Tag Archives: rain forest

From Rhinos to Orangutans, Criminal Activity is So Depressing

24 Oct

Photo Credit: Marboed

Whether it’s been about palm oil or rhino horn, recent news items I’ve seen about the dire effects of criminal activity on our planet’s forests and wildlife are truly depressing. From the photo of a Vietnamese woman gleefully grinding rhino horn that she believes will cure her gall stones (honestly, someone there ought to do a television news segment on the chemical make-ups of endangered animal parts and how they don’t cure anything) to the map of Sumatra’s shrinking forests, I’m wondering when if ever criminals will be stopped from helping destroy the natural world.

And there’s the article I saw on organized crime gangs’ increasing destruction of Guatemala’s Maya Biosphere Reserve and surrounding Selva Maya. Salvadoran drug dealers are slashing and burning tens of thousands of officially protected hectares to establish ranches to launder their narcotics cash, Chinese gangs are plundering the region for rare hardwoods — before moving on to the jaguars, which they’ll kill for body parts — and Mexican cartels are razoring the forest to land their illicit cargo, one three-strip airport alone accounting for the loss of 40,000 hectares of pristine jungle.

It almost makes me want to applaud the folks who simply go out and rob a bank or liquor store (not that I will: As Jockin Arputham (of the National Slum Dwellers Federation, who I write about in my book, Broke But Unbroken) would say, you guys need to get some value change.)

The Sumatra problem was recently highlighted in an NBC news program that focused on the impact of shrinking habitat on orangutans, and an Australian man who has been trying to move them to places where there is still some forest left. The illegally cleared land gets turned into palm oil plantations, already a billion dollar industry in Indonesia, thanks to the fact that we now find palm oil in everything from chocolate to ice cream, as good a reason as any to boycott these products, quite frankly.

There was no word on how these well-armed gangs given a blind eye by local authorities are affecting the forest dwellers in this area. No doubt my friends at the Serikat Petani Indonesia would have something interesting to say about that.

But the article on Guatemala did tell some pretty sad tales about how local forest community groups, given concession rights and financial assistance to protect the forest from these ignorant, money-hungry marauders, are fighting a losing battle in keeping them out. In one case, an ethical community leader was even killed, and the local management project fell apart.

So while it’s hard to use arguments get crooks to stop with the environmental mayhem, it should be possible to find the financial means to do so. Companies using palm oil can and should stop buying the stuff if they can’t triple check its provenance. And if they don’t, we should know who they are and what they’re selling us. Bi-lateral and multi-lateral lending institutions, being arguably useless at encouraging effective development, should at least demand that Vietnam uphold its own laws on sales of endangered animal parts there. And countries like Guatemala that are trying to safeguard their natural resources with nowhere near enough money ought to be given more help.

But, sadly, I think it unlikely that people with power will actually do much to stem the tide of environmental destruction. Here in Canada, we were recently treated to a news story about conservative Member of Parliament Alice Wong enjoying some shark fin soup at a news conference for Asian media in Richmond, B.C. Ms. Wong was apparently supporting local restaurateurs’ opposition to a municipal ban on the so-called delicacy — a ban her host labels as “culturally insensitive.” (As if culture and cultural sensitivities do not evolve — or does he also support a return to foot binding?)

And with more than a third of all shark species threatened with extinction because of finning, according to the International Union for the Conservation of Nature, isn’t this cruel practice ‘environmentally insensitive?’

A New Democrat MP is now tabling a private member’s bill to make it illegal to import of shark fins to Canada, but with the Tories holding a majority in parliament, and their own environmental insensitivity a point of pride for them, I’m afraid it stands little chance of passing. “It’s part of the culture and (the government) has no intention of banning the soup,” Ms. Wong told the Richmond News.

So I guess that means there are two things that couldn’t be more depressing: criminal activity’s destruction of the environment — and Tory politicians.

Too Little, Too Late?

20 Jul

Chico Mendes and his son Sandino in 1987

Back in the late 1980s, there was a period of perhaps 18 months within which three people I knew were murdered. They all lived in the Amazon, and all but one engaged in political activism focused on the rights of  peasants and forest dwellers in that enormous region. One, Chico Mendes was  — and became even more  — famous; his life, struggles for rubber tapper rights and death was the subject of films and books(including one of my own).

