Get a FREE Issue of Earth Island Journal
Sign up for our no-risk offer today.

Go Back: Home > Earth Island Journal > Issues > Spring 2010 > Around the World

Around the World

Local News from All Over

AFRICA

Fair vs. Local

“Food miles,” a term used to describe the distance food travels from farm to plate, may not be the best way to measure your dinner’s impact on the planet, according to a recent Oxfam report. Concerned that the emphasis on local food consumption in richer countries could harm farmers in poorer nations, the organization is hoping to shift thinking from food miles to what it calls “fair miles.”

“The food miles approach, even when it accounts for the way food is transported, doesn’t provide a robust enough basis for judging whether the contents of your food basket are environmentally friendly,” the report reads.

Focusing primarily on the UK market and the African farmers who supply it, the report notes that an estimated one to 1.5 million livelihoods in sub-Saharan Africa depend directly or indirectly on British eaters. The report authors point out that transport typically accounts for only about ten percent of food’s greenhouse gas emissions. Actual field production accounts for far more – about 36 percent, on average – and different production methods can have a much higher impact. For example, if British farmers are using greenhouses to grow things such as strawberries and tomatoes, their emissions are likely to be far higher than those generated by a farmer in Africa.

“To begin to fully understand the social and environmental effects of our food choices, we need to take a look at the entire food supply chain – from farm to manufacturer to wholesaler or distributor to retailer to individual – and the energy use, emissions, and livelihood opportunities associated with each step of that convoluted journey,” the report reads.

This isn’t the first time the food miles approach has come under fire for oversimplifying the impact of food distribution on the environment. Over the last two years in particular, reports from the Food Climate Research Network and Britain’s Department for Environment, Food, and Rural Affairs have all pointed out that more attention needs to be paid to the carbon emissions of production, which isn’t always smaller for local producers.

photo of a woman working in a field of lettucephoto courtesy vredeseilandenMarket garden? Aid groups say eating locally can hurt farmers
like this Senegalese woman.

Oxfam worries that pitting the farmer down the road against the struggling farm in Africa just confuses responsible consumers and clouds the real issue: moving away from the largest emitter in the food chain – industrial agriculture. Furthermore, because most food products don’t come labeled with all the information we need to make an informed choice, it’s close to impossible for consumers to truly compare a tomato from Kenya to one grown in, say, Devonshire. Until labeling improves, Oxfam suggests that consumers simply add a few Africa-produced products to their grocery cart, and think about the purchase in terms of an efficient way to “spend” carbon emissions.

Given that the North is responsible for far more emissions than the South, dividing our grocery money between local farmers and those from far-off developing countries may be the fairest move we can make – but it still seems like a solution that is flimsy and temporary at best.

Oxfam, 12/10 & Fresh produce Journal, 1/10

Hogs in Heaven

Sometimes a measure of precaution goes a step too far. In May 2009, during the global scare around the so-called “swine flu” (H1N1), the Egyptian government decided to clear the country of pigs. The World Health Organization said there was no scientific reason to eliminate all of Egypt’s swine, but the government went ahead anyway, and in just a few weeks put some 250,000 pigs to death.

Just one problem: The pigs played a key role in the ecology of major cities like Cairo, where they were responsible for eating much of the waste that people threw into the streets. Now, garbage is piling up, and there’s nothing to eat it.

“I miss the sound of the pigs,” says Hanna Fathy, a member of Egypt’s Coptic Christian minority who, like many Copts, lives in east Cairo’s Manshiet Nasser slums, which are known as Garbage City. Copts make up the ranks of freelance trash collectors called zabaleen who sort through tons of rubbish in the megalopolis to find and sell recyclable material. Fathy is now raising goats instead, but they aren’t the prolific eaters that the hogs were. “These animals can’t swallow what the pigs used to,” she says.

Enter American Thomas Culhane, whose NGO, Solar Cities, develops green solutions to local problems. Since 2007, under a grant from the US Agency for International Development, Culhane has been installing solar hot water heaters for families in Garbage City. Now, he is trying to help families get biogas digesters to dispose of the food waste that has been rotting since the removal of the pigs.

Made from two simple plastic tanks and tubes, the digesters convert organic waste into biogas through a process by which bacteria decompose the matter. When the process is finished, all that’s left is methane for cooking and fertilizer that can be resold.

