Category Archives: Latin America

Miners rape Amazonia; climate drives more change


Two new studies from Wake Forest University’s Center for Amazonian Science and Innovation based in Tambopata, Perú reveal profound changes in the lands along the shores of the world’s longest river and the mountains that feed it.

The first study examines the profound and expanding impacts of the quest for gold as forests are felled at an accelerating rate and the land left poisoned by mercury used to extract the precious metal.

From Wake Forest University:

Small-scale gold mining has destroyed more than 170,000 acres of primary rainforest in the Peruvian Amazon in the past five years, according to a new analysis by scientists at Wake Forest University’s Center for Amazonian Scientific Innovation (CINCIA).

That’s an area larger than San Francisco and 30 percent more than previously reported.

“The scale of the deforestation is really shocking,” said Luis Fernandez, executive director of CINCIA and research associate professor in the department of biology.

The scientists at CINCIA, based in the Madre de Dios region of Peru, have developed a new data fusion method to identify areas destroyed by this small- or artisanal-scale mining. Combining existing CLASlite forest monitoring technology and Global Forest Change data sets on forest loss, this new deforestation detection tool is 20-25 percent more accurate than those used previously.

Both CLASlite and the Global Forest map use different kinds of information from light waves to show changes in the landscape. “Combining the two methods gives us really good information about the specific kind of deforestation we’re looking for,” said Miles Silman, associate director of science for CINCIA and director of Wake Forest’s Center for Energy, Environment, and Sustainability (CEES). Silman has researched biodiversity and ecology in the Western Amazon and Andes for more than 25 years.

Artisanal-scale gold mining has been hard to detect because its aftereffects can masquerade as natural wetlands from a satellite view. But the damage is extensive. Small crews of artisanal miners don’t expect to hit the mother lode. Rather, miners set out to collect the flakes of gold in rainforest.

“We’re not talking about huge gold veins here,” Fernandez said. “But there’s enough gold in the landscape to make a great deal of money in a struggling economy. You just have to destroy an immense amount of land to get it.”

To get the gold, they strip the land of trees or suck up river sediment, and then use toxic mercury to tease the precious metal out of the dirt. The results are environmentally catastrophic.

Aerial view of the damage inflicted by miners along the upper reaches of the Amazon in Peru.

Artisanal-scale gold mining took root in the Peruvian Amazon in the early 2000s, coinciding with construction of a new modern highway connecting Peru and Brazil. The Interoceanic Highway made Peru’s once remote rainforest and protected lands accessible to anyone. Where it used to take two weeks by all-terrain vehicle to travel from Cuzco to Puerto Maldonado, the capital of Madre de Dios, during the rainy season, it now takes only six hours aboard an air-conditioned luxury bus.

Because artisanal-scale gold mining requires no heavy machinery and thus involves minimal outlay, it has provided a revolving-door opportunity for poor workers from the Andean highlands to seek their fortune in Madre de Dios. When they return home, they leave a patchwork of mercury-polluted ponds and sand dunes, the landscape denuded of trees and most other vegetation.

CINCIA has partnered with Peru’s Ministry of the Environment to try to understand how the new tool developed by its scientists can be used to identify deforestation caused by artisanal-scale gold mining and take effective action to curb the damage.

“We want to integrate high-quality scientific research into the processes the government is using for environmental conservation in Madre de Dios,” Fernandez said.

CINCIA scientists also are studying native species that can be used for post-mining reforestation. The 115-acre experiment at CINCIA’s headquarters is the largest in the Americas.

Wake Forest University established CINCIA in 2016 through CEES. With support from the U.S. Agency for International Development, World Wildlife Fund, IIAP, the Amazon Aid Foundation, Ecosphere Capital Partners/Althelia Climate Change Fund, ESRI Global Inc., UNAMAD, and Universidad de Ingeniería y Tecnología, CINCIA has brought together scientists and conservationists to develop solutions for sustainable use of tropical landscapes, combat environmental destruction and improve health in Madre de Dios.

