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EPA Adds Prison Locations to its Environmental Justice Mapping Tool

EJ activists celebrate move as an advance in the struggle to recognize the environmental rights of prisoners

graphic depicting a prison

As an environmental reporter, it’s not every day that I get to communicate good news — the state of our environment often feels pretty bleak. But today, at least, there is a victory to celebrate: Thanks to the persistence of a small group of prison ecology advocates, the support of their allies, and the assistance of the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), prisoners rights and environmental justice advocates have a new tool to add to their activist arsenal.

This summer, the EPA added a “prisons layer” to its Environmental Justice Screening and Mapping Tool. Known as EJSCREEN for short, the tool can be used by the public to assess possible exposure to pollutants that might be present in the environment (i.e., land, air, and water) where they live or work.

The new layer allows the public to overlay the locations of the country’s 6,000-plus prisons, jails, and detention centers with information about environmental hazards like superfund and hazardous waste sites, something the nonprofit Human Rights Defense Center has been pushing for as part of its campaign for the EPA to consider prisoners within an environmental justice context. For the prison ecology movement, which addresses issues at the intersection of mass incarceration and environmental degradation, it could be a game changer.

photo of prisonPhoto by Rw2, English WikipediaStateville Correctional Center in Illinois. Prison ecology advocates are celebrating the launch of a new prisons layer to the EPA's environmental justice mapping tool, but still hope the EPA will expand inspection and enforcement activities related to prisons.

“It’s huge,” says Panagioti Tsolkas, cofounder of the Prison Ecology Project, a program of the Human Rights Defense Center. “It’s one of those things that I think if you just look at it quickly, it seems almost mundane to have added a layer to this existing map. And in the absence of a movement present to actually use it for something, it could be meaningless…. But in the presence of what we’ve been doing over the last three years, of building this national movement and organizing model of looking at prisons from an environmental justice perspective … this is pretty massive.”

The Prison Ecology Project was thinking of creating it’s own map in the absence of an EPA version. And during our own reporting on toxic prisons earlier this year, Earth Island Journal and Truthout attempted …more

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The Environmental Destruction Wrought by War

Transitioning from terracide to ecolibrium

Even before war breaks out, the Earth suffers. Minerals, chemicals, and fuels are violently wrested from Earth’s forests, plains, and mountains. Much of this bounty is transformed into aircraft, gunboats, bullets, and bombs that further crater, sear, and poison the land, air, and water of our living planet. War is, and has always been, nature’s nemesis.

photo of military training in USPhoto by Marines, FlickrMarines participate in a training exercise in southern California. US military activities exact a large toll on the environment.

In his 2001 book War and Nature, Edmund Russell observed: “Since at least the days of the Old Testament, we have seen war and interactions with nature as separate, even opposite, endeavors.... Military historians have pushed beyond studies of battles and armies to examine the impact of military institutions on civilian society — but rarely on nature. Environmental historians have emphasized the role of nature in many events of our past — but rarely in war.”

Environmental activists, however, have a surprisingly long history of confronting militarism. The environmental movement of the sixties emerged, in part, as a response to the horrors of the Vietnam War — Agent Orange, napalm, carpet-bombing — and the abiding threat of nuclear war.

In 1971, Greenpeace got its start challenging a planned US nuclear test on one of Alaska’s Aleutian Islands. The founders explained that they intentionally chose “Greenpeace” because it was “the best name we can think of to join the two great issues of our times, the survival of our environment and the peace of the world.” Greenpeace’s 1976 Declaration of Interdependence began: “We have arrived at a place in history where decisive action must be taken to avoid a general environmental disaster. With nuclear reactors proliferating and over 900 species on the endangered list, there can be no further delay or our children will be denied their future.”

But challenging the profit-driven and the power-hungry — whether they are corporate polluters or the Pentagon itself — comes with risks. In June 1975, a team of Greenpeace activists attempted to disrupt the “Whale Wars” raging off the California coast by placing their rubber boat between a pod of whales and the guns of a Russian whaler. The activists were nearly killed when the Russians fired a harpoon directly over their heads.

On July 10, 1985, while I was visiting the Greenpeace International office in Amsterdam, we received some shocking news: the Rainbow Warrior, the organization’s flagship, had …more

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Safeguarding Mexico’s Sierra Madre Cloud Forest against Logging

Recent trip to region uncovered survival of endemic salamander thought to be extinct

Due to its long evolutionary history, unique micro-climatic conditions, and the extreme luck of having survived millenia human pressure, the Mexican cloud forests represent the best of the American continent’s wild places. These small, oozing green islands lost in the mist of Mexico's Sierra Madre range have been destroyed for the establishment of corn fields and pastures, as well as by loggers. As a result, countless species of flora and fauna have been lost, ecosystem services have been diminished, and the region’s extraordinary scenic beauty has been compromised. And the threats continue: earlier this year, the Mexican government approved logging of a swath of forested land in the mountains, though the logging permit is now on hold.

image of big-footed salamanderPhoto by Roberto Pedraza Ruiz  The big-footed salamander, listed by the IUCN as "critically endangered (possibly extinct)," was spotted earlier this year in the Sierra Madre range.

