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Swedish Toxic Waste Poisons Chilean Community for 30 Years

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Arica, a port city close to the border with Peru, has expanded rapidly since the 1980s, with housing developments moving into what were previously industrial areas. FLASHPACKER TRAVELGUIDE / CC BY-SA 2.0

By Laura Sear and Leslie Steed (Arica, Chile)

Arica is a dusty, windswept port city in northern Chile. Tourists wander the city's long seafront under the shadow of a dramatic buff-colored cliff called El Morro. But the bracing sea air belies a toxic controversy that has bounced from court to court, from Chile to Sweden, in vain search of resolution.


In 1994, the Chilean government erected a social housing development next to an industrial site on the outskirts of the city. Families moved in, and children began to play on mounds of dust beside their new homes — sledging down them, modeling the dust like clay, and walking it back into their homes. What residents didn't realize was that the children's playground was in fact a toxic waste dump.

A decade before the housing development went up, Swedish mining giant Boliden paid a Chilean contractor called Promel €1 million ($1.1 million) to process some 20,000 tons of smelter sludge from copper, lead, silver and gold mines in the Scandinavian country. But Promel didn't process the waste. Instead, it was left unprotected on the industrial lot next to the company's processing plant — at that time about three kilometers from Arica homes.

Rashes, Miscarriages and Cancer

Tomas Bradanovic, an engineer from the Chilean capital of Santiago, moved to Arica in the late 1980s. "At first nobody knew the soil was toxic," he told DW, "until children showed symptoms we had never seen before, like strange rashes, and suddenly many mothers in the neighborhood started to have miscarriages. Eventually people started dying."

Marisol Vilches Maibé and her family lived next to the Promel site. She has suffered breast and gallbladder cancer, her husband heart failure, and her four boys skin diseases, learning difficulties and cancerous deformities in their bones — symptoms that tally with effects of arsenic poisoning listed by the World Health Organization.

"It was at the end of our street on the corner," Marisol said of the toxic waste. "When my husband finally received his treatment, the doctors in Santiago told us there was too much arsenic in his blood — twice the allowed amount."

In 1997, NGO Servicio Paz y Justicia investigated and found the dust to contain high levels of arsenic, lead, cadmium, mercury, copper and zinc — findings later confirmed by a government toxicology report.

Chilean Authorities Neglect Victims

The Chilean authorities responded with plans to move the waste safely out of the way of residential areas. In fact, they shifted most of it a short distance to a site just 600 meters from the nearest homes — where it remains to this day, walled in but poorly protected by plastic sheets held down by rocks.

Today, the waste is walled off but still exposed to the elements, just five minutes' walk from the nearest social housing.

"The government just moved it across the street, in open trucks, spreading the chemical powder all over the city," said Tomas, who campaigns to raise awareness of the contamination. "It even landed on the rooftops of a primary school."

In 1999, NGO FIMA launched a case against the Chilean government and Promel on behalf of the communities near both the dump sites. It dragged on until 2007, when the Chilean Supreme Court finally ruled in the communities' favor.

By that time, Promel had gone bankrupt. The Chilean government compensated 365 residents, including Marisol. But a government report released two years after the Supreme Court ruling found that as many as 12,000 people may have been affected by the toxic waste.

Taking the Fight Back to Sweden

The same report outlined plans to dispose of the waste and provide healthcare to those affected. But they have never been effectively carried out, and in 2013 Arica residents took their fight back to the source of the waste — filing to sue Boliden at the mining company's local county court in Sweden.

Boliden argued that when it delivered the waste, Promel's site was still in a purely industrial zone. The Swedish court found that the company had been negligent in exporting waste that it would have known could not be safely processed, but did not find a sufficient link between the company's actions and the plaintiffs' injuries and ruled in Boliden's favor.

A subsequent appeal to the Swedish Supreme Court was rejected on the basis that too much time had elapsed since Boliden negligently exported the waste in 1984. Plaintiffs were left to pick up the company's legal bills of around €3.2 million.

Calls this year for the Swedish government to ensure the waste is brought home and safely processed on Swedish soil have gone unanswered.

An End to Toxic Offshoring?

More than 30 years after the European mining waste was dumped on the doorstep of an unsuspecting Latin American community, it may prove impossible to hold either the Swedish company or Swedish government accountable. But in the future, European companies may not be able to act with such impunity.

The waste is now just outside the impoverished Cerro Chuno neighborhood of Arica, where most residents are migrants.

On Dec. 5, an amendment to the Basel Convention will come into force, banning the export of hazardous waste from OECD (Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development) countries to the rest of the world.

Campaigners have been fighting for such a ban for decades — decades through which people of Arica have continued to live, and fall ill, in neighborhoods and homes contaminated with arsenic and lead. For them, it has come far too late.

'What Was Done to Us Is Wrong'

Marisol said her husband still isn't getting treatment for effects of the poisoning and she has given up on anyone being held accountable. "We'll never see justice for what happened here," she said.

Yet for Tomas, the Basel Ban Amendment at least acknowledges the injustice of offshoring toxic waste and, therefore, of what was done to his community. They are still fighting for healthcare and the removal of toxins from their environment. But, Tomas said, "It is equally important to know that what was done to us is wrong."

Reposted with permission from DW.

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Warming temperatures on land and in the water are already forcing many species to seek out more hospitable environments. Atlantic mackerel are swimming farther north; mountain-dwelling pikas are moving upslope; some migratory birds are altering the timing of their flights.

Numerous studies have tracked these shifting ranges, looked at the importance of wildlife corridors to protect these migrations, and identified climate refugia where some species may find a safer climatic haven.

