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A Growing Mess

It sounds like a classic complaint from the satirical website first-world-problems.com: “What am I supposed to do with all of these obsolete iPhone and Mac chargers?” But the challenge of accumulating of e-waste is starting to become a real issue in countries that rank among the world’s least developed. Poor countries that were once just the dumping grounds for used electronics are now also among the largest producers of e-waste.

photo of some men holding mobile telephonesphoto International Institute for Communication and Development (IICD)Cell phone and computer use is increasing in Africa and contributing to a problem more often
associated with wealthier regions: the creation of e-waste.

By 2017, Africa will be generating more e-waste than Europe, according to a new report from the Secretariat of the Basel Convention. Already, five West African countries – Benin, Ivory Coast, Ghana, Liberia, and Nigeria – produce as much as one million tons of e-waste a year. Two major factors are spurring the e-waste problem: population growth and the increased availability of mobile phones, computers, and accessories. “There is population growth and there is the penetration rate – there are increasing numbers of people with access to these devices,” says Katharina Kummer Peiry, executive secretary of the Basel Convention, an international treaty meant to stop the shipment of hazardous waste.

In the last decade, the report says, the penetration rate of personal computers in Africa has increased by a factor of ten. During that same time, the penetration rate for mobile phones has increased by a factor of 100.

Only 13 percent of the world’s electronic waste is recycled. Much of the rest ends up in Africa, where it is disposed of in dangerous conditions. Scavengers there often burn equipment to get at the precious metals inside: gold, silver, and copper, as well as rare earth metals like indium and palladium. The burning releases dangerous amounts of heavy metals such as mercury and lead, as well as endocrine-disruptors like brominated flame-retardants. The toxic materials are dangerous to the environment and can be deadly to humans.

Governments in Africa are working with various UN agencies to develop ways to safely recycle the valuable materials in electronic cast-offs. The problem posed by e-waste could be turned into an opportunity – but only if Africa has access to the technologies for proper dismantling and disposal. “From one ton of cell phones, minus the batteries, you can extract 3.5 kilos of silver, 340 grams of gold, 140 grams of palladium, and 130 kilos of copper,” says Achim Steiner, head of the UN Environment Agency. And safely getting to those metals, Steiner says, would use “three or four times less energy than smelting virgin ores.”

AFP, 3/15; Environment News Service, 3/15


Small Dams, Big Trouble

Small dams are often touted as a less destructive option than big ones. But that may not always be the case. A new study says plans to build a series of small hydropower dams along branches of the Mekong River could have a devastating impact on millions of people whose livelihoods depend on Southeast Asia’s longest river.

In recent years, plenty of attention has been focused on plans to develop 11 big dams along the main stem of the 2,850-mile Mekong, which passes through China, Burma (Myanmar), Laos, Thailand, Cambodia, and Vietnam. Last December, Cambodia, Thailand, Vietnam, and Laos postponed a decision on the first of those efforts – the $3.8 billion Xayaburi dam – citing the need for more research.

But there are another 78 small dams planned on dozens of the Mekong’s tributaries. A study published recently in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences examined the impact of building these dams and warned of a “catastrophic” future.

photo of a person in a small narrow boat on still water, apparently fishing Plans for 78 small dams on the Mekong River’s many tributaries could be catastrophic for
local biodiversity and millions of people whose livelihoods depend on the river.

“We find that the completion of 78 dams on tributaries, which have not previously been subject to strategic analysis, would have catastrophic impacts on fish productivity and biodiversity,” the study says.

“We found there is going to be a very sharp trade-off between producing energy and the impact on food and biodiversity,” says lead author Guy Ziv of Stanford University. “The overall impact of those is greater than some of the mainstream dams which got all of the international attention so far.”

Unlike the mega-dams planned on the main stem of the river, the small ones require no international accord to be built, even though they will undoubtedly affect fishing populations in neighboring countries.

The Mekong River basin, the world’s largest inland fishery, is home to more than 100 species of migratory fish. The region accounts for 25 percent of the global freshwater catch and is a vital source of food for 65 million people.

The largest potential impact would be from four planned dams – one in Cambodia that would cause a 9.3 percent drop in fish biomass basin-wide, and three in Laos that together would cause another 3.95 percent loss in fish biomass.

