Best of our wild blogs: 6 Aug 11

Paint along with Pui San
from Art in Wetlands

Exotic (looking) Caterpillars in Singapore
from Macro Photography in Singapore

Video of Red-breasted Parakeet eating seeds of African tulip
from Bird Ecology Study Group

New book: Your first guide to water quality monitoring in Singapore from Water Quality in Singapore

123Recycle Mobile App Helps People in Singapore Recycle Waste Packaging Correctly from Zero Waste Singapore

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Value on ecosystem services needed to curb Asian deforestation – IPCC chief

Thin Lei Win Reuters AlertNet 5 Aug 11;

BANGKOK (AlertNet) – Deforestation is still occurring at an alarming rate in Asia Pacific countries despite a slight increase in overall forest cover, a leading climate scientist said Friday, and a better system to put a value on the ecosystem and the services it provides is needed to stop the losses.

Nobel laureate and head of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) R. K. Pachauri said to curb deforestation there is a need “to identify and evaluate the value of ecosystem services, because forests are not merely a source of timber… but a wider part of human and animal systems.”

“The issue at stake is that when you affect forest cover, in a sense there an entire chain of ecosystems that gets affected,” he said via weblink on the eve of the Second Regional Forum for People and Forests, to be held August 8 and 9 in Thailand’s capital.

RECOFTC – The Centre for People and Forests and one of the organisers of the forum, said with the exception of a few countries, notably the Philippines, Vietnam and China, Asia Pacific loses nearly four million hectares of natural forests each year. That is an area the size of Switzerland.

Activists say forests not only absorb and store carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, curbing climate change, but are also home to 450 million people in Asia Pacific, more of than half of them indigenous and many suffering endemic poverty that contrasts sharply with the region’s rapid growth.

Forest dwellers now face unprecedented threats from climate change, rural poverty, and food and energy shortages, RECOFTC said.

Pachauri said healthy ecosystems are key to the livelihoods of the poorest of the poor.

“If there’s a reduction in these services or degradation in the quality of what people can derive, that affects livelihoods in a very serious way,” he said.


He said that between 2005 to 2010, the Asia has seen an annual increase in forest cover of about 0.29 percent but this is largely the result of tree planting in countries like China and India.

The Southeast Asian region, “essentially one of the most densely-forested areas in the world,” has seen a decline in forest cover, amounting to about 1.3 percent annually in recent years, he said.

“This clearly is a rate of reduction in forest cover that must cause alarm and must require major intervention and policies by which we can turn things around.”

The United Nations has designated 2011 as the International Year of Forests.

Yam Malla, the executive director of RECOFTC said, “Deforestation is highly underestimated but one of the most – if not the most – catastrophic human actions against nature and the environment.”

It contributes to floods and landslides that cause death and destruction totaling in the billions of dollars as well as biodiversity loss and a climate change that produces extreme weather and more weather disasters, he said.

But these trends can be reversed, he said, if the forests are effectively managed by the local communities who rely on them for their livelihoods.

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WWF: Bigger turtle haven needed for conservation

Farik Zolkepli The Star 6 Aug 11;

KUALA TERENGGANU: The Ma' Daerah Turtle Sanctuary in Kemaman should be gazetted beyond its current 23.65ha-wide area to ensure its effectiveness in preserving the turtle population, said WWF Malaysia.

The organisation had made the call to the state government.

“The sanctuary was gazetted in 2007, thus it is high time for it to be expanded,” said WWF Malaysia Terengganu Turtle Conservation team leader Rahayu Zulkifli.

“The foundation, along with its partners the Fisheries Department and BP Malaysia proposed that the gazetted area be extended to cover five key areas,” she told reporters after a breaking fast session and turtle patrol in Kerteh on Thursday night.

She added that among the areas to be covered were all low-lying places situated between the coast and the edge of Bukit Labohan, the entire area along the 1.7km beach near the sanctuary and all state waters adjacent to the coastal area.

