December 30, 2013
Pollution Rising, Chinese Fear for Soil and Food
By EDWARD WONG
CHENJIAWAN, China — The farm-to-table process in China starts in villages like this one in the agricultural heartland. Food from the fields of Ge Songqing and her neighbors ends up in their kitchens or in the local market, and from there goes to other provinces. The foods are Chinese staples: rice, cabbage, carrots, turnips and sweet potatoes.
But the fields are ringed by factories and irrigated with water tainted by industrial waste. Levels of toxic heavy metals in the wastewater here are among the highest in China, and residents fear the soil is similarly contaminated. Though they have no scientific proof, they suspect that a spate of cancer deaths is linked to the pollution, and worry about lead levels in the children’s blood.
“Of course I’m afraid,” said Ms. Ge, in her 60s, pointing to the smokestacks looming over her fields and the stagnant, algae-filled irrigation canals surrounding a home she shares with a granddaughter and her husband, a former soldier. “But we don’t do physical checkups. If we find out we have cancer, it’s only a burden on the children.”
With awareness of China’s severe environmental degradation rising, there has been a surge of anxiety in the last year among ordinary Chinese and some officials over soil pollution in the country’s agricultural centers and the potential effects on the food chain. In recent years, the government has conducted widespread testing of soil across China, but it has not released the results, adding to the fear and making it more difficult for most Chinese to judge what they eat and pinpoint the offending factories.
An alarming glimpse of official findings came on Monday, when a vice minister of land and resources, Wang Shiyuan, said at a news conference in Beijing that eight million acres of China’s farmland, equal to the size of Maryland, had become so polluted that planting crops on it “should not be allowed.”
A signal moment came in May, when officials in Guangdong Province, in the far south, said they had discovered excessive levels of cadmium in 155 batches of rice collected from markets, restaurants and storehouses. Of those, 89 were from Hunan Province, where Ms. Ge farms.
The report set off a nationwide scare. In June, China Daily, an official English-language newspaper, published an editorial saying that “soil contaminated with heavy metals is eroding the foundation of the country’s food safety and becoming a looming public health hazard.”
One-sixth of China’s arable land — nearly 50 million acres — suffers from soil pollution, according to a book published this year by the Ministry of Environmental Protection. The book, “Soil Pollution and Physical Health,” said that more than 13 million tons of crops harvested each year were contaminated with heavy metals, and that 22 million acres of farmland were affected by pesticides.
But the government has refused to divulge details of the pollution, leaving farmers and consumers in the dark about the levels of contaminants in the food chain. The soil survey, completed in 2010, has been locked away as a “state secret.”
“We think it’s always the right of the public to know how bad the situation is,” said Ma Tianjie, an advocate at Greenpeace East Asia who is researching toxic soil. “The Chinese public can accept the fact that our environment is polluted. The important thing is to give them the means to challenge polluters and improve the environment, and not just keep them in the dark.”
There has been some acknowledgment of the problem by top officials. In January, the State Council, China’s cabinet, announced that it would set up systems to comprehensively monitor soil pollution by 2015 and promote pilot projects for treatment.
Scholars say soil pollution is especially acute in Hunan Province, China’s rice bowl. In 2012, Hunan produced 17 million tons of rice, 16 percent of the national total, according to one market research company.
The province is also one of China’s top producers of nonferrous metals. As a result, it is the leading polluter of cadmium, chromium, lead and nonmetal arsenic, according to data collected in 2011 by the Institute of Public and Environmental Affairs, a research group based in Beijing.
That year, the province was responsible for 41 percent of the nation’s cadmium pollution when measured by its presence in industrial wastewater; the number has not dropped below 30 percent since 2004, when the data were first collected by the group. The wastewater is discharged in rivers, where it flows into irrigation channels.
“There’s this pressure from the central government on Hunan to maintain a high level of yield for rice production,” said Mr. Ma, the Greenpeace program director. “On the other hand, rice production never gives you the same kind of G.D.P. growth that industrial development gives you.”
Hunan’s abundance of raw metals has led to a push by provincial Communist Party leaders to develop mining and smelting there further, leaving officials caught in what Mr. Ma calls a clash of two imperatives: “They have to feed the country with their rice, but they want to grow their economy.”
Among the heavy metals seeping into Hunan’s crops, the worst may be cadmium, which at high levels has been linked to organ failure, weakening of bones and cancer, scientists say.
“Cadmium has a tendency to accumulate in the kidney and liver,” Chen Nengchang, a scholar at the Guangdong Institute of Eco-environment and Soil Sciences. “When the accumulation reaches a certain point, it will pose a serious health risk for the organs.”
Cadmium that accumulates in rice plants gets not only into the rice on China’s tables, but also into animals’ meat, since the husks are fed to farm animals. There is no public data, though, that shows the level of cadmium pollution in food.
Increasingly, Chinese news organizations are reporting on clusters of villages that have high rates of cancer, raising questions about the potential link between cancer and various forms of pollution. Some scientists are now conducting studies.
In July, the Chinese Center for Disease Control and Pollution published some findings from a study that drew a direct connection between pollution of the Huai River, which crosses several provinces in central China, and high rates of cancer among people living by the river.
Here in Hunan, and particularly in this area administered by Hengyang City, which includes Ms. Ge’s village, stories of cancer are common.
One woman in the village of Liujiacun said her husband had died in his late 50s of liver cancer. “He didn’t do heavy labor, didn’t smoke, and he would drink only a little bit,” said the widow, who gave only her surname, Li.
As in nearby villages, crops here appear wilted, and the village well is clogged with green muck. These were all sharp changes from Ms. Li’s childhood, she said.
Twenty people live in Chenjiawan now, down from a population of about 100 in 2007, most of them elderly, Ms. Ge said, adding that many recent deaths had been from cancer.
There is no public data drawing a direct connection between these cases and the factories that loom over the farmland. But a 2009 study published in a Chinese journal said that the area’s main crops were “at a high risk of heavy metal contamination,” and that only less than half could be rated “secure” or “good.”
Chinese farmers “have such a profound connection with the land,” said Mr. Chen, the Guangdong soil scientist. “Since China’s household registration system makes it difficult for them to relocate to other areas, there is a sense of fatalism, and they accept whatever comes their way.”
That sense of futility ripples throughout central Hunan. In one part of Hengyang, a mound of industrial waste that has destroyed adjacent farmland has drawn outraged comments from villagers on the Internet. But they expect no action because the nearby factories are tied to local officials, villagers said in interviews.
“There’s no way to close these factories because of local protectionism,” said one farmer, Wang, who wanted to be identified only by his surname for fear of retribution.
For Hunan officials, the mines and factories around Hengyang are central to maintaining the province’s leading role in the production of nonferrous metals, essential for industrial processes like the manufacture of lead-acid car batteries. “It’s difficult to lobby against those companies,” said Sun Cheng, a spokesman for Green Hunan, an advocacy group.
Hunan officials are eager to expand the nonferrous metals industry. In a development plan for the five years ending in 2015, officials have pledged to increase the industry’s revenue by an annual rate of 18 percent, and have approved 80 new projects that have a total investment of under $10 billion.
Given the nationwide health risks, some environmental officials in Beijing have praised recent experiments done by scientists that show certain plants could help clean the soil by absorbing poisons. Still, there has been no sign of action on the State Council’s announced goal for comprehensive monitoring and treatment of soil pollution. Many farmers working their ravaged lands remain fearful and fatalistic.
“You’re born on this earth, you grow up on this earth, and you can’t do anything about it,” Ms. Ge said, sitting in an alley next to a pail of carrots. “Those who are most vulnerable have died. We’re still here wasting away.”
Chris Buckley contributed reporting from Hong Kong, and Patrick Zuo contributed research from Beijing and Chenjiawan.
Reindeer herds in danger as Australia's mining boom comes to Sweden
Lars Jon Allas, whose family has herded for generations, says mine dust kills the lichen reindeer eat in winter
Kim Paul Nguyen
theguardian.com, Thursday 2 January 2014 04.52 GMT
The town of Kiruna in far north Sweden is home to the largest underground iron mine in the world. Piles of mined earth dwarf the town and smoke churning from the processing plant at the mine's entrance creates the impression of an active volcano.
Lars Jon Allas and his reindeer herd spend their winters in the pastures just outside Kiruna. Allas, whose family has herded reindeer for countless generations, says mine dust can carry kilometres and kills the lichen reindeer eat during winter.
Allas is apprehensive about the mining boom taking place in Sweden: “We have mining exploration everywhere, it's frightening.” Now an Australian company is planning a mining complex just south of Kiruna and Allas's Sami community is determined to stop it.
Hannans Reward Ltd, a Perth-based company, is planning a collection of open-pit mines just a few kilometres from Kiruna, mining iron, copper and gold. The project is in the advanced exploratory stages, the company hoping environmental impact assessments and final resource testing will be completed in 2014. If so it will apply for exploitation concessions and environmental permits that will allow it to begin mining.
