In Climate-related Flooding, a Ugandan River Turns Poisonous

In Climate-related Flooding, a Ugandan River Turns Poisonous

Editor’s note: Mining poisons the earth, not only right now, but for future generations: even if the mine is closed and all workers have left, the chemicals and metals that they have used and mined will stay hidden in the soil. But it can’t be hidden forever. When the earth moves due to flooding so do the chemicals. They then poison the land and water and damage the ecosystems.

Uganda’s Nyamwamba river, in the Rwenzori Mountains, has begun to flood catastrophically in recent years, partly due to climate change. Along the river are copper tailings pools from an old Canadian mining operation, which are becoming increasingly eroded by the flooding. According to a series of studies, these tailings have been washing into the water supply and soil of the Nyamwamba River Basin, contaminating human tissue, food and water with deadly heavy metals. Cancer rates are higher than normal near the tailings pools, and scientists fear that as the flooding continues to worsen, so will the health crisis.

By Terna Gyuse/Mongabay

KASESE, Uganda — Right as the Nyamwamba River emerges from the foothills of western Uganda’s Rwenzori Mountains and begins its final descent onto the savanna, it passes by a curious sight. On the far bank from the road, past piles of sun-bleached stones on the now-dry riverbed, the earth has been disturbed. Towering walls stand naked and exposed amid the surrounding hills, as if a mighty hand has taken a scoop from the very landscape itself. Sheer cliffs emerge abruptly from the green scrub above, crashing downward into a flat, brownish pit of sand and rocks.

This is a copper tailings pool. Along with its siblings, it’s poisoning this part of Uganda.

The pools were built to hold waste from a mine once operated by Falconbridge, a Canadian company that ruled over the Rwenzori foothills from the 1950s to late ’70s. In its heyday, Falconbridge’s copper mine, based just up the road in the small town of Kilembe, was the churning engine of Uganda’s economy. The mine once employed more than 6,000 people and accounted for nearly a third of the country’s GDP.

Falconbridge was chased out of Uganda by Idi Amin in 1977, who nationalized the mine in the final years of his rule, convinced that his government could run it as well as the Canadians and keep more of the copper’s value at home. By 1982, it was shuttered.

In Kilembe, Falconbridge’s ghostly remains are ubiquitous. Decaying company housing is still occupied by former employees and their descendants. Rickety mining infrastructure dots the hillside. The tailings pools stand as monuments to what was once taken from here and sent northward to feed the booming engines of Western capitalism’s golden age.

A toxic legacy is now seeping from these pools and into water, soil and bodies in this region, as the Nyamwamba bursts its banks with flooding increasing frequency. Global warming has disturbed the climate above the mountains on high — during the rainy season, floods have become more common. As the Nyamwamba’s floodwaters rage past the tailings pools like this one every year, toxic heavy metals are being washed downriver toward the district capital of Kasese and its 100,000 residents.

In Kilembe, the toll is already evident. Cancer rates have skyrocketed. Spurred along by the burning of fossil fuels in faraway locales, the wounds of extraction in this area have begun to fester and become gangrenous.

“When we were starting our study in the Kilembe mine area, [this] whole tailing dump was not touched by water,” said Abraham Mwesigye, an environmental scientist at Kampala’s Makerere University. “But because of over flooding, we’ve lost tons and tons of tailing waste into River Nyamwamba … and that has only happened in the last four years when the effects of climate change increased in the Rwenzori Mountains.”

Pools of menace

In all, there are 15 million metric tons of copper tailings in the area around Kilembe. A decade ago, Mwesigye and his colleagues began to investigate their impact on health and the environment. In the period since, study after study have shown startling results.

Copper, cobalt, arsenic, nickel, zinc and lead is everywhere. There’s nickel in the cassava and beans grown along the Nyamwamba’s banks. Copper concentrations are several times higher than average in people’s toenails. In more than half of the samples taken of drinking water near Kilembe and downstream in 2017, there were unsafe levels of cobalt. The soil is contaminated, dust found inside of people’s homes is toxic, and even the grasses that livestock and wild animals graze on show elevated traces of heavy metals.

The concentrations are particularly high, often dangerously so, near Kilembe. But they can also be found further downriver, near the more populous town of Kasese.

“Over times these wastes have been eroded into farms and the River Nyamwamba, which is a main water source for locals,” Mwesigye said in a phone interview with Mongabay. “The danger is that they contain heavy metals, including those which are very toxic. We’re looking at copper, cobalt, zinc, arsenic, manganese and iron. We tested and found more than 42 elements in those wastes, and they are ending up in drinking water supplies and agriculture.”

