The social and political economy of an estuary worth protecting

Oyster mudflats, a political space that also serves hundreds of households

Last week I presented another set of research findings / summaries of my work with Panchabhuta Conservation Foundation. This presentation casts the Aghanashini River estuary as a political economic space, affected by multiple external and internal optics and development trends. This review ultimately ends in a call for robust valuation of this critical ecology (from non-monetary and monetary perspectives).

To see the full presentation which may yet yield a paper, click here.

Note: There are serious critiques to be made of the ecosystem services valuation paradigm. Yet such valuations remain critical for much policy and management. A balance must be struck between pricing everything all the time and pricing nothing ever. On this I straddle.

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Want to save sharks? Let’s talk about more than shark fishing

Last week the Central Marine Fisheries Research Institute released its National Plan of Action for protection of sharks. This is ostensibly one of India’s contributions to its obligations as an FAO member country. Other moves to develop an NPOA for sharks are also ongoing within the Bay of Bengal Programme, for example.

The plan mostly calls for a lot of research, data sharing, better coordination of regulators and stakeholders and, finally, the review and development of new conservation measures. The plan stops short of suggesting for very specific regulations.

While this might seem to make the report toothless — hint, it probably is — this lack of hard measures could actually be a wise move; inclusive and well-thought fisheries policy will come best from a broad, transparent and participatory process, not from top-down, command-and-control, high science advisors.

As a caveat: I’ve been following a lot of this in the background; I marginally volunteer with the Association of Deep Sea Going Artisanal Fishermen, based in far south India’s Kanyakumari region. This association of fishers concentrated around the village of Thoothoor is one of the key actors in India’s “indigenous” shark fishery. And to be clear about my own interests, I’m a diver, I do personally have great appreciation for sharks, I do not eat fish, I work in community conservation and, in general, I research fisheries.

All of that informs the following argument: This plan (and the response from, for example, my scuba diving networks) is too narrowly focused on fishers and consigns the conversation too much to debates about fisheries management. This is an example of problem closure: The problem is framed as one of unconscionable fishing habits (i.e. shark finning, killing majestic fish and so on), so the solutions target fishers.

Emblematic was the response of one mainland India scuba shop in a Facebook post:

India has the largest population of fishermen in the world. But, India does not eat sharks. So, why is it that India is the largest killer of sharks in the world?
It is the greed of a few middlemen selling shark fins to China that is causing this mindless killing of the “Tigers of the Sea”. Come, join us in saving these magnificient [sic] beasts of the ocean from extinction. ‪#‎SaveOurSharks‬ ‪#‎ProjectAware‬ ‪#‎Sharks‬ ‪#‎Fisheries‬ ‪#‎ScubaDiving‬ ‪#‎Environment‬

Yes, middlemen do contribute to unsustainable trade, but, for the record, there has also been an “indigenous” shark fishery in India for at least a few decades. The Thoothoor area fishers in Kanyakumari use longlines and medium-scale boats (under 20 meters) across the EEZ (and beyond) to catch various pelagics — sharks as well as tunas and billfishes. This is their livelihood, not simply a commodity racket; they are not just a bunch of shark finners (though that may also occur).

Also, contrary to the oft-repeated myth, people in southern India (particularly in Kanyakumari) do actually eat shark. Sharks are landed whole and consumed. Furthermore, as the background research to CMFRI’s NPOA makes clear, sharks fishing is not constrained to a small group; a variety of fishing communities across India, including the concentration at Thoothoor, participate in the fishery.

I’m not in denial, nor am I an apologist. Certainly, unsustainable shark fishing occurs in Indian waters — by Indian fishers as well as foreign IUU (or ridiculous LoP) boats. Shark catches are down substantially — as much as 40 percent by my own math over the last ten or so years (depending on what data you use).

But it’s not at all clear which fishers or middlemen are the ones involved in fin trade or which fishers contribute to rampant bycatch or which fishers are simply taking too much shark (along with skate and ray) from the water.

Looking at the pictures of sharks, skates and rays landed is difficult for those who foremost wish to protect marine biodiversity; it turns even my stomach, and gives the sense that majestic and ecologically important creatures are being slaughtered. But this is also a tradition and livelihood that should not be so quickly castigated. Fishing as a practice may also generate its own conservation politics. And, from a ecological perspective, some shark fishing may yet be sustainable, if the external political and economic incentives are more properly aligned and other marine threats are attenuated.

