Best of our wild blogs: 1 Jun 11

26 Jun (Sun): Paint along with Pui San
from Art in Wetlands

Reef Surveys In May 2011
from colourful clouds

Asian Golden Weaver nesting
from Bird Ecology Study Group

The Wide Jaw Viciria's Baby Litter
from Macro Photography in Singapore

Man catches 3kg pomfret at MBS...with his bare hands
from Lazy Lizard's Tales

Read more!

UN aims for biodiversity treaty by July 2012

Yahoo News 31 May 11;

MANILA (AFP) – A global treaty on the harvesting of genetic resources will probably be ratified by July 2012, the UN executive secretary on biological diversity said Tuesday.

So far, 25 countries have signed the Nagoya Protocol but 193 countries committed to support it when it was adopted in October 2010, said UN official Ahmed Djoghlaf.

"By July 2012, 50 will have ratified," said Djoghlaf at the sidelines of a biodiversity forum in the Philippines.

He said the protocol, forged at a conference in Japan, comes into force as a treaty once it is ratified by 50 countries.

The agreement sets out new rules for the collection of genetic resources such as wild plants to make medicines, cosmetics and other products.

It also calls for a fair and equitable sharing of benefits arising from the use of genetic resources between the company that develops the new product and the country where the resources -- such as a wild plant -- originated.

Djoghlaf said the ratification of the protocol was being slowed by legal complications and translation problems but that there was more than enough support for it among countries.

"All governments have different ratification processes. It's not a matter of a lack of political will," he told AFP.

He said the protocol would encourage countries to preserve their natural resources in hopes that they would benefit if medicines or other products are made from them.

He cited the example of the vaccine for avian flu which is derived from an organism from China but which was developed by a Swiss company, and added that 76 percent of cancer drugs were derived from natural or partly-natural sources.

Djoghlaf said many countries failed to realise the value of their biological diversity, leading to its waste and destruction.

He cited studies from The Economics of Ecosystems and Biodiversity, a UN-supported group of scholars who estimated that about $3 trillion-worth of biodiversity is lost each year.

Read more!

Intensive Agriculture Implicated in Transmission of Deadly Nipah Virus to Humans

Combined intensive agriculture and environmental change identified in expanding disease outbreaks
Business Wire 31 May 11;

NEW YORK--(BUSINESS WIRE)--In a study released today, scientists reveal the factors behind the emergence of the deadly Nipah virus in Malaysia and Singapore in 1998, which caused more than 100 fatalities and cost hundreds of millions of dollars in economic losses. In this paper published today in Interface, a journal of the Royal Society, scientists describe two different stages of a deadly disease outbreak and a missed opportunity for early detection and prevention.

Nipah virus is carried by a species of fruit bat commonly known as the Malaysian flying fox. In 1998, it spread to pig and human populations. This five-year study examined the two factors previously thought to cause the Nipah outbreak: agricultural intensification and climate change. The analysis rules out the role of climate change and instead suggests that repeated disease ‘spillover’ from bats resulted from the close relationship between pig farming and mango production.

Between the 1970s and the 1990s, pig and mango production tripled in Malaysia. Mango trees were typically planted near pig enclosures, attracting fruit bats to the area. As bats fed and roosted in the trees, nearby livestock became infected with Nipah virus, which eventually spread to farm laborers.

“Our work shows that repeated spillover of Nipah virus from bats into a very structured, intensive piggery led to the emergence of this disease,” said Dr. Peter Daszak, senior author of the paper and president of EcoHealth Alliance. “This is yet another case of an emerging disease caused by human activity, and puts the focus on us to change the way we mix agriculture and the environment for a healthier planet.”

Nipah virus – like HIV/AIDS, SARS, Ebola, West Nile virus, and three-quarters of newly emerging diseases – is “zoonotic” and originated in other animals. This is one of the first times scientists have gone back to an outbreak of a new lethal disease to find out exactly what happened.

“Identifying the causes behind zoonotic disease emergence is the first step towards preventing large outbreaks,” said Dr. Juliet Pulliam, lead author on the paper. “We now have empirical evidence to support a previously hypothetical mechanism of disease emergence.”

