A Tiny Desert Fish Hits a 25 Year Population High

A Tiny Desert Fish Hits a 25 Year Population High

by on Mongabay 30 May 2024

  • The critically endangered Devils Hole pupfish population has reached a 25-year high of 191 fish, offering hope for the species that lives in the smallest known habitat of any vertebrate.
  • Above water and SCUBA surveys conducted by scientists twice a year carefully monitor the pupfish population in Death Valley, Nevada, which has fluctuated dangerously in the past, dropping as low as 35 individuals in 2013.
  • A landmark 1976 Supreme Court decision, informed by environmental science, protected the pupfish by limiting groundwater pumping that threatened its habitat, setting a precedent for science-based conservation policy.
  • Despite recent success, the pupfish remains threatened by climate change impacts on the delicate desert ecosystem, as well as growing human demand for water resources in the region.

In a glimmer of hope for one of the world’s rarest fish, scientists have counted 191 Devils Hole pupfish this spring in their tiny desert habitat. This number marks the highest spring count for the critically endangered species in more than two decades.

The Devils Hole pupfish (Cyprinodon diabolis) is found only in the upper reaches of a single deep limestone cave in the Mojave Desert in the western U.S. state of Nevada. The entire species lives on a shallow rock shelf measuring 3.3 by 4.8 meters (11 by 16 feet), making this the smallest known range of any vertebrate species on the planet.

Twice a year, biologists from the National Park Service, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and Nevada Department of Wildlife peer from scaffolding above the pond and then enter the water with scuba gear to count pupfish in Devils Hole. They methodically comb the entire habitat, from the sunny shallows to depths of more than 30 m (100 ft), looking for the iridescent blue desert dwellers.

“It was really encouraging to see such a large number of young fish during these spring dives,” said Brandon Senger, supervising fisheries biologist for the Nevada Department of Wildlife, who has been conducting scuba counts at Devils Hole since 2014. “Conditions within Devils Hole looked healthy, so we have hopes of high recruitment over the coming months that will lead to a large population in the fall.”

The Devils Hole pupfish is a marvel of adaptation. It has evolved to withstand the harsh conditions of its desert habitat, including water temperatures that can reach 34° Celsius (93° Fahrenheit) and extremely low oxygen levels. The pupfish has a unique metabolic rate that allows it to survive on minimal food resources, primarily feeding on the algae that grow on the shallow rock shelf. Its small size and rapid life cycle of just 12 to 14 months enable the species to maintain a population in the confines of its tiny habitat.

Despite these remarkable adaptations, the pupfish has faced numerous threats over the years. The history of conservation efforts for the Devils Hole pupfish is a case study in the interplay between environmental science and policy. In 1952, then-president Harry Truman added Devils Hole to Death Valley National Monument. In the late 1960s, the pupfish faced its first major threat when groundwater pumping by local farms began to lower the water level in Devils Hole, exposing the critical shallow shelf.

In 1976, the Supreme Court ruled that the federal government had a right to protect the water level in Devils Hole, limiting groundwater pumping in the region. The ruling was based on the scientific understanding that the pupfish depended on a stable water level to survive. This case set a precedent for using environmental science to guide policy and legal decisions.

Despite this victory, the pupfish population continued to fluctuate dangerously. In 2013, scientists counted just 35 pupfish, leading to fears that the species could wink out of existence. Careful conservation efforts, including supplemental feedings with special food pellets, have helped bolster their numbers.

A natural disaster may have also contributed to the recent population rebound. Last summer, the remnants of Hurricane Hilary inundated Death Valley National Park, damaging roads and infrastructure. But the silt and clay swept into Devil’s Hole by the floodwaters benefited the pupfish by providing nutrients for algae growth.

“It’s exciting to see an increasing trend, especially in this highly variable population,” said Michael Schwemm, senior fish biologist for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

However, the future of the Devils Hole pupfish remains uncertain. Climate change is disrupting the delicate desert ecosystem with increasing temperatures and erratic weather events. In recent years, Death Valley has experienced record-breaking heat waves and intense flash flooding.

“As the climate changes, as world temperatures get hotter, Death Valley will get hotter,” Nichole Andler, chief of interpretation for Death Valley National Park, said in an interview. She pointed out that seven of the park’s hottest summers have occurred in the last decade.

Increasing urbanization, recreational use and industrial activities like mining also place greater demands on the aquifer that feeds Devils Hole. Even minor changes in water level can expose critical habitat, imperiling the fish.

Further complicating conservation efforts, the Devil’s Hole pupfish population is highly inbred due to its isolation and small population size, which has led to reduced genetic diversity. Low genetic variation can make the species more vulnerable to disease, environmental changes and developmental abnormalities, posing significant challenges for the pupfish’s long-term survival and recovery.

To safeguard the species, captive-breeding programs are underway to establish a backup population in case of a catastrophic event in the wild. But ultimately, the fate of the Devils Hole pupfish is tied to the health of its unique desert habitat.

“The pupfish is an indicator of the health of the larger ecosystem,” Kevin Wilson, an ecologist with the National Park Service, said in an interview. “By protecting this tiny fish, we’re protecting the aquifer and the entire web of life that depends on it.”

Banner image A group of critically endangered Devils Hole pupfish(Cyprinodon diabolis) photographed in the Devil’s Hole, Nevada. Photo courtesy of Olin Feuerbacher/ USFWS (CC BY 2.0)

Liz Kimbrough is a staff writer for Mongabay and holds a Ph.D. in ecology and evolutionary biology from Tulane University, where she studied the microbiomes of trees.