The proposed mine sites stretch kilometres across the forested landscape. Mattias Åhrén, a law professor from Tromsø University and member of the Sami council, says the Hannans' mines will make reindeer herding in the area impossible. “The site is so huge it cuts the Sami communities in half. It's directly on the reindeer migration path.”
Åhrén says the mines would destroy autumn and spring pastures and reindeer would not be able to pass. He says it is particularly damaging because the mine sites are in the area used by reindeer cows to give birth.
Sami communities are also concerned impacts spread far beyond the mine's edges. Mines require extensive infrastructure and produce large amounts of waste, stored nearby in enormous tailing ponds that often contain toxins. “If this goes ahead those communities will no longer be able to pursue reindeer herding, not in the traditional way,” says Åhrén.
Reindeer herding is considered by many to be the basis of Sami culture. Once it is gone, Åhrén fears their ancient culture would soon follow. “Traditional cultures depend on the land use, the livelihoods,” Åhrén explains. “When that disappears you become a museum culture, you are frozen in time.”
The Sami communities are not going down without a fight. At Hannans' 2011 and 2012 AGMs the local reindeer herders sent envoys to warn Hannans they would lodge a complaint with the United Nations Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination (Cerd). But at Hannans' AGM on 21 November 2013 the company reiterated its commitment to the project, stating they plan to mine and process one billion tonnes of ore in the Kiruna area.
Hannans may not have it all its own way. A very similar mining controversy is playing out in Rönnbäcken, 300 kilometres south-west of Kiruna, that could have major ramifications for all mining operations in traditional Sami areas. A nickel mining project has just been halted by UN intervention in circumstances that mirror those of Hannans' Kiruna project.
In 2012, the Swedish mining inspectorate granted Nickel Mountain, a Swedish company, exploitation concessions for three sites. The decision was immediately appealed by local reindeer herders on grounds that damage to pastures and migration routes would make reindeer herding in the area impossible. In August 2013, the Swedish government dismissed their appeals. The herders then took their complaint to the Cerd.
Åhrén also represents the reindeer herders of Rönnbäcken: “We are arguing that Sami communities have established property rights through traditional use, giving them the right to say no.” Sweden has so far refused to ratify the International Labour Organisation (ILO) Convention 169, that gives indigenous people legal rights over their traditional land.
Late in 2013, the Cerd asked the Swedish government to suspend all mining activity at the Rönnbäcken sites while the complaint was investigated. It is now awaiting the government's response, due in January 2014, before releasing its findings.
Fredric Bratt, Nickel Mountain director, said his company was in dialogue with local reindeer herders and want to mine alongside them. However he said their consent was not necessary, and as the Cerd only had an advisory role the decision on mining was ultimately down to the Swedish government.
Åhrén hopes Sweden would abide by a finding from the UN committee and does not think there is any other way. “It's very difficult to convince the Swedish majority that reindeer herding is more important than mining, because people treasure money and themselves first. That's why we have human rights, because you can't rely on majority rule in these kinds of decisions.”
But increasingly Sami have been engaging in politics, with protests held in the north and Stockholm. This summer activists from across Scandinavia joined Sami and other locals to blockade the British company Beowulf's Kallak mine project in the centre of northern Sweden.
Blockade organisers said the project will damage local forests, waterways and reindeer pastures.
The blockade lasted over two months, despite being repeatedly torn down by police and Beowulf security personnel, before police finally dispersed protesters in late August. The police were accused of brutality after a wooden tower came down with two activists still in it. Protesters, both Sami and non-Sami, were detained for resisting arrest and trespass.
Hannans, who declined to comment, will have to prepare for continued resistance from a minority people fighting for survival.
January 2, 2014
Battle for Survival May Yield the Rain Forest’s Diversity
By CARL ZIMMER
The diversity of a tropical rain forest can be hard to fathom for people who have not seen one. Three acres of jungle may be home to more than 650 species of trees — more species than grow in the entire continental United States and Canada combined.
It’s tempting to look at all those species living so close together as a picture of peaceful coexistence. But Phyllis D. Coley and Thomas A. Kursar, a husband-and-wife team of ecologists at the University of Utah, see them as war zones. Hordes of insects threaten the survival of plants, which respond with chemical warfare. The result, they argue, is the remarkable biodiversity we see today.
“It’s not harmonious,” Dr. Coley said. “It’s a constant battle to stay alive, to stay in the game.” Dr. Coley and Dr. Kursar outline their hypothesis in this week’s issue of Science.
This hypothesis is a departure from the classical explanation for tropical diversity. Traditionally, ecologists argued that all the species in a tropical forest could coexist through specialization to their physical environment. Some species might be able to live in deep shade, for example, while others could gain minerals beyond the reach of other plants.
But this explanation has fallen out of favor in recent years. “There just aren’t enough different ways to take advantage of light or nutrients or water,” Dr. Coley said. “There must be something else going on.”
Dr. Coley and Dr. Kursar came to endorse a different explanation. That shift occurred over the course of their three decades of research in the tropics, where they study how insects attack plants and how plants defend themselves.
A single tree may be home to hundreds of species of insects, many of which live by relentlessly devouring its seeds, stems and leaves. Many seedlings will die before reaching maturity thanks to the damage done by insects.
Plants are not helpless victims, however. They have evolved a staggering variety of defenses. Some grow cups of nectar on their leaves to attract sugar-hungry ants, which also attack insects feeding on the leaves. Some plants defend themselves by sprouting hairs. “To us they seem soft and fuzzy,” Dr. Coley said, “but to a small caterpillar with a soft belly, they can be more like meat hooks.”
The most impressive defenses in tropical plants are invisible, however. A plant may pack each of its leaves with hundreds of kinds of insect poisons. Those toxins can make up half the dry weight of a tropical plant leaf.
As farmers know all too well, insects can evolve resistance to pesticides. A similar evolution plays out in tropical forests, where insects can disarm many of the chemicals that plants use against them.
Of course, plants in temperate regions face attacks from insects, too. But Dr. Coley and Dr. Kursar argue that those plants are more adapted to the bigger threats they face, from the bitter cold of winter and other environmental challenges. In the tropics, plants enjoy a balmy climate year-round. While the physical environment poses less of a threat to tropical plants, it makes insects a bigger danger. They can grow faster in the warm, moist climate; without killing frosts, they can produce more generations each year.
The tropics have thus become host to an arms race. Each species of plant is evolving defenses against its enemies, which evolve counterdefenses in turn. This arms race would explain why tropical plants have become so loaded with toxic compounds.
It might also help solve the mystery of tropical biodiversity. “We think this arms race between the herbivores and the plants might be the explanation for what maintains the diversity that we see now, and why so many plants have evolved in the first place,” Dr. Coley said.
Dr. Coley suggests that the evolution of new defenses speeds up the evolution of new plant species. When a population of plants evolves a new chemical to ward off its insect enemies, it may also change its scent. Pollinators can be exquisitely sensitive to the fragrance of plants, and so the plants may end up visited by different animals than before. That shift may isolate them from other members of their species and help them evolve into a separate species.
The chemical arms race may also explain how so many plant species can live side by side. “The way they’re being different is who is feeding on them,” Dr. Coley said.
The insects that have adapted to feeding on one species of plant may be unable to get around the defenses of another species growing nearby. With hundreds of different defenses in each plant, the possibilities for coexistence are practically endless.
A small but growing number of studies support this argument. Dr. Coley and Dr. Kursar, for example, have found some of this evidence while studying species of South American trees that belong to a genus called Inga. The scientists examined the chemicals of closely related Inga species living near each other. They were surprised to find that the arsenals were drastically different from species to species.
“They were like snowflakes,” Dr. Coley said.
“The idea they lay out makes a lot of sense to me,” said Douglas W. Schemske, an ecologist at Michigan State University. He suggests that along with insect pests, beneficial partners may also help drive the diversity of tropical plants. Many species, for example, depend on bacteria living in their roots to supply them with nitrogen. Just as each tropical plant may fight certain pest species, they may need certain species of root bacteria. “There’s just an unbelievable constellation of possibilities,” Dr. Schemske said.
Still, Dr. Schemske and other scientists say that it is not possible yet for scientists to make broad generalizations about tropical plants and their insects. “It takes so much time just to identify all the chemicals in a single leaf,” said Paul V. A. Fine of the University of California, Berkeley.
And when scientists capture insects from plants to study their counterdefenses, they face the unknown all over again. “Almost every single one of them is a new species,” Dr. Fine said. The biggest obstacle to understanding the diversity of tropical rain forests, it turns out, is that very diversity.
‘Human-induced climate change’ to blame for Australia’s hottest year on record: scientists
By Agence France-Presse
Friday, January 3, 2014 7:06 EST
Australia experienced its hottest year on record in 2013, the Bureau of Meteorology said Friday, enduring the longest heatwave ever recorded Down Under as well as destructive bushfires.
