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The Young and the Restless

The story of two giant otters in Peru’s Manu National Park

Cocha Otorongo, Manu National Park, Peru, 1993, 5:15 am. The otters stir in their den. A series of soft cooing sounds, followed by the characteristic “Let’s go” hum, indicates the family is ready to start the day. A moment later, Isla’s parents emerge. Together they visit the nearby latrine, their broad, flattened tails held high, before thoroughly spreading their scat. The circling movements of their forepaws and simultaneous shuffling of their hind legs combine in a comical scent-marking dance. Next, three-year old Isla appears at the entrance of the den. Unlike her parents, she pauses only briefly on the latrine, and is followed in rapid succession by her siblings, all of whom eagerly rush into the water. Their father does the work for them, waddling once more over the latrine to mix their scat. He is the last to leave the den site. The group sets off along the shoreline, just as a gossamer mist lifts from the surface of the water.

Photo by Frank Hajek A giant otter with a fish in Manu National Park.

Cocha Cashu, Manu National Park, Peru, 1993, 5:40 am. Dedo awakens. He will not hunt on the lake today. For a while now he has been feeling restless; the urge is upon him to find a mate and raise cubs of his own, in his own territory. It is the end of the dry season, water levels are at their lowest, and fish are readily accessible. After two carefree years with his family, the time has come to leave the only home he’s known. He slips out of the hollow amongst the tree roots where he has spent the night and enters the water. As he heads toward the far end of the lake, he sees his family. They are fishing along the shore and don’t notice him. He swims past them quietly and purposefully, and without looking back, enters the channel that will lead him to the Manu River.

Between 1999 and 2006, my husband, Frank, and I spent many months in the lush rainforests of southeastern Peru, monitoring and helping to protect populations of the endangered and charismatic giant otter (Pteronura brasiliensis) as part of a long-term and ongoing conservation program initiated by the Frankfurt Zoological Society in 1991. This is the story of Isla and Dedo, two young otters inhabiting the jewel that is Manu National Park, whose life histories became as familiar to us as the lives of favorite characters in a television …more

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In Canada, Oil Sands Workers Are Building a Greener Energy Sector

Worker-led initiative trains tradespeople in renewable energy to join help them join bourgeoning industry

Over the six years that Lliam Hildebrand worked in Alberta’s oil sands, he regularly broached a subject around the lunch table that he expected to be taboo: renewable energy. But Hildebrand, a journeyman welder and steel fabricator based in Victoria, British Columbia, found that the topic was front of mind for many workers, himself included.

artwork depicting a hard-hat worker and wind turbines© Picture (Licence CC BY-SA): Iron & EarthA dream scenario.

”I’ve always been environmentally minded, and always had a bit of a personal struggle with working in the oil sands and the contributions to climate change,” Hildebrand says. ”I found in the conversations I was having with the tradespeople up there, it was a shared experience… they’re interested in innovation and technology and they care about the future of the planet for their children.”

Hildebrand previously worked at a steel fabricating shop in Victoria, B.C., building pressure vessels for the oil sands and ship loaders for coal terminals. Later, he watched the documentary film An Inconvenient Truth while working on a windfarm weather station at the shop. He realized that tradespeople could play a key role in building renewable energy infrastructure. ”I started on a path to try and figure out how to make these things work in sync with each other,” he says.

His lunchtime conversations, combined with the atmosphere in Alberta – falling oil prices have led to massive job losses, while the provincial government has introduced a new climate policy – then encouraged Hildebrand to act.

He formally launched Iron & Earth, a worker-led initiative aiming to train tradespeople in renewable energy, in March 2016. Oil and gas workers have transferable skills, the organization posits, and they want to be part of building a greener energy industry in Canada. So why not help them get supplemental training to join this bourgeoning industry?

”It’s about time Canada starts diversifying our energy grid,” says Hildebrand, now executive director of Iron & Earth. ”We can build products we’re proud of and contribute to preventing global warming – and provide greater economic security and energy stability in Canada.”

