Concrete Jungles: The Surprisingly Rich Biodiversity Of Big Cities

Vast urban areas are home to much more animal and plant life than you might think, making their natural spaces crucial in the fight against global warming.

Monkey in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil
Monkey in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil
María Paulina Baena Jaramillo

BOGOTA â€" Can cities really become home to a large variety of fauna and flora? Doesn't the wild world hate cement? The concept of biodiversity may seem to contradict the nature of cities, but scientists, designers and architects are working on urban development models that harmonize with the natural world.

The world is increasingly urban. If current trends continue, the metropolitan area of Bogota, for example, will triple between 2000 and 2030, and the city population will double, from three million to almost five million.

Globally, this urban expansion will use up both space and natural resources, especially water and farming land. It will happen more in regions with fewer economic capabilities and faster in regions with more biodiversity, as a 2012 report on biodiversity and cities concluded. This should not surprise us, as areas of rich biodiversity are precisely those that have always attracted human settlements and fomented trade.

The evidence about the presence of a wealth of fauna and flora in large cities may come as a surprise. More than 50% of flower species in Belgium are in Brussels, and Warsaw is home to 65% of all bird species in Poland. A study of 61 gardens in Sheffield, England, found 4,000 types of invertebrates, 80 types of lichens and more than 1,000 plants.

There are significant nature reserves in cities such as Bombay, Stockholm, Nairobi, Cape Town and Tucson, Arizona, all of which make crucial contributions to biodiversity in those cities.

These spaces improve the health and well-being of city residents by cutting noise and air pollution. "They are not so much complementary and secondary as vital to cultural activities, physical and mental health and the identity of a place," says María Angélica Mejía of Bogota's Humboldt Institute

In Sacramento, California, park joggers under 65 years old typically spend $250 less on medicines than people who don't exercise. Other studies show that proximity to trees can reduce child asthma and allergies.

Squirrel in Oakland, California â€" Photo: Kai Schreiber

Where there is carbon, plant green

Cities are currently thought to emit 70% of all greenhouse gases, but also feature a range of green spaces, from parks and woodland to greened roofs that are vital in mitigating climate change and storing carbon. These are the "soft infrastructures" that regulate the microclimate â€" the weather immediately around them â€" filter rainwater and absorb smog and excess dust. A study for the UK found that a 10% increase in city green cover reduced temperatures by three to four percent, which in turn reduced the use of air conditioning.

Current legal frameworks for protecting biodiversity include the UN Convention on Biological Diversity signed by 193 parties in 1993, and Colombia's own National Biodiversity Policy, adapted for Bogotá and Medellín, though only the latter has developed an action plan to implement its provisions, initially in the form of pilot projects.

Luis Germán Naranjo, the conservation chief for the World Wildlife Fund in Colombia, cites the country's isolated interventions to rescue biodiversity, such as saving Bogota's wetlands and revitalizing the banks of the Sinú river in Montería. But he adds that "management of biodiversity in Colombian cities is ever precarious. Parks, for example, are seen as recreational spaces, not ecosystems that improve air quality or as habitats for plant and animal species."

Conservation International's Patricia Bejarano says Colombia has barely begun to make the link between cities and biodiversity. "For a long time nobody paid attention in city planning to issues of biodiversity and its benefits. Now environmental problems have become more serious and more relevant around the world," she says. "Cities like Bogotá, Medellín and most recently Montería have made some advances in recovering ecosystems and their regional suroundings, and this has been through linking the environment with development plans."

City development and biodiversity must now be systematically linked, she suggests. She cites examples of the ravines that have been restored in Bogotá to become tourist destinations and appreciated by the capital's residents. "It is interesting how in Bogotá, the recovery of certain gorges has allowed citizens to understand the real importance of ecosystems, not just for preventing or mitigating risks but to improve air quality," she says. "And the proof of this is that most people have begun opposing building projects in the city's eastern mountains."

Cities must change their perspectives on development, neither halting construction because of biodiversity, says Humboldt's María Angélica Mejía, "nor abandoning everything that is green."

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How Thailand's Lèse-Majesté Law Is Used To Stifle All Protest

Once meant to protect the royal family, the century-old law has become a tool for the military-led government in Bangkok to stamp out all dissent. A new report outlines the abuses.

