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Custodians of Life

Custodians of Life

New film explores cultural and ecological revival in Uganda’s Great Lakes region

Nature
 Psychedelics and nature connection

Psychedelics and nature connection

Magic mushrooms, ayahuasca and LSD can all act as catalysts of connection to the natural world

Nature
24 Chinese businesses busted selling bones of endangered leopards

24 Chinese businesses busted selling bones of endangered leopards

Scandal as the trade of tonnes of bones exposed including of the critically endangered snow leopard

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Culture

Custodians of Life

New film explores cultural and ecological revival in Uganda’s Great Lakes region

A new film, released by The Gaia Foundation and Ugandan partners ANARDE, NAPE and AFRICE, documents how indigenous communities are reviving the diversity and health of their culture and ecosystems in the midst of a climate emergency.

The Albertine Rift, in which Lakes Albert, George and Edward lie, is one of the most biodiverse regions in Africa. But this area and the communities that call it home have suffered historic dispossession and erosion and are now under threat from a massive planned expansion of oil extraction.

Custodians of Life - Reviving Culture and Nature in Uganda’s Great Lakes charts the work of indigenous Bagungu communities to reverse the ecological damage and cultural erosion that have affected their lands along the shores of Itaka Lya Mwitanzige (Lake Albert) in these challenging circumstances.

Lake Albert - credit - __Ben Gray for The Gaia Foundation

Bagungu communities have followed a path to cultural and ecological revival trailblazed by Amazonian Indigenous communities in the 1990s. Methods employed include regular, intergenerational community dialogues, eco-cultural map and calendar making and documenting customary laws and governance systems for the first time.

Cultural pride and community self-governance are surging back amongst the Bagungu as a result of these efforts. Food security and nutrition have been boosted by the revival of a rich diversity of traditional, locally adapted, climate resilient seed varieties. Sacred natural sites, which are critical havens for biodiversity and traditional spiritual practices, are being restored and revitalised.

Alon Kiiza __- credit - __Ben Gray for The Gaia Foundation

Dennis Tabaro, an Earth Jurisprudence Practitioner who has been accompanying the Bagungu on their journey, says:

These communities are showing the way for many others in our nation who have suffered colonialism and now find themselves facing the realities of climate change and destructive projects. They have revived their ecological knowledge together and are healing their ecosystems for present and future generations.

Through this remarkable revival the Bagungu have also made new allies. The Buliisa District Government recently passed new ordinances recognising and protecting the sacred natural sites and the traditional governance systems of the Bagungu. Meanwhile, Uganda’s Government has taken an exciting step towards becoming the first African nation to fully enshrine the Rights of Nature in its legal system via a new Environment Act.

Kabaale women __- credit - __Ben Gray for The Gaia Foundation

“The Ugandan authorities are recognising the Bagungu’s work and opening the door to a different kind of future for our country - by decolonising our minds and drawing on our rich ancestry to remember that development and well-being can and must be attained in harmony with Nature. Uganda is now poised to become a leader in Africa and globally as it takes this opportunity”, says Tabaro.

In 2017, Bagungu custodians also played a critical role in convincing the African Commission on Human and People’s Rights to adopt a new resolution (Res. 372) calling for continent-wide recognition and protection of Indigenous sacred natural sites and ancestral lands and the rights of the communities who conserve them. This is a landmark achievement towards the decolonisation of conservation and Africa’s legal systems.

Speaking on the occasion of the film’s official launch, Liz Hosken, Director of The Gaia Foundation, the environmental organisation that commissioned the film, said:

“Across Africa there is a growing movement of communities like the Bagungu who have realised their indigenous ways of life, their customary laws and governance systems which cared for the land for generations, hold the key to a life-sustaining future in Africa. They are raising their voices with confidence, influencing and inspiring support for policies that reflect Africa’s plurilegal heritage. This film is an invitation to decision makers to walk alongside the Bagungu and others on the path of restoring life for generations to come.”

