Category Archives: Amazon

To Steal To Survive: the Illegal Lumberjacks of the Amazon

The Amata logging company was supposed to represent an answer to the thorny problem of how countries like Brazil can take advantage of the Amazon rainforest without widespread deforestation.  But after spending tens of millions of dollars since 2010 to run a 178-square-mile concession in the rainforest to produce timber sustainably, Amata pulled out in April 2020. The reason: uncontrolled wildcat loggers who invaded Amata’s land, illegally toppling and stealing trees.

Amata’s executives in São Paulo said that instead of promoting and protecting legal businesses, Mr. Bolsonaro’s administration did next to nothing to control the illegal loggers who invaded the concession in the western state of Rondônia. “It’s a conflict area,” Amata Chief Executive Ana Bastos said of the land granted to the company. “Those lumberjacks steal our lumber to survive. If we try to stop them, they will fight back. It will be an eternal conflict.”

Since they pay no taxes and make no effort to protect certain species or invest in restoration, illegal loggers can charge $431 per square meter of lumber, compared with $1,511 per square meter of legally logged timber, concession operators said.  “It is like having a regular, taxpaying shop competing with lots of tax-free peddlers right in front of your door,” said Jonas Perutti, owner of Lumbering Industrial Madeflona Ltda., which also operates concessions in the Amazon…

“The organized crime that funds illegal activity in the Amazon—including deforestation, land grabbing, lumber theft and mining—remains strong and active,” said Carlos Nobre, a Brazilian climate scientist. “It seems [the criminals] aren’t frightened by the government’s zero-tolerance rhetoric or don’t believe it’s serious.”…

Wildcat loggers are among the Amazon’s poorest residents, and many feel they have an ally in Mr. Bolsonaro,[Brazil’s President]…“There’s much corruption in law enforcement, and consumers don’t care if the wood they are buying is legal or not,” said Oberdan Perondi, a co-owner of a concession that is five times as large as Amata’s and also competes with illegal loggers.

Excerpt from Paulo Trevisani and Juan Forer, Brazil Wanted to Harvest the Amazon Responsibly. Illicit Loggers Axed the Plan, WSJ, Oct. 28, 2020

Buy Carbon Stored in Trees and Leave it There

For much of human history, the way to make money from a tree was to chop it down. Now, with companies rushing to offset their carbon emissions, there is value in leaving them standing. The good news for trees is that the going rate for intact forests has become competitive with what mills pay for logs in corners of Alaska and Appalachia, the Adirondacks and up toward Acadia. That is spurring landowners to make century-long conservation deals with fossil-fuel companies, which help the latter comply with regulatory demands to reduce their carbon emissions.

For now, California is the only U.S. state with a so-called cap-and-trade system that aims to reduce greenhouse gasses by making it more expensive over time for firms operating in the state to pollute. Preserving trees is rewarded with carbon-offset credits, a climate-change currency that companies can purchase and apply toward a tiny portion of their tab. But lately, big energy companies, betting that the idea will spread, are looking to preserve vast tracts of forest beyond what they need for California, as part of a burgeoning, speculative market in so-called voluntary offsets.

One of the most enthusiastic, BP PLC, has already bought more than 40 million California offset credits since 2016 at a cost of hundreds of millions of dollars. In 2019, the energy giant invested $5 million in Pennsylvania’s Finite Carbon, a pioneer in the business of helping landowners create and sell credits. The investment is aimed at helping Finite hire more foresters, begin using satellites to measure biomass and drum up more credits for use in the voluntary market.  BP has asked Finite to produce voluntary credits ASAP so they can be available for its own carbon ledger and to trade among other companies eager to improve their emissions math. As part of its shift into non-fossil-fuel markets, BP expects to trade offset credits the way it presently does oil and gas.“The investment is to grow a new market,” said Nacho Gimenez, a managing director at the oil company’s venture-capital arm. “BP wants to live in this space.”

Skeptics contend the practice does little to reduce greenhouse gases: that the trees are already sequestering carbon and shouldn’t be counted to let companies off the hook for emissions. They argue that a lot of forest protected by offsets wasn’t at high risk of being clear-cut, because doing so isn’t the usual business of its owners, like land trusts, or because the timber was remote or otherwise not particularly valuable.

If other governments join California and institute cap-and-trade markets, voluntary offsets could shoot up in value. It could be like holding hot tech shares ahead of an overbought IPO. Like unlisted stock, voluntary credits trade infrequently and in a wide price range, lately averaging about $6 a ton, Mr. Carney said. California credits changed hands at an average of $14.15 in 2019 and were up to $15 before the coronavirus lockdown drove them lower. They have lately traded for about $13.

These days, voluntary offsets are mostly good for meeting companies’ self-set carbon-reduction goals. BP is targeting carbon neutrality by 2050. Between operations and the burning of its oil-and-gas output by motorists and power plants, the British company says it is annually responsible for 415 million metric tons of carbon emissions.

Excerpts from Emissions Rules Turn Saving Trees into Big Business, WSJ, Aug. 24, 2020

The Green Climate Fund and COVID-19

 The Green Climate Fund has promised developing nations it will ramp up efforts to help them tackle climate challenges as they strive to recover from the coronavirus pandemic, approving $879 million in backing for 15 new projects around the world…The Green Climate Fund (GCF) was set up under U.N. climate talks in 2010 to help developing nations tackle global warming, and started allocating money in 2015….

Small island states have criticised the pace and size of GCF assistance…Fiji’s U.N. Ambassador Satyendra Prasad said COVID-19 risked worsening the already high debt burden of small island nations, as tourism dived…The GCF  approved in August 2020 three new projects for island nations, including strengthening buildings to withstand hurricanes in Antigua and Barbuda, and installing solar power systems on farmland on Fiji’s Ovalau island.

It also gave the green light to payments rewarding reductions in deforestation in Colombia and Indonesia between 2014 and 2016. But more than 80 green groups opposed such funding. They said deforestation had since spiked and countries should not be rewarded for “paper reductions” in carbon emissions calculated from favourable baselines…. [T]he fund should take a hard look at whether the forest emission reductions it is paying for would be permanent.  It should also ensure the funding protects and benefits forest communities and indigenous people…

Other new projects included one for zero-deforestation cocoa production in Ivory Coast, providing rural villages in Senegal and Afghanistan with solar mini-grids, and conserving biodiversity on Indian Ocean islands.  The fund said initiatives like these would create jobs and support a green recovery from the coronavirus crisis.

Excerpts from Climate fund for poor nations vows to drive green COVID recovery, Reuters, Aug. 22, 2020

The $4 Trillion Blackmail: The Amazon is Ours not Brazil’s

More than two dozen financial institutions around the world are demanding the Brazilian government rein in surging deforestation, which they said has created “widespread uncertainty about the conditions for investing in or providing financial services to Brazil”. The call for action, delivered in a letter to the Brazilian government on June 23, 2020, comes as concerns grow that investors may begin to divest from Latin America’s largest economy if Jair Bolsonaro’s administration fails to curb environmental destruction. “As financial institutions, who have a fiduciary duty to act in the best long-term interests of our beneficiaries, we recognise the crucial role that tropical forests play in tackling climate change, protecting biodiversity and ensuring ecosystem services,” said the letter, signed by 29 financial institutions managing more than $3.7tn in total assets.

“Considering increasing deforestation rates in Brazil, we are concerned that companies exposed to potential deforestation in their Brazilian operations and supply chains will face increasing difficulty accessing international markets. Brazilian sovereign bonds are also likely to be deemed high risk if deforestation continues.” Deforestation in the Amazon rainforest has surged in Brazil since the election of Mr Bolsonaro, a rightwing former army captain, who supports opening the protected lands to commercial activity. In the first four months of 2020, an area twice the size of New York City was razed as illegal loggers and wildcat gold miners

Investors said they are particularly concerned about Brazil’s meatpacking industry, which risks being shut out of international markets over its alleged role in deforestation. Brazil’s JBS has been repeatedly accused by environmentalists of buying cows from deforested lands in the Amazon. In May 2020 more than 40 European companies, including Tesco and Marks and Spencer, warned they would boycott Brazilian products if the government did not act on deforestation. 

Excerpts from Investors warn Brazil to stop Amazon destruction, FT, June 23, 2020

Amazon Rainforest: Source of Food for Vegans, Meat-Lovers

In the first four months of 2020 an estimated 1,202 square km (464 square miles) were cleared in the Brazilian Amazon, 55% more than during the same period in 2019, which was the worst year in a decade…Less attention has been paid to the role of big firms like JBS and Cargill, global intermediaries for beef and soya, the commodities that drive deforestation.  The companies do not chop down trees themselves. Rather, they are middlemen in complex supply chains that deal in soya and beef produced on deforested land. The process begins when speculators, who tend to operate outside the law, buy or seize land, sell the timber, graze cattle on it for several years and then sell it to a soya farmer. Land in the Amazon is five to ten times more valuable once it is deforested, says Daniel Nepstad, an ecologist. Not chopping down trees would have a large opportunity cost. In 2009 Mr Nepstad estimated that cost (in terms of forgone beef and soy output) would be $275bn over 30 years, about 16% of that year’s GDP.

Under pressure from public opinion, the big firms have made attempts to control the problem. In 2009, a damning report from Greenpeace led JBS, Marfrig and Minerva, meat giants which together handle two-thirds of Brazil’s exports, to pledge to stop buying from suppliers that deforest illegally. (The forest code allows owners to clear 20% of their land.) JBS, which sources from an area in the Amazon larger than Germany, says it has blocked 9,000 suppliers, using satellites to detect clearing.

The problem is especially acute in ranching, which accounts for roughly 80% of deforestation in the Amazon, nearly all of it illegal. “Cows move around,” explains Paulo Pianez of Marfrig. Every fattening farm the big meatpackers buy from has, on average, 23 of its own suppliers. Current monitoring doesn’t cover ranchers who breed and graze cattle, so it misses 85-90% of deforestation. Rogue fattening farms can also “launder” cattle by moving them to lawful farms—perhaps their own—right before selling them. A new Greenpeace report alleges that through this mechanism JBS, Marfrig and Minerva ended up selling beef from farms that deforested a protected Amazon reserve on the border between Brazil and Bolivia. They said they had not known about any illegality.

One reason that soya giants seem more serious than meat producers about reducing deforestation a network of investors concerned about sustainability, is that most soya is exported. The EU is the second-top destination after China. But companies struggle to get people to pay more for a “hidden commodity”… But few people will pay extra for chicken made with sustainable soya, which explains why just 2-3% is certified deforestation-free. ….Four-fifths of Brazilian beef, by contrast, is eaten in Brazil. Exports go mostly to China, Russia and the Middle East, where feeding people is a higher priority than saving trees. Investors, for their part, see beef firms as unsexy businesses with thin margins

According to soya growers, multinational firms failed to raise $250m to launch a fund for compensating farmers who retain woodland. “They demand, demand, demand, but don’t offer anything in return,” complains Ricardo Arioli….

Reducing deforestation will require consensus on tricky issues like the fate of tens of thousands of poor settlers on public lands in the Amazon, where half of deforestation takes place….

Excerpts from The AmazonL Of Chainshaws and Supply Chains, Economist, JUne 13, 2020

The Truth About Forest Fires

BBC has used satellite data to assess the severity of fires in Brazil, Indonesia, Siberia and Central Africa.  It has concluded that although fires in 2019 have wrought significant damage to the environment, they have been worse in the past.   More than 35,000 fires have been detected so far in 2019 in East Asia  spreading smoky haze to Malaysia, Singapore, the south of Thailand and the Philippines, causing a significant deterioration in air quality.  But this is substantially fewer than many other years including those, such as 2015, exacerbated by the El Nino effect which brought unusually dry weather.

Haze Pollution

In Indonesia, peatland is set alight by corporations and small-scale farmers to clear land for palm oil, pulp and paper plantations, and can spread into protected forested areas.  The problem has accelerated in recent years as more land has been cleared for expanding plantations for the lucrative palm oil trade.  Old palm trees on plantations that no longer bear fruit are often set on fire to be replaced by younger ones.

The number of recorded fires in Brazil rose significantly in 2019, but there were more in most years in the period 2002 to 2010.  There is a similar pattern for other areas of Brazilian forestry that are not part of the Amazon basin.  For 2019, we have data up to the end of August, and the overall area burnt for those eight months is 45,000 sq km. This has already surpassed all the area burnt in 2018, but appears unlikely to reach the peaks seen in the previous decade… “Fire signals an end of the deforestation process,” says Dr Michelle Kalamandeen, a tropical ecologist on the Amazon rainforest.  “Those large giant rainforest trees that we often associate with the Amazon are chopped down, left to dry and then fire is used as a tool for clearing the land to prepare for pasture, crops or even illegal mining.”

The environmental campaign group Greenpeace has called the fires that have engulfed the Russian region of Siberia this year one of the worst outbreaks this century.  The cloud of smoke generated was reported to have been the size of all the European Union countries combined.  Forest fires in Siberia are common in the summer, but record-breaking temperatures and strong winds have made the situation particularly bad.  Russia’s Federal Forestry Agency says more than 10 million hectares (100,000 sq km) have been affected since the start of 2019, already exceeding the total of 8.6 million for the whole of 2018…. Drawing on data for the number of fires, it is clear that there have been other bad years, notably in 2003.

Nasa satellites have identified thousands of fires in Angola, Zambia and DR Congo.However, these have not reached record levels.  “I don’t think there’s any evidence that the fires we’re seeing in Africa are worse than we’ve seen in recent years,” Denis McClean, of the UN Disaster Risk Reduction agency, told the BBC.  According to data analysed by Global Forest Watch, fires in DR Congo and Zambia are just above average for the season but have been higher in past years.  In Angola, however, fires have been reported at close to record levels this year.

