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Looking to Nature in the Search for Global Soil Solutions

Ray of Hope Prize winners mimic Andean nurse plant to help restore depleted soils

Soil is the unsung-hero of our food system. We depend on it to grow the food we put in our bodies, yet we treat it poorly, compacting it with tractors, depleting it of nutrients, and filling it with chemicals. The Food and Agriculture Organization estimates that globally, 25 percent of soil is degraded. Team BioNurse, a project of the Ceres Regional Center for Fruit and Vegetable Innovation in Chile, has come up with a creative way to help combat this degradation, one that turns to nature for inspiration.

photo of soil and sweet potatoesPhoto by US Department of AgricultureTeam BioNurse's nature inspired design helps address a global problem: soil degradation. 

An interdisciplinary team of seven that includes industrial designers, architects, and agronomists, Team BioNurse has designed a soil restoration mechanism that mimics the Yareta plant, a so-called “nurse” plant found in the harsh environment of the Andes. The resilient Yareta provides shelter for seedlings of other plants, protecting them from the elements and facilitating their establishment in the extreme mountain landscape. In doing so, this hardy plant paves the way for the succession of other, more delicate species. 

Team BioNurse designed a “BioPatch” that works the same way. Made of corn stalks and other biological materials, the BioPatch is planted with seedlings of plants that help restore soil health but which would struggle to grow in degraded soils. It nurtures these seedlings, providing them with the necessary nutrients and microbes to thrive under tough conditions, protecting them from wind and UV radiation, and directing water to their roots. The BioPatch is then placed on degraded agricultural fields, which, as BioNurse Team member Camilia Hernández points out, can also be “very harsh environments.” As the seedlings take root, they help amend the underlying soil.

photoname Photo courtesy of Team BioNurseThe BioPatch mimics the yareta plant, sheltering and nurturing seedlings
so that they can grow in depleted agricultural fields.

After one season, the BioPatch materials biodegrade, and after a year, the underlying soil becomes healthier and more productive. Hernández says the BioPatch also “integrates biodiversity and beauty into the fields.”

For this innovative solution Team BioNurse was awarded the first-ever Ray C. Anderson “Ray of Hope” Prize in the Biomimicry Global Design Challenge, at the Bioneers conference in Marin County, California last weekend. The international competition for nature-inspired solutions to global environmental problems comes with a $100,000 award.

The challenge is hosted by the …more

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Make Room for Youth at the Table

Young folks are thinking outside the box and building a broader, diverse, and thriving environmental movement

There’s a lot wrong in this moment, but what is really right and on time and hope embodied — is that there are a whole lot more people, in a whole lot more spaces, building power. Now, many folks for a long time have been building this power. Sometimes quietly, sometimes not so quietly, but let’s be honest, until recently — we haven’t given it a whole lot of notice or space.

youth at a climate protestPhoto by maisa_nyc/Flickryoung folks are finding more and more ways to reach us — through technology, through their voices, through broader channels to share their perspective.

But lucky for us, people who have been building power aren’t waiting on the rest of us to catch up. Whether it is the thousands of brave frontline Native American activists near the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation in North Dakota have been protesting for months against the construction of the Dakota Access oil pipeline,  or the bold activists of Black Lives Matter who have put their hearts and bodies on the line fighting for the humanity and safety of black lives, or the young people demanding to be heard in the halls of law-making institutions, willing to risk arrest, to ensure that their voices are included in determining their ecological futures—these folks have been at it all along. Building power, building analysis, strategizing, and dreaming of a brighter and more hopeful planet.

I’m happy to say that young folks are finding more and more ways to reach us — through technology, through their voices, through broader channels to share their perspective. We are now opening spaces so that the light can get in. And even when those spaces are not open, thank goodness, they are breaking in the window and coming in anyhow.

I happen to think, that the late David Brower may be both incredibly challenged by, and also incredibly inspired by, the current state of the social change movement today. Particularly, the role of youth in this great broad realm we call the environmental movement.

Challenged, because there’s a lot of discomfort in this present moment. People talk a lot about seemingly disparate issues coming together — silos breaking down. These issues have always been connected, but  many, who had blinkers on for ages, are only now beginning to see the links. Those folks have no choice but to start thinking outside the box.

Anisha Desai hiking with youthPhoto courtesy Bay …more

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Two Years After the Colorado Pulse Flow — An Abundance of Life

Birds, plants, and groundwater continue to benefit from pilot effort to revive the Colorado River delta, says report

Back 2014, an unprecedented transnational experiment attempted to restore, temporarily, the flow of the Colorado River to the Gulf of California. As part of a landmark agreement between the United States and Mexico, the International Boundary Water Commission unleashed an eight-week “pulse flow” of some 105,000 acre feet of water from a small dam on the US-Mexico border to help restore the Colorado River delta.

a women stading amid willowsPhoto by Karl W. Flessa/University of ArizonaMartha Gómez Sapiens, a monitoring team member, stands on a riverbank next to willows and cottonwoods that germinated as result of the pulse flow.

