By Patrick J. Lynch
A five-day ride on horseback ìs redefining citizen-based environmental advocacy in Patagonia.
Amidst growing concerns about the destruction of Patagonia at the hands of the mining and energy sectors, 45 women from different regions of Chile and Argentina came together in January for a five-day cabalgata to call attention to the damming of Patagonia's rivers.
Led by María Isabel Navarrete, a native of the town of Futaleufu and the outspoken president of Mujeres sin Fronteras (Women Without Borders), the women made the 137-mile trek on horseback along the length of the Manso and Puelo Rivers. In the words of Mujeres sin Fronteras, the purpose of the trek was “to defend our tradition, our earth, and the future of our children, a future that is threatened by the power of companies that care only about profits and their own enrichment."
Together the Manso and Puelo Rivers drain a massive watershed that straddles the Chilean region of Los Lagos and the Argentinean provinces of Rio Negro and Chubut. On the Chilean side the Puelo-Manso watershed is facing two hydroelectric projects, one of which is expected to gain environmental approval before President Piñera leaves office in March.
Those of us working on river conservation in Chile are keeping a close eye on the Puelo, and how we can work together to protect binational watersheds in the region. If approved, the two projects will drastically reshape the course of the rivers and have severe impacts on local tourism and agriculture, the two most important sources of income in the region.
Over half the province depends on tourism alone, while the rest engage in farming and fishing. Besides the ecological impacts of the dams themselves, the companies are planning to build transmission lines to connect the energy to the grid several hundred kilometers away, cutting a path along the most scenic parts of the watershed while bringing no additional benefit to the local population.
Communities in Argentina also oppose the dams, which they fear will ship energy across the border to supply Argentina's mining boom. In addition to existing mining projects, fracking operations have recently been proposed in the neighboring Neuquén province, where major players including Chevron are promising the government tax revenues and profit-sharing in exchange for a license to frack. These projects need large sources of energy to be viable, and in that context putting dams on Patagonia's rivers seems an obvious choice. In response, local leaders on both sides of the border are now joining together to make sure that doesn't happen.
From the Mountains to the Sea
Participants in the cabalgata gathered at the indigenous Mapuche village of Primer Corral on an early Sunday morning and spent the next four days descending along the length of the river, stopping at night to rest and leaving at sunrise to continue the march. The fifth day of the cabalgata saw a large gathering of women, men and children as others joined to celebrate the march in Puerto Varas. Posts and photos from the event spread through social media and press at the local, national and international levels.
The route of the cabalgata—from oft-ignored villages to the port cities of Puerto Varas and neighboring Puerto Montt—was designed to send a message to Chile's regional and national governments. Communities on both sides of Patagonia are confronting the reality that decisions about the region's future are made remotely, in the halls of government in Santiago and Buenos Aires. Even decisions left to regional officials are often made far from where the economic and environmental impacts will be felt; Puerto Montt, the administrative capital of Chile's Los Lagos Region, is a 15-hour trip from Futaleufú in good weather. This distance makes it hard for citizens to stay informed about proposed projects designed at the regional level, even essential ones like road improvements.
The vast size of Patagonia also makes it a challenge to unite these communities. The region straddles two countries and covers over 400,000 square miles, or about the size of Texas and California put together. Rugged terrain, an unpredictable climate, and poor roads make long distances even longer. The national border between Chile and Argentina throws up an additional barrier, particularly in binational watersheds like the Puelo-Manso and the Futaleufu. In these basins the formidable Andes Mountains open up, and were it not for the border restrictions a visit to a town in the neighboring country would be as easy as going for a hike along the riverbank. Protectionist trade restrictions between the two countries further restrict the flow of people. To further complicate matters, permit decisions that impact binational watersheds are different in each country, and do not include stakeholders despite a 1991 treaty and protocol to ensure the sustainable use of shared hydrological resources.
