Best of our wild blogs: 24 Feb 12

10th anniversary as a Conservation Volunteer
from Art in Wetlands

Seletar surprises: Strange snail, slugs and barnacle moults!
from wild shores of singapore

Palm oil firm pays 'precedent-setting' fine for unauthorized land-clearing in Indonesia
from news by Rhett Butler

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World Ocean Summit: Ocean survey aims to find solutions to ease pressure on fisheries

Channel NewsAsia 23 Feb 12;

SINGAPORE: The Catlin Seaview Survey was launched on Thursday at the World Ocean Summit in Singapore to conduct the first comprehensive study and document the health of the Great Barrier Reef across an unprecedented depth range.

There has been a push towards a better understanding of ocean life and cultivation to ease the pressure on fisheries amid rising affluence and growing demand for seafood.

Oceans cover 71 per cent of the globe. They provide food, leisure, facilitate sea trade and support economies around the globe.

With the Catlin Survey, one will be able to take a closer look at what happens within the depths of the ocean from the comfort of their own home.

Findings of the Catlin Survey, which comprises of a shallow reef survey, a deep reef survey and a mega-fauna survey, will provide a baseline assessment of the composition, biodiversity and well-being of the Reef.

These findings will be available for viewing on Google.

The expedition will be launched on the Great Barrier Reef in September 2012.

The Catlin Seaview Survey is a collaboration between global insurance company Catlin Group, project creators not-for-profit organisation Underwater Earth and partner Google.

In a statement, the chief scientist for the project, Professor Ove Hoegh-Guldberg from the Global Change institute at The University of Queensland, said that the scientific data gathered during the project will strengthen the understanding about how climate change and other environmental changes are likely to affect ocean ecosystems like the Great Barrier Reef.

Professor Hoegh-Guldberg said: "The Catlin Seaview Survey comprises a series of studies which will reveal to the public one of the last frontiers on Earth: the oceans. For the first time in history, we have the technology available to broadcast the findings and expedition through Google. Millions of people will be able to experience the life, the science and the magic that exists under the surface of our oceans. This project is very exciting."

The study is expected to highlight the impact of issues such as global warming.

And ocean conservationists said that while oceans are a huge source of protein, they have not been immune to the effects of booming consumption.

For example, the UN Food and Agriculture Organization estimated that 70 per cent of seafood species are over-exploited or fully exploited.

Oceana's CEO Andy Sharpless, said: "We are very optimistic that the oceans have a role in feeding humanity that people haven't realised. And if you look ahead to the middle of the century and look at the protein that people are going to eat, the oceans are going to be a wonderful way to make that happen. And we as conservationists are here to point out that some very basic ocean fishery principles put in place can increase the amount of wild fish that are caught from the ocean on a sustainable basis."

Oceana, the largest international organisation working solely to protect the world's oceans, said industry and government players just need to consider a few steps to make the ocean more productive.

Mr Sharpless said: "One of the great things about oceans is that there are just three things that we need to do to make them more productive. One is to protect nursery areas from being destroyed and bottom trawling is a form of fishing where heavily weighted nets are dragged across the bottom of the ocean. There are other much more selective ways for catching fish including bottom long lines which is the most obvious technique that fishermen can use - and you can catch them with lines and hooks - that are on the bottom instead of ragging your net along the bottom."

Oceana would like to see large areas of the ocean declared off limits to methods such as bottom trawling.

- CNA/fa

Ocean survey launches on Great Barrier Reef
University of Queensland 23 Feb 12;

A pioneering scientific expedition that will document the health of coral on the Great Barrier Reef will be undertaken as a joint venture between global technology giant Google, the UQ Global Change Institute, not-for-profit organisation Underwater Earth and insurance company Catlin.

The Catlin Seaview Survey, announced in Singapore today, aims to carry out the first comprehensive study of the composition and health of Reef coral to an unprecedented depth range (0-100m).

The project's chief scientist, Professor Ove Hoegh Guldberg from the Global Change Institute at The University of Queensland, said the scientific data gathered would strengthen the understanding about how climate change and other environmental changes are likely to affect ocean ecosystems like the Great Barrier Reef.

“The visual nature of the project will also help bridge the gap between scientific knowledge and public awareness,” Professor Hoegh-Guldberg said.

“The Catlin Seaview Survey comprises a series of studies which will reveal to the public one of the last frontiers on Earth: the oceans.

“For the first time in history, we have the technology to broadcast the findings and expedition through Google. Millions of people will be able to experience the life, the science and the magic that exists under the surface of our oceans. This project is very exciting.”

Professor Hoegh-Guldberg said the survey was not just another scientific expedition; it aimed to capture the public's imagination and engage people with the science like never before.

The Catlin Seaview Survey camera, developed specifically for the expedition, will capture thousands of 360-degree underwater panoramas. When stitched together, these will allow people to choose a location, dip underwater and go for a virtual dive at all of the locations visited by the expedition.

Google is collaborating with the Catlin Seaview Survey and is working on a new feature on Panoramio (which links photos to locations), so that the 360-degree panorama images can be uploaded and made available to millions of people worldwide.

This will eventually mean that roughly 50,000 panoramas from the Survey will be accessible on Catlin Seaview Survey in partnership with Google Earth and Google Maps.

The project also will have a dedicated YouTube channel and the ability to broadcast Hangouts on air, which allows people to watch livestreams of the expedition team from the ocean floor.

The Catlin Seaview Survey will include a shallow reef survey, a deep reef survey and a megafauna survey, which combined will provide a baseline assessment of the composition, biodiversity and wellbeing of the Reef. The expedition will launch on the Great Barrier Reef in September 2012.

The Catlin Seaview Survey will comprise three surveys:

1. The Shallow Reef Survey will use a custom-designed underwater vehicle with a 360-degree camera to generate imagery of the reef. In collaboration with The University of Queensland, this will be assessed using image recognition software to enable a rapid visual census of corals, fish and many other organisms at 20 sites across the entire length of the 2300km Great Barrier Reef. This will provide a broad-scale baseline for understanding climate change on coral reefs.

2. The Deep-Water Survey will use diving robots to explore the reef at depths of 30-100 metres. Little is known of this region, yet it may hold some of the secrets of whether or not the coral reefs will survive rapid climate change. Using a combination of high-definition cameras, deep-diving robots and survey equipment, the deep-water component will provide a comprehensive study of the health, composition and biodiversity of the deep-water reefs.

3. The Mega-Fauna Survey team, led by Emmy award-winning cinematographer and shark researcher Richard Fitzpatrick, will study the migratory behaviour of tiger sharks, green turtles and manta rays in response to increasing seawater temperatures. A total of 50 animals will be tracked with satellite tags that continuously monitor their geographic position, temperature and depth. This data can then be compared against oceanographic data to get a better understanding of the animals' behaviour and migrational responses to the warming of the oceans.

