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Learning from the Rainmakers

East African scientists court traditional knowledge for accurate weather predictions

As changes in weather continue to ravage farms and take a toll on food production across East Africa, scientists and meteorologists are turning to traditional rainmakers and weather forecasters to bolster the accuracy of weather predictions.

photo of Thomas Osore OmulakoPhoto by DFID – UK Department for International Development Thomas Osore Omulako, a rainmaker in Kenya's Nganyi community, on his maize farm.

The rainmakers have perfected the art of interpreting plant responses and animal behaviors to predict the weather. They observe when plant leaves curl, for example, or when flowers bloom. And they watch everything from the movements of certain birds, to bee migrations, to mating patterns of animals like antelopes, to the croaking of frogs, to predict the timing and intensity of rains and drought with high precision.

In Western Kenya, considered one of the country's breadbaskets, conventional forecasting using modern equipment has traditionally been frowned upon as too scholarly. Thousands of smallholder farmers have for years relied on the rainmakers from the Nganyi community, which is well-known for weather interpretation using Indigenous knowledge, to advise them about when and what to plant based on weather patterns. The weather predictions can be for a day, week, or even a month. In return for insight on the weather, farmers repay the rainmakers with the proceeds from their farms.

Traditionally, the rainmakers’ work has always been confined to the community level, receiving little or no recognition from scientists or the government. Rainmakers have at times even been ostracized as sorcerers.

That seems to be changing. Recent research has examined the important role of Indigenous knowledge in weather prediction, and how it can be applied to climate adaptations. And with unprecedented weather phenomena impacting Kenya, including El Niño and hailstorms, researchers there have sought the help of the Indigenous forecasters to create a hybrid weather intelligence system for the country.

Scientists from the Kenya Meteorological Department, the University of Nairobi, and Maseno University have now partnered with Nganyi rainmakers to blend Indigenous and conventional weather predicting models in a project dubbed "Climate Change Adaptation in Africa" and funded by Britain and Canada. The scientists conduct consultations with the rainmakers at a shrine forest, which the rainmakers have relied on for weather prediction for decades. It is a treasure trove of biodiversity, with 67 …more

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Celebrity Selfies with Apes Damaging Efforts to Curb Wildlife Trafficking, Warns UN body

Instagram snaps of celebs like Khloe Kardashian posing with orangutans and chimpanzees put survival of these endangered species at risk

Instagram snaps of celebrities including Paris Hilton and James Rodriguez posing with apes in the Gulf are damaging efforts to clamp down on wildlife trafficking and endangering the survival of some species, a UN body has warned.

Khloe Kardashian InstagramPhoto by Khloe Kardashian InstagramKhloe Kardashian posing with an orangutan in Dubai. She posted the photo with the following caption: “My new
best friend, Dior!!!! I had the most incredible day!! Thank you for such a blessed experience! #MyDubai”

New research by the UN’s great apes survival partnership (GRASP) points to an alarming rise in trafficking of orangutans, chimpanzees, gorillas, and bonobos stolen from the wild, mostly to feed demand from a boom in macabre Chinese circuses.

But an increasing number are also finding their way to the private gardens and restaurants of the Gulf elite, and GRASP fears that the trade is being accelerated by celebrity endorsements.

Doug Cress, the program’s coordinator, told The Guardian: “The paparazzi shots of Paris Hilton and football star James Rodriguez and others cuddling baby orangutans at private zoos in Dubai are incredibly damaging to conservation efforts, and GRASP calls on celebrities to avoid such photo opportunities.”

Photos of Paris Hilton with a dressed-up baby orangutan at the Saif Belhasas private zoo in Dubai began circulating in 2014. “She’s the cutest little girl in the world,” Hilton reportedly said of the ape.

James Rodriguez Photo by James Rodriguez Instagram Last December, Real Madrid soccer star James Rodriguez posted a photo of himself
with an orangutan in Dubai to his Instagram account.

Last December, the Real Madrid star James Rodriguez uploaded a photo of himself with an orangutan in Dubai to his Instagram account, despite strong condemnation by GRASP.

The rapper Kid Ink also posted an Instagram shot of himself with an orangutan dressed in baby clothes in Dubai two months ago, as did Khloe Kardashian.

None of the celebrities’ agents responded to emailed requests for comment.

Cress said: “These pictures are seen by hundreds of millions of fans, and it sends the message that posing with great apes — all of which are obtained through illegal means, and face miserable lives once they grow too …more

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Conversation: Frans de Waal

One of the ‘great minds of science’ discusses how research continues to disprove preconceived notions of animal intelligence

Dr. Frans de Waal is a biologist and primatologist known for his work on the behavior and social intelligence of primates. His research has been published in hundreds of peer reviewed scientific journals, and his best-selling books — including Chimpanzee Politics (1982), Our Inner Ape (2005),  The Bonobo and the Atheist (2013) — which draw parallels between primate and human behavior — have popularized him as one of the world’s foremost experts on animal intelligence. In 2007, Time magazine listed him as one of the worlds’ most influential people today, and in 2011, Discover magazine listed him among 47 (all time) Great Minds of Science.

