According to WWF (World Wildlife Foundation), an ecoregion is a “large unit of land or water containing a geographically distinct assemblage of species, natural communities, and environmental conditions”. Ecoregions, in other words, are places that vary in terms of geographical conditions (e.g. The Congo River basin).
When we analyze the regional diversity within a country, what if instead of analyzing the political boundaries of a country, we, in turn, analyze a country’s ecoregions and contextualize them as diverse geopolitical subregions? In my interpretation, if an ecoregion, in terms of species, landforms and natural communities, is a space that varies from another physical space, why can’t we say the same about a country’s geopolitical regions?
What if we think of a geopolitical ecoregion as a distinct political space, with different ethnic groups, distinct political organization and governance, with their own social complexities, and their own economic specializations, however, within the context of a physical ecoregion, meaning: a group of people inhabiting the same landform and/or space (ecoregion), yet with distinct particularities that change when transitioning between one ecoregion onto another.
In this article I shall briefly introduce another analytical concept by analyzing Guatemala’s ecoregions as different geopolitical subregions. In Guatemala’s case there are three different physical regions: pacific coastal plains, highlands and the Petén rainforest lowlands; however, in order to be more specific, and to appreciate the diverse complexities from one ecoregion to another, I shall outline four specific ecoregions as geopolitical subregions: 1) Ermita Valley, 2) indigenous highlands, 3) Motagua river valley thornscrub, 4) tropical moist forests, and 5) pacific coastal lowlands. Lastly, this is a personal, general analysis and my own interpretation of how my country’s ecoregions ought to be defined and understood from a geopolitical viewpoint.
1. Ermita Valley
Guatemala’s capital was transferred more than three times, due to diverse environmental conditions and social strife during the colonization era (from Iximche to the Almolonga Valley, because of indigenous resistance between the Spanish conquistadores and the Kaqchikel tribe; from Almolonga to Antigua Guatemala, because of flooding; and from Antigua Guatemala to its actual location, the Ermita valley, because of an earthquake). Yet, eventually, it was the Ermita valley that was finally chosen to become Guatemala City’s permanent settlement. As if it were a constant lesson of trial and error. This choice was no coincidence. It was thought in geostrategic terms, by taking into account both climatic conditions and transportation/communication/commercial strategic corridors. However, the topographic barriers were never entirely considered.
Guatemala City (14º N) lies in the Ermita valley, which is, ultimately, a convergence zone of diverse climatic conditions. Guatemala city sits at an elevation of 4,900 feet, giving Guatemala City a very stable—yet fresh—temperature ranging between 15º C and 23º. Additionally, because of the tropical easterlies that blow (5º to 25º N/ 5º to 25º S) from the northeast, these winds tend regulate the wind circulation of Guatemala City. Also, mainly from its southeast, due to its close proximity to the Pacific Ocean (43 NM/79KM in a straight line from Guatemala City to Puerto de San Jose), high-pressure oceanic winds stemming from the Equatorial Counter Current warm ocean current, clashes with the highlands’ daily low-pressure gradient alongside the warm tropical easterlies, which influence the warm, rainy season (from May to mid-October).
As a consequence, these climatic convergence zone gives the Ermita valley throughout the day constant rain showers during the warm, rainy season, meanwhile, during the cold, dry season (end of October to March) the Equatorial Counter Current low-pressure system drifts away from Guatemala city, ultimately providing Guatemala city clear blue skies. All in all, Guatemala City, in the Ermita Valley, has a quasi-Mediterranean temperate climate, in spite of being located in the tropics. Politically and economically what does this mean? Guatemala City has the perfect conditions to increase its demography. Guatemala city metropolitan area has one of the largest demographics in Central America, with almost 5 million inhabitants. Guatemala city has 1 million inhabitants less than El Salvador and Nicaragua, 3 million less than Honduras, yet with more population than Costa Rica and Panama. It was no surprise that Guatemala City, was chosen to be Central America’s General Captaincy during the Spanish colonization. And it is the main demographic center that receives most of the internal migration, needless to add an increasing migration from El Salvador, Honduras and Nicaragua.
The ecoregion of the Ermita Valley, where Guatemala City is located, allows one to label Guatemala, in accordance to territorial morphological terms, as a ‘compact’ country. This means: From the Ermita Valley, Guatemala’s borders are relatively equidistant, by specially taking into account the distance from the Ermita Valley to Honduras via Chiquimula (# 4 on the map), to El Salvador via Jutiapa (# 13 on the map), and to Mexico via San Marcos (#17 on the map). In the geopolitical imagination of Guatemalans, Belize is considered a non-Central American country, but, rather, it is perceived as a Caribbean country. Also, from Guatemala’s point of view, Belize was taken from Guatemala because of bad political and commercial decisions. As a result, the Ermita Valley is the pivotal axis of all Guatemala. It is near its most important seaports (Puerto Quetzal and Champerico); it is the economic and financial capital powerhouse of the Central American Isthmus; and it is strategically located from the a) food-producing areas (Motagua River Valley Thornscrub); b) coffee belt (mainly from nearby regions such as Antigua Guatemala and Sololá); and c) commercial large-industrial agriculture and cotton-producing areas in the pacific coastal lowlands. Yet, in spite of its advantages, as I shall shorty introduce, politically, the Ermita Valley—or core geography—has a hard time in politically controlling and subduing its periphery.
