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Wednesday, March 31, 2004

Sellafield's nuclear waste storage is "unacceptable"
The European Union has told the UK government and British Nuclear Fuels that the situation regarding the UK's storage of military + civilian nuclear waste at Sellafield is "unacceptable" and must be addressed within 3 months if stiff penalties are to be avoided.

The Commission is demanding that a plan of action be prepared by June 1st and, that after this date, six monthly reports must be produced on the implementation of the plan.

Inspectors have been granted access to Sellafield since 1991, but are unhappy that some of the contents of storage "ponds" (used to keep waste cool and reduce the amount of radiation that workers are exposured to) cannot be identified or inspected properly, and the EU now wants effective action to be taken to change this, without any further delay or excuses...

In 2001, the Irish, who share the area of sea used by the British to dump Tc-99 waste - which cannot be safely stored and has a half life of 211,000 years - protested about practices at Sellafield under the Convention for the Protection of the Marine Environment of the North East Atlantic and the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea.

They almost certainly have a valid point as the respected Norwegian NGO, Bellona, says that scientists have measured an alarming increase in levels of radioactive techetium-99, in sea weed + shell-fish since 1994, when Sellafield dramatically increased its discharges of the compound to the Irish Sea. While, in 2002, the UK's own Royal Society delivered a damning indictment of successive governments and the nuclear industry, accusing them of neglecting the "serious and urgent" problem of disposal...

The Royal Society also estimated that it may cost £85 billion to deal with existing waste, and argued that today's problems are more serious than currently acknowledged + that the current waste management regime falls short of that which could be achieved through the use of currently available technologies!

Monday, March 29, 2004

A new law to protect the Great Barrier Reef
The Australian government is to ban fishing from one third of the Great Barrier Reef and to more strictly limit the movement of shipping near the reef.

Each year, the reef, which is Australia's number one tourist attraction, attracts 1,000,000 tourists and helps to inject A$4.3 billion into the national economy.

However, WWF Australia has recently warned that the reef is likely to be dead within the next 100 years, and will then take between 100 and 500 years to recover - depending on the action taken to tackle predicted climate change and reduce the impacts of human activities, which can harm the reef.

It is therefore very good news that the government has taken such prompt action, and demontrated a willingness to protect the environment, as well as the future of the local tourist industry.

When the new law comes into force, in July, the reef will become the world's largest protected reef system.

Commercial fishermen, who have resisted the ban, will also be offered assistance including: the buying-out of licences and assistance with training for alternative careers.

Friday, March 26, 2004

Valuing all human life v Looking the other way
At a memorial conference to the 800,000 people who died during the 1994 Rwandan genocide, Kofi Annan, the head of the UN (and former head of UN peace-keeping) has expressed his bitter regret that he did not do more to rally international action, and stop the killing.

Sadly, Lieutenant General Romeo Dallaire, the head of the peace-keeping force in Rwanda at the time, has said that he feels the attitudes which prevailed at the time remain... stating "I still believe that if an organisation decided to wipe out the 320 mountain gorillas there would be still more of a reaction by the international community to curtail or to stop that than there would be still today in attempting to protect thousands of human beings being slaughtered in the same country."

Thursday, March 25, 2004

DevNetJobs.Org: an international development job service
Jessica Matthews of DevNetJobs.Org has been in touch to let me know about her organisation's (subscription) job service which lists 100s of job opportunities + consultancy assignments in the area of International Development.

In addition, DevNetJobs brings out a free, fortnightly jobs newsletter which may be subscribed to by sending a blank email to:


Environment Expo + World Wide Wattle
Today, an Environmental Expo will be taking place in the "wheatbelt" town of Dalwallinu in Western Australia.

This expo will showcase some of pioneering work that is being done in this biologically diverse region to protect endangered plants, drain cleared farmland suffering from waterlogging + dryland salinity and control introduced weeds + feral pests.

This event will also see the official launch of the World Wide Wattle website, an outstanding labour-of-love produced by, top Acacia taxonomist, Bruce Maslin.

There are over 950 species of Acacia in Australia and they have provided medicine, food, boomerangs + inspiration to people ever since the continent was first settled some 50,000 years ago...

