Tuesday, August 31, 2010


Colagem de Carmem Chagas
Collage by Carmen Chagas

Luiza Mello Franco (a researcher and writer for the Council on Hemispheric Affairs) takes an in-depth look at the presidential election in Brazil.

Money quote:

The environment remains a tough political sell in Brazil. There is more to Brazilians’ suspicion of environmentalists than an evil conspiracy by powerful interest groups. People’s lives are getting better. In the very short term, the majority of the population will not suffer if, for example, ranchers receive a virtual amnesty from deforestation. There is no reason to change a team that is winning, as goes a Brazilian football analogy. It will be difficult, and it will take generations to convince Brazilians that if the environment is left out of the strategy, the team will only win the first match.

A growing number of young people see it differently, and that's the start of a movement which is the difference that holds the political demand for a less distant and yet different future. Marina Silva has been unique among leading Brazilian politicians in asking that Brazil think about winning the series rather than only the first match. With calmness, clarity and wisdom, she speaks to and for that future.

Brazil – The Environment, Lula and Marina Silva. “There is nothing as powerful as an idea whose time has come”: Marina Silva’s Unwinnable But Noble Bid for the Brazilian Presidency, and Why it Matters

When Marina Silva was still Brazil’s environment minister, she took a trip to the Xingu River in the Amazon. On the day she began her travels, José Dirceu, President Lula’s incorrigible former chief of staff, invited Germano Rigotto, the governor of Rio Grande do Sul, to fly to Brasilia. The governor has strong ties with agribusiness, and his political clout would be useful in lobbying for transgenic crops. Dirceu’s invitation was strategic– he wanted to make the most of Marina’s absence. The event shows how far Marina, the Green Party’s (PV) presidential candidate in the October 3rd elections, has taken the environmental debate in Brazilian politics. Although her cause – the environment – has gained momentum due to its urgency, Marina has no prospect for winning the presidency. Her voter base is composed of a number of small, disparate interest groups, who gravitate towards her for different reasons, a concern with the environment being only one of them. Nevertheless, Marina Silva’s presence in the campaign is as significant as the result of the elections. To talk about her is to talk about the conundrum Brazil is facing as its economy grows, the environment – to a vital extent the source of such growth – is threatened and the country’s role in the world becomes more and more central. She deserves the attention of anyone implicated or merely interested in Brazil’s future.

Reminiscing About the Present

These are interesting times for Brazilian politics, times when a desire for more of the same coincides with demands for radical change, with both waves stimulated by the same factors: stability and growth. The statistics of social progress in Brazil are remarkable. The number of people living in poverty has fallen by 20 million under Lula, from 49.5 million (or 28.5% of the total) in 2003 to 29 million (16% of the total population) in 2008, according to calculations by Marcelo Neri, a social-policy expert at the Rio de Janeiro based Fundação Getulio Vargas. Even allowing for an expected slowdown, the economy will have grown by about 8% in the year before the elections in October. Inequality, a plague in Brazil, is also declining: according to The Economist magazine, the Gini coefficient, a standard statistical measure of inequality, has fallen steadily since 2001 (though it remains very high by international standards). When the economy is doing this well, it is difficult for voters to accept that there is room and need for change. Most Brazilians will vote for Dilma Rousseff or José Serra, the two mainstream candidates who will maintain Brazil’s orthodox development strategy. Fewer voters see Marina’s environmentally-conscious development ideas as the best way to guarantee the continuation of the present level of growth in the long term. They see that times are good but the status quo is not. There is also a dimension of political protest to her success: many of her voters are disillusioned with the Worker’s Party (PT) record, and they see in her candidacy a chance to make their voices heard. The less cynical of these also find in her political character the kind of moral uprightness that gives legitimacy to politics in a time when politicians have little credibility with the public. Regardless of why voters chose her as their candidate, she now has a platform to defend and increase the visibility of environmental sustainability.

Political circumstances and her resignation from PT in 2009 have made the association between Marina and Lula impossible. It is curious nonetheless that Dilma Rousseff, and not Marina, was selected as Lula’s successor. After all, Lula and Marina have similarly moving backgrounds and their political lives are intertwined: they are both founding members of the PT. Marina was born in poverty, in a community of rubber-tappers in the state of Acre. As such, she was part of the political wave that brought the plight of the poor to the political mainstream. She once said, “Now that the people are no longer afraid to vote for a ‘Silva’ they can carry on voting for a ‘Silva’ – but this time, Marina”. Silva is possibly the most ordinary Brazilian name, like Smith is to English-speaking countries. In any case, it is to Rousseff that Lula has chosen to transfer his popularity. Roussef’s biggest rival, José Serra, was part of Fernando Henrique Cardoso’s administration and has been in the opposition ever since Lula became president. Regardless of their varying degrees of personal closeness to Lula, Rousseff and Serra had to focus on the same question: how to maintain and add to Lula’s legacy. Environmental concerns are secondary in both of their political agendas. Marina is not necessarily critical of the way Lula has run the country, nor is she critical of him personally (at least not in public). She does, nevertheless, profoundly differ from Rousseff and Serra in that she focuses not on perpetuating the present, but preparing for the future. This means preserving some of the current administration’s initiatives because these have been beneficial and there is still room for them in her vision of Brazil’s future. But it also means radically altering others, especially regarding the environment. She wants to reshape the way the country sees the environment because she believes that environmental woes prevent Brazil from realizing its full potential.

