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Gorillas in the Oil Mix
Desperate to boost an economy battered by more than a decade of war, officials in the Democratic Republic of Congo are considering a new law that would allow oil companies to drill inside the country’s national parks – including in regions that are home to endangered mountain gorillas.
The cash-strapped central African state is believed to have rich energy deposits, some of which may be underneath Virunga National Park, a UNESCO World Heritage site that is home to some of the world’s last mountain gorillas. Two oil companies – UK-based Soco International and French energy giant Total – hold exploration licenses that overlap with parts of the park, where their activities are currently restricted by law. The draft bill would allow the government to provide an exemption to the ban on oil activities in national parks “for reasons of national interest.”
Congo produces a miniscule 26,000 barrels of oil per day. Officials there are keen to boost that number by exploring offshore and along its interior border with Uganda, where reserves of 3.5 billion barrels of petroleum have been identified. “There are international agreements that we must respect concerning exploitation within [Virunga] park, but we can’t leave the population to live in poverty,” says Yves Mobanda Yogo, a member of the Congolese parliament’s environmental sub-committee who is working on the draft bill.
The new law would also provide tax breaks for operators to try to attract investors into Congo, which has earned a reputation as one of the toughest places in the world to do business due to decades of instability and lack of respect for contracts. The borderlands zone, which includes some of the dense forests and hills of Virunga, is home to numerous rebel groups left over from a bloody regional war in the 1990s that cost millions of lives.
Congo’s move to tap oil reserves in national parks is likely to put it on a collision course with donors and conservationists. Major international donors, like the World Bank and the United Kingdom, have already expressed their opposition to any encroachment into Virunga because of its legally protected status as a World Heritage site. UNESCO has called on the Congolese government to “abandon all plans for oil extraction.”
Virunga National Park has an exceptional diversity of landscapes, stretching from the glaciers of the Rwenzori Mountains, at over 17,000 feet, to impenetrable forests, savannas, rivers, and lakes. The 3,011-square-mile reserve is Africa’s oldest national park and a Ramsar Wetland of International Importance. It is home to about 200 of the world’s estimated 700 remaining mountain gorillas and hosts more species of mammals, reptiles, and birds than any other protected area in Africa.
According to World Wildlife Fund, about 30,000 people benefit economically from fishing within the park, and another 20,000 benefit from commercial activities related to the fishing industry. Additionally, revenue generated by mountain gorilla ecotourism programs provides funding for conservation work and community development projects in the area. WWF fears that the area could suffer from socioeconomic tensions, crime, and insecurity if development were to proceed.
“[Virunga] is protected by both national and international law. No-go means no-go,” says Zach Abraham, head of global campaigns for WWF.
Total, meanwhile, has said it will not operate in the park because of social and environmental concerns.
—Reuters, 3/13; World Wildlife Fund; The Economist, 4/10
Can a pink dye help save South Africa’s rhinos?
The country, which is home to the largest rhino population on Earth, has become a flashpoint for rhino poaching. Driven by demand for rhino horns in east Asia, where it is used in traditional medicine, armed poachers have been slaughtering an average of 2.1 rhinos a day in South Africa. Last year the country lost 668 rhinos to poachers. As of April there were 232 dead animals. With no signs of the carnage slowing, conservationists at a South African game reserve have come up with a radical strategy to ward off horn hunters – injecting rhinos’ horns with a poisoned pink dye.
During the past 18 months, wildlife workers at Sabi Sand, a private game reserve at the southernmost tip of Kruger National Park, have injected more than 100 rhinos’ horns with a special cocktail made up of indelible pink dye and non-lethal parasiticides that are generally used to control ticks. Apart from discoloring the horn, the pink dye can be detected by airport scanners even after it has been ground into a powder to make high-priced traditional “medicines.”
The “toxification” process involves tranquilizing a rhino, drilling a hole in its horn, and then injecting the dye cocktail. Although it won’t kill people, the poison does have some pretty nasty side effects, including nausea, vomiting, and diarrhea. Ironically, these are some of the symptoms that rhino horn is incorrectly believed to alleviate.
“By contaminating the horn, you reduce the reward and the horn becomes a valueless product,” says Andrew Parker, chief executive of the Sabi Sand Wildtuin Association, a group of private landowners in Mpumalanga province.
