may 2005

The Millenium Ecosystem Assessment

Sipa Press, Dead Fish in Spain 1998 River Guadiamar, 1998

After four years of study, the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment, accompanied by an appropriately sombre statement from UN Secretary-General Koffi Annan, was released on March 31, 2005. The findings: More than half the vital "ecosystem services" the earth provides to support human life - breathable air, abundant fresh water, fish and birds and plants, the regulation of regional climate, the control of natural hazards and pests, and so on - have been desparately degraded, or are being used unsustainably.

There were 1,300 experts from 95 countries involved in the study. Several United Nations agencies pitched in, as did 22 international scientific organizations and development agencies, and business groups, and environmentalists. So there are many people to thank for their efforts in telling us what we already knew: There are forces at work in the world that are turning our living, breathing planet into burning cinder, hurtling through the firmanent.

The odd part is that these forces are operating in perfectly legal ways. All this is happening in full accordance with the strictures and codes of international and domestic law.

Expect declines in water quality, sudden shifts in regional climate, and more vast "dead zones" in the oceans, the experts said. Expect more people to suffer. Expect more people to go hungry. Expect more people to succumb to strange new diseases. Expect the legions of the poor to grow ever larger. In Sub-Saharan Africa alone, expect another 89 million people to fall under the crushing weight of abject poverty over the next ten years.

"Radical changes in the way nature is treated, at every level of decision-making, and new ways of cooperation between government, business and civil society" - this was the experts' remedy. Fair enough.

There is a principle in law, and it is found in every legal tradition on earth. It is known as the "defence of necessity." The pinciple recognizes that there are times when people are forced by circumstances to transgress the law. The very planet is now gripped by such cirumstances as to make a defence of necessity justifiable in defence of what remains of those things the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment describes so coldly as vital "ecosystem services."

Acts of defence that transgress the law may prove the most effective remedy available to us. It's sobering to consider this, but so is the alternative: The cities in flames, the world round.

Terry Glavin

Wangari Maathai’s Nobel prize-winning activism has thrust the environment to the forefront of the global security agenda

