A first round of motions was passed Tuesday by the 1,300 government and civil society members of the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) at its World Conservation Congress taking place in Hawaii. These include a ban on gillnet fishing in Mexico that threatens the vaquita porpoise and also restrictions on the illegal trade of pangolins.
A petite woman from Peru has been honored with a huge award, the 2016 Goldman Environmental Prize, for years of principled resistance to the Colorado-based gold-seeking conglomerate Newmont Mining Company.
“During my struggle I felt very sad, like I was alone, but now I know I am not alone," Máxima Acuña de Chaupe told a small group at a pre-ceremony reception Saturday night in San Francisco's historic Mission District. Nearby her grandson Maximo squealed and chased a miniature soccer ball in happy ignorance of the seriousness of the subject.
Clearly emotional and a bit overwhelmed by the attention of so many people in a bustling city thousands of miles from her highland home, upon which Newmont has staked a claim on a very large gold deposit, her tone hardened as she finished her thought: “People are becoming aware and understand what I'm fighting for: the land, water and life, not only my own, but the population in general."
Celebrated globally for her courageous refusal to sell or cede the land her family uses to raise animals and vegetables to Newmont for its proposed Conga gold mine, Acuña de Chaupe and her family have survived lawsuits filed by the company and endured harassment and beatings at the hands of a security force alleged to be on the company payroll.
Adam Shapiro of Ireland-based human rights NGO Front Line Defenders has been following and documenting these events and said this week that when he was visiting the area recently, there was another incident. “The security company hired by the mine operator arranged for locals from nearby villages to come and tear up vegetables that had been planted by Máxima's son. This was part of a pattern of such attacks against the family," he said. “The security company maintains a presence allowing for 24 hour surveillance of the home and the farm and there are always guards watching as well as controlling traffic on the road."
Under such circumstances, Máxima is not alone. In the short time that Shapiro was there, he reported that a land rights defender in a nearby town received death threats.
This pattern is playing out across South and Central America, where environmentalists and land rights defenders challenging mining companies and other megaprojects put themselves at risk. The example foremost in conversations at the Saturday reception was 2015 Goldman Prize winner Berta Cáceres, murdered last month apparently for opposing a dam project in Honduras.
Another NGO that has been tracking developments in Peru closely is Earthworks, whose Mining Program Director, Payal Sampat, stated that the award is further proof that this lamentable state of affairs is finally changing. “Mining companies cannot ride roughshod over community wishes—such bad behavior may have been standard operating practice 20 years ago, but is not something that communities will tolerate or that shareholders will turn a blind eye to," she said. “Trampling community wishes comes with consequences to the bottom line."
For evidence, Sampat pointed to the idling of the Conga proposal for years due to the resistance of Acuña de Chaupe and her community and the fact that Newmont appears to have now taken it off their list of current assets, as outlined in a press release her group just released: “The world's second largest gold mining company, Denver-based Newmont's 2016 10-K SEC filing declared: “Under the current social and political environment, the company does not anticipate being able to develop Conga for the foreseeable future." Newmont will hold its annual shareholders' meeting in Delaware on April 20."
While a spokesman for the company, Omar Jabara, countered that that the Goldman Prize “does not have balanced or complete information about the land dispute," despite Newmont losing in court three times, including the country's Supreme Court according to Acuña de Chaupe's lawyer, Mirtha Vasquez, he confirmed the company's recent statement about the project's idle status, which in light of this week's news will probably be a topic of conversation when the company's investors meet again soon.
For her part, Máxima says that she does not know what to expect when she returns to Peru, but that she remains steadfast in her stance and knows the world will be watching. So as the sun set over San Francisco this past weekend, she closed her statements by saying, “I will continue to confront these transnational corporations. I will continue on in my struggle even if it means giving my life."
