Think globally, report locally

Earth Journalism Scholars

Seeding Environmental Coverage Worldwide

James Fahn, Michaela Vatcheva, Will McCarthy, Anne Daugherty, Erin Banks Rusby, Nisha Balaram, Jessica Alvarenga, Mara Kardas-Nelson, Erin Stone, Lisa Hornak, Carlos Mureithi, Susie Neilson, Bo Kovitz, Lorin Eleni Gill, Sarah Cahlan, Jacob Shea, Samantha Clark, James Tensuan, Andrew Beale, Sawsan Morrar, Kenneth Gotlieb, Leslie Cory, Alana Siegner, Jennifer Glenfield, Atia Musazay, Martin Totland, Pallavi Somusetty, Robin Simmonds, Peter Bittner, Jason Jaacks, Meghan Walsh, Jessi Hammel, Brittany Patterson, Rachel Witte, Tanya Dimitrova, Kathleen Seccombe, Adam Calo, Mark Andrew Boyer, Rosalia Omungo, Sean Greene, Joaquin Palomino, Carly Nairn, Sasha Harris-Lovett, Terray Sylvester

By James Fahn

That may be the new mantra for journalists trying to cover the environment these days, as issues seem to become ever more international in scope, but audiences remain focused on how they are affected at home.

Turning global issues into local stories has been one of the main goals for the Earth Journalism Scholars program, a partnership between UC Berkeley’s Graduate School of Journalism and Internews’ Earth Journalism Network. For the last two years, we have been working with graduate-level journalism and science students to help them produce engaging stories from challenging subjects such as climate change, biodiversity, oceans, forests, environmental health and food and agriculture.

The centerpiece of this partnership is the semester-long Earth Journalism class on international environmental reporting that I teach alongside co-lecturer Mark Schapiro. Each week, we bring in experts, often world class researchers from among UC Berkeley’s faculty, to serve as guest lecturers on key topics, followed by discussions and exercises in how to turn these issues into high-quality stories that are scientifically accurate and appealing to the general public.

In addition, the program provides the students with funds to travel overseas and do original reporting on a story of their choosing. The students pitch their topics as they would in a newsroom, and if approved, they embark on their own – usually during spring break – to distant lands. There they gather the information and interviews they need, then return to write and produce their stories with guidance and advice from both the lecturers and their classmates. For many of the students, it is a career-changing, even life-changing, trip.

The program has also supported foreign mid-career journalists who have shown interest and skill in covering the environment to attend UC Berkeley for a semester as an Earth Journalism Visiting Scholar. Following a competitive application process, Ms. Rosalia Omungo, a TV reporter and editor with the Kenya Broadcasting Corporation, and Neha Sethi, a business journalist from India, were chosen by an international panel of judges as visiting scholars in 2014 and 2015, respectively. They took classes at the Journalism School and elsewhere, meeting and collaborating with the students to provide them with an international perspective.

All these activities — including the class, the travel grants, and the visiting scholarship — have been made possible thanks to the generous support of the Heising-Simons Foundation and the Kendeda Fund.

The stories in this e-publication were all produced by students who took part in our Earth Journalism class, although a few were crafted after the class was finished, for instance as master’s thesis projects carried out with the support of the talented faculty at the UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism. Mark and I have been delighted by the often fascinating and creative topics the students have come up with. We hope you enjoy this selection of their work, which is far from exhaustive. And as always, we’d appreciate any feedback you may have.

Firefighters bring fire down the to ridge at Sawtooth National Forest / Credit: Forest Service photo by Derek Bland via Creative Commons.

Will Smoke From Controlled Burns Hurt Covid-19 Patients?

Will McCarthy

In the mountains of California, snow is melting, the days are ticking closer to fire season and officials responsible for fighting wildfires face an agonizing choice: Exacerbate the current crisis, or pile risk on to the next one.

This is the season when California’s forests are thinned out with controlled burns to reduce the devastation that has become all too common during the fall wildfire season. But the smoke generated by setting fire to thousands of acres this spring could be lethal for Covid-19 victims fighting for every breath.

While thousands have recovered, hospitals are caring for nearly 4,000 Covid-19 patients, with at least 1,100 in intensive care. Untold numbers more are suffering at home. Worse still, the effects of heavy smoke — pneumonia, asthma, bronchitis — are felt most acutely by older people with underlying health problems, the population most at risk from Covid-19.

“It’s a hard call,” said Dr. Mary Prunicki, who researches air pollution at Stanford University. “It does put smoke into the air. But the downside is, ‘Are we going to have bigger wildfires in the fall?’”

Read the full story on the New York Times here.

How Paradise High’s Class of 2020 Got Its Graduation

Anne Daugherty

After arriving on Paradise High School’s Om Wraith field for the school’s first ever drive-in graduation ceremony, Brian Enright, a senior, takes in the scene. Credit: Anne Daugherty
After arriving on Paradise High School’s Om Wraith field for the school’s first ever drive-in graduation ceremony, Brian Enright, a senior, takes in the scene. Credit: Anne Daugherty

PARADISE, Calif. — When Gov. Gavin Newsom announced plans to fight the coronavirus by closing down the entire state, including schools, the seniors at Paradise High School began peppering local officials with one insistent question: What does this mean for graduation?

The senior class of Paradise High, 142 strong, is a unique bunch, survivors of back-to-back crises that tested bonds of friendship, family and community in extreme ways. As juniors, most of them lost homes in the Camp Fire, which razed much of this town. As seniors, their final months of school were spent sheltering in place, cut off from one another and the usual rites of passage they had hoped would help restore those bonds.

All they wanted was a proper graduation, a final glorious expression of teenage solidarity, a moment to collectively acknowledge all that had been endured and overcome. “We’ve been trying to get back on track ever since the fire, and Covid-19 threw us back off,” one senior, Caitlyn Leckbee, said.

And so the Paradise class of 2020 and their parents pushed and prodded over the next 10 weeks for an exception to Mr. Newsom’s shelter-in-place and social-distancing guidelines that looked certain to derail not just their graduation dreams, but also a celebration that many here viewed as important to the restoration of a scarred community that saw its population plummet to roughly 4,000 from 27,000 before the fire.

Read the full story on the New York Times here.

How the Pandemic Is Making It Tougher to Study Whales

Whales are dying at an alarming rate, but the pandemic is keeping researchers away

Michaela Vatcheva

For residents of San Francisco, the sight of gray whales making their way into the bay this spring has been a rare treat.

But for local marine scientists, the whale sightings have brought increasing alarm. The coronavirus pandemic is upending their effort to determine why, for the second year in a row, whales have been taking what amounts to a wrong turn into San Francisco Bay.

Something is deeply amiss, either in the animals or in the ocean. Gray whales are long-distance migration champions. Every spring, they leave their breeding grounds in the warm water lagoons of Mexico’s Baja Peninsula for their feeding grounds north of Alaska. In the fall, they make the journey back, a total of 10,000 miles. They don’t typically break for snacks on the way, which is why their appearance in San Francisco Bay, during the middle of their northbound migration, has been so troubling.

Bill Keener, a research associate at the Marine Mammal Center in Sausalito, the largest marine mammal hospital in the world, believes the whales’ visits to the bay hold a clue to solving a larger mystery. Over the first five months of this year alone, 111 gray whales washed ashore along their annual migratory path — far more than the average of 29 deaths per year reported by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration between 2001 and 2018.

In 2019, 215 gray whales died on the same route, 14 of them in the San Francisco Bay Area — seven times the annual average of deaths the previous 18 years. Those deaths prompted NOAA to declare an “unusual mortality event” — which led to emergency funding to the Sausalito center and other research centers to investigate why animals that are near the top of the marine food chain and a key indicator of ocean health would be dying off at such alarming rates.

But the coronavirus has severely constrained the ability of teams to work together to dismantle and analyze the carcasses of these whales. There’s no gas for the boats; social distancing makes collaboration difficult; and, with scientists and graduate student team members sequestering, whale strandings are not sending off the alerts they once did.

See the full story on the New York Times here.

In Panama, silvopasture agroforestry technique improves ranching traditions


Ranching in Panama dates back to the 1500s, but this tradition has escalated deforestation and depleted the soil of its nutrients. A new technique known as silvopasture, where trees and shrubs are planted in pastures, helping sequester carbon and providing homes for other species, could be the way forward.

Erin Banks Rusby, Video by Nisha Balaram

LOS ASIENTOS, Panama — It was auction day in the town of Santiago, and ranchers from the region gathered to buy and sell cattle. A metallic clatter rang out from the livestock pens in the early afternoon heat as the bulls became restless, thrashing and kicking in their crowded quarters. Attached to the outside wall of the pens was a raised wooden platform where one could walk and take stock of the livestock, taking care to avoid agitated horns that sometimes swiped through the gaps.

Those who gathered were almost all men in jeans, T-shirts and baseball caps. But not all.

Odielca Solís also frequents cattle auctions like these, driving from her home in Los Asientos to auctions hours away, two or three times a week. “It’s my business,” she says simply.

Wearing black velvet three-inch heels, dark navy jeans, and layered sweaters, Solís’s attire could have sufficed for a night on the town. But she was there for the same purpose as everyone else: buying cattle for her diversified cattle ranch.

As the auction commenced, Solís took a seat and watched as the cattle were prodded from pen to scale, to sale, and back. She used her iPhone calculator to decide which cows to bid on, chatting with nearby cattlemen. Out of the dozens of ranchers present, she was one of only two women. And there was something else distinguishing about her as well: the way she runs her ranch.

Instead of raising cattle on plain grass pasture, Solís uses a system called silvopasture, the planting of trees and shrubs into pastures, which benefits the cows and increases the biodiversity of her ranch’s ecosystem. After taking a sustainable ranching course taught by a Yale University-affiliated program in Panama and visiting some model farms, Solís became convinced that she could increase the profits from her ranching operation without needing more land or chemical inputs. A type of agroforestry, silvopasture is also highly rated as method of sequestering carbon from the atmosphere.

But in choosing this system, Solís needed to depart from deeply embedded local norms about what it means to be a successful landowner and cattle rancher in an industry where, as a woman, she is already in the minority.

Managing silvopasture systems requires a lot of extra work compared to traditional ranching. For example, the land must be sectioned and the cows need to be rotated between the sections frequently, so that they don’t overgraze any one area. While helpful to her cattle and local wildlife, planting trees has put her at odds with some farmers — why plant trees on land that your ancestors worked hard to keep clear, people ask? At times, these practices have put her in conflict with old-timers.

Nevertheless, the promise of this system has motivated Solís to keep moving forward. Planting trees and shrubs offers a whole host of benefits that translate into producing more meat, and it benefits the environment in two major ways: improving the habitat value for wildlife, and sequestering carbon.

Though cows are generally blamed for contributing climate-warming gases to the atmosphere, the additional woody plants and improved soils of silvopasture systems result in an estimated 26 gigatons to 42 gigatons of carbon dioxide being pulled out of the air globally before it has a chance to contribute to climate change. In these ways, the practices that Solís and a new school of farmers in her region are using could provide a solution for cattle ranching’s heavy environmental footprint, even in a country where cattle is king.

Old days, new ways

In the not-too-distant past, before the advent of modern banks that made it possible to save money securely, a herd of cattle was essentially a living, breathing savings account. A rancher could look across the landscape and, one by one, count the value of their grazing assets.

The predominance of ranching in Panama dates back nearly to the arrival of Spanish settlers in the 1500s, since cattle were the commodity that grew best in the tropical climate. The early settlers cleared land so that grasses could get enough sun to grow, and also had to ensure trees didn’t sprout back up.

Then and now, when someone inherits a ranch from their family, it’s as if they are inheriting “not only the land, but the way of managing it,” says Jacob Slusser, program coordinator at Yale’s Environmental Leadership Training Institute (ELTI), which offers the sustainable farming courses that got Solís interested in silvopasture techniques.

Though two-thirds of the population lives in Panama City, and cattle ranching accounts for less than 3% of the country’s GDP, many people in rural areas still tend to be connected to it in some way for their livelihoods. West of the big city, the Azuero Peninsula is widely considered the agricultural and cultural heart of the country, and was one of the first areas where the Spanish established ranching. Throughout the year, people come from around the country to attend its colorful festivals and fairs celebrating holidays such as Carnaval and saint’s days.

But after 500 years of ranching, much of the land is severely degraded. Cows have roamed it for so long that their collective weight has compacted it greatly, making it difficult for plants other than pasture grasses to grow. That also makes it harder for rain to soak into the ground, and without enough roots to hold it in place, the soil is prone to erosion.

Tropical soils are also nutrient poor to begin with, and there often aren’t enough naturally occurring insects around to break down cow dung, so the recycling of even these nutrients back into the ground is minimal. Reduced biodiversity also means there are few herbivores around to control weeds, so farmers increasingly rely on herbicides to do the job. Couple all of this with climate change-induced drought and there is a real sense that the ranching business just isn’t what it used to be.

Even in the province of Los Santos in the southeastern part of the peninsula, where ranchers’ adherence to the traditional practice of cutting trees has earned them the nickname arrieltas, or leaf-cutters, some have recognized the need for a change.

In 2009, a group of ranchers from Los Santos participated in an ELTI program to learn about silvopasture’s benefits. Beside the carbon and soil effects, they learned how the system provides wildlife habitat, shade for the cows, and perhaps surprisingly, food for the cows as well: it turns out that cows enjoy eating a more varied diet than just grass, and that these plants can have a higher protein content, too.

Better forage translates into higher milk and meat production, so when the ranchers returned to their respective farms, they were interested to try it. But they quickly realized that to adopt silvopasture, and for others to do the same, they needed support to help cover initial costs and investments; converting a ranch to silvopasture can cost up to $2,000 per hectare, or about $800 an acre — a steep investment for the average farmer. Panama does have a program that supports silvopasture in the lands adjacent to the Panama Canal, but there is no funding or incentives for it elsewhere in the country.

With encouragement from ELTI, the ranchers formed the Association of Livestock and Agro-Silvopastoral Producers of Pedasí (APASPE) and sought funding to help themselves and others in the region cover startup costs. They were able to secure a grant from the Global Environment Facility (GEF), a program of the World Bank that supports climate change mitigation projects to support biodiversity, as the carbon sequestration services and increased biodiversity from these systems dovetailed well with GEF’s stated purpose. Now, nearly 10 years later, the organization has more than 30 members and boasts multiple model farms where farmers can witness silvopasture techniques in action.

At first, even Solís was skeptical of claims that she could boost meat production just by making changes to vegetation and water availability on her ranch. But after going on a field trip to a model farm in the province of Chiriquí, she was sold. She is now one of just three female farmers in APASPE, and one of the earliest members.

“I became convinced that [I] didn’t need to have a ton of land to make a profit,” she said, and began focusing her energy on adapting the new techniques to her land, despite the cultural stigma of being a female cattle rancher and planting trees. Even for a seasoned cattle rancher, it has taken years of concentrated hard work to implement the system, but her farm has begun to reap the rewards.

Financial benefit and biodiversity boon

It’s 8:40 a.m., and the soft light that bathed Solís’ farm since dawn is intensifying as the sun inches higher into the sky. In the town of Los Asientos, most farmers don’t live on their farms, and traditional cattle ranching can be fairly hands-off; some farmers visit their farms every two weeks or so. Solís visits hers almost every day, and today, she is walking wheelbarrows full of sacks of corn shuckings and corn and soy meal down the hill to further supplement the cows’ diet.

It has taken a while for other farmers to come to terms with Solís’s intensive approach to cattle ranching, though ranching has been part of her life from an early age. When she adopted this management-intensive form of raising cattle, people in town started to talk.

“Why are you working so much on the farm?” they’d ask.

“I’m just working,” was her reply.

“You’re acting like a venao,” they’d say, “like a deer.”

Name-calling like this didn’t do much to deter Solís’s resolve. The work was important to her and she was motivated to implement new techniques that could help her business in the long run.

She began to convert small amounts of land, 3 hectares (7 acres) at a time, into silvopasture. She had to build lots of enclosures — she wanted to be able to rotate the cattle frequently so that they didn’t overgraze any parcels — often by herself. She also planted seeds of native trees and shrubs that could offer more protein to her cattle than just grasses. The availability of extra protein-rich forage has since allowed Solís to host additional cattle on her land, which has had the desired effect of producing more meat. The trees also shade her cattle, helping them avoid heat stress.

Solís started to see dramatic improvements in her production: a hectare of land under silvopasture, about 2.5 acres, now yields roughly the same profit as 3 hectares of plain traditional grass pasture — a figure encompassing the economic promise of silvopastoral systems.

