The best of EcoWatch, right in your inbox. Sign up for our email newsletter!
Southeast Is Ground Zero for Genetically Engineered Trees
By BJ McManama
ArborGen Corporation, a multinational conglomerate and leading supplier of seedlings for commercial forestry applications, has submitted an approval request to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service to deregulate and widely distribute a eucalyptus tree genetically engineered (GE) to be freeze tolerant. This modification will allow this GE variety to be grown in the U.S. Southeast. The reason this non-native and highly invasive tree has been artificially created to grow outside of its tropical environment is to greatly expand production capacity for the highly controversial woody biomass industry.
For almost two decades, and under the radar from widespread awareness and public scrutiny, government, academia, biotech and the commercial forestry industries have invested millions of dollars into research and development (R&D) of GE trees. The few reports published about the R&D cite a major goal of many of these projects as providing a sustainable alternative for fossil fuels in the manufacture of consumer products and energy production.
Eucalyptus Trees are Not Native to North America
Eucalyptus trees grow faster, are highly combustible, and require more water than other species. Although some assurances have been given that this GE variety won't spread unintentionally, there are no guarantees this won't happen. Introduction of non-native, invasive organisms has been proven over the years to cause irreversible harm to the ecosystem they've overtaken. This is true when done either intentionally or accidentally. Some of the non-GE eucalyptus trees, planted in California years ago have proven a huge problem for native species. Efforts to eradicate them have been largely ineffective and are recently the leading cause of wildfires burning hotter and causing more damage in areas where they have grown unchecked.
If the draft environmental impact statement (DEIS) is accepted and this GE tree is deregulated, it will make it possible for these trees to be grown in industrial-sized "tree farms" from South Carolina to Texas.
More than 1 million acres of pine plantations, grasslands, pastures and once forested land could be forever altered by row after row of GE eucalyptus trees. Few other living things can survive on these plantations because all vegetation has been stripped from the land, soaked with herbicides and chemical fertilizers, and planted with row after row with thousands of unnaturally altered seedlings. Every five to seven years the trees are cut like hay and loaded on to giant tractor trailers headed to energy or feedstock processing facilities and the process from start to finish is repeated.
Other Trees in the GE Pipeline
GE eucalyptus trees won't be the only trees modified and mass produced for human demands if we don't stop this emerging biotech takeover of our natural world.
Biotech's R&D divisions and academic researchers have developed poplars and pines to grow faster, produce their own pesticides and be herbicide/pesticide resistant. Other varieties are being designed to have a weaker structure that requires less processing, and conversely some are being modified to have more density/strength for construction applications. For agro-fuel production, tree genes are being manipulated to make them easier to digest into liquid fuels, or for burning as biomass.
Creating trees for commercial applications will, in of itself, create new markets and uses for forest products. Assertions that these synthetic forests will save our precious natural forests is not realistic based on current trends and an ever-growing industry. We only need to look at the expansion of the international wood pellet market to see how demand is increasing.
U.S. southern hardwood forests are disappearing at an alarming rate due to the demand for wood pellets in the UK. Pellet production and export from the U.S. southeast has rapidly increased to keep up with demand. And will these natural forests with 100-year old hardwoods be regenerated? Doubtful, as they will most likely be replaced by mile after mile and row after row of fast growing GE trees.
Precautionary Principle Must Be Implemented
There are far too many unanswered questions regarding the risks associated with releasing millions of GE eucalyptus trees across the U.S. Southeast. Questions regarding invasion of surrounding ecosystems, chemical contamination, water depletion and human rights have to be addressed with certainty. These few questions alone precipitate a complete moratorium on approval of all genetically engineered trees and suspending all field trials until answers can be provided. Native American Tribes and front line communities must be consulted before GE tree plantations are established within their regions. Laws and regulations require agreement by all stakeholders and enforced to ensure protection from aggressive expansion tactics that have and are currently the cause of major human rights violations in developing countries.
As concerned citizens, we must voice our opposition to bio-engineering and commodification of Mother Earth's natural resources. Please tell the USDA that approval for unrestricted planting of this GE eucalyptus must be rejected while considerations are given to all of the threats known and unknown, here.
