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The Indigenous Protectors of the World’s Most Sacred Places

Around the world, Indigenous groups are working to safeguard and restore besieged sacred sites

Back in the 1990s, there was an intense debate among my Native American friends about whether public education about sacred places would be a good idea. One activist argued forcefully that: “Sacred places don’t need a PR campaign. They need ceremony and prayer.” But many places, from the San Francisco Peaks and Black Mesa in the Southwest to Bear Butte and Devils Tower in the Black Hills, were being desecrated. Ski resorts. Coal stripmines. New Agers. Rock climbers. Dams. While some battles revealed outright racism, other sacred sites were being destroyed out of ignorance. Though tradition long mandated that “sacred” meant “secret,” more people began to agree that limited information about sacred places should be shared in order to nurture understanding, build respect, and inspire allies.

All photos by Christopher McLeodQ‘eros women embark on a pilgrimage to the Quyllur Rit’i festival in the heart of the Peruvian Andes.

“We use the word ‘sacred.’ That’s not an Indian word. That comes from Europe,”Onondaga elder Oren Lyons explained to me during an interview for the Standing on Sacred Ground film series. “It comes from your churches. We have our own way to say things. The way we use it, it’s a place to be respected, a place to be careful.”

 

Around the planet, indigenous communities still guard their sacred places—mountains, springs, rivers, caves, forests, medicinal plant gardens, burials of beloved ancestors. Everywhere it seems these places are under siege. Each attack is met with a spirited defense because sacred places anchor cultures. They provide meaning. They give life, give information, heal, and offer visions and instructions about how to live, how to adapt, how to be resilient.

Around the planet, indigenous communities still guard their sacred places.

There have been many inspiring victories. At Kakadu in Australia, Aboriginal leaders stopped uranium mining and protected a World Heritage Site. At Devils Tower in Wyoming, the National Park Service consulted with Lakota elders and developed a plan to discourage climbing. Native Hawaiians stopped U.S. Navy bombardment of sacred Kahoʻolawe island and are now restoring it spiritually and ecologically as a cultural refuge. But battles rage on at Mauna Kea, on Oak Flat, in the Amazon.

On Earth Day, let us all celebrate the sacred lands and territories …more

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The Plight of Swaziland’s Pangolins

Poachers target little-known mammal to satisfy growing demand in Asia

Pangolins are the most trafficked animals in Southern Africa. The International Union for the Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources (IUCN) calls them “the most traded wild animal” in the world, yet many people have never seen or heard about them.

photo of pangolin in AfricaPhoto by David Brossard A ground pangolin at Madikwe Game Reserve in South Africa. Pangolin’s are Southern Africa’s most trafficked animal.

These scaly ant eaters, whose tongues can be long as their body, can be found throughout much of southern Africa, including in the mountain wilds of Swaziland. All eight of the world’s pangolin species — four of which live in Africa — are listed on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species, victims of poaching as demand for pangolin meat and scales has shot up in parts of Asia, particularly in China and Vietnam. Today in Swaziland, where an estimated 2,500 pangolins are poached every year, you are more likely to see a pangolin in the back of a smuggler´s truck on its way to a boat in the Indian Ocean than you are in the wild.

In a country where average public wages are low, some in Swaziland have turned to pangolin hunting to supplement their earnings. “I hate to say it, but increasing food [insecurity] forces rural communities to hunt and capture pangolins for profit,” says Richard Mlotshwa, head veterinary manager for the Endangered Animals Rehabilitation taskforce at the state run Swaziland Tourism Authority. 

Aiyoba Namaqa, an independent economist who works closely with the Trade Union Congress of Swaziland (which has been banned from operating in the country because the government says it incites workers to challenge the king’s authority) agrees, and thinks the situation could get even worse. “Hunger, worsened by El Niño… threatens to leave 20 percent of the country´s rural dwellers grappling for food in 2016,” she says. “No wonder some close to forests are hunt pangolins to [sell] and buy food.”

A kilogram of pangolin skin can fetch up to $500 on the black market in South Africa´s port cities, where the majority of the pangolins trafficked from Swaziland pass through on their way to Mozambique and finally Asia. “So it is tempting even for rogue Swaziland wildlife wardens to kill or capture these little …more

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Six Years Later, Worried Gulf Residents to Hold Online Town Hall on BP Spill Health Impacts

Coastal communities suffering from what some experts call a widespread human heath crisis

In April 2010, BP's Deepwater Horizon oil drilling platform exploded, killing 11 workers before sinking 5,000 feet to the bottom of the Gulf of Mexico.

Oil gushed for 87 days unchecked, creating the single-largest marine oil disaster in US history.

Coast Guard_100421-G-XXXXL- 003 - Deepwater Horizon firephoto by Florida Sea Grant, on FlickrFire boat response crews battle the blazing remnants of the off shore oil rig Deepwater Horizon April 21, 2010.

