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‘When You Unite to Defend Your Home, Winning is Just a Matter of Time and Persistence’

2017 Goldman Environmental Prize winners offer hope and inspiration for grassroots activism

Prafulla Samantara has been fighting the forces of industrialization and their impact on the environment and rural communities in India tirelessly for more than four decades. Most recently, the 65-year-old grassroots activist has been actively involved in elevating the voice of the Dongria Kondh, an Indigenous hunter-gatherer tribe in his home state of Odisha, against mining interests that are seeking to dig up bauxite from the Niyamgiri Hills. The hills, one of the most pristine and biodiverse regions in Odisha, are home to many endangered animals. They are also sacred to the Dongria Kondhs.

photo of Prafulla Samantaraphoto courtesy of Goldman Environmental PrizeSamantara, who has been fighting the forces of industrialization in India for more than four decades, was honored with the Goldman Environmental Prize last night in San Francisco.

In 2004, without consulting the Dongria Kondh, the Odisha State Mining Company (OMC) signed an agreement with London-based Vedanta Resources to construct a $2 billion open-pit bauxite mine in the Niyamgiri Hills. The mine would destroy 1,660 acres of untouched forestland in order to extract more than 70 million tons of bauxite, polluting critical water sources in the process. It would also require roads to transport the bauxite, which would leave the forest vulnerable to loggers and poachers.

Samantara’s insistence that Indigenous peoples should have a say in how their land is used, particularly in relation to industrial interests, helped put pressure on the Supreme Court of India, which in 2013 reinforced decision-making power to local village councils so that they could decide whether or not to allow bauxite mining. The Dongria Kondh village councils unanimously voted against allowing bauxite mining. Because the decision was made at the national level, the ruling provides the same decision-making power to all village councils across India.

Samantara appreciates the Supreme Court’s decision to honor the voices of the Indigenous people, but says that it is far too easy for corporations and local interests to work around the ruling if they wish. He says the government of India must do more to protect its people from the ravages of industrialization. He criticized the government’s promotion of industry at the expense of the country’s most marginalized people, saying that it often destroys good agricultural land and forests, replacing it with fewer jobs and displacing people. “People are thrown to the streets,” to the benefit of a small number of people, and if this trend continues, Indian people in rural areas, representing 70 percent …more

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Enduring Torture and Death Threats in Service of Conservation

If Virunga is threatened again, “I will be there,” says Congolese ranger and Goldman Prize recipient

The trials that Rodrigue Mugaruka Katembo have overcome as a warden in Virunga National Park are hard to imagine from my Bay Area home — he’s been beaten and kidnapped, threatened with death, and tortured. He’s gone undercover to document the transgressions of a British oil giant, been offered bribes to look the other way, and been told he’s a disgrace to his country. But he’s endured it all in service to his community and to conservation.  

photo of chinstrap penguinsphoto courtesy of Goldman Environmental PrizeRodrigue Katembo, who has put is life on the line to protect Virunga National Park, will receive the Goldman Environmental Prize this evening in San Francisco.

In 2003, Katembo, now 41, joined the Congolese Wildlife Authority (ICCN) as a ranger in Virunga, the Democratic Republic of the Congo’s flagship national park and a UNESCO world heritage site. Going into the job, he knew there would be risks — the Congo has suffered from decades of civil unrest and terrible violence, and Virunga is considered among the most dangerous national parks in Africa to work in. It’s also home to a quarter of the world’s 880 critically endangered mountain gorillas, and dozens of other threatened species, including hippos, elephants, and okapi.

His first years at Virunga went smoothly. Park staff worked together with an eye to the future and to restoring the war ravaged park. But in 2010, SOCO, an international oil and gas exploration and production company headquartered in London, arrived in the Congo with plans to look for oil within the park bounds. (SOCO received a concession from the Congolese government to explore in Virunga despite the fact that, under the UNESCO convention, oil exploration is not permitted in world heritage sites.) Things in the park took a turn for the worse.

