Green Challenge Accepted Sustainability & Digitization beyond the ivory tower Tue, 20 Mar 2018 03:48:43 +0000 en-US hourly 1 Technologizing Our Way out – Hi Tech for Nature? Mon, 16 Mar 2015 11:09:39 +0000 Read more]]> Part 2 of 2

Can we technologize our way out? This is the question last weekend’s Biodiversity Sunday set out to answer. As the reasoning goes, technology increases efficiency, thus decreasing resource use and pollution. A remedy against climate change and biodiversity loss, especially threatening Southeast Asia? Geo-engineering might be one technological fix to the current climate and biodiversity crisis. However, there are many different shades of geo-engineering, from very risky ones to ones as easy as planting a tree. And trees – better, cutting trees – brings us to the next green technology.

Cutting a tree and burning it, say in a wood stove, and then replanting the tree is a 100 % carbon neutral, isn’t it? The exact amount of CO2 emitted by the stove is captured by the replanted tree again – the perfect cycle, as performed by nature and men already for eternity. And even to date, 85 % of such so called biofuels like fuel wood, are used in a traditional way to a large extent by 2.5 billion people of the global south without access to modern energy for their daily heating and cooking.

Eating Away a Lot of Grain

Inspired by this widespread old-fashioned use, biofuels experienced a meteoric career also in industrialized countries: In theory carbon neutral and – unlike other renewable energies, such as wind and sun – storable, biofuels seem a panacea to both, the fossil fuel and climate crisis. With already more than 10% of the global primary energy generation, and 77 % of world renewable energy, biofuels are beyond doubt on the rise.

Soon the demand of fuels outnumbered the supply, enticing people to grow plants specifically for energy use. Now huge monocultures of corn, sugar cane or wheat supply bio ethanol, and rapeseed or oil palms produce vegetable oil to fuel cars and power plants. In doing so, the technology biofuel clearly replaces harmful and outdated fossil fuels, thus supposedly increasing resource efficiency, longed for by ecological modernization.

Ironically, there is one major pitfall. The efficiency of biofuels itself is miniscule. All biofuels are based on plants, which are basically light transformation machines. Via a mechanism called photosynthesis plants transform light energy, water and CO2 to oxygen and biomass – we can then put in our cars. However the efficiency of photosynthesis is just about 1%, dwarfed even by the fuel efficiency of still fairly inefficient combustion engines of about 20%. Taking into account the energy needed to fertilize, harvest and transport the plants, bioethanol has an efficiency of just about 0.1%. That does not sound promising on our way to more resource efficiency, does it?

This inefficiency also means that biofuels, at the end of the day, emit more greenhouse gases than the fossil fuels they try to replace. Palm oil for instance, staggering 300% more, rendering oil palm covered Indonesia the number three emitter worldwide. Analogously, this results in an undue onslaught to biodiversity. Biofuel induced deforestation, combined with huge monocultures, are a major driver of global biodiversity loss. ‘Its implications to biodiversity cannot be understated,’ affirms the ASEAN Biodiversity Outlook of the Philippine based ASEAN Center for Biodiversity which coordinates conservation and sustainable management of Southeast Asia’s diverse ecosystems. In addition, inefficient biofuels waste a lot of water and land, which could better be used to feed the billion or so malnourished people in the world. To illustrate, the amount of grain needed to fuel up the average SUV with bio ethanol could feed a person a whole year. Let the person eat his grain. Rather put solar cells on just a 600th of the field and power an electric vehicle instead of the fossil fuel based one – and drive the same distance.

Free Energy from Earth and Fire

That sounds more like an increase in resource efficiency and brings us to the next green technology.

Again you can google it. Google itself apparently did. Acknowledging the large energy demand of this and billions of other search queries, the company aims to be powering their so-called ‘googlefarms’ with renewable energy.

