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New Film Documents Indigenous Rights Violations in Malaysian Borneo

More than 15 years after moving to make way for a mega dam, families are still struggling to make a living

In 1998 around 10,000 Indigenous people in Sarawak, a Malaysian state on the island of Borneo, were moved out of their ancestral lands and into the resettlement village of Sungai Asap to make way for the Bakun hydroelectric dam, Asia’s largest dam outside China. As is the case of many resettlement schemes around the world, they were promised a better life: better schools and housing, access to health care, and adequate farmland. They believed that by agreeing to resettlement their children would be able to prosper and integrate into the rapidly developing Malaysian economy. More than 15 years later these families are still struggling to make a living and Sungai Asap has been declared a resettlement disaster.

A Still from Broken PromisesThe Sarawak government is planning to build 12 more hydroelectric dams which would displace tens of thousands of Indigenous people.

The 10 acres of farmland per family that the communities were promised turned out to be 3 acres of often rocky, infertile, and sloping land located half day’s journey away from their new homes. Meanwhile, the dam has polluted the Balui River, poisoning their water source and killing the fish they depended on for food and income.

The resettlement site is surrounded by oil palm plantations and the people no longer have access to their former hunting grounds. To add insult to injury, the transmission lines carrying electricity from the Bakun Dam pass directly over Sungai Asap but the villagers cannot access the power for which they were displaced. Instead, they have to make do with government-managed diesel generators that are often locked because they are unable to afford the expensive costs of diesel. Life before resettlement had been isolated, to be sure, but the Bakun communities were able to farm, fish, hunt, and feed their families, and make a living. Their quality of life has dramatically declined.

The Sarawak government is now proposing to build 12 more hydroelectric dams, creating similar risks for tens of thousands of Indigenous people, who make 48 percent of the state’s population and comprise many distinct ethnic groups, including Penan, Iban, Kenyah, Bidayuh, Kayan, and Ukit. These communities know what has happened to the people of Sungai Asap, and they are fiercely fighting against the dam construction in order to protect their …more

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In the Presence of Gorillas

A stunning, intimate portrait of the greatest of the Great Apes

Most of us will only ever get to see a mountain gorilla if it’s in a zoo behind bars. But what would it be like to walk among them in the wild? Chris Whittier had a rare opportunity to do just that while serving as the regional field veterinarian for the Mountain Gorilla Veterinary Project in Rwanda’s Volcanoes National Park from 2001 to 2006. He brought back compelling photos that reveal the individual personalities and group dynamics of the greatest of the great apes. His images are of Virunga Mountain gorillas. Although about a third of them are wild, the rest have been habituated by humans so that they can be monitored closely and receive veterinary care.

photo of a gorilla on the shore of a crater lakePhotographs by Chris Whittier, D.V.M., Ph.D.“The crater lake at the top of Mt. Visoke on the border between Rwanda and the Democratic Republic of Congo is one of the most spectacular places in Volcanoes National Park. The day I took this photo was the only time I ever saw gorillas up there. It was the Beetsme group of about 25 gorillas. They were known to go up there a couple of times a year, but no one really knows why. There’s not nearly as much to eat up there as in other parts of their habitat, so you have to wonder if they came there for the view too. Bwenge, the gorilla in this photo, came prancing toward me and sort of posed just as the mist lifted over the crater. He’s the third ranked of four silverbacks in the group.”

photo of gorillas lying on turf in forest
“There had been reports of a respiratory outbreak and a dead baby in Pablo’s Group, so we went to check on them and recover the baby’s body to test it for infectious disease. It had rained hard the night before so the two moms in this photo, Mtimbili and Tamu, were lounging around with their babies in the early morning sun, warming up. The natural infant mortality rate of gorillas is 30 percent, but because these gorillas receive veterinary care, the rate has dropped to 10 percent, which is a big part of why their population is growing.”

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Building Islands and Burying Reefs in the South China Sea

China’s land reclamation activities in the Spratly Islands are causing permanent damage to marine habitat

Island-building isn’t new. San Francisco built Treasure Island in the 1930s for the Golden Gate International Exposition. Miami’s exclusive Star Island was constructed by the Army Corps of Engineers back in the 1920s. And of course there are more recent examples, such as Dubai’s infamous Palm Islands.  

Fiery Cross ReefPhoto courtesy of Asia Maritime Transparncy InitiativeChinese development at the newly reclaimed Fiery Cross Reef, which lies on the west side of Spratly Island. China’s island-building boom is widely seen as an attempt to tighten its control over the South China Sea.

