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Split Decision

The World Bank, it seems, has something of a personality disorder when it comes to environmental policy.

Exhibit A, a recent pair of competing decisions: One funds the expansion of conservation programs at South Africa’s iSimangaliso Wetland Park, a UNESCO World Heritage site, while the other underwrites the construction of one of the world’s biggest coal-fired power plants.

In late March, the World Bank announced with great fanfare a $9 million grant to launch habitat conservation and restoration programs around Lake St. Lucia, the centerpiece of iSimangaliso, a 1,200-square-mile park that contains Africa’s largest estuary system. With its mix of tall sand dunes, three major lakes, and coastal waters, the park is home to rhinos and hippos as well as dolphins and humpback whales. At a signing ceremony announcing the grant, World Bank officials said the funds would also create economic benefits for the area by increasing eco-tourism.

“The project is innovative because it combines conservation objectives with … fostering local economic development,” says Paola Agostini, a World Bank economist in Africa.

But just a few weeks later, the South African government and World Bank officials made clear their real priorities for the country’s economic development when the lending agency gave the go-ahead for a massive loan to subsidize a huge coal plant.

Sidestepping the objections of environmental organizations – as well as some of the bank’s largest shareholders – the bank’s board approved a $3.75 billion loan for the Medupi power plant. When completed, the 4,800-megawatt plant north of Johannesburg will generate some 25 million tons of carbon dioxide a year and likely prevent the country from fulfilling its pledge to cut its greenhouse gas emissions.

Construction on the Medupi plant, a project of South Africa’s state-owned utility, is already underway. But when private financing for the plant fell through after the global financial crisis, the South African government went to the World Bank to cover the construction costs.

World Bank officials say the loan, the first to South Africa since the end of apartheid 16 years ago, is essential to boost the country’s economy and raise living standards. “Without an increased energy supply, South Africans will face hardship for the poor, and limited economic growth,” Obiageli K. Ezekwesili, World Bank Vice President for Africa, said in a statement.

Green groups disputed that line of thinking and argued that, in fact, the reliance on coal will doom the country to an outdated energy path.

“I think it’s pretty clear that the World Bank is telling the people of South Africa that they’re not taking their commitments to poverty and climate change seriously,” says Mark Kresowik, a staffer on the Sierra Club’s Beyond Coal campaign.

The coal loan was controversial among the bank’s largest shareholders. The United States, the United Kingdom, the Netherlands, and Italy abstained from the vote, the traditional method of dissent in an organization that operates by consensus. A ‘no’ vote would have killed the project.

“I’m not going to give them points for abstaining,” says Karen Ornstein of Friends of the Earth. “This was totally the easy way out. If the US were to follow its own clean coal guidance for multilateral-development banks it would have to vote no on this loan.”

In the long run, the bank may be working at cross-purposes to itself. The estuary ecosystems of the iSimangaliso park are just now recovering from an unprecedented eight-year drought, a pattern of dryness that will only increase with global warming – fueled, in large part, by coal.

Environmental News Service, 4/5, Energy & Environment Daily, 4/9, The Guardian, 4/9

Morocco Makes it Legal

photo of terraced fields interspersed with dwellings, aerial viewSarfraz HayatFarming is allowed in Toukbal National Park, in Morocco’s Atlas Mountains, but
strict conservation measures have been in place since the early 1990s.

Amid a growing campaign for what are being called “the rights of nature,” Morocco recently became the first African country to make a firm commitment to sustainable development and environmental protection. The country announced its new charter on Earth Day, on which it was one of six official host cities for the day’s 40th anniversary celebration.

In establishing its National Charter for Environment and Sustainable Development, the country also became the first on the continent to write its environmental goals into law. As a country that is both part of Africa and part of the Arab world, its move sent a message to leaders in both regions.

“Morocco, which sits at the crossroads between Africa and the Middle East, is leading these regions in groundbreaking environmental practices, inspiring millions of people to make a personal commitment to the environment for Earth Day and beyond,” says Kathleen Rogers, president of the environmental nonprofit Earth Day Network.

As a member of the United Nations’ Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues, Morocco has been increasingly involved in discussions about climate change and its impacts on the world’s Indigenous communities. By establishing its own set of environmental laws, the country is sending a clear message that it plans to clean up its own house as it asks more developed countries to do the same.