Renewable energy comes in the form of all four elements: wind, water, earth and fire. If we take a closer look however, only from the latter two. Our fiery Earth provides so called geothermal energy, most readers in the Philippines will be familiar with from the violent volcanic eruptions of Pinatubo or Mayon. The second source of renewable energy is indeed fire – fire from the already mentioned fusion reaction in the sun, providing our planet with free energy every day. This sun energy can either come directly, as sun-bathers know, or indirectly, making the wind blow, rivers run or plants grow. Remembering just how inefficient storing energy in plants is, let’s focus on the other forms of energy from fire and earth.

The good news is that fire and earth, unlike scarce oil or uranium, are not about to peak. Daily sun delivers 5000 times more energy than humanity can use, and sitting on volcanic islands neither Filipinos nor Indonesians have to worry about the fiery Earth cooling down anytime soon. ‘Indonesia could power its economy entirely on geothermal energy’, as Lester Brown of the Earth Policy Institute points out. In a nutshell, the world has plenty of free and clean renewably energy, and sun-kissed, volcanic Southeast Asia even more so.

The bad news? Using renewable energy is not the easiest thing to do. During the night the sun does not shine, during the dry season there might be no water, and the wind does not blow everywhere. So what to do? Store it, silly! But recalling the physics class, electricity produced by a solar panel, a hydro plant or a wind turbine has to be consumed in the very instance that it is generated. And unfortunately in storing electricity man does not do a much better job than the incredibly inefficient plants from the biofuel example. Instead of storing, why not share and trade it? As with any other commodity, say the surplus rice of a rice farmer, also trade electricity on a market. If an owner of a solar panel in Sydney cannot use its peak electricity on a sunny summer afternoon, why not send it to his freezing friend in a cold Beijing winter?

Unfortunately, electricity cannot be transferred as easily as the bag of rice the Chinese might use to pay his Australian friend. Not yet. And here another green technology comes in. ‘Imagine an energy sharing version of Internet-file sharing,’ as Michael Powers from the Global Energy Network Institute puts it. It is like sharing energy like your facebook pictures. This could be Desertec.

The Vision Is Big – So Is Climate Change

Desertec is inspired by the sun-baked Sahara desert in North Africa. The Sahara could, with a tiny amount of its area covered in solar panels, easily provide North Africa plus energy-hungry Europe with all the electricity they need. A large electricity grid can transport surplus energy to its consumers in Paris, London or Berlin and bring what is left to the vast Scandinavian gorges, where electricity is already being stored in dams and hydroelectric plants. A large consortium of investors liked the idea and is working hard to implement this European super grid. If this idea can work for Europe, why not for Asia, a region with the highest energy growth rates worldwide and the perfect physical environment for renewables?

A Pan-Asian super grid would distribute electricity from solar, geothermal, wind and wave energy from Australia to China. Natural gas and hydro would fill the gaps. ‘The vision is big. So is climate change,’ highlights Stewart Taggart of the non profit DESERTEC Australia.

An 8,000 kilometer electricity and natural gas transmission system would combine Australian surplus solar power, Indonesia’s extra geothermal energy and Mekong hydro with inner Mongolia wind energy in China. And China already shows that this is beyond phantasm. Until 2020 the huge country will have a unified electricity grid.

Such unification on a regional level could make the ASEAN the energy heart of Asia, giving it a new geopolitical heft. The 10 member countries would speak with one voice and have a moderating role in energy and climate policy, as Dr. Surin Pitsuwan, Secretary General ASEAN is convinced of.

But the network would also generate energy market efficiencies, spur innovation and increase energy security. According to the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation electricity prices would become 23% lower than otherwise. The innovative energy and transmission technology can become a new economic engine. Just ask prosperous Germany, where green tech is now the biggest employer in the country.

And post-Fukushima Japan, suffering from year-long energy shortages after the Tsunami catastrophe, can tell you about the need for energy security. With electricity transmission links to neighboring countries, these could have sent not only humanitarian aid but also what Japan most needed- energy. But isolated and dependent on fickle nuclear energy, the country now suffers a severe economic depression, costing billions. However, these costs get dwarfed by the amount of money Asia will have to invest in energy infrastructure in the decades to come, a staggering $ 1.1 trillion in the ASEAN alone from 2008 – 2030. Better spend this kind of money in the right technologies then. The technologies for clean renewable energies and a smart super grid connecting them are readily available. Acknowledging this, a year after the nuclear disaster in Fukushima, the DESERTEC Foundation and the Japan Renewable Energy Foundation (JREF) started to co-operate on promoting a super grid, which could serve Asia’s 2.7 billion people – a third of humanity.

