Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Illicit Timber Trade Exposes the North to Drought

By Fulgence Zamblé, IPS News, February 24, 2012

Environmental groups in Côte d'Ivoire say the illegal logging and sale of wood from the African gum tree is exposing the north of the country to the encroaching desert. The NGOs are calling on the authorities to take firmer action against the illicit timber traders – who allegedly include government officials.

The warning comes as a scandal centring on the seizure of 30 containers of wood sized at two of the country's ports rocks the Ministry of Water and Forestry.

It centres on the seizure of 30 containers of timber at the country's two principal ports of San Pedro, and in Abidjan, the economic capital.

The director of the ministry, Yamani Soro, and his executive assistant, Maméry Koné, have both been implicated. The two men were fingered by exporters for having facilitated the transportation of African gum from the north to the south. Police also interviewed and subsequently charged Captain Vassiriki Koné, responsible for inspecting raw timber exports from San Pedro.

Soro was suspended from his duties, while Koné was arrested before being released for lack of sufficient evidence.

Sources close to Koné say he was released because the evidence against him was contradictory, suggesting he is not guilty of any infraction.

The timber in question was African gum – Pterocarpus erinaceus, known locally as vène – which is an important component of the northern forests which border on the savanna in Côte d'Ivoire and elsewhere in West Africa.

"Vène makes up more than 80 percent of the forest cover north of the 8th parallel. This is the greenery found at the very gates of the desert. If it is destroyed, then all of the north will be exposed to dryness and famine," said Jacob N'Zi, executive secretary of the Groupe Ecologique de Côte d'Ivoire, a non- governmental organisation based in Abidjan.

According to N'Zi, there is a long-standing ban on hunting in these northern forests, as well as on exports of raw African gum timber, in order to preserve the ecosystem's balance. Yet various traders, with the complicity of officials in the Ministry of Water and Forestry, have continued to exploit the species.

The African gum reaches a height of between 10 and 12 metres and is covered with vivid yellow flowers in the dry season. Its leaves and fruit – shaped like a garlic clove – are a nutritious animal feed, while both leaves and bark are used for a range of medicinal purposes. The tree produces a red sap which is used as a dye for fabric and is also useful as a nitrogen fixer, improving the presence of nutrients in impoverished soil.

P. erinaceus, which has become very rare according to scientists, is also used as fuel – producing a high quality charcoal.

"In the north of Côte d'Ivoire, which is threatened by desertification, people rely on farming and herding livestock for their livelihoods. If they lose the key resources needed for their survival, it will have dramatic consequences," Souleymane Camara, an agronomist based in northwestern town of Séguéla, told IPS.

"A cubic metre of African gum sells for 330,000 CFA francs (around 660 dollars) in Abidjan and is resold for 700,000 CFA (around 1,400 dollars) in a country like China," N'Zi said.

Côte d'Ivoire, which had 16 million hectares of forest in the 1960s, had only around three million hectares left by 2010, thanks to decades of wholesale, anarchic clearing of forests, according to the ministry.

In light of the profits to be made an continuing destruction of forests, environmentalists are not satisfied with the handling of the current scandal involving forestry officials.

"The decisions (taken) fall far short of reassuring us," said Blaise Gnakala, an environmental activist in Abidjan. "In the end, the matter has been treated lightly. The seized wood will soon be sold without the truth coming out.

"There was a chain of responsibility, and for us, it is the chance to send a strong signal to those digging a grave for Ivorian forests, but it's been missed."

But, Clément Nabo, the Minister for Water and Forestry, says the scandal will be thoroughly investigated. According to the ministry, the wood seized will be auctioned with the proceeds handed over to the government.

But Gnakala believes that the prosecution of those indicted, along with all their accomplices, should mark a decisive step in the struggle against desertification. "If the scandal is allowed to blow over, it will pave the way for the stripping of rare trees from our forests," he said.

In 2007, several Ivorian ecological organisations asked the government to grant them a role in the management of the country's forests to better prevent abuses. NGOs say there has been no response – apparently due to the various political crises that have gripped the country, and the lengthy preparations for presidential elections that were eventually held at the end of 2010.


Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Farmer squeezes Sh2.4m a year from mango trees

By Dennis Odunga, Daily Nation - Kenya (February 23, 2012)

On the slopes of the Kerio Valley escarpment in the Rift Valley, Mr Francis Kiplagat delights in the fruit of his labour.

In particular, a mango and vegetable venture that he started as a hobby in childhood, and which he has nurtured for 40 years now, is paying off.

Mr Kiplagat says that proceeds from his farm have enabled him to raise school fees for his four children pursuing university education with relative ease, besides meeting other financial obligations.

He has a mango plantation that occupies 20 acres of his farm in Biretwo, Keiyo South district.

He reveals that an acre can have about 50 to 60 trees, planted at intervals of 12 metres on a three-by-three square foot hole that should be ready a year before planting to allow for application of manure to improve its fertility.

Two of his children have already expressed a keen interest in agriculture; a move he says is commendable given that the mango trees he planted can survive past 100 years if accorded proper care.

Traders stream from as far away as Nairobi and Kisumu to purchase a variety of the local and exotic mangoes to sell at various local markets or to export to European hubs.

His mango varieties include Van dyke, Apple, Tommy Atkins and Kent. Each variety fetches about Sh600,000 a year returns due to their good quality and high nutritional value.

The exotic varieties are usually grafted on traditional mango trees to improve the overall quality.

The different varieties mature at varying times of the year, hence assuring him a steady income throughout.

“However, I invest a lot in the Apple variety because it matures fast, compared with the others, and it’s usually ready for the market in August when the country experiences an acute shortage of mangoes,” he says.

He adds that due to the supply shortage then, many traders travel to his farm for the fruits — saving him transport costs to various markets.

In a good season, he sells ripe mangoes at Sh10-15 each, depending on their size.

Some, like the Kent variety, weigh about one kilogramme when mature, he says.

He is looking forward to a time when he will be able to sell the fruits per kilo, saying that will fetch him more money.

“Middle-men are really making a killing from us, yet we are the ones who incur heavy cost,” he says.

For maximum returns, he says, the trees must be pruned and watered during their first three years of growth.

They should also be sprayed with insecticides regularly to stave off pests and diseases such as the mango weevil, fruit fly and mango hoppers.

He says the government should make available low-interest loans to farmers, and build rural roads to facilitate access to the markets.

He appeals to the youth to stop over-relying on white collar jobs and give agriculture a chance.


Monday, February 27, 2012

Native Farmers in Mexico Help Drive Local Eco-Friendly Farming

By Emilio Godoy, IPS News, February 20, 2012

The largely invisible work of small local groups of indigenous farmers in Mexico who are spearheading the defence of their territory and identity and of native seeds is strengthening ecologically sound family farming, experts say.

"For thousands of years, indigenous people have been responsible for developing agricultural biodiversity," Narciso Barrera, a researcher at the public Autonomous University of Tlaxcala in southern Mexico, told IPS. "However, these efforts remain basically invisible, and they should be highlighted and linked with other local movements."

Since 2000, Barrera has worked on mapping Mexican political ecology, a discipline that studies the relationships between political, economic and social factors and environmental issues and changes.

By this means he has been able to identify, for instance, the actions of at least 50 local indigenous or mestizo (mixed ancestry) groups, and at least 150 corn festivals celebrating maize, a staple food that is traditionally revered in Mexico and Central America.

Barrera has identified the main leaders of community projects, including women, Catholic Church social action groups and elders.

"We have won the confidence of the people, who are receiving technical advice and information about their rights, for both men and women," Claudia López, an accountant for a coalition of community organisations in the southern state of Oaxaca, told IPS.

"We are concerned about food security and sovereignty, so that people can grow what they eat, and about water, gender issues and natural resources," she said, with respect to the focus of the activities of the Sierra de Juárez Union of Organisations (UNOSJO).

UNOSJO, founded in 1992, is made up of 12 indigenous communities, whose members have learned agroecological practices and apply them in coffee, vegetable and maize cultivation as well as in rearing small livestock like pigs and chickens.

The producers export certified organic coffee to Germany, as well as meeting their own needs.

The basis of these initiatives is the family farm, regarded as essential for weathering the environmental, economic and nutritional crisis affecting this Latin American country.

In Mexico, family farms with an average area of six hectares apiece provide the livelihood of five million people, out of a national population of over 112 million. They supply 39 percent of total national agricultural and livestock production and provide 70 percent of agricultural jobs, according to the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO).

In December 2011, the United Nations General Assembly declared 2014 the International Year of Family Farming, in recognition of the key role of small farms for supplying food and incomes to billions of peasant farmers all over the world.

Securing a supply of healthy food, free from chemical additives and other pollutants, is the focus of a group of women who created the Comida Sana y Cercana (Healthy Local Food) Network of Responsible Farmers and Consumers in San Cristóbal de las Casas in the southern state of Chiapas in 2005.

The organisation comprises 32 families producing coffee, maize, vegetables, wheat, and small livestock.

"We decided to take action to ensure that the food we brought home was healthy," Lourdes Pérez, one of the group’s leaders, told IPS. "We started to investigate and we found that some farmers were growing crops organically, using spring water and no chemical inputs.

"Then we started the organic food basket, a system for people to place orders from a list of products that the group markets collectively," she explained.

Members of the network set up their stalls on Wednesdays, Fridays and Saturdays at a market established in 2007, to sell their food to local consumers. At first they had 15 products for sale, but the variety has now increased to over 50 kinds of food.