A shared vision

The organization is led by Hildebrand and four directors – all tradespeople – who have worked or are working in Alberta. More than 450 members from various trades have joined Iron & Earth and expressed interest in training programs, including boilermakers, electricians, pipe fitters, ironworkers and labourers.

© Photo (Licence CC BY-SA): Iron & Earthmore

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An American Park

Shenandoah National Park pairs the crucial protection of wilderness with an ugly and undemocratic genesis

graphic depicting a hiker overlooking a valley

Shenandoah National Park in north-central Virginia, a rocky forested nearly 200,000-acre elongated portion of the Blue Ridge Mountains, was named after the adjacent Shenandoah Valley, which itself is named for the northbound river that joins the Potomac at Harper’s Ferry and whose name is generally thought to mean “Daughter of the Stars” in a forgotten Native American language.

The park’s northern border is just 75 miles from the creeping sprawl of Washington, DC. It feels a world away, notwithstanding the geographic proximity of these disparate entities. Yet it’s rumored that, despite the typically dense humidity and heightening levels of smog arising from the varicose network of urban, suburban, and exurban roadways that creep ever southward, a visitor with binoculars can look eastward, while standing directly at the interpretation signpost at the Hogwallow Flats overlook (milepost 14; in the park’s North District), and under certain conditions may witness a uniquely, gratifyingly American spectacle.

If it’s a very clear, wintery day with low humidity, and if in the mid- to late morning you look directly at the point of confluence of a slight gap between the distant ridges, and if the trees directly below the overlook have not yet grown tall enough to obstruct the view, and if you are determined enough to endure the hazy atmospheric fluctuations and the unending interruptions of stop-photo-go vehicular tourists, you may be rewarded with a vision that perfectly illustrates this centennial year of the US National Park Service.

photo of Shenandoah National ParkPhoto by Shenandoah National ParkShenandoah's northern border is just 75 miles from Washington, DC.

Among the Virginia pines and white oaks clinging to the side of the northward ridge, you may glimpse, across the park, across the farms and fields to the north, across the mindless suburban moonscape of highways and shopping centers, gated communities and soulless apartment complexes, the stoic, silent strength of the Washington Monument, its encircling flags rippling shadows across its marble and granite obelisk.

Viewing this archetypal architectural form — the sculpted echo of a pharaonic ego, still the world’s tallest stone structure and our central commemoration of a man who, if he had so desired, could have been a king — from within a thicket of hardwood forest, wind curling through bare limbs, is a wonderful collision of worlds; a purely American juxtaposition of the splendors of classical human civilization with the …more

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Land Grabs Continue to Destroy Uganda’s Forests

Wealthy and elite individuals with strong political and economic ties main drivers of deforestation

Uganda is considered one of the most beautiful countries in the African continent because of its diverse ecosystems that include natural forests, savanna woodlands, wetlands, lakes and rivers. Early European explorers branded it the “Pearl of Africa.” Much of Uganda lies on the African plateau between 900-1,500 meters above sea level. Its tropical highland forests are divided in three distinct geographical zones, characterized by rainfall regimes — the eastern rim of the Western Rift Valley in the west, the broad belt around the northwestern shores of Lake Victoria, and the spectacular mountains in the east.

view of forested hills partly cleared and turned into farmland Photo by Rod Waddington Uganda is home to some of the highest concentrations of biodiversity in Africa, but the country's rich natural heritage is under severe threat due to a massive loss in forest cover.

Given its location in a zone between the drier East African savannas and the more moist West African rain forests, as well as its high altitude ranges, the country is home to some of the highest concentrations of biodiversity in Africa. It reportedly has more species of primates than any other country in the world. According to the Convention of Biological Diversity, the country’s forests harbor at least 7.5 percent of the world’s known mammal species, 10.2 percent of our bird species, and 6.8 percent of the world’s birds.

