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Go Back: Home > Earth Island Journal > Issues > Autumn 2007 > Around The World

Around The World

Local News from All Over

AFRICA

Spotty Logic?

Leopards may find themselves in a tight spot now that The Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) has approved a Ugandan proposal to allow sport hunting of leopards. Of Uganda’s estimated population of 2,700 leopards, 28 can expect to be the target of trophy hunters, who will be required to pay $50,000 US for each bagged leopard.

Threats to leopard populations are nothing new. The leopard has been on CITES’s list of the most endangered species since 1975. There are conflicting opinions as to whether there is justification to make any change to the leopards’ current ranking. Leopard populations in Uganda in 1987 were estimated at 4,300. Some reports say that the leopard is widespread throughout Uganda; others say there is little evidence to support that claim.

photo of two leopards drinking from a pondPhotos.com A trophy hunter can pay $50,000 a piece to kill these animals.

There is little doubt that the species has been struggling in Uganda for many years, particularly since the Ugandan government launched a plan in 2000 to convert the country from a largely subsistence farming system to more commercial agriculture – a plan that has included the removal of restrictions on some previously protected rainforests for commercial use.

Proponents of the hunt suggest that by putting a price on the leopards’ heads, they’ll actually be saving more of the cats. Villagers kill many leopards each year in attempts to protect their livestock herds from the spotted predators.

“Sport hunting will make leopards more valuable than being poisoned or killed,” Sam Mwandha, executive director of the Uganda Wildlife Authority, says. “It will also generate tangible economic benefits that will motivate local people to protect them instead of regarding them as vermin.”

Will Travers, chairman of the Species Survival Network disagrees with the decision. “Despite a profound lack of contemporary scientific information about the population status of leopards in Africa, the meeting supported proposals to establish and increase leopard trophy export quotas,” he says. “It is terribly unfortunate that CITES parties have again put the interests of wealthy trophy hunters above the needs of imperiled species.”

— New Vision, 6/7

Clearcut Apothecary

What do you do when someone cuts down your pharmacy? That’s the dilemma facing some West African traditional healers who are finding it more difficult to procure ingredients for their natural remedies as logging goes unchecked in Ivory Coast.

Many people in Ivory Coast depend on traditional healers to cure common ailments such as diarrhea and ringworm. Reliance on such healers has increased in recent years; civil war has forced many doctors to flee and medical centers to close.

“I am faced with a shortage of certain plant species that have medicinal properties,” says Sogbéné Soro, a traditional healer in the small city of Korhogo. Fifteen years ago, Soro could walk to forests near his home to collect the roots, leaves, bark, and herbs used for his natural remedies. Now he is forced to travel long distances by motorbike or car to find medicinal materials. Transportation costs have forced him to raise his prices.

photo of a woman in traditional clothing in a store holding a jar of colorful itemsREUTERS/Luc GnagoLogging in West Africa is making it more difficult for traditional healers
to procure the plants they use to make natural remedies.

Since the 1960s, nearly 25 million acres of forests have been cut down in Ivory Coast, according to the Ivorian Ecological Group. Just 14 million acres of forests remain today – and those are rapidly disappearing. Although a government quota restricts how much wood timber companies can cut down, Ivorian environmentalists say that less than two percent of those companies comply with the legislation in place to protect the forests.

— Inter-Press Service, 7/10

Drastic Plastic

Can a plastic bag give you malaria? No, not directly, but when discarded plastic bags accumulate in the African countryside, any moisture they collect gives mosquitoes one more breeding ground. In Uganda, officials have placed a ban on plastic bags, asking people to use banana leaves instead, the traditional means of carrying goods.

Tanzania’s Zanzibar Islands imposed a similar ban last year, and efforts are underway in Kenya and mainland Tanzania to increase duties paid on plastic bags.

Ugandan Finance Minister Ezra Suruma announced the reason for the ban on buveera (polythene bags in the Luganda dialect) during a recent budget speech.

“Due to serious environmental concerns and the difficulties in the disposal of polythene bags and plastic containers, action was required in order to encourage producers and consumers to minimize (their use),” he says.

