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Colombian Soldiers Lead Ecological Mission in High-Altitude Wetlands

Innovative army program aims to restore country's war-torn landscapes, safeguard drinking water supply

Camouflaged soldiers move through the dense fog of Colombia’s Páramo de Sumapaz, a high-altitude wetland overlooking the capital, Bogotá. Although this wetland has been the site of years of intense fighting between government and rebel forces, the soldiers posted here are not engaged in military action — they’re gardening.

photo of Colombian Army restoration workPhoto courtesy of Batallón de Alta Montaña Número 1 Colombian soldiers have embarked on an ambitious effort to cultivate adn restore the endangered cactus-like frailejón.

The soldiers in the Páramo de Sumapaz belong to Colombia’s First High Mountain Battalion (BAM, for its Spanish name). Trained to hunt their opponents over a hostile high-altitude environment of perpetual fog and sub-freezing temperatures, they are now engaged in building greenhouses, nursery plots, and laboratories. Their mission is the cultivation of the furry, cactus-like frailejón (fry-lay-HONE). This rare and endangered plant is key to ensuring Colombia’s main source of fresh water. And it is disappearing. 

“The loss of frailejones might cause the collapse of the páramo ecosystem, with huge consequences for the human populations relying on its ecosystem services,” said Dr. Mauricio Diazgranados, one of Colombia’s foremost frailejón experts and the research leader at the Natural Capital and Plant Health Department at the Kew Royal Botanical Gardens in the United Kingdom.

Diazgranados does not exaggerate the region’s importance. Roughly 70 percent of Colombia’s population gets their water from the páramos, where the frailejón is a “keystone species,” meaning that the other plants and animals of its ecosystem depend upon it for their own survival. Humans too, are dependent on this native plant: In the perpetually foggy páramos, the frailejón traps tremendous amounts of fog on its downy surface. The fog sticks to the frailejóns’ skin as water droplets, which fall to the ground when they grow sufficiently heavy. The accumulated water flows into the lakes and rivers that act as reservoirs for both drinking water and hydroelectricity for most of the country.

Researchers have identified several causes for the decline of the frailejón, among them warming temperatures, longer and drier days, increased pest populations, expanded agricultural use of the páramos, and Colombia’s civil war, which ended in 2016.

photo of FralajonesPhoto by Forest Ray The frailejón is a keystone species in Colombia's high-altitude páramo ecosystems, which supply roughly 70 percent of the nation's drinking water.

Of the above threats, all but the war can be tied directly to climate change. Rising …more

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Around the World in 1,000 Days

Three-year voyage of the Hōkūleʻa, a giant Polynesian sailing canoe, spread Indigenous knowledge and concern for Earth’s future

In the summer of 2017, after a three-year voyage, spanning more than 40,000 nautical miles with stops in 23 countries and territories, the Hōkūleʻa — a giant Polynesian sailing canoe — returned home to the shores of Honolulu, Hawaii. Moments before her arrival, a misty rain — considered a Hawaiian blessing — fell, but the clouds parted as the 62-foot long vessel powered by two red sails glided into the harbor near Magic Island Beach in Oahu, surrounded by a flotilla of escort canoes, kayaks, and surfboards.

photo of Hokule'a CanoePhoto by Photo by Polynesian Voyaging Society/Bryson Hoe The Hōkūleʻa stopped in 23 countries over the course of three years, passing along Polynesian sailing knowledge and advocating for a sustainable future.

Along the shoreline, tens of thousands of spectators gathered to cheer the Hōkūleʻa’s return, waving Hawaiian flags and snapping photos of the awe-inspiring canoe. As the crew disembarked, a group of Hawaiian men in traditional dress chanted and performed the ancient Hawaiian spear-throwing Kāli‘i Rite.

The purpose of this epic trip — decades in the making — was to pass along traditional Polynesian sailing and navigation knowledge to a younger generation and to bring attention to the idea of building a sustainable future for the Earth using local solutions that blend Indigenous wisdom with other best practices.