Indigenous Rights, Forests and Biodiversity
We cannot continue to support an unsustainable natural resource extraction economy that has reduced intact forested areas by an alarming 9.7 percent in the last 15 years. According to data collected, approximately 919 thousand, nearly 1 million acres of forest disappeared between 2000 and 2015. Now, add these latest statistics to millions more acres lost to centuries of clearcutting, that even today, takes place out of public purview.
Non-GE eucalyptus and oil palm tree plantations in the global south have been replacing rainforests at an unbelievably rapid pace. Eucalyptus trees have been the cause of rivers drying up and Indigenous communities losing access to clean water resources along with vital subsistence needs of traditional foods and medicines. Front line and Indigenous communities have been removed from their ancestral homelands to make way for these mega-operations, sometimes violently, and forced into work-camps or relegated to city slums.
The mega-tree farms planned for the southeast U.S. won't be located next to million-dollar homes and corporate high-rises. These most certainly will be placed on or near southeastern Native American treaty and traditional lands, and in close proximity to small communities in rural farming areas. If this happens, the people will be subjected to high concentrations of chemical fertilizers, pesticides and herbicides used for each growing cycle.
Forests are directly responsible for collecting, filtering and directing rainfall to streams, rivers and aquifers. Climate changes have reduced rainfall, and combined with warmer than normal temperatures, groundwater reserves are severely depleted. Recent droughts in the U.S. southeast have caused widespread crop failures and many areas have not yet recovered normal levels. In some areas, what reserves do remain, have shown to contain abnormally high levels of one or more toxic chemicals from industrial agriculture and other polluting industries. If monoculture tree plantation acreage is expanded as planned, human and animal health, and biodiversity will be sacrificed solely to increase corporate profits.
We can't allow the lands and resources of Indigenous and front line communities to be destroyed by large and powerful corporations, as has, and is currently happening in other countries. Click here to sign the petition to request the USDA reject this permit and reevaluate future priorities based on sound science, common sense and preserve these irreplaceable gifts of nature for the next Seven Generations to come.
BJ McManama is an organizer with the Indigenous Environmental Network for their Save Our Roots campaign to stop GE trees and a steering committee member of the International Campaign to Stop GE Trees. She can be reached by email at: email@example.com.
EcoWatch Daily Newsletter
By Randi Spivak
Slashing two national monuments in Utah may have received the most attention, but Trump's Interior Department and U.S. Forest Service have been quietly, systematically ceding control of America's public lands to fossil fuel, mining, timber and livestock interests since the day he took office.
A new report by Greenpeace International pinpointed the world's worst sources of sulfur dioxide pollution, an irritant gas that harms human health. India has seized the top spot from Russia and China, contributing nearly 15 percent of global sulfur dioxide emissions.
By Sue Branford and Thais Borges
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.
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."
Such a delay could have severe repercussions for Brazil's struggling economy which relies heavily on its commodities trade with the EU. Analysists say that Bolsonaro's fears over such an outcome could be one reason for his recently announced October meeting with Chinese President Xi Jinping, another key trading partner.
Maggi is worried about another, even more alarming, potential consequence of Bolsonaro's failure to stem illegal deforestation — Brazil could be hit by a boycott by its foreign customers. "I don't buy this idea that the world needs Brazil … We are only a player and, worse still, replaceable." Maggi warns, "As an exporter, I'm telling you: things are getting very difficult. Brazil has been saying for years that it is possible to produce and preserve, but with this [Bolsonaro administration] rhetoric, we are going back to square one … We could find markets closed to us."
- Brazil's New President Could Spell Catastrophe for the Amazon ... ›
- Amazon Deforestation Increase Prompts Germany to Cut $39.5M in ... ›
Hawaii's Kilauea volcano could be gearing up for an eruption after a pond of water was discovered inside its summit crater for the first time in recorded history, according to the AP.
Gina Lopez, a former Philippine environment secretary, philanthropist and eco-warrior, died on Aug. 19 from brain cancer. She was 65.
Thousands of union members at a multibillion dollar petrochemical plant outside of Pittsburgh were given a choice last week: Stand and wait for a speech by Donald Trump or take the day off without pay.
By Simon Mui
States across the country are stepping up to make clean cars cheaper and easier to find. Colorado's Air Quality Control Commission (AQCC) voted Friday to adopt a Zero Emission Vehicle (ZEV) program that will increase the availability of electric vehicles in the state, improve air quality and increase transportation affordability.