“There is a wide range of silvopastoral systems with a huge variation in efficiency,” Zoraida Calle, of the Center for Research on Sustainable Agricultural Production (CIPAV), tells Mongabay. She says a silvopasture system with sparse trees can be twice as profitable as a conventional ranch, while an intensive silvopasture system — complete with a high density of shrubs and shade trees — can be five times as profitable as a conventional ranch, or even more. “All of them are more profitable (and sustainable) than their conventional counterparts,” she says.

The benefits can also extend beyond profit, Solís noticed — the birds had returned.

“The birdsong — each different one, each different song indicates there are more birds compared to 25, 15, even fewer years ago,” she says.

But hearing about the benefits of silvopasture systems is not always enough to change minds. Solís recalls a time when a neighbor used local expressions to emphasize his distaste for her farming practices, accusing her of haciendo la finca montañas and volviendo la finca monte. The literal translation is “letting the farm turn into mountains,” but is used to mean “letting the farm become overgrown with woody plants.” The insinuation was that the practices she was using allowed trees to take over and that she wouldn’t be able to provide enough food for her cattle.

Because of popular beliefs like this, APASPE encourages its members to invite other farmers to see and learn from their successes firsthand. One day, a skeptical neighbor passed by and Solís invited him to walk with her as she went about her routine. By the end of the walk, the neighbor said he understood Solís better. He had thought she was crazy to be planting so many trees, but once there, he could see that it was possible to raise cattle in that way without harming the land or letting it be reabsorbed by the forest.

Resilience and adaptation

After feeding the cows in the enclosure near the creek, Solís decides to check in on the rest of her cattle in a different pen up the hill. Jacob Slusser and Saskia Santamaria from the ELTI are taking a tour of the farm today. Together, the three cross the creek and start following the dirt path on the other side. Soon after, they pass from the shade of the creek trees into the full sun and start the slight ascent.

The breeze picks up as they near the top of the hill. The outline of a living fence — one whose posts are made from live, sprouting trees, a common practice in the region — comes into view. It encloses a tree-less, open pasture brimming with greenish-yellow bunch grasses and hosting four cows at the moment. As they pass through the metal gate, a light brown bull with a dark chocolate-colored snout starts and goes trotting briskly toward the back of the pasture, stopping to turn around and stare inquisitively at the visitors.

Black, white, brown, and most shades in between, Solís’s cows reflect the typical diversity of breeds in Panama, many of which are descendants of Brahman cattle, a hybrid of different Indian cow breeds adapted to withstand hot, tropical climates.

But even heat-adapted cows aren’t totally immune to heat stress, and the unpredictability of rain is presenting new challenges. Solís’s town is located in the dry arc of Central America, a swath of tropical dry forest habitat on the Pacific coast that, with climate change, is becoming especially prone to prolonged dry spells.

Panama has two main seasons: the rainy season, also called winter, runs from around May to December; the dry season, or summer, tends to run from December through April. But in November 2018, the rains abruptly ended a month early. At the time, Solís had a sizeable herd that she had planned to raise over the summer. In response, she decided instead to sell many of them.

Her sudden need to react to the lack of precipitation reflects the experience of other farmers, who’ve found themselves in a new world where weather conditions are very different from those experienced by those even just a generation before.

Many people in the region don’t have wells, and depend on surface water from streams to provide water to cattle. Solís decided to invest in a well so that her cattle could have better access to water year-round. She also sought funding for a project that is now one of the defining features of her farm: a solar-powered system that pumps water to where she needs it.

“[APASPE] provided the opportunity to cover all of the necessary costs, all of the materials like a pump, a solar panel, hoses, and troughs,” Solís says. “Just with solar power, we can flip a switch and move water to all parts of the farm.”

Adaptations like these can help farmers build resilience to survive even the toughest times. Her methods have changed, and she thinks the times are changing to allow more women and cattle ranchers to follow suit, too.

Forging new traditions

Another reason that there aren’t more female ranchers here is that it’s traditional for boys to be invited into the trade, while girls are shunted into the roles of wife, homemaker, and child-rearer, and denied the opportunities to learn and grow a relationship with the land.

But Solís says she thinks women are making inroads, in particular through education, where more women are choosing to study agriculture at the university level.

“There are women that obtain land through inheritance [and decide to keep it] and there are women who go into debt so that they can get loans and buy land.”

But Solís says even people who have been given the opportunity to work the land face obstacles to adopting practices that can improve their production and ranching’s often fraught relationship with the environment. This is because younger family members tend to work under the older generation’s preferred model.

“There are fathers and grandfathers who still oversee their lands and don’t give opportunities or open up the land [for] their children or grandchildren to grow or create projects,” Solís says. “There are youth that have seen my model farm but always say that their grandfather or their father won’t give them the opportunity to do something like this.”

Solís has an 11-year-old son, and thinks his involvement on the farm has been very important. Though he sometimes complains about having to help, he understands that it translates to having money, even if it means working on weekends.

APASPE’s model has been reaching a wider, younger audience interested in creating change, and for Belgis Madrid, one of APASPE’s founding members, what the organization has achieved in such a short time is inspiring.

“These [silvopasture] systems are a change from the traditional farms paradigm to farms that are even more productive,” he says. “Starting with small farmers, we have managed to change the model for the landscape.”

CIPAV’s Calle says Latin America will likely experience an expansion of silvopasture, but there are two main bottlenecks. First, there’s a need for incentives that compel farmers to adopt the practice. Second, the people who train farmers need better training themselves.

“We need to achieve a deep and lasting transformation in the relation of farmers with their land, and we need the silvopastoral leaders to inspire others to multiply this change,” Calle says.

Without a robust scaling strategy, silvopasture systems might not take off, says Valentina Robiglio, a landscape ecologist with the Kenya-based World Agroforestry Centre, which supports implementation of agroforestry practices worldwide.

“We are at a very initial stage to promote integration and build a favorable context for silvopastoral systems to take off and move beyond individual success stories as the one you present,” Robligio says, referring to Solís’s system.

Despite the enormous cultural challenges and shifting weather patterns, it’s a future that Solís and the other APASPE members are willing to bet on: a chance to modify traditional cattle ranching into something that better serves the environment and those who practice it, thereby preserving that livelihood for the generations who follow.

Erin Banks Rusby is a freelance journalist covering the environment, business, and health. Her work has appeared in Earth Island Journal, East Bay Express, and Oakland Magazine.

Nisha Balaram is a documentary filmmaker and freelance journalist. Her work covers issues related to racial justice, climate change mitigation, and mental health, and has appeared in East Bay Express, Capitol Weekly, and KALW.

This report is part of Mongabay’s ongoing coverage of trends in global agroforestry, view the full series here.

How El Salvador’s Water Crisis is Fueling Migrant Caravans to the United States

Jessica Alvarenga

El Salvador’s multi-layered water crisis as seen through the eyes of my uncle, a subsistence farmer. The water crisis and the larger issue of environmental degradation in El Salvador are critical reasons why many Salvadorans are fleeing the country en mass.

The Petrochemical Industry Is Killing Another Black Community in ‘Cancer Alley’

Residents of St. James are fighting new plastics plants—but some wonder if they should leave before it’s too late.

Mara Kardas-Nelson

The sunsets from Sharon Lavigne’s home in St. James, Louisiana, are otherworldly. In the evenings, the 67-year-old can look out from her porch onto the 20 acres she inherited from her grandfather, the land bathed in orange and pink light. Once farmland, today it is mostly grass, which gives off a sweet, earthy smell as the heat leaves with the day.

Interrupting the quiet murmur of cicadas is the steady clank and hum of machinery. Tall metal tanks are visible from Lavigne’s property, with twisted pipes running between them and plumes of white smoke curling above.

St. James sits smack in the middle of Cancer Alley, a series of communities, mostly majority African American, that line the banks of the Mississippi River from New Orleans to Baton Rouge. For decades, oil, gas, chemicals, and plastics have been produced here, and for an equally long time, residents have said they’ve faced significant health issues because of the plants. St. James Parish (the equivalent of a county) has a population of 21,000 and 32 petrochemical plants—one for every 656 residents. Industry is even more concentrated in the parish’s Fifth District, where Lavigne lives, which is 86 percent black. (The parish overall is 50 percent black.) The community has 2,822 people and 12 petrochemical plants—one for every 235 residents.

Last fall, Lavigne heard that two new companies were looking to build major industrial facilities in St. James. Formosa Petrochemical, a Taiwanese company, plans to build a $9.4 billion plant in the Fifth District to produce polypropylene and other compounds used in plastic products like bottles and grocery bags. According to Formosa’s application for an air permit, the facility will become one of the state’s largest emitters of ethylene oxide and benzene, both of which are known carcinogens. In the Fourth District, directly across the river from Lavigne’s home, a Chinese company, Wanhua Chemical Group, plans to build a $1.85 billion plant to produce a different compound widely used in plastics.

Lavigne is a devout Catholic, and one evening after she heard the news, she went to her porch to pray. She already felt hemmed in by industry; the addition of other facilities struck her as an existential threat to the vitality of the town her family helped make, a town that people and businesses have been leaving slowly but consistently for decades as the petrochemical companies moved in.

“I said, ‘Dear God, do you want me to give up my land, my home?’” she recalls. Then a red bird flew into her yard, and she knew she had an answer. “He said, ‘No.’ I said, ‘What do you want me to do?’ He said, ‘Fight.’”

Taking inspiration from her late father, who was a local NAACP leader, Lavigne founded a group she called Rise St. James, with the goal of blocking the two new plants. The group faces a tough political landscape. St. James’s seven-member Parish Council green-lit Formosa’s plan a few months after Rise was created, and now the company is applying for an air permit from the state. Hundreds of public comments have been submitted in opposition. The same trajectory was expected for Wanhua until Rise pushed back. The company’s application, initially approved by the Parish Council, has now been kicked back to a planning commission, putting a kink in Wanhua’s plans.

Sharon Lavigne stands on her front porch in St. James, a community in the middle of what’s known as Cancer Alley. Lavigne founded Rise St. James after she heard that two new petrochemical plants were planned near her home. / Credit: Mara Kardas-Nelson.
Sharon Lavigne stands on her front porch in St. James, a community in the middle of what’s known as Cancer Alley. Lavigne founded Rise St. James after she heard that two new petrochemical plants were planned near her home. / Credit: Mara Kardas-Nelson.

Lavigne has support from environmental groups in New Orleans and across the country, which have helped with everything from filing lawsuits against the parish to taking her to Washington, DC, for public presentations and meetings with members of Congress. But she doesn’t have as much support as she’d like from her fellow St. James residents. On paper, there are about two dozen Rise members, but some who say they’ll go to meetings don’t show up. “Even after all these months of fighting, some people still tell me it’s a done deal,” she says.

While Lavigne is deeply committed to the land her family has lived on for generations, some of her neighbors have said they feel fed up and hopeless—and they’re seeking buyouts that could help them move to a less polluted area. Beneath her struggle to organize is a question that often goes unspoken: When a place is as polluted as St. James is, should its residents stay and fight—or make plans to leave?

Over the years, Lavigne has seen her neighbors do one of three things: get sick, die, or move away. When she was growing up, St. James had several grocery stores, a family doctor who made house calls, a few restaurants, and multiple post offices. Many of the businesses were black-owned. Many families farmed—mostly sugarcane, sometimes rice, cultivating land that was worked decades before by enslaved people.

Driving along Highway 18, which runs in a thin line beside the Mississippi, Lavigne points out house after house that is no longer occupied. There’s Burton Lane, which mainly has elderly residents and a few families, since most of the younger people have left. Freetown, a neighborhood founded by a community of former slaves in 1842, is being reduced to a single road by a steady invasion of oil tanks.

As the people left, so did the businesses. Today, the most prominent family operation is a little shack that sells sno-balls (Louisiana’s version of the snow cone) on the side of the highway. The closest grocery store is a Walmart in Donaldsonville, about 12 miles away.

Clyde Cooper, who represents the Fifth District and is one of three black members on the Parish Council, says there have been a few attempts to open stores in St. James, but the question is always “Are there enough people to support the business?” He continues, “Industry isn’t uplifting the community. It’s really tearing the community down. People are moving out of the parish, and those who still stay are hurting.”

The Fourth and Fifth districts provide the majority of the parish’s property tax revenue but haven’t reaped the rewards of the industrial facilities they host. In the 2019 budget, for example, the Fifth District has $105,100 allocated for its recreation budget, plus $10,400 for construction. The First District, meanwhile, has $600,000 allocated for improvement of its ball fields. And the Fifth District will provide even more tax revenue in the coming years, thanks to a 2014 land-use plan approved after limited public input. The plan designates the district as a “residential/future industrial” area, while keeping other, whiter parts of St. James designated strictly for residential growth.

The district has been left with a dwindling number of schools, a limited evacuation route, and only one park, which consists primarily of a parking lot, some covered picnic tables, and a small playground surrounded by views of petrochemical plants. It has no health center, which is a problem because residents say they are dealing with significant health issues because of all the industry in the area. On our drive along Highway 18, Lavigne points out the houses of those who have been diagnosed with or have died from cancer. “That family—the mother and daughter both have cancer,” she says, shaking her head. “That one, the wife died of cancer.” Lavigne’s brother, who lives down the road from her, is also a cancer survivor.

Lavigne passes out bright yellow RISE St. James flyers wherever she goes -- to church, to barbeques, to parish council meetings. As pollution forces residents out, activists are asking for an end to new petrochemical plants along Cancer Alley / Credit: Mara Kardas-Nelson
Lavigne passes out bright yellow RISE St. James flyers wherever she goes — to church, to barbeques, to parish council meetings. As pollution forces residents out, activists are asking for an end to new petrochemical plants along Cancer Alley / Credit: Mara Kardas-Nelson

The extent to which industry is responsible for these illnesses is a matter of fierce debate. Dozens of chemicals released from the area’s petrochemical facilities are known carcinogens, and in two census tracts in St. James, the cancer risk from air pollution exceeds what the Environmental Protection Agency says is the “upper limit of acceptability.” But the Louisiana Tumor Registry, a state body, has said there’s no evidence of an elevated cancer risk along the New Orleans–Baton Rouge corridor, calling Cancer Alley a misnomer.

Wilma Subra, a chemist and technical adviser for the Louisiana Environmental Action Network (LEAN) who received a MacArthur “genius” grant in 1999, has been working with the state’s industrial communities for decades; she notes that, until recently, the Tumor Registry reported data only on a parish level. That meant no distinction could be seen across towns in the same parish even if they had different exposure to emissions—which could water down the results concerning possibly elevated cancer rates. She and others advocated for that practice to change, and now the registry reports rates for each census tract.

But Subra says it’s still difficult to demonstrate increased cancer rates because most people who have insurance go outside Louisiana to receive state-of-the-art cancer care—adults to Houston, kids to Tennessee. As a result, their cancers are reported out of state, even if they’re residents of Louisiana.

There are other problems. In St. James, the Louisiana Department of Environmental Quality monitors ozone but not volatile organic compounds, the primary toxic substances released by industrial facilities. The DEQ could require companies to do fence-line monitoring to measure pollution at their sites. Despite repeated requests by residents and other environmental groups, the DEQ has required this to be done at only one plant, in a parish down the river from St. James. Data collected there shows that residents have been exposed to emissions that can reach 765 times the levels considered safe by the EPA.

While proof of causality may be hard to come by, the perception that poor health is linked to the petrochemical industry is enough to shake residents. It’s a primary topic of conversation for Lavigne and her family and neighbors: This person had a stroke, that person has respiratory problems, someone else’s neighbor now has throat cancer. The threat of ill health has pushed some of Lavigne’s children and grandchildren out of the parish. “People with young kids don’t want to live here anymore,” she says. “They’re worried they’ll get sick.” The two grandchildren who have stayed often have trouble breathing St. James’s air.

On Sundays, Lavigne tucks a stack of yellow Rise St. James flyers into her gold choir robe. She hands them out before services at the 200-year-old St. James Catholic Church, where she’s worshipped since she was a child, sharing information about Wanhua and Formosa and encouraging neighbors to lobby the Parish Council in opposition to the companies’ plans.

After a service in March, she takes the flyers to a backyard barbecue, where a man is frying chicken in a metal vat. Oil tanks sit behind him, just beyond the house’s fence. The chef, Kirk Carey, has worked in the petrochemical industry for years, at a plant outside the parish. His wife works at a plant, too. Industry jobs can easily pay six figures, especially those that are more technical, like engineering positions. But “no one gets jobs in the parish,” Carey says. “Everybody’s got to go outside to get work.”

