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

July 11, 2003

Air Date: July 11, 2003


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West Coast Green Party

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Californians may recall the governor they elected eight months ago, but democrats don't want to weaken his position by running against him. That leaves the field open for Republicans and the newly-announced Green Party candidate. (05:20)

Chompin’ Invasives / Cynthia Graber

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Maryland's Chesapeake Bay is under assault by an animal that shouldn’t even be there. Nutria are eating away at the wetlands there. The beaver-like animals were brought to the U.S. from South America decades ago to bolster the fur trade. But their population exploded and now government researchers are trying to come up with a plan to eradicate the rodent. Living on Earth's Cynthia Graber reports. (06:00)

Health Note/Blind and Fat / Diane Toomey

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Living on Earth’s Diane Toomey reports on a new study that indicates a way to slow the progression of the leading cause of blindness in elderly Americans. (01:15)

Almanac/Shooting Pool, Not Elephants

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This week, we have facts about the first plastic-making process. In 1870, a billiards challenge led to the first plastic patent. (01:30)

Miniature Monsters / Sy Montgomery

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When it comes to the animal kingdom, most of us probably have our favorite species or two. For author Sy Montgomery, it’s the predators that hold her fascination. (04:00)

Organic Exports / Jessie Graham

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The market for organic produce has been rising steadily in the past decade. Now, farmers in Uganda are cashing in on that demand. The success of organic farming there is due, in part, because modern farming methods were late in coming to that east African nation. Jessie Graham reports. (08:05)

Book Review/Raven’s End / Bruce Barcott

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Writers such as Edgar Allen Poe have historically cast the raven as a mythic, foreboding prophet. But a new novel by a Canadian naturalist depicts the black bird as a chatty and even heroic species. Bruce Barcott reviews Raven’s End. (03:00)

Emerging Science Note/Moving by Moonlight / Cynthia Graber

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Living on Earth’s Cynthia Graber reports on a new study that shows African dung beetles are navigating by the polarized moonlight. (01:15)

Rethinking Hotspots

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In recent years conservation groups have focused on protecting hot spots, threatened areas with the greatest concentration of native species. Host Steve Curwood speaks with scientist Peter Kareiva about why that might not be the best idea. (07:00)

Wilderness Squatters / Robin White

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Across the United States there are thousands of people living clandestinely on public land. There are hundreds in the San Francisco-Monterey Bay area alone. Producer Robin White sought out several longtime wilderness squatters to learn more about how and why they live the way they do. (09:30)

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Show Credits and Funders

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Show Transcript

HOST: Steve CurwoodGUESTS: Henry Brady, Peter KareivaREPORTERS: Jessie Graham, Cynthia Graber, Bruce Barcott, Robin WhiteCOMMENTARY: Sy MontgomeryNOTES: Diane Toomey, Cynthia Graber


CURWOOD: From NPR - this is Living on Earth.


CURWOOD: I’m Steve Curwood. The Green Revolution— and the pesticides it brought to help feed the developing world— bypassed the east African nation of Uganda. Now that turns out to have been a boon for a growing number of Ugandan farmers who have gone organic.

NGUGI: Here in Uganda the potential is big because most of the land has not been used and that is the best land for organic farming.

CURWOOD: Also, the Nutria, a beaver-like critter from South America was brought to the U.S. to build up a fur trade.


CURWOOD: But Nutria have wound up eating away wetlands and evading the best efforts of science to get rid of them.

SHERFY: We have a pretty good sense for how to go out and trap Nutria. We don’t have a very good sense at all about how to control a population.

CURWOOD: Those stories and more on Living on Earth, right after this.


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West Coast Green Party

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


CURWOOD: Welcome to Living on Earth. I’m Steve Curwood. California often has lively politics, and with a recall election in the offing, the Green Party may well play a key role in this year’s emerging drama. An unprecedented budget deficit has critics of Democrat Governor Gray Davis blaming him for the Golden State's financial woes. And though the signatures will need to be verified, a movement to recall the governor seems to have enough of them on a petition to trigger a recall vote. A Green Party candidate, Peter Camejo, has declared he will run on any recall ballot. And that has some Democrats worried that the Greens could siphon support away from Governor Davis, the way some claim Ralph Nader spoiled Al Gore’s last presidential bid. With me to explain all this is political scientist Henry Brady of the University of California at Berkeley. Professor, welcome.

BRADY: Hello.

CURWOOD: Now, what happens if this recall petition gets enough signatures? I understand the voters are going to be looking at a, shall we say, unusual ballot.

BRADY: It’s going to be very unusual. It’s going to include two questions. The first question is going to ask: do you think Gray Davis, our governor, should be recalled. Yes, no? And no matter how you answer that question, or even if your don’t vote on that, you can go on and actually respond to the second question, which is—which of the following people should be our next governor? Gray Davis cannot appear on that second list, but almost anybody else can, because it’s very easy to get on the list. You don’t need many signatures, you don’t need much money.

CURWOOD: So if enough people vote yes on that first question, and remove the elected governor…

BRADY: That would have to be a majority of the people voting.

CURWOOD: Then the state tallies the answers for the second question – who would take his place. And I would think most certainly there would be Republican choices, we don’t know whom yet. But it doesn’t look like the voters will have much in the way of Democrats to choose from, I would think.

BRADY: Well, that’s part of the strategy that people are trying to get at right now. The Democrats, so far, have gotten together and said, look, let’s agree that none of us are going to put up our name for that second question, and therefore we’ll force Democratic and independent voters to decide that they’re going to be against the recall, keep Gray Davis, and go from there.

CURWOOD: But now, of course, there is Peter Camejo of the Green Party. Tell us a little about him and what he’s decided.

