Category Archives: Ecologic

The Challenges of Green Living: Finding Enough Food In Nature

My observational skills are lacking. Even after six years of life on a narrowboat, continuously cruising 2,000 miles of mostly rural waterways, I see things I’ve never noticed before. For the first time I have spotted wild crocuses. At least if I have seen them before and known them to be wild, I have forgotten. I always thought crocuses (croci if you insist) were exotic garden plants. I didn’t realise that they have wild counterparts in Britain.

On the towpath in Northamptonshire two or three peep purple here and there through fallen oak leaves in a wooded cutting near mile-long Braunston Tunnel. They seem delicate and fragile and I protect them from a team of strimmer-wielding workmen clearing the towpath. But perhaps these pretty flowers are nothing more than garden escapees after all?

After my protestations to the hard-hatted destroyers, I read in my 1970s’ cloth-bound flower guide that the natural habitat of wild crocus (Crocus neapolitanus) is mountain meadows, not shady towpaths. Wikipedia goes further and tells me my initial instincts were right. Crocuses hail from the Mediterranean and the Middle East. The ‘wild’ ones in the UK must be escapees. Oh well. They are a bright splash of colour and I welcome their presence.

This stretch of canal is also home to a budding yellow bloom. With leafless stems resembling little asparagus spears, the sunny pompoms, like small dandelion flowers, give colour to a boggy patch of towpath. Keen botanists among you may have deduced the plant to be coltsfoot (Tussilago farfara) as I learn from my pre-Internet era guidebook, A field guide in colour to wild flowers.

My desire to name the nature I see and hear around me seems to grow with age. Our forebears named plants as they found them, without national consensus, so that some flowers have several names. Coltsfoot (with hoof-shaped leaves, yet to appear) is also known as coughwort and foalswort.

The mention of flowers in literature gives some indication of their decline. In the 1930s, the canal enthusiast and author of Narrow Boat, LTC Rolt, records ‘a boatman’s wife, Mrs Hone’, telling him: ‘In the Spring up ‘leven mile pound you can smell the violets in the banks something lovely as you goes along.’ That eleven mile pound (a distance between locks) is not far from here. I wonder if it still smells of violets in the spring?

In the 19th century, Anne Brontë, in Agnes Grey, writes about wild pansies. Like wild crocus, I wondered if there really were such plants. It turns out the wild pansy, Viola tricolor, has a starring role in Shakespeare’s A midsummer night’s dream. “The juice of it on sleeping eyelids laid will make man or woman madly dote upon the next live creature that it sees.” I will look out for wild pansies more keenly now I know this magical association with the flower commonly known as Love-in-Idleness.

Such knowledge of names and literary connections seems but a mere indulgence. I would rather learn to appreciate the practical uses of ‘nature’; uses that we have mostly forgotten. Even our much-maligned Neanderthal ancestors knew which plants could be used as medicine. Recent studies of plant DNA found in the dental plaque on the teeth of a Neanderthal male who lived over 40,000 years ago show that he chewed poplar bark to help alleviate the pain of a dental abscess. Poplar bark contains salicylic acid, the active ingredient of aspirin.

If we made more use of plants we might care more for their habitats. We might not trash our waysides with litter if we thought of the plants growing there as our larders and medicine cabinets. (Dog poo bags hanging from branches does rather diminish the appeal of harvesting food or medicine from hedgerows it has to be said.)

Sometimes the common name gives us a clue to an ancient remedy, barely remembered. Coltsfoot is also known as coughwort. An extract from its leaves is still used as a flavour in medicinal coltsfoot rock made by a Yorkshire sweet company. Stockleys Sweets also suggests that the leaves can be smoked to alleviate asthma. As the plant has been found to contain high levels of liver-damaging alkaloids, you might want to moderate your consumption.

Before taking to life afloat, I imagined I would live well from my abundant natural larder and perhaps even heal myself with herbal infusions. I pictured hunting for rabbits with ferrets and gathering baskets of wild salad and berries. Autumn is the season of fruitfulness and fungi but now, springtime, is when waysides become rich again with greens and flowers.

In previous springs, I have picked and cooked St John’s mushrooms, made elderflower fritters and nibbled hawthorn leaves but that diet would barely provide the calories required to unwrap a chocolate bar. Forager extraordinaire Fergus Drennan has lived for weeks at a time solely on wild food and documented his diet in a column for this magazine. He aspires to spend a year living solely on wild food. This week he has been leaching the tannins out of 30kg acorns in a stream and tapping sap from 20 birch trees. I should meet him. As for my natural medicine cabinet, I now know a remedy for a tickly throat and it’s available from a sweet shop.

 

This Author

Paul Miles writes regularly for the Ecologist on the joys (and otherwise) of his low impact lifestyle choices

 

 

MSC Response to New Zealand Fisheries Article

Are hoki stocks really twice the size?

The Simmons research into New Zealand fisheries appears to cast doubt over the sustainability of New Zealand hoki, but there are some serious concerns about the conclusion drawn. Most notably, if catches really were 2.7 times higher, then the fish stocks are in considerably better condition than anyone realised.

Prof Matthew Dunn, chairman in fisheries science, Victoria University Wellington, explained:

“If this report stands up scientifically, then we would have to modify some of our assessments of the size of our fish resources. Because catch estimates scale our stock estimates, the irony of that the ‘2.7 times’ could mean there are more than twice as many of these fish in the sea as we think there is. This means sustainable catches, and catch quotas, could also be higher. If that was true I’d expect the industry to be saying “there’s loads more fish out there, let us land it”. Recently, the industry had the option of increasing the quota for hoki, but they actually declined. To me, this doesn’t suggest that our catch and stock estimates are that wrong.”

That’s not to say everything is perfect. Since 2012 there have been been four prosecutions relating to discarding. Senior officers and the company received fines valuing NZ$1.2 million and the vessels and fishing gear were seized – worth a further NZ$23.5 million. All the vessels involved have left New Zealand and ceased trading.

