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Will China Overrun Latin America?

18. Februar 2019 - 2:23

If you care about the mega-diverse ecosystems of Latin America and the Caribbean — and the economic health and welfare of its nations — you’ll want to read this brief essay about China’s role in the region’s development future.

Especially about the Amazon, Bolivia’s dam, and Jaguar fangs.


China is the biggest investor in Latin America — spending tens of billions of dollars each year on big road, dam, rail, mining, logging, and fossil-fuel projects. 

Those investments could explode with China’s Belt & Road Initiative — by far the biggest development scheme in Earth’s history.

The Belt & Road originally spanned 70 nations in Asia, Africa, and Europe.  But it keeps growing.  It now includes Latin America, the Caribbean, and the Arctic, encompassing 130 nations and much of the planet.

At present, the Belt & Road will involve roughly 7,000 new mega-projects with an incredible cost — perhaps $8 trillion in total.

If you really want to learn about the Belt & Road, watch this recent public lecture (by ALERT director Bill Laurance at the University of Queensland).  If it doesn’t scare you, you probably don’t have a pulse.

Unfortunately, no-one in China will see this lecture or anything like it.

Inside China, bad news about the Belt & Road is blocked by China’s government censors, its Great Internet Firewall, and a great deal of passive censorship — meaning no Chinese journalist who is sane would translate a negative story about the Belt & Road into Mandarin Chinese.

The Belt & Road is the scheme of President Xi Jinping — potentially China’s leader for life.  Thanks to Xi Jinping, the Belt & Road is officially inscribed into the Charter of the Central Communist Party, making it illegal for any Chinese citizen or media outlet to openly criticize it.

Inside China, there are few brakes on the Belt & Road.  Very little transparency.  No balance.  No open debate. 

It’s not the fault of the Chinese people.  It’s the fault of their authoritarian government.


And as the Belt & Road advances into Latin America and the Caribbean, there are very good reasons to worry. 

For one thing, Chinese companies and financiers commonly use corruption to get what they want—bribing even at the highest levels of a government.  

According to Transparency International, a highly respected organization, “There have been no investigations or charges ever laid in China against its companies, citizens, or residents for foreign corrupt practices”. 

That’s truly astonishing.  For Chinese firms and financiers, it’s OK — bribe away!

Furthermore, most Chinese corporations don’t reveal what they spent, where they spend it, or how much profits they make.  That’s why only a few Chinese firms are listed on international stock-exchanges, such as the Dow Jones or ASIC, which require financial transparency. 

This is a formula for promoting bad business practices, social abuses, environmental crimes, and predatory development. 

These are massive risks for the 130 host nations that China wants to exploit for minerals, fossil fuels, timber, food, and land, as well as for ports and other geopolitical assets. 

Giant risks also abound for the myriad investors from around the world that are being asked to help to pay for the Belt & Road — investors that could potentially contribute trillions of dollars to the venture.  Unless these investors are careful, they could lose vast sums of money and take gigantic hits on their reputations.


How will the Belt & Road impact on Latin America and the Caribbean?  You could write a book.  Here are three examples:

1.  Killer Dam: In Bolivia, Chinese mega-firm Sinohydro is building a major dam that will rip through the heart of Carrasco National Park — a jewel of tropical biodiversity. You can see a 30-second video about it here (and here in Spanish).

2. Assault on the Amazon:  In Brazil, President Bolsonaro — an authoritarian populist with an extreme pro-development agenda, often called the “Tropical Trump” — is turning to China to help it fund an assault on the Amazon.  With Chinese support, Bolsonaro wants to crisscross the Amazon with new roads, railroads, dams, mines, and other big development projects — potentially shredding the world’s greatest rainforest and imperiling its many indigenous groups.

3. Slaughtering Jaguars: China is the world’s biggest consumer of wildlife and wildlife parts.  This is now impacting the magnificent Jaguar, which is being hunted down across Latin America for its fangs, pelt, and bones — in order to feed an insatiable Chinese market.


Nobody could argue that Latin America and the Caribbean don’t urgently need smart economic and social development. 

But there’s a world of difference between well-conceived development that benefits a wide cross-section of society, versus ill-advised, often predatory projects that leave host nations mired in debt. 

Such ‘bad’ projects tend to enrich a few powerful people — such as certain politicians and land developers — but the rest of the population gains little or falls behind economically.

Many bad projects also create environmental crises — creating long-term social and economic problems for the host nations.

ALERT’s scientists and economists are calling out the Belt & Road juggernaut— underscoring its exceptional dangers and excesses, of which we see far too many. 

Just don’t say you haven’t been warned.

Kategorien: english

Borneo Road-Building Spree Among ‘World’s Scariest’ Environmental Threats

28. Januar 2019 - 6:24

The Southeast Asian island of Borneo sustains some of the world’s most important surviving rainforests — among the oldest and biologically richest forests on Earth. 

