it strange” (Titon p.89)? The honest answer seems to be ‘not possible’; yet such frank response often doesn’t have much of a foothold in the minds of professionals. Many may argue that minimization of “directorial control”, application of “lengthy, continuous sequence shooting” and limitations on “zooming and editing” (Titon p.90) will potentially allow ethnographers to familiarize the strange without eradicating its strangeness. On the other hand, it is also arguable that the ‘compressing of time’, editing of the scenes, and telling the viewers “what to see and what to think” (Titon p.92) via narration eliminate the possibility of representing a cultural practice in its own natural light.

As a result, we often find many filmmakers singling out one of the most accentuated characteristics of a group as the theme of their film to portray the group as such. This type of practice is socially criticized as stereotyping; nevertheless, it fulfills the filmmaker’s purpose of specifically identifying a cultural group and at the same time allows the viewers get “a kick out of it” (Titon p.94) as well. As in Michele Ray’s documentary film Latcho Drom, as referenced by Carol Silverman, the title means “the good road”. However, it is translated as “the safe journey” so as to place emphasis on the questionable “migration and nomadism as the unifying factor among Roma” (Silverman p.362). While the “beautiful photography, excellent musical excerpts, and few but powerful words” (Silverman p.362) may assist in recruiting a large population of viewers into the film, but it is also important to note such a technique not only reinforces but also perpetuates the stereotype of Roma being nomadic, which is possibly the cause of other non-Romani’s discrimination against Roma, or so is believed. On the other hand, we have very eloquent women representing coalminers’ wives in Barbara Kopple’s Oscar winning documentary film Harlan County U.S.A. that deflates the traditional stereotype of coalminers’ wives as people who are inarticulate. Kopple’s film not only applies an innovative methodology in that the filmmaker is among her subjects as an interviewer, “reminding viewers that they are watching something that was made, not something that was merely witnessed” (Titon p.92), but also highlights women’s active role in evolving political consciousness.

In both case, the compression of time and scene editing make it plain that despite of our “suspended disbelief” (Titon p.90), the moving images are crafted in such a way to fulfill certain purposes rather than having them as mere facts.

This led me to put Titon’s question of “how can an ethnographer make the strange familiar, yet keep it strange” (Titon p.89) not only in ethnographic film/video, writing, but also ethnographic sound recordings and ethnomusicology. In other words, is it possible to accurately represent a culture via its sound recordings and music in its own terms? Once again, the honest answer seems to be negative. However, similar to film and video, how is it possible to remind the listeners what they are listening to is made, not something simply heard. This compels me to believe Peter Cusack’s recording In tent – Getting Up, may intend to fulfill a similar function. By having the musician’s voice in the recording, it reminds the listeners what they are listening to may as well be a product rather than a pure natural sound.

Besides, sound allows us, as listeners, to use more of our imagination than rigid images. Thus, when Peter Cusack, “a founding member and director of the London Musicians’ Collective ”, played his recordings from what he called the dangerous places, without the visual images, our surmising ranged from the sound of a dock to the sound of Chinese factories. Upon hearing various birds singing, we, or at least I, imagined the setting to resemble the rainforest in Colin Trunbull’s The Forest people. However, to our surprise the recording took place in a highly polluted old oil field. Consequently, it is arguably harder to represent an ethnographic work via its audio material.
This is also the very reason why my heart can’t be at ease, even when there are myriads of documentary films, ethnographic writings, and music recordings made about Tibetan culture. During the process of familiarizing the strange, one more often than not eliminates its strangeness either consciously or unconsciously. Tibet was once an independent country with its own language, flag, anthem, army, population, and anything that a country would need to stand on its own feet rather than being an appendage to a foreign country. However, as history had it, our country has been colonized by China since 1959, and our spiritual father was forced to leave the country as many of his fellow Tibetan people painfully experienced. Being an educated college student I don’t wish to break away from a country whose socioeconomic power determines the wellbeing of many nations in the world. Yet as a member of the cultural Tibetan community, I care about the status of my culture. For many of the already extinct cultures, the most frequent reason for them to be reduced to mere tourist and television entertainments on their last whimpers of existence and museum displays, and eventually buried under the dust of history and mentioned no more is the fact they lose their true selves and they lose their ‘voice’. By then, no ethnographic work shall remedy then back to life.

