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A Fisherman’s Reflections on a beautiful but troubled world
Chapter 25 - The Good Earth


In the free element beneath me swam,
Floundered and dived, in play, in chase, in battle,
Fishes of every colour, form, and kind;
Which language cannot paint, and mariner
Had never seen, from dread Leviathan
To insect millions peopling every wave:
Gather’d in shoals immense, like floating islands,
Led by mysterious instincts through that waste
And trackless region, …

James Montgomery, World before the flood

Sweet is the breath of morn, her rising sweet,
           With charm of earliest birds; pleasant the sun,
When first on this delightful land he spreads
His orient beams, on herb, tree, fruit, and flower,
Glistering with dew; fragrant the fertile earth
After soft showers; and sweet the coming-on
Of grateful evening mild; then silent night,
With this her solemn bird and this fair moon,
And these the gems of heaven, her starry train, …

John Milton, Paradise Lost, Eve to Adam 

Admiring Nature in her wildest grace,
These northern scenes with weary feet I trace;
The meeting cliffs each deep-sunk glen divides;
The woods, wild-scatter’d, clothe their ample sides;
Th’outstretching lake imbosomed ‘mong the hills,
The eye with wonder and amazement fills:
The Tay meand’ring sweet in infant pride,
The palace rising on his verdant side,
The lawns wood-fring’d in Nature’s native taste,
The hillocks drop’t in Nature’s careless haste,
The arches striding o’er the new-born stream,
The village glittering in the noontide beam –
Poetic ardors in my bosom swell,
Lone wand’ring by the hermit’s mossy cell;
The sweeping theatre of hanging woods,
Th’ incessant roar of headlong tumbling floods –

Robert Burns Verses written with a pencil

As a young boy I had the immense privilege of spending childhood years on the Moray Firth coast which was then replete with aquatic and marine life.  We had salmon and trout in our rivers and lochs, and an abundance of fish and crustaceans in the rocky pools and inlets along the shore.  Near the lighthouse, just over a mile from the edge of town, there was a small stretch of ponds we called ‘the lighthouse lochs’.  They were just shallow water bodies, - but fascinating to a young lad as they contained stickleback, frogs, tadpoles, caddis fly larvae in their self-made houses of tiny twigs and stalks, and many other life forms like dragon flies, pond skaters and water beetles that would carry bubbles of air down to hidden nests.  Many a summer hour was spent in fascinated observation of these creatures. But the lighthouse lochs are long since gone completely, - bulldozed over to create a caravan park.


Section of the Moray coast where the writer grew up

Along the beach and the rocky pools there were even more life forms.  Sand eels, small plaice, saithe, gurnards, conger eels, gobies, hermit crabs, common crabs, and lobsters abounded, while just offshore were schools of sprat, mackerel, and herring, feasted upon by seagulls and gannets, seals and dolphin.  That was the situation until a mere 40 or 50 years ago.  Today the coast is largely sterile and bereft of life except for a few hardy limpets, mussels and crabs.   The same is true all around Scotland’s coast.  Many hitherto productive coastal waters yield only crabs and prawns.  Some sprat and mackerel are returning seasonally, but coastal marine life has largely died.

How did that happen?  What has caused the demise of such profusion of life in a few decades?   My guess is pollution.  We have had an enormous increase in pesticide and fertilizer use, and the run-off from our fields and farms has accumulated in coastal waters, together with huge quantities of plastic and industrial waste.  Every housewife today uses an array of cleaning fluids and powerful detergents that are also poured into our seas through each urban sewage sytem.  Mother nature can accommodate and deal with a surprising amount of poisonous pollutants, but eventually its tolerance margins are exceeded and life begins to die.   That process is taking place all over the world.

Our natural environment of air, sea, and soil, support all of life on this planet – “spaceship earth” as Schumacher described it.   When the first American astronauts orbited the moon at Christmas 1968, as they transmitted the awesome pictures of earth-rise over the lunar landscape, they read together from the Genesis account of the creation.  Five times in that account we read, “and God saw that it was good”.  After the final sixth day it says that “God saw that it was very good”.  Appropriately the Apollo 3 spacemen expressed their best wishes to all back home that memorable Christmas, - all of those back there on ‘the good earth’.


