Posts Tagged ‘ecological destruction’

Source: Brandon Keim, Wired Science

Sea nettles at the Monterey Bay Aquarium. (jimg944/Flickr).

That waste is useful is one of the animal kingdom’s cardinal principles. One creature’s discards are another’s dinner, and so continues the circle of life. But jellyfish, it would seem, bend the rule.

Their waste is generally inedible, food mostly for a few odd species of bacteria that live just long enough to emit a whiff of CO2, then sink. All that nutrition and energy vanishes with barely a trace.

During a jellyfish bloom, food webs may thus be plucked and rearranged, configured to feed jellies that in turn feed almost nothing. Whether this represents the future of Earth’s oceans depends on whom you ask, but it’s an interesting phenomenon in itself.

“Jellyfish are consuming more or less everything that’s present in the food web,” said Robert Condon, a Virginia Institute of Marine Science and co-author of a jellyfish-impact study published June 7 in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. “They’re eating a lot of the food web, and turning it into gelatinous biomass. They’re essentially stealing a lot of the energy, then putting it away.”

Condon and his co-authors are part of a research community whose attention has been recently transfixed by jellyfish, which evolved more than 500 million years ago and once dominated Earth’s oceans, but until the late 20th century were of largely esoteric scientific interest.

In the 1990s, however, jellyfish populations exploded in the Bering Sea, rising by a factor of 40 in less than a decade. Fishermen nicknamed one region the “Slime Bank.”

By the time those blooms subsided, fishermen in the Sea of Japan were accustomed to 500-million-strong swarms of refrigerator-sized, ship-sinking Nomura jellyfish, their numbers unprecedented in recent memory. In the Mediterranean, once-seasonal jellies became a year-round fact of life, again wreaking fisheries havoc.

The blooms became a matter of popular and scientific fascination. Some researchers talked of a “rise of slime,” interpreting the blooms as portents of a “gelatinous future” in which overfished, overpolluted and rapidly overheating marine ecosystems are overrun by algae and jellies.

Such grim assessments may prove correct, though Condon thinks it’s too soon to know. Long-term datasets are few (see sidebar), and these seemingly apocalyptic blooms may represent a mix of local disturbance and natural cycling, not a global tipping point into ooze. But whatever the case may be, studying jellyfish is a sensible thing to do.

“They’re a big unknown,” said Condon, and one of the biggest unknowns is this: At an ecological level, exactly what happens during a jellyfish bloom, anyway?

In what may be the most comprehensive jellyfish study to date, Condon’s group spent nearly four years gathering data from Chesapeake Bay on Mnemiopsis leidyi and Chrysaora quinquecirrha, two species that have caused trouble elsewhere and are considered representative of jellyfish habits worldwide.

The researchers counted them at sea, measured the nutrients in surrounding water, and calculated the composition of nearby bacterial communities. In the lab, they observed how bacteria in seawater reacted to jellyfish, and tracked chemicals flowing through their aquariums.

They found that jellyfish, like many other marine species, excrete organic compounds as bodily wastes and as slime that covers their bodies. But whereas the excretions of other species are consumed by bacteria that form important parts of oceanic food webs, jellyfish excretions nourish gammaproteobacteria, a class of microbes that little else in the ocean likes to eat, and that produces little of further biological use.

“Lots of marine creatures make this dissolved organic matter that bacteria use to live. But the point of this paper is that the organic matter produced by jellies doesn’t make it back up the food web,” said study co-author Deborah Steinberg, also a Virginia Institute of Marine Science biologist. “When jellies are around, they’re shunting this energy into a form that’s just not very usable. They’re just shunting energy away from the rest of the food web.”


Model of the water-column food web before and after jellyfish blooms. Courtesy PNAS

Under normal conditions, gammaproteobacteria are rare. During jellyfish blooms, they may become ubiquitous. And though many questions remain unanswered — perhaps jellyfish and gammaproteobacteria end up as food in the open ocean, beyond the confines of this study — the implications are stark. Given time and numbers, jellyfish might be able to suck an ecosystem dry, converting its bounty to short-lived bacteria.

Even if it’s too soon to say that all Earth’s oceans are returning to some ancient, jellyfish-dominated state, it’s clear that in some areas people have made it easier for jellies, said Steinberg. Overfishing and pollution leave gaps that jellies have spent half a billion years evolving to exploit.

“We’re a long ways from jellyfish taking over the world, but humans are changing food webs in the ocean by our activities,” Steinberg said. “It’s an experiment, a big experiment, and we don’t know yet what the outcome is going to be. We need to be careful.”

