First published on January 30, 2017 by The Ecologist: http://www.theecologist.org/blogs_and_comments/Blogs/2988588/witness_the_la_gomera_forest_fires.html
Discussions around the effects of climate change tend to focus on the planet’s polar extremes, expanding deserts or low-lying areas. La Gomera – a subtropical forest perched more than a thousand metres above the ocean – is also at risk.
Señor Ángel Fernández is precisely the sort of person you want in charge of a project where failure is not an option. Meticulous, knowledgeable, patient and, above all, determined, this is not a man prone to exaggeration nor one likely to overlook an important detail.
I am sitting with Mr. Fernández in his modern, glass-walled and – mercifully, given the midday heat – air-conditioned office in San Sebastian, the main town on the island of La Gomera, a beautiful, volcanic outpost 18 miles west of Tenerife. In 2012, the island was hit by a huge fire – ‘El Gran Fuego’ – which devastated around a fifth of Garajonay National Park, a UNESCO World Heritage site and the undisputed jewel in La Gomera’s already sparkling crown.
The forest that defines the park is the best-surviving example of an ancient eco-system that once covered much of Europe and North Africa, but is now found only on the Canaries, the Azores and Madeira. Its trees are central to all life on the island, capturing the daily clouds of the trade winds and transforming them into precious water. It is this process which turns this hot, jagged rock at the edge of the old world into a lush and vibrant paradise.
But, like so many natural wonders, this magical forest is at the mercy of human beings.
Mr. Fernandez – the director of the park and the man charged with overseeing its recovery – explains that in summer of 2012 around 30 relatively small fires were detected and extinguished. Almost all of these, he says, were started by people, and while some were caused by carelessness – a thoughtlessly discarded cigarette or a poorly-controlled camp fire – many were the work of “incendiarios” – arsonists.
In the case of El Gran Fuego, which started in late summer, Mr Fernández is in no doubt about what happened.
“It was deliberate,” he says gravely, his shoulders dropping just a little.
“The conditions were very dry that year, so when the fire was started it spread extremely quickly and was very difficult to stop.”
“It came in two waves, disappearing for a few days – hiding – before coming back to do more damage. It was not completely extinguished until the rains came in October.”
“But the problem is not just the people starting the fires,” he adds. “You really have to understand what has happened here as part of the global change taking place.”
Discussions around the effects of climate change tend to focus on the planet’s polar extremes, expanding deserts or low-lying areas; but here, a subtropical forest perched more than a thousand metres above the ocean is at risk due to humanity’s impact on the fabric of our world.
“Human activity means that all around the world environments are changing,” Mr Fernández says. “Many countries are experiencing problems with fire as temperatures go up. It is the same for us and we have to find a way to respond.”
Conscious, perhaps, that he is speaking to a citizen of ‘Brexit Britain’, Mr. Fernández points out that the EU has been crucial to the recovery effort so far. In particular, money from the little-known ‘Life+ Programme’ – which distributes billions of Euros to support ‘environment and climate action’ – has helped fund initiatives and experiments in areas such as fire prevention, soil restoration and tree regrowth.
Some of the most effective solutions have been relatively simple, for instance, the creation of ‘barricados’ – a series of dam-like structures, formed of the blackened remains of trees and designed to prevent the fragile soil from being washed off the slopes – and the decision to replace highly-flammable plants with native, slow-burning alternatives in critical areas.
Other ideas are more high-tech. Mr. Fernández tells me of plans to establish fire-response systems which make use of linked, automated water-cannons. These arrays, he says, will be moved rapidly into areas threatened by future fires and then used to block the path of the flames.
Above all, Mr. Fernández emphasises the complexity of the challenges faced by the people of La Gomera. There is no one-size-fits-all solution.
“You cannot approach this as being a single problem,” he says, leaning forward in his chair. “Instead we see it as lots of connected problems affecting particular areas. We are making good progress and in time the forest will recover, but a range of different actions will be necessary to protect the forest for the future.”
That complexity is made real for me the next day when I meet Ricardo, a park ranger who shows me some of the areas directly affected by the flames. We meet at Laguna Grande, a remarkable clearing high in the forest and the symbolic centre of the island.
“It is actually like a miracle that this is still here,” Ricardo tells me, smiling.
When the fire was at its most destructive, huge walls of flame raged all around this area. In some instances the inferno was so intense that when it reached a barrier – a wider section of road, for instance, or a sudden rocky ridge – it simply leapt into the sky (“like a nuclear bomb”) and then swept forward to consume a new patch of pristine, priceless forest.