Some of the elements washing into the Nyamwamba are carcinogenic. Cobalt, for example, was recently escalated by the European Commission as a Class 1B risk, meaning excessive exposure to it is almost certain to cause cancer. Samples of yams grown near Kilembe in 2019 showed levels of cobalt that exceeded the safe limit for children in particular.


“Cobalt is the second most abundant contaminant within Kilembe after copper,” Mwesigye said.

These toxins are causing a silent but growing health crisis in Kilembe, he added.

“We surveyed the Kilembe hospitals and health facilities, and we found that there are high rates of cancer and gastrointestinal diseases, both of which are associated with exposure.”

There have been no definitive studies linking the prevalence of heavy metals in Kilembe and Kasese with elevated cancer rates — yet. But media reports suggest these rates are higher than average compared with other parts of Uganda. Municipal officials in Kasese say they suspect the tailing pools are to blame, with toxins showing up in the produce people eat.

“We are afraid that the increase in cancer in the area might partly be caused by the water [used to grow food],” said Chance Kahindo, Kasese’s mayor.

Mwesigye’s findings have been backed up by other researchers. In a 2020 study published in the Octa Journal of Environmental Research, samples taken from the Nyamwamba near Kilembe were shown to have levels of copper and cobalt that exceeded safe limits set by the World Health Organization. Tissue samples taken from the river’s fish, a crucial source of local food, were also recorded as having accumulated unsafe amounts of cobalt, lead and zinc.

Environmental advocates say it’s almost certain that the metals are also affecting wildlife in Queen Elizabeth National Park, a sprawling nature reserve that the Nyamwamba cuts through on its way into Lake George. A UNESCO World Heritage Site, the park is home to lions, buffalo, leopards, hippos and African savanna elephants.

“These copper tailings end up journeying into the water,” said Edwin Mumbere, director of a Kasese-based environmental group. “So there’s heavy metal pollution that isn’t only affecting us as a community, it’s affecting animals [in the park].”

As far back as 2003, a study showed higher-than-normal concentrations of copper and zinc in Lake George, about 30 kilometers (19 miles) downstream of Kilembe, including in the fish that feed tens of thousands of people in the region. The levels detected in their flesh were considered safe for human consumption — but that was before the Nyamwamba’s floods started getting worse and more frequent.

In 2022, a researcher with the Uganda Cancer Institute told a journalist that cancer cases from Kasese “seem to be increasing,” but the link between health problems in the region and the prevalence of heavy metals hasn’t been thoroughly studied. According to unpublished data shared with Mongabay by the Kampala-based Uganda Cancer Institute, a recent study did not show higher-than-average rates of cancer in Kasese district as a whole. But the figures covered the district’s full 800,000-strong population, and hadn’t been disaggregated to evaluate rates among those living in the city of Kasese or other settlements between Kilembe and Lake George.

“Foods that are grown in Kilembe are sold all over Kasese town,” Mwesigye said. “So there’s a likelihood that residents of Kasese are consuming contaminated foods … and when there’s flooding, you’ll find the tailings there, because the River Nyamwamba busts its banks and spreads waste all over.”

For people in the region who do contract cancer, wherever it comes from, a painful ordeal often awaits. If they don’t have the money to pay for treatment in one of Kampala’s specialized private wards, there’s little they can do besides wait for the disease to consume them. Media reports speak of stricken patients slowly dying at home without receiving proper care.

Old scars reopened by new wounds

The toxins coursing through the life systems of Kilembe have produced a catastrophe that’s both urgent and, at least for now, part of the fabric of life. There’s no choice: even as the waters rise and the poisons soak deeper into it every year, people who call the Nyamwamba’s banks home must adjust. It isn’t a unique situation. As ecologies change and the bill for the 20th century comes due, people closest to that debt often don’t have any option other than to try and work around it.

Across the African continent, as well as in other places whose forests and mines fed the engine of global growth, there are wounds, infected and seeping even when the hands that opened them are long gone.

“We’re still in the extractive phase in countries in Latin America and Africa, but the problem will be in a century when they will have the legacies,” said Flaviano Bianchini, director of Source International, an NGO that campaigns on behalf of mining-affected communities. “The cost of cleaning the pollution caused by a mine is huge, enormous. Millions and millions and millions [of dollars].”

In Africa, these legacies are already festering. In Uganda’s neighbor, the Democratic Republic of Congo, a copper mine owned by the Swiss multinational Glencore in Lualaba province has rendered farmland unusable and poisoned local waterways. In 2022, the company agreed to pay $180 million to the country after admitting that it spent more than a decade bribing senior officials there.

