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Local News from All Over
You might not associate Justin Bieber or Rihanna with environmental causes, but in one part of the world their music is helping save primates. In the breaks between a heavy rotation of teen ballads and angst-ridden rock songs, Indonesia’s Radio Kalaweit, which means “gibbon” in the local dialect, champions the cause of endangered gibbons to its youthful audience.
photo flickr user Cloudtail
In one public service announcement played between pop tunes, sounds of gunfire are punctuated by gibbon cries and a voice that warns darkly: “For one baby, five gibbons are killed.” Another message talks of how “God did not create wild animals to serve as garden decorations.”
“We know that if we just preached directly about animal rights, listeners would flee,” says Aurelien Brule, a French national who founded Radio Kalaweit in 2003. Brule, who goes by the nickname “Chanee” (gibbon in Thai), has been working since he was 18 to protect gibbons in Kalimantan, the Indonesian section of Borneo where deforestation has decimated the ranks of the tree-dwelling primates.
The station uses entertainment to educate listeners about the endangered species without beating them over the head, he says. With the help of what Brule calls “sexy packaging,” Radio Kalaweit targets the 15 to 22 age group – “an age when it is not yet too late to change attitudes.” The strategy seems to have paid off. The station is among the most popular in Kalimantan. “Since 2003, we have been number one,” says Willius Tinus, Radio Kalaweit’s musical director. The station’s audience averages between 10,000 and 15,000 listeners a day, and commercial advertising ensures it is self-financing.
Many gibbons kept illegally as pets are now discovered after tip-offs from listeners. “We broadcast the names of anyone found to be holding a gibbon in a cage, even if it turns out [to be someone] as high ranking as the police chief or governor,” Brule says. But publicly shaming powerful Indonesian officials carries high risks. In 2006, police raided the station’s office. “They wanted to confiscate the transmitter,” Brule recalls. “But the DJs locked themselves in the building and they broadcast the raid on air. Five, then ten, and then fifteen villagers arrived and the situation was defused.”
Rescued gibbons are housed in a sanctuary where Brule and his team attempt to pair them. Since gibbons form monogamous bonds that last for years, single adult gibbons cannot be returned to the wild as they risk being killed by gibbon pairs protecting their territory. And because deforestation has wiped out empty forest sites suitable for single gibbons, re-wilding these primates is that much more difficult. The Kalaweit sanctuary is home to more than 130 gibbons and other animals. More than 60 percent of the animals that live there came as a result of “people who listened to the radio,” Brule says.
“Kalaweit? It’s cool,” says Rabyatul Adawiyah, a 17-year-old schoolgirl who volunteers at the radio station. “Many people at school listen to it. Even if it’s the music that gets your attention, the environmental message is not far behind.”
—Agence France Presse, 6/12
Get Off of My Cloud
Pollution, infamously, doesn’t respect national boundaries. Sulfur emissions in one country can lead to acid rain in another and carbon dioxide contributes to the greenhouse effect no matter where it comes from. But what about pollution monitoring? Is it an infringement of a nation’s sovereignty to take pollution measurements without a local government’s permission?
Chinese officials think so. In early June, Chinese leaders lashed out at US diplomats for taking daily air pollution readings from the roof of the US embassy in Beijing – and then releasing the numbers on the Internet.
photo Steven Zhang
In the last decade China’s heavy-industry-dominated cities have become known for their horrendous air quality. In Beijing, a cocktail of smokestack emissions, vehicle exhaust, and dust often blankets the city in a pungent, beige shroud. Yet the official readings commonly rate Beijing’s air pollution as “slight.”
As a kind of reality check, US diplomats in China have begun taking their own air quality measurements. The American embassy in Beijing and the consulates in Shanghai and Guangzhou have installed monitoring stations on their roofs that release hourly air-quality data via a Twitter feed, @BeijingAir. The official reading and the US embassy reading can often be far apart – and that’s causing the Chinese government some embarrassment it would like to avoid.
