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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

April 20, 2001

Air Date: April 20, 2001


Kyoto Concessions

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Ira's Emissions

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Health Update

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Schultes Obit

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Earth Day Kids

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Earth Day Almanac

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Listener Letters

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Laguna Madre

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Show Credits and Funders

Show Transcript

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Kyoto Concessions

(Theme music intro)

CURWOOD: From National Public Radio, it's Living on Earth.

(Music up and under)

CURWOOD: I'm Steve Curwood.

The chairman of the U.N. climate change negotiations, Jan Pronk, comes to the United States with a new plan to press on, despite the Bush administration's rejection of the Kyoto Protocol.

PRONK: Kyoto is the only game in town, to quote Mrs. Whitman. Kyoto is alive. I quote myself.

CURWOOD: Also, accepting personal responsibility for climate change. Not everyone is thrilled at the prospect.

GLASS: How much of a do-gooder are we expected to be? Like, I'm supposed to take into account, like, my contribution to the greenhouse effect in addition to everything else? I just -- I just don't know if I can take it. And I think most people feel that way, too.

CURWOOD: It's this American's emissions, the pollution portfolio of Ira
Glass. And on Alaska's north slope, oil workers sound the alarm over drilling practices. That and more on Living on Earth, right after this.

(NPR News follows)

(Music up and under: Felt,"Evergreen Dazed," then theme)

CURWOOD: This is Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood. The politics of the international climate change negotiations change almost daily, it seems. For example, in this past week the equivalent of the Japanese
Senate joined many European nations by passing a resolution that calls for the rapid ratification of the Kyoto protocol. At the same time, Jan
Pronk, chair of the current round of climate negotiations, came to Washington and New York to propose a compromise. That deal would give the U.S. just about everything the Clinton administration had asked for, just before negotiations broke down last year in the Hague.

PRONK: Kyoto is the only game in town, to quote Mrs. Whitman. Kyoto is alive. I quote myself.

CURWOOD: Kyoto may still be alive, but only because now Europe, Japan, and Russia say they are not willing to give up in the face of the Bush administration's rejection of the agreement, and will press ahead. Mr. Pronk noted that more than a decade has already been invested in the global warming talks.

PRONK: We should not insist on starting over if you want to change something, because you still think there are loopholes and mistakes. The rational attitude is not to step aside. The rational attitude if you want to change something is to negotiate, to come with proposals, and to listen to counter-proposals, in order to solve loopholes and to get agreement.

CURWOOD: Mr. Pronk's proposed compromise seems to now have the backing of the European governments who had rejected similar language at the Hague. Alden Meyer, director of government relations with the Union of Concerned Scientists, was briefed on the proposal by Mr. Pronk. Mr. Meyer says that first of all, even though the Bush administration is now saying no to Kyoto, Mr. Pronk wants to make sure that Kyoto doesn't say no to the U.S.

MEYER: Well, he's chairman of the whole process, so of course he's not going to close the door on the United States coming back into this game, either in July at the next session or further on down the road, although
I think he probably is feeling fairly pessimistic on that front, having met with some of the folks in the Bush administration and not gotten much of anything specific from them. He's put forward a revised negotiating paper as a basis for consultations with other countries, which attempts to meet some of the concerns of countries like Canada and Japan on issues like use of emissions trading and use of offsets for forests and other so-called carbon sinks in the process. And I think he will continue to refine that paper as we move toward July.

CURWOOD: How different is the plan that's being put forward by the chairman, Mr. Pronk, compared to the final negotiating position in the Hague last November when talks broke down?

MEYER: There are a lot of similarities to it. It's gone in a few additional directions. He has made explicit one of the points the U.S. was lobbying for, which was inclusion of the ability to do investments in so-called carbon sink or reforestation projects in developing countries, in return for credit against your domestic agreements. That's something the Europeans have long opposed, and the U.S., Canada, and other industrial countries have favored. That is now back in. He has also done a little bit of tweaking in the compliance regime, the sort of consequences of what happens if you don't meet your targets, to give that a little more teeth, to address some concerns that were raised in the Hague. But by and large it's going along the same track that he had in the Hague. He's also tried to clarify exactly how technology transfer and financial assistance for developing countries in adapting to the impacts of climate change would work, because we're already starting to see the effects of global warming around the world. And these countries that don't have a lot of resources to adapt to the impact on their coastlines or public health or agricultural infrastructure are asking for resources and technology to meet some of those needs. And that's something that has to be part of the package deal if you're going to get the developing countries to sign off.

CURWOOD: Now, look, I know that you're not a bookie in Las Vegas. You're an environmental advocate. But what do you think are the odds that, come the end of this next meeting of the climate change convention in Bonn, that there will be an agreement that a majority of the world will sign onto?

MEYER: If you'd asked me that right after the breakdown in negotiations last November in the Hague, I would have said pretty slim, because there were such fundamental disagreements among the parties there. But in a curious way, the clumsy nature with which the Bush administration has renounced Kyoto has created a unifying effect among other countries, and it has angered their constituencies, their press, their politicians. They feel that this is a unilateral announcement, and no country has the right to sit on the sidelines. And in a funny kind of way, I think the U.S. has improved the chances for agreement among the rest of the world in July in Bonn, by the way in which it's handled this whole process. So, it's hard to put odds on it. Is it 50-50? Maybe. We may not even know at this meeting. It may take until the next meeting in October in
Morocco until we have better signals. But the political leaders from
Europe and Japan have made a public commitment that they want the Kyoto
Protocol to take legal effect by the tenth anniversary of the Rio Earth
Summit, which will be celebrated with a world leaders conference in
Johannesburg, South Africa in September of 2002. And that means they have to start moving the ratification process forward in their legislatures and parliaments by the end of this year or early next year if they're going to meet that goal.

