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One Man’s Mission to Protect Greece’s Ancient Olive Trees

Greek expat hopes his photo archive will help raise awareness about the value of the centuries-old trees in Laconia region

In the region of Laconia, located at the southernmost tip of mainland Greece, ancient olive trees grow from sections of ancient buildings, seeming to fuse into a single tableau. Other trees grow in inhospitable, rugged and arid regions. These trees can reach up to seven meters high, and have trunks of intricate designs plus oblong silver-green leaves, which hide small, round fruits, and emit a distinctive scent with fruity and woody notes.

photo of ancient olive treephoto by Adoni DimakosGreece has a long track record of preserving its antiquities made of marble. But its ancient olive trees, some of which are more than 2000 years old, have received far fewer protections.

And yet, the trees face an uncertain future. Locals clear them to make room for new crops or use the wood for burning. The problem is compounded by agricultural mismanagement — the government gives subsidies to farmers to rip out ancient olive trees and plant orange trees in their place.

Such ancient Greek olive trees, but also Italian, Spanish, and Moroccan trees are disappearing from the landscape for multifold reasons. Climate change in the Mediterranean has triggered a shift in precipitation patterns as well as extended droughts, floods, and immense heat waves that occur with greater frequency and increased intensity, and, which, in turn, adversely affect the production of crops and the whole olive orchard agroecosystem. Bactrocera Oleae scourges, on the other hand, make table olives unmarketable and negatively impact the acidity and quality of the produced olive oil. Modern agricultural practices such as re-landscaping for tractors to get nearer to the crop add to the problem. Enter using the olive tree wood for heating in a country that has been eight years in recession and has lost around one gross domestic product from the value of each of its citizens’ private wealth, and you understand the threats currently posed to Greece’s olives.

Greece has a long track record of preserving its antiquities made of marble. But its ancient olive trees, some of which are more than 2000 years old, have received far fewer protections, says Adoni Dimakos, a Greek-Canadian entrepreneur. He is currently spearheading an ambitious project, known as, to catalog and preserve these rare and endangered ancient olive breeds in his native province of Laconia.

Dimakos is an unlikely defender of Greece’s olives. Born in Montreal, Canada, in 1968, he lived in Greece during his formative teen years and started falling in love with the olive …more

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Trump’s Border Wall Plan Hits Snag with Environmental Suit

US Congressman joins Center for Biological Diversity in call for environmental analysis that could delay construction for years

A US congressman and environmental group have filed the first lawsuit targeting Donald Trump’s plan to build a 30-foot wall on the US-Mexico border.

photo of border fencePhoto by Gary Goodenough, Flickr A section of the existing border fence between Arizona and Mexico. A US congressman is calling for an environmental impact assessment before a border wall is built.

The suit, brought by Congressman Raúl M. Grijalva of Arizona and the Center for Biological Diversity in the US district court for Arizona, seeks to require the government to undertake a comprehensive environmental impact analysis before beginning construction.

Such a review would probably take several years to complete, delaying indefinitely the fulfillment of one of Trump’s signature campaign promises.

“It will take a significant amount of time to thoroughly analyze [the impacts of the wall], and that’s the point,” said Randy Serraglio, a spokesman for the Center for Biological Diversity.

“What we learned about the border wall in the past 10 years is that it’s hugely expensive, it doesn’t work, and it does a tremendous amount of damage,” Serraglio said. “The people in the United States have the right to know what the damage is going to be, what it’s going to cost, and whether it’s going to be effective. Those are questions the Trump administration is not interested in answering.”

The lawsuit invokes the National Environmental Policy Act, which requires environmental review of major federal programs.

The Department of Homeland Security and Customs and Border Protection, which are named as defendants, declined to comment on pending litigation.

Trump began his presidential campaign in June 2015 with the promise of a border wall to keep out Mexican immigrants, whom he characterized as “criminals” and “rapists.” In the first week of his administration, he signed an executive order calling for homeland security to “begin immediate construction” of the wall.

