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Go Back: Home > Earth Island Journal > Issues > Summer 2005 > Around the World

Around the World

Local News from All Over

 

AFRICA

A Kenyan slum dweller avoids trash and sewage as he walks in the Nairobi slum of Kibera. -Reuters photo
A Kenyan slum dweller avoids trash and sewage as he walks in the Nairobi slum of Kibera.
Reuters photo

Waste not
As if grappling with the mountains of sand that desertification has cast down on them were not enough, the people of Mauritania’s capital, Nouakchott, are now also faced with ever-growing seas of refuse. As the nation’s traditionally nomadic populace converges on urban centers, a complete lack of waste management has become a monumental problem.

Currently, the only city-wide form of waste management is a few trucks that periodically cart off refuse to a landfill in the desert south of the capital. Residents are expected to take household waste to a few official collection sites. But this rarely happens; trash piles can be found on virtually every block.

In Basra, a Mauritanian community of some 5,000 former nomads, one local environmental organization has turned things around. The group, Tenmiya, initiated a collaborative clean-up campaign in 2003 that will soon provide the entire municipality with trash collection services.

With the help of small grants totaling less than $110,000 from the UN Development Fund and the French government, Tenmiya worked with the local authorities and the private sector to set up a refuse collection service in Basra. The funds went to pay for materials, such as household trash bins, and a community education campaign that underlined the link between poor waste management and disease.
— IRIN, 2/15

Island earth
Seventy-five percent of the world’s most threatened mammals, birds, and amphibians are surviving in areas that, added together, cover 2.3 percent of the Earth’s total land surface, a mere speck of consolidated biodiversity only a little larger than the Indian subcontinent.

According to a global study identifying nine new ecological “hotspots,” at least half of all plant species and 42 percent of all terrestrial vertebrates are endemic to these areas, meaning they are found nowhere else. These findings, the work of four years and nearly 400 scientists, raise the number of hotspots from 25 to 34.

A spot is “hot” if it is home to no less than 1,500 endemic species and has lost 70 percent or more of its original vegetation from human interference.

“The biodiversity hotspots are the environmental emergency rooms of our planet,” said Russell Mittermeier, president of Conservation International, a US-based non-profit which helped organize the study. “If we fail to conserve the hotspots, we will lose a large portion of Earth’s unique living creatures regardless of how successful we are everywhere else.”

Most are located in tropical or sub-tropical habitats, where abundant sun and plentiful rainfall enable countless species to thrive. This same equatorial band, however, also corresponds with very poor countries, which heightens the threat as impoverished rural populations exploit this remaining habitat for their subsistence. Among the new hotspots are the Madrean pine-oak woodlands on the Mexico-US border, the East Melanesian Islands, the Horn of Africa, and all of Japan.
— Reuters, 2/1

BBQ-ed forest
According to its Department of Forestry, Malawi has the highest deforestation rate of 14 Southern African nations. With 55 percent of the 12 million Malawians living below the poverty level, and a mere four percent with access to electricity, the forest becomes the primary resource for both firewood and the charcoal essential for cooking. Charcoal is made by heating wood in the absence of air.

Charcoal production is worth approximately US $8 million annually, and the Malawian government estimates that 125,000 acres of native forests are felled each year. But the problem extends beyond charcoal. The cycle of environmental destruction and poverty is self-perpetuating: The majority of Malawians are farmers, but because the soil is poor, they have to shift cultivation to a new field every two to three years. This necessitates cutting into the forest, which causes soil erosion and leads to greater food insecurity as soil fertility decreases.

To stem the dependence on charcoal production and extractive land management practices, the Wildlife and Environmental Society of Malawi, boosted by funding from a German development agency, GTZ, is promoting alternative money-making endeavors among local communities. Projects such as bee-keeping, chicken raising, making juice from the fruit of the monkey bread tree, and growing vegetable gardens have been met with enthusiasm in a major charcoal producing region, the southern district of Mwanza.
— UN, 1/28

Sands slipping away
It’s not just elephants, monkeys, or leopards that are getting poached in Africa anymore. Now, according to an article in the Zimbabwe Standard, the land itself is getting poached for its sand.

Sand excavators are digging huge holes around the wetlands adjacent to the Jacha Dam in Epworth, a town about 25 miles east of Zimbabwe’s capital, Harare. Why sand? As rural Africans migrate to the city seeking a higher standard of living, Harare suffers a resultant housing shortage. Officials estimate at least 300,000 houses would be needed to fill the gap.

Sand, an essential raw material for building, is in demand by contractors, along with bricks fired in the kilns that are popping up adjacent to the pits. “Selling sand is the only option,” said Ernest Shereni, one of the many – mainly young – men and women trying to eke out a living by excavating near the wetland.

