The Urbane Ecologist

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Greetings from Lima!

Hola from Lima, Peru! I’m conducting fieldwork as part of my master’s program. Our class of almost 60 people has 6 projects in different parts of Lima, including Costa Verde, Barrios Altos, El Agostino, Chiquitanta, and Pachacamac. Feel free to check out the project websites:

  • Learning Lima, at (available also in Spanish) and
  • cLIMA sin Riesgo (CLIMAte without Risk) at

My group is in a centro poblado rurale (rural population center) in the peri-urban region of Lima called Quebrada Verde. It is located in the district of Pachacamac, which was named Lima’s “ecological and touristic district” in 1991. It lies along the Lurin River, one of the three rivers of Lima.

(Google Maps)

Lima. Quebrada Verde is marked with the red symbol. (Google Maps)

Quebrada Verde is the settlement on the left. The river running north-south close to its western urban boundary is the Lurin River. The valley that the  river runs through is known as the "green lung" of Lima due to its agricultural importance.

Quebrada Verde, with the Lurin River on its eastern boundary. (Google Maps) 

Quebrada Verde is the settlement on the left. The river running north-south close to its eastern urban boundary is the Lurin River. The valley that the river runs through is known as the “green lung” of Lima due to its agricultural importance. To the west of Quebrada Verde is an ecotouristic park dedicated to lomas preservation. Lomas are an ecosystem unique to the western coast of South America. Lomas are an ecosystem unique to the western coast of South America.

Having studied Lima for so many months from our laptops and class discussion in London, the opportunity to come to the city was a unique experience. The research gave the city a texture that I have never before felt, and I feel immensely fortunate.

A few days each sub-group had their first day of fieldwork. For the Quebrada Verde group, that meant going to the centro poblado rurale with our partner, and meeting the president of the ecotourist park and the president of the centro poblado rurale itself. We walked around the area and interviewed people, and drew important things we saw or talked about on a large printout of a satellite image of the area we got from Google Maps (which we found out was almost 10 years old, by the way! Thus the map above is actually pretty outdated).

Here’s our first blog post as a group! I’ll be writing more over the following days. A very good article that came out about a week before our fieldwork was “How the World Bank is Financing Environmental Destruction” with a focus on Peru (Guardian, Ben Hallman and Roxana Olivera, 16 April) — enjoy!



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The BP Horizon oil spill did a good thing — it got a bunch of people to take pictures

When the Deepwater Horizon oil spill happened (2010), I was a sophomore/second-year in college. I had recently switched from doing a degree in biochemistry to one in ecology, although I always made sure to tell people that I wouldn’t be “one of those crazy environmentalists”. The implications of what was going on didn’t really hit me at the time. Something about the scale of the accident seemed very wrong, and I knew people were being very angry about it, but I didn’t even fully get the humor of South Park’s “We’re Sorry” spoof of BP CEO’s attempt at showing concern.

Some of the implications of the oil spill trickled down to the conservative, determinedly apolitical, and most certainly completely uninterested in the environment student body to me in occasional conversation. One of my friends, who had happened to begin an internship with BP right before the spill, told me how he always made sure to hide his ID card before he left the office so people wouldn’t see who he worked for.

The following year, I went to Galveston beach, on the shores of the Gulf  of Mexico, for the first time as part of a fieldwork practice module, where we were taught how ecologists sweep nets over the sea floor to collect organisms,which would then be counted to estimate things like species abundance. I squealed when the shrimp jumped, and generally felt more comfortable with the notebook and the pen on the beach than I did walking over the rocky beach bed, being thrown off balance by the current.

The following year–my final one as an undergraduate– I took a conservation class, which finally got me thinking about how ecological principles related with people. It was a very careful course–not too much about climate change, and conservation was always something that happened only when people were not around–but what I did get out of it were (1) that environmental problems exist on a massive scale and that something needs to be done, and; (2) a thing called urban ecology exists. I was on my way to becoming a “crazy environmentalist”. Over the course of that year, many of my friends and classmates got jobs relating to the oil industry in Houston–BP, Exxon, whatever–and some went to UT Austin to study oil and gas law. I never brought up these issues with one of my very good friends at the time, who had gotten a job involving being on the rigs in the Gulf and deep sea drilling. She was–and remains–one of the nicest people I know, and I wasn’t sure whether breaking the bubble of willful ignorance would do more harm than good. She loved her work and did it well, but she was determinedly apolitical–what was the point of me pushing my crazy ideas when it would likely result in a desire to stop visiting me, rather than a eureka moment that culminated in a dramatic resignation from BP?