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You wouldn't suspect that a guy who builds things for a living would become the architect of a hugely popular symbol against the building of something else, but Will Elwell and his community of Ashfield, Massachusetts, have stumbled on just such a symbol. They are against the building of the Northeast Energy Direct pipeline, which energy company Kinder Morgan subsidiary Tennessee Gas Pipeline Company wants to trench through New York and Massachusetts to carry gas from the fracking fields of Pennsylvania to the coast.
Residents of this proud New England town (where also I live) and many others around it strongly object to the notion of a corporation "taking" private and public land for this giant project, including state forestland and parcels conserved in perpetuity by land trusts, and have repeatedly denied company requests to survey their properties and farms, which has slowed the proposal's progress. Meanwhile citizen groups are preparing for civil disobedience alongside an effective grassroots education campaign that has won the support of many local, state and federal politicians.
That emphasis on civil disobedience, and wondering what more he could do for the cause, is what really rang a bell in Will Elwell's head. A skilled timber framer, he offered to create a direct reference to beloved Massachusetts figure and father of this style of resistance, Henry David Thoreau, by erecting a replica of the great writer's cabin on the hayfield of his neighbor, which itself is directly in the path of the proposed pipeline. Some of the beams were even salvaged from an 1800s-era Massachusetts barn, making the historic figure and new structure contemporaries of sorts.
As noted widely in the progressive press (Democracy Now and Common Dreams) and international media (RT), an enthusiastic group of 30 neighbors, activists and even local politicians turned out to help Elwell raise the beams on a recent weekday, culminating in a picturesque symbol of defiance. In the coming weeks, a roof, walls, and wood stove will be added, but for now, the key components are a sign board and journal that visitors have been using daily to share their frustrations, fears and hopes for the future of this place without a pipeline.
“I wanted to do something that would show my discontent with the proposed pipeline," Elwell told me, “but in a creative and beautiful way. And I wanted to occupy the proposed pipeline pathway and stop the project. This is an important and tangible symbol, and represents a place of resistance which many, many, people can now identify and help occupy."
As far as ideas to rally around go, it's certainly an effective one. But how practical it is in real pipeline-pausing terms is a bigger question. One way that Elwell has answered that was by getting a building permit:
“A building permit is not required for any outbuilding that is less than 200 square feet, but we wanted it to be registered and on record, because in order to move or demolish it, that would require its own permit. That would help raise awareness of the intent, and we could prepare to occupy the cabin (before its possible demolition)."
Fellow Ashfield pipeline resistance organizer Jim Cutler hopes to use the cabin as a rallying point for further activism and envisions it as a space that will host speakers that are eloquent on the issues.
Elwell thinks this one cabin is not a big enough symbol, however, and hopes to see more of these local rallying points pop up along the pipeline's possible path. “I would like to see a structure at every intersection along the proposed route," he said.
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Love winter? Like to skate? Then you need to know about Ottawa's Rideau Canal Skateway, a four mile frozen canal system that connects suburbs to the heart of the Canadian capital. Dubbed "the world's largest skating rink," it's a cultural attraction and also an emissions-free mode of transport for outdoors-loving Ottawans, who can often be seen commuting on blades to work at downtown offices and to classes at the university.
Last year my wife and I spent an exhilarating weekend there during a brutal February cold snap. It was skate-able for a record 59 days in 2015, a good long season, but alas, the Skateway hasn't been fully open for much in 2016 due to freakishly warm temperatures brought on by El Nino and climate change, which has caused many high temperature records to fall. After opening most of its length by late January as usual, it was then closed again due to thin ice.
On weekends during normal winters, the ice is mobbed with courting couples, hockey games and families of multiple generations. One can rent skates and also big Santa-style sleds, into which are loaded anyone who can't skate, like babies and grandparents, so their families can push them along, often at a good clip. Hot drinks, food and the ubiquitous "bear claw" sweets are hawked by vendors whose stalls are towed out on the ice. There are even ATMs out there on skids for those low on cash.