It is Not About Tree-Hugging

Despite challenges from skeptics, scientific evidence is solidly on the side of environmentalists – NASA and the UK Met Office recently released convincing data that proves the rise of long-term world temperatures. Moreover, never have the flaws in the way we obtain energy been more evident. The environment is unique in international affairs because sustainability is in the interest of every nation. But no other country is as profoundly implicated in both the problems and the solutions as is Brazil. Brazil possesses most of the Amazon, “the world’s lungs”; because of the abundance of natural resources Brazil is also in an ideal position to deal with the energy challenges of the modern world. It is odd, therefore, that environmentally-friendly policies are portrayed as a burden rather than as an asset to Brazil’s rise to international prominence. Environmentalism is a multifaceted movement, with varying degrees of credibility, but Marina advocates for its most serious side. She puts her finger on the only way we can avert crises: to address their structural causes, a process only governments can initiate. Environmentally concerned individuals may be drawn by anxiety to make choices in their daily lives that protect, or at least cause less damage to the environment. Unfortunately, their efforts will not have a significant impact if big decision-makers opt in favor of the status quo.

As Marina sees it, when it comes to the environment, especially the Amazon, inevitable doom and opportunity are two sides of the same coin. The way Brazil handles its resources will define whether the country will save the world or allow it to go under. In a Financial Times interview in 2009, she distanced herself from the political mainstream:

“Changing the model of development pre-supposes risk, including in relation to public opinion. I think that unfortunately the parties and Congress, and the executive, are trapped in the status quo and are incapable of the vision needed to make the change.”

Marina feels compelled to take this risk for ethical and sentimental reasons, but also for practical ones. Policy-makers fail to take into account environmental costs — the economy depends on biodiversity, so jeopardizing the environment is counter-productive. In an interview with Jô Soares, a prominent talk show host, Marina said that 50% of the GDP of developing countries depends on biodiversity. “Who in their right mind would want to destroy 50% of their GDP?” she asked in bewilderment.

Hands Tied at the Ministry

Her experience as Lula’s environment minister sheds light on the frustration in Marina’s tone. She resigned in 2008, and in the following year she also left the PT. A description of her time in office illustrates how far the political consensus is from her vision of Brazil. Marina resigned following a succession of disputes with fellow ministers and businessmen who accused her of stalling major development projects in the Amazon and of hindering the Brazilian economy. In her first years as minister, it seemed like she would achieve much of what she had aspired for: a plan called Legal Amazon reduced deforestation by 57% in its first three years. However, by 2007 she had become politically isolated. In that year, the government blamed her for the slow implementation of the Growth Acceleration Program (PAC). Tensions rose further when satellite images showing a sudden spike in deforestation came to Marina’s attention. She called a press conference, where she partly blamed soy farmers for the destruction. Lula was furious. She described the rise in deforestation as a “cancer”; he rebutted that it was an “itch”, at most a “little tumour”. In a move seen as a final insult to her, Lula picked Mangabeira Unger, who is known for his controversial ideas of development and industrialization, to be the head of a new sustainable development scheme for the Amazon. Meanwhile, a group of politicians – including Blairo Maggi, one of the world’s largest soy producers – mounted a lobby to overthrow measures that banned banks from lending money to fund projects in areas of illegal deforestation. Something had to give, and Marina resigned.

To be fair, even environmentalists sometimes question Marina’s attitudes. Fabio Olmos, an environmental consultant, criticized her for being too inflexible: “Things like transgenic foods or stem-cell research should be tested and authorized or vetoed based on test results. She belongs to the team that doesn’t even want to test these things.” Marina’s ethical stand is a double-edged sword. Many admire her for it, but she is often criticized for being too messianic. According to critics, the flipside of her idealism is her unyielding personality. Her moral uprightness and unwavering defense of her ideas do not make her exactly confrontational, but they do polarize debates. When she was first appointed minster, many feared that Lula had chosen her to signal, especially to the international community, that his administration was serious about the environment when in fact his commitment was merely rhetorical. This analysis may be simplistic, but it is true that the very qualities that make her a darling of international environmentalists – her militant pose and seriousness of purpose – also make her seem reclusive and inflexible. Her opponents are unwilling to discuss some of her ideas simply because they are hers. For example, it is telling that Jose Serra had to be the public face of a project she designed to subsidize rubber plantation; Congress passed it, but it probably would not have passed it if she had been the one to defend it in Congress. Moreover, her principled approach to politics gives her an outsider status that leads some to argue that she was politically weak – disjunctive personal qualities become political liabilities. Although there may be something to these arguments, ultimately they say more about the accusers than about Marina’s putative faults.

An Amazonian Riddle

The political climate was tense when Marina was at the ministry. Debates between agribusiness and environmentalists are always tense because the stakes are high for both sides, particularly when the subject is as touchy as the fate of the Amazon. Throughout Brazil’s history, public opinion has shifted from considering the Amazon’s conquest successful and even heroic (when the government called on people to populate and control an empty region) to regarding it as an environmentally criminal act. All this time, however, its occupation model has remained the same. Any talk of change is politically sensitive because the occupiers of this vast land were encouraged to move there in the first place. Lula’s government, like its predecessors, has tended to sympathize more with this variety of voters than with environmentalists.

