Information Ecology: (fo)Rest in Peace

In an age of excitement and uncertainty it is comforting to know that we live in an era of mass communication. At this point in human history communication costs are incredibly low and, with the help of the Internet, such communication is truly global in scale. Even better, information spreads with ease.

The nature of this phenomenon holds incredible implications for society. Human communication plays a vital role in elevating voices and progressing social movements. As the voices of the world are elevated it becomes apparent that there are shared, global struggles. As we work locally we can feel solidarity with human beings we may never meet – a most powerful notion. The smallest of actions can cause a global cascade in the dawning age of information ecology.

With all this in mind I turn my attention to the forests of Spain. The past week I’ve read a great deal about the ecosystems of the Iberian Peninsula. Extending across the northern region of Portugal on into the Spanish wild are a series of mountain ranges rich with flora and fauna. These mountain forests host arguably the greatest biodiversity in all of Europe. Regulated by the Mediterranean these far-away ranges are defined by a humid climate in the warm months, chilly winters and an abundance of precipitation year round.

I can imagine these forests, their detritus decaying into the damp soil from a deciduous canopy of oak, ash and hazel. I can imagine a solitary walk under the Mediterranean sun, rounding cool and warm slopes further decorated by beech, birch and fir before letting loose to bald meadows riddled with wild rose and blackberry. The colors are as lucid as the taste sweet. I hope to visit this Iberian forest some day. Perhaps even shake the hands of those in the Spanish Forest Firefighters National Association (ANBF) who fight both fire and law to protect the landscape.

In 2015 Spain’s Congress of Deputies amended the language of their Forestry Act. The new language now allows developers to build public and private infrastructure, such as neighborhoods, schools, business complexes and recreational centers, on burnt ground. As a result of this rule change, the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) notes that now 55% of the forest fires burning this unique ecosystem are human induced. These wild lands are no longer protected. Deforestation leads to urban sprawl.

Members of the ANBF are not sitting idly by, however. They are using legislation to combat the new legal decree.

Under Spanish law new infrastructure cannot be constructed within a 500 meter radius of a cemetery. The ANBF are invoking this inconsequential piece of legislation where woodlands are ablaze, registering the burnt woodlands as cemeteries. They have deemed their campaign (fo)Rest in Peace.

ANBF spokesman Iñigo Hernandez, speaking to The Independent, took the idea world-wide. In his interview he noted that no bodies will actually be buried in these graveyards. Rather, these cemeteries are simply symbolic, a weapon used to halt arson. Hernandez explains: “Creating cemeteries in burnt areas aims to discourage the intentional burning of the forests. Allowing the building on burnt down forest areas leads to fires started intentionally, which result in the destruction of natural ecosystems, where animals, trees and plants live.” The ANBF hopes the forests will regenerate in peace.

I did not know about any of this until the ANBF sent me a personal email. I was sitting in the faculty lounge, drowning out conversation behind me, reviewing my emails and thinking of the day’s lecture. I took pause when I opened their message. The firefighters asked for help. They asked I share their mission so as many people as possible could know what was going on. As I read their email I felt their urgency and was immediately sympathetic to the cause. When I read about their action I felt an all too familiar twinge of sadness, then I sat back in my chair and smiled. A similar situation is unraveling right here in Southern Appalachia.

Here in the valley and ridge, strip mining is the region’s number one cause of biodiversity loss. The Appalachians are a temperate deciduous rainforest laden with beautiful, endemic flora and fauna. In fact, the Appalachians are the most diverse temperate forest on the planet. Here too registering family cemeteries protects a most fragile ecosystem.

Strip mining occurs in rural Appalachian communities. These communities experience some of the worst poverty in the United States. Many of the cemeteries throughout coal country are old family cemeteries. Thus, they are not federally registered. Without such distinction, many of these family graves are blasted away for resource extraction. Many families have to be accompanied by industry personnel to visit the buried because the graves are near company property. Community organizations are in a push to register these cemeteries, rendering mining operations invalid. This allows the dead to rest in peace and keeps the forest whole.

I suppose I could have been angry when I read the message from the ANBF. Beside myself that all over the world natural heritage is plundered for capital. Nevertheless I was not angry; I was happy. Here, oceans apart, communities and organizers share the same struggle. Even more, similar tactics are proving successful at protecting place.

There has been a constant push throughout human history to question and block the illegitimate forces of power. Now, in an era of low communication costs and emerging technologies, we may see enhanced cultural and social evolution, a stronger push to decentralize and the emergence of small social networks that can cause big changes in how we live our everyday lives. Information technology is beginning to impact our neighborhoods, cities, work places and our governance.

An old mantra of movement building asks us to think global but act local. Today we can all be global actors. We are connected – in short, we talk. We resist. We win. In the immortal words of Howard Zinn:

The good things that have been done, the reforms that have been made, the wars that have been stopped, the women’s rights that have been won, the racism that has been partly extirpated in society, all of that was not done by government edict, was not done by the three branches of government. It was not done by that structure which we learn about in junior high school, which they say is democracy. It was all done by citizens’ movements. And keep in mind that all great movements in the past have risen from small movements, from tiny clusters of people who came together here and there. When a movement is strong enough it doesn’t matter who is in the White House; what really matters is what people do, and what people say, and what people demand.

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