Belladonna Bess

An edible garden in Wellington, NZ

Necessities and luxuries December 16, 2014

Filed under: Environment,India,Invasive species,Photos,Travel — belladonnabess @ 5:27 pm
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In spite of my time here, I still have no understanding of the reality of life for most Indians. I’m aware that Kerala is not representative. I don’t know exactly what “communism” has consisted of in Kerala, but the result is a wealthy state, where wages are considered high and the inequalities less pronounced than elsewhere. Many people here are mobile, spending years in the Middle East, earning good money and returning to build big houses to make their neighbours jealous. Their children are well-educated and scattered across the world, but it seems less certain that they will return.


This is not, of course, the same for everyone in Kerala. In a couple of places in particular I have seen a little of what life is like for the people who are less well-off. I saw some around the tea plantations of Munnar and Wayanad, and some around the backwaters in Kumarakhom and Allepuzha. I could also watch my neighbours, immigrants from northern India and renting a rather substandard house, as they went about their daily life.


Electricity, though sometimes unreliable, appears almost universal in Kerala houses. Apart from a tiny tent community in Ernakulum (the only evidence of homelessness I saw), there always seemed to be electricity lines running to the houses. This would provide lighting and charge a cellphone and maybe run a fan, but, I suspect, little else. Kerala has not reached the degree of wealth where you can own a television and be considered poor.


Despite the climate, fridges are also on the luxury list for these poorer houses, condemning the women to the constant labour of preparing food fresh, since such things as cooked rice and curries cannot be stored. Nor can items such as milk, fish and vegetables. I can’t imagine life without a fridge in New Zealand, let alone the climate of India.


I have more comprehension of life without a washing machine, as I have mentioned in a previous post. I’m actually yet to see one here in any house I have visited, and I’m pretty sure that rather than being a luxury item they are simply considered unnecessary. They aren’t particularly practical for many of the clothes, and if you can afford to spend the money on a washing machine, you can probably afford pay someone to do the washing for you. The washing machine may wash your clothes, but it won’t remove them from the machine, put them out to dry and then fold up the dried clothes for you.


As far as I can tell, some items that we consider essential are almost unknown here. I’ve seen no sign of clothes driers or ovens. The cooking style doesn’t use ovens, and I suspect that clothes driers are both impractical for the clothing and prohibitively expensive to run. I can’t help thinking that they would be useful in the humid climate though.


On the other hand, I’m yet to see a house without ceiling fans. Air conditioning is a luxury but popular, but I think that living in a house without fans would be considered hardship – worse than life without a fridge.


Cars are another item that are considered virtually essential in New Zealand, but they are a definite luxury here. I don’t know how much a car costs to buy, but petrol is comparatively expensive – it was somewhere around NZ$1.40 per litre. This sounds cheap to us, but in comparison to incomes and other prices it is not. A 10-15 minute trip on a bus cost me 14 cents, while the same journey in an “auto” (auto-rickshaw, basically a scooter combined with a rickshaw) cost about $1.60. A similar bus fare in Wellington would cost more than 20 times the Kerala price, and I’d wait a lot longer for a bus. On the other hand, Wellington buses come with windows.


Motorbikes and scooters are more common than cars, and it’s not too uncommon to see Mum, Dad and a child or two on a scooter. Most were ridden by men, but it was common enough to see women ride them too. Scooters seem more popular with women as you can wear a sari and ride a scooter. For passengers, it’s easy enough to ride pillion on a bike wearing salwar kameez (or churidar as they call the outfit in Kerala) – I know because I’ve done it myself. But if the passenger on a bike is wearing a sari or full Islamic hijab, she’ll ride sidesaddle.


While motorbikes a common, helmets are just slightly more common than washing machines. Most of the ones I saw appeared ornamental, as they weren’t done up. I don’t want to think about the road toll, although mercifully the congestion does keep the speed down in many places.


Of all the necessity/ luxury distinctions, it is the situation with water which is the farthest from my comprehension. We’ve all heard about the hazards of water in India. I’ve had dire warnings from the travel doctor, colleagues and friends about amoebic dysentery, cholera and typhoid. I spent my first two weeks here in a state of paranoia about every drop, even using bottled water for tooth brushing.


But I’ve reached the point now that if I was to visit any reasonably well-off house in Kerala, I’d take an offered glass of water and happily drink it. This is not because I’ve discovered that Kerala water is pristine – it’s because boiling household drinking water is routine here. On the scale of necessity to luxury, drinking water directly from the tap doesn’t appear – it is somewhere beyond.


Domestic water supplies come from a range of sources – reticulated supply in some towns, household wells, rainwater tanks and rivers. Where I’ve been staying is in a village, and there is a well with an electric pump which is used to pump water to a roof tank. Water is reliably supplied to all the expected taps indoors, as well as several outside, but hot water is considered unnecessary. Given the climate, this isn’t much hardship. The quality is pretty good – although the drinking water is boiled, I’ve probably swallowed a fair bit of unboiled water from washed fruit and dishes that were still a bit wet, and I’ve come to no harm.