MSC certification is based on current practices, not those of the past, and the independent assessment team is required to review all current information and evidence. No management system is ever perfect, but anecdotes of misreporting more than half a century old can’t replace decades of hard data. Since they were first MSC certified in 2001, New Zealand hoki stocks have more than doubled as a result of careful stock management.

The MSC Standard requires that the entire catch, including discards and bycatch, is accounted for and considered when determining whether stocks are strong enough to support the fishing being carried out. The most recent audits included the recent prosecutions, examining the risk of discards on the basis of the Simmons paper and they concluded that – even with this risk taken into account – New Zealand’s hoki fisheries are still sustainable. Part of an elite group that can legitimately call themselves ‘the best in the world’.

There’s an irony to the story this story. MSC certified fisheries represent the top 10% of fisheries worldwide. While we argue about the sustainability of the top 10%, the remaining 90% face comparatively little scrutiny. With nearly a third of global fisheries overfished the lessons from New Zealand hoki could be a great benefit elsewhere in the world.

 

This Right of Reply is published in response to our recent report on New Zealand fisheries here: New Zealand Fisheries Fraud

 

 

 

 

Scientists: protect vast Amazon peatland to avoid palm oil ‘environmental disaster’

An area of recently discovered peatland in South America needs to protected from the region’s burgeoning palm oil sector if it is to avoid “environmental disaster”, according to a new study.

The peatland in Pastaza-Marañón Foreland Basin in northeast Peru – discovered in 2009 by Finnish scientist Outi Lähteenoja – is said to contain 3.14 gigatons of carbon, roughly equivalent to two years of CO2 emissions from the United States.

Scientists have said that economic development in the region, like road-building and the arrival of commercial agriculture threatens the important ecosystem.

Palm oil – the relentless advance

Palm oil is already expanding rapidly in Latin America. The industry’s sustainability watchdog, the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO), said in 2015 that 6% of the world’s palm oil comes from the region.

The researchers note that while commercial agriculture is yet to expand into the Pastaza-Marañón Foreland Basin peatlands, rice paddies and plantations have begun encroaching on wetlands in other parts of the country. At the same time, palm oil plantations have also been developed in the country.

Just south of the Pastaza-Marañón Foreland Basin in the Ucayali Region in east Peru, more than 9,400 hectares (ha) of forest has been cleared for oil palm plantation since 2011, according to the conservation group Monitoring of the Andean Amazon Project (MAAP).

The most immediate threat to the peatland comes from infrastructure projects, like road building, as Ian Lawson, a lecturer in geography and sustainable development St Andrews University and one of the authors of the research, explained.

“The development of commercial agriculture and transport infrastructure are conspiring to make remote areas in Peru more accessible to world markets”, he told Energydesk.

“There’s been lots of discussions about infrastructure projects. All these things could make it easier for commercial agriculture to come in. In the next 15 years, if those transport projects take off you could imagine that this area could experience significant deforestation.”

Tim Baker, an associate professor of geography, at Leeds University, who has spent years studying the Peruvian rainforest, agreed:

“One of the threats is the interest in connecting this region with the rest of Peru, through transport links. The government has long looked at plans to build road links from Iquitos to western Peru. Once you have any type of transport link, that will make deforesting and introducing other land uses more possible.”

Learning lessons from Indonesia

Peatlands are bogs made up of carbon-rich, decomposed plant material, or peat. When healthy, they act as carbon sinks, reducing carbon in the atmosphere through plant growth.

But agricultural development can cause peatlands to dry out, causing them to gradually release carbon into the atmosphere and become more susceptible to forest fires.

Palm oil can be especially destructive to peatland, with the plantations leading to the land being drained and falling into rapid decay.

In Indonesia, a country famous for its tropical peatlands, Harvard University researchers estimated that over 90,000 people suffered premature deaths in devastating forest fires in 2015 which were linked to the rapid expansion of palm oil and other intensive agriculture in the country.

To prevent future fires the Indonesian government recently introduced new restrictions on developing on peatland.

Currently, the vast majority of the world’s palm oil comes from Southeast Asia, specifically Malaysia and Indonesia. But as the industry continues to expand, companies have been looking to move into South America and Africa.

The recent discovery of a massive area of peatland, thought to be the size of England in the Congo Basin, added to conservation calls in Central Africa.

A huge conservation opportunity!

Now, all sides of the palm oil debate are making noises about learning the lessons from Southeast Asia, and cultivating the commodity in a more sustainable way. And Baker is keen to talk the opportunity in Peru, as well as the threats.

“The exciting thing about Peru is that we’ve got a little time. We can do something now. We can put in place land use designations and develop sustainable management practises that will buffer the region from these threats”, he said.

“Whereas in Southeast Asia huge areas of peatland forest have been lost, in Peru you can still protect a whole eco-system with these peatland characteristics. The threats are there: the transport links, the potential for commercial agriculture, but we have to see to this as an opportunity for conservation too.”

 


 

Joe Sandler-Clarke is a UK-based journalist specialising in investigative and public interest stories. His writing has been published in the Guardian, Independent, The Sunday Times, VICE and others, and he curently works at Greenpeace UK.

This article was originally published on Greenpeace Energydesk.

 

War, human rights and biodiversity: turning conflict into conservation

Biodiversity hotspots cover just 1.4 percent of the planet’s surface, yet 80% of major armed conflicts between 1950 and 2000 occurred in these areas.

This figure should be striking, but the connections between the environment and conflict continue to be overlooked.

With the recent release of a UN Report stressing the direct relationship between biodiversity and human rights, is it time for us to reassess our understanding of the links between armed conflict, human rights and conservation?

In 2010, Lord Robert May asked an unusual question for a world-renowned ecologist: “If some alien version of the Starship Enterprise visited Earth, what might be the visitors’ first question? I think it would be: How many distinct life forms – species – does your planet have?”

Lord May suggested that we would embarrass ourselves before our alien guests: we do not yet have the means to accurately measure the number of species populating our planet. What we could confidently tell them, however, is that each species is part of the vibrant ecosystems on which our human rights depend.

