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PRI's Environmental News Magazine

January 16, 2004

Air Date: January 16, 2004

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Staving Off Forest Exploitation

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Illegal logging around the world has contributed to environmental devastation, wars, and poverty. Living on Earth examines this topic in a series of interviews. First, reporter Cynthia Graber gives host Steve Curwood an overview of illegal logging operations. Then, Patrick Alley, director of Global Witness, explains how trade in illegal timber helps fund international conflicts. In part two Patrick Alley, director of Global Witness, continues his discussion about illegal logging in Africa. Then, Scott Paul, campaign coordinator for Greenpeace's Forest Initiative, explains how his organization is under criminal investigation for their work protesting illegal logging. And finally, John Turner, assistant secretary of State for Oceans, International Environment and Scientific Affairs, discusses President George Bush's initiative to help countries eradicate illegal logging within their borders. (25:15)

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The Case to Limit Enviro Regulations / Jeff Young

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Advocates for clean air in Southern California and clean water in the Florida Everglades took their cases to the U.S. Supreme Court and found the Bush administration among their opponents. Jeff Young reports from Washington. (03:00)

Emerging Science Note/Suck It Up / Jennifer Chu

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Living on Earth’s Jennifer Chu reports on research that could help hog farmers clean up their waste. (01:20)

Your Chemical Body Burden / Ingrid Lobet

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More and more people are demanding the right to know what chemicals are in their bodies. In California, a bill is being pushed that would set up the first statewide biomonitoring system to collect and analyze breast milk. But some fear testing might cause people to confuse chemical exposure with illness and cause undue alarm. Living on Earth's Ingrid Lobet reports. (15:50)

Show Credits and Funders

Show Transcript

HOST: Steve Curwood
GUESTS: Patrick Alley, Scott Paul, John Turner
REPORTERS: Cynthia Graber, Jeff Young, Ingrid Lobet
NOTES: Jennifer Chu

[THEME MUSIC]

CURWOOD: From NPR - this is Living on Earth.

[MUSIC UP AND UNDER]

CURWOOD: I’m Steve Curwood. Getting tested to find out how many synthetic chemicals are in your body is a growing trend among health conscious Americans these days. And many folks are getting a big surprise when the results come in.

PATTON: I grew up in Colorado, in a high mountain town, far away from factories and industry and incinerators, right, growing our own cattle, our own vegetables. So, the fact that I had these levels said a couple of things. First of all, there’s no little marker on that chemical that says it was manufactured by this company, or this is where you got it. There’s no way I can send a bill to somebody for using my body as a toxic waste site.

CURWOOD: The movement for biomonitoring in the industrial age. Also, the big business of illegal logging and its impact on human rights and the environment. That and more this week on Living on Earth. Stick around.

[NPR NEWSCAST]

ANNOUNCER: Support for Living on Earth comes from the National Science Foundation and Stonyfield Farm.

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Staving Off Forest Exploitation

CURWOOD: From the Jennifer and Ted Stanley Studios in Somerville, Massachusetts, welcome to Living on Earth, I’m Steve Curwood. From the Amazon to Indonesia, forests around the world are disappearing at what some call alarming rates, and much of cutting is being done in violation of the law. Illegal logging is linked to environmental and human rights abuses around the world. And the issue is garnering the attention of a growing number of parties, from global forest activists to the president of the United States.

Today, we’ll be talking to a number of people involved in trying to stop illegal logging. Joining me today will be Patrick Alley, director of Global Witness, a British organization that documents how contraband lumber supports wars. We’ll also be talking with Scott Paul of Greenpeace, the organization that’s been indicted by the Justice Department for its protests against illegal logging. And we’ll hear from John Turner, Assistant Secretary of State, about what the Bush administration is doing to help other countries do away with illegal logging within their borders. But first, Living on Earth’s Cynthia Graber, joins me. Hi, Cynthia.

GRABER: Hello, Steve.

CURWOOD: Now, Cynthia you’ve been following this story from some time. Tell me, what do we mean when we use the term “illegal logging?”

GRABER: Well, we’re talking about timber that’s cut down and used – and today we’re actually talking mostly about timber that’s exported – without the legal oversight of the host country. There are a lot of ways it could be illegal. There could be a protected area, and people are going in and logging. There could be a company that has rights to log an area, but they take more wood than they have the right to, or they take trees outside that area. It often happens out in the middle of nowhere and there’s a pretty rough crowd involved. I was in Brazil working on a story about the wood used for violin bows, and the people I was talking to told me about logging in general in Brazil. And they told me it’s just as lucrative a crime ring as drugs, and the people are just as rough. The World Bank agrees about how lucrative it is. According to their figures, the trade in illegal timber accounts for 15 billion dollars. That’s taking into account numbers such as the worth of the wood and the lost taxes and revenues to the home countries. Just to put that into context, it’s the same as all the money the World Bank gives out to all the governments they work with in the world.

But, Steve, just to be clear, legal logging doesn’t necessarily mean it’s sustainable. But everyone working on this agrees – first, the logging needs to be legal, so there can be some oversight, and then you can talk about sustainability.

CURWOOD: Now, I can imagine that illegal logging takes place, what, just about everywhere. But Cynthia, tell me, where is this most prevalent? Where is it a really big problem?

GRABER: It’s probably most significant in tropical countries where there’s a lot of timber and often not enough oversight. Just to give you an idea, here are some statistics, again from the World Bank. More than 90 percent of the wood coming out of Cambodia, more than 80 percent of the wood coming out of Brazil, Bolivia, Peru, Benin. For Indonesia – and if you go shopping you’ll see that a lot of wood products come from Indonesia – the figures are anywhere from half to three fourths of the wood coming out of the country is illegally sourced.

