Save Kew Gardens – funding cuts and how to stop them

Yesterday I went to the Houses of Parliament, to protest the Kew Gardens funding cuts. I wasn’t sure what I was in for as I walked through the ornately decorated halls and corridors, but it was an absolutely fascinating, motivating experience. Most of the attendees were employees of Kew, and I think I was the only person there with no real connection to place. Given that the petition to stop the cuts has over 90,000 signatures, this was a surprise. But this anti-cuts campaign is falling victim to the same thing that many others have – not enough noise is being made about it. Kew has worldwide influence, and it’s up to people who know how important a place it is, to take the initiative and make the government listen.

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The thing is – it shouldn’t be that hard. Recently, the government boasted about spending over £7 billion on scientific research. With the cuts, Kew only has a £5 million deficit. While that’s disastrous for Kew, in comparison to the kind of money the government normally works with, it’s nothing. This isn’t like trying to convince the government to re-privatise the rail service, or stop the destruction of the probation service. In reality, there aren’t many things the government can do with that £5 million, but saving a British institution of worldwide environmental importance is most certainly one of them.

It’s worth noting that much of that £7 billion the government spent on science has been spent on car manufacturing and overseas oil research. A lot of things could be said about that, but let’s leave it at this: they could probably stand to spend a little bit of money on GREEN science now. Science that will not only benefit the environment, but also the people who live and work in their country.

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Already, 100 jobs have been cut at Kew, and having experienced first-hand a government mandated ‘voluntary exit’ scheme, I know how utterly horrible this is. Everyone is worried about their job, and the ones who are left have a sudden, unbelievable workload to cope with. The work the other people were doing doesn’t just go away. I know a government worker who, in the two weeks following the privatisation of her sector, worked a conservative estimate of 30 hours of overtime in two weeks. And there were people at the Kew meeting who were doing the same.

It’s easy to forget about the human cost of these things – but it’s important not to. You might not think about how job cuts will affect the people who work at Kew, or you might not find it particularly motivating. But you should. After all, humans are what bring you all the wonderful things that Kew does, and without them, there is no garden. Those beautiful flowers and stunning buildings only exist because there are people maintaining them, and the world-renowned research only happens because there are people conducting it.

Sometimes I have to wonder if politicians completely forget this – I mean, they’re kind of prepared for a life of stress, pressure and an absence of job security. That doesn’t mean everyone else is, or that everyone else should be. Stress is not a measure of success, especially in science, the arts and many public services. Being overworked is not an aspiration, it is a problem. And the government, whether they realise it or not, are creating a population of exhausted, stressed, underpaid workers, who never signed up for any of it.

I’ve learned a lot about the amazing work that Kew is doing, and why it’s so important. I will be sharing this with you soon too, but I wanted to talk to you about the people behind Kew, because I met a lot of them yesterday and they were wonderful, dedicated individuals with an enormous, undeserved weight on their shoulders. You can help them, and by helping them, you can help Kew Gardens.

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Wherever you come from, sign this petition, and if you’re in the UK, write to your MP (instructions are below the main text). It doesn’t matter where in the UK you live, because the wider the reach, the better. Although I’m in London now, I still contacted my old MP because technically I’m still registered there, and I thought it would make more sense to spread the word further afield. Neither of these things are hard or take much time, but they make a lot of ‘noise’ in parliament. We were told at the meeting that this ‘noise’ is what makes politicians take note of something – so the more of it you make, the more notice they’ll take.

The Palm House – Kew Gardens in Crisis

This place, this magical building bursting with life, is in danger.

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And so is the wonderful botanic garden and conservation heavyweight that contains it. That’s right. Our government is cutting its funding of Kew Gardens, endangering the history, collections and research that make it one of, if not the most important botanic gardens in the world.

I can’t believe I’ve only just heard about this stupidity. The government is making cuts left right and centre, which has resulted in a smaller workforce dealing with the same amount of work that they, and their old colleagues, were doing before that. The implication here is insulting – that government workers and civil servants weren’t pulling their weight beforehand. The vast number of hours the remaining workforce have clocked in overtime demonstrates that this just wasn’t true. What a surprise.

