Wednesday, January 9, 2008

50 people who could save the planet

Stranded polar bears, melting glaciers, dried-out rivers and flooding on a horrific scale - these were the iconic images of 2007. So who is most able to stop this destruction to our world? A Guardian panel, taking nominations from key environmental figures, met to compile a list of our ultimate green heroes
You can see the full list of people and their activities in ...

I picked up the 5 Indians who are in the list and they are;

Madhav Subrmanian

Madhav Subrmanian is the next generation's face of conservation, a 12-year-old Indian boy who goes round Mumbai collecting money for tiger conservation. With his friends Kirat Singh, Sahir Doshi and Suraj Bishnoi, he set up Kids For Tigers which works in hundreds of schools. He writes poems, sings on the streets, sells merchandise and has collected Rs500,000 (£6,500) in two years. Conservation awareness is growing in middle-class India, largely through young activists like him.

Rajendra Singh
Water conservationist

In 1984 Dr Rajendra Singh, now 49, was working in the semi-desert Indian state of Rajastan. He planned to set up health clinics in the rural villages, but was shocked when he went to a place called Gopalpura. "This area was devastated and people were fleeing, leaving their children, women and older people behind," Singh says. "It was then an old man told me that they needed neither medicines nor food. He said all they needed was water.
"It moved me so much and I started finding out ways to help. But the region was arid, all the rivers were dry and the land was parched. The only source of water was rainwater, but that was scarce and there was not nearly enough for all the needs of the region."
A mix of modern technology and villagers simply neglecting traditional ways of conserving water had led to an ecological disaster. Singh found that the villages no longer used small earth dams - or johads - to collect surface water but instead now relied on "modern" tube wells. As they bored their wells deeper and deeper into the ground and sucked out ever more underground water, so the water table had dropped alarmingly and ever deeper wells were required.
Lower water levels meant that the wells were not full, the forests and trees were dying off, and erosion was worsening. It was a vicious circle. With less irrigation water, farming declined and men migrated to cities for work. Women and children then had to spend up to 10 hours a day fetching firewood and water, and the shrinking labour force sapped people's will to maintain the old johads. The whole region faced disaster.
Singh and his colleagues began digging out an old johad pond in Gopalpura. Seven months later, it was, almost miraculously, nearly five feet full of water. And once the rains eventually came, not only did it fill to the brim, but a nearby long-dry well began flowing again. The following year, the village joined in to rebuild a second dam, and by 1996 Gopalpurans had recreated nine johads that between them held millions of litres of water. Meanwhile, the groundwater level had risen to 6.7m, up from an average of 14m below the ground. The village wells were full again.
"It was only due to political reasons that the [johad] system fell apart," Singh says. "We worked for four years in Gopalpura and slowly a huge area turned green. People came back, they started farming again and the visual impact was so impressive that people from adjoining areas started calling us for help."
Singh is now known as the Rain Man of Rajastan, having brought water back to more than 1,000 villages and got water to flow again in all five major rivers in Rajastan. He has so far helped to build more than 8,600 johads and other structures to collect water for the dry seasons. The forest cover has increased by a third because the water table has risen, and antelope and leopard have returned to the region. It has also been one of the cheapest regenerations of a region ever known - in Rajastan, villages have been brought back to life sometimes for just a few hundred pounds, far less than the cost of the single borehole that almost destroyed them.
"See the earth like a bank," Singh says. "If you make regular deposits of water, you'll always have some to withdraw. If you are just taking, you will have nothing in your account."
Erratic rains and longer droughts are becoming more frequent around the world with changing weather patterns and climate change, and the lessons taught by Singh in Rajastan are now being applied all over India and Africa. In the next 30 years, water "harvesting" is expected to become an essential way to save water everywhere from England to Uganda and Arizona. In south-east England, there is barely enough rainfall now, let alone for the expected population within 20 years. Procedures likely to be introduced will include gadgets that ensure you can't leave a running tap, baths that hold less water, gutters that collect water, systems for using waste water for gardens. "It's the same principle everywhere, but we all have to learn it," Singh says.

