Tag Archive: ecology


I recently sat down with Sybelle Foxcroft of Cee4Life to talk about my forthcoming book, The Politics of Total Liberation: Revolution for the 21st Century. Here is that video interview:

 

 

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A vivid example of how the politics of nature – relating to the struggles to preserve animals, biodiversity, and ecosystems — has become at least as important as any social movement struggle. Of course, the article shows that the two political struggles are hardly inseparable, and that if we want to preserve biodiversity and ecological integrity, then we must also preserve the existence and rights of indigenous peoples. Because sure as hell, global corporations, bankers, dictators, imperialists, militarists, and mercenaries exist only to rob and destroy, not protect and disturb. Yet another example of how we need to speak of total liberation, or don’t speak of liberation at all.

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William Allen, Yale Environment 360, October 8, 2012

In Guatemala’s vast Maya Biosphere Reserve, conservation groups are battling to preserve a unique rainforest now under threat from Mexican drug cartels, Salvadoran drug gangs, and Chinese-backed groups illegally logging prime tropical hardwoods.The 200-foot summit of Temple IV in the ancient Maya city of Tikal provides a spectacular view of Central America’s largest expanse of intact rainforest. In the late afternoon, spider monkeys dangle from nearby branches, stretching to pick small fruits. The guttural barks of howler monkeys echo through the canopy — a lush green broken only by the occasional flash of lemon yellow from a swooping toucan.This lowland forest is the heart of the Maya Biosphere Reserve of northern Guatemala, a 2.1 million-hectare (5.2 million-acre) sanctuary that covers 19 percent of the country and contains roughly 60 percent of its protected area. The UNESCO-designated biosphere reserve sustains a wide array of biodiversity, most notably the last remaining population of a key subspecies of scarlet macaw.

In Guatemala’s vast Maya Biosphere Reserve, conservation groups are battling to preserve a unique rainforest now under threat from Mexican drug cartels, Salvadoran drug gangs, and Chinese-backed groups illegally logging prime tropical hardwoods.The 200-foot summit of Temple IV in the ancient Maya city of Tikal provides a spectacular view of Central America’s largest expanse of intact rainforest. In the late afternoon, spider monkeys dangle from nearby branches, stretching to pick small fruits. The guttural barks of howler monkeys echo through the canopy — a lush green broken only by the occasional flash of lemon yellow from a swooping toucan.This lowland forest is the heart of the Maya Biosphere Reserve of northern Guatemala, a 2.1 million-hectare (5.2 million-acre) sanctuary that covers 19 percent of the country and contains roughly 60 percent of its protected area. The UNESCO-designated biosphere reserve sustains a wide array of biodiversity, most notably the last remaining population of a key subspecies of scarlet macaw.

Conservation groups are helping restore scarlet macaw populations in the Maya Biosphere Reserve.

But this magnificent creature and others that inhabit the reserve — jaguars, pumas, Guatemalan black howler monkeys, Baird’s tapirs — are being pressured not just by the standard threats common to tropical regions, such as illegal logging, fires, and commercial hunting. Even more virulent forces are gnawing away at the Maya Biosphere Reserve, including Mexican drug cartels that cut into the forest to build airstrips to transport drugs, Salvadoran gangs that carve out huge cattle ranches to launder drug money, and Chinese organized crime groups moving their illegal logging network toward the reserve to supply Asian markets with prime tropical hardwoods.

As a result, this natural and cultural treasure — the heart of the Selva Maya, a forest spanning the borders of Guatemala, Mexico, and Belize — has in recent years effectively been cut in two. The western side, which includes two of the reserve’s five national parks and is bordered on the west and the north by Mexico, is under siege, according to Guatemalan park officials. The eastern part of the reserve, where Tikal rises above the jungle canopy and which borders Belize, is lush and intact.