Frans de Waal Photo by Peter on Flickr

De Wall is the director of the Living Links Center at the Yerkes National Primate Research Center, in Atlanta, Georgia and a professor at Emory University’s psychology department. His latest book, Are We Smart Enough To Know How Smart Animals Are? discusses the history of animal behavior and cognition studies at a time when scientists are beginning to study animal cognition in tandem with human cognition rather than in comparison to one another.

In the book, De Waal reviews the rise and fall of the view of animals as machines and shows us how animal minds are far more intricate and complex than we have assumed. He challenges our anthropocentric view of humans being at the top of the cognitive and sentience ladder. What if there is no such ladder? he asks. What if instead, this whole business is more like a bush, with cognition taking different forms that are often incomparable to ours?

I spoke with De Waal recently about his new book and the recent research involving various animals, from crows to dolphins, which continue to disprove our preconceived notions of animal intelligence. 

In your latest book, how do you resolve the question, “are we smart enough to know how smart animals are?”

The book is about animal intelligence and how we have, for a long time, underestimated animal intelligence, sort of systematically because a large number of scientists wanted to reduce everything that animals do to either instinct or to very simple learning processes that are found in rats and pigeons and many animals, but we never considered animals with large brains …more

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When Out On the Trail, Leave Your Dog Behind

No matter how sweet, our furry friends pose a significant threat to wildlife

There’s a reason many nature lovers own dogs. As an often-solo female hiker, I enjoy the added security, the pleasure of being alone without being totally alone, and the joy of watching my dog bound down the trail or jump into a mountain lake with an abandon I cannot usually muster.

photo of dog running on trailPhoto by Mitchel Jones A dog frolics in Joaquin Miller Park in California. Unfortunately, bringing dogs on the trail with you can be a bad idea.

The fact that most of the pristine outdoor locations in our nation (and in my home state of California) don’t welcome dogs has always been a disappointment, and like many dog owners, I’ve taken my dog into forbidden park territory fairly regularly. It was easy to convince myself the "No Dogs on Trail" signs didn't really apply to me. After all, my rescue mutt looks nothing like the cute little terrier silhouette crossed out on the sign. What’s the harm of just one well-behaved dog? It helped that during my decade of occasional dog trespassing, I was never once confronted by a ranger.

Then last September, I became a volunteer with the mounted patrol team in the Marin Headlands, the section of Golden Gate National Recreation Area (GGNRA) north of San Francisco. One of my duties during my weekly one-to-two hour horseback patrol is to confront visitors breaking the dog rules, by either allowing their dog to run around off-leash in an on-leash section, or by hiking on-leash in a dog-free section of the park. On some two-hour rides, I see no rule-breakers. Sometimes I see five or six. As a volunteer, I can’t issue a citation, but most rule-breakers are still apologetic and embarrassed. Occasionally someone will become confrontational, using the incident as an excuse to complain about the injustice of dog laws. “After all,” one said, “your horse is pooping everywhere, too.” 

But what I’ve learned during my work here is there are valid reasons why having dogs on the trail with you can be a bad idea. 

For starters, dogs are predators by nature and they often mark their territory in order to keep competitors away. This scent marking can infringe on the terrain of wide-ranging wild predator species such as mountain lions, coyotes, and bobcats, and …more

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A Recipe for Change?

In Review: Cooked: A Natural History of Transformation
By Michael Pollan
Penguin Press, 2013, 480 pages

In Cooked: A Natural History of Transformation, Michael Pollan describes his personal journey of stepping away from processed and packaged foods toward cooking from scratch, and highlights the grievous consequences of industrial modernity in the daily arena of eating and drinking. Specialization, Pollan argues, “breeds helplessness, dependence, and ignorance and, eventually… undermines any sense of responsibility.” Cooked persuasively illuminates how the industrial mindset fosters the domination of nature and distorts public governance, and offers, instead, justification and guidance for a healthier way of eating and a richer life.

Photo of Cooked: A Natural History of Transformation Book Cover

But is this a significant book for those dedicated to getting humanity in sync with nature’s ways? Speaking of the allure and benefit of cooking, Pollan explains, “Perhaps what most commends cooking to me is that it offers a powerful corrective to this way of being in the world — a corrective that is still available to all of us.” Is cooking then a vital ingredient for a socially just and ecologically sound society? 