That’s why it’s difficult to get onboard with any knee-jerk agenda that falls back on platitudes that blame one group of people (fishers, for example). The NPOA is reserved in its language, but even it focuses on shark conservation through better management and restriction of fishers.

Certainly fisheries can be better managed. Full stop. And additional restraint is likely necessary. Full stop. But if we resort to the “greedy fisher” or “ignorant fisher” or “race for fish” rhetoric, we are less likely to serve the cause of sustainability or ecological protection. Too many marine conservation campaigns draw battle lines between fishers and non-fishers and see conservation outcomes as an us-vs-them / zero sum scenario. Furthermore, when we direct our attention too sharply at fishers, we lose sight of the incredible amounts degradation that non-ocean communities perpetrate on marine biodiversity. Again, we become complicit in problem closure by framing conservation needs as the need to restrain fishing.

I can’t say enough that shark fin soup is abhorrent. But consider that it’s also an easy target. How many people complain as loudly or as quickly about any of the myriad other threats to ocean sustainability overall:

  • offshore oil drilling
  • coastal SEZs
  • microbeads in toothpaste
  • plastic effing everywhere
  • a culture of complacency in waste management and personal disposal of litter
  • ridiculous levels of fertilizer and pesticide application
  • shipping wastes galore
  • industrial fishing that specifically generates feed for chickens for urban consumers but slaughters sharks in the process
  • eco-tourism that capture biodiversity spaces / places only for those who can afford it
  • unchecked urban carbon dioxide pollution from power plants, factories and cars, etc cause acidification/warming, etc.
  • neoliberal policies that privilege some ocean uses/users over others

The list could go on and on and on and on and on. Unsustainable fishing is but one and there already are voices within the fishing community for sustainable practices and conservation.

Rather than limit our discussion to controlling a bunch of wild, ignorant, backwards, pick-your-pejorative fishers, let’s talk about a holistic, concerted effort to:

  • Embed sustainability into lifestyles and livelihoods (among fishers, sure, but also among other classes and bodies that affect the ocean, such everyone who drives a car in Bangalore, Mumbai, Delhi and everywhere between).
  • Generate and sustain conservation attitudes/knowledge/cooperation for protection of the entire community of ocean dependent life (fisher, non-fisher, non-human). We divers can help with this by sharing our passions through education, training and experiences with people other than the rich tourists who can afford dive holidays.
  • Remove perverse and pernicious incentives for degradation (much of which is rooted in runaway urban consumption patterns). Know where your food comes from; was your chicken fed on fishmeal?
  • Halt coastal developments that threaten crucial ecosystems, habitats and the like. This and this.
  • Question current and future offshore minerals prospecting thatsupport an urban, high capital economy.

Let’s do that all of that, instead of only falling back on a “target-fishers-first” rhetoric and appeals to protect charismatic megafauna.

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If @greenpeaceIndia is anti-development, then what is this?

I have largely kept my mouth shut on the Intelligence Bureau (IB) vs. Greenpeace India showdown last month. I guess I’m — surprising even to myself — a little gun-shy.

The leaked report has been posted online; read for yourself. IB has uncovered a large network of NGOs that are attempting to “take down” India’s development.

In the interest of fairness, here’s Greenpeace’s response. You might also want to read some strong reaction here. Or just Google it for all the debate.

As I read it, the IB report (supported by “facts”) says that being concerned about the environment (often in solidarity with other people internationally) and opposing mega projects that sacrifice said environment for questionable, often inequitable, short-term economic gains makes you anti-development and anti-national. I guess that means that substantial numbers of people in our country who stand for inclusive development that doesn’t wreak havoc on people and planet are anti-development and anti-national.

The report makes a stark claim that such opposition knocks two to three percent off of India’s GDP growth. I imagine their calculations must be secret; they don’t cite any numbers but I am sure they exist. This is the IB we’re talking about, and they wouldn’t make such claims if they didn’t know what they were talking about. I certainly don’t believe this guy.

Now, I don’t know what to make of the World Bank report I remember reading a while back that said environmental degradation cuts 5.7 percent off of India’s annual GDP growth. The World Bank is foreign, so I guess it’s probably just anti-national and trying to “take down” India’s development, too.