Of Madmen and Economists

And humanity has to make a decision about the technologies it wants to foster. A decision that needs to be made now for an uncertain future. This, of course is highly contentious. Will it be geo-engineering in an attempt to fix the climate? So far technology was largely unable to repair the damage we humans have done to the environment. Nonetheless, technology had a significant impact in terms of alleviating environmental problems as a requisite to increase resource efficiency. A smart renewable energy system for Asia provides a good example: Less input and pollution create a higher value for society. Resource use and economic growth become decoupled through more efficient technology.

But such efficiency gains have a limit. To maintain permanent decoupling at constant GDP growth rates, energy and resource productivity must increase permanently. But this cannot continue forever, since after some first easy steps decoupling gets harder and harder until infinite effort is needed. A finite system will always put an end to economic growth. In systems scientist Kenneth Boulding’s words: “Anyone who believes that exponential growth can go on forever in a finite world is either a madman or an economist.”

And economists admit that so called rebound effects tend to eat up all improvements. A driver of a more fuel efficient car, for instance, is likely to have higher emissions, since he will drive more, now cheaper, miles. On a bigger scale, even though the Chinese economy’s carbon intensity has dropped by almost 70% over 30 years, China’s achievement of First World consumption standards would approximately double the entire world’s ecological footprint.

This shows that ever more efficient technology fails to address the root cause of environmental problems: The overconsumption of a few that crowds out the due development of many. Efficiency is blind without sufficiency. It might be necessary to adjust our consumption limits to Earth’s physical limits –and justly share the affluence we already have achieved. The answer to problems caused by greed might be as simple as modesty. And endless growth – be it in affluence or high tech – is not necessary to become or stay happy. On the contrary, too much material wealth can even be a burden. While in the US average income doubled between 1950 and 2000, the amount of happy people dropped steadily. This is a statistic to google, worth the carbon emissions.

First Published BusinessMirror 2013-09-07

Technologizing Our Way out – Hi Tech for Nature? Mon, 12 Jan 2015 09:32:46 +0000 Read more]]> Part 1 of 2


Have you googled global warming recently? Most probably the first hit would have been the Wikipedia entry explaining global warming as ‘the rise in the average temperature of Earth’s atmosphere since the late 19th century and its projected continuation, caused by increasing concentrations of greenhouse gases produced by human activities’. Ironically this Google search will have had a carbon footprint on its own of about 7g of CO2 – around as much as running a lamp for an hour – thus indirectly fueling global warming. In 2010 Google’s annual emissions amounted stunning 1.5 Million tons CO2 equivalent. If you find this fact interesting enough, why not share it with your friends on Facebook? With 285,000 tons in 2011, the company emits just as much CO2 as Laos.


Rain from the digital cloud

You see where this is going? The internet quietly speeds up global climatic change, already accounting for 1% of all the CO2 emissions released from burning fossil fuels. This is as much as an entire medium sized industrialized nation, and by 2050 it will be more than the whole airline industry emits. Especially data centers use lots of electricity, both for powering the machines they contain and – all importantly – for the air conditioning needed to keep the servers from overheating. Just how hot it can get without this vast amount of power Facebook experienced in 2011, when their air conditioning in a data center failed. Rising temperature and humidity let a cloud form in the building, raining down on the computers.

This actual cloud illustrates how the digital cloud, as a prevailing modern technology makes up the same proportion of emissions as printing and paper-based publishing, the very technology it set out to replace to begin with. Add to it  the skyrocketing need for chips, boards and plastic casings –a major new source of electronic waste, releasing toxic chemicals in both assembly and disposal. It is not without reason that the soils of Silicon Valley are among the most polluted in the US.