Another, Expedito Ribeiro de Souza, was president of the Sindicato de Trabalhadores Rurais, or Rural Workers Union, in Rio Maria, Para. He was exposing the appalling but widespread use of slave labour on big cattle ranches splayed among the stands of rain forest, and for that was threatened and killed.

The third was an affable, mild-mannered family man named Antenor Moreira. And he was murdered one day while working on his plot of land by a land dealer. They are just a few of the estimated 918 people killed in the Amazon between 1985 and April of this year.

Yet only now is the Brazilian government – already in its third Workers Party government – offering some kind of protection to people like them. At least 131 rural leaders, environmentalists and human rights defenders are slated for either regular visits from police to round-the-clock vigilance. And that list would have been larger if not for the fact that 42 people already on it have already been killed. Among them: the Silvas, a husband-and-wife team killed for trying to stop illegal loggers and charcoal-makers. They had already spent ten years alerting authorities to the threats they were receiving – and which in the end were carried out in cold blood last May.

The big question of course is not why has this taken so long – although that is a big question! – but will the promise of protection do any good? Will it change anything? In the end, if the Brazilian government makes it clear that harassment and killings of activists is always going to investigated and always going to be punished, there will be a lot less incentive to shoot someone for a $4000 (the price on the head of Jose Claudio Ribeiro da Silva ,for example.)

But that message is not being sent.

It would have to begin with the trials and sentencing, to name just one case, of the military personnel responsible for killing 19 Sem Terra rural workers in the state of Para in 1996. It would have to go on to bring justice to the many other criminals who are easily identified but living safely because of the power they (or their bosses) wield economically and politically in the region. It might even veer towards taking away or severely reducing the holdings of these people and turning them into extractive reserves, thus actually preserving rain forest.

Lucio Flavio Pinto

Meanwhile, another friend – and valuable source of information on the dirty dealings at play in the Amazon – Lucio Flavio Pinto, continues to receive threats.  The editor of the renowned  Jornal Pessoal, he received an International Press Freedom award in 2005 from the Committee to Protect Journalists. Yet the fact that he still has ample subject matter to expose in the Jornal Pessoal would seem to indicate that something far deeper than individual protection for those who seek justice in the Amazon is seriously lacking.







The Amazon, photo by Andrei Smoler

Peru Attacks its own People — and its Forest

4 Jul


Originally uploaded by thekjkev

Even as the disastrous oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico rivets the attention of people all over the world, people in many other places continue to suffer the catastrophe of petroleum production completely unheeded. I’ve already posted something about the vicious toll oil companies have imposed on the poor of Nigeria. Now in Peru, oil companies have set their sights on that country’s Amazon basin. According to the website of the Red Ambiental Loretana (the Loreto Environmental Network) “there are hundreds of kilometers of rivers and streams that have never received any treatment after the oil spills.”

It’s really no wonder. The Peruvian government is firmly on the side of the oil companies. Avid for petro-dollars, it has refused to listen to the complaints and proposals of the indigenous people who actually live along those river, in places like Loreto, Bartra, and the Rio Tigre. Just a few weeks ago, it resorted to the kind of unhinged violence to smash through a road blockade that left at least one hundred dead. It has used the police to beat and torture protesters and the navy to break through flotillas of canoes arranged across the affected rivers — essentially funding the repression of Peruvians in favour of multi-nationals from the public purse. 

Lately the Interior Ministry has gone so far as to expel a Catholic missionary, Brother Paul McAuley, and forbid him to ever return. Government bureaucrats are calling him a terrorist. McAuley’s crime? Encouraging the inhabitants of the rainforest region to stand up for their rights.  Yet many student, civil and grassroots movements support the work of Brother McAuley, and the right of the people of the Peruvian Amazon to decide what is in their best interest.

No doubt the Peruvian government is saying it will use all the money it can earn from petroleum and gas production to better the lives of the poor. The governments of countries with these kinds of resources always do. But it never seems to happen. (Check out Paul Collier’s ‘The Bottom Billion’ for statistics on the economic performance of African nations ‘blessed’ with natural resources.)

Could oil and gas be extracted and produced without harming a rainforest environment and benefiting local people? Well, it’s a good question, but one on which no oil company I can think of wants to waste profits on trying to answer.