See Also:

By David Hill on Singularity Hub

Another chapter in the ongoing David-and-Goliath-esque saga between organic farmers and the Monsanto Company kicked off recently with a lawsuit filed in federal court. The suit, titled Organic Seed Growers & Trade Association, et al. v. Monsanto, is an effort by a group of family farms, seed businesses and organic growers associations to both protect themselves from being sued by Monsanto and undermine its patents on genetically modified or transgenic seeds. The Public Patent Foundation filed the suit on behalf of these farmers and organizations, which collectively represent over 270,000 members. While it may appear to be just another hopeless attempt by a small band of rebels against a powerful, unrelenting empire, this lawsuit has the potential to stop the bullying practices of the company and undermine its foundation permanently.

As many readers are probably aware, genetically modified food is highly prevalent in the States and an increasing amount of transgenic seed is being used in other countries, though regulatory issues remain. Since the genetics revolution of the 1970s, interest in using gene technology to produce better food has abounded, and an obvious way to accomplish this is to make plants more robust to environmental changes and pathogens, which would ultimately lead to better yields. Monsanto’s approach has been to develop technology that makes plants genetically resistant to herbicides, so that fields could be sprayed with the company’s herbicide, called RoundUp, without crop loss. The way Monsanto immunized plants was to incorporate genes from other organisms into the natural plant genomes, patent their technology and then sell the transgenic seeds to farmers.

So how could a seemingly great technological advance from a company that claims to stand behind farmers end up being voted as the Most Evil Corporation, according to a NaturalNews poll, and become the subjects of some eye opening documentaries like Food, Inc. and The Future of Food? Fundamentally, it boils down to three things:

1.       Monsanto aggressively defends their patents.

How aggressively? Put it this way…Monsanto puts the “agro” in agricultural patent law. What’s worse is that the genes themselves are patented. So let’s say farmer A is using Monsanto seed next to farmer B who is using seeds passed down through the family. If the wind blows the wrong way, a seed gets caught in the fur of field mice, shared equipment gets contaminated or any other possible way that a transgenic seed or a patented gene should happen to get from farmer A’s field into farmer B’s crops and then Monsanto finds out about it, odds are the company will sue farmer B for patent infringement.

2.       Monsanto has pushed its transgenic seed business hard.

The lawsuit claims that currently 85-90% of all soybeans, corn, cotton, sugar beets, and canola grown in the United States contain Monsanto’s patented genes, primarily marketed under the RoundUp Ready brand, and its global reach is extending. That’s right — we are all already consuming these genetically modified foods.

3.       Transgenic seeds and natural seeds cannot coexist…and Monsanto knows it.

Unlike a traditional manufacturer that must continually make product, plants derived from Monsanto’s transgenic seeds make more transgenic seeds as part of their reproduction. Successfully introducing transgenic seeds into crops permanently places the gene in the genome of the species. The lawsuit puts forth that organic canola became extinct after contamination from transgenic seed and warns that the future of many crops, including organic corn, soybean, cotton, sugar beet, and alfalfa, face the same fate. It is an impossibility for a company to have the scientific prowess to develop this kind of genetic technology and yet be ignorant of population genetics within an ecosystem. In other words, Monsanto merely has to bide its time before its patented genes have found their way into the agricultural systems of the world and then everyone will have to buy its products.

In light of these points, what on earth could this little lawsuit actually accomplish, especially when a group known as the Organic Elite, consisting of Whole Foods Market, Organic Valley, and Stonyfield Farm, effectively surrendered to Monsanto this past January?

It turns out a lot.

Thanks to a previous controversial lawsuit that went in Monsanto’s favor last year, an opportunity was given to the organic community and anyone else worried about preserving a transgenic-free food supply. The Supreme Court overturned a ruling from a San Francisco district court, which had said that the USDA had approved Monsanto’s RoundUp Ready alfalfa seed illegally and forbade sales until the USDA completed an investigation. However, in that same hearing, the Court also recognized that economic loss due to genetic contamination or gene flow now constitutes “environmental harm,” which is antithetical to patent protection. This means that a technology can only be protected by a patent if it can be shown to be beneficial to the well-being of society.

So if someone could come along and show that Monsanto’s seed technology were causing environmental harm, either economically or genetically, to individuals and/or society as a whole, then the patents might be nullified and therefore not enforceable.

Enter the Organic Seed Growers & Trade Association.

As the plaintiff in this case, this association is seeking to protect the farmers from being sued, for sure, but what it really wants to accomplish is no less than hobbling Monsanto for good. If the patents can be rendered invalid, then not only will the Monsanto v. anyone-who-accidentally-uses-a-transgenic-seed lawsuits stop, but the anyone-who-cares-about-food v. Monsanto lawsuits are going to keep coming.

While the lawsuit brings up many issues and emotions about food and the future of society, its worthwhile taking a moment to reflect on the reality of what all of this means.

