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Local News from All Over
Digging Holes for Themselves
In the province of Mpumalanga in eastern South Africa, environmentalists and tour operators are battling mining companies to decide the economic and environmental future of the region. Unfortunately, the environmentalists seem to be in a bigger hole than their opponents.
As the region determines how best to address the issues of economic development and job creation, arguments from both sides are being heard. Mining companies claim that they’ll create jobs not only in the coalmines, but also through the construction of infrastructure to support the mining operations, such as railways. Environmentalists, scientists, and travel companies counter that the pollution caused in the mining process will destroy the region’s tourism potential once the mines are inevitably abandoned.
One of the reasons that the mines are likely to win out over tourism is an inherent imbalance of power with the government itself. The Department of Environment and Tourism is not in a position to veto the decisions of the Department of Minerals and Energy (DME) because the DME issues mining licenses based on its own environmental impact assessments.
There’s a great deal at stake as the battle in Mpumalanga escalates. The region is home to more than 270 freshwater lakes; Lake Chrissie, South Africa’s largest freshwater source, is virtually pristine. “Water found in the natural springs around Chrissie Lake is of drinking water quality. It could be bottled and sold,” says Jennifer Russell, a University of Johannesburg student doing her master’s thesis on the water quality of the area. “Mining would pollute all of these pure water sources and we would never be able to get that back,” she says. – Inter Press Service, 9/30
The officials at Iriaini Tea Factory are in a lot of hot water with at least 10,000 members of clans surrounding Kenya’s Karima Hill. The locals have had enough of the destructive practices of the business and are preparing to host a cursing ceremony by year’s end.
Karima Hill has long been the site of two shrines used by community elders. The sacred land has been tainted, however, since Iriaini planted eucalyptus and other exotic trees used in the tea-drying process on the 256-acre hill. As a result, say the clansmen, all but one of the nine streams on the hill have dried up. Additionally, a mobile phone service tower is now located at the top of Karima. Locals have been advocating the removal of both the tower and the non-native plants.
Because years of negotiations with the tea factory and the town council have failed to provide satisfactory results, the tribes are pulling out the stops. Their planned cursing ceremony will be conducted by spiritualists who will converge on the hill for the historic ceremony.
“We have sent out letters to our partners in Uganda, Tanzania, Zimbabwe, Zambia, and Mozambique, asking them to help us identify the most powerful indigenous spiritualists who are capable of placing an extremely effective curse on a person or institution,” says Kariuki Thuku, the coordinator of Porini Trust, a Nairobi-based environmental conservation group. “We want to deal with those whose past record of performing successful cursing rituals is totally unquestionable. It will be historical and we hope it will be of great importance to the locals.”
– The Nation (Nairobi), 9/27
Where’s the Beef?
According to some recent studies, grain-fed beef may be just as large a source of greenhouse emissions as all of the automobiles in the world. Evidently the Japanese environment ministry didn’t get the memo.
In September, the Japanese government – in partnership with the Japanese arm of McDonald’s – offered a half-price Big Mac to anyone who would show a commitment to preventing climate change. The burger giant said it would sell Big Macs for ¥150 (US$1.30) to people who downloaded a government form listing ways of reducing carbon dioxide emissions.
The offer was so popular that within a day of going online, the government Web site hosting the global-warming form crashed.
“We started seeing a rise in access yesterday, and it surged this morning,” Kenji Someno, head of the environment ministry’s Lifestyle Policy Office, says. “We are now trying to restore the system.”
Although it is the birthplace of the Kyoto Protocol, Japan is lagging in its commitments to reduce greenhouse gas emissions to six percent below 1990 levels by 2012. To help raise awareness of the need to cut emissions, the Japanese government has enlisted more than 80 companies to offer prizes to citizens who pledge to fight global warming. The Web site crash following the Big Mac offer was the environment ministry’s first computer system failure related to a public awareness campaign.