Some environmentalists, notably Environment Africa, point to the huge resulting craters and mounds of sand as setting the stage for an ecological disaster in this fragile landscape. They argue that poor people are encouraged to mine sand by profiteering businessmen. Though Zimbabwe has an Environmental Management Act calling for an agency to enforce laws against environmental offenders, the chief natural resource officer, Philip Manyaza, thinks any damage to the area can be fixed. When the sand miners were asked if they knew about the Act, 19-year-old extractor Nomore Lindani reportedly said, “That’s news to us.”
— Zimbabwe Standard, 1/31

ARCTIC

Polar ice: last refuge for industrial chemicals? www.photos.com
Polar ice: last refuge for industrial chemicals? www.photos.com

Non-stick glaciers
Industrial chemicals – including flame retardants and substances used in making non-stick cookware, such as PDBE – are increasingly drifting north on sea currents and becoming trapped in Arctic ice sheets. Recent research has found higher concentrations of pesticides such as DDT in the Arctic landscape than in the countries that produce the chemicals. The Arctic, for many years a dump for Russian nuclear waste from the Cold War, is now becoming a chemical collection pot for the rest of the world. Studies by the World Wide Fund for Nature UK found toxic chemicals not only in Arctic ice sheets but also in live animals such as fish, seals, and whales. The levels of toxic chemicals found in the fat of such species are known to affect immune, hormone, and reproductive systems.
— Reuters, 2/18

ASIA

Wells versus whales
An independent panel of renowned whale experts has warned that planned oil and gas activities by Royal Dutch Shell in Russia’s Far East may drive the critically endangered western gray whale into extinction.

The panel, set up by the World Conservation Union (IUCN), concluded that existing and planned large-scale offshore oil and gas development near the northeast coast of Sakhalin Island pose “potentially catastrophic threats” to the western gray whale, whose numbers have plummeted to fewer than 100. In cooperation with two Japanese corporations – Mitsui and Mitsubishi – Shell plans to build a pipeline through the whales’ sole feeding grounds.

The scientists found that the pipeline’s construction would physically damage the feeding grounds, subject the whales to noise and other stressful disturbances, and increase the risk of ship strikes. Once the pipeline is built, the whales would also face the further risk of oil spills and gas leaks. Any of these could carry severe consequences, given that one of the three original gray whale populations is extinct and the western gray whale population is considered critically endangered. The panel said that the death of just one of the 23 remaining reproductive females each year could drive the whales into extinction.

The panel criticized the Shell-led consortium’s proposed safeguards, deeming them “questionable,” and recommended the company suspend operations in the area, home to a wealth of other rare and endangered species.

More than 50 conservation and environmental groups, including World Wildlife Fund, are urging a bank consortium led by the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development (EBRD) to withhold funds from the oil and gas development. The EBRD agreed last year that an environmental impact assessment conducted for the project had been inadequate.
— WWF, 2/16

UN scientists’ warning: Change or die
The Millennium Ecosystem Assessment (MA), an unprecedented report on the Earth’s natural systems compiled by 1,300 international scientists, warns of the emergence of new diseases, sudden changes in water quality, creation of coastal “dead zones,” the collapse of fisheries, and shifts in regional climate as just a few of the potential consequences of humankind’s degradation of the planet’s ecosystems.
The four-year assessment was created by a partnership of UN agencies and international scientific and development organizations, with private sector input.
“Only by understanding the environment and how it works can we make the necessary decisions to protect it,” said UN Secretary General Kofi Annan in a statement marking the report’s release. “Only by valuing all our precious natural and human resources can we hope to build a sustainable future.”
The scientists concluded that human actions are depleting the Earth’s natural capital, putting so much strain on the environment that the ability of the planet’s ecosystems to sustain future generations can no longer be taken for granted. More changes have been made to the Earth’s ecosystems in recent decades than at any other time in human history – since 1945, more forests, savannas, and grasslands have been converted to agriculture than in the previous two centuries.
The report also noted that the demand for water by people and industry has doubled since 1960. Underground aquifers are drying up, and sometimes the flow of a once-mighty river such as the Nile in Africa or Colorado in North America is depleted so severely that the river never reaches the sea.
“At the heart of this assessment is a stark warning,” said the MA’s 45-member board of directors in a statement. “Any progress achieved in addressing the goals of poverty and hunger eradication, improved health, and environmental protection is unlikely to be sustained if most of the ecosystem services on which humanity relies continue to be degraded.”
— Natale Servino

Fauxntasy Island
A $14 billion construction project in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, to construct luxury villas, clubs, and hotels on miles of human-made islands is continuing as planned despite growing concern from environmentalists. Since the plans were announced in 2002, the once serene sea is now being shaken by barges dumping six-ton boulders into water as deep as 70 feet. Marine wildlife has already been affected as the human-made islands reroute natural currents, causing Dubai’s beaches to erode. The new landmasses have buried coral reefs, oyster beds, and sea grasses that once nurtured native fish and sea turtles. Recent divers reported virtually zero visibility and close to two inches of silt covering the ocean floor from the dumping. Construction engineers claim that any lost wildlife will be brought back when artificial reefs are inserted along the extended shoreline.

