Inter Press Service » Biodiversity Journalism and Communication for Global Change Thu, 24 Jul 2014 08:34:04 +0000 en-US hourly 1 Forest Rights Offer Major Opportunity to Counter Climate Change Thu, 24 Jul 2014 00:14:31 +0000 Carey L. Biron Salvadorans Elsy Álvarez and María Menjivar – with her young daughter – planning plantain seedlings in a clearing in the forest. Credit: Claudia Ávalos/IPS

Salvadorans Elsy Álvarez and María Menjivar – with her young daughter – planning plantain seedlings in a clearing in the forest. Credit: Claudia Ávalos/IPS

By Carey L. Biron
WASHINGTON, Jul 24 2014 (IPS)

The international community is failing to take advantage of a potent opportunity to counter climate change by strengthening local land tenure rights and laws worldwide, new data suggests.

In what researchers say is the most detailed study on the issue to date, new analysis suggests that in areas formally overseen by local communities, deforestation rates are dozens to hundreds of times lower than in areas overseen by governments or private entities. Anywhere from 10 to 20 percent of worldwide greenhouse gas emissions are attributed to deforestation each year."This model of government-owned and -managed forests usually doesn’t work. Instead, it often creates an open-access free-for-all.” -- Caleb Stevens

The findings were released Thursday by the World Resources Institute, a think tank here, and the Rights and Resources Initiative, a global network that focuses on forest tenure.

“This approach to mitigating climate change has long been undervalued,” a report detailing the analysis states. “[G]overnments, donors, and other climate change stakeholders tend to ignore or marginalize the enormous contribution to mitigating climate change that expanding and strengthening communities’ forest rights can make.”

Researchers were able to comb through high-definition satellite imagery and correlate findings on deforestation rates with data on differing tenure approaches in 14 developing countries considered heavily forested. Those areas with significant forest rights vested in local communities were found to be far more successful at slowing forest clearing, including the incursion of settlers and mining companies.

In Guatemala and Brazil, strong local tenure resulted in deforestation rates 11 to 20 times lower than outside of formally recognised community forests. In parts of the Mexican Yucatan the findings were even starker – 350 times lower.

Meanwhile, the climate implications of these forests are significant. Standing, mature forests not only hold massive amounts of carbon, but they also continually suck carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere.

“We know that at least 500 million hectares of forest in developing countries are already in the hands of local communities, translating to a bit less than 40 billion tonnes of carbon,” Andy White, the Rights and Resources Initiative (RRI)’s coordinator, told IPS.

“That’s a huge amount – 30 times the amount of total emissions from all passenger vehicles around the world. But much of the rights to protect those forests are weak, so there’s a real risk that we could lose those forests and that carbon.”

White notes that there’s been a “massive slowdown” in the recognition of indigenous and other community rights over the past half-decade, despite earlier global headway on the issue. But he now sees significant potential to link land rights with momentum on climate change in the minds of policymakers and the donor community.

“In developing country forests, you have this history of governments promoting deforestation for agriculture but also opening up forests through roads and the promotion of colonisation and mining,” White says.

“At the same time, these same governments are now trying to talk about climate change, saying they’re concerned about reducing emission. To date, these two hands haven’t been talking to each other.”

Lima link

The new findings come just ahead of two major global climate summits. In September, U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon will host international leaders in New York to discuss the issue, and in December the next round of global climate negotiations will take place in Peru, ahead of intended agreement next year.

The Lima talks are being referred to as the “forest” round. Some observers have suggested that forestry could offer the most significant potential for global emissions cuts, but few have directly connected this potential with local tenure.

“The international community hasn’t taken this link nearly as far as it can go, and it’s important that policymakers are made aware of this connection,” Caleb Stevens, a proper rights specialist at the World Resources Institute (WRI) and the new report’s principle author, told IPS.

“Developed country governments can commit to development assistance agencies to strengthen forest tenure as part of bilateral agreements. They can also commit to strengthen these rights through finance mechanisms like the new Green Climate Fund.”

Currently the most well-known, if contentious, international mechanism aimed at reducing deforestation is the U.N.’s REDD+ initiative, which since 2008 has dispersed nearly 200 million dollars to safeguard forest in developing countries. Yet critics say the programme has never fully embraced the potential of community forest management.

“REDD+ was established because it is well known that deforestation is a significant part of the climate change problem,” Tony LaVina, the lead forest and climate negotiator for the Philippines, said in a statement.

“What is not as widely understood is how effective forest communities are at protecting their forest from deforestation and increasing forest health. This is why REDD+ must be accompanied by community safeguards.”

Two-thirds remaining

Meanwhile, WRI’s Stevens says that current national-level prioritisation of local tenure is a “mixed bag”, varying significantly from country to country.

He points to progressive progress being made in Liberia and Kenya, where laws have started to be reformed to recognise community rights, as well as in Bolivia and Nepal, where some 40 percent of forests are legally under community control. Following a 2013 court ruling, Indonesia could now be on a similar path.

“Many governments are still quite reluctant to stop their attempts access minerals and other resources,” Stevens says. “But some governments realise the limitations of their capacity – that this model of government-owned and -managed forests usually doesn’t work. Instead, it often creates an open-access free-for-all.”

Not only are local communities often more effective at managing such resources than governments or private entities, but they can also become significant economic beneficiaries of those forests, eventually even contributing to national coffers through tax revenues.

Certainly there is scope for such an expansion. RRI estimates that the 500 million hectares currently under community control constitute just a third of what communities around the world are actively – and, the group says, legitimately – claiming.

“The world should rapidly scale up recognition of local forest rights even if they only care about the climate – even if they don’t care about the people, about water, women, biodiversity,” RRI’s White says.

“Actually, of course, people do care about all of these other issues. That’s why a strategy of strengthening local forest rights is so important and a no-brainer – it will deliver for the climate as well as reduce poverty.”

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Mexican Farmers Oppose Expansion of Transgenic Crops Mon, 14 Jul 2014 22:39:08 +0000 Emilio Godoy A bean cleaning plant in the northern Mexican state of Zacatecas. Credit: Courtesy of Secretaría de Agricultura

A bean cleaning plant in the northern Mexican state of Zacatecas. Credit: Courtesy of Secretaría de Agricultura

By Emilio Godoy
MEXICO CITY, Jul 14 2014 (IPS)

Bean grower Manuel Alvarado is part of the majority of producers in Mexico who consider it unnecessary to introduce genetically modified varieties of beans, as the government is promoting.

“There is no study showing superior yields compared with hybrid or regional seeds. People are still unaware of what transgenic products are, nor the effects they have, but some of the things that are known about them are not good,” said Alvarado, the head of Enlaces al Campo, a bulk beans sales company in the city of Fresnillo, in the northern state of Zacatecas."There can be no biosecurity with transgenics: they cause genetic erosion (loss of genetic diversity)." -- Silvia Ribeiro

Genetically modified organisms (GMO) may cause a number of problems, among them the possibility that “transgenics will contaminate native and hybrid seeds, which have higher germination rates than transgenics,” Alvarado told IPS.

Bean farmers in Mexico face a context of overproduction, low prices and increasing imports, in a country where there are 300,000 bean producers, half of them small scale farmers.

Alvarado has obtained yields of between 12 and 16 tonnes per hectare from 10 native varieties of beans on 15 hectares of land. He has also tested 28 commercial maize hybrid seeds, obtaining up to 15 tonnes per hectare on 14 hectares of land.

In 2013, beans were grown on an area of 1.83 million hectares in Mexico and 1.28 million tonnes were produced, with overall yields of 1.79 tonnes per hectare, according to the Observatorio de Precios (Price Observatory), an independent group providing information and analysis for food producers and consumers.

The northern states of Zacatecas, Durango and Chihuahua are the main producing areas.

Cultivation of GMO in Mexico is turning away from concentration on maize and soybeans, after various legal appeals in 2013 banned their planting. The Mexican government and the industry are expanding their sights now to include beans and wheat, among other crops.

On Apr. 22, the National Institute of Forestry, Agricultural and Livestock Research (INIFAP) presented an application to the National Service for Agri-Food Health, Safety and Quality (SENASICA) for experimental planting of transgenic beans (Phaseolus vulgaris L.) on 0.12 hectares in the central state of Guanajuato.

The application is based on the research paper “Resistance to Colletotrichum lindemuthianum in transgenic common bean expressing an Arabidopsis thaliana defensin gene,” funded by the National Council for Science and Technology and the Agriculture ministry and published in 2013 in the Revista Mexicana de Ciencias Agrícolas.

Producers and activists distribute beans on Paseo de la Reforma avenue in Mexico City on Jul. 3, demanding better conditions for their product. Credit: Emilio Godoy/IPS

Producers and activists distribute beans on Paseo de la Reforma avenue in Mexico City on Jul. 3, demanding better conditions for their product. Credit: Emilio Godoy/IPS

The five authors, scientists at INIFAP, engineered five independent lines and 20 transgenic bean plants expressing the defensin gene. These plants proved resistant to two strains of the pathogenic fungus Colletotrichum lindemuthianum, which causes the fungal disease anthracnose. Non-genetically modified plants were not resistant.

Anthracnose, rust, angular leaf spot and root rot are diseases that affect beans in Mexico, which has 70 different varieties of the crop.

Silvia Ribeiro, the Latin America director of the Action Group on Erosion, Technology and Concentration (ETC Group), complained about the use of public funds to promote this kind of research which she views as a new “trick” to take over staple food production.

“The use of public resources for GMO research increases dependence on technology. It would be better to devote these funds to supporting the vast reservoir of wisdom on bean farming among campesinos (small farmers), and to promote preventive pest management and agroecosystems,” she told IPS.

SENASICA has received four applications this year for experimental and pilot plots of transgenic maize in 10 hectares in the northwestern staes of Sonora and Sinaloa from Pioneer, a U.S. seed company.  A further four pilot project applications for 85,000 hectares of genetically modified cotton in different states have been made by U.S. giant Monsanto.

The International Maize and Wheat Improvement Centre has also presented five applications for experimental planting of transgenic wheat on half a hectare in the central state of Morelos, adjacent to Mexico City.

In 2013, SENASICA received 58 applications for experimental, pilot and commercial planting of transgenic maize on a total of over five million hectares, presented by Monsanto, Pioneer, Syngenta (Switzerland) and Dow Agrosciences (U.S.).

Another 29 applications for experimental, pilot and commercial planting of transgenic cotton were made by Monsanto and Bayer (Germany), which also requested three experimental permits for soybeans on 45 hectares in the southeastern states of Campeche, Quintana Roo and Yucatán and the southern state of Chiapas.

U.S. company Forage Genetics applied for an experimental alfalfa plantation on 0.38 hectares in the northern state of Coahuila.

“They want to shift the focus of the debate away from the fact that only companies present applications, and show that there is a national research capability,” Catherine Marielle, the coordinator of the sustainable food systems programme of the Group for Environmental Studies, an NGO, told IPS.

In July 2013, 53 individuals and 20 civil society organisations mounted a collective legal challenge against applications to plant transgenic maize, and in September a federal judge granted a precautionary ban on such authorisations.

The Agriculture and Environment ministries and the companies involved presented more than 70 rebuttals of the ruling, but the case “will take time,” according to court sources.

Since March 2014, organisations of beekeepers and indigenous communities have won two further provisional protection orders against commercial transgenic soybean crops in Campeche and Yucatán.

In June 2012, the Agriculture ministry authorised Monsanto to plant transgenic soybean commercially on an area of 253,000 hectares in seven Mexican states, including Campeche.

“We have perfected technological packages on how to prepare the soil, what seed to use and what fertilisers to apply. In the medium term we want to move to using organic fertilisers. All this would be scuppered if transgenic beans are imposed,” producer Alvarado said.

At present farmers sell beans for 30 to 45 cents of a dollar per kilo. With a state subsidy of a similar value, growers can recoup their production costs.

In Alvarado’s view, farmers could compete with U.S. imports “if we organise in the production zones, and the state stockpiles, provides credit to producers and value is added” to beans.

Although GMOs have been commercialised since the mid 1990s, nearly all transgenic crop production is concentrated in 10 countries: United States, Brazil, Argentina, Canada, India, China, Paraguay, South Africa, Pakistan and Uruguay, in that order.

Most transgenic crops are used for livestock forage, but Mexico wants maize, at least, to be used for human food.

The government supports GMO, according to agricultural officials, because in the medium and long term they are a means of confronting climate effects on food production and guaranteeing food security.

“Mexico does not need transgenics. The country has never produced as much maize as it produces now. Besides, there can be no biosecurity with transgenics: they cause genetic erosion (loss of genetic diversity),” because contamination of conventional crops is inevitable, said Ribeiro of ETC Group.

This story was originally published by Latin American newspapers that are part of the Tierramérica network.

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New Data Sends Wake-Up Call on Caribbean Reefs Wed, 09 Jul 2014 15:03:07 +0000 Desmond Brown Protection from overfishing and excessive coastal pollution could help reefs recover and make them more resilient to future climate change impacts. Credit: Jim Maragos/U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

Protection from overfishing and excessive coastal pollution could help reefs recover and make them more resilient to future climate change impacts. Credit: Jim Maragos/U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

By Desmond Brown
ST. JOHN’S, Antigua, Jul 9 2014 (IPS)

Marine environmentalist Eli Fuller, who for the past two decades has been exploring the coastline of Antigua and Barbuda, warns that while there has been “dramatic changes” to coral reefs since he was a little boy, “it’s getting worse and worse.”

So he is not surprised by the largely pessimistic findings of a three-year study by 90 international experts in a report by the Global Coral Reef Monitoring Network (GCRMN), the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) and the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP).“Those reefs are the frontline barriers against storm waves." -- marine biologist John Mussington

But there was a spot of surprisingly good news. According to the authors, restoring parrotfish populations and improving other management strategies, such as protection from overfishing and excessive coastal pollution, can help reefs recover and even make them more resilient to future climate change impacts.

“We have seen definitely the last two summers, and here we are in summer again, we are seeing ever so slightly raised sea levels, but in conjunction with that we are seeing eroded coral barriers, especially on the north coast and east coast of Barbuda and quite a few areas in Antigua,” Fuller told IPS.

“Between Prickly Pear and Long Island, those reefs out there – they almost used to get to the surface. Now I am seeing sailboats sail over areas where they would have run aground and had to be salvaged before.

“We are seeing more surge come ashore and more erosion. You are having areas that were never affected by erosion getting eroded terribly. I look at the north coast of Barbuda and I can’t believe some of the erosion they are facing, and when you go offshore to those reefs only the bases of the big, huge coral structures are there. All the tops have died and eroded away so we are seeing more water coming to our shoreline,” he added.

Fuller is worried about the future of tourism in a region where it is the number one industry and foreign exchange earner for most countries.

Marine environmentalist Eli Fuller says Caribbean reefs are in "big trouble". Credit: Desmond Brown/IPS

Marine environmentalist Eli Fuller says Caribbean reefs are in “big trouble”. Credit: Desmond Brown/IPS

“We are in big trouble right now, let alone in the future when the reefs erode more and more and sea levels come up and up,” he said.

Like Fuller, for marine biologist John Mussington, the drastic decline of Caribbean coral is “not surprising.”