BRADY: Well, Peter Camejo is an old Berkeley activist who was active during the sixties. He’s gotten, now, involved with the Green Party. And he’s decided that what he should do is put his name up for this ballot. He ran for governor in the past, and he’s run, I think, for some other offices as well, but he’s basically not anybody who’s ever gotten elected to anything.

CURWOOD: When he’s run for governor, what’s he done in terms of votes?

BRADY: He did get a fair number of votes when he ran for governor, somewhere in the five percent range, if my memory serves.

CURWOOD: Now the Green Party really took it on the chin from the Democrats for, some would say, making it possible for President Bush to be elected. So, how do they feel about Peter Camejo running? Is the Green Party endorsing him, what’s the thinking here?

BRADY: Well, at the moment they’re not. It’s a complicated situation for the Green Party. They certainly remember 2000, where a lot of people thought that the 95,000 votes or so in Florida that went to Ralph Nader were taken away from Al Gore. And they’re not real excited about doing that kind of thing again. So what they’ve decided for the moment is that the situation is very fluid, very complicated, and so they’re not going to take any position on whether or not they endorse Peter Camejo. However, I’ve been in contact with some of the folks in the Green Party, and they’ve told me that the situation is fluid, and they might change their mind. At the same time, of course, they’re worried that, in this situation it’s not clear but that there might not be a backlash. And so there’s another constituency within the Green Party that says, gee, if we’re not careful here we’re going to have a terrible backlash against the Greens, because we’re going to be the people that lead to a situation where maybe, perhaps, a far-right Republican candidate becomes governor.

CURWOOD: I want you to step inside of Peter Camejo’s mind for a moment. I know it’s impossible to really know what anyone else is thinking, but what do you think he’s thinking, getting into this race?

BRADY: I think he’s thinking that he wants the Green Party to get a lot of attention. He wants to push forward the ideas of the Green Party. Parties, third parties always live in hopes that tomorrow will be the day when suddenly their support will increase. I think they also see—the Green Party right now, in general—a very weak Democratic party that can’t seem to get its act together, and so they have great hopes that maybe the Greens could, in fact, ultimately do what some parties in the past in American history have done, some third parties have done, which is to become the new second party.

CURWOOD: So, today, how conceivable do you think it is that the Green Party could provide the margin of victory for the Republicans?

BRADY: It revolves around the question of how many Democrats, in the end, are going to be so mad at Gray Davis that they’re going to decide that they’ll vote for the recall. And, is it possible that the small number of Greens out there who will also decide to vote for the recall because they want to vote for Peter Camejo, could then put it over the top—that is to say, create the recall situation in which we have to decide who our governor was by the second question.

CURWOOD: Henry Brady is a political scientist and public policy professor at the University of California at Berkeley. Thanks for taking this time with me today.

BRADY: Thank you.

Related link:
California Green Party

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Chompin’ Invasives


CURWOOD: If ever there was a poster child for invasive species, the Nutria would be it. Nutria are beaver-like animals native to South America. They were brought to the U.S. in the 1940’s to build up the fur trade in the south. But with no natural predators, their numbers exploded. In Maryland, Nutria are literally eating away at the very foundation of the fragile wetlands that line the Chesapeake Bay. So government officials there have come up with a plan to eradicate these tenacious rodents. Living on Earth’s Cynthia Graber reports.


GRABER: This is the sound of one unhappy Nutria. The reddish-brown animal bangs against the walls of the metal trap it had the misfortune to walk into. A Nutria looks like a cross between a large rat and a beaver, complete with a long, flat tail. Mark Sherfy is one of the lead researchers of the Nutria program here at the Blackwater Wildlife Refuge. He crouches next to a couple of colleagues who inspect the animal.

SHERFY: As you can see the animal’s got several adaptations that allow it to be – to successfully colonize an aquatic habitat such as this. You’ll notice the position of the ears are very high up on the head. That keeps them out of the water while the animal is swimming. The webbed hind feet allow the animal to propel itself through the water.


GRABER: Sherfy and his team are on a small island of brown and green rushes, squishy mud underfoot. This island is one of many here at the 26,000-acre refuge. They’re separated from each other and the wetlands on shore by narrow, lazy waterways. After a half-century of Nutria infestation, these marshes are fast disappearing under the rodents’ sharp, fiery-colored incisors.

SHERFY: The orange teeth that you see are a very distinctive feature. They’re used to gnaw away at the root mat of the marsh that you’re standing on. The below-ground portions of many of the plants that you see are a favored source of forage for the animal. They use the teeth and their front legs to excavate roots and tubers from wetland plants.

GRABER: Sherfy’s co-workers slip a restraining noose over the animal’s head to keep it from biting. They weigh it, tag it, and check its health.


SHERFY: I don’t see any parasites, ticks.

GRABER: Sherfy points out that the very tip of the animal’s tail is gone.

SHERFY: You often see a stub of only a few inches. They seem to be susceptible to frostbite damage this far north.


GRABER: Here in Maryland, we’re at the northern-most reaches of the Nutria’s east coast invasion. They’ve also established themselves throughout Louisiana and the Mississippi delta, and even in California and Oregon – all places where people introduced Nutria in the hopes of establishing a profitable fur trade. Those profits never materialized. Instead, those areas were left with a pest that has almost no predators. Unfortunately, what it does have is an amazing ability to reproduce year-round. A single female can give birth to eight pups, and four months later, when she’s ready to mate again, her offspring are almost sexually mature themselves. Current estimates of the Chesapeake’s Nutria population run as high as 50,000.

SHERFY: We have a pretty good sense for how to go out and trap Nutria. We don’t have a very good sense at all about how to control a population.