“McDonald’s is such a familiar name with people, and they eat there often,” Someno says. “The Big Mac discount gives them the strong impression that it’s a bargain.”
The environment ministry’s global warming form includes 39 ways to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, from shortening shower times to reducing air conditioning use to simply wiping water off the bottom of the kettle before heating it on the stove. Presumably cutting back on meat consumption is not on the list.
– Agence France-Presse, 9/5
A proposed nuclear power plant on the Indonesian island of Java is facing opposition from a group of Muslim clerics who say that the facility is forbidden under Islam because its risks to human life outweigh its benefits.
In an effort to cut energy costs, Indonesia – the world’s most populous Muslim nation and the only OPEC member in East Asia – is seeking to reduce its reliance on oil- and gas-generated electricity. As part of this strategy, the government is proposing to build the country’s first nuclear power plant on the Muria Peninsula in Central Java.
The plant would have the capacity to produce 1,000 megawatts of electricity to help meet the energy needs of the country’s 220 million people. Environmental groups are opposed to the idea, warning that building a nuclear plant in such an earthquake-prone region could prove risky.
The plan also met resistance from an influential group of Islamic scholars.
In September, members of the Javanese branch of Nadhlatul Ulama (NU), Indonesia’s largest Islamic group, met in the Central Java district of Jepara to discuss the nuclear proposal. The clerics agreed that the power plant would endanger the lives of nearby residents and was therefore forbidden under Islam.
“We concluded that its downsides outweigh potential benefits from the plant,” says Ahmad Rozikin, one of the NU scholars. “It threatens the survival of human beings in the area.”
As is often the case with religious debates, the issue is far from settled. NU Secretary General Syaifuyl Bahri says the fatwa was reached at the district level, and that the topic remains controversial.
“There are still disagreements,” Bahri says, “even among those who attended the meeting.”
– Reuters, 9/4
Next time you visit a sushi restaurant, think twice before ordering the toro nigiri.
Fishermen and environmentalists who monitor the ecosystem of the Mediterranean Sea warn that the population of bluefin tuna there is on the verge of collapse because of relentless demand for the fatty flesh that makes perfect sushi.
“It’s over, that’s my gut feeling from both a [fish] stock point of view and a business point of view,” says Robert Mielgo Bregazzi, a fisheries consultant in the Mediterranean. “The Japanese traders are telling me most of the Libyan tuna are less than [220 lbs] … Ten years ago, we were pulling out [1,100-lb] monsters.”
A combination of factors has converged to bring down the size and number of bluefin tuna in the Mediterranean. While pollution and climate change put pressure on tuna habitats, over-fishing is further jeopardizing population health. Some of the biggest and best fish can fetch up to $15,000, a price that has attracted swarms of new boats – many of which are controlled by Asian and Italian organized crime groups.
At the same time, new technologies have allowed fishermen to take in ever-greater numbers of fish. Some fishing boats use spotter planes (illegal under international law) to identify schools of tuna and then surround them. A system of corralling the fish into “tuna ranches” has also damaged the population. Fishermen scoop up shoals of spawning tuna, transfer them to cages where they are fattened on squid and sardines, and then keep returning to the cages until all the fish are caught.
Environmentalists say that unless immediate action is taken, the number of bluefin may drop so low that the population may not be able to restore itself.
“There are plenty of signs that we might be seeing the start of the collapse,” says Susana Sainz,
officer with the World Wildlife Fund.
Coastal communities that have long relied on tuna fishing are also worried. Along the shores of Spain and Morocco, some fishermen still use a maze-like system of fixed shallow water nets that have been employed since pre-Roman times. These fishermen, called “almadrabas” in Spanish, say that their catches have decreased dramatically. They used to take in around 2,500 tons a year; this year the catch was just 1,300 tons.
