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The Sambor Dam Is a Tragic Mistake for Cambodia

Planned mega-dam threatens fish populations and food security in the lower Mekong Basin

Auntie Punleu has spent most of her life on Koh Dambang, an island set in the middle of the Mekong River in Cambodia. A small, grandmotherly woman, she paints an idyllic picture of life there.

“We catch fish as our main food every day. We eat fish nearly six days a week,” she says. With her gentle strength and keen knowledge of community affairs, people on the island look to her as a natural leader. “My children and grandchildren have enough food to eat every day and they are healthy. We do not need to spend money to buy fish. We do not need to beg people for them. They come naturally from the river.”

photo of Mekong riverPhoto by International RiversThe Mekong River is threatened by a mega-dam project in the Sambor District, one of 11 large hydropower dams planned for the river's lower mainstream.

A few kilometers away, Uncle Songom, a resident of the quiet riverside village of Svay Chek, echoes Punleu: “My family have enough food and my children are healthy because of the Mekong River.”

Punleu’s story is replicated up and down the riverbanks. The livelihoods and cultures of 60 million people in the lower Mekong Basin are intimately connected with the Mekong River’s natural cycles. Boasting one of the world’s most diverse and productive inland fisheries, the Mekong supplies people in the region with approximately 80 percent of their protein needs. For families living on the margin, the river is an invaluable source of both protein and income.

But this vital lifeline is now at risk, and families like those of Punleu and Songom face an uncertain future. Regional governments are pushing forward a series of large-scale hydropower dam projects that are threatening the Mekong’s abundant fisheries, and consequently the food supply of millions.

This past September saw the inauguration of the Lower Sesan 2 Dam, a project that fisheries experts warn will block fish migrations on two of the major tributaries of the Mekong River, the Sesan and Srepok rivers, causing a 9.3 percent drop in fish biomass for the entire river basin. The dam is also expected to flood 36,000 hectares, displacing about 5,000 people. The plans for these large-scale projects are typically conceived and approved in secret, and the communities who stand to lose the most are never consulted.

Punleu’s island is now facing inundation by one such project: the proposed Sambor Dam. The dam would be located on the …more

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The Tragic Tale of Tony the Truck Stop Tiger

Tony's life and death as a roadside attraction expose the failure of the American legal system

For more than six years, the Animal Legal Defense Fund fought tirelessly to save a tiger named Tony from a cage in the parking lot of a Louisiana truck stop. Sadly, we received news last week that Tony had died of kidney failure after spending 16 years confined to his cage, living and dying as a roadside attraction. Tony's plight is a microcosm of the problems with our legal system, a system that treats sentient beings as property and affords disproportionate political influence to their captors and abusers.  

photo of tony the truckstop tigerPhoto by Janusz SobolewskiA tiger known as Tony spent his life in a cage at a Louisiana truck stop. Tony died last week.  

Tony was born into captivity, sentenced from birth to a life of exploitation, a gimmick used by his owner Michael Sandlin to sell gasoline at the Tiger Truck Stop. It doesn't take a degree in veterinary medicine to know that a truck stop is no place for a tiger. But veterinarians and animal behaviorists weighed in emphatically on Tony's behalf. Dr. Jennifer Conrad, a doctor of veterinary medicine with decades of experience with captive large cats, personally visited Tony and concluded that he was "exploited to the detriment of his welfare."

Dr. Marc Bekoff, professor emeritus of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology at the University of Colorado, Boulder, concluded that Tony's enclosure was completely unnatural and totally unfit, and that the manner in which Tony was kept at the Tiger Truck Stop fell significantly below the bare minimum required to ensure his psychological welfare.

The state legislature and the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries (LDWF) recognized that keeping wild animals in captivity causes immense animal suffering and threatens public safety, so they banned the private possession of tigers. But the agency bowed to pressure from the Tiger Truck Stop and issued it a grandfather permit to keep Tony in spite of the ban.