As I think I understand the IB, having foreign friends or accepting foreign funds, even legally, is questionable. Having foreign ties makes you more likely to be anti national and interested in a “take down” of India’s development. Our current environment minister was the president of a firm that had ties to ClimateWorks, a big foreign NGO, but thank goodness he left that firm as soon as he made the cabinet.

But I’m still a little confused. The IB report makes very clear that big FDI projects like the Vendanta (UK subsidiary) bauxite mine or the POSCO (South Korean subsidiary) steel plant have been held up by all this anti-development and anti-national activity. But I thought the F in FDI stood for foreign. Maybe they’re acceptable sources of foreign money because they support neoliberal, Big Capitalist growth? But then the World Bank supports a lot of that, and I think I’m supposed to be skeptical of that one now.

In the name of full disclosure, I’m an OCI Indian. That means I’m half and half (though I live in India, have Indian family and consider myself Indian). What am I do to? I don’t think there’s an operation for me to cut ties with myself.

The IB report report names a bunch of NGOs other than Greenpeace, including some that sound mostly like poor villagers trying to stop “development” from taking their land or destroying their fishing grounds. I guess they could be threats to national security as well.

I do think this “debate” hasn’t gotten enough coverage. I suspect that our own civil society is scared now that the curtain has been pulled back on their anti-development, anti-national activities that were “people centric,” as the IB put it.

For more full disclosure, I actually do disagree with Greenpeace on some policies/strategies, but I’ve also done consulting work for the organization and I have been donating monthly, because I thought they were protecting trees and fish and the like for poor people who rely heavily on trees and fish and the like. Maybe should I think about putting my money into other investments, like energy projects for the tens upon tens of millions of Indian villagers who don’t have power.

Which brings me to my headline question: If Greenpeace India (or any other NGO interested in protecting the environment) is ant-development or anti-national or both, what should I think about its effort to electrify villages with renewable, distributed technology? IB is telling me to be wary of Greenpeace, but should I be wary of the #bijliforall campaign, which seems to support “development” among some of the poorest members of our nation?

Take Dharnai, Greenpeace’s test village, where residents themselves are buying into a distributed solar micro grid. When I hear their stories, I can’t figure out exactly who or what they are “anti.” Dharnai is a village in Bihar on the Patna-Gaya road. I’ve been to Bihar and seen city and village life. My wife and her family are from Bihar. Large parts of Bihar are very poor and still without electricity.

The general notion behind Greenpeace’s decentralized renewable energy (DRE) pilot is to prove that renewable tech (solar, wind, micro-hydel, biogas, etc.), which are continually decreasing in cost, can be implemented locally and sustainably. More details were unveiled this week, including a Q&A for media, which get into the logic behind DRE.

Thanks to the IB report, I know I should be skeptical; perhaps these villagers are just greedy and want power without paying for it from centralized, large-scale coal, nuclear and megadams. But it really does seem like there might be an opportunity for local solar and other tech to light up villages in Bihar without massive infrastructure, associated costs, subsidies, inequities and environmental destruction.

Maybe another IB report will clear up all of my confusion. Or maybe Prime Minister Narendra Modi could set me straight. He told Parliament last month that he wants to “empower the poor man so that he can fight poverty.”

Solar panels in rural villages do seem empowering. Quite literally, in fact.

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LEGO needs to stop essentially shilling for Shell



LEGO building blocks remain my all-time favorite toy. Even more favorite than bourbon or my dive kit.

As a child, I spent hours hidden away in my room, imagination running wild, building, deconstructing and rebuilding parts of the LEGO city pictured in the fuzzy image below. I could never get enough and they were a prominent part of every birthday, Christmas or other gift-receiving occasion.

I vividly remember my giant airport, my train set, my pirate’s island and more. As an 11-year-old, I spent my savings on spare LEGO building blocks so I could build mass housing for my city from scratch.

This is a version when I was 8. By age 12 it was more than double this size.

This is a version when I was 8. By age 12 it was more than double this size.

And I even had a Shell-branded gas station. Today, I shiver at the thought.

Of course, it was a different time. Few openly resisted such things as surreptitious marketing or product placement in child’s toys. Hell, I didn’t really think about this particular horror until a few years ago.