Homeland Security has since begun a bidding process for contractors to build prototypes for the multibillion-dollar project. Still, a lack of interest from major construction firms and a lack of funding from Congress may mean that the proposal never moves beyond a border wall beauty pageant expected to take place in San Diego this summer.

“American environmental laws are some of the oldest and strongest in the world, and they should apply to the borderlands just as they do everywhere else,” Grijalva, a Democrat, said in a statement. “These laws exist to …more

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Is Mexico’s Underwater Museum Diverting Attention from Bigger Environmental Issues?

Sculptures off coast of Cancún are meant to protect coral reefs from intensive diving, but some conservationists say they’re a distraction

More than 20 feet below the surface of the water, on the sandy sea floor between Cancún and Isla Mujeres in Mexico, a lobster takes refuge beneath a miniature concrete house. Scuba divers watch as the lobster slinks underneath the foundation. Farther on, hundreds of statues stand in tight circles. A little girl holds a purse close to her chest. A man looks straight ahead with a broom in hand. A thin layer of algae, sponges, and coral cover the statues from head to toe.

photo of underwater museumPhoto by Ratha Grimes The Underwater Museum of Art is meant to protect nearby reefs from intensive diving by diverting scuba divers. But some conservationists say it's more of a buisness venture than a conservation measure.

The statues, the house, and the lobster are all part of the Underwater Museum of Art, a project intended to divert scuba divers from the overused reefs in the national park Costa Occidental Isla Mujeres, Punta Cancún y Punta Nizúc. The park is near Cancún and Isla Mujeres, an island 13 kilometers off the Cancún coast. Inexperienced divers can harm the reef by accidentally breaking corals. But some scientists are skeptical of the museum’s conservation value. And though it’s not hurting the reef, they fear the museum may distract from more important threats to reef health such as coastal development and inadequate water treatment.

“It’s a good business,” Roberto Iglesias Prieto, a reef researcher at the Institute of Marine Sciences and Limnology just outside of Cancún, said. “The problem is that it’s sold as a conservation measure.”

In the years leading up to the creation of the museum, several powerful hurricanes damaged the reefs in the national park. The Mexican protected areas commission (CONANP) considered closing the reefs to tourism to allow them to recover. That sounded like bad news to the dive operators in the area. Closing the reefs would hurt business, so divers and park managers worked together to find a compromise.

In 2009, the diving community and the protected areas commission decided to create an underwater museum. It seemed like the perfect solution: Divers would find the site interesting, it would take pressure off the nearby coral reefs, and it would provide habitat for sea life.

There’s just one issue: Igelsias Prieto doesn’t believe tourists are to blame for the deterioration of the reef. “They invented a problem …more

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In Photos: Blue Carbon Around the World

From Senegal to Indonesia, conservation groups are linking coastal restoration to the climate change movement

Back in 2009, a new term entered the conservation lexicon: “blue carbon.” The phrase was coined by a handful of United Nations agencies to describe the carbon stored in coastal ecosystems. Mangroves, seagrasses, and salt marshes, they were discovering, are incredible sponges for the greenhouse gas, storing up to five times more per acre than rainforests do. They are also disappearing much faster than rainforests, mainly due to coastal development, conversion into shrimp ponds, and timber harvesting. Those changes not only release what one blue carbon enthusiast dubs “nuclear bombs of carbon,” they also strip coastal communities of their buffer against sea and storms, destroy vital fish nurseries, and harm essential habitat for species ranging from marsh mongooses to monkeys. Since the 1960s, scientists say the world has lost around half of its mangroves and tidal marshes.  

photo of a mangrove stand, viewed from above and below water© Burt Jones and Maurine ShimlockA mangrove forest on Indonesia’s Bird’s Head peninsula nurtures a stunning array of marine species. Environmental groups around the world are using payments they receive for the “blue carbon” that these coastal ecosystems capture to fund conservation projects. Conservation International, which has worked to protect Bird’s Head, is a leader in this push.

