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How Tech Is Boosting Environmental Engagement in China

Apps enable users to track everything from local air quality, to personal carbon footprint, to daily food waste

The alarm buzzes. After a few false starts, I finally grab my phone and turn it off. Like many people the world over my immediate reaction is to jump online. Unlike others, however, it’s not Facebook, Instagram, or even e-mail I’m after. The first thing most people here in China check is our air quality app. With data available from tens of thousands of sites across 400 cities on the mainland, this app has become just as much a part of daily life in China as its social media platforms, WeChat and Taobao. It lets us know whether we need to pull out our face masks or can instead get ready for a relaxing bike ride to work. This little bit of technology is quite literally a lifesaver.

photo of people on cellphonesPhoto by @Beryl_snw In China, which has some 750 million Internet users, many people begin their day by checking an air quality app.

This technological drive in China is coming from places most people have never heard of. To the uninitiated, Silicon Valley might seem like the center of the technological universe. Those of us in Asia, though, know the real heavy hitters are in places like Hangzhou and Shenzhen. These cities are where the world’s largest technology companies, like Alibaba and Tencent, are based. China is also home to more Internet users than any other country in the world. According to China Internet Watch, the country has 751 million current Internet users, more than the entire population of Europe. Technology has entirely changed the make-up of Chinese society, providing access to products, services, and ideas unimaginable only a decade ago. Today in China, if it’s not online it doesn’t exist. People buy clothes, food, cars, and even private islands, online. Physical cash is now obsolete in most places. 

Cater Zhou, a social entrepreneur and founder of Hi-In, an online job search and counseling company based in Shanghai, notes technology’s centrality and evolving role in society. “It’s part of who we are as a people now. You don’t leave home without your phone.” Companies, products, campaigns, and ideas are starting to see diminishing returns as they try to compete in this increasingly saturated space. Technology is no longer a guarantee of success. Savvy products must address more than just the latest fad. “Being a cool tech company isn’t enough anymore,” Zhou says. “Now, you have to be cool and do good.”

Technology companies are responding to this demand through …more

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FERC Rejects Trump Plan to Prop Up Coal and Nuclear Power Plants

Unexpected decision by Republican-controlled energy agency is a blow to the president’s promise to revive US coal industry

An independent energy agency on Monday rejected a Trump administration plan to bolster coal-fired and nuclear power plants with subsidies, dealing a blow to the president’s high-profile mission to revive the struggling coal industry.

photo of trump digs coal signPhoto by Tammy Anthony BakerFERC unexpectedly rejected Trump's plan to provide provide fresh government support for coal-fired and nuclear power plants. 

The decision by the Republican-controlled Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) was unexpected and comes amid repeated promises by Trump to rejuvenate coal as the nation’s top power source. The industry has been besieged by multiple bankruptcies and a steady loss of market share as natural gas and renewable energy have flourished.

The energy secretary, Rick Perry, last year proposed fresh government support for coal-fired and nuclear power plants in an effort to slow the rate at which these units are being phased out, stating the output is needed to avoid power outages “in times of supply stress such as recent natural disasters.”

The plan would provide a lifeline to many aging coal and nuclear plants that would otherwise go out of business, primarily due to the abundance of cheap natural gas and the plummeting cost of renewables.

The Department of Energy has noted that 531 coal-generating units were retired between 2002 and 2016, while eight nuclear reactors have announced retirement plans in the past year.

Donald Trump has vowed to arrest this decline and end the “war” on mining communities by repealing various environmental regulations put in place during the Obama administration.

But non-partisan expert analysis published last month calculated that the plan would cost US taxpayers about $10.6 billion a year. And the money would be used to prop up some of the oldest and dirtiest power plants in the country, according to the joint report by research groups Climate Policy Initiative and Energy Innovation.

And in rejecting the proposal on Monday afternoon, FERC declared that despite claims by the administration to the contrary, there is no evidence that any past or planned retirements of coal-fired power plants pose a threat to the reliability of the nation’s electricity grid.

