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Images from Assateague Island

Ecology and wonder on a barrier island

Assateague Island is a 37-mile-long barrier island located off the coasts of Maryland and Virginia. It stretches to about two miles at its widest and only a quarter mile at its narrowest end. Its very name conjures images of wild horses galloping along the dunes, of pristine beaches suffused with thousands of shells stretching beyond sight.           

image of Assateague IslandPhoto by Mark Hendricks Assateague Island’s location along the Atlantic Flyway provides critical nesting and/or feeding habitat to more than 300 species of birds, including the royal tern.

It is a dynamic landscape at the mercy of wind and water, which constantly mold, move, and reshape it. Change is the norm for the barrier island. The lasting effects of storms, erosion, over wash, and rising sea levels are at the heart of its existence. Barrier islands such as Assateague defend the coastline by absorbing the power of storms and, like their name suggests, provide a barrier to the effects of wind and water that would otherwise devastate the mainland. They also protect wildlife and ecosystems that make these islands so unique.      

Assateague is an ecological wonderland. While the island itself is less than 18,000 acres, when its boundaries are extended to include adjacent coastal bays and coterminous marine shoreline it becomes a 48,000-acre Eden. From ocean to bay one may find a multitude of habitats including beach, dune, shrubs, maritime forest, and marsh that is inhabited by equally diverse flora and fauna. 

Ecological succession underpins its biodiversity. Each habitat must function for the next to thrive. Without the protection of the dunes the flora of the maritime forest would not grow; without the maritime forest the marsh would not develop. But life on Assateague is never easy, and the plants and animals that live here have adapted to the harsh conditions of the barrier island. Salt spray, limited fresh water, tidal surges, and extreme heat during the summer months make it a precarious existence, but they endure. 

Scroll through the images below for a glipse at life on Assateague Island.

image of Assateague IslandPhoto by Mark Hendricks Migrating harp seals can be found resting along the island's shoreline in winter. The Assateague Island National Seashore was established in 1962 to protect the island, and is managed by three federal agencies: the National Park Service, the US Fish and Wildlife Service, and the Department of Natural Resources. 

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Chocolate Industry Drives Devastating Deforestation in Ivory Coast

As global demand for cocoa booms, ‘dirty’ beans from national parks enter big business supply chains

The world’s chocolate industry is driving deforestation on a devastating scale in West Africa, The Guardian can reveal.

Cocoa traders who sell to Mars, Nestlé, Mondelez and other big brands buy beans grown illegally inside protected areas in the Ivory Coast, where rainforest cover has been reduced by more than 80 percent since 1960.

photo of Ivory Coast Cocoa plantationPhoto by jbdodane, FlickrA cocoa plantation in Ivory Coast, which produces as much as 40 percent of the world's cocoa.

Illegal product is mixed in with “clean” beans in the supply chain, meaning that Mars bars, Ferrero Rocher chocolates and Milka bars could all be tainted with “dirty” cocoa. As much as 40 percent of the world’s cocoa comes from Ivory Coast.

The Guardian travelled across Ivory Coast and documented rainforests cleared for cocoa plantation; villages and farmers occupying supposedly protected national parks; enforcement officials taking kickbacks for turning a blind eye to infractions and trading middlemen who supply the big brands indifferent to the provenance of beans.

When approached for comment, Mars, Mondelez and Nestlé, and traders Cargill and Barry Callebaut did not deny the specific allegation that illegal deforestation cocoa had entered their supply chains. All said they were working hard to eradicate the commodity from their products.

Up to 70 percent of the world’s cocoa is produced by 2 million farmers in a belt that stretches from Sierra Leone to Cameroon, but Ivory Coast and Ghana are the giants, the world’s first and second biggest producers. They are also the biggest victims of deforestation. Ivory Coast is losing its forests at a faster rate than any other African country — less than 4 percent of the country is covered in rainforest. Once, one quarter was.

