Dozens of flower farms surrounding Kenya’s Lake Naivasha are pulling so much water out of the lake that they threaten to wreck the local ecosystem. In an effort to preserve the area, Kenyan environmentalists are calling for a boycott on Naivasha flowers.
Reuters, Anthony Njugun
Flower cultivation is big business in Kenya. The $250 million industry – which exports blooms mostly to Europe – employs about 70,000 people and is the second largest foreign currency earner after tea. But the large-scale flower fields have a large ecological footprint. Biologists say that the 30 farms surrounding Lake Naivasha are contributing to a decline in water levels.
The Indigenous Biodiversity Environmental Conservation Association, a Kenyan green group, has launched a “Save Lake Naivasha” campaign to stop the unregulated water extraction. “We are ready to travel even to the Holland market and various supermarkets in the United Kingdom to have our case heard, as these flower farms are killing Lake Naivasha,” says James Kahora, executive director of the group.
Located about 60 miles northwest of Nairobi, Naivasha is considered a biodiversity hot spot. It is home to about 400 bird species – including the famous flocks of pink flamingos – as well as hippos. Bird lovers consider it one of the top bird-watching locations in the world, and environmentalists say that any lake degradation could impact another important sector of the Kenyan economy – tourism.
Maasai herders also complain that the flower farms have closed local animal corridors, making it hard for them to water their livestock. “The farmers found the Maasai here and we shall not stand back and watch as the only natural resource we know is killed by profit-oriented investors,” says Andrew Ole Korinko, a local Maasai leader.
– Agence France-Presse, 6/23
It’s okay to club 85,000 seals to death for their fur – but not okay to film the individuals responsible.
That’s what two journalists learned when they took videos of seal hunters in Namibia in mid-July. Jim Wilckens, a British reporter, and a South African cameraman, Bart Smithers, were charged and found guilty of offenses against the Namibian Marine Resources Act for entering a restricted area where the hunt occurs. Their fines of $5,000 Namibian dollars (roughly US$625) were paid, and the two packed their gear. “We are happy this is over and we will leave as soon as possible,” Wilckens told reporters.
The duo was on assignment with Bont Voor Dieren (Fur For Animals), a Dutch organization dedicated to protection of all things furry, whose Web site states that their activism is done “using entirely legal and nonviolent means.” Bont Voor Dieren had commissioned Ecostorm, the investigative media agency with which Wilckens is affiliated, to film the seal-hunting activity.
Andrew Wasley, co-director of Ecostorm, says that both Wilckens and Smithers were assaulted while in custody. A Namibian police officer denied the allegations. “One of the two reporters laid a charge of physical assault, but no one has been arrested yet,” the officer says.
During the annual seal hunt, which starts July 1, about 85,000 seal pups are killed for their pelts while some 6,000 bulls are shot. This year, animal rights activists sought to stop the slaughter by buying out the Australian company that oversees the clubbing. But the animal rights groups, including Seal Alert South Africa and Humane Society International, failed to come up with enough money to close the deal.
“I told them, ‘You want to buy me out, buy me out,’” says Hatem Yavuz, owner of the pelt trading company. “They kept the money in their pocket. … Nothing came from these associations and we have begun the annual
– AFP, 7/17 & 7/24
The world’s largest school of sardines began its annual migration along South Africa’s east coast in June, but some of the fish played hooky this year. Rising ocean temperatures kept them away.
Ken Knezick – Island Dreams
The sardine run typically includes up to 10 million fish. Beginning in the cold waters off Cape Point, the mass of fish swim north for 1,250 miles, hugging the coast as they head toward the port of Durban. The spectacle attracts not only dolphins, sharks, and seabirds that feast on the miles-long school, but also packs of up to 100,000 tourists who come to watch the show.
According to Sean O’Donoghue, a researcher at the University of KwaZulu-Natal, “Our best sardine runs happen when the water is cold. Water is still warm along the KwaZulu-Natal coast and at this stage, things are not looking good.”
Sardines prefer to swim in water cooler than 68 degrees F, a temperature the waters along the South African coast usually reach during the region’s winter months of June and July. As the water gets hotter, coastal residents may experience a gradual loss of herring.