The Catlin Seaview Survey is sponsored by Catlin Group Limited, an international insurance and reinsurance company. Stephen Catlin, the founder and chief executive of Catlin Group Limited, said:

“We are sponsoring the Catlin Seaview Survey so that experts obtain objective scientific data they require to make more reliable conclusions about the impact of climate and environmental changes on our oceans and our planet as a whole. The results will be broadcast on a scale never attempted before, so it is an exciting time for science. We're proud to be part of the team leading this pioneering project.”

“As an insurer, Catlin offers our clients protection against many types of risks, so it is natural that we should lead the way in sponsoring research to discover the risks of tomorrow.”

Study aims to bring Great Barrier Reef to living rooms
David Fogarty Reuters Yahoo News 23 Feb 12;

SINGAPORE (Reuters) - Finding Nemo is about to get a lot easier with the launch of a scientific survey that will allow anyone with access to the internet to take a virtual tour of Australia's Great Barrier Reef.

The survey, which will use a variety of high-tech underwater cameras, will carry out one of the most intensive studies of the reef up to a depth of 100 meters (330 feet), with the public watching every step via Youtube and other Google sites.

"There are a whole series of ways of using the imagery and ultimately this is bridging a gap between science and public awareness," said Ove Hoegh-Guldberg, chief scientist of the Catlin Seaview Survey.

"The only way to do that is to make it part of people's activities," Hoegh-Guldberg of the University of Queensland told Reuters during the launch of the survey at a conference on the oceans in Singapore.

The images will help better understand the impact of climate change on the reef and also help scientists carry out more regular surveys of fish, turtles and other animals.

A specifically developed camera attached to underwater vehicle will take thousands of 360-degree panoramic images from locations along the length of the 2,300 km (1,430 mile) reef off Queensland state.

These panoramas, when stitched together, will allow people to choose a location, dip underwater and go for a virtual dive.

Google's Panoramio site, which links pictures to locations, will eventually allow a total of about 50,000 panoramas to be uploaded and accessible via Google Earth and Google Maps.

The project ( ) will also have a dedicated Youtube channel.

"For the first time people will be able to explore thousands of environments along the length of the Great Barrier Reef from the comfort of their own home," cinematographer Richard Fitzpatrick told the conference during a live underwater interview from Green Island on the Great Barrier Reef.

Fishing and tourism along the reef earns Australia about $6 billion a year, Hoegh-Guldberg said, but scientists were still trying to figure out how rising sea temperatures and increased ocean acidity will affect the region over the long term.

The survey will also use robotic cameras to survey depths between 30 meters and 100 meters, a region scientists know little about, he said. This zone makes up 93 percent of the reef.

"So this becomes important in climate change because people have been suggesting those deeper areas may be protected from climate change and assist in the recovery of reef systems. But at the moment we don't know."

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World Ocean Summit: New Global Partnership to Bring Powerful Forces Together for Healthy Oceans

World Bank Press Release 24 Feb 12;

SINGAPORE, February 24, 2012— A powerful coalition of governments, international organizations, civil society groups and private interests are joining together under the banner of a Global Partnership for Oceans to confront widely documented problems of over-fishing, marine degradation, and habitat loss.

In a keynote speech to be delivered today at The Economist’s World Oceans Summit here, World Bank Group President Robert B. Zoellick said the Partnership would bring science, advocacy, the private sector, and international public institutions together to advance mutually agreed goals for healthy and productive oceans.

Underscoring the importance of oceans to the world’s developing economies, Zoellick said: “The world’s oceans are in danger, and the enormity of the challenge is bigger than one country or organization. We need coordinated global action to restore our oceans to health. Together we’ll build on the excellent work already being done to address the threats to oceans, identify workable solutions, and scale them up.”

All the organizations, countries and agencies supporting the Partnership, including the World Bank Group, are already involved in activities to protect the world’s oceans - which provide 15% of the animal protein consumed in the world, millions of jobs, and critical ecosystem services such as climate regulation and carbon storage. The key step is to mobilize around a set of shared goals. This focus will help coordinate activities and mobilize new financial support, working closely with countries, civil society, and the private sector to reverse patterns of degradation and depletion.

Further discussions will help define the new partnership’s specific agenda. These discussions will address improved governance systems around fishing, more marine protected areas, intensified efforts to attack the sources of ocean pollution and degradation as well as improved coastal management for resilience to weather and climate-related threats.

Heading into the Rio+20 Conference on Sustainable Development in June, ocean health is a key issue. The Global Partnership for Oceans will assist with implementation by supporting countries meeting commitments for improved ocean management.

“Brazil is committed to achieving specific results in conservation and sustainable development of oceans and hopes that Rio+20 will allow all countries to renew commitments made in 1992 with specific new commitments,” said Mr. Francisco Gaetani, Deputy Minister, Ministry of Environment of Brazil.

Numerous ocean-focused NGOs have expressed support for the new alliance. “As the world’s population grows to 9 billion people by 2050, the demand for food and other resources will double,” said Conservation International Chief Executive Officer Peter Seligmann. “It is in the enlightened self interest of all nations and all communities to wisely steward our oceans. Humanity needs the oceans to thrive. Collaboration is essential.”

President of The Nature Conservancy, Mark Tercek said: “There is an urgent need to scale up the pace of ocean conservation around the world by bringing together a wide range of partners who are vested in the oceans; the World Bank’s leadership and commitment is a huge step forward towards achieving this. This is a tremendous opportunity for countries to realize tangible benefits – jobs, livelihoods, and economic development – by managing their oceans in a way that builds their natural capital.”

Other supporters of the new alliance highlighted the need for improved governance to improve oceans management, and unleash greater private investment in sustainable ocean enterprises.

“Almost all the challenges facing ocean sustainability stem from governance and market failures,” said Andrew Hudson, Head, UNDP Water & Ocean Governance Programme.

“Our experience has been that supporting ocean governance reform at all levels creates an enabling environment that can in turn catalyze sizeable quantities of public and private sector finance to sustain ocean ecosystem services. The Global Partnership for Oceans provides a key means of implementation to scale up proven approaches.”

Private companies like Darden Restaurants – one of the world’s largest seafood purchasers - are supportive of work that mitigates ocean health risk and will support the sustainable health of fisheries for generations to come. “The health of the world’s oceans is critically important. Like so many, we depend on the natural resources the oceans provide and investing in their health helps ensure the long-term viability of those resources,” said Roger Bing, Vice President, Seafood Purchasing, Darden Restaurants.

World Bank proposes global coalition to save oceans
AFP Yahoo News 24 Feb 12;

The World Bank was on Friday to propose a coalition of governments, global organisations and other groups to protect the oceans, aiming to raise $1.5 billion in the next five years for the purpose.

World Bank president Robert Zoellick was to tell a global conference in Singapore that the new partnership would bring together various groups to confront problems of over-fishing, marine degradation and loss of habitat.