Conservationists hoped the water would revitalize the delta — which has been bone dry for nearly 60 years as a result of upstream dams and diversions on the Colorado — and bring back trees, animals, and aquatic life that were once abundant in the region when it was flush with water. (The transnational agreement authorized environmental flows of water into the Colorado River Delta from 2013 to 2017.)

Two growing seasons after that engineered release, it appears that birds, plants and groundwater in the delta, which lies south of the US-Mexico border, have indeed been benefitting from it.

Native willows and cottonwoods have sprung up wherever the pulse flow inundated bare soil and in response to this post-flood vegetation, birds have begun flocking to the area, according to the latest monitoring report prepared for the International Boundary and Water Commission by a bi-national University of Arizona-led team.

The interim report, released on Wednesday, documents the effects of the environmental flows in the delta from the initial pulse in March 2014 plus subsequent supplemental deliveries of water through December 2015.

"Some of the cottonwoods that germinated during the initial pulse flow are now more than 10 feet tall," Karl W. Flessa, UA professor of geosciences and co-chief scientist of the team that’s monitoring the impact of the pulse, said in a statement.

Migratory waterbirds, nesting waterbirds, and nesting riparian birds have all increased in abundance, the report says. The monitoring team found that the abundance of 19 bird species of conservation concern, including vermillion flycatchers, hooded orioles, and yellow-breasted chats, was 43 percent higher at the restoration sites than at other sites in the floodplain.

a vermillion flycatcherPhoto by Sarah MurrayThe abundance of 19 bird species of conservation concern, including vermillion flycatchers (pictured here), hooded orioles, and yellow-breasted chats, was 43 percent higher at …more

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Riding on the Back of a Whale

A Maori tribe has turned to whales to lead their struggling New Zealand town to a new life of employment and prosperity

In the late 1980s, the New Zealand seaside settlement of Kaikōura was in trouble. The economy was in decline, and many jobs had been lost in industries such as fishing, communications, and the railways. In desperation, Māori leaders decided to stake their future on their ancient protectors of the past — whales.

photo of Whale Watch KaikouraPhoto by Gabe LernerMāori leaders in Kaikōura, New Zealand took a risk when they started a whale watching business almost 30 years ago. Today, their town is a thriving sustainable tourism destination.

The local Ngāti Kurī sub-tribe claims descent from an ancestor called Paikea, who is said to have been saved from the sea and brought to safety on the back of a great whale. Whales had continued to be an important part of the lives of people in Kaikōura, which is one of the few places in the world where sperm whales can be seen close to shore year-round.

Could whales again be Ngāti Kurī’s salvation? “In the wee small hours of the morning, the idea of setting up a whale-watching business started going around the meeting rooms,” says Lisa Bond, of Whale Watch Kaikōura, the business that emerged from the community effort.

Bill Solomon and other Ngāti Kurī elders knew whale-watching was popular overseas and decided to take a gamble on the venture succeeding in New Zealand.

Four Māori families mortgaged their homes to buy an inflatable boat capable of taking up to eight passengers at a time out into the Pacific Ocean to spot whales.

A future for generations to come

“It was a risk, but a risk that our leaders took out of sheer determination to create a future for their families for the generations to come,” says Bond.

That first year, Ngāti Kurī’s small boat took a total of 3000 people whale-watching. Now, almost 30 years later, Whale Watch Kaikōura is a multi-million dollar business carrying just under 100,000 passengers annually on its fleet of specially-designed catamarans.

The business is 100 percent Māori-owned, is the largest employer in town, and has led the transformation of Kaikōura into a thriving visitor destination with an international reputation for sustainable tourism.

A haven for marine life

“Spotting a whale is always a magical and beautiful thing. I never take them for granted, no matter how often I see them,” says Bond, who joined Whale Watch Kaikōura in 1995, at the age of 19. She hadn’t spent much time on the …more

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Why Oil Change International’s Report On Fossil Fuels is Even Better Than You Thought

It sets aside worries about “stranded assets” and recommends “managed decline” of fossil fuel use

The new report from Oil Change International, called The Sky’s Limit: Why the Paris Climate Goals Require a Managed Decline of Fossil Fuel Production, has garnered quite a bit of praise from the greenie press. (See for example, hereherehere and here.) It deserves the praise, and it also deserves a closer reading.

woman protestor standing on the edge of a coal minePhoto by Kristian BuusIn May this young people from Reclaim Power in Wales stopped a open cast coal mine from operating for the day. Oil Change International's report is able to harness the vast power of what some wag somewhere, once called “the first law of holes” — when you’re in one, stop digging.

There are two especially notable comments on the report, Bill McKibben’s Recalculating the Climate Math and George Monbiot’s What Lies Beneath. The first because it very clearly explains why we must immediately stop investing in fossil fuel infrastructure (and it was McKibben who in 2012, with his blockbuster Global Warming’s Terrifying New Math, first drew the political implications of “the carbon budget approach” out into the public discussion). The second because it displays all the virtues of Monbiot’s usual bitter realism, and because it’s marred by a small but instructive overstatement, one to which I will return.

