Tag Archive | "Environment"

Ecuador: Ship Runs Aground in Galápagos Islands


There are fears the wreck could contaminate the islands' pristine waters (photo courtesy of Wikipedia)

There are fears the wreck could contaminate the islands’ pristine waters (photo courtesy of Wikipedia)

Ecuadorian authorities have declared a state of emergency in the Galápagos Islands after the freighter ‘Floreana’ ran aground just off San Cristóbal Island, in the aptly named ‘Wreck Bay’.

The incident, which took place on 28th January, is the third in under a year, after Galapaface I hit the rocks last May, and a ship en route to the islands carrying 1,200 tonnes of cargo sunk close to Santa Elena Peninsula in November.

The Floreana was transporting 1,925 tonnes of cargo, including food, supplies, construction materials, and some hazardous substances, such as 37,000 litres of fuel, 11 tonnes of pinion oil, 103 gas cylinders, 48 tonnes of asphalt emulsion, and other materials, according to a bulletin issued by the Provincial Government of Galápagos.

In a press release, the Directorate of the Galápagos National Park and the Environmental Ministry reported that they have placed containment barriers and absorbent material around the Floreana to prevent possible discharge of pollutants into the bay. However, Ecuadorian navy personnel have reported the presence of contaminating material, a mixture of diesel and hydraulic oil, due to the flooding of the engine room, and the fuel leakage is said to be increasing.

Until there is evidence that the contamination has been contained, the park has closed three surfing spots near the incident area, and extra barges have been sent from the Ecuadorian mainland to accelerate unloading operations. Once the unloading is completed and the vessel is stabilised, it will be scuttled in an area outside the marine reserve.

The incident has reminded locals of the 2001 incident in which Jessica, an oil tanker, ran aground in Wreck Bay, spilling over 650,000 litres of diesel and fuel oil. It was ranked as one of the worst environmental disasters in Galápagos history.

The Galapagos Islands are a UNESCO World Heritage Site, famous for the vast number of species and pristine environment, and are located some 900km off Ecuador’s Pacific coast.

 

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Nicaragua: Construction to Begin on Controversial Canal


The chosen Nicaragua canal route (photo: laprensa.com.ni)

The Nicaragua canal route (photo: laprensa.com.ni)

Construction is due to begin on Nicaragua’s Great Inter-oceanic Canal today. When finished, the 278km canal will link the Pacific Ocean with the Caribbean Sea, crossing Lake Nicaragua, Central America’s largest drinking water reservoir.

Chinese-based HKND Group will construct the canal and also retain the rights to operate the project, which will also includes a rail line, an oil pipeline, and a deep water shipping terminal at either end, for the next 100 years. The project is due to be completed in 2020.

When operational, an estimated 5,100 of the world’s largest cargo ships will be able to pass through the canal each year, representing approximate 5% of global cargo transport. Complementary projects will include a new international airport, a free trade zone, and new tourist complexes.

Proponents of the plan claim that the US$50bn project could create 250,000 jobs – 50,000 directly and a further 200,000 indirectly – and provide an economic boost to the country, which is the second poorest in the Western Hemisphere after Haiti.

But opponents say the canal will cause an environmental and social disaster, with hundreds of communities set to be displaced, as the planned route cuts through towns, farmland, and protected indigenous territory. The canal will also make its way through about 400 hectares of wetlands and rain forests, including the northern sector of the Cerro Silva natural reserve. Environmentalists also warn that the canal could lead to saltwater seepage into Lake Nicaragua, as well as the introduction of invasive species carried in by international cargo carriers.

Additionally, according to Law 840, which governs the canal deal, HKND can expropriate land anywhere in Nicaragua and must pay landowners the tax-assessed value of the property, which is usually much lower than the land’s actual value.

In most of the towns slated for relocation, there is little or no information. Activists say that most residents don’t seem to know when they are expected to leave, where they will go, or if they will be paid.

To address these issues, HKND hired London-based Environmental Resources Management (ERM) to conduct environmental and social impact assessments. Though ERM presented their preliminary results in November, the studies have not been made public, and there is no requirement for the assessments to be made available to the Nicaraguan public.

“The fact that they first approved the concession instead of first having all the studies, and only then — knowing the data and knowing that it is feasible  — approving the project, makes us think that they are going about it from the wrong direction,” Jorge Huete, president of Nicaragua’s National Academy of Sciences, said in a recent interview.

Earlier this year, a group of 12 environmental NGOs published their own independent study on the effects of the canal, concluding the social and environmental impacts made the canal neither viable nor sustainable.

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Salta Governor closes Deforestation Loophole


Illegal deforestation in Salta (Photo courtesy of Greenpeace Argentina)

Illegal deforestation in Salta (Photo courtesy of Greenpeace Argentina)

To the delight of environmentalists, deforestation will no longer be allowed in protected areas of Salta.

Provincial governor, Juan Manuel Urtubey, has closed a loophole that had allowed landowners to recategorise their land, thus giving a green light to deforestation in areas that should have been preserved under the national Forest Law.

“We celebrate that Governor Urtubey has removed the decrees that authorised landowners to deforest areas that were not allowed under the Forest Law. It is a victory for all Argentines and organisations that want a country with forests and as such fight for the laws that will protect them – something we will continue to do until the law is followed,” said Hernán Giardini, coordinator of the forest campaign for Greenpeace.

The environmental organisation has been at the frontline of a two-year fight against Urtubey’s decrees, spearheading a campaign that highlighted illegal deforestation in Salta, and organising a petition to stop deforestation in the province that was signed by more than 350,000 people.

All wooded areas will now be guaranteed the protections afforded by the Law, which was passed in 2007, which categorised forests and wooded areas in a traffic-light system, protecting areas classified as ‘red’, allowing for selected logging in areas categorised as ‘yellow’, and permitting the clearing of areas denominated ‘green’.

However, under a provincial amendment, in Salta landowners were allowed to recategorise their land, and many areas previously considered ‘red’ were changed to ‘yellow’ or even ‘green’. It is estimated that 130,000 hectares of forest that should have been conserved were cleared as a result of this landowner recategorisation.

