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After a six-month review of 156 logging deals, the government of the Democratic Republic of Congo has determined that only 65 of the contracts are viable, and has canceled the remaining agreements, bringing some companies’ operations to a halt in the country’s nearly 13 million hectares of forest.
Three companies that will be affected – Germany’s Danzer Group; Portugal’s Sodefor; and the American-Belgian conglomerate, Safbois – are collectively responsible for two thirds of the Congo’s timber exports.
During the Second Congo War (1998 to 2003), a moratorium on new logging deals was put in place, but most multinational corporations working in the forests ignored the prohibition. Many forestry deals were sealed either during the civil war or in the three-year period immediately following the conflict, when a largely corrupt interim government ruled the country. The recent cancellation of the contracts is intended to halt corruption in the forestry industry and enforce at least a minimum of environmental standards for the Congo’s forest, the second largest tropical forest in the world.
Possibly even more important to the Congolese government than reducing rampant deforestation is regaining control of the financial aspect of the industry. Records indicate that in 1992, before the Congo slid into civil war, approximately 500,000 cubic meters of timber were exported annually. A decade later, the recorded figure had dropped to less than 100,000 cubic meters. Yet international surveys suggest that as many as 800,000 hectares – an area roughly the size of Massachusetts – are being destroyed annually in the Congo Basin. This means that much of the country’s wood exports are going unreported and untaxed.
In canceling some of the forestry contracts, the government hopes to ensure that at least some of the revenue from the forest plunder goes to the Congolese people.
Snorkeling for Stumps
With global forests becoming increasingly valuable as a carbon dioxide absorber, some countries are looking to extract the dead trees from man-made lakebeds as a more sustainable form of logging.
At least, that’s the idea in the West African nation of Ghana, where the government is teaming up with a Canadian timber firm to remove the trees at the bottom of Lake Volta, one of the world’s largest artificial lakes. When a hydroelectric dam was built 44 years ago to supply power to Ghana, Togo, and Benin, some 100 species of trees – including valuable hardwoods such as ebony, teak, and mahogany – were submerged. Using high-resolution sonar, Ghanaian officials have identified millions of dollars of timber in the lost forest.
Other countries such as Suriname and Brazil have also done underwater logging. But timber industry observers say that the Lake Volta project will be one of the largest ever undertaken.
“As far as we know, this is the first for Africa on this scale,” says Robert Johnson, an executive at the Vancouver-based Clark Sustainable Resource Development, which has secured a 25-year concession to remove dead trees from the lake. The company estimates the underwater logging will create about 1,400 new jobs and will result in about $100 million in yearly sales of the exotic hardwoods. The Ghanaian government will earn 20 percent of the net value of harvested timber.
Ghanaian officials say the underwater logging is a more sustainable way of exporting timber, especially given that the country has lost about three quarters of its forests since 1960. “What we thought was a resource beyond our reach is right here,” says Owusu Abebrese, the head of Ghana’s Forestry Service. “It’s like a miracle.”
Some environmentalists aren’t so sure. While acknowledging the positive social and economic benefits of the project, they warn that there may be negative impacts. “The effect on fish-breeding grounds has not yet been established, let alone designing appropriate mitigation measures,” says Christopher Manu of Friends of the Earth.
A complete understanding of the risks and rewards of the lake logging will take time since the concept is so novel. “There is no reference point,” says Johnson. “We are virtually creating something from scratch.”
—Agence France-Presse, 12/4
Race to the Top
The idea of using government investment to jump-start a more ecologically sustainable “green economy” is gaining worldwide momentum; in January, Japanese and South Korean officials announced plans to launch programs that will spur job creation while conserving vital resources.
During 2008, proposals for establishing some kind of Green New Deal gained popularity as the financial meltdown and sharper worries about climate change converged. Last October, the UN Environment Programme launched the Green Economy Initiative as both an antidote to the economic downturn and a way to springboard to a low-carbon economy. President Barack Obama – taking a cue from people as diverse as Green for All founder Van Jones and New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman – has also promised to make major new investments in clean energy and mass transit infrastructure.
Similar plans are now underway in the manufacturing powerhouses of Japan and South Korea. “The worldwide trend is to kill two birds with one stone by investing in action against global warming and linking that to taking care of both the environment and the economy,” says Ichiro Sumikura, an official at Japan’s Environment Ministry.