The study involved collaborators in five countries, including ecologists, veterinarians, physicians, and mathematicians. “This is a great example of how bringing together multidisciplinary teams helps us get to the underlying cause of a complex issue,” said Dr. Jonathan Epstein, associate vice president of EcoHealth Alliance. “It’s an essential approach to understanding and stopping emerging pandemic threats.” The work also points to new ways to deal with the growing pandemic threat.

“What’s really tantalizing about our analysis is that people had a two-year window from the first case to the big outbreak to intervene, close down the pig farms, and prevent this disease,” said Dr. Daszak. “Returning to the outbreak site and doing this work could help us stop the next pandemic even before it emerges.”

Read more!

Hottest of biodiversity hot spots found in the Philippines

Kristine L. Alave Philippine Daily Inquirer 1 Jun 11;

MANILA, Philippines — Years of unmitigated and destructive human activities have plunged the Philippines in a biodiversity crisis that could take decades to reverse, environment officials said on Tuesday.

The Philippines is one of the world’s most biodiverse places, but its marine and wildlife riches are under threat because of intrusive manmade activities, according to Undersecretary Demetrio Ignacio of the Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR).

“The Philippines is one of the most threatened in the world. The rate of extinction of species is 1,000 times the natural rate because of manmade activities,” Ignacio told the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) Champions of Biodiversity awards.

“It is a crisis. We are the hottest of the hot spots,” he said.

Rodrigo Fuentes, executive director of the Asean Center for Biodiversity, said the entire Southeast Asia region was in danger of biodiversity loss.

Fuentes described it as a “silent” crisis. “You don’t see it, but you feel it. We are in the midst of it.”

“Habitat loss, unsustainable use of resources, climate change, invasive alien species and pollution have not been arrested and continue to negatively impact biodiversity,” he said in a statement.

These threats have contributed to the decline in the mangrove, coral reef, seagrass, forest, agro, peatland and freshwater ecosystems, Fuentes noted.

Reversing the trend

Officials said it would be difficult to reverse the trend because it often took years to get ecosystems back in balance.

Moreover, people and governments only realize the loss of species and ecosystems when the crisis is there, making recovery harder and more expensive, Fuentes said.

Ignacio said the Philippines’ main problem was the loss of habitats due to deforestation and coastal denigration.

He cited as an example the recent discovery of black coral poaching in the seas of Mindanao, a part of the Coral Triangle where one of the world’s richest marine resources can be found.

Coral reefs are considered to be “rainforests of the seas,” providing food, nutrients and protection to many marine species.

The loss of one species could have a domino effect on other creatures that depend directly and indirectly on it, the officials said.

Unmitigated logging

In the Philippines, deforestation is caused by unmitigated logging and urbanization.

According to the DENR, the Philippines has 8 million hectares of denuded and idle forest lands. A recent study by Conservation International (CI) said only about 4 percent of the Philippines’ forests remained as natural habitat for many endemic species.

Forest lands are being cleared to make way for food production and other activities to meet the needs of the country’s rising population, now around 90 million, CI noted.

According to the DENR, the country loses about 2 percent of its forests every year. The Philippine government is seeking to reverse the trend by planting 1.5 billion trees in six years.

Poor coastal management and unregulated fishing have contributed to the decline of water resources and coastal areas, the environmentalists said.

The World Wide Fund for Nature recently said the Philippines used to have more than 27,000 square kilometers of healthy coral reefs.

However, 50 years of destructive commercial and unregulated fishing have left less than 5 percent in excellent condition, with just 1 percent in pristine state.

Ignacio said the DENR could not quantify the country’s biodiversity loss, noting that there had been no assessment of it. “It takes a huge amount of resources,” he said.

Widespread destruction

Mundita Lim, director of the Protected Areas and Wildlife Bureau, said the destruction of Philippine coral reefs to get rare and valuable black corals appeared to be wider than initially reported. The area could be five times the size of Manila, she said.

Lim noted that it would take years for the reefs to recover their original health as corals are “slow growing” creatures. Black corals, for instance, grow only 2 millimeters a year. It could take 50-100 years for the black corals to grow to their adult size, Lim said.

