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Gas Masked

photo of a woman working near fire in a tropic settingEd KashiCommunities in the Niger Delta have long demanded a halt to gas flaring
at the region’s oil wells. The Nigerian government recently ordered that
all flaring cease by 2011.

In a long-overdue victory for communities in the dangerous and dirty Niger Delta, the Nigerian government has pledged to phase out gas flaring at oil wells, a procedure that contributes to greenhouse gas emissions and human health problems.

Every year, oil corporations in Nigeria – the biggest petroleum producer in Africa and the eighth largest in the world – burn off some 24 billion cubic meters of natural gas vented during oil pumping. If the gas were harnessed, it could power a good portion of Africa for a year, including the homes of those nearest the wells who don’t have electricity. Halting the flaring would eliminate millions of tons of carbon dioxide emitted during the process, and would reduce the many ailments – such as bronchial, chest, and eye problems – that those in nearby communities suffer.

While Nigerian laws have outlawed flaring since 1979, oil companies have been given exemptions year after year. A recent ban on the practice, announced last year to take effect on January 1, was postponed.

Now Nigerian officials say they are serious about halting the flaring and will bring the practice to a complete halt no later than 2011.

“We will implement policies to reduce flaring and achieve flare-out as quickly as possible, but we recognize that there are investments to be made and rather than just legislate a new flare-out date … we want to ensure that whatever date we finally decide on is practicable,” says Odein Ajumogobia, Nigeria’s oil minister. “We’ve already imposed regulation that ensures that all new projects will be zero-flare. So it’s now the time to try to take out the existing flares.”

After years of fighting the flares, local environmental organizations such as Environmental Rights Action/Friends of the Earth-Nigeria (ERA/FoEN) say the 2011 deadline is an insult to people living in the Delta, and that the government should move much faster on the issue. More modern oil facilities typically capture gas instead of burning it, but four years after the Nigerian High Court ruled the practice illegal, Nigeria remains the world’s top gas-flarer.

“This government is taking the people of the Niger Delta on a roller-coaster ride and its credibility is surely in question,” says ERA/FoEN Executive Director Nnimmo Bassey. “The minister’s intermittent public pronouncements on this issue clearly show this administration’s lack of political will to enforce the flare-out. We cannot afford another time-buying exercise while our people die from gas flare-induced cancer, pollution of the air, water, and destruction of their livelihoods.”

—Agence France-Presse, 3/20; Justice in Nigeria Now, 3/16


Fin Icky Eaters

photo of a small boat at a dock, shark fins on the planksistockphoto.com About 20 percent of shark species are
endangered, but younger Asians are starting to
turn their back on the delicacy.

Shark fin soup is considered a symbol of wealth and prestige in Chinese culture, and has been a popular – and often expected – item at Lunar New Year’s parties and wedding banquets. While the soup may symbolize great things for its diners, the delicacy is certainly not a symbol of good luck or longevity for the sharks.

The practice of shark finning is a brutal one; often the fins are cut from live sharks, which are then simply tossed back into the sea. Shark meat doesn’t fetch much at the market, and many fishermen prefer to deal only with the portion of the shark that is going to bring them the most profit. Without a fin, a shark’s navigation equipment, the disabled creatures cannot swim properly, and either suffocate or fall prey to predators.

As Asian economies have improved in recent years, demand for the expensive treat has grown – about 20 percent of all shark species are now endangered.

But a growing number of younger Asians are rejecting shark fins as they learn about the environmental impact of the delicacy.

For example, Singaporean groom Han Songguang, who is ethnically Chinese, decided not to serve shark fin soup at his wedding banquet, and instead offered his guests lobster soup. He also put postcards of a dead shark on each guest’s seat at the wedding dinner.

“If we can do our part to save ‘X’ number of sharks … why not?” says Han, a geography teacher, who married a diving enthusiast in December.

The global financial crisis is also influencing tastes as more people start to live more frugally, forcing a drop in shark fin sales. Shang-kuan Liang-chi, a National Taiwan University student who has tried the crunchy, jelly-like dish twice at formal events, prefers other food and avoids a shark fin restaurant near campus. “University students never go in there,” he says.

Environmentalists hope that the trend is more of a long-term one, and that the soup’s fall from popularity may also be the result of young Asians becoming more aware of the effect the traditional dish has on shark populations.