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Cutting Kew’s funding has had similar effects – but these won’t just negatively affect such unimportant areas as the NHS, the criminal justice system and the legal system (I hope you can hear the exhausted sarcasm here), these cuts affect the E N V I R O N M E N T. The current government hasn’t done nearly enough to protect the environment in the first place, but apparently they think they’ve been far too generous.

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Kew needs funding. It’s not a theme park, its not a trashy attraction in the centre of London with a metric tonne of touristy crap to buy. It’s quiet, sensible, beautiful and important. What does that mean? That is isn’t going to make enough money from ticket sales to operate without a subsidy, that’s what.

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I’m not trying to claim that Kew is a tiny victim that needs to be protected. It’s world renowned, has partnerships with huge corporations and an annual footfall of over a million. But a botanic garden and massive research centre has employees, it has costs, and when every square inch of a place isn’t built to make a profit, that means it isn’t going to make much profit. That’s the fundamental misunderstanding of capitalism, that everything worthwhile will make money. Frankly, the opposite is true, but I’ll get sidetracked if I say any more on that subject.

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Kew’s sponsorship was fulfilled, and cut, by DEFRA, who I actually have some experience working with. They [were?] a very creative government agency who a few years ago subsidised the creation of a website called Our Land, that encourages UK tourists to spend their holidays in eco-friendly places in protected destinations like the Cotswolds, the South Downs, the Cairngorms and the New Forest. The idea was that tourism was the only way to keep these areas profitable, and so by promoting tourism they were protecting the areas. The website is gone now but you can still find places in the UK on the parent website, Responsible Travel.

Very clever, and exactly what is happening in the rainforest with organisation like the Rainforest Alliance. There was some disagreement within DEFRA about cutting Kew’s funding, and I’m sure they were under pressure to make cuts because of all this austerity b******t, so hopefully the people who actually care about the environment are still there. Or maybe I just want to like them because working for Our Land was what financially allowed me to volunteer with Crees.

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I wanted to make a post talking about how magical the Palm House is, how it was hotter and more humid than the real rainforest and made me feel like I was in a Gabriel Garcia Marquez novel. Those things are true, but when I read about the threats and cuts being made, I couldn’t just keep my mouth shut. Enjoying natural beauty is great, but when we can, we have a responsibility to preserve and protect the things that please us.

On the 8th of July, there will be a Parliamentary Rally asking the government to reverse the cuts, and to cancel proposed new cuts too. You could go along and support it, you could tweet, send a letter to your MP, tell all your friends, or just generally spread the word. Our planet is in crisis, we are destroying the environment. Kew’s research can and will help us save it – help save them so they can do their job.

Update: I went to the Parliamentary Rally. Read about it here.

Kew Gardens – my favourite place in London?

Last week I visited the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew, and I spent most of the day completely enchanted with the stunning plants. It’s a truly wonderful place.

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They’re dedicated to conservation and saving the environment, and have a research facility, where they investigate the relationship between humans and nature, helping us to live a more sustainable life.

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Plus, my friend told me that Kew has the largest collection of plants in the world!

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I had certainly never seen most of them before, and I know my plants. The insect life was wonderful too, its always reassuring to see bees buzzing around.

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I was completely blown away by this area. These are California Poppies, which are in my top ten favourite flowers. They’re so vibrant and beautiful. Everywhere you walk, there are sections like this that showcase different kinds of plant life, whether in glasshouses or outside.

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You can spend an entire day walking around looking at flowers, but they make sure you learn about them too. They have a Summer Festival, which this year is called Plantasia, and is educating people about the way medicine and health is rooted in plants – which I hope will make people think more seriously about the environment.

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My mind was blown the first time I learned how pineapples grow. They’re little shrubs that sit close to the ground – I just find that adorable for some reason. No wonder they’re so spiky.

If you’re looking for something to do this summer, the Royal Botanic Gardens should be at the top of your list, no question. It has got to be the most beautiful place in London, its inspiring, interesting, and it’ll get you out of the London air for a little while too! I (unsurprisingly) spent a long time in the Palm House, which houses all the rainforest plants. I took so many photos I need a separate post for them, but it’ll be worth it! Anyway, visit Kew’s website for details.

