Malaria claims nearly a million lives a year on the African continent, and as pesticides such as DDT become increasingly ineffective against the disease’s mosquito vector, Anopheles gambiae, scientists are looking at genetic engineering as a possible solution. Researchers at Case Western Reserve University spliced a synthetic gene into a related mosquito species that almost completely disrupted that insect’s ability to transmit malaria parasites. Others have sequenced the genetic codes of A. gambiae and two species of malaria parasite, Plasmodium falciparum and P. yoelii. Some are asking whether releasing similarly altered A. gambiae might not prove a boon in the global war against the disease: if mosquitoes didn’t transmit the Plasmodium parasite when they bit people, new cases of malaria would nearly disappear.
Other scientists express concern at the prospect of flooding the African landscape with genetically modified insects. It is possible that the Plasmodium parasite would mutate to evade the genetic obstacle in its path, necessitating a whole new round of gene-splicing while the old gene continued to spread in the wild without public health benefit. It may be that public health dollars would be better spent in countering social issues that make up a major factor in malaria deaths: the World Health Organization (WHO) estimated in 2000 that a third of Africa’s malaria deaths may stem from the near-constant war that afflicts the continent. According to WHO’s Dr. Awash Teklehaimanot, “Poor nutrition, multiple infections and high stress levels are common amongst displaced populations and leave people more vulnerable to disease. During most complex emergencies, people are often forced from their homes, many sleeping without shelter, which leaves them susceptible to mosquito bites and malaria infection.” Unless the engineers find a gene that controls the urge to make war on whole populations, the search for cost-effective malaria cures might best be conducted outside the laboratory. - Science 298, 129-149; Nature, October 3, 2002
Youth for Conservation
The bushmeat trade, in which wild animals are caught for sale as meat, is one of Africa’s most pressing environmental problems, but activists on the ground are doing something about it. Since August, the Kenyan group Youth for Conservation has removed and destroyed 226 snares in Nairobi Park, Mt. Kenya Park and Kedong Ranch, bringing to a total of 3,418 the illegal snares the group has destroyed in the last three years. Removal of these snares has saved numerous animals from a slow and agonizing death. Most of the snares found targeted animals such as zebras, impalas, elands and buffalo, and many non-target animals such as elephants, lions, hyenas, and porcupines. Youth for Conservation representative Josphat Ngonyo tells Earth Island Journal that between three and five percent of snares trap animals daily. Because of snaring, elands are now extinct in the Tagwa Hill area.
Youth for Conservation also works to educate local communities about the importance of wildlife, and promotes sustainable alternative income-generating activities such as beekeeping and planting Neem trees, which provide an insecticide used in organic farming. In September, the group sponsored a 15-km walk in Nairobi to raise awareness about the illegal bushmeat trade. Ngonyyo says that subsequent visits to snaring hotspots have shown a general decline in poaching activity, which he attributes to this community education and involvement program. - Youth for Conservation, P.O. Box 27689, Nyayo Stadium 00506, Nairobi, Kenya, www.youthforconservation.org/
Here comes the sun
Sun power has come to a village in Lesotho. In March, the 25,000 residents of Mohaleshoek celebrated the opening of Solarsoft Centre, built by students of the nearby Bethel Business and Community Development Centre. Since its opening, Solarsoft has sold domestic solar power systems, and trained locals in other ways of achieving a comfortable level of energy independence.
Unlike more developed parts of the world, home solar power systems in Mohaleshoek aren’t a way to move “off the grid.” Only five percent of Lesotho is connected to the national electric power system, and the cost of hooking up to the grid can run the equivalent of $4,300 - a year’s wage for an upper middle-class Lesothan. By contrast, a solar system sufficient to light a typical home in Mohaleshoek runs less than $300. - Alternatives Magazine, Fall 2002
Online pranksters put a figurative pie in the face of a major chemical corporation in December. Press agencies and activists around the world received an email - with headers forged to appear as if it originated from Dow Chemical’s main offices - blithely stating that the corporation would take no action to compensate victims of 1984 disaster at Union Carbide’s Bhopal, India plant. The release was timed to coincide with the 18th anniversary of the disaster: Union Carbide merged with Dow in 1999. The faux press release read, in part:
“In response to growing public outrage over its handling of the Bhopal disaster’s legacy, Dow Chemical (http://www.dow-chemical.com) has issued a statement explaining why it is unable to more actively address the problem.
“We are being portrayed as a heartless giant which doesn’t care about the 20,000 lives lost due to Bhopal over the years,” said Dow President and CEO Michael D. Parker. “But this just isn’t true. Many individuals within Dow feel tremendous sorrow about the Bhopal disaster, and many individuals within Dow would like the corporation to admit its responsibility, so that the public can then decide on the best course of action, as is appropriate in any democracy.