Jockin Arputham
Urban activist

Jockin Arputham, 60, has lived in a slum outside Mumbai since 1963. As president of the National Slum Dwellers Association and Slum Dwellers International, he is rallying the world's poorest city dwellers to improve their environment. Urban squalor is one of the biggest problems of the age, and by 2030 the number of slum dwellers is projected to reach two billion - a recipe for poverty, disease and political instability. Arputham has pioneered a way to help the poor negotiate with city authorities to secure land ownership - the greatest barrier to improving slums. Dozens of other new urban groups are working in 70 countries and hundreds of thousands of people have benefited. Global urbanisation is inevitable, and these new federations will have more and more ecological influence.

Bija Devi
Farm manager

Bija Devi saves seeds for future generations. She already has in her "bank" 1,342 types of cereals, pulses, fruits and vegetables, though she has no idea of their scientific names. She has worked as a farmer since the age of seven, never went to school and has never heard the words "wheat" or "turnip". Yet she now heads a worldwide movement of women trying to rescue and conserve crops and plants that are being pushed to extinction in the rush to modernise farming. And in so doing she is helping rejuvenate Indian culture.
Apart from collecting and storing seeds from all over the country, Devi is teaching farmers, distributing seeds and experimenting with them. It's called the Navdanya (Nine Seeds) movement because it was inspired by a southern Indian custom of planting nine seeds in a pot on the first day of the year. Women would take the pots to the river nine days later to compare and exchange seeds so that each family could plant the best seeds, thus optimising food supplies.
Today, Devi has farmers queueing up for seeds at her project's base, a 40-acre farm in the foothills of the Himalayas in Dehradun. When she started 14 years ago, with ecologist Vandana Shiva, she had to plead with the farmers to accept that ecological security was of fundamental importance, and that there were advantages to sowing older, indigenous seeds rather than the newer, high-yielding "hybrid" or GM seeds. These give larger crops but require considerable input of pesticides and fertilisers, and more water.
Women are responsible for sowing, harvesting and storing food, while it is up to the men to prepare the soil. "There was no tangible benefit for them in using our seeds," Devi says. "But over time they realised how the soil was retaining its fertility, how the crop was free from diseases and pests. Now they come to us on their own."
She now has 380 varieties of rice seeds alone. There are something like 200,000 people benefiting from 34 similar community seed banks set up in 13 states across the country. The banks are seen as an insurance against changing conditions, such as climate, new pests or consumer demand. People who receive the seeds pay nothing for them, and in return pledge to continue to save and share them. "Indiscriminate use of chemicals has harmed the soil to an enormous extent," Devi says, "but we can still restore fertility and conserve water if we act now."
The work is backed by Dr Debal Deb, an ecologist who has established the only gene bank of indigenous rice in India. The Green Revolution was environmentally disastrous in India, he says: "In the 80s, the drastic erosion of the genetic diversity of rice and other crops was irreversible. Thousands of rice varieties no longer exist in the farms where they evolved over centuries. They are extinct for good and not even accessed in the national and international gene banks." This, he says, translates into a threat to the country's food security.
Collecting seeds from a large and diverse country such as India is no easy task. "I depend on the traditional knowledge of the farmers and go to different corners in the region in search of new varieties," Devi says. "The farmers explain the qualities of a particular strain and how to cultivate them. We then collect the seed, cultivate it on an experimental basis and note down the results. If it is satisfactory, we distribute it among the other farmers. We also need to sow the seeds regularly to continue with the strain. Today, traditional knowledge is almost lost in the euphoria over new varieties."

Bunker Roy

Bunker Roy, 62, set up the Barefoot College in India, the only school in the world known to be open only to people without any formal education. Roy's idea is that India and Africa are full of people with skills, traditional knowledge and practical resourcefulness who are not recognised as engineers, architects or water experts but who can bring more to communities than governments or big businesses. The college trains the poor to combine local knowledge with new green technologies : 15,000 people have learned to become "barefoot" water and solar engineers, architects and teachers. It has helped hundreds of communities across India - and now in seven other countries - install water supplies and solar voltaic lighting systems, develop bicycles that can cross rivers and design buildings that collect every drop of water.

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