The administration’s plan was opposed by an unusual coalition of business and environmental groups that frequently disagree with each other. Critics said the plan would distort energy markets and raise prices for customers, especially in the northeastern and midwestern US. One called it “ludicrous” and perverse.


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Can Prisons Be Flipped for Good?

Turning old jails into employment hubs is challenging, but some groups are getting creative

graphic depicting a prison

Imagine a rural oasis of sustainable agriculture and community. There are aquaponic ponds filled with fish, fields lined with vegetable rows, pastures for farm animals, and hives buzzing with bees. There are dormitories for staff, a community kitchen for culinary classes, and even a climbing wall for energetic kids. Now picture all of this at the site of a former jail in Wagram, North Carolina — the fish swimming in tanks in old jail cells, the cows contained by old prison fence lines, and the climbing wall converted from a guard tower. That’s the vision put forth by GrowingChange, a nonprofit that’s flipping old detention facilities into bastions of local food and social justice.

The concept could hardly be more ambitious, or more necessary. The United States incarcerates more people than any other nation on the planet. Roughly 2.2 million people were behind bars in the country in 2017, most of them from poor communities of color. But in 2016, for the first time since the 1970s, the US saw a small decline in its prison population. And between 2011 and 2016, some 20 states around the country announced plans to close more than 90 prisons and jails.

photo of GrowingChangePhoto courtesy of GrowingChange GrowingChange is engaging youth in the process of flipping an old North Carolina prison into a sustainable agriculture hub.

Though the prison population decline has so far been modest, jail closures beg the question of what should be done with detention facilities that are no longer in use; a question that may become more pressing if prisoner populations continue to drop. There are no straightforward answers, it seems. Former detention centers can be difficult to repurpose. They can also be a hard sell to new investors. 

“Prisons are very punitive and austere environments,” says Nicole Porter, director of advocacy with the nonprofit Sentencing Project and author of a report on the repurposing of old prisons. “Particularly in the US, their architecture is campus-like structures with multiple buildings. The idea of repurposing them for a future project is oftentimes challenged by the lack of imagination or the lack of real possibility for what the closed prison can actually be.”

Still, some groups are getting creative. In urban areas like New York, advocates have begun transforming old jails into reentry centers to serve the same …more

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Saving Africa’s Largest Forest Antelope from Extinction

Kenyan conservation groups coming together to bolster wild Eastern bongo populations

Until recently, it had been many years since safari-goers in Kenya saw a bongo antelope in the wild. But in August 2017, a group of tourists in the Aberdares mountain range of central Kenya were caught by surprise when a large bongo walked in front of their vehicle. It quickly vanished into the trees before anybody could take a picture.

photo of eastern bongoPhoto courtesy of Mt. Kenya Wildlife Conservancy Fewer than 100 Eastern bongo are believed to remain in the wild, something a Kenyan taskforce is working to change.

The Eastern bongo, also know as the mountain bongo, is Africa’s largest forest-dwelling antelope. These striking russet-colored antelopes with white stripes and twisted horns are endemic to the upland forests of Kenya and are quite timid by nature. They are adapted to woodland browsing and love to eat rotten wood. They are also critically endangered, according to the IUCN’s Red List of threatened species, and fewer than 100 individuals are thought to live in the wild.

Despite their threatened status, seemingly little attention is given to their plight as compared to other animals like rhino, elephants, or lions. By comparison, there are approximately 30,000 elephants, 1,121 rhinos, and 2,000 lions in the wild in Kenya. But if a group of bongo-focused conservationists has their way, the Eastern bongo may soon receive the attention it deserves.

