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Go Back: Home > Earth Island Journal > Issues > Autumn 2004 > Around the World

Around the World

Local News from All Over

 

AFRICA

Recycling on the mother continent

In a new effort to improve livelihoods and help conserve the environment, African communities are beginning to use waste products as resources. The Zero Emissions Research Initiative (ZERI), based at the University of Namibia, focuses on using waste products as raw materials. Namibia has hosted the projects since 2001.

The project provides training in mushroom growing, mainly for women, and has led to profitable businesses in Namibia, Tanzania, and Zambia. All supply mushrooms to local markets, restaurants, and hotels.

Communities in Zambia are also gathering water hyacinths and exchanging them for banana and orange seedlings. A ZERI pilot project, with the University of Zambia and other partners, is showing how water hyacinths can be composted and used for growing mushrooms.

For its next phase, the project is looking at other potential resources, such as ganoderma mushrooms, to create medicines helpful in treating HIV/AIDS.

Other participating countries are Gambia, Lesotho, Malawi, Senegal, Swaziland, Tanzania, and Zambia.

— AllAfrica.com, May 11

Poached rhino

In the northern Congo, Sudanese rebels have poached the rare northern white rhino to near extinction. If left unchecked, the rebels could wipe out the rhino in a matter of months, says Henri Paul Eloma, the co-ordinator of a project to protect wildlife from the effects of war in Congo run by the UN’s cultural heritage body UNESCO.

Eloma says the world’s 27 remaining wild northern white rhinos live in Congo’s Garamba National Park, on the northern border with Sudan. The Sudan People’s Liberation Army (SPLA) has been gunning down both the rhinos and elephants for their valuable horns and tusks.

“If we don’t control the SPLA, at this rate they will exterminate all the rhinos that are left,” Eloma said in an interview in Kinshasa. “This is a subspecies that doesn’t exist anywhere else in the world so they will soon be extinct in the wild.”

— Reuters, May 12

That’s just distusking

This October, at the 13th annual meeting of the United Nations Convention on International Trade on Endangered Species of Wild Flora and Fauna (CITES), Namibia intends to ask for a repeal of the global ban on ivory trade.

African governments are deeply split over the issue of ivory trading, banned since 1989. Five southern African countries—South Africa, Botswana, Zambia, Zimbabwe, and Namibia—argue every year for the legalization of trade in ivory. They maintain that a set amount of ivory could be taken from elephants that have died naturally or been culled under government-supervised programs.

But countries such as Kenya, where elephants are still recovering from rampant poaching in the 1980s, are worried that such sales give cover to poachers who want to sell illegally obtained ivory.

In 2002, CITES granted Botswana, Namibia, and Zimbabwe a one-time sale of 60 metric tons of ivory. Regardless, Namibia is still requesting an annual ivory export allowance of two metric tons.

Namibia’s Ministry of Environment and Tourism says that revenue from ivory sales will be used for elephant and community conservation.

— The Namibian, May 13, May 19

Lead out

Twelve African nations have committed to phase out leaded petroleum fuel, and nine countries—Cape Verde, Ethiopia, Eritrea, Ghana, Mauritania, Mauritius, Nigeria, Rwanda, and Sudan—have already switched entirely to unleaded fuel.

“Removing lead from petrol in Africa is proving to be one of the great environmental and health success stories of the early 21st century,” says Klaus Toepfer with the United Nations Environment Programme.

Currently, only four percent of motor fuel used in Africa is unleaded. According to the Global Lead Network, African fuel has the world’s highest lead content.

People exposed to lead often suffer brain and kidney damage. Children are especially susceptible to nervous system damage. Most countries in North America, Europe, and Asia have already phased out leaded fuel, but the push for unleaded fuel in Africa began only in 2001.

— SciDev.Net, May 13

GM out

In March, Angola became the latest country to formally reject genetically modified grains and seeds. Angola joins Lesotho, Malawi, Mozambique, and Zimbabwe in this ban.

The countries plan to ensure that their crops aren’t accidentally contaminated by requiring GM food to be milled before import. “We hold in our gene bank almost 800 different types of maize,” says Elizabeth Matos, chairperson of the National Plant Genetic resources center in Luanda, Angola. “We don’t want this material crossed with GM.”

