Newsletter 2019-11-21



Brazil works behind scene to greenlight Manaus-Boa Vista transmission line by Caio de Freitas Paes [11/20/2019]

– The long-delayed Tucuruí Transmission Line extension, providing energy autonomy to Roraima state, appears to be moving ahead rapidly under the Bolsonaro government, with federal institutions carrying out secretive political maneuvers to speed construction at any cost, regardless of opposition, say critics.
– The project’s environmental license has been suspended since 2014. One sticking point: the impact of the project on the Waimiri-Atroari Indigenous Territory. Of the 721 kilometers (450 miles) of extension envisaged for the transmission line, 125 kilometers (78 miles) with 200 electrical towers would cross through the reserve.
– Another obstacle is ongoing negotiations with Transnorte, the selected construction consortium, which has demand what are viewed by many as excessive returns on the project. The Bolsonaro government has reportedly pressured the National Electric Energy Agency to accept the conditions demanded by the company.
– Analysts say the transmission line isn’t necessary, as solar power could be utilized to serve the needs of Roraima state, and implementation could be faster. However, some experts suspect that the powerline is connected to plans to open the region to industrial mining, which requires huge amounts of electricity to operate profitably.

‘Timebomb’: Fires devastate tiger and elephant habitat in Sumatra by Michael Standaert [11/15/2019]

– Another heavy fire season in Indonesia has taken a toll on the country’s remaining forest. In Sembilang National Park, on the island of Sumatra, fires raged into primary forest that provides vital habitat for critically endangered Sumatran tigers and elephants.
– Satellite data and imagery indicate the fires may have had a big impact on tigers in the park. In total, around 30 percent of tiger habitat in Sembilang burned between August and September. The fires also encroached into the park’s elephant habitat.
– Fires have also reportedly ravaged elephant habitat in Padang Sugihan Sebokor Wildlife Reserve, which lies southeast of Sembilang and serves as a corridor for wild elephants in South Sumatra. One report estimates that half of the reserve has suffered fire damage.
– Researchers say slash-and-burn clearing techniques likely started most of fires in the area, which were then exacerbated by drier-than-usual conditions and underground peat stores left unprotected by policy rollbacks.



Agroforestry program in Appalachia receives $590,000 in federal funding by Erik Hoffner [11/21/2019]
– Agroforestry is set to expand in the eastern U.S. region of Appalachia with the announcement of new funding from the U.S. government.
– More than $590,000 will help growers increase production of a range of non-timber products like ginseng, which prefer to grow under forest cover.
– Growing crops in combination with woody plants like trees and shrubs in a system mimicking a forest is called agroforestry.
– Agroforestry is a highly climate- and biodiversity-positive form of agriculture that is estimated to sequester 45 gigatons of carbon from the atmosphere.

Researchers urge sustainability as palm oil tightens its grip on Latin America by Antonio José Paz Cardona [11/20/2019]
– Hindered by deforestation restrictions in Southeast Asia, palm oil producers are looking farther afield to West and Central Africa, and Latin America, where conditions are conducive to oil palm cultivation and land is easier to come by.
– Four Latin American countries already fill out the list of the world’s top 10 palm oil producers, with Colombia coming in at number four, and Ecuador, Brazil and Honduras placing seventh, ninth and tenth, respectively. Mexico may soon join the list, with a plan to cultivate an additional 100,000 hectares of the crop in the coming years.
– While these countries have vast areas of land that have previously been deforested for agriculture and are suitable for growing oil palm, plantation expansion is still coming at the expense of rainforest. Researchers and the residents of areas that have been turned into plantations also allege human rights violations at the hands of palm oil producers.
– Researchers and conservationists call for tighter regulation of the industry and more study of how oil palm production may impact the surrounding environment.

