Binational Crusade to Save Wetlands

Stephen Leahy*

TORONTO, Sep 8 (Tierramérica) – With 20,000 hectares of bright green in a sea of sand in the state of Sonora, the Ciénaga de Santa Clara is one of Mexico’s richest coastal ecosystems. Faced with the imminent reopening of a desalinisation plant just across the border in the United States, a binational team is working to protect the vast wetland.

Ongoing drought conditions in the south-western United States has prompted the George W. Bush government to finance the restart of the long unused Yuma Desalting Plant (YDP) in the border state of Arizona in 2007.

“Full operation of the desalting plant would mean the ciénaga will get less water and the water would be much saltier,” said Karl Flessa, professor of geosciences at the University of Arizona in Tucson.

And “that would completely eliminate the wetland,” according to Jaqueline García-Hernández, a scientist at a food and development research centre (Centro de Investigación en Alimentación y Desarrollo) in the Mexican city of Guaymas, Sonora.

The Ciénaga de Santa Clara is home to some 225 species of birds, like the Yuma clapper rail (Rallus longirostris yumanensis) and southwest willow flycatcher (Empidonax traillii extimus), which are rare in the United States.

— Tierramerica and Inter Press News Service

Another Piece of Alaska Goes on Sale

Stephen Leahy

BROOKLIN, Canada, Sep 8 (IPS) – While the George W. Bush administration has so far failed in its bid to open up the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to oil and gas drilling, eight million acres of pristine Alaskan wilderness goes on sale to oil and gas companies Sep. 27.

Located west of the Prudhoe Bay’s oil fields, the eight million acres include Teshekpuk Lake and the surrounding wetlands, considered important habitat for caribou and water birds.

“This is the most important bird area in the entire circumpolar Arctic,” said Stan Senner, executive director of Audubon Alaska, an environmental group.

“We’re not opposed to oil and gas development, but it needs to stay out of critical areas like this,” Senner told IPS from Juneau, Alaska.

“The lands near Teshekpuk Lake are one of the most important ecological areas on the entire North Slope,” agreed Nicole Whittington-Evans, assistant regional director in Alaska of the Wilderness Society.

— Inter Press news Service

60 Years to Restore the Ozone Layer Over Antarctica

Stephen Leahy*

TORONTO, Sep 20 (Tierramérica) – Another giant ozone hole has opened up over the Antarctic, while evidence mounts that 20 years of international efforts have finally helped the atmosphere to start to heal itself.

The “hole” over the South Pole — actually an annual thinning of the ozone layer, which protects Earth from the sun’s ultraviolet radiation — measured about 24 million square kilometres, nearly the size of North America, according to the Sep. 8 estimate by the renowned British Antarctic Survey, a scientific organisation that has been studying the region for the past six decades.

The ozone hole will continue to grow and likely be one of the larger and “deeper” ones, perhaps 28 million square kilometres, predicts Andrew Klekociuk of the Australian government’s Antarctic Division. The largest ever recorded was 30.3 million sq km in 2000, according to NASA, the U.S. space agency.

— Tierramerica and Inter Press News Service

Forests Worth Far More Alive Than Dead

Stephen Leahy

BROOKLIN, Canada, Sep 27 (IPS) – Boreal forests provide 250 billion dollars a year in ecosystem services like reducing atmospheric carbon and water filtration, but which have gone unacknowledged by governments and industry, experts say.

Governments need to begin accounting for those services before allowing timber, oil and gas and mining to carve up the world’s remaining northern forests, argues the Edmonton, Canada-based ecological economist Mark Anielski.

The globe-spanning boreal forest is the last great forest ecosystem — larger even than the Amazon. The boreal is also the largest terrestrial storehouse of carbon, making it one of the world’s best defences against global climate change.

“The boreal is like a giant carbon bank account. The forests and peatlands store an estimated 67 billion tonnes of carbon in Canada alone — almost eight times the amount of carbon produced worldwide in the year 2000,” Anielski told IPS.

—Inter Press News Service

Activists Push for Sustainable Mining

By Stephen Leahy

TORONTO, Sep 29, 2006 (Tierramérica)

Civil society activists want the Canadian government to impose mandatory human rights and environmental standards on Canadian mining and oil companies operating in Latin America and other developing regions.

