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In an effort to raise awareness about the conditions of threatened mountain gorillas, as well as boost their country’s nascent tourism industry, officials at the Ugandan Wildlife Authority have set up Facebook and Twitter accounts for endangered primates.
About half of the world’s remaining 740 mountain gorillas live in Uganda’s Bwindi Impenetrable Forest. The gorillas have been something of a phenomenon ever since Dian Fossey’s landmark research and advocacy brought international attention to their plight. A mere glimpse of the gorillas in their native habitat can cost thousands of dollars and is available only to the most intrepid of eco-travelers.
Now, gorilla fans can “follow” the animals using online social networks. Wildlife officials plan to install cameras around the gorillas’ habitat so people can watch live footage of their “friends” eating, napping, and stomping through the thick terrain. “Through geo-tracking and GPS, you’ll be able to get information about new births within the family, and other information,” says Lillian Nsubuga.
Gorillas in the Ugandan troop aren’t the first primate whose human friends are tapping into the power of online networks. Koko, the famous sign-language fluent primate, has long had her own Facebook page.
With more pals and international support, the mountain gorillas increase their chances of being able to switch their status from “endangered.”
–Agence France-Presse, 8/31
First they tried to keep the villagers quiet; now they’re just moving them. In Jiyuan, Henan province, where a large number of China’s lead smelters are located, children started turning up with lead in their blood. A lot of lead. As in, about 50 times more than what is considered safe. “The local government has been trying to stop us getting blood tests and making it public,” says resident Huang Zhengmin. “They just want to protect the plant, which pays a great deal of tax every year.”
Zhengmin lives near Yuguang Gold and Lead, China’s largest lead factory. The plant was forced in October to publicly claim partial responsibility in the lead poisoning of nearly 1,000 local children.
“We do bear responsibility for the pollution,” Yuguang Gold and Lead Board Chairman Yang Anguo told the Xinhua news agency. “Some pollution has accumulated over the past 20 years or more and the plant is too near homes.”
When the news got out, some lead plants shut down for a few months but now the government has a new plan: move the 15,000 people in the 10 villages that surround the area. According to a report in China Daily, the plan will cost $150 million, but it’s worth it to get the lead out.
The 11 finalists selected for the 2009 US Secretary of State’s Award for Corporate Excellence run the gamut from TOMS shoes in Argentina to Cisco Systems in Lebanon. But at least one of the nominations is drawing criticism from environmental groups: Chevron in the Philippines.
In an open letter to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, the Filipino/American Coalition for Environmental Solidarity urged the State Department to rescind the company’s nomination and chastised the department for allowing Chevron’s small investments in local projects to mask evidence of poor environmental stewardship. “Chevron Philippines is no corporation to be proud of, not by the US or the Philippines,” the letter reads. “A little corporate donation to a local project does not replace the many lives lost or harmed due to their [sic] toxic operations in the fenceline communities of the Manila oil depots, as well as around the world where they operate.”
An estimated 83,000 residents are directly affected by the massive Chevron oil depot in Pandacan, a residential district in Metro Manila. A 2002 study conducted by Global Community Monitor detected high levels of benzene, a component of gasoline and known carcinogen, in Pandacan’s air. In 2007 the Supreme Court ordered Chevron to relocate its depot for “the protection of the residents of Manila from catastrophic devastation,” but the company has stalled.
–Bay Area IndyMedia, 10/22
According to the Chinese zodiac, people who are born in the Year of the Tiger are sensitive, given to deep thinking, and capable of great sympathy. The animal is a symbol of power, energy, and bravery, as well as good luck.
But for the animal itself – which is already on the brink of extinction – the upcoming Year of the Tiger is an inauspicious omen. The festivities surrounding the Chinese New Year (February 14) are expected to drive up demand for tiger skins and body parts, which will encourage poachers to hunt the few animals that remain in the wild.
“The Year of the Tiger will put more pressure on wild tigers,” Michael Baltzer, of the World Wildlife Fund, says. “The use of tiger parts in traditional Chinese medicine has fallen, but the trend of giving tiger parts as gifts and souvenirs is growing.”