Nowadays, I occasionally read in the news how BP keeps attempting to refuse responsibility for the accident, or about how dolphins and turtles are dying in record numbers in the Gulf. But I learned yesterday that something I have become interested in–participatory mapping–had a big part to play in how people living in the Gulf reacted to the spill, even though I had no idea it was going on at the time.

To backtrack, participatory mapping derives, academically, from scholars of “critical cartography”, who challenge the political and ideological assumptions of how maps are made. While maps seems unambiguous and factual and in no way skewed one way or another, that is far from true! There is great power in making a map–in deciding what categories you put in of whatever you are showing, in choosing your scale, in choosing whether something even appears on a map, you essentially decide what matters or not. One only has to think of the consequences of the great imperial powers casually dividing up the continent of Africa to realize the immense consequences of what using maps can do. Participatory mapping challenges that. It brings the power of making maps to “ordinary” people, giving them the power to challenge the stories that may be told about them and where they live and to advocate for what they may need.

A decade or so ago the technology related to mapping, such as the cameras and satellites that took the images and the software that put them together, were out of the price range of most people. They cost a lot of money and the only way to really have access to them was through your university or company. Furthermore, the software was not easy to learn right away, which meant that when you left the place where you first learned it, you had no way of practicing it. But nowadays a lot of open source software exists (e.g. Quantum GIS), which means that it’s free and you can figure things out on your own, and the process of taking the pictures doesn’t require anything prohibitively expensive or difficult to find. The idea is, you attach a camera to balloon or a kite and have it take pictures, and then you overlay the pictures on maps that already exist in Google Earth, and then you can see how things change. In this way, you can get a granularity that you would not otherwise get from occasional satellite images (which is what you get whenever you go on Google Maps or Google Earth). Groups participating in and advocating participatory mapping have been growing and, as it turns out, the Galveston Oil Spill was the catalyst to getting one active group together.

Yesterday, at a talk given by Cindy Regalado from the Extreme Citizen Science research group at UCL, I learned that, while most Rice University students were living fairly obliviously to what was going on around them, people living in and around the Gulf area had joined forces and decided to map the effects the oil spill was having on the coast, in association with Public Lab, making 80 maps out of 100,000 images. They worked in groups called the Louisiana Bucket Brigade and Grassroots Mapping and funded themselves through a Kickstarter campaign. The software that puts together the pictures onto existing maps–MapKnitter–was developed directly as a consequence of that oil spill. Cindy took us through an exercise where we overlaid some photos on a site. It’s really easy! Assuming you have taken aerial photos, simply upload them to MapKnitter and go for it! In terms of making the balloons or kites that go up in the air, the materials are as simple as rubber bands, basic point and shoot cameras, pieces of paper, and construction tarp.

Meanwhile, the project called ReMap Lima, which is being conducted by my course instructors, Rita Lambert and Adriana Allen, uses drones in association with a Swiss NGO called Drone Adventures. Rita pointed out that one advantage drones have over other forms of mapping is that they can construct high-quality 3D images. This is extremely helpful in understanding Lima’s marginalized communities because they live on hillsides and, indeed, the only way to understand the complexities of how they live in relation to where they live is by looking at it in 3D, and not with a flat view from above. In this context, the most useful form of participatory mapping–drones and not kites or balloons–is not immediately accessible to those who can benefit from it. We see that in this project we touch upon the issues of the “digital divide”. In other words, if a university in London had not gotten in touch with a Swiss NGO to get these drones, how would the residents of the neighborhoods they are working with have been able to engage in effective participatory mapping practices?

Another issue inherent in the choice in picking drones vs balloons or kites is community engagement. On the beach in Spain last summer, I looked up from my book to find a drone buzzing around, and I recall a vague feeling of violation. Nobody had asked me if they could take pictures of me and yes, I know they weren’t taking pictures of me per se and all I was doing was reading a book, but it would have been nice to have a choice or to ask whoever was flying it what they were doing or why. With kites or balloons, on the other hand, mapping becomes a public act; “you can trace the string back to the person holding it, and you can engage with the community by allowing people to ask you what you are doing”, as Cindy says.

The feeling of violation I got on the beach in Spain is very similar to that I feel whenever I think of all the surveillance on the part of state and private forces that happens every day; as a matter of fact, the feeling is worse. While I could clearly see and identify what was watching me on the beach, I have no idea who is watching me and where at any given time anywhere else, unless I specifically look for a CCTV camera. And for that reason, I was strongly opposed to drones. But knowing that sometimes drones can be more helpful that kites or balloons does not make them all-evil; furthermore, drones are and will be used anyway, so it may be more helpful to use them as a way of challenging the forces that use them rather than not engaging with them at all.

