Environment News

The Advantages of Darkness in Northern Chile

In early October, the Noche Zero conference in the Atacama region of northern Chile will bring together lighting designers, urban planners, government officials, and astronomers concerned about the effects of “light pollution” and the resulting disappearance of stars from the night sky. As the event’s website frame the issue:


The Noche Zero conference will be held in the Atacama Desert for good reason. As the driest place on Earth, the sparsely populated region has the world’s clearest skies. As a result, it is the site of some of the largest and most expensive telescope arrays. The European Southern Observatory’s Very Large Telescope (VLT) may have the least imaginative name of any major scientific facility, but it is widely regarded as “the most productive ground-based facility for astronomy.” Equally important are the radio telescopes of the Atacama Large Millimetre Array (ALMA), a joint program of the EU, the United States, Canada, several East Asian countries, and the Republic of Chile. Although it will not be completed until 2013, ALMA is already allowing astronomers to make impressive findings. A recent report notes their discovery of glycolaldehyde, “a sugar compound described as essential to the existence of life,” in the gas cloud surrounding a star somewhat similar to the sun located some 400 light years from Earth.


The Advantages of Darkness in Northern Chile Read More »

From Drought to Floods in South Asia

The all-important summer monsoon of South Asia has given weather and climate forecasters, as well as news reporters, a wild ride this year. In late June, Reuters hopefully reported that India’s crucial monsoon rains were “expected to be average in 2012, … helping to allay concern over farm output triggered by sparse rainfall in the last few weeks.” Such concerns, however, only deepened, and by late July, news sources were reporting that “with drought conditions prevailing in most parts of India, Monsoon 2012 is set to be the worst in the last 65 years.”  Heavy rains, however, reached many areas by late August; although some crops were already damaged, Reuters reported that “the [rain] revival has given the government a breathing space and allowed it to postpone a drought summit meeting to next week.” Slow on the uptake, The New York Times warned its readers on September 9 that the drought had brought much of India to the brink of disaster. At roughly the same time, precipitation intensified. On September 17, heavy rains resulted in 13 deaths in the state of Uttar Pradesh. All in all, India’s 2012 monsoon precipitation looks like it will be just slightly below average in most areas.

While recent late-monsoon downpours have bought much-needed moisture to northern India, their effects have not been so positive in much of neighboring Pakistan. According to a September 14 article in the Express Tribune, “flash floods triggered by torrential rains have rendered around one million people in Balochistan homeless over the past week, without any relief in sight.” A few days later, the same paper announced that the Pakistani government was largely ignoring the crisis in Balochistan and focusing its attention instead on neighboring Sindh, also hard hit by flooding. Resource-rich but restive Balochistan, critics contend, is often slighted by the Islamabad government.

(Look here for the precipitation map posted above)


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Khareef Season Draws Thousands to Southern Oman

Lush, verdant hillsides are not the type of landscape one would expect to find on the Arabian Peninsula. Indeed, most of the region is parched desert where plant life is extremely sparse without human intervention. As explored previously on GeoCurrents, Oman is one of the most culturally exceptional countries in the Middle East, and its physical environment surely fits that description as well. During the summer monsoon season, parts of Oman and Yemen find themselves soaked in rain and wreathed by fog. Known as the khareef in Southern Oman, the annual rainy season creates an occasion for local celebration, draws large numbers of tourists from across the Arab world, and allows for a temporary flowering of greenery. The city of Salalah—Oman’s second largest city and the capital of the Dhofar Governate—sits at the center of the excitement.

Khareef season officially lasts from June 21 through September 21, with the most pleasant weather and largest tourist throngs usually coming in August. Most years see around 300,000 people visit Salalah and its environs during the khareef. A large majority of visitors come from other parts of Oman, yet tens of thousands also make their way from other parts of the Middle East elsewhere in Asia. Europe, the Americas, Africa, and Oceania typically send a few thousand visitors in total. This year, the timing of Ramadan delayed the tourist season, causing especially large numbers to descend on Salalah during late August. Statistics are not available, but all residential accommodations for tourists appear to be booked solid for weeks. Attractions are reportedly overcrowded, with some tourists picnicking on roadsides.