Planet earth as seen from space

The earth’s land surface is about 13.5 billion hectares.  About 10% of land is now farmed, 20% could be farmed, and 70% is unsuitable given present technology.  Food resources are generally abundant though scarce in particular regions.  Since 1950, cereal output has grown by 2.7% a year while population has increased by 1.7% annually.  The world’s population is now over 6.0 billion persons and is expected to level out at 11.0 billion by the year 2,200 AD.  Global resource researchers like Susan George believe that with careful environmental management, the earth could feed a population of that size.  Around 30 % of our fish production and nearly 50 % of our cereals are fed to animals.  If we cut down on meat consumption, we could eliminate a lot of the world’s hunger and malnutrition.

One would think that modern man with the benefit of the accumulated wisdom of the centuries, with his much-vaunted knowledge and power, and with his oft-stated desire to achieve sustainability and long-term food security, - would be doing his utmost to preserve the earth’s forests, protect and conserve its soil, and keep its waters clean and its oceans productive of fish.  But sadly we see the opposite.  The greed-powered destruction of our tropical forests, the poisoning and eroding of our soils, and the polluting of our waters and seas, - continue, and continue if anything at an accelerated pace.   Desertification proceeds apace in Africa, Asia and parts of the Americas, as neither governments nor UN bodies are prepared to take the substantial actions necessary to reverse it. 


Logging of tropical hardwood forests

Some societies have been particularly guilty of this wanton assault on our life-support system and its wonderfully inter-connected life forms.  The Soviet Union may well have the worst record of causing serious environmental damage in the 20th century. The logging barons of S.E. Asia and South America, have behaved like mafia hoodlums, with the support of government and military officials in the respective countries. The United States and some west European countries have accumulated enormous amounts of poisonous sludge, industrial, chemical and nuclear waste, which they regularly try to dump on poorer countries through deception and bribery. This is not fantasy. I have been in small African and Pacific states where local officials and businessmen have detailed to me the approaches made by foreign interests to get a dumping site for the waste material. I have even been approached myself by the waste agents to see if I could identify a compliant country or regime, and been offered handsome commissions if I succeeded.

The world’s natural store of genetic material that determines the characteristics of our crops and animals, is being tampered with in the name of scientific progress, and with the excuse that this would help to ‘feed the hungry’.  Well, the existing genetic strains of rice and maize and wheat and soya bean, have managed to feed the world since the dawn of civilization, so I do not see the problem.  Indeed, many of them are particularly suited to the soils and climates of the regions where they are grown.  No, I see the development of genetically altered crops and animals as a way of giving the huge agro-business corporations control and ownership of all the seed used in the world.  Then we will see globally what American farmers saw over the last century.  The farmer becomes a serf, enslaved to the corporation which sells him his seed and his fertilizer, which markets his crop, - and which does so through a credit system that leaves the farmer permanently in debt and unable to break out of the system. 

The groundwork for the elimination of natural plant varieties, and their replacement with hybrids that depend on chemical inputs, was largely undertaken under the ‘green revolution’ movements of the 1960’s and 1970’s.  The beneficiaries are multinational agro-business corporations that acquire ‘ownership’ of the new strains of crop seeds the market for which they then control, along with the related pesticides and fertilizers.  In this they are supported or protected by GATT / WTO and agreements like the Plant Breeders’ Rights Bill.  European Community farming policies appear to be designed to push the small and medium farmers out of business in favour of the multinational corporations.  Butter mountains and wine lakes have been tools to that end.  Today, some 90% of the world’s food trade is in the hands of five multinationals.  Unilever and Nestle are the two largest of the food giants.  In the face of these monsters, ‘free trade’ becomes an abstract idea. 

