Malaysian 'eco-thug' tries to halt book exposing his crimes

It couldn't happen to a nicer guy. 

Where once stood proud forests... eco-devastation in Sarawak.

Where once stood proud forests... eco-devastation in Sarawak.

After reportedly making billions of dollars for himself and confederates by pillaging and destroying vast expanses of Borneo's rainforests, former Sarawak timber chief and governor Abdul Taib is now being brought to task by a new book.

Entitled Money Logging: On the Trail of the Asian Timber Mafia, by Lukas Straumann, the book accuses Taib of massive corruption, despotic behavior, and committing one of the greatest environmental travesties in history.

The forests of Sarawak, a Malaysian state in northern Borneo, have been devastated in recent decades by intensive logging and conversion to oil palm plantations.  This has had profound impacts on biodiversity, indigenous peoples, and forest carbon stocks in the region.

Former UK Prime Minister Gordon Brown has referred to the rampant pillaging of Borneo's forests as “probably the biggest environmental crime of our times”.

As reported recently in the leading environmental website Mongabay, lawyers representing Taib and the Malaysian government are attempting to block Money Logging's publication, by threatening its publishers with legal action. 

The publishers have announced they intend to press ahead with the book.

In March, ALERT highlighted some of Taib's notorious activities -- slamming him for unprecedented environmental misdeeds and corruption.  The scale of Taib's environmental crimes can be seen in this shocking video.

So far, Taib's lawyers haven't said anything to us -- but we'll certainly let you know if they do.

 

Turn up the heat on McDonald's for killing orangutans

Do you tweet?  If so, do the world a favor and tweet this line today:

Is @McDonalds driving #orangutan habitat loss? For #FastFoodDay RT to demand McD’s uses zero deforestation #PalmOil pic.twitter.com/ZsxagRPFAk

Rainforest killer...

Rainforest killer...

Imagine chomping into a Big Mac and finding a dead orangutan finger.  That's effectively what's happening because McDonalds refuses to stop using palm oil that contributes to rainforest destruction.

Today is National Fast Food Day, and ALERT is helping the Union of Concerned Scientists to turn up the heat on McDonalds.  UCS asked a series of leading corporations to tighten up their palm oil policies and most were happy to oblige -- but not McDonalds.

It's time to tweet, folks. 

And remember also to vote with your wallets -- and ask your friends to do so too. 

McDonalds is a massive consumer of palm oil -- the kind that kills rainforests.  If they don't want to play nice and help save orangutans and countless other species, let's just boycott them until they do.

 

Australia talks the talk but will it walk the walk for conservation?

Australia's environment minister, Greg Hunt, has a tough gig. 

Hope or just politics?  Will Australia help to save imperiled rainforests in the Asia-Pacific?  (photo by William Laurance)

Hope or just politics?  Will Australia help to save imperiled rainforests in the Asia-Pacific?  (photo by William Laurance)

Hunt seems legitimately interested in advancing nature conservation but his boss, the conservative Prime Minister Tony Abbott, clearly is not.  Abbott's government has the worst environmental record of any Australian government in living memory

That leaves Hunt in a difficult spot.  Few doubt that if he were to push conservation too strongly -- or fail to support Abbott's pro-coal, pro-mining, no-new-parks, anti-renewable-energy policies -- he'd soon be gone.

In such a setting, where domestic policy is so clearly being driven by a growth-first agenda, what is an environment minister to do?  One 'safe' strategy is to focus not on matters at home, but on those abroad.

That is precisely what Hunt did this week in Sydney with his "Asia-Pacific Rainforest Summit" -- a forum that proclaimed it will help Australia's tropical neighbors to protect their imperiled forests.

After interviewing Hunt, ALERT director Bill Laurance just wrote this lively critique of the event

It's worth a quick read to see how nature conservation -- and politics -- are playing out in Australia and the Asia-Pacific region.

 

The corporations that turn rainforests into toilet paper

The Ethical Shopping Guide is a cool new resource.  It lets you check out the environmental and social impacts of corporations that produce the products you buy every day.  As Penny van Oosterzee and ALERT director Bill Laurance argue in a new essay, the Ethical Shopping Guide has some surprises for us all.

A rainforest cleared for wood pulp in Sumatra (photo by William Laurance)

A rainforest cleared for wood pulp in Sumatra (photo by William Laurance)

One of these is that a lot of the paper products that many of us use every day — from diaries and newspapers to cardboard and toilet paper — are helping to destroy the world’s most biologically diverse forests.