Tiger hunting is illegal throughout the world. But a black market trade in tiger parts still flourishes. According to a recent report by the British organization Environmental Investigation Agency, there are “rampant” sales of tiger and leopard skins, bones, and claws in retail stores in China.
Rising affluence in China is driving the demand for tiger skins. The hides sell for anywhere between $11,000 and $21,000US. Bones go for about $1,250 per kilogram. The skins are typically used for furniture.
“Owning tiger skins in China is becoming a status symbol; they’re a luxury item,” says Huang Lixin, president of the American College of Traditional Chinese Medicine in San Francisco. “Chinese consumers will want tiger bones or tiger wine and liquor, or tiger skins, to celebrate the year.”
China outlawed the sale of tiger bones and hides in 1993, but recently Chinese officials have been pushing for an international agreement to resume the trade in tiger products. They argue that tiger farming could reduce the pressure on wild populations. Today, there are about 3,500 tigers remaining in the wild, down from approximately 100,000 a century ago. Some 6,000 tigers are raised on farms in China.
Conservationists are strongly opposed to the idea of increasing the number of tiger farms, which they say will send the signal that the use of tiger parts is acceptable.
“If you commercialize tigers, it will create bigger demand,” says John Seidensticker, a scientist with the Smithsonian Institution’s National Zoo. “That’s the end of wild tigers because we simply don’t have the resources to protect them. China holds the key to tiger conservation. If China cracks down on illegal trade, they will save wild tigers, and we know they have the capacity to do that.”
Perhaps 2011 will be a more auspicious year for tiger conservation. That will be the Year of the Rabbit, an animal esteemed for its wisdom.
Just Add Water
The Dead Sea is dying. The super-saline lake – a popular tourist destination bordered by Israel and Jordan – has lost more than a third of its surface area in the last 20 years. The Dead Sea is now losing more than four feet of water per year, thanks largely to farmers and developments that are diverting the rainwater and rivers (particularly the Jordan River) that feed it. And the only solution government officials can come up with is to revive the Dead Sea with water from the Red Sea.
Now the Jordanian government, despite recent announcements of its eco-tourism and conservation initiatives, has decided to spend billions not on improving the efficiency of water use but on a pipeline between the Red Sea and the Dead Sea. Already the subject of a feasibility study funded by the World Bank with unlikely partners Israel, Jordan, and Palestine, the “Red-Dead Water Conveyance Project” has been harshly criticized by environmentalists who caution that allowing water to flow between the two will not only ruin the Dead Sea’s peculiar mix of minerals (its main tourist attraction) but could also produce algal blooms as well as harmful gases.
But that’s not stopping the Jordanian government from pushing ahead and spending $2 billion on what it’s calling phase one of the larger project: the Jordan National Red Sea Water Development Project. The decision to essentially begin the project before the feasibility study is completed is drawing further criticism and has reportedly upset the Palestinian faction of the original partnership. Jean-Pierre Chabal, vice-president of Coyne et Bellier, the French firm carrying out the study, says it was “paradoxical” that it might conclude that the scheme was unworkable after the project had effectively already begun.
“They say they want to use the study but also to go faster than the study,” he says. “It is not clear to us how this can be, and I don’t think it is clear to the World Bank either.”
–The Telegraph (UK), 10/10
Although oil exports are Iraq’s number one source of revenue, the country is still largely a rural nation, and most of its people are employed in farming. In an effort to assist an agriculture sector that has been bruised during six years of war – and perhaps also to provide an alternative to its huge reserves of petroleum – the Iraqi government is working with a company from the United Arab Emirates to turn rotting dates into biofuel.
Iraq is a major producer of dates. Date palm plantations dot the banks of the Tigris and Euphrates rivers in an otherwise parched landscape. Before the US invasion, Iraq produced about 900,000 tons of dates annually. That has since dropped to about 350,000 tons. Iraqis consume about 150,000 tons annually, making the country a significant exporter.
But every season, tons of dates begin to rot before they can be sold. Typically, the rotting dates are fed to livestock. The Emirati company believes it can use the sugar-laden fruit to produce bioethanol. The enterprise would give Iraqi farmers some badly needed additional income, while introducing local biofuel production to the oil-rich nation.