Without a shadow of a doubt, genetically modified foods were certain to become part of our future.  There are some people who like the idea of food that is completely naturally grown that is never tainted by anything, but frankly, that approach only worked when there was one percent of the human population of today. The bottom line is the world needs more food and businesses need the food industry to be profitable. The genetics revolution opened the door to bolstering the DNA of plants and animals that provide foodstuffs against harmful conditions and organisms to create nutrient-rich superfoods. It only makes sense that in due time foods would be genetically modified to meet the demands of everyone. But clearly that research needed to be done carefully while respecting nature, and the development of products should have been done with a significant amount of oversight.

farmers_marketIt may be too late for even organic food markets to protect consumers from Monsanto’s gene technology

The real problem that this lawsuit underscores is Monsanto has been cavalier in its business practices. The company has taken an irresponsible stand on the negative impact its technology could have on crops worldwide, instead choosing to focus on market penetration and profits. Science has only scratched the surface on the complex role between genetics, diet, and environment, so how in the world can a company claim that introducing a foreign gene into a seed’s DNA is going to be safe for everything and everyone, both now and in the distant future? They can’t, but the law doesn’t require them to and that’s a detrimental problem. The legal system needs to catch up with the realities of the Genetic Age and fast.

Companies are often given credit for making the world a better place, but certainly no company wants to go down as the one that tainted the food chain. Hopefully, this lawsuit can at least protect organic farmers, but just maybe it will finally put the agricultural giant in its place. Unfortunately, it may be too late for certain crops. We have to sober up to an unfortunate truth: thanks to the aggressive and ecologically-disastrous policies of Monsanto, we may be eating a Monsanto gene with every spoonful whether we want to or not.

[IMAGE: sxc, sxc]

[SOURCE: FastCompany, Grist, Monsantoblog, NaturalNews, Organic Seed Alliance, OSGATA, PubPat,

Genetically Modified Rice and Corn To Grow in China, then the World



The Genetically Modified Food You Eat



Future of Genetically Modified Rice/Corn in China May Be Both Certain and Delayed


An interesting Ars Technica post, bringing into focus not only overfishing itself but also the rapidly growing, unsustainable use of fossil fuels used for it.

The oceans of 2050: will there be any fish left?

By Jonathan M. Gitlin

It’s no secret that I’ve been pessimistic about the state of our oceans. So when I saw there was a session entitled “2050: Will There Be Fish in the Ocean?” at this year’s meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), I knew it would be one I’d attend. And while the message wasn’t particularly encouraging, it’s not all doom and gloom on the seas.

Reg Watson of the University of Tasmania started off by pointing out that humans have always fished; it’s just that we’ve gotten much better about it. Using data from a multitude of sources (predominantly the Food and Agriculture Organization [FAO] and the European Union), the Sea Around Us project aims to study the impact of fisheries on the marine ecosystems of the world, and helpfully provides their data analyses and visualizations for everyone to use.

In order to do this, it was necessary to come up with a metric, a single unit to normalize the data. The University of British Columbia’s (UBC) Daniel Pauly, who is Principal Investigator of the project, suggested energy expenditure as a measure of fishing effort, expressed as total engine power and the number of fishing days in a year.

Their data looks at the global picture from 1950, where the main effort took place around the European coast. By the 1980s, European fishing fleets started intensifying their efforts off the coasts of Africa, the Antarctic, and also in the deep ocean. Asian fishing efforts also ramped up around this time and, from the 1990s onwards, there has been a massive increase in fishing effort in the equatorial zones off northwest Africa and in the Pacific off southeast Asia. Around the same time, the global catch stagnated at around 70 million tons a year. Fishing effort was flat from 1950 until 1970, when it began to increase, ramping up to the 2010 level of 4.4 billion kilowatt days, a 54 percent increase over 1950 levels.

Having reached peak fish, the resulting fish stock collapses have meant that maintaining the annual landing of 85 million tons of fish in the 2000s became more and more energy intensive. Forty-seven million tons of fuel were used by the global fishing fleet each year over that decade, which works out to 1.8 tons of fish per ton of fuel, or 13.5lb of fish per gallon. Just as global agriculture has become incredibly dependent on fossil fuels, so too has global fishing, and it’s just as unsustainable.

Pauly pointed out that the recent FAO biennial report, which described the world fisheries as stable, was misleading, because it just measured catch, but not energy expenditure or the area being fished, which expands each year both in ocean depth and ocean area. Pauly thinks that consumers aren’t feeling this yet, since so much fish is imported from around the world, but that, within a decade, it will be more noticeable in the prices we pay at the supermarket.

Villy Christensen, also of UBC, tried to square the contradictory predictions of life in the future oceans. Unfortunately both these links require a subscription to Science, but the abstracts are free. The 2006 study predicted the global collapse of all taxa currently fished by 2048, but the 2009 study (which has many of the same authors) suggests that efforts to rebuild stocks are underway. According to Christensen, the 2009 paper is correct, at least for some regions.

