Local News from All Over : Autumn 2014

The Big Wide Open

Victory in Chile

Environmentalists in Chile scored a major victory in June when Chile’s Committee of Ministers (the country’s cabinet) unanimously agreed to cancel a plan to dam two major rivers in the still-wild Patagonia region.

photo of demonstrators at a bridge on a river in the mountainsphoto International RiversResponding to years of grassroots campaigning, the Chilean government has scrapped plans for five dams in Patagonia

Grassroots environmental groups in Chile, joined by allies from around the world, fought for eight years to stop the construction of five dams on two of Patagonia’s wildest rivers, the Baker and the Pascua. Rallies in the south of the country eventually led to marches in the capital, Santiago, until the controversial dams became a major issue in the country’s 2013 general election. During her campaign, President Michelle Bachelet promised to stop the dams if elected, and in the end she fulfilled that promise.

“The government’s definitive rejection of the HidroAysén project is not only the greatest triumph of the environmental movement in Chile, but marks a turning point, where an empowered public demands to be heard and to participate in the decisions that affect their environment and lives,” Patricio Rodrigo, executive secretary of the Patagonia Defense Council, a coalition of 70 Chilean and international organizations, said in a statement after the announcement, which was greeted by hundreds of people in the capital cheering and popping bottles of champagne.

If the plan had gone forward, the dams on the Baker and Pascua rivers would have flooded about 15,000 acres of land in the rugged Patagonia region. The dam construction also would have involved building 1,240-mile-long transmission lines to move the electricity to the center of the country, where most people live and where the energy-intensive mining industry is concentrated.

Government officials ultimately agreed that the ecological destruction the dams would cause – as well as the social costs of displacing local residents – was not worth the electricity the project would generate. The HidroAysén project, Energy Minister Máximo Pacheco told AFP, “suffers from important faults in its execution in not giving due consideration to aspects related to the people who live there.”

The dams would have boosted Chile’s energy generating capacity by 2,750 megawatts of electricity, or between 15 and 20 percent of the country’s total electricity demand. To replace the power from the cancelled dams, Chile plans to boost its use of imported natural gas, invest heavily in energy efficiency programs, and triple the amount of energy it gets from renewable sources like large-scale solar in the vast Atacama Desert.

The defeat of the dams, says watchdog group International Rivers, has “set in motion a new path toward a bright future for Patagonia and the hope of a truly sustainable energy future for Chile.”


The Tempest of Gender Stereotypes

Pink is for girls, blue is for boys. Women prefer flowers and men prefer footballs. Passivity is a female trait and aggression a male’s. A recent study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences reveals that when it comes to hurricane nomenclature, common gender expectations are not only erroneous, but also deadly.

Researchers found that hurricanes with female names are nearly three times as deadly as ones with male names. The reason for this difference? People overwhelmingly perceive a hurricane with, say, the name Dolly as less threatening than an equivalent storm with the name Donny.

“We used more than six decades of death rates from US hurricanes to show that feminine-named hurricanes cause significantly more deaths than do masculine-named hurricanes,” the study says. “These results suggest that individuals assess their vulnerability to hurricanes and take actions based not only on objective indicators of hurricane severity but also on the gender of hurricanes.”

In other words, the common societal perception of female docility and male violence transcends into the realm of disaster preparedness. “We demonstrate that a natural disaster can, merely by being symbolically associated with a given sex through its assigned name, be judged in ways congruent with the corresponding social roles and expectations of that sex,” the new report states. Fewer people will evacuate their homes for a hurricane named Fay than one dubbed Fred.

Before 1970, all hurricanes were given female names. But in the midst of second-wave feminism the naming policy switched to alternating between male and female names. This change in policy, according to the study, had “unanticipated and potentially deadly consequences.”

The report’s researchers say government officials should develop a new system of hurricane naming to “reduce the influence of biases on hurricane risk assessments and motivate optimal preparedness.”

Perhaps it’s time to begin naming storms after supervillains or, as the campaign “Climate Name Change” suggests, after climate change deniers.

Moving to a Different Beat

Move over Chopin – West African drums and Indian ragas rule the show now. Well, at least when the music connoisseurs are chimpanzees.