Other obstacles the resort islands will have to face are unexpected storms and future rising sea levels. Hundreds of thousands of people are expected to be able to occupy the islands, most of them just 10 feet above the waterline. A recent storm wave swept away five construction workers, one of whom drowned. At $7 million to $35 million each, the islands are expected to be purchased by oil industry magnates. How ironic that the very people who drive rising sea levels through their businesses, which emit much of the world’s greenhouse gases, will undoubtedly be some of the first to experience the devastating effects of climate change.
— AP, 3/8

EUROPE

Oceans half-empty
The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organizations warns that 52 percent of the world’s fish stocks are fully exploited, up from 47 percent in 2002. The biannual report by the UN agency forecasts that world consumption of fish may grow by more than 25 percent by 2015, causing social and economic shock in countries that depend on healthy fish populations. The report points out that seven of the top ten commercial marine fish species are currently fully exploited or over-exploited, including Alaska pollock, Chilean jack mackerel, Japanese anchovy, and blue whiting. Regions that are said to have fish stocks with the most urgent need for recovery include the Black Sea, Northeast Atlantic, and the South Pacific.
— Reuters, 3/7

Cuisine jeune
As child obesity rates rise in Italy, France, and Britain, legislators across Europe are calling for higher nutrition standards in school meals. France has taken the lead by banning vending machines from primary schools; the ban will extend to secondary schools starting this September. According to a BBC survey, the average national school meal in France consists of grilled chicken and beans, cheese, rice pudding, and grapefruit. Contrast this with the average meal provided by US public schools: burger, chips, and soda.
— BBC News, 3/2

Short of breath
A report sponsored by the European Commission stated that air pollution has cut life expectancy by an average of nine months throughout the European Union. The high pollution levels, caused by vehicular traffic, industry, and domestic heating, force Europeans to take an average of one half day off from work a year due to illnesses related to poor air quality. Germany, Italy, and France led Europe with premature deaths resulting from inhaling high levels of particulate matter, the product of industry emissions.
— BBC, 2/21

NORTH AMERICA

Great horny owl
Without the option of personals ads, online dating, or a thriving bar scene, non-human creatures don’t always have much help when it comes to hooking up. Take, for example, one determined ferruginous pygmy-owl (Glaucidium brasilianum) who went on a 150-mile journey across the Sonoran Desert in search of a mate.

Cactus ferruginous pygmy owl. Fish and Wildlife Service photo
Cactus ferruginous pygmy owl. Fish and Wildlife Service photo

Six state biologists were tracking the owl’s trek through Arizona – at least, they were until she entered the Tohono O’odham Indian Reservation early last year and the radio transmitter rigged to her back gave out. They expect that by this time, the tough, fist-sized bird has successfully nested. But for all they know, she’s still looking for love.

These slim pickin’s are demonstrative of the exceedingly low numbers of adult ferruginous pygmy-owls in Arizona. Only 18 are on record, and the species was designated “endangered” in 1997 due to habitat loss in the rapidly urbanizing southwest. Its range extends into southern Texas, and populations remain healthy south of the border.

According to the Web site owling.com, the pygmy owl is typically pretty sedentary. “We assume that when they move this far that they are not encountering males. It probably suggests that there are very few males out there, at least in the areas it traveled,” Dennis Abbate, one of the monitoring biologists, told Associated Press.