"The world's oceans are in danger, and the enormity of the challenge is bigger than one country or organisation," Zoellick, who is in Singapore for the World Oceans Summit, was expected to say, according to prepared remarks released by the World Bank ahead of his speech.

"We need coordinated global action to restore our oceans to health. Together we'll build on the excellent work already being done to address the threats to oceans, identify workable solutions, and scale them up."

"So today, I want to propose a new approach -- an unprecedented Global Partnership for Oceans," he added.

Zoellick said the coalition "will bring together countries, scientific centers, NGOs, international organisations, foundations and the private sector to pool knowledge, experience, expertise, and investment around a set of agreed upon goals."

As a starting point, the partnership is committing to raise at least $300 million in "catalytic finance", meaning funds that would be used for technical assistance for key governance reforms, he said.

Another $1.2 billion would be raised "to support healthy and sustainable oceans," he added.

"This would total $1.5 billion in new commitments over five years," he said, adding that the World Bank would convene the first meeting of the partnership in Washington in April.

Zoellick proposed several targets for the coalition to achieve in the next 10 years, including rebuilding at least half of the world's fish stocks.

About 85 percent of ocean fisheries are fully exploited, over-exploited or depleted, including most of the stocks of the top 10 species, he said.

The partnership should also aim to "increase the annual net benefits of fisheries to between $20 billion and $30 billion" from the current net economic loss of about $5 billion a year.

Marine protected areas should be more than doubled, he said, noting that less than two percent of the ocean's surface is protected compared to around 12 percent of land.

"Let's increase this to five percent," he said.

On the economic side alone, the implications are enormous if little is done, he said.

In developing countries, one billion people depend on fish and seafood for their primary source of protein and over half a billion rely on fishing as a means of livelihood, Zoellick said.

For developing countries, including many island and coastal nations, fish represent the single most traded food product, and for many Pacific Island states, fish make up 80 percent of total exports.

"The world’s oceans are in danger," Zoellick said. "Send out the S-O-S: We need to Save Our Seas."

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World Ocean Summit: South Pacific small island states to link marine reserves

The Micronesian and Polynesian nations are working to ease the impacts of over-fishing, pollution, acidification and climate change
Jonathan Watts 23 Feb 12;

Small island states in the South Pacific are to link up their marine resources this year in an effort to sustainably manage one tenth of the world's oceans and boost maritime conservation globally.

The Micronesian and Polynesian nations are implementing the network in conjunction with environmentalists to ease the impacts of over-fishing, pollution, acidification and climate change that are threatening their economic and social systems.

The project - which aims to cover an area bigger than the combined territories of the US and Canada - was outlined during a World Oceans summit in Singapore that brought together scientists, politicians, NGOs and representatives from the fishing and shipping industries.

It comes amid a raft of new moves to reduce the alarming deterioration of the world's marine environment even as governments and businesses push ahead with ever more development of coastlines, industrial fishing and deep-sea mining.

To counter these threats, Kiribati is positioning itself as a pioneer of ocean sustainability and a model for the "Blue Economy".

Having already created a vast nature reserve around the Pheonix Islands - which is now Unesco's biggest natural heritage site - it signed up last September with 14 neighbouring island states to the Pacific Oceanscape Framework drawn up in conjunction with the US-based NGO, Conservation International.

In the coming years, the signatories aim to cooperatively manage their marine resources and design policies that improve ocean health, increase resources, share expertise, and factor ocean issues into decisions about economic and sustainable development.

Kiribati is the first state to try to put this scheme into practice. As an incentive - and to compensate for the loss of fisheries affected by the program - it will receive $5m from an endowment fund set up by Conservation International and the Global Environment Facility of the World Bank.

It will be followed in August by Tokelau Island and Cook Island, which will add their combined sea area of 1.4m square kilometers - about three times the size of California - into the Pacific Oceanscape network.

The president of Kiribati, Anote Tong, said his nation had learned that individual marine parks are not sufficient. "We have to connect them together," he told delegates at the summit. "Political commitment at the highest level, with support from financial community, is essential."

Money remains a challenge. Hundreds of millions of dollars will be needed for the scheme to expand across all 15 states, which together account for about 40m square kilometres of ocean and a third of the world's tuna stocks.

Enforcement is another problem. Kiribati has only one coastguard boat to police an area the size of California. To bolster its capacity, the US coastguard has sent ships on "training missions" with Kiribati representatives on board. They have reportedly intercepted two poaching ships, which were fined several million dollars.

This is a worldwide concern. Illegal and unreported fishing gobbles up $22bn of resources a year, almost 50% more than illegal logging, according to Malcolm Preston, global head of sustainability and climate change of PricewaterhouseCoopers.

The search for solutions to this and other threats to the marine environment are belatedly picking up pace.

The World Bank president, Robert Zoellick, will call on Friday for a new International Partnership for Oceans. Next week, the Antarctic Ocean Alliance - comprising conservation NGOs such as WWF, International Fund for Animal Welfare, Greenpeace and groups from China and South Korea - will launch a campaign to link 19 areas around Antarctica into what would be the world's biggest nature reserve by an order of magnitude. The development of the "blue economy" is also expected to feature prominently at the Rio+20 meeting in Brazil in June.

The former UK foreign secretary David Miliband said initiatives, such as that in South Pacific, showed that regional and international co-operation can promote economic growth and protect the marine environment.

"The fact that we're a terrestrial species on a marine planet has led to a real neglect of our oceans," Miliband said. "In an interdependent world, you need to share sovereignty."

The extent to which Kiribati and its neighbours can influence the international debate remains to be seen. But Peter Seligmann of Conservation International, said these countries are playing a role that shows their true colours as "giant ocean states".

"In my 36 years of experience in conservation, I've never been involved in anything at this scale," said Seligmann. "They are not saying they won't have growth. But they want to manage their resources in a way that sustains culture and resources...This is the beacon on the hill. That's what's required."

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Oceans' Sad Future: A Sea of Small Fish

Katharine Gammon Yahoo News 23 Feb 12;

VANCOUVER, British Columbia — Villy Christensen summed it up in a sentence: "Say goodbye to the big fish in the ocean, and say hello to the small fish."

Christensen, a professor at the University of British Columbia and director of the new Nereus program that aims to predict the future of the world's oceans, had good reason to give a warning so dire.

First, the good news. He says that there are still a lot of fish in the sea: There is about 2 billion tons of fish biomass in the ocean, which works out to about 661 pounds (300 kilograms) per person on the planet. Even better, the total biomass in the ocean is staying relatively consistent.

The bad news? The balance in the type of fish has shifted. Big fish in the ocean, like grouper and cod, have experienced a 55 percent decline in last 40 years. In their place are small, oily fish such as myctophids.

The fish that remain are fish humans aren't so interested in catching or eating, Christensen explained here at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. "Half the world's fish are small, in the open oceans and not exploitable."