The fight, of course, is a tough one. Powerful companies, among them Endesa, Mediterraneo, Xtrata and Energia Austral, are trying to sell Chile on a plan that would destroy its most prized rivers and wipe out the rural and eco-based tourism sectors upon which many people depend. Several binational watersheds are now at risk, including the Puelo-Manso, the Futaleufú and the Baker (where the fight to stop HidroAysén is ongoing). Mediterraneo's project on the Manso is slated for a government decision before March on whether to grant a Resolution of Environmental Qualification (RCA), which will allow the project to move forward. The project is backed by a group of investors with close ties to President Piñera, including two sitting Piñera administration officials. Groups like Mujeres sin Fronteras have accused the government of fast-tracking the project without adequate citizen participation, and local activists have already pledged to file lawsuits seeking annulment of the RCA if it is granted. But for those lawsuits to be successful the world must be paying attention.
Sisters of Patagonia
The call to action issued by Mujeres sin Fronteras is maternal, nurturing, defiant. “… [O]ur women, the mothers of yesterday and the daughters of tomorrow, like in past times and all throughout human history, provide the foundation for our families and communities. They have the key to stop this tragedy that is leading us towards certain extinction. It is us women who feel in our own wombs the responsibility to reestablish the balance lost. Thus, as we are the ones giving life, we will undoubtedly be the ones to defend it."
A key tenet of the cabalgata was promoting cross-border collaboration among women who have grown up or raised families in the mountainous region. Participants came from the Neuquén, Rio Negro, and Chubut provinces of Argentina and the Los Rios and Los Lagos regions of Chile. The cabalgata united the “sisters of different cities in Chile [and] Argentina" to “defend our tradition, our earth, and the future of our children." María Isabel is fierce in her resolve; her voice reveals a strong determination to connect these local leaders in the fight.
Women Without Borders, a Patagonia Without Dams
The leaders of the cabalgata plan to turn this into an annual event to oppose the building of dams in the region. They are also hoping to support similar cabalgatas in other watersheds at risk. This includes the Futaleufú, where Futaleufú Riverkeeper works, and where Endesa is continuing plans to install three dams and destroy one of the most beautiful rivers in the world. María Isabel's family includes some of the original settlers to the Futaleufú watershed, and other Futaleufú natives are talking about leading a similar effort to raise the alarms.
The Mujeres sin Fronteras campaign is changing the fight in Patagonia. They are proving it is possible to connect people along a shared waterway, even when a river starts in one country and greets the sea in another. They are lifting up the cultural heritage that further ties these communities together, adopting the symbols of Patagonia in a call to arms. The gaucho on horseback; neighbors sharing yerba mate around a stove after a hard day; the flag of the Mapuche people that symbolizes renewal, power, and a fertile earth. And they are inspiring organizations like ours that want to see Patagonia protected and are developing the tools these communities will need to win in the long-term.
Going forward, groups like Mujeres sin Fronteras are determined to stay vigilant in giving rural communities a voice. We must keep encouraging the type of cultural bridge-building that elevates local community issues. And at the same time, the world must stay alert so that Chile and Argentina do not allow multinational companies to destroy these resources over the strong objections of their people.
That is why we must join forces; across watersheds, cultures and political borders. One thing is certain: María Isabel and the Women Without Borders have brought the fight out into the open, in an act that will be remembered in this part of the world for years to come.
Patrick J. Lynch is International Director for Fundación Futaleufú Riverkeeper, the first Waterkeeper program in Patagonia and a member of the Patagonia Sin Represas campaign. More information at www.futaleufuriverkeeper.org.
By Tara Lohan
Our plastic pollution problem has reached new heights and new depths.
Scientists have found bits of plastic on the seafloor, thousands of feet below the ocean's surface. Plastic debris has also washed ashore on remote islands; traveled to the top of pristine mountains; and been found inside the bodies of whales, turtles, seabirds and people, too.
