Company to spend $12 million felling Papua's rainforests

How much rainforest can you destroy with $12 million?  Quite a lot, actually...

Make way for oil palm... (photo by William Laurance)

Make way for oil palm... (photo by William Laurance)

According to a recent report by the Indonesian policy group Greenomics, an Indonesian oil palm company plans to spend $12 million over the next three years to clear over 38,000 hectares of intact rainforest in Papua

That's an area roughly the size of 75,000 football fields.

The Indonesian province of Papua encompasses the western half of the island of New Guinea.  Its ancient rainforests are among the biologically richest ecosystems on Earth.

Notably, the oil palm company planning to fell the forests, known as PT Austindo Nusantara Jaya Tbk -- or ANJT for short -- has been a key supplier of the mega-corporation Wilmar, the world's biggest palm oil producer. 

Earlier this year Wilmar issued a "no-deforestation pledge", promising not to clear any more forests for palm oil production.

Clearly, Wilmar's pledge will be laughable if it promises it won't clear forests, and then simply buys palm oil from ANJT -- which is busily bulldozing some of the world's most biologically diverse and carbon-rich rainforests.

So, let's all keep a sharp eye on Wilmar -- while urging it to steer clear of forest-killing companies like ANJT.


Will India slash environmental protections?

ALERT member Jean-Philippe Puyravaud tells us about worrying developments in his Indian homeland:

A recent news article in Nature reports that Indian ecologists are alarmed about the newly elected government approving big development projects without adequate environmental impact assessments (EIAs). 

They have good reasons to be afraid. 

At least the developers are happy...

At least the developers are happy...

The government is fast-tracking a wide range of approvals for major road, dam, mine, and infrastructure projects. 

In India and many other democracies today, environmental laws are considered by politicians to be a hurdle to development

Environmental laws are labeled red-tape, EIAs are deemed arbitrary, and environmentalists are slagged off as biased activists who act against the greater interest of the nation.

But is this really the case? 

In a corrupt society like India's, red-tape is really a euphemism for 'bargain'.  Favors are purchased from the government -- which then turns a blind eye to a project's real environmental impacts.

Are EIAs 'arbitrary'?  Most are not.  They are merely not up to an acceptable standard -- and the legal framework in any case is largely inadequate.

Environmentalists are delaying the nation's development?  Hardly. 

In reality, many problems are delaying national progress by reducing India's GDP, such as the inordinate number of traffic deaths on Indian roads, pollution, life-style-related epidemics, and widespread nepotism

In short, protecting biodiversity never sank a nation.

Can the newly elected government of India reduce red tape and economic hurdles while safeguarding its unique biological heritage? 

The signs are not promising.  With an avalanche of new development projects likely to be approved very quickly, the challenges for Indian biodiversity are likely to come hard and fast.   


Megadiversity in peril?

ALERT member Gopalasamy Reuben Clements is one of Malaysia's most active scientists.  Here he tells us about his mission to save an imperied megadiversity hotspot:

A tsunami of forest clearing for oil palm

A tsunami of forest clearing for oil palm

Malaysia is one of Earth’s 17 megadiverse countries.  It straddles Peninsular Malaysia and a chunk of Borneo.

With over 220 species of mammals, 620 birds, 250 reptiles and 150 frogs, few countries on Earth boast similar biodiversity to Malaysia.

It is also home to bizarre species found nowhere else on earth, often in unique ecosystems such as peat swamps and limestone karsts.  For instance, an you guess what this animal is?

Bizarre land snail ( image (c) Reuben Clements)

Bizarre land snail ( image (c) Reuben Clements)

It’s actually a land snail.  In 2008, I discovered that this creature, Opisthostoma vermiculum, is the only one in the world with four axes of coiling.  It's known only from a single limestone karst in Peninsular Malaysia.

Unfortunately, Malaysia is fast losing its natural forests to oil palm and rubber plantations and infrastructure development, with wildlife hunting an additional peril.

A recent study showed that Malaysia had the highest rate of deforestation in the world between 2010 and 2012.  As a result, even a network of key wildlife corridors identified by the government may end up being paper corridors.

Many endemic plant and animal species are threatened with extinction.  Even Malaysia’s trio of large charismatic mammal species, the Malayan tiger, the Asian elephant and the Sumatran rhinoceros, now face a very uncertain future.

To advocate for endangered wildlife, my wife Sheema Abdul Aziz and I co-founded a non-profit research group known as Rimba, which means ‘jungle’ in Malay.

