Local News from All Over: Summer 2011

Around the World


Don’t Panic – Go Organic

A growing human population, now at seven billion people and headed for nine billion by 2050. Dwindling supplies of the fossil fuels used to make pesticides and fertilizers. Combine the two, and you get fears of food scarcities, even famine.

“Agriculture is at a crossroads,” says Olivier de Schutter, the United Nations’ Special Rapporteur on the right of food. “If food prices are not kept under control and populations are unable to feed themselves … we will have, increasingly, states being disrupted and failed states developing.”

photo of a woman working on a farm, concerned expression on her facecourtesy Neil Palmer/ International Center for Tropical AgricultureSome of the best opportunities to increase crop yields via agroecology are in Africa.

Since the Green Revolution of the 1970s, countries have sought to increase crop yields by boosting their use of chemical fertilizers, pesticides and, more recently, genetically modified crops. But, de Schutter says, there is another, better route: “agroecology,” agriculture that is based on ecological principles.

According to a report put together by de Schutter’s office, many farmers in developing nations can double food production within a decade by shifting away from artificial inputs. “Sound ecological farming can significantly boost production and in the long run be more effective than conventional farming,” de Schutter says.

What would that look like? For starters, using compost in place of fossil fuel-based fertilizers. Instead of relying on chemical pesticides, farmers can use natural symbioses to accomplish tasks such as weeding and pest elimination. In Bangladesh, for example, farmers are employing ducks to eat weeds in rice paddies. In Kenya, thousands of farmers are planting insect-repelling desmodium, or tick clover, in their cornfields to keep bugs away; the clover can also be used as animal fodder. African growers have also planted napier grass near their fields, which excretes a sticky gum that traps pests.

Some of the best opportunities to increase crop yields via agroecology are in Africa, where, de Schutter says, “too few efforts have been put into agriculture.”

The UN report highlights 20 projects in Africa where agroecology methods have resulted in a doubling of crop yields within three to 10 years. Globally, eco-farming projects in 57 countries showed an average crop production gain of 80 percent.

De Schutter cautions that developed nations will find it difficult to make a quick shift to agroecology because of what he called an “addiction” to oil-reliant farming. The all-too-close link between oil prices and food costs was evident this spring, as political unrest in North Africa pushed oil prices beyond $100 a barrel and, in turn, drove up food prices.

“Perhaps someday we’ll see a green counter-revolution, in which poorer nations will export their proven agroecology methods to the richer countries that can no longer afford to grow food with oil,” de Schutter says.

Reuters, 3/9

A Wall, Great and Green

China built its famous Great Wall to keep out raiders. Now, millennia later, a “Great Green Wall” may rise in Africa to deter another relentless invader – sand.

The Great Green Wall (GGW), which would involve planting a 9.3-mile-wide and 4,831-mile-long wall of trees from Senegal to Djibouti, was endorsed in February by a swath of African states.

In many central and West African countries surrounding the Sahara, climate change has slowed rainfall to a trickle. Crops have died and soils have eroded – crippling local agriculture. An estimated 10 million people faced severe food shortages due to recurrent drought in the sub-Saharan Sahel region last year. If the trend continues, the UN forecasts that two-thirds of Africa’s farmland may be swallowed by Saharan sands by 2025.

map of North-central Africa, the Sahel region outlinedcourtesy Wikimedia Commons

The GGW project, which would span 11 sub-Saharan states, plans to thwart the southward spread of the Sahara by planting trees that would serve as natural windbreaks, reducing sand erosion.

Originally proposed by Burkina Faso’s Marxist leader Thomas Sankara in the 1980s, the project was later resurrected by former Nigerian President Olesegun Obasanjo in 2005 and approved by the African Union in December 2006. In June 2010, the 11 countries involved signed a convention to further development of the project, but the plan remained on standby until February, when it was officially approved at an international summit in Bonn, Germany.

The project has already received a $115 million grant from the Global Environment Facility, an independent financial organization that provides grants to developing countries for sustainable development projects.

The basic plan entails each country implementing its own land, water, and vegetation-management projects on up to two million hectares of land, under the framework of the UN Convention to Combat Desertification. National and regional objectives include consolidating and expanding existing greenbelts, conserving biodiversity, restoring and conserving soil, and promoting income-generating activities, as well as carbon capture and storage.