The Arabian Leopard. (Both photos from the Oman Bureau of Tourism)

Such enthusiasm for Salalah might seem baffling at first, but the area is home to a fascinating array of flora and fauna. Arguably the most impressive is the critically endangered Arabian Leopard, which struggles to compete with pastoralists and frankincense gatherers for habitat. The region also hosts a population of Striped Hyenas, which have a much larger range outside of Oman. Bedouin tribesmen of the Arabian interior traditionally use hyena meat as ritual medicine, though it is also occasionally eaten as food. Southern Oman’s African flavor is not limited to mammals; at high elevations in the Dhofar Mountains one can find clusters of Baobab trees. The trees, with their definitive fat trunks, large size, and longevity, appear most closely related to similar trees in East Africa. It is unclear whether the groves of Dhofar represent the remnants of a formerly much larger Baobab range, or if seeds were brought to the region from Africa through trade at some point during antiquity. Either way, when the trees are paired with the lush hills of the khareef season, the uplands around Salalah look more like some strange mix of Africa and the British Isles than the Middle East.

Outside of khareef season, the coastal parts of Dhofar are relatively dry, but they still receive some moisture through the condensation of mists wafting in from the ocean. Known officially as the Arabian Peninsula coastal fog desert ecoregion, this narrow band of watered land along the coast of Saudi Arabia and Oman allows trees to flourish even where monsoon rains do not play a major role.

As alluded to above, the Salalah area provides ideal conditions for Frankincense-yielding trees, the resin of which has been an important export item since ancient times. Even in China, chroniclers knew that the inhabitants Southern Arabia’s rich mountains were the main suppliers of the pleasant-smelling resin, and trade within and between Arabia and East Africa dates back at least 5,000 years. Observers today question the future of the Frankincense trade, warning that stresses due to overharvesting could cause the number of trees to fall up to fifty percent by 2026.

As long as the monsoon rains continue to fall in the mountains of Oman, the summer will remain an exciting time for residents and visitors alike. As the Middle East continues to grow both in population and economic sophistication, tourist season in Salalah promises to get even more hectic. For those who will only know the region through their computers, Khareef season can still provide a vivid illustration of the diversity and beauty of Middle Eastern physical geography.

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Environmental Problems in the Solomon Islands

The mostly rural and relatively poor Solomon Islands faces many environmental problems, which development of the country’s small mining sector may soon exacerbate. The expansion of human settlement, agriculture, and timber harvesting has led to deforestation, while blast fishing and the illegal exportation of exotic birds have frustrated conservation efforts. The country has rampant political corruption, which prevents effective environmental policy, and has been recovering from a violent past. In 1999, civil war broke out between the indigenous people of Guadalcanal and migrants from the island of Malaita, and in 2006, native Melanesian Solomon Islanders rioted against the small but economically influential Chinese community.

Although extraction from the small Gold Ridge mine dropped precipitously during the civil war, the Australian company Allied Gold has purchased rights to the mine and plans to greatly increase production. The company has hired over 500 local employees and plans to operate for at least the next ten years, predicting that its gold will eventually make up as much as a third of the country’s GDP (current GDP per capita is $3,200). Though additional mines may not open soon, other firms plan to expand into the Solomon Islands to extract gold and copper. Anglogold Ashanti, the Newmont Mining Corporation, Axiom Mining Ltd., and the Sumitomo Corporation have all shown interest in the country.

As opposed to nearby countries such as Papua New Guinea and New Caledonia, the Solomon Islands has historically produced few minerals. Though its mines may not be as lucrative as its neighbors’, the country could receive great economic benefits from attracting international mining firms, as the last decade of unrest has repelled many foreign investors. China’s large appetite for minerals has made the development of new mines especially profitable. However, open pit mines cause deforestation and can release poisonous chemicals into the water supply.

The experiences of nearby countries portend the possible downsides of mineral extraction. In an extreme case, phosphate revenues temporarily gave the Micronesian island state of Nauru the highest GDP per capita in the world—until the trust fund holding the nation’s mining profits declined sharply in value. Today, the country is in a state of severe economic and environmental distress and has become heavily reliant on foreign aid. There are already worrying signs in the Solomon Islands that the Allied Gold has evaded paying taxes by misrepresenting the amount of gold it has extracted. The Malaita Ma’asina Forum suspects that the company may even further avoid paying the government by merging with another Australian mining company.

Environmental Problems in the Solomon Islands Read More »

Melting and Mining in Greenland

Reports of recent massive surface melting on Greenland’s central ice cap have circulated widely in the global media. According to NASA, the area exhibiting a surface thaw expanded from 40 percent of the ice sheet to 97 percent in a mere four-day period this July. As reported by Canada’s CBC News, “You literally had this wave of warm air wash over the Greenland ice sheet and melt it,” NASA ice scientist Tom Wagner said Tuesday. “Cooler air soon returned, however, refreezing much of the area that had previously melted.