The direct connection between human rights and biodiversity is the subject of UN Special Rapporteur Professor John Knox’s latest report, which was recently delivered to the current session of the UN Human Rights Council, which concludes today.

Knox has used his time as Special Rapporteur to drive home the connection between a healthy environment and the attainment of human rights standards, and his latest report focusses specifically on biodiversity’s role in creating and sustaining that environment.

It’s hard to find a more direct challenge to human rights than the immediate violence and displacement that comes from armed conflict. However, Knox’s report should also help draw attention to the more indirect relationship between conflict, biodiversity and human rights.

Over 90% of major armed conflicts between 1950-2000 occurred within countries containing biodiversity hotspots, and more than 80% of these took place within hotspot areas.

Thor Hanson, Guggenheim Fellow and independent conservation biologist, suggests that these statistics underscore “the urgency of understanding the effects of warfare in the context of biodiversity conservation” – and he’s right.

Biodiversity and human rights

The full enjoyment of human rights afforded by a healthy environment is entirely dependent on the services provided by our local, regional and global ecosystems. These ecosystem services, defined by the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment as “the benefits people obtain from ecosystems”, can be broken down into four categories:

  1. Provisioning services, such as food, water, timber and fibre.

  2. Regulating services which affect climate, floods, disease, and water quality.

  3. Cultural services associated with the recreational, aesthetic and spiritual benefits of nature.

  4. Supporting services such as soil formation, photosynthesis and nutrient cycling on which all other services ultimately depend.

In turn, the health of these ecosystems depends on the richness of their biodiversity. A diverse biosphere is essential to secure the productivity and stability of almost all services, from food and water down to soil formation. The more diverse a biological population, the more disaster-resilient an ecosystem becomes.

Greater biodiversity also enables an ecosystem to survive and weather longer-term threats such as climate change.

It is easy to see these services reflected in the understanding of the entitlements provided by our fundamental human rights:

  • the right to life and to health is secured mentally and physically by a diverse range of natural medicinal products;

  • the right to shelter is only guaranteed by a sustainable source of timber derived from multiple tree species;

  • the right to food is perhaps the most evident connection: genetic diversity increases crop yields; and

  • species richness is associated with more productive fisheries, both of which are essential for a hungry and growing population.

Drivers of ecosystem degradation: the hidden role of armed conflict

Knox’s report identifies several direct drivers of biodiversity loss, including the overexploitation of flora and fauna, pollution, invasive alien species and, of course, climate change. However, the direct contribution of armed conflict to all these drivers cannot be ignored.

Armed conflict is more than just violence. It also entails societal transformation that changes the way that local and regional communities interact with their environment. This in turn cannot help but have a profound effect on biodiversity.

One clear example of the negative impact of warfare on biodiversity is the mass exodus of more than 2 million Rwandan refugees following the 1994 genocide into Zaire (now the Democratic Republic of Congo(DRC)), Uganda and Tanzania. High demand for firewood among desperately displaced populations with few other resources deforested more than 300km2 in the DRC’s Virunga National Park.

Today, the Virunga National Park is an infamous hotbed for the overexploitation of flora and fauna, including poaching, and a booming charcoal industry. Decades of mineral-funded civil war in the DRC have burdened the resource-rich country, and both the population and the land bear the scars. Studies have also shown that the presence of soldiers and rebels also contributes to deforestation and the bushmeat trade.

Connections between human rights, the environment and armed conflict are of course easier to make in some situations than others. The Niger Delta is classified as one of the top ten most polluted environments in the world, yet it still counts as a biodiversity hotspot because it is populated by a unique range of flora and fauna, hosting up to 60-80% of all the species found in Nigeria.

The Delta’s mangrove forest is the largest in Africa, and the third largest in the world, providing food, medicines, and wood for fuel and shelter to the populations residing there. It’s also on the ‘tentative list’ to become a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Yet conflict and insecurity in the Delta continues to impact its biodiversity and the human rights of its population.

As early as 2001, the African Commission (AC) recognised the threat that oil and large-scale water pollution posed to the enjoyment of the human rights of populations in the Niger Delta. The AC found that the Nigerian government had “fallen short of the minimum conduct expected of governments” by failing to protect the ethnic Ogoni people in the region from the gross environmental degradation caused by oil-extraction.

The belief that the Nigerian government has consistently fallen short of its responsibilities has been shared by armed groups in the Niger Delta for decades. Confrontations between violent movements with environmental grievances resulted in what Michael Watts called a constant cycle of petro-violence.

It is a cycle that cripples the economy of the Nigerian state, and releases huge volumes of oil into a fragile ecosystem through oil-bunkering – a technique used by non-state actors to steal oil to fund rebel activities.

Recognising this pattern, the Nigerian government partnered with the UN Environment Programme in 2016 to launch what was hailed as the largest terrestrial clean-up ever seen. But it could still take more than 25 years before ecosystems are re-established in the Delta.

The long term threat: brain-drain and institutional collapse

But conflict’s greatest threat to biodiversity may be a more indirect one: institutional collapse. This runs counter to the common assumption that the more immediate tactical consequences of conflict are the most serious threat to the environment.

In research published last year, scholars from UC Berkeley reviewed the ecological, social, and economic pathways that lead to both negative and positive environmental outcomes in conflict.

Their study identifies both the direct and indirect ways in which conflict affects the environment, and concludes by suggesting that one of the greatest indirect threats is the brain-drain of talented individuals, including conservationists themselves, from militarised environments.

This is not to say that all conflict is bad for biodiversity. The Demilitarised Zone (DMZ) between North and South Korea is effectively an untouched incubator for biodiversity, on a peninsula which has experienced almost 100 years of continual conflict.

One might add that this is precisely because the Korean institutions on each side keep humans at bay – though their motivation is not strictly conservational. Nevertheless, projects that do have an explicit environmental motivation have successfully transformed conflict into conservation.

The Sierra del Condor, a mountain range between Peru and Ecuador, is an example of turning a decade long territorial dispute into a peace park, a project partly motivated by bolstering conservation efforts.