Nereus looks into future

The Nereus program is a nine-year project with $13 million in funding to model and understand global changes in the oceans such as this switch in fish. In Greek mythology, Nereus was the eldest son of Pontus (the Sea) and Gaia (the Earth), and was a good and wise god of the sea with the power of prophecy.

The program bases its predictions for the future ocean on a complex data and modeling framework that among other things includes ocean climate models, food web and fisheries models, biogeographic models, and rules for management and governance, all of which it is hoped will vastly expand capacity to answer big global ocean policy questions.

Instead of presenting data in reports or spreadsheets, the scientists teamed up with gamers to build a virtual 3D model of the oceans where future impacts of climate change and conservation decisions can be predicted. The model spans a hundred years, from 1960-2060.

Some winners become losers

For some fishermen in the northern seas, climate change seemed like a total win: as oceans warmed, fish moved northward, meaning a bigger catch. But this won't continue to be the case, said William Cheung, a researcher at the fisheries center at the University of British Columbia.

Northern waters are able to absorb and hold more gases, particularly carbon dioxide, which is growing steadily in the Earth's atmosphere. Increased carbon dioxide in ocean waters makes it more acidic, and so northern oceans are becoming acidic faster than other parts of the globe; and more acidic seawater means less oxygen available in the water, making it difficult for fish to grow to full size. [8 Most Endangered Places]

Cheung developed a global model that includes more than 600 species of fishes and invertebrates, to investigate the combined impacts of multiple human stressors on marine fisheries potential catch. With warming alone, northern fishermen increase their catch potential by 30 percent. But with the addition of acidification, they end up losing more than they gain.

"Although it's not a crystal ball, these models are a useful tool for developing scenarios," Cheung said.

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Australia: Scientists call for no-take coral sea park

The ARC Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies
Science Alert 24 Feb 12;

More than 300 eminent scientists from 21 other countries around the world today urged the Australian Federal Government to create the world’s largest no-take marine reserve in the Coral Sea.

“Marine reserves are an important tool for managing and restoring ecosystems. They protect brood stocks for sustainable fisheries and rebuild distorted foodwebs. We know how well they work because of the differences that we observe again and again between different marine zones under existing management schemes. Already, the recent rezoning of the Great Barrier Reef has resulted in a doubling of coral trout and other commercially important species” says the Director of the ARC Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies, Professor Terry Hughes.

“The Australian Government’s draft plan for a marine reserve in the Coral Sea is a significant step forward - but misses a unique opportunity for Australia to demonstrate global leadership in marine stewardship, by declaring the Coral Sea within Australia’s EEZ as the world’s largest no-take area,” according to the statement, signed by more than 300 scientists.

“The Coral Sea adjoins the Great Barrier Reef, and because of its remoteness is one of the most intact oceanic ecosystems in the world. Together the two reserves would constitute the world’s largest protected ocean ecosystem – at a time of growing concerns over the widespread loss of megafauna, corals and other marine life closer to shore,” says Professor Hugh Possingham, Director of the ARC Centre of Excellence for Environmental Decisions.

“We believe that an increased level of protection would be of immense benefit to Australia and to the world, at negligible cost. The Coral Sea is one of only a handful of places in the world where a very large oceanic no-take park could be created within a single national jurisdiction,” the scientists said.

Their statement identifies six main reasons for extending the level of protection in the proposed marine reserve:

Most of the shallow coral reefs, cays and sublittoral reefs of the western Queensland Plateau and the seamounts of the southern Coral Sea will not be fully protected in the Government’s proposed reserve.
The reefs of the Coral Sea need more protection: under the current plan only 2 new reefs out of 25 will receive a high level of protection. These reefs are important for recharging the corals of the GBR.
Deep sea systems and seamounts need greater protection. The area contains Australia’s largest deep trough system, which attracts large numbers of feeding and spawning fish, birds and whales.
Ocean ecosystems need better protection from long-line fishing vessels, which threaten populations of yellowfin tuna, barracuda, sharks, turtles and seabirds.
Catch-and-release fishing in the Coral Sea should be banned because of the high losses caused by predation and barotrauma, and its impact on shark populations
It is much more cost-effective to manage a single, large no-take zone with simple boundaries than a variety of differently classified zones .

“A reserve of this scale and level of protection would provide unprecedented refugia for top ocean predators that are fast disappearing elsewhere in the world,”, Professor Terry Hughes said.

“Such a reserve will help to improve the resilience of the region’s coral reefs to climate change, and provide a globally significant scientific reference site,” adds Professor Bob Pressey of CoECRS and James Cook University.

“We believe that our recommendations will have minimal social and economic costs because there is very little current use of the Coral Sea region - but the recommendations will boost Australia’s international reputation as a leader in marine protection and as an eco-tourism destination,” he adds.

“Fully protecting the Coral Sea will provide a lasting legacy for future generations to enjoy and will reinforce the excellent levels of protection already achieved in the GBR,” Professor Hughes said.

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Malaysia: Mud pool draws hordes of wildlife and people

New Straits Times 24 Feb 12;

A rare phenomenon is attracting a beeline of "visitors" at the mud volcano in the Tabin Wildlife Reserve in Lahad Datu.

Visitors at the mud volcano in Tabin Wildlife Reserve, Lahad Datu, where its pool has overflowed to about the size of a football field, three times bigger than its normal size. Pic by Lano Lan

Volcanic mud has been spewing at least twice to three times more actively than normal since last week. This has created an overflow of the sulphuric substance that has spread over an area as big as a football field. Apart from excited guests at the nearby Tabin Wildlife Resort, the number of wild animals, too, appears to have increased at the mud pool.

(Volcanic mud is believed to contain curative properties with iodine, bromine, calcium and magnesium. According to Wikipedia, since the mud solution has no significant toxic substance, it is used as a curative agent for mud baths at spas. Mud baths have existed for thousands of years and can now be found in high-end spas in many countries of the world.)

The mineral-rich pool serves as a salt lick for animals at the Tabin Wildlife Reserve, including endangered species such as the Sumatran rhino and the pygmy elephants.

On a normal day, mud would continuously spew from within the pool and dry up in a day or two once it spills over.

Last week, however, according to a wildlife ranger who declined to be named, it was rather active judging by the overflow.

"Earlier last week, we saw it to be more active and when we returned a few days later, the mud had flowed over a big area," he said, adding that people and animals had suddenly started coming to the reserve in droves.

Nestled amid 120,500ha of dipterocarp rainforest and tropical plants, some of which are rich in medicinal and therapeutic values, the reserve is a popular haunt for bird watchers and wildlife enthusiasts.

Besides the rhinoceroses and elephants, it is also home to the clouded leopard, sambar deer, exotic wild birds and the orang utan.

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Malaysia: Preserving the peat swamp forest in Kuala Selangor

Tan Karr Wei The Star 24 Feb 12;

KUALA Selangor residents do not know the existence of peat swamps in the area as most of them assume it is agricultural land.