Some have drawn comparisons with the situation in the Amazon, but the fires in sub-Saharan Africa are different.  Take DR Congo – most fires are being recorded in settled parts of the country’s southern, drier forest and savannah areas, and so far not in tropical rainforest.  Experts say it is difficult to know what is causing these fires, which are seasonal. Many are likely to be on grassland, woodland or savannah in poor farming communities.  “Fires are very important landscape management tools and are used to clear land for planting crops,” says Lauren Williams, a specialist in Central and West African forests at the World Resources Institute.

Excerpts from Jack Goodman & Olga RobinsonIndonesia haze: Are forest fires as bad as they seem?, BBC, Sept. 19, 2019. For more details and data see BBC

Forest Fires in Africa Feed the Amazon Rainforest

The world’s largest rainforest and a crucial store of carbon dioxide gets most of its phosphorous, an important nutrient, from an unexpected source: fires in Africa.  Strange as it may seem, we thought that the Amazon got much of its phosphorus from dust whipped up from the Sahara Desert and transported across the Atlantic on the wind.

Cassandra Gaston at the University of Miami, US, and her colleagues had set out to quantify the effect of the phosphorous in Saharan dust on the Amazon’s growth. To do this, they collected and analysed particles caught in filters from a hilltop in French Guiana, at the northern edge of the Amazon Basin. But at the same time, they used satellites to track smoke from fires in Africa — both people burning wood and natural forest fires — drifting Westwards across the ocean. It turned out that the arrival of patches of smoke coincided with high levels of phosphorous being detected in the filters.  Gaston and her team then estimated how much of the phosphorus deposited on the Amazon Basin comes from African biomass burning. They found that, in Spring, smoke from the fires was responsible for most of the nutrient entering the Amazon Basin. …The findings suggest that people burning wood and other materials in Africa might have an impact on how much the Amazon grows and therefore how much carbon it stores in future.

Excerpt from The Amazon rainforest depends on fires in Africa for a vital nutrient, New Scientist, July 29, 2019

First Armed Attack on Amazon Rainforest in 30 Years

On Ju;ly 28, 2019, heavily armed gold miners invaded a remote indigenous reserve in northern Brazil and stabbed to death one of its leaders, officials say.  Residents of the village in Amapá state fled in fear and there were concerns violent clashes could erupt if they tried to reclaim the gold-rich land.  

Tensions in the Amazon region are on the rise as far-right President Jair Bolsonaro, who is against the reserves, vows to open some of them to mining.  Mr Bolsonaro says the indigenous territories are too big given the number of people living there, and critics accuse him of encouraging illegal mining and invasions of reserves.  The group of 10 to 15 heavily armed miners overran the village Yvytotõ of the Wajãpi community and “tensions were high”, according to Brazil’s indigenous rights agency, Funai. The residents fled to the Mariry village, some 40 minutes away by foot, and have been warned not to try to come into any contact with the invaders.

Based on accounts from the Wajãpi, Funai said the miners had killed 68-year-old Emyra Wajãpi, whose body was found with stab marks in a river near Mariry…”This is the first violent invasion in 30 years since the demarcation of the indigenous reserves in Amapá,” Senator Rodolfe Rodrigues told local newspaper Diário do Amapá (in Portuguese), warning of a “blood bath”…. Bolsonaro, who took office in January 2019, has promised to integrate indigenous people into the rest of the population and questioned the existence of their protected territories, which are rights guaranteed in the country’s Constitution.The president has also criticised the environmental protection agency, Ibama, and accused the national space institute, Inpe, of lying about the scale of deforestation in the Amazon.

Excerpts from Brazil’s indigenous people: Miners kill one in invasion of protected reserve, BBC,  July 28,  2019

Suing and Wining: Indigenous People, Ecuador

Hunter-gatherers in the Amazon sought in court on in April 2019 to stop Ecuador’s government auctioning their land to oil companies, as tension mounts over the future of the rainforest…The Waorani said the government did not properly consult them in 2012 over plans to auction their land to oil companies.

“We live on these lands and we want to continue to live there in harmony. We will defend them. Our fight is that our rights are respected,” said Nemonte Nenquimo, a leader of the 2,000-strong Waorani….Ecuador is pushing to open up more rainforest and develop its oil and gas reserves in the hope of improving its sluggish economy and cutting its high fiscal deficit and foreign debt…

The constitution gives the government the right to develop energy projects and extract minerals on any land, regardless of who owns it, but requires that communities are consulted first and are properly informed about any projects and their impact. Laws to regulate the consultation process have yet to be introduced – although the court case could push the government to do this, said Brian Parker, a lawyer with campaign group Amazon Frontlines, which is supporting the Waorani…

The government announced last year that it had divided swathes of forest up into blocs for auction, one of which – bloc 22 – covers the Waorani’s ancestral lands, raising the specter of pollution and an end to their way of life.  In two landmark cases in 2018, local courts sided with indigenous communities who said the government had failed to inform them before designating their land for mineral exploitation….The Inter-American Court of Human Rights also ruled in 2012 that Ecuador had violated its Sarayaku Amazonian community’s right to prior consultation before drillers started exploration on their lands in the late 1990s.

Excerpts Ecuador’s hunter-gatherers in court over oil drilling in Amazon, Reuters, Apr. 11, 2019

5,000 Eyes in the Sky: environmental monitoring

The most advanced satellite to ever launch from Africa will soon be patrolling South Africa’s coastal waters to crack down on oil spills and illegal dumping.  Data from another satellite, this one collecting images from the Texas portion of a sprawling oil and gas region known as the Permian Basin, recently delivered shocking news: Operators there are burning off nearly twice as much natural gas as they’ve been reporting to state officials.

With some 5,000 satellites now orbiting our planet on any given day…. They will help create a constantly innovating industry that will revolutionize environmental monitoring of our planet and hold polluters accountable…

A recent study by Environmental Defense Fund focused on natural gas flares from the wells in the Permian Basin, located in Western Texas and southeastern New Mexico. Our analysis proved that the region’s pollution problem was much larger than companies had revealed.  A second study about offshore gas flaring in the Gulf of Mexico, published by a group of scientists in the Geophysical Research Letters, showed that operators there burn off a whopping 40% of the natural gas they produce.

Soon a new satellite will be launching that is specifically designed not just to locate, but accurately measure methane emissions from human-made sources, starting with the global oil and gas industry.  MethaneSAT, a new EDF affiliate unveiled in 2018, will launch a future where sensors in space will find and measure pollution that today goes undetected. This compact orbital platform will map and quantify methane emissions from oil and gas operations almost anywhere on the planet at least weekly.

Excerpts from Mark Brownstein, These pollution-spotting satellites are just a taste of what’s to come, EDF, Apr. 4, 2019

Biodiversity and Respect for Human Rights

The instinctive response of many environmentalists  is to to fence off protected areas as rapidly and extensively as possible. That thought certainly dominates discussions of the Convention on Biological Diversity, the main relevant international treaty. An eight-year-old addendum to the pact calls for 17% of the world’s land surface and 10% of the ocean’s water column (that is, the water under 10% of the ocean’s surface) to be protected by 2020. Currently, those figures are 15% and 6%. Campaigners want the next set of targets, now under discussion, to aim for 30% by 2030—and even 50% by 2050. This last goal, biogeographers estimate, would preserve 85% of life’s richness in the long run.  As rallying cries go, “Nature needs half” has a ring to it, but not one that sounds so tuneful in the poor countries where much of the rhetorically required half will have to be found. Many people in such places already feel Cornered by Protected Areas.” (See also Biodiversity and Human Rights)

James Watson, chief scientist at the Wildlife Conservation Society (wcs), another American charity, has an additional worry about focusing on the fence-it-off approach. If you care about the presence of species rather than the absence of humans, he warns, “‘nature needs half’ could be a catastrophe—if you get the wrong half.” Many terrestrial protected areas are places that are mountainous or desert or both. Expanding them may not translate into saving more species. Moreover, in 2009 Lucas Joppa and Alexander Pfaff, both then at Duke University in North Carolina, showed that protected areas disproportionately occupy land that could well be fine even had it been left unprotected: agriculture-unfriendly slopes, areas remote from transport links or human settlements, and so on. Cordoning off more such places may have little practical effect.

Southern Appalachians, Virginia. image from wikipedia

 In the United States it is the underprotected southern Appalachians, in the south-east of the country, that harbour the main biodiversity hotspots. The largest patches of ring-fenced wilderness, however, sit in the spectacular but barren mountain ranges of the west and north-west. In Brazil, the world’s most speciose country, the principal hotspots are not, as might naively be assumed, in the vast expanse of the Amazon basin, but rather in the few remaining patches of Atlantic rainforest that hug the south-eastern coast.

Deforestation Atlantic Rainforest in Rio de Janeiro. Image from wikipedia

Nor is speciosity the only consideration. So is risk-spreading. A team from the University of Queensland, in Australia, led by Ove Hoegh-Guldberg, has used a piece of financial mathematics called modern portfolio theory to select 50 coral reefs around the world as suitable, collectively, for preservation. Just as asset managers pick uncorrelated stocks and bonds in order to spread risk, Dr Hoegh-Guldberg and his colleagues picked reefs that have different exposures to rising water temperatures, wave damage from cyclones and so on. The resulting portfolio includes reefs in northern Sumatra and the southern Red Sea that have not previously registered on conservationists’ radar screens…

Another common finding—counterintuitive to those who take the “fence-it-all-off” approach—is that a mixed economy of conservation and exploitation can work. For example, rates of deforestation in a partly protected region of Peru, the Alto Mayo, declined by 78% between 2011 and 2017, even as coffee production increased from 20 tonnes a year to 500 tonnes.

Environmental groups can also draw on a growing body of academic research into the effective stewardship of particular species. For too long, says William Sutherland, of Cambridge University, conservationists have relied on gut feelings. Fed up with his fellow practitioners’ confident but unsubstantiated claims about their methods, and inspired by the idea of “evidence-based medicine”, he launched, in 2004, an online repository of relevant peer-reviewed literature called Conservation Evidence.  Today this repository contains more than 5,400 summaries of documented interventions. These are rated for effectiveness, certainty and harms. Want to conserve bird life threatened by farming, for example? The repository lists 27 interventions, ranging from leaving a mixture of seed for wild birds to peck (highly beneficial, based on 41 studies of various species in different countries) to marking bird nests during harvest (likely to be harmful or ineffective, based on a single study of lapwing in the Netherlands). The book version of their compendium, “What Works in Conservation”, runs to 662 pages. It has been downloaded 35,000 times.

Excerpts from How to preserve nature on a tight budget, Economist, Feb. 9, 2919

100 Ways to Finance Criminal Cartels Logging Forests

The report – Green Carbon, Black Trade (2012) – by UNEP and INTERPOL focuses on illegal logging and its impacts on the lives and livelihoods of often some of the poorest people in the world set aside the environmental damage. It underlines how criminals are combining old fashioned methods such as bribes with high tech methods such as computer hacking of government web sites to obtain transportation and other permits. The report spotlights the increasingly sophisticated tactics being deployed to launder illegal logs through a web of palm oil plantations, road networks and saw mills. Indeed it clearly spells out that illegal logging is not on the decline, rather it is becoming more advanced as cartels become better organized including shifting their illegal activities in order to avoid national or local police efforts. By some estimates, 15 per cent to 30 per cent of the volume of wood traded globally has been obtained illegally…

The much heralded decline of illegal logging in the mid- 2000s in some tropical regions was widely attributed to a short-term law enforcement effort. However, long-term trends in illegal logging and trade have shown that this was temporary, and illegal logging continues. More importantly, an apparent decline in illegal logging is due to more advanced laundering operations masking criminal activities, and notnecessarily due to an overall decline in illegal logging. In many cases a tripling in the volumes of timber “originating” from plantations in the five years following the law enforcement crack-down on illegal logging has come partly from cover operations by criminals to legalize and launder illegal logging operations….

Much of the laundering of illegal timber is only possible due to large flows of funding from investors based in Asia, the EU and the US, including investments through pension funds. As funds are made available to establish plantations operations to launder illegal timber and obtain permits illegally or pass bribes, investments, collusive corruption and tax fraud combined with low risk and high demand, make it a highly profitable illegal business, with revenues up to 5–10 fold higher than legal practices for all parties involved. This also undermines subsidized alternative livelihood incentives available in several countries.

[It is important to discourage] the use of timber from these regions and introducing a rating og companies based on the likelihood of their involvement in illegal practices to discourage investors and stock markets from funding them.

Excerpts from Nellemann, C., INTERPOL Environmental Crime Programme (eds). 2012.Green Carbon, Black Trade Illegal Logging, Tax Fraud and Laundering in the Worlds Tropical Forests. A Rapid Response Assessment United Nations Environment Programme

How to Discover an Illegal Logger

Tropical forests nearly the size of India are set to be destroyed by 2050 if current trends continue causing species loss, displacement and a major increase in climate-changing greenhouse gas emissions.  Prior to the launch of the Global Land Analysis and Discovery (GLAD) alerts, researchers would have to manually track images of logging in specific areas.

The new process, developed by scientists at the University of Maryland and Google, uses an algorithm to analyze weekly updates of satellite images and sends automatic notifications about new logging activity.”This is a game changer,” said Matt Finer from the Amazon Conservation Association, an environmental group.

His organization tracks illegal logging in Peru, sending images of deforestation to policymakers, environmentalists and government officials to try and protect the Amazon rainforest.  In the past, he would rely on tips from local people about encroachment by loggers, then look at older satellite images to try and corroborate the claims.

“With this new data we can focus on getting actionable information to policy makers,” Finer told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.  “We have seen how powerful these images can be,” he said, citing a case where his group brought pictures of illegal gold miners cutting down trees to the Peruvian government, who then removed the miners.