Chinese officials complain that the rooftop readings are unscientific and also illegal under international law. “According to the Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations … foreign diplomats are required to respect and follow local laws and cannot interfere in internal affairs,” says Wu Xiaoquing, deputy environment minister. “China’s air quality monitoring and information release involve the public interest and are up to the government. Foreign consulates in China taking it upon themselves to monitor air quality and release information online not only goes against the spirit of the Vienna Convention … it also contravenes relevant environmental protection rules.”
US embassy staff acknowledge that their single-site monitoring cannot be relied on for a thorough measurement of air quality. But they say they will continue to take the readings and disseminate the information, mostly for the benefit of US citizens living in China. “It’s primarily directed to American citizens, but in terms of Chinese accessing this information, we don’t have a problem with it,” State Department spokesman Mark Toner says. The US embassy in Mexico City has been running a similar program for years, according to Toner.
Chinese environmentalists say their government could better spend its time addressing the air pollution problem rather than complaining about the US readings.
“What needs saving is the country’s air quality, not the government’s face,” says Zhou Rong, an energy campaigner for Greenpeace.
—Reuters, 6/6; AFP, 6/6
The United States isn’t the only nation where anti-evolution sentiment is winning against science. Creationists in South Korea are succeeding in their efforts to limit teaching about evolution.
Bowing to pressure from a group that calls evolution “an unconfirmed theory,” several Korean scholastic publishers are revising their secondary school textbooks to exclude examples of evolutionary biology.
In May, South Korea’s Ministry of Education, Science and Technology revealed that three of the country’s seven major science textbook publishers were going to delete or revise references to the evolution of horses, and six publishers had already deleted or changed chapters related to avian evolution.
Exploiting debates over the lineage of species “is a typical strategy of creation scientists to attack the teaching of evolution itself,” says Joonghwan Jeon, an evolutionary psychologist at Kyung Hee University in Yongin.
The publishers’ decision follows petitions made to the education ministry by an anti-evolution group called the Society for Textbook Revision. The society, which aims to “correct” students’ views of the world, has been challenging the teaching of evolution in schools since it was formed in 2009. Society president Lee Gwang-won denies his organization is affiliated with Christian groups or creationist scientists, but the Korea Association for Creation Research acknowledges the outfit as “an independent offshoot.”
One of the publishers that revised its texts, Kyohaksa, told Korean media that the fact that there was an apparent scientific controversy over the issue prompted its decision.
The move has alarmed biologists, who say they were not consulted. “The ministry just sent the petition out to the publishing companies and let them judge,” says Dayk Jang, an evolutionary scientist at Seoul National University. Jang says the scientific community had ignored the Society for Textbook Revision until now “because it was unworthy to confront them. The quality of their argument is sophomoric and based on distorted information.”
The latest move by textbook publishers has galvanized the scientific community to act. “We have formed a task force and will put out a statement to halt the textbook revision,” Jang says.
Creation science has had growing influence in Korea in recent years. Jeon suggests that it is partly “due to strong Christianity in the country.”
A 2009 survey of South Koreans’ religious beliefs showed almost one-third of the respondents didn’t believe in evolution. That’s approaching the number in the United States, where polls show that more than 45 percent of Americans do not believe humans evolved from less advanced forms of life.
—Los Angeles Times, 6/12; Nature, 6/12
Cheap at a Price
Trees are falling in some of Russia’s old-growth forests – and those who have heard them crash say Ikea is to blame.
The home furnishing giant ran into controversy after a May investigation revealed that its wholly owned subsidiary, Swedwood, has been clear-cutting old growth forests in the Russian republic of Karelia, north of St. Petersburg. Some of the felled trees are reported to be as much as 600-years-old.
Wood is by far the primary raw material in Ikea’s affordable home products. Roughly 60 percent of the products stocked in the multinational’s 300 department stores contain wood in some form. The company claims it uses only wood sourced in an economically, socially, and environmentally sustainable way. Yet a recent report from the Global Forest Coalition says otherwise. According to the report, two different environmental groups, Sweden’s Protect the Forest and Russia’s SPOK, conducted field surveys in the area and found that Swedwood was clear-cutting old growth trees in an environmentally sensitive area of northwest Russia on the Finnish border.