It used to be thought that chimps preferred silence to music. But now it appears that was only in regard to Western music. Our nonhuman primate cousins’ musical tastes tend more towards rhythms from Africa and India, say scientists at Emory University’s Yerkes National Primate Research Center, whose findings were published in a recent issue of the Journal of Experimental Psychology: Animal Learning and Cognition.

According to the study: “Although Western music, such as pop, blues and classical, sound different to the casual listener, they all follow the same musical and acoustic patterns. Therefore, by testing only different Western music, previous research has essentially replicated itself.”

In contrast, the researchers found that when African and Indian music was played near chimpanzees’ large outdoor enclosures, the animals spent significantly more time in areas where they could best hear the music. The African and Indian music played had extreme ratios of strong to weak beats.

The researchers also played Japanese music, which has regular strong beats similar to Western music. They found that whenever Japanese music was played, chimps were more likely to be found in spots where it was more difficult or impossible to hear the music.

“Past research has focused only on Western music and has not addressed the very different acoustic features of non-Western music,” says Dr. Frans de Waal, a coauthor of the study. “Chimpanzees may perceive the strong, predictable rhythmic patterns as threatening, as chimpanzee dominance displays commonly incorporate repeated rhythmic sounds such as stomping, clapping and banging objects.”

Tree Hugging Is Cool

A recent study published in Biology Letters reveals the fuzzy koala bear’s secret to surviving hot summers down under: good, ol’ fashioned tree hugging.

photo of a young koala gripping a tree branchphoto Erik VelandKoalas cling tightly to tree trunks to survive Australia’s scorching summer heat.

Koalas don’t have sweat glands and they rarely drink water, long confounding biologists as to how these furry marsupials manage through Australia’s long, hot summers.

Biologists discovered that on hotter days, koalas were found with limbs fully stretched around the trees’ trunks and lower branches. And, researchers noticed, on the hottest days these animals were also on acacia trees as opposed to eucalyptus, where koalas usually spend most of their time eating.

It turns out that acacia trees are, on average, 5 degrees Celsius cooler than the surrounding air, whereas eucalyptus trees are rarely more than 1.5 degrees cooler. This led the study’s biologists to conclude that koalas have adapted their behavior to survive the warmer weather, spending more time hugging acacia and less time chowing down on eucalyptus during the summer’s hotter months.

“How climate impacts organisms depends not only on their physiology, but also whether they can buffer themselves against climate variability via their behavior,” the study says.

Perhaps the slow-moving, furry Australian koala bear can teach us an important lesson: It’s always cool to hug trees, mate.

Table Talk

Lord of the Flies

Meeting the food needs of 7 billion people is, of course, a huge problem. Some entrepreneurs and nutrition policy wonks think the answer may lie in thinking small – that is, at insect-scale.

A South African company called AgriProtein has started work on building the world’s largest fly farm. The company plans to use food waste to grow fly larvae and then feed the protein-rich mush to cattle. “The world has an issue with waste management and also sourcing protein,” Johnny Kahlbetzer, director of an Australian company that is one of the main investors in the fly farm, told Reuters. “If farming insects can solve the two problems, then that is a great outcome.”

closeup photo of a flyphoto USDA

Many industrial cattle operations supplement their animal feed with fishmeal to help bulk up their livestock. But fishmeal hit a global all-time high of nearly $2,000 a ton in January. The fly pupae meal is expected to be at least 15 percent cheaper. AgriProtein will house millions of black soldier flies, blowflies, and common houseflies in cages and feed them a combination of manure and leftover food. The flies will be left to breed, and then their larvae will be collected, dried out, and processed into animal feed.

Livestock production accounts for 70 percent of all agricultural land and is a leading contributor to global warming, as well as a primary cause of air and water pollution and biodiversity loss. The backers of the AgriProtein scheme – which could be replicated in the US as early as next year, pending FDA approval – say that feeding fly larvae to cows can help shrink beef production’s ecological footprint.

A more direct way to reduce cattle’s environmental impact would be to cut the cows out of the equation and for humans to eat more bugs themselves. In a report released last year, the UN Food and Agriculture Organization recommended that people start eating more insects as a way of boosting nutrition while cutting pollution. “Insects are everywhere and they reproduce quickly, and they have high growth and feed conversion rates and a low environmental footprint,” the FAO said.