So here we go–I never thought I’d say this, but I finally found one good thing to come out of the BP oil disaster. Hopefully, in the decades ahead, we’ll see participatory mapping becoming a means of preventing environmental disasters rather than documenting them.

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UCL’s Definition of “Sustainable”–World Class Researchers in the Field, but Investing in Fossil Fuels

I take pride in the fact that I attend a university that attracts some of the best students, faculty, and researchers in the world. I do not take pride in the fact that University College London still has a long way to go before truly representing the sustainability a segment of its faculty is world famous for promoting.

As a student at the Development Planning Unit pursuing a Master’s in Environment and Sustainable Development, I am exposed to researchers and specialists who are part of—indeed, often lead–global conversations of what it means to be “sustainable” and question notions of “development”. Robert Biel, for example, has built a career on questioning the very foundations of modern society—capitalism—and whether or not you agree with him, you cannot accuse him of lazy or uncreative thinking. David Satterthwaite is known for development work that truly services the poor and marginalized. Despite the fact that I grew up surrounded by failed development, the work of many researchers such as these inspired me to give the field a chance and at least try to understand it. So far, I have found my program challenging, thought-provoking, and every bit as personally and intellectually difficult as I hoped it would be. At the same time, my university as a whole leaves me disgusted. Specifically, I’m ashamed by and angry at its promotion of fossil fuels and its inability to put its money where its mouth is.

To those who are completely new to environmental issues, as I was less than two years ago, this issue matters because our consumption of fossil fuels—such as oil, coal, and natural gas—are the source of a huge number of environmental problems, such as pollution and climate change. We don’t only consume fossil fuels by putting them in our cars; they are hidden in most of the products we use every day, from the fertilizers that grow our food and to the plastic that surround us and now resides in our bodies. Most consequences of using fossil fuels are negative and our use of them alters our environment in one or many ways that then make it less habitable for us and other organisms.

But why are environmentalists picking the fight with these companies and not with the people who consume their products? Fossil fuel companies actively engage in activities that are unethical. By virtue of the huge amount of money at their disposal, they have made it virtually impossible for anyone to make choices that do not, in one way or another, support the industry. The fossil fuel industry also has ties to related industries—such as chemical and agriculture—and are so powerful that they even control worldwide governance in their favor. Furthermore, they frequently rely on “dirty” tactics—bribes, or other subtle methods—of getting what they want. They are known for actively going to great lengths to hide the consequences of their actions and even refuse to take responsibility for it. (Examples here and here.) They spend unimaginable amounts of money manipulating the way the average person perceives the world and the role of fossil fuels in it, either in the form of raw political power (e.g. rigging elections, having a close relationship with politicians) or in the form of advertising. I see this myself at UCL, and I’ll come to that shortly. But to summarize, the people who are generally in favor of taking care of the physical environment—for the purposes of deriving benefits from it that last beyond this year or the next, or simply for the sheer joy in a clean environment–are generally opposed to the fossil fuel industry.

This has led to many student groups in the West promoting fossil fuel divestment. Universities make investments in various industries and companies as a way of making money to fund research and other functions. Students who are opposed to fossil fuels take part in divestment campaigns in order to demand that their universities take part in bringing down the fossil fuel industry. Glasgow University recently became the first academic institution in Europe to commit to divestment. Many American universities have divestment campaigns or have already committed to divestment. On November 10, the Fossil Free group at University of London’s School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) submitted its divestment petition with over 1,000 signatures.

So here we come to UCL, which invests over £14.5 million in fossil fuel companies, including BP, Shell, and Total, and has recently come under a lot of criticism for these investments. The university’s relationship with BHP Billiton, however, has gone beyond simple investments and has been particularly notorious.

BHP Billiton is not a name commonly known to people who aren’t into “this environmental thing”. But it is a huge mining company—one of the world’s largest producers and marketers  of coal—whose effects are global and far-reaching. And while fossil fuel companies more frequently refer to oil and natural gas companies (Shell, BP, Exxon, etc), coal is a fossil fuel and mining companies are accused of many of the same things fossil fuel companies are accused of. It has mines in Australia, South Africa, Colombia, and the USA (to mention just a few places). It is currently working on opening more mines in conserved rainforest area in Borneo.