CURWOOD: Well, obviously with this kind of cutting you’re seeing massive deforestation. There are going to be some huge environmental consequences, I would think.

GRABER: Absolutely. Deforestation itself is such a huge problem, and you have related impacts of trees not holding in water, and the soil. This can lead to huge floods. And there’s a really big human impact there. There were floods recently in Indonesia that left 200 people dead. That was said to be due to loosened soil on the hillsides from illegal logging. There are also billions of people in the world, many of them living at poverty, who depend on the forest for use of its resources. And then, of course, there’s loss of habitat.

Bruce Cabarle is director of the World Wildlife Fund’s Global Forests Program. He told me that there are 200 places that the World Wildlife Fund is focusing its resources on protecting. And almost a third of them are threatened by illegal logging. He had this to say about the Indonesian island of Sumatra which is one of the last strongholds for endangered elephants, tigers, and rhinos.

CABARLE: And at the current rates of deforestation, which are largely driven by illegal logging to feed pulp mills, we can see the elimination of all remaining lowland tropical rainforests on the island of Sumatra within the next five years, if action isn’t taken.

CURWOOD: Hmm. Well, Cynthia, the U.S. is one of the world’s biggest importers of forest products. How do we know when we buy stuff at the store that it’s been legally harvested? I mean, I got some lawn furniture recently – there was nothing on that said it was legal or illegal.

GRABER: There’s actually no way for you to know if it’s legal or illegal wood. There is an organization called the Forest Stewardship Council, and they certify – along with the groups that they work with around the world – they certify sustainably harvested wood. And if it’s FSC certified, and it’s sustainably harvested, then it is legal. Other than that, there really isn’t a way to know. All concerned citizens can do is ask. And by asking, they’ll let companies know that they’re interested.

CURWOOD: Thanks, Cynthia.

GRABER: You’re welcome.

CURWOOD: And please stick with me as we bring in our first guest. Patrick Alley is one of the founders of the London-based group called Global Witness – an organization that exposes how conflicts around the world are fueled by trade in natural resources such as oil, diamonds, and, of course, illegal logging. So, tell us, Patrick Alley, how did you first get involved in this issue?

ALLEY: Well, myself and the two colleagues who together with me founded Global Witness, we used to work for an environmental organization around about 10, 12 years ago. And we saw a few areas in the world where you didn’t really know if a situation was an environmental problem, or a human rights problem, or a conflict problem -- and we sort of mulled over those ideas for a while. And I think the thing that really illustrated it for us was we were individually interested in Cambodia, and at that time the Khmer Rouge guerillas in Cambodia controlled the northern and western borders of the country, and maintained their war effort through the trade in timber with Thailand. And we thought, well, if you close that border then you cut off their funding, they can’t fight their war. Why doesn’t somebody do that? And we thought, well, why don’t we? We knew enough to think we could try. So, that’s how we set about beginning Global Witness.

CURWOOD: And how did you do it? Were you able to shut down that trade?

ALLEY: We did, actually. Half of what we do is to gather information. We believe that with primary information that we find out ourselves from investigations, covert investigations perhaps, if you find that information then no one can really argue with you. And once you have the information it’s a question of pulling the right levers to achieve change, and that those levers will be different in every situation. But in the case of Cambodia, what we did was to – we went into the timber companies posing as European timber buyers. We figured the only way they’d tell us anything is if they thought they were going to get money from us. Gradually, over time, we found out the whole trail, the whole chain of custody of the timber and were able to document the scale of the trade, which at that time was around about 20 million dollars per month. And then it was a question of trying to mobilize international forces to close the border.

GRABER: I mentioned earlier that I heard down in Brazil about people profiting from illegal logging, that it’s basically a crime network similar to drugs. I know you work in Africa as well as Asia – what similarities have you seen there?

ALLEY: I would say, in our experience, whoever is doing it, whether it’s a guerrilla group or a criminal gang, or even people connected to the government – and it very often is that – they are robbing the state’s resources. So they need all of the networks that criminal gangs have to maintain that operation. Which makes looking at illegal logging, especially for local people in those countries, extremely dangerous. And it goes hand in hand very often with the drug trade, with the arms trade, and we’ve looked particularly at the timber trade funding conflicts. And then you’re linking up with the Russia mafia, Ukranian mafia, and it’s a very nasty business.

CURWOOD: And I imagine they don’t want you poking around in this, Patrick. If these are criminal enterprises, as you say, you must have had some pretty difficult experiences investigating and reporting this stuff. Anything you could share with us?

ALLEY: Yeah, I could give you a couple of examples. And I’d highlight the fact that we don’t go looking for trouble. But, for example, in the time that we we’re looking at the Khmer Rouge trade, we were always very conscious of the fact – we were on the Thai border, literally, maybe a kilometer or two away, you’d have a Khmer Rouge base. I remember going into a timber company which was quite a way off the main road in Thailand, so we were in quite a remote area. The nearest place, really, was the border where the Khmer Rouge were. And we were watching – we were filming, secretly, logs coming in on trucks from Khmer Rouge territory. And then the people in the logging camp realized that maybe we weren’t who we said we were, and they actually chased us out of there. So we had a little car chase on these dirt roads in Thailand.

And danger comes in different ways as well. I was doing an investigation in Harare, in Zimbabwe, a couple of years ago, looking at their links with the timber trade in Democratic Republic of Congo. What I was doing wasn’t particularly dangerous in itself. I was in town, I was asking questions, I wasn’t trying to pretend to be anyone else. But the day after myself and my colleague left, there were front page stories in the government press accusing us of being the British intelligence services. Now, had they caught us when we were there – we know what happens to spies – that might not have been nice.