Greenpeace is now lobbying the government of Salta to revoke the deforestation permissions that were granted under the loophole, thus ensuring no more areas are cleared as a result of the recategorisation.

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Chile: Mine Closed over Environmental Concerns


Mine location map (image courtesy of SMA)

Mine location map (image courtesy of SMA)

Santiago de Chile’s Environmental Tribunal ordered that a mine in the district of Maipú be temporarily shut down on environmental grounds.

Court sources indicated that Minera Panales, located west of the capital, in the Santiago Metropolitan Area, posed an imminent threat to the environment. The measure to shut down the mine’s operations was requested by the Environment Superintendence (SMA), which stated the area where the mine is located is rich in “protected animal and plant species, and contains threatened and proportionally unprotected ecosystems.”

According to the supporting documents provided by the SMA, the company Minera Española Chile Limitada has been operating in the Quebrada de La Plata area for over four years without authorisation, and with two court sentences against it for illegal logging.

The court document detailing the suspension states that “the continuation of mining activities, due to its nature, extension and location, generates imminent environmental risks, which is particularly relevant when said activity is carried out in an area with the environmental characteristics previously mentioned.”

The mine will remain closed for 30 days. The suspension can be renewed upon request.

 

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Colombia: Farmers Sue BP in UK High Court


BP_LogoA group of Colombian subsistence farmers are suing British oil giant BP for environmental damages in a case that began today in the UK High Court, in London.

The 109 farmers are seeking £18m (US$29m) in compensation from BP, claiming that negligence in the construction of a pipeline in the 1990s led to a big impact on the local water supply and caused serious damage to land, crops, and livestock.

One of the farmers in London to testify in the trial told The Guardian that: “Our water supply has been damaged by sedimentation since the pipeline was laid, and I have lost cattle. I can no longer keep pigs or chickens because there is not enough water for them. The reason why we have travelled so far is because we have hope and faith that the high court in London will deliver justice to us.”

A lawyer for the farmers, Alex Layton, told the court that BP had “blamed everyone else while not accepting its responsibilities,” reports AFP.

BP defends itself against the allegations, saying it took “significant steps” to engage with local communities and pay fair compensation for any impact. Last month, the company was found guilty of gross negligence in the Deepwater Horizon disaster in the Gulf of Mexico in 2010.

This landmark trial is the first to feature a UK oil company in a UK court for alleged environmental damages caused to private land overseas. If the ruling goes in favour of the farmers it could open the path to other claims.

The trial is expected to last around eight months.

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Nicaragua: Environmental NGOs say Interoceanic Canal ‘Not Viable’


The chosen Nicaragua canal route (photo: laprensa.com.ni)

The chosen Nicaragua canal route (photo: laprensa.com.ni)

The 278km interoceanic canal to be constructed in Nicaragua is not viable or sustainable due to its environmental and social impact, according to a study conducted by a group of NGOs.

Grupo Cocibolca, which unites 12 environmental organisations, reported yesterday that the amount of water need to fill the canal represents more than half that currently available in underground systems, and could create shortages for the population. Furthermore, the canal will pass through Lake Nicaragua, the country’s largest freshwater lake, causing concern over contamination in a key source of drinking water.

In addition, the study finds that 59.4% of the canal route over land crosses native forest and indigenous territories, affecting an estimated 270 communities.

“The evaluation is that in its current guise, the canal project is not viable,” Víctor Campos, director of Centro Humboldt, one of the organisations involved, told AFP. “The environmental damage is too high relative to the benefits.”

“We must balance the interests of a few businessmen and those of thousands of Nicaraguan citizens,” added Rosario Sáenz Ruiz, director of Fundenic-SOS.

The report is the latest document to criticise the canal mega-project, just week before construction is set to begin in December. Danish NGO Forests of the World recently argued that the canal could “wreak havoc” on local forests and indigenous communities.

The NGO urged Danish shipping giant Maersk to pressure the government to ensure that “the indigenous peoples will be heard and measures be taken to protect the environment.”

Furthermore, in the last week hundreds of farmers have staged protests against the canal over fears that some of their land will be expropriated. The government said that it would pay a fair price for any land expropriated and that the canal would bring great economic benefits to the country.

The canal, to be built and operated by the Hong-Kong based development company HKND Group, will cost an estimated US$40bn and is expected to be completed by the end of the decade. When operational, an estimated 5,100 of the world’s largest cargo ships will be able to pass through the canal each year, representing approximate 5% of global cargo transport. Complementary projects are set to include a new international airport, a free trade zone, and new tourist complexes.

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Latin American Nations Commit to Climate Action at UN Summit


Latin American heads of state expressed their commitment to fight climate change and lambasted industrialised nations for not abiding by environmental regulations at the UN Climate Summit in New York on 23rd September.

They joined a guest list of 150 heads of states as well as business leaders, civil society representatives and celebrities during the special one-day event at the UN headquarters.

Leonardo DiCaprio addresses the opening of the UN Climate Summit. (UN Photo/Mark Garten)

Leonardo DiCaprio addresses the opening of the UN Climate Summit. (UN Photo/Mark Garten)

The UN has warned that global temperature rose by 0.85°C between 1880 and 2012. It predicted that temperature will increase between 1°C and 3.7°C this century.

A Global Carbon Budget report published on 21st September found that during 2013 global emissions had increased by 2.3%. The majority of the emissions were produced by four nations or blocs: China produced 28% of global emissions, followed by 14% for the United States, 10% for the European Union, and 7% for India. Brazil and Mexico were the only Latin American countries to appear in the Top 20 worst emitters during 2013, figuring 12th and 13th in the global ranking respectively.

The Price to Pay

A day before the summit opened, the Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean (CELAC) released a report that said that the region “has made a minor contribution to climate change, given the region’s low levels of greenhouse gas emissions”. However, the study found the region to be “particularly vulnerable to its negative impacts.”

The cost Latin American nations would have to pay – should the world carry on along this road – would include long term agricultural loss in a region where many economies depend on export of agricultural products.

