S2, E11: How the Host of a Must-Watch Nature Show Deals With Climate Change
In this week’s episode of Unpacked by AFAR, conservationist M.Sanjayan shares the secrets behind season two of his ground-breaking PBS show, Changing Planet.
What will the Earth look like in seven years, as climate change progresses, and what we can do about it? That’s the premise of the PBS show Changing Planet, now in its second season, which is tracking six of the world’s most vulnerable ecosystems over the course of seven years.
In season one, host M. Sanjayan—CEO of Conservation International and an AFAR Travel Vanguard honoree—travels to the plains of Kenya and the rivers of California to explore the effects of climate change and meet the people fighting against them. In season two, which premiered on April 19, Sanjayan travels to Australia to meet with Aboriginal people training the government in traditional fire-burning practices. This week on Unpacked, we chat with Sanjayan about the importance of Indigenous wisdom, what each of us can do to help support the planet, and how he keeps going when despair looms.
M. Sanjayan: I guess if you, if you push me, I’d say I’m generally optimistic by nature. I generally think things will be better tomorrow than it is today. But I don’t think that’s the right frame. I think the right way to ask this question is to say, Can you do something about it?
Aislyn Greene, host: That’s M. Sanjayan, host of the PBS show Changing Planet, which over the course of seven years will revisit six of our planet’s most vulnerable ecosystems, from Greenland’s ice sheets to the plains of Kenya. It’s impossible to watch this show, which is beautifully shot by the way, and not feel a little more hopeful about the future of our planet—and what we all can do to support it.
I’m Aislyn Greene, and this is Unpacked, the podcast that unpacks one tricky topic in travel each week. And this week, I’m talking with Sanjayan about his work on season two of Changing Planet, which premiered April 19th. He was fresh off a trip to the Maldives, where he was recording for season three, and had so much to say about the importance of celebrating Indigenous wisdom, the little things each of us can do to support the planet, and how he keeps himself going when despair looms.
The show, which highlights the people and communities that are really working to make a difference, is an extension of Sanjayan’s work in this space. For the last six years, he’s been CEO of Conservation International, a nonprofit that works in the global south to secure nature for humanity. (In fact, I first learned about Sanjayan’s work at Conservation International in 2018, when we honored him as part of AFAR’s travel vanguard, which celebrates the visionaries changing the travel industry for the better.)
So come join me for what I think is a really inspiring chat. And stick around afterwards for a new segment called “How do you say that?” which introduces us to travel-friendly words and phrases from the languages around the world. This week, we’ll learn how to properly greet someone in Swahili.
But first, let’s hear from Sanjayan.
Aislyn: Well, thank you so much for being here today. Welcome to Unpacked. It’s just a real delight to be speaking with you.
Sanjayan: Great. Same here.
Aislyn: Wonderful. Well, we have a lot to discuss, but I just first wanted to say congratulations on season two of Changing Planet. It is such a powerful and incredible show.
Sanjayan: Thank you. And I just got back from actually filming a segment of, for season three.
Aislyn: Wow. Where were you?
Sanjayan: Uh, I was in the Maldives. Which is a place that the show has gone to before. We’ve actually got two seasons from the Maldives already. I hadn’t been there, so I sort of caught up on the Maldive stuff because I think, um, a year from now, the focus is gonna be on oceans. We’re gonna [go] a little heavy on oceans.
Aislyn: I see. OK.
Sanjayan: Um, Maldives was just a—it was an eye-opening [experience].
Aislyn: What was your impression and what was eye-opening about it?
Sanjayan: Like everything, um, you know. One, the fragility of the entire atoll, the enormous dependence on tourism. It’s, I think, the second most dependent nation on tourism. Um, and so there’s a lot riding on it and how low-lying the atolls are.
I mean, six feet is about as high as you can get, um, you know, kind of the highest point, uh, in the Maldives. So you’ve got a very fragile ecosystem, uh, population that is highly dependent on the oceans. Rising sea level, coral bleaching, which is their main source of income. Um, it really is a spectacular place, but also a place that is in dire, uh, need of help.
Aislyn: And in what way do you think tourism is impacting the Maldives?
Sanjayan: I mean, tourism itself is the lifeblood for the Maldives, right? I mean, it really is an enormous driver of income. There obviously is some impact on the country itself. Air travel, the infrastructure build, the build of these lodges, uh, the large influx of people that have to come in because most of these resorts are very high end.
But I think on the whole, it’s had a relatively positive impact. And certainly it—it definitely gives the community, the government, and to some extent, the tourism industry [a means] to really step up to the challenges of climate change as well as step up to conservation. So the place we were staying in, which is also a kind of a hub of science research, um, the Six Senses Maldives, we were there because the atoll that they’re on has been on the front lines of some amazing, amazing cutting-edge research into coral restoration. Stuff that you can think about restoration at the scale of an atoll as opposed to just planting, you know, polyps, which is great, but difficult to scale. Um, but, you know, the way the Six Senses, I think, is pivoting, at least in this place, towards being both sustainable, but also being very ocean positive and reef positive is, is certainly a model that others could use as well.
Aislyn: Oh, that’s so inspiring. And are they connecting travelers with like, can you participate in—
Sanjayan: You can. You can participate. You know, I wasn’t particularly there as a guest. But yes, absolutely you can participate in every part of their sustainability program, uh, from sea turtles to reef restoration to, you know, how to grow things on the island sustainably sort of thing. Um, but I think their support of research on the reef is actually quite, quite good.
Aislyn: And there’s that kind of argument to be made for, you know, people coming to these places, understanding why they’re so important, and then going back home and having that perspective, right? You know, we understand why we need to preserve, why we need to preserve them.