Now, China is fervently adding to that list at an unprecedented rate. For the past 18-plus months, China has been “reclaiming land” in the Spratly Islands, an island chain that consists of more than 200 identified reefs, atolls, islands, and islets in the South China Sea. A half-dozen nations make territorial claims over the strategically important area, and China’s island-building boom is widely seen as an attempt to tighten its control over the South China Sea. So far, China has completed the construction of five islands and continues work on two more.

So, what does it take to construct an island chain in the middle of the ocean? It involves massive dredging of sand and corals, dumping sand on top of submerged and partially submerged reefs, and constructing giant concrete seawalls to protect manmade structures. China is topping its fully “reclaimed” islands with helipads, airstrips, military support buildings, solar installations, wind turbines, concrete plants, and radar towers, while also adding on harbors, piers, and desalination pumps. 
In other words, China is burying reefs under sand and concrete. This would be troubling in any context, but it’s especially worrisome in the Spratly Islands. The reefs there happen to represent one of the most ecologically significant marine environments in the world, providing habitat for diverse marine life, including endangered species and larvae of heavily depleted fisheries in the South China Sea.

Unsurprisingly, the ecological impacts of island-building in the region have been devastating. Accord to Dr. Edgardo Gomez, national scientist in the Philippines and a professor emeritus at the University of the Philippines, the immediate effects of the ocean filling activities are numerous, and include “the total destruction of productive coral reefs, seagrass beds, and other shallow marine …more

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SeaWorld Spy Attended 2014 Orca Conference

Covert work went far beyond PETA

The covert work of a SeaWorld employee accused of infiltrating the animal rights group PETA extended far beyond his involvement with any single organization. Former SeaWorld orca trainers have confirmed that Thomas Jones, whose real identity and name, Paul McComb, were revealed by PETA last week, attended last year’s Superpod event, an annual gathering of orca enthusiasts, researchers, and activists in Washington State.

Killer whale show at SeaWorld, San DiegoPhoto by Jesse MeansIn addition to gaining access to activist circles, Thomas Jones aka Paul McComb used social media to encourage protesters to engage in violence or sabotage.

On Friday PETA identified three more SeaWorld employees it believes acted as undercover spies.

In addition to gaining access to activist circles, McComb used social media to encourage protesters to engage in violence or sabotage. In one tweet he said if Blackfish, a 2013 documentary that shattered SeaWorld’s animal-friendly image, didn’t put the company out of business, protesters would “burn it to the ground.” In Facebook message posted before a July 2014 protest, he wrote, “Grab your pitch forks and torches. Time to take down SeaWorld.”

According to Dr. Naomi Rose, a prominent marine biologist who also attended last year’s Superpod conference, McComb said that he was there because he was “truly dedicated to the cause.” During the weeklong event he joined in on whale watching rides, had lunch with a group of scientists and researchers, and bootlegged the presentation of a draft scientific paper containing sensitive captive orca survival data that researchers had explicitly asked the audience not to post online. 

One afternoon McComb joined Rose and about seven other scientists and conference participants at lunch. They weren’t discussing anything sensitive, Rose says, but McComb’s presence was notable. He was alone, she says, and tried to be part of the conversation, but everyone thought he seemed strange. “He was very obvious,” she says. “He stood out like a sore thumb.”

When they asked who he was, he identified himself as “Thomas Jones” and said that he was committed to protecting orcas.

The earliest evidence to surface thus far of McComb’s efforts to gain access to activist circles is a tweet from August 2012 in which he asked “guys on the Voice of the Orcas website”—the site …more

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In Review: “Protecting the Wild”

Essay collection by leading conservationists makes the case for why parks and preserves remain important today

In recent years, a group of “environmental contrarians” have put out essays and books criticizing the environmental movement’s traditional advocacy for parks and wilderness. They claim the fight to protect these areas is futile as there is no true wilderness anymore, and that some of the species within them are doomed to extinction anyway. The contrarians go further to recommend that humans should manage the global landscape with the goal of fostering human needs, assuming natural cycles should work for our benefit.

Published earlier this year, Protecting the Wild (edited by George Wuerthner, Eileen Crist, and Tom Butler; 362 pages; Island Press) is a series of essays aimed at both defending the protection of parks and wilderness and advocating even more protected areas for the sake of preserving biodiversity and the special “services” the environment provides humans, such as watershed protection and sequestration of carbon dioxide. It’s a powerful and impassioned push-back to what is becoming a kind of conventional wisdom among a certain clique of environmentalists.

book cover thumbnail

Contrary to the contrarians, Protecting the Wild documents the value of protected natural areas. “With every action to reassert the dominion of beauty, diversity, and wildness over the Earth – each hectare protected, each habitat secured – we tug the universe towards justice,” Tom Butler writes in his impassioned introduction. While creating a national park or refuge does not guarantee that all species native to that area will survive, the species diversity is still much greater than surrounding lands used for utilitarian purposes like grazing or logging. And by expanding these natural areas and providing wild corridors or connectivity between them, their value is greatly enhanced for species survival. In short: We need more parks, not fewer.