The Arboreal Pit Viper

If you watched I Bought A Rainforest this Sunday, you’ll no doubt have been fascinated by Andy Whitworth and the world of the Crees Foundation. When Charlie Hamilton James and his crew – the hilariously entertaining Adrian and Hector – arrived at Crees we were in the middle of the monthly Leaf Drying. Crees is running a 20 year long Biomass study with Oxford University, to investigate the content and abundance of leaf litter on the forest floor.

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Every month, leaf litter is collected from designated areas all over the reserve, for the volunteers and interns to separate, dry and weigh. It takes days, because the bags of litter have to be sorted into seeds, leaves and sticks, then dehydrated slowly in a drying oven, and weighed after each stint until they stop getting lighter (this final dry weight is then the one that gets recorded). This is why so many of us were home in the middle of the day when Andy was showing Charlie a deadly Arboreal Pit Viper, known locally as a Loro Machaco. We crowded round, excited to watch the photography unfold.

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As Andy briefed Charlie on the snake, we all began to wonder if getting him getting this close to something so deadly was wise – Charlie still had almost an entire TV series to film. Lexi, another staff member, ran off to our enormous first aid box (a necessity when the nearest doctor is a 40 minute boat ride and 30 minute hike away) and brought back the anti-venom kit. It sat on the side of the Project Room, reassuringly present during the filming.

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Screenshot from I Bought A Rainforest – watching carefully as Andy wrangles the snake

The snake (who is still one of the most beautiful creatures I’ve ever seen) has a seriously awesome tongue. Charlie really wanted to get a photo of it as it flicked out. But snakes don’t just flick their tongues for fun. They do it to scope out warm prey, and there was only so many times that expertly brave Andy could move his hand towards the snake before the risk got too high. He suggested we warm up a banana in the leaf drying oven, to simulate a body that would pique the interest of the viper’s heat sensing pits. I ran off to the cage we kept the bananas in (yes a cage – no other way to keep the insects away!) selected the snake’s victim and put it in the heated wooden box. After a few minutes we removed it, and Andy waved the fruit near the snake – it was immediately alert, its tongue curiously tasting the air for the source of the warmth. Charlie got some stunning shots, and we returned to our afternoon of leaf drying whilst listening to a combination Reggaeton, and each other’s iPods.

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Charlie’s programme was eye opening, moving and incredibly important. He’s given us a rare opportunity to see every aspect of the incredibly complicated issues that the Amazon, and the people in it, face. The lesson to be learned is that the people who will ultimately save the rainforest are the people who call it home. All we can do is use our monied privilege to help in any way we can.

I am a past volunteer of the Crees Foundation and an avid supporter of their incredible work. This post was written completely independently of them and was done from memory – so apologies if I got anything wrong! If you want to read more about Crees click here. If you want to help them support the development of a sustainable Amazon, click here. And if you want to read more about Charlie Hamilton James’  work in the Amazon, click here

Saving the Rainforest

I stood still, silent. Around me the forest creatures chirped, squawked, trilled and croaked.  The longer I stood the more I could hear, unknown numbers of infinite species. I had been in the Amazon Rainforest for just a few weeks and already two new frog species had been found. One was new to the area but already documented by scientists, while the other, with a lime green body and bright yellow toe webbing, was an entirely new discovery. It was staggering to witness first-hand this abundance and diversity of life, to see a hundred different kinds of butterfly in one day, to hear fifty different birds call in one morning.

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The lush greenery pressed in from all sides; moss covered branches, enormous leaves, and thick tree trunks all moist with the clean, humid air. Between the trees I could make out the peak of a mountain in the distance, coated in the undulating canopy of ancient forest. I heard the high, wavering call of a Tinamou, gentle yet louder than the small insects and amphibians around me.

I was in the Amazon Rainforest. But the trees that stood tall, supporting this massive collection of life, were only thirty years old. Before that, in the sixties, the area was a cattle ranch. You can still see the remains of a stone building at the top of a hill, perhaps an old outpost or cabin. Known as regenerating rainforest, when the cattle ranch closed the forest was left alone, allowed to grow back without restriction.

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Trees put down roots, undergrowth spread, and mammals, reptiles, insects, birds and amphibians returned in their droves. This area is proof that the rainforest can be saved, that we can fix the destruction our greed and ignorance has wreaked on the lungs of the earth. It takes time, of course, but animals make the most of the thick undergrowth that covers the regenerating forest floor. Birds and monkeys even put the smaller trees to good use, moving easily through the thinner canopy. Animals can happily adapt to these minor changes – whilst still enjoying their original pristine rainforest just as much as the newer parts.

