Human Planet is a hunting film, about men killing animals in dangerous and exotic ways. There’s an interest in that, watching someone spear fish 20m down, using one breath for a three minute hunt. Or the appalling dangers faced by the Pa-aling compressor divers of the Philippines. But it’s not about making a life from the sea.
I write about survival in harsh conditions, ecological impact and ethical choice. The much-hyped BBC1 series offers beautiful filming, John Hurt narrating, massive website. What’s not to like? Pretty much everything really.
The basic facts appeared to be accurate. Sperm whales are predators (they eat squid). The barnacles of Galicia are indeed very difficult to harvest, and correspondingly expensive. Fish catches for indigenous communities are much less than they were even a decade ago, pushing poor people into ever more dangerous methods. All this past, set against sensationalised fast cutting and quick beat music. Clumsy personalisation abounded, focusing briefly and impersonally on an individual within a group, examining a small facet of their lives like a curious wormcast under a stone before tossing his aside in search of the next story. Sure some of it was beautiful, startling, even frightening, but it was so fragmentary.
The most oceanic community in the programme was the Bajau, a Malay community that has lived on the water between Malaysia, the Philippines and Indonesia for centuries. They were shown in the programme as living in stilt houses, in settlements on reefs a long way from land. One of their stars was an amazing free diver. There was no mention of the paradoxes and challenges they face. Traditionally, the Bajau lived afloat all year round, but the exigencies of inflexible borders have forced most of them to settlement, like their land-based peers. The challenges of subsistence diving went unmentioned; Bajau normally rupture their own eardrums as youngsters, and it is common to die of the bends. The Bajau are destroying their habitat, just as we are. Cyanide fishing is rife among all the coastal people of these archipelagos, turning living reefs into bombed wastelands. Voracious global markets, and depleted catches created by industrialised fishing by richer countries, drive these changes. (Wonderful pictures by James Morgan are here.)
There is some hope. In the Coral Triangle, WWF and Conservation International have worked with governments and local people to create marine reserves and the Bajau have been leaders in working with coastal communities to make these no-fish zones successful for everyone.
The BBC have ignored all these paradoxes, complicated agendas and conflicts in pursuit of wonderful pictures and flash fiction. Fair enough to make a series about communities surviving in extreme environments, but put it into context and explore the rapid changes going on. Most of all, show their courage and commitment which means that survival of their traditions, protection of unique and beautiful places, does not depend only on our limited charity and passing curiosity.