“We also felt that the entire area of the entrance to the sanctuary should be covered.

“Bukit Labohan Kecil and Besar should be included,” she said, adding that both hills provided critical buffers for the turtle sanctuary against light and noise pollution.

Rahayu said the turtle sanctuary was unique because it boasted the highest landings of green turtles scientifically known as cheloniamydas in the peninsula, even though it was surrounded by large petrochemical refineries and a township.

“The sanctuary averages between 200 and 400 green turtle nests each year and an average of 80% hatching success.

“The state government has supported our cause by approving the existing gazetted area, but the time to expand is now,” she said.

During a patrol near Pantai Cagar Hutan located 10 minutes from the sanctuary, Rahayu said the foundation's workers managed to spot a green turtle laying eggs.

“It is truly a wonderful experience, thus the fight for turtle conservation must go on,” she added.

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Fish nurseries need more than mangroves, says study

SciDev.Net Rachel Mundy Reuters 5 Aug 11;

Conserving mangroves alone may not be enough to protect local fisheries in the Caribbean, according to a study.

Research in the Caribbean and Mexico had previously shown that the mangrove swamps act as vital nurseries for many tropical fish species.

Now, a study conducted in Honduras reveals that seagrass beds and coral reefs also need to be conserved to boost fish populations and protect fisheries.

This is because seagrass beds act as nurseries, too, and link inland mangroves and offshore coral reefs. Juvenile fish migrate through these habitats, from nurseries to coral reefs, where they live as adults.

"The degree of habitat connectivity is important for the different life stages of many fish species," Jessica Jaxion-Harm, who conducted the study as part of her PhD at the University of Oxford, United Kingdom, told SciDev.Net.

By surveying fish in seagrass beds, mangroves and coral reefs on the islands of Utila and Cayos Cochinos, she found that daily migrations occur between mangroves and seagrass, because certain fish species feed in seagrass beds at night.

She suggests that the connectivity of seagrass, mangroves and coral reefs should be taken into consideration when implementing policy and conservation practices.

"Intermediary habitats are used as a stepping-stone in many fish life cycles," said Octavio Aburto-Oropeza, a researcher at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography, United States. "You cannot separate one ecosystem from another in terms of the function they have in the lifecycle of a species."

Globally, since 1970, about 35 per cent of mangroves have been deforested, 29 per cent of seagrass beds have been lost, and 30 per cent of coral reefs have been degraded.

In Utila, for example, eco-tourism practices may harm the habitats they are trying to save, according to Jaxion-Harm. Lack of water treatment facilities mean that sewage from tourist areas flows into the mangrove ponds, endangering fish populations.

"We have been losing many areas of mangroves and seagrass beds due to tourism developments, urban habitation and shrimp aquaculture," said Aburto-Oropeza. "It is common that coastal lagoons are used for discharge, causing pollution.

"Traditional fishermen in Honduras, like many around the world, are aware of the need to preserve the health of these habitats. The problems with tourism and pollution come from outside, far away from these coastal communities," he said.

Edward Barbier, an environmental and resource economist at the University of Wyoming, United States, added: "Habitats and fisheries are interrelated, and such linkages are what makes them productive and valuable. The foundation of this value is the interconnectedness of these habitats, which mirrors the life-cycle of fish.

"Beyond the biological and monetary value of fisheries, if you start losing fish species, changing the biological food web and the interconnectedness between key species, you may affect the function of the whole marine environment."

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Malaysian Wildlife Dept fits first radio-collar on Bornean slow loris

The Star 6 Aug 11;

KOTA KINABALU: In the dense forest of the lower Kinabatangan Wildlife Sanctuary, lurks a Bornean slow loris in search of insects, lizards and other prey.

So what, you might ask?

Well, that is no ordinary slow loris. It is the only species of its kind which is equipped with toxic defence and a hunting mechanism to snare its prey --insects, lizards and the like.