For example, much of the forest clearing to date on the island of Sumatra, Indonesia has been driven by two mega-corporations, Asia Pulp & Paper and APRIL (Asia-Pacific Resources International Limited).  Between them, they’ve destroyed millions of hectares of native rainforest — first turning the rainforest into paper pulp and then replanting the cleared land with monocultures of exotic, fast-growing trees to produce yet more pulp.

Although APP and APRIL are now claiming that they intend to reduce their clearing of native forests, the onslaught is far from over.  Indonesia recently announced that it plans to fell another 14 million hectares of native forest in Sumatra, Borneo, and New Guinea by 2020, for industrial pulp and oil palm plantations.  That’s an area larger than Greece.

So, pass the word.  One of the best things we can all do to help the natural world is to vote with our wallets — to avoid the products of corporations with bad environmental records. 

And we should tell retailers selling such products that we think they should drop them altogether — or we just might start avoiding those retailers as well.

And while we’re voting with our wallets, we should let the forest-killing corporations know — loudly and emphatically and often — why we’re treating them like a plague-carrier. 

 

Neotropical rainforests under assault from infrastructure & mining

Everywhere you look across Central and South America, native ecosystems are being imperiled by an avalanche of new mining and infrastructure projects. 

Forests under assault in Panama (photo by William Laurance)

Forests under assault in Panama (photo by William Laurance)

Consider just three examples:

- In Nicaragua, a massive interoceanic canal project threatens vast expanses of rainforest and other ecosystems.  It will imperil 4,000 square kilometers of forest and wetlands, slice across several key nature reserves, and cut through the MesoAmerican Biological Corridor.  This issue is so worrisome that the Association for Tropical Biology and Conservation, the world's leading scientific organization devoted to tropical research, issued a special resolution of concern.

- In Brazil, many protected areas are under assault from mining.  A paper just published in the leading journal Science shows that at least 20% of all Brazil´s strictly protected areas and indigenous reserves -- an area larger than the UK and Switzerland combined -- are under consideration for mining projects.  More than 44,000 square kilometers of Brazil's protected areas have been lost to mining and other developments since 2008.

- Across the Amazon basin and Andes, at least 150 major hydroelectric dams have been proposed or are under construction.  These projects will not only flood large expanses of forest but their associated road projects will imperil some of the basin's most remote and biologically important areas.  For instance, it is estimated that 12 dams proposed for the Tapajós River in Brazil would result in nearly 1 million hectares of additional forest loss by 2032.

Who is responsible for this tsunami of forest-destroying projects?  There is no single cause, but China's unquenchable thirst for natural resources, the aggressive Brazilian development bank BNDES, and ambitious regional development schemes such as IIRSA are all leading contributors.

No one wants to halt responsible economic development, but this is a feeding frenzy.  Unless scientists and conservationists have a louder voice, some of the world's most important environments could be lost forever.

 

Making the next ten years count for protected areas

On the eve of the World Parks Congress in Sydney, Australia, ALERT member James Watson tells us about a hugely important paper he and colleagues published this week in the world-leading journal Nature.

Ten years have passed since the last IUCN global conference on protected areas.  During this time we've seen tens of thousands of new protected areas established on land and in the sea. 

Unfortunately, at the same time, protected-area support has fallen off dramatically, with an estimated 80% of such sites now being ineffectively managed.

Needs a home: Mountain gorillas now survive in just a few protected areas in East Africa (photo (c) Liana Joseph)

Needs a home: Mountain gorillas now survive in just a few protected areas in East Africa (photo (c) Liana Joseph)

It’s a massive shame.  When well administered, protected areas get results.  There is abundant evidence that protected areas, when well managed, protect threatened species and often store large quantities of carbon while delivering key ecosystem services, such as clean water and buffering against extreme weather.

Nevertheless, we show today in a paper in Nature that, while many nations talk the talk on protected-area creation, they often fail to walk the walk when it comes to ensuring these areas have adequate resources and oversight.

Poor financing of many protected areas is a core problem, but thornier challenges include the opening of parks to resource extraction and the loss of their special 'inviolate' status.  In our paper we document many cases where Ministries responsible for mining or logging issued leases on areas already designated as “protected.”

If the nations of the world continue to follow a business-as-usual approach, the broad targets set under the vital Convention on Biological Diversity won't be achieved.

A fundamental step-change is needed to align government policies so that Ministries dealing with development, resource extraction, and agriculture don't undermine those concerned with environment and conservation.