Nearly a dozen residents across St. James echo the complaint about jobs, insisting that most of them, especially the well-paid ones, go to outsiders—“because this parish is a club,” says Carey’s friend Gregory Clayton. Rubbing a finger along his arm, he continues, “You get in by the color of your skin. It’s been like that for a long time.” (Employee information is protected by law, and in Louisiana, a right-to-work state, there are few unions that could verify the racial composition of the workforce.)

Louisiana is the second largest petrochemical producer in the country, after Texas, thanks in part to its natural resources and proximity to the Gulf of Mexico—and also to its friendly corporate climate. Since the 1930s, Louisiana has allowed industry to skirt local taxes through the Industrial Tax Exemption Program. While the state’s Democratic governor, John Bel Edwards, has reformed the program so that local governments can now impose some property taxes on petrochemical facilities if they wish, the Formosa and Wanhua plants were proposed before that change was made, so tax exemptions will be grandfathered in. “St. James Parish currently has almost exactly as much industrial property exempted as the entire state of Texas—$2.1 billion,” says Broderick Bagert, an organizer with Together Louisiana, a statewide network of religious and civic organizations. “After the Formosa and Wanhua deals, St. James will be giving away at least six times more in property tax subsidies than all of Texas.”

Nor are the plants likely to receive significant regulatory oversight from the DEQ, which is responsible for enforcing state rules as well as the regulations written by the EPA. Andrew Jacoby, an environmental lawyer based in New Orleans, says that the DEQ lacks adequate funding from the state, barely flexes its regulatory muscle, and has an ingrained pro-industry mentality. “We have regulatory capture that’s almost absolute,” he says. “Every level of government is pro-industry—which isn’t necessarily bad, but it is a problem if communities’ interests are compromised. And government’s actions suggest a total lack of interest in the health of these communities.”

Several St. James residents, including Lavigne, say they’ve called the DEQ to register complaints about industrial emissions multiple times, only to see a department representative several days later or not at all. A 2011 EPA study noted that “Louisiana has the lowest enforcement activity levels” in its region, which includes Arkansas, New Mexico, Oklahoma, and Texas. Among other things, the study cited “a culture in which the state agency is expected to protect industry.”

Local government could put up significant restrictions on new industry or at least require stronger environmental protections. But several of St. James’s Parish Council members, including the president, are current or former employees of the petrochemical industry. “As the government, our first priority should be the safety and protection of our citizens,” says the Fifth District’s Cooper. “But I don’t think that’s first and foremost the interest of this council. There’s just this mindset of more, more, more.”

Under an awning at the barbecue, Lavigne chats with a woman while continuing to hand out flyers. “Come out tomorrow night. There’s a council meeting,” Lavigne says. The woman responds that she’s heard about the new plants, it’s awful, and she’d like to attend—but she has other plans.

Sharon Lavigne and her brother Milton Cayette have attended St. James Catholic Church since they were children. Both still sing in the church choir / Credit: Mara Kardas-Nelson
Sharon Lavigne and her brother Milton Cayette have attended St. James Catholic Church since they were children. Both still sing in the church choir / Credit: Mara Kardas-Nelson 

A few days later, I meet Eve Butler in a Baptist church in the Fifth District. She is waiting for me inside, taking shelter from a midday rain. She tries to avoid such showers, she explains, because “in 2016, I was caught in the rain, and my face peeled pink from the chemicals. It was like a really bad sunburn.” She has been especially sensitive about health issues since being diagnosed with breast cancer in 2017. She’s in remission now, but the treatment made her too sick to work.

Like Lavigne’s, Butler’s family has lived in St. James for several generations. She moved back to the area in 2008 after serving in the military and working in towns across the country and now lives with her mother and sister on Freetown Lane, surrounded by industrial facilities.

Several years ago, Butler joined Humanitarian Enterprise of Loving People (HELP), a group whose original aim was to restart local businesses. (Lavigne is also a member.) The focus quickly changed to environmental concerns. “Children are having asthma, kids are having cancer, young women are having miscarriages,” Butler summarizes. “House foundations are shifting with all the construction.”

While Lavigne is fighting to stay in the parish, Butler is now trying to leave it. She decided it was time to go after the council announced its new land-use plan, which designates part of the Fifth District as industrial. “My mother’s family were slaves, and my family has been in Freetown for at least 100 years,” she says. “That’s a long time for us to live here and give it up. But I don’t think it’s going to improve. There’s just too much industry, too many chemicals. Formosa will be 1.25 miles from the elementary school. Then there’s South Louisiana Methanol, NuStar, LOCAP, Plains, and YCI,” she continues, ticking off the neighboring facilities. “There’s no buffer zone between us and the plants. We are the buffer zone.”

Butler has worked with LEAN and with other residents advocating for a community-wide buyout. That would, at least in theory, allow neighbors to move with neighbors, family members with family members, keeping together some of the bonds that have formed over a century.

Eve Butler is a St. James resident trying to secure a buy-out to leave the area. “There’s just too much industry, too many chemicals,” she says / Credit: Mara Kardas-Nelson
Eve Butler is a St. James resident trying to secure a buy-out to leave the area. “There’s just too much industry, too many chemicals,” she says / Credit: Mara Kardas-Nelson

In a statement submitted to the St. James Planning Commission in February, LEAN notes that some residents, including Butler, “have repeatedly requested the opportunity to relocate due to the development that has surrounded their community that they believe impacts their health and safety on a daily basis…. The Parish must [provide] relief through voluntary relocation and/or other considerations as dictated by those impacted populations.” Michael Orr, the communications director for LEAN, points out that even before the Wanhua and Formosa plants were proposed, “some residents felt as though their community was so degraded that they wanted to leave, to be bought out.”

In the absence of a coordinated strategy, residents eager to leave have unwittingly engaged in a race to the bottom. As more industry has moved in and more residents have left, property values have tanked. Across the parish, the median value of a home is $136,400, $26,000 less than the median value across the state and $81,200 less than the median value nationally. Orr estimates that the houses in Freetown and Burton Lane, which are closest to the industrial plants, are worth much less than the parish average. “Even if you paid two or three times what they’re worth, [the homeowners] still can’t get enough money to buy a house anywhere else.” (LEAN advocates for the homes to be bought at or above the state median.)

Residents in some of Louisiana’s most polluted towns have obtained buyouts. In 2011, people in Mossville were offered a voluntary relocation package from the petrochemical company SASOL, which was expanding a chemical plant. Many in the environmental movement have criticized the buyout, which was taken by nearly every community member, suggesting that those who didn’t want to go faced peer pressure and that residents didn’t receive adequate compensation. Orr counters that residents received 160 percent of their home’s value, plus moving expenses.

The criticism hasn’t been only about money. Stacey Ryan, one of the few Mossville residents who has stayed, explained his decision in a 2015 interview with the Sierra Club as a commitment to the history of a community founded by enslaved people. “I have not been offered a fair price for my property, and I refuse to give it away,” he said. “I am not someone who seeks the limelight, but I’m aware of my heritage and the ways in which industry can erase history.” Buyouts in other parts of the country, particularly by the fracking industry, have been criticized for being, in essence, a relatively cheap and easy way to keep communities quiet.

Orr makes it clear that LEAN supports whatever the community members decide, whether it’s fighting new plants or obtaining a buyout. But he wonders to what extent the renewed effort to stay is being influenced by outside groups—including the Sierra Club, 350 New Orleans, and several religious organizations—that see St. James as part of a larger struggle against petrochemical development. In June many of these groups marched alongside Rise St. James to Baton Rouge in order to demand, among other things, that no new petrochemical plants be approved in Mississippi River parishes.

Regardless, the fact that the residents of St. James now face a devastating choice is not the fault of environmentalists: It’s the result of decades of industrial pollution and a lack of support from government. Scott Eustis, the community science director for Healthy Gulf, a New Orleans–based organization focused on Louisiana’s wetlands, describes the fight against the new plants in St. James as “a climate issue, a racism issue, a Mississippi River pollution issue, a waste issue. If people care about the Green New Deal, about green jobs, about environmental issues, then they should care about Sharon [Lavigne].” He isn’t against buyouts, but he argues that instilling hope through more organizing could rally people to stay in the parish. “I think if we had more resources, more support, we could get people talking about these things together and push back together.”

It’s difficult to tell what community members really want. Butler notes that many people say they want to leave in private but then clam up in public, reluctant to offer what could be seen as criticism of an industry that promises jobs. Lavigne points out that people can change their tune depending on who they’re talking to. But she says that since Rise St. James started, more people have told her they want to stay and victories like the one that saw the Wanhua application kicked back to the planning commission show their efforts may be paying off. “Even people in industry, they come up to me and say, ‘What you’re doing is right, because the plants are killing us.’” Lavigne says residents have been advised to stay by others who left and are struggling to make it in new, more expensive places. “They say it’s just not worth it.”

For a long time, Lavigne’s brother, Milton Cayette, was among the residents who felt torn. Retired after more than 30 years at Shell Oil, he goes to as many Parish Council meetings as possible, where he and Lavigne wear matching “Rise St. James” T-shirts.

“I’m against Formosa. I’m against all the plants coming in. We hope and pray that that won’t happen,” Cayette says. But his children, who have left St. James, are worried about his health. He says that even if the Formosa and Wanhua facilities are not approved, there will be other plants—and he’s decided it’s time to leave. “I see the writing on the wall. I think this is a losing battle. It’s just going to get worse. I’d sell in a heartbeat.”

Lavigne understands the impulse. “Everyone wishes me good luck, because they say they would be so happy if they could stay. But if the plants go through, they’re ready to go,” she says. She hasn’t yet thought about what she’ll do if Formosa and Wanhua are approved. If she moves, she’ll be cut off from the church that she and Cayette have attended since they were children—a prospect that she finds devastating. “There’s no way I’m leaving that church,” she says. “That is my home.”

This story was originally published in The Nation on August 26, 2019.

Mara Kardas-Nelson is a freelance journalist based in Berkeley, California. She reports on health, the environment, and international politics and development. Her work has appeared in The Guardian, NPR, and other publications. You can read some of it at https://marakardasnelson.com.

In India’s Sundarbans, communities shrink as their island sinks

Erin Stone, Lisa Hornak

Ashida on an embankment. Still image from “Losing Ground,” a film about Mousuni Island by Lisa Hornak and Erin Stone.
Ashida on an embankment. Still image from “Losing Ground,” a film about Mousuni Island by Lisa Hornak and Erin Stone. 

MOUSUNI ISLAND, West Bengal – Ashida watched the rising tide fearfully. Lifting her baby son onto her hip, the 24-year-old took a break from her morning duties and stood outside her house in the village of Baliara on a small island in the Indian Sundarbans, one of the most vulnerable areas to climate change in the world. It was the first day of the full moon, and the seawater slowly spilled over cultivation barriers that 15 years ago surrounded small farms. The water gradually filled the muddy fields, lifting fishing boats from where they rested on the ground. By 6:30 a.m. the new ponds were like a mosaic of mirrors reflecting the sky.

Twice a month, the tide comes in ripples, swelling the rivers that characterize the Sundarbans, a region of about 200 low-lying archipelagos in the Bay of Bengal and the largest delta in the world. Straddling India and Bangladesh, the Sundarbans is most known, and studied, for its extraordinary biodiversity: mangrove forests, Bengal tigers, and hundreds of other wildlife species. But global heating has caused the islands to become known for something else: climate refugees. Despite the fact that this delta region is home to some 7.5 million people, the challenges the people of the Sundarbans face have received little attention in global climate talks.

Ashida sits outside her home in the village of Baliara, on the sea-facing side of Mousuni Island. The village is in one of the areas of the island most devastated by rising sea levels. Credit: Erin Stone.
Ashida sits outside her home in the village of Baliara, on the sea-facing side of Mousuni Island. The village is in one of the areas of the island most devastated by rising sea levels. Credit: Erin Stone.

Mousuni Island, far from the mangrove preserve, on the western edge of the delta, is one of the most at-risk islands in the region and a kind of timeline of the past to the future of the Sundarbans. The northern part of the island maintains a remnant of what was once a relatively predictable subsistence lifestyle: a patchwork of farmland surrounding mud and brick homes, threaded together by thin motorcycle pathways. On the sea-facing side of the island, where Ashida lives, the roads turn to brick, crumbling into the mud of the beach. This part looks to be going the way of Ghoramara, an island near Mousuni that lost three-quarters of its original size, leaving tens of thousands of people either scrambling to move or hoping for a miracle.

Mousuni and the rest of the Sundarbans are experiencing the worst effects of climate change: increasingly violent storms and coastal erosion that prompt devastating flooding. Ocean water has contaminated much of the island’s meager freshwater supply and left 70 percent of Mousuni’s land too salty to farm, destroying the majority of its inhabitants’ livelihoods. Increasingly erratic rainfall has furthered the destruction of agriculture there. For many, the only option is to leave. According to local government figures, half of the men on Mousuni now leave home for at least six months a year, traveling by foot, boat and bus to cities like Kolkata for work — an increasing trend in places heavily impacted by the climate crisis.

A hungry river

“The river was far away in our time,” said 71-year-old Lufti, Ashida’s mother-in-law, gesturing toward the water just a few hundred yards from her house. “Gradually mosques, graveyards, houses, everything was drowned into the river. It did not happen overnight, it decayed little by little.” There is no single natural disaster that locals can point to as the reason everything changed. They each have their own timelines etched into their minds: the first house that was destroyed by a storm, the hectares of land submerged by flooding each month, the years the monsoon came too late and fell too heavily, killing their crops.

Lufti, 71, is Ashida’s mother-in-law. Her son, Ramzan, works as a tailor in Kolkata because they can no longer farm their land. Still image from the film, “Losing Ground.”
Lufti, 71, is Ashida’s mother-in-law. Her son, Ramzan, works as a tailor in Kolkata because they can no longer farm their land. Still image from the film, “Losing Ground.”

The Sundarbans was never an easy place to live. Freshwater only came with the monsoons, and the mangrove forest that once covered the entire delta all the way to Kolkata teemed with wildlife, including some species that could be deadly to humans. For centuries, only the indigenous Adivasi people lived there. In the mid-18th century, the British East India Company guided its ships down rivers lined by ancient mangroves and established Kolkata as the main port of the Indian subcontinent. The city remains India’s oldest operating and sole major riverine port. Soon after establishing Kolkata as the colonial capital, the British set up a tract system to encourage people to settle in the Sundarbans, cut down the mangroves for timber, and clear the land for farming. The delta would be the colony’s food bank; it is still a major producer to this day. Only small earthen embankments were needed in some parts of the islands to protect farmland from the saltwater. Colonization would prove to be the first attack on the Sundarbans’ defenses; mangroves are a natural barrier against cyclones, and their deep-reaching, tangled roots protect against erosion.

Adapting to global heating in the Sundarbans has been happening incrementally for decades. In 1996, the island of Lohachara became the first populated island in the world to be engulfed by the sea, and its inhabitants the world’s first climate refugees. The Indian government relocated the island’s people to one of the largest islands in the Sundarbans, Sagar, which neighbors Mousuni. It would take a devastating storm nearly 15 years later for the Indian and Bangladeshi governments to publicly state that climate change was a major force impacting the lives of people in the Sundarbans. In 2009, Cyclone Aila killed close to 340 people across India and Bangladesh and left more than a million homeless. Aila was a major turning point in the lives of many locals, but it was not the start of their troubles and the river’s expanding appetite.

Geeta regards the rising sea from an embankment. Still image from “Losing Ground.”
Geeta regards the rising sea from an embankment. Still image from “Losing Ground.”

Five years before Aila hit, Ashida’s husband, Ramzan, now 26, lost his childhood home to a flood. “I was in school, and when I came back I saw that the western part of our house had collapsed. My mother was running, she was very worried,” Ramzan said as he sat in the small brick room where he now eats, sleeps and works, often more than 16 hours per day, in an industrial section of Kolkata, about 110 kilometers (70 miles) from Mousuni. During that flood, the family’s livestock drowned. Their farmland and freshwater ponds were saturated with seawater, killing their fish. “We couldn’t cultivate anymore, the saltwater kept coming,” he said. A year later, at the age of just 13, Ramzan left for Kolkata to work as a tailor to support his family. “When I came here, I felt so homesick. I used to cry at night.”

Outside, the noises of the city are ceaseless — a far cry from the quiet beach where he spent his early years. The house Ramzan grew up in was surrounded by healthy farms and bright-green rice paddy fields, he recalled. Palm trees swayed pleasantly on the sandy beaches.  “Our country was so nice, it wasn’t this devastated before,” he said. He misses his mother, his two young children and Ashida; they talk on the phone at least five times a day. “He makes me laugh,” Ashida said. “He always worries about me more than himself.” Ramzan would much rather spend his days farming and with his family. “If we want to live together,” Ramzan said soberly, “we have to leave that land.”

