Around the World
Local News from All Over
The Road Less Traveled
In May 2010, the Tanzanian government announced plans to build a commercial highway through Serengeti National Park. The plan fulfills a campaign promise made by Tanzanian President Jakaya Mrisho Kikwete in 2005, and thus must move forward, according to the country’s Minister for Natural Resources and Tourism, Shamsa Mwangunga. Never mind that the park is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and the oldest and most-visited of the country’s national parks. Or that the planned road, from Arusha to Musoma, would cut across the routes of the great Serengeti wildebeest migration, one of the largest wildlife migrations in the world.
The UNESCO World Heritage Committee issued warnings to Tanzania in July against building the road, noting the potential negative impact of the development and urging the government to reconsider or risk losing its World Heritage status.
In further protest of the road, 290 scientists around the world signed an October petition asking the government to find another route. The petition, accompanied by a survey that illustrates how the local wildlife would be disturbed, reiterates the warning issued by the UNESCO World Heritage Committee, adding: “The proposed road cuts through a critical wilderness area that is essential to the migration. The type of road surface matters little. The migration itself could easily collapse, with a devastating effect on all wildlife, the grasslands, and the entire ecosystem.”
The petition follows on an article co-authored by 27 international scientists in the journal Nature that details the potential impact of the highway, including posing a threat to the annual trek of 2 million wildebeest across the Serengeti Plain.
“The road bisects an area with the highest concentration of large mammals in the world, making it evident that fencing would be needed to avoid damage to vehicles and loss of human lives caused by accidents with wildlife. Such fencing would truly mean the end of the migration,” stated the Frankfurt Zoological Society, a major conservation organization operating in Tanzania.
The proposed road would cost an estimated $480 million to build and would make it easier to reach Tanzania’s densely populated western regions of Mara and Mwanza from Arusha in Tanzania’s Northern Highlands. Currently, truckers and travelers making their way between the regions must take seasonal gravel roads that run through the southern Serengeti National Park and Ngorongoro Conservation area, or drive an extra 240 miles on the one paved road that goes to the region.
“Our countrymen in the west deserve and have a right to get access to development just as their fellow countrymen do all over the country,” says Tanzanian President Jakaya Kikwete recently. He said the highway is a necessary boost to the neglected region.
The planned highway plan is very popular among the Masai, who want more tourism and need better infrastructure.
“It takes two hours to get from my village in Loliondo to the nearest hospital, which is 45 kilometers [28 miles]. That is a long drive to take a patient. The road has to be built,” says Yannick Ndoiyno, director of the Olosokwan Economic Foundation, an organization that fosters economic development in the region.
Sadly, the same road that might make it easier for tourists and residents to get around could eliminate the very reason tourists visit the country: the amazing wildlife migrations.
—Global Post, 9/1;
Save the Serengeti, 10/12
Fish Out of Water
Call it a case of making lemonade out of lemons. When the Lebanese agri-business conglomerate Wadi Holdings started drilling a new well for its 25,000-acre olive plantation in the Behiera region of Egypt, the company’s engineers were shocked to strike saltwater. Rather than give up, the firm decided it could still use the resource: Not for growing olives, of course, but instead for raising fish.
“The company couldn’t use the water for any type of crops, and was confused as to what it should do,” says Mahmoud Shokry Asfoor, an aquaculturist at the Wadi Natroun fish farm. After enlisting help from an aquaculture firm in Cairo, Wadi Holdings decided it could start growing fish in the desert. The saltwater discovery, says Asfoor, was like “a gift from God.”
The underground water had a salinity of 26 parts per thousand (ppt). The Mediterranean Sea has a salinity of 36 ppt. The saltwater aquifer was ideal for culturing marine species.
After experimenting with tilapia, shrimp, sea bass, and sea bream, the company decided on sea bass. And so for the last two years the company has been raising sea bass – 12 tons its first season, then 30 tons, then 40 tons – about 75 miles from the sea.
Today, all of the sea bass raised at the inland fish farm is sold within Egypt. The company hopes that by the end of 2011 it will be able to sell its product within the European Union. Because the Wadi fish farm is able to keep its water temperatures warmer than the waters in the Mediterranean, its fish eat more and, in turn, become larger. A fish raised at the Behiera farm grows roughly three times faster than one farmed in seawater.