“The projected losses in the agricultural sector will also have multiple effects, such as slowing progress towards poverty-reduction and food-security goals,” reads the report.

Due to rising gasoline consumption, Latin American countries already suffer from deteriorating air quality in congested cities, a “serious” degradation of natural assets like water and forests, as well as health issues.

Bolivian President Evo Morales was among the speakers (UN Photo/)

Bolivian President Evo Morales was among the speakers at the UN Climate Summit (UN Photo/Amanda Voisard)

A Joint Effort 

Amongst the first speakers at the UN summit was Peru’s president Ollanta Humala, who stressed that “building consensus on this topic” was a priority. His nation will host the next UN climate conference, COP20, in Lima this December.

President Humala then called for developed economies – the major greenhouse gas emitters – to take responsibility for their contribution to global warming. “It is time for developed countries to acknowledge their responsibility in climate change,” he said.

In a similar vein, Bolivia’s president Evo Morales said: “The extent to which developing countries will effectively implement their commitments under the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change will depend on the effective implementation by developed countries of their commitments under the Convention.”

He added that industrialised countries have to provide “financial resources and transfer of technology and […] take fully into account that economic and social development and poverty eradication are the first and overriding priorities of developing countries.”

Ecuador’s environment minister Lorena Tapia affirmed “the importance of negotiation on climate change” but lamented the “lack of commitment of developed countries”.

She said that the Kyoto protocol is the “cornerstone” of climate change efforts and deplored the fact industrialised nations – like the United States – had not ratified it.

Economy vs Ecology

For his part, Venezuela’s president Nicolas Maduro scolded the Western capitalism model of growth that has led to a dramatic increase of carbon emissions. “Until when will we follow a capitalist model?” he asked.

President Maduro then asked the audience to be realistic about world business leaders’ commitment to climate change. “Does anyone believe that multinational companies can change themselves into protagonists of salvation for the planet?

“If you want to change the climate, we need to change the system,” he added.

The address of Bruno Eduardo Rodriguez Parrilla, Cuba’s Minister of Foreign Affairs, was along the same lines: “The main cause of the world environment crisis, including climate change, continues to be the irrational and unsustainable production and consumption patterns that support the capitalist economic domination system, which generates greater poverty and inequalities,” he said.

He also explained that “less luxury and less waste in a few countries would mean less poverty and hunger in much of the world”.

UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon joined the People's Climate March on Sunday, two days ahead of Tuesday's UN summit. (Photo by Mark Garten, courtesy of the UN)

UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon joined the likes of Al Gore and Jane Goodall at the People’s Climate March on Sunday, ahead of the UN summit. (Photo by Mark Garten, courtesy of the UN)

Pledges of Sustainable Development

Latin American countries pledged to promote to sustainable development ahead of the 2015 United Nations Climate meeting, COP21, when a global agreement to replace the Kyoto protocol will be adopted.

President Bachelet listed various measures Chile is taking to combat climate change, such as the launch of an energy agenda for “more diverse, safer and cleaner systems”.

She said that her country will add over 1,000 megawatts into its energy grid in 2014, and recover degraded soils to combat deforestation.

President Enrique Peña Nieto acknowledged that Mexico was a “moderate emitter”, but pointed out that his country voted the general climate change law in 2012 that aims to reduce 30% of the 2000-level gas emissions by 2020 and 50% by 2050. He also vowed to generate 34.6% of electricity production from renewable energies by 2018.

“Climate change is not only an obligation but also an opportunity to transform our economy and make it more competitive in the future,” said Peru’s president, who reiterated his country’s efforts to fight deforestation and illegal mining.

Meanwhile, Costa Rica’s president Luis Guillermo Solis acknowledged that all countries contribute to global warming due to industrial activities but at different levels. He emphasised that the largest economies should “lead these efforts” for global consensus. However, his country is already one of the greenest in the world, with a commitment to be a carbon neutral nation by 2021.

President Solis confirmed that the Central American country will develop an electric railway system and a bus system that use fuel only so as to substantially decrease traffic and carbon emissions. President Solis stressed the need for developing countries to have access to “appropriate and affordable” energy technologies.

Brazilian Deforestation Disappointment

Anti-deforestation campaigners have expressed disappointment at Brazil’s rejection of an anti-deforestation pledge, the centerpiece of the UN Summit. More than 30 countries set a deadline to end deforestation by 2030, but the South American giant, which has the largest continuous rainforest in the world, refused to sign on, saying the plan conflicts with its own laws and targets.

If successful, the plan could reduce carbon emissions by an estimated eight billion tonnes per year – the equivalent of emissions by all of the world’s one billion cars.

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La Aurora: A New Dawn


This is an exclusive English translation of an article that originally appeared in Periódico MU no. 79, from August.

Is it possible to work the land in an efficient and profitable way without agrochemicals or fertilisers? An agro-ecological establishment in Buenos Aires province shows its crops, cattle, and results. Through the alliance between the producer and agronomist, we see a new paradigm, proving it’s possible to be independent of the genetically modified model and achieve healthy agriculture.

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Producer Juan Kiehr and agricultural engineer Eduardo Cerdá on Kiehr’s farm in Benito Juárez

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Looking up from the newspaper, the landscape from the window of the coach is an ocean of soy fields, which we are crossing at 90 kmph down Ruta 3, on the way to Benito Juárez, Capital of Friendship, with it’s population of 15,000, 400km south of Buenos Aires. And then to a 650-hectare farm called La Aurora. A different landscape and different words.

There, next to a tractor, with his big hands from working the land, knee-high boots, short-rimmed hat, is 71-year-old Juan Kiehr, a producer who has conceived an almost-epic project at this point in history: to live in peace.

The 4×4 and the F100

Juan Kiehr's

Juan Kiehr’s F100

Juan Kiehr is the grandson of Danes, cordial and hospitable, with a tendency for perseverance: he married once, more than 40 years ago, to Erna Bloti, a Swiss woman with whom he has two daughters. He doesn’t drive a vulgar 4×4, but a F100 which is 47 years old and has visited an unknown number of worlds, as the odometer broke a long time ago. “And if I have to travel, I use the Megane, which is a gem.”