“2013 was Australia’s warmest year since records began in 1910,” the bureau said in its annual climate statement, released as inland areas of the country suffer scorching heatwave conditions.
“Mean temperatures across Australia have generally been well above average since September 2012. Long periods of warmer-than-average days have been common, with a distinct lack of cold weather.”
The bureau said that Australia’s 2012-2013 summer was the warmest on record, and included a prolonged national heatwave which ended on January 19, 2013 — the first day since 31 December, 2012 that it did not reach 45 degrees Celsius (113 F) somewhere in the nation.
Spring was also the warmest on record and winter the third warmest, meaning that overall, the annual national mean temperature was 1.20 degrees Celsius above average.
The bureau pointed to destructive fires, in the island state of Tasmania in early 2013, which were followed by a record warm and dry winter across the country.
Spring appeared to arrive early and culminated in “the most destructive fires in the Sydney region since at least 1968″.
The weather authority, which last year introduced new colours on its temperature scale to cater for more extreme highs, said the Australian warming was very similar to that seen on the global scale.
“And the past year emphasises that the warming trend continues,” it said.
This year is also starting warmly, with records already under threat in some Outback towns. In Moomba in northern South Australia, the temperature topped 48 degrees Celsius on Thursday. The highest temperature ever recorded in Australia was 50.7 Celsius in Oodnadatta in 1960.
Sarah Perkins, a climate system science researcher at the University of New South Wales in Sydney, said the report confirmed that the impacts of global warming were starting to be felt.
“While records are occasionally broken here and there, the amount of temperature records broken in the last year is extraordinary,” she said.
“Studies have already shown that the risk of summers like 2013 occurring have increased by up to five-fold, because of human induced climate change.”
Professor Roger Jones, a lead author on the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s Working Group II Fifth Assessment Report to be released later this year, said the findings should concern all Australians.
“While the increases in average temperatures may seem to be benign — heat waves are increasing faster than those averages,” said Jones, a research fellow at Victoria University in Melbourne.
“Why heat waves are longer and hotter than anticipated is not yet clear, but they are contributing to greater fire danger and heat stress than projected by climate impact studies, affecting animals, plants and humans.”
University of Melbourne climate scientist David Karoly said the record high average temperature was remarkable because it did not occur in an “El Nino” year, when conditions in Australia are usually drier and warmer.
He said that in climate modelling experiments conducted so far it was not possible to reach such a temperature record due to natural climate variations alone.
“Hence, this record could not occur due to natural variability alone and is only possible due to the combination of greenhouse climate change and natural variability on Australian average temperature,” he said.
Ian Lowe, emeritus professor of science, technology and society at Queensland’s Griffith University and president of the Australian Conservation Foundation, said the report confirmed expectations.
“2013 was the hottest year on record for Australia, showing that there is no rational basis for the claim that warming has slowed in recent years,” he said.
BP wins first Greenland drilling concession despite chequered record
Greenpeace says decision to open country's pristine waters to company responsible for Deepwater Horizon spill beggars belief
The Guardian, Friday 3 January 2014 19.10 GMT
BP has won permission to drill in the clear waters off Greenland, just three and a half years after abandoning similar plans to apply for a licence in the aftermath of the Deepwater Horizon blowout.
Greenpeace said it beggared belief that a company with BP's chequered track record would be allowed to work in one of the world's most fragile environments.
The British oil company confirmed last night that it had won a licence to work on the Amaroq concession off the coast of north-east Greenland – its first permit in or around that country.
The government in Nuuk boasted that the presence of big oil companies would accelerate the chances of striking oil but even some energy executives have warned of a potential disaster because of the difficulties of dealing with a spill around ice.
"BP and our partners ENI and Dong Energy are pleased to have been awarded block 8 in the north-east Greenland licence round, an area amounting to 2,630 square kilometres," said BP in a statement.
"North-east Greenland is a long term play, and we expect several years of careful planning before exploring this challenging and interesting region. We look forward to working with the BMP (Greenland's bureau of mines and petroleum) and partners to develop a 2D seismic work programme," it added.
BP applied for the licence as operator but has subsequently decided to hand that role over to ENI, in an unusual move that it would only say was "mutually agreed" between the consortium partners and the government.
Jens-Erik Kirkegaard, the minister for industry and mineral resources, said both BP and Shell were among those given four exploration blocks in the Greenland Sea.
"We were able to attract the largest oil companies in the world to explore for oil and gas in our area. It increases our belief that they are able to find oil and gas in commercial quantities."
But he insisted that safety would be paramount. "All exploration for oil and gas is conducted by following the highest achievable standards when it comes to protecting the marine environment and living resources in the sea," he added.
But John Sauven, the executive director of Greenpeace, lambasted the move. "With a safety track record like BP's it beggars belief that they would ever be allowed to drill in and around the Arctic. Even one of their main competitors, Total, recognises the extreme dangers of drilling in the Arctic and have pulled out.
He said the British oil group had "polluted miles of the Louisiana coastline and destroyed the livelihoods of thousands with the Deepwater Horizon catastrophe" and was now "sniffing around the Arctic, one of the world's most fragile environmental regions".
He added: "BP and its shareholders should realise the enormous risks of any move into the Arctic and the opposition they will face from the millions of people, locally and globally, who have signed up to protect the region."
BP abandoned plans for drilling off Greenland in the summer of 2010, in a move that was widely believed to have come after pressure from the government in Nuuk arising over worries about the public relations impact as much as the safety record of BP following the fire and pollution at the Macondo well in the Gulf of Mexico.
Since the end of 2012, BP has not been awarded any new licences by the US government but has won stakes in drilling rights in the Barents Sea off Norway.
BP is also now a 20% equity holder in Rosneft, which has substantial licenses in the Russian Arctic.
Shell had been pioneering a new round of drilling in Arctic waters off Alaska but ran into conflict with the safety authorities after its drilling rig, Kulluk, ran aground.
The French oil group Total has argued that energy companies should stay away from the Arctic because an oil spill would risk doing so much damage to the environment. Christophe de Margerie, the group's chief executive told the FT in September 2012: "Oil on Greenland would be a disaster."
January 5, 2014
Spain’s Solar Pullback Threatens Pocketbooks
By SUZANNE DALEY
ÁGUILAS, Spain — Six years ago, Justo Cruz Rodríguez, who runs a small business here designing signs, was looking for a way to generate a steady, if modest, pension for himself and his father.
So when the government passed a law offering attractive rates for solar energy — and guaranteed them for the next 25 years — he mortgaged his house, his father’s house and even his workshop to install half a dozen rows of solar panels in his father’s garden, with the idea of selling his excess electricity.
“It seemed so safe,” he said recently. “It was a government guarantee.”
But the Spanish government has changed its mind. It plans to pay less, a lot less. Under legislation that goes into effect this year, it will drop its per-kilowatt-hour payment system altogether and effectively impose retroactive cuts in payments. It also plans to make solar power producers pay a charge on electricity they generate and use themselves, a measure that angry protesters have named the “sun tax.”
Spain has good reason for wanting to take action. It is facing a growing deficit — about $40 billion now — because it has never passed on the true cost of producing energy to its consumers, a problem that has ballooned with the economic crisis. If it does not do something, that deficit will only grow, experts say.
Energy experts across Europe are watching Spain’s actions closely, however, wondering if they amount to folly. Thousands of solar energy investors large and small will doubtless face insolvency, and perhaps just as worrisome, experts say, the new charges for those using their own electricity may set off a rush by owners of solar panels to find ways to sell or use their electricity without reliance on the national grid at all, further reducing its customer base.
Nor is Spain’s abrupt U-turn likely to go over well with future investors, experts say.
“When a government changes the terms of existing contracts, that’s a bad move,” said Toby Couture, a solar energy consultant with E3 Analytics in Berlin, who believes that the government will have trouble when it wants to develop public-private partnerships to fund water treatment plants, highways or pipelines, for instance.
“There are reasons we live by contract rules,” he said. “If you keep changing the rules of the game, then, after a while, your friends don’t want to play. The government has lost credibility.”
Spain was once at the forefront of the solar energy movement. It barreled into the renewable-energy business, winning over thousands of investors big and small with its guarantees. Experts say the country has already come close to the European Union’s goal of 20 percent reliance on renewable energy by 2020.
But experts say the government never expected so much investment and never came up with a way of paying for it. When the economic crisis hit, in 2008, and demand for energy went down, the deficit widened at an even faster rate.
Spanish officials say they have no choice now but to reduce the payments, which were once offered to spur investment in solar energy but are now considered overly generous, especially since the cost of solar panels has dropped precipitously in recent years.
The new government payment system has left thousands of investors, like Mr. Cruz, 51, in a state of shock.