Navigation by Nature

The Hōkūleʻa is a replica of an ancient Polynesian voyaging canoe. It has no motor and uses sails and a large paddle for steering, which requires several people to handle. The 62-feet-long and 20-feet-wide vessel was originally built in 1975 by founding members of the Polynesian Voyaging Society, a Hawaii-based group that seeks to perpetuate the art and science of traditional Polynesian voyaging, for a one-time voyage from Hawaii to Tahiti.

One motivation for that first trip was to show that Polynesians settled the Pacific islands through intentional voyaging and to counter the idea propagated by Norwegian Thor Heyerdahl of Kon Tiki fame that they descended from South Americans rather than Asians.

photo of Hokule'a CanoePhoto by Polynesian Voyaging Society/ Nāʻālehu Anthony Crew members navigated without any handheld instruments, using stars, planets, moon, sun, clouds, and ocean swells to guide them.

During that first voyage, the crew navigated without any handheld instruments — including watches — just as their ancestors did long ago. “Everything that you use to keep yourself oriented and on track is provided by …more

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Menominee Tribe Files Lawsuit over Mine Permitting on Sacred Land

Wisconsin tribe alleges that feds have neglected to oversee wetland permitting for controversial Michigan open pit mine

The Menominee Indian Tribe of Wisconsin today filed a federal lawsuit against the US Army Corps of Engineers and the US Environmental Protection Agency claiming the agencies have failed to take "primary responsibility" for wetland permitting on a controversial proposed open pit mine in Michigan's Upper Peninsula.

photo of Menominee RiverPhoto by Bureau of Land ManagementThe Menominee Tribe's lawsuit claims that the federal government should have wetland permitting authority over the proposed Black Forty Mine because the project falls under the Clean Water Act. The mine would sit on sacred ground for the tribe, and within 150 feet of the river.

The lawsuit is the latest and most aggressive effort by the tribe to prevent the Back Forty Mine — a proposed 83-acre open pit gold, zinc, and copper mine in the southwestern corner of Michigan's Upper Peninsula. The mine has been weaving through the state's permitting process for years despite opposition from the Menominee and other regional tribes, as well as local residents and environmental groups.

Environmental Health News highlighted the Menominee's fight in the 2016 series "Sacred Water," a national look at how culturally significant water resources get sullied, destroyed, and defaced by activities often happening beyond Native Americans' control.

The Michigan Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) has overseen permitting for the mine thus far. The Menominee lawsuit claims the feds should have wetland permitting authority because it falls under the Clean Water Act, alleging "permitting fill and excavation on the Menominee River and its wetlands cannot be delegated to a state under the Act."

"The Menominee River and its wetlands are interstate federal waters, used in interstate commerce under the law," said Janette Brimmer, an Earthjustice attorney representing the Menominee, in a statement. "So, under the law, this permit cannot be controlled by one state."

In December, the Michigan DEQ accepted the project's wetland permit, filed by Aquila Resources. The Michigan DEQ will consult with the US Environmental Protection Agency and is expected to make a final permitting decision on the mine by mid-2018. Aquila has promised jobs and money to the region — a company-backed study estimated 240 permanent jobs and more than $20 million annually paid in taxes to federal, state, and local government.

The mine, however, would sit on sacred ground for the Menominee tribe — near burial sites, centuries-old raised garden beds, and within 150 feet of the Menominee River, which forms the border of …more

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You Really Shouldn’t Touch Those Wooden Utility Poles

Millions of these poles continue to be coated with PCP, a carcinogenic chemical

After Hurricane Sandy hit our small Long Island, NY town, I watched 80-foot utility poles leaching a black, smelly, oily substance and added a new word and meaning to my vocabulary: “Pentachlorophenol.” That was the first time I became aware that these poles were treated with a toxic pesticide that has a long history of leaching into groundwater, rivers, streams, and soil.

photo of utility polePhoto by Daniel OinesWooden utility poles are often treated with pentachlorophenol or PCP to protect them against fungi and termites. Exposure to PCP can cause reproductive and developmental problems, damage the immune system, and even cancer.