From Wake Forest News comes this animation showing rate rate of deforestion since 1985:

Deforestation Sequence in the Peruvian Amazon

Program note:

This animation shows the deforestation in the Peruvian Amazon from 1985 to 2017. Video courtesy Wake Forest University’s Center for Amazonian Scientific Innovation.

Rising temperatures drive Andean tropical trees upslope

As the planet heats up, temperatures in the Amazon’s headwater’s are rising as well, with the heat already showing impacts on the region’s tropical forestdriving them to new heights, mountainous heights.

And that’s bad new for the ecology of lower elevations left behind.

From Wake Forest:

Tropical and subtropical forests across South America’s Andes Mountains are responding to warming temperatures by “migrating” to higher elevations, but probably not quickly enough to avoid loss of biodiversity, functional collapse or even extinction, according to a new study published November 14 in the journal Nature. [$8.99 for short-term access].

The study, supervised by University of Miami researcher Kenneth J. Feeley, was co-authored by Wake Forest biologists Miles Silman and William Farfan-Rios, and used much of the field data they have collected in the Andean forests. Feeley began developing the techniques used in this research when he was a postdoctoral associate at Wake Forest. He also studied at Wake Forest as an undergraduate.

The study confirms for the first time that, like many other plant and animal species around the world, tree species from across the Andean and Amazon forests of Colombia, Ecuador, Peru and northern Argentina have been moving to higher, cooler elevations. But unlike the world’s more temperate or boreal forests, which are far more accustomed to dramatic seasonal shifts in temperature, tropical trees are running into environmental roadblocks at higher elevations that are thwarting their upward migration and threatening their survival.

More after the jump. . .

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Sustainable farming curbs greenhouses gases


Our final climate offering of the day blends two of our favorite topics, climate change and sustainable agriculture,m with a special focus on biochar [also known as terra preta]

The pre-Columbian inhabitants of the Amazon Basin had a remarkable secret, lost after their advanced civilization was destroyed by the disease brought by European explorers.

Sailing up the previously unexplored rive, Spanish explorer Francisco de Orellana, traveled down the Amazon in December 1541 on a journey that would last eight months before he sailed into Pacific Ocean, along the way discovering a rich, densely settled civilization producing high crop yields in the rain forest where, contrary to popular perceptions, soils are typically thin and poor.

Orellana’s stories helped fuel the myth of El Dorado, the famous lost City of Gold, but when later explorer’s sailed the Amazon, they found no flourishing cities, leaving Orellana in dispute for the next 500 years until archaeologists found proof of his claims in buried cities and soil rich in pot sherds and bit of partially combusted wood, or char.

The combination of charcoal and pottery turned thin, dreploeted soils in ricb black earth [in Spanish, terra preta], capable of yielding an agricultural bounty able to support a dense, prosperous population.

From David Bennett of the Delta Farm Press:

The properties of terra preta are amazing. Even thousands of years after creation, the soil remains fertile without need for any added fertilizer. For those living in Amazonia, terra preta is increasingly sought out as a commodity. Truckloads of the dark earth are often carted off and sold like potting soil.

Chock-full of charcoal, the soil is often several meters deep. It holds nutrients extremely well and seems to contain a microbial mix especially suited to agriculture.

And it was all created by a people the explorers called savages.

And if your interested in learning more the miraculous Native American discovery, here‘s a good place to start.

And now, on to to the latest development.

Study reveals natural solutions to combat climate change

From Cornell University:

Annual greenhouse gas emissions from all U.S. vehicles could be absorbed by forests, wetlands and agricultural lands – erasing a fifth of all greenhouse gas pollution, according to new research exploring natural climate solutions for the United States.

Peter Woodbury, senior research associate in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, is a co-author on research published Nov. 14 in Science Advances [open access].