To celebrate this popular local asset and UNESCO World Heritage Site, the city grooms the ice all winter and also puts on what it calls "Winterlude," a 3-week canal-side celebration from late January to mid February with events day and night, from ice sculpture competitions to late night reggae shows in sub zero temperatures. This year's thin ice problem led during its brief closure to the unfortunate moniker "Waterlude," however.
The El Nino winter is surely a disappointment to the many Ottawans who love this institution—each year it enjoys 900,000+ visitors, including many foreigners who love to skate. So many folks use the Skateway daily that ice conditions are even announced on local radio stations as part of the traffic report.
Happily, the Canal is almost fully open again (check here for conditions) and many people will come for the many Winterlude events happening between now and Feb. 15. In fact, the warmer temps have probably led to greater attendance at outdoor events, organizers have noted with some irony.
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During this week's edition of the hit TV reality show Top Chef, the contestants were asked to cook with a technology they'd never used before: the sun. Deep in the Palm Springs desert, the chefs cooked with one of two industry-leading solar stove designs manufactured in the U.S., the SolSource and the GoSun. Of the SolSource, one chef called it "the coolest stove I've ever used," and cooking with the latter's innovative vacuum tube design was described by another as "light saber action."
Chef Jose Andres was the guest judge for this since he's so well known as a booster of solar cooking for the energy-impoverished—he brought solar stoves to Haiti after the earthquake to lend some relief to people whose normal cooking fuel options were rendered unavailable.
And lack of access to such clean cooking options is a huge issue globally: 3 billion people cook their daily meals over smoky biomass fires every day causing more than 4 million annual mortalities, mostly women and children, from smoke inhalation related diseases. Not only is it a human health issue, but forests and the climate suffer: most households that rely on smoky stoves burn 2 tons of biomass per year, about 730 million tons globally, which releases about a billion tons of carbon dioxide. The resulting particulate matter also traps heat in the atmosphere.
While there's a massive global underway led by the Global Alliance for Clean Cookstoves to get less smoky and biomass-intense options into the hands of people who need them, emission- and fuel-free solar stoves are routinely ignored by such efforts in favor of designs that still emit smoke. But events like this one just might boost its acceptance among NGOs and eco-conscious backyard cooks in the U.S. alike.
Both of the stove designs used by the show have great applicability in the developing world, especially in those countries which enjoy lots of sun. GoSun in particular is bullish about supplying cooks all over the world with smoke-free options, as I reported in The Guardian this fall.
Despite one contestant blowing up a GoSun because she added water to the vacuum tube, the stoves worked great and the contestants were overall pleased with the results despite having never used them, saying things like “The stove worked great," and “I thought it was awesome and would love to do it again."
Gourmet dishes of couscous, halibut, steak, cornbread and more were prepared in just 30 minutes with sunlight, and the winner was thrilled with his first experience cooking with the sun. But he wasn't the only winner: solar cooking got a big boost in visibility, and Chef Andres's humanitarian organization World Central Kitchen received a $10,000 donation on behalf of the winner.
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Tom Colicchio is a busy guy, what with all the time he spends hosting his TV show Best New Restaurant, to wearing the MSNBC food correspondent hat while talking the politics of food with the likes of Rachel Maddow, plus being the straight-shooting head judge on Bravo's hit show Top Chef. And yet despite also expanding a successful group of restaurants while serving on the board of Food Policy Action, an advocacy organization that he cofounded in 2012, he still makes time to fish every year.
The overlap between his fine food expertise and desire to see the world eat better while leaving the planet in better shape makes for an interesting perspective on menus and angling ethics. Here's what he had to say, when I had the chance to interview him:
Q. You're an avid fisherman, so sustainability of the oceans must be on your radar. Are there species you won't fish for because their stocks are depleted?
A. Bluefin tuna. I will fish for them, but I will not kill them. I don't kill many fish except the occasional bluefish or mahi mahi and yellowfin tuna, which are plentiful right now. A lot of these stocks bounce back if we allow them—I'm not against fishing the ocean, I think it's a great food source—but we've got to change the way we do it.