Although the percentages may seem small, they would add up fast in communities that depend on fish for survival. The disappearance of 1 percent of fish in the basin would be equal to losing 10,000 tons of food. “Most of the catch is in subsistence fisheries,” Ziv says. “These are poor men who rely on these fish for their livelihood, so you are really impacting the poorest people when you are reducing the catch.”

Agence France-Presse, 3/12

Not So Fast

The question could be the setup to a joke: What do a Trappist monk from Atlanta, a handful of yeshiva students, and a busload of high schoolers from the former Soviet Union, all gathered at Jerusalem’s Western Wall, have in common? The punch line: They’ve traveled to one of the most sacred sites in Judaism to watch the colony of swifts that nest there every year.

For more than 2,000 years, flocks of common swifts – a small, black bird – have stopped at the religious site to nest and lay their eggs. Experts have identified at least 88 nests in between the giant stones that make up the Western Wall, which was part of the second biblical Temple destroyed by Jerusalem’s Roman conquerors in 70 AD. Today it serves as the foundation for Islam’s Al-Aqsa Mosque and Dome of the Rock, and is a holy place for Jews. Where the devout leave prayers written on paper and placed in the cracks of the stones, the swifts hatch eggs.

“This is one of the most ancient places that you have swifts nesting in the world,” says Yossi Leshem, director for the International Center for the Study of Bird Migration at Tel Aviv University.

Due to its pivotal location between Africa and Europe, Israel is a bird migration hotspot. The swifts arrive from southern Africa in late February and stay about 100 days. The birds are famed for their endurance. They eat, sleep, and mate in flight – and rest only to lay eggs. Each year they faithfully return to the same breeding grounds – whether it’s the Western Wall, the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem, or the modern buildings of Tel Aviv.

However, the number of swifts has declined dramatically in the past decade. So any restoration work done at the Western Wall must take into account the swift nests so as to not disturb them. To help raise awareness about swifts, bird conservationists hope to install cameras on the wall to stream live video of the birds nesting. And they plan to fit some of the birds with transmitters so they can better study their behavior.

“By next year we hope to make it into a big international project, in cooperation with Palestinians, Jordanians, and the European Union,” Leshem says.

Reuters, 3/13; Haaretz 3/26


Take a Bite Out of Crime

section of an information graphic map
Climate Refugees. Click to view.

Eco-criminals who deal in illegally cut lumber or exotic wildlife often use the same black market networks as organized crime cartels that trade in weapons, drugs, or people. And environment crime often occurs alongside other offenses such as passport fraud, corruption, money laundering, tax evasion, and murder. So environmental and natural resource officials from governments around the world are starting to work with law enforcement agencies to better combat eco-crimes.

In March, delegates from 70 countries met in Lyon, France with chiefs from Interpol and the UN Environment Programme to map out a strategy for cracking down on eco-crimes. Interpol formed a dedicated Environmental Crime Programme three years ago. But investigators at the international crime agency say more cooperation among governments is needed to stop cross-border smuggling of resources and animals.

“Interpol has advocated the need for intelligence-led enforcement,” says Bernd Rossback, Interpol’s acting executive director of police services. Rossback says that evidence is growing that environmental crimes are connected to other forms of organized crime. “When it comes to the environment, the need for crime prevention is imperative.”

Participants at the Lyon summit said many governments don’t yet view environmental crimes as on the same level as other criminal behavior. And they called for more enforcement within nations as well as investigative assistance and support across borders. “While countries around the world and the international community have made important progress in establishing national and international environmental policies … the enforcement of environmental laws remains inadequate,” says Masa Nagai, a deputy director at UNEP.

During some of the multinational talks that will occur in Rio in June in the lead-up to the UN Conference on Sustainable Development, known as Rio + 20, Interpol and UNEP plan to push for better enforcement and cooperation. One key agenda item: getting prosecutors and judges to become aware of the seriousness of environmental crimes. The upcoming UN meetings, Nagai says, “will provide a platform to identify the entire chain of environmental enforcement.”

ENS, 3/30

Tarnished Medals

Environmental campaigners in the UK have launched a campaign to expose what they say is the greenwashing of the upcoming Olympic Games in London. Activists say that the Games’ sponsorship deals with BP, Rio Tinto, and Dow Chemical are tainting the “Olympic spirit” that is centered on “building a peaceful and better world” and “a spirit of friendship, solidarity and fair play.”