CURWOOD: Alden Meyer is director of government relations for the Union of Concerned Scientists. Thank you, sir, for taking this time with us.

MEYER: Glad to be with you, Steve.

(Music up and under: Beta Band, "B + A")

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Ira's Emissions

CURWOOD: As the world's nations debate the ways and means to reduce carbon emissions on a global scale, what about your share? Ever wonder how much pollution you create? Well, a new Web site called airhead.org can help you answer that very question. Just plug in numbers like your own monthly mileage and the size of your electric bill, and out comes your own emissions profile. The site was created by the Center for Neighborhood Technology in Chicago. So we thought we'd ask a typical Chicagoan to plug in his data. Ira Glass is taking a break from hosting Public Radio's This American Life to lift the curtain on his own personal pollution profile. Hey, thanks for joining us, Ira.

GLASS: Glad to be here.

CURWOOD: First things first. How'd you do, Ira? Can we hold you personally to blame for warming this lovely planet?

GLASS: Yes. You can. I was stunned at my actual pollution contribution. I mean, I commute to work, and in the month that I did, which was last month, I flew three times for the radio show.

CURWOOD: Mmm hmm.

GLASS: Flew three times. And my total pollution emission was, it says here, 3,457 pounds of pollutants, versus an average American apparently is 1,600 pounds of pollution.

CURWOOD: Yes, and most of that's carbon dioxide. Now, but if you took out the airplane, Ira, you don't do so bad compared to the national average.

GLASS: Nah, then I'm way below the national average, actually, only 970 pounds. Though I have to say, is this real? Saying that, like, even on a month where I don't fly, it's like a thousand pounds of pollution a person? What does that even mean? A thousand pounds, like, of stuff in the air? It is just … so it's carbon dioxide. So what?

CURWOOD: Well, that's the stuff that warms the planet. It's what climate change is all about. Carbon dioxide helps trap the infrared radiation from the heat. When it tries to get back off the planet, it gets caught by the carbon dioxide, and that's why the planet's heating up.

GLASS: So, so, what am I supposed to do?

CURWOOD: (Laughs) Walk me through what you do. What are your activities? Let's figure out a way that we can make some cuts so that you can start to feel better about your performance in this area.

GLASS: I (laughs) -- I wake up in the morning. I drive seven miles to work. I park the car. I'm in the radio station all day. At some point in the evening I drive home.

CURWOOD: Okay, wait a second. Tell me about this car. What is it? Is it, like, a 50-foot-long SUV, or is it, you know, something really pretty small?

GLASS: It's a Honda Accord.

CURWOOD: That's a pretty good car by today's standards.

GLASS: It gets good mileage.

CURWOOD: Now, I'm wondering if one day a week or two, maybe, you could leave it home and take the el. Is that possible?

GLASS: It is possible. I mean, for me to get to work through the el it's an el an two buses. And you know, I've done it when the car's been busted.

CURWOOD: Do you live along the lake? Could you bike up and down the great paths?

GLASS: I could during the six months when it's possible to bike. I've done that, I've biked. But, you know, March really wasn't -- (laughs)
I mean, Chicago this year really wasn't the most hospitable biking weather, for me, anyway.

CURWOOD: So there you go, though, Ira. You figure, all right, only six months out of the year you can bike. So if you were willing to bike two days a week in those six months, you could cut your overall car commuting pollution account by 20 percent.

GLASS: Right. But if you look at that, the car is only contributing 250 pounds to this. So you cut 20 percent, that's only 50 pounds out of a 3,500 pound per month amount of pollution. And I just feel like, so I'm going to have to, like, bike to work twice a week to cut 50 pounds out of this massive amount? I could bike to work for the rest of my life, and you know, if I take one plane trip a month I'd be outweighing it.

CURWOOD: Well, that's right, but the fact is that if you want to get engaged and cut, you need to cut where you can cut. And besides, if you just do this by yourself and nobody else pays attention, you're absolutely right. Nothing's going to happen as a function of that. But the idea is that it becomes contagious. I mean, I think this is what these Web site folks were trying to do.

GLASS: I think when you're talking about this, Steve, there is a sense of, like, well if we all just, like, do our little part, like it's World
War II and we're each going to plant a victory garden or something, we're going to, you know, lick the carbon dioxide problem. And I don't know. Like, maybe you're right, but --

CURWOOD: It's not much fun, is it?

GLASS: No. And I don't have a problem, like, sacrificing for something I believe in. But I think that when one feels that one is the only person in the country, you know, cutting back on their driving to work, you know, and taking -- it's hard to feel like it's going to have much effect.

CURWOOD: So, how do you feel about this at this point? Are you now concerned, or is this something that, hey, after this conversation you can safely forget about?

GLASS: No. You know what's going to happen, is that this is going to be one of these things that it's now going to gnaw at me. Like the same way that before I stopped eating meat, like, there was like a period of about three years where there was like a series of things that finally, you know, kind of built up and built up and built up, and finally I stopped. And I felt like this is very first time I've ever really given this a second thought. But I don't know, I just -- how many different kinds of nerd can a person be in one lifetime? (Curwood laughs) Like, how much of a do-gooder are we expected to be? Like, I'm supposed to take into account, like, my contribution to the greenhouse effect in addition to everything else? I just -- I just don't know if I can take it. And I think most people feel that way, too.

CURWOOD: Ira Glass (laughs) -- Ira Glass hosts public radio's This American Life from WBEZ in Chicago. Thanks, Ira.

GLASS: Thanks, Steve. Thanks for asking me.

