The World Is Farming More Seafood Than It Catches

The World Is Farming More Seafood Than It Catches

Editor’s note: The author asks if that is a good thing. The short answer is no. For the same reason, agriculture is bad for the land, aquaculture is bad for the ocean. It is because humans have overcaught wild fish and depleted their numbers that people have more and more gone to aquaculture. There are now just too many human mouths to feed and not enough fish in the oceans.

By Frida Garza / Grist

Both aquaculture and fisheries have environmental and climate impacts — and they overlap more than you’d think

A new report from the United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organization, or FAO, has found that more fish were farmed worldwide in 2022 than harvested from the wild, an apparent first.

Last week, the FAO released its annual report on the state of aquaculture — which refers to the farming of both seafood and aquatic plants — and fisheries around the world. The organization found that global production from both aquaculture and fisheries reached a new high — 223.3 million metric tons of animals and plants — in 2022. Of that, 185.4 million metric tons were aquatic animals, and 37.8 million metric tons were algae. Aquaculture was responsible for 51 percent of aquatic animal production in 2022, or 94.4 metric tons.

The milestone was in many ways an expected one, given the world’s insatiable appetite for seafood. Since 1961, consumption of seafood has grown at twice the annual rate of the global population, according to the FAO. Because production levels from fisheries are not expected to change significantly in the future, meeting the growing global demand for seafood almost certainly necessitates an increase in aquaculture.

Though fishery production levels fluctuate from year to year, “it’s not like there’s new fisheries out there waiting to be discovered,” said Dave Martin, program director for Sustainable Fisheries Partnerships, an international organization that works to reduce the environmental impact of seafood supply chains. “So any growth in consumption of seafood is going to come from aquaculture.”

A fisherman, wearing reflective gear and visible from the waist down, lifts several crates containing oysters
A worker removes a stack of oyster baskets during harvest. Bloomberg Creative / Getty Images via Grist

But the rise of aquaculture underscores the need to transform seafood systems to minimize their impact on the planet. Both aquaculture and fisheries — sometimes referred to as capture fisheries, as they involve the capture of wild seafood — come with significant environmental and climate considerations. What’s more, the two systems often depend on each other, making it difficult to isolate their climate impacts.

“There’s a lot of overlap between fisheries and aquaculture that the average consumer may not see,” said Dave Love, a research professor at the Center for a Livable Future at Johns Hopkins University.

Studies have shown that the best diet for the planet is one free of animal protein. Still, seafood generally has much lower greenhouse gas emissions than other forms of protein from land-based animals. And given many people’s unwillingness or inability to go vegan, the FAO recommends transforming, adapting, and expanding sustainable seafood production to feed the world’s growing population and improve food security.

But “there’s a lot of ways to do aquaculture well, and there’s a lot of ways to do it poorly,” said Martin. Aquaculture can result in nitrogen and phosphorus being released into the natural environment, damaging aquatic ecosystems. Farmed fish can also spread disease to wild populations, or escape from their confines and breed with other species, resulting in genetic pollution that can disrupt the fitness of a wild population. Martin points to the diesel fuel used to power equipment on certain fish farms as a major source of aquaculture’s environmental impact. According to an analysis from the climate solutions nonprofit Project Drawdown, swapping out fossil fuel-based generators on fish farms for renewable-powered hybrids would prevent 500 million to 780 million metric tons of carbon emissions by 2050.

Other areas for improvement will vary depending on the specific species being farmed. In 2012, a U.N. study found that mangrove forests — a major carbon sink — have suffered greatly due to the development of shrimp and fish farming. Today, industry stakeholders have been exploring how new approaches and techniques from shrimp farmers can help restore mangroves.

Meanwhile, wild fishing operations present their own environmental problems. For example, poorly managed fisheries can harvest fish more quickly than wild populations can breed, a phenomenon known as overfishing. Certain destructive wild fishing techniques also kill a lot of non-targeted species, known as bycatch, threatening marine biodiversity.