The researchers analyzed 21 natural ways to mitigate climate change. They found that adjusting those natural management practices to increase carbon storage and avoid greenhouse emissions could equal 21 percent of the nation’s current net annual emissions. Increased reforestation could be equivalent to eliminating the emissions of 66 million passenger cars, according to the findings.

Improved management of existing croplands has an important role to play, according to the researchers. Woodbury, who led the cropland nutrient management portion of the study, and his colleagues found that many agricultural practices can significantly reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

Widespread adoption of cover crops – plants grown on farm fields when they would normally be left bare – aids in carbon sequestration and improves soil health, crop yields and yield consistency. The researchers also pointed to improved nutrient management practices that apply fertilizer when and where the crop needs it, using precision agriculture techniques.

These improved practices could reduce nitrogen use 22 percent, leading to a 33 percent reduction in field emissions and 29 percent reduction in upstream emissions with additional benefits for soil, air and water quality. In many cases, these practices also improve profitability for farmers.

“We have demonstrated that agriculture and forestry have real potential to both avoid greenhouse gas emissions and also remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and store it in plants and soil. At the same time, these practices have many other benefits such as improving soil health and water quality by reducing nutrient pollution of fresh water and the coastal zone,” said Woodbury, who develops models to quantify the sustainability of agricultural and forest ecosystems. Woodbury is a fellow at the Atkinson Center for a Sustainable Future.

The researchers pointed to biochar as one method with high potential, although further research is needed to overcome cultural, technological and cost barriers. In May, Cornell opened the largest pyrolysis kiln of its kind at a U.S. university to study the uses of biochar, a solid, charcoal-like material formed by heating biomass in the absence of oxygen. Biochar can help soil retain water and nutrients, as well as promote drainage when conditions are wet.

The researchers say that, along with reducing the impact of global warming, natural climate solutions have the potential to improve air and water quality, flood control, soil health and wildlife habitats.

Other solutions include: allowing longer periods between timber harvest to increase carbon storage; increasing controlled burns and strategic thinning in forests to reduce the risk of tree-killing fires; and reducing urban sprawl to preserve forests.

“These 21 natural climate solutions are really important because they can greatly reduce greenhouse gas emissions in the U.S. and the world while also providing other benefits including clean water, clean air and biodiversity,” said Woodbury.

BBC documents Orellana’s Amazon discoveries

Here’s a remarkable BBC documentary reporting on what scientists are finding as they retrace Orellana’s footsteps, with a special emphasis on terra preta.

The Secret of El Dorado

From the program notes:

The search for clues in the Amazon takes place at grass roots level – in the soil itself. Along Brazil’s Tapajos River, archaeologist Bill Woods has mapped numerous prehistoric sites, some with exquisite, 2,000 year old pottery. There is a common thread: the earth where people have lived is much darker than the rainforest soil nearby. Closer investigation showed that the two soils are the same, the dark loam is just a result of adding biological matter. The Brazilians call this fertile ground terra preta. It is renowned for its productivity and even sold by local people.

Archaeologists have surveyed the distribution of terra preta and found it correlates favourably with the places Orellana reported back in the 16th century. The land area is immense – twice the size of the UK. It seems the prehistoric Amazonian peoples transformed the earth beneath their feet. The terra preta could have sustained permanent intensive agriculture, which in turn would have fostered the development of advanced societies. Archaeologists like Bill Petersen, from the University of Vermont, now regard Orellana’s account as highly plausible. But if the first Conquistadors told the truth, what became of the people they described?

Maps of the day: More climate change impacts


A new study from Cornell University casts new on thee life-threatening reality climate change:

Severe Caribbean droughts may magnify food insecurity

A comparison of drought conditions between 2015 and 2017 on the island of Hispaniola, home to Haiti (in the west) and the Dominican Republic. Using the Palmer Drought Severity Index, dark brown indicates severe to extreme drought, while blue colors indicate wetter than normal conditions. In the summer of 2015, when the Pan-Caribbean drought peaked, most of Hispaniola had severe drought conditions. In contrast, the western portion of the island – mostly Haiti – had wetter-than-normal conditions in January 2017 due to rain from Hurricane Matthew in October 2016. Even after the hurricane, drought conditions remained for the Dominican Republic.

