Best of our wild blogs: 20 Apr 12

Results of Rick’s Project for His Honour’s Project
from Mangrove Action Squad

An unknown shrike
from Bird Ecology Study Group

Paying Homage to Mother Earth
from illuminate! Sony Photography Blog

Pledge your Act of Green at
from Otterman speaks

Earth Day celebrations by ICCS begin with Maxine Mowe delivering our talk, “Life and Trash in the Sea” from News from the International Coastal Cleanup Singapore

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Malaysia: Reefs at Pulau Bidong to be opened to day-trippers

News Straits Times 19 Apr 12;

TERENGGANU will consider allowing a limited number of tourists to make day visits to Pulau Bidong during the Visit Terengganu Year 2013.

Menteri Besar Datuk Seri Ahmad Said said the state government would maintain its firm stand on protecting the natural heritage around the island.

"The number of tourists at any one time will be limited as we don't want the coral to be affected," he said after the launch of Bidong Underwater and Land Challenge (BULC) photography contest in conjunction with Earth Day 2012 at the Universiti Malaysia Terengganu's (UMT) Pulau Bidong research facility here yesterday. Sultan Mizan Zainal Abidin launched the event organised by Coral Malaysia and UMT with cooperation from the state government.

Ahmad said Pulau Bidong, a Vietnamese refugee transit point until 1991, was a great destination for divers.

"The island could be promoted as a destination for divers as there are many good diving spots and huge underwater wrecks like buses, which are now covered with colourful corals."

He said anyone who wanted to visit the island must get approval from UMT.

"We received many requests from former Vietnamese refugees who have resettled overseas to re-visit the island for nostalgic reasons, but we decided not to develop the island for tourism for fear the corals and plants around the island will be destroyed."

After the launch, Sultan Mizan went s cuba diving with Coral Malaysia members to explore the wrecks around the island.

The sultan also placed a football-sized pearl replica inside a giant clam replica in Pulau Bidong waters to mark the start of BULC.

Coral Malaysia president Jamhariah Jaafar said 30 divers took part in the competition.

"The aim of BULC is to create awareness of our natural heritage and to help promote it as a tourism product internationally," she said.

The underwater category top prize is RM5,000 while the land category champion will get RM3,000. The results will be announced in July.

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Indonesia: Men Jailed for 8 Months for Killing 20 Orangutans

Tunggadewa Mattangkilang Jakarta Globe 19 Apr 12;

Tenggarong, East Kalimantan. Four men were sentenced to eight months in prison on Wednesday for slaughtering protected orangutans on an East Kalimantan palm oil plantation.

The sentences are likely to anger environmental and animal rights groups, which had demanded that the defendants receive the maximum penalty of five years in prison for killing an endangered species.

Imam Muhtarom and Mujianto, who were convicted of carrying out the actual killings, were also fined Rp 20 million ($2,200) each.

Phuah Chuan Hun, the Malaysian national who managed the plantation owned by Khaleda Agroprima Malindo, and his employee, Widiantoro, were convicted of ordering the killings. They were fined Rp 30 million each.

The Tenggarong District Court, which heard the case, ruled that Phuah and Widiantoro hired Imam and Mujiyanto to drive the orangutans from the palm oil plantation.

Imam and Mujiyanto then hunted down the orangutans and shot them with an air rifle.

Most of the orangutans did not die instantly after being shot but were left seriously injured and immobilized, the court heard. The pair then tied up the orangutans and left them to die from blood loss or hunger.

Some of the orangutans were eaten by stray dogs.

Imam and Mujiyanto then showed photographs of the dead animals to Phuah and Widiantoro, who paid the killers Rp 1 million per orangutan. This was on top of a Rp 1.2 monthly salary.

“The defendants deliberately killed and wounded a protected animal,” the presiding judge, Rukman Hadi, said on Wednesday.

Habiburahman, the defendants’ lawyer, told the court after the sentencing that they needed time to decide whether to appeal to the East Kalimantan High Court.

The police arrested Imam and Mujianto in December after receiving a tip that they had killed orangutans. That led to the arrests of Phuah and Widiantoro.

The four men, police added, killed at least 20 orangutans and other primates in the company’s plantation area.

