Reuters, Finbarr O’Reilly
Talk about a vicious circle: People in Niger chop down trees to use for cooking fuel, but the more wood they chop, the worse the soil becomes, which will eventually mean less food available for people to cook.
Deforestation allows the sun to reach more land directly, thus drying the soil. Without the protection of surrounding foliage, the soil is subject to wind erosion. The air becomes less humid, and the dry conditions cause even further destruction: Approximately 840,000 acres of Niger’s forest fell to fire between 2000 and 2006.
Deforestation is driving the desertification of Niger, which lost 1.6 million acres of forest — more than one third of its total — between 1990 and 2005, according to Mongabay, an environmental Web site. Despite the fact that more than 60 million trees were planted in Niger between 1985 and 1997, the Sahara Desert, which already covers two thirds of Niger, swallows up approximately 494,000 more acres each year.
The problem isn’t getting any better: 3.4 million tons of wood were consumed in 2006, and government forecasts predict that by 2010, that figure will be 4.2 million tons annually. This is due, in part, to the country’s growing population, which increases at more than three per cent each year.
“Wood’s getting scarce. We go more than 150 kilometres (93 miles) to find it, near the border with Burkina Faso,” says Ali Amadou, a woodcutter from Dar-el-Salam.
Once the forests are reached, axes swing with no regard for the environmental consequences. “Everywhere where you have protected forests, the people who live round about there set up cooperatives, chop down trees and sell the wood, and they don’t even spare protected species,” says Moustapha Kadi from the NGO SOS-Kandaji. “Wood provides more than 90 percent of domestic household energy,” he notes. Although nearby Algeria and Nigeria are oil- and gas-rich countries, the cost of purchasing that fuel is prohibitively expensive for residents of Niger, one of the world’s poorest nations. Selling wood, on the other hand, is a lucrative proposition. A truckload of wood can bring in 200,000 to 300,000 African CFA francs (US $440 to $660).
And so the locals continue to chop away at Niger’s last remaining forests, either unaware or unconcerned that their actions are having a devastating effect on their country. “Ignorance and poverty are not sufficient excuse for committing an ecological crime,” says Mamane Lamine, an official with Niger’s water and forestry agency.
— Agence France-Presse (AFP), 12/11
Mine Your Own Business
More than 300 protesters from a Vietnamese village took matters into their own hands when they ransacked a proposed titanium mine site in late December. Fearing that the mine would contaminate soil and groundwater, they destroyed machinery and pipelines, causing more than $12,000 in damage.
The developers claim that the villagers “misunderstood” the company’s intentions concerning the proposed mine. The plan is to later develop the area as a tourist resort once the mine is depleted. But perhaps the developers don’t understand the value of that land to the villagers, who know that the property was a vital buffer for protecting them from wind and sand in their seaside community.
— AFP, 12/28
In the past few years, cities and countries around the world have banned the production and/or distribution of plastic shopping bags. Ireland and Uganda have laws against the bags, as does San Francisco. As of June 1, the most-populated country in the world will be following the trend.
Addressing Chinese citizens’ growing concerns about pollution, the ban will prohibit supermarkets and shops from providing customers with free plastic bags. The sale and use of bags less than .025 mm thick will also be prohibited. Those companies that do not adhere to the new regulation will face the possibility of heavy fines and confiscation of profits and goods.
“Our country consumes a large amount of plastic bags. While convenient for consumers, the bags also lead to a severe waste of resources and environmental pollution because of their excessive use and low rate of recycling,” states a circular posted on the Web site of the Chinese government. “The ultra-thin bags are the main source of ‘white’ pollution as they can easily get broken and end up as litter.”
China’s population of 1.3 billion people uses up to 3 billion plastic bags daily. The ban will mean a huge reduction in China’s use of crude oil. According to the Web site of China Trade News, China refines 37 million barrels of crude oil annually to make the bags and other plastic packaging materials.