Professor Wangari Maathai has been named as a Nobel laureate.
It’s an astounding achievement: the first African woman, and only 12th female, to win the Nobel peace prize; she takes her place beside Nelson Mandela, the Dalai Lama, Martin Luther King and Mother Theresa. Even more importantly, she’s the only environmentalist ever to have received the prize. In one graceful leap she has thrust the environment into the forefront of global security issues.
When I meet her in her room at the Intercontinental Hotel in London, she is fresh from picking up her prize in Oslo, and gives the impression of being someone who’s long been waiting for the world to catch up with her. ‘Of course peace and the environment are connected,’ she shrugs. ‘Look at the wars we fight: they are almost always over resources: land, oil, water, grazing ground, fishing rights.’
Maathai won the peace prize because of her work planting trees and encouraging women throughout Africa to do the same. At the last count her Green Belt Movement is responsible for planting 30 million trees in Kenya alone. Besides stemming profligate deforestation, soil erosion and climate change, the movement promoted women’s rights and empowered impoverished communities before joining the pro-democracy movement that eventually dismissed the corrupt, land-grabbing government of Moi. He was right: she was a serious threat.
At 64, statuesque and elegant in colourful African robes, Maathai carries herself like an elder stateswoman. She’s now a member of parliament (voted in with a 98 per cent share of the vote in 2002), and serves as Kenya’s deputy minister for the environment, natural resources and wildlife. And she’s relishing the international platform the Nobel prize has given her. She’s been giving interviews back-to-back since eight this morning, and steps from her final Japanese TV crew straight into a waiting cab for the airport.
But whenever she smiles, which is often, her face becomes instantly mischievous. And then you are reminded that for half of her 64 years she’s been a rebel activist, fighting with those on the wrong side of the fence, a sharp thorn in the side of the establishment.
‘I never saw myself as an activist,’ she grins. ‘When this all began I was a very decent professor at the University of Nairobi. I was a good girl. But once I started I realised activism was a necessity. As we moved further and deeper into it we kept finding doors closed, so we had to force those doors open.’
For years the Green Belt Movement was hardly noticed by the government, because, as Maathai points out, ‘only women’ were involved. So by the time the government machinery moved against Maathai she already had widespread grass-roots support. People understood that she was on the side of the poor .
Nonetheless, her activism landed her in jail numerous times, hastened the end of her marriage, sent her into exile in Tanzania for six months, and, in 1999, resulted in her being knocked unconscious while planting trees in Nairobi’s Karura Public Forest. ‘I never imagined the police would hurt us,’ she says of the Karura Public Forest incident. ‘I thought they were there to protect us because the crowd was so large, but then they charged.’
She insisted on signing her police report in blood from her head wound. Her gestures have often been flamboyant, in-your-face protests unthinkable for most women in Kenya’s traditional, patriarchal society. She broke taboos, risking ostracism and derision in the process. In 1992 she persuaded other women to strip naked in downtown Nairobi. She said that in taking off their clothes, the women ‘resorted to something they knew traditionally would act on the men… They stripped to show their nakedness to their sons. It is a curse to see your mother naked’.
When asked about Moi’s claims that she’s mad, she thinks for a moment before saying, ‘He’s probably right. You have to be mad to break from the mainstream. When everybody thinks that this is the path to take and you get an inspiration that tells you that it will lead to destruction and you dare get up and tell everybody that the king is wrong: that is madness.’
Her inspiration for such madness lies in the land surrounding her childhood home near the central Kenyan town of Nyeri: rich, fertile land where she worked with her mother in the fields planting and harvesting and fetching water from the crystal streams that flow from the slopes of neighbouring Mount Kenya. ‘I specifically remember discovering tadpoles in one of those streams, and how fascinated I was by these tiny creatures,’ she recalls. ‘Many years later when I went back, the clean rivers had been filled with red silt and the tadpoles were no longer there. My own child could not play with them as I had.’
In the last 150 years Kenya has lost nearly 90 per cent of its natural woodland. Clearances began when British colonialists replaced forests with cash crops, mainly tea and coffee, and continued post-independence as political favours were bought with land bribes: hectares of pristine woodland were promptly cut down.
By the early 1970s, when Maathai joined the National Council of Women of Kenya, rural women, many of them from Nyeri, complained bitterly about the lack of clean water, the miles they had to walk to find firewood, and the fact that the rains seemed to fail more often.
‘They told me what they needed: firewood, food, water, building materials; and I realised that these needs were not being met because deforestation was leading to soil loss, to springs drying up, rain patterns changing that meant farmers were not able to produce enough food to last until the next season. I realised something had to be done.’
So in 1977 she planted seven seedlings in her back yard and a movement was born.
‘Initially, it was simply about women helping themselves: give yourself firewood, give yourself fruits, give yourself fodder and protect your soil.’ Maathai cups her hands in front of her as she describes teaching the women to ‘hold onto the blessings of rain’, to not ‘let one drop leave [their] own land’. It was only later on that her campaign came to be about the common good.

In addition to the Green Belt Movement's program to distribute seedlings to rural women, an incentive system was set up for each seedling that survived. As a result, more than 50,000 small-scale farmers and households have planted over 15 million trees, new income has been produced for 80,000 people in Kenya alone, and the initiative has expanded to over 30 African countries, the U.S., and Haiti. The movement has also made it possible for more than one million Kenyan children to plant trees on school grounds.

In this way the Green Belt Movement has brought the Kenyan people full circle. Maathai points out that before colonisation ordinary Kenyans had a profound cultural relationship with the land, and she blames Christianisation as the beginning of an attitude that has led to the ‘commercialisation of nature’.
‘In my grandparent’s time,’ she says, ‘people believed that Mount Kenya was a holy mountain; they had a reverential attitude to the rivers, the mountains, the trees. Then the missionaries came along and said, ‘God doesn’t live in the mountains; He lives in heaven’.”
The whole process, she says, dramatically altered people’s perception. It allowed people to view ‘nature as a commodity: something to be exploited, sold for dollars, something that was up for grabs instead of a community resource that needs to be nurtured for future generations’.

Maathai is a rare species in Africa: a woman who is educated, independent, and in contrast to those who make up Africa’s male political elite, her rural childhood has made her comfortable in connecting with the poor and illiterate of her country. They speak a language she learnt before her degrees in America and Germany enabled her to talk on their behalf. ‘Listening to them I was struck by my privilege,’ she says. ‘I was living a good life, with water coming from a tap, and in front of me were sisters who had to walk for miles for the same privilege.