In one essay, Dr. Jane Goodall notes the success her projects have had in working with local villagers in Africa to protect local forested areas for biodiversity while providing the villagers with additional benefits such as improved medical care, education, and food production. The goal is to give local people a strong stake in protecting these local areas that they share. “A central part of the mission of the Jane Goodall Institute …is to conserve the great apes and other primates,” states Goodall. “And this, of course, means conserving the forests where they …more

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Congress Poised to Revise Law Regulating Chemicals Used in Commercial Products

Will the bills seeking to amend the Toxic Substances Control Act really protect Americans?

If you think every chemical used in every consumer product on our store shelves has been tested and deemed safe, think again. If you think current laws in the United States explicitly prohibit the use of some of the most hazardous chemicals, such as asbestos, in consumer products, think again.

crayonsPhoto by Laura Gilmore Asbestos in kids crayons — what’s TSCA reform got to do with it?

Last week, new test reports released by the Environmental Working Group Action Fund found asbestos in children’s crayons. This is alarming, given that even small amounts of asbestos exposure can cause serious and even fatal lung disease. What may be even more disturbing is that asbestos’ presence in these crayons is not explicitly prohibited by the Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA), the primary law that regulates chemicals used commercially in the US.

The US Environmental Protection Agency has been struggling to regulate the more than 84,000 chemicals now registered for commerce in the US using this nearly 40-year-old act that hasn’t been updated since it was signed into law in 1976 by President Gerald Ford. Now, after almost six years of wrangling, Congress is poised to act on legislation to reform TSCA. The House has passed its TSCA reform bill (H.R. 2576) and the Senate is expected to vote on its bill (S. 697) perhaps even before Congress breaks for its August recess.

Everyone — from the EPA to environmental health advocates to chemical industry representatives — agrees that TSCA is outdated and ineffective and badly in need of revision. There is also wide agreement that there’s enough momentum behind the issue to make it very likely that the two bills will be voted on before Labor Day and sent to the president’s desk this year.

Yet whether these bills will ensure meaningful improvement in how the US manages chemicals continues to be a matter of considerable debate among those who’ve been watching this process closely. Before wading into the weeds it’s worth stepping back to ask what TSCA does, does not do and what changes the House and Senate bills propose.

The most basic thing that TSCA does is require that the EPA keep a current list of all chemicals used commercially in the US. That list, known as …more

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In the Spirit of Naked Joe

Alaskan wilderness and survival “reality shows” strain for effect. But we’re all in on the mirage anyway.

In 1913, Joe Knowles, a middle-aged newspaper illustrator living in Boston, ventured into Maine’s woods wearing only a jock-strap after bidding farewell to a throng of reporters. Knowles claimed he would survive alone in the wild, relying solely on his wits. He aimed to prove that even though modern man had removed himself from the wild, he was superior to nature. During his foray in the wilderness the Boston Post regularly published notes and drawings he made with charcoal on the bark from birch trees. Two months later, Knowles emerged from the forest wearing clothing fashioned from the skin of a bear he said he clubbed to death. He became an instant national celebrity.

About a hundred years later, I stood in a meadow on Chichagof Island in Southeast Alaska watching the antics of a reality television film crew. I had been hired as a guide and packer for the shoot. The film crew had been in country renowned for its density of brown bears for two hours and had yet to see one, so the producer decided to take matters into his own hands.

photo of wrestling brown bears in a field  

“Let’s end this scene with an aggressive bear encounter.” 

Snow-capped mountains rose all around us. A bald eagle circled high above and a raven croaked from deep in the forest. While the cast debated their roles in the encounter, I thought of a friend, a commercial fisherman, who used to homestead nearby.

Years ago, after a day of mending crab pots, I borrowed his skiff to visit the meadow where the fake bear encounter was currently being shot. I putted up the inlet in pouring rain and around a few sea otters as a young, chocolate-colored brown bear eating grass ran into the rainforest. Four bears were said to have been recently killed by guided hunters in the inlet and the season was still open. The meadow was quiet, the wildflowers still at least a week away from blooming. Late in the evening, a gigantic bear, looking more like a draft horse than a bear, emerged and began grazing. I left the skiff tied to a rock and, though it was foolish and disrespectful, approached unarmed on foot. Between mouthfuls of grass, the bear watched indifferently as I …more

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