Eco-warrior on a mission

2009-02-17 00:00

Sarisha Ramanand’s youthful smile belies a steely determination to save the planet for future generations. “If anyone in my age group and below thinks about having children, you have to think about what world you’re leaving behind for them,” she says intently.

The Pietermaritzburg-bred environmentalist has always been an eco-warrior at heart. At the age of six her independent spirit was born. “My parents allowed me to make my own decisions. Being a humanitarian and caring for the planet came strongly from the age of eight with my fascination with space exploration, the complexities of nature and its breathtaking beauty in all forms on the planet. Weather and climate have always been my passion. I honestly believed I was going to be an astronaut circling this planet in some space station, to the point where I wrote to Nasa.”

She may not be an astronaut, but at 23 years old, Ramanand is the carbon sink development manager for the Wildlands Conservation Trust (WCT), a non-profit organisation working to conserve our natural heritage. “One of the core responsibilities of the trust is biodiversity and we are using carbon trading as the vehicle to support biodiversity and conservation,” she explains.

Inspiration has come from a variety of sources. Her sister is her “muse” and her boyfriend “has to deal with all [her] outrageous ‘saving-the-world’ stuff”. She reads copious books about “great people and scientists”. Ramanand has two degrees, a BSc in geographical sciences and a BSc honours in environmental management and geography.

One of her academic mentors is Professor Trevor Hill whom she credits for “constantly fuelling my passion for responsible environmentalism … and allowing me space to build my environmental educational abilities”.

At work, Ramanand is grateful to Andrew Venter, the CEO of WCT. “He afforded me opportunities that allowed me to fulfil many goals and develop my intellect,” she says.

“What got me into environmentalism? I can’t stand to see the planet deteriorate through irresponsible behaviour or to see animals or people suffer. All these things work together, so I try to do my best all around.”

But back to her work as carbon sink development manager. So what exactly is a carbon sink? “Basically, it is reforesting land and quantifying how much carbon is getting trapped in that forest. It’s a pool of carbon dioxide as opposed to a carbon source, which is like a car releasing carbon dioxide,” says Ramanand.

And why worry about carbon dioxide? Al Gore says: “… when there is more carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, the temperature increases because more heat from the sun is trapped inside”.

One of Ramanand’s focus areas is Greening Your Future*, a Wildlands Conservation Trust initiative “that focuses on greening the country and the planet, and combating the negative effects of climate change”. (www.greeningyourfuture.co.nz).

This initiative has a number of projects that focus on restoring natural forests, while taking care of the people who reside on the land. A good example of this collaborative effort is the Mkuze Floodplain project. The project aims to establish a carbon sink along the Mkuze River in KwaJobe and to restore approximately 30 kilometres of riverine forest that is home to native plant and animal species.

WCT pays the landowners of the KwaJobe community to plant indigenous trees and then pays them a monthly fee per surviving tree. The project employs a project manager and three local community members who monitor progress.

Ramanand ran workshops in key wards initially. “It’s nice to have transparency and tell people exactly what is happening. I structured it around environmental education, bringing climate change into the picture.”

She experienced rural life firsthand as a student and this helps with her community liaison. “When I was at university, I was a tutor, demonstrator and supervisor for international students. We went out to the Eastern Cape. I lived in a rural community with a family for 11 days.”

To date, the Mkuze Floodplain project team has managed to plant about 9 210 trees on 65 plots of land and currently has 54 landowners signed into the project. “Our target for this year was 8 000,” says Ramanand.

Other projects include Indigenous Trees for Life, The Ongoye Forest carbon sink and the carbon offset work at Buffelsdraai landfill.

Ramanand appears to have no shortage of energy or enthusiasm for her cause and she extends herself beyond local borders. She has been to both Sri Lanka and Brazil. “My trip to Sri Lanka was as an expert advisor to the community; to NGOs that are trying to restore the mango system after the tsunami.”

She also recently visited the Pantanal in Brazil, the largest wetland in the world. “It has immense biodiversity, beyond imagination. You see things there that you would only see on TV,” she says. “Different forest systems that exist there have been encroached on by local soya bean farmers and by cattle ranching. The aim of the trip was to value how much carbon would be trapped in a system of that sort if it was saved.”

Slowing down climate change has to be a collaborative effort. “Everyone can do little things. We are a wasteful society. We waste everything, we waste food and we waste water. People need to wake up to the fact that you can’t be that way now because we are running out of ideas and time to save the planet.”

On the Greening Your Future website, designed, developed and managed by Ramanand, there is a national carbon calculator to work out your carbon footprint and simple suggestions on how to reduce your footprint, for example by using energy-efficient light bulbs, planting indigenous trees, sharing transport and recycling.

Karen Barnes of Go Green says, “Recycling is the easiest way that each one of us can make a difference.” Go Green is a Howick-based recycling company that collects glass, cans, plastic, paper, cardboard and other recyclable items for a nominal fee. Alternatively, Ramanand suggests contacting your municipality to help with finding a recycling depot.

“It’s a simple case of supply and demand that dictates what happens in the world,” says Ramanand. She describes the often unintended consequences of our actions. “If I keep using plastic bags and don’t tell the shopkeeper that I want a material bag, that plastic bag gets thrown away, goes out to sea and it could drown a penguin. If people demand that they want a greener society, that greener society will happen.”

“As a collective society, we can do something; even if you think switching off your lights won’t help, it actually does,” Ramanand says.

“It hasn’t got to the point of no return, but there is a point of no return.”

* Greening Your Future is affiliated to the Climate Action Partnership that involves six NGOs.

• Contact Karen or Arthur Barnes at 073 114 8960 or 084 830 3772.

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