Temperature Gauge

Attention Deficit Disorder

Tigers and orangutans are losing out to bad weather reports. As climate change becomes a more immediate public concern, it’s beginning to distract attention from another crucial environmental problem – the rapid loss of our planet’s biodiversity.


Kiribati Closes Protected Fishery

In our Autumn 2013 edition, Earth Island Journal reported that President Anote Tong of the Pacific island nation of Kiribati had failed to fulfill his promises to close the Phoenix Islands Protected Area to commercial fishing – despite having received a huge amount of international praise for his supposed environmental leadership. As Tong became a media darling, tuna fleets continued to operate in the reserve and even shark-finning, a practice banned in many countries’ water, was occurring there.

What a difference a year makes.

In June, at the opening of the Our Ocean conference at the US State Department in Washington, DC, Tong announced that all of the Phoenix Islands Protected Area would be placed off limits to commercial fishermen. The California-sized reserve, Tong said, is “a major spawning ground for tuna, so its closure will have a major contribution to the conservation and rejuvenation of fish stocks and to global food security.” The number one beneficiary of the closure will be Pacific bigeye tuna, which is now at only 20 to 30 percent of its historic level.

A day after Tong’s proclamation, President Obama announced that the US would move to close all fishing in American territorial waters off of Howland and Baker Islands (which are to the northwest of the Kiribati reserves), doubling the amount of ocean area protected by the US.

According to a report published in the July issue of BioScience, climate change is beating biodiversity as a media, scientific, and philanthropic priority. The report, by conservation and ecology researchers at England’s Kent University, is based on an analysis of the coverage of these issues in newspapers and scientific journals in the United States and United Kingdom during the past quarter-century. The researchers also looked at changes in the funding priorities of the World Bank and the US National Science Foundation.

They found that while press attention devoted to biodiversity has remained stable since 1990, the proportion of climate change reports has been substantially higher than biodiversity since 2005. In scientific journals, even though papers on biodiversity loss and conservation have increased at a steady pace, studies on climate change accelerated markedly around 2006 and overtook them. On the funding side, the researchers found that the US National Science Foundation’s investment in climate change research has increased substantially since 1987, while investment in biodiversity studies hasn’t risen at the same rate and has held steady since 2004.

“Our findings suggest that while climate change could be deflecting attention from biodiversity loss in terms of funding, in other areas the sentiment shared by many conservationists that biodiversity loss is now a secondary issue could be a result of a comparatively quicker rise in prominence of climate change,” Dr. Diogo Veríssimo, lead author of the report, told the University of Kent news center.

Back to the Drawing Board

Maybe copies of a new map of our climate-altered world will convince the science deniers who insist humans aren’t warming the planet. Because of the rapidly disappearing Arctic ice sheet, Earth looks so different that the National Geographic Society is being forced to make drastic changes to its atlas. Geographers say the disappearing ice is “one of the most striking” changes in the history of the National Geographic Atlas of the World.

Geographer Juan José Valdés described the loss of Arctic sea ice as “the biggest visible change other than the breakup of the USSR.” Of course, political sensitivities of mapping the world are not new to cartographers, but this is the first time mapmakers have been forced to redraw an atlas to portray dramatic shifts in Earth’s physical landscape. Valdés thinks that the atlas could help people see the effects of global warming in a tangible way. “Until you have a hard copy map in your hand, the message doesn’t really hit home,” he says.

Future Tense

Warning Calls

There might be a great use for those old smartphones you’ve been collecting in the drawer. Rainforest Connection, a San Francisco-based nonprofit, is converting used phones into warning devices to detect illegal logging and poaching in real-time.

photo of a man working on a device attatched to a tree in a tropical forest, small solar panels surround it like the petals of a flowerphoto Rainforest ConnectionTopher White of Rainforest Connection shows how to make an illegal logging
warning system out of used cell phones.

Monitoring and enforcement are the biggest challenges when it comes to illegal deforestation. Right now forests are monitored by satellite imagery, and new areas of logging often aren’t noted until it’s too late to do anything. Rainforest Connection’s new system uses a network of makeshift devices – everything from recycled Android handsets to discarded fragments of solar panels – to pick out the unmistakable sound of chainsaws over a mile away and then raise the alarm for conservationists.

