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Cold Water for Ocean Protection
In a frustratingly familiar scenario, major nations in November failed to protect from exploitation vast stretches of the seas around Antarctica. The Commission for the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources (CCAMLR, pronounced ‘cam-lar’) emerged from its annual meeting in Hobart, Australia in a deadlock. On the table were several proposals put forth by the United States, Australia, New Zealand, and the European Union to establish vast marine reserves in ecologically important zones of the Antarctic Ocean.
The new protected areas were poised to pass, having gained popular support from scientific experts, Antarctic conservation groups, and 1.2 million people around the world who signed a petition started by Leonardo DiCaprio on the campaign website Avaaz.
CCAMLR, however, requires consensus on its decisions. Given that the group is composed of 24 member countries and the EU, unanimity is inevitably elusive. This is exacerbated by a “global dichotomy” of interests, says Alex Rogers, a conservation biologist at the University of Oxford. Countries such as China, Russia, and Ukraine want to be able to exploit the continent’s seas. Although the Antarctic Ocean is remote and has relatively low levels of fishing currently, even potential economic gain is enough for these countries to halt efforts toward conservation.
Steve Campbell, campaign director of the Antarctic Ocean Alliance, says the coalition of conservation groups was “deeply disappointed” by the CCAMLR decision. “The credibility of CCAMLR is at risk,” he says.
More than the commission’s credibility is at risk. The proposed reserves would have protected thousands of square kilometers of waters in the Ross Sea and off of East Antarctica. Those waters contain some of the most pristine marine ecosystems remaining on the planet, unique bioregions that support significant populations of penguins, seals, whales, seabirds, and krill. CCAMLR noted in a statement: “These important areas can provide a reference for scientific research on the impacts of activities such as fishing, as well as significant opportunities for monitoring the impacts of climate change in the Southern Ocean.”
Not all hope is lost for Antarctic protection, though. The CCAMLR meeting adjourned with an agreement to hold a rare intercessional meeting in July 2013. Many remain hopeful that the proposals will get pushed through then. But Oxford’s Rogers warns that “time really is running out on these issues. If we don’t get protection in place now, exploitation of these systems will increase. Even a delay is quite a serious issue.”
—National Geographic 11/1; Nature 11/1; Reuters 11/1
Change Begins at Home
The land of black gold has great green ambitions. Leaders in Saudi Arabia, the largest petroleum producer in the world, say the nation is on track to abandon using fossil fuels to generate electricity at home. In October, one of the kingdom’s top spokespersons, Prince Turki Al Faisal Al Saud, unveiled the nation’s plans to generate 100 percent of its power from renewable and low-carbon energy sources.
“I would like to see Saudi Arabia using 100 percent renewable energy within my lifetime,” Al Saud said during the Global Economic Symposium in Brazil. The prince, who is 67, admits Saudi Arabia may not reach that particular goal, but said he was committed to advancing green technologies.
Regardless of timelines, what exactly is a prominent oil-rich nation doing messing around with renewables? Saudi Arabia has the largest proven oil reserves in the world and tops the world in total oil production and exports. Oil fuels the Saudi Arabian economy. It accounts for 80 to 90 percent of the country’s total export revenue and more than 40 percent of its GDP. The kingdom is also the fifth highest oil consumer in the world – about 26 percent of total oil produced in Saudi Arabia goes to domestic use. Oil is massively subsidized in the country and that has helped alleviate poverty among its citizens. However, the subsidies have also promoted a high oil-consumption culture reminiscent of the US. The kingdom generates about half of its electricity from burning oil.
If this trend continues, Saudi Arabia is projected to become a net oil importer by 2030 – and that would devastate its economy. Which explains why the country is putting forth a $109 billion plan to revamp its electricity production in the next two decades. Plans include installing 41,000 megawatts of solar capacity, and generating another 21,000 MW from a mixed bag of non-fossil fuel sources such as geothermal, wind, and nuclear.