2. Indigenous Highlands
Though in ecological terms, this region would be denominated as a sub-temperate moist forest. In my mind, when it comes to the highlands of Guatemala, I believe that they should be addressed as the ‘indigenous highlands’. This is the most diverse, yet economically poorest geopolitical subregion of Guatemala, and the hardest to politically control and understand as a citizen of Guatemala City. In my view, the indigenous highlands encompass two subregions within the highlands: The western and central indigenous highlands. This ecoregion consists of approximately 45% of Guatemalan territory.
The highlands of Guatemala (though located in the tropics) have a mixture of tropical savannah and temperate climate. As a result, the seasonal variations are usually felt at lower elevations, nearby the pacific coastal lowlands. Because of the microclimates (low-pressure cells during the day and high-pressure cells throughout the night, in addition to the fertile volcanic ash and soil pH) in this region, the borderlands of the pacific coastal lowlands and the indigenous highlands have one of the best quality-produced coffees of Guatemala and the world. However, as the elevation increases, the less fertile and rockier the land is. Consequently, the indigenous populations in the highlands depend upon subsistence agriculture—i.e. corn, beans, grain, wheat, potatoes, and animal grazing—instead of high-yield cash crops as their counterparts in the pacific coastal lowlands.
The indigenous highland region of Guatemala is part of the Sierra Madre mountain range, which runs northwest-southwest from Mexico (originally a part of the Sierra Madre Oriental and Sierra Madre Occidental), making its way into the Honduran-Nicaraguan border up to the Cordillera Isabelia in Nicaragua. This region, which traverses Guatemala across the Honduran and Salvadoran border, into Nicaragua, circumscribes a total of 6 different mountain chains known as ‘sierras’. Out of these 6 sierras, 3 sierras (e.g. Cuchumatanes, Chamá, and De Las Minas) belong to the Indigenous highlands. Last but not least, Guatemala’s main river system is a Pacific Ocean drainage area; most of the rivers and streams that originate within the indigenous highlands drain in the Pacific Basin. Nevertheless, despite of highland-originated rivers, Guatemala does not have a proper navigational river system—except for the lower end of the Motagua River—given the topographic constraints amid its different watersheds in the form of valleys and sierras. For this reason, commercially speaking, population centers in the highlands, without a proper navigable system, have been historically disconnected with the rest of the country. Put it simply, one valley and its villages is an entire different world compared with other villages in another valley. In addition, because of the topographic barriers, Guatemala has had a hard time achieving a full political and economic integration with the highlands. And at the same time, due to a wide-array of social and geographical conditions, this region has one of the highest numbers of chronic child malnutrition in the whole country, which clearly given the poor levels of education, lack of strong government institutions, isolation, and soil fertility, this region overall can be considered Guatemala’ socially most diverse backcountry.
Politically, for the Guatemalan central government, the indigenous highlands, is the most diverse and challenging ecoregions in Guatemala. It has over 16 different Mayan languages, and 24 ethnic groups. The Mayan languages are spoken by the numerous indigenous tribes emanating from the valleys and sierras within the highlands (only in Huehuetenango, # 10 in the map, 9 Mayan languages are spoken!) As a result, it’s no wonder why most of the war theaters of the Guatemalan civil war (1960-1996), was fought in the indigenous highlands, mainly in the Ixil triangle of northern Quiche (# 7 in the map) alongside most of the western highlands.
Moreover, it was through the indigenous highlands that the Spaniards first penetrated Guatemala, while allying themselves with the Kaqchikel tribe, by defeating the then-most powerful K’iche’ tribe. Eventually, the Spaniards betrayed the Kaqchikel tribe and ravished the Indigenous highlands throughout the entire colonization period until Guatemala’s independence from Spain in 1821. As a result, in the modern-era, there is still a large degree of resentment towards the mestizo and white population, specifically towards the private sector and large Guatemalan corporations from Guatemala City. In spite of the fact that this area has a huge potential for hydroelectric and mining projects, many Amerindian communities have sabotaged these projects, with the support of foreign NGOs that have pushed indigenous auto-emancipation plans in the region, further destabilizing Guatemala. Nevertheless, regardless of their commonality, the indigenous groups in the highlands have never been able to politically unite themselves, (in some villages, deep in the mountains, some of them rarely speak Spanish), which, as a consequence, has led Guatemala—in spite of their indigenous population—to be a state governed by mestizo and white presidents.
If there would be an analogy that would best describe the Guatemalan highlands, it would most certainly be the Russian North Caucasus: These indigenous groups are part of the same state but different nations as a whole, living in fragmented spaces and finding shield and in the mountains. Though many of these groups speak Spanish, they still do so with a heavy indigenous accent, because they have still conserved their traditional and cultural Mayan identity and language in their communities. Because of this, each valley and sierra represents separate political entities, where they have their own enforcement of laws and linguistic barriers. Also, because of their own law enforcement customs, there is a high number of lynching, and rarely the Guatemalan state has enough coercive power to enforce their monopoly of security in the indigenous highlands.
The indigenous highlands, rather than uniting Guatemala, have historically, culturally, politically, and commercially fragmented Guatemala.