"There's a huge amount of scientific literature about where species will have to move as the climate warms," says U.C. Berkeley biogeographer Matthew Kling. "But there hasn't been much work in terms of actually thinking about how they're going to get there — at least not when it comes to wind-dispersed plants."

Kling and David Ackerly, professor and dean of the College of Natural Resources at U.C. Berkeley, have taken a stab at filling this knowledge gap. Their recent study, published in Nature Climate Change, looks at the vulnerability of wind-dispersed species to climate change.

It's an important field of research, because while a fish can more easily swim toward colder waters, a tree may find its wind-blown seeds landing in places and conditions where they're not adapted to grow.

Kling is careful to point out that the researchers weren't asking how climate change was going to change wind; other research suggests there likely won't be big shifts in global wind patterns.

Instead the study involved exploring those wind patterns — including direction, speed and variability — across the globe. The wind data was then integrated with data on climate variation to build models trying to predict vulnerability patterns showing where wind may either help or hinder biodiversity from responding to climate change.

One of the study's findings was that wind-dispersed or wind-pollinated trees in the tropics and on the windward sides of mountain ranges are more likely to be vulnerable, since the wind isn't likely to move those dispersers in the right direction for a climate-friendly environment.

The researchers also looked specifically at lodgepole pines, a species that's both wind-dispersed and wind-pollinated.

They found that populations of lodgepole pines that already grow along the warmer and drier edges of the species' current range could very well be under threat due to rising temperatures and related climate alterations.

"As temperature increases, we need to think about how the genes that are evolved to tolerate drought and heat are going to get to the portions of the species' range that are going to be getting drier and hotter," says Kling. "So that's what we were able to take a stab at predicting and estimating with these wind models — which populations are mostly likely to receive those beneficial genes in the future."

That's important, he says, because wind-dispersed species like pines, willows and poplars are often keystone species whole ecosystems depend upon — especially in temperate and boreal forests.

And there are even more plants that rely on pollen dispersal by wind.

"That's going to be important for moving genes from the warmer parts of a species' range to the cooler parts of the species' range," he says. "This is not just about species' ranges shifting, but also genetic changes within species."

Kling says this line of research is just beginning, and much more needs to be done to test these models in the field. But there could be important conservation-related benefits to that work.

"All these species and genes need to migrate long distances and we can be thinking more about habitat connectivity and the vulnerability of these systems," he says.

The more we learn, the more we may be able to do to help species adapt.

"The idea is that there will be some landscapes where the wind is likely to help these systems naturally adapt to climate change without much intervention, and other places where land managers might really need to intervene," he says. "That could involve using assisted migration or assisted gene flow to actually get in there, moving seeds or planting trees to help them keep up with rapid climate change."


Tara Lohan is deputy editor of The Revelator and has worked for more than a decade as a digital editor and environmental journalist focused on the intersections of energy, water and climate. Her work has been published by The Nation, American Prospect, High Country News, Grist, Pacific Standard and others. She is the editor of two books on the global water crisis. http://twitter.com/TaraLohan

Reposted with permission from The Revelator.

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An illustration depicts the extinct woolly rhino. Heinrich Harder / Wikimedia Commons

The last Ice Age eliminated some giant mammals, like the woolly rhino. Conventional thinking initially attributed their extinction to hunting. While overhunting may have contributed, a new study pinpointed a different reason for the woolly rhinos' extinction: climate change.

The last of the woolly rhinos went extinct in Siberia nearly 14,000 years ago, just when the Earth's climate began changing from its frozen conditions to something warmer, wetter and less favorable to the large land mammal. DNA tests conducted by scientists on 14 well-preserved rhinos point to rapid warming as the culprit, CNN reported.

"Humans are well known to alter their environment and so the assumption is that if it was a large animal it would have been useful to people as food and that must have caused its demise," says Edana Lord, a graduate student at the Center for Paleogenetics in Stockholm, Sweden, and co-first author of the paper, Smithsonian Magazine reported. "But our findings highlight the role of rapid climate change in the woolly rhino's extinction."

The study, published in Current Biology, notes that the rhino population stayed fairly consistent for tens of thousands of years until 18,500 years ago. That means that people and rhinos lived together in Northern Siberia for roughly 13,000 years before rhinos went extinct, Science News reported.

The findings are an ominous harbinger for large species during the current climate crisis. As EcoWatch reported, nearly 1,000 species are expected to go extinct within the next 100 years due to their inability to adapt to a rapidly changing climate. Tigers, eagles and rhinos are especially vulnerable.

The difference between now and the phenomenon 14,000 years ago is that human activity is directly responsible for the current climate crisis.

To figure out the cause of the woolly rhinos' extinction, scientists examined DNA from different rhinos across Siberia. The tissue, bone and hair samples allowed them to deduce the population size and diversity for tens of thousands of years prior to extinction, CNN reported.

Researchers spent years exploring the Siberian permafrost to find enough samples. Then they had to look for pristine genetic material, Smithsonian Magazine reported.

It turns out the wooly rhinos actually thrived as they lived alongside humans.

"It was initially thought that humans appeared in northeastern Siberia fourteen or fifteen thousand years ago, around when the woolly rhinoceros went extinct. But recently, there have been several discoveries of much older human occupation sites, the most famous of which is around thirty thousand years old," senior author Love Dalén, a professor of evolutionary genetics at the Center for Paleogenetics, said in a press release.

"This paper shows that woolly rhino coexisted with people for millennia without any significant impact on their population," Grant Zazula, a paleontologist for Canada's Yukon territory and Simon Fraser University who was not involved in the research, told Smithsonian Magazine. "Then all of a sudden the climate changed and they went extinct."