“The Olympics are about so much more than how fast Usian Bolt can run or how many medals Britain’s finest athletes score,” says Meredith Alexander, who resigned from the Commission for a Sustainable London 2012, an organization set up to ensure that the London Games will be the greenest ever. “The Olympics is big business. There is an expensive machine behind the Games that is funded by corporate sponsors. Sadly, when these sponsors are selected, money talks much more loudly than words.”

Alexander was especially angry over Dow Chemical’s involvement in the Games. Dow is the parent company of the Union Carbide Corporation, the chemical manufacturer responsible for the 1984 toxic gas explosion in Bhopal, India. At least 3,000 people died the night of the explosion, and another 12,000 more have since died from health complications related to the disaster. The International Olympic Committee invited Dow to be a sponsor of the Games and Dow is manufacturing a giant, plastic decorative curtain for the main Olympic stadium.

Jeremy Hunt – Britain’s Secretary of State for Culture, Media, and Sport – defends Dow’s involvement: “The fact that they did not own Union Carbide at the time of the Bhopal disaster in 1985 [sic] nor at the time of the final settlement with the Indian Government in 1989 – that has been upheld three times by the Indian Supreme Court – makes me confident that it was a very reasonable decision.”

Defending BP’s sponsorship might be tougher. The energy giant is one of six “sustainability partners.” The firm, of course, was largely responsible for the disastrous Gulf of Mexico oil spill. And, UK environmentalists complain, the firm is closely involved in tar sands oil extraction in Canada. “Its entire business is geared toward keeping the world addicted to fossil fuels,” says Jess Worth of the UK Tar Sands Network.

Even the production of the iconic Olympic medals is under scrutiny. Rio Tinto is the exclusive provider for the gold, silver, and bronze to make the medals. Communities from Papua New Guinea to the US have criticized the company for contributing to human rights abuses, water contamination, and air pollution.

So which of these three companies will win the race to be the worst? British environmental activists have thrown up a website to let citizens decide. Visitors to the site www.greenwashgold.org can watch three short videos about the companies and then vote for the “worst corporate sponsor.” The “winner” will be awarded the Greenwash Gold Medal during the games in July.

The Guardian, UK, 1/26 & 4/16

All’s Fair?

A controversy splits the fair trade movement

On one side of the road there were rows of bush-like trees for as far as the eye could see. Workers strapped with backpack canisters were spraying a white chemical fog that quickly dissipated in the midmorning sunlight. On the other side of the road, a tangled 50-acre patch of forest shaded a mix of fruit and coffee trees, scattered seemingly at random in the sun-mottled understory.

The chemical-intensive monoculture plantation grows cheap coffee for the international market; the other farm, an improbable island of biodiversity less than a dozen miles from San Jose, Costa Rica, produces higher quality and more expensive beans, but has a lower yield per acre.

… more …

Ready, Aim, Misfire

This is what PR professionals would call a case of bad optics: If you’re the honorary head of a major wildlife conservation group, you probably shouldn’t go on an African hunting safari.

Clearly Spain’s King Juan Carlos doesn’t have the best PR team. In April, the king faced blistering criticism after the press revealed that he had gone on an elephant-hunting trip in Botswana. A big game hunt might be standard entertainment for a European monarch – but it looked out of sync with the king’s position as the honorary president of World Wildlife Fund-Spain. Within days, tens of thousands of people took to social media sites to complain of the hypocrisy and to demand that the king be removed from the position.

The uproar forced the WWF to write to the royal household asking for a meeting to convey its disappointment. “We are deeply sensitive to the concerns expressed and the serious damage this outcry is causing to the credibility of WWF and the hard work that has developed over 50 years for the protection of elephants and other species,” WWF-Spain Secretary-General Juan Carlos de Olmo wrote.

The safari also seemed tone-deaf at a time when millions of Spaniards are suffering from a wrenching economic depression. More than one-quarter of Spaniards are out of work, and the trip appeared extravagant as the rest of the country endures austerity.

The king did apologize eventually. “I’m very sorry,” Juan Carlos said in late April. “I made a mistake and it won’t happen again.”

But that didn’t quell the controversy, as some commentators called for the king to abdicate in favor of his son, Felipe. “The moment has come for the royal family, in this case the head of state, to consider whether it wants the obligations and servitudes of public responsibilities or a situation that would allow him to enjoy a different life,” says Tomas Gomez, leader of Madrid’s Socialists.

