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In Putin’s Russia, Environmentalists Face Stiff Repression

Russians working to protect the unique Altai ecosystem forced to register as “foreign agents”

Russian aggression in Ukraine during the past year has made many Westerners anxious about Vladimir Putin’s territorial ambitions and his penchant for saber-rattling. While the warfare in Ukraine — along with the Putin government’s crackdown on dissidents like Pussy Riot and its hostility toward gays and lesbians — has received a good deal of attention in the international media, the Russian government’s wholesale repression of civil society organizations, human rights groups, and Indigenous advocates is less well known. Environmentalists have also been targeted by the authoritarian Putin regime. Today in Putin’s Russia, it’s considered almost treasonous to speak out for environmental protection.

Photo of Altai Republic, RussiaPhoto by Serge Bystro, on Flickr Russia’s Foreign Agents law has been used to quash civic engagement

One of the more potent — and insidious — tools of government repression is something called the law “On Foreign Agents,” which went into effect in 2012. This law was nominally established to require Russian non-governmental organizations receiving foreign funding and engaged in “political activity” (only vaguely defined) to register as “foreign agents.” But the mere use of the term “foreign agent” threatens political freedom. In Russian language and history, the term is synonymous with being a treasonous spy; the label alone discredits important work being undertaken by defenders of human, environmental, and Indigenous rights. In Russia’s state-controlled news media, poisonous rhetoric and slurs fill not only the comment sections of articles, but the articles themselves, making it challenging for important topics like environmental justice and human rights to be discussed productively. 

I personally have witnessed how this law has been used to quash civic engagement. I’m the director of The Altai Project, an Earth Island Institute-sponsored project that supports the work of environmental justice and conservation groups in Altai Republic, on Russia’s frontier with China, Mongolia, and Kazakhstan. Since the late 1990s, we have supported successful advocacy against ill-conceived hydroelectric dams, a gas pipeline, and development threats to protected areas and sacred sites, while at the same time promoting renewable energy, sustainable tourism, and thriving Indigenous communities.

In just the last six months, I have seen how Russian authorities have wielded the Foreign Agent Law to target the strongest defenders of Altai’s environment — perhaps as a measure of those groups’ prior successes.

On February 12, the Siberian Environmental Center, a …more

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US Supreme Court Strikes Down EPA Limits on Mercury Pollution

Decision is a setback for Obama administration and Environmental Protection Agency

By Suzanne Goldenberg and Raya Jalabi

The US Supreme Court struck down new rules for America’s biggest air polluters on Monday, dealing a blow to the Obama administration’s efforts to set limits on the amount of mercury, arsenic and other toxins coal-fired power plants can spew into the air, lakes and rivers.

Photo of coal-fired power plantPhoto by Cathy, on Flickr The US supreme court struck down new rules for America’s biggest air polluters on Monday.

The 5-4 decision was a major setback to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), and could leave the agency more vulnerable to legal challenges from industry and Republican-led states to its new carbon pollution rules.

It was also a blow to years of local efforts to clean up dangerous air pollution.

The justices embraced the arguments from industry and 21 Republican-led states that the EPA rules were prohibitively expensive and amounted to government overreach.

The decision, written by Justice Antonin Scalia, ruled that the EPA did not reasonably consider the cost factor when drafting regulation.

The Clean Air Act had directed the EPA to create regulations for power plants that were “appropriate and necessary.” The agency did not consider cost when making its decision, the court ruled, but estimated that the cost of its regulation to power plants would be $9.6 billion a year.

Scalia was joined by the conservative members of the bench. The dissent, written by Elena Kagan, was supported by Ginsburg, Breyer and Sotomayor.

The landmark decision closes a chapter on a two-decade-long effort to force stricter emissions standards for coal-fired power plants.

The regulation, adopted in 2012, would have affected about 600 coal-fired power plants across the country — many of which are concentrated in the midwest and the south.

It was already going into effect across the country. But Republican governors and power companies challenged the EPA’s authority, saying the agency had mishandled estimates of the cost of the new rules.

The EPA and campaigners have argued that the public health costs posed by the toxic air pollutants outweighed those to utility companies forced to fit new control equipment.

 

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Twenty Years of Resistance Come to a Climax in Intag, Ecuador as Community Groups Fight Copper Mine

Anti-mining activists face challenges as they take on state-planned project

"We have always defended our land peacefully, not once turning to violence. Regardless, the government stationed over two hundred federal police throughout our community to maintain order when the mining officials came to conduct their 'Environmental Impact Assessment.' The assessment took only one week, but dozens of police still occupy our village," Marcia Ramírez, a community activist in Intag, Ecuador, told us, referring to an assessment of a proposed copper mine in the area. The forest enveloping our lodge filled the cool night air with the humming of insects and voices of frogs as Ramírez paused to reposition her nursing baby. Moths of countless colors, shapes, and sizes fluttered around the bulb dimly lighting the porch where I sat listening in a group of about a dozen other Americans.