(Music up and under: Nightmares On Wax, "Alone Again")

CURWOOD: To check out your emissions profile, see the link to the Airhead web site on our home page, www.loe.org.

(Music up and under)

Related link:

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Health Update

CURWOOD: Coming up: Warnings from Alaska's north slope that safe drilling in the Arctic is never a sure thing. Stay tuned to Living on Earth.

Now this environmental health update with Diane Toomey.

(Music up and under: Allison Dean "Health Update Theme")

TOOMEY: St. John's Wort is a popular herbal alternative to prescription antidepressants, and European studies on its effectiveness in treating mild to moderate depression have for the most part been positive. But some U.S. scientists say the European studies didn't last long enough, so they just completed their own tests on the herb. Over an eight-week period scientists gave 200 people suffering from major depression St.
John's Wort or a placebo. They also gave them a questionnaire to gauge the severity of their illness both before and after the study, and found no difference between people who took the placebo and people who took St. John's Wort. But European researchers may have some criticism of their own. The U.S. study was funded in part by the pharmaceutical company Pfizer, which makes the prescription antidepressant Zoloft. American researchers say their analysis of the data was done independently. That's this week's health update. I'm Diane Toomey.

(Music up and under)

CURWOOD: And you're listening to Living on Earth.

(Music up and under: OKGo, "We Dug A Hole")

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CURWOOD: It's Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood. The Bush administration wants to open Alaska's Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to oil exploration, and says modern drilling techniques will protect the environment. But recent incidents at oil fields already open on Alaska's north slope raise questions about those claims. On April fifteenth, more than 92,000 gallons of oil mixed with brine spilled from a pipeline owned by Phillips Petroleum. And on Friday, April the thirteenth, more than 100 BP-Amoco technicians in Alaska posted a warning on the Internet. The technicians allege major defects in the safety and environmental protection systems in what is touted as a state-of-the-art drilling operation. For more on this story, we turn now to Jim Carlton, a staff reporter for the Wall Street Journal, who spoke with the BP workers.

CARLTON: Basically, the technicians that work up there say that BP has been cutting back on maintenance and staffing as a result of declining production. They say that basic things like emergency shutoff valves and other important equipment is not getting the kind of attention to maintenance and upkeep that it needs. To give you an example, when
Interior Secretary Gale Norton made her trip up to the north slope a few weeks ago, only five days before that visit state of Alaska inspectors documented that 30 percent of the surface safety shutoff valves at one particular drilling platform failed to close.

CURWOOD: Now, the technicians created a Web site to make these complaints public. There's a letter there, and part of it says if these concerns are not addressed, we feel a major catastrophe is imminent. What do they think could happen?

CARLTON: They're concerned both for their own safety, as well as the environmental integrity of the Arctic tundra. For example, they have processing facilities up there called gathering centers. And recently, they had a gas leak in one of these. And the problem is that one of the valves, called an emergency shutoff valve, is supposed to, if there's a leak, it's supposed to close and cut off the flow of more gas and oil into the facility. What happened is that this valve did not hold, the gas continued to pour in, and they, after several hours, were able to cut off the flow of gas and basically bleed off the gas and clean it up. But had there been an errant cigarette or an errant spark, even triggered by a radio signal, there could have been, they believe, a huge explosion.

CURWOOD: Jim, can you give us a sense of the history here? How far back does this issue go?

CARLTON: Well, Steve, they give you a good example. In 1989 I obtained a memo from the workers showing that there was a work order put in to fix the fire and gas detection alarms in one drilling pad. It's called
Z-pad. This is in 1989. BP acknowledged, okay, we need to fix it. And they ordered the equipment. Years went by. Finally, in 1997, a BP review, follow-up review, determined that no, we don't need that alarm after all, so the work order was reversed after almost a decade. The following year, 1998, part of the Z-pad exploded because the failure of that alarm, that faulty alarm, to detect a buildup of gas, resulted in a gas explosion that ignited a fire, exploded the facility, and burned it to the ground.

CURWOOD: Now that the workers have made their complaints public in this fashion, how is the company responding?

CARLTON: They, frankly, were offended that the workers went public with their complaints, because they believe that they have an adequate internal process. And they say that, you know, many of the concerns expressed have been rectified. Bob Malone, president of, you know, BP's U.S. region, pointed out that they do spend over $100 million a year in maintenance on the north slope.

CURWOOD: Now, the technicians say they've also filed complaints with state and federal regulators. How have they responded?

CARLTON: Well, that's another reason that the technicians say they wanted to publicize the problem. Because they don't feel that Alaska state regulators have, you know, the proper incentive to do the right job. For example, the Alaska Oil and Gas Conservation Commission, which is in charge of overseeing the safety valves, they had issued a recommendation in 1994 in an advisory to BP that the shutoff valves weren't being serviced properly. They weren't being tested enough. And they basically advised the company, you know, start testing them more. But the company didn't order them to. It was just very clear that it was just a recommendation. And now, seven years later, I talked to multiple technicians who say, you know, their job is to check safety valves every day at multiple wells. There can be 50 wells in each drilling platform. They say they don't have the time to do it. Bottom line, they say that the state of Alaska has not done its job.

CURWOOD: Why are the BP technicians going public with this now? I mean, are they saying they don't think their company should drill in ANWR?

CARLTON: You know, they want the company to go into ANWR, and they want
BP to be a major part of any drilling in ANWR. However, they don't want the company to go in there and then continue what they consider shoddy maintenance practices and cause a blowout that could ruin the industry's reputation and also imperil, you know, their own jobs. One technician told me he's not concerned just for himself because he's nearing retirement, but he just wants to make sure -- he's got some boys up in
Alaska -- he wants to make sure his boys can enjoy working in the oil industry, you know, as they grow older. And he's concerned that if there is a -- for example, an Exxon Valdez-scale incident in the Arctic, whether that be in Prudhoe Bay or in ANWR, that could just ruin the industry.