As for the Tibetan language, among many other constituents of its ‘voice’, even though we still have some million speakers but with Chinese as the only official language, the only medium for schooling, and one of the few major determinants for finding a job, Tibetan language confront marginalization, political oppression from the Chinese Government. This marginalization works along economic and cultural pressures for greater centralization and assimilation with the “mainstream culture” the Han Chinese culture. Consequently, an increasing number of Tibetan language speakers often perceive Tibetan language as being “useless” and associate the language with low social status and poverty, and refuse to pass it on to the next generation. So I fear the civilization of 1,300 years of Tibetan literature may come to an end, Tibet as an independent nation and a unique cultural group may lose its ‘voice’, and the global village may be forced to take one step closer to the monopolization of the super powers unless we demand actions on the rescue of those endangered cultures. Not only through the lens of ethnographic works, but making it possible for the members of those endangered cultures to revitalize their cultures by actually living the cultures and creating stages for them to reclaim the voices that belong to them.

In conclusion, it is hard, if at all, to represent any cultural practices within its own terms. Regardless of all the innovative methodologies available, ethnographers have to mold their raw materials into certain product with all the necessary directorial/authorial control, and editing. It is even harder to carry out such a mission via sound recordings. As Titon argues, “reality in film [or sound-recording] is elusive as well as conventional” that may explain why many anthropologists decide to go native, because it seems only through living the strange you familiarize yourself with the strange, without erasing it beyond any reclamation.

Bibliography
1. Titon, J. T. (1992). Representation and Authority in Ethnographic Film/Video: Production. Ethnomusicology, 36(1), 89-94.
2. Silverman, C. (2000). Review works: Latcho Drom by Michele Ray; Tony Gatlif; Alain Weber. Ethnomusicology, 44(2), 362-364.
3. Tony Gatlif, Michele Ray, and Alain Weber’s film Latcho Drom
4. Barbara Kopple’s Documentary film Harlan County U.S.A