But now the country’s rich natural heritage is under severe threat due to a massive loss in forest cover, a loss that’s increased at a very high rate in recent years.

In the past century, Uganda’s forests have been under severe pressure mainly from the expansion of agricultural land as a result of a growing population, increasing demand for charcoal and fuel, unchecked logging and weak legal protections and even weaker enforcement of the forest protection laws. According to the country’s 2012 National State of the Environment report, Uganda's forest area is being lost at a rate of 1.8 percent per year. In total, between 1990 and 2010, this east African country lost 31 percent of its forest cover — a decline from 5 million hectares to 3.6 million hectares between 1990 and 2010. Some parts of the country — such as Mayuge, Wakiso, Mubende, Mitayana, Kibaale, and Buikwe — are losing their forest cover at higher rates than others.

Apart from the usual causes of deforestation cited above, there has been growing evidence that forest land grabbing by …more

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Tidal Power Project Makes Waves in Canada

Plan to install giant turbines in Nova Scotia’s Bay of Fundy has fishermen, environmentalists concerned

“I am a fisherman,” Darren Porter said. “It’s not only what I do, but who I am.” He is big and burly. In a bar fight, I would gladly have him in front of me clearing the way. He operates a weir fishery in Nova Scotia’s Minas Basin, on the southeast side of the Bay of Fundy. The bay has the highest tides and strongest currents in the world, which now presents a problem for Porter. The power industry wants to install giant turbines in the passage to Minas Basin, maybe more than one hundred of them, to harvest the wealth of Nova Scotia’s tides, generating megawatts of energy along with enormous profits. The turbines look like giant food processors, standing five stories high.

photo of fishing boat in Bay of FundyPhoto by Shawn HarquailA fishing weir in the Bay of Fundy. Plans to install giant turbines in the Minas Passage, on the southeast side of the bay, have local fishermen concerned.

The Bay of Fundy is at the end of the Gulf of Maine, bordered by the provinces of New Brunswick and Nova Scotia. When the tide flows into the outer bay, 160 billion tons of water rush in at a speed of one to two meters per second. Where the bay narrows to squeeze through the five-and-a-half kilometer wide Minas Passage, 14 billion tons of seawater accelerate to five meters per second.

For Porter, every tide is either, “Christmas, or a slap in the face,” as he puts it, depending on how many fish it brings in. When I visited the weir with him in June, he eyeballed all the birds gathered around his weir, then lit his pipe and said in a broad accent, “We got fish in there today.”

Porter’s weir is a type of fish trap that takes advantage of the tides. The design is ancient, used by the First Nation people of Nova Scotia well before Europeans colonized the region. There used to be a weir every mile along the coast, maybe a couple hundred of them in total. Now there are only six.

The weir Porter uses has two wings that are each 1000 feet long. The weir is covered by netting to guide the fish into the trap section where the two wings come together. At high tide, it is covered by 40 feet of water. When the tide goes out, the weir goes to work, trapping fish behind the …more

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New Documentary Investigates Nuclear Power from New York to Fukushima

A Conversation with Indian Point Director Ivy Meeropol

Shakespeare wrote in The Tempest that the “past is prologue.” In an irony of history, a filmmaker whose grandparents were so-called “atomic spies, and the only American civilians electrocuted by the US government during the Cold War, is now trying to shutdown a nuclear power plant in New York.

photo of Ivy Meeropol Photo Courtesy of Indian Point Film Production, LLC

Ivy Meeropol is the granddaughter of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, who were executed for espionage on June 19, 1953 for allegedly passing A-bomb secrets to the Soviets. She is the daughter of Michael Meeropol, who — after his parents’ death — was adopted by songwriter Abel Meeropol, composer of the 1936 anti-lynching song “Strange Fruit” famously sung by Billie Holiday and the pro-integration song “The House I live In.”