In 2011, the company donated $10 million (£6 million) to UCL to establish the Institute for Sustainable Resources on the London campus and the International Energy Policy Institute (IEPI) on the Adelaide (Australia) campus. It also funds scholarships at the Australian campus and the “BHP Billiton Chain in Sustainable Global Resources” on the UCL London campus. This led to Professor Jane Rendell, then Vice Dean of Research at the Bartlett, to resign. While both institutes and the company claim that BHP Billiton’s connection to UCL has no bearing on the integrity of the university’s research, there is ample evidence to believe that this is untrue, and even “laughable”.  For example, UCL Australia has published papers in support of the company’s objectives.

I saw these dynamics at play myself at a conference about a week and a half ago titled: Stewardship for Planet Earth: Sustainable Resources & Governance – Evidence, Challenges & Solutions. It was hosted by the Institute for Sustainable Resources and organised by the current BHP Billiton Chair in Sustainable Global Resources, Raimund Bleischwitz, who took the position in August 2013.

The first speaker, anthropologist Jerome Lewis, lit a glimmer of hope in me by saying “we are mining planet Earth”. I was disappointed, however. His “we” was not the insatiable demand of Western society for the products of mining, nor the companies doing the mining, but was the individuals that populate the globe. Thus, the responsibility for solving the problem lay with them. In addition, rather than introducing a genuine discussion of the effects of mining companies on human society, he completely “other-ized” the issue. He framed environmental issues as something that tribal African people in the forests do, and played on Western notions of “development”: his rhetoric made it seem as if the only people affected by a damaged environment are “indigenous” communities in some far away land that most people can’t and don’t empathize with. His rhetoric is frequently employed by people and groups who skew environmental issues by making them seem like something crazy hippies who like to smoke strange substances in the forests of the tropics do.

Dr. Philip Andrews-Speed was another memorable speaker whose chief goal seemed to be selling his most recent book (co-authored with Dr. Bleischwitz). His talk focused on the overuse of environmentally damaging fertilizer in China (and consequent waste and overuse of water), which he squarely blamed—in an incredibly patronizing tone—on ignorant Chinese farmers. But, as we shall see, being patronizing seemed to be a unifying thread of this event.

The aspect of the conference I found the most shocking was the complete lack of discussion about multinational corporations. Despite the fact that “BHP Billiton” was plastered on the slides and was more than simply visible, the speakers and discussion revolved around discussions of grassroots communities on the first day and top-down governance on the second day. I did not hear the words “multinational”, “companies”, “corporations”—consequently, there was no way to have a discussion on the role of industries and multinational companies in the current “sustainability” crisis and how these companies intend to contribute to taking responsibility for or getting us out of it. When the general issue of responsibility for environmental degradation was mentioned, it was presented as a grassroots effort, purely based on individual passion and motivation. The paradox was so enormous that when the speakers spoke of grassroots efforts, their statements were generalized and simply repeating cliched ideas without any substance—and were often clouded by a patronizing tone.

That tone was no surprise. UCL has shown that it does not care much for the plight of the people and communities affected by BHP Billiton. When campaigners came to UCL to draw attention to the destructive—environmentally and socially—activities of BHP Billiton in their home countries (Colombia, Indonesia, and the Philippines), their room booking at UCL was mysteriously and unexpectedly canceled, meaning that they were not allowed to appear on campus. UCL Provost and President Michael Arthur also refused to meet them when they attempted to deliver letters detailing their concerns, meaning that the protesters could only leave their letters to a security guard.

My master’s class is going to Lima, Peru in the spring as part of a project to alleviate water poverty. As part of our research in preparation for this work, we have been discovering that environmental problems, which are so often framed in a physical way, are often more social problems than environmental, driven by power dynamics and associated with the legitimacy of some groups in contrast with the lack of recognition of others. In our case, water scarcity in Lima is portrayed as a consequence of having too little water when in fact some groups are denied access to clean, affordable, and sufficient water as a consequence of political and economic policies and other social issues.  I’m getting to the point in my research where I realize that the mining industry—so crucial to Peru’s national economy—is a huge factor in the water scarcity and the poverty of most of Lima’s population. It so happens that BHP Billiton owns a third of the Antamina mine, the largest mining project underway in the world, where workers began striking recently. Many environmental activists opposed to mining activities have lost their lives in Peru.

So how am I supposed to feel when I go to Lima? I am a naturally optimistic person, but I cannot help but think that, despite my excitement to see a new city and to contribute to practical development work as part of a world-class academic program known for its forward-thinking research, I will feel dirty and hypocritical inside.

UCL, divest from fossil fuels and end your partnership with BHP Billiton, which lasts until 2016. Make me, and all of your students proud: we want to attend not only a university that has a long history behind it, but is as forward-thinking and courageous as it prides itself on being.


Edited: 18 Nov 2014, 19 Nov 2014