In addition to enabling the spread of disease, plastic bags often pollute water supplies when they collect in wetland areas. Bags that are burned release toxic chemicals, increasing air pollution.

Most cities in Uganda have the resources to properly dispose of only about 10 percent of the trash produced.

The ban states that companies will not be able to produce, import, or use plastic bags. However, individuals who use existing bags will likely not be punished.

— Reuters, 7/2

ASIA

Nature Persists

In a powerful testament to nature’s resilience despite human onslaught, a Japanese island that had been the site of one of the country’s worst environmental disasters is starting to come back to life.

Between 1978 and 1990, a now-defunct disposal firm illegally dumped 500,000 tons of industrial wastes along the shores of Teshima, a sparsely populated island on the western shore of Japan. Shredded construction materials, metals, and oil byproducts littered the island’s beaches.

In 1990, island residents launched a grassroots campaign for cleanup after deadly dioxins from the dump leached into the sea, destroying a coastal fish farm. After a 10-year battle, the residents convinced the Kagawa Prefecture government to pay for a comprehensive cleaning and to admit fault in letting the disposal company routinely break the law. At the time of the settlement, Greenpeace Japan called the resolution “a landmark victory for environmental justice worldwide.”

Today, Teshima is on the mend as the ecosystems wrecked by years of dumping start to recover. Cuttlefish, sea cactus, grass wrack, crabs, and other tiny organisms have begun to reappear on beaches that were once covered in foul-smelling black sludge.

The government has removed about one-third of the industrial waste. The remainder is covered by silver-colored liners that prevent pollutants from leaching out during rains.

“It took four years to remove one third,” says Shigeharu Nakaji, director of the Environmental Monitoring Laboratory in Osaka. “This shows it will take at least eight years to dispose of the remaining two thirds. It is not clear whether the disposal program will be completed in a decade, as claimed by the Kagawa Prefecture.”

With the cleanup well underway, residents are focusing on how to improve the economy of the island, which is home to about 1,100 people. Ritsuko Yamagi, a 60-year-old housewife, is working with her husband and several other couples to grow greenhouse strawberries. The Teshima growers sell their produce at well-known fruit shops in Tokyo, though they refrain from referring to them as “grown in Teshima.”

Seven years after Teshima became a national symbol of industrial pollution, illegal disposal of toxins remains a national problem, according to the Japanese Environment Ministry. In 2005, the government exposed 558 cases of industrial waste dumping. Throughout Japan, there are an estimated 15 million tons of illegally disposed-of waste – roughly 30 times the amount dumped on Teshima.

— The Japan Times, 6/7

Burning Man

Mechanical engineer Vinod Kumar Agarwal wants to make sure that the last thing a Hindu does is to protect the environment.

Agarwal has developed a funeral pyre that will allow the traditional Hindu custom of cremation to be more environmentally friendly. His invention cuts the amount of wood used by approximately 95 percent, and the resulting carbon dioxide emissions by over 60 percent.

photo of a flame by water, boat full of people in the background watchingREUTERS/Arko DattaSome 8.5 million cremations occur in India annually and have a large
environmental impact. One engineer has figured out a way to make
the traditional rite more ecologically sensitive.

Nearly 10 million people die each year in India, and 85 percent of the population practice cremation. According to Agarwal’s research, this religious rite burns up an estimated 50 million trees, leaves behind half a million tons of ash (which goes into the rivers), and results in eight million tons of carbon dioxide emissions annually.

Agarwal’s invention – the Mokshda Green Cremation System – reduces the amount of wood used to cremate the average human body by increasing the efficiency of combustion. Agarwal’s pyres, first introduced in 1993, include a roof that can be lowered to maintain heat, and elevation to increase air circulation. After consultations with priests, bureaucrats, and environmentalists, Agarwal has made some modifications. Pyres now include marble flooring and a statue of the god Shiva, and are currently being used in several locations throughout India.

— Agence France-Presse, 6/12

War Profiteer

The conflict in the disputed Kashmir region between Pakistan and India has been a human rights disaster. Since a revolt against New Delhi’s rule started 18 years ago, as many as 60,000 people have died in fighting. Tens of thousands more have been displaced from their homes.

