Sunday, October 24, 2021

Saving Orangutans, Saving Our Future - Sari Fitriani

Saving Orangutans, Saving Our Future 

By Sari Fitriani

Travelling to rural areas, understanding the life of local people and orangutans, has transformed me from an ordinary person into an activist. I was born and raised in Jakarta and did my undergraduate in Bandung. The two cities brought me into an environment where people are busy with their own lives. Getting money, a respectful position in a reputable company, and getting married were the top three priorities of most people in the city. Let alone thinking about the society, environment, or even animals. I was as innocent and indifferent as the majority of people, until I decided to take a job that was out of my comfort zone after I graduated.

I started my professional journey as a facilitator in a rural area in 2016. It was a life-changing experience because it taught me how it feels to be a forest-dependent person. While money can solve most any problem in an urban area, the rural area is a different story. I still remember how much I struggled to live there even though I had money. There were no grocery stores, no electricity, no signal coverage, no water unless it was raining, and no gas stove, only a wood-burning stove. It impressed me how the local people were living effortlessly without much money. They grow, gather, and hunt for what they need to fulfil their livelihood. They’d get everything they needed to survive without spending a single penny. But I also saw their vulnerability by depending entirely on nature. When I was in Mentawai, I wouldn’t have enough water for my daily needs in the dry season because the only water source was rainwater. The only option was to use brown-colored water from the river in Borneo for drinking, washing, and cooking. It was such a surprise that it wasn’t a problem for me or for them, but it’s a whole different story when something is happening with their land, forest, or sea. In Borneo, people fought over their lands when a company came in. But sometimes, they did nothing and grumbled over how hard it is to grow productive crops or find prey in the forest after losing their lands. I wish I could do something, but the only thing I could do back then was listen to them.

I started working for orangutans in 2018 after my contract as a facilitator in Borneo ended. I met the Centre for Orangutan Protection and got along with them as we had the same working area in Borneo. I adored them for their passion and commitment to orangutans. Most of the people I met from COP were about my age, mid-20s, and some graduated from respected universities. They spent their youth taking care of orangutans in the middle of the jungle with limited access to electricity, network coverage, or to the ‘normal life’ that most people have at that age. But actually, it was not my intention to work for wildlife. I spent two years working for humans, and I questioned how people could prioritize animals over humans. When I was curious to learn about how Dayak people hunt for food, COP was campaigning against air rifles for hunting. I mean, if not hunting, how could they fulfil their livelihood? Should they shift their life to be like ‘modern people’ in the city where everything requires money? I don’t think that’s a better solution.

During my time with COP, I had many of my firsts. First time being a highly mobile person, first time directly encountering orangutans, first time getting lost in plantations, first time being a tour organizer and a guide to visitors, first time developing volunteer programs, first time being incorporated in wildlife and forestry-related meetings and conferences, and many more. Then I realized what I was doing wasn’t different from my previous job. I still took care of the local community by helping them develop ecotourism programs, seeing them challenge each other in preserving their culture and nature, hearing complaints, and being asked for help when there are land conflicts. But this time, I had the power to do something. The power to help local communities preserve their lands and forest while still maintaining their livelihood. The power to make an issue bigger, be heard by a wider scope of people, and create mass movements toward better regulation and action. And that is all because of the power of the orangutans.

I also saw the local people’s way of living from a broader perspective. Many of the hunters ended up hunting animals that were not supposed to be eaten. They unintentionally ‘invited’ a wildlife trade market that risks their own life and the life of the forest. I was once offered to buy a sun bear because an old woman caught it and wanted to trade it for money. She was innocent because she didn’t know that it was prohibited to catch and trade a sun bear. But what if I saw that as an opportunity to gain money? What if I were a wildlife broker and asked them to catch more cubs and other wildlife in the forest? And what if it were an orangutan and later it became a popular commodity?  Will the old woman be accused and jailed for doing that? That was how my inner turmoil arose.

