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

October 28, 2005

Air Date: October 28, 2005



Wal-mart to Reduce Its Environmental Footprint

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Wal-mart has come out with a new environmental policy that could have sweeping changes and take away some negative attention the world's largest retailer has been getting for what critics have called limited health care, scant benefits, and poor treatment of workers. Host Steve Curwood talks with Andy Ruben, the VP of Corporate Strategy and Sustainability at Wal-mart. (05:30)

Environmental Refugees

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Scholars predict fifty million people will be displaced within five years by rising sea levels, desertification, dried up aquifers, and other serious environmental change. The term “environmental refugees” has increasingly been invoked over the last two decades to describe growing waves of people displaced by environmental problems. Host Steve Curwood talks with Andrew Simms. He’s the Policy Director of the New Economics Foundation in the United Kingdom and the author of a recent book entitled, “Environmental Refugees: The Case for Recognition”. (06:30)

Preserving our Parks

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Park advocates were up in arms last August when a leaked National Park Service management proposal outlined significant policy changes. A revised proposal is less drastic but Bill Wade, a spokesperson for the Coalition of National Park Service Retirees, says it may allow for more noise and pollution, and weaken the conservation of our national parks. (04:15)

Claiming Public Lands / Eric Whitney

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Environmental activists have long complained that an antiquated federal law makes it easy for mining companies to develop public land for mining. Efforts to reform what's known as the Mining Act of 1872 stalled under President Clinton. So now some groups are using the very law they say is broken to claim public land and protect it. From member station KRCC in Colorado Springs, Eric Whitney reports on the new campaign and competing bills in Congress that would re-write the law that permits mining on public land. (05:00)

The Real Sheep / Daniel Kraker

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There’s an expression among Navajo people in the Four Corners area of the southwest—“sheep is life.” The sheep the Navajo first raised were called churro. They were brought over by Spanish conquistadors in the late 1500s, the first domestic sheep in North America. By the 1930s they were nearly wiped out by the federal government’s campaign against overgrazing on the Navajo reservation. But now, they’ve made a comeback. From Arizona Public Radio, Daniel Kraker tells the remarkable survival story of the Navajo-churro sheep. (09:00)

Emerging Science Note/Long Life / Emily Torgrimson

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Living on Earth's Emily Torgrimson reports on developments in anti-aging treatments that have been successful in roundworms. (01:30)

The Make Love, Not War Species

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The bonobo is as genetically similar to humans as the chimpanzee. These peace-loving apes live in matriarchal societies and use sex to deal with competition and anger. They reside only in a very small area of forest below the Congo River in Africa and they've been at risk in recent years because of civil unrest, logging, and hunting. The Bonobo Conservation Initiative is creating a refuge for them called the Bonobo Peace Forest. Host Steve Curwood talks with Dr. Amy Parish, scientific advisor for the Initiative. (14:30)

Show Credits and Funders

Show Transcript

HOST: Steve Curwood
GUESTS: Andy Ruben, Andrew Simms, Bill Wade, Amy Parish
REPORTERS: Eric Whitney, Daniel Kraker
NOTE: Emily Torgrimson


CURWOOD: From NPR, this is Living on Earth.


CURWOOD: I’m Steve Curwood. Look at a group of chimpanzees and a group of humans, and in both cases the males push for dominance. And no wonder, chimp and human DNA is almost the same. But is it just DNA? Because among Bonobo apes, who are just as genetically close to humans as the chimps, the females rule - even if some researchers are reluctant to call it matriarchy.

PARISH: I even have colleagues who are chimp researchers who refuse to accept that the pattern is female dominance. So, for instance, they call it "strategic male deference," which basically means ‘Well, you know, of course the males could be in charge if they wanted to but for some reason they're stepping back and letting females have the upper hand, maybe so they get more sex out of it.’

CURWOOD: Bisecting bonobo behavior and more, this week on Living on Earth. Stick around.

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

Wal-mart to Reduce Its Environmental Footprint

(Photo courtesy of ICE.gov)

CURWOOD: From the Jennifer and Ted Stanley Studios in Somerville, Massachusetts, this is Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood.

Wal-Mart is now almost beyond analogy. Elephant? Octopus? Too small, these animals dominate only one realm. Wal-Mart is the largest company that has ever existed on Earth. One out of every three Americans--that’s 100 million people--visit Wal-Mart each week. Twenty-one thousand other companies supply Wal-Mart with everything from pajamas to peanuts and plywood. And it’s the nation's largest seller of records, toys, furniture and jewelry. Its workforce is larger than GM, Ford, GE, and IBM combined.

Its enormous leverage makes and breaks suppliers; a small change sends ripples through the economy… or, maybe, the environment. The company has announced a new environmental policy to reduce energy use in stores, minimize its use of packaging, sell organic cotton clothing at their, quote, “everyday low price.” And, perhaps, more important, it says it is expecting its suppliers around the world to follow suit.

Joining me from Wal-Mart headquarters in Bentonville, Arkansas, is Andy Ruben. He's Vice President of Corporate Strategy and Sustainability there. Hello, sir.

RUBEN: Hello.

CURWOOD: So, in sum, what’s Wal-Mart’s new environmental policy?

RUBEN: You know, if I had to make it concise, we found that environment, looking at these things, it’s good for business. Looking at things in a new way can help us in terms of reducing energy where we pay for the pollution that goes on in some way, and our customers do. Reducing waste, then we pay twice for. And looking at products where, essentially, we are focused on democratizing, bringing to a mass market, products that are healthy and safe for our customers and produced in a way that’s good for future generations.

CURWOOD: Wal-Mart is the biggest buyer on the planet, or close to it, anyway. So how big do you think the environmental impact of your changes is going to be?

RUBEN: One thing about being large that is really exciting is there’s some things that we’re just uniquely positioned for. I’ll give you a few examples. Transitioning our private brand products: all the plastic, the PVC that sits in like the packaging windows or covers up produce, transitioning that from a PVC or oil-based product to a corn-based product or a bio-based product.