Look at swordfish, they were nearly endangered and then a nursery was found off of Florida, so we got the long-line fishermen out of there, and the stocks came back. They were catching swordfish during the day in Florida. What'd we do then? We allowed long-liners back in for "exploratory purposes," when we already knew the program worked!
Celebrity chef Tom Colicchio (left) is also an avid fisherman.
Q. What kinds of marine fisheries policy do you support?
A. We need policies that protect fishermen but also the resource. Striped bass for instance came back in a big way because one of their main spawning grounds in the Hudson was heavily polluted with PCBs, and people were told not to eat them, so the fishery was commercially unviable. Then we cleaned up the Hudson, the fish bounced back and were safe to eat, but now we're back where the population is on the decline. We could have protected that industry by creating slot limits, instead we allow the catching of all the big ones, the best breeders with the best genetics.
Q. What species do your restaurants avoid serving?
A. Bluefin tuna, I will not serve it. Haven't even seen Orange Roughy in ages, and I've never served Chilean sea bass.
Q. How about farmed salmon? Ocean advocates and researchers say that open net salmon pens harm ecosystems.
A. They do, the density on those farms needs to be looked at. We have served it, but don't sell a lot of it. We typically serve wild salmon when they're running.
Q. Beside the impacts, the farmed kind doesn't taste as good. I find it really fatty.
A. It doesn't, and it's not because it's fatty, it's just a different kind of fat that's not marbled through the meat, but rather on the outside edge toward the skin. It's because they don't move enough, so the fat's distributed differently and doesn't taste near like a wild salmon. There's no comparison.
Q. What's your approach to serving wild fish in your restaurants?
A. I try to serve wild fish, but it's often a tough call. One of the best choices is small white albacore on the West Coast, that's a great fishery, it's managed well and there's very little mercury in those fish.
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An innovative renewable energy cooperative in the Northeast is racing toward a June 1 deadline to finish the financing needed to build Northeast Biodiesel, a refinery that will make liquid fuel from waste vegetable oil collected from area restaurants and institutions.
Co-op Power is a member-owned cooperative that helps launch renewable and energy efficiency businesses that are owned in part by its 475 members (in full disclosure, I’m one) from five states in the Northeast. Its clever hack of the cooperative structure has given rise to a dozen plus such businesses in the last 10 years, from large solar arrays on food coops to crews of workers who tighten up homes and businesses against the elements, creating over 100 new green jobs in the region to date.
Its business model that roots equity in local economies has been written up widely and highlighted by authors like Michael Shuman in his great Local Dollars, Local Sense and in the community-owned power manual Power from the People by Greg Pahl (both essential reading published by Chelsea Green). Groups around the nation have since taken up the coop’s blueprint that leverages member equity with grants, loans and other financial instruments to create member and community-owned renewable energy assets.
The keystone project for Co-op Power is certainly the biodiesel refinery, which will make diesel and home heating oil from recycled vegetable oil collected in the area.
As reported this week, the coop “has raised and spent more than $2 million to date for the land, site work, foundation and building, installed tanks, equipment and a biodiesel processor. The group has received a building permit to complete construction. In the past few months, Co-op Power has hired a general manager and has completed final engineering designs and received construction bids. Once funds have been secured, final plans will be submitted to the town for the final permit.”
It needs a final $850,000 to close that deal, which itself is a case study in ‘patient capital.’ Originally projected to be operational in 2006 or 2007, the Wall Street-generated economic crash of 2008 set the bio-refinery plans back by many years when grassroots supporters lacked cash to invest and traditional partners like banks became allergic to new ideas.
Refusing offers of venture capital and its attendant loss of ownership, the coop has soldiered on in grassroots fashion, raising the needed funds largely from members, friends and angel investors. With a startup capacity of 5,000 gallons of biodiesel a day created from used cooking oil, Northeast Biodiesel will sell to the transportation and home heating markets (the fuel is identical to home heating oil and can be blended to a high degree with its fossil-based counterpart). Once operational, the plant should be able to add a second processor within a year, for a total capacity of 3.5 million gallons a year.