At the same time, political clout still lies with agribusiness. The bancada ruralista, an informal block of representatives who defend agricultural interests, make up 20 – 25% of Congress, according to political consultant João Augusto de Castro Neves. Their hegemony is dangerous because the status quo that they so ardently defend is based on unsustainable deforestation. In Tailândia, a town in Pará surrounded by sawmills, about 70% of the population depends on logging in some fashion, according to local officials in the state’s finance ministry. Logging is only a part of a cycle of activities that, taken together, intensify deforestation. Loggers work with farmers: once loggers clear an area of trees, cattle farmers sow grass and raise cattle, and when the land is exhausted for pasture, it passes on to another category of farming. There are even financial incentives to participate in this process, because ranchers often sell the land they have deforested to another user, even though they do not legally own it. This cycle is highly inefficient: as The Economist has reported, a recent study of some 300 municipalities in the Brazilian Amazon, published in the latest edition of Science, shows that deforested areas enjoy a short economic boom, then quickly fall back to previous levels of development and productivity as the frontier advances. The Economist adds that deforestation also reduces the rainfall on which Brazil’s agriculture depends. Because of this inefficient and exploitative system, many soybean exporters have pledged not to buy Amazonian soy. Stopping this system is not just a question of ethics, but of determining the future of agriculture. Destroying the entire forest is not an option. Marina has been right to place deforestation of the Amazon, and the harmful development linked to it, at the centre of attention, and no matter how adamant she may sound to some, all must give her credit, if only for bringing home the seriousness of the problem.

Despite massive resistance to Marina’s ideas, there are signs that people from all sides of the debate are aware that something needs to change. Aldo Rebelo, a federal deputy, has proposed legislation to legalize land occupation. Marina has called the project “environmental embezzlement.” The idea is to legalize land ownership by squatters who have deforested the land they occupy. This reeks of environmental amnesty. The landowner would, nevertheless, have to commit to maintaining the size of farms (preventing expansion and further deforestation). The government claims that the legislation will enable it to discover which farmers are operating on illegal land and in the informal economy. The trouble is, the new system will be very difficult to enforce, and the outcome is likely to be an increase in deforestation. Roberto Smeraldi of Amigos da Terra, an NGO, worries that “this is not something that is feared as a serious threat by people who break the law”.

The solution that Marina and other environmentalists have proposed is to provide these land occupiers with another source of income, such as commercializing forest products. It is to this end, among others, that Norway has donated 1 billion USD to the Amazon, for which Marina’s ministry set up the Amazon Fund. This money creates momentum to alter the Amazonian economy and introduce new, non-exploitative activities. Norway’s initiative also calls attention to the responsibility of developed countries to help contain deforestation. Years of growth based on high emissions have made developed countries indebted to the environment, so now it is only fair that they take an equally active role in protecting it. On the other hand, it will take more than creating alternative economies to stop deforestation, and some form of environmental intervention is necessary to develop the local economy. As The Economist points out, the discussion right now is not so much about how to stop deforestation, but about how to slow it down.

Have the Cake and Eat it Too

Critics paint Marina as a tree-hugging environmental populist. In fact, a detached analysis of her speeches brings out different, more moderate perspectives. She is far from suggesting that growth should be sacrificed for the sake of the environment. She advocates that “there is no need to abandon environmental responsibility in order to promote growth.” After all, her ministry licensed some of the Lula administration’s most ambitious pro-growth projects. To begin with, it approved of the inter-basin transfer of the São Francisco River. Also, important parts of the hydroelectric dam complex, the Belo Monte Dam, were given the go ahead under her watch (although she is now critical of the direction the project is taking). Finally, her ministry allowed the construction of BR-163, a highway that runs from Cuiaba in the southern part of Mato Grosso to Santarém in the state of Pará. What Marina is trying to do is to make Brazilians understand that they do not have to choose between the environment and growth – that the two are reconcilable.

She Won’t Win, so Why Care?

Marina is certainly not expected to win the presidential elections, so raising the profile of sustainability will be the most significant and lasting outcome of her run for president. Brazilians are not typically environmentally conscious, simply because for many of them, short-term survival is the priority – when tomorrow is uncertain, the future is irrelevant. Still, her campaign has acquired a kind of inspired support base that is rare in Brazilian national politics. She may not belong to any of the mainstream parties, and she definitely lacks the funds for a successful campaign, but she has something all other candidates long for: the devotion of young people. Their enthusiasm is comparable (in fervor, though not in numbers) to the excitement of young American voters in the 2008 presidential campaign. These people see the environment as an overwhelmingly motivating political cause. A spontaneous grassroots campaign has sprung from this group of mostly middle and upper-middle class young people. They are responsible for Movimento Marina Silva, whose website has more than 20,000 subscribers. As minister, her achievements in defending the environment were momentous, but they are also reversible. The best way to safeguard them is to make voters understand their importance. Polls indicate that she will not be Brazil’s president for the next four years, but the impact of her campaign has the potential outlast a presidential term.

That being said, the truth is, it is not just a lack of political clout or adequate campaign funds that prevent her from winning the presidency. The environment remains a tough political sell in Brazil. There is more to Brazilians’ suspicion of environmentalists than an evil conspiracy by powerful interest groups. People’s lives are getting better. In the very short term, the majority of the population will not suffer if, for example, ranchers receive a virtual amnesty from deforestation. There is no reason to change a team that is winning, as goes a Brazilian football analogy. It will be difficult, and it will take generations to convince Brazilians that if the environment is left out of the strategy, the team will only win the first match. Marina once quoted Victor Hugo saying “there is nothing as powerful as an idea whose time has come.” We are witnessing the baby steps of this idea, and how fast it will develop is still uncertain. What is certain, though, is that Marina is on the right side of history.

Go to original article.