In the state of Querétaro, located in Central Mexico, the Sierra Gorda Biosphere Reserve forms part of the grand eastern Sierra Madre range. Home to the Grupo Ecológico Sierra Gorda (GESG), the reserve houses some of the country’s last remaining cloud forests, which extend east into the neighboring state of San Luis Potosí. From towering oaks, to tree ferns, firs, sweetgums, cypresses, mexican basswoods covered thick moss, bromeliads, and orchids, these cloud forests represent authentic biological laboratories that are home to species of plants and animals only now being discovered.

The ecosystem services provided by Mexico’s cloud forests cannot be understated. The mantle of near-permanent mist that surrounds them is synonymous with groundwater recharge, ensuring rain permeates the limestone instead of running down the slope, and maintaining a water supply for the vast human population of the region. The forest also captures carbon dioxide while exhaling oxygen, assisting with climate regulation.

As the head of the GESG’s Conservation Land Program, I am charged with protecting ten private natural reserves. By purchasing land with high biological value, GESG has prioritized protection of the last cloud forests in the Sierra Gorda, home to jaguars, margays, and new species of magnolias. In these reserves, chainsaws, cattle ranching, and all other economic activities have been banned, and, as a result, wildlife has flourished. I have known these forests and mountains since I was a child, crossing them on foot and on horseback, uncovering many surprises. Visiting them is like a trip to the past, a peek at the wealth that once covered the entire eastern Sierra Madre …more

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Beyond Harvey and Irma

The militarization of homeland security and disaster relief in the climate change era

Deployed to the Houston area to assist in Hurricane Harvey relief efforts, US military forces hadn’t even completed their assignments when they were hurriedly dispatched to Florida, Puerto Rico, and the US Virgin Islands to face Irma, the fiercest hurricane ever recorded in the Atlantic Ocean. Florida Governor Rick Scott, who had sent members of the state National Guard to devastated Houston, anxiously recalled them while putting in place emergency measures for his own state. A small flotilla of naval vessels, originally sent to waters off Texas, was similarly redirected to the Caribbean, while specialized combat units drawn from as far afield as Colorado, Illinois, and Rhode Island were rushed to Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands. Meanwhile, members of the California National Guard were being mobilized to fight wildfires raging across that state (as across much of the West) during its hottest summer on record.

photo of military response to Hurricane harveyPhoto by Timothy PruittTexas Guardsmen prepare to help evacuate Texans during Hurricane Harvey. In the era of climate change, the US military may play a growing role planning for extreme weather events and responding to natural disasters.

Think of this as the new face of homeland security: containing the damage to America’s seacoasts, forests, and other vulnerable areas caused by extreme weather events made all the more frequent and destructive thanks to climate change. This is a “war” that won’t have a name — not yet, not in the Trump era, but it will be no less real for that. “The firepower of the federal government” was being trained on Harvey, as William Brock Long, administrator of the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), put it in a blunt expression of this warlike approach. But don’t expect any of the military officials involved in such efforts to identify climate change as the source of their new strategic orientation, not while Commander in Chief Donald Trump sits in the Oval Office refusing to acknowledge the reality of global warming or its role in heightening the intensity of major storms; not while he continues to stock his administration, top to bottom, with climate-change deniers.

Until Trump moved into the White House, however, senior military officers in the Pentagon were speaking openly of the threats posed to American security by climate change and how that phenomenon might alter the very nature of their work. Though mum’s the word today, since the early years …more

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Images from Assateague Island

Ecology and wonder on a barrier island

Assateague Island is a 37-mile-long barrier island located off the coasts of Maryland and Virginia. It stretches to about two miles at its widest and only a quarter mile at its narrowest end. Its very name conjures images of wild horses galloping along the dunes, of pristine beaches suffused with thousands of shells stretching beyond sight.           

image of Assateague IslandPhoto by Mark Hendricks Assateague Island’s location along the Atlantic Flyway provides critical nesting and/or feeding habitat to more than 300 species of birds, including the royal tern.

It is a dynamic landscape at the mercy of wind and water, which constantly mold, move, and reshape it. Change is the norm for the barrier island. The lasting effects of storms, erosion, over wash, and rising sea levels are at the heart of its existence. Barrier islands such as Assateague defend the coastline by absorbing the power of storms and, like their name suggests, provide a barrier to the effects of wind and water that would otherwise devastate the mainland. They also protect wildlife and ecosystems that make these islands so unique.      

Assateague is an ecological wonderland. While the island itself is less than 18,000 acres, when its boundaries are extended to include adjacent coastal bays and coterminous marine shoreline it becomes a 48,000-acre Eden. From ocean to bay one may find a multitude of habitats including beach, dune, shrubs, maritime forest, and marsh that is inhabited by equally diverse flora and fauna. 