In fifty years time, the canopy in this area will be as high and dense as nature allows, the floor will be dark, and what was once new growth will again be part of the ancient, wild, wonderland we call the Amazon. However, there will come a point where the jungle can no longer grow back, when we cut too far for it to heal. But it hasn’t happened yet. If we act now, we can save the rainforest.

I was inspired to write this post by the new BBC2 series ‘I Bought a Rainforest‘ which has been highlighting the massive, complex issues facing the rainforest. If you would like to learn more about CREES, the amazing conservation charity I was involved with, please take a look at their website and current fundraising campaign, which will help the Amazonian people to live sustainably. 

Hand Cream Review: Neutrogena Hand Cream with Nordic Berry – and some news!

First things first, I want to introduce a new idea to the blog. I have very very dry hands, they always have been and always will be, and many of my family members are the same. In winter out hands have been known to crack until they bleed, which is always fun. Not. This has obviously led to a constant stream of hand creams coming in and out of my life, from thick natural balms to heavy duty nasties like E45 (never again). So I thought it would be nice if I review hand creams as I try them, because if they work for me they’re probably going to work for you too! I’ll also categorise them under Hand Creams so if you’re ever in the market for a new one, you can easily have a look through past reviews.

So, on to the hand cream – Neutrogena Hand Cream with Nordic Berry.

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Unfortunately there isn’t much to say about this hand cream. It does smell absolutely divine, I’ll give it that. Cloudberries must be delicious, because the Kopparberg cider with cloudberry flavouring is seriously good, and this stuff, scent wise, is gorgeous. I originally had the Nordic Berry lipbalm, which was actually really really good, but one of the ingredients was hydrogenated vegetable oil?! So stupid, putting trans fats in the one skincare products you actually end up ingesting. I threw it out as soon as I realised but I did miss the gorgeous scent, which was why I jumped on this hand cream as soon as I saw it. The cream has hydrogenated vegetable oil in it too, but I’m hoping that the absorption of product doesn’t work that way…

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It’s quite a thick, yet light cream, and takes a bit of time to absorb – as you rub it in you’re left with a thin oil that actually feels a bit like alcohol. Sounds weird, I know, but I’m just trying to describe it in detail. If you’ve ever used a dry oil like almond oil, its similar to that but not as thick. The moisturisers are actually shea butter, hydrogenated vegetable oil, and paraffin, no almond oil to be seen. As far as I can tell from the ingredients there are no parabens which is a bonus. However, although my hands are moisturised, I wouldn’t say they’re soft. The moisture doesn’t last for very long, and it leaves a slightly sticky film over my hands which is really annoying (and no, not all hand creams do this).

If you’re looking for a cheap, fairly effective, nicely scented hand cream to keep in your bag, Neutrogena Hand Cream with Nordic Berry is for you. Otherwise, its not worth the effort.

And now for a bit of news! I spend a fair amount of time talking about the Amazon Rainforest and what an amazing place it is. I get a bit paranoid that I talk too much about it actually. However, while I was there, a film crew were making a TV show, and that TV show is going to start on Sunday 1st June on BBC2 at 8pm. It’s called I Bought a Rainforest, and part of it is going to feature the reserve that I volunteered at. I’m really excited to see what Charlie and his team have made, and will be writing a few posts about the rainforest to go along with it. (FYI: I am in no way affiliated with any of the film makers, companies or the charities involved, I am doing this purely as a person with stories to tell)

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If you want to read a bit more about the show, and the area of the Amazon Rainforest that it’s set in, here’s some links:

Charlie Hamilton James

CREES Foundation

I Bought a Rainforest

 

Amazon Rainforest Memories

Maybe it was the sudden burst of rain this afternoon, or maybe it was the fact that I’m finally getting back into writing my book (that’s set in the rainforest), but today I couldn’t get the jungle out of my mind. I had such a life changing time there, and while I wasn’t there for as long as a lot of people, it’s stuck with me as one of the best things I’ve ever done. I want to share some videos from the charity I volunteered with, because they’re actually really nice to watch.

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