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Indonesia: Walhi, REDD task force fight forest clearing

The Jakarta Post 19 Apr 12;

Environmental group, the Indonesian Forum for the Environment (Walhi), may have lost the first battle in its fight against deforestation in Tripa Peat Swamp, Aceh, but the group have now won support from a government-sanctioned task force.

The Reducing Emissions for Deforestation and Forest Degradation (REDD) task force visited the area last month when Walhi, and other local green groups, were awaiting a verdict on a lawsuit they had filed against the Aceh administration for issuing a concession permit to PT Kallista Alam.

The Aceh Administrative Court delivered its verdict in favor of the administration on April 3 and Walhi filed an appeal the day after.

Outgoing Aceh governor Irwandi Yusuf had signed the permit last August, allowing the company to convert a 1,605-hectare plot of protected peatland forest in the Nagan Raya district into oil palm plantations.

Forestry Minister Zulkifli Hasan plans to visit Aceh later this month to meet with the newly elected governor Zaini Abdullah and discuss forestry conditions in Aceh, including the Tripa peat land.

The Forestry Ministry’s spokesman, Sumarto Suharno, said the ministry had banned the issuance of new permits since 2009. “The outgoing Aceh governor signed the new permit in 2011, two years after the ban was imposed,” he said.

Environmental activists also have pointed out that the Tripa peat land area is part of the Leuser ecosystem and that the permit jeopardizes a moratorium on forest clearing, which was issued in June 2011.

The moratorium map initially covered 10.7 hectares of peat land, including the Tripa Peat Swamp, protecting them against new permits.

However, the Tripa peat-land area was removed from the map through a forestry ministerial decree, issued last November, because data from the National Land Agency (BPN) indicated that the area was suitable for commercial development.

According to a report issued by the Presidential Unit for the Supervision and Control of Development (UKP3S), led by Kuntoro Mangkusubroto, who is also the REDD task force chairman, the company, which should never have received the permit, had allegedly begun clearing the land prior to the permit’s issuance.

“Walhi and the REDD task force found out that the company had used a slash-and-burn method to clear the area. The fires were within a 12-kilometer radius,” Walhi Aceh’s head of advocacy and campaigns, M. Nizar Abdurrani, said on Tuesday.

He added that many animals, such as deer and anteaters, which had managed to escape the flames by entering local villages, had been killed by locals. The REDD task force findings that were released recently supported the activists’ claims.

In a press release made available to The Jakarta Post, the team said that PT Kallista Alam’s plantation was located within the Leuser ecosystem zone. Based on a sampling, they also discovered that the area was covered in thick moss and was part of protected peat-land forest.

The task force has determined that the Aceh administration could also be charged under the 2004 Plantations Law; the 2009 Environmental Protection and Management Law; and the 2007 Spatial Planning Law. (tas)

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Indonesia: Calls for National Leadership on Java's Ciliwung River

Fidelis E. Satriastanti Jakarta Globe 18 Apr 12;

Policies and initiatives by four ministries, three regional administrations and various civil society groups to try to clean up the Ciliwung River will prove meaningless without strong leadership from the highest authority in the country, an expert said on Wednesday.

Firdaus Ali, an environmental engineering lecturer at the University of Indonesia’s School of Engineering, said it would ultimately take “strong leadership from the president of this country and strong commitment” to restore the Ciliwung, which originates in the Bogor highlands before running through Jakarta and emptying out into Jakarta Bay.

He cited cases of heavily polluted rivers in Canada, South Korea and Singapore that were successfully restored thanks to the commitments of their leaders.

“I think the leadership that we’re looking for is for the president to be fully aware that water is the source of life for the country,” he said at a forum on improving the Ciliwung River.

One way to underscore such commitment, he said, would be for the president to set up a ministry of water resources, dedicated to cleaning up the country’s rivers.

“Other countries nearby already have such an institution, for instance in Papua New Guinea,” Firdaus said.

He also said that without high-level leadership any effort, however well intended, would only get bogged down in bureaucracy.

“As long as the effort to restore the Ciliwung is led from the level of a directorate general, it will not work,” he said.

“Why? Because bureaucracy is expensive. They can invite mayors to attend initiatives on saving rivers, but afterward they just go home and forget about it.”