“During our field visits to Russian Karelia, we have documented the reality of Ikea’s forestry, and it’s a far cry from the fine words in their advertising,” says Protect the Forest Chairman Viktor Säfve.
Only about 10 percent of old growth forests remain in Karelia, says Olga Ilina, head of the forest department at SPOK, the Karelia Regional Nature Conservancy. “Swedwood operates in a better way than local Karelian companies, but we think they can do much better considering their resources,” she says. “They should log secondary forests that are not so valuable instead of virgin forestry. Ikea has the means to do this.”
Ikea’s profits between 2000 and 2008 totaled about $30 billion.
Although Swedwood is certified by the Forest Stewardship Council, the council admits that there are gaping holes in its Russia monitoring that have allowed Swedwood to clear-cut old growth forests under the banner of responsible forestry. “You can’t say that FSC can protect all forests,” says Andrei Ptichnikov, the council’s Russia general manager. “If we [claimed] to protect every tree, no company would [register] with FSC. It is not realistic. It is always a compromise.”
Anders Hildeman, Ikea’s forest manager, says the company takes conservation values into account when it plans its logging. “Our goal is to develop and improve forest management. Swedwood has played an important role in the advancement of forestry in Karelia,” he said in a statement after the report made headlines.
This isn’t the first time Swedwood has undermined Ikea’s efforts at projecting a sustainable image. Last year, Swedwood was accused of harsh working conditions at its sole US production plant in Danville, Virginia.
Bottom line: Affordable furniture doesn’t come cheap.
—Inter Press Service, 6/12; Forbes.com, 6/12
Putting Down Roots
Think of it as a kind of environmental chain letter. A 36-year-old Polish marketing executive, Jacek Powalka, has created an online initiative called PioSeki that lets people order up to two free maple, beech, oak, or spruce seedlings – one to keep and one to give to a friend. Suddenly, Poles are receiving trees in the mail, and sometimes they don’t even know who sent them.
Tomek Wawrzychek, for example, was pleasantly surprised when he received a healthy, 20-inch-tall seedling in the mail. He immediately planted the tree in his garden. But he has no idea who sent it. “Who was the kind soul who sent me a seedling?” he posted on Twitter. “Because I don’t know whom to thank.”
Wawrzychek’s tree was one of 61,000 saplings that have been distributed through PioSeki. The idea for the campaign was sown in 2007 when Powalka went to the nursery to buy some flowers for his balcony and instead came home with sycamore seedlings for his neighborhood’s overgrown square. Warsaw officials had neglected the tiny space for years. Wawrzychek decided to take over the nondescript plot and turn it into a mini-park. Neighbors chipped in with planning and planting, and soon the square started to host community events like summertime outdoor movie screenings. The effort attracted national headlines, and the success encouraged Wawrzychek to expand the idea. It would “be a shame not to spread such a fantastic idea to all of Poland,” he says.
The send-a-seedling campaign has a modest budget of $160,000 and is sponsored by the Polish postal service and co-organized by Polish public radio. Schools, hospitals, and municipal governments across the country have participated. While the project began as a one-time effort, Powalka is mulling a sequel for next summer. Some nurseries and national parks have offered to donate seedlings to the initiative, and London’s large Polish expatriate community has asked to take part next time.
Polish environmentalists are thrilled about the enthusiasm for the planting campaign. “The fact that it wasn’t just a matter of sending out emails or signing petitions, which is sort of the standard, but it was tied rather to planting actual trees is kind of a novelty,” says Greenpeace Poland Director Maciej Muskat. “I strongly applaud the act.”
The send-a-seedling campaign appears to be deepening some Poles’ interest in greening public spaces. Jakub Cholewka, a translator in Krakow, has already ordered a beech for himself and a maple for his wife, and says he wants to keep going. “I certainly won’t stop at the trees I got through the campaign,” he says.