In 2011 the Comida Sana y Cercana network started a participative certification process to validate the agroecological practices of its members. As a result, this February they are about to issue their first endorsement, to a family that produces avocado pears and other fruits, and raises small livestock.

The producers and consumers' organisation also belongs to REDAC, the Mexican Network of Organic Markets and Tianguis (street markets), founded in 2004, which has 20 markets throughout Mexico that foment close links between rural producers and urban consumers.

These organisations promote markets that drive local production and consumption of organic foods, and contribute to raising awareness of the ecological and social importance of responsible production and consumption.

Another 18 markets are in the process of joining REDAC.

"Agroecology is the key, because it encompasses social aspects, education, economics and farming practices," said Barrera, who has published the results of his studies in the Spanish journal Papeles de Relaciones Ecosociales y Cambio Global (Papers on Eco Social Relations and Global Change).

One of the driving forces behind the local organisations has been their opposition to the use of genetically modified seeds, especially maize.

Since 2009, the ministry of agriculture has received 110 applications to plant genetically modified maize in experimental plots, 67 of which have been authorised, along with 11 pilot projects on a somewhat larger scale. Transgenic crops of cotton, soy and wheat are also being grown, with wheat so far only being planted in experimental plots.

On his ecopolitical map of Mexico, Barrera has identified 22 priority regions for native maize cultivation, of which 11 are threatened by signs of transgenic contamination.

"Our concerns are issues like mining and protecting natural resources," said López, whose organisation belongs to the Network for the Defence of Native Maize.

In four Oaxaca communities, UNOSJO is building rainwater collection systems to help cope with drought. The Sierra de Juárez Union has received funding from two U.S. groups, the CS Fund and Warsh-Mott Legacy and Grassroots International, and from the German agency Brot für die Welt (Bread for the World).

"Our aim is to help strengthen local markets, economic development and food sovereignty," said Pérez, who joined the Comida Sana y Cercana Network of Responsible Farmers and Consumers in 2006. "Steady demand has been ensured for farmers and, for consumers, healthy food."

"The toughest challenge is to redirect demand so as to elicit ecologically sustainable production," she said.


Sunday, February 26, 2012

Pay-as-you-go solar power lights up rural Africa

By Eoghan Macguire,CNN, February 16, 2012

Pay-as-you-go products may be synonymous with mobile phones but a solar energy service in Africa is harnessing the popular business model to bring affordable electricity to the continent's remotest communities.

IndiGo solar enables rural households far removed from their country's electrical grid to generate their own power via a photovoltaic panel and battery pack.

Users then have the option of purchasing the energy the device produces for as little as $1 a week.

The technology aims to replace environmentally harmful lighting practices such as burning kerosene oil, which contributes 190 million tons of annual CO2 emissions according to studies conducted by the Berkley Laboratory at the University of California and can cost users up to 10 times as much.

"Pay-as-you-go solar is a good system as we now have light inside," says Nyungura James Ode, a farmer from Mantarra Village in South Sudan and one of the first to sign up to the project.

"(We) can do more work at home and be more productive farming. Light is better (and) mothers can tend to baby at night more easily, give medicine, change clothes and diaper," he adds.

The system -- which can light two small rooms for seven hours at a time and charge small portable devices such as mobile phones -- has been designed and manufactured by British based solar technology company, Eight19.

It works in a similar fashion to mobile phone top-up cards. When users want to purchase electricity produced by their solar pack they buy a scratch card from a local vendor.

The card costs roughly $1 and reveals a code that grants access to the electricity for a week when dialed into the battery. This allows users to keep a close eye on the amount they spend and consume.

"We don't have to spend more money," says Ode. "[I am] saving three to five South Sudanese Pounds a week," -- between $1.20 and $1.80.

So far, remote towns in Kenya, Malawi, South Sudan and Zambia have adopted the IndiGo electrification scheme.

Yet while the practical gains for villagers used to living without electricity are obvious, the environmental benefits have thus far been harder to gauge.

The first solar packs were only introduced in September 2010, making verifying claims as to their long term green credentials difficult.

See also: Amazing solar powered gadgets

But according to Steve Andrews, CEO of UK based charity, SolarAid, pay-as-you-go solar could revolutionize rural African development.

"(This) approach has the potential to bring electricity supply to these people without a traditional grid; just as mobile phones have brought telephony to those people without a need for a telephone landline system," says Andrews.

"Indigo is a potential game changer in bringing clean, safe lighting and electricity to the world's poorest people," he adds.

Such enthusiastic proclamations as to the technology's environmental potential are echoed by Dr Simon Bransfield-Garth, CEO of Eight19. He says that his company hopes to make a considerable dent on global carbon emissions through IndiGo.

"We (Eight19) aim to eliminate the use of kerosene for lighting in Africa by the end of the decade," he explains.

But in order to meet such ambitious targets, Bransfield-Garth is quick to cite the need to keep improving and developing the IndiGo product.

"At the moment we've focused on the entry product as we want to get scale but as time progresses we want to encourage people to install larger solar systems with greater capabilities," he says.

"So, in the future, if you pay a little extra you will be able to generate enough electricity to power items such as televisions, radios and fridges. This could mean providing access to similar levels of electricity that you get in most big cities," he adds.


Saturday, February 25, 2012

Better fish drying techniques offer higher incomes for Sri Lankan fisher women

By FAO's Regional Fisheries Livelihoods Programme for South and Southeast Asia (RFLP)

Women in fishing communities in Sri Lanka’s Puttalam, Chilaw and Negombo districts are benefiting from training provided by RFLP to help them dry fish in a more hygienic and profitable way.

Fish drying is a major activity in the three districts, carried out by both small-scale as well as larger operators. However, most small-scale fishers process dried fish under poor hygienic conditions. Drying usually takes place on the beach using cheap, unpurified salt while sea water rather than fresh water is used to rinse fish. They are then laid out to dry on the beach with no protection from the crows, dogs and cats which are common in these areas.

As a result, not only does the final product lack quality but it is also sold at the lowest price in the market. Dried fish produced in this way therefore provides communities with little bargaining power and leads to small scale fishers remaining trapped in the vicious cycle of poverty.

Recognizing the need to raise awareness and skills amongst small-scale fishers RFLP launched a training programme for 120 women from fisheries societies in the Negombo and Puttalam areas recently.

The training helped boost awareness on food safety, hygiene and sanitation and introduced improved processing, labeling and packaging techniques.

The training will result in the women being able to produce higher value products while RFLP will also help them to forge links with more profitable market chains that will generate increased income. To do so a business association will be formed to help market the best quality dried fish that can be sold as branded products meeting approved quality standards.

To date, two two-day training programmes have been conducted in the Negombo area and two in Udappuwa, Puttalam. Two more training programmes will be held in the Battalangunduwa islands in the near future.

Feedback from the beneficiaries has been positive according to RFLP’s Champa Amarasi. “The training has not only taught these women better and more profitable ways to process dried fish but it has also given them increased confidence and self-esteem. Meanwhile, the business organization for dried fish producers has provided them a sense of security and recognition against the social stigma which they experience as a fisher community.”


Thursday, February 23, 2012

‘Green Economy’ voices at the 13th Global Major groups and Stakeholders Forum in Nairobi

By Kimbowa Richard

The Global Major Groups and Stakeholders Forum (GMGSF) is a platform of Major Groups and Stakeholders organized by UNEP that meets annually for two days just before the UNEP Governing Council / Global Ministerial Environment Forum (GC/GMEF). It serves as a platform for exchange of views and expertise for Major Groups and Stakeholders (MGS’) on the themes that are discussed by Governments at the GC / GMEF

The 13th session of the Global Major Groups and Stakeholders Forum (GMGSF-13) served as a platform for exchanges between representatives of Major Groups and governments on their respective positions for the UN Conference on Sustainable Development (UNCSD, or Rio+20) as this year’s theme. The Forum was took place from 18-19 February 2012, at UNEP headquarters in Nairobi, Kenya, ahead of the 12th Special Session of the UNEP Governing Council/Global Ministerial Environment Forum (GCSS-12/GMEF).

Green economy: Still grappling with definitions and positions?

I participated in this Forum with an interest in updating myself on the state of negotiations of Rio + 20 especially in relation to one of the Conference themes: green economy in the context of sustainable development and poverty reduction, and to understand better about the linkage between Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and the post MDG agenda.

Right from the start it appeared that despite the closeness of the UN Conference on Sustainable Development (due at the end of June, 2012), speakers were grappling to define, defend and elaborate own views and positions with regard to a ‘green economy’. Achim Steiner - the UNEP boss took time to explain (and defend) UNEP’s 700 page ‘Green Economy’ report (GER) content, noting that it is a source book for engagement rather than a blueprint. He added that the Rio+20 should correct the impression that green economy is a replacement to sustainable development. ‘Rio+20 is a moment to identify areas of reviving political support to achieve sustainable development not a forum to do many things’, he cautioned.

UNEP Deputy Director Amina Mohammed acknowledged that though the original notion of ‘green economy’ came from civil society, it has had input from a wide range of actors. “UNEP looks for ways of streamlining and refining of green economy to make it applicable’, she emphasized.

Anabella Rosenberg (International Trade Union) highlighted the multiple crises: jobs, financial, workers, livelihoods, environment, energy and others, and wondered whether it was not a sign that Governments had given in on global governance for sustainable development. She proposed that Rio + 20 should be an opportunity to build global governance by providing alternatives, choices in search of equity and social justice.