But the project faces opposition from some green and Indigenous peoples’ groups. “It seems poorly conceived in terms of both ecological and socio-economic considerations,” says Wally Menne of the African NGO Timberwatch, which campaigns for the rights of forest peoples. Tree plantations on land earmarked for the GGW would displace existing communities and would lead to depletion of scarce water sources, he said.

The inclusion of carbon sequestration activities and the potential development of REDD projects (Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation) as components of the GGW is especially worrisome since it might require converting land to monocultures of fast-growing foreign species, Menne said.

IRIN, 4/8; National Geographic, 11/2009



Rising global fuel prices, an reliance on a handful of rice varieties, indiscriminate use of pesticides by farmers, and the loss of wetland ecosystems around rice paddies – all of these factors could combine to significantly reduce rice harvests, the staple grain for billions of people in East Asia.

photo of a huge number of giant sacks of rice in the hold of a bulk ship, cranes and people unloadingCourtesy International Rice Research InstituteA shipment of rice from Vietnam gets unloaded in Manila,
Philippines. Rice is the staple grain for billions of people in
East Asia.

That was the discouraging conclusion of scientists who met in Singapore in March to discuss the threat of “pest storms” and the deterioration of ecosystems because of over-spraying by farmers. “[The pesticide industry] is remarkably unregulated,” says George Lukacs, a scientist at Australia’s James Cook University. “Beyond the registration, it’s the Wild, Wild West.”

In the last decade, companies in China and India have increased the production of cheap pesticides. Under pressure to raise harvests to meet demand, poorly trained farmers tend to be over-reliant on the chemicals. Eventually, over-spraying leads to the evolution of pests that are resistant to chemicals. Also, indiscriminate spraying often destroys ecosystems around the paddies and kills natural pest predators such as spiders and dragonflies that would normally keep insect numbers down.

“There are big outbreaks of pests, or what they are calling in China ‘pest storms’ as a result of the over-application of pesticides,” Lukacs says.

A solution, he says, is for pesticide manufacturers, government regulators, and local communities to come up with a set of best practices for the production and use of chemicals.

According to Lukacs, Asia’s rice supply is made even more vulnerable by the reliance on small number of varieties. So if a particular pest or disease gets a foothold in a crop, it could spread rapidly – and wreak havoc on food supplies.

“In some countries, the majority of rice production is based around two or three varieties of rice, so that actually increases the risk to international food security if there is a big disease out there,” he says.

The concerns about rice production come just as global food prices are spiking. The UN Food and Agriculture Organization’s “Food Price Index,” which monitors average monthly price changes for a variety of key staples, is at the highest level since the agency began keeping figures in 1990.

“It’s a serious problem,” Lukacs says. “And the worst is that we haven’t seen the full effects yet.”

Agence France-Press, 3/5

Better Dead than Red?

You better be on your guard around the Dead Sea. It’s not political violence you have to worry about – it’s sinkholes. All across the tan lands surrounding the hyper-saline sea, deep chasms are breaking through the ground. Several hotels have slumped into rifts. Danger signs advise travelers and residents to beware.

The sinkholes are forming because the Dead Sea is shrinking. Over the past century, its surface area has shrunk by nearly one-third and water levels have fallen almost 100 feet. Thanks to rising agricultural, industrial, and household demands for the region’s limited water resources, the sea’s natural regenerative flows have dwindled. The lower reaches of the Jordan River, which once provided the Dead Sea with millions of cubic meters of freshwater a year, have become little more than a trickle. The mining industry, which dominates the sea’s southern shores, uses shallow evaporation pools that exacerbate the shrinkage problem.

The Red Sea-Dead Sea Conduit, a controversial water conveyance proposal, could change all that. Initially proposed by King Abdullah of Jordan and Israeli President Shimon Peres and presently under review by the World Bank, the proposal would move water from the Red Sea, 112 miles up the desert of southern Israel to the Dead Sea.

