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Guns, Farms, and Oil: How Colombian Tribes are Being Driven to Extinction

At least 1,800 Indigenous people have been killed and 84,000 more displaced in Colombia in the past 10 years

The tin-roofed, off-the-grid clinic at Chuscal – deep within the U’wa tribe’s reserve in the mountains of northeast Colombia – is packed with patients on a stormy afternoon. There aren’t enough chairs to go around, and some of the sick are sprawled out on the cracked floor tiles. Most of them are without shoes. Many waiting to see the doctor are young U’wa children, here to be treated for malnutrition, their bellies swollen taut with hunger. Other common maladies include tuberculosis, dysentery and leishmaniasis, a parasite spread by sandflies which enters through the skin to attack internal organs. Several families will sleep in the Chuscal clinic tonight when it closes, because they’ve lost their homes to the civil war violence that rages through this remote region, and have nowhere else to go. 

photo of a womanphoto by Jeremy KrytAn U’wa mother waits to see a doctor in the reserve’s lone, tiny clinic at Chuscal. Due to lack of funding, basic health care is hard to come by, especially in far-flung parts of the reserve.
Click or tap this photo for a slideshow of images from Colombia.

“We’re short of everything,” says Eusebio Carceres, the head nurse at the tribe’s lone healthcare outpost. “Antibiotics, vaccines, lab equipment – we’re even short of clean drinking water,” he says, as thunder shakes the flimsy roof, “because the oil spills have poisoned so many sources around here.”

The U’wa are one of Colombia’s most iconic, high-profile tribes, famous for their decades-long struggle to prevent Big Oil from drilling in or around their reserve. Hollywood celebrities like James Cameron have publicly endorsed their cause, but fossil-fuel extraction efforts continue to pose an Avatar-esque quandary for the U’wa. Despite years of tribal protests, Texas-based Occidental Petroleum (Oxy) still runs the Caño-Limon pipeline through their reserve, and Oxy’s local partner operates a pair of gas wells on land the U’wa say is part of their ancestral territory. A recent surge in bombing attacks by insurgents – with the most recent blast coming on November 27 – is the latest crisis to engulf the tribe’s cloud-forested homeland. Bombs made from farm chemicals and detonated by cell phone have repeatedly ruptured the Caño-Limon over the last year, causing oil spills that foul delicate riverine ecosystems, tainting the watersheds that support local communities. The U’wa say several …more

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Chimpanzees in the Shadow of a Lion-Shaped Mountain

Human-chimpanzee conflicts threaten the survival of our closest living relative in Sierra Leone

In a small village in central Sierra Leone, an elderly woman I know as “Granny” sits in front of a thatched roof hut and hums while weaving a grass mat. She is surrounded by a cultivated garden of mangos, bananas, and pineapples. The mangoes are ripe and ready to pick. The bananas and pineapples will follow soon after. Beyond this garden is a thick wall of forest.

 Tacugama Chimpanzee SanctuaryPhoto by bobthemagicdragon, on Flickr A chimpanzee at the Tacugama Chimpanzee Sanctuary in Sierra Leone. The majority of chimpanzees in Sierra Leone live outside of protected areas.

Granny's singing is suddenly interrupted. Something is moving in the forest. She puts her weaving down, stands up, and stares into the trees. The movement has stopped and the forest is still. Granny sits back down and resumes her weaving. This time, however, silently.

Granny lives in a village that I encountered on my first trip to Sierra Leone. I was there to study how chimpanzee calls are affected by the specific acoustics of each habitat. While looking for chimpanzees in a riverine forest, my team and I stumbled upon a clearing with several nests visible from the road. We drove to the nearest village, called Maroki, and were met by the chief. When we asked if there were chimpanzees in the area, he excitedly reported that they had “many chimpanzees.” In fact, he said, beaming, they had just killed two a few days ago! At this, we decided to stay in the village. Over the next few weeks we explored, searched for chimpanzees, and got to know the villagers.

Now, years later, as I stand just a few meters away, Granny weaves in the garden and the movement in the forest returns. Three large male chimpanzees emerge and enter the garden so silently that Granny doesn't hear them. They walk slowly, in a single-file line, and move closer to her. These chimpanzees are part of a group that occupies a forest fragment beside the village. The group has a population density that is unusually high for chimpanzees. The results of an early census, which we conducted soon after our arrival, revealed a density of two chimpanzees per square kilometer. Limited food resources in the forest fragment points to a population that is not sustainable in this habitat. They do …more

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Activism Through Art

Laney College EcoArt class inspires students to express environmental concerns through artwork

 “Were we supposed to pick her up?” asked Sharon Siskin, EcoArt Matters teacher at Laney College, wondering whether she was supposed to drive a student to class. “Let’s just see if she’s waiting on the bench where she was last week.” Giving rides to students may seem odd for a college instructor. So does providing communal lunches, which are typically vegetarian, organic, and GMO free. But in EcoArt, these perks are not just part of the norm, they are part of a strategy.