In early 2011 — moved by Tony's suffering and the passion of his supporters — we sued LDWF, arguing that the truck stop wasn't eligible for a grandfather permit. And we won. The trial court ruled that because the truck stop violated a local ordinance prohibiting the ownership and exhibition of tigers, it couldn't qualify for a permit. The court ordered LDWF to revoke the permit and prohibited it from issuing any new permits. The Louisiana Court of Appeal affirmed the trial court's decision, leaving the Tiger Truck …more

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Former Head of Energy, Environment at ALEC Hired by Trump Interior Department

Todd Wynn has described climate change as a potential 'net benefit for the planet'

Todd Wynn, former Director of the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC)'s Energy Environmental and Agriculture Task Force, was recently hired by President Donald Trump to work as a senior-ranking official in the US Department of the Interior. 

photo of grand staircase-escalantePhoto by Ad MeskinsPresident Trump hired fossil fuel insider Todd Wynn to work as a senior-ranking official in the US Department of the Interior. 

DeSmog discovered the hire via LinkedIn, and Wynn says on his profile page that he began at Interior in October.

Wynn worked at ALEC from 2011 to 2013 and then became Director of External Affairs for Edison Electric Institute (EEI), a trade association representing electric utility companies nationwide. Prior to his position at ALEC, Wynn served as Vice President of the Cascade Policy Institute, a part of the State Policy Network (SPN), a national chain of state-level conservative and corporate-funded think-tanks which was started as an ALEC offshoot.

ALEC's critics have described the organization, a national consortium of mostly Republican Party state legislators and corporate lobbyists, as a “corporate bill mill.” That's because its lobbyist members convene several times a year with legislators to produce what it calls “model bills” which have ended up as actual legislation thousands of times since the organization's founding in 1973.

Wynn's new job at Interior will parallel his past role at ALEC, where according to LinkedIn, the office he will oversee “strengthen[ing] relationships between state and local partners and external stakeholders with the Office of the Secretary [Ryan Zinke]. [Office of Intergovernmental and External Affairs] also serves as liaison for governmental and non-governmental partners in communicating with Departmental offices and the Bureaus.”

Wynn has not responded to a request for comment. 

“This is yet another choice to put an aggressive fossil fuel insider into a position of power at taxpayer expense. I have no doubt Wynn will put private interests — very special interests — over the public interest in protecting our public lands and forests,” said Lisa Graves, executive director of the Center for Media and Democracy and publisher of the website ALECExposed.org, the first website to publish hundreds of ALEC model bills back in 2011.

“Promoting Wynn, with his long ties to the Koch Industries-fueled ALEC pay-to-play operation and other groups like EEI that peddle the corporate agenda, just underscores how Trump has put the …more

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9-Year-Old Calls on Kids to Speak Up for Parks

Robbie Bond wants to inspire America’s youth to save our public lands

Robbie Bond is an eloquent, friendly, and passionate conservationist who founded a nonprofit in order to advocate for the preservation of national monuments and parks. He’s also 9 years old. Through his organization, Kids Speak for Parks, he and his parents cultivate national park and monument awareness, and promote education and advocacy by sharing their own travels to these landmarks and connecting nature-lovers of all ages online. They also have a school outreach program in the works.

photo of grand staircase-escalantePhoto by Bureau of Land Management Motivated by President Trump's executive order calling for a review of 27 national monuments, 9-year-old Robbie Bond is asking kids across the US to speak up in support of public lands. Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument (pictured) is one of ten monuments that Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke proposed altering following the review.

Bond began this journey in response to President Trump’s April 2017 executive order calling for The Department of the Interior to review 27 national monuments designated since 1996 under the Antiquities Act. The five largest monuments under review were all marine Pacific monuments, totaling 218 million acres (read more about them here). The majority of the others were in the West and comprise about 11.25 million acres.