GRABER: Great Britain is the only place to have eradicated invasive Nutria entirely. To do so, researchers there studied the animals for years before actually trapping them.

SHERFY: One of the things that they learned there was about dispersal, or movement, of Nutria. And the fact that you had to account for and understand movement patterns of animals locally in order to be able to eradicate a population. The factors that influence movement rates in Great Britain are likely to be different from here. Differences in weather, differences in how habitats are arranged.

GRABER: Hence the study here on the Chesapeake. For the first year and a half, researchers tagged and occasionally attached radio collars to animals at six study sites in and around the Blackwater Refuge. They’ve learned where the animals roam and how reproduction fluctuates with the seasons. Using this information, they’ve designed an intensive harvest program. Harvest is a polite word for trapping and killing the animals, using humane methods approved by the American Veterinary Medical Association. As counter-intuitive as it may seem, harvesting could lead to more Nutria. That’s because there would be less competition for food among the remaining animals. Those animals could be healthier and thus have larger litters. So researchers will perform autopsies on some of the pregnant females to see if that’s true. If this limited harvesting shows good results, the effort will be stepped up throughout the Chesapeake. But for now, all trapped animals are set free. The team has finished studying the Nutria captured today.

MALE: I think that’s it.


GRABER: One assistant takes the noose off the animal and lifts up the back of the cage. The Nutria slips silently back into the water, its death sentence delayed. Sherfy admits that it’s a little frustrating to watch these destructive critters swim away.

SHERFY: We could be taking these animals out of the population. But in the long term we think we’re going to gain more by understanding these animals and applying what we learn from these animals to control an eradication over the long haul.

GRABER: Scientists here also hope to isolate Nutria pheromones that might be effective in luring out some of the more remote animals. Other states are dealing with the Nutria problem in their own way. In Louisiana, for example, the state government there is actively encouraging chefs to create recipes for Nutria meat. Here in Maryland, researchers hope that years down the road they will be rid of Nutria entirely, bringing them one step closer to saving the Chesapeake’s marshes. For Living on Earth, I’m Cynthia Graber.

[MUSIC: Talking Heads "Listening Wind" Remain in Light]

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Health Note/Blind and Fat

CURWOOD: Just ahead: a monster at your local pond. But first, this environmental health note from Diane Toomey.


TOOMEY: Macular degeneration is the leading cause of blindness among Americans over 60. The condition is caused when the macular, or central portion of the retina, either becomes clouded with fatty deposits or fluid from leaky blood vessels. Patients who have the condition can end up with crippling loss of their straight-ahead vision. Though the cause of macular degeneration is unclear, risk factors include smoking and advancing age. There's no cure for the condition, but now, the results of a new study may indicate a way to slow its progression. Harvard researchers followed 261 people with mild macular degeneration. They found that, over the course of about four and a half years, overweight patients were more than twice as likely to have their vision deteriorate compared to those not overweight. The researchers also found that physical activity seemed to slow the progression of the disease. People who vigorously exercised at least 3 times a week had a 25 percent slower rate of disease progression compared to those who didn't exercise at all. Researchers don't know how weight and exercise influence macular degeneration, but they suspect they may effect the blood vessels that remove waste products from the retina. That’s this week’s health update. I’m Diane Toomey.

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

[MUSIC: The Doves "Firesuite" Lost Souls]

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Almanac/Shooting Pool, Not Elephants

CURWOOD: Welcome back to Living on Earth. I’m Steve Curwood.


[MUSIC: May Aulderheide "The Richmond Rag" Fluffy Ruffle Girls/Women in Ragtime]

This week in 1870, John Wesley Hyatt patented the first plastic-making process in response to an unusual challenge. Two years before, a New York billiard company had offered a $10,000 prize to anyone who could find a replacement for ivory billiard balls. The resilience and moisture resistance of ivory made it highly prized as a material for billiards, but it was awfully expensive.

Billiard makers had experimented with different substitutes including steel, iron, and even sawdust shellacked with animal blood. John Hyatt first tried coating layers of cloth with nitrocellulose: a substance made by dipping cotton in nitric acid. Trouble with that was it formed an explosive. There was talk that out West these pyrotechnic billiard balls had cowboys reaching for their six shooters when they thought they heard gunfire was coming from the pool halls.

It’s debatable just how explosive those billiards were, but Mr. Hyatt realized he still needed something better. He then discovered that by combining nitrocellulose with camphor, it would harden into a non-explosive substance that he called “celluloid.” Celluloid became the favored material for billiard balls, and John Hyatt became the father of the pliable material we now know as plastic.

Ivory billiard sets still exist, but they can no longer be racked up for a game of pool. Decades of temperature change have distorted them into the shape of ovals. But plastic, of course, can stick around just about forever.

And for this week, that’s the Living on Earth Almanac.

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Miniature Monsters

CURWOOD: Who can think of a more peaceful scene than a summer day by the local pond? But for author and Living on Earth commentator Sy Montgomery, it's the battle going on underneath the surface that attracts her to the water's edge.

MONTGOMERY: I’ve always loved creatures with spines, venom or fangs: nature red in tooth and claw. I write books on tarantulas and bears, and man-eating tigers. Even as a student reading Beowulf, I was rooting for Grendel.

And that’s one reason I’m drawn to the ponds near my house in New Hampshire. That’s where a real-life, sci-fi show is playing--starring a real-life, blood-curdling monster. You’ll see it at the edge of the pond, where the mud is soft and warm, where newts dart among the pickerel weed and frogs grin up from the shallows. A Volkswagon-shaped, brown beetle paddles gently along on blade-like legs.