 After the Harvest Photo by Sharon Siskin EcoArt Matters aims to bring creative attention to urgent environmental and social issues. Pictured above is student Liz Dunlap’s piece on earth’s natural processes.

When Andrée Singer Thompson created EcoArt Matters in 2005, her goal was to develop a class to train passionate and skilled artists to express environmental concerns in their work. The loud and quirky course Thompson created “to bring creative attention to urgent environmental and social justice issues,” stands opposite compulsory environmental studies education, which is more concerned with facts and processes. And her plan to activate and inspire students seems to be working.

Thompson and Siskin, who now co-teach the class, recognize that students who are oriented towards success in school and arrive at class on time are not always the same students who are most aligned with the course’s ecological teachings. So on this Tuesday morning in November it was vital that they seek out the student in question, fearful she wouldn’t show up to class without a ride. She wasn’t on the bench.

What is EcoArt?

Thompson, a long-time artist and teacher, was inspired to start EcoArt after teaching ceramics at an upstate New York camp for inner city girls. She found that many of the campers suffered from “nature deficit disorder,” and began to merge her art class with ecosystem literacy. They made clay planters with red dirt inside (or as she told the campers, “worm poop!”) and decorated them with symbols. “I was so excited and they were so happy and excited by this program, that I developed it for college,” she said.  Thompson works under the premise that artists are practiced in “thinking sideways,” a saying from Václav Havel, the Czech President and visionary of the Velvet Revolution in 1989, who is an inspiration to Thompson’s teachings.

The …more

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An Ode to Activism: The People Vs. the Pipeline

In Review: Above All Else

Former stuntman and circus high-wire artist David Daniel is the central character of writer/director John Fiege’s gripping film, Above All Else. This must-see documentary is literally a David versus Goliath, Daniel in the lions’ den drama of Biblical proportions that pits the ex-gymnast, fellow landowners, and environmentalists against TransCanada’s ruthless drive to construct a 1,700-mile pipeline from the Alberta Tar Sands to the Gulf of Mexico. The film portrays how the foreign transportation firm relentlessly buzzsaws, bamboozles, and bulldozes its way across America, using the law of eminent domain to fell trees and dispossess US citizens like Daniel of their private property.

photo of people on high trees in a forest, holding a sign with words, you shall not passphoto courtesy of Immigrant Workers FilmThe film is at its most dynamic when depicting the protesters like latter-day Robin Hoods and the Merry Men (and women!) in Sherwood Forest, fighting the good fight against the evil oily sheriffs of Nottingham.

Fiege’s film, shot largely with HD cameras, presents an insider activist’s view of the struggle against the Keystone XL oil pipeline, from the hinterlands of East Texas to the White House to Alberta. As allies rally to the anti-pipeline campaign, Above All Else takes viewers deep inside the movement. Like the Civil Rights feature Selma – wherein Martin Luther King is depicted as a master strategist deploying nonviolent civil disobedience tactics to end American apartheid and pressure Pres. Johnson to support the Voting Rights Act – Above All Else is a visual “how to,” demonstrating direct action techniques. It follows eco-warriors who, eschewing reliance on social media and virtual resistance, take to the streets in Washington and to the trees in Texas in order to block TransCanada and its hirelings – from surveyors to construction workers to sheriffs, and even “Keystone Kops,” pipeline security personnel posing as law enforcement officers.

Two veteran tree-occupiers – Julia Butterfly Hill (briefly seen in clips) and actress Daryl Hannah – are executive producer of this documentary. The filmpremiered at the 2014 SXSW Film Festival, with an international premiere at Hot Docs in Toronto. It won Best North American Documentary at the Global Visions Festival and a Special Jury Prize at the Dallas International Film Festival. 

Fiege shows us how, using a variety of tactics – from the courthouse to street demos to …more

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The Keystone XL Pipeline Debate is Right Where We Want It

The fight against the pipeline has energized the environmental movement

Back in August 2011, during the first few days of sit-ins at the White House against the Keystone XL pipeline, the press basically ignored us. I’d call around to all the national outlets and wires and mostly get the question “What’s Keystone XL?” or  “Isn’t that out in Nebraska somewhere?” While the pipeline had been simmering as a regional fight for a while, it was all but unknown inside the beltway.

Reject and Protect sign at Keystone XL protest in DCPhoto by Victoria PickeringMany of the students who participted in Keystone protests in Washington DC, are now leading fossil fuel divestment campaigns on their college campuses.

How times have changed. On Tuesday afternoon, my Twitter feed exploded with posts from news outlets and correspondents reporting that White House press secretary Josh Earnest had said that President Obama would veto any Senate legislation that attempted to automatically approve Keystone XL. Just six days into 2015, and the pipeline was already back in the headlines, right where we wanted it.

Over the last five years, thanks to the activism of millions across the country, Keystone XL has emerged as the highest profile environmental fight in a generation. From the very start, most pundits and DC commentators said it was a fight we were going to lose. Back in the fall of 2011, not long after our first sit-ins, the National Journal did a poll of its “Energy Insiders.” Ninety two percent of them said that President Obama would approve the project, 72 percent thought it would happen within the year. I can’t count the number of columns saying that Keystone was the wrong fight, a waste of time, or a distraction from more important issues.

