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

September 11, 1992

Air Date: September 11, 1992


Andrew and the Environment / Alexis Muellner

Alexis Muellner reports from Miami on the impact of Hurricane Andrew on the Everglades and other parts of the South Florida ecosystem. Hurricanes have been part of the region's natural cycle for millennia, but intensive development in recent decades has eroded the ecosystem's ability to bounce back from Andrew's devastation. (05:40)

A Valdez Oil Spill in Ecuador's Jungle / Sandy Tolan and Nancy Postero

Producers Sandy Tolan and Nancy Postero report on the environmental legacy of Ecuador's 20-year-old oil industry. Since the early 1970's, more than 10 million gallons of oil have been spilled into the country's Amazon rainforest, and millions more gallons of toxic waste have been poured into the region's rivers. (08:38)

Belizan Farmers Protect Forests and Monkeys / Matt Binder

Matt Binder reports on a new sanctuary for howler moneys, run by subsistence farmers in the Central American country of Belize. The trees in the sanctuary have helped stem soil erosion, and the large population of monkeys has helped bring tourist dollars to the area. (06:55)

Show Credits and Funders

Show Transcript

HOST: Steve Curwood
REPORTERS: Kim Motylewski, John McWhorter, Peter Thomson, Alexis Muellner, Sandy Tolan, Nancy Postero, Matt Binder

(Theme music)

CURWOOD: From National Public Radio, this is Living on Earth.

(Theme up and under)

CURWOOD: I'm Steve Curwood. South Florida is beginning to rebuild the human communities lost to Hurricane Andrew. But what about the other life forms? The storm devastated an ecosystem already compromised by development.

BLAIR: We have to remember we're also looking a lot of these impacts on top of what man's impacts have been, which has in many cases limited the recoverability of these habitats.

Also, oil drilling brought the promise of prosperity to Ecuador. Now some are asking if it was worth it.

MARTINEZ: To what extent has oil made things better? Because for petroleum we have sacrificed the most beautiful thing we have -- nature.

And farmers in Belize who were cutting their trees now find they can make more by keeping their rainforest and its monkeys . . . this week on Living on Earth. First, the news.

Environmental News

NUNLEY: I'm Jan Nunley with this week's environmental news.

United Nations officials say they'll try to stop a deal to import toxic waste to the war- and famine-ravaged nation of Somalia for disposal and incineration. Living on Earth's Kim Motylewski reports.

MOTYLEWSKI: The agreement between Somalia's self appointed government and the Swiss firm Acher Partners would allow up to 10 million metric tons of toxic waste to be shipped to Somalia over the next twenty years. U-N Environmental Program chief Mostopha Tolba estimates the Swiss company and its Italian backers could reap as much as10 million dollars in profits per shipment, but it's unknown what's in the deal for Somalia. Conceived amid the anarchy now engulfing Somalia, some observers say the deal calls into question the international treaty regulating the trade in toxic wastes. Waste trade monitors at Greenpeace International say the standard of informed consent by the importing country is meaningless in a case like this. And they fear waste "disposal" in Somalia will turn to simple waste dumping. In a statement obtained by Living on Earth, the U-N's Tolba said the deal involves "a Mafia as bad as the Mafia of arms sales". . . and that some of his colleagues are frightened for their lives. Still, Tolba says, he'll try to stop the deal from going into effect. For Living on Earth, I'm Kim Motylewski.
NUNLEY: A preliminary study funded by the European Community says it's too late to prevent global warming. . . and that the E-C should prepare to adapt to the changes that likely lie ahead. The study projects the biggest impacts will be on the coastal and agricultural regions of southern Europe. The report says global warming will cost the community thirty billion dollars a year, a cost that it says could be partially offset by improved farming conditions in the north. The report is under review by E-C officials.

Native residents of Point Hope, Alaska say they want the federal government to clean up radioactive materials dumped near their community. The dumping was part of an aborted project to use nuclear bombs to blast a harbor in northwest Alaska. From Fairbanks, Alaska Public Radio's John McWhorter reports.