Sigourney Weaver explains why the struggle over the Belo Monte dam is the struggle for all of Amazônia.


More information from:

Amazon Watch
International Rivers
Xingu Vivo Para Sempre

Monday, August 30, 2010


The Government of Brazil is forging ahead with plans to build the Belo Monte on the Xingu River in the central Amazon Basin despite serious engineering questions and difficulties with financing and James Cameron's Avatar campaign to assist the struggles of the real life avatars on earth.

Beyond the particular facts that dam would flood 500 square kilometers of pristine rainforest, relocate 12,000 people and negatively impact 45,000 indigenous people who depend on the river, Belo Monte raises in high profile the over-the-top massive development plans slated for the entire Amazon Basin which is home to greatest rainforest in the world.

Currently five nations -- Brazil, Bolivia, Colombia, Ecuador, and Peru -- are planning over 146 big dams in the Amazon Basin. Some of these dams would flood pristine rainforests, others threaten indigenous people, and all would change the Amazonian ecosystem.

A new website developed by US NGO International Rivers and Argentine NGO Fundacion PROTEGER, with funding by ECOA from Brazil outlines the sites and impacts of these dams with an interactive map. Read more about it at Mongabay.

Most politicians and their constituencies take the view that hydroelectric development is both necessary and desirable. The typical "stump speech" runs like this: "Economic development is necessary to lift people out of poverty. Economic development requires energy. The the vast unharnessed rivers of Amazonia provide the clean and comparatively inexpensive source of energy that will bring a better life for everyone."

It doesn't seem to matter that, in fact, not everyone's life will be made better. Indeed, some will lose their way of life. And it doesn't seem to matter that hydro-power is nowhere as "clean" as represented due to the methane gases generated and the land-use changes that are triggered as not only water but new people flood into the area. Finally, it doesn't seem to matter that the dream of a vast network of water-driven energy is arriving to the Amazon basin at the same time as global-warming-driven droughts and fires are also arriving. It doesn't seem to matter unless something changes... and that something just might be us.

Want to get involved? Both Amazon Watch and International Rivers have strong citizen campaigns. Follow the links and learn how you can help the real life avatars.

Sunday, August 29, 2010


The "fire devil" sweeping across a burning field in Araçatuba (São Paolo State) is emblematic of the fact that thus far 2010 has been an especially difficult year for fires in Brazil. Satellite monitoring of fire incidents or "hotspots" reveals that across the January to August period, there have be twice the number of fires in 2010 as in 2009.

The more populous Northeast and South (including the vast agricultural areas) have been hardest hit by the prolonged drought but the dryness and fires have been spreading across Amazônia as well.

Mongabay reports:
Alberto Setzer, coordinator of INPE's fire monitoring program, blamed drier and warmer conditions, as well as socio-political factors, like higher commodity prices and upcoming national elections. Afraid of alienating key supporters in the agricultural sector, Setzer told Terra Brasil that politicians are laying off environmental law enforcement until after elections. Uncertainty about the Brazilian environmental legislation - including a possible weakening of the country's strict Forest Code - might also be having an impact.

Fires in the Brazilian Amazon are generally set by developers opening logged forests, deforested scrub, and grassland for pasture and agriculture. Under dry conditions fires often "escape" into adjacent rainforest areas, casting a pall over much of Brazil and in some years affecting transportation and air quality.

The last last two weeks have been especially intense here in Rio Branco.

Rio Branco Weather - 19 Aug 2010

The air has been thick with smoke and the Rio Acre has been at near-record lows...

The most serious problem is that low river levels, especially on the Madeira River in neighboring Rondonia, have been cutting ferry service and the normal flows of transportation into Acre. This means that we could be facing serious shortages of fresh foodstuffs and fuel. Additionally, the wells that serve most of the residential areas are critically low.

The good news is that the 5-day forecast includes a return of scattered showers. The cumulative amount of precipitation is not great but it could signal the end of the most severe phase of the drought. Let's hope so.

5-Day Forecast

Tuesday, August 24, 2010


dongria kondh children photo

The Dongria Kondh tribe of 8,000 has prevailed in its struggle to prevent the $8 Billion Vedanta Corporation from mining bauxite on their sacred mountain in Eastern India.

The global campaign of Survival International was vital to the victory, demonstrating the power of organizing on-the-ground actions and outreach via the Internet.

According to The Guardian:

The project has been delayed by four years because of intense opposition from environmental and tribal rights group. At Vedanta's annual meeting in London last month its board of directors faced criticism from shareholders, celebrity activists and charities all protesting about the company's human rights and environmental record.

Survival International, whose supporters sent more than 10,000 protest letters to the Indian government, described the decision as a "stunning victory" and "a crushing defeat for billionaire Anil Agarwal, Vedanta's majority owner and founder".

Survival campaigner Dr Jo Woodman said: "This is a victory nobody would have believed possible. The Dongria's campaign became a litmus test of whether a small, marginalised tribe could stand up to a massive multinational company with an army of lobbyists and PR firms and the ear of government.

"Incredibly, the Dongria's courage and tenacity, allied with the support of many people in India, and Survival's supporters around the world, have triumphed."

Tuesday, August 17, 2010


Survival International hopes that the new report by India's government is the final nail in the coffin for Vedanta's plan to mine the sacred mountain of the Dongria Kondh.

[UPDATE August 17, 2010: More background, stories of the violence faced by activists and stunning photos have been posted at mongabay.com.]