In the past decade Canada has been the world’s biggest investor in the hunt for valuable metals and minerals in Latin America, Jamie Kneen of Mining Watch told Tierramérica. Canadian miners are responsible for environmental contamination and human rights violations all over Latin America, he says.

Canada has nearly 60 percent of the mining and exploration companies in the world; they generate more than 40 billion dollars annually, representing about four percent of Canada’s GDP.

“Canada must set some limits on its companies,” activist Lucio Cuenca Berger told a Canadian government panel holding an open forum on corporate social responsibility in the mining, oil and gas sectors in Toronto Sep. 12-14.

Cuenca Berger is a representative from the Latin America Observatory for Environmental Conflicts, a non-governmental organisation working with Chilean communities affected by mining, including the controversial Pascua-Lama gold mine project owned by Canada’s Barrick Gold Corporation, on the border between Chile and Argentina.

There are environmental concerns that mining operations and waste rock from the Pascua Lama will contaminate the rivers supplying the nearby Huasco Valley where there are some 70,000 small farmers, Berger said through a translator. The 1.5-billion-dollar project’s original design would have had a major impact on the glaciers, but was discarded.

Barrick, the world’s largest gold producer, recently received environmental approval from Chilean authorities to go ahead with Pascua Lama, despite ongoing local opposition.

“In Chile environmental approval is more political than technical,” said Berger.

The inability or unwillingness of local governments to enforce international human rights and environmental standards should not give Canadian companies license to ignore these standards, activists say.

One such company, Manhattan Minerals, spent years trying to force people in the northern town of Tambogrande, Peru to accept an open pit gold mine in the middle of their village before conceding defeat in 2005.

Communities in the Imbabura province in northwestern Ecuador have been forced to file an injunction to stop Ascendant Copper Corporation of Toronto from building an open-pit copper mine on their land, Keen said.

In Mexico, Toronto-based Metallica Resources’ subsidiary, Minera San Xavier (MSX) has begun building a gold mine in San Luis Potosi despite bitter local opposition and court rulings against the mine.

Pierre Gratton of the Canadian Mining Association (CNA), which represents Canada’s largest 25 mining companies, says some Canadian were ill-prepared for conditions in developing countries with weaker governance, unresolved local conflicts and weak environmental laws.

“Clearly there are issues and problems and that’s why we are having these CSR (corporate social responsibility) roundtables,” Gratton told Tierramérica

The current series of public forums, such as the one in Toronto, is a response to both the rising criticism of Canadian mining companies operating abroad and the commitment of the Stephen Harper administration to promote corporate social responsibility internationally.

Two more forums will be held, one in October in Calgary and another in November in Montreal. Based on that input, recommendations will go before the Canadian parliament sometime in 2007.

There are a number of international standards, such as the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) Guidelines for Multinational Enterprises, the United Nations Global Compact, and the International Council on Metals and Mining Sustainable Development Charter, among others.

The CNA has its own standards and most Canadian mining, oil and gas companies have internal standards.

However, a September 2006 research survey by the Canadian Centre for the Study of Resource Conflict shows that only five percent of 584 Canadian extractive-sector companies with international holdings adhere to recognised national or international standards.

“It is abundantly clear existing voluntary standards are not working,” said Omega Bula of the United Church of Canada, which partnered with Catholic organisations and others in the “Life before profit” campaign to improve practices of Canada’s huge international mining industry.

Bula, like most activists at the Toronto meeting, insists that it is Canada’s responsibility to set mandatory codes of conduct for Canadian companies operating in developing countries. Independent audits and a monitoring body would ensure compliance. Companies and company directors should be held accountable for non-compliance under stronger Canadian laws, Bula said.

Transparency is another requirement, activists say. Currently local people do not know how much money their government receives from foreign mining companies.

“The OECD guidelines are fine, as long as there is an independent third party to monitor,” said one activist.

However, an industry official said Canada ought not to presume to regulate how a company operates in another country.

“If it becomes too onerous for Canadian companies to operate in developing countries, they’ll leave,” said Erin Airton of Vancouver’s Platinum Group Metals, which has mines in South Africa and Mexico. “Then someone else will take the minerals.”