But don’t be deceived by the benign appearance. Though no insect looks more gentle, none are more fierce or voracious. This is the domain of the predaceous diving beetle. Across the country, in ponds, in pools, in the side-waters of streams, legions of these beetles seize and gobble almost anything that moves. Not just other bugs. Salamanders! Fish! Tadpoles! Not even adult frogs are safe...from the predaceous diving beetle.

But wait—aren’t things with backbones, like fish and frogs—supposed to eat bugs, and not the other way around? Ah, but that is the glory of creatures like these. The predaceous diving beetle, like any good monster, is a super-power, breaking all the rules. It can fly as well as swim. It breathes through its back end. It carries its own underwater air supply: When it floats to the surface, it lifts its wing covers, collects a silver bubble of air, and dives again. There is only one predator in the pond more fearsome than an adult predaceous diving beetle. A baby predaceous diving beetle. The beetle’s larval form is called a water tiger—and with good reason. It looks sort of like a shrimp with a head borrowed from someone’s nightmare. Sickle-shaped, hollow jaws clutch its prey and funnel flesh-digesting drool into the victim. The water tiger literally sucks its prey dry.

Lucky for us, they aren’t any bigger. All they’re going to do if they get inside a bathing suit is nip. So, safer than we’d be in the presence of, say, a man-eating tiger, we can appreciate the predaceous diving beetle for what it is: a predator par excellence. Don’t get me wrong. My mother was a hunter, but I’m a vegetarian, for goodness sake. Yet, I deeply admire predators. And not just for their grace and skill. I admire their very ferocity. Ferocity and cruelty are often considered synonyms. And that might be true for ferocious people. But there is no cruelty to the water tiger’s bite—or the bite of a real tiger. Each predator is carrying out a survival plan that took millions of years of evolution to hone.

But there is a second definition of ferocity: “Extreme. Marked by unrelenting intensity.” This is what I love about predators. I think it is good for us—we who seem to seek only convenience and comfort—to see the life-and-death dramas of the natural world. This is the real world. And it is good to know that life itself is, or should be, intense—whether you are a tiger, or a beetle, or a person.

In our comfy, insulated lives, it’s easy to be anesthetized by simple routine. My antidote to that is at the pond. That’s where I’ll be this summer—rooting for the monster.

CURWOOD: Sy Montgomery is author of “Search for the Golden Moon Bear: Science and Adventure in Pursuit of a New Species.” And beginning in August, you can hear Sy read her book in daily installments at our web site, at livingonearth.org. That’s livingonearth.org to hear “The Golden Moon Bear” in August.

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Organic Exports

CURWOOD: President Bush's tour of Africa has taken him to five nations on that continent, all countries that currently enjoy relative stability. One of them is Uganda. Uganda is endowed with an ample amount of fertile land and regular rainfall, but it is still recovering from the dark days when it was ruled by the infamous dictator, Idi Amin. The success of that recovery depends, in great part, on Uganda's agricultural exports. And as Jessie Graham reports, Ugandan farmers are learning that supplying the booming market in organic products is one way to bolster their success.


GRAHAM: In a shady clearing tucked between neat rows of banana trees and papaya groves, two Ugandan farmers scrub, label and box tiny golden pineapples. These fragrant packages are bound for Germany, where the fruit will grace the shelves of fancy supermarkets and health food stores.


Patrick Sembuya contributed 126 pineapples today from his two and a half acre plot down the road. His land is one of Uganda's 28,000 certified organic farms. According to the International Federation of Organic Agriculture Movements, Uganda has the fourth largest number of such farms in the world. The country -- which is about the size of Oregon -- leads Africa and most of the developing world in this highly lucrative market. But organic farming isn’t easy. Sembuya says without chemicals, he has to hire workers to dig out weeds.

SEMBUYA: Because we are not spraying, we're digging. As you know, digging is not a simple thing. We have other laborers that help us to dig, but that's really a hard job.

GRAHAM: Before he went organic, Sembuya earned less than twenty dollars a month. By complying with organic standards, the thirty-six year old father of three has increased his profits over 200 percent. Farmers like Sembuya can't do this alone. They're members of a cooperative started by a company with strong export connections.

WEKE: We approached him and we taught them what is the importance of organic.

GRAHAM: Seka Weke works for Amfri farms. Amfri pays its 82 farmers a premium of 25 cents per pineapple. Before they went organic, these farmers didn't export. Uganda has never been able to compete with more developed countries when it comes to shipping out conventional produce. In the local market, a surplus of fruit in the high season drives prices down, bringing the farmers only pennies for their produce. With the premium the farmers are paid for organics, they earn a steady wage, year round. Weke and his colleagues train small farmers to comply with organic standards.

WEKE: They told us you have to teach us what is organic, so that's what our company is doing. We are teaching them, we are training them organically.

GRAHAM: Neighboring Kenya and Tanzania have only a fraction of the number of organic farms thriving in Uganda. Sara Scherr, an agricultural economist at Forest Trends, a Washington D.C. based conservation organization, attributes Uganda's success in organics to companies like Amfri.

SCHERR: What has happened in the case of the development of markets for organic products from Uganda is you've had a great combination of the strengthening of local cooperatives of farmers, the development of supportive NGOs and other kinds of agencies that have provided marketing advice as well as technical advice, and you've had buyers that were willing and interested to promote this as a new source of supply.


GRAHAM: Amfri's head Amin Shivji owns the largest organic farm in Uganda. His four year old business earned over half a million dollars last year. In addition to the fresh fruit he exports to Europe, he also ships out dried ginger, papaya, bananas and pineapple to the U.S. and Canada. He plucks a golden pineapple from a grove on his 1,500-acre estate two hours north of Uganda’s capital, Kampala.

SHIVJI: I'll just show you a tiny little baby pineapple. We'll go and cut this so you will see how sweet it is.