CURWOOD: Now you say that there’s a lot of criminal enterprise involved here, but at the end of the day this is a human rights issue, as far as you’re concerned?

ALLEY: I guess the reason Global Witness began was to try and cross this nexus of environment and human rights. If you look at these situations – and you can pick Cambodia, or Cameron, or the Congo, or Liberia – you get different things in different places. But if you’ve got an illegal operation worth hundreds of millions of dollars, if people try to look at that operation, say journalists or local people, and protest against it or document it, they do get intimidated. They do get shot at and they do get killed. That’s one side of it. Also, if there is illegal logging, it is, generally, by definition unsustainable logging. That has ecological effects which affects agriculture. So, very often, especially in tropical forests, you’re looking at terribly poor countries. People very often are dependent on the forests, and also farming. If the forests are destroyed they’ve only got farming, but the destruction of the forests affects their farming. And they get poorer and poorer and poorer. And that’s a challenge for all of us who are working on this issue.

GRABER: Patrick, you mentioned work you’ve been doing in Africa, and I was wondering if you could talk a little bit about what are the conflicts that are being funded by this trade in timber.

ALLEY: Well, a really good example that we’ve been concentrating on for the last two years is Liberia. Where, as you probably know, the former president Charles Taylor held sway there since he won his civil war. He was responsible for fomenting regional unrest. He funded the infamous RUF rebels in Sierra Leone, responsible for the murder of thousands of people and the amputation of limbs of men, women, and children. The money that he used to fund them came from both the diamond trade, and when diamonds were sanctioned by the United Nations Security Council, he focused on timber. And the timber trade provided the money for him to do that. And also the ships that were coming to take away the timber were bringing in arms. The equipment that the logging companies used to build the roads in the timber concessions were used to build roads that were strategically useful. And the logging company funded – the biggest company – a two and a half thousand strong militia, which was used to help the Liberian armed forces. You had, really, a whole civil war, which was affecting the lives of millions of people in west Africa, funded by timber.

CURWOOD: So how do you change that?

ALLEY: What we had to do in the case of Liberia -- it was too dangerous for us to actually go to Liberia because we’d made public comments and Charles Taylor had publicly highlighted our organization as a problem for him. But what we would do is we’d go to Guinea, to the Ivory Coast, Sierra Leone, the neighboring countries, and basically talk to everyone we could – whether it’s journalists, politicians, child soldiers, logging workers – and build up a picture. And when you start investigating like that, generally you’ll find that people start leaking information to you. So we were fortunate enough to obtain information belonging to the Ukrainian mafia showing the logging deals that they were doing and the arms they were supplying. And then you’ve got to work out, well, where do I use that? In this particular case, the United Nations Security Council had already got sanctions on various things against Liberia, including diamonds, but not timber. And so we focused our lobbying efforts on going to New York with the information over a period of two years, trying to get timber sanctions in. And, finally, in July, 2003 we succeeded in that. Not long after that, Charles Taylor was thrown from power. And there’s certainly a link there.

CURWOOD: We’re talking about illegal logging, and its environmental and human rights impact around the world. My guest is Patrick Alley, director of the London-based organization Global Witness. In just a minute we’ll be joined by a member of Greenpeace to talk about how that group’s work to expose illegal logging has led to some legal entanglements with the Bush administration. And we’ll also hear from a member of the Bush administration to hear about what it’s doing to control illegal logging. I’m Steve Curwood with Cynthia Graber. Stay tuned to Living on Earth.

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ANNOUNCER: Funding for Living on Earth comes from the World Media Foundation Environmental Information Fund. Major contributors include the National Science Foundation, supporting environmental education, the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, supporting the Living on Earth Network, Living on Earth’s expanded Internet service, the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, for coverage of western issues, the Educational Foundation of America, for coverage of energy and climate change, the David and Lucile Packard Foundation, for reporting on marine issues, and the Wellborn Ecology Fund.

CURWOOD: Welcome back to Living on Earth, I’m Steve Curwood. Our topic is the trade in illegal timber that’s become an environmental nightmare in many of the world’s developing nations, and a source of funds for world conflicts. Our guest Patrick Alley, director of Global Witness, is back with us. We’ll also speak to Scott Paul of Greenpeace about its exposés of illegal logging operations. John Turner, Assistant Secretary of State for Oceans, International Environment and Scientific Affairs, will also join us for the Bush administration’s viewpoint on illegal logging around the world.

First, Patrick, let me ask you this – what’s your next target? What’s, perhaps, the most urgent place for your work?

ALLEY: Democratic Republic of Congo.

CURWOOD: Why?

ALLEY: Because it’s a country in a post-conflict situation. It’s very big. It has some of the richest forest reserves, not to mention other resources such as gold, diamonds, cobalt, copper, you name it. The war that has killed over three million people in the last five years has been fought mainly over resources. And lots of businesses are dying to get in there to exploit those resources, and I think the international community, and certainly the Congolese government, are not really prepared enough for that onslaught. And I think there’s a danger that logging companies, for example, will get hold of concessions in areas, with the support of organizations like the Wold Bank, and I think it’s a really important issue to try and make sure that in that country, unlike many others, that the resources in a post-conflict situation are dealt with in a sensible way that actually helps the country and doesn’t act to its detriment.

CURWOOD: Patrick, thanks so much for taking this time with us.

ALLEY: Thank you. It’s been a pleasure.

CURWOOD: Patrick Alley is director of Global Witness. Joining me now is Scott Paul. He’s campaign coordinator of Greenpeace’s Forest Initiative.

PAUL: Hello, how are you?

