Published on Voices

On rhino horns, banking nature and climate hope

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It is not often that as an economist, you find yourself surrounded by creative artists! I found myself in such a situation recently when I was invited to be a panelist for the Dominican Republic Environmental Film Festival. It presented me with an opportunity to witness firsthand how the issues of environment and climate change are perceived and interpreted in the community of artists and filmmakers.

The festival criteria read that “by screening a diverse selection of high quality films that deal with pressing issues, and by organizing discussion panels with environmental experts, filmmakers and other stakeholders, the Festival seeks to promote dialogue and inspire Dominican viewers to adopt practices that will ensure the country’s environmental sustainability and health.” For a small Caribbean nation to take these issues seriously and attempt to educate its people using cinema was indeed commendable.
Gambling on Extinction, directed by Jakob Kneser

What I witnessed on landing in Santo Domingo was truly remarkable. There were filmmakers from all over the world, but also organizers of similar festivals from other countries. That is when I realized that environmental film festivals have now become a global movement with the intention of informing, influencing, and galvanizing people on critical environmental issues. While the first “environmental” films were produced back in the 1960s when the global environmental movement was in its infancy, there are now 30 or more international environmental film festivals held all over the world attracting hundreds of films and thousands of people. They cover issues such as clean water, sanitation, forests, biodiversity, sustainable consumption and climate change. Even more remarkable, most of these short films or documentaries are often produced on a shoe-string budget, but with an enormous degree of passion and perseverance to get the message across.  What really impressed me was that although they dealt with critical issues facing us today, in most cases the messages were of hope and optimism!

I want to share with you some of the films that I watched:
Banking Nature by Sandrine Feydel and Denis Delestrac explored how putting a price on natural resources will help protect the environment in the long run. It offered differing opinions from both economists and environmentalists on the benefits and costs of valuing the environment. It drew parallels with the recent global financial crisis and pondered about how long it could be before the banks and companies owning these environmental assets decide to cash in on it and destroy it.   

Gambling on Extinction by Jakob Kneser focused on illegal wildlife trade, its threats to global security and the extinction of elephants and rhinos. It took up the case for rhinos being hunted to extinction for their horns, which are considered to be a cure-all in some traditional Asian cultures. The film moved seamlessly from where rhinos are poached in Africa to the where the horns are sold in Vietnam and China. By talking to undercover investigators, rangers, ex-poachers, conservationists and buyers, the film exposed the lethal mechanisms of the global trade, the terrorist connection, the customers, the reason behind the demand and what can be done to stop the slaughter.

The Wisdom to Survive: Climate Change, Capitalism & Community by Anne Macksoud and John Ankele, explored the climate challenge that we face and posited if we have the wisdom to survive. The film featured thought leaders and activists in the realms of science, economics and spirituality discussing how we can evolve and take action in the face of climate disruption. Instead of being fatalistic, it ends on a rather optimistic note that we, as a generation, have been presented with this incredible challenge and also a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to take action.

The inaugural film of the festival was Landfill Harmonic (by Graham Townsley and Brad Allgood) that tells the story of how a new teacher inspires a group of slum children living near a landfill near Asuncion (Paraguay) to play music with instruments made from recycled trash. Also, featuring Favio Chavez, the orchestra's director and founder, the film explores the lives of these young children who are not only often the ones responsible for collecting and reselling the garbage but also live in areas where water supply is dangerously polluted and on rainy days, the town floods with contaminated water. But in the end, the story is more about how music keeps their hopes alive and helps them dream big. It was poignant and left everyone teary-eyed when the children accompanied by Favio made an appearance at the end of the screening!

The one big takeaway from attending the festival was that visual media can have a powerful impact, especially when they tackle relevant issues. At the World Bank, we endeavor to undertake extensive research and tailor our reports and studies in ways that appeal to client countries and stakeholders and result in meaningful interventions. Perhaps movies like these can be the additional asset that could help take our work and its implication to a wider, global audience as well?     


Muthukumara Mani

Lead Environmental and Climate Change Economist

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