Yet amidst the destruction, the Laguna itself remained untouched, as though the heart of La Gomera had been somehow protected.
Many other areas were not so lucky. Over the next few hours we visit a number of sites where the impact of the fire is visible at first-hand.
The first stop is down a tree-lined path that drops from the roadside into the forest.
“This part here is a sort of sanctuary, but just a little further… , ” Ricardo says, leaving the sentence hanging in the still, early-morning air as we walk on.
Minutes later it’s like we’ve stumbled into another world. All around us the remains of thirty-foot heather trees stand, blackened and broken, the charred skeletons frozen in their final, terrifying moments, reaching up to the sky and calling out for help that never came.
“Some of the burned trees had to be cut down but we have learned that it is better for the new plants to leave some standing, especially the heather. Even like this they bring water to the soil and allow new life.”
Other areas reveal similar themes but with different details. Echoing Mr Fernandez, Ricardo believes a range of approaches is necessary to treat the diverse problems that scatter the park.
“In some places the trees are re-growing on their own and, in time, the forest will be fine. In others we have planted a lot of trees to help nature recover a little faster.”
A little later, and just a few miles down the road, we are walking through another of the fire-damaged sites when a familiar looking shrub catches my eye. It is a variety of gorse native to the Canary Islands which, according to Ricardo, is both a blessing and curse.
“It helps to repair the soil by providing nitrogen,” he tells me. “In some areas we have to let it grow because without it other plants will not be able to survive, but it is also dangerous. It burns very quickly and we are always worried about another fire.”
“We have to be careful to get it right.”
He pauses for a moment, looking out over valley below.
Then, with the same blend of confidence and determination that I saw twenty-four hours earlier, he adds: “Some areas will take many years to recover but it will be ok. We will keep working.”
“The forest belongs to everyone and we must protect it for the future.”
With thanks to the Turismo La Gomera for their assistance arranging my visit.
First published Sept 24, 2015 by Commonspace – https://www.commonspace.scot/articles/2351/james-mcenaney-when-photograph-means-more-all-words-we-can-write
ON the 4th of May 2014 my son – Ciaran Harris McEnaney – was born in Glasgow’s Southern General Hospital.
The latter stages of my wife’s pregnancy had been difficult, as was the birth itself, but he was finally here. When I held him for the first time – hands shaking, chest tightening – I remember feeling that the world had gotten just a little bit better in the instant of his arrival.
That initial elation didn’t last. Ciaran was obviously jaundiced and it soon became clear that he was struggling to maintain his body temperature; eventually, he was taken to intensive care.
I will never, for the rest of my life, forget how it felt to sit in that room, the index finger of my right hand pressed into his tiny palm, eyes fixed on his yellow-tinged body, literally begging – first aloud and then, when the words just wouldn’t come, silently – for him to stay warm, pull through and come home.
He did, but in those moments – when single seconds seemed to stretch out into eternity – I think I would have done anything to save him.
Ciaran is now 16 months old and is a happy, healthy child growing up in one of the most affluent areas of an incredibly rich and stable country, but the fear I felt in those early days has stayed with me ever since.
When I returned home from work today he was in the garden. He now recognises the sound of my motorbike and ran up to the gate as I approached. He stood there, smiling and waving until I pulled off my helmet and reciprocated.
This usually happens immediately, but not today – today, after all that I had seen, I had to take an extra few moments to compose myself.
Ciaran is upstairs now, asleep and mercifully unaware, the sound of his breathing drifting out from the baby monitor. I am sitting with my laptop on my knee, trying desperately – and futilely – to displace from my mind the image which has tormented me all day: the body of a little boy washed up on a European beach.
Alan Kurdi was a little older than my child, his clothes a little bigger, his skin and hair a little darker, but in every way that really matters this boy was no different from the son who means the world to me.
Every time I see that photograph of Alan I cannot help but think of Ciaran, and every time it makes me cry.
In my teaching I spend a lot of time impressing upon students the importance of thinking about their intended purpose and audience – why are you writing, and who are you writing for?
Right now I don’t have an answer for either question. I don’t know who this is for or what it’s supposed to achieve, only that these words demanded to be written.
I do know that in London right now David Cameron has finally been forced – forced – to accept that Britain must offer a safe haven to more of the refugees so desperate to reach Europe that they are willing to risk everything.
