Thursday, December 2, 2010

Book Review - "Nature's Matrix"

The park system is the prevailing model for biodiversity protection in the world - think Teddy R. and the US National Park Service; think Tanzania's Selous National Park, the biggest in the world. Armed guards, strict rules, "nature here, humans there". Biologists have long recognized that local extinctions were common, even in these big, dynamic parks, so "corridors" were the rage a few years ago, little pathways that would connect two "natural" areas to each other to allow migration (the solution to local extinction) - bridges over busy highways, for example. Most ecologists have found this approach hasn't worked.

Using an array of different disciplinary perspectives (biology, history, politics, anthropology), Perfecto et al. propose a "matrix" model of biodiversity protection that recognizes humans as potential stewards of the environment right where they live and work. Conservationists, they argue, have been blind to the political realities that drive extinction in the most sensitive regions, regions that happen to be in the poorest areas of the world. They focus their attention on agriculture, which has been such a destructive force in places like Brazilian Amazon. But they draw an important distinction between the Green Revolution-style industrial system usually encouraged by the global economic powers and the farming practiced by smallholders around the world. The latter, they argue, actually contribute to this matrix of biodiversity by showing more care for the land and thus conservationists should support and work closely with rural social movements that advocate for them.

The book cites two large case studies from Latin America from coffee farms in Central America and cocoa farms in Brazil. In both cases, the authors found a rich diversity of species living in and migrating through the farms. These farms practiced traditional and/or sustainable methods that involved the use of naturally occurring shade trees. Examples of maize farming in Mexico and wetland protection via rice fields in Southeast Asia are also provided. The authors make a well-developed argument that supporting such farms should be central to any conservation plan, especially in the developing world.

One minor criticism I have is the authors' somewhat incongruous choice of cash crop farms as a case study in arguing for food sovereignty. The methods practiced by these farmers is admirable, but they're still at the whim of global markets to a large extent. Farms provisioning food for local markets should play a bigger role in any discussion of food sovereignty. Nevertheless, the findings are hopeful and paradigm-rattling and will likely make conservationists and rural development practitioners rethink their methods.

Sunday, June 6, 2010

The Case for Undevelopment

Perhaps some of the energy exerted on developing poor countries would be better spent encouraging developed countries to de-grow. I've been stumbling across subtle advocates for such an idea lately, from a number of different, and somewhat unlikely, professions: a (famous) farmer, an MIT-educated inventor and architects, respectively:

The nearly intolerable irony in our dissatisfaction is that we have removed pleasure from our work in order to remove "drudgery" from our lives. if I could pick any rule of industrial economics to receive a thorough re-examination by our people, it would be the one that says all hard physical work is "drudgery" and not worth doing.
- What Are People For? Wendell Berry, 1990

The real problem with cell phones isn't technological; it's cultural. Coveting slightly fancier models, we abandon flawlessly functioning devices after just a year or two... "It's not enough to say that we need some nerds to invent a new energy source and some other nerds to figure out a carbon-sequestration technology... We've been working on energy for a few thousand years, so we've already turned over most of the stones...There are enormous clues about efficiency to be found in the way we used to do things, before energy was essential free."... [Now] Griffith's focus is on ways in which affluent societies can make dramatic reductions in energy use without reducing their perceived quality of life." - "The Inventor's Dilemma", The New Yorker, May 17, 2010

Montreal has tried to recreate the neighborhood by decentralizing its government somewhat and having neighborhood-level governments. [They] try to recreate that pre-industrial sense that you had a neighborhood, you controlled things... That's one option-breaking it down, creating some kind of neighborhood-level jurisdiction. - "The Urbanist", Urbanite magazine, June 2010

I was in Peru and visited a building near Lima built by the Incas. It was low in height, with no windows at all, but all the way in the back there was air movement. And I couldn’t figure out how they’d done it, it was incredible. So there’s a lot of primitive stuff that’s been done that doesn’t require advanced technologies that we should focus on. And when we do focus on technology it should be with an aesthetic sensibility. And above all we need to take the issue seriously so that our clients and our partners in the construction industry become aware of the possibilities. - Architect Frank Gehry, Need to Know

