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Biodiversity Bonanza

The Indian Ocean island of Madagascar has dramatically reduced deforestation as the country’s leaders try to attract tourists who are interested in exploring the nation’s unique ecosystems.

photo of baobab trees in a sunny savannah; land rover evidentphotos.com Tourist attraction: Madagascar is halting deforestation and has set aside 10 percent of its land for nature reserves.

Scientists believe that Madagascar’s land mass broke away from Africa 160 million years ago, which left the island’s unique flora and fauna to evolve in isolation. The fourth largest island in the world, Madagascar is home to five percent of plant and animal species. Endemic to Madagascar are 11,500 species of plants, hundreds of species of birds, and 50 species of lemurs, making the nation a biodiversity hotspot like no other place on Earth.

“We have a unique biodiversity. Eighty percent of our species are endemic. Our neighboring countries, like Mauritius, the Seychelles, or even Reunion cannot compete with us in this respect,” says Harison Edmond Randriarimanana, Madagascar’s environment and tourism minister. “We are going to sell this to tourists.”

With the prospect of tourist dollars as his motivation, President Marc Ravalomanana has increased efforts to protect the environment through a combination of tree-planting, community involvement, and increasing the size of nature reserves, which are slated to cover 10 percent of Madagascar’s surface area.

So far, Ravalomanana’s plan appears to be working. After reviewing recent satellite images, conservation groups say that deforestation in nature reserves has fallen from 0.8 percent per year in the 1990s to an annual rate of 0.1 percent, an improvement of 800 percent. The effect is good not only for tourists, but also for the entire planet’s health, since forests can absorb substantial amounts of greenhouse gases.

“We think deforestation has been too neglected in the climate change debate,” says James MacKinnon, who works for Conservation International in Madagascar. “We need to do a lot. But the important thing is that the trend is in the right direction, which is not the case for every country in the world.”

— Reuters, 3/11

There Has Been Blood

Already battered by decades of civil war, some villagers in southern Sudan are now suffering from the country’s booming oil industry, which has displaced people from their homes and is poisoning their water. The country’s infamous humanitarian disaster is being compounded by an ecological catastrophe.

Despite sanctions to punish the Sudanese government for the genocide in Darfur, foreign investment in the country’s oil industry is skyrocketing, fueled by energy-hungry nations such as China and Malaysia that are helping the Sudanese to build a petroleum infrastructure. For the elite, the new oil investment — which reached $2.3 billion in 2006 — means swanky hotels, shopping malls, roads, and electricity lines. But for many others, the oil projects have led to disease and even death.

“Since 2006, 27 adults and three children have died because of contamination from the oil field,” says Paul Bol Ruoth, county commissioner in Koch, who has helped lead the fight against the Thar Jath oil refinery. Villagers say thousands of people were forcibly evicted from their homes to make way for the oil facility in south-central Sudan. “The company has no right. It’s our people who have right over their land because they need it for grazing and clean water.”

More than 1,000 people in the area are now sick with unknown illnesses, which many attribute to the refinery. When oil is extracted from the nearby oil fields, large amounts of saline water are injected into the soil to maintain the pressure of the oil reservoirs. This creates high salinity in the drinking water, and concentrates nitrates at levels well above what is considered safe.

“Since the water is contaminated, we have lost several cows and goats,” says an elder from the Nuer ethnic group. “We need help.”

The oil extraction and refining threatens the health of Sudan’s Sudd wetlands, one of the world’s largest mazes of swamps and lagoons. One oil employee, who asked that reporters not disclose his name, says he has seen oil workers dumping industrial wastes into pits that will flood into the area’s swamps during the rainy season. “I usually see men in aprons dig up huge pits and dump toxic waste. They do not let anybody near that area.”

Some villagers are threatening guerilla attacks against the oil corporations unless the government responds to the public’s concerns.

“If the government ignores us, we will go Nigeria style,” says Martin Luang, a rugged middle-aged villager, referring to the kidnapping of oil workers and pipeline attacks in the Niger Delta.

“We do not care about the new development they promised us,” says Peter Riek Gieng, a now unemployed laborer who helped to build the refinery. “All we need is our old, clean environment.”