The horrific human strife has helped one population – endangered Asiatic black bears, whose numbers are increasing as the warfare keeps away poachers.

To root out insurgents, Indian security forces have strengthened their presence in the Himalayan forests where the bears live. This has scared off the poachers that hunt the bears for their fur, paws, meat, and gall bladders, which are used in traditional Asian medicine. Since 1990, the number of bears living in the pine and conifer forests of northern India has jumped between 30 and 60 percent.

“For fear of being caught by security forces, militants, or in an exchange of fire between the two, no one dares to go deep into forests since the militancy started,” says Abdul Rauf argar, Kashmir’s wildlife warden.

The black bears inhabit mountainous forests from Afghanistan to Taiwan. They are listed as a vulnerable and protected species by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature.

The number of leopards, another endangered species in India, has also grown.

“Besides frequent sightings of leopards and bears, the attacks by these wild animals on people have registered a sharp increase in the past several years,” argar says.

The increase in animal attacks – which have lead to 15 deaths so far this year and scores of injuries – is likely caused by a border fence that is disrupting bears’ and leopards’ movements and shunting them into villages.

— Reuters, 7/25

EUROPE

Virgin Effort

Virgin Group CEO Sir Richard Branson recently set a transportation milestone when his railroad company launched Europe’s first biodiesel train.

photo of a well dressed man fueling a streamlined colorful train with something marked biodieselREUTERS/Toby MelvilleBillionaire Richard Branson and new British Prime Minister Gordon Brown
hop on the biodiesel bandwagon.

In June, the Virgin Voyager set out from London’s Euston station to Llandudno on the north coast of Wales. The train has been modified to run on B20 – a blend of 80 percent petroleum diesel and 20 percent biodiesel made from rapeseed, soybean, and palm oil. If the Voyager’s six-month trial proves successful, Virgin Trains plans to convert its entire fleet to run on biodiesel.

If Virgin were to run all of its trains on biofuels, the move could cut the railway’s carbon dioxide emissions by 14 percent – or the equivalent of taking 23,000 cars off the road.

“It’s fantastic that we are leading the rest of Europe in developing this fuel,” Branson says.

Gordon Brown, who became Britain’s new prime minister on June 27, accompanied Branson on the train’s maiden trip. When Brown was Chancellor of the Exchequer, he proposed a national budget that sharply reduced the government tax on biodiesel from about $1/liter to 15 cents/liter.

“We have to prove that this works,” Brown says. “If it works, I want other train companies to consider using biodiesel. … I want Britain to be a world leader in the development and use of environmentally friendly fuels, and I believe they will play a fundamental part in our efforts to reduce emissions and tackle climate change.”

Virgin officials say that using biodiesel not only reduces reliance on petroleum, but can further limit the impacts of carbon emissions, since the crops grown to make the fuel will absorb carbon dioxide during their life cycle.

— Agence France-Presse, 6/7

Exporting Harm

In July, the European Union passed new legislation that seeks to halt the illegal dumping of toxic waste in developing countries.

The regulations come in response to a series of incidents in which hazardous materials from European countries were dumped into the waters of poorer nations. In 2004, a Spanish ship, the Ulla, sank in a Turkish port and released a plume of toxic waste into the Mediterranean. Last year, a Dutch-chartered ship offloaded tons of hazardous materials into the waters surrounding the city of Abidjan in Ivory Coast. Sixteen people died and tens of thousands of people suffered from vomiting, diarrhea, and breathing difficulties after inhaling fumes from the waste.

“We must make sure that tragic accidents such as last year’s dumping of dangerous waste in the Ivory Coast never happen again,” says EU Environment Minister Stavros Dimas.

The United Nations Basel Convention already forbids ships from transferring hazardous waste outside of countries that belong to the 27-nation Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD). The new regulations require EU countries to carry out inspections of ships in their territory and gives government officials new powers to conduct spot checks of ships’ contents. The rules also insist that ships carry detailed information about cargo containing hazardous waste.

The EU is now exploring ways to establish criminal penalties against companies that violate environmental rules, another way to stop illegal shipments.