“Every year 150 million cellphones are discarded in the United States alone. And yet these are really fantastic little computers,” Founder Topher White told the online news site Motherboard.

The recycled phones are equipped with range-extending microphones, set inside plastic boxes to protect them from the elements, and then camouflaged high in the tree canopy. They need only a tiny signal – “less than a bar” – to send raw audio to a remote computer for analysis. If suspicious sounds are detected, an alert is sent to the local authorities.

The devices were tested in Indonesia’s Western Sumatra where, White says, they successfully deterred illegal loggers. The company now plans to expand to Africa and Brazil, and maybe even set up devices in California’s redwood forests. White calculates that each device can protect about 700 acres of forest.

On the Hill

Minority Report

In late July, the Republican members of the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works released a 92-page report uncovering what they called a vast “environmental machine” that supposedly is directing federal policy. According to the report’s executive summary, “an elite group of left wing millionaires and billionaires, which this report refers to as the ‘Billionaire’s Club,’ who directs and controls the far-left environmental movement [sic], which in turn controls major policy decisions and lobbies on behalf of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).” This alleged cabal operates “in relative obscurity hidden under the guise of ‘philanthropy.’” Key players in this scheme include Tom Steyer, the Environmental Grantmakers Association, Tides Foundation, and the Energy Foundation.

All we can say is: If there is, in fact, a vast conspiracy dedicated to saving the planet, we want in on it.


Green Bogeyman

India, it appears, has a “foreign” problem. A couple of internationally funded, tree-hugging green groups are apparently hobbling the country’s economy by campaigning against new power projects, mining, and genetically modified crop initiatives.

A report by India’s spy agency, the Intelligence Bureau, has warned that the number of local organizations funded by Greenpeace and other international environmental groups is on the rise and they are “spawning” mass movements that pose a “significant threat to national economic security.” Growing people’s movements have led to the cancellation, disruption, or delay of development projects and slowed down India’s gross domestic product by 2 to 3 percent a year, according to the intelligence report.

This is by far the most serious charge leveled by Indian government officials against foreign-funded nonprofits. After the report was leaked to the media in June, Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s new administration – which came to power touting a business-friendly agenda – banned direct foreign funding of local public interest groups. It’s worth nothing that many so-called “development projects” rely on investments from foreign multinationals.

Greenpeace, which was singled out by the intelligence agency, says the report is a “malicious” attempt to speed up environmental clearances for coal and nuclear power projects. “This is an attack which Greenpeace has faced in many parts of the world. This is not surprising to us,” the group’s India director, Samit Aich, told The Indian Express. “We will do whatever can be done within the legal system to continue to defend ourselves, the planet and the forest and ecosystem.” Greenpeace says it isn’t against development, but believes that India should embrace renewable energy and improve energy efficiency instead of razing forests to extract coal.

The brouhaha is likely to intensify the debate over whether India, which was the world’s fastest growing carbon emitter in 2012, will pursue the path of fast growth under the Modi administration. So far the nation has refused to heed calls to reduce its emissions, saying that Western economies are to blame for most of the current air pollution and that India’s own development cannot be held back to meet new emission targets.

Crowd Control

An unruly mob at the factory gates? Shoot paintballs and pepper spray at them from the air. That’s the idea behind “Skunk,” a new riot control drone that was unveiled at a trade fair in South Africa in June. The gizmo attracted a buyer straightaway – an international mining company.

Desert Wolf, the company that designed the drone “to control unruly crowds without endangering the lives of the protestors or the security staff,” says it will be supplying 25 units to an unnamed mining company.

The Skunk Riot Control Copter can fire a variety of ammunition – dye marker balls, pepper spray balls or solid plastic balls. The machine can carry up to 4,000 bullets as well as “blinding lasers” and on-board speakers that can communicate warnings to a crowd.

Mining companies – which often have to contend with strikes and protests – are the biggest market at this time, the director of Desert Wolf, Hennie Kieser, told Defense Web, an African industry news agency. Kieser claims the Skunk will help prevent deadly protests like the one at South Africa’s Marikana platinum mine in August 2012, which resulted in the death of 44 people.

