Deep in the heart of the Congo River Basin, the tropical forest is lush and full of life. Immense Sapelli and Okoumé trees tower over the forest floor, and small antelopes called duikers plunge through the undergrowth while the calls of bonobos and sooty mangabeys sound from the leafy canopy. At least, that’s the way it was before the bushmeat hunters arrived.
In forests throughout Central and West Africa, virtually every type of wild animal is being hunted, frequently illegally, for use as food. But while indigenous peoples such as the Bantu pygmies have sustainably hunted this "bushmeat" for centuries, the level of hunting has skyrocketed in the past two decades. Today, species ranging from cane rats to elephants are being hunted at unprecedented levels, and recent estimates suggest a bushmeat harvest of between one and five million metric tons each year—a level that is literally emptying forests of wildlife.
The situation is most dire for primates such as bonobos, chimpanzees and gorillas. "As a group, great apes tend to be very much at risk because they breed so slowly," says Elizabeth Bennett, director of the hunting and wildlife trade program at the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS). To be hunted sustainably, some ape species could lose no more than one member per square kilometer every 20 years, but bushmeat hunters are annually killing 6,000 western lowland gorillas (from a total population of less than 100,000), along with 15,000 chimpanzees. Smaller primates wind up on the table, too, with approximately 7.5 million red colobus monkeys being killed for food each year.
"The numbers are just huge," Bennett says, especially when hoofed animals are taken into account: WCS estimates that 28 million bay duikers are killed annually, as are 16 million blue duikers. "And these are conservative figures." The problem has reached such tremendous proportions that last summer, at a meeting of gorilla experts in Germany, scientists from WCS and other institutions said that poaching has surpassed habitat loss as the most immediate threat facing western lowland gorillas, and could lead to their extinction in the next 20 years.
At the root of the problem is a growing population and a tumultuous economy. "Africa’s population went up eight times in the 20th century," Bennett says. "That means you have eight times more consumption than you did 100 years ago." Today, more than 30 million people live within forested regions of Cameroon, Gabon, Equatorial Guinea and other Central African nations, and these inhabitants eat about the same amount of meat each year as most North Americans. More than 60 percent of this meat comes from local wildlife.
Until recently, much of the forest was inaccessible to hunters. This changed in the 1980s, when international logging companies expanded into Central African forests. Roads were built to accommodate logging trucks, carving the forest into easily traversed parcels. Armies of workers followed, many bringing their families, and almost overnight formerly pristine areas were flooded with people.
"Areas that had been previously unexploited and unpopulated are suddenly inundated, and every worker may bring eight or 10 individuals who are dependent on that salary," says Heather Eves, director of the Bushmeat Crisis Task Force (BCTF), a consortium of more than 30 organizations and institutions formed in 1999 to address the looming problem. "This brings lots of people together who need to be fed, and the forests just open up."
Logging roads have also allowed the influx of shotguns and steel cable for snares, and have enabled hunters to carry more carcasses out of the forest. As a result, a burgeoning commercial bushmeat market now stretches far beyond the Congo Basin.
"Bushmeat has always been a commodity in this region and used at varying levels of trade, but wildlife is now being exploited for export to urban centers," Eves says. The reason for this is economic: Bushmeat hunters can earn the equivalent of $300 to $1,000 per year, more than the region’s average household income. The hunters find eager buyers in large cities, where many inhabitants purchase the meat as a way to reconnect to their village origins, or to show off their newly acquired wealth. In Libreville, the Gabonese capital, around 1,200 metric tons of bushmeat arrives in the markets each day, and in Pointe Noire, the second-largest city of the Congo, an estimated 150,000 metric tons is consumed each year.
And the markets are not limited to Africa. In 2001, two London shopkeepers were jailed for operating a business that sold meat from monkeys, anteaters and other animals. They offered to custom-order whole lions for around $8,000 each. "Bushmeat hunting has become so commercialized that we’re now finding stores and restaurants in Europe and the United States where bushmeat is available," Eves says.