Similarly, while altered patterns of human activity associated with displacement from conflicts may have localised benefits – allowing a recovery period for depleted resources – this can come at a high cost for the biodiversity in the areas that populations are displaced to. For example, providing temporary shelter for the displaced can quickly lead to the overuse of local resources.

Cases like the DMZ are the exception rather than the norm, and it’s clear that the positive effects of armed conflict for biodiversity shouldn’t be overstated. UC Berkeley’s study suggested that in 94% of their case studies, at least one pathway in conflict led to negative outcomes for wildlife, whereas only 33% percent showed a positive pathway.

The way forward?

Given the findings of Knox’s report, it’s clear that the importance of biodiversity must be incorporated into the way we discuss and think about human rights. But in so doing, it’s clear that we also have an opportunity to enrich our understanding of the relationship between armed conflict, human rights and the environment.

With more than 90% of major armed conflicts between 1950 and 2000 occurring within countries containing biodiversity hotspots, the way forward should be clear: strengthening environmental protection before, during and after conflict must be a primary goal for both NGOs and governments that support conservation and the protection of human rights.

With the sixth mass extinction already underway, the alliance between conservationists and conflict specialists must begin now.

 


 

The report:Report of the Special Rapporteur on the issue of human rights obligations relating to the enjoyment of a safe,  clean, healthy and sustainable environment‘ was published at the UN Human Rights Council’s 34th session, 27 February – 24 March 2017. Also available in other languages.

Alex Reid is currently pursuing a master’s in Conflict, Security and Development at King’s College London, with a specialism in environmental issues. She can be found tweeting about the environment and armed conflict at @alexHREID

 

Scientists: protect vast Amazon peatland to avoid palm oil ‘environmental disaster’

An area of recently discovered peatland in South America needs to protected from the region’s burgeoning palm oil sector if it is to avoid “environmental disaster”, according to a new study.

The peatland in Pastaza-Marañón Foreland Basin in northeast Peru – discovered in 2009 by Finnish scientist Outi Lähteenoja – is said to contain 3.14 gigatons of carbon, roughly equivalent to two years of CO2 emissions from the United States.

Scientists have said that economic development in the region, like road-building and the arrival of commercial agriculture threatens the important ecosystem.

Palm oil – the relentless advance

Palm oil is already expanding rapidly in Latin America. The industry’s sustainability watchdog, the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO), said in 2015 that 6% of the world’s palm oil comes from the region.

The researchers note that while commercial agriculture is yet to expand into the Pastaza-Marañón Foreland Basin peatlands, rice paddies and plantations have begun encroaching on wetlands in other parts of the country. At the same time, palm oil plantations have also been developed in the country.

Just south of the Pastaza-Marañón Foreland Basin in the Ucayali Region in east Peru, more than 9,400 hectares (ha) of forest has been cleared for oil palm plantation since 2011, according to the conservation group Monitoring of the Andean Amazon Project (MAAP).

The most immediate threat to the peatland comes from infrastructure projects, like road building, as Ian Lawson, a lecturer in geography and sustainable development St Andrews University and one of the authors of the research, explained.

“The development of commercial agriculture and transport infrastructure are conspiring to make remote areas in Peru more accessible to world markets”, he told Energydesk.

“There’s been lots of discussions about infrastructure projects. All these things could make it easier for commercial agriculture to come in. In the next 15 years, if those transport projects take off you could imagine that this area could experience significant deforestation.”

Tim Baker, an associate professor of geography, at Leeds University, who has spent years studying the Peruvian rainforest, agreed:

“One of the threats is the interest in connecting this region with the rest of Peru, through transport links. The government has long looked at plans to build road links from Iquitos to western Peru. Once you have any type of transport link, that will make deforesting and introducing other land uses more possible.”

Learning lessons from Indonesia

Peatlands are bogs made up of carbon-rich, decomposed plant material, or peat. When healthy, they act as carbon sinks, reducing carbon in the atmosphere through plant growth.

But agricultural development can cause peatlands to dry out, causing them to gradually release carbon into the atmosphere and become more susceptible to forest fires.

Palm oil can be especially destructive to peatland, with the plantations leading to the land being drained and falling into rapid decay.

In Indonesia, a country famous for its tropical peatlands, Harvard University researchers estimated that over 90,000 people suffered premature deaths in devastating forest fires in 2015 which were linked to the rapid expansion of palm oil and other intensive agriculture in the country.

To prevent future fires the Indonesian government recently introduced new restrictions on developing on peatland.

Currently, the vast majority of the world’s palm oil comes from Southeast Asia, specifically Malaysia and Indonesia. But as the industry continues to expand, companies have been looking to move into South America and Africa.

The recent discovery of a massive area of peatland, thought to be the size of England in the Congo Basin, added to conservation calls in Central Africa.

A huge conservation opportunity!

Now, all sides of the palm oil debate are making noises about learning the lessons from Southeast Asia, and cultivating the commodity in a more sustainable way. And Baker is keen to talk the opportunity in Peru, as well as the threats.

“The exciting thing about Peru is that we’ve got a little time. We can do something now. We can put in place land use designations and develop sustainable management practises that will buffer the region from these threats”, he said.

“Whereas in Southeast Asia huge areas of peatland forest have been lost, in Peru you can still protect a whole eco-system with these peatland characteristics. The threats are there: the transport links, the potential for commercial agriculture, but we have to see to this as an opportunity for conservation too.”

 


 

Joe Sandler-Clarke is a UK-based journalist specialising in investigative and public interest stories. His writing has been published in the Guardian, Independent, The Sunday Times, VICE and others, and he curently works at Greenpeace UK.

This article was originally published on Greenpeace Energydesk.

 

Scientists: protect vast Amazon peatland to avoid palm oil ‘environmental disaster’

An area of recently discovered peatland in South America needs to protected from the region’s burgeoning palm oil sector if it is to avoid “environmental disaster”, according to a new study.

The peatland in Pastaza-Marañón Foreland Basin in northeast Peru – discovered in 2009 by Finnish scientist Outi Lähteenoja – is said to contain 3.14 gigatons of carbon, roughly equivalent to two years of CO2 emissions from the United States.