‘Green economy’: fissures to fill up

I then participated in one of the 3 working groups on green economy that was well attended. Participants seemed to have substantive enthusiasm and interest to ‘put things right’ on green economy, gauging from the process that was well facilitated by Oliver Greenfield (Green Economy Coalition) and Steven Stone (UNEP).

Based on what is in the Zero draft document (January 2012) on ‘a green economy in the context of sustainable development and poverty eradication, there was a general feeling that the concept had problems. Hence suggestions were put forward to have these fixed.

On the problems, the workshop noted that:
•Green economy seems to ‘greenwash’ activities that are not green
•Lacked clear articulation of transformative technologies
•Definition of what it is vague with implications that are not well understood
•It places excessive emphasis on the market
•Equity discussions missing and no explicit focus on the poor that should benefit
from it
•Human rights issues missing
•Not clear on how it addresses poverty and the cost of its transformation, how long
it will take, the opportunity cost, resources needed among others.
•Indigenous knowledge, culture not captured
•Underpinnings (values) driving it not well articulated
•Needs to test green technologies before they are rolled out
•Emphasis on intensification of agriculture while many poor people depend in small
scale agriculture is contradictory
•Greening of the financial / investment sector and its regulation missing

Regarding possible solutions, the workshop suggested the following:
•Need for a strategic clarity on poverty eradication
•Clarity on how a green economy contributes to a sound development model
•Clear universal definition, pathway to help every country to understand how then
can move towards a green economy
•Need to incorporate ecosystems, and animal welfare
•Capacity building, education, incentives for countries
•Need to technology assessment to be done
•Principles upon which green economy is to be set need to be clear
•It should build on existing plans at national level and be consultative
•Be clear on green jobs in the global south

Sustainable Development Goals: Moving beyond lip service?

Sustainable development goals (SDGs) are one of the ideas swirling around in discussions ahead of Rio + 20. For example, the Government of Colombia has set out a proposal for SDGs that would cover various sectors – atmosphere, climate resilience, land degradation, sustainable agriculture, biotech, waste and so forth. SDGs are therefore seen as an opportunity for a world where people and nature can thrive.

However, the discussion on SDGs seems divided and in its infancy especially in global South. For example, while Beyond 2015 Campaign of civil society organizations of the global North and South, point out that it is imperative that SDGs reflect an integrated and balanced treatment of the three dimensions of sustainable development, and reaffirm the importance of embedding the principles of Agenda 21 throughout. Others see SDGs as ways of ‘moving beyond lip service’ to concretely address existent environmental challenges to move closer to sustainable development.

During the opening plenary, Brazil’s Minister-Counsellor (Deputy Permanent Representative to Brazil to UNEP) noted that Sustainable Development Goals must be enriched by MDGs and should involve practical actions from all countries. He added that one sure way is to strengthen civil society involvement in UN processes as part of the much needed coherence and integration.

Overall, my view is that the evolution of the SDGs must be process-led but not hurriedly put in place as they will never be respected and implemented.

Green economy exhibition missing!

While the board room process seemed to move on smoothly, Major groups and UNEP did not take bring in the much needed exhibition to showcase what practical actions on the green economy concept, for example why were CSOs not encouraged to display ‘green economy’ actions guided by the 7 Critical Issues at Rio+20 (jobs, energy, cities, food, water, oceans, disasters)?

Furthermore, I was not satisfied by the lack of Major Groups’ enthusiasm to devote time (working group /plenary?) for assessment of progress in implementing Agenda 21. This is despite the objective of the Conference to

‘ renewed political commitment for sustainable development, assess the progress to date and the remaining gaps in the implementation of the outcomes of the major summits on sustainable development, and address new and emerging challenges.’

Paraná River Not What It Used to Be

By Marcela Valente, February 17, 2012

Lower water levels and increasing pressure from overfishing in the Paraná river are causing an unprecedented decline in fish stocks in the river that is regarded as the second most biodiverse in South America after the Amazon river.

The problems faced by the Paraná river were described to IPS by experts studying this nearly 4,000-km river, which rises in southern Brazil at the confluence of the Grande and Paranaíba rivers, forms Argentina's northern border with Paraguay, then flows south though Argentina until it empties through a delta into the Río de la Plata (River Plate).

Until the mid-1990s, Argentina had no quotas to limit exports of freshwater fish. Since then, and with greater urgency after the devaluation of the local currency, the peso, against the dollar in early 2002, the authorities have seen the need to set restrictions.

Fish processing plants mushroomed, buying vast quantities of shad, a herring-like fish, for export. In 2003, 45,000 tonnes were exported, and it was necessary to introduce a quota, which for the present season is 16,000 tonnes.

This limit was established by the national government, to be distributed among the eastern provinces of Santa Fe, Entre Ríos and Buenos Aires, through which the Paraná river flows.

Santa Fe was allocated an export quota of 7,000 tonnes out of the 16,000. But the provincial government, aware of the risk of overfishing to which NGOs have called attention, set a maximum of 4,500 tonnes.

Even so, experts consider that the pressure on the fishery is "enormous."

"More shad is being exported than the ecosystem can replenish. This year, for the first time, the species has practically not reproduced. This has never happened before," biologist Norberto Oldani from the province of Santa Fe told IPS.

Shad is the most important commercial species in the Paraná, and heads the list of freshwater fish for export. But it is also an important part of the food chain, as its eggs and larvae are eaten by predatory fish like the surubí (a type of catfish) and the golden dorado.

"For breeding to occur, there must be reproductively fit adults. Some time ago the specimens caught would be seven or eight years old, but now fishers are harvesting two-year-olds, that are just starting to lay their eggs," the biologist complained.

Oldani is a researcher at the Universidad del Litoral, a public university, and the National Council for Scientific and Technical Research (CONICYT). He has monitored the fishery continuously since 1976 from the riverbank of the city of Paraná, in Entre Ríos.

"Year after year, resources are being depleted, species are disappearing, and catch specimens are smaller in size and lower in weight; in other words there is a loss of biomass," he said.

Oldani pointed out that this is not only occurring with shad. "What is happening to the surubí is catastrophic. It's an iconic Paraná species for both sport and commercial fishing. It can weigh up to 20 kg, and everyone wants to catch one, but evidently it cannot cope with the pressure," he said.

He explained that shad populations need 80 percent of their biomass to be reproductive-age individuals in order to sustain fish numbers, but at present only eight percent are fit to breed. "Stocks must be managed sensibly, because it makes good business sense for there to be plenty of fish in the river," he said.

The Amazon river harbours some 2,000 species, whereas the Paraná river has about 400, Oldani said. However, the Paraná is more productive per unit area than the Amazon.

"Fishing is the mainstay and food source for thousands of fisherfolk, and the system has good regenerative powers, but the present pattern of use is not working," Oldani said.

In contrast, biologist Claudio Baigún claims to be "rather pessimistic, because there is a combination of several factors, some of which can be controlled and some that cannot."

"The hydrological regime (daily, seasonal and annual fluctuations in water level and flow rate) has been unfavourable since 1998, and this is something that cannot be controlled," Baigún told IPS, referring to a long period of scant rainfall during which dams on the upper Paraná have retained water, keeping water levels below normal downstream.

Normally, water levels in the river start rising in November and reach maximum levels in March. But since November 2011 water levels in the Paraná have not risen, and they may not rise at all this year. "When there is less flow, the dams upstream store water and let only the minimum essential amount through, and this has a big impact downstream," he said.

Baigún, a researcher at the Laboratory of Ecology and Fisheries Production at the Chascomús Technological Institute in Buenos Aires province, said that from the environmental point of view, it is a good thing for a river to overflow its banks periodically.

"The people who live in these areas know that, except in extraordinary circumstances, flooding is not a tragic event. They coexist with the natural cycle, and if it fails, there is an impact on fishing yields," he said.

As the Paraná has not flooded for a considerable period, under pressure from the expansion of soybean monoculture, cattle have been moved into the Paraná delta, close to its junction with the Rio de la Plata, where they graze in regrowth forests, destroy the river banks and pollute the water, he said.

"The cattle herd in this region has grown from 30,000 to 700,000 head," said Baigún, who added that cattle farmers illegally build embankments to protect their animals, cutting off the connection between the river and the alluvial valleys where shad fry and other species shelter and grow.

"These isolated nursery lagoons are being lost to the species as a habitat," said Baigún, who is also coordinator of the freshwater fish programme for the environmental organisation Wetlands International, which has its Latin American regional office in Buenos Aires.

Baigún pointed out that this problem is linked to a string of others, such as poor management of the fishery itself. "I am not in favour of exporting freshwater fish, because this benefits neither the fisherfolk nor the environment," he said.

The fish processing plants pay miserably low prices to artisanal fishers, who are forced to increase their catch, putting more pressure on the fish population, he complained. "It would probably be better if they caught fewer fish and were paid more," he said.

Regarding the export quota of 16,000 tonnes, Baigún said he was pleased that the government of Santa Fe has decided to be more cautious, although he questioned the way the limits are set. "What justification is there for such a quantity? No one knows, because there is no official report," he said.

Baigún said some of the existing laws and regulations are good, others could be improved and others are outdated. "The Paraná is not the river it was in the 1980s or 1990s, when high-water levels and floods were regular and commercial and recreational fishing were in harmony," he said.