Thupgon
November 19, 2008

Waxman-Markey Bill

Introduction:
The existence of a scientific consensus that the planet is facing an unprecedented threat from human-induced climate change is not in dispute, at least not for the validity of the Waxman-Markey Bill. All interest groups relevant to the Waxman-Markey bill agree that greenhouse gas concentrations have increased. They all agree that the global climate change can be attributed to the concentration of those heat-trapping gases, and they all seem to support comprehensive legislations that aim to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. However, what sets the interest groups apart is how to achieve the emissions reduction goal.
The American Clean Energy and Security Act (ACES), also known as Waxman-Markey bill creates a renewable electricity standard (RES) that would require large utilities in each state to produce an increasing percentage of their electricity from renewable sources, which includes but not limited to solar, wind, geothermal, biomass, marine, hydrokinetic energy, biogas and biofuels . The bill set an upper level limit, known as a cap, on emissions of planet-warming greenhouse gases. Under Waxman-Markey bill, regulated industries need to acquire permits/carbon-credits/pollution allowance for their emissions.
As for the trade part of cap-and-trade, regulated companies can cut their emissions in order to have more permits that they can either bank for future use or sell excess permits to other companies. With regard to the allocation of the pollution allowances, the federal government would auction 15% of carbon credits in the initial years of the program and this percentage increases over time to about “70% by 2030 and beyond” (Pew Center, 2009). By 2025, the bill would direct an estimated total of $190 billion to energy technologies and efficiency measures(endnote 2).
To ease the regulated companies’ transition to cleaner energy, the bill also allows relevant companies to purchase carbon offsets to meet a portion of their required emission reductions. In other words, regulated companies can fund clean-energy project elsewhere instead of cutting their own emissions.
So what are the debates: first, the ways to reduce the planet-warming gases: is it more efficient to do this by managing the price of the emissions and renewable via carbon tax, or by capping the amount by which they are to be reduced (emissions) and produced (renewable energy). Second, costs of the bill: Is the bill really worth all this money, thus action or inaction. Third, the allocation of carbon credits or pollution allowance: is it better to auctions the carbon credits or hand them out based on the regulated companies’ emission rate, or a combination of both.
Proponent of the bill
Price or quantity? With the cap-and-trade approach, the basic operating rules are introduced in the form of quotas, targets, or certain standards are set. On the other hand, with prices as instruments, the rules are designed to enable the maximization of profit at the given parametric prices. According to the recent Nobel economics nominee, Martin Weitzman (1974)endnote8, a Harvard economic professor, the issues of prices vs. quantities can be best address based on the severity of the issue at hand. If the marginal damage is tolerable or economically and socially justified than carbon tax will be more beneficial. On a graphic representation, the quantity produced with carbon tax will be closer to the market equilibrium than the quantity produced with cap and trade. However, when the marginal damage is severe, emission standards will set an upper level limit and preclude possibly irreversible damages to human health, safety and the environment.
It is clear that all parties support comprehensive legislations to reduce emission of green house gases and science tells us the irreversible consequence of climate change. Therefore, the marginal costs with GHG emission is severe and cap-and-trade system is the best approach, as Fred Krupp, the president of Environmental Defense Fund (EDF) has pointed out .
Is it too expensive to pass the bill? One of the major debate over the Waxman/Markey bill perhaps has been its costs. While both proponents and opponents of the bill present different versions of the costs, the latter has failed to include the costs of inaction. They scream about the possibility that the huge costs of the bill may cripple U.S economy, especially at a time of economic recession. However, they failed to mention the enormous high price science tells us we’ll be paying with doing nothing about the climate change. Disrupted agricultural patterns, more and stronger storms, rising sea levels, habitat destruction, dwindling resources , energy security, to just mention few of the impending consequence of climate change if we choose inaction.
Besides, according to bipartisan Congressional Budget Office, on average American families will incur an annual cost of $175 and many poor families will actually yield net income from energy savings. EPA’s analysis of the bill also estimated that it would cost household between $80-$111 per year (Pew Center, 2009). Plus all the benefits climate change mitigation brings to the table.
To top things off, the bill will enable current populace to address intergenerational equity and leave a cleaner and richer environment to the generations yet to come. It will also create jobs when the nation struggles with near double-digit unemploymentendnote3.
Opponents of the Waxman/Markey bill argue that such an action would cost huge sums and devastate the economy, but history proves otherwise. Removing the lead from gasoline, controlling chemicals destroying the ozone layer, cutting acid rain pollution, the Clean Air Act of 1970, California’s fuel efficiency standards, each and every case actually stimulated economic growth and put cost worries to rest (Lubber, 2009).