Since 2010, Rimba’s biologists have been conducting research on threatened species and ecosystems in Peninsular Malaysia.

Our team of young scientists has managed to secure a state-wide ban on hunting flying foxes facing local extirpation, as well as briefly halting development in a crucial wildlife corridor.

Saving flying foxes in Malaysia

Saving flying foxes in Malaysia

Rimba hopes its research can help decision-makers in Malaysia to reduce growing threats to imperiled ecosystems and species.  Here's our tagline: "we all NEED a jungle out there!"

Scientists slam Australia for being, well, stupid

Our apologies to the many millions of Australians who did not vote for the Tony Abbott government.  For those that did, one of the world's top scientific organizations has a nuanced message for you:

You are idiots.

Don't blame me -- I didn't vote for him!

Don't blame me -- I didn't vote for him!

Mind you, the organization -- the Association for Tropical Biology and Conservation, which is meeting in Cairns, Queensland this week -- did not actually say that. 

What they said was that they had a great number of issues and concerns with the Abbott government's approach to climate change, national parks, World Heritage sites, illegal-logging legislation, endangered species, and renewable-energy initiatives

But what they really meant was this: If you voted for the Tony Abbott government and care a whit for the environment, you need to have your head examined.

The ATBC is the world's largest scientific organization devoted to the study and conservation of tropical ecosystems and biodiversity.  Several ALERT members, including Priya Davidar, Pierre-Michel Forget, Tom Lovejoy, and Bill Laurance, are former presidents of the Association.

The Cairns conference has delegates from 55 nations, many from developing countries.  Most of those delegates found it incredible that a relatively wealthy nation like Australia could justify so many anti-environmental actions by blaming its economy -- which in fact is quite robust.

Yesterday Senator Christine Milne, the leader of the Australian Green Party, gave a keynote talk at the conference.  She castigated the Abbott government's environmental stance -- and received a standing ovation.

Virtually everyone agrees: The Tony Abbott government is sending an appalling message to the world, especially to developing nations that are often making far bigger commitments to nature conservation with far less national wealth.

The hottest of the biodiversity hotspots?

Where's the planet's most biologically endangered real estate?  The answer might surprise you.

Can you guess what kind of cat this is?

Can you guess what kind of cat this is?

According to ALERT member Çağan Şekercioğlu, the answer is Turkey.  Çağan is an outstanding researcher and also directs the Turkish environmental organization KuzeyDoğa.  He shares his experience with us:

Turkey is the only country covered almost entirely by three of the world’s global biodiversity hotspots: the Caucasus, Irano-Anatolian, and the Mediterranean

At the nexus of Europe, the Middle East, Central Asia, and Africa, Turkey’s location, mountains, and encirclement by three seas have resulted in spectacular biodiversity, making it ‘the biodiversity superpower of Europe’.

Of nearly 10,000 native vascular plant species, a third are endemic.  Large carnivores such as brown bear, wolf, Caucasian lynx, caracal -- pictured above -- striped hyena, and possibly even leopard, still roam the wild corners of this diverse country -- along with 78 million people.

Two papers I published in 2011 highlight Turkey’s growing conservation crisis, the worst in the country’s long and fascinating history.

Turkey’s globally important biodiversity in crisis” is a comprehensive overview of Turkey’s natural wealth and environmental problems.

Turkey’s rich natural heritage under assault”, published in Science, highlights the scale and extent of these threats -- in particular all the environmental laws that were weakened the past two years to make it easier to replace Turkey’s crucial habitats and protected areas with mines, dams, tourist resorts, and other types of “development”.

Not many places left for nature...

Not many places left for nature...

Turkey’s astonishingly rich biodiversity, especially for a temperate country of its size, is being destroyed rapidly.  

Unfortunately, Turkey lacks the biological ‘‘charisma’’ of many tropical countries and suffers from the international misconception that, as a nation that wants to enter the European Union, it must have adequate funds and priorities to support conservation.

These factors, combined with the Turkish public’s general disinterest in conservation and the government’s unrelenting pro-development obsession, have created a conservation crisis.

With Turkey’s biodiversity facing severe and growing threats, the country is now entirely covered by crisis ecoregions, most of them critically endangered.


Eco-crisis: The devastation of Borneo's forests

Warning: Do not look at this map if you don't want to feel depressed. 