For over a decade, there have been low water levels, fish scarcity, small-sized fish and a low reproductive rate, he said. Moreover, there are deepening conflicts between fishers, who blame each other for their ever decreasing catches.


Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Global Major Groups and Stakeholders Forum Discusses Rio+20

Adapted from IISD Reporting Services

The 13th session of the Global Major Groups and Stakeholders Forum (GMGSF-13) served as a platform for exchanges between representatives of Major Groups and governments on their respective positions for the UN Conference on Sustainable Development (UNCSD, or Rio+20).

The Forum was organized by the UN Environment Programme (UNEP), and took place from 18-19 February 2012, at UNEP headquarters in Nairobi, Kenya, ahead of the 12th Special Session of the UNEP Governing Council/Global Ministerial Environment Forum (GCSS-12/GMEF).

Discussions addressed the importance of linking all levels of participation and the need to bring together cross-disciplinary groups of people. Participants called for stronger language on institutionalizing public participation in environmental governance, and for increased dialogue to “bridge the gap between Davos and Porto Alegre” in the green economy discourse. The forum also discussed the outcomes of regional consultations on Rio+20, and reviewed potential indicators for success at Rio+20.

On green economy, participants discussed: equity and social inclusion; governance and market reform; a roadmap for transitioning to a green economy; and agreement on a definition and principles of a green economy. Recommendations emerged to: develop an exclusive steering committee to guide the transition towards a green economy; increase the requirements for commitments from governments; establish clear elements on capacity building, particularly regarding technology and finance; and ensure equity and social inclusion.

On emerging issues, participants expressed concerns that the zero draft of the UNCSD Outcome Document is not sufficiently ambitious, and that key gaps include the lack of a strong interdisciplinary approach and effective monitoring of actions, and knowledge gaps in such areas as human rights to food and water, health, nutrition, atmosphere and the global commons.

Achim Steiner, UNEP Executive Director, acknowledged concerns that the economic dimension has been overemphasized, and said focus should be on the nexus between development, equity and justice, suggesting that the phrase “inclusive green economy” might be more appropriate. On IFSD, Steiner observed the need to overcome the UN “political paralysis” and called for an aggressive discussion at Rio+20, stressing that “if we don’t move now, environmental governance will remain in the dustbin of the economic juggernaut that is driving this planet.” He further noted that a systemic fix for the current dilemma with UNEP may not exist.


The “Green Economy” – Final Enclosure?

Adapted from La Vía Campesina Call to action
Reclaiming our future: Rio +20 and Beyond, February 16, 2012

Today the "greening of the economy" pushed forward in the run-up to Rio+20 is based on the same logic and mechanisms that are destroying the planet and keeping people hungry. For instance, it seeks to incorporate aspects of the failed “green revolution” in a broader manner in order to ensure the needs of the industrial sectors of production, such as promoting the uniformity of seeds, patented seeds by corporation, genetically modified seeds, etc.

The capitalist economy, based on the over-exploitation of natural resources and human beings, will never become “green.” It is based on limitless growth in a planet that has reached its limits and on the commoditization of the remaining natural resources that have until now remained un-priced or in control of the public sector.

In this period of financial crisis, global capitalism seeks new forms of accumulation. It is during these periods of crisis in which capitalism can most accumulate. Today, it is the territories and the commons which are the main target of capital. As such, the green economy is nothing more than a green mask for capitalism. It is also a new mechanism to appropriate our forests, rivers, land… of our territories!

Since last year’s preparatory meetings towards Rio+20, agriculture has been cited as one of the causes of climate change. Yet no distinction is made in the official negotiations between industrial and peasant agriculture, and no explicit difference between their effects on poverty, climate and other social issues we face.

The "green economy" is marketed as a way to implement sustainable development for those countries which continue to experience high and disproportionate levels of poverty, hunger and misery. In reality, what is proposed is another phase of what we identify as “green structural adjustment programs” which seek to align and re-order the national markets and regulations to submit to the fast incoming "green capitalism".

Investment capital now seeks new markets through the “green economy”; securing the natural resources of the world as primary inputs and commodities for industrial production, as carbon sinks or even for speculation. This is being demonstrated by increasing land grabs globally, for crop production for both export and agrofuels. New proposals such as “climate smart” agriculture, which calls for the “sustainable intensification” of agriculture, also embody the goal of corporations and agri-business to over exploit the earth while labeling it “green”, and making peasants dependent on high-cost seeds and inputs. New generations of polluting permits are issued for the industrial sector, especially those found in developed countries, such as what is expected from programs such as Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation (REDD++) and other environmental services schemes.

The green economy seeks to ensure that the ecological and biological systems of our planet remain at the service of capitalism, by the intense use of various forms of biotechnologies, synthetic technologies and geo-engineering. GMO’s and biotechnology are key parts of the industrial agriculture promoted within the framework of "green economy".

The promotion of the green economy includes calls for the full implementation of the WTO Doha Round, the elimination of all trade barriers to incoming “green solutions,” the financing and support of financial institutions such as the World Bank and projects such as US-AID programs, and the continued legitimization of the international institutions that serve to perpetuate and promote global capitalism.


Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Rio+20 and the greenwashing of the global economy

By Olivier Hoedeman, at the Transnational Institute (TNI)

In less than six months, the UN summit in Rio de Janeiro will take place ( 20-22 June 2012), twenty years after the historic Earth Summit. That summit despite its shortcomings resulted in governments making commitments that later led to UN treaties on climate, biodiversity, etc. While expectations are low this time in terms of concrete outcomes emerging from Rio+20, there is no doubt it will be a crucial event for determining the level of ambition and the likely direction of inter-governmental policies to tackle the environment and development crisis. Rio+20 is set to be a very important ideological battleground.

The goal of the summit is to assess progress made since the Earth Summit as well as address new challenges. On the agenda will be institutional reform of governance on global environment issues, which could lead to strengthening of Unep (the French government’s proposal for a World Environment Organisation is not going to happen). The most intense discussion in the preparatory process is around the ‘Green Economy’ agenda promoted by UNEP, a concept that could replace ‘sustainable development’ as the dominant discourse.

Unep launched a 700 page ‘Green Economy’ report (GER) in February 2011, resulting in a lot of media coverage. The report argued that the environment can be saved and faster growth achieved if governments cut environmentally damaging subsidies (fossil fuels, fisheries, etc.) and use these funds to invest in new technologies. Massive investment could enable the transition from the ‘brown’ to the ‘green’ economy, the report argued. The report has been criticised heavily by non-governmental organisations (NGOs) because it ignores the deeper causes of the ecological crisis and because of its emphasis on economic growth, technology and market-based approaches. This emphasis may not be surprising considering the strong role of investment banker Pavan Sukdhev in drafting the report. Sukdhev, who was also the report’s chief spokesperson, is on a sabbatical from Deutsche Bank (one of the world’s largest derivatives traders.

The focus on technologies is problematic because of the types of controversial new technologies that are promoted, including biomass incineration, synthetic biology, nanotechnology, etc. Nuclear and GMOs are not explicitly endorsed, but would fit with the approach.

The market-based approach promoted by Sukdhev assumes that nature should be precisely measured and valued, according to the ‘services’ it provides (cleaning water, capturing carbon and so on). This way nature’s services can be costed, offset and traded on markets, via credits, similar to carbon trading. Giving nature a monetary value or putting a price tag on it, is the best way to protect it, Unep argues. Unep presented this approach in detail at the end of 2010 with the report “The Economics of Ecosystems & Biodiversity” (Teeb). That report, presented at the UN biodiversity summit in Nagoya, Japan, also had Sukdhev as lead author. Mr. Sukdhev is also a board member of Conservation International.

The approach has been heavily criticised by NGOs as it would mean assigning private property rights to nature, commodifying and privatising nature. Leaving nature to the market would undermine the opportunities of communities and states to protect the commons. Also the bitter lessons from the carbon trading debacle seem to be entirely ignored when Unep proposes tradeable biodiversity credits. The UNEP reports exposes a misguided belief in markets, which is astonishing after the financial crisis. It is as if that example of the chronic failure of deregulation and market-based approaches had never happened.

Mr. Sukdhev is not just popular with Unep; he also has a big fan base in the European Commission and among several European governments. Sukdhev spoke at Green Week in Brussels in May 2011. The EU environment Commissioner Potocnik summed up the thinking by many EU officials when he said: “We need to move from protecting the environment from business to using business to protect the environment”. The Green Economy Report, not surprisingly, also has the support of the World Bank and the World Trade Organisation (WTO).

Why is the Unep’s concept of “Green Economy” so popular at the EU Commission? Firstly it fits hands in glove with the Global Europe strategy of trade talks (for accessing new markets and raw materials) and the Europe 2020 strategy of neoliberal reforms inside Europe. Secondly the biodiversity credit trading is an extension of the market-based climate policies that the EU has so deeply committed itself to and invested in.

The Green Economy Report does have many common sense elements, like phasing out environmentally damaging subsidies, but overall it is flawed. At the last session of the UN’s Commission for Sustainable Development (CSD)there was strong civil society resistance, but also considerable criticism from the predominantly developing G77 countries. They are worried the ‘Green Economy’ discourse will replace the previous 1992 approach that emphasised sustainable development and analysis of consumption and production patterns, concepts which include a focus on north-south inequality. Some of G77′s members critiques are based on regressive motives (for example by its Opec members who are unhappy with promotion of renewables), but much of the critique is justified.