More recently, one species (Acacia pycnantha) has been made Australia's floral emblem, and the plants' unmistakeable flowers and foliage have been used to form the basis for the nation's green and gold sporting colours, coat of arms + symbolic honours. There's even been an official National Wattle Day!

I'm just finishing a PhD on the pollination of these plants, and there are hopes that this work will feed into wider scientific efforts to sustainably revegetate Australia with native plants + provide farmers with alternative industries that are better suited to the country's unique + harsh conditions than the, catastrophically vulnerable, sheep + wheat industries...

It is therefore great to see so much positive work going on in Dalwallinu!

Tuesday, March 23, 2004

Taking responsibility for "toxic" ships
Greenpeace, Peter Mandleson MP + the GMB trade union are calling on the UK to stop sending "toxic" ships, containing asbestos or dangerous chemicals, to be scrapped in poor countries.

At present, it is common for poorly-paid workers, in countries such as India, Bangladesh, Pakistan, China + Turkey to be inadequately protected, and for the waste to be unsafely disposed of, while old ships are being dismantled.

As a result, Greenpeace is urging ship owners to start applying the so-called proximity principle, and to dispose of their waste locally, to the highest environment and labour standards.

As things stand, navies and shipping firms are able to sell their old ships into a network of traders, who then seek to maximise their profits... with the end result that hazardous ships often go to scrap-yards in countries with the lowest costs, weakest of laws + poorest standards.

You can visit Greenpeace's ship breaking site if you would like to find out more about this issue.

What can stop Africa's brain drain?
Africa is the most incredible + vibrant place Earth-Info.Net has ever visited, and doesn't conform to a vast swathe of negative Western stereotypes.

Despite this, it is undeniable that Africa has more than its fair share of problems. Some of which are eloquently summarised by contributors to a debate organised by the BBC's Africa Live! radio show, entitled:

"What can stop Africa's brain drain?"

Scotland's "Great Barrier Reef" given EU protection
Yesterday, EU Fisheries Ministers agreed to give permanent protection to Scotland's unique cold water coral reefs, the Darwin mounds by banning deepwater bottom trawling in the area.

This ban delivers a promise first made by Margaret Beckett, UK Secretary of State for the Environment made in October 2001, and has been welcomed by WWF-Scotland, who have spent the past 3 years highlighting the damage deep-water trawlers cause to the reef, as they dredge over huge areas of seabed.

Helen McLachlan, Marine Policy Officer for WWF Scotland said "We welcome the protection of this incredible piece of Scottish marine life - a beautiful deepwater habitat rich in wildlife such as sponges, starfish, and deepwater fish. This is our equivalent of the Great Barrier Reef and it was vital that it was protected before it was destroyed forever by deep water trawling".

"Up close the Darwin Mounds, off the Scottish coast, are as beautiful and rich in marine life as the Great Barrier Reef in Australian waters. Thankfully these ancient + fragile coral mounds that have taken thousands of years to grow, have been saved from further destruction with the banning of deep water trawling. We welcome this decision as the first real commitment by Member States to reduce the impacts that fisheries have on our marine environment."

Only discovered in 1998, the Darwin Mounds are a unique collection of cold-water coral mounds (Lophelia pertusa) at a depth of 1000 metres and about 185km northwest of Scotland. They are made up of hundreds of coral reefs up to 5m (16ft) high and 100m (328 ft) wide covering an area of approximately 100 sq km. The reefs support a wide diversity of marine life, such as sponges, starfish, sea urchins, crabs and deep-sea fish including the blue ling, round-nosed grenadier and the orange roughy.

There appear to be rather few photographs of this reef on the web, but the best pictures I could find were taken by Jan Helge Fossa, and accompany this old BBC story.

Monday, March 22, 2004

Protecting the environment + providing clean water
The 8th Special Session of the Governing Council of the UN Environment Porgramme will be taking place in Jeju, South Korea from the 29th-31st March, 2004.

This meeting is due to discuss the Environmental Dimension of Water, Sanitation and Human Settlements.

A full list of the event's notification + working documents as well as further information documents can be found if you follow these links...

