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EcoWatch and Waterkeeper Launch News Website

Insights + Opinion

Stefanie Penn Spear

On Oct. 27, EcoWatch and Waterkeeper Alliance hosted a public event along the Cuyahoga River to celebrate the launch of their nationwide news service website with Robert F. Kennedy, Jr., founder and president of Waterkeeper Alliance, as keynote speaker.  The website—www.ecowatch.com—went live the morning of Oct. 27 and works to unite the voice of the grassroots environmental movement and mobilize millions of Americans to engage in democracy to protect human health and the environment. 

The website expands EcoWatch’s coverage nationwide and becomes the first media source to focus exclusively on environmental news culled from more than 700 environmental organizations across the country.  The site showcases original content in its Insights column from leading national voices in the environmental movement, including EcoWatch’s advisory board members.

WATCH THE VIDEO OF THE PRESS EVENT BY CLICKING HERE

 

The news service provides timely access to relevant information that seeks to motivate individuals to become engaged in their community, adopt sustainable practices and support strong environmental policy. The site focuses on five critical issue areas—water, air, food, energy and biodiversity—and covers topics including, renewable energy, water and air quality, sustainable agriculture, fossil fuel depletion, solution-based sustainability projects, species protection, global warming, climate change and pending legislation.

“The current assault on America’s environmental laws, like the Clean Water Act, creates a pressing need to educate and engage people to protect our infrastructure, the air we breathe, the water we drink, to provide our children with the same opportunities for dignity and enrichment as our parents gave us,” said Kennedy. “This website encourages people to be part of the solution and engage in democracy.”

EcoWatch, publisher of EcoWatch Journal with a distribution of more than 80,000 copies across Ohio, launched the nationwide news service out of Cleveland’s Tremont neighborhood and become part of the growing online news media market.

“Northeast Ohio is a national leader in sustainability and EcoWatch is proud to call Cleveland its home,” said Stefanie Penn Spear, founder and executive director of EcoWatch. “This news service website follows the model we developed in Ohio over the last five years and expands on my more than 20 years of publishing environmental news.”

The public event featured brief remarks from Cleveland Mayor Frank Jackson; Cleveland City Councilman Joe Cimperman; the George Gund Foundation’s Senior Program Officer for the Environment, John Mitterholzer; the Cleveland Foundation’s Program Officer, Nelson Beckford; and Kennedy, a member of EcoWatch’s advisory board, who served as keynote speaker.

Other advisory board members are Wendy Abrams, an eco-advocate and philanthropist; Ed Begley, Jr., an actor and environmentalist; Lester Brown, a  prize-winning author and critical thinker; Laurie David, a bestselling author and activist; Paul Hawken, an environmentalist, entrepreneur and author; Randy Hayes, founder of Rainforest Action Network; Phil Radford, executive director of Greenpeace, and Harvey Wasserman, an anti-nuclear activist.

In addition to commemorating the launch of the national website, EcoWatch and Waterkeeper Alliance acknowledged the significance of the celebration’s location, near the historic site where the then oily Cuyahoga River caught on fire in June 1969.  This event played a major role in the growth of the modern-day environmental movement and passage of the Clean Water Act. The event also highlighted the need for water advocacy and stewardship, public access to our waterways, human-powered recreation on the water and collaboration on solution-based projects like Rivergate Park. Immediately following the event, participants enjoyed Rivergate Park, home to the Cleveland Rowing Foundation, by touring the grounds and watching rowing, kayaking and paddleboarding on the river.

Kennedy also keynoted a fundraising event at Windows on the River at 2000 Sycamore St. at 6 p.m. that evening.

To visit the EcoWatch website, click here.

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EcoWatch is a Cleveland-based nonprofit dedicated to uniting the voice of the grassroots environmental movement and mobilizing millions of Americans to engage in democracy to protect human health and the environment. EcoWatch, founded in 2006, publishes the bimonthly newspaper EcoWatch Journal, distributed for free throughout Ohio printing 80,000 copies per issue. For more information, visit www.ecowatchohio.org

Waterkeeper Alliance is a global environmental organization uniting more than 190 Waterkeeper organizations around the world and focusing citizen advocacy on the issues that affect our waterways, from pollution to climate change. Waterkeepers patrol more than 1.5 million square miles of rivers, streams and coastlines in the Americas, Europe, Australia, Asia and Africa.  For more information, visit www.waterkeeper.org.

