Around the World
Local News from All Over
Drop in the Bucket
Kalahari Bushmen have reason to rejoice. An appeals court in Botswana has ruled that the Indigenous dwellers of one of the driest parts of the world can now drill for water, overturning an earlier decision that denied them access.
The court’s decision reverses a July 2010 ruling that banned the Bushmen, also known as the Basarwa, from drilling for water on their ancestral lands in the Kalahari Game Reserve.
“I am happy with the judgment but not completely happy,” Basarwa activist Amohelang Segotsane says. “Government was supposed to give us water without going through the legal process.” Segotsane said the Basarwa want to be treated as citizens and enjoy the same rights as others in Botswana.
It’s been a long battle for the Basarwa. In 2002, they were forcibly evicted from the game reserve on the ground that their presence in the reserve wasn’t compatible with preserving wildlife. The Basarwa took the government to court and after four years won a landmark ruling that said they had been evicted illegally and unconstitutionally, and that they have the right to stay on their ancestral lands. The government reacted by banning the returning Basarwa from using the only well within the reserve, which it had capped during the evictions. This move was upheld by a Botswana high court last July.
Despite the lack of water, some Basarwa continued living on the reserve, surviving off rainwater and melons, and making arduous journeys by foot or donkey to fetch water from outside the protected area. Meanwhile, the government drilled new wells within the reserve for wildlife and approved a luxury tourist lodge with a swimming pool on the disputed land. It also approved a $3 billion diamond mine on Basarwa land.
“This is a great victory for the Bushmen and also for Botswana as a whole,” Stephen Corry, director of the Indigenous rights group Survival International, says of the court ruling. “We hope it will be embraced as such by the authorities and not be seen as just an obstacle to their attempts to get the Bushmen off their lands for diamond mining.”
—Associated Press; Survival International, 1/27
La Niña is on the rampage, not just in Australia, but in southern Africa too. While November-March is the annual rainy season in the region, the heavier than usual rainfall has been blamed on La Niña, the weather pattern behind the severe flooding in other southern hemisphere countries including Australia, Brazil, and the Philippines.
South Africa, especially, is reeling from unusually heavy rainfall since mid-December that has caused flooding in many regions in the country, wiping out crops in what is the continent’s main breadbasket. As of late January, more than 120 people had been killed in the thunderstorms and flooding, about 20,000 people were in need of assistance, and the South African government had declared disaster areas in eight of its nine provinces.
Health authorities were on alert for outbreaks of cholera and other waterborne diseases. There were concerns regarding a possible outbreak of Rift Valley Fever, a livestock disease that killed 26 people and 8,500 animals in the country last year. The torrential rainfall is also raising levels of toxic water in mines in Gauteng province – the nation’s economic hub and home of three metropolitan areas, including Johannesburg. If the acidic mine water reaches the surface, it will contaminate rivers, irrigation systems, and region’s drinking-water supply and pose serious health and economic risks for the country.
Above-average rainfall is forecast for South Africa and neighboring countries for the next few months. In late January, much of southern Africa was on flood alert, including Mozambique, where at least 13 people had died and thousands had fled their homes for higher ground. Namibia, Botswana, Lesotho, Zimbabwe, and Zambia were also on alert.
—Global Post, 1/28;
The Times (South africa), 1/27
Company Men Gone Green?
Here’s a novel move: The leaders of Japan’s top nine CO2-emitting industries announced in early December their plan to continue to cut emissions, whether an international agreement requires them to or not. Sounds good, right? But read between the lines of the announcement – penned by leaders of the steel, power, chemical, oil, cement, paper, electric appliances, auto, and gas industries – and it sounds more like an attempt to block proposals for binding international treaties on climate change than anything else.
To be fair, the argument raised by Japanese companies (and the Japanese government) against new treaties or an extension of the Kyoto Protocol has some merit. Japan relies heavily on imported energy and thus has historically had a huge financial incentive to make its manufacturing processes more efficient and to focus on reduction of energy use in general. Because of that, the country has carried out a series of energy-saving measures since the oil shocks of the 1970s, reducing its CO2 emissions per unit of economic output to half that of the European Union and the United States.
