Local News from All Over, Autumn 2013


Bittersweet Chocolate

Note to government officials in Ivory Coast: The ends do not justify the means.

In July the Ivorian government launched a campaign to clear tens of thousands of cacao farmers from protected forest areas as part of a larger effort to reassert state control over public lands. But the effort quickly got out of hand. Forest communities accused government forces of human rights abuses including rape, looting of homes, and theft.

photo of a man working in a forestphoto Nestlé – The Cocoa PlanOfficials in Ivory Coast have launched a campaign against cacao farmers,
whom they blame for deforestation.

The former French colony is one of the world’s largest producers of cacao, the raw ingredient for cocoa. The tree fruit accounts for 40 percent of the country’s exports and at least 10 percent of its total economic output.

But cacao cultivation in Ivory Coast also comes at a high environmental cost. The European Union estimates that three-quarters of Ivory Coast’s forest have disappeared in the last 50 years, mostly due to cacao cultivation. The country’s forestry service estimates that at least half of the nation’s 10 million acres of protected forest reserves are illegally occupied by squatters.

The government’s move to clear farmers from Ivory Coast’s 231 forest reserves has sparked unrest and led to accusations of abuse.

In Baleko-Niegre, the main settlement inside the Niegre forest, officials from the forestry service, flanked by armed soldiers, bulldozed most of the homes in the area. Resident Amadou Ama said he provided shelter to homeless neighbors, but then soldiers broke down his door at night and dragged off two women. “The next morning I found them,” he said. “They said they had been raped.”

Farmers also say that forestry officials and soldiers have looted their homes, stealing money and cacao. “Everyone fed themselves through cocoa,” said Abo Baboue, a farmer whose home was flattened by soldiers. “Not everyone can make it in the city.”

Government officials have denied the charges of abuse. “There have been no cases of rape or violence,” said government spokesman Bruno Kone. “If they refuse to leave, if they are aggressive toward our agents, we have the right to respond.”

Kone also attempted to justify the mass clearings and home destruction. “In America, you couldn’t imagine people illegally occupying Central Park just because they say they have nowhere else to live, could you?”

(For the record, we can imagine that.)

The crackdown on farmers in the forest appears to be part of the Ivorian government’s efforts to clean up its forestry sector as it prepares for negotiations with the EU over a new timber trade agreement. The country’s cacao production has increased significantly in the last decade, and most of the new growth has come from illegal plantations. Squatters in the Niegre forest reserve alone produce about 70,000 tons of the country’s total annual harvest of about 1.5 million tons of cacao.

Traders warn that the government raids will likely depress cacao production. “A large share of the cocoa produced in this country comes from the forest reserves,” says an exporter in the country’s second largest port, San Pedro. “The plantations inside the reserve are the youngest and most productive.”

Government officials say they aren’t worried about a smaller harvest. In fact, they see the campaign as an effort to diversify the Ivorian economy away from its dependence on the export crop. “If that’s the price to pay, we’re ready to pay it,” Kone says. “This is something that is more important than a simple question of tonnage.”

As for the price paid by farmers who lose their homes and basic human rights – well, no word on that.

Reuters, 7/2


Old Habits Die Hard

Bad habits are always so darn hard to break.

Despite Asia Pulp & Paper’s February pledge to immediately stop clearing rainforests “across its entire supply chain in Indonesia,” the company acknowledged in July that it had “accidentally” cleared 70 hectares of forests.

photo of a logging truck traversing a clearcutphoto David Gilbert / RANAsia Pulp & Paper says recent forest clearing in Indonesia was

The admission came after Eyes on the Forest, an Indonesian environmental coalition, reported in May that the world’s third biggest paper company had violated its moratorium on deforestation when one of its suppliers, PT Riau Indo Agroplama, cleared a forest area on the island of Sumatra.

In response, APP launched an investigation and concluded that 70 hectares of forest were indeed cleared “in breach of our moratorium.”