“We have actually seen the decline. The causes that they have listed include tourism, pollution, climate change in terms of global warming being a factor as well as overfishing,” he told IPS.

Mussington said the reefs are critical and serve several very important roles.

“The beach is a beautiful place. We have nice white sand beaches and we have crystal clear water. The reefs are responsible for that. If you lose your reefs you are no longer going to have sand and you will no longer have clear water,” he said.

“Those reefs are the frontline barriers against storm waves. If you have any rough weather, groundswells, tropical storms or hurricanes, those reefs are responsible for breaking the impact of those waves. So if you lose the reefs you are going to be further exposed to erosion and the destruction from storms.

“Another function that is very critical to us is that the reefs provide us with food. The marine resources in terms of fish, lobster and conch are associated with the reef system and when you lose that you are going to lose those things,” he said.

Mussington said the report should serve as a wake-up call for the Caribbean.

“All those things that I’ve mentioned, you realise that that is the sum total of the main attraction for our tourism industry which is number one – so if you lose all of that, it’s obvious that you lose everything,” Mussington explained.

But Mussington said it is not all doom and gloom for the Caribbean, noting there is a technique for re-growing and restoring reefs which is touted as one of the major solutions that small islands like those in the Caribbean should focus on.

“All you need to have is a wire frame and a very low voltage electrical source that will encourage deposition of calcium on the framework. Once you have that deposition of calcium on the framework then coral will grow,” he explained.

The study also shows that some of the healthiest Caribbean coral reefs are those that harbour vigorous populations of grazing parrotfish.

These include the Flower Garden Banks National Marine Sanctuary in the northern Gulf of Mexico, Bermuda and Bonaire, “all of which have restricted or banned fishing practices that harm parrotfish, such as fish traps and spearfishing”.

The study is urging other countries to follow suit.

“Barbuda is about to ban all catches of parrotfish and grazing sea urchins, and set aside one-third of its coastal waters as marine reserves,” said Ayana Johnson of the Waitt Institute’s Blue Halo Initiative, which is collaborating with Barbuda in the development of its new management plan.

“This is the kind of aggressive management that needs to be replicated regionally if we are going to increase the resilience of Caribbean reefs,” she added.

The IUCN said that reefs where parrotfish are not protected have suffered tragic declines, including Jamaica, the entire Florida Reef Tract from Miami to Key West, and the U.S. Virgin Islands.

President and founder of the Coral Restoration Foundation, Ken Nedimyer, concurs that “there are some simple things which can be done like changing fishing habits and reducing inputs from the hotels, resorts, golf courses. Those are things that can be done and should be done and places that take these steps will reap the rewards.”

Chair at the National Museum of Natural History in Washington DC, Dr. Nancy Knowlton, believes the surprising part of the report is that it’s not actually happening everywhere and that there are places like Bonaire and Bermuda and the flower garden reef off the Gulf of Mexico where coral reefs are thriving.

“That’s because of careful management of the reef and to me that’s actually despite a sort of overwhelmingly bad news of reefs disappearing in the next 20 years,” she told IPS.

“On the positive side, there are examples where when people manage reefs properly they actually don’t decline. I think that is the most important message from the report and the one that’s most surprising because I think that everyone had thought that Caribbean reefs were just doomed.

“Coral reefs are ecosystems which are routinely battered by hurricanes over thousands and thousands of years and yet they have in the past always bounced back, and the reason they bounce back is because the local conditions are favourable for coral growth. So creating those favourable conditions for corals to rebound is really the most important thing to do,” Knowlton added.

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Obama Urged to Sanction Mozambique over Elephant, Rhino Poaching Wed, 02 Jul 2014 23:33:29 +0000 Carey L. Biron Some 50,000 elephants are being killed each year in Africa, alongside 1,000 rhinos, leaving perhaps as few as 250,000 elephants in the wild globally. Credit: PJ KAPDostie/cc by 2.0

Some 50,000 elephants are being killed each year in Africa, alongside 1,000 rhinos, leaving perhaps as few as 250,000 elephants in the wild globally. Credit: PJ KAPDostie/cc by 2.0

By Carey L. Biron
WASHINGTON, Jul 2 2014 (IPS)

Environmentalists are formally urging President Barack Obama to enact trade sanctions on Mozambique over the country’s alleged chronic facilitation of elephant and rhinoceros poaching through broad swathes of southern Africa.

Investigators say substantial evidence exists of Mozambique’s failure to abide by international conventions against wildlife trafficking, including to back up allegations of state complicity.“We believe that there are ex-military officials who are providing political protection to the [trafficking] syndicates who are arming and funding these poaching teams." -- Allan Thornton

While President Obama last year mounted a new initiative by the U.S. government to tackle international wildlife trafficking, with a particular focus on ivory, some say Mozambique’s actions are undermining those efforts – and threatening these species worldwide.

A new petition, publicly announced Wednesday, now provides evidence on the issue and urges the president to make use of legal authorities to encourage Mozambique to crack down on poachers.

“Mozambique continues to play an ever-growing and uncontained role in rhinoceros and elephant poaching,” Susie Ellis, executive director of the International Rhino Foundation, one of the petitioners, told IPS.

“Although they have been given direction by the international community to enact certain controls, those have been only superficial and have had no meaningful effect. If you look at the large-scale poaching and illegal trade in rhino horn and elephant ivory out of Mozambique, it’s directly undercut President Obama’s [efforts] on wildlife trafficking.”

Increasingly working hand in hand with organised crime, poachers over the past three years have killed record numbers of elephants and rhinoceroses, particularly in Africa. Some 50,000 elephants are being killed each year in Africa, alongside 1,000 rhinos, leaving perhaps as few as 250,000 elephants in the wild globally.

Driving this illicit market is increased consumer demand in Asia, particularly in China and Vietnam. According to a U.N. report from last year, large seizures of ivory bound for Asia have more than doubled since 2009.

The new petition focuses on the central international agreement around wildlife trafficking, known as the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES), and warns that Mozambique’s outsized role in African ivory poaching is diluting the convention’s effectiveness. The CITES standing committee is meeting next week in Switzerland.

“Available evidence indicates that Mozambican nationals constitute the highest number of foreign arrests for poaching in South Africa. Organized crime syndicates based in Mozambique are driving large scale illegal trade in rhino horn and elephant ivory,” the petition states.

“Given the scope and depth of the illegal killing and trade in rhino and elephant products by Mozambican nationals, we urge the United States to … enact substantial trade sanctions.”

High-level complicity

Supporters say that strong action by the Mozambican authorities would have a significant and immediate impact on the global supply of illicit ivory.

Officials reportedly estimate that 80 to 90 percent of all poachers in South Africa’s massive Kruger National Park are Mozambican nationals. Local groups say that on most nights more than a dozen separate poaching parties can be prowling the park, most from well-documented “poaching villages” located across the border in Mozambique.

Meanwhile, enforcement of wildlife-related legislation in Mozambique is said to be essentially non-existent, with penalties for poaching and trafficking thus far not effective. Yet changing that situation has been complicated by what appears to be state collusion.

“It’s impossible for that level of illegal activity to be going on without high-level complicity,” Allan Thornton, president of the Environmental Investigation Agency (EIA), a watchdog group based here and in London that co-authored the new petition, told IPS.

“We believe that there are ex-military officials who are providing political protection to the [trafficking] syndicates who are arming and funding these poaching teams. There is substantial evidence implicating both the police and military.”

Mozambique keeps strict control over the types of weapons used by the country’s poachers, Thornton notes, yet such weapons are available to the military. Similarly, police and military uniforms have repeatedly been found in poaching camps.

Thornton says that putting together the new petition took several months, due to the mass of evidence available.

“If all Mozambican citizens were prevented from illicitly crossing over the border, poaching would drop significantly. But there has been no enforcement on the Mozambique side, despite legal obligations under CITES,” he says.

“We believe that the Mozambique government should be held accountable for their activities and act rapidly against these poachers, criminal syndicates and those protecting them. They could close this trade literally in a week.

Unparalleled scope

Thornton says his office is not yet clear on whether the Obama administration has exerted diplomatic pressure on the Mozambique government over the issue of wildlife trafficking. But in filing the new petition, these groups are highlighting the fact that the president does indeed have the legal backing to act on the issue.

Under U.S. legislation known as the Pelly Amendment, the president is allowed to impose trade sanctions if a country is certified to be “diminishing the effectiveness” of an international conservation programme. (U.S. officials could not be reached for comment for this story.)

Further, there is notable precedent under which past determinations – set in motion by EIA petitions – have met with particular success. Two decades ago, for instance, a similar petition was lodged around the trafficking of rhinoceros and tiger parts through Taiwan into China.

That effort resulted in U.S. trade sanctions. Over the following two years, both the Taiwanese and Chinese governments engaged in a broad crackdown on these trades.

“This had a huge impact on reducing demand [for ivory] and reducing the poaching of rhinos virtually around the world,” Thornton says.

“We saw rhino populations stabilise worldwide, because two of the biggest markets had closed for demand. This is the same thing we’re now looking for in Mozambique.”

He continues: “And we’re hoping for a particularly prompt response, because the scope of illegal activities we’re currently seeing – where one country is sending hundreds of poachers into another country – is almost unparalleled.”

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Costa Rica Enforces Green Justice Wed, 02 Jul 2014 08:29:30 +0000 Diego Arguedas Ortiz Members of Costa Rica’s Environmental Administrative Tribunal (TAA) take a break during an inspection of damage to wetlands in Puntarenas by invading farmers. Back centre: TAA president, judge José Lino Chaves. Credit: Diego Arguedas Ortiz/IPS

Members of Costa Rica’s Environmental Administrative Tribunal (TAA) take a break during an inspection of damage to wetlands in Puntarenas by invading farmers. Back centre: TAA president, judge José Lino Chaves. Credit: Diego Arguedas Ortiz/IPS

By Diego Arguedas Ortiz
PUNTARENAS, Costa Rica, Jul 2 2014 (IPS)

Biologist Juan Sánchez drives the leader of two off-road vehicles along a dirt road in southeastern Costa Rica. Officials and experts are on their way to inspect a homestead whose owner has destroyed part of a mangrove swamp.

Sánchez is a technical officer for the Environmental Administrative Tribunal (TAA), the environmental court that enforces environmental laws in Costa Rica.

During the inspection of the wetland, 280 kilometres southeast of San José, he told IPS that for the past seven years he has been “chasing the bad guys”: companies and individuals who are harming natural resources in this Central American country of 4.5 million people.

The TAA was created in 1995 and is one of the foremost mechanisms in Costa Rica to combat destruction of the ecosystem. It depends on the Environment and Energy Ministry (MINAE), not the judicial branch.

It only has 20 officials to fulfil its remit of enforcing green justice.

“We have been relatively successful in the area of environmental administrative justice,” the TAA president, judge José Lino Chaves, told IPS.

In his view, “the TAA’s change of language and actions since 2008 has managed to warn Costa Ricans that we were doing something really wrong,” and that “caring for the environment is a priority” for the country.

One-quarter of Costa Rican territory is under some form of environmental protection, 53 percent is forested and it contains nearly four percent of the world’s biodiversity. The country promotes its natural wealth as its chief attraction and an asset to combat climate change.

The TAA is complemented by the Public Prosecutor’s Agrarian Environmental Office, which is also very short-staffed.

“I remember that a study carried out in the early 1990s found that 98 percent of the environmental offences reported were dismissed,” the former Environment minister (2002-2006), Carlos Manuel Rodríguez, told IPS.

At the time, “the (formal justice) system was inefficient, and according to the study the accused were acquitted because their responsibility could not be proved,” said Rodríguez, who is an environmental lawyer and a current vice president of Conservation International, an NGO.

“I don’t doubt the good intentions of the members” of the TAA, congressman and environmental lawyer Edgardo Araya, who won the legal battle against the Crucitas mining project in the national Dispute Tribunal, told IPS. “But the TAA as it stands is not viable; it lacks resources and judges.”

Álvaro Sagot, another environmental lawyer who won a pollution case against dairy giant Dos Pinos before the TAA, agreed about the lack of resources, but highlighted to IPS the value of the environmental court’s accessibility, as any person, with or without knowledge of the law, can bring a complaint.

Plaintiffs can also resort to the ordinary justice system. But Rodríguez said the criminal justice route is no use, because of lack of awareness. “I remember talking to judges who freed poachers arrested in national parks, because they did not consider this an offence,” he said.

One of the most famous TAA rulings was in September 2009, when it compelled the Panama registered vessel Tiuna to pay a fine of 668,000 dollars for tuna fishing in protected areas.

The environmental court assessed the value of the 280 tonnes of fish taken from the Coco Island National Park, off the western Pacific coast, and levied a proportionate fine.

Costa Rica has sought to build an international reputation as a “green country.” For years its slogan was “No Artificial Ingredients,” and in 2007 the government launched its “Peace With Nature” initiative, reaffirming Costa Rica’s commitment to the environment.

But cases are piling up in the TAA’s offices and Chaves himself admits that creating environmental awareness is a complex process.

This month the environmental court had 3,600 open case files to deal with, more than three times the number a decade ago. There are only six lawyers and three environmental judges, two of whom are lawyers and one an engineer.

The three judges are tasked with visiting all the affected zones to see for themselves the environmental damage in the field, in order to make their rulings.

On these field trips, judges and biologists alike wear mountain boots, protective cotton sunhats and machetes at their belts.

As well as inspecting specific cases, the TAA carries out “environmental sweeps,” their term for inspection tours lasting several days, with the purpose of putting a stop to ecological damage in a given territory.

The TAA has already halted 200 real estate projects on the Pacific coast and 40 on the Atlantic coast since the sweeps started in 2008, its president said.

But the “bad guys” do not give up. Only days after Sánchez’s inspection trip, another group of lawyers, experts and judges visited mangrove swamps in Puntarenas, in the Central Pacific region, 80 kilometres east of the provincial capital, to investigate another complaint.

They found a scene of devastation: 25 hectares of mangrove had been reduced to ashes by invaders who were already planting maize and sugarcane.

“They go on and on, and if we let them they would devour the whole zone. They burn down the mangroves and use the land for farming,” forest biologist Alexis Madrigal, the coordinator of TAA’s technical department, told IPS at the scene.

While members of the technical team removed the plastic bags the invaders used to mark their new plots, Chaves and the two lawyers with him considered possible next steps.

The first thing is a precautionary measure to halt the land invasion, followed by a ban on agricultural use of the land or an order to pay an indemnity, or both.

The TAA inspired the creation of three environmental courts in Chile, and Chaves shared the Costa Rican experience with the courts’ Chilean promotors.

The two systems are similar in that they both have three judges, one of whom must be a scientist; they have wide independence and are responsible for punishing environmental harm. Peru is making headway with a comparable initiative.

The main challenge faced by the TAA is expanding the number of its technical field staff as well as the lawyers in its San José headquarters, so that members of the legal team are not burdened with the unmanageable load of 600 case files each, as they are now.

It also needs stability. From 2012 to 2014, Chaves was vice minister of Water and Oceans at MINAE. He was able to secure improved budgets for the ATT, but its activities, especially the sweeps, declined.