Since Aila, the West Bengal government has mostly focused on infrastructure: repairing roads, building flood shelters, and constructing embankments. It also started a subsidized rice program to help ease food insecurity. A.R. Bardhan, the principal secretary in the state government’s Sundarbans affairs office in Kolkata, said the schools and hospitals are thriving, and that hunger is not a problem. “There is no shortage,” he said. The reality on the ground is much different. “Everyone has left,” said Adalat Khan, Mousuni’s local government leader. “People don’t have any source of food. To earn bread, they have to migrate to Kolkata or Kerala. Education has taken a back seat in this area. Times have changed. The government gives us false hopes.”

The government’s denial has spanned more than three decades of warning signs. Twenty years before Aila, and eight years before Lohachara’s submersion, the river took 46-year-old Geeta Maiti’s house, the house that the grandfather of her husband, Shugda, had built and their family had farmed for three generations. Over the years, the river started to widen, inching closer to their home. The rain patterns grew stronger. Then a storm came, and it was all gone.

At that time, the West Bengal government asked Shugda and other farmers whose homes and fields had been flooded to surrender their land to build an embankment for protection against future floods. They promised compensation for their contribution to the safety of the island. “We held a meeting among ourselves and decided to sacrifice our lands for the sake of survival,” Shugda said. The government never compensated them. The West Bengal government maintains that it gives “immediate compensation” when a person loses their home due to a climate-related disaster.

Ramzan, 26, sits in the room where he works, eats and sleeps in Kolkata. Since his family’s farm on Mousuni was destroyed by a flood, he has worked as a tailor in the city. Still image from “Losing Ground.”
Ramzan, 26, sits in the room where he works, eats and sleeps in Kolkata. Since his family’s farm on Mousuni was destroyed by a flood, he has worked as a tailor in the city. Still image from “Losing Ground.”

Geeta and her family now live in Kusumtula, the neighboring village to Ashida’s. At 10 years old, she was married to Shugda. She came from a nearby island and had been impressed by her new home: the farm yielded a healthy bounty of vegetables and fruit, including watermelon, the sweetness of which West Bengal was once famous for. They often had a surplus of food, selling it for a profit. As the years went by, more services came to Mousuni: a hospital with university-trained doctors and schools that helped the literacy rate climb higher than the national average.

Now, watermelon no longer grows. Teachers no longer want to work in the schools, and doctors don’t want to work in the hospitals. To eke out a living on the land, farmers use more fertilizers and pesticides, which has led to dire health consequences. “Nothing has the taste it used to have in my father’s, my grandfather’s time,” Geeta said. “The younger ones, elder ones, everybody feels sick. We are eating for the sake of satisfying hunger only.”

Ashida’s house. Still image from “Losing Ground.”
Ashida’s house. Still image from “Losing Ground.”

Without drastic international action to lower carbon emissions fueling the climate crisis, hundreds of thousands of Sundarbans residents will likely be forced to migrate inland. Many can’t afford to leave and most don’t want to, the best alternative being dirty and cramped slums in India’s major cities. The islanders want the government to build a large embankment that encircles the island. “[Mousuni] could survive 20 years more,” Shugda said.

The West Bengal government has built several walls inconsistently in different parts of the island over the past two decades, but they were destroyed by Aila in 2009. Bardhan said that “all of the embankments have been restored,” yet almost a decade later, the concrete barrier that once provided some protection for the village where Ashida lives, remains in pieces across the shore. The embankment in Kusumtula, where Geeta lives, is still being built. Even so, an embankment is no solution. A 2014 report by the West Bengal government itself and the World Bank stated that “the embankment system initially constructed to protect the inhabitants has itself become a liability: it provides a false sense of security while being increasingly prone to erosion and failure” and characterized the quality of life for Sundarbans residents as “dismal.”

Sugata Hazra, director of the School of Oceanographic Studies at Jadavpur University in Kolkata, said earthen dikes combined with mangrove restoration would be a better strategy. In that same 2014 report, the government outlined such actions, yet “these efforts are isolated and patchy,” Hazra said. “This needs to be upscaled because the magnitude of the problem is very big and cannot be tackled by spontaneous action.” Most of the locals are aware of this. “If we don’t work for the betterment of our environment,” said Khan, “Then in the next five to 10 years, Mousuni Island will disappear.”

Baliara. Still image from “Losing Ground.”
Baliara. Still image from “Losing Ground.”

The steady rise of the sea is a difficult thing for governments to make policy around. It’s much easier to take action in the aftermath of a hurricane, a cyclone, or a wildfire than in response to the subtler manifestations of the climate crisis. But the slow death of the Sundarbans will impact the whole world. Still home to the globe’s largest mangrove forest, conservation of the Sundarbans is an effective natural method of combating global warming because mangroves absorb, rather than emit, carbon dioxide, creating a carbon sink. “We have passports, we have political borders, but there’s no atmospheric border,” Hazra said. “It is not a national issue anymore. It is transnational.”

Sometimes, even in Mousuni, climate change seems to be at arm’s length. The palm trees sway calmly in the wind, dogs lounge lazily along the roads, rice paddies ripple with a soothing whisper. Children laugh and play. Still, these moments have an edge. Particularly strong gusts of wind smash palm fronds together loudly and violently, recalling the tenor of a cyclone. Cows’ ribs and hip bones jut out, and at times the animals lap up each other’s urine as they relieve themselves — a reminder of the dwindling water supply. The children are too small for their ages, a sign of food insecurity. On the beach where Ashida lives, the palm trees are missing their heads and are bent sideways from the constant wind. The dogs bark and snarl, desperately pawing at the fishing nets laid out at the edge of the water.

That first day of the full moon, Ashida’s baby son spilled kerosene onto the 20 kilograms of rice that was supposed to hold the family over through the high tide. Now Ashida has to rush to the market to buy more before the water gets too high for them to leave their house. On the third day of the tide, the sea will have risen to the height of the mud mesa their house is on, spilling onto the floor so they will have to move the stove onto the bed they all share in order to make anything to eat. Every month, Ashida notices the tides get higher. “In the condition of this land, what can I plan for my future?” she said. “A new house will get washed away eventually.”

Watch the film this report is based on, “Losing Ground.” It provides an intimate glimpse into the lives of people living on Mousuni Island, where rising sea levels and increasingly erratic weather patterns caused by global warming have forced most men, formerly farmers, to migrate to cities for work in order to support their families. Co-produced and co-directed by journalists Lisa Hornak and Erin Stone, the film debuted at Atlantic Selects in mid-June 2019. Read a write up of the film by Atlantic Selects here.

Road construction brings back concerns about threat to Serengeti

Carlos Mureithi

Every year, in one of the most genuinely spectacular events on earth, more than 1.5 million wildebeest, zebras, gazelles and other grazers make a 1,900-km journey through the Serengeti National Park in Tanzania to the Maasai Mara National Reserve in Kenya and back. Tourists from all over the world flock to see the animals attempting the dangerous crossing of the crocodile-infested Mara River in this splendid spectacle that is described as one of the “Seven New Wonders of the Natural World”.

Today, this glorious annual event is under threat from a tarmac road whose construction has been in the pipeline for eight years and has now started, albeit with an alteration. But wildlife activists and conservationists say the road will increase vehicle traffic through the part of the Mara-Serengeti ecosystem that is the path for the wildebeest migration in the Serengeti, a situation that could negatively impact the world-famous migration.

Eight years ago, the Tanzania said it would construct a tarmac road from Mto wa Mbu, a village in the Arusha Region, to Musoma city, including a paved highway that would bisect the Serengeti, the aim being to connect the northern part of the country. Wildlife activists and conservationists opposed it and in 2014, the East African Court of Justice in Arusha city ruled against the construction of the road through the park. But the general idea to connect the northern part of the country did not go away.

Last December, the government started construction work in Waso in Loliondo of a tarmac road from Arusha to Musoma. This raised concern from activists that the road would cut through the Serengeti. However, the regional manager for the Tanzania National Roads Agency (TANROADS) in Arusha, Johnny Kalupale, has said the road will not bisect the park but will instead end some distances from the park on its eastern and western parts. But activists and conservationists have said even if the road does not go through the park, its construction on either side would bring about a threat to the movement of animals in the Serengeti and to the Mara-Serengeti ecosystem at large, which it shares with the Maasai Mara National Reserve. And insight from drivers who transport goods and people from Arusha to Musoma supports this view.

On a chilly morning in March, an overloaded bus forces its way to Loliondo from Mto wa Mbu through a dusty and bumpy dirt track. The bus left Arusha at 6 a.m. and is expected to get to Loliondo by 5 p.m. – 11 hours for a journey of some 500km. The poor state of this part of the road from Arusha and Musoma causes the journey to either of these important cities to be an agonising grind.

Between the cities is the Serengeti, a UNESCO World Heritage Site just 50km past Loliondo to the west.

The dusty and bumpy dirt track is a way to Arusha and Musoma in the opposite directions. Currently, there are different routes that drivers use to get to Musoma from Arusha. One is by going through the Ngorongoro Conservation Area then the southern part of the Serengeti. This route is 509km long and is the most popular for buses and trucks. Another is going through Loliondo and through a dirt track in the Serengeti on the northern part of the park. This is 566km long. As it stands, only about 100km of each of these routes is paved. A third route is by avoiding the conservation areas completely by going south then north to Musoma, again on a mostly unpaved track. This route is more than 600km long.

At the moment, most vehicles going to Musoma from Arusha pass through the Ngorongoro Conservation Area and the southern part of the Serengeti, both mostly unpaved parts. This is a total distance of 509km and effectively shorter compared to the 566km for the route through Loliondo. However, drivers and passengers have to pay fees for entering both the Ngorongoro Conservation Area and the Serengeti.

According to TANROADS regional manager Johnny Kalupale, the road construction, which has started in Waso, is the first of four stages of the agency’s construction of the Arusha-Musoma tarmac road to the eastern side of the park, which is the Arusha Region.

Speaking in his office at the TANROADS headquarters in Arusha, the roads manager said this stage entails tarmacking 49km from Waso to Sale. The entire project on the eastern side from Waso to Mto wa Mbu will entail tarmacking 217km of the road. The construction is being done by a contractor, the Chinese company China Wu Yi. From Waso to the eastern border of the Serengeti, there will be a distance of about 50km left. This Kalupale said TANROADS will convert from a dirt track to a gravel road.

TANROADS Regional Manager for Arusha, Johnny Kalupale, in his office
TANROADS Regional Manager for Arusha, Johnny Kalupale, in his office

This story shows the tension that arises when the need for conservation of a national resource of great international significance is put up against the genuine needs of people who live close to it – people who want to do something as simple as travel without breaking a bone.

Wildlife activists and conservationists have expressed concern over the construction of the tarmac roads on either side of the Serengeti.

Dagmar Andres-Brümmer, the head of communications at the Frankfurt Zoological Society, a Germany-based conservation organisation that started doing work in the Mara-Serengeti ecosystem in the 1950s, said since the section inside the park will remain a dirt track, the current construction has no direct threat to the Serengeti.

However, she explained in an email, “the improvements on either side of the Park will lead to increased traffic across the critical part of the ecosystem which will eventually lead to the introduction of invasive species due to heavy trucks but also growth of population in Loliondo due to immigration”. The Loliondo route currently has very little traffic because of its bad state.

“These things need to be monitored very closely in the next decades to assess their threat to the Serengeti Ecosystem,” she said.

The part of the ecosystem that Andres-Brümmer described is the northern part of the Serengeti near Loliondo that is the path of the annual wildebeest migration, the Frankfurt Zoological Society explained in a press release in 2010 when the debate to construct the road through the park was ongoing.

“The northern parts of the Serengeti and the adjacent Masai Mara are critical for the wildebeest and zebra migration during the dry season, as it is the only permanent year-round water source for these herds,” the Frankfurt Zoological Society further said.

Bus and truck drivers who ply the Arusha-Musoma route say the new road through Loliondo and effectively through the dirt track inside the Serengeti in this part that the Frankfurt Zoological Society says is critical would attract them because of the tarmacking of the most part of the way, which they are optimistic would give them a smooth ride. In addition, they would only have to pay park fees once since they would only pass through the Serengeti and not through the Ngorongoro Conservation Area too as they do now when using their current best route.

Evarist Kessy is a truck driver who transports goods to the Serengeti and Mugumu about twice a week.

“I do not go to the Serengeti directly (using the Loliondo route), but if that road is built and it becomes good, that will be good,” he said in Arusha. “So let them repair the road.

Ramadhan Musa, a 17-year veteran of driving buses from Arusha to Musoma through the Ngorongoro Conservation Area and Serengeti National Park, said the Loliondo track is dusty and very difficult to drive on.

“(I will use the road) God willing if we will still be alive and we will not have died, because everything is God’s will,” Musa said on phone.

Kalupale said the government has to build the roads because this is a promise that Chama Cha Mapinduzi, the ruling political party, made to voters in election campaigns in 2005. The other reason is to make it easy for local residents to get to and access services by road at the Ngorongoro District headquarters, which is situated in Loliondo.

Dave Blanton is the co-founder of the nonprofit Serengeti Watch, which aims to protect the Mara-Serengeti ecosystem and funded the lawsuit at the East African Court of Justice that stopped the construction of the tarmac road through the park. He said in an email that although the organisation understands the need for local communities to be better connected to government services, there will be increasing pressure to upgrade then pave the dirt track that exists inside the park as commerce grows to connect communities on both sides with a highway.

The Tanzania National Parks Authority, the body responsible for managing the country’s national parks, did not respond to our questions about whether it is anticipating the said threat to the Mara-Serengeti ecosystem and what measures it would take to address it.

Germany’s Federal Ministry of Economic Cooperation and Development said in an email the German government has now allocated funds for an in-depth study on two bypass routes.

Could Syrian wheat growing in Italy solve farmers’ climate woes?

Lorin Eleni Gill, Sarah Cahlan

Italian plant geneticist Salvatore Ceccarelli spent decades in Syria studying ways to engineer seeds to suit dry climates. When he decided to take a mixture of wheat grains he’d cultivated home to Italy, not only did he and local farmers have to navigate legal setbacks, but they also had to wait and see how the grains would adapt to Italian soil. Follow Ceccarelli as he explores an organic farming movement that critics view as disruptive to modern agricultural practices. While evolutionary plant breeding could prove useful to small farmers around the world in the face of a warming climate, will the masses be willing to adopt it?

Living with Day Zero

Susie Neilson, Bo Kovitz

The crowd noise dims as the skinny man strums his guitar, with closed eyes and a wide, beatific smile.

For a brief moment in the gathering crowd, all the day’s worries disappear, even though he’s singing about the End of the World:

Why do the birds go on singing?

Why do the stars glow above?

Don’t they know it’s The End of the World

It ended when I lost your love.

Several meters away, a trio of young Capetonians stand and watch the man. They share his eyes, his pointed chin. As they watch him performing in the square, the woman in the middle beams. “We’re family,” she mouths.

This is Faldielah Fakeh, a 36-year-old professional and single mother. She lives with her father in Sea Winds, a lower-income neighborhood whose average household consumes 7 kl/month, or about 62 gallons a day. In contrast, Americans use about 90 gallons of water per day each.

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At home, the Fakehs are feeling the crisis in almost every room. Faldielah’s kitchen tap spouts a trickle of water so thin it can take minutes to fill up a large glass. Water pressure in the shower is good, but it takes ten minutes to reach a tolerable temperature, depleting her household of their tiny tariff-free allotment. She keeps a bucket to catch as much as she can.

The Fakehs have felt the water crisis longer than families in other households, because the rising costs affected them earlier. Last year, a pipe burst outside of their home. It took Fakeh’s father several days to notice the underground pipe had burst; he alerted local authorities, but it took them several weeks to come out and fix the pipe.

Soon after, to their surprise, the family received a water bill of 15,000 rand [around $1,300 USD].

“How am I gonna pay that?” he says. “I’m a pensioner. I make 1500 rand [$125 USD] per month.”

As bad as the restrictions have gotten, the Fakehs still have taps in their home. Before she moved back in with her father, Fakeh spent four years in an informal settlement. The current crisis has made her reflect on that time.

“What’s interesting is that in the informal settlements, people haven’t really felt these effects,” she says. That’s because most settlement residents get their water from several taps that supply dozens of households at a time.

“How am I gonna pay that? I’m a pensioner. I make 1500 Rand per month.”