Sanjayan: I think when travelers are in a place, they do get to see, and they do get a unique chance to understand why conservation, sustainability, climate change are important. But I think the effect doesn’t last very long.
And I think that one of the challenges we have, like, there’s lots of studies that say that if you go on a vacation, that vacation glow tends to dissipate actually pretty quickly.
And I think the same thing happens with, kind of, what you see and your commitment in the moment to make a change or to care about an issue. I think it also dissipates really quickly.
So one thing that would be pretty incredible is if we can continue to maintain the link back to the story of that place and why it matters. And I don’t actually know exactly how to do this, but if you can do that, then you can lengthen the stickiness of the experience, right?
Like interestingly, like, you know, I came back from the Six Senses. They sent me the survey to fill out and because we had a great experience and we thought people were doing a really good job there, I took the time to fill it out. I don’t usually take the time to fill out most of the surveys you get from airlines and companies and everything else. But I did, and I, and I pointed out the research and sustainability aspects of what they did, and kind of applauded them for it and said, do more.
And I got a response back very quickly that was—it was clearly not a form letter. Someone had actually read what I said, picked up on what I said, and kind of reflected it back to me saying, “This is why it’s important to us” and all of that. It absolutely made an impact because it allowed me to continue my conversation for at least a month or two longer. And here I am repeating it to you, right?
Sanjayan: And I repeated it to my wife the other day. I think that’s the kind of stickiness that if we can find a way to do it, you’ll end up with, you know, one, a better travel experience, more informed travelers. But from a business perspective, I think you’ll end up with repeat visitors too.
Aislyn: Absolutely. That’s a really good point in terms of, you know, we are obviously kind of immersed in the travel space, so how do you kind of preserve that conservation glow, right? When people get back to their real lives.
Kind of zooming back a little bit, how would you say that your show Changing Planet is an extension of the work that you do and have been doing at Conservation International?
Sanjayan: You know, the work at Conservation International is centered on this very simple premise, and that is that people need nature to thrive, right? That humans and nature are inextricably linked, and that survival of one is dependent on the other and vice versa.
And that seems almost passé today. Like most people get it. Most organizations embrace it. When we were saying it and doing it 35 years ago, it was a completely novel idea because 35 years ago, the conservation movement was solely and exclusively focused on, you know, the wild bits of nature, right? How do you protect nature for its own sake?
And I agree, you should protect nature for its own sake. I think what Conservation International realized a long time ago is that in the places we work in, which are always very difficult environments, um, you know, faraway places, challenging places—uh, you know, we’re talking Cambodia and Suriname and Indonesia and Botswana and Brazil. If you’re trying to make things happen there, you really have to figure out what’s in the best interest of the people who live there.
And if they can see and embrace that, then it has such a chance of really succeeding. If it is me coming in from the outside, you know, cajoling, telling, arguing for something to be protected— that only lasts as long as my philanthropic dollars flow in. It just won’t. It just doesn’t have the stickiness; it won’t last. So this notion that, you know, humans in nature and history could be linked and that our survivals are connected and that we’re protecting nature for the benefit of humanity. That’s a fundamental premise of CI and frankly, it’s a fundamental premise of this show as well. I’ve done probably a dozen documentaries that I’ve had the opportunity to host— this one is different. One is [that] it’s very unusual and that it has a long time series.
Like, no one really envisions a show going on for multiple years as a way of creating a record and the—and the visiting of the same, of some of the same places again and again, and visiting the communities again, to see the change and see what’s happening. But also in doing that, you create an immediacy about what’s happening because in every year we can almost tailor the message to what’s happened that year.
When we talk about a changing planet, you know, what are we talking about changing? Like, who’s viewing that change? It’s humans, right? It’s our lens that’s viewing the change and it’s our lens that could help solve some of the challenges that that change brings. So, you know, funny way, you know, the stories thus far that we’ve covered in Changing Planet have all been kind of almost central stories to Conservation International. They’re not places we work in. I think there’s one or two, uh, geographies we actually work in. They’re not CI stories necessarily, but they’re stories that matter to us.
Um, you know, there’s also a very big slant towards Indigenous wisdom and local wisdom and using sort of Indigenous knowledge. Look, you know, in most places we travel to, you and I travel to around the world, people have been living in those landscapes for thousands of years. In Australia, where we recently [were] for the episode for season two that’s just about to air, you know, um, people have lived there for 60,000 years.
They’ve seen it all. And their wisdom is in their cultural practices. It’s almost built in, it’s baked into their DNA of how they live, how they go about their day in their landscape. So when you can tap into that, you are tapping into like, you know, AI times 10,000, right? You really are. It’s like—it’s like tried and true, evolved collective wisdom that has now become practice. You almost don’t know how they’re doing it or even why they’re doing it, but you realize that there’s something extraordinary happening here.
Whereas if you think about our experience on these landscapes in Australia, you know, the Western experience on that landscape is a couple hundred years old, in North America is 300, 400 years old. You know, even in places like Europe, it’s a few thousand years old. So you know, those, that Indigenous wisdom to me is something we are absolutely missing. If the planet is changing, wouldn’t you want to talk to the people who have seen it all and been through it all? Like to me, they’re the ones who have the answers.
And if you marry that with scientific knowledge, then you really have a solution for the future.
Aislyn: Absolutely. I mean, I love that focus on kind of Indigenous wisdom, and I think it was in that first episode of season two, right, where we go to California where they had reintroduced the beavers and you see that one section of land that was protected from the fires because of that reintroduction of a single species. It was just mind-blowing.