In 2019, I spent a lot of my time on the road, travelling all around East Borneo, checking the existence of wild orangutans in their habitat. We— my team and I—drove up to 300 km a day, using a double cabin car or trail motorcycles, travelling around East Borneo. It was pretty much like a road trip. The roads we took mostly couldn’t be found on Google Maps and were too arduous to pass through. The scenery was either green or brown-black from plantations, dirt roads, and coal mining areas. I could hardly see any rainforest along the way, but we did spot orangutans effortlessly from the road. Some were female orangutans with their babies in their nests in a tree, while others were old male orangutans sleeping on a tree branch. And it was all happening in plantations and mining areas. We were overwhelmed by all reports and viral social media posts from the public capturing orangutans in such areas. And even more, devastated by the reality we got directly from the field.

The further away, the more I see, the more I question myself. Is it more important to consider the life of humans over wildlife? Or the other way around? Aren’t humans and wildlife the same in surviving life? Then why does it always seem like they’re conflicting with each other, and we have to choose one life over another? I kept questioning until I realized that it was no one’s fault in particular but a collection of misguided actions.  In fact, we—me, you, humans, animals, and any living beings—all face the same problem. We are losing our lands and forest. We are losing our habitat. And soon enough, we might be losing our earth and everything that we take for granted at the moment.

All the dots were connected, and I knew that this was the path that I should take. I knew that our work for orangutans is not only for orangutans but for the whole ecosystem. I am sure now that both humans and wildlife urgently need a safe place to live. And by saving orangutan habitats we could save humans altogether from destruction, poverty, and disasters. It is not about choosing one over another but how we as humans want to live in harmony with the other living beings without harming each other. I know that is not an easy task to accomplish, but it has to be done. It has only been three years since I walked in an orangutan’s steps, and I will keep walking on this path. For me, fighting for orangutans means fighting for humanity, fighting for the whole ecosystem, and fighting for our future.

Copyright©2021 by Sari Fitriani. All Right Reserved.

Wednesday, June 9, 2021

Bruce McLeod on Environmental Stewardship

Environmental Stewardship
Healing Our Broken Relationship With Nature
By Bruce McLeod

The World Wildlife Fund’s mission is “To stop the degradation of the Earth’s natural environment and to build a future in which humans live in harmony with nature…”  In their Living Planet Report published in 2020 it is reported that global mammal, fish, bird and amphibian populations have declined by 68% in less than 50 years. Genetic degradation isn’t covered in the report.

People the world over donate billions of dollars to WWF each year. Despite which, the reality is that after 60 years at the forefront of conservation WWF (and professional conservation in general) have  entirely failed to achieve their stated objective. Degradation of the natural environment, together with declines in genetic integrity across all species, resulting directly from environmentally hostile and destructive human activities, is both ubiquitous and of such severity as to suggest the distinct possibility that animals in their natural habitats will be largely if not entirely wiped out within another one or two decades.                      

This is not to say that the position might not have been worse without the efforts of conservation agencies, or that their failure to stem the tide of destruction is not to some extent understandable. Human numbers in my lifetime have gone from 2.5 billion to a staggering 8 billion, and in 2020 alone (notwithstanding COVID-19) births exceeded deaths by 80 million.

And if you don’t recognize in all of this clear evidence of disease in the social organism, and get a glimpse of the joyless, polluted, dangerous and unsustainable world that will be occupied by our children, should they survive of course, then as lawyers are inclined to say, I rest my case.

It’s insane, and the approach to the unfolding catastrophe by conservation professionals appears to consist of what the medical profession might describe as symptomatic diagnosis and treatment. In other words, cause unknown and remedial treatment aimed at easing pain and symptoms – rather than eradicating underlying cause.

Carl Jung proposed that all human neurosis and psychosis stems from division from nature. And if Jung has it right, then does it not follow that in-depth understanding of the human condition that gives rise to environmental destruction, must precede and dictate remedial action? Neurosis doesn’t mean barking mad but rather a relatively mild altered state of reality. I’m not a psychologist but it would seem to me that division from Nature essentially triggers a loss of synchronicity between two distinct faculties of memory. The first of these being instinct and the second being reason.

Instinct can be defined as prenatal, genetic, evolutionary or ancestral memory function. Reason is postnatal, experiential or socially acquired memory function, and in Nature this dual memory function combines seamlessly to optimize survival prospects and transfer of advantageous genes. Division from Nature disrupts brain function synchronicity, resulting in suppression of instinct and elevated levels of dependence or dominance of reason. Homo sapiens sapiens or wise wise Man is how we see ourselves. IQ is measured by reasoning ability alone. Instinct is generally seen as primitive if not superfluous.          