More from Cornell:

Climate change is impacting the Caribbean, with millions facing increasing food insecurity and decreasing freshwater availability as droughts become more likely across the region, according to new Cornell research in Geophysical Research Letters [open access].

“Climate change – where mean temperatures rise – has already affected drought risk in the Caribbean. While our research focused on the role of human-causes for the strong 2013-16 drought there, our findings and climate-model projections show that drought in the region will likely to become more severe over time,” said lead author Dimitris Herrera, postdoctoral associate in earth and atmospheric sciences.

Since 1950, the Caribbean region has seen a drying trend and scattered multiyear droughts. But the recent Pan-Caribbean drought in 2013-16 was unusually severe and placed 2 million people in danger of food insecurity.

In Haiti, for example, over half the crops were lost in 2015 due to drought, which pushed about 1 million people into food insecurity, while an additional 1 million people suffered food shortages throughout the region, according to the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Human Affairs.

Examining climatological data from the 2013-16 Pan-Caribbean drought, anthropogenic warming accounted for a 15 to 17 percent boost of the drought’s severity, Herrera said.

Climate model simulations indicate the most significant decrease in precipitation in the Caribbean might occur May through August – the rainy season. A failed rainy season in spring and summer, added to a normal dry season in the late fall and winter, prolongs a drought.

Beyond growing crops, the Caribbean also faces dwindling freshwater resources, due to saltwater intrusion from rising seas and pressure from agricultural and municipal sectors.

“This paper documents that human activity is already affecting the drought statistics of the region,” said Toby Ault, assistant professor of earth and atmospheric sciences, and a fellow at Cornell’s Atkinson Center for a Sustainable Future. “Hot temperatures in the future will probably continue to play an increasingly important role in exacerbating droughts.”

Although the Caribbean has recently been affected by catastrophic hurricanes – such as Maria and Irma – that caused significant and rapid damage, persistent droughts can slowly bring havoc to vulnerable Caribbean countries, said Herrera: “This is especially true for the agriculture and tourism sectors of this region, which are the most important contributors to gross domestic product in most Caribbean nations.”

Other authors are of “Exacerbation of the 2013-2016 Pan Caribbean Drought by Anthropogenic Warming,” are John Fasullo, National Center for Atmospheric Research; Sloan Coats, Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution; Carlos Carrillo, Cornell; Benjamin Cook, NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies; and A. Park Williams, Lamont Doherty Earth Observatory, Columbia University.

The research was supported by the National Center for Atmospheric Research, the National Science Foundation and NASA.

But there’s some potentially good news, too

Another new study, this one from the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center, study links over-consumption of alcohol with two curious factors, cold temperatures and alcohol.

While climate change won’t tilt the Earth’s axis further south, it’s already making northern latitudes warmer, so there’ll be less need for somatic antifreeze. . .

We begin with a map from the study comparing levels of booze-guzzling and binge behavior in the counties of the good ol’ U.S of .A. [click on it to embiggen]:

From the University:

Where you live could influence how much you drink. According to new research from the University of Pittsburgh Division of Gastroenterology, people living in colder regions with less sunlight drink more alcohol than their warm-weather counterparts.

The study, recently published online in Hepatology, [$6 for 48-hour access] found that as temperature and sunlight hours dropped, alcohol consumption increased. Climate factors also were tied to binge drinking and the prevalence of alcoholic liver disease, one of the main causes of mortality in patients with prolonged excessive alcohol use.