In the F100 we reach a hilltop from where we can see the farm in perspective. In his cracked and serene voice he says: “This was my father’s. I took over in 1981 when he passed away. During the first years I followed the trend, like any other producer. But with time, above all during the past 15 or 20 years, I have seen what agrochemicals do to the soil, and that, combined with the statistics of what is being used in Argentina, is a scary thing.”

He is not trying to convince anybody, just telling his story. “I thought: I don’t want to leave a corpse for those who follow me. I want to leave this farm in as good a condition as I found it in, or better. I can’t think of any other way to work.

“I am psychologically allergic to the idea of working with poisons. It’s not that I am afraid to handle them, but I see what they are doing to the soil and to the water, and they are things that are very hard to undo. And I was here with my family. I didn’t want that for the place where we live.

“And on top of it all, those products are really expensive. And they way the lose their effectiveness, so you have to use evermore. It started with two litres per hectare, and now they are on 12 or 14. Spending more, poisoning more, for the same results.”

Kiehr had another elusive dream: live, insofar as possible, without economic shocks. “So that family doesn’t go without. You work as much as you can as it is the role of paternity with responsibility, I think. It’s not the same as saying I’m going fishing, sort yourselves out.”

Heart + profit

Kiehr was mulling over his ideas when he crossed paths with Eduardo Cerdá, an agricultural engineer, who had been a consultant for various producers in the area since 1990, who were organised as a cooperative. The group fell apart for different reasons, deaths (cancer), and different opinions on how to work the land. Since 1997, after the Menem opened the country to genetically modified organisms (GMOs) via the approval of glyphosate requested by Monsanto, Cerdá became Kiehr’s consultant.

Cerdá had studied in La Plata, where he met the agricultural engineer Santiago Sarandón, his professor in the course on cereals. Sarandón had been trying to find a sense in the course and his own career, beyond the stereotype of an agronomist who is reduced to applying recipes and recommending chemical products, and created the first agroecology course in the country, a science which combined agronomy with ecology.

Technical definition: “Agroecology is the application of ecological concepts and principles in the design and management of sustainable agroecosystems. Agroecology uses the natural processes of interactions that are produced on the farm with the aim of reducing the use of external inputs and improving the biological efficiency of the crop system.”

The external inputs are herbicides, pesticides, fertilisers and other inventions of the chemical industry, which created the superstition that it is impossible to work without their widespread use, adding to GM crops like soy, maize, rape, sunflower, cotton, and rice.

Cerdá came with these ideas about agroecology and towards the end of the 90s collided with a terrain that was ever-more flooded with massive fumigations and GM soy monoculture. “The argument of agroecology was theoretical, but not adapted to concrete productive situations, above all in this region.”

Juan with his trusted tractor

Juan Kiehr with his trusted tractor

Meanwhile, Kiehr’s mistrust was fertilised. “Agricultural engineers would come by, who in reality are selling products. Perhaps they didn’t have a choice, but they would sweeten the producer, and lead him like a show cow, give him a hat, talk about technology with the aim of selling products and machines, an entire propaganda apparatus like you can see in Chacra o Clarín Rural.” He opens his hands. “You are a farmer, not an agricultural exploiter. But it is like a vortex and they want to make you feel: you are in the technology that they sell you, or you’ve been left behind. I don’t want to charge anybody for that they do, but it is not true that that is the only option or the best option. An let’s be frank – who is really benefitting from all this? The producer, or the corporations that manufacture and advertise it all?”

On a national level, the Chamber of Agricultural Health and Fertilisers (CASAFE) states that the use of pesticides has risen 858% in the last two decades, whilst the agricultural acreage has risen just 50% and the crop yield 30% (figures from the University Network for Environment and Health). The business that corporations like Syngenta, Bayer, and Monsanto lead means the application of 317m litres of pesticides (including 200m litres of glyphosate) in Argentina during the 2012-13 season, with revenues of US$2.38bn.

Instead, in La Aurora, there were tours around the lots in the F100, talks which harmonised the knowledge Cerdá brought from university with what Kiehr knew about the land. It was not a change from one day to the next, rather from one life to the next. The farm was redesigned agroecologically, by people who were able to combine using their hearts and heads, with their feet on the ground.

The heart, because this is a family farm that Kiehr inherited, loves, and which he will leave to his kin.

The head, because thinking how to manage it in a way that will not impoverish or kill the soil, or be dangerous for living organisms, including humans.

And the feet on the ground, so that this work values the farm instead of bleeding it dry, and allows a production that will also be efficient and profitable.

There remains just one small detail: how is it done?

GM Republic

La Aurora appears as a case study in one of today’s most interesting and shocking wake up calls, which is not yet published but will be freely downloadable: ‘Agroecología: bases teóricas para el diseño y manejo de agroecosistemas sustentables’ (Agroecology: Theoretical bases for the design and management of sustainable agroecosystems). Edited by the La Plata University’s Faculty of Agrarian and Forestry Sciences, it is written by agricultural engineer Santiago Sarandón and his colleague Cecilia Flores, with contributions from other professionals.

A scientific and technical work that studies production, describes new paradigms to understand the rural situation, as well as proposals. For example, Chapter 1 is called ‘The unsustainability of the current agricultural model’.

It highlights, among other problems:

– The dependency on agrochemicals (insecticides, herbicides, fungicides, fertilisers).

– Contamination of food, water, soil, and people by pesticides and products derived from the use of chemical fertilisers.

– Development of resistance to pesticides by certain pests and pathogens.

– Loss of productive capability of the soils, due to erosion, degradation, salinisation, and desertification.

– Loss of nutrients in the soils.

– Loss of biodiversity.

– Contribution to global warming and decrease in the ozone layer.

– The problem of rural poverty has not been resolved.