CURWOOD: Jim Carlton's a staff reporter for the Wall Street Journal based in San Francisco. Thanks for taking this time with us today, Jim.

CARLTON: Thanks a lot.

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Schultes Obit

(Music up and under: Allison Dean, "Backwards Sting")

CURWOOD: The father of ethnobotany died earlier this month. Richard
Schultes just about single-handedly pioneered the Western study of native cultures and their use of plants. Most of his work was done in the Amazon, where he documented the medicinal and hallucinogenic uses for thousands of plants among the indigenous peoples. When not exploring the forest, Richard Schultes taught at Harvard. One of his students was Mark Plotkin, now president of the Amazon Conservation Team. He remembers the first time he saw the man who would become his mentor.

PLOTKIN: The enormous classroom was like an ethnographic museum. One wall was covered with huge green maps of the Amazon. From the rafters hung Amazonian Indian dance costumes with glistening black demon faces.
Two long display cases flanked the room, filled to overflowing with botanical booty from around the world. Black palm blowguns from
Colombia, shiny silver hashish pipes from India, and tiny bows and arrows from the Congo.

Presiding over the tableau was the great Harvard ethnobotanist Richard
Evans Schultes, tall, crew-cut, and dressed in an immaculate white lab coat, white dress shirt, crimson tie, and silver wire-rimmed glasses. As he called the class to order and began to show his slides, one picture in particular changed my life forever, a scene in which three Indians in grass skirts and bark cloth masks danced at the edge of a jungle clearing.

"Here you see three Indians of the Yukuna tribe doing the sacred Kai-yah-ree dance under the influence of a hallucinogenic potion to keep away the forces of darkness. The one on the left has a Harvard degree. Next slide please." From that moment on I and many, many others were hooked on plants, Indians, and the Amazon.

Schultes was without question not only an incredible inspiration to his students but the greatest botanical explorer of the Amazon in the twentieth century. He survived plane crashes, boat sinkings, bandits, hunger, dysentery, and repeated bouts of malaria. But he always insisted that he never had any adventures in the jungle. Schultes lived and traveled with forest Indians for almost 14 years, sometimes amongst tribes that had never before seen a white man. At one point he was gone for so long that friends in the Colombian capital of Bogota had given him up for dead. They were in the process of arranging a memorial service in his honor when he reappeared at the National Herbarium, frightening more than a few of his fellow botanists.

There was a historic event in Columbia just six days before Dr. Schultes passed away. Inspired by Schultes' example, 16 shamans from tribes he had studied left their jungle home and traveled to the capital city of Bogota. There they presented representatives of the national government with their code of ethics for shamanic medicine and conservation that they had designed and developed to protect their medical wisdom, their culture, and their ecosystems. Perhaps these healers in their rainforest still harbor the magic which first attracted Richard Evans Schultes so many years ago.

(Music up and under: Deep Forest, "Sweet Lullaby")

CURWOOD: Mark Plotkin, president of the Amazon Conservation Team, remembering Richard Schultes, who died April tenth at the age of 86.

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Earth Day Kids

CURWOOD: It's Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood. More schools across the nation are incorporating the annual Earth Day celebration into their curricula as a way to teach nature and ecology. On this Earth Day, as many as 1,500 kids from 30 different schools will be marching in the streets of Portland, Oregon. It's a celebration called The Procession of the Species, and it features a parade of children dressed as animals and plants. Dmae Roberts visited Binnsmead Middle School in Portland to see how three classrooms were preparing for the event.


LASHENKO: My name's Olga Lashenko. I'm a seventh grader. And the animals I like is dogs, koalas, horses, elephants, dolphins, and a lot more.

ROBERTS: To most kids, Earth Day is a fun way to celebrate animals and plants. Kids are pretty hazy about the origins of Earth Day, but some students, like seventh grader Sue Gwen, are already thinking about ways to help the environment.

GWYNN: We can start picking up stuff while we're walking to school. Or we should be more careful with things we drop on the floor. And when we do, we should like make sure we throw in the garbage. I think that people should be more, like, concerned about things that's happening around the world.

ROBERTS: Most of the Binnsmead students don't know Earth Day began as a grassroots protest about environmental concerns. Teacher Barbara Jackson was a college student during the first Earth Day demonstrations in 1970.

JACKSON: I would say that it's become more mainstream, in that there is a larger recognition. And rather than being a protest, now, I think it's a realization of we've got to go back and honor the Earth. And in teaching, it goes along with knowledge about habitat, knowledge about what decisions we make, what are our priorities?

WALKER: I've got some materials over here. We've got paper scraps up here. I've got blue and pink. I do have a couple of bits of other things...

ROBERTS: Today in Joe Walker's seventh-grade class, students are making hats and costumes for a parade organized by Earth and Spirit, a local environmental group.

JACOB: My name is Jacob. My hat is an elephant. I made it out of paper. And I made this long strip of paper for the nose of the elephant.

KHAN: My name is Khan. I'm making a parrot for the Earth Day parade. My hat has, like, a long feathery tail, and I used cardboard to draw the parrot on. And I'm going to cut it out and glue it on the hat.

ROBERTS: By making their costumes out of recycled materials, the students are learning the value of reusing.

WEN: I'm Wen, and I'm in seventh grade. I'm worried about, if we don't recycle and keep the environment clean, then some day, when no humans exist any more, maybe when you look back it's like a big ball of junk when you look at it.