Katembo remembers when SOCO representatives first arrived in Virunga saying they had authorization to explore for oil in a region known as Block V, part of which extended into the park. Katembo was a sector warden by then, and this region was under his management. “I said, it’s not possible that the Congolese government is giving them authorizations when it’s well known that the law is against any kind of exploration,” he says, speaking through a translator. “I said they were wasting their time and they had to go back to Kinshasa,” the Congo’s capital city.

Katembo says SOCO then began bribing everyone, from officials in Kinshasa, to the military, to Wildlife Authority officials. …more

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Marching for Indigenous Science

“Let us remember that long before Western science came to these shores, there were Indigenous scientists here”

This Earth Day, four leading Native American scientists and scholars, Robin Kimmerer (Potawatomi), Rosalyn LaPier (Blackfeet/Métis), Melissa Nelson (Anishinaabe), and Kyle Whyte, (Potawatomi) will participate in the March for Science, in the main event in Washington DC, and at satellite marches in cities across the country tomorrow.

Santa Rita MountainsPhoto courtesy of USDALeech Lake Band of Ojibwe youth tends to a rice crop on the Leech Lake Reservation in Minnesota.There is a growing recognition — both among the mainstream scientific community as well as among the wider public — of the validity and value of Indigenous science.

And although they’ll be marching in disparate locations, they are all committed to engaging the power of both Western and Indigenous science. Kimmerer, LaPier, Nelson and Whyte are the co-authors of a declaration, Let Our Indigenous Voices Be Heard, which endorses the March for Science, and at the same time celebrates Indigenous science as a respected partner for answering scientific questions and supports pluralism in scientific research.

“As original peoples, we have long memories, centuries-old wisdom and deep knowledge of this land and the importance of empirical, scientific inquiry as fundamental to the well-being of people and planet,” the declaration says.

“Let us remember that long before Western science came to these shores, there were Indigenous scientists here. Native astronomers, agronomists, geneticists, ecologists, engineers, botanists, zoologists, watershed hydrologists, pharmacologists, physicians and more — all engaged in the creation and application of knowledge, which promoted the flourishing of both human societies and the beings with who we share the planet. We give gratitude for all their contributions to knowledge. Native science supported indigenous culture, governance and decision making for a sustainable future –the same needs which bring us together today.”

Tens of thousands of supporters around the world will be celebrating science in the March for Science tomorrow, but its genesis was anything but a celebration. It grew out of discussions about new public policies in the US to discredit scientific consensus, and restrict scientific discovery, even as scientists and supporters were scrambling to archive scientific data before it could be scrubbed from government websites.

Right after President Trump signed two executive orders upon taking office, one expediting environmental reviews for high priority infrastructure, the other green-lighting the Keystone XL and Dakota Access pipelines, LaPier joined the national steering committee of the March for Science. “Both cases were related to science and the role of scientists in helping provide information to communities …more

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Science Strikes Back: Anti-Trump March Set to Draw Thousands to Washington

Scientists are ditching their labs for the streets in a mass protest against the Trump administration’s war on facts, but will the effort resonate with skeptics?

On Saturday, thousands of scientists are set to abandon the cloistered neutrality of their laboratories to plunge into the political fray against Donald Trump in what will likely be the largest-ever protest by science advocates.

The March for Science, a demonstration modeled in part on January’s huge Women’s March, will inundate Washington DC’s national mall with a jumble of marine biologists, birdwatchers, climate researchers and others enraged by what they see as an assault by Trump’s administration upon evidence-based thinking and scientists themselves.

woman holding protest posterPhoto by Lindzi Wessel via Twitter @LindziWessel An enthusiastic sign maker at a rally in Boston in February. Tomorrow's March for Science will inundate Washington DC with biologists, climate researchers, and other science advocates.

The march is a visceral response to a presidency that has set about the evisceration of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and many of its science-based rules, the dismissal of basic climate change tenets by the president and his appointees and a proposed budget that would remove around $7bn from science programs, ranging from cancer research to oceanography to NASA’s monitoring of the Earth.

