APRIL 2004

Growing menace threatens Amazon


Tim Radford
Thursday March 11, 2004
The Guardian

Pristine Amazon forests have begun to change dramatically because of rising levels of carbon dioxide, according to US scientists.

Plants need carbon dioxide in the way that animals need oxygen - but the 30% extra carbon dioxide in the last 200 years has begun to accelerate growth and change the composition of the world's biggest rainforest, according to a study published today in Nature. "The changes in Amazonian forests really jump out at you," said William Laurance of the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute in Panama. "It's a little scary to realise that seemingly pristine forests can change so quickly and dramatically."

For two decades, researchers have studied nearly 14,000 trees in the central Amazon, scattered across a 120 square mile landscape. During the the study, most species began to grow faster. They also died faster, to be replaced more swiftly by new, young trees. But the composition of the forests, too, was beginning to change.

Alexandre Oliveira, of the University of Sao Paulo in Brazil, said that during the period of the study most trees grew faster, but at different rates, leading to a scenario of winners and losers.
Dr Oliveira said: "In general, large, fast-growing trees are winning at the expense of smaller trees that live in the forest understorey."
The scientists found that out of a total of 115 tree genera in the Amazon, 27 had changed significantly either by increasing or decreasing in growing density, a rate of change that is 14 times greater than expected if it was due to chance.
Henrique Nascimento, a Brazilian scientist with the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute, said that the decline of smaller, shade-tolerant trees could have important implications for the overall health of the Amazon.
Dr Nascimento said: "The decline of many small trees is intriguing because they tend to be so specialised. They live in the dark interior of the forest and are the only trees that can flower and reproduce in the shade." One possible reason for the change is that rising levels of carbon dioxide - which have increased by 30 per cent in the past 200 years - could be fertilising the trees and causing them to grow faster, especially the larger species with wood that is not as dense as the shade-loving varieties.
If this proves to be the case then the changes could have an important effect on the ability of the Amazon to act as a "sink" for atmospheric carbon, an impact that could exacerbate global warming.

"There clearly are winners and losers. In general, large, fast growing trees are winning at the expense of smaller trees that live in the forest understorey," said his colleague Alexandre Oliveira of the University of Sao Paulo, Brazil.

"Sadly, this could be a signal that the forest's ecology is changing in fundamental ways," Dr Laurance said. "Tropical rainforests are renowned for having lots of highly specialised species. If you change the tree communities then other species - especially the animals that feed on and pollinate the trees - will undoubtedly change as well."

To separate the effects of global warming from other stresses, the researchers based their studies on plots of forest chosen because they had not been logged, burned, used for hunting or damaged by windstorms. The next step is to see whether such changes were mirrored in other tropical forests around the world.

"If they are, then it is likely that even the world's remotest forests are now being altered by human activities," said Thomas Lovejoy, now of the Heinz Centre for Science, Economics and Environment, who launched the research two decades ago.

"Garden of Eden" in Southern Iraq Likely to Disappear Completely in Five Years Unless Urgent Action Taken

UNEP Says Post-War Rehabilitation Should Include the Marshlands of Mesopotamia for the Sake of People and Wildlife

Kyoto/Nairobi, 22 March 2003 - The Marshlands of Mesopotamia, considered by some to be the Biblical location of the Garden of Eden and known as the fertile crescent, are continuing to disappear at an alarming rate.

Studies, disclosed today at the 3rd World Water Forum taking place in Kyoto, Japan, indicate that of the 10 per cent of the marshlands left, one third has disappeared in the past two years with many endangered species such as the Sacred Ibis and African darter holding on at a knife's edge.

Two years have elapsed since the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) drew the world's attention to the plight of the marshlands and its unique culture, the Marsh Arabs who are the 5,000 year-old heirs of the Babylonians and Sumerians.

Satellite studies, carried out by UNEP's collaborating GRID-Geneva centre and covering a period from the early 1970s to 2000, showed that 90 per cent of the marshlands, also home to rare and unique species and a spawning ground for Gulf fisheries, had disappeared.