“Today we have incredible access to information. It has become much harder to say ‘I didn’t know,’” says Glenn Sant, marine programme leader of TRAFFIC, a British organization dedicated to monitoring wildlife trade.

Other positive signs for conservationists include Hong Kong Disneyland leaving shark fin soup off its menu in response to pressure from animal rights activists, and thoughtful diners at the annual Singapore Chefs’ Association (SCA) meeting serving less controversial plates for their convention menu.

“It is much harder to stop serving shark fin in our restaurants as the consumers still demand it. However, in our personal capacity, we can make a stand,” says Otto Weibel, president mentor chef of the SCA.

– Reuters, 3/31

Wheeling and Dealing

In India, a country of 1.1 billion people, tiny motor scooters far outnumber conventional automobiles. Given that the average income in India is roughly $500 per year, this isn’t surprising. Tata Motors, an Indian car manufacturer, plans to change that balance. It wants to jump-start car sales to ordinary Indians with its new Nano, which will cost the equivalent of US$1,993.

photo of a smoggy streetscape, air too thick to see throughsheilaz413/flickr.comAir pollution has become a political liability. Chinese officials
have had a hard time finding someone to serve as the mayor
of Linfen, which is notorious for its wretched air quality.

Tata executives hope that making car ownership more widely available will help drive India into the 21st century. But environmental organizations worry that the new model will take the country in reverse.

Although the Nano will average 50 miles per gallon, roughly the same as the Toyota Prius, environmentalists are concerned that the car will replace the currently popular scooters and motorbikes that achieve a gas mileage more than twice what the Nano offers. The new vehicle meets strict European emissions standards, but there are worries that if the cars’ catalytic converters fail and don’t receive proper maintenance, the pollutants emitted could increase five-fold.

A sudden boom in Indian car ownership would upend climatologists’ predictions of future greenhouse gas emissions. “In none of our reports did we assume there’d be a car like this,” says Judy Greenwald, director of innovative solutions at the Pew Center on Global Climate Change. “This is a new category. It will affect everybody’s projections.”

A similar trend is playing out in newly affluent China, the world’s largest car market. There, the government has done much to set standards regulating vehicle emissions, but not enough to encourage individuals to buy low-polluting cars. Such vehicles are available; BYD Ltd.’s F3DM costs the equivalent of approximately US$22,000, which is 30 to 40 percent less than the Toyota Prius, but still twice the amount of a similar gasoline-powered vehicle. Sales of “green” cars in China have been poor. Fewer than 3,500 Priuses were sold in China between 2006 and 2008, and fewer than 600 of Shanghai GM’s LaCrosses were driven off the lot in the last half of 2008.

Although the Chinese government has offered subsidies to companies purchasing electric vehicles for fleet use, experts believe that demand will increase only when similar subsidies are offered to individual buyers and when the necessary infrastructure to support such purchases is developed.

“There should be some incentives in place to convince consumers to switch to electric cars,” says Sinling Chung, CEO of EuAuto Technology, Ltd. “There is also the issue of infrastructure. At some point, car owners will need juice points where they can park and plug in the cars.”

In the meantime, EuAuto has been selling its vehicles in Europe, where consumer subsidies are already in place, with plans to sell its products in China within the next three years.

— Reuters, 3/16, 4/9; Newsweek, 1/10/08

Polluted City Seeks Mayor for Dirty Job

The Chinese city of Linfen has a soiled reputation when it comes to health and safety issues. Home to more than four million people, this city in Shanxi province is notorious for its foul air and deadly mining accidents. A haze often envelops Linfen, which is surrounded by coal mines (some permitted, but others illegal), iron foundries, and coking plants. The city grabbed international headlines last year when a mining disaster killed 270 people.

The place’s long list of problems helps explain why Chinese government officials have had a difficult time filling the city’s top two administrative posts – that of mayor and Communist Party chief. The leadership positions have been vacant for more than six months, an “unusually long” time, according to officials. An article in China Daily, the state newspaper, says that aspiring leaders are shunning the positions because they fear the jobs would lead to a short political career.

The city’s intractable pollution problems have been the bane of ambitious up-and-comers. Linfen has had four mayors in the last three years. After the major accident in September 2008 – caused when a landslide triggered the collapse of a mining waste reservoir – the city’s mayor and party boss both lost their jobs, as did Shanxi’s provincial governor.