“One man’s garbage is another man’s gold mine,” Culhane says. “One woman’s trash is another woman’s treasure. In the past they fed the organic waste to the pigs, but even the pigs could not eat it all. Now the pigs are gone and there is nothing to transform Cairo’s organic waste into safe products except biogas digesters.”

In addition to keeping the city cleaner, the digesters could also help families save money on their fuel costs. So far, Solar Cities has installed only seven of the units. But interest is starting to pick up in some of the Muslim neighborhoods bordering Garbage City.

“It’s a very good system that has a future here, especially now that they have killed our pigs,” Fathy says.

Agence France Presse, 12/8

ASIA

Bear Care

Last December, Raju, an endangered sloth bear, waltzed into a sanctuary in India’s southern Karnataka state with his owner and ended a centuries-old tradition. Raju is the last of the 600 known “dancing bears” in India – sloth bears that were captured and made to “dance” for nobility to earn their keep.

photo of two bears standing bipedal, tied with ropes around their snoutsphoto reutersIndia’s “dancing bear” tradition has ended.

The bears were typically bought or poached as cubs by Kalandar Muslim gypsies who would then poke a hot needle through their snouts in order to run a rope through them. A quick tug on the rope was painful enough to get the bears to stand up on two legs and move about in a way that looked like dancing. The handlers could get the bears to do other moves by hitting or burning their feet. The ropes created chronic wounds, and most of the bears were underfed and poorly treated.

Although the practice was outlawed in India in 1972 under the Wildlife Protection Act, it continued unabated, due largely to the fact that there was nowhere to put the bears and nothing else for their handlers to do. In 2002 an alliance of NGOs – UK-based International Animal Rescue, India’s Wildlife SOS, Australia’s Free the Bears Fund, and France’s One Voice Association – began working together to put a stop to the practice, creating bear sanctuaries throughout the country and training Kalandars in other trades.

To have all but eradicated the practice in just seven years is a major success. Although there are a few bears thought to be hidden in Nepal, the majority are now in sanctuaries.

“In all my years in animal welfare, I have never been part of such a resounding success story,” says Alan Knight of International Animal Rescue. “To transform the lives of hundreds of captive bears is amazing in itself. But to put an end to this cruelty once and for all is nothing short of momentous,” he says.

The sloth bear is listed as “vulnerable” on the IUCN Red List, with poaching and habitat loss cited as the main threats to the species.

The Irish Times, 12/22

Two Wheels Good, Four Wheels Bad

For decades, China was the land of the bike, a country where the masses mostly got around via pedal power. As it transformed into an economic powerhouse, China has become the kingdom of the car, a place – just like any other industrialized nation – where the affluent prefer to drive. The Chinese purchased some 13 million vehicles last year, surpassing the United States as the largest auto market in the world. China’s era of the bike appears to be coming to a close.

Not so fast, say Chinese cyclists. Even as they ditch their old steel-framed bikes, many Chinese are turning to so-called “e-bikes”: bicycles that have battery-powered motors and small pedals to distinguish them from motorbikes. In 2009, more than 21 million e-bikes were sold throughout the country, and they are coming to dominate the streets (and sidewalks) of Beijing and Shanghai.

With their smaller carbon footprint (no tailpipe emissions, after all), the e-bikes would appear to be the perfect environmentally friendly alternative to more cars. There’s just one problem: The lead-acid batteries (which need to be recharged every night) typically last only a year. Lead, of course, is toxic, and China has few systems in place for its safe disposal.

photo of a man and woman on an electric bike riding along a streetphoto courtesy ming xiaSome environmentalists are concerned that the e-bikes taking over
China will result in the dumping of toxic lead batteries. But the
bikes are also less polluting than cars.

“The bikes use lead-acid batteries that weigh about four or five kilos each,” says Robert Earley, who works for the Innovation Center for Energy and Transportation in Beijing, a group encouraging green transportation. “You multiply that by 21 million and that’s an awful lot of lead.”

The country’s love-hate relationship with e-bikes attracted fresh attention when the government sought to implement a law requiring riders to get licenses, just as motorcycle users do. The proposal generated a wave of opposition from e-bike riders, some of whom suggested that the government was just trying to protect the interests of state-owned motorcycle makers who are having to compete against the mostly privately owned e-bike manufacturers.