And it sounds like a small change, but what’s interesting about our market position is as we set that goal out there and work toward it, there’s a small market that already existed for that type of transition. And as we’re setting the goal out there we’re seeing the market move that way as well.

You know, time will tell, but we just see huge opportunity. I mean, we know already that we do have a large footprint. In the past, I think we’ve looked at that really as a liability. In the shift that we’re starting to make, and it’s exciting, is that those things that have been challenges in the past potentially become gateways. There’re things that really we can create huge benefit from.

CURWOOD: Walk me through how Wal-Mart believes it can sell organically grown cotton clothing for very close to, if not the same price as, conventionally grown cotton clothing.

RUBEN: There are so many opportunities for a product. You know, some of them come from all the way back at the field where we might have only bought cotton, let’s say, from farmers who have a field year-round. So understanding, you know, what happens with that field when it’s not growing cotton, being able to grow produce and being able to sell that produce through our European operations. That gives farmers extra stability in terms of their buyer, allows them to invest equipment that again brings down the cost of the cotton. And those kinds of opportunities, again, have been there all along. We just hadn’t – I don’t think we had looked at it in this way.

CURWOOD: Tell me, Andy, what are some of the biggest challenges you foresee now in implementing this new environmental policy?

RUBEN: You know, the biggest challenge that we’ve seen all the way through it has been mindset. And what I’m talking about is, many of the opportunities that we’re talking about have existed for some time. It’s just the ability to see them, and it’s looking at things in a different way. And the way we’re approaching this is not a separate part of the organization that works on environment; we see it as consistent with our business and a part of the business.

So, let me give you an example. One brand of toys we sell, a private brand, Kid Connection. Just by reducing the packaging size, we’re able to save $2.4 million in that one product line annually in transportation. It equates to about 3,100 trees that are never harvested and about a thousand barrels oil. Some people are going to be motivated purely by the benefits, some people will be motivated by the cost savings. And I think that’s okay. I think what’s important is that, you know, we take advantage of the opportunities of the company we have.

CURWOOD: I want to ask you about the quote from your CEO, Lee Scott, who said there’s not the ability to change as much in many of those areas like wages and health benefits as we can change in this area of environmental sustainability. And the question is, why not?

RUBEN: Well, I think it’s an area of continual learning. So we’ve spent the past 12 months really focused in the area of environment. And we’re making good progress in those other areas, but really understanding what we’ve done in the past 12 months with environment, we continue to find new opportunities in other areas. And the hope is as we go forward, we continue to look for opportunities to do more in an overall sense, environment and social.

CURWOOD: There’s a certain subset of environmental activists who don’t much like Wal-Mart, and have fought your company in terms of putting up stores in communities and such. What kind of response are you getting from those environmental critics of Wal-Mart to these new lines that you are introducing?

RUBEN: I think it really depends on the critic. And what we have found is there are a lot of our critics out there who simply want Wal-Mart to be a better company. It’s not that they are interested in not having Wal-Mart. And that type of criticism’s actually very productive, and we’ve gotten a lot of help from those people over the past year in terms of understanding, you know, the things they know a lot more about than we do. And with working with them we found great innovative solutions to things that we hadn’t uncovered before. In fact, it’s been a source of value.

Now, the critics that just aren’t interested in having Wal-Mart are more difficult to work with because it turns into somewhat of a zero-sum game. But there are a lot of people who just want Wal-Mart to simply be a better company, and that’s the same thing we’re interested in.

CURWOOD: Andy Ruben is Vice President of Corporate Strategy and Sustainability for Wal-Mart. Thank you, sir.

RUBEN: Thank you.

Related links:
- Wal-mart on the Environment
- Wal-martWatch
- Against the Wal

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[MUSIC: Turtle Island String Quartet “Thin Ice” from ‘Retrospective’ (Windham Hill – 1997)]

Environmental Refugees

CURWOOD: Fifty million people forced to migrate by environmental calamities. That’s the prediction of some scholars of the number of people who will become "environmental refugees” within five years, thanks to rising sea levels, desertification, dried up aquifers, and other serious environmental changes.

And it has officials at the United Nations University in Germany urging the international community to take responsibility for these displaced people and the problems that drive them from their homes.

Among those putting out that call is Andrew Simms. He’s the Policy Director of the New Economics Foundation in the UK and author of the book, “Environmental Refugees: The Case for Recognition.” We caught up with him at a café in London. Thanks for taking the time, Mr. Simms.

SIMMS: You’re welcome.

CURWOOD: Fifty million. Who are these people, and where are they coming from?

SIMMS: What we’re looking at are people who are forced to flee their homes primarily because of environmental push factors. Now, this could be anything ranging from desertification, deforestation, extreme weather events, floods and droughts. Natural events relating to the Earth’s hydrological cycle. And with even the most modest scenarios for global warming showing significant rises and increases in the intensity and probably frequency of extreme weather events, certain parts of the world which are highly populated – along coasts, along rivers – are going to become much harder places to live. Some areas where people are dependent upon rain-fed agriculture farming, especially in some parts of sub-Saharan Africa, are going to find life difficult, if not impossible. So every projection points to the fact that the number of environmental refugees is going to grow and grow significantly.

CURWOOD: Everywhere from Louisiana to the Bay of Bengal, Bangladesh, huh?

SIMMS: Well, I think that’s right. And in some places, in some of the more exposed places like small island states in the South Pacific, it becomes a matter of life and death. So people who are living in highly vulnerable and highly exposed areas. There are places in the world, such as Tuvalu, where they have already negotiated internationally with New Zealand a program for planned long-term relocation of population. So it’s a reality, it’s not just a theory being bandied about between environmentalists.