For them, the consequences of a potential Day Zero—which, if reached, would require Capetonians to travel to “collection points” for an allotted 25 liters per day—are far less dramatic than for wealthier citizens, most of whom had never collected water before the draconian 50 liter limits pushed many towards collection sites. Whether the taps in others’ homes are turned on or off, they will have to queue…

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Cross currents: Mega-dams and micro-hydro offer two different futures for rural Borneo

Kenneth Gotlieb

ULU PAPAR VALLEY, Malaysia — A gentle afternoon drizzle provides some relief from the tropical heat as six men from the village of Longkogungan dig a narrow, snaking channel that represents one of their two possible futures.

The canal they’re building will carry water from the village’s new micro-hydropower electrical system, a cooperative effort to manage the area’s resources and retain the local population. “Like birds, they fly, but they return home,” Gosibin Lodukin says of his children and grandchildren, whom he hopes will come back from the nearby big city to Longkogungan.

However, Lodukin and all residents of the Ulu Papar Valley will need to leave their villages if construction of the much larger Kaiduan Dam downstream proceeds and submerges their homes, rice fields and forests.  “No under any circumstance” is the response of Irene Kodoyou, who leads the effort to fight any plan for a dam and resettlement. Kodoyou traces seven generations of her family back in Ulu Papar. She worries that leaving the valley would mean a loss of identity for future generations.

The collective efforts at local control by Ulu Papar residents are competing with urban interests seeking a new water source for the growing population of the nearby Kota Kinabalu area. The outcome will determine the future course of the Papar River and the lives of the people dependent on it.

Alternative futures through infrastructure in Ulu Papar

As the hornbill flies, Longkogungan is less than 20 miles from the center of Kota Kinabalu, where minarets and modern office buildings dot the sky. The bustling capital city is home to one fifth of the 3.5 million residents of the Malaysian state of Sabah. Despite being close geographically, Longkogungan is still a full day’s journey from Kota Kinabalu via several hours of driving on a winding muddy road and a three-hour hike up the Papar River.

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The valley of Ulu Papar, literally “headwaters of the Papar,” supports five villages of the indigenous Kadazandusun ethnic group. Villagers subsist as they have for generations by hunting the local boar, bats, and macaques, fishing the Papar River, collecting wild ferns and vegetables, and growing rice in small fields that are slashed and burned from the thick rainforest.

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Gosibin Lodukin, who heads Longkogungan’s village development committee, is on a mission: to coax the village residents who have migrated to the city to return. To do that, he has two infrastructure priorities: extend the muddy road all the way upstream to enable villagers to sell extra meat and produce in the city, and build a micro-hydropower system to generate electricity that will make village life more appealing.  —

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Climate Change is Making it Harder to Grow Rice

Malaysian farmers are watching changing weather patterns threaten their staple crops, and switching to other crops might be the only answer.

Sawsan Morrar

When Abdulhamid bin Saad, 68, reminisced over the 50 years he’s worked the rice paddies, he had no problem remembering what farming was like before using the new technologies available today. But Saad could not explain why the weather feels warmer these days, or why rainfall seems to occur less frequently. “I’m just a farmer,” he told me.

Saad might not fully grasp why the changes are occurring, but the new generation of farmers in Malaysia are already experiencing what rising temperatures does to their paddy fields. Shafrizal bin Abdulhamid, Saad’s son, said that while this year’s rain came surprisingly early, the stresses over climate change are mounting, threatening their crop and their livelihoods.

These shifts in weather patterns are spurring what once had seemed unimaginable: A reconsideration of rice as the central food in Malaysia’s diet. While domestic consumption is about 2.8 million tons this year, the average local rice yield was 30 to 50 percent lower than its potential, according to Malaysian research. Local researchers are now looking towards more climate-adaptive foods, imagining a way to move forward with climate change in mind.

Abdulhamid at his farm. Image: Sawsan Morrar
Abdulhamid at his farm. Image: Sawsan Morrar

And it’s poised to become worse. The world is expected to warm by an additional three degrees Celsius by 2050. While a warmer climate may affect rain and irrigation, other changes are not as apparent. As temperature rises and carbon dioxide levels are elevated, the nutritional content in crops begins to decrease due to the changes. This means less food, and less profit for farmers.  

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Rural communities in Thailand conserve vulnerable fisheries

Jacob Shea

In Mae Ngao National Park, a state reserve roughly 150 kilometers from Chiang Mai in Thailand, two women approach, one in a brightly colored handwoven shirt and dress— traditional Karen garb—and each holding a small net. Inside is a scanty handful of freshwater shrimp, snails and fingerling fish gathered from a nearby waterway.

Roughly thirty meters away is a wooden platform overlooking the Ngao River. Directly under the platform, the translucent green water gathers in a calm pool, chock full of hundreds of large, idle fish.

It is curious to see so many fish so close to the road, considering the near 50 villagers are subsistence farmers and fishers. That’s because this stretch of water is a Fish Conservation Zone (FCZ), a designated stretch of the river where fishing is prohibited. Similar to the marine protected areas now found in the oceans, but typically smaller in size, the FCZ is regulated and enforced by the villagers, and within its boundaries, the taking of animals or plants is forbidden. Designation of these zones began roughly two decades ago in response to overfishing and declining fish populations. Since then, the conservation zone method has spread and been adopted throughout neighboring villages, in a trend reflected in many areas of Southeast Asia.

A fish conservation zone in Mae Ngao National Park. Photo by Jacob Shea.

A fish conservation zone in Mae Ngao National Park. Photo by Jacob Shea.

Regulations are posted, and the village members work together to make sure the rules are followed. Transgressors are issued a warning, then a fine. By allowing fish populations a reprieve—particularly in the dry season when water flow is reduced—the conservation zones help preserve healthy stocks.

In short, as fish in these rivers face increasing threats from overfishing and changing habitat from human development, people in these rural villages have responded to preserve this vital resource. Initial results suggest that the approach appears to be working.

Locals describe the size and abundance of fish as far more plentiful 50 years ago. Fishing was primarily for subsistence in the village then as it is today. When vegetation wilts in the dry season, harvestable plants and animals become sparse, and villagers become increasingly dependent on the river for protein.

Today in the Mae Ngao region, more options for protein exist—people raise a few pigs or chickens, and roads have brought greater connectivity to villages—but eating fish is still an integral part of many peoples’ diet.

About two decades ago, villagers began to notice dwindling fish populations, which many attribute to growing fishing pressure. As the price of fish in towns and urban areas rose, people from populous cities and outside villages entered the park in greater numbers to fish aggressively, in an effort to generate income. With the newcomers came increasingly destructive methods, which hit the fish population hard.

“They did not use a fishing net or a fishing pole, but they used dynamite, electricity,” says Sombut Gingtarakaew, assistant village headman and chief of the forest protection committee in Mae Louie. “The population of fish at that time decreased a lot.”

When the Development Center for Children and Community Network, a Thai NGO based in nearby Mae Sariang, arrived about 22 years ago, fish had become scarce. The NGO brought the idea of Fish Conservation Zones and helped villagers to set up initial logistics. Some people were skeptical at first, but partially through the encouragement from community leaders, villagers began to see the benefit. Once the idea had gained acceptance, the initiative took off and support became widespread.

“Right now, it seems like every villager supports this conservation zone,” says Pracha Leubpichianpraiboon, farmer in Na Doi.

Eventually, the system came to resemble an idea near and dear to conservation science. Dr. Ian Baird, an anthropologist at University of Madison, Wisconsin, who has studied fishing communities in Southeast Asia for decades, attributes the success of such conservation zones in the region to high community buy-in.

“The fact that these areas were chosen to be protected has nothing to do with fishery scientists,” says Baird. “It has everything to do with local knowledge and the fact that people understand that these are important places…. More recently, local knowledge has been transferred into formalized systems as fish stocks have declined, due to various reasons, including dams and overfishing.”

Fisheries science has since shown that local knowledge makes sense. Local people have long known that fish congregate in the deeper pools in the dry seasons, largely because it’s cooler, they’re more protected from predation, and they’re less likely to get trapped where water disappears. Ensuring conservation in these areas, and especially during these crucial dry periods, helps to sustain the population that moves throughout the river system.

Across Southeast Asia, dams built over the last 40 or 50 years have blocked fish migration and drastically changed habitats. As a result, some fish species have disappeared and others have been drastically reduced. Growing market demand has also played a factor in driving up fishing pressure. And in the foreseeable future, booms in monoculture farming along the rivers threaten to inundate rivers with eroded sediment, fertilizer, and chemicals.

While that problem looms on the horizon, after two decades of the implementation of this FCZ, the consensus in Mae Ngao village appears to be positive.

One reason that community management is so crucial to conservation zones’ success, particularly in rural areas, is that environmental agencies in Thailand often lack sufficient resources or capabilities for enforcement. Departments are often underfunded or understaffed, so that one enforcement officer may be in charge of an overwhelming expanse of land. Rural location, coupled with so many types of fishery, often makes centralized management complex and unrealistic.

Furthermore, the law may not be in support of community-led conservation. Many local arrangements for FCZ enforcement are informal and not backed by state legislation. Baird says that the law may support the idea of conservation and the protection of certain areas, but not community enforcement.

“These areas are usually highly dependent on local solidarity and local people taking on this issue as important,” says Baird. “If they don’t take it on, then usually it doesn’t work.”

At a fish market in Chiang Mai, researcher Aaron Koning buys an assortment of fish. The fishmonger collects an assortment and drops them into a plastic bag, and with the blunt side of a cleaver, bashes them until they cease moving.

Koning is here to collect fish for a study on mercury levels, but his work over the past four years in the Mae Ngao region has centered on the FCZs and their ecological impact. He has surveyed a number of FCZs, which range from a few months to more than 20 years old, in an effort to determine how they’ve affected fish biomass, abundance, and diversity.

Aaron Koning speaks with two women who collect small animals from a nearby stream. Photo by Jacob Shea.

Aaron Koning speaks with two women who collect small animals from a nearby stream. Photo by Jacob Shea.

Koning believes that in these zones, the biodiversity more closely resembles what the natural ecosystem would have been before humans altered the ecosystem. Furthermore, his research suggests that the relative abundance inside the zones translates to more fish moving outside the zones, which the villagers can catch.

Koning hopes that his research can “translate into other developing contexts around the world where you’ve got communities living in close proximity to rivers that are highly reliant on rivers for nutrition.”

One debate common in conservation circles involves how to approach the communities that live on and off the resource. Some conservationists argue for displacing people from national parks such as Mae Ngao to protect the pristine resources. Others believe that those living off the land sustainably best ensure protection of the environment.

“Our parents, our ancestor lived here for a long time, and we have really old management here,” says Yodchai Pornpongprai, the Deputy District Administrator in the village. “Every natural resource is here—we use it, and we also take care of it.”

Freshwater fish catches in Southeast Asia’s rivers are ranked among the highest in the world. According to a 2016 study in Freshwater Fisheries Ecology, rivers in Southeast Asia account for 27 percent of total of these catches. However, given that fishing is so often for subsistence, it’s difficult to accurately assess how much is being caught. According to the Asia-Pacific Fishery Commission, it is well established that official catch data in Thailand’s inland fisheries significantly underreport how much is actually taken.

While the concept of FCZs is today commonly used in the oceans through the adoption of Marine Protected Areas, some fishery biologists were initially skeptical of applying it to rivers, according to a 2006 paper in Fishery Management and Ecology. Some scientists wondered how a constant flowing body of water could help preserve fish if they can move strait through the zone.

And in many instances, the zones are seen more as a livelihood enhancement feature than a conservation measure, because they serve to improve fishing outside of zones.

Baird says that there are currently hundreds, if not thousands, of such zones (in various iterations) across SE Asia. Koning says that he’s recorded upwards of 50 conservation zones in the river catchment that he studies.

While the idea has gained traction, Baird emphasizes that the FCZs are not enough, particularly in the face of encroaching water infrastructure projects. He sees them not as a silver bullet for fishery conservation, but rather, as one tool that can be useful. FCZs are site specific both ecologically and logistically, effective where enforcement is feasible and the rules not overly restrictive.

Conservation zones on river systems are largely unique to Southeast Asia, which Baird attributes in large part to the fluctuating rainy seasons in monsoonal climates. When water levels are lower in the dry season, fish have adapted to migrate, and they rely on deep pools to survive.

“These areas have expanded because local people have observed that they’re useful, and that there is a way that they can do something to be empowered about the fish in their areas,” says Baird. “Having said that, they’re not enough—they’re not going to fix all the problems of the river or all the problems of fish populations.”

Thailand has a long history of contentious battles over hydropower dams, touching off public protests that have stymied big, high-profile projects, which have become less common in recent years. But water infrastructure projects continue in the form of diversions and irrigation, which also can have severe impacts on communities and ecosystems.

In Southeast Asia, river ecosystems are understudied, which is troubling in light of disruptive infrastructure development. In the tropical river ecosystems of Southeast Asia, according to Koning, fish diversity is not well understood.

“There’s not enough natural data,” says Koning. “The system is definitely changing, but it’s not clear what to or from.”

The Electricity Generating Authority of Thailand (EGAT), Thailand’s state-owned power utility, considered building a dam at Nam Nae Ngao as part of a water diversion project. The dam would not generate power at the site; rather, it would create a reservoir to send water via a 62-kilometers canal east to the Bhumibol Dam, a 505-foot, 743.8 megawatt hydropower dam that supplies power to Bangkok.

According to an email from EGAT Spokesperson Anna Sukluan, the project at Nam Nae Ngao is no longer being considered; however, another canal to the Nam Mae Tun Dam further south is now under review, pending a Royal Irrigation Department feasibility study which will finish next year.

“Water projects in Thailand never really die,” says Koning. “Often they go into a drawer and years later someone pulls one out.”

Meanwhile, neighboring Myanmar recently announced plans to build a cascade of dams on the nearby Salween River. Such large hydropower projects can have vast ramifications for tributaries as far away as the Ngao River.

Kate Ross, the Mekong Program Coordinator at International Rivers, an internationally based nonprofit that focuses on hydropower projects globally, highlights a long history of community mobilizing around hydropower projects in Thailand.

In her work, Ross sees strong linkages between the people who are dependent on the tributaries and mainstream hydropower projects which impact those tributaries.

“One of the challenges we face in looking at tributary rivers is that there’s not as much public awareness about what’s going on on the tributaries, because there’s been so much focus on the mainstream,” says Ross. “There’s been a big challenge whereby those sorts of areas have gotten less attention or been ignored.”

Saving the River — Fish Conservation Zones Along the Mae Ngao

Andrew Beale

Along the Mae Ngao river in Northern Thailand, something amazing is happening. In response to decades of dwindling fish supplies brought on by natural disasters and overfishing, the local villagers have implemented a plan to bring back aquatic life in the river—with spectacular results.

Video by Andrew Beale

Living with Lions

Nani Sahra Walker, Alan Toth

As drought and urbanization push wildlife and people into closer contact in Kenya, conservationists are using technology to try and mitigate the human-lion conflict.

Video by Nani Sahra Walker and Alan Toth / Originally published by Earther

Chasing Lithium

The hidden world behind the 21st century’s most valuable resource.

Nina Zou, Rachel Hiles

Chapter 1: Mining

Lithium Dreams: Bolivia’s Untapped Salt Flats Hold the Key to the Future of Energy

The towering mountains of the high Andean Plateau seem unmovable—static giants fixed against a thin blue sky. But an ancient Bolivian legend holds that long ago, the volcanoes of the altiplano could move and speak to each other. According to the myth, there was only one female volcano, Tunupas, and she was universally beloved and courted. But when she became pregnant and gave birth, the other volcanoes were so jealous they banished her baby to a far off land.

The gods were furious at the squabbling volcanoes, and as punishment they took away the volcanoes’ ability to move and speak. Unable to reach her baby, a devastated Tunupas mourned the loss of her child. Her salty tears and the breast milk poured out onto the arid landscape, creating the great Salar de Uyuni—the largest salt flat in the world.

Beneath this desolate, cracked landscape lies the word’s largest deposit of lithium—the element that will power our lives.

Bolivia’s new constitution guarantees that the nation’s natural resources belong to the Bolivian people. Citizens hope that lithium mining will boost the historically impoverished nation’s economy.
Bolivia’s new constitution guarantees that the nation’s natural resources belong to the Bolivian people. Citizens hope that lithium mining will boost the historically impoverished nation’s economy.

Read More: Chapter 1+

Chapter 2: Manufacturing

Lithium Race: The fierce competition to build the world’s best battery

On April 3, 1973 Martin “Marty” Cooper, an engineer at Motorola, stood on 6th Avenue in midtown Manhattan and dialed the number of Dr. Joel S. Engel, his competitor at AT&T, into an enormous cordless phone. Marty’s message to Joel was clear: Motorola had won the race to build the world’s first mobile phone.