But labor groups are appalled by the idea and are comparing Skunk to US military drones that are killing civilians in Pakistan and Yemen.

“This is a deeply disturbing and repugnant development and we are convinced that any reasonable government will move quickly to stop the deployment of advanced battlefield technology on workers or indeed the public involved in legitimate protests and demonstrations,” Tim Noonan, spokesman for the International Trade Union Confederation, told the BBC.

Deployment of such drones risks “creeping authoritarianism and the suppression of protest,” says Noel Sharkey, chair of the International Committee for Robot Arms Control campaign group. “Firing plastic balls or bullets from the air will maim and kill. Using pepper spray against a crowd of protesters is a form of torture and should not be allowed.”

Around the World

Parks in Peril

In July, the US National Parks Service released a report confirming that 289 of America’s parks and historic sites are feeling the brunt of climate change. Parks are getting hotter, enduring more severe spikes in temperature, and suffering massive flooding, raging wildfires, or losing coastlines to erosion and rising seas. These changes impact the vegetation and wildlife and put at risk artifacts that inform us about this country’s rich history.


The Forest and the Trees

Seventeen-Pound Thud

Restoration Hardware’s latest direct mailing has been met with outrage across the United States and earned the company the new nickname “Deforestation Hardware.”

In June, the furniture and household items company sent out millions of copies its largest direct mailing ever: a 3,300-page, 17-pound collection of 13 shrink-wrapped “source books” – aka catalogs.

The one-page “sustainability initiative” attached to the front of the catalog added insult to injury, claiming that the catalog paper was “forest certified” and that shipping emissions were offset. But the claims of being eco-friendly didn’t hold up under scrutiny. A closer look at these measures revealed that the paper is certified by the relatively lax Programme for the Endorsement of Forest Certification, which is backed by some of the largest logging and paper companies. Todd Paglia of the group Forest Ethics told Bloomberg Businessweek that having the Programme for the Endorsement of Forest Certification approve your paper sourcing “is like having Dick Cheney sponsor you for an environmental award.”

And Restoration Hardware’s boast about its carbon offsets doesn’t mean much, either. Shipping accounts for just 1.2 percent of carbon emissions associated with catalog production, distribution, and disposal. Most of a catalog’s carbon footprint comes from upstream activities such as logging, paper manufacturing, and the electricity to power the printing presses.

Given the anger and annoyance generated by the mailing, maybe next year Restoration Hardware will realize that – in direct marketing as well as in life – less is more.

Straight from the Tap

Controversial Coca-Cola Plant in India Forced to Close

A nearly 15-year battle over alleged pollution and illegal land seizure by a Coca-Cola bottling plant in the Indian village of Varansai has ended in favor of local activists who have been calling for the plant’s closure.

“Coca-Cola’s thirst for profits in India has placed its business interests over the well-being of communities and the environment and this is not acceptable,” Amit Srivastava of the India Resource Centre told AFP.

No Comment

Know Nothings

“Listen, I’m not qualified to debate the science over climate change.” – House Speaker John Boehner (R-OH), when asked by reporters if he accepts the scientific consensus that greenhouse gas emissions are fueling global warming.

“I would say CO2 is a different kettle of fish. It’s plant food. It’s not a pollutant in any normal definition.”
– Senator Jeff Sessions (R-AL) during a June 18 hearing on Capitol Hill.

“The demonization of carbon dioxide is just like the demonization of the poor Jews under Hitler. Carbon dioxide is actually a benefit to the world, and so were the Jews.” – Physics Professor William Happer, on CNBC’s Squawk Box.

The state of Uttar Pradesh’s Pollution Control Board concluded that the Mehdiganj Coca-Cola bottling plant had breached conditions of its operating license and ordered the factory to cease operations. Since the bottling plant began operations in 1999, locals have accused it of unsustainable groundwater depletion and improper pollution disposal. The pollution control board also ordered the plant to replenish twice as much groundwater as it extracted. Before the closure, the plant was producing about 600 bottles of soft drink per minute, making it one of the smallest of Coke’s 58 bottling plants in India.