CURWOOD: Now, let me talk to you about this term “environmental refugee.” Up till now people have tended to use the word “refugee” to refer to people who are fleeing wars and persecution. You write that we are now living in an age of environmental persecution, and that’s why we should call these folks refugees. What do you mean by environmental persecution?

SIMMS: In the way that persecution is termed in international law regarding refugees, if a particular group of people are effectively persecuted as a consequence of known policies pursued elsewhere then they can claim refugee status. Now, we’ve known about, at least, the chemistry of global warming for well over a hundred years. We’ve known now for a matter of decades the direct consequence of the profligate use of fossil fuels in such a way that there’s a strong human fingerprint in climate change, which is driving these extreme weather events, which are going to lead to people needing to cross borders.

Once you’ve got known cause and effect, and known consequence, I think it’s fair to say that people living in areas that are vulnerable specifically to climate-related environmental change deserve the protection of the international community. Now, the only way that’s going to happen, the only way that the countries overwhelmingly responsible, the high energy using countries, are going to be forced to pick up the tab is if they have a legal obligation.

It’s important also to point out that it’s already the case in the world that the vast majority of refugees, the economic burden of dealing with refugees, falls upon poor countries. Now, in an age of ever-growing numbers of environmental refugees, that will also be the case. So the people who are least responsible for producing the problem, specifically in the case of climate change, will bear the largest burden of having to pick up the tab.

CURWOOD: Who are the environmental persecutors, in your mind?

SIMMS: Well, I think, not a case of in my mind, it’s pretty much down in the record books, if we were to look through the per capita emissions figures you’ve got the advanced industrialized nations at the top. Countries like the UK, countries like the United States, most of the other European countries. The huge inequities in terms of fossil fuel use are there as a matter of record, a matter of fact.

CURWOOD: You’ve talked a lot about climate change as being a push factor for environmental refugees. What are some of the things that make people into environmental refugees besides global warming?

SIMMS: Well, you’re looking at the things that make life extremely difficult. It could be deforestation, it could be because a particular natural resource has been overexploited, it could be through the industrial exploitation of a particular type of new approach to farming. There might be areas along the coast of Bangladesh where the introduction of intensive shrimp farming may so contaminate the indigenous resources that they’re driven on. There’s countless reasons but, overwhelmingly, the largest one is that driven by the Earth’s hydrological cycle, which is intimately linked to the fate of global warming. So global warming is the big one.

CURWOOD: Now, do you think this effort, that is, to officially recognize environmental refugees, will actually gain traction? I mean, if it’s adopted in some sort of formal way international organizations and governments will have to take responsibility for these folks. Perhaps take more responsibility for the underlying problems, as well. It’s something which I would think that many of them may not be that eager to do.

SIMMS: Well, I think you can look at it in one of two ways. You can either kind of wait for the problem to happen, with all the international and security implications and the upheaval that that will represent in terms of the unprotected and unmanaged flow of people across borders. Or you can choose to do something about it, which you can deal with the problem in a planned and orderly fashion. The latter would seem to be sort of hugely preferable to the former. But however we decide to approach it in a legalistic manner, the most important thing to keep focused on is that it’s a problem that exists and it’s a problem that’s going to get worse, and unless we manage it it’s probably going to manage us.

CURWOOD: Andrew Simms is author of the book entitled “Environmental Refugees: The Case for Recognition.” Mr. Simms, thanks for joining us.

SIMMS: Thank you.

Related links:
- “Environmental Refugees: The Case for Recognition”
- United Nations Press Release on Environmental Refugees

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[MUSIC: Ben Neill “Propeller” from ‘Tripical’ (Antilles - 1996)]

CURWOOD: Coming up: staking claims out west to prevent mining. Keep listening to Living on Earth.

[MUSIC: Space Negroes “Can’t Seem To Make You Mine” from ‘Generic Ethnic Muzak…’ (Arf! Arf! Records – 1992)]

Preserving our Parks

CURWOOD: It's Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood.

Cell phone towers within the national parks. More acc ess for skimobiles and off-road vehicles. Skydiving from cliffs. And brand names on national park buildings. These are some of the ways that National Parks could go, according to some analysts who have looked at a leaked planning document mapping out the system's future.

Director Fran Maniella says the leaked document was only meant to stimulate discussion. But she does say changing times call for changes in policy.

MANIELLA: To manage parks emphasizing either conservation or enjoyment to the exclusion of the other imperils the national park concept.

CURWOOD: With me is Bill Wade. He’s the former superintendent of Shenandoah National Park in Virginia. He’s now spokesperson for the Coalition of National Park Service Retirees.

Bill, as I understand it, conservation has been the main goal of our national parks. Now the Parks Director Fran Maniella is calling for the need to balance conservation and public enjoyment. What might this change in focus mean?

WADE: Actually, policies governing the management of the parks date back to 1918, and they’ve been revised every ten to 15 years. But in every one of those, from 1918 through the 2001 version, the preservation or the conservation has been specifically stated as the primary responsibility of the National Parks Service. And it’s only with this latest revision that the administration is trying to roll out to increase the emphasis on enjoyment and recreation and certain kinds of activities in parks that we believe would be inconsistent with that longstanding mandate to preserve and protect the resources in parks.

CURWOOD: In August there was a draft proposal of policy changes by the deputy assistant secretary for Fish, Wildlife and Parks, Mr. Paul Hoffman, and that draft – which was never officially released, I gather – but that draft called for, well, among many other things, elimination of the world “evolution” in National Parks Service publications and books sold in parks’ stores. I’m wondering, is that revision still in this policy that’s been announced by the director? And what else of deputy assistant secretary Hoffman’s recommendations remain in what the National Parks Service director is calling for now?

WADE: Well there still is some emphasis on the issue of reducing the emphasis on evolution. In addition to that, for instance, there are possibilities within the new proposed draft that grazing could be increased or initiated in certain National Parks Services areas. There certainly could be impacts on the air quality.

