Daily Archives: November 9, 2011

Messing with the Father God

“You cannot mix a ‘guabina’ (a very aggressive fish) with a sardine since the sardine will always die”—Warao axiom

The Warao people have depended on the Orinoco Delta for years

The Warao people call Orinoco Delta their father god. They have a spiritual connection to this river, from which they have lived off of for centuries. Stretching over forty-thousand square kilometers, the Orinoco Delta was the last of Venezuela’s rivers to remain untouched until recently. Since the 1990s, oil exploration in the country has had a tremendous impact on the river. In 1996, the Venezuelan government awarded oil concessions to British Petroleum, also known as BP, to reactivate the abandoned Pedernales oil field, located on the Orinoco. This concession was shared with two other companies, Amoco and US-Canadian consortium.

As a nation, Venezuela is the fifth largest world supplier of oil. It is also the second largest of American oil imports, behind Saudi Arabia. Oil represents fifty percent of Venezuela’s tax receipts and eighty percent of its exports. Venezuela’s growing importance in the world’s oil market, however, has had dire consequences on indigenous communities like the Warao, whose lands have been impacted by oil exploration in the country.

The Warao claim that recent increases in oil related activities have caused environmental damages to the Orinoco Delta. Catalina Herrera, the director of Assistance to Indigenous People in Delta Amacuro, an indigenous advocacy group, has brought the plight of the Waraos to the world at large. She believes that oil related activities in the region should come to a halt, in order to allow the community to become aware of the potential effects.

Recently, over two hundred Warao representatives have asked the Venezuelan government to halt oil related activities near the Delta. In response, a spokesman for Venezuela Petroleo, the nation’s largest oil company, has stated that “stopping the production of oil in the Orinoco Delta was far from possible.” He went on to say that “Venezuela had an obligation to meet the rising demand of crude oil.” His response completely disregards the fact that the plan to increase production in the next ten years would affect the more than twenty-five surviving Waraos living near the Delta.

Pointing Out the Nonpoint Source: The Impact of Runoff on Coral Reefs

Non-Pointsource Pollution flowing into Florida Waters. Photo Courtesy of NOAA/Flickr.

An estimated 80% of marine pollution comes from land-based sources. Dirt, oil, nutrients, and chemicals enter the oceans as runoff; polluted liquid that flows from land to sea.  The sources of runoff are numerous, and its impacts on coral reefs, especially those in costal areas, are profound.

In elementary school, one of my teachers presented the class with a model of our costal city.  She handed a few students bottles of different colored water, and asked them to ‘water their lawns,’ ‘wash their cars,’ and ‘make it rain’ on the city.  They proceeded to drench the model.  Then she told us to watch where the water went.  It rolled down into a small pool of clear water at the bottom of the model.  We watched the pool turn to a brownish-grey hue.

Nonpoint Source Pollution. Photo Courtesy of EPA/ water.epa.gov

The point of the model was to show us how pollutants, in the form of runoff, flow from land to sea.  We couldn’t really see the ocean turn greyish-brown in real-life, so the model let us visualize where a lot of the pollution was coming from, and what it was doing to the sea water. As kids who grew up on the shore, the lesson hit home.  Most of us weren’t strangers to summer time beach closures due to high levels of pollution.

Watershed Model. Photo Courtesy of AISBWETWMS/Picasa.

Runoff poses a significant threat to coral reefs.  Pollutants such as oil, fertilizers, inorganic materials, sewage, sediments, and heavy metals are washed into oceans daily. As a nonpoint source pollutant, runoff is hard to control, precisely because it enters the water in many places and because the pollutants originate from so many different sources.  Both urban and rural environments contribute to the runoff problem.

Agricultural runoff poses a serious threat to coral reefs.  Over-irrigation and rainstorms cause nutrients such as nitrogen and phosphorus from fertilizers to flow into the sea. Ordinary levels of nitrogen and phosphorous are essential for life on reefs, but increased levels of nutrients result in algal blooms.  Algae thrive off of these nutrients, and grow at alarming rates on reefs when the water becomes over-saturated with nutrients.  Eventually the algae take over, and the coral cannot compete for resources, so they die.