The Green Economy approach, with its focus on growth, techno fixes and marketisation of nature, is the extreme opposite of the vision of the Bolivian government, which together with some other Latin American governments have put forward an alternative vision based on humans living in harmony with nature and nature having constitutional rights. Some observers predict this clash will intensify, perhaps leading to a north-south conflict at Rio+20 similar to COP16 in Copenhagen.

UNEP has worked extremely closely with industry on the Green Economy agenda and the Rio+20 preparations. In April Unep co-hosted the “Unep Business and Industry Global Dialogue” in Paris, attended by 200 business representatives. The co-host was the International Chamber of Commerce (ICC), an industry lobby group. In addition to the discussion at the Paris conference, the ICC has also submitted detailed comments on the Green Economy Report. The ICC was overall pleased with the report, but insists in keeping definitions of which investment are considered ‘green’ very broad and not excluding any technology (i.e. nuclear and biotech). The main critique was that the emphasis on renewables was considered too strong. The ICC response was drafted by a working group including representatives of ExxonMobil, Shell, RBS, Monsanto, BASF and Suez, all of which have a highly controversial environmental record.

Among the key note speakers at the Paris conference was Chad Holliday, who leads Business Action for Sustainable Development 2012 (BASD 2012), the main vehicle for corporate campaigning towards Rio+20. Chad Holliday is Chairman of Bank of America and former Chief Executive Officer of Dupont. The BASD wants to lobby but also to “demonstrate the achievements” of business in terms of sustainable development and “ensure that business is recognised as a solutions provider”.

The BASD campaign for Rio+20 is likely to be similar to what happened ten years ago with the first BASD campaign, focusing on Rio+10 in Johannesburg (September 2002).

Rio+10 was described by the then head of Unep as “the world’s biggest trade fair”. Over 100 CEOs of large companies attended, along with 600 other big business delegates. They attended to lobby and also put on big displays of greenwash activities, through billboards across Johannesburg, glossy reports, exhibitions and events. In the convention centre BMW had a ‘Sustainability Bubble’ showcasing its hydrogen-powered cars, as if this was the future the company had in mind (Four to five years later BMW was central in campaigning against stricter CO2 limits for large petrol-guzzling cars). The central message was that business was voluntarily acting to solve environmental challenges and that government rules were not needed. Industry explicitly saw this as “a way to sidestep government intervention and regulation”. Shell, Suez, Tepco and many other firms presented isolated examples of business initiatives that say nothing about the overall record and impact of these companies. This was very effective greenwash. It was deceptive, but it worked.

The impact of this strategy was even more effective because Rio+10 had a strong focus on partnerships, between industry and NGOs, industry and governments and industry and UN agencies. These partnerships were considered ‘Type-2 summit outcomes’ and given official UN recognition.

Rio+10 exposed a relationship between the UN and big business that had dramatically changed, from a critical, arms-length distance to partnership and increasingly co-option. This had started five years earlier, with then UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan playing an active role. Annan at Rio+10 called for business to embrace more public-private partnerships arguing: “If we don’t we are going to be under pressure and governments can then introduce laws that are not necessary”. Not accidentally this happened at a time when there was a strong critique of the model of globalisation which had led to the massive expansion of powers and intense economic domination by large corporations. For the UN, embracing big business was also a way to overcome increasingly sceptical northern governments, including an US government that threatened to withhold funding for the UN.

Since Rio+10 this approach has continued and there is a worrying degree of corporation cooption, if not capture, of key UN agencies. One way this happens is through partnerships, such as those showcased on

Many multinational firms have five to ten partnerships each with UN agencies, for instance:

- Shell and UNEP on biodiversity
- Coca Cola and the UNDP on water resource protection
- Nestle and UNDP on empowering rural communities
- BASF, Coca Cola and UN-Habitat on sustainable urbanisation

The problem with such partnerships is that they lead to conflicts of interest, because the companies have commercial goals whereas the UN agencies must pursue social and environmental policy goals. There is a serious risk of regulatory capture as it becomes increasingly difficult for the UN to criticise its business partners and fulfill its regulatory role.

Perhaps the most problematic of all is the Global Compact, set up by Kofi Annan and Nestle’s then CEO Helmut Maucher in 2000. The Global Compact promotes voluntary improvements by businesses. Over 7000 companies have joined, signing up to ten general principles. The Global Compact is very popular because they can align themselves with the UN whereas it lacks effective verifications and sanctions. The companies basically get a free lunch! The UN’s Inspection Unit criticised the Global Compact in strong wording earlier this year, concluding that:

- companies use the Global Compact for bluewash, as a marketing tool
- it is questionable if the Global Compact leads to any real change in
corporate behaviour
- the Global Compact office has a self-expanding mandate

An example of this self-expanding mandate, I would argue, is that the Global Compact is now one of three main partners in Business Action for Sustainable Development 2012 (BASD 2012), with the ICC and the World Business Council for Sustainable Development (WBCSD). As the Global Compact is a UN office, it seems absurd that it is an active part of the primary corporate lobbying campaign towards Rio+20. The boundaries between UN and big business are increasingly blurred.

Big business has made major inroads into the UN system. There is an increasing emphasis on markets and business as a solution to environmental problems. On this basis it is perhaps not surprising that business lobbies are now demanding a much stronger, deeper and more formal roles in UN environmental decision-making. These demands have been voiced most clearly in the context of the UN climate talks and some of this was already implemented in the run-up to the Cancun climate summit.

Challenging the corporate co-option of the UN should be a major priority in the run-up to Rio+20.


Monday, February 20, 2012

Climate, disease and food - a lot still to do

By Bjorn Lomborg, NATO Review Magazine

In 2012, the issue that we make the least progress on – but lament at length about – will remain global warming. Campaigners will continue to use doomsday language to try to hustle for faster action. Climate change negotiators will continue to dress up their failures as victories.

In December 2011 in Durban, politicians heartily congratulated themselves for signing a two-page agreement that contained no commitments beyond launching a process sometime ahead of 2015 to develop another protocol like the one signed in Kyoto. Both India and China have stressed since then that they will not agree to a legally binding agreement for emissions reduction, while Canada has quit the Kyoto Protocol.

We will never reduce emissions significantly until we manage to make green energy cheaper than fossil fuels. Sadly, we currently lack the political willpower and leadership to ditch the current approach and focus sharply on research and development to drive down alternative energy prices over the coming decades. Therefore, unfortunately I expect little to change on climate change in 2012.

One of the more dangerous beliefs to have emerged in the past year or so is the idea that we can declare victory over the AIDS epidemic. We have seen triumph declared in some quarters based on breakthroughs in treatment coverage.

But our complacency could be damaging, especially in Africa which bears the brunt of the epidemic.

Treatment remains very expensive, and arduous for individuals. Funding from developed governments is dropping – a trend that must be reversed. We also need to acknowledge that billions of dollars have been spent on well-meaning attempts to save lives, with an alarming lack of high-quality evaluation of how these investments have performed. On a systemic level, we do not know enough about what works, where, and why – or how to replicate our successes.

As the research project RethinkHIV found, there is an urgent need for increased investment in developing an HIV vaccine, but also in eradicating mother-to-child transmission of HIV by 2015, which would take additional expenditure of just $140 million a year. Another compelling investment is spending more to make blood transfusions safer, and in building male circumcision programmes.

Another issue that will not attract much media attention – but should be seen as a serious challenge – is the problem of undernutrition. The challenge of ‘hidden hunger’, especially in tough economic conditions, can be devastating.

Undernutrition is an underlying cause of millions of deaths, and can hold back learning and development.

As the Nobel laureate panel found in the Copenhagen Consensus 2008 project, there is a compelling case to make small investments in responding to vitamin A and zinc deficiencies, or in biofortification and micronutrient fortification to solve problems like iodine and iron deficiencies.

This summer, the Nobel laureate panel will reconvene to consider and rank solutions to global challenges, in Copenhagen Consensus 2012, using economic research and analysis to identify the smartest ways to respond to the world’s biggest problems. Because, sadly, as the issues that we spend the most time talking about are not those where our investment is needed most urgently – or where we can make the biggest difference – this effort is still urgently necessary.


Sunday, February 19, 2012

Long struggle for a cleaner Lake Tai

Liang Guorui, He Hanfu February 14, 2012

China has spent billions of yuan trying to cleanse its third largest lake, where decades of pollution have brought ecosystems to the brink. But problems persist, report Liang Guorui and He Hanfu.

Lake Tai, also known as Taihu, is China’s third-largest freshwater lake and one of its most important water resources. The 2,400-square kilometre lake, in south China, is the source of the Suzhou River. It also feeds the Huangpu River, the waterway that passes along Shanghai’s Bund, perhaps the country’s most famous riverfront.

The water channels that criss-cross the region around Lake Tai have become the arteries of economic development. It is no exaggeration to say the lake is the heart that drives the seven cities of Shanghai, Suzhou, Wuxi, Changzhou, Hangzhou, Jiaxing and Huzhou.

“Taihu is beautiful in winter,” said Wu Lihong, a resident of Zhoutie township on the lake’s west bank. From November to April, the algae that so often covers its surface disappears, and the water is left clean and clear. The cities around the lake have all chosen this period to hold events for tourists.

But Wu Lihong is well aware that beautiful winter days are not the whole story. He grew up by Taihu and has watched for 20 years as the lake has become steadily more polluted.