“For the last seven or eight years, we’ve seen a drought in the catch,” says Diego Crespo, who fishes off the town of Barbate, south of Cadiz. “Hardly any fish over [420 lbs] showed up this year. … It’s not right that a resource that has been sustained thousands of families for 3,000 years should be finished off by a new technology in 10 years.”
– Reuters, 10/2
Norway’s Bastoey Island houses some of the country’s most notorious criminals: Rapists, murderers, and narcotics smugglers number among the prison’s 115 inmates. But while members of Bastoey’s population may face lengthy sentences, they do so without facing locked gates and bars.
The low-security prison, which had already been the focus of international attention for its uniquely humane way of treating inmates, is now making a name for itself as an environmentally friendly facility. Bastoey, which has offered prisoners the opportunity to engage in activities such as tennis, horseback riding, and swimming, now requires inmates to work on the prison’s organic farm and help tend livestock. Inmates can also help install solar panels, work in the kitchen, and learn other skills that might eventually assist them upon their release. These efforts are beneficial not only to the prisoners, but also to the corrections department: The solar panels have saved the Bastoey facility approximately 70 percent on its energy bills, and excess food from the organic garden is sold to mainland prisons.
Corrections officials hope that the recent ecological innovations at the facility will complement their progressive reform policies and philosophy. Prison Director Oeyvind Alnaes says in a recent press release that, “Living in an environment that gives them individual responsibility, challenges and demands … can motivate inmates to change their behavior.”
Prisoners must serve at least part of their sentence in another facility before applying for a transfer to Bastoey. Once there, few ever try to escape to the mainland, a mere mile and a half away; those who do are immediately sent to a traditional facility – deterrent enough for most to finish their sentences on Bastoey.
– Reuters, 8/28; AP, 8/29
US environmentalists would no doubt love to be in the place of British greens, who are in the enviable position of being aggressively courted by the major political parties.
In recent months, leaders of the three largest political parties – Labor, Conservative, and Liberal Democrats – have offered detailed environmental proposals as they compete for the attention of an electorate increasingly concerned about climate change and other ecological crises.
While still the Chancellor of the Exchequer, now-Prime Minister Gordon Brown of the Labor Party said “the environment must be the center of policy worldwide.” But since taking over from Tony Blair, Brown has been criticized by environmental organizations and the media that his environmental policies don’t go far enough. That has given the opposition an opening to try to out-green the governing party.
In September, the Conservatives released a report calling for higher taxes on domestic flights and a moratorium on airport expansion as part of a plan to combat global warming. The report, written by former Environment Minister John Gummer and Ecologist Publisher Zac Goldsmith, also suggested a “showroom tax” for gas-guzzling automobiles and tax relief for purchasers of more fuel-efficient vehicles.
“The green revolution could do for Britain at this time what the Industrial Revolution did a couple of hundred years ago,” Gummer says.
The Tory report, which Conservative Leader David Cameron promises will be included in the party’s official platform, says that runway expansions at Gatwick and Stansted airports should be halted, and that a controversial new runway at Heathrow should be “rethought.” New taxes on airline flights would be used to help pay for a massive upgrade of the country’s rail networks.
“There are 30 or more flights a day from London to Manchester and other cities like that,” Gummer says. “That’s a terribly bad [way] of pouring emissions into the atmosphere. What we need is a better train service.”
A week after the release of the Tory recommendations, the Liberal Democrats – who form the third largest party with about 15 percent of voters’ support – approved plans to make the UK carbon neutral by 2050. Delegates to the party’s annual conference in Brighton adopted as official policy a detailed set of proposals to raise billion of pounds in green taxes on air transport and polluting vehicles. The Liberal Democrats’ platform also calls for “green mortgages” to cover the costs of environmental retrofits on buildings, and a high-speed rail link connecting the north and the south.
“We can no longer believe that a 60 percent cut in carbon emissions is enough, as the government claims,” says Liberal Democrat Environment Spokesman Chris Huhne. “No one believes it, not even the ministers. The science says it needs to be more than 80 percent.”