Ironically, it’s precisely that progress that could make future required emissions cuts more expensive to Japanese companies than their competitors in countries like China and India, which are not signatories to the Kyoto Protocol and thus have had no previous emission-cutting obligations.
Calling an extension of the Kyoto Protocol neither fair nor effective, a comment that is very much in line with the Japanese government’s position, the industry spokesmen said the pact is outdated as it covers less than 30 percent of current global emissions, compared to 58 percent in 1997 when it was agreed to in Kyoto. They added that an extension of the protocol would boost emissions by countries that had not signed on to it (this means you, United States), while “worsening global warming and entrenching the outdated Kyoto framework.”
“Even if Japan exits the framework of the Kyoto Protocol, we will continue making our global contribution (in emissions cuts),” Nippon Steel Corp Executive Vice President Kosei Shindo said during a hastily called press conference as the Cancún climate discussions were wrapping up.
“Japan has made efforts in the past and will keep doing so, like improving manufacturing processes, developing products and transferring technology to developing countries. That would all contribute to cuts in CO2 around the globe,” he said.
Should past emissions cuts be taken into consideration as the world works toward a climate change strategy? Perhaps. But it seems like a moot point given the general lack of progress around the globe.
Smart Phone’s Sweatshop App
Maybe clean tech isn’t so “clean” after all.
A one-year investigation by more than 30 Chinese NGOs found that those gleaming white iPhones and iPads are sometimes produced under poor environmental and workplace conditions that have led to the poisoning of dozens of factory workers in China. Apple may be a leader in terms of market sales of trendy gadgets, but the report ranked the US giant last in a survey of how 29 technology companies responded to inquiries about pollution and health standards at their supplier factories.
“We’ve found that Apple isn’t honoring its commitment in ensuring its supply chain’s work safety and environmental responsibility, and giving dignity and respect to its workers,” says Ma June of the Beijing-based Institute of Public & Environmental Affairs, which spearheaded the investigation. Apple “only cares about the price and quality [of their products] and not the environmental and social responsibility issues. In some ways they drive the suppliers to cut corners with their contracts.”
The high tech sector isn’t the first industry to struggle with regulating product quality and workplace safety in the tangled Chinese supply chains. A decade ago, shoe brands Nike and Adidas ran into major criticisms about their suppliers’ standards. And in 2007, Mattel suffered a scandal when toxic lead paint was found on its toys.
“It’s not easy to control [the supply chain], but peer brands are doing a lot more [than Apple] to deal with this,” Ma says.
The study, titled “The other face of Apple,” commended Hewlett-Packard, Vodafone, Samsung, Toshiba, and Hitachi for taking some steps to improve factory practices or step up monitoring of its suppliers. Apple wasn’t the only company cited for failing to act or respond to concerns – Nokia, Sony, and Ericsson also got low marks. But the US company was the worst, the report said, for “dodging” questions from the public and requests from environmental groups for investigations. For example, the report cited an exchange in which longtime Apple CEO Steve Jobs responded to an Internet user’s question about the company’s social responsibility record by writing: “You should educate yourself. We do more than any other company on the planet.”
A Hong Kong-based Apple spokesperson denied the claims in the report, saying that Apple “has a vigorous auditing program that investigates suppliers and other parts of the business chain. We audit throughout.”
The report found that at least 49 workers making products for Apple had fallen ill while on the job. Lianjian Technology was accused of using n-hexane, a toxic solvent, to clean touch screens. At least 47 workers there were poisoned. The workers claimed that Apple did not respond to their complaints.
In 2010, Apple’s main supplier in China, the Taiwan-owned Foxconn, was put in the spotlight when more than a dozen workers committed suicide. Critics blamed the deaths on harsh factory conditions and a militaristic culture.
—Agence france-presse, 1/20;
The archipelago nation of Indonesia is one of the world’s biggest producers, and consumers, of rice. The average Indonesian – and there are 240 million – eats 220 pounds of rice a year, more than either the average Japanese or Chinese person. Rice is a cornerstone of the country’s culture and identity.
But now the Indonesian government is trying to get its citizens to eat less of the grain. Worried that shifting weather patterns linked to climate change will disrupt harvests, and concerned that a growing population and a shrinkage of arable land will make it hard to increase rice production, Indonesian officials have launched an aggressive effort to wean people off the staple.