Former soldier, diplomat, and senior official in the Reagan administration, Clyde Prestowitz, later President of the Economic Strategy Institute in Washington DC, wrote eloquently and powerfully about the harm done by imposition of the USA’s own political ends through the WTO and the IMF.  He claimed that in the past two decades, a general view developed on the global economy path, known as the ‘Washington Consensus’.  It had been popularized by Tom Friedman under the rubric of “the golden straitjacket” which called for balanced budgets, low taxes, free flows of capital, goods, and services; privatization; deregulation; protection of property rights and intellectual property; small government and liberalization of interest rates.  It was argued by the high priests of the global economy at the US Treasury, the IMF, the World Bank, and the elite Universities, that implementation of these measures would bring prosperity and narrow the gap between rich and poor.  This in turn would bring stability and peace.  Friedman opined that a main mechanism to bring it about would be the “electronic herd”, that group of faceless gnomes in Wall Street, Kabuto-Cho, The City and elsewhere who stare at computer screens and send trillions of dollars coursing around the world at the click of a mouse. 


Diagram of GM crops

   
Public protest against the WTO.        WTO protest poster.  The organization has potential for great good or massive harm, depending on its decisions and measures implemented

Director General of the WTO, Supachai Panitchpakdi, former University Professor, and Deputy Prime Minister of Thailand, blamed the Asian financial crisis on American manipulation of the global economy by these means.  He said, “The impact of the 1997 Asian financial crisis was devastating to Thailand and Southeast Asia, and caused many to question whether the U.S. and the IMF had a good understanding of how globalization affected Asia’s economies.” [Clyde Prestowitz, Rogue Nation, Basic Books, New York, 2003]  

      
Above : WTO President, Supachai of Thailand Inside a WTO symposium

Dr Supachai might well have added that manipulation of the WTO by the big food corporations has equal potential for evil upon the millions of small farmers in the world.  It could also impact negatively on the world’s resources of seed and species, limiting biodiversity by facilitating agro-business monopolies or cartels that could determine who grows what in any corner of the planet.  

To illustrate how globalization can affect the smallest activity in rural parts of the third world, take aquaculture for instance, - the farming of fish – in the tropics. It brought me into contact with those that wanted to acquire and retain commercial rights to new strains of tilapia, carp and other cultured species.  They offered to assist or finance research work in poor countries, but on the understanding that they and they alone retained ownership of the new fish species strains that were developed.  There are also corporations that are working towards a monopoly control of feed supplies for farmed fish.

Against this background, there are hundreds of agriculture and soil scientists, and research workers, who labour to protect existing species of plants and animals, and to help poor countries to maintain ownership of their own seed sources.  In forestry, soil, water and in crop and animal production, scores of un-named, unheralded specialists, are active in protection of species we need for our survival, and of the soils and water they and we need to grow and flourish.  Sadly, many of these illustrious pioneers of the environment, have been voices in the wilderness, largely ignored and sidelined by those in power, with their fixation on power and big business. 

Pioneer 1 : Clean water and low-tech human scale solutions

It was during the first five years I spent in Indonesia, that the realization of the paramount need for clean water came to me.  In every project station and field site I visited or worked in, there was a basic need for clean water.  I saw it first in the fish markets where dirty water was poured on to fish displayed for sale, - making the fish seem fresh, but covering them with bacteria and pollutants.  I noticed it also in the ice plants which utilized un-filtered and un-treated water to make blocks of rather poorly frozen ice.  Fish farms and processing plants suffered from the same deficiencies in their water supplies.  And in practically every fishing village I knew, the people were drinking water that contained bacteria, parasite larvae and amoebas.  So I began my search for an effective and low-cost method of cleaning available water. 

What first struck me was how expensive it was to clean dirty water, and how sophisticated was the equipment required.  In cost and complexity, these ‘modern’ systems were totally unsuited for application in poor rural villages.  It appeared that the only companies involved in the sector were ones that focused all their attention on expensive large scale projects that were designed to serve city centres, luxury hotels, holiday resorts, and housing schemes for the affluent.  The poor rural village was simply not considered.  So it had to make do with deep wells or shallow wells that were easily contaminated, or to utilize river water that was replete with pollutants.  In fact, during the period I was mostly in Indonesia (I hope it has changed now), there were hundreds of miles of canals that served as communal baths, sewers, laundry places and sources of domestic water for hundreds of thousands of Javanese. 