The last chapter is dedicated to La Aurora, and was written by Sarandón and Flores along with Cerdá himself, in his dual role as agronomist and Kiehr’s farm consultant. There, the situation of the Pampas is explained, where cattle has been replaced by crops that are dependent on toxic inputs, costs have risen, and medium-scale family producers have been expelled: in 20 years, the number of agricultural establishments has halved in the region, concentrating land ownership in fewer hands. Against this backdrop, the question arises: how did they manage to find a model that is efficient without agrotoxins, so much so that now even scientific books are describing it?

The art of redesign

The Kiehr's home is the heart of the farm

The Kiehr’s home is the heart of the farm

The house is spacious, beautiful, warm. It is not “country style”, but Juan-Erna style. There’s wooden furniture that they brought from Chaco, a living room with bookshelves and family mementos, LCD and video player, a wood burner for Winter, and a large kitchen which makes this house a home. There is a second house for guests. Kiehr speaks proudly of his daughters: Teresa is a doctor and Sara a physiotherapist. Both are married, and they have given him three grandchildren. Sara lives in Germany, and the family tend to visit her there every year. He has an almost pictorial view of the countryside: “I’m surrounded by soy operations. It’s all nature, but dead. There are not even birds.”

While Kiehr serves the mate, Cerdá explains: “The moment arose when we were talking with Juan about the design of the production. For example, there was a lot of sunflower, but Juan suggested changing it.” Kiehr: “We did it for years with herbicides that we put down before the crops grew. But they left the ground dusty, strange. Then the slugs came and we had to spray again, and again for the weeds, and again for pests such as grubs, until I said: enough. I decided to throw myself into cattle farming.” La Aurora has 297 hectares for crops, and 334 (hills and valleys) which are more suitable for cattle.

They eliminated the sunflower almost entirely and began working the work of consolidating the cattle (breeding and wintering), as a basis for the re-launch of the farm’s production, but without chemicals. Cerdá: “The cattle did not make as much profit as the crops, but it worked as a great base and compliment to rethink the production of wheat, oats, barley, and sorghum, not dependent on inputs.”

Outline and Achievements

The agroecology applied in La Aurora, in a few lines:

– Healthy, free cattle, fed on natural grasses, with calves that reach 500kg and are sold as steers for export, which feed the ground with dung and urine. They have between 600 and 700 heads. Kiehr strategically installed 25 drinking troughs (around which the animals will naturally defecate) to cover the entire farm.

– As such, the ground is strengthened, enriched, fertilised, and better retains moisture and nutrients. And whilst feedlots are surrounded by the stench of rot in which the animals live, in La Aurora there is never a smell of dung.

– The plantations are done with intercropping, legumes such as red clover, which helps avoid the growth of weeds and fasten nitrogen, a fundamental nutrient for the soil. As such the polyculture has avoided the use of fertilisers since 2001.

– The nourished and vital soil, added to the systems which allow the natural habitat of insects which, also, bring benefits to the ecosystem, means there is no need for herbicides, fungicides, insecticides, or chemical fertilisers.

It is easier to write this than do it, but the result (see the graph, below) is that without counting the profit made by the cattle, Kiehr obtains almost the same yield from the crops as neighbouring farms (10% less), but with much lower costs: US$300 a month less per hectare in the case of wheat. In the 80 hectares that he is cultivating today, that saving represents US$24,000, and also saves the earth, the water, and the deluge of ever less useful poisons, and chemicals which fertilise little and badly: just two or three nutrients, versus the 16 found in La Aurora’s natural process. Without those nutrients that plants are weak (although drugged by fertilisers) and as such become victims of fungi and disease, which means more fungicides and chemicals are needed, an eternal merry-go-round that benefits you know who.

Kiehr avoids all of this, covers his costs quickly, spends less, obtains almost the same, but healthily and without artificial stimulants, and has a greater profit (US$762 per hectare versus US$549 using a conventional system), as well as a better return: the farm returns US$5.15 for every dollar invested, against the US$1.13 recovered by a conventional producer.

Cerdá: “If the system works with GMOs and agrotoxins, it is because of its enormous inefficiency, and because an unnatural, corporate logic reigns, like that of a drug addict, based in the chemistry and the money. We aim for healthy agriculture that re-establishes the biological processes, doesn’t degrade resources, and is efficient in terms of production. It is a view to become independent, to not be tied to a model that poisons and impoverishes.”

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The chart shows the advantages that agroecology (yellow) has over more traditional farming methods (black and white), listing (L-R) differences in yield, profit, direct costs, yield needed to cover costs, and return per dollar invested.

How it works

The farm uses its own seeds. Cerdá: “How are you going to patent something that is alive, as the labs aim to do? Even if you have changed a gene? It all goes to show that GMs are not good for the country, its citizens or producers. Food is a plant’s main asset, destined to be consumed by butterflies, caterpillars, pests which we consume without knowing the side-effects or its capacity to evolve. These seeds and transgenes do not help the producer, they only indebt them, and end up leading to an extraction in the richness of the soil which we then give away through the export of the grain for animals and oils, above all to China.”

Kiehr adds: “And it’s not true that it’s to feed the world, because there is more than enough food. The problem is that they are badly distributed. This is done purely for commercial interest. And the Seed Law, for Monsanto, makes me think of Colombia: people can’t keep their own seeds, it’s illegal, they burn them if they are not the ones that the corporations have sold them. I find it hard to believe that the government will push through such a conservative law, but they also do good things with the IPAF (Institute for Small Family Agriculture): it’s contradictory, I don’t know if this is a right-wing government disguised as leftist but, of course, I could be wrong.”

The agroecology applied in this farm also allows for the growth in cattle stock, more efficient fattening, and real stability in the production (95 tonnes per year). In the biggest drought of the last 70 years (2008/9), 15,000 heads of cattle died due to a lack of food in the region. But La Aurora suffered no losses, thanks to the ground and the way the crops had been worked, they resisted the debacle.