In July, after a year and a half of less ambitious inspections, the TAA will undertake a tour in which MINAE, institutions like the National Environmental Technical Secretariat, the Water and Sanitation Institute and the security forces will also participate.

They are bound for the north of the country, where expansion of agriculture is threatening biodiversity and water for human consumption. In his San José office, judge Chaves smiles and says: “The environmental sweeps are back.”

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Violence Casts Shadow Over ‘Himalayan Viagra’ Harvest in Nepal Fri, 27 Jun 2014 11:39:44 +0000 Naresh Newar Hundreds of thousands of harvesters flock to high-altitude pastures in Nepal to gather a fungus known as ‘Himalayan Viagra’. Credit: Uttam Babu Shrestha

Hundreds of thousands of harvesters flock to high-altitude pastures in Nepal to gather a fungus known as ‘Himalayan Viagra’. Credit: Uttam Babu Shrestha

By Naresh Newar
KATHMANDU, Jun 27 2014 (IPS)

Intense competition during harvest season for a fungus dubbed ‘Himalayan Viagra’ – coveted for its legendary aphrodisiac qualities – has sparked violence in Nepal’s remote western mountains, causing concern among security officials here about the safety of more than 100,000 harvesters.

“The violence has already begun even at the initial stage of the harvest, and we can expect more,” Nepal Police Divisional Inspector General Kesh Bahadur Shahi, head of the Midwestern Development Region headquarters in Surkhet District, 600 km west of the capital Kathmandu, told IPS.

Earlier this month a harvester named Phurwa Tshering (30) was killed in a violent tussle in the Dolpa District, northeast of Surkhet, where tens of thousands of harvesters gather each year.

A second harvester, Thundup Lama, died some days later in a Kathmandu hospital from injuries sustained in the scuffle, amid allegations of police misconduct.

Known among the scientific community as ophiocordyceps sinensis – though harvesters refer to it simply as ‘caterpillar fungus’, and Tibetan traders use the name ‘yartsa gunbu’ (meaning, literally, ‘winter worm, summer grass’) – the fungus germinates underground inside living larvae, mummifies them during the winter, and then emerges through the head of the dead caterpillar, pushing up through the soil in the form of a stalk-like mushroom.

For over 2,000 years people across the Asiatic region have sought this fungus for its healing properties, including its fabled ability to treat diseases of the kidney and lungs, as well as cure erectile dysfunction.

A harvester holds up a single piece of ‘Yartsa Gunbu’, otherwise known as ‘winter worm, summer grass.’ Credit: Uttam Babu Shrestha

A harvester holds up a single piece of ‘Yartsa Gunbu’, otherwise known as ‘winter worm, summer grass.’ Credit: Uttam Babu Shrestha

Since 2001, when the Nepali government legalised harvesting of the fungus, the mountains have become the site of a veritable battle royal.

Lured by the promise of high profits harvesters flock to the Himalayas every June to participate in the two-month hunt for the prized fungus, setting up camp on the northern alpine grasslands of Nepal, Bhutan, India and the Tibetan Plateau, at altitudes of between 3,000 and 5,000 metres above sea-level.

Though each stalk measures no more than four centimeters in length, a single gram of yartsa gunbu can sell for up to 80 dollars (mostly in China), making the dangerous, high-altitude hunt more than worth it for thousands of impoverished farmers.

But because the substance is so rare and so valuable, the collection period often turns deadly. So far, no one has been held accountable for the deaths, and Nepal’s police force has denied allegations of wrongdoing.

Unsatisfied with officials’ assurances, the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) recently deployed an investigation team to the Dolpa district, which borders Tibet.

“Our team has headed for field investigations to the site where the incident occurred and we will also speak to the Nepal police to uncover the truth,” Bed Prasad Adhikari, secretary of the NHRC, told IPS.

“We need to wait until the investigation is concluded, and only then will NHRC reveal the truth to the public,” he added.

In 2011 a local court sentenced six men to life in prison for the murder of seven of their harvest rivals.

While Nepali security officials scramble to patrol some of the world’s roughest terrain, ecology experts warn of over-harvesting and the need for sustainable practices that could support local economies and end the cycle of violence.

Stepping up security

“There is an urgent need for sustainable harvesting practices and an equitable benefit-sharing mechanism with the local people." -- Yam Bahadur Thapa, director general of the Department of Plant Resources (DoPR) at Nepal’s ministry of forests and soil conservation
The police are expecting more violence as the season enters its third week, and have already dispatched 160 personnel attached to the Armed Police Force (APF) – a paramilitary set up during Nepal’s decade-long civil war – to patrol harvesting sites, including the northern Mugu and Dolpa districts.

“We have asked for more personnel from the Nepal police to support our security operation,” Shahi said.

Speaking to IPS in Kathmandu, Police Spokesperson and Senior Superintendent of Police Ganesh KC told IPS this is the first time armed personnel have been deployed to oversee the harvest, and they are facing challenges due to the huge radius of the harvesting zone, and the extremely difficult terrain.

The Dolpa District alone – home to 24 pastures rich in the caterpillar fungus – spans nearly 8,000 square km.

To make matters worse, commercial traders and so-called ‘cartels’ have now joined the fray.

“There is a mafia of traders from Kathmandu and other adjoining Nepali districts near the Chinese border who are involved in the scheme, and they come with huge stacks of cash and will not return empty-handed,” Shahi said. “Some traders even bring helicopters to buy as much as they can.”

From policing to long-term policies

Various studies suggest that China’s booming economy, which has fueled demand for the ‘winter worm, summer grass’, has created a global market for the fungus that touches 11 billion dollars a year.

Nepal currently meets two percent of the global demand for the precious fungus, making it the world’s second largest supplier.

But as demand outpaces supply, and a valuable natural resource is plundered away annually, tensions over access rights have been mounting.

“There is loss of social integrity among local people; there are cases of robbery and deaths as a result [of this harvest],” Yam Bahadur Thapa, director general of the Department of Plant Resources (DoPR) at Nepal’s ministry of forests and soil conservation, told IPS.

“There is an urgent need for sustainable harvesting practices and an equitable benefit-sharing mechanism with the local people,” he noted, adding that the presence of outsiders often exacerbates tensions.

Thapa said the number of harvesters has doubled since 2001, while the number of units collected per person has declined drastically, from 260 pieces of fungus per person in 2006 to less than 125 now.

In addition, he asserted, “The price difference between the local and international market is huge, leading to an inequitable share of income among the primary collectors.”

For instance, a kilogram of fungus sold for 25,000 dollars by a middleman in Nepal could sell for up to 70,000 dollars once it is shipped abroad, he said.

A DoPR draft policy for caterpillar fungus harvest management submitted in April to the prime minister’s cabinet is still awaiting approval. The policy proposes regulating trade to increase government revenue, investing in scientific research, strengthening local institutions and raising awareness among the locals.

“There is no single inch of habitat left untouched…at the end of the harvesting season,” Uttam Babu Shrestha, a research fellow at the Institute of Agriculture and the Environment at the University of Southern Queensland in Australia, told IPS.

His research during the 2011 harvest season in Nepal showed that, “Virtually all harvesters (95.1 percent) believe the availability of the caterpillar fungus in the pastures to be declining, and 67 percent consider current harvesting practices to be unsustainable.”

Shrestha found per capita harvesting to be higher in Nepal than in other countries, which adds to the tension. “Nepal’s harvesters and traders are doing business in a fearful environment,” he said, echoing the concerns of law enforcement officials.

Better central regulation would not only enhance sustainability and security, but would also increase government revenue, experts say.

The official royalty rate of around 10,000 Nepali rupees (about 100 dollars) per kilogram was set when Nepal legalised the harvest in 2001.

Since then, “The market price… has increased up to 2,300 percent and yet the royalty rate is the same,” Shrestha said, describing the stagnant rate as a “missed opportunity.”

The International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development (ICIMOD) estimates that the government of Nepal currently earns about 5.1 million rupees from the trade.

Experts say that by paying local harvesters a higher price, the government could witness a substantial increase in revenue flows.

Until the government agrees upon a comprehensive plan, the high-altitude pastures will continue to see fear, violence and destruction in pursuit of the mysterious fungus.


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Siberian Global Warming Meets Lukewarm Reaction in Russia Sat, 21 Jun 2014 11:45:03 +0000 Pavol Stracansky Climate change will cause the Siberian permafrost to thaw. Credit: Softpedia/Celsias

Climate change will cause the Siberian permafrost to thaw. Credit: Softpedia/Celsias

By Pavol Stracansky
MOSCOW, Jun 21 2014 (IPS)

People in Siberia must prepare to face frequent repeats of recent devastating floods as well as other natural disasters, scientists and ecologists are warning, amid growing evidence of the effects of global warming on one of the world’s most ecologically diverse regions.

More than 50,000 people were affected by floods in the Altai region and Khakassia and Altai republics in southern Siberia at the end of May and early June. These came just over half a year since the worst floods in Siberia in living memory.

But while floods caused by snowmelt are not uncommon to Siberia, these most recent ones were caused by excessive rainfall – a phenomenon global warming is expected to make much more frequent in future.As the world’s fourth largest greenhouse gas producer behind the United States, India and China, and with a fossil fuel-intensive economy which the government is desperate to boost, Russia has historically been far from the vanguard of global environmental policy reform.

Vladimir Galakhov, a physical geography professor at Altai University in Siberia, told IPS: “Although many people think the recent floods were caused by snow melting, it was actually intense rainfall. We had two months’ rain in one week. Weather models for the next two decades forecast a 10 percent rise in rainfall volumes, so we can expect more flooding in the future.”

Siberia is home to some of the richest diversity of flora and fauna in the world, including endangered species such as the Amur tiger. It is also one of the coldest places on earth, with average temperatures in most parts just under zero degrees Celsius and often much lower.

But scientific studies in the last decade have shown that parts of Siberia are warming more quickly than any other part of the world – something pointed out again in the wake of the floods by local meteorologists.

Professor Valentin Meleshko, a meteorologist and former head of the St Petersburg-based Voyeikov Geophysical Observatory, told Russian media last month after the flooding that rapid temperature rises were having a “significant” impact on Siberia.

“All forecasts from complex [weather and climate change forecast] models show that Siberia will get more precipitation, mostly in winter, when more snow will accumulate.

“It will naturally melt in spring and this melting snow will put more water into rivers, and the floods in Siberia will be more intense than before.”

But warming is not only expected to increase flooding. According to experts such as Alexei Kokorin, head of the WWF Russia climate division, it poses other serious threats.

He told IPS that the size of Siberia meant that different areas will be affected in different ways: east and south-east Siberia in the area of the Amur River will see more frequent heavy rains and a monsoon climate while southern Siberia near Mongolia will see increasing desertification leading to water supply problems and disappearing pastures to provide feeding grounds for animals.

Meanwhile, in northern Siberia, the melting of permafrost will destroy existing infrastructure. This also threatens to drastically worsen climate change as vast amounts of methane – a potent greenhouse gas – are trapped in the frozen ground and if released into the atmosphere in large amounts would accelerate global warming.

“Siberia will maybe not be the very worst affected area in the world by global warming, but some parts of it will be heavily affected,” Kokorin told IPS.

Ecological groups have been warning of these risks for years and appealing to Russian authorities to take action.

But the Russian political response to global warming has been characterised largely by apparent ambivalence.

As the world’s fourth largest greenhouse gas producer behind the United States, India and China, and with a fossil fuel-intensive economy which the government is desperate to boost, Russia has historically been far from the vanguard of global environmental policy reform.

But some experts believe that the general government ambivalence to climate change is driven by the fact that Russia potentially stands to be one of the biggest geopolitical gainers from climate change.

Although a highly resource-rich nation, vast reserves of fossil fuels in Russia are under either ice or frozen permafrost. Higher temperatures could make it easier to access these and other enormous quantities of valuable ores and minerals as well as changing huge areas of land from being uninhabitable to fit for agricultural production or other use.

Arctic ice melt driven by global warming is also expected to soon provide an almost year-round open sea passage north of the country which Russia could exploit, allowing tens of millions of tons more of goods to be transported annually.

Some officials have publicly said that they view global warming positively. In an interview last year, Rinat Gizatullin, an official at the Russian Natural Resources Ministry, told the BBC: “We are not panicking. Global warming is not as catastrophic for us as it might be for some other countries. If anything, we’ll be even better off.”

Against this backdrop, the Russian scientific community is divided on climate change. While some, including senior state meteorologists, have in the past spoken publically of the threat from climate change to Russia, others are more reticent on the issue and refuse to openly acknowledge global warming as a phenomenon.

Raisa Buzunova, a hydrometeorologist from Kemerovo in western Siberia, told IPS that while temperatures had been rising constantly for years in parts of Siberia, the result of which was now extended summers, this was not evidence of global warming.

She told IPS: “We are not talking about a sudden change in climate or global warming, but only periodic temperature fluctuations. A stabilisation of temperatures in Siberia is expected by 2020.”

Many others say that global warming has actually peaked and that world temperatures will actually begin falling in a few years and then stabilising.

However, local ecologists say that the evidence is irrefutable, pointing to events such as the record wildfire season in 2012 in Siberia amid an unusually warm summer, as well as the worst floods on record last autumn, an exceptionally mild winter just passed, as well as a record warm spring and the recent floods.

Mikhail Gunykin from the Moscow-based pan-Russian Ecodelo ecological network, told IPS: “In Russia, as in the rest of the world, what we have seen in recent years is increasingly frequent natural disasters as a result of the way humans treat ecosystems.”

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Nicaragua’s Mayagna People and Their Rainforest Could Vanish Thu, 19 Jun 2014 21:51:33 +0000 Jose Adan Silva Troops from the special military battalion set up to protect Nicaragua’s forests confiscate an ilegal shipment of logs in the Bosawas Biosphere Reserve. Credit: José Garth Medina/IPS

Troops from the special military battalion set up to protect Nicaragua’s forests confiscate an ilegal shipment of logs in the Bosawas Biosphere Reserve. Credit: José Garth Medina/IPS

By José Adán Silva
MANAGUA, Jun 19 2014 (IPS)

More than 30,000 members of the Mayagna indigenous community are in danger of disappearing, along with the rainforest which is their home in Nicaragua, if the state fails to take immediate action to curb the destruction of the Bosawas Biosphere Reserve, the largest forest reserve in Central America and the third-largest in the world.

Arisio Genaro, president of the Mayagna nation, travelled over 300 km from his community on the outskirts of the reserve in May to protest in Managua that the area where his people have lived for centuries is being invaded and destroyed by settlers from the country’s Pacific coastal and central regions.

In early June, Genaro returned to the capital to participate in several academic activities aimed at raising awareness on the environment among university students in Managua and to protest to whoever would listen that their ancestral territory is being destroyed by farmers determined to expand the agricultural frontier by invading the protected area, which covers 21,000 sq km.

The Mayagna chief told Tierramérica that in 1987 the nucleus of what is now the biosphere reserve had a total area of 1,170,210 hectares of virgin forest and an estimated population of fewer than 7,000 indigenous people.

In 1997, when it was declared a Word Heritage Site and Biosphere Reserve by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO), the reserve covered more than two million hectares of tropical rainforest, including the buffer zone.