CURWOOD: Bill, there have been other ideas floating around that would change our approach to national parks. I’ve heard suggestions that we might sell off some park properties that get few visitors, and that perhaps the naming rights of buildings should be sold in exchange for donations. What do you think of these ideas?

WADE: Well, they’re very troubling. There is, consistent with the revised policies that are out for comment right now, is a director’s order that would allow, for instance, much more blatant recognition of donators and funders to national parks in the form of benches with their names on ‘em, or public facilities in the parks perhaps named after them.

I can just imagine someday that we would see an interpreter getting on a stage in the visitor’s center and beginning an interpretive talk with a big banner behind him with perhaps the National Parks Service arrowhead and the park logo, and then interspersed there would be something like the Nike logo.

Those kinds of things we just think are not appropriate and don’t maintain the contrast that exists right now that people see national parks providing in contrast to their daily lives. I think those kinds of things would not be in the best interest of the parks.

CURWOOD: Bill Wade is the spokesperson for the Coalition of National Park Service Retirees. Bill, always a pleasure.

WADE: Thank you very much.

Related links:
- Coalition for National Park Service Employees
- National Parks Conservation Association
- National Park Service Draft Proposal

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Claiming Public Lands

(Photo: Eric Whitney)

CURWOOD: An antiquated federal law makes it cheap and easy for mining companies to use public land, convert it to private ownership, and then develop it into mining operations that pay no royalties back to the government on profits. Many conservationists have long criticized what’s known as the 1872 Mining Act as failing to value public lands rich in nature, but efforts to reform the law have, so far, failed.

So now, some groups in the west have decided that if they can’t beat the mining companies, they’ll join them. They’re using the very law they say is broken to claim public land and protect it from mining. From member station KRCC in Colorado Springs, Eric Whitney reports on the new campaign and competing bills in Congress that would re-write the old mining law.


WHITNEY: On a beautiful, sunny, Indian summer day, Amy Jiron takes a little walk in the mountains just west of Denver.

WHITNEY: Is that Mt. Evans right over there?

JIRON: I think that’s Bierstadt, actually. Yeah, that’s, I think, Bierstadt, and then if we come over here we can see Mt. Evans.

WHITNEY: This beautiful meadow on national forest land is about 30 miles from Denver is popular with hunters, hikers and ATV riders. Jiron, who works for a local mining watchdog group, says many of those people may not be aware that much of the forest is subject to privatization and development by mining companies.

JIRON: It’s our land, forest service land is our land, because we’re the taxpayers, and the people of the United States. And that our government allows that land to be utilized in such a way – it’s wrong. It needs to be fixed.

Amy Jiron at the boundary marker of a mining claim staked by environmentalists in Colorado. (Photo: Eric Whitney)

WHITNEY: Jiron is talking about the 1872 mining law which allows anyone to lay claim to huge chunks of American public lands, announce plans to mine them, and then buy them outright for five dollars an acre, the same price Congress established back in 1872. Jiron calls that ludicrous.

JIRON: The 1872 mining law really was meant to promote people with pickaxes on foot who are going to dig small tunnels, and not big, huge mines that are going to have big piles of toxic chemicals and things like that.

WHITNEY: Environmentalists, especially those in western states with lots of public lands, have been trying to change the 1872 mining law for decades. But since they’ve had no success, activists in six states have now decided to stake some mining claims themselves.

It’s pretty easy. First, identify a 20-acre parcel on a map, then go out on the land and plant stakes at its corners. File a little paperwork and a $165 fee, and you now have exclusive rights to mine the land. Or, in the case of the environmental groups, to keep anyone else from mining it.

JIRON: To protect 20 acres from being mined for $165? It’s quite a bit cheaper than what it would cost to buy the land (LAUGHS).

WHITNEY: Actually, according to law, the green groups could buy all the claims they’ve staked for only five dollars an acre. But simply filing the claims keeps anyone else from mining the land, so there’s really no need to buy it. There’s also been a moratorium on the $5 sales since 1995, when Congress agreed that the law needs to be revised.

Carol Raulston, a spokesperson for the National Mining Association, agrees that taxpayers deserve more compensation for lands privatized under the law.

RAULSTON: I think our view was it was only fair that that ought to reflect current market values.

WHITNEY: California Congressman Richard Pombo just introduced a bill that would charge mining companies a thousand dollars per acre instead of the current five. But mining companies still wouldn’t have to pay any royalties the way coal, oil and gas companies do.

Roger Flynn, an environmental attorney in Colorado, says mining companies should pay the same eight to 12 percent that energy companies do.

FLYNN: Billions of dollars have been taken out of the public lands in recent years by, particularly, the gold and copper industries, and they’ve never paid a royalty on that. And, of course, the current bill has no royalty provisions whatsoever, as well.

WHITNEY: In the 1990s, mining companies said they were willing to pay a royalty of around five percent. The Mining Association’s Raulston says they still are. A bill proposed by West Virginia Congressman Nick Rahall would require eight percent. Raulston says that would be too much.

RAULSTON: The value of the mineral is set daily on the world market so no matter where you mine it, you’re going to get the same price for it. So, if our cost of producing it gets far above our competitors’ internationally, then you’re going to see the United States becoming much more reliant upon international sources for these whole range of metals that have broad application throughout our economy.

WHITNEY: Of the two mining law reform bills currently before Congress, only Congressman Pombo’s has a realistic chance of passing this year. It’s currently attached to a larger appropriations bill as a rider. In the meantime, both environmentalists and mining companies continue to use the 1872 mining law to lay claim to tens of thousands of acres of public lands.

For Living on Earth, I’m Eric Whitney in Colorado Springs.