Parker – who believes bold action is necessary since every other strategy to curb the rising body count has failed – says the chemicals used in the mix are all available over the counter and the practice is perfectly legal. “We are advertising it, doing a media run now and putting up signs on our fences,” he says. “If somebody does consume it, they won’t die and hopefully word will spread that you shouldn’t take rhino horn.”
The scheme, however, has received a mixed reception from Traffic, the wildlife trade-monitoring network. Tom Milliken, its rhino program coordinator, says he isn’t sure the dye cocktail has been adequately tested and certified to be non-harmful to rhinos. He also doubts its efficacy as a deterrent. He says it could act as a deterrent in areas where it is highly publicized, but argues it “is impractical in situations involving free-ranging animals in large areas, places like Kruger National Park with 20,000 square kilometers. Thus, like dehorning, it probably has the effect of displacing poaching intensity to other areas, not stopping it altogether.”
Milliken also expressed concerns about the end-users: “One wonders if unscrupulous dealers in these markets will not simply employ some means to 'bleach’ them back to a 'normal’ appearance and continue raking in high profits.”
South Africa National Parks, the government body responsible for managing the country’s 19 state reserves, has backed the initiative, but spokesperson Ike Phaahla admits that it would be “virtually impossible” to apply the process to all the rhinos in national parks because of lack of resources.
—The Guardian (UK), 4/13; Takepart.com, 4/13
This Land is No One’s Land
Call it a “cold rush.” Eager to tap into the vast stores of oil and gas underneath a melting Arctic, northern nations are scrambling to cement their claims on the vast polar region. In 2007, a Russian submarine planted a Russian flag on the seabed underneath the North Pole in a symbolic territorial claim. Last summer the United States allowed Shell Oil to begin oil explorations in the Chukchi Sea (an experiment that quickly went awry, but never mind). Norway’s Statoil is laying plans to begin underwater drilling in 2014. And other nations far beyond the Arctic Circle are seeking to join the Arctic Forum, a multinational group that is supposed to manage claims in the icy area.
Environmental groups, meanwhile, are calling for the Arctic to be put off-limits to development. In April, four campaigners with Greenpeace International trekked to the North Pole, where they cut a hole in the ice and lowered their own “flag for the future” miles underwater, to the same spot where the Russian flag is planted. The flag was contained in a glass and titanium canister that also included the names of the 2.7 million people worldwide who signed a treaty calling for the Arctic to be protected.
“We wish to create a sanctuary in the uninhabited area around the North Pole and keep destructive industry out of the Arctic,” said Greenpeace trekker Kiera Kolson, a Tso’Tine-Gwich’in woman from Denendeh, Canada.
The US Department of Energy estimates that the Arctic holds 15 percent of the world’s undiscovered oil and 30 percent of its undiscovered gas. The region’s brutal conditions – thick ice and perpetual darkness for some of the year – meant that those potential resources have long been out of reach. Now, in one of the classic ironies of climate change, those fossil fuel resources are becoming accessible as global warming melts the summer ice to an ever-shrinking area.
A hotter polar summer is also opening up the possibility of more shipping traffic through Arctic waters. By the middle of this century, the quickest way to get goods from Asia to the US East Coast might be by going over the North Pole.
Greenpeace’s Save the Arctic campaign is hoping to prevent a resource free-for-all in the region. “We came to the Pole to say this special area of the Arctic belongs to no person and no nation,” the polar trekkers wrote on their blog before dropping their flag. “It is the common heritage of everyone on Earth.”
There is precedent for such a thing. The Antarctic Treaty, ratified in 1961, prohibits military exercises or claims to territorial sovereignty south of 60°S latitude.
—Environmental news service, 4/15; Reuters, 4/16
I’m Feeling Extinct
Google’s informal motto is, famously, “Don’t Be Evil.” But an environmental group says the search engine giant has crossed that line because its web ads are facilitating the illicit global ivory trade.
Earlier this year the Environmental Investigation Agency sent a letter to Google CEO Larry Page urging the company to remove ads linking to sites that promote the sale of ivory. After the company failed to respond, EIA took its criticisms to the media.
“While elephants are being mass slaughtered across Africa to produce ivory trinkets, it is shocking to discover that Google, with the massive resources it has at its disposal, is failing to enforce its own policies designed to help protect endangered elephants,” says Allan Thornton, president of the US-based EIA.