Citation:

Langhammer, P. F., Bull, J. W., Bicknell, J. E., Oakley, J. L., Brown, M. H., Bruford, M. W., … & Brooks, T. M. (2024). The positive impact of conservation action. Science384(6694), 453-458. doi:10.1126/science.adj6598

 

‘Right to Roam’ Movement Fights to Give Back the Commons

‘Right to Roam’ Movement Fights to Give Back the Commons

by , on Mongabay 21 May 2024

  • The “right to roam” movement in England seeks to reclaim common rights to access, use and enjoy both private and public land, since citizens only have access to 8% of their nation’s land currently.
  • Campaigner and activist Jon Moses joins the Mongabay podcast to discuss the history of land ownership change in England with co-host Rachel Donald, and why reestablishing a common “freedom to roam” — a right observed in places like the Czech Republic and Norway — is necessary to reestablishing human connection with nature and repairing damaged landscapes.
  • At least 2,500 landscapes are cut off from public access in England, requiring one to trespass to reach them.
  • “There needs to be a kind of rethinking really of [what] people’s place is in the landscape and how that intersects with a kind of [new] relationship between people and nature as well,” Moses says on this episode.

Like most nations, England doesn’t have legally recognized rights for citizens to cross non-public lands. This means that the nearly 56 million people who live there are only legally allowed to access 8% of the country. One particularly picturesque example of this problem was recently noted by the BBC, which discussed a large piece of public land that’s actually inaccessible due to being surrounded by private land, forcing people to trespass in order to reach it.

Right to Roam campaigner Jon Moses speaks with Rachel Donald on the latest Mongabay Newscast about a growing movement in England that stages creative events like group walks on private land to point out the benefits of public access for repairing degraded landscapes and improving the lives of everyday citizens, which are outlined in a new book, Wild Service: Why Nature Needs You, that he’s co-edited with Nick Hayes.

Listen here:

https://podcasts.apple.com/us/podcast/mongabay-newscast/id1155856616?i=1000656323652

 

Freedom-to-roam laws aren’t widely recognized outside of Scandinavia and Europe, but Moses says these rights are fundamental to repairing the damage caused by centuries of private land ownership.

“I think that there needs to be a kind of rethinking really of [what] people’s place is in the landscape and how that intersects with a kind of new … vision of farming and a new relationship between people and nature as well.”

Among the reasons Moses says is given for the increase in private land ownership over the past few centuries is industrial agriculture, which he says isn’t benefiting the farmers all that much either. Moses says the reasons for decreases in the rights of “commoners,” as they’re referred to, to access and use common land in England were in part to suppress wage growth and quash locals’ autonomy.

“They’re really kind of explicit about this in the documentation, that we need to break common rights in order to create a kind of more dependent class of agricultural laborers that are reliant on a wage,” Moses says.

Subscribe to or follow the Mongabay Newscast wherever you listen to podcasts, from Apple to Spotify, and you can also listen to all episodes here on the Mongabay website, or download our free app for Apple and Android devices to gain instant access to our latest episodes and all of our previous ones.

 

Rachel Donald is a climate corruption reporter and the creator of Planet: Critical, the podcast and newsletter for a world in crisis. Her latest thoughts can be found at 𝕏 via @CrisisReports and at Bluesky via @racheldonald.bsky.social.

Mike DiGirolamo is a host & associate producer for Mongabay based in Sydney. He co-hosts and edits the Mongabay Newscast. Find him on LinkedInBluesky and Instagram.

Photo by Richard Loader 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

Philippine Village Rejects Gold Mine, Cites Flawed Consultation

Philippine Village Rejects Gold Mine, Cites Flawed Consultation

by / Mongabay

SITIO DALICNO, Philippines — Domeng Laita, 64, stands on a mountain ledge outside his home, looking down with worry on his face. Below him stands the embankment of the San Roque dam, stretching more than a kilometer (0.6 miles) along the Agno River. In 2012, a spill from a gold mine upstream sent millions of tons of waste into the river system. With a looming increase in mining activity, Laita says he dreads a repeat of the incident.

Laita looks back at his home, casting another shrug then grinding his teeth. More mining means the old tunnels under his house will likely deepen. He tries not to think about the ground swallowing up his entire family.

“There will be digging underneath. My house could fall into the softened ground. When the mining starts again, there’s no telling how bad it will hurt the land,” he says, walking along the mountain ridge.

It wouldn’t be the first time that a mining disaster hit the town. Laita lives in Sitio Dalicno, part of Ampucao village inside the municipality of Itogon in Benguet province, in the northern Philippines. Dubbed a “gold haven” for its massive deposits of the precious metal, the region has drawn miners to the mountains for centuries.

The town is part of the northern Cordillera range in the Philippines, known for its resource-rich mountains and the Igorot, the region’s majority Indigenous population.

The municipality of Itogon in Benguet province, in the northern Philippines has been dubbed a “gold haven” for its massive deposits of the precious metal. Image by Michael Beltran for Mongabay.

Laita, like most Dalicno residents, has been a small-scale miner all his life, using hand tools to dig small tunnels along the slopes of the mountain and extract ore. These methods have supported his family’s modest life along the village slopes. And like many of his neighbors, Laita says he feels powerless to stop the government from brokering new industrial mining permits on Indigenous soil.

In 2023, the National Commission on Indigenous Peoples (NCIP) concluded talks with Itogon locals to obtain their free, prior and informed consent (FPIC), a requirement for state agencies to allow mining operations on ancestral lands.

These talks first began in 2012 when Itogon-Suyoc Resources Inc. (ISRI), one of the Philippines’ oldest mining firms, initiated its application for production sharing agreement, or APSA 103, to mine 581 hectares (1,426 acres) of Itogon land covering nearly the whole of Dalicno.