The new studies show that a further 325 square kilometres have dried out since 2000 leaving just seven per cent of the original area. Unless urgent action is taken to reverse the trend and rehabilitate the marshlands, the entire wetland known as the Hawr Al-Hawizeh in Iraq and Hawr Al-Azim in Iran, are likely to have gone in three to five years.

Klaus Toepfer, Executive Director of UNEP who is attending the Forum, said: "As we mark World Water Day 2003, we are reminded again of the dramatic destruction of the Mesopotamian marshlands and their unique culture and wildlife over the past decade. It is an environmental catastrophe for this region and underscores the huge pressures facing wetlands and freshwater ecosystems across the world".

"We have already lost half of the world's wetlands in the last 100 years, and the continued desiccation of the Mesopotamian marshlands confirms that more decisive and concrete action is needed," he said.

Mr Topefer said he hoped that the end of hostilities in Iraq and the rehabilitation of the country would include a full assessment and action plan for the restoration of the marshes.

UNEP's Post Conflict Assessment Unit, which has successfully carried out environmental assessments and drawn up action plans for the Balkans and more recently Afghanistan and the Occupied Palestinian Territories, stood ready to assist in any project to restore the wetlands.

Mr Topefer said such an assessment needed to address all the issues which are potentially impacting on the marshes. These include extensive internal drainage programmes and dams upstream including those on the Euphrates and Tigris rivers. UNEP believes there is still a last window of opportunity to reverse wetland desiccation and achieve at least partial restoration. In the short term, an emergency release of water from reservoir dams in Iran and Iraq to simulate the seasonal flood is needed.

Iran reacted positively with a limited release of water to the wetlands in March and April 2002 flooding the northern core part.

A long-term recovery plan is however needed. This will require a holistic river basin approach based on the ultimate goal of sustaining riverine ecology and in which all Tigris-Euphrates riparian countries share the rivers' waters in a coordinated and equitable manner. An integrated catchment plan would also give priority to allocating an adequate amount of water to the wetlands, while water releases from existing dams can be timed to mimic natural flow patterns and bring the marshlands back to life.

The Mesopotamian marshlands are an integral part of the Tigris-Euphrates river basin, which is shared by Iran, Iraq, Syria and Turkey. UNEP first drew the world's attention to the demise of the largest wetland ecosystem in the Middle East Mesopotamian marshlands in May 2001 with hard evidence from satellite imagery capturing the shrinkage of the marshlands' physical extent. The UNEP study (link below) revealed that by spring 2000, a one thousand-square kilometre vestige straddling the Iran-Iraq border was all that was left of the extensive wetland complex, which originally covered an area of 15,000 - 20,000 square kilometres.

For more information, please contact: Eric Falt, UNEP Director of the Division of Communications and Public Information, on Tel: 254 2 623292, e-mail: or Nick Nuttall, UNEP Head of Media, on Tel: 254 2 623084 in Kyoto on 81 (0) 90 6946 3372, e-mail:

Forbes report: Billionaires’ wealth grew by 36 percent in last

By Jamie Chapman
9 March 2004

As at least a billion people on the planet subsist on the equivalent of a dollar a day or less, the concentration of wealth among a handful of people at the top has set new records. In its current issue, Forbes magazine lists a record 587 individuals and family units worth $1 billion or more, an increase from 476 in 2003. The combined wealth of this year’s billionaires also reached record levels—a staggering $1.9 trillion, an increase of $500 billion in just one year, due largely to resurging stock prices over the last 12 months. The wealth of these few hundred people exceeds the gross domestic product of the world’s 170 poorest countries combined and equals nearly 4 percent of the annual production of the entire world.