As the EPA points out, “When nutrient levels increase, the delicate balance that exists between corals and algae is destroyed and the algae can overgrow the corals. When this situation is prolonged, the corals are smothered and die beneath the algal carpet. This, in turn, affects the fish and other aquatic organisms using the area, leading to a decrease in animal and plant diversity and affecting use of the water for fishing and swimming.”

Algal Bloom. Photo Courtesy of chesbayprogram/Flickr.

Katharina E. Fabricius of The Australian Institute of Marine Science has noted the impacts of nitrogen and phosphorous-rich terrestrial run-off on reefs in her paper,“Effects of terrestrial runoff on the ecology of corals and coral reefs: review and synthesis”.  She writes that “considerable effort has gone into experiments studying the direct effects of elevated dissolved inorganic nitrogen (DIN, as nitrate or ammonium) and phosphate (DIP) on coral calcification, tissue growth and zooxanthellae.”  She goes on to conclude that “chronically increased levels of dissolved inorganic nutrients may alter reef metabolism and reef calcification sufficiently to cause noticeable changes in coral communities.”

Australia’s  Great Barrier Reef is at risk due to agricultural runoff.  According to a report by students at the University of Michigan, “80% of the land adjacent to the Great Barrier Reef is farmland that supports agricultural production, intensive cropping of sugar cane, and major beef cattle grazing (GBR, 2007). These types of agriculture and cattle production pose large threats to the Great Barrier Reef close by.”  Nutrients from these farm areas reach the reef, and cause damage.

Excess nutrients also reach the sea when human or animal waste is discharged as untreated wastewater into the sea or when sewer systems overflow before treatment.  According to UNEP “around 60% of the wastewater discharged into the Caspian Sea is untreated, in Latin America and the Caribbean the figure is close to 80%, and in large parts of Africa and the Indo-Pacific the proportion is as high as 80-90%.” As the EPA describes, aside from adding excess nutrients to the water, this untreated sewage can bring bacteria and other pathogens to reefs that can cause coral disease and death.

Sewage outfall. Photo Courtesy of eutrophication&hypoxia/Flickr.

Other toxic materials also impact coral reefs. Heavy metals, chemicals, and oils runoff into the ocean from urban areas and poison corals.  The upset the chemical balance of water that is necessary for coral to live. Most of the oil in the world’s oceans does not come from large-scale oil spills, but rather from smaller sources such as runoff.  The World Wildlife Fund states that only around 12% of the oil that enters the sea each year comes from oil spills. The US National Resources Council estimates that 36% of oil that enters the sea comes “as waste and runoff from cities and industry.”

Cyanobaterial Bloom on a Coral Reef. Photo Courtesy of eutrophication&hypoxia/Flickr

The question that begs to be asked is what can be done to prevent damage to coral reefs by runoff?  For one, the US government has enacted the “The Coastal Nonpoint Source Pollution Control Program.” The program was passed by Congress in order to achieve “coordination between state coastal zone managers and water quality experts to reduce polluted runoff in the coastal zone.”

The program, which focuses on runoff-pollution prevention and is jointly administered by NOAA and the EPA, “establishes a set of management measures for states to use in controlling polluted runoff. The measures are designed to control runoff from six main sources: forestry, agriculture, urban areas, marinas, hydromodification (shoreline and stream channel modification), and wetlands and vegetated shorelines, or riparian areas. These measures are backed by enforceable state policies and actions—state authorities that will ensure implementation of the program.”  Thus the goal of the program is to give governments the tools and the power to regulate and prevent runoff.  Though these laws are significant achievements, the challenge to lessen runoff is still steep, and threats to coral reefs as a result of runoff are ever-present.

What goes in to the fracking fluid?

Image Courtesy Halliburton

Halliburton executive becomes the first person to drink fracking fluid.

According to many news sources, in Aug. a Halliburton executive drank fracking fluid at a keynote speech at conference presented by the Colorado Oil and Gas Association. Halliburton’s CEO Dave Lesar, raised a glass of fracking fluid, made from materials from the food industry, he then asked a fellow executive to show how safe the fluid was by drinking it. What this executive apparently drank is a fluid called CleanStim, which was created by Halliburton this past year.