It would take another 10 years and $100 million before the first cellphone was available to consumers—at an exorbitant cost of $3,995. The DynaTAC, now known as “the brick,” required about 10 hours of charge time for every 30 minutes of talk time and weighed 2.5 lbs.,most of which came from its sizable battery.

More than forty years after Marty made that groundbreaking call, our cellphones weigh less than a quarter of a pound—a tenth of the weight of the DynaTAC—and require just a few hours of charge time to run for several days. Advances in battery technology have turned our phones—and the rest of our gadgets—into lightweight, rechargeable, efficient machines.

And none of this would be possible without lithium.

Scientists all over the country are engaged in a fierce competition to invent the Holy Grail in battery technology: a lightweight, affordable storage device that can hold immense amounts of energy.
Scientists all over the country are engaged in a fierce competition to invent the Holy Grail in battery technology: a lightweight, affordable storage device that can hold immense amounts of energy.

Read More: Chapter 2+

Chapter 3: Disposal

Wasted Power: Is the world prepared to deal with millions of dead lithium batteries?

Zixin Wang stands on top of a rusted structure in the courtyard of the warehouse he rents twenty miles outside of Beijing, China. He looks like George Washington crossing the Delaware River—his earnest gaze rests on the horizon, as if he’s seeing into the future.

In some ways he is. The structure, a one-of-a-kind battery recycling device that Wang built himself, is a prototype for what Wang hopes will become part of China’s solution to its electronic waste challenges.

Wang is a sort of mad scientist. For the past twenty years he’s been on a one-man quest to come up with an environmentally friendly solution to China’s battery recycling challenges. He’s collected hundreds of thousands of batteries in his warehouse, saving them from landfills and burn piles where they might contaminate soil and water.

Zixin Wang is just one piece of China’s fractured approach to battery recycling, a system made up of thousands of small, unregulated collectors. As lithium-powered technology proliferates, the world’s biggest consumer of electronics—and biggest environmental offender—is rethinking its relationship to electronic waste.

Stacks of old TV’s line the walls at GEM Recycling’s showroom in Hubei Province. The TV’s represent piles of discarded electronic waste that GEM says can be recycled and reused.
Stacks of old TV’s line the walls at GEM Recycling’s showroom in Hubei Province. The TV’s represent piles of discarded electronic waste that GEM says can be recycled and reused.

Read More: Chapter 3+

Chapter 4: The Future

Peak Lithium: Batteries have already upended the energy paradigm of the 21st century. What’s next?

Energy is like magic—most of us don’t understand where it comes from or how it works. But it is essential to almost everything we do—from checking the time to photographing distant galaxies; without the ability to capture energy, we’d be lost.

After a century of oil dependence, our society is beginning to shift from burning fossil fuels to energy generated by renewables. For this to work the world will need storage devices, and lithium batteries are the best resource we have for storage. Instead of repeating the flawed energy model we built during peak oil, lithium offers the world an opportunity to reimagine its relationship to energy and natural resources.

But like oil, lithium dependence comes with human, environmental, and geopolitical consequences. On one side of the world a historically impoverished country sits on top of the world’s largest lithium resources. On the other side, a billionaire is building the world’s largest lithium battery factory. And in another corner, China, the world’s largest e-waste receiver is reimagining its relationship to electronic waste.

Read More: Chapter 4+

Nina Zou and Rachel Hiles won the Online News Association’s David Teeuwen Student Journalism Award for their multimedia presentation “Chasing Lithium.” Explore the entire award-winning series here.

Sea Turtles in Distress

As ocean temperature and acidity rises, populations of sea turtle species are under increasing pressure. Leslie Cory recently spent a couple of weeks with a turtle research team to discover the extent of the problem.

Leslie Cory

Sea turtle hatches out of its egg. Photo: Blair Bentley.
Sea turtle hatches out of its egg. Photo: Blair Bentley.

Sea turtles are resilient creatures. Having survived for the last 110 million years, the seven different species have each thrived beneath Earth’s waters where they quietly support the health of ecosystems. But as temperatures continue to soar higher, have these marine reptiles finally met their match?

Climate change, specifically the warming of the earth, has been repeatedly deemed the most significant threat to humanity. Consequences aren’t necessarily immediately recognisable to the naked eye, however, nor do all feel repercussions equally. But that doesn’t mean it’s not present, leading to ocean acidification and droughts worldwide. If there’s any question about the validity of this, take a trip to Australia where these impacts have become tangible with no indication of slowing, let alone halting. “Climate model predictions predict that Australia is going to have a much higher increase in ambient temperatures than the rest of the world,” says Blair Bentley, an animal biology PhD candidate from University of Western Australia. “We’re expecting an increase of up to five degrees [Celsius], by the end of the century, which really is unprecedented.”

Watch Leslie Cory’s video “Turtles in Distress”

It’s not just the human population feeling the heat from a warming climate, however. The marine life is taking a considerable toll as well. One such species, sea turtles, are among those that are already endangered and now possibly heading toward extinction at an accelerated rate.

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Where Malaysia Looks Like Mars

How a Malaysia port town is dealing with the effects of a grueling global aluminum demand

Atia Musazay

To meet the global demand for aluminum, a Malaysian port is dealing with the effects of bauxite mining, including possible mercury contamination in the water reservoir.

A crimson hue stains the air and soil. Red dunes loom over 30 feet high, and the ringing of trucks operating in the distance can be heard in the surrounding patch of clear-cut jungle.  This eerie setting has become a reality for the resort town of Kuantan Port, Cherating and Bukit Goh.

In 2015, nearly 30 million tons of bauxite ore passed through this small port. This was 13 times more than the year before. At one point, 12,000 trucks full of bauxite were passing through this town. Further mining activity has ceased for six months, as the government placed a moratorium on further mining, but the clean-up process has not been so simple.

Dr. Zaki Zainudin, an associate professor at the International Islamic University Malaysia is a water quality and modeling specialist. With a team of scientists, he assessed the water quality of the Kuantan River and its tributaries. Bauxite that makes it into the river systems through rainfall and windblown dust and is known to contain heavy metals such as aluminum, lead, mercury, arsenic, cadmium, nickel and chromium. According to the report generated by Zainudin and his team, the last four are carcinogenic.

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Local Food Production Evolving on Darwin’s Enchanted Isles

On the islands where science initially launched itself into investigations of evolution, biodiversity, and the interconnected nature of “nature,” what do people eat?

Alana Siegner

The Galapagos Islands, an equatorial archipelago consisting of 13 islands 1000 km off the coast of Ecuador, are famous for inspiring Darwin’s “Origin of the Species” after his visit in 1835. At the confluence of major oceanic currents- Humboldt, Panama, Cromwell and Equatorial- and three tectonic plates, the Galapagos host an amazing array of marine life and terrestrial species among the volcanic soils. The iconic giant tortoises, coral sharks, and blue footed boobies draw visitors from around the world. Named the first UNESCO World Heritage site in 1978, honoring their importance in both natural and human history, the Galapagos are now listed as a World Heritage Site in Danger due to increasingly unsustainable population and tourism growth, endemic species extinctions, overfishing, and other exploitative practices. What is being done to help the Galapagos restore its environment and address local economic development? The local food movement may hold part of the answer to this important question.

Earth Hour on the Galapagos

“Chef #5 wins! Congratulations!” At a local, Iron Chef-style cooking contest on Santa Cruz Island in the Galapagos, five women competed to present the best plate of food to three judges, using as many of the 30 local products provided to them as they could. The cooking contest was part of the Galapagos celebration of Earth Hour, an international event launched in Sydney, Australia in 2007 and now celebrated in March in more than 150 countries worldwide. On the islands that inspired Charles Darwin’s paradigm-shifting theory of evolution, a new paradigm-shifting movement towards reinvigorating local food production is underway.

Celebrating Earth Hour at the inspiration point for the theory of evolution imbued the event with a sense of both global and local significance. Hundreds of people gathered in Santa Cruz Island’s Parque de San Francisco to take part in the “Hora del Planeta,” sponsored by the local offices of World Wildlife Foundation (WWF), Conservation International (CI), and the local Ministry of Agriculture (MAGAP). The specific theme of Earth Hour varies from place to place, and the Galapagos chose to highlight local food systems at their event. Although the local food movement is threatened by tourism, overfishing, invasive species, and dependence on longer food supply chains, this Earth Hour event seemed to contain a spark of change.

Cooking competition entries
Cooking competition entries

Cooking demonstrations, potato sack races, local food trivia, and blind taste tests engaged attendees alongside tables where local restaurants, artisanal fishing cooperatives, and nonprofits offered food and information to the public. Ceviche de canchalagua (an endemic mollusk to the Galapagos), empanadas, locally sourced carrot and banana bread, passion fruit pie, and handmade ice creams lined the plaza. The winner of the cooking contest, Doña Anita Mejilla, prepared a colorful plate of guacamole mounted on sliced tomato, local white fish with tomato and pepper compote, fried plantains, and a grated papaya salsa with sprigs of cilantro and other local herbs. From 8:30-9:30 pm, the official “Earth Hour,” the streetlights went out in a symbolic display of public energy conservation.       

The event embodied a vision for island community food security: a community producing and consuming its own food, and coming together periodically to celebrate the harvest and learn about the over 80 food products that are produced on the island. This way, when food consumers and producers are united, “la vida es una fiesta” according to a Conservation International employee. This vision, however, remains just that; in practice, events like this are few and far between according to other NGO employees at the event.

“We need a lot more events like this,” said Arturo Izurieta, Director of the Charles Darwin Foundation, “to create a real culture of local food consumption on the islands.” Organizations like the Charles Darwin Foundation and Conservation International are working with the local government to try and broaden the economic focus on the islands to a more inclusive model of tourism that is inclusive of local development, including a return to local agriculture.

Challenges and Opportunities for Local Farmers

Life is far from fiesta permanente for many residents of the Galapagos Islands, especially those working in agriculture, fishing, or livestock raising. The Galapagos are a fascinating study in contrasts when it comes to sustainable development and local food production. A view of “nature” that excludes human activity and local economic development too often displaces the needs and views of the local people who have much to say about the problems facing food production and agriculture on their islands.

 Excess cucumbers on Santa Cruz farm
 Excess cucumbers on Santa Cruz farm

Farmers are challenged by competition from mainland suppliers, unpredictable prices at the market, uncertain demand, and poor communication between coastal towns and highland regions. When “eco tourism” to the Galapagos takes a narrow definition of “nature” as only related to the endangered tortoises, blue footed boobies, or nature preserves where no humans live or work the land, these challenges are exacerbated because tourists are prevented from providing a solution to these farmers: as a large potential market, if visitors were engaged in touring local farms or demanding local produce for their meals and eating experiences, farmers and their native cultivars might receive greater value and attention. In doing so, this would alleviate some of the environmental consequences of food imports from the mainland, which include transport of invasive species threatening island endemic species.

Abandoned farmlands and produce line the roads leading up from coastal port towns into the more fertile highland soils. As farmers have moved from agriculture into tourism, seeking a better living, land is underutilized and understaffed. Piles of tomatoes, cucumbers, passion fruit, or bananas lie uneaten, left to rot lacking transport down to coastal markets. Getting products to market remains a serious challenge as many farmers lack a personal vehicle.

And there is an additional threat to these already stretched-thin farmers: climate change. Seasonal hot and cool season dynamics are becoming increasingly unpredictable. Several farmers complained about the recent unusually hot and dry conditions depleting already scarce water resources, while others mentioned new practices they are adapting to better hold precious water in their soils.

As a result of these stresses, the Galapagos today are dependent on food imports from the Ecuadorian continent, on boats that transport the food over 1000 km across the ocean to the 4 inhabited islands. These boats arrive weekly (most of the time), supply over 80% of the food consumed on the islands, and are able to provide products at much lower unit cost due to higher volumes of production on the mainland. However, dependence on boat transport is unreliable: three boats have sunk in the past several years, and when seas are rough the boats are delayed, leading to scarcity in island stores. The produce, preserved for transport rather than fresh, is variable in quality and inferior to local produce according to local food advocates at the island farmer’s markets, yet cheaper on a per unit basis for purchase.

At the same time, the tomatoes, peppers, and cucumbers grown by their neighbors up in the island highlands might never make it the 20 km to market, if the farmers can’t afford the $15 to rent a taxi or truck that week to bring the food to the coastal markets. As one farmer complained, local consumers often try to bargain down the price with producers so that it’s equal to the shipped mainland produce, making an agricultural livelihood even less economically feasible for the farmer. Despite being fresh and organically produced, there is sometimes no cost-effective way to sell these vegetables every week.

When jobs are readily available and more reliable in terms of income in the growing tourism industry, farmers are more inclined to abandon their lands and move to port towns in search of better opportunity.

Island Economics- Tourism vs. Local Development?

As shown in the graph below, tourism comprises over 50% of island revenue, while agricultural income isn’t even pictured as it represents such a small percentage. “Agriculture represents a very small part of the economy,” writes the Galapagos Conservancy, “but more activity in this sector is critical to lessen the islands’ dependence on imported produce—one of the greatest sources of introduced species.”

Chart of island economic revenue (Courtesy: Epler 2007)
Chart of island economic revenue (Courtesy: Epler 2007)

Cruise ship tourism is the biggest threat to local sovereignty as the profits and tourists are confined to an international company-owned facility; while convenient, cruise ship tourism and “island hopping” tour boats diminish the ability of hotels and restaurants to support local food production while providing tourists authentic experiences with island people and food. When most of travelers’ time and money is spent on a cruise boat with brief forays onto beaches and nature reserves, local businesses have less opportunity to benefit from tourism revenue and promote synergistic goals of sustainability and local development.

Local food production has an important role to play in “new ecotourism” models. Several government officials, academics, and local residents have proposed in recent years a “paradigm-shifting”  model of eco-tourism that truly supports the local environment, local people, and local production. In the words of David Lansdale, professor at Universidad San Francisco de Quito, this “Eco-Helix” tourism project will finally reconcile the long-held belief that environmental and economic development are fundamentally at odds, allowing local people to protect their environment alongside visiting tourists engaged in more meaningful service, learning, and “eating” projects on the islands.  

Visiting local farms on the Galapagos offers a picture of what thisTh

This chart depicts high levels of residential and tourism growth in the Galapagos since 1960. (Courtesy: William Durham, 2006)
This chart depicts high levels of residential and tourism growth in the Galapagos since 1960. (Courtesy: William Durham, 2006)

new tourism model might look like. Farmers that have persisted in the agricultural sector are knowledgeable and passionate about their farming practices, eager to share their generations of acquired knowledge with visitors. Farmers are growing tomato hybrids ideally suited to their changing climate conditions, which include increasingly hot and dry periods (December-May), followed by less predictable cool season weather patterns. They are intercropping and shading vegetables with guava and banana trees. Their coffee beans, harvested by hand and dried for weeks at a time, bear the distinctive taste of the island’s volcanic soils. These same farmers are struggling financially, and stand to gain from a method of tourism that brings revenue and possibly volunteers to support their hard work.

Food production in the Marine Reserve

As far as the fishing industry, overfishing still threatens the archipelago’s coastline. A Marine Reserve where sea cucumbers were harvested to near extinction before stricter regulations were put in COPROPAG sustainable fishing cooperative, a plan of action exists among his fellow fishermen as to which types of fish can be caught, at what times and of what sizes. However, not everyone follows the rules. There are these types of impulses and impediments to progress revealed in many conversations with local producers- a push-pull between optimism over progress and pessimism over lack of scale.

Galapagos lobster
Galapagos lobster

place, today increasing regulation strives to rebuild and protect the island’s delicate yet abundant array of marine life. According to Alberto Andrade, the head of the

Bringing food to Market

At the Saturday market, where fresh fruits and vegetables are sold in a large outdoor arena, roughly 13 of the 50 vendors are local producers and others are selling on behalf of mainland producers. These local farmers are the ones able to pay the transportation cost to get their produce to market, and they are chatting merrily with many consumers at the market. During a visit to the market a local farmer offered me a bunch of small, surprisingly sweet bananas “gratis para ti!” (for free, despite my repeated attempts to pay him), and Vicente came over to expound further on his “hydroponics will feed the world” theory. Our host Jennifer Amaya carefully sought out the local producers, explaining as she shopped that she was raised in a family that always valued local produce, something that has stuck with her ever since. For her, it really comes down to the freshness of local produce- eating something harvested several hours ago vs. several weeks makes a big difference.