3. Motagua River Valley Thornscrub
If you would journey from Guatemala City to Puerto Barrios, Izabal (Guatemala’s only outlet in the Caribbean Sea), you would notice how arid and dry the Motagua River valley ecoregion is—which is why the biggest common denominator is the thornscrub. This ecoregion, also known as ‘el oriente’ (the east), is actually more like Guatemala’s wild west; it is mainly the spiritual base of Guatemala’s most notorious drug cartels that operate in the form of family clans. Think of Calabria, Basilicata and Puglia and then think of the Motagua River valley thornscrub ecoregion as something similar, except for the sea, olives and pasta.
Geographically, one of the main climatic reasons on why this ecoregion tends to have a semi-arid, savannah-like climate, is because of the orographic effect that originates with the combination of both the tropical easterlies and the North Equatorial Current from the Caribbean Sea, converging into Izabal’s (#11 in the map) topographic obstacles (Sierra De Las Minas, Sierra Santa Cruz, Sierra Del Merendón, and to a lesser degree, Mico mountains). For this reason, the Foehn winds, coming from the northeast, which bring moist marine air from the Caribbean Sea, crash into Izabal’s numerous topographic barriers. When these moist marine winds surpass Izabal’s sierras, they descend with a warm, dry air, as a result, creating a rain shadow effect on the leeward slopes of the sierras (particularly the Sierra De Las Minas) that face the departments of Zacapa, Chiquimula, El Progreso and Jalapa. Yet, one of the primordial reasons on why these departments are not complete deserts alike is because of the Motagua river system and its tributaries, including the numerous valleys amid the diverse sierras that separate these regions (e.g. Sierra del Merendón), thereby providing this ecoregion with enough wind circulation, sunlight, and rain, equaling to arable land and soil fertility. Because of this climatic phenomena, The Motagua River Valley Thornscrub has sufficient soil fertility to produce perennial crops, mainly in Zacapa and Jalapa, and to a lesser extent Chiquimula; however, El Progreso has an agriculturally unworthy limestone bedrock floor, therefore, it is the least inhabited departments of all Guatemala, mainly serving as a transit point between Guatemala and Puerto Barrios, Izabal. And also, because of this climatic variation, the northern part of Chiquimula department—which is one of the most arid departments of this ecoregion—is considered a red zone concerning chronic infantile malnutrition. As a consequence, this ecoregion, geographically, is an ecoregion of extremes: It either has fertile valleys, good enough to produce tropical fruits and raise beef cattle, or it has a limestone bedrock type of soil, limiting the arable land and thus limiting population capacity support.
Geostrategically, this ecoregion is a region of valleys, sierras and rugged hills—however not as high as the indigenous highlands. Due to the Motagua River valley’s proximity to the Honduran Caribbean coast and proximity to the tropical moist forests ecoregion, indirectly, makes the Motagua River valley a natural gateway towards Mexico, Belize and further inland. In terms of drug mobility and illegal immigration arousing from Honduras, this ecoregion has become a leading entry point and node to Guatemala. Chiquimula (# 4 in the map) is the most geostrategic of all four departments that make part of the Motagua River Valley Thornscrub ecoregion. Chiquimula is close enough to the Sierra Madre of Honduras and El Salvador, yet far-flung from Guatemala’s government control, protected by the sierras of Zacapa and Jalapa.
Ethnically, the Motagua River Valley Thornscrub is an ethnically homogenous region, with chiefly both white and mestizo Spanish-speaking population. There are only two Mayan languages in the region—i.e. Poqomam and Ch’orti’—which are known indigenous minorities. Many European migrants, exclusively those arriving from the Iberian Peninsula and Mediterranean Europe that, after disembarking in Santo Tomas de Castilla, populated this valley conformed by multiple migrants alongside the already-settled mestizo population since colonial times. This ecoregion has a population and shared identity with those of Salvadoran and Honduran borderlands, oftentimes carrying firearms as part of their cultural identity. When their honor has been disrespected, violence or negotiated settlement is one of the leading cultural traits within the residents of this ecoregion. At first glance, as a Guatemalan, in my mind, the toughest and most loyal bodyguards usually originate from this ecoregion. But it is because of this culture of blood, honor and patriarchal hierarchical social structure that, according to Guatemalan stereotypes, it is this ecoregion’s population that resorts to violence and blood, if not settled by a respected town member or patriarchal figure.
Crime is low in this region, with no gang cliques, as in the case of Guatemala City. Yet, this is not because there is a strong authority that enforces the law accordingly. Rather it is the drug cartels that enforce their own codes of honor and security amongst their areas of controls, by building community clinics, restaurants and other commercial assets that emphasizes a sense of loyalty amongst the various townships via employment for the communities. One reason why mainly this population shares the same ethnicity and political identity, is because this ecoregion has been an important—and only—transit route between Guatemala City and Puerto Barrios, therefore, many Spanish immigrants settled in this region, which can resemble at times, to those dry-arid regions of southern Spain, such as Extremadura, Andalucía, for instance. Furthermore, according to Guatemalan historians, it was such population that brought their own cultural legacies to this area of Guatemala, and thus shared with southwestern Honduras and northwestern El Salvador.