The ballooning global demand for chocolate means that if nothing is done, by 2030 there will be no forest left, according to the environmental group Mighty Earth which today publishes an investigation into deforestation caused by chocolate. The final, insulting irony is that locals are so poor they could never afford to eat a Mars bar.

Evidence of deforestation is not hard to find. Inside the Mount Tia protected forest, Salam Sawadougou, a Burkinabé farmer, is hacking a yellow cocoa pod off one of his plants in a four hectare (10 acre) plot. Here, the grey stumps of enormous ancient trees are all that is left of the forest.

“I burned it little …more

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How to Teach Your Kids About Zoos

We owe our children honest answers about the morality of animal captivity

On September 6, National Geographic Kids posted a Family Field Guide, "How to Answer Challenging Questions About Animals at the Zoo," by Laura Goertzel, digital director for the magazine. Goertzel was forced to consider the problem of animal captivity when a bobcat called Ollie escaped from her cage at the National Zoo in Washington, DC in January. Goertzel's kids began asking questions about how Ollie escaped and why Ollie would want to do so. 

photo of lions at national zooPhoto by Steve Sarro, Smithsonian’s National ZooIn January, a female bobcat known as Ollie escaped her cage at the National Zoo. She was returned to her enclosure after being recaptured. A recent post in National Geographic dodges challenging questions about the morality of keeping wild animals like Ollie captive.

"Our visits to the zoo haven't been the same since," Goertzel writes. "My kids continue to inquire about the lives of captive animals, and those questions are often difficult to answer. (My answer to the above question: Just like Curious George, Ollie wanted to learn about what was going on outside the zoo and found a hole in her cage to squeeze through.)"

These are teachable moments, says Goertzel, and she offers some of her favorite questions from kids and tips on how to answer them:

Question 1: Where are all the elephants?

Explain to children that just as they do, animals enjoy time by themselves. That's why modern parks give animals a space away from visitors to rest.

Question 2: Why does that lion look so bored?

The animals probably aren't bored — they're just resting. Many wild animals, including lions, do spend most of their day chilling out…. (In fact, the king of the beasts is considered the laziest of the big cats, spending 16 to 20 hours a day sleeping or resting.) A zoo environment is not much different.

Question 3: Is that panda happy living in a cage?

Let's face it. No matter how innovative the spaces are, seeing animals in enclosures can be hard for children. So I use that question to teach my kids that many of the animals at the zoo are endangered or threatened, and that zoos can keep them safe from poachers, habitat destruction, and other threats.

And so goes the advice of Laura Goertzel. She has chosen to answer the pure, perceptive, empathetic questions of her children with bullshit and rationalization. She suggests that we all do the same.   

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Koch Brothers Versus Small Town USA

In Review: Company Town

The riveting Company Town is one of the hardest-hitting documentaries ever made about environmental racism in America. It is to the eco-justice movement what Barbara Kopple’s 1976 Best Documentary Academy Award winner Harlan County USA was to class struggle or Al Gore’s 2007 An Inconvenient Truth was to climate change or Josh Fox’s Oscar-nominated 2010 Gasland was to fracking. It appears to be a classic case of environmental injustice, wherein people of color and the poor are singled out to bear the brunt of well-funded, string-pulling corporations and businesses.

photo of Pastor BouiePhoto by Nicolaus Czarnecki/Company TownPastor David Bouie has taken on the Georgia-Pacific paper and chemical plant in Cossett, AL, which he believes is responsible for "door-to-door cancer" in the community.

Company Town is co-directed, co-written, and co-produced by two women filmmakers, Natalie Kottke-Masocco and Erica Sardarian. The “company” of the nonfiction film’s title is that bête noire of the American Left: Koch Industries, the nation’s second largest privately held firm, worth $115 billion per year and headed by heirs Charles and David Koch, who are widely perceived as the Bond super-villains of the one percent, the billionaires’ Blofelds. In this David and Goliath saga, Charles and David Koch are portrayed as the Goliath trying to crush small town USA.