“Unfortunately, we have responsibilities to our shareholders and our industry colleagues that make action on Bhopal impossible. And being clear about this has been a very big step.”
The www.dow-chemical.com address led to a mockup of Dow’s official web site with the text rewritten from an environmental justice point of view. No reaction from Dow was forthcoming at press time.
Science for the people
95 activists from 13 countries met in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, in September to - as participants put it -“ensure that science and technology serves the interests and needs of the people.” The First International Peasant-Scientist Conference included representatives from peasants’ movements in the Philippines, Thailand, Indonesia, and Nepal, scientists from Australia, the United States, and the United Kingdom, and local and regional NGOs.
Participants discussed agricultural science and technology’s increasing use to boost profits rather than to feed and employ people. Many multinational corporations present pesticides and GM crops as the “scientific” way to increase yields and farmers’ incomes. Research at public institutions increasingly reflects the interests of private funders. In contrast, people-centered science helps small farmers increase productivity and improves the economic well-being of rural communities - such as research into biological control, organic production systems and other agroecological approaches.
The conference concluded with the participants pledging to challenge corporate-dominated science: “We are committed to unmasking corporate propaganda and tactics of domination, harassment, and repression. We challenge our institutions and universities to be free from corporate control; to develop genuine people-centered science curricula and programs; and to promote and develop community-based research.”
The conference was organized by PAN Asia and the Pacific with ERA Consumer, Tenaganita and the Malaysian Program on Sustainable Agriculture and Pesticides (MP SAP). - Pesticide Action Network, October 18.
Give us the land of Diego Garcia
Indian Ocean islanders sued the British Foreign Office in London’s High Court in late October, saying they were “tricked” into giving up their land. Thirty years ago, the islanders were forced to leave the Chagos Islands by the British government. The United States then established the Diego Garcia Air Force Base on the largest of the islands, which it leased from Britain. Residents were relocated to Mauritius and the Seychelles. They are demanding compensation and the return of their property.
Robin Allen, the barrister representing the displaced islanders, told the London Guardian that his clients did not move willingly. “They were removed from these islands by the British government. The desired end of the British government was to obtain empty land in the middle of the Indian Ocean. The problem in achieving this end was that the Chagos Islands were not uninhabited.” The US bases B-52 bombers at Diego Garcia, which played a crucial role in past bombardments of Iraq and Afghanistan. As the case went to court, the US said it was sending B-2 “Stealth” bombers to the island base to take part in the coming war on Iraq. - London Guardian, Nov 1.
London’s Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (RSPCA) made a charge in October that could devastate the zoo industry, saying that close captivity significantly shortens the lives of elephants. Elephants kept in zoos or safari parks suffer an increase in stress-related physical and emotional ailments and live less than one fourth as long as wild elephants, the charity said. The RSPCA is calling for the abolition of captive breeding programs for Asian and African elephants and for a moratorium on new shipments to European zoos. “We hope zoos will sit up and listen,” RSPCA’s Becky Hawkes told Reuters. “There is no way zoos should be keeping elephants.” Stillbirth rates among Asian elephants approach 20 percent, and as many as a fifth of elephants born in captivity are rejected by their mothers. Typical life expectancy for a European zoo elephant is 15 years: overworked Asian elephants in Indian timber camps sometimes reach 80 years of age. - Reuters, Oct 23
Bologna cell phone study
Though scientists have largely concluded that radiation from cell phones poses no direct threat to human health, a new Italian study suggests that 900-megahertz radio waves may encourage existing tumors to grow.
Biologist Fiorenzo Marinelli of the National Research Council in Bologna presented results of his team’s study in November at a scientific workshop in Greece. Marinelli exposed leukemia cells to cell-phone band radiation at a power level of 1 milliwatt and examined the activity of a gene that controls apoptosis, or normal cellular self-destruction. 24 hours of exposure apparently turned on many cells’ “suicide genes,” but another day’s exposure activated other genes that prompt cell division, thus offsetting the effects of the apoptosis gene.