Sanjayan: Yeah. And the Yurok people had to fight for the—for their ability to go back to lighting fires the way they did that cultural practice. And it had all this other subtlety, like the Yurok actually see themselves as the original restorers of planet Earth.
Like that’s what they think they were put on Earth to do. Like, that’s literally their sort of spiritual belief, you know, when they light fires seasonally and traditionally, the smoke from the fires would, would form a barrier to the sun that would cool the rivers that would then trigger the salmon to start running up the rivers.
Aislyn: Oh wow. I didn’t know that.
Sanjayan: Like, I never knew this. I never knew that, like, the land management was actually tied into how they managed salmon.
Aislyn: Wow. Wow.
Sanjayan: It’s, like, miraculous. Um, and all of that, they’re trying to now revive, and to be completely honest, on a small scale, because the land’s gone. When you go to Australia, which is what I did, you know, uh, last December, and you get out to the, you know, the Gibson Desert, now you’re talking about an area the size of Denmark with a couple of hundred people on it and enormous, enormous landscape and the cultural practices there are alive and well. These are not people who are trying to reinvent what they have lost. They’re living it and have always been living it.
And now what you’re seeing is science and government coming in to say, “How do we learn from you and how do we expand what you’re doing to much bigger territories as well?” So that’s what you’ll see in this season to some extent, you know, the scaling of these ideas by going to Indigenous territories where the space is still there.
Aislyn: Well, kind of going back to that original premise, how did you—so for seven years you’ll be tracking six different locations around the world. How did you decide on those six?
Sanjayan: I wish I could say it was really strategic, but you know, we had to deal with something called COVID-19.
Aislyn: Uh, yes.
Sanjayan: And that played a bigger role than it probably should have. But I think the choice was pretty good, right? So we wanted a mix of ecosystems where you would get a wealth of stories and not be so tightly locked in.
Because look, you’re not going to necessarily—it takes 300 years for a redwood tree to grow to of any sort of size. You’re not gonna see it in 7 years or even 30 years, right? So you have to be thoughtful about the stories you pick so that you could, you have the ability to come back and actually see, you know, see some progress or see some change.
Um, and, and you know, so we, we knew we wanted one in America. And if you think about climate change in the United States, you are either going to focus on, sort of, Florida, Louisiana coast, or you’re gonna pick California. And I think the fires and sort of the catastrophic nature of what was happening in climate, you know, California’s often seen as a climate leader when it comes to emissions. It’s got, you know, fairly progressive or sort of cutting-edge science that goes into it, into how they manage their lands. You’ve got big national parks, you’ve got some wild areas, you’ve got more tribes in California, I think, than any other state, which I didn’t know.
Um, so we thought, look: California, ground zero to talk about climate change. So that was an easy one. We always wanted to do Australia. We couldn’t really get into it on season one because of COVID lockdown.
Aislyn: I see. OK.
Sanjayan: But you know, if you want to know what the future holds for the rest of the planet, travel to Australia. Because it’s in the Southern Hemisphere, you see the impacts of climate change a little bit faster and a little bit more severe than what we are dealing with here in the Northern Hemisphere. It’s just by virtue of its location. So the signal is strong and bright and you know about the catastrophic fires in 2019, 2020 in Australia.
So that’s another place we want. You gotta do the Amazon, right? Largest rain forest on the planet. You know, you needed a story in Southeast Asia, um, the big river systems of Asia, you know, so that meant either Indonesia, Cambodia, Vietnam. So Cambodia got picked. Um, you know, we wanted something in the Arctic. Initially it was Iceland, then we thought, move it a little bit to think more arctic, more holistically.
I always wanted an atoll because, you know, it’s just at the very tipping point of what’s happening with climate change, right? And so, you know, we thought Great Barrier Reef, but because we couldn’t film in year one, Maldives was a great, great substitution. And then some story in Africa that brings the big animals, the landscapes into view. And what’s going on in the Horn of Africa today is massive and challenging with four, five years of failed rains.
Um, these are also all places where there’s some great stories to be told. And every story we’ve uncovered has completely blown my mind. Like, I kid you not: Like, the thing I have never run into on a series [is what I’m running into on Changing Planet] where this distillation of the story is phenomenal and I just wish we had more time to explore it fully.
Aislyn: Yeah. I mean, that comes through so powerfully. It just is—it’s just an arresting show. I mean, the cinematography alone, just pulls you in. So will you be revisiting Australia year after year, now that you are able to?
Sanjayan: We will very likely be go—well, so I think all these general locations we’ll be going back to. Would we go back every single year? [That’s] not completely clear because it also depends on how much change we can document.
So you could see skipping California for a year and coming back a little bit later. But my feeling is all these ecosystems will be revisited during the course of this filming, but just because of logistics and budgets and all that, you may want to focus heavier on one than the other.
But Kenya, for example, we visited three times now in a row.
Um, because you know, we’ve been able to track that change. You know, we’ve gone to the Amazon twice now following the same story. Um, Australia was my first visit, but it was so fantastic that I know at least one part of that story I’d go back to again. You know, I went to the center of Australia, um, to the Gibson Desert and was with a tribe called the Pintupi.
I didn’t know this, this was kind of mind-boggling to me, but the Pintupi, there are two members of the tribe that I had the chance to meet and spend time with. They’re first contact people. So only 1984—1984, like, I was in high school—were they quote unquote discovered, like, when they came into contact, not just with other Westerners or with Westerners, when they came into contact with other people.
Sanjayan: It was a lost, like, branch of the tribe. They’re called the Pintupi Nine, and they were never kind of brought in or assimilated or in some way contacted before, and they’ve always lived out there.
