By Diane Shohet
Earlier this month, Indonesian officials sounded the alarm that "haze" from forest fires was making its way towards neighboring Malaysia and Singapore.
Haze is a benign word for the toxic smog that swamps the region every year between August and October when smallholder farmers in Indonesia clear their old oil palm crops using traditional slash and burn methods.
A 10M hectare palm oil plantation in Borneo.
Hearing the news took me back to last year's fires, which were unlike anything the region had ever seen before and which I experienced first-hand, while living in Malaysia.
In 2015, dry El Nino conditions and drained peat bogs fueled these crop fires, causing them to quickly spread. From July to November, 2.6 million hectares of forest, peat and other land on the Indonesian islands Kalimantan (Borneo) and western Sumatra burned and a thick, toxic haze engulfed Indonesia, Singapore and Malaysia.
By the time the worst of the fires were contained, financial damage to the region's economy was estimated to be as high as $47bn. The human cost: an estimated 500,000 cases of respiratory tract infections and potentially more than 100,000 premature deaths. The 2015 Indonesian fires quietly became one of the largest ecological disasters in recent times and were labeled a "crime against humanity" by many.
A Personal Story
In 2013, my family moved from Boston, Massachusetts, to Penang, Malaysia. Before living in the area, we had little awareness of palm oil production. Our early drives through Malaysia provided our first glimpse: forests gone, hilltops cleared and dotted with new plantings, and hundreds of miles of palm oil plantations. A family trip to Borneo in search of its dense jungles and orangutans yielded an even more sobering reality: a five-hour drive across the interior of Borneo with only palm oil plantations to view.
In July 2015, we had been in the U.S., but returned to Penang in August. Visibility was low as haze from the fires in Indonesia descended on the city. Many people wore cotton masks that offered little protection from the fine particulate pollution. Our eyes watered and stung. The smell of smoke was everywhere. The Air Quality Index (AQI), a measure of pollution levels, was at an Unhealthy 150.
By mid-October, the AQI was a Very Unhealthy 250. During the previous weeks, millions of school children were unable to go outside. And finally, as AQI readings neared a Hazardous 300, schools throughout Malaysia were cancelled. Many businesses temporarily closed as they are located in open-air structures, the mainstay of tropical climates. Airports shut down or restricted flights.
During the third week of October, I was forced to go to the hospital. Unable to breathe, I was put on a nebulizer, an inhaler and other drugs. A 45-year old doctor who had lived her entire life in Penang and who had been seeing an influx of respitory infections, stated, "I have never seen the haze as bad as it is."
In Riau, Indonesia, during this same week in October, the AQI in the region rose above 1,000 for over a week while visibility fell below 100 meters. All babies under six months of age were evacuated.
Like millions of other mothers throughout Indonesia, Singapore and Malaysia, I now wonder about the health of my child. How will exposure to months of toxic pollution affect him? And, how can we keep this type of environmental disaster from happening again?
First, some background on the drivers of this disaster.
The Palm Oil Story
Globally, we crave palm oil. It is found in 1 in 10 food products and up to 50 percent of household products in countries like the U.S. and Canada. It is used for soaps, cosmetics, plastics, detergents, biofuels and much more. In 2013, 58 million tons of palm oil was produced.
Almost all the world's palm oil—85 percent—is produced from the fruit of the oil palm in just two countries: Indonesia and Malaysia. Currently, in Indonesia, 10 million hectares of palm are under cultivation and that is projected to grow to 13 million by 2020. Between 2009-2011, 25 percent of all forestland in Indonesia was cleared to plant oil palms. While restrictions on deforestation exist, Indonesia is clearing its forests faster than any other tropical nation.
And it is not just tropical forest being cleared, peat land forest is being cleared and drained. When each hectare of peat land is cleared for oil palm production, 3,750-5,400 tons of carbon dioxide is released over 25 years, making Indonesia the third largest greenhouse gas emitter after China and the U.S., before the 2015 fires.