“The temperature along the KwaZulu-Natal coast is rising just above what sardines can tolerate. We are really at the limit. If the temperature gets warmer with the global warming … sardines are unlikely to come as far up the coast,” O’Donoghue says.
– AFP, 6/22
Water lilies love garbage. For years, thickets of lilies have thrived on the solid waste in the Zapote River, which runs through Manila’s slums, where there are no proper facilities to handle the sewage. The plants, though beautiful, are considered a problem, since they block water flow and cause flooding that damages homes.
“Residents have complained that the water lilies are a menace because they cause floods and they don’t serve any use,” says Vangie Dalosa of the Zapote River Rehabilitation Project. “They’ve approached us in the government and asked us to get rid of them.”
Government efforts to remove the lilies have failed. Now, local residents have found a crafty way to use the plants that line the waterway to line their pockets instead: They weave the stems of the lilies into bags, baskets, and lamps for export to the US.
Entrepreneur Ophelia So began the handicraft project and employs 20 people to produce the goods from the lilies. One of the employees, Jun Corpuz, a father of four, says, “This helps us with everyday expenses. Depending on our output, say we can produce 50 pieces. That’s enough to buy our meals for one whole day.”
As the company harvests the lilies, the flooding often caused by the plants has diminished. While the government continues its efforts to clean up the polluted river, some who now view the plants as a source of income fear the flow of cleaner water may mean the end of their cash flow. However, given that Manila produces 8,000 tons of solid waste each day, much of which ends up in the river, that scenario is not likely around the bend.
– Reuters, 6/1
Scottish sheep have to be tough to survive their country’s rugged winters. In the past, only the biggest sheep with the thickest coats would see spring. Eventually, the larger sheep became the majority of the herd’s population as their hearty offspring kept passing on their genes. According to Darwin’s theory of evolution, sheep would become larger over time, since size offers a competitive advantage against the cold.
The sheep on Hirta in the stormy Outer Hebrides, however, are getting smaller, and the reason appears to be that climate change is making the winters milder.
“In the past, only the big, healthy sheep and large lambs that had piled on weight in their first summer could survive the harsh winters on Hirta,” says Tim Coulson, a professor at London’s Imperial College who has analyzed 24 years of data tabulating sheep size. “But now, due to climate change, grass for food is available for more months of the year and survival conditions are not so challenging – even the slower-growing sheep have a chance of making it, and this means smaller individuals are becoming increasingly prevalent in the population.”
The haggis portions will be only slightly less. Sheep size has fallen an average of just 2.85 ounces per year. More important is the fact that climate change is affecting the evolution of animals in more ways than can possibly be predicted. Only time will tell whether climate change will shrink the number of Scottish bagpipe players.
– AFP, 7/2
Call it a case of fact following fiction.
Moviegoers may remember that the plot of the latest James Bond film, Quantum of Solace, pivoted on a scheme by a global crime cartel to use a fake eco-organization as a front for buying up the world’s precious resources and then re-selling them at exorbitant prices. Just a case of Hollywood storytelling, you say?
Well, in a similar real life case, officials at Interpol, the world’s largest international police agency, are warning that organized crime syndicates may be eyeing carbon offsets as a way to commit fraud and smuggle illegally cut forest products.
Government negotiators seeking to create an international agreement to replace the Kyoto Protocol have proposed a plan known as Reduced Emissions from Deforestation and Degradation (REDD). Each year, about 20 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions are caused by deforestation – an amount roughly equivalent to the emissions of the US or China. Preserving forest ecosystems will help absorb all the carbon emitted by industry.
Under REDD, heavily forested countries such as Brazil, Indonesia, or Congo could place a monetary value on the amount of carbon they save by not cutting down their trees. They could sell those carbon credits to big polluters looking to offset their emissions.
Environmental organizations have cautioned that turning trees into carbon credits won’t really reduce industrial emissions, and that it could hinder the overall effort to address climate change by devaluing the cost of polluting. “You’d have rich countries basically paying the poorer countries in the world to reduce emissions for them,” says Greenpeace climate campaigner Paul Wynn.
Friends of the Earth warns in a recent report that “the simple fact that forests are becoming an increasingly valuable commodity means that they are more likely to be wrested away from local people.”
Wrested away, for example, by Mafioso strongmen. Peter Younger, an environmental crimes specialist at Interpol, says that with any valuable commodity, there comes a chance for fraud.