“It’s something that everyone has assumed for decades, but no one has scientifically demonstrated it. Why do people in Russia drink so much? Why in Wisconsin? Everybody assumes that’s because it’s cold,” said senior author Ramon Bataller, M.D., Ph.D., chief of hepatology at UPMC, professor of medicine at Pitt, and associate director of the Pittsburgh Liver Research Center. “But we couldn’t find a single paper linking climate to alcohol intake or alcoholic cirrhosis. This is the first study that systematically demonstrates that worldwide and in America, in colder areas and areas with less sun, you have more drinking and more alcoholic cirrhosis.”

Alcohol is a vasodilator – it increases the flow of warm blood to the skin, which is full of temperature sensors – so drinking can increase feelings of warmth. In Siberia that could be pleasant, but not so much in the Sahara.

Drinking also is linked to depression, which tends to be worse when sunlight is scarce and there’s a chill in the air.

Using data from the World Health Organization, the World Meteorological Organization and other large, public data sets, Bataller’s group found a clear negative correlation between climate factors – average temperature and sunlight hours – and alcohol consumption, measured as total alcohol intake per capita, percent of the population that drinks alcohol, and the incidence of binge drinking.

The researchers also found evidence that climate contributed to a higher burden of alcoholic liver disease. These trends were true both when comparing across countries around the world and also when comparing across counties within the United States.

“It’s important to highlight the many confounding factors,” said lead author Meritxell Ventura-Cots, Ph.D., a postdoctoral researcher at the Pittsburgh Liver Research Center. “We tried to control for as many as we could. For instance, we tried to control for religion and how that influences alcohol habits.”

With much of the desert-dwelling Arab world abstaining from alcohol, it was critical to verify that the results would hold up even when excluding these Muslim-majority countries. Likewise, within the U.S., Utah has regulations that limit alcohol intake, which have to be taken into account.

When looking for patterns of cirrhosis, the researchers had to control for health factors that might exacerbate the effects of alcohol on the liver—like viral hepatitis, obesity and smoking.

In addition to settling an age-old debate, this research suggests that policy initiatives aimed at reducing the burden of alcoholism and alcoholic liver disease should target geographic areas where alcohol is more likely to be problematic.

Additional authors on this study include Ariel Watts, B.S., Neil Shah, M.D., Peter McCann, M.D., and A. Sidney Barritt IV, M.D., all of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill; Monica Cruz-Lemini, M.D., Ph.D., of the Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México at Juriquilla; Jose Altamirano, M.D., of Hospital Quirónsalud in Barcelona; Juan Abraldes, M.D., from The University of Alberta; Nambi Ndugga, M.P.H., of Harvard; and Anant Jain, M.D., Samhita Ravi, and Carlos Fernández-Carrillo, M.D., Ph.D., all of Pitt.

This research was supported by National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism awards U01AA021908 and U01AA020821, the Mexican National Council for Science and Technology and the Spanish Association for the Study of the Liver.

Schadenfreude alert: Who meddles in elections?


Now that Georgia’s Republican Secretary of State is claiming – based on no evidence whatsoever – Democrats have hacked his state’s election, it’s time for a reminder of the identity of the world’s number one election-rigger.

Guess what?

It’s Uncle Sam.

We begin with a video report from The Intercept:

A Short History of U.S. Meddling in Foreign Elections

Program notes:

Meddling in foreign elections is bad. I think we can all agree on that. And almost everyone – bar Donald Trump – seems to believe that the Russian government meddled in the 2016 election. So that should be condemned. Here’s the problem, though: U.S. politicians and pundits cannot credibly object to Russian interference in U.S. elections without also acknowledging that the United States doesn’t exactly have clean hands. Or are we expected to believe that Russian hackers were the first people in human history to try and undermine a foreign democracy? In this video, I examine the ways in which the the United States has, in fact, spent the past 70 odd years meddling in elections across the world.

From flagship public broadcaster WNYC in New York comes a glimpse of the depth of Uncle Sam’s ongoing meddling:

For decades, American intelligence agencies have historically used clandestine tactics to put leaders into office who are favorable to U.S. national interests. This practice of meddling dates back to the early days of the CIA and was seen as a necessary strategy to contain the Soviet Union during the Cold War.