Photo of Intag, Ecuador Photo by pato chavez, on Flickr Beneath Intag’s forests and farms lie an estimated 2.26 million tons of copper.

She continued, "Our community is not united as it used to be. The government has divided the people by promising prosperity and paying off those who come out in favor of the planned mine. Families get lots of money from the government for providing room and board to the police — several families are almost competing to host them. We are simple campesinos, making it easy for the authorities to trick us into thinking that we are a foolish and uneducated people, that it is the officials in Quito who know what is best for us. The police have penetrated deep into our community — some are even flaunting their power and sophistication to seduce our local girls."

I was in Intag listening to Marcia's story as part of The Intag Project, an interdisciplinary group of students and faculty at Cornell University and Ithaca College. The project was initiated two years ago by a Cornell undergraduate from Intag to connect American students with key community-based organizations that are fighting mining in the region and working for sustainable alternative. The idea is that many of these organizations in Ecuador are lacking in the technological and institutional resources that US college students take for granted, and that US college students can reciprocally benefit through the rare learning opportunity to engage directly with organizations addressing real-world environmental and social problems.

After months of preparation, on the second day of January our bus …more

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The Lush Life of Our “Harsh,” “Inhospitable” Deserts

Often simplified in books and movies, deserts have much to offer

If you’ve seen Lawrence of Arabia, you cannot forget a sun-smacked Peter O’Toole dressed in an Arab robe and headdress as Omar Sharif on his camel appears myth-like out of the endless horizon. (If you’ve not seen the film, do.) That is the desert for many; the sort of sweep of landscape John Wayne surveys as he and the soldiers, bugling, come around the headland chasing hapless never-to-win Indians. These are the parched “wastes” you cross as quickly as possible on your way somewhere else. These are the harsh “wilderness” areas into which our prophets retreated to hear the voice of their gods.

Photo of MojavePhoto by James Marvin Phelps, on Flickr Valley of Fires State Park in Nevada, CA, located in the Mojave Desert.

Despite these simplified portrayals, our deserts and those around the world are so much more. Here, landscapes are endless yet intimate, seeming inhospitable yet home for many creatures phenomenally well adapted to their niche. Home, too, for desert-loving people. One was Mary Austin, whose classic The Land of Little Rain evokes her life in the Mojave.

“Some wonder how so many people came to settle in lonely desert landscapes, what they do there, and why they stay,” she wrote. “But these questions quickly vanish for anyone who has lived in the desert. None other than brown land lays such a hold on the affections. The rainbow hills, the tender bluish mists, and the luminous radiance of the spring have the lotus charm. They trick the sense of time, so that once in having there you always mean to go away without quite realizing that you have not done it.”

Deserts hold secrets not easily pried loose, but patience rewards our curiosity with knowledge. Take Joseph Wood Krutch, a New York theatre critic who moved to then-small Tucson in 1952 and came to admire the frugal kangaroo rat, Dipodomys merriami, the mouse that never drinks. For a time he kept one in a glass case, naming him Dipo. [“H]e is the most triumphant possible example of adaptation to the most characteristic desert difficulty, the lack of water,” he wrote. “It is not that that he can get along without water He will not take it if it is offered to him … no economy can explain a complete getting along without. Dipo’s secret is simply—if you …more

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A Record Year for Sea Lion Pup Strandings

Since January, more than 3,000 starving pups have washed up on California beaches

The little orphaned sea lion pup struggled to climb into the kayak. Tuckered out, cold, shivering and very hungry, the roughly seven-month-old pinniped was on its own, abandoned by its beleaguered mother, no doubt starving herself.

Eventually the sea lion pup managed to climb into my friend’s boat and ultimately into his lap to seek some much needed warmth and rest. The pup stayed with us for over two hours on the water until we landed in a crescent moon-shaped cove on the southeast end of Santa Cruz Island. Reluctantly, the young sea lion flopped out of the kayak and stumbled onto the cobbled beach before finding a warm patch of sand to haul out on.

close up photo of a sea lionall photos by Chuck GrahamClick or tap this photo to view more in a photo-essay

This has been a record year for stranded sea lion pups on the Southern California coastline. In February 2015, 850 sea lion pups were rescued from mainland beaches in California. In March, 1,050 pups were retrieved, and in April and May, a combined total of 1,090 pups were found. So far this year, more than 3,000 sea lion pups have been stranded on beaches in southern and central California, more than the total number of strandings from 2004 through 2012. These numbers do not include the number of sea lions that have died.

Some of these pups are lucky. They are spotted by beach-goers who contact the Marine Mammal Rescue Center, a nonprofit dedicated to rescuing and rehabilitating ill and injured marine mammals, or other wildlife centers for assistance. From there, the pups are retrieved by volunteers, rehabilitated if possible, and eventually released in the open ocean. Unfortunately, scores of other starving pups go undiscovered on inaccessible portions of the coast or on any of California’s eight windswept Channel Islands.