Google pentachlorophenol, which is often called Penta or PCP, and you will learn that it starts as a white crystalline solid. The chlorinated phenol (aka carbolic acid which can easily cause chemical burns) is mixed with P9 crude oil to produce the liquid Pentachlorophenol. The chemical compound, which is used to preserve wooden utility poles against fungi and termites, has been around since 1936 and its toxic footprint and use persists to this day.

PCP preserves the wood from rot by killing any living organism in, on or up to eight feet around the pole. Exposure to PCP can cause reproductive and developmental problems, damage the immune system, and even cause cancer. Children and developing fetuses are most at risk. It is reported that back in the 1990s, the EPA calculated that children face a 220 times increased risk of cancer from exposure to soil contaminated with PCP leaching out of the utility poles. The chemical is highly toxic to birds, mammals and aquatic organisms as well. The EPA notes that even a relatively short exposure (as little as 6 hours) can result in mortality of fish eggs occurring as much as 80 days later.

Further more, you will learn that impurities often get introduced into this compound during the formulation — such as furans, hexochlorobenzene, and dioxin, the toxic component of the Vietnam War defoliant “Agent Orange” — can be even more toxic than the PCP itself. Read that sentence again before you go on!

It did not take me long to find out that this chemical was well documented by the US Environmental Protection Agency, Centers for Disease Control, the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATDSR), World Health Organization, as well as state and local governments as being toxic to humans and wildlife.

PCP has a long history of leaving hundreds if not …more

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Spanish Rangers Fear for Lives since Double Murder a Year Ago this Week

The killing of two wildlife defenders marked a chilling turning point for colleagues facing increasing violence in the line of duty

On a hill above the olive trees and dun scrublands of western Catalonia, two rusty iron silhouettes maintain a still and silent vigil. One peers out over the land through a pair of binoculars; the other kneels and holds a bird forever on the cusp of release.

photo of Mitsubish Agents RuralsPhoto by AsPARC, via Wikimedia CommonsLast January, two rangers called in a dead animal they passed on the road in western Catalonia. They drove on to make sure hunters hadn't strayed into a protected area in the region, and were soon shot by a hunter named Ismael Rodríguez.

At their feet is a simple plaque: “In memory and recognition of Xavier Ribes Villas and David Iglesias Díez, wildlife rangers whose lives were taken in the line of duty on 21 January 2017.”

Their deaths on a cold winter morning a year ago this weekend are a reminder that the risks of defending the natural world are not always confined to forests of South America or the African bush, and that working to protect sandgrouse, little bustard, and bittern can sometimes be as dangerous as guarding against elephant poachers.

The murders, together with a series of assaults over the past 12 months, have prompted calls for Spain’s 6,000 wildlife rangers to be routinely armed as they go about their job preserving the country’s biodiversity and regulating hunting and fishing.

On the day in question, the pair of agents rurals — as they are known in Catalonia — climbed into their Mitsubishi Montero and set off from their base in the city of Lleida.

After calling in a dead animal they had passed on the road, Ribes and Iglesias drove up to the hill where their monuments now stand to make sure hunters hadn’t strayed into a protected area close to the small village of Aspa.

It was probably there that they heard the volley of shots that drew them to a nearby olive grove where a group of men was shooting the thrushes that feed on the fruit. Among them was a 28-year-old hunter named Ismael Rodríguez.

Whatever happened next was quick and, as yet, unexplained. Training and protocol would have seen the rangers identify themselves to the hunter, ask him to put down his weapon and request to see his hunting and firearms licenses.

Rodríguez is alleged to have responded by …more

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Balking at Meatless Mondays? There are Some Impossible Solutions Afoot

The latest fake meat to hit the market is pretty close to the real deal, but there’s a rub

I’ve been mostly vegetarian for more than 12 years now, eating meat perhaps four or five times a year and seafood way more often than I should. But like many a former regular meat-eater, despite moral qualms, I still miss the taste of it. I’ve chomped my way through many a meat substitute — soy-based, seitan-based, mushroom-based, and more — but nothing has quite matched in flavor. So when I heard about the Impossible Burger — supposedly a genuinely meaty-tasting vegetarian patty made for carnivores — my interest was piqued.