Researchers are now hopeful that the species’ ability for long-distance flying is remarkably greater than had been assumed, and perhaps Latin American owls can bolster lonely northern populations.
— ENN, 3/15

Caffeine troubles for fish?
Tests of male bass with female reproductive organs in two West Virginia rivers showed that fish there were contaminated with chicken manure, human hormones, and caffeine. Yes, caffeine. It’s well known that byproducts of everyday activities have been the cause of much harm and destruction to river fish and their habitat. But scientists are now finding more common products that many humans never considered hazardous are affecting river wildlife. In another study by scientists collecting samples from rivers within the state of Colorado, caffeine was found along with compounds from anti-bacterial soap, fire retardants, steroids, prescription drugs, and pesticides.
— USGS, 3/2

Oil rigs to fish farms
Looking to pump up Louisiana’s economy, a task force released a plan to convert hundreds of oil rigs in the Gulf of Mexico into offshore fish farms. The vision includes rigging giant net enclosures around the drill platforms. The plan has strong support from the oil and gas industry, which would otherwise spend upwards of $5 million per rig to remove the old platforms. As with a similar scenario off the coast of Southern California, plans are stalled until environmental and economic concerns are addressed. There is yet to be a full study of how the surrounding sea life will be affected by the newly converted rigs, nor what the long-term economic costs of running such an operation would be.
— The Times-Picayune, 2/14

Hg up, smarts down
A study by scientists at Mount Sinai Center for Children’s Health and Environment in New York shows that between 316,000 and 637,000 American children experience reductions in intelligence each year due to mercury pollution. What is unique about the finding is the correlation between the reductions in intelligence and future economic setbacks for the United States. The first study of its kind, the Mount Sinai report states that the United States is poised to lose $8.7 billion in lost earnings annually, far more than the cost would be to reduce mercury output from industries.
— ENS, 3/1

OCEANIA

Philippine logging
Yet another official in the Philippine government will be investigated for involvement in the rampant illegal logging that has contributed to the devastation of Philippine forests. Governor Maria Elena Palma Gil – from the province of Davao Oriental, on the island of Mindanao – and her son, Jaypot, have been accused of protecting loggers in her province.

The investigation, conducted by the Department of Environment and Natural Resources, comes on the heels of President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo’s demand for a nationwide halt of all logging following the devastating typhoons that battered the northeastern provinces of Aurora and Quezon in November and December. The timber industry was held largely responsible for the floods and mudslides that resulted.

After surveying the devastation, Arroyo assembled a 30-day taskforce charged with investigating and prosecuting illegal logging.

“We are determined to make those responsible for widespread death and destruction pay the price for their misdeeds, and we shall prosecute them the way we do terrorists, kidnappers, drug traffickers, and other heinous criminals,” she told the BBC.

More than two months later, 49 cases have been filed in court against suspected wrongdoers, including three officials, and eight officials have been fired for complacency or incompetence. If the investigation into the actions of Palma Gil and her son go to court, the tallies will reach 51 awaiting prosecution, eight fired, over 1,000 killed or missing, and some 65 percent of the Philippine forest destroyed.
— Philippine Daily Inquirer, 2/17; BBC, 12/4

SOUTH AMERICA

Peru’s black market threatening alpaca
Peru is struggling to crack down on its estimated $2-billion-a-year black market, which is endangering much of the country’s precious wildlife and livestock. One of the most visible victims of the contraband trade is Peru’s alpaca, sought after globally for its soft wool. Peru’s illicit trade in alpacas has turned into a lucrative business that threatens local textile producers and could endanger the species in its native land. Smuggled alpaca command up to $50,000 each in countries such as Australia, New Zealand, and the US. “If the illegal alpaca trade continues, the animals will really suffer. Smugglers only buy pedigree[d animals], and that robs Peru of its best genetic stock, debilitating the species and causing wool quality to fall,” said Marciel Alvarado, a biologist at Peru’s National Council of South American Cameloids.

So far, officials and conservationists have tried to implant microchips behind some of the alpacas’ ears to track their movement. Unfortunately, Peru’s borders are monitored only by some 50 police, as estimated by Peru’s National Society of Industries. Contraband trading is thought to deprive the government of roughly $400 million in taxes every year.
— Reuters, 2/24

Shrinking wetlands
Large South American wetlands are under threat from farming and house building. “When you talk about environmental problems in Brazil, you think about the Amazon. But people underestimate the importance of the Pantanal [wetlands],” said Paulo Teixeira, head of the Pantanal Regional Environmental Programme. Soybean and sugar cane farming, gas pipelines, roads, factories, and towns are squeezing the Pantanal, the world’s largest freshwater wetlands, which straddles parts of Brazil, Paraguay, and Bolivia.

Teixeira urged the three nations sharing the wetland to cooperate closely and avoid damaging a region which is home to 190 species of mammals – from jaguars to giant anteaters – 650 species of birds, 270 types of fish, and 1,100 different butterflies. If unprotected, the Pantanal, its fate may very well be similar to that of the Florida Everglades, whose national park protects only a fifth of its historic territory, and where sprawling human population and intrusion have risen sharply over the last five decades.
— Reuters 3/22

“Around the World” was compiled by Chris Keyser, Katie Renz, Tucker Sharon, and Natale Servino.

   

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