1. There’s a lot of it.<p>In a September study published in <em>Science </em>about the growth of plastic waste, an international team of researchers estimated that 19 to 23 million metric tons — or 11% of plastic waste generated — ended up in aquatic ecosystems in 2016. And even with countries pledging to help cut waste or better manage it, the amount of plastic pollution is <a href="https://science.sciencemag.org/content/369/6510/1515" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">likely to double</a> in the next 10 years.</p><p>A <a href="https://science.sciencemag.org/content/369/6510/1455" target="_blank">study</a> about solutions to plastic waste, published in the same issue, attributed the plastic pollution epidemic to a rise in single-use plastic and "an expanding 'throw-away' culture." The researchers also found that waste-management systems simply can't deal with the onslaught of plastic, which is why so much of it ends up in the environment. We now know that only <a href="https://www.nationalgeographic.org/article/whopping-91-percent-plastic-isnt-recycled/" target="_blank">9% of the plastic products</a> we use actually get recycled.</p>
2. The United States is a big culprit.<p>Plastic pollution is a global problem, but the United States plays an outsized role. In 2016 the United States was responsible for more plastic waste than any other country, a <a href="https://advances.sciencemag.org/content/6/44/eabd0288" target="_blank">new study</a> in <em>Science Advances</em> found. Some of that waste was dumped illegally within the country and some was shipped to other countries that lacked the necessary infrastructure to handle it.</p><p>"The amount of plastic waste generated in the United States estimated to enter the coastal environment in 2016 was up to five times larger than that estimated for 2010, rendering the United States' contribution among the highest in the world," the researchers concluded. Part of that is because the United States ranks second in exporting plastic scrap.</p>
3. It threatens wildlife and ecosystems.<img lazy-loadable="true" src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yNDg3MTUwMi9vcmlnaW4uanBnIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTYzMzE1MzM2MH0.YL5C-5GF2mq9OZBLSkcAnreq2Mai20DweKSNqeUSWM4/img.jpg?width=980" id="20233" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="3db4a05d5d417d925a770cf309db1db1" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" />
A giant otter plays with a plastic bottle. Paul Williams / CC BY-NC 2.0<p>Out of sight (for Americans) is <em>not </em>out of mind — and definitely not out of our waterways. An estimated 700 marine species and 50 freshwater species have either ingested plastic or been entangled in it.</p><p>"If we don't get the plastic pollution problem in the ocean under control, we threaten contaminating the entire marine food web, from phytoplankton to whales," George Leonard, the Ocean Conservancy's chief scientist and coauthor of the September <em>Science </em>study about plastic waste's increase, <a href="https://www.nationalgeographic.com/science/2020/10/plastic-pollution-huge-problem-not-too-late-to-fix-it/" target="_blank">told <em>National Geographic</em></a>. "And by the time the science catches up to this, perhaps definitively concluding that this is problematic, it will be too late. We will not be able to go back. That massive amount of plastic will be embedded in the ocean's wildlife essentially forever."</p><p>Microplastics have also been found in terrestrial animals, soil, drinking water and, not surprisingly, <a href="https://www.forbes.com/sites/victoriaforster/2020/08/18/microplastics-found-in-human-organs-for-the-first-time/?sh=42994a4e16f2" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">in our own bodies</a>, although it's not clear yet just how dangerous that is for people.</p>
4. The fracking boom is producing a plastic boom.<p>Despite the known risks of plastic pollution and concern over its mounting presence in the environment, plastic production — driven by fossil fuels like fracked gas and its component chemicals — is on pace to increase by 40% in the next 10 years.</p><p>The American Chemistry Council <a href="https://www.americanchemistry.com/Shale-Infographic/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">boasted that shale gas drilling is driving a surge</a> in plastic production, including the investment of more than $200 billion to fund new and expanded operations at 343 production plants in the United States.</p><p>On the ground this means more harmful pollution along the Gulf Coast's "Cancer Alley," where petrochemicals have been manufactured for decades in low-wealth communities of color. And it means the build-out of new facilities in Rust Belt states such as Ohio, Pennsylvania and West Virginia.</p><p>Fracking also causes harmful greenhouse gas emissions, like methane, to be released into the atmosphere — amplifying the climate crisis. The refining process and the incineration of plastic waste also further drives greenhouse emissions and hazardous pollution.</p>
A petrochemical plant in Houston's ship channel. Louis Vest / CC BY-NC 2.0