“My belief is that bongo arethe flagship species of the high indigenous forests of Kenya,” says Colin Church, a board member with Kenya’s Bongo National Task Force (BNTF). The task force was formed by the Kenya Wildlife Service (KWS) with the ultimate goal of returning bongo back into the mountain forests. The task force was formed in 2010 to create a national conservation strategy and advise the KWS on bongo conservation. It brings together experts from the various organizations working, through their own initiatives, to protect bongos and their habitats. These include the Kenya Forestry Service, Rhino Ark Charitable Trust, the Mt Kenya Wildlife Conservancy, the Bongo Surveillance Project and KWS. 

Over the last 40 years, bongo numbers have dropped drastically because of snaring, illicit bushmeat poaching, habitat destruction, population expansion, and diseases transmitted from livestock. Today, small scattered groups live in the Aberdares mountain, around Mt. Kenya and Mt. Eburru, and within the Mau forest complex, but historically they inhabited other Kenyan mountains as well. 

To prevent further decline, regular monitoring of wild populations is vital and the support of forest-neighboring communities has become key. The …more

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Community Leader Tortured and Killed for Opposing Land Trafficking in Peru

José Napoleón Tarrillo Astonitas murdered for work to protect Chaparrí Ecological Reserve, say local witnesses

A criminal gang involved in land trafficking has tortured and murdered a community leader in northern Peru, according to his wife and local villagers who witnessed the killing.

José Napoleón Tarrillo Astonitas, 50, was attacked by four men in his home on Saturday night. His wife, Flor Vallejos, told police he was bound by his hands and feet, beaten with a stick and strangled with an electric cable.

photo of spectacled bearPhoto by Santiago RonLocal witnesses say Astonitas was killed for his effort to protect Chaparrí Ecological Reserve, which has one of the largest populations of the spectacled bear in South America.

As she was covered in a blanket and forced to listen to her husband’s screams, the attackers told him they had been paid to kill him, Vallejos told a national radio station. A local police chief said a murder investigation had been opened and the killers were being hunted.

A community leader in El Mirador village, Tarrillo, known as Napo, opposed land traffickers who had taken over parts of the Chaparrí Ecological Reserve and were clearing land and sowing crops. The reserve is a wildlife hotspot, with one of the largest populations of the rare spectacled bear in South America.

Vallejos said her husband had received death threats from people within his community for opposing deforestation and land invasions in the private reserve.

“He was threatened two days before he was killed,” says Juan Carrasco, a fellow member of the Muchik Santa Catalina de Chongoyape farming community, in Peru’s northern Lambayeque region.

“He was a brave man and he never lost his nerve. He said we must organize our own patrol to evict the land invaders because the authorities would not take action.”

“This was to be expected,” Ana Juarez, a biologist working in the area, told The Guardian. Juarez claims the murderers are known to the community and were responsible for the brutal killing of three farmers in October 2016 in reprisal for the eviction of land traffickers from the nearby San Francisco de Salas community.

Famous for its spectacled bears, the inspiration for the fictional Paddington Bear, the Chaparrí reserve receives visitors from all over the world. It is considered a model for community ecotourism and generates income for the local people.

The reserve is also home to the critically endangered white-winged guan, a bird once thought extinct. Northwest Peru is considered a hotspot for endemic bird species.


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Mexico’s Standing Rock? Sempra, TransCanada Face Indigenous Pipeline Resistance South of Border

Yaqui and Otomi communities challenge natural gas projects on the ground, in court

Since Mexico privatized its oil and gas resources in 2013, border-crossing pipelines including those owned by Sempra Energy and TransCanada have come under intense scrutiny and legal challenges, particularly from Indigenous peoples.

photo of Yaqui Community GatheringPhoto by Andrea ArzabaA Yaqui community based in Loma de Cacum, Mexico is challenging Sempra Energy's Agua Prieta pipeline. The pipeline would transport natural gas from Arizona to Sonora.

Opening up the spigot for US companies to sell oil and gas into Mexico was a top priority for the Obama State Department under Hillary Clinton.

