(13) Environmentalism

 Amazon Planet (full documentary)



The Amazon Basin covers roughly 7 million square kilometers-nearly 5 percent of the world’s land surface-and contains about 5.5 million square kilometers of tropical rainforest. Close to two-thirds of the Amazon is in Brazil; the rest is in Bolivia, Colombia, Ecuador, French Guiana, Guyana, Peru, Suriname, and Venezuela. It is a rich source of biodiversity, by some estimates containing, for example, around 30 percent of all plant species. Approximately 20 million people reside in the Amazon, including over 200,000 indigenous people. Since the 1980s a global environmental movement has been campaigning to protect the Amazon-in particular the old-growth forests of the Brazilian Amazon. Chico Mendes, a Brazilian rubber tapper, was one of the best known activists until his assassination in 1988. This diverse movement has managed to advance research and spotlight many injustices and environmental disasters; however, in terms of slowing deforestation, it has been less effective. The Brazilian Amazon, for example, lost over 17 million hectares of forest in the 1990s alone-an area the size of Uruguay. The total   deforested area had reached nearly 60 million hectares by the beginning of the 21st century. Since then deforestation has continued to escalate as cattle ranchers convert forests into pasture to supply a surging export market for beef and, to a lesser extent, as farmers burn logged forests to grow crops such as soybeans (burning is a cheap and quick way to clear land and fertilize soil).


The Antarctic accounts for 10 percent of the earth’s total land surface, roughly equal in size to Europe and the United States combined. The southern circumpolar seas also comprise nearly 10 percent of the world’s oceans. The Antarctic continent is home to more than 800 species of plant life (approximately 350 are lichens), 8 types of seals, 12 cetacean species, and about 45 different species of birds. It is the only continent without trees; only two flowering plants have been discovered. Antarctica’s ice sheet contains 70–75 percent of the world’s freshwater reserves and 90 percent of the earth’s ice. On average, the ice sheet is about 2,000 meters thick: if all of this ice were to melt, global sea levels would rise by 60 meters or so. Extreme weather conditions mean the ecosystems in Antarctica are especially fragile and vulnerable to any disturbance. The lowest temperature ever recorded on earth was near the South Pole on 21 July 1983, at the Soviet Vostok station (-89.2 Celsius, or -128.6 Fahrenheit). Antarctica is also one of the world’s driest places, receiving less precipitation than the Sahara desert.

Antarctica, except for the indirect effects of greenhouse gases and ozone depletion, suffers from little atmospheric pollution. Trawlers have exploited some fishing grounds and several species are close to commercial collapse. Whaling also put some species at risk prior to the moratorium on commercial whale hunting by the International Whaling Commission (IWC) in the mid-1980s. The Southern Ocean and boundless ice were too rough for early explorers, and until the 19th century most states ignored Antarctica (considered terra nullius, or belonging to nobody). Great Britain was the first country to claim sovereignty over Antarctica in 1908. New Zealand, Australia, Norway, France, Argentina, and Chile would later claim sovereignty to various parts (some overlap, notably the claims by Great Britain, Argentina, and Chile). The Antarctic treaty was signed in 1959 and it came into force in 1961. The treaty forbade new sovereignty claims, while neither recognizing nor delegitimizing existing ones. The treaty only allows nonmilitary research (and bans nuclear weapons testing). Initially, it did not include environmental protection clauses. However, in 1964 the Antarctic Treaty Consultative Parties passed the Agreed Measures for the Conservation of the Antarctic Fauna and Flora. Since then the parties to the treaty have negotiated other conventions as well, including the Conservation of Antarctic Seals (1972) and the Convention on the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources (1980). In 1991, the parties agreed to halt all oil and mineral exploration and/or exploitation for another 50 years, an amendment called the Environmental Protocol to the Antarctic Treaty, or the Madrid Protocol (which came into force in 1998).


The Aral Sea, in Central Asia, was once the world’s fourth largest lake. In just three decades, as governments and industry diverted its inflows for agriculture and hydroelectricity, its surface area shrank by half and its level fell by 15 meters, leaving this saline lake almost as salty as an ocean by the early 1990s. Desertification in the region increased; soil quality deteriorated. The remaining water became increasingly polluted from sewage waste and rising use of pesticides and herbicides to maintain agricultural output, leaving it unsafe for human consumption. Local fish could not adapt, and commercial fishing ended.

Authorities in the Soviet Union declared the region an ecological catastrophe at the tail end of the Communist regime. After the breakup of the Soviet Union in the early 1990s, degradation of the Aral Sea turned into an international problem involving the new nations of Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan. In February 1992, the new states signed the first of a series of agreements to manage the Aral Basin. The Global Environment Facility, together with the World Bank, ran a project between 1998 and 2003 to improve water management, collect data, raise awareness, and restore wetlands in the region. Some progress is occurring in terms of improving environmental management; nevertheless, the Aral Sea is continuing to contract.


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