Juan Carlos has been popular throughout most of his reign. He helped steer the country to democracy and won respect from many Spaniards in 1981 when he condemned an attempted military coup. But in recent years some of his family members have come under fire. His son-in-law has been charged in a fraud and embezzlement case. And the royal family is facing questions about why the 13-year-old grandson of the king was using a firearm while underage. In early April, Prince Felipe Juan Froilan accidentally shot himself in the foot while doing target practice.

If the king’s marksman skills are anything like those of his grandson, those African elephants have nothing to worry about.

Reuters, 4/17

North America

Monarchs Deposed

Declining monarch butterfly populations in the US have been troubling naturalists for more than a decade. The iconic orange and black butterflies migrate every year from as far as Canada to the mountains of Mexico, where they collect by the millions in fluttering swarms in trees – an extraordinary event that has inspired festivals and tourism. But for reasons that are not well understood, the number of butterflies that make it to Mexico has fallen drastically. This year, the butterflies occupied seven acres of trees in their refuge west of Mexico City – 28 percent less than last year and a fraction of the 45 acres they occupied in 1996.

Now a new study points to a possible cause for the decline: the rapid spread of genetically engineered, herbicide-resistant corn and soybean crops that are costing the monarch its Midwest breeding habitat.

The theory is simple: Monarchs lay their eggs on one specific type of plant – milkweed – that once grew abundantly in cornfields in the Midwest. When the eggs hatch, the caterpillars feed on the milkweed leaves. In 1996, farmers began to use Monsanto’s “Roundup Ready” corn and soybean seeds that were genetically modified to withstand dousings of Monsanto’s Roundup, or glyphosate, herbicide. Milkweed has no such immunity. Over the years, increasing use of glyphosate led to milkweed nearly disappearing from the Midwest. Today, milkweed has disappeared from at least 100 million acres of cropland. Between 1999 and 2010, the same period in which GM crops became the norm for farmers, the number of monarch eggs declined by an estimated 81 percent across the Midwest, the study reports.

It is one of the clearest examples yet of unintended consequences from the widespread use of genetically modified seeds, says John Pleasants, a monarch researcher from Iowa State University, who co-wrote the study, published in the journal Insect Conservation and Diversity, with Karen Oberhauser of the University of Minnesota.

Pleasants used data on the change in milkweed density in Iowa, and extrapolated those numbers to landscape use data across the Midwest. The numbers showed an estimated 58 percent decline in milkweed plants throughout the Corn Belt.

close photo of a butterfly on a flower stemphoto Dwight SiplerResearchers say a collapse in the number of monarch butterflies may be linked to the loss of
milkweed due to more plantings of GM crops and increased pesticide use in North America.

Oberhauser supplied data on the numbers of monarch eggs per milkweed plant in non-field milkweed patches that an army of volunteers had been collecting for about a decade. Oberhauser’s data, from 800 such patches, show that the butterflies lay nearly four times as many eggs on farm field plants as on those in pastures or on roadsides.

This isn’t the first time that GM crops have been seen as a threat to monarch butterflies. In 1999, Cornell entomologist John Losey published a paper showing that pollen from GM Bt corn was lethal to monarch larvae. Another study by Iowa State University also showed monarch larvae dying after eating milkweed leaves containing Bt pollen in field conditions. But in 2005, the USDA concluded that not enough Bt pollen was accumulating on milkweed to have an effect on butterflies.

Some researchers, like Leslie Ries, a University of Maryland professor who studies monarchs, say the new study is indirect and “does not resolve the debate about whether GM crops are affecting monarch populations.” Others believe that damage to the wintering grounds from logging and development are also playing a part in the decline, and that the number of butterflies that make it to Mexico does not necessarily reflect the health of the species.

Star Tribune, 3/12; University of Minnesota, 3/12

Sophie’s Choice

It’s kind of like an ecologist’s Sophie’s Choice: Kill sea lions that are gorging on stocks of endangered Chinook salmon, or allow the marine mammals to eat their fill, knowing that it will reduce the number of fish? That’s the dilemma pitting federal fisheries managers against some environmental and animal rights groups.

Each year, hundreds of sea lions swim 140 miles up the Columbia River and cluster at the base of the Bonneville Dam, where they feast on salmon and steelhead trout that are going upriver to spawn. Wildlife biologists from the Oregon and Washington governments say the sea lions are a threat to Chinook salmon recovery and have sought to trap and kill the pinnipeds. But animal protection activists argue that dams, hatchery practices, and environmental degradation pose far greater threats to salmon and say the sea lion targeting is unnecessary.