Scientists have said that economic development in the region, like road-building and the arrival of commercial agriculture threatens the important ecosystem.

Palm oil – the relentless advance

Palm oil is already expanding rapidly in Latin America. The industry’s sustainability watchdog, the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO), said in 2015 that 6% of the world’s palm oil comes from the region.

The researchers note that while commercial agriculture is yet to expand into the Pastaza-Marañón Foreland Basin peatlands, rice paddies and plantations have begun encroaching on wetlands in other parts of the country. At the same time, palm oil plantations have also been developed in the country.

Just south of the Pastaza-Marañón Foreland Basin in the Ucayali Region in east Peru, more than 9,400 hectares (ha) of forest has been cleared for oil palm plantation since 2011, according to the conservation group Monitoring of the Andean Amazon Project (MAAP).

The most immediate threat to the peatland comes from infrastructure projects, like road building, as Ian Lawson, a lecturer in geography and sustainable development St Andrews University and one of the authors of the research, explained.

“The development of commercial agriculture and transport infrastructure are conspiring to make remote areas in Peru more accessible to world markets”, he told Energydesk.

“There’s been lots of discussions about infrastructure projects. All these things could make it easier for commercial agriculture to come in. In the next 15 years, if those transport projects take off you could imagine that this area could experience significant deforestation.”

Tim Baker, an associate professor of geography, at Leeds University, who has spent years studying the Peruvian rainforest, agreed:

“One of the threats is the interest in connecting this region with the rest of Peru, through transport links. The government has long looked at plans to build road links from Iquitos to western Peru. Once you have any type of transport link, that will make deforesting and introducing other land uses more possible.”

Learning lessons from Indonesia

Peatlands are bogs made up of carbon-rich, decomposed plant material, or peat. When healthy, they act as carbon sinks, reducing carbon in the atmosphere through plant growth.

But agricultural development can cause peatlands to dry out, causing them to gradually release carbon into the atmosphere and become more susceptible to forest fires.

Palm oil can be especially destructive to peatland, with the plantations leading to the land being drained and falling into rapid decay.

In Indonesia, a country famous for its tropical peatlands, Harvard University researchers estimated that over 90,000 people suffered premature deaths in devastating forest fires in 2015 which were linked to the rapid expansion of palm oil and other intensive agriculture in the country.

To prevent future fires the Indonesian government recently introduced new restrictions on developing on peatland.

Currently, the vast majority of the world’s palm oil comes from Southeast Asia, specifically Malaysia and Indonesia. But as the industry continues to expand, companies have been looking to move into South America and Africa.

The recent discovery of a massive area of peatland, thought to be the size of England in the Congo Basin, added to conservation calls in Central Africa.

A huge conservation opportunity!

Now, all sides of the palm oil debate are making noises about learning the lessons from Southeast Asia, and cultivating the commodity in a more sustainable way. And Baker is keen to talk the opportunity in Peru, as well as the threats.

“The exciting thing about Peru is that we’ve got a little time. We can do something now. We can put in place land use designations and develop sustainable management practises that will buffer the region from these threats”, he said.

“Whereas in Southeast Asia huge areas of peatland forest have been lost, in Peru you can still protect a whole eco-system with these peatland characteristics. The threats are there: the transport links, the potential for commercial agriculture, but we have to see to this as an opportunity for conservation too.”

 


 

Joe Sandler-Clarke is a UK-based journalist specialising in investigative and public interest stories. His writing has been published in the Guardian, Independent, The Sunday Times, VICE and others, and he curently works at Greenpeace UK.

This article was originally published on Greenpeace Energydesk.

 

Scientists: protect vast Amazon peatland to avoid palm oil ‘environmental disaster’

An area of recently discovered peatland in South America needs to protected from the region’s burgeoning palm oil sector if it is to avoid “environmental disaster”, according to a new study.

The peatland in Pastaza-Marañón Foreland Basin in northeast Peru – discovered in 2009 by Finnish scientist Outi Lähteenoja – is said to contain 3.14 gigatons of carbon, roughly equivalent to two years of CO2 emissions from the United States.

Scientists have said that economic development in the region, like road-building and the arrival of commercial agriculture threatens the important ecosystem.

Palm oil – the relentless advance

Palm oil is already expanding rapidly in Latin America. The industry’s sustainability watchdog, the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO), said in 2015 that 6% of the world’s palm oil comes from the region.

The researchers note that while commercial agriculture is yet to expand into the Pastaza-Marañón Foreland Basin peatlands, rice paddies and plantations have begun encroaching on wetlands in other parts of the country. At the same time, palm oil plantations have also been developed in the country.

Just south of the Pastaza-Marañón Foreland Basin in the Ucayali Region in east Peru, more than 9,400 hectares (ha) of forest has been cleared for oil palm plantation since 2011, according to the conservation group Monitoring of the Andean Amazon Project (MAAP).

The most immediate threat to the peatland comes from infrastructure projects, like road building, as Ian Lawson, a lecturer in geography and sustainable development St Andrews University and one of the authors of the research, explained.

“The development of commercial agriculture and transport infrastructure are conspiring to make remote areas in Peru more accessible to world markets”, he told Energydesk.

“There’s been lots of discussions about infrastructure projects. All these things could make it easier for commercial agriculture to come in. In the next 15 years, if those transport projects take off you could imagine that this area could experience significant deforestation.”

Tim Baker, an associate professor of geography, at Leeds University, who has spent years studying the Peruvian rainforest, agreed:

“One of the threats is the interest in connecting this region with the rest of Peru, through transport links. The government has long looked at plans to build road links from Iquitos to western Peru. Once you have any type of transport link, that will make deforesting and introducing other land uses more possible.”

Learning lessons from Indonesia

Peatlands are bogs made up of carbon-rich, decomposed plant material, or peat. When healthy, they act as carbon sinks, reducing carbon in the atmosphere through plant growth.

But agricultural development can cause peatlands to dry out, causing them to gradually release carbon into the atmosphere and become more susceptible to forest fires.