Is agroecology related to organic? Cerdá: “Organic producers in this region are following the same conventional model, just without pesticides.” The “organic” certification ends up being a supposedly healthy niche of the same fumigated market, but at prohibitively high prices. “When I see them, they talk about what deal they’ve done, how much they’ve made, but they never talk about the soil, how to work it. Their farms are good, but they yield much less than La Aurora [1,000kg of wheat per hectare against 5,000kg], and they use chemical fertilisers, which is like drugging the plants to make them look good, with products that prejudice the biosystem of the soil, and drain towards the underground wells generating contamination and toxicity due to nitrates and nitrites. You buy a crispy, colourful lettuce but because of those fertilisers you don’t know what ill effects it could bring you. Organic is not looking at things in an agroecological way.”

Juan is partially driven by the desire to leave a healthy, working business for his family

Juan is partially driven by the desire to leave a healthy, working business for his family

Capital and motivation

“It is important to highlight that the technologies that were used in this farm can be easily appropriated by producers, given that there are no large capital investments needed, it is more about the engineering, about an advisor-producer compliment and the motivation that is generated by understanding what you are designing and managing,” says the Sarandón-Flores book in the chapter about La Aurora, highlighting that the results achieved “show the potential for this focus to be applied in extensive systems [read: large farms] of temperate climate like those in the Argentine Pampa region.”

Continuing the mate, Cerdá says: “Juan was able to live without shocks, his daughters were able to study, travel, and although some see his F100 as a sign of poverty, Juan doesn’t own a 4×4 as he is not interested in inventing costs to lower his how much he is taxed on his profits, nor is he interested in the costs that owning a 4×4 would entail. He is on top of his taxes, and the entire farm is run legitimately, by the book”. Kiehr adds another feat: “I have never had to take out a loan.”

The INTA and other entities started to approach him, sometimes in a strange way, and they have been obliged to say agroecology more regularly. The visitors get excited, like when they visit Guadalupe Norte, Santa Fe: the Vénica family’s Naturaleza Viva farm.

At La Plata University’s Faculty of Agriculture, Kiehr and Cerdá had a public of 400 students. “It makes me feel very good,” says Kiehr, as if resuming what his wife Erna calls the wonder years. They met in Chaco at the start of the 70s, her as a nurse and him as a member of the Lutheran church, both collaborating with the Qom community, then called Toba. “The work changed me,” says Kiehr. “I understood what it meant to not have so many things, but to be more of a person. When I returned it took me a while to adjust. My neighbours would spend time speaking badly about this person or that, and I felt an emptiness. I am happy now, doing something that makes me feel useful, connected with other people. I am thankful for them, and they changed my life.”

Chinese News

Cerdá brings up a new subject: “In Rosario I’m working with soy producers, who are starting to move away from the GM path. They can’t do it overnight, like an addict it’s impossible to be cured from one day to the next, but they are starting to be convinced that it is feasible.”

Maybe its sheer caution: in China the publication known in the West as Science & Technology Abstracts Newspaper, from the Ministry of Science and Technology, published an article in April which reflects the official preoccupation for the consequences of mass consumption over two decades of foods that are by-products of GM soy (animal fodder and oil), which contain glyphosate, which starts to be tied to birth defects, rises in the cases of cancer, many of them unusual, infertility, and other illnesses. ‘We must face the harm caused to 1.3bn Chinese by imported GM soy’, is the title of the article by Mi Zhen-yu, Air Marshal and former vice president of the Military Science Academy, among other things.

Hypothesis: if in China, the world’s principal consumer of these things, they are realising the same things that the rural towns close to the fumigations, producers such as Kiehr, or scientists such as the late Andrés Carrasco came to understand, it is possible that a large change in this story is being sown. Perhaps one day, as Sarandón thought, agroecology will be the name of all agriculture.

Meanwhile, Cerdá is advising a neighbour’s farm in Benito Juárez, belonging to documentary filmmaker Valeria Mapelman, who in just two years made her own reconversion to agroecology, which is turning out to be more profitable that she had hoped, making more than she would have made leasing it to poole planting, who enter the business until they fly vulture-like towards other bubbles.

The birds have returned to the farm.

Kiehr smiles.

And so it’s possible to hear the silence whilst looking towards the horizon with your feet on the ground.

What is being designed in La Aurora is a novelty: as its name indicates, perhaps it also means the breaking of a new dawn.

 

Translation by Kristie Robinson

lavaca logolavaca.org is a communications co-operative founded in 2001, and produces a web page, monthly magazine MU, and radio programmes that can be reproduced freely. Our home is the cultural centre ‘MU Punto de Encuentro’, at Hipólito Yrigoyen 1440, Congreso, Buenos Aires.

Posted in Development, Environment, Social IssuesComments (1)

The Indy Eye: Buenos Aires People’s Climate Event


Sunday marked the People’s Climate March, a global day of action against climate change ahead of Tuesday’s UN summit, when world leaders will gather in New York to discuss proposals about how to best tackle the environmental crisis. Activities took place in over 2,600 cities around the world, including a 310,000-person march in New York, the biggest ever climate gathering. In Buenos Aires, environmental groups joined with campaigning group Avaaz to host an activity in the Bosques de Palermo, next to the Planetarium. The relaxed event gathered a few hundred people to enjoy the talks, music, theatre, and activities for all the family, whilst people mingled, exchanging ideas and mate among the crowds who had flocked to the park to enjoy the first day of Spring.

Photos by Patricio Murphy, Laura Campolongo, and Pablo Santana. 