According to Halliburton’s website, CleanStim includes an enzyme, exthoxylated sugar-based fatty acid ester, inorganic acid, inorganic salt, maltodextrin, organic acid, organic ester, partially hydrogenated vegetable oil, polysaccharide polymer, and sulfonated alochol… yes these are big words. The table below better explains what each of these chemicals are, and puts them in terms we can all understand.

Image Courtesy Halliburton

In keeping with their mission to make fracking fluid more environmentally friendly, Halliburton did in fact choose common household ingredients, which seem fairly harmless. The catch is that this is not in fact the case. As a Scientific American article titled “What’s in This Fracking Water?”, points out “the CleanStim fluid system should not be considered edible.”

While Halliburton has given a general list of what’s included in fracking fluid, a study on the Department of Energy’s (DOE) website has a more comprehensive list of chemicals included in fracking fluid. These chemicals include: a friction reducer (KCl or petroleum distillate), a biocide (glutaraldehyde), an oxygen scavenger (ammonium bisulfide) or stabilizer (N,n-dimethyl formamide), to prevent corrosion of metal pipes, a surfactant, a scale inhibitor (ethylene glycol), HCl acid to remove drilling-mud damage near the borehole, a breaker (sodium chloride, a little salt never hurts), a gel (guar gum or hydroxyethyl cellulose), and an iron controller (2-hydroxy 1, 2, 3-propanetricaboxylic acid). These chemicals are harmful to humans, so it is good that gas companies are trying to make fracking fluid with better chemicals.

The most comprehensive list though, is in a report issue in April by the Democrats on the House Energy and Commerce Committee. The report describes 750 chemicals that are used by 14 leading oil and gas service companies. According to the committee though, the report is incomplete because: “in many instances, the oil and gas service companies were unable to provide the Committee with a complete chemical makeup of the hydraulic fracturing fluids they used … [in] 279 products that contained at least one chemical or component that the manufacturers deemed proprietary or a trade secret.”

While it has been a practice to keep the contents of the fracking fluid a secret, things are slowly changing. Wyoming, Michigan, Texas, Pennsylvania and Arkansas have fracking-fluid disclosure rule. Other states, as well as Congress have proposed rules that are waiting for legislative action. More companies are also disclosing information about their fracking fluid. This website, created by the industry allows users to search for a particular well in a given country or state. While things are moving in the right direction, until the industry can do away with dangerous chemicals, hydrofracking will continue to present serious environmental problems.

Sustainability or Livelihood? Tensions in the Uttarakhand Community

India is widely known for its large amount of medicinal plants. Approximately 7,500 species can be found there. Ayurveda, India’s oldest medical system, reported 2,000 native medicinal plant species, Sidha reported 1121, and Unani reported 751 species. All three of these medical systems rely almost entirely on medicinal plants to cure its patients.

Many pharmaceutical companies also rely heavily of India’s array of herbs. More than 95% of 400 plant species harvested from wild populations in are used in preparing medicine. Generally, one-fourth of each medicine is plant based. Some examples of plant based drugs are contraceptives, steroids and muscle relaxants for anesthesia and abdominal surgery, defenders against malaria, heart failure and cancer.

Yet, taking away 95% of the wild plant species leaves the community with barely any resources to support itself sustainably and if the pharmaceutical companies do not over exploit the native herb, it fosters tension between villagers in paying one who sells the herb it needs. Both problems are seen the Uttarakhand, a northern state in India, where the over harvesting of Taxus baccata, and Hemidesmus indicus led to economic turmoil and the need of timur by pharmaceutical companies fueled tension between the Bhotiya and the Garhwals.

Uttarakhand, India

Uttarakhand, India

The presence of pharmaceutical companies has negative consequences on the communities who reside in the area that it harvests in, leaving them in ecological, and sometimes social, ruin.  Commercial harvesting and activity is the primary factor in over exploitation of their native herbs.

Commercial activity of medicinal plants influences competition between Uttarakhand’s two ethnic groups: the Bhotiya and the Garhwal in the usage of timur, a shrub used to cure toothaches, common colds, cough, and fevers, as a flavoring agent or spice. The Bhotiyas used timur fruit, while the Garhwals collected and traded timur sticks to pilgrims visiting the shrines of Badrinath, Kedarnath, Gangotri, and Yamunotri. As they harvest different parts of timur, they were not in competition with each other, and were environmentally sustainable as it did not pressure on the wild. Yet when pharmaceutical companies started to purchase timur fruit from that region, tension emerged among the villagers, who competed fiercely to sell the timur fruit to the companies. If not controlled adequately, this could eventually lead to endangerment of the timur fruit in Uttarakhand.