Environment Minister Balthasar Kambuaya acknowledged that programs to save the Ciliwung had shown little progress to date, but was optimistic that a new policy to divide the 120-kilometer-long river into six segments for different local authorities to manage would work.

“It’s a bit strange that we have all these programs and everyone is trying to do something, but nothing has happened. There’s got to be something wrong,” the minister said at the discussion.

“That’s why we’ve decided to divide the river into six segments so that we know which parts need what kind of attention.”

Under the plan, the Banten, Jakarta and West Java administrations will take charge of the various segments of the river and work with the ministries of environment, public works, forestry and agriculture to improve water quality.

The three main problems to be tackled are domestic, industrial and farming waste.

“We will deal with water quality,” Balthasar said.

“If it’s a matter of domestic waste, we’ll find ways to address it. Meanwhile, the other ministries will work on different areas, such as the Forestry Ministry, which will be focused on re-greening the riverbanks.”

However, he said that because of population pressures, it would be “impossible to restore the Ciliwung” to the same condition it was in 300 years ago, at its most pristine. But he was optimistic that the new policy, to be administered until 2030 at a total cost of Rp 5 trillion ($545 million), would succeed in significantly improving the quality of the water.

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China 'river pig' deaths raise extinction fears

AFP Yahoo News 19 Apr 12;

China says 16 endangered finless porpoises have been found dead since the beginning of the year and experts blame water pollution and climate change for pushing the species toward extinction.

The freshwater porpoise -- popularly known in Chinese as the "river pig" -- mainly lives in China's Yangtze River and two lakes linked to the waterway.

Authorities have discovered 10 dead porpoises in Dongting Lake in the central province of Hunan since March, said a statement Thursday by the government of Yueyang city, which is located on the lake's shore.

Another six dead porpoises have been found in Poyang Lake in the eastern province of Jiangxi since the beginning of the year, the official Xinhua news agency said late Wednesday.

It quoted experts as warning the species will be extinct within a matter of years.

Wang Kexiong, a researcher at China's Institute of Hydrobiology, said water pollution, shipping, sand dredging and illegal fishing were all possible contributing factors to the recent deaths.

Many waterways in China have become heavily contaminated with toxic waste from factories and farms -- pollution blamed on more than three decades of rapid economic growth and lax enforcement of environmental protection laws.

The report said climate change also could be to blame as disrupted weather patterns have caused water levels to drop and make it more difficult for the porpoises to find food.

Tests have shown that some of the porpoises are believed to have died of starvation, it said.

In 2006, China was estimated to have only 1,200 finless porpoises left. That same year, the Baiji -- a freshwater dolphin also native to the Yangtze River -- was declared extinct.

Earlier this year, a survey found just 65 "river pigs" in Dongting Lake and 300-400 in Poyang Lake, the report said.

Following the recent deaths, Yueyang city vowed to investigate and increase protection of the remaining porpoises in Dongting Lake.

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Two years later, fish sick near BP oil spill site

Cain Burdeau Associated Press Yahoo News 19 Apr 12;

BARATARIA BAY, La. (AP) — Open sores. Parasitic infections. Chewed-up-looking fins. Gashes. Mysterious black streaks. Two years after the drilling-rig explosion that touched off the biggest offshore oil spill in U.S. history, scientists are beginning to suspect that fish in the Gulf of Mexico are suffering the effects of the petroleum.

The evidence is nowhere near conclusive. But if those suspicions prove correct, it could mean that the environmental damage to the Gulf from the BP disaster is still unfolding and the picture isn't as rosy as it might have seemed just a year ago.

And the damage may extend well beyond fish. In the past year, research has emerged showing deep-water coral, seaweed beds, dolphins, mangroves and other species of plants and animals are suffering.

"There is lots of circumstantial evidence that something is still awry," said Christopher D'Elia, dean of Louisiana State University's School of the Coast and Environment. "On the whole, it is not as much environmental damage as originally projected. Doesn't mean there is none."

Reports of strange things with fish began emerging when fishermen returned to the Gulf weeks after BP's gushing oil well was capped during the summer of 2010. They started catching grouper and red snapper with large open sores and strange black streaks, lesions they said they had never seen. They promptly blamed the spill.

