Close encounters with toucans, tapirs and even jaguars in the Pantanal, in Brazil
Many years ago, dreaming my way through schooldays with the help of a world map hanging on the classroom wall, the swamp icons clustered in the middle of Brazil caught my eye, again and again. So did the strange names associated with them: Mato Grosso and, where the icons were thickest, Pantanal.
Perhaps somebody told me something about this region, or perhaps it was just the evocative power of those swamp icons, but the Mato Grosso became the quintessential emblem of wildlands, teeming with strange and wonderful creatures, such as the macaw, tapir and toucan, in my mind’s eye.
The facts on the ground, of course, were rather different, even six decades ago. Most of the Mato Grosso, the “Great Scrubland”, has long been transformed to ranchland. You approach the Pantanal (“Great Marshland”) today past the vast slag heaps of a score of gold mines.
This article was published in The Irish Times on 30 September, 2017
Vast areas of the world are due to be restored under international agreements. Are we ready for the challenge?
"Our planet’s future may depend on the maturation of the young discipline of ecological restoration,” an unusually upbeat editorial in Science declared in 2009. “In its short life it has assumed a major role in sustainable development efforts across the globe.”
Just eight years later that role has again grown exponentially, if – and this is a big ‘if’– we can accept the intentions expressed in several recent international declarations at face value.
With the obvious and troubling exception of the current US administration, governments, corporations and international institutions are increasingly aware of the dire consequences of globalised environmental degradation. They are especially conscious that climate change is driving many of these degraded landscapes towards catastrophe.
This article was published in The Irish Times on September 16, 2017
Liam Lysaght says good conservation policy depends on good environmental information
Work, life and values seem to be happily, even enviably, intermeshed for Liam Lysaght, director of the National Biodiversity Data Centre.
Seated at his desk at the centre, a large bungalow in Carriganore, Co Waterford, he is at the centre of a vast web of complex information on the status of the species in our environment, from lichen and mosses to robins and whales.
This article was published in The Irish Times on August 26, 2017
“I offer,” Robin Wall Kimmerer writes at the opening of her remarkable book, Braiding Sweetgrass, “stories meant to heal our relationship with the world…stories that allow us to imagine a different relationship, in which people and land are good medicine for each other.”
Kimmerer is both a distinguished environmental biologist and a devoted custodian of Native American cultural traditions. She was astounded when she surveyed 200 of her ecology students and found that hardly any of them could imagine what beneficial interactions between humans and nature might look like.
Her own family upbringing – it only dimly reflected the original richness of the traditions of her Potawatomi people – was still based on a radically different assumption: that our species only exists through mutually enriching bonds with all other living creatures.
This assumption, of course, closely reflects the insights of her scientific discipline, ecology, which finds a web of inter-dependence between all life forms.
This article was published in The Irish Times on August 19, 2017
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A black-winged stilt feeds with a hundred metres of Barcelona airport. Photo: Paddy Woodworth
Only fragments of Barcelona’s Llobregat Delta remain. Can it be saved?
A black-winged stilt is high-stepping daintily through shallow water. Its almost absurdly long legs flash vivid red, scattering silver droplets in the sunlight with each movement. The bird is so close to the hide you could almost reach out and touch it.
A pair of little terns and a pair of ringed plovers share a small, gravelly sandbar nearby, their chicks skulking almost invisibly in patches of marram grass behind them. A great egret seizes a fish in a deeper channel, while a marsh harrier quarters the surrounding reed beds, hunting prey to feed its young.
This is a typical enough summer view from a hide in any Mediterranean wetland. Typical, that is, until the structure begins to shake as a Boeing 747 thunders overhead, so low you can see every detail of its wheels retracting after take-off. Look out the right-hand window of the same hide, and you don’t see birds: you see the end of a runway at the Barcelona-El Prat airport, the seventh busiest in Europe, barely a hundred metres away.
Read the full article in The Irish Times, 22 July 2017
Local groups that cherish our wetlands get a presidential welcome for their projects
We live at a moment when the president of another country mangles the English language in the early hours of almost every morning, and has displayed ignorant contempt for citizens, scientists and religious leaders who say we need to care better for our planetary home.
So it was particularly uplifting to hear our own President, Michael D. Higgins, speak with eloquence, and intimate personal knowledge, of the vital social and ecological importance of one our most degraded and contested natural habitats, our wetlands.
The occasion was the launch of the Community Wetlands Forum’s first strategic plan, which appropriately took place in a hotel adjacent to Abbeyleix Bog, one of our great and ongoing success stories of local environmental engagement.
Published in The Irish Times on 24th June 2017 Read the full article here
What's in a name? From one perspective, Irish oak woods infested with alien invasives might look like 'novel' ecosystems, but from another we see them for what they are: chronically degraded landscapes in need of restoration (Photo: Paddy Woodworth).
I contributed this article to the June issue of SER News, which I also guest edited:
The world ecological restoration movement finds itself at an unprecedented moment, as we approach our next international SER conference in Brazil.
We are moving into unfamiliar territory, territory that offers bracing opportunities but also poses disturbing threats, both of them on a scale that we could hardly have imagined at the beginning of this century. This new territory is increasingly shaped, both physically and conceptually, by human-generated climate change. And climate change is still accelerating, despite the Paris accord, in a political context shaken by the recent eruptions of right-wing, anti-science populism. The decision this month by President Trump to pull the US out of that accord casts a dark shadow over the fragile hope that Paris offered us.
Nevertheless, a series of major international agreements over the past decade, including the Bonn Challenge and the New York Declaration on Forests, are a welcome sign that the restoration concept has reached the global policy mainstream. These commitments to ‘restore’ millions of hectares of degraded ecosystems, while not legally binding, are game-changers for the theory and practice of ecological restoration. The new game will bring great challenges, and very real dangers.
Read the full article
Hikers and nature lovers are unhappy about hard-track plans for Irish waterways
“Step out on the grassy way which is the Barrow towpath and you have stepped into another world. You can walk along the river for miles without hearing a car or a lorry. You can’t even hear the sound of your own footsteps. You’ll hear the birds; the rush of the weirs; the wind in the trees. And little by little you’ll let go of your worries because the river has cast its spell.”
Earlier this year, in one of her inimitable radio diaries for Drivetime, on RTÉ Radio 1, Olivia O’Leary expressed her love of a very special landscape – and her dismay at Waterways Ireland’s plans to “improve access” to the Barrow and other rivers (and canals) by building hard-surface, impermeable tracks on the old pathways that give her, and many others, so much balm and pleasure.
“We are all in favour of more walkers and canoeists and cyclists and anglers,” she continued, “but the grassy towpath is the green frame for the river, part of its soft beauty. Why destroy the very beauty we want visitors to see?”
Published in The Irish Times on 10th June 2017 Read the full article here
Articles & Blog
Articles on the environment; Spanish, Catalan and Basque politics; travel; culture; and other subjects; interspersed with personal reflections and images