“They [farmers] can’t export the leftover quantities owing to their poor quality,” says Faroun Ahmed Hussein, head of the national date palm board. “Farmers will be happy to sell their rotten dates instead of throwing them away.”
For decades, progressives have complained that the Gross Domestic Product (GDP, formerly known as the Gross National Product) is a crude tool for measuring societal well-being. GDP, developed in the 1930s, records the total value of market transactions that occur in any given period. When GDP rises, the economy is said to grow, which is usually taken to mean that a country is achieving progress.
But there are a great many things that GDP fails to measure, or calculates poorly. For example, GDP doesn’t include “natural capital.” A 1,000-year-old redwood has no value unless it’s chopped down and turned into lumber or until someone is willing to pay for the pleasure of admiring it. Also, GDP lacks a subtraction function. Any and every economic transaction is counted as a benefit, including the cleanup costs of oil spills, cancer bills from pollutants, the paving of wetlands. The $80 billion in damage caused by Hurricane Katrina counted as economic growth.
There have been attempts at creating more accurate alternatives to GDP. Redefining Progress, a US NGO, has developed a “Genuine Progress Indicator” that it says is a more comprehensive measure for societal health. Since 1972, the Himalayan nation of Bhutan has employed a “Gross National Happiness” index to track quality of life.
Now, a much larger and more influential government has decided that GDP is incomplete. In September, the European Union announced plans to launch an indicator to measure environmental stress. Although conceived of as a supplement to GDP – not a replacement of it – the new measure could eventually lead to a “Green GDP,” says Stavros Dimas, head of the European Commission, the EU’s executive arm.
“To change the world, we need to change the way that we understand the world,” Dimas says. “And to do this we need to go beyond GDP.”
The new index, which will be published alongside the GDP, will measure environmental damages that occur within the bloc’s member states, including the impacts of climate change, biodiversity loss, air pollution, water use, and waste generation. While the index initially will be focused on environmental harm, research is set to begin on gauging environmental quality.
The EU has also promised to speed up the publication of environmental data, which often lags up to three years behind the period assessed. In comparison, GDP and other economic statistics are often available within weeks.
The environmental indicator would be “as simple, as reliable, and as widely accepted as GDP,” Dimas says. “It would change the way we understand progress and would be a catalyst for changing the way we live.”
Although the EU is now taking the lead on challenging the primacy of GDP, there have been US efforts to rethink how we measure quality of life. One of the most eloquent attacks against GDP came from Senator Robert F. Kennedy, who made the issue part of his doomed presidential run.
“Gross national product counts air pollution and cigarette advertising, and ambulances to clear our highways of carnage,” he said in a March 1968 speech. “It counts special locks on our doors and the jails for the people who break them. It counts destruction of the redwood and the loss of our natural wonder in chaotic sprawl. Yet the gross national product does not allow for the health of our children, the quality of their education, or the joy of their play.”
Senator Byron Dorgan, a Democrat from North Dakota, has carried on Kennedy’s effort for more than a decade – but has failed to build political momentum for the cause. Last year, he held a hearing on GDP’s limits in the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee.
He was the only senator to attend.
–Greenwire, 9/9 & AFP, 9/2
24/7 Farmers' Market
courtesy Regiomat Reuters/Henry Romero
Think of it as the perfect marriage of artisanal methods and modern technology, a meeting of the slow food ethic and 21st-century convenience.In an effort to cut out the complex supply chains and giant supermarkets that can make it difficult for small farmers to get their products to consumers, one farm in Germany, Peter-un-Paul-Hof, is placing its goods in vending machines. The vending machines will replace junk food with whole foods, and in place of plastic-wrapped pastries offer fresh milk, eggs, butter, cheese, potatoes, and sausage.
The effort is part of a collaboration between the farm and the vending manufacturer Stuewer. The machines – dubbed Regiomats, a term locavores are bound to love – will be placed first alongside popular hiking trails in Switzerland and then into cities.
Two years ago, a Spanish company called Lof created a vending machine that sells dried fruits, nuts, and fresh fruit. But the Swiss-German venture seems to be the first time that a farmer is using vending technology to reach out to customers. The machine could provide producers with a solution to a long-standing problem: how to sell directly to customers and cut out the middlemen who often take a steep cut. The most common – and increasingly popular – strategy is the farmers’ market. But the vending machine has one key advantage over selling at the village square: It never closes.