Further south, in Zambia, children born in the town of Kabwe, which hosted a lead mine operated by the British giant Anglo-American between 1925 and 1974, can have blood lead levels as high as 20 times the safe limit. Kilembe isn’t an outlier — it’s the norm.

Some public interest lawyers are trying to turn the tide and hold companies accountable. But they face an uphill battle. In December, a South African court threw out a case that the U.K.-based firm Leigh Day brought against Anglo-American over the damage it left behind in Kabwe.

The court said that by trying to force Anglo-American to pay for the mess, the plaintiffs wanted to “advance an untenable claim that would set a grave precedent.”

While Leigh Day is currently working towards appealing the ruling, it symbolized the difficulties that communities face in African courts when they take on mining giants or governments. Impunity has taken a toll.

“When it comes to the harm that has been suffered by workers and communities, the lack of access to justice locally has meant a lack of deterrence and an insufficient incentive on companies to behave better,” said Richard Meeran, the lead attorney from Leigh Day on the Kabwe case.

When companies pack up and leave, whether because a mine has been depleted, the operation has become financially unviable, or over a dispute with the government, it’s the people who live nearby — those with the least resources — who are left holding with the bill.

“Legal systems must evolve to hold companies accountable,” Marcos Orellana, the U.N. special rapporteur on toxics and human rights, said in an email to Mongabay. “And courts must be open and willing to hold past polluters accountable for the harm they have caused to communities and the environment.”

It won’t do much good for anyone living in Kilembe or Kasese to knock on Falconbridge’s door. In 2006, it was acquired by the Swiss-Anglo firm Xstrata, in a $22.5 billion deal that was one of the biggest in Canadian history at the time. A few years later, Xstrata was taken over by Glencore, the world’s largest commodities trader. According to company data, in 2022 Glencore posted a record profit of $17.3 billion, paying more than $7 billion to its shareholders.

In an email to Mongabay, Glencore declined to comment on Falconbridge’s legacy in Uganda.

Despite its noxious aftermath, Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni has spent the better part of a decade trying to restart copper mining in Kilembe. After an embarrassing episode in which a Chinese company took control of the mine only to lose its contract due to inactivity and unpaid fees, the Ugandan government has found new suitors. Late last year, Kilembe hosted a delegation to showcase the infrastructure Falconbridge left behind. Media reports suggest a new deal may be approaching.

If a new owner is found, it’s unclear what, if anything, they will do about the tailings pools and their grim legacy.

In the meantime, the people who live along the Nyamwamba River are caught between two ecological crises at once, separate yet linked. From above, a warming atmosphere robs them of the sacred sites and steals their homes in rushing flooding waters. At the same time, poisons from the scarred earth seep deeper into their food, water and bodies. From both directions the consequences of extraction, and in neither any relief in sight.

That environmental wounds from a fast-approaching future are dovetailing with those of western Uganda’s unresolved past carries an ominous message. The climate crisis is not set to arrive on its own. It will have company.

Photo by Darilon/pixabay, reinout_dujardin1/pixabay

Despite Risks, Climate Activists Lead Fight Against Oil Giant’s Drilling Projects in Uganda

Despite Risks, Climate Activists Lead Fight Against Oil Giant’s Drilling Projects in Uganda

Editor’s note: The company has already sold a handful of its onshore oil blocks over the past 10 years, citing the need to cut risk due to community unrest and continued sabotage attacks on its oil installations. These blocks had been snapped up by Nigerian indigenous operators including Seplat Petroleum, Aiteo E&P, First Hydrocarbons and NPDC.

This article originally appeared on Common Dreams.

Featured image: An Ugandan activists holds a sign urging a stop to the East African Crude Oil Pipeline. (Photo: Fridays for Future Uganda/Twitter) 

“We cannot drink oil. This is why we cannot accept the construction of the East African Crude Oil Pipeline.”

by Brett Wilkins, Common Dreams staff writer

Climate campaigners in Africa and around the world on Friday continued demonstrations against Total, with activists accusing the French oil giant of ecocide, human rights violations, and greenwashing in connection with fossil fuel projects in Uganda.

On the 145th week of Fridays for Future climate strike protests, members of the movement in Uganda global allies drew attention to the harmful effects of fossil fuel development on the environment, ecosystems, communities, and livelihoods.

Friday’s actions followed protests at Total petrol stations in Benin, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Egypt, Ghana, Kenya, Nigeria, Togo, and Uganda on Tuesday—celebrated each year as Africa Day—against the East African Crude Oil Pipeline (EACOP), now under construction, and the Mozambique Liquefied Natural Gas project.

“Total’s fossil fuel developments pose grave risks to protected environments, water sources, and wetlands in the Great Lakes and East Africa regions,” said Andre Moliro, an activist from the Democratic Republic of the Congo, during Tuesday’s pan-African protests.

