Eliot Elisofon Photographic Archives
National Museum of African Art
You probably do not know this, but every week for the last couple of months, I have been writing this blog from an off-site location in New Orleans, Louisiana, USA. It is currently January in New Orleans and despite a few cold days during the Polar Vortex, the winter weather here (or lack thereof) has been pleasant. It is also the time of year when some of our seafood, particularly our oysters, are at their biggest and best. But seafood is always in season on the Gulf of Mexico and it is both a staple of local cuisine and a livelihood for many fishermen. You will understand then that whenever the British Petroleum oil spill is in the news, the folks in New Orleans are paying attention.
Currently, the BP oil spill is making headlines in the news because the company is back in court, in New Orleans, protesting certain terms of its reparations agreement. When I say “back in court”, it is important to keep in mind that some of the money that BP has agreed to pay was voluntary, and some of it was award to claims recipients when several US states took BP to court. BP’s complaint is, essentially, that the terms of the settlement do not protect them from false and exaggerated claims.
It is certainly not my place to comment on the all the legalities of BP’s original settlement and current appeal, but this is a moment when we can all reflect on this tragic environmental disaster and “check up” how things have gone in restoring the environment and economy since 2010. To do this, one of the most convenient resources is, of course, the BP restoration website. While the BP restoration website probably gives the most optimistic account of the company’s effort, they are far from admitting that the cleanup and repairs are anywhere close to finished. In fact, the first thing you see on the website is a statement reporting that “We continue to make significant progress cleaning the Gulf shoreline and supporting economic and environmental recovery in affected areas. Our goal is to provide a positive legacy in these coastal communities.”
One thing that the ongoing BP cleanup reminds us of is the severity of the oil spill’s impact. On the one hand, there are many immediate and obvious effects of the spill, and it is likely that those effects have been given some attention. However, with environmental disasters of this scale, there are longterm impacts that are not always visible and these take longterm study to assess and address. For example, one newspaper reports that “21 years after the Exxon Valdez disaster it is estimated that 21,000 gallons of oil still remain just below the surface of Alaska’s Prince William Sound, and the long term environmental effects on the area have far exceeded scientists’ original predictions.” The same is likely to be true in the Gulf and that is to say nothing of all the additional chemicals (dispersants) that have ben used to cleanup the oil.
Of course, we expect that restoration will take time, even as the disaster fades from the public consciousness. However, we should be reminded here that given the long term, and often unforeseeable, effects of such large-scale disasters, a “complete restoration” is probably never to be achieved. We should also be reminded, as no complete restoration is likely a reality, that foresight and the avoidance of such accidents is the only real solution. And this is not merely a safety issue, but a question of fossil fuels, commerce, and the sustainability of our planet. Continue reading
Happy New Years everyone! And a cold new year it has been. In the United States, temperatures around the nation plummeted to extreme lows as Arctic air was caught in cycle that caught our country off guard. As with most extreme weather phenomena, there are two ways that most Americans look at them. On the one hand, extreme weather phenomena and their increasing occurrence are, if not directly linked to man-made climate change, in keeping with scientific predictions of what the symptoms of climate change will be. However, climate change is still a flashpoint, divisive issue. For every person who views the extreme weather event known as the polar vortex as a potential symptom of climate change, there is some preposterous claim, here are the top two:
Obviously, as a blogger for Earth Matters, I am not of the opinion that the polar vortex was a leftist hoax or that it disproves climate change. But let me back that up with a brief critique. First, the term “global warming” has been passed over to the term “climate change” because the weather phenomena that global warming are linked to are incredibly complex. Second, if we choose to use “global warming”, as many of its critics do, we have to consider that the term “global” does not refer exclusively to the United States. As pointed out in a recent article on Slate, temperature around the world reached record highs in 2013.
As we enter 2014, it is unlikely that climate change phenomenon or the debate around it will cease. But as you begin the new year, please ask yourself one question when you consider all the things we all do that contribute to so-called “global warming”… is it a risk you are willing to take?
Today’s guest post, the first of 2014, comes from Dr. Beth Burrous who is one of the Earth Matters partners at the US Botanic Garden in Washington DC. The US Botanic Garden currently has African plants that you can see up close, plants that have become especially important to our daily lives and show how much earth really does matter!