Of course, the Regiomat’s sausage, eggs, butter, and milk are hardly healthy California cuisine. But what more could a hungry German ask for?
–Mother Nature News, 10/8
For Peat’s Sake
What happens to wetlands when they dry out? In Spain’s Las Tablas de Daimiel National Park they’re catching on fire. Farmers surrounding the country’s most important inland wetlands have been steadily draining the aquifer that feeds them, leaving only one percent of the park’s surface wet. Now the dried-out peat underneath the surface has begun to self-combust, causing hundreds of underground fires throughout the park, as evidenced by the occasional poof of white smoke seen at surface level.
Before being gagged by the country’s environment ministry, Park Director Carlos Ruiz wrote in a report that he believes this is a life-or-death moment for the park. “We are at a point of no return,” he warned.
According to Luís Moreno of Spain’s Geological and Mining Institute, it’s been that way for at least 20 years. Now, in addition to the death of the wetlands, the park is the site of another environmental disaster: The fires are burning underground for months before smoke can be seen above ground, which means they are releasing vast quantities of carbon dioxide into the air every day.
A plan to reduce irrigation in the surrounding area has failed and now the government is proposing to transport water into the wetlands from the Tagus River Basin. If history is any indicator, this plan is also destined to fail – last time the transfer was attempted, 95 percent of the water was lost along the way. Furthermore, farmers around the Tagus area aren’t too keen on the idea of water being taken from them.
Scientists are predicting more of these problems for Spain in the coming years as rainfall decreases, aquifers dry up, and the country’s agricultural industry requires more and more water.
“The lagoon here used to be full all year round but I haven’t seen water since 1985,” says Manuel Martín, who grows melons and giant pumpkins on a modest plot where the river Guadiana once flowed. “Our grandparents managed to irrigate their fields without making the water disappear. They should ban those pivot sprinklers until it comes back.”
–The Guardian (UK), 10/19
What’s Growing On?
First they took over Havana. Then they started sprouting up in Caracas. Now minifarms are setting down roots in Mexico City, the largest metropolis in Latin America.
Two years ago, Edgar Duran launched a scheme to seed vegetable gardens across the notoriously polluted city. He recruited volunteers, located unused parcels, such as former garbage dumps, and invested a relatively small sum of money ($10,000) to build 82 community gardens scattered amid the urban landscape.
One of those gardens is in the borough of Iztapalapa, a busy area of some two million people. Forty-year-old Irma Diaz, a volunteer, maintains the garden – once littered with trash and now lush with vegetables – as part of the local government’s agriculture development program. “Everything is natural, ‘bio,’ as they say,” Diaz says. “It is for our use, but we sell a little.”
The garden has become a magnet for people in the neighborhood, especially older residents seeking community. Juanita Galeana, 60, and her husband work in the garden twice a week. Eugenio Varga, who is in charge of the watering, is at the site every morning. A 75-year-old widower, Varga says the garden keeps him busy and allows him to take home “tasty, fresh” vegetables.
What doesn’t go to the volunteer gardeners is sold. The fresh, hyper-local, organic produce is eagerly sought by many of the capital’s chic restaurants. “We grow tomatoes and dozens of vegetables: lettuce, beets, carrots, radishes, all without fertilizers or pesticides,” Diaz says. “More than money, it’s satisfying to take home good quality food. Or when our customers tell us they had only seen carrots with their green stalks, as we sell them, in drawings.”
In October, thousands of seabirds in the Pacific Northwest had their feathers ruffled … literally. Waves of toxic algae disrupted the birds’ feathers to the point where they couldn’t float.
“It compromised the structure and alignment of their feathers,” Rebecca Dmytryk, of the International Bird Rescue Research Center (IBRRC), explains. “Think of it like the shingles on a house – when a few shingles come out, all the elements can pour in. Saturated birds don’t float.”
Hundreds of birds – including loons, grebes, murres, and scroters – were rescued from the slimy waves and immediately transported to the IBRRC in Fairfield, California.