“Communities have been raising concerns on the impact of oil extraction on Lake Albert fisheries and the disastrous consequences of an oil spill in Lake Victoria, that would affect millions of people that rely on the two lakes for their livelihoods, watersheds for drinking water, and food production,” he added.

In Uganda, opposing oil development—an expected multi-billion-dollar boon to the landlocked nation’s economy—can be risky business. On Monday, police in Buliisa arrested Ugandan human rights defender Maxwell Atuhura and Italian journalist Federica Marsi.

According to Energy Voice, Atuhura—who works with the African Institute for Energy Governance (AFIEGO), one of half a dozen NGOs that have pursued legal action against Total—and Marsi were about to meet with local community members when they were apprehended.

Marsi was released Monday and reportedly told to leave the oil region “before bad things happen.” She was briefly rearrested later in the day. Atuhura remains in police custody. The World Organization Against Torture has issued an urgent appeal for intervention in his case.

United Nations special rapporteurs and international human rights groups have previously expressed serious concern over abuses perpetrated against land defenders and journalists in Uganda. Despite the risks, actions against EACOP and the related Tilenga Development Project continue.

“We cannot drink oil. This is why we cannot accept the construction of the East African Crude Oil Pipeline,” Ugandan climate justice activist Vanessa Nakate, founder of the Rise Up Movement, said during the Africa Day action. “It is going to cause massive displacement of people [and the] destruction of ecosystems and wildlife habitats.”

“We have no future in extraction of oil because it only means destroying the livelihoods of the people and the planet,” Nakate added. “It is time to choose people above pipelines. It is time to rise up for the people and the planet.”

If completed, the $3.5 billion, nearly 900-mile EACOP will transport up to 230,000 barrels of crude oil per day from fields in the Lake Albert region of western Uganda through the world’s longest electrically heated pipeline to the Tanzanian port city of Tanga on the Indian Ocean.

In partnership with China National Offshore Oil Corporation (CNOOC) and the Uganda National Oil Company (UNOC), Total is also leading the Tilenga Development Project, which involves the drilling of 400 wells in dozens of locations, including iniside the richly biodiverse Murchison Falls National Park.

Total says the project will “generate a positive net impact on biodiversity,” a claim vehemently rejected by environmentalists.

“Imagine a tropical version of the Alaskan oil pipeline,” environmental author Fred Pearce wrote of EACOP last year. “Only longer. And passing through critical elephant, lion, and chimpanzee habitats and 12 forest reserves, skirting Africa’s largest lake, and crossing more than 200 rivers and thousands of farms before reaching the Indian Ocean—where its version of the Exxon Valdez disaster would pour crude oil into some of Africa’s most biodiverse mangroves and coral reefs.”

Although Total claims it chose the EACOP route to “minimize the number of residents relocated,” local residents and international NGOs say the pipeline’s impact will be anything but minimal.

According to Mongabay, more than 12,000 families will be displaced from their ancestral lands to make way for the pipeline, two-thirds of which will pass through agricultural zones. Farmers in the pipeline’s path and the Lake Albert oil region have joined civil society groups and international organizations in voicing their opposition to the EACOP and Tilenga projects.

The #StopEACOP coalition, which is made up of local and international activists and organizations, is attempting to block funding of the project by appealing to banks, investors, and insurance companies. A March open letter signed by more than 250 groups urged 25 commercial banks to not finance the pipeline.

In 2017, WWF Uganda published a report warning that the pipeline “is likely to lead to significant disturbance, fragmentation, and increased poaching within important biodiversity and natural habitats” that are home to species including chimpanzees, elephants, and lions.

Wildlife forced from natural habitats by oil development has in turn caused severe disruptions to farming families.

“We have always had a problem of human-wildlife conflict in this village, but with drilling and road construction across the park, the invasions are more frequent,” Elly Munguryeki, a farmer living just outside Murchison Falls National Park, told South Africa’s Mail & Guardian earlier this month.

“We keep reporting the losses to park authorities but nothing happens,” said Munguryeki. “Each night a herd of buffalo, baboons, and hippos from the park would invade my farm and neighbouring plots and eat our crops until dawn. Whatever they left would be eaten by baboons and wild pigs during the day, forcing us to harvest premature crops.”

A 2020 Oxfam report (pdf) noted the EACOP “will cross poor, rural communities in both Uganda and Tanzania that lack the political and financial capital of the project stakeholders.”

“The lopsided complications of this power dynamic are well-documented in similar extractive industry projects,” the report stated. “Powerful companies are often able to hide their operations behind local contractors and permissive government authorities. Often the only hope that local communities have for remediation or justice is through local government bodies that are often weak, fragile, or captured by corporate and national interests.”