Saturday, May 22, 2010

Women Farming

Lately, I can't get my hands on enough about sustainable farming. Was it the Deepwater Horizon disaster that sent me into this frenzy? The fact that agriculture accounts for 40% of oil use in this country? Maybe that's part of it. Yesterday I read NGO Concern's report about women marginal farmers and the disheartening statistics:

• African women carry out 90 percent of the work of processing food crops and providing household water and wood, and 80 percent of the work of food storage and transport from farm to village.
• In Southeast Asia, women provide up to 90 percent of labour for rice cultivation.
• Despite their huge contribution to food output, women “own only 1 percent of the land in developing countries, and receive only 7 percent of agricultural extension time and resources”

How screwed up is that? One positive story the report mentions is the Deccan Development Society in India that's successfully supported groups of women farmers. A video:

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Domestic Eco-Tourism in Lebanon

PRI's The World reports on a movement in Lebanon to hike and maintain the country's extensive and beautiful nature trails.

Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Valete Lacus

The UNEP/GRID-Arendal has a number of interesting maps related to poverty and the environment on their website, including this one, of Lake Chad:

(Philippe Rekacewicz (Le Monde diplomatique), February 2006)

An alarming number of seas and lakes around the world are facing the same fate as Lake Chad, including Chapala in Mexico, Israel's Lake Tiberias (aka "the Sea of Galilee") and Lake Faguibine in Mali among many many others.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Sustainable Food Security

The UNEP’s recent report, The Environmental Food Crisis, outlines seven ways to improve human food security (I’ve paraphrased here):

1) Implement tougher price regulations to minimize crippling price fluctuations.
2) Remove subsidies from “first generation” biofuels (eg, crops like corn, soy, sugar, etc.) to encourage the use of “higher generation” biofuels (ie, the stuff people were going to toss anyway) to free up land for people food.
3) Stop using valuable cereals and fish in animal food. Use these crops for people instead and let the animals have the “fish discards” and “post-harvest losses”.
4) Support sustainable farmers (ie, those that provide ecosystem services to the community).
5) Increased market access (but not free market access – see point #1).
6) Encourage land use policies that mitigate climate change. Educate people on the effects of population and consumption on food supply.

Thursday, March 18, 2010

Profile: King Ashoka

I'm in the midst of watching the visually-stunning PBS documentary The Story of India in which we're told of the 3rd century BC King Ashoka and his progressive governing style. After pillaging the city of Kalinga he regrets his actions and turns to Buddhism. Ashoka's edicts, which were posted throughout his empire on stone pillars, include notable sections on the protection of animals.

Twenty-six years after my coronation various animals were declared to be protected... parrots, mainas, //aruna//, ruddy geese, wild ducks, //nandimukhas, gelatas//, bats, queen ants [queen ants!!] ... Those nanny goats, ewes and sows which are with young or giving milk to their young are protected, and so are young ones less than six months old. Cocks are not to be caponized, husks hiding living beings are not to be burnt and forests are not to be burnt either without reason or to kill creatures. One animal is not to be fed to another.

While Buddhism's influence on India waned after Ashoka, his "trademark" symbol was chosen to grace the Indian national flag after independence in 1947. In addition, the first (and at the time, future) vice president, Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan, announced that the green of the flag represents India's "relation to (the) soil, our relation to the plant life here, on which all other life depends".

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Sharing the Mekong

Just as Earthscan prepares to publish a new book, Contested Waterscapes in the Mekong Region, news came out this week that water levels in the Mekong River are the lowest they’ve been in 20 years. Fishing’s bad, irrigation sources are drying up and cargo ships have been grounded, according to Al Jazeera. In Southeast Asia, anger’s directed at Chinese hydropower projects further up the river while China asserts that climate change is causing the low water.