“I am going to lose everything,” Mr. Cruz said, standing near the panels he thought would make his old age easier. “I will be homeless. At my age, homeless.”
The government has proposed cuts to other parts of the energy sector as well, and has taken other steps to reduce the energy deficit, including asking Spaniards to pay more for the electricity they use. But no other measures are as drastic as the reduction of payments to the nearly 60,000 producers of solar power, 50,000 of which are small-time investors like Mr. Cruz, according to the Spanish Solar Power Union.
“If we did nothing, the only two alternatives would either be bankruptcy of the system or an increase of the price to consumers of more than 40 percent,” said José Manuel Soria, the minister for industry, energy and tourism, defending the government plans shortly after they were announced last summer.
The government’s plans have prompted angry accusations across the energy sector here. Solar energy producers feel unfairly singled out and say more savings might be squeezed from other electricity producers. Spain’s other energy producers are offering little sympathy.
They say the terms that the Spanish government was offering in 2007 were so good that no one should have expected them to last. “Essentially, these investors were speculators,” said Eduardo Montes, the president of the Spanish Electricity Industry Association, which represents traditional electricity producers. “It was not reasonable to expect it would stay that way.”
Under the new law, instead of the current per-kilowatt-hour fees, the government will offer a formula intended to produce a 7.5 percent return on investment. The problem, experts say, is that the basis for determining that investment is unclear, and the formula looks likely to penalize those who paid more for their equipment, took out big loans or are paying high interest rates. The Solar Power Union estimates a cut in income of 30 percent to 50 percent for producers.
Already, some investors are turning to the courts. Their lawyers say the original law specifically guaranteed a fee of 58 cents for each kilowatt-hour for the next 25 years and guaranteed 80 percent of that for the years thereafter. It also clearly stated that any future changes could affect only new installations.
“The law was drafted in a very sure way,” said Piet Holtrop, a Barcelona lawyer representing about 1,200 investors, ranging from individuals like Mr. Cruz to small town councils. “The people who invested gave it some thought. They were not just putting their money into anything. It was a sound investment.”
Several large investors have decided to take Spain to the World Bank’s arbitration agency, the International Center for Settlement of Investment Disputes.
Government officials declined to answer questions on the subject. They are being widely criticized for coming up with the new plan without consulting any of the affected parties and for changing their mind about several components in the last few months.
“The government made a bad situation worse by following a process that lacked consultation and transparency and instead created confusion and uncertainty,” said David Robinson, an economist in Madrid who specializes in energy policy and who is a senior research fellow at the Oxford Institute for Energy Studies.
But with a solid majority in Parliament, the government had little trouble getting approval for its main proposals last month, although many details will be clear only when new regulations are published.
Some investors say they will respond to the government’s plan by finding ways to become independent. Diego Nicolas, who owns a car repair business in Murcia and installed solar panels in his garage last year, said that he was considering investing in some wind turbines and a generator and becoming self-sufficient.
“I will be completely independent then, and not subject to their numbers game,” he said.
But that option is not available to Mr. Cruz, whose business has suffered badly in the economic crisis. After the government first reduced his income from the panels in 2010 by capping the amount of electricity it would pay for, he renegotiated the terms of his loans. But he ended up with a higher interest rate and a longer term of repayment. He has already given up any dreams that the panels will contribute to his retirement.
“I can’t go to the bank and say, ‘I am not going to pay you anymore,’ ” he said. “But the government can just do what it likes? That does not seem right to me.”
The polar vortex: Scientists explain why global warming is making winter colder
By Agence France-Presse
Monday, January 6, 2014 15:46 EST
The bitter chill gripping North America is a result of Arctic air that has spilled southwards, and global warming may be a cause, an expert said on Monday.
Arctic air is normally penned in at the roof of the world by a powerful circular wind called the polar vortex, said Dim Coumou, a senior scientist at the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research (PIK) near Berlin.
When the vortex weakens, the air starts heading southwards, bringing exceptional snow and chill to middle latitudes.
The weather shift is also helped by changes in a high altitude wind called the jet stream.
This convection, which usually encircles the northern hemisphere in a robust and predictable fashion, starts to zigzag, creating loops of extremely cold weather or unseasonably mild weather, depending on the location.
“We’ve seen a strong meandering of the jetstream, and the cold air associated with the polar vortex has been moving southwards, and in this case over the eastern parts of Canada and the United States, bringing this extreme cold weather,” said Coumou.
The phenomenon has occurred repeatedly in recent winters, he noted.
What drives the polar vortex is the difference in temperature between the Arctic and mid latitudes, said Coumou.
Once sharp, this differential has blurred in recent years as the Arctic — where temperatures are rising at about twice the global average — warms up, he said.
“We’ve seen this type of cold spell more often lately in recent winters, in Europe but also in the US,” Coumou said in a phone interview.
“The reason why we see these strong meanderings is still not fully settled, but it’s clear that the Arctic has been warming very rapidly. We have good data on this. Arctic temperatures have risen much more than other parts of the globe.”
Last month, European scientists reported that the volume of sea ice in November was around 50 percent greater compared with a year earlier, following a recovery in the Arctic summer.
Despite this bounceback, sea ice remains at near-record documented lows and its overall trend is one of retreat, they said.
Coumou cautioned that Arctic sea ice “is just one of the important factors” behind disruption of the polar vortex”.
“Other factors include snow cover, stratospheric warming events or other short-lived phenomena,” he said.
Other specialists said the link between warming and the spillover of Arctic air was still debated.
“There is no consensus,” said Francois Gourand, a forecaster at Meteo France, the French national meteorological agency.
“The melting of sea ice can have an impact on atmospheric circulation but these effects are complex and hard to pin down,” he said.
“The overall trend of the sea ice is downwards, yet in Europe we can have mild winters sometimes, or cold winters — there doesn’t seem to be a clear link.”
Brazil's indigenous rights activists hail illegal settlers' eviction
Troops begin evicting ranchers and loggers from Maranhão state in eastern Amazon, home of endangered Awá tribal group
Jonathan Watts in Rio de Janeiro
theguardian.com, Tuesday 7 January 2014 08.17 GMT
Indigenous rights campaigners hailed a rare victory in Brazil this week as government troops began evicting illegal settlers from an area that belongs to one of the world's most endangered tribal groups.
The Awá population has been decimated along with the eastern Amazonian forests upon which its nomadic people depend. Disease, murder and the loss of habitat are thought to have reduced their numbers to 450.
Although the Brazilian government demarcated their territory in Maranhão state more than 10 years ago, the Awá reserve has been increasingly infringed upon by ranchers, loggers and landless farmers.
Last week the government announced it would comply with a court order and evict the settlers. In an online statement, the government's indigenous affairs department, Funai, said the army, police, justice ministry and environment officials would be involved in the operation.
Starting this week, non-indigenous residents will be given 40 days' notice to leave and help will be provided for their resettlement.
Stephen Corry, director or Survival International, which has launched a campaign to save the community, said the operation was a victory for the global campaign to save the tribe.
"This is a momentous and potentially life-saving occasion for the Awá. Their many thousands of supporters worldwide can be proud of the change they have helped the tribe bring about. But all eyes are now on Brazil to ensure it completes the operation before the World Cup kicks off in June, and protects Awá land once and for all," he said.
Action to evict the "invasores" has been slow coming, and conflicts – including killings and arson attacks – have occurred sporadically.
A Vanity Fair reporter who recently visited the area estimated that illegal logging roads were found within a few miles of an area where the last 100 uncontacted Awá hunt.
A federal judge described the situation as genocide, and Survival International calls the Awá "the most threatened tribe on earth".
The government has dragged its feet because it professes to be a supporter of the million-plus landless rural workers and is dependent in congress on the agro-business lobby, which wants to redraw indigenous land demarcations.
But with questions being asked by the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, front-page stories on the plight of the Awá in Brazil's bestselling newspaper, and an international campaign featuring Colin Firth, Vivienne Westwood and Sebastião Salgado and other celebrities, the pressure for protection has increased.
Tensions are likely to persist both here and in other areas demarcated as indigenous lands. Native populations have been slaughtered since the arrival of the first European settlers. They now comprise less than half a per cent of Brazil's population of 199 million, but their territories cover 13% of the country's land.
The farm lobby is desperate to change this. It is proposing a constitutional revision – known as PEC215 – that would shift responsibility for demarcation from Funai to congress, which is heavily dominated by agricultural interests. In December, one farm group in Mato Grosso do Sul held a fundraising drive to support "resistance" by agriculturalists against indigenous groups.
Troops have been dispatched to restore order on several occasions. Over Christmas more than 100 members of the Tenharim tribe in Amazonas state were forced to flee when a mob of angry settlers descended on their village and burned several buildings to the ground. This followed accusation and counter-accusation over the disputed death of the Tenharim chief and the disappearance of three non-indigenous men.
Last August the National Guard was called in after the killing of a Guarani man, Celso Rodrigues, in Mato Grosso do Sul.