The UN World Food Programme (WFP) says Angola will face a significant decrease in food aid if it requires that food be milled prior to distribution. More than half the food aid delivered by WFP comes from the US, where 40 percent of corn and 80 percent of soy are genetically modified.

NGOs from 15 African countries have written an open letter to WFP, asking them to “desist from presenting governments with a no choice scenario” and “guarantee the right of countries to impose restrictions of GM food” as they see fit. Meanwhile, Tony P. Hall, the US Ambassador to the UN Agencies for Food and Agriculture, claims that African leaders who reject GM food aid should be tried “for the highest crimes against humanity in the highest courts of the world.”

— Léonie Sherman

ASIA

Bhopal redux

Nearly 20 years after a devastating gas leak at the Union Carbide chemical plant in Bhopal, India, there are signs that the tragedy is not over. Tons of toxic material used in cleaning up the old plant have contaminated Bhopal’s groundwater.

The Indian government, once reluctant to pursue legal claims against Union Carbide, is now ready to hold parent company Dow Chemical liable for the current contamination.

“Our state pollution control board in December filed a report that confirms that there is contamination of the groundwater, and we will give this to the Supreme Court to settle,” says Babu Lal Gaur, state minister for rehabilitation of the Bhopal gas victims. “The Dow company [is] responsible for this and the state government wants Dow to clean up.”

Union Carbide and Dow Chemical take no responsibility for the current groundwater contamination.

For Abdul Jabbar, a community activist in Bhopal, the chain of responsibility clearly links Union Carbide to the current situation. “This tragedy lives on,” he says. “The groundwater three to five kilometers from the site is contaminated, and this comes 20 years after the fact.”

— Christian Science Monitor, May 4

Dawning:
a Vanunu era

Mordechai Vanunu was released from prison in Israel on April 21 after spending 18 years behind bars, 11 of them in solitary confinement. Vanunu was jailed for revealing secrets that exposed Israel as one of the world’s top nuclear powers in the 1980s. In a defiant address outside the prison, Vanunu said that his treatment had been “cruel and barbaric.” He called for inspections of Israel’s nuclear reactor, and railed against “secret cooperation” among Israel and countries such as the US, UK, Germany, and Canada. Israel has forbidden Vanunu to leave the country for one year. One of three countries that still refuse to sign the Nuclear Weapons Non-Proliferation Treaty, Israel continues to create nuclear weapons. The nation may have up to 300 warheads.

— The Guardian, April 21; Sunday Herald, April 27

China sends out for Burmese logs

As the world’s fastest-growing market for tropical timber, China has made efforts to protect its own endangered forests by imposing a nationwide ban on logging in 1998. But there is mounting evidence that China has merely exported this problem to other Asian countries, where escalating Chinese demand has resulted in excessive and illegal logging.

It seems Myanmar may have suffered the heaviest damage to old-growth forests. “It’s the biggest mistake we’ve made,” says Bao Youxiang, head of the United Wa State Army, a former guerilla group that has become a regional authority in northeastern Myanmar. “We’ve destroyed our environment.”

China’s timber imports from Myanmar surged 40 percent last year. Those old-growth forests, which covered 60 percent of Myanmar as recently as 1960, now cover less than 30 percent. And the percentage is falling fast.

According to a Global Witness report, “The local population has benefited very little in economic terms, but the rich [drug lords and military authorities] have enriched themselves.”

— Toronto Globe & Mail, May 13

Gut reactions

Fishermen threatened environmental activists who filmed them as they captured over 30 whales in southern Japan. Fishermen from the village of Taiji, near Osaka, “made killing gestures with their knives” at activists and shone flashlights in the faces of Nik Hensey and Billy McNamara of the California-based Sea Shepherd Conservation Society.

The incident was the latest confrontation between Sea Shepherd activists and Taiji fishermen during the September to March hunting season for dolphins and coastal whales. According to locals, the hunt is an important part of Taiji culture dating back 400 years. Hensey previously filmed the slaughter of over 60 dolphins, and hunters driving spikes into the animals’ heads.