African Plants in Everyday Life
We frequently reap the benefits of African food and medicinal plants, a topic I explore when conducting tours at the U.S. Botanic Garden. A few of the many beneficial African plants are highlighted here. Come to the U.S. Botanic Garden to take a look.
Chocolate – Equatorial Africa supplies about 75% of the world’s cocoa beans that are used to make chocolate. While the chocolate plant (Theobroma cacao) is native to South America, it grows well in Cote d’Ivoire, Ghana, Cameroon and Nigeria. Beans are harvested from cocoa pods . After fermentation, drying, roasting and grinding, the beans are made into edible chocolate products. Nearly all cocoa is grown on small (5-10 acre) family farms. Preliminary studies suggest that eating dark chocolate (the darker the better) may promote cardiovascular health.
Roasted cacao beans Cacao bean pods
Vanilla – Vanilla “beans” are the fermented and dried fruit of the vanilla bean orchid (Vanilla planifolia). The beans are used for cooking and to make “vanilla extract.” While the vanilla orchid is native to Central America, about 65% of the world’s vanilla beans are grown on the island of Madagascar.
Coffee – Historians believe that the coffee plant (Coffea arabica, robusta) is native to Ethiopia. Nowadays, ripe coffee plant berries (“cherries”) are aged, dried and roasted to make coffee “beans” for brewing coffee. But long before the invention of a brewed coffee beverage, people used the caffeine-containing coffee “cherries” as medicine. Islamic medical texts from the year 1000 C.E. prescribe coffee cherries as a stimulant and digestive aid. Preliminary studies suggest that consuming moderate amounts of coffee (about 3-5 cups per day) may prevent certain types of cancer, dementia and Type 2 diabetes and prolong longevity.
Roasted coffee beans Coffee cherries
Periwinkle (“Vinca”) – Catharanthus roseus is a popular landscape plant native to Madagascar. It is also the source of cancer-fighting medicines. The drug vinblastine is used to treat cancers including Hodgkin’s disease, various lymphomas, breast cancer and testicular cancer. The drug vincristine is used to treat cancers including Hodgkin’s disease, leukemia, neuroblastoma and a rare childhood muscular tumor. Manufacturers use about five tons of periwinkle plant material to make one ounce of drug.
Foxglove – This common garden plant (Digitalis purpurea ) is native to Northwestern Africa. It is the source of the heart medicine digoxin (digitalis), used to treat heart failure and irregular heartbeat.
Deadly Nightshade – Atropa belladonna is native to Northern Africa. “Belladonna” is derived from Italian and means beautiful woman because long ago, the plant was used in eye drops to dilate the pupils. While all parts of the plant are highly poisonous, several medicines are extracted from this plant and close relatives. Atropine is used to resuscitate patients with extremely low heart rate, and U.S. troops carry atropine-loaded syringes to treat nerve gas poisoning. Scopolamine is used in trans-dermal patches to treat motion sickness, and may be useful in treating severe depression.
Reading through the eco-news this week I came across two articles that had similar themes. The first article is titled “Solar Customers in Hawaii get Burned” and details how people switching to solar power in the island state are struggling. Apparently, while it seems to make the most sense that Hawaiians would take advantage of one of their most abundant resources, the islands presently lack the infrastructure to accommodate it. According to the article, the inability to regulate the amount of electricity that solar power generates poses a threat to Hawaii’s grids. What happens then is that people switching to solar power end up with solar panels they are paying for but cannot use (until the infrastructure is put in place) and have to continue paying for their electricity bills as well. The second article is titled “A Struggle to Balance Wind Energy with Wildlife”. This article details the current trouble in the United States with wind energy, for while the massive turbines harness a renewable energy source, they also stand in the path of many species of migratory boards. Numerous birds have apparently been killed by the turbines, including species of eagles that were taken off the endangered species list only a few years ago.
The problem that is illustrated by both of these articles is that while human beings have finally started to realize that finding renewable sources of energy is essential and imperative, the technology is still in its infancy. Indeed, while we are now grasping at the technology that will hopefully spare our environment, we are still far from perfecting it or predicting it. Integrating these new technologies into our lives is not going to be effortless and neither is it going to happen overnight.