Palm oil can be especially destructive to peatland, with the plantations leading to the land being drained and falling into rapid decay.

In Indonesia, a country famous for its tropical peatlands, Harvard University researchers estimated that over 90,000 people suffered premature deaths in devastating forest fires in 2015 which were linked to the rapid expansion of palm oil and other intensive agriculture in the country.

To prevent future fires the Indonesian government recently introduced new restrictions on developing on peatland.

Currently, the vast majority of the world’s palm oil comes from Southeast Asia, specifically Malaysia and Indonesia. But as the industry continues to expand, companies have been looking to move into South America and Africa.

The recent discovery of a massive area of peatland, thought to be the size of England in the Congo Basin, added to conservation calls in Central Africa.

A huge conservation opportunity!

Now, all sides of the palm oil debate are making noises about learning the lessons from Southeast Asia, and cultivating the commodity in a more sustainable way. And Baker is keen to talk the opportunity in Peru, as well as the threats.

“The exciting thing about Peru is that we’ve got a little time. We can do something now. We can put in place land use designations and develop sustainable management practises that will buffer the region from these threats”, he said.

“Whereas in Southeast Asia huge areas of peatland forest have been lost, in Peru you can still protect a whole eco-system with these peatland characteristics. The threats are there: the transport links, the potential for commercial agriculture, but we have to see to this as an opportunity for conservation too.”

 


 

Joe Sandler-Clarke is a UK-based journalist specialising in investigative and public interest stories. His writing has been published in the Guardian, Independent, The Sunday Times, VICE and others, and he curently works at Greenpeace UK.

This article was originally published on Greenpeace Energydesk.

 

WITNESS: Investigating ocean acidification (Part 2)

The continental shelf rolls out for some hundreds of kilometres west of Ireland’s Galway coast, before the Rockall Trough. Here the seafloor falls sharply off the shelf down to abyssal depths of over 3000 metres. Continentals shelves like this are host to a range of marine ecosystems, including cold water corals; a much less discussed variety compared to their warm water cousins.

 According to Dr Tríona McGrath, a marine scientist at the National University of Ireland Galway, and funded by Ireland’s Marine Institute : “The Rockall Trough hosts an array of cold water coral ecosystems, interacting with a range of water masses along the Irish continental margin, Rockall Bank and Porcupine Bank. These deep water reef structures support a rich biodiversity and are particularly vulnerable in a more acidic ocean.”

The cold water corals of the North Atlantic are vital for fisheries and act as sources of biodiversity. To look at how increasing carbon dioxide will affect these ecosystems and the fisheries they support, oceanographers are now measuring the carbonate system in the surrounding water, with a particular focus on ocean acidification. That was the aim of a team from Ireland’s Marine Institute as they boarded the Celtic Explorer research vessel in February of this year.

Dr Evin McGovern, also from the Marine Institute, points out that “not many people are aware of the Irish coral reef biodiversity hotspots which we are only beginning to fully map and understand.

“These deep sea corals, primarily Lophelia pertusa, occur on the shelf and seamount slopes and canyons, usually between 200m and 1000m depth, and differ from tropical coral reefs in that, living in the dark they do not have photosynthetic algal symbionts.”

 And coral is only part of the looming problem relating to increasing ocean acidification. In the future, it is projected that more acidic oceans will adversely impact on entire food chains related to the ocean. Ocean acidification projections for the end of the century do not look good.

 “There has already been an increase in ocean acidity of 26% since the start of the industrial revolution, which is directly due to humans emitting carbon dioxide to the atmosphere,” explains Dr McGrath. “If we continue to burn fossil fuels at our current rate, it is projected there will be an increase in ocean acidity of 170% by the end of the century.

“This rate of acidification is 10 times faster than any acidification event in the oceans for over 55 million years, and quite likely for over 250 million years.”

It is the rate at which this change is taking place where the real concern lies. Will our marine life and ecosystems be able to adapt to such a fast rate of change in the surrounding seawater?

All this depends on how we collaborate on an international level through divestment from fossil fuels. But such seemingly obvious steps are often met with challenges which can be the cause of frustration for many scientists.

According to Dr McGovern, “the role of the science community is to provide the factual evidence, including projections for future changes based on our best understanding, and also to advise on the uncertainties associated with these.”

However, in this new era there is an alarming (and well documented) amount of rejection of the relationship between human introduced atmospheric carbon dioxide and global warming amongst some world leaders.

McGovern says: “our research in Ireland contributes to a global effort in this field. Maybe those politicians who deny climate change should join a mid-winter research survey in the north Atlantic to see how hard won this high quality data is before they dismiss it on a whim.

This Author

Conor Purcell is a Science & Nature Writer with a PhD in oceanography. He can be found on twitter @ConorPPurcell and some of his other articles at cppurcell.tumblr.com

 

 

 

The ARTS Interview: Soundscape Artist, Matthew Shaw

Matthew Shaw is affable, artistic and environmentally friendly so when he confesses to having just returned from shooting nightingales in Basra I’m shocked. That is until the sound sculptor explains that he was actually after footage of the bird and its iconic song and that his ‘Basra’ was, in fact, a recreation of the notorious Iraqi city at a now-abandoned military base in Kent. Suddenly, I feel on much safer ground. 

Shaw visited the site as part of a People Need Nature delegation of naturalists, ecologists, writers, poets, visual artists and musicians granted rare access to Lodge Hill in Medway to document how nature is quietly repossessing 815 acres that were once home to MOD barracks. His atmospheric sound and video recordings have evolved into Lodge Hill, a film and soundscape that poignantly celebrate how the blackthorn and bramble scrub is slowing elbowing aside the concrete in a precious and much-needed habitat for the owner of one of the world’s most loved birdsongs.  

At this point, I should make a confession. I first heard Shaw’s soundscapes a year ago and immediately became a fan. In fact, I have barely listened to anything else since. His multi-levelled music is immersive and captures the ‘genius loci’ or spirit of place with awe-inspiring sensitivity. Shaw explains: “I think of my music as primitive photography. It is a way of recording a sense of place that can never be repeated. I try to explore the atmosphere that is intrinsically present at each site I visit.”