MCWHORTER: The dump was recently discovered by a University of Alaska/Fairbanks researcher, writing a book about Project Chariot. Government documents obtained under the Freedom of Information Act reveal workers brought more than 40 pounds of radioactive isotopes and fallout from Nevada. They placed the material in a dozen test plots. When they were done, they dug up seven tons of soil, and in violation of Federal rules, buried the soil on site where it lay there unnoticed for 30 years. Point Hope villagers say they want the area cleaned up. State and Federal environmental officials are assessing the situation. For Living on Earth, I'm John McWhorter in Fairbanks.

NUNLEY: The Ecuadoran government has promised 20 thousand Indians title to their traditional Amazonian homelands. The move to put the lands under legal protection follows similar actions in neighboring Brazil, Colombia, Venezuela and Bolivia. The Indians' claim to the land has fueled tensions between indigenous people and Ecuadorans of European descent.

This is Living on Earth.

President Bush has signed an order allowing dead or dying timber to be harvested from some Pacific Northwest forests without the usual environmental studies. The President says the move will help stem forest fires. But timber industry officials say it could also save as many as five-thousand jobs threatened by court-ordered logging reductions. Environmental groups are criticizing the order as an election-year concession to the timber industry.

Voter anger may result in large numbers of incumbents being turned out of office this fall, but many voters will also have a chance to bypass the legislative process altogether. Voters in 17 states are being presented with a total of thirty-three environmental ballot questions. Living on Earth's Peter Thomson has more.

THOMSON: Safeguarding open space; regulating land use; making polluters pay for toxic waste clean-ups; and allocating water -- those are some of the issues which voters around the country will be asked to decide this fall. Already this year residents of Tallahassee, Florida have voted to limit coal use by their local electric utility. And Austin, Texas residents have chosen to restrict development over a cherished aquifer. But in Kansas City, voters have turned down a three million dollar trash separation program, and the slumping economy may dampen the chances of other possibly-costly initiatives. Still, with frustration with the political process running high, the ballot initiative represents what some political consultants say is a chance to leapfrog over legislatures. And, they say, even in failure, initiatives can often accelerate debate and help shape policy decisions. For Living on Earth, I'm Peter Thomson.

NUNLEY: Bacteria may eventually play a role in reducing radioactive waste problems. The journal Science reports that researchers have found a soil bacteria which consumes heavy metals such as uranium from waste water. The authors say the bacteria could be used to filter and recycle waste from nuclear power plants, as well as mining, metal plating, and battery-making operations.

That's this week's environmental news, I'm Jan Nunley.

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Andrew and the Environment

CURWOOD: This is Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood.

As a North American gateway for tropical storms, South Florida has endured the battering of hurricanes for thousands of years. . . and with each big blow, the peninsula's ecosystem has bounced back. But in the past century. . . and in particular the thirty years since the last big hurricane hit. . . its landscape has been transformed by heavy development. So Hurricane Andrew devastated not only homes and businesses, but also a radically changed ecosystem---one whose ability to recover from storms has been compromised. From Miami, Alexis Muellner reports.

(Natural sound under; boat radio: "Metro Dade RV Manatee. . .")

MUELLNER: At Miami's devastated Dinner Key Marina, a coastal inspection team from Dade County DERM or the Department of Environmental Resources Management, motors slowly by the docks. Debris coasts the twisted-tree-lined shore. Stray boats are wedged in the mangroves, and a thin oil-like sheen covers the water. Every day since the storm struck, the team has been out here on Biscayne Bay, assessing Hurrican Andrew's toll on South Florida's critical coastal ecosystem. Biologist Steve Blair says the damage to the marine environment has been extensive.

BLAIR: We're looking at things from removal, physical removal of organisms from the bottom-soft corals, overturning of hard corals and the waves either have exposed new areas or buried other reef areas.