New assessment method finds close to one-third of tropical Africa’s plants are potentially facing extinction by [11/20/2019]
– A new study, published today in the journal Science Advances, uses a novel methodology based on key components of the IUCN Red List’s assessment process to discern the potential conservation status of tropical flora at the continental scale.
– Researchers tested the new assessment method using the recently developed RAINBIO database, which consists of over 600,000 geo-referenced occurrence records of more than 20,000 vascular plant species in tropical Africa.
– The research team found that 17.3 percent of the 22,036 vascular plant species included in the study are likely threatened, while 14.4 percent are potentially threatened. That means that nearly one-third — 31.7 percent — of tropical Africa’s vascular plant species might be at risk of going extinct.

Brazil’s new deforestation numbers confirm the “Bolsonaro Effect” despite denials (commentary) by Philip M. Fearnside [11/20/2019]
– Just released preliminary figures for “2019” Brazilian Amazon deforestation (covering the August 2018-July 2019 period) show a 29.5 percent increase over the previous year, with 9,762 square kilometers (3,769 square miles) cleared, more than double the rate when Brazil’s famous deforestation decline ended in 2012.
– Despite this deforestation surge, Brazil’s Jair Bolsonaro government claims the increase is not unusual and equivalent to high deforestation rates seen several times since 2012. However, critics point to the administration’s rhetoric and environmental deregulation as part of the “Bolsonaro Effect,” leading to rampant deforestation.
– The government’s assertion of innocence fails to note that the new data only covers through July. In August 2019 the deforestation rate was 222 percent above the 2018 value; in September it ran 96 percent higher. The full “Bolsonaro effect” on deforestation won’t be on view until the complete “2020” numbers are released next November.
– To date, the administration has done nothing to change its inflammatory rhetoric or its anti-environmental polices, so there is every reason to expect that Brazilian deforestation levels will continue to soar. This post is a commentary. The views expressed are those of the author, not necessarily Mongabay.

In Indonesian waters, filter feeders can ingest dozens to hundreds of microplastic particles every hour by [11/20/2019]
– Researchers looked at plastic pollution in three coastal feeding grounds in Indonesia that are frequented by manta rays (Mobula alfredi) and whale sharks (Rhincodon typus): Nusa Penida Marine Protected Area, Komodo National Park, and Pantai Bentar, East Java.
– After estimating the amount of microplastic particles that are present in the waters of their three study areas, the researchers were then able to determine how much of that plastic might find its way into the digestive tracts of reef manta rays and whale sharks.
– They found that reef manta rays may eat up to 63 pieces of plastic per hour when feeding in Nusa Penida and Komodo National Park, while whale sharks could be consuming up to 137 pieces per hour during seasonal aggregations in Java.

Illegal logging persists in Cambodia’s Prey Lang Wildlife Sanctuary: Report by Shreya Dasgupta [11/20/2019]
– Cambodia’s Prey Lang forest was declared a wildlife sanctuary in 2016, but illegal land clearing within the protected area continues, a new report has found.
– Members of the Cambodian Youth Network (CYN), who recently patrolled 1,761 hectares (4,352 acres) of forest in Prey Lang Wildlife Sanctuary, found that several hundred hectares of dense, evergreen forest had been cleared, and hundreds of trees had been marked for logging in the near future.
– CYN worries that if the clearing continues, the government could grant economic land concessions on those lands in the future.
– CYN has called on the Cambodian government to crack down on the illegal encroachment and stop any more forest from being cleared.

Indonesian politician at heart of permit scandal dies ahead of graft trial by Hans Nicholas Jong [11/20/2019]
– Darwan Ali, a former politician from Borneo who was charged in a corruption case and at the center of a palm oil licensing scandal, died on Nov. 18 before he could stand trial.
– Darwan’s death in Jakarta at age 64, from heart disease, came a month after he was charged in connection with embezzlement of district funds for a port construction project in Seruyan district, which he led from 2003 to 2013.
– Darwan was also the central figure in an extensive investigative report by Mongabay and the Gecko Project in 2017, which uncovered how he presided over an elaborate scheme to use shell companies as vehicles for selling oil palm plantation permits to firms owned by the billionaire Kuok and Rachmat families for millions of dollars.
– His children, who participated in the palm permit scheme, continue to hold key positions in local political office.