With stocks of wild fish in danger of collapse due to overfishing around the world, many oceanographers and food security experts say that aquaculture will be essential to meeting humans’ protein needs without destroying ocean ecosystems. Fish from the sands of Egypt? Sort of sounds like a miracle.
—The Daily News Egypt, 8/26
The Terrorists Win?
Neo-conservative-inspired Republicans in the United States Senate have become a know-nothing party when it comes to accepting the science behind human-caused global warming. Some of the most recognizable militants in the Islamic world, meanwhile, have recently made statements linking peace and stability with healthy ecosystems.
In mid-October, Hezbollah guerilla chief Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah took time out from his diatribes against the United States and Israel to deliver a environmentally themed stump speech. During a ceremony in Lebanon at which Nasrallah planted what he said was the millionth sapling planted by Hezbollah’s reconstruction arm, Jihad al-Bina, the bespectacled cleric told his followers: “The climate threat today is among the biggest threats faced by mankind (in terms of) its peace, security, stability, and existence.”
Nasrallah then delved into Islamic history, citing prophets and traditions to make a case for Lebanese to plant trees outside their homes and to conserve what remains of the nation’s natural beauty. “We Lebanese always extol the green Lebanon,” Nasrallah said, adding that greenery was as vital to Lebanon as freedom of speech and religion.
Hezbollah operates as both a political party within the Lebanese democratic system and a paramilitary organization fighting Israel. The group is also a major provider of social services in Lebanon. The US considers Hezbollah a terrorist organization, while the European Union does not.
A week after Nasrallah’s eco-event, even the notorious villain Osama bin Laden acknowledged the growing threat of climate change. In an 11-minute audiotape, the mastermind behind the September 11 attacks condemned the official response to the massive floods in Pakistan and linked them to global warming. “The huge climate change is affecting our (Islamic) nation and is causing great catastrophes throughout the Islamic world,” he said in the tape. “It is not sufficient anymore to maintain the same relief efforts as previously.”
Then, in an odd statement for a person responsible for the deaths of thousands of people, bin Laden complained of how countries in the Middle East spent a “huge part” of their budget on their armies while neglecting relief work. He urged a “huge transformation” in how relief is administered, and suggested that the number of victims of climate change is far larger than the number of victims of war.
With enemies like these, maybe it’s time to update the tired post-9/11 sound bite: If the US gives up on tackling global climate change … the terrorists win?
—Reuters, 10/2, 10/12
Trial of the Century
Climate change is on trial, and the verdict is in: It’s guilty of putting economic pressure on farmers and livestock herders in the Indian state of Rajasthan … at least according to a jury of local officials organized by an Indian NGO in October.
In a mock trial that featured local farmers as key witnesses, researchers and bureaucrats as a jury, and the pomp of important ceremony – a staff-wielding court “official” ordered the jury to light candles under a portrait of Gandhi – it was unanimously decided that recent fluctuations in rainfall, the lengthening of summer, and the frequency of both droughts and floods have made farming more difficult in the semi-arid region.
India suffered prolonged drought during recent years. This year, the monsoon broke decades-old records. Although it’s difficult to attribute specific weather events to global climate patterns, the farmers who testified said recent trends are unlike anything they’ve seen in decades of experience.
“I’ve been noticing changes in the weather over the past 40 years, changes in the amount of rainfall, the duration of rainy season, and the timing of rainy season,” said Om Prakash, of Singhan village in Jhunjhunu district. “These changes have hurt crop yields.”
The increasing shortage of water is a big reason why. Hanuman Sahay Sharma, a farmer from Naila, said,
“In my village, there were water streams that used to be nearly continuous, only dry in the summers. But they have not been that way for some time. This year, because of the heavy rains, they were renewed, and the young children in the village said they had never seen this before.”
These reports are consistent with scientific predictions. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s Fourth Assessment warned that while water availability may be reduced 10 to 30 percent in dry regions such as Rajasthan, both drought and flood events are likely to become more common over time.