By 2010, when the indigenous people living in the reserve numbered around 25,000, the jungle area had been reduced to 832,237 hectares, according to figures cited by Genaro. The presence of non-indigenous settlers within the borders of the reserve had climbed from an estimated 5,000 in 1990 to over 40,000 in 2013.

“The y are burning everything, to plant crops. They cut down forests to raise cattle, they log the big trees to sell the wood, they shoot the animals and dry up riverbeds to put in roads,” Genaro told Tierramérica.

Antonia Gámez, a 66-year-old Mayagna chief, also made the trek from her community to speak out in towns and cities along the Pacific coast about the situation faced by her people in Bosawas, whose name comes from the first syllables of the main geographical features that delimit the reserve: the Bocay river, the Salaya mountain, and the Waspuk river.

“All of our families used to live on what nature provides; the forest is our home and our father, it has given us food, water and shelter,” she told Tierramérica in her native tongue, with the help of an interpreter. “Now the youngest ones are looking for work on the new farms created where there was once forest, and the oldest of us don’t have anywhere to go, because everything is disappearing.”

Gámez said that in the forest, her people planted grains and grew and harvested fruit, and hunted what they needed for food with bows and arrows. She added that there were abundant crabs and fish in the rivers and wild boars, tapirs and deer in the forests.

“Now the animals have gone. With each bang from a gun or mountain that is cleared, they either die or move deeper into the jungle. There aren’t many left to hunt,” she complained on her visit to Managua.

Part of the reserve is also inhabited by Miskitos, the largest indigenous group in this Central American country, where by law native people have the right to collectively own and use the lands where they live.

The complaints by the indigenous people were corroborated by Tierramérica in conversations with independent academics and activists as well as government officials.

Anthropologist Esther Melba McLean with the Atlantic Coast Centre for Research and Development at the Bluefields Indian and Caribbean University has led studies that warn that if the invasion by outsiders and destruction of the forest are not brought to a halt, both the Mayagna people and the native flora and fauna of Bosawas could disappear in two decades.

“The destruction of the forest would mean more than the end of an ethnic group; it would mean the end of the site where 10 percent of the world’s biodiversity is found,” she told Tierramérica.

The reserve is home to endemic species like the Nototriton saslaya salamander and the crested eagle, which are listed as endangered by local environmental organisations that point out that there are still many species that have not even been documented.

According to environmentalist Jaime Incer, an adviser on environmental affairs to the office of the president, if the destruction of the indigenous territory continues, “in less than 25 years the jungle will have completely disappeared.”

A study published in 2012 by the German development cooperation agency, GIZ, Nicaragua’s National Union of Agricultural and Livestock Producers (UNAG), the European Union and the international development organisation Oxfam warned that it would take 24 years to lose the forest in Bosawas and 13 years to lose the buffer zone around the reserve, at the current rate of deforestation.

Incer told Tierramérica that in response to the indigenous community’s complaints and the backing they have received from environmentalists, the administration of President Daniel Ortega, who has governed since 2007, has begun to take measures against the destruction of the forest. “But they have been insufficient,” he acknowledged.

Ortega ordered the creation of a military battalion of more than 700 troops to guard the country’s forests and nature reserves. The government also organised a committee of national authorities aimed at coordinating actions and applying a zero tolerance approach towards people and organisations accused of destroying the environment.

Alberto Mercado, the technical coordinator of Bosawas in the Ministry of the Environment and Natural Resources, said at the Central American University in Managua on Jun. 10 that the government has been carrying out actions to curb the destruction of the reserve.

He said the authorities had removed dozens of non-indigenous families from the nucleus of the reserve, and that they had brought people to trial who were dedicated to illegally selling land in Bosawas.

Mercado said dozens of lawyers have been investigated and suspended for allowing sales transactions involving indigenous property. In addition, he said, the authorities have been combating trafficking in local fauna and flora.

“But the struggle is huge…traffickers identify the ‘blind spots’ and that’s where they make their incursions into indigenous territory, fence it in, claim it is theirs, and that’s how the trafficking of land starts,” the official said, sounding discouraged.

The complaints of the indigenous community have gone beyond national borders, and have reached international human rights organisations. The non-governmental Nicaraguan Human Rights Centre also filed a complaint with the Organisation of American States (OAS).

Vilma Núñez, director of the Human Rights Centre, told Tierramérica that she had denounced the situation faced by the Mayagna people during the 44th OAS General Assembly, whose main theme was “development with social inclusion”, held Jun. 3-5 in Asunción, Paraguay.

“The state and the government should guarantee the right of the Mayagna and all indigenous people in this country to live on their own land, and defend them from extermination,” Núñez said.

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U.S. Turns Attention to Ocean Conservation, Food Security Thu, 19 Jun 2014 01:28:33 +0000 Michelle Tullo The administration of President Barack Obama pledged to massively expand U.S.-protected parts of the southern Pacific Ocean. Credit: Catherine Wilson/IPS

The administration of President Barack Obama pledged to massively expand U.S.-protected parts of the southern Pacific Ocean. Credit: Catherine Wilson/IPS

By Michelle Tullo
WASHINGTON, Jun 19 2014 (IPS)

A first-time U.S.-hosted summit on protecting the oceans has resulted in pledges worth some 800 million dollars to be used for conservation efforts.

During the summit, held here in Washington, the administration of President Barack Obama pledged to massively expand U.S.-protected parts of the southern Pacific Ocean. In an effort to strengthen global food security, the president has also announced a major push against illegal fishing and to create a national strategic plan for aquaculture.

“If we drain our resources, we won’t just be squandering one of humanity’s greatest treasures, we’ll be cutting off one of the world’s leading sources of food and economic growth, including for the United States,” President Obama said via video Tuesday morning.

The “Our Ocean” conference, held Monday and Tuesday at the U.S. State Department, brought together ministers, heads of state, as well as civil society and private sector representatives from almost 90 countries. The summit, hosted by Secretary of State John Kerry, focused on overfishing, pollution and ocean acidification, all of which threaten global food security.

In his opening remarks, Kerry noted that ocean conservation constitutes a “great necessity” for food security. “More than three billion people, 50 percent of the people on this planet, in every corner of the world depend on fish as a significant source of protein,” he said.

Proponents hope that many of the solutions being used by U.S. scientists, policymakers and fishermen could serve to help international communities.

“There is increasing demand for seafood with diminished supply … We need to find ways to make seafood sustainable to rich and poor countries alike,” Danielle Nierenberg, the president of FoodTank, a Washington think tank, told IPS.

“For instance, oyster harvesters in the Gambia have really depleted the oyster population, but a U.S.-sponsored project has been able to re-establish the oyster beds – by leaving them alone for a while. The same strategy – to step back a bit – worked with lobster fishers in New England.”

Nierenberg predicted that with diminishing wild fish, the future of seafood will be in aquaculture.

“What aquaculture projects need to do now is learn from the mistakes made from crop and livestock agriculture,” she said. “It doesn’t always work – for instance, maize and soybeans create opportunities for pest and disease. Overcrowding animals creates manure.”

*Seafood fraud*

The Obama administration also hopes to jumpstart the United States’ own seafood production capabilities. According to a White House fact sheet, the United States today imports most of its seafood, though highly regulated U.S. aquaculture is widely seen as particularly safe.

Early on in his first administration, President Obama created a new national ocean stewardship policy which also sought to streamline more than 100 U.S. laws governing the oceans and coordinating the country’s approach to these resources.

This week’s actions will further simplify aquaculture production, while aiming to ensure that U.S. aquaculture does not exceed the population size an environment can naturally support.

“The U.S. is really good at innovating, but not at producing, largely because of the amount of regulatory hurdles,” Michael Tlusty, director of research at the New England Aquarium, told IPS. “Roughly 17 different agencies have roles in aquaculture regulation, so streamlining the process will put all of them together at the same table to efficiently provide permits.”

Tlusty also applauded the administration’s announcement to create a comprehensive programme to deter illegal fishing and seafood fraud.

“We can’t turn a switch and fix the ocean – we need lots of different strategies,” Tlusty said. “Cutting carbon dioxide emissions is very important … as is cutting illegal, underreported and underegistered fishing.”

Advocacy groups have likewise applauded the initiatives.

“President Obama’s announcement is a historic step forward in the fight against seafood fraud and illegal fishing worldwide. This initiative is a practical solution to an ugly problem and will forever change the way we think about our seafood,” Beth Lowell, campaign director for Oceana, a watchdog group, said Tuesday.

“Because our seafood travels through an increasingly long, complex and non-transparent supply chain, there are numerous opportunities for seafood fraud to occur and illegally caught fish to enter the U.S. market.”

Oceana points to recent research noting that nearly a third of wild-caught seafood coming into the United States comes from pirate fishing.

The World Wildlife Fund, a major conservation group, called Obama’s announcements “a turning point” for the world’s oceans.

*Breakneck acidification*

Ocean acidification constitutes a particularly broad and worrisome danger to marine life, shellfish production and ocean-based food security, and received prominent attention at this week’s summit. This process has come about particularly from carbon dioxide emissions resulting from air pollution, which changes the delicate acidity level of the oceans.

“The entire ocean is acidifying, and at an incredibly rapid pace … more in the last 15 years than it has in the whole last 50,000 years,” Catherine Novelli, under-secretary for economic growth, energy and the environment at the U.S State Department, told IPS.

“If you’ve ever had a fish tank, you’ll know that it is an incredibly delicate balance. And once it gets out of balance, things can’t survive.”

Novelli pointed to innovate projects such as one undertaken by the Prince of Monaco, which aims to determine where acidification is taking place and to offer early warning systems for fish farmers.

“It absolutely affects shellfish farmers, as shellfish are very sensitive to these acidity levels,” said Novelli.

“There’s been some pioneering work done off the coast of Oregon, where shellfish farmers have worked with the state government to monitor the acidification. If the acidity level is changing, they can shut off their water intake from the ocean and preserve their shellfish until waves pass and go in a different direction.”

While the conference looked at a variety of short- and medium-term possibilities for monitoring and adapting to such problems, the discussions also recognised that the issue will likely be subsumed under broader climate change negotiations.

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South Sudan’s Wildlife Become Casualties Of War and Are Killed to Feed Soldiers and Rebels Tue, 17 Jun 2014 09:17:12 +0000 Charlton Doki South Sudan’s wildlife, including elephants, are being used to feed troops on both side of conflict between government and forces loyal to former deputy president Riek Machar. Pictured here is a South African elephant. Credit: Nalisha Adams/IPS

South Sudan’s wildlife, including elephants, are being used to feed troops on both side of conflict between government and forces loyal to former deputy president Riek Machar. Pictured here is a South African elephant. Credit: Nalisha Adams/IPS

By Charlton Doki
JUBA, Jun 17 2014 (IPS)

While South Sudan’s President Salva Kiir and his former deputy Riek Machar agreed last week to end the country’s devastating six-month conflict by forming a transitional government within the next two months, it may come too late for this country’s wildlife as conservation officials accuse fighters on both sides of engaging in killing wild animals to feed their forces.  

Poaching has always been a common practice in South Sudan. But conservationists say that since the conflict between the government and forces loyal to Machar began in December 2013, there has been an upsurge in the killing and trafficking of wildlife by government and anti-government forces as well as armed civilians.

South Sudan Becoming a Hub for Wildlife Trafficking
Between January and April, South Sudan Wildlife Service officers seized a number of elephant tusks.

In one incident officials arrested an Egyptian trader trying to transport several kilograms of ivory through Juba International Airport.

“During that period[January to April] alone wildlife officers seized 30 elephants’ tusks in Juba. They also seized another 12 elephant tusks from a dealer in Lantoto in Yei County, Central Equatoria state. This translates to 21 elephants dead,” Michael Lopidia, WCS’s deputy director for South Sudan.

“In that short period of time, if they can seize this high number of tusks then you can see that poaching is on the increase with conflict,” he explained.

Also between January and April, a combined force of wildlife forces and the SPLA soldiers seized over 40 kilograms of bush meant and eight leopard skins in Juba during random security checks on vehicles.

“Since the start of this conflict we have noticed that poaching has become terrible. Rebels are poaching and the government forces are also poaching because they are all fighting in rural areas and the only available food they can get is wild meat,” Lieutenant General Alfred Akuch Omoli, an advisor to South Sudan’s Ministry of Wildlife Conservation and Tourism, told IPS.

Officials say elephants are being killed for their meat and tusks while migratory animals that move in large numbers, especially the white-eared kob, the tiang (also known as the Senegal hartebeest) and reedbuck, are being killed specifically to provide bush meat.

“Our forces are also shooting wildlife animals for food. If you go from here between Mangala and Bor [just outside of the capital, Juba] you will see a lot of bush meat being sold along the road,” the director general for Wildlife in South Sudan, Philip Majak, told local radio.

The current conflict has also made it difficult for wildlife officers to stop both the government and rebel troops from poaching and is hindering their efforts to conduct routine patrols in national game parks and wildlife reserves.

“Wildlife officers have run away from their work stations, which means they can no longer conduct routine patrols to prevent poaching. So criminals and gangs can now easily kill animals in the bushes,” Omoli said.

“Things will only get better when peace is restored, fighters return to the barracks and the government disarms civilians carrying illegal guns,” he added.

Wildlife Conservation and Tourism Ministry officials say prior to the two-decade civil war between what was previously north and south Sudan, South Sudan had more than 100,000 elephants. But when the war ended in 2005, there were only 5,000 left.

Last year, the New York-based Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS), which is helping conserve wildlife in South Sudan, fitted 34 elephants with GPS satellite collars.

But between January and April WCS officials established that some of the collars were no longer visible on satellite.

“We have evidence that some of the elephants we collared have been killed. When the conflict escalated we established that one of the collars was behind rebel forces’ lines in Jonglei state. That means that elephant has most probably been killed by now,” Michael Lopidia, WCS’s deputy director for South Sudan, told IPS.

The increased availability of arms remains an issue here. Before South Sudan gained independence in 2011, it was estimated that there were between 1.9 and 3.2 million small arms in circulation in the country. Two-thirds of these small arms and light weapons were thought to be in the hands of civilians, according to a February 2012 report by Safer World titled “Civilian disarmament in South Sudan: A legacy of struggle.”

But this number is thought to have doubled or tripled in the last three years due in part to the number of rebel and militia groups that have sprung up in Jonglei and Upper Nile states in 2010 and 2011. There has also been an increased supply of small arms by traders from neighbouring countries.

“There is serious poaching here in South Sudan simply because there are a lot of guns in uncontrolled hands. Civilians who own guns just go into the forests and begin poaching without permission from the ministry,” Omoli explained.

Ethnic conflict has also played a role in hampering conservation efforts. During the 2013 war in Jonglei state’s Pibor County led by David Yau Yau of the Murle community, communities and wildlife rangers from the Boma National Park were displaced. This ultimately lead to a halt in wildlife conservation activities.

“The armed conflict between Yau Yau and the SPLA [South Sudan's army] from February to May 2013 disrupted our efforts to conserve animals. WCS lost more than 5,000 dollars worth of property. All our infrastructure, including tents, were removed and looted,” Lopidia said.

But another concerning factor is that wildlife rangers lack the capacity to deal with South Sudan’s highly militarised poachers. According to both the South Sudan Wildlife Service and WCS officials, poachers here tend to be heavily armed.

