Opinion

What Does It Mean to Restore the Earth?

April 22 is Earth Day, and artist Ann Jyothis Raj explores this year’s theme of ‘restoring our earth’ through the forests of Afghanistan — ecosystems rich with stories of conflict, resilience and hope.

Mazar Sharif Afghanistan, by Farin Sadiq. Image via Shutterstock ID: 1160371192.

The Afghanistan Arboreal Stories art project is an ongoing and evolving project that foregrounds art for the sake of storytelling in what is typically a more traditional scientific narrative about the plant kingdom. The project has endured multiple delays due to the pandemic and the nature of international collaborations across three continents. These delays have enhanced the art itself and I adopted the path of a sapling, searching for light and digging its roots deeper into our human narrative of the environment.

The objective of this project is to reshape the way we think about the narratives of trees, and how they can serve as important communicators of culture and markers of time passed. In this particular case, we are focussing on trees located in Afghanistan. Through ethnographic methods, storytelling, creative artistic practice, and data visualization we will highlight the stories, patterns, and history of these trees, and the stories people of Afghanistan tell about them.

The project was developed by Dr. Diana Chester and Ann Jyothis Raj, and has grown into a collaboration with multiple individuals. On Earth Day 2021, we are launching the Afghanistan Arboreal Story website which will house all the stories and artwork for the project. The website itself is an emerging expression that shares a glimpse into the project’s ‘germination’. The artists have chosen their mediums and rely on human senses to feel for and explore the depth of the human narratives of the arboreal realms. Specifically, the significance of the ‘Decade of Ecosystem Restoration’ for Afghanistan, focusing on trees lost and growing.

Afghanistan has been predominantly featured in the news for its decades long protracted conflict. The confirmation by U.S. President Biden to withdraw all U.S troops from Afghanistan by September 2021 has refocused part of the attention economy onto Afghanistan’s future, at least for the moment. Once again, the sound bites on Twitter talk about the geopolitical security concerns and severely narrow perceptions about the country’s future.

The basic human need to live and thrive in a peaceful and healthy environment has been continually threatened by various ‘stakeholders’ inside and outside Afghanistan. Yet, families – boys, girls, women, men – wake up each day, and go about their daily lives as best as possible. They live ‘normal’ lives in an extremely fragile and abnormal situation. Weddings and birthdays are celebrated, trees are planted and cared for, students worry about their future, parents worry about their children, and so on. In fact their daily narratives are quite similar to the 80% of the planet that does not inhabit a conflict-affected region. Among the many conflict-centric stories about Afghanistan, both told and untold, we find trees and forests embedded between the lines and within the lives of the storyteller. Along with the brutality of conflict, lies the natural beauty and cultural wealth of a country that has deep ties to its land.

“Among the many conflict-centric stories about Afghanistan, both told and untold, we find trees and forests embedded between the lines and within the lives of the storyteller.”

Conflict strips away at the subtle as well as the obvious enablers of life and the living, including trees, their shade, and their fruits. Like children, the most vulnerable in the human species, forests in conflict zones are highly vulnerable. Anecdotal evidence states that during the Soviet-Afghan War (1979-1989), groups of mujahideen fighters found safe havens in the country’s vast woods which prompted the Soviets to bomb them. Many of Afghanistan’s forests were destroyed during this time.

Timber is one of Afghanistan’s precious natural resources. It is a key resource for the fighting factions for the money its sale yields, as well as the communities trying to survive in the area who end up relying on wood as a means of fuel and warmth in the winter. Over the past couple of decades, wood has become increasingly scarce. By 2013, at least half of Afghanistan’s forests had disappeared and the timber trade had become a profitable business. The country has witnessed numerous natural disasters almost on an annual basis, triggered by the loss of forests and other environmental devastation due to conflict, and is compounded by climate change.

The Taliban and the Afghan government have clearly stated their interest in environmental protection during the peace talks. “A conclusion to the conflict that has bedeviled the country for decades would provide the Afghan government and the Taliban the opportunity to enact the environmental policies that they have long trumpeted. Though some experts question whether an American withdrawal will benefit Afghanistan in the long term, few environmentalists doubt that a political settlement will yield political and practical dividends for the environmental movement there.”