In August, Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke announced that while none of the monuments would be eliminated entirely, he would recommend significant alterations to several of them. The Washington Post then published a leaked version of Zinke’s report to Trump, which specifically recommended altering 10 monuments and reducing the size of Gold Butte, Bears Ears, Cascade-Siskiyou, and Grand Staircase-Escalante, which happens to be one of Bond’s favorites.

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“Our government needs to hear from us, the youngest amongst us, that our national parks are not for sale,” Bond says in a promotional Kids Speak for Parks video. In a phone call, he explains he has long been an environmentalist, citing Hawaii’s Get the Drift and Bag it beach cleanup program as one of his earliest related experiences. “I also like just to go to the beach in my free time and just pick up trash,” he says. He mentions getting his pass for Every Kid in a Park — a program that gives fourth graders and their families free access to federal parks —  as another important milestone. His dad, Robin Bond, adds that seeing The Lorax movie also had a powerful impact on …more

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Murder of Retired Couple Chills Fellow Environmental Activists in Turkey

Killing of two advocates who successfully campaigned to shut down marble mine stokes fear that others will kill to protect profits

Cedar branches whisper in the Anatolian breeze. Twigs crunch underfoot. A truck rumbles from a distant marble quarry. The crack of a hunter’s rifle echoes through the forest.

The sounds of tranquility and violence intermingle at the remote hillside home of Aysin and Ali Büyüknohutçu, the Turkish beekeepers and environmental defenders whose murder in Finike earlier this year has sent a chill through the country’s conservation movement.

photo of marble quarryPhoto by mhyigit A marble quarry in Finike, Turkey. Aysin and Ali Büyüknohutçu were murdered after fighting marble companies in the area.

If the killings of the retired couple were not shocking enough, the aftermath — a dubious judicial investigation and the alleged suicide of the key suspect — have raised questions in parliament and the media about the priorities of prime minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, who increasingly seems to care more about the economy and concrete than lives and the environment.

Ali and Aysin were organic farmers who moved to a remote forest home so that they could be closer to nature after they retired.

A hand-painted sign above their gate reads “Ali Baba Çiftliği” (Father Ali’s Farm), a joking reference to the ditty that Turkish children sing to the tune of Old MacDonald. Their two-storey house and garden — carefully laid out in neat rows of vegetables — sits in a clearing among cedar and pine trees.

Their house itself is testimony to the couple’s commitment to each other, their country, their family, and the environment. Two cups sit by a kettle on the stove next to an open sugar bowl. Pride of place on the wall is a portrait of Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, who founded the Turkish Republic out of the ruins of the Ottoman empire. Below it are several stacks of books — bedtime stories for their grandchildren, and publications on global issues: Can a City Be Sustainable?, Worldwatch Institute on the State of the World 2016, and A Guide to Organic Farming.

Moving there was the realization of a long-held ambition. In his youth, Ali had written a poem in which he declared, “My only wish is a big garden with cheerful children.”

“This was their dream retirement,” said a source close to the family, who asked to remain anonymous due to fear of reprisals. “They moved there for inner peace. Then they came up against the marble companies.”

They could not avoid them. The road up to their home passes from the …more

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Governments Need to Take A Hard Stand Against Illegal Fishing Industry

Recent shark hunts by China-based company highlights need for independent monitoring by NGOs, says Sea Shepherd activist

In Timor Leste law, a small country in Southeast Asia that achieved its independence from Indonesia in 2002, shark hunting is illegal, but that didn't prevent a China- based company from sending vessels out to the country's waters recently to illegally catch thousands of sharks.

photo of sharks on boatPhoto by Jake Parker/Sea Shepherd Sea Shepherd staff document sharks illegally caught off the coast of Timor Leste.