The Mekong River Commission is the regional body in charge of managing this shared resource, but China’s not a full member (nor, unsurprisingly, is Burma).

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Green Kenya

Kenya stands at an enviable position in terms of the amount of power it gets from renewable energy. And when the massive Lake Turkana Wind Power Project is complete, it will be the largest producer of national-grid fed wind energy in the world. This is big news for a country where only 1 in 5 people has electricity. The project faced some financial setbacks recently, but Spain stepped in to provide a €110 million loan to bolster completion. The project has largely been financed by the African Development Bank and firms in England and the Netherlands who are earning interest on the loans and feed-in tarriffs.

Friday, February 26, 2010

The Golden Rule

The ESOL class I teach recently regrouped for the new semester. My students are mostly from Central America: six represent the region comprising Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala (there's a Peruvian outlier in there too). Activists in all three countries have recently struggled against the dubious activities of gold mining companies. In El Salvador, three anti-mining activists were recently murdered. They were opposed to the gold mines of Canadian company Pacific Rim and the community suspects the company was involved in the murders. Amnesty UK reports that when a local radio station there broadcast details about the murders, radio employees received death threats. In Honduras, activists suspect that another Canadian company, Goldcorp, was involved (indirectly or directly) in the country's June 28, 2009 military coup d'etat. And in Guatemala, where Goldcorp is also active, residents decided to take their concerns about environmental damage and harassment directly to the Canadian government and filed a formal complaint. MP John McKay introducted Bill C-300 last year that would put tougher restrictions and pull government support from these companies. It's sitting in Canada's senate but McKay predicts it won't pass.

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Nouveau Ninth

I just returned from the International Studies Conference in New Orleans last weekend. While there, M. and I took a tour of the city and the still very noticeable effects of Katrina. Amidst all the empty lots and vacant homes of the Lower 9th Ward, all these little funky, colorful houses are popping up: homes with solar panels and homes that can float should the area flood again (locals apparently refer to them as the "Brad Pitt Houses" for the nonprofit that's building many of them). Most stand up on stilts and come in interesting geometric shapes, with some carrying the faint spirit of the New Orleans' traditional shotgun house. Since the devastation, the area has become a laboratory for green building ideas and residents are generally happy to have them although there are some criticisms of the design sensibilities:

James Dart, a Manhattan-based architect who was born and raised in New Orleans, described the houses as “alien, sometimes even insulting,” adding, “the biggest problem is that they are not grounded in the history of New Orleans architecture.” But, like other architects I spoke to, he expressed admiration for Mr. Pitt. “He deserves a great deal of credit,” Mr. Dart said, adding that Mr. Pitt had “done more for New Orleans” than any government agency.

Saturday, February 13, 2010

Haiti's Trees

The earthquake in Haiti has brought renewed attention to its most serious environmental, and perhaps economic, problem: the lack of trees. By the end of the 20th century, 98% of the trees in the country had been cut down, mostly to produce charcoal for cookstoves. This accelerated desertification, droughts and erosion, making it harder to grow food on the land. Joseph Treaster highlights a new Columbia University and UNEP plan that involves replanting trees, providing fertilizer to increase crop yield, and "persuading Haitians to rely less heavily on wood and charcoal for cooking fires". These ideas are hardly new. In fact, foreigners have been interested in reforesting Haiti since the 1940s, and have found little success. Poor Haitians resented being forced by outsiders and their government to spend efforts growing unwanted trees on land they might not own and being penalized when they didn't properly comply.

Without planning to, I found the most instructive information on this history from a Kumarian title, Reasons for Hope. In it, the authors describe a successful 1980s agroforestry project through USAID called AOP that worked precisely because it focused on generating income for Haitians rather than forcing them to submit to foreigners "ecological sermonizing". Also, local farmers were to take responsibility for small plots of trees rather than attempt to reforest large tracts of land that they didn't own. Even though it achieved a lot, the project fell apart in the 90s largely due to loss of funding.

