Katarina Zimmer

“A continuous series of corals, sponges, sea anemones, and other marine productions, of magnificent dimensions, varied forms, and brilliant colors. In and out moved numbers of blue and red and yellow fishes, spotted and banded and striped in the most striking manner, while great orange or rosy transparent jellyfish floated near the surface …The reality exceeded the most glowing accounts I had ever read of the wonders of a coral sea.”

Such were the words of British explorer Alfred Russel Wallace on his voyage through the Malay archipelago in 1869. The region is home to the most diverse ecosystems of the marine domain—coral reefs, created by thousands of years’ worth of work by minute organisms that extract calcium carbonate from the water and deposit this as solid limestone. By doing so, corals—and certain types of algae—have built colossal structures that give home to a diversity of organisms rivaling that of the Amazon rainforest.

This diversity sustains the lives of some 500 million people across more than 100 nations with coastlines fringed by coral reefs. These ecosystems are an indispensable source of fish and seafood and also critical breeding, feeding and nursery grounds for many open-ocean fish, notably tuna. They’re invaluable to medical research, harboring organisms with anti-cancer or AIDS-inhibiting properties, and to tourism, being the producers of the fine, white coral sand of tropical beaches. Together with mangrove forests they form fortresses that protect entire coastlines from waves, storms and floods.

But today, nearly 150 years after Wallace described them in their pristine state, the ‘rainforests of the ocean’ stand at the brink of ecological ruin. Increasingly crowded coastal populations are exhausting the once thriving fish stocks. According to a study published earlier this year in Nature, nearly nine in ten reefs have lost at least half their natural fish numbers. Particularly the most desirable fish—which tend to be large, predatory ones—have shown devastating population crashes, often crossing the threshold at which they are capable of regenerating.

Equally alarming are the knock-on effects of the decimation of these species. The coral reef food web is an ancient, carefully balanced network in which the loss of any one player can cause a domino effect that reverberates through the whole system.

For instance, the heavy exploitation of species that predate on sea urchins has had disastrous effects on Kenyan reefs: These particular sea urchins feed on crustose coralline algae, which—like corals—are critical to reef formation. In the absence of their predators, they were able to proliferate to extreme abundances, wreaking havoc over the reef by eroding away its foundation. This enabled other types of algae that are typically harmful to corals to thrive and dominate the reef. This effect was exacerbated by the overfishing of herbivorous fish species that usually graze on them. By comparison, non-fished reefs in marine parks remained healthy, where sea urchins and algae were kept in check by intact fish communities.

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Kenya: Overfishing of invertebrate predators and herbivorous fish can lead to overgrowth of algae.

All unsustainable fishing has negative impacts on fish stocks and has the potential to throw the ecosystem out of kilter via such ‘trophic cascades’ – where the removal of a predator causes an increase in the numbers of its prey. However, because we don’t know exactly how reef food webs work—and each one may have evolved differently—, they are near impossible to predict.

Tragically, the last three to four decades have seen the rise of a number of destructive fishing practices that further exacerbate the situation. Desperate as ever to ensure their income despite dwindling stocks, many fishers have resorted to a variety of highly destructive fishing methods: Bottom trawling, spearguns, explosives and cyanide have had catastrophic impacts on coral reefs through their alarming potential to not only capture vast amounts of fish with little effort, but also to kill many other species and destroy the reef-building framework.

In Indonesia—the world-leading exporter of ‘ornamental’ fishes—cyanide is used to capture colorful reef fish for the aquarium trade or display in restaurants—supposedly stunning the fish without killing them. Many fish die regardless and surviving ones tend to have shorter lifespans. A non-selective respiratory poison, cyanide can severely damage any reef organisms it comes into contact with, including corals.

Also, bombs made from artificial fertilizers or illegally sourced dynamite are thrown upon schooling reef fish, which are killed and then collected by divers. A single beer bottle bomb can obliterate all life within an area of around 20 square meters and shatter the delicate skeletons of live corals, turning them into dead rubble.

Screen Shot 2017-03-30 at 10.00.19.pngIn Southeast Asia, nearly 95% of reefs are affected by overfishing and destructive fishing practices.

Most reefs today would appear unrecognizable to Wallace, their fish stocks drained, their food webs knocked out of balance, bombed, poisoned. These impacts make it all the more difficult for reefs to cope with the effects of coastal pollution, rising sea levels and global warming.