At the same time, there's an urgent need to invest in protected areas to ensure their vital goals are achieved, and to identify new protected areas critical to nature conservation -- areas that can be established and maintained with care and imagination.

Achieving these goals on our increasingly crowded planet will not be easy.  A nation's progress should be measured not merely by the amount of land it protects, but also by the ecological connectivity of its protected lands and their capacity to sustain biodiversity while producing long-term social and economic benefits.

It's a massive challenge, but failure is not an option.  We must succeed -- for the future of nature and for our future as well.

 

Real hope for the world's rainforests

Although originally trained as an economist, Rhett Butler -- the entrepreneurial founder of the leading environmental website Mongabay.com -- has become one of the world's most respected thinkers about rainforest ecology and conservation.  And when someone of Rhett's caliber says there's real reason to be hopeful about the future, it's time to listen.

Warm and fuzzy news for rainforests

Warm and fuzzy news for rainforests

In a recent essay, Rhett argues that two developments are beginning to change the landscape for rainforest conservation.

The first is that deforestation is increasingly shifting from a poverty-driven phenomenon to one driven by profits, with forests being felled to produce timber and agricultural goods -- such as oil palm, soy, sugar, and beef -- destined for international and urban markets.

That means that consumers -- including you and me -- can increasingly have a voice.  We can vote with our wallets, electing to buy sustainably produced products and to avoid those that contribute to forest destruction.

This changing reality is starting have real effect.  In just the past year or two, many of the world's largest oil palm, wood-pulp, and food-producing corporations have announced no-deforestation commitments.  The jury is still out for many of these corporations, but the trend and reality is undeniable: It's not longer possible to wantonly destroy tropical forests with arrogance and impunity.

The other sea-change is the increasing use of satellite monitoring to track deforestation in real time.  This is a huge arrow in the quiver of conservationists, as much forest destruction and degradation is illegal -- occurring in the shadows of remote frontier regions.

In the vast Brazilian Amazon, for instance, the annual rate of deforestation has fallen by at least 75 percent, and many credit the nation's marriage of real-time satellite monitoring with geographic data on land titling and ownership as a crucial element.  This has allowed authorities to know where and when deforestation is occurring illegally, so they can crack down on offenders.

Such remote-sensing data are increasingly being used by organizations such as Global Forest Watch to monitor forest loss and degradation around the world.  In addition, cool new technologies such as drones, automatic cameras, DNA analysis, and smart-phones are giving conservationists a leg up in the battle to detect illegal activities.

Deforestation has remained stubbornly high in many tropical regions.  But, as Rhett Butler argues, thanks to mounting consumer pressures and remarkable new technologies, there is real reason for hope. 

Ten ways you can help stop the sixth mass extinction

Anthony Barnosky is a professor at the University of California, Berkeley, and he's one smart dude.  He's just written a brilliant essay entitled "10 ways you can help stop the sixth mass extinction". 

We really can save nature -- if we get moving now.

We really can save nature -- if we get moving now.

As we all know, we are living in an age of biodiversity crisis.  Some believe we could lose up to three-quarters of all species on Earth in the coming century

Others believe the extinctions will be less severe, but even optimistic estimates suggest the age of humans -- the Anthropocene -- could be one of the greatest extinction events in Earth's 4.5-billion year history. 

Barnosky emphasizes that there's still time to avoid the Sixth Mass Extinction, but we need to pull our thumbs out and get moving -- today. 

We briefly summarize his 10 key messages below.  See his original essay for details about each suggestion:

1. Spread the word, to your family, friends, co-workers, and social media circle: the extinction crisis is real.

2. Reduce your carbon footprint.

3. Buy products from companies committed to using sustainably produced palm oil in their products.

4. Eat fish from only healthy fisheries.

5. Eat less meat.

6. Never, ever buy anything made from ivory -- or from any other product derived from threatened species.

7. Enjoy nature.

8. Adopt a species or become a citizen scientist.

9. Vote for and support leaders who recognize the importance of switching from a fossil-fuel energy system to a carbon-neutral one, who see the necessity of growing crops more efficiently, whose economic agenda includes valuing nature, and who promote women's rights to education and healthcare.

10. Don't give up.

Bottom line: We are not doomed to any particular fate, but we will be if we fail to confront the growing extinction crisis. 

A planet that's too hostile to sustain much biodiversity will not be a good place for people to live either.