But an ambitious road-building spree by the Indonesian government will fragment and destroy vast areas of the island’s rainforests, according to an authoritative study (available here and also see this compelling video).  Its authors include several members of ALERT.


“You’d be hard-pressed to identify scarier threats to biodiversity anywhere on Earth,” said Dr Mohammed Alamgir, an ALERT member and lead author of the study.

“Borneo’s forests and rare wildlife have already been hit hard, but planned roads and railways will shred much of what remains, slicing across the largest remaining forests,” said Professor Jatna Supriatna from the University of Indonesia, one of the co-authors.

In a global sense, these threats are especially worrisome.  Despite suffering major forest loss since the 1960s, Indonesian Borneo — a region known as Kalimantan — still sustains one of the world’s largest expanses of tropical forest, spanning some 37 million hectares (93 million acres).

The new roads and rail projects are part of an ambitious plan by the Indonesian government to expand infrastructure, in large part to accelerate logging, mining, oil palm plantations, and other forms of intensive development. 

“For wildlife such as an Pygmy Elephants, Sun Bears, Bearded Pigs, and Bornean Orangutans, this is the worst possible news,” said ALERT director Bill Laurance, another co-author.  

To find food and shelter, such wildlife species must move to survive.  Their mass migrations to find food occur during frequent famines in the rainforest.

Such famines occur because many trees in Borneo and elsewhere in Southeast Asia produce fruit and seeds in a highly staggered and patchy manner.  This means wildlife must migrate over large distances to find food — or face starvation. 

Borneo is crisscrossed by numerous migratory pathways for animals — some spanning hundreds of kilometers in length.  

Red lines show some known migration routes of Bearded Pigs in northeastern Kalimantan, Borneo.

Alarmingly, many of these pathways have already been disrupted.  Many more will be destroyed by the new road and rail projects and all the forest exploitation they would bring.


The research team used satellite images and computer models to estimate the impacts of the expanding road and rail network across Indonesian Borneo. 

They found the roads would reduce “forest connectivity”— the degree to which forests are spatially linked together — sharply, by 34 percent in total.

This is an alarming figure, indicating a giant leap in fragmentation and loss of Borneo’s surviving forest tracts.

If completed as planned, the projects will sharply increase forest fragmentation and reduce forest connectivity for wildlife (forests with different colors are in separate, isolated tracts).

And that’s just the tip of the iceberg, because the new roads and rail projects will also open up the forests like a flayed fish, allowing illegal colonists, poachers, and miners to invade and cause even more forest disruption.

On top off this, the study shows that the new projects will slice through or degrade 42 national parks and protected areas in Indonesian Borneo, making them far more vulnerable to illegal poachers and encroachers and road-kill by vehicles.  Many parks in Indonesia are largely devoid of wildlife because of chronic poaching.


These projects and their aftermath are scary for biodiversity.  But they will also have major impacts on people, by increasing destructive flooding, and causing major greenhouse-gas emissions from deforestation and forest burning. 

The Borneo fires are also a major cause of the severe, noxious haze that regularly blights Southeast Asia.  In 2015 alone, the haze may have caused the premature deaths of over 100,000 people.

Indigenous Dayak peoples in Borneo are also vulnerable.  Foreign logging, oil palm, and mining corporations have hugely disrupted the island’s traditional inhabitants, destroying many of the forests, wildlife, and swidden-farming plots on which they have long relied. 

Big foreign investors, commonly from China, have been associated with serious corruption and bribery of Indonesian government officials

As a result, many high-risk projects — with dubious benefits and massive environmental and socioeconomic risks — have been approved, secretly sold to the highest bidder.


According to the study, the worst projects in terms of disrupting Borneo’s forests include (1) roads in the provinces of West, East and North Kalimantan, (2) several major new Trans-Kalimantan roads, and (3) freeways and rail lines in East Kalimantan.

Tthe most dangerous segments of the planned and ongoing projects, in terms of their likely impacts on forests and wildlife.

The first step in building opposition to these environmentally devastating projects is increasing public understanding of just how bad they will be. 

Right now, that is the top priority, with groups such as ALERT, the Borneo Futures initiative, and LEAP (Land Empowerment Animals People) trying to generate public interest.

You can help by spreading the word widely too — to friends, colleagues, and journalists.

This new research provides a scientific slam-dunk to support such efforts — showing that these aggressive projects will be like a dagger in the heart of Borneo’s rainforests.


Kategorien: english

The Most Mind-Blowing Eco-Stories of 2018

18. Januar 2019 - 20:57

ALERT continued its remarkable growth in 2018—all thanks to you.  We’re now reaching around 15 million people yearly, with up to 2 million readers on any particular week.

Here are the most singular stories from ALERT in 2018—some of the hottest and most mind-blowing environmental issues of the year.


Out of 37 new blogs in 2018, these three drew the strongest reactions from readers.

Is China So Big It Only Listens to Itself?

China is the overpowering driver of environmental change in the world today.  Does it care what anyone else thinks? Over 30,000 people commented on or liked this blog.