Many families rely entirely on their environment for food and medicine. Villagers also use medicinal plants as a source of food. The Bhotiya tribal community uses timur fruit as a seasoning or spice. There are traditional dishes made from the fruit of timur such a ‘hag’ a soup made from the dried fruit, and ‘dunkcha’, a type of sauce or topping. They used timur in alcohol, as walking sticks, and for religious purposes. They also used timur to cure children’s toothaches by pressing it over its tooth. Timur was a big part of the people’s lives, as their source of revenue as well as food relied on it.

Timur, Xanthoxylum piperitum

Timur, Xanthoxylum piperitum

With many of the materials becoming commercially popular, more and more of the medicinal plant is harvested, eventually leading to endangerment.  This leaves communities with fewer options. Taxus baccata, or the Himalayan yew, is a tree used to treat breast and ovarian cancer, commonly used in the Himalyans.  Hemidesmus indicus is used in treatment of skin diseases, wounds, psoriasis, syphilis, in inflammations, heptopathy, neuropathy, cough, asthma and fever. It is used to cure 39 different types of diseases.

Both plants species from Uttarakhand, where the Bhotiya tribal community resides, are currently endangered. Both were commonly sold by the villagers. According to local collectors and traders of medicinal plants from North Kashmir Himalaya, the demand and supply is not in equilibrium for some medicinal plants, leaving villagers with the choice of being sustainable, or instead, providing for their families. “Today’s consumption is undermining the environmental resource base. It is exacerbating inequalities. And the dynamics of the consumption-poverty-inequality-environment nexus are accelerating”, the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) stated. And this will only become worse if we do not educate villagers like Bhotiya and the Garhwal on the negative affects their actions have on the environment and sustainable yet economically friendly ways to thrive.

There have been advances in this cause. The workshop “Endangered Medicinal Plant Species in Himachal Pradesh” was held at G.B. Pant Institute of Himalayan Environment &Development, Mohal-Kullu, H.P., India in March of 2002, where NGOs, managers, funders, farmers, scientists, and policy makers came together to address these issues and to reach a “common agreement and to execute in collaboration with identified partners”. The Convention of Biological Diversity has also made some steps forward with the “Adapted Global Strategy for Plant Conservation” in April 2002, which provides a “policy environment” that addresses conservation challenges.

Damming the Mother of Asian Civilization

The last few posts have been exploring the direct causes of environmental degradation on the grasslands of Tibet through modernization and ecological policies. This week’s post will focus on how these modernization project affect the the downstream communities of Southeast and South Asia, specifically Cambodia and Pakistan.

10 million years ago, Asia and the Indian subcontinent collided giving rise to the world’s highest mountains with the largest plateau, Tibet. Only recently have scientists pieced together the workings of the complex planetary engine that drives climate, in which the Tibetan Plateau plays a crucial role such as in the seasonal monsoon cycle of Asia.

Since Tibet’s 41,000 glaciers and vast expanse of permafrost hold the world’s largest concentration of water outside of the poles, Tibet is known as the “third pole”. This “third pole” is a major source of water for nearly half the world’s population with its glaciers and permafrost. Tibet is the fountainhead for the major six rivers in Asia: Indus, Brahmaputra, Salween, Mekong, Yangtze, and Yellow.

Water is one of the most crucial basic necessities of life and every living creature needs it to survive. Since water is a way of life and an inalienable human right, it becomes a social issue when proper access is denied. This creates a domino effect of many social injustices such as poverty, unequal access to education, limited access to staple food, and housing security.