MUELLNER: Along the southern Dade County coast, 160 mile per hour gusts tore through Biscayne National Park. There, one of Florida's richest stands of white mangroves, whose web-like root systems provide a delicate spawning ground for fish and shrimp, was badly torn up. John Renfrow is director of Dade County DERM.

RENFROW: It looks as though a lawnmower has gone over all the trees and knocked off -- if you were from ten feet above, everything else is knocked down. And basically it's all one level plane, is what it looks like.

MUELLNER: And the damage is hardly confined to the shoreline. 20 miles to the west, in Everglades National Park, the storm's furious winds felled an ancient stand of rare mahogany trees and flattened hardwood Everglades "tree islands." Thousands of wading birds appear to have been wiped out, although some endangered species, like the Florida panther, fared well. Hurricanes have been a part of the natural cycle here throughout the millenia -- but in this era, man-made problems may hinder the system's inherent ability to heal itself. Again, Steve Blair.

BLAIR: We have to remember we're also looking at these impacts on top of what man's impacts have been, which has in many cases limited the recoverability of these habitats to what has normally been natural impact.

MUELLNER: The populations of birds, trees and other native species hit hard by the storm have already been seriously stressed by human encroachment. Meanwhile, invasive exotic plant species like the melalueca, which was introduced by humans early in the century, may prosper further in the wake of the storm, taking the place of storm-damaged rare Everglades plant life. Then there's the issue of fire. In addition to felling thousands of trees, Andrew's fierce winds further dried up wetlands already unnaturally parched due to decades of water diversions.

PODGOR: We have put so much drainage in the territory and lowered the water tables so much that protective features of the ecosystem have been eliminated.

MUELLNER: Joseph Podgor is executive director of Friends of the Everglades.

PODGOR: So what might have been OK to have a hurricane come through and leave fuel for fires, would not be OK now, although it may have been OK a hundred years ago or two hundred years ago, before we were here.

MUELLNER: While the long-term effects of the storm on the Everglades will take time to assess, the clean-up effort itself may further strain the ecosystem.

(Sound of landfill machinery)

At the South Dade County landfill, a huge heap of hurricane debris, 30 feet tall and a half-mile wide, is growing by the hour. It's full of trees, sofas, rugs, toys, and contorted metal. Bulldozers scoop the trash into five open incinerators.

(Sound of crackling fire)

Open burning is normally not used, but area landfills are already near capacity -- and environmental managers say it's a choice between this type of burning and the risk of uncontrolled fires. Still, environmentalists like Joseph Podgor are worried.

PODGOR: The same kind of trash that were burned before under more controlled conditions that we thought was the cause of contamination of the Everglades with mercury and other pollutants now is going in an uncontrolled fashion in open pits.

MUELLNER: There is further concern that ash and debris runoff from the fires will endanger the water supply. But local environmental officials say they're monitoring the incinerators, pulling out hazardous materials for proper disposal, and along with the EPA, they'll keep an eye on air quality.

The 30-year hiatus since South Florida's last major hurricane is a bit of an anomaly. Scientists say on the average, a major storm should hit every seven years. And with this storm's staggering toll on property, jobs and natural resources, the debate has heated up over what kinds of development are appropriate on the fragile Florida peninsula.

PODGOR: The hurricane has given us a 162-mile-an-hour slap in the face to wake us up.

MUELLNER: Again, Joseph Podgor of Friends of the Everglades.

PODGOR: We have now a thirty-mile-wide area that isn't really much good anymore. There's an awful lot of it that's being salvaged. The question comes up, should there be a housing development there again? Should that be a farm? What should the land use implications that this hurrican has laid at our feet be? There is no separation between the human social resource problem and the natural one.

MUELLNER: For Living on Earth, I'm Alexis Muellner in Miami.