Going by the name, ‘Krik’, this slow loris has been fitted with a VHF radio-collar to record its every movement, ranging from sleeping habits and preferences to behaviour.

Fitted by the Sabah Wildlife Department (SWD) and Danau Girang Field Centre (DGFC), the radio-collar will enable DGFC research assistant Baharudin Resake, who is in charge of the project, to locate ‘Krik’ more easily in the forest.

In a joint press statement here, the SWD and DGFC said the first such attempt on the Bornean species was part of an ongoing Nocturnal Primate Project funded by the Columbus Zoo and Cleveland Zoological Society of the United States.

DGFC director Dr Benoit Goossens said: “The collar weighs less than three per cent of his (slow loris) body weight, so will not hinder the animal as he moves around the forest searching for food.

“As little is known about the Bornean slow loris, particularly in Sabah, any information collected by Baharudin, through tracking through the forest, will be important in understanding the species, from sleeping site locations and preferences, to ranging behaviour.

“With this study, we also hope to raise awareness in Sabah on the importance of protecting nocturnal primates, as much as protecting the orang utan, proboscis monkey, sun bear and the elephant.”

The slow loris, ‘Krik’, is named as such as it is one of the sounds it makes -- a kind of clicking, chirping noise.

A primatologist based at DGFC and involved in the project, Danica Stark, explained that the Bornean slow loris was one of two cryptic nocturnal primates -- the other being the Western tarsier -- in Borneo.

She said it was the only species equipped with a toxic defence and hunting mechanism, producing a toxin or poison by combining its saliva with secretions from its upper arms.

SWD director Dr Laurentius Ambu said: “Although slow lorises are protected by law from international and commercial trade, the greatest growing threat to slow lorises is the illegal pet trade, being the second most common primate species owned as pets in Asia, next to macaques.

“They have also become an important species for medicinal and ornamental trade.” - Bernama

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Controversial Asia Pulp & Paper Company Relocates Sumatran Tiger

Dave Mosher Wired Science 5 Aug 11;

Wildlife conservationists and a controversial paper company this week relocated a critically endangered tiger away from plantations and onto a national park in Sumatra, an Indonesian island famous for its rich biodiversity.

A veterinarian performed a final checkup on the 7-year-old female Sumatran tiger, named Putri or “princess” in Indonesian, and fitted her with a GPS tracking collar shortly before she woke up from sedatives. After the gate to her cage was lifted by remote control from a nearby boat, Putri strolled into the jungle.

Camera traps sprinkled around the release site will record Putri’s activity as she settles into her new home in Sembilang National Park, South Sumatra.

“The Sumatran tiger is a national treasure and a symbol of our rich history. It is imperative that as a nation we work together to ensure the health and longevity of this species for generations to come,” said Zulkifli Hasan, Indonesia’s Minister of Forestry, in a press release.

Conservationists earlier this year found 165-pound Putri roaming a plantation forest grown on slashed-and-burned land in South Sumatra and captured her. Since then, several organizations have worked together to monitor Putri’s health and design a plan to move her far away from humans.

Asia Pulp & Paper, a company whose logging practices on Sumatra recently caused Lego to stop using its products, and which is alleged by environmental organization Greenpeace to have driven Putri from her home in the first place, helped fund the relocation.

About 500 Sumatran tigers exist in the wild, according to recent estimates. Poaching the tigers for their striped coats is a problem, but unprecedented deforestation continues to shrink their native habitat.

Most of the forest losses are due to paper milling and palm oil plantations. Since the 1980s, about half of Sumatra’s natural forests have been destroyed. From 2000 to 2005, the region saw close to a 3 percent loss of its remaining natural forest cover.

The relocation effort by Asia Pulp & Paper comes shortly after Greenpeace released graphic footage of a Sumatran tiger dying in a wild boar trap (video and gallery.) According to their report, the animal struggled for seven days on the border of the company’s deforested land before eventually dying.