If finalized, the agreement would allow ISRI access to 22 million tons of gold-bearing ore for the next 25 years.

Talks proceeded haltingly, gaining momentum in 2018 with a series of community consultations.

Itogon communities initially rejected APSA 103 in 2022. ISRI responded with a motion for reconsideration early in 2023, entailing another round of consultations.

In September 2023, the company finalized an agreement with Indigenous representatives and the NCIP. However, many in Dalicno, where most of ISRI’s operations will take place, question the FPIC process, alleging it was railroaded in ISRI’s favor — a claim both ISRI and the local NCIP branch reject.

To approve APSA 103, the Philippines’ Department of Environment and Natural Resources requires a final signoff from the NCIP called a certification precondition. While this is pending, Dalicno residents are pressing the government to scrap the project altogether.

On the doors of many of Dalicno’s cliffside homes hang signs saying “No to APSA! Save our water sources, built-up areas, people, future!” On the highway to Dalicno hang hand-painted banners that read “Save Dalicno! No to APSA!”

Signs opposing ISRI’s mining plans, such as this one outside a small-scale mining facility, dot the town of Dalicno in the northern Philippines. Image by Michael Beltran for Mongabay.

“Itogon has seen so many lapses with mining, we don’t trust the companies,” says Allan Sabaiano, head of the Dalicno Indigenous Peoples Organization (DIPO), formed in January this year with the goal of overturning the initial agreement. ”They’ve compromised our water sources, and ISRI is coming back to take the rest. They did it by ignoring the voice of Dalicno’s people.”

Fearing the loss of drinkable water from a nearby spring, restricted access to the designated mining areas, and the continued plunder of their ancestral resources, DIPO has been lobbying to cancel APSA 103.

“So many ‘good-intentioned’ companies have mined here,” Dalicno elder Cristeta Caytap tells Mongabay. “But where are the schools and the hospitals? Yes they’ve given some financial assistance on occasion, but we remain underdeveloped while they line their pockets with gold. And now here they come again.”

Eric Andal, ISRI’s resident manager, says the no-mining zones, including residential areas, will be off-limits to the company’s operations. While conceding that large-scale mining has caused some environmental damage, Andal tells Mongabay that “we mitigate our impacts.”

If anything, he adds, it’s the community-driven “small-scale mining which has more of a degrading impact, because it is unregulated with so many working that way,” He says, “They themselves mine underneath their houses. If something collapses, it’s their doing.”

‘Nobody informed me about it’

In September 2023, weeks after the agreement was signed, DIPO filed a petition at the NCIP’s regional office to nullify it, citing irregularities in the consultation process.

According to DIPO, most residents were kept in the dark about the motion. Elder Juanito Erciba, who represented Dalicno at most FPIC talks up until 2022, says he was one of them. “When we said ‘No to APSA’ in 2022, I thought that was the end of it. I never knew about any motion for reconsideration. I just found out there was a signed agreement that nobody informed me about,” Erciba says.

He adds that Jimmy Lumbag, the man who suddenly replaced him, was never affirmed through a community decision, thereby making his participation in the FPIC illegitimate.

“It hurts, upsets my stomach. Is it because I’m just a poor man that I was overlooked? But the community appointed me,” Erciba says.

Small scale mines like this one support the modest lives of many villagers in Itogon. Image by Michael Beltran for Mongabay.

In January 2024, the NCIP dismissed the DIPO petition, deeming it without merit.

According to NCIP community development officer Abeline Cirilo, consensus was achieved with the cooperation of the municipal Indigenous group Itogon Indigenous People’s Organization (IIPO).  IIPO, which unlike DIPO is recognized by the NCIP, represented the entire municipality when it came to allowing ISRI entry. The matter was then put to a vote by secret ballot, Cirilo says.

“The outcome registered a yes to the operations while declaring the Dalicno homes and water source a ‘no-mining zone,’” he says.

Rosita Bargaso, the IIPO chair, hails from Itogon’s Gumatdang village, not among the localities that would be directly affected by APSA 103. She refutes DIPO’s claims, telling Mongabay that Dalicno elders were informed but uninterested in the latter part of the consensus building. She adds that they suddenly protested after the agreement was already signed.

Bargaso says Dalicno elders like Erciba oppose APSA 103 because of their “self-interest.” She says the proposed operations would help all of Itogon: “ISRI will permit them to gold mine on its site, [and offer] a chance to work for the company and access to company-owned water sources. The problem is they want all of it for themselves.”

In September 2023, IIPO released a resolution to support APSA 103 and “deny the allegations of alleged irregularities in the conduct of the FPIC.”

Andal seconds this assertion, dismissing DIPO as a “small group making a lot of noise to appear like there are many.” He adds that the support it has generated is because it has reached out to “leftist groups.”

“It was a desperate move on their part,” Andal says. “They can’t convince others anymore so they called on outsiders to help.”

Dalicno elder Cristeta Caytap says she fears industrial-scale mining will contaminate the local water supply. Image by Michael Beltran for Mongabay.

Cirilo also says community voices weren’t ignored. When asked about DIPO’s allegations, including the unceremonious replacement of Erciba, he says that “if that did happen, hopefully it won’t affect the consent given through the voting. We can correct the names on the [agreement], but it cannot undo the outcome.”

DIPO head Sabaiano and many other residents say Dalicno was left out of the vote, rejecting the idea that the outcome represented a “consensus.” He also says IIPO failed Dalicno by “bypassing and excluding its people.”

“Neither the document nor the company has told us what kind of method ISRI will use. They could be ready to crack open the mountain,” he says.

