Monthly Archives: September 2010

Sunsets in Sirigao

By Harman de Souza

Andrea shot these photographs at Sirigao, a village past Bicholim in North Goa, off the main road leading westwards to Mapusa. They capture, as if one could not know, the horrors of an open-cast iron ore mining pit, one of 500 if not more such pits in Goa. They were shot between five in the evening when the sun is ripe and the light as clean as the thrill of biting into a fresh orange, and just after six, when, as if fleeing from the grotesque sight of this pit that goes more than 30 metres below sea level, the sun escapes in a sigh of pain.

When you open Andrea’s photographs several times, staring at each one for a few minutes, you understand the turmoil that leads some women to break into inconsolable sobbing when they see the mining pit for the first time, up close. One woman said she felt she had just been raped. Whether one likes it or not, Andrea’s eye gives us a panoramic glimpse of the devastation that mining has brought to Goa, season by season, from April when the sun is at its strongest in Goa, till June when the clouds mute and gray the light.

The mining companies and other assassins of the earth beholden to them will continue to talk about ‘sustainable mining’ till the cows come home; they will pat each other’s backs and exchange awards to proclaim their Corporate Social Responsibility, but when push comes to shove, it’s these photographs that tell you what mining in Goa is all about.

Take the first picture, taken in April, when the sun had probably just touched the sea off Calangute, which, as the gull flies, is probably just 15 kilometres, if not less, due west. The light is warm enough to show detail just before the sun is burnt to a cinder, mellow enough to bring out the melancholy in the hardest of hearts. The machines in the pit are silent and stationary. You can barely see the two bulldozers on the steeper terrace above, to the left of the frame, to the left of the orange-yellow earth mover.

The pumps floating on a raft of lorry tubes in the water below have stopped pumping out the water the pit sucks out from the aquifers around. To the end of this deep pond, where the water is a dark gleaming green if you see it in the morning, on the black eye-patch of the cliff just above, one can actually see the dregs of an aquifer flowing.  In the middle of the frame is the giant machine, vicious when at work barely an hour or so before, but now in repose, and almost as harmless as a yellowish crab with an injured claw.

If you save this picture as your desktop background, it gets even more interesting with every passing day. After a while one shifts between anger and grief and desperation so seamlessly, on its own accord, the photograph miraculously speaks of foretold misery.

Look just to the right of the accursed earthmover where the mud road slopes downwards to take a sharp turn into the pit, and you will see a face. Just above the line of the brown road is a darker patch, perhaps a rich lode of ore. It looks very much like the snout of an animal, something small, like a fox, or even a bear cub.

Just below the snout, contoured with a few fluffs of white, is the animal’s mouth; above the head, where its right eye should be, a blurred shape, but where the left eye is, a distinct patch that could very easily be an eye. Above these, past the ridge of the snout, is a tuft of brighter mud almost like a crest.

It gets little more defined as you zoom inwards, the face of this animal even seeming bemused. The left eye looks sharper, and if one stares hard enough, one can see an eyeball start to emerge.

If one moves the cursor ahead bit by bit, while the animal’s face blurs, with one’s eyes squinting one bears witness to the animal’s fate. With the claw of the machine just off the frame, it could be a sepia-toned painting of the last days of a ten month old tiger cub for instance, who had the misfortune of losing its way, and was put to death by workers and security guards armed with sticks and stones and crowbars, the right side of its face smashed, the skull impacted into its lower jaw, and its left eye, strangely enough,  staring wide open, off its centre, in a mixture of innocence and accusation.goa-opencast-mine2

Every conservationist in Goa worth his or her salt knows that the forest authorities in Goa are hand in glove with the mining companies. Barely ten years ago, the department paid obeisance to timber contractors, today, in South Goa it appears to have bent backwards for the mining companies. It is not to the forest authorities or to the laws that supposedly govern forests that we must turn to, and certainly not to the courts, where, as environmental lawyers will tell you, the entire machinery is geared to use the garb of justice to kick petitions into the long grass.