“If you are going to trade any commodity on the open market, you are creating a profit and loss situation,” Younger says. “There will be fraudulent trading of carbon credits.”
Younger says that the fraud could consist of claiming credits for forests that do not exist or were taken in land grabs. “Absolutely, organized crime will be involved,” he says. “It starts with bribery or intimidation of officials that can impede your business. If there are Indigenous people involved, there’s threats and violence against those people. There’s forged documents.”
According to Younger, organized crime groups are already using the networks they set up for smuggling children, women, drugs, and firearms for the illegal trade of forest products and wildlife. There is also evidence that revenue from wood smuggling has funded armed conflicts.
Dealing with the situation will take more than your typical public interest lobbying, letter writing, and protest tactics. “You say you want to strike up partnerships to address illegal logging – who with?” Young wonders. “Consider law enforcement efforts and not just relying on NGOs and other nice people to do it for you.”
– Reuters, 6/1; AFP, 6/2
Illegal logging takes a toll in a number of ways: ecosystem degradation, climate change exacerbation, lost government revenues, and a reduction in prices for legally harvested wood. The World Bank estimates that every year, lumber-producing nations lose $10 billion from illegally cut wood.
The solution, according to a British technology company, is to attach barcodes to trees. Each tree over a certain size is given an individual barcode. The codes, similar to those found on supermarket products, appear on plastic tags that are hammered into the trees and their stumps. Millions of barcodes already have been placed on trees in Africa, Southeast Asia, and South America, including in countries such as Indonesia and Ghana that are notorious for illegal logging.
Helveta, the British company behind this venture, says the barcodes will help forestry firms comply with US and European laws governing sustainable timber imports. The company explains the technology on its Web site: “Business information is captured in the forest or on the factory floor using handheld devices equipped with Helveta’s proprietary mobile device management software …[which] combines handheld data entry with data from GPS, RFID and bar code readers to gather accurate records of how assets are being managed and processed in the forest or factory.”
The system will require the participation of governments and companies in the countries where illegal logging is most rampant. While a plastic barcode might not be much of a match against a criminal with a chainsaw, the system will, if used properly, make it more difficult for the masterminds to sell their goods, assuming that the purchasers aren’t equally bent on illegal activity. Timber leaving a forest or a factory without a barcode will automatically be viewed as suspect.
Patrick Newton, CEO of Helveta, says that his company brings “transparency and visibility where historically that has probably been limited at best.”
– Reuters, 7/12
The Walt Disney Company has a reputation for being a paragon of family values, but residents of Glendale, California say that the company has been a less-than-ideal neighbor, claiming that Disney’s Imagineering headquarters has for decades contaminated groundwater with cancer-causing chromium 6 and other toxic chemicals.
In a lawsuit filed in Los Angeles Superior Court in June, 16 people who live in Glendale’s Rancho District allege that Disney dumped wastewater contaminated with hexavalent chromium from its on-site cooling systems down a major street and into an 11-acre field where people regularly play sports and ride horses. The plaintiffs became aware of the toxins – including trichloroethylene and tetrachloroethylene – in February, after representatives from Environmental World Watch revealed the results of ongoing soil tests.
The Imagineering facility is responsible for designing and building the attractions at the Disney theme parks. Neighbors, however, say living near the headquarters is no joyride.
“We’re afraid of the consequences of living in this house,” says plaintiff Robin McCall, whose husband began to develop “huge open sores that itched and oozed” three years ago. “Ultimately, I care more about the bodies than I do [the] property. I want the … homes that are contaminated to be cleaned up.”
Disney officials have denied the charges in the lawsuit and have pointed to a 2006 investigation by the California Department of Toxic Substances Control that found chromium amounts in the area “below levels of concern.”
“We believe these lawsuits are grossly inaccurate and meritless,” company spokesman Jonathan Friedland says.
Residents, though, remain concerned. Dennis Weisenbaugh, one of the plaintiffs, says that three of his horses that he rode in the area have had to be put down after suffering from laminitis, a foot inflammation. His former office manager, Gene Montoya, died two years ago from liver failure after working in the area for years.
Weisenbaugh says people should stay out of the playing fields – popular with high school cross-country runners and young bicycle riders – until the issue is settled. “There are other places to play,” he says. “Keep them out of there until we know it’s safe.”