Many scientists at federal agencies, concerned their work may be sidelined or censored for political purposes, will take the unusual step of publicly damning the administration.

“It’s important for scientists to get out of the lab and talk about what’s important,” said Andrew Rosenberg, who spent a decade at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and is now at the Union of Concerned Scientists. “You don’t check your citizenship at the door when you get a PhD. No one would tell an architect they can’t have a view on HUD [the Department of Housing and Urban Development]. That would be nonsense.”

Rosenberg said younger scientists, in particular, are increasingly rejecting a stance of studied silence when faced with what they see as threats to their profession.

“They don’t accept that they have to wait until tenure, comfortable in a lab to maybe then speak out,” he said. “Academia is less appealing to many of them these days, so they want to know how they can have an impact now. They aren’t content that people will just read their papers in academic journals. I think retreating to your lab and hoping it will all go away is not going to be the best strategy.”

The idea to march was first tossed …more

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Chronicling Global Warming’s Impact on Antarctica’s Chinstrap Penguins

A conversation with Ron Naveen from the film The Penguin Counters

The heating up of the Antarctic Peninsula by five degrees centigrade is having a colossal impact on the seventh continent and the species living there. Co-producers and co-directors Peter Getzels and Harriet Gordon embarked on an arduous Antarctic odyssey with field biologists, led by the intrepid Ron Naveen, to probe this phenomenon by counting the region’s penguin populations. Their stunning new nonfiction film The Penguin Counters documents the effects climate change is having on Antarctica’s chinstraps, a penguin species so-called because of the distinctive black lines beneath their beaks.  

photo of chinstrap penguinsphoto courtesy of First Run FeaturesThe Penguin Counters follows a group of biologists on a mission to count Antarctica's chinstrap penguins, a species so-called because of the distictive black line beneath their beaks.

Getzels and Gordon are globetrotting filmmakers making documentaries for outlets like National Geographic and the UK’s BBC at far-flung locations, from the Andes to the Himalayas. Naveen is Getzels’ wife’s cousin, a connection that led to The Penguin Counters and the documentarians’ first trip to Antarctica. Filming there along with cameraman Eric Osterholm, the team shot with Panasonic P2 and GoPro cameras. Despite using relatively low tech digital technology and facing very challenging conditions, the camera crew rendered some exquisite cinematography, shooting eye-popping scenery and wildlife at one of the world’s most remote destinations, footage that gives armchair travelers a “you-are-there” feel.

This truly on location reportage is the best part of a documentary that goes off-topic for about a quarter of its 70 minutes. Just by chance, the filmmakers said, aboard the ship carrying them to Antarctica were also the granddaughter of Ernest Shackleton, commander of the early twentieth century’s ill-fated Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition, plus relatives of John Wild, the British polar explorer’s right-hand man during the expedition. In 2011, they carried Wild’s ashes, which had been found in Johannesburg, South Africa, to inter them on the right side of Shackleton’s grave at South Georgia Island, located north of the Antarctic Peninsula. (The year seems to be at odds with when the filmmakers say they went to Antarctica, which seemed to be 2013 or 2014.)

All this was filmed and included in the documentary, along with some history about the South Atlantic island’s facility for boiling blubber. History buffs may find the attention focused on Shackleton and Wild to be intriguing, but more environmentally-minded viewers may find it to distract from the main thrust of The Penguin Counters engrossing look at the struggle for …more

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Of Turkey Tails, Samoans, and how Culture Imbues Food

Our bodies and what we eat don’t exist in a social vacuum, Big Food knows this only too well

More than one livestock producer has told me that current food policy “maximizes assholes per acre.” I appreciate this off-color phrase as it emphasizes what ought to be obvious: that livestock intensification maximizes all elements of animal production, even those for which there may be no market. I calculate that there are roughly 50 billion animals in our food system at any given moment: 45 billion chickens/turkeys/ducks, 1.7 billion sheep/goats, 1.3 billion cattle, 1 billion pigs, 0.16 billion camel/water buffalo, and 0.12 billion horses. That is a lot of “undesirable” meat – 50 billion hearts, 100 billion eyeballs, and well over 100 billion feet.