The problems we are having with adapting these technologies to our lives also demonstrate a lack of foresight, a seemingly fundamental human flaw. We would not be in a scramble for new energy technologies if we had not so poorly anticipated the side effects and hazards of the old ones, namely fossil fuels. For that matter, we also turned, and many of us continue to turn, a blind eye to the side effects and hazards of our current energy technologies when we became aware of their side affects and hazards. So, while the development of new energy technologies does demonstrate some collective learning, its slow realization and its faulty employment reveals that we are still prone to the same kind of mistakes we have always made. So while we totter towards answers to our biggest environmental problems, let us not forget that there are some fundamentally human problems that also need attention,
The Earth Matter’s exhibition consists of five sections that take a symbolic journey through the world as interpreted by African artists. The fourth section in the show is titled “Strategies of the Surface”, which includes works focusing on the landscape and authored by artists from Jacobus Pierneef to Otobong Nkanga and IngridMwangiRobertHutter. Using these two works as examples, the latter work is an apartheid era landscape painting that, many contend, paints a colonial picture of South Africa, devoid of the indigenous inhabitants that challenged colonial claims to the land. The work by Nkanga describes geography from the detached, inhumane point of view of military strategy, conflict, and claim. The work by IngridMwangiRobertHutter focuses on land, belonging, and borders.
In these many interpretations, the emphasis is on the relationship between the land and people, race, and culture. With the passing of Nelson Mandela, it is a an apt opportunity to remind the world that much of the late freedom fighter’s work was about a similar geography, the landscape of people. This landscape is something that Mandela changed greatly, erasing the imaginary lines that separated and imprisoned people. Today, while disparate communities still exist, gone are the so called “homelands” which divided South Africa according to the edicts of racial segregation. Indeed, Mandela’s impact on South Africa’s geography is one of his greatest legacies.
Humans, however, are not the only species affected by geography. In a recent article by National Geographic Editor in Chief Chris Johns, for example, the author tells about his meeting with Mandela and the Peace Park project in Africa. Peace Parks are transnational reserve areas that allow wildlife to move freely across the continent. As Johns notes, the idea of Peace Parks—reserves that transcend political borders, enabling animals and people to move freely across a single ecological unit—resonated with Mandela. This article, which also sheds light on Mandela’s love of nature and his yearning for it during his imprisonment, captures a nuance of Mandela and his legacy that might be overlooked in many of the popular articles that have flooded the internet. The article can be found at http://news.nationalgeographic.com/news/2013/12/131205-mandela-south-africa-apartheid-appreciation/ and more information on the Peace Parks project can be found at http://www.peaceparks.org/.
Jacob Hendrik Pierneef, 1886–1957, South Africa
South West African Mountains, 1944, Oil on canvas
Private collection, courtesy of Bonhams
Otobong Nkanga, b. 1974, Nigeria
Limits of Mapping, 2010, Wood, acrylic paint, metal
IngridMwangiRobertHutter, b. 1975, Kenya
Static Drift, 2001, Chromogenic prints on aluminum
Collection of Heather and Tony Podesta, Falls Church, Virginia
In March 2013, The National Museum of African Art built a collaboration with the Environmental Film Festival in the Nation’s Capital that was centered on the Earth Matter’s exhibition. This collaboration resulted in an Earth Matters’ themed segment in this year’s annual festival. Also born from that collaboration is this week’s guest post, which comes from Georgina Owen, the festival’s Associate Director.
The Environmental Film Festival collaboration with Earth Matters
In the summer of 2012 the Environmental Film Festival in the Nation’s Capital was invited to collaborate with Earth Matters to develop a series of film programs as part of the 2013 festival that would herald the opening of Earth Matters at the Museum of African Art. Through long-time EFF partner Jeffrey Stine, Chair and Curator in the Division of Medicine and Science at the American History Museum, who represented the NMAH on the Earth Matters Project Team, we were introduced to Karen Milbourne and Anthony Stellaccio. As they described the exhibition I was struck with the amazing complexity of the exhibition and yet the elemental importance of its message – the significance of the relationship between humans and the earth we stand on.
