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This Fern Is Absorbing Arsenic, Copper From Toxic Mining Soil in the Philippines

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This Fern Is Absorbing Arsenic, Copper From Toxic Mining Soil in the Philippines
The Pteris melanocaulon thrives in abandoned areas after an open pit copper mining operation. Mary Jean Apuan / Mongabay

Filipino scientists have discovered what might be the next big indigenous plant material for rehabilitating a mining site teeming with copper and arsenic — and it's a largely ignored local fern.


Published in the peer-reviewed journal Chemosphere, the study by a group of scientists led by Rene Claveria of the Ateneo de Manila University records the unique ability of Pteris melanocaulon to absorb copper in its roots and arsenic in its leaves in large doses.

"It's not common for ferns to absorb both high concentrates of copper and arsenic," Claveria, an environmental geology expert, tells Mongabay. "Plants don't do it simultaneously in large doses. It's something new."

The fern was spotted in the mossy areas of an abandoned mining site in the province of Surigao del Norte by the scientists scouring major mining sites across the Philippines to study copper metallophytes under a government-funded research program.

The study of metallophytes, plants that have the ability to thrive on soils with high concentrations of heavy metals that are too toxic for other plant species, has been a growing interest among scholars, particularly for their possible use in phytoremediation, the process of cleaning up mineral-rich soil and groundwater using plants and trees.

"It's not common for ferns to absorb both high concentrates of copper and arsenic," Claveria, an environmental geology expert, tells Mongabay. "Plants don't do it simultaneously in large doses. It's something new."

The fern was spotted in the mossy areas of an abandoned mining site in the province of Surigao del Norte by the scientists scouring major mining sites across the Philippines to study copper metallophytes under a government-funded research program.

The study of metallophytes, plants that have the ability to thrive on soils with high concentrations of heavy metals that are too toxic for other plant species, has been a growing interest among scholars, particularly for their possible use in phytoremediation, the process of cleaning up mineral-rich soil and groundwater using plants and trees.

A fern species that flourishes in the mossy slopes of an open pit copper mining site in Surigao del Norte, a province in Mindanao. Teresita Perez / Mongabay

"We are interested in metallophytes … plants that grow on mining areas," Claveria says. "While analyzing all these plants, we decided that fern is the most suitable for our study because they have higher amounts of absorbed copper and arsenic and other metals."

The decision to narrow down to ferns came with scholarly backing: the Pteris genus, which includes around 300 species of ferns, feature other popular metallophytes that absorb arsenic. But unlike other widely researched species, P. melanocaulon was mostly unknown, in part due to the scarcity of research journals on the plant. Existing surveys conducted by the team across various large- and small-scale mining sites showed that it only proliferates in two areas in the Philippines.

"When we focused on ferns, there was one that stood out: the P. melanocaulon, which we didn't see in any other mining sites we surveyed," Claveria says. "We found it in Surigao [del Norte] and later on, in Carmen [in Cebu province] … and this fern happens to grow in areas [within these sites] that are supposedly barren."

The mossy open slopes left behind by open pit mines, notorious for their high levels of arsenic and copper concentrates, were the perfect breeding grounds for P. melanocaulon, which thrive in lush clusters that overpower the other plants in the Surigao del Norte mining site, Claveria says. Curious about the fern, they recovered samples and conducted initial tests to measure its copper absorption capabilities in 2014.

The results showed that the plant's roots have "anomalously high" concentrations of copper, Claveria says. After publishing their findings in the International Journal of Phythoremediation in 2015, the team expanded their research on the plant and threw arsenic into the mix.

Rene Claveria and Teresita Perez examining plants in Surigao del Norte. Teresita Perez / Mongabay

The logic was since the fern survives alongside other species that are known arsenic metallophytes, maybe it could also absorb arsenic.