It appears the land was cleared because the supplier had a preexisting agreement with a local community to develop the land as part of a livelihood support program. Evidently PT Riau Indo Agroplama, or some intermediary in the chain of command, had missed the APP’s “no deforestation” memo.

APP now says the decision to allow the clearing to proceed was a mistake. “This approval should not have been given because all natural forest is covered by APP’s No Deforestation policy – our commitment to stop natural forest clearance is clear and absolute,” wrote APP’s Aida Greenbury. The company said it’s looking into whether there have been other similar breaches since its moratorium went into effect.

Creative pressure campaigns from green groups like Rainforest Action Network, Greenpeace, and Indonesian nonprofits had substantially tarnished APP’s brand and prompted large-scale customer defections, forcing the company to adopt the no-deforestation policy in February. But APP’s track record and the fact that it has failed to deliver on previous conservation pledges have led some environmental groups to question whether APP is really changing. The company, which along with its suppliers manages more than 2.5 million hectares of land in Indonesia, is notorious for its terrible environmental record. For more than two decades APP has been clearing wildlife-rich rainforests and peatlands, and has been involved in a number of cases of social conflict.

“Was this a genuine screw up or a lack of seriousness on the ground? How will the company respond to ensure this doesn’t happen again?” Bustar Maitar, head of the Indonesia Forest Campaign at Greenpeace Southeast Asia, asked in a recent blog post. APP has to focus on delivering on its promise, Maitar says. “Failing to do so will harden NGO attitudes and lead many to conclude that the recent policy announcement is nothing more than a cosmetic change.”

Mongabay.com, 7/13; Greenpeace International, 7/13

In Bad Taste

When Tokyo retailer Michinoku Farm began selling dog chews made from fin whales, company president Takumo Konno never thought the offering would anger customers. After all, it’s legal to sell whale meat in Japan and many affluent Japanese will do anything for their favorite furry friends.

“Dogs are like family members for many people in Japan,” Konno says. Michinoku’s website – which also sells pet goodies it says are made from Mongolian horses and kangaroos – offered three different sized packets of whale chews, with a 2 ounce bag selling for 609 yen ($5.97) and a roughly one pound bag going for close to $40. “We just wanted to sell a wide variety of food for dogs.”

But then Konno found himself the target of outrage from anti-whaling groups. The Japan-based Dolphin and Whale Action Network (which goes by the acronym IKAN) complained that selling products made from endangered species as treats for pooches represented the worst kind of conspicuous consumption. “The most likely reason for shops to sell the whale meat dog treat is to target affluent Japanese who want to show off their wealth with something different,” says Nanami Kurasawa, IKAN’s executive director.

According to IKAN, the whale meat came from Iceland, which will hunt and kill about 180 fin whales in 2013 for export. While Japan hunts whales under a loophole in the international moratorium by saying it is carrying out “research,” Iceland simply defies the ban openly. Hvalur, the Icelandic company that exports the whale meat to Japan, caught 148 fin whales in 2010, but hasn’t slaughtered any for the past two years due to a collapse in demand following the March 2011 earthquake and tsunami on Japan’s northeast coast.

“It is grotesque that this Icelandic company is flouting two international conventions to feed endangered fin whales to pampered pets in Japan,” says Clare Perry, a campaigner at the Environmental Investigation Agency.

Although whale meat is declining in popularity in Japan, many Japanese view anti-whaling campaigns as cultural imperialism. “[Campaigners] look at whales as important animals, but we consider dogs to be just as important,” Michinoku Farm’s Konno says.

Still, in the end he decided that he would rather do without the controversy. After receiving some negative publicity, he decided to stop selling the fin whale dog chews. “Maybe I was ignorant of the debate [about whaling], but it’s not worth selling the product if it risks disturbing some people,” he says.

Similar products are still available elsewhere on the Internet, however, including through Rakuten, Japan’s biggest online retailer.

Agence France-PressE, 5/28; The Guardian, 5/30

Big Winds Make Bad Neighbors

This summer Singapore learned the hard way that pollution knows no borders.