There to be kept as long as it takes to get the iron ore out. The arithmetic is simple, a half a kilometre stretch of hill translates into a few thousand crore. Calculate this as a cool 30 crore in his kitty each year, and tell me which Goan politician is not into mining to make himself rich. Given the greed that seems to have overtaken this country, justice has every chance of losing out.

Just whom we are supposed to turn to, nobody knows which is why so many Goans are now asking what the use of government is when there is no governance, when men and women elected by them have no concerns other than making themselves, their families and their village cronies rich?

In all of Andrea’s photographs, the frames are tinted with tree cover, some washed out by the haze reflected off the cliffs, other showing the bright almost artificial green of Australian acacia, the forest department and mining companies’ favourite tree. At the top of the frames, blotches of casuarinas, some left on the side of the pit for visual relief perhaps, and some forming a crest on the top of the barren cliff.

What makes the scene even more painful given this is still verdant Goa, is that the Sirigao mine is the last pit in a mining operation that has destroyed some twelve kilometres of hills, forests and water eastwards; leaving behind an eyesore as bad as this; dirty, dust-covered human habitations totally beholden to or damned by mining, depending on who owns trucks and garages and spare parts shops and who depends on agriculture for a livelihood.

The governments at both state and centre, and their various departments set up to exploit natural resources refer to such an operation as a ‘contiguous mining lease’, in this instance, some five or six mining companies given the necessary permissions to hack the trees, upend the earth, and take away the ore to make themselves rich.

There is little anyone can do to stop the rape of Goa’s northern foothills and plateaus that came down to the coast from the Western Ghats, bringing with them, water. The traditional springs in and around Sirigao area have long run dry. Ironically, Sirigao is home to the indigenous Goan deity, Lehrai, one of five other sisters still remaining and a brother, each of their shrines and sites of pilgrimage close to or dependent on water. Before Lehrai’s palanquin is carried out on the day when her pilgrims walk over hot coals to proclaim and test their devotion, the bearer must bathe in her pond. That pond, as also every single well in Sirigao, has long been dry. Water for the traditional cleansing is now provided in tankers that mining companies thoughtfully provide.

If it wasn’t for the monsoons coming every year to wash a mining area such as this, the area around Sirigao would be worse than Bellary only because the rape has been sanctioned the last fifty or so years. If the birds fly in a circle of three or four kilometres around Sirigao, either side of the main road leading from Bicholim to Mapusa, all they will see is the glaring site of pit and waste dump, and convoys of orange trucks in long lines like soldier ants. And a scene such as this mind you for twelve kilometres east of Sirigao…then another twelve kilometres southwards…and another ten kilometres…and another ten kilometres…till one comes close to a hundred kilometres of mining operation in the foothills of the Western Ghats…

In the village bars, where cynics gather to singe the pains of a day, they say that democracy in Goa has been reduced to being a government off the people, buy the people, and far from the people. How true!

The larger picture can be grasped from a recent petition to the Ministry of Environment and Forests submitted by several citizens’ organizations from Goa. They urged the Ministry to uphold the moratorium on clearing new mining leases pending a comprehensive social and scientific audit being undertaken, and to take steps to ensure that earlier mining operations were restored as per the law. As the petition duly noted, Goa had less than 1% of India’s land mass, but contributed to more than 60% of India’s iron ore exports.

The petition brought to the ministry’s attention the absurd possibility of Goa itself ceasing to exist at the current pace of mineral extraction…

Opinion: Getting to work on 10/10/10

By Asher Miller

After major disappointments in Copenhagen and Washington D.C., millions of us concerned about the climate crisis have been left wondering “what now?”. The stakes couldn’t be higher, and the political and infrastructural challenges so large and complex, that it’s no surprise to see soul-searching and disagreements over the best course of action. Especially when legislative and diplomatic efforts to date have fallen flat. When folks like Dave Roberts — who fiercely advocated for admittedly weak Cap & Trade legislation because he felt that it was our best hope for progress — have given up on the nation’s capitol, it’s clear that a lot of people are being forced to re-evaluate.