But the line between aquaculture and fish harvested from the wild isn’t as clear as it may seem. For example, pink salmon that are raised in hatcheries and then released into the wild to feed, mature, and ultimately be caught again are often marketed as “wild caught.” Lobsters, caught wild in Maine, are often fed bait by fisherman to help them put on weight. “It’s a wild fishery,” said Love — but the lobster fishermen’s practice of fattening up their catch shows how human intervention is present even in wild-caught operations.

On the flipside, in a majority of aquaculture systems, farmers provide their fish with feed. That feed sometimes includes fish meal, says Love, a powder that comes from two sources: seafood processing waste (think: fish guts and tails) and wild-caught fish.

All of this can result in a confusing landscape for climate- or environmentally-conscientious consumers who eat fish. But Love recommends a few ways in which consumers can navigate choice when shopping for seafood. Buying fresh fish locally helps shorten supply chains, which can lower the carbon impact of eating aquatic animals. “In our work, we’ve found that the big impact from transport is shipping fresh seafood internationally by air,” he said. Most farmed salmon, for example, sold in the U.S. is flown in.

From both a climate and a nutritional standpoint, smaller fish and sea vegetables are also both good options. “Mussels, clams, oysters, seaweed — they’re all loaded with macronutrients and minerals in different ways” compared to fin fish, said Love.

This story was originally published by Grist. Sign up for Grist’s weekly newsletter here.

Photo by Datingscout on Unsplash

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

Forest Bird Trade Flies Quietly Under Social Media Radar

Forest Bird Trade Flies Quietly Under Social Media Radar

by on Mongabay 11 June 2024

  • During the COVID-19 pandemic, a young documentary filmmaker began quietly joining a growing number of Facebook community groups run by traders of rare Indonesian birds.
  • Over the following two years, a reporting team from several news organizations uncovered a wide network of actors offering species for sale for as little as 250,000 rupiah ($15). These individuals included a serving naval officer.
  • One shop owner selling birds in Morowali, the epicenter of Indonesia’s nickel mining and smelting boom, said they began trading in birds in 2018, after ships began docking in the local port bringing oil and cement.

KENDARI, Indonesia — In 2021, as the world grappled with the COVID-19 pandemic, Irwan watched online as a flurry of new social media groups dedicated to parrots sprang up across Indonesia.

When Irwan, whose name Mongabay has changed to protect his identity, first began participating in these online marketplaces, he saw a rainbow of parrot species offered for as little as $15 a bird, but with little further information about the species.

Two years later, after careful research, Irwan helped uncover a diffuse network of operators quietly transporting rare birds from eastern Indonesia for sale. He set out to establish whether the birds were bred in captivity or plucked from protected forests around the industrial boomtown of Kendari, his home in Southeast Sulawesi province.

“This was never detailed,” Irwan told Mongabay Indonesia. “That’s what interested me about it.”

Illegal trade in wildlife around the world is worth up to $23 billion each year, with one out of four global bird and mammal species falling victim to the business, according to BirdLife International.

As in other criminal enterprises, researchers emphasize that the true extent of the illegal trade dwarfs the number of seizures by authorities.

Much of the trade is conducted on social media. In 2016, Facebook partnered with WWF and other environmental groups to form the Coalition to End Wildlife Trafficking Online, aiming to reduce wildlife trade on the platform by 80% within four years.

In 2019, Facebook banned all live animal trade on its platform, allowing only verified sellers with legitimate business reasons. By 2020, the partnership introduced an alert system that notified users about the illegality of trading wildlife products whenever relevant search terms were used.

Flight plan

Mongabay Indonesia worked with other news outlets including Garda Animalia, which reports exclusively on the wildlife trade in Indonesia, to track and document the illegal bird trade in Sulawesi, an important transit hub for wildlife in the archipelago.

Reporters saw protected species advertised openly on social media, including the yellow-crested cockatoo (Cacatua sulphurea), black-capped lory (Lorius lory) and Moluccan eclectus (Eclectus roratus).

One account was traced to an individual whom reporters dubbed by their initials, WL: a university student in Puwatu, a subdistrict of Kendari. Reporters found WL in a two-story house fenced in by concrete and iron walls, with a plastic sheet obscuring the view of a terrace. Parrots native to the island of New Guinea perched in an enclosure outside.

