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What Lies Behind the Recent Surge of Amazon Deforestation

Conversation: Ecologist Philip Fearnside explains what needs to be done to once again bring deforestation under control

Ecologist Philip Fearnside has lived and worked in the Brazilian Amazon for 30 years and is one of the foremost authorities on deforestation in the world’s largest tropical forest. A professor at the National Institute for Research in the Amazon, Fearnside has focused his work on how to sustainably develop the Amazon in the face of enormous pressures to cut and clear the forest.

Ecologist Philip Fearnside

Fearnside is now watching with alarm as, after a decade of declining deforestation rates, the pace of cutting and forest clearing in the Amazon is on the rise again. In an interview with Fearnside explains the factors behind the resurgence in deforestation, including a slowly improving global economy, rising commodity prices, and recently enacted Brazilian laws and policies that are encouraging the development of the Amazon. Fearnside warns that this great tropical forest will sustain even graver losses if Brazil’s newly re-elected President Dilma Rousseff — who is backed by large landowners and agribusiness interests — doesn’t change course.

Richard Schiffman: Deforestation is now rising dramatically in the Brazilian Amazon. When did this begin?

Philip Fearnside: Deforestation went up a bit — they call it the hiccup — in 2013, but now in just the past six months there has been an explosion. Deforestation, as measured from images taken by Brazil’s DETER satellite system, far more than doubled from September 2014 through January 2015 over what it had been during those same months a year earlier.

The government hid these figures before the recent election. The August and September data would normally have been released in October [before the October 26th presidential election]. But they sat on the data, and it was not disclosed until the end of November. It’s a scandal.

This comes as a surprise to many observers who thought that Brazil had the deforestation problem under control. Rates of deforestation actually declined from 2004 until 2012. How do you account for these earlier declines?

The exchange rate with the Brazilian real hit a peak in 2002. From almost 4 reals to the dollar, it went all the way down to 1 ½, which means if you are exporting things like soybeans or beef, all your expenses are in reals and you get paid in dollars, and they are worth half as much in Brazil, …more

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Three Deaths Near A Sierra Leone Forest Highlight the Problems that Plague Conservation Efforts

Human-animal coexistence issues can be more complicated than just economic and ecological factors

In the dead center of Sierra Leone, a river cuts through a patch of forest. At one point, this fragment was part of a much larger forest. However, industry, mining, and war have stripped much of the land, leaving only a small parcel of forestland. Deep inside this fragment of land, there exists a slowly dwindling glimpse of the jungle that had previously existed. Tall trees form a giant canopy. Beneath the canopy, streams flow past large flowering plants. Birds glide across the forest and their calls echo through the trees. Monkeys jump from branch to branch. Below them, wild cats, such as servals and genets, patrol the forest and small hoofed animals drink from the streams.  In the midst of it all, there are chimpanzees.

ChimpanzeesPhoto courtesy of the Arcus Foundation.Chimpanzees in the wild in Sierra Leone. As the primates' habitat shrinks violent confrontations with humans becomes inevitable

On a spring morning, two dead chimpanzees were carried away from this fragment. Their wrists and ankles were bound around a large wooden pole. As their bodies were set down on a dirt road, several people, all from the villages that bordered the forest, gathered around. They saw two large male chimpanzees; who, only a short time ago, had been part of a disappearing ecosystem.

Two months later, I walked through the forest patch, having no idea what had occurred. The man I was with had previously hunted the chimpanzees, but now switched his efforts to trying to protect them. (Names of all villagers mentioned in this article have been withheld to protect their identities.) I remarked to him that the chimps were completely silent. At this, he told me what had happened. The news took me by surprise. Looking back, I'm not sure why I was surprised. Up until three years before, killing chimpanzees had been a somewhat regular occurrence in the forest fragment, even though killing the primates is illegal in Sierra Leone. However, we were three years into a community-based conservation initiative  (a partnership between the local villages and us, the outside researchers) that was aimed at conserving this small population of less than 20 chimpanzees. The initiative had been successful for the first two years. Now it seemed like things were beginning to crumble.

I asked for a meeting with members of each of the six villages that bordered …more

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A Bicycle-Powered Food Recovery Initiative That Also Saves Water and Energy

Boulder Food Rescue has saved more than 800,000 pounds of food from being wasted with nearly zero use of fossil fuel or water resources

My legs ache. It’s 8 a.m. in February and the sun is just beginning to hit the mountains above Boulder, Colorado. I’m pulling a massive bicycle trailer filled with produce using a mountain bike. The traffic light in front of me turns green and I pedal through a four lane intersection at about 5 miles an hour. Behind me, the bike trailer carves a wide arc as I turn into the perpendicular street. After what seems like minutes, I reach the other side of the intersection and the safety of another bike lane.