photo of Smoked Turkey TailsMark TurnauckasNot long after World War II, US poultry firms began dumping turkey tails, along with chicken backs, into markets in Samoa. By 2007, the average Samoan was consuming more than 44 pounds of turkey tails every year

Consider the American turkey tail: a case of one segment of the US poultry industry quite literally sticking its asses in the face of another nation’s eaters. I mention it because it offers insight into how new foods become not so new – perhaps even becoming a “traditional dish” – and how much work must go into dislodging them when this happens.

The turkey’s hind end, which also goes by such irreverent names as the parson’s nose, pope’s nose, or sultan’s nose, is not all feathers, as many first presume. Turkey tails contain flesh, with about 75 percent of their calories coming from fat. If you are reading this in an affluent country you likely have never come across turkey tails in a retail setting. They remain a largely undesirable by-product of the poultry industry in most Western nations, even though roughly 230 million turkeys, and tails, were raised in the United States in 2015. Not long after World War II, US poultry firms began dumping turkey tails, along with chicken backs, into markets in Samoa. (Not to single out the United States, New Zealand and Australia are on record for having done the same thing with mutton flaps – sheep bellies – to the peoples of the Pacific Islands.) By 2007, the average Samoan was consuming more than forty-four pounds of turkey tails every year. That is quite the success story for a food product “that was essentially nonexistent sixty years ago,” to repeat what I was told by someone who grew up in Samoa in the 1930s and ’40s.

Based on what I have …more

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Receding Glacier Causes Massive Canadian River to Vanish in Four Days

First ever observed case of ‘river piracy’ saw the Slims river disappear as intense glacier melt suddenly diverted its flow into another watercourse

An immense river that flowed from one of Canada’s largest glaciers vanished over the course of four days last year, scientists have reported, in an unsettling illustration of how global warming dramatically changes the world’s geography.

The abrupt and unexpected disappearance of the Slims river, which spanned up to 150 metres at its widest points, is the first observed case of “river piracy,” in which the flow of one river is suddenly diverted into another.

photo of Kaskawulsh glacierPhoto by Calypso Orchid Intense melting of the Kaskawulsh glacier, seen here in the center, has redirected meltwater away from the Slims river, leading to the first observed case of "river piracy."

For hundreds of years, the Slims carried meltwater northwards from the vast Kaskawulsh glacier in Canada’s Yukon territory into the Kluane river, then into the Yukon river towards the Bering Sea. But in spring 2016, a period of intense melting of the glacier meant the drainage gradient was tipped in favor of a second river, redirecting the meltwater to the Gulf of Alaska, thousands of miles from its original destination.

The continental-scale rearrangement was documented by a team of scientists who had been monitoring the incremental retreat of the glacier for years. But on a 2016 fieldwork expedition they were confronted with a landscape that had been radically transformed.

“We went to the area intending to continue our measurements in the Slims river, but found the riverbed more or less dry,” said James Best, a geologist at the University of Illinois. “The delta top that we’d been sailing over in a small boat was now a dust storm. In terms of landscape change it was incredibly dramatic.”

Dan Shugar, a geoscientist at the University of Washington Tacoma and the paper’s lead author, added: “The water was somewhat treacherous to approach, because you’re walking on these old river sediments that were really goopy and would suck you in. And day by day we could see the water level dropping.”

The team flew a helicopter over the glacier and used drones to investigate what was happening in the other valley, which is less accessible.

“We found that all of the water that was coming out from the front of the glacier, rather than it being split between two rivers, it was going into just one,” said Best.

While the Slims had been reduced to a mere trickle, the reverse had happened to the south-flowing Alsek river, a popular whitewater rafting …more

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