“The story of the Maya Biosphere Reserve has increasingly become a tale of two reserves — one of conservation successes and one of failures,” says Roan McNab, director of the New York-based Wildlife Conservation Society’s (WCS) Guatemala program. McNab is a pivotal figure in a coalition of Guatemalan and foreign conservation groups battling to preserve the eastern half of the reserve and claw back some of the denuded lands of the western sector.

Much is at stake, as the reserve and the surrounding Selva Maya are the largest block of intact forest north of the Amazon Basin. The reserve supports 513 of Guatemala’s bird species (71 percent of the national total), 122 mammal species (64 percent), 95 reptile species (39 percent), and more than 80 species of neotropical migrant birds from North America. It enshrouds Tikal, a national park and World Heritage Site, and hundreds of other vestiges of Mayan civilization.

The international coalition struggling to preserve the heart of the reserve has enjoyed some important successes. Scarlet macaws are making a comeback thanks to intensive restoration efforts. The presence of the civilian government and military has grown. Prosecution of environmental crimes is up, albeit slightly. And community-based forest concessions have brought some rural Guatemalans sustainable income and empowered them in managing parts of the reserve.

“There’s a greater social awareness now of the importance of preserving environmental stability,” says Rolman Hernandez, director of the Petén region of Consejo Nacional de Areas Protegidas (CONAP), the Guatemalan park service. The reserve covers more than half of the Petén, the largest and northernmost of Guatemala’s 22 departments, or provinces.

Tikal

The World Heritage site at Tikal is among hundreds of historic Mayan sites in the Maya Biosphere Reserve.

The region that became the Maya Biosphere Reserve was once a vast mix of lowland rainforest, wetlands, lagoons, lakes, rivers, and mangrove forests. As many as 2 million people lived here at the peak of Mayan civilization, around 800 A.D., archeologists estimate. Then came the Mayan decline and Spanish conquest.

Until the 1960s, the region consisted of a few isolated forest villages. Then roads, built mainly to access oil and timber, opened the the area to illegal colonization and slash-and-burn agriculture. The reserve was created in 1990 to help control deforestation, but CONAP, financially strapped and often overruled by government officials friendly to the ranchers, has been hampered in its attempts to control the wave of destruction, McNab and others say. Today the human population is 118,000, with most living in poverty.

Criminal activity in the area began to intensify a decade ago, further accelerating the destruction of the western half of the reserve. An important factor is that northern Guatemala is ideally situated to refuel drug aircraft flying from South America and transfer narcotics to trucks for the easy drive to Mexico. The cartels operated in a “climate of impunity” since the army and police lacked the power to take them on, McNab says. The ranchers built dozens of airstrips, including one dubbed the “international airport,” which had three runways and more than a dozen abandoned aircraft. The result was a loss of 40,000 hectares of forest.

Guatemalans have developed a new term for what’s happening in the region: narcoganaderia, a combination of the Spanish words for drugs and cattle ranching. The cartels launder drug money by investing in cattle production and reaping profits from cattle sales in Mexican markets.

CONAP officials say evidence of the work of Chinese-backed criminal groups lies in the yard behind the agency’s Petén headquarters, in San Benito. The yard is crowded with timber and confiscated vehicles. Victor Penados, CONAP’s coordinator of control and vigilance for the reserve, points to a pile of rosewood confiscated from suppliers to Chinese criminal groups. The wood comes from one of several recent timber-smuggling busts by the government reported in national news media. This pile, confiscated from a truck delivering the wood to the Caribbean seaport of Puerto San Tomas de Castillo for shipment to China, has a market value of $125,000, Penados estimates.

Operatives with Chinese criminal cartels have been conducting illegal logging just south of the reserve, according to CONAP. McNab fears it won’t be long before the Chinese-backed groups start cutting inside the reserve itself and then turn to intensive jaguar poaching for body parts to serve a Chinese market that is already driving Asian big cats toward extinction.