So my main guide through that story is this amazing woman who, you know, until the age of about 18 or 19, we don’t know exactly how old she was, she doesn’t know, lived with, you know, essentially no clothing, certainly no Western clothing, no metal, no metal tool or object or weapon. Uh, no wheel. Like the technology of a wheel wasn’t there. No real agriculture of any sort. No domestic animal except a dingo. She slept on the ground in the dirt. Um, she was a complete hunter, gatherer, nomadic Aboriginal woman living in an incredibly, uh, difficult environment. I mean, listening to her and hearing from her was just one of the most amazing things in my entire life.
Aislyn: Was she the woman who was describing that first moment in a car as thinking that the land was moving away? That was just, you know—
Sanjayan: Exactly. She’s like in the car and she’s like, why are the trees and the hills and the rocks leaving me? I’m like, “My God.” You know, it’s exactly what Einstein said. I mean, it’s relativity.
Aislyn: Yeah, it’s all relative. And what a great metaphor for just kind of climate change in general.
Aislyn: Yeah, that was incredibly—
Sanjayan: Oh, wow. link. I didn’t even think of that. You’re so right. And, you know, and the, the thing, what was so cool about it, you know, so she can speak English, but she doesn’t read and write.
Um, uh, and every time she would tell me a story, she would immediately start drawing patterns in the sand. Every time, every time. It was easier for her to communicate with me, uh, or with anyone as she’s speaking, to also then draw. And she would make these amazing patterns that, you know, it was like all that art, all that stuff that we see in museums or on rock paintings. She was just making that in real time.
Aislyn: You know, that kind of begs the question: I was curious, like, how did you develop the relationships that allowed you some of this access?
Sanjayan: I think the team at BBC and at PBS—BBC you know, produced this and the crew was from the BBC—were really good researchers and they have enormous knowledge of being able to ferret out great stories.
Um, they then discuss a range of things with me, and I obviously have some agency into saying, “This sounds pretty incredible.” But they do so much of the legwork for me. Now once I’m in place, you know, I think that’s, like, up to me as an interview—as a, as a host, you know, and for me, they’re just true two tricks that I have. One is, I’m genuinely curious about people and about what they have to tell me, like I never learned anything while I was speaking. So I have no problem, even though I’m pretty vocal right now, I have no problem with shutting up and letting them tell me the story. Um, and I have a nose for the story.
Um, I think also just the fact that, you know, I’m a little bit different, um, but not totally different, you know, I think the color of my skin, my background, I grew up, you know, I was born in Sri Lanka, but grew up in West Africa. Got most of my higher education in the West. You know, there is a bit of global citizenship around me, which allows me to get into some of these places and have these conversations on somewhat of a level ground.
Aislyn: You’re also entering that dynamic with such respect, you know for the wisdom and I feel like that always comes through. And I think the other thing that spoke to me throughout the show is just your honesty. So you speak in season one about this sense of impending doom that you feel as you move around the world.
And yet the show is in so many ways about optimism and your struggle to maintain it. How do you navigate those two polar opposite feelings?
Sanjayan: Um, so I’d say a couple of things. I mean, I absolutely get depressed like many of us in the space. And there are weeks or days where it just does feel like an uphill battle.
You know, people ask this question all the time: Are you an optimist or pessimist? I think it’s almost the wrong way to see yourself. I guess if you, if you push me, I’d say I’m generally optimistic by nature. I generally think things will be better tomorrow than it is today. But I don’t think that’s the right frame. I think the right way to ask this question is to say, Can you do something about it?
So what I would say is I’m determined. I feel like I have purpose. I have, uh, agency, you know. There are a lot of things happening on the planet right now that you and I have absolutely no control over or [it’s] so minimal, it’s hard to even imagine, right? You know, the war in Ukraine, the crisis, you know, the U.S.-China relationship, you know, uh, the next pandemic. You know, I mean, these are things that just swamp us.
Of course, we can make some change. We can vote, we can support groups and we should, but it’s really important to understand: What are the things that you can have a big impact on, real agency over. And when it comes to conservation of climate, I actually can. And so I don’t ever wake up in the morning not knowing what to do. And because I have something to do—like, real purpose to do—it gives you agency. And that agency is, I think, what lifts you out of depression. The minute you are like, “I don’t know what to do,” it’s so easy then to sink back into the bed of despair.
Aislyn: Yeah. Apathy is such a killer in that way, right?
Sanjayan: I mean, if you think about, like, a salmon getting into a river, you know, think about the fact that it has to cross. I once caught a salmon on the very border of Montana and Idaho. I accidentally caught it. Um, I wasn’t targeting it. I didn’t realize that you would get up that far. That salmon had come 400 miles from the Pacific Ocean, and I think it had had to go through four dams on the way down as a baby and four dams on the way up. And there it was right on the border, uh, of—in a river called the Lochsa, 50 miles from Missoula, Montana.
Now, if that fish knew all the shit they had to go through, like the challenges ahead, right? Like four dams, then, you know, dealing with, like, seals and sea lions, then killer whales in the ocean, then living out there for, like, three, four years, not getting caught by a patroller, then doing the whole thing up again, only to die at the end. It would never have left the hatchery, right?
Aislyn: No, no, it would not.
Sanjayan: And yet when it hits that river mouth, it has a purpose. It has an absolute purpose. Every bone in its body, every fiber, every cell is saying go up river. Find a place that’s cool and shady with pebbles on the bottom and fast flowing streams and spawn. That’s what keeps it going. That’s what gives it purpose.
Aislyn: So be a salmon.
Sanjayan: Exactly. Be a salmon. I mean, have purpose in life, you know? That’s the best cure for, um, being off, being depressed.