The charter states: “Everyone is entitled to live in a healthy environment that ensures security, health, economic growth, and social progress, where natural and cultural heritage and quality of life are preserved.”

The charter also encourages environmental education and the establishment of evironmental preservation as “a permanent concern of all Moroccans.” Morocco’s charter takes a page from Ecuador’s constitution, which was famously amended in 2008 to include the “rights of nature” alongside those of humans. Leaders in the climate debt movement have taken up that phrase, calling the recent climate summit in Bolivia the World People’s Conference on Climate and the Rights of Mother Earth, and penning a Universal Declaration on the Rights of Mother Earth at the summit.

The King of Morocco, Mohammed VI, spearheaded the National Charter for Environment and Sustainable Development, which will provide a framework for national environmental laws. The country’s cabinet ministers announced a number of proposed projects along with the charter, including remediation projects to repair the desertification caused by overexploitation of the country’s forests, the installation of artificial reefs off Morocco’s coast to protect marine ecosystems, a landfill-based methane gas-to-energy project, a plastic bag ban, and the formation of an eco-school.

While the new charter – and subsequent laws – is a meaningful step for both the country and the region, it is not Morocco’s first foray into the “green” scene. Earlier this year the Moroccan government earmarked $9 billion to invest in solar energy as part of a broader renewable energy scheme aimed at meeting 42 percent of the country’s power needs with renewable sources by 2020. And in March, US EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson called the country “a model for its commitment to a clean, green economy,” adding, “Morocco’s leadership on the environment and sustainable development offers a great example for how we can spread this idea across the globe.”

EnS, 4/22


China Chills Out

There are only a few products that are selling faster than automobiles in China at the moment, and one of them is air conditioners. As has been the case with many modern conveniences making their way to China, air-conditioning has become a way for upwardly mobile Chinese to let their friends and neighbors know their fortunes are on the rise. Consequently, sales of air-conditioning units have tripled in the country over the last decade, and the number is expected to reach 35 million this year, making China the largest producer and consumer of air conditioners in the world. To put those numbers in perspective, about 70 million US homes have air-conditioning.

photo of the side of a tall building, windows covered with AC unitsJerry YangChina’s air conditioners are about to get more efficient.

China’s air-conditioning boom may be good news for its economy – but it’s bad news for the climate. The lifeblood of air-conditioning units is refrigerant. While most countries (including China and the United States) have phased out the use of ozone-depleting chlorofluorocarbons as refrigerants, they have largely been replaced by hydrofluorocarbons, which are über greenhouse gases with a global warming potential more than 1,400 times greater than carbon dioxide. Add to that the fact that the installation of more air-conditioning units equates to greater energy demands to keep them all running (and in China that typically means more coal-fired power), and what seems like a simple luxury – cool air on a sweltering summer day – becomes an environmental nightmare.

Fortunately, the Chinese government is moving to do something about it, at least on the energy front. In 2009, the government instituted a subsidy payment for consumers who purchase the most energy-efficient air-conditioning units, driving up adoption of those units. The government claims 50 percent of the air conditioners currently in use in China are energy efficient.

That number is likely to go up thanks to a new standard the government will roll out June 1 that will eliminate the most inefficient air-conditioning units from the market. Currently there are three levels of efficiency standards relating to air-conditioning units in China, with first-tier units being the most efficient, second-tier units being slightly less efficient, and third-tier units being the least efficient. The new standards push the current third-tier products out of the market entirely.

Thanks to the subsidy program, air-conditioning manufacturers in China have largely moved away from the more inefficient models anyway. According to a spokesperson for Chigo, one of the country’s largest air-conditioning manufacturers, products in line with the 2009 standard account for more than 90 percent of sales. In March, the company promised a one-year replacement period to second-tier energy efficiency air conditioner buyers in a bid to expand its energy-efficient market.

Government incentives fueling good behavior? Pretty cool.

Xinhua News Agency, 3/04

Electric Seoul

Although the electric car has brought some environmental benefits by reducing tailpipe emissions, there is always room for improvement – most obviously, getting electric vehicles off a coal-fired grid. That’s a long-range endeavor. In the short term, there’s an opportunity for progress in reducing the bulk and increasing the lifespan of the batteries that power electric vehicles. Or, perhaps more elegantly, getting the vehicles to recharge themselves.