The illnesses are not believed to pose any health threat to humans. But the problems could be devastating to some prized types of fish and to the people who make their living catching them.

There's no saying for sure what's causing the diseases in what is still a relatively small percentage of the fish. The Gulf is assaulted with all kinds of contaminants every day. Moreover, scientists have no baseline data on sick fish in the Gulf from before the spill. The first comprehensive research may be years from publication.

Still, it's clear to fishermen and researchers alike that something's amiss.

— A recent batch of test results revealed the presence of oil in the bile extracted from fish caught in August 2011, nearly 15 months after the well blew out on April 20, 2010, in a disaster that killed 11 men.

"Bile tells you what a fish's last meal was," said Steve Murawski, a marine biologist with the University of South Florida and former chief science adviser for the National Marine Fisheries Service. "There was as late as August of last year an oil source out there that some of those animals were consuming."

Bile in red snapper, yellow-edge grouper and a few other species contained on average 125 parts per million of naphthalene, a compound in crude oil, Murawski said. Scientists expect to find almost none of the substance in fish captured in the open ocean.

— Last summer, a federally funded team of scientists conducted what experts say is the most extensive study yet of sick fish in shallow and deep Gulf waters. Over seven cruises in July and August, the scientists caught about 4,000 fish, from Florida's Dry Tortugas to Louisiana.

About 3 percent of the fish had gashes, ulcers and parasites symptomatic of environmental contamination, according to Murawski, the lead researcher. The number of sick fish rose as scientists moved west away from the relatively clean waters of Florida, and also as they pushed into deeper waters off Alabama, Mississippi and especially Louisiana, near where the Deepwater Horizon rig sank.

About 10 percent of mud-dwelling tile fish caught in the DeSoto Canyon, to the northeast of the well, showed signs of sickness.

"The closer to the oil rig, the higher the frequency was" of sick fish, Murawski said.

Past studies off the Atlantic Seaboard found about 1 percent of fish suffering from diseases, Murawski said. But he said that figure cannot really be used for comparisons with the Gulf, whose warmer waters serve as an incubator for bacteria and parasites that can cause lesions and other illnesses.

— Laboratory work over the past winter on the USF samples indicates the immune systems of the fish were impaired by an unknown environmental stress or contamination. Other researchers say they have come to similar conclusions.

"Some of the things I've seen over the past year or so I've never seen before," said Will Patterson, a marine biologist at the University of South Alabama and at the Dauphin Island Sea Lab. "Things like fin rot, large open sores on fish, those were some of the more disturbing types of things we saw. Different changes in pigment, red snapper with large black streaks on them."

Teasing out what might have been caused by the spill and what is normal will be tricky, and that's the challenge scientists now face. Deformities, diseases and sudden shifts in fish numbers are regular occurrences in nature. For example, scientists are not sure what to make of reports from fishermen of eyeless or otherwise deformed shrimp and crabs.

"I've heard everything but shrimp with two heads," said Jerald Horst, a marine biologist retired from LSU AgCenter who writes books about the Gulf. "I listen respectfully. Reports can be useful but are not proof in themselves of cause and effect."

Even if oil were pinpointed as the cause, it could be difficult to definitively tie the problem to the BP spill. The Gulf is strewn with wells, pipelines, natural oil leaks from the seafloor, and pollution from passing ships. And muddy, contaminant-laden water flows constantly into the Gulf from the Mississippi River.

Still, the more scientists look — thanks to millions of dollars in research money, much of it coming from a fund set up by BP for independent research — the more they're finding that may be off-kilter.

For example, last year scientists with the University of Louisiana at Lafayette took cruises in search of crabs, lobsters and seaweed they had been studying in the waters not far from the BP well. They found a surprising lack of diversity.

There saw less seaweed and fewer crabs, lobsters and other forms of life. Also, crustaceans they pulled up had lesions, lost appendages and black gunk on their gills, said Darryl Felder, a biologist at ULL. He said the black coating may be associated with the large amounts of drilling mud used to try to plug the leaking well.

In Barataria Bay, which was hit hard by the spill, scientists say they found dolphins that were anemic and showing signs of liver and lung disease. Those problems have not been linked to the spill. But in the same bay, scientists say they have linked oil contamination to genetic changes in bait fish known as killifish.