Although the temporary melting was undeniable, controversy nonetheless erupted. As discussed by Andrew Revkin in the New York Time’s Dot Earth features, the NASA press office made a major error in calling the event “unprecedented,” as similar surface melts have evidently occurred, on average, once every 150 years. Despite such previous episodes, the recent thaw is generating much concern, as Greenland’s ice cap has been retreating in recent year, a phenomenon that most climatologists link to global warming.

Reporting on the event by mainstream news outlets also leaves much to be desired. In a video accompanying the CBC article, for example, the reporter claimed that, “This month nearly all of the ice on Greenland melted.” Had “nearly all” of Greenland’s ice actually melted, global sea levels would have risen by some 6 meters, as the ice cap is on average 3 kilometers (1.9 miles) thick.  Although the melting was extensive, it did not penetrate very deep into the massive glacier.

Although the current retreat of Greenland’s ice cap worries climatologists and environmentalists, it is also exciting the imaginations of mining firms. According to a recent article in the Guardian:

Europe is looking to open a new frontier in the ever more urgent quest for new natural resources – the pristine icy wastes of Greenland. Oil and gas have been the focus of exploitation so far – but the EU sees just as much potential in a massive opening up of mining operations across the world’s biggest island, according to Antonio Tajani, the European commission’s vice-president and one of the most powerful politicians in the union. He called the move “raw material diplomacy”.

The article goes on to mention that while only one gold mine is currently in operation on Greenland, five are in the advanced planning stage and more than 120 potential sites are being investigated. The author also notes that Greenpeace is working to forestall potential mining operations on the island.







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Roads, Gas, and the Uncontacted People of the Peruvian Amazon

The Peruvian Amazon, along with adjacent land in Brazil, is home to some of the most isolated territory in the world. The region’s extreme remoteness poses a daunting challenge for its residents, many of whom are forced to pay high prices for food and fuel arriving by plane. With these concerns in mind, an Italian missionary, Miguel Piovesan, has led a campaign to construct a new, 125-mile road along the Brazilian border from Puerto Esparanza in northern Ucayali region to Iñapari in the Madre de Dios region (see map at left). Largely thanks to Piovesan’s eight years of lobbying, carried out in part on his own radio station, the road has gone from a figment of his imagination to a popular cause endorsed by local mestizos. A decision on the will soon be reached by Peru’s National Congress.

The road has encountered fierce opposition from environmental organizations and indigenous leaders worried that it will foster illegal logging and endanger the several uncontacted tribes. About sixty miles of the road would run through Peru’s Alto Purús National Park, which has long been a safe haven for the Mashco-Piro, Yaminahua, and Chitonahua tribes. Opponents of development in the region often argue that an end to isolation would amount to ethnocide—the destruction of indigenous culture—and can also point to several more prosaic reasons for outsiders to be wary of contact. Nomadic tribes in the western Amazon lack resistance to many diseases like influenza and measles, and would likely face high death rates if illnesses and even death if such infections were to spread among them. Violence can also be a problem in contact zones. Earlier this year, the Mashco-Piro killed a man named Shaco Flores who had acted as an intermediary between the tribe and the outside world. Flores could speak a rudimentary version of the Mashco-Piro language and had helped members of the group acquire goods like pots and machetes before being told to stop by Peruvian authorities. The motive behind his murder is a mystery; some speculate that it was done out of a desire to avoid further contact with the outside, others as retaliation for his compliance with orders to cease trading with the tribe.

Map of the main pipeline used to transport gas extracted by the Camisea Project. (source)

Elsewhere in the region, the Camisea Gas Project, a collaboration between several natural gas extractors, presents another potential conflict between tribes and the outside world. According to the indigenous-rights group Survival International, “the gas projects threaten tribes and wildlife by physically cutting into their land, displacing communities and driving them away from their forest homes”. In regard to the Camisea Project, however, such warnings may be exaggerated. Though the project organizers acknowledges the presence of both contacted and uncontacted tribes near the work area, they claim to respect the property of all indigenous people and stress that contact with otherwise isolated tribes will continue to be avoided. Opponents of Camisea remain unconvinced, wondering how uncontacted tribes could possibly consent to gas extraction activity. Survival International has stepped up its publicity campaign against Camisea by appealing to the one million annual visitors to nearby Manchu Pichu.