Aislyn: What would you say your hope is for viewers in terms of action and agency? What would you hope that they can kind of take away from the show?
Sanjayan: You know, I think this season, um, in some ways is different from season one. I think in season one we were getting our feet wet. And if you like the stories in season one, season two will blow you away. It really does.
And we end up crafting a thesis, right? And the thesis is this: So even if miraculously right now, all of our energy use, everything, like the electricity, the food, the transportation, all of this miraculously switches to green overnight. Which is happening by the way. I mean, we are heading in that direction.
It’s not gonna be overnight, but we’re heading that way. But imagine it all happens overnight. We will still miss the targets that we need to hit in order to have a livable planet. Like the Paris Climate Goal will still be missed. And that is because of our destruction of nature. So our war on nature is basically putting out 12 and a half gigatons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. That’s deforestation, bad agricultural practices, you know, um, livestock. I mean, it’s a whole suite of things. And what we do is we basically tell the audience the best thing we can do, the best ROI return on investment, if you will, is bringing that 12.5 gigatons to zero and then into negative territory.
How do you make nature our friend in the fight against climate rather than, right now, essentially our foe because of what we’ve done? And that gives you almost a structure of getting engaged. So I think season two becomes much more prescriptive in the stories, right? You can actually see that link, how healing the land actually connects to climate change and where the gaps are.
Now, for a general person who’s out there listening to this, who cares, but is paralyzed in doing something, I’d say first, don’t be paralyzed. Everything you do does matter, and make it count. So I’ll give you three things that they can do, right? So one is: Be thoughtful, really thoughtful, about how much you waste.
And I particularly talk about food waste. It sneaks up on you. You know, even for me, the amount of water I boil for my coffee in the morning is probably not great.
I could boil less. The biggest drinker of coffee in your household is not you. It’s your sink. So think about all the energy that goes to make coffee transported there.
Then all the energy that goes to take water and transport it there. Then think about all the energy it takes to boil that water, right? And then you make that much and you’re drinking that much. It’s an enormous loss of energy.
And this happens all the time in your refrigerator, in how you cook, in what you buy, where you buy it from. So changing your eating habits and your cooking habits and your waste habits is gonna be good for your wallet.
It’s very likely gonna be more healthy for you, and it’s gonna make a big impact on your planet. Pretty easy to do, and there’s really no reason not to do it. So that’s number one.
Number two, I’d say, you know, in your home, there are some amazing tools right now like FinTech applications where you can do this one-stop shopping. We can change a whole suite of things in your home, from your windows to your solar panels, to how you water your lawn or your garden. And, and compress that all into your home mortgage, right?
So it makes it easier for you. And then the third thing is when it comes to nature, you know, become nature positive. So support conservation locally, regionally, globally, doesn’t really matter. Just do that, like help out the local organizations, help out the global organizations, donate, become a member of it. It’s a big part of tipping the climate equation. Um, for travel, you know, be very thoughtful about where you stay and be mindful about how you get there.
And I still think there’s room for offsetting that. It’s not perfect, but you probably should stretch to offset or in some way contribute on a positive end to deal with the fact that travel does cost.
Aislyn: We’ve talked a lot about that. And that was actually one of the things that jumped out at me, and I think it was season one, was seeing the impact of the carbon credit programs in Kenya, um, kind of firsthand was quite inspiring. So I was curious if you—because I know that offsets can be viewed as problematic—so did some of your work change your perspective on carbon credit programs or carbon offsets?
Sanjayan: I don’t think my work changed my perspective. I think it reinforced my perspective.
So look, if there’s a miraculous way of coming up with all this money to protect and restore forests, I’m all for it. But I’ve been in the conservation business my whole life raising philanthropic dollars, and I’m telling you, you know, it’s really hard to do.
So we need a much more wholesale mechanism for funding the protection of restoration of high carbon areas. You know, these forests that are essentially irrecoverable from a carbon perspective, if lost. They create rural jobs, which are really hard to get. They have so many other benefits from honey to pollination, to water, to fodder, to medicinal plants, to ecotourism.
And they are enormous carbon sinks, right? So if we lose some of these things, it’s game over for the rest of the argument. So you clearly need a mechanism. Carbon credits are one such mechanism, but they have to be done right. So it cannot be a pass for polluters to continue to pollute. It can only be used, in my view, when you are actually making progress towards your goal and just using this to accelerate the progress. And how that actually materialized on the ground in Kenya and the Chyula Hills. You know, I’m actually going back there on a private trip next.
And you know, I can tell you that that project has continued to grow. It’s spinning off something like 10 million dollars now to the community and to the government for conservation without external inputs. So think about this, it originally started as a conservation philanthropic project. Now it’s self-generating, it’s self perpetuating.
Sanjayan: And yes, there are some challenges with it. It’s absolutely not perfect, but talk about—140,000 community members are benefiting from that project. In one of the worst droughts, it’s one of the few sources of water. The forest is there, the wildlife are there. So I think if done well with equitable sharing of revenue with communities that are on the frontline of conservation with good monitoring, they do work.
And like any new field, there’s plenty of bad actors out there, but they’re also really good ones too. And then there’s direct carbon capture where people try to suck carbon out of the air and put them into the ground. That too is a new technology. It’s expanding, but right now it’s a tiny part of the marketplace and the cost of it is still quite high.
Aislyn: I see.
Sanjayan: So I still think that nature-based solutions protecting and restoring forest and particularly, or mangroves, in order to get a carbon return, it’s actually a win-win-win if done right.