Now Co-op Power is looking for new members and partners as it brings its signature project to the next level. While I feel that one shouldn’t use overuse the term ‘amazing,’ this project and the huge community effort it’s taken to get it to this point certainly is.
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Community activists from Cajamarca, Peru appeared at the annual shareholders’ meeting of Denver-based Newmont Mining Corporation this week to deliver a petition bearing 150,000 signatures protesting the company’s practices in the region, and demanded that it live up to its own goals for human rights and sustainability.
Representatives of Earthworks, EarthRights and Grufides delivered over 150,000 signatures to the Newmont annual shareholders' meeting. Photo credit: EarthRights International
Newmont is majority owner of the massive Peruvian gold mine Yanacocha, the second largest gold mine in the world, and its planned Conga gold and copper mine nearby would be even larger, requiring a farming community to move and the four lakes they rely on for irrigation to be drained.
But the community has so far refused to relinquish its treasured land and lakes, and in response activists say the company has reacted with intimidation and harassment.
One person particularly in the company’s cross-hairs is Máxima Acuña de Chaupe, says activist Mirtha Vásquez, a Peruvian lawyer at Wednesday’s meeting. Acuña de Chaupe’s land abuts one of the four lakes but after de Chaupe refused to sell her land in 2011, nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) like Earthworks reported that her family became the target of harassment and violence in the form of beatings and destruction of the family home. Then Newmont sued her for "land invasion” and violent retaliation, which it lost on appeal in December 2014.
Despite this legal victory, activists say that intimidation and threats against Acuña de Chaupe have continued, reporting that the family’s home was demolished again in February 2015, this time by a group of 200 armed men.
“Newmont’s leadership must publicly renounce its harassment of Máxima Acuña de Chaupe and other Cajamarca residents who oppose the Conga mine,” said Vásquez in a prepared statement. “Otherwise Newmont will become globally infamous for discarding their commitments to human rights and community engagement as soon as they become inconvenient.” A Cajamarca resident, Vásquez is director of a local NGO called Grufides and is also legal counsel to Acuña de Chaupe, who declined to travel to the U.S. citing fears of what would happen to her farm and family in her absence.
Mirtha Vásquez, left, inside the Hotel Dupont in Wilmington, Delaware before addressing Newmont's shareholder meeting. Photo credit: EarthRights International
Keith Slack, manager of Oxfam America's global extractive industries team, which tracks the impacts of mines on local communities, agreed with Vásquez. “The company needs to listen to the local population and not move forward with the Conga mine. It should find ways to address Máxima’s situation that are conciliatory and don’t rely on brute force. From the beginning there’s been an unwillingness to listen and take measures that build trust.”
For its part, Newmont maintains that it and Yanacocha always strive to be respectful of neighboring communities, and that they will not proceed without clear social acceptance. But in the case of Acuña de Chaupe, spokesman Omar Jabara continued to maintain that the family is illegally squatting on the company’s land. “On many occasions, the company has tried to resolve the dispute through direct dialogue, and remains open and willing to doing so. In the meantime,” he said by email, “Yanacocha is obliged to continue pursuing judicial avenues to re-establish its legal right to the property, while making every effort to reduce tensions and minimize conflict.”
However, Earthworks International Program Director Payal Sampat maintains that it’s too late to build bridges or reduce tensions. "The community of Cajamarca has said loud and clear—and repeatedly—that they reject the Conga mine. Instead of listening to the community and respecting their wishes, Newmont has employed security forces to intimidate and harass those who oppose them. This ‘scorched earth’ approach is hurting not only the people of Cajamarca, but Newmont's reputation and business as well."
Whether or not Newmont’s shareholders agreed with her on Wednesday, actions like it will continue to educate the world on the incredibly high cost of gold mining for both people and planet in places like Cajamarca.