Managing the environmentally sensitive areas around traditionally isolated tribes continues to be a difficult dance. While illegal logging, virgin soil epidemics, and violence all argue against an outside presence, perpetual isolation may prove an impossible goal.

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A New Panama Canal? Or Two?

During 2010, some 299,803,162 tons of ships and cargo moved between the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans through the Panama Canal. This total would have no doubt astounded the canal’s builders, but to the Panama Canal Authority (ACP), which operates the canal today, it is a sign that canal’s current infrastructure is no longer adequate. Many ships are forced to wait up to ten days to cross the canal, costing shippers about $50,000 per day. Bidding wars often arise between ships, with some paying up to $200,000 to move ahead in line. To ensure that congestion in the canal does not drive away traffic, Panamanians in 2006 overwhelmingly passed a referendum proposed by former president Martín Torrijos authorizing a $5.25 billion expansion project. The project is generally considered a good investment by outside groups, and received A2 investment grade status from the credit rating agency Moody’s. It is expected to be complete around 2014.

Meanwhile, two of Panama’s neighbors—Nicaragua and Costa Rica—are themselves eyeing the inter-oceanic canal game after 98 years on the sidelines. On Monday, Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega signed a bill passed by the National Assembly that set up a legal framework for construction of the Nicaragua Inter-oceanic Canal, with the explicit goal of competing for Panama Canal traffic. The proposed Nicaraguan canal would stretch some 200 kilometers and could cost upwards of $30 billion, the equivalent of nearly four years worth of Nicaraguan GDP. So far support for the project among western governments and private industry is thin, but both Russia and the United Arab Emirates have expressed interested in financing the canal.

There are several potential routes for a Nicaraguan canal. The most cost-effective of these would run from the mouth of the San Juan River on the Caribbean coast upriver to Lake Nicaragua—the nineteenth largest lake in the world by area. A channel would then be dug across the isthmus of Rivas to allow ships to access the Pacific Ocean. This is not a new idea; in fact the basic outline of the route is over a hundred and fifty years old. During the California Gold Rush of the 1850s, the American shipping and railroad mogul Cornelius Vanderbilt operated a stagecoach line across the isthmus of Rivas, called the Accessory Transit Company, for gold-seekers traveling west. Vanderbilt was soon granted rights to build a canal to the Pacific, though his plans were never carried out. Nevertheless, the notion of a Nicaraguan canal remained potent, as shown in the 1906 map at left (source). A more humble (and realistic) version of the waterway proposed recently, known as the “Ecocanal”, would forgo the costly connection to the Pacific and instead focus on allowing shipping to access the various inland waterways of North America through Lake Nicaragua.

The San Juan River, the linchpin of any practical route to Lake Nicaragua, conveniently lies entirely in Nicaraguan territory, though it does directly border Costa Rica. Tensions along the border have been especially high since 2010, when Nicaragua’s dredging of the San Juan River damaged the environment of the Costa Rican parts of Isla Calero, which sits within the river. The resulting backlash helped to precipitate a small Nicaraguan invasion that became known as the Isla Calero dispute, infamous among Central Americans and geographers as the first armed incursion caused in part by a mistake in Google Maps favoring Nicaragua. Costa Rican President Laura Chinchilla responded by ordering the construction of a new road along the Costa Rica-Nicaragua border, known as the San Juan River border road project. Since the road was part of an emergency decree, it was able to bypass environmental review and avoid a great deal of scrutiny that is only now catching up with it.

Construction of the San Juan River border road project is now mired in scandal. Millions of dollars of construction contracts have been awarded to companies and individuals that possess no construction machinery or expertise. Allegedly, any National Roadway Council employees who spoke up about the corruption were fired. On top of these domestic indignities, Nicaraguans now argue that Costa Rica is building a “dry canal” that would allow high-speed movement of container traffic from one port to another. Dry Canals have in the past been proposed in both Colombia and Nicaragua. Though a Costa Rican conspiracy seems rather farfetched, a dry canal there might, if constructed, be a bargain compared to Nicaragua’s $30 billion vision.