– Glendale News Press (CA), 6/15
Many pesticides that are banned in the US still find their way into the country as residue on produce imported from countries in which the pesticides’ use is not restricted. Phorate, for example, is a granular pesticide commonly used on coffee crops, and is particularly hazardous for birds that forage for seeds and grit. Prior to phorate being banned in the US, the American Bird Conservancy recorded nearly 3,000 bird deaths in 32 separate incidents related to the toxic compound. Diazinon, used on kiwi fruit crops, has proven even more deadly. More than 400 incidents of its use have been linked to the deaths of nearly 5,000 birds.
In an effort to protect US migratory birds, the American Bird Conservancy (ABC) has petitioned the EPA to ban the import of crops containing any residues of 13 pesticides that are banned or restricted in the US. “Allowing residues of these hazardous pesticides on imported food gives tacit US approval to foreign countries to use chemicals that are known to be deadly to US migratory birds,” says Dr. Michael Fry, ABC’s director of conservation advocacy.
Agricultural areas provide valuable habitat for migratory birds, and pesticide use in those areas can pose a significant threat to bird populations. “The EPA must protect US migratory birds on their wintering grounds by preventing these pesticides from being imported on food products,” Fry says. “Doing so will encourage the use of safer pesticides and organic farming practices by foreign growers, at least for those crops that are imported into the US.”
The EPA’s answer has yet to arrive, but if you see fewer bananas in your supermarket this winter, console yourself with the thought that you may see more bluebirds in the spring.
– American Bird Conservancy, 8/4
The recent slump has shown that in an economy driven by consumption, grim financial news can come with a kind of green consolation. For example, the recession has contributed to a drop in US CO2 emissions (down 3 percent in 2008) and in the amount of waste sent to landfills (down 10 to 30 percent in some areas). Rising unemployment has led to a decrease in traffic in some major cities.
Add to that list of green benefits the fact that Amtrak trains are zipping along like never before. The reason? As the economy contracts, freight cargo on the nation’s rail lines is diminishing, and that makes it easier for passenger trains to get to their destinations.
With the exception of the Washington-Boston corridor and a section of Michigan, Amtrak trains share the railways with the cargo companies. Federal law requires that passenger trains be given priority over freight. But since the freight companies own the rails, cargo trains often receive the right-of-way. As anyone who has ever ridden Amtrak long distance knows, it’s not unusual for passengers to wait hours, in the middle of the night or the middle of nowhere, for freight cars to pass.
“If you have everybody on one track, you have a lot of delays,” says Vernae Graham, a spokeswoman with Amtrak. “It’s one lane of traffic for trains moving in two directions. If you have freight that is backlogged or a disabled train, you have nowhere to go.”
Just like on the freeways, a limping economy means less congestion on the rail lines. Freight traffic has dropped about one-fifth since last year as the shipment of coal, metals, and corn decreases.
At the same time, Amtrak is showing its best on-time performance in more than 20 years. So far this year, the company is posting close to an 80 percent on-time rate, up from 73 percent in 2008. Some routes have shown spectacular gains.
In 2008, the California Zephyr, which goes from Chicago to San Francisco, arrived in Grand Junction, Colorado on schedule 44 percent of the time; in March this year, it hit its scheduled stop there 92 percent of the time.
The improved service has Amtrak passengers thrilled: “This is the best trip I’ve ever been on,” Sally Lloyd, a
retiree from East Lansing, Michigan said as she disembarked the California Zephyr. “We were an hour early getting into Chicago, and only 20 minutes late here.”
Lloyd, who has taken a cross-country Amtrak trip every year for the past decade, said that in the past she has experienced excruciating delays. The worst delay she ever had was nine hours long. “You just sit there until the freight goes by. And it’s getting later and later, and you’re not getting any further. It’s very frustrating.”
The improved performance comes at a crucial time for Amtrak. In 2008, the company set an all-time ridership record as high gas prices boosted interest in mass transit. A five-year reauthorization bill that passed Congress in October 2008 means that for the first time in decades, Amtrak won’t have to seek yearly congressional support, giving the company time to make strategic investments.
Obama’s economic stimulus package includes $8.1 billion for Amtrak improvements, and the company now has a strong advocate in the White House – longtime Amtrak commuter Vice President Joseph Biden.