FISHER: I'm Louie Fisher. I'm 12, and I recycle for Earth Day. I think
Earth Day is a day that you, like, carpool and recycle and, like, not buy styrofoam because it's not biodegradable. Like, if you throw a six-pack container into a river, a fish could get caught in it. And so, if you recycle that or cut the loops, then a fish could be saved.

(Ambient voices)

ROBERTS: In an eighth grade classroom, the older students are making bigger projects, like a giant tree puppet.

STUDENT: He's going to hold the trunk, and then us four are going to make a limb. And we're going to have our own little branch to hold up. And then we're going to have little ones around it, so it will make it look real, yeah.

ROBERTS: Teacher Joe Walker says art projects like this help kids learn more about environmental problems and to come up with solutions as a classroom.

WALKER: The way to think about the Earth is one huge family. So we are just part of the family group. And one thing we do in the classroom all the time is to work together, and to feel like we support each other.
And so, in order to help the Earth be in balance, I think we all have to support each other.

ROBERTS: The costumed kids will be supporting each other and their giant puppets as they march through the streets of Portland. For Living on
Earth, I'm Dmae Roberts.

GROUP: (Sings) Happy Birthday to you! Happy Birthday to you! Happy
Birthday to Earth Day! Happy Birthday to Earth Day! Hey!

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Earth Day Almanac

CURWOOD: Earth Day 2001 looks and feels a lot different than it did on the first Earth Day on April 22, 1970. Earth Day is the brainchild of Gaylord Nelson, a senator from Wisconsin who in 1969 came up with the idea of a global rally for the environment. At the end of the 60s, in the wake of the Civil Rights and the antiwar movements, the first Earth Day made the environment the new activist poster child. More than 20 million people rallied for Earth Day's debut. They clogged midtown Manhattan, some waving signs, others waving dead fish and nets, yelling, "This could be you!" Iowa University students formed human barricades to keep cars off campus. Citizens in Harrison County, West Virginia, collected five tons of garbage from the highways and deposited them on the steps of the county courthouse. Even Congress shut down at Senator Nelson's request, so those politicians could promote the environment, even though many of them had to borrow speeches already prepared by Senator Nelson before taking the podium.

This year, Earth Day is expected to draw hundreds of millions of people from more than 180 countries worldwide. Yes, there will be some protests and some arrests. But the anger and passion that sparked yesterday's campus barricades and courthouse garbage dumps has largely been replaced today by outdoor festivals, bike parades, rock concerts, and tree plantings. Denis Hayes was a Harvard student in 1970, and was instrumental in organizing the first Earth Day. And in a way, he predicted how it might evolve. Speaking to throngs of demonstrators surrounding the Washington Monument, Denis Hayes kicked off that first Earth Day with these words: "If the environment is a fad, it's going to be our last fad." And for this week, that's the Living on Earth Almanac.

(Music up and under)

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Listener Letters

(Music up and under)

CURWOOD: Time now for comments from you, our listeners.

(Music up and under)

CURWOOD: Meg Hunt heard our feature on Solar Sam, the man who invents unusual uses for solar power. Ms. Hunt listens to us on KCHU out of
Valdez, Alaska, and she says our report misrepresented the current state of solar technology. "The sun doesn't just run a few toy roosters and other trinkets," she writes. "While I applaud the gentleman who has made a hobby of such things, your story made it sound as though that's as far as it goes. I live on solar power. This computer, the phone line through which my e-mail goes, the ratio, lights, and, yes, the blender, the freezer, and the table saw all run on the sun. And in 15 years, we have never had a power outage."

Marghie Seymour called from Littleton, New Hampshire, where she listens to New Hampshire Public Radio. She heard our piece about Moe, the 36-year-old department store turtle living in Portland, Maine, and wanted to share her own story about a turtle given to her by a friend.

SEYMOUR: And that was seven years ago, and he was 36 at that time. So was I. So both Sam and I are 43 years old now, and he's still going strong, too. And I just thought it was pretty interesting to hear that there's another old turtle not too far from here. Thanks for the great story.

CURWOOD: And finally, Linda Tatelbaum's story about slaughtering rabbits in her back yard one day when a carload of Jehovah's Witnesses came calling drew this response from WBUR Boston listener Nicholas Rowe. "Thank you for a segment that got me thinking about what really matters in life. I am one of Jehovah's Witnesses and I know my neighbors. Thanks to Living on Earth, I also know of a Jewish woman living in Maine who slaughters rabbits for food. By understanding where other people are coming from, we all can feel more connected. It's much easier to pollute your neighbor's yard if you don't know them."

We welcome your comments on our program. Call our listener line any time at 800-218-9988. Or write to 8 Story Street, Cambridge, Massachusetts 02138. Our e-mail address is letters@loe.org. And visit our Web page at www.loe.org. CDs, tapes, and transcripts are $15.

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Laguna Madre

CURWOOD: The eastern border of the U.S. and Mexico begins where the Rio
Grande flows into the Gulf of Mexico. And if you were in an airplane high above this spot, you'd notice a unique environmental feature. You'd see two vast inland waterways stretching north and south for nearly 100 miles along the Gulf Coast. Each is known in its own country as Laguna Madre, and both are still surprisingly well-preserved. Yet, the challenge each Laguna Madre faces reflects the differences between the U.S. and Mexico and the efforts the people of both nations are making to preserve this international treasure. As part of the series Border Stories, correspondent Alan Weisman of Homelands Productions has this report.

(A sandhill crane calls)

LABUDA: That's a sandhill.