CURWOOD: Good. I’m glad you can come on the show, and I want to ask you about Greenpeace and the critical role that you’ve played in telling the world about illegal mahogany coming out of Brazil. When did these illegal logging operations first get the attention of Greenpeace?

PAUL: Yeah, about three years ago, the Greenpeace office in Manaus, Brazil started really investigating and documenting the mahogany trade in Brazil. Brazil is the world’s largest exporter of mahogany. What we did is we went out in the field, we checked government records, we tried to locate everywhere that the records show people are supposed to be logging. And really, after about a year, uncovered a system of gross illegalities, where no one was logging where they were supposed to be, we had fraudulent documentation, fraudulent transport papers. And in September, 2001, we gave that information to the Brazilian federal prosecutor. Shortly after that, the Brazilian government conducted a series of field investigations. And in October of 2001, the Brazilian government completely suspended their mahogany trade in an extremely, highly unprecedented move.

CURWOOD: There was a load of mahogany, I guess. You and some other Greenpeace members, I gather, boarded a boat off the coast of Miami you said contained illegal mahogany logs from Brazil. What happened?

PAUL: Yeah, back in April of 2002, a 1,000 foot cargo container ship came into the port of Miami carrying approximately 70 tons of mahogany. This shipment came in during the period when the Brazilian government still had a national moratorium on exports. So a little more than three miles off the coast of Florida, two Greenpeace activists boarded the APLJ with a banner reading “President Bush Stop Illegal Logging.”

CURWOOD: Now, you were part of that protest on the boat, as I understand.

PAUL: Yes, I was. I was arrested in that protest. The Coast Guard came out and all the Greenpeace vessels in the vicinity were rounded up and taken over to the Coast Guard dock. We spent the day on the dock and, ironically, most of the Coast Guard officials were telling us, you know, this will be cleared up in an hour. This will be cleared up in two hours. And we spent the weekend in the Miami federal penitentiary. On Monday morning we were released.

Eventually six people, including myself, were charged with a law from 1872. I’m one of the first people in over a hundred years to be convicted of this law, that has to do with sailor mongering. Basically, the law was put into place to make sure that brothels and bordellos were not enticing sailors that were coming into their facilities to run up large bills, and then they’d be unavailable to leave when the ship had to go.

CURWOOD: Now, as I understand it, your organization was also named in this criminal indictment.

PAUL: Well, this is where it actually gets very interesting. The Miami protest, back in April of 2002, was a pretty standard Greenpeace protest – peaceful, nonviolent civil disobedience. Fifteen months later the Bush administration has indicted Greenpeace as an organization under the same 1872 law. This is the first time in U.S. history -- going through the civil rights movement, the anti-apartheid movement, animal rights and right-to-life movements -- that the federal government has chosen to indict an organization for the activities of its supporters.

CURWOOD: What would happen if Greenpeace was convicted?

PAUL: Well, first of all there would be a ten thousand dollar fine. We could also lose our tax-exempt status, which is quite significant for a group like Greenpeace that does not take any money from corporations or does not take any money from any governments.

CURWOOD: If you’re convicted, how much could the government look at your activities?

PAUL: Well, we’d be placed on a five year probation, and the government would be able to, at its will, inspect our financial records, our membership roll, any other internal information that we have at any time. And stiffer penalties would be doled out for any subsequent Greenpeace protests. You know, jaywalking, what have you, would become quite serious at that point.

CURWOOD: This case is still under way. Where do things stand right now?

PAUL: Back on December 12th we had our first pretrial motions where we filed three motions, one to dismiss, because the 1872 law that we had been charged with does not actually fit. We filed a motion for dismissal. We also filed a motion because we want a jury trial. The government does not want to give us a jury trial. And then also the selective prosecution motion. The judge – we don’t know when he’ll be ruling on those particular motions. A trial date has been set, tentatively, for May of this year.

But we’ve had an awful lot of groups rally around us because this case is really much bigger than Greenpeace. The NAACP, the ACLU, People for the American Way, a lot of environmental groups, NRDC, Defenders of Wildlife, etc., etc. They’ve really rallied to Greenpeace’s defense on this, because this really could send chilling first amendment effects if we are convicted.

CURWOOD: Scott, in a few minutes we’re going to hear from John Turner who’s the assistant secretary of state for the Oceans, International Environment, and Scientific Affairs. He’s going to talk about the President’s Initiative on Illegal Logging. What’s your opinion of that initiative?

PAUL: The United States has actually shown a lot of leadership on the issue of illegal logging. This pre-dates the current administration. The U.S. government is probably largely responsible for getting the issue of illegal logging on the international agenda. However, the Presidential Initiative on Illegal Logging, which the environmental community was very supportive of as it was being developed, Greenpeace is quite disappointed in this initiative. The issue is really 19 previously existing programs cobbled together, being called a new initiative. There is no new resources allocated to this.

Additionally, the initiative only focuses on illegal logging happening in other countries, and refuses to address the key question needed to get illegal logging under control -- and that is, the U.S. importation of forest products abroad. And it doesn’t even attempt to distinguish between forest products that were harvested responsibly, and forest products that were harvested in violation of laws. And the Presidential Initiative refuses to give the information to the public that they need in order to make that decision.

CURWOOD: Thanks for taking this time with us. Scott Paul, campaign coordinator for Greenpeace’s Forest Initiative.

PAUL: Thank you, Steve.

CURWOOD: International illegal logging has become such a cause for concern that George Bush has made it a top environmental priority. And the president has, indeed, announced a new initiative to help nations wipe out illegal logging within their borders. We’ve invited John Turner, assistant secretary of State for Oceans, International Environment and Scientific Affairs, to talk to us about the administration’s program. Hello, sir.

TURNER: Nice to visit with you, Steve.