Aislyn: Mm-hmm. You know, that kind of ties into this theme of resiliency that you’ve woven throughout the series. And one of the, um, the episodes that I remember was, uh, somebody who was working with coral to make it more resilient to warmer temperatures. And so I love that idea that we’re, you know, there’s not just that restoration work happening, but there’re people who are trying to help nature adapt and humans adapt.
Sanjayan: So coral reefs, I mean, you know, there are lots of experiments that nature itself is undertaking right now in the real world. That’s called evolution.
And if we are clever enough to pick up on those signals and pick up on those bright spots and figure out how to replicate them at scale, then we let nature do the bulk of the work and we’re just sort of piggybacking on it. And that’s sort of the idea with coral restoration.
So there’s a couple of ways that people are thinking about it. One is: There are some oceans or places on the ocean which are naturally warm. The Red Sea is a good example. And there are coral that seem to be resistant to temperature change. So we could find out why. We can propagate those sorts of corals, potentially artificially in labs, and then you can plant them out there in the real world and restore reefs.
Now, right now that can only be done at relatively small scales because you know—a few hectares. So if it’s a reef right in front of a lodge, you know, you can have an impact on it.
There are other ways of trying to do this too, which is much more interesting to me because you can scale it and that’s what you see in the show and you’ll continue to see in the show as this show progresses. You know, in this season and the next season, I know that, you know, we are looking at how scientists are being able to collect coral spawn at large, large volumes. So 200 million coral spawns at one time. And then scattering them on a reef or using bioacoustics, using signals from the reef to encourage the spawning of coral.
Aislyn: Oh, interesting.
Sanjayan: So how do you, how do you enhance signals from nature, if you will, to, you know, change the ratio of successful reef-building coral? And that to me, I don’t wanna give away the spoiler on some of this show, like, but it’s honestly—it was jaw dropping.
Sanjayan: Some of the science discoveries that were happening, what I just saw, which actually will be in season three. But it was so jaw dropping because it was real-world science happening in real time. We were there to film it, and I just could not believe what they were finding.
Aislyn: That’s incredible. Uh, what will be taking you to Kenya?
Sanjayan: It’s a trip through Conservation International. So I’m actually going there to see some of the carbon work. And then sort of expansion of the carbon work potentially in the Masai Mara, because you know, here you have a big grassland ecosystem with quite literally, you know, million plus tourists visiting and, you know, most of the revenue for the Mara comes from tourism. Now if we can layer carbon underneath it, then you can help, you know, with conservation and decouple it a little bit to the ups and downs of tourism cuz what we found is when COVID came in, you know, the tourism in the Masai Mara, like many parts of African conservation just went to zero. I mean, quite literally went to zero.
And all of a sudden, it was like the tap turning off instantly. It was really hard for communities and there’s enormous pressure on those communities. And so we stepped in with loans basically to the communities to see them through that hard time.
It turned out to work really beautifully because the loans that we gave are now being repaid. Cuz to be honest, the recovery happened quicker than we even expected, right? In terms of tourism booming again, as you know, every plane is full and every lodge is full, which is a good thing. But now looking into the future, we are asking, you know, the Masai Mara and the Serengeti, and these are iconic places on the planet. They cannot just be dependent on tourism. It’s just too fragile for long-term planning because, you know, one blip in something, you know, a pandemic, uh, you know, something bad happens and you know it, it goes to zero very quickly.
So one of the things we’re thinking about is, you know, is there a way to finance the basic conservation work that needs to happen, year in the year out, and the communities that are, you know, supported by it through something like carbon, so that the seasonality of the tourism is buffered by the constant sort of underlying funding that allow you to just plan better.
Aislyn: Yeah. Yeah. And does that also help discourage poaching? Because that’s one of the things that you’ve explored that tension between, you know, do we protect the animal? Do we protect humans who just need to eat, or, you know, make a living and, yeah.
Sanjayan: I mean, most of the, most of the poaching that we tend to deal with in these very sort of iconic landscapes, most of it is now human wildlife conflict. So there’s conflict around water, there’s conflict around grazing, and that’s real. And then there’s poaching for trophies like ivory and rhino horn. By a long shot that has declined.
So the good news in Kenya, and certainly in East Africa, but in most of Africa, is the fact that there’s not much of a market for ivory anymore. Um, China closed its markets down, you know, U.S., U.K., others, really means the price of ivory is pretty low, relatively speaking. So the elephants that are being killed today really are killed because of conflict.
They’re mostly being killed because they’re raiding crops, or as water and drought gets worse, um, everyone’s scrambling for the little remaining forage.
Aislyn: Yeah. Like the community that was, uh, I think that we saw they had set up the bee, the fake bee—
Sanjayan: Right. So using bees, using chili peppers, you know, and other ways to keep elephants out. And that certainly works, to an extent. But if animals are desperate enough, you know, it’s not a perfect solution. It’s a clever solution, but not perfect.
Aislyn: That kind of leads into a rather large question, which is, you know, what do you hope to see five years from now as you’re wrapping the show?
Sanjayan: You know, I think there are two things I’d love to see. I’d love to see—or not, I shouldn’t say I’d love to see—I’m expecting to see.
One is I’m expecting to see some of these ideas, like the coral restoration I was just looking at in the Maldives or the using of fire for managing land in Yurok Country in California or in Australia with the Pintubi. I’m expecting to see those things scale.
All the carbon projects, the blue carbon projects that you’ll see in season two. And then the carbon work that you’re seeing in the Chyulu. I expect seeing more of those things to expand and succeed. And I think we’ll be able to come back and really show how some of these things that are in its infancy really flourish and blossom.