I am lucky enough to witness the artist in action as I join Shaw on a walk at one of his favourite spots near his Dorset home and on a glorious spring day at Hengistbury Head, a dominant and important prehistoric site where he carefully sets up a digital recorder and explains: “This exact scene will never be heard again. Where I position the recorder will catch the sound of the breeze, waves lapping the shore or fishermen unloading the catch from their boats and, if it were recorded again, it would inevitably be slightly different. In that way, it is naturally nostalgic, creating its own sonic footprint, constantly changing, evolving.”

Shaw’s modus operandi draws on his hard-earned experience as a musician. His first taste of the business was as a teenager in Cheshire when he was the drummer in a punk band. Eventually, he moved on to performing as Tex La Homa, a successful post-rock project formed in 2000.

Shaw wrote, played and produced four critically-acclaimed albums and toured most of Europe, Japan and the US during the next 10 years. But now his passion is ambient music.

On our walk, he records the pure sound of one environment, then a few hundred yards away, he uses a micro keyboard to introduce delicate washes of sound infused with background atmosphere, placing the emphasis on notes and harmonies that interest him. Back in his studio, he may layer a bird’s song or melody with guitar or keyboard loops to sculpt the finished article.

He is also a painter and his textural canvases are equally atmospheric. He says, “Like with a sketch, you don’t have to complete every form to see what it is. If you only draw two lines of a triangle your eye still sees it as a triangular shape. I try to do the same thing with my music. It’s about getting the right balance of spontaneity with the overall intention for the music and then realising when it’s done.”

Producing and publishing his own downloads and delicately-crafted CDs gives him a good indication of when he has got the measure right: “Some completed pieces have had layers of work in them, while others, for example Venus Rosalia are sketches. I found that this track was particularly popular, which may be down to its spontaneity.”

When Shaw performs his soundscapes in public, it only serves to enhance the work. “I enjoy playing live as it adds a creative tension,” he says. “Subliminal decisions are made on stage about how long to leave a theme repeating or to layer more tones on top.”

Choice of location is crucial to the equation. Shaw needs to feel an affinity with the place and often finds himself drawn to stone circles, natural springs and ancient religious sites. “In many spiritual traditions there is a sense of the sacred attached to a place, the home of a higher force. Exploring this has fueled my thinking.” He continues, “It’s about me being in the right place mentally to pick the right spot to absorb the sounds. I’ve often gone to a place specifically to record but somehow it doesn’t work. It can’t really be rushed. If I don’t slow down and tune in, it just doesn’t work.”

He is so absorbed by his work that it is only after a full two hours of strenuous walking that we sit down to catch our breath. “After walking for a while, it feels good to rest.” Shaw admits, “In this state, a natural meditation takes over and you are able to really focus on what is around you.” I nod agreement, although my focus appears to be mainly on the blister developing on my right heel.

The Dorset headland with its fascinating archeological features, pounding waves and outrageously expensive beach huts (one recently sold for £400,000) provide an endless source of inspiration on Shaw’s doorstep but the Mad-Max fantastical staging at the Medway military base presented him with a truly unique and unmissable opportunity. He explains, “The abandoned houses were a mix of replica streets from Ireland and re-purposed old-fashioned council houses now dressed to represent Basra for street-fight training. It felt like being on a silently sinister film set after all the crew and actors had long departed.” 

The chance to hear the nightingale’s incredible tune was clearly tempting but accepting the invitation was not without its dangers. The site is still littered with explosives and Shaw vividly remembers the security briefing designed to discourage his group from venturing off the beaten track. The pep talk included a rundown of various devices that they might encounter should they be foolish or unlucky enough to stray off the official paths. It concluded with the comment: “And this is a tank mine. Don’t bother trying to identify these. If you step on one, there’ll be nothing left of you to worry about it.” 

Fortunately, Shaw was undaunted, accepted the challenge and found at the Lodge Hill site a schizophrenic treasure trove where open spaces and ancient woodlands were interspliced with disused buildings, crude razor wire, and danger signs but within it all, the subtle signs of nature reasserting its dominance are visible with grasses and trees fighting through chemical spills and discarded ammunition to bloom each spring, cheered on by a heartening soundtrack of birdsong.

It’s not clear how long this state of play will be allowed to continue. There are plans for 5,000 houses to be built on the land, which would not only destroy the nightingale habitat but radically change the nature of the area which is a Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI). Whether the next incarnation of this former military camp ends up being as a museum, a managed nature reserve, a park or a middle-class estate to meet the local authority’s housing targets, at least the elusive and mesmerising spirit of place has been now lovingly captured for posterity in Shaw’s work, without, thankfully, disturbing a landline in the process.

Mathhew Shaw’s Lodge Hill film and soundscape: Lodge Hill

Matthew Shaw: http://www.texlahoma.com/

People Need Nature: https://peopleneednature.org.uk/

 

This Author

Gary Cook is a conservation artist and the Ecologist’s Arts Editor. For more on his work or to contact him see below.

Latest coverage: zoomorphic.net

Online: cookthepainter.com

Twitter: twitter.com/cookthepainter

Instagram: instagram.com/cookthepainter

Society of Graphic Fine Art: sgfa.org.uk/members/gary-cook/

Blog: cookthepainter.com/blog

The Ecologist: tinyurl.com/zpkefjc

 

 

We need more organic farming!

A new review of the evidence around organic farming has been published by researchers at the University of British Columbia in the prestigious Science Advances journal.

The study reviewed existing scientific evidence to assess the performance of organic farming against a wide range of indicators – from crop yields to farmer livelihoods.

The review reiterates many of the benefits of organic farming, while also highlighting key areas where more research is required.

Despite some gaps in the evidence, it is abundantly clear from this new analysis – and from the authors’ own conclusions – that organic agriculture has a crucial role to play in building a fair and environmentally sustainable food system.

The authors note that organic farming delivers considerable benefits for biodiversity, with an average of 40-50% more wildlife on organic farmland compared to non-organic.