Sea Shepherd contacted the Taiji police and requested aid should another confrontation take place with the hostile fishermen.

—Scotland on Sunday, November 9, 2003

CeThaiceans

Thailand has asked an international wildlife protection agency to list the Irrawaddy dolphin as a critically endangered species. The request is one of 50 received by the CITES Secretariat from governments around the world.

Kongkieat Kittiwattawong, a marine scientist from Thailand, says the population of the dolphins, which live in the ocean and rivers, is rapidly dwindling. According to Kongkieat, there are fewer than 10 wild Irrawaddy dolphins left in Thailand in the Songkhla Lake region.

Thailand is asking CITES to upgrade the Irrawaddy dolphin from an Appendix II species to an Appendix I species. Trade in Appendix I species is banned until the species is deemed to have recovered from danger of extinction. Kongkieat hopes that adjusting the level of protection will help increase the numbers of the rare dolphins.

— The Nation Thailand, May 14

AUSTRALIA

BiodOzel

Australia’s first large-scale biodiesel plant is expected to be operating in Adelaide by early 2005. Australian Renewable Fuels (ARF), a wholly owned subsidiary of Amadeus Energy Unlimited (AEU), has committed to build the first biodiesel plant at Birkenhead, South Australia.

Biodiesel is produced from animal fats, and from vegetable oils, such as canola and soy. According to ARF’s Darry Butcher, it is a significantly cleaner fuel than petrol-diesel. “The nasty carcinogens in diesel exhaust are reduced by 80 or 90 percent,” he says.

Backers of the plant to be built say they will start with an annual production target of 45 million liters; current worldwide production of biodiesel is 3.5 billion liters per year. This is the first of five planned plants to be established Australia-wide.

— ABC News, May 6; egoli.com, May 4

EUROPE

Surf’s up

Despite annual combined spending of more than $3.5 billion to combat beach erosion throughout Europe, a recent study shows that almost a sixth of the UK’s coastline is suffering from serious erosion. The European Commission is calling for a reduction of human intervention in coastal development.

Coastal erosion rates differ around the EU. More than a quarter of the Belgian coast is eroding due to extensive seacoast construction, and in Italy, 23 percent of the coastline is eaten away by beach urbanization. Some areas, like the rocky Finnish coastline, are barely touched.

“We need to safeguard our coast much better,” says EU Environment Commissioner Margot Wallstrom. “The Commission will increase its efforts to ensure sustainable coastal management, but it appeals to the national, regional, and local authorities in charge to do their utmost to stop the erosion process.”

The population living along Europe’s coast has more than doubled in the last 50 years, to 70 million people—16 percent of the population of all 25 EU countries. They are increasingly exposed to the risk of erosion and flooding.

— The Scotsman, May 17

GM in

A five-year moratorium on imported GMOs in the European Union was effectively lifted in May.

In response to an application from the Swiss firm Syngenta, the European Commission has decided to allow import of genetically modified sweet corn, BT-11. The corn may be imported only in canned form and must be labeled “produced from GMOs.”

In direct opposition to the European Commission’s ruling, environmental groups, like GM Free Ireland, disagree with this decision and say that many scientists still question the safety of GMOs.

Environmental groups also assert that 70 percent of European consumers reject GMOs. Still, the European Commission has decided to give consumers the option based on its “pre-marketing assessment.” The Commission is currently reviewing 33 additional requests from companies wishing to import and cultivate other genetically modified foods into Europe.

— RTE News and Deutsche Welle, May 19

Is cod dead?

According to the World Wildlife Fund (WWF), the world’s cod stocks could be wiped out by 2020 because of overfishing, illegal catches, and oil exploration.

The WWF report, dated May 13, states that the world’s largest remaining cod stock, in the Barents Sea, is under particular threat.

“The world’s cod stocks will disappear in 15 years’ time,” warns the report.

The catch in North America alone has declined by 90 percent since the early 1980s. And in Europe, the catch of North Sea cod is only a quarter of what it was 20 years ago.

The Barents Sea, north of Norway and Russia, accounts for half the global cod catch and is one of the world’s richest fishing grounds. According to the WWF report, this won’t last; some estimated 110,000 tons of cod are caught illegally there every year.