Instead of setting mandatory rules, the Canadian government should help countries build their capacity to enforce their own laws and regulations, she said.

Kerry Knoll, President and Chief Executive Officer of Glencairn Gold Corporation, spoke during the forum on the social contributions of his company, which employs 1,200 workers in mines in Costa Rica and Nicaragua. Glencairn provides breakfast for 500 children each morning and training programmes for adults not employed in the mines, Knoll said.

“We operate a gold mill for local artisan miners so they won’t use mercury and pollute the rivers.”

Knoll estimates his company has spent several million dollars on such programmes, but has been accused by NGOs of trying to bribe local people.

However he is in favour of a government report card or audit system.

“Financial investors are increasingly interested in the environmental and social record of companies,” he said. “Making that record public would be a good thing.”

…Tierramerica and Inter Press News Service

Canada Urged to Rein In Soaring Emissions

Stephen Leahy

BROOKLIN, Canada, Sep 29 (IPS) – Canada should move quickly to cut greenhouse gas emissions, the country’s environmental auditor warned Thursday.

Earlier this week, leading U.S. scientists said that the Earth is warmer than it has been in 10,000 years and less than one degree C from being the warmest in a million years.

“Our future is at stake,” said Johanne Gélinas, Canada’s commissioner of the environment and sustainable development.

“I am more troubled than ever by the federal government’s longstanding failure to confront one of the greatest challenges of our time,” Gélinas wrote in her annual audit report.

…Inter Press News Service

Copyright Stephen Leahy

Farmed Salmon Killing Off Wild Cousins

Stephen Leahy

BROOKLIN, Canada, Oct 2 (IPS) – Canada’s open-ocean salmon farms are killing enormous numbers of wild salmon, threatening the species, a new study shows.

Research published Monday found that sea lice — a fish parasite — from salmon farms along the British Columbia coast kill up to 95 percent of the wild juvenile salmon as they head out to sea.

“It is a startling conclusion,” said Alexandra Morton, a biologist with the Raincoast Research Society and co-author of the study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

“We are not going to have any wild salmon at this rate,” Morton told IPS.

—Inter Press News Service

Marine Scientists Report Massive “Dead Zones”

by Stephen Leahy

BROOKLIN, Canada, Oct 5 (IPS) – Rising tides of untreated sewage and plastic debris are seriously threatening marine life and habitat around the globe, the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) warned in a report Wednesday.

The number of ocean “dead zones” has grown from 150 in 2004 to about 200 today, said Nick Nuttall, a UNEP spokesperson.

“These are becoming more common in developing countries,” Nuttall told IPS from Nairobi, Kenya.

Dead zones can encompass areas of ocean 100,000 square kms in size where little can live because there is no oxygen left in the water. Nitrogen pollution, mainly from farm fertilisers and sewage, produces blooms of algae that absorb all of the oxygen in the water.

Growing global populations, mainly concentrated along coastlines, and the resulting increase in untreated sewage are endangering human health and wildlife, as well as livelihoods from fisheries to tourism, according to the “State of the Marine Environment” report.

“An estimated 80 percent of marine pollution originates from the land,” said Achim Steiner, United Nations undersecretary-general and UNEP’s executive director.

“And this could rise significantly by 2050 if, as expected, coastal populations double in just over 40 years time and action to combat pollution is not accelerated,” Steiner said in a statement.

The report is compiled from a wide variety of government, academic and other sources by UNEP’s Global Programme of Action for the Protection of the Marine Environment from Land-Based Sources.

In many developing countries, between 80 percent and nearly 90 percent of sewage entering the coastal zones is estimated to be raw and untreated. These wastes contain bacteria and viruses that can contaminate marine species such as shellfish that are consumed by people, Nuttall said.

Studies in the Caribbean Sea have also shown that sewage encourages the spread of disease in corals, ultimately destroying them. Around 80 percent of Caribbean coral has been lost to disease in the past 20 years, report researchers at the University of North Carolina in the United States.

Some cities in the developed world also dump their sewage directly into waterways.

