Saturday, June 23, 2007

Perching atop hyacinth

I once watched an enjoyable documentary known as Darwin’s Nightmare. My memories of this film came back into focus today as I read last Saturday’s Globe and Mail (as a father and full-time pharmacist I read one issue of the G&M per week, always the Saturday edition, and I am usually finished it by the following Friday). According to the excellent article Disaster Lurking in the Weeds, by Sara Minogue, Lake Victoria in Africa is in the midst of another ecological crisis caused by the water hyacinth, considered by botanists everywhere to be one of the most invasive species known to man (apart from the purple loosestrife growing in my garden). This water hyacinth basically blankets the surface of the lake, choking off sun to underlying waters, hiding ferocious reptiles (which then feast on the unsuspecting locals) and generally disturbing the fragile ecosystem that is Africa’s largest lake. Where does Darwin’s Nightmare come into the picture? The movie portrays the fatal consequences of a scientific experiment gone horribly wrong. Nile Perch were introduced in 1954 to improve commercial fish production in the lake. What happened next could only have been predicted by those to whom governments do not listen. The Nile Perch completely took over the lake, scavenging everything in its path, and inexorably altering the life cycle of the lake and its surrounding human settlements. However, since the Nile Perch thrived so well in Lake Victoria, one would assume that the communities surrounding it should have thrived also. And they would have if another invasive species had not entered the picture: the wealthy Western world. You see, Nile Perch fetches a handsome sum in Europe. And by the twisted mechanisms of globalized economics, those selling these fish are not locals, but Europeans. The ones doing all the grunt work are underpaid locals, but the ones bringing in the dough are foreigners. Furthermore, the harvesting of Nile Perch is so aggressive and the processing of their meat so thorough, that only the slimmest pickings are left behind. That is what the locals eat. So you see, in order to satiate the obese Europeans and North Americans on the succulent meat of the Nile Perch, European corporations ship it from thousands of miles away, prying it out of the hands of the impoverished locals, who, if not for the completely psychotic arrangement, would be wealthy and plump. There is a scene in the movie where images of Europeans dining on the fish in fancy restaurants are juxtaposed with images of locals picking through the fish carcasses for something resembling food. The most disturbing statistic uttered in the narrative was that the shipments leaving Lake Victoria for Europe will feed upwards of 2 million people. That is precisely the number of people along the shores of Lake Victoria currently suffering from life-threatening famine. Oh, and the planes these companies use to ship out the fish? They are Eastern European operations that bring weapons to Lake Victoria to support the local militias fighting the civil and tribal wars causing so much bloodshed. The militias get the guns and the nice pilots get the fish. And all the while, the Europeans just get fat. Of course, no obliteration of a populations livelihood would be complete without a little bit of global warming induced mayhem. You see, the resurgence of the water hyacinth referred to above is thought to be a direct consequence of global warming. The pain in the ass about global warming is that the ones who caused the problem, namely North Americans and Western Europeans, are those most able to deal with the consequences, but who are doing absolutely nothing about it. The ones suffering most, and those who will continue to suffer most, are the poor and destitute in the world who are almost blameless in the whole mess. Its like giving Africans the climatic middle finger. Some fat North American sits down at a disgusting fast food chain in Anywhere, USA and devours a burger that only resembles beef in appearance and likely originated some 3000 miles away. The tractor trailer used to ship the beef across the continent spews fuel for the global furnace. The kindling is provided by Mr. America’s Hummer and pseudo-mansion that is three times larger than his family requires. And through a complex system of global thermodynamics, the collective contributions of all these grotesquely prosperous individuals ends up blanketing the surface of Lake Victoria with water hyacinth. So because some guy in North America just can’t pass on those few extra horses to impress the girls as he cruises down Main St, some poor sucker in Tanzania gets devoured by a crocodile he couldn’t see lurking beneath a fortress of water hyacinth. Hopefully through some twist of fate this problem will come back to haunt the rich Western world (of which I am a part). Maybe the water hyacinth will start to kill off the Nile Perch and Random European will have to forgo his favorite dish at the local restaurant. Of course, giving up your favorite food and dying from hunger are two very different things.

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