“We must have strong and efficient measures at the EU level to prevent illegal shipments of waste and to ensure that when waste is shipped for treatment outside the EU, this treatment does not damage the environment,” Dimas says.

— Reuters, 7/16

NORTH AMERICA

Ethanol Hangover

Earlier this year, Mexicans took to the streets of the capital to protest a spike in the price of tortillas, a staple for tens of millions of people. Since President Bush outlined US government targets for using corn-based fuel as a gasoline alternative, a biofuel boom has driven up the price of corn, and in the process has sent the cost of tortillas skyrocketing. Now it appears that the ethanol rush may also be affecting Mexico’s national drink, tequila.

photo of men carrying agave hearts from a fieldREUTERS/Daniel AguilarDrink or drive: The ethanol boom is cutting into the production of the agave plants,
the key ingredient in tequila.

Mexican farmers are burning fields of blue agave – the succulent used to make the liquor – to convert their lands to corn. In recent years, agave production soared as farmers sought to take advantage of the growing international popularity of tequila. But the new agave fields led to a surplus that sent prices plummeting. Now Mexican farmers are tearing out their agave plants, burning their lands to remove the roots, and then re-sowing their fields with corn.

“These growers are going after what pays the best now,” says Ishmael Vicente Ramirez, head of agriculture at Mexico’s Tequila Regulatory Council. Like farmers worldwide, Mexican farmers often get caught in boom-and-bust cycles as they pursue the most lucrative cash crops.

After years of decline – due in part to the import of cheap, subsidized corn after the passage of NAFTA – corn prices in Mexico are rising again. But the pendulum may soon swing back. The switch to corn will contribute to an expected scarcity of agave in coming years. Mexican officials predict that farmers will plant 25 percent to 35 percent less agave this year. Additionally, the agave stocks are being hit by disease.

“The problem that we are going to see, perhaps by mid-2008, is that a lot of agave is sick,” says Arnulfo del Toro, an official at the Mexican Agriculture Ministry. “That will have to be taken out and production is going to drop a lot.”

All this could leave Mexicans with the worst of both worlds – expensive tortillas, and no tequila to ease the pain of higher grocery costs.

— Reuters, 5/29

Ship Shifting

As of July 1, ships coming and going in Boston Harbor will be diverted from the areas where several whale species – such as the fin, sei, and the endangered humpback and Northern right whales – are known to feed. The move is expected to lower the risk of deadly collisions between ships and whales by 80 percent.

Over the past 25 years, Dr. David Wiley, a researcher for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), has collected data that showed nearly 62,000 whale sightings in the old shipping lanes, but just 12,000 over the same period in the new routes. Changing course will add 3.75 miles to the ships’ routes and between 10 to 22 minutes for each one-way trip, but the Massachusetts Port Authority and representatives of the shipping industry, NOAA, and other federal agencies have determined that the detour is warranted.

“We have extensively studied the problem of whale behavior and have devised this measure as a much safer environment for ships and whales, while at the same time being the least disruptive to the economy,” Conrad Lautenbacher, the Department of Commerce undersecretary, said in a prepared statement.

Prior to the implementation of the new routes, two or three whales were killed in collisions with ships annually in the Stellwagen Bank Marine Sanctuary near Boston. This may seem like a small number of casualties, but researchers believe the rate of loss could contribute to the extinction of some endangered whale species.

While this is the first such shifting of shipping lanes in the US, the plan is not without precedent. Shipping routes were altered to protect right whales in the Bay of Fundy in Nova Scotia several years ago. Pending further data, similar protection strategies may be used to save whales outside New York, Baltimore, Charleston, and Jacksonville.

— Christian Science Monitor, 7/9

Double Trouble

For years, green groups have warned that the increasing petroleum devel-opment of the tar sands in Alberta could pose one the greatest environmental mistakes of the century. Al Gore – seeking to place the development in the context of our society’s petroleum addiction – has likened extracting oil from the tar sands to “junkies find[ing] veins in their toes.”

Now it looks as if the problem could get worse. Canadian officials and oil company executives are considering whether to build a nuclear reactor near the tar sands to provide electricity for the energy-intensive extraction process.