The mismatch between indigenous communities and mining wealth
Indigenous communities rarely reap the benefits of mining and attempts by companies to redress the balance often fall short
Guardian Professional, Friday 15 November 2013 14.52 GMT
"It shouldn't be like this. It's a rich country... for some", reflects the veteran left-wing journalist and filmmaker John Pilger in his new documentary about the plight of Australia's indigenous community.
Utopia, which opens in UK cinemas today, offers a searing critique of what Pilger describes as Australia's "hidden secret". In the opening sequences, the viewer is taken from a Palm Beach apartment renting at AUS$30,000 (£17,388) per week to a police station foyer where a young indigenous Australian male is beaten and later dies.
The juxtaposition between Australia's affluent classes, buoyed by a prolonged mining boom, and the grudging poverty of its native populations crops up throughout the film. Pilger seems genuinely bewildered by the gulf. When he questions Warren Snowdon, a long-term parliamentarian in Australia's Northern Territories, about this manifest development gap, he's told that his question is "puerile" and "stupid".
Is that fair? According to the Australian government's own figures (PDF), mining is the "main reason" for a 78% increase in the country's terms of trade between 2004 and 2011. As a percentage of total national investment, mining's portion shot up from 8% to 31% over the same period. Is it really "puerile" to ask if some of the benefits of Australia's mining boom might accrue to the country's native communities?
Pilger certainly thinks not. He cites the case of Roeburne, located in Western Australia's Pilbara region: "It's right at the centre of one of the world's greatest resource 'gold rushes', yet its people remain impoverished and the children stricken with preventable diseases; many are partially deaf."
On the face of it, the global mining industry appears to be responding. Take the International Council for Mining and Metals (ICMM). The London-based trade body, whose 22 corporate members operate more than 800 mine sites in over 60 countries, issued a position statement on indigenous rights five years ago. The document, which was updated last May, calls on companies to show "mutual respect" and deliver "mutual benefit".
The industry's big guns seem to be listening. Only last month, Australia's BHP Billiton announced an AUS$10m education fund to finance 90 scholarships for indigenous students. The likes of Rio Tinto, Anglo American and Gold Corp all boast similar initiatives. Yet the complaints and conflicts go on, so where's the mismatch?
At least three major obstacles stand in the way. First is the question of commitment. Many seemingly well-intentioned development efforts by corporations are either too little or too late. It's all very well to provide a handful of jobs or scholarships, Pilger argues, but these have "almost no positive bearing" on the systemic problems of housing, sanitation, health and so forth that many indigenous groups face.
The Wayúu in Colombia provide a case in point. Comprising over two-fifths of the population of north-western state of La Guajira, home to the country's largest coal mine, they scrape a meagre living as subsistence farmers and herders. Not only has none of the wealth from the Cerrejón mine trickled their way, they have had to suffer the health impacts of air and water pollution to boot, Wayúu leaders say.
"If the charitable foundation of the company comes and offers people something, they will take it because they are desperate but it doesn't cover all their needs", says Jackeline Epiayu, a Wayúu human rights campaigner. Even then, only a "minimal fraction" of the Wayúu communities receives support, says Epiayu, leading her to conclude that such programmes are "mere window dressing".
The second major barrier is that of historical context. Native communities, by definition, preceded those that came after. That makes extractive companies the newbies. If nothing else, this single fact demands that they are respected. Hence, the insistence by indigenous communities of their right to be listened to and to say "no" to mining projects should they so wish – what's known in policy circles as "Free, Prior and Informed Consent". The revised ICMM norms water down this commitment by giving the final word to host governments, argues First People Worldwide, a global indigenous rights organisation.
Historical context also demands that companies are seen to tackle the injustices of yesteryear, not just those of today. Pilger's film is littered with examples of atrocities against Australia's indigenous peoples that have never been officially admitted, let alone addressed. For abuses in which companies are involved, even if only indirectly or under different ownership, appropriate restitution or compensation is a must for winning trust. In other cases, companies should be actively lobbying the government to set the past straight.
The final, and arguably most significant, obstacle is cultural. Indigenous communities follow "fundamentally different norms" from western-minded, neoliberal-oriented corporations, argues Jon Altman, professor in anthropology at the Australian National University (and one of Pilger's interviewees). It's not that indigenous people don't want development; it's just that many don't want the kind of development that multinational companies are offering.
"We need to redefine what we mean by development", argues Bobby Banerjee, professor of management at London's Cass Business School. Work needs to be done to design income-generating models that concur with indigenous customs and beliefs, particularly those related to the sanctity of nature. "Economic development that comes at the price of social dislocation and environmental degradation is certainly not a preferred outcome", he argues.
Mining corporations could certainly go a lot further in mitigating their impacts on indigenous peoples. Even then, the notion that the two can somehow live together in a harmonious utopia still seems highly optimistic. More realistic, perhaps, is a fragile armistice.
Brazil's Amazon conservation project threatened by loggers and landowners
Small farmers and a Catholic nun are facing a violent backlash as they develop a project to protect the rainforest
theguardian.com, Tuesday 7 January 2014 07.00 GMT
Sister Angela Sauzen exudes energy and determination. A Brazilian nun of German extraction, she has made a real difference to progressive causes in Latin America over the past half-century. Peasant farmers laughingly say she never takes "no" for an answer.
When the Guardian met her in September, she was excited about a project she was helping peasant farmers to develop as an alternative to destructive slash-and-burn agriculture. Like the farmers, Sauzen was having to learn about budgets, quality control and marketing strategies – issues not generally covered in a nun's training. But she was not in the least daunted.
She lives in the hot, unpleasant town of Uruará, on the Transamazônica highway, which cuts through the Amazon basin from east to west. With some 50,000 inhabitants, it is a typical frontier town, with no running water, no sewerage, no internet, no airport (apart from several small, clandestine landing strips, some of which are said to be used for drug trafficking), not even a bus station.
What Uruará does have in abundance are loggers, who bring in most of the town's income and are clearly the powers that be. In the late afternoon, lorries transporting massive tree trunks arrive in the loggers' depots. Some of the lorries are new but, almost invariably, they don't have a number plate. It's a way the loggers have found to hide the origin of their timber so they can claim it comes from one of the few areas where logging is permitted. This scheme, known as heating the wood, is so common that, off the record, loggers admit it would be impossible to find a single logger who did not disguise the origin of at least part of his timber in this way.
The loggers take timber from wherever they can find it, including indigenous reserves and land allocated to peasant families as part of the government's agrarian reform programme. With the government largely absent from the region, they have used the classic combination of patronage (building roads, repairing bridges, taking sick people to hospital) and threats to get the peasant families to sell them their timber at peppercorn prices.
In 2007 Sauzen decided to do something to try to change the dynamic. "I came back to Uruará after a 12-year absence and I was horrified at the way logging and forest-felling had increased," she says. "I feared that the whole wonderful forest would be destroyed." She began to talk to the families about developing a sustainable way of earning their living. Some of them in a nearby settlement called Rio Trairão responded favourably, and Sementes da Floresta (Seeds of the Forest) was born.
A community leader, Derisvaldo Moreira, said the basic philosophy behind their project was to collect produce from the forest (Brazil nuts and seeds of the andiroba, cupuaçu, copaíba and other trees), process it and sell it to retailers and cosmetics manufacturers. None of the families had done anything like this before. Like Sauzen, they had a lot to learn, but little by little the project has been moving forward. Or it was.
There were signs in September 2012 that Seeds of the Forest was provoking fierce opposition from loggers and big landowners, particularly when it announced plans to incorporate, legally, a further 14,000 hectares (34,500 acres) of public forest.
The Guardian got a taste of the landowners' fury when a cattle farmer, Domingos Nicolodi, claimed to own 6,000 hectares of forest in the area claimed by Seeds of the Forest. When reminded that the constitutional limit on the area of public land that could be owned by an individual was 2,500 hectares, he reacted furiously. "That land is mine," he shouted. "All this trouble is being caused by that mad nun. That's what I call her, a mad nun. She should be praying in a church."
The situation has since become more tense. According to reports, labourers are illegally cutting down swaths of forest in the area used by the families. There have been death threats. Last month a masked man held a gun to Sauzen's head, warning her to back off. An activist secretly recorded an official from Ibama, the environmental agency, saying: "There's already a group trying to get us withdrawn. It's a powder keg here."
Every year scientists come up with evidence showing the importance of the Amazon forest in regulating global climate. Yet, after declining for several years, Amazon deforestation increased by 28% from August 2012 to July 2013, with 5,843 sq km (2,255 sq miles) being felled. It is clear that, if the devastation is to be permanently halted, projects such as the Seeds of the Forest must be provided with the protection they need to survive.