Related links:
- Westerners for Responsible Mining
- National Mining Association
- Western Mining Resource Center

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[MUSIC: Jocelyn Pook “Butterfly Song” from ‘Untold Things’ (Real World – 2001)]

The Real Sheep

Dine' girls feeding orphan lamb on Black Mesa. (Photo: C.S. Halberstadt, ©2003-2005 Black Mesa Weavers for Life and Land)

CURWOOD: There’s an expression among Navajo people in the Four Corners area of the Southwest--“sheep is life.” It reflects the central role the livestock have played for centuries in Navajo commerce and culture.

The sheep the Navajo first raised were called churro. They were brought over by Spanish conquistadors in the late 1500s, and were probably the first domestic sheep in North America. By the 1930s, they were nearly wiped out by the federal government’s campaign against overgrazing on the Navajo reservation. But now, they’ve made a comeback. From Arizona Public Radio, Daniel Kraker reports.


A churro ewe called Penelope. (Photo: J. Begay, ©2003-2005 Black Mesa Weavers for Life and Land.)

KRAKER: Behind Jay Begay’s small house on Black Mesa, dozens of angora goats and churro sheep are crowded into a makeshift corral of pallets, plywood and fencing. There’s not another house in sight. Sagebrush, pinon and juniper pine occupy the landscape for miles in every direction.


KRAKER: Begay opens the gate and wades into the mass of hooves and horns.

BEGAY: Every time you come to the sheep corral, you’re supposed to have good thoughts and good feelings, and whatever you’re feeling the sheep will know.

KRAKER: He expertly snags a sheep with his shepherd’s cane.


KRAKER: Outside the corral, Begay gently lays the sheep on the earth. He ties the ewe’s legs together and slowly scissors its long, lustrous wool.


KRAKER: Done, Begay straightens his large frame, his face tucked under a straw hat. He’s a bit of an anomaly—a young man, only 24, who still herds sheep, and who hand weaves the wool into traditional Navajo rugs.


KRAKER: He’s tended sheep here with his mother since he could walk, always including a handful of Navajo-churro.

BEGAY: The Navajo-churro sheep was the original sheep of the Navajos. The stories in our culture say that the Navajo-churro sheep were placed here by the gods and the holy people for us.

KRAKER: Now they raise exclusively churro. Begay says the breed is perfectly suited to the Navajo, for several reasons.

BEGAY: First is the wool. It’s very easy to spin and work with; it’s the best wool and is ideal for weavings. They’re well adapted for this kind of environment where we don’t have as much grass and water. They’re a small breed, and they don’t consume as much feed as the other commercial breeds.

Handspun churro yarn and saddle blanket. (Photo: C.S. Halberstadt, ©2003-2005 Black Mesa Weavers for Life and Land.)

KRAKER: But despite their hardiness, by the early 1970s there were only about 400 left. That’s compared to about 240,000 of the so-called white-face sheep, like rambouillet and merino. Utah State University animal scientist Lyle McNeal explains the churros were the chief victim of the government’s livestock reduction program in the 1930s. At the time, the Bureau of Reclamation blamed the huge sheep population here for eating the vegetation that kept sediment from running into the Colorado River. They worried that would shorten the life of Lake Mead and the Hoover Dam. The solution, says McNeal, was to slaughter about 800,000 sheep.

McNEAL: To me it’s always been an American holocaust because of the spiritual nature of these animals and the sacredness to the people.

KRAKER: McNeal says government agents targeted churros because they were considered inferior.

McNEAL: It was a sheep that was considered a scrub, unimproved, and was worthless in terms of the eastern textile trade. It’s not a machine processed wool, so they wanted to push, and push, and push for the merino and rambouillet type breed, which is not the most suitable breed for hand spinning and weaving in the Navajo way.

KRAKER: McNeal first stumbled upon a handful of Navajo-churros at a California ranch in the early 1970s. But the owners weren’t raising the sheep for their wool. Rather, hunters paid top dollar to shoot the rare, four-horned rams. So McNeal began trekking into remote canyons on the Navajo reservation.

McNEAL: It was a journey that I’ll never forget. Many years, traveling in remote areas and visiting with wonderful families, particularly some of the sahnees, the elders, as they call them, in areas where in the 1930s and 1940s the federal government agents weren’t able to get to wipe out some of these old remnants.

KRAKER: McNeal speaks fondly of his mission now, but it wasn’t an easy journey. His colleagues ridiculed him for not focusing his research on new and improved breeds. He even contracted hantavirus, a fatal respiratory disease spread through mice droppings that killed a research partner. And he would travel often for weeks before spotting a single churro.

McNEAL: We would take our bedrolls, sometimes we lived on old Navajo trader food, Velveeta cheese and Vienna sausage and water. But I remember in those trips, finding bones, piles of bones, in some of the canyons where during the reduction they had been asked to bring their flocks, and then they were just shot on sight. I can still see those points in the canyons where they shot the sheep and goats. They weren’t remunerated either. Some of them never got their one or two dollar a head payback.

KRAKER: Slowly, McNeal pieced together a breeding herd. He founded a nonprofit called the Navajo Sheep Project and in 1982 he began returning rams to Navajo herders.

McNEAL: If I was stopping to get some food or get some gas, or stop at a trading post, other people there would come out and see them. The elders, they would bring their grandchildren, you know, and tears would come. ‘These are the true sheep, these are the real sheep, where have these come from?’ And questions, ‘Can we get some?’ The interest was just overwhelming.

White churro wool at the wool buy. (Photo: C.S. Halberstadt, ©2003-2005 Black Mesa Weavers for Life and Land.)

KRAKER: Over the years, McNeal estimates the project has returned 3,500 churros to the Navajo, including some to Jay Begay’s parents and other Black Mesa families. Now the challenge is to find a good wool market for churro breeders.


KRAKER: So two small nonprofit groups have begun buying their wool at fair trade prices. At a community center on Black Mesa, Carol Halberstadt weighs laundry baskets overflowing with earthy shades of churro wool.