4. Tropical Moist Forests
Izabal and Peten (# 5 and # 11 in the map) represent another hinterland in the Guatemalan regional mentality. Though this ecoregion is scientifically and more accurately described as a tropical moist forest, in simpler terms, is pretty much known as a jungle rainforest. In essence, these two departments represent Guatemala’s jungle forests. This ecoregion is moderately populated since most of the population, in the case of Izabal, revolves around Lake Izabal and confined to the main transportation corridor from Guatemala City to Puerto Barrios. In the case of Peten, this region, given its size (35, 854 km2), is theoretically underpopulated; most of its population gravitates around Flores (Petén’s principal city) and its widely distributed cities in the lowlands, nearing Izabal and Alta Verapaz. Notwithstanding, it is also an imperative region that has been pivotal in the geopolitics of Guatemala, from both a historic and modern day viewpoint.
Geographically, the Tropical Moist Forest ecoregion is a combination of low-level sierras (Sierra de Santa Cruz, Sierra de Chama), low-elevated highlands (Maya Highlands), coupled with limestone plains that bound together this particular ecoregion. This particular ecoregion has the right ‘ingredients’ of climate and weather: 1) the right amount of insolation (solar energy), 2) temperature, 3) pressure, 4) wind, and 5) precipitation to evolve into tropical rainforests, and one of the last virgin rainforests of Guatemala (e.g. North Peten). Yet, the climatic reason why this ecoregion is composed of different subtropical, warm, moist forests is because of the perpendicular angle in which the North Equatorial Current passes right through this region. Without elevated topographical obstacles, the North Equatorial Current alongside the Trade Winds, provide the Yucatan Peninsula, Cozumel Island, Belize and, essentially, Peten and Izabal, with plenty of rainfall (around 120 inches) from the humid waters of the Caribbean sea. Agriculturally, this means that Peten, with its limestone type of lowlands and dense forests, is not the most suitable region to plant and harvest cash crops, as opposed to the pacific coastal lowlands. Consequently, it is an agriculturally inadequately developed region, with minimal cash crops. Yet, when it comes to livestock, palm oil, underexploited oil basins (e.g. La Libertad refinery), and vast space to develop, it is one of the most promising regions of Guatemala. Meanwhile, Izabal, though it has the same moist rainforests as Peten, generally speaking, the Izabal-Zacapa ecological frontier, provides Izabal with some commercial agriculture potential—i.e. bananas, cotton, cocoa, some coffee and livestock. However, to the western side of Lake Izabal, as like the case of Peten, Izabal has basic subsistence agriculture and some mining projects, as with the case of the Fenix Nickel Project.
Peten, compared with the relative isolation of Izabal, is another hinterland in the Guatemalan political map. Historically, the Spaniards colonized Peten 160 years after their settlement in the Guatemalan indigenous highlands—it was left alone for more than a century. Peten was one of the hardest landscapes to secure and to stabilize. Long story short, Peten was one of the first spaces on which the Mayan civilization took place. Nevertheless, after the Spaniards subdued, with an army of Aztec warriors, most of the Guatemalan highland kingdoms, it was the Itza tribe and other tribes of hunters and gatherers, that resisted the most against the Spanish thrust for colonization space, materialized in the form of Christian missionaries. All in all, Spain penetrated Guatemalan lands during the 1520s, however, the Itza and Mopan tribes would prove to be the most battle-hardened tribes of all Guatemala, delaying the full Spanish takeover of Peten and Guatemala until 1697. Peten’s fierce tribes and inhospitable terrain, prove to be one of the most difficult landscape in Guatemala to secure; the remnants of the Itza and Mopan tribes would be absorbed by the Alta Verapaz highland Q’eqchi tribes. Eventually, Peten, would be contested by the British throughout the British colonization of the Caribbean, but secured by the Spaniards and eventually inherited by the Guatemalan government after border disputes between the Yucatan General Captaincy and the Guatemala General Captaincy. Finally, Izabal’s history is not as dramatic as Peten’s was. In order to fight the pirates that plagued the Honduran Caribbean coast, the Spaniards decided to build a port that would be eventually known as Santo Tomas de Castilla, currently the most important seaport of Izabal, and Guatemala’s only outlet to the Caribbean. Izabal, unlike Peten, was used by the Spaniards as their main transportation and communication corridor between Guatemala City and Izabal, thus making Izabal another strategic point in Guatemala’s history.
Peten and Izabal illustrate two important examples in the tropical moist forests ecoregion of Guatemala, however, with different historical legacies. The former was hard to subdue and conquer while the latter was simply used as a node that would lead to the exploration and conquer of modern-day Honduras and further onto the isthmus. For this reason, Peten and Izabal (# 5 and # 11 in the map) played a leading role in the Spanish conquest of the Central American Isthmus. Geostrategically, however, Peten presents itself as if it were a separate country within Guatemala, and with a tremendous amount of Mexican influence. As aforementioned, the Yucatan General Captaincy (modern-day Mexico) would be the departing point of the Spanish expeditions, notably from Campeche, Merida and Salamanca de Bacalar onto Nojpeten, the Itza tribal kingdom, indirectly knitting the would-be Mexican influence, after the Mexican emancipation from Spain. Therefore, unsurprisingly, during the late 1950s, the Guatemalan government fostered internal migration from the Motagua River valley, pacific coastal lowlands, and central indigenous Highlands (specifically Alta Verapaz) to acculturate Peten. (In 1866 Peten was formally absorbed into Guatemala political geography, thereby reflecting the isolation and indirect dispute Peten was between Mexico and Guatemala.) Also, during the 1960s and 1970s, Peten was used as a base by the Guatemalan military regimes to creep and intimidate Belize of potential invasion. However, given ongoing civil war (1960-1996), and a threat by the British Government, Guatemala desisted in retaking Belize.