Friday, February 5, 2010

Costs of Cotton

One of my favorite books is Chasing the Sea: Lost Among the Ghosts of Empire in Central Asia by Tom Bissell. I purposely sought out a book on Uzbekistan because it was a place I’d never heard much about. At the center of the story is one of the worst environmental disasters in history – the disappearance of the Aral Sea. The political culprits comprise a long line from the Soviet Union up to the present day, but the agricultural offender has always been the same: cotton. Really, one of the most toxic crops to produce – it sucks the land dry and uses heaps of pesticides and fertilizers. In Uzbekistan, kids supply the labor needed to harvest cotton.

China, both a top importer and exporter of the crop, is finding the environmental toll in its own country so serious that it’s hired a Canadian research firm to help it come up with a new policy and trade strategy that will lower its reliance on “dirtier” sources of cotton.

Thursday, February 4, 2010

Apple Forests

This is a juicy image: miles and miles of apple trees. Orion Magazine published a great story on the origins of the world's apple varieties in the Kazakh mountains. Some passionate local conservationists are attempting to catalog and save the trees from homogenized varieties and urban development. Preserving these ancient plant varieties is an important part of food security.

North America may have once harbored a dazzling array of absolutely delicious apples, but the magnitude of Kazakhstan’s current apple diversity dwarfs anything that this continent has ever known, since apples have been evolving in Central Asia for upwards of 4.5 million years. Apples, however, do not comprise all of Kazakhstan’s bounty. Dzangaliev and Salova have estimated that within Kazakhstan’s flora of 6,000 species, at least 157 are either the direct precursors or close wild relatives of domesticated crops. Aimak and Tatiana believe that 90 percent of all cultivated fruits of the world’s temperate zones were historically found in Kazakhstan’s forests, confirming the country’s status—first suggested by Vavilov—as a center of origin for many of the planet’s major fruit tree crops.

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Whither EPA?

In Obama's Q&A with the House last week, W.Virginia Rep Shelley Moore Capito asked what Obama was doing to keep energy jobs in that state:

We're resource rich. We have a lot of coal and a lot of natural gas. But our --
my miners and the folks who are working and those who are unemployed are very
concerned about some of your policies in these areas: cap-and-trade, an
aggressive EPA and the looming prospect of higher taxes. In our minds, these are
job-killing policies.
What struck the most discordant tone for me was the phrase "an aggressive EPA". I recalled an article my friend (and W. Virginia native) Rachel sent me several months ago, part of the NYT's series Toxic Waters. It's hard to walk away from the article thinking that the EPA shouldn't step up its "aggression", big-time, especially in West Virginia. In the past few years, the EPA stopped enforcing many Clean Water Act violations meant to protect people from water polluted with industrial chemicals.

For instance, three coal companies — Loadout, Remington Coal and Pine Ridge, a
subsidiary of Peabody Energy, one of the largest coal companies in the world —
reported to state officials that 93 percent of the waste they injected near this
community had illegal concentrations of chemicals including arsenic, lead,
chromium, beryllium or nickel. Sometimes those concentrations exceeded legal
limits by as much as 1,000 percent. Those chemicals have been shown to
contribute to cancer, organ failures and other diseases. But those companies
were never fined or punished for those illegal injections, according to state
records. They were never even warned that their activities had been noticed...
“We are outmanned and overwhelmed, and that’s exactly how industry wants us,”
said one (EPA) employee who requested anonymity for fear of being fired. “It’s
been obvious for decades that we’re not on top of things, and coal companies
have earned billions relying on that.”

West Virginia has many problems, but an over-zealous EPA certainly isn't one of them.

Monday, February 1, 2010

All Your Base are Belong to Us

Kumarian published a book in 2008, Reluctant Bedfellows, that documented the legacy of prostitution around Clark Air Force Base in the Philippines. Though the base closed in 1991, the local town of Angeles City now attracts a host of sex tourists from around the world. Turns out the military left more than a prostitution industry. Stars and Stripes reports that while Clark and Subic Naval Base (also shuttered in '91) were in operation, they regularly dumped raw sewage into local fishing waters and fuel and chemicals into the groundwater supply. Three landfills at Subic contain toxic metals and other materials which the indigenous population used to sort through for pennies. Unsurprisingly, local residents have come down with a host of illnesses. Both the US and the Philippines continue to ignore the problem. When the two governments shook hands in 1991, money and legal responsibility were tossed like hot potatos.