On many days in September and October 2015, in fact, the CO2 emissions from the fires in Indonesia exceeded the daily average emitted by the U.S. In fact, in those two months alone, the fires released more CO2 than what Germany emits in a year.
The Indonesian government is stepping up efforts to control the spread of the fires this year, but what can we do to get to the root of the problem?
Efforts to stop the deforestation include the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO), a multi-stakeholder organization founded in 2004, that provides third-party certification of sustainable palm oil production. Some major brands and investors don't think it goes far enough, however, and have urged RSPO to adopt stricter guidelines and more robust enforcement protocols. In 2013, in fact, a wave of companies adopted groundbreaking "no deforestation, no peat, no exploitation" commitments to supplement the certification scheme.
Indonesia has also placed a moratorium on issuing new clearing permits until 2017; however, previous moratoriums only slightly slowed deforestation.
There are key barriers to sustainability: Government corruption is rampant in Indonesia and corporate corruption can flourish when there is little regulation or oversight. Add to that a lack of support for smallholder farmers who often continue to rely on slash-and-burn farming techniques.
Many rely on palm oil for their livelihoods in Indonesia where 28.6 million still live below the poverty line and approximately 40 percent of all people live just above the national poverty line. So, this story needs to end with sustainable palm production, and that means supporting livelihoods in Indonesia and protecting the environment in the context of growing international demand for palm oil.
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EcoWatch Daily Newsletter
By Mark Hertsgaard
What follows are not candidate endorsements. Rather, this nonpartisan guide aims to inform voters' choices, help journalists decide what races to follow, and explore what the 2020 elections could portend for climate action in the United States in 2021 and beyond.
Will the White House Turn Green?<p>Whether the White House changes hands is the most important climate question of the 2020 elections. President Donald Trump rejects climate science, is withdrawing the United States from the Paris Agreement, and has accelerated fossil fuel development. His climate policy seems to be, as he tweeted in January when rejecting a U.S. Army Corps of Engineers proposal to protect New York City from storm surges, "Get your mops and buckets ready."</p><p>Joe Biden, who started the 2020 campaign with a climate position so weak that activists gave it an "F," called Trump a "climate arsonist" during California's recent wildfires. Biden backs a $2 trillion plan to create millions of jobs while slashing emissions—a Green New Deal in all but name. Equally striking, his running mate, California Senator Kamala Harris, has endorsed phasing out fossil fuel production—a politically explosive scientific imperative.</p><p>The race will be decided in a handful of battleground states, five of which already face grave climate dangers: Florida (hurricanes and sea-level rise), North Carolina (ditto), Texas (storms and drought), Michigan (floods), and Arizona (heat waves and drought). <a href="https://climatecommunication.yale.edu/visualizations-data/ycom-us/" target="_blank">Public concern is rising</a> in these states, but will that concern translate into votes?</p>
Will Democrats Flip the Senate, and by Enough to Pass a Green New Deal?<p>With Democrats all but certain to maintain their majority in the U.S. House of Representatives, the Senate will determine whether a potential Biden administration can actually deliver climate progress. Democrats need to pick up three seats to flip the Senate if Biden wins, four if he doesn't. But since aggressive climate policy is shunned by some Democrats, notably Joe Manchin of coal-dependent West Virginia, Democrats probably need to gain five or six Senate seats to pass a Green New Deal.</p><p>Environmentalists, including the League of Conservation Voters, are targeting six Republicans who polls suggest are vulnerable.</p><ul><li>Steve Daines of Montana, who denies climate science</li><li>Martha McSally of Arizona</li><li>Thom Tillis of North Carolina</li><li>Susan Collins of Maine</li><li>Joni Ernst of Iowa (bankrolled by Charles Koch)</li><li>John James of Michigan (also a Koch beneficiary)</li></ul><p>Republican Senators are even at risk in conservative Kansas and Alaska. In both states, the Democratic candidates are physicians—not a bad credential amid a pandemic—who support climate action. In Kansas, Barbara Bollier faces an incumbent funded by Charles Koch. In Alaska, Al Gross urges a transition away from oil, though his openness to limited drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Preserve dims his appeal to green groups. He faces incumbent Republican Dan Sullivan, who receives an 8 percent lifetime voting record from the League of Conservation Voters.</p>