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Ola Elvestrun, Norway's environment minister, announced Thursday that it is freezing its contributions to the Amazon Fund, and will no longer be transferring €300 million ($33.2 million) to Brazil. In a press release, the Norwegian embassy in Brazil stated:

Given the present circumstances, Norway does not have either the legal or the technical basis for making its annual contribution to the Amazon Fund.

Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro reacted with sarcasm to Norway's decision, which had been widely expected. After an official event, he commented: "Isn't Norway the country that kills whales at the North Pole? Doesn't it also produce oil? It has no basis for telling us what to do. It should give the money to Angela Merkel [the German Chancellor] to reforest Germany."

According to its website, the Amazon Fund is a "REDD+ mechanism created to raise donations for non-reimbursable investments in efforts to prevent, monitor and combat deforestation, as well as to promote the preservation and sustainable use in the Brazilian Amazon." The bulk of funding comes from Norway and Germany.

The annual transfer of funds from developed world donors to the Amazon Fund depends on a report from the Fund's technical committee. This committee meets after the National Institute of Space Research, which gathers official Amazon deforestation data, publishes its annual report with the definitive figures for deforestation in the previous year.

But this year the Amazon Fund's technical committee, along with its steering committee, COFA, were abolished by the Bolsonaro government on 11 April as part of a sweeping move to dissolve some 600 bodies, most of which had NGO involvement. The Bolsonaro government views NGO work in Brazil as a conspiracy to undermine Brazil's sovereignty.

The Brazilian government then demanded far-reaching changes in the way the fund is managed, as documented in a previous article. As a result, the Amazon Fund's technical committee has been unable to meet; Norway says it therefore cannot continue making donations without a favorable report from the committee.

Archer Daniels Midland soy silos in Mato Grosso along the BR-163 highway, where Amazon rainforest has largely been replaced by soy destined for the EU, UK, China and other international markets.

Thaís Borges.

An Uncertain Future

The Amazon Fund was announced during the 2007 United Nations Climate Change Conference in Bali, during a period when environmentalists were alarmed at the rocketing rate of deforestation in the Brazilian Amazon. It was created as a way of encouraging Brazil to continue bringing down the rate of forest conversion to pastures and croplands.

Government agencies, such as IBAMA, Brazil's environmental agency, and NGOs shared Amazon Fund donations. IBAMA used the money primarily to enforce deforestation laws, while the NGOs oversaw projects to support sustainable communities and livelihoods in the Amazon.

There has been some controversy as to whether the Fund has actually achieved its goals: in the three years before the deal, the rate of deforestation fell dramatically but, after money from the Fund started pouring into the Amazon, the rate remained fairly stationary until 2014, when it began to rise once again. But, in general, the international donors have been pleased with the Fund's performance, and until the Bolsonaro government came to office, the program was expected to continue indefinitely.

Norway has been the main donor (94 percent) to the Amazon Fund, followed by Germany (5 percent), and Brazil's state-owned oil company, Petrobrás (1 percent). Over the past 11 years, the Norwegians have made, by far, the biggest contribution: R$3.2 billion ($855 million) out of the total of R$3.4 billion ($903 million).

Up till now the Fund has approved 103 projects, with the dispersal of R$1.8 billion ($478 million). These projects will not be affected by Norway's funding freeze because the donors have already provided the funding and the Brazilian Development Bank is contractually obliged to disburse the money until the end of the projects. But there are another 54 projects, currently being analyzed, whose future is far less secure.

One of the projects left stranded by the dissolution of the Fund's committees is Projeto Frutificar, which should be a three-year project, with a budget of R$29 million ($7.3 million), for the production of açai and cacao by 1,000 small-scale farmers in the states of Amapá and Pará. The project was drawn up by the Brazilian NGO IPAM (Institute of Environmental research in Amazonia).

Paulo Moutinho, an IPAM researcher, told Globo newspaper: "Our program was ready to go when the [Brazilian] government asked for changes in the Fund. It's now stuck in the BNDES. Without funding from Norway, we don't know what will happen to it."

Norway is not the only European nation to be reconsidering the way it funds environmental projects in Brazil. Germany has many environmental projects in the Latin American country, apart from its small contribution to the Amazon Fund, and is deeply concerned about the way the rate of deforestation has been soaring this year.

