Tuesday, 8 November 2016

Has Anyone Else seen the Croydon Rainforest?

Clearly this is a ridiculous question. Yet though the title of this blog may seem utterly absurd, I would dare to claim that it is perhaps not quite as mad as it might first appear.

Of course Croydon, one of London's largest boroughs, is situated in a temperate region and though it contains a number of woodlands, none of them is in the least way tropical. Some of the nearest actual rainforests are more than 3,000 miles away across the Atlantic in the snake like strip of land called Central America. Yet, when I see bindweed trying to creep up the hoardings of the new Box Park, when I see buddleias sprouting from Croydon’s urban rooftops, and our native wildflowers taking over any area of vacant land, I see the same force that drives all the vital green growth of our world, whether it reveals itself in the cactae of the deserts, the bluebells in our native woodlands or the giant Kapok Tree of the rainforests. During the day, I may walk the hard unrelenting streets of Croydon but at night in my dreams, I may wander in the footsteps of the jaguar under the dense, green canopy of the rainforest. Sometimes, dreams being what they are, the two become muddled, and I might be sitting on top of a Croydon tram, spotting toucans flying through the windows of Croydon’s abandoned office blocks, watching capuchin monkeys pinching bananas from the Surrey Street Market, and admiring beautiful orchids, growing between the lianas, that have draped themselves over the multi-coloured Saffron Tower.

OK, so I admit that the Croydon Rainforest exists only within the slippery realm of my subconscious, yet this obvious fact doesn’t seem to make it any less real. For in some very tangible ways, there are signs of the rainforests all around us. The chocolate and coffee on our supermarket shelves, the sweet corn, bananas and pineapples at Surrey Street Market, and the pepper with which we season our food, are merely a very small example of the variety of foods that come from the rainforests. As the average Croydonian goes about his or her business, they may hardly give the distant rainforests a second thought, yet most of us come in contact with a product from the rainforests on a daily basis. Yet this valuable human larder is under serious threat from many sources; illegal deforestation, the cutting of forests by large companies to grow the ubiquitous palm oil, and the destruction of rainforests by poor peasant farmers, who are using a technique of farming that is no longer sustainable. It is my involvement with a small UK charity that is offering such farmers a more sustainable alternative, thus providing them with a better livelihood and helping preserve the forests, that has perhaps led to my fascination with these incredible habitats, the most biodiverse eco-systems on our ever shrinking planet.

The charity is called Rainforest Saver – www.rainforestsaver.org and like many other small charities, it faces a constant struggle to acquire adequate funding to help support its partners in Honduras, Ecuador and Cameroon. This article is written in the hope that I might find a few other Croydonians, who share a similar passion to do what they can to help prevent the destruction of these vital and fascinating habitats. Thus, I have decided to set up Rainforest Saver’s first ever local group in the biodiverse urban jungle of Croydon. I would like such a group to take on two projects each year, one to help raise funds for poor farmers that are in desperate need of the simple technology that Rainforest Saver can provide and the other to increase biodiversity or environmental awareness within Croydon. Yet, as in my dreams, I do not see the projects as entirely separate entities. If you have an interest and active involvement in your own local environment, you are perhaps more likely to be interested in the wider environment. We are all interconnected – If we want poor local people in distant countries to look after their environments, perhaps we will have more credibility if we are also trying to look after our own. After all, our own biodiversity has also diminished drastically in the last hundred years. As well though as attempting to take on these two practical objectives, I hope that our little group will also bring some of the exotic colour, vitality and wonder of the rainforests to some of the barren, litter-strewn streets of Croydon.

Croydon of course has its own biodiversity, but this tends to be more to do with the variety of different races and cultures that have ended up in our own unique metropolis. Much as I value this exciting and stimulating melting pot, I am conscious that Croydon, like so many other towns, has for various reasons, squeezed out much of its own natural biodiversity. Sixty years ago when it was still a Surrey Market town, the surrounding nature and countryside was much closer to the average Croydonian’s doorstep. One hundred years ago, the average Croydonian would have been able to name most of the plants and animals within the area. Today, though, we have lost much of this traditional knowledge, which is not only often useful but also brings a fuller connection and communication to the place that we inhabit. One of the aims of The Croydon Rainforest Club would be to generate a greater interest and knowledge of our own natural surroundings, and to try and bring back some of the biodiversity that Croydon, like numerous other towns, has lost over the last hundred years. Whereas the inhabitants of rainforest areas are losing their biodiversity, due to illegal deforestation, the ravages of agri-business and the use of non-sustainable farming techniques, Croydon has lost much of its own through the spread of urbanisation. Yet cities do not have to exclude nature, and can indeed encourage it. The recent wildflowers grown at the Croydon Saffron Farm on the site of a temporarily vacant building plot, should act as a catalyst for re-greening the whole town. If the Council really wants local people to engage more with local parks and gardens, this desire to reclaim some of our traditional biodiversity should be an impulse that it both supports and encourages.
Yet, much as I would love to see wildflower roundabouts and green rooves all over Croydon, I also believe that we shouldn’t merely live and work in our own little bubble. Our advanced communication technology enables us to be more aware than ever of what is happening around our shrinking globe. We are also more knowledgeable about how about how inter-connected everything is. If we allow the rainforests to disappear, we not only lose one of the most useful, precious and beautiful habitats in our world, we also release an enormous amount of carbon into the atmosphere, hastening the dangerous effects of global warming. One of the reasons the charity Rainforest Saver so appeals to me, is because it offers the opportunity for poor farmers, not only to improve their own livelihoods but also to play a crucial role in helping to preserve these vital eco-systems on which they, and to some extent we, all depend. The latest newsletter of Rainforest Saver -  http://www.rainforestsaver.org/news/no74-how-cameroonian-farmer-lives-part-i-0  about the life of a poor Cameroonian farmer - perhaps puts some of our own urban worries, concerns and anxieties into a wider perspective. 

One of the ways that I would like the Croydon Rainforest Club to both highlight one of Croydon’s environmental problems and the valuable work of Rainforest Saver is by creating an artificial rainforest in Croydon, made out of the litter on Croydon’s streets, re-used paper and cardboard and unwanted bamboo canes.  The first meeting of The Croydon Rainforest Club will discuss how such an art installation might be created as well as what other crazy but joyful activities we might get up to, both to improve our local environment and raise funds to help poor farmers to protect their own rainforests.  This is a social club that’s free to join but I would hope that most people that do so, would make an active contribution to whichever projects it takes on. Together, we could really make Croydon the greenest and most biodiverse borough of London, as well as doing our bit to help protect one of the most vital eco-systems for the continuing wealth and health of our planet. The first meeting will take place on Wednesday 7th of December at 7.30pm at Mathews Yard, just off Surrey Street. If anyone would like to get involved but can’t make the first meeting, please email me at charles.barber13@gmail.com, and if  anyone knows where I can pick up some unwanted bamboo canes, I’d be delighted to hear from them.