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Malaysia: Stray elephant relocated

The Star 6 Aug 11;

BESUT: Game rangers used two decoy elephants to relocate one of two wild bull elephants found straying near rubber smallholdings in Hulu Besut after they got separated from a herd a month ago.

“Che Mek” and “Kala”, from the Kuala Gandah elephant unit in Lanchang, Pahang, were used to coax the seven-year-old 1.5-tonne pachyderm from Sungai Tenang where it was caught for relocation at the elephant sanctuary in Sungai Kemia, Hulu Terengganu.

It took the game rangers, led by Mohd Affendi Ibrahim, head of the conservation division of the Terengganu Department of Wildlife and National Parks, more than two hours to complete the task.

Mohd Affendi said the other wild elephant, believed to be 15 years old, were also relocated.

The presence of the two wild elephants had kept rubber tappers away fron their smallholdings for fear of their safety. - Bernama

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Malaysia: Lizard on the market

K. Suthakar The Star 6 Aug 11;

GEORGE TOWN: It is said that one can buy almost anything at the Air Itam market near here, including monitor lizards and tortoises, a delicacy among exotic food lovers.

This was proven true when a man was found selling the two protected species along the busy road outside the market.

The man, who declined to be named, said he was selling the monitor lizard for RM250 and the tortoise for RM50.

He claimed that he caught the monitor lizard, which weighed about 5kg, in a house nearby while the tortoise was caught in a stream.

The man said he was a former construction worker but he could not get a job following the influx of foreign workers who were willing to work for less money.

“I get some income from selling these animals. This will feed my family,” he said.

It is learnt that the man tried to sell the animals for about four hours but there were no takers.

Penang Wildlife and National Parks director Jamalun Nasir Ibrahim said the man had committed an offence for possessing the animals under Section 60 (1) (a) of the Wildlife Conservation Act 2010 which carries a fine not exceeding RM50,000 or a jail term of up to two years or both.

“He must obtain a licence from the department to trap the animals and another licence to sell them,” he said.

Jamalun Nasir said he would send his personnel to the market to check on the matter.

“We frequently receive tip-offs from the public on people selling protected species. But we are unable to do much as the suspects would normally go missing when we reach the location,” he said.

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From jungle to suitcase, Southeast Asia's wildlife faces a bleak future

Sian Powell The Australian 6 Aug 11;

FOUR leopard cubs, a sunbear cub, a marmoset and a baby gibbon: just some of the menagerie found in suitcases at Bangkok's Suvarnabhumi airport.

Hundreds of protected Indian and Burmese star tortoises, again found in baggage at the airport. A bear farm in Laos, where bear bile was routinely extracted for human health tonics, finally closed down by the authorities. Unregistered leopards found at a rural Thai tiger zoo long suspected of trafficking big cats. A truck in northeastern Thailand found to be carrying five boxes of monitor lizards, 17 boxes of pythons and 84 boxes of rat snakes. Two Vietnamese men arrested for killing 15 langurs in a national park.

These events of only the past few months represent a tiny slice of the vast Asian wildlife trade in poaching, smuggling and dealing in protected species and their organs, flesh, bones, skin and scales. The trade is huge, feeding a rapacious appetite for traditional medicines made from endangered species, as well as a hunger for ivory ornaments, wild meat and exotic pets.

Late last year, in an unguarded moment, a Vietnamese government official estimated that between 4000 and 4500 tonnes of wildlife were smuggled through Vietnam each year. Washington-based research and advocacy group Global Financial Integrity, using information provided by conservation groups Traffic and WWF, earlier this year said the illegal trade in wildlife generated up to $US10 billion ($9.3bn) annually. This pushes it into the top rank of illicit global markets, after counterfeiting and illegal trafficking in drugs, humans and oil.