 

Photo by Laura Campolongo

Volunteers who arrived early helped finish up the banners (photo by Laura Campolongo)

 

Photo by Patricio Murphy

The afternoon’s activities included music… (photo by Patricio Murphy)

 

Photo by Patricio Murphy

… talks, like this one ‘What is Climate Change?’ … (photo by Patricio Murphy)

 

Photo by Patricio Murphy

… art workshops using recycled materials … (photo by Patricio Murphy)

 

Photo by Laura Campolongo

… and entertainment. (photo by Laura Campolongo)

 

Some were there to speak up about specific causes, such as this activist who was against proposed changes to Argentina's seed law, which will see seeds being patented (photo by Laura Campolongo)

Some were there to speak up about specific causes, such as this activist who was against proposed changes to Argentina’s seed law, which will see seeds being patented (photo by Laura Campolongo)

 

Photo by Patricio Murphy

One of the organisers then gathered people for the central call to action (photo by Patricio Murphy)

 

Photo by Patricio Murphy

The atmosphere was festive (photo by Patricio Murphy)

 

Photo by Patricio Murphy

This man pledged to make a positive change (photo by Patricio Murphy)

 

Photo by Patricio Murphy

‘Awakening of consciousness’ (photo by Patricio Murphy)

 

Photo by Patricio Murphy

Photo by Patricio Murphy

 

Photo by Patricio Murphy

Photo by Patricio Murphy

 

Photo by Patricio Murphy

The day ended with the crowd gathered inside a ‘heart’ for a group photo (photo by Patricio Murphy)

 

Photo by Laura Campolongo

Against the backdrop of the planetarium (photo by Laura Campolongo)

 

Photo by Pablo Santana

Photo by Pablo Santana

 

Photo by Pablo Santana

Photo by Pablo Santana

Posted in Multimedia, Photoessay, TOP STORYComments (2)

Argentina, Turning its Back on Ecology: Interview with Sergio Federovisky


Sergio Federovisky

Sergio Federovisky

Sergio Federovisky is one of Argentina’s most established environmental journalists. President of La Plata’s environment agency, he is also the face of the television programme ‘Contaminación Cero‘, and for the past 20 years has been working as a journalist, adviser, and consultant in environmental policy.

Federovisky’s fourth book, ‘Argentina, de espaldas a la ecología. Apuntes para una política ambiental’ (Argentina, turning its back on ecology. Notes for an environmental policy), has just been released by Capital Intelectual. The book is an in-depth analysis of the politics around environmental issues in Argentina, from the 1980s to today. As somebody who has witnessed the subject’s slow installation into the political agenda, Federovisky writes with frank authority, and is honest in his criticism of the country’s shortfalls.

Kristie Robinson sat down with him to talk about the book, and where Argentina stands on environmental issues in general.

How did the idea come about to write this fourth book? Is it a follow on from your previous works?

In reality there is a kind of thread in all of my books related to the environment, and following this thread I try to tackle the subject from different aspects, and evaluate what has happened over the past 20 or 25 years. When I started to work in environment-related issues – before even Eco ’92 [the 1992 Earth Summit in Rio] – the prevailing discourse regarding environmental issues identified two problems: an institutional weakness and a lack of awareness. Twenty-five years have passed, and today there are many institutions and there is awareness. There could always be more awareness, but this has undoubtedly advanced a lot. So the big question is, if these two factors have been resolved, why – if we look at all the environmental issues – are all of the indicators worse than before? One of the possibilities is that this formula, this diagnosis, was wrong. Or that different questions have to be asked.

In this book I try to analyse why environmental policies are not public policies, why suitable people – professionally speaking, with a background in the environment – are never sought for the top environmental posts. And all this leads to the conclusion that the political class are not really aiming to resolve the problems, but to have them work themselves out. Because if they really were aiming to resolve the issues, at least one of them would have been solved. They would put suitable people in the environment ministry, they would adopt real, serious public policies, and fundamentally, they would establish concrete rules and laws and wouldn’t leave it all in the hands of the awareness that the society is supposed to have to resolve the issues.

And do you think this is done on purpose? 

I don’t think that it is done on purpose in the sense that this is not a product of evil. But yes, it is deliberate in terms of understanding the way the system works. Policies that resolve environmental problems would have to go against the prevailing model. It can’t work in any other way. For example, if Latin American countries wanted to resolve the problems of natural resource extraction, they would have to go against the capitalist system – the only one we know. And the political class, in general, doesn’t go against the system, it accompanies it – any change in it would go against their interests.

Rubbish in the streets of BsAs (Photo: Agus Carini)

Rubbish on the streets of Buenos Aires (Photo: Agus Carini)

Let’s take a very contemporary example, which is the issue of rubbish. It would seem that this issue could be resolved if I separate my rubbish, and all of that. But how is it possible to ask that society reduce its production of trash when the system pushes people to consume ever greater amounts of things and produce ever more waste? Everyday the system is telling me, as a citizen, ‘consume, spend, buy the things that come in the greatest amount of packaging, buy as much as you can’. The message is either contradictory or fallacious, and I think it’s the latter, as the two things are not possible together. So which one wins?

The economy, always! Even so, it still surprises me how everybody is so inside this system, celebrating it.

Well, those are things that I broach in my previous book – myths. What we have achieved in the past 20 years is the installation of many myths which allow us to carry on, but which don’t look for the solution to the problem. The contradictory concept of ‘sustainable development’ is the biggest one, for me. ‘Environmental awareness’ is another one. ‘Zero trash’ is another one. They are all things that we want to achieve, which are going to be marvellous when we get there, and in the meantime our collective consciousness is calmed.

And these myths work in a way that allows the existence – survival – of other things. The best example is energy. We can go for oil, fracking in Vaca Muerta, for nuclear energy in Atucha II, to get us through the day-to-day, knowing that other alternative energies, such as wind power, exist and we will develop them one day.

Short-term thinking – on a political level, nobody is thinking beyond their four years in power. You highlight in your book the concept of ‘sending into the future the problems of today’.

One of the things that is essential to understand, and then to try to change, is that environmental issues have two characteristics that are opposed to conventional politics. One is that they are medium to long-term, and we are not used to having medium or long-term policies. And the second is that environmental matters are very complex, whereas politics are very linear. What do I mean by that? Climate change is the best example here, to understand and interpret this situation, you have to understand that it’s a complex system – there are multiple variables, multiple inputs, and politics thinks of this complex problem in a linear way. So it is necessary to find the right language to explain the situation, and move away from the linear way of trying to tackle a problem from just one place. For example, I have a lot of discussions with soy producers, and they say, regarding chemical spraying, that the problem lies with the application of the fertilisers – that is linear thinking! Applying just the right dose will not resolve the problem of weeds becoming resistant to glyphosate, nor that the soil is retaining ever more fertiliser, nor the related social issues – it requires a full analysis of the complexity of the issue.