In addition to the obvious loss of prey species, the bushmeat trade has far-reaching consequences. According to the Central Africa Regional Program for the Environment (CARPE), the bushmeat trade threatens forest carnivores such as leopards and crowned eagles by depleting their main prey species. The forest itself is threatened as well, in that the loss of seed-dispersing animals is permanently changing the forest’s composition and structure. Indigenous pygmies are losing the forests and animals they’ve depended on for centuries. And even the bushmeat hunters and consumers are at risk: according to BCTF, the hunting, butchering and consumption of bushmeat, especially primates, is placing people at increased risk of contracting virulent animal-borne diseases. Ebola outbreaks have been linked to exposure to gorilla carcasses, and evidence of simian immunodeficiency virus (SIV) infection has been found in 26 different species of primates, including chimpanzees and sooty mangabeys, which many researchers believe may be a link to HIV/AIDS.
Despite the severity of the problem, some remedial steps are showing signs of success. In northern Congo, WCS has been working with the Ministry of Forestry Economy and a logging company, Congolaise Industrielle des Bois (CIB), to reduce bushmeat hunting in a 4.5 million-acre logging concession. The project supplies forest workers with alternative forms of protein, and provides for enforcement by groups of local "eco-guards" who control traffic on logging roads. "This ensures that protected animals aren’t being hunted," says Bennett. "Gorillas and chimps are now easier to see in the concession."
But to significantly reduce bushmeat hunting, many groups are taking the message directly to consumers. Last year in Ghana, Conservation International undertook a national bushmeat education campaign that BCTF says has been very effective in changing behaviors. "People have an incredibly deep cultural link with wildlife in Africa," Eves says. "Talking about bushmeat as a loss of cultural heritage resonates there."
Until these changes become widespread, though, sections of the Congo Basin continue to be identified as suffering from "Empty Forest Syndrome"—filled with trees, but devoid of large animals. It’s a new situation, but one that has become disturbingly familiar. "It’s a really odd feeling to walk through a forest that’s literally silent," says Eves.
The "Magna Carta" of Enviro
nmental Protection Faces an Uncertain Future
When Utah Governor Mike Leavitt proposed constructing a 120-mile freeway running north and south through his state, developers eagerly waited to begin digging and paving. But a few significant details bogged down their plans. As a coalition of environmental groups called Utahns for Better Transportation pointed out, the proposed freeway was to be built over a portion of the Great Salt Lake wetland where millions of birds migrating from the Arctic to South America stop to feed.
Using protective laws including the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), wildlife advocates challenged the planned construction in court. They argued that the Army Corps of Engineers, which maintained the authority to grant building permits for such projects, had not conducted an adequate environmental impact assessment. The planners had only taken the paved portion of the road into consideration.
"This freeway was going to damage much more than the immediate area of the road," says Lawson LeGate, the senior southwest regional representative for the Sierra Club. "And they didn’t count the fact that they’re in a boggy area and the lake rises and falls." Last September, judges in the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals in Denver, Colorado agreed that a more complete NEPA analysis of the environmental impacts of the road was necessary, sending the planners back to the drawing board.
Passed by Congress in 1969 and signed into law by Richard Nixon, NEPA has served for more than three decades as the "Magna Carta" of environmental protection in the U.S. The law—which has remained nearly unaltered—requires government agencies to prepare environmental impact statements (EIS) that publicly disclose the potential effects of projects for which they issue permits, pay for or build.
"NEPA guarantees that government decisions will take environmental concerns into account and gives the public a role in that decision-making process," says Sharon Buccino, a senior attorney for the Natural Resources Defense Council.
But a number of recent government proposals and actions that circumvent NEPA suggest that such guarantees may soon no longer exist. The Bush administration’s wildfire plan, known as the Healthy Forests Initiative, includes a proposal to waive NEPA environmental reviews and appeals for a broad category of commercial logging. According to the initiative, restoration of the forests is a priority, but "managers and local communities are too often held back by red tape and litigation."
In line with the initiative, two bills in Congress sought to exempt millions of acres of national forest land from NEPA review. The House bill would have given the public only 21 days to comment on a proposed agency action, while current regulations provide a 90-day window. Both houses of Congress rejected their respective versions of the proposal.
Michael Francis, director of The Wilderness Society’s national forests program, knows the importance of public input in forest decisions. He points to a situation in which planning changes threatened to radically alter habitat in South Dakota’s Black Hills National Forest. Pointing to NEPA, wildlife defenders appealed the plan administratively. The Forest Service chief agreed with their complaints and asked for a revision.