China’s wénwan drives a deadly mix-and-match of endangered wildlife by Megan Stannard [11/20/2019]
– A wide range of illegal wildlife products, from tiger claws to hornbill casques, are used to make baubles known as wénwan that are prized as status symbols among China’s burgeoning middle class.
– Domestic bans on the trade in elephant ivory and rhino horn have not slowed the growing and underregulated online market for wénwan products, with traders increasingly targeting other species to meet demand for exotic materials.
– Without understanding the dynamics of the wénwan trade, including the cultural aspect, government and NGO efforts to combat the illegal wildlife trade risk remaining ineffective.

Madagascar regulator under scrutiny in breach at Rio Tinto-controlled mine by Malavika Vyawahare [11/20/2019]
– A breach at an ilmenite mine in Madagascar that came to light earlier this year is drawing attention to possible lapses on the part of the country’s environmental regulator.
– A group of civil society organizations has asked the Malagasy government to intervene in the matter and to hold consultations to strengthen regulatory oversight of the extractive industries.
– In response, the Malagasy government said it will look into the actions of the National Office for the Environment (ONE), the agency responsible for overseeing the mine, which is owned by London-based mining giant Rio Tinto.
– However, two months on, the government has shared no updates about its inquiry with the civil society groups that requested its intervention.

More discoveries, more threats for Sri Lanka’s dragonflies and damselflies by Dilrukshi Handunnetti [11/19/2019]
– Recent sightings of dragonfly swarms over Sri Lankan skies have sparked interest in the migration of this insect, one of wildlife’s most spectacular yet least-known movements.
– As cool weather beckons these gossamer-feathered flutterers to the tropical Indian Ocean island, researchers call for addressing research gaps to drive conservation efforts for endemic dragonfly and damselfly populations.
– Pollution of water bodies, destruction of forest patches, and increasing air pollution are among the key threats facing these charismatic insects.

Activists fighting for their lands swept up in Philippines crackdown by [11/19/2019]
– A security crackdown in the Philippines targeting an armed communist insurgency has swept up environmental and land defenders in a raid on Oct. 31.
– International humanitarian and church groups have also been included in the military’s list of “legal front groups” of the outlawed New People’s Army and tied to terror financing.
– Security forces rounded up a total of 63 activists: 57 on the island of Negros and six in Manila. They include leaders of peasant groups, farmers, and anti-reclamation activists.
– At least six of the arrested critical groups are environmental and land defenders advocating for land campaigns on Negros and against the ongoing Manila Bay reclamation.

Mozambique’s newly empowered rangers, courts catch up with poachers, loggers by Fred Kockott [11/19/2019]
– Mozambique has recorded a measure of success recently against wildlife poachers and illegal loggers, thanks to stronger enforcement.
– Nearly a quarter of the country’s area has been designated as conservation space, helping wildlife numbers recover after a 15-year civil war that decimated animal populations.
– One of the remaining threats to the country’s protected areas is illegal logging.
– In addition to better training and equipment for rangers, the recent introduction of new conservation laws and extensive training of prosecutors and judges is helping deliver swift and heavier sentences for poaching and illegal logging.

Rabbit-sized, deer-like species of fanged ungulate rediscovered in Vietnam by [11/18/2019]
– The silver-backed chevrotain is about the size of a rabbit and was first described to science in 1910 based on four specimens. A joint Vietnamese-Russian expedition to central Vietnam undertaken in 1990 collected a fifth specimen, which had been killed by a hunter. That was the last any scientist saw of the species.
– However, local villagers and government forest rangers reported seeing a gray chevrotain in the vicinity of Nha Trang, a city in southern Vietnam. The gray coloring was the key, because that’s what distinguishes the silver-backed chevrotain (Tragulus versicolor), also known as the Vietnamese mouse-deer, from the far more common lesser chevrotain (T. kanchil).
– Based on those survey results, a team of researchers set up three camera traps in the most promising locations and ended up recording the first evidence that a species not seen in nearly 30 years is still very much in existence.