Auction or Giveaway? Supporters of this bill agree with what the bill purposes and that is to have a combination of auction and giveaways. It is vital to pass the Waxman-Markey bill now, because climate protection demands action and every bit of delay sends an “anti-science signal … of willing to do nothing” (Kammen, 2009). It would be only feasible for energy-intensive companies to transit into a cleaner energy with pollution allowance and ways to offset their emissions (Lubber, 2009). This combination of auction and giveaway of pollution allowance will make the bill more compliable and get started with emission reduction without much delay.
Opponent’s View and Rebuttal
Price or Quantity? Similar to the supporters of this bill, people who challenge the bill seem to agree with the idea that “a well-designed cap-and-trade system is the best approach to reduce emissions of greenhouse gases” (Kovacs, 2009)endnote7. Otherwise a strong opponent of the bill Mr. Kovacs argues that “a feasible cap-and-trade system might work” (p.3). Waxman-Markey bill does purpose a cap-and-trade approach, however, it “[i]s a deeply flawed bill based on a falling European model which they themselves are looking to abandon” says Mr. William L. Kovacs, senior VP of U.S. Chamber of Commerce.
So what are the flaws? According to Mr. Kovacs and his cohort who challenge the American Clean Energy and Security Act (ACES), “carbon-based fuels are and will remain for decades the backbone of the U.S. energy system until cost effective and reliable alternative energy sources are developed” (Kovacs, 2009). However, I argue that U.S.’s heavy reliance on fossil fuels does in no way excuse it from trying to move towards a cleaner energy policy, which the Waxman-Markey bill purposes to do.
Kovacs also points out that “international cooperation remains a major stumbling block to addressing global climate change” (p.5) and by adopting costly bills may compromise America’s competitive position in the global economic arena (Calomiris, 2009). However, once again what Mr. Kovacs and his cohort fail to see is that the international cleaner energy race has already started. U.S. has a great chance to lead if chooses to participate, but there is virtually zero chance of winning if chooses inaction.
Another concern of the opponents of this bill is that they worry the renewable electricity standard (RES), along with many of the other mandates in the bill will distort and impede the carbon market to find the lowest cost solutions. Such concern is somewhat naïve when it comes to the world-wide danger imposed by climate change.
Many opponents of the bill also argues that “ACES’s dangerous provisions could lead to widespread lawsuit abuse” (Kovacs, 2009)endnote7, but excuse me, lawsuits are already in full bloom as a result of inaction. For instance, in 1999, a group of 19 private organizations filed a rulemaking petition asking Environmental Protection Agency to regulate greenhouse gas emissions from new motor vehicles under section 202 of the Clean Air Act. Later on April 2, 2007 the Supreme Court released its ruling in the case of the state of Massachusetts vs. EPA. Massachusetts and eleven other states sued the EPA for not regulating the emissions of four greenhouse gases from the transportation sector. The petitioners argued that human-induced global climate change was causing adverse effects such as sea level rise, to the state of Massachusetts. In a 5-4 decision, the court ruled in favor of Massachusetts et al (Craig, 2008).
Mr. Kovacs proudly argues: “Policies divorced from economic and technological realities are not the path to prosperity” (p.2), but to his own perish, he ignores the very reason of having policies in the first place.
Is it too expense to pass the bill? When the cost of delay should be the sensible concern, opponents of this bill debate over a few orders of magnitude on a dollar range (Kammen, 2009). Opponents criticize the bill being too expensive. Mr. Kovacs argues that “the recourse cost [of the bill] does not indicate the potential decrease in gross domestic product (GDP) that could result from the cap” (p.10). While the opponents keep bargaining and speculating over the costs, the U.S. Natural Recourses Defense Council (NRDC) estimates “the total cost of global warming will be as high as 3.6 percent of GDP. Four global warming impacts alone — hurricane damage, real estate losses, energy costs, and water costs — will come with a price tag of 1.8 percent of U.S. GDP, or almost $1.9 trillion annually (in today’s dollars) by 2100” (NRDC, 2008)endnote4. So, the ACES may come with a big price tag, but the cost of failing to act will be much greater.
Action or Inaction? Many opponents argue that Waxman-Markey bill gives away too much. They believe that the bill “should auction 100 percent” of the carbon permits (Hayes, 2009)endnote5. However, what they haven’t come to realize is a certain percentage of pollution allowance has to be issued to the energy intensive companies in order to make the bill compliable. The late Senator Moynihan famously said that “while people are entitled to their own opinions they’re not entitled to their own set of facts” (Froomkin, 2007)endnote6. It’s easy to say go green, but how? Auctioning all the carbon permits will literally leave many, if not all, energy intensive companies out of the bargain, because such is simply not compatible.
Conclusion:
The Waxman-Markey bill have played a crucial role in bringing global warming to the forefront of the congressional agenda. It offers the best approach available to address planet-warming gas emissions and move towards a cleaner future with a healthier populace. The bill may seem costly, but fail to curb greenhouse gas emissions now will be much more costly. Issuing carbon permits to the energy intensive companies may seem as a giveaway, but that’s the only way the bill compliable. If the nation’s goal is to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and move towards a cleaner energy policy, then it is vital to set an upper-level limit to the emissions as the bill purposes. The bill gets passed or not, all interest groups must remember this: you can bargain all you want with the bill, but if we fail to act now, in the end no party can bargain with the nature.