But maybe things are looking up. The city – which made the Blacksmith Institute’s 2007 list of the 10 most polluted cities in the world – last year lost the title of having the worst air in China. It now has the second worst air in the coal-dependent country.

—AFP, 4/1

Honey, Don’t Leaf Me

Couples in the Garut district of western Java must provide 10 trees to the local authorities in order to be considered legally married. And anyone in the region who leaves a spouse will be sapped for more than just alimony payments; couples can officially call it quits only after handing over one leafy tree.

With lack of funding severely hampering reforestation efforts, the local government has devised this innovative way to reach the central government’s goal of planting one million trees. Indonesia’s vast tracts of tropical forests have been reduced by clearing for agriculture and by illegal logging.

“The Garut government wants to encourage couples getting married, as well as those seeking divorce, to support a national reforestation program, given budget limitations,” says District Secretary Wibowo, who, like many Indonesians, uses one name only.

Just think of it as a dowry to help prevent deforestation.

—Reuters, 3/5


Radioactive Reserve

photo of a ruined amusement park, greenery overgrowing. Bumpercar in foregroundJan Jurica The Soviet city of Prypiat, abandoned after the Chernobyl
accident, is steadily being reclaimed by the forest and has
become a haven for wildlife such as boars, bison, and wolves.

Perhaps even a deadly nuclear meltdown can have an upside. At least, that’s the view of naturalists in Belarus and Ukraine who are studying the remarkable comeback of wildlife in the 865-square-mile “exclusion zone” surrounding the damaged Chernobyl atomic energy plant.

The 1986 explosion at the Chernobyl complex was an unmitigated human disaster. Dozens of people died trying to put out the flames when a reactor overheated. More than 300,000 people were evacuated from their homes, and tens of thousands had to be permanently resettled. The fallout from the explosion was approximately 400 times greater than that of the Hiroshima bombing, and thousands of people developed thyroid cancer as a result of being exposed to the radiation.

After the accident, an 18-mile radius around the explosion site was declared off-limits. The entire city of Prypiat was abandoned, as were the surrounding farmlands and villages. Today, Soviet-era apartment blocks, homes, stores – even an amusement park – are steadily being swallowed by the encroaching forest.

But what for humans is an eerie wasteland is for birds and animals a paradise recovered. Emptied of human interference, the exclusion zone has been turned into a nature reserve, and now teems with species rarely found in other parts of Europe.

The reserve is full of moose and wild boars, which like to feed on what remains of abandoned vegetable gardens. A herd of bison has been introduced to the area. These grazers – especially the boars – have attracted a large number of gray wolves. Wildlife biologists estimate there may be as many as 300 wolves in the area.

“The wolf is very clever and cunning,” says Grigory Sys, one of the naturalists who oversee the animals in the still-radioactive forest. “They used to be killed off in the hundreds, at any opportunity, even from helicopters. But they adapted and survived.”

Birds have also adapted. The black stork is thriving in the reserve. So are white-tailed eagles, which are rarely spotted elsewhere; at least five nesting pairs have settled in the region. Reserve managers also regularly report the tracks of bears and lynx, an animal classified as an endangered species in Belarus.

While the Chernobyl exclusion zone has become a magnet for researchers, ordinary tourists are still not welcome to the area.

“We are happy to welcome here fellow scientists from other countries to work on joint projects,” says Pytor Kudan, the reserve’s director. “But I am afraid we don’t want tourists or amateur bird or animal lovers. We have very specific conditions here. And one of them remains high radiation, sometimes very high radiation.”

—Reuters, 3/9

Out of Our Genes!

In what environmentalists are hailing as an important victory for consumers and farmers, a majority of European Union nations have refused to force Austria and Hungary to allow the planting of genetically modified corn.

The European Commission – the executive branch of the EU – has repeatedly sought to overturn laws that ban the cultivation of GM crops. In sharp defiance of the Commission, 21 of the 27 EU nations voted in March to let stand the Austrian and Hungarian prohibitions on GM crops. It was the Commission’s second attempt to repeal Hungary’s ban on MON810 maize, developed by Monsanto, and the third time it had sought to overturn Austria’s ban on MON810 and T25 maize, made by Bayer.