The Tories also say that the governing Labor Party is out of touch when it comes to environmental policy.
“People are increasingly concerned that the government knows about climate change and is doing nothing about it,” Gummer says.
– Agence France-Presse, 9/13; Reuters, 9/18
It’s a Girl!
Put away the baby-blue bunting and buy some more pink crepe paper – the gender ratio of the human species appears to be shifting.
Women in some Arctic villages are having twice as many girls as boys because of high levels of artificial chemicals in their bloodstream, according to scientists who study the polar region. A recent survey by the Arctic Monitoring and Assessment Program (AMAP) found that indigenous Inuit communities in Greenland and eastern Russia are having two girls to every one boy. In one village in Greenland, only girls have been born recently.
The extraordinary proportion of female births in the Arctic is an extreme example of a broader trend across the globe as the gender balance of the human race has begun to change. Historically, the number of male births was slightly higher than the number of female births. A study published in early 2007 by the US National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences found that in Japan and the US there were 250,000 fewer boys than would have been expected had the sex ratio from 1970 remained unchanged.
Scientists believe that a number of artificial chemicals used in electrical equipment such as generators, televisions, and computers are to blame for the shift in Arctic birth rates. Toxins like DDT, PCBs, flame-retardants, and other endocrine disruptors are carried by wind and water to the Arctic, where they accumulate in the food chain and concentrate in the bloodstreams of the largely meat- and fish-eating Inuit communities.
“We knew that the levels of man-made chemicals were accumulating in the food chain, and that seals, whales, and particularly polar bears were getting a dose a million times higher than that existing in plankton, and that this could be toxic to humans who ate these higher animals,” Dr. Lars-Otto Reierson, executive secretary of AMAP, says. “What was shocking was that they [the chemicals] were also able to change the sex of children before they were born.”
In the recent Arctic study, scientists measured artificial chemicals in women’s blood that mimic human hormones and concluded that they were capable of triggering changes in the gender of the unborn child in the first three weeks of gestation. The toxins pass through the placenta to the fetus, imitating the hormones that create female children.
“Here in the north of Greenland, in the villages near the Thule American base, only girl babies are being born to Inuit families,” says Aqqaluk Lynge, former chairman of the Inuit Circumpolar Conference. “The problem is acute in the north and east of Greenland, where people still have the traditional diet. This has become a critical question of people’s survival, but few governments want to talk about the problem of hormone mimickers because it means thinking about the chemicals you use. … I think they should be tested much more stringently before they are allowed on the market.”
– The Guardian, 9/24
Blowin’ in the Wind
There was a time when hanging out the wash to dry was considered just a chore, not a right or a privilege. Today, however, many US homeowners must become vocal activists if they want to exercise the right to air their clean laundry.
The “Right to Dry” movement is challenging the rules established by many community and homeowners’ associations, whose governing members believe that clotheslines are eyesores and therefore banned. With approximately 60 million Americans belonging to one of 300,000 such organizations, reversing this trend is a slow process; Florida and Utah are the only states that have passed laws prohibiting associations from banning clotheslines. Vermont’s bill to do the same was vetoed in 1999.
“This trend … is about people making a little change to help the environment, as opposed to something like solar panels, which is much more of an investment,” says Michelle Baker of the Vermont Clothesline Company – a company born after Baker’s lengthy and fruitless search for an attractive and durable clothesline.
While many homeowners are not governed by association rules, hanging clothes on the line seems to have fallen out of fashion. According to 2005 data, there are approximately 88 million dryers in the US, each of which consumes nearly 1,100 kWh of energy per household. Project Laundry List, a New Hampshire-based nonprofit group, is enc ouraging people to use solar and wind power to dry their clothes. The organization, established in 1995, is creating a flap for clothesline activists with the help of such notables on the board of directors as Helen Caldicott, Bill McKibben, and David Suzuki.