Now here’s the rub – meeting its electricity needs from renewable sources doesn’t mean the Saudis are also planning to do away with fossil fuel production. In fact, the kingdom plans to offset the hefty price tag for the proposed renewables projects by selling unused domestic oil on the global market. “You get far more value for oil if it’s exported than if it’s consumed domestically,” says Paul Gamble, chief economist at Jadwa Research in Riyadh.
American drivers have long been funding Saudi Arabia’s oil boom. Looks like they will soon also be funding the country’s green energy boom.
But ultimately, as Greenpeace political director Joss Garman, points out: “Saudi Arabia will only truly be a green economy when it leaves its fossil fuels in the ground.”
—Reuters 5/23, 10/12; The Guardian 10/12
The tiny Himalayan nation of Bhutan – already a darling among environmentalists for pioneering its Gross National Happiness index in place of the badly flawed Gross Domestic Product indicator – has committed to another environmental first. The country’s leaders have promised that Bhutan’s agriculture system will be 100 percent organic within the next 10 years.
The small, Buddhist-majority nation has long been ahead of the curve when it comes to environmental policies. Instead of opening its door to masses of tourists, the mountainous country has embraced ecotourism that prioritizes quality of experience over quantity of visitors. Bhutanese officials recently set up a “pedestrian day” on Tuesdays that bans cars from town centers. And its widely acclaimed Gross National Happiness indicator has influenced discussions at the United Nations about better ways of measuring societal progress.
Now, Bhutanese leaders say they want to be the first country in the world with an agricultural system that’s free from synthetic fertilizers and chemical pesticides and herbicides. “Bhutan has decided to go for a green economy in light of the tremendous pressure we are exerting on the planet,” says Agriculture Minister Pena Gyamtsho. “If you go for very intensive agriculture, it would imply the use of so many chemicals, which is not in keeping with our belief in Buddhism, which calls for us to live in harmony with nature.”
About two-thirds of Bhutan’s 700,000 people are farmers; they grow mostly rice, corn, and fruits and vegetables for domestic consumption. The country will have a good head start in meeting its organic goal. Most of those farmers are already using traditional agricultural methods because fertilizers and pesticides are expensive and hard to come by. “Only farmers in areas that are accessible by roads or have easy transport have access to chemicals,” Gyamtsho says.
Bhutan is a net food importer and each year buys rice and other foods from India. But it does sell a few specialty crops abroad that will also be covered by the new policy. Bhutan exports high-quality, red-grained rice to the US, rare mushrooms to Japan, vegetables to fancy hotels in Thailand, and its highly prized apples around the world. By shunning fertilizers and pesticides, the country will reduce its import bill for chemical inputs while also boosting the quality of its food exports.
Bhutan’s organic policy, says Peter Melchett at Britain’s Soil Association, will “start to give the country a reputation of high quality, organic food which in the long run would give [the Bhutanese] a market advantage and the possibility of price premiums.”
—Agence France Presse, 10/3
10,000 Leagues Under the Sea
If China leads, can India be far behind? The South Asian nation, ever worried about competing with its powerful neighbor, has joined the race to develop deep-sea mining – further complicating the geopolitics surrounding rare earth minerals and the hunt for untapped sources of valuable minerals beneath the oceans.
India is building a processing plant for rare earth minerals in the east coast state of Orissa and will be spending about $135 million to buy a new exploration ship and retool another one for deep-water exploration. Deep-sea mining will help meet the “critical and strategic needs of the country, particularly in the area of access to rare earth materials,” Ashwani Kumar, India’s minister of planning, science and technology, and earth sciences, said recently.
The Central Indian Basin in the Indian Ocean is rich in nickel, copper, cobalt, and possibly rare earth minerals. India’s network of government-sponsored marine science programs has already studied the seabed and carried out test mining.
This new push for deep-sea mining reflects India’s concerns about China’s dominance of the rare earth mineral market. China controls about 95 percent of the global production of the 17 rare earth minerals that are essential for a range of cutting-edge technologies such as missile-defense systems, wind turbines, and smart phones. The US, the EU, and Japan – the second biggest consumer of rare earths – have accused China of unfairly restricting rare earth exports through taxes and quotas as a way to force more high technology production to move to China. The World Trade Organization agreed in July to investigate China’s influence in the rare earth mineral market.
