By Peter Yeung
A pair of pink Amazon river dolphins emerges for just a moment, arcing above the chocolate brown waters inside the Mamirauá Institute for Sustainable Development, a research facility at the tropical heart of the Brazilian Amazon. Powerful jets of water spray out of their blowholes as these freshwater mammals take in air before submerging.
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By Rizki Nugraha, Michaela Cavanagh and Holly Young
Just like his father and grandfather, Alfian has spent his whole life working as a fisherman on the banks of the Batang Hari river in Rukam, Indonesia.
The Environmental Cost of Palm Oil<p>Touted as a wonder commodity, palm oil is found in a vast array of products and has been an undeniable driver of economic growth in the country.</p><p>But the environment has paid the price — namely through deforestation, loss of biodiversity, soil degradation, and polluted water and air.</p><p>Slash-and-burn techniques, used to clear large swathes of land for plantations, are particularly devastating in peatlands like those found in Rukam. Peatlands are made up of thick layers of decomposed organic material and burning them releases huge amounts of carbon into the atmosphere.</p><p>Rukam's residents have witnessed their landscape transform since they sold their land.</p><p>The peatlands were drained to make them usable for palm oil. A water pump brought in for irrigation disrupted the natural flow of water, redirecting it from the river to the plantation — which made it difficult for Rukam's residents' to access water for their own fields.</p><p>The situation worsened when a flood dam, used to protect the oil palm plantation from flooding, was built in 2009.</p><p>"As a consequence, villagers experience more damaging floods in the rainy season and don't have enough water in the dry season," says Rudiansyah, from WALHI, Indonesia's largest environmental organization. Farming has become difficult.</p><p>The profits from the sale of land, which were split evenly among residents, were not long-lasting. In fact, Rudiansyah claims Rukam's economy shrank significantly after the land conversion. While there is no data from before EWF came to the village, a study from WALHI and the University of Jambi found 366 of 494 families in Rukam were considered "poor" or "very poor" in 2018.</p>
Loss and Regret<p>Hikmawati can't imagine any future for Rukam and would turn back the clock if she could: "I'd go back to the olden days where we could grow rice, or when there were still plenty of fish around."</p><p>She's not alone. "When I see the vanishing forest, I feel sad... The future looks bleak," fisherman Alfian says. "If nothing changes, then the next generation will leave, and this village will go extinct. Because there is nothing to live for anymore."</p><p>Alfian expects he will be the last in the family line of fishermen. "Maybe my children will only learn the names and types of fish that used to live here," he says.</p><p>For former village chief Syafei, regret is tinged with frustration: "Everything I had planned for the future has gone to the bottom of the ocean because they didn't want to listen to me."</p><p>Many in the community feel a sense of loss, and not just concerning their livelihood. "Countless species of medicinal plants are also lost because of the land conversion from peat forest to plantation," says Rudiansyah.</p><p>It's a response common to many villages impacted by the industry. "There is without question an enormous amount of regret for those communities," says Terry Sunderland, a senior scientist with the Center for International Forestry Research (CIFOR).</p><p>"Rukam's story is actually representative for a lot of the villages in Indonesia that are engaging palm oil," says Erik Meijaard, a conservation scientist and chair of the International Union for Conservation of Nature palm oil task force.</p><p>"Certain communities benefit from palm oil, but for communities in which residents go fishing or hunting or collecting plants as part of their livelihoods, they tend to lose out quite badly when palm oil goes in and cuts down the forest, because you've got major environmental impacts."</p>
Wildfires and Mixed Progress<p>Despite established criteria from the <a href="https://www.rspo.org/key-documents/impact-reports" target="_blank">Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO)</a> in data from 2018, only 19% of palm oil produced globally was certified sustainable. Furthermore, Greenpeace <a href="https://www.greenpeace.org.uk/news/5-problems-with-sustainable-palm-oil/" target="_blank">have argued deforestation</a> continues to happen even among certified palm oil companies.</p><p>The Indonesian government has frequently touted the economic benefits of the industry. However, in the wake of the 2015 wildfires, which destroyed 2.6 million hectares of land including large swathes of peatland, the government took steps that earned international praise.</p><p>The Peatland Restoration Agency (BRG) was set up in 2016 and by the end of 2018, it had restored more than 679,000 hectares. In 2019, the same year as more intense wildfires hit the country, the Indonesian government also issued a permanent moratorium on new forest clearance for activities like palm oil development and logging.</p><p>But not all are convinced of the progress.</p><p>"[Palm oil] companies benefit from poorly enforced laws, which in some cases are also poorly drafted," says Sol Gosetti from Greenpeace, referring to the creation of the BRG and <a href="https://www.dw.com/en/twenty-three-companies-fined-for-causing-forest-fires-leading-to-indonesia-haze/a-18934750" target="_blank">renewed government action</a> against companies destroying forests and peatland, such as mandating punitive fines and revoking licenses.