Pro-Democracy protest at The Criminal Court in Bangkok, Thailand

Laura Valentina Cortés Sierra

"We need to reform the institution of the monarchy in Thailand. It is the root of the problem." Those words, from Thai student activist Juthatip Sirikan, are a clear expression of the growing youth-led movement that is challenging the legitimacy of the government and demanding deep political changes in the Southeast Asian nation. Yet those very same words could also send Sirikan to jail.

Thailand's Criminal Code 'Lèse-Majesté' Article 112 imposes jail terms for defaming, insulting, or threatening the monarchy, with sentences of three to 15 years. This law has been present in Thai politics since 1908, though applied sparingly, only when direct verbal or written attacks against members of the royal family.

But after the May 2014 military coup d'état, Thailand experienced the first wave of lèse-majesté arrests, prosecutions, and detentions of at least 127 individuals arrested in a much wider interpretation of the law.

The recent report 'Second Wave: The Return of Lèse-Majesté in Thailand', documents how the Thai government has "used and abused Article 112 of the Criminal Code to target pro-democracy activists and protesters in relation to their online political expression and participation in peaceful pro-democracy demonstrations."

Criticism of any 'royal project'

The investigation shows 124 individuals, including at least eight minors, have been charged with lèse-majesté between November 2020 and August 2021. Nineteen of them served jail time. The new wave of charges is cited as a response to the rising pro-democracy protests across Thailand over the past year.

Juthatip Sirikan explains that the law is now being applied in such a broad way that people are not allowed to question government budgets and expenditure if they have any relationship with the royal family, which stifles criticism of the most basic government decision-making since there are an estimated 5,000 ongoing "royal" projects. "Article 112 of lèse-majesté could be the key (factor) in Thailand's political problems" the young activist argues.

In 2020 the Move Forward opposition party questioned royal spending paid by government departments, including nearly 3 billion baht (89,874,174 USD) from the Defense Ministry and Thai police for royal security, and 7 billion baht budgeted for royal development projects, as well as 38 planes and helicopters for the monarchy. Previously, on June 16, 2018, it was revealed that Thailand's Crown Property Bureau transferred its entire portfolio to the new King Maha Vajiralongkorn.

photo of graffiti of 112 crossed out on sidewalk

Protestors In Bangkok Call For Political Prisoner Release

Peerapon Boonyakiat/SOPA Images via ZUMA Wire

Freedom of speech at stake

"Article 112 shuts down all freedom of speech in this country", says Sirikan. "Even the political parties fear to touch the subject, so it blocks most things. This country cannot move anywhere if we still have this law."

The student activist herself was charged with lèse-majesté in September 2020, after simply citing a list of public documents that refer to royal family expenditure. Sirikan comes from a family that has faced the consequences of decades of political repression. Her grandfather, Tiang Sirikhan was a journalist and politician who openly protested against Thailand's involvement in World War II. He was accused of being a Communist and abducted in 1952. According to Sirikhan's family, he was killed by the state.

The new report was conducted by The International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH), Thai Lawyer for Human Rights (TLHR), and Internet Law Reform Dialogue (iLaw). It accuses Thai authorities of an increasingly broad interpretation of Article 112, to the point of "absurdity," including charges against people for criticizing the government's COVID-19 vaccine management, wearing crop tops, insulting the previous monarch, or quoting a United Nations statement about Article 112.

Juthatip Sirikan speaks in front of democracy monument.

Shift to social media

While in the past the Article was only used against people who spoke about the royals, it's now being used as an alibi for more general political repression — which has also spurred more open campaigning to abolish it. Sirikan recounts recent cases of police charging people for spreading paint near the picture of the king during a protest, or even just for having a picture of the king as phone wallpaper.

The more than a century-old law is now largely playing out online, where much of today's protest takes place in Thailand. Sirikan says people are willing to go further on social media to expose information such as how the king intervenes in politics and the monarchy's accumulation of wealth, information the mainstream media rarely reports on them.

Not surprisingly, however, social media is heavily monitored and the military is involved in Intelligence operations and cyber attacks against human rights defenders and critics of any kind. In October 2020, Twitter took down 926 accounts, linked to the army and the government, which promoted themselves and attacked political opposition, and this June, Google removed two Maps with pictures, names, and addresses, of more than 400 people who were accused of insulting the Thai monarchy. "They are trying to control the internet as well," Sirikan says. "They are trying to censor every content that they find a threat".

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