The waters off Mindanao are not the only part of the country that are under threat from marine poachers. The entire Philippine coasts and seas are their harvest grounds, Lim said.

Turtles, which are critically endangered, and sharks have been poached and sold illegally for their meat and fins in China and Taiwan where demand is high, she said.

The Philippines has 36,289 kilometers of coastline and is considered to be the world’s second-largest archipelago.

But environment officials said they did not have enough manpower and resources to guard the country’s coastline and seas.

Read more!

Wildlife 'crash' in the Mara region of Kenya, Africa

Matt Walker BBC Nature 31 May 11;

Populations of wildlife species in the world-renowned Masai Mara reserve in Kenya have crashed in the past three decades, according to research published in the Journal of Zoology.

Numbers of impala, warthog, giraffe, topi and Coke's hartebeest have declined by over 70%, say scientists.

Even fewer survive beyond the reserve in the wider Mara, where buffalo and wild dogs have all but disappeared, while huge numbers of wildebeest no longer pass through the region on their epic migration.

However, numbers of cattle grazing in the reserve have increased by more than 1100% per cent, although it is illegal for them to so do.

This explosion in the numbers of domestic livestock grazing in the Mara region of south-west Kenya, including within the Masai Mara national reserve, is one of the principal reasons wildlife has disappeared, say the scientists who conducted the research.

Dr Joseph Ogutu, a senior statistician in the Bioinformatics unit of the University of Hohenheim, Germany conducted the study with colleagues there and at the International Livestock Research Institute in Nairobi, Kenya.

They already knew that populations of some large mammals were declining in the Masai Mara, based on an earlier study published in 2009.

But this only examined seven species, over a 15 year period, using limited sampling techniques.

So to get a fuller picture, the team looked at data gathered since aerial monitoring of Kenya's wildlife began in 1977.

This covered 12 species of large mammal, ostriches and livestock, and allowed the team to calculate trends in wildlife numbers over a 33-year period across the entire reserve, and in the Masai pastoral ranches adjoining the reserve.

The data also allowed the scientists to investigate whether numbers of migratory wildebeest and zebra coming into the Mara each year have reduced.

"We were very surprised by what we found," Dr Ogutu told the BBC.

"The Mara has lost more than two thirds of its wildlife."

Of the 13 large species studied, only ostriches and elephants had not fared badly outside of the reserve, while inside the Masai Mara only eland, Grant's gazelle and ostrich showed any signs of population recovery in the past decade.

The declines are particularly surprising, say the scientists, as they had expected animal populations to have recovered since 2000-2001.

That is when major conservancy efforts, and an increase in local policing, began in an attempt to protect the wildlife there.

"But to our great surprise, the extreme wildlife declines have continued unabated in the Mara," says Dr Ogutu.

"The great wildebeest migration now involves 64% fewer animals than it did in the early 1980s," he adds.

That is despite numbers of wildebeest on the Serengeti, where the migratory animals that cross the Mara come from, staying relatively unchanged.

During the wet season, when there is no migration, resident wildebeest in the reserve have all but disappeared, falling by 97%.

Zebra numbers residing inside the reserve have also fallen by three-quarters.

There appear to be three main causes of these dramatic declines: the activities of poachers, changing land use patterns in ranches within the Mara, and an increase in the number and range of livestock held on these ranches.

According to Dr Ogutu, over 1500 poachers have been arrested within the Mara conservancy between 2001 and 2010, with more than 17,300 snares collected by rangers in the same period.

"Poaching continues to be a major menace," he says.

But the boon in livestock numbers can be just as damaging.

"Not only have numbers of cattle, sheep and goats increased but their distribution has widened, with the density of cattle increasing more than three-fold and that of sheep and goats more than seven fold up to 5km inside the reserve.

"Sadly though, wildlife distribution has contracted throughout the entire Mara region in the same period."

Heavy grazing by these livestock is thought to be displacing the natural fauna.

It may also be making the larger species more vulnerable to starvation during the recurrent severe droughts that have struck the Mara in recent decades.