While the project could stabilize Dead Sea water levels, its primary objective is freshwater production. “(Desalination) is a key selling point,” Daniel Orenstein, an assistant professor at the Technion Faculty of Architecture and Town Planning, wrote in a 2007 op-ed for the Israeli daily Haaretz. As Orenstein explains, because the Dead Sea sits 400 meters below sea level, water taken from the Red Sea would north flow via gravity, generating hydroelectric energy along the way. Such a system could produce enough energy to desalinate as much as 850 million cubic meters of water per year, which would do much to secure the region’s water future. Brine generated by the desalination process would be pumped into the Dead Sea to stabilize shrinkage.

fragment of an infographic mapGraphic: Nadia KhastagirAtoms Bomb: World views of fission power – post Japan quake and tsunami. Click to expand.

However, some scientists insist that the Dead Sea will never disappear entirely. “At some point a balance between loss of water, rate of evaporation and density of the salt will cause the rate of evaporation to drop,” says Dr. Clive Lipchin, resource ecologist and faculty member at the Arava Institute for Environmental Studies. The real issue, Lipchin explains, is not about saving the Dead Sea, but rather deciding what’s needed to stabilize water levels, and at what level they should be stabilized.

But is a grand project the only way to stabilize the Dead Sea? Some, such as Friends of the Earth-Middle East (FoEMe) insist there are viable alternatives to the conduit, such as restoration of water infrastructure, better wastewater treatment policies, and regeneration of the Jordan River watershed. Says Mira Edelstein, Foreign Media Officer of the organization, “We are protesting the World Bank’s conduct of the feasibility study… as they are putting money into researching only one option, the Red-Dead Conduit.”

Others are skeptical that such alternatives would be successful. “There’s not enough water in the Jordan River to (stabilize the Sea),” Lipchin argues. “The only viable alternative to the Red-Dead Conduit is a similar project originating from the Mediterranean Sea. With either (the Red Sea or the Mediterranean Sea) there will be risks.”

Those risks are wide-ranging. The conduit is planned to run the length of the Arava Valley, which is known for seismic activity and flash flooding. Should seawater leak from the canal, the Arava’s groundwater resources could be salinified. The construction of a canal would also disrupt some of Israel’s last remaining havens for indigenous species. Red Sea water would introduce new salt concentrations into the Dead Sea, resulting in the formation of gypsum, a chalky white substance that would cover the Sea’s aquamarine waters. Moreover, it’s highly possible that the Dead Sea could one day reach a point where it is “full,” and unable to receive any more desalinated brine. Also, no one knows how extracting such large amounts of water from the Red Sea (2 billion cubic meters per year) would impact coral reef ecosystems there.

Yet the region needs fresh water. As the project’s supporters insist, the Red-Dead Conduit could stabilize the Dead Sea while simultaneously ensuring Israel’s water future. And if Israel were more water-secure, the argument goes, it could lead to regional water-sharing programs and pathways toward regional peace. For now, the project’s future depends on the results of the World Bank’s risk-assessment study, set for completion in June. Regardless of the outcome, it’s clear that any actions taken to address Dead Sea shrinkage will come with consequences. The question is, are the benefits of the Red-Dead Conduit worth the risks?

Johanna Hoffman


One Step Forward, Two Steps Back

So much for showing the way! A few years ago, the European Union scored major climate credibility points when it set specific targets to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions and increase energy efficiency by 2020. But now it has come up with a revised roadmap that avoids setting any new binding emissions targets for fear of upsetting national governments and industry.

The EU’s “roadmap for 2050,” adopted in March, is basically a review and revision of the earlier targets. While the new document sets out recommendations for EU states to slash CO2 emissions by 25 percent by 2050, this target is nonbinding. Legally, the emissions target is still stuck at 20 percent.

The EU’s original 20/20/20 plan calls for a 20 percent reduction in greenhouse gas emissions, a 20 percent cut in energy consumption, and a 20 percent increase in the use of renewable energy by 2020, compared with 1990 levels.

EU Climate Action Commissioner Connie Hedegaard had been fighting for the new 25 percent emissions cut goal to be a legally binding target, but she failed to secure the backing of the commission. She now hopes the 27-country bloc will manage to meet its new emissions goal by doubling its energy-efficiency target.

But here’s the rub. The EU isn’t even close to meeting its current goal of increasing energy efficiency by 20 percent by 2020. This is largely because, unlike the greenhouse gas emissions and renewable energy targets, which are mandatory, the EU’s energy efficiency goal is nonbinding. Hedegaard predicts the EU will likely fail even to hit 10 percent efficiency savings if new measures are not taken.