“Twenty years ago, the water was clear. I used to swim in it as a child,” said Wu, who is now 45. “But from about 1988, local fishermen started to find that the fish they caught here had a strange taste.” Wu discovered that many chemical plants around Zhoutie were dumping effluent straight into the lake. Rivers around Lake Tai gradually changed colour. Some turned milky-white, others black.

The economy in the south of Jiangsu started to boom in the 1980s, and this was when Lake Tai suffered the worst pollution.

Huang Xuanwei, formerly chief engineer at the Taihu Basin Agency, worked on the remediation of pollution in the lake from the 1980s. He recalls that, starting in 1987, some 36 billion tonnes of waste-water – half from Shanghai – were dumped into rivers and lakes in the region each year. Eighty percent of the waste-water was untreated.

By 1983, 40% of the total length of the rivers of the Taihu Basin was polluted, according to a pan-regional evaluation of water quality. By 1996, this figure had risen to 86%, higher than any other Chinese water system.

Lake Tai was severely damaged. Organic pollution at the water surface rose from 1% in 1987 to as much as 29.18% in 1994. From 1993, the entire lake suffered eutrophication, the process where an excess of nutrients such as nitrates and phosphates causes an algal bloom that removes oxygen and reduces water quality, causing fish and other organisms to die.

These algal blooms have become increasingly severe. The most serious crisis came in 2007. In June of that year, a bloom dozens of centimetres thick covered the entire lake. According to Wuxi government figures, plants supplying 70% of the city’s water were affected. Tap water turned yellow and foul. Drinking water for two million Wuxi residents was polluted. Since then, algal blooms have happened every year, despite major government efforts to clean up the lake.

In fact, policymakers were well aware of Lake Tai’s pollution problem long before the 2007 algal bloom. As early as 1991, the state launched its first project to clean up the lake and, over the subsequent 10 to 15 years, invested more than 10 billion yuan (US$1.6 billion) in the effort.

In 1998, the state approved the Taihu Environmental Management Plan and, in the same year, State Council ministries and the governments of Jiangsu, Zhejiang and Shanghai started a programme to tackle the pollution. The biggest part of this was an effort in late 1998 to push the 1,035 major polluters in the area to meet emission standards.

Although the authorities claimed to have in part achieved this goal, many doubted that real progress had been made. Then, at the turn of the new century, fresh monitoring data clarified the situation: the pollution damaging Lake Tai’s water had not stopped.

In 2005, a second round of remedial projects began. Huang Xuanwei explained that, during the first round, only 1% of the lake surface was polluted; by the time the second round got under way, that figure had reached 80%.

At the time of the algal bloom in 2007, Jiangsu was spending two billion yuan (US$317 million) a year treating Taihu’s pollution. In the five years between 2007 and the end of 2011, 2.8 million tonnes of algae was scooped out of the lake.

In May 2008, China allocated more than 111 billion yuan (US$17.6 billion) to a plan to improve the lake’s water quality from “class five” – the dirtiest category – to “class four”, and in places “class three”, by 2020. But the issue remains serious. On November 1 last year, China’s vice minister for water resources Li Guoying admitted that water quality at over 60% of water supply points in the Taihu Basin is below “class three”.

Pollution is not Taihu Basin’s only problem: it is also grappling with a lack of water. Years’ worth of data shows that the densely populated and developed Taihu region requires 37 billion cubic metres of water annually. But the average yearly supply from Taihu water sources is only 17.7 billion cubic metres, which on a per head basis works out around one fifth of the national average. There is an obvious gap to be filled.

The combination of pollution, water scarcity and flood-prevention considerations have forced Taihu to turn to the Yangtze River for help. In 2001, the central government called for large quantities of Yangtze water to be moved to the lake in a bid to improve water quality. Trial water diversions got underway in early 2002.

The project used an existing channel – the Wangyu River – to transfer the water. The idea was to get the water in the lake moving, increasing downstream flow and boosting the ability of the bodies of water in the Taihu Basin to cleanse themselves.

The Wangyu River flows along the border between Wuxi and Suzhou. In the north it connects to the Yangtze at Gengjingkou then flows through the lakes of Jialingdang and Caohu before reaching Lake Tai at Shadunkou. It is is 60.8 kilometres long.

Like an umbilical cord, the Wangyu brought water from the Yangtze River to heavily polluted Taihu in a trial in which the lake’s managers had vested high hopes. Their optimism appears to have been somewhat vindicated. Taihu Basin Agency figures from late 2011 indicate the transfusion from the Yangtze has improved water quality: permanganate levels have fallen 17% on 2007 levels, ammonium-nitrogen levels by 42%, and phosphorous and nitrogen levels by 12% each.

Taihu Basin Agency officials said the extra water from the Yangtze has reduced the water replacement period of Lake Tai from 300 days in 2002 to about 250 days, while river flow in affected areas has risen from 10 centimetres per second to between 20 and 30 centimetres per second. As of December 20 last year, 20.2 billion cubic metres of water had been transferred from the Yangtze.

But an employee of the agency admitted that, thanks to a long history of contamination, the lake cannot be cleaned up overnight: “If you don’t clean pollution up in the first decade, the process will take several times as long.”

Everybody wants to give Taihu back its clean water. For the authorities in charge of the lake, however, the problem is one of restricted powers: cleaning up polluting companies in the area has to be done by the local governments. The powers of the Taihu Basin Agency are limited to water quality – when it comes to dealing with the sources of pollution, it can only make proposals to local governments.

An article in the Journal of Lake Sciences explains that urban water supply, waste-water and water quality are managed by the urban development, public services and environmental authorities respectively. Meanwhile, the Taihu area spreads across the three provinces of Jiangsu, Zhejiang and Shanghai, with each province managing its own patch of land. As a result, “there is a disconnect between the basin and the region, and the authorities for the basin do not have regional control. Regional plans do not match up with plans for the Taihu Basin, and are often in conflict.”

There have been a number of attempts to break these constraints in recent years. But whether an effective plan for the basin will emerge – one that crosses regional administrative boundaries and is really able to help clean up Lake Tai – remains to be seen.


Saturday, February 18, 2012

Pollution glorified

By Umashankar S, Centre for Science and Environment, February 15, 2012

World Bank arm finances polluting steel mill in Jharkhand

As the train slowly approaches Jamshedpur town in Jharkhand, the sky begins to turn reddish. It is because of the thick red dust emanating from an industrial unit, surrounded by heaps of industrial solid waste comprising unburnt coal char and flyash. The unit is a medium-scale iron and steel mill belonging to conglomerate Usha Martin.

Spread over 120 hectares, the mill became operational in Adityapur, a suburb of Jamshedpur, in 1974. It includes two mini blast furnaces, three coal-based sponge iron kilns of capacity 350-tonne-per-day and a steel-making unit with three electric arc furnaces. While sighting polluting sponge iron units in the eastern part of India is common, what is intriguing about the Usha Martin mill is that it received funding from the private sector development arm of the World Bank, the International Finance Corporation (IFC).

In 2002, IFC bought 14.5 per cent equity stake in Usha Martin—about (US $24.6 million). The money, as the IFC statement shows, was granted for setting up the sponge iron kiln along with a 7.5 MW power plant that uses waste hot gases from the kiln. At that time, Dimitris Tsitsiragos, the then director of IFC-South Asia, had said the company’s efforts “in the field of environment protection and social improvement in the region it is operating in are one of the factors that has made us invest in the project”. While approving the financing, IFC concluded that Usha Martin falls under the bank’s Category B of Environmental Impact scale for funding. This category refers to projects with potential limited adverse social or environmental impacts, which are generally site-specific, largely reversible and can be readily addressed through mitigation measures.

The dirty present

Pollution from the mill has disturbed lives of more than five nearby villages.

Tarak Nath of Jhurkuli complains thick red dust from the mill’s steel melting furnaces has been affecting all the 80 households in the locality. People, especially children, are suffering from respiratory problems. “There is no medical facility available. We have to go to the town for treatment,” Nath says.

The Sitarampur dam, a major water source, has been contaminated as the mill discharges untreated wastewater into the dam. Ganesh Mondal of Jhargobindpur village says the mill dumps its solid waste, generated from the kilns, near the main railway line, affecting lives of 100 households. “During rains, the heavy metals leach into the ground,” says Mondal. During nights, the extent of emissions is very high. “When we wake up in the morning, the entire village is covered in thick layer of red dust,” says Nath.

Many residents, who earlier used to depend on farming, are working in nearby industrial units, including the Usha Martin mill, as daily wage labourers. “Pollution from the Usha Martin mill has made the agricultural land unproductive,” says Mondal. People got jobs in the mill, but through contractors who take a larger share of money earned by the residents, he adds.

Occupational safety-related accidents occur frequently within the plant. Six workers have been reported dead in the plant since 2007 due to various accidents.

Missing in action

The emissions from the mill can be attributed largely to the electric arc furnace process as a proper secondary emission control system has not yet been installed. R N Choudhury, regional officer of Jharkhand State Pollution Control Board (JSPCB), Jamshedpur, says, “Repeated complaints have been received from residents on air, water and solid waste pollution, which were subsequently communicated to the mill through notices.” A show-cause notice was issued in January 2010 for non-compliance of the board’s consent conditions and for not submitting monitoring reports on pollution parameters conducted at JSPCB’s authorised, independent laboratories, he adds (see box: ‘Complaints against the mill’). Down To Earth found JSPCB’s regional office in Jamshedpur is functioning with skeletal staff and has dysfunctional laboratory. The mill is yet to take proper action in response to the notice.