Liz Hosken of The Gaia Foundation - credit - __Ben Gray

Nature

Psychedelics and nature connection

Magic mushrooms, ayahuasca and LSD can all act as catalysts of connection to the natural world

One of the most negative and dangerous consequences that has followed in the wake of the success of our materialistic, technological civilisation has been a growing human disconnection and alienation from nature. This has very serious implications for both our mental health as individuals, as well as the health of the wider biosphere.

Nature connectedness or relatedness is a measure of one’s self-identification with nature, an individuals’ experiential sense of oneness with the natural world. It is something direct and emotional. Nature connection can be considered similar to the concept of biophilia, defined as “the connections that human beings subconsciously seek with the rest of life.”

There is a significant body of research to show that high ratings of nature connectedness are strongly associated with reduced levels of anxiety, greater life meaning, vitality and happiness, and improved psychological well-being. High ratings of nature connection are associated with higher valuations of intrinsic (e.g., personal growth, intimacy, community) as opposed to extrinsic (e.g., money, image, fame) aspirations.

Nature connection is also considered one of the strongest predictors of pro-environmental behaviour. It seems that an emotional, empathic connection to nature is needed to motivate behavioural change, and that concern arises as a side effect of this deepening connection. Pro-environmental awareness is also deeply tied to prosociality, or the intent to benefit others, with one increasing the other. This is suggestive of a positive expansion and externalising of one’s awareness and concern that follows in the wake of a growing connection to nature. The early heyday of Western psychedelic culture coincided with the rapid growth and expansion of the environmental movement, which has led some to argue that psychedelics may have contributed to the impetus of modern ecology movements.

Nature connectedness is distinct from nature immersion, bringing independent and additive benefits, with these having a positively reinforcing, synergistic relationship. People with a strong connection to nature are more likely to spend time in nature, and so experience the wider benefits of nature immersion, and more contact with nature tends to result in a greater connection to it. Nature connection also enhances some of the benefits of nature immersion, including well-being, mood, attention, ability to reflect on a life problem and the perceived restorativeness of natural settings.

Psychedelics certainly aren’t necessary to enhance nature connectedness, but they can yield a radical and enduring shift in perspective in some people who tend to place more value in their relationship with nature post-experience. Such a shift may be valuable for those who have grown up without much contact with nature, as childhood contact with it is a strong determinant of nature connectedness and contact in later life. The evidence that psychedelics can facilitate a sustained shift in the way people relate to nature is important, as there is a lack of interventions that can increase nature connectedness in an enduring way. Much like personality traits, environmental attitudes can be resistant to change. But research on psychedelics has shown they have the power to catalyse shifts in both. Psychedelics can also increase cognitive flexibility, self-transcendence, facilitate positive changes in aesthetic experiencing, and catalyse experiences of awe, all of which have been linked to nature connectedness.

Feelings of interconnectedness with nature, of being part of nature, seem to be a primary facet of the psychedelic experience, described over and over again in experience reports, research surveys, and key historical accounts of early psychedelic experiences. There have been a number of studies showing that psychedelic users rate more highly on measures of nature connectedness, including one that found that lifetime usage of classical psychedelics (but not other substances examined) resulted in increases in pro-environmental behaviour through an increase in people’s self-identification with nature. However these past studies have been unable to demonstrate a clear causative effect of psychedelic usage changing people’s nature connectedness.

A study conducted at Imperial College a few years ago looked at a number of participants in a psilocybin-major depression study. While the study was small, there was a robust and enduring shift in people’s nature relatedness observed up to a year post-experience. Interestingly, such shifts can occur even in the context of a clinical setting lacking in nature. This hints that this may be an intrinsic property of the psychedelic experience to some degree.

Recent research has shown that experience with psilocybin can yield enduring increases in mindfulness, even outside the context of a meditation practice. This is important, as there appears to be a positive, synergistic relationship between mindfulness and nature connection, and mindfulness appears to mediate the relationship between nature connectedness and well-being, while boosting mood when spending time in nature. Psilocybin can also increase personality trait openness, which among other things is associated with nature connection and pro-environmental awareness and the propensity to experience awe.