KRAKER: Five years ago, while driving on the reservation with a Navajo colleague, she was inspired to expand her mission beyond just helping weavers sell their rugs online, something she’d been doing since the early 90s.

HALBERSTADT: I was driving around Coal Mine Mesa. I saw bags of wool sitting unsold in the sun. I said ‘isn’t that churro?’ She says ‘it isn’t worth the gas money to drive it to the traders to sell, because they don’t want churro.’ I said, ‘how much are they getting?’ She said ‘maybe four, five, six cents a pound’ I said ‘what?’

KRAKER: This year, Halberstadt is paying nearly two dollars a pound for raw churro wool. Over the past four years she’s purchased and resold about 15,000 pounds of wool.

HALBERSTADT: Here’s page one…

[SOUND OF CASH BOX CLOSING, COUNTING, “50, 60, 70, 80, 90, 100”]

KRAKER: She hands the cash to Elsie Bennally who says sheep have always provided for her family.

Dine' weaver skeining her handspun churro yarn. (Photo: S. Ekblad, ©2003-2005 Black Mesa Weavers for Life and Land.)

BENNALLY: My mother raised seven children on weaving. My mother has five daughters, and I have two daughters, and we all weave.


KRAKER: Back at Jay Begay’s, the young weaver says he’s proud to be part of the Navajo-churro breed’s revival. But he worries the larger sheep herding tradition could disappear.

BEGAY: I remember 10, 15 years ago, where just about every house had sheep, and now about 20 percent of those people only have sheep. Just looking ahead I think 15 to 20 years, it’s going to be a lot less. It will probably be rare to see people raising sheep and herding sheep.

KRAKER: But Begay is one of several people fighting to keep the tradition alive. In November, Lyle McNeal will be back on the Navajo Nation, helping distribute another 30 churro rams – free of charge – to those committed to keeping sheep a central part of their lives.

For Living on Earth, I’m Daniel Kraker, on the Navajo reservation.

Related link:
Black Mesa Weavers

Back to top


CURWOOD: Coming up: The worm turns almost immortal. Stay tuned to Living on Earth.

ANNOUNCER: Support for NPR comes from NPR stations, and: The Charles Stewart Mott Foundation, online at M-O-T-T dot org, supporting efforts to promote a just, equitable and sustainable society; The Kresge Foundation. Building the capacity of nonprofit organizations through challenge grants since 1924. On the web at K-R-E-S-G-E dot org; The Annenberg Fund for excellence in communications and education; and, The W-K Kellogg Foundation. ‘From Vision to Innovative Impact: 75 Years of Philanthropy; This is NPR, National Public Radio.

[MUSIC: Tristeza “Golden Hill” from ‘Spine and Sensory” (Better Looking Records - 1999)]

Emerging Science Note/Long Life

CURWOOD: It’s Living on Earth, I’m Steve Curwood. Just ahead: monkey see, monkey do. Make love, not war, Bonobo style. First this Note on Emerging Science from Emily Torgrimson.


TORGRIMSON: Like a firmer body, smoother skin, and a more youthful appearance? Want a fountain of youth and the promise of immortality and vitality? Well, honey, don’t we all. Worms included.

Scientists at the University of California in San Francisco have doubled the life span of worms by altering a single gene. They’ve stretched the life span of a simple roundworm from two weeks to a month. And these mature worms aren’t just fading away in their relatively old age. Smooth and plump altered worms look better than worms half their age, like a 42-year-old with the vigor and potency of a supple 21-year-old.

It’s by altering the gene known as daf-2 that researchers were able to approach worm immortality.
Daf-2 has two parallels in mammals that are currently being tested with mice, the insulin receptor and insulin-like growth factor. By neutralizing the insulin receptor, a cell structure that regulates blood sugar, mice can live up to 18 percent longer than usual. And by reducing the insulin-like growth factor, called IDF-1, rodents can live up to a third longer.

Youth – the elusive obsession of Ponce de Leon and middle-aged consumers – is not a new field of research. Scientists have known for 70 years about a negative relationship between reduced caloric intake and a lengthened life span of animals like mice. Scientists don’t know if humans, or larger mammals like monkeys, react the same way to a cutback in calories. But they’ll keep exploring ways to prolong the life span of worms, mice, and humans to inconceivable lengths, and still keep us looking fabulous!

That’s this week’s Note on Emerging Science. I’m Emily Torgrimson.

Back to top


The Make Love, Not War Species

(Photo: © Frans Lanting)

CURWOOD: That's a bonobo ape summoning the rest of the gang together. Now, the bonobo is as genetically similar to humans as the chimpanzee but unlike chimps these relatively peaceful creatures live in matriarchal societies and use sex to deal with competition and anger.

The only place where they are found in nature is a small wedge of forest south of the Congo River in Africa and their numbers have been falling in the face of civil unrest, logging, and hunting. So, the Bonobo Conservation Initiative is creating a refuge for them called the Bonobo Peace Forest.

Joining me now is Amy Parish. She teaches anthropology and gender studies at the University of Southern California and is a scientific advisor to the Bonobo Conservation Initiative. Hello.

PARISH: Hello, Steve. Thanks for having me.

CURWOOD: Can you start by just telling us a little bit about the bonobo? What do they look like? Where do they live? What do they eat? That sort of thing.

PARISH: If you saw one you might think that they’re a chimpanzee because they’re very closely related to chimpanzees, and yet there are some differences that become apparent if you watch them for a day. For instance, their vocalizations are much higher pitched. So if you’ve heard chimps and then you heard bonobos, any layperson can clearly hear the difference between the two.

Amy Parish and a bonobo friend.

But the bigger differences are in their behavioral patterns. So in chimpanzees you’ll see a lot of dominance displays throughout the day and a fair amount of aggression going on, as well as grooming and peaceful interactions. But in bonobos you tend to see a lot more affiliative interactions and a lot more sexual interactions going on throughout the course of the day.