One day I came across a small item in a British Council newsletter obtained from the embassy in Jakarta.  It showed a smiling bespectacled gentleman holding aloft a model of a unit that the article said could provide clean water from a polluted source.  The man’s name was George Cansdale which rang a bell in my memory.  I wrote to him and eventually made contact, and asked him, by the by, if he was the Cansdale I recalled who had been the TV “zoo man” of the 1950’s and ‘60’s.

He replied that he was indeed the same person.  He had been a forestry officer in Ghana before the war (the Gold Coast as it then was).  After the war he became Director of Whipsnade Zoo in London. Later he moved into work with marine aquariums and fish farms, and it was in that connection he developed his water filtration equipment. 

Cansdale’s units were simple, low-cost, and very effective.  Rather than being filters per se, they were devices that converted the local river bed or pond bed into a filter.  The unique design of the filter plates ensured that crystal clear water was obtained within 2 hours of installation, and biologically clean water was produced after several days of continuous use.  No chemicals were required, and the filter plates did not need to be changed.  The clean water had no parasites or larvae, and over 97 % of bacteria had been removed.  Because the resulting water was not 100% sterile by Geneva standards, the World Health Organisation refused to approve use of the system.  Apparently they would rather see the people continue to die than have them obtain water that was immensely better than what they had known before.  It was silly, as a little chlorine or similar treatment could have made the added difference. 


Cansdale at work

We had Cansdale install units effectively throughout Indonesia, and then in the Philippines, Thailand and Singapore.  OXFAM and Rotary also later bought thousands of units for use in Africa. He even installed a unit that successfully excluded all crustacean seed from the intake pipe of the Marine Laboratory in Aberdeen.  He offered to supply a World Bank financed marine university in the Philippines with all its fresh and salt clean water needs.  The cost then was $ 50,000 installed.  But the local authorities, with World Bank agreement, decided instead to install a $500,000 system that they thought would be more reliable.  It never worked, and today, 25 years later, the campus and laboratories still have impure and inadequate water supplies. 

24
George Cansdale, with my wife Margo, Manila, 1979

George was 65 when he worked for us in S.E. Asia.  I believe he continued working till he was over 80.  His son Richard now carries on the business.  He had written several books, and while in Africa had produced a lexicon of local languages, and become quite an authority on snakes.  A most cheerful and congenial person, George was a committed Christian, serving as the Warden at All Souls Church, Langham Place London, where Dr John Stott, a leading evangelical teacher, scholar and preacher in the Church of England, continued to minister and lecture into the 21st century.  George recorded much of the Bible on tape for use by the blind, and often visited homes for deformed and handicapped children to entertain them with an animal from the zoo. As he told me later, he would drive home from these havens for children with serious birth defects to whom he had brought a little fun and laughter, - with a very heavy heart.  For me George Cansdale was one of life’s “most unforgettable characters”. 

 

Respect for nature and for its importance, - even sacredness, - is found in many societies in different parts of the world.  Globalisation and westernisation has weakened these beliefs and reduced awareness of them among subsequent generations.  Anthropologists have to help us dig for them among the myths and proverbs and taboos of times past.  They can be seen to some degree in the prohibitions of the Polynesian groups, in the seasonal rituals of early religions, and in the poetry, songs and oral histories of native peoples in all continents.  Few peoples have expressed their respect for the earth’s environment more eloquently than the Red Indian tribes of north America.  Here are some of their hallowed statements:

"Treat the earth well:
It was not given to you by your parents,
It was loaned to you by your children.
We do not inherit the Earth from our
Ancestors, we borrow it from our Children."

Ancient Indian Proverb 

“The great mass of our people think only of the love we have for our land,
we do love the land where we were brought up. We will never let our hold
to this land go, to let it go it will be like throwing away (our) mother
that gave (us) birth.”