A recently published study found that usage of classical psychedelics (including psilocybin mushrooms, LSD, ayahuasca, DMT and mescaline cacti) enhanced nature connectedness in a large, healthy population.

Of the various findings, a very clear effect of the amount of past lifetime psychedelic usage on people’s baseline nature relatedness was observed. There was also a clear effect of psychedelic use increasing people’s nature relatedness post-psychedelic in people who lacked any previous psychedelic experience, and these increases were enduring, being observed 2 weeks, 4 weeks and 2 years post-experience. There was a concomitant increase in nature relatedness and well-being (echoing other research), and the increase in nature relatedness was found to be mediated by the perceived influence of natural settings and experiences of ego-dissolution under the psychedelic.

Previous research has also highlighted a link between experiences of ego-dissolution and enhanced nature connectedness. Ego-dissolution occurs when a brain network known as the default mode network (thought to be a fundamental component of the neural basis of the ego or our subjective sense of self-identity) is relaxed and deactivated under the psychedelic. This appears to result in perceived boundaries between self and other dissolving, resulting in an expanded perspective of self-nature overlap. The memory of this perspective shift seems to be enduring.

An account from one of the recent Imperial College psilocybin studies and another from Reddit highlight how this feeling of deepened nature connection may come about:

Before I enjoyed nature, now I feel part of it. Before I was looking at it as a thing, like a TV or a painting. [But] you’re part of it, there’s no separation or distinction, you are it.

“Most beautiful experience of my life. Trees, grass, flowers, clouds. It was like I’d never seen any of them before, they’re so colorful and intricate. I’ve been staring at TVs and phones for so long, [psilocybin] mushrooms really brought back the appreciation for the world around.”

Psilocybin MRI brain - Petri et al. 2014, Homological scaffolds of brain functional networks

As research with psychedelics continues to gather momentum, they are likely to be medically integrated for clinical use in the coming years. It would perhaps be a shame if their use was limited to a clinical setting, as their potential extends beyond this. Given that psychedelics increase our connection to nature, and the implications this has for our mental health and well-being, coupled with the inherent and intrinsic therapeutic properties of natural settings, psychedelics could hold great potential as agents of ecotherapy. An important component of the experience of both psychedelics and nature is the experience of awe, with awe being associated with increased well-being, life satisfaction, prosociality and reduced inflammation. Awe may be more prominent in natural settings. Plans are in the pipeline for a more rigorous study to explore the capacity of psilocybin to enhance nature connection.

Experiences of awe, wonder, unity and interconnection are also fundamental components of the overview effect, described by astronauts when viewing the Earth from space. It seems that psychedelics may provide an alternative and more accessible route to a similar transformative perspective.

Nasa's famous Apollo Earthrise photograph

A growing alienation and disconnection from nature can be considered to be the root of the global environmental crises we face, driving the sixth mass extinction event we have entered into due to the actions of our species upon the biosphere. Given how important both nature connectedness and contact are for human mental health and well-being, our growing disconnection from it is also likely fuelling the growing mental health crisis.

Reconnecting humans with nature and identifying any means through which we can reverse our disconnection should be considered a common goal and urgent priority shared by all, with there being a notable lack of interventions for reducing people’s environmentally destructive behaviour. As a group of ecopsychologists concluded at a conference almost 30 years ago: “if the self is expanded to include the natural world, behaviour leading to destruction of the world will be experienced as self-destruction.”

Given the demonstrated capacity of psychedelics to facilitate this increased human-nature connection, it would seem their widespread prohibition is not in the best interests of our species, or the biosphere at large. What if rather than vilifying these compounds, we held them in the same high regard as some indigenous groups do? How different might our global future look if that were the case?