SMK Sultan Sulaiman Shah teacher M. Thilaga, 38, said many of them live in Kuala Selangor but they were not even aware that the area was a peat swamp.

“We didn’t even know that it is a forest reserve,” she said.

Thilaga and 10 students from the school’s Nature Society were among more than 200 participants in the Selangor World Wetlands Day 2012 celebration at the Raja Musa Forest Reserve in Bestari Jaya, Selangor, recently.

Selangor Tourism, Consumer Affairs and Environment deputy committee chairman Lee Kim Sin launched the event that was also attended by Selangor Forestry Department director Yusoff Muda and Kuala Selangor District Council president Noraini Roslan.

Over the years, more than 1,000ha of the 23,000ha forest have been cleared and burnt illegally for large-scale farming. It was not until 2008 that the state government and Selangor Forestry Department evicted all the illegal settlers and the Global Environment Centre (GEC) embarked on a project to rehabilitate the site.

This year, the GEC launched the Friends of Peatland Forest and the Peatland Forest Ranger to get the local residents living around the forest involved in its rehabilitation efforts.

The Friends of Peatland Forest comprises local residents who are concerned about the degradation of the peat swamp forest and are proactive in conserving it while the Forest Ranger is a programme to educate schoolchildren on the importance of environmental protection.

“We were shocked to hear that a big part of the forest has been burnt for agriculture. The students are interested to learn more about the forest and how they can help.

“They have also been doing their part in letting other students know what they have learnt.

“Today, they are just happy to be outdoors doing the tree-planting,” said Thilaga, who is also the school’s Nature Society adviser.

Lee said peat soil had always been viewed as “problematic soil” because of its high acidity and unsuitable for farming.

“We need the commitment of all sectors to rehabilitate and protect the forest,” he said.

GEC director Faizal Parish said peat swamp forests played an important role in regulating global climate and conserving the eco-system.

He said the area had been drained for agriculture and part of the rehabilitation exercise was to bring back the water level and vegetation in the affected areas.

Rich in organic matter, the dried peat soil is susceptible to underground fires which can take up to three months to put out.

“Our aim is to restore the depleted area. We need a lot of support from corporations and local residents,” said Faizal.

Yusoff said clearing the land would take a few months but rehabilitating it was a mammoth task that could take more than 100 years.

In the past three years, more than 4,000 volunteers have been involved in several tree-planting activities but these too have been a learning process for the GEC and other parties involved.

The previous species of trees planted had a low survival rate because it could not grow in open spaces, so this time the Inggir Burung type was chosen to provide a canopy before other species could grow.

HSBC Bank Malaysia Bhd has pledged to support the rehabilitation programme for three years and this has enabled the establishment of four groups of Friends of Peatland Forest — one each from Kampung Raja Musa, Kampung Bestari Jaya, Kampung Seri Tiram and Kampung Sungai Sireh.

Faizal believed that the partnership with local residents would not only help in their rehabilitation efforts but also served as a way to educate them.

“If they want to use the forest for their livelihood, we want to show them ways to do so without destroying the environment.

“For example, we worked with some people in Bestari Jaya to provide the saplings to replant the forest,” he said.

Noraini said the residents could also play their role as the eyes of the local council, making sure that the forest was not being burnt or cleared for agriculture.

She and Lee were both in agreement that it would take some time before the peat swamp forest could be developed into a tourism area.

When that happens, the local residents could benefit from it by being trained as guides to educate visitors about the forest or as boatmen.

Villagers tapping the peat swamp potential
The Star 24 Feb 12;

THE boat ride along the irrigation canal in Kampung Sungai Sireh, Tanjung Karang, Selangor, was refreshing and visitors could ask the boatman to stop and take a stroll along the lush edge of the forest.

The waters of the peat swamp in the Sungai Karang forest reserve was the colour of black coffee.

Stepping foot into the idyllic Kampung Sungai Sireh was almost a shock for the senses of a person born and bred in the urban jungles of Kuala Lumpur.

Just across the two-lane road from the Sungai Sireh homestay base, there was nothing but the long stretch of water with greenery as far as the eye can see.

A gust of wind brought a small shower of soft cotton fibres from the pods of the kapok tree by the road and the effect was mesmerising.

“Yes, once in a while it ‘snows’ in Sungai Sireh,” quipped the boatman who was watching us with interest as we went around picking up the fallen pods.

The fibre has long been used as stuffing material for mattresses and pillows in villages.

Local resident Abu Bakar Moin, 51, started the homestay programme in his village in 1995 and there are more than 40 homes registered now.

There is a spacious common area and dining hall that can accommodate large groups of people who want to experience life in the rice-growing community.

“We even have a small cafe and internet facilities. Our main attraction is the padi fields and those who come here can get a feel of what the farmers do here,” he said.

Abu Bakar is now one of the committee members of the newly-formed Friends of Peatland Forest, of which Sungai Sireh was one of the chosen communities.

“Most of us grew up here but have no knowledge of the peat swamp forest or how important it is for our community. We never even realised that destroying the forest would mean affecting the source of water for our padi fields,” he said.

By joining in the programme initiated by the Global Environment Centre, he said they were now armed with valuable knowledge that they could share with visitors who go on boat rides, kayaking or jungle-trekking in the forest reserve.

“A lot of people here know the area in and out because they were involved in logging activities that have cost us our natural resources. Some of them are now helping out as guides or boatmen and their knowledge of the area is a great asset to the homestay programme,” he said.

Those interested in the Sungai Sireh homestay can contact 019-346 7372.

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Malaysia: Raptor Watch takes flight for 13th straight year

New Straits Times 23 Feb 12;

MALACCA: Raptor Watch, one of the region's biggest bird-watching events, promises yet another exciting spectacle this year.

Organised by the Malaysian Nature Society (MNS) in partnership with the Malacca government, the event will take place for the 13th straight year at PNB Ilham Resort, near Tanjung Tuan, on March 10 and 11.

Every year, spectators get to see thousands of raptors, also known as birds of prey, migrate north to their breeding grounds in Siberia, China, the Korean peninsula and Japan from their winter refuge in the south.

Tanjung Tuan, which is gazetted as a forest reserve, is the nearest landfall across the Straits of Malacca from Indonesia and is an important site for the birds to rest or catch thermals before continuing on their journey.

Due to its importance to migratory birds, the 60ha site is designated as an important bird area by Birdlife International.

MNS conserves the forest reserve by promoting Raptor Watch, through which it raises awareness of raptors and the need to conserve their habitat.

Visitors come from Singapore, Taiwan, the Philippines and Thailand. Last year, about 2,000 turned up.

This year, MNS hopes to get even more spectators to take part in activities, which include guided walks, eco-talks, games, arts and crafts, an obstacle course and a treasure hunt.

MNS head of communications Andrew Sebastian said last year's raptor count went up to 57,000 birds over more than 40 days.