“Maybe the government likes to meddle in other people’s business so much that it invented such stupid, unreasonable rules,” says Zhao Lijun, a beefy 47-year-old deliveryman who uses his electric bike to deliver meat and vegetables to restaurants. “I’m almost in my 50s, and my physical strength is far from enough for me to ride a pedal bicycle the whole day.”

While concerns about the e-bikes’ reliance on dangerous lead batteries persist, some environmentalists are optimistic that e-bikes’ popularity could open the way to a transition to cleaner lithium batteries and, eventually, better infrastructure for electric cars.

“The real sweet spot will be if China’s e-bike explosion leads to the development of electric cars and the infrastructure for charging these e-vehicles,” says Alex Wang of the Natural Resource Defense Council’s office in Beijing, and an avid e-bike user. “China is probably better positioned to make this leap than any other country in the world.”

Reuters, 12/15 & The Washington Post, 12/15

EUROPE

Renewable Rush

A renewable energy boom is not always a good thing. That’s the lesson Bulgaria is currently learning. Under a European Union-wide agreement, the country’s government has committed to generating at least 16 percent of its electricity from renewable sources by 2020. Given that renewables currently account for only eight percent of the country’s power supply, the government’s announcement last year of its intention to double that in just over ten years had investors – many of whom were burned by the country’s recent construction bubble – scrambling to find qualifying projects.

Now Bulgaria has a renewable energy bubble on its hands with 12,000 MW worth of proposed projects (up from close to zero just a few years ago). Some 350 MW of energy from wind turbines and solar batteries have already been connected to the grid, and preliminary contracts representing a further 1,451 MW have been signed. According to officials from the national utility NEK, this will eat up the existing capacity of the network. The utility claims that 2,000 MW of renewable energy is enough to meet the 16 percent goal, but renewable energy companies are arguing that 5,000 to 6,000 MW are needed.

Meanwhile, experts say many of the proposed projects are either not viable at all or could cause more environmental damage than good, most notably wind farms planned for land that lies along a primary Black Sea migratory route for birds. To address all of these issues, Bulgaria’s government has put a moratorium on new renewable energy projects until it can evaluate which projects are viable and spend the time needed to ensure the environmental impact of the proposed projects doesn’t counteract the environmental benefits of the energy they provide. In addition to the migratory route, the government has said it wants to ensure the protection of nature zones and fertile farmland.

“Too many tickets have been sold for this show,” says Economy and Energy Minister Traicho Traykov. “We need to get the sector in order.”

One idea is to establish set zones for green power development. In addition to ensuring that renewable energy development poses little risk to the environment, officials say they hope such a move could make NEK better able to both upgrade the grid and connect renewables to it.

Environmental organizations are supporting the curbs, with Bulgarian group For The Nature and WWF Bulgaria saying in a joint statement: “We fully support the development of renewable energy but not at the expense of protected territory.”

AFP, 1/26

Paradise In No Man’s Land

For 35 years, a deserted ribbon of land on Cyprus that divides the island’s Greek and Turkish factions has been a reminder of the consequences of conflict. Inside the 110-mile-long no man’s land are places like Variseia, a once-thriving village where tall weeds now grow among the homes and shops, abandoned after a Greek-inspired coup resulted in a Turkish invasion.

But the human sorrow has contributed to an environmental benefit. Just as in the demilitarized zone separating North and South Korea, when the humans moved out, rare plants and animals moved in.

“This is a live demonstration of what happens when nature takes over,” says Nicolas Jarraud, who coordinates a UN-sponsored project that brings together researchers from both sides of the divide in Cyprus to study the area’s habitat.

photo of an outdoor scene with a junked car and abandoned buildingphoto mike williamsThe no-man’s land between Cyprus’ Greek and Turkish sides is providing
a de facto nature reserve.

The UN researchers have indentified hundreds of species of plants and animals that thrive in the zone, including some that are rare or threatened. One of those is the mouflon, a type of wild sheep native to Cyprus. Mouflon are very shy of humans, and their habitat on the rest of the island has been severely degraded. About 3,000 mouflon enjoy the serenity of the buffer zone. Two exceptionally beautiful flowers – the Cyprus Bee Orchid and the Cyprus Tulip – also flourish in the no man’s land, safe from the hands of locals.

Greek and Turkish Cypriots involved in the UN effort say that the research has been a model of cross-buffer-zone cooperation. “Science doesn’t have any borders or boundaries – we speak the same language whatever the politics,” says Salih Gucel of the Institute of Environmental Sciences. “The island’s nature is a common heritage that belongs to all.”

