Archives For cultural preservation

Yesterday the Shangri-La  took the courageous step of declaring that effective immediately, the group’s 72 hotels and resorts would no longer serve shark fin in any restaurants or at wedding banquets.

The announcement falls under the company’s new sustainable seafood policy, which also includes a decision to phase-out Bluefin tuna and Chilean sea bass in all hotel restaurants within the year.

In a press release, the hotel said that in December 2010 the company initiated the process of becoming shark fin free with the removal of shark fin products from its restaurant menus. “The new policy is a continuation of Shangri-La’s journey towards environmental support,” the release said

This follows the Peninsula Hotel’s decision in November last year to stop serving the soup in its restaurants and at wedding banquets as of January 1st this year.

The hotels should be applauded for their actions, which were not easy in a city that sees 50 percent of the global shark fin trade and where consumption of the soup at special events has been second-nature. Here, shark fin soup is seen as a symbol of wealth and  prestige and consumed most often at weddings and corporate banquets.

Yet as the consumption of the soup has increased in recent years with greater affluence in Asia, shark populations have dwindled.  In some species. populations have declined by as much as 90 percent. As many as 73 million sharks are caught annually, with millions of these believed caught for their fins alone.

Shark flesh is not a  high-value meat, while dried fins can be sold for as much as $300 a pound. A bowl of the soup in Hong Kong can fetch as much as $100. Thus is some cases, shark are finned at sea  with the bodies thrown back to drown in a practice that is both wasteful and cruel.

Bloom, the HK Shark Foundation, WWF and other conservation groups have been working hard in Hong Kong over the past few years to educate consumers and the trade about the ramifications of declining shark populations for our oceans.

The work has included research to understand both the cultural attitudes toward consumption of shark fin soup and the trade in shark products;  educating the hotels on biodiversity issues related to sharks and learning about the challenges of ceasing sales of shark products; encouraging consumers to consider shark fin free weddings; encouraging companies to sign a pledge not to serve shark fin soup at banquets.

Despite a swell action from local and national governments worldwide to ban consumption of shark fin products, the Hong Kong government (consistent with its course of rarely acting in public or conservation interest) has refused to consider any such action – even a ban on serving at official banquets.

In reality, the assumption is that because of the cost, little shark fin soup is actually served at official banquets in Hong Kong and indeed government officials have alluded to this.

Certainly, however, with the growing awareness around threats faced by our oceans, the sense of inevitability of action as shark populations decline, the government must now be feeling the heat.

Last week the HK Marine Products Association was certainly feeling the heat. The trade group placed half-page ads in leading Chinese publications titled (in English translation) “Is eating Shark Fin Guilty?” and arguing  that

  • Shark fin is simply a by-product of the shark fishing industry
  • CITES bans trade in only four species therefore fishing should be allowed in others
  • Any conservation of a species should be based on scientific evidence not emotion
  • States  the MPA uses resources sustainably and contributes to conservation

Clearly, shark fins, for reasons stated above are not by-products of any shark fishing industry and clearly conservation of a species should be based in scientific fact, which exists and is documented: sharks are in significant decline.We would welcome any communication from the MPA related to their sustainable practices and conservation work.

The CITES issue mentioned in the ads is an interesting one and is raised frequently by the MPA, as well as both the HK and Beijing governments, which hide behind the treaty. The main point here is that CITES is not effective in protecting shark species globally and should not be used, counter-intuitively, as a a justification to fish endangered

CITES was drafted as a result of a resolution adopted in 1963 at an IUCN (The World Conservation Union) meeting and entered into force in 1975 as an international agreement. Today, it has 175 signatories.

Its aim: to ensure that the international trade in wild animals and plants does not threaten their survival. The CITES mechanism to achieve this is by placing trade restrictions on species at risk. The Convention is, therefore, undoubtedly an important wildlife conservation agreement.

Yet CITES only includes three species of shark, despite that according to IUCN 143 species are threatened with extinction, either now or in the near future.