Commercially and geographically, Peten and Izabal remain isolated places. The indigenous highlands block political control of Peten and Izabal; as a consequence, both territories have become an extension of the drug cartels that originated in the Motagua River valley thornscrub ecoregion. Last but not least, Izabal is only connected by one important interdepartmental highway from Guatemala City, thus easily being cut whenever violent protests erupt in Guatemala City. Furthermore, because of the topographic obstacles from the Motagua River ecoregion, and the tropical moist forests and sierras of Izabal, Peten is a region where it is preferable to fly instead of a lengthy 8 to 10 hour drive. Consequently, Izabal and Peten, remain another hinterland in the Guatemalan geopolitical map.
5. Pacific Coastal Lowlands
As initially mentioned, Guatemala is a country of many hinterlands and borderlands. But if there is a region that represents the core geography of Guatemala, and a region that is fully controlled by the central government, that would be the pacific coastal lowlands; not only an area where the government exerts full control, but also an area that represents the bread and basket of Guatemala as a whole.
The Coastal lowlands is comprised by 5 separate departments, sharing similar mestizo ethnicity and stable climatic conditions, without much variety as the indigenous highlands, neither an unbalanced orographic rain shadow effect as in the Motagua River valley thornscrub ecoregion, nor the limestone, unfertile soil variety of the Tropical Moist Forest ecoregion. To a large degree, because of the Pacific Equatorial Counter Current, in this ecoregion, during the day, cool air descends, traveling in an onshore flow, until eventually is lifted when reaching some of the volcanic areas close to the Ermita Valley. Eventually, when the air ascends, these sea-hugging lowlands enjoy a continuous onshore sea breeze flow, steadily providing the right amount of humidity, insolation, temperature and air, influencing the soil pH (between 6.8 to 7.2) of the plains. During the night, when the land cools down, the ocean becomes warmer. And as the cool air descends from the indigenous highlands and Ermita valley’s hillsides, a refreshing land breeze aids this particular region. Lastly, in the same vein, since most of the indigenous highlands rivers, tributaries and small streams drain in the Pacific Ocean; these watersheds yield Guatemala’s most important developed agricultural spaces and industrialized areas.
Economically speaking, this is the bread and basket of Guatemala. But, apart from an economic viewpoint, this is the only ecoregion that remains the most reachable, unobstructed ecoregion of all. For this obvious reason, this eco region represents Guatemala’s core geography. And since the colonization epoch, this ecoregion has been the most developed, connected and transited with both the indigenous highlands and Ermita valley. Yet from a security point of view, it represents an open space for illegal immigration contraband groups and an easy gateway for criminal gangs (e.g. MS 13 and Barrio 18) that arouse from El Salvador, which easily reach the Ermita Valley, via Jutiapa (#13 on the map). Also, contraband and narcotics that stem from Ecuadorian (e.g. Guayaquil, Manta and Esmeraldas) and Colombian pacific ports (e.g. Bucaramanga) flawlessly make their way into the pacific coastal lowlands, eventually crossing into Mexico, without having to pass through Guatemala City. As a result, in spite of the rapid urbanization and industrialization this region upholds, it is a clear path for Colombian and Mexican cartels to commercialize in a hassle-free, point-to-point operational environment. Nevertheless, all of these departments are within an ease reach by the Guatemalan central government, if compared with the highlands and the tropical moist forest ecoregions.
• Even if this has been a generally, non-academic personal analysis, we have seen that by describing each geopolitical subfield, in the form of ecoregions, we are brought to ponder and grasp the intersection of how physical geography and political geography come to terms with each other—something unfortunately mainstream academia does not support.
• Guatemala is one of the most difficult territories within Central America to exert and control political dominance and economic integration. It is a highly fragmented country, but this fragmentation is experienced best in the indigenous highlands, where still, up to this day, after 500 years of Spanish domination, indigenous groups have conserved their identity, customs, laws and sense of governance. From an anthropological and academic viewpoint, it is one of the most fascinating countries of all Latin America. But from a statist point of view, the indigenous highlands are a buffer zone between Peten and the Ermita Valley, by shielding and isolating from government control the majority of the indigenous groups as well as control over the cartel regions and Mexican influence in the Peten basin.
Halford Mackinder, who unfortunately has been deemed as a determinist and bigot, had argued that geography is there to either be taken advantage from or simply to limit oneself. I wonder what the position of the Guatemalan government is. Moreover, if they are actually conscious of our barriers as a nation…
Introducing India’s first ever diving grant
Mumbai-based Vidhi Bubna, the founder of ‘Coral Warriors’, India’s first ever diving grant, is a keen humanitarian and is passionate about conserving marine life. ‘Coral Warriors’ focuses on making diving more accessible to Indian citizens and raising awareness about the impact of climate change and underwater pollution on corals.