One can easily lose track of the multiplicity of canals proposed in Central America over the years. Both Nicaragua’s Inter-oceanic Canal and Costa Rica’s San Juan River border road will likely join them as historical footnotes and topics of regional bickering while the Panama Canal continues to grease the wheels of the world economy. Then again, construction of the Panama Canal doubtless seemed similarly daunting when Ferdinand de Lesseps, the builder of the Suez Canal, left the region with nothing to show for his efforts but the bodies of 22,000 dead French construction workers strewn about the jungle.

A New Panama Canal? Or Two? Read More »

Potential Fishery Collapse in Lake Tanganyika

Lake Tanganyika, which falls under the administration of the Democratic Republic of Congo, Tanzania, Zambia, and Burundi, is the world’s second largest freshwater lake by volume and a haven for aquatic wildlife. The lake (map at left taken from here) is home to about 2,000 species of fish, most of which are found nowhere else in the world. Such diversity is possible both because of the lake’s size and antiquity; geologists believe Lake Tanganyika to be between 9 and 12 million years old. Eons of isolation have allowed a very distinctive ecosystem to form, similar to other large inland bodies of water like Lake Victoria and Lake Baikal. Lake Tanganyika also forms a vital pillar of human life in the area. The lake is a key protein source for millions of locals, and its fisheries directly employ hundreds of thousands of workers.

Overfishing in Lake Tanganyika is an old problem that seems to be worsening, with significant consequences for both fishermen and their quarry. The Lake Tanganyika Authority (LTA), a collaborative organization of the four countries that border the lake, warned recently that “use of destructive fishing gear and overfishing” threatens the very existence of the lake’s ecosystem. According to the LTA, current regulations limiting the size of the industry as well as the types of gear that can be used are widely ignored and ineffective. Would-be fishermen on the lake are legally required to buy licenses and submit to equipment inspections, but the resource constraints facing managers are severe. The Zambian fisheries office, for example, has only ten positions—four of which are vacant. The agency also relies on a single boat with an engine described as “unreliable.” Juvenile fish are reportedly a common sight in markets, a situation that is both a sign and a cause of fishery depletion. Activists in search of a relevant cautionary tale need look no further than Lake Victoria to the north, where hundreds of species have gone extinct due to overfishing and ecological invasion, especially of the voracious Nile perch.

The current depressed-state of Lake Tanganyika fisheries has exacted a human price. Many who once made a good living from the lake have abandoned fishing for farming, aided at times by outside organizations like the United Nations Development Program. However, those helped by these programs tend to be small-scale fishermen.  Industrial fishermen have responded to fish shortages as they have elsewhere: by working more intensively. Such intensification, in turn, this means even fewer fish will be available in future years, further diminishing the profits and lengthening work hours for everyone involved. To counter such tendencies, the LTA recommends “developing and implementing the fishing license process, improving the involvement of local communities in fisheries management, and promoting sustainable fisheries alternative livelihoods.” Although the LTA certainly does not need to be reminded, the main hurdle to sustainable fishing in Lake Tanganyika is a lack of money for enforcement, not a lack of economic or ecological know-how.

Overfishing is not the only crisis facing Lake Tanganyika, its fish, and the humans who depend on them. The lake is currently warmer than it has been at any time in the last 1,500 years (the entire period that water temperature estimates have been made), and some point to that as the main factor behind the decline of local fisheries. Sedimentation is also a problem, although efforts by local governments have begun to reduce the sedimentation rate in several localized areas.

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Flood and Political Conflicts in Northeastern India


The seven states of Northeastern India make up a diverse, historic, and (as GeoCurrents has previously noted) unstable region. Recent flooding and landslides have claimed at least 81 lives around the Brahmaputra River (map at left from Wikipedia), forced hundreds of thousands to evacuate, and garnered worldwide attention. Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh has gone to Assam, perhaps the worst hit state, and promised at least Rs 500 crore (~$90 million) in aid. The floods are a major humanitarian crisis, and they may help to deflect attention from recent escalations in the long-simmering border dispute between Assam and its neighboring state, Meghalaya.

On June 30, over six-hundred Khasi[1], members of a tribal group located primarily in Meghalaya but also in parts of Assam and Bangladesh, began a hunger strike aimed at encouraging the two Indian states to resolve the quarrel over the status of twelve disputed areas that has kindled years of violence. The unresolved issue has also kept rural villages along the Meghalaya-Assam border from receiving the benefits of government electrification programs. Since a January, 21, 2010 GeoCurrents post cautiously observed the “declining violence in Northeast India”, violence has continued to stay at a relatively low level compared to the 2000s. However, most of the underlying issues remain unresolved, and the potential remains for future clashes.