One of the grandfathers of the modern psychedelic movement, the great chemist and inventor and discoverer of LSD, Albert Hofmann, came to view the capacity of psychedelics to connect us to nature as perhaps their most important fundamental property. He took great joy in hearing of nature deprived urbanites having their eyes opened to the wonders and beauty of nature through their LSD experiences. In his book ‘LSD: My Problem Child’ he said:

Psychedelics are not a panacea. They are not a magic bullet, and they are not going to do the hard work we need to do to restore and regenerate the increasingly degraded biosphere. However, if used with care and in the right context, they could play a role as catalysts of connection, by addressing the psychological disconnect that lies at the root of what the social scientist Renee Lertzman recently referred to as our ‘environmental melancholia’. We urgently need to transcend our sense of separation and regain our connection to nature. I can’t think of anything more important at this time.

Nature

24 Chinese businesses busted selling bones of endangered leopards

Scandal as the trade of tonnes of bones exposed including of the critically endangered snow leopard

With mounting global concern at the link between commercial exploitation of wildlife in China and the rise of the coronavirus pandemic, a new report exposes 24 Chinese companies listing the bones of endangered leopards among the ingredients in their traditional medicines.

Among them is Beijing Tongrentang, valued on the stock market in 2019 at 37.5 billion yuan (£4.12 billion) and the world’s largest producer of traditional Chinese medicine (TCM), with a major presence in China as well as branches and subsidiaries worldwide, including the UK and USA.

Tongrentang is named in Bitter Pill to Swallow – China’s flagrant trade in leopard bone products, released by the London-based Environmental Investigation Agency (EIA), and produces more leopard products than any other company.

In 2016, Tongrentang was exposed by academics in Australia, who revealed one of its products, detailed in the new report, contained snow leopard DNA.

Another company, Hongmao Pharmaceutical Co. Ltd, was permitted to buy 1.23 tonnes of leopard bone in a single transaction in 2018 – equivalent to the bones of approximately 150 leopards.

Having recognised the risks posed by the consumption of wildlife as meat, the Chinese Government has imposed an emergency ban. China’s National People’s Congress is expected to ensure this is written into wildlife law.

But the continued sale of leopard bone medicines, along with the scandal of recommending injections containing bear bile as a TCM treatment for COVID-19, demonstrate the need for this ban to be expanded.

“While the ban on the use of most wildlife for food is commendable, if implemented ethically, China needs to move fast and decisively to put a stop to the use of wildlife in traditional medicines,” said Aron White, EIA Wildlife Campaigner and China Specialist.

Indian leopard (P. p. fusca) - Creative Commons

Use of leopard bone in traditional medicine is still legal in China, despite there being fewer than 450 wild leopards left in the country. International trade has been banned since 1975 – raising serious questions as to where the leopard bone in trade comes from.

Poaching for body parts is driving Asia’s leopards to extinction – they have already disappeared from Laos, Singapore and Vietnam and are on the brink in several other countries. Demand for their bones, primarily from Chinese consumers, is one of the key drivers of the trade.

Leopard bone is used in similar ways to tiger bone, steeped in rice wine to produce so-called health tonics and used in other traditional medicines.

Purchase of leopard bone by manufacturers appears to be continuing, despite a regulation that companies could only use stock held prior to March 2006. The quantities and origins of this leopard bone has never been publicly declared and the full scale of China’s domestic leopard bone trade and the total number of companies involved remains largely unknown because of a lack of Government transparency.

“This is just the tip of the iceberg,” said White. “It is not just leopards. At least 46 Government permits to trade in or use parts of species under the highest levels of protection have been issued to traditional medicine companies since September 2017.”

Many academics, NGOs and citizens in China have been calling for greater restrictions on wildlife trade, including for bans to be extended to cover use in traditional medicine.

“As most TCM does not contain wildlife parts, ending the use of threatened wildlife would be a win/win for biodiversity and the image of traditional Chinese medicine, preventing the actions of a minority negatively impacting on the image of the whole TCM industry,” White added.

“China’s National People’s Congress – the country’s highest law-making body – is due to revise the Wildlife Protection Law. We strongly urge the Government to take this opportunity to end the use of leopard and other threatened species in TCM.”