Excerpt from  CHRIS ARSENAULT, New satellite program aims to cut down illegal logging in real time, Reuters, Mar. 2, 2016

Amazon Turtles are Back! Thanks to Local Vigilantes

The historically over-exploited Giant South American Turtle is making a significant comeback on river beaches in the Brazilian Amazon thanks to local protection efforts, say researchers at the University of East Anglia.  Their results, published in Nature Sustainability, show that Giant Turtle populations are well on their way to full recovery on beaches guarded by local vigilantes. There are now over nine times more turtles hatching on these beaches than there were in 1977, equivalent to an annual increase of over 70,000 hatchlings.  The beach survey showed that, of over 2000 turtle nests monitored on protected beaches, only two per cent were attacked by poachers. In contrast, on unprotected beaches, poachers had harvested eggs from 99 per cent of the 202 nests surveyed.The beach protection programme along the Juruá river is part of the largest community-based conservation programme in the Brazilian Amazon. Beaches are guarded on a shoestring budget by local communities carrying out round-the-clock beach surveillance throughout the five-month turtle breeding season.

Prof Carlos Peres, from UEA’s School of Environmental Sciences and a senior author on the study, said: “This study clearly demonstrates the effectiveness of empowering local management action by stakeholders who have the largest stake and a 24/7 presence at key conservation sites. The beaches protected by local communities represent noisy islands of high biodiversity, surrounded by lifeless unprotected beaches, which are invariably empty and silent.”

Excerpts from Amazon turtle populations recovering well thanks to local action, Nov. 3, 2018

Peruvian Amazon: Oil Pollution & Human Rights

On September 15, 2018 indigenous federations from the Amazonian Loreto region of northern Peru scored a small victory in the fight for community rights. Representatives from four federations signed an agreement with the Peruvian government and the state-owned enterprise PetroPerú that acknowledges prior consultation as part of the new contracting process for petroleum Block 192. Under the new agreement, Block 192 will undergo a community consultation process before PetroPerú awards a new contract for operating the oil field…

Under the formal resolution with Prime Minister César Villanueva, the Ministry of Energy and Mining, and PetroPerú, the government will complete the community consultation for Block 192 between December 2018 and March 2019.

Extending across the Tigre, Corrientes, Pastaza and Marañón river basins in Peru’s remote Loreto province, Block 192 is the largest-yielding oil field in Peru, accounting for 17 percent of the country’s production. The government plans to continue production of oil at the block for another 30 years, adding to the almost 50 years of oil activity in the region. The oil field is currently operated by Canadian-based Frontera Energy, whose contract with PetroPerú is set to expire in September 2019.

American-based Occidental Petroleum discovered oil in the region in 1972 and a succession of companies, including the Dutch-Argentinian conglomerate Pluspetrol, left Block 192 (previously Block 1-AB) heavily polluted. While Peru’s Agency for Environmental Assessment and Enforcement fined Pluspetrol for violations, the Peruvian government remains in a protracted legal fight with the oil giant. A majority of the fines are outstanding and Pluspetrol denies any wrongdoing, despite settling with a local community in 2015.

For over 40 years, the indigenous Kichwa, Quechua, Achuar, and Urarina peoples who live near the oil field have been exposed to salts, heavy metals and hydrocarbons. According to a 2018 toxicology study by Peru’s National Center for Occupational Health and Environmental Protection for Health, over half of the indigenous residents in the region’s four basins have blood lead levels that surpass international recommended limits. A third have levels of arsenic and mercury above the levels recommended by Peru’s Ministry of Health…

The actual cost of cleaning up Block 192, along with neighboring Block 8, would approach $1 billion. To make matters more challenging, the $15 million fund of Peruvian government is almost exhausted..”

Excepts from Andrew Bogrand, Righting the many wrongs at Peru’s polluted oil Block 192, Nov. 2, 2018

Cryopreservation of Endangered Species

In paper in 2018 in Nature Plants, researchers at the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, detail for the first time the scale of threatened species that are unable to be conserved in seed banks. The paper reveals that when looking at threatened species, 36 per cent of ‘critically endangered species produce recalcitrant seeds . This means they can’t tolerate the drying process and therefore cannot be frozen, the key process they need to go through to be safely ‘banked’.

In the paper, Kew scientist Dr. John Dickie, former Kew scientist Dr. Sarah Wyse, and former Director of Science at Kew Prof. Kathy Willis, found that other threatened categories and global tree species list also contain high proportions of species that are unbankable including 35% of ‘vulnerable’ species, 27% of ‘endangered’ species and 33% of all tree species.

Among these species are important UK heritage trees such as oaks, horse chestnuts and sweet chestnuts, as well as worldwide food staples like avocado, cacao, and mango. This latest research reveals that the scale of plants unable to be conserved in seed banks is much higher for threatened species. The issue is particularly severe for tree species, especially those in tropical moist forests where a half of the canopy tree species can be unsuitable for banking…

Currently, seed banking is the most commonly practiced way of conserving plantsoutside of their natural habitats. Seed banking works as an ‘insurance policy’ against the extinction of plants in the world—especially for those that are rare, endemic and economically important—so that they can be protected and utilised for the future.

[The scientists proposed]cryopreservation—a form of preservation using liquid nitrogen which offers a potential long-term storage solution for recalcitrant seeds. In seed banks, seeds are dried and frozen at -20°C whereas cryopreservation involves removing the embryo from the seed and then using liquid nitrogen to freeze it at a much colder temperature of -196°C…As well as allowing ‘unbankable’ species to be stored, cryopreservation also helps to extend the lifespans of orthodox seeds that otherwise have storage lives that are too short at -20°C.

Excerpts from Seed banking not an option for over a third of threatened species
November 2, 2018, Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew

Furthest from their Minds: greenhouse gases in Afirca

When sub-Saharan Africa comes up in discussions of climate change, it is almost invariably in the context of adapting to the consequences, such as worsening droughts. That makes sense. The region is responsible for just 7.1% of the world’s greenhouse-gas emissions, despite being home to 14% of its people. Most African countries do not emit much carbon dioxide. Yet there are some notable exceptions.

Start with coal-rich South Africa, which belches out more carbon dioxide than Britain, despite having 10m fewer people and an economy one-eighth the size. Like nearly all of its power plants, many of its vehicles depend on coal, which is used to make the country’s petrol (a technique that helped the old apartheid regime cope with sanctions). A petrochemical complex in the town of Secunda owned by Sasol, a big energy and chemicals firm, is one of the world’s largest localised sources of greenhouse gases.  Zambia is another exception. It burns so much vegetation that its land-use-related emissions surpass those of Brazil, a notorious—and much larger—deforester.

South Africa and Zambia may be extreme examples, but they are not the region’s only big emitters . Nigerian households and businesses rely on dirty diesel generators for 14GW of power, more than the country’s installed capacity of 10GW. Subsistence farmers from Angola to Kenya use slash-and-burn techniques to fertilise fields with ash and to make charcoal, which nearly 1bn Africans use to cook. This, plus the breakneck growth of extractive industries, explains why African forests are disappearing at a rate of 0.5% a year, faster than in South America. Because trees sequester carbon, cutting them counts as emissions in climate accounting.

Other African countries are following South Africa’s lead and embracing coal…A new coal-fired power plant ….Lamu in Kenya is one of many Chinese-backed coal projects in Africa…Africa’s sunny skies and long, blustery coastlines offer near-limitless solar- and wind-energy potential. But what African economies need now are “spinning reserves”, which can respond quickly to volatile demand, says Josh Agenbroad of the Rocky Mountain Institute, a think-tank in Colorado. Fossil fuels deliver this; renewables do not…. Several countries are intrigued by hybrid plants where most electricity is generated by solar panels, but diesel provides the spinning reserves…

Excerpts from  Africa and Climate Change: A Burning Issue, Economist,  Apr. 21, 2018, at 41.

Deforestation Tolerance: Amazon

Amazon generates approximately half of its own rainfall by recycling moisture 5 to 6 times as airmasses move from the Atlantic across the basin to the west.  From the start, the demonstration of the hydrological cycle of the Amazon raised the question of how much deforestation would be required to cause this hydrolological cycle to degrade to the point of being unable to support rain forest ecosystems.

High levels of evaporation and transpiration that forests produce throughout the year contribute to a wetter atmospheric boundary layer than would be the case with non-forest.This surface-atmosphere coupling is more important where large-scale factors for rainfall formation are weaker, such as in central and eastern Amazonia. Near the Andes, the impact of at least modest deforestation is less dramatic because the general ascending motion of airmasses in this area induces high levels of rainfall in addition to that expected from local evaporation and transpiration.

Where might the tipping point be for deforestation-generated degradation of the hydrological cycle? The very first model to examine this question  showed that at about 40% deforestation, central, southern and eastern Amazonia would experience diminished rainfall and a lengthier dry season, predicting a shift to savanna vegetation to the east.

Moisture from the Amazon is important to rainfall and human wellbeing because it contributes to winter rainfall for parts of the La Plata basin, especially southern Paraguay, southern Brazil, Uruguay and central-eastern Argentina; in other regions, the moisture passes over the area, but does not precipitate out. Although the amount contributing to rainfall in southeastern Brazil is smaller than in other areas, even small amounts can be a welcome addition to urban reservoirs…

In recent decades, new forcing factors have impinged on the hydrological cycle: climate change and widespread use of fire to eliminate felled trees and clear weedy vegetation. Many studies show that in the absence of other contributing factors, 4° Celsius of global warming would be the tipping point to degraded savannas in most of the central, southern, and eastern Amazon. Widespread use of fire leads to drying of surrounding forest and greater vulnerability to fire in the subsequent year.

We believe that negative synergies between deforestation, climate change, and widespread use of fire indicate a tipping point for the Amazon system to flip to non-forest ecosystems in eastern, southern and central Amazonia at 20-25% deforestation.

We believe that the sensible course is not only to strictly curb further deforestation, but also to build back a margin of safety against the Amazon tipping point, by reducing the deforested area to less than 20%, for the commonsense reason that there is no point in discovering the precise tipping point by tipping it. At the 2015 Paris Conference of the Parties, Brazil committed to 12 million ha of reforestation by 2030. Much or most of this reforestation should be in southern and eastern Amazonia.

Excerpts from Amazon Tipping Point  by Thomas E. Lovejoy and Carlos Nobre, Sciences Advances,  Feb. 21, 2018

An Earth Bank of Codes: who owns what in the biological world

A project with the scale and sweep of the original Human Genome Project…should be to gather DNA sequences from specimens of all complex life on Earth. They decided to call it the Earth BioGenome Project (EBP).

At around the same time as this meeting, a Peruvian entrepreneur living in São Paulo, Brazil, was formulating an audacious plan of his own. Juan Carlos Castilla Rubio wanted to shift the economy of the Amazon basin away from industries such as mining, logging and ranching, and towards one based on exploiting the region’s living organisms and the biological information they embody. At least twice in the past—with the businesses of rubber-tree plantations, and of blood-pressure drugs called ACE inhibitors, which are derived from snake venom—Amazonian organisms have helped create industries worth billions of dollars. ….

For the shift he had in mind to happen, though, he reasoned that both those who live in the Amazon basin and those who govern it would have to share in the profits of this putative new economy. And one part of ensuring this happened would be to devise a way to stop a repetition of what occurred with rubber and ACE inhibitors—namely, their appropriation by foreign firms, without royalties or tax revenues accruing to the locals.

Such thinking is not unique to Mr Castilla. An international agreement called the Nagoya protocol already gives legal rights to the country of origin of exploited biological material. What is unique, or at least unusual, about Mr Castilla’s approach, though, is that he also understands how regulations intended to enforce such rights can get in the way of the research needed to turn knowledge into profit. To that end he has been putting his mind to the question of how to create an open library of the Amazon’s biological data (particularly DNA sequences) in a way that can also track who does what with those data, and automatically distribute part of any commercial value that results from such activities to the country of origin. He calls his idea the Amazon Bank of Codes.

Now, under the auspices of the World Economic Forum’s annual meeting at Davos, a Swiss ski resort, these two ideas have come together. On January 23, 2018 it was announced that the EBP will help collect the data to be stored in the code bank. The EBP’s stated goal is to sequence, within a decade, the genomes of all 1.5m known species of eukaryotes. ..That is an ambitious timetable. The first part would require deciphering more than eight genomes a day; the second almost 140; the third, about 1,000. For comparison, the number of eukaryotic genomes sequenced so far is about 2,500…

Big sequencing centres like BGI in China, the Rockefeller University’s Genomic Resource Centre in America, and the Sanger Institute in Britain, as well as a host of smaller operations, are all eager for their share of this pot. For the later, cruder, stages of the project Complete Genomics, a Californian startup bought by BGI, thinks it can bring the cost of a rough-and-ready sequence down to $100. A hand-held sequencer made by Oxford Nanopore, a British company, may be able to match that and also make the technology portable…..It is an effort in danger of running into the Nagoya protocol. Permission will have to be sought from every government whose territory is sampled. That will be a bureaucratic nightmare. Indeed, John Kress of the Smithsonian, another of the EBP’s founders, says many previous sequencing ventures have foundered on the rock of such permission. And that is why those running the EBP are so keen to recruit Mr Castilla and his code bank.

The idea of the code bank is to build a database of biological information using a blockchain. Though blockchains are best known as the technology that underpins bitcoin and other crypto-currencies, they have other uses. In particular, they can be employed to create “smart contracts” that monitor and execute themselves. To obtain access to Mr Castilla’s code bank would mean entering into such a contract, which would track how the knowledge thus tapped was subsequently used. If such use was commercial, a payment would be transferred automatically to the designated owners of the downloaded data. Mr Castilla hopes for a proof-of-principle demonstration of his platform to be ready within a few months.