Plans by Vedanta Resources to mine on Dongria Kondh land in eastern India ‘threaten the survival’ of the tribe, according to an official government investigation whose report has just been released.

In a devastating report, a committee set up by India’s Environment Minister has ruled that Vedanta has acted illegally and with ‘total contempt for the law’; that local officials have ‘colluded’ in the company’s illegal activity and falsified documents; that ‘it is established beyond any doubt that the [mining] area is the cultural, religious and economic habitat of the Dongria Kondh ’; and that to allow Vedanta’s mine would be ‘illegal’.

India’s Minister of Environment and Forests has already said he will use the report to decide whether to give Vedanta permission to begin mining.

Vedanta’s scheme to mine the land of the Dongria Kondh tribe has become one of the most notorious projects in the world, with investors including Aviva and the Church of England attacking the company. Celebrities including Bianca Jagger, Joanna Lumley and Michael Palin have given their support to the Dongria tribe, who have been peacefully resisting the mine for years.

A previous investigation for the Environment Ministry found that Vedanta’s mine ‘may lead to the destruction’ of the Dongria Kondh as a tribe. The report concluded that mining should not be allowed.

Stephen Corry, Director of Survival said today, ‘This report is utterly scathing about Vedanta’s behaviour and confirms what Survival and others have been saying for years. The investigators have discovered that both Vedanta and the local authorities have already broken the law. The findings are unequivocal – mining will destroy the Dongria Kondh and should not be allowed. Let’s hope this is the final nail in the coffin for Vedanta’s plans.’

Download the report

Sunday, August 15, 2010


Check out the Flickr set "Canyons, Making Of" for the story of how this was done.

Metron is absolutely right is saying that there is nothing quite like hiking through the canyonlands under moonlight.

Saturday, August 14, 2010


Video shows the extraordinary diversity of nature and people in the cerrado region near Brasilia. There is 
concern about the new hydroelectric projects planned for the region. More information at sos chapada.

Although Amazonia receives the bulk of global media attention, there are several other important and even more threatened biomes in Brazil including the the Atlantic Rainforest (Mata Atântica), the interior Savannah (Cerrado) and the dry lands of the Northeast (Caatinga). These lesser-known regions of incredible biodiversity are now going to benefit from a $21 million debt-for-nature swap between the US and Brazil.

More on the swap from Mongabay:

The United States will cut Brazil's debt payments by $21 million under a debt-for-nature that will protect the Latin American country's endangered Atlantic Rainforest (Mata Atlantica), Caatinga and Cerrado ecosystems.

The agreement, announced Thursday, comes under the Tropical Forest Conservation Act (TFCA) of 1998, which to date has generated $239 million to protect tropical forests in Bangladesh, Belize, Botswana, Colombia, Costa Rica, El Salvador, Guatemala, Indonesia, Jamaica, Panama, Paraguay, Peru, and the Philippines. The Brazil deal is the 16th signed under the TFCA.

Funds under the latest debt-for-nature swap will go towards "activities to conserve protected areas, improve natural resource management, and develop sustainable livelihoods for communities that rely on forests," according to the U.S. Treasury Department.

The three ecosystems targeted are under greater threat than the better known Amazon rainforest.

The cerrado, a biologically-rich grassland that once covered an area half the size of Europe, is fast being transformed into croplands to meet rising demand for soybeans, sugarcane, and cattle. It is now disappearing more than twice as the rate as the neighboring Amazon rainforest.

The Mata Atlântica is Brazil's most endangered rainforest, covering less than 8 percent of its original range. Logging and conversion for agriculture and cattle ranches have been the primary drivers of deforestation of the Mata Atlântica, which is found in some of Brazil's richest and most populous states. The ecosystem, which ranks as a global biodiversity hotspot with more than 250 species of mammals, more than 750 species of reptiles and amphibians and nearly 1,000 species of birds, is home to some of Brazil's most famous endangered species like the Golden Lion Tamarin.

The Caatinga is a dry tropical forest characterized by scrubby vegetation in northeastern Brazil, one of the country's poorest regions. Caatinga is under threat from clearing for cattle ranching and agriculture, as well as charcoal production and timber harvesting. The ecosystem is known for its rich bird life, including a number of endemic species like Lear's Macaw (endangered) and Spix's Macaw (now extinct in the wild).

Friday, August 13, 2010



Lawrence Lessig

Professor of Law, Harvard Law School; Director of the Edmond J. Safra Foundation Center for Ethics

On The Rage of Gibbs

White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs has been slapped around silly by commentator after commentator, decrying his anti-Lefty rage. But as I read the battle, it seems to miss a pretty fundamental point:

It's certainly not fair to criticize Obama for not being a Lefty. He wasn't ever a Lefty. He didn't promise to be a Lefty. And there's no reason to expect that he would ever become a Lefty.

But Lefties (like me) who criticize Obama are not criticizing him for failing our Lefty test. Our criticism is that Obama is failing the Obama test: that he is not delivering the presidency that he promised.

When Candidate Obama took on Hilary Clinton, he was quite clear about what he thought about the way Washington works. And he was quite clear about why he was running for President. As he said:

[U]nless we're willing to challenge the broken system in Washington, and stop letting lobbyists use their clout to get their way, nothing else is going to change. And the reason I'm running for president is to challenge that system.
Read it again: "The reason I am running for president is to challenge that system."