In an effort to expand the number of green jobs to 2.2 million by 2015, the Japanese government will offer zero-interest loans to environmentally sustainable businesses, build new wind-power parks off the west coast of the island of Hokkaido, and promote energy-efficient houses and appliances. South Korea says it will invest $38 billion over the next four years in an attempt to create nearly one million new jobs. Three dozen government-sponsored environmental projects include the creation of mass transit networks, building two million energy-saving homes, and massive cleanups of the country’s four main rivers.
The flurry of activity in different nations could mark a sharp break from the era in which countries tried to see which could use up the most resources. Instead, we might be witnessing a beneficial “race to the top” as countries compete to see which can most quickly transition its economy away from fossil fuels as a way of gaining an edge in the global economy.
“We want to take the initiative and build a leading low-carbon society while stepping out of recession before anyone else in the world,” Sumikura says.
—Environment News Service, 1/12; Reuters, 1/7
If you take prescription drugs, chances are very good they’re made in India. The country is the world’s leading exporter of pharmaceuticals, and the US is its number one customer, spending more than $1.4 billion for pills in 2007.
Chances are also very good that whatever it is you’re taking for what ails you, you’re sharing your prescription with unwitting citizens in India.
Recent studies show that the water downstream of a treatment plant where approximately 90 drug manufacturers dump their residues contains concentrations of pharmaceuticals 150 times greater than the highest levels found in drinking water in the US. Enough of the antibiotic ciprofloxacin is poured into one stream each day to treat 90,000 people.
“If you take a bath there, then you have all the antibiotics you need for treatment,” says chemist Klaus Kuemmerer at the University of Freiburg Medical Center. “If you just swallow a few gulps of water, you’re treated for everything.”
Joakim Larsson of Sweden’s University of Gothenburg found abnormally high amounts of ciprofloxacin in a stream near Patancheru, enough to suggest that as much as 100 pounds of the drug were being dumped into the stream daily. A second lab independently confirmed his results.
The contaminated water flows into tributaries where villagers fish and livestock drink, and is seeping into the wells that provide the drinking water for nearby communities.
“We don’t have any other source, so we’re drinking it,” says R. Durgamma, a mother of four who lives a few miles downstream of the treatment plant. “When the local leaders come, we offer them water and they won’t take it.”
Despite the evidence, officials insist that environmental protections are being met. Rajeshwar Tiwari, head of the area’s pollution control board, says that testing for pharmaceuticals in the water at the treatment plant is not required.
In addition to the findings downstream, water upstream of the plant is also contaminated, suggesting that illegal dumping has occurred. India’s pollution officials admit that illegal dumping has been a problem, but only in the past, and is not considered common now.
M. Narayana Reddy, the president of India’s Bulk Drug Manufacturers Association, doesn’t believe Larsson’s results are accurate, saying, “It is the wrong information provided by some research person.”
Renee Sharp of the Washington-based Environmental Working Group is treating the problem more seriously. “People might say, ‘Oh sure, that’s just a dirty river in India,’ but we live on a small planet; everything is connected. The water in a river in India could be the rain coming down in your town in a few weeks,” she warns.
—Associated Press, 1/25
Have One for the Planet
Scotch drinkers who are concerned about climate change can now enjoy their evening tipple comfortable in the knowledge that some of their favorite labels are generating renewable energy in the home of whisky.
A consortium of distillers – including the makers of The Famous Grouse, Cutty Sark, and Chivas Regal – are planning to build a biomass-fueled combination heat and power plant near the heart of the whisky industry in Speyside.
The plant will use distillery by-products and woodchips to generate heat and about 7.2 megawatts of electricity, enough to power 9,000 homes. It’s not yet certain if the heat and electricity will go back into powering the distilleries themselves, will be fed to local homes and other businesses, or will go into the national power grid.
During the course of distilling whisky, something called “draff” is produced – the solid grain that’s removed from the mash prior to fermentation. This will be fed into the biomass plant, as will “pot ale,” the liquid high-protein residue from a still. Some of the pot ale will also go toward making concentrated organic fertilizers for local farmers.
“Not only will it generate renewable heat and power, but it secures additional markets for our distillery co-products,” says Frank Burns, a general manager of the Combination of Roth, a distilling company.
So cheers: “Waste not, want not.”
Hard of Hearing
Marine biologists have warned for years that the increasing level of man-made noise in the oceans is making it difficult for marine mammals to communicate. Rumbling ship engines, seismic surveys by oil and gas companies, and powerful military sonar create a kind of acoustic fog that affects marine animals’ behavior. The cacophony keeps getting worse: During the past 50 years, underwater noise has doubled each decade, while the number of ships in the seas has tripled. Scientists estimate that during that period, blue whales’ capacity to communicate has been reduced by 90 percent.