According to EIA, there are at least 10,000 ads on Google’s Japan shopping site that promote the sale of ivory. About 80 percent of the ads are for hanko, small wooden stamps used in Japan to affix signature seals to official documents like rental agreements and bank accounts. The stamps are typically inlaid with ivory. EIA says Japan’s hanko sales are “a major demand driver for elephant ivory and have contributed to the wide-scale resumption of elephant poaching across Africa.”
Once the media took up the issue, Google responded, saying: “Ads for products obtained from endangered or threatened species are not allowed on Google. As soon as we detect ads that violate our advertising policies, we remove them.”
Global ivory trafficking was one of the top agenda items when the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species, or CITES, met in Bangkok in March. In recent years, as Asian countries have grown more prosperous, elephant killing for ivory has reached its worst level in more than two decades. In 2012 alone, some 32,000 elephants were killed in Africa. A century ago, about 5 million elephants roamed sub-Saharan Africa; today only several hundred thousand are left. Japan imported stockpiles of ivory before it began complying with CITES rules.
EIA’s Thornton says Google’s policies about not advertising ivory are laudable. “But sadly these are not being enforced, and that’s devastating,” he says.
Google isn’t the only major website complicit in the ivory trade. Ivory is also being sold via eBay. The company is working to enforce its own policies against ivory trading, but the practice persists. Ivory objects on eBay, which can sell for more than $1,000, are often marketed as “ox-bone” or “faux ivory.”
The citizen movement against natural gas fracking has jumped the Atlantic. Environmental and community organizations across Europe are putting new pressure on elected officials to enact moratoriums against the controversial drilling technique, which has been linked to mini-earthquakes and groundwater contamination.
In April the northern Spanish province of Cantabria became the first area of Spain to ban hydraulic fracturing for gas. Lawmakers unanimously voted to ban the technology because of environmental concerns, shooting down the central government’s hopes for a project to boost jobs in a region believed to be rich in shale gas.
Spain is battling a deep recession and high unemployment, and fracking boosters say shale gas extraction could help the economy and ensure energy security. Shale Gas Europe, a lobby group, says Spanish shale gas reserves are among the largest in the world. “Spain’s significant reserves, if technically recoverable, will transform its economy at a time when the country is struggling with a burgeoning debt and has been forced to adopt austerity measures,” the group says. Spain imports 76 percent of its energy.
Members of the regional parliament were unconvinced. “In Cantabria there is a very large social movement against fracking,” an official with the ruling People’s Party says. The legislation received unanimous approval from all the political parties in the Cantabrian parliament.
The Cantabrian ban is one of several now in place in Europe. France has a fracking ban, as does Bulgaria, which witnessed massive protests against the practice when international energy firms proposed drilling there. The United Kingdom had a ban in place until last December. The moratorium was established after tremors were felt in Blackpool and Lancashire following shale gas exploration. Last year the European Parliament rejected an EU-wide ban on shale gas extraction. The European Commission is expected to come up with a drilling framework later this year.
Also in April, hundreds of Romanians staged demonstrations in cities across the country to keep fracking at bay. About 300 people gathered in Bucharest’s University Square to denounce the technique. “Chevron, go home,” and “Down with traitors,” they chanted, referring to Prime Minister Victor Ponta, who has reversed his earlier opposition to fracking. Some 1,000 people rallied in Barlad, a city in eastern Romania that is close to a 2,300-square-mile area where Chevron is planning to drill. Hundreds of people also staged a demonstration in Buzias, a resort town famous for its mineral waters. A Luxembourg-based company has plans to begin drilling near the resort.
“We don’t want to be the guinea pigs of those who back shale gas exploitation,” a priest, Vasile Laiu, said at one of the anti-fracking demonstrations in Romania.
According to the US Energy Information Administration, combined gas reserves for Romania, Bulgaria, and Hungary are around 658 billion cubic meters – among the biggest in Europe and enough to break the region’s reliance on gas imports from Russia. Early estimates have, however, proven unreliable in other cases. Poland, hopeful that it was sitting on some of Europe’s biggest reserves, had to slash its initial estimates by 90 percent last year after drillings disappointed.