The core argument

In the report’s core, Oil Change International draws out a new and critical implication of the carbon budget approach. It does so by going beyond the now classic Carbon Tracker analysis — the foundation of McKibben’s 2012 article — updating it by focusing not on the entire body of fossil fuel reserves, but on the smaller set, roughly 30 percent of “proven” reserves that have already been “developed.” These include the “oil fields, gas fields, and coal mines that are already in operation or under construction.” By so doing, Oil Change International is able to harness the vast power of what some wag somewhere, once called “the first law of holes” — when you’re in one, stop digging.

Here are the report’s headline conclusions:

* The potential carbon emissions from the oil, gas, and coal in the world’s currently operating fields and mines would take us beyond 2°C of warming.

* The reserves in currently operating oil and gas fields alone, even with no coal, would take the world beyond 1.5°C.

* With the necessary decline in production over the coming decades to meet climate goals, clean energy can be scaled up at a …more

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UN Issues New Protections for Rosewood Trees

Rosewood accounted for 35% of all illegal wildlife and wood trafficking seizures from 2005 to 2014

The UN Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) surprised many on October 4th by extending long-overdue protections for more than 250 species of rosewood, a timber rapidly being harvested to commercial extinction. The move will regulate most internationally traded species of rosewood, helping maintain healthy tropical forest ecosystems, and providing important resources for forest-dependent indigenous and local communities.

photo of stacked woodphoto Wikimedia CommonsIllegally harvested rosewood in Antalaha, Madagascar.

A Much-Needed Protection

The CITES convention, established in 1973, governs the international trade of endangered flora and fauna. It functions principally through two “Appendices.” Appendix I lists species so threatened that no trade is permitted, such as elephants, tigers and rhinos. Appendix II covers species that may be traded under a system of quotas and permits at levels determined not to threaten their survival. Typically, timber species are listed in Appendix II, allowing sustainable, regulated harvest and trade. This was the case with the global rosewood listing at the CITES Convention of the Parties (COP17), a meeting held in Johannesburg earlier this month.

While some countries already have national limits or bans on rosewood, and CITES already lists some rosewood species from particular countries, the global scale and scope of the new ruling is unprecedented.

The move comes not a moment too soon. Richly hued rosewood species have long been prized for luxury furniture and musical instruments, but the explosive growth in Chinese demand for classic-style hongmu furniture over the past decade has brought many rosewood species to the brink of extinction. Traffickers are going deep into the world’s remaining tropical forests in a frenzied search for new species to feed the trade and evade national prohibitions.

Rosewood trafficking is big money: The UN Organization on Drugs and Crime’s recent World Wildlife Crime Report concluded that seizures of illegally harvested rosewood between 2005 and 2014 comprised 35 percent of the value of all wildlife seizures during that period – an amount equal to the value of all seizures of elephant ivory, rhino horn, pangolins, big cats, corals and marine turtles combined. A report on the global status of key rosewood species carried out by Global Eye and submitted to CITES by the Government of Senegal confirmed the dire situation of these vanishing woods.

A Global Approach

The luxury trade’s negative impacts on both forests and the rule of law across the tropics have long been documented by independent researchers, including the Environmental Investigation Agency and Global …more

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Global Deal Reached to Limit Hydrofluorocarbons, Potent Greenhouse Gases

Agreement on HFCs could bring ‘largest temperature reduction ever achieved by single agreement’

A global deal to limit the use of hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs) in the battle to combat climate change is a “monumental step forward”, John Kerry, the US secretary of state, has said.

photo of air conditioning units in Hong KongPhoto by Niall Kennedy/a>Air conditioning units mounted on a Hong Kong building. HFC use has soared in the past decade as  rapidly growing countries have widely adopted air conditioning in their homes, offices, and cars.

The agreement, announced on Saturday morning after all-night negotiations in Kigali, Rwanda, caps and reduces the use of HFCs — a key contributor to greenhouse gases — in a gradual process beginning in 2019, with action by developed countries including the US, the world’s second worst polluter.

More than 100 developing countries, including China, the world’s top carbon dioxide emitter, will start taking action in 2024, sparking concern from some groups that the action would be implemented too slowly to make a difference. A small group of countries, including India, Pakistan and some Gulf states, also pushed for and secured a later start in 2028, saying their economies need more time to grow. That is three years earlier than India, the world’s third worst polluter, had first proposed.

Worldwide use of HFCs has soared in the past decade as rapidly growing countries like China and India have widely adopted air conditioning in homes, offices and cars. But HFC gases are thousands of times more destructive to the climate than carbon dioxide, and scientists say their growing use threatens to undermine the Paris accord by 195 countries, an agreement last year to reduce climate emissions.

President Barack Obama praised the deal on Saturday morning, calling the agreement “an ambitious and far reaching solution” to a “rapidly growing threat to the health of our planet.”

“In addition to today’s amendment, countries last week crossed the threshold for the Paris Agreement to enter into force and reached a deal to constrain international aviation emissions,” he said in a statement. “Together, these steps show that, while diplomacy is never easy, we can work together to leave our children a planet that is safer, more prosperous, more secure, and more free than the one that was left for us.”

Kerry said on Saturday: “It’s a monumental step forward that addresses the needs of individual nations but it will give us the opportunity to reduce the warming of the planet by an entire half a degree centigrade. Agreeing a …more

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