WEISMAN: Dawn, 20 miles north of the Rio Grande.
(The sandhill calls)

LABUDA: Yep. Yeah, he's flying there against the sunrise. (Laughs)

WEISMAN: U.S. Fish and Wildlife biologist Steve Labuda stands in a thicket of cactus, honey mesquite, and wild lilies, listening.

(Bird calls)

LABUDA: There is a constant chorus of eastern meadowlarks singing. The occasional loud chips you hear behind us are olive sparrows and cardinals, interesting mix of the tropics and the eastern seaboard there. And then flying over occasionally you can hear a long-billed curlew.

(Calls continue)

WEISMAN: Every year thousands of visitors come for this. The Great
Laguna Madre of South Texas is one of the last places on the continent to see tropical birds like rare reddish egrets, or roseate spoonbills, brilliant green jays or great kiskadees. Even ocelots, bottlenose dolphins, or sea turtles.

(Water splashes)

WEISMAN: In all the world there are only three coastal bays where so little freshwater enters that they become hyper-saline, saltier than the sea itself.

(Water splashes)

WEISMAN: This long, shallow body of water and its Mexican counterpart just across the border are two of them. The only other is in Crimea.

LABUDA: It's just a wonderfully diverse system. We have these enormous numbers of redhead ducks out there floating on the water, that use it for wintering habitat.

WEISMAN: It used to be you could find wintering redheaded ducks on inland bays all the way from the Chesapeake on down. But agro-wastes, chemical fertilizers, and development killed off the sea grasses that they feed on. So the ducks pushed their way further south. Today, nearly all of them find their way here. This is their last refuge.

(Ducks quack)

LABUDA: This is one bay system that's still intact. It's not been polluted out of existence.

(Bird calls)

WEISMAN: The two Laguna Madres formed over time as the Rio Grande and the Rio Panuco 100 miles to the south, dumped huge loads of sediment into the Gulf of Mexico. Prevailing currents swept the sediments northward, and they formed great sand barriers, like Padre Island, that parallel the coast.

LABUDA: Well, it feels like you're in a time machine almost, because there aren't that many changes from the way it was 100 years ago or even 1,000 years ago.

WEISMAN: The U.S. Laguna Madre has been preserved by several vast Texas ranches that border much of its length. Wide open spaces like the 825,000-acre King ranch. In recent years urbanization has begun to slice away some pieces of this Texas cattle empire. There's even a spaceport proposed for the upper laguna, near Corpus Christi. So far, though, the shoreline is largely free of development.

LABUDA: Yeah, we can hear motor noises in the background, and you can see a house in the distance. But you can look at areas that are just water and sky and birds. And it's nice to know there are places left that are like that.

(Bird calls; fade to footfalls and lowing cows)

MARTINEZ: We are in the Rancho Rincon de Anacahuitas, in Matamoros, Mexico, right in the Laguna Madre.

WEISMAN: Jorge Martinez owns the largest ranch on the Mexican Laguna Madre. The 30,000-acre spread looks the same today as when his grandfather founded it.

MARTINEZ: And this is the last ranch from the border to 300 miles south of the border with a natural brush. We have more than 200 plants, mountain lion, ocelot, jaguarundi, and bobcat. And 407 migratory bird species.

WEISMAN: Usually it's also home to about 3,500 cows and steers. But now, Jorge's running about half that number.

(A motor starts up)

WEISMAN: A big green tanker pulls up behind him to refill a dry water trough. There's been a drought here for the past nine years, and Jorge
Martinez has to truck in water to keep his cattle alive.

MARTINEZ: Instead of 40 inches of rain, we just received six inches of rain. We've been losing a lot of cows and money.

WEISMAN: Which is why Jorge Martinez has become more and more interested in the wildlife on his ranch. Over the past few years, organizations like The Nature Conservancy and its Mexican counterpart Pronatura have been helping him to preserve one third of his land as wilderness. He freely admits that one big incentive is economic.

MARTINEZ: In the U.S. Laguna they have tourist boats, hotel guides, food, lodging. They have an income more than $100 million a year. We're trying to pinch a little bit of that market.

WEISMAN: Sounds reasonable. But a lot of poor countries who pin their hopes on ecotourism discover that the logistics of making money off nature and preserving it, too, can get complicated. And there's always the chance that someone else, like the government, has very different plans for the environment, even in the U.S.

(Radio music. Voice over: "Gulf Coast fishing can be quite challenging.
Let's join Walt Kittelberger in Port Mansfield ...)

WEISMAN: Meet fishing guide Walt Kittelberger. You can see him on tourist videos about the U.S. Laguna Madre. But you'll also find him at meetings, like this one held recently in Brownsville,Texas, taking on the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

KITTELBERGER: No it does not. It does not.

WOMAN: But what's the alternative?

KITTELBERGER: Pardon me if I take umbrage at you spending such an inordinate amount of time on various ways to dump it in the bay...

WEISMAN: Kittelberger is upset because the Corps regularly dredges a 16-foot-deep channel right down the middle of the Laguna Madre. It's called the intercoastal waterway, and the mud it stirs up blocks sunlight and kills sea grass. This is bad news for birds and fish and the ecotourism business.

KITTELBERGER: No it doesn't, no it doesn't.

WOMAN: Yeah, it does.

KITTELBERGER: It does not.

WEISMAN: Kittelberger and other Laguna Madre defenders have fought to keep the core from dumping the dredge material in the water.

KITTELBERGER: You know, we keep this bloody canal open even though you might not see a barge, you know, for days down here. If you want to save taxpayers money this canal probably ought to be shut down. But I'm not endorsing it. Our group can't because it would be political suicide. Part owners of this barge company, that is, the primary beneficiary of this canal are Robert Mossbach, James Baker, and George Herbert Walker Bush. (Laughs) I mean, there's one reason for you right there. That's probably all the reason you need.