Seoul, South Korea is leading the innovation with the introduction of the Online Electric Vehicle (OLEV), which relies on cables underneath the road, and eliminates the need to recharge through outside sources. The technology came out of the Korean Advanced Institute of Science and Technology (KAIST) last year and is now being tested on a train at Seoul’s largest amusement park. Although new to vehicles, OLEV charging comes from an unlikely source: the electric toothbrush industry. In a process called “inductive charging,” some electric toothbrushes get their charge via magnetic strips in their cradles. OLEV technology works in essentially the same way: Underground cables composed of magnetic strips send charges to magnets on the train, creating a current that can be used to power the vehicle, or saved for later use.

Before deploying the technology in hectic South Korean traffic, the KAIST team is trying it out on a passenger train at Seoul’s Grand Park – an amusement park composed of playgrounds, trails, a zoo, and an art museum. After much scrutiny of the park’s diesel-fueled trains, the decision to switch to electric vehicles has been the initial spark for more ambitious plans in the works, including switching all the park’s trains over to OLEV technology, provided the pilot goes well.

In the next couple of years KAIST foresees the use of the same detached energy systems on buses all over South Korea, and one day, perhaps even individual vehicles. But can Seoul’s entire bus system – responsible for about 30 percent of all transport in the country – really be powered by toothbrush technology? The KAIST team seems to think so; the results of its research show the system to be highly efficient, despite a gap between the road surface and the vehicle.

As with most earth-saving endeavors, however, price plays a devilish role. Converting all buses to OLEV technology, even without factoring in electricity costs, would amount to about 400 million won – equivalent to $353,500 per kilometer of road. If Korea invests heavily in the technology, it could help boost OLEV’s profile around the world, and eventually make the technology more affordable. Who knows? In the not-so-distant future maybe every car will include a built-in toothbrush charger and magnets will be keeping the air cleaner in more ways than one.

Inhabitat.com, 3/09 India times, 3/10

What’s Cooking?

It turns out that not all new technologies produce more emissions than their low-tech predecessors. Open-air fires, for example, are far more polluting than the average modern gas or electric stove. If the two billion people in the world who currently cook over an open fire had access to an inexpensive cook stove, greenhouse gas emissions and super-polluting black soot could be drastically reduced, according to recent studies conducted by the Global Health and Environment Program at the University of California, Berkeley.

Cleaner burning stoves in the developing world would bring both environmental and public health benefits. A study published last November in British medical journal The Lancet estimated that a decade-long, all-out effort to equip the 90 percent of Indian households that burn biomass with clean-burning cook stoves by 2020 would reduce premature deaths by 17 percent annually, essentially saving 55.5 million years of human life.

photo of a woman in multicolored clothing using an oven to cook flatbreadChris OrangeReplacing India’s traditional ovens with energy-efficient stoves could drastically reduce

“Think about that,” says Lakshman Guruswami, a Sri Lankan-born professor at University of Colorado. “Two billion people, one-third of the people on Earth, are caught in a time warp, with no access to modern energy. They got energy from Prometheus a long time ago, and that was it.”

On the environmental front, black soot (often referred to as “carbon aerosols” by the scientific community) was recently found to be a major contributor to the melting of glaciers in the Himalayas; the soot was thought to come from factories and open fires in India. “Our simulations showed greenhouse gases alone are not nearly enough to be responsible for the snow melt,” says study leader Surabi Menon, a physicist and staff scientist in Berkeley Lab’s Environmental Energy Technologies Division. “Most of the change in snow and ice cover – about 90 percent – is from aerosols. Black carbon alone contributes at least 30 percent of this sum.”

The good news is that black carbon doesn’t stay in the atmosphere for more than a few weeks, so programs aimed at controlling it have the potential to deliver results rapidly. That’s the hope fueling a new program launched by the Indian government in 2009 to dole out cleaner-burning, low-cost cook stoves to Indian citizens still cooking over an open flame. A project underway in conjunction with Scripps Institute of Oceanography, called Project Surya, is distributing cook stoves and solar lanterns to anyone in the Uttar Pradesh state who wants them. The stoves are free as long as participating families allow researchers to attach sensors around their houses to measure exactly how the stoves affect carbon emissions.