Waters Off Limits
Australia is famous for its submarine beauty and aquatic biodiversity, most notably the Great Barrier Reef. But until recently areas that held great natural wonders were open to commercial fishing and oil drilling.
Not anymore. In June, Environment Minister Tony Burke unveiled a new network of marine protected areas surrounding the continent. Once the network is adopted, more than one-third of Australia’s waters – an area the size of India – will be protected from oil and gas drilling and exploration. This increases the number of marine reserves from 27 to 60, with a final marine park network of 3.1 million square kilometers, the second largest marine protected area on the globe. “We have an incredible opportunity to turn the tide on protection of the oceans and Australia can lead the world in marine protection,” Burke says.
The network increases the number of reserves in five zones around Australia’s coast. The Coral Sea Region, which abuts the Great Barrier Reef, is being hailed as “the jewel in the crown.” Protection of this zone in particular could help rehabilitate the Great Barrier Reef, which has lost 50 percent of coral cover in the past 50 years. Commercial fishing will be banned in some areas, giving new protection to the 4,000 fish species that inhabit the area, as well as turtles and dolphins that can get caught in commercial fishing nets.
But not everyone is jumping on the party boat. The fishing industry fears the new rules could cost the sector $4.35 billion and 36,000 jobs. Environmentalists see “glaring omissions in Burke’s patchwork map of no-go zones.” And some areas, like World Heritage site Ningaloo Reef, were overlooked.
Moreover, 80 percent of the new reserves will still allow fishing, including two-thirds of the Coral Sea reefs. While oil and gas drilling are prohibited within the protected zones, exploration will be allowed near reserve boundaries. Ship traffic will still cut through the Great Barrier Reef and could increase as the Australian coal industry pushes for increased exports.
“It is deeply concerning that the boundaries the minister has determined have been very strongly determined on oil and gas prospectivity and clearly determined by lobbying from the oil and gas sector,” says Greens Senator Rachel Siewert.
This is not so for the island nation of Maldives, which announced plans at the Rio+20 summit to create an even bigger marine reserve. Specifics regarding the size of the reserve aren’t yet final, but President Mohamed Waheed thinks it could be done quickly. “I hope we can do it in five years,” he said.
Like Australia, Maldives will prohibit industrial fishing and mining in the reserves, and allow only small-scale fishing and boating. But Australia’s reserves won’t connect to create a full protective blanket. Maldives is proposing to preserve its entire marine territory, a 200-nautical-mile area around its 1,190 coral islands.
Even if the Australian reserve network is patchy, the sites that are protected are amazing. Included are Perth Canyon, an underwater area bigger than the Grand Canyon, and the Diamantina Fracture Zone, a large underwater mountain chain. The North Marine Region will safeguard nesting and resting areas for threatened turtle species, including the flatback, hawksbill, green, and olive ridley turtles.
“This new network of marine reserves will help ensure that Australia’s diverse marine environment, and the life it supports, remain healthy, productive and resilient for future generations,” Burke says.
—Environment News Service, 6/14; Reuters, 6/14; Guardian, 6/14; AFP 6/20
Since taking over the US Navy in 2009, Navy Secretary Ray Mabus has made reducing his fleet’s dependence on fossil fuels one of his top priorities. He says that the military’s reliance on foreign oil is expensive and forces the United States to depend on unfriendly countries to keep the petroleum flowing. Mabus wants to deploy biofuel-burning aircraft carriers by 2016 and have the Navy sourcing half of its energy from renewable sources by 2020.
This summer’s Rim of the Pacific war games – a biannual multinational military exercise held north of Hawaii – was supposed to be Mabus’s triumphant unveiling of what he has dubbed the “Great Green Fleet.” But the Navy Secretary soon found himself taking fire from all sides.
