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Major Companies Using Palm Oil Commit to Addressing Worst Industry Abuses. But is It Enough?

Only continued consumer pressure will ensure that food and cosmetics industries deliver on their promises

In late July, agribusiness giant Cargill announced a sweeping set of changes to the company’s palm oil policies, promising a commitment to “build a traceable and transparent palm oil supply chain” to “end egregious practices such as deforestation, expansion onto peatlands, and the exploitation of Indigenous peoples, workers, and local communities.”

Cargill�s Problems With Palm OilDavid Gilbert/RANCompanies responsible for more than half of global palm oil trading have now made public commitments to address the rampant environmental and human rights abuses associated with palm oil production.

Taken together with recent moves from other industry giants like Wilmar and Golden-Agri Resources, it means that companies responsible for more than half of global palm oil trading have now made public commitments to address the rampant environmental and human rights abuses associated with palm oil production. Traders are joined by well-known consumer brands like Nestlé, Unilever, General Mills, Mondelēz, Kellogg, Safeway, Hershey, Mars, L’Oreal, and Proctor & Gamble.

The need for reform cannot be overstated.

Its high yield compared to other oils makes palm oil a cheap alternative for companies looking to manage costs. As a result, production of palm oil has doubled since 2000, making it the most widely traded vegetable oil in the world. Though many consumers are unaware of its presence, palm oil is found in over half the products on grocery store shelves in the United States, in everything from Snickers bars to shampoos.

This popular oil carries a nasty price, though: widespread use of forced and child labor, land grabs, destruction of habitat for endangered species like orangutans and elephants, not to mention the long term impact on climate change. When old growth rainforests are cut down to plant palm, sequestered carbon is released. Tropical deforestation accounts for 10 percent of global carbon emissions. Palm oil is a main driver of tropical deforestation. In short: palm oil production is bad for the planet, people, and animals.  (Generally speaking, if you’re eating it in a candy bar or potato chips, it’s bad for you, too).   

The announcement to make good from one of the largest players in the business is positive news, to be sure. It’s a sign that years of pressure from consumers and activists are finally yielding fruit. But don’t break out the celebratory candy bar …more

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Climate Change-Fueled Forest Loss in Colorado Shows Need for More Wilderness Protections

Connected preserves especially important as pine beetle continues to wreak havoc

As conservationists prepare to celebrate the fiftieth anniversary of the passage of the Wilderness Act, there’s also a measure of hand-wringing occurring as some people question whether wilderness protections even make sense given the new challenge of climate change.

For land preservationists here in Colorado, the answer to that question is an unambiguous YES. As the planet warms the need for wilderness designation is more important than ever, especially as ecosystems confront unprecedented threats.

pine bettle infested lodgepole forestAll photos by Steven DeWittMany forests in Colorado are being impacted by epidemic insect infestations.

In the Central Mountains of Colorado, citizens have come together in an effort to add and expand areas they feel need wilderness designation. The proposed wilderness areas were chosen after a comprehensive evaluation of their ecological values including wildlife habitat, free-flowing streams, clean lakes, and old growth forests. Congressman Jared Polis is reintroducing his Eagle and Summit County Wilderness Preservation Act this year and Senator Mark Udall is introducing his Central Mountains Outdoor Heritage Act in 2015. Udall's wilderness proposal incorporates 235,773 acres, 12 new stand alone areas and 17 additions to existing wilderness areas in Pitkin, Eagle and Summit counties including the Holy Cross, the Eagles Nest and the Maroon Bells.

Historic logging roads in Colorado mountainsOld logging roads are once again being used to harvest timber in lodgepole pine stands killed by mountain pine beetles.

Many of the forests included in the proposed wilderness areas have been or are currently being impacted by historic epidemics of insect infestations and disease as a result of human-generated climate change. The loss of these forests is having cascading impacts on the biodiversity of the ecosystems.

This spring and early summer, I visited a number of the areas included in the Central Mountains Outdoor Heritage Act, both on the ground and in the air. Having previously photographed many of these forests for The Lodgepole Project, I wasn’t surprised to see the widespread devastation Colorado’s lodgepole pine forests have suffered from the mountain pine beetle epidemic.

What did surprise me was the ease of accessibility into the impacted forests via historic logging roads. Take, for example, Spraddle Creek and Freeman Creek, two proposed expansions to the Eagle’s Nest Wilderness Area north of Vail. Both areas were selected for wilderness expansion …more

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Global Warming Denial Rears Its Ugly Head Around the World, in English

In Australia, USA, UK, and Canada, politicians are rejecting evidence and expert opinion about climate change

As people’s understanding of climate science grows, among both experts and non-experts alike, we become more accepting of the fact that humans are the driving force behind global warming. That’s because the evidence supporting human-caused global warming is overwhelming; hence rejection of that reality is usually based on an incomplete understanding of the scientific evidence.

global warming denial billboardPhoto by Caelie FramptonA climate change denial billboard in Ontario, Canada.Global warming denial remains a tenable position for politicians in English-speaking countries because voters in those regions don’t yet view the issue as urgent or a high priority.

