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May 4, 2011 / Dr. Toad

Hope in a Changing Climate – The Movie

A short documentary filmed by the Environmental Education Media Project, Hope in a Changing Climate originally aired on BBC World in January 2010, and recently won the UN-sponsored International Forest Film Festival in the Issues & Solutions category. Narrated by John Liu, it shows three success stories in restoring large-scale ecosystems in China, Ethiopia and Rwanda.

Trailer (off-site):

I watched this documentary at a noon screening today at the College of Forest Resources at the UW. The International Forestry Students Association is showing all of the 2011 winners of the Forestry Film Festival as a lunchtime series. The shows are free and open to the public. There are two more on Wednesdays May 11th (Climbing Redwood Giants) and May 25th (The Queen of Trees — Best of Festival winner) at 12:00 in the Forest Club room (room 207, 2nd floor, Anderson Hall, University of Washington — map).

As with many free campus events, you can expect some technical difficulties: the film is digitally projected from a laptop computer which sometimes has trouble keeping up with the action; the sound comes from two PC speakers that stand right next to each other — it’s not Dolby stereo by any means.

Despite these hiccups, I will definitely go again and recommend this series to anybody even remotely interested in ecosystems (and that should be everybody). Judging by today’s screening, these documentaries are visually appealing, they tell a compelling story, and you just may learn something cool.

Recommendation: accept with minor revisions.

So what did I learn from Liu’s Hope in a Changing Climate?

That with a bit of knowledge and a lot of cooperation, you can solve a very complex problem. At issue is land and ecosystem erosion: farmers on the brink of poverty and at the mercy of floods, mudslides and droughts practice subsistence agriculture for centuries on hillsides and in marshlands, cutting the trees and depleting the soil. The resulting lack of rooted vegetation leads to more flooding, mudslides and droughts, as the waters, when they do come, gush through rather than being retained, and move away the last of the fertile soil. The vicious cycle continues until previously lush valleys become lifeless barren moonscapes. The farmers move on and start things anew in a different place. Only soon they run out of places to destroy and die of famine.

What to do? The solution part of this Issues & Solutions winner looks at three success stories where the farmers listened to scientists who were backed up by government aid — in China, in Ethiopia, and in Rwanda. It took a lot of persuasion (including with sound science) and some financial compensation, but it was possible to get the people who depended on that land for a living to let it recover, and to change their practices. In China, the villagers left their lifestock in their yards, and constructed a system of terraces on the hillsides. Farming then restarted on the terraces, while the slopes in between were saved for trees which retained soil and water. In a few years’ time, the valley returned to a bright green, farmers prospered and the land gave a harvest even in an uncommonly dry season because topsoil now retained moisture. What can I say? Hurray for communist planning and government tyranny in that one case, eh?

It’s worth it to sit through the first few minutes of what comes across a bit too much like Chinese government propaganda, to get to the success stories in Ethiopia and Rwanda — poor African countries not particularly known for a super-centralized government. These restoration efforts are different in the details of the problems and solutions. In Rwanda, the farmers were draining marshlands, which resulted in an energy crisis in the nation’s capital, as the normally full-bodied rivers used for hydroelectricity dried up significantly and extremely poor Rwanda was forced to rent diesel generators to the tune of $65,000 per day(!). The farmers were persuaded to preserve some land for restoration, and a few years later — no more energy crisis! Amazing stuff. In Ethiopia an oasis of endogenous trees was restored through the efforts of a local professor and a year-round roaring brook miraculously appeared where before there was only a muddy trickle in the rainy season.

The point of the film is that listening to a simple and sound scientific truth is really worth it. Soil needs trees. Restoration of trees leads to the retaining of fertile topsoil, which retains water, which increases soil productivity, which produces more plants (including trees but also crops), which sequesters carbon, etc. etc. Restoration is a virtuous cycle. About 1/4 of landmass on Earth is dead ecosystems and land damaged through centuries of unenlightened human activities. Why not do restoration on a global scale? Judging by the documented success stories, if you treat them as pilot studies, restoration is a very good investment plan. The President of Rwanda, a UN official, and several scientists say so in the documentary, and I guess this talk of investment and return in the end makes up for the dancing Chinese masses in the beginning of this otherwise compelling documentary.

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