  Letter from Aitooweyah Principal Chief of the Cherokees 

"When we Indians kill meat, we eat it all up. When we dig roots, we make little holes. When we build houses, we make little holes. When we burn grass for grasshoppers, we don't ruin things. We shake down acorns and pine nuts. We don't chop down the trees. We only use dead wood. But the white people plow up the ground, pull down the trees, kill everything. ... the White people pay no attention. ...How can the spirit of the earth like the White man? ... everywhere the White man has touched it, it is sore."

Wintu Woman, 19th century

I believe the rise of the ‘green’ movement in all of its forms, was very necessary to awaken us to the dangers of destroying our environment and going beyond the tolerance levels of benign nature.   I support every sane and humane effort to protect species and maintain or enhance the natural environment.  However, some elements of the green movement have become dictatorial and have begun to follow political agendas that are determined more by the prospect of power or finance than by the protection of nature.  The more extreme appear to want to protect every creature except the human species.  Some are selective in their targets and programmes, wishing to provide absolute protection to overgrown populations of seals or some seabirds, yet ignoring the horrible mistreatment of battery hens, veal calves, or cows made to eat the infected bodies of their own kind.  I supported the innovation of “dolphin friendly” labels on canned tuna, which led to the demise of much of tuna purse seine fleet based on America’s west coast.  But I do not support efforts to ban all harvesting of seals, or to prevent small Eskimo communities from using a few marine mammals for their own consumption.   It would be an education for those promoting such agendas to spend a year or two in a genuine Innuit community and discover the enormous respect for nature and for marine mammals that these Arctic peoples traditionally possess.   

 
     Inuit Indian lady Inuit Eskimos skinning a seal carcass

Some green advocates display astonishing contempt for the folk in rural communities, and for their way of life.  The small population of Barra, Scotland, have had to fence the whole island to keep two breeds of rabbit separate, though they did not seem to suffer from free movement in the past.  The islanders of Islay were threatened by David Bellamy who said he would organize a boycott of all their produce if they did not give up their peat bog for the exclusive use of migratory geese who only stayed a few days.  The geese had survived well for thousands of years, and continue to survive today despite the little bit of peat that is dug out of the bog.  But that is the brutal face of much of the intimidating and control mind-set of the extreme members and NGOs in the green movement.


The Island of Islay in the southern Hebrides


The Island of Barra, southernmost of the Hebrides

In Britain and particularly Scotland, there is a growing anti-green lobby that has built up around opposition to the control of emissions, high taxes on transport fuel, and even more so, on the proliferation of electricity generating windmills.  The main objection is that these installations damage our scenic landscape, but there other objections ranging from their capital and operating costs, and their potential to kill some birds.  While recognizing that some of the objections have a degree of merit, one gets the impression that few of the protestors have thought the whole energy question through.  Given all the costs they entail, from research to waste disposal, nuclear power stations are by far the most expensive energy systems we have.  And given the ongoing and unresolved problem of disposal of nuclear waste and decommissioning of the reactors, they are also the greatest environmental threat of all the energy producing systems.  But we prefer to pass these dangers and disposal / decommissioning costs on to our children and grandchildren, and pretend that we have solved nuclear power’s inherent problems when we have only passed the pandora’s box on to future generations. 

One of the most articulate spokespersons for environmentally friendly industry and energy, has been Professor Barry Commoner of the USA, still active in his late 80’s.  Here are some of his reflections on the environmental and energy issues: [Barry Commoner, Interview, New Scientist, 23 June 1997]

“The environmental crisis arises from a fundamental fault: our systems of production--in industry, agriculture, energy and transportation--essential as they are, make people sick and die. The modern assault on the environment began about 50 years ago, during and immediately after World War II.

The sharp rise in environmental pollution in the 20 years following World War II could be traced to such new technologies of production: new ways of producing electric power, transportation and food that, while they generated these valuable goods, now violently assaulted the environment as well. The changes were massive and fast: in less than two decades the total amount of automotive horsepower increased fourfold, of inorganic fertilizer nitrogen sevenfold, of synthetic organic chemicals 20-fold.

