Tuesday, June 30, 2009

The world has become generic

Victoria, the capital city of the Seychelles, looks as if another place has come visiting and decided to stay! This small city that I know so well from childhood wanderings in back streets, back of buildings, under bridges and even in streams is starting to look like any other town anywhere else. Large buildings seemingly from a well-thumbed architectural digest have popped up. And the landscaping, apparently originally planned by experts from Singapore, fits in this tidy and clean but bland and generic cityscape.

But it does not have to be that way. Taking a break today from the computer screen I was wandering around the native plants we have growing around our Centre at Roche Caiman, a relatively new District bordering Victoria and I noticed that the Wrights Gardenia was flowering. I already smelled the heavy scent from the beautiful flowers as I approached the tree.

Wrights Gardenia is a plant that grows only in the Seychelles (endemic in biological parlance) and is found in its natural state only on Aride island, near Praslin. I think the flower is probably one of the most beautiful of the endemic trees of Seychelles. It’s named after Edward Percival Wright who visited Seychelles in the 19th Century.

The plant we have growing was one of four, grown from seed collected by Terence Vel our Techical Officer at the forestry station at Sans Souci, Mahe, where some of these trees are growing. They had been planted there by the former forestry director.

I think we are the only organization in Seychelles that landscapes around its building with native plants. The plants we have growing in the front of the Centre are native and were collected and planted by myself, Terence and Lucina, the Centre caretaker. But buildings and public places around Victoria and environs are still landscaped with exotic plants imported from various places. This despite the Government’s own campaign to rid Seychelles of alien invasive plants.

Many alien plants not only take a lot of resources, like water, to maintain, but also gives our country the same feel and look as any other place in the world. Popular Hawaiian and South American plants have tended to homogenize the world. Everything looks the same. What has become of diversity? Is the whole world doomed to look like “More of the Same”? Or can we use our own native plants to showcase our difference and our uniqueness?

Even a so called “recalcitrant” plant like Wrights Gardenia can be maintained and used in landscaping. If it can grow at sea level mostly on coral fill at our Centre, then with some nurturing it, and many other unique plants of Seychelles, can be kept by most building and home owners. Go for it people! Let us celebrate diversity rather than uniformity!

Friday, June 12, 2009

Somali Piracy started with a fight over fish

I tried to interest a popular island biodiversity email group in the following article but the moderator said it had nothing to do with biodiversity. This shows a complete lack of understanding about environmental management because actually the Somali piracy has its roots in a war over biodiversity resources - fish - as I explain below.

The exploits of the Somali pirates as far as the Seychelles have struck fear across the board and slammed the region’s economy. The Western Indian Ocean tuna fishery fell by 30% last year owing to pirate attacks on tuna vessels. As national and international military forces scale up their responses, and national and international press give us almost blow by blow reports, we need to ask ourselves the right question so as to get the most lasting solution to the problem. And I doubt that a purely military response will solve the piracy because I think the problem has not been framed properly.

The piracy problem in Somalia has its roots in the instability of the country after the civil war but also in another form of piracy practiced by foreign nations in Somali waters. This is a dirty little secret that is not talked about in the media but lies at the core of the problem.

Andrew Mwanguru of the Seafarers Assistance Programme in Nairobi says that since the civil war began in Somalia around 1991, illegal fishing trawlers started to trespass and fish in Somali waters even within the 12 mile territorial waters. These vessels encroached on local fishing grounds. A struggle then began between local fishers and the illegal fishing vessels. The foreign trawlers used strong arm tactics against the local fishers, even pouring boiling water on them and crushing the smaller boats and killing fishers. Mwanguru says that it is little wonder that the locals began to arm themselves.

The cycle of warfare has been escalating ever since. At one time there were up to 800 illegal fishing vessels in Somali waters. Most of these vessels are owned by European and Asian companies. Once the Somalis started to seize the foreign illegal vessels to make them stop they were approached to ransom them back. Thus, their appetite for bigger and better targets started to grow.

The problem is exacerbated by the extreme poverty in the country. According to Oxfam over three million Somalis need desperate assistance and one million have fled their homes in the past two years. Oxfam policy advisor Robert Maletta says, "The piracy issue that has grabbed international headlines is a symptom of deeper issues that have gone unaddressed since the collapse of the national government."

Brett Schaefer, Jay Kingham fellow in International Regulatory Affairs at The Heritage Foundation writes that only ground and sea based military action will not be successful at stopping the piracy but that other matters have to be taken in hand including a recognition of the failure of trying to impose a Centralized State Authority, helping local Somali authorities to improve their governance structures and mature politically, increasing international cooperation to dissuade Somali pirates, and improving the lives of poor and destitute Somalis .

Meanwhile people in East Africa assert that the pirates are investing heavily in some countries. In Kenya for example it is alleged that the pirates have entered the transport,housing and fuel markets in a big way. What does this portend for these local economies and societies and will it help Somalia at the end of the day?

