Two important films were shown back to back at the Planet in Focus Film Festival in Toronto on October 23rd. Both illustrated contrasting ways in which separate communities on either side of the Indian Ocean are dealing with the impacts of climate change.
Coal India is the world’s biggest coal producing company, and the title of Felix Röben and Ajay Koli’s recent documentary. The film opens with one of the company’s jovial promo videos, featuring a Bollywood-style song about “black diamonds”. Far more dreary images follow the advertisement. Men are seen separating coal from stone and hoisting heavy baskets of coal onto their heads, solemnly walking into clouds of black dust to drop the coal onto loading trucks, wearing no protective gear at all.
The message is clear from the start; they are there out of necessity. While describing the coal mines, one of the men says that “death is in everything”. Regardless, all seem grateful that they even have work. White smiles flash on dark faces coated in coal dust, revealing moments of joy amongst the dark and monotonous scenery. Their livelihoods depend on this very difficult work, and for many of them, it is all they have ever known.
One of the few women working in the mines remembers the grounds before the coal industry took over about ten years prior. She says that the Kusunda coalfield, where the film is set, was once a forest rich in biodiversity and spirits. Today, there is nothing colourful about this environment.
During the night, gangs of children referred to as pirates climb onto passing coal trucks and steal pieces of coal to resell. These young people make a living doing this, and it becomes evident that many people in India have become dependent on the coal industry.
Though the film may be sparse in dialogue, and the directors chose not to include any narration, the stark images speak for themselves. The situation is dire but no efforts are being made to improve the working standards in coal mines, or to regenerate an environment that is sustainable and profitable. The people of India are glad to find work, and cannot even begin to dream of better conditions and a cleaner environment. The prospect of change seems impossible.
Kokota: The Islet of Hope
Meanwhile, on the other side of the Indian Ocean, the small Tanzanian Island of Kokota has experienced a complete rejuvenation over the past years. Mbarouk, an ecologist called from a neighbouring island, and Jeff Schurr, a Canadian tree planter, helped them solve issues that plague several parts of the world today, such as deforestation, a collapsing fishery, and severe water shortages.
When he first arrived in Kokota, people were living in conditions akin to life a hundred years ago. The survival of the Kokota people depended on their ability to adapt to the devastative effects of climate change. Without the tree canopy that once covered the island, the temperature skyrocketed, making water extremely sparse. The ground was so dry that farming became impossible.
The film depicts how deforestation and climate change can truly act as forms of oppression. School, healthcare, and farming were the last thing on these people’s minds, since they were so preoccupied with obtaining and preserving water.
Once funds from the Finnish embassy and support from the EU were obtained, Mbarouk and Schnurr planted thousands of trees, built a school that also served as a water harvesting system, and introduced energy sources that reduced the need for kerosene.
For the first time, thanks to the rainwater harvesting system, people in Kokota were able to turn on a tap. They were empowered by their success, and began farming again. Slowly, the crops became better, and the population grew. A space was set aside for a conservation forest, and conservation became a daily job.
Jeff Schnurr started an organization called Community Forests International, which tries to change the misconception that environmental conservation is an area that is directly opposed to economic development. Better land leads to an increase in food production, providing more income.
The problems that Kokota faced are being experienced on a massive scale. Jeff has applied the Kokota pilot project to 18 communities worldwide. According to him, it is best to pick a starting point, however small, and find simple ways in which environmental conservation can stimulate economic development.