Will Local and State Races Advance Climate Progress?<h4>THE CLIMATE HAWKS</h4><p>Under Democratic and Republican leadership alike, Washington has long been a graveyard for strong climate action. But governors can boost or block renewable energy; the Vermont and New Hampshire races are worth watching. Attorneys general can sue fossil fuel companies for lying about climate change; climate hawks are running for the top law enforcement seats in Montana and North Carolina. State legislatures can accelerate or delay climate progress, as the new Democratic majorities in Virginia have shown. Here, races to watch include Pennsylvania, North Carolina, and Colorado.</p><h4>THE CLIMATE POLICY MAKERS</h4><p>Perhaps the most powerful, and most overlooked, climate policy makers are public utility commissions. They control whether pipelines and other energy infrastructure gets built; they regulate whether electric utilities expand solar and energy efficiency or stick with the carbon-heavy status quo. Regulatory capture and outright corruption are not uncommon.</p><p>A prime example is Arizona, where a former two-term commissioner known as the godfather of solar in the state is seeking a comeback. Bill Mundell argues that since Arizona law permits utilities to contribute to commissioners' electoral campaigns, the companies can buy their own regulators. Which may explain why super-sunny Arizona has so little installed solar capacity.</p><p>In South Dakota, Remi Bald Eagle, a Native American U.S. Army veteran, seeks a seat on the South Dakota Public Utilities Commission, which rules on the Standing Rock oil pipeline. And in what <em>HuffPost</em> called "the most important environmental race in the country," Democrat Chrysta Castaneda, who favors phasing out oil production, is running for the Texas Railroad Commission, which despite its name decides what oil, gas, and electric companies in America's leading petro-state can build.</p>
Will the Influencers Usher in a Green New Era?<h4>THE UNCOUNTED</h4><p>The story that goes largely under-reported in every U.S. election is how few Americans vote. In 2016, some 90 million, <a href="https://www.pewresearch.org/politics/2018/08/09/an-examination-of-the-2016-electorate-based-on-validated-voters/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">roughly four out of every 10 eligible voters</a>, did not cast a ballot. Attorney Nathaniel Stinnett claims that 10 million of these nonvoters nevertheless identify as environmentalists: They support green policies, even donate to activist groups; they just don't vote. Stinnett's <a href="https://www.environmentalvoter.org/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Environmental Voter Project</a> works to awaken this sleeping giant.</p><h4>THE SUNRISE MOVEMENT</h4><p>Meanwhile, the young climate activists of the <a href="http://www.sunrisemovement.org/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Sunrise Movement</a> are already winning elections with an unabashedly Green New Deal message. More than any other group, Sunrise pushed the Green New Deal into the national political conversation, helping Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Senator Ed Markey draft the eponymous congressional resolution. In 2020, Sunrise has helped Green New Deal champions defeat centrists in Democratic primaries, with Markey dealing Representative Joe Kennedy Jr. the first defeat a Kennedy has ever suffered in a Massachusetts election. But can Sunrise also be successful against Republicans in the general elections this fall?</p><h4>THE STARPOWER</h4><p>And an intriguing wild card: celebrity firepower, grassroots activism, and big-bucks marketing have converged behind a campaign to get Latina mothers to vote climate in 2020. Latinos have long been the U.S. demographic most concerned about climate change. Now, <a href="https://votelikeamadre.com/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Vote Like A Madre</a> aims to get 5 million Latina mothers in Florida, Texas, and Arizona to the polls. Jennifer Lopez, Salma Hayak, and Lin-Manuel Miranda are urging mothers to make a "pinky promise" to vote for their kids' climate future in November. Turning out even a quarter of those 5 million voters, though no easy task, could swing the results in three states Trump must win to remain president, which brings us back to the first category, "Will the White House Turn Green?"</p>
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By Tony Carnie
South Africa is home to around 1,300 of the world's roughly 7,100 remaining cheetahs. It's also the only country in the world with significant cheetah population growth, thanks largely to a nongovernmental conservation project that depends on careful and intensive human management of small, fenced-in cheetah populations. Because most of the reserves are privately funded and properly fenced, the animals benefit from higher levels of security than in the increasingly thinly funded state reserves.