I’m expecting to uncover a lot more ideas and energy and people who are doing amazing things just like this. So right now our roster of stories is pretty small. I think in five years we’ll have a whole encyclopedia of just amazing people who blow your mind and give real courage to others to say, there is a way, there is agency. You can do it as well. And we all need to be in this together.
I’m hoping that I will also see a better integration of Indigenous wisdom and Western science, and I think because that intersection really holds a lot of promise, and right now Indigenous voices are certainly marginalized, uh, in most conservation conversations.
So I would love to see that integrated and for those two to be allies in the same pursuit of a planet we can all live in.
Aislyn: I love that.
Sanjayan: Unfortunately, I’m also expecting to see catastrophe in some of these environments because I don’t think the climate change problem, you know, is getting any better. I think it’s, if anything, it’s ratcheting up and I have no doubt that we will be filming some places that we cannot return to in five, six years simply because, um, of what’s happened to the landscape or the place. I don’t—I think some of the places won’t be there.
Aislyn: Wow, that’s a hard one. Do you hope that the show will kind of help, you know, there’s this idea of the larger powers and forces at work that are causing the problems. Do you hope that the show can help that shift in some way?
Sanjayan: Yeah, I—for sure it will. I think part, but part of that is going to be through the unlocking of these new ideas, you know, offsets or carbon, you know, credits that are nature-based is still a relatively new thing.
They’ve really only been around for five, six years. So, you know, the ability for that to scale and become a much more common and better, frankly, regulated, uh, better, more effective tool in, in our fight against climate change and to help biodiversity. I see that getting, you know, better. And I can see that getting a lot more air. Blue carbon, which we spend a lot of time in episode two explaining and talking about, has enormous potential.
Um, you know, the Indigenous voices being given a real stage. I see that it has enormous potential. So yes, this probably will have a role in shaping policy makers, businesses, and others.
Um, but I think above all, what I really want to be able to do is inspire audiences to think that change can come in many different forms from many different places, and that they too have agency to create that change where they live. These are very ordinary people.
They’re not, you know, we want to call the people we meet extraordinary, but they really aren’t. They’re just ordinary people facing a really difficult problem they’d never seen before in some ways, and relying on either new technology, collaboration, innovation, or Indigenous wisdom in order to solve it.
Aislyn: Yeah, and that’s the kind of extraordinary part, right? Is, like, stepping up—taking that action and, yeah.
Sanjayan: Stepping up. That’s exactly right. So I think that’s what, you know, we’ll see. Look, I think there’s one other thing that’s a bit of a subtle message here. You know, this is really kind of a unique show in that the presenter and, you know, the host, which is me, and then the other presenters now in season two, I’m joined by two other presenters: This amazing, um, Paralympian by the name of Ade who’s British.
You know, he’s going to, he’s joining me on the trip to Kenya and then this really phenomenal woman, um, Ella, she’s from the, um, Horn of Africa, I think, or the Middle East. But you know, they’re really different presenters from what you typically see in sort of the environmental space. And, um, you know, I certainly haven’t worked with such a diverse group of presenters before, and every story we’re telling is from the perspective of the local communities and they’re very much front and center of telling that story.
I don’t spend a lot of time interpreting their story for them. They tell it themselves. So I think this really does, I think the thing I love about this show is that it’s got a lot of diversity because these, you know, the impact of climate change, biodiversity loss, and nature loss is mostly felt in the global south.
And I think the solutions are also gonna come from the global south. And I think I’m a bit tired of the preaching from the West and the solutions must come from the West. And I love the fact that we don’t follow that model.
Aislyn: I do, too. That’s, yes, absolutely. Congratulations.
Sanjayan: It’s completely different in that way. Just when you watch season two, like, just keep that in mind and you’ll see what I mean. There is nothing like it right now in sort of—or ever really—the environmental nature programming. Nothing. If you just look at the voices and faces who tell you the story of the planet and what we do about it. Not even close.
Aislyn: Amazing. Um, I can’t wait. I’ve only seen the first episode and I’m itching for the rest. Is there anything else you’d like to add about either the show or your work or just life in general?
Sanjayan: You know, I think the only thing I would say is, you know, we are, you know, this last year, the last 12 months have been kind of remarkable. Um, it’s almost as if politicians and businesses have called our bluff. So we have a global agreement on climate change. We have now a global agreement on high seas, the High Seas Treaty, and we have a global agreement on protecting and restoring 30 percent of the land and waters of the planet for biodiversity.
That was COP 15 in Montreal. That happened in December. You know how amazing that is? That is getting countries that don’t even have, like, diplomatic relations with each other to agree. We have something like 194 countries. Virtually every country on the planet signed onto it.
That is amazing. What it tells me is that in this time of unbelievable fractioning and political rivalry, the one thing that still kind of unites people is the notion that nature is important to us and must be protected. Now, people might argue about how, but the fact that we’re sort of beyond that and we now agree that needs to be is kind of an amazing thing.
The challenge now for us in the conservation space, in the filmmaking space, in your space, is now to create solutions that can step up to the challenge, right? So the leaders have said, “Yep, you are, you’re right. We need to protect 30 percent of the country.” Like they’ve said it. They’re like now, “So tell us how, like what’s the option?” And that’s the challenge. That’s the rub. So the ability for us to take great ideas from everywhere and then scale, it is going to be the name of the game.
Aislyn: Well, I look forward to seeing how it plays out on Changing Planet. Thank you, Sanjayan, so much for being here and talking today.
Sanjayan: Of course. My pleasure.
Aislyn: And that was M. Sanjayan. I mean, how can you not listen to that guy and leave inspired to change the world? Or at least to binge his show. We’ll link to season one and season two in the show notes, as well as Conservation International’s website.