Japan is in negotiations with India over investments in the Orissa processing plant. Japan is keen on building rare earth mineral partnerships since its territorial disputes with China have jeopardized its access to the minerals. (In 2010, China blocked Japan’s supply of the minerals for two months over skirmishes relating to territorial claims in the China Seas.) For its part, India is motivated by fears that its neighbor might be using undersea mining as ruse to stake a claim on the oceans.
In the past, India, like most governments and corporations, has found that establishing deepwater mines is too expensive, says Carl Gustaf Lundin, director of the global marine and polar program at the International Union for Conservation of Nature. But worries over China’s market domination have increased international interest in deep-sea mining, he says. Innovations in underwater robotics have improved prospects for mining undersea metals. Japan is investing $200 million in deep-sea prospecting and the US has extensive research programs underway.
But international oversight of the potential environmental impact of the deep-sea mining is still lacking. “There’s no regulatory framework, either at a national or international level, for deep-sea mining,” says Helen Rosenbaum, campaign coordinator for the Australia-based Deep Sea Mining Campaign, a nonprofit watchdog group. She says the International Seabed Authority, which has jurisdiction over the open seas outside national territories, has done too little to investigate and regulate the potential for environmental damage.
—SciDev.Net, 8/12; The Wall Street Journal, 7/12
Follow the Leader
It’s a bird … it’s a plane … it’s Russian President Vladimir Putin helping young white Siberian cranes to find their migration route.
Hacks couldn’t resist the Superman allusions after Putin took to the air in a motorized hang glider in September to direct a flock of the endangered birds southward to their wintering grounds in Iran and India. Wearing white overalls and big black goggles, the former KGB agent piloted a lightweight deltaplane with the assistance of a seasoned pilot, Igor Nikitin. The flight was the latest wildlife stunt for Putin, who has sought to craft a rugged outdoorsman persona through frequent photo-ops of him fly fishing, horseback riding, admiring
elusive snow leopards and polar bears, and tracking tigers.
Macho stunts by Putin, who turned 60 in October, once helped his image as a can-do type of guy. But since Russia’s reform movement took off in the spring of 2012, such outings have become fodder for the country’s political satirists. On the morning of Putin’s crane flight, a cartoon making fun of Putin’s latest wildlife adventure lit up the Russian Internet. It portrayed Putin in a black suit with grey wings fixed to his hands, telling three birds: “Let’s assign roles right away – I am the alpha-crane!”
The Russian president almost suffered an embarrassment when only one of the cranes followed his glider on its first ascent. It took a second flight before the rest of the flock followed along. Putin blamed strong winds for the initial failure of the birds to fly with him. “They got used to it,” Putin said after the second trip. “They are not afraid.”
Hunters in Central Asia have driven the white Siberian crane to the edge of extinction. The young cranes that Putin helped direct had been born in captivity and raised by a conservation project located on the banks of the Siberian Ob River. A program called “Flight of Hope” then used the lightweight gliders to prepare them for their migration southward. After his flight, Putin donated the hang glider, which his spokesman said he had purchased with his own money, to the crane conservation group.
—The Guardian, 9/5; Reuters, 9/6
From London, With Love
Dirt from underneath one of the most developed cities in the world is slated to be re-used for a massive ecological restoration effort. In what some people have called the most ambitious ecosystem restoration ever, millions of tons of earth being excavated from below London for the city’s massive Crossrail project are being dumped along the Essex coast to create a man-made nature reserve.
The soil, excavated from two new 21-kilometer rail tunnels under the British capital, will transform the intensively farmed land of Essex County’s Wallasea Island into a labyrinth of mudflats, salt marshes, and lagoons last seen there 400 years ago. The first giant scoops of 5 million tons of earth were delivered to the Essex coast on September 17. Over the next seven years, 670 hectares of arable farmland will be transformed into a thriving wetland habitat.