 

Export markets are driving much of tropical deforestation

Why are tropical nations cutting down their forests?  Is it to feed and house their people?  To provide goods for their domestic markets?

Who's benefiting from forest destruction?

Who's benefiting from forest destruction?

Not so much.

In fact, a lot of deforestation is happening so that tropical nations can export stuff -- especially agricultural goods, timber, minerals, and oil -- to consumer nations. 

And who are the big consumers?  At least for major commodities such as palm oil, beef, soy, and timber, the European Union and China rank as the biggest importers.

That's the conclusion of a recent analysis by the Center for Global Development, an independent think-tank based in London and Washington, D.C.

The analysis focused on six of the most important tropical nations -- Bolivia, Brazil, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Indonesia, Malaysia, and Papua New Guinea -- as well as Argentina and Paraguay.  These countries produce a big chunk of the four internationally traded commodities (beef, soy, palm oil, timber) that were the focus of the study.

The study found that about a third of all deforestation could be directly attributed to those four export commodities.  And if one includes beef production in the Amazon, which is mostly 'exported' to the major population centers in southern Brazil, then exports of the four commodities account for a whopping 57% of all deforestation.

In all of the studied countries except for Bolivia and Brazil, export markets were the dominant drivers of deforestation.  Moreover, for most of the eight countries, the importance of export markets as a driver of deforestation and greenhouse-gas emissions increased over time.

What this says is that much of tropical deforestation is being driven not by the needs of local people, but by growing global demand.  The E.U. and China are big sinners, but there's plenty of blame to spread around among other nations.

A lot of the food and timber we consume comes from tropical nations.  We all want to live well, but there is no free lunch.  Somewhere, a chainsaw is roaring and a bulldozer growling so that we can have cheap food and timber.

 

A plea to stop the land-grabbing in New Guinea

ALERT is reposting here parts of a recent blog by Lester Seri, a traditional landowner in Collingwood Bay, Papua New Guinea. 

Lester belongs to the Wo Ari Kawo tribe.  He is a Coordinator for Oro Communities Environmental Advocacy Network (OCEAN) Inc., which campaigns against illegal land, logging and oil palm issues in Papua New Guinea.

Earlier this week ALERT began a campaign against the massive land-grabs in Papua New Guinea known as Special Agricultural and Business Leases.  Lester's tribe is being plagued by one such land-grab.

A vista from Collingwood Bay (photo by Erik Wakker)

A vista from Collingwood Bay (photo by Erik Wakker)

My name is Lester Seri, and I have been mandated by the Wo Ari Kawo Elders to speak on behalf of them on Tribal land matters.

I am writing to you today because the people of Collingwood Bay urgently need you to support our struggle. 

My people -- the Maisin people -- along with our neighboring communities in Collingwood Bay have been fighting to protect our customary lands from illegal land grabs for logging and palm oil development for nearly three decades.

In 2002 we won a four-year court battle against the government for illegally leasing our land for logging and palm oil projects without the consent of the customary landowners. 

Yet, in 2012 this SAME land area was leased again to suspect middlemen landowner companies and ultimately sold to Malaysian palm oil company Kuala Lumpur Kepong Berhad (KLK).  When I and several other landowners heard that our lands had been leased without our consent again, we took our case to court once more.

In May of this year, the National Court of Papua New Guinea declared the two leases claimed by KLK illegal again and ordered them to be cancelled.  While this court victory was important, KLK has not yet left Collingwood Bay and our struggle continues.

The people and the forests of Collingwood Bay need your support now more than ever.  Please stand with us now and tell KLK to leave Collingwood Bay immediately! 

KLK was forced to give up two leases on customary lands through the court case, but the company still claims a third lease in Collingwood Bay called Lot 5.  In recent communications, KLK has stated that it has no intentions to leave Lot 5, despite the fact that it is within Maisin customary lands and holds primary forest and small patches of ‘kunai grass’ that our people use annually for game hunting.

As a member of the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil and through its own voluntary commitments, KLK has also pledged not to clear primary forests, High Conservation Value Forests, or High Carbon Stock forests, so there is absolutely no way KLK can develop palm oil on Lot 5.  Therefore, there is absolutely no reason for them still to be here, yet they are.

Rainforests being cleared for oil palm in New Guinea

Rainforests being cleared for oil palm in New Guinea

Join me in telling KLK it’s time to pack its bags and leave Collingwood Bay for good. 