For centuries, civilizations have sustained, drawn inspirations, and prospered directly due to their access to water. For example, in Cambodia, the Mekong River, starting from Tibet, is the “heartbeat of the nation” (When Rivers Run Dry, Fred Pearce 2007). As the third largest fresh flowing river in the world, the Mekong is the least modified of all the major rivers due to decades of warfare. The river flows uninterrupted and the fish and people have prospered. “the people live off wild freshwater fish to an extent unknown anywhere. Even the poorest dine like kings” (Pearce 96). It secures the well being for the people. As a result, one of the poorest nations in the world is the one of the most well fed.The Cambodians have a very sustainable relationship with the Mekong. “Fishermen are the true friends of fishes because they prevent farmers from felling the flooded forest and converting it into rice paddies” (Pearce 98). The river employs four fifths of the nation’s population through fishing. Historically, the ancestors of contemporary Cambodians, under the Khmer Empire, prospered because of the fish in the lake and the rice grown on its shores. Carvings on historical structures depict the pivotal role water played in the empire’s prosperity.

Today as the PRC economy continues to rise miraculously in the global market, it is proving itself through undertaking lavish infrastructure projects such as the world largest dams. It is also China’s stake in becoming a leader in green technology.

Beijing is damming the upper reaches of the Mekong River with the world’s largest arch dam, Xiaowan Dam. Building dams has caused unannounced floods and wrecked local fisheries, causing catastrophic consequences. For the fertility of the Mekong flood and the entire ecological infrastructure on which the Cambodian rural life is built, “The river is the road and the annual flood is the basis of their lives” (Pearce 104). In addition, Tonle Sap used to once have the largest freshwater fish population, today the fish continue to decline in numbers. When the people do not have access to their water in rural areas then they will be forced to migrate to overcrowded cities.

Similar to the importance of Mekong for the Cambodians, the Indus River in Pakistan has fed the population for centuries. The Indus waters 90 percent of the crops and produces half of Pakistan’s electricity (Pearce 30). Due to the hydrologic regime, the Indus river valley plains are being waterlogged with salt that is poisoning the crops (Pearce 30). Farmlands are depleting as freshwater access falls. In order to feed themselves, Pakistani farmers are moving into large cities like Karachi. The majority of migrants live in lawless slums, which serve as breeding ground for al Qaeda and other terrorist groups (Pearce 32).

When access to drinkable freshwater diminishes people are forced to migrate into overcrowded cities in which they will have to struggle to survive in low-income neighborhoods. These slums have history of being unsafe and poor access to health care and nutritious food. In order sustain themselves, the migrants will have to work in low-skilled service sector jobs in which they are most likely to be overworked and underpaid.

Fresh water is not only a matter of prosperity for a culture for the need for water is even more basic than that. Denying access to it leads to death from thirst and starvation (famines often begin with droughts).  A person can live for more than a month without food but only a little over a week without water. Inability to access clean water leads to death from disease; many epidemics have their origin in water borne contamination. Millions have died when their water supplies failed or became contaminated. So it may not only a matter of prosperity for a culture, it may a matter of life and death. With the source of these rivers in Tibet, protecting the Tibetan environment is important because altering the head watershed can be very deadly for the billions downstream.

Bringing Gardens into the 21st Century

Greenhouses that Create an Exciting Mixture of Technology and Nature

When I imagine a garden, I think of a small plot of land strewn with tools and covered with soil. I think of getting my hands dirty in a place that is a refuge from my normal life filled with computers and technology. One organization, however, does not see gardens this way. Instead, they see the opportunity to integrate new technological methods into age old gardening techniques.

New York Sun Works promotes urban sustainability through science education. Their initial project was The Science Barge, an urban sustainable farm that grows farm using only alternative energies. Its goal is to educate the public about issues of sustainability and inspire people to think about more efficient ways to use energy, especially in the city. Since 2007, over 3000 New York City students have visited the barge. The video below shows the work that the science barge does.

The Science Barge in Yonkers, NY, AIDG Flickr/Creative Commons

The Science Barge is currently owned by Groundwork Hudson Valley and is located in Yonkers, NY, while New York Sun Works has moved on to something new: The Greenhouse Project. The Greenhouse Project is an initiative to teach students about health and nutrition through the construction of hydroponic greenhouse labs. The greenhouses constructed by New York Sun Works house the newest technologies in sustainable urban agriculture, including rainwater harvesting systems, solar panels, compost stations, vertical vine crop systems, aquaponics systems, and more.