Meanwhile, several companies and nonprofits are working to design and distribute low-cost, efficient cook stoves elsewhere in India. The Envirofit stove, priced at 700 rupees (about $15), claims to cut emissions and smoke by 80 percent and fuel needs by 60 percent, which can save the average Indian family $50 to $75 annually.

Sounds great, but so far the average Indian family still isn’t buying it. Some of the stoves being offered are cheaply made, and some families don’t like the idea of completely changing their way of cooking from slow-cooking over a fire to faster cooking on a stove top – that smoke, after all, leaves a distinct flavor behind. Even when the stoves are offered for free, some 30 percent of families decline them.

According to Nathan Lorenz, vice president of engineering for Envirofit, it seems to work better when people are offered an aesthetically pleasing, quality product at a good price. Envirofit has sold more than 100,000 of its stoves in the last several months, so it seems to be an effective strategy. “People would rather be treated like customers than victims,” he says.

Yale360, 3/10

Suck It Up

With a metropolitan population of close to ten million people and a sprawling network of roads that are often clogged with traffic, the Indian capital of New Delhi suffers from some of the world’s worst air pollution, according to the World Health Organization. A clear solution, one might think, would be to institute tighter rules for cars, trucks, and industry. Of course, there’s always the Band-Aid response – just address the worst effects and let the root causes go untouched.

Which is exactly what Delhi officials decided to do when they installed a giant, seven-ton air purifier on a busy street in the city’s center. The maker of the contraption, Italy’s Systemlife, claims the box-like structure can purify 10,000 cubic meters of air every hour. The unit uses a five-stage filtering process that includes electrodes to remove particulate matter and gaseous pollutants such as nitrous oxide.

The Italian company has already installed similar public air purifiers at 26 locations in Spain, six in Switzerland, and seven in Italy. Backers say that the purifiers could help smog-choked cities throughout the world.

“It is the first such project in India and if it works then we would acquire a number of them and place them at strategic locations,” says P.K. Sharma, health chief of the New Delhi Municipal Council.

These large scale vacuum cleaners – which suck in air and release it in purified form from an air vent – cost about $500,000. Delhi officials say they’re worth the price. “Money does not matter when health is in question,” Sharma says.

Good point. Yet that raises another question: Why not just institute tighter rules on vehicles and factories to eliminate the pollution in the first place?

After all, the purifiers don’t exactly eliminate pollutants. The units include a filter that must be changed regularly and disposed of, and environmentalists say they will withhold judgment on the purifiers until tests on the filters have been conducted.

In October, New Delhi will host The Commonwealth Games, which will attract 8,000 athletes and approximately 100,000 visitors. But the local government won’t be relying on giant air purifiers to clean up smog before the sports event. They are considering a much more straightforward solution: shutting down thousands of industrial units.

Agence france-presse, 3/12


information graphic, depicting 'greenest cities of the world'Graphic: Nadia KhastagirClick to see full size version

Rock the Boat

First he introduced biodiesel-powered trains to the United Kingdom. Then he tried out a biofuel jet plane. Now business mogul and inveterate stuntman Richard Branson is focusing his prodigious attention on a somewhat less glamorous endeavor – reducing the greenhouse gas emissions of the world’s shipping fleet.

Container ships are the workhorses of the global economy: About 85 percent of the world’s cargo – electronics, clothes, cars, food commodities, furniture, and all that junk cluttering your garage – moves by boat. According to Branson’s climate crisis NGO, which he’s dubbed the Carbon War Room, if you combined all of the CO2 emissions from cargo vessels, it would be the equivalent of the sixth most polluting nation in the world. And those emissions are projected to keep growing until, by 2050, they could account for nearly a fifth of total global emissions.

Branson and his team think they can avoid that. The Carbon War Room wonks say that by employing existing technology, cargo ships could realize 75 percent gains in efficiency – and that the modest investments could be paid off in a few years.

“In shipping, there’s been an information gap,” says Jigar Shah, CEO of the Carbon War Room. “Companies that hired shipping services had no idea which were efficient and which were not.”