Map of Northeastern India

Entailing much more than the border dispute between Meghalaya and Assam, strife in Northeast India has been a function of ethnic and tribal rivalries playing themselves out against a background of nationalist and antinationalist agitation. For example, the militant Hynniewtrep National Liberation Council (HNLC), based in Meghalaya, continues to vociferously oppose what it sees as attempts by India’s national government to “Indianise or else to Hindunise the Hynniewtrep race”. The HNLC also sets itself up in opposition to the Garo, a largely Christian group that is the second largest ethnic formation in Meghalaya after the aforementioned Khasi.

The people of Northeast India also face many wrenching challenges as both a globalized economy and outside social norms gain a foothold hold in their land. The Khasi and the Garo remain, for the most part, matrilineal societies where property and clan membership is passed down through female descendants. This certainly adds a measure of stability to womens’ lives, and female defenders of the system are able to point to the plight of women in other nearby groups and remark favorably on the status and safety of women in societies adhering to matrilineal traditions. Men who oppose the system claim that it “breeds a culture of men who feel useless”, feeds social problems like alcoholism, and denies men the inheritance they need to build their lives. The debate has been going on for years, and seems unlikely to end soon.

With flooding now the dominant issue in the Brahmaputra watershed, it remains to be seen whether the chaos and disruption that follows will bring more violence in its wake. Most of the Indian outposts along the border with Bangladesh have flooded as local officials express concerns about national security. Living near some of the rainiest places on earth, as the people who make their homes along the Brahmaputra do, can be a dangerous proposition.

Readers interested in a fantastic satellite image of the Brahmaputra flooding should see this one from the NASA Earth Observatory.

[1] GeoCurrents readers would be interested to note that the Khasi are the northernmost speakers of an Austro-Asiatic language.

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Japan to Encourage Deer Hunting and Venison Eating?

The sika deer (Cervus nippon), once widespread across eastern Asia, has been eliminated from virtually its entire range. The animal is extinct in Korea and barely hangs on in China and far eastern Russia. In Japan, however, the deer population is exploding, resulting in major agricultural and forestry losses. Authorities in the mountainous Japanese province of Nagano in central Honshu are now encouraging people to hunt deer. Hunting is diminishing as older hunters retire and as rural areas depopulate, leading wildlife officials to use traps and other expensive methods of culling the herds. A new organization called Shinshu Gibier Kenkyukai* (“game study group”) is thus encouraging people not only to hunt but also to eat venison, which it hopes will soon be served in school cafeterias.

Other groups have different ideas for dealing with the problem. The Japan Wolf Association, for example, would like to reintroduce wolves into Nagano to prey on the deer. Wolves were once present in Japan, but the two local subspecies were wiped out in the late 1800s and early 1900s, as documented in Brett Walker’s The Lost Wolves of Japan. If wolves were to be reintroduced—an unlikely event—a different subspecies would have to be selected.

A recent article in the Japan Times proposes a more audacious solution for the deer excess in the northern Japanese island of Hokkaido: tigers. As the author specifies:

 How about solving two problems in one? Help save the tiger by translocating Siberian Tigers to Hokkaido — the habitat is very similar — and help reduce the deer population by introducing a predator. One could even help the flagging tourist trade, by operating tiger-watching tourism in Japan (why should India have all the fun?). Of course, this off-the-wall idea is untenable in a number of ways: Imagine trying to obtain local community consensus for introducing tigers in their forests.

For an excellent overview of the sika deer, see this article in the Large Herbivore Network, which is the source for the map posted here.

*Gibier is a French word meaning “wild game.”

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Utah Seeks to Annex Federal Lands

A recent political maneuver by the state government of Utah is stirring up intense  controversy. “Utah’s Nuttiest Idea of All,” reads a June 2 headline in the Salt Lake Tribune. A more recent opinion piece by geographer Eric C. Ewart in the same newspaper argues that that the move is blatantly unconstitutional and will “derail the largest single part of Utah’s economy: tourism.” Looking into the future, Ewart contends that tomorrow’s youth will be asking their elders, “Grandpa, why did you destroy Utah’s natural landscapes in search of quick profit?”