TAPA-federovisky-grandeAnother reason why it’s so complicated is that ‘environmental problems’ don’t exist, ontologically and philosophically speaking, because their solutions are not within the realm of the environment. A problem is considered a problem when the possible solution lies within the same framework that defines it. And as environmental problems are solved by the economy and by politics, they are not really environmental problems, but the collateral damage of economic decisions. To solve environmental problems properly – to resolve climate change, for example – you have to refer to the economy, not the environment. As Nicholas Stern said: ‘Climate change is the greatest market failure in the world’s history’. So the possibility of resolving these issues lies within politics and economics, and this makes it more difficult, as it is more hidden.

In your book, you talk about the media and the role they play in the system. How do you view them in terms of their treatment of environmental issues?

Very poorly. They have the same idea as the political class – the idea that the environment is an accessory. That it’s not a central question. So one of the things that I underline is that many media outlets have interests in areas that are very complicated for the environment. Soy, for example. The big media have interests there, and they allow these interests to coexist with articles or politically correct protests about environmental issues, without establishing the connection. In recent years, every now and then the issue of deforestation gains some coverage, for example. But the media doesn’t ever make the link between 75% of the land being sown with genetically modified soy and the destruction of the native forests, when there is a direct connection there. The media maintains this logic that everything will be resolved with greater awareness. The position of the media here is, unfortunately, very poor.

Do you see this changing? 

It’s difficult to see that it will change, as the media in Argentina have stopped being journalistic enterprises and have become big businesses, which exceed journalism, and these interests are very present. For example the media in Argentina, apart from very few exceptions, is pro-nuclear. They all think that nuclear energy is a symbol of technological independence when it is very well-known that it is not the case, and that is doesn’t offer a serious or consistent input.

There are a lot of environmentalists who think nuclear energy could be a solution when facing the problem of climate change.

For me it’s an absurdity. My view on this is very simple. Firstly, it’s debatable that atomic centres really do have a null effect in terms of greenhouse gas emissions, because if you take the whole process of mining uranium, it generates a lot. But let’s say that it does reduce emissions, why would I choose a system of producing energy that has a really high risk? I have been to Chernobyl, and the truth is, if you could imagine that devastation in four or five places in the world, you would realise that it’s ridiculous, even when the risk is low. Regarding risk, I use a concept that is called mathematical expectation, which establishes the probability of damage of those incidents that have a low chance of happening, but have a really high impact. Such as a plane falling down – it happens very rarely, but when it does, everybody dies. Well, this is the same. Very few nuclear power stations explode, but when one does, it’s Chernobyl. Or Fukushima. So I think the cost-benefit relation is bad. If the cost of reducing emissions is the possibility of a Fukushima, then it’s bad.

Wind turbine (photo courtesy of Enarsa)

Argentina has enormous potential for wind power (photo courtesy of Enarsa)

So how do you see a sustainable future for Argentina, in terms of energy?

Argentina has to sit down and discuss, calmly -and perhaps now is a good time due to the energy crisis the country is facing- what the energy matrix will be in 50 years time. For this, the first thing that must be accepted is that alternative energies are not token gestures. They have to be integrated into the matrix and be just another option. Today, in the mentality of those who make decisions, alternative energies are a token gesture – they produce them because it looks good to do so.

Yes, the renewable energy investment dropped from US$539m in 2012 to US$94m in 2013, and much of that money went instead towards Vaca Muerta and oil exploration.

Because it is considered a token gesture. Something politically correct, that should be promoted, but not an essential part of the energy matrix, when Argentina has an enormous potential – particularly in terms of wind power. I also think that Argentina – like the rest of the world – is prisoner to an energy matrix in which oil is favoured. Al Gore – and we’re talking about Al Gore, not somebody who is against the system – said that we cannot say that we are aiming for alternative energies to flourish in the current system, which subsidises oil enormously and says that alternative energies are expensive. They are expensive, but if they received the same benefits that oil received, the price would drop quickly.

And do you think that this will happen?

I am not very optimistic. The capitalist system only replaces things that have a replacement within the confines of the system. It’s what happened with the hole in the ozone layer, which was resolved when the system found a replacement that didn’t put the system itself at risk. The day that the system finds a replacement for the oil matrix that doesn’t put the system at risk, then it’s probable that cleaner energies will replace the old system. But until that happens, it’s going to be very difficult.

How do you see Argentina compared to other countries in Latin America?

Argentina is very behind. It has enormous professional capabilities, and grey matter, and a greater level of development and lower inequality than other countries in Latin America. It is in a better condition than other countries, and yet it wastes that potential to seriously invest in environmental issues.

And why is this?

I think it is down to a real lack of clarity and strategic thinking from a political class that is very enamoured with the idea of development per se. Because the country has to develop, to grow, and so oil is necessary for growth and nuclear energy is a sign of development. There is an idea that is almost Soviet when it comes to thinking of development, with heavy industry, etc. In the last ten years, the development model has involved natural resource extraction – mining, oil, soy – taking as much as possible from our land in as short a time as possible, and as such the environment is a problem.

The small things that have been achieved – and I really do think that they are very small, compared to what could be done – have been thanks to social resistance, or social demands in a certain area. And the political class took note. But the few things that have been done have been very emblematic: the bike lanes, the marketing campaigns about separating rubbish; they don’t challenge the system.

What gives you hope? 

I don’t see things in those terms – I don’t think it’s about having hope or not. I think it’s as I say at the end of the book: if we believe that having an unpolluted river is better than having a polluted one, if we think it would be better to live in a city where the sewage is treated, if we think that the environment should be taken into account when making economic decisions, then we should keep moving forward, as the idea of having environmental policies still makes sense.

‘Argentina, de espaldas a la ecología’ was published in May by Capital Intelecutal and is now available in bookshops for $100. 

Lead image by Sub Coop

Posted in Environment, Social IssuesComments (0)

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