Fatal Fences Are Decimating Nature

Fences are spreading all over the planet, greatly disrupting wildlife movements.  Over 27,000 readers reacted to the story.

Investors Beware: Infrastructure Projects Are Collapsing

Some 25,000 people reacted to this account of the precarious nature of big infrastructure projects.  Many projects are now failing, leaving huge environmental damage and financial losses in their wake.


ALERT videos provide snapshots of critical eco-issues.  Out of nine new videos in 2018, here are the three most popular.

China’s Belt & Road: The Biggest Environmental Peril This Century

The Belt & Road is the biggest development project ever—involving thousands of projects and trillions of dollars across much of the world.  Its environmental impacts will be stunning. More than 800,000 people watched this video while 22,000 commented or shared it.

Hidden Challenges of the Trans-Papuan Economic Corridor

Papua, or Indonesian New Guinea, is one of the world’s greatest wild areas and an epicentre of biological and cultural diversity. It’s being sliced apart by a massive road network that will open up the forest like a flayed fish. This blog drew 730,000 viewers and over 12,000 reactions. 

Economic Risks of the Belt & Road Project

Beyond its environmental impacts, the Chinese Belt & Road venture also has great economic risks, many hidden or poorly understood and with layers of corruption.  More than 370,000 viewed this video and 6,000 reacted to it. 



ALERT has blasted into the Twitter-Verse in a big way, with 307 tweets in 2018.  Here are the four tweets that drew the biggest reactions in terms of how many people read, liked, or retweeted them.

In New Guinea, massive road-building by Indonesia will fragment and deforest vast tropical rainforest and imperil indigenous groups, say experts

Asia’s aggressive poaching spreads: Chinese nationals in Bolivia are convicted of illegally trafficking poached jaguar teeth and body parts

Bad EIAs: Why we can’t rely on Environmental Impact Assessments to protect our environment


Spectacled flying foxes die during a heatwave in Cairns, Australia




Kategorien: english

Want to Save Nature? See A Psychologist

7. Januar 2019 - 3:05

If you want to motivate people to protect nature, start by talking to a psychologist.

This isn’t because you’re crazy—but because you’re human.  

It turns out that understanding how humans think can be a huge advantage for convincing them to support conservation.

I’m Totally Rational

Most of us think we’re perfectly rational.  In fact, much of the time we’re not rational at all.

Behavioral psychologists and social scientists have long known that our choices are swayed by sweeping tides of unconscious influences.   

One example is loss aversion: people place a greater value on avoiding a loss than on making a gain—even if there’s no difference in the overall outcome. 

For instance, if you want your employees to work harder, it turns out it’s much more effective to tell them they’ll lose money for failing to meet a target than giving them a bonus for reaching it.

In a conservation context, loss aversion could help the public be supportive of new nature reserves.  A new marine park sounds like a great idea if people understand it will help maintain existing fish stocks in a region, preventing long-term losses from overfishing of key breeding sites—and thereby taking advantage of their natural loss aversion.

Nudge Me

Another psychological strategy is nudging.  The decisions people make can be strongly influenced by how information is provided to them, and by using positive reinforcement and indirect suggestions.

For example, most people are quite happy to see their body organs donated to others after they die, to help save lives.  A single donor might save a half-dozen lives this way—and the life that gets saved by such a policy might even be your own.

If you make organ donation a voluntary option when people apply for their driver’s license, few will choose it.  But make it the default option and most people are fine with the idea and don’t opt out. 

Nudging for nature is a developing art but researchers and policy makers are beginning to explore it, as has great potential to encourage better decisions.

Bag of Tricks

Yet other peculiarities of how our minds work—so-called cognitive biases—could provide big benefits for nature conservation, but have barely been explored.

The status quo bias describes our strong emotional attraction to the current state of affairs—the status quo.  It’s especially common in complex situations where there is considerable uncertainty—such as many real-world scenarios.  “When in doubt, stick it out” seems to be the motto.

So, for conservationists, explaining how a new development project will change peoples’ lives in diverse and unexpected ways may be effective.  Many people don’t realize, for example, the diverse economic and social risks involved in many big development projects—and when they do, they are less likely to support them.

Anchoring bias is another mental oddity: our tendency to rely heavily on the initial information we receive—and less on subsequent information, even if it’s more reliable. 

So, conservationists should be active and gregarious in their outreach efforts—reaching out to a diversity of different audiences and to children, for instance.  There’s little sense in preaching to those already converted to nature conservation, even if it’s far easier to do so. 

At ALERT, for instance, we use many strategies to reach political conservatives and those in fields such as finance, economics, agriculture, industry, and engineering—audiences that traditionally have mixed views about conservation priorities.  Sure, this invites criticism from some quarters, but it’s better than being unheard.

Conservation Psychology?

It’s clear that conservationists have a great deal to learn from psychology.  For example, so many people get overwhelmed by bad news about the environment.  How do we get our messages about conservation issues out to the general public without turning them off?