This competition may be what has already driven out the buffalo, say the scientists.

The expansion of settlements, fences and livestock numbers need to be regulated if these declines in wildlife are to be arrested, they propose, as well as bringing down poaching levels.

"Otherwise, the status of Masai Mara as a prime conservation area and premier tourist draw card in Kenya may soon be in jeopardy," says Dr Ogutu.

Read more!

'Perfect storm' looms for world's food supplies

Richard Ingham Yahoo News 31 May 11;

PARIS (AFP) – Oxfam called on Tuesday for an overhaul of the world's food system, warning that in a couple of decades, millions more people would be gripped by hunger due to population growth and climate-hit harvests.

A "broken food system" means that the price of some staples will more than double by 2030, battering the world's poorest people, who spend up to 80 percent of their income on food, the British-based aid group predicted.

"The food system is buckling under intense pressure from climate change, ecological degradation, population growth, rising energy prices, rising demand for meat and dairy products and competition for land from biofuels, industry, and urbanization," Oxfam said in a report.

It added: "The international community is sleepwalking into an unprecedented and avoidable human development reversal."

Noting that some 900 million people experience hunger today, Oxfam said the tally of misery could rise still further when a "perfect storm" struck a few decades from now.

By 2050, the world's population was expected to rise by a third, from 6.9 billion today to 9.1 billion. Demand for food would rise even higher, by 70 percent, as more prosperous economies demanded more calories.

But by this time, climate change will have started to bite, with drought, flood and storms affecting crop yields that, after the "green revolution" of the 1960s, had already begun to flatline in the early 1990s.

The price of staple foods such as corn, also known as maize, which has already hit record peaks, will more than double in the next 20 years, it predicted.

"In this new age of crisis, as climate impacts become increasingly severe and fertile land and fresh water supplies become increasingly scarce, feeding the world will get harder still," Oxfam chief Jeremy Hobbs said.

The report, Growing a Better Future, trails a campaign for reform that Oxfam is launching in 45 countries, supported by former Brazilian president Lula Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, South African Nobel laureate Desmond Tutu and actress Scarlett Johansson.

Solutions envisaged by Oxfam focus on cutting out waste, especially of water, and to encourage the growing of food in a sustainable way.

The "Western" lifestyle -- characterised by over consumption and emphasis on beef and dairy which kilo for kilo (pound for pound) use up far more natural resources than cereals -- is given a hammering.

"In more than half of industrialized countries, 50 per cent or more of the population is overweight, and the amount of food wasted by consumers is enormous -- quite possibly as much 25 per cent," said Oxfam.

The report also calls for prising open closed markets and ending the domination of commodities and seeds trade by a handful of large corporations.

Small farms -- traditionally dismissed as a hindrance to food productivity -- could in fact drive the renaissance in yield with the help of investment, infrastructure and market access, it argued.

Just as important, said the report, is to set up new global governance to tackle food crises, including the creation of a multilateral food bank.

"During the 2008 food price crisis, cooperation was nowhere to be seen," lamented the report, saying the disarray ignited a "grab" for agricultural land in Africa by parched countries in the Gulf and elsewhere.

"Governments were unable to agree on the causes of the price rises, let alone how to respond. Food reserves had been allowed to collapse to historic lows," it said.

"Existing international institutions and forums were rendered impotent as more than 30 countries imposed export bans in a negative-sum game of beggar-thy-neighbour policy making."

Food Prices, Global Hunger to Skyrocket by 2030, Oxfam Warns
Natalie Wolchover Yahoo News 31 May 11;

Left unchecked, climate change aligned with population explosion and low agricultural yields will drastically increase global poverty and hunger over the next two decades, warns the international aid organization Oxfam in a report released today (May 31).

The prices of staple foods such as corn and rice will speed up their ascent, Oxfam predicts, and will climb by 180 percent and 130 percent, respectively, by the year 2030.

In a world where the poorest people now spend as much as 80 percent of their incomes on food — the average Filipino spends proportionally four times more on sustenance than the average British person, for example — drastic food scarcities and price hikes will likely push many struggling populations into hunger and, potentially, starvation.