— Reuters, 1/9
For more than 4,000 years, Asian elephants in Thailand have worked closely with humans, fulfilling such important roles as providing transportation for the king or hauling lumber. These days, however, King Bhumibol Adulyadej gets around town by other means, and since Thailand banned logging in 1989, elephants have fallen on tough times. So what’s a poor pachyderm to do for a living?
“The better elephants got themselves jobs as taxis. The intelligent elephants got themselves jobs as show elephants. The smarter ones became artists,” jokes Sam Fang, author of Thai Elephants: Tourism Ambassadors of Thailand.
Of course, the plight of the Asian elephant is no laughing matter. The Asian elephant, already 10 times less common than its African counterpart, is an endangered species. Current estimates indicate that the total wild Asian elephant population is somewhere between 30,000 and 50,000, while captive elephants number 12,000 to 15,000, according to Simon Hedges, co-chair of the World Conservation Union’s Asian Elephant Specialist Group. Those figures, however, are merely educated guesses. “We really don’t know how many elephants there are in Asia. In some countries we don’t even know where the elephants are,” admits Hedges.
The odds of survival for the Asian elephant are seemingly increased by their usefulness as a tourist attraction, but conservationists are wary of the potential for captive elephants to be abused.
“They turned from a holy animal to work like slaves all day. And at night they’re chained,” says elephant conservationist Sangduen “Lek” Chailert. “They’ve made elephants into machines for making money.”
Ironically, while tourism means a greater chance of survival for the domesticated elephants, the increase of the tourism industry means further habitat destruction for the wild elephants. Furthermore, wild elephants are at risk of becoming replacement workers for domesticated elephants. “There are suggestions that elephants are being illegally caught or even being smuggled into Thailand to replace the ones that are dying,” says Hedges, referring to those elephants that perish during tourist jungle treks.
Once an elephant is domesticated, it is rarely reintroduced into the wild. Such a task is so difficult to accomplish that conservationists don’t even make it a priority.
“The priority is that you work with the wild animals, and don’t direct too much attention or resources to reintroduction or returning captive elephants back to the wild,” Hedges says. “It’s potentially a dangerous distraction from the real problems facing the wild ones, habitat loss and poaching and conflict and crop raiding.”
Plans to work on behalf of Asia’s captive elephants are not completely abandoned, however. Elephant expert Richard Lair, the director of the Thai Elephant Conservation Centre in Chiang Mai, proposes that the first step should be to determine where the elephants are by using microchips. In this way, conservationists will be able to more closely monitor the elephants, thereby preventing abuse and illegal trading.
In the meantime, those domesticated elephants not in the unemployment line hope that tourism continues.
“The worst-case scenario is that the global economy goes into a recession, tourist numbers plummet, and a large number have no gainful employment,” Lair says.
— Reuters, 12/27
Dunt wisi. Iriuscil
When it comes to the details of Christian doctrine, the Anglican, Greek Orthodox, Roman Catholic, and Protestant Churches still have matters of disagreement. But on the issue of environmental protection, the leaders of all these faiths agree that saving the planet’s ecosystems is a holy cause.
In their Christmas messages to the faithful, both Pope Benedict XVI and Dr. Rowan Williams, the Archbishop of Canterbury, spoke about the importance of preserving creation. In sermons that illustrated how environmental concerns have touched the hearts of Christian believers, the church leaders spoke about what they see as the intimate connection between spirituality and the natural world.
“More and more (is) clearly required of us as we grow in awareness of how fragile is the balance of species and environment in the world, and just how our greed distorts it,” Dr. Williams told worshippers at Canterbury Cathedral in England. “When we threaten the balance of things, we don’t just put our material survival at risk. More profoundly, we put our spiritual sensitivity at risk — the possibility of being opened up to the endless wonder by the world around us.”