Thupgon (Feb. 2010)

References:
1. Craig, R K. (2005). Environmental Law IN Context. U.S.A: West.
2. Retrieved Feb. 22, 2010. Website:
http://www.thegoodhuman.com/2009/06/27/summary-of-the-waxman-markey-climate-bill-american-clean-energy-and-security-act/
3. Retrieved Feb. 22, 2010. Web site:
http://www.nytimes.com/2010/02/27/business/global/27yuan.html?scp=1&sq=China%20factory%20worker&st=cse
4. Retrieved Feb. 22, 2010. Web site:
http://www.nrdc.org/globalwarming/cost/contents.asp
5. Retrieved Feb. 23, 2010. Web site:
http://e360.yale.edu/content/feature.msp?id=2163
6. Retrieved Feb. 23, 2010. Web site:
http://busharchive.froomkin.com/BL2007090601372_pf.html
7. Retrieved Feb. 22, 2010. Web site:
http://www.politico.com/arena/archive/debatewaxmanmarkey.html
8. MARTIN, W. L. (1974). Prices vs. Quantities. Review of Economic Studies, 3, 477-491.

Food Miles Don’t Tell the Whole Story

The concept of “food miles” roughly measures “the distance food travels from where it is grown or raised to where it is ultimately purchased by the consumer or end user” (Pirog, 2005). The general reasoning underlying this concept goes that consumption of locally produced food or food grown within a short radius will ease carbon emission. Shortening food miles is often translated as reduction of carbon footprint by scaling down the hidden costs of energy use in food transportation (Wynen & Vanzetti, 2008) and thus help to combat global warming. While the localization of food system extends its rationalities far beyond environmental concerns, for the interest of this paper I will try to focus on the question of “how important is the notion ‘food miles’ in calculating the carbon footprint of the food system?” A wealth of literature on food system suggests, “it is not that the concept of food miles is wrong; it is just too simplistic” (Mckie, 2008, p.3). First, the emphasis on distance food traveled ignores the mode and scale of transportation; second, the exclusive aim of minimizing the distance food travels before reaching the consumer ignores the lifecycle analysis in food production phase (Wynen & Vanzetti, 2008); third, the concept of food miles solely emphasizes energy consumption in food transportation but ignores other factors, such as pesticides, labor, food storage, and capital.
The mode and scale of transport largely determine the quantity of energy used. However, the food miles concept does not address the financial and environmental costs of different transport modes and scales. According to the UK Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (2005), “carbon emissions for sea transport are 15% of those for transport by road. Grams of carbon emitted per ton per kilometer (g/t/km) are 15 for sea and 98 for road, respectively. Air transport, however, emits 570 g/t/km” (as cited in Wynen & Vanzetti, 2008, p.5). Road transport also has other associated costs, such as congestion, infrastructure, accidents, and noise.
The concept of food miles also fails to fully address scale issues as well. For instance, 10 tons of grain traveling 1,000km in a 10t truck uses less energy than it does if the truck is replaced with 20 half-ton trucks.
Using distance traveled as the sole indicator of green house gas emission disregards emission of production outside of the transport sector. The green house gas emissions associated with food are dominated by the production phase. According to a working paper by Wynen & Vanzetti (2008), food production “contributes 83% of the average U.S. household’s 8.1 t CO-2e/yr footprint for food consumption. Transportation as a whole represent only 11% of life cycle GHG emissions and final delivery from producer to retail contributes only 4%” (p.3508). Food product lifecycle studies found that the most energy consumption takes place when moving the product from retailer stores to end-users. This is reasonably so because end-users often drive an empty car to the retailer stores, then drive home with few kilograms of groceries in a one-ton vehicle. The energy consumed per kilogram on the trip between “the retailer and the consumer’s home is found to be greater than the cumulative production and distribution costs to that point” (Wynen & Vanzetti, 2008, p.6).
Increased energy use in the local production and storage of goods may more than offset the energy saved in transport if, for example, GHGs are used to grow warm weather crops in cool climates. According to Van Hauwermeiren et al.’s study (2005), in which they compared emission levels from farm to retailer of tomatoes grown in Belgium for local consumption (both organic and conventional, grown outdoors; and conventional grown in greenhouse), imported from Spain by truck (conventional), and imported from Kenya by air (conventional and organic), CO2 emissions from tomatoes locally grown in greenhouses (1543g CO2/kg) are far more environmentally detrimental than emissions from tomatoes trucked from Spain (307g CO2/kg). Considering the total lifecycle of a product, local consumption does not necessarily result in lower energy use or lower carbon emissions. For instance, a study reviewed in Wynen and Vanzetti (2008), they conclude that lambs raised and consumedly locally in UK is four times more energy and emission intensive than lambs transported from New Zealand.
Over emphasis on the minimization of food traveled distance also ignores corresponding consequences. For instance, Gibbon and Bolwig (2007) gave examples of possible scenarios if the Soil Association in the UK banned airfreighted organic products from two African Countries (Kenya and Ghana) due to their extreme carbon footprint in food transportation. Among many possible outcomes, if supermarkets ban the sale of air-freighted organic produce, both exporters said they would abandon organic production and go back to selling only conventional produce (Wynen & Vanzetti, 2008). The environmental damage from such happening is far beyond the remediation the concept of food miles can possibly provide.
The concept of food miles emphasizes the use of one input (distance in its simplest form, and food transportation associated energy consumption and carbon emissions in the more sophisticated version), but ignores others, such as labor and capital. It also ignores negative externalities related to those inputs, such as the chemicals used in the production process. Weber & Matthew (2008) point out in their study “within food production, which totaled 6.8 t CO2 emission/households-yr, 3.0 t CO2 e (44%) were due to CO2 emissions, with 1.6t (23%) due to methane, 2.1 t (32%) due to nitrous oxide, and 0.1 t (1%) due to Hydro fluorocarbons (HFCs) and other industrial gases” (p.3511). Thus, a majority of food’s environmental impact is due to non-CO2 GHGs. Nitrous Oxide (NO2) emissions, mainly due to nitrogen fertilizer application, other soil management techniques, and manure management. Methane (CH4) emissions are mainly due to enteric fermentation in ruminant animals (cattle, sheep, goats) and manure management, and are thus concentrated in the red meat and dairy products (Weber & Matthew, 2008).
Better Alternatives
1. Dietary choice: according to Jane Liaw (2008), buying local is not as important as what you eat. Many authors suggest dietary shift can be a more effective means of lowering an average household’s food related climate footprint than “buying local”. Shifting less than one day per week’s worth of calories from red meet and dairy products to chicken, fish, eggs, or a vegetable-based diet achieves more GHG reduction than buying all locally sourced food.
2. Lifecycle analysis: a better approach to be aware of and understand one’s food related carbon footprint is to undertake or learn from lifecycle analysis. Such analysis should also address the impact of other pollutants ignored by the food miles concept that need to be factored into decision-making. These include those generated in the production of agricultural inputs such as chemical fertilizers, and in the production process itself, such as methane.
3. Information sharing: instead of patronizing public into certain movement, information provision can balance asymmetric knowledge between food suppliers and consumers. It informs consumers on the climate and environmental impacts of their consumptive choices
4. Pricing food associated pollutants: let market function and raise people’s awareness of their food related carbon footprint by taxing relevant pollutants. Merely patronizing public into certain movement can only paralyze healthy markets that operate on comparative advantages and result in wasteful deadweight lost.
Conclusion:
The concept of food miles, like any other social, environmental, political movements, is not an end in and of itself. It is a strategy to achieve whatever the goal/s may be. In this case, it is to reduce our food related carbon footprint and help to combat global warming. Overemphasis on the miles food traveled can only take focus away from better alternatives and thus not only misguide advocates, but also may lead to more environmental harm than good.