Near the BP well, scientists have found a dying community of deep-sea coral. The scientists recently published findings linking its demise to oil that was chemically fingerprinted as having come from the BP well.

Last year, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration advised fishermen to throw suspicious-looking fish back, and fishermen say they have been doing that. At the same time, the Food and Drug Administration and state agencies say they have tested Gulf seafood extensively and found no problems, and researchers agree there is little cause for concern.

"It's not a people issue, and people should not be concerned about fish entering the market," Murawski said.

For the second year, fishermen like Wayne Werner, who catches red snapper commercially, are calling in with reports of lesions. He and others said they want to get to the bottom of the problem, which is forcing them to take longer trips to fishing spots outside the spill zone and making them fear for their livelihoods.

"Every time we talked about bad fish, everybody kind of went nuts on us. Just like, 'You're hearsaying,' you know? And we're saying, 'Well, they're there,'" the Louisiana boat captain said this week. "They're still there. Now that the water is getting warm again, we're starting to see more and more again."

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Deepwater Horizon aftermath: how much is a dolphin worth?

Two years after the Gulf of Mexico oil disaster, BP and US authorities wrangle over how much should be paid in damages
Suzanne Goldenberg 19 Apr 12;

The dolphins are preserved in giant freezers in marine labs across America. Tagged, catalogued, carefully guarded – and suspended in liquid nitrogen for the moment when they will determine BP's final bill for the Gulf of Mexico oil disaster, which started two years ago this Friday.

The dolphins, among more than 700 that have washed up on Gulf shores since the last two years, are a crucial component of the investigation now underway to decide the cost to BP of restoring the wildlife and environment damaged by the biggest offshore spill in US history.

The carcasses were collected – on at least one occasion by armed federal officials, and generally with witnesses from BP – from marine science facilities on the Gulf coast and transported to labs across the country. Scientists are evaluating their tissue for evidence of exposure to hydrocarbons from the runaway well, as part of the lengthy process of accounting for environmental damage to the Gulf.

At its most basic, the process now consuming teams of BP and government scientists and lawyers revolves around this: How much is a dolphin worth, and how exactly did it die?

How much lasting harm was done by the oil that still occasionally washes up on beaches, or remains as splotches on the ocean floor near the site of BP's broken well? What can be done to turn the clock back, and restore the wildlife and environment to levels that would have existed if there had not been a spill?

Wednesday's proposed $7.8bn settlement between BP and more than 100,000 people suing for economic damages due takes the oil company a step closer to consigning the spill to the past. BP is moving towards a settlement with the federal government and the governments of Louisiana and Mississippi. It could also face criminal charges.

But arguably the most difficult negotiation still lies ahead as BP and the federal government try to establish how much damage was done to the environment as a direct result of the oil spill, and how much the company will have to pay to set things right.

"It is extraordinarily difficult to monetise environmental harm. What dollar value do we place on a destroyed marsh or the loss of a spawning ground? What is the price associated with killing birds and marine mammals? Even if we were capable of meaningfully establishing a price for ecological harm, there is so much that we do not know about the harm to the Gulf of Mexico – and will not know for years – that it may never be possible to come up with an accurate natural resource damage assessment," said David Uhlmann, a law professor at the University of Michigan and a former head of the justice department's environmental crimes section.

"The best the government can do is negotiate for a sum that is large enough – in the billions of dollars – to cover all possible restoration costs."

Those familiar with the process say compiling the Natural Resources Damage Assessment, setting the price tag and strategy for restoring the Gulf environment, will continue at least throughout 2013.

"Everything about this case is more challenging due to the scale and due to the uncertainty about the long-term effects," said Tom Brosnan of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Agency, which is leading the federal government's damage assessment effort.

So far there are more than 100 NRDA investigations, or work plans, trying to assess the ecological damage done when more than 4 million barrels of oil entered the Gulf of Mexico.

The first step is to establish cause, Brosnan said. "The onus is on us to prove that if an animal is sick or dies that the oil actually caused it.". Then BP and the government must agree on the value of what was lost – an exercise that is routinely conducted with sea birds killed by oil spills but never before for dolphins.