</p><p>"The intentions [of government plans] seemed good, but there has been very mixed follow up and research in the field shows that the plantation sector is still not changing its practices," says Gosetti. "In the meantime, a number of plantation companies continue expansion; clearing forests and draining wet, carbon-rich peatlands."</p><p>Despite the moratorium, a <a href="https://www.greenpeace.org/southeastasia/press/2834/one-million-hectares-of-forest-burned-inside-forests-moratorium-area-greenpeace-analysis-show/" target="_blank">Greenpeace investigation</a> in 2019 found that more than 1 million hectares had been burned in protected areas. The government has also been criticized for a failure to enforce industry transparency or regulations and tackle human rights abuses.</p>
Peatland Regeneration<p>Yet at the local level, some see reasons to believe the peatlands have a future.</p><p>Panace, 39, is a farmer living in Pematang Rahim, a village not far from Rukam. He used to cultivate palm oil on peatlands, but found it was very expensive as a smallholder farmer and was degrading the soil.</p><p>Now he is one of many farmers working to rehabilitate their land through the peat restoration program. The first step is rewetting the peatlands by installing infrastructure like deep wells and canal blockings to redistribute water. Then trees and other crops are replanted to repair <a href="https://www.researchgate.net/publication/327881251_Implementing_Peatland_Restoration_in_Indonesia_Technical_Policies_Interventions_and_Recent_Progress" target="_blank">damaged land.</a> </p><p>"We are going to continue diversifying our own crops and try to establish polyculture," says Panace. "We have started with Pinang palm — which grows well in peatlands and has a higher price on the market than palm oil fruits — and so far, it looks really promising."</p><p><span></span>The program depends on the willingness of both farmers and palm oil companies to participate but Panace believes education is key in the future. The program also works with community groups, NGOs and universities to promote the advantages of peatland restoration.</p><p><span></span>Change will not happen overnight. "Peatland recovery takes decades, while restoration activities have only been running for four years," says Myrna Safitri, from BRG. But once established on a broad scale it could <a href="https://theconversation.com/4-steps-the-indonesian-government-can-take-to-ensure-locals-help-put-out-forest-fires-126330" target="_blank">help mitigate the spread</a> of wildfires. </p><p>While restoration has not yet reached Rukam, not all residents are resigned to their village's fate.</p><p>Following pressure from the region's provincial government and WALHI, EWF has agreed to meet three demands of the villagers in Rukam, set to be put into effect this year: To repair the health of the soil, to help residents set up rice fields and irrigation systems, and to restore the water source for agriculture and clean drinking water.</p><p>This comes almost two decades after the decision that changed everything for Rukam. "Years ago, we only needed to take what nature provided for us," laments Syafei. "Our entire way of life was dependent on the natural rhythm of the seasons."</p><p>But he hasn't completely given up hope there is still time to recognize what is at stake. "If we don't learn from the past, then this village might disappear."</p>
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Illegal fishing appeared to spike during the Philippines' lockdown period as commercial fishers took advantage of reduced patrols to ply coastal waters that they're prohibited from fishing in, satellite tracking data indicate.
Satellite data record illegal fishing vessels, appearing as red dots, encroaching within municipal waters, shown as blue lines, from May 16 to 22, 2020. Karagatan Patrol
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By Jake Johnson
In a move that environmentalists warned could further imperil hundreds of endangered species and a protected habitat for the sake of profit, President Donald Trump on Friday signed a proclamation rolling back an Obama-era order and opening nearly 5,000 square miles off the coast of New England to commercial fishing.
By Jake Johnson
President Donald Trump issued an executive order late Thursday that environmentalists warned will accelerate the corporate exploitation of oceans by relaxing regulations on and streamlining the construction of industrial offshore aquaculture facilities, which critics deride as "floating factory farms" that pump pollution and diseases into public waters.
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By David Shiffman
Let's go fishin'! After all, a lone angler fishing from a dock or a few friends going out to sea can't have all that much of an effect on fish populations … right?
The marina in Valencia, Spain. Mark Chinnick (CC BY 2.0)
Cod in a commercial net. Derek Keats (CC BY 2.0)
Fishing off the coast of Brazil, with dolphins swimming nearby. Felipe Vaduga (CC BY 2.0)
By Jan Rocha
President Jair Bolsonaro pressed forward with a "dream" initiative sending a bill to the Brazilian Congress on Wednesday that would open indigenous reserves in the Amazon and elsewhere to development, including commercial mining, oil and gas exploration, cattle ranching and agribusiness, new hydroelectric dam projects, and tourism — projects that have been legally blocked under the country's 1988 Constitution.