Small scaly pangolins, which are eaten and used in traditional medicines, were until fairly recently heavily traded to China from Mekong nations, such as Thailand, Cambodia, Vietnam and Laos. Now, wildlife experts say, pangolins have become difficult to find in the Mekong region and the tiny frozen carcasses are more commonly sent from south Sumatra in Indonesia, Malaysia and The Philippines. Thailand, though, remains a hub for the illicit trade, with networks funnelling live and dead animals and animal parts to eager purchasers.

Last year, an Interpol probe, Operation Tram, zeroed in on traditional medicines that used ingredients from protected species. Australian seizures during the operation included hippopotamus penises and more than 100 boxes of bear bile. Two-thirds of illegal wildlife and wildlife product seizures in Australia (of a total 4014 seizures last year) are traditional medicines containing ingredients from endangered species.

Justin Gosling, a criminal intelligence officer with Interpol's environmental crime program, says wildlife crime must become a priority.

"Until five years ago, wildlife crime was not considered a big deal by enforcement agencies," Gosling says. "Drugs and terrorism are seen as more important, but environmental crime is a far greater danger to communities."

Police need to track the traders, arrest them, seize their mobile phones, retrieve all the numbers and arrest more people in the network, he believes. But corruption is rife, and the wildlife trade is widely seen by the criminal classes as low risk and a good earner.

Gosling says police across the region need to refocus their efforts on the wholesalers, rather than the poachers or transporters, who often escape prosecution and, even if convicted, are given lenient penalties. "Meanwhile, the big guys are still sitting in their luxury apartments," he says.

Environment laws are regularly flouted across Asia. In Vietnam, it's illegal to sell bears, to transport bears, to hunt bears and to extract bear bile. Yet bear bile tourism to Vietnam continues to flourish. Many people believe the bile, particularly that from wild bears, can cure numerous ailments.

A recent report by the wildlife trade monitoring organisation Traffic found the bile of up to 3000 bears held by 750 Vietnamese bear farms was regularly extracted for tourists and other consumers. Bears are kept in farms for years on end, their bile extracted via a catheter or a permanent fistula or they are simply knocked out and their bile is removed. It is then imbibed by coachloads of tourists in search of a pick-me-up.

Bears are strong animals, Gosling says, otherwise the practice would kill them more quickly. In any case, the bear bile trade is one of the longest lasting cruelties in the repertoire of traditional medicine. And although the bears are kept on farms, that doesn't mean they form a self-sustaining population. The Traffic report found only four of the 34 bear farms visited by the researchers had captive breeding programs.

Chris Shepherd, deputy regional director for Southeast Asia at Traffic, fears Asian wildlife has a bleak future.

He is overseeing a training session for Suvarnabhumi airport staff to learn how to recognise smuggled ivory. The lessons are bearing fruit: there have been several ivory seizures at the airport in recent months.

The illegal wildlife trade, Shepherd says, is thriving. "It's not a pretty picture," he says, citing tigers as an example. "They're being absolutely hammered. We've lost so many tigers over the past couple of years. Anywhere there are tigers, there are people trying to kill them. Here in Southeast Asia, it's the meat and bones. It's something rare, something illegal; it's impressive if you eat it. It's worth a lot of money."

The trade is pervasive. Thai tiger farms have been nabbed illegally selling surplus cubs; tiger-bone glue, made from bones that have been boiled, dried and ground into a powder, is a popular medicine in Vietnam; Chinese tiger farms reportedly serve "king meat" and tiger-bone wine in on-site restaurants. Gosling says Vietnam, China, Thailand and probably Burma and Laos have tiger farms or tiger parks that foster the trade in body parts.

Shepherd says it is too easy to trap animals. "Snaring animals is cheap, it's the cost of the price of wire," he adds. "It's a brake cable for a snare. Dealers will often tell customers the birds or animals are captive-bred. But they're very often not. It's expensive to keep and breed animals in captivity; it's much easier to catch them."

Like Gosling, Shepherd thinks the key to putting a dent in the rampant trade is enforcement.