WEISMAN: On the Mexico side, there's even a scheme to extend the
intercoastal waterway right through the Rio Grande and straight down the
Mexican Laguna Madre, turning the Gulf Coast from Corpus Christi, Texas, all the way to Veracruz, into one of the world's richest shipping zones.

KITTELBERGER: It would be a real tragedy if they were to not learn from some of our mistakes and do a little better job of protecting that laguna. It's like this only not spoiled yet.

WEISMAN: Not spoiled because for years there were no paved roads leading to Mexico's laguna, and nearly no one lived there. But recently that all changed.

(Motors and bird calls)

WEISMAN: This is Mesquital, one of dozens of tin and cardboard shanty towns that have materialized on the shore of the Mexican laguna, seemingly overnight. The beach here is filled with sandpipers, plovers, gulls, and terns, but also plastic bags, coke bottles, and reeking piles of fish guts. There's a big chain-link fence here the government put up to keep people away from where it wants a marina, once the intercoastal waterway arrives. But Mexico hasn't reaped enough from NAFTA to build the waterway, and more people keep arriving instead.

CRUZ: [Speaks in Spanish]
TRANSLATOR: It's a no-man's land. Five years ago there was no road here at all. Now there are four.

WEISMAN: Miguel Angel Cruz is a community worker here with Pronatura, the Mexican environmental organization.

CRUZ: [Speaks in Spanish]
TRANSLATOR: People from other places who have nothing arrive here. Or, people come here because they can easily escape the police, because it's close to the border. It's a natural route for drugs. There's only one policeman for a community of 5,000 people. In a place like this, people can just as easily beat you up as talk to you.

WEISMAN: Yet Miguel Angel has to talk to them, often about delicate issues like over-fishing. Because unlike the Texas laguna, which is basically open just to sport fishermen, the Mexican laguna is suddenly booming with commercial fishing.

(Music from a speaker, ambient voices)

WEISMAN: To the sounds of a portable radio in Mesquital's plywood and tar paper fish processing plant, 20 men pack several thousand pounds of mullet in yellow salt. Women stand at a long wooden table removing the sacs of mullet eggs to sell to Korea and Japan. They stopped fishing for mullet yesterday. Next, trout season starts, followed by shrimp. Cooperatives like this one are trying to observe seasonal closings while each species breeds, but not everyone respects them. In the past two years, three state fisheries inspectors were found floating in the laguna. Already people worry that the fishing stocks in the Mexican Laguna Madre are declining under the pressure of so many people coming here.


WEISMAN: Like many of the men and women here, Pedro Meza came from Tamayagua, Veracruz, 300 miles to the south. Until a few years ago it was a fishing village.

MESA: [Speaks in Spanish]
TRANSLATOR: Tamayagua is ruined now. The fish are all used up, because we didn't respect the season closing.

WEISMAN: And then there was the morning he awoke to learn that a nearby offshore oil well had exploded.

MESA: [Speaks in Spanish]
TRANSLATOR: Oil floated over the lagoon and the coast. It killed everything. The oyster beds were the first to die. The shrimp nurseries were ruined. In Veracruz there used to be a lot of life, a lot of fish. Now, nearly everyone's here looking for a fish so they can eat. Fishing's all we have. That's the way it is.

WEISMAN: Pedro Meza's entire catch today was just one flounder and two crabs, not a lot to feed his family.

MAN: So, good evening everyone. Welcome to crab races.

(The crowd cheers)

WEISMAN: Back across the border, on the Texas Laguna Madre, they've got another use for crabs. It's the Wednesday night crab race in the
Quarterdeck Lounge on South Padre Island.

MAN: Oh, thank you.

(The crowd cheers)

WEISMAN: In the middle of a big round table, eight crabs shiver under a large pie plate. They've been sprinkled with tequila because it irritates them, and that makes them run.

MAN: Are you ready for this?

(The crowd cheers, claps)

WEISMAN: And they're off!


WEISMAN: The first crab that crosses the line near the table's edge wins.

MAN: Five, three, two, and six.

(The crowd cheers)

WEISMAN: Tourists have been flocking here for spectacles like this ever since the early 50s, when the state's longest causeway was built to connect South Padre Island to the mainland. That was back when nature was something to be conquered, not preserved, back when this song made the hit parade.

(Music up and under: "Oh, shrimp boats is a comin', their sails are in sight. Shrimp boats is a comin', there's dancin' tonight. Why don't you hurry, hurry home...")

(A motor runs)

WEISMAN: Down at the docks under the causeway a line of shrimp boats shuttles back and forth. The Texas laguna has been off-limits to commercial shrimpers for decades. Boats like this one have to fish miles offshore in the Gulf of Mexico. But it's actually two Laguna Madres that are crucial to the shrimp industry. The warm, shallow waters provide the nursery for young shrimp before they move out into the Gulf to be caught as adults. But the ban doesn't apply to a new and different kind of shrimping on the shores of the laguna, shrimp farming.

(Vehicle over rough road)

JANECKE: This is kind of an all-weather road.

WEISMAN: This is Fritz Janecke. He manages the Harlingen Shrimp Farm, and his grow out ponds are right on the shore of the laguna. You have to drive around in a truck to see them all.

JANECKE: We have about 22 ponds. Our largest ones range in the, about 40 to 45 acres. These are the largest ones in the United States.

WEISMAN: When Taiwanese investors first brought shrimp farms like this one here a decade ago, it seemed like a good idea. Just pump saltwater into grow out ponds in the spring, add baby shrimp, feed them all summer, and harvest them full-grown in the fall. Simple.