Expanding shipping and oil exploration plans are also responsible for the diminishing cod population, maintains the WWF. Norwegian authorities have announced that after a brief pause to conduct environmental studies, the Barents Sea will soon be reopened for oil exploration.

— Associated Press, May 13

GM wheat plowed

The American biotech company Monsanto announced in May that it was suspending efforts to introduce genetically modified wheat.

Commercial development of Roundup Ready wheat, modified to be resistant to a widely used weed killer, will be deferred so that Monsanto can concentrate on research into GM corn, cotton, and oilseeds, the company said.

Monsanto, the world’s biggest supplier of GM crops, has failed over the past six years to gain European Union approval for the cultivation of Roundup Ready wheat in Europe.

“GM wheat was meant to be Monsanto’s next big thing, but like most other GM crops it looks destined for the scrap heap,” says Greenpeace’s Ben Ayliffe. “Monsanto failed to convince even the most die-hard GM supporters that GM wheat was worth the risk.”

—The Scotsman, May 10; ENN, May 12

NORTH AMERICA

Goldman Prizes

The annual Goldman Environmental Prizes are awarded each year to seven grassroots environmentalists from around the globe. The Goldman Prize, often called the “environmental Nobel Prize,” recognizes their perseverance and accomplishments as grassroots activists. This year’s winners are:

Rashida Bee and Champa Devi Shukla, of Bhopal, India, for leading an international campaign to hold Dow Chemical and its subsidiary Union Carbide responsible for the horrors of the 1984 gas leak in Bhopal that killed 20,000 people and continues to contaminate the air, soil, and water;

Rudolf Amenga-Etego, a public-interest attorney from Ghana, for mobilizing Ghanaians to demand clean and affordable drinking water in the face of a World Bank water-privatization project that would make water unaffordable and unattainable;

Manana Kochladze, from the Republic of Georgia, a scientist and activist working to protect the Georgian people and environment from a $3 billion BP oil pipeline project that will cut directly through her country;

Demetrio do Amaral de Carvalho, a founder of the newly independent East Timor, who helped win independence for his country from Indonesia and is now leading its very first environmental organization;

Margie Eugene-Richard, of Norco, Louisiana, for leading a 13-year fight for residential relocation against an oil refinery and a Shell Chemical plant surrounding her life-long hometown that had come to be known as “Cancer Alley,” and;

Libia Grueso Castelblanco of Colombia, who has defended the rights of Afro-Colombians and the integrity of her country’s biodiversity in the face of industrial development and the fallout of civil war.

Greenpeace wins one

On May 19, citing lack of evidence, US District Court Judge Adalberto Jordan threw out a case brought against the entire organization of Greenpeace by the US Department of Justice.

This case [see EIJ, Spring 2004] was unusual in that it used an obscure 1872 law against “sailormongering”—boarding a ship illegally to entice sailors to onshore establishments with prostitutes and liquor—to prosecute the NGO after demonstrators had tried to take a protest banner onto a ship carrying illegally harvested mahogany from the Amazon. The purloined lumber was allowed to continue to its South Carolina destination.

The last time anyone was prosecuted for sailormongering was 1890. This suit, if successful, could have put Greenpeace under probation, preventing its trademark acts of civil disobedience for years.

— LA Times, May 14;
— AP, May 19

PL tries to renege on Headwaters

To the dismay of North Coast environmentalists and California lawmakers, the Pacific Lumber Company (PL) is attempting to renegotiate the deal it made with the state of California that protects Headwaters Forest in Humboldt County.

PL wants to revise the conservation plan in part so it can push logging closer to several of the rivers and tributaries that cut through its 217,000 acres. Citing “new scientific data” that logging closer to waterways wouldn’t harm the environment, the proposed change would effectively increase PL’s timberland by 30,000 acres.

In 1999, PL received $480 million from the state and federal governments in exchange for the forest, which is now a protected reserve.

According to state senators John Burton (D-San Francisco) and Byron Sher (D-Stanford), who played pivotal roles in the original 1999 negotiations, PL’s request for more logging ground is outrageous. “These guys [Pacific Lumber] made out like bandits,” says Burton. “They did very, very well.”