The Wallasea Project was dreamed up four years ago by the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds when Crossrail project planners were debating what to do with the six million tons of dirt that would have to be dug out to build the tunnels. Crossrail is Europe’s largest current construction project, with a total cost of $23.8 billion.
The RSPB, which has been fighting to save threatened wetland habitats since the nineteenth century, suggested that 85 percent of the excavated subsoil be sent to Wallasea, where the wetlands are in decline. (The rest will go to landscaping projects such as golf courses.) Four hundred years ago, there were 30,000 hectares of intertidal salt marsh along the Essex coast. The marshes hosted a wide variety of wading birds as well as mammals such as otters and seals. But over time much of the landscape was drained, or protected from rivers and the sea by levees, to produce more farm and pasture land. Today there are just 2,500 hectares of salt marsh in Essex – a decline that has been mirrored all along the coast.
Climate change, too, has taken its toll. The southeast of England is particularly susceptible to drought, and during a long spell of dry weather that finally ended last spring, wading birds suffered the most among Britain’s wildlife. Another threat comes from rising sea levels that are threatening the lowlands of Britain’s east coast. The RSPB predicts that 1,000 more hectares of wetland could be lost in the next decade.
The Wallasea restoration project, to be finished by 2019, will use the excavated earth to create areas of high ground before engineers breach the levees to flood the plain. Rare wetland birds like the avocet, dunlin, redshank, and lapwing are expected to flock to the reserve. Ornithologists hope the spoonbill and the Kentish plover, very rarely spotted in the UK, will also return.
Dr. Mike Clark, chief executive of the RSPB, said the project demonstrated how environmental concerns can go hand-in-hand with urban development. “This is about a vision for a world in which you can have a first class economy, but also a world rich in nature,” he said. “It is a symbolic project showing how we can meet both the needs of people and of wildlife.”
—BBC, 9/12; The Independent 9/12; The Guardian, 9/12
Rivers Are People, Too
In kiwi country, even the rivers have rights. The New Zealand government in September recognized that the country’s longest navigable river, the Whanganui, has a “legal standing and an independent voice.” The waterway is now officially recognized as an integrated, living whole with intrinsic rights and interests. A spokesman for the government minister who negotiated the declaration says the Whanganui will be recognized as a person “in the same way a company is, which will give it rights and interests.”
The declaration is part of a larger agreement between the New Zealand government and the Whanganui Iwi, a sub-nation of the Indigenous Maori people. In the last century, a variety of factors – including agricultural runoff, commercial fishing, and headwater diversion – has degraded the river’s health, generating concern among the local Whanganui Iwi.
The agreement represents a major victory for the Whanganui Iwi. “Whanganui River Iwi have sought to protect the river and have their interests acknowledged by the Crown through the legal system since 1873,” says MP Christopher Finlayson, New Zealand’s attorney general. “They pursued this objective in one of New Zealand’s longest running court cases.” The agreement is a “major step towards the resolution of the historical grievances of Whanganui Iwi and is important nationally,” Finlayson says.
The Whanganui flows 180 miles from the volcanic slopes of North Island, through Whanganui National Park, and meets the Tasman Sea at the town of Whanganui. Whanganui Iwi drink and swim in the waters, and rely on its eel fisheries for sustenance. Through generations of use, they developed an inextricable relationship to the river as both dependents and guardians of the Whanganui.
“Others may see the river as a source of energy generation, a transport link, a source of food,” Tariana Turia, co-leader of the Maori Party, wrote in The New Zealand Herald. “We see ourselves as inseparable from the river and the land. If one is affected, so too is the other. My old people taught me that if you respect the river and treat it well, it will in turn look after you.“
Since the river can’t articulate its own interests, the new agreement stipulates that two river guardians will be appointed as representatives, one from the Whanganui Iwi and one from the Crown. This is to ensure that the agreement will “advance the goals of Whanganui Iwi while also ensuring the rights of third parties, including private landowners and public access, will continue,” Minister Finlayson says. The larger river management strategy – which will consider a variety of users, including Iwi, commercial, recreational and governmental – is still in the works.