But given the state of our world, our politics and our understanding of climate science, it’s time that LEGO cut ties with a corporation whose business model depends on destroying the environment. Every day that LEGO continues to shill for Royal Dutch Shell, it otherwise lends the company a false, friendly and benign air.

I hear some folks: “Come, on, it’s just a little bit of product placement and branding.” They’re two Dutch companies, after all. And how many kids at some point have toys — think model cars and trucks covered in ExxonMobil stickers — labeled with the name of this or that company?

This is more than just banal advertising. Through LEGO sets in the hands of children, Shell markets a subtle-but-dangerous message that it’s institutional, that it belongs, that it’s noncontroversial, that it’s fundamental and that it should be accepted. That the Big Oil economy — which includes Shell’s continued attempts to drill in the arctic — is as “harmless” as apple pie (or maybe stroopwafels).

If LEGO started making new sets called Oil Rig Spill Disaster or Warming, Rising Seas, then I wouldn’t complain. That’d be honesty in advertising.

Want a visual appeal that will punch much harder? Watch this brilliant Greenpeace video and sign.

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India’s democracy needs an asterisk when it comes to development

A random bit of news filtered through PTI (government press and re-write bureau): An environmental impact assessment (EIA) of a hydropower project in northeast India is hopelessly flawed. The South Asia Network on Dams, Rivers and People has followed this process and continues to point out irregularities and poor performance in evaluating the effects the dam will have.

From the Business Standard:

A Delhi-based NGO has alleged that the environment impact assessment (EIA) study for 1200 mega watt Kalai II Hydroelectric Project (HEP) in Anjaw district is “incomplete, inadequate and shoddy”.

A recent document released by South Asia Network on Dams Rivers and People (SANDRP) has revealed that the “EIA cannot clearly state whether Kalai II is a storage project or a run of the river project and it is also not clear about the height of the dam.”

It might be tempting to see this only as another case of anti-dam activism. SANDRP is likely to oppose most dams, with good reason, and India has a long history of troubling dam building. Sardar Sarovar became the flashpoint for an international movement against both megadams and the World Bank.

But I’m not actually concerned so much with the dam itself (though dams are problematic and we should be skeptical) as opposed to the process of evaluating development. This botched EIA is symptomatic of a much larger problem that is well-known in Indian environmental activist circles:

In terms of environmental protection, the essence India’s democratic credentials are questionable at best.

Let’s start, briefly, with what a democracy actually might be. It’s much more than what your average high school civics class might teach. Democracy is not a binary condition. It’s not a “yes-or-no” decision on whether a country is democratic or not. It’s inherently complex and multidimensional.

Consider that one widely accepted international index of democracy, Polity IV, scores states on six metrics: regulation of the chief executive “recruitment,” competitiveness of executive recruitment, openness of executive recruitment, constraints on executive authority, regulation of participation in elections and competitiveness of participation in elections. In the composite index, states are ranked a continuum from completely autocratic (-10) to completely democratic (+10).

What’s more, we can see examples of democracy and autocracy actually coexisting. After all, the U.S. likes to consider itself a gold standard of democracy and yet this happened.

Of course, India’s sycophants like to point to the “hyper competitive” electoral atmosphere and call India the world’s largest or most vibrant democracy. And, to an extent, they’re backed by Polity IV, which scores India a 9 overall, placing it in roughly the same level of democracy as most of Latin America and parts of Europe. However, the latest Polity Global assessment also suggests that India suffers from “serious” state fragility considerably worse than many other countries with its level of democracy.

Yet we know that even the Polity calculation of democracy is far from comprehensive. Other scholars suggest that democracy requires much and more to function. Paul Collier, a relatively conservative development researcher who isn’t always right but has spent a considerable amount of time looking at democracy, strays far from the classic “free and fair elections” description in his popular development treatise (which has its problems), Bottom Billion. Essentially, Collier writes, elections are easy to put together. But, he says, democracy fundamentally requires elaborate checks and balances — what Douglass North or Acemoglu and Robinson might call “institutions.” Though the institutions might look different in different geographies, it’s clear: They are not overnight creations.