Mexico is now facing its own Standing Rock-like moment as the Yaqui Tribe challenges Sempra Energy's Agua Prieta pipeline between Arizona and the Mexican state of Senora. The Yaquis in the village of Loma de Bacum claim that the Mexican government has failed to consult with them adequately, as required by Mexican law.

Indigenous Consultations

Under Mexico's new legal approach to energy, pipeline project permits require consultations with Indigenous peoples living along pipeline routes. (In addition, Mexico supported the adoption of the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, which includes the principle of “free, prior and informed consent” from Indigenous peoples on projects affecting them — something Canada currently is grappling with as well.)

It was a similar lack of Indigenous consultation which the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe said was the impetus for lawsuits and the months-long uprising against the Dakota Access pipeline near the tribe's reservation in Cannon Ball, North Dakota, in late 2016. Now, according to Bloomberg and Mexican reporter Gema Villela Valenzuela for the Spanish language publication Cimacnoticias, history is repeating itself in the village of Loma de Bacum in northwest Mexico.

Agua Prieta, slated to cross the Yaqui River, was given the OK by seven of eight Yaqui tribal communities. But the Yaquis based in Loma de Bacum have come out against the pipeline passing through their land, even going as far as chopping out a 25-foot section of pipe built across it.

“The Yaquis of Loma de Bacum say they were asked by community authorities in 2015 if they wanted a 9-mile tract of the pipeline running through their farmland — and said no. Construction went ahead anyway,” Bloomberg reported in a December 2017 story. “The project is now in a legal limbo. Ienova, the Sempra unit that operates the pipeline, is awaiting a judicial ruling that could allow them to go in and repair it — or require a costlier re-route.”

As the legal case plays out in the …more

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Tiny Houses, Big Resistance

Indigenous activists erecting tiny homes along proposed path of Trans Mountain pipeline

Ten tiny houses festooned with aboriginal artwork will soon be wheeled into the traditional territory of the Secwepemc Nation and placed in the path of a proposed new tar sands oil pipeline. The Tiny House Warriors anti-pipeline and Indigenous rights campaign led by Kanahus Manuel is set to oppose the Trans Mountain pipeline expansion project in a way that could transform the British Columbia interior into the next Standing Rock.

photo of tiny housePhoto courtesy of Tiny House Warriors The Tiny House Warriors anti-pipeline and Indigenous rights campaign is erecting tiny houses in the path of the Trans Mountain pipeline expansion project.

“What we want, what we aspire to, is what our ancestors wanted, to be able to live with the earth,” says Kanahus Manuel, of the Secwepemc Nation in British Columbia, and a member of the Secwepemc Women’s Warrior Society, leading the Tiny House Warriors resistance campaign against Kinder Morgan’s Trans Mountain pipeline expansion project. “Our people have done that for tens of thousands of years without destroying her and without contaminating the water. It has only been over the last 150 years that we have seen catastrophic change in our lives as Indigenous People.”

In Canada, the resistance to construction of new fossil fuel pipelines to facilitate further expansion of the Alberta tar sands was given renewed momentum thanks to the cancellation of the Energy East pipeline on October 5. Energy East is the second new crude oil pipeline proposal to be knocked down at least in part due to widespread public opposition. The first was the 2016 cancellation of Northern Gateway. Three other pipelines, however, have been approved and are facing strong resistance: Trans Mountain, Enbridge’s Line 3, and TransCanada’s Keystone XL. 

The $7.4 billion Trans Mountain pipeline project would see the expansion of the existing Kinder Morgan line built in 1953. The new pipeline constructed beside the original would increase the capacity of the line to 890,000 barrels of crude oil per day, oil that would be sent to an export terminal on the coast of British Columbia in the city of Burnaby near Vancouver.

If constructed, more than 500 kilometers of the pipeline would cross the traditional territory of the Secwepemc Nation. Trans Mountain was approved late in 2016 by Canada’s federal government under Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, but since that time there have been numerous court challenges and a change in British Columbia’s provincial government. 

“Approval doesn’t mean anything,” says Clayton …more

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