It’s unclear what would happen to the de facto nature preserve on the middle of the island if Cypriots were to achieve some kind of reconciliation and reunification. But it’s likely that the former human inhabitants would want to evict the animals from their newfound home.

“People want their land back,” Jarraud says.

Reuters, 12/18

Pork Dish

Would you eat a fish fillet that sprouted from a goldfish cell? How about pork tenderloin cooked up in a petri dish? Neither is beyond the realm of possibility. Thanks to a recent scientific breakthrough, lab-raised meat and seafood could make their way into supermarkets in the not-so-distant future. And while for many the idea of eating frankenbeef from the lab is repulsive, others argue that such products could feed the world’s appetite for protein without harming animals, removing too many fish from the sea, or generating the billions of tons of greenhouse gases associated with animal husbandry.

So far the science is young. Way back in 2002 New Scientist reported that in trying to create new foods for astronauts, NASA-funded scientists at Touro College in New York had managed to take muscle from living goldfish and grow it into fillets in a vat of fetal bovine serum.

But nothing else surfaced in the lab-created-meat realm until December 2009, when a Dutch scientist announced that he had managed to grow pork in his Holland lab. Mark Post, professor of physiology at Eindhoven University, is leading the Dutch government-funded research into the potential to “grow” animal protein. In his latest experiment, Post extracted cells from a living pig and used a “broth” made out of blood from animal fetuses to encourage the cells to grow and multiply.

The consistency of the meat was described as “soggy,” but Post is convinced that he and his team can improve the texture. “We need to find ways of improving it by training it and stretching it, but we will get there,” he says. “This product will be good for the environment and will reduce animal suffering. If it feels and tastes like meat, people will buy it.”

The problem is that scientists aren’t actually allowed to taste their creations, so it remains to be seen how the artificial meats will make the leap from the lab to the plate.

If and when they do, the meat will probably have to be labeled as “artificial” or “lab-grown,” and while to some consumers that may be a turnoff, to others it would be an incentive to purchase – vegetarian and vegan organizations are cautiously optimistic about the potential of such products.

“As far as we’re concerned, if meat is no longer a piece of a dead animal there’s no ethical objection,” animal-rights group PETA said in a statement about the research.

The Times (London) 12/1 & Politics of the Plate, 12/3

NORTH AMERICA

Click to Save

Yes, we know: Shopping won’t save the world. But it appears that you can reduce the carbon footprint of your purchases by buying online.

A new study shows that online shopping is “greener” than traditional brick-and-mortar retail. The report, produced by market research firm GigaOm Pro with sustainability consulting group MindClick GSM, compared the energy footprint of two identical $100 purchases, one done online and the other at a store, using Carnegie Mellon’s Economic Input-Output Life Cycle Assessment. The online purchase took into account shipping, but excluded the emissions associated with the purchaser’s personal computer, which was estimated at 0.067 kWh and deemed negligible. It also excluded the emissions associated with the data centers that house the servers that are the engine of online retailing, which is a slightly larger omission. The model for the in-store purchase assumes the shopper and a companion make a 20-mile round-trip drive to the store and back again.

The report found that the greenhouse gas emissions associated with an in-store purchase are 15 times greater than that of an online purchase. When the relative dollar amounts spent on “Black Friday” (the day after Thanksgiving) were compared with “Cyber Monday” (the latest holiday retail craze, occurring 48 hours later), the overall impact of in-store shopping was found to be 50 times greater.

While it might seem like the large warehouses needed to fulfill online orders would bump up the emissions associated with online shopping, report author David Norem points out that both shopping modes need these warehouses.

“Retail Distribution Centers consolidate incoming vendor shipments, and create outgoing shipments that are specific to a particular store, region, or customer,” Norem explains. “With a small difference in the type of outgoing shipments, the in-store purchasing scenarios are assumed to be identical to a warehouse as managed for online shipments.”

In recent months, online retailers have taken to using their lower emissions as a promotional tool to win customers. Buy.com heavily promoted the results of a Carnegie Mellon study that showed that its e-commerce practices resulted in 35 percent less energy consumption and carbon dioxide emissions than what is produced in the traditional retail-shopping model. Spud!, an online grocer serving the west coasts of the United States and Canada, frequently touts the fact that its service helps avoid 120 car trips and that its local purchasing policies eliminate 1,000 food miles on average.