—Reuters, 4/9; Agence France-Presse, 4/4
For generations people in Greenland have relied on a robust fishing industry and steady subsidies from Denmark to survive in an unforgiving landscape. As the Arctic begins to thaw thanks to global warming, global investors are hungrily eyeing the island’s vast mineral and fossil fuel deposits. The prospect of a mining and drilling rush has split apart Greenland’s close-knit population – at once seeding hopes of an economic boom and sowing fears that a rush of migrant laborers would overwhelm the local culture.
Greenlanders’ divided opinions about multinational corporations’ mining plans were on display in March, when citizens went to the polls to elect a new prime minister. Voters delivered something of a split verdict by electing Aleqa Hammond – Greenland’s first female prime minister – who has vowed to open up Greenland to more mining while also promising to increase taxes on foreign companies and limit the number of foreign workers.
“The central issue here is who will run the country,” Hammond said the day before the March 13 election. “People feel that it is foreign companies who have too much say here.”
Greenland is a quarter the size of the United States, but is home to just 57,000 people, most of them Inuits. The capital, Nuuk, has only two traffic lights, and many people there still subsist on fish or marine mammals that they catch or kill themselves. More than half of the island’s budget comes from Denmark, which has long claimed Greenland as a protectorate.
Several extraction projects are in the works that could dramatically change life in Greenland. The giant American firm Alcoa has considered building an aluminum smelter there, strategically located between the European and North American markets. An Australian mining firm is exploring for rare earth metals and says Greenland could have the largest rare earth deposits outside of China. There are hopes that the island may have gold and zinc deposits. And some oil and gas firms have also expressed interest in the area. Although no mining or oil projects have gotten into the ground yet, more than 100 exploration licenses have been awarded to outside firms.
Some people say inviting foreign mining companies could give a boost to the economy and allow Greenland to gain more autonomy from Denmark and, eventually, independence.
“The younger people, they all want Alcoa,” says Jens Moller, head of a community training project in Maniitsoq. “The older generation want better fishing.”
In Nuuk, 27-year-old post-graduate student Karsten Peter Jensen says he enjoys hunting in fjords for grouse or reindeer, but also likes the sushi bars and chic shops that have come with recent development. “The last four years have been very positive; we have looked to the outside world,” Jensen said. “But for other people, they think change has come too fast. There is a perception Greenlanders have been put aside a bit.”
Many Greenlanders fear a mining rush will be accompanied by a flood of foreign workers. For example, London Mining Plc has proposed building a $2.3 billion iron ore plant on a fjord outside of Nuuk that would come with diesel power plants, its own road and port, and some 2,000 Chinese workers. “No matter how much mining comes here, fisheries will be our main industry,” says Johannes Heilman, 64, a fisherman and whaler. “I don’t mind if the Chinese come here. But what if there is an accident?”
The international press appeared confused by Hammond’s election, with some news services calling the results a victory for mining proponents while others said it was a setback for mining interests. The confusion seems to be a product of Hammond’s own hybrid policies. She has promised to open up Greenland to the mining of rare earth metals. At the same time, she wants to increase levies on international firms and restrict the flow of foreign workers. In late March, Hammond placed a moratorium on new offshore oil and gas leases. “For the greedy ones who want 100 percent of everything, Greenland is not for them,” Hammond said before the election.
—Reuters, 3/11 and 3/13; AP, 3/13; the Guardian (UK), 3/27
Hold on to that tuna sushi roll! Yes, it’s old news that many fish species contain high levels of mercury. Now you also have to worry about the rice. A new study has found that some brands of rice being imported into the United States contain high levels of lead.
Researchers at Monmouth University in New Jersey found lead concentrations ranging from six to 12 milligrams per 2.2 pounds of rice in several samples of imported rice. The levels are a great deal higher than the tolerable safety limits set by the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA).
Infants and children consuming the rice are exposed to lead levels 30 to 60 times higher than the safe limit, the researchers say. For Asian children, who consume more rice, exposures could be up to 120 times higher.
“Such findings present a situation that is particularly worrisome given that infants and children are especially vulnerable to the effects of lead poisoning,” says the study’s lead author, Dr. Tsanangurayi Tongesayi, an associate professor at Monmouth University.
Lead is a neurotoxin. In young children whose brains are still growing, it can seriously diminish their capacity to learn and develop intellectually. Lead also increases blood pressure and causes cardiovascular diseases in adults.