"I think people just don't care. But they would care if they were in jail for five or 10 years and had time to think about it. Sure, I think we should keep educating the consumers, encouraging acceptable substitutes. But if you don't treat it as a crime, it's not going to change."

In more central city markets, such as those in Bangkok or Kuala Lumpur, the illegal wildlife trade has been pushed underground. But the flourishing border markets, which Shepherd monitors, are notorious for their large and varied wildlife trade.

"It's a free-for-all," Shepherd says bleakly. "The last time I was in Mong La [a town on the China-Burma border], they brought a bear cub out. They killed it and took its gall bladder out. I took photos."

Meanwhile, in Thailand, police colonel Kiattipong Khasam-Ang says he believes nearly all tiger parks in Thailand illegally sell cubs. Each cub fetches about 400,000 baht, or $12,500, depending on weight. Last year undercover police pretended to be from Thailand's anti-government red-shirt movement and negotiated the purchase of a cub. Its blood, the undercover officers told the traders, would be used for a ritual. The traders were arrested, the cub saved. Recently environmental crime division officers announced they had arrested another Thai man in connection with the case.

The protected wildlife trade is worth a lot of money, he says, and the main criminal figures could be difficult to pin down.

"We have some names of Mr Bigs in Thailand," Kiattipong adds. "One owns a tiger farm; she knows she is being investigated. Our work is ongoing."

In recent years Chinese medicine has become a substantial field in Australia and degrees in Chinese medicine have even been introduced in some Australian universities. All practitioners have to be registered and Lin Tzi Chiang, president of the Federation of Chinese Medicine and Acupuncture Societies of Australia, says close to $200 million worth of traditional Chinese medicine and ingredients are imported into Australia each year. But, he says, threatened species form no part of those medicines.

Even so, each year Australian Customs officers seize thousands of bottles and packages of traditional medicines made from threatened species ingredients - meat, blood, skin, bile, and bone - as well as protected plant species. And these ingredients mostly come from Asia.

In Vietnam, environmentalists worry about the silence of the northern forests. A few years ago, Indonesian traders sent 25 tonnes of freshwater turtles to China each week, to be sold as food with medicinal properties. Now, conservationists say, there are too few remaining turtles to make the poaching worthwhile.

Police general Misakawan Buara, who commands a force of 470 staff at the Royal Thai Police division of natural resources and environment crime, has a fair idea who some of the big illegal wildlife traders are in Thailand, but he won't name names.

"I cannot tell you, I don't have proof. It's very hard to catch people like that. I suspect [them], but maybe I will lose [in court]." He knows trading and poaching has reached alarming levels across the nation. "If we keep going like this, some time soon in Thailand there will be no animals."

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Indonesia food security project threatens Papuan way of life-activists

Thin Lei Win Reuters AlertNet 5 Aug 11;

BANGKOK (AlertNet) – Indigenous Papuans are at risk of further marginalisation and the forests and ecosystems on which they rely face destruction due to an ambitious food security project by the Indonesian government, activists say.

Under MIFEE (Merauke Integrated Food and Energy Estate) plans, 1.63 million hectares of forest which forms the basis of life for some 200,000 indigenous people in the Merauke area would be used to grow rice, palm oil, soya bean and corn among other crops.

Indonesia is seen as a key player in the fight against climate change and is under intense international pressure to curb its rapid deforestation rate and destruction of carbon-rich peatlands.

Activists accuse the authorities of not sufficiently consulting the Malind Anim people about the project, which they say pose a double threat to local Papuans. Not only would they lose their customary lands, but they would also face an influx of migrants from the rest of Indonesia -- further marginalising communities that feel disenfranchised by what they say is the government's exploitation of natural resources at their expense.

"If this project goes ahead, it means we will lose everything - we will lose our land, our culture, our livelihood, our food," Rosa Moiwend, a Papuan activist whose family still lives in Merauke, told AlertNet.