"This year, we have spotted 141 raptors, which may seem like a small number, but this is a good sign, as it means the birds will come in big numbers in March."

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Malaysia: Concern Over Rare Rhino Rouses Clean Energy Drive

Plans for a coal plant near one of the last remaining habitats for the rare Sumatran rhino were scuttled, but Sabah, Malaysia still faces a power crunch. Waste from the palm oil industry (a plantation in Malaysia is seen below) could help meet demand.

Jeff Smith National Geographic News 22 Feb 12;

Potential threats to the rare Sumatran rhino, coral reefs, and other fragile animals helped galvanize a highly publicized fight last year to stop a coal-fired plant from being built on the east coast of Sabah, Malaysia.

The activists were armed with evidence that renewable energy such as hydropower, geothermal, and waste from the region's abundant oil palm mills could compete with coal in costs.

Activists won the impassioned battle when government officials killed the plant in February 2011. But they haven't yet achieved their goal of getting this ecotourism destination—one of the most biologically diverse spots on earth—to go renewable and serve as a model for other environmentally sensitive areas around the globe.

Instead, a 300-megawatt natural gas plant, announced earlier this month, is slated to ease Sabah's power crunch. The capacity of the proposed plant dwarfs that of renewable energy plants in Sabah. Renewable energy has been progressing slowly, and a key financial incentive for new projects is in limbo.

"The natural gas plant is our only viable option at the moment," Masidi Manjun, Sabah state minister of tourism, culture and environment, said by email. Natural gas is readily available offshore, he noted, and will generate the reliable electricity needed for economic growth. "This includes the development of new resorts, especially beach resorts, that are in short supply at the moment." He predicted renewable energy will have a significant role—in the future.

Natural Gas for Now

Activists knew a year ago this could be the outcome, at least in the short term.

"The government is going with the natural gas option to fuel our immediate energy needs," while making "cautious moves towards renewable energy," said Cynthia Ong, executive director of Malaysia-based Land Empowerment Animals People (LEAP). "During the anti-coal campaign, we took the position that the state needed to explore using its own natural gas resources (offshore) over importing coal . . . and of course we advocated strongly for renewable energy."

An environmental impact assessment hasn't been completed for the gas plant, but concerns aren't likely to be as high as they were for the coal plant. Gas is a cleaner fuel, and the plant will be in an industrial area far from the ecosystems that ignited the coal debate.

Sabah, on the northern end of the island of Borneo, is part of a region known as the Coral Triangle. Its rugged terrain and coral reefs have brought it world acclaim for its biodiversity and beauty.

The coal plant was planned along Sabah's coastline, 12 miles (19 kilometers) from the border of the Tabin Wildlife Reserve, Malaysia's largest animal park and one of the last remaining habitats for the Sumatran rhinoceros. The world's smallest rhinoceros at only about 4.3 feet (1.3 meters) tall, the Sumatran rhino is one of the most critically endangered species on Earth, with only 200 remaining in areas of Indonesia and Malaysia, according to the International Rhino Foundation. Poachers, hunters, and encroaching habitats have trimmed the number of rhinos on Borneo to an estimated 30 to 50. (For some rhinos, it's too late already. The Javan rhino in Vietnam recently was declared extinct by conservationists for many of the same reasons. In South Africa, more than 1,000 rhinos have been slaughtered in the past six years.)

The Tabin reserve also includes Pygmy elephants, Bornean orangutans, sun bears, and leopards.

But in addition to being an important wildlife habitat, Sabah's east coast has experienced unplanned power outages due to the lack of electrical capacity. Almost all of its power comes from dirty and unreliable diesel plants that the government wants to replace with cleaner sources.

Currently, fossil fuels account for about 90 percent of power capacity in Sabah. The challenge, is "how to green the mix in an economically viable way," says Daniel Kammen, director of the Renewable and Appropriate Energy Laboratory at the University of California, Berkeley.

Ong recruited Kammen, an adviser to National Geographic's Great Energy Challenge initiative, in 2010 to study energy options for a coalition of five nongovernmental organizations dubbed GREEN Surf (Sabah Unite to Re-Power the Future).

Kammen's research team concluded that hydropower and biomass waste projects could be cost-competitive with coal, with geothermal slightly less so (but competitive with natural gas). The researchers highlighted palm oil waste as having the potential to produce up to 700 megawatts of power by 2020.

Malaysia is the second largest producer of palm oil in the world, and Sabah has more acreage under cultivation—3.5 million acres in 2010—than any other region of the country.

"Our process was to do the math, do the assessment, come up with a plan," Kammen said in an interview. "We went in not knowing what would work out."

Kammen traveled to Sabah to present his findings at a public meeting that was broadcast on local television. He also met individually with local officials, meetings he believes were critical to helping persuade government officials to back down from the proposed coal power plant.

By that time, the coal controversy already had stretched over several years, with two previous proposed sites dropped partly because of community opposition to such environmental impacts as ash ponds and carbon dioxide emissions.

LEAP and other environmental and civil society organizations also had complained that the environmental impact assessment (EIA) for the coal plant failed to adequately consider impacts on marine and animal life, and climate change. They said the assessment also listed species that aren't present in Sabah while omitting others such as the rhinoceros. Ong said those involved in the EIA process showed a lack of understanding of principles of environmental protection. For example, during one informal meeting, she recalls, a consultant working on the EIA said there was "no issue with fish, because fish could swim away."

Ong said many government officials were supportive of the anti-coal campaign in private meetings, but "the way politics works in Malaysia if the top guy says something you don't oppose it." But she said she believes the proposed coal plant became such a hot local political issue that Prime Minister Najib Razak felt compelled to stop it.

A statement issued in February 2011 by Musa Aman, Sabah state government's chief minister, indicated that Najib made the call in recognition that "one of Sabah's greatest assets is its natural attractions and still somewhat pristine environment."

Najib has been trying to position Malaysia as a leader in reducing carbon emissions.

At the 2009 climate change conference in Copenhagen, Najib pledged to cut carbon dioxide emissions by 40 percent from 2005 levels by 2020. Malaysia enacted a renewable energy law in 2011 that, among other things, created a Sustainable Energy Development Authority.

A premium tariff was established, enabling renewable energy producers to sell their power to utilities at prices roughly 50 percent above the current rate.

In Sabah, two oil palm biomass plants totaling about 25 megawatts of capacity have qualified for that premium tariff, as well as two small hydro plants totaling about 6.5 megawatts of capacity, according to Malaysia's Sustainable Energy Development Authority.

A company named Tawau Green Energy plans to build a 30-megawatt geothermal plant on Sabah's east coast. But the tariff isn't available for new renewable energy projects in Sabah at this time, said SEDA spokesman Wei-nee Chen. He said by email that the central government "is in talks with the state government of Sabah for them to contribute to the renewable energy fund. Once an agreement has been reached, then the (premium) tariff will be opened to Sabah for new projects."