If current rates of destruction continue, it is estimated that 60% of reefs will be destroyed over the next 30 years, with devastating consequences for the lives depending on them for food, income and coastline protection.

According to the aforementioned study in Nature, completely banning fishing on reefs could restore the ecosystems to a robust state within 35 years. However, burgeoning populations and increasing poverty and hunger in developing reef nations make this strategy unfeasible.

Hope lies in communities that have succeeded for generations in maintaining a balance between fishing and keeping their reefs in good health. By enforcing seasonal fishing bans to give the fish time to spawn and breed, whilst condemning the use of destructive fishing practices, traditional peoples of Kenya and Raja Ampat, Indonesia, set an example that could lead the way into a sustainable future for reef fisheries. Perhaps one day, coral reefs will recover to their natural state – bursting with the color and life that Wallace so admired.


Carbon emissions, fossil fuels, that 2°C threshold we’re not supposed to cross—science is good at getting the facts straight about climate change, but less effective in communicating how it affects us. This is where art may come in.

In imagining art about changing climate, one might think of paintings of melting icecaps and expansive deserts, but there is a surprisingly diverse range of approaches artists use to talk about the phenomenon. “I believe that just looking at paintings in a gallery about the North Pole, for instance, don’t really do anything for consciousness of climate change, or awareness”, says Regina Cornwell, organizer and curator of inClimate, which comprises several artistic projects in New York about climate change, all under the umbrella of Franklin Furnace Archive Inc., an arts organization based in Brooklyn.

Cornwell started inClimate in the hope of addressing a gap in public awareness about climate change. “It’s hard to see when you walk around the streets of New York that there’s a kind of awareness about this,” she says. The main idea is that artists work together with specialists—scientists, engineers, ecologists—to explore new ways of getting people to think about the issues around climate change. And the work appears to be having an impact. The number of grants awarded by the National Endowments for the Arts to artistic projects like inClimate has increased significantly in recent years.

The projects that have come out of the program are extremely diverse. Lynn Cazabon is one of the artists of inClimate. Her project, entitled Uncultivated, is based at Hunts Point in the Bronx. Working together with a botanist, she held a number of workshops to introduce both young and old to the wild plants of their neighborhood, and plant new ones. A few months later she partnered with naturalist “Wildman” Steve Brill to harvest the plants and cook them into a meal. Cazabon’s main goal is to get people to recognize the nature around them, and how climate change is affecting it: “We think of nature a something that is far away, outside the city.  But we’re completely submerged in it, although we don’t think about it that way. I’m trying to change that kind of thinking.”

Part of Uncultivated – which has been done in other cities in the U.S. – also involves taking photographs of what are typically considered “weeds” in urban areas, enlarging these to billboard size and installing these around cities. By doing so, Cazabon hopes to reach a broader audience: “People who don’t go to art galleries are then exposed to something provocative – it’s a gesture of bringing attention to it”.

This kind of project may be on the fringe of what most people consider “art”, but Cazabon disagrees: “The whole thing is art”, she says: “The photographs, the community – I consider that all art.” When trying to get people to think differently about something, she says it’s important to explore new forms of artistic media. Chantal Bilodeau, a playwright known for creating The Arctic Cycle, a series of plays about climate change, agrees: “It’s important to get out of traditional venues.”

Though her work is conceptually quite different from Cazabon’s, both artists share the same sentiment in wanting to bring the topic of climate change closer to home. Bilodeau’s first play featured a variety of actors, each playing a different role of someone affected by warming in the Arctic, for instance a climate activist, a lobbyist advocating the drilling of a deep-sea oil rig, an Inuit and a polar bear. This approach made it possible to explain where different people are coming from, and that the picture is a lot more complicated than at first glance.

The main aim of these projects is not to explain about climate science per se, but to foster a sense of general awareness and in doing so addressing a certain apathy towards these issues in society. “A lot of my projects have to do with changing a paradigm”, says Cazabon: “Any kind of behavioral change can’t happen until a conceptual change in society.”

However, such projects remain a small niche in the art world – maybe because it’s not quite science, and not quite art in the traditional sense in the word. “There has been very little interest in producing this kind of work”, says Bilodeau: “The theaters haven’t caught up yet.”