In its new report, Growing a Better Future, Oxfam says current trends indicate that the world's population will reach 9 billion by mid-century; meanwhile, the average growth rate in agricultural yields has almost halved since 1990. Left unchecked, the gap between food demand and supply will continue to widen.

"The food system must be transformed. By 2050, there will be 9 billion people on the planet and demand for food will have increased by 70 percent. This demand must be met despite flatlining yields, increasing water scarcity, and growing competition over land. And agriculture must rapidly adapt to a changing climate and slash its carbon footprint," wrote Robert Bailey, Oxfam's senior climate advisor, in the report.

Climate change has already driven up food prices in many areas by causing drought and desertification, Oxfam reports, and of all the factors contributing to rising food prices, it will create the most serious impact of all in the coming decades.

"The impact of climate change on food prices is clearly closely linked to the impacts that climate change will have on crop production," Bailey wrote. Rice crop yields decline by an estimated 10 percent for every 1 degree-Celsius rise in dry-season minimum temperature, for example.

Aside from raising global temperatures, climate change "will increase the frequency and severity of extreme weather events such as heat waves, droughts and floods which can wipe out harvests at a stroke," the report states.

Fixing the system

Global poverty is fueled by a broken system in which wealthy countries take advantage of the poor, Oxfam states. To curb the problem, the international community must address "the appalling inequities which plague the food system from farm to fork. We produce more food than we need. In the rich world, we throw much of it away. In the developing world, nearly one billion of us go without."

Industrialized countries must initiate major policy changes in order to fix the broken system, Oxfam continues. They must redirect tax breaks toward clean energy initiatives and place taxes on greenhouse gas emissions. Furthermore, "we must manage trade to manage risk by building a system of food reserves; increasing transparency in commodities markets; setting rules on export restrictions; and finally putting an end to trade-distorting agricultural subsidies."

The new report points to examples of the changes that must be undertaken to curb global poverty and hunger. In Brazil, social activism has led to agricultural policies that decreased hunger by one-third between 2000 and 2007. Vietnam achieved comparable results through land reform and a program of investment in smallholder agriculture — single-family farming.

"Thankfully, the vast transformation needed is already under way – led by individuals, organizations and movements who have taken the future into their own hands," the report states.

Hunger Crisis Worsens, Food System Broken: Oxfam
David Brough PlanetArk 1 Jun 11;

Food prices could double in the next 20 years and demand will soar as the world struggles to raise output via a failing system, international charity Oxfam said on Tuesday, warning of worsening global hunger.

"The food system is pretty well bust in the world," Oxfam Chief Executive Barbara Stocking told reporters, announcing the launch of the Grow campaign as 925 million people go hungry every day.

"All the signs are that the number of people going hungry is going up," Stocking said.

Hunger was increasing due to rising food price inflation and oil price hikes fueled by speculators, scrambles for land and water, and creeping climate change, Oxfam said.

Food prices are forecast to increase by something in the range of 70 to 90 percent in real terms by 2030 before taking into account the effects of climate change, which would roughly double price rises again, Oxfam said.

Josef Schmidhuber, deputy director of the statistics division of the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), said he broadly agreed with the message of the Oxfam report but disagreed with Oxfam's long term food price forecast.

"I would not think that food prices would rise rapidly in real terms if there were no real increase in oil prices," Rome-based Schmidhuber said.

"I wouldn't say that our food system is broken. The world will always be able to produce enough food." Wheat prices have been largely flat so far in 2011 although they remain more than 70 percent above levels traded a year ago after rising sharply last summer as the worst drought in decades devastated crops in the Black Sea region.

Prices for corn have more than doubled in the last 12 months with global production unable to keep pace with record demand driven partly by the growth of the U.S. ethanol industry.

The United Nations last month reported food prices were just below record highs after 8 months of rises and in March warned that further oil price spikes and stockpiling by importers keen to head off unrest would hit volatile cereal markets.

Oxfam warned that by 2050 demand for food will rise by 70 percent yet the world's capacity to increase production is declining.


The average growth rate in agricultural yields has almost halved since 1990 and is set to decline to a fraction of one percent in the next decade while increasing regional and local crises could double the need for food aid in the next 10 years.