Researchers believe the mass strandings are related to warmer-than-average water temperatures. Over the past year, warm currents in Southern California have wreaked havoc on cold upwelling systems that generate nutrient rich waters. Portions of the food web like squid and baitfish have been forced to retreat to deeper, colder waters, making things tough on female sea lions and their hungry 6- to 8- month-old pups.

photo of people administering care to a sea lion pupmore

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Americans Are Paying Attention to Food Waste, But Still Throw Away More Food Than They Think

New survey finds nearly three-fourths of Americans believe they toss less food than the average consumer

We all throw away food. In fact, in the United States, an estimated 40 percent of all food is trashed as it makes it way from farm to table, or more aptly, as it doesn’t. But how aware are we of our own waste? And what motivates us to rethink our shopping habits or reconsider that wilting lettuce in the back of the fridge?

Photo of Food Waste Photo by Stephen Rees, on Flickr Nearly three-quarters of the 1,010 survey respondents said they waste less food than the average American.

Those are the questions a team of researchers at Johns Hopkins University set out to answer in the first national consumer food waste survey conducted in the United States. The results were published this month in PLOS ONE. It turns out that a lot of us are giving ourselves more credit than we probably deserve. In fact, nearly three-quarters of the 1,010 survey respondents said they waste less food than the average American. What is more, 13 percent of respondents indicated that they don’t discard any food and 56 percent estimated that they discard only 10 percent of their food, though the estimated average food waste for consumers is around 25 percent.

Researchers also looked at consumer motivations for reducing food waste, including considerations like saving money, setting an example for children, guilt about waste, thinking about those who are hungry, and environmental concerns. Perhaps expectedly, saving money came first. Among parents, setting a good example for children. Concern about the environmental — including greenhouse gas emissions, water use, and energy associated with food waste — was ranked last by respondents.

“From an environmental perspective, one thing that was very striking was that we asked people what is their top motivation for reducing waste, and environmental issues came out dead last on that list,” says Roni Neff, assistant professor at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health and one of the authors of the article. Neff noted that this outcome could mean one of two things: people just aren’t that aware of the environmental footprint of their food, or environmental impacts aren’t a big motivator for those considering food waste.

JoAnne Berkenkamp, senior advocate for the food and agriculture program at the Natural Resources Defense Council, wasn’t quite as surprised. “[F]or most of us, we go to the …more

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Tea Industry Boosts Forest Cover in Kenya, But Will Trees Remain Standing?

Tea processing factories in Kenya have pledged to plant at least 10 million indigenous and exotic trees every year to increase forest cover as well as supply wood to power operations

Tea processing factories in Kenya are implementing a conservation program that will see them scale up the area of land under forest cover while at the same time sustainably using exotic trees, especially eucalyptus, to generate power for their operations.

Photo of Cassava in Danforth GreenhousePhoto by hobokenvie Kenya’s tea industry has pledged to plant at least 10 million indigenous and exotic trees every year.

The Kenya Tea Development Agency (KTDA), which manages the 65 tea processing factories in Kenya, says it has partnered with communities in tea growing areas, including 560,000 small-scale tea growers, to expand the area covered by indigenous and exotic trees. The exotic trees are increasingly used to generate heat for steam boilers, as the factories seek to reduce their reliance on expensive and unreliable grid-connected electricity and switch from petroleum-based fuels.

Going forward, KTDA, in partnership with the factories and tea farmers, will plant at least 10 million indigenous and exotic trees each year both to conserve the environment and ensure adequate wood fuel supply to power tea processing factories. “The key pillar of KTDA is environmental sustainability, which we want to pursue by ensuring at least 560,000 small-scale tea growers conserve the environment,” said the agency’s CEO Lerionka Tiampati.

KTDA has acquired 13,800 acres of land from the state and individuals for the planting of trees to meet the factories’ wood fuel needs, with Tiampati saying there is potential to increase the acreage to 40,300 acres. Under the program, the tea factories will develop tree nurseries and supply tea farmers with seedlings for planting in their farms to complement those grown on the KTDA acquired land. An estimated 157,720 hectares are under tea cultivation in Kenya.

“The wood fuel program is going hand-in-hand with our environmental conservation program,” says Tiampati. “The factories propagate both exotic and indigenous tree seedlings and issue them to the farmers to plant in their farms.”

Between 2009 and 2014, the agency supplied communities in tea growing areas with an estimated 20.4 million seedlings for planting, which is equivalent to 4.7 million cubic meters of expected firewood. “The factories are acquiring their own land to plant trees, both to meet their wood fuel needs as well as for conservation,” he says.

The factories, which use the crush, tear, and curl processing method, will utilize exotic trees for wood fuel. …more

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