A single-cell algae called Akashiwo sanguinea is to blame, according to Julia Parrish, a marine biologist and professor at the University of Washington. The algae has previously been seen off the California coast, but this was the first occurrence of it off the Oregon and Washington coasts. Many are linking the sudden occurrence of the algae in the Pacific Northwest to warmer-than-usual water in the area. A recent storm also churned the phytoplankton bloom into a soap-like foam, which is what caused problems for the birds.
Because of the sheer number of casualties, IBRRC has said it is treating this emergency as an oil spill, with one significant difference – there is no oil.
–Daily Astorian, 10/28
It’s called the Great Bear Rainforest – a stretch of rugged mountains and dense forests on British Columbia’s north and central coast. Unfortunately, the region might need a name change. Locals say that this summer bears have all but disappeared from the area.
“I have not observed a single mother and cub in our traditional territory,” says Douglass Nealoss, a wilderness guide of the Kitasoo-Xaixais First Nation. “We are extremely concerned about the status of our bears right now.… There just aren’t any bears – it’s scary.”
Wildlife groups say that a sharp decline in the annual salmon run – combined with overfishing by people – has cost the bears one of their most important foods. The fatty fish is essential to sustain the large animals and their offspring through the winter months. But this year salmon numbers have been at their lowest in more than a decade. On the Fraser River, for example, 10 million sockeye salmon were expected to spawn this summer; only one million showed up.
“The Department of Fisheries and Oceans has once again ignored conservation concerns and permitted overfishing on the … BC North Coast,” says Ian McAllister of Pacific Wild, a local conservation group.
According to McAllister, in 2008 fishermen around the Gil Island fishery, several hundred miles north of Vancouver Island, took more than 6 million salmon on their way to spawn. “The few bears surviving this past winter really needed those fish,” he says. “They’re starving.”
In response to the drop in bear numbers, environmental groups and First Nations petitioned the government to prohibit bear hunting. Trophy hunting for grizzlies and black bears is big business in Canada. Conservationists say that with populations suffering, the bears can’t sustain a hunt. In July, Canada’s Ministry of Environment announced it would ban bear hunting on an additional 1.1 million acres, bringing the total protected area for grizzlies and black bears to 4.6 million acres.
“The apparent loss of so many bears should be an immediate and priority concern for … government,” McAllister says.
–EnS, 9/19 & The Observer, 9/20
When an apocalyptic orange-red dust storm enveloped Sydney in October, many people warned that it was a glimpse of what we could expect as climate change wrecks ecosystems. The dust cloud, the worst in 70 years, had been stirred up in Australia’s scorched interior, where a massive drought linked to rising temperatures has shorn away topsoil.
But researchers at University of Sydney say the storm, though a disaster for air quality, was actually beneficial for the nearby ocean. All of the nitrogen- and phosphate-rich particles led to an explosion of phytoplankton in Sydney harbor and coastal waters. The number of phytoplankton tripled thanks to the infusion of nutrients. Since those microscopic organisms are the basis of the marine food chain, the dust storm could also lead to a boost in fish stocks.
The dust storm had another environmental benefit: The phytoplankton bloom absorbed an estimated eight million tons of CO2 enough to offset on month's worht of emissions from a coalfired power station. How's that for eco-irony?
The ocean’s response to the dust spurred optimism among those who believe that artificially seeding the ocean with nutrients could be a way of geo-engineering natural systems to take up more CO2. “If we continuously nourished a patch of water about 20 kilometers in diameter, we could support poor artisan fisherfolk … while storing 10 million tons per year of carbon dioxide in the deep ocean,” says Ian Jones, head of University of Sydney’s ocean technology group. Jones said the results from the dust storm were a “vindication” for his plans to seed the ocean with nitrogen-rich urea.
Perhaps. But the key word in Jones’ statement is “continuously.” As his own team found, phytoplankton levels in the waters near Sydney returned to normal within five days of the storm.
Climate Catch 22
Australians are known for their fierce independence, and now they’re increasingly moving to take climate change matters into their own hands. It’s not a moment too soon, given that the country is experiencing what scientists call “accelerated climate change” thanks to its dry climate. Two new proposed pieces of legislation would allow many Aussies to help defend themselves from the effects of climate change, but critics are worried that they may also adversely affect the environment.