During his Christmas Eve mass in Rome, Pope Benedict used his homily to bemoan an “ill-treated world.” The Catholic leader referenced one of the early leaders of the church, Gregory of Nyssa: “What would he say if he could see the state of the world today, through the abuse of energy and its selfish and reckless exploitation?” the pope asked. He expanded on the environmental theme by mentioning an 11th century theologian, Anselm of Canterbury, who the pope says spoke “in an almost prophetic way of what we witness today as a polluted world whose future is at risk.”
In highlighting the religious importance of environmental protection, Pope Benedict and Dr. Williams join Patriarch Bartholomew I of Constantinople, head of the Greek Orthodox Church, who has long been a crusader for environmental issues. Dubbed “The Green Patriarch” by Al Gore, in recent years Bartholomew has convened gatherings of faith leaders to discuss over-fishing in the oceans, the destruction of the Amazon rainforest, and the threat of climate change, among other issues. He has established September 1 (the beginning of the Orthodox Ecclesiastical Calendar) as a day of prayer “for protection of the environment.”
Protestant denominations have also become committed to green causes. In a Christmas Eve statement, Dr. Samuel Kobia — a Methodist minister and head of the World Council of Churches, which represents some 560 million Christians around the world — called climate change a “matter of faith.”
“It is a gospel imperative for churches to be involved in the work on climate change,” Dr. Kobia said. “It is a gospel imperative because human beings are entrusted with the rest of God’s creation. It is there for us, not to plunder and not to dominate, but to care for.”
Pope Benedict also used his New Year’s message to address environmental issues. “We need to care for the environment: It has been entrusted to men and women to be protected and cultivated with responsible freedom, with the good of all as a constant guiding criterion,” the pope said. “One area where there is a particular need to intensify dialogue between nations is that of the stewardships of the Earth’s energy resources.”
The Holy See is trying to back up the pope’s words with practical actions. In 2007, the Vatican started buying carbon offsets to reduce its ecological footprint.
— AFP, 12/25;
Environmental News Service, 12/24, 1/1
Just for the record, grape Kool-Aid does not occur naturally. Unfortunately, nobody told the people in the Greek town of Oinofyta. The water in the Asopos River there started running purple 10 years ago, yet people continued to use the water for irrigation and personal use, in part because officials never warned them of potential health risks now being linked to the town’s water supply. In the past 18 years, the town’s cancer rate is reported to have risen from 6 percent to 32 percent, with 198 cancer-related deaths in a population of 3,000 people.
“When we lost our relatives, we started getting suspicious,” says Dina Fouki, a resident of Oinofyta. “But we didn’t know. How could we?”
Thanasis Panteloglou, a biochemical engineer, and Father Yannis, the local priest, are crusading to make authorities take action over the polluted Asopos, where the putrid-smelling water occasionally also runs red and black. “We are enraged over being fooled for so many years. We fear our health is damaged. We are desperate and angry,” Father Yannis says.
The river’s problems date back to 1969, when factories were given carte blanche to dump waste without restrictions into the Asopos. Although regulations were later established, many factories violated them by building illegal underground pipelines to transport untreated waste directly into the river. Government inspectors revealed 20 such pipelines after tests indicated that the Asopos contained high levels of chromium 6, a metal that can cause health damage through inhalation, ingestion, or merely through skin contact.
“When I heard it was so dangerous that you’re not even supposed to come into contact with it, I was terrified,” says Fouki, whose father died of cancer. “I have lost loved ones and will lose more. Something must be done.”
The companies responsible for the illegal pipelines have been fined a total of €1.4 million (US $2 million), the government has vowed to toughen anti-dumping laws, and plans are underway to supply Oinofyta with drinking water from somewhere else.
In the meantime, however, the water supply has yet to be shut off and continues to be used. “We don’t know the extent of the area that might be affected so far, but we are taking measurements,” says Evangelos Baltas, general secretary in the Environment Ministry.