So why should a conservation agreement exclude threatened species? The answer lies in the fact that for a species to be bought under CITES trade restrictions, the signatories must vote.

In 2010, for example, six shark species were proposed for inclusion in CITES. Countries with vested interests in the shark trade, such as Japan, bargained with fellow signatories to ensure that highly lucrative species, albeit critically endangered, were not included in the Convention’s regulatory appendices. Science and sustainability clearly gave way to commercial interests.

In Hong Kong, CITES remains the only mechanism for regulating the shark fin trade and to make matters worse its implementation is unclear.

The Agricultural, Fishery and Conservation Department (AFCD) of the Hong Kong government is responsible for monitoring the trade in endangered plant and animal species.

Currently, visual identification is a commonly used to identify imported plants or animal species. While this may be appropriate for many species, it is extremely difficult, in practice, to determine the shark species from a fin without the carcass, and even more difficult if the fin has been bleached or processed. It is understood that AFCD do not carry out any DNA analysis.

Thus, CITES clearly is not an effective mechanism to monitor the shark fin trade in Hong Kong.

Scientific research based on DNA testing shows that in 2006 approximately 40% of the auctioned fin weight in the Hong Kong market came from 14 shark species listed on the IUCN Redlist of Threatened species.

So bravo to the Shangri-La and the Peninsula hotels for taking action, the 112 companies in Hong Kong that have signed the WWF pledge not to sell or buy shark fin as part of their corporate activities.

Going shark free is a groundswell here and abroad that we certainly hope will continue in time to save the apex predators and our oceans.

ADMCF recently spent time in Patna, in India’s Bihar state where we were looking at how we might work effectively with the Musahar community, which ranks at the bottom of the dalit or untouchable caste.

We found that there is apparently relatively little concrete information about or assistance given to the Musahar, whose name translates quite literally as the “rat-eaters.” Estimates of their numbers in Bihar and other states range from 2 million to as high as 5 million.

The Musahar fall so far down the well of the Indian caste system that by all accounts its people live in modern India much as they did 2,000 years ago. In an initiative that was perhaps telling about the regard in which the community is held, in 2008 the Indian government acted to help the Musahar by allowing the commercialization of rat meat.

A brief portrait of their situation gleaned from what is available online and through conversations in Bihar: In the villages around Patna in Bihar state, India, child marriage at 13 or 14 is still common, although illegal in India.

In the rural areas, Musahar are primarily bonded agricultural labourers, but often go without work for as much as eight months in a year.  Children work alongside their parents in the fields or as rag pickers, earning as little as 25 to 30 rupees daily.

The Musahar literacy rate is 3 percent, but falls below 1 percent for the women. Yet it is cast discrimination rather than parents that keep Musahari children away from schools. That said, the schools to which they have access apparently offer so little in the way of education that perception among the community is that schooling doesn’t offer them anything. And it is certainly true that even if they do manage an education certificate, discrimination means few manage to find jobs anyway.

By some estimates, as many as 85 percent of some villages of Musahars suffer from malnutrition and with access to health centres scant, diseases such as malaria and kala-azar, the most severe form of Leishmaniasis, are prevalent.

Besides eating rats, the Musahars are known for producing a good and cheap alcohol so not surprisingly alcoholism is rampant among the community, particularly the men.

Government development programs provide very little support to the Musahars. They are not recipients of housing schemes because generally they do not possess title deeds for their land. They are also the lowest number of recipients of loans from revolving funds within government schemes.  Thus the social support system bypasses them, as do private donations since so little is known about them.

The Dalit community in Bihar as a whole suffers frequent and often unpunished human rights violations. In the ten years before 2003, for example, 4243 cases of Dalit atrocities were registered in police stations, including 694 cases of murder, 1049 of rape, 1658 of severe injury and 842 cases of insult and abuse.