In New South Wales, state legislators are moving to override local planning policies that prohibit coastal fortification to let beachside residents protect their homes against rising tides believed to be caused by climate change. The NSW government said it would list 19 “hot spot” beaches where waterfront homes were at risk from rising sea levels. Property owners in those areas would be given more rights to construct sea walls and barriers, with the state government appointing itself as final judge over any barrier plans rejected by local councils. Homeowners are pleased with the plan, but environmentalists fear widespread coastal defenses could block the movement of sand, causing massive erosion.
Meanwhile, a new program launched in the state of Queensland will help motorists offset their carbon emissions. Through the “Reverse the Effect” program, Queensland residents will receive a flyer with their car registration renewal notices announcing that they can pay an additional fee with the registration to help offset the emissions created by their automobiles. The state government has allocated $4.5 million over the next five years to match motorists’ contributions dollar for dollar.
The goal of the program is to offset 290,000 tons of CO2. But carbon offset programs have come under fire for encouraging a sort of pay-to-pollute mentality and for not translating directly to emissions reductions.
Bolivian Big Top
It’s not just the clowns that make the circus scary. Bolivian lawmakers have declared the use of animals – both wild and domestic – in the big top an “act of cruelty.” The first-of-its-kind law prohibits the use of animals in circuses and gives ringmasters until July 2010 to remove beasts from their acts.
“Law No. 4040 is the only one [of its kind] in the world because it doesn’t just prohibit the use of wild animals, but also dogs, cats, doves, and all types of domestic animals,” Congresswoman Ximena Flores, who sponsored the bill in July 2009, says. “No matter the animal, circus workers always use violence to train them.”
While animal rights activists are pleased with the bill, they’re concerned about what’s next for the animals, particularly the more exotic species. The country’s zoos keep animals in poor conditions, so transferring them from the circuses to the zoos would defeat the whole purpose of the law. Some of the first exotic animals freed as a result of the legislation are being transferred to US wildlife sanctuaries, but logistics have not been worked out for the other 50-odd animals remaining.
“We just launched a campaign, ‘For Those That Remain,’ in which we’re collecting funds to build a quarantine in La Paz that would be able to receive those animals,” says Susana Del Carpio, director of Animals S.O.S., an animal rights group.
But construction on the project likely won’t finish before the new law’s July 2010 deadline, which would leave circus owners with the option of either sending their animals overseas – or killing them. And that’s an act no one wants to see.
Dammed If You Do
In a recent debate in Chile, all four senatorial candidates voiced their disapproval of the pending HidroAysén, a mega-dam planned in the Patagonia region. But whether their voices, or those of Patagonia residents, will be heard over a multimillion-dollar barrage of pro-dam ads remains to be seen.
A joint venture comprised of the Chilean utility Colbún (49 percent) and Italian-owned electricity giant Endesa (51 percent), HidroAysén was formed in 2006 with a plan to build four massive hydroelectric dams along the region’s two largest rivers, the Baker and the Pascua. A year later, the company redesigned the project, adding a fifth dam. Together the five power stations would add 2,750 megawatts (MW) to Chile’s central grid, or SIC. The SIC currently has an installed capacity of less than 10,000 MW.
The $3.2 billion “mega-project” was presented to Patagonia’s environmental authorities in August 2008. Three months later, however, the company temporarily withdrew from the approval process after its 11,000-page environmental impact report received a barrage of criticism from both government agencies and citizen groups.
HidroAysén says it’s ready to respond to those questions and will soon restart the environmental review process to coincide with its pro-dam PR effort. But despite the money it’s putting into the campaign (bringing on heavy hitters like PR firm Burston Marsteller and advertising agency Young & Rubicam) the dam is up against some major opposition, namely the high-profile Patagonia sin Represas (Patagonia without Dams) campaign launched two years ago by the project’s many opponents.
Led by the Patagonia Defense Council, an umbrella group representing some 50 Chilean and foreign organizations, the campaign centers around the idea that the massive HidroAysén dams will ruin the pristine Baker and Pascua Rivers and open up the Patagonia wilderness to further industrial exploitation.
–The Patagonia Times, 10/19