“What part of ‘no’ does the Commission not understand?” asked Greenpeace’s GMO Policy Director Marco Contiero. “The protection of the environment and public health should always come before the financial interests of a handful of agro-chemical companies.”

But apparently the message still hasn’t gotten through. After the vote, a Commission spokeswoman said the EU executive will continue its efforts to get Hungary and Austria to give up their GM bans. “We can’t drop it,” says spokeswoman Barbara Helferrich. A spokesman for the British government – one of the few governments that wanted the GM prohibitions struck down – said decisions over genetically modified crops should be “based on sound science.”

European consumers are well known for their skepticism – if not outright hostility – toward GM crops, which they have dubbed “Frankenstein foods.” Some EU environment ministers say the European Commission is making a big political mistake by insisting on policies that go against public opinion.

“I cannot imagine that the US government would be so engaged for a European company, if its citizens were that much concerned, as the Commission is engaged for an American company [Monsanto],” says Germany’s Environment Minister Sigmar Gabriel.

—AFP, 3/2; Reuters, 3/3

Shell Game

After spending more than a decade and millions of dollars in ads trumpeting its pursuit of clean energy technologies, Royal Dutch Shell says it is scrapping any further large-scale investments in wind and solar electricity generation.

From 1999 to 2006, Shell, the world’s second largest non-government-controlled oil company, invested around $1.25 billion on renewable energy projects. Most of that money went toward wind energy, and the company has around 550 megawatts of wind power capacity. Now the company says it will no longer make further expenditures in wind and solar, and that it does not expect hydrogen to play an important role in the globe’s energy supply for some time. The company’s future involvement in renewables will be limited mostly to biofuels, which Shell executives believe are a better fit with its oil and gas operations.

“We do not expect material amounts of investment in [wind and solar] going forward,” says Linda Cook, head of Shell’s gas and power unit. “They continue to struggle to compete with other investment opportunities in our portfolio.”

Shell’s retreat from renewable energy may be a strategic misstep for this fossil fuel dinosaur. Even as the global economy continues to contract, the clean energy sector is showing remarkable resilience. The renewable energy industry is expected to get a major boost from President Obama’s economic stimulus package, which includes $62 billion for clean energy, environmental projects, and scientific research, with $500 million dedicated to green jobs training.

Shell’s loss could be environmental organizations’ gain: The company’s abandonment of green technologies is likely to provide new clarity to debates over our energy future. For years, environmentalists have accused Shell of blatant greenwashing. Although the company’s involvement in renewable energy represented only one percent of its total investments, it focused a disproportionate amount of its advertising and marketing on such projects. The move away from wind and solar, then, is a happy example of the wolf finally tossing its wool costume.

Perhaps it’s time for Shell to change its past advertising slogan,“We invest today’s profits in tomorrow’s solutions,” to a more honest, “We invest today’s profits in yesterday’s technologies.”

—Reuters, 3/18; Greenwire, 3/23

Sealing the Deal

In many countries, opposition to the annual Arctic harp seal hunt has resulted in bans and restrictions on the practice. In early March, a European Parliamentary committee endorsed a bill seeking a ban on all seal products, whether imported into the EU, exported from it, or even transported through it; as of press time, the full EU Parliament had not voted on the measure. Also in March, Russia banned the hunting of seals younger than one year old.

“The bloody seal slaughter, the killing of the defenseless animals, which can’t be even called a ‘hunt,’ is now prohibited in Russia as it is in most developed countries. It is a serious step towards the conservation of biodiversity in Russia,” says Minister of Natural Resources and Ecology Yuriy Trutnev.

Environmentalists and organizations who have long sought to end the barbaric practice were obviously delighted by the news. “We are overwhelmingly pleased that the Russian government has finally completed its pledge to protect harp seals,” says Masha Vorontsova, director of the International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW) Russia. “The time has now come for the Canadian government to follow suit and end their cruel hunt for harp seals once and for all. These hunts are unnecessary. They are merely supporting the trade in fur used for non-essential fashion items.”

The Canadian seal hunt is the world’s largest: The 2008 hunt resulted in the clubbing to death of more than 217,000 seals, of which all but 0.2 percent were less than three months of age, and this year’s quota is set at 280,000 seals. Canadian officials are definitely a beat behind the rest of the planet when it comes to ending the seal hunt, and sealers took to the ice on Canada’s east coast on March 23.