For Amtrak to capitalize on these advantages, it must, at the very least, get its trains to run on time. According to James McCommons, author of the forthcoming book Waiting on a Train: The Embattled Future of Passenger Rail Service, people don’t necessarily expect the train to be quick, but they do need it to be reliable.
“It’s important for people to be able to depend on this service,” he says. “It isn’t so much speed. It’s frequency and dependability. People want to know that there is going to be a train there when they head home at night.”
Perhaps rail aficionados – who favor Amtrak’s relaxing atmosphere and communal spirit over the frenzy and isolation of the airport – have something to teach the engineers of our now-derailed economy.
Speed, in fact, isn’t everything. Steadiness is more likely to get us where we need to go.
– Alternet.org, 6/23
Camels were introduced to Australia from the Canary Islands in 1840. Since then, the population of feral camels has grown to an estimated one million, and their numbers are expected to double every nine years.
As the long-range forecast for Australia predicts the continuation of the continent’s drought and a temperature increase of at least 1 degree Celsius, camels may soon venture more often onto cultivated land in search of food and water. As they come in closer contact with humans and their livestock, the camels might bring with them such diseases as bluetongue, rinderpest, Rift Valley fever, and bovine tuberculosis.
Lecturer Peter Dempster of Charles Darwin University in Alice Springs thinks the solution is to convince Australians to eat the pests. The result will be good not only for the environment, but also for the Aboriginal population.
Dempster, who works with Indigenous communities, says, “If we can convince Australians to eat camel once a fortnight, this niche market has the capacity to create a major sustainable job-creating enterprise in the bush,” he says.
“Industry experts and government agencies are now viewing population control as an opportunity for a vibrant industry,” he adds.
Phil Gee, an Australian camel expert, believes Dempster’s plan may hit a few bumps along the way before it becomes reality. “It will require investment in new abattoirs that can handle the camels, yards, and specific handling courses that help stockmen humanely manage these animals,” he says. “Industry and government can join to create an economically and environmentally viable industry employing Indigenous people to help resolve the feral camel problem.”
Geoff Deans, manager of the Charles Darwin University’s Anangu Gateways program, says a camel meat industry would allow Aboriginal people to stay on the land.
“Working with these blokes, I can see them stepping up to the next level,” he said. “Anangu people want to work and live on their lands, and I strongly believe a sustainable community enterprise like this is the way ahead.”
As of yet, no research has been done on whether eating camel meat will allow Australians, whose water supply is dwindling, to go farther between drinks.
– Courier Mail, 6/3; UPI, 6/18
The tiny nation of Tuvalu, a group of islands halfway between Australia and Hawai‘i, stands to lose a lot from climate change. The low-lying archipelago, home to 12,000 residents, is just 15 feet above sea level. In the 20th century, sea level rose six inches, and is estimated to rise seven inches to two feet by 2100. By that time, Tuvalu will be sunk.
To demonstrate to the world that energy self-sufficiency and a reduction in greenhouse gas emissions is possible, the nation has set a goal of switching entirely to renewable energy by 2020. Solar panels installed in 2008 on the roof of the stadium in the Tuvalu capital of Funafuti currently generate five percent of the residents’ electrical needs.
“We look forward to the day when our nation offers an example to all – powered entirely by natural resources such as the sun and the wind,” says Kausea Natano, Tuvalu’s minister for public utilities and industries. “We are hoping to secure assistance from our traditional donor partners and any other funding assistance to achieve (the) ultimate goal.”
So far, Tuvalu’s biggest heroes have been the Italian government, which has funded an $800,000 solar power system, and Japan’s Kansai Electric Power Company and Tokyo Electric Power Company. Both Japanese firms are member of the e8, an international nonprofit organization created after the 1992 Rio Summit. The e8 is composed of 10 leading electricity companies from G8 countries, with a mission “to play an active role in global electricity issues within the international framework and to promote sustainable energy development through electricity sector projects and human capacity building activities in developing and emerging nations worldwide.”
“The plight of Tuvalu versus the rising tide vividly represents the worst early consequence of climate change,” says Takao Shiraishi, general manager of the Kansai Electric Power Company.