Our people have been fighting companies like KLK for too long, and we are fed up with their attempts to undermine our local economies and culture and rob us of our rich natural resources.  Our paramount chiefs have said no to these forms of development, and they have said no to palm oil development in Collingwood Bay.

The forests and cultures of the Collingwood Bay people are at stake if KLK proceeds.  We urgently need your voice to send this message to KLK loud and clear: No palm oil development and no KLK in Collingwood Bay!

In solidarity, Lester Seri.

ALERT's campaign to defend Papua New Guinea's rainforests

Today, ALERT is launching a press release to highlight a serious peril to the rainforests and indigenous peoples of Papua New Guinea

Not happy about land-grabs (photo by William Laurance)

Not happy about land-grabs (photo by William Laurance)

Papua New Guinea (PNG) is a South Pacific nation with one of the world's largest surviving tracts of tropical forest.  And it is among the most culturally diverse regions on Earth, with more than 800 distinctive tribes, each with their own unique language.

But in recent decades the forests of PNG have come under assault from predatory logging, land-clearing, and mining.

Some of the worst offenses are known as 'Special Agricultural and Business Leases' (SABLs).  SABLs span a vast expanse of PNG -- more than 5 million hectares -- over 11% of its entire land area.

The SABLs are notorious not only for their serious environmental impacts, but also because they are seen as corporate land-grabs that are robbing indigenous groups from their traditional land rights. 

Most of these leases are for 99 years in duration -- an eternity for an indigenous group that relies on its forest and traditional lands for survival.

The PNG government initially set up the SABLs as a way to encourage large-scale development, such as oil palm plantations.  But many of the SABLs have been snapped up by foreign logging corporations that are using them to dodge PNG's forestry laws -- to log the rainforests illegally.

In response, there has been an outcry in PNG, especially from indigenous groups.  This eventually forced the government to launch a Commission of Inquiry to investigate the SABLs.

The Commission found so many problems, abuses, and outright illegalities that it recommended the government cancel or phase out most of the SABLs.

But the PNG government has so far failed to do so -- at least for the biggest and most damaging SABLs.  Why?  There is a distinctive whiff of something not right here.

ALERT's press release, on the eve of the World Parks Congress in Sydney, Australia next month, underscores a critical peril to one of the world's most biologically and culturally diverse regions.

 

The man who loves global warming

Alan Oxley is a man many people love to hate.  Why? 

Inhale deeply and it'll all be fine...

Inhale deeply and it'll all be fine...

Oxley, a former Australian trade ambassador, is one of the leading hired guns for environmentally damaging industries -- such as big coal miners, rainforest loggers, and oil palm producers. 

Oxley's latest stunt?  He's fighting the efforts of universities and other shareholders to divest from heavily polluting industries, such as massive coal mines and other fossil fuels.

Coal, after all, is just about the worst fuel imaginable from a global-warming perspective, because it has such a high carbon density China's growing reliance on coal -- it's now building an average of one new coal-fired generating plant per week -- is a key reason why it's blasted past the U.S. to become the world's biggest emitter of greenhouse gases.

Thanks to massive coal consumption, China's carbon dioxide emissions have skyrocketed.

Thanks to massive coal consumption, China's carbon dioxide emissions have skyrocketed.

Oxley's latest crusade follows notable divestment initiatives by Stanford University and, most recently, by Australian National University.  That two leading academic institutions are selling off their investments in industries that drive global warming is sending a chill down the spines of those heavy polluters.

The fact that Oxley has joined the fray shows just how nervous the big polluters are becoming.  Rushing to Oxley's aid was the arch-conservative Australian Treasurer, Joe Hockey, who also criticized Australian National University.   

The big polluters are not really worried about losing investments from a few universities.  They are, however, petrified by the thought that this trickle of divestment initiatives could become a flood -- that it could become positively unfashionable to invest in big polluters.

For that reason, the big coal miners are happy to keep lining the pockets of Alan Oxley -- the man who seems to love global warming.


ALERT confronts US Ambassador about roads

U.S. Ambassador Kenneth M. Quinn loves roads.  He sees them as the salvation for many of the world's ills.

If only we had more roads, he argues in a recent essay in National Geographic Online, then rural communities worldwide would be happier, healthier, and wealthier -- and even less likely to be harassed by extremist groups that prey on isolated communities.

In truth, Ambassador Quinn has a point -- but he is only telling half of the story.  Roads are often good for people but can also be devastating for the environment.  The trick is to decide when roads are environmentally 'good' or 'bad'.