More than one half of wastewater entering the Mediterranean Sea is untreated, as is 60 percent of the wastewater discharged into the Caspian Sea, the UNEP report found.

Unlike the United States and countries in the European Union, Canada has no national standards for sewage treatment for cities. Montreal dumps billions of litres of untreated sewage into the St. Lawrence River, while the postcard-perfect tourist city of Victoria, British Columbia dumps all of its waste directly into the Pacific Ocean.

Such waste can contain high levels of toxic chemicals, heavy metals and excreted pharmaceuticals. The latter pose risks that are only beginning to be understood. Emerging research shows negative impacts on marine life from residues of birth control and antidepressant drugs like Prozac even at extremely low concentrations of less than one part per billion.

“The big unknown” is what effect these pharmaceutical residues might have on chronically exposed plants, animals and people, Christian Daughton, chief of the environmental chemistry branch at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, has been reported as saying.

Expensive treatment plants are not the only solution to untreated sewages wastes — coastal wetlands, salt marshes and mangroves can also do the job, Nuttall explained.

“It’s important for governments to conserve and rehabilitate these natural features and take their value into consideration in their urban planning,” he said.

Plastic is an even more visible environmental concern, killing more than a million seabirds and 100,000 mammals and sea turtles each year, according to previous U.N. reports.

Plastic bags, bottle tops and polystyrene foam coffee cups are often found in the stomachs of dead sea lions, dolphins, sea turtles and birds. Seagulls in the North Sea had an average of 30 pieces of plastic in their stomachs, according to a Dutch study in 2004.

The volume of plastic debris was estimated at eight million pieces a day in 1982 and is unquestionably much higher today, perhaps double or triple that number. About 20 percent of the plastic in the oceans comes from ships or offshore platforms; the rest is blown or washed off the land, according to the U.S. Commission on Ocean Policy.

Plastic debris is now found everywhere, even the remotest regions of Antarctica.

Truly pristine locales no longer exist, writes David K.A. Barnes of the British Antarctic Survey in a recent paper.

“Some surveys have involved the first known visit by man to very ‘remote’ shores, but our miracle material had long since beaten us there,” he wrote.

In parts of the Southern Ocean, marine debris has tripled in volume in the past decade. Barnes has also shown that marine debris is transporting exotic species to locales they could never have reached normally, changing the ecology of some regions.

Most plastics do not biodegrade, they just break up into ever-smaller particles. British scientists have discovered that microscopic pieces of plastic can be found everywhere in the oceans, even inside plankton, the foundation of the marine food chain.

“The problem of marine litter has steadily grown worse, despite national and international efforts to control it,” acknowledges the UNEP report.

The report’s findings will be officially presented to governments attending a review of the decade-old Global Programme of Action initiative taking place in Beijing, China, from Oct. 16-20.

There have been some improvements, the report notes. Levels of oily waste discharged from industry and cities has, since the mid 1980s, been cut by close to 90 percent. Marine contamination from toxic persistent organic pollutants like DDT and discharges of radioactive waste has also been sharply reduced.

However, larger challenges lie ahead, such as global warming and sea level rise.

“So we have a long way to go politically, technically and financially if we are to hand over healthy and productive seas and oceans to the next generation,” Steiner said.

…Inter Press News Service

Green Chemistry Revolution On Horizon

from franke james
from franke james

New technologies are being employed to curb the use of toxic materials in productive processes and prevent tragic accidents that can potentially claim the lives of thousands of people.

By Stephen Leahy

TORONTO, Sep 25/06 (IPS/IFEJ) – A green chemical revolution is underway that promises to be environmentally sustainable and profitable while reducing the risks of industrial disasters like the Bhopal, India gas leak in 1984.

“Green chemistry” has already turned maize into biodegradable plastics, developed non-toxic solvents and dramatically reduced the toxic byproducts from the manufacture of popular pharmaceuticals like ibuprofen. It is vital to the production of Toyota’s new electric cars, made in part from kenaf, an annual grass plant.

“Green chemistry is about developing new products and processes which actually fit the ‘triple’ bottom line of environmental, economic and social sustainability,” said Robin Rogers, a researcher and director of the University of Alabama’s Center for Green Manufacturing. Continue reading