Amazon deforestation rises to 11 year high in Brazil by [11/18/2019]
– Official data published today by Brazil’s National Space Research Institute INPE shows deforestation in the Brazilian Amazon between August 1, 2018 and July 31, 2019 amounted to 9,762 square kilometers, an increase of 30 percent over last year.
– The increase in deforestation was expected given global attention to large-scale fires that blackened the skies above Brazil’s largest city this past August. Deforestation tracking systems had been showing increased forest clearing throughout 2019.
– Deforestation in 2019 was the highest since 2008 and represents a doubling in forest loss over 2012.
– Environmentalists fear that deforestation could continue to accelerate given Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro’s push to open the Amazon to more logging, large-scale mining, and industrial agriculture.

Nearly three months after Brazil oil spill, origins remain uncertain by Zoe Sullivan [11/18/2019]
– Oil was first sighted on Brazil’s northeastern coast on August 30, with more than 4,000 tons washing up since. Authorities claim the oil didn’t come from Brazil, but rather had come from a tanker loaded with crude from Venezuela — a failed state.
– The trending theory is that the dumping was done by a “dark ship” with its location transponders intentionally turned off so as to dodge U.S. sanctions against the transport of Venezuelan oil. While “bilge dumping” could be the cause, analysts say the practice isn’t likely to have resulted in Brazil’s mass spill.
– The government initially identified one tanker as the likely perpetrator and then expanded to five possible culprits. But a new analysis of satellite data by Federal University of Alagoas researchers may have pinpointed the responsible tanker; those findings are to be presented to the Brazilian Senate on November 21.
– The Bolsonaro government has been faulted for its disaster response. It seemed unaware of Brazil’s 2013 National Contingency Plan for dealing with spills, and didn’t enact the plan until October 11. Also, the executive committee charged with implementing the plan was disbanded by the administration early in 2019.

In a season of wildfire, three strategies that work (commentary) by Katie Jung [11/18/2019]
– Climate change projections tell us that the extremes of wildfire season could soon become the rule, rather than the exception. As evidenced in recent years, irregular precipitation patterns and changes in temperature will result in an extended wildfire season and more intense fires.
– Successful adaptation strategies have been employed in response to three particular impacts to forest habitats: the introduction of invasive species, the devastation of tree species, and post-fire erosion.
– Each of these adaptation actions has contributed to a reduction in wildfire spread for specific ecosystems. In turn, this means greater survival for key wildlife species and more vibrant, thriving landscapes as a whole.
– This post is a commentary. The views expressed are those of the author, not necessarily Mongabay.

Sugarcane threatens Amazon forest and world climate; Brazilian ethanol is not clean (commentary) by Lucas Ferrante and Philip M. Fearnside [11/18/2019]
– On November 6, 2019, Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro signed an administrative decree abolishing the environmental zoning of sugarcane which has until now restrained the advance of this crop — largely used to produce ethanol — into the Amazon rainforest and Pantanal wetlands.
– Sugarcane expansion into these two ecologically sensitive biomes will generate unprecedented impacts — including deforestation and carbon emissions adding to climate change — meaning that Brazilian biofuels can no longer be claimed to be environmentally “clean.”
– In 2018, the European Union imported more than 43 million liters of Brazilian cane ethanol. As with all commodities, importing countries need to assess the environmental impact that the production of these commodities have on the global climate via the destruction of Amazon and Pantanal native vegetation.
– This post is a commentary. The views expressed are those of the author, not necessarily Mongabay.