The maneuver in question is reflected in a series of bills passed by the Utah state legislature and signed by Governor Gary Herbert that demand the “return” of most federal lands in Utah to state control by 2015, totaling some 30 million acres (12.14 million hectares). Although national parks and military lands would be excluded, national forests, national monuments, and wilderness areas managed by the Bureau of Land Management would be slated for transfer. Utah is also, as Ewart notes, “suing the various federal agencies in order to gain access to 12,000 miles of closed and abandoned ‘roads’ … including stream beds, cow paths, wagon trails and footpaths.” Much of the money gained by the proposed transfer, supporters argue, would be earmarked for education. Critics contend that the scheme would amount to a massive give-away to mining, ranching, and property development interests, noting that the Utah’s government does not have the wherewithal to manage the lands, and would thus turn them over to private interests.

 The “defederalization” of public lands is a popular idea in Utah. The federal government currently owns fifty-seven percent of Utah’s land, the third highest figure in the country. Polling data show that 64 percent of Utahans are in favor of the proposed change. Views on the subject break down on party lines, with 84 percent of Republicans and 59 percent of independents supporting the proposal, as opposed to only 15 percent of Democrats. (Utah, it is important to note, is perhaps the most Republican-voting state in the union.)  As a recent Salt Lake Tribute article notes, “Respondents also showed a stark religious gap, with 77 percent of Mormons supporting the land quest and only 34 percent of non-Mormons doing the same.”

Opposition to federal land control is widespread throughout the interior West of the United States. Hostility reached a peak in many areas during the so-called Sagebrush Rebellion of the 1970s and 1980s, which focused on resisting federal restrictions on mining and grazing on public lands. It is interesting that the current manifestation of the anti-federal movement is much stronger in Utah than in neighboring states. Utah is more Republican-oriented than its neighbors, but states such as Wyoming and Idaho are almost as conservative. It may be significant that a much larger expanse of Utah’s federal lands are managed as national monuments, which are largely off-limits to development, than those of other western states. Many Utahans were outraged in 1996 when president Bill Clinton designated 1.9 million acres (769,000 HA) in southern Utah as the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, forming the largest national monument in the United States. Environmentalists across the country, however, were delighted by the action.

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Australia’s “Devil Ark” Captive Breeding Program

The Tasmanian devil, a wolverine-like marsupial carnivore, has been reintroduced to mainland Australia, where it has been extinct for hundreds of years. The formidable animals are not roaming free in the outback, however, but are rather confined to the “Devil Ark” in a free-range captive breeding project: “Devils are kept in densely vegetated pens of between two and three football fields in size enclosed by a climb and burrow-proof fence, and their pen mates are chosen by experts from a genetic ‘stud book’ to optimise breeding.”

With a screeching cry and the strongest bite of any animal relative to its size, the Tasmanian devil has a fearsome reputation. Although they vanished from mainland Australia after the introduction of the dingo, they were until recently quite common on Tasmania. Without human intervention, however, devils are likely to go extinct in the wild due to the rapid spread of a particular kind of facial cancer, spread by fighting. As Tasmanian devils have extremely low genetic diversity, due to a previous population bottleneck, their immune systems are unable to recognize cancer cells that spread when one of the aggressive animals bites another, as they frequently do. Numbering roughly 250,000 twenty years ago, the devil population has been reduced to the low tens of thousands.

Thus far, the program is proving successful. As recently reported in Chanelnewsasia:

 They just love being here, all the signs are that they are happy and healthy devils.
… Social dominance is a constant battle in the wild and Devil Ark is no different — having to share their territory with others forces the devils to fight for their food and mating rights, skills they can quickly lose in a zoo.

Those wild traits are crucial for them being able to survive when they’re re-released.

According to current plans, devils from the Ark will be reintroduced to Tasmania after the wild population dies out.

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Pre-Columbian Raised Fields in French Guiana

A number of news reports from French Guiana have focused on a recently published scientific article on pre-Columbian agriculture in the region, which offers potential lessons for current-day land-use. Several of the reports express surprise at the researchers’ findings, which indicate that the indigenous peoples of the region were able to successfully grow crops without using fire to clear the vegetation, as has more recently been the norm. According to one news report, “Reintroducing these traditional farming methods to the region could help to preserve the natural ecosystem that is being rapidly destroyed by burning, industrial agriculture, and cattle ranching.”