She is deeply critical of the international community’s apathy towards Africa, inequitable trade tariffs, the Third World’s huge burden of debt. And she is suspicious about Tony Blair’s much trumpeted Commission for Africa. But she also puts the onus of responsibility on Africans themselves. She urges ordinary Africans to insist on good governance in their own countries, so that African leaders raise their political consciences, and the tide turns on the endemic corruption that Western governments use as an excuse for not eliminating debt or lowering tariffs. ‘Until we put our own house in order,’ she says, ‘the international system will continue giving excuses.’
Thanks in large part to Maathai, Kenya’s fortunes have turned a corner. The fragile coalition headed by Mwai Kibaki, which ousted Moi in 2002, continues to fight corruption and poverty. And Maathai is enjoying being on the ‘right side of the fence’ for a change.
‘Many people prefer me on the other side of the fence,’ she laughs. ‘They were [so] used to me there making noise and creating hell for the government that they cannot accept me sitting here doing nothing in the form of agitation, but this is a government of our own making so it is right to support it.’
Meanwhile, the Green Belt Movement continues to broaden its remit. It also now encourages organic farming and the growing of indigenous plants to supplement the diets of rural people, and is working with women to educate about HIV/Aids.
But more than anything the movement has taught thousands of individuals in hundreds of communities that they can change their lives by tending to their environment; that their own empowerment lies in the land beneath their feet.

‘Poverty leads directly to environmental degradation, because poor people do not think of the future and will cut down the last tree if necessary. But environmental degradation will also lead to poverty, because when you have no soil you have no grasses, no trees and no water: you cannot really help yourself.
‘I used to say to the women, “If we say we are too poor to take care of the environment then it will only get worse. We have to turn it around and push the poverty back. Planting trees breaks the cycle: when we can give ourselves food, firewood, and help to nurture soil for planting and clean water, then we begin to roll poverty back.’
The World Bank and International Monetary Fund may insist that international trade is the exclusive route to prosperity, but Maathai has proven that it’s self-sufficiency on a micro level that is more efficient and sustainable.
I suspect that her Nobel laureate status won’t change Maathai much. The only difference is that now her voice can be raised on an international platform, and one hopes that she will be heard by world leaders, development agencies, the World Bank… everyone, in fact, who is looking for solutions to global warming, poverty, problems to do with development, and conflict. ?

Things “Grow Better” With Coke

John Vidal
Tuesday, November 2, 2004
Guardian Newspapers Limited 2005

Indian farmers have come up with what they think is the real thing to keep crops free of bugs. Instead of paying hefty fees to international chemical companies for patented pesticides, they are reportedly spraying their cotton and chili fields with Coca-Cola. In the past month there have been reports of hundreds of farmers turning to Coke in Andhra Pradesh and Chattisgarh states. But as word gets out that soft drinks may be bad for bugs and a lot cheaper than anything that Messrs Monsanto, Shell and Dow can offer, thousands of others are expected to switch.

Gotu Laxmaiah, a farmer from Ramakrishnapuram in Andra Pradesh, said he was delighted with his new cola spray, which he applied this year to several hectares of cotton. "I observed that the pests began to die after the soft drink was sprayed on my cotton," he told the Deccan Herald newspaper.
One litre of highly concentrated Avant, Tracer and Nuvocron, three popular Indian pesticides, costs around 10,000 rupees (L120), but one-and-a-half litres of locally made Coca-Cola is 30 rupees. To spray an acre would be a mere 270 rupees.

The main ingredients of all colas are water and sugar but some manufacturers add citric and phosphoric acids to give that extra bite to human taste buds. Yesterday a leading Indian agriculture analyst, Devinder Sharma, said: "I think Coke has found its right use. Farmers have traditionally used
sugary solutions to attract red ants to feed on insect larvae. "I think the colas are also performing the same role."

The properties of Coke have been discussed for years. It has been reported that it is a fine lavatory cleaner, a good windscreen wipe and an efficient rust spot remover.