The image shows how much of Borneo's biodiversity-rich forests have been destroyed or degraded in the last four decades -- and it's enough to ruin anybody's breakfast.

Trouble for orangutans and lots of other species (from Mongabay)

Trouble for orangutans and lots of other species (from Mongabay)

From 1973 to 2010, the tropical rainforests of Borneo have been razed twice as fast as those elsewhere on the planet, according to a freely available study that just appeared in PLoS One.

In the paper, David Gaveau, Sean Sloan, and colleagues analyzed Landsat imagery to see how much of Borneo's mega-diversity forests have been cleared, burned, or degraded by industrial logging. 

It's not a pretty picture -- as also detailed here in the leading environmental website Mongabay.

In 1973, more than three-quarters of Borneo was blanketed by native forest, much of which was undisturbed or little disturbed, according to the study.

By 2010 nearly 17 million hectares of the forest -- an area larger than England, Wales, and Northern Ireland combined -- had vanished.

Echoing an earlier study that spanned all of Indonesia, industrial logging, oil palm, and wood-pulp plantations were apparently the biggest culprits, along with slash-and-burn farming.

Increasingly, large expanses of Borneo are dominated by selectively logged native forests.  As highlighted previously here at ALERT, these forests still retain considerable biodiversity and carbon, but are intensely vulnerable to being cleared or burned.

The challenge at hand for Borneo is clear, the study concludes.

It's vital to slow forest destruction, by safeguarding existing protected areas and especially by defending the selectively logged forests that now increasingly dominate the island.


Birds wiped out by pesticides: A new 'Silent Spring'?

In 1962, Rachel Carson provoked the modern environmental movement with her classic book, Silent Spring -- which castigated big chemical manufacturers and government regulators for allowing the rampant use of DDT and other environmental toxins that killed wild animals and triggered deadly cancers.  Could we be on the verge of another Silent Spring?

No more songs to herald the Spring?

No more songs to herald the Spring?

That's the frightening implication of a new paper in the leading journal Science, which suggests a commonly used type of toxin, known as a "neonicotinoid pesticide", is causing severe declines of bird populations. 

The toxin, which is chemically similar to nicotine, is the most widely used pesticide on Earth.

In the study, which was based in the Netherlands, the researchers showed that the insecticide so severely depressed insect numbers that local populations of 15 species of insect-eating birds declined strongly as well

Where the pesticide was applied heavily, local bird populations declined by an average of 3.5 percent annually, a rapid fall in numbers.  These declines only began in the mid-1990s, after the toxin was introduced to the Netherlands.

The nicotine-like pesticides have previously been associated with severe declines of bees -- which are vital pollinators of many agricultural crops and wild plants. 

Now it appears that wherever the pesticides are used heavily, insect-eating bird populations are also declining rapidly.

Were she alive today, Rachel Carson would be aghast to think her deadly Silent Spring might be returning.


Will an avalanche of private money help or hurt Africa?

"TRADE NOT AID".  Increasingly that's the catch-cry of some politicians and rock stars such as Bob Geldoff, when discussing Africa's future.  But will trade and private investment save Africa -- or merely open it up to predatory exploitation?

Tough choices ahead... (photo by William Laurance)

Tough choices ahead... (photo by William Laurance)

That's a pressing question because Africa is in the midst of an investment gold-rushChina is investing over $100 billion annually just in African mining

Investors from India, Brazil, the USA, Canada, Europe and Australia are now pouring funds into ventures ranging from minerals and oil to infrastructure and timber. 

In the midst of this tidal wave, it's worthwhile to consider the trials and tribulations of one major effort to bring private investment to Africa -- a campaign that ultimately precipitated the suicide of the main investor, who had been heavily criticized for his efforts.

In a recent article in Foreign Policy magazine, writer Christiane Badgley tells the story of the U.S. corporation Herakles Farms and its ongoing attempt to establish a massive oil palm plantation in Cameroon.

But despite the almost-messianic leadership of its director Bruce Wrobel, Herakles Farms has come under fire both within Cameroon and internationally.

ALERT member Joshua Linder played an important role in this story, with help from other ALERT researchers including Tom Struhsaker, Tom Lovejoy, Corey Bradshaw, Lian Pin Koh and Bill Laurance. 

These scientists helped to raise the alarm about this project and its potential to have grave environmental impacts in a global biodiversity hotspot.