“We’ve had interest from investors who would like more information about the possibility of using nuclear energy in Alberta for the extraction and refining of oil,” says Armand Laferrere, president of Areva Canada, a uranium mining and milling company.

Locked under the soil of northern Alberta are some 175 billion barrels of oil in the form of heavy, sulfuric tar – the largest known reserves of petroleum outside of Saudi Arabia. Until recently, large-scale extraction and refining was not economically feasible. But rising crude oil prices, combined with new extraction technologies, have prompted petroleum companies to invest billions of dollars to develop the tar sands. Industry officials project that oil production in the tar sands will triple to three million barrels per day over the next decade.

That has environmentalists worried. Converting the tar sands into the “light sweet crude” desired by refineries is an extremely water- and energy-intensive process that carries a giant ecological footprint. Huge amounts of water are needed to steam the tar out of the ground, and then to separate the bitumen from the oil. It’s estimated that it takes one barrel of water to produce every barrel of oil, a process that endangers the health of the Athabasca River. At the same time, the development is spurring logging in the surrounding forests. “The proposed tar sand developments will tear a hole in Canada’s lungs – our vital boreal forest ecosystem,” says Lindsay Telfer of the Sierra Club of Canada.

The extraction also requires a large amount of electricity – three times as much as conventional oil production. The tar sands development is so energy intensive that some observers warn that the oil extraction jeopardizes Canada’s ability to meet its Kyoto goals.

photo of a tar-sands industrial instlallation from the airCourtesy Global ExchangeExtracting oil from the Alberta tar sands has been compared to a “junkie finding
veins in their toes.”

So far, the tar sands development has relied on natural gas to fuel extraction. But with natural gas prices fluctuating wildly, some petroleum companies are looking at nuclear power as a more stable way to maintain the tar sands boom.

“We’ve looking to cut our power needs and eventually turn to another source, and nuclear energy is a possible alternative,” says Michael Borrell, president of Total Canada, a subsidiary of the French multinational Total SA.

Late last year, Canadian Natural Resources Minister Gary Lunn shocked observers by saying: “I think nuclear can play a very significant role in the oil sands. I’m very, very keen. It’s not a question of ‘if,’ it’s a question of ‘when’ in my mind.”

Environmental organizations are mobilizing to put a stop to any further development in the tar sands. The Sierra Legal Defense Fund has set up an office in Alberta to respond to tar sands development. So have Greenpeace and the World Wildlife Fund, both of which have hired campaigners dedicated to the issue.

In early June, some 50 people participated in a five-day “action camp” in the Albertan woods to develop organizing skills to halt the tar sands development. The trainees learned about non-violent direct action techniques such as setting up blockades and hanging banners.

“I think the reason we’re training people in those types of tactics is we’ve tried to work through the regulatory process,” says Mike Hudema, who directs the Freedom from Oil Campaign at Global Exchange. “We’ve seen the majority of Albertans come out to the oil sands consultation process speaking against it. But the (Alberta Energy and Utilities Board) has a history of just rubber-stamping every single project that comes before it. We’re now having to resort to more aggressive tactics to try to get this project stopped, because the traditional means society is supposed to have to have input into this conversation … are obviously not being listened to.”

— Edmonton Journal, 6/4; Agence France-Presse, 6/26

OCEANIA

Dino Die-Off

One of the planet’s oldest reptilian lineages, contemporaneous with the dinosaurs, may soon become extinct.

The tuatara has lived on Earth for some 200 million years, and is the only living example of the Sphenodontians that used to roam the planet. The tuatara has survived ice ages, volcanic eruptions, and the intrusion of humans into its South Pacific home. But the lizard-like reptile is facing extinction due to human-induced climate change. Rising temperatures may be increasing too fast for the scaly creature to adapt.

“They’ve certainly survived climate changes in the past, but most of them (past climate changes) have been at a slower rate,” says Jennifer Moore, a Victoria University researcher who is investigating the tuatara. “So you wouldn’t expect these guys to be able to adapt to a climate that’s changing so rapidly.”