The 2050 roadmap has been criticized as “far too timid” by green groups that believe the emissions-cuts target should be raised to at least 30 percent and made legally binding. Friends of the Earth accused the EU of having “lost its way when it comes to showing global leadership” on climate change. “The objective of reducing emissions by 25 percent by 2020 still means we will almost certainly exceed 2 degrees of average global temperature rises,” says Brook Riley, a climate and energy campaigner at Friends of the Earth Europe.

In trying to pilot proposals past a crippling dependency on oil and gas imports, deep instability in North Africa and the Middle East, and increasing suspicion of leaders’ number one “clean energy” preference – nuclear power – Denmark’s Hedegaard has one of the hardest tasks in Brussels politics. Her plans are expected to cost an estimated 270 billion euros ($380 billion) per year if the historic switchover is to become a reality. That’s a fortune for countries struggling to reduce their public debts. But it’s a bargain when compared to climate chaos.

AFP, 3/8; New Europe, 3/14

Cable Connection

Iceland is considering building the world’s longest undersea electric cable so that it can begin selling its vast geothermal and volcanic energy to Europe.

By the end of this year, state-owned energy company Landsvirkjun will complete a feasibility study for a sub-sea cable that could deliver as much as 5 billion kilowatt-hours annually to Europe, enough electricity to power 1.25 million homes. A final decision on the project would likely take another four to five years.

The energy infrastructure of Iceland is one of the cleanest in the world, capable of producing 100 percent of its electricity from homegrown renewable resources such as hydro and geothermal power. But since hundreds of miles of open waters separate the island nation from mainland Europe, sharing those clean energy resources has so far been impossible.

photo of a geothermal pond, steam and thermophillic algae visibleCourtesy BRIIceland is considering using its vast geothermal resources to feed Europe’s energy demand.

Building a giant cable connecting Iceland with Europe would change that, but such a project would also be a monumental engineering feat. Depending on the destination country, the cable would need to be between 745 and 1,180 miles long, which would make it the longest sub-sea cable in the world.

“Among things being studied is the destination country. Potential countries include Britain, Norway, Holland, and Germany,” says Ragna Sara Jonsdottir, a spokesperson for Landsvirkjun, which produces 75 percent of all electricity in Iceland. Jonsdottir refused to estimate how much the project might cost to build.

But Landsvirkjun has a good sense of how much it could make on the deal. Exporting power could bring in up to $450 million in revenue annually for Iceland, which would be a boon for a nation hit hard by the global financial crisis. All of Iceland’s major banks collapsed at the end of 2008, and the country has since been searching for ways to boost its economy, which was once heavily dependent on a bloated financial sector and is now based mainly on fishing.

Iceland’s geothermal resources are so immense that the nation intends to be completely energy independent by 2050. Aside from a small percentage of electricity that comes from natural gas, and a transportation industry still heavily dependent on foreign oil, Iceland is already well on its way toward meeting that goal.

The trick will be finding a way to share the benefits of renewable energy with the rest of Europe, too.

AFP, 3/7; Forbes, 3/15

North America

Water Babies

Hybrid cars save us money at the pump and all-electric vehicles eliminate the need for gas altogether. But these clean-tech vehicles are still expensive and their costly lithium-ion batteries simply aren’t powerful enough to compete with a tank of gas. General Motors’s new plug-in hybrid Chevy Volt, for instance, can go only 40 miles on a charge. Nissan’s fully electric Leaf is supposed to have a 100-mile range. A 10-gallon internal combustion engine sedan, on the other hand, can go nearly 300 miles.

But what if we had batteries that could last 300 miles and ran on water or air? No, really. The technology for it could be just around the corner.

PolyPlus, a Berkeley, California-based battery maker, claims it has created an inexpensive lithium-water battery that can deliver as much as 1,300 watt-hours per kilogram of electricity – more than triple the energy capacity (200 watt-hours per kilogram) of standard lithium-ion batteries used in hybrid cars and portable electronic devices like laptops and cell phones.