The transition from forest to farm and plantation land would have a "tremendous" impact on natural ecosystems, Carlo Nainggolan from Indonesian rights group Sawit Watch, said.

"Indigenous people who have made use of natural forests to meet necessities of life will experience a dramatically decreased quality of life and well-being," he said.

Department of Agriculture officials did not respond to a request for comment.


Papua, two provinces on the west half of New Guinea island, has long suffered strained ties with Indonesia which took over the area from Dutch colonial rule in 1963. And this week, thousands of indigenous Papuans them marched on the parliament in the capital of Papua, demanding a referendum on independence from the archipelago.

Despite being home to a mine with the world's largest gold and recoverable copper reserves, Papua is one of the least developed regions in Indonesia. According to the United Nations, 40 percent of Papuans live below the poverty line of $1.25 a day, compared to the national average of 18 percent.

Both the central and regional governments have hailed MIFEE as the answer not only to Indonesia's growing concerns about food shortages but as a source of exports.

The project is expected to produce close to 2 million tonnes of rice, almost 1 million tonnes of corn, 2.5 million tonnes of sugar and close to 1 million tonnes of crude palm oil, according to local media reports.

However, activists point out that the staple food for Papuans is sago, a starch derived from sago palm, not rice. And they say there has been discontent in some areas where compensation from companies clearing and managing the land was deemed insufficient.

Despite a recent government pledge to resolve land tenure conflicts and protect the rights of people in forest-based communities, activists say most locals remain in the dark about the project.

"People from the village, when asked about MIFEE project replied, 'MIFEE is a car that frequently crosses the road that reads MIFEE (on the body of the car)'," Sawit Watch’s Nainggolan said.


The massive scale of the project and nature of the indigenous people's skills – many make a living hunting and gathering rather than farming – means a huge workforce is likely to be imported from outside Papua, activists say.

Sawit Watch estimate that some 5 million workers were needed to work the land, or four labourers per hectare. Yet, based on the 2009 census, the number of people native to Merauke was 195,577, Nainggolan said.

The low levels of education, knowledge and Indonesian language skills also mean indigenous Papuans are likely to be only involved in MIFEE as low-skilled labourers despite the loss of their land and livelihoods, he said.

Moiwend summed up the anger felt by activists.

"If the Indonesian government says that we are a part of them, that we are their brothers and sisters like they say, why do they do this project?," she said. "They don't want us to live in our own land. They want to kill us with this project."

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Bacteria binged on BP oil but didn't grow

One suspicion: The spilled crude didn’t provide a balanced diet
Janet Raloff Science News Aug 11;

When the Deepwater Horizon accident spewed millions of barrels of oil into the Gulf of Mexico last year, surface bacteria launched into a feeding frenzy, a new study finds. But microbes that gobbled up the surface oil did so without increasing their numbers or gaining weight.

Waters in much of the Gulf are fairly mineral poor, at least in terms of what microbes need to flourish, says chemical oceanographer Benjamin Van Mooy of the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution in Massachusetts. He and his team expected that microbes encountering the surface oil slick would turn up their figurative noses at the petroleum smorgasbord. To the scientists’ surprise, local bacteria pigged out, more than quintupling their normal daily intake with no increase in their mass. The researchers describe their findings online August 3 in Environmental Research Letters.

“You can imagine these bugs are like Richard Simmons,” whose Sweatin' to the Oldies aerobics videos advocate exercise to rev up the body’s calorie expenditures, Van Mooy says. In the Gulf, “microbes can gorge on the petroleum buffet but not gain weight because their metabolism is high.”

To test the microbes’ dining habits, the Woods Hole researchers sampled water during last year’s Gulf gusher from five sites inside the surface slick and seven more upwind They dumped water from six of the sites into gas-tight jars that contained a new kind of sensor. Shining light on this sensor induced a fluorescent readout of the water’s oxygen content. Because bacteria use fairly predictable amounts of oxygen when they break down oil, oxygen depletion offered an indirect measure the bugs’ dining rate.