Caytap also voiced her distrust over the “no-mining zone” disclaimer, saying underground digging is usually goes unchecked, causing irreparable and untold damage despite the surface looking untouched. “Mining affects everything,” she says, adding she expecting the tailings to eventually contaminate their spring water.

DIPO has since appealed to the NCIP’s central office, which is currently reviewing the matter.

Meanwhile, the regional office of the environment department’s Mines and Geosciences Bureau confirmed to Mongabay that approval for APSA 103 is on hold pending issuance of a certification precondition from the NCIP. The document is issued when a review by the central office has judged the process of acquiring community consent has complied with the proper guidelines.

So far, the NCIP’s central office has rejected the report its local branch submitted on the FPIC process for the mine because it lacks photographs, minutes, or attendance sheets proving that community assemblies, a key component of FPIC consultations, actually took place.

“We lacked the necessary documentation,” Cirilo says. “We did conduct two assemblies, but there were no pictures, an incomplete report, and we have yet to submit it.”

If that means a delay to issuing the certification precondition, Cirilo says the environment department could grant a one-year special gold mining permit, which only needs approval from municipal officials, forgoing Indigenous consent.

Allan Sabaiano, head of the Dalicno Indigenous Peoples Organization (DIPO), in striped shirt, with a map of mining in Itogon municipality. Image by Michael Beltran for Mongabay.

After the old gold rush

Large-scale mining here began during the U.S. occupation of the Philippines, with the first colonial mine opening in 1903. Since then, firms like ISRI have followed, amassing free patents and leases that continue today.

Lulu Gimenez, a seasoned Itogon community organizer and historian, has worked with groups like the Mining Communities Development Center and the Cordillera People’s Alliance. She says complaints against mines have piled up over the past century. “Communities complained of erosion, ground subsidence, and worsening conditions of water supply, but mining companies appeased them with monetary compensation for poisoned cattle.”

In the 1990s, the tensions erupted, with Itogon locals mounting barricades against the intrusion of heavy mining machinery.

Activists scored a big win against Australian mining firm Anvil in 2007. Anvil had struck a $2.12 million deal with ISRI for its mining rights, and planned to bore 20 holes, each 100 meters (330 feet) deep, for extraction. Locals protested, arguing that Anvil would puncture and drain a water table beneath a vein of ore, and successfully stopped the project.

Itogon residents cite the same fears about ISRI’s latest prospects.

More recent disasters attributed by Itogon locals to mining-related activity have also refreshed long-standing concerns about mining safety. In 2015, a sinkhole swallowed up seven houses in the Itogon village of Virac, forcing the evacuation of 170 families. Then, in 2018, a landslide in Ucab village claimed the lives of 82 miners living in bunkhouses on land controlled by mining firms.

In 2015, APEX Mining Company, owned by the Philippines’ second-richest individual, Enrique Razon, acquired ISRI. In February this year, a landslide in an APEX mining concession the southern province of Davao de Oro province killed nearly 100 people and displaced thousands.

Corporations have extracted too many minerals and profit from Itogon,” Gimenez says. “The destruction has been going on for over a century. It’s time they leave Itogon alone, let the land heal and let the people redevelop the resources.”

According to data from the Mines and Geosciences Bureau, Benguet province, where Itogon is located, is one of the most intensively mined areas in the Cordillera region. Fourteen of 30 APSAs in the region are in Benguet, as are seven out of the 11 approved mineral-sharing agreements.

Inside one of the many small-scale mining facilities that pepper the hills of Itogon province. Image by Michael Beltran for Mongabay.

Unwanted offer

As far as the mining bureau is concerned, ISRI has an impeccable record. In its 2022 Compliance Scorecard, used to measure how companies abide by safety, health, environmental and social development guidelines, ISRI notched a 94.35% rating.

“We see no problem, insofar as their compliance as a company,” says Alfredo Genetiano, chief engineer at the bureau. “The company conforms to our standards and hence we’ve given them a passing rate.”

The bureau lauded ISRI for its faithfulness to the Big Brother-Small Brother (BBSB) government initiative, where mining companies are obligated to allocate 1.5% of their expenses to community development and employ locals as contract miners. APEX told Mongabay that its BBSB commitment is aimed at reducing illegal, unsafe and unregulated small-scale mining.

ISRI also gave an additional 10 million pesos ($173,000) in goodwill funds to the communities upon the signing of the FPIC agreement last September.

However, Caytap remains skeptical, saying the cons severely outweigh the pros. “It limits the number of people who can mine,” she says. “Here, we go by traditional rules. Young ones, the elderly, anyone can work. And anyone with a bit more is obliged to share what they collect with the others, especially when times are tough. That’s how we’ve survived.”

Under the BBSB system, contract miners are hired in groups for short periods of time, and paid according to how much ore they extract, meaning earnings are highly variable.

ISRI’s Andal, who is also vice president for geology and exploration at APEX Mining, says their BBSB employment arrangements worked well for them in Davao, in the southern Philippines, and they’ve already replicated it with some 400 Itogon contract miners. Should APSA 103 be approved, he says, they could take on around 400 more locals.

While private operators shoulder all of their own costs, under BBSB, Andal says, contract miners only need to pay for their own food. “We provide the tools and buy the ore they extract,” he says.

While Dalicno elders describe small-scale mining as a community act, ISRI’s manager points to unregulated small-scale mining as a significant source of environmental degradation. Image by Michael Beltran for Mongabay.