The study also highlights the benefits of organic farming for soil health, including reduced soil erosion and increased water retention, which in turn improves resilience to flooding and droughts.

Multiple benefits for the environment, farmers and consumers

In addition, the existing evidence shows that organic farms generally consume less energy and emit fewer greenhouse gases than non-organic farms. The authors also point out that organic farms rely on natural processes for crop fertilisation (such as nitrogen-fixing plants).

That’s unlike much non-organic agriculture which depends heavily on fossil-fuel based fertilisers – namely manufactured nitrogen and mined phosphate. Similarly, organic farms use fewer and less-toxic pesticides – a benefit for the environment, farm workers and consumers.

The research also points to evidence that organic systems provide more benefits to farmers and farm workers. For example, research has found that organic farms are more profitable and more resilient that non-organic farms.

In addition, farmers tend to have greater access to cooperatives and farmer networks, and to credit and health programmes. Organic farm workers are also less likely to be exposed to hazardous pesticides. Indeed, reduced health risk is one of the primary reasons given for adopting organic practices in developing countries.

From the public’s point of view, again, the study highlights benefits of organic. The authors cite recent research which found high levels of beneficial nutrients in organic food, as well as to the absence of pesticides found in organic.

On this latter point, the study notes that avoidance of pesticides could provide a significant health benefit, especially for people in countries with lax pesticide legislation or with high levels of pesticides in non-organic food.

The researchers note the difference in price between organic and non-organic food. However, the authors go on to note that this price difference can vary hugely – in the United States, it can be as little as 7%. Importantly, the authors point out that the difference in price could decrease considerably if organic production increased, since distribution and processing costs would be lower.

More research required

Despite the wealth of strong evidence, there remain a number of gaps in our knowledge around the impacts of organic farming, and the authors of this review rightly focus on these gaps.

They highlight, for example, the fact that most of the existing research has been carried out in North America and Europe, and that there is scant evidence from low-income or developing countries. Given that some three quarters of organic producers are in developing countries, this is clearly an area which urgently needs to be better understood.

Due to these knowledge gaps, there is some speculation on certain aspects of organic compared to non-organic agriculture. For example, while acknowledging higher levels of wildlife on organic farms, the study’s authors suggest that these benefits could diminish as a result of lower yields, since more land would be required to grow the same amount of food.

However, existing evidence does not support this concern, with organic farms having an average of 50% more wildlife compared to a 20% lower yield. In any case, the authors also go on to note that the yield gap could be closed if more investment was put into developing organic-specific crop species. Around 95% of crops used in organic farming have been bred for intensive, high-input farming systems.

The review also questions whether enough nutrients and plant fertilisation would be available through natural processes alone if all agriculture transitioned to organic. Existing research on this question is not clear but there is a broader, more important point to make about the way we currently use farmland.

Over 25% of the world’s land is used to graze livestock, and almost 35% of cropland is used to grow animal feed – this is a disproportionate amount of land compared to the amount of nutrition livestock provides us. We must halt rainforest and other habitat destruction, eat more seasonally and more locally, and reduce agriculture’s environmental footprint overall.

Organic is not a panacea – but it is a key part of the solution

The authors state in their conclusion that organic agriculture cannot be a ‘Holy Grail’ for food security in part because it is simply a method of production.

This is, of course, correct. Many of the worst deficiencies in the global food system come down to other factors – from scandalous levels of food waste and diets rich in meat and dairy products, to lack of access and affordability in developing countries.

As the authors note, making these changes could have a great impact overall. However, it is wrong to assume that organic farming does not have a vitally important role to play in the future of our food system. This review found that organic agriculture performed better or at least as well as non-organic farming on every factor, except yield.

However, the authors (in common with most commentators) use an extremely narrow definition of ‘productivity’ – yield of crop per hectare of farmland. This is simply a measure of output, not productivity.

No other industry ignores all the key variable inputs needed to achieve output apart from the space occupied by the production process, as is typically the case with farming. Farming output is achieved by using land, but also requires other inputs such as labour, fuel, fertilisers (mined, manufactured or from other crops and livestock), irrigation and pesticides. All these inputs must be assessed to measure productivity.

When all these other inputs are taken into account, the productivity of organic farming is likely to be significantly better than non-organic systems. This is vital, because resources other than land may be more limiting, with the impact of soil degradation, lack of water availability, and the need to make massive cuts in greenhouse gas emissions, all likely to reduce output.

Influencing wider agricultural practice

The authors wait for the final paragraph to unequivocally set out their view – and it’s a positive one. “From a broad policy perspective, we conclude that organic agriculture offers many benefits and could be an important part of a suite of strategies to improve the sustainability and equity of our food system.”

The then raise another critical point, that non-organic farmers are increasingly adopting organic practices: “the influence of organic agriculture extends beyond the ~1% of agricultural land it covers at present. Many conventional farms have, in recent years, increased the use of organic practices such as conservation tillage, cover cropping, or composts.”

Bridging the ‘organic – conventional’ divide and sharing knowledge is vitally important if we are successfully to rise to the challenge of feeding a growing population sustainably, healthily and fairly. We could not agree more with their conclusion:

“A further expansion of organic agriculture and integrating successful organic management practices into conventional farming are important next steps.”

 


 

The paper:Many shades of gray – The context-dependent performance of organic agriculture‘ is by Verena Seufert & Navin Ramankutty and published in Science Advances.

Peter Melchett has been Policy Director of the Soil Association, the UK’s main organic food and farming organisation, working on campaigns, standards and policy, since 2001. He runs an 890-acre organic farm in Norfolk, with beef cattle and arable seed crops.

He is a member of the BBC’s Rural Affairs Committee, and was a member of the Government’s Rural Climate Change Forum and Organic Action Plan Group, and the Department of Education’s School Lunches Review Panel. He received an honorary doctorate from Newcastle University in 2013, was on the Board of the EU’s £12m ‘Quality Low Input Food’ research project, and is a Board member for two EU research projects on low input crops and livestock.