The result of our programming was a rich and varied group of films that formed a major theme running through our 2013 festival. The films were presented in collaboration with four different Smithsonian units and two external partners. The films ranged from documentaries on mud masons in Mali, on the effects of climate change and drought on onion farmers in Niger, to an inspiring portrait film on Jane Goodall, and to a Gabonese produced family adventure film involving lions and stolen tribal artifacts. Special guest speakers included Claudine André, who spoke about her work rescuing and rehabilitating orphaned bonobos in the Democratic Republic of Congo, and Tony Huston, who presented classic films by his father, legendary film director John Huston, exploring the influence that filming on location in various parts of Africa had on his work. The last film in our series was an intimate portrait of El Anatsui, one of the artists invited to create a land art piece in the Smithsonian Gardens for the Earth Matters exhibit.
Fold Crumple Crush: The Art of El Anatsui
Credit: Icarus Films
For the Best and For the Onion
Credit: Icarus Films
The success of our Earth Matters film series was a natural precursor to a new pan-Smithsonian collaboration for our 2014 festival, which will take place March 18 through 30. This year we will be working with the Smithsonian Grand Challenges Consortia on “Living in the Anthropocene: The Age of Humans.” Films we are planning to include are The Last Call, that revisits one of the most controversial environmental books of all time, The Limits To Growth, and redelivers its message that growth must be responsibly managed to avoid a global crisis. We will also show Extreme Realities, narrated by Matt Damon, a new episode of “Journey to Planet Earth,” that explores the links between climate change, extreme weather and national security. Other films will examine how man has reshaped the natural world – our landscapes, our rivers, our oceans, our atmosphere – even outer space. The relationship between humans and the earth we stand on matters in unprecedented ways.
Environmental Film Festival in the Nation’s Capital
Credit: Sand Fishers
The Future of Mud: A Tale of Houses and Lives in Djenne
Credit: Icarus Films
The King’s Necklace
Credit: The King’s Necklace
The African Queen
Last Wednesday, scientists released a list of 2,370 “irreplaceable places.” The purpose of this list is to prioritize habitats essential to the rare wildlife, to develop protective measures for these habitats, to make the management of those habitats more efficient, and to curb extinction. A full list of the 2, 370 locations is available at the following link: http://irreplaceability.cefe.cnrs.fr/search?
Out of the 2,370 entries, there are hundreds in Africa – a reminder of the continents many natural wonders and its remarkable wildlife. However, the need for protection is also a reminder of the sever fragility of Africa’s ecosystems and the many threats that it faces. From mining to poaching, Africa has many problems to solve before it can achieve environmental sustainability. One of the biggest problems Africa faces is poverty. Dr. Emeka Polycarp Amechi at the University of Lagos in Nigeria makes this point explicitly in a recent essay entitled LINKING ENVIRONMENTAL PROTECTION AND POVERTY REDUCTION IN AFRICA: AN ANALYSIS OF THE REGIONAL LEGAL RESPONSES TO ENVIRONMENTAL PROTECTION. In fact, in the opening of the essay Polycarp states that the “New Partnership for Africa’s Development (NEPAD- EAP) identifies poverty as the main cause and consequence of man-made environmental degradation and resource depletion in Africa.” Polycarp also quickly points out that while poverty breeds environmental degradation, environmental degradations, in turn, breeds more poverty, creating a viscous cycle.
For proof of the links between poverty and environmental degradation, one need look no further than the stunning images of the Agbogbloshie dump site outside of Accra, in Ghana. This site, a dump for electronic waste from developed nations, has become a home for the impoverished, who rummage through and burn the “e-waste” to pilfer materials that can be sold and recycled. One of the most poignant images of the Agbogbloshie dump site was made by Nyaba Leon Ouedraogo and is featured in the Earth Matters exhibition at the National Museum of African Art. Of course, there are many images of many such sites and there are many more sites that are yet undocumented. But the juxtaposition of this powerful image of poverty and environmental degradation and the serene images of Africa’s grandest nature belong together, for they are inextricably linked.
Nyaba Leon Ouedraogo
b. 1978, Burkina Faso
Untitled, from the series The Hell of Copper
2008 (2013 exhibition print)
Tsavo East National Park, Kenya