In June the tiny nation, famed for its cleanliness, found itself choking on thick, dark clouds of smoke and smog. The government advised residents to stay inside and schools were temporarily closed. Some airline flights had to be diverted from the city’s airport because visibility was so bad.

photo of people waiting in a smoky outdoor area, skyscrapers in the backgroundphoto REUTERS / Tim ChongForest fires in Sumatra this summer fouled the air of normally clean Singapore.

What caused the horrific air pollution in a country that is just 265 square miles and has little heavy industry?

The vast clouds of smoke came from its neighbor to the east of the Malacca Strait, Indonesia. Industrial palm plantations on the island of Sumatra routinely light massive fires as they clear forests and peat bogs to make way for palm groves. Small farmers there also practice slash-and-burn agriculture that sometimes gets out of control.

In Singapore haze is an annual problem during drier summer months, when westerly monsoon winds blow smoke from land-clearing on Sumatra. But this summer’s occurrence was the worst in years.

When the smog was thickest, Singapore’s Pollutant Standards Index, a universal system for measuring air pollution, hit 401 – the highest in the country’s history. A PSI reading above 300 is defined as “hazardous,” while Singapore government guidelines say a PSI reading of above 400 sustained for 24 hours “may be life-threatening to ill and elderly persons.”

The mass of smoke soon sparked something of a diplomatic kerfuffle. “No country or corporation has the right to pollute the air at the expense of Singaporeans’ health and wellbeing,” Dr. Vivian Balakrishnan, Singapore’s environment and water resources minister, wrote on his Facebook page, noting that local hospitals had reported a 100 percent increase in asthma and conjunctivitis.

An Indonesian cabinet minister, Agung Laksono, shot back, saying the criticism should have been conveyed through formal diplomatic channels. “Singapore should not act like children, making all that noise,” Laksono said.

In the end, though, the Indonesians were forced to issue an apology to their neighbors. Indonesian president Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, eventually said: “For what has happened, as president, I apologized and asked for the understanding of brothers in Singapore and Malaysia.”

Associated press, 6/20; BBC, 6/21; Reuters, 6/24


What Could Go Wrong?

Take the ill-fated Fukushima nuclear power plant. Combine it with the cursed BP Deepwater Horizon offshore oil well. The result, if the two were to meet in some kind of extreme energy purgatory, could look something like the Academician Lomonosov, a floating nuclear power station under construction in Russia.

Russia is building the world’s first floating nuclear power plant, and engineers say the facility “should be operational by 2016.” According to Aleksandr Voznesenskii, director of the Baltiskii Zavod shipyard, the Academician Lomonosov will be just the first seaborne nuclear station. Russia hopes to deploy a fleet of similar reactors to its Arctic territories and the coastal areas of the Russian Far East, which suffer from a lack of energy.

Each 21,000-ton vessel will have two reactors that will provide up to 70 megawatts of electricity, enough for a city with a population of 200,000 people. The floating nuclear plants will also be able to provide water desalination services capable of supplying 240,000 cubic meters of freshwater a day. Fifteen nations – including China, Indonesia, and Argentina – have expressed interest in buying a floating nuclear power plant.

The design is largely based upon the Soviet Union’s blueprints for nuclear-powered icebreakers. But the vessels will have no engines, so they will have to be towed to coastal waters near a city or industrial enterprise.

The Soviet Union’s track record with its nuclear-powered icebreakers is enough to give one pause. Its first nuclear powered icebreaker, the Lenin, suffered an accident in 1965, eight years after its launch. Some of its fuel elements melted and deformed one of the two reactors. The radioactive wreckage was later dumped in Tsivolki Bay. Two years later, a cooling system leak disabled a second ship. Then, of course, there’s Chernobyl.