And “guys” they mostly are – which is the problem. The ambient temperatures in which the tuatara incubate their eggs determine the sex of the unborn while still in their shells. Temperatures above 71 degrees Fahrenheit create more male tuataras, while cooler temperatures lead to more females. Recent rises in temperature have caused male tuatara in some populations to outnumber females by 1.7 times.

Scientists say there are currently about 50,000 to 60,000 tuatara, but that the little dinosaurs may find themselves able to breed only in laboratories if temperatures continue to climb.

According to the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), global temperatures could rise by 3.2 to 7.2 degrees Fahrenheit this century. That would spell disaster for millions of species besides the New Zealand lizard. The IPCC warned that 20 to 30 percent of plants and animals would face an increased risk of extinction if global temperatures rose by two degrees.

Already, the tuatara is endangered. Once common throughout New Zealand, the reptile is now limited to about 30 isolated islands.

“Tuatara” is a Maori word meaning “peaks on its back.” The lizards – which have a crest of spikes running from head almost to tail – can grow up to 20 inches in length and weigh as much as two pounds. Theirs is the only species that that has two rows of upper teeth that overlap another row on the lower jaw. An eater of insects, the slow-moving tuatara can live more than 100 years.

“The easiest way for the tuatara to survive would be for nesting female tuatara to change their behavior and modify the areas where they nest, such as laying eggs deeper in the soil,” Moore says. “There is a possibility that they will be able to adapt, but I think the problem is that temperatures may rise so quickly they won’t have time.”

— Reuters, 6/20

SOUTH AMERICA

Flight(less) Risk

It’s a vicious cycle. A location is beautiful, so tourists want to see it, and in doing so, ultimately destroy the destination. On Ecuador’s Galapagos Islands, famous for being among the sites that inspired Darwin’s theory of evolution, the growing number of eco-tourists and naturalist travelers are beginning to wreak serious harm on the archipelago’s unique ecosystem.

In June, the UN placed the islands on a “World Heritage in Danger” list, citing invasive species and growing immigration as among the threats to the area.

The chain of volcanic islands, located about 625 miles west of Ecuador’s coast, has long been a popular destination for people eager to see a giant tortoise or a blue-footed booby.

photo of a beach crowded with marine mammalsPhotos.comTourist hordes are threatening the delicate ecosystem of the Galapagos Islands.

In the last 15 years, the number of days spent on the islands by cruise ship passengers has grown 150 percent. That, in turn, has fueled immigration from the mainland, as Ecuadorians travel to the Galapagos for construction, restaurant, and cruise ship jobs. Some mainlanders have brought with them invasive species, such as goats, which compete for food with indigenous fauna.

In April, Ecuadorian President Rafael Correa declared the islands at risk and pledged to suspend some tourism permits and impose more stringent population controls. His government welcomed the declaration of danger by UN officials.

Ecuadorian Foreign Minister Maria Fernanda Espinosa says the UN statement “will help the government’s efforts to solve the complex problems with the Galapagos.”

NGO observers agree. “This is a good thing because it will highlight the islands’ problems,” says Linda Cayot, a science advisor with the non-profit Galapagos Conservancy. “It will push not only Ecuador but conservationist groups to support work there.”

— Reuters, 6/26; ENS, 6/26

Drowning the River

Tension between Brazil’s need for economic growth and the effects of environmental destruction is nowhere more visible than at the heart of the Madeira River, where a dispute over a proposed $11 billion hydroelectric dam has set off a fight within the Brazilian government.

Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva sees large public works projects as effective ways to stimulate the economy, and has designated the dam as a government priority.

“This project will redeem the region from backwardness,” says Aldo Rebelo, a leading congressional ally of President da Silva.

The government’s environmental agency, however, refuses to license the project due to its likely destructive impact on the Madeira basin.

A tributary of the Amazon River, the Madeira flows through northern Brazil into Bolivia, and boasts the world’s most diverse fish stocks and the most fertile flood plains in the Amazon region.

photo of men and women marching on a street with a banner reading vivo a rio madeira vivoCourtesy International Rivers NetworkAs communities that live along the Madeira River protest plans for a major dam,
officials within the Brazilian government are aruging among themselves about
the wisdom of the plan.

