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The $38 Million Mosquito
Malaria, a disease transmitted primarily from mosquitoes, strikes the hardest in sub-Saharan Africa, where most of the estimated annual 350 to 500 million cases of the illness occur. When the flying pests bite to get the blood they need to nurture their eggs, they can pick up a parasite from infected people. The parasite reproduces in the mosquito, and then mixes with the mosquito’s saliva, which passes into the bloodstream of the next biting victim. There’s no vaccine available to prevent the disease, but there is inexpensive medication available to treat infected people. Other low-cost preventative efforts include distributing insecticide-laced nets to cover beds, which keep mosquitoes away from people during the insects’ busiest bite times. The nets cost $10 each, and, depending on the source, are anywhere from 20 to 90 percent effective in reducing the risk of malaria.
Now scientists are abuzz trying to find a more technologically oriented solution. In a laboratory at London’s Imperial College, researchers have genetically engineered mosquitoes to release a sea-cucumber protein into their guts, which impairs the development of malaria parasites. Other experiments underway include developing sterile male mosquitoes in an effort to reduce the population of mosquitoes, as well as malaria-resistant mosquitoes. The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation has invested nearly $38 million into finding genetic solutions to the mosquito-malaria problem – enough money to purchase some 3.8 million mosquito nets.
“Can’t we just give mosquito nets to people instead of looking at these really complex technological fixes that mess with the very delicate balance of nature and evolutionary history?” asks Gillian Madill, a genetic technologies campaigner at Friends of the Earth in Washington.
There are an estimated 100 trillion mosquitoes on the planet, and scientists would have to genetically engineer billions of mutant mosquitoes to even hope to combat the problem.
Madill’s cautionary question may go unheeded. Scientists hope to do a test release of GM mosquitoes in southern Italy over the next year. Millions of the high-tech bugs will be set loose to determine how they might interact with wild mosquitoes.
Dr. Crisanti, a professor at Imperial College, acknowledges that there might be unintended consequences of such an experiment, but can’t predict what they could be.
“I think there is a moral good to doing it,” he says. “If we do this right, the mosquitoes will get rid of malaria for us.”
—Associated Press, 6/19
Lake Malawi, Africa’s third largest freshwater source, is the center of life for many Malawians. The lake, which also crosses into Tanzania and Mozambique, is an important source of food and livelihoods for the country. Approximately 40,000 people fish from its waters, while others indirectly benefit from the lake by working in industries such as fish processing and boat repairs.
But as human population on shore grows, fish populations dwindle in the lake. A study by the Malawi National Wildlife Organization indicates that the population of Chembe, just one of thousands of fishing communities on the lake, grew from 555 in 1910 to more than 4,500 in 1992. In the last decade alone, the number of fishermen has increased by nearly 125 percent. Fish populations simply cannot keep pace with humans’ consumption.
“Things have really changed,” says 33-year-old Saidi Afida, a fisherman on Lake Malawi. “Just five years ago, I came back from fishing with a full canoe every day. Now it’s barely half full. There are too many of us fishing in this lake. Everybody has become a fisherman and we all fish from the shallow waters.”
The government’s response? More fishing … only in deeper water.
“The lake still has substantial amounts of fish in deep waters,” says Alexander Bulirani, director of fisheries in the ministry of agriculture and food security. So the government, in collaboration with the African Development Bank, is lending money to fishermen so they can buy the outboard engines and other equipment they need to go after fish farther from shore.
Daulos Mauambeta, the executive director of the Wildlife Society of Malawi, proposes an alternative solution: an end to the policy that allows anybody with a license to an unrestricted catch. “Malawi needs to establish a quota system,” he says. “We have this major weakness which allows anybody to fish the whole year. Fish is free here.”
But changing national laws is likely to occur more slowly than population growth. With little other employment available in a country where most people survive on less than one dollar a day, the prospects for the future of Lake Malawi remain uncertain.
“Will the fish last in this lake?” asks 24-year-old fisherman Iman Saidi. “What will our children feed and rely on?”