Burton promised that should Governor Schwarzenegger’s administration agree to renegotiate the original terms of the deal, he would ensure that a lawsuit is filed.

The governor’s new resource secretary, Michael Chrisman, assured Burton that the administration would reject any of PL’s proposed changes.

PL is citing economic hardship, but according to environmental attorney Sharon Duggan, “They created this mess in the first place by mismanaging the company and over-cutting. They struck a deal. Now they’re trying to back out of it.”

— LA Times, May 5

OCEANIA

On the blecch

A solid waste crisis threatens to overwhelm many Pacific islands, where human-made debris is piling up on the beaches of
paradise.

In Tarawa atoll, the Kiribati (pronounced Ki-ra-bas) government is opening one landfill and building another. But island governments everywhere, along with environmentalists, say they need more help. “We urgently need access to effective and affordable technologies, including recycling equipment, before this issue of wastes becomes critical,” says Jagdish Koonjul of Mauritius, head of the Alliance of Small Island States, in a UN conference in March.

Kiribati is among the smallest of the island states, located halfway between Hawai’i and Australia. Its impoverished population of 90,000 has no room to dump garbage.

“Aluminum cans alone—they’re throwing away 100 tons of aluminum cans a year in Tarawa,” says Alice Leney of the Foundation for the Peoples of the South Pacific, an aid group helping Kiribati manage its waste. Plastic bottles, bags, and other packaging are piling up just as fast.

— AP, May 16

A coral-ation

A recent study shows that even traditional fishing methods can disturb fragile coral reefs.

Until now, coral reefs were thought to be resistant to the effects of age-old fishing methods such as using spears and hooks. “This study suggests,” says Dr. Nick Polunin of the University of Newcastle in Northern England, “that even low levels of fishing may cause ecosystem meltdown.”

Polunin’s team studied reefs near 13 Fijian islands for two years. They tracked populations of coral-eating crown-of-thorns starfish and found that even low-intensity fishing of the starfish’s predators enabled it to multiply significantly and destroy the reef.

“These systems are surprisingly fragile,” says Polunin. “It is conceivable that a small amount of fishing, such as would have taken place prior to the last 50 years, could have had a significant impact in many cases.”

Coral reefs are found in more than 100 countries and support 25 percent of all known marine species.

— Reuters, May 5

SOUTH AMERICA

Losing ground

Brazil has launched a $140 million plan to reverse Amazon deforestation, which hit near-record levels last year. The government announced in April that annual Amazon deforestation had grown two percent last year, to 9,169 square miles.

Officials celebrated the relatively low increase. But environmentalists worry that deforestation is being allowed to stabilize at an unacceptably high rate. Many expected different of Brazil’s supposedly eco-friendly President Luiz Incio Lula da Silva.

“This government has taken a long time to do anything—and not just with the environment,” says Rosa Lemos de Sa of the World Wildlife Fund. “If they don’t show any results soon they are going to lose credibility.”

— Christian Science Monitor, April 22

Born free (slow version)

Venezuela’s government has established what it believes is a record for releasing an endangered species back into the wild. Over the weekend of April 5, tens of thousands of protected Arrau turtles were set free into the Orinoco River.

“We’ve been doing this for 10 years now and with this part we have released a total of 166,000 turtles. It’s a historic release of a protected species,” Environment Minister Ana Elisa Osorio told Reuters as turtles bobbed in the brownish waters.

The program takes new-born turtles from the river banks to raise them in a refuge for a year before releasing them back into the wild river.

Officials hope that by protecting the hatchlings during their most vulnerable months, they can increase the survival rate of South America’s largest freshwater turtle. Hatchlings face predation by crocodiles, birds, and people: poor residents in the region near the Colombian border have a tradition of eating the turtle eggs and meat. But officials say environmental education programs have reduced turtle hunting.

“We hope those we helped grow will return to the beach soon to lay their own eggs and complete the reproductive cycle,” says Ramiro Royero, director of the state wildlife protection program. “We expect that could happen next year.”

— Reuters, April 6

Around the world was compiled by Sara Knight.

   

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