Damming these waters would block annual migration routes for the hundreds of fish, bird, and animal wildlife species headed for the mouth of the Amazon, and disrupt vital stages in their lifecycles. Flooding the tributary would also exacerbate the spread of malaria and other waterborne diseases and cause destruction to parts of the rainforest in both Brazil and Bolivia.

Arguments for and against the dam echo those from previous debates, which seemed focused more on politics and economics than science and nature.

“My impression is that some environmental groups see the authorization of construction as opening the door to unrestricted entry to the Amazon,” says António Alves da Silva Marrocos, a leader of the Pro-Dam Committee, financed by business groups and the state government. “If they are able to block this, then every other Amazon hydroelectric energy project is doomed as well.”

Opponents of the dam say there are other sources of energy that better suit the needs of the local people.

“Yes, we need electricity, but not in this form,” says Artur de Souza Moret, director of the Sustainable Energy Institute at the Federal University in Brazil. “There are still a lot of unanswered questions as to the impact that this project could bring.”

The energy generated by the dam will be transported more than 1,000 miles south to Brazil’s industrial heartland, with little or no immediate relief for the people of the Madeira delta region – whose own demand for energy will be met by a new gas pipeline to the north.

Dam proponents say the dam will create thousands of jobs. But a massive influx of immigrants will only intensify pre-existing social problems in the area, opponents argue.

“The biggest problem is the studies showing that this project will bring 100,000 people to the region, between workers and their families,” says Silvánio de Matias Gomes, regional representative of the Amazon Working Group. “We already have serious deficits in housing, education, health, sanitation and drinking water, and those problems will surely be exacerbated by such a migration.”

Nevertheless, because of da Silva’s persistent support of the dam, the proposal is far from defeated. As governmental deadlock continues, Brazil’s energy crisis looms ever larger, threatening power blackouts and dimming the economy.

— Reuters, 6/11

Tater Nots

Cuzco, Peru, ancient capital of the Incan Empire and for millennium the center of potato biodiversity, recently voted to prohibit genetically modified (GMO) varieties of the tuber.

In July, the Cuzco regional government banned the cultivation, sale, transport, or use of GMO potatoes or other native crops. The law covers a region of more than 1.2 million people, many of whom rely on potatoes as their staple food crop.

Potatoes have been cultivated in the Andean highlands surrounding Cuzco for thousands of years, and helped drive the expansion of the Incan kingdom. Today the area remains the center of potato biodiversity. Farmers grow more than 4,000 distinct varieties.

The new law was passed in response to the fears of farmers’ organizations that genes from GMO potatoes could transfer into local varieties, altering their unique properties.

“This is unprecedented for Peru and a great victory for the communities of Cuzco,” says Alejandro Argumendo, director of the Association for Nature and Sustainable Development, a non-profit Peruvian indigenous organization that works to improve the quality of life for Andean native communities. “It will protect the region from contamination with (GMO) varieties that can threaten the diversity of the potatoes and other important native food crops that are critical for food security and the economy.”

photo of traditionally dressed people roasting potatoes REUTERS/Mariana BazoAndean peoples have relied on potatoes as a staple crop for centuries. A new law
prohibits the cultivation of GMO potatoes in the region surrounding Cuzco, Peru.

Elsewhere in Peru, experiments with GMO potatoes continue. Earlier this year, scientists at the International Potato Center in Lima announced that they had developed a GMO potato that can withstand attacks from weevils, a major pest. To fight off the weevils, many Peruvian farmers spray particularly toxic phosphorates and carbamates on their potatoes. A 2006 study by the International Potato Center revealed that the spraying is harmful to farmers’ health and to the environment.

“Unfortunately, there are not many alternatives to control this pest,” says Marc Ghislain, who heads the Biotechnology Laboratory at the center. “Conventional improvement has not developed very resistant varieties and integrated pest management is not being adopted to control the insects that attack the potato crops.”

The potato is so central to Peruvian culture that the country even has a National Day of the Potato, celebrated every year on May 30.

— ENS, 7/19

   

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