How do we combat disinformation and claims of ‘fake news’?

How do we get people to make smart decisions that are in our long-term interest when we’ve been programmed to think in the short term—about daily news cycles, quarterly profit statements, and bi-annual political elections?

This is almost all new terrain for humanity.  As a species, we’ve never been challenged like this before, cognitively or otherwise. 

There’s actually a field in academia called “Conservation Psychology”.  It’s not well known or widely discussed. 

But maybe it should be.


Kategorien: english

Is Climate Change Killing Off Earth's Little Creatures?

23. Dezember 2018 - 13:11

Some days climate change seems like a riot of angry drunkards: inundating islands, fueling catastrophic fires, amping-up hurricanes, and smashing Arctic sea ice

Now we can add another spate of potential victims to climate change: arthropods, a hyper-diverse group of species that includes insects, spiders, centipedes, and the like.

A recent study has linked climate change to dramatic declines in arthropod populations. If broadly valid, the study could have chilling implications for a rapidly warming world.

Arthropod Armageddon?

In the mid-1970s, researchers measured the total biomass (living mass) of insects and other arthropods in intact rainforests on the Caribbean island of Puerto Rico.

Other researchers returned to the island recently and repeated the study using the exact same methods.  To their surprise, they found that arthropod biomass was just one-eighth to one-sixtieth of that in the 1970s — a shocking collapse overall.

And the carnage didn’t end there.  A bevy of lizards, birds, and frogs that feed on arthropods had fallen sharply in abundance as well.

For the Earth’s ecosystems, a collapse loss of arthropods could be downright apocalyptic.  Arthropods pollinate plants, disperse seeds, recycle nutrients, and form the basis of food chains that sustain entire webs of life and agricultural production.

This is partly because arthropods are so abundant and diverse, comprising 70 percent of all known species on Earth.  Humans think we rule the world, but the planet really belongs to arthropods.

Killer Heat Waves

The researchers who documented the arthropod collapse in Puerto Rico considered a variety of possible causes — but the evidence kept pointing to one likely driver: rising temperatures. 

Temperatures in the rainforest have risen progressively in recent decades — by 2 degrees C (3.6 degrees Fahrenheit) on average. 

But far scarier than a gradual rise in the thermometer is periodic heat waves.  In Puerto Rico, the frequency of hot-weather events has risen sharply in recent years.

Heat waves are critical because nearly all living species have finite thresholds of temperature tolerance. 

Consider, for example, the giant bats known as flying foxes. At 41 degrees C (106 degrees Fahrenheit), flying foxes become badly heat-stressed, struggling to find shade and flapping their wings desperately to stay cool. 

But nudge the thermometer up just one more degree, to 42 C (108 degrees Fahrenheit), and the bats suddenly die.

Earlier this week, heat waves that peaked at 42 degrees C in tropical Queensland killed off almost a third of the region’s Spectacled Flying Foxes.  The ground beneath bat colonies was littered with tens of thousands of dead and dying animals.

Dead and dying flying foxes litter the ground during a heat wave this week in northern Queensland

Global Warming and El Niño

And just as researchers were discovering the surprising vulnerability of arthropods, new research appears to be resolving a longstanding uncertainty about global warming. 

The question was whether global warming will affect El Niño events — the vast fluctuations in Pacific sea-surface temperatures that drive multi-year variations in weather across large swaths of the Earth.

Crucially, in strong El Niño years, droughts and heat waves ravage many parts of the world, leading to intense wildfires and drought-related deaths of many plants and animals.

Now, two studies in the top journals Nature and Geophysical Research Letters suggest that global warming will in fact amp-up El Niños — causing affected areas to suffer even more intensively.  

And this ties back to arthropods, because the researchers in Puerto Rico are convinced that increasing El Niño heatwaves is the main cause of the arthropod Armageddon there.

Environmental Insults

Arthropods are also experiencing major declines elsewhere in the world — including parts of Europe, North America, and Australia

Climate change is clearly involved in some of these declines. But habitat disruption, intensive agriculture, insecticides, and introduced parasites and pathogens are also taking a toll.

At a planetary scale, it’s apparent that arthropods are suffering from a variety of environmental insults.  There is no single reason why their populations are collapsing. 

We are changing our world in many ways at once. And the closer we look, the more we’re finding that the myriad little creatures that play vital roles in the fabric of life are struggling to survive the onslaught.

Kategorien: english

Learning to Say ‘No’ to Risky Mega-Projects

13. Dezember 2018 - 14:08

Scott Moore is a Harvard-trained political scientist who was formerly a top advisor to the U.S. State Department on China and the environment.  He is now Director of the Global China Program at the University of Pennsylvania.  Here, he teams up with ALERT Director Bill Laurance to voice concerns about the stunning proliferation of mega-projects worldwide, many being built under China’s controversial Belt & Road Initiative.

A year ago, scientists made what is now one of the rarest of discoveries: a new species of great ape, one of humanity’s closest relatives in the animal kingdom.  