Key papers include:

* Financing wastewater collection + treatment in relation to the Millennium Development Goals and World Summit on Sustainable Development targets on water and sanitation.

* Addressing environmental aspects of the water agenda: Activities of the United Nations system: Contribution of the Environmental Management Group to the 8th special session of the Governing Council/global Ministerial Environment Forum and the 12th session of the Commission on Sustainable Development

* Strengthening the scientific base of the United Nations Environment Programme

On a related note, SciDev.Net has recently hosted a good discussion of the relative importance of protecting the environment while addressing poverty alleviation...

The head of the UNDP, Mark Malloch-Brown, states that "The conservation of biodiversity should be seen as a ‘driver’ for poverty alleviation, not just as an end in itself".

While Reginald Victor, professor of biology at Sultan Qaboos University in Oman, asserts that "the conservation of biodiversity can only succeed when it is given priority over development."

This is one of those intractable debates, as both poverty alleviation + the environment are important + under-resourced...

Unfortunately, now that humans have the power to shape the destiny of all life on the planet, our ability to act wisely, and for the good of others, has never been more important...

In Earth-Info.Net's view humans will need to become much better at sharing wealth, knowledge + resources, for either people or the environment to have viable, long-term futures.

This will only be possible if leaders are prepared to take the difficult decisions today, that future generations require of them and the rest of society is prepared to do its bit to make this possible.

What is a Citizens Jury?
What is the best way to reflect public opinion?

An election, an opinion poll, a referendum...

Much depends on the question being asked + who is asking it, but one interesting, new approach is the citizens jury.

A citizens jury exposes a jury, made up of members of the public, to a range of factual evidence, and allows them to interrogate witnesses possessing a variety of different perspectives.

It then asks the jury to reach an informed opinion on the matter at hand, and to make recommendations for action... which can then be fed into a wider public debate.

In the case of a recent GM Jury, oversight was provided by four funders with different vested-interests (Unilever, Greenpeace, The Co-op + The Consumers Association) and input received from an Oversight Panel that included both conventional stakeholders + grassroots community group members.

The agenda for discussions, choice of extra witnesses, and scope of recommendations were partly set by the members of the jury - rather than simply dictated to them by a particular stakeholder. The jury hearings were also open to observers, a summary of proceedings was published on the web, and all jury hearings were recorded so that they could be made available on a publicly - accessible video archive.

Given the hyperbole that tends to surround the discussion of GM technology, the verdict seems very reasonable, worthy of thought + a positive contribution to the debate...

You can follow this link to read about GM Jury verdicts from other countries.

Even in open, representative democracies, Earth-Info.Net feels that the debate of many other complex issues, which do not determine the results of national elections, would benefit from the input of well-organised + representative citizen juries...

Friday, March 19, 2004

Butterflies acting like canaries?
In 2001, The Biodiversity Challenge Group, which comprised of Butterfly Conservation, Friends of the Earth, Plantlife, The Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, The Wildlife Trusts and WWF-UK challenged the UK government to reverse the declines of all the UK's threatened species + habitats by implementing a 10-point plan...

The 10 key challenges were as follows:

1. Imagination - deliver a real increase in the extent of priority habitats, including heathland, downland and woodland, in a way that improves public access, human health and biodiversity.

2. Agriculture - shift agricultural payments from intensive production to support for sustainable rural development, including positive wildlife management.

3. Climate change - meet UK targets of cutting carbon emissions by 20 per cent by 2010.

4. Areas of wildlife importance - deliver the positive management of all protected conservation sites (ASSI/SSSIs and Natura 2000 sites), and the conservation of local wildlife sites, over the next five years.

5. Water - ensure the full transposition of the EU Water Framework Directive into UK law and policy, to provide a framework for government, its agencies and industry, to protect and enhance the biological diversity of wetland ecosystems.

6. Coastal - adopt a policy on sea level rise of no net loss of priority wildlife habitats. Use dynamic adjustment of the coast to achieve a net gain of these habitats.

7. Marine environment - introduce a bold package of policy and legislative measures to protect the marine environment.

8. Planning - revise all planning guidance to ensure that the planning system contributes to the maintenance and the positive enhancement of biodiversity.