In theory, smart contracts of this sort would give governments wary of biopiracy peace of mind, while also encouraging people to experiment with the data. And genomic data are, in Mr Castilla’s vision, just the start. He sees the Amazon Bank of Codes eventually encompassing all manner of biological compounds—snake venoms of the sort used to create ACE inhibitors, for example—or even behavioural characteristics like the congestion-free movement of army-ant colonies, which has inspired algorithms for co-ordinating fleets of self-driving cars. His eventual goal is to venture beyond the Amazon itself, and combine his planned repository with similar ones in other parts of the world, creating an Earth Bank of Codes.

[I]f the EBP succeeds, be able to use the evolutionary connections between genomes to devise a definitive version of the tree of eukaryotic life. That would offer biologists what the periodic table offers chemists, namely a clear framework within which to operate. Mr Castilla, for his part, would have rewritten the rules of international trade by bringing the raw material of biotechnology into an orderly pattern of ownership. If, as many suspect, biology proves to be to future industries what physics and chemistry have been to industries past, that would be a feat of lasting value.

Excerpts from Genomics, Sequencing the World, Economist, Jan. 27, 2018

Don’t Cut that Tree!

A revolutionary new approach to measuring changes in forest carbon density has helped scientists determine that the tropics now emit more carbon than they capture, countering their role as a net carbon “sink.”*

“These findings provide the world with a wakeup call on forests,” said scientist Alessandro Baccini, the report’s lead author….Forests are the only carbon capture and storage ‘technology’ we have in our grasp that is safe, proven, inexpensive, immediately available at scale, and capable of providing beneficial ripple effects—from regulating rainfall patterns to providing livelihoods to indigenous communities.”

Using 12 years (2003-2014) of satellite imagery, laser remote sensing technology and field measurements, Baccini and his team were able to capture losses in forest carbon from wholesale deforestation as well as from more difficult-to-measure fine-scale degradation and disturbance …from smallholder farmers removing individual trees for fuel wood. These losses can be relatively small in any one place, but added up across large areas they become considerable.

[T] he researchers discovered that tropics represent a net source of carbon to the atmosphere — about 425 teragrams of carbon annually – which is more than the annual emissions from all cars and trucks in the United States.

Excerpts from New approach to measuring forest carbon density shows tropics now emit more carbon than they capture, Woods Hole Research Institute Press Release, Sept. 28, 2017

*Tropical forests are a net carbon source based on aboveground measurements of gain and loss by A. Baccini et al., Science, Sept. 28, 2017

Policing the Amazon Jungle

The small town of Apui sits at the new frontline of Brazil’s fight against advancing deforestation…  The home of 21,000 people in southern Amazonas state was long protected by its remote location from illegal loggers, ranchers and farmers who clear the forest.  Now those who would destroy the jungle are moving in from bordering states, following the Transamazon Highway, which is little more than a red-dirt track in this part of the rainforest.

First come the loggers, who illegally extract valued lumber sold in far-off cities. The cattle ranchers follow, burning the forest to clear land and plant green pasture that rapidly grows in the tropical heat and rain. After the pasture is worn out, soy farmers arrive, planting grain on immense tracts of land…

Roughly 7,989 square kilometres (3,085 square miles) of forest were destroyed in 2016, a 29 percent increase from the previous year and up from a low of 4,571 square kilometers in 2012, according to the PRODES satellite monitoring system.

Then there are the fires.  Apui ranked first in the country for forest fires in the first week of August 2017, according to the ministry.

At their best the environmental agents can slow but not stop the destruction. They raid illegal logging camps, levy large fines that are rarely collected and confiscate chainsaws to temporarily impede the cutting.  Costa acknowledges that the roughly 1,300 environmental field agents who police a jungle area the size of western Europe have a difficult task, at the very least.

Excerpt from Brazil’s agents of the Amazon fighting loggers, fires to stop deforestation, Reuters, Aug. 20, 2017

Deforestation and Supply Chains

366 companies, worth $2.9 trillion, have committed to eliminating deforestation from their supply chains, according to the organization Supply Change. Groups such as the Tropical Forest Alliance 2020, the Consumer Goods Forum and Banking Environment Initiative aim to help them achieve these goals.  Around 70 percent of the world’s deforestation still occurs as a result of production of palm oil, soy, beef, cocoa and other agricultural commodities. These are complex supply chains.  A global company like Cargill, for example, sources tropical palm, soy and cocoa from almost 2,000 mills and silos, relying on hundreds of thousands of farmers. Also, many products are traded on spot markets, so supply chains can change on a daily basis. Such scale and complexity make it difficult for global corporations to trace individual suppliers and root out bad actors from supply chains.

Global Forest Watch (GFW), a WRI-convened partnership that uses satellites and algorithms to track tree cover loss in near-real time, is one example. Any individual with a cell phone and internet connection can now check if an area of forest as small as a soccer penalty box was cleared anywhere in the world since 2001. GFW is already working with companies like Mars, Unilever, Cargill and Mondelēz in order to assess deforestation risks in an area of land the size of Mexico.

Other companies are also employing technological advances to track and reduce deforestation. Walmart, Carrefour and McDonalds have been working together with their main beef suppliers to map forests around farms in the Amazon in order to identify risks and implement and monitor changes. Banco do Brasil and Rabobank are mapping the locations of their clients with a mobile-based application in order to comply with local legal requirements and corporate commitments. And Trase, a web tool, publicizes companies’ soy-sourcing areas by analyzing enormous amounts of available datasets, exposing the deforestation risks in those supply chains…

[C]ompanies need to incorporate the issue into their core business strategies by monitoring deforestation consistently – the same way they would track stock markets.

With those challenges in mind, WRI and a partnership of major traders, retailers, food processors, financial institutions and NGOs are building the go-to global decision-support system for monitoring and managing land-related sustainability performance, with a focus on deforestation commitments. Early partners include Bunge, Cargill, Walmart, Carrefour, Mars, Mondelēz, the Inter-American Investment Corporation, the Nature Conservancy, Rainforest Alliance and more.  Using the platform, a company will be able to plot the location of thousands of mills, farms or municipalities; access alerts and dashboards to track issues such as tree cover loss and fires occurring in those areas; and then take action. Similarly, a bank will be able to map the evolution of deforestation risk across its whole portfolio. This is information that investors are increasingly demanding.

Excerpt from Save the Forests? There’s Now an App for That, World Resources Institute, Jan. 18, 2017

Dams and Drought: the Amazon

The São Luiz do Tapajós (SLT) project… would dam one of the last big unobstructed tributaries of the Amazon. The project would provide about a third of the hydropower that Brazil plans for the forthcoming decade, but it would also flood 376 square km (145 square miles) of land where the Munduruku hunt, fish and farm. “The Tapajós valley is our supermarket, our church, our office, our school, our home, our life,” explained Mr Kabá.

The tussle over the Tapajós dam is part of a bigger fight about Brazil’s energy future. SLT is an example of a new sort of hydropower project, which floods a smaller area than traditional dams and therefore ought to cause less disruption and environmental damage. The massive Itaipu dam on the border with Paraguay inundated an area nearly four times as large. But critics of hydropower say “run of river” projects like SLT, which use a river’s natural flow to turn turbines, do not work as well as advertised. Though less destructive than conventional dams, which require bigger reservoirs, they still provoke opposition from people like the Munduruku. Other energy sources, such as gas and wind, are becoming more competitive. Brazil has “an opportunity” to rethink its energy policies, says Paulo Pedrosa, an energy official.

Hydropower has long been Brazil’s main way of generating electricity. Most forecasts suggest it will remain so. The government intends to build more than 30 dams in the Amazon over the next three decades. 

Climate change may worsen the problem. Some climate models predict that river flows in large parts of the Amazon will fall by 30% in coming decades. Deforestation is delaying the onset of the rainy season in some areas by six days a decade, according to research published in Global Change Biology, a journal.   Drought can be expensive. In 2014 power from conventional dams dipped because of a dry spell, forcing electricity companies to buy from gas- and coal-powered generators at high spot prices. The risk of such fluctuations rises with run-of-river dams. Carlos Nobre, a former chief of research at the ministry of science, technology and innovation, thinks more frequent droughts will make future hydropower projects in the Amazon unprofitable.

Brazil’s potential for solar and wind energy is among the highest in the world. The government has promoted them with lavish tax breaks. In the blustery north-east, wind power overtook hydropower this year; wind turbines now generate 36% of the region’s electricity, up from 22% in 2015. The Energy Research Company, a firm linked to the energy ministry, expects renewable generating capacity apart from hydropower to double by 2024.

Generators fuelled by natural gas have been hurt by the subsidies lavished on renewable energy. But, though less climate-friendly than hydropower, they are beginning to compete with it as a source of steady baseload electricity. Brazil now produces gas in abundance as a by-product of pumping oil from its offshore wells. Its marginal cost of production is nearly zero. The future of baseload energy is “hydro-thermal”, rather than hydro alone, says Adriano Pires of the Brazilian Infrastructure Centre, a think-tank in Rio de Janeiro.

Excerpts from Dams in the Amazon: Not in my valley, Economist,  Nov. 5, 2016

Survival of Tropical Forests: bird predators

[T]he Amazon rainforest contains more than 1,500 bird species. Around a quarter of them are found nowhere else on Earth. Many of these birds have evolved to fill a specific role – whether that means eating particular types of insects, or scattering a certain size of seed….A new paper published in Proceedings of the Royal Society explores  the link between deforestation in the Amazon and local bird diversity…[B]ird data was collected in 330 different sites in the Brazilian state of Pará, including arable and pastoral farmland and both primary and secondary forests. Primary forests are the original native vegetation, now increasingly degraded by logging and wild fires. Secondary forests are those which grow back in areas, often farmland, which have been abandoned by people…

The study focused on seed dispersal and insect predation, two ecosystem processes where birds play important roles. Fruit-eating (or frugivorous) birds spread the seeds of forest trees. Insect-eating (insectivorous) birds ensure that any germinating saplings have a fighting chance at survival. ..[S]witching from primary tropical forests to farmland dramatically reduced the “services” birds were able to provide.

This may seem fairly intuitive so far, given that there is a world of difference between a forest and cattle pasture. However, more significantly it was found that the traits were only partially restored in regenerating secondary forests. These areas have been branded as the “forests of the future” but we found them coming up short. These “forests of the future” cannot conserve all the biological interactions realised in primary forests, undisturbed or otherwise, which are essential for biodiversity conservation.  Once large seed-dispersing birds such as guans or cotingas are lost in an area, trees species with large seeds find it harder to recover. Regeneration becomes unlikely or impossible. Research from Brazil’s coastal Atlantic Forest has shown that the loss of such key species is driving the evolution of palm trees with smaller seeds. Some of these links may have been lost before we even knew them….The sorts of generalist insect-eaters that come to dominate farmland aren’t generally able to capture the well-disguised insects found in adjacent patches of forest.

Excerpt from Without birds, tropical forests won’t bounce back from deforestation, the conversation.com, Nov. 8, 2016

Oil Barrels Spilled in Amazon: Peru

It’s been a bad year for Peru’s Amazon – 2016 has seen seven oil spills there so far. And it’s only September. Most of these occurred across the Northern Peruvian Pipeline, in operation since 1977, which transports crude from the Peruvian Amazon to the Pacific Coast along 854 kilometers (530 miles) and is under the control of state-owned Petroperu. After the first two spills leaked around 3,000 barrels, in January and February 2016, the pipeline was shuttered for repairs. However, five additional oil spills have happened since then.According to Peru’s environment regulator OEFA, at least five oil spills were due to poor pipeline conditions, and illegal use of it after the closure. However, the oil company is blaming the latest two spills on vandalism by locals.,,

[M]ore than 190 oil spills have been recorded in Peru since 1997, according to Peru’s energy and mining agency. But the situation appears to have worsened since the beginning of 2016. After the two oil spills leaked 3,000 barrels – polluting nearby rivers and destroying the livelihood of locals – protests against pipeline’s poor conditions in February 2016 forced its shutdown.

When a third oil spill occurred in June 2016 – of 600 barrels – then-Minister of Environment, Manuel Pulgar Vidal, accused Petroperu of pumping crude illegally through the pipeline. The president of Petroperu was ousted, and a $3.5-million (around 3-million-euro) fine was levied.

But the disaster continued: During August and September 2016, four additional oil spills were recorded in the area. The last two occurred while thousands of indigenous people were demonstrating for withdrawal of the oil companies. According to the Peruvian government, Petroperu is responsible for at least five of the seven oil spills – the company has already been penalized more than $7 million. Petroperu continues to insist, however, that the oil spills were a result of extreme weather or vandalism by the locals.

The amount of oil spilled 2016 in the Peruvian Amazon – less than 10,000 barrels in seven spills – is a relatively small amount, compared for instance to the 650,000 barrels of oil that have fouls parts of the Amazon of Ecuador since the 1960s.

Repeated oil spills threaten Peru’s Amazon, DW.com, Oct. 2, 2016

Why Illegal Logging Persists

The European Union (EU) adopted in 2010 Regulation (EU) No 995/2010 laying down the obligations of operators who place timber and timber products on the market (the Timber Regulation,, as part of the implementation of the Action Plan on Forest Law Enforcement, Governance and Trade……[The EU adopted the Regulation because] llegal logging is a pervasive problem of major international concern. It has a devastating impact on some of the world’s most valuable remaining forests as well as on the people who live in them and who rely on the resources that forests provide. It contributes to tropical deforestation and forest degradation, which may be responsible for 7 to 14%3 of total CO2 emissions from human activities; it threatens biodiversity and undermines sustainable forest management and has a negative impact on poverty reduction…..

The following major challenges to the effective application of the Timber Regulation have been identified in the evaluation process: insufficient human and financial resources allocated to the [authorities dealing with implementation], varying types and level of sanctions across EU states and a lack of uniform understanding and application of the Regulation throughout the EU. Those challenges have translated into uneven enforcement, which creates a non-level playing field for economic operators….

