Category Archives: biodiversity

A Botanical Treasure: Congo

Situated along the banks of the Congo River, the Yangambi Research Station was in its heyday a booming scientific hub, revered for its invaluable work in the Congo Basin throughout the midcentury.

It wasn’t to last. War, political instability and budget cuts were to hamper the center’s survival after Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) gained independence from its colonial ruler, Belgium, in 1960. The following decades would see skilled staff numbers dwindle, the jungle reclaim its buildings, and the center’s science work come to a stop.  But inside these crumbling walls lay a botanical treasure-trove. Yangambi’s herbarium holds Central Africa’s largest collection of dried plants. In fact, 15% of its 150,000 specimens are so rare, that they can only be found here….

Efforts from the Congolese Institute for Agronomy Research (INERA) could not keep the center running alone.   It was in 2017 that a ‘game changing’ opportunity arrived. INERA and the Meise Botanic Garden partnered with FORETS, a project coordinated by the Center for International Forestry Research (CIFOR)and financed by the European Union…Now, the herbarium has benefitted from a facelift – including a new roof, windows and doors, and a water cistern – soon its staff will be trained in modern preservation techniques and new technologies…Digitization of specimens will enable access to researchers around the world.

Excerpts from AHTZIRI GONZALEZ, Protecting Congo’s botanical treasures, CIFOR Press Release, Jan 11, 2019

Who to Blame for Climate Change? the Carbon Majors

 Whether the damage caused by extreme weather events can be linked to human emissions of greenhouse gases is one of the hottest topics in climate science. And that debate leads directly to another: if this link can be established, who bears the responsibility?  Both of these questions are at the center of an inquiry by the Philippine Commission on Human Rights, whose latest hearings took place in London in November 2018. It is the first time a human-rights commission has heard evidence on whether large emitters violate basic human rights by causing climate change

 Where the hearings become more unusual is in investigating the link between the damage caused by climate change and the behaviour of large industrial companies. This is predicated on recent efforts to trace greenhouse-gas emissions back to large corporate and state-owned producers of fossil fuels and cement, dubbed the “carbon majors”. The latest analysis by cdp (formerly the  Carbon Disclosure Project), a non-governmental organisation that works with companies, cities and states to measure their environmental impact, published in 2017, found that 100 of them had produced just over half of emissions since the Industrial Revolution.

The Philippine hearings will come to a close in December in Manila. The commission does not have the power to compensate victims of typhoons or to sanction emitters of carbon dioxide. According to Roberto Cadiz, one of the commissioners, that isn’t even the point. His wish is to open a dialogue about possible solutions to climate change that includes the industrial emitters. So far, however, only one side of the story is being heard. The emitters have declined to participate.

Excerpts from Climate Change: The Blame Game, Economist, Nov. 17, 2018

Saving the Sea of Galilee

The water level of the Sea of Galilee, on which Jesus supposedly walked, is a national obsession in Israel. Newspapers report its rise and fall next to the weather forecast. Lately the sea, which is actually a freshwater lake, has been falling. It is now a quarter empty. Small islands have emerged above its shrinking surface. 

For the past five years Israel has experienced its worst drought in nearly a century. That has reduced the flow of the Jordan river and other streams that feed into the Sea of Galilee. Less turnover in the lake’s water is leading to increased salinity and the spread of cyanobacteria (sometimes called “blue-green algae”, despite not being algae). As the pressure from fresh water eases, it allows in more salt water from subterranean streams. Climate change is expected to exacerbate these problems, perhaps one day making the lake water undrinkable.

Israel can probably cope. For most of its history the Sea of Galilee was its largest source of drinking water. But over the past decade the country has invested heavily in desalination plants and projects that allow it to reclaim effluents and brackish water. Since 2016 well over half of the water consumed by households, farms and industry has been “man-made”. Less than 70m cubic metres of water will be pumped out of the Sea of Galilee this year for consumption, down from 400m in the past. Some 50m will go to Jordan, which is also suffering from a severe drought.

In Jun 2018e the Israeli government authorised a billion-shekel ($270m) plan to pump desalinated sea water, mostly from the Mediterranean, into the Sea of Galilee. Work on a new pipeline began last month. A freshwater lake has never been replenished in this way, but the scientists monitoring the plan believe it will work similarly to rainfall and will not harm the lake’s unique ecosystem.  By 2020 the new pipeline is expected to pump enough desalinated water into the Sea of Galilee to stabilise its level. 

Excerpts from The Sea of Galilee: Walking on Desalinated Water, Economist,  Dec. 1, 2018

Genetically Modified Crops in Africa: opponents

According to the acting director, Andrew Kigundu,  of Uganda’s National Agricultural Research Organisation (NARO): “The idea of work on genetically engineered bananas is a result of many years of testing of Banana production.” The experiments started in 2005 and work is still ongoing to improve on the content of the fruit and resistance to parasites….The East African country is the first African country to turn toward GM to improve its production of bananas. An option which should make the country remain the first producer in the world .

The adoption of restrictive policies across Africa has been pursued under the pretext of protecting the environment and human health. So far there has been little evidence to support draconian biosafety rules. It is important that the risks of new products be assessed. But the restrictions should proportionate and consistent with needs of different countries.