Local food on display over volcanic soil
Local food on display over volcanic soil

The local farmers themselves have plenty to say about solutions to promoting island ariculture. Jose Angel Ortiz, proud owner of four greenhouses laden with beautiful rows of tomatoes, peppers and cucumbers, says what’s missing is “unión.” Everyone has their own unique skills to contribute, and if there was better coordination, farmers could grow a higher diversity of crops and help each other at key stages in each crop production cycle. Additionally, crop rotation is good for the soil, helping to replenish and balance soil nutrients. Healthy soil has higher water holding capacity, an important function in light of hotter and drier conditions in recent years. Climate change and sustainability concerns are things Jose thinks about and acts upon already on his farm, where he is now using a straw mulch to prevent the soil from drying out around his melon patch. When asked why he hasn’t left farming in favor of other employment opportunities, Jose answers that “producing safe and healthy food is the best thing you can do for your body.”

Technical Assistance Projects

The Ministry of Agriculture, Livestock, Aquaculture, and Fisheries (MAGAP) is a strong promoter of scaling up local food sovereignty and increasing union among farmers. They regularly send work crews up to the highlands to provide technical assistance, loan machinery, or provide extra labor to farmers working their small plots. Support from the Inter-American Development Bank “Mutual Assistance Fund” in the early 2000s provided greenhouses to farmers so that “vegetables [can] grow under a controlled environment during any time of year, allowing farmers to produce more and better,” according to Mario Piu, coordinator of the project in Galápagos.

Saturday farmer’s market on Santa Cruz Island
Saturday farmer’s market on Santa Cruz Island

A big effort is currently underway to revitalize coffee production on the islands. Called the “Minga del Café,” or Coffee Project, this initiative helps clear land and create optimal shading for coffee growth (30-35% shade, with minimal understory to compete with coffee plants for soil nutrients). MAGAP hosts demonstrations on several islands to recruit farmer participants. The intervention is an initial impetus to clear and prepare more land for coffee production, rather than a long-term collaboration. Other projects are needed to provide processing facilities, for example, that would allow coffee cooperatives to sell directly to the international market rather than going through intermediaries that skim off significant percentages of profits.

Tourism plays a role here as local, organically certified coffee products find their way into most gift shops lining the coastal towns. Coffee is an especially profitable product for farmers to grow as part of their diversified farming systems. However, it cannot be the only focal crop if a sustainable food system is to be built on the islands; in the center of biodiversity, the Galapagos must work to maintain diversity in food crops as well as finches and tortoises.  In this way a local agriculture revolution might contribute to lifting the designation of “World Heritage Site in Danger,” as it comes in line with native species preservation, biodiversity, and more sustainable levels of production balanced by tourism regulations.

Coffee project demonstration, Santa Cruz
Coffee project demonstration, Santa Cruz

Solutions such as technical assistance are needed, of course, but are not sufficient to support a thriving local food economy. Quick fixes like buying trucks for producers to get their goods to market are tempting to consider, but not always viable when maintenance and coordination between relatively isolated farms surrounded by abandoned farmlands are factored in.

As one MAGAP employee on Santa Cruz commented, local producers need greater political advocates and economic policy support. Import policies to restrict certain products from being imported when they are in season on the islands would help farmers capture a larger market share. Such policies are in place in other island economies, but the Galapagos have remained completely open to foreign trade and investment—too open, some would argue.

Solutions: Local foodies

Dave Ibarra’s Waterfront Inn Restaurant
Dave Ibarra’s Waterfront Inn Restaurant

On the Galapagos, there are several bright lights to follow for grassroots food promotion, including David Ibarra on Santa Cruz Island. David is the chef at the Waterfront Inn restaurant, and in his brief time on the islands he has worked diligently to develop strong relationships with local farmers and fishermen. It is clearly demonstrated on his menu, which reads like a farm to table treatise worthy of Alice Waters’ kitchen—catch of the day with local lemongrass and ginger, names of farms and farmers, and a note that ingredients vary seasonally and thus diners must expect variation according to local supply. David’s food is authentic, local, and delicious. When asked what he hopes to contribute to the local food movement as a chef, he replies, “the objective with my project Cocina de Evolución [Evolution Cooking] is to start to generate more methods of local production and incentives for producers to sell to restaurants.” By all observations and accounts, his restaurant is a thriving local business winning over tourists with his creative local food concoctions.

On his Santa Cruz farm, Vicente proudly shows off a self-constructed water-saving hydroponics system grows lettuce varieties and basil at high densities and low inputs; freshwater is scarce on this island, and therefore all the more necessary to use judiciously. His goal is to scale up and grow other vegetables such as tomatoes and eggplants in vertical growing columns to demonstrate sustainable intensification practices that can easily feed larger communities in more confined spaces. This inventive Galapagos farmer is pioneering an urban agriculture solution increasingly in vogue in cities like San Francisco. Hydroponics are a promising practice to incorporate into the coastal towns, so the line is not quite so stark between tourism activities in the ports, and agriculture in the “invisible highlands.”

Vicente’s hydroponics system
Vicente’s hydroponics system

Milton Aguas, former mayor of Puerto Baquerizo Moreno, and current head of the local farmers and fishermen association, is perhaps the most well known figure on San Cristobal. It is impossible to take a walk with him without stopping to greet everyone we pass- on benches, in gift shops where they sell his famous coffee, or in bread shops where they make “the best breads in the world. Very fresh,” Milton assures. Milton is a walking encyclopedia of Galapagos history, food production, and interconnected human-natural systems.

On Milton Aguas’ agroecological farm, la Finca de Guadalupe, food diversity reigns. Passion fruit and banana trees shade coffee plants and medicinal herbs, coconut trees and sugarcane thrive, a fresh-water mangrove tree is being successfully reintroduced, and fresh water flows plentifully in a nearby river punctuated by several striking waterfalls.

Perhaps due to the influence of his high school’s namesake, Alexander von Humboldt, Milton is a true believer in the ecosystem as a living “whole” concept, connected across time and space. He views an ecosystem as a lifestyle inspiration; humans will only live in harmony with themselves when they are also in harmony with their surroundings. Unlike the ecotourism model that prevails today, which is – in Milton’s eyes – a continuation of island “colonization” by foreign groups, Milton has a personal theory of sustainable eco-tourism that he’s been developing, refining, and talking about for the past 23 years. He brings in student groups and volunteers to his farm regularly, who have filled a thick book with thank you letters after their visits. One night of cooking a delicious meal of fresh fish, rice and coconut milk followed by hours of storytelling, coffee making, and processing passion fruit jam with our merry hosts makes it clear why they are so beloved by their scores of former guests.

Milton’s finca de Guadalupe
Milton’s finca de Guadalupe

Many are those that have been inspired by the teachings of Alexander von Humboldt in the history of the Galapagos, including Charles Darwin himself. The last paragraph of Darwin’s Origin of the Species, containing his famous entangled bank metaphor, echoed a similar passage in Humboldt’s Personal Narrative. Humans must listen closely to the chorus of “natural voices proclaiming to us that all nature breathes; and that, under a thousand different forms, life is diffused throughout the cracked and dusty soil,” wrote Humboldt.

In the volcanic Galapagos soils, an agricultural revival is underway in fits and starts. The goal: a biodiverse, resilient and uniquely “Galapagos” food system. Foodies like Milton Aguas, David Ibarra, and Jennifer Amaya, representing farmers, tourism industry employees, and government workers respectively, would be a potent force for progress towards this goal if united in their current efforts. If successful, such a concerted effort could allow the Galapagos to shed the “in Danger” clause and return to the status of simply “UNESCO World Heritage Site,” boasting sustainably sourced fish, coffee, passion, fruit and vegetables grown on the islands as part of a thriving human-natural ecosystem.

Combating the Invasive Lionfish – By Wearing Them

Pallavi Somusetty, Faviola Leyva

When lionfish arrived in Caribbean waters, Belizeans feared them because of their venomous spines. But fishers in the fishing community of Sarteneja in Northern Belize have learned to profit from the lionfish by capturing and selling them to restaurant owners and more recently, to jewelers.

Sartenejan women from fishing families created their own business with cheap or free lionfish fins from their husbands or other fishers, and today they sell lionfish jewelry to across the country and internationally.

Watch the full report below:

Video by Pallavi Somusetty and Faviola Leyva, National Geographic

The uphill battle to save rhinos in Mozambique

American photojournalist Martin Totland travelled to the borderlands between Mozambique and Kruger National Park to investigate the latest in the anti-poaching war.

Martin Totland

It was widely reported in 2013 that poachers had killed Mozambique’s last rhino. The good news: it wasn’t true. The bad news: it will very likely soon become true.

It is an open secret among conservationists that Mozambique still has some rhinos left. They wander the 30,000ha property of Sabie Game Park, a privately owned game reserve in the south-western part of the country.

A row of rhino skulls inside Sabie Game Park. The two in front died natural deaths, the ones at the back lost their lives to poachers. Photos by Martin Totland
A row of rhino skulls inside Sabie Game Park. The two in front died natural deaths, the ones at the back lost their lives to poachers. Photos by Martin Totland

The park straddles the border with South Africa and its world-famous Kruger National Park, where nearly 80% of the world’s remaining rhinos live. This area is the frontline of the rhino war and if you ask those involved, the future’s not looking too bright.

Like many others, I saw the news stories and I kept noticing people in the comment sections cheering whenever stories emerged of rangers killing poachers. People applauded rangers for killing people in a fight over a useless commodity. Poachers were called evil monsters, and rangers were called heroes. This two-dimensional image didn’t seem right.

In March, police seized 23 rhino horns and other illegal wildlife artefacts at Maputo International Airport but made no arrests. During April and May, Mozambican law enforcement agencies carried out nationwide seizures of more than 900 pieces of rhino horn, and arrested one suspect. Officials said they hoped the suspect would lead them to a criminal syndicate behind the poaching.

On May 2, a Vietnamese citizen was arrested at the Maputo airport with two suitcases crammed with 11 whole rhino horns and several horn segments. And on May 14, photos emerged online of yet another rhino slain in Mozambique, its missing horn very likely being prepared for transport out of the country.

I went to Mozambique to find out more about why so many Mozambicans enter a trade that costs so many of their lives, what’s driving a charismatic species closer to extinction, and what the future looks like. I decided to go to the frontlines to gain a better understanding.

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Defenders of the Sea

In February 2016 activists chased a notorious illegal fishing vessel into the port of Dakar, Senegal. The capture of the vessel on Interpol’s most wanted list was a victory for global cooperation in a country with some of the most progressive fishing laws in Africa.

Jennifer Glenfield, Philipe James

West Africa’s fisheries are some of the most exploited in the world with the highest instances of illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing (IUU) globally. In response, Senegal made significant steps within the past four years to stymie illegal fishing and promote sustainability with the aid of community organizing, government policies, environmentalists and international support.

However, local fishers’ associations, the government and activists face threats of violence and a lack of resources to protect their seas. These defenders of the sea are vital for protecting the overfished waters from foreign and national vessels ignoring the law.

Watch the full report below:

Video by: Jennifer Glenfield and Philipe James, Translation by: Adams Sie

Is Salmon Raised on Land the Future of Seafood?

On Vancouver Island, the Namgis First Nation raises salmon on land, setting a high standard for eco-friendly aquaculture.

Joaquin Palomino

The only land-based salmon farm in British  Columbia, Kuterra is considered an eco-friendly alternative to  traditional aquaculture. The farm recycles its water, converts its waste  into fertilizer, and feeds its salmon mainly grains and soy.
The only land-based salmon farm in British Columbia, Kuterra is considered an eco-friendly alternative to traditional aquaculture. The farm recycles its water, converts its waste into fertilizer, and feeds its salmon mainly grains and soy.

Port McNeill, British Columbia, CANADA—For centuries, perhaps millennia, the Namgis First Nation fished a wide and glassy river that barrels into the straits separating Vancouver Island from mainland Canada. According to legend, sockeye salmon were so plentiful that the Namgis could simply redirect the river and trap seemingly endless runs of fish in ponds outside their homes.

Today, sockeye have all but disappeared from the Nimpkish. But a stone’s throw away, a warehouse brims with hundreds of thousands of Atlantic salmon. The fish crowd into pools the color of jade, swim against a steady current, eat pellets that rain down from metal pipes above, and grow plump.

This $7.6 million (U.S.) warehouse is called Kuterra. Owned by the Namgis, it is one of the few commercial-scale, land-based salmon farms in the world. Considered a model for sustainable aquaculture, Kuterra recycles its water, converts its waste into fertilizer, avoids use of pesticides and antibiotics, and relies predominantly on grains and soy for fish food.

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The Rhino’s Last Stand

Is domestication a final hope for the world’s rhinos?

Carly Nairn

It’s easy to get lost on the dirt roads to John Hume’s place. Located in the open savanna of South Africa’s North West Province, the private land is indicated only by wired fencing along the road. A turn onto a path leading up to Hume’s house reveals a hulking gray mass, just as the blood­-red sun starts to descend across miles of roaming ground. It’s a bull rhinoceros, but he doesn’t look like anything you might find in a wildlife photo book. In place of the magnificent scimitar, the rhino bears a stunted, blunt block of gray nail atop its nose. It’s been cut to save his life and, perhaps, one day, make Hume incredibly rich.

Albrecht Dürer, The Rhinoceros, 1511. Woodcut. 9 1/4 × 11 3/4 inches. Courtesy National Gallery of Art, Washington.
Albrecht Dürer, The Rhinoceros, 1511. Woodcut. 9 1/4 × 11 3/4 inches. Courtesy National Gallery of Art, Washington.

A sturdy man with wire­-frame glasses and graying hair, Hume may be the largest private rhino rancher in the world—with a herd of over 900 and growing. He wakes up before dawn and drives out to sections of his land to check on certain rhinos. He helps his hired hands throw hay and pellets—dietary supplements—into large pits where the rhinos feed. And, when the time comes, he supervises a veterinarian and his workers as they dehorn the animals.

Hume has bred and kept rhinos for the past twenty-­three years, adding to the less than 25,000 black and white rhinos currently in South Africa. His goal is to breed an additional 200 over the next year. While South Africa is home to almost 75 percent of the rhinos in the continent, it also has a far higher rate of horn poaching than neighboring Botswana, where populations linger in the hundreds, or Namibia, where they linger below 2,300. Since a 2009 trade ban on rhino horn was imposed in South Africa, Hume has stockpiled all of the horns he routinely cuts from his herd. He keeps them in hopes of a potential future payoff, when the South African government lifts the ban, if it ever does. But the dehorning also helps ensure the animals’ safety. It’s a measure designed to make the rhinos less attractive to poachers, who are becoming more brazen in their attempts, straying from the relative isolation of large preserves to kill domesticated rhinos on private property.

Unlike the regal tigers of Asia, whose blood, bile, skin, genitals, and other parts are frantically sought after by wildlife traffickers, the rhino’s primary commodities are its horns, protruding defense weapons on the edge of its face (black, Sumatran, and white rhinos have two). Rubbed vigorously in the sand, they are sharpened to a point. Horns are made of keratin, the same material as human hair, deer hooves, and whale baleens are. Like fingernails, a rhino’s horn can grow back. A wholly developed horn can be worth more than $300,000, largely due to an increasing demand in Vietnam and China, where rhino horns are used in traditional medicine; while prescribed for maladies that run the gamut from hangovers to cancer, there exists no scientific proof that rhino horn can cure any illness.

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Why Spain is Feeding the Bears

Wild, predatory carnivores are beautiful and majestic, but can we live near them?

Sasha Harris-Lovett

Rosalía Garrido knew it was a bear. What else would ransack her apple orchard, stripping fruit from the branches and raking claws across the tree trunks? The municipal government of Somiedo, in the Cantabrian Mountains of northern Spain, reimbursed Garrido 24 euros for the damage, but she sorely missed the pleasure of homemade apple cider last year.

“They’re protected, so we can’t say there are too many bears,” Garrido said. “But there are too many bears. And more and more each year.”

Brown bear (Credit: Valerie/Flickr)
Brown bear (Credit: Valerie/Flickr)

All our lives we’ve been told not to feed the bears. But no one told us what to do when the bears take matters into their own paws — or when the government is paying for their food. After all, for centuries the protocol for bear-human interaction was basically fight or flight. Recent years, though, have seen the remarkable success of a pan-European movement to restore wild animal populations, which had been devastated by bounty hunting and habitat loss. Estimates show that predatory carnivores live in about a third of the European continent, often alongside humans. In Europe alone, some 17,000 bears are now scattered across 22 countries, thanks in part to directed conservation efforts.