Into this picture walked Sudha Varghese 26 years ago, a nun who wanted to give voice to India’s dalits. The Musahars were the least advantaged of the dalits she could find and she moved into their community to truly understand their needs and way of thinking.

her organization, Nari Gunjan, was born to give voice to the Musahar women in particular. The organization now runs 72  primary education centres and a residential hostel/school for girls. Nari Gunjan promotes social, political, and economic empowerment for the women and girls. Beyond education, some of the centers provide vocational training and assist with micro-credit for Musahar women.

A decade ago, recognizing the need also to represent Musahar women in the courts, Sudha sent herself to law school and returned armed with a new skill set she has used to pursue the prosecution of ten rape cases that without her would have gone unpunished. In each case, she lead a column of Musahar women to the police stations to persuade officers to make the right arrest and in each case she has succeeded in putting the perpetrators behind bars, she says.

Known as the “bicycle nun” Sudha visits the various communities on her bicycle, and her fragile appearance belies a ferocious determination to provide Musahar children with education, self-esteem and purpose, its women with hope. For her courage, India’s national government recently awarded Sister Sudha the country’s highest civilian award, the Padmashri.

During a visit, the difference between children who attend her education centers and those who don’t was immediately apparent. Still, like any organization working in difficult circumstances that has been around for some time, achieving a constant flow of funding, even at the modest scale Nari Gunjan requires, is extremely hard. Some of the education centers have gone unfunded for 10 months although the teachers continue to work and the children appear.

In Hong Kong we rightly complain about the state of the air we are forced to breathe and the government’s apparent lack of interest in addressing the pollution challenges – despite  HK$ half-trillion in fiscal reserves this year.

The moribund HK government seems incapable of taking action to protect its citizen’s health despite having the financial resources to do so. Clean Air Network is working hard and successfully to educate the public and stir the government to act, providing the tools and support to do so – hand-holding of sorts.

But perhaps part of the challenge is that in Beijing, from where I am working for three weeks, Hong Kong’s pollution pales by comparison – not that this city should set any standard!

Here, my eyes are a constant rimmed-red, a smog headache challenges concentration and my sinuses are in revolt. Here, the clouds are but a memory and weather is either cold or hot but never sunny, it seems, but there is only a steady grey. The near distance fades into a smog that anywhere else would be unbelievable.

This is the price of China’s progress, and, to be fair, of pulling an estimated 600 million people out of poverty over the past two decades by fulfilling our Western need to consume ever-more products. According to the ADB, over the past 20 years, China’s poverty rate fell from 85% to 15.9% – a huge challenge for any government and unmatched anywhere, anytime.

Still, what we hear more about in the West is the fantastic progress machine that is China, the well-oiled production centre for the world’s consumers.

The flip side of that for China’s citizens is the polluted rivers, the smog-filled air, the cancer villages in evidence countrywide, the drained aquifers, the contaminated land. All of these will be the Beijing government’s newest challenges if it is to keep its population healthy and maintain social stability, which is the utmost goal.

Highly polluted areas near factories have shown increasing cases of cancer.  Southern China is replete with communities that recycle electronic waste and here people are exposed to toxic heavy metals such as cadmium and mercury.  The country’s myriad chemical factories produce carcinogens that enter the water and soil, also contaminating food grown on the land.

According to a recent Guardian article, in 2007, cancer was responsible for one in five deaths, and Chinese farmers are more likely to die of liver and stomach cancer than the world average.

Water supplies are polluted and aquifers significantly drained, something leading environmental activist Ma Jun warned about ten year’s ago in his book, China’s Water Crisis, which considered the local equivalent of Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring.

The Qinghai-Tibet plateau area suffers from environmental degradation that is threatening three major rivers: the Yangtze, Yellow and Mekong. Melting permafrost and glaciers in the surrounding mountains are also eroding the grasslands and wetlands, causing the ground to lose its capacity to absorb water, according to AFP.

Xin Yuanhong, a government scientist quoted by the news agency says that at the current rate, 30 percent of the region’s glaciers could disappear within 10 years.

Climate change is also affecting the 580 million people living in these river basins.  This crisis also affects food security; drought and drying up water sources are severely lowering crop yields in the area.