But scarcely have we become acquainted with our new relation, since named the Tapanuli orangutan, than it may disappear from the face of the Earth. 

Fewer than 800 members of the species are thought to exist, all in an isolated group living in northern Sumatra.  Unfortunately, the orangutans’ only home is also the site of a planned Chinese-backed hydropower dam

The rare orangutan is far from the only species at risk from a global boom in big infrastructure projects that, if left unchecked, will devastate the natural world. 

But the real tragedy is that their sacrifice may be in vain: many of the world’s mega-projects turn out to be bad for profits and people as well as the planet. 

And while the world does need roads, railways, and dams, nations need to get better at deciding when and where they make sense – and how to say no when they don’t.    


Over the past half-decade, countries across the globe have seen a surge in proposed mega-projects, thanks in large part to China’s Belt and Road Initiative, a multi-trillion-dollar plan to build roads, railways, pipelines, and ports from New Zealand to Nicaragua. 

Such investment has politicians and investors across the globe salivating at the prospect of finally overcoming the bottlenecks that have long isolated developing from developed-country markets, and that many national leaders see as a route out of poverty for their people. 

But the fact is, many mega-projects simply aren’t worth the risk to investors, host nations, or the environment. 

Big infrastructure projects carry undeniable attractions for investors and politicians: they often stimulate trade and industry, and can help boost employment. 

But the hidden costs are high.  Research shows that the construction of roads, of which more than 25 million kilometers are expected to be built by 2050, devastate local environments by opening up previously-isolated areas to deforestation, mining, and land speculation. 

Coming on top of an animal apocalypse — the recent reported loss since 1970 of 60 percent of the world’s wildlife — a global boom in infrastructure is likely to destroy much of what’s left of the natural world. 

The devastation can be so great that Brazilian scientist Eneas Salati has claimed the best thing you could do for the Amazon rainforest is simply blow up all the roads.


The hidden costs of mega-projects aren’t borne by the planet alone.  A surge in cheap financing, especially by China, has increased the risk of “debt traps” for poor countries, locking them into financing projects they can’t really afford. 

For example, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Laos, and a number of Pacific Island nations are already teetering on the brink of financial insolvency. 

Nor is infrastructure alone a solution for poor countries: contributions to growth can be undermined by widespread corruption. 

Moreover, sudden influxes of foreign capital for infrastructure and extractive industries can rapidly inflate the local currency, destabilizing the economy while robbing other industries such as manufacturing, exports, and tourism of their competitiveness. 

For investors, meanwhile, pursuing big infrastructure projects in fragile countries and environments can also be risky.  Cost-benefit studies show that many mega-projects produce surprisingly poor returns. 

Oxford University researchers have found, for example, that large hydropower dams regularly exceed cost estimates by 90 percent — and over half of big dams built since 1934 have performed so poorly they’ve become stranded assets.

Of course, investors aren’t entirely blind to such risks.  One common tactic is to insist on favorable tax conditions, often while giving generous ‘incentives’ to politicians. 

Such strategies have a way of coming back to bite investors and host nations.  For example, in Papua New Guinea, open warfare has erupted among indigenous tribes as the financial realities and tax losses from a $19 billion natural-gas project funded by foreign investors have come to light. 

Such conflicts are joltingly common in developing nations, and help illustrate the many underlying sources of risk for big infrastructure. 


Given these gauntlets of risk, the world must say no to many proposed mega-projects — as far too many are ill-conceived and dangerous. 

Instead, decision-makers and investors should follow transparent science-based criteria to determine which infrastructure projects will really benefit people without trashing the planet.

Fortunately, we know enough now to red-flag the most high-risk projects — such as those in remote or wild areas, in epicenters of biodiversity, in locales prones to damaging floods or landslides, and in the dark shadows where corruption and economic disparity thrive. 

Projects pocked with red flags can then be scrutinized carefully by international experts, greatly increasing public transparency.

Learning to say no to flashy mega-projects will mean making tough political and economic decisions. 

But there is a very important silver lining.  By freeing ourselves from our recent obsession with mega-projects, we can help ensure that investment flows to initiatives that promote shared prosperity and help protect the planet’s riches for future generations.   

Kategorien: english

Surging Development Dangers in Indonesian New Guinea

5. Dezember 2018 - 1:55

The Pacific island of New Guinea sustains one of the world’s last great tracts of unbroken rainforest.  But it’s a rainforest in trouble.

The Indonesian government is attempting to crisscross the western half of New Guinea — a land called “Papua”— with some 4,000 kilometers of new paved highways.

Known as the “Trans-Papuan Highway”, this sprawling road network will open up vast expanses of forest for exploitation. 

An analysis just published in the journal Environmental Science and Policy — by an international team that includes several ALERT researchers — concludes that the road-building scheme has “red flags all over it”.