Ivy Meeropol previously directed 2004’s Heir to an Execution, an extremely personal HBO film that examined the case of the Rosenbergs, whose contentious electrocution took place at New York’s Sing Sing prison — only 10 miles from the nuclear Indian Point Energy Center. The Brooklyn-born, Massachusetts-raised Meeropol’s absorbing, incisive, new documentary Indian Point investigates this 1960s-built nuclear power facility, which sits just 35 miles north of New York City and is currently working to relicense two of its reactors. It also probes the 2012 ousting of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission’s chairman, Gregory Jaczko, who was accused of bullying and intimidating employees, plus the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster, triggered by a 2011 earthquake and tidal wave that caused meltdowns and the release of radioactive isotopes at the Japanese nuclear power plant.

The writer/director skillfully interweaves these three strands into a cohesive, comprehensive 94-minute tapestry exploring the controversial nuclear industry. In doing so, she evenhandedly interviews employees and executives of Entergy Corporation, which operates Indian Point, as well as activists opposing it. Her rare access enabled the intrepid filmmaker to enter both the Fukushima and New York facilities, allowing unusual insight into the inner workings, and politics, of the plants.

Like a cinematic sleuth, Meeropol doggedly pursued the different threads of the saga. If Woodward and Bernstein “followed the money” during Watergate, Meeropol followed the radiation, so to speak. In a balanced yet bold, unflinching way, Meeropol proves once again in Indian Point that the personal is political, and reveals that controversies swirling around nuclear power are anything but a tempest in a teapot.

Why did you decide to make a documentary about Indian Point?

Today I live probably 15 miles …more

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A Spot by the Water

How the people of Kyiv are revitalizing the Lybid River, and reclaiming public space in their city

Early in 2016, three young locals kayaked down the small river Lybid. Nothing would be uncommon about this were it not for the fact that long stretches of the water flowed underground. With this action, Maksym Mramonov, Dmytro Nechvolod, and Artem Zavarzin wanted to draw attention to the countless ecological and infrastructural problems of the river.

photo of a kayak in a narrow, urban channel Photo: © Lybid Ye, Creative-Commons-Lizenz BY-NC-ND Once upon a time, the Lybid was navigable: First kayak ride on the Lybid in early 2016

The three young men started their tour in the heart of the city. Their first discoveries were sobering: large sections of the vegetation along the embankment were littered with trash. In some places they found polluted snow, as well as industrial and household waste that had been thrown into the river. The kayakers repeatedly came across tires that had found their final resting place in the Lybid.

The woeful tale of the Lybid

The 17 kilometer-long Lybid is the right tributary of the Dnipro river. The Lybid flows through numerous inner city neighborhoods of Kyiv before emptying into the Dnipro. In the 1930s the marshy embankments of the Lybid were considered breeding grounds for Malaria, which is why the Soviet city government decided to construct a network of underground canals. As a result, the river was soon forgotten.

photo of a kayak in a narrow concrete channelPhoto: © Lybid Ye, Creative-Commons-Lizenz BY-NC-ND Nature in concrete: Second kayak ride in May 2016

Today the Lybid’s main cause of complaint is sewage. Sediment deposits, accumulations of radioactive nuclides and heavy metals, as well as illicitly disposed of household sewage have contributed significantly to the pollution of the river.

This type of littering is a thorn in the side of environmental activists. In the last 15 years, many housing developments sprang up in Kyiv, some of which are not connected to the citywide canalization system. Unfiltered household sewage continues to make its way into the feeders of the Lybid via unauthorized pipes. Although some of these pipes have been dismantled by now, the larger ones — with a diameter of half a meter — are not so easily removed and therefore remain until today.

The Lybid’s drainage basin covers across approximately 40 percent of Kyiv’s surface area to the right of the Dnipro. All the sewage there flows into the subterranean canals and thereby into the river.

Mobilize the community, …more

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