Mary, an Ugandan farmer in Rakai near the Tanzanian border who was interviewed for the report, said that “when this pipeline project came, they promised us too many things. Up to now they have done nothing.”

“What makes me worried is that they took my land but I have not yet been compensated,” she claimed.

A community member from Rujunju village, Kikuube District in Uganda told the report’s authors that “the government and oil companies have not informed us about the negative impact that the EACOP will have on our well-being. All they tell us are good things that the EACOP will bring like roads and jobs. We also want to know the negative impact of the pipeline so that we can make informed decisions.”

Sick Chimps Seek out Medicinal Plants to Heal Themselves

Sick Chimps Seek out Medicinal Plants to Heal Themselves

by on Mongabay 14 May 2024

A new study concludes that chimpanzees displaying a range of ailments seek out plants with known medicinal properties to treat those ailments.

The finding is important because it’s a rare instance where a species is shown to consume a plant as medicine rather than as part of its general diet.

The study identified 13 plant species that the chimpanzees in Uganda’s Budongo Forest relied on, which can help inform conservation efforts for the great apes.

The finding could also hold potential for the development of new drugs for human use.

Wild chimpanzees actively seek out plants with medicinal properties to treat themselves for specific ailments,a new study has found.

While most animals consume foods with medicinal properties as part of their routine diet, few species have been shown to engage in self-medication in a way that suggests they have basic awareness of the healing properties of the plants they’re feeding on.

Until now, the challenge has been to distinguish between normal consumption of food that has medicinal value, on the one hand, and ingesting such foods for the purpose of treating a condition, on the other.

“Self-medication has been studied for years, but it has been historically difficult to push the field forward, as the burden of proof is very high when attempting to prove that a resource is used as a medicine,” Elodie Freymann, a scientist at the University of Oxford in the U.K. and lead author of the study, told Mongabay in an email.

To deal with the challenge, the study adopted a multidisciplinary approach, combining behavioral data, health monitoring, and pharmacological testing of a variety of plant materials chimpanzees feed on. It pooled together 13 researchers comprising primatologists, ethnopharmacologists, parasitologists, ecologists and botanists.

A chimpanzee in Uganda’s Budongo Forest, which is home to roughly 600-700 chimpanzees, including three groups habituated to humans. Image by Maciej via Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0).

According to the study, pharmacological data interpreted on its own is important for establishing the presence of medicinal resources in chimpanzee diets. However, this study also relied on observational information and health monitoring to determine whether chimps were deliberately self-medicating.

Over a period of eight months, the scientists monitored the feeding behaviors of two communities of chimpanzees (Pan troglodytes) familiar with humans around them in Budongo Forest in Uganda.

They collected samples from plant parts associated with chimpanzee behaviors that previous research had flagged up as possibly linked to self-medication: consuming bark, dead wood and bitter pith.

The researchers collected samples from 13 plant species known to be consumed at least occasionally by the Budongo chimpanzees, testing the samples for their ability to suppress bacterial growth and inflammation (testing for antiparasitical properties was beyond the scope of the study).

The researchers also tracked the health of individual chimpanzees, analyzing fecal matter and urine and monitoring individuals with wounds, parasite infestations or other known ailments.

They observed that individuals with injuries or other ailments such as parasite infestations, respiratory symptoms, abnormal urinalysis or diarrhea ingested plants or parts of plants that laboratory testing found to have healing properties.

A Budongo chimpanzee feeding on the fruit of Ficus exasperata, one of the plants analyzed as part of the study. Image courtesy of Elodie Freymann (CC-BY 4.0).

“We describe cases where chimpanzees with possible bacterial infections or wounds selected bioactive plants,” Freymann said. “We also describe cases where wounded individuals selected rarely consumed plants with demonstrated anti-inflammatory properties — suggesting they could be ingesting plants to aid in wound-healing, a novel finding.”

In addition, unlike previous studies that focused on single plant resources, this one identified 13 species with medicinal potential.

“This greatly expands what we know about chimpanzee medicinal repertoires. This study also highlights the unique medicinal repertoires of two chimpanzee communities with no previous systematic research on their self-medication behaviors,” Freymann said.

According to Freymann, identifying plants that could have medicinal value for chimpanzees is important for the conservation of the species.

“If we know which plants chimpanzees need to stay healthy in the wild, we can better protect these resources to ensure chimpanzees have access to their wild medicine cabinets,” she said. “If these plants disappear, it could leave our primate cousins susceptible to pathogens they could previously defend against.”

This is also important, Freymann said, because “we could learn from the chimpanzees which plants may have medicinal value which could lead to the discovery of novel human drugs.”