In September, the ocean conservation group Sea Shepherd, working with local police in Timor Leste, caught 15 vessels filled with thousands of sharks using gill nets to scoop up the bottom feeding sharks, some of which are internationally protected as endangered species. Banned from hunting for sharks in Indonesia's waters, these shark-hunting vessels prey on Timor Leste, an impoverished country with no resources to patrol or regulate their waters.

The company that owns the vessels, Pingtan Marine Enterprise, is listed on the United States NASDAQ, and has been banned in the past from fishing in Indonesian waters. The company did have fishing licenses from the Timor Leste government, but not for shark hunting. These large hauls threaten the country's fishing supply and marine ecosystem. 

The same fleet of illegal shark fishing vessels were caught in August 2017 in a restricted marine sanctuary near the Galapagos Islands that has one of the greatest abundance of sharks in the world. That, and the limited resources of Ecuador and the Galapagos National Park to patrol the waters, have made it a target for illegal shark hunting.

Though the crew was arrested, the private company still thrives on breaking international laws to feed the demand of the shark fin industry. 

Small governments and limited monitoring resources make countries like Timor Leste and regions like the Galapagos easy targets for large fishing companies like Pingtan Marine looking to make big profits with illegal hauls.

"Developing countries such as Timor Leste are prime targets for exploitation by developed nations’ fishing fleets. This is largely down to the limited or lack of marine enforcement assets and training/knowledge into illegal, unreported, and unregulated (IUU) fishing," says Gary Stokes, Asia director of Sea Shepherd.

Illegal, unreported, and unregulated fishing accounts for up to US $23.5 billion worth of fish caught worldwide every year. In other words, 1 in every 5 fish that you can buy at the store was probably illegally caught. This kind of fishing robs, often poor, coastal communities of vital sources of food and income and damage marine environments. International cooperation and alerts …more

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Planned Rail Line Would Intersect Kenya’s Nairobi National Park

Conservationists worried Chinese-backed project will threaten safety of wildlife, integrity of ecosystem

Nairobi National Park has become the focal point of a conflict between national development priorities and environmental conservation in Kenya. Established in 1946, this 117-square-kilometer wilderness area is the oldest state park in Kenya, and home to incredible biodiversity. Animals such as buffalo, giraffe, lions, leopard, white rhino, the endangered black rhino, and more than 600 bird species live inside the protected area, which is also the only national park in the world within a city.

artists impression of bridgePhoto courtesy of EAWLS Artist impression of SGR in Nairobi Park. The mega infrastructure project is about to change the face and future of this wilderness

But a mega infrastructure project is about to change the face and future of this wilderness. A new standard gauge railway (SGR), for transportation of freight and high-speed passenger service between the seaport of Mombasa and the capital city of Nairobi, is proposed to cut through Nairobi Park.

The SGR has been presented as a key project for Kenya’s long-term plan to become an industrialized country by 2030. Constructed at a cost of $3.8 billion, the 484-kilometer railway is primarily funded by the government of China and is being built by Chinese companies. The new track runs parallel with the old meter-gauge railway built in 1904, which crosses into Nairobi before continuing west into Uganda.

In order to avoid the huge cost of compensating Nairobi businesses and residences that were in the original path of the train and were slated for demolition, the Kenya Railways Corporation and the National Land Commission decided in 2016 to run part of the second phase of the SGR through Nairobi National Park. Several park-based options were considered initially, including one that would have cut through a rhino-breeding zone, before the authorities settled on raising the track onto a bridge with underpasses so that animals could move around the rail line.

Already, 216 acres of park land have been dedicated to 12 kilometers of railway. This decision has conservationists and nature lovers up in arms over the long-term integrity of this ecosystem.

Akshay Vishwanath, chairman of the conservation organization Friends of Nairobi National Park (FoNNaP), has been a vocal critic of the project. “The claims by the Kenya Railways Corporation that the bridge across Nairobi Park will not have an impact on the wildlife is unsubstantiated by any facts, and is not based on reliable science,” said Vishwanath.

He refers to findings in 2016 by the organization Save the …more

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