For example, shipping customers – which are usually massive companies such as Walmart, Cargill, and Toyota – typically pay the ships’ fuel costs. Which means that owners of the ships have little incentive to invest in efficiency upgrades.

Carbon War Room and its partners such as the NGO Oceana and Sustainable Shipping, an online news site, say that some simple technologies could make a big difference. Among them: low-friction paint that allows ships to glide more easily through the water; more hydrodynamic propeller designs; and giant kites that can reduce fuel costs by up to 35 percent using wind power.

“We’re working on technologies that currently save people money,” Shah says. “It’s far more straightforward and easier than trying to get governments to agree to binding targets in Copenhagen.”

Perhaps the most straightforward solution would be simply to slow down. Just as cars use less gasoline when they travel 55 mph as opposed to 65 mph, shipping containers that reduce their top speed can achieve significant fuel savings. The Danish shipping giant Maersk has halved the top cruising speed on its boats during the past two years and in the process cut fuel consumption (and emissions) by as much as 30 percent. Slowing down slices emissions by reducing drag and friction as ships churn through the water.

In an age of overnight delivery, instant messages, and fast-cash ATM withdrawals, slow isn’t exactly hot. But it may be what we need to cool off the planet.

Reuters, 3/17, The New York Times, 2/17

North America

Major Nuisance

A class action lawsuit brought by Hurricane Katrina victims against carbon dioxide-emitting corporations is inching forward in federal courts and could end up scrambling the legal and political landscape of climate change.

The suit was filed just weeks after the 2005 storm, which killed 1,200 people when the levees protecting New Orleans broke and flooded much of the city. The defendants include major greenhouse gas emitters such as Shell, ExxonMobil, BP, and Chevron. The plaintiffs – mostly Gulf Coast property owners – claim that these companies had a duty to “avoid unreasonably endangering the environment, public health, public and private property.”

A lower court had dismissed the suit, but last October a three-judge federal appeals court allowed the case to move forward. In February, the same court decided to re-examine the case with nine justices.

“The plaintiffs allege that the defendants’ operation of energy, fossil fuels, and chemical industries in the United States caused the emission of greenhouse gases that contributed to global warming,” the lawsuit reads. The increase in global surface and air temperatures “in turn caused a rise in sea levels and added to the ferocity of Hurricane Katrina, which combined to destroy the plaintiffs’ private property, as well as public property useful to them.”

All the legalese is based on the common-law doctrine of public nuisance, which allows neighbors to sue one another over odors, noises, or other disturbances that interfere with the enjoyment of their own property. This novel legal strategy for holding polluters accountable for their actions is spreading.

The Inupiat Eskimo residents of Kivalina, Alaska are suing two-dozen fossil fuel and utility companies for contributing to the erosion of the narrow spit of land that their homes sit on. The Kivalina residents are demanding $400 million in damages to pay for the loss of their homes and relocation to the mainland. And in Connecticut, environmental attorneys have joined forces with the City of New York and attorneys general of eight states to get a court order against polluters to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. The Alaskan case was dismissed by an Oakland, CA judge last October, but the native community is appealing.

Legal observers say there is a strong likelihood that one of these cases could eventually end up before the Supreme Court.

The Kivalina lawsuit has polluters especially worried; one pro-business group has called it “the most dangerous litigation in America.” In addition to claiming nuisance, that suit charges that the fossil fuel industry conspired “to suppress the awareness of the link” between emissions and climate change through “front groups, fake citizens organizations, and bogus scientific bodies.”

That claim is strikingly similar to the arguments made against the tobacco companies during lawsuits that ultimately resulted in the largest legal settlement in US history.

AFP, 3/3

Stick a Cork in It

Patrick Spenser – director of the nonprofit cork-recycling program Cork ReHarvest – has been working hard to provide an easy solution for recycling used cork tops, and his work is starting to pay off. In April, all Whole Foods Markets in the United States, Canada, and the United Kingdom launched Cork ReHarvest’s recycling service, providing a drop box in every store.

“It was the hardest thing I’ve done in my life,” Spenser admits. Because Whole Foods is highly decentralized, with each store making decisions independently of the others, Spenser had to start small. He initially grew interested in cork recycling while working at Willamette Valley Vineyards, and his environmental concerns bloomed into the founding of Cork ReHarvest in 2008. Shortly thereafter, he started the Whole Foods pilot program in the Pacific Northwest.