One self-described environmental organization, Nature Quebec, supports the hunt, claiming that the EU ban “could have grave consequences” for the residents of the provinces of Quebec and Newfoundland. The group cited studies that report that without the seal hunt, the stocks of North Atlantic cod would be threatened.

Canadian officials continue to hold the same position, viewing the hunt as essential to the economies of the country’s eastern provinces, and maintaining that the hunt is conducted in a humane fashion, countering claims by environmental organizations that the seals are often skinned alive. Patrice Simon, a biologist with Fisheries and Oceans Canada, says, “Several independent studies by European and Canadian veterinary researchers have concluded that the seals were indeed dead when they were skinned. They may sometimes still seem alive, because they have a reflex and continue to move following death.”

Representatives from Humane Society International show different results from their studies; veterinarians have consistently maintained for decades that the animals undergo high levels of suffering. “Veterinary experts say commercial seal hunting is inherently inhumane because of the remote, extreme environments in which hunts operate and the speed at which they must be conducted,” the organization says. “This is a primary reason why nations around the world are taking action on behalf of their citizens to end their trade in seal products.”

Petitions to end the seal hunt can be found at www.ifaw.org, where you can also make donations toward the cause.

—AFP, 3/11, 3/18; Environment News Service, 3/18


Razing Cane

photo of grasslike plants under a clear sky James Gaither National security threat? The Border Patrol had planned an
aerial herbicide spraying of Carrizo cane, a large grass on
the banks of the Rio Grande used as a hiding place by drug

A community backlash has forced the US Border Patrol to drop a controversial plan to aerially spray the broad-spectrum herbicide imazapyr along a stretch of the Rio Grande as part of a program to clear vegetation along the increasingly militarized frontier.

In March, the Border Patrol told residents of Laredo, TX that the agency was going to launch a pilot program to kill off Carrizo cane, a tall, dense grass that US officials say can be used as a hiding place by undocumented immigrants and drug smugglers. Depending upon the $2.1-million project’s success, officials planned to expand the program along nearly 130 miles of the river on both sides of the US-Mexico border.

The Border Patrol said it would try out three methods for removing the cane from a one-mile stretch of the river: cutting it by hand and painting the stumps with imazapyr; using mechanical equipment to dig the cane out by the roots; and employing helicopters to spray the cane from the air.

Not surprisingly, perhaps, local residents weren’t too excited about the third option, which they said recalled the Vietnam War tactic of Agent Orange spraying.

“We don’t believe that is even moral,” says Jay Johnson-Castro Sr., director of the Rio Grande International Study Center, located at Laredo Community College, which is adjacent to the planned spraying area. “It’s unprecedented that they would do this in populated area.”

The proposed spraying also raised concerns on the other side of the border. Mexican officials in the city of Nuevo Laredo said they were worried that the herbicide could contaminate their municipal water supply.

The Border Patrol sought to ease worries, pointing to EPA studies that found no harmful risks of ingesting the herbicide residue in food or water. The EPA also found adverse risks to birds, mammals, fish, and bees to be unlikely.

“We’re not out to ‘poison’ anybody. I find that word a little bit over the top,” says Border Patrol spokesman Chuck Pritchard. “Based on what we know, this would be an effective, low-risk way to do this.”

Neighbors, however, were unconvinced, and filed a lawsuit in federal court alleging that the government failed to fully assess the impact of the spraying and didn’t adequately notify the public.

In April, the Border Patrol said it wouldn’t use the aerial method, and instead would cut down the cane and then apply the herbicide by hand.

—Houston Chronicle, 3/24; San Antonio Express-News, 3/25; Dept. of Homeland Security, 4/16


Kiwi Lifeboat

Worried that climate change will eventually lead to food shortages and a destabilization of the global economy, some Britons are moving to New Zealand, convinced that the nation’s temperate climate, isolation, and small population will make it the perfect lifeboat for weathering the coming global warming storm.

While the most serious consequences of climate change are anticipated to be years or decades in the future, these “eco-migrants” are taking no chances and are preparing for the worst now. Last year alone, more than 18,000 British residents moved to New Zealand, many spurred by environmental concerns.

