How Should We Measure the Impact of Human Interference on Individuals and the Environment?

How Should We Measure the Impact of Human Interference on Individuals and the Environment?

The question of ‘how do we judge human interference?’ came to me as I spent the past weekend away in a hill region known for coffee growing in Southern India. The host at the homestay where I stayed with a friend was telling a story about how people had interfered with nature and how it could be seen in his hometown. I had, to that point, only been focused on his property- it was an amazingly beautiful little place with organic coffee, pepper, avocados, chillies (that could blow your socks off) and many other products that smelt wonderful- but his statement made me suddenly look further afield.

At the time we were standing on a rooftop terrace and his words tore my eyes from the greenery to look at a landslide that had washed down the entire side of a hill due to heavy rains (not usually found in such ferocity in the town due to a mountain range separating it from the monsoon hit coast to the west) the year before. He said that the reason the landslide had occurred is because of a service road that had been built for a high end hotel that was located further along the ridge than we could see. The service road is no longer used, but it had the effect of limiting the resistance to a landslide that the trees, that had been cut down to make way for the road, could have had.

Similarly, along the valley there were other resorts and hotels that had been built with limited consultation about the after effects of an environmental nature. A money grabbing exercise, he said. I’ve seen and heard reports of similar instances, not only across India, but in many other countries as well. I don’t have the facts to say whether my host for the weekend was accurate or whether he was only partly true, I’m not trying to make that argument here. Instead, I’m wanting to look at the cause and effect, the interplay, between us and nature. I don’t intend to fall on any definite answers, I’d rather I left you with a number of questions.

Some observations and assumptions from my visit to begin:

  • The base level impact caused by the changes to the town, in the past decade or so when tourism increased to its current level, can be seen with waste in the river and on the streets- the amount of waste that is there was not there before the tourist boom that led to the service road being built on the ridge.
  • Increased tourism led to more stores being opened in town to such an extent that the once tiny town now resembles, in some parts of the centre, a large city of complex winding streets.
  • On each of these streets there are new shops selling large and small quantities of coffee, spices, beauty products, homemade wine and many other items. The stores have to keep up with the increase in tourism, don’t they?
  • Each bag of coffee, spices etc. is packaged in plastic because it is the most accessible product for them to package products in.
  • The tourists buy the products (or don’t buy like I did until I found items in recyclable bags- it was an effort! The tourists are often left with no choice because an alternate option is not available. I’m sure some want an alternate bag but the alternate is not there without making an effort) and take them home where waste ends up in their local environment or consume them in the town where waste ends up in the river, farms and forests.  
  • The tourists keep coming to see what the fuss and excitement of the coffee region is all about. New resorts open.
  • The tourists are happy because they have places to stay, does anyone ask how or where the new hotels or resorts were opened? Does it lead to more soil erosion? The tourists are not there for long enough to find out. Are the majority or minority of people who live there thinking about these questions?
  • The local resident has seen his/ her neighbour making extra money and improving his/ her livelihood, so in turn follows the crowd and builds a hotel, thinking about the money made tomorrow not the potential of a landslide in a year.

Does that increased tourist crowd lead to the service road on the ridge? Does it lead to the waste on the streets and rivers? Does it lead to the landslide? And, even broader still, was the dramatic change of weather pattern due to piles of waste (now created by the growing tourism industry) being burnt just outside the field of vision of all those people visiting the area?

Where this all starts and where this all ends can sometimes be extraordinarily difficult to see. Whether people made good or bad deals to build new resorts and hotels and service roads in the region- forever changing the look of the valleys- or not does not quite mean that the landslide occurred or that waste is floating in the river. Yet, it could just as easily.

Let’s think about this from a couple of sides:

Most of this comes down to people either being or not being educated about how intrinsically linked we are to the environment. While I was there, the same host told a story (he liked to talk!) about his bees he kept on his property. Summarising his view, if bees die out in the region there were local residents who (more or less) shrugged their shoulders and said they can still eat rice if other things can’t be pollinated! Now surely this suggests a lack of understanding about how fundamentally important every part of life in both that town and all places around the globe are to one another.

On another side, people in the town need to make a livelihood. By limiting their costs, be that by building a service road or by packaging coffee and spices in plastic, they make more profit on a daily basis. If they’re not looking longer term, they will not provide alternative packaging, such as a paper bag for coffee. How do you educate people on environmental degradation if they are not looking further into the future than being able to ensure that there is food on the table for their family the next day?

I don’t have an answer to whether the host was right about the landslide or not. Nor do I have more than reports from a few other people I spoke to in the town to know how much life has changed with the tourist boom. All I can say for sure is that we all need to continue to find out how we are all linked with our surroundings through accurate facts that everyone can understand. There has to be a way to ensure that families in that region have the chance to improve their livelihood while maintaining some type of equilibrium with our surrounding environment.

A landslide or waste in the water are easy to be seen, the challenge is to highlight how much damage that does to ourselves and every living creature if we don’t move forward sustainably by learning from visible signs that we have, truly, interfered with nature in a profoundly negative way. If there are simple alternatives, such as a paper bag for coffee or a different way to build a service road, isn’t that a better alternative than having a family’s livelihood improve in a shorter period of time by using (currently) cheaper materials and methods? How would you or I explain this to a family who needs to live a poorer life for longer to guarantee that the environment is not damaged beyond repair?