Tagging Tuna in the Indian Ocean

Many people believe research is a waste of time and money for small countries like Seychelles. But when you are dealing with fish like tuna that can swim long distances at speeds of up to 70 kilometers an hour, that are heavily exploited and whose trade runs into billions of US Dollars, knowing more about their habits is critical to our own welfare. One of the ways to do this is to put tags on them and when they are fished to get the date of capture, the location and biological details.

I learnt to tag tuna on a Japanese research fishing vessel in the distant reaches of the Seychelles EEZ. That was back in 1987. At the time tuna tagging was only done sporadically and in fact when I returned from that long trip the French scientists working for what was then called ORSTOM were very keen to know the details of the Japanese tagging program.

Now, the results of the first comprehensive tuna tagging program in the Indian Ocean have started to come in. The Regional Tuna Tagging Project –Indian Ocean (RTTP-IO) began in 2002 with an initial tagging project in Mayotte and with feasibility studies. The intensive and large scale tagging began in 2005 and ran up to 2007.

Funding of 14 million Euros was made available by the European Union and the project was implemented by the Indian Ocean Commission (IOC) and supervised by the Indian Ocean Tuna Commission (IOTC). The success of the tagging project depends on the good will of the fishers who recover and report the tagged fish. To date, RTTP-IO says that 26,800 tagged fish have been recovered and reported. The best data comes from at-sea recoveries by tuna purse seiners where the fish can be kept and biological measurement taken.

One of the first results coming out of the project demonstrates that the Yellowfin tuna stock is close to or already being over fished. This is a serious state of affairs and matches other studies that have been done on this species. Assessment of skipjack and bigeye tuna will now be undertaken using the tagging data.

The Indian Ocean tuna fishery is one of the most lucrative fisheries in the world. The annual catch in the Indian Ocean of almost a million tons has a landed value of more than 2 billion US dollars. For Seychelles, as is the case for other involved countries, this industry plays a vital role in the economy. Knowing more about the state of tuna stocks will help us maintain their biological resilience and in turn maintain our own economic resilience.

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Sustainable energy for a sustainable economy

“I’d put my money on the sun and on solar energy. What a source of power! I hope we don’t have to wait ‘til oil and coal run out before we tackle that”, wrote Thomas Edison at the turn of the 20th Century.

Well, this homily applies to Seychelles because the country’s energy bill is so large that the Government has to borrow money to buy oil. The oil bill has put a strain on the country’s finances. In fact, Seychelles probably consumes more fossil fuel per capita than any other Small Island Developing State.

Therefore a move to more sustainable energy systems would not only be good for the environment but for the economy as it would reduce the large foreign currency outlays. At the moment except for some limited photo voltaic electricity generation on some small islands the energy needs of this country are met though imported oil.

If we take a look at Mauritius we see an energy picture that is worth examining in more detail. Mauritius has adopted the “Sustainable Island” slogan to pursue a path to renewable energy. Currently, 20% of Mauritius' electricity is generated from renewable biomass systems.

In recent years thousands of Mauritians have obtained loans at a preferential interest rate from the Development Bank of Mauritius to purchase solar water heaters. Small photo voltaic solar panels to power sodium lamps at night are a common sight in many public gardens, parks and car park areas.

Innovations like a new project to build a tidal power station to generate electricity from the sea are going ahead. A UNDP and Agence Française de Développement project is underway to provide technical assistance to install a wind turbine as a pilot for developing a larger wind farm, to develop energy audits and to use solar thermal energy in large institutions such as hospitals.
Mauritius plans to produce 40% of its electricity from renewable sources within the next 10 years. And it seems it will meet this target. As a major route to energy savings, it also introduced Daylight Savings Time (DST) in 26th October on a trial basis. Simulations suggest that the country would use 15 megawatts less of energy through DST.

Yes, Mauritius is fortunate in having sugar cane waste or bagasse since this is a vital component of the government’s national target for renewable energy. But its other energy strategies may be relevant to Seychelles. Whatever the case may be, it is imperative that we adopt a renewable energy policy and national targets and move to implementation of renewable energy programs across the board to meet these targets.

Monday, June 8, 2009

Seychelles Food Security: Try Edible Landscaping

A well known agronomist who recently visited Nature Seychelles’s Heritage Garden at Roche Caiman told me that this demonstration Garden, jam packed with fruit trees, crops, grains and vegetables, was a landscape that needed to be replicated across homes, in back yards, on reclaimed land and around buildings to produce food to feed Seychelles in these difficult times. That remark got me thinking because I had just read an article from the City University of London that made similar observations about Britain.

The City University says Britain will have to rely on a return to past methods of food production. The country needs to re-learn the gardening skills it lost a century ago and to change its diet to one that includes less meat, fewer dairy products and more fruit and vegetables. Britain produces less than 10 per cent of the fruit it eats and experts say that the country has to consider planting on a massive scale as well as encouraging people to eat more fruit and vegetable.

The skyrocketing rise in food prices has made most countries re-think their food strategy. With the multiple shocks of high oil prices and domino effect down the food production chain, increase in biofuel production, the credit crunch, higher demand for food in India and China, and the carbon footprint involved in transportation of food, a total revolution in every nation’s agriculture is needed to save them from serious food shortages

The City University says it is no longer acceptable that 40 per cent of the grain produced in Britain is used to feed livestock that provide meat and dairy products. Growing grain which is then fed to animals is an inefficient way to produce protein. Livestock should be confined to hillsides where they can graze and not use up grain that has required oil-based fertilizers for its growth. Prime land should be protected from development and used to feed people directly.