“We urge Indonesians to kick their habit of eating rice,” says Indroyono Soesilo, secretary-general of the Welfare Ministry. “We need to diversify our diets.”
That argument is unthinkable for ordinary Indonesians. “I eat rice for breakfast, lunch, and dinner,” says Andi Santoso, a 23-year-old student. “If I don’t eat rice, what else can I eat?”
Minister Soesilo thinks he has an answer: “Many Indonesians still think that if they don’t eat rice, they don’t eat well. Indonesia produces 66 kinds of other carbohydrates, such as corn, sago, cassava, sweet potato, potato, and others. These can all replace rice for two out of three meals a day, for example.”
But that’s a tough sell for Indonesians. In the agricultural areas of Java, rice occupies an elevated place in the hierarchy of crops. Root crops like cassava are associated with poverty.
“Rice is life,” says Djati Kusuma, a leader in the Javanese village of Cigugur, which hosts an annual festival celebrating Dewi Sri, the goddess of rice.
Government officials fear that rice may no longer be able to fill that role. Last year unseasonal rains linked to the La Niña effect ruined some of the rice harvest. Indonesian leaders also worry that rising sea levels from global warming would destroy some arable land and slash the country’s rice production.
Such concerns aren’t limited to Indonesia. A September report by the International Rice Research Institute said Asian countries need to sharply increase rice stocks to improve food security. The bellies of some 3 billion people – close to half of the world’s population – depend on it.
Water for Peace?
“Water will be the oil of the twenty-first century.” So say the Cassandras who warn that diminishing freshwater will cause resource wars just as petroleum has. But what if it were the opposite, and water sharing ushered in peace in the Middle East?
So claims a new report by a Beirut think tank that asserts water scarcity can be the catalyst for reducing, rather than causing, conflict in the volatile region. The report, “The Blue Peace: Rethinking Middle East Water,” by the Carnegie Middle East Center, urges a major “paradigm shift” in how the region’s countries view the problem of dwindling water resources.
“It is possible … to anticipate conflict between countries due to disagreements over shared water resources,” the report concedes. But there is also the opportunity to create a “hydro-diplomacy” that could bring together states including Israel, the Palestinian territories, Jordan, Lebanon, Syria, Iraq, and Turkey. The Carnegie Center envisions these states establishing a monitoring system through which they can determine a more equitable sharing of water resources. The report advocates considering “strategies that are not trapped in the existing political and environmental prism.”
“While short-term solutions will depend on the current political and environmental dynamics, medium-term and long-term solutions can be crafted, taking into account possibilities that may seem impossible today,” the report says.
But looking beyond the existing prism isn’t easy. River flows in Turkey, Syria, Iraq, Lebanon, and Jordan have been depleted by 50 to 90 percent in the last half century. The flow of the Jordan River, a primary water source for five of these countries, has decreased 90 percent since 1960. Lebanon and Syria have made moves to share water from the Orontes and Nahr al-Kabir rivers, but Turkey and Israel have refused to sign on to an important UN convention on interstate rivers. A major dam-building program by Turkey has cut the flow of the Euphrates River through Syria and Iraq, where it runs to the Persian Gulf, causing serious cuts in water supplies in the downstream states. Five years of drought have intensified the problem. Climate change, the continued decline in rainfall, and higher rates of evaporation due to rising temperatures could create critical shortages in the not-so-distant future.
The crisis is most acute in the Israeli-occupied Palestinian territories. The Mountain Aquifer, which feeds the West Bank, has shrunk by 7 percent since 1993 and the Western Galilee Aquifer is down by 15 to 20 percent. Water appropriation has created a “high stress situation” where the average Palestinian exists on less than 30 liters of fresh water daily, said Fadi Comair, president of the Mediterranean Network of River Basin Organizations. Lebanese and Jordanians get 60 liters a day and Israelis, who tap into the Palestinian aquifers, have access to 350 liters daily.
A fact that helps explain why, as the report itself puts it, “Conventional thinking about water in the Middle East tends to be pessimistic and alarmist.”