Vijay Sharma, CEO and head of Usha Martin Jamshedpur mill, says the complaints have been attended to with seriousness. “Our steel melting furnace is more than 25 years old and has seen some short-term process changes leading to increased emissions. We will install high-capacity fume extraction systems by June 2012 for air emission control,” he says. With ongoing expansion to a million tonnes steel production annually by 2013, most of the generated solid waste is expected to be reused in the plant while remaining will be disposed of at a distant site in an “environment-friendly” manner, Sharma adds.

False recognition

The mill’s 7.5 MW power plant is registered under the United Nation’s Clean Development Mechanism (CDM) scheme and is issued carbon credits. Clearly, the UN is ignorant of the ground reality. It does not perform basic environmental compliance check, one of the guidelines while issuing the credits. This is at odds with Rio Declaration’s Agenda 21 objective to minimise pollution. In a press interview last year when Thomas Davenport, director, South Asia, IFC, was asked to list good investments in India, he cited Usha Martin as a long-term equity investment. IFC continues to hold stake in Usha Martin.

When asked about the pollution, IFC says, “IFC conducts periodic visits to client sites to assess environmental and social practices adopted by our clients. We engage with clients to help achieve stronger environmental and social outcomes. We are similarly engaging with Usha Martin to realise positive environmental and social impacts.”


Friday, February 17, 2012

World’s water footprint linked to free trade

By Brian Owens, Nature Newsblog, February 13, 2012

More than one-fifth of the world’s water supplies go towards crops and commodities produced for export, a new study reports. As developed nations import water-intensive goods from overseas, they place pressure on finite resources in areas where water governance and conservation policies are often lacking.

Researchers from the Netherlands have quantified and mapped the global water footprint, highlighting how patterns in international commerce create disparities in water use. The new study, published today in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, presents a spatial analysis of water consumption and pollution based on worldwide trade indicators, demographic data and water-usage statistics.

Arjen Hoekstra, a water management analyst at the University of Twente in Enschede, Netherlands, and lead author of the study, says that water supplies follow the flow of goods around the world. Water consumption and pollution, he says, “are directly tied to the global economy”.

However, Hoekstra suggests that water is rarely included in measures of economic and environmental production costs. Part of the problem is that so much of global water use is indirect. For example, to produce one kilogram of beef requires as much as 15,400 litres of water when issues such as grazing are taken into account, according to the Water Footprint Network, a Dutch non-profit organization for which Hoekstra serves as scientific director.

Another confounding issue is that global water supplies come not only from groundwater sources, but also from rainfall, a factor that has been largely excluded from previous analyses. Whereas research has indicated that agriculture accounts for roughly 70% of the global water footprint, the new data hold agriculture responsible for as much as 92% of worldwide water consumption and degradation. Precipitation is crucial to food production, says Dieter Gerten, a hydrologist at the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research in Germany, but it is a “hidden resource” and typically left out of research and water-use planning.

Ruth Mathews, executive director of the Water Footprint Network, says that the detailed analysis can aid countries and private firms in understanding the real magnitude of their consumption. Companies, she suggests, often account only for their operational costs. But if an agricultural product, such as cotton or sugar, is a component of a final good, such as blue jeans or soda, “there’s a huge amount of indirect water use”.

Gerten describes the new findings as significant in calling attention to “the increasing disconnect” between production, regional water use and global consumer markets. He suggests that countries tend to focus on national resources while relying increasingly on water-intensive imports, effectively offshoring their water consumption.

As globalization binds countries in increasingly complex relationships, the risks of scarcity and resource degradation become not just regional but international concerns. Gerten says that future research and policy planning “cannot neglect the importance of these dependencies”.


Thursday, February 16, 2012

Why profit-led growth is a myth

By Jayati Ghosh, February 14, 2012

A profit-led economic strategy did not work even during the boom. What the world needs is job-based growth

For at least two decades now, policymakers across the world have been preoccupied with appeasing large capital generally and financial markets in particular, in the belief that this is the main way to ensure faster rates of GDP growth and therefore job creation. Now we know that such a strategy tends to be counterproductive, especially when it also involves fiscal austerity in the midst of a recession. But, in fact, this strategy did not really work even during the earlier boom, or at least not the way it was supposed to work.

In the last two decades, across the world people were told that it is necessary to control or restrict wage growth, and allow or actively encourage profits to increase, in order to get the economic system to deliver the desired growth of incomes and employment. Why? Because it was supposed that rising profit shares are required to ensure higher rates of investment, which in turn generate higher rates of economic activity and expansion over time. It turns out that this has simply not been the case.

A recent report by the International Labour Organisation (ILO) – World of Work Report 2011: Making markets work for jobs – shows just how wrong this argument has been, even during the period of growth before the crisis. So some of the major premises on which this entire economic strategy has been based are not just theoretically unsound, they have not been validated in practice.

The report contains the results of an extremely interesting study of functional income distribution in 56 countries that together account for around 90% of global GDP. It notes that between 2000 and 2009, the overwhelming majority of these countries (83%) witnessed an increase in the share of profits to GDP. But, even so, productive investment as a share of GDP stagnated globally.

This disconnect between growing profits and productive investment – which removes any justification for allowing or encouraging such increases in profit shares – was found to be related to three features. First, it turns out that most of the increase in profits went to finance, rather than real productive sectors.

Between 2000 and 2007, financial sector profits in the advanced economies grew at an annual rate of 13%, more than double the rate (6%) of profits in non-financial companies. The divergence was evident even in emerging and developing economies, where profits in real productive activities grew rapidly at 20% a year, but were still dwarfed by financial profits, which increased by as much as 85% a year.

Incidentally, financial profits declined slightly after the recession, but have since recovered strongly once again, and showed much faster growth than profits in the "real economy". So the crazy bonuses to bankers, which are increasingly the object of public ire, reflect broader tendencies where gains to finance outstrip gains to investors in actual production.

Second, even in the non-financial sector, companies did not use their profits to make productive investments, which is what they are supposed to do. Instead, these profits were used to pay out higher dividends to their investors – and the rest was invested in financial assets, because this is clearly where the quick bucks are still to be made. In 2009, at the peak of the crisis, more than 36% of profits was distributed as dividends, compared with less than 29% in 2000. In the advanced economies, investment in financial assets increased from 54% of GDP in 2000 to more than 87% in 2007.

These tendencies were already evident during the boom – and since the crisis erupted, a third factor has come into play. The economic uncertainties created by the combination of fragile demand outlooks and tight credit conditions have tended to restrict investment in real economic activities. This is especially true for small and medium enterprises – which incidentally still constitute the bulk of employment globally – not just because of uncertainty, but because they now find it harder and harder to get bank credit.

The growing divergence between profits and productive investment has all sorts of other adverse implications. Thus, it exercises a dampening effect on job creation as well. The ILO estimates that if private sector employment had grown at the same pace as GDP during 2000-09, there would have been nearly 6m more jobs created in the advanced economies alone.

In developing countries there is even more at stake. Since many of these countries still have low per capita incomes and/or significant proportions of poor or very poor populations, the lack of productive investment has affected not just employment generation and livelihoods, but also the ability to provide the poor with basic needs or the bare essentials of civilised life.

Obviously, continuing with this strategy based on the wrong expectation – that more profits will deliver more investment and therefore more growth – makes no sense. Across the world, we need policies that seek to ensure more equitable distribution of the gains from economic growth and that shift towards wage and employment-led growth. But for such strategies to be taken up, it is first necessary to shatter the myth that the profit-led economic strategy will work to deliver jobs and incomes.


Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Earth Summit is doomed to fail, say leading ecologists

By Fred Pearce, 10 February 10 2012

We can forget about fixing the planet's ecosystems and climate until we have fixed government systems, a panel of leading international environmental scientists declared in London on Friday. The solution, they said, may not lie with governments at all.

"We are disillusioned. The current political system is broken," said Bob Watson, the UK government's chief environmental science advisor, who chaired the meeting.

The panel, all winners of the prestigious Blue Planet prize, often seen as the Nobel prize for environmental science, were meeting to prepare a statement for the Earth Summit 2012, to be held in Rio de Janeiro in June – 20 years after the original Earth Summit in that city.

The world has wasted the intervening years, the group said. Ecosystems are disappearing ever faster, the world is still warming, and two 1992 treaties, on climate change and species loss, have failed to achieve their aims. Governments, the group said, were largely to blame.

"Last time in Rio we had an unreasonable faith in governments. Since then we've lost our innocence in believing government was wise and benevolent and far-sighted. That's been blown completely out of the water," said Camilla Toulmin, director of the International Institute for Environment and Development, a non-profit organisation based in London.
Not remotely sustainable

"Essentially nothing has changed in 20 years. We are not remotely on a course to be sustainable," Watson said.

"What's most discouraging is a loss of feeling that government would help us," said Harold Mooney, a veteran biologist from Stanford University.

No one held out much hope that the forthcoming summit would usher in a new era. Politicians do not seem interested. The 1992 summit lasted two weeks, attracted most of the world's leaders and garnered huge headlines. But this year's event will last just three days, and so far China's president Hu Jintao is the only head of state scheduled to attend.

"The UN text [for the summit declaration] is weak," said energy researcher José Goldemberg, who was Brazil's environment secretary at the time of the first summit.
Key priorities

The top priorities, according to Watson, are ending the fossil-fuel era to curb climate change, and investing in limiting population by making contraception available to all.