Yet, in another recent action, the Forest Service proposed regulation changes under which the agency would no longer require environmental impact statements for alterations of existing forest plans. The new rule would also eliminate the administrative appeal process in favor of a pre-decision review process, which the Forest Service claims will speed the planning procedure. According to Susan Rieff, policy director for land stewardship at the National Wildlife Federation, these changes will essentially exempt local forest supervisors from any NEPA requirements and limit public input in developing forest management plans.
"It gives local forest supervisors a lot more discretion in environmental analysis—and they are subject to local business pressures," says Rieff. Francis agrees that the changes would create new challenges. "If you look at the new proposed forest regulations, we wouldn’t have been able to appeal the [South Dakota] forest plan to the chief and get it redone," he says.
Last year, the administration argued in federal court that NEPA does not apply to military projects in the United States" Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ), the area of ocean between three and 200 miles offshore. To the satisfaction of many ecosystem advocates, a federal judge blocked the U.S. Navy from using high-intensity sonar systems, which may have harmed marine mammals with their loud signals.
But while oceans remain protected as before under NEPA, lands potentially affected by transportation projects do not. An executive order issued in September directed the secretary of transportation to compose a list of high-priority projects (such as highway, tunnel or airport construction) that would receive abbreviated reviews for approval. Faster does not mean better, according to environmental advocacy groups. They warn that hastening review procedures would compromise the integrity of environmental safeguards.
These recent moves by the government are not the only developments that have caused concern about the future of NEPA. In May 2002, the Council on Environmental Quality (CEQ) launched a special task force to review NEPA and form recommendations that will "help federal agencies update their practices and procedures and better integrate NEPA into decision-making." The CEQ reports annually to the administration on the state of the environment and oversees implementation of the environmental impact assessment process. But environmental groups have expressed doubt that the current administration will implement the task force’s recommendations to further NEPA’s objectives. "Despite claims of improving NEPA, government agencies are issuing policies that are undermining the law," says Maria Weidner, a policy advocate for Earthjustice.
With the CEQ report due to be released in the first half of 2003 and Republicans controlling both the Senate and the House, NEPA supporters will keep a close watch on legislation. "Looking forward, I think it’s fair to say that the Bush administration has targeted NEPA. They see it more as an obstacle to industry’s pro-development agenda rather than the critical tool that it is to inform decisions," says Buccino.
NEPA definitely has ruffled some local feathers by delaying civic improvement projects. Feelings run high in Stillwater, Minnesota, which has spent 30 years attempting to build a four-lane bridge. And, predictably, conservative think tanks support "streamlining" the process. "I don’t think the Bush administration is attacking or trying to gut anything," says Chris Horner, a senior fellow at the Competitive Enterprise Institute. "The administration is seeking to stem the continuing expansion or statutory sprawl of NEPA." According to Horner, the law unnecessarily blocks investments in beneficial projects.
Those who want to see reduced regulations argue that accelerated approvals will lead to faster and less-costly construction decisions, but defenders of the environment caution that the weakening of NEPA may let development spin out of control and leave citizens with
out a strong voice in project planning decisions. CONTACT: Earthjustice, (510) 550-6700, www.earthjustice.org; Natural Resources Defense Council, (212) 727-2700, www.nrdc.org. —Roxanne Khamsi
The Sinking City
Venice’s $3 Billion Plan to Stop a Rising Sea Gets Mixed Reviews
It’s a clear, calm night—no storms, no wind, no unusual weather of any kind—but Venice’s Piazza San Marco is flooding. As the tide crests, seawater begins pouring from storm drains, forming a growing pond in the middle of the city’s most important square. The vestibule of the sumptuous San Marco Basilica begins filling with water, amusing tourists, some of whom wade laughing in the ankle-deep pond.
But Venice’s flooding is no laughing matter. The sea is rising, the city is sinking, and the damage to its historic buildings, bridges and artworks is becoming increasingly apparent. Green algae now grows on the porous brickwork of many of the 14th and 15th century palaces along the Grand Canal because the flooding sea frequently tops the building’s waterproof stone foundations.
After decades of debate and study, the Italian government finally has a solution to save Venice from the sea. The centerpiece, approved in December, is a $3 billion project to build 79 enormous hinged gates to separate Venice and its lagoon from the Adriatic Sea. But the project has drawn criticism from environmentalists and a few prominent scientists who warn it will turn into a financial and environmental disaster.