Coral reefs are the basis for the formation of other organisms and are integral to marine ecosystems. They maintain levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere and purify by absorbing toxic elements in the water. However, they survive only in specific conditions. Climate change and growing industrialization are negatively impacting the corals at a large scale. Layers of toxic chemicals in the water prevent sunlight reaching the corals, which results in severe damage. Scientists from the University of Hawaii, Manoa predict that over 70% of all living coral will disappear in the next 20 years.
In this interview, Vidhi talks about her inspirations and what it means to be a Coral Warrior.
To start with, could you summarize what Coral Warriors does?
Coral Warriors is India’s first-ever diving grant. We essentially sponsor Indian citizens to go diving; they can choose the location they want to dive at. Our goal is to get more youth involved in diving so they can see the prevalent coral damage first-hand and do something about it. Many Indians don’t know what corals are, and we’d like to create awareness as well as save the corals.
What inspired you to start this organization? Why have you chosen to focus on corals?
I am an advanced scuba diver myself and have witnessed coral damage in Andamans, while learning to dive, as well as in the Maldives. I wanted to do something about this issue because most Indians aren’t aware about marine pollution, and simply aren’t doing enough.
What sort of change does Coral Warriors strive to bring about?
The first change we want to bring about is creating more awareness about corals, so people can help protect them. We also want to see more Indians involved in adventure activities like diving. In my experience, when a child wants to learn an adventure sport, most Indian parents aren’t supportive enough as they believe these sports are risky. I would love to see that change, and support people who are unable to access enough funds to go diving.
How does Coral Warriors select the most deserving candidates for the grant?
Out of the numerous grant applications we receive, we have an independent selection committee that chooses the candidates. Sponsoring all the applicants would be unrealistic because funds are limited. The committee selects the people that are passionate about climate change as well as deserving of the scholarship. Ideally, these people would be able to bring about a lot of change- and could even be the next Greta Thunberg!
What obstacles have you faced since the organization started?
One of the main obstacles has been acquiring funding. There are plenty of organisations focused on air pollution and road pollution. Both of these are visible; thus they get more funding. Most people are unable to observe the coral degradation underwater. Hence getting funding from the public, especially in India, is a challenging task.
Coral Warriors does accept donations, and also approaches universities abroad for funding. Universities abroad are generally more aware of marine damage, and therefore are more likely to help.
How is Coral Warriors looking to spread awareness on coral ecosystems?
As far as creating awareness goes, we host free online workshops where we talk about coral damage and environmental impact. Additionally, we offer an in-depth education about marine biodiversity- one cannot even imagine the abundancy of marine life. For instance, seeing a manta ray for the first time will change your life. You would never have seen something that beautiful before.
If there were three things you want the reader of this interview to take away, what would they be?
The first thing is that climate change is very real. We should not pay heed to people who tell us otherwise. The second thing is, just because we cannot see marine life and the ongoing underwater pollution, it doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist. It is happening as we speak right now. The third thing is that as we know these things are occurring, we should collectively be able to do something about it. These are the three main takeaways I would want readers to absorb.
The Meeting Point between Pandemic and Environmental
Humans in the Anthropocene
Humans are born from history, on the other hand, history is born from human life. Currently, humans have been in the Anthropocene, the era after the Holocene, a time when humans were more powerful in nature. This results in an imbalance of give and take activities between humans and the nature they inhabit. With rapid population growth, human needs will also increase. This increase in human needs will have an impact on the availability of existing natural resources. Exploitation of natural products such as coal, natural gas and others, this is accompanied by waste from production and human activities that produce waste in many sectors of life. What has been exploited by humans the impact is no longer comparable to what nature gives. Although nature has the ability to self-regenerate, but with human activities that are so aggressive in this era of globalization, it defeats the natural processes of nature. The presence of factories around the world after the steam engine and the industrial revolution occurred, weapons such as missiles, atomic bombs as a means of war for fellow humans, rockets and all kinds of vehicles of human ambition to export nature, all produce residual waste that is released, resulting in a large carbon footprint. affect the atmosphere which is as a protector and temperature regulator on earth. Not to mention the mining of many other crops.
The question that may often be asked but doesn’t need to be answered is “why should humans care about all that?”
In the last 100 years, the earth’s average temperature has increased between 0.4 to 0.8 C. The ambition of the countries in the world today is 1.5 degrees Celsius, whereas humans are facing the risk of an increase of 4 degrees, which means it will be the same with the temperatures that occurred between the Ice Age and the Holocene. In other words, humans are still far behind with the rate of destruction that exists. This warming will result in the emergence of many disasters in human life. Global warming is expected to cause the glaciers at both poles to melt and make the volume of sea water increase, most likely some islands on earth are at risk of sinking, especially the Indonesian archipelago which is a young land in geological history. Not only that, other impacts will be felt on climate change, a matter of months, days, seasons. Nature which is the main benchmark for farmers, fishermen and various sectors of work related to climate and seasons will feel a prediction crisis, several regions in Indonesia experience crop failures due to the calculations they do based on seasonal calculations are no longer accurate, even though these calculations have been passed down from generation to generation. inherited. But climate change and global warming have messed up astronomy. Maybe this is also what makes the Mayan calendar (piktun) only predict until 2012.