This conservation drama is playing out under extreme conditions. CONAP and WCS staffers have been threatened many times. Some have been taken hostage, while others have had to “disappear” for several weeks after raids to reclaim illegally acquired ranchland. McNab himself was held at gunpoint by two looters of a Mayan ruin deep in the jungle. I was accompanied into the forest with as many as five armed security guards as we traveled near cartel ranches. Always in the back of my mind were the nation’s poverty, corruption, history of dictatorship, lawlessness, and 36-year civil war, which ended in 1996.

The influence of illegal logging and ranching in the reserve is evident in a series of three CONAP land-use maps showing a wave of fires and land clearing that gobbled up large green swaths of forest from 2000 to 2011, especially in the western section. McNab warns that if law enforcement does not improve, the reserve faces a “chain of falling dominoes threatening to sweep eastward all the way to Guatemala’s border with Belize.”

Maya Biosphere Map

The 2.1 million-hectare Maya Biosphere Reserve covers 19 percent of Guatemala.

Nowhere is the tale of two reserves more visible than at the Guacamayas Biological Station in Laguna del Tigre National Park. To the south, across the Rio San Pedro and beyond, stretches a vast plain of ranchland, the raw result of deforestation. To the north, the rainforest canopy rolls untattered all the way to the border with Mexico. In 2008, scientists discovered a 1,100-hectare clear-cut smack in the middle of that expanse. It turned out to be a large cattle ranch linked to a Salvadoran gang involved in drug trafficking.

Such forest destruction has in recent decades reduced by 75 percent the habitat of the region’s scarlet macaws, a subspecies of the scarlet macaws found farther south in Latin America and the last remaining macaws in the wild in Guatemala. By 2000, scarlet macaws had nearly been extirpated in the reserve. A 2003 WCS study estimated that the population, mostly centered in the forest to the east of Laguna del Tigre park, had dropped to 200 birds. That year, the researchers monitored 15 nests, but only one chick successfully fledged.

But a program of predator control, environmental education in local schools, and hand-rearing by veterinarians brought the number of successful macaw fledglings to 29 in 2011 and 49 for this year’s nesting season. Says McNab, “We feel pretty good about adding that number of birds to the population. That’s big in terms of saving the species.”

To halt continuing deforestation, CONAP and its allies have established what they call “the Shield” — a lattice of trails running along the eastern border of Laguna del Tigre park, anchored by three major bases for patrols by CONAP, the army, national police, and others. Patrols and arrests have risen steadily over the past four years.

If the success or failure of the Shield will determine whether the western front of the reserve holds, what happens in villages like Uaxactún will decide whether the eastern part will avoid destruction from within.

Uaxactún, population 280, is one of 14 villages awarded government concessions more than a decade ago as part of an experiment in community-based forest management. The concessions, covering nearly one-fourth of the reserve, require residents to protect the forest ecosystems and manage its wood and other resources sustainably.

The villagers must refrain from poaching, intensive logging, slash-and-burn farming, and other unsustainable practices, as well as patrol for and report any such illegal activity. In return, CONAP, WCS, and other groups provide technical and financial support for forest-product ventures. Dozens of residents now work in sustainable harvesting of timber, date palm fronds, chicle for chewing gum, and other non-timber products from the forest. Others work in the village sawmill and woodworking shop.

Village leaders say the concession is working well. But not all the concessions have been so successful, according to a study published in March in the journal Forest Ecology and Management. Among reasons for the problems were limited funding, the low CONAP budget, pressure from illegal ranching, and land speculation.

The effort in the village of Cruce a la Colorada was one of the failures. In 2010, disputes between ranchers and concession managers became so heated that concession members received death threats. A community leader was assassinated. In the ensuing climate of fear, the project collapsed.

But the conservation groups remain hopeful.

“You can grapple with these governance issues and you can have success,” McNab says. “It takes an integrated strategy working with a huge suite of partners, but it can be done.”

China’s Surging Middle Class

The growth of the Chinese middle class is staggering, projected to be 2-3 times larger than the entire US population, and the implications are frightening for the inevitable spike in meat consumption and release of climate change gases.

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The middle class in China has topped more than 300 million people. And they are a growing factor in the world’s economy.