Venice, built on a series of swampy islands in the midst of a large lagoon, has been slowly sinking under its own weight throughout its 1,000-year history. In the 20th century, relative sea-level in Venice increased by more than nine inches due to a combination of sinking land and rising seas.
Global warming will exacerbate the problem by melting glaciers and heating the oceans, causing them to rise by somewhere between three inches and three feet by the end of the century, according to the dozens of scientists serving on the International Panel on Climate Change. Venice’s squares, streets and low-clearance bridges are particularly at risk.
Venetians already experience more frequent incidents of "acqua alta"—especially high tidal surges that flood the city in certain wind conditions. The ground floors of most of the city’s buildings were abandoned after 1966 tidal surge put much of the city under several feet of water for more than 15 hours. In 1996, San Marco was flooded by high water on more than 80 occasions.
"If you want to preserve the city as a museum for tourists, you don’t need to build the gates," says Andrea Rinaldo, a University of Padua engineer who has watched his native Venice lose nearly half its population since the 1966 flood. "But if you want a living city with real residents, decent jobs and everyday shops and stores then you must build these gates and protect the city."
A consortium of Italian engineering firms is already busy putting the final plans together for the construction of the gates, which will lie flat on the seafloor inside the three entrances to the lagoon. When an acqua alta occurs, the gates will swing up to form a temporary wall stopping the rising sea from entering the lagoon and the city’s streets and squares.
The gates are designed to protect the city from flood surges of up to six feet in height, sufficient protection to keep up with sea-level rise for at least 70 years, according to Giovanni Cecconi, an engineer with the New Venice Consortium, an alliance of major Italian engineering firms charged with designing, building and operating the massive project. "It’s not the final solution, it’s just a way to protect the city during this century until another solution can come into place," he says.
Supporters point to similar multi-billion dollar flood control projects already constructed by Britain and the Netherlands to protect the London and Rotterdam waterfronts from wind-driven flooding events.
"Italy should do what the Dutch learned to do a long time ago: Act now and think preventively," says the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Rafael Bras, who led a team that audited Venice’s gates project. "Virtually everyone agrees that the only ultimate solution is to separate the lagoon from the Adriatic. So don’t take a wait-and-see attitude."
But environmentalists are generally skeptical of the New Venice Consortium, a private for-profit enterprise that effectively serves as the Italian government’s Venice flood protection agency. "The Consortium is a little too focused on the gates project because that’s what they live off of," says Paolo Lombardi of the Rome office of the World Wide Fund for Nature. He fears the project may consume resources better spent restoring the natural flood-protection functions of the lagoon system.
The gate’s most prominent critic, Colgate University archeologist Albert Ammerman, has literally uncovered evidence suggesting that the designs are based on false assumptions about the scale of the problem. "There are fundamental flaws in the scientific studies that the Consortium’s gates are based on," he says. "They’ve really screwed this up."
While studying the archeological origins of Venice, Ammerman and his colleagues dug up evidence showing that the city has been sinking much faster than anyone previously thought. Throughout the city they found layer upon layer of pavements and foundations laid over the centuries in a constant effort to keep the city above water.
Using new carbon dating techniques, his team was able to calculate the rate of relative sea-level rise in the city going back 1,600 years. The data, Ammerman says, shows that the Consortium’s plan seriously underestimates the likely rate of sea-level rise during the coming century. By adding Venice’s long-term subsidence rate with the best available estimates of future sea-level rise, Ammerman reckons the sea will gain between 12 and 39 inches relative to Venice’s streets.
If true the sea still wouldn’t be nearly high enough to breach the massive gates when they’re closed. The problem, Ammerman says, is that the gates will have to be closed far more often than their planners say they will. Since virtually all of historic Venice’s sewers empty straight into the city’s canals and lagoon with little or no treatment, frequent lagoon closures could have serious environmental consequences.
"In a bad year [in the mid-21st century] you could have the gates closed for 100 or 120 days a year, with two-thirds of them in the three-month flood season," Ammerman says. He predicts the resulting pollution crisis would shorten the project’s lifespan to 30 or 40 years. The Consortium, he insists, should go back to the drawing board and revamp its designs.