In order to address the shortcomings identified, EU states should significantly step up their implementation and enforcement efforts. The current level of technical capacity and resources (both human and financial) allocated to the [authorities dealing with implementation] does not match with the needs and must be reinforced in most of the Member States with the aim to increase the number and quality of compliance checks.

Excerpts from REPORT FROM THE COMMISSION TO THE EUROPEAN PARLIAMENT AND THE COUNCIL Regulation EU/995/2010 of the European Parliament and of the Council of 20 October 2010 laying down the obligations of operators who place timber and timber products on the market (the EU Timber Regulation, Feb. 18, 2016,  COM(2016) 74 final

 

Gene Banks: saving world’s crops

Syria’s civil war has forced scientists to request the first-ever withdrawal of seeds from a Doomsday vault built in the Arctic to safeguard the world’s food supplies…The International Center for Agricultural Research in the Dry Areas (ICARDA) said it has made a request to take back some of its samples from the Svalbard Global Seed Vault. The vault was created by the Norwegian government in 2008 to protect vital crops such as wheat against global disasters, war or disease.

It will be the first time seeds have been withdrawn from the facility, which lies more than 800 miles inside Arctic Circle — midway between Norway and the North Pole — and is the largest vault of its kind in the world. Built into the mountainside on the Svalbard archipelago, it relies on permafrost and thick rock to ensure that the seed samples will remain frozen even without power..,ICARDA has requested approximately 16,500 of its seed samples — one seventh of the total it has stored in Svalbard — and hopes to reproduce them at its other facilities in Morocco and the American University in Beirut, Lebanon. Eventually it will send new samples back to Norway…

He said some scientists were still present at the Aleppo facility but that its one-time headquarters had been occupied by armed groups.  “Fortunately it is not ISIS, they are some fundamentalist groups,” he said. “They seem to co-exist. They are using the land for their own benefit, for example to grow legumes, but we have no control of it…..The Svalbard seed bank has exactly 865,871 samples from every country in the world, Asdal said.  “In fact, we have seeds from more countries than now exist,” he explained, since some of the older seeds are from now-defunct nations such as Czechoslovakia. Syria’s civil war has killed a quarter of a million people since 2011, according to United Nations estimates, and driven 11 million more from their homes.

Excerpts from ALASTAIR JAMIESON, Syria War Forces First Withdrawal from Svalbard Global Seed Vault,NBC News, Sept. 25, 2015

Climate Change 2015

 

Global carbon emissions were 58% higher in 2012 than they were in 1990. The atmospheric concentration of carbon dioxide has risen from just under 340 parts per million in 1980 to 400 in 2015.  To stand a fair chance of keeping warming to just 2°C by the end of the century—the goal of global climate policy—cumulative carbon emissions caused by humans must be kept under 1 trillion tonnes. Estimates vary but, according to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the total had hit 515 billion tonnes by 2011. Climate Interactive, a research outfit, reckons that if emissions continue on their present course around 140 billion tonnes of greenhouse gases will be released each year and temperatures could rise by 4.5°C by 2100. And even if countries fully honour their recent pledges, temperatures may still increase by 3.5°C by then.

The world is already 0.75°C warmer than before the Industrial Revolution….

Melting glacier ice, and the fact that warmer water has a larger volume, mean higher sea levels: they have already risen by roughly 20cm since 1880 and could rise another metre by 2100. That is perilous for low-lying islands and flat countries: the government of Kiribati, a cluster of tropical islands, has bought land in Fiji to move residents to in case of flooding. Giza Gaspar Martins, a diplomat from Angola who leads the world’s poorest countries in the climate talks, points out that they are particularly vulnerable to the effects of a warming planet. Money alone, he argues, will not fix their problems. Without steps to reduce emissions, he predicts, “there will be nothing left to adapt for.”…

For every 0.6°C rise in temperature, the atmosphere’s capacity to hold water grows by 4%, meaning storms will pour forth with greater abandon. The rains of the Indian monsoon could therefore intensify, cutting yields of cereals and pulses.

Climate change seems also to be making dry places drier, killing crops and turning forests into kindling. Forest fires in Indonesia, more likely thanks to the current El Niño weather phenomenon, could release 2 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide, about 5% of annual emissions due to human activity, says Simon Lewis of University College London. In recent months fires have swallowed more than 2.4m hectares of American forests. Alaska suffered 80% of the damage—a particular problem because the soot released in these blazes darkens the ice, making it less able to reflect solar radiation away from the Earth.

Developments in the Arctic are worrying for other reasons, too. The region is warming twice as fast as the rest of the world, a trend that could start a vicious cycle. Around 1,700 gigatonnes of carbon are held in permafrost soils as frozen organic matter. If they thaw, vast amounts of methane, which is 25 times more powerful as a global-warming gas than carbon dioxide when measured over a century, will be released. One hypothesis suggests that self-reinforcing feedback between permafrost emissions and Arctic warming caused disaster before: 55m years ago temperatures jumped by 5°C in a few thousand years…

And on September 29th Mark Carney, the governor of the Bank of England, warned that though measures to avoid catastrophic climate change are essential, not least for long-term financial stability, in the shorter term they could cause investors huge losses by making reserves of oil, coal and gas “literally unburnable”.

Excerpts from Climate Change: It’s Getting Hotter, Economst, Oct. 3, 2015, at 63

 

Making Money in the Peruvian Amazon

The Sierra del Divisor region in the Peruvian Amazon was identified as a biodiversity conservation priority back in the early 1990s. More than 20 years later and Peruvians are still waiting – some more desperately than others given all the narco-traffickers, illegal loggers and gold-miners in or near the region.

What’s so special about the Sierra del Divisor? It’s the “only mountainous region” anywhere in the lowland rainforest, according to Peruvian NGO Instituto del Bien Comun (IBC), while The Field Museum, in the US, describes it as “a mountain range” rising up “dramatically from the lowlands of central Amazonian Peru” and boasting “rare and diverse geological formations that occur nowhere else in Amazonia.” Its most iconic topographical feature is “El Cono”, an extraordinary peak visible from the Andes on a clear day.

Sierra del Divisor is home to numerous river headwaters feeding into key Amazon tributaries, eco-systems, and a tremendous range of flora and fauna, some of which are endemic, some endangered or threatened – and some with the most wonderful names. Giant armadillos, jaguars, cougars, Acre antshrikes, curl-crested aracaris, blue-throated piping guans and various kinds of monkeys, including the bald – but very red-faced – uakari, all populate the region. Effectively, it forms part of a vast “ecological corridor” running all the way from the Madidi National Park in Bolivia in a north-westerly direction along much of the Peru-Brazil border.

21 indigenous communities and 42 other settlements would benefit from the Sierra del Divisor being properly protected, states the Environment Ministry, while ultimately over 230,000 people in Peru depend on the region for food and water, according to the IBC. In addition, in the absolute remotest parts, it is home to various groups of indigenous peoples living in what Peruvian law calls “isolation.”

In 2006 Peru’s government established a 1.4 million hectare temporary “protected natural area” in this region called the Sierra del Divisor Reserved Zone. Six years later a government commission agreed it would be converted into a national park, and, all that remains now, after a painful administrative process, several key advances made this year and indigenous leaders lobbying various ministries, is for Peru’s Cabinet to approve it and the president, Ollanta Humala, to sign off on it. That is how it has stood since early May 2015 – and still nothing….

Why such a delay indeed, this year or in the past? Might it have something to do with the infrastructure integration plans for the region, such as the proposed – and effectively already underway – road between Pucallpa, the Peruvian Amazon’s current boom city, and Cruzeiro do Sul across the border in Brazil? Or the proposed railway between the same two cities ultimately connecting to Peru’s northern Pacific coast, declared in the “national interest” some years ago? Or the proposed railway running all the way across South America from Peru’s Pacific coast to Brazil’s Atlantic coast, a long-mooted project which has received so much media coverage recently because of Chinese interest in financing it and the visit by China’s premier, Li Keqiang, to Brazil and Peru in May?

Or might the delay be explained by oil and gas industry interests? Perupetro, the state company promoting oil and gas operations, tried to open up what would be the entire southern part of the park for exploration before backtracking in 2008, while the London Stock Exchange-Alternative Investment Market-listed company Maple Energy has been pumping oil for years in a concession just overlapping the west of the proposed park. More significantly, Canadian-headquartered company Pacific Rubiales Energy runs a one million hectare oil concession that would overlap the entire northern part of the park if it was established, and conducted its first phase of exploratory drilling and seismic tests in late 2012 and 2013 in what would be the park’s far north. Clearly, it wouldn’t be good PR for either Pacific or Peru to explore for oil in, or exploit oil from, a national park, although it wouldn’t be the first time a concession and park have overlapped. Indeed, according to the IBC, it has been agreed that Pacific’s “rights” to operate will be respected if the park is created.

Excerpts from David Hill Peru stalling new national park for unique Amazon mountain range, Guardian, July 29, 2015

 

Building Climate Resilience in Ecosystems

Some ecosystems show little response [to climate change] until a threshold or tipping point is reached where even a small perturbation may trigger collapse into a state from which  recovery is difficult .  ….[S}uch collapse may be altered by conditions that can be managed locally…. [This] provides  potential opportunities for pro-active management.…[C]rises in iconic UNESCO World Heritage sites illustrate that such stewardship is at risk of failing. The term “safe operating space” frames the  problem of managing our planet in terms of staying within acceptable levels or “boundaries” for global stressors [Such as climate change]….

Obviously, local interventions are no panacea for the threats of climatic change. For example, melting of arctic sea ice with its far-reaching ecological consequences cannot be arrested by local management. However, ways of building climate resilience are emerging for a variety of ecosystems, ranging from control of local sources of ocean acidification  to management of grazing pressure on dry ecosystems,World Heritage Areas.

The Doñana wetlands in southern Spain provide the most important wintering site for waterfowl in Europe. They contain the largest temporary pond complex in Europe, with a diversity of amphibians and invertebrates. Despite the site’s protected status, the marshes are threatened by eutrophication due to pollution and reduced flow of incoming streams, promoting toxic cyanobacterial blooms and dominance by invasive floating plants that create anoxic conditions in the water. In addition, groundwater extraction for strawberry culture and beach tourism also has major impacts.  Little has been done to control these local stressors, leaving Doñana unnecessarily vulnerable to climate change. UNESCO has just rated this World Heritage Site as under ‘very high threat’.

The Great Barrier Reef is the largest coral system in the world. In response to multiple threats, fishing has been prohibited since 2004 over 33% of the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park, and efforts have begun to reduce runoff of nutrients, pesticides, herbicides and sediments from land. However, these interventions may be too little, too late. Approximately half of the coral cover has been lost in recent decades, and the outlook is “poor, and declining” with climate change, coastal development and dredging as major future threats. The World Heritage Committee has warned that in the absence of a solid long-term plan, it would consider listing the reef as “in danger” in 2015.

More available online Creating a Safe Operating Space for Iconic Ecosystems By M. Scheffer et al, 2015

Oil Pollution in Amazon Peru

Hundreds of indigenous people deep in the Peruvian Amazon are blocking a major Amazon tributary following what they say is the government’s failure to address a social and environmental crisis stemming from oil operations.   Kichwa men, women and children from numerous communities have been protesting along the River Tigre for almost a month, barring the river with cables and stopping oil company boats from passing.  Oil companies have operated in the region for over 40 years, and have been linked by local people to pollution that has led the government to declare “environmental emergencies” in the Tigre and other river basins….

The oil concession where the protest is taking place, Lot 1-AB, is Peru’s most productive, but the contract, held by Pluspetrol, expires in August 2015. The government has committed to relicensing it and consulting the indigenous communities involved, but leaders say the contamination and other issues must be addressed first.   “What we want is remediation, compensation, and to be consulted, according to international norms, about the relicensing,” says Fachin. “We won’t permit another 30 years of work otherwise.”…The Kichwas are now they are demanding 100 million Peruvian nuevo soles, from Pluspetrol, for “compensation after almost 45 years of contamination.”

“The state declared an environmental emergency, but hasn’t done anything,” says Guillermo Sandi Tuituy, from indigenous federation Feconat. “It must find a solution to this problem if it wants to relicense the concession.”...Pluspetrol took over Lot 1-AB from Occidental in 2000. It did not respond to requests for comment.

Peru’s indigenous people protest against relicensing of oil concession, Guardian,  Feb, 2, 2012

Amazon Indigenous Peoples – culture commerce

[T]he Tupe reserve, home to 40 members of the Dessana tribe, and located 15 miles (24km) up the Rio Negro river from Manaus, the capital of Brazil’s vast Amazon region.The tribe originates from more than 600 miles further upstream, in remote north-western Brazil, but three decades ago nine members moved down river to Tupe, to be near Manaus, a modern city of two million people.  Eventually they chose to go into tourism, and commercialising their culture.

Yet while they continue to be successful in doing this, some commentators remain concerned that the Tupe villagers, and other such tribal groups which have gone into tourism, are at risk of being exploited.  Former farmersToday the residents of Tupe put on traditional music and dance performances for tourists and sell their homemade jewellery to visitors….

With most visitors paying a fixed fee of around £55 per person for a package tour, the problem for the tribal people – and authorities wishing to help project them – is that thereis no industry-wide agreement on what share of the money the villagers should be paid.   Some of the 196 tourism agencies don’t pay the tribal groups at all, instead forcing them to rely on selling jewellery, with pieces typically retailing for between four reals ($1.50; £1) and 20 reals ($7.60; £5), or asking for donations….A Brazilian government agency, the National Indian Foundation, which aims to protect and further the needs of indigenous groups, is indeed now looking at whether such regulations should be enforced.In the meantime, to help tribal villages better handle business negotiations with tour firms, a non-government organisation called the Amazonas Sustainable Foundation (ASF) runs entrepreneurial programmes for members of such communities.