CNN, April 20, 2012

NEW YORK (CNNMoney) — CNNMoney interviewed Helen Wang, author of The Chinese Dream: The Rise of the World’s Largest Middle Class and What It Means to You. A consultant, Wang was raised in China and has lived in the United States for more than 20 years.

Q. Who are the middle class in China?

 A. I define middle class as households with an annual income of between $10,000 and $60,000 U.S. dollars. But income is a little misleading because the cost of living in China is very different. A rule of thumb is a household with a third of its income for discretionary spending is considered middle class.

In China, the middle class is all concentrated in big cities, not like in this country, where a lot of the middle class are in the suburbs. Most people have a college education and relatively stable jobs. There are a lot of entrepreneurs and a lot of white collar workers, working for multinationals or state-owned companies.

They are a lot younger … 20 to 50. A lot of them own homes. Like Westerners, they want everything Americans have.

This new middle class just emerged in the last 15 to 20 years. Fifteen years ago, people didn’t have cars yet. But in the last seven, eight, or nine years … everyone has a car. Some people have more than one car.

Q. How big is the Chinese middle class?

A. It is estimated that it’s more than 300 million — already larger than the entire population of the United States.

About 25% of the population is middle class. It’s about 50% of the urban population.

Q. How did the middle class climb the economic ladder?

A. A lot of it is entrepreneurship. With China’s economy growing over the last 20 to 30 years, there have been a lot of business opportunities.

Some people still go to college and then get good jobs. A lot of multinationals employ these young college graduates. They pay relatively better than Chinese companies. Many foreign companies are contributing to creating the white-collar middle class.

Chinese state companies also employ a lot of people. Their income has more than tripled over the last 10 or 15 years.

Q. How are they changing China?

A. The Chinese are shopping a lot more. Retail is booming like a wildfire in China. There are a lot more consumers and they are demanding a lot more services.

A lot of Chinese, especially younger consumers, are really into the luxury brands. They associate Western luxury brands with quality of life and sophistication. They want gyms, health care clubs and definitely travel. They want to see the world. The restaurant business is doing very well.

The younger generation — people under 30 — they are consuming like crazy. They save zero. They spend all of their salary on a Louis Vuitton purse. A lot of them stay with their parents so they don’t have housing expenses. But once they get married, then they start to save.

Q. Are they concerned about the economy and their financial positions?

A. They know China is growing wildly, and they’re very busy trying to catch this opportunity. They know China won’t grow at this high speed forever and they know the window of opportunity will close. They know government won’t take care of them anymore. They have to take care of themselves.

Q. What is the future of the Chinese middle class?

A. The Chinese middle class may grow to 700 to 800 million, which is 50% to 60% of China’s entire population. In the past, all the predictions have proven to be too conservative.

But on the other hand, a lot of Chinese will be in the lower middle class because education will prevent them from moving up. If young people start going into vocational schools, that’s for lower skilled jobs.

Q. What does that mean for the U.S. and the rest of the world?

A. It means a lot of opportunities for American companies selling in China.

A lot of U.S. companies are doing extremely well in China. While GM filed for bankruptcy a few years ago, their sales in China soared. Chinese consumers helped GM to turn around.

Nike is doing so well, Pizza Hut, Kentucky Fried Chicken. A lot of smaller companies are looking to sell into China. That will help the American economy.

Because of rising wages in China, we are already seeing some manufacturing jobs come back to this country. Those jobs will continue coming back and that will create jobs in the U.S. as well.

The same thing goes for the Western economy in general. Chinese consumers love Italian products. They want Italian products made in Italy.

Q. What are the barriers to entry for those still in poverty?

A. If you are born in urban China, you can go to public school and you enjoy a lot of government benefits. For rural Chinese, they have none of these. If you’re born in the rural area, you can’t even live in the cities. That’s gradually changing. They let the rural people come into the cities to do the work. But there are still restrictions.

There is no future for people who live in the villages. There are still a lot of barriers for those people to move up the economic ladder.

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