In response to the disaster, BP used 1.8 million gallons of highly toxic Corexit dispersants in what the oil giant claimed was an effort to keep the oil from reaching shore. Critics accuse BP of sinking the oil with the dispersants as a means of minimizing fines under the Clean Water Act.

"The dispersants contain chemicals that many scientists and toxicologists have warned are dangerous to humans, marine life and wildlife," IPS reported in 2010, adding:

A March 1987 report titled "Organic Solvent Neurotoxicity," by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH), states: "The acute neurotoxic effects of organic solvent exposure in workers and laboratory animals are narcosis, anesthesia, central nervous system (CNS) depression, respiratory arrest, unconsciousness, and death.

"Several chemicals and chemical compounds listed in the NIOSH report, such as styrene, toluene and xylene, are now present in the Gulf of Mexico as a result of BP's dispersants mixing with BP's crude oil," IPS reported, a situation which other scientific reports show creates a toxicity 40 times worse than the oil alone.

Joe Yerkes is a Florida fisherman who joined the cleanup effort of the disaster after he was put out of work by the oil in his fishing waters.

Yerkes was exposed to both oil and dispersants while cleaning up oil.

"I have spent the years since the spill happened literally trying to survive," Yerkes told Truthout in 2014. "I've lost five friends now who were also exposed to BP's oil and dispersants, who were unable to seek proper treatment to extract the chemicals from their bodies before the exposure killed them."

"Not long after his exposure, Yerkes became violently ill, started bleeding from his nose and ears, and began vomiting blood. When he couldn't get well, he had his blood tested and found it contained high levels of chemicals, which his physician attributed to …more

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We Don’t Die, We Multiply

This year’s Goldman Environmental Prize winners offer inspiration and hope for the future

The spirit of Berta Cáceres was strong at the 2016 Goldman Environmental Prize celebrations in San Francisco last night. The evening’s ceremony opened with a spoken tribute to the indigenous Lenca activist who was assassinated in her home last month — less than a year after she walked up to the stage at the San Francisco Opera House to receive a Goldman for her sustained fight against big dams and other mega-development projects in Honduras.

2016 Goldman Prize winnersPhoto courtesy of Goldman Environmental PrizeThe six prize-winners offer compelling examples of ordinary folks taking extraordinary actions to protect our shared planet.

“Giving our lives in various ways for the protection of the rivers is giving our lives for the wellbeing of humanity and this planet,” Cáceres had said during her acceptance speech that evening, as she urged us to wake up and take action to save our beleaguered world.

Had Cáceres been with us last evening, she would have been heartened to see that there are many courageous, inspiring grassroots activists across the world who are indeed awake and alert to the perils facing our planet, who continue to risk their lives to protect the land and communities they hold dear.

She would have met 39-year-old Leng Ouch of Cambodia, who’s spent two decades protecting rainforests in one of the most dangerous countries in the world for environmental activists. For years, Leng undertook dangerous undercover investigations to document illegal logging operations. (According to the United Nations, between 1990 and 2010, Cambodia’s forest cover dropped from 73 percent to 50 percent largely as a result of illegal logging.)

Leng exposed the deep ties between some of Cambodia’s biggest timber barons and the nation’s political class, and the rampant land grabs by Chinese and western companies that have robbed poor, rural communities of their land. His investigations have forced the Cambodian government to cancel large land concessions it had bestowed on logging and industrial farming companies, but at the same time have put him and his family at immense personal risk.

Environmental and human rights activists are routinely harassed and threatened in Cambodia. Leng’s colleague, Chut Wutty, an internationally known anti-logging activist, was murdered in 2012; weeks after his murder, the body of journalist Hang Sorei Oudom, who reported frequently on illegal logging activities, …more

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Why Limits to Growth’s Forecasts Are Still Relevant Today

The 1970s study which predicted civilization would collapse some time this century was wrong on resources, but right on pollution

Forty-four years ago, the size of the global economy was $29 trillion in today’s prices. In 2014 it was $79.4 trillion. It’s certainly been a rocky road at times, but the trend of economic growth has been robust. Only four years over this period have shown a contraction of economic output.

Santa Rita MountainsPhoto by OCO-2 /JPL-Caltech/NASA Global average carbon dioxide concentrations as seen by Nasa’s Orbiting Carbon Observatory-2 mission, June 1-15, 2015.

Consequently, one should feel foolish for suggesting that there are not only limits to growth, but that such limits are already affecting the global economy. That’s one evaluation of the book Limits to Growth, which was published in 1972 and contained the central, controversial conclusion that the seemingly never-ending increase in population, industrial output, food production, and resource use would rapidly unravel at some point around the middle of the 21st century.

It painted a picture of our over-inflated global industrialized civilization going bang. We are still here and growth continues, so it must be wrong, right?

Perhaps not.