The house next door has given me an idea of what life is like for the less well-off in Kerala. I’ve already mentioned that the tenants have to hand-draw water from their well for washing. Every day – several times a day – I see them lifting water from the well by hand, and scrubbing dishes and clothing on a concrete area beside the well. It must be constant struggle to keep things clean, as I’ve also been told that the house has a dirt floor, and looking at the state of the roof, I suspect it may leak. Kerala has a rainfall similar to New Zealand’s West Coast, so it must be miserable at times.


However, in having their own well, I realise that they have something that many don’t, because the well water is good water. In a previous post I mentioned the traditional way of washing was to use the river, but I didn’t realise that this is still important for many people. If there is one thing that has shocked me about life in Kerala, it was that people are still dependent on what must be some very polluted rivers.


I know it is the traditional way, but the rivers of Kerala are not what they once were. I’ve been told by a number of older people that when they were young the rivers were clear, and washing in them was no problem. But they are not clear now. They are murky and greenish brown. The sandy bottoms of the rivers have been dredged up for construction materials and now they are muddy. The mud encourages the invasion of the submerged weed cabomba (Cabomba caroliniana), and rafts of floating weeds like water hyacinth (Eichhornia crassipes) drift down the river, collecting plastic bottles and other rubbish in the tangled mats. In the upland areas like Munnar, some of the water is clearer, and, I assume, cleaner, although in an agricultural area of India I’d wonder about the pesticide levels. But the famous backwaters, which attract tourists to their houseboats and tranquil setting, are slow-moving lowland canals and lakes. By the time the water reaches there, they have collected every bit of pollution that Kerala can throw in them.


And from a boat puttering slowly around these backwaters, I saw people constantly in the water, scrubbing clothes, washing dishes, washing themselves and fishing for food. The steep edges of the canals are punctuated with steps and platforms so that people can access and use the water. The murky, green liquid is the centre of their lives.


It makes me realise where the wealth of Kerala really lies, and how vulnerable it is. This state has always had what much of India hasn’t – abundant water. Unlike everything else I’ve discussed in this post, water is a true necessity for all of us. Phones, cars, fans, fridges and even electricity are luxuries compared to water. But, like New Zealand, Kerala is in danger of squandering that wealth. And the first to suffer – as usually happens with environmental damage, are the poorest people.


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”.



Resolutions January 1, 2010

Filed under: Antarctica,Environment — belladonnabess @ 9:51 pm

I thought I’d share a couple of my resolutions, one to encourage others to join me and the other because I know some of you have been waiting for it.

First – I’ve signed up the the 10:10 campaign. I don’t think there is anything actually happening with this in NZ – it’s a UK programme. But you can still sign up to the 10:10 Global campaign, and do it.

10:10 is a committment to cut 10% of your carbon emissions in 10:10. Human-induced climate change won’t be stopped by individuals voluntarily cutting emissions, but it will send a signal to governments that we are acting and expect them to do the same. It will also get people used to doing what may well become compulsary or economic necessity later, and maybe we’ll find some of those things aren’t so bad.

Exactly where I’ll find 10% to cut is a tricky question. My insanely long showers are the obvious place to start.

My other resolution is that I’m going to start putting my Antarctica pictures up on this blog, along with the text from my emails and bits from my diary. It’s taken me far too long to sort them out. Here’s a preview…


Gaining and losing November 10, 2009

Filed under: Environment — belladonnabess @ 9:59 pm

It’s freezing and damp and I haven’t been gardening – this is more random environmental thoughts.

I’ve always been interested in environmental issues and have tried to do the “right thing”, whatever that is, but I can’t honestly say I did very well. Progress was slow, although I had been improving a bit over the last couple of years. In general though, I was rather depressed by the scale and diversity of the problems, disillusioned about the direction things were going and confused about the solutions.

Feeling that there was little I could do to solve the world’s problems, I set out to change the only thing that I had any realistic chance of changing – myself. Somehow, the circumstances all seemed to work together, and I have achieved far more than I expected.

Losing: one of my serious commitments for this year was to make less rubbish. There are so many things wrong with our disposable “use once and bury in landfill” mentality, and the “use once and put it in a recycling bin” is frankly not much better. The making, transporting and disposing of all that waste uses a lot of fossil fuel and contributes to carbon emissions, locks up what would otherwise be nice land in stinking landfulls, puts toxic chemicals into the environment and spreads persistent, damaging rubbish into some of the most pristine areas of the world. Reducing waste is a good for the environment in so many different ways.

Losing: the only thing reducing waste is bad for, as far as I can tell, is the economy. Waste, and the wasteful society we live in, generates a lot of economic activity, and the way our society measures wealth says that all that wasting is good. So I’m bad for New Zealand’s GDP, and I’m proud of it.

Gaining: other people’s rubbish. I’ve decided to try the approach of “offsetting” for the waste I do create – it’s hard to avoid buying some things in non-reusable, non-recyclable plastic. So I also stop other people sending stuff to landfill or recycling by using their rubbish, for example taking their old cardboard boxes, newspapers and coffee grounds and using them in my garden. Over the last few months I’ve taken several hundred litres of coffee grounds that would have otherwise been landfilled. This is much more rubbish than I think I’ve actually created over that same period!