Cork ReHarvest’s goal is not only to get corks out of landfills, but also to raise awareness of the need to purchase and recycle natural corks – “natural” meaning those harvested from cork trees themselves. To encourage consumers to think about cork in new ways, the company provides them with a list of important facts: There are 13 billion corks produced every year, most of which end up in landfills; there are 300,000 corks in a ton, with eight or nine tons coming into the United States every year; 94 percent of cork farmers are independent family farmers. These numbers equate not just to wasted cork (and energy), but also to the demise of an otherwise-sustainable industry. Due to concerns over land-filled corks and a compound in cork that some winemakers say could taint wine, synthetic corks have been on the rise in recent years, threatening the livelihoods of farmers and the viability of six million acres of sustainable cork forests in the Mediterranean.

photo of wine-bottle corksJohn KnoxCork ReHarvest encourages the use and recycling of natural corks.

Thus Cork ReHarvest’s mission is not only to promote cork recycling, but to make natural corks the one and only option for consumers. According to Spenser, the problem with synthetic corks is that they’re made with chemicals and rarely get recycled. They also do a poor job of keeping wine sealed fresh and tasting good.

At the Berkeley, CAWhole Foods, just a few weeks into Cork ReHarvest’s nationwide launch, few people seemed to be aware of these unsettling cork facts, let alone that Whole Foods offers a place for them to recycle corks. However, while the cardboard drop-box is hard to spot, it is nonetheless effective. One employee said he empties it a few times a week.

Cork ReHarvest believes it’s up to consumers to save what’s left of the natural cork industry through their purchases. When consumers choose synthetic over natural cork they diminish economic stability for cork farmers and contribute to the world’s trash problem.

Fortunately, Spenser confesses, “I don’t think there’ll ever be a shortage of cork,” as farmers continually plant trees and there is currently enough cork in the world for all the bottles of wine that will be produced for the next 100 years.

Nonetheless, if action isn’t taken now to recycle existing corks and embrace natural corks, the cork farming industry will slowly fade as synthetic options rise to the top – polluting not only the ecosystem and the farming economy, but some great bottles of wine as well.

Andrea Dumovich


Monkey Business

Let the double-entendres begin. Australian company AussieBum has become the first company to use banana fiber to make underwear, launching its line of eco-friendly banana hammocks in March 2010. Made with 27 percent banana fiber, 64 percent cotton, and nine percent Lycra, the drawers – available as briefs or boxer briefs – are billed as “eco-friendly, lightweight and absorbent.”

Banana fiber is made from the bark and cast-off stems and leaves of banana trees. Fibers from the coarse outer layers are used to make tablecloths, curtains, and cushions, while the smoother inner layers can be used to make a fiber/fabric called “jusi” that is suitable for clothing. Eco-couture designer Doo.Ri made a splash last year with dresses made out of the stuff and the fabric looks to be growing in popularity among the green fashion set.

According to AussieBum’s Lloyd Jones, you can’t add more than 27 percent banana fiber or the resulting fabric “might be a bit squishy.” But while that quip may play well in the press, it’s not actually true. Although it does have to be blended with other fibers to be spun into a workable cloth, banana fiber can be a larger component of a fabric sans “squishiness.”

Given that there has been some talk of bamboo clothing not being as eco-friendly as it claims – particularly when it’s sourced from unsustainable forests – banana fiber, made from cast-off leaves and bark, may be the greatest thing in eco-friendly clothing since hemp.

Reuters, 3/08, Sydney Morning Herald, 3/09

South America

Dam Shame

Timing is everything, the saying goes. And yet somehow the Brazilian government picked the week of the 40th anniversary of Earth Day to move ahead with a controversial dam proposal that environmentalists and Indigenous rights groups have been fighting for years. The Belo Monte dam, planned for the Xingu River, would be the third-largest hydroelectric project in the world. While generating up to 11,200 megawatts of electricity, it would also flood more than 500 square kilometers of the Amazon rainforest, negatively impacting local ecosystems as well as the 14 Indigenous tribes that live in the region.

photo of demonstrators on a stage, banners in PortugeseInternational RiversDespite protests, Brazil is moving forward with plans to build the third largest dam in the world.