CURWOOD: Now, the bonobo have gotten quite a bit of interest because of their, well, shall we put it, their rather interesting social life.


CURWOOD: And you’ve been an observer of that for years. Tell me more about how the bonobo interacts socially compared to chimps or even compared to, you know, us, the great ape people.

PARISH: Bonobos have a reputation as the make love not war species, and they have that reputation because they have a very elaborate repertoire of sexual behavior that seems very similar to what we see in humans. So there are face to face matings. There are same-sex copulations between females and also between males. There are copulations that don’t occur around the time of ovulation, so they have what we call “continuous receptivity.” They can have sex anytime.

You see sexual interactions on almost any day that you’re out watching the bonobos, and they seem to be particularly concentrated during times when there might otherwise be tension. So when food is being put out for the bonobos, or when they encounter a fruit tree in the wild, or just after aggression, they resolve that aggression using sex. And so they have their make love not war reputation because of the kind of repertoire they have and the context in which they use it.

CURWOOD: So this is really the matriarchal society?

PARISH: It really is. And not everybody’s been willing to accept that because it is so rare in mammals to see patterns of female dominance. For so long our only model that we could use to guess about our evolution, and what our last common ancestor would have looked like with chimpanzees five million years ago, was a chimpanzee model. We’ve been studying chimps for forty years in the wild and so we know a lot about their patriarchy and about their patterns of warfare, and that seems similar to humans.

(© Frans Lanting)

We only learned about bonobos much later –they were only recognized as a separate species in the 1920s. And what we’re seeing with bonobos is a very different pattern: female dominance; resolving conflict using sex; no infanticide; not necessarily only the males hunting and eating meat. And so, not everybody’s comfortable with the idea that our last common ancestor might have been matriarchal, maybe sort of aggressive towards males.

CURWOOD: So, bonobo guys are kind of mellow, is that the bottom line here?

PARISH: You could call them mellow. Sometimes they’ve been characterized as mama’s boys, or henpecked.

CURWOOD: [LAUGHS] Mama’s boys!

PARISH: [LAUGHS] Because unlike chimpanzees, where for a male chimp to enter the adult male dominance hierarchy he has to first dominate all females in the group. So as he approaches adolescence he begins to become very aggressive towards all of the females and then eventually, when he’s dominated all of the females, including his mother, he can enter the very lowest ranks of the adult male dominance hierarchy.

In bonobos, males maintain their relationships with their mothers throughout their lives. They never assert dominance over them. In fact, the mothers actually become involved when males have fights with each other, and whoever has the higher ranking mother wins the fight.


PARISH: We know that it’s son’s rank that is dependent on mother’s rank, and not the other way around, because when a high-ranking mother dies that previously high-ranking son will immediately fall in rank and become peripheral on the edges of the group. And so it’s clear that males really need their mothers throughout their lives to help them with their dominance interactions. And males even, sons even, benefit from getting to mate with their mother’s friends.

(© Frans Lanting)

I started noticing that in captivity females were launching cooperative attacks against males sometimes, inflicting serious injuries on them; and as I went from zoo to zoo I saw the same pattern happening again and again. And each zoo thought that there was something wrong with their particular male so they had spun these stories to account for the strange behavior. Stories like, ‘oh, the male was ill when he was young, and a female keeper took him home and must have made him soft, must have spoiled him somehow and now he doesn’t know how to stand up to females.’

And the idea is that the natural order of things would be, of course, that females are submissive towards males and not the other way around.

CURWOOD: How comfortable do you think the public is with an ape society where women, in fact, are in power? And that they’re pretty closely linked to us?

PARISH: People are uncomfortable with the idea that females might hold the power because it’s just so contrary to our understanding of the natural order of things. And so I even have colleagues who are chimpanzee researchers who refuse to accept that the pattern is female dominance. So, for instance, they call it “strategic male deference” [LAUGHS] which basically means, well, you know, of course the males could be in charge if they wanted to, but for strategic reasons they’re stepping back and letting females have the upper hand, maybe. Maybe so they get more sex out of it, is the basic idea.


PARISH: And, you know, we never say that when it’s male dominance. We never say, ‘oh, well, obviously the females could be dominant if they wanted to, but for strategic reasons they’re stepping back.’ I’ve even seen in scientific literature the pattern that we see in bonobos has been described as “male chivalry,” which is not at all an empirical term for a scientific paper. It’s not chivalry, it’s just that females have the upper hand.

In zoos, people feel very sorry for the males when they get injuries from the females, and the zoos always want to intervene. So, for instance, in one zoo where I work they decided they were going to give a particular female who is prone to attacking males a time-out whenever she engages in this behavior so she would learn, you know, not to attack males. And I said, ‘well, you do realize that this is a pattern across zoos, and this is part of the natural repertoire of bonobo behavior.’ And they said, ‘we don’t want our females attacking males, and so we’re going to try to intervene.’

And what’s interesting to me about that is in chimpanzees it’s males who attack females and are very, very brutal to them in many circumstances, and I don’t see the same sort of sympathy, or the same sort of impetus to intervene, when it’s males attacking females because we see that as natural. But when it’s a female attacking a male we say, ‘oh, you know, something must be done.’

CURWOOD: Tell me some stories of the behaviors of the bonobo that you’ve observed over the years, things that you think we’d be interested in hearing.

PARISH: Well, I’ve watched bonobos for about 15 years, and some of my favorite stories or anecdotes about them come from days when I spent all day, from dawn to dusk, watching them.

For instance, one day I was watching a female named Louise, and she had a bunch of celery in her hand and I wanted her to turn slightly so I could take some pictures of her because the green celery looked so nice against her black fur. And so I kept saying, ‘Louise, Louise, Louise.’ And she wouldn’t look at me. She kept looking up at the sky, munching on her celery – no matter what I did she wouldn’t look.