Conservation groups quickly realized that by linking coastal restoration to the climate change movement, and especially to carbon credit funding schemes, they could turbo-charge efforts to protect these ecosystems. A handful of local and international organizations have already put the idea into action. In at least five countries, corporate investors like Danone and Michelin are funding mangrove restoration to offset their carbon emissions.

Not everyone is enthusiastic about these projects. Critics like the 10-million-strong World Forum of Fisher Peoples worry that communities will lose access to food and fuel if coastal areas are cordoned off for the climate’s sake – as has happened with some terrestrial carbon forestry projects in the past, sparking a heated debate over the legitimacy of the carbon credit concept. But Emily Pidgeon, a senior scientist at Conservation International and a strong proponent of blue carbon, is confident these problems can be overcome. “The lessons are out there in the carbon community,” she says. “We in the marine community need to be actively working out how to apply them when they’re wet.”

For more on blue carbon pilot projects around the world, scroll through the images below.

© Blue Ventures | Garth CrippsOn …more

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Protests Increase in Italy Against “Europe’s DAPL”

Euro-Caspian Mega Pipeline will stretch from the oilfileds of Azerbaijan through six countries to Italy

There is increasing outrage in Italy against what campaigners are calling “Europe’s DAPL,” with thousands of people taking to the streets to campaign against the 3,500 kilometer, $45 billion, Euro-Caspian Mega Pipeline (ECMP).

photo of Trans Adriatic Pipeline projectphoto by Giovani Comunisti/e, FacebookThe Euro-Caspian Mega Pipeline stretches from Azerbaijan to Italy. Local communities in Italy are outraged by the environmental damage caused by the pipeline.

The vast ECMP will stretch all the way from the polluted oilfields of Azerbaijan through six countries to Italy. In so doing it will transport gas to Europe, locking the continent into decades of fossil fuel use.

But local communities in Italy are outraged at the damage being done to their local environment and are now fighting back. Footage on Facebook shows the blue helmeted Italian Police lining the pipeline route as ancient olive trees are transported off site. There is visible anger in the air as the trees, wrapped in white body bags, are driven away.

The issue is now making front page news in the country.

One of the groups campaigning against the pipeline is the London-based oil watchdog Platform. The oil watchdog has long highlighted the endemic corruption in Azerbaijan as well as the appalling human rights abuses in the country and how the two are linked to oil.

There are dozens of political prisoners — comprising journalists, bloggers, peace activists, and human rights lawyers — who have all been incarcerated for challenging the corrupt regime run by President Aliyev. The dictator has been propped up by British oil giant BP for two decades, ever since BP and the government signed what was deemed “the Contract of the Century” back in September 1994.

As well as BP’s involvement, this is also a pipeline being propped up by public money. The western part of the pipeline route, known as the Trans-Adriatic Pipeline, is due to receive €2 billion from the European Investment Bank (EIB), which according to Platform is the “largest loan by the EU bank in its 57-year history.”

Indeed, the pipeline is a key element of the Energy Union, a flagship initiative of the European Commission in Brussels. And despite concerns about climate change and the corruption of the Aliyev regime, in February this year, at a meeting in Baku in Azerbaijan the Commission’s vice president for the Energy Union, Maroš Šefcovic, encouraged international financial institutions to “bankroll” the pipeline.

The World Bank is also helping …more

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Secret Images Obtained of Wild Elephants Sold into Captivity in Chinese Zoos

Animal welfare advocates have filmed some of the wild elephants captured in Zimbabwe last year to feed the live wildlife trade

Last year more than 30 young elephants were captured from the wild in Zimbabwe and flown by plane to China. The elephants — some reported to be as young as three — were dispersed to a number of zoos throughout the country, including the Shanghai Wild Animal Park, the Beijing Wildlife Park and the Hangzhou Safari Park, according to conservationists.