The first greenhouse was built at the Manhattan School for Children. MSC is a public school on the Upper West Side started by several parents in the neighborhood.  In keeping with the tradition of parent involvement, the Greenhouse Project at MSC was started by a small group of parents who were inspired by the Science Barge. The 1,420 square foot greenhouse grows about 8,000 pounds of produce a year, including cucumbers, strawberries, lettuce, tomatoes, peppers, eggplants, and squash. The vegetables are grown through a hydroponic system, which does not require soil and uses less water than traditional growing methods. Instead of pesticides, the greenhouse uses insects such as ladybugs to protect plants from pests. The greenhouse functions as both a classroom and a garden. When I first walked into the garden, I immediately saw two large rain-water collection barrels, hundreds of plants, and a large tank full of water in the center of the room. When I looked more closely, however, I also noticed a Smart board, desks and chairs, and student made posters and artwork throughout the greenhouse.

Rain-water harvesting tank at the Manhattan School for Children

Shakira Castronovo, the elementary school science teacher at MSC became the garden and nutrition teacher as soon as the greenhouse was built. While she was not as involved as the parents in building the facility, she says it was always assumed that she would take over the curriculum instruction surrounding the greenhouse once it was built. And that she did – she currently is responsible for the care of the greenhouse, as well as teaching science to students in kindergarten through 5th grade. Castronovo uses the NYC science curriculum standards and attempts to teach each standard through work in the greenhouse. For example, one of the kindergarten standards is making observations about properties. The students are learning this skill by observing the different types of herbs growing in the garden. The fifth grade, on the other hand, uses the aquaponics tank, which contains fish, insects, and plants, to learn about ecosystems.

Castronovo has noticed that the greenhouse creates excitement about science. Last week, a young student said to her, “I can’t wait for Thursday!” When Ms. Castronovo asked her why Thursday was a special day, she responded, “I have greenhouse on Thursday!”.  Castronovo adds that the greenhouse has a different attraction than an ordinary school garden. “The students are drawn to the mixture of nature and technology,” she said. “They are fascinated by the 21st century technologies, but at the same time, they like being in nature and examining plants and animals.”

Unlike many other school gardens that aim to grow food for the cafeteria, the Ms. Castronovo prefers that students eat the vegetables they harvest in the school garden, rather than sending them to the cafeteria. In the cafeteria, she says, it is harder to see the connection between the plants that they grew and the food they are eating. In the greenhouse, however, harvesting and eating vegetables is all a part of the cycle that the students are learning about. If a student wants to eat a piece of kale, for example, they harvest the kale plant. They must then go over to the “nursery”, where younger plants are growing, and pick a new plant to replace the kale that they just harvested. The student then picks a seedling and moves it to the nursery, to replace the plant that they just removed. Through this process, students are intricately connected to the process of growing and eating food.

New York Sun Works aims to build 100 similar rooftop greenhouses at schools in New York. While Ms. Castronovo believes that the construction of the actual facilities is a reasonable goal, she adds that it is unrealistic to find a teacher like her – a teacher who oversees the functioning of the greenhouse as well as creates and teaches a greenhouse curriculum to students. Ms. Castronovo is constantly overwhelmed by the amount of work that she has to do, ranging from preparing a lesson, to grading homework, to fixing leaky pipes in the greenhouse. Still, she truly believes in the educational power of the greenhouse. She remembers a student who, before she started learning in the greenhouse, wasn’t particularly passionate about anything. Now, she wants to be a scientist. “I hope that my students remember some of the content I teach,” Castronovo says, “but even if they don’t, if I can help encourage that love of science in kids, then I have done my job.”

MSC Greenhouse (http://nysunworks.org/thegreenhouseproject)

Feeding Constituents Hungry For Change

On Tuesday November 1st, Congresswomen Chellie Pingree, with Senator Sherrod Brown, submitted the Local Farms, Food, and Jobs Act (LFFJA) S. 1773 and H.R. 3286, as part of the 2012 update to the Farm Bill, a major piece of legislation that dictates America’s agricultural policies and programs, and is renewed every 5 years. Pingree and Brown’s bill integrates support for local food producers and consumers into the upcoming adjustments the Farm Bill will see in 2012.