It’s something Tim Weiner has explored in great detail. He’s won the Pulitzer Prize for his work on clandestine national security programs, and his books include “Enemies: A History of the FBI” and “Legacy of Ashes: The History of the CIA.” He says election meddling is not a grey area for the CIA.

“Several months after the CIA was created in 1947, it set out to steal the Italian election in 1948 to support the Christian Democrats who were pro-American, against the socialist Democrats, who were pro-Moscow, and they won,” says Weiner. “It’s just the beginning of a long, long story.”

After seeing success in Italy, the CIA took this formula — which involved using millions of dollars to run influence campaigns — and brought it across the world to places like Guatemala, Indonesia, South Vietnam, Afghanistan, and beyond.

“The president [of Afghanistan] after the American invasion post-9/11 was a paid CIA agent, Hamid Karzai,” Weiner says. “The list is very long, and it’s part of what the CIA does in political warfare.”

A report from the Fort Worth Star-Telegram adds up the numbers:

Dov Levin, a researcher with the Institute for Politics and Strategy at Carnegie Mellon University, created a historical database that tracks U.S. involvement in foreign elections. According to Levin, the U.S. meddled in other nation’s elections more than 80 times worldwide between 1946 and 2000. Examples include Italy in 1948; Haiti in 1986; Nicaragua and Czechoslovakia in 1990; and Serbia in 2000.

A more recent example of U.S. election interference occurred in Israel in 2015. A Washington Post report in 2016 revealed U.S. taxpayer dollars were used in an effort to oust Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. According to a bipartisan report from the Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations (PSI), $350,000 in grants from the U.S. State Department were used “to build valuable political infrastructure—large voter contact lists, a professionally trained network of grassroots organizers/activists, and an impressive social media platform” not only to support peace negotiations, but to launch a large anti-Netanyahu grassroots organizing campaign.

Through the years, the U.S. has also gone so far as to fund the election campaigns of specific parties; make public announcements in favor of the candidates they support; and threaten to withhold foreign aid should voters favor opposition candidates.

More on Levin’s numerical findings on American interference comes from across the pond, via Britain’s Channel 4 News:

According to his research, there were 117 “partisan electoral interventions” between 1946 and 2000. That’s around one of every nine competitive elections held since Second World War.

The majority of these – almost 70 per cent – were cases of US interference.

And these are not all from the Cold War era; 21 such interventions took place between 1990 and 2000, of which 18 were by the US.

“60 different independent countries have been the targets of such interventions,” Levin’s writes. “The targets came from a large variety of sizes and populations, ranging from small states such as Iceland and Grenada to major powers such as West Germany, India, and Brazil.”

It’s important to note that these cases vary greatly – some simply involved steps to publicly support one candidate and undermine another.

But almost two thirds of interventions were done in secret, with voters having no idea that foreign powers were actively trying to influence the results.

Forbes reports on some of the methods employed:

The U.S. uses numerous tools to advance its interests. Explained Nina Agrawal of the Los Angeles Times: “These acts, carried out in secret two-thirds of the time, include funding the election campaigns of specific parties, disseminating misinformation or propaganda, training locals of only one side in various campaigning or get-out-the-vote techniques, helping one side design their campaign materials, making public pronouncements or threats in favor of or against a candidate, and providing or withdrawing foreign aid.”

It’s not clear how much impact Washington’s efforts had: Levin figured the vote increase for U.S.-backed candidates averaged three percent. The consequences often didn’t seem to satisfy Washington; in almost half of the cases America intervened at least a second time in the same country’s electoral affairs.

Ironically, given the outrage directed at Moscow today, in 1996 Washington did what it could to ensure the reelection of Boris Yeltsin over the communist opposition. The U.S. backed a $10.2 billion IMF loan, an ill-disguised bribe were used by the Yeltsin government for social spending before the election. Americans also went over to Russia to help. Time magazine placed Boris Yeltsin on the cover holding an American flag; the article was entitled “Yanks to the Rescue: The Secret Story of How American Advisers Helped Yeltsin Win.”