Excerpt from  Donna Bowater, Helping Brazil’s tribal groups benefit more from tourism, BBC, Jan. 21, 2015

Demand for Gold Causes Deforestation

The global gold rush, driven by increasing consumption in developing countries and uncertainty in financial markets, is an increasing threat for tropical ecosystems. Gold mining causes significant alteration to the environment, yet mining is often overlooked in deforestation analyses because it occupies relatively small areas. As a result, we lack a comprehensive assessment of the spatial extent of gold mining impacts on tropical forests.

The study Global demand for gold is another threat for tropical forests published in Environmental Research Letters provides a regional assessment of gold mining deforestation in the tropical moist forest biome of South America. Specifically, we analyzed the patterns of forest change in gold mining sites between 2001 and 2013, and evaluated the proximity of gold mining deforestation to protected areas (PAs)….Approximately 1680 km2 of tropical moist forest was lost in these mining sites between 2001 and 2013. Deforestation was significantly higher during the 2007–2013 period, and this was associated with the increase in global demand for gold after the international financial crisis….In addition, some of the more active zones of gold mining deforestation occurred inside or within 10 km of ~32 PAs. There is an urgent need to understand the ecological and social impacts of gold mining because it is an important cause of deforestation in the most remote forests in South America, and the impacts, particularly in aquatic systems, spread well beyond the actual mining sites.

Excerpt from Abstract, Global demand for gold is another threat for tropical forests

Uncontacted Tribes: Amazon

The vast jungles of the Amazon rainforest harbor tribes mostly isolated from the outside world, whose way of life, largely unchanged for millennia, is now increasingly threatened by intrusions from modern civilization.  Now, scientists reveal they can monitor these “uncontacted tribes” using satellites, which would allow safe, inexpensive and noninvasive tracking of these tribes in order to protect them from outside threats.

The investigators focused on indigenous groups concentrated near the headwaters of the Envira River, located at the border of Brazil and Peru. These include the Mashco-Piro, nomadic hunter-gatherers who live in Peru’s densely forested Madre de Dios region, and a number of Pano-speaking farming societies.

The researchers combed through satellite images to look at five isolated villages previously identified via overflights by Brazilian officials. They confirmed these locations and measured the sizes of their villages, houses and gardens. The villages ranged from a small one of about 50 people to a large and growing village of about 300 people. “We can find isolated villages with remote sensing and study them over time,” Walker told Live Science. “We can ask: Are they growing? Do they move?”

Surprisingly, based on the sizes of the houses and villages, the scientists find the population densities of these isolated villages is about 10 times greater, on average, than other villages of indigenous Brazilian peoples….. The researchers now plan to focus on 29 more isolated villages….

Excepts, Charles Q. Choi ,Isolated Amazon Tribes Monitored with Space-Age Technology,LiveScience.com, Nov. 5, 2014

Deforestation: mixed picture

In a new study of the Centre for Global Development (CGD), a Washington think-tank, Jonah Busch and Kalifi Ferretti-Gallon look at 117 cases of deforestation round the world. They find that two of the influences most closely correlated with the loss of forests are population and proximity to cities (the third is proximity to roads). Dramatic falls in fertility in Brazil, China and other well-forested nations therefore help explain why (after a lag) deforestation is slowing, too. Demography even helps account for what is happening in Congo, where fertility is high. Its people are flocking to cities, notably Kinshasa, with the result that the population in more distant, forested areas is thinning out.

Two of the countries that have done most to slow forest decline also have impressive agricultural records: Brazil, which became the biggest food exporter of all tropical countries over the past 20 years; and India, home of the green revolution. Brazil’s agricultural boom took place in the cerrado, the savannah-like region south and east of the Amazon (there is farming in the Amazon, too, but little by comparison). The green revolution took place mostly in India’s north-west and south, whereas its biggest forests are in the east and north.

But if population and agricultural prowess were the whole story, Indonesia, where fertility has fallen and farm output risen, would not be one of the worst failures. Figures published inNature Climate Change in June show that in the past decade it destroyed around 60,000 sq km of primary forests; its deforestation rate overtook Brazil’s in 2011. Policies matter, too—and the political will to implement them.

The central problem facing policymakers is that trees are usually worth more dead than alive; that is, land is worth more as pasture or cropland than as virgin forest. The benefits from forests, such as capturing carbon emissions, cleaning up water supplies and embodying biodiversity, are hard to price….The most successful policies therefore tend to be top-down bans, rather than incentives (though these have been tried, too). India’s national forest policy of 1988 explicitly rejects the idea of trying to make money from stewardship. “The derivation of direct economic benefit”, it says, “must be subordinated to this principal aim” (maintaining the health of the forest). In Brazil 44% of the Amazon is now national park, wildlife reserve or indigenous reserve, where farming is banned; much of that area was added recently. In Costa Rica half the forests are similarly protected. In India a third are managed jointly by local groups and state governments.

Top-down bans require more than just writing a law. Brazil’s regime developed over 15 years and involved tightening up its code on economic activity in forested areas, moratoriums on sales of food grown on cleared land, a new land registry, withholding government-subsidised credit from areas with the worst deforestation and strengthening law enforcement through the public prosecutor’s office. (The most draconian restriction, requiring 80% of any farm in the Amazon to be set aside as a wildlife reserve, is rarely enforced.)

Two developments make bans easier to impose. Cheaper, more detailed satellite imagery shows in real time where the violations are and who may be responsible. Brazil put the data from its system online, enabling green activists to help police the frontier between forest and farmland. Its moratoriums on soyabeans and beef from the Amazon, which require tracing where food is coming from, would not have worked without satellites…

The Forestry Ministry of Indonesia, [on the other hand] is rated the most corrupt among 20 government institutions by Indonesia’s Corruption Eradication Commission in 2012. Some within government are hostile to anti-deforestation schemes, which they see as “foreign”, says Ade Wahyudi of Katadata, an Indonesian firm of analysts. Perhaps the biggest problem is the lack of a single, unified map including all information on land tenure and forest licensing: efforts to create one have been slowed by unco-operative government ministries and difficulties created by overlapping land claims.

Excerpts from Tropical Forests: A Clearing in the Trees, Economist,  Aug. 23, 2014, at 56

Peru Pipelines and Indigenous Peoples

Peru’s government said in June 2014 that three companies have qualified to submit bids for a contract to build and operate a multi-billion dollar gas pipeline project in the country’s southern region, the state news agency Andina reported.  State investment promotion agency ProInversion said that two of the contenders for the Southern Peru Gas Pipeline concession are consortia.

The consortium Gasoducto Sur Peruano is made up of Brazilian construction giant Odebrecht and the firm Enegas. The consortium Gasoducto Peruano del Sur is made up of France’s GDF Suez, as well as the firms Sempra, Techint and TGI. The third contender is Energy Transfer.  The technical proposals are expected to be submitted on June 26, 2014 and the concession is scheduled to be awarded on June 30, 2014. The bid consists in the design, financing, construction and maintenance of a 32″ pipeline, in three sections.

The Southern Peru Gas Pipeline will extend some 1,000 kilometers, transporting natural gas from the Camisea fields in Peru’s south-eastern Amazon region to the Peruvian coast. The project is expected to require an investment of some $4 billion.  The government says the pipeline is to provide inexpensive gas to southern Peru, helping to spur development in one of the country’s poorer regions.  [However NGOS have argued that the project will harm indigenous peoples living in the region].

According to the UN Special Rapporteur on the rights of indigenous peoples,, James Anaya (see Remarks on the extension of exploration and extraction of natural gas  in Block 88 of the Camisea project, March 24, 2014)

“[S]everal national and international NGOs have claimed a number of environmental and health problems in relation to the expansion plan of the project, in some cases stating that any activity of extractive industry within the reserve is simply incompatible with its protection goals. The Special Rapporteur has found that in many cases these claims are speculative and vague, and without relation to the information contained in the EIA of the company or the findings of government.”

But the rapporteur stated also that:

“Assessing the impacts that mining activity could have on indigenous peoples within the reserve and to establish effective safeguards, it is necessary to have adequate knowledge beforehand, to the extent possible, these peoples and their dynamics, in observance the principle of non-contact remote villages. However, while there is relatively extensive information on indigenous reserves within the sustained or sporadic contact with settlements, the available information on indigenous peoples in isolation is outdated and incompleteThis information gap has generated divergent opinions and a lack of trust in relation to the protective measures that the Government has demanded that Pluspetrol is committed to implement in the context of extractive activities in the reserve.

Excerpts, Three Contenders for Peru’s Southern Gas Pipeline,  Peruvian Times, June 6, 2014 and the Remarks on the extension of exploration and extraction of natural gas in Block 88 of the Camisea project, March 24, 2014

Amazon Protected Areas: 215 Million Fund

Brazil’s government, the World Wildlife Fund and various partners are expected to unveil an agreement that would establish a $215 million fund for conservation of protected jungle in the Amazon rainforest.  The fund, which seeks to ensure conservation of over 90 protected areas in the Amazon, comes as renewed developmental pressures mount in the region, resulting last year in an uptick in deforestation figures after years of record lows.

Under the terms of the agreement, partners in the fund will make annual contributions to help Brazil meet financing needs for the protected lands, whose combined area totals more than 60 million hectares, or an area 20 percent larger than Spain.  Contributions, partners said, will be contingent upon conditions required of Brazil, including audits of the government body that will administer the fund and continued staffing and financing of government offices required to administer the rainforest areas.

Money from the fund would be used for a range of basic conservation measures, including fences and signs to delineate protected areas and to pay for vehicles used to patrol them…

Brazil’s government through 2012 made large inroads against deforestation, largely through strict environmental enforcement and financial measures that blocked credit for companies and individuals caught doing business with loggers, ranchers, farmers or others known to exploit illegally cleared land.

In recent years, however, the government has made changes to environmental agencies and regulations that critics say make it easier for would-be developers to target protected areas. The government has also altered borders of some parkland to make way for infrastructure projects, including hydroelectric dams on various Amazon tributaries.

Financing for the new fund, expected to pay out over 25 years, was secured from private and public sources including the German government, the Inter-American Development Bank, the World Bank, philanthropists and the Amazon Fund, an existing facility financed mostly by the Norwegian government and administered by Brazil’s national development bank.

Together, the forest zones targeted by the fund are known as the Amazon Region Protected Areas, or ARPA, a program established in 2002 to coordinate financing and conservation strategy in the region.

Whereas previous financing for the effort relied on cumulative fundraising efforts, partners this time agreed to an all-or-nothing approach, borrowed from private-sector financing practices, to build momentum toward a target total. The $215 million is the amount calculated as necessary to help the Brazilian government, over the 25 years, become self-sufficient in terms of financing the rainforest areas.

Excerpts from  PAULO PRADA, Donors commit $215 million for Amazon conservation in Brazil, Reuters, May 21, 2014

Yasuni National Park Oil Drilling: Ecuador, Amazon

Ecuador’s parliament on Thursday (Oct. 3, 2012) authorized drilling of the nation’s largest oil fields in part of the Amazon rainforest after the failure of President Rafael Correa’s plan to have rich nations pay to avoid its exploitation.  The socialist leader launched the initiative in 2007 to protect the Yasuni jungle area, which boasts some of the planet’s most diverse wildlife, but scrapped it after attracting only a small fraction of the $3.6 billion sought.

The government-dominated National Assembly authorized drilling in blocks 43 and 31, but attached conditions to minimize the impact on both the environment and local tribes. Though Correa says the estimated $22 billion earnings potential will be used to combat poverty in the South American nation, there have been protests from indigenous groups and green campaigners.  About 680,000 people have signed a petition calling for a referendum.  “We want them to respect our territory,” Alicia Cauilla, a representative of the Waorani people who live around the Yasuni area, said in an appeal to the assembly. “Let us live how we want.”  Correa has played down the potential impact of oil drilling in the area, saying it would affect only 0.01 percent of the entire Yasuni basin…

Oil output in OPEC’s smallest member has stagnated since 2010 when the government asked oil investors to sign less-profitable service contracts or leave the country. Since then, oil companies have not invested in exploration.  State oil company Petroamazonas will be in charge of extraction in blocks 43 and 31, which are estimated to hold 800 million barrels of crude and projected to yield 225,000 barrels per day eventually. Ecuador currently produces 540,000 bpd

Excerpt, By Alexandra Valencia, Ecuador congress approves Yasuni basin oil drilling in Amazon, Reuters, Oct. 4, 2013

 

Dams in Brazil

Some 20,000 labourers are working around the clock at Belo Monte on the Xingu river, the biggest hydropower plant under construction anywhere. When complete, its installed capacity, or theoretical maximum output, of 11,233MW will make it the world’s third-largest, behind China’s Three Gorges and Itaipu, on the border between Brazil and Paraguay.  Everything about Belo Monte is outsized, from the budget (28.9 billion reais, or $14.4 billion), to the earthworks—a Panama Canal-worth of soil and rock is being excavated—to the controversy surrounding it. In 2008 a public hearing in Altamira, the nearest town, saw a government engineer cut with a machete. In 2010 court orders threatened to stop the auction for the project. The private-sector bidders pulled out a week before. When officials from Norte Energia, the winning consortium of state-controlled firms and pension funds, left the auction room, they were greeted by protesters—and three tonnes of pig muck.