—Agence France-Presse, 6/9
Carbofuran, a lethal insecticide, has been banned in Europe. In its granular form, carbofuran is also prohibited in the US, and the EPA is seeking a complete ban on the substance. In many parts of Africa, however, carbofuran is readily available and commonly used. Now some environmentalists fear that farmers in Kenya are using the poison to kill lions and other predators.
Marketed under the trade name of Furadan by Philadelphia-based FMC Corporation, carbofuran was developed to battle bugs. After carbofuran is spread in soil, it is absorbed by plants, which store concentrated doses of the insecticide in their leaves and stems. Any insects that feast on the poisonous greens are making a fatal mistake.
Unfortunately, African herdsmen have found a far more catastrophic application of the chemical, and are buying carbofuran to kill predators that threaten their livestock.
In November of last year, a dead camel was found laced with carbofuran near the Lewa Wildlife Conservancy. At least two lions and 15 vultures that feasted on the carcass also died.
“It’s become known in rural communities in Kenya as an easy way to get rid of predators: lions, leopards, and hyenas,” says Dr. Richard Leakey, the world-famous naturalist.
Thomas Manyibe, a veterinarian with the Kenya Wildlife Service, has confirmed environmentalists’ concerns about carbofuran. He examined two lions that had been killed in the Maasai Mara game reserve after they had eaten a hippo that had consumed carbofuran, and held the chemical responsible for the lions’ deaths.
Kenya’s Pest Control Products Board, operated by the Ministry of Agriculture, has conducted its own research on carbofuran, and says it’s too early to reach a conclusion about the popular compound’s effects on wildlife. The pesticide’s manufacturer disputes the idea that carbofuran is being used to poison animals. In a statement on its Web site, the FMC Corporation writes: “We note that the recent reports on the Kenya lions are inconsistent with the scientific information we have developed about carbofuran – this is why we are particularly hopeful that the Board’s investigation will provide more details and, if carbofuran is confirmed as the cause, we are prepared to take the appropriate steps to ensure its safe use.”
Leakey and others say that the evidence is there for all to see, especially since the circle of death doesn’t end with the originally poisoned animal. Once a predator dies, birds of prey swoop in to feed on the remains and soon suffer a similar fate.
“I literally saw vultures dropping out of the sky just a few minutes after they had eaten the poisoned meat,” says Simon Thomsett, a Kenyan expert on birds of prey.
—BBC News, 6/18
For two years, a giant mud volcano in the Sidoarjo district of East Java, Indonesia has wreaked havoc on the local population. Gushing some 3.5 million cubic feet of mud per day (enough to fill 50 Olympic-sized swimming pools), the volcano has caused millions of dollars in damage, affected 12 villages, forced the relocation of 36,000 people, and contributed to at least 10 fatalities. All efforts to stem the flow have failed, and it appears the mud will continue indefinitely.
The Indonesian government has said that an earthquake triggered the May 29, 2006 eruption of the Lusi volcano. But a new study by researchers from Australia, Indonesia, the UK, and the US disproves that claim. Detailed scientific analysis of the volcano has revealed that the earthquake – whose epicenter was 155 miles away – was too small to force the eruption. In fact, the mud explosion was caused by the drilling of a gas exploration well.
“We are more certain than ever that the Lusi mud volcano is an unnatural disaster and was triggered by drilling,” says Professor Richard Davies of Durham University. “We show that the day before the mud volcano started, there was a huge ‘kick’ in the well, which is an influx of fluid and gas into the wellbore. We show that after the kick, the pressure in the well went beyond a critical level.”
According to Davies, the chances of controlling the pressure in the well and preventing the eruption would have been increased if there had been a more protective casing in the borehole.
In addition to inundating nearly 1,000 acres and forcing tens of thousands of people from their homes, the volcano is causing the ground throughout the area to subside, which could have significant environmental impacts for years. In November 2006, a six-foot subsidence caused a gas line to rupture and explode; 11 deaths were reported.