The Hill gives a voice to the interventionist hidden hand:

When asked whether the U.S. interferes in other countries’ elections, James Woolsey said, “Well, only for a very good cause in the interests of democracy.”

“Oh, probably, but it was for the good of the system in order to avoid communists taking over,” he told Laura Ingraham on her Fox News show on Friday night.

Woolsey served as CIA director under former President Clinton. His comments follow a federal indictment released on Friday that accused 13 Russian individuals and three Russian groups of attempting to influence the 2016 presidential election.

The Russian embassy to the United Kingdom quoted Woolsey on Saturday, adding the comment: “Says it all.”

Yep.

There’s lot’s more, after the jump. . Continue reading

Map of the day: Our planet’s vanishing forests


Here’s a sobering look at the state of the planet’s vanishing forests from the latest and just-released edition of the Global Biodiversity Outlook from the United Nation’s Convention on Biological Diversity [click on the image to enlarge]:

The extent of deforestation and forest degradation worldwide: Intact forests refers to unbroken expanses of natural ecosystems greater than 50,000 hectares. Managed forests refer to forest that is fragmented by roads and/or managed for wood production. Degraded or partially deforested refers to landscapes where there has been a significant decrease in tree canopy density. Deforested refers to previously forested landscapes which have been converted into non-forest.

And there’s even worse to come

The largest area of pristine forest revealed on the U.N. map is in Amazonia, and recent conservation efforts by Latin America’s largest nation had slowed the tide of degradation, at lead until recently.

But now the election of out outspoken neofascist in Brazil guarantees tht things are going to get much, much worse.

From Rachael Garrett, Assistant Professor of the Human Dimensions of Global Change at Boston University, writing in The Conversation, an admirably open source online academic journal written in conversational English:

Jair Bolsonaro, Brazil’s new president, will make many decisions during his four-year term, from combating violence to stimulating a stagnant economy.

Those decisions will have large impacts on Brazilians, who remain deeply divided over the controversial election of this far-right populist.

But some of Bolsonaro’s decisions will affect the entire world, namely his promises to cut environmental protections in the Brazilian Amazon.

The Amazon’s uncertain fate

The Amazon is the world’s largest tropical rainforest and a major global food exporter.

The Amazon Basin also provides the rains that nourish Brazil’s productive croplands to the south, a breadbasket for the world. The rainforest’s destruction could cause large-scale droughts in Brazil, leading to nationwide crop losses.

An estimated 9 percent of Amazonian forests disappeared between 1985 and 2017, reducing the rainforest’s ability to absorb the carbon emissions that drive climate change.

Deforestation is largely due to land clearing for agricultural purposes, particularly cattle ranching.

Cattle production has an extremely low profit margin in the Brazilian Amazon. It also requires a massive amount of land for grazing. Both factors drive Amazonian farmers to continuously clear forest – illegally – to expand pastureland.

Today, 12 percent of the Brazilian Amazon, or 93 million acres – an area roughly the size of Montana – is used for agriculture, primarily cattle ranching but also soybean production.

Deforestation decreased substantially from 2004 to 2014 thanks to strict environmental protections passed by President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva in 2004. His Workers Party cracked down on illegal land clearing in the Amazon, making Brazil a world leader in rainforest protection.

But deforestation in the Amazon has begun to climb again recently.

Brazilian President Michel Temer, a conservative who entered office in 2016 during a deep recession, has loosened enforcement of federal anti-deforestation laws, slashed the environmental ministry’s budget and opened the Amazon to mining.

Satellite data reveal that between August 2017 to 2018, 1.1 million acres of Brazilian Amazonian forest were cleared – the highest deforestation rate since 2007.