“Once we went to fix a sign post. There were seven rangers and they saw more than 10 poachers carrying G3s [automatic rifles] while the rangers were carrying AK47s [select-fire assault rifles]. We had to come back because if the rangers had approached the poachers they would have been overpowered,” Lopidia explained.

There is also currently no specific law to deal with the issues of poaching and wildlife trafficking. Though wildlife officers have arrested poachers and wildlife traffickers, because of the lack of a clear law, “sometimes in the courts ask under what section are you charging this person,” Omoli said. Most often suspected poachers are set free.

“That’s why we want to speed up the laws so that they are put in place and implemented as soon as possible,” Omoli said.

South Sudan Wildlife Service officers also do not have powers to prosecute. Arrested poachers and wildlife traffickers are often handed over to the police for prosecution.

“The problem is that when these cases are taken to police they are sometimes not tried and the cases just die out. We would prefer to try these cases. But the cases end up pending and the suspects are sometimes released and they go back to what they have been doing — poaching,” Omoli explained.

Officials say that if South Sudan’s variety of wildlife, including elephants, giraffes, buffalos, white-eared-kobs, gazelles, tiang, antelopes, mongalla gazelles, reedbuck and lions, were sustainably managed, tourism for the country’s wildlife could contribute up to 10 percent of South Sudan’s GDP in 10 years time.

“We need proper planning and policies. We should identify what natural resources we have and prepare good policies guiding how they should be used for a long time to benefit the current and future generations. There should be a national plan to do that,” Dr. Leben Nelson Moro, a professor of development studies at Juba University, told IPS.

Ministry of Wildlife Conservation and Tourism officials are working with WCS to develop a legal framework that will govern how wildlife offences or violations are dealt with. The law will also guide the development of tourism.

But there will also have to be an education campaign for local communities as there is currently limited awareness among South Sudan’s communities on the importance of wildlife conservation.

At a local restaurant in Juba, 55-year-old Zachariai Lomude told IPS: “I love bush meat and have eaten it since I was a child. I will continue to eat it as long as I am alive regardless of whether killing wild animals is allowed or not.”

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Chile’s Patagonia Celebrates Decision Against Wilderness Dams Wed, 11 Jun 2014 00:47:51 +0000 Marianela Jarroud Patagonia Without Dams activists broke out in cheers when they heard the decision reached by a ministerial committee to reject the HidroAysén dam project on Tuesday Jun. 10. Credit: Courtesy of Greenpeace Chile

Patagonia Without Dams activists broke out in cheers when they heard the decision reached by a ministerial committee to reject the HidroAysén dam project on Tuesday Jun. 10. Credit: Courtesy of Greenpeace Chile

By Marianela Jarroud
SANTIAGO , Jun 11 2014 (IPS)

The Chilean government rejected Tuesday the controversial HidroAysén project for the construction of five hydroelectric dams on rivers in the south of the country. The decision came after years of struggle by environmental groups and local communities, who warned the world of the destruction the dams would wreak on the Patagonian wilderness.

“This is a historic day,” Juan Pablo Orrego, the international coordinator of the Patagonia Without Dams campaign, told IPS after the decision was announced.

“I am moved that the citizens – because this was a victory by the citizens – managed to finally inspire a government to do the right thing in the face of a mega-project,” he added.

The decision was reached after a three-hour meeting by a committee of ministers of the government of socialist President Michelle Bachelet, who took office for a second term in March.

The committee, made up of the ministers of environment, energy, agriculture, mining, economy and health, unanimously accepted the 35 complaints presented against the project, 34 of which were introduced by communities and others opposed to the initiative and the last of which was presented by the company itself.

The decision took six years to arrive, after a number of legal battles. And in response to the announcement people took to the streets in Patagonia, a wilderness region in southern Chile, to celebrate.

“This ministerial committee has decided to accept the complaints presented by the community, by the citizens, and annul the environmental permit for the HidroAysén project,” Environment Minister Pablo Badenier told reporters, declaring that the dam had been rejected by the government.

The company, owned by Italian firm Endesa-Enel (which holds a 51 percent share) and Chile’s Colbún, has 30 days to appeal the resolution in an environmental court in Valdivia, in southern Chile.

During the election campaign, President Bachelet had stated that the dams were not viable.

In May, when her administration unveiled its energy agenda, she said she would promote renewable unconventional energy sources and the use of natural gas, in contrast with the plan of her predecessor, Sebastián Piñera (2010-2014), which favoured hydropower.

The HidroAysén project, presented in August 2007, was to involve the construction of five large hydroelectric dams on the Baker and Pascua rivers in Patagonia. But the following year, 32 of the 34 public agencies called on to pronounce themselves did so against the project.

Environmental groups, with the support of some government officials, have proposed UNESCO world heritage site status for the southern region of Aysén, where the dams were to be built some 1,600 km south of Santiago. Patagonia is not only biodiverse but is also one of the biggest reserves of freshwater in the world.

The dams would have flooded a total of 5,910 hectares of wilderness, for a total capacity of 2,750 MW for the national grid (SIC).

Chile has a total installed capacity of 17,000 MW: 74 percent in SIC, 25 percent in the great northern grid (SING), and the rest in medium-sized grids in the southern regions of Aysén and Magallanes.

The project also included a 1,912-km power line, the longest in the world, which was to run through nine of the 15 regions of this long narrow South American country.

Energy Minister Máximo Pacheco said the HidroAysén project “suffers from serious problems in its execution because it did not treat aspects related to the people who live there with due care and attention.”

He added that as energy minister “I have voted with complete peace and clarity of mind with respect to this project.”

Pacheco also said “the decision that was reached today does not compromise in the least the energy policy that we have designed in the energy agenda, but specifically refers to one project.”

Orrego, the environmentalist, said the decision against the construction of the HidroAysén dams “points to the end of the era of the thermoelectric and hydroelectric energy mega-projects – an era that in the developed countries ended a long time ago.”

Chile imports 97 percent of its fossil fuels and its energy mix is made up of 40 percent hydropower and the rest of polluting fossil fuels, used in thermoelectric plants.

The fact that Chile lacks domestic oil and natural gas means the cost of producing electricity per MW-hour is among the highest in Latin America – over 160 dollars, compared to 55 dollars in Peru, 40 in Colombia and 10 in Argentina.

The executive director of the association of electric companies (ASEL), Rodrigo Castillo, said on Tuesday that the resolution “refers to one project in particular and does not make it impossible to use hydrological resources in southern Chile in the future.”

But René Muga, the head of the association of power plants (AGG), said HidroAysén represented 40 percent of the energy needed by the country in the next 10 years, equivalent, according to his figures, to what seven or eight coal-fired plants would produce. “That energy is really necessary,” he argued.

Orrego said the Bachelet administration’s decision could bring it “very powerful political consequences.”

“It is a brave move,” the environmentalist said. “But it was inspired by the citizens, of that we have no doubt.”

“These many years of struggle have culminated in this resounding victory for the citizens,” Orrego added.

The Patagonia Without Dams campaign waged by a coalition of environmental and citizen groups and led by Orrego and prominent environmentalist Sara Larraín managed to mobilise the entire country against the HidroAysén project and drew international attention to the planned wilderness dams.

In opinion polls, three-quarters of respondents have said they were opposed to the dams. And in early 2011, more than 100,000 people took to the streets against HidroAysén.

Orrego, who won the Right Livelihood Award in 1998, expressed his gratitude to Chile, “because this campaign was carried out by the entire country.”

He also acknowledged the participation of “allies” in other countries, such as Argentina, Belgium, Italy and Spain.

In the Aysén región, critics of the project waited in a local cinema for the announcement of the ministerial committee’s decision, before marching through the streets of Coyhaique, the regional capital, to celebrate.

Patricio Segura of the Citizen Coalition for the Aysen Life Reserve told IPS that the government’s decision “was the right thing in terms of sustainability and the construction of the energy mix that we as a country deserve.”

“We hoped President Michelle Bachelet’s political commitment would be fulfilled, as well as the duty to set aside an irregular project that advanced due to lobbying and pressure,” he added.

Segura said the project “generated tremendous polarisation in the Aysén region,” and he complained that “they managed to divide the people of Aysén without even laying one brick.”

As a result, he said, this decision lays the foundation “for us to sit down in Aysén and discuss what really matters, which is the Aysén Life Reserve.”

“Now we have to discuss a sovereign and sustainable energy mix for the Aysén region, including our region’s abundant water resources and wind energy,” he added.

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Indian Legislators Wake Up to Climate Change Fri, 06 Jun 2014 14:53:04 +0000 Sujoy Dhar An Indian farmer points to his modest plot of farmland, which no longer yields enough to feed his family. Credit: Sujoy Dhar/IPS

An Indian farmer points to his modest plot of farmland, which no longer yields enough to feed his family. Credit: Sujoy Dhar/IPS

By Sujoy Dhar
NEW DELHI, Jun 6 2014 (IPS)

Ramanjareyulu, a 55-year-old farmer from the southern India state of Andhra Pradesh, has been struggling to find his feet ever since inadequate rainfall dealt a blow to his harvest of groundnut and red gram (a pulse crop that grows primarily in India).

A man who once sustained his family of five off his small patch of farmland, Ramanjareyulu now finds himself in abject poverty, and is considering joining a massive exodus of farmers heading for the big cities like Bangalore, Chennai and Hyderabad in the hopes of finding work as unskilled labourers.

“I don’t know why nature is so unkind to us,” the desperate farmer told IPS.

Dr. Y. V. Malla Reddy, director of the Bangalore-based Accion Fraterna Ecology Centre, which works with farmers in the region, has the answer to that question and is quick to articulate it: climate change.

"How do we adapt to disasters like [...] flash floods, to drought, to unseasonal rains, to multiple cyclones - all of which occurred in 2013-2014?" -- Chandra Bhusan, deputy director-general of the Centre for Science and Environment
“The farmers are now living in dire straits,” he told IPS. “Of the nearly 700,000 farmers in Anantapur [the largest district in Andhra Pradesh], 500,000 are in this situation due to a drastic reduction in the number of rainy days per year.”

All across India, similar warning signs indicate that the country is on a dangerous trajectory. From the disappearing Sundarbans (the largest single bloc of mangrove forest in the world situated in the Bay of Bengal), to the vast tracts of parched farmland in southern, western and northern India, to the plight of all those caught in the disaster-struck Himalayan state of Uttarakhand, extreme weather is taking its toll.

With carbon emissions increasing by 7.7 percent in 2012 – and CO2 emissions from coal plants shooting up by 10.2 percent that same year – the country seems to be contributing towards its own demise.

And the “worst is yet to come”, according to a report by the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), which found that the highly fertile Indo-Gangetic plains are under threat of a significant reduction in wheat yields.

Currently the area produces 90 million tons of grain annually, accounting for nearly 15 percent of global wheat production, but projections indicate a nearly 51 percent decrease in the highest yielding areas due to hotter temperatures.

Such a scenario could be disastrous for the roughly 200 million residents of the plains, whose food intake is dependent on harvests, experts say.

India is also one of the 27 countries that are “most vulnerable” to sea level rise caused by global warming.

According to the Geological Survey of India, a one-metre rise in sea level is expected to inundate about 1,000 square kilometres of the Sundarbans delta.

Nearly half of the 102 islands that comprise the U.N.-protected biosphere reserve have become uninhabitable due to rising seas and coastal erosion over the last four decades.

About a fifth of the southern part of this delta complex, the heart of a major tiger reserve, is already submerged. At the current rate of erosion, scientists are predicting a loss of 15 percent of farmlands and a further 250 square km of the national park.

Increased soil salinity has resulted in miserable agricultural yields and thousands of climate refugees.

Another major red flag for India was last year’s Uttarakhand tragedy, when cloudbursts and glacial leaks caused a flash flood that swept away thousands of pilgrims and tourists in the northern state in what scientists called a ‘Himalayan tsunami’.

International legislation

Against this backdrop, Indian lawmakers are joining some 500 delegates descending on Mexico City on Jun. 6-8 for the second World Summit of Legislators organised by GLOBE International for the purpose of drafting an international climate agreement centered on national legislation.

India Ready for ‘Robust’ Stand on Climate Change from IPS News on Vimeo.

According to Pranav Chandan Sinha, director of GLOBE India, the Indian public is waking up to the realities of climate change, thus pushing the government to seek a balance between development and environmental protection.

Sinha told IPS the new government, headed by Prime Minister Narendra Modi of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), which has an absolute majority in parliament, is likely to pursue sustainable development goals, in line with GLOBE International’s emphasis on the importance of wealth accounting, valuation of ecosystem services and legislative reforms.

Ever since the Uttarakhand disaster, for instance, GLOBE India has been engaging legislators from various states, particularly in the north, on the need for legislative reforms and combined efforts to tackle climate change.

The purpose of forums like the summit currently underway in Mexico “is not only to educate but to demystify international negotiations on environment, sustainability and climate change and communicate them at the national and state level,” Jayanat Chaudhary, former Indian parliament member and founder of GLOBE India, told IPS.

Although these meetings cannot hope to generate binding action, they serve to inform lawmakers who can push their respective governments to take a more robust stand on issues like emissions targets, said Chandra Bhusan, deputy director-general of the New Delhi-based Centre for Science and Environment, India’s leading green pressure group.

Bhusan says India has to meet multiple challenges on the climate change front, particularly due to the centralisation of power that stymies action on a local level.

“One challenge is adaptation itself,” he told IPS. “How do we adapt to disasters like the Uttarakhand flash floods, to drought, to unseasonal rains, to multiple cyclones – all of which occurred in 2013-2014. This has been a period of extreme weather and we have to adapt to the variability,” he asserted.

“There is an energy challenge too. About 800 million people in India still cook on cow dung and firewood stoves. So we need clean energy for all and we cannot say we will not do anything,” Bhusan added.

Still, the forecast is not entirely bleak, with various local governments taking some positive steps towards accountability and sustainability.

Uttarakhand, for instance, recently became the first state in India to start tabulating its gross environment product (GEP) – a measure of the health of the state’s natural resources – to be released annually alongside its GDP figures.

In partnership with Wealth Accounting and the Valuation of Economic Systems (WAVES), the Himalayan state of Himachal Pradesh has begun tabulating costs of timber, water and minerals.

A 2013 report entitled Green National Accounts in India also spells out the Union Government’s plans to include the value of natural resources in its annual economic calculations.

Green activists say these positive steps give India a stronger voice in the international arena, which it should use to press polluting western nations for a binding agreement on carbon emissions.


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Mexico’s Biodiversity Under Siege Thu, 05 Jun 2014 23:43:56 +0000 Emilio Godoy Mangroves in the Marismas Nacionales Biosphere Reserve, which has the most extensive mangrove forest system along Mexico’s Pacific coast, could be lost if the Las Cruces hydroelectric dam is built, warn environmentalists and local residents. Credit: Courtesy of WWF

Mangroves in the Marismas Nacionales Biosphere Reserve, which has the most extensive mangrove forest system along Mexico’s Pacific coast, could be lost if the Las Cruces hydroelectric dam is built, warn environmentalists and local residents. Credit: Courtesy of WWF

By Emilio Godoy
MEXICO CITY, Jun 5 2014 (IPS)

The Las Cruces hydroelectric project in the northwestern state of Nayarit is one of the threats to biodiversity in Mexico, according to activists.