GRAHAM: Ten years ago, nothing grew here but weeds. Shivji was one of 70,000 Asians expelled by Idi Amin in 1972 in a bid to Africanize the country. He abandoned his thriving sugar plantation three months after the despotic leader issued his ultimatum. After working as a businessman and raising a family in Canada, Shivji returned to his farm in 1990, when President Yoweri Museveni invited Indians back to reclaim their land. He remembers driving up the bumpy road.


SHIVJI: It was quite an emotional experience. It was a very hot day and everywhere I saw, nostalgia overcame me. I remembered this and that. Of course things had changed a lot. Until I came to the farm— and I almost missed it because it was all bush at the time. And finally I found the road going up to where my house used to be.

GRAHAM: The farm was in the heart of Lowero— the region most ravaged by years of rebel wars. Shivji found skulls scattered among the rusted tractors, crumbled buildings and bramble-filled fields.

SHIVJI: I had heard that one of the army officers was running the farm. My aim was to take a quick look and just run away. And I was very, very sad. It was absolutely bush, there was absolutely nothing, all the buildings had been broken down, there was hardly a foundation left on all of them.

GRAHAM: It took years for Shivji to wrestle his farm from the government. It wasn't until 1998 that he figured out how to make his vast acreage work. With a Swiss partner schooled in low-tech farming, he made the switch to organics. The conversion was an easy one, in part because years of war and grinding poverty had kept Uganda from joining the Green Revolution -- the agriculture movement that pushed chemicals and heavy machinery to increase crop yields.


GRAHAM: Today, Shivji employs a staff of 45 on his farm. Paul Ngugi is a Kenyan who came to Uganda to manage the field workers. He says organics haven't been as quick to catch on in his native country, where years of factory farming have made the conversion tricky.

NGUGI: Here in Uganda the potential is big because whenever you compare countries, like in Kenya, organic farming is difficult because of years of conventional farming practices. So the soil is depleted out of their nutrients. But when you come to Uganda, most of the land has not been used and that is the best land for organic farming.

GRAHAM: Back in the tiny village of Mataba, Shivji's cooperative members are done packaging pineapples for the day. They snack on over-ripe fruit under the shade of a mango tree. Farmer Emmanuel Nsubuga gives a tour of his organic groves of banana, coffee and papaya. He already owns fifteen acres -- far more than the average Ugandan farmer. He hopes to expand his business.


NSUBUGA: I want to buy another land. This is too small. I want more land than this I have. If I get enough land, I can increase.

GRAHAM: Advocates of organics say chemical-free agriculture techniques have benefits beyond lifting farmers like Nsubuga out of poverty. They believe organic farming practices can provide food security without harming the environment.


GRAHAM: For Living on Earth, I'm Jessie Graham in Mataba, Uganda.

CURWOOD: And you’re listening to NPR’s Living on Earth.

ANNOUNCER: Funding for Living on Earth comes from the World Media Foundation. Major contributors include the Ford Foundation, for reporting on U.S. environment and development issues, and the Richard and Rhoda Goldman fund. Support also comes from NPR member stations and the Noyce Foundation, dedicated to improving math and science instruction from kindergarten through grade 12, and Bob Williams and Meg Caldwell, honoring NPR’s coverage of environmental and natural resource issues, and in support of the NPR President's Council.

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Book Review/Raven’s End

CURWOOD: The Canadian Rockies are part of the home range of the much-fabled bird, the raven. Author and naturalist Ben Gadd makes a living pointing out these big black birds, as a mountain guide in the province of Alberta. He's written a book about the raven, a nature guide in the form of a novel. Bruce Barcott has this review of “Raven’s End.”

   Raven’s End, by Ben Gadd (Courtesy of UC Press)

BARCOTT: From the creation stories of Native Americans to the dark murmurings of Edgar Allan Poe, ravens have always been cast as mystical, otherworldly creatures. In Ben Gadd's novel, “Raven's End,” though, the cunning black birds aren't magical tricksters or portents of death. They're as smart, curious, and diabolical as humans— and when they get together, they're as chatty as a church social.

Of course, “Raven's End” is a novel in which everything talks: The ravens, the wolves, the falcons, the trees. Even the wind can't shut up. Gadd, a naturalist and the author of a classic field guide to the Canadian Rockies, has written a kind of “Watership Down” for the Great White North, a story in which a young raven goes on a hero's journey in search of the meaning of life.

Our hero is Colin, a bright, impetuous raven who drops from the sky with no memory of his past. The Raven's End flock of Mount Yamnuska, east of Banff, adopts the orphan as one of its own. Colin's flockmates are a diverse lot. There's eager young Brendan, frail Sarah, wise old Greta, and dark and violent Dolus.

Colin spends his first year learning how to survive as a raven, which entails eating a lot of rotten meat and observing a strict social protocol. Mornings begin with “the Flap,” an all-flock huddle where the birds gossip about freshly killed elk and sheep. After a day of scavenging, the birds regroup for the Evening Flight, where the ravens gab about their adventures and perform an aerial ballet. It's a good life. Or, as Colin says, "By the Trees, it's great to be a raven!"

After apprenticing to wise Greta, who plays Yoda to Colin's Luke Skywalker, our hero leaves his adopted flock to seek his destiny. Like Skywalker, Colin is marked for greatness— which means the evil ravens must either turn him to the dark side, or kill him. I don't think I'm giving too much away by saying that, despite perilous challenges, our hero triumphs in the end.

Ben Gadd is a novelist with the heart of a naturalist, which means he spends too many pages explaining the ecosystem and too few revving the plot. I found myself charmed by “Raven's End,” though, despite its author's didactic tendencies. A raven's life, like a human's, can be cold, brutal, and short. But it also offers opportunities to dance in the wind and plunge a beak into a rotting carcass. When I wander through the mountains this summer, I'll have the pleasure of seeing the landscape with new eyes: Those of Ben Gadd, and a raven named Colin.