5. Solutions are multifaceted.<p><a href="https://www.dw.com/en/plastic-pollution-do-beach-cleanups-really-make-a-difference/a-46196975" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Beach cleanups</a> tend to make headlines, but it's a losing battle as long as petrochemical companies keep producing so much plastic and we keep using plastic for products we're meant to toss after a single use.</p><p>The September study in <em><a href="https://science.sciencemag.org/content/369/6510/1455" target="_blank">Science</a></em> on plastic solutions found that it's possible to cut plastic pollution — perhaps as much as 80% by 2040 — but it will take systemic change both in reducing the amount of plastic produced and in better managing the waste stream.</p><p>Regulatory efforts can help this process, including by regulating plastic as a pollution source under the Clean Water Act.</p><p>Efforts to ban single-use plastics, as the European Union aims to do by 2021, are another positive step. So too are "<a href="https://therevelator.org/california-plastic-legislation/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">circular economy laws</a>," which have been <a href="https://www.congress.gov/bill/116th-congress/house-bill/5845?q=%7B%22search%22%3A%5B%22H.R.5%22%5D%7D&s=1&r=5" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">introduced, but not yet passed</a>, in the United States.</p><p>These laws would halt the production of new petrochemical facilities and encourage businesses to take responsibility for the full lifecycle of the products they produce by requiring them to be reused, adequately recycled or composted.</p><p>Getting circular economy laws enacted, though, will mean enough public and political will to counter the petrochemical, fossil fuel and plastic industries.</p><p>At <em>The Revelator</em>, we'll keep covering the push for solutions to the plastic problem and new science to better understand the threats. And if you want to know more about how wildlife has already been affected, what laws could help, whether industry will be held accountable and more, check out these stories from our archives:</p><p><strong>Laws and Regulations</strong></p><p><strong></strong><a href="https://therevelator.org/plastic-pollution-warnings/" target="_blank">Plastic Pollution: Could We Have Solved the Problem Nearly 50 Years Ago?</a></p><p><a href="https://therevelator.org/clean-water-plastic/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">How an Old Law Is Helping Fight New Plastic Problems</a></p><p><a href="https://therevelator.org/california-plastic-legislation/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">New California Bill Could Revolutionize How the U.S. Tackles Plastic Pollution</a></p><p><a href="https://therevelator.org/plastic-pollution-laws/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">What Laws Work Best to Cut Plastic Pollution?</a></p><p><a href="https://therevelator.org/plastic-illegal/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Can Plastic Ever Be Made Illegal?</a></p><p><strong>Impacts</strong></p><p><a href="https://therevelator.org/toxic-plastic-pollution-food-chain/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Something Fishy: Toxic Plastic Pollution Is Traveling Up the Food Chain</a></p><p><a href="https://therevelator.org/plastic-pollution-ship-shore/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Plastic Pollution: From Ship to Shore</a></p><p><a href="https://therevelator.org/plastics-fracking-climate/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Plans to Turn America's Rust Belt Into a New Plastics Belt Are Bad News for the Climate</a></p><p><a href="https://therevelator.org/trash-galapagos-ecotourism/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Trash in the Galápagos Reveals the Dark Side of Ecotourism</a></p><p><a href="https://therevelator.org/elephant-seals-diving-garbage/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Elephant Seals: Diving Through Garbage</a></p><p><strong>Taking Action</strong></p><p><em><a href="https://therevelator.org/story-plastic-review/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">The Story of Plastic: </a></em><a href="https://therevelator.org/story-plastic-review/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">New Film Exposes the Source of Our Plastic Crisis</a></p><p><a href="https://therevelator.org/plastic-movie-stuff/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">How to Win the Fight Against Plastic</a></p><p><a href="https://therevelator.org/cities-zero-waste/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Can Cities Go Zero-waste? One Japanese Town Tried</a></p><p><a href="https://therevelator.org/secret-value-trash/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">The Secret Value of Trash</a></p><p><a href="https://therevelator.org/junk-raft-polluted-ocean/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Junk Raft: A Journey Through a Polluted Ocean</a></p><p><a href="https://therevelator.org/bioplastics-environment/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Are Bioplastics a Better Environmental Choice?</a></p><p><a href="https://therevelator.org/plastic-straws-problem-solution/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Plastic Pollution Is a Problem — These Kids Are Working for a Solution</a></p><p><a href="https://therevelator.org/thai-activists-fight-trash-taboo/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Thai Activists Fight Trash Taboo</a></p><p><em><a href="https://therevelator.org/author/taralohan/" target="_blank">Tara Lohan</a> 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.</em></p><p><em>Reposted with permission from <a href="https://therevelator.org/plastic-pollution-archives/" target="_blank">The Revelator</a>. </em></p>
EcoWatch Daily Newsletter
Hundreds of endangered sea turtles were stranded on beaches after suffering "cold stunning" in the waters off Cape Cod, Mass. Local rescuers and wildlife rehabilitators stabilized the turtles at the New England Aquarium (NEAQ) and National Marine Life Center and began treatment. Many of the sea turtles were transported by land or air to partner facilities around the Eastern Seaboard for longer-term care to make room for more incoming, cold-stunned animals.