While factories are denying wrongdoing and are challenging their fines in court, and town residents are searching for medical proof that the water is indeed having a negative effect on health, who will take charge to resolve the problem remains to be seen.
— Reuters, 12/6
A treaty signed 64 years ago is turning farms in northern Mexico into dust bowls.
The 1944 treaty stipulates that every five years, Mexico must transfer hundreds of thousands of gallons of water to the US from two dams that the countries share on the Rio Grande River. Whenever the transfer takes place, farms on the Mexican side of the 2,000-mile border suffer ruined harvests and immense hardship. It’s not just the farmers’ livelihoods that are at stake, however. The survival of the Rio Grande, North America’s fifth largest river, is also being threatened.
The Rio Grande, immortalized in Westerns and cowboy ballads, used to run freely from Colorado to the Gulf of Mexico. However, since the 1900s, dams and channels have altered the course of the legendary river. Diversion of the water for human use has caused a section of the river to trickle to a halt in El Paso, a city on the border of Texas and Mexico.
“The Rio Grande is one of the most stressed river basins in the world and water use is already at its limit,” says Casey Walsh, a water specialist at Mexico’s Iberoamericana University.
Demand for water use is likely to increase. The populations of Mexican cities near the Texas border are predicted to double over the next two decades, as retirees flood the area and trade increases in the region.
“It is going to be disastrous unless there is a change,” says Leslie Hopper of Sul Ross State University in Texas. “Companies, farmers, and government at the local, state, and federal levels need to work out a solution.”
Among possible solutions is a $150 million desalination plant planned for Brownsville, TX. El Paso has already opened such a facility, producing 27.5 million gallons of fresh water daily from previously unusable brackish groundwater.
In the meantime, a legal battle ensues as Mexico’s Supreme Court has been asked to rule whether or not the recent transfer of water from Mexico to the US is lawful. If the suit is successful, the water tug-of-war will continue in an international court as Mexico tries to force the US to give the water back.
— Reuters, 12/18
Divorce is a devastating experience. Adults in the midst of a crumbling relationship often become depressed, and children sometimes need psychological counseling to cope with the process. Now, a new study shows that when couples split up, the planet also feels the pain.
A survey by Michigan State University researchers Jianguo Liu and Eunice Yu, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, found that divorced families use up more resources than those that stay together. The reason is simple: When Mommy and Daddy live separately, they take up more space, consuming more energy, water, and land.
“The consequent increases in consumption of water and energy and using more space are being seen everywhere,” Liu says. “People have been talking about how to protect the environment and combat climate change, but divorce is an overlooked factor that needs to be considered.”
In studying the ecology of marriage and divorce, Liu and Yu examined the US and 11 other countries between 1998 and 2002. They found that if divorced couples were instead living together, there could have been 7.4 million fewer households in those countries. Divorcees required 38 million extra rooms, with concomitant increases for heating and lighting. In the US alone in 2005, divorced households used 73 billion kilowatt-hours of electricity and 627 billion gallons of water that would have been saved had the couple stayed married.
“A married household uses resources more efficiently than a divorced household,” Liu says. “This creates a challenging dilemma and requires more creative solutions.”
There is at least one solution at hand: re-marry. The study found that when divorced people got married again, their environmental footprint shrank back to that of consistently married households.
— Environment News Service (ENS), 12/3
While a smokestack billowing carbon dioxide has become the usual image of greenhouse gas pollution, an equally accurate symbol for global warming emissions might be a cow or sheep. According to recent studies, farmed ruminants account for one quarter of all global methane emissions, and since methane is approximately 20 times more heat trapping than CO2, our animal herds are a significant contributor to climate change.
Now, in an effort to reduce the methane from farmed animals, scientists in Australia are experimenting with giving kangaroo-style stomachs to cows and sheep.
Thanks to a special bacteria in their stomachs, kangaroos have no methane in their flatulence. Researchers are investigating how they can transfer that bacteria to ruminants to reduce the amount of harmful gas they expel, mostly as burps.