Working eight-hour shifts, a group of around 20 contract gold miners can make up to 600,000 pesos ($10,400) a month if they’re productive, Andal says. Split evenly, that works out to 1,363 pesos ($23.60) per person per day. Andal says even less productive miners could make about 454 pesos ($7.90) a day, or slightly more than the daily minimum wage for the Cordillera region, which is 430 pesos ($7.45).

Local observers, however, question the touted benefits of BBSB and put the numbers much lower.

Jestone Dela Cruz has worked as a security guard at the Benguet Corporation, the oldest mining company in the Philippines, for nearly a decade, where he says he sees miners come and go, remaining poor. “A group of eight will probably get paid around 20,000 pesos [$347], that’s less than 3,000 pesos [$52] a month,” Dela Cruz says.

Sabaiano, who’s worked on ISRI sites in the past, also says the BBSB offer affords a typically low rate, with some gold miners taking home 7,000 pesos ($121) for two months’ worth of ore.
“How’s one supposed to survive like that? Plus other expenses like food and transportation are shouldered by the workers,” he says.

He also questions if the employment opportunities are even a good thing to begin with. ISRI will gain control over hundreds of hectares of mining land while employing fewer than 1,000 Itogon locals. Dalicno alone has a voting population of more than 2,000.

Caytap says she blames the mining firms for holding back the region’s economic development. “Our land is literally filled with gold. The country has first-class municipalities, we might have exceeded that without the mining firms. But somehow, we are left collecting money to fix our roads,” she says.

Community activists in Dalicno hold a banner protesting ISRI’s mining expansion plans. Image by Michael Beltran for Mongabay.

She adds, however, that she takes heart in the traditions and community spirit that sustain Dalicno and keep the memory of its history and struggle alive.

Local customs foster the collective. Everyday mining is a community act for young and old. During weddings or funerals, extraction is strictly prohibited out of respect for the family. When times are tough, each makes an offering to the deities and fairies to appease them.

For the first time in a long time, APSA 103 threatens to divide the commonly united Dalicno. But Caytap says she hasn’t lost faith, that in times of loss, their traditions beckon stronger. “We band together,” she says.

Photo by Hitoshi Namura on Unsplash

Salt Mining Sinks a City, Displacing Thousands in Brazil

Salt Mining Sinks a City, Displacing Thousands in Brazil

Editor’s note: Any compensation from chemical companies cannot make up for the repercussions of mining, in this case, salt mining. The petrochemical company Braskem, the largest plastic producer in the Americas, is responsible for the displacement of people and was well aware of the risk that the city of Maceió could sink. Yet it kept on operating the mine. As long as companies like Braskem put profit above all other needs – social, environmental, health of communities and thriving wild habitats – this ecocrisis in which we live will only get worse. It can’t go on like this anymore.


By Peter Speetjens/Mongabay

Decades of salt mining in Maceió, in northeastern Brazil, have led to earthquakes and cracks in several of the city’s neighborhoods, making buildings there unhabitable. As a result, about 60,000 people have been displaced.

Braskem, the chemical giant that acquired the original salt mining company, has agreed with authorities to clean up the affected neighborhoods and compensate locals. But those affected complain that Braskem has offered them meager amounts, with no negotiation; the sums don’t cover the value of their properties, while compensation for moral damage is also extremely low.

Locals indirectly affected do not receive compensation and continue to suffer losses, as properties within a 1-kilometer (0.6-mile) radius around the disaster zone can no longer be insured and lose value; businesses adjacent to the now unhabitable neighborhoods have also lost customers.

Maceió, Alagoas, Brazil

Streets lie deserted. Gardens have overgrown homes. Doors and windows are bricked up. The Bebedouro neighborhood in Maceió, in Brazil’s northeastern coastal state of Alagoas, is a shadow of its former self. And soon not even that.

Every building there is numbered. As soon as a property has been fenced off by iron sheets, the bulldozers will appear to flatten the land. Large parts of the historical area have already been turned into an anonymous plain.

Bebedouro is one of Maceió’s suburbs where officially nobody can live anymore. Following heavy rains in February 2018, large cracks appeared in floors and walls. Then, on March 2, a magnitude 2.5 earthquake hit the city of some 960,000 people, widening cracks and tearing up asphalt.

“Everyone went out on the street in shock, as this had never happened before,” said Neirivane Ferreira, a Bebedouro resident at the time. “Only later we learned on the news it had been an earthquake with its epicenter in the neighboring area of Pinheiro.”

But Maceió didn’t have a history of seismic activity. In 2019, the Brazil Geological Survey concluded that parts of Maceió were subsiding due to nearly 50 years of rock salt extraction, which caused the tremors and cracking. As a result, five neighborhoods were declared unhabitable by the local government; 60,000 people were forcibly displaced.

Salt mining continues

Compensation for residents was left with petrochemical company Braskem, the biggest plastics manufacturer in the Americas. But those affected complain that Braskem’s compensation program has been abusive, lacking enough coverage and often forcing them to choose between low payments or no compensation at all.

Maceió’s salt deposits were discovered during a quest for oil in 1943. Since extraction started in 1976, the city has been pierced by 35 mine shafts, the deepest reaching up to 2 kilometers (1.2 miles) below the surface.

The salt was first mined by Brazilian company Salgema, which in 1996 became Trikem, which in 2002 merged into Braskem.

One study from 2010 warned that higher underground pressure due to rock salt mining could cause the ground to sink, while subsequent research warned that subsidence caused by rock salt mining could reach up to 1.5 m (4.9 ft) in parts of Maceió. Yet, salt extraction continued as before.

“The extraction of rock salt in Maceió has always been internally and externally monitored, using the best techniques available, supervised by the competent public bodies and with all the necessary permits,” Braskem PR consultant Nicolas Tamasauskas said in an email to Mongabay. “Following the events in 2018, Braskem stopped extracting and presented a permanent closure plan that was accepted by the national mining authorities.”