Perils for Diversity

Home to such unusual creatures as Tree-Kangaroos and Birds of Paradise, New Guinea is exceptional not only for the uniqueness of its fauna and flora but also its astonishing cultural diversity — with more than 700 indigenous societies and languages.

Many of New Guinea’s indigenous groups maintain traditional lifestyles, with strong ties to their ancestral lands and forests. 

But since annexing western New Guinea from the Dutch in the 1960s, the Indonesian central government has advanced a series of top-down schemes – including ill-fated agri-industrial developments and a transmigration program that reportedly brought in over a million settlers from elsewhere in Indonesia, creating intense social conflicts with local residents.

These prior initiatives have wrought major environmental and social changes, but the Trans-Papuan Highway has the potential to top them all.  Here are six of the biggest red flags identified in the recent study.

Red Flag 1: Accelerating Forest Destruction

The planned road routes will cut through fully or largely intact forest, including many areas that are sparsely populated. 

Analyses of the road routes and prevailing land-use trends suggest that three major new hotspots of deforestation are likely to be created — in Central, Eastern, and South-eastern Papua.

New hotspots of deforestation likely to arise from the Trans-Papuan Highway.

Red Flag 2: Threats to Lorentz

Lorentz National Park and World Heritage Site is a global jewel, recently ranked 13th out of more than 173,000 protected areas worldwide in terms of its biological uniqueness and irreplaceability. 

Nearly 200 kilometers of new roads will be cut across Lorentz, greatly increasing access to 50,000 hectares of mining concessions inside the park. 

Planned roads and existing mining leases inside Lorentz World Heritage Site.

Alarmingly, Indonesia has a long history of downgrading or downsizing its protected areas to allow access to minerals, timber, or other valuable resources. 

Red Flag 3: Social Conflicts and Violence

By cutting through the traditional lands of so many different indigenous groups, the roads will almost certainly provoke further anger and anti-government sentiment — the last thing Indonesia needs.  Just this week, two dozen road workers were killed by anti-government rebels in Nduga regency in eastern Papua. 

Such anti-government militancy arises because indigenous peoples are very poorly represented in legal processes in Papua.  Of 14 million hectares of customary land claims under review by the Indonesian government, virtually none are in Papua — illustrating just how badly the Indonesian government has treated traditional Papuan land rights.

Red Flag 4: Massive Carbon Emissions

The hotspot of deforestation in Southeastern Papua harbors some of the world’s largest peatlands — which contain exceptionally large stores of carbon.  The burning and decomposition of peatlands is one of the world’s largest sources of greenhouse-gas emissions from land-use change.

And peat fires in Indonesia have been largely responsible for the choking haze that has repeatedly plagued much of Southeast Asia, forcing widespread closures of schools and airports and major increases in respiratory distress.

Red Flag 5: Spiraling Costs

The Trans-Papuan Highway has shaky financial foundations. The roads would be extremely expensive to construct because they’d need to traverse some of the steepest and wettest terrain in New Guinea, requiring innumerable bridges and culverts and heavy earthworks.

Much of the planned road construction is in steep mountainous areas (shown in orange).

In addition, maintenance costs for roads in such steep and high-rainfall environments are notoriously high — estimated at around 20 percent of the initial road-construction cost per year, based on World Bank experts working in Papua

Without expensive ongoing maintenance, such roads can easily be rendered useless by recurring landslides, slumping, potholes, and fissures.   

Road slumping in Papua.

Red Flag 6: Big Risks for Investors

The combination of high construction and maintenance costs, serious potential for social conflicts, and strong opposition from environmental and indigenous-rights groups means that investments in the Trans-Papuan Highway will be extremely risky for national and international investors.

The road and development projects associated with it could easily become mired in conflicts over land ownership and financial losses to corruption — two acute concerns in Indonesia. 

Serious Questions

The new study raises fundamental questions about the Trans-Papuan Highway — serious questions that need serious answers. 

For instance, why is such an ambitious, expensive, and intensely risky highway network being built in the first place?  Is it part of a rational development strategy, or is it motivated by central-government desires to assert top-down control in Papua? 

Every nation has the right to determine its own development priorities.  But there is nothing even faintly undemocratic about helping citizens to understand the risks and realities — so they can make better development decisions for everyone.

Photos by Rhett A. Butler/, Mark Ziembicki, and William Laurance

Kategorien: english

The Trouble with Environmental Impact Assessments

23. November 2018 - 12:58

A tsunami of development projects is sweeping across the planet.  It’s in the form of new roads, dams, mines, housing estates, and assorted other infrastructure projects.  

The governments enabling these developments are all telling us not to worry; that each project undergoes a rigorous Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) to ensure the environment is safe; that we can have economic development and a healthy environment too.

But the sad fact is, those assessments are increasingly not worth the paper they’re printed on.

All around the world there is a growing catalogue of cases where EIAs are giving green lights to developments that should never see the light of day — projects that are destroying irreplaceable habitat or wiping out the last representatives of endangered species.