These were manmade mistakes that were therefore within our power to remedy. The mistakes were made by the auto companies when they decided to build bigger cars with high-compression engines that for the first time emitted nitrogen oxides, which in turn triggered the smog reaction; by the petrochemical industry that persuaded farmers to spread huge amounts of toxic pesticides -- many of them carcinogenic -- into the environment; by electric utilities that, believing propaganda that nuclear power would be "too cheap to meter," built the plants that generate highly radioactive spent fuel, which is yet to be dealt with.

I am grateful that my own adult life has covered this span of time, so that I have witnessed most of the notorious environmental blunders that led to the crisis--sometimes as simply a bystander, other times as an attentive observer, and at least once--in the case of DDT--as an unwitting perpetrator.

Scientists, engineers and technologists who designed and built the new technologies--not to speak of their corporate masters--gave no public notice of their environmental faults, because they were unaware of them, uninterested in them or, in some cases, deceitful. The vaunted sorcery of modern technology was hard at work, but environmentally, it was in the hands of apprentices.

Outsiders were needed to set things right--or at least to help the American people learn what went wrong and why. In every case, the environmental hazards were made known only by independent scientists, who were often bitterly opposed by the corporations responsible for the hazards. The result of grassroots action was that the American people were informed, became concerned, and sought ways to act.

There are existing pollution-free alternatives to the production technologies that brought on the postwar environmental crisis. The major source of photochemical smog--petroleum-fueled vehicles--can be replaced by emission--free electric vehicles. In turn, many power plants now fueled by oil, natural gas or uranium can be replaced by zero-emission photovoltaic cells or wind generators.

What is needed now is a transformation of the major systems of production more profound than even the sweeping post-World War II changes in production technology. Restoring environmental quality means substituting solar sources of energy for fossil and nuclear fuels; substituting electric motors for the internal-combustion engine; substituting organic farming for chemical agriculture; expanding the use of durable, renewable and recyclable materials--metals, glass, wood, paper--in place of the petrochemical products that have massively displaced them.

The new production technologies may be more economical than the ones they replace. For example, a recent CBNS study shows that in the states adjacent to the Great Lakes the impact of trash-burning incinerators on the airborne dioxin deposited in the lakes can be reduced to zero by diverting the trash to intensive recycling programs. The net economic effect would be a $500-million reduction in disposal costs, including the cost of paying off the incinerators' existing debt.

I believe that the first step is to extend the environmental issue into the relevant social, economic and political arenas. Consider, for example, the decision to replace conventional cars and light trucks with electric vehicles, powered, ultimately, from solar sources. The relevant corporations are reluctant to make this change because, compared with conventional ones, electric vehicles would initially be more costly and more restricted in their uses. Such a shift would damage a corporation's economic interests, they argue, in comparison with firms that refrained from making the change.  This issue can be dealt with by establishing, as a national industrial policy, that all suitable vehicles are to be powered by electricity, placing all of the auto industry's firms on the same level playing field, economically.

A useful approach to this question is to think about it in economic, rather than purely environmental, terms. Seen that way, the wholesale transformation of production technologies that is mandated by pollution prevention creates a new surge of economic development. But this would touch on other social concerns as well. The wave of new productive enterprises would provide opportunities to remedy the unjust distribution of environmental hazards among economic classes and racial and ethnic communities. For labor unions it would represent a source of new jobs and opportunities to advance the cause of a healthy work environment and worker retraining.

Indeed, the transformation, although environmentally mandated, may be much more powerfully inspired by the vision of an economic renaissance that would be generated by the new more productive technologies. The most meaningful engine of change, powerful enough to confront corporate power, may be not so much environmental quality, as the economic development and growth associated with the effort to improve it.”


Barry Commoner

Following the tragic tsunami wave disaster that hit S.E. Asia on Boxing Day 2004, the UK fishing industry wanted to help the fishers of the stricken region to get operational again.  Together with Association and Government representatives, I attended a meeting in Whitehall to discuss the best approach.  A representative of WWF was present, and she advised us strongly (a) to refrain from rebuilding the inshore fleets as this would cause over-fishing (though there was hardly any excess fishing in the stricken areas before), and (b) not to let them build the replacement boats from wood as this would destroy the mangrove forests (though it is quite impossible to build a boat from mangrove wood)!