– Christian Science Monitor, 8/24
Wheels Steal Meals
In a world where an estimated 850 million people go hungry, using agricultural lands to fuel cars instead of feed people is immoral, the UN Special Rapporteur on the right to food says.
Jean Ziegler, an independent expert who reports to the UN Commission on Human Rights, says that the increasing demand for biofuels is driving up food prices. Ziegler’s comments add new weight to criticisms that trying to address climate change by producing biofuels is squeezing the amount of acreage used for food crops.
“It’s a crime against humanity to convert agriculturally productive soil into soil which is producing food stuff, which will be burned into biofuel,” Ziegler says.
He says that prices for cereal grains have already risen, making life more difficult for countries that are food importers. Ziegler is calling for a five-year moratorium on the cultivation of biofuels. While conceding that his call for a moratorium is an ambitious demand, he says that since the two countries on the cutting edge of biofuels production – the US and Brazil – are democracies, a shift in public opinion could lead to a change in policy.
The UN Food and Agriculture Organization has taken a cautious stance on the biofuels issue. The organization has warned about rising commodity prices, while at the same time saying that biofuel cultivation could bring economic opportunities for some poor countries and could provide electricity to some rural areas that currently lack it.
Ziegler says that a moratorium would give scientists time to experiment with making biofuels from new sources and keep land in food production. For example, scientists in India are conducting a pilot project to see if trees planted in arid areas unsuitable for farming can be made into biofuels.
“The scientific world is progressing very quickly,” Ziegler says. “In five years it will be possible to produce biofuel and biodiesel from agricultural waste.”
Ziegler also criticized international trade rules for exacerbating hunger in developing countries.
“The EU is creating hunger in Africa through agri cultural dumping,” he says. “Agricultural products are exported to Africa through subsidies and the price is very low, much lower than African products on the African market. … Refugees from hunger, they don’t have any international protection, so we have to create it.”
– Reuters, 10/29
Bottom of the Barrel
istockphoto.comThis year’s scorching drought in Australia could cut the country’s wine production in half, costing vintners billions of dollars and forcing hundreds of winemakers out of business in what some climate scientists say is a harbinger of things to come.
In the last decade, Australia has become a major exporter of wines. But the country’s recent drought – which led to widespread water rationing and urgent worries about the impacts of global climate change on Australia – could set back the industry’s gains. The Winemaker’s Federation of Australia and the Wine Grape Growers expect that the 2008 vintage will fall to as low as 800,000 tons, compared with a normal seasonal crop of about 1.9 million tons. That would cost the Australian wine business up to US$2.6 billion.
“We think that some 800 growers are in immediate financial peril, with up to 1,000 at risk over time,” says Mark McKenzie, executive director of the Wine Grape Growers, which represents the country’s 7,500 grape farmers. “They are broke.”
Australian scientists predict that global warming will force massive changes in the country’s US$4.1 billion wine industry. Some popular grape varieties may not be able to survive if temperatures in wine-growing regions increase 1.7 °C (3 °F) by 2030, as forecast.
This year, some regions that depend heavily on irrigated water from the Murray-Darling river system in the country’s southeast faced water allocations that were only 15 percent of normal.
“Some growers will not be able to recover,” McKenzie says. “Some vineyards will be lost as a result of the drought.”
– Reuters, 9/25
Tropics of Cancer
Use of a prohibited pesticide in the banana plantations of the French Caribbean has contributed to a “health disaster” on the islands of Guadeloupe and Martinique, according to a top cancer specialist.
Banana cultivation is among the largest industries in France’s Caribbean territories, with Guadeloupe and Martinique growing some 260,000 tons of bananas a year worth about €150 million (US$302 million.) Until 2002, many plantations continued to spray a pesticide called chlordecone to control weevils, even though the French government banned the chemical in 1993.
The widespread illegal use of chlordecone is responsible for a spike in cancer cases, says Professor Dominique Belpomme, who authored a report on the impact of the pesticide, also known as kepone. Chlordecone does not affect the fruit itself because the chemical does not pass through the banana peel.