9. Integration - ensure proper consideration of biodiversity through Strategic Environmental Assessment of all plans, policies and programmes.

10. Information - ensure effective monitoring of species and habitats in the UK, adequate research into biodiversity and the effective distribution of this information.

Today, new research has been published in the journal Science which states that overall, in the UK, 71% of butterfly species have declined over the last 20 years, compared to 54% of native birds over 20 years and 28% of plants over a forty-year period.

Sir David Attenborough, President of Butterfly Conservation, the charity that collated the new butterfly data, said:

"The results show the importance of Britain's long amateur tradition of natural history and underline the enormous value of records gathered diligently by volunteers over many decades. I have always thought that butterflies represented the canaries in the coalmine, giving us early indications of man's impact on the planet. Everyone knows about the decline of the House Sparrow, but British butterflies and other insects are facing an even greater crisis than birds. I am deeply concerned that we must increase our efforts to conserve biodiversity at this critical time and I hope the government demonstrates their own commitment through placing biodiversity at the heart of the new agency recommended in Lord Haskins' review of rural delivery."

See here to visit the UK Biodiversity Action Plan website or to listen to Lord May's thoughts on whether we are heading for a 6th global mass extinction...

Thursday, March 18, 2004

Home sweet, Shipping container...
A British architect, Eric Reynolds, of Urban Space Management, has been experimenting with innovative ways of producing energy-efficient and cheap homes + offices, and has settled on converting old shipping containers.

These containers are usually used to transport goods, but can be converted into habitable space with suitable windows, doors, insulation + decoration. Then, by fitting containers together in a variety of ways, buildings of almost any size can be created...

In London, builders usually charge about £120 a square foot ($200) to build a conventional house, whereas high quality space can be built from converted containers for as little as £40 ($70).

As there are millions of old containers, and we currently have a severe shortage of low-cost housing in the UK, this solution appears to have massive potential. Especially, as containers can be transported, very easily, to almost anywhere in the world.

Follow this link to see some pictures of how containers are being used to provide artists with studio space and to help regenerate a run-down area of London.

Guardian Unlimited develops Life
Guardian Unlimited has started to compile it's environment + development stories in an online supplement called Life.

Within this supplement stories are arranged according to themes such as climate change, conservation, global fishing crisis, renewable energy, spreading deserts + water.

Some themes have many more reports than others, but this supplement is a welcome development. In particular, because it offers a simple way of monitoring how stories + issues develop over time.

Monday, March 08, 2004

Helping refugees to return home
The UN high commissioner for refugees, Ruud Lubbers, has said that rich countries should do more to allow refugees to return to their home countries once wars have finished, and stability restored.

He said that as many as 2,000,000 African refugees could now choose to go home and restart their lives, but that international community needs to be prepared to provide long-term funding + commitment in order to make this possible.

Women's Day and HIV/AIDS
Today is International Women's Day.

The World Health Organisation has decided to mark this occasion by discussing the need to combat gender inequality in the fight against HIV/AIDS

Biologically, economically, socially + culturally, women are more vulnerable to infection than men, due to factors such as financial dependence on men, physical + sexual abuse from partners, and the fact that it is acceptable for men to have multiple partners.

In sub-Saharan Africa, young women aged 15-24 are up to 2.5 times more likely to be infected than men belonging to the same age group. This, and similar statistics, led Dr Lee Jong-wook, WHO Director-General to say that "In too many places women have fewer legal rights than men, and less access to education, training and paid work" and that in future "Health interventions for HIV/AIDS should promote equitable access for women to information, treatment, care and support."

You can find out more about HIV/AIDS by visiting UNAIDS homepage or the 3 by 5 Initiative's site, which aims to help ensure that 3,000,000 people living with AIDS are being treated by 2005.

Oil: A blessing or a curse?
The BBC is hosting a vigourous debate as to whether the production of $30 billion worth of oil is a blessing or a curse for impoverished African countries.

One contributor suggests that "the paradox of plenty" results in oil revenues creating a buffer between the government and the population, which fosters corruption, and leads to a loss of transparency and accountability.

