Villagers living in Ecuador’s remote rainforests won a victory in one of the longest-running, most complex environmental lawsuits ever this week. A judge in Ecuador awarded $8.6 billion—with the possibility of another $10 billion or so on top of that—to plaintiffs suing Chevron for polluting the Amazon region during decades of energy exploration. But in a turn of events befitting the tangled web of international environmental law and fights over who should pay for pollution, there’s no guarantee the plaintiffs will actually see that money.
Judge Nicolas Zambrano awarded the $8.6 billion to pay for cleanup and for health care for Ecuadorians made sick by the pollution, plus 10 percent of that total added on top as reparations to the Amazon Defense Coalition. If Chevron doesn’t publicly apologize within 15 days of the ruling—and it isn’t going to—the ruling tacks on another $8.6 billion in punitive damages.
The pollution case itself is full of weird twists and turns. The first thing to know about this mess is that “Chevron” didn’t pollute the region—at least, not under that name.
Chevron does not, in fact, operate in Ecuador today; the American company acquired the lawsuit when it bought Texaco in 2001. Texaco started oil exploration activities with Ecuador’s state oil company Petroecuador back in 1964, and for the next three decades, the 47 plaintiffs say, the company contributed to dumping billions of gallons of waste oil in the region, causing loss of livelihood, widespread health problems and up to 1400 deaths. [TIME]
The state of our forests is troubled, but maybe on the mend.
The United Nations, as part of its effort to brand 2011 the International Year of Forests, released an assessment this week about forest extent, and quality, all around the world. First, the good news: Forest destruction is slowing down, according to assistant director general Eduardo Rojas-Briales of the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization.
The 4.032 billion hectares (9.9 billion acres) of forests in the world in 2010 is down from an estimated 4.085 billion in 2000, said the FAO. But the speed at which which trees are being cut down is slowing from 8.3 million hectares a year in 1990-2000 to 5.2 million in the past decade. “There are evident signs that we could arrive at a balance in a few years,” said Rojas-Briales, adding that the deforestation rate was 50 million hectares a year 30 years ago. [AFP]
Asian countries have achieved particularly impressive results, with many adding to their total of forested territory.
“China has increased its forest by three million hectares (30,000 sq km) per year – no country has ever done anything like this before, it’s an enormous contribution,” said … Rojas-Briales. “But we can also highlight the case of Vietnam, a small and densely populated country that’s implemented very smart and comprehensive forest reform – or India, which has not controlled its population as China has and where standards of living are even lower. Nevertheless India has achieved a modest growth of its forest area.” [BBC News]
But the world is not out of the woods, so to speak, in bringing back the forest health of old.
What does it take to make a wellspring of biodiversity like the Amazon rainforest? A huge mountain range, a blast of heat, and a little time.
A pair of studies in this week’s edition of Science attempt to sort through tropical natural history and reach the root causes of Amazonia’s embarrassment of biological riches. The first, led by palaeoecologist Carina Hoorn, points to the influence of the Andes Mountains, the spine of South America that runs up its western coast. Sometime between about 35 and 65 million years ago, colliding tectonic plates sent the Andes bulging up. According to the researchers, the birth of a mountain range set of an ecological chain reaction.
The rising mountains that resulted from the uplift blocked humid air from the Atlantic, eventually increasing rainfall along the eastern flank of what became the Andes that eroded nutrient-loaded soils off the mountains. The Andes also kept water from draining into the Pacific, helping form vast wetlands about 23 million years ago that were home to a wide range of mollusks and reptiles. [LiveScience]
North Americans may remember 2005 as the year of Hurricane Katrina, but below the equator another fearsome tempest wrought its own devastation that year. From January 16th to 18th a line of thunderstorms tore through the Amazon basin, and researchers who conducted a botanical “body count” after the storm estimate that it laid low between 441 and 663 million trees.
Over the course of two days, a squall line measuring 620 miles (1,000 km) long and 124 miles (200 km) wide raged across the region from southwest to northeast, with buzzsaw-like winds of 90 mph (146 km/hr) causing widespread damage to property and a handful of deaths [Time].
Jeffrey Chambers, a forest ecologist at Tulane University, wanted to assess the damage caused throughout the massive Amazon basin, so he turned to satellites.
Seven grassroots activists who fought powerful polluting industries and often stood up to intimidation are now receiving rewards and recognition: They’re winners of the Goldman Environmental Prize, sometimes called the environmental Nobel Prize. Each year winners are chosen from the six inhabited continents: Africa, Asia, Europe, Islands and Island Nations, North America, and South and Central America [USA Today]. Each winner receives a $150,000 purse.
The winner from North America, Maria Gunnoe, took her stand against coal mining companies in Appalachia, where companies commonly blast the tops of mountains apart to expose hard-to-reach coal seams, and dump the debris in the valleys. “I never even knew I was an environmentalist,” Gunnoe, who lives in southwestern West Virginia, said with a chuckle. Though raised to mind her own business, she was also taught to fight when attacked. That’s how she sees the destruction of her gardens and orchard…. Gunnoe’s home sits below a valley fill and has been flooded with coal waste seven times since 2000 [AP].
Gunroe says she has received numerous threats from miners angered by her opposition the coal industry; after she helped convince a judge in 2007 to shut down an operator working without a legal permit, a “wanted” poster printed with her face hung in local stores until the FBI demanded its removal [Mercury News].