CURWOOD: Reviewer Bruce Barcott writes about the environment for Outside Magazine.

[MUSIC: Billy Bragg & Wilco "Birds & Ships Mermaid Avenue]

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Emerging Science Note/Moving by Moonlight

CURWOOD: Coming up: rethinking how to save nature. First, this note on emerging science from Cynthia Graber.


GRABER: It’s known that some animals use patterns of sunlight to find their way around. But scientists didn’t know of any animals that used the moonlight— a million times dimmer than the daytime sun. Apparently, though, it’s not too dim for one African dung beetle. Beginning at sunset, the beetle starts its search for fresh piles of dung. Once it finds some, it has to get the dung away quickly to prevent other dung beetles from snatching its food. Scurrying in a straight line provides the quickest path to a secure location. Beetles plot this straight line by using polarized sunlight. When light waves from the sun strike particles in the atmosphere, the waves polarize, or line up in straight lines. But dung beetles continue to forage after darkness falls. Scientists wondered— could the animals be using moonlight in the same way?

So researchers monitored the insects at night. They observed that when the moon lights the sky, the beetles rush straight away. Without the moon, the beetles weave a wavy path. But was it the moon itself, or the light emanating from it that was guiding them? So scientists used filters to change the direction of polarized moonlight. When the polarization changed, the beetles changed direction as well. Scientists now suspect many other animals may use polarized moonlight to guide them.

That’s this week’s note on emerging science – I’m Cynthia Graber.

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

[MUSIC: Radiohead "Treefingers" Kid A]

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Rethinking Hotspots

CURWOOD: It’s Living on Earth. I’m Steve Curwood. In recent years, organizations trying to save biological diversity have focused on what they call “hotspots,” threatened areas that have the highest concentration of individual species. The thinking behind the hotspot approach can be summed up as saving the most species for the fewest dollars. But now two researchers writing in the American Scientist argue this may not be the best way to preserve nature. One of the authors is Peter Kareiva. He's a scientist at the Nature Conservancy and a professor at Santa Clara University and the University of California at Santa Barbara. Professor Kareiva says, though the hotspot approach sounds logical, it has fundamental flaws.

KAREIVA: It assumes two things. One, is it assumes that all that we care about are long lists of species, sort of like collectors collecting long lists of species. And that’s not all we care about in conservation. We care about working ecosystems, we care about erosion, we care about fisheries production. We care about a lot of nature services that aren’t captured just by listing species. The second thing is that, try to imagine that world, imagine a world where we have secured that small percentage of the land, but we haven’t paid adequate attention to that other 98 percent. That could be a world that would suffer huge climate change, because of degradation in the other environment. Even the protected two percent might be imperiled if people so abuse the environment in the rest of the world.

CURWOOD: You’ve got a concept in your paper where you talk about the importance of functioning ecosystems. Can you explain this to me?

KAREIVA: This is a concept that has really emerged in the last 10 to 15 years in the ecological sciences, not so much in conservation. And the notion is that ecosystems do things. They provide services. They recycle water. They purify water. They fix carbon. They mitigate the effects of erosion, or huge storms, or huge droughts. They provide fertile ground for migratory birds, or for fish and so forth. So they perform these functions, and those functions demand not just the list of species, but abundances of species and intact interactions, predator-prey interactions, wolves and elks. They demand that you have the right functioning species in the water and so forth. So it’s a notion that pays attention to processes.

CURWOOD: You also bring up an issue that has nothing to do directly with science, and that’s the stability of local governments. What does this have to do with how to direct conservation money?

KAREIVA: Conservation works in countries. And even though it’s a biological activity, it demands laws that are enforced, agreements that are held to. It demands enforcement of the borders of a national park. It demands enforcement of restrictions on land use, whether it’s logging or exploration for minerals. And so governance can totally inhibit effective conservation. If laws and signed agreements aren’t agreed upon, if there’s not enforcement of protected areas, all the money that you spend in a country may be for naught.

CURWOOD: Now, some critics would say that Colombia, places like it, have governance problems there—and of course it has a lot of hot spots—it would end up getting shortchanged. What’s your response?

KAREIVA: Well, that’s a good challenge, and I don’t think we should ever ignore those countries like Colombia or Indonesia. We would maintain a presence in those countries. But it’s a matter of the degree of investments. So when governance is poor— I would argue that in Colombia and Indonesia we should be paying attention to biological inventory, figuring out what are the species that are there and how we might work to improve them. Things that don’t cost too much money, and that don’t require government support. And then, if government improves, then we can invest heavily in establishing reserves and written agreements to protect species. So, we have a limited amount of money. And every year, you know, our goal has to be to make the greatest and best use of that money in promoting conservation around the world.

CURWOOD: Now based on what you’ve researched and what you’ve explained here, you would say—and correct me if I’m wrong here—that programs should take into account not only species diversity, but unique ecosystems and ecosystem services to humans, and political stability of host countries. Taking this as a framework, what countries do you see that aren’t getting their share of conservation attention today?

KAREIVA: Well, some of the countries that turned up in our analysis—and in no way is our analysis complete yet, we’re still working to improve it—but countries like Mozambique, Bangladesh, and Argentina are countries that don’t really come out on hotspot lists, but it looks like they would be good returns on investment.

CURWOOD: Peter, it seems to me that on a number of levels here, you’re challenging the conventional conservation wisdom, or dogma here, depending on one’s perspective. What do you hear in response to your papers from other conservation scientists?