The company that carried out the drilling, Lapindo Brantas, is owned by the family of Indonesia’s Welfare Minister, Aburizal Bakrie. Lapindo officials have challenged the theory that the volcano was caused by their drilling, though they confirm that the numbers in the recent report are correct.
—Environmental News Service, 6/9; AFP, 6/9
Iran, increasingly isolated, threatens to shut down oil shipping in the Persian Gulf, which a US admiral says would be “an act of war.” The Israelis, worried about Iran’s nuclear program, hint that they are prepared to launch an attack against suspected weapons facilities. US Special Forces, meanwhile, operate inside Iranian borders on midnight missions.
Amid the deafening saber rattling, Western and Iranian wildlife experts are quietly working together to save a rare cheetah from extinction.
The sleek and spotted Asiatic cheetah once roamed widely from India to the Arabian Peninsula. Today, only some 60 to 100 of the cats are believed to remain. They eke out an existence among the jagged peaks and arid plains of the Kuh-e-Bafgh protected area in central Iran.
To save the species’ few survivors, US and British conservation groups are supporting a campaign by the Iranian Department of the Environment and the UN Development Programme to track the animals and increase anti-poaching efforts.
“This is a wonderful case of the urgent conservation needs of the cheetah transcending political difference,” says Luke Hunter, executive director of Panthera, a New York-based conservation group.
The US has had no ties to the Iranian government since the 1979 Islamic Revolution. While many European nations maintain some kind of diplomatic relationship with Iran, tensions have been high since the EU imposed new sanctions on Iran this summer.
Conservationists say that politics should be set aside in the effort to protect the animals. “I love anybody who works for conservation and wildlife protection,” says Ali Akhbar Karimi, an official with the Iranian Department of the Environment. “It doesn’t matter who it is.”
Until the 20th century, Iran was home to four of the so-called big cats – including lions and tigers. Now only leopards and cheetahs remain. The spread of human settlements has pushed the cheetahs close to extinction as villagers hunt the wild goats that the cats depend on for food.
Panthera, the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS), and the Zoological Society of London are providing funds, expertise, and training to the Iranians working to protect the cheetah habitat. The US and British organizations say Iran’s environment department has done an excellent job of raising local awareness of the need to protect the cheetahs and increasing penalties for those who kill the animals.
“Our donors, partners, and both governments recognize that endangered wildlife cannot always wait for political solutions and that wildlife conservation is not itself a political activity,” says Peter Zahler, a director at WCS. “In fact, engaging in such activities has a long history all over the world of bringing peoples, who are otherwise at odds on certain issues, to the table over a subject on which they are all in agreement.”
Prerogatives of the Apes
Spain may be better known as the home of bullfighting than as a bastion of animal rights, but that reputation may soon change.
Spain’s parliament recently passed a law that bars harmful experiments on apes. The resolution, which grants to some primates the right to life and freedom, is apparently the first time that any national legislature has guaranteed such rights to non-humans.
The new law also prohibits apes from being employed in circuses, television commercials, or films. The estimated 325 apes that are kept in Spanish zoos will continue to live there, but many institutions will have to improve conditions to comply with the measure.
The groundbreaking law was sponsored by the Great Ape Project, which was founded by philosophers Peter Singer and Paola Cavalieri to advance the idea that our closest genetic relatives deserve rights that until now have been limited to Homo sapiens.
“This is historic … in the struggle for animals’ rights and in defense of our evolutionary comrades, which will doubtless go down in the history of humanity,” says Pedro Pozas, the director of the Great Ape Project in Spain.
Real estate mogul Donald Trump is not exactly known for his modesty – or his ecological sensitivity. Trump’s soaring high-rises, casino complexes, and eponymous resorts (where you can experience the “Trump lifestyle”) are hardly examples of green development.
It shouldn’t be surprising, then, that many residents in Scotland are suspicious of the impresario’s efforts to build a giant golf course on an unspoiled stretch of seashore, or that they took umbrage at Trump’s claim that he is an environmentalist.