Third Mexican Activist Wins Award for Environmental Defense
By Talli Nauman, The Herald Mexico-El Universal | April 26, 2005

Another Mexican has won the international Goldman Environmental Prize, which is called the “Nobel” for grassroots environmentalists. Isidro Baldenegro López is the third Mexican to claim the coveted award. Not only that but he and both the others earned that distinction for the same kind of activism: defending the forest.

That says something about the importance of halting deforestation in Mexico . It also says something about the grave danger of trying to protect the woods.

As Goldman Environmental Foundation President Richard N. Goldman noted at the awards ceremony in San Francisco on April 18, the recipients are selected on the basis of the need for their countries to act on the prizewinners’ initiatives and on the candidates’ courage.

Mexico ’s rate of deforestation is second only to that of Indonesia . From 1993 to 2000, forest coverage in Mexico declined almost 3 million acres each year. Misguided enterprises have cut or burned more than half of the country’s woodlands--and not for any significant contribution to the formal economy. Meanwhile, threats and rights abuses are the steady fare for community activists who try to reverse the trend.

Baldenegro, 38, was jailed on trumped-up weapons charges for his successful role in mobilizing indigenous and other community members of the Western Sierra Madre against the mounting destruction of old-growth forests. The illegal logging there in Chihuahua state is undertaken for the purpose of narcotics plantations and drug money laundering.

The violence engendered by this longstanding plight is eroding Tarahumara and other indigenous, land-based cultures. Ingrained corruption fosters it. And Baldenegro learned about its devastating results at a young age, when his father was murdered in 1986 in the decades-old conflict with local crime bosses known as the Fontes Cartel.

Beginning in March 2003, he led a peaceful civil disobedience and court case joined by other family members of victims of the Fontes Cartel, which is sacrificing lives and the biodiversity of the Copper Canyon area in northern Mexico to the cause of crime.

Thanks to the help of domestic and international advocates for the environment and human rights, Baldenegro established his innocence and secured his freedom in June 2004. Now he is carrying on the conservation effort, and the Goldman award helps keep public attention focused to prevent further injustice.

A precursor to Baldenegro’s effort is that of Edwin Bustillos, who garnered the Goldman in 1996. Bustillos stopped some illegal logging operations with the creation of a human rights and environmental organization called CASMAC (Advisory Council of the Sierra Madre) in 1992.

Suffering atrocious attacks and death threats attributed to the Fontes Cartel, Bustillos nonetheless persevered to achieve local community declarations of two old-growth forest reserves. His organization set a precedent in developing proposals from 10 other communities for biosphere reserve integration.

CASMAC has been promoting appropriate economic alternatives to illegal drug production and logging. These include permaculture methods, a native craft program, organic paper production, and conservation of medicinal plants. Were it not for the solidarity of the Goldman foundation and other groups, Bustillos might not have lived to see these projects unfold.

Meanwhile, further to the south, in the Pacific Coast state of Guerrero, Rodolfo Montiel Flores helped form the Peasant Environmentalist Organization of Petatlán and Coyuca de Catalán (OCEP). He received a Goldman prize that helped draw attention worldwide for the struggle against uncontrolled logging by Boise Cascade Corp. and local bosses in the 1990s, too.

It was only after Montiel received the award in 2000 that Mexican President Vicente Fox ordered his release in 2001 from the Guerrero jail where he was detained, tortured, and obligated to confess to fabricated charges. But even since then, OCEP’s members remain in danger, as do Sierra Madre defenders.

Felipe Arreaga Sánchez, another well-known OCEP participant, has been jailed since Nov. 3 on charges of murder and criminal association, while a veritable witch-hunt proceeds for others of his organization. Amnesty International is monitoring that situation. It says the process has clear indications of political motivation.

As the Goldman foundation describes its prizewinners, they are “literal and figurative voices in the wilderness, men and women from isolated villages and inner cities who are willing to take great personal risks to safeguard the environment.”

Since 1990, 107 Goldman winners selected from 65 countries have benefited an estimated 102 million people worldwide, the foundation says.

Like the foundation, each and every one else has a role to play to bring the winners’ voices out of the wilderness, protect them, echo them, and see that their messages stick.

Talli Nauman is a program associate at the Americas Program of the International Relations Center (online at She originally published this opinion in her weekly column at The Herald Mexico, based at El Universal in Mexico City, as part of her independent media project Journalism to Raise Environmental Awareness, which she initiated with support from the MacArthur Foundation.