"That's one of the most vexing aspects," said a lawyer familiar with the process, calculating the value of a creature beyond its direct role in the human economy. He acknowledged a charismatic mega fauna, like the dolphin, is probably worth more than a humbler animal, but he declined to offer a dollar figure.

Nobody is seriously suggesting that BP pay a dollar amount for each dolphin lost, Brosnan said. But the numbers are important in determining how to restore dolphin populations to levels they would have reached had there never been a spill in the first place. "You need to analyse what you have to do to get the dolphins back," said Brosnan.

The immediate task, however, is establishing what was lost. "You start to put together a story, that given these factors what do we think the adverse impacts on dolphins could be. Is it inhalation of the oil fumes? Is it eating contaminated goop? Is it skin exposure? Is it that their prey gets taken out?"

Aside from the dolphins, government scientists, closely shadowed by experts working for BP, are studying the effects on creatures as tiny as zooplankton and as massive as manatees. They also hope to draw on the findings of more than 150 other studies into the effects of the spill.

The scientists are starting at a tremendous disadvantage, however. Conservationists worry that a dearth of data about the Gulf before the spill will work in BP's favour when it comes time to figuring out the bill.

Arriving at a mutually agreed figure for damages may come down to the dolphins. "They do make a sentinel species," said George Crozier, recently retired as the director of the Dauphin Island Sea Lab. "They are not only at the top of the food chain, but they eat all of the fish that they eat. That means they have greater potential to be exposed."

As large marine mammals, they also broke through the surface of water coated with a thick scum of oil and they inhaled the fumes from the giant fires used to burn off the oil.

But figuring out how many dolphins died or how they did so is bound to be a subject of contention between BP and the federal government. It's hard to even agree on a number.

Scientists do not know how many distinct dolphin populations there were in the Gulf before the spill. They generally agree that the 700 dolphins that have stranded in the last two years represent only a fraction of the animals that have died in the same period of time. But what fraction? Wildlife biologists often work on the premise that for every carcass that washes ashore, there are more than 10 dolphins whose bodies are never recovered.

However, a study published last month of earlier dolphin strandings in the Gulf of Mexico said the true figure for dolphin deaths due to the oil spill could be 50 or even 250 times higher. So 700 dolphin carcasses, now stored at freezers awaiting analysis, could represent a true death toll of up to 175,000 of the animals.

Then there is the matter of conclusively linking the deaths to BP oil. The current dolphin die-off – the longest yet – began a few months before the oil spill, and scientists have speculated that some deaths may have been caused by a dolphin version of measles, or by a one-time flush of cold water down the Mississippi after a freak snowstorm.

Noaa released preliminary findings last month that appeared to strengthen evidence of a link between dolphin deaths and BP oil in an area off coastal Louisiana.

They drew urine and blood samples and conducted ultrasounds on 32 live dolphins from Barataria Bay, an area that was heavily oiled in the spill, and concluded the animals were underweight, anaemic and had low blood sugar.

Campaigners say the findings plus two other studies underway of coastal dolphin populations are critical to establishing the long-term effects of the oil spill.

"It's circumstantial but it's as circumstantial as finding a room full of dead people and a guy holding a canon," said Michael Jasny, who works in the marine mammal programme of the Natural Resources Defence Council. "The circumstantial evidence is very, very strong."

However, the preliminary studies failed to convince BP – especially when there are billions involved. A BP official said there were "multiple potential causes" for the dolphin deaths.

"Recent reports about the health of dolphins in Barataria Bay appear to be based on NRDA data that has not been fully analysed and is still undergoing important quality assurance and validation procedures," the official said.

For the moment, however, the company and the federal government are working co-operatively on the damage assessment. BP paid $14bn to clean up oiled marshes and beaches. It pledged $1bn for immediate use on restoration projections, and $500m for environmental research.

The co-operation makes it likely BP and the federal government can avoid a law suit. It could also help unlock money for full-scale restoration projects sooner. Officials on both sides were hopeful the damage assessment could be complete some time in 2013.

The joint effort is troubling for some campaigners, who fear that BP and the federal government are working to wrap things up before the full impact of the spill is truly understood. "So much of what is going on is really black box. It's just negotiations between scientists and lawyers," said Aaron Viles of the Gulf Restoration Network.

