Being sensitive to bias in environmental writing

In an article titled “Accurate Appellations”, Dr Asad Rahmani, former director of Bombay Natural History Society, points out the need for correct terminology in environmental writing in order to avoid misrepresentation, distortion of facts and a reinforcement of existing biases.

Published : Mar 19, 2022 06:00 IST

Dr Asad Rahmani, former director of the Bombay Natural History Society.

Dr Asad Rahmani, former director of the Bombay Natural History Society.

Biases caused by words are an all-too-common fact. Some are intentional and some, unintentional. While there is some degree of sensitivity with regard to race, gender, culture, caste and sexual orientation among writers and editors, the casual use of words in environmental and wildlife issues often tilts the balance against them. Word biases and negative terminology usually result in a misrepresentation or distortion of facts and a reinforcement of existing anti-environmental biases.

This is the thrust of an article written by Dr Asad Rahmani, former director of Bombay Natural History Society (BNHS). In the December-February issue of Saevus , a magazine dedicated to nature and wildlife, Rahmani has written an article titled “Accurate Appellations” which is all about using “correct terminology”.

He begins by saying: “Recently I read a news in Indian Express titled ‘Chhattisgarh jail turns safe shelter to terrified villagers against marauding wild elephants’. For most people, there is nothing wrong in the terminology, but is it right to use this strong word for normal animal behaviour? Do the elephants know that they are not supposed to eat the paddy crop that has been planted on their traditional migratory route? During the monsoons, we often read newspapers stories about the ‘flood fury’ of the holy Ganga and the noble Brahmaputra. We forget that we have built houses, mostly illegally, on the floodplains; we have tilled the floodplains close to the margin of the rivers or on temporary islands; we have built barrages; and constructed long bunds on the normal river courses. When natural floods occur in these rivers and remove obstructions in its course, we call it ‘flood fury’ or other imaginative terms like ‘Brahmaputra ravages’. The terminology that is more apt for humans, we use for natural processes. The dictionary meaning of marauder is someone who roams around looking for things to steal or maraud, in short, a raider, plunderer, pillager, looter. Can we label the gentle giants, whose family and social life will shame us, with these negative dockets? Do elephants know that they are not supposed to eat human-grown crops lest they are called raiders? Do elephants know that they are not supposed to react to people who throw crackers or stones at them when they cross their traditional routes where humans have built their homes? A small kick by an irritated elephant to the tormentor would kill him, giving another opportunity to people and newspaper to label the harassed animal as a ‘killer beast’.”

‘Human-animal conflict’

Another much misused term is human-animal conflict. The very word “conflict” entrenches the idea that animals and humans cannot coexist. Rahmani writes: “Another term, now an integral part of conservation lexicon, is Human-Wildlife Conflict (HWC). Conflict means a fight or an argument, or a difference between two or more ideas, wishes, etc. I checked many dictionaries but could not find the term ‘conflict’ in the context of humans and animals. Animals have conflict within a species for space (territory), food and sex. We do not call a cheetah chasing a gazelle a ‘conflict’. Conflict between two parties occurs when they want the same resource and they consciously know what they are fighting for. In the so-called human-wildlife conflict, does a sambhar or a wild boar know that eating a crop will lead to a conflict with the farmer? I think, it is better to say human-wildlife interactions, instead of human-animal conflict…

“For gaining conservation support, public perception is extremely important. For example, if we write ‘development versus wildlife conservation’ or ‘employment versus mining ban’, most people will prefer development and employment. For them wildlife and nature conservation become hindrances. However, if we rephrase this to development and conservation, the perception changes. There is very little difference between development and nature conservation. We all need clean air, clean drinking water and greenery around us; water that is so polluted that fish cannot survive is also unfit for human beings. Cleaning our cities, rivers and protecting forests, grasslands, and wetlands is development and works towards accomplishing human welfare. Good advertising helps in creating an audience, as well as reaching out to pre-existing ones.

“This yearning for nature is exploited by wily real estate developers by their glossy advertisements, showing shiny new buildings surrounded by tall trees, luxurious gardens, and birds flying all around. If we add a golf course, the prices of the apartments go up. I have not seen an advertisement of apartments surrounded by fume-laden factory chimneys, polluted streams, and congested roads. Who will purchase such flats? Healthy nature is a part of development. I remember, a few years ago, a Cabinet Minister mocked conservationists for forcing him to develop long elevated roads passing through a tiger reserve in Maharashtra, until the scientists of the Wildlife Institute of India proved through photographic records that for the normal movements of wild and domestic animals such elevated roads are essential. The same Minister now claims it as his ‘achievement’. Now building elevated roads or animal pathways has become an integral part of the DPR (detailed project report) which I think is a good development.”

A contradiction

For the greater part, Rahmani’s article is a compassionate appeal, but at one point he seems to go against the very principle he is appealing for. In his paragraph on feral dogs, he advocates that the term be changed to “free-ranging stray dogs”. He calls them the “new exterminators of wildlife”. While it is true that stray dogs can be predators, there are solutions to right this imbalance. In his article, Rahmani says: “I will write separately on the menace of these stray dogs.” His choice of words belittles his own arguments but perhaps it will be worth waiting for the promised article to see what he actually has to say.

Built-in biases against the environment exist. In fact, some people wear this badge proudly. Years ago, while travelling in one of the districts of Maharashtra, this correspondent had an interaction with a local aspiring political leader about leopard cubs being found in a sugarcane field. The politician mocked the efforts of the Forest Department to rescue the cubs, saying they should have been shot. When he was told that even the local villagers were supportive of the rescue, he self-righteously told this correspondent: “ Tum sab junglewaale, insaan ka socho, jaanwar ko chhodo [You wildlife types think of humans, forget about animals].”

This belief that humans come first and the environment is second (if at all, that is) is at the core of the negligent attitude that has resulted in the present degraded status of everything environmental. A start should be made to correct this unjust imbalance, and one good way to change a mindset is to change the terminology we use.

Rahmani’s impassioned conclusion says it all. “Wildlife needs public support. Let us start using the correct terminology in our articles, research papers and lectures. We cannot expect an elephant not to enjoy a juicy sugarcane or the Brahmaputra to stop annual flooding. Let us use the correct terminology to highlight our follies. People who talk of conquering the mountain peaks cannot connect with nature. People who talk of taming the rivers do not understand the value of the natural flow of the waters. People who talk of ‘civilising’ the tribals do not know the value of sustainable living. What we need to conquer is our wrong ways of thinking, what needs to be tamed is our greed for natural resource, what needs to be civilised is our mindset...”

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