Fixing the problems will require a more holistic approach to fisheries management than in the past, but there are signs that this is beginning to happen. The United Nations Environment Program is starting to work with the FAO to reduce the polarization between agriculture departments and environment departments across fishing nations. Even marginal reductions in fishing efforts now suggest that we could return to current fishing catch levels, but sustainably, by 2050. Unfortunately, not everyone who currently fishes can continue to do so—since that means taking away peoples’ livelihoods, reaching sustainability won’t be an easy sell.

Changes in fishing methods can also be successful; white sharks off the California coasts have recovered following a ban on drift nets. Increased use of marine protected areas will also be needed, but we can see these at work already—cod are recovering in the Gulf of Maine, for example. Alaskan fisheries are also doing much better since moving to a model that allocates each boat a catch share, rather than a limited number of fishing days. It’s not popular with everyone, since it effectively assigns property rights to the fish in the sea, privatizing a public resource. But, if the alternative is collapsed fisheries, then I think on balance it’s worth it.

Dear friends,

Peru’s government is clashing violently with indigenous groups protesting the rapid devastation of the Amazon rainforest by mining, oil and logging companies. The forest is a global treasure – let’s stand with the protesters and sign the petition to President Garcia to stop the violence and save the Amazon:

Sign the petition

The Peruvian government has pushed through legislation that could allow extractive and large-scale farming companies to rapidly destroy their Amazon rainforest.

Indigenous peoples have peacefully protested for two months demanding their lawful say in decrees that will contribute to the devastation of the Amazon’s ecology and peoples, and be disastrous for the global climate. But last weekend President Garcia responded: sending in special forces to suppress protests in violent clashes, and labelling the protesters as terrorists.

These indigenous groups are on the frontline of the struggle to protect our earth — Let’s stand with them and call on President Alan Garcia (who is widely known to be sensitive to his international reputation) to immediately stop the violence and open up dialogue. Click below to sign the urgent global petition and a prominent and well-respected Latin-American politician will deliver it to the government on our behalf.

More than 70 per cent of the Peruvian Amazon is now up for grabs. Giant oil and gas companies, like the Anglo-French Perenco and the North Americans ConocoPhillips and Talisman Energy, have already pledged multi-billionaire investments in the region. These extractive industries have a very poor record of bringing benefits to local people and preserving the environment in developing countries – which is why indigenous groups are asking for internationally-recognized rights to consultation on the new laws.

For decades the world and indigenous peoples have watched as extractive industries devastated the rainforest that is home to some and a vital treasure to us all (some climate scientists call the Amazon the “lungs of the planet” – breathing in the carbon emissions that cause global warming and producing oxygen).

The protests in Peru are the biggest yet and the most desperate, we can’t afford to let them fail. Sign the petition, and encourage your friends and family to join us, so we can help bring justice to the indigenous peoples of Peru and prevent further acts of violence from all parties.

In solidarity,

Luis, Paula, Alice, Ricken, Graziela, Ben, Brett, Iain, Pascal, Raj, Taren and the entire Avaaz team.


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Published on Wednesday, June 10, 2009 by Rabble
by Ben Powless

The rhetoric was sharp enough to cut down Amazonian hardwoods. Yesterday, Sunday June 7th, after a number of ministers had been paraded out Saturday and the day before, Peru’s el Señor Presidente, Alan Garcia decided to make it personal. After a joint police-military operation aimed at stopping an Indigenous protest had gone awry, leaving many dead on both sides, Garcia declared the Indigenous elements to be standing in the way of progress, in the path of national development, wrenches in the gears of modernity, and part of an international conspiracy to keep Peru down. In a troubling statement on the resemblance of the Indigenous protesters to the infamous Sendero Luminoso (Shining Path) armed insurrection, Garcia seemed to imply the Natives were a band of terrorists as he stood in front of hundreds of military officers in a nationally televised speech. He continued to decry the Indian barbarity and savagery, and called for all police and military to stand against savagery.

Clearly, the battle lines were being drawn. Garcia demonstrated he is not about to allow anything to get in the way of “our development” of the oil and mineral resources the Amazon has to offer. Especially by a bunch of confused savages (his words) who are pawns to the international market and to Indian elites and therefore have no real reason to be resisting. At this point, it was obvious he thought nothing of the Indigenous cause, and what they actually stood for. There is too much money to be extracted from oil, from minerals, from logging, and from possible agriculture in the Amazon region, the 2nd largest stretch outside of Brazil. All on land with less than 200,000 Indigenous people. All now supposed to be open for business, as a result of a series of laws passed under the auspices of Free Trade Agreements signed with both Canada and the United States.