Ecological succession underpins its biodiversity. Each habitat must function for the next to thrive. Without the protection of the dunes the flora of the maritime forest would not grow; without the maritime forest the marsh would not develop. But life on Assateague is never easy, and the plants and animals that live here have adapted to the harsh conditions of the barrier island. Salt spray, limited fresh water, tidal surges, and extreme heat during the summer months make it a precarious existence, but they endure. 

Scroll through the images below for a glipse at life on Assateague Island.

image of Assateague IslandPhoto by Mark Hendricks Migrating harp seals can be found resting along the island's shoreline in winter. The Assateague Island National Seashore was established in 1962 to protect the island, and is managed by three federal agencies: the National Park Service, the US Fish and Wildlife Service, and the Department of Natural Resources. 


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Chocolate Industry Drives Devastating Deforestation in Ivory Coast

As global demand for cocoa booms, ‘dirty’ beans from national parks enter big business supply chains

The world’s chocolate industry is driving deforestation on a devastating scale in West Africa, The Guardian can reveal.

Cocoa traders who sell to Mars, Nestlé, Mondelez and other big brands buy beans grown illegally inside protected areas in the Ivory Coast, where rainforest cover has been reduced by more than 80 percent since 1960.

photo of Ivory Coast Cocoa plantationPhoto by jbdodane, FlickrA cocoa plantation in Ivory Coast, which produces as much as 40 percent of the world's cocoa.

Illegal product is mixed in with “clean” beans in the supply chain, meaning that Mars bars, Ferrero Rocher chocolates and Milka bars could all be tainted with “dirty” cocoa. As much as 40 percent of the world’s cocoa comes from Ivory Coast.

The Guardian travelled across Ivory Coast and documented rainforests cleared for cocoa plantation; villages and farmers occupying supposedly protected national parks; enforcement officials taking kickbacks for turning a blind eye to infractions and trading middlemen who supply the big brands indifferent to the provenance of beans.

When approached for comment, Mars, Mondelez and Nestlé, and traders Cargill and Barry Callebaut did not deny the specific allegation that illegal deforestation cocoa had entered their supply chains. All said they were working hard to eradicate the commodity from their products.

Up to 70 percent of the world’s cocoa is produced by 2 million farmers in a belt that stretches from Sierra Leone to Cameroon, but Ivory Coast and Ghana are the giants, the world’s first and second biggest producers. They are also the biggest victims of deforestation. Ivory Coast is losing its forests at a faster rate than any other African country — less than 4 percent of the country is covered in rainforest. Once, one quarter was.

The ballooning global demand for chocolate means that if nothing is done, by 2030 there will be no forest left, according to the environmental group Mighty Earth which today publishes an investigation into deforestation caused by chocolate. The final, insulting irony is that locals are so poor they could never afford to eat a Mars bar.

Evidence of deforestation is not hard to find. Inside the Mount Tia protected forest, Salam Sawadougou, a Burkinabé farmer, is hacking a yellow cocoa pod off one of his plants in a four hectare (10 acre) plot. Here, the grey stumps of enormous ancient trees are all that is left of the forest.

“I burned it little …more

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How to Teach Your Kids About Zoos

We owe our children honest answers about the morality of animal captivity

On September 6, National Geographic Kids posted a Family Field Guide, "How to Answer Challenging Questions About Animals at the Zoo," by Laura Goertzel, digital director for the magazine. Goertzel was forced to consider the problem of animal captivity when a bobcat called Ollie escaped from her cage at the National Zoo in Washington, DC in January. Goertzel's kids began asking questions about how Ollie escaped and why Ollie would want to do so. 

photo of lions at national zooPhoto by Steve Sarro, Smithsonian’s National ZooIn January, a female bobcat known as Ollie escaped her cage at the National Zoo. She was returned to her enclosure after being recaptured. A recent post in National Geographic dodges challenging questions about the morality of keeping wild animals like Ollie captive.

"Our visits to the zoo haven't been the same since," Goertzel writes. "My kids continue to inquire about the lives of captive animals, and those questions are often difficult to answer. (My answer to the above question: Just like Curious George, Ollie wanted to learn about what was going on outside the zoo and found a hole in her cage to squeeze through.)"

These are teachable moments, says Goertzel, and she offers some of her favorite questions from kids and tips on how to answer them:

Question 1: Where are all the elephants?

Explain to children that just as they do, animals enjoy time by themselves. That's why modern parks give animals a space away from visitors to rest.

Question 2: Why does that lion look so bored?

The animals probably aren't bored — they're just resting. Many wild animals, including lions, do spend most of their day chilling out…. (In fact, the king of the beasts is considered the laziest of the big cats, spending 16 to 20 hours a day sleeping or resting.) A zoo environment is not much different.

Question 3: Is that panda happy living in a cage?

Let's face it. No matter how innovative the spaces are, seeing animals in enclosures can be hard for children. So I use that question to teach my kids that many of the animals at the zoo are endangered or threatened, and that zoos can keep them safe from poachers, habitat destruction, and other threats.

And so goes the advice of Laura Goertzel. She has chosen to answer the pure, perceptive, empathetic questions of her children with bullshit and rationalization. She suggests that we all do the same.   


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