Thupgon (Spring 2010)

Literature Cited:
1. Weber, C., & Matthews, S. H. (2008). Food-Miles and the Relative Climate Impacts of Food Choices in the United States. Environmental Science & Technology, 42(10), 3508-3513.
2. Pirog, R., & Benjamin, A. (2005). Calculating Food Miles for A Multiple Ingredient Food Product. Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture, 3, 1-13.
3. Born, B., & Purcell, M. (2006). Avoiding the Local Trap. Journal of Planning Education and Research, 26, 195-207.
4. Wynen, E., & Vanzetti, D. (2008). No Through Road: The Limitations of Food Miles. Asian Development Bank Institute, 1-12.
5. Merfield, C. N. (2006). Merfield.com. Retrieved Mar. 28, 2010, from Home Contact Personal Professional Research Misc. Web site: http://www.merfield.com/research/the-fallacy-of-food-miles.html.
6. Liaw, J. (2008). Mongabay.com. Retrieved Mar. 28, 2010, from Mongabay.com Website: http://news.mongabay.com/2008/0602-ucsc_liaw_food_miles.html
7. Mckie, R. (2008, March 23) How the myth of food miles hurts the planet. The Observer.
8. DeWeerdt, S. (2008). Worldwatch Institute: Vision for a Sustainable World. Retrieved Mar. 27, 2010, from Worldwatch Institute, Washington, DC. Web site: http://www.worldwatch.org/node/6064.