But what are their lives like now?

photo of captive elephantsphoto courtesy of WieboA photo from the social media site Weibo of the elepahnt calves imported from Zimbabwe into China in December 2016. Conservationists say some are currently at the Hangzhous Safari Park. 

This week, 12 of the calves went on show at the Shanghai park. The Weibo page for the zoo says their average age is four. The photos there were reviewed by Yolanda Pretorius, vice-chair of the Elephant Specialist Advisory Group of South Africa, who commented: “Overall their body condition seems to be slightly below average but it does not look as if they are starving. One of the elephants has temporal gland secretions and I am not sure whether this is a good or bad sign. In the wild, elephants mostly secrete from their temporal glands when they get excited.”

Meanwhile, recent photos and video said to show some of the elephants currently in Hangzhou reveal the animals behind bars and walking on concrete floors. The images were obtained by the animal welfare advocate Chunmei Hu, former secretary general of the Chinese Green Development and Endangered Species Fund.

The video has been reviewed by elephant experts, including Joyce Poole, co-founder of the Kenya-based Elephant Voices and renowned specialist on elephant behavior. “They appear rather listless,” she says. “Perhaps waiting for something, but without much attention…. Their housing is totally unstimulating. They look like sad, locked-up little kids.”

Aside from these snippets of evidence, there is little information on the conditions faced by these once-wild elephants. There is no official figures for how many elephants were sent to each zoo, although conservationists believe seventeen of the calves ended up in Shanghai, fifteen in Beijing and six in Hangzhou.

“It is heart wrenching not knowing the current fate of these animals,” says Iris Ho, wildlife campaign manager at Humane Society International. “It’s like knowing that someone — or children in this case, since they are baby …more

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Pruitt’s Rejection of Chlorpyrifos Ban Seems Based on Alternative Facts

EPA chief fails to explain what data prompted his decision to allow continued use of the toxic pesticide, environmental groups file suit

The US Environmental Protection Agency under President Trump may have stepped into the brave new world of alternative facts.

Last November, after several years of study, the EPA had announced that the insecticide chlorpyrifos poses an unacceptable risk to humans, especially children, when its residue is found in fruits, vegetables, and drinking water.

photo of California farmPhoto by Malcolm Carlaw The EPA has reversed its decision to ban chlorpyrifos, the most heavily used insecticide in the US, despite evidence that it is dangerous to human health.

The finding cited a 2014 Columbia University study and other research showing that young people have suffered diminished cognitive abilities and reduced IQ after chronic exposures. This led the EPA to recommend a ban on all agricultural uses of chlorpyrifos — by far the most heavily used insecticide in the US with 4 to 8 million pounds applied annually.

On a pounds per acre basis, the heaviest applications of chlorpyrifos in the US have been on the Hawaiian island of Kauai, where several large agribusiness have been conducting open-air experiments on genetically modified seeds. (Read my in-depth report, “The Ghost in the GMO Machine.”)

But on March 31 — the day the ban was scheduled to take effect — new EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt determined that chlorpyrifos isn’t dangerous after all and rejected the ban.

Chlorpyrifos is part of a class of chemicals, known as organophosphates, that was developed before World War II as a nerve gas that could halt neurotransmissions in a soldier’s brain. Chlorpyrifos kills bugs by disrupting their brain functions in a similar way.

The Columbia study of pregnant women reported an association between the level of chlorpyrifos residue found in fetal cord blood and neurodevelopmental problems in fetuses and children. An EPA scientific advisory panel that reviewed the study in April 2016 concluded that “there is evidence for adverse health outcomes” at even very low exposure levels. EPA scientists said that the risks that young children face from exposure to food residues of chlorpyrifos alone are 14,000 percent higher than the level they believe — or believed until a few days ago — is safe.

The only significant change at EPA since it issued the preliminary finding last year has been the appointment of Pruitt, a noted climate science skeptic, to its top job. Since the inauguration, Pruitt has been denouncing EPA regulations, especially its Clean Power Plan, an Obama-era measure designed to fight climate …more

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