The lack of predictable rainfall has made many farmers give up growing crops such as tomato and jamun in places where they have been grown for generations. It has also forced them to spend more on commodities. Sharma stopped raising cattle when he was forced to supplement the fodder he grew with store-bought feed; others now buy more pesticides to keep insects away throughout the longer summers.
Too much rainfall, as was the case this year, also brings detrimental effects. Flooding can delay harvest, causing crops to rot in the field. A heavy monsoon can also destroy entire communities, as evidenced by the millions of flood refugees displaced in the neighboring nation of Pakistan, immediately to the west of Rajasthan.
When coupled with the typical difficulties faced by small-scale farmers, these changes have put many out of business and sped migration to urban areas.
A local NGO – the Centre for Community Economics and Development Consultants’ Society – organized the event in preparation for heading to Cancun for COP-16 this December. After taking part in COP-15 in Copenhagen, the organization realized that the lack of representation for groups such as the small-scale Rajasthani farmers made it difficult to press their agenda at the talks. With more stalemate predicted for the upcoming talks and rich nations resisting money transfers to pay for climate change mitigation and adaptation in poorer countries, it seems the world’s small farmers still aren’t being heard.
As Bao Bai Jatav, a farmer from Suraj Ka Kheda village, said, “We call for industry to recognize the problems we are facing. We need serious and sustained plans to protect the earth.”
Everyone, it seems, is looking to hop on the eco-bandwagon … even Italy’s infamous and much feared Mafia.
In September, Italian investigators seized $1.9 billion in Mafia-linked assets, including a number of companies that specialize in renewable energy. The confiscation of Mafia fronts used to launder money – including parcels of lands, buildings, factories, bank accounts, and stocks – was the “largest seizure ever made against the Mafia,” according to Italian Interior Minister Roberto Maroni.
At the center of the investigation was Sicilian businessman Vito Nicastri, a man known as the “Lord of the Wind” for his vast holdings in wind farms. Nicastri, who was arrested last year, owned numerous wind farms as well as factories that produce solar panels. Most of the assets seized were in Sicily, home of the Cosa Nostra, and in southern Calabria, home of its sister crime organization, the ‘Ndrangheta.
In the last decade, the Italian government has waged a broad-front war to reduce the power of the Mafia. The leadership of the Sicilian Mafia has been in freefall since the mid-1990s, when police began arresting its most charismatic leaders. Mafioso Bernando Provenzano was captured in 2006 after 43 years on the run, and police say they are closing in on Messina Denaro, a mob boss from the Sicilian town of Castelvetrano.
As the police net has tightened, organized crime syndicates have sought out virgin ventures to launder the money from drugs and other rackets. Senator Costantino Garraffa, a member of the parliamentary anti-Mafia committee, says the Mafia is trying to break into the “new economy.”
“It’s no surprise that the Sicilian Mafia was infiltrating profitable areas like wind and solar energy,” Palermo magistrate Francesco Messineo says.
Another example, perhaps, of how green is becoming business-as-usual.
Scotland Cleans Up
If the movie Braveheart taught us anything, it’s that the Scots don’t do anything halfway: It’s all or nothing. So it is that when the country announced its renewable energy goals on October 1 it laughed in the face of 20 percent or 40 percent targets and committed to generating “at least” 100 percent of its energy from renewables by 2025.
“Scotland has unrivalled green energy resources and our new national target to generate 80 percent of electricity needs from renewables by 2020 will be exceeded by delivering current plans for wind, wave and tidal generation,” First Minister of Scotland Alex Salmond said during the announcement. “I’m confident that by 2025 we will produce at least 100 percent of our electricity needs from renewables alone, and together with other sources it will enable us to become a net exporter of clean, green energy.”
The country has been a leader in both offshore wind and wave and tidal energy, recently launching the world’s largest tidal turbine. Onshore wind will also be a key component to Scotland’s renewable energy strategy, as an increasing number of wind farms are looking to cash in on the country’s notoriously bad weather.