The Whanganui River declaration is the latest advance for an international movement demanding legal rights for nature. Ecuador extended legal rights to ecosystems in the recent rewrite of its constitution. The growing push for “wild law” hopes to dismantle the Western legal norms that relate to nature purely through property rights and, in doing so, neglect the intrinsic rights of other species. Human existence is contingent on the health of our surrounding ecosystems, wild law proponents argue. As Aldo Leopold proposed in his book, A Sand County Almanac, it is time to “enlarge the boundaries of the community to include soils, waters, plants and animals.”
—Environment News Service 9/13; NZ Herald 8/30
People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals scored a major victory recently when two of the worlds’ biggest cargo carriers – FedEx and UPS – agreed to stop shipping mammals and primates meant for use in laboratory experiments.
While neither of the two carriers transports a significant number of lab animals, Justin Goodman, PETA’s associate director of laboratory investigations, says the decision bolsters the animal rights group’s campaign to block the import of animals to labs in the United States. Another major carrier, DHL, has confirmed that it has “policies in place” prohibiting lab-animal shipments, Goodman says.
Lab animals, especially primates, are often subjected to painful and traumatic procedures, including experimental drug tests (even though the US Food and Drug Administration says 90 percent of drugs that test safe and effective on animals fail during human trials); military chemical warfare tests; and invasive brain experiments that usually end with the primate being euthanized.
PETA has been fighting to stop the use of animals in lab experiments for many years. But its “Air Cruelty” campaign – calling on international airlines to stop shipping primates for lab use – has been gaining traction only in the last couple of years, Goodman says.
While many lab animals are bred in the US, the cost of breeding the animals (especially primates) here is much higher than in developing countries where animal-welfare regulations are more lax. Every year labs import thousands of primates from countries like China, Mauritius, Cambodia, Vietnam, and Indonesia. Some of these animals are bred in captivity on what PETA calls, “monkey factory farms,” while others are trapped in the wild. According to the US Fish and Wildlife Service, 18,140 primates, mostly crab-eating macaques, were brought into the US in 2011. All but 96 of them were destined for laboratories.
Faced with growing pressure from animal rights groups, most international airlines have announced bans on transporting primates destined for labs. Many major airlines refuse to ship not just primates, but any animals to laboratories. So far, United Airlines and Air France are the only big holdouts, although Goodman is confident that they too will fall in line soon since “it’s not in their best interest” to continue with the practice.
PETA recently expanded its campaign to include international cargo carriers because it believes that research facilities will start approaching them as more airlines reject lab-animal shipments. “We think if it eventually becomes too expensive for [the labs] to procure these animals, they will find better ways to do things,” Goodman says.
Live animals have been used in medical and scientific research for centuries and many scientists insist that not using animal tests would hinder research and subject humans to unreasonable risks. But the practice has always faced moral objections because of the suffering it can cause the animals. The use of primates has been particularly controversial because they are humans’ closest relatives in the animal kingdom. Their similarity to us makes them valuable for studying human diseases and cures such as an emerging hepatitis C vaccine and treatments for Alzheimer’s.
The recent spate of bans on transporting primates by airlines and cargo carriers seems to indicate that public opinion about the need for animal research is on the wane. And that seems to be influencing policy too.
“Alternatives to animal testing are gaining quite a bit of traction these days,” says Susan Gilbert of The Hastings Center, an independent research group dedicated to bioethics. The greatest progress is being made in testing chemicals for toxicity, says Gilbert, who’s exploring the ethics of medical research with animals. Several federal agencies – including the National Institutes for Health, the Environmental Protection Agency, and the Food and Drug Administration – have joined forces to develop alternative toxicology tests that don’t require animals. Gilbert believes that while “we really can’t eliminate animals from all research right now,” we need to carefully examine all instances where animals are used in labs and find out if it’s really necessary.
—Maureen Nandini Mitra
Hibernating in Style
Desperate to find some way of checking the massive die-off of bats occurring across much of North America, biologists have come up with a untested strategy: the creation of an artificial bat cave that can be cleaned and refurbished every year.