All those who lost their lives – certainly more than the 30 or so officially cited – have in the end given their lives for these free trade agreements and their domestic implementation. After wresting a concession from Congress – a la Bush – Garcia was able to push through 99 changes to the law of Peru. A number of these were ruled unconstitutional later, one dealing with property law standing out. Indigenous groups disputed from the beginning that these laws threatened the integrity of the Amazon, its cultural and biological diversity. Since the beginning, they were ignored. Living up to their Amazonian warrior mythology, they decided to take action.

Protests have lasted now over 50 days, only recently erupting into bloodshed when Garcia suspended civil liberties, declared a state of emergency, and decided to send in the military to end the dispute. This was all done in the name of Garcia’s idea of ‘democracy,’ which should be farcical to anyone who has the least idea what democracy means. Indigenous groups have maintained they want to be included in this so-called democracy, meaning they have a say over what happens in their lands, and that their rights be respected. This is clearly within international law now, after the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples was approved two years ago.

The Declaration lays out provisions that clearly establish the rights to free, prior and informed consent over development projects in Indigenous territories, and the right to be involved in any decision making processes that would impact on Indigenous Peoples’ lands, resources or rights. Repeated demands have called for there to be dialogue with Indigenous groups. Garcia’s response? Yes, there has been dialogue – within the government, by elected officials. Obviously, this hasn’t done enough to safeguard the rights, the lives, and the livelihoods of Amazon peoples, and a number of the new laws have been shown to be unconstitutional. Indigenous leaders quickly condemned the tragic loss of lives as the fault of the government, who was not committed to dialogue, but arms. Even the ex-president has placed the blame on Garcia for not seeking dialogue with Indigenous representatives.



On June 6, near a stretch of highway known as the Devil’s Curve in the northern Peruvian Amazon, police began firing live rounds into a multitude of indigenous protestors — many wearing feathered crowns and carrying spears. In the neighboring towns of Bagua Grande, Bagua Chica and Utcubamba, shots also came from police snipers on rooftops, and from a helicopter that hovered above the mass of people. Both natives and mestizos took to the streets protesting the bloody repression. From his office in Bagua a representative for the international organization “Save the Children” reported that children as young as four years-old were wounded by indiscriminate police shooting. President Alan García had hinted the government would respond forcefully to “restore order” in the insurgent Amazonian provinces, where he had declared a state of siege on May 9 suspending most constitutional liberties. The repression was swift and fierce.

By the end of the day a number of government and the president’s party APRA offices were destroyed, 9 policemen and approximately 40 protesters were killed. Overwhelmed by the number of the wounded small local hospitals were forced to close their doors. A doctor in Bagua Grande described the repression as a “barbarian act” similar to those committed in Beirut by the Israeli occupying forces a few years ago. A Church official denounced that many of the civilian wounded and killed at the Devil’s Curve were forcefully taken to the military barracks of El Milagro. From Bagua, a local journalist declared to Ideele Radio that following the killings policemen dumped bagged bodies in the Utcubamba River. Indigenous leaders have accused García of “genocide” and have called for an international campaign of solidarity with their struggle. Indigenous unrest in the Peruvian Amazon began late last year. After an ebb of a few months, the uprising regained force again on April 9. Since then, Amazonian indigenous groups have sustained intensifying protests for more than two months, including shutdowns of oil and gas pumping stations as well as blockades of road and river traffic.

The Devil’s Curve massacre is not the only instance of repression. García recently sent in the Navy to violently break through indigenous blockades on the Napo River, also in northern Peru. But few expected such a violent reaction from the government. García says the response was appropriate and blamed the indigenous for thinking they could decide what happens in their territories: “These people don’t have crowns. They aren’t first-class citizens who can say… ‘You [the government] don’t have the right to be here.’ No way.” The president called the protestors “pseudo-indigenous.”

Indigenous representative Alberto Pizango called Devil’s Curve the “worst slaughter of our people in 20 years.” And added, “Our protest has been peaceful.” We’re 5,000 natives [in the blockade] that just want respect for our territory and the environment.”

Protestor’s top demand is the repeal of a series of decrees, known collectively as the “Law of the Jungle,” signed by García last year. The President decreed the legislative package using extraordinary powers granted to him by Peru’s Congress to enact legislation required by the 2006 U.S.-Peru Free Trade Agreement. Indigenous groups are also demanding the creation of a permanent commission with indigenous representation to discuss solutions to their territorial, developmental, health and educational problems.