What it amounts to is a muting of the guiding influence of an ancestral lineage that transcends species barriers – as a result of which we are disoriented and essentially lost. Domination of reason is also recognizable in the concept of dominion which in turn, is the soil in which the roots of private property lie buried, and out of which extends a spider’s web of dividing lines on maps that identify reason-based assumptions of superiority, and license to exploit and abuse our animal companions.

Nelson Mandela once said, “…love comes more naturally to the human heart than its opposite.” It is so – for the simple reason that love is innate and derives from immutable genetic hardwiring or instinct. Dominion is the polar opposite of love. It is a socially acquired and consequently mutable worldview that, in the absence of counterbalancing instinct amounts to a reprehensible idea, passed on through childhood conditioning from one generation to the next. With symptoms known variously as a contest between good and evil; love and hate; male and female energy, or as an imbalance between reason and instinct - what is beyond doubt and crystal clear is the deep fracturing of the human psyche that springs directly from the tail of division from Nature.   

Exacerbating this altered state of consciousness and loss of balance is a similarly debilitating condition that in the natural world promotes survival – but threatens survival when natural conditions are supplanted by artificial or virtual circumstances. What I’m alluding to is the inherently acquisitive nature of all primates. A monkey trap consists of a simple cage, baited with fruit and a hole in the top big enough to allow passage of the animals hand, but too small to allow withdrawal of hand clutching the fruit. Under such conditions greed overcomes reason and the monkey’s fate is sealed. And if a monkey  will choose life at the end of a chain or death for the sake of a banana – then what chance do we humans have of moderating or abandoning our desire for houses, cars and smartphones? Material possessions we would literally die for – and almost certainly will.  

Is there any hope? Probably not. But in the wake of COVID-19 coupled to increasing awareness of environmental destruction and climate change, is an emergent grassroots impulse to establish a new normal and in that resides a glimmer of hope. Some years ago CapeNature (Western Cape Government) launched a highly successful land acquisition programme called stewardship. It offers incentives to land owners to make land available for conservation. These Contract Nature Reserves are designed to establish areas and inter-linked corridors of land to promote conservation – and it works.

To be a steward means to look after something. It also has a theological definition which means roughly the same thing – taking care of God’s work. A slogan for stewardship is “partnerships make it happen.” What the CapeNature model lacks is a grassroots format, a united front whereby everyone (not just farmers) can become directly involved with conservation through various forms of collaboration.

This might include joint ownership of land for dual conservation and social purposes, with attendant recreational and residential (work from home) opportunities. A new normal where people can reconnect with Nature; partner with conservation professionals if necessary; work together to find ways of achieving harmony rather than conflict with Nature, and in doing so aspire to their true and full human potential. Healing the divisions of the past you might say – one barbed wire fence at a time.     

As co-founder of an independent stewardship initiative some 20 years ago, that preceded the CapeNature model and successfully converted a 700 hectare commercial farm in the Cederberg area of the Western Cape to social and conservation purposes, my observations with respect to the potential of grassroots stewardship stem from hands-on experience. It’s a concept that has enormous potential for growth and facilitation of positive change. Despite which, professional conservation entities, sadly, tend to also conserve a preference for a top-down, leave-it-to-us-we-know-best approach and are resistant to unconventional ideas from outside the ranks of their profession.

Humans share a common ancestor with chimpanzees. All primates are highly intelligent and, just like us, their first response to anxiety, fear and insecurity tends to be psychological denial. Held captive in a monkey trap a primate’s life is often forfeited through its inability to accept the reality of its predicament. In the human domain it is frequently suggested that our relationship with Nature is “complex,” and it’s important to recognize that what lies behind this suggestion is denial, arising from an unwillingness or inability to accept the inconvenient truth of selfishness and obsessive need for materialistic gratification.      

Grassroots stewardship might be described as the antithesis of the divide and conquer approach. It’s a holistic approach that seeks to unify the land and restore an ethical and respectful relationship between humans and all other life forms – in the context of ever-expanding farmlands, habitat destruction and genetic degradation that undermines the process of evolution itself.