ALERT director Bill Laurance has written an opposing essay in National Geographic Online -- one that tries to bring a bit more balance to the issue of roads.  It's worth two minutes to read this rebuttal.

Laurance argues that roads should generally be avoided in wilderness areas, parks and other protected areas, and places with concentrations of endangered or locally endemic species.

Sadly, roads are expanding explosively today, and far too many roads are 'bad' -- opening a Pandora's Box of environmental problems, such as poaching, illegal deforestation and forest burning, illicit gold mining, and predatory land speculation.

We are living in the most dramatic era of road expansion in human history.  It is estimated that, by 2050, we will have another 25 million kilometers of roads -- enough to encircle the Earth more than 600 times.  Nearly every surviving wilderness area on Earth -- from the Amazon to Siberia, and New Guinea to the Congo Basin -- is under assault from roads. 

From an environmental perspective, we are blazing along a road to ruin

Let's hope that road enthusiasts like Ambassador Quinn start to get the message.  Roads are, at best, a double-edged sword. 

And far too often, the sharp edge of the sword is pointed at nature's throat.

ALERT's campaign to save island paradise from loggers

ALERT today is launching a campaign to help tell the world about Woodlark Island -- a small but important paradise off the eastern coast of Papua New Guinea.

At least 42 different species -- including the beautiful Woodlark cuscus, a native marsupial -- are endemic to the island, living nowhere else on Earth.  And the island has harbored traditional cultural groups who have lived there sustainably for thousands of years.

The Woodlark cuscus -- worried about loggers

The Woodlark cuscus -- worried about loggers

That's alarming because a Malaysian logging company is about to assault Woodlark Island, with plans to log up to half of the island using heavy-handed industrial extraction methods.

Many of the island's native landowners are worried, because the foreign logging company, Karridale Limited, has evidently secured logging rights to the entire island.

Much remains unknown about Karridale Limited's intentions.  The company has been far from forthcoming about its plans, and has been accused of consulting inadequately with the island's traditional inhabitants.

This is an issue to watch closely.  Careful, small-scale logging is one thing.  But far too often, aggressive Malaysian logging corporations have run rough-shod over native forests and peoples

Today, ALERT is issuing a press release to over 800 media contacts about Woodlark Island -- urging those who care about nature to watch over and defend this small but unique corner of the world. 

The future of an island paradise is at stake.

Please share with your networks.

Sign petition to help stop Thailand 'death-trap' highway

ALERT has been leading international efforts to oppose a scheme that will imperil one of Thailand's most important protected areas (see here for an earlier blog).

Death-trap for a river otter

Death-trap for a river otter

The protected area is the the Dong Phayayen-Khao Yai (DPKY) Forest Complex, a World Heritage Site in central Thailand renowned for its outstanding biodiversity. 

The Thai government wants to enlarge an existing road through the heart of the park into a much larger, four-lane highway. 

From an environmental perspective, this project is truly dangerous -- greatly increasing the potential for road-kill of wildlife as well as incursions of illegal hunters and loggers into the park.

In response to our initiative, the German group Rainforest Rescue has launched an online petition that has so far collected nearly 60,000 signatures. 

The petition will soon be presented to the Thai Government via its Ambassador in Germany and to the Thai tourist board.

Please sign this petition.  It'll just take 30 seconds to add your voice to a growing global chorus of concern about this ill-advised 'death-trap highway'.


Will new supercrops feed the world and help save nature?

We live in a hungry world -- and one that will soon grow much hungrier.  Global food demand is expected to double by mid-century because of rapid population growth and changing food habits.  Producing that much food could require a billion hectares of additional farmland -- an area the size of Canada.

But if we develop new high-yielding 'supercrops' and farm them intensively, could we feed the world with less land and thereby spare some land for nature?  Many have argued in favor of this idea.

A tsunami of oil palm (photo by William Laurance)

A tsunami of oil palm (photo by William Laurance)

But a new study published in the leading journal Science suggests the opposite: supercrops will actually encourage more habitat destruction for agriculture, especially in the species-rich tropics.

The authors argue that new varieties of palm oil, which are highly productive and profitable but grow only in the tropics, are simply going to keep spreading apace.  That's because there's so many different uses for palm oil, including for many food items, cosmetics, and biofuels, that demand for it will remain high.  

And, as palm-oil production rises, its price will likely fall, meaning that it will increasingly out-compete other oil-producing crops, such as canola (rapeseed), sesame seeds, and peanuts.