“England was just having more and more flooding – if that continues, half of it is going to be underwater,” says Lizzy Larmer-Cottle, who moved with her husband and two sons from London to a small town north of Auckland.

John Zamick, formerly of East Anglia, moved to a town on South Island because he worried that global food shortages caused by rising temperatures would lead to social unrest. For Zamick, who now co-manages a biodiesel company, New Zealand’s relatively small population and its availability of farmland made it an obvious place to which to relocate.

Scientists agree that New Zealand, a country with strong environmental policies, is likely to be more resilient during global climate chaos than many other countries. But as the surge in new arrivals shows, the country’s attributes will likely create a new problem – too much immigration. And that would reduce one of the attractants of moving there: the country’s modest population.

James Hardy, formerly of Buckinghamshire, says he moved with his wife and three children because he was concerned with how his family would cope in the crowded British Isles if the global climate underwent sharp changes.

“New Zealand has land, New Zealand has wind, New Zealand has a far more sustainable climate,” Hardy says.

—The Sunday Times (London), 3/29


Don’t Spray It

During the last two decades, Brazil has emerged as a global agricultural powerhouse. A longtime force in the coffee and sugar industries, the country is also a major producer of soybeans, citrus, beef, and chicken.

Brazil’s agricultural strength rests on a fatal weakness – it is the world’s top user of pesticides, according to a study by the Brazilian National Health Surveillance Agency (Anvisa).

Last year, Brazilian growers spent nearly $7 billion on pesticides. Many of these chemicals don’t just go abroad, but also end up on the food Brazilians eat. According to the survey by Anvisa, 64 percent of sweet peppers contained chemical residue beyond that allowed by the country’s laws. Grapes, strawberries, and carrots also had dangerously high levels of pesticide leftovers.

Some pesticides that are banned in other countries – for example, acephate and endosulfan – continue to be used in Brazil. Last year, China prohibited the use of the pesticide metamidophos, but Brazilian farmers keep using the chemical. In fact, usage is skyrocketing. In 2008, Brazil imported 4,200 tons of metamidophos; in just the first four months of 2009, it has imported 4,400 tons of the chemical.

—AFP, 4/17

Crime and Punishment

In April, a Brazilian court ordered the arrest and retrial of an Amazon rancher who had been acquitted of ordering the murder of Dorothy Stang, an American nun who worked tirelessly to protect the rainforest and its inhabitants. Stang’s family and government prosecutors say the court order could deliver some long-overdue justice to a region where political violence often goes unpunished.

For more than 30 years, Stang organized to safeguard the Amazon rainforest and to defend the rights of the poor settlers whose lands are often seized by wealthy ranchers. Her tireless activism earned her powerful enemies. In 2005, she was shot six times at close range with a revolver in the jungle city of Anapu.

In 2007, a state court in Para found rancher Vitalmiro Bastos de Moura guilty of orchestrating the shooting, and also sentenced the gunman, Rayfran das Neves Sales, to 28 years in prison. But last year Moura’s sentence was overturned by Para’s highest court after defense attorneys presented a video of a man who said he was a middleman between the hit men and the ranchers and claimed that Moura had nothing to do with the murder. Another judge has now reversed the acquittal, ruling that the video was inadmissible since it was filmed while the man was in prison and without a judge’s approval.

“We’re elated and we are convinced we will get a guilty verdict in the new trial,” says prosecutor Edson Souza. (Unlike the US, Brazil has no double jeopardy law.)

Stang’s murder brought new international attention to the illegal seizure and clearance of rainforest to graze cattle, grow soy, and harvest timber – and heightened awareness about the systemic injustices in the Amazon.

If Moura were to serve jail time for Stang’s murder, it would mark an important precedent for the violent region. According to the Pastoral Land Commission, more than 1,100 activists, small farmers, judges, priests, and other rural workers have been killed in land disputes in Brazil in the last two decades. Fewer than 100 cases have gone to court, and most of those who are convicted and go to jail are the hired gunmen. Fewer than 20 of the ranchers who pay for the killings have been found guilty, and of those, none are serving a sentence today.

“I am excited that perhaps Dorothy will find justice,” says David Stang, the nun’s brother.

—The Guardian (UK), 4/8

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