These marketing campaigns are likely a savvy move given the results of a related study: In November, WeBuyItGreen analyzed shopping data and found that online retailers managed to grab more green consumers than conventional retailers.

Of course consumption in general isn’t the greenest of practices. But it looks like if you’ve got stuff to buy, it’s better for the planet if you buy it online.

GigaOm Pro, 12/15 & SolveClimate, 12/21

Dying to be Green

For the last several years, magazines and Web sites have been full of tips for living green. But what about dying green? Evidently, if you want to leave a smaller footprint on Earth, it means not just buying organic foods and riding your bike, but also ensuring that you don’t make much of a mark when you leave the planet either.

An industry has recently sprung up to meet the demand for so-called “bio-burials.” Some cemeteries and mortuaries now offer coffins made from local wood, biodegradable recycled cardboard caskets, or even a simple shroud. Instead of a headstone, you can mark your final resting place with something more natural – a shrub or tree. And forget those nasty embalming chemicals that can seep into the soil.

But so far there hasn’t been an eco alternative to cremation, which is the choice of about a third of Americans and more than half of Canadians, and which has a significant environmental impact. A standard cremation spews about 880 pounds of carbon dioxide into the air. It can also release pollutants such as mercury and dioxin if the body has silver tooth fillings or artificial hips or knees. The process is energy intensive, and can require enough natural gas or electricity to power a 500-mile car trip.

Now there’s a solution. Called alkaline hydrolysis, this chemical body processing uses one-tenth the natural gas of fire-based cremation and one-third the electricity. No mercury escapes, as joint replacements and fillings are recovered and recycled. Carbon dioxide emissions are reduced by almost 90 percent.

Matthews International Corp. – the Pittsburgh-based casket company that launched the first commercial alkaline hydrolysis facility in St. Petersburg, FL in January – believes the practice will be popular with the ecologically minded. “The target audience are those people who buy organic salmon rather than farmed salmon,” company spokesperson Paul Rahill says. “Those that buy a hybrid rather than a regular car.”

The process has been used for years to dispose of lab animals and research cadavers at medical institutions. Its commercial use has been held up partly because of cost – the equipment is about four times more expensive than a traditional furnace – and because local laws need to be changed to accommodate the waste disposal. A few years ago, there was an effort to introduce alkaline hydrolysis in New York, but the Catholic Church opposed the legislation, saying that the practice “is not a respectful way to dispose of human remains.”

Here’s how it works: First, the body is submerged in water in a stainless steel chamber. Heat, pressure, and potassium hydroxide are added, which dissolves tissues. Two hours later, all that’s left are bone residue and a syrupy brown liquid. The bones are then crushed and returned to the family, as with cremation.

In addition to the process’s eco advantages, there’s the added benefit of not inconveniencing neighbors. “It is very quiet, there is no noticeable odor that comes from it, and there is no emission,” says Allen Bessel of Transition Science, which is planning to launch the technology in Canada. “The concerns of area residents would be much less if [an alkaline hydrolysis machine] was being installed than if a crematorium was built.”

Reuters, 12/01

OCEANIA

Doggone It

Man’s best friend might also be one of the environment’s worst enemies. That is the controversial conclusion of a new book that calculates the carbon pawprints of our furry companions.

In their book Time to Eat the Dog: The Real Guide to Sustainable Living, New Zealanders Robert and Brenda Vale write that the carbon impact of a dog can be double that of a SUV. According to the Vales, sustainability researchers at Victoria University of Wellington, a medium-size dog that eats store-bought pet food consumes about 360 pounds of meat and 200 pounds of cereals a year. That means it takes more than two acres of land to grow the food for your pooch. Using similar methods, the Vales figure that a 4x4 that’s driven 6,200 miles a year requires one acre of the world’s resources, including the energy needed to build the car.

photo of a puppyistockphoto.comThat’s a good boy! You’re changing
the climate, aren’t you, little fella?

New Scientist magazine, seeking to confirm the results, asked John Barrett, a researcher at Stockholm Environment Institute in the UK, to double check the numbers. He got essentially the same conclusion.

“Owning a dog is really quite an extravagance, mainly because of the carbon footprint of the meat,” Barrett says.

Cat lovers should think twice before bragging about their favorite companions. Cats’ diets require about a third of an acre a year – the equivalent of driving a Volkswagen Golf. Even the smallest pets carry a carbon weight. Two hamsters equate to the energy used by a plasma television, and a tiny goldfish burns the energy equivalent of two cell phones.