Unveiled at the second annual conference of the Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy (ARPA-e) in Maryland in March, the battery was touted as a potential game-changer by agency director Arun Majumdar. “This is like a fish [because of its gill-like action], but it’s a battery,” he said.

There’s some cool science behind the PolyPlus creation. Usually lithium and water don’t quite get along – the spontaneously combusting alkaline metal burns in water. The PolyPlus battery overcomes this limitation by encasing the lithium inside a solid electrolyte membrane that allows it to transfer lithium ions into the water without reacting directly with water. Electrons released from the lithium electrode then react with the dissolved oxygen in water to produce electricity.

There’s more. The battery has an open system that allows the lithium to connect with open water sources. This not only makes it simple and cheaper to produce, it also expands the range of its use – from car batteries to marine equipment. Picture, for instance, a battery used for a device on the outside of a ship, or in an underwater, unmanned vessel that needs power. PolyPlus is working on a pilot production line for these batteries that could reach commercial markets in two years. The company’s real goal though, is to develop lithium-air batteries, says chief technical officer Steve Visco.

“Lithium-water batteries are designed to operate in the ocean or in freshwater. Lithium-air batteries are based on the same principle, but operate using oxygen from the air, as opposed to extracting oxygen from water, like the gills on a fish.” Visco explains.

PolyPlus is just one of several battery-makers that ARPA-e is funding, all attempting to leapfrog the standard lithium-ion battery, which are popular because they are rechargeable, have high energy densities, and hold charges for long periods when not in use.

Improving battery performance is the gateway to clean energy. Pretty much all renewable energy systems need batteries to store energy to tide us over when the sun isn’t shining or the wind isn’t blowing. Ultimately, better batteries – or finding a way to keep lithium from combusting in air – can result in reducing the demand for imported oil that sends $1 billion per day abroad, largely to Canada, Middle Eastern countries, and Venezuela.

GigaOM, 3/1; Scientific American, 3/2

Army Goes Green

While leaders in Washington dither over how to break America’s addiction to oil, one key institution of the US government is already charging ahead with a renewable energy mission: the United States military. Concerned about how their dependence on fossil fuels has created long, hard-to-defend supply chains, the Army, Navy, Air Force, and Marines are spearheading a transition to renewable power.

The latest example can be seen outside San Diego, where the Marine base at Camp Pendleton recently completed a large solar installation. Working in partnership with Kyocera Solar, the Marines installed a 1.4-megawatt photovoltaic system at the desert base. The system is expected to produce 2,400 megawatt-hours annually, enough to power up to 400 homes. Engineers with the Navy anticipate that the solar array will save Camp Pendleton about $336,000 on its yearly power bill.

photo of a helicopter carrying a payload on a sling, tinted greenCourtesy Matt Hintsa

The military’s pursuit of renewable energy isn’t only about trying to “go green” or save money. Rather, military officials see cutting fuel use as a key part of bolstering national security.

The US military is the single largest purchaser of petroleum on the planet. Each day its tanks, planes, ships, and trucks burn some 340,000 barrels of oil. In war zones such as Iraq and Afghanistan, the military’s massive fuel requirements have become a tactical liability. Petroleum accounts for the bulk of what the military ships into Afghanistan and, according to an Army study, one life is lost for every 24 supply convoys.

To become leaner and, well, greener, the military is pursuing a number of different strategies. In addition to solar arrays that can reduce the amount of diesel needed to run generators at forward bases, the Marines have explored buying opium poppies from Afghan farmers to make into biodiesel. The Air Force has tested biofuel blends on its attack jets. The Army expects to have 4,000 electric vehicles in use by 2013, while the Navy is building ships driven by hybrid electric power systems.

A report released last year by the Center for a New American Security says the US military must become oil free by 2040 in order to reduce security risks caused by climate change and dwindling oil reserves. That’s a tall order that would likely boggle the minds on Capitol Hill. But the military, imbued with a can-do spirit, says it’s ready to make the leap.

“The Department of Defense doesn’t have the luxury for waiting for 100 percent certainty before making decisions,” says Amanda J. Dory, deputy assistant secretary of defense for strategy. “The department is used to dealing with both complexity and uncertainty.”