Pollan, a journalism professor at the University of California, Berkeley, has been a prolific and effective messenger for food and sustainable agriculture issues, with such popular books as The Omnivore’s Dilemma and In Defense of Food. People with such a wide platform have a vital role to play in broadening a movement beyond the choir. In this sense, Pollan has been an eloquent ally in the great transition to a better world. 

Calls for meaningful action for social change too often become reduced to requesting yet another donation or letter to unresponsive politicians. Herein lies a role for cooking, “a magic that remains accessible to all of us, at home.” Cooking your own food builds self-reliance and community. It is an available tool for personal transformation and, by promoting an affiliation with nature, progressive environmental change. Ever stumble when trying to tell friends or colleagues what they can do to help save the day? By combining more local food and more time in the kitchen, one can wrest a modicum of societal control away from corporate executives to regular folks. This is at least part of the solution to confronting the contemporary social and ecological crisis.

Pollan has done his homework, rigorously rooting his …more

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There’s No Place Like Home

Tiny houses in Eugene, Oregon, provide the formerly homeless with a sense of ownership and community

Rhonda Harding was working as a live-in health care provider when she became homeless. Her client passed away, and Harding couldn’t find other housing. "Since I was technically not on his lease, I had nowhere else to go," she says.

photo of people building small houses© SquareOne VillagesOpportunity Village was built with donated materials and labor.

An article in the local newspaper in Eugene, Oregon, about a proposed "transitional micro-housing pilot project" caught Harding’s attention, and she and her longtime partner applied. They became two of the first members of Opportunity Village Eugene (OVE).

A place to be

A nonprofit, self-managed community of low-cost tiny houses for people in need of housing, Opportunity Village has housed 90 people since 2013, with 30 to 35 currently living there. The village has 20 bungalows ranging between 60 and 80 square feet each – which is significantly smaller than the 400-500 square feet that generally defines a tiny house — nine Conestoga wagons, a bathroom, a gatehouse, and a yurt that provides common space for gathering and cooking.

The village offers a sense of ownership combined with community autonomy. Residents pay 30 US dollars per month, attend mandatory weekly meetings, and do ten hours of work a week, including giving tours to visitors, working at the front gate, and cleaning the shared facilities.

OVE was created in response to the large number of homeless people in the Eugene area. Estimates put the current number at nearly 3,000 in a town of 150,000 people. The local Occupy movement brought the seriousness of the issue to light. Following a series of community meetings, Mayor Kitty Piercy created a community task force to develop recommendations. The first of these was simply to give unhoused people a place to be.

photo of small, brightly colored houses© SquareOne VillagesResidents pay 30 US dollars per month to live in Opportunity Village.

The city council identified underused property that could be used for OVE, and the village was built with donated labor and supplies, with church and community groups, individuals, and several local businesses contributing to the creation of the village through work parties, group building days and more. It is funded with donations and grants. The council initially agreed, on a six to two vote, …more

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Living Near Greenery May Increase Your Lifespan

Proximity to trees and other plants decreases mortality rates from cancer, respiratory disease, study suggests

Many of us plant trees, shrubs, and other plants around our homes to beautify our surroundings. A study published earlier this month in Environmental Health Perspectives reveals that this attractive greenery has another significant benefit as well — people living in greener neighborhoods may live longer.

photo of Tree Lined StreetPhoto by Jeffrey Zeldman A tree lined street in New York City. New research shows that people living in greener neighborhoods may live longer.

Scientists from the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health and Brigham and Women's Hospital in Boston, Massachusetts assessed the greenness surrounding the homes of 108,630 women. They then tracked changes in both the vegetation and participants’ deaths from 2000 to 2008. The scientists discovered that women with the most vegetation around their homes experienced a 12 percent lower death rate than those living in the least green areas.  

The biggest differences were observed in death rates from kidney disease, respiratory disease, and cancer. Women residing in the top 20 percent of green areas were 41 percent less likely to die from kidney disease than those living in the lowest 20 percent. They had a 34 percent lower death rate for respiratory disease and 13 percent lower death rate for cancer. No significant relationship appeared to exist between greenness and risk of death from coronary heart disease, diabetes, or infections. 

The study, funded by the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences (NIEHS), is the first on greenness and mortality to draw its subjects from across the entire United States. The participating women were all enrolled in the Nurses’ Health Study (NHS), a long-term study that has examined the risk factors for chronic disease among women, collecting questionnaires from more than 100,000 women every other year since 1976. 

The Harvard researchers culled data from the women in the NHS study who were alive in 2000 and had at least one residential address that could be mapped to obtain latitude and longitude for satellite imaging purposes — in 2000, there were at least 10 nurses participating in the study in each of the contiguous US states.

By looking at the questionnaires returned between 2000 and 2008, the scientists were able to identify specific characteristics of each participant. This distinguished the study from previous research on greenness and mortality, …more

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