After collecting another set of samples, they conducted a series of tests that verified their hypothesis: the fern does indeed absorb the toxic mineral and stores it in its stems and leaves. They took the research a little further and funded a greenhouse to propagate spores of P. melanocaulon at Xavier University in Cagayan de Oro province, where they experimented with the potted plants.

They added different concentrations and solutions of arsenic to uncontaminated soil in a series of experiments that lasted for six weeks. The plant's ability to absorb arsenic varied, adjusting to the concentration of the element in the soil, much to the researchers' surprise. The team noted two important observations: that the fern contained more arsenic concentrate than the soil it was planted on, and that despite exposure to high levels of arsenic, it showed no symptoms of toxicity.

"P. melanocaulon is an accumulator of [arsenic], with the plant having higher amounts of [arsenic] than that of the soil," the study says. The study also noted that while the arsenic concentration increases, the fern can "efficiently absorb and store" arsenic and extract it from the soil, making it an "efficient arsenic accumulator and hyperaccumulator."

The results, according to Claveria and Teresita Perez, also of the Ateneo de Manila University who headed the research program, prove that the plant can be used to rehabilitate mining sites, especially since its "root system provides good soil cover" and "can ideally immobilize metal contaminants." This means that the plant can filter contaminated water and reduce the spread of heavy metals through the soil.

Rene Claveria collecting soil samples in Surigao del Norte. Teresita Perez / Mongabay

"If you use the ferns to clean up arsenic, which is very toxic, there could be colonization or succession of plants," Perez says. "Eventually, a year after or after one and a half years, you can already plant some high value crops in the area."

With the protocol in the propagation of the fern species in the books, Perez says the possibility of using the fern to rehabilitate mining soil on a large-scale project is possible. But first, she says, decision-makers should be aware of metallophytes — and that there are indigenous plants that can be used as natural remedies to alleviate mineral-heavy soils.

"We have to recommend to our policymakers the use of indigenous plant materials to actually clean up arsenic-contaminated areas," Perez says. "In the past, rehabilitating mining sites involved planting invasive species — that was really a wrong move. But now, we're propagating the idea of indigenous and endemic species so these areas can develop new ecosystems."

Reposted with permission from Mongabay.

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In early October, Britain's Prince William teamed up with conservationist David Attenborough to launch the Earthshot Prize, a new award for environmentalist innovation. The Earthshot brands itself the "most prestigious global environment prize in history."

The world-famous wildlife broadcaster and his royal sidekick appear to have played an active role in the prize's inception, and media coverage has focused largely on them as the faces of the campaign.

But the pair are only the frontmen of a much larger movement which has been in development for several years. In addition to a panel of experts who will decide on the winners, the prize's formation took advice from the World Wildlife Fund, Greenpeace and the Jack Ma Foundation.

With more and more global attention on the climate crisis, celebrity endorsement of environmental causes has become more common. But why do environmental causes recruit famous faces for their campaigns? And what difference can it make?

'Count Me In'

"We need celebrities to reach those people who we cannot reach ourselves," says Sarah Marchildon from the United Nations Climate Change secretariat (UNFCCC) in Bonn, Germany.

Marchildon is a proponent of the use of celebrities to raise awareness of environmental causes. In addition to promoting a selection of climate ambassadors who represent the UN on sustainability issues, Marchildon's team has produced videos with well-known narrators from the entertainment world: among them, Morgan Freeman and Mark Ruffalo.

"We choose celebrities who have a lifestyle where they are already talking about these issues," Marchildon explains.

"Sometimes they reach out to us themselves, as David Attenborough did recently. And then they can promote the videos on their own social channels which reach more people than we do — for example, if they have 20 million followers and we have 750,000."

Environmental groups focused on their own domestic markets are also taking this approach. One Germany-based organization that uses celebrities in campaigns is the German Zero NGO. Set up in 2019, it advocates for a climate-neutral Germany by 2035.

