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.