—United press international, 01/11
High Performance Fuel Economy
Gear heads around the world are in mourning. The Fédération Internationale de l’Automobile (FIA) in Monaco, the governing body of the legendary Formula One racing circuit, announced in late 2010 that by 2013 Formula One engines would be reduced from the current 2.4-liter V8s to four-cylinder, 1.6-liter turbocharged units with a rev limit of 12,000 rpm, and linked to hybrid kinetic energy recovery systems. Translation: The high-pitched V8 squeal Formula One aficionados hold dear is about to go the way of the dodo. While avid Formula One fans fear this will make their favorite race slightly less exciting, FIA insists the only change to the race will be slightly quieter cars and a smaller environmental footprint.
The new Formula One engines, which reportedly cost in the ballpark of $150 million to develop, will burn at least 35 percent less fuel, saving 85 to 90 liters of fuel per car per race; that’s about a full tank of fuel, so it’s a significant savings. And according to independent engine-maker Cosworth, the combination of the turbo engine and hybrid systems will produce more than 700 bhp and deliver the same speeds as at present. In fact, with low drag setup, the laps could be even quicker than those logged now.
“Formula One has had a hard look at itself and said ‘We’ve got to be more relevant,’” Team Lotus owner Tony Fernandes, whose cars are actually painted green, says. “Formula One is now going to be a driver and a leader in terms of environmental technology. Thirty-five percent less fuel is amazing. Imagine what that would do to the world if the technology being used in Formula One can be brought to all cars and reduce fuel consumption by 35 percent.”
The changes are all part of FIA president and former Ferrari team boss Jean Todt’s determination to green up Formula One. Several individual teams have been making strides toward becoming more environmentally responsible, and now Todt wants to see that happening globally. “I feel sometimes the motorsport community has not yet completely understood that the times are changing,” he says. “If you are looking at what is happening at the Paris motor show, there are a lot of electric, hybrid, hydrogen cars and I really feel that racing must be a display for all those technologies.”
Todt may have also stumbled onto a way to win back some of the manufacturers the racing circuit has lost in recent years. Volkswagen has already hinted at a return, while Formula One watchers expect the new rules to entice BMW, Honda, and Toyota as well.
Todt hopes the change will also improve Formula One’s overall image. “There is more fuel burned by spectators attending the Tour de France than in the entire Formula One world championship,” says Mark Gallagher, who heads up the Formula One engine team for Cosworth. “Formula One has an unfair image of gas-guzzling and this new technology absolutely nails that criticism.”
Taking the Initiative
One million Europeans can’t be wrong – right?
In a major test of the democratic principles of the European Union, Greenpeace has collected signatures from more than one million people demanding that the EU halt approval of genetically modified crops. The petition is sizing up as a test case for the “European Citizens’ Initiative,” a system whereby one million people can jointly ask the European Commission to change EU legislation.
GM technologies are widely unpopular in Europe and have fueled fears of “frankenfoods” that could harm consumers or else spread out of control among crops. In March 2010, the Commission granted the first GM approval in 12 years when it allowed the cultivation of the “Amflora” potato, a genetically modified tuber that is to be used in industrial applications such as paper coatings and adhesives. The Greenpeace petition calls for stopping any other GM approvals and establishing a new scientific body to study GM impacts and determine regulations on GM products.
But the final rules governing the Citizens’ Initiatives are still being finalized by EU lawmakers, and are not expected to be in force until the end of 2011. As a result, the European Commission has said the GM petition cannot be officially recognized.
Greenpeace representatives aren’t pleased with that response. “Over a million people across Europe have set the EU a democratic test – will the EU address the real concern people have about GM crops and food, or will it side with the chemical industry lobbyists controlling GM technology?” Greenpeace’s EU director, Jorgo Riss, says. “Until safety issues of GM are examined by independent experts, all GM authorizations should stop.”
How exactly EU officials will respond to the Greenpeace initiative is unclear. A spokesman for the EU executive said it would treat the signature “as a petition in the spirit of the Citizens’ Initiative.” John Dalli, the EU commissioner responsible for GM policy, said that he is committed to looking seriously at the request made through this initiative.
In 2010, Dalli vowed to press ahead with EU approvals of GM products. And the draft rules for the initiative give him the room to do so. Under the proposed rules for the Citizens’ Initiatives, the Commission would have three months from receipt of a petition to decide what action to take. That could include drafting new legislation, tweaking policies and regulations – or simply ignoring the request.