— Agence France-Presse, 3/4


photo of women at a well in arid landReuters / Khaled Abdullah Ali Al MahdiUnless the Yemeni government is better
able to manage the country’s
scarce water resources, millions of
people may be forced from their homes.

Bottom of the Well

The desert nation of Yemen is running out of water — and the Yemeni government’s inability to cope with the impending disaster may be a glimpse of things to come as the globe’s freshwater resources decline.

According to the country’s water and environment minister, 19 of Yemen’s 21 freshwater aquifers are being depleted more quickly than rainfall can recharge them. In some areas — including around the capital, Sanaa — groundwater sources are on the verge of collapse.

“This is almost inevitable because of the geography and climate of Yemen, coupled with uncontrolled population and very low capacity for managing resources,” says Abdul-Rahman al-Iryani, Yemen’s minister for water and the environment.

In recent generations, Yemen’s population has skyrocketed. In the 1940s, Sanaa had 60,000 residents; today it’s home to close to two million people. The country’s total population of 22 million people is growing at a rate of about three percent a year. This is putting enormous pressure on the nation’s already scarce water resources; some parts of Yemen get as little as four inches of rain a year.

Poor water management exacerbates the situation. About 90 percent of the country’s water is used to irrigate qat, a mild narcotic used widely in Yemeni society. Qat cultivation is growing by 10 percent a year, and efforts to encourage water conservation are undermined by large government fuel subsidies that make it cheap to pump water from deep wells, thus masking the true cost of water. The vast majority of water drilling is unlicensed, and the government has been unable to enforce irrigation laws, because politically connected tribal chiefs and military officers dominate the qat industry.

“Regarding water, we don’t have the will or the means,” Iryani says. “The worst abusers of the system are the big shots, the people with power.”

Any nation would find this situation daunting. For Yemen, a poor country where 45 percent of the population survives on less than $2 a day, the odds of successfully managing the crisis are tough. Forty percent of Yemeni urban households are not linked to water mains, and two-thirds lack proper sanitation.

In the Yemeni countryside, where 75 percent of the population still lives, people depend on wells that are often far from their homes.

“We come here three or four times a day,” says Adiba Sena, a woman who lives in the village of Beit Hujara. She hauls buckets of water 20 feet from the bottom of a local well, then pours the water into cans that she ties onto her donkey. “We use it to clean, cook, wash — we have no pipes that reach us.”

Unless the government finds a way to better manage its water, millions of people might eventually be forced to move from the dry highlands to the wetter coastal plain.

“Amran and Sanaa are probably very close to collapse,” says Ramon Scoble, a German NGO worker who runs a water project in the country. “Saada, in the far north, may be next in line.”

Current water shortages are already contributing to health problems. Many Yemenis suffer from kidney ailments.

“There are people aged 20 with kidney stones because they simply don’t drink enough water,” Scoble says.

— Reuters, 3/3

Earning Their Stripes

India’s entire population of tigers is estimated at 1,411. It’s very likely that the figure is so low, the number isn’t even being rounded to the nearest hundred; those extra 11 tigers make a big difference. This sorry figure is half of the estimated 2002 population, and about 3.5 percent of what it was 100 years ago.

Saving the tigers of India will mean spending a lot of money. Finance Minister Palaniappan Chidambaram recently announced the government’s plan to use $12.5 million to create a Tiger Protection Force. Until now, tigers have been left virtually unprotected from rampant poaching. Poor funding has meant that forest guards have gone unpaid, and several positions have been left vacant as a result.

India has earmarked an estimated $150 million for tiger conservation over the next five years. Part of this money will be used to establish eight new tiger reserves, and to move low-income or no-income people off the current 28 reserves. The logic is that these individuals must be removed from the area because they are actually assisting poachers to ensure their own survival, and are causing further destruction to tiger habitat as they cut down trees in the area.

Conservation groups say the recruits for the tiger protection force should come from those very communities as a way of pulling them away from the poachers and using their intimate knowledge of the terrain.

“Any benefit of a program has to show on the ground,” says A. Johnsingh, wildlife expert and adviser to World Wildlife Fund-India.