CURWOOD: Assistant Secretary Turner, while we were researching this issue, some of the groups that we talked to are concerned that they don’t feel that there’s anything new in the President’s Initiative, that it’s mostly existing programs grouped together. What new programs are planned for the future for this initiative?

TURNER: Well, it’s a lot of new efforts. Our efforts are going to be on the Amazon Basin, in the Congo Basin in Africa, southeast and southern Asia, and then we hope to turn to Eurasia and Eastern Europe. The approach has been to focus of good governance, help with laws, policies, training of people in country. Of course, we need their acceptance and their receptivity. Second, using American know-how and technology -- whether it’s remote sensing to track forests, a better way to track logs -- or in the marketplace, using the very powerful force of American markets as we recently did when we impounded several million dollars of mahogany coming out of South America, specifically Brazil. So, it’s a cooperative effort with a lot of U.S. agencies working with the private sector, the NGO community. And we’re getting cooperation and interest in a lot of countries around the world that are joining us in this.

CURWOOD: What in terms of finances are available for this? I’m thinking particularly of new money. This is a time of very tight budgets. I’m wondering what kind of resources you’re going to be able to add to the already existing initiatives we have around forests.

TURNER: Well, I know that always interests the press. But the ’04 budget, of course, still has not passed the Congress. In ’03, the expenditure by U.S. government was somewhere in the neighborhood of 15 to 20 million. And what we’re doing is leveraging that with the NGO community, the private sector, foundations, and other governments.

CURWOOD: Let me ask you something from the perspective of a consumer. I recently bought a deck chair. It was made out of teak. And in this line of work I know that a lot of teak is harvested illegally. There was no way for me to tell, though, if the chair I bought came from appropriately or inappropriately harvested teak. What about having an initiative to tell people if the timber they’re getting is properly harvested?

TURNER: Well, it’s an excellent question, Steve. How do we know the piece of lumber we buy, or the coffee table, comes from a legitimate source? And it’s such a complicated issue from the remote area in the tropical forest all the way to the shelf in the marketplace. We’re certainly looking at making progress. We’ve got leaders like Home Depot that are committed to going the extra mile to see that their products are legally sourced, to international treaties where products that are especially endangered will be tracked with paperwork. But it’s a tough problem. And the NGO community, of course, has been working with the private sector on certification in certain countries. We’re certainly not there yet, but I think we need to give that kind of awareness and ways of tracking to the consumer.

CURWOOD: Thanks for taking this time to talk with me today.

TURNER: Well, thank you, Steve.

CURWOOD: John Turner is assistant secretary of state for Oceans, International Environment, and Scientific Affairs. For more information about illegal logging around the globe, and the consequences for the environment and human rights, go to our website – livingonearth.org. That’s livingonearth.org.

Related links:
- Buying Timber and Wood Products
- Greenpeace
- Global Witness
- Forest Stewardship Council
- U.S. Initiative Against Illegal Logging

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CURWOOD: There’s more to come on Living on Earth, including a report from Jeff Young in Washington about how the Bush administration is weighing in on two cases now before the U.S. Supreme Court. But first, I want to invite you to join me on a walking and riding safari in some of Africa’s greatest natural areas.

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CURWOOD: Heritage Africa has arranged for a Living on Earth expedition to spend several days hiking and driving near the Timbavati River in Kruger National Park in South Africa. This is an area famous for its rich population of lions, elephants, and rhinos, as well endangered cheetahs and wild African dogs.

Then it’s off to the Amadiba Tribal Area in ruggedly beautiful territory that lies between the Mzamba and the Mtentu Rivers on the Indian ocean. The area is called the Wild Coast, but it may not be so wild for very long. A major highway is being planned for the region, and mining concessions are also threatening to change this exquisite landscape forever.

We’ll take time to document this story, and the story of the Mpondo people, who have developed an eco-tourism program based on community ownership. They’ll take us by horseback and by canoe through their stunning homeland, and put us up in simple but comfortable camps.

There are two ways you can come along this safari. Buy a ticket to assure your place and also help us here at Living on Earth. You can also take a chance to win a trip for two. For details go to livingonearth.org. That’s livingonearth.org to join me , Steve Curwood, beginning May 1st on Safari in Africa.

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The Case to Limit Enviro Regulations

CURWOOD: The U.S. Supreme Court heard arguments recently on two cases that will affect air quality in California and water quality in the Florida Everglades. And as Living on Earth’s Jeff Young reports, the Bush Administration took the unusual step of weighing in on both cases.

YOUNG: Western oil companies, Detroit engine makers and a Florida water pump all had help from the Bush administration when they went before the nation's highest court. Engine makers and oil companies want to stop rules requiring clean vehicle fleets in Southern California. There, owners of 15 or more trucks, cars or buses must buy the cleanest vehicles on the market. The Engine Manufacturers Association's Jed Mandel says that goes beyond the intent of the Clean Air Act and could lead to a country with a hodgepodge of standards.

MANDEL: It's very important to recognize that these vehicles are produced on an assembly line in one part of the country and sold nationwide. And if we allow separate jurisdictions to adopt separate emission regulations we'll end up with a balkanized set of rules that will simply not allow manufacturers to cost-effectively sell vehicles.

YOUNG: Mandel says that's why the law limits who can set vehicle emission standards. But clean air advocates say these are not standards for those who make fleets of autos, but rules for those who buy them to pick the cleanest models. Gail Feuer of the Natural Resources Defense Council says the rules are needed to address the biggest sources of air pollution: the ones on wheels.

FEUER: If the court rules in favor of engine manufacturers and the oil industry, it really will doom regions around the country to decades of dirty air for us and for our children.