"Now we have entered an age of growing crisis, of shock piled upon shock: vertiginous food price spikes and oil price hikes, devastating weather events, financial meltdowns and global contagion," Oxfam said in a report.

"The world's poorest people, who spend up to 80 percent of their income on food, will be hit hardest."

Entitled "Growing a Better Future: Food Justice in a Resource-Constrained World," the report said: "The scale of the challenge is unprecedented, but so is the prize: a sustainable future in which everyone has enough to eat."

Oxfam believes one way to tame food price inflation is to limit speculation in agricultural commodity futures markets. It also opposed support for using food as a feedstock for biofuels.

"Financial speculation must be regulated, and support dismantled for biofuels that displace food," it said.

Stocking said she favored the introduction by regulators of position limits in agricultural commodities futures trading, noting that financial speculation aggravated price volatility.

French President Nicolas Sarkozy has campaigned for tough measures to limit speculation and is due to use his platform as president of the world's 20 top economies (G20) to push for more regulation this month.

Fighting poverty is the key to relieving hunger, said Martin Mortimer, director of the University of Liverpool's Food Security Network.

"This report from Oxfam re-emphasizes the need to address food security in the context of poverty alleviation," he said. The report said the shortcomings of the food system flowed from failures of government to regulate and to invest, which meant that companies, interest groups and elites had been able to plunder resources.

(Editing by Keiron Henderson)

Read more!

Biofuels boom in Africa as British firms lead rush on land for plantations

Controversial fuel crops linked to rising food prices and hunger, as well as increased greenhouse gas emissions
Damian Carrington and Stefano Valentino 31 May 11;

British firms have acquired more land in Africa for controversial biofuel plantations than companies from any other country, a Guardian investigation has revealed.

Half of the 3.2m hectares (ha) of biofuel land identified – in countries from Mozambique to Senegal – is linked to 11 British companies, more than any other country.

Liquid fuels made from plants – such as bioethanol – are hailed by some as environmentally-friendly replacements for fossil fuels. Because they compete for land with crop plants, biofuels have also been linked to record food prices and rising hunger. There are also fears they can increase greenhouse gas emissions.

A market has been created by British and EU laws requiring the blending of rising amounts of biofuels into petrol and diesel, but the rules were condemned as unethical and "backfiring badly" in April by a Nuffield Council on Bioethics commission. In the UK, only 31% of biofuels used meet voluntary environmental standards intended to protect water supplies, soil quality and carbon stocks in the source country.

There are no central records of land acquisitions in Africa, but research by the Guardian revealed the scale of the biofuels rush in sub-Saharan Africa – 100 projects and 50 companies in more than 20 countries.

Crest Global Green Energy has the largest recorded landholding, 900,000ha in Mali, Guinea and Senegal. Tom Stuart, the chief executive, said: "It is true in some cases [that biofuels displace food], but in our projects we 'inter-crop', planting as much food as biofuel on the marginal land we have brought into agricultural use. There is a large social element to our projects, with all the local people needing to be in agreement, and that's normally written into contracts at government level."

Another UK company, Sun Biofuels, leased 8,000ha in Tanzania where it grows Jatropha curcas, a non-edible plant whose oil-rich seeds can be processed into biodiesel. "We'll start harvesting and producing in two years," said Peter Auge, office manager in Tanzania. "The main attraction for us is exporting to Europe."

Claims that J curcas use prevents biofuels competing with food because it grows easily on marginal and arid land unsuitable for other agriculture have been challenged even within the industry. "Growing jatropha in a profitable way on dry lands is a myth. It needs water, fertilisers and pesticides to provide high yields," Auge said. Jamidu Katima, at the University of Dar es Salaam, is critical of biofuels guidelines adopted by Tanzania's government in 2010. "There are no plans to build refineries, nor obligations for foreign investors to reserve part of their output for the domestic market," he said.

Another risk is that biofuel use could increase carbon emissions by increasing destruction of forests when displaced local farmers clear land. The Institute of European Environmental Policy recently said carbon released from deforestation linked to biofuels could exceed carbon savings by 35% in 2011 rising to 60% in 2018. Currently, this indirect impact is not considered in European sustainability guidelines.