In an interesting case of history repeating itself, Scotland is planning to export much of its new energy to England, which has lagged behind the rest of the United Kingdom in the production of renewable energy. The country did the same thing with its oil decades ago until the resource was privatized by then-Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher. Scottish nationalists often point to the privatization of the country’s resources as the primary obstacle to Scotland becoming an independent country, separate from the United Kingdom. Should they manage to keep control of their wind and tidal power, the descendants of William Wallace may just win their freedom after all.
After years of scarcity, the rivers of the Pacific Northwest are again running red with sockeye salmon. In 2008 and 2009, the near-demise of the sockeye in the Fraser River prompted Canada to close or restrict fishing and to appoint a commission to investigate the plummeting spawning run. But this fall the salmon rebounded to record numbers in Alaska, British Columbia, Washington, and Oregon, providing relief to ecologists and the Native American nations that depend on the annual salmon run.
“Salmon have had us on a roller coaster,” says marine biologist John Reynolds of Simon Fraser University in British Columbia. “Last year we had the lowest return in at least 50 years, and this year it looks like it will be the highest in nearly a century.”
Experts say that conditions have been near-perfect for this year’s sockeye, a brilliant red species whose four-year life cycle takes it from the fresh waters of streams and rivers out into the depths of the Pacific Ocean, and then back. This year’s generation enjoyed the cold ocean temperatures they prefer, plentiful food of krill and plankton, and a reduction in predators. That lucky combination has allowed them return to their birthplaces in record numbers.
In the United States, an estimated 40 million fish have entered the six Alaskan rivers systems through Bristol Bay, breaking all records, while Oregon’s Columbia River has seen the largest sockeye return since 1938. Some 34 million sockeye passed through the mouth of Vancouver’s Fraser River – arguably the single largest salmon migration route – the most in a century. Japan and Russia are also enjoying “phenomenal returns,” in the words of Barry Rosenberg, a manager with Canada’s federal fisheries department.
Fishermen and canneries have been overwhelmed by the numbers, and they’re at once glad to experience a re-opening of fishery waters while chagrined by how the glut of fish has deflated retail prices by about 70 percent. Coastal tribes in the Pacific Northwest, whose traditional culture depends on the salmon run, have been overjoyed by the huge sockeye flows.
“Everybody here has some special attachment to salmon,” says Rashid Sumaila, director of the University of British Columbia’s Fisheries Center. “There was this fear hanging on us, maybe this salmon has gone forever. But maybe they can come back. We haven’t lost them.”
Still, the current euphoria in the region is counterbalanced by a knock-on-wood caution. “Wait to see if it builds up over years before we get confident,” Sumaila says.
—Agence France-Presse, 9/9
Down on the Bayou
As BP’s busted Macondo oil well poured into the Gulf of Mexico throughout the summer, many public health officials warned that a wave of depression in impacted communities was a disaster waiting to happen. Sadly, it looks like the prediction has come true. According to a Gallup poll released in September, the number of Gulf residents who say they suffer from depression rose by more than 25 percent following the Deepwater Horizon catastrophe.
During the worst of the oil spill – as the well gushed unchecked, closing tourist beaches and shutting down the region’s fishing industry – federal officials compiled a tip sheet for Gulf residents to gauge their anxiety. Depression symptoms included frequent crying, being overwhelmed with worry and sadness, and increased alcohol and drug abuse. The Gallup poll, conducted just as the gusher was finally shut off, found a 15 percent increase in feelings of worry and sadness among Gulf residents, compared to a 1.8 percent decrease in anxiety for Americans in non-Gulf states.
The Gallup survey confirms the anecdotal reports of community-wide depression that reporters and health officials began hearing in June and July. In the midst of the spill, Mike Voisin, a major oyster producer in Houma, Louisiana, told Earth Island Journal: “This is a storm. We’re used to 14-day events. Four or five days before, you are watching the Weather Channel, and everyone is praying. And then after three or four days you’ve returned home, and three or four days after that you’ve called your insurance company, if you have to. You’ve set a plan. And then the stress levels are gone… . With this storm, the greatest damage is going be to the psyche of the area. People are just overstressed.”
Gallup concluded that the findings “document the extent to which residents living alongside the Gulf of Mexico have experienced a decrease in emotional health and satisfaction with their communities since the BP oil spill.”