— Reuters, 3/3

Troubled Waters

Pollution. Constant traffic. Overfishing. Life isn’t easy for the 200 Indo-Pacific humpback dolphins struggling to survive near Hong Kong’s Chek Lap Kok International Airport. But since the pinkish-toned humpbacks, also known as Chinese white dolphins, have managed to hold their population steady over the past 10 years, project planners seem to think that the species can handle even more punishment. After all, what’s a few more threats?

photo of a busy urban harbourReuters / Bobby YipHong Kong’s harbor is a crowded place for a dolphin to
find a home.

The initial construction of the Chek Lap Kok airport in 1998 destroyed a large area of the highly territorial dolphins’ habitat. Two islands — Chek Lap Kok and Lam Chau — were merged through land reclamation techniques to pave the way for the airport’s construction. Soon to be added to the dolphins’ checklist of things to contend with will be several proposed construction projects, including a 19-mile bridge to Macau, a new town project on Lantau, and a third runway at the overtaxed airport, located on Lantau Island.

Dolphin conservation groups warn that these additional stresses may be more than the already suffering population can handle.

“The proposed third runway is quite close to some important habitats, so that will further bring some disturbance to the dolphin population,” says Samuel Hung, chairman of the Hong Kong Dolphin Conservation Society, founded in 2003. “There is already a lot of development pressure in that area and it poses a great threat to the dolphins, so I think if there’s an additional project, that will be quite a disaster for the dolphins.”

— Reuters, 3/28


Norwegian Wails

If a Norwegian-based pro-whaling lobby has its way, the environmentalists’ rallying cry of “Save the Whales” will soon be changed to “Save the Whales…for Lunch!”

photo of whalemeat in a market, with prices in a nordic languageCourtesy of © Greenpeace/ McCollSave the whales … for lunch? Norwegian
whalers say whale meat makes for a low-carbon diet.

Norway and Japan, the two largest whaling nations in the world, are seeking new arguments to justify their break with a 1986 moratorium on whaling designed to protect certain species from extinction. The latest strategy is designed to appeal to those concerned about climate change. Representatives of the High North Alliance (HNA), a coalition of hunters, whalers, and ship owners, recently released a study they say demonstrates that eating whale meat is better for the climate than eating farmed livestock.

The study focuses on the amount of greenhouse gas emissions created by whaling versus animal farming. Whaling creates emissions through the fuel burned to power the ships; farming, however, affects the climate through use of fertilizer, tractors, and plows to grow feed, not to mention the methane gas that is created by the animals themselves. According to the study’s results, every 2.2 pounds of whale meat represents 4.2 pounds of greenhouse gases; the equivalent amount of beef represents 15.8 pounds of greenhouse gas. Putting pork on your fork results in 6.4 pounds, and chicken weighs in at 4.6 pounds.

“Basically it turns out that the best thing you can do for the planet is to eat whale meat compared to other types of meat,” says HNA’s Rune Froevik.

“Greenhouse gas emissions caused by one meal of beef are the equivalent of eight meals of whale meat,” the study says.

What does Greenpeace make of all this blubbering? “The survival of a species is more important than lower greenhouse gas emissions from eating it,” says Greenpeace campaigner Truls Gulowsen. “Almost every food is more climate friendly than meat. Most fish and seafood have similarly low emissions.”

Although the International Whaling Commission (IWC) sought to resolve the deadlock between pro- and anti-whaling nations in a meeting in London in March, the tensions will likely continue, as the IWC generally leaves pro-whalers with a bad taste in their mouths.

Froevik says the IWC is a group devoted to an outright ban of whaling rather than one that seeks to regulate hunts through strict controls. “We compare it to a soccer club where the only rule is that soccer is forbidden,” he says.

— Reuters, 3/4


Corn Nuts

photo of a man harvesting an ear of corn in a fieldReuters / Imelda Medina Many Mexican farmers fear that the introduction of genetically modified corn could threaten unique
strains of the plant, which was first domesticated in Mesoamerica.

Many small farmers in Mexico are outraged by a recent government decision to allow the experimental planting of some strains of genetically modified (GM) corn.

Corn was domesticated in Mexico and has been grown there for as long as 9,000 years. Home to more than 10,000 varieties of corn, Mexico is just now allowing the cultivation of GM corn, a move that some fear could irreversibly alter the genetic diversity of the crop.