Now climate change is making the matter worse. The oceans are a significant absorber of carbon dioxide, a greenhouse gas. As the seas accumulate CO2, they are steadily becoming more acidic. And that acidity causes underwater sound to travel faster, making it even more difficult for marine mammals to communicate.
“Acidity is a new, strange, and unwanted development … for a whole range of marine animals,” Mark Simmons of the Whale and Dolphin Conservation Society said at a news conference during a UN meeting on migratory species in Rome. “There is now evidence linking loud underwater noises with some major strandings of marine mammals, especially deep-diving beaked whales.”
Because it has more mass than air, water conducts sounds vastly farther. For example, the sound produced during seismic exploration for underwater oil reserves has been shown to travel more than 1,800 miles from its source. When water becomes more acidic, it absorbs even less noise, allowing sounds to travel farther.
Marine conservationists at the Rome meeting urged the world’s corporations and governments to adopt quieter ship engines, tighter rules on seismic surveys, and less disruptive sonar technologies. But groups calling for new controls recognize they have a tough battle ahead given the military and commercial interests involved.
Ocean scientists say the increasing amount of noise makes it more difficult for animals to find food and mates, and to avoid human vessels.
“If there is a lot of background noise, the animals can’t hear the boat coming,” Simmons says. “It’s the cocktail party effect.”
—AFP, 12/3; Reuters, 12/4
Finger in the Dyke
As increasing global temperatures contribute to a rise in sea levels, the Netherlands – already dependent on a sophisticated system of dykes and seawalls for its survival – is finding it more difficult to defend its coastline and maintain freshwater supplies. So the Dutch government is planning on spending more than a hundred billion euros to upgrade its sea-protection infrastructure.
More than two thirds of the Netherlands lies below sea level, and about 9 million of the country’s 16 million inhabitants live in areas directly sheltered from the sea by dykes and dunes. With ocean levels rising, worries about the possibility of devastating floods are becoming more acute. At the same time, the country’s freshwater supplies are threatened by saltwater intrusion into watersheds. A recent Dutch government report warned that freshwater supplies “won’t always be guaranteed.”
To ensure the country’s continued existence, the Netherlands has adopted a new plan to strengthen hundreds of miles of dykes along the North Sea, add millions of tons of new sand deposits to the coast, increase river drainage capacity, and expand an important freshwater lake north of Amsterdam. The government – which spent €5 billion on fortification measures in 2007 – expects the new defenses will cost at least €100 billion over the next century.
While making plans for adapting to climate change’s consequences, the Netherlands is also making investments in reducing its carbon emissions. As part of the sea-defense plan, the country will build two windmill parks that will generate 6,000 megawatts by 2020. The windmills will create as much energy as six coal-fired power plants.
Kill Them with Kindness
As early as March, Canada will once again begin the horrid practice of hunting seals, undertaking the world’s largest annual marine mammal hunt. More than 6,000 sealers, hakapiks in hand, will take to the ice to kill roughly 270,000 to 335,000 seals. But this year, Canada has made a few small changes to hunting rules as the country’s $13 million industry faces the possibility of a ban on seal fur sales to the European market.
Courtesy IFAW/Stewart Cook
The changes are based on an announcement made by the European Union’s Commissioner for the Environment Stavros Dimas last July: “Seal products coming from countries which practice cruel hunting methods must not be allowed to enter the EU. The EU is committed to upholding high standards of animal welfare.” This policy brought with it news that surely stunned Canadians like a smack on the head with a frozen club: “Seals are sentient mammals which can experience pain.”
So, in an effort to comply with Europe’s newly heightened awareness, the Canadian government has proposed new “humane” standards. According to the new rules, “No person shall use a club or a hakapik to strike a seal older than one year unless the seal has been shot with a firearm.” Fortunately for those frugal sealers who don’t want to waste a bullet, the prohibition is full of loopholes, so they can still simply club a baby seal and be within acceptable standards. Problem solved!
In previous hunts, sealers were required to make sure the animal had stopped blinking before taking off its pelt, a test that was unreliable and occasionally resulted in seals being skinned alive. But faster than you can bat an eye, the Canadian government has instituted a humane solution to this problem. Now sealers must ensure that the seal’s skull is broken and that the animal has been bleeding for at least 60 seconds before they remove its skin. So much better!