The Joke is On Us

One EIA gave the thumbs up on a housing project being carved out of Panama’s tropical forest because it reported only 12 common bird species present in the area.  This suggested the development could not threaten anything rare.  

But a bird expert did his own survey of the same area and and identified 121 bird species in just two hours.  And this included several rare and threatened species.

Another EIA for a 900-kilometre-long highway slicing through the heart of Brazil’s Amazonian rainforest concluded that the project would cause no net increase in deforestation.  Yet independent analyses suggest this project will provoke forest losses of 5 million to 39 million hectares by 2050 — an area approaching the size of Switzerland.

The approval of a hydropower project in North Sumatra was based on an EIA that was so utterly rife with inaccuracies and misrepresentations that ALERT experts and other top scientists wrote directly to Indonesian President Joko Widodo, decrying its blatant distortions. 

Today, this hydropower project is bulldozing ahead, cutting across the scarce remaining habitat of the critically endangered Tapanuli orangutan—the rarest great ape species in the world.

Keeping the Developer Honest

The frontline of environmental protection in most countries is the EIA.  It’s usually a legal requirement placed on a developer to measure the impact on nature of their proposed development.

If that impact includes anything the government has pledged to protect, such as a threatened species, then the development is halted or redesigned to avoid the impact.  

Or that’s the idea, anyway.  The only problem is that the EIAs are increasingly not stopping bad projects.  And there are many reasons why.

Good Assessment is Challenging

To begin with, a rigorous assessment takes time, effort, and resources. For example, detecting threatened species where the proposed development will occur — one of the main things EIAs are supposed to do — is technically challenging and expensive.  

Limiting the EIA effort to ‘quick and dirty’ assessments saves money and also helps avoid detecting rare ‘red-light’ species that might block the development.

Then there’s the scope of the assessment.  The impacts of any development are rarely confined to its planned ‘footprint’.  

Large mining projects in the Amazon, for example, have caused sharply increased deforestation up to 70  kilometers outside of mine sites. This is because the mines require new forest roads and those, in turn, promote illegal land encroachment and forest loss.

Furthermore, EIAs often fail to consider longer-term impacts of developments.  Few EIAs in Malaysia, for example, consider the chronic increases in poaching, habitat fragmentation, and other human pressures that occur when a new road slices into a forest.  

And the environmental changes from roads extend well beyond the road itself.

In the Amazon, roads create broad ‘deforestation halos’ — with 95 percent of all deforestation occurring within 5.5 kilometers of a legal or illegal road.  

Developers often underestimate the spatial impacts of planned projects.  EIAs for large hydro-dams in Brazilian Amazonia, for example, have consistently underestimated the size of the area that will drowned under reservoirs — by 65 percent, on average.

Vested interests

So why don’t EIA assessors simply ‘try’ harder, do the job properly, and extend their assessment to incorporate all impacts related to the development?

In short, vested interests.  Most governments require EIAs be funded by the developer itself.  That gives the developer a lot of control and influence — and the last thing the developer wants is an EIA that stops it dead in its tracks.

EIAs are often carried out by consultants that are supposed to be independent but are actually paid for by the developer.  And assessors who conduct stringent EIAs may be blacklisted by other developers in the future.

On occasion, one even sees EIA consultants defending and promoting the project in public — which is like the judge in a murder trial testifying for the defense. 

In northern Queensland, experts were stunned to see an EIA consultant publicly defending a major resort development, known as ‘Kur-World’, that he was being paid to be objectively assessing.

How do developers get away with such poor outcomes? The answer is inadequate governance. Governments responsible for ensuring the integrity of the EIA process are failing to ensure it actually happens at the level required.  

Governments have vested interests, too. Development is usually equated with economic growth and jobs, and politicians can turn these benefits into votes.

Add to that bribery and corruption, which is rife in many developing countries, and it’s easy to see how developers often gain an unhealthy hold over political and governance processes, including the EIA.

Prepare for the Tsunami

In the coming years our planet will see incredible development pressure, including 25 million kilometers of new paved roads and over 3,700 major hydropower projects.  

Assessing such impacts in way that prevents or greatly limits their environmental impacts is technically do-able; the science is available.

A greater challenge, however, is demanding appropriate transparency, accountability, and compliance around our assessment efforts.

Without those ingredients, we are hopelessly unprepared for the development tsunami. 

EIAs will often let ill-advised projects advance with only minor tweaks, such as fish-ladders for dams, or underpasses for major road projects — which will allow a few animals to traverse the project but still massively diminish animal movement and survival.

Yes, we need EIAs — but much better EIAs than we are presently getting.  Most EIAs are full of holes, and so we need to stare at them with a very hard eye.


Kategorien: english

‘Apocalypse Now’ for Amazonia: Devastating Promises by Brazil’s President-Elect

14. November 2018 - 14:05

ALERT’s Philip Fearnside is arguably the world’s top expert on conservation of the Amazon forest.  Here he tells us why Brazilians are so worried about the recent election of Jair Bolsonaro — the man many people are calling the ‘Tropical Trump’.