The Debate – Scale Vs. Feasibility
It’s understandable why activists invested so much to securing a binding diplomatic agreement in Copenhagen and legislation in Washington, D.C. Their belief was that only a coordinated, international policy mechanism could address a crisis that is, by its very nature, global in scope. They’re right. But negotiating such a response is akin to getting 192 drug addicts to check-in to rehab, when treatment won’t start until everyone shows up. Believing this is a fool’s errand — unlikely to work, at least with the result being anything meaningful — others have advocated for concentrating on where we’re more likely to make progress: the personal and community scale. But reducing your carbon footprint to nil, or even that of an entire city or state, is not going to keep the climatic forces away if elsewhere they continue to burn coal or deforest the Amazon. Unless someone can invent the dome from Stephen King’s imagination. It’s easy to pick holes in each of these strategies because the sad truth is that none are likely, on their own, to be commensurate with the scale of the challenge. Which is why I think it’s our expectations, not approaches, that need to change.

Practicing Resilience
The first expectation shift is to move our thinking away from trying to “solve” this crisis to “responding” to it. This may sound like a difference without a distinction, but it’s fundamental to the approach we should take, particularly when climate is so inextricably connected to the concurrent economic and energy challenges we face. In attempting to “solve” a problem like climate change, we’re looking for a miracle that’s going to allow us to get back to business as usual. In trying to “respond” to it, however, we acknowledge that business as usual is no longer an option. This is clearly necessary for a number of reasons:
The cat is already out of the bag when it comes to climate change. We’ve already altered the climate, even if we completely stop using fossil fuels this very second. Hence the planetary name change, a la PCI Fellow Bill McKibben. Some level of adaptation is required, though how much is still in our control.
As our report Searching for a Miracle details, no known combination of alternatives can fully replace our current use of fossil fuels.
Even if we could somehow to discover and bring online a clean energy alternative at sufficient scale and speed, there are numerous other limits that will prevent business as usual from continuing.
Redundancy, adaptability, and experimentation are going to be key in how we respond to this and other crises.

Both/And
The second thing to understand is that it needn’t be — indeed it shouldn’t be — an either/or proposition. It’s a both/and proposition. When done right, efforts at different levels can amplify one another and are iterative. This can even be true when groups reasonably respond to the same opportunities in totally different ways. For example, some of our friends in the UK are considering holding a “Great Stay At Home” during the COP 16 meetings in Cancun, Mexico in late November and early December 2010. The idea, as articulated by Transition founder and PCI Fellow Rob Hopkins right after COP 15 last year, was this:
So how about this, as a co-ordinated approach for the next time there is such a gathering, which will again, no doubt, be trailed as ‘the last chance to save the planet’? We (that is, those who care passionately about climate change and the need for a proportionate response), confound expectations, and stay at home. Using the web-based technologies we now have at our disposal, we co-ordinate an international festival of meaningful change. We stay home and insulate whole streets, create community gardens, work meaningfully with our local authorities to do projects with them, eat local food diets for the duration of the conference, live without cars, insulate our schools, set up an area of the settlement in question as a model for what it would look like transitioned. We start bringing the future that we can imagine but which is still beyond the comprehension of so many, into focus.
I think this a fantastic idea. But does that mean that NGOs and environmental activists should all boycott COP 16? Absolutely not. Without allies in Cancun to bear witness, keep delegates’ feet to the fire, and push for meaningful international agreements then the odds of delegates paying any heed would be close to nil. And conversely, when delegates attempt to hide behind excuses about political or technical feasibility, our friends in Cancun can point to what’s being done right then back at home by everyday citizens with shovels, caulk guns, and bicycles. Done right, these two approaches can be greater than the sum of their parts. If there’s anything that gives my cynicism pause, it’s the possibility of divergent efforts like these amplifying rather than defusing one another. And that is why I want to encourage every single person out there to get involved in a 10/10/10 Global Work Party. No, Glenn Beck, it’s not some International Neo-Communist Party. It’s hundreds of thousands of people in more than a 140 countries making a statement by getting their hands dirty. As our friends from 350.org explained:
Since we’ve already worked hard to call, email, petition, and protest to get politicians to move, and they haven’t moved fast enough, now it’s time to show that we really do have the tools we need to get serious about the climate crisis. On 10/10/10 we’ll show that we the people can do this–but we need bold energy policies from our political leaders to do it on a scale that truly matters. The goal of the day is not to solve the climate crisis one project at a time, but to send a pointed political message: if we can get to work, you can get to work too–on the legislation and the treaties that will make all our work easier in the long run.
Part of what I love about 10/10/10 is that even if actions fail to move politicians sufficiently, through these projects a foundation can be laid — no matter how small or simple the projects — for transitioning each and every community. Yes, it’s a focused day of international action. Yes, it’s intended to make a statement. But it can and should also serve as the start or boost for ongoing resilience building.