The issue of aid versus private investment for developing nations is not a simple one, but anyone thinking seriously about this issue needs to read Badgley's article. 

For Africa -- in the midst of an investors' feeding frenzy -- there are few easy answers and many dangers ahead.

Religious leaders: Environmental destruction "is a sin"

Destroying Earth's environments is a sin -- plain and simple. 

Time for another big flood?

Time for another big flood?

While many hold something akin to this view, it's remarkable to hear it said so forcefully by Pope Francis I, the leader of the world's Roman Catholic faithful.

Pope Francis made the off-the-cuff remark recently in southern Italy, when speaking to a local farmer.

"I fully agree with what has been said about 'safeguarding' the Earth, to bear fruit without 'exploitation'.  This is one of the greatest challenges of our time," said the Pontiff.

"In my [South American] homeland, I see many forests, which have been stripped ... that becomes land that cannot be cultivated, that cannot give life."

In May, Pope Francis also underscored the responsibility of humankind to act as "Custodians of creation".

The Pope's remarks follow not long after a 'Fatwa' was declared by Indonesia's Muslim leaders, making it a religious offense to participate in illegal wildlife trafficking.  

And in 2010, global religious leaders called on the world's political leaders at the G20 Summit in Canada to make environmental protection a top priority, along with alleviating poverty.

While a few religious pacesetters have long emphasized sustainability, could this be a fundamental new development?   Are mainstream religious leaders beginning to elevate environmental protection to something approaching sacrosanct behavior?

With Earth's environmental challenges growing daily, let's pray that they do.


Does 'vampire' squirrel have world's fluffiest tail?

Just when you thought it was safe to go outside again, comes this news from the rainforests of Borneo: The legendary 'vampire' squirrel evidently has the biggest, fluffiest tail of any mammal in the world.

More tail than squirrel...

More tail than squirrel...

According to local folk tales, the animal -- which actually goes by the prosaic name of 'tufted ground squirrel' -- has a fondness for fresh blood.  The 35-centimeter-long squirrel will reputedly spring onto the back of a live deer in order to gash its neck and drink its blood.

While many biologists have doubts about the squirrel's blood-swilling habits, no one can doubt the spectacular dimensions of its tail.  According to a recent essay in Science, the squirrel has the biggest, fluffiest tail (relative to its body size) of any mammal species alive.

The tail doubles as an umbrella...

The tail doubles as an umbrella...

Rather charmingly, the dimensions of the squirrel's tail were worked out by a 15 year-old, Emily Mae Meijaard -- the daughter of the well known conservation scientist Erik Meijaard.

But sadly, the vampire squirrel's rainforest home is under siege.  Indonesia is now the world's fastest forest-destroying nation, and the rate of forest loss is evidently accelerating. 

Even worse, the squirrel is only known to live in undisturbed, old-growth rainforest -- which is rapidly vanishing in Borneo.

Perhaps the vampire squirrel needs to develop a taste for loggers and bulldozer drivers...

Will the World Bank increase eco-destructive loans?

Alarm bells are ringing.  Leaked emails suggest the World Bank -- once notorious for lending hundreds of billions of dollars for environmentally destructive projects -- could be easing loan conditions for a range of risky projects.

Not happy with the Bank...

Not happy with the Bank...

Environmentalists and human-rights campaigners are up in arms because the leaked emails suggest the Bank is considering a radical step -- making more than $50 billion in public funds available annually for large power, mining, transport, and farming projects that frequently have major environmental impacts.

The leaked emails -- which were seen by The Observer newspaper in the UK -- suggest senior officers at the Bank are worried about the repercussions of such loans, fearing they would lead to an increase in "problem projects".

In the past, some World Bank loans have come under intense fire for causing large-scale environmental damage and social disruption in the Amazon, India, Indonesia, Africa, and elsewhere.

The emails suggest the Bank may expand the use of "biodiversity offsetting" -- which allows developers to destroy nature in one place if they compensate for it elsewhere.  Many conservationists view such measures with suspicion.

The World Bank and its subsidiaries loan billions of dollars annually to over 100 countries to alleviate poverty.  It is the world's largest development institution.

The Bank was lambasted in the 1980s and 1990s by environmental and social-rights activists for its damaging lending policies and because it is dominated by industrialized countries

Since then the World Bank has improved its record to a degree, bringing in more environmental and social safeguards, but the leaked emails have many worried that the Bank's bad old days might be returning.