Of course, all these displays of humanity will slow down the harvesting process. It will now take sealers much longer to bash their way through a club of baby seals, which might mean a reduction of seal skins on the market this year. Unwilling to skip a beat, the Canadian government is promoting the sale of harp seal heart valves in addition to the pelts. The Department of Fisheries and Oceans recently announced on its Web site that “promising research” has shown that seal organs “are superior to those currently used in human heart valve transplants. It is thought that demand could be as high as 300,000 valves per year, at a cost of roughly C$5,000 (€3,400) each.” It is yet to be determined whether humane standards would be enforced for the collection of the seals’ heart valves, but it seems safe to presume that the parts would not be needed for Canadian politicians, clearly a heartless bunch.
—Environmental News Service, 12/30
Bashed on Trash
Pollution controversies are nothing new in Mexico City, a sprawling metropolis of 20 million people that has long been plagued by horrendous air quality. Now another problem looms: garbage.
Mexico City alone – without taking into account the greater urban area – produces more than 12,000 tons of waste every day. Much of this waste is due to the increased use of disposable packaging during the past few decades. Twenty years ago, the average chilango, as city residents call themselves, created about 1.8 pounds of trash a day; now, that same citizen generates 3.1 pounds of garbage daily. The result? Mexico City’s main dump is at the breaking point.
Everyone within the Mexican government agrees that the massive Bordo Poniente landfill in eastern Mexico City is nearing capacity. But politicians are bickering over when to close it and how to find an alternative location.
Officials in the city government, controlled by the left-of-center Democratic Revolutionary Party, would like to postpone the closure. “A precipitated closure could create serious environmental damage,” says Martha Delgado, the city’s environmental secretary. “We really want an in-depth solution to the problem. All we need is more time.”
Representatives from the right-of-center National Action Party, which controls the federal government and also the land the dump sits on, are demanding a more rapid closure, citing environmental concerns.
“The problem is that they [the city] have to pay and they’re not ready to invest adequately in waste management,” says Mauricio Limon Aguirre, a top federal environment official. “It’s not our responsibility.”
International negotiators seeking to resolve the dispute are fed up with the squabbling. Ramon Ojeda Mestre, secretary general of the International Court of Environmental Arbitrage, is threatening to sue both the municipal and federal governments for not complying with the existing laws around waste separation and recycling. “[The dump] is contaminating the air, the ground, the underground water,” he says.
To reduce total inflows to the dump and buy themselves some time, the city’s officials are mandating that, beginning in May, people will have to start separating their organic and non-organic waste. Those who fail to do so will face stiff fines of up to $500 US. At the same time, the city will start charging some big businesses for trash collection for the first time.
“We’re going to carry out a very big campaign,” says Mayor Marcelo Ebrard. “We’ll reward people who do things well, we’ll sanction those who do them badly.”
“The aim should be zero waste in Mexico City because there’s no land, there’s nowhere foreseen to deposit waste in these quantities,” Ojeda Mestre says.
Last year, the EPA unveiled a portion of its Web site dedicated to the capture of the agency’s most wanted fugitives. At press time, 22 men have their photographs on the site, wanted for such crimes against the environment as smuggling ozone-depleting contraband; illegally transporting, storing, and disposing of mercury-contaminated soil; and importing automobiles that did not meet US emissions standards.
While the EPA is asking the public for information leading to the arrest of these fugitives, civilians are encouraged not to risk apprehending these individuals themselves, although only one report includes the warning that the alleged perpetrator “may be armed and dangerous.” The likelihood of seeing these individuals in the US is apparently slim, however; of the 22 men listed, only three are still believed to be in the States. The others have either fled or were residents of another country at the time of their alleged crimes.
The EPA’s warnings about these individuals and their crimes will hopefully achieve the goal of placing these fugitives behind bars. Presumably then there will be room to publish the photos of those members of the Bush administration who also should be held responsible for their neglect to protect and preserve the environment.
Spin the bottle
A group of Canadian environmental organizations has filed a complaint against Nestlé, claiming an ad campaign run by the multinational just doesn’t hold water.
In October, Nestlé spouted off in a full-page newspaper ad that “most water bottles avoid landfill sites and are recycled,” that “bottled water is the most environmentally responsible consumer product in the world,” and that “Nestlé Pure Life is a Healthy, Eco-Friendly Choice.” The green organizations, consisting of Friends of the Earth Canada, the Polaris Institute, the Council of Canadians, Wellington Water Watchers, and Ecojustice, say the statements made by Nestlé Waters Canada are in contravention of the Canadian Code of Advertising Standards.
