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..."