Africa’s needs are different from those of the EU. There are certain uniquely African problems where GM should be considered as an option.   The Xanthomonas banana wilt bacterial disease causes early ripening and discoloration of bananas, a staple crop for Uganda. This costs the Great Lakes region nearly US $500m annually in losses. There is no treatment for the disease, which continues to undermine food security.  Ugandan scientists at Kawanda Agricultural Research Institute have developed a GM approach but their efforts to further their research in the technology are hampered by opposition to it. Those opposed to the technology advocate the adoption of an EU biosafety approach that would effectively stall the adoption of the technology. In fact, some of opponents using scare tactics against the technology are EU-based non-governmental organizations.

Genetically modified bananas solve Uganda’s productivity problems, AllAfricanews, May 24, 2016; See also Excerpt FromHow the EU starves Africa into submission,” by Calestous Juma, a professor of the practice of international development at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government:  “EU policy undermines African agricultural innovation …in the field of genetically modified (GM) crops. The EU exercises its right not to cultivate transgenic crops but only to import them as animal feed. However, its export of restrictive policies on GM crops has negatively affected Africa.”

The Most Highly Polluted Mammals: Killer Whales

Killer whales (Orcinus orca) are among the most highly polychlorinated biphenyl (PCB)–contaminated mammals in the world, raising concern about the health consequences of current PCB exposures.  Until they were recognized as highly toxic and carcinogenic, polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) were once used widely. Their production was banned in the United States in 1978, though they are still produced globally and persist in the environment. Persistent organic compounds, like PCBs, magnify across trophic levels, and thus apex predators are particularly susceptible to their ill effects. Desforges et al. looked at the continuing impact of PCBs on one of the largest marine predators, the killer whale. Using globally available data, the authors found high concentrations of PCBs within killer whale tissues. These are likely to precipitate declines across killer whale populations, particularly those that feed at high trophic levels and are the closest to industrialized areas.

Jean-Pierre Desforge, Predicting global killer whale population collapse from PCB pollution, Science, Sept. 28, 2018

By Hook or By Crook: Harvesting DNA of Indigenous Peoples

Tensions between Western scientists and Indigenous communities around the world. (“Indigenous” is an internationally inclusive term for the original inhabitants, and their descendants, of regions later colonized by other groups.) Scientists have used Indigenous samples without permission, disregarded their customs around the dead, and resisted returning samples, data, and human remains to those who claim them. Indigenous communities have often responded by severely restricting scientists’ sampling of their bodies and their ancestors, even as genomics has boomed, with increasing relevance for health….

The  Indigenous Peoples in Genomics (SING) aims to train Indigenous scientists in genomics so that they can introduce that field’s tools to their communities as well as bring a sorely needed Indigenous perspective to research. Since Malhi helped found it at UI in 2011, SING has trained more than 100 graduates and has expanded to New Zealand and Canada. The program has created a strong community of Indigenous scientists and non-Indigenous allies who are raising the profile of these ethical issues and developing ways to improve a historically fraught relationship…

Some Indigenous communities, such as the Navajo Nation, decline to participate in genetic research at all. And many tribes don’t permit research on their ancestors’ remains. Such opposition can feel like a hostile stumbling block to Western scientists, some of whom have gone to court to gain or maintain access to Indigenous samples. Not being able to study at least some early samples would “result in a world heritage disaster of unprecedented proportions,” the American Association of Physical Anthropologists said in 2007 in a debate over an amendment to the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act.

To understand why so many Indigenous people distrust Western scientists, consider how intertwined science has been with colonialism, says SING co-founder Kim TallBear, an anthropologist at the University of Alberta in Edmonton, Canada, and a member of the Sisseton Wahpeton Oyate in North and South Dakota. “While the U.S. was moving westward, stealing land, and massacring Indians, you had contract grave robbers coming out onto the battlefields and immediately picking up the dead—Native people—and boiling them down to bone, and sending their bones back east,” she says. Many of those skeletons were displayed and studied in museums by researchers who used them to argue for the biological inferiority of Indigenous people. Some of those skeletons are still there.  “Science was there, always. It’s part of that power structure,”

Many Indigenous communities see echoes of this painful history reverberating in the 21st century. In 2003, the Havasupai Tribe in Arizona discovered that samples taken for a study on diabetes had been used for research projects they had never consented to, including on population genetics and schizophrenia. They sued Arizona State University in Tempe, which eventually returned the samples and paid $700,000 to the tribe (Science, 30 April 2010)…

Researchers working for the Human Genome Diversity Project (HGDP), a major international effort, were collecting samples from around the world to build a public database of global genetic variation. The project publicly emphasized the importance of collecting DNA from genetically isolated Indigenous populations before they “went extinct.”  That rationale “was offensive to Indigenous populations worldwide,” Gachupin says. “Resources for infrastructure and for the wellbeing of the community were not forthcoming, and yet now here were these millions and millions of dollars being invested to ‘save’ their DNA.” The message from the scientific establishment was, she says, “We don’t care about the person. We just want your DNA.” Some activists dubbed the HGDP “the Vampire Project,” believing the only beneficiaries would be Western scientists and people who could afford costly medical treatments.

Excerpts from Lizzie Wade, Bridging the Gap, Science,  Sept. 28, 2018

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