Further along the Transamazônica highway another Catholic nun – the American Sister Dorothy Stang – worked ceaselessly for peasant families. Just like Sauzen, she was helping them to develop a sustainable alternative to slash-and-burn farming. She was gunned down in January 2005 by an assassin, hired by a local landowner.
Wind power was Spain's top source of electricity in 2013
Surge in wind power and hydropower drives emissions down by more than 23%, reports BusinessGreen
James Murray for BusinessGreen, part of the Guardian Environment Network
theguardian.com, Monday 6 January 2014 13.39 GMT
Remarkable new figures from Spain's grid operator have revealed that greenhouse gas emissions from the country's power sector are likely to have fallen 23.1% last year, as power generation from wind farms and hydroelectric plants soared.
Red Eléctrica de España (REE) released a preliminary report on the country's power system late last month, revealing that for "the first time ever, [wind power] contributed most to the annual electricity demand coverage". According to the figures, wind turbines met 21.1% of electricity demand on the Spanish peninsular, narrowly beating the region's fleet of nuclear reactors, which provided 21% of power.
In total, wind farms are estimated to have generated 53,926 gigawatt hours of electricity, up 12% on 2012, while high levels of rainfall meant hydroelectric power output was 16% higher than the historical average, climbing to 32,205GWh.
"Throughout 2013, the all-time highs of wind power production were exceeded," the report stated. "On 6 February, wind power recorded a new maximum of instantaneous power with 17,056MW at 3:49 pm (2.5 per cent up on the previous record registered in April 2012), and that same day the all-time maximum for hourly energy was also exceeded reaching 16,918MWh. Similarly, in January, February, March and November wind power generation was the technology that made the largest contribution towards the total energy production of the system."
An increase in wind power capacity of 173MW coupled with an increase in solar PV capacity of 140MW and solar thermal capacity of 300MW meant that by the end of the year renewables represented 49.1% of total installed power capacity on the Spanish peninsula.
In contrast, the preliminary figures show that power output from combined cycle gas plants fell 34.2% year-on-year, coal-fired plants saw generation fall 27.3%, and nuclear power output fell 8.3%.
The dramatic shift towards renewable generation coupled with a fall in overall power demand of 2.1% led to a similarly drastic reductions in emissions from the peninsular's power sector. "The increased weight of renewable energy in the generation mix structure of 2013 compared to the previous year has reduced CO2 emissions of the electricity sector on the Spanish peninsula to 61.4 million tonnes, 23.1% lower than in 2012," the report stated.
The study follows news last year that Portugal had successfully generated over 70% of its power from renewables during the first quarter of the year, driven by a surge in wind and hydro power output.
The latest figures are likely to be seized upon by renewable energy firms as further evidence that the sector can provide a high proportion of power to a modern economy without risk of blackouts.
Honduras and the dirty war fuelled by the west's drive for clean energy
The palm oil magnates are growing ever more trees for use in biofuels and carbon trading. But what happens to the subsistence farmers who live on the lucrative land?
Nina Lakhani in Tocoa
The Guardian, Tuesday 7 January 2014
The west's drive to reduce its carbon footprint cheaply is fuelling a dirty war in Honduras, where US-backed security forces are implicated in the murder, disappearance and intimidation of peasant farmers involved in land disputes with local palm oil magnates.
More than 100 people have been killed in the past four years, many assassinated by death squads operating with near impunity in the heavily militarised Bajo Aguán region, where 8,000 Honduran troops are deployed, according to activists.
Farmers' leader Antonio Martínez, 28, is the latest victim of this conflict. His corpse was discovered, strangled, in November.
Peasant farmers say they are the victims of a campaign of terror by the police, army and private security guards working for palm oil companies since a coup in June 2009 ended land negotiations instigated by the deposed president, Manuel Zelaya.
Witnesses have implicated Honduran special forces and the 15th Battalion, which receives training and material support from the US, in dozens of human rights violations around the plantations of Bajo Aguán.
They say private security guards regularly patrol and train with the soldiers, and have even been given military uniforms and weapons for some operations.
The military denies the allegations, blaming the United Peasant Movement (Muca) for escalating violence in the region. Repeated requests for comment from the US embassy in Honduras failed to elicit a response.
The Bajo Aguán dispute dates back almost 20 years, to a World Bank-funded land modernisation programme. The farmers say thousands of hectares of land used for subsistence farming were fraudulently and coercively transferred to agribusinesses that grow African palms, which are lucratively exported to the west for biofuel, and are traded in the carbon credit market.
Since then, they have tried to reclaim the land using the courts, as well as roadblocks and illegal land occupations.
Zelaya launched an investigation to resolve the conflicts, but this came to an abrupt halt when he was toppled in a coup in 2009 that was backed by the business, political, military and church elites.
In December 2009, groups of subsistence farmers started large-scale illegal occupations on disputed land also claimed by the country's biggest palm oil producer, the Dinant Corporation, which is owned by Miguel Facussé, one of Honduras's most powerful men.
Dinant says 17 of its security guards were killed and 30 injured in clashes with farmers.
Map - Aguan Valley, Honduras
The region was heavily militarised in early 2010, and the farmers who were occupying the land were forcibly removed by soldiers enforcing contentious court orders. Accusations of human rights violations have escalated ever since.
In one incident, in 2012, Neptaly Esquivel, 32, a father of five, was permanently disabled by a bullet to the hip fired at close range by a soldier, whose face was hidden by a balaclava, during a peaceful protest against education reform. His case is with the inter-American court of human rights.
In another incident, Matías Vallé, 51, a founder member of Muca, was shot dead by two masked men on a motorcycle as he waited for a bus. Witnesses said a car full of private security guards was parked a few metres away.
His wife, Dominga Ramos, said he had rejected money from Dinant employees to stop the farmers' movement, after which he was told there was a price on his head.
Ramos said: "I witnessed one police officer trying to hide a bullet shell in the ground with his foot. We buried him in a secret place so they couldn't remove his head. I am tired and scared.
"My two sons left because of threats. We just want to work our land in peace."
Dinant strongly denies any direct or indirect involvement in death squads or human rights violations.
It denies collusion between its security guards and government security forces to target peasant groups, and says it is committed to corporate social responsibility. The company says government security forces have been deployed against trespassers, who Dinant says are guilty of murder and other crimes.
A spokesman said Dinant was "not familiar" with the cases of Martínez, Esquivel or Vallé, and it had never been investigated for any suspected involvement. The company said it remained committed to "a quick and peaceful resolution to the Aguán conflict".
Another recent case is the disappearance of Josbin Santamaría Caballero, who was allegedly shot and taken away in an army helicopter on 30 October 2012 as his wife and two young daughters cowered in their kitchen of their home.
The Dinant spokesman said the company was ignorant of his case, too.
Caballero, 25, son of a prominent peasant activist, had been publicly denounced as a violent criminal by Colonel German Alfaro, commander of the joint police-military Xatruch operation in the region.
Alfaro, trained at the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation (formerly the School of the Americas) in Fort Benning, Georgia, denied any military involvement and said Muca, the most organised peasant group in the region, was responsible for the current violence.
Alfaro said: "Muca and other groups encourage farmers to confront agro-industrialists, maintain constant tension and insecurity, and commit crimes to destabilise the area with armed groups."
The Aguán conflict mirrors a wider struggle over land and natural resources across Honduras that for decades has pitted the poor majority against the country's 10 oligarch families. Honduras became the world's most violent country outside a war zone in 2011, and it is one of the poorest and most unequal in the Americas.
Activists say the use of state security forces to suppress protests against landgrabs, dams, mining and oil concessions has intensified since the 2009 coup. Over the same period the US has built up its military presence, with several bases in the country, which has become a major transit point for the international drugs trade. Between 140 and 300 tonnes of cocaine are believed to pass through Honduras every year en route from South America to the US and beyond.
Elections late last year boosted the status quo when the rightwing National party returned to power on a pro-business, pro-security manifesto amid allegations of electoral fraud and voter intimidation.
Bertha Oliva, director of the Committee of the Relatives of the Detained and Disappeared, said: "The police and military are using the cover of the US-led war on drugs in Honduras to eliminate many people, maybe including me: I am on the death list again."
An investigation published in February by the Canadian group Rights Action (pdf) detailed 34 acts of violence and other crimes directly implicating the 15th Battalion. It said these typically occurred "in co-ordination with private security forces of palm oil corporations, Honduran national police agents and other military units … in what can only be characterised as death-squad activity."
Karen Spring, from Rights Action, said: "The role of the military in terrorising and criminalising communities in the Bajo Aguán shows the complicity of the Honduran state and US government in supporting big business regardless of the killings."
The use of private security has increased exponentially across Honduras, which now has five private security guards to every police officer.
The UN working group on mercenaries described consistent reports of guards using illegal weapons to carry out with impunity human rights violations including killings, disappearances, forced evictions and sexual violence.
Patricia Arias, who led the UN group, told the Guardian: "The most worrying information is about private security guards acting together with the police and army, for example the Xatruch operations in Bajo Aguán."