During an early June hearing into his plans to develop a resort consisting of 900 apartments, a 450-room hotel, 500 luxury homes, and two golf courses on the Menie estate near Aberdeen, Trump told local officials he is an ecologically concerned entrepreneur whose plans will improve the local environment, not damage it.
“There are dead birds, there are animals lying all over the site which have been shot,” said Trump, referring to the Foveran Links, a stretch of sand dunes that is home to a variety of wildlife, including skylarks, kittiwakes, badgers, and otters. “Maybe some people are into that – I’m not. Before, no one knew what it was. Now they are saying: ‘Menie, it’s the greatest.’”
When Trump went on to call himself “an environmentalist,” the reaction from the public gallery was so loud that the hearing chairman had to demand silence.
Trump’s stated intention to “build the finest golf course in the world, if given the chance to” appears to run contrary to his claim of eco-ideals. As golf grows in popularity and the number of courses increases, so do criticisms of the sport. Some environmentalists warn that golf courses guzzle too much water; rely too heavily on herbicides, pesticides, and chemical fertilizers that end up polluting groundwater sources; destroy native habitats for birds and other fauna; and, in poorer nations, take over land that could otherwise be used for food cultivation.
Similar concerns have fueled the controversy over Trump’s proposed £1 billion development, which was turned down by the council in Aberdeenshire, but which is supported by other Scottish leaders, who say the resort will bring jobs to the area. Among the worries of local residents is whether the resort will allow families to visit the seashore site after it’s turned into a golf course.
Trump suggested not. “You don’t want to be sitting with your family and getting smashed by a golf ball,” he told the hearing. “In the US, we have the expression ‘half-assed.’ Let’s do it properly.”
—The Independent, 6/11
Mexico City is filled with people – more than 20 million of them – many of whom find work in the metropolis’s factories manufacturing auto parts, textiles, chemicals, pharmaceuticals, plastics, and electronics. According to Brittanica.com, the average work week for those employed in Mexico City’s manufacturing sector consists of 45 hours. So when do these people stop and smell the roses?
Truth is, they don’t. But it’s not lack of time that’s stopping them – it’s the pollution. Researchers from the National Autonomous University have discovered that compared to their rural cousins, residents of Mexico’s capital have greater difficulty detecting odors, from pleasant aromas such as orange juice to nasty ones, like rotten food and garbage.
“We added a substance (to powdered milk) that is a common contaminant of food, something that smells disgusting, basically – like a sour, rotting cabbage,” says scientist Robyn Hudson. “We were able to see at what point … they would start to reject the contaminated sample, say ‘Ew, yuck! No! Take it away, please!’”
The sensory cells that tell the brain how something smells are vulnerable to damage, and the constant barrage of city pollutants easily destroys the delicate cells. Researchers are now conducting studies to determine whether the sense of taste, closely aligned to olfactory reception, is also prone to pollution’s destructive effects.
Losing one’s sense of smell surely stinks, but not as much as the other ill effects caused or exacerbated by pollution, such as lung infections, asthma, heart attacks, and cancers. A recent study published in the American Journal of Respiratory and Critical Care Medicine found that school-aged children in Mexico had abnormally small lungs. Two critical components of good health – fresh air and plenty of exercise – are sorely missing from the lives of Mexico City’s residents. Official warnings to avoid physical exertion and going outside are common.
“I know I’m inhaling poison,” says Guadalupe, a 38-year-old candy seller who works at a busy intersection. “But there is nothing I can do.”
EPA Cost Cutting
With skyrocketing gasoline costs fueling inflation, the price of nearly everything seems to be on the rise, from a carton of eggs to the tickets at the movie theater. The one major exception? A human life.
Earlier this year, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) revised downward the “value of a statistical life.” The EPA now figures that an American life is worth about $6.9 million – a decrease of 11 percent from $7.8 million from five years ago.
Critics of the move say the government agency may have devalued the price of human life in order to manipulate the cost-benefit analysis when deciding whether to initiate new regulations. When considering new environmental rules, the EPA, like other government agencies, puts a value on human life and then balances the costs of the regulation against the life-saving benefits of the proposed rule. If a life is worth less to the government, then there is less need for regulations such as ratcheting down CO2 emissions or limiting other kinds of air pollution.