The Koch Brothers own the Georgia-Pacific paper and chemical plant, which produces Angel Soft and Quilted Northern toilet paper, Brawny paper towels, and Dixie paper cups. The factory is located in the documentary’s “town”: Crossett, Arkansas, a hamlet of only 5,500 residents — many of them Black (some 42 percent, according to the 2010 census) and working class. According to local activists, such as David Bouie, an African-American pastor who features heavily in the documentary, Crossett suffers from “door-to-door cancer,” as Bouie puts it, with skyrocketing cancer rates purportedly due to the Kochs’ factory’s spewing of toxicity.

Georgia-Pacific is the township’s main employer and Company Town contends that due to the tremendous influence the plant’s owners wield, government rules and regulations are flouted — hence the film’s title, as Crossett appears to be owned lock, stock, and barrel by the Kochs, who have the town’s residents over a barrel. Bouie, who worked at the factory for 10 years, contends that 11 out of the 15 homes on Penn Road, where he lives, have been stricken by cancer. Like Preacher Casey, the clergyman turned union organizer in John Steinbeck’s classic 1939 novel The Grapes of Wrath, Pastor Bouie …more

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One of World’s Largest Marine Protected Areas Created Off Easter Island Coast

Rapa Nui park will protect 142 endemic species, 27 threatened with extinction

One of the world’s largest marine protection areas has been created off the coast of Easter Island.

The 740,000-square-kilometer Rapa Nui marine park is roughly the size of the Chilean mainland and will protect at least 142 endemic marine species, including 27 threatened with extinction.

photo of Easter Island fishPhoto by Eduardo Sorensen/The Pew Charitable TrustThe new marine protected area off the coast of Easter Island is home to at least 142 endemic marine species.

An astonishing 77 percent of the Pacific Ocean’s fish abundance occurs here and recent expeditions discovered several new species previously unknown to science.

Apex predators found in the conservation zone include scalloped hammerhead sharks, minke, humpback and blue whales, and four species of sea turtle.

Matt Rand, the director of the Pew Bertarelli ocean legacy project, which campaigned for the park, said: “This marine reserve will have a huge global significance for the conservation of oceans and of indigenous people’s ways of life.

“The Rapa Nui have long suffered from the loss of timber, declining ecosystems and declining populations. Now they are experiencing a resurgence based on ensuring the health of the oceans.”

Plans for the marine park were first announced at a conference in 2015, at which the former US president Barack Obama declared his “special love for the ocean” in a video message.

The plans were confirmed in a speech by Chilean president Michelle Bachelet on Saturday.

The marine park’s creation was enabled by a 73 percent vote in favor of the conservation zone from Easter Island’s 3,000 Rapa Nui population in a referendum on September 3, after five years of consultations.

Extractive industries and industrial fishing will be banned inside the reserve, but the Rapa Nui will be allowed to continue their traditional artisanal fishing on small boats, using hand lines with rocks for weights.

Ludovic Burns Tuki, the director of the Mesa del mar coalition of more than 20 Rapa Nui groups, said: “This is a historic moment — a great and beautiful moment for the Rapa Nui, for the world and for our oceans.

“We think this process can be an example for the creation of other marine reserves that we need to protect our oceans — with a respect for the human dimension.”

After the creation of a comparable marine protection area around the nearby Pitcairn Islands last year, proposals for …more

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Tap Water Across the Globe Contains Plastic, Study Shows

Eighty-three percent of water samples worldwide tested positive for microscopic fibers

Tiny plastic fibers or “microfibers” have been found in the far corners of the world — in the oceans, in remote lakes and rivers, in fish, salt, and honey, and in the air we breathe. But until now one research area — our drinking water — remained unexamined.