The researchers point out that agriculture, mining, and the chemical industry are putting more and more heavy metals like lead into the environment and into the food chain. Because rice is grown in heavily irrigated conditions, it is more susceptible than other staple crops to environmental pollutants in irrigation water.
Rice is the staple food of 3 billion people around the world. The Agricultural Marketing Resource Center puts annual global rice consumption at around 437 million metric tons, with China and India being by far the biggest consumers.
Rice consumption is growing in the United States too, partly due to a growing population of Asians and Hispanics for whom rice is a staple food. Americans now consume, on average, about 31 pounds of rice annually.
The United States is a big producer and exporter of rice, thanks to vast rice fields in Arkansas, California, Mississippi, and Texas. But it also imports rice, and current estimates suggest about 7 percent of the rice Americans consume is from abroad.
Since 1999, imports of rice and rice flour have grown by more than 200 percent. The highest levels of lead were seen in rice originating from China and Taiwan. Significantly high levels were also found in samples from the Czech Republic, Bhutan, Italy, India, and Thailand.
“The thing is that rice is becoming a staple food for a larger percentage of the population,” Tongesayi says. He says the study’s calculations were conservative, since the researchers were basing consumption on the daily recommended servings. It’s likely that many people consume more than what is recommended.
Tongesayi says rice from other countries has made its way into a wide variety of grocery stores and eateries in the US – from large supermarkets and restaurants, to niche outlets that specialize in ethnic foods.
—Medical News Today, 4/13; Daily Mail, UK, 4/13; Time, 4/13
Two years after an earthquake triggered a tsunami that devastated parts of Japan, North American shores are awash in debris swept from 5,000 miles away. The flotsam includes parts of steel and concrete docks, derelict boats and buoys, toys, and household goods. On the backs of these bits and pieces are hundreds of thousands of organisms such as tiny brown algae, pink barnacles, and shrimp-like creatures called caprellids.
Scientists in the US Northwest and Canada are worried about the dangers posed by the hitchhiking species, some of which could be invasive.
Invasion biologists say it’s hard to determine whether marine life washing ashore on the debris will be a threat to the environment. “Ecologists have a terrible track record of predicting what introduced species will survive and where. But once things are here, they are a threat,” says John Chapman, of Oregon State University’s Hatfield Marine Science Center. “They could explode at any time. It’s just like roulette. Each time something lands here, we pull the trigger. We’re getting more and more every year.”
The Japanese government estimates that the tsunami carried about 1.5 million tons of debris out to sea. “We expect to see tsunami debris for years to come,” says Peter Murphy, the Alaska coordinator for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s marine debris program.
Chapman and his colleagues have been studying the debris since shortly after it began arriving on North American beaches. That includes a dock that arrived on Agate Beach in Lincoln County, Oregon last summer following roughly 450 days adrift in the Pacific Ocean. The organisms they have found living on debris have been extremely unpredictable, Chapman says. “It’s been a constant surprise. There was a huge diversity of organisms. There are multiple generations. They were carrying on with life like fleas on a dog’s back. The other thing that was maybe even a bigger surprise is that lots of things settled on the debris after the tsunami. We know that because it was on top of the things that were there at the time of the tsunami.”
The arrival of invasive species is not a new concern on the Pacific coast. Organisms are often transported on transoceanic ships or in their ballast water. But ships don’t typically recruit whole communities, and they move too fast between ports for many organisms to hang on. The species transported on slow-moving tsunami debris look very different – and can arrive along the whole North American coastline rather than just at heavily monitored ports.
Researchers say that although no invasive species have been found yet on the tsunami debris, the results do suggest a real risk. For example, three of the best-known algal invaders have been among the debris, says Gayle Hansen, a marine-algae expert at Oregon State. She says that 75 percent of the 46 algal species she has collected from the debris have been reproductively active, dropping spores. That gives them a good chance of getting established and possibly displacing native species in the Pacific Northwest.
Until researchers know more, the most important action they can take is to carefully measure all the tsunami debris that washes in. “This is very important because it tells us what’s next. This is a giant experiment, and if we get a chance to measure this we can exploit this terrible experiment that should have never happened,” Chapman says.
—Nature, 3/13; The Oregonian, 3/13