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U.N. in Last Ditch Bid to Finalise Rio+20 Action Plan

Thalif Deen IPS News 19 Apr 12;

UNITED NATIONS, Apr 19, 2012 (IPS) - The Rio+20 sustainable development summit, scheduled to take place in Brazil in June, is billed as a key meeting of world leaders who are expected to renew their political commitment and approve a wide-ranging plan for a greener future.

"Without exaggeration," says Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, "I would call it one of the most important conferences in the history of the United Nations."

Still, a U.N. Preparatory Committee (PrepCom) negotiating the final plan of action - formally called the "outcome document" - is virtually deadlocked on a draft text which has "ballooned" from 20 to 200 pages.

At least one Western diplomat was quoted as saying the final outcome document, currently known as "zero draft", should really be reduced to about five to 10 pages. And this will be one of the monumental tasks before the PrepCom, comprising all 193 member states, which will continue negotiations next week, beginning Apr. 23.

The PrepCom will make one last attempt to finalise the action plan over a two-week period through May 4.

If it fails to reach consensus, negotiations will be resumed in Brazil Jun. 13-15 in a do-or-die attempt to finalise it before the three-day summit Jun. 20-22, officially called the U.N. Conference on Sustainable Development (UNCSD).

One Asian diplomat says the scenario is predictable, and as in previous international conferences, the negotiators are expected to meet round-the-clock in the final days in a desperate attempt to meet the deadline.

"When the text is finally agreed upon," he said, with a tinge of diplomatic exaggeration, "half the delegates will be fast asleep in their hotel rooms and the other half will be dozing off in the committee room while the negotiations are going on."

As an afterthought, he added, "Not to mention those delegates who are already heading towards the airport even while the remaining negotiators are adding the final touches."

"And that's the usual political game plan before a U.N. summit," he told IPS. "The final document is eventually the brainchild of a small core group dedicated to leave its fingerprints on it."

Ambassador Kim Sook of South Korea, one of the co-chairs of the PrepCom, (along with Ambassador John Ashe of Antigua and Barbuda), told a closed-door meeting of the 132-member Group of 77 developing countries that many paragraphs in the document are "too long and complicated to read and comprehend".

"A clear indicator of the success of Rio+20," he said, "will be the quality of the outcome document to be adopted by more than 135 heads of state and government."

"We have a long text," Kim said, "but very few negotiating days."

Beginning Apr 23, the co-chairs plan to "try their best to utilise our limited negotiating days as efficiently as possible," including three sessions per day: morning, afternoon and evening.

Kim called upon all parties - specifically the negotiating groups, including the European Union (EU), the G77, the East European Group (EEG) and the group of countries known as JUSCANZ (Japan, the U.S., Canada, Australia and New Zealand) - "to participate in the negotiations in the spirit of collaboration and compromise, and with the goal of agreeing on a focused political document, which is both action and future-oriented."

He said members have been provided with "a compilation text" which includes a "suggested text" by the co-chairs, together with the zero draft and all amendments.

According to the United Nations, the "zero draft" titled "The Future We Want" is based on more than 6,000 pages of submissions from member states, civil society groups, businesses, consumers, trade unionists, farmers, students, teachers, researchers, activists, and indigenous communities, all of them categorised under a single heading called "major groups".

Besides the complaints made by civil society groups on the deletion of crucial issues, including gender, reproductive and human rights from the outcome document, there are also other contentious issues such as financing for sustainable development where member states are deadlocked.

"The rigorous negotiating process is a clear call for the outcome of Rio+20 to be one that takes bold, decisive action that sets us on course for a more sustainable future," says U.N. Under-Secretary- General Sha Zukang, who has been designated secretary-general of the summit.

Paying a compliment to Brazil, he said, "At the national level, as host country, you have allocated and mobilised unprecedented financial, human and material resources for an event that promises to be the largest, most participative U.N. event of its kind (with Brazil expecting as many as 50,000 participants)."

Meanwhile, at a press conference last month, just after the Mar. 19-23 negotiating sessions, Tim Core of Oxfam International said that "business-as-usual negotiations in an age of crisis is just not acceptable."

He said the March negotiations had produced nothing "but hardened positions, weak pledges and eleventh hour amendments that eroded real gains in sustainable development".


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