Reintroduction of predatory species to the Garze Prefecture Grasslands

While an increasing number of studies focus on desertification processes in northern China, pressing soil erosion and desertification in Tibetan regions have received little attention (Zeng Yongnian et al., 2003) . The few studies that do mention the desertification issue in Tibetan regions often simply jump to the same conclusion and blame the Tibetan traditional way of living—animal husbandry. “Overgrazing” has been the easy way out for most of studies. Overgrazing leads to land desertification? Maybe, but not in the simple way suggested. First, in traditional Tibetan animal husbandry, nomads practice rotational grazing and migrate multiple times a year. They allow pastures to lay fallow for months to recover and enable vegetation to reclaim the land before using them again. Additionally, Tibet has vast land but a sparse population. Often times, there are only two or three families for hundreds of miles. Finally, the Tibetan nomadic way of life has been in practice for generations, while land desertification seems to be a relatively recent environmental issue. Therefore, it seems inconclusive to blame “overgrazing” as the cause of soil erosion and land desertification in Tibetan regions. At the same time, decreases in primary productivity resulting from desertification directly threaten the animal husbandry-based economy in many parts of Tibetan regions.

Alternative explanations to overgrazing have been suggested by ecologists working in the area. According to Zheng Du et al. (2000) , overpopulation of pika and zokor is one of the main causes for degradation of grassland. Pikas (called “abra” in Tibetan language) are relatives of hares and rabbits, but are much smaller. In most of the pasture areas they live in astonishing numbers and are consequently considered major pests. Zheng Du et al. (2000) conclude that the main species of pika impacting grasslands on the Tibetan plateau include Ochotoma curzoniae, O. Dahuricaamage, and Myospalax baileyi. Pikas dug two or multi-ended holes all over the grassland. In the process of preparing their tunnels they separate plants’ main bodies from their roots and leave them to wither.
In 2000, there were “roughly 600 million ochotomas and 100 million myospalaxes in the Plateau areas” (Zheng Du et al., 2000, p215). Zhou Xingmin et al. (1995), point out that pika and zokor species on the plateau “annually consumed 15 billion kilograms of fresh grasses that were equal to the food quantities of 10 million sheep and destroyed 200 million ha of grassland areas” (as cited in Zheng Du et al., 2000). The damage of pika and zokor is closely related to, if not worse than, over grazing. Microtus oeconomus and O. cansa dominate local animal communities and not only impede the growth of local flora and compete against livestock for food, but also destroy plant cover and induce loss of water, top soil and stored carbon (Zheng Du et al., 2000).

Local Governments’ Failed Approach:
In many instances, relevant local governments provided plastic bags of rodenticide and mandated each household to send a representative to participate in pika hunting. This approach has not only failed to ease the pika crisis, but also triggered other concerns. When local Tibetans were mandated to poison pika, these results were forthcoming: 1) they hired other people to do the job on their behalf, 2) they ignored the governments’ call and were willing to accept the penalty (often pecuniary fines), 3) they physically participated but refused to kill, so they buried the bags filled with pesticide, and 4) they genuinely participated. As one can see, such governmental approaches often failed because the responsible officials ignored local religious beliefs. The approach failed because local participation was coerced as supposed to being voluntarily sought.

The use of poison to control the rodents has not only failed but also triggered other concerns. When bags of poison are barely covered with topsoil, it does not take much wind or rainwater to unearth the toxins. These harmful substances are left undisturbed in modern durable plastic bags until one day a curious passer by or starving animal swallows the whole thing. This results in not only losing its own life, but also economic loss (in case of livestock) or emotional injury (in case of household pets).

Why this is such a pressing issue that is in urgent need of a solution?
The occurrence and development of pika-induced land desertification reduces grassland primary productivity and threatens the plateau animal husbandry-based economy. It results in “an annual loss of organic matter of 20.413x109kg, total N 1.267x109kg, total P 1.149x109kg and total K 31.901 x 109kg” (Liu Yi-hua et al., 2005, p.291) . Liu Yi-hua et al. point out that land desertification in Tibetan regions has led to nitrogen and phosphorous loss that is 200 times greater than the application amount of chemical fertilizer in Tibet. Therefore, as Pika contributes significantly to grassland degradation and desertification, their over-population significantly threatens the agricultural and livestock productivity in Tibetan regions.