In Australia, Prime Minister Tony Abbott’s chief business adviser Maurice Newman offered a prime example of global warming denial last week. Writing in The Australian, Newman suggested that we’re headed for a period of global cooling due to declining solar activity and related influences from galactic cosmic rays, calling mainstream climate science “a religion.”

As Graham Readfearn showed in his fact check of The Australian opinion piece, Newman got the science badly wrong in almost every way imaginable. Scientific research has consistently shown that a grand solar minimum would barely make a dent in human-caused global warming, and that galactic cosmic rays do not exert a significant influence on the Earth’s climate. To argue otherwise, Newman relied on selective cherry picking of some research, and a misinterpretation of other studies.

Due to his lack of a scientific background, combined with his likely ideological biases, it’s understandable that Newman would get the science wrong on this issue. The problem is that Newman has the ear of Australia’s Prime Minister. Worse yet, the country’s biggest-selling national newspaper printed his error-riddled editorial, misinforming its readership in the process. As a result of this sort of thinking, the Australian government recently revoked its carbon tax without a replacement plan to meet its carbon pollution reduction targets.

The United States has been moving in the opposite direction, with the EPA drafting rules to regulate greenhouse gas emissions from power plants as the centerpiece of a larger climate action plan. Some candidates are even beginning to make climate change a central focus of their campaigns. Many in the Republican Party have criticized the Obama Administration for enforcing the law (specifically the Clean Air Act) with these regulations, but all they need do is …more

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Black Oak Down

The demise of an ancient oak tree brings loss, but also new life, to a Sebastopol farm

A loud, crashing sound startles my young farmhand Emily Danler awake in the dark of the night. She camps outdoors in order to start picking berries at sun-up. My dog barks in excitement. But after a physically demanding day farming, I sleep through it all.

Looking down the boysenberry field to the bottom of Kokopelli Farm the next morning, tears come to my eyes. The tall, black oak that had always anchored my farm had split right down the middle of its deep, wide trunk. It now lay broken, crashing across the fence from where it grew on my neighbor’s land. I would never again see its crimson leaves announcing the beginning of spring.

photo of a treePhoto by Scott HessThe fallen oak reminded me again that life can sprout out of death.

The loss of the oak evoked fear of my own death. Being old myself, 70 this year, I lamented the loss of yet another old creature. I am now of the age that I go to more memorial services than marriages. This has been a year of half a dozen deaths of friends, including two suicides. It took a week after the oak fell for me to realize that its demise evoked the loss of my human friends.

I had never imagined that I could outlive this grandfather oak, which had survived hundreds of years on my neighbor’s land to become a vital member of my community. It felt like the loss of a family member.

I was also reminded of my former wife and her connection to the giant tree. Years ago, when developers wanted to topple the huge oak to make way for a major subdivision, she pleaded compassionately with government officials to save the majestic tree. She even threatened to chain herself to the oak if they proceeded with the plan. Her efforts were a success. Now, several decades later, there are still no houses where the subdivision was once planned.

“Doesn’t everything die at last, and too soon?” the poet Mary Oliver asks us in her poem “Summer’s Day.” She concludes by asking, “Tell me, what are you going to do with your one wild and precious life?”

As my loss exploded into anger, my first response to the fallen oak was to remove it. Its large, dead trunk now blocked the path to …more

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Trees: Good for the Planet, Good for Your Health

First-of-its-kind study quantifies urban trees’ benefits to public health

Trees planted in metropolitan areas can feel like little more than ornamentation, an artsy effort to enliven the urban jungles of concrete and asphalt. But it turns out that city trees have real, quantifiable health benefits that exceed expectations. According to a new study by the US Forest Service, some 850 human deaths and 670,000 incidences of serious respiratory illness are avoided each year within the United States thanks to our towering, green friends.

photo of a city skyline, a tree-filled park dominating the backgroundPhoto by Mathew Knott, FlickrNew York City’s Central Park. According to the study, the value of a tree in terms of human health benefits increases with the density of population.

This is the first time scientists have quantified the exact amount of noxious air pollution removed by trees. The amount is substantial, weighing in at 17.4 million tons. With less harmful toxins floating around and irritating our lungs and sinuses, $7 billion per year is saved in unneeded trips to the doctor.

The value of a tree in terms of human health benefits, the study says, increases with density of population. So, if more trees are planted in New York City as opposed to, say, Ithaca, a far greater health benefit can be achieved. “In terms of impacts on human health, trees in urban areas are substantially more important than rural trees due to their proximity to people,” says Dave Nowak of the US Forest Service’s Northern Research Station in a press release announcing the report.