There is no one-size-fits-all formula for stewardship projects and it is also not possible to touch on more than a few salient features in this essay. The Cederberg initiative referred to above was registered as a trust. Objective of the trust was to acquire land for social and conservation purposes. The 700 hectare farm acquired was on two titles which, in terms of compliance with agricultural zoning regulations, allowed for construction of 12 dwellings.  

There were accordingly 12 beneficiaries who had access to the land as an undivided whole. Internal fencing was removed. Beneficiaries were allocated areas for their personal use and were entitled to build a house and establish a garden or practice micro farming if they chose to do so. Personal use could be recreational or permanent occupation at the entire discretion of the beneficiary.  

These “plots” did not have separate title and on resignation by a beneficiary, immovable assets could be sold on but not the land occupied. In short, a moderation in terms of profit incentive, but full investment security and access through the power of partnership to a magnificent property abutting a wilderness area for a very modest and fully refundable contribution.  

Obvious benefits to the natural environment aside, the participants in this project had few if any disadvantages in comparison to a more conventional “development” scheme. What they did have were several distinct and unique advantages – not least amongst which was becoming part of an exciting pioneering project, committed to positive social change and restoration of integrity with respect to humankind’s generally dysfunctional relationship with Nature.               

Retaining the land as one undivided whole is perhaps the most fundamental requirement in any grassroots stewardship project. It is also possible in the Western Cape (through CapeNature) to rezone land as a Contract Nature Reserve. This secures the same protection status as a national park. Such rezoning in perpetuity means that the land is permanently safeguarded against usage for anything other than conservation purposes and, in the event of abutment with another conservation area, it opens the door for further unification and expansion of conservation land.

The term “economics” is defined in my dictionary as “a branch of knowledge concerned with the production, consumption, and transfer of wealth.” Arising as it does from a mind divided on itself and being also a product of socially acquired knowledge, largely devoid of counterbalancing wisdom and empathy, it is equally true to say that the business of economics is an anthropomorphic, supremacist, morally challenged branch of knowledge that views Nature as a commodity, composed of “resources” and “game” serving no purpose greater than consumerism and monetary profit.

Shaking off the spell cast by denial related to the destruction of 3.5 billion years of evolutionary progress and development (or what might equally be called God’s creation) and our collective complicity in that event, requires a long hard look in the mirror and conscious application of reason – followed by immediate and appropriate corrective action.

Prevailing economic models are neither ethical, immutable, nor sacrosanct. Stewardship represents a viable and immediate means of expanding conservation areas. It affords the opportunity for people, at their own pace and discretion, to adopt simpler, less materialistic lifestyles and to acquire more responsible attitudes and values. It represents a starting point for progressive social restructuring and a means of healing our broken relationship with Nature.       

Grassroots stewardship is not only viable but offers ordinary people an extraordinary opportunity to “Be the change you want to see in the world” as Gandhi once proposed. It’s the right thing to do. It provides sanctuary for our animal companions. It makes you feel good about yourself; makes the ancestors happy and it’s a giant leap forward with respect to transcending good intentions, and actually accomplishing a world in which humans live in harmony with Nature. It can be done and if ever there was a time to engage our allegedly superior faculties of reason and partner for change then that time is now!    

- Bruce McLeod co-founded a pioneering stewardship initiative some 20 years ago that successfully converted a 700 hectare commercial farm in the Cederberg area of the Western Cape for dual conservation and social purposes.

Text Copyright© 2021 by Bruce McLeod. All Rights Reserved.
Image Copyright© 2021 by Dr. Jack. All Rights Reserved.

