Thursday, February 15, 2007

Out of the Neolithic

Following time with the good guys chasing the bad guys in the Central Philippines (see Massive blow to destructive fishing), I am visiting the science guys (and gals) at the Marine Science Institute field station in Bolinao in the North. I will reflect and write more about both in a forthcoming book, but here is a short interim musing.

Big, quick changes in perception are underway in at least some parts of this country (as in others). Will those changes be enough to lead to changes in human behaviour and management of the marine environment (on which so many Philippinos depend) that will both protect at least part of the extraordiary natural heritage *and* increase quality of life for people in other ways?

It's sometimes said that when it comes to the seas, humans are not yet out of the Neolithic: we have scarcely begun the transition from hunter-gatherers to farmers. In the early part in the transition we seem, generally speaking, to be applying techniques that are at least as destructive of the natural biome as many of those deployed in large scale mechanised agriculture after World War Two. (Here in Bolinao, for example, what were once massively rich and diverse coral reefs have basically disappeared, and the amazing animal life that went with them is largely gone. The usual suspects, including widespread use of cyanide and blast fishing, have largely been responsible, but now that these have been brought under control, fish farming over the last two decades or so seems to be doing most of the damage. Or so, at least is my first impression).

Will it be possible to get fish farming more right in than agriculture? Will the farmers themselves learn?

An article by Lydia Polgreen on the regreening of Niger by its farmers (In Niger, Trees and Crops Turn Back the Desert) suggests some analogies for hope (although there are many important differences and my comparison may be too facile. Further, even with best case similarities things may get much worse first). David Bellamy, speaking at the British School in Manila earlier this week, was right to pick up on those messages of hope at least with regard to the terrestrial environment.

But it is going to be a very hard slog on land and in the sea, and the joker could be climate change. Polgreen reports projections by Kerry H. Cook based on a variety of climate models which point to longer and more frequent dry periods in the Sahel, caused by rising temperatures in the Gulf of Guinea. The impact of likely rises in sea surface temperature do not necessarily portend advantage either.

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