This, the authors say, will simply shift the footprint of agriculture from areas such as North America and Europe to mega-diversity regions such as the tropical rainforests of Southeast Asia, Latin America, and Africa.

What's the answer to the tsunami of oil palm and other profitable tropical crops?  There really is only one alternative: we need proactive land-use zoning to determine where agriculture should and should not go -- to ensure it doesn't just overrun nature.  And we need better law enforcement to reduce illegal deforestation.

And we direly need to limit the explosive expansion of roads into wilderness and high-biodiversity areas.  By 2050, it's expected that we'll have an additional 25 million kilometers of new paved roads -- with nine-tenths of these in developing nations that sustain many of the world's biologically richest ecosystems.

There really is no other option.  Supercrops may help feed a hungry world, but if they're not constrained they will destroy much of nature in the process.

 

Global rally against devastating wildlife poaching

The last few decades have been deadly for wildlife.  Since the 1970s, over half of all animals on Earth -- mammals, birds, reptiles, amphibians, and fish -- have disappeared, according to a major analysis by WWF.  And overhunting -- often by illegal poachers -- is one of the biggest reasons.

Mom killed by poachers...

Mom killed by poachers...

In response, there's just been the first-ever global rally against poaching, focusing specifically on the devastation of elephants and rhinos.  In 136 cities and towns across six continents, thousands of demonstrators voiced their strident concerns about this issue.

The rally echoed the stark messages of the WWF Living Planet Report, which assessed the state of 10,380 populations of 3,038 wildlife species across the Earth.

According to the report, the situation is worst in poorer countries, where wildlife numbers have fallen by 58% on average, between 1970 and 2010.  Latin America had the biggest declines, with 83% of all animals lost in the last 40 years.

Some of the most imperiled species include African forest elephants, whose numbers have plummeted by an estimated two-thirds in just the last decade, following a massive rise in poaching for ivory.

Marine turtles have fared just as badly, falling by 80% in abundance in the last 40 years, the report concludes. 

As the situation grows more desperate for many species, some conservationists are beginning to devise innovative tactics in an effort to combat poaching.  For instance, an Australian-led team is using research on human behavior in an effort to modify attitudes toward rhino poaching in Vietnam.

In Kenya, the situation has grown so desperate that shoot-to-kill orders have been given to park ranges in an effort to combat heavily-armed poachers.  Globally, hundreds of park and wildlife rangers have been murdered by poachers in recent years.

The global rally against poaching is an admirable attempt to raise awareness about the critical role of illegal wildlife hunting.  It's come not a moment too soon. 

 

It's not just big corporations that are killing Indonesia's forests

Corporations are easy targets as environmental bad-guys -- they're big, faceless, wealthy entities.  And in countries like Indonesia, many corporations -- including oil palm, wood pulp, timber, and mining companies -- have had bad environmental records.

But it's an oversimplification to blame the corporations for everything, as Indonesia-based conservation scientist Erik Meijaard argues in a recent editorial.

It's not just corporations that are killing forests (photo by William Laurance)

It's not just corporations that are killing forests (photo by William Laurance)

Meijaard homes in on an uncomfortable truth: half or more of all forest destruction is evidently caused by smallholders -- farmers and locals who burn or log forests, often illegally.

In a recent email message, Meijaard adds that deforestation is also being driven by small- and medium-scale investors.  "These are not small, poor, disadvantaged farmers, but government and law enforcement officials, local legislature members, local business people."

One key problem is that the rule of law in Indonesia is so lax, and corruption so rampant.  Even those who get caught usually find it easy to bribe their way out of trouble.

Indonesia's newly elected president, Joko Widodo, was originally trained as a forester, and he is being urged to follow through on his campaign promises to "eradicate illegal logging, illegal fishing, and illegal mining" and "enforce environmental laws".

In politics, promises are cheap.  Action is what counts.  And despite plenty of talk and promises in the past, Indonesia now has the world's highest rate of forest loss.

A number of mega-corporations in Indonesia have recently pledged to halt their forest-destroying ways.  The jury is still out on these promises.

But it's going to take a broader effort -- to enforce the law and protect environments from all illegal exploiters, large and small -- to save Indonesia's vanishing forests.

 

Our biggest environmental crisis -- by far

The Ebola epidemic.  The Syrian crisis.  The murderous Islamic State campaign. 

These might sound like serious worries at the moment, but by the end of this century they'll seem about as frightening as a cricket match.