Or again:

[I]f we do not change our politics -- if we do not fundamentally change the way Washington works -- then the problems we've been talking about for the last generation will be the same ones that haunt us for generations to come.
Or again:

But let me be clear -- this isn't just about ending the failed policies of the Bush years; it's about ending the failed system in Washington that produces those policies. For far too long, through both Democratic and Republican administrations, Washington has allowed Wall Street to use lobbyists and campaign contributions to rig the system and get its way, no matter what it costs ordinary Americans.
Or again, as he asked, again and again:

Do we continue to allow lobbyists to veto our progress? Or do we finally put our national interests ahead of the special interests and address the concerns people feel over their jobs, their health care and their children's future?
Or again, as he explained:

We are up against the belief that it's OK for lobbyists to dominate our government -- that they are just part of the system in Washington. But we know that the undue influence of lobbyists is part of the problem, and this election is our chance to say that we're not going to let them stand in our way anymore.
Or perhaps put best:

We need to challenge the system... And if we're not willing to take up that fight, then real change -- change that will make a lasting difference in the lives of ordinary Americans -- will keep getting blocked by the defenders of the status quo.
Once Obama clinched the nomination, however, his rhetoric changed. And as he came to office, his focus, as a senior administration official explained, was to clean up the Executive, and leave to Congress the problem of cleaning up Congress (begging the obvious question: Does the president believe the problem with Washington is the presidency, and not Congress?)

Since coming to power, Obama has pushed just one piece of legislation that would have any effect at all on the power of lobbyists over Congress. That bill has not passed, and even if it had, it would have changed nothing in the lobbyists' power. He has not even indicated that he would support the only substantial reform of lobbyists power with support in Congress today -- the Fair Elections Now Act. Indeed, "congressional reform" doesn't even merit a mention on the "Additional Issues" page of whitehouse.gov (though "sportsmen" does).

Obama's strategy as president has not been to "change the way Washington works." Rather, he has pushed reforms in the same old way, with the same old games. As Glenn Greenwald put it, speaking of health care:

The way this bill has been shaped is the ultimate expression -- and bolstering -- of how Washington has long worked. One can find reasonable excuses for why it had to be done that way, but one cannot reasonably deny that it was.
Now I'm not sure whether it is leftist, or rightist, or centerist to govern through special interest deals. It certainly is Clintonist. It's precisely the administration that Hillary "lobbyists are people, too" Clinton promised. And were she president, and had she done exactly what Obama has done, then no one, I included, would have any reason to criticize her.

But beefed up Clintonism is not what Obama promised. He promised to "take up the fight." His failure to deliver on that critical promise -- the promise that distinguished him from his main primary rival -- or even to try, is a failure that everyone, Lefties included, should be free to complain about without suffering the rage of Gibbs.

Thursday, August 12, 2010


Biochar pellets

With the report last week of biochar's potential for reducing nitrogen pollution and the just-released report that biochar may be able to reduce overall concentrations of atmospheric carbon by as much as 12 percent, biochar news is really on a roll.

Here's the round-up of recent news from the International Biochar Initiative:

Most interestingly, biochar seems to be bridging the chasm of political polarity.
Here is conservative Andrew Sullivan saying at The Daily Dish, "The Only Solution May Be Technology" and liberal Brad Plumer saying at The New Republic, "Yes, Biochar Really Might Be Magical."

Might Biochar not only be a nature and people win/win but a left/right political win/win as well?

If you are new to the biochar concept, here is a brief video introduction (with translation into Portuguese).

Here is one of the leading biochar experts, Johannes Lehmann, Associate Professor of soil biogeochemistry at Cornell University, discussing the characteristics of naturally occurring terra preta including its agricultural and carbon sequestering benefits. He then turns to considering the factors involved with implementation industrial biochar systems for large-scale carbon sequestration and energy provision. Watch this for the BIG PICTURE.

For the "small is beautiful" side of the biochar vision, check out the extraordinary work of the Biochar Fund among traditional farmers in Africa. Incredibly inspiring!

Finally, the global International Biochar Initiative Conference will be held next month in Rio de Janeiro where the latest-and-greatest advances will be presented and a whole new global citizen's movement of earth healers will be launched.

Monday, August 09, 2010


Breaking Light Mount Ranier

I love this one -- the latest gift from Joe Riley at Panhala.

A Brave And Startling Truth

We, this people, on a small and lonely planet
Traveling through casual space
Past aloof stars, across the way of indifferent suns
To a destination where all signs tell us
It is possible and imperative that we learn
A brave and startling truth
And when we come to it
To the day of peacemaking
When we release our fingers
From fists of hostility
And allow the pure air to cool our palms


We, this people, on this small and drifting planet
Whose hands can strike with such abandon
That in a twinkling, life is sapped from the living
Yet those same hands can touch with such healing, irresistible tenderness
That the haughty neck is happy to bow
And the proud back is glad to bend
Out of such chaos, of such contradiction
We learn that we are neither devils nor divines

When we come to it
We, this people, on this wayward, floating body
Created on this earth, of this earth
Have the power to fashion for this earth
A climate where every man and every woman
Can live freely without sanctimonious piety
Without crippling fear

When we come to it
We must confess that we are the possible
We are the miraculous, the true wonder of this world
That is when, and only when
We come to it.

~ Maya Angelou ~

Check out the treasures in the archive of Panhala postings.


Global warming is all about location. Here in Acre Brazil we are worried that the shifts in North Atlantic tropical water temperatures are producing more frequent and more devastating droughts. With at least 2 months of the dry season to go, the rivers are already at a 35 year low and the sunsets are obscured by the widespread fires.

