During my recent trip to the stunning Andaman Islands in the Indian Ocean, I found myself fascinated by what must be one of the most extraordinary places on Earth in the 21st century: North Sentinel Island, that was only just over the horizon to the west. The Andaman islands has a fascinating indigenous population, that on the main islands has largely suffered the same tragic fate of guns and germs as many native peoples worldwide, with the notable exception of the Jarawa who maintain a large tribal reserve on Middle Andaman. Despite over a century of colonization and settlement, the islands still hold vast stretches of lush tropical forest. The Andamanese population appears to genetically unique (e.g. as shown in this paper in Science), possibly isolated since the first modern human migration out of Africa along the southern coast of Asia to Australasia, around 40,000 years ago.
About 40 km west of the main group of islands, however, sits North Sentinel Island, a place which has experienced only the most limited and brief landings by visitors from the outside work. It is inhabited and fiercely defended by a native population of around 300 (though no-one knows for sure has no outsider has been onshore long enough to study). These are possibly the most isolated people on the planet, even more than the uncontacted groups of western Amazonia, which have contact and intermixing with neighbours.
The Sentinelese apparently survived the 2004 Indian Ocean earthquake and its after-effects, including the tsunami and the uplifting of the island, which significantly extend the island and uplofted coral reefs, disrupting this fishing grounds. Three days after the event, an Indian government helicopter observed several of them, who shot arrows and threw stones at the hovering aircraft with the apparent intent of repelling it. Although the fishing grounds of the Sentinelese were disturbed, they appear to have adapted to the island's current conditions.
Here is a video of the first (and one of very few) friendly contacts. Nowadays official policy is to leave the Sentinelese alone, although unofficial contacts do occur. In 2006 two fisherman who ventured near the island were killed.
In this world of global connection and the heat of the Anthropocene, it is thought-provoking to think of this island and these people still at the edge of the unpredictable currents of history
These two weeks we are conducting a field campaign on the canopy walkway at Wytham Woods, Oxford University's ecological research laboratory. This is partially to collect these data from the canopy trees at Wytham in anticipation of an overflight and lidar and hyperspectral mapping by the NERC aircraft next week, and partially to train up teams to conduct similar work in Ghana and Malaysian Borneo later this year and early next year. Participants include several students and researchers from Oxford, but also from Cambridge (David Coomes 'group), Aberdeen, Lancaster and Edinburgh, and the Forest Research Institute of Ghana (Stephen Adu-Bredu and Theresa Peprah).
The weather has been good this week and the woods have been idyllic: walking through the forest you we are bathed in glorious multi-layered green, a good dose of shinrinyoku, "forest bathing".
There is also a nice blog and more photos about this work here, by visiting researcher Ben Blonder.
[Some of these photos (the most wonderful ones!) are by Andrew Harrington (http://www.harringtonphotography.com/) and are not for reproduction for commercial purposes without permission]
I went to a talk today on Brazilian indigenous protests against deforestation, and the Belo Monte hydroelectric project. The highlight was seeing Chief Raoni Metuktire (with his famous lip disk) and Chief Megaron Txucarramãe of the Kayapó talking about their history of protest. In the 1980s and 1990s they were instrumental in highlighting the deforestation of the Brazilian Amazon (most famously Chief Raoni with Sting) and pushing for the successful demarcation of indigenous lands. Today their vast indigenous territories are an island of green forest in an ocean of extensive deforestation. In a single astonishing lifetime Chief Raoni has gone from a young boy in an uncontacted Amazonian tribe to national and international activist and successful champion of Amazonian indigenous peoples.
Last week the Ecosystems Lab spent a wonderful day in the New Forest, hosted by two expert guides Jonathan Spencer (Forest Enterprise Head of Environment, England and former Senior Ecologist in the New Forest) and Jane Smith (Head of Planning and Environment in FE South District).
The New Forest is neither New (it was established by the Norman William the Conqueror as a royal hunting forest in around 1079), nor a forest in the modern sense (it has many areas of open, treeless heath). In the Norman sense a forest was an area for hunting by the elite declared to be outside (Latin foris) the common law of the land, i.e. local people were restricted from farming it or hunting.
What has emerged over the centuries is a fascinating and suprising stable social-ecological system. Forest Laws were enacted to preserve the New Forest as a location for royal deer hunting, and interference with the King's deer and its forage was punished. But the inhabitants of the area (commoners) had pre-existing rights of common: to turn horses and cattle) out into the Forest to graze (common pasture), to gather fuel wood to cut peat for fuel, to dig clay, and to turn out pigs between September and November to eat fallen acorns and beechnuts (pannage or mast).
We learned a huge amount about how histories, wars and individual shaped the nature of the land and forest. This probably true in most socio-ecological landscapes; what is astonishing and fascinating about the New Forest is that the events and histories are recorded in a thousand years of documentation and detailed research – in most places in the world, and especially in the tropics, we are almost blind to the social histories and events that have shaped a landscape.
There is a related post by Ben Blonder on this visit here.
There a new book, "Is the Planet Full?" by Oxford University Press, that provides and update and some interesting new perspectives on the question of how much impact we are having on the Earth, and how much more impact can the Earth support. I have a chapter, "the metabolism of a human-dominated planet", that takes a quantitative metabolic approach to the question "how big is humanity?". It examines human metabolism throughout human history, ranging from hunter-gatherer society through pre-industrial agricultural societies through to modern industrial societies. The introduction chapter to the book can be downloaded here, and my chapter can be accessed here. The book can be purchased from the OUP website or most other book suppliers.
Last weekend I had a wonderful family weekend at the Hay Book Festival, where I presented on my chapter together with Charles Godfray (who talked on food supply). The slides for the talk can be downloaded here and the audio file can be downloaded here. The talk explores a couple of ideas further, including the intriguing idea that much of Eurasia stalled in metabolic growth after the collapse of the Roman Empire for 1700 years before the industrial revolution.
This article gets it spot on. When we realize fully how small the atmosphere is compared to the amount of carbon dioxide and other waste gases we are pouring in to it now, it is hard not to take climate change seriously. It would be like pumping car exhaust into your living room and hoping that by some lucky coincidence it won't affect us and saying we don't know enough to do anything about it- it would be foolish not to take it seriously and look for a long term solution that involves both technology and governance. Finding solutions that maintain much that is good about the modern world is not easy, but denial is not helpful.
Yadvinder Malhi is an ecosytem ecologist and Professor of Ecosystem Science at Oxford University