Pingree supports local farmers and consumers, photo courtesy of pingree.house.gov

As Pingree says, “This bill breaks down barriers the federal government has put up for local food producers and really just makes it easier for people to do what they’ve already been doing. It creates jobs on local farms and bolsters economic growth in rural communities.”
And the benefits of local food systems goes beyond economic growth. In a study of farm costs and food miles, researchers led by J.N. Pretty found that if Britain’s globalized food system switched to local food sources (within 20 km of home), the environmental costs would fall from £2.3 billion annually to £230 million annually, a reduction of more than half. The Center for a New American Dream calculates that food travels an average of 1,500 to 2,500 miles, in fossil-fuel burning transportation, to reach consumers, and that local farms not only eliminate the pollution associated with transportation, but also, regardless of whether they are certified organic, use less chemicals and protect biodiversity with wider agricultural gene pools, supporting long-term food security.

The Local Farms, Food, and Jobs Act works toward these environmental benefits by supporting rural, entrepreneurial, community-based, and independent farmers with financial programs, research initiatives, and business incentives and support.

The bill will make Farm Service Agency credit  more accessible to local and regional farmers and ranchers, allocate $30 million annually to Value-Added Producer Grants, improve the Risk Management Agency’s insurance coverage for specialty crops and mixed operations, facilitate Organic Certification, make room for commodity program participants to grow fruits and vegetables, provide Rural Business Opportunity Grants, Rural Business Enterprise Grants, & Community Facility Grants & Loans to local and regional food systems, put $30 million a year towards farmers’ market promotion, give $90 million annually to the Specialty Block Grant program, and create a special budget for local and regional crop and market development.

Pingree and Brown offered the bill to a wave of food-policy advocacy support. It appears to be strategically released to coincide with the Center For Science in the Public Interest’s Food Day, a nation-wide event advocating food, hunger, and sustainability on a grass-roots level with goals of creating food policy. Pingree’s legislative director, Claire Benjamin, explains, “Congresswoman Pingree worked on developing the ideas in the Local Farms, Food and Jobs act through the course of the last 10 months with input from a broad coalition made up of 18 farm, nutrition and food security organizations. The timing worked out well to use Food Day as a platform for announcing the bill”. Benjamin also expressed support and encouragement of the first annual Food Day, calling it, “a great success and huge organizing opportunity for people who care about these issues”.

Pingree meeting Food Day participants, photo courtesy of Huffington Post

The quick and concrete government response to the Food Day campaign is exciting to both farmers and consumers, and is being awarded huge support and endorsement from groups such as the National Farmers Union, Community Food Security Coalition,American Farmland Trust, and the National Farm to School Network.

Speaking to Western Farm Press, the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition’s Helen Dombalis said, “We applaud Senator Brown and Congresswoman Pingree for introducing this legislation, which is important to farmers and consumers alike”.

However, the actual impact of this bill can be called into question when considering that none of the initiatives are allocated more than $100 million dollars. This seems like generous funding, until we consider that the last Farm Bill, passed in 2008, was a hefty $288 billion dollars.

What’s more, U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack is planning to reduce the 2012 budget by as much as $23 billion, and indicated that sustainable, community-based initiatives will be cut, saying in an interview, “We’ll have fewer dollars for rural development but we’re looking to partner with non-profit foundations to pick up the slack”. Vilsack expressed a disregard for government responsibility for small and sustainable farmers, even though it that same interview he lauded the merits of organic and small farming, saying, “Four percent of the nation’s farmers are organic but it’s a fast-growing segment. The farms are usually small but provide a great strategy for rebuilding rural America”.

Pingree’s office hopes that the modest monetary requests and soundness of investment will translate to a well-received bill. Benjamin says, “the Local Farms, Food and Jobs act makes up a fraction of the costs of the overall farm bill, and we feel like the spending in the bill makes strategic investments in a growing sector of the economy,” and goes on to point out that several of the proposed initiatives don’t even have price tags attached, saying, “Many of the provisions in the bill are common sense, no cost policy changes that would significantly bolster this growing sector of the economy, and help consumers access healthier, local food”.

Regardless of budget size, the government accountability to constituents’ interest in sustainable food and farming is a promising spark of political action, and with more discussion, awareness, and advocacy, is likely to build momentum. If Food Day championed such legislation in its very first year, Americans interested in food and farm can be optimistic about their potential for further change.

Deciphering Congo’s Government Intentions

The Congolese government acknowledges the violence in the eastern region of the country. However, its response does not necessarily promise long-term commitment.

