Contemplating human cohabitation with biodiversity

URBANISATION / As humans relentlessly transform landscapes to their needs, the question looms: is peaceful coexistence with other species attainable?

Strong, steady winds pick up grains of sand only to disperse them across the landscape as the air tumbles. Fade to black. We find ourselves in a dune, with off-road vehicles traversing the terrain to the merriment of onlookers and their own. The sound of engines revving up drowns the chirping of birds. Warm light floods the landscape, and once the dune is deserted, man-made noise abates at last, leaving behind tire tracks in the sand if only to remind of the recent human presence.

The scene sets the tone for the documentary titled Nest that reflects on the cohabiting of humans with other species. Filmed in and around the Chilean coastal city of Concón, it does so through imagery that is unburdened by narration. Stringing images together, one scene after another, the film departs from didacticism that stamps most environmental documentaries, and it feels like a breath of fresh air.

Nest, a film by Josefina Pérez-García, Felipe Sigala
Nest, a film by Josefina Pérez-García, Felipe Sigala

Banners unfurled

In the next scene, we are bystanders of ongoing construction. Workers with hoses, men operating heavy equipment – trucks, excavators, and road rollers – are all in action to abrade, compact, and transform soil to human needs. Not too far from it stands a placard advertising a pre-sale of flats. Construction cranes decorate the skyline as more multi-story residential buildings are being erected at another site. There, banners unfurled on the buildings’ facades tirelessly appeal to potential buyers and renters: «1, 2 and 3 bedrooms», «Office space for sale».

Nest, a film by Josefina Pérez-García, Felipe Sigala
Nest, a film by Josefina Pérez-García, Felipe Sigala

Urbanisation & biodiversity

As buildings strew the landscape, burrowing owls that are native to the area watch. After all, humans aren’t the city’s only dwellers. Gradually, not uncommon sights become eerie as the camera reveals the city’s evolving architecture pervading wildlife. It is in these small revelations that the otherwise unhurried film draws its sense of urgency. We see birds gathering at the water; some are perched on what turns to be man-made structures built of metal and concrete. Vultures are seen pecking at a carcass of a sea lion, then spreading their wings wide, facing the sun… and high-rise buildings.

After all, humans aren’t the city’s only dwellers.

At its core, the film interrogates the future of urbanisation as a form of human expansion with numerous cascading effects on the environment. Land take and land conversion, driven by mankind’s need to feed and accommodate its expanding population, have long destabilised and fragmented natural habitats, affecting biodiversity and biomass production. Faced with an assortment of urbanisation processes and accompanying stresses such as air, noise, and light pollution, animals are forced to adapt to changing urban conditions to survive, or else they go extinct. Perhaps, in lieu of greenwashing businesses and politics, man first ought to do away with their utilitarian thinking about nature and its resources. Reimagining human impact on biodiversity further entails an overhaul of current power relations and a relinquishment of the notion that wildlife can be tamed, deprived of land, or exploited for gain and recreation. Ultimately, in the discourse about environmental ramifications of urbanisation, sustainability must be redefined to include the ability of other species to meet their needs as humans fulfil theirs.

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Sevara Pan
Sevara Pan
Journalist and film critic.

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