Others seem to prefer blaming global capitalism, the CIA, African leaders, wanton corruption, debt, and a world prepared to watch money be squandered on an epic scale... in return for oil.

US accused of "double standards" by Human Rights Watch
In a severely critical report, Human Rights Watch has said that "U.S. forces operating in Afghanistan have arbitrarily detained civilians, used excessive force during arrests of non-combatants, and mistreated detainees"...

The report concludes that "the US-administered system of arrest and detention in Afghanistan exists outside of the rule of law", that "The United States is setting a terrible example in Afghanistan on detention practices," and that "Civilians are being held in a legal black hole – with no tribunals, no legal counsel, no family visits and no basic legal protections."

Brad Adams, executive director of the Asia division of Human Rights Watch also stated that although "The Taliban and other insurgent groups are illegally targeting civilians and humanitarian aid workers," "abuses by one party to a conflict do not justify violations by the other side. This is a fundamental principle of the laws of war."

Adams also said the United States is eroding international standards by not taking action as "Abusive governments across the world can now point to U.S. forces in Afghanistan, and say, If they can abuse human rights and get away with it, why can't we?"

Remembering Max Nicholson
Have you ever heard of a man called Max Nicholson?

My guess is that you haven't, but that you will have heard of SOME of the organisations he established, helped to found, or ran during his incredible career.

They include The World Wide Fund for Nature (1961), The International Institute for Environment and Development , The Nature Conservancy (1949), The British Trust for Ornithology (1933), The Edward Grey Institute and Oxford University's Exploration Club (1926).

Max also found time to allocate tonnage to ships during the seige of Britain in World War II, to organise the 1951 Festival of Britain, to be a trustee for Earthwatch Europe and President of the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds.

Wow! Who says you can't make a difference!

If you would like to know more, you can read his obiturary and Sir Crispin Tickell's memorial address here.

Friday, March 05, 2004

What's in a name?
Since 1753, humanity has scientifically named + described just over 1.5 million species using Carl Linnaeus' binomial system of classification.

Under this system each organism is given one Latin name to indicate the genus (e.g. Homo) , and one as a "shorthand" name for the species (e.g. sapiens).

Unfortunately, tens of millions of species remain to be named and many of the world's existing taxonomic experts are now retiring, dying or tiring without being replaced.

This creeping process is leaving vast swathes of biodiversity taxonomically orphaned... without anyone left alive, or active, who can name or otherwise help to understand them.

Sadly, our inability to accurately name species, and associate them with other forms of life, makes the study of ecology in many species-rich areas of the world extremely difficult, and can often mean that efforts to understand + conserve the environment are seriously handicapped...

In order to tackle this problem some German museums are beginning to experiment with allowing benefactors to sponsor the process of naming new species and then choose the name ascribed to the new species, for all eternity...

This idea sounds great in principle but, as the following article by an Australian taxonomist explains, this solution can be fraught with dangers, as it may encourage taxonomists to cut corners and trivialise the scientific importance of descriptive names.

On a lighter note, Earth-Info.Net was amused to learn how taxonomists have occasionally exchanged bitter insults with one another by naming parasitic, stunted or smelly organisms after their rivals!

There's obviously more than you might think in a name... and a good case for society improving the funding of this crucially important + fundamental science, which is slow to acquire, yet quick to loose.

Prince Charles urges people to stop eating endangered fish
At a gala dinner to raise funds for the Marine Stewardship Council, the UK's Prince Charles has urged people to only eat fish which are not in decline...

At present stocks of cod are down to only 10% of their 1970 levels and there is a distinct possibility that the, once bountiful, cod fishery will collapse - as the Canadian Grand Banks fishery already has - unless drastic changes are made to both the quantities of fish that are caught and the ways in which fisherman capture them.

Many Ethiopians rely on food aid
A report entitled Coping With Hunger And Poverty In Ethiopia has found that many Ethiopians rely on overseas food aid in order to survive and that food supplies are now less reliable than they were in 1984.

Negative consequences of relying on food aid also include "long-term dependency, laziness + reduced self-reliance" and the report suggests that, rather than continue to focus on crisis-managing famines, aid organisations should focus on "strategies for coping with hunger and the links between food insecurity + poverty."