James Smith, professor of African and Development Studies at Edinburgh University, said: "Private investment is running far ahead of our knowledge of the impacts of biofuels, such as land dispossession. This action is eroding the UK's position of enlightenment on development issues."

Unpublished research by the charity ActionAid, seen by the Guardian, confirms the picture of scores of projects amassing millions of hectares on the east and west coasts of Africa. "I suspect the estimates are actually quite conservative," said Smith.

Norman Baker, the Liberal Democrat junior transport minister, said: "I consider the sustainability of biofuels to be paramount. No biofuel will count towards our targets unless it meets certain sustainability requirements. But we are pushing [Europe] to go further, to reduce the risk of knock-on effects, including deforestation in new areas."

He added: "Only a tiny proportion – less that 0.1% - of UK biofuel has come from Africa."

As oil prices rise, said Jeremy Woods, a lecturer in bioenergy at Imperial College London, biofuels could boom. "Once oil is over $70 a barrel, conventional and new generation biofuels become cost competitive. When oil and biofuels are competitive, we are into a different world."

Expansion of the biofuels industry has been fuelled by capital raised on the Alternative Investment Market of the London Stock Exchange. In the Guardian survey Italy is the next biggest player with seven companies, followed by Germany (six), France (six) and the US (four). Brazil and China have been acquiring land in Africa for biofuels and food but the investigation identified only a handful of established biofuels projects. The database of biofuels projects in Africa was compiled with the help of the University of California Berkeley's Africa Reporting Project.

Some projects provide local benefits through investment, employment and local use of the produce, but many do not, says Lorenzo Cotula at the International Institute for Environment and Development, who recently analysed 12 contracts from African land deals. "Some of the contracts we analysed only contain vague and unenforceable promises." Some have 100-year leases, at very low or free rent and priority access to water, he added. "Extensive commercial plantations dislocate rural communities from their land", said Cotula. "Instead, self-managed biofuels production can offer cheaper energy and complementary sources of income".

The chief executive of Sun Biofuels, Richard Morgans said: "Our company produces sustainable and ethical biofuels – categorically yes. We would welcome higher sustainability standards, but you do have to balance this with economic development. If you are a local [in Tanzania or Mozambique] and need a job, you probably aren't worried about whether the orangutans sleep at night. It's also insulting to say African governments can't run their own affairs."

A community-based approach is embraced by a few investors. "Our farmers in Mozambique are given seedlings to grow jatropha on their own land with the option to sell the seeds back to us," says Chris Hunter, of UK-based Viridesco. "We help smaller plantations that cater to the developing world markets, as opposed to big monocultures that service the developed world's energy needs".

UK companies were the first into Africa in 2005, but this has not been without problems. D1 Oils froze its export plans and started supplying locally in Malawi and Zambia, following the failure in 2009 of its joint-venture with BP, which doubted jatropha's market potential. Last year GEM Biofuels, operating in Madagascar, suspended its LSE quotation for four months.

The revelation of the central role of UK companies in biofuels coincides with a report from Oxfam forecasting that the price of staple foods will more than double in the next 20 years. The report identifies biofuels as a factor and demands that western governments end biofuel policies that divert food to fuel for cars. "We are sleepwalking towards an age of avoidable crisis," said Oxfam's chief executive, Barbara Stocking. "One in seven people on the planet go hungry every day despite the fact that the world is capable of feeding everyone. The food system must be overhauled."

Read more!

Tempering optimism but making headway on REDD+

Isilda Nhantumbo Reuters AlertNet 31 May 11;

The International Year of Forests is celebrating the importance of forests and raising the profile of challenges and opportunities. The perceived value of forests has been raised by the recognition of their role in mitigating climate change.

But the International Year of Forests is a momentous reminder that there are still unresolved issues.

Drivers of deforestation and land degradation mostly originate from outside the forest sector - factors such as increasing populations and living standards require forest conversion to make space for more crop and livestock production, energy, and infrastructure development to meet burgeoning demand.