While supportive of Mabus’s biofuel initiative, environmental groups blasted the Navy for sinking three ships during live-ammunition target practice as part of the war games, known as RIMPAC. Basel Action Network, the Sierra Club, Earthjustice, and the Center for Biological Diversity said that the ships were contaminated with toxic metals and polychlorinated biphenyls that could harm marine life. The groups said it would be better to dismantle the ships and recycle their materials.
“The hypocrisy of the Navy’s new ecological ‘Great Green Fleet’ demonstrating its ‘greenness’ by sinking ships containing globally banned pollutants off the coast of Hawaii is particularly ironic,” Colby Self of the Basel Action Network said in a statement. “But the realizations that this choice by the Navy to dump poisons into the marine environment is not only unnecessary, but also is costing Americans hundreds of green recycling jobs, makes this program both an environmental and an economic insult.”
The Navy said that all vessels had been cleaned in accordance with a permit issued by the US EPA and that the ships had been scrubbed of PCBs and materials containing mercury or fluorocarbons. Petroleum fuels and oils were also cleaned from fuel tanks and lines, the Navy said.
Meanwhile, Mabus had to suffer a barrage of criticism from Congressional Republicans who complained that the biofuel effort is a boondoggle. During the RIMPAC exercises, three ships – the cruiser Princeton and the destroyers Chung-Hoon and Chafee – ran on a 50-50 biofuel-petroleum blend. F/A-18 Hornet fighter jets, E-2C Hawkeye surveillance planes, and MH-60 helicopters also used the biofuel, which was made from 90 percent waste cooking oil and 10 percent algae. Republican critics said the experiment was a waste of money. The Navy paid more than $15/gallon for the biofuel mix, compared to $4/gallon for conventional diesel.
“I don’t believe it’s the job of the Navy to be involved in building ... new technologies,” Senator John McCain, the top Republican on the Senate Armed Services Committee, said earlier this year.
At least one serviceman involved in the biofuel exercise saw the situation differently. “I’m hoping someday I’m going to look back and this will be the point where we turned away from dependency on fossil fuels,” said pilot Lieutenant Commander Jason Fox. “There have been many steps that the Navy leads the way on, and I’m hoping this is one of those steps.”
History supports Lt. Cmdr. Fox’s view over that of former pilot Senator McCain. One of the main engines of today’s global economy was, famously, created by the US Defense Department. It’s called the Internet.
—Honolulu Star-Advertiser, 6/29; Reuters, 7/2; San Diego Union Tribune, 7/18
No Good Deed Goes Unpunished
It was sort of like the animal lover’s version of destroying the village in order to save it. In an effort to preserve one of the world’s densest leatherback turtle nesting sites, construction crews in Trinidad ended up crushing as many as 20,000 turtle eggs and baby turtles.
The beach town of Grand Riviere in Trinidad is home to the globe’s second largest leatherback nesting colony. Each year about 3,500 females return to their birthplace to lay 200,000 eggs.
But areas of the one-kilometer beach were being eaten away by the Grand Riviere River, which empties into the ocean there. The beach sand had become waterlogged. Nest-digging females were digging up each other’s eggs in search of space. The foundations of the Mount Plaisir Estate Hotel, a popular site for tourists who wish to see the baby turtles hatch, were endangered, too. Local residents decided it was time for the authorities to take action.
Hotelier Piero Guerrini contacted the government last December, when the river started shifting toward his hotel. His calls went unanswered until the middle of July, when a bulldozer and excavator showed up to redirect the mouth of the river. By that point, much of the nesting ground had already been damaged due to a particularly heavy rainy season and river erosion. But for the hatchlings that had survived, the authorities’ timing could not have been worse. July is the peak of hatching season.
“I don’t think anybody in their right mind could have done something like this,” says Sherwin Reyz, a member of the Grand Riviere Environmental Organization. “Here you are, tractoring up the sand, you see the young turtles, and instead of putting them away in the sand, you still crush them.”
Reyz and other locals spent a weekend rescuing hundreds of baby turtles. But many were injured beyond saving and became food for vultures and dogs.