Collier goes further to suggest that often elections are all the ruling elite want; they’re easy to compromise and capture. Patronage and vote buying can easily win out (as it does in India). Affinity and class bias frequently overrule debate in the informed consent process (as it does in India and the U.S.). True checks and balances — from a free, fair and thoughtful media (India still doesn’t have free radio journalism despite its usefulness to a widespread village populace) to campaign finance controls — are often not in the interest of power, so they are particularly difficult items to institutionalize (Acemoglu and Robinson have similar conclusions about institutions).

Which brings me back to the check-and-balance system in environmental governance. One key combination for reining in both the de jure ruling political elite or the de facto ruling corporate elite are the joint institutions of public hearings and fair environmental impact assessment (EIA). However, if the latter is a sham, so is the former. And in India’s case, unbiased environmental impact assessment is largely fiction.

The process, boiled down, goes like this: Big developers (often working with/at the best of government) come up with big ideas. They commission and pay for EIAs. EIAs are submitted to Ministry of Environment and Forests (MOEF). MOEF brings these to the Environmental Appraisal Committee (EAC). EAC is to make recommendations on the projects and the politically appointed minister signs off.

Projects are generally cleared, though sometimes with stipulations. Of course, politicking makes it seem as though India’s development is constantly stalled because of clearance; when environment ministers occasionally are shuffled, the new boss has been known to clear a spate of projects to give the impression s/he is working.

Of course, since EIAs are bought by companies who want their developments approved, they generally skew the facts. And because the government desperately wants big construction and neoclassical capital development and FDI and such, officials face all kinds of political pressure to clear projects, despite serious environmental and social concerns (insert something about POSCO and human rights).

The regularly off-the-cuff Jairam Ramesh, when he was environment minister, called the EIA process a farce..

Environmental impact assessment report is a bit of joke. I admit it publicly. In our system, the person who is putting up the project will be preparing the assessment report. I have been very concerned about this. The Supreme Court has also expressed its concern.

And just last month, the Hindustan Times reported that the EIA process has been revised 100 times in about seven years, reflecting political whims, fancies and, sometimes, the desire to squeeze projects through.

Governments even know this but the pressure to approve “development” is great. Here’s a report commissioned by the state of Goa:

The EIAs, ECs and EMPs were found to be highly deficient in information pertaining to major environmental parameters such as land use pattern, water resources, biodiversity, demographic profile, dependency of people on agriculture, air quality and impact of air pollution on people’s health.

A few years ago, activists even found that parts of the EIA for a proposed bauxite mine in Maharashtra were literally cut and pasted from an EIA on a Russian mine. Site specific variables were the same.

I could go on and on. If you’re still interested, try reading here and here and here.

Or consider the facts the dam assessment in Arunachal Pradesh. The report doesn’t even declare the most basic specifics of the project — dam height or whether the dam will actually block the river flow. Perhaps the assessment isn’t sure whether the dam is a dam.

How then do we expect a legitimate public hearing? What happens to informed consent.

That these kind of basics can be left out of the process is laughable. Except that no one should be laughing.

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Dear State Department: #NOKXL

There are only a few more days to submit comments to the State Department regarding its draft environmental impact statement on the latest version of the Keystone XL nightmare pipeline. Following the closure of the comment period, the state department may make revisions to its currently flawed assessment of the pipeline, which will ultimately be used to make a recommendation to the president.

[For those folks who are not deeply mired/versed in this debate already, this article, this archive and this video are some places to start. Bonus: If you pause the video at 2:29, you can see me in my white linen protest suit and Panama hat getting arrested in front of the White House.]

The pipeline is a focal point for environmental protest because its construction would be devastating to any attempt to stave off extreme climate change. As NASA climatologist James Hansen has said, the pipeline would essentially be “game over.” I won’t belabor the well established point that tar sands oil is particularly noxious. Suffice to say: We need to stop the pipeline.

Anyone concerned can submit comments on the impact statement to You can also send letters with suggested text via’s Stop KXL campaign or through other outlets, such as The Nation.

My own comment (which anyone can use):

I oppose Keystone XL because it serves neither our national interest nor the planet’s. The pipeline only returns profits to TransCanada (which has lied about facts and spun the story to suit its ends) while bolstering the incredibly destructive tar sands industry. This extraction is particularly bad for our planet (and hence our nation) and will only deepen our path dependency on an economic mode that cannot and will not survive in the long-run. If we are to transition to a post-carbon economy — which is the only option if we value the future and don’t simply discount all coming generations — we must take concrete steps to move beyond oil. Any economist worth her salt can explain that concept; adjust the discount rate, extend the time horizon a generation or two and there’s no way this pipeline is “in our national interest.”