Leading the pack, as he has the last 10 years, is Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates at $46.6 billion. His wealth is up 14.5 percent over last year, but still well off his 1999 peak of $90 billion, before the bubble burst. Besides his interest in Microsoft, Gates owns substantial pieces of Comcast and Cox cable companies, Canadian National Railway, and the waste disposal giant Republic Services.Number two on the list is investor Warren Buffett, whose net worth is estimated at $42.9 billion, a whopping $12.4 billion increase in just one year. Through his investment vehicle Berkshire Hathaway, whose stock price has gone up 50 percent over the last year, Buffett owns Geico and General Re insurance companies, as well as sizeable stakes in Coca-Cola, American Express, Gillette, and Wells Fargo, among others.Dropping down to number three at $23 billion is the retired German supermarket magnate Karl Albrecht, followed at $21.5 billion by Saudi Arabia’s crown prince Alwaleed Bin Talal Alsaud (who owns a $10 billion investment in Citigroup). Fifth is Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen at $21 billion. Rounding out the top 10 are the widow and each of the four children of Wal-Mart founder Sam Walton, worth an estimated $20 billion apiece, based on the 38 percent stake they share in the discount retailer that has grown to be the world’s largest company in terms of sales.Not surprisingly, New York City boasts the largest concentration of the mega-rich, with 31 billionaires residing in the city and nine more living nearby. The second-largest concentration is now found in Moscow, where eight new members joined the elite club this year, bringing the total there up to 23. Hong Kong follows with 16, and San Francisco boasts 11. Paris, Los Angeles and Tokyo have 10 each. London trails with nine.Nearly half of the world’s billionaires live in the United States. These 275 people have a combined net worth of $909 billion. Germany is second, with 42 billionaires worth $158 billion.One of the new faces on the list is author J.K. Rowling, whose five Harry Potter novels have sold 250 million copies and spawned two successful movies. She has attracted considerable media attention for rising from welfare mother to billionaire.Far from being proof that anyone can get ahead with a combination of talent, luck and hard work, Rowling’s story stands out as an exception that confirms the rule. The one or two others on the list who parlayed talent into a mega-fortune, such as Oprah Winfrey and Cirque du Soleil founder Guy Laliberté, built up huge business empires around their ability to entertain, and it was through their control of these entertainment conglomerates that they became rich.While most of the billionaires are listed as “self-made,” as opposed to inheriting their wealth, what this signifies is their ruthless approach to exploiting their workers and wiping out the competition, as in the case of Wal-Mart founder Sam Walton. In the case of the new Russian capitalists, it speaks of their willingness to contract out executions of their rivals as well as political opponents.Many of the same faces show up on the list year in and year out, demonstrating the monopoly position that those who acquire great wealth enjoy. Some of these individuals deserve specific comment.One of New York City’s wealthiest residents is its mayor, Michael Bloomberg, whose net worth of $4.9 billion makes him the world’s 85th-richest person. Another name of political note is Thomas Frist, Jr. and family, worth $1.7 billion. In 1968, Frist founded the Hospital Corporation of America, which he turned into the largest for-profit hospital chain in the country. His son William is the Republican majority leader of the US Senate. He played a key role in the passage of the recent Medicare bill, which will line his family’s pockets even more at the expense of taxpayers.Besides the Saudi crown prince already mentioned, three other oil sheikhs are high on the list—the president of the United Arab Emirates at $20 billion, the sultan of Brunei at $14.3 billion, and the crown prince of Dubai at $10 billion. The other royal billionaire is Hans Adam II, the prince of Lichtenstein, worth $2.2 billion.The personal fortune of Queen Elizabeth II of England is shown at $660 million, only because the royal family’s vast palaces and other properties are counted as owned by the British people.Silvio Berlusconi, the prime minister of Italy, is worth $10 billion (number 30 on the list), while Thaksin Shinawatra, the prime minister of Thailand, and his family are worth $1.4 billion.While the rich continue to accumulate wealth for themselves, millions upon millions of people around the world are trying to survive under conditions of unspeakable degradation. One estimate puts the cost of satisfying the entire world’s need for food and sanitation at $13 billion—less than 1 percent of wealth of the world’s billionaires.