Consortium spokesperson Monica Ambrosini disagrees. "The problem of sea-level rise is very real, and the designs take it into account," she says. The company expects to start construction this year. CONTACT: World Wide Fund for Nature Climate Change Program, (202)293-4800, www.panda.org. —Colin Woodard
Can a Big Country With Very Few People be Overpopulated?
Just because a country has a huge land area and a relatively small population does not mean it can continue to grow unchecked. In Canada and Australia, for instance, activists are raising the possibility that they may already be overpopulated.
Australians are worried about two wildly different negative scenarios. In one, unchecked development and consumption devastate the country’s habitat, native species and quality of life. In the other, Australia’s economy grinds to a halt as the populace ages and babies become unaffordable burdens. Both pictures suggest a population crisis begging to be resolved.
With 19.8 million people contained in an area roughly the size of the contiguous 48 states, Australia may seem drastically underpopulated to the 285 million residents of the U.S. But much of Australia’s land is arid and virtually uninhabitable, subject to frequent floods and droughts. Nearly all Australians are packed into two coastal strips, in the southwest around Perth and in the east and particularly the southeast, near Sydney and Melbourne.
Sustainable Population Australia (SPA), an organization that calls for an environmentally responsible population policy, contends that Australia’s environment cannot sustain any more growth. It argues that development and urban sprawl are eating up the land, dirtying the water and taking vital habitat from wild animals and plants. The seaboards face ever-increasing pressure as more and more Australians move to the coast, and the Great Barrier Reef already has suffered substantial damage. But if the population grows to 25 million or 40 million in the next 50 years, as several current projections suggest, the effects would be disastrous, says Jenny Goldie, SPA’s national director.
"Many of the tributaries and rivers of the Murray-Darling Basin [Australia’s bread basket] will have exceeded World Health Organization guidelines on maximum levels of salinity for both drinking and irrigation within 50 years," she warns. And predicted warming and drying trends, coupled with population growth, mean "the average Australian will have to endure permanent water restrictions." Forests and other ecosystems would be threatened, and vital habitat for the koala and other national icons could be lost forever.
Australia is growing slowly—less than one percent annually. Aussie women average 1.77 children apiece, a rate lower than in years past but still high compared to other industrialized nations. Legal immigration accounts for more than 100,000 new residents each year, less than half of total annual growth. And life expectancy, now at 80 years, continues to go up. This puts the country well on track for a population of 26.5 million by 2050, SPA projects.
But the Australian Labor Party sees another story in these numbers. Wayne Swan, Labor’s minister for family and community services, has said that current birth rates could halve the population by the end of the century. "What we face is not just the fade-out of the Australian family but also the fade-out of our nation," he told the Daily Telegraph of Sydney last year, because most of the baby boomers due to retire in the next 20 years would place a massive burden on a rapidly shrinking workforce.
To combat this so-called "baby bust," the Labor Party and business coalitions such as the Australian Population Institute are calling for maternity leave, tax breaks and, most of all, increased immigration to shore up their nation’s numbers. Accelerated population growth means good things for commercial interests, from real estate to construction, and major media conglomerates have lately been giving this view nearly exclusive coverage, with headlines like "Being single is "bad for health"" and "Why women are not having babies."
Goldie does not disagree that paid maternity leave and even measures that help couples have one or two children are needed Down Under. "The average couple is finding it increasingly difficult to have children, what with the lack of job security and the cost of housing," she concedes. But dire predictions of a population crash are premature, she says, because they do not take immigration into account.
Immigration is a highly sensitive issue, though, and SPA treads lightly. Though it calls for a net zero immigration policy, meaning the same number of people come into the country as leave it, it says race should not be a factor in selecting immigrants. Nonetheless, SPA has been labeled as racist by pro-immigrant forces, thanks in part to unrelated groups such as One Nation and Australians Against Further Immigration that have seized the environment issue to further their anti-immigrant objectives. Meanwhile, other environmental organizations, trying to distance themselves from such extremists, say Australia’s borders should stay open—and instead Aussies should try to lower their resource consumption to solve their eco-problems.