This isn’t the first time someone has thought about deploying a seaborne nuclear station. In the mid-1970s, New Jersey’s Public Service Electric and Gas Company proposed building The Atlantic Nuclear Power Plant, a twin-reactor facility on an artificial island about 11 miles northeast of Atlantic City. The plan was abandoned in 1978 due to cost overruns and environmental protests.

Officials at the Baltiskii Zavod shipyard stress that the Academician Lomonosov and its successors are designed with a safety margin that will exceed all possible threats, including tsunamis and other natural disasters. The vessels will meet all of the requirements set forth by the International Atomic Energy Agency, according to shipyard officials.

But don’t forget the law of unintended consequences. Tow cables can snap. Arctic conditions are reliably unpredictable. Ships sink. If something were to go wrong … well, it could make past disasters seem quaint by comparison.

ENS, 7/17

North America

Chimps Unchained

The United States is one of only two nations where humans’ closest living relatives, chimpanzees, are still used as laboratory test animals. In labs across the US, chimps are exposed to diseases and experimental drugs, subjected to painful operations, and often spend their entire lives inside laboratories before being euthanized.

This may soon change. In June, two US federal agencies announced steps that could end the use of chimpanzees for medical research in America.

On June 11 the US Fish and Wildlife Service announced plans to list all chimpanzees, including those in captivity, as endangered. The plan would add more restrictions on experimenting on chimps by requiring a permit for almost all medical research on the animals. Permits would be granted only if the research were deemed to be for the benefit of chimpanzees.

Currently, only wild chimpanzees are listed as endangered in the US, while captive chimpanzees are listed as threatened. Nearly half of all the chimps in the US live in research facilities. Fish and Wildlife Service Director Dan Ashe says he hopes that ending the “split classification” between captive and wild chimps will spur the public into realizing that the species as a whole is imperiled.

The exploitation of chimpanzees as performing animals or exotic pets will also be significantly curtailed under the proposal. The agency hopes to finalize the regulation within a year.

Two weeks after the USWFS announcement, the National Institutes of Health declared that more than 300 of the 360 or so chimpanzees owned by its research labs would be retired to sanctuaries over the next few years. “Much of chimpanzee research could no longer be justified because we had other ways to get the same answers,” Dr. Francis S. Collins, NIH director, says.

The dual announcements follow years of campaigning by animal welfare groups such as the Humane Society of United States, the Jane Goodall Institute, Save the Chimps, and the North American Primate Sanctuary Alliance. Their efforts have been backed by scientific reports that have shown that there are alternatives to invasive experiments on chimps – such as human stem cell tests, experiments on other animals, as well as human testing – that are just as useful for science.

“Things are moving down a funnel, and what’s going to come out at the other end, we think, is the practical end of chimpanzee use in invasive research,” says John Pippin, director of medical affairs for the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine.

Kick Back, Relax, Offset Your CO2

With global climate talks stuck in a stalemate, several countries have made unilateral commitments to slash their greenhouse gas emissions to zero. Since 2007, New Zealand, Norway, Iceland, Tuvalu, Bhutan, and The Maldives have committed to going carbon neutral, and the race is on to see which nation can meet the milestone first.image showing a jet flying past a palm tree It appears that Costa Rica, the first country to make the zero-emissions pledge, is poised to win the “Carbon-Neutral World Cup.” But the small Central American nation’s difficulties in hitting that mark show that making a carbon neutral pledge is much easier than fulfilling one.

Costa Rica enjoys some natural advantages in its effort to go carbon neutral…


British primatologist Dr. Jane Goodall, who has long advocated for the humane treatment of chimps, praised the decisions, but said there was still more to do. “There are still chimpanzees in private labs,” she says. It is, however, “a very, very important milestone along the way,” she says.

“What the chimpanzee has done is to prove there is no hard and fast line dividing us from the rest of the animal kingdom,” Goodall says. “Once you admit that we’re not the only beings with personalities, minds capable of thought and emotions, it raises ethical issues about the ways we use and abuse so many other sentient, sapient beings – animal beings – every day.”