One of the most controversial aspects of the decrees is that they allow private interests to buy up indigenous lands and resources. Following a colonial logic of “progress,” García’s decrees foster the commodification of indigenous territories, ecological reserves, communal and public lands, water, and biogenetic resources to the benefit of powerful transnational interests. What’s more, the “Law of the Jungle” implicitly conceives of indigenous Amazonia as an open, empty, bountiful, and underdeveloped frontier and its inhabitants as obstacles to neoliberal modernization and investment schemes.

[The following section provides the details on the background of the struggle and the current state of the crisis]


This stuff really makes depressing reading – an article by John Sauven in today’s Guardian:

brazilian rain forest destruction

The Brazilian government is legalising deforestation and western superbrands are benefiting from it. This needs to stop now!

Brazil’s president, Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, writing in the Guardian in March, offered us these words of hope: “No country has a larger stake in reversing the impact of global warming than Brazil. That is why it is at the forefront of efforts to come up with solutions that preserve our common future.” Lula’s words are fine. But we are still waiting for real action.

For the last 10 years, Greenpeace has been working in the Amazon alongside communities to protect the rainforest. Last week, Greenpeace released a report which was the result of a three-year investigation into the role of the cattle industry in driving illegal deforestation in the Brazilian Amazon. The report, Slaughtering the Amazon, reveals the devastating impacts cattle ranching is having on the climate, biodiversity and local communities.

Cattle ranching is the biggest cause of deforestation, not only in the Amazon, but worldwide. The report reveals that the Brazilian government is a silent partner in these crimes by providing loans to and holding shares in the three biggest players – Bertin, JBS and Marfrig – that are driving expansion into the Amazon rainforest.

Greenpeace is now about to enter into negotiations with many of the companies that have either found their supply chain and products contaminated with Amazon leather and beef or who are buying from companies implicated in Amazon deforestation – big brands such as Adidas, Clarks, Nike, Timberland and most of the major UK supermarkets. Meanwhile, back in Brazil, the federal prosecutor in Para state has announced legal action against farms and slaughterhouses that have acted outside of the law. It has sent warning letters to Brazilian companies buying and profiting from the destruction. Bertin and JBS are in the firing line – companies part-owned by the Brazilian government.

While this is a positive step, it’s clear that we can’t bring about real change and win an end to Amazon destruction for cattle without real action from the government and from big corporations in Europe and the US, who are providing the markets.

Another, worrying example of the widening chasm between rhetoric and reality is a new bill that has just passed through the Brazilian senate. If Lula gives his consent, it will legalise claims to at least 67m hectares of Amazonian land — an area the size of Norway and Germany put together – that is currently held illegally. A second bill, before the Brazilian congress, proposes to more than double the percentage of Amazon rainforest that can be cleared legally within a property. If passed, the effect of both these bills will be to legalise increased deforestation of the Amazon rainforest.

Lula’s decision to fund the cattle ranching industry with public money makes no sense when its expansion threatens the very deforestation reduction targets that Lula champions. The laws now waiting for his approval will represent a free ride for illegal loggers and cattle ranchers. It is clear that Brazil now faces a choice about what sort of world leader it wants to be – part of the problem or part of the solution.

Protecting Brazil’s rainforest is a critical part of the battle to tackle climate change and must be part of a global deal to protect forests at the climate change talks in Copenhagen at the end of the year. But while world leaders are making speeches, we are losing vast tracts of rainforest. We must also tackle the dirty industries that are driving deforestation if we are to protect the Amazon and the climate for future generations.

[Image: Joanna B. Pinneo—Aurora/Getty Images]

Blue Desert

seafloor dreadged bare
Sea floor dredged bare

Why is no one brave enough to stand up to the fishing industry?

By George Monbiot
George Monbiot’s ZSpace Page / ZSpace

I live a few miles from Cardigan Bay. Whenever I can get away, I take my kayak down to the beach and launch it through the waves. Often I take a handline with me, in the hope of catching some mackeral or pollock. On the water, sometimes five kilometres from the coast, surrounded by gannets and shearwaters, I feel closer to nature than at any other time.

Last year I was returning to shore through a lumpy sea. I was 200 metres from the beach and beginning to worry about the size of the breakers when I heard a great whoosh behind me. Sure that a wave was about to crash over my head, I ducked. But nothing happened. I turned round. Right under my paddle a hooked grey fin emerged. It disappeared. A moment later a bull bottlenose dolphin exploded from the water, almost over my head. As he curved through the air, we made eye contact. If there is one image that will stay with me for the rest of my life, it is of that sleek gentle monster, watching me with his wise little eye as he flew past my head. I have never experienced a greater thrill, even when I first saw an osprey flying up the Dyfi estuary with a flounder in its talons.

The Cardigan Bay dolphins are one of the only two substantial resident populations left in British seas. It is partly for their sake that most of the coastal waters of the bay are classified as special areas of conservation (SACs). This grants them the strictest protection available under EU law. The purpose of SACs is to prevent “the deterioration of natural habitats … as well as disturbance of the species for which the areas have been designated”(1).