Not surprisingly, these numbers have raised the hackles of pet lovers.

“Our animals give us so much that I don’t feel like a polluter at all,” says Sylvie Comont, the proud owner of seven cats and two dogs. “I think the love we have for animals and what they contribute to our lives outweighs the environmental considerations.”

Reha Huttin, president of the French animal rights foundation 30 Million Friends, agrees. “Everyone should work out their own environmental impact,” she says. “I should be allowed to say that I walk instead of using my car and that I don’t eat meat, so why shouldn’t I be allowed to have a little cat to alleviate my loneliness?”

Fair enough. But the Vales point out that a pet’s eco pawprint goes beyond the carbon burden of pet food. Cats and dogs also devastate wildlife, spread disease, and pollute waterways.

The 7.7 million cats living in Britain hunt about 188 million birds and frogs per year. Dogs decrease the biodiversity in the areas where they are walked, and their feces can increase bacterial levels in rivers and streams, harming aquatic life. Cat owners who flush litter down the toilet can infect sea otters and other marine mammals with Toxoplasma gondii, which causes a killer brain disease.

There are ways, however, of reducing Fluffy and Fido’s environmental burden. For starters, don’t feed them expensive store-bought foods, such as Fancy Feast, which are made from choice cuts of meat. Instead, the Vales suggest, feed the cat the leftovers from the fishmonger. Also, keep pets indoors at night, when they are more likely to go hunting.

But the Vales’ top suggestion is unlikely to meet with approval from the Humane Society. They say that the best animal companions are those that serve a dual purpose. Like a hen, which will provide delicious eggs. Or a bunny, which, after some cuddling, can make the ultimate sacrifice and become your dinner.

“Rabbits are good,” Robert Vale says, “provided you eat them.”

AFP, 12/20

A Civil Action

Frustrated by the failure of the climate summit in Copenhagen to set binding limits on global greenhouse gas emissions, at least one island nation is pursuing a legal challenge as a means to ratchet down the emissions of industrialized nations.

In January, Micronesia filed a plea with the Czech environment ministry to halt the expansion of a coal-fired power plant there. Micronesia’s claim is based on the United Nations’ Transboundary Environmental Impact Convention, a 1997 agreement designed to settle pollution disputes between neighboring states. Micronesia might be 3,700 miles away from Central Europe, but it claims that the expansion of the CEZ coal plant in Prunerov – which alone emits about 40 times as much carbon dioxide as all of Micronesia, and is the eighteenth largest source of greenhouse gases in the European Union – poses a clear danger to the island nation’s environment.

“The Federated States of Micronesia is seriously endangered by the impacts of climate change, including the flooding of its entire territory and the eventual disappearance of a portion of its state,” Andrew Yatilman, director of Micronesia’s Office of Environment and Emergency Management, wrote in the complaint to Czech officials. “The commissioning or retrofit of any large coal power plant could play a relevant role in the destruction of the entire environment of our state.”

The Micronesia environmental impact assessment request argues that Prague failed to assess all the potential impacts of the plant expansion and did not consider possible alternatives – something required under Czech law.

The Czech response was diplomatic; government officials there said they would consider Micronesia’s concerns. International environmental law experts are skeptical that the challenge will have much effect, especially since Micronesia is not a signatory to the UN treaty (the Czech Republic is). Similar efforts, however, are likely to be undertaken as smaller nations seek to develop legal weapons to combat the drivers of climate change.

“This is part of a new phase in environmental law,” says Tim Malloch, a climate and energy lawyer at the London-based ClientEarth. “The Micronesia request is really important coming so close after the disappointment of Copenhagen. This is the first confrontation you are going to see between the developing and developed world. It goes right to the heart of what was the problem at Copenhagen.”

Reuters, 1/13

SOUTH AMERICA

For the Birds

Back in the nineteenth century, Peru’s economy was fueled by an unlikely source: poop. Bird poop, to be precise; technical term, guano. Wars were fought over the stuff, a potent fertilizer, and some historians have likened its significance during those days to the importance of oil today. Toward the end of the century the Peruvian government moved to nationalize the islands surrounding its coast in an attempt to protect the last of its guano reserves, but much of the damage was already done and what had once been 150-foot tall piles of guano had dwindled to about two feet.

photo of colorful seabirdsphoto courtesyMiguel NavazaPeru’s seabirds are endangered and when they go, they’re taking their
prized poop with them.