For example in Tanzania, the population has increased threefold since 1970. To meet the needs of these extra 30.1 million people an additional 9 million hectares are needed, assuming average requirements of 2,000kcal per day or 0.3 hectares per person, given cereal productivity levels in Tanzania.


It is ultimately local people’s needs that determine forest cover. Unless agricultural productivity can be increased, setting priorities between forests and agriculture will be a balancing act. The associated tradeoffs present a challenge for policymakers and local decision makers.

Cross-sectoral coordination could not be more urgent. Local people are most aware of what an acceptable balance between forests and agriculture is. Policy reforms have therefore often attempted to:

(i) devolve resources and power to local levels to improve livelihoods while conserving biodiversity and watersheds;

(ii) set stringent requirements for protected areas and sustainable commercial management of resources that preserve national and global environmental goods, for example insisting on management plans and environmental impact assessments; and

(iii) encourage market incentives such as certification and carbon payments to offset the opportunity costs of degrading forest harvesting or conversion to agriculture.

But evidence suggests that such policies have not fully succeeded in changing practices. Deforestation and degradation of natural forests has been unabated in many countries around the world.


So why the low success rate? And what can this tell us about the best way forward for REDD+ (Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation)? Undoubtedly there has been tremendous progress during the past year in terms of the number of approved REDD readiness plans. And REDD+ negotiations had a boost in Cancun with the milestone agreement that included the establishment of the Carbon Fund.

Furthermore countries such as Tanzania, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Indonesia and Brazil are taking the lead on field pilots to learn the intricacies of delivering REDD+. Both the United Nations and the World Bank report progress on some of the key technical issues such as monitoring reporting and verification as well as broader awareness and exchanges of lessons between stakeholders at various levels.

But, significant challenges remain: tenure (who owns the carbon rights?), benefit sharing (how will they get paid and for what?), and alignment (how can societies broader needs be met at the same time?). The first of these is discussed here.

Tenure to land, forests and carbon determines who participates and who merely spectates in REDD+ finance flows. Yet both claimants and non-claimants of payments ultimately determine reductions of emissions from land use and land use change. Identifying the right claimants is critical.

While indigenous and forest-dependent communities, private sector actors and the state need to play a role, there is a high risk (yet again) that the powerful will secure land resource rights, including carbon, ahead of communities. Past experience has shown that relinquishing rights to communities is a bitter pill for governments to swallow. Decisions have tended to favour large investments models, perceived to deliver quicker economic development.

Failures in implementing the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) over the last 17 years have been attributed to lack of clarity about ownership of land resources, and hence the responsibility for conserving biodiversity on them. Unless carbon rights are clear, REDD+ too is likely to fail to deliver the much needed emissions’ reduction and co-benefits.


REDD+, like the CBD before it, needs to seize the opportunity to ‘clean the house’ first. That is, give priority (with technical and financial resources) to existing legislation and new reforms in land resources tenure that favour indigenous and forest-dependent communities while equally developing policy and legal instruments to enable company-community partnerships that reduce emissions (especially in agricultural intensification).

It would also be wise to suspend plans to allocate large plots of land to the private sector, allegedly for REDD+ contribution.

If these issues aren’t addressed there is an imminent risk of further marginalising the indigenous and forest-dependent communities that are critical to maintaining forest cover - progress is slow even when their rights are clearly recognised.

In Mozambique, for example, the government approved progressive land and forestry laws in the late 1990s that acknowledge customary rights and allow community land registration. But more than a decade later, only a handful of communities have secured the rights (just over 300).

There are reservations about devolution of resource rights to communities as it is seen as a potential impediment to economic development. But is it? In countries as diverse as Gambia, Guatemala and Nepal, devolution of forest resource rights to communities has brought widespread livelihood and environmental benefits, for example leading to the reforestation of most of the middle hills in Nepal.

With rights comes organisation, and with organisation comes economic opportunity. Locally controlled forestry is paramount to delivering REDD+ benefits globally as well as ensuring local gains.

Isilda Nhantumbo is a senior researcher on forestry issues at the International Institute for Environment and Development. This blog first appeared on Due South.

Read more!