“The tests we carried out on pesticides show there is a health disaster in the Caribbean,” says Belpomme. “The word is not too strong. Martinique and Guadeloupe have literally been poisoned. The poisoning affects both land and water. Chlordecone establishes itself in the clay and stays there for up to a century. As a result, the food chain is contaminated … In Martinique, most water sources are polluted.”
According to Belpomme’s study, the French Caribbean has the second highest rate of prostate cancer in the world, and projections show that nearly 50 percent of males are at risk of developing the cancer. The rate of congenital malformation is also on the rise.
Health Minister Roselyn Bachelot played down the report, saying that it “raises questions” but “brings no formal response.”
But Agriculture Minister Michel Barnier says the situation is “very serious” and pledged to “treat the question of chlordecone with the greatest openness.”
The region’s banana industry, which employs about 15,000 people, may have a chance for a fresh start. In August, Hurricane Dean destroyed almost all of the crop in Martinique and about half of the crop in Guadeloupe. Barnier says planters have an opportunity to rebuild the plantations with “zero pesticides.”
– Agence France-Presse, 9/17
Plebiscite Gives Mine the Shaft
La Oroya, Peru – home to a huge copper mine and heavy metal smelter run by the mining corporation Doe Run – is among the 10 most polluted sites on the planet, according to a recent survey by the Blacksmith Institute. So it shouldn’t be surprising that when Peruvian citizens in the province of Piura, north of La Oroya, were given the chance to vote on whether they wanted a similar mining operation, they overwhelmingly opposed the idea.
On September 16, thousands of mostly indigenous people from Northern Peru converged on the villages of Ayabaca, Pacaipampa, and El Carmen for a plebiscite about the fate of a proposed copper and molybdenum mine. Despite intimidation from pro-mining thugs and warnings from the country’s president, Alan García, that the vote would be illegitimate, people came from throughout the surrounding countryside – some walking as much as eight hours – to cast their votes.
The final tally had more than 90 percent of voters opposed to the mine, which is being developed by a company called Minera Majaz. Although the plebiscite – organized by 12 regional mayors and Peruvian NGOs – was non-binding, the vote is likely to put a big roadblock in the mine’s path. Peruvian law requires local communities to provide permission for companies to use their land.
“The people can’t be fooled,” says Servando Aponte, an area resident. “They don’t want the mine.”
Local farmers say that the exploratory phase of the mine has already damaged the rivers on which they depend, and that the mining company is operating illegally on their lands. Area residents fear the situation will only get worse if the giant open pit mine is allowed to proceed. A preliminary study by researchers at the University of Texas says the 18,000-acre mine in the Huancabamba mountains would destroy key biological corridors and endanger already threatened species, such as the Andean spectacled bear and the Andean tapir.
Since Minera Majaz first proposed the mine in 2002, tensions in the area have been high, and several people were injured in protests against the mine. Government leaders in Lima have been unsympathetic to citizen efforts to halt the mine. The mining industry is the backbone of the Peruvian economy, accounting for about 60 percent of government revenue. The country is the world’s second biggest producer of silver, third biggest producer of copper and zinc, and fourth biggest producer of lead.
“The government is desperate to keep up the economic growth figures based on mining,” says economist José de Echave of the group Cooperación, which helped organize the plebiscite.
On the eve of the plebiscite, Prime Minister Jorge Del Castillo traveled to Piura province and while there, said “a referendum cannot be used to veto an economic activity.”
Nevertheless, plebiscite organizers say the vote was a powerful exercise in demonstrating popular opposition to the mine.
“This is a good thing because it allows people to express their views on their own destiny,” says Ralph Hoelmer, one of the international election observers from 22 countries who witnessed the referendum. “These democratizing processes are rare in the world.”
– IPS, 9/18; ENS, 10/17