KAREIVA: A lot of people—I think it resonates. One of the reasons we wrote the paper, it really resonates with ideas I’ve heard from conservationists in the field. Imagine a world where we focus too much on hotspots. Somebody living in Montana, somebody living in Alaska, somebody living in Mongolia—it’s hard to connect them with nature if there’s so much press, and so much attention to these tropical rainforests. So it resonates with a lot of scientists because it admits the value of their local work, and local work is very important. On the other hand, there is some worry, because it makes it look like conservationists haven’t figured it all out yet, that we’re not all on the same page and that we don’t all agree. And to be frank, some people are worried about that. They worry that, geez, if it looks like the conservation NGOs don’t all agrees, and they don’t have their act together, then why should we be giving them money? So they’re concerned about that. And I think that misses the point. We do all agree on the problem, we all agree that biodiversity and our ecosystems are at risk and we have to protect them. We don’t necessarily agree on how we should set priorities, but as organizations committed to biodiversity, we should also be committed to diversity of solutions, diversity of strategies, and diversity of ways of thinking about priorities.

CURWOOD: Peter Kareiva is a lead scientist at the Nature Conservancy, and a professor at Santa Clara University, and the University of California Santa Barbara. Thank you so much for taking this time with me today.

KAREIVA: Thank you.

[MUSIC: The Notwist "Pilot" Neon Golden]

Related link:
Biodiversity Hotspots

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Wilderness Squatters

CURWOOD: There are people who've identified their own wilderness hotspots. You might catch a glimpse of them in wild places across the country, people living illegally in shacks or shelters among the trees. You might describe these forest dwellers as homeless. But that's not how some of them see it. They call themselves wilderness squatters— people living outdoors entirely by choice. Reporter Robin White went in search of some of these people in Northern California.


SERDAHELY: See here, this is isless cherry that a fox has pooped here.

SCHOOLY: Yeah, right.

WHITE: Besh Serdahely and his city friend David Schooly are showing me a steep trail up San Bruno Mountain just south of San Francisco.

SERDAHELY: That’s a cherry. That’s got a coating on there as sweet as can be.

SCHOOLY: Islay is the Indian name–

SERDAHELY: Meaning delicious cherry.

SCHOOLY: Right, uh huh, exactly.


WHITE: The men argue about who’s going to lead the way. Both of them are excited to show off the mountain and the place where Besh slept in a tree house for 12 years.


SERDAHELY: I just loved the dappling leaves and the - this glorious - just to look - just to open your eyes here.

WHITE: A thousand feet up San Bruno Mountain the air is pretty good and the view of the San Francisco Bay lifts your spirits. The 3,600-acre mountain is an island of wildness. Until recently Besh Serdahely lived here with his wife Thelma. But then San Mateo County found them and knocked down the hand-built tree house which had been on the mountain for 20 years. Deputy county manager Mary McMillan says the county was concerned for the couple’s welfare.

MCMILLAN: Health and safety – fire - those were the biggest concerns. There’s no running water. There’s no sewage. There are no facilities for that couple. So you really cannot reside in a park in that situation.

WHITE: Well there is a pit toilet. Besh’s friend David Schooly believes that San Mateo County just didn’t have the imagination to let the couple live here. Schooly runs San Bruno Mountain Watch, an organization of volunteers that care for the mountain. He leads hikes with hundreds of schoolchildren. On every nature walk he’d bring them to visit Besh and Thelma’s treehouse.

SCHOOLY: The kids are just drawn in immediately. It’s the dream of their childhood. It’s the right way. It’s a connection that we lose from living in the cities and the TVs and the freeways and cars.

WHITE: Schooly says before Besh lived outdoors he tended to drink and his wife Thelma had mental health problems. But Schooly taught them how to identify non-native species and for years, they spent their time weeding the canyons and making them better habitats for the mountain’s endangered butterflies.

SCHOOLY: They’ve done more work than the county or the state or anybody.

WHITE: When the County began pressuring the couple to leave, Besh started drinking again and Thelma got scared. In the end she was seduced away by social workers and that made it easier to get Besh out. But he’s not planning to move inside anytime soon.


WHITE: There may be several hundred wilderness squatters living in California’s Bay Area. There are also reports of communities in the Sierra Nevada, in Portland, British Columbia and in Utah. Some keep themselves secret for fear of eviction– which makes it hard for a reporter to find them to tell their story. One day I went looking for a community I’d heard about in the redwoods at the edge of a Bay Area city.


WHITE: So I found an abandoned hut here— has a couple of chairs and there’s a storage bin covered in water. I wonder what’s inside.


WHITE: Well it is somebody’s stuff— there’s a notebook there with some pens and a message. “Hi – Whose is this beauty?” it says. But even after a couple of hours I still couldn’t find people. I found out later that I had been only about a hundred yards from two inhabited huts. It took weeks of unreturned phone calls and letters to mailboxes before I finally met a man named Woodrat who would take me to his place.


WHITE: He was dressed head to toe in warm woolen clothing. And he kind of walked sideways. I can almost see you walking a certain way here

WOODRAT: I kind of don’t have the sense of it any more It’s so long that I’ve been doing it.

WHITE: You’re kind of stepping and stepping…

WOODRAT: I try to step in the same place most of the time


WHITE: That way he doesn’t pound the ground into a trail - which is partly why it was so hard to find the dwellings. There are five people living in this secret community. They try not to draw attention from the corporation which owns the land they live on. Woodrat’s hut is draped in military camouflage and hidden in tall manzanita bushes with dark red trunks.


WHITE: Can you tell me about your set-up here? It looks like you have a Coleman stove.

WOODRAT: Yeah just the camp stove and a little propane heater. A pretty well stocked kitchen with lots of maple syrup.