Héctor Castro, vice-president of the Federation of Palm Growers, said both sides had committed abuses and broken the law. He added: "We don't have a government or authorities which look for conciliation or apply the law equally."
Vitalino Alvarez, a Muca leader who survived an assassination attempt in November 2012, said: "Each threat, disappearance and murder is part of the campaign of terror against us. We are blamed for killing each other and publicly called assassins, drug traffickers and drunks. We live, work and negotiate with guns pointed to our heads."
From bananas to biofuels
Honduras was the original, archetypal banana republic: a small, poor, fertile country controlled by a small group of wealthy families with ties to transnational business interests such as Chiquita, formerly the United Fruit Company.
Bajo Aguán, with its lush terrain, sunny climate and myriad rivers, was once dominated by banana trees. In this landscape, poor campesinos barely scraped a living from back-breaking work.
Banana companies withdrew from the region in the 1930s, and its population declined. But by the 1980s the Aguán was one of the most diverse crop regions in Honduras, producing coconuts, pineapples, grapefruits and almost half of all the country's bananas.
But African palm plantations have increased by almost 50% in the past three years, and now dominate the Bajo Aguán landscape, having replaced bananas and other edible crops. African palms, the saturated oil of which is a staple ingredient in processed foods and biodiesel, are now the most profitable crop in Honduras.
01/07/2014 01:52 PM
Green Revolution?: German Brown Coal Power Output Hits New High
Germany plans to wean itself off CO2-belching coal-fired power stations. But new figures show that coal power output in 2013 reached its highest level in more than 20 years. Researchers blame cheap CO2 emissions permits, and demand urgent reforms.
In 1990, Germany's bown coal-fired power stations produced almost 171 billion kilowatt hours of power. At the time, many old eastern German plants were still in operation.
It was a situation that the German government wanted to change, with the aim being that of radically reducing the output of the CO2-polluting lignite plants, but that's not happening. In 2013, it rose to 162 billion kilowatt hours, the highest level since reunification in 1990, according to preliminary figures from AGEB, a collection of industry associations and research institutes.
Electricity output from brown coal plants rose 0.8 percent in 2013, said Jochen Diekmann of the German Institute for Economic Research. As a result, Germany's CO2 output is expected to have risen in 2013, even as power from renewable sources has reached 25 percent of the energy mix.
Part of the reason, said Diekmann, is the low price of CO2 emissions permits in EU trading scheme. Another reason is that new brown coal plants, with a capacity of 2,743 megawatts, came on line in 2012, far exceeding the 1,321 megawatts from old plants shut down that year.
The opposition Green Party called on the government to stop the trend. "Those serious about protecting the climate must ensure that less and less power is generated from brown coal," said Green Party politician Bärbel Höhn. CO2 emissions needed to be priced at a level that makes the more climate-friendly gas-fired power stations economical, she said. "Brown coal power stations, after nuclear plants, are the main source of profit for RWE and Co.," said Höhn, referring to Germany's major utilities. "So they don't even switch off the really old power stations."
Power output from anthracite coal also rose, by eight billion kilowatt hours to over 124 billion, while output from gas-fired plants fell by 10 billion to 66 billion. That means that coal plants are making up for the bulk of the energy production lost due to the 2011 shutdown of eight nuclear plants, while gas plants, which emit less CO2 but are more expensive to run, are barely profitable at present.
The increase in coal-generated power also led to a new record in German electricity exports to around 33 billion kilowatt hours. "In 2013 Germany exported more power than it imported on eight out of 10 days. Most of it was generated by from brown coal and anthracite power stations," said Patrick Graichen, a power market analyst at Berlin-based think tank Agora Energiewende. "They are crowding out gas plants not just in Germany but also abroad -- especially in the Netherlands."
Graichen said it was a paradox of Germany's "Energiewende," the energy revolution aimed at weaning the country off fossil fuel by 2050, that CO2 emissions were now rising despite the rapid expansion of solar and wind power. In 2014, the surcharge on electricity bills will provide some €23.5 billion of subsidies for renewable energies. A four-person household will pay a surcharge of almost €220 this year.
That, said Graichen, is due to the low price of CO2 permits. "The European market for emissions certificates must urgently be repaired to change that," he said. The volume of emissions certificates must be reduced in order to boost the price of CO2.
Gerald Neubauer of Greenpeace said Energy Minister Sigmar Gabriel, of the center-left Social Democrats, must stop "the shocking coal boom." No other country produces more brown coal than Germany, he added. "The coal boom now endangers Germany's credibility on climate protection and the energy revolution," said Neubauer. The Social Democrats need to adopt a more critical stance on this issue, he added.
John Kerry throws more cold water on Keystone XL pipeline
Wednesday, January 8, 2014 20:57 EST
The tubes have been buzzing over a new New York Times report on Secretary of State John Kerry’s aggressive pursuit of a new global climate agreement, which has some clear implications for approval of the controversial Keystone XL tar sands oil pipeline. In a nutshell, things ain’t looking so good, and that has us wondering if the US coal industry is also going to face some serious problems down the road.
The Keystone XL pipeline requires White House approval because it crosses a US border. For those of you new to the topic, the Canada-based project will convey diluted bitumen (yes, that dilbit) down from Canadian tar sands oil fields (yes, that tar sands) through the US midsection to Gulf Coast refineries, destined for overseas markets.
However, tar sands oil is not the only fossil at stake here. As a fossil fuel export-enabling project, Keystone is a big, fat, square peg aimed at the round holes of Kerry’s global climate policymaking efforts. Now, think about that for a minute, and then take a look at what the New York Times article implies about that other square peg, coal exports from the US.
Kerry throws cold water on Keystone XL pipeline
Water by michitux.
Coal Is The Canary In The Coal Mine
The Times notes that in the absence of Congressional action on climate management, President Obama has focused on executive action. That includes, notably, a new EPA regulation that will eventually shut down the worst-polluting coal fired power plants in the US while preventing the construction of new ones.
That’s all well and good but we’ve frequently noted that as US coal consumption declines, US coal exports have gone up, so as a matter of global emissions the EPA action simply shifts the problem overseas.
This is where Kerry comes in. According to the Times, Kerry is looking ahead to the negotiation of a major climate pact in 2015, which means that coal-hungry China will be front and center.
Now let’s connect the dots. If the 2015 pact does happen, and if it sets some meaningful milestones for transitioning out of coal fired power production, the global market for US coal will start to dry up.
The key to Kerry’s success is US credibility on the subject of greenhouse gas management, which is certainly helped by the EPA action. Additionally, the Times notes that Kerry has established some important trust with his counterparts in China, having just brokered an agreement with that country for a joint phase-down of hydrofluorocarbon production.
Now take a look at that Keystone XL pipeline, and you can see how approval of the project would pull the rug out from under everything that Kerry has been working for. It puts the US in the position of aiding and abetting the introduction of more fossil fuel into the global market, while putting domestic safety and security at risk.
John Kerry And The Keystone XL Pipeline
Kerry has stated that he will not involve himself directly in the Keystone review process, which was well under way when he became Secretary of State. However, Keystone raises the kind of red flags that he has been pursuing over a decades-long record of climate action, one highlight being the 2007 publication of This Moment on Earth, a book on the power of individuals to change environmental policy.
More recently, one of Kerry’s first major speeches as new Secretary of State in 2013 was a real barn-burner, in which he outlined the economic benefits of an aggressive global policy to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, even if you imagine that there is no scientific consensus on the relationship between fossil fuels and global warming:
Well, the worst that can happen to you if you would employ a lot of people in alternative and renewable and clean energy; you would have less hospitalizations, cleaner air, more children with less asthma; and you would create an enormous number of jobs by moving to those new energy possibilities and policies and infrastructure. That’s the worst that can happen to you.
Having said all that, we’d be surprised as anybody if the Keystone XL pipeline does get approval. However, now might be a time to get your forks ready.
How the Hungarian town flooded by red toxic sludge went green
Devecser, an environmental disaster zone in 2010, reinvents itself as a hub for sustainable energy
Sean Williams in Devecser
theguardian.com, Wednesday 8 January 2014 13.49 GMT
Toldi Tamás was nursing a hangover when a wave of toxic sludge hit his family home. The night before he had won an election to become Devecser's third mayor since the fall of communism in Hungary. Champagne had flowed. But just hours later, on 4 October 2010, his phone was buzzing with messages from frightened locals. They kept mentioning a dam. "There is no dam," he told one caller.
There was a dam – six metre-high, a couple of miles away, that held back a reservoir of deadly "red mud", a caustic byproduct of aluminium extraction. But it had burst, and a million cubic metres of the slime was rushing toward Devecser, with waves of up to two metres. Within minutes the town was overcome: cars washed down streets and residents lay stricken on the roofs of their ruined homes. The "red mud disaster" claimed 10 lives, 150 were seriously injured.