Cell phone radiation carries insufficient energy to break chemical bonds, and so most scientists had dismissed the appliances as unlikely carcinogens. Some are as yet unpersuaded by Marinelli’s study. David de Pomerai of the University of Nottingham told New Scientist that while the new work was intriguing, “I’m far from convinced that these authors are looking at any reproducible and real phenomena.” - New Scientist, October 24
Heritage sites threatened
Air pollution, illegal development and sewage-laden water are endangering a third of Italy’s UNESCO World Heritage sites, including such treasures as Pompeii’s ancient ruins, according to Legambiente, an environmental group. Three dozen sites on the list are in great peril, says the group. Acid air pollution is eating away at stone buildings such as the Tower of Pisa, imperial monuments in Rome, and much of central Florence. Venice has long battled with erosion by a rising, severely polluted water table. Illegal construction is encroaching on the ruins of Pompeii, as well as on Greek-era temples in Agrigiento. The Italian government is reluctant to budget for landmark protection. - AP, November 20
Brown plate special
Polish miller Jerzy Wysocki has come up with organic bran dinner plates which are functional, eco-friendly, and good for your digestion to boot.
Wysocky says that mill owners have been wondering what to do with their bran for centuries. The by-product of grain milling is cheap; “Sometimes you can’t even give it away,” he says. Several years ago, he patented a compressor that turns wheat bran into all manner of plates, bowls, cups and platters using no additives or preservatives. The dishes are available in a variety of sizes, but only one color - the familiar deep brown of whole wheat bread. The purely organic tableware will dissolve into eco-friendly compost in a matter of days. The plates also have the added benefit of keeping consumers regular should they choose to eat them as a high-fiber, no calorie dessert. - David Kupfer
Sun power rising?
A discovery at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory suggests that a single system of alloys incorporating indium, gallium, and nitrogen can convert virtually the full spectrum of sunlight - from the near infrared to the far ultraviolet - to electrical current.
“It’s as if nature designed this material on purpose to match the solar spectrum,” says Wladek Walukiewicz of the Lab’s Materials Sciences Division (MSD), who made the discovery with teams from Cornell University and Japan’s Ritsumeikan University.
If solar cells can be made with this alloy, they promise to be rugged and relatively inexpensive, and could reach theoretical efficiencies of 70 percent. The best solar cells now made convert only 35 percent of light energy reaching them to electricity. - For more on the new full-spectrum photovoltaic materials, see www.lbl.gov/msd/PIs/Walukiewicz/02/02_8_Full_Solar_Spectrum.html
A federal biologist who worked on a review of Klamath Basin water policy is seeking protection as a whistleblower. Michael Kelly, of the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS), says his team’s recommendations to maintain higher water levels in the river were rejected two times by higher-ups due to political pressure. The federal Bureau of Reclamation, which controls dams and aqueducts in much of the basin straddling the California-Oregon line, lowered water levels this year to 57 percent of the level Kelly’s team recommended. In autumn, as many as 50,000 migrating salmon died of warm-water-related diseases while attempting to make spawning runs in the abnormally low river.
The Klamath Basin has been the site of conflict for several years, as upper-basin farmers contend with Native Californian tribes and fisheries-dependent coast dwellers over the water supply. In 2001, farmers loudly protested limits to their federally subsidized irrigation water supply when wildlife agencies attempted to keep more water in the river to maintain fish stocks. Perhaps reflecting the nascent split between California’s conservative interior counties and more liberal coast, the Bush administration offered farmers in Tule Lake and Klamath Falls conspicuous support. - AP, October 26
Enviro destruction charged
Rainforest Action Network (RAN) says that Citigroup Inc., the United States’ largest financial services company, is banking on environmental destruction. RAN links Citigroup to Ecuadoran oil pipeline company Oleoducto de Crudos Pesados, Papua New Guinea’s Gobe oil fields; the Ratchaburi power plant in Thailand; and Maxxam/“Pacific Lumber, now cutting old-growth redwoods in California’s Headwaters forest.
RAN bought a full-page ad in the New York Times showing scenes of environmental destruction, with the legend “Did you know that someone is using your Citigroup credit card without your authorization?” Citigroup officials defend their record, and claim that RAN is going after them because they have lots of money. - Reuters, November 14
For perhaps the first time in history, an animal protection group has forced an animal research lab out of existence. The Center for Captive Chimpanzee Care, a state-of-the-art Florida sanctuary, said that it was permanently retiring the 266 chimpanzees and 61 monkeys at the Coulston Foundation, including 16 of the famed “space chimpanzees” abandoned by the Air Force. The closure of the controversial lab came after an eight-year campaign by In Defense of Animals prompted regulatory action by the FDA, the USDA, and other agencies, cessation of federal funds, international media scrutiny, crippling losses of private clients, Congressional pressure, bank foreclosure and, eventually, total financial collapse. - In Defense of Animals press release, 9/12
For this issue’s news from Australia and South America, please see articles on the Spring 2003 Earth Island Journal pages 31 and 43.
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