Far away on the other side of the planet in the tiny and happy Kingdom of Bhutan, people fear that melting glaciers will produce too much water, a veritable "tsunami from the sky."

Our places are distant and our experiences are different but we're all in the same boat.

Sunday, August 08, 2010


The world is full of lumps.

I've got to admit that I have been skeptical of Tom Friedman's thesis that "The World is Flat". Often, it strikes me somehow as an information age manifesto of monculture. My thoughts are not well-developed about this but by instinct and intuition, as well by science, I know that the diversity and richness of both our social and natural world could not possibly be represented as flat. Variety, messiness and roughness offer a more fundamental view of the non-linear and non-flat elegance in which "bottomless wonders emerge from very simple rules repeated without end."

Ethan Zuckeman's brilliant and inspiring TED talk describes well the social lumps that are missed in the "World is Flat" perspective. Many voices are never heard in the flat terrain of the mainstream media where most cultural and natural roughness is ignored unless it is sensational or violent. Indeed, our world seems complex, too complex to understand. But, in simplicity, there can be found a deeper more tranquil beauty that binds us together. Our quest is to find it.

Thursday, August 05, 2010




While greening farms worldwide, much nitrogen washes into lakes, rivers, and the sea, causing rampant algae growth. More nitrogen billows from power-plant smokestacks, blowing in the wind until it settles as acid rain. Still other nitrogen gases remain in the atmosphere consuming the ozone layer. Nitrous oxide is nearly 300 times as potent as carbon dioxide – considered the leading cause of climate change – and the third most threatening greenhouse gas overall.

Concern about nitrogen pollution is increasing. Last September, disruption of the nitrogen cycle topped the list of global tipping points in this Nature study. Other scientists have ranked nitrogen pollution as one of the top threats to global biodiversity. The Christian Science Monitor reported on the many modes and moods of nitrogen here.


New Study Says Biochar Reduces Emissions and Runoff

Biochar proponents now have an additional benefit to tout, in addition to increasing crop yields and carbon storage of soil: According to a long-term study in Australia, biochar both reduces nitrous oxide emissions from soil by 73%, and reduces inorganic nitrogen runoff from fields by up to 94%. 

The study in the Journal of Environmental Quality, done by Bhupinder Pal Singh of Industry & Investment New South Wales and Balwant Singh from the University of Sydney, found that initially biochar produced inconsistent effects. Early on it appeared that biochar increased nitrous oxide emissions. However, after four months the effect was reversed, with aging of biochar in the soil cited as a possible reason for the switch from adverse to beneficial effects, in terms of emissions.
"The impacts of biochars on nitrous oxide emissions from soil are of interest because even small reductions in nitrous oxide emissions can considerably enhance the greenhouse mitigation value of biochar, which is already proven to be a highly stable carbon pool in the soil environment," according to senior author Bhupinder Pal Singh. "This research highlights that impacts of biochar on nitrogen transformations in soil may change over time and hence stresses the need for long-term studies to assess biochar's potential to reduce nitrogen losses from soil." (Science Daily)

It's still way too early to claim that biochar is the proverbial silver bullet techno-fix but this news sure puts a smile on my face without a whiff of laughing gas.

NOTE: There's an excellent compendium of biochar reports covering everything from the backyard to the laboratory here.

Wednesday, August 04, 2010


In Indonesia's West Java province, a new law to promote tree planting in this region of high deforestation is making newlyweds go green. It doesn't answer the problem of continuing deforestation but it surely will help to swell the global population of trees.

The program, "Couples Caring For The Environment", requires newly married couples to plant and care for five trees. The seedlings are generally brought by the bridegroom as a dowry for the bride. The initiative is an effort to help repopulate native greenery in Indonesia, much of which has been destroyed to make room for agriculture.

Perhaps something similar could be part of a bolsa floresta program for Brazil's "arc of Amazon deforestation".

Arc of Amazon Deforestation Brazil
Deforestation through 2006 in Brazilian Amazonia. (source: Ecology and Society)

Tuesday, August 03, 2010



Romantically, I'd love to report that Equal Exchange's Fairtrade Marked Organic Brazil Nut Oil is opening vast economic development opportunities -- "Dream on, Lou" -- but the truth is that Brazil seems to be entering a new era of fossil fuel fever.


"... since the national oil company Petroleo Brasileiro SA, or Petrobras, discovered the massive Tupi field off the coast of Rio de Janeiro two years ago — estimated to hold 5 to 8 billion barrels — it is the development of oil fields that has gone into overdrive. ... Estimates of the entire area's recoverable oil range between 50 billion and 100 billion barrels.

Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva hailed the finds as the nation's future, a second declaration of independence and an economic saviour for 57 million Brazilians living in poverty — 30 per cent of the population. The military wants new submarines and jets to protect the crude. Leftist groups want it all nationalized.

The enthusiasm is also fanned by Brazil's devotion to Petrobras, routinely listed as one of the most-admired companies in national polls."

Despite the many pioneering Petrobras efforts to employ the "latest-and-greatest" technologies of "clean and green" oil exploration and extraction deep plumbing for petrol remains a difficult, dirty and dangerous enterprise:

The oil workers union, the Federacao Unica dos Petroleiros, says Petrobras’s safety record is hardly pristine. The union says it has documented 282 fatalities among Petrobras staff and contract workers during the past 15 years in accidents at oil rigs and refineries.

Petrobras has also suffered 27 oil rig blowouts since 1980, two of them in the past 10 years, according to a presentation by Otto Luiz Alcantara Santos, a trainer from the International Association of Drilling Contractors.