Three years later, Tamás is standing atop Devecser's parish hall looking out on a new park marking the ruined area. Next to it is a 30-hectare poplar copse whose trees are used to heat 87 homes built just eight months after the disaster.
From an environmental disaster zone, Devecser has become a model town for sustainable energy. It's something Tamas, who worked seven days a week and slept just three hours each night for two years after the flood, registers with muted pride.
His town is now at the forefront of a push for waste-to-energy systems. According to environmental consultants Ecoprog there are 2,200 waste-to-energy plants worldwide, with a disposal capacity of around 255m tons of waste per year. Another 180 will be built by 2017, adding 52m tons of capacity.
A political conservative whose family made their fortune in agriculture, Tamás has used the red mud disaster to reshape Devecser as a hub for green energy and local produce – combining cutting-edge technology with ancient nous. Each summer a team of 12 workers cuts down the poplars and puts them through two mulching machines, which cost Devecser €15,000 (£12,500) each.
The new development, designed for free by the late Hungarian architect Imre Makovecz, was part of a disaster relief that cost Victor Orbán's national government some 127bn Hungarian Forints. Only the bricks used to build the houses weren't sourced locally, a blot that clearly irks Tamás: a local brickmaker, whose factory billows beyond the new-builds, couldn't make bricks for Devecser's biting winter.
"For me it's very important to use a clean source of heating energy here," says Támas. "Secondly my concern was to use locally-available sources of energy. We shouldn't use natural gas from the Caucasus in a pipeline, but use the energy poplars or mulch, or local geothermal energy."
Geothermal energy – which makes use of heat in the Earth – has been put to use heating a bus terminus that throngs with locals at rush-hour. "The mayor is superhuman," says Jennervé Pál Szilvia, director of a local kindergarten.
Tamas doesn't think so. But he is committed to his cause, and hopes his methods can bring back locals who left for cities during socialist industrialisation. "I want to bring back the low-level, healthy farming techniques we had before. Then we can make it certain that all our public institutions use local produce. It's healthier than the stuff you can buy at Tesco."
This year the town is installing a solar vegetable dehydration plant, which will help spur demand for local produce even further. And the poplars are expected to turn in even more energy. "There's a long way to come before we can be a model of sustainability," says Tamás "But we need to start somewhere."
Indonesian indigenous groups fight climate change with GPS mapping
Tribal rights advocates and rainforest defenders are using community mapmaking to protect ancestral land
IRIN, part of the Guardian's development network
theguardian.com, Thursday 9 January 2014 02.00 GMT
Indigenous communities in Indonesia are using GPS technology to demarcate the boundaries of their ancestral lands, a move many believe could also help mitigate the negative effects of climate change.
"Community mapmaking has been a successful tool to show the government that we are here, and that we want to protect our lands," says Rukka Sombolinggi, a spokeswoman for the Indigenous Peoples' Alliance of the Archipelago (Aman), a Jakarta-based secretariat representing more than 2,000 communities.
Indonesia's dense forests are home to an estimated 50 million-70 million indigenous people, and 10% of all known plant species, according to Aman and the Rainforest Action Network, a non-profit international environmental advocacy group based in San Francisco.
"Indonesia's forests are recognised as important, not only at local and national levels but also at the global level, as they include some of the world's most important forests with the highest values for biodiversity and carbon," Gustavo Fonseca, the head of the natural resources team for the Global Environment Facility, told IRIN. GEF is a funding mechanism for the UN convention on biological diversity and the UN framework convention on climate change.
More than 600 cases for land rights have been filed in Indonesian courts by indigenous communities in the past three years, according to the Philippines-based Tebtebba policy research foundation. These advocates of sustainability and tribal rights hope the 2D and 3D maps will help the thousands of diverse aboriginal groups to guard the health of the environments they depend on for survival.
In 2011, the Indonesian government granted forest concession licences covering 57.84m acres of forest land to extractive industries and agribusiness companies, notes a 2013 report by the Forest Peoples Programme (FPP), a UK-based charity dedicated to aid for forest dwellers worldwide.
The FPP says this has led to a growing number of land conflicts, rising to 8,000 disputes in and out of court in 2012, according to Indonesia's National Land Agency (BPN). "Mapmaking has helped them to assert their claims to the land by identifying exactly the areas they have lived since time immemorial," says the head of the Tebtebba foundation, Vicky Tauli-Corpuz.
Indonesia has more than 1,000 indigenous groups who have been participating in mapping for the past two decades, according to Aman and the FPP. Marcus Colchester, senior policy adviser for the FPP, says new technology increases the speed at which this can be done.
The digitised maps, which include spatial elements (physical geography of land formations and resources) and non-spatial information (sacred cultural and ritual sites), cover more than 5.9m acres of indigenous areas, from Sumatra island to Kalimantan and Sulawesi.
How well the maps are used, and how effective they become, depends on the organisation within communities, and the balance of power with authorities in each area, Tauli-Corpuz says.
A man submitted 256 maps to the national Geospatial Information Agency on behalf of aboriginal communities in mid-November 2012, in accordance with the government's One Map Initiative (OMI) launched in 2012.
Caretakers of biodiversity
"They have accepted our maps, and are considering and acknowledging them [on a policy level]," Sombolinggi says. "It is critical evidence for our land rights."
Amendments to the 1999 forestry law, based on a court ruling last May, removed the classification of customary forests as "state forests", and this "was helped along by the submission of the maps", Tauli-Corpuz says.
Land rights are intrinsically linked to sustainability, and to mitigating climate change by preserving the Earth's forests, which are seen by many as the lungs of the planet.
"Recognition of indigenous peoples' rights is an essential plank in this policy reform, which will not only slow deforestation but will also secure community livelihoods, reduce land conflicts and foster local food security," Colchester says.
Maintaining biodiversity aids adaptation by "[removing] carbon dioxide from the atmosphere ... and reducing emissions from forest degradation", says the convention on biological diversity, an agreement signed by 150 leaders at the 1992 Rio Earth summit.
Indigenous people have high stakes in protecting biodiversity because they depend on its survival for their own, hunting and gathering non-timber forest products for their daily needs, according to Nicole Girard, Asia programme co-ordinator for Minority Rights Group International, a UK-based charity.
"Once their resources are threatened by either development projects or climate change, the impact is felt more directly and more acutely than by those in cities," Girard adds.
Over the generations they have learned to live sustainably and have a keen understanding of a forest's limitations, making them the ideal caretakers of forested land. For example, a traditional fire-prevention practice preserves eco-system functioning by creating barriers to contain flames, protecting the deepest and most essential parts of the forest, Tauli-Corpuz explains.
Fonseca points out that "indigenous peoples' rights to forests have long been recognised as a crucial component to maintain the environment and address climate change."
European nations squabbling over new 2030 targets to reduce greenhouse gases
By Agence France-Presse
Friday, January 10, 2014 12:19 EST
European nations stand sharply divided over setting new 2030 targets to reduce greenhouse gas emissions blamed for global warming, EU sources said Friday.
European Commission head Jose Manuel Barroso called in commissioners to try to agree figures ahead of talks on January 22 but there was no progress, one source said.
Parliament’s environmental and energy committees on Thursday called for a 2030 reduction target of 40 percent for carbon dioxide emissions, based on 1990 levels.
In addition, they want renewable sources to account for 30 percent of the energy mix while efficiency should be improved 40 percent.
“The 40 percent CO2 reduction is not agreed yet,” the source said.
“Barroso and (EU Climate Change Commissioner) Connie Hedegaad are fighting against (Energy Commissioner) Guenther Oettinger who wants to fix it at 35 percent,” said the source, who asked not to be named.
Germany’s Oettinger has the support of Business Europe which groups all the EU’s industrial associations.
Business Europe head Emma Marcegaglia said in a letter to Barroso that the new climate and energy package must be carefully considered, with a “realistic target.”
It should also be “compatible with the imperative need of strengthening our industries and restoring Europe as a place for industrial investment,” Marcegaglia said.
Crucially, the “EU should move away from the three overlapping targets… which cause inefficiencies, lead to additional regulatory burdens and increase energy prices,” she said.
Instead, there should be just one target, for CO2 emissions reduction, Marcegaglia said in the letter posted on the group’s website.
In 2008, the EU agreed a 20-20-20 programme with a deadline of 2020 and it is this scheme which is being updated to fix new 2030 targets.
Many of the EU’s 28 member states have reservations about various parts of the proposals.
Britain, France and Spain for example oppose increasing the target for renewable energy use because this could reduce the amount of nuclear power in their programmes, the source said.
In contrast, Germany, which is closing down its nuclear power industry in light of the 2011 Fukushima, backs the 30 percent renewables target.
Many MEPs and environmental groups have attacked the Commission, the EU’s executive arm, for being too timid when it should be taking a firmer line ahead of the UN’s climate conference in September.