I found it difficult to reconcile the representative’s air of superiority with the depths of her ignorance.  Fishermen throughout the north Atlantic today have grave concerns at the way WWF and other ‘green’ bodies are colluding with the European Commission and the United Nations to destroy fishing fleets and fishing communities in the name of conservation. 

So, while advocating a respect for and protection of nature, based on proven science and practical approaches, I believe such approaches must be based in the communities concerned, and must involve human ecology, and a respect for traditional lifestyles, whether hunting as for Eskimos and fishers, or crofting as in west Scotland, or subsistence agriculture as in much of Africa.

Possibly the finest example of a naturalist who was also concerned about human ecology, is the late Sir Frank Fraser Darling who like most true prophets, had his work and advice ignored by the powers that be in his lifetime, yet was honoured later as if they had really listened to what he had said.  His vision and ideas impacted on much of the world, but his epic work on the highlands and islands of Scotland, was treated with disdain by successive Labour and Tory governments in the country. 

 Pioneer 2:  A true visionary who was a practical environmentalist

The bare hills, rugged peaks and lonely lochs of Scotland that are pictured on our calendars, and give much of the impression of the country to both locals and visitors, do not represent pristine unspoiled nature as some imagine.  It is largely a despoiled landscape.  At one time, the hills were covered by the forest of Caledon, and in prehistoric times, mammoths, elk, wolves, musk ox, bears, wild boar and other hardy mammals, populated the wild countryside.  Climate changes and hunting gradually eliminated most of the mammals, and the needs of rapacious kings for timber to build naval ships, wiped out the once magnificent forest.  Then came ethnic cleansing or the ‘Clearances’ that removed tenant farmers to make way for sheep and later deer. 

Both the sheep and the deer further despoiled the landscape, and without a farming people to till the soil, it degenerated into what we see today.  All is not lost, but it could take 100 years to restore the environment.  The redoubtable highland environmentalists, Ron Greer and Derek Pretchell say of the future, “left alone, it will become like Iceland.  With the proper long-term investment, it could be like Norway”.

But Scotland has not been blest with rulers of much vision or long-term commitment.  Poor Ramsay MacDonald, facing the depression with an ideological Chancellor, Philip Snowden, who clung tenaciously to the gold standard, had only one minister in his cabinet with any inspiration for putting the unemployed to work and investing in the land and its fauna.  A proposal was made to have the unemployed plant trees all over the country, including the Highlands of Scotland.  But the suggestion was rejected, and its proponent left to join the fascists.  He was Sir Oswald Mosley.

The Attlee Government however, had appointed as Secretary of State for Scotland, Tom Johnston, a man of immense ability and broad understanding.  He in turn had asked an outstanding naturalist to study the “highland” problem, and advise on what could be done to improve the region, its natural resources, its crofting communities, and its economy.  The naturalist was Frank Fraser Darling.

Fraser Darling’s epochal book, Natural Sir Frank Fraser Darling, naturalist and ecologist
History in the Highlands and Islands

Darling’s two best known works were, Natural History of the Highlands and Islands, 1947, and West Highland Survey, 1955.  He was ahead of his time in envisioning an integrated approach to the management of natural resources, and its relation to human ecology.  Had his advice been taken in 1955, the region would have been put on the road to recovery, and would have avoided the depopulation and economic depression it has experienced since.   But Tom Johnston had been replaced, and the new regime in Scotland was interested only in big industry for the central belt.  So Scotland’s greatest natural ecologist and human ecologist, was rejected by his own government.  However, Scotland’s loss was the developing world’s gain, and Darling went on to apply his knowledge and skills in Africa and Asia.

I did not have the privilege of meeting Sir Frank, but my Chief Fisheries Officer in Zambia, Jim Soulsby did.  He and his wife Liz entertained him during his Africa tour 1956 – 1961.  For Jim, the encounter with Fraser Darling was one of the most memorable of his life.  