“It will have an impact on the Marismas Nacionales wetlands reserve, because the dam will retain 90 percent of the sediment which is necessary for the survival of the ecosystem,” said Heidy Orozco, executive director of the non-governmental organisation Nuiwari.

Besides, “the hydrological regime would be modified and the low-lying jungle would be flooded,” she told IPS.

Nuiwari, which forms part of the Free San Pedro River Movement, has been dedicated since 2006 to protecting the San Pedro river basin, where the dam would be built.

The Federal Electricity Commission plans to build and operate the hydropower plant 65 km north of the city of Tepic, in Nayarit. It will have an installed capacity of 240 MW and a 188-metre high dam, with a reservoir covering 5,349 hectares.

The environmental impact study for the dam acknowledges that subsistence-level farming and small-scale livestock production will be replaced by fishing activities in the reservoir.

The Marismas Nacionales Biosphere Reserve, the most extensive mangrove forest system along Mexico’s Pacific coast, is the year-round habitat for 20,000 water birds and is a winter home to more than 100,000 migratory birds.

The reserve is recognised as a Wetlands of International Importance under the Ramsar Convention.

In the Marismas – which means marsh – Reserve more than 300 species of animals have been reported, 60 of which are endangered or threatened, especially due to overuse and destruction of habitat, and 51 of which are endemic, according to the Ramsar Convention, in effect since 1975.

Fishing activity that depends on the wetland ecosystem generates between 6.5 and 13.5 million dollars a year for local communities, according to official figures.

Furthermore, the dam would destroy 14 sacred sites and ceremonial centres of the
Náyeri or Cora, Wixárica or Huichol, Tepehuano and Mexicanero indigenous communities.

Protection of biodiversity and the distribution of benefits are the core focuses of the Nagoya Protocol on Access to Genetic Resources and the Fair and Equitable Sharing of Benefits Arising from their Utilisation, signed in Nagoya, Japan in 2010.

The protocol, which complements the Convention on Biological Diversity, in force since 1993, stipulates that every signatory must adopt measures to ensure access to traditional knowledge associated with genetic resources and held by indigenous and local communities.

The protocol establishes that such knowledge must be “accessed in accordance with prior informed consent” and under “mutually agreed terms”.

“Parties shall in accordance with domestic law take into consideration indigenous and local communities’ customary laws, community protocols and procedures, as applicable, with respect to traditional knowledge associated with genetic resources,” the protocol adds.

Pedro Álvarez-Icaza, general coordinator of Biological Corridors and Resources in the government’s National Commission for the Knowledge and Use of Biodiversity (CONABIO), described the difficulties in complying with these stipulations.

“The big problem is how the benefits are to be distributed,” he told IPS. “Who do they go to – the community? The person providing the information? A group of people? I’m also worried about false expectations – about the idea that a plant could give rise to a medicine, and people spend 10 years waiting for that to happen.”

The government official also said “the legal framework is not necessarily the most up-to-date. The key is to strengthen the capacity of local and indigenous communities and raise their awareness of their right to the fair distribution of benefits.

“The important thing is information, so that if a country wants to patent a resource, it has to demonstrate that the information was obtained through a benefit-sharing agreement, with prior, informed consent,” he said.

With financing from Germany’s technical cooperation agency, GTZ, CONABIO is carrying out the project “Governance on Biodiversity: Fair and Equitable Benefit-Sharing Arising from the Use and Management of Biological Diversity”, to establish a group of pilot cases to serve as reference points.

The initiative, which has a budget of six million euros (8.2 million dollars), is to run though 2018.

“As long as the autonomy of indigenous peoples is not recognised and traditional knowledge is not valued, it is a mere expression of good intentions. There will be no fair and equitable distribution of benefits,” independent consultant Patricia Arendar told IPS.

Mexico is one of the 12 most biologically diverse countries in the world. The country has identified 2,692 species of fish, 361 amphibians, 804 reptiles, 1,096 birds, 535 mammals and over 25,000 plants, according to CONABIO statistics.

The Commission also indicates that there are 127 officially extinct species, 475 endangered, 896 threatened and 1,185 species subject to special protection in Mexico.

The Sectoral Programme of Environment and Natural Resources 2013-2018 indicates that natural ecosystems have been lost in nearly 29 percent of Mexican territory while the ecosystems in the remaining 71 percent are surviving with different levels of conservation.

Natural capital is one of the issues on the agenda of the Jun. 6-8 Second World Summit of Legislators of GLOBE International (the Global Legislators Organisation) in Mexico City, which will draw nearly 500 parliamentarians from more than 80 nations.

With financing from the Global Environment Facility (GEF), Mexico’s environment ministry is leading the analysis of options for adapting the country’s legal framework to the Nagoya Protocol. The alternatives are modifying the law on wildlife, passed in 2000, or creating a specific new law.

So far, 92 countries have signed the Nagoya Protocol. But only 36 of the 50 needed for it to enter into force have ratified it. The only Latin American countries to have done so are Honduras, Mexico and Panama.

“Without a state policy for the protection of biodiversity, it is very difficult to develop strategies around the Nagoya Protocol, for example,” Arendar said. “It’s not a priority in today’s politics. There are more natural land and marine areas, and greater knowledge about biodiversity, but we’re still losing biodiversity.”

“The dam shouldn’t be built,” argued Orozco. “It is unacceptable from any point of view; the few benefits don’t justify the terrible permanent impacts. We demand that Mexico live up to international environment and human rights treaties, but experience from other cases indicates to us that this doesn’t always happen.”

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OP-ED: Climate Change Threatens the Wild Beauty of Small Islands Tue, 03 Jun 2014 16:49:21 +0000 Dr. Bradnee Chambers Waves and high tides are eating away at the beaches in Costa Rica’s Cahuita National Park, where the vegetation is uprooted and washed into the sea. Credit: Diego Arguedas/IPS

Waves and high tides are eating away at the beaches in Costa Rica’s Cahuita National Park, where the vegetation is uprooted and washed into the sea. Credit: Diego Arguedas/IPS

By Bradnee Chambers
BONN, Jun 3 2014 (IPS)

It’s beginning to sink in that our climate is changing more rapidly than at any time in recorded history and it will have profound and irreversible effects on the planet. On World Environment Day on Jun. 5, let’s stop for a moment to consider in particular the devastating impact that climate change is having on small island states and their wildlife. 

Forty years ago Rachel Carson’s book, “Silent Spring”, helped launch the environmental movement. The image of a Silent Spring shocked readers because it evoked the idea that if we did not care for the environment then one spring very soon the birds would stop singing because they would have vanished.

Today in order to gain support for critical environmental issues such as climate change, many complex integrated models and economic analyses have to be prepared to convince people that our climate really is changing. Let’s hope that it will not require small islands states to have submerged beneath the waves before the skeptics are convinced.

Thinking back to a simpler age not so long ago – to the time when Carson wrote her seminal work – appreciation of the sheer wonder of nature was sufficient to move us to act. With what do we associate small islands?

Groynes installed at Folkestone Beach in Barbados to prevent beach erosion. Credit: Desmond Brown/IPS

Groynes installed at Folkestone Beach in Barbados to prevent beach erosion. Credit: Desmond Brown/IPS

Blue lagoons, palm-lined golden beaches, coral reefs and majestic atolls. These tropical idylls are the epitome of beauty and part of their attraction as holiday destinations is their rich wildlife, much of which is migratory. But the islands are vulnerable to sea level rises and other effects of climate change. And so too are the features contributing to their appeal and that includes the species that live on and around them.

Migratory animals, which can be among the most vulnerable of all species because of their dependence on particular habitats at specific stages of their life cycles as they undertaken their epic journeys spanning continents and oceans, are subject to unprecedented changes.

We are observing threats to migratory species caused by increased temperatures that will lead to the loss of vital habitat while at the same time oceanic food webs linked to changing zooplankton abundance are starting to collapse.

Sharks are moving into warmer waters outside their normal boundaries of their migrations, increasing the frequency of attacks on people. Warmer beaches are affecting hatching patterns of marine turtles: cool beaches produce predominantly male hatchlings while warm beaches produce mostly females.

Hawksbill turtle, Komodo, Indo-Pacific. Credit: Courtesy of Image Broker/Robert Harding

Hawksbill turtle, Komodo, Indo-Pacific. Credit: Courtesy of Image Broker/Robert Harding

So scientists are seeing the feminisation of marine turtle populations which will have an impact on the ability of turtles to reproduce. Large baleen whales such as the Blue Whale, the largest creature on earth, must make longer journeys between their feeding grounds in warmer waters to their breeding grounds in cooler parts of the sea. The whales’ main food source of krill is declining because of changes in temperature and acidification of the oceans due to climate change.

Islands are critical stopover, nesting and breeding sites for migratory birds. Albatrosses that wander the oceans for much of the time seek out tiny dots of land to build their nests and raise their young.

Islands provide much needed opportunities for rest and refuelling with food for birds flying between Eurasia and Africa – especially when the birds have completed their crossing of the Sahara.

The evidence is heaping up telling us that climate change is happening and the reality is that the temperatures will rise. What we must avoid is rapid changes or temperature increases so severe that we cross a point of no return.

This is a vitally important factor for species’ survival. Like humans, some animals can adapt and migratory animals are more likely to be able to adapt because they are mobile in nature and therefore potentially able to disperse other areas to mitigate environmental changes.

This is why getting a deal in Paris for the post Kyoto Protocol is so critical. A global deal now would mean we can keep the planetary temperature rise within a manageable limit and then concentrate international efforts on assisting people and their ecosystems, including migratory species and other threatened species by climate change, to adapt if possible.

If there is no deal, we will go beyond the manageable limits and we can foresee devastating impacts on humans and wildlife. On World Environment Day, let’s not forget the beauty that nature holds and just how very vulnerable it is, and know that the fight against climate change has many dimensions, including conserving the magnificent beautiful small island states and their wildlife.

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World Cup Rolls Out the Green Carpet for ‘Ball Armadillo’ Mon, 02 Jun 2014 18:22:26 +0000 Fabiana Frayssinet Three-banded armadillos. Credit: Caatinga Association

Three-banded armadillos. Credit: Caatinga Association

By Fabiana Frayssinet
RIO DE JANEIRO , Jun 2 2014 (IPS)

The FIFA World Cup 2014 mascot was inspired by the three-banded armadillo, which is unique in its ability to roll up in a tight ball. The species is endangered in Brazil, which is hosting the upcoming global sporting event.

The idea emerged in 2012 from an online social networking campaign by the Caatinga Association, an environmental group that proposed the three-banded armadillo (Tolypeutes tricinctus) – known in Brazil as tatú-bola, or ball armadillo – as the symbol of the championship whose matches will be played from Jun. 12 to Jul. 13 in 12 cities in Brazil.

FIFA, the international football federation, accepted the proposal and named the mascot Fuleco – a portmanteau of the words “futebol” (football) and “ecologia” (ecology).

The three-banded armadillo is an exclusively Brazilian species, which is threatened with extinction, Rodrigo Castro, executive secretary of the Caatinga Association, a non-profit organisation that works in the preservation of the caatinga biome in Brazil’s semiarid northeast, told Tierramérica.

“It lives in a little-known and poorly protected ecosystem [the caatinga] and has an incredible ability to roll up into a ball when it feels threatened, due to its flexible bands of skin,” he added.“Our question for FIFA is simple: the tatú-bola gave life to Fuleco – but Fuleco isn’t doing anything for the tatú-bola. Why not?” – Environmentalist Rodrigo Castro

The semiarid caatinga covers nearly 10 percent of Brazil’s national territory, encompassing an area between 700,000 and one million square km.

Millions of Fuleco plastic dolls, plush toys and other products carrying his image have generated a huge revenue inflow for FIFA, and have become a common part of the landscape in Brazil – unlike the small armadillo, which is increasingly rare in its habitat.

On the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List of Threatened Species, the Tolypeutes tricinctus is listed as vulnerable.

But the Brazilian government plans to announce a change in the animal’s status next year, from “vulnerable” to “at risk of extinction.”

“This means that if nothing is done, the animal could be extinct in the next 50 years,” Flávia Miranda, a biologist and veterinarian with Projeto Tamanduá, a conservationist project, told Tierramérica.

The Tolypeutes tricinctus, endemic to Brazil, is one of two species of armadillo that can roll up in a ball. The other is the southern three-banded armadillo (Tolypeutes matacus), found in northern Argentina, southwestern Brazil, Paraguay and Bolivia.

A three-banded armadillo rolled into a ball – the position that gave it the name “tatú-bola” in Portuguese – can fit in the palm of a hand. Credit: Marco A. Freitas

A three-banded armadillo rolled into a ball – the position that gave it the name “tatú-bola” in Portuguese – can fit in the palm of a hand. Credit: Marco A. Freitas

The three-banded armadillo has a combined head and body length of 45 cm and weighs approximately 1.5 kg. The armour is composed of three ossified dermal scutes connected by flexible bands of skin. Its diet consists mainly of insects.

The species has suffered a 30 percent decline in population in the last 10 years. “We estimate that it has lost 50 percent of its habitat over the past 15 years,” said Miranda, who is also a consultant to the Caatinga Association.

The main threat to the species, said Castro, is shrinking habitat, caused by deforestation in the caatinga and the neighbouring cerrado savanna ecosystem, which is characterised by low-growing bushes and scattered twisted short trees, where the armadillo also lives.

But hunting is a factor that cannot be ignored. “Hunting armadillos is a traditional cultural practice in rural communities,” Castro said.

“The meat is very popular,” Miranda said. “Many hunt it to sell the meat, because it fetches around 50 reals [23 dollars] a kilo.”

On the eve of the World Cup, Brazil’s Environment Ministry launched a five-year National Action Plan for the Conservation of the Tatú-Bola, drawn up together with the Caatinga Association.

The national action plan is a public commitment to preserve the species. “We are going to work together with universities and public and private institutions to reduce deforestation and hunting,” Miranda said.

The plan will also lead to the creation of conservation and reforestation units.

Ugo Eichler Vercillo, general coordinator of the government’s Chico Mendes Institute for Biodiversity Conservation, told Tierramérica that under the plan, a task force would be created to combat hunting of the armadillo.

In addition, actions will be promoted to compensate the loss of protein in poor communities where the armadillo is a target of subsistence hunting, he said.

One initiative will be “green grants” – monthly economic payments of 100 reals (45 dollars) for residents of poor rural communities, who will also be signed up to other social programmes and cash transfer schemes that target the extreme poor.

“These are populations who live on what they gather, plant and hunt,” in the remote hinterland of the states of Bahia, Pernambuco, Piauí, Ceará and Rio Grande do Norte, Vercillo explained.

These low-income residents of isolated rural areas value the armadillo “because they don’t have other sources of protein,” he said.

In 2013 the Caatinga Association, the IUCN and The Nature Conservancy launched the programme “I protect the tatú-bola”, aimed at curbing the risk of extinction.

“Our project, which should last about 10 years, will map the areas where the species is found, and we will collect information on threats, to work on them,” Miranda said.

