Bankers Brace Up To Save Green Treasures

Updated: Dec 22 2002, 05:30am hrs
The forests are lovely, dark and deep,
White pines, red pines and bears for keep.
The lakes are blue green and run so deep.
With Loons and beavers out of reach.

Beautiful words to describe a beautiful environment. An eyewitness account by HSBC Banks Sapna Narang of the ancient forests of Ontario in Canada. One hopes future generations too have such sights on our planet to cherish.

But what is Ms Narang doing in a region accessible only after at least an hour and a half of canoeing About 200 HSBC employees globally are sponsored by the bank to work on environment sustainability projects around the world as a part of an Earthwatch programme. Last year, about a dozen were sent from India to different parts of the planets more fragile ecologies.

John Grisham may have made Pantanal, located on the borders of Brazil, Paraguay and Bolivia, famous when he sent a lawyer (The Testament) in search of an heiress to a $11 billion volume. Mumbais N S Vinodh too spent a fortnight in the same region, but to do his bit to save a much more invaluable fortune650 species of birds, 80 species of mammals, 50 species of reptiles and 260 of fish.

Over a fortnight, projects related tasks included wading through chest high murky waters to measure the depth of the lake at various points and the pH, salinity and oxygen content of the lake. Traps were laid for animals to tranquilise, weigh, measure and radio collar before releasing. Perks included getting bitten by ticks and mosquitoes, stepping on an anaconda or arduously hacking ones way through thick forests.

Seasonal flooding in this 230,000 sq km area makes cultivation difficult, thus keeping human incursions to the minimum. But the oasis in the middle of it all is the 7,700 hectare ranch on Negro river used as a research centre. What the team got there were luxurious air-conditioned rooms, buffets and a choice of wines. What Mr Vinodh and other team members came back with were images for life and a satisfaction of having contributed their bit to preserving Pantanal. He recounts it as an experience defying description except in superlatives.

Bipasha Guha Thakurta from Calcutta found herself in Sarasota in Florida, USA, to work on a project to save wild dolphins. The region consists of 15-20 ft shallow bays and low lying barrier islands separated by narrow passes. The study of the dolphin community aims to address questions regarding their biology, health, ecology, social structure and behaviour as well as impact of human activity and boat traffic.

Gaurav Gupta went on a Kenyan Safari to Lake Naivasha, the only fresh water lake in the Rift valley in Kenya. A vital source of freshwater in one of the countrys drier areas, it is a major centre for fishing and commercial flower cultivation for export. In danger are the lakes spectacular wildlife including hippos and fish eagles, all paying the price for its economic and tourist allure.

Nearly 90 per cent of the lakes water comes from the Malewa river delta. In recording the gradient of the delta, and comparing it to a contour map produced in the 1950s, Earthwatch scientists can make predictions about the future of the lake, how much silt flows into the lake and how to effectively divert the Malewa.

Common to all experiences was hard work. Early morning to late evening, it was back breaking work for most. Of course, it was not all work. Taking turns to cook brought American quasideas, Italian pastas, Indian curry and stir-fry to the dinner table. Bay cruising to spot dolphins was work, but more of a recreation. Watching nature videos and solving jigsaws added to the fun of togetherness.

One could chill by sipping cans of guarana (champagne made from the berries of the guarana tree) while watching the sun set in Pantanal. Or, freshen up with a swim in the lake in Ontario followed by a campfire dinner over melodies by talented guitarists and singers amongst the team. A game of charades helped some get over the not-so-appetising sight of a local Kenyan speciality, the Ugali.

HSBC has set aside over $50 million (Rs 250 crore) for the Earthwatch project. There are clear benefits of such investments. The obvious ones is the actual work being done by the participants. T Geetha, who was also in Ontario, feels working with professionals and amateurs like her from diverse backgrounds has been an enriching experience for her. Its given her a sense of achievement, boosted her self-confidence and helped in terms of personality development. Most participants would share the feelings.

HSBC Indias manager (Public Affairs) Malini Thadani says the greater impact is in creating converts for life. These participants get personally sensitised to the dangers to our environment.

The word could then spread to those around them in office, in their community and amongst family. The chain reaction could make sustainability a mass movement.

Hopefully, before its too late.