In an increasingly global world, local issues are no longer just local, says development writer Richard Mahapatra
What’s the connection, asks Richard Mahapatra, development writer and senior editor of Down to Earth — between increasing cultivation of guar (kothavarangaai) in Rajasthan and the oil industry in the U.S.; deforestation in Africa and the rising middle class in India; Bellary and the Beijing Olympics.
“The answers are all there, you just need to connect the dots,” he says. Richard is addressing a media briefing called ‘Understanding Environmental Issues for Better Reportage’. It has been organised by the Centre for Science and Environment and P.S.G. College of Arts and Science.
A couple of years ago, an increasing number of farmers in Rajasthan started planting guar. The local media reported it. At the same time, the U.S. media reported the large-scale import of a vegetable from India. Was there a connection? “Yes, there was. Food habits had not changed overnight in the U.S. Nor had farmers in Rajasthan begun feeding their cattle more guar,” says Richard. The U.S. oil industry was fuelling the demand. Guar gum is used to extract natural gas from shale using a system called hydraulic fracking. And farmers wanted to cash in by growing more of the vegetable. But the oil companies soon came up with an inexpensive, synthetic substitute. And the price of guar crashed. The farmers now wait, hoping prices will go up again.
In another instance, Africa, once a tightly-knit community, was reporting clan clashes over tree plantations. The reason? The rising middle class in India. The connection? The fondness for wooden interiors, seen as a status symbol. “There was a time when India imported timber from just six countries. Now, we import from 60, including the Ivory Coast, Madagascar and Botswana, to meet the demand,” says Richard, who spoke on the topic, ‘Local is Global is Local; reporting global stories from local datelines’.
It was a similar global link that saw Bellary turn from a beautiful district into one ravaged by mining; the iron ore now sits pretty in China.
“There is a need to explore the missing links so that people are told the real story,” he says. For this, reporters must have an ear to the ground. They must also stay in touch with the scientific community and civil society groups who work among people and spot trends, he says.
The scientific community should ideally go out and explain through outreach programmes. But, they cannot. This is where well-informed media must step in to educate the masses, says the senior editor.
“Look at local weather anomalies. Listen to farmers. They might not know what global warming is, but they are experiencing its effects. You can use their knowledge to establish the global link,” he explains. That will help farmers to be better prepared to tackle the after effects of climate change.
Sometimes, people themselves are the trigger, reporting things they find strange. It was possibly this kind of reportage that led to studies being conducted on the presence of pesticides in soft drinks, on antibiotics in honey and toxic content in children’s toys. Writing must be people-centric. Because, finally, everything is about people, he says.