Tree Hugger, 6/11; The New York Times, 6/11; National Public Radio, 6/11

Attentive Shoppers

When it comes to worries about climate change and the environment, it appears that Americans are putting their money where their mouth is.

Half of all Americans consider environmental impacts at least occasionally when deciding whether to buy a product, according to a survey from the Yale Project on Climate Change and the George Mason University Center for Climate Change Communication. From food items to appliances to automobiles, many consumers are keeping an eye on the environmental footprint of their purchases.

The survey found that eight in ten people intend to buy locally grown food during the next year, while six in ten say they will buy organic food. Large majorities of consumers said the next time they make a major appliance purchase, they will opt for the energy efficient model. Three-quarters of respondents said they would buy an energy efficient kitchen appliance, 71 percent said they would buy an efficient water heater, and 68 percent said they would go for the more energy efficient air conditioner. And it looks like Al Gore’s light bulb recommendation at the end of An Inconvenient Truth worked: Fifty-three percent of Americans say “most or all” of the lights in their homes are compact fluorescents, up from 40 percent in 2008.

We even seem to be finally ending our love affair with gas-guzzlers, though not automobiles all together. Six in ten people say the next time they purchase a car, it will average at least 30 miles per gallon.

The survey also had some encouraging news about citizen activism. In the past year, four in ten of those surveyed said they had discussed a company’s irresponsible environmental behavior with friends or family. Forty percent of people also said they would be willing to join a campaign to convince political leaders to do “the right thing” about global warming.

There were, however, some discouraging statistics in the poll. Even as a growing number of Americans are making greener purchases, they are less convinced that it matters. You could call this “the empowerment index” – and unfortunately it’s heading in the wrong direction.

In 2008, 48 percent of respondents said they believed “energy-saving actions or intended actions” would reduce their personal contribution to global warming. Today that number has dropped to 31 percent. And when in 2008 researchers asked people whether they believed that “if most people” in the country adopted a greener lifestyle, “it would reduce global warming ‘a lot’ or ‘some,’” 78 percent agreed. Now only 56 percent of people think more sustainable living can have a virtuous ripple effect.

What to make of this reversal? One of the report’s authors, Anthony Leiserowitz of Yale, suggests the decline in people’s sense of climate efficacy may be a result of climate change slipping off the public’s radar in recent years. “I think a lot of it is because we aren’t talking about this issue at all anymore, so people are not being reinforced with the message: ‘So, here are things you can do,’” he says.

Or perhaps it’s just a matter of advertising. Big brands have found a way to market energy efficiency as easy, fun, and popular. But making environmental activism and climate policy seem exciting – that’s a tougher sell.

Mother Jones, 6/20; ENS, 6/21

South America

Survival of the Fastest

Deforestation in coastal Brazil is driving rapid evolution of some tree species, a study of the Brazilian rainforest has found. According to a paper published in the journal, Science, palm trees in Brazil’s Atlantic Forest have quickly evolved to produce smaller seeds as the populations of large-billed, fruit-eating birds such as toucans and cotingas have disappeared. The birds’ numbers have steadily declined due to decades of logging and human hunting.

Sharks Off the Menu

Each year as many as 100 million sharks fall victim to finning – a brutal practice in which fishermen catch the fish, cut off its fins, and then throw the mutilated animal back in the sea to die. Shark fin soup is a delicacy in many parts of Asia, a special dish reserved for important occasions like weddings, and fishermen can sell the fins for up to $300 a pound. According to the International Union for the Conservation of Nature, a third of shark species globally are threatened by extinction, largely because of finning.

Countries around the world are responding to the threat by outlawing or discouraging the practice. From the US to Singapore to China – where NBA star Yao Ming has become an outspoken opponent of the practice – countries are trying to pull shark fin soup off the menu…


The scientists collected more than 9,000 seeds from 22 populations of palm trees, some in fragments of forests where hardly any large birds survive and others where bird populations are relatively robust. Using evolutionary models and genetic data, they found that the seeds were consistently smaller in sites without large birds. The trees, it appears, evolved relatively rapidly to compensate for the loss of seed-dispersing birds.