Since 2006 at least 5 million bats (some estimates go as high as 7 million) have died from a mysterious fungal disease scientists are calling white nose syndrome. The infection dehydrates bats during their hibernation season and forces them to wake up and fly into the winter landscape in a futile search for food and water. Bat biologists and federal wildlife managers still don’t know what causes the disease or how to stop it.
Without any other solutions at hand, the staff at The Nature Conservancy has built a bat cave deep in the woods of Tennessee to try to establish an easy-to-clean hideaway for bats. The $300,000 project is believed to be the first manmade hibernating structure for bats in the wild. If successful, it could serve as a model for other artificial bat caves.
The 78- by 16-foot cave was assembled from prefabricated concrete sections. Its 11-foot-high ceiling is textured so that bats can cling to it. Most of the cave was then covered with four feet of soil. From ground level, all that can be seen is an air intake that serves as the bat entrance.
The artificial cave has been placed near a natural cave with a well-established population of gray bats. The Nature Conservancy staff plans to coax some bats to the artificial cave by emitting ultra-sonic bat calls on loudspeakers.
Cory Holliday, the Tennessee program director of caves and karsts for the Conservancy, says that keeping the white nose syndrome fungus out of the caves will be impossible. Holliday says that in natural caves, fungal levels in new roosting areas are relatively low. The prevalence increases in the second year of roosting and spikes in the third year. “The fungus will do what the fungus will do,” Holliday says.
The fake cave was designed to be cleaned annually to prevent the fungus from reaching lethal levels. Each spring, workers will open a door set into a wall of the artificial cave, remove the guano, and pressure-wash the walls and ceiling. If all goes according to plan, the clean cave will resemble the first-year environment of a new roosting area.
The fake cave can hold up to 250,000 bats. Holliday says he will be pleased if 1,000 animals show up this winter.
The whole endeavor might seem a little far-fetched. But at this point bat biologists are willing to do whatever it takes to slow down the disease.
“We talked with other people, waiting for one of them to call us crazy, and no one did,” says Gina Hancock, director of The Nature Conservancy’s Tennessee chapter.
Hold Your Fire
Costa Rica has become the first nation in the Americas to ban recreational hunting after the country’s legislature approved reforms to its Wildlife Conservation Law by a wide margin in early October.
The reform bill, which prohibits hunting for sport but still allows culling and subsistence hunting, was approved in early October by a 41-to-5 vote. President Laura Chinchilla is expected to sign it into law soon.
The ban does not affect fishing for sport and allows researchers to hunt for scientific purposes. It will not apply to certain Indigenous groups that depend on hunting for sustenance. Sport hunters who are caught violating the ban will have to pay a fine of up to $3,000. Several other countries including India, Botswana, Lebanon, and Syria also have in place laws that prohibit trophy hunting.
“We’re not just hoping to save the animals but we’re hoping to save the country’s economy, because if we destroy the wildlife there, tourists are not going to come anymore,” says environmental activist Diego Marin, who campaigned for the reform.
Costa Rica is one of the world’s most biodiverse countries and wildlife tourism is crucial to the country’s economy. Famous for its sandy beaches, tropical rainforests, and eco-friendly resorts, roughly 5 percent of Costa Rica’s gross domestic product comes from tourism, which generates around $2.1 billion annually. The country’s national parks attract some 300,000 visitors annually. Jaguars, pumas, armadillos, and sea turtles are among the country’s most exotic and treasured species. But those animals are often hunted for trophies. Changes to the Wildlife Conservation Law are intended protect such species.
The tiny Latin American nation’s ambitious conservation program has become a model for the rest of the world. About 25 percent of Costa Rica’s land area has been set aside in national parks and protected areas and the nation plans to become the world’s first carbon-neutral country by 2021. Also in October, President Chinchilla signed an executive order prohibiting shark finning in the country’s waters. Earlier this year Costa Rica was cited in a United Nations study as an example of how enlightened economic policies and smart governance can help transform a country from one of the most deforested nations in the Western Hemisphere into a conservation leader within a few decades.
—AFP, 10/12; Reuters, 10/12; Inside Costa Rica, 2/12