In August, BP announced it would provide $52 million for health groups dealing with stress and depression in the states hit by the oil spill, including grants for substance-abuse services.
“Biodegradable” disposable plates. “Recyclable” plastic water bottles. “Eco-friendly” packaging. We’ve all seen these kinds of items on stores shelves and rolled our eyes, wondering who regulates such claims. The Federal Trade Commission does, via its environmental-marketing guidelines, also known as “Green Guides.” The problem? Those guides haven’t been updated since 1998, which means definitions of “recyclable” are woefully out of date, and terms like “sustainable,” “renewable,” and “zero-carbon” aren’t included in the regulatory language at all.
The guidelines were created in 1992, revised in 1996 and 1998, and then left well enough alone for a decade. In 2007 Representative Ed Markey (D-MA) asked the FTC to expedite its review date, and after more than two years of review, the commission released its proposed revisions in early October. Predictably, business associations squawked at their severity and environmental groups criticized the FTC for not going farther.
The primary shifts come in the way the FTC plans to regulate what it calls “general environmental claims.” In other words, simply calling a product “green” with no reference to what FTC describes as “specific, limited environmental benefit” could be grounds for a false advertising claim. William Tarantino and Joshua Simon, lawyers with Morrison & Foerster, say that businesses should be particularly careful navigating this new rule, as “not only are the guidelines likely to be used to enforce false advertising and deceptive marketing claims by government regulators, but noncompliance has also been used as the basis of consumer class actions and even claims initiated by competitors.”
Some industry trade groups are warning that such potentially dire consequences for false “green” claims could have an unintended effect, making companies so wary that they cease to drive forward with environmental gains.
The FTC is unconvinced. In its release of the proposed guidelines, the Commission wrote that a change to the current regulations surrounding general environmental claims was necessary because a consumer marketing study showed that consumers have scant understanding of what these claims actually mean: “Very few products, if any, have all of the attributes consumers appear to perceive from general environmental benefit claims. In addition, given that all products have some environmental impact, it is doubtful that a marketer could substantiate that a product has no or negligible negative environmental impact. The commission, therefore, proposes revising the Guides to more directly caution marketers not to make unqualified general environmental benefit claims.”
Ultimately, according to Thomas Lyon, director of the Erb Institute for Global Sustainable Enterprise at the University of Michigan, what’s needed is not necessarily regulation of broad environmental claims, but a way to allow companies to credibly make such claims.
“It’s going to reduce greenwashing, but I also think it’s going to have a relatively limited impact,” he says of the FTC proposal. “What we need is a system that will allow companies to credibly make these types of broad claims. That’s really hard, and I think it’s still a number of years off.”
In addition to increased regulation of general claims, the commission included a new section on eco-labels, encouraging companies to use labels with specific environmental claims and warning them not to use labels they haven’t actually earned. The proposed regulations stop short, however, of requiring third-party certification of such labels or of requiring the labeling organizations themselves to make their criteria and process public.
According to Lyon, this could send companies scrambling to use eco-labels rather than make broad “green” claims, which could lead to more problems. “There are getting to be so many eco-labels that a lot of people are concerned that consumers may just become too confused and not bother to pay any attention to labels at all,” he says.
—Greenwire, 10/12;Change.org, 10/10
Australian scientists and environmentalists started to panic last year when cane toads began appearing in the country’s western states for the first time. The poisonous frogs were brought to Australia in the 1930s to eradicate a beetle that was wreaking havoc on the country’s sugar cane plantations, but began also killing off frog predators such as crocodiles and snakes. The worry was that mushrooming cane toad populations would outcompete native frogs and birds, and that an ecological catastrophe was imminent.
Turns out that the terror over toads might have been a case of Chicken Little.
“People saw these ugly creatures moving across tropical Australia and common sense said there was going to be a huge disaster,” says Richard Shine, an invasive species researcher at the University of Sydney, who has reviewed various studies on the impact of cane toads. “But it just hasn’t happened at the scale that we feared.”
“The system seems to be absorbing the toads,” agrees Ross Alford of James Cook University in Townsville, Queensland. “Toads are not an overwhelming environmental disaster.”