Momentous changes ahead for the tropics

The world's tropical regions will be the epicenter of change in global economies, population growth, and environment.  That's the take-home message of a groundbreaking report that forecasts massive changes this century in the tropics.

Huge changes ahead... (from Mongabay)

Huge changes ahead... (from Mongabay)

The ambitious State of the Tropics Report was launched last week in Burma and Singapore, in a special televised event. 

The report was kicked off by Nobel Laureate and Burmese leader Aung San Suu Kyi with assistance from Sandra Harding, the Vice-Chancellor of James Cook University in Australia, and a panel of experts that included ALERT director Bill Laurance

Produced by a coalition of 12 universities and research institutes from the Asia-Pacific, Africa, and Latin America, the State of the Tropics report sees dramatic changes ahead for the world's tropical regions:

- by the latter part of this century, the population of tropical nations will swell by over 3 billion additional people, with Africa's population nearly quadrupling

- food demand in tropical and developing nations will double by mid-century

- by 2050, two-thirds of all children will live in the tropics

- land-use pressures will intensify sharply because of a dire need to increase food and biofuel production in the tropics

- as the century unfolds, tropical nations will increasingly be the centers of global economic growth and also rising geopolitical conflicts over land, water, and natural resources

- the tropics sustains 80% of all species, many of which will be imperiled by rising habitat loss, climate change, and other perils.

The State of the Tropics report is the first comprehensive effort to project change across the entire tropical region -- which will increasingly become a key driver of social, economic, and environmental change globally.


The lunacy of Australia's shark culls

Let's call a spade a spade: As environmental initiatives go, they don't get much dumber than the ongoing culls of big sharks off the coast of Western Australia.

There are scarier things out there than sharks (from

There are scarier things out there than sharks (from

That's the main conclusion of a resolution by over 300 marine and environmental scientists, who are asking that the culls be halted -- arguing that they are based on the flimsiest science imaginable.

After an initial 13-week trial, the Western Australian government is now proposing to run a three-year shark-killing spree -- and public comments on the program are invited.  This would involve deploying up to 72 lethal drum lines that are expected to kill around a thousand tiger sharks and great-white sharks in total.

As the alpha predators in the sea, big sharks are important in maintaining an ecological balance -- for instance in regulating the numbers and activity of medium-sized fish, sea turtles, and dugongs that in turn affect smaller marine species and seagrass beds.  

Notably, Australia has been taking a leading role in criticizing Japan for its so-called 'scientific whaling' in the southern oceans.  Whales, of course, are not the only big animals that have a large influence on marine ecosystems -- sharks matter too.

The leading environmental website ConservationBytes is taking an especially lively poke at the Western Australian shark cull.  One can usually count on ConsBytes not to pull any punches.

Notably, in Europe and North America, conservationists and scientists are now working hard to reintroduce large predators such as wolves and bears into ecosystems from which they were formerly extirpated.  Known as 'rewilding', these efforts are increasingly gaining public support.

Of course, an even better idea is not to wipe out big predators in the first place.  Let's hope the Western Australian government figures that out before it's too late.

Cool videos to promote environmental awareness

Let's face it: We're the Youtube generation.  And if we want to reach folks and foster broad interest in the environment, we need to do it in fun and engaging ways.

No talent required...

No talent required...

That's why scientists and conservationists are increasing using videos, often lodged on Youtube, to reach a wide audience.  And with all the slick new tech-toys at hand, anyone can do this

Here are two eco-videos that have crossed our radar recently.  They're quick and easy to watch -- and they resonate with important messages.

The first, by the group, tells us about the manifold ways that roads can endanger nature

The second, by a team of researchers at Australian National University, tells us why the matrix -- the modified habitats surrounding habitat fragments -- is important for species conservation.

The latter video is especially innovative because it's designed to highlight the key ideas from a new scientific paper.  If all scientists did this, we'd all surely understand more about science!

Videos are gaining cachet as a way to teach and inform.  At the forthcoming annual conference of the Association for Tropical Biology and Conservation, researchers will for the first time have the option of submitting a video of their research -- and potentially winning a nice prize for their efforts.

So, let's applaud the age of eco-videos.  And let us know if you've seen other cool videos (send a link to  We'll feature them, with credit to you, in a future ALERT blog.


Indonesia now biggest 'forest killer'

It's a dubious honor: Indonesia is now officially the world's biggest destroyer of forests.  What's more, the pace of forest loss appears to be accelerating.