Hugh Wilkins, staff lawyer at Ecojustice Canada, alleges that the advertisement does not provide evidence of Nestlé’s claims about recycling activity, and has tapped Advertising Standards Canada to review the case.
“This is part of a bigger problem of what we call ‘green washing,’” Wilkins says, adding that “producers are saying that they are doing things in an environmentally sensitive manner when the facts, on occasion, don’t support it.”
City councilors in Toronto, Canada’s largest city, recently voted 30 to 13 to join several other Canadian cities that have already placed restrictions on bottled water. The sale of bottled water will not be permitted at Toronto City Hall or any other city-owned facilities by the end of 2011.
Australia’s Great Barrier Reef – a network of corals the size of Germany that is often described as the planet’s largest living organism – has fallen to its lowest growth rate in 400 years in what scientists say is a frightening sign of deteriorating ocean health.
Researchers at the Australian Institute of Science say a combination of warmer seas, higher ocean acidity from increased levels of global carbon dioxide, and decreasing carbonate content in seawater is responsible for the decline. By studying more than 300 coral colonies throughout the reef and matching them against skeletal records, the team of scientists found that corals in the reef have slowed their growth by about 14 percent since the “tipping point” year of 1990. At current rates, the reef would stop growing altogether by 2050.
“All calcifying organisms that are central to the function of marine ecosystems and food webs will be affected,” according to the study, which was published in the journal Science. “Precipitous changes in the biodiversity and productivity of the world’s oceans may be imminent.”
A 2007 report by the UN warned that global climate change could kill the Great Barrier Reef within decades. That would have a devastating ripple effect throughout the ocean ecosystem. Corals provide habitat for tens of thousands of plant and animal species, and the fish that depend on corals are a critical source of food for millions of people. Reefs also protect coastlines and are a potential storehouse of medicines for cancer and other diseases.
“It is cause for extreme concern that such changes are already evident, with the relatively modest climate changes observed to date, in the world’s best protected and managed coral reef ecosystem,” says Janice Lough, one of the co-authors of the study.
—AFP, 1/2; Reuters, 1/5
Putting Their Bodies on the Line
Since its founding in 2001, the World Social Forum – designed as a grassroots response to the more elite World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland – has been an important incubator of progressive ideas. Promoting environmental sustainability and Indigenous rights have typically been among the concerns of Social Forum attendees, and at this year’s gathering in Belém, Brazil, those issues were moved to the fore of the agenda.
Lou Dematteis/Spectral Q, Courtesy of Amazon Watch
The plight of the Amazon Rainforest was a central focus of the Forum, with one full day devoted to discussing the threats to the forest and the peoples who depend on it. For the first time, the Forum dedicated a special space for lectures, roundtables, and workshops featuring representatives from the world’s Indigenous peoples and stateless nations.
The intersection between environmental protection and Indigenous rights was made clear when some 1,000 Forum participants – mostly Indigenous leaders and environmentalists – gathered to create a human banner to dramatize the precarious situation of the rainforest. The choreographed display featured the silhouette of a warrior taking aim with a bow and arrow and the words “Salve a Amazônia” – Portuguese for “Save the Amazon.” Another version spelled out simply “SOS.”
“We are the guardians of the forest,” says Marco Apurina, a vice president of COIAB, Brazil’s leading Amazonian organization. “This is a critical moment for Indigenous peoples to unite with non-Indigenous, activists, teachers, environmentalists, unions, government. The Amazon Rainforest needs everyone to work together now to defend it before it’s too late.”
The Amazon Basin – stretching across 2 million square miles and including the territory of nine nations – is being deforested at a rate of about 8,500 square miles a year. Although the Amazon contains half of the world’s remaining rainforest, the forest is 20 percent smaller than it was 40 years ago. Atossa Soltani of the organization Amazon Watch warns that, at present rates of development, the forest will be on the brink of permanent ecological collapse in the next 10 to 20 years.
Explaining the meaning behind the human banner, Apurina says: “The symbol of the bow and arrow has three meanings. First, our aim is that every man, woman, and child will decide to care for our planet; the second, the position of defending the rights of Indigenous Peoples, of nature, of planet, and of our home, the Amazon; the third, to send a message to the world so that each of us helps to protect our home, our air, our water, our food.”
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