Strategies for Reporting on Environment
Environmental journalists often go wrong when they highlight flagship species to emphasis the need for protection of biological habitats.
The people may just refuse to go by when you argue that the lion tailed monkey ought to be protected in preference to a power project.
This happened in the case of the campaign against Silent Valley hydroelectric project in Kerala (India) that focused too much on the monkeys. Yet Silent Valley was saved owing to multi-faced campaigns launched by Non-Governmental Organisations and The Hindu, India's National Newspaper. However, politicians still raise the debate whether monkeys or human beings were important. They manage with these kinds of argument because the public are not fully aware of the biological wealth of Silent Valley and how that wealth relates to them and the future generations. (Silent Valley is now a World Heritage site).
A few years ago, a newspaper report on the proposed Vamanapuram Irrigation Project in Thiruvananthapuram spoke of the harm the project would cause to the Nilgiri tahr (ibex) on the Ponmudi Mountains. Such reports can even be counter-productive not only because it projected a flagship species but also because the argument was far fetched.
The Kallar Valley, and the river on which the dam of the Vamanapuram Project was to be built, is lying at an elevation of less than 300 metres whereas the ibex lived at an elevation of about 900 metres. There was little chance of the tahr being directly affected by the project. Moreover, ibex has almost ceased to be an endangered species on account of conservation measures undertaken in the past. The population at Ponmudi was not that critical. All that one could say was that some forests would be lost on the lower elevation and this would have some effect on their habitat at the top of the mountains.
Loss of forests and its distant effects, unfortunately, are not arguments that would be fully appreciated by many readers. However, in the case of the forests of Kallar Valley, there was a something more to say. The Valley was one of the few remaining forested low lying valleys in Kerala. The State has more than 30 valleys that lie at an elevation of less than 300 metres above the mean sea level. Almost all of them were forested over a century ago. But, people have cleared them for farming. The import would still be obvious only to a trained scientist unless the reporter adds a few scientific facts in plain language. Different types of plants grow at different elevations. Plants found at low elevation would not grow at higher elevations, say, the Ponmudi mountains.
Relate the issue to people
The reporter has to add something more that would relate the issue to daily lives of people. One fact is that many of our medicinal plants grow at this elevation and many medicinal herbs are now found only in the forests. Well, our ancestors were conscious of these things when they colonised the valleys. So, they preserved some areas as sacred groves and gave a religious aura to it so that none would destroy them. Even in those groves, sacred trees like Koovalam, which has medicinal value, have become rare.
For the man on the street, the ayurvedic medicines would be important, but not necessarily for the policy maker. Here, economics may be an area they would understand better than environment. Kerala had invested over Rs. 1000 crores on major irrigation projects during the past forty years. The rate of return has not been even one per cent. So, why invest on another project? The project was conceived years ago to irrigate paddy fields. These fields have since been converted into garden lands...
So, if you are writing about the impact of the proposed hydroelectric project at Pooyamkutty in Idukki district, the impact on the reed economy based on the Pooyamkutty forests would be a better argument than the species diversity of the forests. The locals may be concerned about the earthquakes and over two dozen dams spotting the district. The cause of tribals too cannot be ignored anymore. The fact that the forest that will be submerged by the reservoir is a corridor for the elephants may concern the environmentalists. But that may not carry conviction with many others.
Listen to the people first
The most important thing is that the journalist, who wishes to communicate environmental issues to the people, should hear the people first. The people of Kallar had been agitating against the project for long. What were their arguments? Was there something deeper than the environmental arguments they projected in their leaflets?
Frequent contacts with the affected people are a must for anyone covering environmental issues. This also means that the reporter visits the areas involved including forests before shooting off conclusions based on known arguments in favour of protecting the environment. Each case can have something more than that meets the eye. These days, even vested interests pose as nature lovers. Some commercial interests cleverly promote the cause of environment with hidden objectives. Sometimes this would be to hide their own sins or to put down competitors. Some environmental organisations raise a bogey of protest over every issue just to keep themselves afloat.
When reporters cannot visit, sincere activists with a sense of proportion can be source to learn about field level developments. The leaders of mainstream environmental organisations should not be depended upon for this, as their own information would be secondary. They are better when you need a few quotes.