Our biggest crisis

Our biggest crisis

Why?  Because the Earth will have up to 13 billion people then, according to the latest demographic projections.  And the population won't even have stabilized yet.

These are astounding conclusions, and they result from the most robust population projections yet conducted, by a team of leading demographers using the latest United Nations data.  The results appeared recently in the world-leading journal Science.

Why does our population continue to skyrocket?  A key explanation: Africa.  Unlike much of the rest of the world, fertility rates (the average number of children borne per woman) haven't fallen in Africa. 

Fertility rates have also remained stubbornly high in the predominantly Muslim nations of the Middle East -- and these are growing rapidly as well.

Conclusions like this should scare us all, but Europeans should be petrified.  Legal and illegal immigrants are already streaming into Europe from Africa and the Middle East, in some cases causing serious social and economic conflicts. 

Concern over this has led to a resurgence of anti-immigration political parties across Europe.   

But imagine the situation in the year 2100, when Africa's population has quadrupled.  When the population of Nigeria -- already teetering on the edge of political and economic chaos -- has increased by 500%. 

Today's steady stream of desperate immigrants will become a tsunami.

By mid-century we could easily have 10 billion people -- mostly from poorer nations -- with many more to come...

By mid-century we could easily have 10 billion people -- mostly from poorer nations -- with many more to come...

There's one vitally important lesson here: It doesn't have to be this way.  Populations in Africa and the Middle East are exploding because women there don't have access to adequate family-planning information and contraception

It's also happening because educational and economic opportunities for young women are inadequate.

There's a very simple way to stabilize population growth.  Delay the age of reproduction.  If a woman has her first child at, say, 23 years old, instead of 18, everything changes.

She has fewer children.  Those children are better-off economically.  As a result, they have better educational opportunities, and are healthier.  And rates of divorce and domestic strife are, on average, much lower. 

As they grow up, children from such families are far less likely to become involved in crime, or to be unemployed and socially disenfranchized -- a key correlate of violence and radicalization of young people by extremist groups.

It all comes down to delaying the age of reproduction -- everything else follows from this one simple change.

If we want to avoid a truly calamitous future, we have to tell our politicians -- loudly and emphatically and often -- that they must invest in family planning and educational opportunities for young women. 

It has to happen now -- today.  And our biggest focus should be Africa and the Middle East, as well as other rapidly growing regions of the developing world. 

Forget about the latest screaming headlines -- the crises of the moment.  This is our biggest crisis -- the one that, most of all, will determine the ultimate fate and health of our planet.

 

Climate change could threaten our beer

OK, now it's getting serious.

Enough is enough!

Enough is enough!

We all know that climate change is threatening our environment.  And our economies.  And our livelihoods. 

But now it appears that climate change could imperil the very foundations of our society.

Our beer.

That's right -- in a recent meeting with Australian Green Party Leader, Senator Christine Milne, researcher Peter Gous emphasized the likely impacts of global warming on beer production.

"It only takes one hot day" to destroy a crop of grain, said Gous.

This is a frightening prospect given that state-of-the-art climate models project up to a 1.5-degree Centigrade (2.7 degrees Fahrenheit) increase in average temperature by 2030. 

Add that on top of your average heat-wave, and you could get a serious crop-killer.

This is just one example of the complex -- and often highly disturbing -- ways that climate change could affect our future.

A forthcoming book, Climate Peril, by author John J. Berger, attempts to tease out many of these potentially alarming effects -- on nature, the economy, human health, society, and national security.

According to Berger, we're missing the boat by failing to consider critical interrelationships among effects such as drought, fire, disease, water shortages, habitat destruction, endangered species, resource collapse, energy production, and the economy.

Although a top-flight scientist and energy expert, Berger's book is remarkably easy to read. 

He argues at the outset that there's almost no way we're going to limit global warming to a 2-degree Centigrade (3.6-degree Fahrenheit) increase in average temperature, as many have hoped.

He then shows, again and again, how climate change is likely to provoke cascades of destabilizing changes.

To select just one from a wealth of examples: a strong drought can destroy crops and livestock, which in turn impacts on food processors, farm-equipment suppliers, and labor markets. 

This in turn can grind down local and regional economies, depressing real-estate values.

And this can then force economically stressed people to migrate elsewhere, weakening the social fabric of a community, harming mental and physical health, and promoting domestic violence.

Berger's book is one of the very best I've seen on climate change -- on understanding how it could impact on virtually every facet of our life, society, economy, and environment.

There's a lot more at stake here than just our beer.