Conserving wildlife is key to tropical forests’ carbon storage, study finds by Nanticha Ocharoenchai [11/18/2019]
– A new study shows that a decrease in the fruit-eating animals that disperse tree seeds leads to a reduction in carbon storage in the tropical forests of Southeast Asia.
– The complete defaunation, or loss of these species, from a forest can result in the area’s carbon storage capacity dropping by up to 3 percent.
– It was previously believed that the carbon deficit from defaunation in Southeast Asia’s tropical forests wouldn’t be as significant as in the Amazon or the Congo Basin, but the study suggests otherwise.
– Wildlife is being hammered in the region by overhunting and a massive snaring crisis for bushmeat, traditional medicine and the illegal pet trade, and conservationists have called for more action and enforcement to combat poaching.

Indigenous-wildlife ranger collaboration conserves rare Australian rainforests by Nick Rodway [11/18/2019]
– A collaboration between Indigenous ranger groups and ecologists is working to conserve a rainforest system in northwestern Australia.
– Monsoon vine thickets are remnant, scarcely distributed rainforests located in the Kimberley region of Western Australia and are susceptible to wildfire, land clearing and weed infestation if not properly maintained.
– Yawuru, Nyul Nyul and Bardi Jawi Indigenous ranger groups have partnered with Environs Kimberley’s Kimberley Nature Project for over a decade to conserve monsoon vine thickets through revegetation and fire management.
– Due chiefly to this collaboration’s efforts in maintaining, documenting and promoting the importance of these forests, monsoon vine thickets have been granted ‘Nationally Endangered Ecosystem’ status in Australia. The rangers and ecologists continue to maintain these unique forests.

Feral horses gallop to the rescue of butterflies in distress by Nanticha Ocharoenchai [11/18/2019]
– A new study suggests that returning feral horses to grasslands in Czech Republic could increase populations of some threatened butterfly species.
– The research shows that the horses’ grazing creates and maintains short grasslands that some butterfly species thrive in.
– The research points to the importance of considering the impacts of species introductions on the restoration of natural ecosystems.

‘Science prevails’ as suspension of award for herbicide research is reversed by Dilrukshi Handunnetti [11/16/2019]
– The American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) has formally named Sri Lankan scientists Channa Jayasumana and Sarath Gunatilake the recipients of its 2019 Award for Scientific Freedom and Responsibility.
– The pair had been named the recipients in February for their work linking glyphosate, the main chemical in the weed killer Roundup, to chronic kidney disease, but the decision was suspended before the award ceremony over concerns raised by other scientists.
– Jayasumana said at the time he suspected there had been pressure from the agrochemical lobby to undermine their research.
– He told Mongabay that the lengthy peer review ordered by the AAAS following the suspension had vindicated his and Gunatilake’s work and showed that “science has prevailed.”

In other news: Environmental stories from around the web, November 15, 2019 by [11/15/2019]
– There are many important conservation and environmental stories Mongabay isn’t able to cover.
– Here’s a digest of some of the significant developments from the week.
– If you think we’ve missed something, feel free to add it in the comments.
– Mongabay does not vet the news sources below, nor does the inclusion of a story on this list imply an endorsement of its content.

Last of the belugas from Russia’s ‘whale jail’ released by [11/15/2019]
– Late last year, drone footage revealed 87 belugas and 11 orcas packed in cramped, icy pens at Srednyaya Bay in Russia’s Far East.
– Following international outrage, Russian authorities began an investigation and started releasing the whales to the Sea of Okhotsk, the place the mammals had been originally captured from.
– On Nov. 10, Russian authorities announced that the last of the 50 beluga whales had been released to Uspeniya Bay, in the Primorsky Region, about 62 miles away from the holding facility. But it’s not the whales’ native habitat, conservationists say.
– Activists and conservationists have criticized the lack of transparency in the release effort and the manner in which the whales have been moved to the sea without a proper rehabilitation process in place.