Kammen's research team calculated that the income from electricity sales at the current tariff wouldn't quite be enough to cover the cost of operating an oil palm waste plant. But the researchers said the projects could be cost-competitive when taking into account potential carbon credits.

Creating a Renewable Industry

Palm biomass projects aren't without environmental concerns.

Louis Verchot, the leading climate change scientist for the Bogor, Indonesia-based Center for International Forestry Research, said using oil palm waste to produce electricity generally is a good idea because such waste usually is burned or left to decompose slowly.

However, he cautioned, if palm oil waste production generates profits, it could create economic incentives to expand oil palm plantations, leading to more deforestation.

Malaysia already has suffered greatly from deforestation of its hardwoods and peatlands. Verchot's team has published several analyses over the past two years that have shown that such biomass cultivation has a negative effect on the atmosphere and on natural habitat. That's especially true if the cultivation occurs on peatlands, which naturally store carbon.

Ong said her group has had a few meetings with Sabah's big oil palm players on the possibility of generating electricity from palm oil waste. But, she said, "It was a little bit of a challenge to convince them to pioneer what was basically going to be a new industry. The bottom line is their focus."

LEAP instead is working with a group of indigenous oil palm farmers on a small project to convert waste into biomass pellets, in hopes of proving its viability as a commercial enterprise.

Ong said she is optimistic about renewable energy over the long term, but believes it will be up to the people to engage the government and "provoke and take leadership in pioneering the renewable energy industry." LEAP is putting together a Southeast Asia renewable energy group and also has been asked to help an anti-dam group in Sarawak, Sabah's Borneo neighbor.

Said Masidi Manjun, Sabah's environment minister: "Renewable energy will not only have a significant role in the future but perhaps is the only viable option if the world is serious about conservation and tackling climatic change . . . . This is the way forward-that is, if we are interested in saving the world."

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Indonesia: Illegal Orangutan Trader Prosecuted

ScienceDaily 23 Feb 12;

The Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) and the Sumatran Orangutan Conservation Programme (SOCP) has just announced Sumatra's first ever successful sentence of an illegal orangutan owner and trader in Medan, North Sumatra, Indonesia.

The seven-month prison sentence is only the third for Indonesia, despite orangutans being strictly protected under Indonesian law since 1924.

Although there have been over 2,500 confiscations of illegally held orangutans in Indonesia since the early 1970's, the first actual prosecution of an illegal orangutan owner occurred in Borneo in 2010, and now in Sumatra with this case in 2012.

The case began with the confiscation of a young male orangutan named Julius last July in Mardinding, Karo District, in the province of North Sumatra. The owner was allegedly trying to sell the orangutan, which was believed to be three years old.

The raid was conducted by the Indonesian Ministry of Forestry's Directorate-General for Forest Protection and Nature Conservation (PHKA), working in conjunction with WCS's Wildlife Crime Unit and the veterinarian and staff of the SOCP.

The Wildlife Crime Unit, created by WCS in 2003 and funded by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and other donors, provides data and technical advice to law enforcement agencies to support the investigation and prosecution of wildlife crimes.

The SOCP, implemented by the Swiss-based PanEco Foundation, and the Indonesian NGO YEL (Foundation for a Sustainable Ecosystem) have operated the only orangutan rescue center in Sumatra since 2001 and have so far reintroduced over 150 confiscated ex-pet orangutans back to the wild. Julius is now being cared for at the SOCP's orangutan quarantine center near Medan, with just over 50 other orangutans also being prepared for a return to the forest. After spending 30 days in quarantine, Julius is now living in a socialization cage, which allows him to adapt to the presence of other orangutans. Though the road to full rehabilitation might still be a long one, Julius is making excellent progress and is expected to be released back into the wild in the future.

The sentence reflects an increase in activity and action to combat the illegal wildlife trade in Indonesia in recent years. In the last two years there have been more than 20 arrests for illegally possessing or trading protected wildlife, including the critically endangered Sumatran tiger and pangolin.

The prosecution is in full compliance with the Indonesian Government's own National Orangutan Conservation Strategy and Action plan, launched in 2007.

The majority of illegal pet orangutans are a byproduct of forest clearance for palm oil plantations and of conflicts between farmers and orangutans that raid crops in converted agricultural areas. In most cases, they are not hunted specifically for food or trade in Sumatra, but are more "refugees" from forests that no longer exist.

Conservationists believe Julius's mother was killed at the time of his capture. Relatively few orangutans are actively traded in Sumatra, but the SOCP and PHKA still confiscate around 30 illegal pets each year, whose mothers have been killed.

The Head of Natural Resources Conservancy Agency (BBKSDA) North Sumatra, Arief Tongkagie, said: "Based on the successful completion of this case, our hope is that in the future more people will be willing to report crimes against orangutans."

According to Panut, Chairman of the Sumatran Orangutan Conservation Forum (FOKUS): "Increased efforts to curb crimes against orangutans will provide a deterrent effect to traders."

The Wildlife Conservation Society is actively trying to reduce the damaging impact of the illegal wildlife trade.

"We commend Indonesia's Ministry of Forestry's Directorate-General for Forest Protection and Nature Conservation (PHKA) for taking a hard stance on wildlife trade, which is threatening to destroy the country's natural resources," said Dr Noviar Andayani, Director of the WCS Indonesia Program. "We are hopeful that this prosecution sends a clear message that illegal wildlife trade will not be tolerated in Indonesia."

Live orangutans sold in Indonesia, or exported illegally to neighboring countries, are kept as pets or in private collections. Other wildlife traded for food, medicines, skins, biomedical research, souvenirs and pets from Indonesia include rhinos, elephants, tigers, birds, bears, orchids, marine and freshwater fish, turtles, fragrant timber, pangolins, corals, snakes, bats, sharks, and rodents.

"Working closely with law enforcement is a key component in the fight against illegal wildlife trade," said Joe Walston, WCS Executive Director for Asia programs. "If governments want to protect their wildlife resources, they need to be serious about enforcement. Clearly Indonesia is taking a lead on this front."

Ian Singleton, Director of Conservation for the PanEco Foundation and the person in charge of the SOCP, said: "It's absolutely fantastic to finally have a prosecution of an illegal orangutan 'owner' in Sumatra, but it's also long overdue. With this sentence, as long as it is widely publicized in the region, anyone considering capturing, killing or keeping an orangutan illegally will certainly think twice about it, and hopefully the numbers being killed and kept in the coming years will begin to decline."

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Rare whale caught on film for first time

(AFP) Google News 23 Feb 12;

SYDNEY — Australian researchers Thursday revealed they had filmed a pod of extremely rare Shepherd's beaked whales for the first time ever.

The Shepherd's beaked whale is so rare it has never been filmed live before (AFP/Australian Antarctic Division, Mike Double)

The Australian Antarctic Division team was tracking blue whales off the coast of Victoria state last month when they spotted the reclusive mammals, which are so rarely seen that no population estimates of the species exist.