That looks pretty straightforward, doesn’t it? The bay is strictly protected. It can’t be damaged, and the dolphins and other rare marine life can’t be disturbed. So why the heck has a fleet of scallop dredgers been allowed to rip it to pieces?

Until this Sunday, when the season closed, 45 boats were raking the bay, including places within the SACs, with steel hooks and chain mats. The dredges destroy everything: all the sessile life of the seabed, the fish that take refuge in the sand; the spawn they lay there, reefs, boulder fields, marine archaeology – any feature that harbours life. In some cases they penetrate the seafloor to a depth of three feet. It is ploughed, levelled and reduced to desert. It will take at least 30 years for parts of the ecosystem to recover; but the structure of the seabed is destroyed forever. The noise of the dredges pounding and grinding over the stones could scarcely be better calculated to disturb the dolphins.

The boats are not resident here. They move around the coastline trashing one habitat after another. They will fish until there is nothing left to destroy then move to the next functioning ecosystem. If, in a few decades, the scallops here recover, they’ll return to tear this place up again.

The economic damage caused by these 45 boats is far greater than the money they make. They wreck all the other fisheries; not only because they destroy the habitats and kill the juvenile fish, but also because they rip out the crab and lobster pots they cross. We deplore slash and burn farming in the rainforests for its short-termism and disproportionate destruction. But this is just as bad.

Ever since the boats arrived, local people, led by the Friends of Cardigan Bay, have been campaigning to stop this pillage. After months of dithering, in March the Countryside Council for Wales advised the regional fisheries committee to stop the dredging. The committee’s chief executive refused on the grounds that its powers “are not terrifically explicit” and “the precautionary principle is a vague term, and we don’t really know how we define it.”(2) He postponed any decision until June 12th – which is a fortnight after the season ended. In 24 years of journalism I have not come across a starker example of bureaucratic cowardice.

What hold does the fishing industry have over our ministers and officials? Does it sink the bodies of their political opponents? Does it supply them with call girls and cocaine? The UK fishing sector has an annual turnover of £570m a year(3). This is less than half the size of the potato processing industry(4). Yet no one has the guts to defy it.

The story is the same all over the world. Next week, on June 8th, The End of the Line will be released in UK cinemas(5). It’s an excoriating, shocking film about the collapse of global fisheries, and the utter uselessness of the people who are supposed to protect them. It follows the journalist Charles Clover as he struggles to understand why no one is prepared to act. After several years of trying, he talks to the manager of Nobu restaurants, to ask why he is still selling meat from one of the most endangered species on earth, the bluefin tuna. The man refuses to take it off the menu, but says he’ll warn his customers that bluefin is “environmentally challenged”(6). But why is it left to restauranteurs to decide whether or not an endangered species should be allowed to survive?

As the film shows, the EU’s scientists recommend a bluefin catch one and a half times as big as it should be; the European Commission then doubles it and the fishermen then take twice as much as the Commission allows. The Mediterranean fleet now catches one third of that sea’s entire bluefin tuna population every year: at current catch rates, it will be extinct by 2012(7). There’s a total absence of enforcement, as even the most blatant illegal practices, like using spotter planes to find the shoals, are ignored by fisheries officials. Worse still, these pirate boats are subsidised by us. Aside from payments by national governments, fishing fleets in Europe are being given E3.8bn of EU money over seven years(8). There has been a total failure to make these payments conditional on fishing sustainably or even legally.

The EU now recognises that its fisheries management has been a disaster. Its green paper admits that 88% of European fish stocks are overexploited and 30% have collapsed(9). Its quota system encourages the dumping of millions of tonnes of dead fish at sea, while its efforts to reduce the fishing fleet’s capacity haven’t kept pace with technology. “In several Member States,” the paper reports, “the cost of fishing to the public budgets exceeds the total value of the catches.”(10) Last week, European fisheries ministers agreed a radical reform of the Common Fisheries policy by 2012, just in time for the extinction of the bluefin tuna.

Of course, as I have seen in Cardigan Bay, it doesn’t matter what they say they’ll do if no one is prepared to enforce it. Our marine ecosystems will continue to be ripped apart until governments stand up to the mysterious power of the fishermen.


  1. European Council, 21st May 1992. Directive 92/43/EEC on the conservation of natural habitats and of wild fauna and flora; Article 6.2.
  8. European Commission, 2006. The European Fisheries Fund 2007-2013.
  9. European Commission, 22nd April 2009. Green Paper: Reform of the Common Fisheries Policy. COM(2009)163 final.
  10. ibid.