Making the Brazilian armadillo the mascot of the FIFA games is aimed at turning it into “a kind of symbol for the preservation of the caatinga, and of other species of fauna and flora that inhabits this ecosystem,” she pointed out.

With its decision, FIFA says it hopes to increase awareness of the threat of extinction faced by the three-banded armadillo.

But Castro hopes for something more from FIFA. “Our question for FIFA is simple: the tatú-bola gave life to Fuleco – but Fuleco isn’t doing anything for the tatú-bola. Why not?”

This story was originally published by Latin American newspapers that are part of the Tierramérica network.

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Hawaii to Host 2016 IUCN World Conservation Congress Thu, 22 May 2014 15:36:41 +0000 Jon Letman Hawaii is home to many of the world's rarest plants and animals, recognised globally as a 'biodiversity hotspot.' The IUCN announced that Hawaii will host the 2016 World Conservation Congress, the first time the global conference will gather in the United States. Credit: Jon Letman/IPS

Hawaii is home to many of the world's rarest plants and animals, recognised globally as a 'biodiversity hotspot.' The IUCN announced that Hawaii will host the 2016 World Conservation Congress, the first time the global conference will gather in the United States. Credit: Jon Letman/IPS

By Jon Letman
HONOLULU, Hawaii, U.S., May 22 2014 (IPS)

The International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Council announced Wednesday that the 2016 World Conservation Congress (WCC) will meet in Hawaii – the first time in its 66-year history that the world’s largest conservation conference will be hosted by the United States.

Hawaii, which was selected over eight candidates, including finalist Istanbul, will host between 8,000 and 10,000 delegates representing 160 nations.

The 2016 WCC, the IUCN’s 24th Congress since 1948, draws a diverse mix of scientists, politicians, policy makers, educators, non-governmental organisations, business interests, environment and climate experts, and indigenous organisations for ten days of meetings, discussions and debates on environmental and development issues and policies.

Sometimes referred to as “the Olympics of conservation,” the WCC will convene at the Hawaii Convention Center in Honolulu on the island of Oahu from Sept. 1 to 10, 2016.

In a press release, the IUCN noted that the United States has 85 IUCN member organisations (eight of which are in Hawaii), the largest number of any single country. It added that the 2016 Congress will coincide with the United States National Park Service’s 100th anniversary.

For the WCC, the U.S. State Department will be required to issue an unprecedented number of visas to delegates from dozens of countries, some of which may have strained political relations with the United States.

Hosting the world’s largest conservation conference, one that is increasingly a forum for addressing climate change issues, also puts additional focus on the United States’ own efforts to combat issues like climate change, habitat loss and wildlife conservation.

The Hawaiian Islands

The Hawaiian Islands are a volcanic archipelago comprised of more than 130 islands, reefs, shoals and atolls. The eight high inhabited islands include a diverse range of ecosystems and microclimates ranging from coastal plains to lowland dry forest, dense wet forests, barren volcanic fields, high elevation swamps and the (seasonally snow-capped) Maua Kea volcano.

Hawaii is home to Hawaii Volcano National Park, over 50 state parks and Papahanaumokuakea Marine National Monument, the largest single conservation area in the United States. The vast marine conservation area, larger than all U.S. national parks combined, extends over 1,200 nautical miles northwest of the main Hawaiian islands into the Central Pacific.

Climate change issues in Hawaii include: ocean acidification, coral bleaching, changing wind and rainfall patterns that are linked to persistent periods of drought, extreme rain events and sea level rise. Hawaii, the only U.S. island state, over 2,300 miles west of the continental United States, is heavily reliant on imported manufactured goods, materials and oil.

Over the last decade, Hawaii has made strident efforts to advance local sustainable agriculture and alternative energy from wind, solar and other alternative energy sources.

In an eleventh-hour appeal, President Barack Obama expressed his “strong support” in a personal letter to IUCN Director General Julia Marton-Lefèvre. “Hawaii is one of the most culturally and ecologically rich areas in the United States, with a wealth of unique natural resources and distinctive traditional culture…” wrote Obama, who was born in Hawaii.

‘Aloha Spirit’

In response to Hawaii’s winning bid, the state Governor Neil Abercrombie said, “we are elated,” adding “the conference will allow the Aloha State to highlight its conservation efforts to the rest of the world and demonstrate leadership in addressing global environmental and development challenges.”

Chipper Wichman, co-chair of Hawaii’s 2016 steering committee, was part of a multi-year effort to draw attention to the Hawaiian islands as a potential host. Wichman, who is also the director and CEO of the non-profit National Tropical Botanical Garden (NTBG) on Kauai island, stressed that the conference would afford Hawaii the opportunity to increase understanding and awareness of the role islands play in conservation and battling climate change.

“Hawaii is recognised globally for the unique species that are found here and nowhere else on earth. We’re also known as one of the ‘extinction capitals’ and a hotspot of biodiversity,” Wichman added. The conference, he said, would allow Hawaii the chance to discuss and share its multi-organisational approaches to stem the loss of biodiversity and critical habitat.

Wichman said Hawaii’s efforts to preserve traditional cultural resources and indigenous knowledge and its science-based conservation can inspire the world.

Biodiversity Hotspot

Proponents of Hawaii’s bid to host the WCC point out that geographic isolation resulted in Hawaii’s extremely high rate of endemism (species found only in a specific geographic area). Roughly 90 percent of Hawaii’s native plants are found no place outside of the islands. Numbers are similar for its small and declining native bird and insect populations.

Many of Hawaii’s native plants and animals are single-island endemics, often found only in a single valley or mountain.

Hawaii is known to have lost an estimated 115 native plant species, with approximately 1,230 remaining. Currently, around 57 percent of Hawaii’s native plants – nearly 700 species – face some type of risk.

According to the IUCN’s Red List of Threatened Species, nearly 17,000 plant and animal species are known to be threatened with extinction – a number the IUCN admits may be a “gross underestimate.” Current extinction rates could be 10,000 times higher than historical expected rates.

Discussions, debates and voting on multi-organisational conservation strategies are a major component of the WCC. The outcome of the talks has broad implications that affect the social, political and economic activities of nations around the world.

Following the last World Conservation Congress on Jeju island, South Korea in 2012, the IUCN published a 251-page document of Resolutions and Recommendations.

Dr. Christopher Dunn, director of Cornell Plantations at Cornell University, calls Hawaii “a microcosm of all environmental and social issues facing every country.”

Dunn, formerly of the University of Hawaii’s Lyon Arboretum and Botanical Garden, said Hawaii’s own “cultural layer of traditional knowledge, and [its employment] to meet major and potentially devastating environmental issues” helped bolster Hawaii’s case for hosting the WCC.

Announcing Hawaii’s successful bid at a press conference in Honolulu, Gov. Abercrombie noted that the state had received unanimous votes by the IUCN council. He stressed the significance of Hawaii’s inter and intra-organisational cooperation and grassroots efforts that spanned the islands and extended to partners in Washington, DC.

Standing alongside the governor, Hawaii’s Department of Land and Natural Resources chairperson William Aila cited ‘The Rain Follows the Forest’ watershed initiative and ‘Green Growth Initiative’ as two examples of how Hawaii can help share potential solutions to loss of biodiversity, climate change and energy challenges.

Also present, NTBG’s Wichman added Hawaii can highlight its role as a leader in biocultural conservation. “The synergy of science and indigenous culture,” Wichman said, “will unlock future conservation of our planet.”

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OP-ED: The Ugly Truth about Garbage and Island Biodiversity Wed, 21 May 2014 11:35:37 +0000 Dr. Bradnee Chambers Photo courtesy of Greenpeace/Marine Photobank

Photo courtesy of Greenpeace/Marine Photobank

By Bradnee Chambers
BONN, May 21 2014 (IPS)

Some of the Earth’s most delicate tropical paradises are being disfigured by the by-products of the modern age – marine debris: plastic bottles, carrier bags and discarded fishing gear. 

Just a tiny fraction of this originates from the islands themselves – most is generated on land and enters the sea through the sewers and drains; the rest comes from passenger liners, freighters and fishing vessels, whose crews often use the oceans as a giant waste disposal unit.  While much of the garbage sinks, some of it joins the giant gyres where the currents carry it across the globe.

"Marine debris casts its ominous shadow and threatens to break the virtuous circle which would otherwise guarantee sustainable livelihoods and incentives to protect wildlife."
Small Island Developing States (SIDS), recognised as a distinct group of nations by the UN Conference on Environment and Development in 1992, lack the space to dedicate to landfill sites and do not have the resources to deal with the huge problem of marine debris that is being washed up on their doorstep – as the tides and currents wash the accumulated marine garbage onto their beaches.  Domestically, they can take steps to ensure that they do not add to the problem – American Samoa for instance has banned plastic bags – but the “polluter pays” principle would require that those responsible for producing the waste should be made responsible for disposing of it properly.

A litter-strewn beach is an eye-sore and with tourism playing a major role in the economies of many island states, marine debris can have substantial adverse financial implications threatening local businesses and employment prospects.

Palau has banned commercial fisheries in its huge territorial waters forsaking the lucrative licensing revenue and will develop ecotourism based on snorkelling and scuba diving as a sustainable alternative.  Alive, Palau’s sharks can bring in $1.9 million each over their life-time.  Dead, a shark is worth a few hundred dollars, most of it attributable to the fins used to make soup considered a delicacy in parts of East Asia.

In February, Indonesia became the world’s largest sanctuary for manta rays and banned the fishing and export of the species throughout the 2.2 million square miles surrounding the archipelago.  The numbers are about the same; as a tourist attraction, a manta ray is worth in excess of 1 million dollars; as meat or medicine no more than 500 dollars.

Whale-watching creates jobs while bird-watching boosts binocular and camera sales and both help hotel occupancy rates.  And the total number of international travellers broke the one billion mark for the first time in 2012 making tourism one of the main foreign exchange earners globally particularly for many developing countries, including SIDS.

But marine debris casts its ominous shadow and threatens to break the virtuous circle which would otherwise guarantee sustainable livelihoods and incentives to protect wildlife.

Sea birds inadvertently feed their young with plastic which then blocks the chicks’ intestines preventing them from eating properly and leading to a slow and painful death.  The staple prey of some marine turtles is jellyfish but the turtles often mistake plastic bags for their favourite food with same dire results.  For larger species such as whales, dolphins and seals, discarded fishing gear – ghost nets – are a problem as the animals become entangled in them.  This can impede the animals’ movement and ability to hunt as well as cause serious injury or even death through drowning.

Remote island habitats support a rich and diverse fauna often including unique endemic species and provide vital stop-over sites for migrants and breeding sites for marine birds. But long established bird colonies have fallen victim to another danger exacerbated by humans – that posed by invasive alien species.

The problem of rodent infestations is well documented.  Mice and rats have escaped from ships wreaking havoc on the local bird populations which had previously nested on the ground with impunity as there were no predators.  Eradication programmes have successfully rid 400 islands of their alien rodents.

Less well known is the phenomenon of “rafting” where the invaders also use marine debris as a vector – plastic bottles are harbouring a potentially devastating assortment of worms, insect larvae, barnacles and bacteria, and warmer waters arising from climate change increase the resilience of these unwanted stowaways making them an even more potent danger.

One of the fascinations of dealing with the animals covered by the Convention on Migratory Species is how they link different countries and even continents.  Many of the species are endangered and their conservation as well as the threats that they face require internationally coordinated measures.  This applies to marine debris, a singularly unwelcome “migratory species” whose continued presence CMS will be doing its utmost to eliminate.

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Transgenics Prosper Amidst Pragmatism and Collateral Damage Tue, 20 May 2014 18:02:10 +0000 Fabiana Frayssinet A boy watches a protest against Monsanto in the central Argentine town of Malvinas Argentinas. Credit: Fabiana Frayssinet/IPS

A boy watches a protest against Monsanto in the central Argentine town of Malvinas Argentinas. Credit: Fabiana Frayssinet/IPS

By Fabiana Frayssinet
BUENOS AIRES, May 20 2014 (IPS)

The advertising department of Swiss agribusiness giant Syngenta was on a roll in early 2004 when it published a map that dubbed a large area of Argentina, Brazil, Bolivia, Paraguay and Uruguay the “United Republic of Soy”.

In this “republic” more than 46 million hectares of transgenic soy are sprayed with 600 million litres of the herbicide glyphosate and are largely responsible for the deforestation of 500,000 hectares a year in the past decade, according to estimates by the international non-profit organisation GRAIN.

The expansion of agricultural biotechnology in South America has occurred under governments described as progressive, and has fuelled a debate between those who see it as scientific and economic progress and those who stress the social, environmental and political damage caused.

According to GRAIN, global biotech corporations stepped up their campaign to spread transgenic or genetically modified (GM) seeds in 2012, when most of the Southern Cone countries had governments that were critical of neoliberal policies and that were in favour of a state that played a strong role with respect to social, educational, health and economic questions.

Concentrated soy:

- Argentina – 2010: 3 percent of producers controlled over 50 percent of soybean production.

- Uruguay – 2010: 26 percent of producers controlled 85 percent of soybean land.

- Brazil – 2006: 5 percent of soybean growers occupied 59 percent of soybean land.

- Paraguay – 2005: 4 percent of soybean growers occupied 60 percent of soybean land.

Source: GRAIN

The two agricultural powerhouses in the region, Argentina and Brazil, are now among the world’s leaders in GM crops, which require large amounts of pesticides and herbicides.

This has to do with “the blind belief among progressive sectors in scientific and technological advances as providers of well-being and progress,” GRAIN Latin America spokesman Carlos Vicente told Tierramérica.

“The corporate power behind GM crops is not questioned, and the socioenvironmental impacts are not analysed,” he said.

There is also an element of “pragmatism,” he said, referring to “the alliance with agribusiness to maintain governability,” especially in Argentina, where taxes on the enormous exports of soy “are a major source of revenue for the state,” Vicente said.

Paradoxically, these earnings help finance “the social programmes that provide assistance to those who are expelled by the agribusiness model,” added the spokesman for GRAIN, an international NGO that promotes food security and works to support small farmers and social movements in their struggles for community-controlled and biodiversity-based food systems.

In Argentina, the U.S. biotech corporation Monsanto controls 86 percent of the market for transgenic seeds, and is the company that generates the most noise. But others are quietly advancing, like Syngenta, Raúl Montenegro, the head of the Environmental Defence Foundation (FUNAM), told Tierramérica.

In his view, the struggle against the construction of a plant to process transgenic corn seed in Malvinas Argentinas, a poor community east of the capital of the central Argentine province of Córdoba, prompted other corporations to keep a low profile and “avoid announcing the location of their future installations.”

On the list, Vicente includes other companies that control millions of hectares, such as Germany’s Bayer and BASF, the U.S. Cargill, Switzerland’s Nestlé, and the Argentina-based Bunge.

Rural exodus

Argentina: By 2007 the agribusiness model had expelled more than 200,000 farmers and their families from the land.

Brazil: Starting in the 1970s, soy production displaced 2.5 million people in the state of Paraná and 300,000 in the state of Río Grande do Sul.