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(Music up and under)

A Valdez Oil Spill in Ecuador's Jungle

CURWOOD: Since oil drilling began in the Ecuadoran Amazon twenty years ago, the area has been contaminated with more crude oil than that spilled by the Exxon Valdez. So says a recent study by the Natural Resources Defense Council. The Ecuadoran government and Texaco have recently commissioned another study of the area. Texaco ran the oil operation for almost twenty years, and Ecuador expects the company to pay for any damage to the jungle.
But as producers Sandy Tolan and Nancy Postero found, the responsibility for Ecuador's oil troubles goes beyond just Texaco.

(Fade up radio sound)

TOLAN: Three miles off Ecuador's Pacific coast, black and yellow hoses rise from the sea and run up the hull of a ship as big as a city block. Oil flows from a huge underwater pipeline, up through the hoses, and into a 400- thousand barrel tanker, bound for the US. This has been modern Ecuador's dream: an oil industry that's raised the country's standard of living, its literacy and nutrition rates, built high rises, and helped Ecuador shed its image of a poor country that exports nothing but bananas.

(Jungle bird sounds)

The dream began at the other end of the 300-mile pipeline, across the Andes, in Ecuador's remote Amazon rainforest. This is where, 25 years ago, Texaco began prospecting across five million acres of forest. Helicopter airlifts brought a massive infrastructure to the Amazon: exploration wells, a great metal spider web of pipelines, and hundreds of miles of roads. It was all part of a master plan: the wells would bring dollars to the country, and new frontiers would be opened for tens of thousands of poor settlers, who came down the oil roads, slashing the forest in their path, searching for a new life.

(Sound of brush being cut; woman speaking in Spanish)

F. MARTINEZ (translation): This is where the crude oil comes out. The oil company workers came with their tankers, and dumped it here. Every time they come, we beg them not to dump any more, because it affects our water.

TOLAN: Flora Martinez came here with her family to homestead a small patch of jungle in the center of Amazon oil country. They cut the forest, building a house, planting corn, manioc and coffee at the edge of a clear jungle river. Now, standing a few feet from an oil pump, Flora looks down at a still eddy in the stream. Everything is black: bushes, tree trunks, and the dead fish floating atop the pool, thick as tar. The family's coffee and corn stocks are stunted and stained black. Since the government oil company started dumping waste oil here two years ago, the Martinezes' cows have had seven miscarriages.

F. MARTINEZ (translated): What you see is horrible, just horrible. It's ugly. It makes you sad to see this, and we have to drink from this water -- it's the only water we have. When we bathe in it, it gives us bumps and makes us itch, especially the children. We wish we could leave, but we sold our land there to come here, and who would buy this land?

TOLAN: A generation after the oil industry began, the dreams have gone sour for thousands of people in the Ecuadoran Amazon -- homesteaders, like the Martinezes, as well as the original Indian inhabitants of the region. Scores of rivers have been poisoned. One spill flooded the subsistence crops of more than five hundred colonist families. A series of spills devastated an internationally reknowned wildlife reserve, also home to several Indian tribes. In all, a billion and a half gallons of oil have been extracted, and more than ten million spilled. Millions more in toxic wastes have been pumped directly into the rivers.

ROMAN : We developed these fields in a hurry.

TOLAN: Luis Roman is president of Petro Ecuador, the state-run oil company.

ROMAN: Because our prices were going down, and exports were declining, and we needed to repay the foreign debt. And I have to be very honest with you, we had even money from the World Bank to develop these fields in a hurry. We probably were not very careful with environmental problems.

TOLAN: The Ecuadoran government blames the ecological disaster in the Amazon on lax industry standards that were a hallmark of much of the oil development in Latin America in the 1970's. Some officials blame Texaco. Texaco officials insist they operated responsibly, within Ecuadoran law and proper environmental standards. Now, control of the industry has shifted to Petro Ecuador, which has subcontracted much of the exploration to foreign oil companies. Company president Roman says the country has learned from its legacy of contamination.

ROMAN: I think we ought to be very honest and say, yes, we've done things very badly and what we're trying to do now is correct whatever damages we've done in the past. From now on, we're not going to make those same mistakes.