Pika further damages water conservancy, hydropower projects, roads and civil aviation in its processes and sand drifts (Liu Yi-hua et al., 2005). What is more, grassland degradation and topsoil loss lead to an increase in river sediment content, which can cause water shortages in dry seasons and flood inundation in wet seasons. Decrease in vegetation cover in Tibetan regions has led to climatic desiccation and warming (Liu Yi-hua et al., 2005). It has also weakened surface soil resistance to wind erosion. Consequently, strong wind could directly act on the sandy surface and thus exacerbate sand drift activity.

Throughout Tibetan regions, a large proportion of the population is still semi-illiterate at best and local livelihood and development directly rely on the production function of land resources. Grassland degradation and topsoil loss not only reduces primary productivity, but also negatively affects seasonal caterpillar fungus collection, which is one of the main sources of income for local Tibetans. The loss of vegetation due to an ever-increasing pika population also translates to a decreasing amount of land for caterpillar fungus production.
While other factors such as overgrazing may enhance ground surface disturbance and land desertification, it is important to realize that an increasing number of pika have been doing damage for far too long. More importantly, these factors are not acting in isolation, but instead are linked with each other, and feedback and intensify each other. Therefore, if there are no effective control measures to be adopted in the coming years, the associated loss will not only be environmental, and economic, but also cultural.

Why is grassland degradation/land desertification in Tibetan regions a cultural issue?
Tibetans have lived in harmony with nature for thousands of years in a nomadic context as well as an agricultural context and this has entailed having a rich and complex knowledge of nature that is not well understood by westerners or Han Chinese. The Tibetan language also owes its richness and uniqueness to the plateau’s distinctive landscape and flora and fauna. Thus, pika induced ground disturbance and vegetation loss not only has environmental but also cultural imapcts. Restoration of the plateau’s environment therefore also indirectly contributes to Tibetan cultural and linguistic preservation.

What do I propose?
I propose a pilot project to reintroduce predatory species to the region and let nature perform its own magic. While an increasing pika population has done most of the damage, this does not downplay human’s involvement. Quite the opposite, it has been anthropogenic disturbance of the local food chain that has led to the explosion of pika population. For generations, Tibetans have hunted foxes for fur hats and killed wolves in protection of their herds. As the populations of these local predatory species have dwindled, the pika population has exploded beyond human control. So, I propose to test the reintroduction of a predatory species, foxes, and monitor their impact on the pika population.
How can we guarantee that history will not repeat itself in that local people won’t hunt down these species once again? My reasoning for precluding such occurrence is multifaceted: 1) differing from the past, firearms are outlawed throughout Tibet due to political concerns and thus the means of hunting foxes and wolves are greatly reduced. 2) religious awakening has recently led some Tibetan people to burn their otherwise precious animal pelts , suggesting they would be unlikely now to hunt for them. 3) outreach through TV and radio by non-governmental organizations as well as some local efforts have enabled indigenous people to become ever more environmentally conscious and to realize the importance of biodiversity conservation.

What are some potential challenges and corresponding solutions?
Reintroducing species to a region is by no means an easy task and there are many unanswered questions: which species to reintroduce? Where to reintroduce? Where to obtain these animals? What other ecosystem impacts can be expected from reintroduction? How to address associated local concerns? Where to get the funding needed? These questions do not excuse policy makers, local governments, indigenous residents, and even global citizens from trying to address this problem.

Given the complexity of the project, I propose to start a pilot project at a small scale. I propose to reintroduce a species of fox that can coexist with local livestock and bring no harm to the local population. This will not only ease local concerns over livestock loss, should we reintroduce wolves, but also preclude human injuries from predatory species.

Further studies are needed as which species in the fox family to reintroduce, and where to reintroduce it along with all the aforementioned concerns, but I believe this project is implementable, vital to the health of local as well as global environment, and fundamental to supporting the continued existence of Tibetan culture and language.
Funding

At this stage of the project proposal development, I do not have funding sources available, as I have not yet sought support. However, I have had past successes obtaining funding for well-conceived projects supporting traditional Tibetan lifestyles. I believe given my education and experience in civil engagement, plus Bard Center for Environmental Policy’s support, this project is not only implementable, but shall bring positive changes to the environment, culture and people of Tibet.

Thupgon (Spring 2010)