WHITE: Woodrat does go into town sometimes where he works for free on an anarchist magazine. His lifestyle doesn’t require a lot of cash. His name he takes from an animal which was nesting outside an earlier cabin.

WOODRAT: The wood rat was constantly building this pile of sticks in front of my door and every morning I would get up and brush it away so that I could get out the door. And one day it just built the sticks in just the right way so that I couldn’t get out.

WHITE: The animal’s daily rebuilding was a metaphor for Woodrat’s underdog life. Eventually he himself had to rebuild his cabin when he was found out.


WHITE: The people in this community say the hide and seek game they play with security guards is more than made up for by waking up in the woods each morning and feeling themselves to be directly a part of nature. The urge for wildness is a deeply rooted part of the American soul. Henry David Thoreau sought refuge in a hut at Walden Pond for much the same reasons as today’s tree dwellers. But Thoreau wasn’t squatting and these people are. They have a more overt agenda.


WHITE; On another visit, it’s a rainy day and Woodrat’s neighbor, Lenny, is busy sweeping his hut.


LENNY: Cleanliness is next to godliness. Or, as I like to say, cleanliness is godliness.

WHITE: Lenny’s been squatting in the woods for 17 years. He’s in his fifties and he identifies himself as Jewish. He dresses in black and sports a pointed hat and stainless steel hose clamps as a form of jewelry. He flouts the law– he’s a hobo and he has a pirate radio show. He’s a dumpster diver and built his hut with scavenged materials.

LENNY: How is that scavenging possible? Well we live in a very wasteful society is probably the main reason

WHITE: Lenny’s hut is shaped like a dented oval to accommodate the trees that grow around it.

LENNY: Compare that to a two or three thousand square foot home where they bulldoze a meadow or cut down a bunch of trees, and the lawns, and the driveway, and the road leading to it, and the telephone poles…

WHITE: Lenny likens the forest squatters to latter-day Robin Hoods.

LENNY: Robin Hood and his merry gang lived in the forest and the bad guy in that story is the sheriff, right, and the king. You’re not supposed to live on the king’s land and the sheriff is the guy who comes round and tries to kick you off, right?

WHITE: But for the people who have to play the Sherriff of Nottingham the problems caused by the squatters contradict the utopian values they claim to uphold. Maggie Fusari is the Natural Resource Manager for the University of California at Santa Cruz which owns 3,000 acres of parkland. She estimates perhaps a hundred people live there in the University’s forests in tree houses, huts and tents. Some of them are students saving money and using the bathrooms at the school gym to shower off. But some are non-students choosing to live out for political reasons.

FUSARI: It’s people who don’t like living in the built world and who feel that their way of living lighter on the land is justified because they don’t make as much of a mess of the land as those of us who live in the city. And there’s definitely a righteousness element to their positions, because I know, I’ve talked to them and I know that— but it’s not negligible.

WHITE: Fusari says she’s worried the squatters will bring their own version of sprawl.

FUSARI: Even in the backcountry if one person is living there, then there’s another, then there’s another, and it grows by accretion to the point where it really is going to have an impact.

WHITE: Fusari says she’s sympathetic with the urge to live outdoors. But she says with the world population threatening to overwhelm nature, people have to accept that living in towns is the best way to preserve the open spaces.


WHITE: For their part the forest squatters say their lifestyle is unconventional enough that they’re not expecting hordes of people to be joining them anytime soon. For Living on Earth, I’m Robin White.

[MUSIC: Purple Ivy Shadows "Ladderback" Field:Guide]

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CURWOOD: And for this week - that's Living on Earth. Next week— It's been nearly two years since fire swept through Glacier National Park in Montana, burning more than 27,000 acres of forest. But the fire has lead to an unexpected boom in the population of one park resident.

MALE: I was grading the road through the inside from Logging to Dutch Creek, and as I proceeded through this area I noticed the ground started to move and jump and hop and so I thought, “Oh, I'm hallucinating!”

CURWOOD: The resurrection of the boreal toad, next time on Living on Earth. And remember that between now and then you can hear us anytime and get the stories behind the news by going to livingonearth.org. That’s livingonearth.org.

[EarthEar: David Dunn "Mora, New Mexico: Underwater Pond Insects" Why do Whales and Children Sing?: A Guide to Listening in Nature]

CURWOOD: Recording artist David Dunn didn't expect much when he first plunged his hydrophone into a small New Mexican pond. But he found that underwater insects make an astonishing array of sounds.


CURWOOD: Living on Earth is produced by the World Media Foundation in cooperation with Harvard University. You can find us at livingonearth.org. Our staff includes: Jennifer Chu, Andy Farnsworth, Elizabeth Kline, Tom Simon, Susan Shepherd, Carly Ferguson, Nathan Marcy and Liz Lempert. Special thanks to Ernie Silver.

Our interns are Carolyn Johnson, Julia Keller, Taylor Ferguson and Mary Beth Conway. Alison Dean composed our themes. Environmental sound art courtesy of EarthEar. Our Technical Director is Al Avery. Ingrid Lobet heads our western bureau, Eileen Bolinsky is our senior editor, and Chris Ballman is the senior producer. This week’s program was produced by Diane Toomey. I’m Steve Curwood, executive producer of Living on Earth. Thanks for listening.

FEMALE ANNOUNCER: Funding for Living on Earth comes from the National Science Foundation, supporting coverage of emerging science, and Stoneyfield Farm—organic yogurt, cultured soy, and smoothies. Ten percent of their profits are donated to support environmental causes and family farms. Learn more at stoneyfield.com. Support also comes from NPR member stations and the Annenberg Foundation.

MALE ANNOUNCER: This is NPR, National Public Radio.


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