WL said he’d obtained the parrots from a contact known by the Facebook pseudonym “M Parrot.” He claimed the man held a breeding permit from the provincial conservation agency in Southeast Sulawesi, the BKSDA.

WL and M Parrot were members of the same Facebook groups, where they interacted. WL said he understood that M Parrot kept around 20 pairs of birds, and that they could be identified by rings on the birds’ talons used to show certification.

“If it turns out that it’s against the law … well, don’t blame me,” WL told our reporting team. “I’m just a buyer.”

The student said the trade in birds from New Guinea likely came from hunters based in the island, whose western half is part of Indonesia.

Meanwhile, parrots in Kendari are often sourced from Obi Island in North Maluku province, and sent to port in Morowali by weekly ship. From there, the cages are switched to an overland transfer to Kendari.


Photo by Pat Whelen on Unsplash

Boomtown birds

Bungku harbor serves the industrial heartland of Morowali, which is undergoing rapid development as part of Indonesia’s nickel mining boom. The port was undergoing renovations and there wasn’t a ship to be seen when reporters visited this year.

A port worker said he usually saw crates of birds endemic to Maluku and Papua unloaded every week as large ships docked in Morowali. From here, the bird trade fans out into this part of Sulawesi, the world’s 11th largest island.

We met a man on the roadside of the main highway north of Morowali selling various types of parrots, without any official documents.

“This is 650,000 rupiah [$40],” he said, offering us a cage. “It’s a Maluku parrot.”

The man said he obtained the birds from crew members of ships anchored in Morowali, and that he would occasionally purchase birds from a trader in South Bungku, a subdistrict of Morowali.

The main road was packed with thousands of motorcycles of workers from the vast Morowali nickel smelting complex, a key node in the global electric vehicle industry. Inside one small shop by the road we found two black-capped lories, the birds’ feet chained to a small perch. Three yellow-streaked lories (Chalcopsitta scintillata) idled in their cages above a thin base of sand.

The black-capped lories were each priced at 1.8 million rupiah ($110), while the asking price for a yellow-streaked lory was 800,000 rupiah ($50). A contact number was displayed in front of the shop.

The owner said he’d been trading in birds since 2018, after ships bringing oil and cement started docking more frequently in Morowali to feed the mining boom in the region.

Later, when asked to identify the source of the birds via a WhatsApp message, the shop owner didn’t respond.

Bird on a wire

In October 2023, our reporting team visited the Southeast Sulawesi office of Indonesia’s conservation agency, the BKSDA, to obtain information on breeding permits for birds in the province.

The agency held only one such permit on file. It had been authorized in March 2023 in the name of Asriaddin.

Erni Timang, forest ecosystem lead for the Southeast Sulawesi BKSDA, said that documentation held by the conservation agency showed the permit holder didn’t have a license to deal in the birds.

“He can only breed, he can’t trade yet,” Erni told Mongabay. “You need to have a distribution permit first.”

Ahmar, the BKSDA’s conservation lead for Kendari, said his office had on several occasions attempted to clarify the trading status of the permit holder. However, Ahmar said that on every occasion, Asriaddin was unavailable at his registered address because he was on duty at the Kendari naval base. A public relations officer at the base confirmed that Asriaddin was a serving naval officer.

Mongabay visited the registered address in late March. At the home we saw cages containing various colorful parrot species, exotic imports as well as eastern Indonesian endemics, including black-capped lories, yellow-crested cockatoos, and a black lory (Chalcopsitta atra).

“In the past there were many, but now there are fewer,” a resident at the address told reporters.

On May 25, reporters reached Asriaddin by phone and asked about his status as a trader of birds.

“That’s not correct, it’s just speculation,” Asriaddin said.

When asked whether he had failed to report any breeding activities to the government conservation agency, Asriaddin claimed to not properly understand the reporting requirements.

Singky Soewadji from the Indonesian Wildlife Lovers Alliance (Apecsi), a civil society organization, criticized the awarding of breeding permits by the BKSDA conservation agency, which is part of the Ministry of Environment and Forestry.

“The director-general of the BKSDA should carry out its control function,” Singky said, “not wait until there is a violation of the law.”

Photo by David Clode on Unsplash

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.


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


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

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