Tuvalu’s efforts to reverse the tide of climate change are particularly noteworthy, considering the island nation is among the least responsible for the emissions that are causing the phenomenon. The nation’s annual per capita CO2 emissions are 0.4 tons. For residents of the United States? More than 20 tons per person every year.
– Reuters, 7/20
For nearly 50 years – and through the course of 10 presidents – the US embargo against Cuba has been an unshakable part of US foreign policy. But nothing influences the thinking of US officials quite like the prospect of large petroleum reserves. As the Cuban government trumpets its possible offshore oil potential, some are saying that petroleum politics could grease a collapse of US trade restrictions.
No one knows exactly how much oil lies in Cuban waters. A 2004 survey by the US Geological Survey estimated that about 5 billion barrels of oil are beneath Cuba’s northern seabed. Havana says the number is more like 20 billion barrels, an amount that would place the small, impoverished nation among the world’s top oil producers. The Spanish firm Repsol has done some test drilling in the region, however, and didn’t find enough petroleum to warrant further exploration.
Still, oil companies are lining up to examine the area. The Chinese have expressed interest in the site, and Brazil’s Petrobras, a leader in offshore drilling, last year signed a deal with the Cuban government to do some exploration. US oil giants are also eager to get in on the action, and they say that only American firms will keep the US environment in mind when drilling an area 100 miles from Florida beaches.
The idea of US oil multinationals extracting oil in Communist-controlled waters isn’t entirely unthinkable. “We are open to US oil companies interested in exploration, production, and services,” Juan Fleites, vice president of the state oil company, Cubapetroleo, has said.
Since he came into office, President Obama has loosened some of the policies toward Cuba, allowing Cuban-Americans to travel freely to the island. The Council on Hemispheric Affairs, a Washington policy organization, says lifting the embargo could “be of value to the oil-needy United States.”
Still, the anti-Castro lobby in Miami remains committed to maintaining what the Cubans consider a “blockade.” In 2006, when disgraced Idaho Senator Larry Craig suggested ending the embargo for the sake of oil, Representative Lincoln Diaz-Balart compared the proposal to genocide. “Those are the same kind of people who would sell ovens to the Nazis,” Diaz-Balart said.
– United Press International, 6/11
Bo Derek once remarked, “Whoever said money can’t buy happiness simply didn’t know where to go shopping.” Derek may have ranked a 10 on the movie screen, but her spurious advice on living helps explain why the United States fell so low on the recently released Happy Planet Index (HPI), an indicator that measures a country’s ecological footprint in combination with the general happiness of its citizens.
The US found itself far down in the bottom half of the list of 143 nations, at position 114. Costa Rica received the highest score (76.1 out of a possible 100). Its citizens – famous for answering a simple “How are you?” with the nation’s unofficial slogan, “Pura vida,” or “pure life” – reported the highest life satisfaction in the world. Costa Ricans live slightly longer than people in the US, even though the country’s ecological footprint is a quarter of that of North Americans. Of the top 10 countries on the list, nine were from Central America, the Caribbean, or South America.
The HPI is the work of the New Economics Foundation (NEF), a UK-based “independent think-and-do tank that inspires and demonstrates real economic well-being.” By using indicators other than the standard measure of economic growth to demonstrate progress, the NEF hopes to find a model that places a greater emphasis on people and the planet. NEF researcher and the report’s lead author, Saamah Abdallah, says, “We need a new development model that delivers good lives, that doesn’t cost the Earth, for all.”
The report demonstrates that long, happy lives are possible even with smaller ecological footprints. Although combined indicators for life satisfaction and life expectancy have risen by 15 percent over a 45-year period for some wealthy nations, the ecological footprint of those countries has rocketed by 72 percent. Emerging economic powerhouses China and India have seen their HPI scores drop over the same period, a sign that economic growth carries a huge environmental price tag.
The Netherlands got the highest score among industrialized Western nations. People there live slightly longer than US residents and have similar levels of satisfaction while at the same time using only half as many resources.
NEF has written a “Happy Planet Charter” that calls for a “new narrative” of human progress that encourages reducing consumption while supporting meaningful lives. You can sign the charter – which outlines 10 goals for a perfect 10 world – at happyplanetindex.org.
– The Guardian (UK), 7/4
For $15 you can get four issues of the magazine, a 50 percent savings off the newsstand rate.