The study adds to a growing body of research on primates using medicinal plants to treat sickness. In another recent report, a wild orangutan in Sumatra was observed treating a facial wound with a plant known for its healing properties. Erin Wessling, co-lead of the working group on chimpanzee cultures at the IUCN, the global wildlife conservation authority, said part of the reason for the recent attention to these types of medicative behaviors is because they’re relatively rare and can only be identified in species that have been closely monitored over long periods of time.

“It takes years to be able to watch apes in the wild to this level of detail, and even more years after that to be able to identify with any certainty what are core components of an ape’s diet versus the much more rare medicinal use cases,” she said.

Wessling, who was not part of the study, told Mongabay that while it’s been known that chimpanzees have these rare cases of medicinal use, scientists are finally getting to a level where they can point to self-medication as a widespread and diverse behavior used across medicinal contexts.

She said the Budongo study “points out really nicely that conservation is more than just a numbers game — that there’s real value in thinking about how organisms interact with the ecosystems they reside in, and that even the most uncommon components of those ecosystems can be critical for an organisms’ survival.

“Further, results such as these offer a nice insight into the intrinsic value of chimpanzees, demonstrating what we’ve suspected for a long time — that chimpanzees have the capability to recognize and treat an ailment with plants that have natural (and measurable) medicinal properties,” Wessling said.

“It shows we have a great deal left to learn about the natural world, not only our ape cousins, and provides even more reason to make sure there is a future for them.”

Photo by Francesco Ungaro on Unsplash

Court Grants Rights to Peru’s Marañón River

Court Grants Rights to Peru’s Marañón River

Editor’s note: Campaigning for protecting wildlife and ecosystems is rarely successful if only fought in court. But in this case, a Peruvian court decided to give the river Maranon rights that would ensure its conservation and protection from oil spills. For this decision, the indigenous groups led by Kukama women have been fighting for their river for over three years. As with many people living on the land they depend on clean water and fertile land to feed their families. Now the court victory gives them the necessary legal foundation to keep on fighting for a life free from ecological disasters.

By Julia Conley/Commondreams

The decision “establishes a groundbreaking legal framework that acknowledges the inherent rights of natural entities,” said one campaigner.

After years of campaigning, an organization of Indigenous women in Peru’s Loreto province celebrated “a landmark decision” on Tuesday by a court in Nauta, which found that the Marañón River has “intrinsic value” and that its “inherent rights” must be recognized by the government.

The Mixed Court of Nauta ruled that specific rights of the river must be codified, including the right to exist, the right to ecological flow, the right of restoration, the right to be free of pollution, the right to exercise its essential functions with the ecosystem, and the right of representation.

Led by Kukama women, the Huaynakana Kamatahuara Kana Federation in the Parinari district of Loreto began its legal fight on behalf of the Marañón River in 2021, demanding that the state and federal governments protect the waterway from “constant oil spills.”

Petroperu’s Oleoducto Norperuano, or Norperuvian oil pipeline, caused more than 60 oil spills between 1997-2019, and the 28 communities represented by the federation are still recovering from a 2010 oil spill that sent 350 barrels of oil into the river near Saramuro port.

Oil spills not the only threat

Indigenous groups blocked the river in protest in September 2022 after another spill sent 2,500 barrels of crude oil into the Amazon, of which the Marañón is a main tributary.

The Marañón supplies drinking water directly to communities in Loreto, and is a vital habitat for fish that help sustain Indigenous communities.

“We do not live on money. We live from what we grow on our land and our fishing. We cannot live without fish,” Isabel Murayari, a board member of the federation, told the Earth Law Center, when the group filed its lawsuit in 2021.

The Kukama women also aimed to halt infrastructure projects including hydroelectric dams and the Amazon Waterway—recognized as environmental risks by the International Union for Conservation of Nature—and warned that illegal gold mining has left the Marañón with mercury contamination that must be remedied.

Martiza Quispe Mamani, an attorney representing the Huaynakana Kamatahuara Kana Federation, said the “historic ruling is an important achievement of the Kukama women.”

“The fact that the judge of the Nauta Court has declared the Marañón River as a subject of rights represents a significant and transcendental milestone for the protection not only of the Marañón River but also of all rivers contaminated by extractive activities,” said Mamani.

In addition to granting the river inherent rights, the court named the Indigenous group and the Peruvian government as “guardians, defenders, and representatives of the Marañón River and its tributaries.”

Precedent for global river conservation

Loreto’s regional government was ordered to take necessary steps with the National Water Authority to establish a water resource basin organization for the river. The court also required Petroperu to present an updated environmental management plan within six months.