Since then construction has twice been halted briefly by legal challenges. Greens and Amerindians often stage protests. Xingu Vivo (“Living Xingu”), an anti-Belo Monte campaign group, displays notes from supporters all over the world in its Altamira office… But visit the site and Belo Monte now looks both unstoppable and much less damaging to the environment than some of its foes claim…

Brazil already generates 80% of its electricity from hydro plants—far more than other countries. But two-thirds of its hydro potential is untapped. The snag is that most of it lies in untouched rivers in the Amazon basin. Of 48 planned dams, 30 are in the rainforest. They include the almost completed Jirau and Santo Antônio on the Madeira river, which will add 6,600MW to installed capacity. But it is Belo Monte, the giant among them, that has become the prime target of anti-dams campaigners.Opponents say that dams only look cheap because the impact on locals is downplayed and the value of other uses of rivers—for fishing, transport and biodiversity—is not counted. They acknowledge that hydropower is low-carbon, but worry that reservoirs in tropical regions can release large amounts of methane, a much more powerful greenhouse gas.

In the 20th century thousands of dams were built around the world. Some were disasters: Brazil’s Balbina dam near Manaus, put up in the 1980s, flooded 2,400 square km (930 square miles) of rainforest for a piffling capacity of 250MW. Its vast, stagnant reservoir makes it a “methane factory”, says Philip Fearnside of the National Institute for Amazonian Research, a government body in Manaus. Proportionate to output, it emits far more greenhouse gases than even the most inefficient coal plant.

But many dams were worth it (though the losers rarely received fair compensation). Itaipu, built in the 1970s by Brazil’s military government, destroyed some of the world’s loveliest waterfalls, flooded 1,350 square km and displaced 10,000 families. But it now supplies 17% of Brazil’s electricity and 73% of Paraguay’s. It is highly efficient, producing more energy than the Three Gorges, despite being smaller.

Of Brazil’s total untapped hydropower potential of around 180,000MW, about 80,000MW lies in protected regions, mostly indigenous territories, for which there are no development plans. The government expects to use most of the remaining 100,000MW by 2030, says Mr Ventura. But it will minimise the social and environmental costs, he insists. The new dams will use “run of river” designs, eschewing large reservoirs and relying on the water’s natural flow to power the turbines. And they will not flood any Indian reserves.,,,

The protesters’ legal challenge to Belo Monte is based on the claim that they have not been properly consulted, something the government denies. The constitution says that before exploiting any resource on Amerindian lands, the government must consult the inhabitants. But it is silent on how this should be done. The International Labour Organisation (ILO) has a similar clause in its Convention 169 on indigenous rights, to which Brazil is a signatory.  The government says that since no demarcated territories will be flooded, such formal protections do not apply. “We hold consultations about the projects we’re doing not because we have to, but because it is right,” says Mr Ventura. Between 2007 and 2010 there were four public hearings and 12 public consultations about Belo Monte, as well as explanatory workshops and 30 visits to Indian villages.

In 2011, in response to a complaint filed by Indian groups, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights called for a halt to construction pending further consultation. That was “precipitate and unjustified”, said the government, refusing the request. The ILO has asked Brazil’s government for more information on how it intends to fulfil its legal obligations.

The legal uncertainty surrounding Belo Monte is bad for both the Indians and contractors, says Mr Sales—not to mention Brazil as a whole. A draft law detailing how to consult indigenous people is expected by the end of the year. But before Congress legislates, ground is likely to have been broken on most of the new dams….

Belo Monte was given an initial budget of 16 billion reais, which had risen to 19 billion reais by the time of the auction. Norte Energia’s winning bid for Belo Monte offered a price of 77.97 reais/MWh. Since then, its budget has risen by a third.  Officials insist that the costs are Norte Energia’s problem. That looks disingenuous. The group is almost wholly state-owned. In November, the national development bank gave Norte Energia a loan of 22.5 billion reais—its largest-ever credit. If Belo Monte turns out to be a white elephant, the bill will fall on the taxpayer.

Dams in the Amazon: the Rights and Wrongs of Belo Monte, Economist, May 4, 2013, at 37

Foreign Corporate Immunity: Chevron/Canada v. Ecuador

A Toronto judge halted on May 1, 2013 an effort to enforce a $19 billion Ecuadorean judgment against U.S. oil company Chevron Corp in Canada, finding that his Ontario provincial court was the wrong place for the case.  The action is the latest skirmish in a two-decade conflict between Chevron and residents of Ecuador’s Lago Agrio region over claims that Texaco, which Chevron acquired in 2001, contaminated the area from 1964 to 1992.

Citing Chevron’s promise to fight the plaintiffs until “hell freezes over, and then fight it out on the ice,” Justice David Brown of the Ontario court foresaw a “bitter, protracted” battle that would be costly and time consuming.  “While Ontario enjoys a bountiful supply of ice for part of each year, Ontario is not the place for that fight,” Brown wrote in his ruling on Wednesday. “Ontario courts should be reluctant to dedicate their resources to disputes where, in dollars and cents terms, there is nothing to fight over.”

Alan Lenczner, principal lawyer in Toronto for the Ecuadorean plaintiffs, said they would definitely appeal, arguing that a multinational company could not be immune from enforcement in a country where it earns so much. “Chevron Corp itself earns no money,” he said in a statement. “All its earnings and profits come from subsidiaries including, importantly, Chevron Canada.”  Chevron Canada’s assets are worth more than $12 billion, the plaintiffs had said, and alongside separate actions in Argentina and Brazil, they had sought to persuade the Ontario court to collect the damages awarded to them by the South American court.

Chevron, the second-largest U.S. oil company, has steadfastly refused to pay, saying the February 2011 ruling by the court in Lago Agrio was influenced by fraud and bribery. A related fraud case goes to trial in New York in October.  The Supreme Court of Canada has ruled that the country’s courts can recognize and enforce foreign judgments in cases where there is a “reasonable and substantial connection” between the cause of the action and the foreign court. Chevron called Brown’s ruling a “significant setback” to the Ecuadoreans’ strategy of seeking enforcement against subsidiaries that were not parties to the Ecuador case.  “The plaintiffs should be seeking enforcement in the United States – where Chevron Corporation resides. In the U.S., however, they would be confronted by the fact that eight federal courts have already found the Ecuador trial tainted by fraud,” Chevron said in a statement. Last month, a consulting firm whose work helped lead to the $19 billion award against Chevron disavowed some environmental claims used to obtain the judgment.

Excerpt, Judge halts Chevron-Ecuador enforcement action in Canada, Reuters, May 1, 2013

HardBall: Chevron and the Oil Pollution in Amazon

An environmental case that has pitted Chevron against Ecuadorean Amazon villagers for two decades has taken another bizarre twist, with an American consulting firm now recanting research favorable to the villagers’ claims of pollution in remote tracts of jungle.  The consulting firm, Stratus Consulting of Boulder, Colo., announced late Thursday (April 11, 2013) that it had originally been misled by Steven R. Donziger, a lead lawyer for the Ecuadorean villagers, and had decided to disavow its contributions to scientific research about whether there was groundwater contamination that sickened the residents in swaths of rain forest.

The move prompted the plaintiffs to assert that Chevron was coercing parties to the case, citing this as another example of strong tactics employed by the company as it tries to overturn an Ecuadorean judge’s decision two years ago that it pay $18 billion in damages, one of the largest environmental awards ever. In this instance, the plaintiffs claim that Chevron pressured Stratus to retract its assessment in exchange for dismissal of legal claims in a countersuit filed by Chevron made against the firm — claims that could have pushed the consulting business into bankruptcy.  “Stratus deeply regrets its involvement in the Ecuador litigation,” the firm said. It remains unclear whether this development with Stratus will have much impact on Chevron’s appeals, because the judge also based his ruling on other environmental assessments. The judge ruled that back in the 1970s, Texaco had left an environmental mess in oil drilling operations while operating as a partner with the Ecuadorean state oil company, and that Chevron, which bought Texaco in 2001, must apologize for and was liable for the damage.

Chevron has refused to apologize. In addition to appealing the decision in the Ecuadorean courts, Chevron also filed a countersuit in federal court in New York against Mr. Donziger and Stratus Consulting, accusing them of racketeering and fraud. Because Stratus has now retracted its statements on the Ecuadorean pollution, Chevron agreed not to pursue claims against the firm anymore. On Friday, Chevron filed witness statements from Douglas Beltman, a Stratus vice president, and Ann Maest, a Stratus scientist, in which they now say they were not aware of scientific evidence of groundwater contamination in the former Texaco concession area or of any adverse health impact to people from the operations.

Mr. Beltman stated that “at Donziger’s direction,” he drafted portions of a report in the first person as if it were written by Richard Cabrera, the supposedly independent expert, that detailed environmental damage for the Ecuadorean court. “Donziger stressed to me and Ann Maest the importance of Stratus ensuring that no one learn of Stratus’ involvement in any aspect of the Cabrera Report or Responses,” he said.  In an interview, Mr. Beltman said, “This settlement was extensively negotiated with Chevron and we think it’s fair and it’s not extortion.”  Mr. Donziger said he could not comment since he was a defendant in the racketeering case filed by Chevron.

It was not immediately clear what impact Stratus’s recantation would have on the case. Chevron’s appeal is before Ecuador’s highest court, the National Court of Justice, and the company is defending itself in courts in Canada, Argentina and Brazil to avoid paying damages in those countries. The plaintiffs are waging an international campaign seeking damages because Chevron has no assets in Ecuador itself…

Kent Robertson, a Chevron spokesman, said the statements should uphold the company’s position in the American racketeering case and in the international enforcement proceedings. “The declarations today show there is no scientific evidence to support the plaintiffs’ lawyers’ allegations,” he said.

Craig Smyser, a lawyer for some of the Ecuadorean plaintiffs, said the statements by the consulting firm “should have almost no effect” because the Ecuadorean judge relied on many expert reports other than the one that Stratus was involved in.  He attributed the decision by Stratus to repudiate its earlier work to the “immense financial strain that threatened the financial extinction of the firm, including a campaign by Chevron to discredit Stratus with various government agencies and businesses with which Stratus worked.”

Chevron has been playing hardball for at least four years. The company produced video recordings from pens and watches wired with bugging devices that suggested a bribery scheme surrounding the proceedings and involving a judge hearing the case. An American behind the secret recordings was a convicted drug trafficker.  But the oil company appeared to gain the upper hand three years ago when it won a legal bid to secure the outtakes from a documentary about the case, “Crude,” in which Mr. Donziger was shown describing the need to pressure a Ecuadorean judge and boasting of meetings with Ecuadorean officials.

In a sworn statement filed in an American court, Alberto Guerra, an Ecuadorean judge who heard the Chevron case in 2003 and 2004, accused Nicolas Zambrano, the judge who issued the $18 billion verdict against Chevron, of taking a $500,000 bribe from the plaintiffs. Mr. Zambrano denied the charge, and in his own affidavit, said that Mr. Guerra had told him that Chevron would offer him $1 million in return for a favorable judgment.  Chevron has denied offering any bribes.

By CLIFFORD KRAUSS, Consultant Recants in Chevron Pollution Case in Ecuador, NY Times, April 12, 2013

 

The War on Dams

An Amazonian community has threatened to “go to war” with the Brazilian government after what they say is a military incursion into their land by dam builders.  The Munduruku indigenous group in Para state say they have been betrayed by the authorities, who are pushing ahead with plans to build a cascade of hydropower plants on the Tapajós river without their permission.  Public prosecutors, human rights groups, environmental organisations and Christian missionaries have condemned what they call the government’s strong-arm tactics.

According to witnesses in the area, helicopters, soldiers and armed police have been involved in Operation Tapajós, which aims to conduct an environmental impact assessment needed for the proposed construction of the 6,133MW São Luiz do Tapajós dam.  The facility, to be built by the Norte Energia consortium, is the biggest of two planned dams on the Tapajós, the fifth-largest river in the Amazon basin. The government’s 10-year plan includes the construction of four larger hydroelectric plants on its tributary, the Jamanxim.

Under Brazilian law, major infrastructure projects require prior consultation with indigenous communities. Federal prosecutors say this has not happened and urge the courts to block the scheme which, they fear, could lead to bloodshed.  “The Munduruku have already stated on several occasions that they do not support studies for hydroelectric plants on their land unless there is full prior consultation,” the prosecutors noted in a statement.

However, a court ruling last week gave the go-ahead for the survey. Government officials say that neither researchers nor logistical and support teams will enter indigenous villages. The closest they will get is about 30 miles from the nearest village, Sawré Maybu.  The ministry of mines and energy noted on its website that 80 researchers, including biologists and foresters, would undertake a study of flora and fauna. The army escort was made possible by President Dilma Rousseff, who decreed this year that military personnel could be used for survey operations. Officials say the security is for the safety of the scientists and the local population.

Missionaries said the presence of armed troops near Sawré Maybu village, Itaituba, was intimidating, degrading and an unacceptable violation of the rights of the residents.  “In this operation, the federal government has been threatening the lives of the people,” the Indigenous Missionary Council said. “It is unacceptable and illegitimate for the government to impose dialogue at the tip of a bayonet.”

The group added that Munduruku leaders ended a phone call with representatives of the president with a declaration of war. They have also issued open letters calling for an end to the military operation. “We are not bandits. We feel betrayed, humiliated and disrespected by all this,” a letter states.  One of the community’s leaders, Valdenir Munduruku, has warned that locals will take action if the government does not withdraw its taskforce by 10 April, when the two sides are set to talk. He has called for support from other indigenous groups, such as the Xingu, facing similar threats from hydroelectric dams.

Environmental groups have expressed concern. The 1,200-mile waterway is home to more than 300 fish species and provides sustenance to some of the most biodiverse forest habitats on Earth. Ten indigenous groups inhabit the basin, along with several tribes in voluntary isolation.  With similar conflicts over other proposed dams in the Amazon, such as those at Belo Monte, Teles Pires, Santo Antônio and Jirau, some compare the use of force to the last great expansion of hydropower during the military dictatorship. “The Brazilian government is making political decisions about the dams before the environmental impact assessment is done,” said Brent Millikan of the International Rivers environmental group.  “The recent military operations illustrate that the federal government is willing to disregard existing legal instruments intended to foster dialogue between government and civil society.”

