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Wild Horses Under Siege on Public Lands
By Suzanne Roy
America has two long-standing symbols for freedom: the bald eagle and the wild mustang.
Wild horses are protected by a special law, which was unanimously passed by Congress in 1971 and designates mustangs as "living symbols of the historic and pioneer spirit of the West" who "enrich the lives of the American people." You've seen these majestic wild horses in TV or magazine ads, running unbridled across the open range, dust in their wake. They evoke the boundless West and our nation's pioneer spirit.
What you don't see is the helicopters chasing them.
Roundups sound romantic, but in the case of mustangs, the process is cruel and brutal. Despite federal protection, the horses are treated like pests on their native range because, it turns out, the West isn't that open after all.
Unlike eagles, who enjoy the advantage of an open sky, there's competition for the land on which mustangs roam. Mostly from ranchers, who view these wild horses as competition for cheap, taxpayer-subsidized grazing on public lands. The U.S. Bureau of Land Management (BLM) is in charge of managing wild horses on federal land. They do so with the notion, bolstered by private interests who have their own ideas for the real estate, that there are too many horses on the range. So they round them up.
The roundups start with the helicopters, which swoop down and terrorize the animals, chasing them to awaiting corrals. The pursuit is dangerous and terrifying. Many horses are injured and some die.
- A pinto mare and her lookalike foal chased relentlessly by the helicopter, the foal roped, hogtied and separated from his mother, never to see her again.
- An exhausted colt, limping into a trap after being chased for miles by a helicopter.
- A helicopter coming dangerously close to a group of mustangs as it drives them into the trap.
- A pregnant mare found down and in distress in a holding pen, killed due to foaling complications likely caused by the stress of helicopter stampede and capture.
- A 22-year-old stallion, forced to run for miles with a shoulder injury and clubfoot only to be killed by the BLM after capture.
It's troubling to read about and even more disturbing to see. More than 350,000 people have viewed videos of the roundup posted by the American Wild Horse Campaign in February. This is one of them:
These roundups are just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to wild horse suffering and death. Records obtained by the American Wild Horse Campaign through the Freedom of Information Act show dozens of horses dying after roundups in Nevada and Wyoming in the days, weeks and months after capture. Causes of death include traumatic injuries such as broken necks, sustained when terrified horses crash into fences and gates. Other horses are just found dead in their pens, some painfully perish from colic and others just "fail to thrive." Pregnant mares stampeded by helicopters often abort their foals after capture and some die in the process.
The roundups deprive wild horses of the two things they value most: their freedom and their families. Wild horses live in tight-knit social groups, but once they hit the trap, they never see their families again. Mares are forcibly separated from their stallions; foals are torn from their mothers' sides.
Bad Policy and Bad Science
But perhaps the cruelest part of the roundups is that they don't work. According to the 2013 report, Using Science to Improve the BLM Wild Horse and Burro Program, by the National Academy of Sciences, removing horses from the range just encourages the remaining horses to breed more. So the BLM is actually creating the very problem it complains about.
Yet, the roundups continue even though the BLM doesn't know what to do with the horses it removes from the range. Some mustangs find new homes through a federal adoption program, but thousands more live out their lives in government holding corrals and pastures. The government now warehouses more than 46,000 wild horses in holding facilities.
The entire failing system costs U.S. taxpayers almost $80 million each year and that amount is growing. Entities from the National Academy of Sciences to the Government Accountability Office to the BLM itself warn that the status quo is unsustainable and yet it promises of reform fade away with each administration.
A Better Way
More humane and effective options exist. In its 2013 report, the National Academy of Sciences also noted that the "appropriate management levels" that BLM uses to justify roundups have no foundation in science. A federal court of appeals last year concurred, noting that the U.S. Wild Horse and Burro Act doesn't define these levels and there's no basis in statute for using them to remove mustangs from their homes.
Wild horses and burros are present on just 17 percent of BLM land grazed by livestock. There's room on the range for these iconic animals and the majority of Americans support preserving them on federal land. Americans are also overwhelmingly opposed to horse slaughter, the preferred management option of the special interest livestock lobby.
We need to decide on fair and sustainable population levels for wild horses. Then they can be humanely managed with birth control vaccine known as PZP, as recommended in the National Academy of Sciences report. Science and the public support this option and it's readily available. Best of all, it also preserves the animals' natural behaviors, the very essence of what makes them wild and distinguish them from their domestic counterparts.
Currently, the BLM spends less than one percent of its $80 million annual budget on this option. It can do much more. Both wild horses and taxpayers will benefit.
Last year, the National Advisory Board for Wild Horses and Burros, which ironically is dominated by livestock interests, recommended slaughtering wild horses. The suggestion was met with immediate public outrage and the BLM backed down.
But with a new president and a new Secretary of the Interior on the way, the future of these cherished animals is far from certain.
Will the cruel and costly practice of roundups continue? Or will they be replaced with something worse? Possibilities include dangerous and invasive sterilization surgeries, killing off all the mustangs in federal holding to make room for more and even shipping wild horses to foreign slaughterhouses.
The Trump administration provided a clue to how it will answer those questions in response to an ABC investigative reporter, stating that it had no intention of following the advisory board's recommendation to slaughter 46,000 wild horses and burros.
That's a positive sign.
But the threat of slaughter grows daily as states like Utah lobby to take over wild horse management by "harvesting" them as a "protein source."
Speak Up to Save Our Mustangs
This administration and Congress will literally determine the fate of America's wild horses and burros.
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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 ... ›
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