Mexico plans huge increase in palm oil production in sensitive ecosystems by Rodrigo Soberanes [11/14/2019]
– The government seeks to plant an additional 100,000 hectares (almost 250,000 acres) in the state of Campeche, half of which is under conservation protection.
– Scientists, conservationists, and residents say existing oil palm plantations have already damaged important wildlife habitat and water sources, and worry what may come from an influx of many more.
– Local organizations have filed a complaint before the Latin American Water Tribunal, saying the Secretariat of Agriculture, Livestock, Rural Development, Fisheries and Food is promoting the program to plant 100,000 hectares of oil palm, “without consideration for the researchers, academics, environmentalists, indigenous people, and communities who live in the area where they intend to impose this crop as a development alternative.”

Mongabay at 20: Two decades of news and inspiration from nature’s frontline (commentary) by Rhett A. Butler [11/14/2019]
– Mongabay founder Rhett A. Butler writes about the experience that led him to start Mongabay more than 20 years ago.
– Since then Mongabay has transitioned from “a guy sitting in his pajamas in his apartment” to a nonprofit media platform that has 500 contributors in 70 countries, produces original reporting in five languages, and is read by millions of people a month.
– Rhett lays out Mongabay’s vision for the next 20 years.

Rapid expansion of protected areas around the world failing to reduce human pressures on land by [11/14/2019]
– A little over 20 million square kilometers, or about 15 percent, of Earth’s terrestrial surface is currently protected. It is likely the world will achieve the goal set out in Aichi Biodiversity Target 11 of the Strategic Plan for Biodiversity 2010-2020 to set aside “at least 17 per cent of terrestrial and inland water areas” by 2020.
– But a study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS) last month finds that the emphasis on rapidly scaling up protected area coverage to meet Aichi Biodiversity Target 11 has led to the establishment of many PAs that are not successfully reducing anthropogenic pressures on the land.
– Most strikingly, in South America, Southeast Asia, and Sub-Saharan Africa, average pressures from human activities inside PAs, especially conversion of land to agriculture, was found to be significantly higher than in unprotected areas.

Brazil adds deforestation monitoring for all biomes, so long as money lasts by Jenny Gonzales [11/14/2019]
– Brazil’s National Institute for Space Research (INPE) has long monitored the Amazon rainforest biome for deforestation; in 2014 the agency gained funding from the World Bank to pay for similar monitoring in Brazil’s Cerrado savanna biome, which is fast seeing its native vegetation converted to crop and pasture by industrial agribusiness.
– However, the government and others sources failed to fund monitoring in Brazil’s other four biomes — the Pantanal, Atlantic Forest, Caatinga and Pampa. Then, in 2018, the Amazon Fund (which is largely backed financially by Norway), allotted R$ 49.8 million (US$ 12.1 million) to perform deforestation monitoring in all Brazil’s biomes.
– That appropriation is expected to last until 2022. After that, funding again becomes uncertain, because at present Norway has frozen all Amazon Fund financing for future projects in protest over Brazil President Jair Bolsonaro’s anti-environmental policies.
– The first data sets for the four additional biomes (tracking forest loss between 2016 and 2019), are due to be released in December 2019. Annual reports will be published from 2020 forward.

Mussel species that invaded Southeast Asian waters now appears in India by Shreya Dasgupta [11/14/2019]
– Indian marine researchers have confirmed the presence of the invasive American brackish water mussel (Mytella strigata) in the backwaters of Kochi, a port city in the southern state of Kerala in India.
– The species is native to Central and South America but in recent years has been found invading waters around Thailand, the Philippines and Singapore.
– The latest study presents the first formal report of this invasive species from the Indian subcontinent and the fourth record from the Indo-Pacific, the researchers say.
– The researchers worry that the American brackish water mussel could soon outcompete the local green mussel and displace it completely, affecting livelihoods, since the green mussel fishery is a very lucrative industry along the Kochi coast.



Brazil’s ‘coconut breakers’ feel the squeeze of Cerrado development by Sarah Sax and Maurício Angelo [11/12/2019]
Scientists rediscover mammalian oddity in remote Vietnam by Jeremy Hance [11/11/2019]
Colombian town faces earthquakes, pollution, water shortage as industry expands by Álvaro Avendaño and Diana Velasco [11/08/2019]