Over the past several years, the Afghan government has taken note of the environmental damage resulting from deforestation. The ministries of agriculture, irrigation and livestock together with the international community have launched projects to repair the damage. By 2025, the Afghan government plans to increase the forest area to the pre-2000 size of 1.9 million hectares. The Taliban, in turn, has described its support for reforestation as part of “the perfect plan for environmental protection,” emphasising that the insurgents encourage all actions taken for the support of the environment, including the government’s efforts to invest in this sector.

There may be hope in a common vision for the forests of Afghanistan, which can bring peace and prosperity for the people who both love and depend on the trees — but it is a far cry from ecological restoration engineered by humans. The fact remains that old growth forests cannot be restored in any of our lifetimes.

“There may be hope in a common vision for the forests of Afghanistan, which can bring peace and prosperity for the people who both love and depend on the trees — but it is a far cry from ecological restoration engineered by humans. The fact remains that old growth forests cannot be restored in any of our lifetimes.”

Ecological restoration is defined as “the process of assisting the recovery of an ecosystem that has been degraded, damaged or destroyed”. Hence, the objective of restoration is to assist an ecosystem to recover to its pre-degradation trajectory (or close to it). This is done through a scientific process of benchmarking with reference models from the same native ecosystem.

As artists delving into the meanings and metaphors inspired by trees and their stories, one must enquire — how would we, homosapiens in the anthropocene epoch, restore the Earth? And what do we restore it to? It is even more intriguing when one considers the fact that ecosystems are in a constant state of evolution. One could argue that for humans on the other hand, change is a constant but conscious evolution that seems to be a choice, even as we inhabit an evolving ecosystem.

“As artists delving into the meanings and metaphors inspired by trees and their stories, one must enquire — how would we, homosapiens in the anthropocene epoch, restore the Earth? And what do we restore it to?”

Many global, national and local actions are focusing on ecological restoration, including forest and landscape restoration, food and the environment, plastic/waste clean-ups and environmental literacy. These initiatives address our collective desire to restore our earth at multiple scales to some former glory, however, the individuals themselves are left to manoeuvre their own frameworks of decision-making, with few invitations to reconsider the convenience of the business-as-usual way of living.

While there is recognition that “only human agency can trigger landscape regeneration by working in harmony with natural systems and shifting from an extractive to a regenerative mindset”,1 there is limited guidance on what that translates into for individual level action.

Systems thinking makes a distinction between complex and complicated systems. Most of us fail to comprehend that the Earth’s ecosystems are complex (not complicated) and they are evolving in complexity in every moment, in growth, death and everything in between. On the other hand, a smart phone is complicated and not complex, because it can be put back together if it is dismantled. Human relationships with trees, and nature at large, have been both complicated and complex – as their emergent properties are forever unfolding. Thus, restoring the earth will need individual conscious action, and critical observation of our daily lives and value systems, as a basis for collective action.

Our relationship with the environment/ecology should be recognised in ways that are not just framed by formal institutions but also at the personal-vulnerable dimension. Indeed, it may not be possible to restore the earth without singular individual action; it is not enough to plant trees and count them, they must be cared for, their stories must be written and shared with our children, our neighbourhoods, our countries. We should aspire to connect with the trees in the stories of our ancestors, friends and strangers from lands far away.

Artist Kushaan Chavda’s illustration, Restoring our connection to self, beings and universe.2

References
1. United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification (2019), Conference of the Parties, The Peace Forest Initiative, Fourteenth Session, New Delhi.
2. Kushaan Chavda – website.


Ann Jyothis Raj is an artist with a Masters degree in Geographic Information Science for Development and Environment,  from Clark University in the U.S. Ann was an aspiring art major at Mount Holyoke College but graduated with a Bachelor’s in Environmental Studies instead. She has worked in the Development sector for 15+ years, and as an educator for 3 years. She is currently self-employed as the Assistant and Chief Secretary-general for her  mixed breed Indie hound, Princess Leia Organa.