But neither were likely to happen because, said Syukuro Manabe, a climate modeller at the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, "the political system is not motivated to worry about the future".

The laureates said leadership was most likely to come from local government, NGOs and corporations, rather than national leaders or the UN. "Decision-makers should learn from and scale up grass-roots action and knowledge in areas like energy, food, water and natural resources," the panel declared.

"We do believe that the political system can be reformed, and that there will be technical solutions. But time is not on our side," Watson said.


Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Why World Radio Day?


“In a world changing quickly, we must make the most of radio’s ability to connect people and societies, to share knowledge and information and to strengthen understanding. This World Radio Day is a moment to recognize the marvel of radio and to harness its power for the benefit of all,” said UNESCO Director General, Irina Bokova in her message on the occasion of the first World Radio Day.

On November 3, 2011, during its 36th General Conference, UNESCO recognized the “transformational power of radio” by establishing World Radio Day on 13 February, which marks the day when the United Nations Radio was launched in 1946. The initial idea came from the Spanish Academy of Radio and was formally presented by the Permanent Delegation of Spain to UNESCO at the 187 session of the Executive Board in September 2011.

Since the first broadcast over 100 years ago, radio has proven to be a powerful information source for mobilizing social change and a central point for community life. It is the mass media that reaches the widest audience in the world. In an era of new technologies, it remains the world’s most accessible platform, a powerful communication tool and a low cost medium.

Radio technology, which began as "wireless telegraphy," owes its development to two other inventions, the telegraph and the telephone. Since the end of the 19th century, when the first successful radio transmissions were achieved and to this day, radio remains as important means of communications as ever. With the advent of new technologies and media convergence, radio is being transformed and is moving onto new delivery platforms, such as broadband internet, mobiles and tablets. In the digital era, radio continues to be relevant, as people digitally tune in via computers, satellite radio and mobile devices.

Radio is especially suited to reach remote and marginalized communities, while simultaneously offering a platform for information sharing and promoting public debate. Radio plays an important role in emergency communication and disaster relief. It is also one of the most important ways to widen access to knowledge, promote the freedom of expression as well as encourage mutual respect and multicultural understanding.

World Radio Day aims to raise awareness about the importance of radio, to encourage decision makers to provide access to information through radio and improve networking and international cooperation among broadcasters.

The resolution is being submitted to the United Nations’ General Assembly, at its 67th session in September 2012, for endorsement.


Monday, February 13, 2012

Rio+20 shows little sign of living up to original Earth summit

By Think to Sustain, February 11, 2012

It is easy to be cynical. Back in 1992, more than 100 world leaders, including George H.W. Bush, showed up for the Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro. It was a two-week mega-event that attracted huge attention, highlighted by the signing of two groundbreaking treaties on climate change and biodiversity and grand declarations about creating a future green and equitable world.

To put it mildly, the subsequent two decades have not lived up to the promises. George W. Bush effectively broke the climate treaty signed by his father, refusing to sign up to the Kyoto Protocol. Emissions have soared, resource plundering has intensified, nature is still on the retreat, the world has become less equitable, and climate change has gone from distant prospect to frightening reality. While the population bomb may be being defused, the consumption bomb is primed to destroy us all.

The 1992 Rio summit’s aspirations were left in the hands of a new body: the UN Commission on Sustainable Development (UNCSD). You have probably never heard of it. That’s not a good sign, since the commission is now in charge of a new event, Rio+20, which is being billed as the next step in making the planet fit for future generations.

Rio+20 will be held in the Brazilian megacity this June. It is hard to escape the conclusion that the hearts of our leaders are not in this. It will last for just three days (June 20-22), rather than the 14 days of its predecessor. President Obama isn’t going. The organizers are so scared nobody of note will turn up that, when they learned a few months ago that the event would clash with Britain and its former empire celebrating Queen Elizabeth’s diamond jubilee, they postponed the summit for a week.

It probably won’t help much. Even British Prime Minister David Cameron refused to take the hint and show any signs that he might attend.

It has to be said that maybe Cameron is right. The “zero draft text” (don’t you just love UN-speak?) issued by the UNCSD at the end of January suggests leaders will not be asked to sign on to anything of substance that was not in the original Rio declaration 20 years ago. There will be no new treaties — plenty of pious words, but no action plan.

It is fine and good to call for a “green economy,” of course. But as the Green Economy Coalition — a grouping of NGOs, research institutes, UN organizations, businesses and trade unions — puts it, the text fails to address the fundamental issues involved in achieving it. “How are we going to kick-start the finance of a green and fair economy?,” the coalition asked in a statement issued last month. “How can we ensure the poorest benefit?… How will a green economy improve the management of our natural world?”

Many Western politicians may feel that the current economic crisis means that 2012 is not a good time to address environmental issues. But the counterargument is that rapacious use of the world’s natural resources over the past 20 years is one reason we got into this mess — causing sharp rises in commodity prices, for instance — and that “green economics” is the only long-term solution.

The truth is that we have gone backwards in the past two decades. The growing power of big developing nations like China and Brazil is often putting the international agenda on sustainability into reverse. Their governments see even current weak international guidelines on social and environmental standards in development projects, such as those developed by the World Bank, as undermining their national sovereignty and impeding economic development, rather than enhancing and sustaining them.

As a result, notes Andy White, coordinator of the Washington-based Rights and Resources Initiative, “there is nothing in the draft Rio+20 text that even mentions the rights of poor people to their land and their forests, even though we know they are far better custodians of nature than governments or private corporations.”

Tinkering with business as usual is not enough. What is needed is new environmental governance for a crowded planet running on empty. It is time to reboot the Rio+20 summit agenda.

The world’s environmental scientists are doing their best. They know best how the planet’s life support systems have deteriorated since 1992 and the imminent dangers of runaway ecological and climatic disaster.

The International Council for Science (ICSU), which represents science bodies in 140 countries including the U.S. National Academy of Science, has organized a meeting in London in March to put pressure on the politicians to get real in Rio. The event, Planet Under Pressure, is one of the formal pre-Rio preparatory meetings, and it won’t pull its punches.

The starting point for the scientists, says ICSU, is that “stark increases in natural disasters, food and water security problems, and biodiversity loss are just part of the evidence that humanity may be crossing planetary boundaries and approaching dangerous tipping points.”

The March conference will hear, for instance, how researchers are developing early warning systems to spot those approaching tipping points. If such systems had been in place 40 years ago, they might have warned of the sudden emergence of the ozone hole over Antarctica. A decade ago, they might have predicted the collapse of Arctic sea ice. Next up could be the explosive growth of nitrogen-gorged “dead zones” in the oceans, or runaway emissions of methane from melting permafrost.

But the scientists don’t just want to predict disasters. They want to stop them. To do that, they will insist that politicians have to be wrenched from their comfort zones. New priorities will require new institutions and new actors. Frank Biermann of the Free University Amsterdam, who heads ICSU’s Earth System Governance Project, will tell the conference that incremental steps will not be sufficient and that “we have to reorient and restructure our national and international institutions.”

We need, he says, a “constitutional moment… akin to the major transformative shift after 1945 that led to the establishment of the United Nations and other international organizations,” like the World Bank. At the very least we need something like a UN environmental security council — with real muscle to call the big polluters, ecosystem trashers, and resource plunderers to account and to drag us back from those tipping points.

Climate change will affect most people’s lives most dramatically through changes to the water cycle, with wet areas set to become wetter and dry areas drier. So, to take one specific recommendation, the scientists want Rio+20 to pledge a new system of global water governance that would be charged with protecting international rivers for downstream users and maintaining irreplaceable underground water reserves for future generations.

Thankfully — for they do not always do this — the scientists have embraced a democratic vision that wants the environment to work for people. The new environmental governance, ICSU says, needs to build greater resilience for humans to survive what is almost certainly looming, especially for the poorest, who need protection from climate change, food shortages, natural disasters, and failed states. That means developing crops that are more drought tolerant, helping poor communities prudently harvest forests and other ecosystems for their own day-to-day needs, and ensuring that communities are better protected against floods and other natural disasters.

Other independent researchers take a similar view about the need for Rio+20 to give teeth to its predecessor’s vague promises about sustainable development. Alex Evans of New York University’s Center on International Cooperation, a co-founder of, says Rio+20 needs to address three fundamental challenges. The first is the greening of growth, especially in emerging economies — “not because they have the greatest responsibility, but because they have the greatest opportunities to be laboratories of the future.”

The second is creating greater equity in a world of growing tensions over access to energy, land, water, and the diminishing “carbon space” in the atmosphere if we are successfully to tackle climate change. The third is building resilience to inevitable shocks, whether from crossing thresholds in natural systems or from market dysfunction, as food and other resources grow scarce.

Evans agrees this is unlikely to be achieved by existing world leaders alone. Nor should it be. The world’s seven billion people need to be asked what they think. That’s us. Evans proposes harnessing the Web for an instant “global outsourcing process” during the 100 days leading up to the summit. Starting with the scientists’ conference, those hundred days could rewrite the politicians’ flaccid agenda, and pick peoples’ delegates to attend on behalf of the real world.

The summit badly needs outside input. Right now, the official Rio+20 agenda and draft text show few signs that politicians are willing to go beyond the green-sounding rhetoric we heard from their predecessors in the same city two decades ago. It wasn’t enough then. It certainly isn’t enough now.