The Limits to Growth study was commissioned by the global thinktank Club of Rome and was based on the output of computer simulations that represented a simple global economy and its interactions with environmental processes. Nowadays you could happily run this model on your phone. In the early 1970s it required a mainframe computer and cutting-edge numerical techniques.

Two studies have evaluated how well the 1972 results of the Limits to Growth model have fared compared to what has actually happened in the intervening period. Their main findings are that it did pretty well actually. That doesn’t mean collapse is inevitable, but that despite its simplicity, Limits to Growth captured some important features of our civilization.

It concluded that there are two drivers of a possible collapse. First, non-renewable resources such as fossil fuels should become harder to extract. This makes them more expensive with costs feeding into, among other things, higher food prices and so the global food production …more

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Wielding the Law to Safeguard the Land

Goldman Environmental Prize winners use legal strategy, grassroots organizing to defend human health and Indigenous land rights

Legal work isn’t usually glamorous. In movies, lawsuits are portrayed as epic, exciting battles — in practice, legal work can be a slow and arduous process. Thankfully, as two of the 2016 Goldman Environmental Prize recipients well know, it can also bring unparalleled results. 

photo of Goldman Environmental Prize WinnerPhoto courtesy of Goldman Environmental Prize Zuzana Caputova took on two landfills in her small town of Pezinok, Slovakia.

Zuzana Caputova has seen such results first hand. For years, she has been fighting an unpermitted landfill just outside of her small town of Pezinok, Slovakia. Built in the 1960s, the landfill sits a mere 500 feet from a residential area. Caputova could smell the landfill from her home, and worried about her children’s health. Rates of cancer, respiratory illnesses, and allergies were increasing in her community of just over 20,000 people, and one type of leukemia was being reported at eight times the national average. Then, in 2003, construction began on a second landfill within city limits, despite a 2002 ordinance banning waste dumps within the city. This time, Caputova, a lawyer by training, decided she had to do something to stop it.

“Gradually, I became more acquainted with the information related to the situation in Pezinok around the [landfill] where toxic waste had been dumped,” Caputova told me last week, speaking through a translator. “And also information related to the new waste dump that was basically in the process of being approved while very clear violations of the law were happing. So it was this clear injustice in combination with the values that are so important, such as life and health.” 

These values of life and health weren’t abstract concepts for Caputova. “We had incidents of people suffering from cancer both in my family, as well as my close circle of friends,” she said. “And I also knew of small children [who were affected], and there was a very high probability that their suffering was linked with the dump.”

Noting that, “on a very deep, personal level it was fear of the cancer” that motivated her, Caputova embarked on a long-battle against the new dump using a combination of legal advocacy and on-the-ground activism.

Working closely with a local NGO, VIA IURIS, one component of Caputova’s strategy involved challenging the …more

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China and the Mekong Delta: Water Savior or Water Tyrant?

Blaming the drought on irregular weather, without acknowledging the impacts of upstream dams and climate change, is an act of intentional misinformation

The Mekong Delta in Southeast Asia is facing its worst drought in recent history, causing food and water shortages for over half a million people living along the Mekong River.

photo of Nuozhadu DamPhoto by International Rivers The Nuozhadu dam is the largest dam on the Mekong River.

The Chinese government has made headlines amidst the disaster for its decision to release water from upstream dams on the Mekong that lie within China’s borders. 

Chinese ministry spokesman Lu Kang said in a news briefing last month that China “hopes it can be of help in alleviating the drought downstream.” The water will be released until mid-April from the Jinghong dam, with the stated purpose to benefit the lower Mekong delta nations of Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar, Thailand and Vietnam. 

Originating in the remote Tibetan Plateau, the Mekong flows 3,000 miles through China's Yunnan province, northeast Myanmar, and parts of Thailand, Laos, and Cambodia before merging with the South China Sea in southern Vietnam. The river has the world’s most productive inland fishery and is a major source of livelihood for millions of people. 

The Chinese ministry and media blame El Niño weather for the massive drought that has damaged 160,000 hectares of rice paddies in the Mekong Delta, left 600,000 people facing drinking water shortages, and will result in losses up to $2 million. But Vietnamese officials say while El Nino is partly to blame, the real cause of the water shortage is  excessive construction of more than 10 hydropower dams on the upper stream of the river

Little reporting on the issue has linked the drought to the dams, despite such comments by Vietnamese officials. Mekong River conservationists, on the other hand, have been quick to draw connections. Niwat Roykaew, chair of Chiang Khong Conservation Group, believes the drought is caused by the six major man-made reservoirs on the upstream portion of the Mekong that lie within China’s borders.

“The Mekong River has a cycle. Rainwater in the monsoon season refreshes the snowpack and raises water levels,”  Roykaew said. “Snow melts in the dry season when the water levels are low. We don’t need more water from dams in the dry season. We need to sustain the natural circle that feeds the ecosystems and …more

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