Belladonna Bess

An edible garden in Wellington, NZ

Primum non nocere May 18, 2013

Filed under: Environment — belladonnabess @ 2:30 pm
Tags: , , , ,

A combination of bad weather and a cold is keeping me indoors, so I thought I’d finish and article I’ve been working on recently.


It is six months after Cyclone Heta, which in January 2004 smashed through the tiny island nation of Niue, destroying homes, hotels and the hospital, and killing nurse Cathy Alec. The scars are visible everywhere – around the island, I see houses damaged and abandoned, while coastal forests are stripped bare. But more notable is the neatness. I’m driven along the main road where I’m told the Hotel Niue, along with many houses, was completely destroyed. I’d never have known, as nothing but bare, bulldozed ground remains. New houses, safely back from the coast, are being built. The hospital too is fully functioning, if basic, something my group was grateful for when one member became ill. None of this surprises our group leader, who has been to Niue before and notes that “they get things done here”.

Between the Niueans and an international aid effort, Niue is getting back on its feet. And among these aid efforts is a rather unusual mission: I’m there conducting an invasive weed survey and helping with weed control programmes. It isn’t the sort of thing that is usually done following a natural disaster or, for that matter, a disaster of our own making. But unfortunately, it is something that should be. We have a history of acting without thinking in the face of catastrophe, and forget to consider the long-term implications. Frequently those implications involve the introduction of invasive species, and resulting irreparable damage. Depending on the circumstances, these introductions can damage crops and livelihoods, destroy natural environments, damage waterways and even cost many thousands of lives.

I’m thinking of Niue right now because I have been following the story of the cholera epidemic in Haiti. This disastrous epidemic, which has so far killed more than 8,000 people, is surely the flagship case of well-intentioned international aid introducing invasive species and causing another disaster. But most biological invasions are slow-motion disasters, observable only over decades, while this one has unfolded in a little over two years, and soon enough after the earthquake that wealthy countries can remember where Haiti actually is.

It’s natural to make a connection between the earthquake and the United Nations activities in Haiti, but the UN first became involved in Haiti in 2000. Following escalating violence in 2004, a major peacekeeping mission was launched, and it is this peacekeeping mission that is the source of the cholera epidemic. It started in a rural area of the central plateau, an area barely touched by the earthquake, where Nepalese soldiers were camped at a UN base with a questionable sewage treatment system. The soldiers left home while Nepal was in the grip of a cholera outbreak, and the inevitable happened.

The Haitian government claimed compensation from the UN, but lost the case on grounds of technicality rather than fact. The UN just isn’t liable in these kinds of cases. A group of Kenyan farmers got the same result when they took on their own government and the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation over the introduction of “mathenge” – a plant introduced to control soil erosion that has become a serious pest for livestock farmers. Mostly, those paying the price don’t bother with legal action, and the tragedies unfold largely unnoticed by the rest of the world – and often even by those that have caused them.

Invasive species problems resulting from aid efforts fall into two groups. Some, like cholera in Haiti, were inadvertent introductions, while others, like mathenge, were intentionally introduced, but didn’t have quite the desired result. It’s the latter category that I first encountered, more than a decade ago on another remote island – Rodrigues.

East of Madagascar and a long way from anywhere, Rodrigues is a small island surrounded by a large reef, and populated by nearly 40,000 people. With much of the population surviving by subsistence farming and fishing, the natural resources of the island have struggled to cope. Much of the forest was cut down and burned for fuel, resulting in severe soil erosion. So the islad was replanted in fast-growing exotic trees. On the positive side, this stemmed the erosion and provided habitat which sheltered endangered birds and bats. But many of the exotic plants became invasive, and they blanketed the island in a thirsty, deep-rooted forest that sucked the water from the soil and dried up the rivers.

I thought I knew something about weeds when I arrived in Rodrigues, but the idea that they could suck an island dry had never crossed my mind.

Despite such lessons, the world of international aid still seems to see large-scale exotic tree planting as a universal panacea. In the wake of the 2004 tsunami, some scientists and conservationists drew connections between coastal forest destruction, erosion and the level of impact of the tsunami in certain areas. But the answer was ready and waiting – plant trees.

That is how the World Bank came to fund the planting of casuarina trees along a third of the coastline of Tamil Nadu. Aimed at protecting the coast and inhabitants from future disasters, the plan had a few small flaws. Firstly, even if the connection between coastal forest destruction and tsunami damage was clear (it wasn’t), there’s a difference between not destroying natural coastal forests, and planting non-native trees in coastal areas like sand dunes that may not have been forested in the first place. Secondly, it threatened the native species of the coastline, such as the olive ridley sea turtle. And finally, in a piece of unfortunate irony, the inhabitants of coastal villages and resorts didn’t want their access to the sea blocked by casuarina forests, so in the end, these areas were left unplanted. The casuarinas ended up “protecting” only uninhabited areas of coastline.

It took a patient and persistent response by conservationists and some officials exhibiting the rare trait of common sense to reverse the threat to the turtles by removing some areas of casuarina trees. But that doesn’t reverse the fact that the World Bank, while preaching fiscal responsibility and austerity to struggling countries, spent millions of dollars on tree plantings that had to be ripped out a couple of years later.

So Niue was clearly lucky. They were not immediately inundated with inappropriate tree planting as a response to the cyclone. More unusually, someone was concerned enough about inadvertent invasive species arrivals to send a survey team, including me, to check whether the post-cyclone relief efforts had brought anything unwelcome with them. Of most concern was the donation of building materials for new houses from Tahiti. French Polynesia has one of the worst weed invasions in the Pacific, and we were especially concerned that the tiny seeds of miconia could have hitched a ride in a patch of mud.

We searched the island, especially in the area where building materials were being stored and new houses built, but found no miconia, and no other weeds that looked like they were associated with the relief efforts. Niue had escaped that time, but it turned out that they hadn’t always been so lucky. On an old experimental farm, where cows had been grazed in one of a series of failed attempts to establish viable industries, we found a weed that had not been reported in Niue before. It was well-established and unlikely to have arrived as a part of the cyclone relief – almost certainly it had been introduced during efforts to set up the experimental farm.

Part of the philosophy behind aid is a world without borders – where the people of an impoverished island halfway around the world are our brothers and sisters, and so we unite to help them. Unfortunately, like Victorian missionaries, we often “help” by sending people who believe they are experts, armed with generic, short-term, ideological solutions with apparently little idea of the consequences.

Living in this connected, global world, it’s easy to forget that the Earth’s ecosystems – the life support systems that keep us alive – did not develop in a united world. Each region has unique species and combinations of species, and predicting the results of moving them around is an inexact science. But sometimes it’s not that difficult. It’s not a difficult job to work out the consequences of taking soliders from an area with a cholera outbreak and putting them in an impoverished country without adequate sewage treatment.

Whatever international law says, the facts say that the UN has visited an awful fate on many Haitians, and that this was totally preventable. We have made variations on the same mistake often enough to know why it happens and how to stop it. The reality of disaster and conflict means that we won’t get it right every time. But applying some relatively simple risk assessment and risk management would at least break us out of the insane loop of endlessly repeating the same mistakes.

It’s time that international aid started applying the principle of primum non nocerefirst do no harm.

This article was inspired by Johnathan Katz’s article “In the time of cholera”.



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