Volume 16 Number 5
Weatherman Joins Bid to Save the Sayadhri Ranges
01 October 2003

Joanna Grigg meets Alan Porteous a New Zealand climatologist who, not content just to predict weather patterns, is promoting a bid to save a precious part of India's natural heritage.

An aura round the moon means it will rain soon: everyone has some words of wisdom about the weather. Alan Porteous has more than most, given his job as an agricultural climatologist at New Zealand's National Institute of Water and Atmospheric Research (NIWA). ‘My work is to help people interpret climate data and make it easy to understand–like a farmer talking to his neighbour over the fence,’he says.

Porteous is regularly beamed across a TV farming programme. He gives insight into El Niño and La Niña and other climatic phenomena that impact on New Zealand's longterm rainfall patterns.

Many farmers associate his cheerful face with yet more depressing news about extended drought. While Porteous cannot change the weather he takes heart that he can give people warning of what is to come. ‘I try to narrow the uncertainty band,’ he says.

Porteous's steady and patient approach to his work is typical of his life in general. He has taken leave from his job five times in two years to travel to India and join like-minded Indian friends in spearheading the creation of a new educational centre at Asia Plateau, the Initiatives of Change conference facility in Panchgani. Alan’s wife, Marion, has accompanied him twice.

Panchgani is a small town towards the northern end of the Sayadhri Ranges, a chain of rugged mountains that stretch some 1,600 kms along the western side of India. The area supports about one third of India’s flora and fauna diversity and has been identified as a biodiversity ‘hotspot’ because much of this natural capital is under threat.

The plan is to set up partnerships with Indian universities, businesses and government, to allow Indian students and tutors to leave the big cities in order to participate in practical learning projects in the Sayadhri Ranges. Animal husbandry, botany and environmental science are among the potential fields that Porteous sees as being integral to the scheme. ‘The strength of this idea is that it is an expression of the hopes of many people, and it is therefore gathering momentum,’ he says.

A significant step towards the launch of the initiative will take place in October with Apni Dharati (Our Earth), described as ‘an international environmental and cultural festival’. ‘An important aspect of the whole plan is cross-cultural dialogue,’ explains Porteous.

‘The event will create space and opportunity for sharing indigenous knowledge systems and culture which are as much at risk as indigenous flora and fauna,’ says Mona Patrao, who is manager of the event. ‘Song, dance, theatre, films, art, craft and discussions will bring to our consciousness the wealth, ecological significance and diversity of indigenous lifestyles.’ The artistic director of Apni Dharati will be Te Rangi Huata, from the Maori tribe Ngati Kahungunu, who will travel to India with the Kahurangi Maori Dance Theatre. Kahurangi will perform at the festival, and at official functions and schools in Mumbai and Delhi.

Behind Alan’s balanced scientific approach lies a passionate enthusiasm for the environment and for the Sayadhri Ranges in particular.

Porteous feels that Panchgani is the perfect spot for science and education to join forces in meeting the demands of social and environmental improvement. Most of the people who farm the local plateau area are small family-unit landholders who have limited capital to try new farming practices. Porteous's vision is to bring students into live contact with scientists, farmers and community-minded individuals. Together they can then try to tackle some of India's key environmental challenges.

Why this attraction to India?Porteous spent his early twenties cutting his teeth on the Asia Plateau farm at Panchgani. ‘I took over the dairy farm from my parents who were managing it, but it took me at least four years to really understand the land and how Indian farming worked. Once I got into it, I loved it.’

He managed a herd of Jersey cattle, brought in from Australia, and worked with the Maharashtra State Government to support their cross-breeding programme. ‘They gave us tremendous help and veterinary support, and I learned a lot about building effective partnerships,’ he comments. There had been the odd bureaucratic nightmare, with officials confused as to why an extra animal had arrived off the ship, despite assurances that it had been born on the way from Australia. ‘Then there was the time when a couple of cows contracted foot and mouth disease when there was a breech of quarantine.’

Porteous’s love of experimentation and innovation was already evident. ‘We trialled wheat, potatoes and different grass species,’ he recalls. He says that he comes from a family with a ‘hands-on’ tradition. ‘We have a vein of pioneering in the family which means we are not content just to be observers.’

In fact his grandparents, Will and Edith Porteous, had started a hospital in northern India, and Alan's parents, John and Annette, at one point sold their farm and John become a waterside worker for six months at a time of strikes and conflicts between farmers and waterside workers in the 1950s. ‘His key motivation was to build dialogue between the two sides,’ says Porteous.

This family tradition of taking leaps of faith has been a strong element in Alan and Marion’s life, too. Alan first went to India at the age of 18 and, at 24, joined an IC musical group called Song of Asia to tour India, Europe and Canada. They married in 1976, and one of their three daughters was born in India. When they returned to New Zealand Porteous studied for a Diploma in Field Technology at Lincoln University–‘a big step to take with three young daughters and not much money’.

He managed to squeeze the two-year course into one year, and then they took another leap in faith, moving to Wellington, a more expensive city, without the promise of a job. But after ‘hanging in there’ for the right job, he has found it immensely rewarding to have a central role at NIWA.

Porteous’s belief is that the role of science is to help us to live more sensibly. True to Kiwi character, he believes that long hours and hard work are key to getting things done. What is most evident in his achievements is that they are a result of his care for people and the environment.