Brazil’s election two weeks ago of Jair Bolsonaro — known by many as the “Tropical Trump” — is clearly a catastrophe for Amazonia.  

Despite Brazil’s incredible natural values including the world’s greatest rainforest, environmental issues were of little significance to most voters during the recent campaign.

What was really on voters’ minds?  An April 2018 poll found three-quarters of the population worries about Brazil being invaded by a rich country bent on stealing its natural wealth. 

Such paranoia aids Bolsonaro’s efforts to portray environmental concerns as threats to Brazil’s national sovereignty.


Along with Bolsonaro, conservative victories in this year’s congressional elections could speed up approval of proposed legislation that would effectively eliminate environmental licensing and halt the creation of new protected areas.

Bolsonaro is especially hostile to the rights of indigenous peoples.  He promised not to allow demarcation of “a single centimeter” of new indigenous land.

Many ordinary Brazilians are scared.  Eleven pieces of legislation Bolsonaro supports are being fast-tracked and may be passed even before he takes office on 1 January 2019.  

One of Bolsonaro’s main congressional allies has promised to “sell” the country’s indigenous lands.

Bolsonaro is extremely popular with big agribusiness and its economically powerful lobby. 

Of considerable interest to them is a proposed law to classify the Landless Rural Workers’ Movement (MST) — which seeks to have certain private lands redistributed from wealthy landowners to the rural poor — as a terrorist organization.  

This, plus Bolsonaro’s proposal to allow weapons to be carried for "protection of rural properties," could incite more armed conflicts in Amazonia — which is already the scene of thousands of rural murders.

And while he’s at it, Bolsonaro also promises an end to “activists” such as environmental and social advocates and to expel international environmental groups.


Under Bolsonaro’s present plans, Brazil’s environmental agencies would be stripped of power to license infrastructure projects — an enormous issue because such projects are major drivers of deforestation.

What remains of infrastructure licensing would be distributed to other ministries, notably those that most impact Amazonia: Agriculture, Infrastructure, and Mines and Energy.  

All this is akin to inviting the ‘fox to guard the chicken coop’.

Brazil’s current environmental licensing is woefully inadequate even without Bolsonaro’s schemes to weaken it further.  Control of deforestation would be relaxed, he claims, with an end the “industry of [environmental] fines.”


For Bolsonaro, comparisons to Donald Trump are inevitable.

Climate-change denial, a powerful force in Brazil, is vigorously endorsed by Bolsonaro.  

Like Trump, he portrays climate change as a foreign conspiracy — to prevent Brazil from developing economically — and uses social media to send climate-denialist materials to his voting base.

In August 2018 one of Bolsonaro’s sons traveled to New York to meet with Steve Bannon —  the man who convinced Trump to abandon the Paris Climate Agreement.  

During his election campaign, Bolsonaro promised to withdraw Brazil from the Paris Agreement, just as Trump has done for the U.S. 

But just before the runoff election in Brazil, Bolsonaro appeared to walk back this controversial pledge — seemingly flip-flopping, as Trump has done many times in the past.

Yet Bolsonaro will only support the Paris climate accord, he says, if he gets a written guarantee that there would be no “Triple A Project” — a planned ecological corridor connecting the Andes to the Atlantic Ocean — which Bolsonaro sees as a foreign plot to usurp control over Amazonia.

Bolsonaro also wants a guarantee of no “independence of any indigenous area.”  

He evidently believes indigenous peoples might one day declare independence from Brazil and be recognized by conspiring foreign governments.

Since guarantees for such deep-fringe positions could never reasonably be expected, Bolsonaro’s intent to withdraw from the Paris Agreement evidently remains unchanged.


Ironically, of all nations on Earth, Brazil is expected to suffer some of the greatest impacts of climate change, based on our best scientific knowledge.

If Bolsonaro is given free reign, we may just find out exactly how bad climate change is for the Brazilian economy, agriculture, hydro-power, and its peerless biodiversity and ecosystems.


Kategorien: english

Question: Which of These Primates Knows More About Climate Change?

2. November 2018 - 14:43

Time for an ALERT’s pop quiz:

Among the quotes below, which were made by the primate on the left, versus the primate on the right?

Quote 1: “The concept of global warming was created by and for the Chinese in order to make U.S. manufacturing non-competitive”

Quote 2: “Well, I think climate change is just a very, very expensive form of tax”

Quote 3: “Record low temperatures and massive amounts of snow. Where the hell is GLOBAL WARMING?”

Quote 4: “I believe in clean air. Immaculate air. But I don’t believe in climate change”

Quote 5: “Obama said in his SOTU that ‘global warming is a fact.’ Sure, about as factual as ‘if you like your healthcare, you can keep it”

Quote 6: “Oook aaaak zooook!”

Answers: All six quotes were made by the primate on the right (really!).

For a running list of everything Donald Trump has done so far to impact environmental conservation, take a look at this National Geographic article.

Kategorien: english