Some environmental groups charge that the devaluation is a way of avoiding tougher rules.
“It appears that they’re cooking the books in regards to the value of life,” says S. William Becker, executive director of the National Association of Clean Air Agencies. “Those decisions are literally a matter of life and death.”
The EPA traditionally has set the highest value on life of any government agency, and still does, despite efforts to agree on a single figure among all departments. For example, the Department of Transportation’s life value estimate is lower than the EPA’s, even though the transportation agency twice raised its number during the time the EPA was slashing its figure.
EPA officials say that the devaluation of human life is not significant and is based on better economic studies. “It’s our best estimate of what consumers are willing to pay to reduce similar risks to their own lives,” says Al McGartland, director of the agency’s office of policy, economics, and innovation.
Others remain unconvinced. The EPA’s cut “doesn’t make sense,” says Kip Viscusi, a Vanderbilt University economist who independently has calculated an American life to be worth $8.8 million. “As people become more affluent, the value of statistical lives go up as well,” he says.
This is not the first time the EPA has sought to devalue human life. In 2004, the EPA lowered the value to $7.15 million for a major air pollution rule. And in 2002, the EPA decided that the value of elderly people was 38 percent less than that of people under 70, but reversed the decision due to the controversy it generated.
Dan Esty, a senior EPA official during the administration of the first President Bush and now a professor at Yale, says the latest devaluation has little to do with science: “It’s hard to imagine that it has other than a political motivation.”
Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd won the election last year in large part on a promise to lead his country in reducing greenhouse emissions, something his predecessor had obstinately refused to do. But now it appears that Rudd’s Labor Party is having a hard time reconciling its green aspirations with Australia’s heavy reliance on coal.
Australia is the world’s biggest per-capita greenhouse gas polluter. The country’s electricity system depends on coal, and each year Australia exports hundreds of billions of dollars of the fuel.
In an effort to call attention to this fact and demand stronger action on climate change, environmental protestors in July disrupted business at the world’s largest coal terminal in Newcastle, 60 miles north of Sydney. About 50 activists from Greenpeace and Friends of the Earth chained themselves to train cars and tracks and succeeded in briefly halting shipments into the port, which typically ships out 2 million tons of coal each month. Thirty-seven people were arrested during the action.
“We are achieving what we set out to do,” says Damien Lawson of Friends of the Earth Australia. “We said we would temporarily shut down the rail line into the world’s biggest coal port and we did. We’ve sent a message around the world about the need for urgent action on climate change.”
That message, unfortunately, is one that the premier of Queensland, Anna Bligh, apparently didn’t receive. Bligh’s Labor government has begun examining possibilities for more coal mines and increased exports of coal. Just a few days after the Newcastle port protest, Bligh announced that her government is considering an A$5.3 billion proposal to open a new mine near the town of Alpha that would produce 20 million tons of coal a year, mainly for export to Japan and South Korea. The Alpha mine is just one part of what Bligh calls a “trifecta” of proposed coal development. Two other massive mines are under discussion, as well as a new coal port that could handle 100 million tons a year.
“The project is expected to create around 2,200 jobs during construction and some 760 permanent jobs during operation,” Bligh says.
In order to offset the pollution the additional coal extraction would cause, the Australian government has released a plan to create a carbon emissions trading regime starting in 2010.
—Reuters, 7/14 and 7/16
Wake Up and Smell the Deforestation
For coffee connoisseurs, few kinds of beans are prized as highly as the unique “geisha” variety grown in Panama. The coffee beans – which are sometimes described as the champagne of coffee for their subtle jasmine-like taste – are eagerly sought by boutique roasters in North America, Europe, and Japan. Last year, the famed coffee fetched a record world price of $130/pound in an online auction.
For farmers, that’s good news. But the strong demand is convincing some growers to illegally clear land and plant coffee in one of Panama’s few protected forests.