So I kept pestering her, I’d say, ‘Louise, Louise!’ And so finally she stood up and ripped the celery in half and threw half to me. So she thought I was begging from her for the celery. And it was so touching because I’d sat out there for many, many days and eaten my lunch and never offered them any, nor had they begged from me. But I was very, very touched that she’d be willing to share her food with me. I felt, you know, that it was a moment of female solidarity. An inter-species moment of female solidarity. So that’s one example.


PARISH: Another example that might seem a little unsavory if you’re not a biologist, but I used to collect fecal samples on all of the females so that I could analyze the samples for estrogen and progesterone. I wanted to look at cycle state and how it correlates with behavior. And so I was allowed to watch the bonobos in their indoor sleeping cages before they were let out into their daytime enclosure, and then the idea was once they were released I could go in and pick up the samples.

So Lana had a sample in her hand that I really needed because I knew she was approaching ovulation, and so I held out my hand and wiggled the ends of my fingers, which is a typical bonobo begging gesture. And she knew I was begging for something but she couldn’t figure out what it was – she was turning around in circles and looking on the floor. And finally she looked at her hand, and looked at me, and looked at her hand, and then she just held it out and I took it from her. And I thought, ‘oh, this is wonderful, I’m going to have to train the bonobos to just give me their samples.’

Well, the very next day I came in and she handed me a sample. And by the end of the week, all four adult females were just giving me these fecal samples, which was very heartening. As a biologist, it made my job a lot easier. [LAUGHS]

And years later I went to the zoo in Stuttgart, where one of the females who had been too young to collect on during the time when I was collecting fecal samples, had been transferred to this zoo from North America to Europe. I’d only collected on her mother, not on her, and she hadn’t seen me in four years. And as soon as she saw me, she went away and got a fecal sample and brought it over to me. [LAUGHS] So she clearly recognized me as that woman who wants to have fecal samples, even though all of that time had passed. And the keepers at the Stuttgart Zoo said she’d never done that with anyone else.

But I think my favorite, when I returned to the San Diego Wild Animal Park after I’d had my own son, who’s named for a bonobo – his name is Kalen, named after the first bonobo I ever met. So I took my son to the Wild Animal Park and Lana was very excited to see me. She was standing up and vocalizing and clapping her hands. She was looking at Kalen, and looking at me, and then she disappeared. And she came back with her new baby that I hadn’t seen yet, and she held him up in front of me, she suspended him by his arms and held him there. And it was very clear she recognized that I had had a baby, and she wanted to let me know that she had also had a baby. It was just a very touching moment.

CURWOOD: Now, there are plans afoot to create a Bonobo Peace Forest for these apes. What would the creation of a Bonobo Peace Forest mean for the bonobo?

PARISH: This is a very exciting project that’s being run by the Bonobo Conservation Initiative, which has spent years putting it into place. And basically it’s going to be a huge forest reserve in the Democratic Republic of Congo that’s managed by the local indigenous people. So they stand to gain a lot in terms of community service projects, and they stand to gain a lot by protecting their own environment.

So it’s a good thing that they’re doing it because there’s probably less than 10,000 bonobos left in the wild today. We don’t exactly know how many because it’s been hard to go out and do census work with all of the civil war going on. But we know that populations of bonobos have been declining very, very rapidly over the last decade, and this Bonobo Peace Forest is going to be a model for conservation in the 21st century.

CURWOOD: What do you think are gonna be some of the biggest challenges in creating a safe and successful refuge for the bonobo?

PARISH: One of the problems in the former Zaire has been that when logging companies came into these areas they would bring workers from other parts of Zaire or other African countries that didn’t have the same ways of life as the local population. So in many local populations where bonobos live there are taboos against eating bonobos, and they believe that bonobos are an ancestor, or that they embody the spirits of their dead relatives, and there are taboos against eating them.
And what logging companies do is they bring people in but they don’t feed them. They arm them and they say, ‘go into the forest and hunt for your own food.’ And so the rates of hunting of bonobos have gone up drastically due to these logging pressures. Having a protected forest like this is going to be really instrumental in making this a workable project.

CURWOOD: Amy Parish teaches at the University of Southern California. Thank you so much for taking this time.

PARISH: Thank you. It was a pleasure.

Related link:
Bonobo Conservation Initiative

Back to top

[MUSIC: U2 “Wild Honey” from ‘All That You Can’t Leave Behind’ (Universal Music Group – 2000)]

CURWOOD: Next week on Living on Earth: we travel to the Wakhan Corridor in the far eastern end of Afghanistan with one westerner, and retrace the path Marco Polo took some 700 years ago. Our sojourner breaks bread with local tribe folk who then ask him to fix a broken generator and light their village.

JENKINS: We kept playing with it and pulling the draw cord and, finally, the thing fires to life, and the whole village erupts in just enormous pleasure, just yelling. It was a great moment.

CURWOOD: Walking the Wakhan, next time on Living on Earth.


CURWOOD: Living on Earth is produced by the World Media Foundation. Our crew includes Ashley Ahearn, Chris Ballman, Eileen Bolinsky, Ingrid Lobet, Peter Thompson, and Jeff Young. With help from Christopher Bolick, Kelley Cronin, James Curwood, and Michelle Kweder. Our interns are Brianna Asbury, Kevin Friedl, Emily Torgrimson. Our technical director is Dennis Foley. Alison Dean composed our themes. You can find us at loe dot org. I'm Steve Curwood. Thanks for listening.

ANNOUNCER: Funding for Living on Earth comes from the National Science Foundation, supporting coverage of emerging science; and Stonyfield Farm. organic yogurt, smoothies and milk. Ten percent of profits are donated to efforts that help protect and restore the Earth. Details at Stonyfield dot com. Support also comes from NPR member stations, the Ford Foundation, the Oak Foundation, and the Saunders Hotel Group of Boston's Lennox and Copley Square Hotels. Serving you and the environment while helping preserve the past and protect the future, 800-225-7676.

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