Voyage leader Michael Double said the black and cream-coloured mammals with prominent dolphin-like beaks had been spotted in the wild only a handful of times through history.

According to the Australian environment department, there have only been two previous confirmed sightings -- a lone individual in New Zealand and a group of three in Western Australia

They have never been filmed live before.

"These animals are practically entirely known from stranded dead whales, and there haven't been many of them," Double told AFP, calling the footage "unique".

"They are an offshore animal, occupying deep water, and when they surface it is only for a very short period of time."

Double said what was remarkable about the sighting was that the whale was previously thought to be a solitary creature, yet was in a pod of 10 to 12.

"To find them in a pod is very exciting and will change the guide books. Our two whale experts will now carefully study the footage to work out the whale sizes and so on and prepare a scientific paper."

The Shepherd's beaked whale, also known as the Tasman beaked whale, was discovered in 1937 but little is known about them.

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World's Environment Ministers Pledge Success of Rio+20 Summit

Environment News Wire 22 Feb 12;

NAIROBI, Kenya, February 22, 2012 (ENS) - Environment ministers from around the world ended their annual meeting today by promising to make the upcoming UN Conference on Sustainable Development, Rio+20, a success.

The ministers and representatives from nearly 150 countries were attending the 40th anniversary United Nations Environment Programme Governing Council and Global Ministerial Environment Forum, which opened Monday at UNEP Headquarters in Nairobi.

Expressing concern over "the continued environmental degradation" happening worldwide, the delegates described the Rio+20 conference slated for June 20-22 as "a unique opportunity to address the economic, social and environmental challenges in the context of sustainable development."

The ministers said many of the environmental challenges glimpsed 20 years ago at the landmark Rio Earth Summit in 1992 are today's reality - climate change, the loss of biodiversity and fisheries, deforestation and the decline in productive and healthy soils.

Three weeks in advance of the Rio+20 conference, on June 5, Brazil will host the UN's annual World Environment Day.

This year's theme, "Green Economy: Does it include you?" invites everyone to assess where the Green Economy fits into their daily lives and evaluate whether development towards a Green Economy can deliver the kinds of social, economic and environmental outcomes needed in a world of seven billion people.

Brazil also hosted World Environment Day in 1992, on the eve of the first Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro.

"In celebrating World Environment Day in Brazil in 2012, we are returning to the roots of contemporary sustainable development in order to forge a new path that reflects the realities but also the opportunities of a new century," said UNEP Executive Director Achim Steiner.

"We are very pleased to host this global celebration for the environment. The World Environment Day will be a great opportunity in Brazil to showcase the environmental aspects of sustainable development in the warm-up to the Rio+20 conference," said Brazil's Environment Minister Izabella Teixeira at the Governing Council meeting.

During their three-day meeting, the environment ministers focused on the twin themes of Rio+20 - a Green Economy and an institutional framework for sustainable development.

President of the UNEP Governing Council Federico Ramos de Armas, who heads Spain's Environment Ministry, said the Green Economy is widely viewed by ministers as a way to achieve sustainable development, poverty eradication and decent job creation "by increasing resource efficiency, supporting the shift to sustainable consumption and production patterns and facilitating low carbon development."

In addition to the challenges of financing, capacity and access to relevant technologies for developing countries, Ramos de Armas noted concerns by some countries that a Green Economy might lead to trade protectionism.

"Many of the activities under the Green Economy approach can provide new opportunities for women to become key players in the local economy, especially in the energy, land management and water sectors," said Ramos de Armas.

There was a high level of support among the ministers for strengthening UNEP's mandate, authority and financial resources.

Kenya's President Mwai Kibaki told delegates Monday that his government supports the transformation of UNEP into a specialized UN agency for the achievement of green development. He asked them to support the "African position and endorse the transformation of UNEP into a specialized organization based here in Nairobi."

Over 100 countries, including members of the African Union and the European Union, have backed the upgrading of UNEP to a specialized agency of the United Nations as one of the Rio+20 outcomes.

Delegates supported greater involvement of major groups and stakeholders in any new institutional arrangements, including local and regional authorities, women, indigenous peoples, young people and the private sector.

Some 150 representatives from all regions and the nine major groups and stakeholders of civil society at a forum in Nairobi February 18-19 underlined the need for Rio+20 outcomes to be "actionable, measurable and implementable."

Chantal-Line Carpentier of the UN Department of Economic and Social Affairs saidd that out of over 686 submissions received on the "zero draft" of the Rio+20 outcome document, 493 were from major groups.

She identified priority areas as: energy access, efficiency and sustainability; food security and sustainable agriculture; green jobs and social inclusion; sustainable water management; urbanization; oceans; and improved resilience and disaster preparedness.

But time to make key changes is running out, Ramos de Armas said in his closing address to the Governing Council.

"Time is not on our side," he warned. "Rio+20 must take quick and immediate action to respond to the current environmental crisis. Delegates stressed there should be a clear decision on the institutional framework for sustainable development and international environmental governance."

Steiner said, "The world's ministers responsible for the environment have sent a clear signal to the Rio+20 summit - namely that there needs to be an urgent focus on scaling up implementation of sustainable developments and that bold, transformative decisions need to be taken in four months' time in Brazil."

"The three take-home messages from this Governing Council, the last global gathering of the world's environment ministers, are these. The scientific understanding about what is happening to the planet as a result of past and present development paths is far clearer and far more sobering than 20 years ago. And two - there is overwhelming support for a transition to a global economy along pathways proposed in UNEP's Green Economy Report in order for it to deliver positive social and environmental outcomes across all nations."

"Thirdly, said Steiner, "incremental reforms of the current architecture and management arrangements of planet Earth is leading seven billion down an unsustainable path and a very uncertain future. It is time to implement the decisions and directions of the Rio 1992 Earth Summit so that this generation of world leaders and ministers can deliver on the promises and the vision of a previous generation."

As a tangible recognition of UNEP's mandate and achievements, the government of Norway has committed NOK 200 million (US$35 million) for the period 2012-2013.

This contribution is in addition to Norway's annual support to the core funding of UNEP and its support to key programs such as Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Degradation in Developing Countries, REDD.

Norway has doubled its support to the UNEP-UNDP Poverty and Environment Initiative to meet the increased demand from developing countries for advice on the integration of environmental concerns into national development policies.

Norwegian Environment Minister Erik Solheim emphasized UNEP's role within the UN system of integrating environment and development.

"Ultimately," Solheim said, "this funding is a mark of Norway's trust in UNEP. It will strengthen the organization's science-based policy work based on the GEO-report and other flagship publications and enhance UNEP's ability to support countries efforts to develop a low-carbon, resource-efficient and socially inclusive economy."

The GEO-5 Summary for Policy Makers was negotiated and endorsed at an intergovernmental consultation in South Korea in late January. It was launched Monday at the UNEP Governing Council Special Session.

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