As a result, since 2018, more than 14,000 premises, including homes, companies, churches and schools, have been declared unfit for habitation in the five suburbs. More than 60,000 inhabitants were forced to leave their homes. More than 4,500 people lost their businesses. Thousands had to look for alternative jobs, schools, sport clubs and health clinics.

Ferreira said the move felt abusive. “It felt like a second act of violence, as we were never consulted. We were left totally vulnerable, while Braskem was free to dominate the negotiations and establish derisory values.”

Victims claim insufficient compensation

In January 2020, Braskem reached a settlement with public prosecutors and in cooperation with the authorities launched the Financial Compensation and Relocation Support Program. Through it, Braskem helps residents search for a new home, pays for relocation and offers a temporary rental allowance of 1,000 reais ($200) per month.

Braskem works with so-called “facilitators,” who appraise properties, assist with paperwork and eventually negotiate with residents the final value of their properties. Compensation covers that value plus 40,000 reais ($7,822) for “moral damages.”

On March 31, according to Braskem, 14,400 of the 14,500 properties in the crisis area had been vacated. The company had issued 19,129 compensation proposals, of which 18,256 were accepted.

The company has allocated a budget of 14.4 billion reais ($2.8 billion) to deal with the disaster. It already spent 9.2 billion reais ($1.8 billion), some two-thirds of which was paid as compensation for damage to private and public properties. The remainder mainly concerned the process of closing the mines.

“There were no negotiations,” said Alexandre de Moraes Sampaio, president of the Association of Entrepreneurs and Victims of Mining in Maceió. “Braskem prepares a proposal, which you accept or not. If you don’t, as I did, then it turns silent for six months before you hear from them again.”

Sampaio owned a real estate agency and a small marketing company in Pinheiro, while his wife had a psychological practice. Pinheiro was the first Maceió neighborhood to experience cracking and degradation in 2018. Braskem offered them one payment for all three entities.

“I don’t want to go into detail, but it was a ridiculously low amount,” Sampaio told Mongabay. “In the end I received more, but it was still nothing compared to my real losses. However, after three years of negotiating, with hardly any income, I had no choice but to accept.”

Sampaio was on the brink of bankruptcy. Today, he lives some 100 km (62 mi) south of Maceió, where he has managed to revitalize his real estate firm. Most victims found themselves in a weak negotiating position, as they had been forced to leave their properties.

Disaster zone much larger

Ferreira also negotiated for three years to receive compensation for her Bebedouro home. “It was shameful what Braskem offered,” she said. “In most cases, Braskem offered a sum that amounted to not even half the property’s value, which made it very hard to find something similar elsewhere.”

According to Sampaio, damages related to the mining disaster have been reduced to “land and stones,” as Braskem pays the bare minimum for properties, disregarding many other costs.

“The compensation for moral damages is a mere pittance,” he said. “Braskem … should pay a higher amount to every victim, not just owners.”

Sampaio said that the 1.7 billion reais ($332 million) compensation Braskem paid the Maceió municipality was below par, as it did not account for things as lost income from taxes and lost utilities and infrastructure. “Braskem arguably should have paid four times more,” he said.

Damages exist even outside the disaster zone. The difference between what is considered safe and uninhabitable is at times only a street wide. A restaurant or company located safely “across the street” that lost half its market due to the relocation of 60,000 people receives nothing.

“Insurance companies no longer insure properties in a radius of 1 km [0.6 mi] around the designated disaster zone,” Sampoio said. “As a result, some 40,000 dwellings lost 30% of their value. Yet, none of this is compensated.”

Braskem now owns the city

In December 2023, Intercept Brasil unveiled a leaked compensation agreement, containing several special clauses. First, the signatory is not allowed to disclose the amount of compensation, otherwise Braskem can reclaim the payment.

Second, to finalize the compensation agreement, all property deeds must be handed over to Braskem. As a result, the chemical company today owns 99% of the disaster area. People in Maceió fear that Braskem aims to turn the disaster into an opportunity for future development.

According to Tamasauskas, that is not the case. He pointed at an agreement signed by Braskem and the Maceió municipality, which states the former “will not build in uninhabitable areas for housing or commercial purposes. And a change in ownership will not change that.”

Brazilian construction giant Novonor is Braskem’s majority owner, followed by Petrobras. Formerly known as Odebrecht, Novonor is in talks with the Abu Dhabi National Oil Company to sell its Braskem stake for an estimated $2 billion.

A third clause in the contract states that no one can sue Braskem on the outcome of a current or future investigation. In December 2023, a parliamentary inquiry into Braskem’s handling of the mining disaster was launched.

Finding justice abroad

In 2020, eleven victims sued Braskem in the Dutch city of Rotterdam, where the firm’s European head office and two financial holdings are based. The claimants demand that Braskem will be held liable for the disaster and needs to pay for damages.

“Braskem’s financial compensation program has been criticized for failing to hold Braskem liable for the disaster it caused,” said Bruna Ficklscherer, legal director of Pogust Goodhead, the British law firm representing the eleven victims.

Ficklscherer confirmed that people affected by the disaster, yet located outside the designated disaster zone, have had no opportunity to receive compensation, even though education, employment, health services and transportation have deteriorated in the neighborhoods surrounding the risk area.

Braskem tried to have the case dismissed by arguing the Dutch court lacked jurisdiction, as the case solely concerned Brazil. But the judge rejected the claim, on the grounds that the company has financial entities and its European head office in Rotterdam.