More importantly, this is no longer just an economic calculus. The president’s “all of the above” energy strategy may be politically expedient and may (but still probably doesn’t) make sense in the very short-run. But expediency doesn’t equal morality, and this is not only an economic decicision. It is also a moral one. Some forms of energy — in this case, tar sands crude — are simply incompatible with a just and right future.

As such, blocking this pipeline is the only moral course of action.

— Adam Jadhav, April 14, 2013

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Semester research: The (de)evolution of Hindu environmental ethics


I spent the semester tracing the evolution of Hindu orthodoxy and orthopraxy as it pertains to conservation, resource consumption and environmental stewardship from Vedic times to modern days through several key texts. Of course, the Hindu canon is much too large for any definitive conclusions, but these texts were selected by my professor as representative of the larger (vastly larger) body of texts.

You can read the full draft paper here. The academic abstract would go something like:

This paper examines Hinduism’s evolving attitudes toward nature and prescriptions of ethical environmental practice during the history of the religion. The paper critically considers eight texts that represent major trends in Hindu philosophy and practice, through the Vedic, classical, medieval and modern periods. In early times, Hindu society associated divinity and worship with natural processes. This was soon challenged by a renunciation theology that rejected the material/natural world entirely. Yet as polities and kingdoms swelled and expanded, social organization and material well-being became chief concerns of philosophers; the natural, wild world took on a negative connotation. Hinduism’s complex and changing cosmology further muddied the waters for questions of right action in environmental dilemmas. Nonetheless, there have been various counter trends with religious roots that may serve as a starting point for a Hindu-centric discussion of environmental protection.

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Back to the start

So right, in so many ways.

That this aired in primetime during the Grammy Awards is a powerful statement. I don’t want to see corporate American brand sustainable, simple living as something of its own (hell, I’ve come late to the party). But my heart is warmed over at the thought of such ethics in the mainstream.

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I’m writing to you, Senator #nokxl

Senator Durbin:

This is not a form letter. You and I have shaken hands plenty; for a while we were on a first-name basis when I was a political reporter at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. How many times did I tour the Metro East with you? How many times was I there at town hall meetings in the Collinsville City Council chambers or Edwardsville or Granite City?

Today, I am in graduate school here in D.C. studying environmental policy. I’m an activist. I was arrested for protesting in front of the White House in September. I’m a scholar. I research natural resource policy, environmental degradation and sustainable development.

I’m asking you as a professional acquaintance, as someone who listened for a long time to the political concerns of southern Illinoisans, as a worried citizen and as a registered Illinois voter (my permanent address is in Champaign) to do all you can to stop GOP factions and Big Oil special interests from resurrecting the Keystone XL pipeline.

If you and your allies in the Senate take the time to talk straight to Americans (whatever the hell Fox News thinks), they will listen. If you take a moral stand, you’ll be doing the right thing (whatever the hell the Tea Party thinks).

And if you need help that I can provide, contact me.

There’s so much more we could be doing to invigorate our economy and protect this planet. Think about green jobs in a renewable energy economy. Think solar and offshore wind and green infrastructure. Think better quality of living and public health. Think natural splendor that warms heart and soul.

But if we instead take the cheap (actually more costly) and dirty (yes, really, really dirty) way of burning tar sands, we become that much more path dependent on oil. That’s game over for our planet.

I’ve heard you tell me directly about how Washington needs change, how it’s beholden to special interests, how our government needs bold action.

I say to you, lead the charge.

Adam Jadhav

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Jangal hei

Jangal = jungle

After net gains for several years, India’s forest cover is in decline. The full data is available now from the Forest Survey of India in its newly released State of the Forest Report 2011.

The government writes off any major backsliding, saying the reduction is due to shifting cultivation patterns in the rural northeast, plantation harvesting and Naxal rebels cutting trees. That last one is a dubious.

More likely, there are many factors at play in a complex dynamic that varies state by state. I’m in the process of designing a statistical research project looking for explanation among a number of variables, biological, economic, political and social.

The photo above comes from tropical forest in the Andaman Islands.

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