Saturday, January 30, 2010

Waste Economies

Trash pickers provide an enormous service to poor communities. They take the burden off more formal waste management systems by reducing the amount of trash and the need to transport it, and putting valuable materials back into use. Of course, it's also a dangerous job if you're unearthing sharp metals and biohazards and dodging heavy machinery. In many places, these individual trash collectors are forming cooperatives and even, in some cases, their own recycling centers.

Thursday, January 28, 2010


Right before Yemen was grabbing headlines for being connected to the Christmas day bombing attempt on a Northwest flight, the biggest news coming out of the country was its water shortages, not terrorism. Oil is one thing to run out of, but water? The show's over if that ever happens. Yemen is the canary in the coal mine on this issue. The water table in some areas has dropped from 70 feet below the surface to a whopping 700 feet. The capital of Yemen, Sanaa, is expected to run out of water within the next decade. Yemen never had a lot of water to begin with, but the Telegraph reports that diversion to produce the cash crops like the drug qat (it takes up 40% of the water supply!) making it a critical problem. Population growth is also seen as a factor (Yemen has one of the highest birth rates), but this brings up some controversy: how can people in rich countries who "flush their drinking water" as I recall someone on my Twitter feed saying, profess to the Third World on their resource issues? It's definitely a recurring theme, one that appeared noticeably at the Copenhagen Climate talks.

Thursday, January 21, 2010

Our Better Natures

A few nights ago, I met up downtown with two of my friends from college and their significant others. Laura’s getting a Ph.D in Anthropology. L.P. works in health systems at USAID (and is also pursuing a Ph.D. in Global Health). After a few drinks, the discussion started getting philosphical. Are humans inherantly selfish or community-focused?; are social justice and poverty issues best solved through institutional means or via grassroots organizing? L.P. took the former position in both cases, Laura the latter. Both have relevant experiences that back up their opinions. I smiled through my pleasant buzz, knowing that my two friends both have the same goals at heart. I tend to take the middle ground in such debates, though I generally lean toward L.P.’s camp.

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Filling the Black Box

An interview with investigative journalist Liu Jianqiang provides insight into China's environmental journalism. He makes the case that fighting for environmental issues isn't (shouldn't be?) a political issue, yet journalists are routinely targeted by local governments and corporations for revealing the shady underbelly of the country's "progress". No surprise there. But interestingly, those in PRC's top-level positions have responded to some of Jianqiang's stories with seemingly favorable responses. Premier Wen Jiabao shut down (temporarily?) the illegal Tiger Leaping Gorge Dams after his damning (ha) story appeared, and similar responses followed his investigiations of geneticlaly modified rice and "lakebed waterproofing" (huh?).

Other tidbits:

* Jianqiang says there's a fine line between journalism and activism in China when it comes to the environment.
* Internet censorship is big, but Jianqiang says it's easier to evade the censors if you're writing on Chinese sites in English.
* Journalism had a direct effect on citizen action in the Tiger Leaping Gorge case - copies of his articles were distributed and 10,000 local residents protested. Some confronted local officials with the details in the article.

The title of the article this post links to mentions "China's Environmental Movement" but I can't say I learned a lot about specific citizen efforts beyond traditional journalism.

Monday, January 18, 2010

Static Heritage

An interesting land use irony was highlighted in the 2009 UN Report State of the World's Indigenous Peoples. That is, what happens when protecting a particular culturally significant spot actually leads to its decay? In this case, the place is the Ifugao Rice Terraces in the Philippines, a striking, 2000-year-old water-harvesting system. The site was declared a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1995. The heightened attention due to this designation has increased tourist traffic to the area, driving up demand for hotels and nicknacks produced from cash crops.