Darling was uniquely equipped to pioneer analysis of the complex relationships between man landscape and wildlife, which he did in regions as far apart as west Scotland, north Canada, central America and east Africa.  In his search for the principles that underlie the complexity of nature in its widest sense, he combined a remarkable intuition with rigorous scientific investigation, and a gift for lucid writing that informed and inspired scientists and laymen alike.

Writing to Edward Goldsmith, editor of the Ecologist, in 1978, a year before he died, Darling made some profound and weighty observations:  “… one of your shortcomings is that you are not pessimistic enough and perhaps you are in too much of a hurry.  To change man is going to take more time than we have.  I have tried to for 40 years – but despite small strugglings, Man goes on his own way.  (It) seems to me … God gave Man free will too soon.   Having got this gift of God, compassion, we can’t brush off two-thirds of humanity despite earthquakes in Persia and floods in the Indian valley, exacerbated by economic exploration of the Himalayan forests.  We continue to fell the Mato Grosso and kill the indigenous Indians, but we subscribe to the notion of “the sanctity of human life”.  (The phrase seems to mean less and less when applied to some poor child whose cry we don’t hear).  So am I without hope?  Not really.  We can be learning all the time.  May compassion stay with us, despite our apparent human determination to cut it in two.”


Discussing land use with international bank and government officers


Planting trees in the Tonle Sap basin, - Margo with the Provincial Governor

Flooded forest areas of the Tonle Sap basin.  These trees that have adapted over thousands of years to flourish on both dry and flooded land, are a vital part of the inland eco-system, just as mangrove trees are for coastal marine areas.  They protect soils, act as a carbon sink, provide shelter for spawning fish and for young fish, as well as bird life and insects including honey bees.  The flooded forests are also a major source of poles for the houses and fences of local communities.

Our brutal treatment of the natural environment which we have raped and despoiled to satisfy our appetite for hardwood timber, petroleum, hydro-powered energy and expansion of global industry into the most remote and most delicate parts of the earth, has impacted destructively on indigenous cultures, human lives, and thousands of species of animals and reptiles, birds and fish, insects and plants.  We have been undermining the source and sustainers of our fresh air and our water, and even more, of our very souls and man’s spiritual links with the rest of creation.  A writer who formerly worked for the corporations that bribed and seduced countries into debt and then used that tool to gain control over their natural resources, has described the ongoing battle with global corporate emptires.  “The Ecuadorian rain forests no more precious than the mountains of Java, the seas off the coast of the Philippines, the steppes of Asia, the savannas of Africa, the forests of North America, the icecaps of the Arctic, or the hundreds of other threatened places.  Every one of these represents a battle line, and every one of them forces us to search the depths of our individual and collective souls.” [Ecuador Revisited, Confessions of an Economic Hit Man, John Perkins, Penguin Plume Books, 2006]

 
Ecuadorian waterfall and rain forest Cambodian river and forest area


Gary Bernacsek and myself in Colombo, Sri Lanka, 2002

Over a number of years I workec with with a remarkably able, committed and visionary biologist from Canada, Garry Bernacsek, in FAO, Rome, in Sierra Leone, in Sri Lanka, and latterly in Cambodia.  His reports on ecosystems and fisheries management are much valued and utilized today.  His last appointment was a regional one with the Mekong River Commission which he was looking forward to with enthusiasm.  Sadly he barely was into the job when he was hit by more than one tropical illness, and he died in Bangkok on July first 2006.  Along with his family and close friends, I was devastated at the news.  I want to close this chapter on the environment with a few lines from a poem about nature Garry wrote and sent to me before he died.

O Nature!  
How foolish you have been,
What a silly thing you have done,
Crowning eons of work and experiment
With a creation that
Can now destroy you.

. . . . . . . .

But I can see your
Foolishness and patience
May be at an end.
Your attempts at self preservation 
Have been too feeble
You must take more seriously
The task of ensuring your own survival.

. . . . . . . . . . .

Foolish Nature, be foolish no more
Be cunning and unpredictable
Like your best creation.

Garry Bernacsek 15 July 1999


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