When chemical fertilizers began to appear, the demand for guano dwindled, but in 2008, when the price of those fertilizers shot up, scavengers began digging into Peru’s guano stores again to feed a market increasingly hungry for organic fertilizer. At the same time, fishing of the Peruvian anchovy, a major food source for the seabirds who nest on the coastal islands (and produce all that guano) increased, fueled by the growth of the aquaculture industry – the anchovies are typically ground into a meal to be fed to the fish on aquafarms. As a result, the seabird population has declined drastically, reducing the amount of guano available.

Now, the country is moving to protect the birds and their prized waste. In January, Peru’s government added 22 so-called “guano islands,” 11 peninsulas (“guano reserves”), and adjacent waters to its network of protected areas, becoming the first South American government to protect marine waters in such a way. Because the protection extends to waters two miles out from the islands, the move should help preserve at least some of the anchovy population for the birds, which should in turn help stabilize the bird population and guano production.

“One hundred years from now, we may look back at this as a ‘sea change’ in the political role of the environment in South America. The key will be the extent to which this decision gets fully developed, implemented, and enforced,” says Dr. Patricia Majluf, Director of the Center for Environmental Sustainability at Peru’s Cayetano Heredia University. Dr. Majluf began pushing for this initiative back in 2001.

Echoing Majluf’s cautious optimism, Dr. Jessica Hardesty Norris, Seabird Program Director for American Bird Conservancy says her group is “hopeful that this new declaration has the teeth of regulation and enforcement to support and protect important, and in some cases, endangered seabird populations.”

It seems everyone is waiting to see if the government’s move is a meaningful one, or just a bunch of political guano.

Mongabay, 1/25

Solar Poder

It’s the sort of project people dream of when they wax idealistic about carbon offsets: In northern Argentina – where sun is plentiful – solar-powered ovens could generate carbon offsets, and thus funds, for rural communities. The ovens are made locally with polished aluminum to better catch the sun’s rays, and are 100 percent solar powered, which means locals don’t need firewood or gas to cook. By reducing the use of wood and fossil fuels, the ovens reduce emissions. Now, the EcoAndina Foundation, which helped develop the ovens, is hoping to verify those reductions in order to get the locals carbon credits that they can sell.

photo of a solar concentrating oven watched by a small child in a backyardphoto courtesy ecoandinaIn northern Argentina, EcoAndina is giving villages solar powered ovens,
heaters and water heaters. Now the villages hope to turn their emissions
reduction into income by selling verified carbon offsets.

Since EcoAndina began working in the region 20 years ago, it has distributed solar-powered ovens, heaters, and hot water heaters to hundreds of residents and schools. In addition to reducing emissions, the units help stave off the desertification of the region by reducing the need for wood. According to Silvia Rojo, president of EcoAndina, the collection of local wood and shrubs for firewood has led to serious desertification, the loss of species, and damage to watersheds.

EcoAndina, working with the UN Development Programme’s Global Environment Facility, coined the term “solar village” for villages that have received training on the use and development of solar technologies and widely adopted solar options. “It is a category that gives the community a higher standing and fills it with pride, because the residents are recognized for using clean technologies,” Rojo says.

The goal is to transform 30 villages into solar villages and, eventually, to install a solar generator to supply electricity to all of Jujuy province. If it works, it would be the first in Latin America, although similar projects are being pursued in Brazil and Chile.

—Inter Press Service, 12/13

   

Email this article to a friend.

Write to the editor about this article.

Subscribe Today
cover thumbnail EIJ cover thumbnail EIJ cover thumbnail EIJ cover thumbnail EIJFour issues of the award-winning
Earth Island Journal for only $10

 

Comments

I pledge to turn off the lithgs and printers when I’m the last one out of the office and make sure my computer screen is switched off when I leave my desk for long periods.  I will also unplug my mobile phone charger when I’m not using it and encourage my colleagues to do as much as they can to benefit the environment.  I will also look to cycle to work at least once a week during our warm summer months.

By Juli on Sun, June 10, 2012 at 3:30 pm

Leave a comment

Comments Policy

Please enter the word you see in the image below:

Subscribe
Today

Four issues for just
$10 a year.

cover thumbnail EIJ

Join Now!

 
Go Solar with Earth Island Institute!

0.1277