TOLAN: Ecuador, under pressure from international environmentalists, has implemented strict new laws that promise harsh penalties for polluters. There's a new ministry to oversee the oil industry. But the new environmental ministry has no budget for enforcement or investigation. It must rely on a voluntary gentlemen's agreement with foreign oil companies who promise not to pollute. And government critics say Petro Ecuador is responsible for many of the spills that are still going on.

SANTOS: I see an attitude of hypocrisy.

TOLAN: Fernando Santos is former minister of Ecuador's Department of Energy and Mines.

SANTOS: If Texaco is guilty of causing harm to the environment, Petro Ecuador is ten times worse. For the new companies, they have been very strict, demanding guarantees that the environment will be protected. I can assure you that Petro Ecuador will not follow these rules; they operate under no rule of environmental protection.

TOLAN: Some environmentalists in Ecuador do not believe the government is learning from its mistakes. They question whether oil development can ever be done responsibly in a rainforest. Fifteen years from now, they say, when all the oil is gone, Ecuador's dream may give way to a nightmarish vision: a graveyard of rusted pipes and poisoned waters, and no new industry to bring in foreign dollars. Esperanza Martinez, of the group Ecological Action, is joined by international environmental groups in demanding a ten-year moratorium on oil development in Ecuador.

E. MARTINEZ (translated): People thought oil will allow us to live like the rich countries. But now after all the terrible oil spills, many people are asking: To what extent does oil make things better? Because for petroleum, we have sacrificed the most beautiful thing we had: nature.

TOLAN: Yet Ecuador's leaders believe they have little choice but to keep bringing oil out of the jungle. Ecuador finds itself increasingly wedged between foreign creditors who want dollars, environmentalists who want to save the rainforest, and consumers who want oil. Manuel Navarro is head of Petro Ecuador's environmental division.

NAVARRO: All of a sudden we have pressure from organizations from Europe, from the States, claiming that Amazonian jungle has to be untouched. In the same way, they are demanding we pay off the debt; they're still getting cheap export goods. I think it's a little unfair, the pressure we have from different sides. This is, don't use this, don't touch this -- but do we have an alternative?

(sound up and under)

TOLAN: With Nancy Postero, this is Sandy Tolan, for Living on Earth.

Back to top

CURWOOD: That report was part of the "Vanishing Homelands" series, which can be heard this fall over many public radio stations.

Belizan Farmers Protect Forests and Monkeys

CURWOOD: While some Ecuadorans are regretting the extraction of resources from their jungle, some folks in the tiny Central American nation of Belize are celebrating -- and cashing in -- on the preservation of their local ecosystem. Farmers along a section of the Belize River have agreed to stop cutting the forest that's home to the howler monkey. They've set up a private sanctuary, run by local people with no government support. It's already attracting visitors--and money--from other parts of the world. From Belize, Matt Binder reports.

(rainforest sounds)

BINDER: The rainforest along the the Belize River is filled with myriad species of life, all clamoring to be heard above a continual din. One animal here is, pound for pound, among the loudest in the world.

(Monkey sound)

This single twenty pound male black howler money can be clearly heard from two miles away.

(Monkey and cricket sound)

Six years ago, near the small village of Bermudian Landing, about 800 of these monkeys were living in the high canopy of the trees along the river bank.

(Sound of machetes cutting through brush)

But those trees were fast disappearing, as local subsistence farmers slashed and burned their land to make rise, corn and bean fields. The monkeys were disappearing along with the trees.

(Village sounds)

Then twelve farmers, following the advice of a North American biologist who was studying the monkeys, got together and promised each other they wouldn't cut down trees that the monkeys needed. The biologist had told them that preserving the monkeys could bring tourists to the area, and in any case, he said, preserving the trees would help protect the soil from erosion. And according to Bernard Herrera, one of the first to join the sanctuary, that's just about the way it's worked out. The monkeys, which in Belize are called baboons, have grown in number to over a thousand. The village has gotten a new source of income, and the people have found a new appreciation for their unique environment.