As grim as the botched job seems, environmentalists say the slaughter will not significantly affect turtle populations in Trinidad. Natural oceanic movements will restore the beach in a matter of months, and turtles will return next year to lay a new generation of eggs.
Naturally, this is what Trinidad’s Environment and Water Resources Ministry would like everyone to focus on. Drainage director Shamshad Mohammed points to evidence that the sand moved by the excavators was already heavily waterlogged and that 80 percent of the eggs were already destroyed by the time the heavy equipment arrived. Joth Singh, CEO of Trinidad’s Environmental Management Authority, says he believes “only a few hundred hatchlings” were lost.
Authorities admit that the operation was not done “in the best way.” Early calls for help were ignored, and unsupervised crews crushed a much larger area of the beach than made sense.
“It’s a failure of governance,” says Marc de Verteuil of the Papa Bois Conservation organization. “It looked like a bit of a panic reaction and [the crews] didn’t follow procedure.”
“Before, the authorities were much quicker, much more responsive and also concerned about the turtle nesting areas,” says a shocked and dismayed Guerrini. “This time, there seemed to be no concern.”
Trinidad has a long history of successful conservation of leatherbacks thanks to the vocal efforts of rural citizens. But in regard to this recent incident, the government has ignored Papa Bois Conservation’s requests for an investigation.
—AP, 7/9, 7/11, 7/12
Never Say Die
Hours after Lonesome George’s death, Fausto Llerena, a ranger at the Galapagos National Park and George’s long-term keeper, hauled his leathery friend’s corpse into a storage freezer. The idea was to preserve George’s tissue in the hopes that, one day, technology will allow scientists to clone him.
Lonesome George was the last of the Pinta tortoises (Chelonoidis abingdoni), a subspecies of Galapagos giant tortoise. For decades, park rangers and conservationists had attempted to seduce the solitary giant into mating. In 1993 two females from a similar subspecies were put into his corral. He ignored them for years, and when he finally did do his duty, in 2008, the eggs failed to hatch. He also spurned the entreaties of a Swiss zoologist who smeared herself with female tortoise hormones and gave him “manual stimulation” – for four months.
Although George’s failure to procreate means that his species is now extinct, conservationists are not dispirited. His skin cells have been sampled and sent to the “Frozen Zoo” in the UK, a Noah’s Ark of cryopreserved cell cultures from more than 9,000 species. The idea is to use the preserved cells to generate stem cells and sex cells and then clone him.
Ten other species of Galapagos giant tortoise survive Lonesome George. As Charles Darwin noticed on his voyage in 1835, each is adapted for the specific island ecosystem in which it lives. Scientists have since learned that tortoises are an integral part of each island’s ecology. They keep plant populations in check in ways that goats and other introduced species do not. Reintroducing tortoises to islands where they are now extinct could help rehabilitate the original ecology.
But not everyone is on board with a Jurassic Park scenario. Some researchers, seeking a more natural route, want to let evolution play out, again.
“Given that tortoises from [the island of] Española founded the original population that landed on Pinta [island] and evolved into the Pinta tortoises, I don’t see a problem with us repopulating that island with Española tortoises,” says Linda Cayot, science advisor to the Galapagos Conservancy. This sort of deliberate introduction has never been done in the Galapagos, but a precursor experiment that placed 40 sterilized hybrid tortoises on Pinta is already underway.
Inadvertent introduction was likely what made such speciation possible in the first place. Whalers and pirates, who sometimes ate the tortoises, must have ferried a few live ones between the islands. Researchers believe that George’s own ancestors somehow migrated from Española to Pinta about 300,000 years ago.
And that is what Cayot clings to, the idea that evolution will bring forth a second coming of Pinta tortoises. “In one hundred thousand years, through evolutionary processes, we’ll have a Pinta tortoise in Galapagos,” she says. “One hundred thousand years is a time frame I can deal with.”
—Nature, 7/18; The Economist, 7/7