Solar panels that continue to harvest energy and generate electricity at night may sound like the pipe dream of an overeager renewable-energy geek, but the advent of a new crop of nano-scale antennae capable of harvesting infrared radiation could make it a reality as early as next year. According to Steven Novack, one of the pioneers of the technology at the US Department of Energy’s Idaho National Laboratory in Idaho Falls, nearly half of the available energy in the solar spectrum resides in the infrared band, and infrared radiation is re-emitted by the Earth’s surface after the sun has gone down, meaning that the antennas can capture some energy during the night.
Moreover, even during the day, the antennae are able to harvest more photons than their silicon cell counterparts. Novack’s team has calculated that, given ideal conditions, a system equipped with their antennae would have an overall efficiency of 46 percent, a giant leap beyond the most efficient solar panels currently available, which have been stuck in the 25 percent zone for a few years. And while “ideal conditions” for silicon cells are specific (if the sun isn’t at just the right angle, they’re not harvesting at optimum efficiency) the antennae can absorb radiation from any angle.
map by Design Action Collective
While photovoltaic cells use photons to liberate electrons, the new antennae resonate when hit by light waves, generating an alternating current that can be harnessed. The problem is that the antennae need to be close to the same size as the light waves to do that, which means somewhere in the millimeter to nanometer range, and they generate currents alternating at frequencies too high to be useful unless they’re first converted by a silicon diode. “The problem is that silicon diodes typically don’t operate at high frequencies,” says Aimin Song, a nanoelectronic engineer at the University of Manchester, UK.
Novack’s team is starting to overcome both obstacles. Earlier this year they managed to build an array of billions of antennae that were just small enough to harvest the light waves. Novack says it should be possible to modify the process and build smaller antennas to work with mid- and near-infrared waves.
Meanwhile, Song, along with Garret Moddel’s team at the University of Colorado in Boulder, has independently made progress toward creating novel diodes capable of handling high optical frequencies. Both teams expect to be combining diode and antennae into working prototypes in as soon as a few months. “There’s a potential for this to be a real game-changer,” Moddel says.
Novack hints at just one more problem: the technology is expensive. “If the antennae could be made cheaply, this technology could prove to be truly disruptive,” he says. Disruptive, that is, if you’re in the fossil fuel industry.
—New Scientist, 12/20
Wave of Mutilation
The floods that ravaged Australia in December and January destroyed billions of dollars in crops and briefly shut down the country’s lucrative coal industry. They also damaged a place that’s always underwater. The floods flushed a 932-mile-wide “plume” of toxics and debris- and pesticide-laden sediment toward the Great Barrier Reef, threatening the fragile corals and marine life in the world’s largest living organism.
By early January, receding waters from the swollen Fitzroy and Burnett rivers in Queensland state had muddied reef waters as far as the Keppel Island Group, about 24 miles offshore, at the southern end of the UNESCO World Heritage site. Scientists expect the contaminated water to have a devastating impact on the reef corals as well as dugongs, turtles, and other marine life.
Sediment, freshwater, nutrients, and high temperatures could damage or stress corals, according to the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority, which manages the 133,000-square-mile reef off Australia’s eastern coast. “It’s fair to say the floods are not good news for the coral reef,” says park authority General Manager Andrew Skeats.
Marine experts expect to see coral bleaching as a result of the flooding. Bleaching occurs when the tiny plant-like coral organisms die, often because of high temperature and poisoning, leaving behind only a white limestone reef skeleton.
Damage to the Great Barrier Reef – which contributes about $5.3 billion to the Australian economy each year from fishing and tourism – could be exacerbated because the floods were “bigger, dirtier, and more dangerous due to excessive tree clearing, overgrazing, and soil compaction [in the region],” World Wildlife Fund said in a statement. The flooding was the worst Australia has experienced in 50 years and affected an area the size of France and Germany combined.
Experts expect the reef to recover. But depending on the coral’s resilience that could take up to 100 years – just in time for another once-in-a-century sized flood.
Avast Ye Scurvy Dogs!