Paraguay: The push by big soy producers to control 4 million hectares of land has displaced 143,000 peasant families - more than half the farms under 20 hectares recorded in the agricultural census of 1991.

Source: GRAIN

Syngenta did not respond to Tierramérica’s request for an interview. But its communiqués are clear enough.

In a statement on its 2013 fiscal results that says Latin America is spearheading Syngenta’s growth, the company stressed that its 14.68 billion dollars in revenue were driven by seven percent growth in Latin America and six percent growth in Europe, Africa, the Middle East and the Asia-Pacific region. In North America, meanwhile, sales fell two percent.

The strong performance in Latin America was driven by Brazil, where “Syngenta’s expanding soybean seed portfolio registered significant gains with the launch of new varieties,” said the company’s Chief Executive Officer Mike Mack.

These corporations make their profits at the cost of an increase in health and environmental problems caused by pesticides, the displacement of small farmers and indigenous people, and the growing concentration of property ownership, said Vicente.

But, he added, these are only seen as “collateral damage” by the governments of “the United Republic of Soy.”

In Argentina, President Cristina Fernández and her ministers “repeat ad nauseam that ‘we produce food for 400 million people’ when what we actually produce are 55 million tonnes of soy bean forage,” he added.

Enrique Martínez, former president of the National Institute of Industrial Technology (INTI), reminded Tierramérica of Monsanto’s lobbying for a law on seeds “that would validate not only patents on species but also the charging of royalties and the regulation of ownership of harvested seeds.”

Martínez, head of the Evita Movement’s Institute for Popular Production, said he believes the law won’t be approved, due to the pressure of public opinion.

In his opinion, the government does not defend an agricultural model based on transgenics. “What it does is argue that the market works well in automatic terms, based on the supposition that productivity improves in a systematic manner, and that this benefits the community,” he said.

But that logic “is not correct,” he said. “We need studies that show that Monsanto has appropriated the majority of the immediate economic benefits, turning farmers into simple hostages of this scheme.”

He added, however, that “biotechnology should not be reviled as the cause of our problems.

“That is a sectarian way of looking at things,” he said. What is needed, he argued, is “the democratisation of knowledge and know-how, to enable an expansion of the actors so that production is not concentrated in fewer and fewer hands.”

Environmental questions “are only one aspect,” he said. “The key is the construction of value chains that depend on the decisions of a corporation. That is what must be fixed.”

Economist João Pedro Stédile, a leader of the La Vía Campesina global peasant movement and Brazil’s Landless Rural Workers Movement (MST), said the phenomenon did not reflect an ideological contradiction on the part of progressive governments.

“The movement of capital over agriculture to impose a dominant model based on monoculture, transgenic seeds and toxic agrochemicals has its own logic that does not depend on governments,” Stédile told Tierramérica.

Governments “fool themselves” because of the volume of production and the positive trade balance that this agribusiness model provides, but it does not generate development or distribute wealth, he argued.

Of the 70 million hectares of land under cultivation in Brazil, 88 percent is dedicated to soy, maize, sugar cane and eucalyptus, he pointed out. “So naturally social problems and protests against that model without a future are going to increase,” Stédile said.

And biotech companies know that.

The vice president of Monsanto Argentina, Pablo Vaquero, warned in March that the conflict that has blocked construction of a plant near the city of Córdoba in central Argentina “is a threat to the entire productive model.”

“Today they come out against Monsanto, but it is an excuse to attack the entire sector,” he said.

Vicente says a broad debate on these issues is still needed.

But he stressed achievements such as the blocking of the seeds law in Argentina, restrictions on spraying in some municipalities, and the awareness raised by the National Campaign Against Agrotoxics and for Life.

This story was originally published by Latin American newspapers that are part of the Tierramérica network.

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Kiribati Bans Fishing in Crucial Marine Sanctuary Fri, 09 May 2014 15:47:28 +0000 Christopher Pala Purse-seiners have been unsustainably fishing the bigeye tuna in the Phoenix Islands Protected Area. Credit: Christopher Pala/IPS

Purse-seiners have been unsustainably fishing the bigeye tuna in the Phoenix Islands Protected Area. Credit: Christopher Pala/IPS

By Christopher Pala
WASHINGTON, May 9 2014 (IPS)

After years of claiming untruthfully that the world’s most fished marine protected area was “off limits to fishing and other extractive uses,” President Anote Tong of the Pacific island state of Kiribati and his cabinet have voted to close it to all commercial fishing by the end of the year.

The action, if implemented, would allow populations of tuna and other fish depleted by excessive fishing to return to natural levels in the Phoenix Islands Protected Area (PIPA), a patch of ocean the size of California studded with pristine, uninhabited atolls.The move comes at a time global fish populations are steadily declining as increasingly efficient vessels are able to extract them wholesale from ever-more-remote and deep waters around the globe.

While no-take zones of comparative size exist in Hawaii, the Chagos Islands and the Coral Sea, none are as rich in marine life, making this potentially the most effective marine reserve in the world.

The news drew high praise from scientists and environmentalists.

“This is a big win for conservation and long overdue,” said Bill Raynor, ‎director of the Indo-Pacific Division of The Nature Conservancy, the world’s largest conservation organisation. “Now I hope that the other Pacific countries that are contemplating giant marine reserves will follow PIPA’s example.”

These include Palau, where President Tommy Remengesau has suggested closing off its entire Exclusive Economic Zone to commercial fishing, as well as the Cook Islands and New Caledonia, which are studying how much fishing to allow on protected areas even larger than the Phoenix.

“This is fantastic news,” said Lagi Toribau of Greenpeace. “The area will provide a crucial sanctuary for the region’s marine life from highly migratory tunas and turtles to reef fishes and sharks.”

The move comes at a time global fish populations are steadily declining as increasingly efficient vessels are able to extract them wholesale from ever-more-remote and deep waters around the globe.

The international fleets of industrial purse-seiners, dominated by Spanish, Asian and U.S.companies, have converged on the Western and Central Pacific since the start of the millennium after depleting the stocks elsewhere.

The result has been a fast and unsustainable decline of the bigeye, the most prized for sushi after the fast-disappearing bluefin, and more moderate shrinking of the yellowfin and skipjack populations. The fishery’s own scientists have called for a reduction of the catch by 30 percent, but instead it has increased by that amount.

In contrast, for years, Tong’s Wikipedia page has stated, “In 2008, his government declared 150,000 square miles (390,000 km2) “of [the] Phoenix Islands marine area a fully protected marine park, making it off limits to fishing and other extractive uses.”

In a speech still he gave at the Delhi Sustainable Development Summit two years ago still visible on Youtube, Tong mentions “the initiative of my country in closing off 400,000 square kilometres of our [waters] from commercial fishing activities,” calling it “our contribution to global ocean conservation efforts.”

In fact, when PIPA was created, only in the three percent of the reserve that’s around the islands, where virtually no fishing was going on, was it banned. In the rest of the reserve, the catch increased, reaching 50,000 tonnes in 2012 – an unheard-of amount in any protected area.

In an interview in Tarawa, the capital island, a year ago, Tong had brushed aside objections and said he had no intention of ending fishing in the reserve entirely anytime soon. The management plan called for closing another 25 percent next year if Kiribati’s Western partner, the Washington-based Conservation International, donated 8.5 million dollars into PIPA’s trust fund.

The money would be to compensate Kiribati for losses in income from fishing licenses stemming from closure – losses many experts said were entirely imaginary, as PIPA makes up only 11 percent of Kiribati’s waters and the fishing vessels could easily catch the far-traveling tuna elsewhere, they said.

But following reports in the international media, including IPS, on the contrast between Tong’s claims and reality, he said in a press release last September that closing the reserve to all fishing, far from entailing sacrifice as he had previously insisted, would make good business sense for his people.

Ashley McCrea-Strub, a fisheries scientist at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, argues that a complete closure “would create both capital and interest.” She explained that the much-reduced tuna, billfish and sharks populations would likely double inside the reserve to reach their natural, original levels within a couple of decades: that’s the capital.

“PIPA is big enough that some of the tuna will spend all their lives inside it, so they’ll be able to reproduce freely,” she said. “Once the density gets high, more fishes are going to start venturing outside the reserve in search of food and can be caught outside the border,” she said. “That’s the interest.”

Though PIPA is the signature project for Kiribati’s two foreign partners, Conservation International (on whose board Tong sits) and the New England Aquarium, neither organisation has made any announcement. The news came in a short, anonymous paragraph posted on PIPA’s website reporting that the cabinet on Jan. 29 voted to close the reserve to all commercial fishing by the end of the year.

An Internet search found that One Fiji television station’s website ran a story on the vote on Feb. 27, quoting Kiribati Radio (which lacks a website). Fiji One said the measure was taken “as a commitment towards protecting and conserving its marine resources as well as a bid to attract donors to invest in the PIPA Trust Fund,” which has five million dollars.

Asked why there had been no public announcement for what marine scientists said was the most far-reaching marine closure in years if enforced, Gregory Stone, who first suggested creating the reserve and is now a vice president at both Conservation International and the New England Aquarium, did not respond to several e-mailed requests for comment.

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U.S. Nearing Approval of Next Generation of Herbicide-Resistant Crops Fri, 02 May 2014 21:35:39 +0000 Carey L. Biron Use of Roundup Ready crops has been so widespread in the United States over the past decade and a half that farmers have increasingly found themselves battling weeds that have evolved resistance to the herbicide’s key ingredient, glyphosate. Credit: Bigstock

Use of Roundup Ready crops has been so widespread in the United States over the past decade and a half that farmers have increasingly found themselves battling weeds that have evolved resistance to the herbicide’s key ingredient, glyphosate. Credit: Bigstock

By Carey L. Biron
WASHINGTON, May 2 2014 (IPS)

Two key federal agencies here are in the final stages of approving a new herbicide-resistant crop “system” that would constitute the second phase of genetically engineered agriculture, following an announcement this week.

To date, the only herbicide-resistant plants approved in the United States have been related to Monsanto’s Roundup Ready system. This system uses six crops genetically engineered to withstand the herbicide Roundup, also produced by Monsanto, a U.S.-based company.“It’s advertised as a solution to the problem of glyphosate-resistant weeds, but in fact the weeds will rapidly evolve resistance and become more difficult to control – leading to what we call the pesticide treadmill." -- Bill Freese

Yet use of Roundup Ready crops has been so widespread in the United States over the past decade and a half that farmers have increasingly found themselves battling weeds that have evolved resistance to the herbicide’s key ingredient, glyphosate.

According to an industry survey released last year, the amount of U.S. farmland infested with glyphosate-resistant weeds has almost doubled since 2010, to more than 61 million acres, with half of U.S. farmers reporting glyphosate-resistant weeds in their fields in 2012.

In response, Dow AgroSciences, another U.S. company, has produced a new set of crops that have been genetically engineered to be resistant to both glyphosate and another chemical, 2,4-D, known most notoriously as half of the infamous Vietnam War-era defoliant Agent Orange. The company says approval could bring in a billion dollars in revenues.

“The Dow proposal would be the first major product of the next generation of genetically engineered crops,” Bill Freese, a senior policy analyst with the Centre for Food Safety, a watchdog group here, told IPS.

“It’s advertised as a solution to the problem of glyphosate-resistant weeds, but in fact the weeds will rapidly evolve resistance and become more difficult to control – leading to what we call the pesticide treadmill. As we’ve seen with Roundup Ready, these systems are extremely good at fostering resistant weeds.”

On Wednesday, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) opened a 30-day public comment period on Dow’s application, specifically on its specialised use of 2,4-D. The other agency in charge of deciding on the application, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), has already given its provisional approval for the new cops, which include a corn plant and two types of soybean.

In announcing the start of this final phase of the regulatory process, the EPA was clear in the rationale behind Dow’s product, which is known as Enlist Duo. (An EPA fact sheet is available here.)

“Weeds are becoming increasingly resistant to glyphosate-based herbicides and are posing a problem for farmers,” the agency said in a statement. “If finalized, EPA’s action provides an additional tool to reduce the spread of glyphosate resistant weeds.”

Indeed, it appears that additional tools may soon abound. According to the Center for Food Safety’s Freese, nine of the 14 applications for genetically engineered crops currently pending before U.S. regulators are for herbicide-resistant varieties.

Sixfold increase

Critics are warning of a spectrum of concerns around Dow’s application, particularly regarding the impacts of increased use of 2,4-D. This compound is already in use, with U.S. farmers currently using around 26 million pounds per year.

Yet according to the USDA’s own estimates, this usage would likely jump by more than sixfold following the approval of Enlist Duo, perhaps resulting in some 176 million pounds used per year. That would constitute higher U.S. use than any pesticide other than glyphosate.

Even at the comparably low usage of 2,4-D of recent years, worrying health effects are already being seen. According to public health advocates, 2,4-D has been linked to increases in non-Hodgkin lymphoma and Parkinson’s disease, as well as heightened risk of birth defects among the children of farm workers who apply 2,4-D.

“The herbicide itself is in various ways more toxic than glyphosate, leading to cancer, lower sperm counts, liver disease and other problems. And it’s still contaminated with dioxins,” Paul Achitoff, an attorney with Earthjustice, a legal advocacy group, told IPS.

“Remarkably, you have government regulators openly admitting that, due to previous deregulations, you already have 60 million acres of glyphosate resistance, and now they want to address this by increasing the use of a toxic chemical. And so far, Congress has just yawned!”

Impact could also be significant for both nearby agriculture and environmental systems. 2,4-D has been shown to be highly volatile, tending to drift easily on the wind or to enter groundwater via runoff.

Given that the compound is specifically designed to be lethal to any broad-leafed plant, the impact of a sixfold increase in the use of 2,4-D would likely be significant. The EPA and the National Marine Fisheries Service have both found that the even relatively low use of 2,4-D of recent years is likely already having a negative impact on endangered species.

Agricultural crossroads

In a public letter released earlier this year, 144 “farm, food, health, public interest, consumer, fisheries, and environmental organizations” called on the federal government to reject the Dow proposal, warning that U.S. agriculture is at a “crossroads”.

“One path leads to more intensive use of old and toxic pesticides, litigious disputes in farm country over drift-related crop injury, still less crop diversity, increasingly intractable weeds, and sharply rising farmer production costs,” the letter stated. “This is the path American agriculture will take with approval of Dow’s 2,4-D corn, soybeans and the host of other new herbicide-resistant crops in the pipeline.”

Yet the implications of the biotechnology revolution in agriculture go well beyond the United States. Although genetically engineered crops first took root in the U.S., this approach has since spread across the globe, in developing and developed countries alike – though the U.S. regulatory system continues to be more lax on the issue than in other countries.

At times these new technologies are contextualised as an important opportunity to increase yields, particularly in adverse environments, and thus to combat hunger and strengthen food security. But the Center for Food Safety’s Freese says this is whitewash.

“The rhetoric is about biotech feeding the world, but really it has no place in developing countries. Most poor farmers can’t afford this type of product in the first place,” he notes.

“Biotech is not a humanitarian endeavour. It’s about promoting pesticide use by industrial farmers in developed countries.”

Freese says his office will likely push the EPA to extend its public comment period for Enlist Duo, given what he dubs the significance of the regulator’s decision. Dow is currently hoping to have its new crops in the ground by next year.

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