If countries like Britain are already discussing such enormous changes to food production, what of Seychelles? The loss of arable land over the years, the rise in oil prices, and now the impacts of our economic restructuring program all lead to one inescapable conclusion. In the short term, many of our people may not be able to nourish themselves or their families properly.

We need a radical re-thinking of food security and the rapid implementation of activities that include home and community gardens that generate local food for local people. I suggest that, among other things, we need edible landscapes that look like the Heritage Gardens at Roche Caiman across all the urban areas of Seychelles

Tsunamis- Past and Present

1993 – I was with a Dutch coral reef geologist at Anse Boileau looking at ancient reef deposits when a local resident showed us sandy sediments inland that had been exposed by some excavations. The geologist believed these were reef sediments deposited there many years ago by a huge storm or upheaval.

Now, scientists have found layers of similar sandy sediment dropped by a 600 year old tsunami under more recent layers deposited in 2004 in Thailand’s Phra Thong Island. These findings have been published in the journal Nature.

The two sandy sediments in Thailand are similar in thickness, suggesting a tsunami 600 years ago similar to that in 2004. Both tsunamis were caused by earthquakes. The longer the intervals between tsunami events, the more stress that can build up at the tectonic plate boundary and the larger the earthquake will be.

Were the sediments we found at Anse Boileau deposited 600 years ago by a tsunami or earlier by another event? Indeed a tsunami did hit Seychelles in August 1883 when the massive explosions and collapse of the volcano of Krakatoa generated large waves. These waves destroyed 295 towns and villages in the Sunda Strait in Western Java and Southern Sumatra drowning 36,417 people.

The Krakatoa tsunami, being of volcanic origin was only destructive locally in Indonesia, but in Seychelles the effect was apparently seen through a tidal effect that temporarily emptied the Victoria harbor area and left fish and other sea life stranded. If it did generate waves in Seychelles that were similar to those of the 2004 tsunami is not well known.

The 2004 tsunami, unlike the one from the Krakatoa disaster, was caused by an earthquake off the western coast of northern Sumatra, Indonesia. The resulting tsunami devastated the shores of Indonesia, Sri Lanka, South India, Thailand and Seychelles.

With the new discoveries in Thailand, there is evidence that a similar earthquake-generated tsunami occurred 600 years ago and may have hit countries like Seychelles. This is important because it will build more knowledge about the time intervals between these earthquakes.

But tsunamis can also be detected by signs that appear in the natural environment. In Seychelles and elsewhere coastal animals like crabs and turtles disappeared hours before the 2004 tsunami. The sea gypsies of Indonesia who had ancestral knowledge of previous tsunamis saw the signs and saved coastal villages by giving them early warning.

Both science and indigenous knowledge are useful in making sense of the natural world. This proves that we must look at nature in a more holistic fashion and we must quiz local people for whatever knowledge they may have.

Mosquitoes and Fevers

As the rainy season approaches I have noticed that the Asian Tiger Mosquito, that striped flying monster which is the carrier or vector for both chikungunya and dengue, is increasing in number and range. Research also suggests that climate change is assisting the spread of this mosquito in many parts of the world.

And the chikungunya virus keeps mutating. We already know that the last Indian Ocean outbreaks were caused by a different strain of the virus. This strain differs from those involved in earlier outbreaks and makes the virus more likely to enter the cells of the Asian Tiger Mosquito and replicate after the insect has fed on the blood of an infected person. In fact, the symptoms are also changing. At a meeting of WHO last month it was suggested revising the definition of chikungunya fever because researchers have noticed the symptoms have changed.

This points to the fact that there needs to be timely and better identification of fever cases. But for prevention there needs to be early warning systems set up in countries like Seychelles. In La Reunion, where the chikungunya outbreaks caused massive health, economic and social problems, a surveillance system is now in place. This collects information on the mosquito density in every area which is then used in scientific models to predict where the next outbreak might occur. The system gives citizens and government advance warning.

The mosquito density is only a possible indication of the presence of the chikungunya virus and not a certainty, but it does give an advance warning for early action. In some countries better early warning systems especially based on gis (geographical information system) are under development. gis -based modeling can predict chikungunya-prone areas using information on the distribution of the mosquito vectors, rainfall, temperature, altitude, vegetation cover and urbanization.

More sophisticated data such as on the mosquitoes’ ability to transmit the disease and the susceptibility of people in different parts of the country can also be used in GIS-based models to predict the spread of the disease and help pinpoint the time when an outbreak could become an epidemic.

In Seychelles such GIS based modeling would be very useful. Both Dengue and chikungunya cause huge hardships, loss of productivity and losses of millions of Rupees. The country does have a GIS unit with good GIS maps. Perhaps donors should be approached to assist with setting up with a GIS-based early warning system. Putting this in place is not as simple as it sounds but is greatly needed because early action based on early warning is critical in preventing an epidemic.