Residents of Varansai also complain that the plant’s siting on village council land was illegal from the start. According to local law, the plant’s construction should never have been allowed. In addition to a mandated closure over environmental violations, the company was fined 126,000 rupees ($2,000) over the land issue.

Coca-Cola denies any wrongdoing and claims its operations have always been in compliance with regulatory approvals and applicable laws. The company has appealed to India’s National Green Tribunal. In a statement, Hindustan Coca-Cola Beverages, a unit of Coca-Cola, said it believes the court will find the plant has only acted in the “best interests of the communities we serve.”

As of now, the Pollution Control Board’s closure mandate holds. The Mehdiganj Coca-Cola bottling plant has ceased all operations and plans for permanent removal are pending.

Call of the Wild

An End to Tiger Selfies in New York

“Selfies with Tigers” sounds like the title of a children’s book, or the tagline for a low-budget documentary. Actually, tiger selfies (photos in which people pose alongside the giant cats) are the latest online trend, and the target of a bill that has passed through both houses of the New York State Assembly.

The bill, yet to be signed by New York Governor Andrew Cuomo, targets traveling fairs and roadside zoos that allow patrons to pose with large cats, including lions, tigers, and leopards. If signed into law, those who touch the large felines could be fined up to $500, much to the chagrin of a small subset of online daters. Supposedly – you just can’t make this stuff up – it’s become trendy for men to post tiger selfies on their online dating site profiles as a way of distinguishing themselves from other potential suitors.

photo of a smiling man holding a mobile phone resting his head on a tiger cub, both are inside a cagephoto Visnu Pitiyanuvath

New York Assemblywoman Linda Rosenthal didn’t know about this online trend when she introduced the legislation in March, instead citing safety concerns as the basis for her legislation. “Though the photos may be cute and the animals may look sweet and fluffy, they are dangerous wild animals capable of serious violence, and the public should not be permitted to come into such close contact with them,” Rosenthal said in a statement to the International Fund for Animal Welfare. “Though some claim that these photo ops contribute to wildlife rescue or conservation, that’s empty rhetoric that disregards the real danger here. My bill will protect the public and help keep big cats and other wild animals in safe conditions.”

Animal rights activists hope the legislation will have a second benefit – drawing attention to the archaic roving circuses that transport wild animals around the county. “Hopefully, people will realize that it doesn’t say anything positive about yourself to pay to pose next to a wild animal in captivity,” Kelly Donvan, a program officer with the International Fund for Animal Welfare, told the New York Post.

Unfortunately, the bill draws the line at cats, leaving other animals at the mercy of dudes looking to attract a hot date by posing with a circus slave. “They can still pose with bears and monkeys,” Assemblywoman Rosenthal said. “They just have to take big cats off their list.”


There’s an App for That

Florida has become infamous for the invasive species that have made a home there: Giant Burmese pythons, Old World climbing fern, and spiky, zebra-striped lionfish plague the state’s land and waters. Approximately a quarter of all fish, reptiles, birds, and mammals living in the Everglade State are exotics.

The first step in addressing these challenges, says Amanda Nalley of the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, is to educate and engage the public. “It’s important that we figure out how to best draw public attention to the issue of invasive species,” Nalley says. The commission is focusing its latest efforts on the lionfish, an introduced species without any natural predators that has begun to dominate Caribbean marine ecosystems. “Lionfish are a big concern for local ecologists. They are invasive, rampant, aggressive, and fast-producing. Our main goal is to educate and inform the public so we can more successfully control this species.”

So the commission has developed a smart phone application for reporting invasive lionfish in local waters. The “Report Florida Lionfish” app has detailed information about the species, a feature for taking pictures, and a way to report sightings and catches. The app also educates users on how to safely handle and catch lionfish, which have poisonous barbs.

“We wanted to create something that is informative, easy to use, and also effective in assisting the Commission with data collection,” Nalley says. “It’s important that as times change, we continue to communicate effectively with people.”

Next time you find yourself snorkeling or diving in Florida’s clear blue waters, be sure to look out for a venomous spiked fish resembling a cross between wide-toothed comb and British punk rocker. Snap a picture and remember: There’s an app for that.

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