In 2007, it took six weeks to plug a leaking well on land near the Espirito Santo Basin on Brazil’s eastern coast. The leak was finally plugged via a relief well of the kind being drilled in the Gulf, says Santos, who trains Petrobras staff in well control.

The most recent offshore blowout was in 2009 and was caused by an explosion in an offshore well in the Sergipe Basin. No one was killed, and Petrobras was able to plug the well in just two days by injecting fluids into the piping that remained after the explosion -- a technique that failed in the Gulf.

Has BP's Deepwater Horizon Gulf Gusher had an impact on the Brazilian oil rush?

Bloomberg reports:

Lucia Rodriguez Ilaria figured it would be easy to get a big crowd together in Brazil’s largest city to demonstrate against BP Plc, the company responsible for the largest oil spill in U.S. history. The June 12 event in Sao Paulo was part of Worldwide Protest BP Day, an event organized in 52 cities across five continents that aimed to start a boycott of BP products. About 350,000 people signed on for the protest on Facebook.

In Sao Paulo, eight people showed up for the rally at Ibirapuera Park, Bloomberg Markets reports in its September issue.

“I don’t think they’ll care until there’s a wake-up call, like if it happened off the coast of Rio de Janeiro tomorrow,” says Rodriguez, 26, a translator and organizer of the Sao Paulo event.

[UPDATE - 11 August 2010 - Bloomberg: Mysterious oil slick is appearing on beaches east of Rio.]

Indeed, the main controversy seems to center on how to divide the new wealth.

Last year, Lula introduced legislation, which has yet to pass, that would make Petrobras the operator of all new pre-salt oil fields and reduce the role of foreign companies to financial investors in projects in which Petrobras calls the shots.

Meanwhile, local politicians are fighting over how to divide up what they hope will be tens of billions of dollars in future revenues from the oil fields. All Brazilian states share royalties whether they produce oil or not. In early March, the lower house passed a bill that would increase the royalties for non-oil-producing states by as much as 26 percent.

More than 80,000 people filled downtown Rio on March 17 on a rainy afternoon to protest the bill. Rio de Janeiro state, which produces 68 percent of the country’s oil and natural gas, has the most to lose from any changes in the royalty structure. Further action on the bill has been delayed until after the October presidential elections.

Given the public enthusiasm for Petrobras’s deep-water projects -- or at least the money they’ll bring in -- it’s hard to find a politician who doesn’t back more drilling. Carlos Brizola, a Brazilian lower-house representative who led a committee this year that wrote a bill establishing new oil laws boosting government control of the industry, says there’s “no chance” Brazil will impose an Obama-style moratorium.

Monday, August 02, 2010


Canadian Rockies Banff National Park

Let yourself be silently drawn
by the strange pull of what you really love.
It will not lead you astray.
~ Rumi ~
(Essential Rumi, versions by Coleman Barks)

From the wonderful collection of poems and photos posted at Panhala.

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Sunday, August 01, 2010


There's some real good news emerging from the western Amazon and, especially in the context of the more worried view that I've been reporting, it is inspiring to see good intentions taking on concrete meanings.

[UPDATE 03 August 2010: Mongabay offers an in-depth report and lots of background links for this historic victory.]

Under an unprecedented agreement, known as the Yasuni-ITT Initiative, the government of Ecuador will refrain from exploiting some 900 million barrels of oil underground in the Yasuni National Park in exchange for more than $3 billion from foreign donors. The agreement, which is based on value of protecting ecosystem services as compared with burning extracted fossil fuels is an outstanding example of a how a new global carbon economy might promote a reciprocal win/win relationship between people and nature. The agreement is scheduled to be signed on Tuesday.

This begins the long process of giving concrete meanings to the first-of-its-kind rights-of-nature clause which was included in Ecuador's new Constitution.

Globally, grassroots organizations have contributed significant energy and support -- Ecological Internet helped "nudge" the donors into action on protecting the park and the Community Environmental Legal Defense Fund offered technical assistance in developing the visionary constitutional clause -- and according to Amazon Watch:

Ecuador's civil society organizations, as well as the Huaorani themselves, kept the proposal alive by pressuring the government and continuing to increase the proposals popularity nationally and internationally. The environmental organization, Accion Ecologica with its "Amazon For Life" campaign collected tens of thousands of signatures of support and kept the initiative in the news during times when the government's commitment appeared to wane.

Developing a 21st Century model for replacing resource extractivism with reciprocity is not an easy task and is riddled with contradictions such as possible "leakage" to other regions. Again, according to Amazon Watch:

Although there is cause for celebration, some of Ecuador's indigenous groups are concerned by the Correa administration's announcement this week to open up areas of Ecuador's roadless, pristine southeastern Amazon region, as well as re-offering older oil blocks that were unsuccessful due to indigenous resistance.

"We hope that the success of the Yasuni proposal doesn't mean a defeat for the forests and people of the southern rainforests," said German Freire, President of the Achuar indigenous people who have land title to almost 2 million acres of intact rainforest, all of which would be opened to new drilling. "We don't want Correa to offset his lost income from leaving the ITT oil in the ground by opening up other areas of equally pristine indigenous lands."

As the delicacies and dangers of development unfold across Amazônia, agreements such as protecting the Yasuni National Park serve both as an important concrete accomplishment and a beacon for the future. But it's going to take constant vigilance to truly turn vision into reality. Stay tuned for latest reports at Amazon Watch.