Vincent van der Merwe at a cheetah translocation. Endangered Wildlife Trust
Under Pressure<p>Cheetah populations elsewhere in Southern Africa have not prospered over the past 50 years. In Zimbabwe, cheetah numbers have crashed from 1,500 in 1975, to just 170 today. Botswana's cheetah population has held steady at around 1,500 over the same period, but illegal capture for captive breeding and conflicts with farmers and the growing human population are increasing. In Namibia, there were an estimated 3,000 cheetah in in 1975; roughly 1,400 remain today.</p><p>In contrast, South Africa's cheetah numbers have grown from about 500 in 1975 to nearly 1,300 today. Van der Merwe, who is also a Ph.D. student at the University of Cape Town's Institute for Communities and Wildlife in Africa (iCWild), says he's confident that South Africa will soon overtake Namibia and Botswana, largely because the majority of South African cheetahs are protected and managed behind fences, whereas most of the animals in the neighboring countries remain more vulnerable on mainly unfenced lands.</p><p>Wildlife researchers Florian Weise and colleagues have reported that private stock owners in Namibia still trap cheetahs mainly for translocation, but there are few public or private reserves large enough to contain them. Weise says that conservation efforts need to focus on improving tolerance toward cheetahs in commercial livestock and game farming areas to reduce indiscriminate trapping.</p><p>Van der Merwe says fences can be both a blessing and a curse. While these barriers prevent cheetahs and other wild animals from migrating naturally to breed and feed, they also protect cheetahs from the growing tide of threats from humanity and agriculture.</p><p>To simulate natural dispersion patterns that guard against inbreeding, the trust helps landowners swap their animals with other cheetah reserves elsewhere in the country. The South African metapopulation project has been so successful in boosting numbers that the trust is having to look beyond national boundaries to secure new translocation areas in Malawi, Zambia and Mozambique.</p><p>Cheetah translocations have been going on in South Africa since the mid-1960s, when the first unsuccessful attempts were made to move scores of these animals from Namibia. These relocations were mostly unsuccessful.</p>
Charli de Vos uses a VHF antenna to locate cheetahs in Phinda Game Reserve. Tony Carnie for Mongabay
Swinging for the Fences<p>But other wildlife conservation leaders have a different perspective on cheetah conservation strategy.</p><p>Gus Mills, a senior carnivore researcher retired in 2006 from SANParks, the agency that manages South Africa's national parks, after a career of more than 30 years in Kalahari and Kruger national parks. He says the focus should be on quality of living spaces rather than the quantity of cheetahs.</p><p>Mills, who was the founder of the Endangered Wildlife Trust's Carnivore Conservation Group in 1995, and who also spent six years after retirement studying cheetahs in the Kalahari, says it's more important to properly protect and, where possible, expand the size of existing protected areas.</p><p>He also advocates a triage approach to cheetah conservation, in which scarce funds and resources are focused on protecting cheetahs in formally protected areas, rather than diluting scarce resources in an attempt to try and save every single remaining cheetah population.</p><p>"People have an obsession with numbers. But I believe that it is more important to protect large landscape and habitats properly," Mills said.</p><p>He suggests that cheetahs enclosed within small reserves live in artificial conditions: "It's almost like glorified farming."</p><p>"In the long run we have to focus on consolidating formally protected areas," he added. "Africa's human population will double by 2050, so cheetah populations in unfenced areas will become unsustainable if they are eating people's livestock."</p>
Scientists are on the brink of scaling up an enzyme that devours plastic. In the latest breakthrough, the enzyme degraded plastic bottles six times faster than previous research achieved, as The Guardian reported.
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