YOUNG: The clean water case asks whether a water pumping station at the edge of the Everglades should be held to federal water pollution standards. South Florida Water district manager Nicholas Gutierrez says no, because it doesn't pollute water, it just moves it.

GUTIERREZ: We are not adding pollutants to water, we are simply moving water to keep 136 thousand residents of western Broward county from flooding.

YOUNG: The water is runoff polluted by phosphorus, and environmental attorney Dexter Lehtinen says that hinders Everglades restoration.

LEHTINEN: That's what it's about. They say that the water that's polluted anywhere in the U.S. can be moved any other water body, and we say no.

YOUNG: Both cases could affect clean water and air across the country, as western states import more water and cities struggle to meet more stringent air standards for soot and smog. And in both cases, President Bush's top lawyers argued against regulation. Environmentalists say that's a reversal by federal government that hinders state efforts at pollution prevention and cleanup. Bill Becker represents state and local air pollution control agencies.

BECKER: We're bewildered. I mean if ever there was a tailor-made case for the federal government and this administration to be supporting state rights, this is it. And we're very disappointed that they would weigh in on the other side.

YOUNG: The Justices are expected to rule on both cases this summer. For Living on Earth, I’m Jeff Young in Washington.

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Emerging Science Note/Suck It Up

CURWOOD: Coming up: biomonitoring – a movement to help people find out how many PCB’s and other chemicals are in their bodies. First, this Note on Emerging Science from Jennifer Chu.

[SCIENCE NOTE THEME]

CHU: Anyone who lives near a hog farm will tell you the smell isn’t pretty. The source of that smell is large open pits filled with hog waste that’s been flushed out of hog houses. In recent years, many of these pits have been decommissioned. For instance, in North Carolina there are 1,700 inactive sites.

To clean up these pits, farmers have to drain the liquid and then truck the solid waste away for use as fertilizer. But farmers complain this process is very costly. Now, there may be a cheaper and greener solution to this disposal problem: poplar trees.

Researchers in North Carolina have taken a half-acre pit, drained out the liquid, filled the hole with soil and planted over 300 poplar trees. The roots of these trees grow faster and deeper than most others, and scientists have found they can absorb 3,000 gallons of sludge per acre per day. This sludge contains nutrients for the trees, such as nitrogen and phosphorus. The heavy metals in the waste, like copper and zinc, are stored in the trees’ tissue.

Researches believe the trees will act as a sponge and prevent these contaminants from leaking into groundwater. Hog farmers can opt to harvest the trees for lumber once the site is completely cleaned up. Scientists estimate that would take up to 15 years.

That’s this week’s Note on Emerging Science, I’m Jennifer Chu.

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

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Your Chemical Body Burden

CURWOOD: It’s Living on Earth. I’m Steve Curwood. In many cities and towns across the U.S. you can read the local newspaper to find out what’s in the air you breathe. And in many communities, the water company will tell you what’s in the tap water. It’s useful information, but these days some people are demanding more. They want to find out what synthetic chemicals are in their blood, urine and breast milk.

Scientists at the National Centers for Disease Control have started keeping data on what substances are found in the tissues of the average American. But some people say averages aren’t enough -- that there’s an individual right to know, as well. In California, groups are pushing a bill that would set up the first statewide collection and analysis of human fluids. Living on Earth’s Ingrid Lobet reports on the growing trend in biomonitoring.

LOBET: As Sharyle Patton sat in a tiny clinic room watching her blood fill yet another vial, she mused that after years as an activist lobbying against persistent chemicals, she would finally learn her own chemical fingerprint -- what had built up in her body over a lifetime. When the results were emailed to her, she compared notes with several of her friends.

PATTON: Well, we all had funny different reactions to it. Some of us looked at our scores and felt good because our numbers were less than other people in the group [laughs]. I mean, there was that kind of reaction. And I looked at my PCB levels and realized they were really high. And I thought, my goodness, I’ve just about won the PCB contest. And that my dioxin levels are as high as some folks that live in Louisiana, in cancer alley.

LOBET: The levels were a surprise for Patton, because she’s chosen to live amid the wild green of Bolinas, a famously remote community on the coast north of San Francisco.

PATTON: I grew up in Colorado, in a high mountain town, far away from factories and industry and incinerators, right, growing our own cattle, our own vegetables. So the fact that I had these high levels said a couple of things. First of all, it’s really hard to figure out the pathway of exposure by looking at your body burden levels. You just really don’t know. You can’t tell. There’s no little marker on that chemical that says it was manufactured by this company, or this is where you got it. There’s no way I can send a bill to somebody for using my body as a toxic waste site.

LOBET: Patton’s body, it turned out, contained 105 of the 210 metals and synthetic chemicals researchers tested for. Safe levels for many have not been set. Her test results are consistent with other studies in the United States and Europe that chart the intrusion of the Industrial Age on the human body. Certain pesticides, for example, and PCBs used in plastics and insulators, find their way into living things and settle in fat. Some are passed to babies in utero.

Interest in body burden testing, or “biomonitoring”, has spiked since the late 1990s, when scientists discovered that a type of chemical flame retardants – called PBDES – had rapidly been building up in animals and humans.

As reported previously on Living on Earth, those flame retardants – used in foam mattresses, drapes and furniture – have now been found just about everywhere researchers have looked for them; in whales, in seabird eggs, in seals, and in breast milk. And nowhere higher than the United States. Speaking last year on this program, California State Toxicologist Tom McDonald explained why these fire suppressants are a concern for developing babies.

MCDONALD: There's three primary concerns that we have with respect to health effects, and those include neuro-developmental changes, meaning learning and memory deficits in children, also thyroid hormone disruption, as well as possibly cancer. The concern basically comes from animal studies that have all shown that either in rats and mice, when you give PBDEs to them, either in utero or early after birth, you get permanent changes in behavior and learning and memory.