Mariluz Canaquiri Murayari, president of the federation, said the group’s fight to protect the environment in the region “will continue.”

“It encourages us to fight to defend our territories and rivers, which is fundamental,” Murayari said of the ruling. “The recognition made in this decision has critical value. It is one more opportunity to keep fighting and claiming our rights. Our work is fundamental for Peru and the world: to protect our rivers, territories, our own lives, and all of humanity, and the living beings of Mother Nature.”

The women who led the legal action noted that courts in recent years have recognized rights for other waterways, including Colombia’s Atrato River, New Zealand’s Whanganui River, and Canada’s Magpie River.

Monti Aguirre, Latin America director of International Rivers, which supported the federation in its lawsuit, said the ruling “underscores the vital impact of community-led advocacy in safeguarding river ecosystems and sets a crucial precedent for river conservation efforts globally.”

“By recognizing the Marañón River as a subject of rights, this decision is significant not only in terms of environmental protection but also in advancing the rights of nature and the rights of rivers,” said Aguirre. “It establishes a groundbreaking legal framework that acknowledges the inherent rights of natural entities, paving the way for similar legal recognition and protection of rivers worldwide.”

Photo by Deb Dowd on Unsplash

Red Lights Flashing for Wildlife

Red Lights Flashing for Wildlife

Editor’s Note: While climate change is taken as THE pressing ecological concern of current era, biodiversity loss is the often less known but probably more destructive ecological disaster. UNEP estimates we lose 200 species in a day. That is 200 species that are never going to walk the Earth again. With these, we lose 200 creatures that play a unique and significant part in the natural communities, and immeasurable contributions of each to the health of the nature.

This study finds 69% average drop in animal populations since 1970. Over those five decades most of the decline can be traced to habitat destruction. The human desire for ever more growth played out over the years, city by city, road by road, acre by acre, across the globe. It is to want a new cell phone and never give a second thought as to where it comes from. Corporations want to make money so they hire the poor who want only to feed their families and they cut down another swath of rainforest to dig a mine and with it a dozen species we haven’t even named yet die. Think about what goes into a house to live in and the wood that must come from somewhere, and the coal and the oil to power it, and to power the cars that take people from there to the store to buy more things. And on and on, that is the American Dream.

by Malavika Vyawahare / Mongabay

  • Wildlife populations tracked by scientists shrank by nearly 70%, on average, between 1970 and 2018, a recent assessment has found.
  • The “Living Planet Report 2022” doesn’t monitor species loss but how much the size of 31,000 distinct populations have changed over time.
  • The steepest declines occurred in Latin America and the Caribbean, where wildlife abundance declined by 94%, with freshwater fish, reptiles and amphibians being the worst affected.
  • High-level talks under the U.N. Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) will be held in Canada this December, with representatives from 196 members gathering to decide how to halt biodiversity loss by 2030.

In 2014, as temperatures topped 40° Celsius, or 104° Fahrenheit, in eastern Australia, half of the region’s black flying fox (Pteropus alecto) population perished, with thousands of the bats succumbing to the heat in one day.

This die-off is only one example of the catastrophic loss of wildlife unfolding globally. On average, wildlife populations tracked by scientists shrank by nearly 70% between 1970 and 2018, a recent assessment b WWF and the Zoological Society of London (ZSL) found.

“When wildlife populations decline to this degree, it means dramatic changes are impacting their habitats and the food and water they rely on,” WWF chief scientist, Rebecca Shaw, said in a statement. “We should care deeply about the unraveling of natural systems because these same resources sustain human life.”

WWF’s “Living Planet Report 2022,” launched this October, analyzed populations of mammals, birds, amphibians, reptiles and fish. “It is not a census of all wildlife but reports how wildlife populations have changed in size,” the authors wrote.

A black flying fox.
In 2014, as temperatures topped 40°C, or 104°F, in eastern Australia, half of the region’s black flying fox (Pteropus alecto) population perished, with thousands of the bats succumbing to the heat in one day. Image by Andrew Mercer via Flickr (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0).

A million species of plants and animals face extinction today, according to a landmark 2019 report from the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES), an international scientific body. The new analysis uncovers another aspect of this biodiversity crisis: The decline of wild populations doesn’t just translate into species loss but can also heighten extinction risk, particularly for endemic species found only in one location.

Instead of looking at individual species, the Living Planet Index (LPI) on which the report is based tracks 31,000 distinct populations of around 5,000 species. If humans were considered, for example, it would like tracking the demographics of countries. Population declines in one country could indicate a localized threat like a famine, but it was happening across continents, that would be cause for alarm.