During the first hearing in February, Braskem consistently referred to the mining disaster as “the geological event,” while it presented the compensation program as the most beneficial possible. The eleven claimants argued the exact opposite. The Dutch court is expected to issue a verdict in towards the end of the year.

Meanwhile, Maceió’s worries are all but over. On Nov. 28, 2023, a rupture occurred in Braskem’s mine 18 in the neighborhood of Mutange. A week later, part of the suburb had subsided by almost 2 m (6.6 ft).

Fearing immediate collapse, the authorities declared a state of emergency, even though the area had been vacated. Today, nothing remains of Mutange. Braskem’s bulldozers have razed the neighborhood to the ground.

Many of the walls still standing in Bebedouro, and elsewhere in Maceió’s disaster area, are now covered in graffiti. “Here lived art, happiness, sadness and disaster,” one reads; another simply reads, “justice.”


Title Photo by Enrique/Pixabay

 

Why Your Tech Is Killing Earth

Why Your Tech Is Killing Earth

By Katie Singer

A tech lover recently told me that he and several colleagues have realized:

1.     The Earth does not have enough energy, minerals or water to support AI, e-vehicles, solar PVs, industrial wind facilities and batteries. Not at the scale we dream to fulfill. Not with eight billion humans.

2.     Expanding the Internet and AI ravages the Earth and wastes young brains.

I consider this man’s honesty excellent news. If more people acknowledge that our electronic tools take from the Earth faster than it can replenish and waste faster than the Earth can absorb, maybe we could take a collective pause. We could question which manufactured goods are necessary and which ones are not. We could stop ravaging ecosystems, reduce production and consumption. We could have truth and reconciliation parties about our relationship with nature and ask each other for help in living within our bioregion’s ecological limits. We could cultivate humility.

Meanwhile, reports about the technosphere’s harms continue to flood my inbox. I do also get some Good News. Thanks for taking a look:

SOLAR PV PROBLEMS CONTINUE TO GLARE

In June, 2024, the Aratina Solar Project in Kern County CA will destroy 4,287 five-hundred-year-old Joshua trees to power 93,000 homes with “clean” (solar PV) energy.

According to a report by Sheffield Hallam University, “almost the entire global solar panel industry is implicated in the forced labor of Uyghurs and other Turkic and Muslim-majority peoples” who crush quartz rocks and work in coal-fueled furnaces to produce polysilicon for solar panels. Investors nor governments adequately address Uyghur forced labour risks in the renewable energy sector.

In Slavery Poisons Solar Industry’s Supply Chains, Miles Pollard reports that roughly 80% of solar components are manufactured in China using slave labor.

See European Parliament resolutions regarding forced labor in China to make solar PVs. See the 2021 U.S. Uyghur Forced Labor Prevention Act, which expanded the mandate that all U.S. companies importing silicon from Xinjiang confirm supply chains free of forced labor. In June 2021, a US Withhold Release Order prevented imports containing silicon from Hoshine Silicon Industry Co. Ltd and its subsidiaries from entering the U.S. until importing companies could prove they were not made with forced labor.

What to do? Solar corporations should obtain nearby communities’ free, prior and informed consent before mining or smelting. They can use standards like the Silicon Valley Toxics Coalition’s Solar Scorecard. The Solar Equipment Buyers’ Guide for Supply Chain Traceability explains how manufacturers can track finished solar modules’ material origins.

Before buying solar PVs, require the manufacturer to trace its supply chains.

Read Tuco’s Child, a Substack written by a retired chemist who worked in nanomaterials, polymer chemistry, semi-conductor process engineering and the mining industry and treated wastewater from semiconductor effluent. See his photo essay, Fossil Fuels Create 1 Trillion Computer Chips per Year. Computer chips and solar panel wafers are both made from silicon. Making silicon is like working in a volcano. Every 50,000 tons of silicon produces 500,000 tons of CO2. (Solar PVs also use copper, aluminum, boron, phosphorous, PFAs and much more.) Since recycling solar panels is not feasible or economical, expect an avalanche of solar panels at the landfill near you (another fab photo essay from Tuco’s Child).

WIND PROBLEMS DO NOT BLOW AWAY

Tuco’s Child also reports that wind turbine blade waste will exceed 43 million tons/year by 2050.

Major offshore wind projects in New York have been canceled.

U.S. wind generation declined in 2023 for the first time since the 1990s despite the addition of 6.2 gigawatts (GW) of new wind capacity in 2023. Power Plant Operations Report shows that U.S. wind generation in 2023 totaled 425,235 gigawatt hours (GWh), 2.1% less than in 2022. For a list of wind and solar facilities rejected by NIMBYs, see Robert Bryce’s Renewable Rejection Database. See also Bryce’s “Wind/Solar/Al-Energy Subsidies to Cost Federal Taxpayers $425 Billion Between Now and 2033.”

UTILITIES

A 2022 California energy bill has households paying a fixed monthly charge in exchange for lower rates for each kilowatt hour used. Opponents call the legislation a financial gift to investor-owned utilities. Californians who use little electricity pay more, while people who use lots of electricity save money. The policy signals “that conservation doesn’t count,” said Environmental Working Group’s Ken Cook. The new law’s inspiration came from a 2021 paper written by UC/Berkeley’s Energy Institute (partly funded by utilities). The paper detailed how costs for building “renewable” energy plants, burying power lines to reduce wildfire risks, and compensating fire victims increased electric rates—and discouraged Californians from buying EVs and electric appliances.

For a deeper dive, please read my Substack, “Discovering Power’s Traps: a primer for electricity users.”