Biker with food carrierPhoto by Ethan WeltyCome rain or snow: Boulder Food Rescue volunteers make 80 to 90 weekly deliveries to a thoroughly diverse group of recipients that includes the low-income elderly population, preschools, daycares, soup kitchens, housing cooperatives, day shelters, and homeless shelters.

I’m doing this for Boulder Food Rescue, a small nonprofit organization that has been redirecting perishable food from Boulder’s grocery stores to organizations in need for over three years. My trailer today is full of bakers’ bags of bread and stacks of prepared deli food in plastic see-through containers. Recently, I hauled 120 pounds of bananas. The deliveries are made using a fleet of bike trailers. The use of cargo bike trailers stands out in the suburban environment of Boulder, where volunteers ride with the car traffic on a daily basis.

Hana Dansky, executive director of the organization, explains how it all started: “We were doing a meal in the park called Food Not Bombs based on a model that was started back in 1980 and has chapters across the country. We started the meal and people were saying ‘this is the most nutritious meal that we can find, its full of fruits and vegetables’. Through doing that meal we really got to know the community and other non-profits that were serving the community. We started to figure out where the needs were and where the gaps were,” she says.

“We discovered some gaps in the system. By the time the food bank picks up food from the grocery store, transports it to the warehouse, sorts it, and then redistributes it, three to seven days can pass. Fruits and vegetables in particular they either couldn’t take, or couldn’t redistribute. They would throw them away or they would redistribute bad produce. We go straight …more

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On the Frontlines of Thailand’s “Blood Wood” War

Criminal syndicates are poaching rosewood from the forests of Southeast Asia

Deep in Thailand’s Thap Lan National Park it's oppressively hot, sticky and claustrophobic. Above us, huge trees, fighting to break free from the stranglehold of snaking vines, reach skyward, their spreading canopies stealing our daylight. We're penned in by a twisted tangle of dense, damp undergrowth, our ears assailed by a maddening buzz of cicadas, red mud sucking at our boots, ravenous mosquitoes feasting on our exposed flesh. It's forbidding and alien.

Siam rosewood tree with forest guardPhoto by Ann and Steve ToonA Siam rosewood tree blessed by a Buddhist monk in Thailand’s Thap Lan National Park. The forest has become a war zone, laid siege by gangs of armed criminals in search of rosewood, which fetches hundreds of thousands of dollars on the international black market.

It's also insanely beautiful and a biodiversity hotspot of international importance. Thap Lan is one of five contiguous national parks which form the Dong Phayayen-Khao Yai Forest Complex, a UNESCO World Heritage Site of more than 2,300 square miles of rugged tropical forest in the east of Thailand, close to the Cambodian border. It's home to many threatened and endangered species, including Asian elephant, Siamese crocodile, and banteng. And tiger. Seldom seen, but we have the proof of their presence right in front of our eyes. Eric Ash, of the Thai-based anti wildlife trafficking organization Freeland Foundation, has invited us along to check camera traps he's placed along the forest trails. We're poring over his laptop, amazed at the sheer wealth of wildlife that shows up: leopard cat, elephant, Asiatic black bear, pig-tailed macaque, large-spotted civet, dhole, hog badger. Then what we're most looking for: a huge, muscular male tiger fills the screen. Eric checks the stripe pattern. “This is male number two,” he says.

Freeland's cameras have revealed a significant population of Indochinese tigers living deep in the forest, where until recently conservationists believed they had gone extinct. But these same cameras have shed light on an altogether more sinister and deadly forest secret, the reason we're accompanied everywhere here by an armed guard. The forest has become a war zone, laid siege by gangs of armed criminals in search of a natural commodity that fetches hundreds of thousands of dollars on the international black market. It's not the tiger they're hunting, but a tree.

men unloading rosewood logsmore

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Act Now to Protect Our Oceans and Rivers from Oil Spills

EPA rulemaking a key time for public comment

I am a survivor of the Exxon Valdez oil spill, a marine toxicologist, a commercial fisherman, and an author-turned activist. The turning happened 26 years ago today, when I flew over the wreck of the Exxon Valdez in Prince William Sound, Alaska. The Sound was my backyard, my fishing grounds, and most importantly, a place I loved. The giant inky stain on the water was … overwhelming. Intimidating. It was vast, and I was only one person. What could I do? As I flew over the ocean of oil, I realized I knew enough to make a difference. But did I care enough? The answer, I knew, would change my life.

Aliceville, AL Train ExplosionPhoto by John WathenAerial view of cleanup after a Genesee & Wyoming train exploded in Aliceville, AL in November 2013, spilling its crude oil contents into wetlands.

That day, my love overcame my fear. I decided I would work upstream of oil spills to help transition our nation off of oil, because as long as we drill, we will spill. These days I find myself in other people’s backyards: in industrialized railroad corridors where dangerous bomb trains carry explosive Bakken shale through neighborhoods and the centers of our cities; in farm and ranch lands rocked by frack quakes and poisoned by fracking activities; along existing or proposed pipeline corridors where corrosive and abrasive tar sands oil has already spilled or most certainly will spill; and along our nation’s coastlines at risk from offshore oil drilling and offshore fracking.