JANECKE: Okay, you can see the basic configuration here is that we pump the water one time from the Laguna Madre into an elevated supply channel that goes right out the effluent ditch, and then back out into the Laguna.

WEISMAN: The water goes right back out into the Laguna. That was the problem. In the early days, shrimp farm waste polluted sea grass beds vital to the Gulf shrimp nursery, and virus outbreaks among farm shrimp threatened to spread to the laguna as well. Local shrimpers and environmentalists really got scared when they learned that in Taiwan, shrimp farming had fouled everything so badly that both natural fisheries and the farms themselves collapsed, never to recover. With Taiwanese owners now trying again in Texas, the locals hired lawyers to make sure the same thing didn't happen here.

JANECKE: I guess in a nutshell, yes, that public opinion did cause us to take some measures that we were not taking, practices that would be more acceptable to everybody. And I think that we've evolved to a pretty darn environmentally friendly industry. And I don't think that people should be afraid of shrimp farming occurring along the coast in Texas. I think it's a good business for our state.

(Gulls call)

WEISMAN: Back across the border, sea birds pick over a dump outside the squatter community of Mesquital. Because the land is so low, garbage often floods into the laguna. Over here, high-tech problems like shrimp farming seem pretty exotic. Mesquital's fishermen worry about polluting their waters, too, but the issues are a lot more basic.

(Voices, grunts)

WEISMAN: In the sand behind the half-finished church here, a crowd of adults, children, and a very large pig watch men dig a composting latrine.

(Ambient voices)

WEISMAN: The tall man in a baseball cap talking to the shovelers is Sergio Medellin. After years of working with the conservation group Pronatura, Sergio's concluded that the only way to save places like the laguna and its priceless wildlife is to start with people.

MEDELLIN: [Speaks in Spanish]
TRANSLATOR: Countries like ours don't have enough money for parks that are dedicated purely to preservation, like in the U.S. So we have to work with the people who live in these areas and get them to help. Here, we're empowering local people to conserve, themselves.

MEDELLIN: [Speaks in Spanish]

WEISMAN: But it may be a long process. Besides no running water or sewage facilities, these people have no electricity, either, which is why the fishing cooperative can't refrigerate their catch. So they're forced to sell fast at low prices. Sub-poverty incomes put more pressure on the laguna to surrender more fish. Yet so far, in some respects, the view from here looks better than it does back across the border.

MEDELLIN: [Speaks in Spanish]
TRANSLATOR: But even with our big population, there is better conservation on this side than in the U.S. Our resource that's been exploited at a reasonable rate, is better preservation than what they're doing in the Texas laguna.

MEDELLIN: [Speaks in Spanish]

(Bird calls)

LABUDA: There are certainly difficulties. I don't want to downplay that. But there are some people on both sides of the border who have the kind of vision and the kind of fortitude it takes to accomplish these issues.

WEISMAN: For U.S. Fish and Wildlife biologist Steve Labuda, binational collaboration is the only way to ensure the future of the two lagunas and whatever else remains of the ecosystem we share. Last fall, for the first time, government scientists from the Mexican and U.S. borderlands began meeting and visiting each other's nature reserves and studying them together.

LABUDA: There are people on both sides of the border who are concerned about the same kinds of issues. And we're not going to stop because there's a political boundary. It's going to be a continuous thing, just like nature meant it to be.

WEISMAN: One continuous bountiful borderland, occupied by two nations with clashing economies and priorities, years after a trade agreement was finally supposed to bring us closer. But while we wait to see if NAFTA will ever really do that, there are two magnificent lagunas, one on either side, that might not be able to wait.

(Bird calls)

WEISMAN: With Chris Brookes, for Living on Earth, I'm Alan Weisman reporting.

(Bird calls, fade to music up and under: Dueto de Los Hermanos Rios,
"Mediu Xhiga")

CURWOOD: Our report on Laguna Madre is part of Border Stories, a series by Homelands Productions made possible in part with funds from the Ford Foundation.

(Music up and under)

Back to top


CURWOOD: And for this week that's Living on Earth. Next time: The public comment period on EPA plans to dredge the Hudson River of PCBs is now over, and the EPA has discovered that many residents want the PCBs to stay right where they are.

WOMAN: This is quote unique in that we have a considerable portion of the Hudson Valley that does not want a contaminant taken out of their midst.

CURWOOD: Find out how General Electric, the company that put the PCBs in the Hudson, is shedding its light on the dredging debate. Next week on
Living on Earth.

We're produced by the World Media Foundation in cooperation with Harvard University. Our production staff includes Anna Solomon-Greenbaum, Cynthia Graber, Maggie Villiger, Nathan Johnson, Jennifer Chu, and James Curwood, along with Peter Shaw, Leah Brown, Susan Shepherd, Carly Ferguson, and Milisa Muniz. We had help this week from Steven Belter. Our interns are Merav Bushlin, Dawn Robinson, and Evie Stone. Alison Dean composed our themes. Our technical director is Dennis Foley. Liz Lempert is our western editor. Diane Toomey is our science editor. Eileen Bolinsky is our senior editor. And Chris Ballman is the senior producer of Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood, executive producer. Thanks for listening.

(Music up an under)

ANNOUNCER: Funding for Living on Earth comes from the World Media
Foundation Environmental Information Fund. Major contributors include
The Educational Foundation of America, for reporting on energy and climate change; the Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation, supporting efforts to better understand environmental change; the Rockefeller Foundation; and the Turner Foundation.

(Music up and under)

NPR ANNOUNCER: This is NPR, National Public Radio.


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