Not only the estimated harvest season, natural imbalances also cause the spread of disease vectors from animals to humans. Until now there has been no single plausible theory that definitely and accurately explains where COVID-19 came from and how it will disappear. Research is still being done, all theories put forward by scientists can be true. But scientists who study the environment, viruses, pandemics, health have found this conundrum, which all starts with “environmental imbalance”. If we describe briefly, in the food chain there is one missing which then results in advantages and disadvantages between predators and prey. If the rice field snakes are hunted by farmers, the rats will live more, and then they will eat the rice too, eventually the farmers will fail to harvest. Likewise, the case of COVID-19, with the large number of killings of wildlife, has shifted the pattern of the food chain.
Covid 19 and the balance of nature
There are many theories that explain the origin of the pandemic that humans are experiencing now, but until now there is no definite news about where the origin and cause of the catastrophe exists. US intelligence agencies say they may never be able to identify the origins of Covid-19, but they have concluded the virus was not created as a biological weapon. Apart from the specifics of covid 19 which is a virus, whose existence can never be seen with the naked eye, a number of scientists believe that the covid 19 pandemic occurs due to natural imbalances. The COVID-19 pandemic which was determined by the World Health Organization (WHO) or world health agency on March 11, 2020, could also occur due to the interruption of the food cycle which resulted in the explosion of a component of life without a predator in the same period of time.
The SARS-VoV-2 virus is a disease that originates from animals and is transmitted to humans. It is possible that the disease originated in bats, then spread through other mammals.
Even though it is not made in a laboratory, it does not mean that humans have no role in the ongoing pandemic. A recent study by scientists from Australia and the US found that human actions on natural habitats, loss of biodiversity and destruction of ecosystems contributed to the spread of the virus.
The number of infectious diseases has more than tripled every decade since the 1980s. More than two-thirds of these diseases come from animals, and about 70% of that number comes from wild animals. Infectious diseases that we know, for example: Ebola, HIV, swine flu and bird flu, are diseases that can be transmitted from animals to humans.
COVID-19 is also spreading rapidly as the world’s population is becoming more and more closely connected. This situation that surprised many people, had actually been warned by scientists for a long time. Joachim Spangenberg, Vice President of the European Institute for Sustainability Research, said that by destroying ecosystems, humans create conditions that cause animal viruses to spread to humans. “We created this situation, not the animals,” said Spangenberg. In 2016 UNEP Frontier has been warned that at least every four months a new zoonotic disease will emerge. This is due to human activities as follows:
Deforestation and habitat destruction
because humans are increasingly opening up areas inhabited by wild animals to graze livestock and take natural resources, humans are also increasingly susceptible to pathogens that have never previously left the area, and leave the bodies of the animals they inhabit.
“We’re getting closer to wild animals,” said Yan Xiang, a virologist at the University of Texas Center for Health Sciences. “And that puts us in touch with those viruses.” While David Hayman, professor of infectious disease ecology at Massey University, New Zealand said, the risk is also increasing not only through humans entering natural habitats, but also through animals. human pet
In addition, the destruction of ecosystems also has an impact on which types of viruses thrive in the wild and how they spread.
David Hayman emphasized, in the last few centuries, tropical forests have been reduced by 50%. This has a very bad impact on the ecosystem. In a number of cases, scientists have succeeded in revealing, if animals at the top of the food chain went extinct, animals at the bottom, such as mice that carried more pathogens, took their place at the top of the food chain.
“Each species has a special role in the ecosystem. If one species takes the place of another, this can have a major impact in terms of disease risk. And often we can’t predict the risk,” explains Alica Latinne of the Wildlife Conservation Society.
Evidence showing a link between the destruction of ecosystems and the increased risk of spreading new infections has led experts to emphasize the importance of the concept of “One Health”.
Wild animal trade
Markets selling wild animals and products from wild animals are another incubator for infectious diseases. Scientists consider it very likely that the SARS-CoV-2 virus that causes the disease COVID-19 emerged in a wild animal market in Wuhan, China.
Spangenberg explains that placing sick and stressed animals in cramped cages is an “ideal way” to create new pathogens, and spread disease from one species to another. Therefore, many scientists have urged the holding of stricter regulations for the wild animal market.
That is also the call of Elizabeth Maruma Mrema, Chief Executive of the Secretariat of the UN Convention on Biological Diversity. He has called for a worldwide ban on wild animal markets. But Mrema also reveals that for millions of people, especially in poorer regions of the world, these markets are a source of income.
Indonesia’s position in the eyes of the world
Indonesia is a country with a very large tropical forest, in COP 26 it was stated that Indonesia is the last bastion of planet earth along with the Amazon and the Congo forests. save a lot of germplasm, Indonesia’s forest area totals 128 million ha. Indonesia is a country with the third largest tropical rainforest in the world. That means, a lot of germplasm stored in it. This will also be a big scourge if the vast forest cannot be maintained properly. The expansion of residential areas, planting of oil palm, clearing land and roads will destroy some of the existing germplasm. Currently, humans have lost 8% of animal species and another 22%. If Indonesia participates in efforts to reduce and destroy the environment intentionally or unintentionally, we can estimate what will happen in the future.
How do greenhouse gases actually warm the planet?
Greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions – the atmospheric gases responsible for causing global warming and climatic change – are critical to understanding and addressing the climate crisis. Despite an initial dip in global GHG emissions due to COVID-19, the United Nations Environment Programme’s latest Emissions Gap Report (EGR) expects a strong rebound in 2021, when emissions are expected to be only slightly lower than the record levels of 2019.
While most GHGs are naturally occurring, human activities have also been leading to a problematic increase in the amount of GHG emitted and their concentration in the atmosphere. This increased concentration, in turn, can lead to adverse effects on climate. Effects include increases in the frequency and intensity of extreme weather events – including flooding, droughts, wildfires and hurricanes – that affect millions of people and cause trillions in economic losses.
The Emissions Gap Report found that if we do not halve annual GHG emissions by 2030, it will be very difficult to limit global warming to 1.5°C compared to pre-industrial levels by the end of the century. Based on current unconditional pledges to reduce emissions, the world is on a path to see global warming of 2.7 °C by the end of the century compared to pre-industrial levels.
“Human-caused greenhouse gas emissions endanger human and environmental health,” says Mark Radka, Chief of UNEP’s Energy and Climate Branch. “And the impacts will become more widespread and severed without strong climate action.”
So how exactly do GHG emissions warm the planet and what can we do?
What are the major greenhouse gases?
Carbon dioxide (CO2), methane and nitrous oxide are the major GHGs. CO2 stays in the atmosphere for up to 1,000 years, methane for around a decade and nitrous oxide for approximately 120 years. Measured over a 20-year period, methane is 80 times more potent than CO2 in causing global warming, while nitrous oxide is 280 times more potent.
Coal, oil and natural gas continue to power many parts of the world. Carbon is the main element in these fuels, and when they’re burned to generate electricity, power transportation or provide heat, they produce CO2, a colourless, odourless gas.
Oil and gas extraction, coal mining and waste landfills account for 55 per cent of human-caused methane emissions. Approximately 32 per cent of human-caused methane emissions are attributable to cows, sheep and other ruminants that ferment food in their stomachs. Manure decomposition is another agricultural source of the gas, as is rice cultivation.
Human-caused nitrous oxide emissions largely arise from agriculture practices. Bacteria in soil and water naturally convert nitrogen into nitrous oxide, but fertilizer use and run-off add to this process by putting more nitrogen into the environment.
What are the other greenhouse gases?
Fluorinated gases – such as hydrofluorocarbons, perfluorocarbons and sulfur hexafluoride – are GHGs that do not occur naturally. Hydrofluorocarbons are refrigerants used as alternatives to chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs), which depleted the ozone layer and were phased out thanks to the Montreal Protocol. The other gases have industrial and commercial uses.
While fluorinated gases are far less prevalent than other GHGs and do not deplete the ozone layer like CFCs, they are still very powerful. Over a 20-year period, the various fluorinated gases’ global warming potential ranges from 460–16,300 times greater than that of CO2.
Water vapour is the most abundant GHG in the atmosphere and is the biggest overall contributor to the greenhouse effect. However, almost all the water vapour in the atmosphere comes from natural processes. Human emissions are very small and thus relatively less impactful.
What is the greenhouse effect?
The Earth’s surface absorbs about 48 per cent of incoming solar energy, while the atmosphere absorbs 23 per cent. The rest is reflected back into space. Natural processes ensure that the amount of incoming and outgoing energy are equal, keeping the planet’s temperature stable,
However, GHGs, unlike other atmospheric gases such as oxygen and nitrogen, are opaque to outgoing infrared radiation. As the concentration of GHGs in the atmosphere increases due to human-caused emissions, energy radiated from the surface becomes trapped in the atmosphere, unable to escape the planet. This energy returns to the surface, where it is reabsorbed.
Since more energy enters than exits the planet, surface temperatures increase until a new balance is achieved. This temperature increase has long-term climate impacts and affects myriad natural systems.
What can we do to reduce GHG emissions?
Shifting to renewable energy, putting a price on carbon and phasing out coal are all important elements in reducing GHG emissions. Ultimately, stronger nationally determined contributions are needed to accelerate this reduction to preserve long-term human and environmental health.
“We need to implement strong policies that back the raised ambitions,” says Radka. “We cannot continue down the same path and expect better results. Action is needed now.”
During COP26, the European Union and the United States launched the Global Methane Pledge, which will see over 100 countries aim to reduce 30 per cent of methane emissions in the fuel, agriculture and waste sectors by 2030.
UNEP has outlined its six-sector solution, which can reduce 29–32 gigatons of carbon dioxide by 2030 to meet the 1.5°C warming limit. UNEP also maintains an online “Climate Note,” a tool that visualizes the changing state of the climate with a baseline of 1990.
Despite the challenges, there is reason to be positive. From 2010 to 2021, policies were put in place which will lower annual emissions by 11 gigatons by 2030 compared to what would have otherwise happened.
Through its other multilateral environmental agreements and reports, UNEP raises awareness and advocates for effective environmental action. UNEP will continue to work closely with its 193 Member States and other stakeholders to set the environmental agenda and advocate for a drastic reduction in GHG emissions.
Beyond these movements, individuals can also join the UN’s #ActNow campaign for ideas to take climate-positive actions.
By making choices that have less harmful effects on the environment, everyone can be part of the solution and influence change. Speaking up is one way to multiply impact and create change on a much bigger scale.
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