Government officials claim that the dam will affect “only” 19,000 people. But an independent review of the dam proposal published in 2009 found that as many as 40,000 people would be affected.

“We don’t accept the Belo Monte dam, because we understand that it is only going to bring destruction to our region,” Indigenous leaders wrote in an open letter. “The way the white man is going, everything is going to be destroyed very quickly.”

For its part, the government views the impact on the tribes and the Amazon as an acceptable risk in exchange for the benefits provided by the dam, including enough electricity to power 20 million homes. In addition to its recent push to convert to alternative fuels, on the electricity front Brazil derives 73 percent of its power from hydroelectric energy.

On April 20, as Brazil’s National Electric Energy Agency awarded a $10 billion contract to build the dam, 500 activists from Greenpeace and a number of local environmental groups dumped three tons of manure on the steps of the agency’s offices in Brasilia, and vowed to occupy the region of the Amazon that will be flooded by the dam.

Greenpeace activists also urged the Brazilian government to consider renewable energy instead, including wind, solar, and biomass. Unfortunately, it might not be so simple. As Amazonian tribes have learned with the country’s shift from petroleum to ethanol – a move widely viewed as an environmental victory – even renewable sources can have an impact on their land and way of life. According to a recent report produced by Survival International, the Guarani in Brazil have lost much of their land to sugar cane cultivation as a result of the growth of the country’s ethanol industry.

Although the fight against the Belo Monte dam appears to have been lost for the moment, activists have vowed to continue working against it. They’ll have at least one high-profile supporter in Avatar director James Cameron, who joined an Indigenous protest against the dam when he visited the country in March.

“It was life-changing. By a long series of events, finding myself in what is like a real-life Avatar-like drama, it was pretty amazing,” he says.

Of course, his interest in the Amazon isn’t totally altruistic. He apparently got “tons of great footage” while there, and wants to return … to help protest the dam again, but also to “shoot more stuff, maybe even in 3-D.”


Reuters, 4/22, Al-Jazeera, 4/21

Net Gain

Lima, Peru has a water problem. The city of 7.6 million people is among the driest capitals in the world, receiving less than an inch of rain a year. Lima depends almost exclusively on glacial runoff for water, but global warming is reducing the snow pack in the Andes and has cut water flow to the arid coast by an estimated 12 percent, according to the United Nations.

To exacerbate matters, the impoverished country hasn’t been able to extend basic water services to many of its citizens. About a quarter of Peru’s city dwellers and half of its rural residents lack access to clean drinking water and working toilets.

In recent years, the Peruvian government has sought to lay additional water lines to improve delivery and is looking at installing desalination plants along the coast. One of the most effective responses is also the simplest: setting up nets to capture some of the moisture contained in the thick fog that blankets Lima eight months out of the year.

photo of a person in silhouette, fabric net stretched across a frame nearbyMariana Bazo / ReutersFog-catching nets provide water to the barren hillside community of Bellavista del Paraiso
in Peru.

“Pure water from fog, can you believe it?” says Noe Neira, a community leader in Bellavista, a poor neighborhood of Lima. “There was so much water in the air and we didn’t know how to take advantage of it.”

Turns out it’s pretty easy. Using nets similar to those used in volleyball, the Bellavista residents condense fog into pipes that run into huge storage tanks. The water collects drip-by-drip until there are hundreds of liters available for irrigation, bathing, and cooking.

Biologists at German NGO Alimon set up the nets in Bellavista to end the residents’ dependence on the overpriced and often contaminated water from the tanker trucks that supply the neighborhood. The trucks charge two soles ($0.71) for a barrel of water, about ten times more than what residents of Lima’s richest neighborhoods pay.

“We’re paying like millionaires for water,” says Josefina Ortiz, a mother of three who lives in San Juan de Miraflores, another slum not far from Bellavista. “We’ll never be able to progress because of the lack of water.”

Although the netting system is rusting after just three years of use and goes dry during Lima’s fogless summers, residents’ only complaint is that there aren’t more of the fog catchment systems.

“This whole area lacks water,” says Abel Cruz, head of Peruvians Without Water, referring to the thousands of plywood homes built by squatters around Lima. “But with 50 nets we could supply them all.”

Reuters, 3/23

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