In March, officials with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration said they would allow up to 92 sea lions to be removed from the area. Under the NOAA order, Oregon and Washington wildlife managers would have to first try to capture the sea lions and transfer them to zoos or aquariums. They can kill the sea lions only if the animals can’t be trapped. Since 2008, the states have killed 28 sea lions and trapped and transferred 10.

photo of a salmon swimming in bubbly clear waterphoto Flickr user PhotommoUS fisheries managers want to cull sea lions in order to protect endangered Chinook salmon stocks,
but animal protection groups say the salmon faces greater threats than the pinnipeds, namely dams,
bad hatchery practices, and environmental degradation.

The Humane Society and the Wild Fish Conservancy immediately filed a lawsuit against the order and an injunction to stop the killing. A federal judge denied the injunction, but reduced the number of sea lions that could be killed to 30 while the case moves forward.

“We are very disappointed in this decision,” says Sharon Young of the Humane Society. “Lethal management is not necessary and will do nothing to help the salmon.”

The Humane Society says there doesn’t need to be such choice, pointing out that between 1 percent and 4 percent of the salmon run on the Columbia River is eaten by sea lions. “The decision to kill hundreds of marine mammals [sic] to reduce salmon losses by a couple of percentage points at best, while simultaneously authorizing much larger man-made sources of endangered salmon mortality, is both outrageous and patently illegal,” the group says in a statement.

That depends on what law you’re talking about. The fish-versus-sea lion struggle sets two landmark environmental laws against each other. The Chinook and steelhead populations are protected under the US Endangered Species Act. The sea lions – which are pretty healthy, with a population 300,000-strong along the West Coast – are covered by the Marine Mammal Protection Act. Now, some unlucky judge will have to decide which law – and which species – will take priority.

Reuters 3/16, 3/21; AP 3/22

South America


Brazil’s rush to build a series of dams on the Amazon River and its tributaries has received intense opposition from Indigenous groups and environmentalists. Recently, another factor has stymied efforts to tap one of the world’s largest reserves of hydroelectric power – worker uprisings.

In mid-April, about 7,000 workers at the Belo Monte dam site, near the town of Altamira in the Amazon region, went on strike demanding better working conditions, improved pay, and more time off to visit families. Less than two weeks into the strike, a regional labor court in Para, the state where the dam is being built, ruled that the strike was illegal because the workers’ original contract is valid until October. Threatened with fine of 200,000 Brazilian reais ($104,000) each day until the strike was called off, employees resumed work on May 4.

The strike at Belo Monte was preceded by work stoppages at two other major hydroelectric dams in the Amazon basin – the Jirau and Santo Antonio dams that are being built on the Amazon’s largest tributary, the Madeira River, close to the Bolivian border.

The 26-day strike at the Jirau dam site escalated when a faction of laborers, furious over wages and living conditions, set fire to the construction site. They burned to the ground more than 30 structures and looted company stores. Brazilian authorities had to fly in hundreds of troops from an elite force to quell the unrest. The 3,300-megawatt Jirau project had witnessed a worker mutiny in 2011, too, when workers set fire to 45 buses and 35 sites that served as living quarters. The unrest at Jirau extended to the 3,150-MW Santo Antonio dam site, although no violence was reported there.

Workers at these two sites returned to work in early April after they were granted wage increases.

Brazilian authorities expect at least 20 important hydroelectric projects to be completed by the next decade. The $11 billion Belo Monte project on another major Amazon tributary, the Xingu, is the largest of the lot. When completed, the 11,000-megawatt dam will be the world’s third largest, behind China’s Three Gorges dam and the Itaipu dam that straddles the border of Brazil and Paraguay.

The projects have opened Brazil to criticism from environmental and Indigenous groups who say the dams would displace native communities and cause irreparable changes in the Amazon ecosystem. They also allege that flooding swathes of rainforest – and potentially releasing large amounts of methane gas by doing so – would outweigh the dams’ benefits. But officials argue that Brazil needs the dams to meet the nation’s rising demand for electricity, which is predicted to increase by 56 percent by 2021.

AFP 3/12; the Wall Street Journal, 5/12; the New York Times, 5/12

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