Rehabilitators at The Turtle Hospital in the Florida Keys assess critically endangered, cold-stunned Kemp's ridley sea turtles flown in after rescue in New England. The Turtle Hospital<p>NEAQ and local rescuers begin seeing turtles every fall when water temperatures drop to that 50 degrees F threshold, and typically expect to find them into early January. After that, <a href="https://www.ecowatch.com/sea-turtle-cape-cod-weather-2621527394.html" target="_self">temperatures are so cold that any animals found are usually no longer alive</a>.</p><p>Merigo estimated that this year's cold season "looks very busy" and noted that local rescue efforts had already surpassed 400 turtles.</p><p>"It is a lot of animals. They're still coming in," she told EcoWatch as she surveyed 39 rescued turtles that day and 20 the day prior. "So far, this is a huge year."</p><p>At NEAQ, the turtles are gradually warmed up about five to 10 degrees F a day. More aggressive warming can cause serious damage and the turtle might not survive, Merigo said. Emergency treatments also include providing replacement fluids, balancing electrolytes and addressing pneumonia. Assessments take place for other serious problems too, such as shell or limb fractures, frostbite, emaciation and eye damage.<span></span></p><p>As local aquariums don't have the capacity to care for all the injured turtles, a group of private pilots called <a href="https://www.turtlesflytoo.org/" target="_blank">"Turtles Fly Too"</a> donated planes, fuel and time to transport some to various partner facilities around the country. Other turtles were driven to closer care facilities.</p><p>"We have a huge network of really great partners working with us, so if we can spread out the care, we can give better care to all the animals," Merigo said.</p><p>The 40 Kemp's ridley sea turtles recovering in The Turtle Hospital will continue to be treated and rehabilitated anywhere from 30 days to a year, depending on the severity of injuries, Zirkelbach said.</p><p>The turtle expert noted that while she's treated cold-stunned turtles from the north before, the newest arrivals were the most cold-stunned Kemp's ridleys ever received at one time.</p>
After rescue, cold-stunned sea turtles received immediate emergency care and assessments at the New England Aquarium. Caitlin Cunningham / New England Aquarium<p>In the past decade, the Gulf of Maine, which spans from Cape Cod to Nova Scotia, has warmed 99 percent faster than the rest of the ocean, Zirkelbach said. The warm water encourages turtles that migrate north along the Gulf Stream in warmer months to stay in the bay longer.</p><p>"Turtles that fail to migrate south get stuck in the unique horseshoe-shaped topography of the Cape Cod peninsula, and when temperatures drop, the bay becomes a death trap," she added.</p><p>Before ocean temperatures warmed, the waters of Maine were too cold for many of these sea turtles, Merigo echoed. Now, with warming sea surface temperatures, Maine can reach the high 70s to low 80s, which is "perfect turtle temperature," she said. The potential for more turtles getting trapped in the bay and then cold-stunned is nerve-racking for Merigo.</p><p>In addition to shifting habitats as waters warm, warming global temperatures also disrupt natural gender balance in sea turtles, Merigo warned. Gender is determined by the temperature of eggs in nests, and as the planet warms, it will result in all females at some point, she said.</p><p>"The turtles we work with are all endangered and threatened," Merigo said. "For sea turtles in general, the future is a little grim. Climate change is real; it does impact them."</p>
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