I know that discussions will be taking place where the political concerns of our government are weighed against the value of thousands upon thousands of human lives.
I also know that two-and-a-half thousand miles away Abdullah Kurdi is forced to confront something which I can barely comprehend: the loss of his wife and children.
Alan’s photograph may well be the catalyst which changes Europe’s attitude to the refugees screaming on our doorstep, but how can that possibly even begin to compensate a father whose family – whose world – is gone?
Even now I cannot find the words to properly express the way in which Abdullah Kurdi’s experiences make me feel, but I keep thinking about Ciaran, safe and secure a few metres above me.
I ask myself what I would be willing to do to keep him safe, where we would go if Scotland descended into the sort of hell engulfing countries like Syria.
I find myself trying to imagine how it would feel to take my infant son out onto a dangerous sea – one which has already claimed thousands of lives – simply because the land from which we have come is more dangerous than the journey across the water.
I struggle to understand how a continent whose collective identity was forged in the fire of almost unfathomable suffering could have failed so many for so long; how any human heart can be so hardened by hatred that it becomes possible to be indifferent to the suffering of millions; and how a prime minister can claim to have ‘done enough’ for refugees and then bear to look at his own reflection.
But there is something I absolutely can understand, and that is the words of Abdullah Kurdi, whose dreams of a better life in Europe have been ripped apart: “I just want to see my children for the last time and stay forever with them.”
Picture courtesy of Mustafa Khayat
First published 18 June, 2015 by CommonSpace – https://www.commonspace.scot/articles/1650/james-mcenaney-guilty-silence-which-leaves-blood-all-our-hands
ON Monday Amnesty International offered its contribution to Refugee Week by publishing a scathing report entitled ‘The Global Refugee Crisis: a conspiracy of neglect’.
The entire document (click here to read it) is a searing indictment of the response to the “growing refugee crisis”, with 35 pages laying bare the abject failure of the so-called international community.
The report outlines, in devastating detail, the scale of suffering being experienced by human beings across the world, but perhaps the most shocking point is made in the opening lines of the executive summary: the number of people ‘forcibly displaced from their homes’ has, for the first time since the Second World War, risen to more than 50 million people.
Fifty. Million. People.
To put that figure into some sort of context it is higher than the populations of Scotland, Ireland, Wales, Northern Ireland, Finland, Norway, Sweden, Denmark, Iceland, Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania combined.
There are more refugees in the world than there are people living in Spain, Argentina or Canada. Of the nearly 200 countries on earth only 26 have more residents than the number of people that Amnesty International argues have ‘been abandoned to an unbearable existence’.
Across Africa, the Middle East and south-east Asia millions of men, women and children endure daily suffering which, to us, is utterly unimaginable.
In the Andaman Sea Rohingya Muslims make a desperate attempt to escape persecution in Burma. Their journey, which includes prison camps, forced marches, beatings and weeks crammed into boats with minimal supplies was briefly highlighted several weeks ago; in truth, the Rohingya’s plight has been common knowledge for many years.
In the Middle East half of Syria’s population is currently to be found in refugee camps, having fled first the forces of President Assad and now the death, torture and sexual slavery meted out by Islamic State militants.
Last year the United Nations High Commission for Refugees assisted half a million internally displaced persons in Iraq, while the United Nations Relief and Works Agency recognises the rights of around five million Palestinian refugees – denied the right to return to Palestine by the West’s main ally in the region – to access its services.
In sub-Saharan Africa the Dadaab refugee camp is currently home to 350,000 people (more than the total population of North Lanarkshire), with around 3.4 million refugees in the region as a whole.
Conflicts in Somalia, South Sudan and the Central African Republic have ensured the continuation of what may be the longest-standing refugee crisis in the world.
Meanwhile, on the continent’s Mediterranean shores, human traffickers exploit thousands upon thousands of people so desperate that they are willing to undertake a voyage which they know will possibly be their last.
So far this year almost two thousand have drowned trying to reach Europe and, despite the eventual reintroduction of the ‘search and rescue’ campaign which includes the HMS Bulwark (at least for now), it should never be forgotten that innocent human beings were initially to be abandoned because Europe’s political leaders calculated that they were of more value dead than alive.
In a world with 24-hour news services and ever-expanding social-media platforms it is a wonder that any of us sleep at night.
And yet sleep we do.