The key to the pre-Columbian system was raised fields, artificially elevated platforms that allow farming in seasonally (or permanently) inundated wetland environments. Raised fields provide drainage yet maintain adequate levels of soil moisture. Fertility is maintained by periodically scooping muck out of the ditches between the fields and depositing it on the cropping beds. As a result, permanent cropping with high yields was possible in difficult environments with low natural soil fertility. Maintaining the beds, however, was labor intensive, and when populations plummeted after Eurasian diseases spread, the system was abandoned almost everywhere, replaced by un-intensive swidden (“slash and burn”) farming in forested areas, which uses fire to clear vegetation for short cropping periods.

The research is important, and I am pleased to see it being reported. Yet the news articles on the topic are misleading, as they imply that such findings are novel, fundamentally changing our perceptions of the history of agriculture in the Latin American tropics.  Actually, geographers and other archeologists have been intensively studying pre-Columbian raised fields since 1965, when Berkeley geographer James Parsons noted massive geometrical formations when flying over a lowland area of Ecuador. By the 1980s, so much work was being done on the subject that geography graduate students began to joke about the new discipline of “raised fieldology.”

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Bog Wars in Ireland

An editorial in today’s New York Times, “Drop That Bog,” urges gardeners not to use peat moss, as doing so entail the destruction of bogs and releases stored carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. The editorial also notes that peat “has been used for centuries as a fuel in Scotland, Britain, and Ireland,” a geographically odd comment that implies that Scotland is not part of Britain. Not mentioned in the editorial is the fact that peat mining for energy is a significant—and controversial—business in Ireland. The Bord na Móna (‘peat board’), a semi-state company, engages in the mechanized mining of peat bogs; in 2008, its revenues came in at more than 400 million Euros, and its profits totaled more than 15 million Euros. Due to environmental pressure, the Bord na Móna is currently planning to phase out peat extraction over the next twenty years, turning to renewable energy production instead.

The peat-mining controversy in Ireland is currently intensifying. A recent article in The Independent describes the row in colorful language:

In events that might inspire an Irish dramatist, an unholy turf war has broken out across the country’s bogs, pitting the government, the European Commission and the green lobby against rural-dwellers fighting for the right to heat their homes. … The Irish government has issued formal warnings that this weekend could see prosecutions if turf cutters target protected bogs. But a cutters’ organisation, using unusually militant rhetoric, has issued a defiant clarion call evoking the Easter Rising, the insurrection which nearly a century ago culminated in the British withdrawal from southern Ireland.

Much of Ireland’s peat controversy has focused on the Bog of Allen, a massive wetland that recently covered 958 square kilometers (370 square miles) in the central part of the island. The Bog of Allen is widely viewed as an essential aspect of Irish history and heritage, but much of it has been transformed by peat extraction. Preservation efforts are on-going, but remain controversial. According to an article published yesterday in the Irish Times:

THE IRISH Peatland Conservation Council has called on Minister for Heritage Jimmy Deenihan to “get tough” on those responsible for illegally cutting turf on raised bogs designated for protection under the EU habitats directive. It is a shameful disgrace…that people still feel the need to go out and destroy the natural heritage of Ireland and to celebrate this behaviour using social media sites,” said Dr Catherine O’Connell, the council’s chief executive. …Dr O’Connell said thousands of visitors who greatly enjoy the Bog of Allen nature centre in Lullymore, Co Kildare, would “stop coming if we do not stand up and protect our natural heritage”.

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Massive New Solar Project in Northern Mexico

The small city (population 65,000) of Tecate in Mexico’s state of Baja California, just south of the U.S. border, is best know for its popular beer of the same name. But if current plans come to fruition, Tecate will soon be home to the world’s largest concentrated photovoltaic (CPV) power farm, producing 450 megawatts of electricity. (It is expected, however, that larger CPV projects will soon be announced by China.) The Tecate facility will use arrays made by SolFocus, a San Jose, California firm. Ownership will be shared by Mexico’s SolMex Energy S.A. de C.V and Synergy Technologies of the United States, which responsible for the facility’s design. The first 150 megawatts of electricity will be used locally, but much of the rest will probably be exported to the United States.

Renewable energy development in Mexico had previously been focused on wind power, but the country’s solar potential is large.  According to a recent Market Watch (Wall Street Journal) report, “Northern Mexico has the third greatest solar resource in the world, making it an ideal location for this project.” Such a claim seems rather exaggerated, as it is difficult to specify  exactly what constitutes “solar resources”; many parts of the world receive more solar radiation that the Tecate area, which experiences fairly frequent cloud coverage in the winter months. Building large solar facilities in northern Mexico, however, is much easier than doing so across the border in California, where environmental lawsuits present a major obstacle.

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