Unfortunately, there aren’t as many trees as there could be in many American cities today. This poses a serious national health risk. “With more than 80 percent of Americans living in urban areas, this research underscores how truly essential urban forests are to people across the nation,” says Michael T. Rains, director of the Forest Service’s Northern Research Station and the Forest Products Laboratory. 

So, how exactly do trees manage to remove such an incredible amount of dangerous air pollutants? The science lies in the green, glossy surface of each tree’s leaves. “Trees remove air pollution by the interception of particulate matter on plant surfaces and the absorption of gaseous pollutants through the leaf stomata,” the study explains. While this process is well documented, the new study is first to calculate the total public health benefit from tree canopy.


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Wildlife Depletion May Be Driving Child Labor and Crime

Decline in biodiversity is a source of social conflict rather than a symptom, says UC Berkeley report

What do overfishing, wildlife trafficking, and endangered species all have in common? According to a paper recently published in the journal Science, these environmental challenges may all have cascading social consequences when it comes to forced labor, organized crime, and even piracy.

photo of people folding nets on a dock; one of them is very youngphoto by ILO in Asia and the Pacific, on Flickr Children and teenagers who work on small fishing boats in Cambodia stay out at sea for 10-11 hours at a time, mostly at night. As labor demands increase, fishing boats are turning in increasing numbers to employing children and migrant workers without pay.

The paper, published by a group of University of California, Berkeley researchers, examines the connection between resource depletion and its unexpected social consequences. Although it can be difficult to pin down a direct causal link between these two issues, the authors point to several convincing examples.

“What we try to do in this paper is specifically highlight some of the mechanisms… [through which] wildlife decline actually connects mechanistically… [and] how something like the loss of an endangered species or a really important food resource can precipitate something unexpected like an increase in child labor or an increase in regional conflict, ” says Doug McCauley, an assistant professor at UC Santa Barbara who contributed to the paper as a postdoctoral researcher at UC Berkeley. “Obviously it is bad to be losing some of these species and impacting some of these populations, but it is much worse if we are losing these species… and on top of that we are also seeing increased violence and increased social injustices like forced labor practices.”

The fishing industry provides perhaps the starkest example of resource depletion contributing to social conflict. As fishing stocks become depleted across the world, fishermen must travel further and spend more time fishing to maintain their catch, which drives up the cost of business. As labor demands increase, fishing boats are turning in increasing numbers to human trafficking, employing children and migrant workers without pay. In Thailand, for example, migrant workers are subjected to grueling 18- to 20-hour days, physical abuse, and little food or rest. Similarly, the authors believe that competition over fishing rights, combined with a …more

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The Fight For Chile’s Environment Is Not Over

The country’s coastline and Patagonia region are constantly under threat from proposed industrial projects

The Chilean government’s decision in June to scrap plans to build the HidroAysén mega-dam project on two of Patagonia’s wildest rivers, is definitely cause for celebration, but the battle to protect Chile’s rich natural world is far from over.

The country’s coast and Patagonia region are constantly under threat from all sorts of extractive industries and lack effective legal protections, even though Chile is among the most developed countries in South America.

Though there has been a recent increase in protected areas in Chile, this does not ensure that there are any active conservation efforts to sustain them. For example, the Punta de Choros and Chañaral Marine Reserves are currently under threat due to the Dominga project, which which is currently awaiting government approval.

The Dominga project comprises in several mines (iron ore and copper) and new port at Totoralillo Norte that would be capable of shipping millions of tons of ore every year. Two enormous open-cast pits would create a giant mound of toxic tailings. This same place was under threat in 2010 because of three coal power plant projects, but citizens managed to halt the construction of these, forming part of a large citizen movement called Save Punta de Choros (Salvemos Punta de Choros). And plans are advancing in Chile to dig what might become the biggest hole in the world – a title currently claimed by the Chuquicamata copper mine, 1,000 kilometres to the north in the Atacama Desert.

A Chilean filmmakers’ collective, MVMT (or Movimiento), of which I’m a member, is documenting threats to the environment in different parts of Chile and people’s efforts to fight these threats. MVMT lends its creativity to causes that need attention in order to help build a society that lives in harmony with the environment. With this goal in mind we have created two short videos documenting environmental mismanagement in an increasingly exploited country.

The film Chiloé Saliendo A Flote (Chiloé Coming Afloat) shows how the rich biodiversity of the island of Chiloé, which is home to several endemic plant and animal species, is now gravely threatened due to lack of regulation on how its resources are used. Salmon farming, introduced in the 1970s, as well as large commercial fishing trawlers have been especially devastating for marine life around the island. Machas, or razor clams –part of a classic seafood diet in Chile – have nearly disappeared from …more

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