HOOPER: [Giving tour of lab] These are two half million dollar machines, high resolution mass spectrometer and gas chromatography.

LOBET: At the same lab where researchers found the flame retardants in seals and American breast milk, another researcher is taking the issue one step further. Environmental biochemist Kim Hooper is asking a question you don’t often hear from American scientists – whether the current way of regulating chemicals is sufficiently protective of fetal and infant health.

HOOPER: For the last 25 years we’ve been following this paradigm of we need to show a chemical-human disease connection. And it hasn’t worked because we’re not really regulating that many more chemicals than we were 25 years ago. So, we need some kind of new paradigm -- and one new paradigm would be, let’s look at chemical body burdens.

LOBET: Hooper and others made sure their research on PBDEs made it into the hands of activists. Then breast cancer activists, in particular, helped get two widely used flame retardants banned in California last summer. Next, the manufacturer volunteered to stop making them. But the activists want more. Donne Brownsey is a lobbyist in Sacramento for the Breast Cancer Fund. She hopes a program for broad body burden testing might one day reveal why one in eight women in the United States develops breast cancer.

BROWNSEY: We believe breast cancer is a public health crisis. We believe we can no longer just ask women to be dutiful about doing monthly exams. We have to start looking at environmental causation.

LOBET: And Brownsey believes the increased interest in biomonitoring indicates a shift in public attitude.

BROWNSEY: We think that finally some of these environmental issues have rightfully taken their places as environmental health issues.

[SOUND OF VOICES, DISCUSSION IN A SACRAMENTO OFFICE]

LOBET: The emerging movement in America to test human beings for chemicals has found its center in the office of California State Senator Deborah Ortiz. She’s sponsoring a bill that would create a statewide human monitoring program – the first in the country.

ORTIZ: There are other countries that have actually done this – Sweden, Germany, as well – that have been doing this over time, and measuring body burdens. So, someone suggests we’re really behind the curve in California

LOBET: If her bill becomes law, scientists would choose three distinct communities for initial testing. Senator Ortiz, who chairs the senate health committee, sees biomonitoring as a powerful political tool because it could reveal geographic differences in exposure.

ORTIZ: So that we can, in fact, measure women in East Los Angeles who live near an incinerator, or women who live in an area in the Central Valley, where there is a lot arsenic in the water. As well as women who live in relatively non-heavily populated, non-industrial areas. I’d like to get us to the point where we have so much information that we can’t turn a blind eye, that we can’t turn our back, to the huge huge problems and the risks that we are placing on women throughout California. Maybe that data will get us there.

LOBET: Ortiz’s emphasis on women points to one sensitive aspect of the California bill. It intends to find out what’s in people’s bodies by testing breast milk. Breast milk contains more fat, and so more of the fat-loving chemicals than blood. And you don’t need a needle to extract it. But advocates of the bill, like Donne Brownsey, say there’s a political reason for choosing breast milk, too.

BROWNSEY: We believe that if breast milk talks, people will listen.

[SMACKING SOUNDS OF SUCKLING BABY]

LOBET: Little Nicholas Howard clamps his mouth onto his mother’s breast. But then he notices a microphone intruding on his nursing nirvana. And there’s another distraction, his buddy Antonio.

[BABY-TALK SOUNDS BETWEEN THE TWO BOYS]

LOBET: Some worry that using breast milk as the test fluid might dissuade some women from breastfeeding. I ran that concern past nursing moms Jane Donofrio and Carolyn Howard.

DONOFRIO: I would give a sample immediately. I don’t know, what do you think?

HOWARD: I would be interested in giving a sample first of all just to see what’s in my actual breast milk. Because that would give me more information. So I wouldn’t have reservations about going ahead and giving a sample.

DONOFRIO: Absolutely. I mean that’s why I think we eat the way we eat. When you know you’re giving it to your baby, it’s like, okay, I’ll get the organic peppers -- even if they’re more expensive, ‘cause it’s worth it. And breast milk, like in relation to formula, I think, okay, there’s some negative things in it, but maybe that’s where we can address our society on a whole with toxins in our world. You know, it’s more of a societal, huge issue, as to we have these things in our bodies, and why certain things are contaminated.

[CUTE SOUNDS FROM THE BABIES, BABY-TALK, LAUGHING]

LOBET: Few people have contemplated both the contamination and the health benefits of breast milk as much as biologist Sandra Steingraber of Ithaca College. Steingraber has been calling for a national dialogue on contaminants in breast milk. I asked her to read from a letter recently published in the Ribbon newsletter from Cornell University.

STEINGRABER: “Breastfed infants have fewer respiratory infections, diarrhea, middle-ear infections, and die less often from Sudden Infant Death Syndrome. Breastfed infants grow into children who suffer less than their bottle-fed counterparts from juvenile diabetes, rheumatoid arthritis, obesity, dental malocclusions, and some leukemias. They respond more vigorously to vaccinations. They have better hearing and visual acuity. They develop balance and gross motor coordination more quickly.”

“It's also true that breast milk commonly violates Food and Drug Administration action levels for poisonous substances in food. Were it regulated like infant formula, the breast milk of many U.S. mothers would not be able to legally sold on supermarket shelves.”

LOBET: Steingraber is always careful to send a pro-breastfeeding message. She makes sure she’s always photographed breast-feeding her two-year-old.

STEINGRABER: The people who are advocating it in the public health community, the lactation community, the midwifery community, pediatricians and obstetricians -- they’re very touchy about any negative comment about breastfeeding and breast milk. And I feel that way myself.