"While we would not suggest that a call for reduced immigration is necessarily racist, we would argue that such a call is not acceptable," says Cam Walker of Friends of the Earth Australia. "There is no doubt that humans are having a dramatic and devastating effect on the natural systems of Australia," he adds. "We would argue that this is largely a result of how we live here, not how many people live here."
Aussies are among the biggest consumers in the world, according to the Australian Conservation Foundation, ranking with Americans and Canadians in paper, fossil fuel and water usage. At these rates, combined with projected population increases, the impact on Australia’s ecology would be "nothing short of devastating," says Walker.
There are similar arguments to make that Canada is overpopulated for the same reasons as Australia. And, as in Australia, immigration to Canada is a major contributor to population growth. The Population Institute of Canada criticizes "the largely unchallenged assumption that Canada [which had 31 million people in 2001] has no population problem since it has the second-largest land area of all countries on Earth." But, the group says, like Australia "much of the land is barren and incapable of supporting a large population." Countering the commonly held assumption that Canada is a land of limitless resources, the Population Institute points to the collapse of the cod fisheries, vanishing salmon, a growing list of endangered species and national parks "under siege."
Meanwhile, in New Zealand (a Colorado-sized country with a population of just three million), concern about population has largely taken the form of immigrant bashing and has propelled a Member of Parliament who grandstands on the issue, New Zealand First leader Winston Peters, to approval ratings second only to Prime Minister Helen Clark. Peters accused Clark of "taking more positions [on immigration] than a Turkish belly dancer." CONTACT: Population Institute of Canada, (613)833-3668, www. populationinstitute.ca; Sustainable Population Australia, (011)61-2-6235-5488, www.population.org.au.
Ebb and Flow Energy
High-Tech Plans to Generate Undersea Electricity
Say anything, but don’t accuse Jared Blumenfeld of thinking small. The director of San Francisco’s Department of the Environment has been staring at the Golden Gate Bridge a lot lately, wonderi
ng how the picture-postcard scene would look if he tucked a huge electric power plant beneath it.
If done right, the Golden Gate vista wouldn’t change—the generator would be hidden hundreds of feet underwater at the mouth of San Francisco Bay. Blumenfeld is working furiously to install a prototype that taps power from the twice-daily tide currents. His hope is that in a decade the city will produce more energy than it consumes, all of it pollution-free.
Though not quite ready for prime time, tide energy technologies have advanced rapidly in the last five years. Entrepreneurs say recent wind-turbine innovations translate easily to undersea arrays. The most promising work comes from Canada, Australia, Norway and Britain, where governments want to incubate the relatively obscure new field.
"If you had asked about ocean energy two years ago, everyone would have said it was a dead horse," says Ann Marie Harmony, president of Practical Ocean Energy Management Systems, a nonprofit in San Diego. "Now it is seen as an immature industry."
The U.S. Department of Energy has taken a wait-and-see approach. It has funded just one ocean-energy project, which is stalled over money issues. A Maryland-based mom-and-pop company called Underwater Electric Kite has built a 40-foot-wide twin-turbine generator that floats under the surface, anchored to the seabed. It will be deployed in the Gulf Stream, 11 miles off the Florida coast, but the 120-kilowatt system also works in tidal basins and rivers.
The largest tide generator, built in La Rance, France in 1966, produces 240 megawatts. But engineers had to build a big dam, inundating wetlands. New systems are more environmentally friendly, relying on natural tidal current in bays and inlets.
Most literally look like underwater windmills. One resembles a revolving door. Another uses complex hydraulics and flapping fins that suggests a stingray.
Though few have produced any hard numbers, some companies claim they can be cost-competitive with natural-gas-fired plants. "These technologies are further along than most people realize," Blumenfeld says.
San Francisco is eyeing a technology that uses the force of water moving through fins to suck air down through tubes, which drives turbines on land. The company, HydroVenturi, says its system is cheaper to maintain, with no moving blades underwater. That also means less blunt trauma for marine life.
Garold Sommers, a Bechtel employee and senior advisor to the federal Department of Energy’s hydropower program in Idaho, said several new tide-energy ideas have come across his desk in the last month. "The technology works," Sommers says. "Whether it’s viable or not as an alternate energy source, it’s worth looking at." The federal government killed its ocean-energy office in 1994, but is now contemplating bringing it back. CONTACT: Practical Ocean Energy Management Systems, (619)224-6732, www.poemsinc.org.