In fact, populations of native frogs and birds appear to be intact. While the cane toads do compete with native frogs for food, they are also getting rid of some of the frogs’ predators, so their overall impact is minimal.
Researchers aren’t necessarily dismissing the potential threat of cane toads, as they have had a negative impact on some insect populations and on the country’s frog predators, including goannas (monitor lizards), freshwater crocodiles, king brown snakes, and northern quolls, a cat-like marsupial. However, according to Shine, these species are already adapting to life with cane toads by simply learning to avoid them. Native creatures encountering newly arrived adult cane toads will eat them voraciously, having “not grown up with them,” Shine explains. That typically kills the predator. But once the toads have reproduced, predators eat the immature toads – which are less toxic than the adults – and typically survive, thereby learning and passing on the lesson that adult cane toads are toxic and to be avoided at lunchtime.
Quoll populations seem to have suffered the worst. In a recent Nature Conservancy report, John Woinarski, a zoologist at Charles Darwin University, blames cane toads for the quoll’s decline. “Northern quolls in some areas have been extirpated,” Woinarksi says.
Nonetheless, he points out that quolls were already in decline before the arrival of cane toads. And Shine has evidence that young quolls can be trained to avoid cane toads by feeding them baby toads laced with a nausea-inducing chemical.
Woinarski says there is cause for optimism overall. “Our ecology is more robust than we feared,” he says.
If only the same could be said of the environment’s response to the country’s invasive mining projects.
—New Scientist, 9/9
For several years now environmentalists and security experts have been calling water “the new oil” and predicting violent wars in the twenty-first century over the resource. Now, Peru is providing a glimpse of what our water-scarce future might look like – and it’s not pretty.
The country is a top exporter of high-value agricultural products such as artichokes and asparagus and its farmers want to increase those exports and others, hoping to compete with Brazil and Argentina for business in an increasingly hungry global market. The trouble is, the country’s Pacific Coast, although blessed with rich soil, is cursed with little rainfall. The water shortages are expected to worsen as the ice fields in the Andes begin to melt as a result of climate change.
Hoping to help turn the country into a top agricultural producer, the World Bank and its International Finance Corporation (IFC) have been investing billions in Peruvian water projects over the past decade. Unfortunately, the success of that funding has been spotty, in some cases actually creating more water problems than it solves. In northern Peru, World Bank funding helped build a sustainable water system that takes rainwater from the Amazon for irrigation. Further south, in the Ica region along the Pacific Coast, the World Bank’s involvement has been less successful, funding private wells that have all but pumped the Ica aquifer dry.
Overpumping in the region could ruin its farming industry in more ways than one, as saltwater could creep into the wells and contaminate the soil.
The IFC is currently conducting an investigation into its loans in the region, prompted by an attempt by a major asparagus producer, Agrokasa, to expand its water deliveries. The grower had already received $23 million in IFC funding, and was requesting more to build a pipeline that would transfer water from the wells on one of its farms to a farm seven miles away, where wells were running dry. But other farmers in the region complained to the IFC that approving the loan would exacerbate Ica’s water shortage issues. An IFC consultant sent to investigate recommended that the loan not be approved. He was soon removed from the project and the loan was approved. After months of swirling controversy and backlash from others in the region, Agrokasa withdrew its request, but the case nonetheless highlighted the growing tension around water in the region.
For Federico Vaccari, the president of one of Ica’s water use associations, the controversy surrounding the Agrokasa project was reminiscent of Ica’s water wars in the 1950s, when the aquifer supporting big cotton farms temporarily went dry.
“Fifty years ago, people here killed for water, and unless we do something, that is where we are headed,” says Vaccari. “Our development could be the cause of our downfall.”
David Bayer, an environmental activist and a former United States Agency for International Development administrative officer in Lima, predicts Ica’s aquifer will dry up within a decade. He says Ica’s six largest growers – which consume 78 percent of Ica’s groundwater – should take half their lands out of production.
“The water crisis is real, and small and mid-size farmers are being nudged out,” he says.
—Wall Street Journal, 6/11; The Guardian UK, 6/11