Enzyme measurements confirmed that Gulf bacteria — and especially the rapid diners inside the slick — suffered from a shortfall of phosphorus, a nutrient essential for growth. Offering affected bacteria extra phosphorus greatly boosted their feeding rate and their proliferation. But even without the dietary aid, the team found, it appeared Gulf microbes were breaking down oil at an unprecedented rate. “It’s a real mystery as to what’s going on,” Van Mooy says.

The new paper’s findings “are very interesting but not totally surprising,” says Terry Hazen of Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory in California. Although microbial oil degradation in the surface slick proceeded faster than had been expected, he suggests this may reflect the bugs’ adaptation over millions of years to the large number of natural oil seeps in the Gulf of Mexico.

David Valentine of the University of California, Santa Barbara, also argues that the fact that bacterial cells didn’t blimp out after gorging on oil may not be all that puzzling. Gulf bacteria have evolved several mechanisms to store oil constituents that they don’t initially use as fuel, he explains. “Some bacteria transform the oil to produce dense particles within their bodies, like giant kidney stones, which effectively store their food energy for later use.”

Whatever the explanation, Valentine says, the new paper gives the first measurement of biodegradation of oil in surface slicks and “an important ecological context” for understanding its fate.

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US opens ways for Shell drilling in Arctic Ocean

Alex Ogle AFP Yahoo News 6 Aug 11;

US officials have granted Anglo-Dutch energy giant Shell conditional approval to begin drilling exploration wells in the Arctic Ocean from next year, in a move swiftly slammed by conservationists as "inexcusable."

The US Interior Department has opened the doors to Shell's proposal for four shallow water exploration wells in Alaska's Beaufort Sea to start in July 2012, said the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, Regulation and Enforcement (BOEMRE) in a statement Thursday.

Final approval requires Shell to obtain permits from other US agencies including the Environmental Protection Agency, the US Fish and Wildlife Service, and National Marine Fisheries Service.

"We base our decisions regarding energy exploration and development in the Arctic on the best scientific information available," said BOEMRE's director Michael Bromwich.

The agency would closely review the oil giant's activities to ensure they are conducted in a "safe and environmentally responsible manner," he said.

Shell welcomed the news, saying it added to the company's "cautious optimism that we will be drilling our Alaska leases this time next year."

Environmentalists, pointing to the vastly complicated task of drilling in the harsh Arctic environment and effectively cleaning up any spills in such conditions, slammed the decision as "dangerous and disappointing," saying it puts the remote region, its wildlife and native communities at risk.

The move ignored a wealth of concerns raised by the same US agencies during the catastrophic 2010 BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, said a statement backed by leading environmental groups the Center for Biological Diversity, Sierra Club, and Alaska Wilderness League.

President Barack Obama had in May, prompted by high gasoline prices, committed to annual oil and gas lease sales in Alaska's National Petroleum Reserve, directing the Department of Interior to conduct annual lease sales in the region.

Earlier this year, retired Coast Guard admiral Thad Allen, who led the US response to the Gulf spill, warned how the United States was ill-equipped to deal with a major oil catastrophe in Alaska, with little infrastructure to mount an adequate response, amid harsh weather and unpredictable ice floes.

In many scenarios for drilling in the remote reaches of the Arctic ocean, the closest Coast Guard base is hundreds of miles away, making rescue operations a challenge and clean-up operations even more difficult.

"This is a disaster waiting to happen, but still BOEMRE is moving forward with Arctic Ocean drilling," lamented Earthjustice attorney Holly Harris in a statement Thursday.

"BOEMRE's decision to disregard science and gamble with a region that is crucial to endangered bowhead whales, seals, polar bears and other marine wildlife that Native subsistence communities rely upon so heavily is inexcusable," she said.

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