A map showing indigenous reserves and conservation units in the Amazon, as well as deforestation. Mauricio Torres / Mongabay<p>Onyx Lorenzoni, Bolsonaro's chief of staff, praised the bill, claiming it was a "Lei Aurea" for indigenous people — a reference to the 1888 royal decree which freed the slaves in Brazil. From the government's point of view, the legislation is freeing indigenous people, allowing their lands to be invaded by <a href="https://www.ecowatch.com/tag/mining" rel="noopener noreferrer">mining</a>, <a href="https://www.ecowatch.com/tag/oil-and-gas" rel="noopener noreferrer">oil and gas</a> companies; <a href="https://www.ecowatch.com/tag/cattle" rel="noopener noreferrer">cattle</a> ranchers; soy farmers and dam builders, while compensating indigenous communities monetarily.</p><p>Under the Brazilian constitution, demarcated indigenous territories belong to the state, and are for the permanent possession and exclusive use of the indigenous people who have always lived there. Only they can decide what activities are allowed on their lands.</p><p>Bolsonaro's new law is therefore an attempt to override the Constitution, say legal experts. It is almost certain to be greatly modified in Congress, if it passes at all. But, say analysts, the message contained in the bill — that indigenous lands are up for grabs — is what matters.</p><p>Since Bolsonaro's election, conflicts between ruralists and indigenous people have soared. The latest report from CIMI, the Indigenous Missionary Council, shows a steady growth in the number of invasions of indigenous areas, up from 111 in 2018 to 160 in 2019; indigenous leaders say Bolsonaro's speeches and comments have contributed to the increase. <a href="https://news.mongabay.com/2020/01/five-murdered-in-2020-brazilian-amazon-land-conflicts-adding-to-2019-surge/" target="_blank">Five murders</a> due to indigenous and traditional land conflicts occurred in the first weeks of 2020.</p>
Uncontacted indigenous group in the Brazilian state of Acre. Gleilson Miranda / Governo do Acre / Mongabay
Uncontacted Indigenous Groups at Risk<p>The new bill as written would allow economic projects even in areas where there are known to be uncontacted Indians. The existence of 28 such groups in the Amazon region has been confirmed, out of 115 believed to exist.</p><p>But the bill isn't the only potential threat to uncontacted tribes. The day before Bolsonaro announced his legislation, FUNAI appointed an evangelical preacher and agency outsider to head the Department for Isolated and Recently Contacted Indigenous Peoples (CGIIRC). To accomplish this, FUNAI had to revoke its own long-established rule that only a qualified staff member could be chosen to head such a sensitive bureau.</p><p>The new head, Ricardo Lopes Dias, has <a href="https://www.theguardian.com/world/2020/feb/05/brazil-indigenous-tribes-missionary-agency-ricardo-lopes-dias-christianity-disease" target="_blank">strong views</a> regarding the conversion of indigenous people to Christianity. He is a former missionary for the controversial New Tribes Mission, a Florida-based evangelical organization, and worked from 1997 to 2007 in the Vale do Javari indigenous reserve, in Amazonas state. There, according to Matsés indigenous leaders — who protested his presence — he "manipulated part of the Matsés population to found a new village" where an evangelical church would be built. The New Tribes Mission has been accused of causing death and disease among the tribes it worked with in the 1970s, subjecting them to enforced conversion to evangelical Christianity. Lopes Dias has a degree in anthropology.</p><p>Isolated or uncontacted indigenous peoples are usually survivors of larger groups which were decimated by disease or violence when the military dictatorship (ruling from 1964-1985) forced roads through ancestral lands in the Amazon during the 1960s and 70s. In some cases up to 90 percent of local populations died. This led FUNAIi, in the 1980s, after the dictatorship ended, to introduce a policy of non-contact, designating a "no go" zone protecting the survivors, who became known as "isolated Indians."</p>
Evidence photo of Jair Bolsonaro upon his 2012 arrest for illegal fishing in a conservation area; he never paid the fine and after becoming president had the IBAMA employee who arrested him sacked. IBAMA / Mongabay
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The land in the Mississippi River Delta is sinking and eroding. Louisiana has lost about 2,000 square miles since the 1930s. And as seas rise, the loss of land will only accelerate.