10/10/10 Sonoma County
The 350.org site has some ideas and resources for creating a project (including starting a Transition Initiative) but I wanted to share what we’re doing here in Post Carbon Institute’s home base to give folks just one example of what can be done. PCI is part of an ad hoc coalition of local nonprofits and the County that set as our vision: “10 Issues. 10 Communities. 10,000 People.” Because of the short time frame and the unique characteristics of the county (nine cities and a number of smaller towns, with a population that’s generally progressive and climate aware), our intention was to encourage grassroots groups throughout Sonoma County to take the lead in organizing local projects. As organizers, our strategy is simply to provide the framework and tools to facilitate, promote, and support projects. That said, it’s vitally important to us to use 10/10/10 as an opportunity to engage people in longer-term and more robust efforts. And so we set for ourselves the following goals:
To educate the community about the impacts global climate change and our dependence on fossil fuels has on virtually every aspect of our lives and the countless, concrete ways we can break this addiction. So we’ve named 10 issues that are directly impacted by or relate to the climate crisis: biodiversity; buildings; economy; energy; food; health; social/economic justice; transportation; waste; and water.
To organize a minimum of one project focused on each issue area and at least one project in 10 Sonoma County communities.
To provide participants with suggestions and resources for personal actions they can take in each issue area to reduce their dependence on fossil fuels and their impact on the climate. A website will provide people with a way to make reduction pledges, as will each project site.
To get the participation of elected officials in each of the nine Sonoma County cities, as well as the County Board of Supervisors. We don’t want them making speeches. We want them to get their hands dirty alongside their constituents.
To use this weekend as a vehicle for ongoing engagement.
The most ambitious effort will likely take place in Santa Rosa, the largest city in the county. Our friends at the newly formed CAReFree Sunday Street Scene (part of the growing international Ciclovia movement) are working with the City of Santa Rosa to close off a major section of downtown for biking, walking, and entertainment. Along the route — which includes City Hall, Luther Burbank Home & Gardens, and a greenway along the Santa Rosa Creek — they hope to set up ten projects (one for each issue referenced above) where pedestrians can stop, participate, and learn. The folks at CAReFree Sunday Street Scene have been talking with organizers of Tour de France cyclist and Santa Rosa native Levi Leipheimer’s Gran Fondo bike event, which takes place the day before, about staying to join in the ciclovia. Hopefully, with creative project ideas like this, we’ll meet our target of 10,000 participants.

We’ll know in a few weeks how successful this organizing effort was, but the key thing is also the simplest thing: Try something. So please visit 350.org today to find a project in your community. If one doesn’t exist, start one.

(Asher Miller is the executive director of Post Carbon Institute, Santa Rosa, California, USA.)