Gaining: tastebuds. Reducing waste had meant avoiding most processed food, except as a rare treat. I’m making a lot of the food I eat from scratch (soup, stock, biscuits, breakfast cereal), and now I’m eating less salt, sugar and fat, I seem to be enjoying food more.

Losing: some things were hard to give up – like takeaway coffee. 10 years ago it was a rare treat, but I got sucked into the whole Wellington culture and soon came to depend on it.

Gaining: organisational skills. Taking my own shopping bags everywhere (not just a couple of supermarket bags, but all the small bags for fruit and vegetables etc) took some effort. Also, shopping only rarely at the supermarket means I have to think more about what I need and plan a whole lot better. I’m not the most organised person (understatement), but with practice I now manage. I’m both more organised and less stressed.

Gaining: muscles. I’ve done some hard gardening this year, and I’ve also given up using the lift at work. I mostly did it because I wanted to get fitter, but I’m saving a tiny bit of electricity too. I work on the 12th floor of an office building, so it’s no light sacrifice.

Losing: more than 15 kilos. It turned out that less waste = less waist. Who knew?





What’s wrong with spring? October 17, 2009

Filed under: Environment — belladonnabess @ 6:21 pm

Freezing southerly again. Apart from trying to support some of my battered seedlings, I couldn’t be bothered doing anything much in the wet (4cm since yesterday evening) and cold. I did uncover a few plants that the blackbirds had buried, but that’s it.

Instead of writing about what I didn’t do in my garden, I though that I would do a bit of an audit on some of the good and bad things I’m doing for, or to, the environment. I’ve been trying quite hard for the last year or so, so it is useful for me to document some of the things I have done, and also document that things that I’m doing worst at, in the hope that it motivates my to do better.

Good – I take the bus to work, and don’t live too far away (10-15 minutes if traffic isn’t heavy).

Bad – I still drive everywhere in the weekend and in the evening. Given the quality of the after hours and weekend bus service where I live, I don’t feel like I have much option. My car is probably about average for fuel efficiency, but it could be better.

Good – my diet is probably a lot lower impact than most. I don’t eat too much in the way of processed food, grow lots of my own vegetables and my most frequent shopping trip is to a farmer’s market (bad – it’s 15 km away). I go to a supermarket about once a month to buy things like toilet paper, cat food, flour, butter and cleaning products.

Good – I use a lot of low toxicity cleaning products like baking soda.

Bad – I love my dishwasher. I’m sure that the detergent I use is horribly toxic and that it uses more energy than washing dishes by hand.

Good – my garden is currently providing well over half of my vegetable needs, and that is a lot because I really do eat 5+ a day. It is largely organic and provides habitat for lots of insects including the native praying mantis, bumble bees, various wasp and fly species, and stick insects, which are very cute but do tend to eat my raspberries. The garden also provides some fruit for me and next autumn should provide a reasonably proportion of my carbohydrates (it won’t be anywhere near 50% though). It provides almost none of my protein and, because it is a very small garden, it never will unless I start eating snails.

Bad – I eat meat and/ or dairy products most days. These are far more resource intensive than vegetables. But…

Good – the actual volume of meat and dairy products I consume is probably only 20% of what it was a year ago. Also, I used to waste a lot of milk, because the supermarkets stopped selling the type I wanted to buy in volumes less than a litre. Not any more, since I buy powdered milk, making up only what I need.

Good – I create very little landfill and recycling rubbish. Mostly I achieve this by not buying stuff with excess packaging, even if it is recyclable (recycling is a poor substitute for not creating the rubbish in the first place). I’ve had the same supermarket bag as a bin liner in the bin in my kitchen for about a month. I wash and reuse many of the plastic bags that I can’t seem to avoid. I think I think I’ve got my food waste volume below 10% (it has been shamefully bad in the past) and all except meat waste is taken care of by composting and worms. I think that I put out a council rubbish bag and my recycling bin some time in the last couple of months, but I don’t remember when. I won’t be putting them out again any time soon.

Even better – I take some rubbish that other people would send to the landfill or recycling and give it another life: I take 15-20 litres a week of coffee grounds from a cafe in town and use it in the garden and the compost bin; I scrounge cardboard and old newspaper from work and other random places to use in the garden; if I need plastic supermarket bags to use as bin liners etc, I scrounge them off anyone who has excess; I use old plastic milk bottles from work to make up powdered milk.

Note quite so good – I hoard, including some stuff that I really should throw away. If I’m not sure what to do with it, I just leave it lying around until I get thoroughly sick of it, when it becomes quite likely that I will toss it in a landfill in frustration.

Really so bad that it’s embarrasing – did I mention that most of my good work as outlined above is cancelled out by daily 20 minute showers? At Scott Base, I managed to have my showers under the requisite 3 minutes, so I know it can be done. I’m steeling myself to add “showers under 10 minutes” to the New Years resolution list. Even that seems daunting though.

This is only a partial list, there are plenty of other good, and bad, things that I’m doing. I’ll do another list sometime, if I get around to it…