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U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service<p>"The shipment violated the Lacey Act and included CITES listed species," Gavin Shire, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Chief of Public Affairs, told <a href="https://www.cnn.com/2020/02/04/us/shark-fins-seized-trnd/index.html" target="_blank">CNN</a>. "We are limited to what we can say about this as it is an ongoing case."</p> <p>While it is illegal in the U.S. to cut off a fin from a live shark and discard the rest of the animal, it is not illegal to traffic or trade shark fins in the U.S. </p> <p>"The recent seizure of more than 1,000 pounds of shark fins in Miami from potentially protected species demonstrates why we need a federal shark fin ban," said Ariana Spawn, an ocean advocate at the nonprofit advocacy group Oceana, as <a href="https://www.cnn.com/2020/02/04/us/shark-fins-seized-trnd/index.html" target="_blank">CNN reported</a>. She urged the Senate to pass the <a href="https://www.congress.gov/bill/116th-congress/senate-bill/877" target="_blank">Shark Fin Sales Elimination Act</a> (S.877), which would ban the trade of fins nationwide.</p>
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Richard Hamilton Smith / Corbis NX / Getty Images
By Susan Cosier
Come February in Wisconsin, almost everything will be covered in ice and snow. In little shanties on frozen Lake Winnebago, a 30-by-13-mile lake in the eastern part of the state, fishers will keep watch over rectangular holes cut into the ice with a chainsaw. When they spot a fin passing below, they'll jab their spears down deep. The lucky ones will earn themselves a lake sturgeon, a species that has prowled the earth's waters for more than 150 million years.
“The Right Thing for the Great Lakes”<p>Ryan Koenigs, a fisheries biologist with the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources (DNR), is among those dedicated to bringing the lake sturgeon back. He's part of a team that keeps track of every individual caught, and he helps run the registration stations where fishers who spear a sturgeon in Lake Winnebago must go before taking their catch home. Koenigs and his colleagues look for a passive integrated transponder (PIT) tag, which offers information about the fish. These tags are implanted in each fish reared or caught and released by the agency. Some individuals caught in the past few years were tagged decades ago. "I'm reaping the benefits right now of what the biologists two generations before me did in the 1970s," Koenigs says.</p><p>Restoration efforts also exist in many other states bordering the Great Lakes. In New York, the Department of Environmental Conservation, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and the Saint Regis Mohawk Tribe harvest sturgeon eggs from the St. Lawrence River and send them to hatcheries in the central part of the state and in Wisconsin. In Michigan, fisheries biologists, researchers, and state agencies successfully protected the sturgeon population in Black Lake and now use the data collected from their efforts to guide their restocking of nearby lakes and streams.</p>
Mysteries Unsolved<p>In 1995, Baker was tasked with finishing and implementing Michigan's new sturgeon rehabilitation plan. He observed reach after reach, finding only a few places were the fish still existed. One of those was the Upper Peninsula's Black Lake. Locals still spearfished sturgeon, and the population appeared to be falling. In 2001 Baker and Kim Scribner of Michigan State University set out to study the fish and get a rough population estimate. They concluded that over a 25-year period, sturgeon numbers had <a href="https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1577/1548-8675(1999)019%3C1080%3ALSAAHI%3E2.0.CO%3B2" target="_blank">declined by more than 60 percent</a>.</p><p>The state's Department of Natural Resources decided sturgeon spearfishing could continue, but fishers could harvest no more than five fish a year. Baker and his team stocked the lake, too, and the sturgeon population grew. The limit is now up to 14. Still, the population isn't recovering as quickly as expected.</p><p>To figure out why, Baker and Scribner continue their research. They also use the information they collect on basic sturgeon biology, genetics, and behavior to inform conservation efforts in other Michigan water bodies.</p><p>One major question they hope to answer concerns the timing of the sturgeon's reproduction. As with steelhead and salmon, it appears that the river where sturgeon spend the first summer of life, between May and October, is imprinted on the fish, and they come back to that place to spawn. Confirming this would help in their stocking efforts—especially in reaches where the fish haven't swum for decades.</p>
In a new report about how the world's coral reefs face "the combined threats of climate change, pollution, and overfishing" — endangering the future of marine biodiversity — a London-based nonprofit calls for greater global efforts to end the climate crisis and ensure the survival of these vital underwater ecosystems.
Coral Reefs in Crisis<iframe src="https://player.vimeo.com/video/386250260" width="100%" height="480" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="fcffbfeac80dddb74a304966b7f5995a"></iframe><p>"Tropical coral reefs support an estimated quarter of all marine species: hundreds of thousands of animal and plant species, who rely on the reef for food, shelter, and a safe place to live and reproduce," the report says. "These complex ecosystems include hard and soft corals, sponges, crustaceans, molluscs, fish, sea turtles, sharks, dolphins, and much more—including 'foundation' and 'keystone' species such as corals and sea turtles."</p><p>The report also spotlights a U.N. estimate that at least 275 million people rely on healthy coral reefs as an "essential source of food, employment, income, and storm protection for coastal communities."</p><p>In terms of the economic value of coral reefs, EJF puts tourism and recreation at $9.6 billion, coastal protection at $9 billion, fisheries at $5.7 billion, and wildlife at $5.5 billion. Directly below the economic figures, the report features "a note of caution: Valuing biodiversity in this way is of course subjective, how do we put a value on a species' intrinsic right to exist?"</p>
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