Scientists say that if the experiment works, a more efficient digestive process would reduce animal methane emissions while also saving farmers millions of dollars spent on feed.
“Not only would they not produce the methane, they would actually get something like 10 to 15 percent more energy out of the feed they are eating,” says Athol Klieve, a senior research scientist with the Queensland state government.
Researchers expect it will take at least three years to isolate the kangaroo stomach bacteria before they can even start to develop a way of transferring it to cattle and sheep.
In the meantime, a simpler solution might be to change farmed animals’ diets. Cattle that eat grass belch less than corn-fed cows, since it’s easier for the animals to digest grasses as they have evolved to do.
Another solution would be to alter humans’ diets. In Australia, at least, that could mean substituting kangaroo meat for beef or lamb. Since they are native to the continent and still wild, kangaroos roam the landscape finding their own food. Kangaroos are, as one Australian scientist put it, “the ultimate free range animal.”
— AFP, 12/5
The Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species banned the international sale of marine turtle products in 1977. But some turtle species, such as the hawksbill, have continued to be hunted illegally and turned into highly prized items such as guitar picks, hair combs, and eyeglass frames. Cuba was among the countries that continued to allow the hunting of hawksbill turtles. According to Dr. Susan Lieberman, director of the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) International’s Species Programme: “Cuba retained a legal fishery of 500 hawksbills a year, with the hope of being able to trade their shells internationally.”
Now, with the help of WWF and several other non-profit organizations, the Cuban government is trying to help the hawksbill and other turtle species make a comeback from the “critically endangered” list.
On January 19, Cuban instituted a ban on the harvesting of all species of turtles from the country’s waters. The new law is the result of negotiations between the WWF and the Cuban Ministry of Fisheries. The Canadian International Development Agency is supporting the agreement by co-sponsoring a grant with the WWF to provide more than $400,000 for turtle research and conservation efforts. The grant will allow two fishing communities in southern Cuba to make the transition from harvesting turtles to more environmentally friendly alternatives. Fishermen will be given technical assistance and educational opportunities to learn about the importance of turtle preservation. The money will also be used to strengthen Cuba’s Office for Fisheries Inspection, the department responsible for ensuring the ban is upheld.
“This far-sighted decision represents an outstanding outcome for Cuba, for the wider Caribbean, and for conservation,” says Lieberman. “Cuba is to be commended for the example it has set in intelligent decision-making informed by science and the long-term best interests of its people.”
— ENS, 1/28
In the last five months of 2007, deforestation in the Amazon surged dramatically, according to the Brazilian government. To prevent the increase in forest destruction, Brazil is considering a range of new anti-logging measures — including using the Brazilian army to carry out inspections of logging operations.
Some 94 square miles of rainforest were destroyed in August 2007. By December 2007, that number had skyrocketed to 364 square miles. Those numbers may be conservative estimates, as they don’t include analyses from satellite imagery. The area of forest cut down could be twice as high.
Environment Minister Marina Silva says the faster deforestation may be due to a rise in commodity prices. “It’s not a problem planting grains in Brazil, because they can be planted in sustainable conditions,” Silva says. “But you cannot deny that there was a rise in deforestation in the last months. Something new is happening, and new measures have to be taken.”
Among those measures: The government will put on hold any new logging requests in the 36 municipalities that accounted for half of the deforestation last year; landowners in those areas will have to prove they maintain preservation areas, and could be denied government credit if they fail to meet those requirements; and the soybean crushers and meat processors that buy commodities from deforested areas may be held responsible for their role in forest destruction.
Additionally, the government may call in the army to inspect some regions of the forest.
Agriculture Minister Reinhold Stephanes says he supports the new measures, but questions whether new croplands are responsible for the deforestation. “From an agricultural point of view, there is no need to increase deforestation in order to boost soy and beef output in the country,” he says.
— Reuters, 1/ 29
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