You see, it doesn’t matter what type of oil spills or where – the impacts to people’s health, lives and livelihoods, and communities are the same. People get sick

and, because the health risks from these industrial petrochemical exposures are ignored or downplayed, most people do not receive adequate health care for chemical detox. Many are left with life-long debilitating illnesses. Children are especially vulnerable, very much including those still in their mother’s belly.

A lot of this oil that is sucked from the earth finds its way by tank trucks, rail car, pipeline, and tankers to our seaports. And here’s where you come into this story. About 135 million people – 42 percent of Americans – live in crude oil corridors. That is, within 20 miles of coastal oil refineries, Great Lakes oil depots, …more

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Overpopulation – It’s All about Us

Women’s empowerment key to stemming unsustainable human population growth.

Most conversations about population begin with statistics – demographic data, fertility rates in this or that region, the latest reports on malnutrition, deforestation, biodiversity loss, climate change, and so on. Such data, while useful, fails to generate mass concern about the fundamental issue affecting the future of Earth.

photo of a cavernous shopping mall and crowd therein© Brett Cole“In the developing world, the problem of population is seen less as a matter of human numbers than of Western overconsumption. Yet within the development community, the only solution to the problems of the developing world is to export the same unsustainable economic model fueling the overconsumption of the West.”
—Kavita Ramdas

In reality, every discussion about population involves people, the world that our children and grandchildren will live to see and the health of the planet that supports all life. In my roles as president of Population Media Center and CEO of the Population Institute, I spend most of my time in developing countries, where many of my friends and acquaintances are educated and prospering. But I also know individuals who are homeless, unemployed, or hungry. The vast majority of people in these societies, regardless of their current status, do not enjoy a safety net. They live from day to day in hopes that their economic circumstances will improve. Abstract statistics on poverty are irrelevant to families struggling to secure the food, water, and resources needed to sustain a decent life.

Those who blithely dismiss the challenges posed by population growth like to say that we could physically squeeze 7 billion people into an area the size of Texas. They don’t stop to consider the suffering already caused by overpopulation. The population debate is not about the maximum number of people that could be packed onto the planet. The crucial question is: How many people can Earth sustain, at a reasonable standard of living, while leaving room for the diversity of life to flourish? There is no precise answer to this question, but the facts overwhelmingly support one conclusion: We cannot go on the way we are going. We are already doing severe and irreparable harm to the planet. Something has to give.

If we cannot live sustainably with 7.2 billion people, how are we going to support billions …more

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Obama Administration’s New Rule to Govern Fracking on Federal Lands Draws Swift Criticism

Energy industry files lawsuit, environmentalists say rule falls short of what's needed to protect public health and safety

The Obama administration unveiled its first major federal regulation on fracking today and the backlash from the energy industry and its supporters was swift. Less than an hour of the announcement, two energy groups — the Independent Petroleum Association of America and the Western Energy Alliance — filed a lawsuit challenging the rule, calling it “a reaction to unsubstantiated concerns.” Meanwhile, environmental groups say the rule falls short of providing Americans the protection they deserve.

Gas FlarePhoto by Sarah Craig/Faces of Fracking The rule, they point out, applies only to oil and gas drilling on federal lands. Which means, in regions like Pennsylvania, Texas and North Dakota, where fracking is most prevalent, drilling will still be governed by state and local laws.

The new rule — which took the Department of Interior four years to finalize and included numerous stakeholder meetings and more than 1.5 million public comments — will govern drilling operations on federally managed and Native American lands. There are more than 100,000 oil and gas wells on federally managed lands. Of wells currently being drilled, over 90 percent use hydraulic fracturing.

Key components of the new regulation, which is scheduled to take effect in 90 days, include:

* Operators ensure well integrity and maintain strong cement barriers to prevent oil leaks into groundwater supplies;

* Companies disclose the mix of chemicals they are using in the hydraulic fracturing process within 30 days of completing fracturing operations;

* Higher standards for interim storage of recovered waste fluids in order to mitigate risks to air, water, and wildlife;

* Companies to submit more detailed information on the geology, depth, and location of preexisting wells before they begin drilling, so that the Bureau of Land Management can to better evaluate and manage unique site characteristics.

“Current federal well-drilling regulations are more than 30 years old and they simply have not kept pace with the technical complexities of today’s hydraulic fracturing operations,” Interior Secretary Sally Jewell said in a statement. The new rules provide “a framework of safeguards and disclosure protocols that will allow for the continued responsible development of our federal oil and gas resources,” she said.

While the energy industry and its supporters are calling the regulation an example of federal overreach — Senate Republicans introduced a bill on Thursday to block the regulations from being …more

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