According to new research published this week by Orb Media, tap water and plastic bottled water in cities on five continents is contaminated with microscopic plastic fibers. Scientists say they don’t know how these fibers reach household taps, or what their health risks might be, but experts suspect plastic fibers may transfer toxic chemicals when consumed by animals and humans.

photo of tap waterPhoto by Steve JohnsonAccording to new research, water around the world is contaminated with microscopic plastic fibers.

"The contamination defies geography: The number of fibers found in a sample of tap water from the Trump Grill, at Trump Tower in Manhattan, was equal to that found in samples from Beirut," reads the Orb report. Orb also found microfibers in bottled water, and in homes that use reverse-osmosis filters. Eighty-three percent of samples worldwide tested positive for microscopic plastic fibers.

“This is frightening information. It’s time for all of us to wake up,” Plastic Pollution Coalition co-founder and CEO Dianna Cohen said of the new research. “Microfibers are insidious. If we’re finding them in everything around us, the obvious solution is to go to the source, to refocus our energy, and to move away from toxic plastics.”

What does the new report mean for our drinking water? Jane Patton, managing director of PPC, which is a project of Earth Island Institute, advised contacting officials to make your voice heard. “We believe access to clean water is a human right. Make sure your city government knows that you expect them to keep your drinking water safe. Stand up and say ‘I rely on this resource.’ Remember that we have a structure in place to influence the cleanliness of our tap water and that is not the case with the plastic bottled water industry.”

The news about plastic microfibers in our drinking water comes on the heels of study by Plastic Soup Foundation(PSF) published in May 2017, reporting the presence of  microfibers in plankton, farmed and in wild mussels, sea salt, and even honey.

According to PSF, microfibers can enter our water supply through machine washing synthetic clothing such as fleece, polyester, and …more

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Texas Prisoners Describe Nightmarish Conditions, Exposure to Floodwaters Following Harvey

Superstorm takes toll on prison populations living in shadow of state's fossil fuel industry

graphic depicting a prison

A set of emails obtained by Truthout and Earth Island Journal describe nightmarish conditions inside the federal prison complex in Beaumont, Texas, after flooding last week cut off power — including air-conditioning — and the water supply. The emails were sent via Corrlinks, an email system used by federal prisoners.

The emails reveal morbid conditions endured by prisoners living under lockdown after Hurricane Harvey, then downgraded to a tropical depression, dropped 35 inches of rain on the area. Truthout redacted identifying information due to the danger of retaliation by prison officials. Since the storm, the prisoners have been limited to five emails and five short phone calls per person for the month.

Multiple prisoners and their relatives detailed how the lack of running water caused some men to defecate in bags, and others to drink contaminated toilet water. Many say they have seen men lose consciousness in the units, succumbing to the extreme heat and putrid fumes wafting through the cellblocks from bags of excrement, non-flushable Porta-Potties and backed-up toilets, as well as the stench of the men's unwashed bodies after having not showered in more than 10 days. According to their messages, they have also been in need of clean laundry.

Prisoners described receiving only two bottles of water a day as temperatures reached close to 100 degrees, and said that prison officials have been turning the water on once a day to flush toilets, while warning the men not to drink the visibly contaminated water.

photo of Texas PrisonPhoto by Texas Department of Corrections An evacuated prison in the flood zone during Hurricane Harvey on August 28, 2017.

"WE ARE LIVING IN DEPLORABLE CONDITIONS IN OUR CELLS WITH TWO BOTTLES OF WATER QA DAY NO TOILET OUR OUR SHIT IS GAGGIN US AND WE HAVE NO VENTILLATION BUT WE ARE ALIVE BARELY," wrote one prisoner via email in a desperate plea for help.

Others said they had gone without a hot meal after Harvey made its second landfall over Beaumont, receiving only peanut butter and jelly, and bologna sandwiches twice a day. Further, the men told their relatives they have been in desperate need of medical care, describing prisoners with staph infections, rashes and heat-related illnesses going untreated.

Prisoners at the medium-security unit updated their relatives Thursday, however, that they had finally gotten showers, and some said they received their first hot meal.

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