By all accounts, the government increasingly understands the severity of the challenge. Careful Chinese environmentalists are being allowed to speak out. Indeed, many seem to be encouraged by the government to highlight bad practice by companies breaking local laws by emitting pollutants into the water, air and ground. Information disclosure has taken leaps forward in recent months.

Ma Jun and his Institute of Public and Environmental Affairs over the past several years have divulged information in online databases of air and water violations by factories throughout China. He has created a groundbreaking “blacklist” of polluters. At last count, IPE databases listed more than 60,000 air and water violations.

To be removed from the list, companies must take corrective action and accept IPE-supervised environmental audits of their Chinese factories. Ma is also a champion of increasing access to environmental information, which he believes will bring public pressure on companies to operate more responsibly.

In Yunan Province, Yu Xiaogang, another courageous environmentalist I met with recently, is also using information disclosure, to gain bank data. He and his group, Green Watershed, along with a network of nine other NGOs, are compiling information on loans granted to development projects that are damaging to local populations.

The group recently published the environmental record of 14 Chinese banks, looking at their policies, regulations, investments and loan portfolios, noting which were connected with environmentally damaging projects.

Yu is also working with communities to help them open channels with local financial institutions to discuss social and environmental impact ahead of any loan being granted to a large development initiative.

That Beijing seems to be backing the sort of discussion underway in China is certainly encouraging. It seems Hong Kong should be setting standards in the environmental arena not lagging behind its severely challenged neighbour.

French sailor Yves Marre first viewed Bangladesh’s myriad waterways from a plane and the adventurer decided the intriguing country below would be the location for his next exploration.

Yves perhaps would not have guessed that his adventure would consume him or that 25 years later he would be still living in Dhaka, married to a Bangladeshi Runa Khan and desperately struggling against time and lack of resources to document the country’s dying wooden boat building tradition.

What in 1994 then began as a development project involving transporting a 38-meter river barge from France to Bangladesh for use as a hospital boat in the remote northern chars, gave birth to Friendship, an excellent social enterprise I wrote about in my previous blog post. What I didn’t talk about was Friendship’s commitment to Bangladesh’s fascinating boat culture.

Last month, Friendship opened an exhibition of Bangladesh’s remarkable wooden boats at Dhaka’s National Museum as part of its cultural preservation programme. It is extraordinary that in a country so dependent on waterways, considered the world’s most susceptible to climate change, where boats are integral to trade and transport, that the art of boat building is dying quickly and with little fanfare.

Bangladesh has one of the oldest traditions in terms of naval carpentry, and it also has the largest fleets in the world. Here you will find the largest variety of boats

anywhere in the world, Marre says. It is all this that is being lost without adequate documentation or preservation of the country’s naval history, he says.

For many centuries, wooden boats with large earth-colored sails have plied Bangladesh’s hundreds of rivers and tributaries and they have become interwoven with the country’s culture. Yet over the past few decades, these beautiful vessels, many unique to particular regions of Bangladesh, have slowly been replaced by diesel-powered steel vessels, which are less expensive and more practical in terms of maintenance and navigation.

Yves and Runa have taken it upon themselves to draw attention to the disappearance and at the same time document and preserve the techniques and knowledge.

At his boatyard in Dhaka, Yves has built the more than 50 models on display at the museum in Dhaka of traditional Bangladeshi vessels. Building these, have been master craftsmen using only traditional techniques that are often unique to the country.

Here, Yves also has built or restored several full-size wooden boats, among them a beautiful 30-meter Malar vessel, one of the country’s largest hulls and now used to carry tourists along Bangladesh’s waterways. Some profits from the Friendship tourism company, Contic, built around the wooden boats, goes to support the social enterprise’s work.

Looking forward, Runa and Yves hope to establish a living museum that would preserve all types of traditional Bangladeshi boats in Dhaka and allow people to experience the craftsmanship involved.  To achieve this, they are searching for funding. Any suggestions of similar efforts elsewhere or possible sources of funding?