To date, Mexico has resisted following the path of the US, where more than 70 percent of corn crops are genetically modified. While the experimental planting of GM corn seeds will be allowed only in those parts of the country that are far from the “centers of origin” of unique varieties of corn, farmers fear that cross-pollination with native species of the plant may eventually lead to widespread contamination.

“This is a step in the government’s intention to bow to pressure from Monsanto to allow the contamination of Mexico’s native corn,” says
Victor Suarez, leader of a group of small farmers who oppose GM crops.

Despite the wide variety of corn found in Mexico, the country annually imports between 8 and 9 million tons of the crop from the US, approximately one-third of its total consumption.

Now, as US corn prices hit record highs of nearly $6 a bushel due to the increased demand of corn for biofuels, some GM backers say that Mexico can cut its corn imports by growing GM varieties that produce higher yields at a lower cost.

Another country struggling with the high price of non-GM corn is Japan, the world’s largest importer of corn. While Japan has purchased GM corn for animal feed for many years, only a very small portion of the GM imports have been used in human foods such as soft drinks and other processed goods. But as non-GM supplies shrink, industry sources indicate that the price of the dwindling commodity is set to double within a year, pushing more food companies toward a less expensive GM variety.

Public opinion of GM foods, however, remains low. A survey conducted in July 2007 by Japan’s Food Safety Commission showed that only four percent of consumers there believe that GM food is risk-free. The public distrust of genetic modification is justified; most scientific research — at least that undertaken by researchers other than Monsanto employees — indicates GM foods have adverse affects on the livers and kidneys of mammals.

Health considerations will likely give way to economics, however. “They [Japanese corn processors] cannot help but give up ‘non-GMO only’ this year as it is now a question of ‘to survive or not’,” according to a Japanese corn trading manager, who prefers to remain anonymous.

— Reuters, 3/17; 3/25

Washing Green?

Some say the deal is corporate greenwashing. Others argue that the collaboration between a major chemical company and the nation’s largest environmental group is a way to shift the market toward more sustainable cleaning products. Either way, it’s clear that the Sierra Club’s recent marketing deal with Clorox is creating controversy within the 1.3 million-member environmental organization.

In December 2007, Clorox and the Sierra Club announced a partnership whereby the Club’s name and logo will appear on a new line of non-chlorinated cleaning products called “Green Works.” In return, Clorox will pay the Club an undisclosed fee, based partly on product sales.

The deal has many Sierra Club members crying foul. According to postings on the organization’s “Clubhouse” Web site, the group’s corporate relations committee recommended rejecting the Clorox marketing deal, but was overruled by the national board of directors. Some members are also complaining that the agreement violates the organization’s “Corporate Financial Acceptance Policy,” which states: “The Club will not endorse products.”

Robert Cox, the Club’s president, has defended the Clorox deal. In an April letter to supporters, Cox wrote: “Industry has to be a part of the solution and the Sierra Club has the power to influence corporations to move in the right direction. We believe and hope that this will be a selling proposition that other companies will be quick to adopt.”

With 2007 sales of $4.8 billion, The Clorox Company is best known for its chlorine bleach, along with other cleaning products such as Pine-Sol, Liquid-Plumr, and Formula 409. These and other Clorox products include chemicals proven to be dangerous to the environment and human health, as a 2004 report by the US Public Interest Research Group showed.

But the cleaning giant — which also owns brands such as Brita water filters and Glad bags — may be trying to turn over a green leaf. In addition to launching its Green Works product line, Clorox recently purchased Burt’s Bees, a popular line of natural beauty products.

The controversy is far from over. Some Club members are calling for a national membership referendum on the Clorox deal, but so far the organization’s staff has not agreed to the idea.

— Rachel’s Democracy & Health News, 3/27


Bear Down

The skyrocketing prices for key food commodities such as wheat and rice have been blamed, in part, on Australia’s prolonged drought, which has sunk grain harvests there to all-time lows. Now it appears that another Australian food is at risk — eucalyptus leaves, the main staple for the country’s unique tree-dwelling koalas.

koala_bw.epsphotos.comClimate change may endanger koalas’
principal food – eucalyptus leaves.