They couldn’t have been more wrong. Five years later, the pipeline remains unbuilt and the campaign against Keystone XL has helped galvanize the climate movement. Keystone hasn’t distracted people from other issues, like the new EPA regulations or fracking, it’s energized them to get more deeply engaged. The students who sat-in against Keystone at XL Dissent in Washington DC last March are many of the same activists who are now leading fossil fuel divestment campaigns on campus. Local organizers who traveled to DC for major pipeline protests are now at work back at home stopping local dirty energy projects and promoting sustainable alternatives.

There couldn’t be …more

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US Companies Importing Dirty Gold from Illegal Mining Operations in Peru

Despite government crackdown, new mines are cropping up, devastating virgin forests in the Peruvian Amazon

Correction/clarification: This story has been modified since its original posting. Kaloti Metals is not “a branch” of the Dubai-based Kaloti Precious Metals, as we originally reported; it is an independent, US-registered corporation that has a close partnership with its parent company in Dubai. We regret the error. As originally reported, Kaloti Metals did not respond to an initial request for comment. Kaloti Metals insists it does not import gold from Madre de Dios, and the story now includes a statement from the company.

Over the past two years, the Peruvian government has been cracking down on informal mining operations and illicit gold exports in an effort to end the environmental and social abuses related to illegal gold mining. Security forces have been raiding illegal mining camps, destroying equipment, and monitoring gold trading companies involved in buying and selling contraband gold. Yet recent reports show that these efforts have failed to curb the proliferation of new, unauthorized mines in the South American nation’s rural hinterlands. Not just that, a big chunk of this dirty gold is making its way into the United States.

river turned yellow from gold mining pollutionPhoto by Paula Dupraz-DobiasPollulted waters in Hueypetue in the Madre de Dios region, where at least 50,000 hectares of rainforest have been destroyed by illegal gold mining.

In the southeastern Madre de Dios region, known to be one of the most bio-diverse areas on Earth, illegal mining operations continue to move deeper and deeper into virgin forests, where acres upon acres of trees are being cut down and mercury is being dumped into subsoils and rivers, exposing humans and the environment to irreversible damage.

“There has been a flurry of small [scale] gold miners, who have been dispersed, and are working independently. On the map, they look like thousands of independent miners,” says Greg Asner, who has been working with Peru’s environment ministry to aerially map the rainforests from the Carnegie Airborne Observatory, which has a lab in Lima. “The problem is still there. It’s now more diffused than ever before”.

Asner says that his research has shown that illegal gold mining was destroying the forest at twice the officially acknowledged rate. According to the Carnegie Amazon Mercury Ecosystem Project, gold mining has destroyed some 50,000 hectares in the region and, has released some 30 tons of mercury into nature.

Supply chain deviations

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President Obama Will Veto Keystone XL Pipeline Bill, White House says

Keystone supporters do not have the 67 votes needed to overcome a presidential veto

President Barack Obama would veto a bill aimed at forcing construction of the contentious Keystone XL pipeline, the White House has said, setting up an immediate confrontation with the new Republican-controlled Congress.

The White House, ending weeks of speculation about its response to Republican moves on Keystone, said Obama would veto a bill introduced earlier on Tuesday that aims to take the decision over the pipeline out of his hands.

Pipeline protest in front of White HousePhoto by Steven TuttleIf this bill passes this Congress, the president wouldn’t sign it,” White House press secretary Josh Earnest said today.

“If this bill passes this Congress, the president wouldn’t sign it,” the White House press secretary, Josh Earnest, said.

That position locks the White House on an immediate collision course with the new Congress, after Republicans made it a first order of business to introduce a bill forcing approval of the pipeline.

The bill introduced in the Senate on Tuesday would give immediate approval to a Canadian pipeline project that has been waiting more than six years for a decision from the Obama administration.

The measure has the support of 63 senators – all 54 Republicans as well as some Democrats – enough to override a filibuster in the Senate.

But the Keystone supporters do not have the 67 votes needed to overcome a presidential veto.

Keystone supporters said the bill fast-tracking the Canadian pipeline was critical to keep crude oil moving.

“We need more pipelines to move crude at the lowest cost and in the safest, most environmentally friendly way,” John Hoeven, the North Dakota Republican introducing the bill, told a press conference. “That means pipelines like the Keystone XL are in the vital national interest of our country.”

TransCanada, the Canadian company building the pipeline, said it was encouraged by the moves in Congress. “We look forward to the debate and ultimately a decision by the US administration to build Keystone XL,” the company said in a statement.

Campaigners see the bill as a first shot in a Republican onslaught against the Democratic president’s environmental agenda – from cutting smog to fighting climate change.

“Rather than taking action to support clean energy investments that will spur innovation and create good paying jobs here at home, they have instead chosen to support the Keystone XL pipeline and the false promises …more

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