Of course we are affected – to varying degrees – by the snapshots of agony which appear on our television screens: we mumble that our leaders should be ashamed of themselves as we eat dinner; our ‘eyeballs prick with tears between bath and pre-lunch beers’; we might even donate a few pounds a month to Oxfam or hand over an annual tenner to Children in Need.
But still we sleep – soundly, every night, safe in the knowledge that our birth certificates are also winning lottery tickets.
But we know all of this. We know about the terrible events happening in the world. We have seen the photographs and the videos; we have watched the news reports; we have read the adverts for UNICEF and MSF appeals. How, then, are we able to detach ourselves so completely from the unspeakable suffering of fellow human beings?
On the one hand such detachment is absolutely necessary – we simply could not function if we were to be emotionally affected by every single unnecessary death, and it is entirely reasonable that the loss of someone close to us has a far greater impact than the end of a stranger’s life – but this does not even come close to telling the whole story.
In reality, when terrible crises occur beyond the boundaries of ‘Fortress Europe’ our responses are all too often driven not by a sense of shared humanity, or a belief that we all belong to the ‘same human family’; instead, we separate ourselves from the suffering on the basis that it is not our problem. Worse still, we are able to do this because those suffering simply do not look like us.
This phenomenon is perhaps most easily understood through the overlapping prisms of the Rwandan Genocide – where up to a million people were hacked to death in full view of the international community – and the Bosnian Civil War.
As Stephen R Haynes points out in ‘Death was everywhere, even in front of the Church’, Rwanda and Bosnia were “different stories” because in the latter, despite “the difficult-to-pronounce names and the unfamiliar traditions, we were able to identify victims who ‘look like us’.”
David Livingstone Smith goes still further in his book ‘The Most Dangerous Animal: Human Nature and the Origins of War’ when he argues, correctly, that “we feel that people who resemble us are more valuable than those who do not”.
Consider this: if the sort of outrages to which we have become shockingly accustomed were affecting Europeans or North Americans would our response – both individual and collective – be different?
If the faces staring at us from our smartphone screens and newspaper pages were white would we care enough to act? If we could see ourselves in those 50 million refugees would we, as a nation, still largely turn our backs on them?
In the extraordinarily powerful ‘Spiritual Damage’ – a short reflective essay exploring the impact of reporting on the Rwandan Genocide – Fergal Keane makes clear why this apathy is so dangerous when he argues that “if we ignore evil we become the authors of a guilty silence”.
When faced with terrible injustices inaction becomes complicity and, by that measure, we all bear responsibility for the suffering of refugees around the world.
We are citizens of a country which has provided refuge for just 187 people fleeing a living hell in Syria, which refuses to accept a Europe-wide approach to helping those “in clear need of international protection” (click here to read more), and which, just last week, deported a Pakistani asylum-seeker who is now feared dead.
The UK – as one of the world’s wealthiest nations – should be leading the way in developing the ‘global response’ to the refugee crisis called for by Amnesty International.
Their recommendations, such as the establishment of a global refugee fund, fulfillment of resettlement needs as identified by UNHCR and, most importantly, “an absolute commitment to saving lives” should underpin the foreign policy of any compassionate nation. The UK should be throwing its full weight behind these demands, but it won’t.
Instead, politicians subtly, but persistently, encourage the electorate to blame the ongoing economic crisis on groups of poor and powerless human beings including – though not limited to – asylum seekers and refugees; newspapers boost their circulation figures with articles invoking the dehumanising language of genocide; and, according to a recent YouGov poll, nearly half of Britons believe that our country should not be “a place of refuge for people who have fled from conflict and persecution overseas”. (Click here to read more).
We could and should do so much more, but the truth is that, as a nation, we simply sit back and look on, happy to benefit from the consequences of a globalised world (we have the world’s sixth-largest economy and are also one of the top international arms dealers) but unwilling to share our privilege with those left with nothing but the hope of a better life.
The challenge for all of us lies in facing up to our collective complicity in this ongoing act of evil, particularly when our lifestyles so often directly depend upon the inequalities and conflicts which are driving so much of the horror experienced on a daily basis by innocent men, women and children across the globe.
Our ‘guilty silence’ is written by our refusal to acknowledge that the very structures of our specific society and broader world order put politics and profits before people.
Despite our occasional protestations, the actions of our government – carried out in our name, for our benefit, and ultimately with our consent – coupled with our understandable yet inexcusable apathy leaves blood on all of our hands.