Published in the Guardian, 2nd June 2009

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tikal temple

Humans do not only have a detrimental affect on their natural environments, they can also destroy their own civilisation in the process as this short New Scientist article describes:

THE builders of the ancient Mayan temples at Tikal in Guatemala switched to inferior wood a few decades before they suddenly abandoned the city in the 9th century AD. The shift is the strongest evidence yet that Mayan civilisation collapsed because they ran out of resources, rather than, say, disease or warfare.

Researchers led by David Lentz, a palaeoethnobotanist at the University of Cincinnati in Ohio, sampled wooden beams and lintels from all six major temples and two palaces within the ancient city of Tikal. The first three temples, built before AD 741, used only large, straight logs of the sapodilla tree – a particularly strong wood that is nevertheless easy to carve with ceremonial inscriptions.

But after that date, large sapodilla logs were almost entirely replaced in temple construction by logwood, a smaller, gnarly tree that is almost impossible to carve. “It’s definitely an inferior material,” says Lentz, who reasons that the temple-builders would only have accepted logwood if they had run out of suitable sapodilla trees to harvest (Journal of Archaeological Science, DOI: 10.1016/j.jas.2009.01.020).

Earlier studies of pollen deposits have suggested that deforestation and soil erosion were increasing in the region as Mayan civilisation neared its collapse. But the temple timbers of Tikal are the first to show that ecological overexploitation directly affected Mayan culture.

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Graywhale entangled in driftnet

Many people in Europe (and in other parts of the world) take their natural environments for granted in terms of believing that their forest, mountain, lake and river wildernesses have remained more or less untouched for hundreds if not thousands of years. That of course is an illusion. Human habitation has always changed the environment, and often very drastically. That goes for the American Indians and Australian Aborigines as much as for the Romans, Greeks and Celts. Animals were hunted to extinction or the brink thereof for food or rituals, and forested areas were denuded to build houses, ships or establish agricultural land. And, as an article in this week’s New Scientist reports, freshwater and marine life shared the same faith.

The article’s conclusion is that humans have been depleting fish stocks not just for decades but for many centuries. This finding is based on a new historical survey undertaken by marine scientists and presented at a conference being held this week in Canada.

“We are discovering that human pressure on marine life was much earlier, much larger and much more significant than previously thought,” says Poul Holm, an environmental historian at Trinity College Dublin in Ireland. “We now know that there was major commercial exploitation of fisheries, doing huge damage to fish populations, back in medieval times and even before. The idea that it is only modern fishing technology that has done damage turns out to be completely wrong.”

The Oceans Past II conference in Vancouver, Canada, is part of the decade-long Census of Marine Life, a global effort to understand the past, present and future of ocean life. The census is due to be completed next year.

To reconstruct the state of the oceans centuries and even millennia ago, researchers are combining population modelling techniques with historical records, such as ships’ logs, restaurant menus, paintings, diaries, legal documents and even tax returns. For example, in 1153 a Moroccan geographer called al-Idris wrote that the north Atlantic Ocean contained “animals of such great size that the inhabitants of islands use the bones and vertebrae in place of wood to build houses”.

Much of the work presented at the conference concludes that fish stocks were already depleted before the industrial exploitation of the 20th century made the situation even worse. “We used to think that if we could get fish stocks back up to the levels of the 1970s we would be well on the way to recovery,” says Holm. This now seems to be an optimistic idea.

James Barrett and Jen Harland of the University of Cambridge reported at the conference that freshwater fisheries in much of Europe were already in decline 1000 years ago, causing fishers to switch to marine fishing. By 1500, says Maria Lucia De Nicolo of the University of Bologna, Italy, coastal fish stocks were disappearing and deep-sea fishing began, with trawling starting in the mid-1600s. By the early 1800s, the once super abundant European herring fishery had collapsed.

Other studies show that whale numbers were also plummeting at this time. By the early 1800s, wind-powered whaling ships had virtually wiped out a population of nearly a million bowhead whales in the eastern Arctic Ocean. Meanwhile, in the 18th century there were an estimated 27,000 southern right whales off New Zealand, but by 1925, before the introduction of factory ships, they had been reduced to about 25 reproducing females, according to Emma Carroll of the University of Auckland.

What that means is not only that a few marine species have gone extinct, but entire marine ecosystems may have been depleted beyond recovery. That does not bode well for the future, especially since nowadays we’re not only confronted by overfishing but also other ecological problems such as the effects of aquaculture, the warming and acidification of oceans or marine pollution. And: we’re not exactly quick learners. Therefore: given that it has taken thousands of years for us to come to a point where our impacts on the natural ecology has become global and ubiquitous, it probably will take at least hundreds of years for the oceans to return to a new equilibrium – and they will be very different then.

[The New Scientist: Human fishing spree goes back 1000 years; Image: Bob Talbot, Marine Photobank]