Saturday, May 1, 2021

Animal Pain and Suffering - by Athena Milios

Pain and Suffering:
Moral Concerns Surrounding Human Consumption of Animals

By Athena Milios

In “Consider the Lobster,” David Foster Wallace provides a comprehensive overview of the Maine Lobster festival, then presents historical and cultural context for the practice of lobster consumption. Finally, he tackles important dilemmas surrounding the ethics of lobster killing, such as whether lobsters are able to feel pain considering the anatomy of their nervous systems, and whether certain means of killing lobsters are perhaps more ethical than others (Wallace 63). Wallace contrasts the neurological experience of pain with “actual suffering, which seems crucially to involve an emotional component, an awareness of pain as unpleasant, as something to fear/dislike/want to avoid” (63). Wallace provides several compelling arguments as to why killing lobsters is morally inappropriate, which extend to other sentient beings that humans consume. Overall, I believe that eating any animal is morally inappropriate, and will use lobsters, cows, pigs, and chickens as my main examples to build a case for why humans ought not to eat animals since it is morally unjustifiable.

Humans have a tendency to look for ways to morally justify to themselves the consumption of animals, because this justification is easier than having to change their behavior by omitting animals from their diet. One way many people do this is by telling themselves that animals are “less morally important than human beings” (64). However even Wallace acknowledges that he has “not succeeded in working out any sort of personal ethical system in which this belief is truly defensible instead of just selfishly convenient” (64). The two main criteria that ethicists use when considering suffering are the physiological capacity of the animal to feel pain and whether the animal acts as though it is in pain (63). In the case of mammals that humans kill, both of these criteria are clearly met, since pigs, cows, and chickens all have central and peripheral nervous systems, meaning they have mechanisms to register pain including nociceptors (pain-receptors), prostaglandins, and neuronal opioid receptors (63). In addition, they can make sounds that denote suffering when they are in distress/pain, such as whimpering, squealing, and moaning.

There are other behaviors associated with pain exhibited by mammals that are also present in lobsters, such as struggling and thrashing. In terms of the physiological mechanisms of pain, lobsters have an extremely refined tactile sense, partly due to the fact that they are covered in tiny hairs that penetrate their outer shells (63). What this means is that “although encased in what seems like a solid, impenetrable armor, the lobster can receive stimuli and impressions from without as readily as if it possessed a soft and delicate skin” (63). Even though they are invertebrates, they do possess “nociceptors, as well as invertebrate versions of the prostaglandins and major neurotransmitters via which our own brains register pain” (63).  Furthermore, lobsters do not have an endogenous opioid system, which is the body’s way of decreasing pain intensity, and is present in many other animals. This lack of natural painkillers means that lobsters’ perception of pain may actually be heightened (63).

Given that the animals that humans kill for consumption have the capacity to feel pain and to suffer, I believe that they do have moral status, meaning that humans should not have the right to inflict pain and suffering on them simply for their culinary experience. Inflicting pain on animals in order to kill them for human consumption is morally wrong because this killing is currently unnecessary for human survival, and therefore avoidable. Although society is more removed from the killing of mammal livestock, which are killed in slaughterhouses and factory farms instead of in people’s kitchens as lobsters are, the former death is not more justifiable or any less cruel than the latter. Due to the way cows, pigs, and chickens are killed and sold, it is easier for people to eat these animals “without having to consider that they were once conscious, sentient creatures to whom horrible things were done” (62).

In conclusion, pain is a complex experience involving a neurological component as well as a subjective component, which is manifested externally through behaviors indicating extreme discomfort and a clear desire to avoid the painful stimulus (63). The subjective experience and feeling of pain is unique to every individual, whether it be an animal or a human, and is a critical determinant of sentience. As a general premise, killing animals for human consumption is morally unjustified because they are subjected to unnecessary, avoidable pain and suffering, whether that be in a factory farm, a slaughterhouse, or in a pot of boiling water. Furthermore, given that the reasons humans have for consuming animals are primarily selfish in nature (63), humans continuing to kill animals for consumption is not truly necessary, therefore it is unethical and unjustified.

Works Cited

Foster Wallace, David. “Consider the Lobster.” Gourmet, August 2004, pp. 50–64. 

- Athena Milios is a Greek-Canadian psychiatric researcher and writer based in Nova Scotia, Canada. She holds an undergraduate Degree in Medical Science and a Master’s in Psychiatry Research, both from Dalhousie University. She is passionate about psychology and mental health. Athena has been living with mental illness since the age of fifteen. She strongly advocates for mental health in her community. She is the author of several psychiatric publications as well as some creative writing pieces, including poetry and short stories.

Copyright©2021 by Athena Milios. All Rights Reserved.