In June, Panama’s Environmental Protection Agency uncovered 16 acres of clandestine coffee shrubs nestled deep in the Volcan Baru National Park. While the one plot is only a small portion of the park’s thousands of acres, officials fear there may be other illegal plantations, and that an invasion by farmers could disrupt species such as pumas, quetzal birds, and rare orchids.
“There is a grave threat to the park,” says Ezequiel Mirand, head of a local environmental group. “People do not respect laws and the (government) has not done its part to ensure compliance.”
Specialty coffee producers have denounced the illegal planting, fearing that a few rogue growers will give the entire geisha business a bad name. Some of the established farmers in the area have carefully cultivated environmentally and socially responsible reputations, and are certified as “shade-grown” by Rainforest Alliance, or fair trade certified.
“This is certainly not what our organization or our members are about,” says Ricardo Koyner, president of the Panamanian Specialty Coffee Association. “Production is growing, but it is growing very cautiously to ensure that quality is retained.”
Another factor driving illegal plantings in the national park is nearby real estate development that is taking up prime agricultural lands.
“You might have difficulty expanding because of real estate developments,” Koyner says, “but there is still a lot of suitable land between Volcan and the border.”
Loggers in the jungles of Peru often find much more than forests to destroy: Nomadic tribes frequently fall to the loggers’ invasion.
Of the estimated more than 100 uncontacted tribes in the world, more than half are believed to live along the border of Peru and Brazil. When outsiders arrive, the results can be disastrous. More than half of the members of the Murunahua tribe, first contacted in 1996 when development workers encroached on their tribal lands, died of colds and other ailments shortly thereafter.
Some Indigenous people abandon their land and lifestyles, winding up in state preserves or cities. And while there are no accurate statistics available regarding the number of people involved, the effects on those who stay behind are evident.
Delia Pacaya, who grew up in a nomadic tribe, left the rainforest a decade ago for a tiny village.
“There were a lot of loggers and we were afraid,” says Pacaya, now in her 20s.
Illegal logging is hard to control, due to political corruption, extreme rural poverty, and insufficient policing. “Uncontacted communities are in a very difficult situation. Most of them are being encroached on by loggers, among others, and their lives are in danger,” says Beatriz Huertas, an anthropologist associated with the Interethnic Association on the Development of the Peruvian Jungle (AIDESEP).
As companies around the world search for new areas to explore for oil and gas, rights organizations are concerned about the potential effect on jungle tribes. Perupetro, Peru’s energy agency, has vowed to exclude from auctions any lands known to be home to isolated communities, a decision that contradicts the agency’s previous assertion that such tribes might not even exist. The decision has been lauded, albeit cautiously, by rights advocates, who assert that the Peruvian government must do more to protect tribes from the encroachment of other civilizations.
Survival International’s Director Stephen Corry says, “If ever the Peruvian government needed a wake-up call, this is it: killings, the destruction of homes, the invasion of the Indians’ land. The government needs to get its act together, accept responsibility for its most vulnerable citizens, and do whatever is necessary to ensure the Indians can live on their own land in peace.”
Saving for the Rainforest
Eager to find new ways to protect the Amazon, the Brazilian government is reaching out to international donors to help pay for preservation of the world’s largest rainforest.
In August, Brazilian President Luiz Ignacio Lula da Silva signed a decree to establish the Amazon Fund. The fund, which will be administered by a government bank, is designed to receive up to $21 billion over the next 13 years. The money will be used to set up conservation and sustainable development projects proposed by Brazil’s environment ministry.
The fund already has one donor lined up – Norway has pledged to contribute $100 million this year.
While seeking financial support from other nations, the Brazilians are carefully keeping control of the money, deciding what kinds of programs will get funding and making it clear to donors that they won’t receive any benefits – such as carbon credits – for their largesse. This position is influenced by a long-standing feeling of defensiveness among Brazilians, who say that managing the rainforest is their responsibility. For years, environmental groups have complained that the Brazilian government’s efforts are falling short and that more foreign involvement might be helpful.
“Donations are voluntary and donors have no say over the use of the resources,” says Eduardo de Mello, environment director of the bank managing the fund.