High price for biodiversity...

High price for biodiversity...

Any way you look at it, Indonesia is a mega-diversity nation for plants and animals.  And virtually nowhere else on Earth has more endangered species, including the tiger, orangutan, clouded leopard, and Sumatran and Javan rhinoceros.

Satellite data reveal that, from 2000 to 2012, Indonesia destroyed its native old-growth forests at a stunning pace, losing over 6 million hectares (15 million acres).  That's an area almost the size of Ireland.

Meanwhile, deforestation in Brazil -- formerly the no. 1 forest feller -- has declined substantially in recent years

Equally alarming is that deforestation appears to be worsening in Indonesia, despite major international initiatives to slow forest loss there.  In 2012, the country cleared 840,000 hectares of its old-growth forests, more than any year in the preceding decade. 

Accelerating deforestation in Indonesia (from Mongabay)

Accelerating deforestation in Indonesia (from Mongabay)

Brazil, whose forests are much more extensive, lost just 460,000 hectares in 2012.

It's a label no nation should want: Indonesia is now the undisputed global 'leader' in destroying its native forests

Perils growing for Earth's biodiversity hotspots

Biodiversity hotspots are Earth's most biologically important real estate.  An important new study -- which you can download free here -- sees dark clouds on the horizon for many these crucial ecosystems.

Where the rare things live...

Where the rare things live...

There are 35 biodiversity hotspots across the planet.  They encompass a wide range of different ecosystems but they all have two key features:

First, they're jam-packed with species, especially those that don't occur anywhere else on Earth.  These are known as "locally endemic species" and they're notoriously vulnerable, because they live in just one small area.  For instance, the island of Madagascar has lots of species, such as lemurs, that are completely unique to the island.

Second, hotspots, by definition, have been nuked by land-use change: at least 70% of the original vegetation has disappeared.

The new paper, led by geographer Sean Sloan and including ALERT director Bill Laurance, used a rigorous satellite analysis to estimate how much of the original vegetation survives in an intact condition in each hotspot. 

Unfortunately, most hotspots have much less intact vegetation than previously estimated.  Half now have less than a tenth of their original vegetation -- at which points things start to look seriously dodgy for biodiversity, in part because the original habitat gets severely fragmented and reduced.

An interesting finding is that the hotspots that were formerly in the best shape, in terms of having more of their original vegetation, suffered the worst.  Drier habitats, such as dry forests, open woodlands, and grasslands, fared badly, largely because of expanding agriculture.

These findings highlight an important reality.  For biodiversity, the Earth is far from homogenous, with certain crucial regions overflowing with rare species.  Conserving the last vestiges of these endangered ecosystems is simply vital if we're going to ward off a catastrophic mass-extinction event.


Using old smart-phones to fight eco-crimes

Guarding nature is tricky... there's a lot of nature out there and many illegal loggers, poachers and gold-miners who are eager to pillage surviving natural areas.  What are we to do?

Smart phones get a new lease on life -- helping to save nature.

Smart phones get a new lease on life -- helping to save nature.

One innovative solution might be to use old smart-phones to detect illicit encroachers in the act.  A nonprofit group called Rainforest Connection has begun using the phones to set up monitoring stations in endangered forests -- keeping a sharp ear out for growling chainsaws or the bang of a poacher's gun.

As reported on the leading environmental website Mongabay, the group has tested out their system in Sumatra, Indonesia.  It worked a treat, allowing authorities to catch illegal loggers in its first two weeks of operation.

Now Rainforest Connection is scaling up.  Partnering with the Zoological Society of London, they are using 30 of the devices with solar-power units to monitor 10,000 hectares of vulnerable forest in Cameroon. 

Rainforest connection reckons their devices work far faster than monitoring of forests by satellite.  Their system can alert authorities within just 5 minutes of detecting illegal activity, they say, whereas satellite systems can take a week. 

It's heartening to see good minds working on creative solutions for serious environmental issues.  Let's hope the old smart-phones can do the trick.


Are vines taking over the planet?

Welcome to the 'Planet of the Vines'.  It's a world where proliferating vines strangle trees, suppress forests, and diminish forest carbon storage -- increasing greenhouse-gas emissions and making Earth a hotter place for us all.

Are vines running amok? (photo by William Laurance)

Are vines running amok? (photo by William Laurance)

That's the implication of two recent studies in the leading journal Ecology

In the first, ALERT director Bill Laurance and colleagues showed that woody vines (known as 'lianas') in undisturbed forests of the Amazon have increased markedly in abundance, by about 1% per year over at least the last couple of decades.