The shift hasn’t always been easy, and more than Señora Garrido’s cider is at stake. The reappearance of wild wolves in Germany has caused some consternation, while certain farmers in Scotland worry about lynx raiding their livestock. Spain’s program to cultivate the brown bear population will bring ecotourists, some locals hope, and regenerate a region that has lost half its human population to urbanization over the past 40 years. But in some ways the effort has juxtaposed conservationist ideals with practical realities. As a 2013 European Commission report noted, human beings “have forgotten how to share their living space with big, hairy, fanged and potentially dangerous, large animals.”

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Amid aging infrastructure and thick red tape, Indian tribes see the worst of California’s drought

Terray Sylvester

Deep in the rainforests of northern California, Helen Smoker watched the artesian spring above her home dwindle to a trickle, and then fail completely in mid-March, well before the onset of summer.

Smoker, who is 84, lives in Weitchpec, a small community—one corner store and a few houses—perched above the Klamath River on the Yurok Indian Reservation in Northern California’s Humboldt County. Smoker’s ancestors have lived in Weitchpec for centuries, if not millennia, relying on the spring for a portion of their drinking water. But the severe drought that has afflicted the state over the past four years has begun to sap even the most reliable of water sources, including the creeks and springs of the usually lush forests of the Klamath Basin.

“Our community systems are drying up,” said Yurok Chairman Thomas O’Rourke. “With the lack of rain, even the groundwater isn’t recharging like it should.”

A rope swing dangles high above the remnants of the drought-stricken Trinity Reservoir in northern California in late March, 2015. Below the reservoir, the Trinity River flows into the Klamath River, providing drinking water to two of California’s largest Indian tribes: the Hoopa and the Yurok. Thanks to the drought, both tribes are suffering water shortages.(Credit: Terray Sylvester)
A rope swing dangles high above the remnants of the drought-stricken Trinity Reservoir in northern California in late March, 2015. Below the reservoir, the Trinity River flows into the Klamath River, providing drinking water to two of California’s largest Indian tribes: the Hoopa and the Yurok. Thanks to the drought, both tribes are suffering water shortages.(Credit: Terray Sylvester)

Three of the tribe’s five community water systems are stressed almost to the point of failure. More than 100 people rely on those systems, and many of them will likely go without potable tap water in the coming summer.

But only one third of the reservation’s 1,000 residents draw their water from community systems. Most of the rest, like Helen Smoker, draw their water from private sources—single creeks, springs, and a few wells. These sources are particularly vulnerable to the drought.

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El Mar Se Comió Todo: On the Shrinking of Cuba

Visiting climate refugees in a disappearing Cuba.

Mallory Pickett

Dilcia Edreida Alarcon in the government housing where she lives now. (Photo: Mallory Pickett)
Dilcia Edreida Alarcon in the government housing where she lives now. (Photo: Mallory Pickett)

October 23, 2005, began as a calm day in Dilcia Edreida Alarcón’s hometown—Playa Rosario, a fishing village just south of Havana. But around 6 p.m., she noticed the waves. They were huge, and getting bigger—up to four meters high—breaking closer and closer to her beachfront home. The radio alert she had been waiting for came: Wilma was furiously churning toward Cuba’s south coast, the most intense hurricane ever recorded over the Atlantic.

As the waves pounded the shore, Alarcón and her neighbors gathered everything they could, and fled. Officials from the ministry of civil defense took them to an inland shelter to wait the storm out.

This was the most active hurricane season ever recorded over the Atlantic: Katrina had blasted through New Orleans just two months before, and Wilma was the fifth in a series of record-breaking storms that caused nearly 1,700 deaths and $100 billion in damages in the United States alone. Rosario residents had weathered many storms over the years, and been evacuated often. After each hurricane, they returned to re-build their ravaged homes. But this time was different. Cuban land use officials knew Playa Rosario was doomed. The sea was rising, and Rosario was built on sinking land. It would be completely submerged by 2050, and the shoreline was already retreating as much as three feet per year. Every hurricane scraped more dirt and sand from the crumbling shoreline, and, in the years to come, the waters would keep rising higher and the storms would keep getting stronger.

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Return to Elwha

By Jason Jaacks

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Evolving the Grid

By Meghan Walsh Hurricane Sandy served as a sobering wake-up call to the ways in which we consume and store energy. 

Behind the Times

The day after Hurricane Sandy hurled against land 8.5 million businesses and households were without power. Two days later, 4.8 million customers remained in the dark, and the majority of gas stations in affected areas were already sucked dry.

Those without generators or the fuel to run them had nothing to keep food or medications cold. They couldn’t charge cell phones or turn on lights. They couldn’t run heaters, even as temperatures in some areas dipped into the teens that week.

By day five, 2.2 million people were still cut off. A month after the storm, more than 36,000 residents continued to wait for their power to be restored. And this was in the year 2012.

In comparison to other technological innovations, the American power grid remains antiquated and in need of a major overhaul. (Photo: April CC-BY-2.0)
In comparison to other technological innovations, the American power grid remains antiquated and in need of a major overhaul. (Photo: April CC-BY-2.0)

In an era distinguished by revolutionary bounds in technology, this country’s electrical infrastructure remains stuck in the past – in a time when electronics didn’t track our every action and data didn’t drive our every decision. The utility grid, having been designed more than 100 years ago, is, to say the least, outdated. And it’s costly – in every sense. Consumers pay an estimated $150 billion per year in costs related to power outages. Then, not only is the electricity network not equipped to handle severe weather, as Hurricane Sandy emphasized, but the fuel it relies on is directly contributing to climate change. A Department of Energy press release issued a month after the disaster stated it bluntly: “We ignore the climate threat at our peril.”

But until recently the mammoth power companies had monopolies. Without competition or government regulation there was little incentive for reform. Renewables have changed that, though, by injecting new options into the market. If people don’t want to purchase electricity from the grid, they can turn to solar. Moving forward this means that consumer demand will shape the power structures to come. The question is: What will we choose for our energy future?

How fast and in what ways will generation, distribution and consumption change? While energy independence on a national level has been on the political agenda since the mid 1900s, self-reliance – as American a sensibility as there is – is hardly discussed. But massive outages like those during Sandy have become a beacon, warning of the obstacles that lie ahead with the current system.

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Sustainable Oceans: Micronesian Outer Islanders Hold a Key

UN, Scientists Alarmed Over Plan to Dump Dredged Mud In Great Barrier Reef

By Brittany Patterson

Australia’s coal port expansion project could place reef on UNESCO “World Heritage in Danger” list in 2015

After waffling about changing the Great Barrier Reef’s World Heritage Site status for the last two years, the United Nations recently let Australia off with a warning that the iconic reef could be added to the “World Heritage in Danger” list in 2015 if the country went ahead with a proposal to dump 3 million cubic meters of dredged spoil in the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park.

Photo © Tom Jefferson / Greenpeace
Photo © Tom Jefferson / Greenpeace

At the UNESCO’s world heritage committee’s annual meeting in Doha in June, the committee said that Australia shouldn’t have approved the dumping “prior to having undertaken a comprehensive assessment of alternative and potentially less impacting development and disposal options.”

Most of the 46 sites in the current World Heritage in Danger list are in developing or war-torn countries, with Syria and Congo dominating the list.  Only a few sites, such as Florida’s Everglades National Park, are in developed nations. 

Australia has said in the past that the impact of the dredging would be offset by a series of programs to bolster the reef’s health, which would improve the water quality by 150 percent. But the UN world heritage committee says it hadn’t seen a clear proposal for how that would be achieved. Australia now says it will provide a long-term plan for how it will care for the reef before the UN committee meets again in 2015.

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Mining in Mexico

U.S. company’s open pit gold mine in UNESCO reserve in Mexico raises concerns

By Tanya Dimitrova

An American mining company pushes plans for an open pit gold mine in a UNESCO biosphere reserve in Baja California Sur, Mexico. Endemic species and environmentally sustainable ranching practices are threatened.

Sierra la Laguna is a unique ecosystem reserve spanning more than 100,000 hectares in the southern tip of the California peninsula. It is one of the best-preserved natural areas in Mexico and home to about 100 traditional farmer families as well as multiple endemic animal and plant species. The heart of the reserve is a pristine pine and oak forest at the top of the mountain, according to engineer Jesús Quiñónez, director of the reserve. But there is one more thing that makes the region unique: approximately 2 million ounces of gold reserves underground worth $2.8 billion at current gold prices.  Vista Gold – an American company based in Colorado – has purchased the mining rights and is proposing an open pit mine to extract the gold. If the plans are approved by the Mexican government, the company will dig out 180 million tons of rock. Forty million tons will be soaked in cyanide solution to separate the gold from the ore and then stored in holes in the ground lined with plastic. The remaining 140 million tons of mining waste will be piled on the side as new hills.

View Baja California Sur in a larger map

The region around the nature reserve has a long mining history – the Spanish conquistadors started digging for gold 200 years ago. As a heritage from the past two centuries, there is already about 800,000 tons of mining waste piled up on the side of the road. But by comparison, with the new open pit mining project this amount of waste would be generated every 16 days of mining operations for the next 10 years.

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Troubled Waters

https://vimeo.com/94618247

Cuba Caught At Agricultural Crossroads

By Adam Calo

At a small experimental farm 15 miles southeast of Fidel Castro’s suburban residence on the outskirts of Havana, Dr. Fernando Funes-Monzote, a renowned agronomist and new farmer, is for the first time paying his workers based on total sales rather than a predetermined salary.“Everybody is a little nervous, but this is necessary to prove that this type of farm can be sustained,” he says. 

Funes’ farm, eight hectares of land that he has owned since 2012, is a living testament to his faith in small-scale production. His project, called La Finca Marta, aims to demonstrate that farms based on biodiversity and intensive management can thrive in a rapidly changing economy, producing high quality products without the need for transgenic crops or mechanization.

Funes exudes an electric energy, pulling weeds as he walks around the farm, calling out the scientific name of pollinating insects and pointing out new seedlings of his 35 crop species that have been dispersed by the wind. The farm is a melting pot of agroecological techniques.  Near a worm compost bin, a small herd of goats are clearing the undergrowth of a coconut orchard, fertilizing the paddock at the same time. Twenty beehives produce eight different types of honey that change in flavor and color depending on the availability of carefully managed wild flowers. Next to an open-air library featuring agronomy texts, two dense beds of mint are nearly ready to be sold to restaurants that market ‘organic’ mojitos in the Capital. A few turkeys underneath a portable wire netting are being given a trial run to see if they will provide targeted pest relief and soil improvement. 

Funes’ effort to start a new farm is driven in part by the socialist state’s piecemeal efforts to liberalize its economy. With Raul Castro to step down in 2018 and the US embargo weakening, Cuba has taken baby steps away from the Marxist ideal, ceding state control to a variety of private sectors like transportation, food milling and processing, real estate, and, most notably, agricultural production.

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Feeding Nunavut

Oysters and Acidification on the California Coast

Climate California

By Sean Greene

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Saving Baja

Sarah Yolanda McClure

Mexican and Americans alike have enjoyed swimming and surfing on the pristine beaches of Mexico’s Baja California for decades. Yet a recent industrial boom has brought commercial development to the Ensenada coastline. In an effort to save the natural beauty, a group of cross-border allies are trying to create Baja’s first state park in San Miguel, one of Mexico’s busiest towns.

Photo: Screen grab of #SaveSanMiguel video (YouTube).
Photo: Screen grab of #SaveSanMiguel video (YouTube).

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Desertification in Morocco

Southern Morocco’s desert oases are disappearing as temperatures increase and rainfall decreases due to climate change

Samantha Clark, James Tensuan

Southern Morocco’s desert oases are disappearing as temperatures increase and rainfall decreases due to climate change. Over the last century, roughly two-thirds of these ancient ecosystems have vanished, according to Aziz Akhannouch, the country’s minister of agriculture and marine fisheries, turning oases into desert at an accelerating pace.

Desertification has people changing the ways they get water and protect their land. Farmers are laying long thin rubber irrigation tubes called drip lines, nomads digging deeper wells and non-profits are promoting dams and solar power. But their efforts aren’t enough to prevent the desert from expanding.

Desertification is visible across southern Morocco. Once lush oases have become drier due to the effects of drought, groundwater exploitation and the deforestation of palms. The remaining trees provide dense shade that keeps fields and orchards cool. After tending to his wheat, Ouida Moha escapes from the noonday sun under the shelter of palms in Ferkla, an oasis greatly affected by desertification. “It’s getting tougher to grow here because of the lack of water,” he said. “I’m old, though, and I can’t start another career.”

Because of drought, riverbeds are running dry. The wind then blows their sand onto oases. To prevent the sand from entering their fields, farmers erect fences to protect their crops.

The owners of the farm where Ahmed Ouhssou works had to dig a new well a few months ago after an old one ran dry. They also installed drip irrigation to cut down on water use.

“Look at the mountains,” he said, pointing to the white tips of the Atlas Mountains. “There’s not that much snow anymore. That’s not good. It means there won’t be that much water underground.”

To find water, people have to dig deeper to at least 100 meters below ground to find water. The increasing difficulty of finding water has led many people to move to the cities. “The neighbor’s children moved and send money back,” Ouhssou said. “Our way of life is changing.”

The over-cutting of palms quickens the effects of desertification. In addition to providing cool cover, their roots support the soil. People are trying to plant more palms and better maintain their health to stave off the desert.

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Mustapha El Mouaatamid is the Director of Economic Development at a local non-profit organization that’s trying to build a dam and concrete channels to bring water to Ferkla. Before 1993, he said, water filled the underground aquifers. “It was paradise here,” he said, “Just so green.” The lush landscape grew from palms rich with dates. Bees bounced between flowers and herbs to produce rich honey. And people worked in their fields under storks and other birds tending to their nests. “It even sounds different now,” El Mouaatamid said. “Most birds are gone.”

With a dam, El Mouaatamid says, Ferkla could look like another southern town, Agdz, where water rushes into the oasis frequently from a dam.

But while dams bring water, they’re not without controversy. One problem is that they lead to the evaporation of huge amounts of water, which increases salt concentrations. Lahcen Afoui comes to public faucets on the edge of Agdz three times a week because the water closer to his house is salty.

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The prolonged drought has left rivers like this one in Fint dry. The old irrigation canals, which feed the oasis, are too far from the water source now.

Southern Morocco is rural with many one-street towns that dot the highway. Many people aren’t aware of climate change and say the drought is in God’s hands.

“God is punishing us,” said Latefa Bakdouri, while harvesting weeds and grass to feed her goats. “There is less rain and less grass because people aren’t thankful to God, and they don’t help the poor.” Bakdouri said her husband is sick and her sons have moved to big cities.

Across the region, there are dusty plains with building ruins and old fences that were once verdant orchards and fields. When Fatima Elgamdawi, a 40-year-old Berber woman watching her goats and sheep here in Aitgemdou, was growing up, she said this field used to grow wheat and almond trees. But then the rain stopped. “Now we have to buy grass and alfalfa to feed our animals,” she said. “It’s more expensive, a burden.”

Faska Bourza, right, says there is no longer water in places where his tribe of nomads used to find it. Instead of every four or five days, they have to search every three. “We have to dig deeper too,” Bourza said. “Before it was easy to find water at 12 meters underground. Now, we find it at 50.”

More Moroccans are installing solar panels on top of their wells to save money and cut down on the use of gasoline when pumping water, which is getting more difficult harder as wells need to go deeper because the water table is depleted. According to the World Bank, Morocco relies on imported sources of fossil fuels for 97 percent of its energy consumption. Here, outside of Risanni, Youssef Sagoui and nine brothers saved up for a year to buy a solar panel with help from a non-profit.

Closer to town, Hmidani Abderrahmane tends to his small field after work as a director of a cultural center in Rissani. His father used to farm on this land when he was growing up and when it was green. He used to look for bird nests, but over the years, the number of birds have dwindled. This part of the oasis has turned to desert.

“During my childhood, there were people working here,” Abderrahmane said. “Now, there is no one. They moved to the city.” He still works the land to keep the tradition of farming here alive, but it’s tough. “Even if a tree dies or a field doesn’t succeed, I’ll try again and again,” he added.

People in rural areas like Rashid Tajmatinz, who depend on agricultural work, have been moving to Morocco’s cities to find work. Tajmatinz and his family came to Ouarzazate because the lack of water in their village made it too difficult to farm. Now he works a small plot of land in the greenbelt outside Ouarzazate that was designed to keep desertification at bay.

In 2005, the Moroccan government, nonprofits and private investors started the greenbelt. Like a community forest, Parc Anatim is a working landscape 25 acres in size. Companies and individuals like Tajmatinz have plots to grow different crops irrigated with recycled water. The vegetative cover helps protect the land from erosion, salinization and other forms of degradation.