The German environment ministry told Mongabay that its minister, Svenja Schulze, had decided to put financial support for forest and biodiversity projects in Brazil on hold, with €35 million ($39 million) for various projects now frozen.

The ministry explained why: "The Brazilian government's policy in the Amazon raises doubts whether a consistent reduction in deforestation rates is still being pursued. Only when clarity is restored, can project collaboration be continued."

Bauxite mines in Paragominas, Brazil. The Bolsonaro administration is urging new laws that would allow large-scale mining within Brazil's indigenous reserves.

Hydro / Halvor Molland / Flickr

Alternative Amazon Funding

Although there will certainly be disruption in the short-term as a result of the paralysis in the Amazon Fund, the governors of Brazil's Amazon states, which rely on international funding for their environmental projects, are already scrambling to create alternative channels.

In a press release issued yesterday Helder Barbalho, the governor of Pará, the state with the highest number of projects financed by the Fund, said that he will do all he can to maintain and increase his state partnership with Norway.

Barbalho had announced earlier that his state would be receiving €12.5 million ($11.1 million) to run deforestation monitoring centers in five regions of Pará. Barbalho said: "The state governments' monitoring systems are recording a high level of deforestation in Pará, as in the other Amazon states. The money will be made available to those who want to help [the Pará government reduce deforestation] without this being seen as international intervention."

Amazonas state has funding partnerships with Germany and is negotiating deals with France. "I am talking with countries, mainly European, that are interested in investing in projects in the Amazon," said Amazonas governor Wilson Miranda Lima. "It is important to look at Amazônia, not only from the point of view of conservation, but also — and this is even more important — from the point of view of its citizens. It's impossible to preserve Amazônia if its inhabitants are poor."

Signing of the EU-Mercusor Latin American trading agreement earlier this year. The pact still needs to be ratified.

Council of Hemispheric Affairs

Looming International Difficulties

The Bolsonaro government's perceived reluctance to take effective measures to curb deforestation may in the longer-term lead to a far more serious problem than the paralysis of the Amazon Fund.

In June, the European Union and Mercosur, the South American trade bloc, reached an agreement to create the largest trading bloc in the world. If all goes ahead as planned, the pact would account for a quarter of the world's economy, involving 780 million people, and remove import tariffs on 90 percent of the goods traded between the two blocs. The Brazilian government has predicted that the deal will lead to an increase of almost $100 billion in Brazilian exports, particularly agricultural products, by 2035.

But the huge surge this year in Amazon deforestation is leading some European countries to think twice about ratifying the deal. In an interview with Mongabay, the German environment ministry made it very clear that Germany is very worried about events in the Amazon: "We are deeply concerned given the pace of destruction in Brazil … The Amazon Forest is vital for the atmospheric circulation and considered as one of the tipping points of the climate system."

The ministry stated that, for the trade deal to go ahead, Brazil must carry out its commitment under the Paris Climate agreement to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions by 43 percent below the 2005 level by 2030. The German environment ministry said: If the trade deal is to go ahead, "It is necessary that Brazil is effectively implementing its climate change objectives adopted under the [Paris] Agreement. It is precisely this commitment that is expressly confirmed in the text of the EU-Mercosur Free Trade Agreement."

Blairo Maggi, Brazil agriculture minister under the Temer administration, and a major shareholder in Amaggi, the largest Brazilian-owned commodities trading company, has said very little in public since Bolsonaro came to power; he's been "in a voluntary retreat," as he puts it. But Maggi is so concerned about the damage Bolsonaro's off the cuff remarks and policies are doing to international relationships he decided to speak out earlier this week.

Former Brazil Agriculture Minister Blairo Maggi, who has broken a self-imposed silence to criticize the Bolsonaro government, saying that its rhetoric and policies could threaten Brazil's international commodities trade.

Senado Federal / Visualhunt / CC BY

Maggi, a ruralista who strongly supports agribusiness, told the newspaper, Valor Econômico, that, even if the European Union doesn't get to the point of tearing up a deal that has taken 20 years to negotiate, there could be long delays. "These environmental confusions could create a situation in which the EU says that Brazil isn't sticking to the rules." Maggi speculated. "France doesn't want the deal and perhaps it is taking advantage of the situation to tear it up. Or the deal could take much longer to ratify — three, five years."

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