But this isn’t exactly evolution leading to the survival of the fittest. Prior research has determined that larger seeds are packed with more nutrients, giving seedlings a better chance of survival. Smaller seeds typically lead to smaller trees. Also, seed dispersal by birds leads to a broader distribution of tree species.

The evolution of smaller seeds, combined with a reduction in regional rainfall now forecast by climate change models, could be devastating for palms in the area, says Mauro Galetti, an ecologist at Sao Paulo’s Paulista State University and leader of the international research team. “Unfortunately, the effect we document in our work is probably not an isolated case,” he says.

The Atlantic Forest runs along the coast of Brazil, starting at the easternmost tip of South America and extending close to the country’s southern border. The region has been heavily altered by agriculture and logging since the 1800s, with only about 12 percent of the original forest remaining. Of that area, about 80 percent is in disjointed fragments too small to support large animals and birds.

The researchers estimate it took the palm trees only 50 to 75 years to start producing smaller seeds in large bird-free zones – a blink of an eye in evolutionary terms.

The only way to turn the tide against the changes, Galetti says, is reforestation and conservation.

LiveScience.com, 5/30; LA Times, 5/31


Do as I Say, Not as I Do

Conservationists and fishermen in New Zealand are butting heads over the fate of the world’s rarest dolphin – a fight that some say is a major test of the country’s über-green image.

image of a seascape; dolphin in foreground, fishing boat in backgroundphoto Earthrace ConservationFishermen and greens in New Zealand are battling
over the fate of the Maui’s dolphin.

The Maui’s dolphin, named after a Polynesian demi-god, is one of the world’s smallest dolphins, measuring just five and a half feet long. Only 55 adults remain, and marine biologists fear the species will disappear by 2030 unless urgent action is taken.

“They are literally teetering on the brink of extinction,” says Liz Slooten, a professor of biology at Otago University. “They won’t last if we don’t do something right now.”

Slooten and her colleagues say one of the greatest threats to the Maui’s dolphin is entanglement in gill nets – vertical mesh nets left in the ocean for long periods. The Maui’s dolphin is only found in shallow waters off the North Island’s west coast, which is also home to a significant fishing industry. According to Slooten, an estimated five Maui’s dolphins are killed annually as fishing industry bycatch.

In 2012 the International Whaling Commission called for an immediate ban on gill netting in the area to save the species. In response, the New Zealand government put in place some restrictions on gill netting and began an assessment of “the potential impact of this extended ban on the local fishing community.”

Environmentalists complain that the government is stalling. “We’re worried the government is delaying to the point of no return for Maui’s dolphins,” says Greenpeace campaigner Karli Thomas. “Just waiting for them to drop off the agenda because they’re extinct is not solving the problem. That’s a loss of a species from the planet.”

The local fishing industry disputes that it’s to blame for the dolphins’ demise. Keith Mawson, who runs a fish processing plant, says there has been only one confirmed bycatch death of a dolphin in the last 25 years – and that it might have been a closely related Hector’s dolphin. “You could exclude fishing right along the west coast of the North Island and it’s not going to ensure the survival of this dolphin,” Mawson says.

Some Kiwis say the controversy threatens New Zealand’s international reputation as an environmental leader. “If we start knocking out species that we could have saved to make a few bucks, it’s not going to take long for the world to cotton on,” says Phil McCabe, a tourism operator who founded an environmental group called Kiwis Against Seabed Mining.

Researcher Slooten adds that the government’s reluctance to put in place a gill netting ban risks making the country appear hypocritical on marine mammal issues. New Zealand has been one of the strongest critics of whaling – yet on the dolphin protection issue it appears to be dragging its feet. “It hasn’t gone unnoticed to the Japanese that while we’re telling them not to kill Minke whales, of which there are many all around the world, we’re not doing much to save our own endangered species,” she says.

AFP, 6/10

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