On the other hand, I don’t think public health is ever served by keeping secrets, and the idea that nursing mothers should be protected against knowledge of what’s in their milk is profoundly condescending. Certainly, as a nursing mother myself, I want to know what’s in my milk – in the same way I want to know about infant car seat recalls.

LOBET: But while advocates of biomonitoring see it as a right-to-know issue, others with a strong interest see some efforts, such as California’s, as lacking focus, and even irresponsible. In a letter to Senator Ortiz, the American Chemistry Council says it is wrong to test breast milk and then somehow see the results as an indicator of community health. The council, which represents chemical manufacturers and users, did not respond to requests for an interview, but in the letter it suggests that biomonitoring advocates must not confuse chemical exposure with illness. And some scientists share that concern.

[MACHINE SOUNDS FROM CHEMICAL LAB]

KRIEGER: To many people, knowing that they’re exposed spells disease. Exposure isn’t disease. Exposure is contact and absorption of a chemical.

LOBET: At the University of California at Riverside, toxicologist Robert Krieger and his associates analyze pesticides in human urine. Krieger supports the federal biomonitoring studies carried out by the Centers for Disease Control. But he believes the kind of biomonitoring where individuals get their own results back could cause unnecessary alarm.

KRIEGER: It’s possible to measure much, much less than the amounts that have any biological significance in terms of health. And given the poor general information that people have about chemicals and their bodies, I would think that a program such as that might carry more liabilities than benefits.

DINOFF [IN THE HUM OF THE LAB]: If I can give you an example here of a compound I found while doing an analysis…

LOBET: Researcher Travis Dinoff points to a screen showing a wave form of one chemical in a urine sample from a farm worker.

DINOFF: This turns out to be oxybenzone which is a sunscreen. And if someone got a result back that said they had been exposed to “oxybenzone,” they might say, “oh god, I’ve been exposed to this chemical.” But it’s actually something that they put on their skin on purpose, and those compounds are going to be absorbed and excreted somehow out of the body.

LOBET: Professor Krieger is suspicious that many people who want widespread biomonitoring really just want a back door to more chemical regulation.

KRIEGER: The numbers game is very treacherous. The normal strategy is to find the low level of something, and associate risk with it. And then regulate that material at extremely low levels, as though you are removing a risk. But if the risk was nil or zero when you started, no matter how much you reduce it, you haven’t done anything. The public has not gained anything.

LOBET: Kreiger’s concerned the side effects of that could be wasted money, and an unwarranted fear of chemicals. To see if other researchers share this worry, I turned to Dana Barr, who has worked on the biomonitoring program at the Centers for Disease Control and heads the pesticide lab there. I asked her if she has reservations about testing as a tool in the hands of individuals.

BARR: I do. Because when you get all these data, a lot of them aren’t that easy to interpret right now on an individual basis. There are some that do have a clinical outcome associated with them – for instance, lead or mercury exposure – and so getting tested for those would make real sense because then you could reduce the exposure; there’s some sort of intervention that could occur. If you get tested for many of these other chemicals, we really don’t know if there are health outcomes associated with it. So, the data are largely uninterpretable on an individual level.

LOBET: But Dana Barr says she welcomes testing in city and state-run programs, like ones being planned for New York City, for New England, the Rocky Mountain west, and California.

BARR: Oh, I think it’s an outstanding idea. I think it is very important to get at this geographic information because we do know that geography and whether you live close to an agricultural region or whether you live close to an inner city – that can affect what exposures you actually get.

LOBET: As biomonitoring gathers steam, these initiatives are likely to meet stiff resistance from chemical producers and users -- especially if they call on companies to pay for the testing, as California’s bill now does. But whether new, broader testing materializes this year or much later, its backers have raised intriguing questions about the right, and the desire to know,. For Living on Earth, I’m Ingrid Lobet.

Related links:
- Environmental Working Group “Mother’s Milk”
- Sandra Steingraber’s website
- Breast Cancer Fund
- Biomonitoring Legislative Proposal [PDF download]
- Chemical Body Burden

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CURWOOD: And for this week, that's Living on Earth. Next week – mercury. It’s a well-known toxic metal that damages the nervous system. We try to keep it out of the food we eat and the air we breathe. But in some communities, it’s sprinkled around the house, burned in a candle, and applied to the body – often to bring luck.

WOMAN: I think we’re not just being contaminated by the incinerator. I think we’re being contaminated, contaminating ourselves by using this product in our homes.

CURWOOD: The ritual use of mercury, next week on Living on Earth. Until then, you can hear us anytime and get the stories behind the news by going to livingonearth.org. That’s livingonearth.org.

CURWOOD: We leave you along the banks of the Ruhr River in Essen, Germany. Michael Rusenberg recorded these sounds at the city’s main hydroelectric power station and mixed them into a composition he calls – Baldeney Ein Soundscape Ballet.

CURWOOD: Living on Earth is produced by the World Media Foundation. You can find us at livingonearth.org. Our staff includes: Carly Ferguson, Nathan Marcy, Susan Shepherd and Tom Simon. Al Avery runs our website. Our interns are Christopher Bolick and Nal Tero. Special thanks to Ernie Silver. Alison Dean composed our themes. Environmental sound art courtesy of EarthEar. I’m Steve Curwood. Thanks for listening.

ANNOUNCER: Funding for Living on Earth comes form the National Science Foundation, supporting coverage of emerging science; and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, supporting the Living on Earth network, Living on Earth’s expanded Internet service. Support also comes from NPR member stations and the Annenberg Foundation. And Tom’s of Maine, makers of natural care products and creator of the Rivers Awareness Program to preserve the nation’s waterways. Information at participating stores, or tomsofmaine.com.

ANNOUNCER2: This is NPR, National Public Radio.

 

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