Groupe l’Avenir, a newspaper based in the capital of the DRC, Kinshasa, published an article on October 25, 2011 called “Présentation du Mémorandum économique pays : L’importance de la gouvernance dans la gestion des ressources naturelles de la Rd Congo,” written by JMNK. This title translates to, “Presentation of the country’s economic Memorandum: The importance of governance in managing natural resources in the DRC.”

The title of the article alone reveals that the Congolese government is cognizant of its wealth of natural resources, as well as the need to actively control its exploitation of such resources. Eustache Ouayoro, Director of Operations of the World Bank and World Bank Country Director of the DRC states in the article, as translated from French,  “The mining sector occupies the news, and increased governance in the sector will help fill top newspapers.” He then goes on to say that the World Bank is planning to support the Congolese Ministry of Tourism, Environment, and Nature Conservation with its website, as well as with the publication of all signed contracts in this sector.

A statement such as this one from Ouayoro portrays Congolese efforts as addressing the protection of natural resources as a public relations matter—rather than as an environmental or human rights concern. In the following paragraph of the article, a Congolese citizen expresses the desire for more meaningful and direct action from within Congo saying, as translated from French, “From the artisanal mining exploitation… alternative activities need to be sought, even if…it is difficult for mining companies like Gécamines…” While some government officials seem to be occupied with public relations perceptions, Congolese citizens remain concerned with the status quo and are demanding change they hope the government can help bring to fruition.

"Congolese government agency for the control of minerals" Photo and Caption Courtesy of Sasha Lezhnev / Enough Project / Flickr Creative Commons

Christopher Bayer, PhD student at Tulane University, cautioned in an interview that consumers must remember: in the midst of this environmental exploitation of minerals, “lives are at stake.” This is not a topic to be taken lightly, but rather, consumers must intently observe the actions of the Congolese government and the extent to which they take action in this matter. Bayer emphasizes that the direction of this issue “depends so much on the Congolese government.” They are a key player in determining the outcome of the conflict mineral humanitarian crisis and have the potential to diminish this violent conflict.

Another article regarding the Congolese government’s involvement in the topic of conflict minerals was published on October 20, 2011 by Global Witness, a United Kingdom-based organization whose “international campaigns operate at the nexus of development, the environment and trade.”  The article is called “Congo government requires domestic minerals sector to source responsibly” and reports that the Congolese government has recently decided “to compel mining and mineral trading companies operating in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) to carry out checks on their supply chains, in line with international standards, to ensure their trade is not financing the warring parties in the east of the country.” Contrary to Ouayoro’s statement in the Groupe l’Avenir article, this statement conveys that the Congolese government is indeed taking initiative to at least monitor the humanitarian implications of the mining sector.

The article contains a footnote to a document published by the Congolese Ministry of Mines on September 6, 2011 that references this governmental initiative. The document is a governmental directive that speaks, as translated from French, about the necessary “Due Diligence to promote responsible supply chains in the Congolese mining sector…”

"Arriving at the ministry of mining" Photo and Caption Courtesy of FairPhone / Flickr Creative Commons

Thus, there appears to be conflicting information regarding Congolese governmental action and its desire to quell the conflict in the Kivu Region—the eastern region of the DRC where the conflict mines are concentrated. Janice Kamenir-Reznik, co-founder and President of Jewish World Watch, a Los Angeles based organization that seeks “to combat genocide and other egregious violations of human rights around the world,” stated in an e-mail that an explanation for this inconsistency “is that in the last few months the incumbent government has pandered to the Kivus for votes, inasmuch as the national elections are happening within the next couple of weeks.” Kamenir-Reznik, who just returned from the Congo in September, continued, “So, if it appears that there has been progress, I suspect it is elusive, temporary and insincere.  It was recently confirmed that still 1100 women a day are raped in Eastern Congo. So, I do not really see that there has been any meaningful, significant governmental intervention of late.”

It is important for the consumer to be aware of Congolese governmental actions, as well as the reality of its motives and whether or not a long-term outcome is possible. As consumers gather more information regarding the conflict minerals trade, it is crucial to understand what is actually taking place on the ground in the DRC versus what selective information is reaching the American public. Thus, it is important to evaluate many different sources, including primary newspaper sources and international organization reports, as well as accounts from experts that have actually visited the Congo and witnessed its injustices firsthand.