In the lush green of the Peruvian province Madre de Dios (‘mother of the gods’) lies Manu National Park, a protected area of 20,000 square kilometers, rising into the last strings of Andean Cordillera in the West and plunging into the Amazon lowlands in the East. This UNESCO World Heritage Site is considered one of the most pristine areas of rainforest in the world.

Here lies the rural town of Salvación, where women still wash their clothes on the banks of the river Madre de Dios. There are some stalls catering to the basic needs of rural life, one small internet cafe, a school and even a small swimming pool. The traffic rules are simple: buses and playing children have right of way before free-roaming chickens and dogs and passing somebody without a greeting of “Buenos Dias” is a no-go.

Along the road is Chaskawasi (‘House of the Stars’ in the Andean language Quechua), a dwelling built in 2004. It serves as a school-term home for 15 children from various isolated communities within Manu.

Ten of the children belong to a group of indigenous communities known as Machiguenga, who live peacefully in the deeper jungle, generally inaccessible to outsiders. Many children travel a considerable distance to reach Salvación, and some had to persuade their parents to let them do so.


– Walking home from school in Salvación –

Five children are from campesino families, non-native peoples who reside in more urban areas. Tending to move around a lot, these families often have various domestic problems. Many of their children are enrolled later in school than is the norm, which makes their integration into the educational system difficult.

Chaskawasi comprises a large complex of buildings: a kitchen, an eating porch, two gender-separated sleeping quarters, bathroom huts as well as an impressive biohuerto—a garden to grow produce such as tomatoes, yucca and bananas. The entire complex dozes beneath a parrot-filled sky and is bordered by jungle, with frequent sounds of monkeys and other animals.


– Having soup on the eating porch –

 Life here is led with a strong conscience towards nature: The food is rich in home-grown vegetables such as yucca and plantains and poor in meat. When the children gallop around la cancha, a small pitch designated to football and volleyball, they are reminded not only to avoid poisonous snakes in the grass, but also not to harm the ones that aren’t.

There are two classrooms, where children also do homework and other studies after school: La Primaria for the younger kids up to the age of 11 and La Secundaria for the older ones up to 16.

Seven adults live here and collectively manage everything: the garden and household, the fundraising required to fuel the project as well as creating a supportive learning environment for the children. The latter can be difficult due to some of the children’s problematic backgrounds and involves both a lot of discipline and a lot of love. The enormous amount of work needed to maintain Chaskawasi is undertaken by these people on a purely voluntary basis.

In spite of this, the project is fighting many problems, the largest of which is lack of funding. Resources are scarce: Acquiring necessities for the children such as clothes, shoes or school materials relies largely on donations. Only recently the house acquired a washing machine; before then everything needed to be hand-washed. Any shopping necessitates an eight-hour long trip to Cuzco, the nearest city, or to one of the neighboring villages. While this doesn’t sound like a very large feat, two-hour trips easily stretch into five due to never-ending road works and only few daily buses commute between the villages.


– Studying in La Secundaria after school –

Even greater are the difficulties organizing anything at all with the rest of the world, due to the meagre phone and internet connection, the latter only available in one small shop in Salvación. Even this is only intermittent because the one available transformer routinely has to switch between two villages.

Medical care is another issue: When the small pharmacy in town does not suffice, people must either undertake the long and costly journey to Cuzco, or wait for the annual visit by a team of American doctors. For one day in the year the whole village queues for hours in hope of doctors’ advice for a variety of ailments. At the last visit, four of the Chaskawasi children had been unable to see a doctor for problems with their eyesight because the system works on a ‘first come, first served’ basis.

Lastly, environmental problems also take their toll on the town: Once virgin rainforest, Salvación today is succumbing to the ever-growing pressures of urbanization. Goods from Cuzco bring with them plastic packaging, from ‘Inca Cola’ bottles to bags used to sell home-made drinks in. It is unclear where this debris goes at the end of the day. There is no infrastructure that would cater to recycling in a world in which the transport of any item means cramming it into an over-crowded bus.

Despite such issues, it is really admirable that Chaskawasi manages to insist on its sustainable approach towards nature. It is truly an inspiring project that gives children access to what their own communities cannot give them: education. Chaskawasi enables them to become part of the globalized world, while simultaneously strengthening their core: respect towards nature.