HERRERA: The sanctuary's a good thing, especially in our village here. First time I never used to feel about the baboon, just take it simply, you know the way? But no, I see something very interesting in the baboon.

BINDER: The sanctuary is made up completely of private lands, with no legal status and no government involvement. Each participating landowner signs a non-binding contract and promises to follow certain conservation practices that help the monkeys flourish. A typical contract will include a pledge to preserve trees on the river bank, to keep an aerial pathway on their property so that the monkeys never have to walk on open ground, and a promise not to cut down the monkeys' favorite food trees. By following these practices, the rainforest in the sanctuary has become incredibly abundant, with just three acres of forest providing enough food for a typical family of six monkeys to live on for a whole year. And that's where they use their amazing noise-making abilities, to defend their small territories from neighboring families.

(Monkeys howling)

Four years ago, Fallet Young was another subsistence farmer in Bermudian Landing. Now, as the manager of the community baboon sanctuary, he's responsible for the monkeys' well-being. He says the sanctuary works better than a government-run park, because the local people here give their preserve so much support.

YOUNG: I think it is a very good approach when you can get the local people involved in this, because then they are the ones that will be doing the work and they feel they are a part of it. I do not think you are going to have much problem. But even in areas that are reserves or national parks and whatnot that is controlled by the government, and so if people are living there, they are not really getting any direct benefits from these areas, then it creates problems.

BINDER: The benefits of conservation, in addition to stemming erosion, have been the welcome tourist dollars that are boosting the local economy. There aren't a lot of things to buy in Bermudian Landing, but what there is is unique: jam and wine made from wild jungle fruits, canoe rides up and down the crocodile-infected Belize River, horseback rides through the rainforest, a few crafts, and food and lodging in the homes of the local people. Attanasio Soleri adds a couple of dollars a day to his meager farming income by taking tourists deep into the jungle to see the monkeys.

SOLERI: It really changed the whole system because you have more tourists, probably right now, like you come right here, you say I would like to have some local meals, and you go to a private home and get some local meals there, you come and stay for two, three days in the village and I take you on a tour, that's something that never happened before. Since the sanctuary opened, all of these activities have taken place.
BINDER: How does that affect your village -- do people like it now better, or are they starting to feel that it's too many people?
SOLERI: Well, as far as I know everybody just likes that more because they know their village is coming to be more famous because you to probably to England or Australia or Jamaica or different other parts of the world and you will say, I went to such a place, Bermudian Landing, where is the baboon sanctuary to see baboons, I get some nice local meals, I met some nice friends, and I also went up the river and take a nice bath up the river.

BINDER: Today about twenty people a day come visit the sanctuary, and over the last six years a hundred other farmers have added land to the preserve. This idea of how to run a wildlife sanctuary is now beginning to spread. There's now a community manatee preserve in northern Belize, and a community bald eagle sanctuary in Wisconsin, both modeled on the structure developed by farmers in the tiny Belizean village of Bermudian Landing. For Living on Earth, I'm Matt Binder.

Back to top

(Monkey howling fades; music up and under )

CURWOOD: If you have any comments about this week's show, give us a call on our listener line. . . at 617-868-7454. Or write to us, at Living on Earth. . . Box 639. . . Cambridge, Massachusetts. . . 02238. Tapes and transcripts are available , for ten dollars each.

Living on Earth is a production of the World Media Foundation, in co-operation with the Public Media Foundation and WBUR, Boston. Our program is produced and edited by Peter Thomson and directed by Deborah Stavro. The coordinating producer is George Homsy. Our production team includes Kim Motylewski, Lucia Small and engineers Curt Lachowin, Laurie Azaria, Andy Cook and Doug Haslam. Our theme music was composed by Michael Aharon. I'm Steve Curwood, executive producer.

(Theme music up and out)


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