Jonathan Watts, Amazon tribe threatens to declare war amid row over Brazilian dam project, Guardian, Aprl. 3, 2013

 

The Desert at the Heart of the Amazon Rainforest

An area of the Amazon rainforest twice the size of California continues to suffer from the effects of a megadrought that began in 2005, finds a new NASA-led study. These results, together with observed recurrences of droughts every few years and associated damage to the forests in southern and western Amazonia in the past decade, suggest these rainforests may be showing the first signs of potential large-scale degradation due to climate change.

An international research team led by Sassan Saatchi of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, Calif., analyzed more than a decade of satellite microwave radar data collected between 2000 and 2009 over Amazonia. The observations included measurements of rainfall from NASA’s Tropical Rainfall Measuring Mission and measurements of the moisture content and structure of the forest canopy (top layer) from the Seawinds scatterometer on NASA’s QuikScat spacecraft.

The scientists found that during the summer of 2005, more than 270,000 square miles (700,000 square kilometers, or 70 million hectares) of pristine, old-growth forest in southwestern Amazonia experienced an extensive, severe drought. This megadrought caused widespread changes to the forest canopy that were detectable by satellite. The changes suggest dieback of branches and tree falls, especially among the older, larger, more vulnerable canopy trees that blanket the forest.

While rainfall levels gradually recovered in subsequent years, the damage to the forest canopy persisted all the way to the next major drought, which began in 2010. About half the forest affected by the 2005 drought – an area the size of California – did not recover by the time QuikScat stopped gathering global data in November 2009 and before the start of a more extensive drought in 2010.

“The biggest surprise for us was that the effects appeared to persist for years after the 2005 drought,” said study co-author Yadvinder Malhi of the University of Oxford, United Kingdom. “We had expected the forest canopy to bounce back after a year with a new flush of leaf growth, but the damage appeared to persist right up to the subsequent drought in 2010.”

Recent Amazonian droughts have drawn attention to the vulnerability of tropical forests to climate change. Satellite and ground data have shown an increase in wildfires during drought years and tree die-offs following severe droughts. Until now, there had been no satellite-based assessment of the multi-year impacts of these droughts across all of Amazonia. Large-scale droughts can lead to sustained releases of carbon dioxide from decaying wood, affecting ecosystems and Earth’s carbon cycle.

The researchers attribute the 2005 Amazonian drought to the long-term warming of tropical Atlantic sea surface temperatures. “In effect, the same climate phenomenon that helped form hurricanes Katrina and Rita along U.S. southern coasts in 2005 also likely caused the severe drought in southwest Amazonia,” Saatchi said. “An extreme climate event caused the drought, which subsequently damaged the Amazonian trees.”

Saatchi said such megadroughts can have long-lasting effects on rainforest ecosystems. “Our results suggest that if droughts continue at five- to 10-year intervals or increase in frequency due to climate change, large areas of the Amazon forest are likely to be exposed to persistent effects of droughts and corresponding slow forest recovery,” he said. “This may alter the structure and function of Amazonian rainforest ecosystems.”

The team found that the area affected by the 2005 drought was much larger than scientists had previously predicted. About 30 percent (656,370 square miles, or 1.7 million square kilometers) of the Amazon basin’s total current forest area was affected, with more than five percent of the forest experiencing severe drought conditions. The 2010 drought affected nearly half of the entire Amazon forest, with nearly a fifth of it experiencing severe drought. More than 231,660 square miles (600,000 square kilometers) of the area affected by the 2005 drought were also affected by the 2010 drought. This “double whammy” by successive droughts suggests a potentially long-lasting and widespread effect on forests in southern and western Amazonia.

The drought rate in Amazonia during the past decade is unprecedented over the past century. In addition to the two major droughts in 2005 and 2010, the area has experienced several localized mini-droughts in recent years. Observations from ground stations show that rainfall over the southern Amazon rainforest declined by almost 3.2 percent per year in the period from 1970 to 1998. Climate analyses for the period from 1995 to 2005 show a steady decline in water availability for plants in the region. Together, these data suggest a decade of moderate water stress led up to the 2005 drought, helping trigger the large-scale forest damage seen following the 2005 drought…

Results of the study were published recently in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. Other participating institutions included UCLA; University of Oxford, United Kingdom; University of Exeter, Devon, United Kingdom; National Institute for Space Research, Sao Jose dos Campos, Sao Paulo, Brazil; Boston University, Mass.; and NASA’s Ames Research Center, Moffett Field, Calif.

Study Finds Severe Climate Jeopardizing Amazon Forest, NASA Press Release, Jan. 17, 2013

Reversing Deforestation in the Amazon

Brazilian policymakers can take some of the credit for a dramatic slowdown in the deforestation rate in the Brazilian Amazon, say experts – but that’s not the whole story.  In November Brazil (2012) announced deforestation rates in the Amazon declined 27 percent from August 2011 to July 2012, reaching the lowest rates ever recorded for the fourth consecutive year.  According to Brazil’s National Institute for Space Research (INPE), 4656 square kilometres of Amazon rainforest were cleared over the twelve months, compared with 27,772 square kilometres in 2004.

Brazil’s government says this represents a 76 percent reduction since 2004 – coming close to the country’s commitment to reduce deforestation in the Amazon region 80 percent by 2020.  It has attributed the dramatic results to a package of policies known as PPCDAm (The Action Plan for Prevention and Control of Legal Amazon Deforestation) that were first implemented in 2004.

PPCDAm comprises more than 200 initiatives across 14 ministries that together aim to reduce deforestation in the Amazon…Over the last decade, the country has established new protected areas, indigenous lands and sustainable use areas covering 709,000 square kilometres.  This has decreased both deforestation and the incidence of fires – and crucially, more of them than previously are located near particularly threatened areas, making them more effective.We know every day where deforestation is going on in the Amazon…from detection to having people in the field stopping illegal loggers takes just five days….Brazil’s space agency, remote sensing centre, and law enforcement agencies collaborate to detect and precisely locate deforestation and forest degradation, and to apprehend perpetrators.  From detection to having people in the field stopping illegal loggers takes just five days….  Last year [Brazil]  confiscated 110 chainsaws, nine bulldozers, and 329 trucks…

Jorge Hargrave – who  worked with Wunder on the UNEP report (pdf) – and colleagues assessed the effectiveness of the PPPDAm policies.  They found that these policies were responsible for curbing deforestation – and that the command-and-control policies, particularly the issuance of environmental fines, had the most impact.  The government’s decision to focus on 36 specific municipalities where deforestation was most intense was also very effective, they found, as was the cross sector coordination and high-level political support for the program.

However, Hargrave also cautioned against over-confidence about the recent encouraging results. “It’s not clear that if the government changes or the policy changes, deforestation can’t go up again,” he said.  “In addition, the lack of land tenure security in the region was consistently identified as a key problem and the biggest bottleneck to further progress.”

In another recent study, Clarissa Costalonga e Gandour and colleagues from the Climate Policy Initiative showed that environmental policies are important – but are only part of the deforestation-reduction story.  The study found that agricultural prices – particularly meat and soybeans – had a significant impact on deforestation as well…The study makes special mention of a 2008 policy that made rural credit for agricultural activities in the Amazon conditional on proof of compliance with environmental regulations – with exceptions for smallholders.

Excerpts, KATE EVANS, How much credit can Brazil take for slowing Amazon deforestation – and how low can it go?, CIFOR, Jan. 15, 2013

Chevron, 50 Activists and their Email Accounts

The Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) and EarthRights International (ERI) asked judges in California and New York today to quash subpoenas issued by Chevron Corporation to three email providers demanding identifying information about the users of more than 100 email accounts, including environmental activists, journalists, and attorneys. The information Chevron wants could be used to create a detailed map of the individuals’ locations and associations over nearly a decade.

The subpoenas are the latest salvo in the long-running battle over damage caused by oil drilling in Ecuador. After years of litigation, an Ecuadorian court last year imposed a judgment of over $17 billion on Chevron for dumping toxic waste into Amazon waterways and causing massive harm to the rainforest. Instead of paying, Chevron sued more than 50 people who were involved in the Ecuador lawsuit, claiming they were part of a conspiracy to defraud the oil giant. None of the individuals represented by EFF and ERI has been sued by Chevron or accused of wrongdoing.

“Environmental advocates have the right to speak anonymously and travel without their every move and association being exposed to Chevron,” said Marcia Hofmann, EFF Senior Staff Attorney. “These sweeping subpoenas create a chilling effect among those who have spoken out against the oil giant’s activities in Ecuador.”

The motions to quash filed today asked the courts to reject the subpoenas, pointing out that anonymous speakers who are not parties in a lawsuit receive particularly strong First Amendment protections. EFF first won court recognition of this protection in Doe v. 2theMart.com in 2001. Chevron’s subpoenas also violate the legal protections for the right of association for political action that were developed during the civil rights era.

“The courts have long recognized that forcing activists to reveal their names and political associations will chill First Amendment rights and can only be done in the most extreme situations,” added Marco Simons, Legal Director of ERI, which has provided legal assistance to third parties affected by the Chevron litigation in two international proceedings. “We look forward to having those longstanding principles applied in this case so that people can engage in journalism and political activism and assist in litigation against environmental destruction without fear that their identities and personal email information will be put at risk.”

EFF and ERI are challenging the subpoenas to Google and Yahoo! in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California and the subpoena to Microsoft in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of New York. .

EFF and ERI Fight to Quash Speech-Chilling Subpoenas from Chevron, Press Release of Electronic Frontier Foundation, Oct. 22, 2012

Right to Participate: Indigenous Peoples of Peru

Peru’s official human rights ombudsman, Defender of the People Eduardo Vega, is set to convene the first the first “prior consultation” with Amazonian indigenous peoples on oil development in their territory, under terms of a new law passed earlier this year setting terms for the process. The consultation concerns a planned new round of oil contracts planned for Bloc 1AB, currently held by Argentine firm Pluspetrol, in the watersheds of the Pastaza, Corrientes and Tigre rivers in the northeast of Loreto region. The Regional Organisation of Indigenous Peoples of the East (ORPIO), with an office in the city of Iquitos, it to represent the impacted indigenous peoples. Vega pledged the process would be carried out “with the utmost clarity so that rights of the indigenous peoples will be respected and the same process can serve for other consultations that will subsequently be carried out.”  But after years of conflict over resource extraction in the region and accusations of broken promises by the government, many indigenous residents remain skeptical about the process.

Peru: first “prior consultations” on Amazon oil development, WW4 Report, Sept. 15, 2012

Indigenous Peoples Rights and Energy Projects: the Inter-American Court of Human Rights

Deep in the rainforest, the village of Sarayaku is two days by river from the nearest town. But its 1,200 Kichwa Indians are now in the spotlight. On July 25th the Inter-American Court of Human Rights ruled that Ecuador’s government had ignored the rights of Sarayaku’s residents when granting permission for an energy project—putting governments in the Americas on notice that big physical investments are not legal until the indigenous people they affect have had their say.

The dispute began in 1996 when Petroecuador, the state oil firm, signed a prospecting deal with a consortium led by Argentina’s Compañía General de Combustibles (CGC). Much of the area it covered was the ancestral land of Sarayaku’s residents, who were not consulted. CGC later offered locals medical aid for their consent. Some villages signed up, but Sarayaku held out.  Nonetheless, by early 2003 CGC had drilled 467 boreholes around the town for seismic surveying, and packed them with 1,433kg of high explosives. They were never detonated, and remain buried in the forest. As well as felling trees and destroying a sacred site, the company ruined some of Sarayaku’s water sources. Work ceased in 2003, and CGC’s contract ended in 2010.

The court found that the state had breached the villagers’ rights to prior consultation, communal property and cultural identity by approving the project, and that CGC’s tests had threatened their right to life. It ordered the government to pay damages, clear the remaining explosives and overhaul its consultation process. In future affected groups must be heard in a plan’s “first stages…not only when the need arises to obtain the approval of the community.” However, the judges did not ban prospecting on Sarayaku lands. The right to consultation does not grant a veto.

The ruling will be studied closely in the myriad Latin American countries struggling to balance big investments with local rights. A narrow reading of the decision suggests that governments must tiptoe around indigenous concerns, but can act more boldly when other groups protest, since the ruling was based partly on the International Labour Organisation’s Indigenous and Tribal Peoples Convention.

The ruling also shows that the regional justice system has not lost its mettle. In 2011 the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, which litigates cases at the court, asked Brazil to halt work on the huge Belo Monte dam because its neighbours were not given a sufficient chance to speak up. Brazil’s government, which had authorised the dam only after a long public debate, saw this as a violation of its sovereignty. It did not comply, and stopped contributing money to the commission.  The commission was weakened by angering the region’s biggest country and by the criticism that it had exceeded its mandate. After Brazil presented new evidence in the case, the commission reversed its stance on Belo Monte. Moreover, last month the Organisation of American States voted to draft a reform plan for the commission, which some fear could strip it of important powers. Ecuador was among the commission’s loudest critics.

The Sarayaku case was not as heated as Belo Monte, since Ecuador’s government had already promised to pay damages. However, the court’s decision did strongly reassert its right to intervene in development cases. Moreover, Ecuador’s government plans to tender a big chunk of the Amazon for oil exploration later this year, despite indigenous opposition. If neither side backs down and the protesters appeal, the court’s next ruling on development in Ecuador may be far more contentious.

Indigenous rights in South America: Cowboys and Indians, Economist,July 28, 2012, at 32

Chevron and Amazon: the $18 billion Ecuador Liability

The D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals  on June 12, 2012  (pdf) dealt another setback to Chevron over its $18 billion Ecuador liability, reversing a lower court decision that allowed the oil giant access to documents from a prominent consulting group for the Amazon rainforest communities that sued the company.