Isaac Orr and Mitch Rolling (Energy Bad Boys), “Green-PlatingTM the Grid: How Utilities Exploit the ‘Energy Transition’ to Rake in Record Profits.”

AI

Ed Ballard, “Air Conditioning and AI are Demanding More of the World’s Power—Renewables Can’t Keep Up: Renewables can’t keep up with growth, which means more coal and more emissions.”

Amy Luers, et al., “Will AI accelerate or delay the race to net-zero emissions?As AI transforms the global economy, researchers need to explore scenarios to assess how it can help, rather than harm, the climate.” Nature, April 2024. This article says that AI’s energy costs are a small percentage of global energy costs—but doesn’t count the energy (or mining, water, or indigenous community impacts) involved in manufacturing devices and operating AI’s infrastructure. The push is for standards—a long slow, industry-run process—not actions. Power grid outages are considered ‘local’ problems…without recognizing data centers’ global impacts.

Indigenous peoples rush to stop ‘false climate solutions’ ahead of next international climate meeting: COP29 could make carbon markets permanent. Indigenous leaders are calling for a moratorium before it’s too late.” Maria Parazo Rose, April 22, 2024.

Matteo Wong, “The AI Revolution is Crushing Thousands of Languages: English is the internet’s primary tongue—which may have unexpected consequences as generative AI becomes central to daily life,” The Atlantic, April, 2024.

Karen Hao, “AI is Taking Water from the Desert: New data centers are springing up every week. Can the Earth sustain them?” The Atlantic, March 1, 2024.

Valovic, Tom, Big Tech Companies Are Becoming More Powerful Than Nation-States. Already richer than many countries, AI’s rise looks to increase big tech companies’ influence.

EVs

How G.M. Tricked Millions of Drivers into Being Spied On (Including Me)

by Kashmir Hill, The NY Times, April 23, 2024. When this privacy reporter bought a Chevrolet Bolt, two risk-profiling companies got detailed data about her driving. (Note: new, gas-powered vehicles also provide detailed data to profilers.)

Bruno Venditti, “Visualized: How much do (replacement) EV batteries cost?” October 15, 2023.

Purdue University, the Indiana Dept. of Transportation and Cummins Inc. will build the U.S.’s first electric charging highway. Transmitter coils installed under pavement in dedicated lanes will send power to receiver coils attached to vehicles’ undersides. What if people with medical implants (deep brain stimulators, insulin pumps, cochlear implants, pacemakers) experience electronic interference?

MINING

People of Red Mountain: Life Over Lithium (an excellent, short film about mining Thacker Pass for EVs). See also my Substacks, “When Land I Love Holds Lithium: Max Wilbert on Thacker Pass” and “What choices do we have—when a corporation wants to do business?

Eileen Crist on deep-sea mining with appropriately systemic responses.

DRC Bleeds Conflict Minerals for Green Growth,” by Alexandria Shaner.

TECH & PLANETARY & PUBLIC HEALTH

Jessica Grose, “Every Tech Tool in the Classroom Should Be Ruthlessly evaluated,” NY Times, April 25, 2024. OpEd.

Patricia Burke, “The FCC is the Bully Boarding the School Bus: The Eyes are (Not) Having It.” Excessive screen-time leads to eye damage, yet the FCC funds installation of Wi-Fi on school buses, supposedly so that children can do homework while riding.

Environmental Health Trust (EHT) revealed that the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) hid test results showing that smartphones in close proximity to the body (i.e., in a pocket) exceed federal radiation exposure limits. EHT’s Theodora Scarato says: “Why did the FCC perform these tests and then decide to not release the results…while it was conducting a rule-making on this very subject? Why did the FCC refuse to release all the records on this issue? It is outrageous that the U.S. allows phones to be tested with whatever separation distance the companies want. Children and adults (keep) phones pressed to their bodies for hours every day. We need a strong oversight and compliance program…that reflects the way people use phones.”

Is Elon Musk’s Starlink Constellation Slowly Poisoning Earth? Starlink satellites could be eroding Earth’s magnetic field and slowly poisoning us all.

People undergoing therapeutic radiation should avoid exposure to wireless radiation prior to, during, and after treatment. In combination, it could seriously damage DNA. Medical/radiology practitioners need education about the risks of EMF-exposures combined with ionizing radiation.

GOOD NEWS…that might dovetail an era of humility  

In Finland, a daycare replaced its sandy playground with grass, dwarf heather, planter boxes and blueberries. The children tended them. After one month, the children had healthier microbiomes and stronger immune systems than their counterparts in other urban daycares. Researchers conclude that loss of biodiversity in urban areas can contribute to poorer health outcomes; and easy environmental changes can radically improve children’s health.

In Denmark, engineers, architects and manufacturers have written the Reduction Roadmap. They advocate for living on less space. Re-using building materials, elements and structures. Selecting low-carbon, biogenic and regional building materials. Applying life cycle thinking to reduce carbon emissions and building materials’ environmental impacts. Using renewable energy for heating, cooling and electricity. (I question this one.) Collaborate.

In the UK, Daisy Greenwell reports that 75,000 parents have come together to give their kids a smartphone-free childhood, April 29, 2024.

In the Washington Post, Joanna Slater reports “How a Connecticut middle school won the battle against cellphones,A study shows that banning smartphones decreases bullying among both genders. Girls’ GPA improves, and their likelihood of attending an academic high school increases. Consider banning smartphones at school a low-cost policy to improve student outcomes.

Katie Singer writes about the energy, extractions, toxic waste and greenhouse gases involved in manufacturing computers, telecom infrastructure, electric vehicles and other electronic technologies. Visit OurWeb.tech and ElectronicSilentSpring.com.