ENS, 3/15; The Atlantic, 3/1; McClatchy Newspapers, 4/2010

South America

Bolivia Decrees Rights for Mother Nature

In 1776 Thomas Jefferson famously declared that all men are “endowed, by the Creator, with certain unalienable Rights.” Now, a couple centuries later, the Bolivian government is taking the concept a few steps further, declaring that creation itself is endowed with inalienable rights.

In April, Bolivian President Evo Morales, the country’s first Indigenous leader, introduced the “Law of Mother Earth,” which will grant to natural systems rights equal to humans. Among other guarantees, the law says that nature enjoys “the right to clean air, the right to pure water, the right to balance, the right not to have cellular structure modified or genetically altered,” and “the right to continued vital cycles and processes free from human alteration.”

“In Bolivia, we seek a return to balance, a harmonious life not only between individuals but between man and nature,” says Bolivian Foreign Minister David Choquehuanca.

Since the 1970s, some environmental philosophers have espoused the idea of Deep Ecology, which argues that all living beings possess intrinsic value aside from just being useful to human beings. Only recently, however, has the idea gained the force of law. In 2009, Ecuador became the first nation to recognize the rights of nature when citizens there approved a new constitution including a “Nature’s Bill of Rights.” The new Ecuadorian constitution guaranteed nature the “the right to an integral restoration” and the right to be free from “exploitation” and “harmful environmental consequences.” The idea is even catching on in the United States, where the city of Pittsburgh and 25 smaller communities have passed local laws recognizing nature’s rights to “exist, flourish, and evolve.”

Bolivia – whose new law defines Mother Earth as “a unique, indivisible, self-regulating community of interrelated beings” – will become the second country to implement some of the ideals of Deep Ecology.

It’s unclear how exactly the new rights of nature will affect day-to-day policy in Bolivia, a poor, landlocked country that is rich in natural resources. But the Law of Mother Earth will likely tip the balance of power toward local communities and environmental organizations seeking to reform Bolivia’s zinc, silver, tin, and lithium mines and its sizeable natural gas industry. At the very least, environmental and social activists there will now have a new tool at their disposal. They’ll be able to argue that environmental destruction isn’t just wrong – it’s unlawful.

ENS, 4/20

Monkey Business

British billionaire and adventurer Sir Richard Branson has come up with yet another wild, albeit this time terrestrial, scheme – relocating endangered Madagascar lemurs to an undeveloped Caribbean island he owns.

The Virgin Group founder plans to collect lemurs from zoos and house them on Moskito Island, part of the British Virgin Islands archipelago, where they would be the only wild population of lemurs outside Africa. Lemurs are found only on Madagascar and the Comoro Islands and are considered the most threatened of all primates, according to the World Wildlife Fund.

green tinted photo of a lemurCourtesy Ferdi

British Virgin Islands officials have approved the Branson plan, but some conservation experts are horrified. Introducing a non-native species into the Caribbean could lead to an ecological disaster, they say.

“We have experience over and over and over again that when you transplant organisms from one part of the Earth to another part of the Earth the results are usually bad,” says Anne D. Yoder, a lemur expert and director of the Duke Lemur Center in North Carolina. “Either way, it’s a disaster, because if the lemurs do supremely well, they’re going to outcompete the native biota. If the lemurs are introduced and can’t survive ... that’s a disaster, so it’s just hard to see a good solution here.”

Yoder suggests Branson would do better to donate resources toward protecting and preserving the lemur’s natural habitat on Madagascar. “Everything in Madagascar is pretty unique to Madagascar, so there are no parallel universes on planet Earth ... that’s part of the problem,” she says.

Branson, whose US-based Virgin Galactic has been selling tickets for rides in a suborbital spaceship it is developing, says he has consulted South American primate experts about the relocation. Moskito’s rainforest environment, uninhabited by humans, is ideal for the shy lemurs, he says, and vets would help with the animals’ acclimatization in their new home.

Faced with a growing barrage of criticism, he offered this rather petulant defense: “I was really trying to come up with a radical idea to save them.”

Reuters, 4/22; AP, 4/18

Trouble in Paradise

Oil refinery or tourist economy? For many residents of the island of Curacao, the choice is clear: They’d rather be hosting travelers than breathing in the fumes from a giant petroleum plant. So they’ve launched a campaign to close down the Isla refinery, the second biggest in the Caribbean.