President-elect Bolsonaro has promised to further slash environmental protections in Brazil, saying that federal conservation zones and hefty fines for cutting down trees hinder economic growth.

Continue reading

The world’s last wilderness is rapidly disappearing


We’ve posted extensively about corporate agriculture’s major land granbs in Africa and Latin America’s Amazon Basin, but the sheer scale of land vanishing under the plow and the land developer’s bulldozer is simply astounding, as exemplified in this map just published by Nature:

More from the University of Queensland:

The world’s last wilderness areas are rapidly disappearing, with explicit international conservation targets critically needed, according to University of Queensland-led research.

The international team recently mapped intact ocean ecosystems, complementing a 2016 project [$2.99 for three-hour access] charting remaining terrestrial wilderness.

Professor James Watson, from UQ’s School of Earth and Environmental Sciences, said the two studies provided the first full global picture of how little wilderness remains, and he was alarmed at the results.

“A century ago, only 15 per cent of the Earth’s surface was used by humans to grow crops and raise livestock,” he said.

“Today, more than 77 per cent of land – excluding Antarctica – and 87 per cent of the ocean has been modified by the direct effects of human activities.

“It might be hard to believe, but between 1993 and 2009, an area of terrestrial wilderness larger than India — a staggering 3.3 million square kilometres — was lost to human settlement, farming, mining and other pressures.

“And in the ocean, the only regions that are free of industrial fishing, pollution and shipping are almost completely confined to the polar regions.”

UQ Postdoctoral Research Fellow James R. Allan said the world’s remaining wilderness could only be protected if its importance was recognised in international policy.

“Some wilderness areas are protected under national legislation, but in most nations, these areas are not formally defined, mapped or protected,” he said.

“There is nothing to hold nations, industry, society or communities to account for long-term conservation.

“We need the immediate establishment of bold wilderness targets — specifically those aimed at conserving biodiversity, avoiding dangerous climate change and achieving sustainable development.”

The researchers insist that global policy needs to be translated into local action.

“One obvious intervention these nations can prioritise is establishing protected areas in ways that would slow the impacts of industrial activity on the larger landscape or seascape,” Professor Watson said.

“But we must also stop industrial development to protect indigenous livelihoods, create mechanisms that enable the private sector to protect wilderness, and push the expansion of regional fisheries management organisations.

“We have lost so much already, so we must grasp this opportunity to secure the last remaining wilderness before it disappears forever.”

The article has been published in Nature [open, read-only access].

Maps of the day: Climate change and refugees


Nothing has contributed more to the rise of 21st Century global fascist populism than the surge of refugees from the war zones of Middle East and North Africa [MENA], and Latin America as darker-skinned folks fleeing from crises zones flood the paler-skinned nations of North America and Europe..

And the situation can only get worse and climate change fuels an intensification of the refugee streams, with higher temperatures and lower precipitation strike the same regions already generating the refugee flood,

Consider the following maps from the just-released report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change [IPCC]:

Projected mean temperature [top] and mean precipitation changes [bottom] at 1.5°C global warming [left] and 2°C global warming [right] compared to pre-industrial time period [1861-1880].

As both Mexico and the MENA region fall victim to a drastic reduction in precipitation and higher temperatures in areas already marked by soaring violence, life will grow harder and the temptation to flee grows ever stronger, tensions in the the developed world can only grow stronger as violent and virulent populism soars.

In all the regions affected, U.S. foreign policy has favored oppressive tyrants, installed with the backing of military forces from the developed North, backed by banksters and corporateers eager to “develop” the resources of the afflicted regions, including oil, agriculture and water.

For those nostalgic for the Obama years, consider the military campaigns that the “liberal” administration sponsored, actions which only stoked the flames.

The Trump administration has only added more fuel to the flames by pulling the U.S. out of the climate accord, setting the stage for more refugees and the accelerated rise of fascist parties in the North.

In the rods of the immortal Bette Davis, “Fasten your seatbelts. It’s going to be a bumpy night.”