Before we wrap up, I’d like to introduce our new segment “How do you say that?” where we introduce words and phrases that travelers might use on the road. Today, we’re going to be learning a few Swahili phrases from AFAR’s editorial director Sarika Bansal.
Aislyn: Hi, Sarika. Welcome back to Unpacked.
Sarika: Mambo, Aislyn! Habariako?
Aislyn: Ayye, a little taste of what I think we’re gonna be learning today! Uh, before we get into what I think are going to be words of greeting, I was just curious to know where you’re at in terms of your Swahili fluency, because you’ve been living in Nairobi for a while now, right?
Sarika: Yeah. So, um, I’ll say “naongea kiswahili kidogo,” which in other words means that I speak a little bit of Swahili. I’m taking lessons right now.
Aislyn: Amazing. All right, well, what do you have for us today? What are we gonna be learning?
Sarika: So I thought we could just start with greetings. Um, so officially to greet someone, you would say “jambo,” which means “hello.” Um, however, in Nairobi where I live, the joke is that that’s kind of what foreigners say. Um, it sounds a little bit old fashioned to Kenyans, almost like someone saying, like, “howdy” or, um, “How do you do, mister?”—kind of like that vibe.
So a better greeting I’ve learned over time is “mambo,” which is just a more casual way to say hello. And “mambo, habariako?” Habariako is like, “how are you?” And you can respond with “nzuri sana,” which means “very good.” Um, and if you wanna go even more informal, you could say “sasa,” and you could just respond with “poa,” which just means cool.
Aislyn: So when would you use, like, “mambo” versus “sasa?” Is “sasa,” like, for friends or—
Sarika: Yeah. Yeah. You wouldn’t, if you’re, like, you know, in a more formal setting, like if you’re at work or with people who are older than you, you probably wouldn’t use “sasa.” That’s, you know, then you would use “mambo.”
Aislyn: Amazing. Uh, what kind of pronunciation tips do you have, and would you mind walking me through how to pronounce each of these?
Sarika: So Swahili is actually quite easy to learn. It’s completely phonetic, unlike English. Um, and so how you see a word is essentially how you say it. So we can practice if you’d like.
Aislyn: OK. Yeah, I would love to, and I’ll just say for listeners that we will, um, we’ll actually write out these words in the episode description, so if you wanna test it out yourself. Uh, but OK, the first one, uh, “mambo habariako?”
Sarika: That’s great. That’s really great. And then you would respond to that by saying “nzuri,” which is a little bit of, like, a nasal “n” sound and then “zuri.” So “nzuri.”
Aislyn: “Nzuri. Nzuri.” And is it kind of like a rolled “r”?
Sarika: Uh, it’s not like the Spanish double “r,” um, but it’s not as much as, like, the American “ra,” you know, it’s a little bit, a little harder than [that].
Aislyn: OK. “nzuri.”
Sarika: Perfect! Means “very good.”
Aislyn: Great. And then “sasa.”
Sarika: “Sasa.” Yeah, that’s it. A little easier.
Aislyn: Yeah, easier.
Sarika: And I would respond “poa.”
Aislyn: Would you use these greetings in other African countries where Swahili spoken, or is it specific to Kenya?
Sarika: Yeah. So, um, so Swahili is a really interesting case of the language it originated as a trader’s language. So it’s spoken today in, like, many countries across East Africa and beyond. So, um, the root of the language is Bantu, which is the root of many languages in Eastern and southern Africa. And, uh, Swahili also has bits of Arabic, Persian, Portuguese, and Hindi in it.
So it’s estimated 200 million people today speak it either as their mother tongue or like a lingua franca. Um, in response to your question about the greetings. So if you wanna learn the purest form of Swahili, I’ve been told that the best place to go is Tanzania. So there you could hear more commonly “jambo” as a greeting. Um, and then there’s even more formal ways of greeting people. Like if you’re with an elder person.
Aislyn: That’s so cool. Or I should say so “poa?”
Sarika: [Laughs] Yeah.
Aislyn: How often do you use—like how often are you speaking Swahili every day?
Sarika: So in Kenya the two, um, official languages are Swahili and English. The British did colonize the country and, um, truly, like, most people that I interact with, um, do speak some English, so it makes it—that’s the reason why I’m actually not so fluent yet, because it’s just so easy to use English in your daily life.
Um, but you know, once you even learn a little bit of the language, I feel like I have a bit of a superpower when I’m talking to people. And, you know, it’s also nice to be able to talk to people in their mother tongue as opposed to the language that they may have learned in school. I think it’s just a nice form of respect.
Aislyn: Yeah. I love that. Well, we’ll have to have you come back and teach us some more as your language skills progress.
Sarika: I would love to!
Aislyn: OK. Well, thank you so much for being here today. We look forward to the next one.
Sarika: Thank you. Or I should say “asante sana.”
Aislyn: Well, I hope you’re now ready for your next visit to Kenya. We’ll share the words in the show notes.
Ready for more unpacking? Visit afar.com, and be sure to follow us on Instagram and Twitter. We’re @afarmedia. If you enjoyed today’s exploration, I hope you’ll come back for more great stories. Subscribing makes this easy! You can find Unpacked on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, or your favorite podcast platform. And be sure to rate and review the show. It helps other travelers find it. This season, we also want to hear from you: Is there a travel dilemma, trend, or topic you’d like us to explore? Drop us a line at afar.com/feedback or email us at email@example.com
This has been Unpacked, a production of AFAR Media. The podcast is produced by Aislyn Greene and Nikki Galteland. Music composition by Chris Colin.
And remember: The world is complicated. We’re here to help you unpack it.