The Isla refinery sits near the heart of the island’s capital, Willemstad, and lights up the night sky. The facility – which is owned by the Venezuelan state oil company PDVSA – produces 335,000 barrels of oil a day and has long been plagued by technical problems. The sulfur smell from its emissions is a constant in Willemstad, and the plant is an eyesore that puts off tourists. A growing number of Curacao residents say that when its contract expires in 2019, PDVSA should walk away.

“The refinery has already had its day,” says Edgar Leito, who worked at Isla for 39 years – including as its health and environment manager. Leito recently formed an organization that wants the refinery dismantled.

But PDVSA will likely fight any attempts to shutter the plant. The Isla facility represents more than 10 percent of the company’s global refining capacity, and it is one of the few terminals within PDVSA’s infrastructure that can accommodate the very largest oil tankers.

“PDVSA will lose a lot of money if it gives up Isla,” says one shipping operator who works with the Venezuelan company. “It would have a logistical and commercial impact because there are no other available refineries in the Caribbean that could replace it.”

The Isla refinery has been a central part of the Curacao economy for generations. It was opened by Shell during World War I, and employs hundreds of people. But in the last decade the economy of Curacao – an autonomous part of the Netherlands, 40 miles off the Venezuelan coast – has transitioned toward banking and tourism. Some locals complain that they see very little benefit from the refinery.

“It costs me almost $80 to fill up my car,” says one Willemstad resident, Evelyn Pena. “No one understands why we have to pay so much for gas when we have a refinery here.”

Then there are the environmental concerns. Activists in Curacao have accused PDVSA of contaminating soil and failing to handle waste materials properly. The Dutch Antilles government says PDVSA has not met the terms of a deal to clean up the site, and a Curacao court has ruled that PDVSA must upgrade the refinery. Isla officials deny the contamination allegations. Last year refinery managers said that Hugo Chavez’s government was planning to invest $1.5 billion into modernizing the plant.

Opponents, who would rather just see it shut down, have high hopes for the future of the land. Leito said the EU could help Curacao find investors to turn the refinery into a kind of environment and culture center. “It could be converted into a cluster of alternative energy projects, or into a big dome for stage shows,” Leito says. “One month we could have a concert by Shakira, the next by Juan Luis Guerra.”

Reuters, 3/17

Pura Vida

In a move celebrated by conservationists, Costa Rica has expanded a marine protected area surrounding Cocos Island National Park, a UNESCO World Heritage site, by 1,003 nautical square miles. The new Seamounts Marine Management Area will now safeguard 2,900 nautical square miles of a largely intact ocean ecosystem that is home to endangered sharks and sea turtles.

Located 340 miles off the coast of Costa Rica in the Pacific Ocean, the waters around Cocos Island support more than 30 endemic species found nowhere else in the world. This is partially because of the unique underwater geography of the area, including a chain of underwater mountains southwest of Cocos. “Seamounts host endemic species, and the deep water that upwells along their sides brings nutrients that support the right feeding grounds for sealife on the surface,” says Marco Quesada, a Costa Rican staffer for Conservation International. “Seamounts serve as stepping stones for long-distance migratory species, including sharks, turtles, whales, and tuna.”

photo of a waterside refinery, giant tanks and shipsCourtesy Juska WendlandCuracao residents want to close down the second biggest refinery in the Caribbean.

The sea around the island boasts an abundance of sharks, including the white tipped reef shark, enormous whale sharks, and scalloped hammerhead sharks.

Environmental advocates and Costa Rican officials hope the new reserve will help stem the losses of endangered leatherback turtles. The population of Costa Rican leatherbacks has declined by 40 percent in the last eight years, and by 90 percent in the past 20 years, due in part to eggs that are illegally harvested from beaches. Scalloped hammerhead sharks are also endangered; fishermen target them for their fins, which are used in shark fin soup. Both species suffer from being accidentally captured in commercial fishing operations.

A fully protected nonfishing zone will cover nearly one-fifth of the reserve. “We want to establish the legal foundations for the fishing in this zone, so that the fishermen extract with intelligence only fish of a suitable age and weight using technologies that do not impact other species,” Costa Rican President Laura Chinchilla Miranda said upon inaugurating the new protected area.

ENS, 3/4

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