Impossible burger at Umami restaurant in OaklandPhoto by Maureen Nandini MitraThe Impossible Burger with all the fixings at Umami Burger in Oakland, California. The fake meat patty, created by a biotech startup, comes close to its creator’s hope of making a plant based burger that’s “a carnivore’s dream.”

The lab-made, plant-based patty, developed by a Silicon Valley based company called Impossible Foods, has been receiving rave reviews that say it tastes, smells, and even “bleeds” like its made of ground beef. The company spent five years researching what flavors, textures, and aromas make meat unique, and then, according its website, set out to do the impossible — “find precisely the right ingredients from the plant kingdom to recreate the experience meat lovers crave.”

The patty hasn’t reached supermarket shelves yet — which its creators say is the ultimate goal — but is available at select restaurants across the country. “Proof of the pudding” and all, I decided a taste test was warranted. So I dragged some colleagues — including a recent convert to vegetarianism and a vegan — to Umami Burger in Oakland for a sample.

The burger, priced rather steeply at $16, arrived wedged between a soft bun, dressed with lettuce, caramelized onions, slices of American cheese (why oh why?) and tomato and miso mustard house spread. Size-wise, it was smaller than I expected. The Impossible patty did look pink and meaty, but seemed to be a wee soggier.

It tasted good enough, and certainly meaty enough, though a tad softer, as the first look indicated it might. But, for me, the tasting experience was marred by the fixings, which comprised a blend of flavors that didn’t seem to complement each other all that well. I actually liked the Portobello mushroom burger we had also ordered much better. But my vegan colleague took one bite of the Impossible Burger and proclaimed it “delicious.”

“It kind of grosses …more

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Birders get a First Look at how 2017 California Wildfires Affected Wildlife

Christmas Bird Count by volunteers helps scientists gather rare post-fire data

A neighbor knocked on Rick Burgess’s door at about 9:30 p.m. to tell him a fire was coming towards his home in Ventura, California. When he looked outside he saw a column of smoke, and the hills were already starting to turn orange. He loaded up his truck with a collection of native plants he was using to write a countywide plant guide, and barely had enough time to get out.

 DeMartino scanning a water body Photo by Matt Blois Frank DeMartino — who runs a shop in Ventura that sells bird feeders and birdseed — has organized the last three counts in Ventura. He started the 2017 Christmas Bird Count in Ventura harbor.

“Shortly thereafter the lights went out,” he said. “Then the engine came around and on the loud speaker said you must evacuate.”

Burgess and his wife drove to a friend’s house in a different part of town. The first night, they just wanted to know that their home was safe, and thankfully it was. The Thomas Fire burned many of their neighbors’ homes that night, but their cul-de-sac was spared. Burgess spent the two weeks following the fire living at a friend’s house, organizing the northern sector of Ventura’s annual Christmas Bird Count.

The count in Ventura was originally scheduled for December 17, but the Thomas Fire — now the largest ever recorded in California — burned more than half of the survey area, and organizers had to postpone it until December 30 because they couldn’t get to many of the those areas.

For the first few weeks of December, smoke filled the Ojai Valley where Burgess leads a count, and fire crews had taken over the Lake Casitas Campground where groups normally search for birds by boat. Even weeks after the worst of the fire had passed, the city of Ventura wouldn’t let the birders into several parks damaged by the fire. While the fire made it difficult to organize the count, surveying birds immediately after the fire also presented a unique opportunity.

With nearly four decades of Christmas Bird Count data from Ventura, scientists will be able to compare this year’s observations with historical data to understand how birds respond to fire. While the fire was devastating for the people who lost their homes, many species of wildlife in Southern California are adapted to live with fire and in some cases take advantage of it. For scientists, it can be difficult to find …more

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