Why?  Nobody knows for sure, but Laurance and colleagues think it might be a response to rising carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere.  This stimulates plant growth, and fast-growing species such as vines seem especially adept at taking advantage of it.

In the second study, researcher Stefan Schnitzer and colleagues experimentally removed woody vines from forests in Panama, by cutting them off of infested trees.  They found that growth rates of the trees nearly tripled, and that forest-carbon storage increased by a fifth.

This illustrates just how dramatically vines can affect forests.  Vine-infested trees grow more slowly, reproduce less, and die more often.  When they die, the carbon that's stored in their wood and leaves is released into the atmosphere, as carbon dioxide.

Some woody vines are hefty... (photo by William Laurance)

Some woody vines are hefty... (photo by William Laurance)

This kind of scenario sends shivers up the spines of ecologists, because it can turn into a positive feedback -- a situation that can quickly snowball out of control. 

In other words: humans spew carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, leading to more vines, which then kill and suppress trees, which in turn emit more carbon dioxide...  And on and on it goes...

In the 1970s a margarine commercial on TV resonated with the punchline, "It's not nice to fool Mother Nature". 

Clearly we haven't learned that lesson. 

It seems increasingly likely that Mother Nature might now be fooling around with us.

Will corporations save the Earth?

Guilty as charged.  That would be my plea if I were accused of "distrusting big corporations".  But in a provocative new essay, writer Alice Korngold argues that mega-corporations are the only thing that can save us.

Really, you can trust us...

Really, you can trust us...

It's a novel argument.  For as long as I can remember, the hand on the chainsaw and the driver of the roaring bulldozer has had a corporate face -- a face focused, above all, on maximizing profits.

Yet, Korngold asserts that multinational corporations have vast financial resources and a capacity to work internationally that governments just can't touch.  That's crucial, she argues, in an era in which many of our environmental and social crises are global in scope.

Clearly, a well-meaning corporation can have a big influence on its entire business sector.  For instance, we've seen a wave of forest-destroying firms declaring "no-deforestation" policies, following the pioneering declaration by the oil palm giant Golden Agri Resources. 

It's a herd-mentality thing, one surmises.  When everybody is suddenly turning green, who wants to be left behind?

Still, Korngold doesn't suggest all corporations are well-meaning or that they can save the planet on their own. 

The best outcomes arise, she argues, when mega-firms pair up with NGOs or nonprofits.  It's also important for corporations to embrace sustainability at the board level, engage with their stakeholders, and commit to accountability and transparency, she says.

I guess the take-home messages are two-fold.  First, we need to keep up the pressure on corporate bad guys -- so their reputations and market shares suffer, giving them a real incentive to improve their performance.

Second, we need to engage and work with enlightened firms, and those willing to turn over a new leaf.  Greenpeace's recent detente with Asia Pulp & Paper -- formerly the dark beast of the environment -- is one such example.

It's a brave new corporate world.  We hope. 

-Bill Laurance


Australian government "most hostile to the environment"


Even the ostriches are impressed...

Even the ostriches are impressed...

Those are the words used by a mainstream politician to describe the Tony Abbott government's savage approach to the Australian and global environments, in a formal submission on Monday to Australia's national parliament.

In a parliamentary speech that must have shaken the building's rafters, the Honorable Kelvin Thomson repeatedly decried the Abbott government as "the most hostile to the environment in nearly 50 years" in Australia.

Thomson, the Member of Parliament for the Division of Wills in Victoria, laid out a barrage of environmental complaints against the Abbott government.  These include efforts to:

- Carve out 74,000 hectares of World Heritage forest in Tasmania for industrial logging

- refusing to include climate change on the agenda of the forthcoming G20 global leaders summit in Brisbane, despite urging from many other nations

- approving plans to dump 3 million tons of sediment in the Great Barrier Reef -- a move that might have the iconic ecosystem declared a World Heritage Area in Danger

- gutting federal environmental protections in favor of a 'one-stop shop' that would devolve responsibility for environmental matters to the Australian states, many of which are stridently pro-development

One might expect members of the Australian Green Party to castigate the Abbott government's environmental stance.  But when a centrist like Kelvin Thomson feels compelled to speak out so forcefully, one realizes we really have entered the dark ages Down Under.