The steepest species declines occurred in Latin America and the Caribbean, where wildlife abundance dropped by 94% on average. In this region, freshwater fish, reptiles and amphibians were the worst affected.

Freshwater organisms are at very high risk from human activities worldwide. Most of these threats are linked to habitat loss, but overexploitation also endangers many animals. In Brazil’s Mamirauá Sustainable Development Reserve, populations of Amazon pink river dolphin or boto (Inia geoffrensis) fell by 65% between 1994 and 2016. Targeted fishing of these friendly animals for their use as bait contributed to the decline.

Climatic changes render terrestrial habitats inhospitable too. In Australia, in the 2019-2020 fire season, around 10 million hectares (25 million acres) of forestland was destroyed, killing more than 1 billion animals and displacing 3 billion others. For southeastern Australia, scientists showed that human-induced climate change made the fires 30% more likely.

These losses are happening not just in land-based habitats but also out at sea. Coral reefs and vibrant underwater forests are some of the most threatened ecosystems in the world. But they’re being battered by a changing climate that makes oceans warmer and more acidic. The planet has already warmed by 1.2°C (2.2°F) since pre-industrial times, and a 2°C (3.6°F) average temperature rise will decimate almost all tropical corals.

However, the bat deaths in Australia, Brazil’s disappearing pink river dolphins, and the vulnerability of corals are extreme examples that can skew the index, which averages the change in population sizes. In fact, about half of wildlife populations studied remained stable and, in some cases, even grew. Mountain gorillas (Gorilla beringei beringei) in the Virunga Mountains spanning Rwanda, the Democratic Republic of Congo and Uganda number around 604 today, up from 480 in 2010.

Despite these bright spots, the overall outlook remains gloomy. Even after discounting the extremes, the downward trend persists. “After we removed 10 percent of the complete data set, we still see declines of about 65 percent,” Robin Freeman, an author of the report and senior researcher at ZSL, said in a statement.

Often, habitat loss, overexploitation and climate change compound the risk. Even in cases where a changing climate proves favorable, the multitude of threats can prove insurmountable. Take bumblebees, for example. Some species, like Bombus terrestris or the buff-tailed bumblebee, could actually thrive as average temperatures rise. But an assessment of 66 bumblebee species documented declining numbers because of pesticide and herbicide use.

The report emphasizes the need to tackle these challenges together. Protecting habitats like forests and mangroves can, for example, maintain species richness and check greenhouse gas emissions. The kinds of plants and their abundance directly impact carbon storage because plants pull in carbon from the atmosphere and store it as biomass.

A bumblebee on flowers.
An assessment of 66 bumblebee species documented declining numbers because of pesticide and herbicide use. Image by mikaelsoderberg via Flickr (CC BY 2.0).

One of the deficiencies of the LPI is that it doesn’t include data on plants or invertebrates (including insects like bumblebees).

The report was released in the run-up to environmental summits that will see countries gather to thrash out a plan to rein in climate change in November and later in the year to reverse biodiversity loss. Government leaders are set to meet for the next level of climate talks, called COP27, in Egypt from Nov. 6-13. At the last meeting of parties, known as COP26 in Glasgow, U.K., last year, nations committed to halt biodiversity loss and stem habitat destruction, partly in recognition that this would lower humanity’s carbon footprint.

In December, the 15th meeting of the Conference of the Parties to the U.N. Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) will be held in Montreal. Representatives from 195 states and the European Union will meet to decide the road map to 2030 for safeguarding biodiversity.


Herbertsson, L., Khalaf, R., Johnson, K., Bygebjerg, R., Blomqvist, S., & Persson, A. S. (2021). Long-term data shows increasing dominance of Bombus terrestris with climate warming. Basic and Applied Ecology, 53, 116-123. doi:10.1016/j.baae.2021.03.008

Herbertsson, L., Khalaf, R., Johnson, K., Bygebjerg, R., Blomqvist, S., & Persson, A. S. (2021). Long-term data shows increasing dominance of Bombus terrestris with climate warming. Basic and Applied Ecology, 53, 116-123. doi:10.1016/j.baae.2021.03.008

Outhwaite, C. L., McCann, P., & Newbold, T. (2022). Agriculture and climate change are reshaping insect biodiversity worldwide. Nature,605(7908), 97-102. doi:10.1038/s41586-022-04644-x  

Sobral, M., Silvius, K. M., Overman, H., Oliveira, L. F. B., Raab, T. K., & Fragoso, J. M. V. 2017. Mammal diversity influences the carbon cycle through trophic interactions in the Amazon. Nature Ecology & Evolution,1, 1670–1676. doi:10.1038/s41559-017-0334-0

Featured image by Hans-Jurgen Mager via Unsplash