German Zero produced a video in March 2020 introducing the campaign with "66 celebrities" that supported the campaign, among them Deutschland 83 actor Jonas Nay and former professional footballer Andre Schürrle. They solicit support as well as financial contributions from viewers.

"Count me in," they say, pointing toward the camera. "You too?"

"We are incredibly grateful for the VIPs in our videos," says German Zero spokeswoman Eva-Maria McCormack.

Assessing Success Is Complex

But quantifying the effectiveness of celebrity endorsement of campaigns is not a straightforward process.

"In order to measure effectiveness, first of all you need to define what is meant by success," says Alegria Olmedo, a researcher at the Zoology Department at the University of Oxford.

Olmedo is the author of a study looking at a range of campaigns concerning pangolin consumption, fronted by local and Western celebrities, in Vietnam and China. But she says her biggest stumbling block was knowing how to measure a campaign's success.

"You need a clear theory of change," explains Olmedo. "Have the celebrities actually helped in achieving the campaign's goals? And how do you quantify these goals? Maybe it is increased donations or higher engagement with a cause."

A popular campaign in China in recent years saw famous chefs Zhao Danian and Shu Yi pledge to abstain from cooking endangered wildlife. While the pledge achieved widespread recognition, both Olmedo and Marchildon say it's difficult to know whether it made any difference to people's actions.

"In life we see a thousand messages every day, and it is very hard to pinpoint whether one campaign has actually made a difference in people's behavior," she explains.

Awareness Is Not Enough

Many campaigns that feature celebrities focus on raising awareness rather than on concrete action — which, for researcher Olmedo, raises a further problem in identifying effectiveness.

"Reach should never be a success outcome," she says. "Many campaigns say they reached a certain number of people on social media. But there has been a lot of research that shows that simply giving people information does not mean they are actually going to remember it or act upon it."

But anecdotal evidence from campaigns may suggest reach can make an active difference.

"Our VIP video is by far the most watched on our social media channels," McCormack from German Zero says. "People respond to it very directly. A lot of volunteers of all ages heard about us through that video."

However, some marketing studies have shown that celebrity endorsement of a cause or product can distract from the issue itself, as people only remember the person, not the content of what they were saying.

Choosing the Right Celebrity

Celebrity choice is also very important. Campaigns that use famous faces are often aiming to appeal to members of the public who do not necessarily follow green issues.

For certain campaigns with clear target audiences, choosing a climate scientist or well-known environmentalist rather than a celebrity could be more appealing — Attenborough is a classic example. For others, images and videos involving cute animals may be more likely to get a message heard than attaching a famous face.

"We choose celebrities who have a lifestyle where they are already talking about these issues," says Marchildon from the UN. "You need figures with credibility."

McCormack cites the example of Katharine Hayhoe, an environmental scientist who is also an evangelical Christian. In the southern United States, Hayhoe has become a celebrity in her own right, appealing to an audience that might not normally be interested in the messages of climate scientists.

But as soon as you get a celebrity involved, campaigns also put themselves at risk of the whims of that celebrity. Prince William and younger members of the royal family have come under fire in recent years for alleged hypocrisy for their backing of environmental campaigns while simultaneously using private jets to fly around the world.

But Does It Really Work?

While environmental campaigns hope that endorsement from well-known figures can boost a campaign, there is little research to back this up.

"The biggest finding [from my study] was that we were unable to produce any evidence that shows that celebrity endorsement of environmental causes makes any difference," says Olmedo.

This will come as a blow to many campaigns that have invested time and effort into relationships with celebrity ambassadors. But for many, the personal message that many celebrities offer in videos like that produced by German Zero and campaigns like the Earthshot Prize are what counts.

The research may not prove this conclusively — but if the public believes a person they respect deeply personally cares about an important issue, they are perhaps more likely to care too.

"I personally believe in the power this can have," says Marchildon. "And if having a celebrity involved can get a single 16-year-old future leader thinking about environmentalist issues — that is enough."

Reposted with permission from DW.

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