Australian scientists say that eucalyptus leaves, which koalas eat exclusively, could become inedible because of climate change.

“What we’re seeing, essentially, is that the staple diet of these animals is being turned to leather,” says Australian National University Professor Bill Foley. “Life is set to become increasingly difficult for these animals.”

Foley and his colleague Ivan Lawler have found that increased carbon dioxide reduces nitrogen and other nutrients in the eucalyptus leaves, while boosting the level of tannins, a natural toxin. This decreases the amount of protein in the leaves, forcing koalas and other animals to eat more nutritionally poor eucalyptus leaves to survive.

Like the koala, great gliders, a large gliding possum, depend entirely on eucalyptus. Other animals — such as brushtail and ringtail possums and many wallaby species — rely heavily on the tree’s leaves.

“The food chain for these animals is very finely balanced, and a small change can have serious consequences,” Lawler says.

— Reuters, 4/7

Road Warriors?

bwsuv.jpg Istockphoto.com

Battered by a prolonged drought that some scientists say is related to global climate change, citizens in Australia are showing new signs of ecological awareness. Last year, Australian voters threw out Prime Minister John Howard, a global warming skeptic, in favor of Kevin Rudd, whose first act in office was to ratify the Kyoto Protocol. Sustainability campaigns are on the rise; even cemeteries are getting in on the act by offering carbon-neutral burials.

In the latest sign of Australians’ shift toward environmental protection, a new poll reveals that a majority of the country’s drivers say four-wheel drive vehicles are “socially unacceptable” because of their environmental costs.

The survey, conducted by the Australian auto insurance company AAMI, found that drivers are worried about SUVs’ threat to road safety as well as their contribution to greenhouse gas emissions. Sixty percent of poll respondents said four-wheel drives do not belong in cities. A majority felt that the larger vehicles shouldn’t even be allowed on the road.

“Our increasingly congested roads in the major cities and built up areas are obviously giving some drivers cause for resenting their four-wheel drive counterparts, who take up more space simply because of their size,” says Geoff Hughes, a spokesman for the auto insurance company. “However, we would remind all road-users of the need to exercise patience and to remember that [four-wheel drives] have as much right to roads as other registered vehicles.”

— Perth Now, 3/6


Fumigant Fight

colombiaspraying_bw.epsReuters / Daniel MunozThe Ecuadorian government has taken its neighbor, Colombia, to court
in an attempt to halt the aerial fumigation of coca and opium poppy crops.

For nearly a decade, Ecuador has used neighborly diplomacy to ask Colombia to stop aerial herbicide spraying of coca and poppy fields along their shared border. The spraying, Ecuadorians say, sickens people and livestock, poisons farmland, and damages ecologically sensitive rainforest areas. The Colombian government has refused, claiming the sprayings are a linchpin in the war on drugs.

Now Ecuadorians are taking their demands a step further. In March, Ecuador filed a suit against Colombia at the International Court of Justice in The Hague, claiming that the sprays, which often drift across the border, violate the country’s sovereignty.

“Colombian aerial fumigations have had noxious effects on our people and our environment,” says Ecuadorian Foreign Minister María Isabel Salvador.

While Colombia has refused to disclose the exact makeup of the herbicide it uses, the spray is known to contain the active ingredient glyphosate, the same chemical marketed by Monsanto as “Roundup.” Ecuadorian farmers living along the border say they’ve felt the spray mist on their skin, and that it has caused skin lesions, rashes, burning eyes, and respiratory problems. The border communities, many of them made up of subsistence farmers, say the sprayings have killed livestock and crops, forcing the abandonment of some villages. The Ecuadorians also say that the spraying has harmed ecologically sensitive areas of high biodiversity.

In 2006, the Colombian National Police Anti-Narcotics Department sprayed some 420,000 acres of illegally grown coca and opium poppy. The US pays for the spraying program.

In its claim before the international court, Ecuador is asking for a halt to any sprayings that affect its territory, as well as reparations for past damages.

“There is no doubt the fumigations conducted by the government of Colombia constitute a grave violation of the sovereignty of Ecuador and of the most basic principles of international law, which prohibits a state from causing harm to the population, land, and well-being of a neighboring state,” Salvador says.

— Environmental News Service, 3/31

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