Whilst land management of the past placed most importance and protection on the
forested areas above the terraces in their roles as water sources and soil
stabilizers, the “heritage” view delineates the terraces from the rest of the
landscape as the places of greatest importance and protection, hence more recent
houses are built for the most part in the “muyong” 76 zone of the mountain,
above the terraces.

While it's questionable whether the area wouldn't face the same problems were it not classified a UNESCO site, this shows how conservation efforts are sometimes misplaced on one (flashy) aspect of the environment at the detriment to the entire system in which it exists.

Sunday, January 17, 2010


I recently learned, from watching the documentary The World According to Sesame Street, that Bangladesh has been producing its own version of Sesame Street, Sisimpur, for the last 5 years. Cofunded by Bangladesh Television (BTV) and USAID, the show is the first educational show for children in the country. It looks like a lot of fun -- instead of Big Bird, the main character is a environmentalist tiger named Halum.

Producer Nadine Zylstra... worked with advisors to develop characters that are
uniquely Bangladeshi and continue the country’s artistic tradition of puppet
making. As Chief Creative Advisor Mustafa Manwar explains, “This is a developing country. But one thing we are very, very proud of is our literature, culture and song... in this world, internationalism doesn’t mean that you must copy each country. It means your best thing, your own country’s best thing, when you can give it to the world, they will appreciate it.”

Friday, January 8, 2010

Wind for Michigan

After losing thousands of auto industry jobs in the last decade, Michigan was looking to invest in renewable energy (specifically, wind) to breath some life back into the manufacturing sector. The Detroit News recently reported that the plan has faced a difficult start though, due to the lagging economy. Wind turbine and blade manufacturers in Novi, Manistee and Holland, among others, are ready to begin production, but the orders aren’t coming in. Much of the support for this industry in Michigan has come from state and federal tax credits.

On a related note, Michigan is also considering installing an offshore wind farm of its own on the west side of the state, in Ludington. Offshore farms are apparently more effective than land-based farms. The idea has faced opposition from people who don’t want to ruin the view, highlighting another example of people using aesthetic values to form opinions about environmental matters. If implemented, it’d be the first offshore wind farm in the US. Having traveled around Germany recently, I rather like wind farms. They’re quite majestic.

Tuesday, January 5, 2010

The Miners of La Negra

One of Utne's top 10 articles of the year is about the miners of the Bolivian town of Potosí. From the late 1500s to the 1800s, the Spanish stripped the mine of its valuable silver (making it "the chief economic engine for the Spanish conquest" and turning Potosí into the "New World's first boomtown" according to author Andrew Westoll). The silver's long gone, but zinc, lead and tin are still excavated by the miners that remain. They're all from indigenous groups and 10% of them are likely children. Though the leading cause of death in the mines is inhalation of silica crystals, and a drill operator isn't expected to live beyond 10 years from the day he starts, the cost of a decent mask is well beyond what a miner earns in a good week.

Westoll argues that the battle over and extraction of natural resources have driven every major political movement in Bolivia since the Spanish arrived.

Monday, January 4, 2010

Organic in Africa

A segment on Marketplace this morning looked at the state of organic farming in Africa. Farmers in Rwanda have trouble acquiring chemical fertilizers. As a result, many are turning to organic methods.

Since organic produce is in such demand, efforts are also underway to support these farmers in getting their produce certified by Global Gap so that they can sell their products in developed countries.

To me, organic is only one part of the equation. Supporting farmers in supplying their local communities with the food they need is just as, if not more, important. Will trade incentives encourage farmers to ship their food halfway around the world rather than supplying food to the people at home who might need it more? Is this a minor concern compared to the income that these farmers forfeit if they don't tap into global markets?

Sunday, January 3, 2010

People Watching

This guy on YouTube travels around the world and sets up his camera on a heavily trafficked walkway for 8 minutes. A simple idea with suprisingly fascinating results. His disclaimer: "Attention!! These are boring..."