Brazil’s Amazon Rainforest is unrivaled in its biodiversity. The jungle has the largest population of plant and animals in the world and is home to one-tenth of the globe’s known species. The wealth of flora and fauna is also a goldmine for pharmaceutical and cosmetics companies that often use the forest’s rare plants and animals as the basis for their products. Now, the Brazilian government is saying that if companies want to make profits off those life forms, they are going to have pay fairly for the privilege – or else suffer some hefty fines.
Last year the Brazilian government launched a new program designed to crack down on “biopiracy.” The campaign aims to stop what Brazilian officials call profiteering – companies that did not notify the government of their use of local species to create products. Since July 2010 the Brazilian government has levied fines of $60 million on companies that did not, as required by law, pay compensation for the use of genetic material native to Brazil. Government regulators expect that number will increase in 2011, and that companies could face cancellation of their patents in Brazil.
“Given that [fighting biopiracy] is a new process and that Brazil has one of the biggest reserves of biodiversity in the world, I think most of this activity is illegal, and we are going to find those people,” says Bruno Barbosa, who heads inspections for the Brazilian environmental authority, Ibama.
Barbosa says there are many examples of biopiracy in Brazil. In the 1970s, for example, pharmaceutical companies developed the hypertension medication captopril from snake venom that Indigenous groups used on arrow tips. Pharmaceutical companies also used secretions from the Kambo frog to create anti-inflammatory medicines – but failed to share any profits with the local residents who brought the frogs to their attention. Many such incidents of biopiracy came before a 2001 Brazilian decree that created the rules for species use.
Some observers, however, say the new oversight is too aggressive and threatens to slow crucial research that could lead to new cancer treatments or medicines for other diseases. They say that the rules aren’t very clear and that it ends up penalizing those that make an honest effort to be transparent about their use of genetic material.
“The current law is very vague on a lot of points, and it ends up classifying everyone as illegitimate,” says Raul Telles do Valle, who works with ISA, a think tank on social and environmental issues. He says that the laws are especially unclear on the issue of what constitutes “fair” compensation for local populations’ collective knowledge, passed down over generations, of plants and animals.
Government regulator Barbosa insists the current laws are sufficient, and says that intensifying the fight against biopiracy could help slow the destruction of sensitive habitats.
“This is going to enable concrete alternatives that substitute destruction of the ecosystem for new economic mechanism,” Barbosa says.
If a tree doesn’t fall in the woods, can the whole world hear it?
Brazil’s leaders sure hope so. At the start the December climate negotiations in Cancún, Brazilian officials were eager to trumpet the fact that the rising economic powerhouse is doing its part to slow global greenhouse gas emissions by slowing the rate of logging in the Amazon. Deforestation in the massive rainforest – often referred to as “the world’s lungs” – is at its lowest rate since Brazil began keeping detailed records in 1988. From July 2009 to July 2010, about 2,500 square miles of forest were burned or cut down. That’s a 14 percent decline from the year before and a steep drop from the most intense deforestation in the mid-1990s, when more than 11,000 square miles of forest were lost in some years.
Brazil’s outgoing president, Luiz Inacio “Lula” da Silva, said the reduction proves the country’s commitment to addressing global climate change. “We will honor the pledge we made and we don’t need any favors,” he said. “We do it because it’s our obligation.”
Forest experts say there are a number of reasons for the drop in logging. The global economic slowdown has done its part as the demand for global food commodities has weakened. Also, the Brazilian government has been more aggressive in targeting cattle ranchers and loggers who are illegally clearing the forest.
Despite the improvement, the total area of deforestation last year was still huge – larger than the state of Delaware – and above what the Brazilian Environment Ministry had hoped for. “Of course, it’s still an unacceptable rate and the government needs to do more to support the small guy in the forest,” says Paulo Barreto, a researcher at the Imazon think tank in Belem.
Further progress in slashing deforestation will be more difficult, experts say, as logging takes place on a smaller scale and becomes harder to spot. The key to long-term forest protection lies with creating economic activities that depend on intact ecosystems. One example would be the production of pharmaceuticals and cosmetics that come from rainforest flora.
“We won’t keep the trees standing unless we develop forest-based economies,” says Roberto Vizentin, an official at Environment Ministry. “These need to create added value and jobs in the forest, not in the big cities.”