In a nutshell, the digital era may be no less energy-hungry or environmentally friendly than the paper-based world of 20 years ago.

Hi Tech – A Knight in Shining Armor?

This is an inconveniently timed fact, considering that we do not get a grip on greenhouse gas emissions, which are likely to increase at least until 2030, bursting the arguably safe threshold of two- degree warming. Humanity is now the major force altering the planetary environment with symptoms such as the climate disaster or the current mass extinction of species but also peak oil, the already passed highpoint of oil exploitation.

Southeast Asia knows this all too well: Climate change loads the dices for ever more frequent and severe storms, formerly wet areas become dryer by the minute, up to 90 percent of the countries’ diverse coral reefs are at peril, pristine tropical forest is in steep decline, staggering oil prices slow the economic growth.

Every so often the response to these challenges sounds like out of a science fiction strip: No matter what we do, technology will fix it – while fueling the economy. There is an increasing reliance on technology to alleviate environmental problems, and a growing expectation about it being the ultimate panacea, put forward by so called ecological modernization. Do the modernists’ arguments have legs of steel, one might ask, as environmental problems continue to persist, or spread, despite the continued use of technology.

It is time to assert whether technology is apt to do away with our problems or simply reduce or shift them; whether there are ultimate limits high tech cannot overcome; and whether technology might even cause new harms. In the author Douglas Adam’s words: ‘The idea that Bill Gates has appeared like a knight in shining armor to lead all customers out of a mire of technological chaos neatly ignores the fact that it was he who, led them into it in the first place.’

This two part article will look into different technological solutions to resource depletion, climate change, pollution and threats to biodiversity – from geo-engineering to renewable energies – in order to answer: Can we technologize our way out?

Saving the World on a Shoe String

First of all, what is technology? In a narrow sense it encompasses all kind of tools such as machines or hardware, but also techniques or know-how, which simplify a matter. Need to open a can? This seems tricky with your bare hands. To simplify it, a can opener is the technology to choose and the application of the opener the technique to use.

Not only humans use technology. An adult female gorilla in Nouabalé-Ndoki National Park, northern Congo, uses a branch as a walking stick to gauge the water's depth. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

Not only humans use technology. An adult female gorilla in Nouabalé-Ndoki National Park, northern Congo, uses a branch as a walking stick to gauge the water’s depth. Source: Wikimedia Commons.


Instead of smashing the can on your kitchen table for hours – with some un-called for results, such as baked beans all over the place – the can opener does the trick in seconds. What an increase in efficiency. With less input (fewer minutes spent) a better result can be achieved (beans on the plate instead of spread over the table).

By the same token, as the reasoning of ecological modernists goes, technology increases resource efficiency. This means a frugal use of our scarce resources, such as goods and services from biodiverse ecosystems, less pollution, less climate change, while maintaining economic growth. Economic growth, our current civilization is all too dependent on.

Such efficiency would of course not come for free, but 1-2% of the global GDP invested in ‘Green Technology’ would be enough to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 60%by 2050. That’s saving the world on a shoe string! A carbon tax of, say 100 $ per ton of CO2 emitted, would set the right incentive. Done! Just ask China. According to the World Bank, the Chinese economy’s carbon intensity has dropped by almost 70% over 30 years. Whether it is really just as easy as the Middle Kingdom might suggest, we shall see after drilling down on some green technology options at hand.

Sunscreen for the Planet

The first option assumes that now there appears to be little chance of avoiding at least 2°C of warming over pre-industrial levels. It is generally acknowledged that failing the two degree aim, the planet could become hostile to important ecosystems like the coral reefs, so crucial especially to the livelihoods and well-being of millions of Southeast Asians. Moreover, beyond two degrees the warming might get out of control, due to positive feedback loops. For instance melting snow and ice ceases to reflect sunlight, resulting in further warming. At some point we may have to try to engineer our way out of trouble.

Such engineering of Earth and its climate is known as geo-engineering. Geo-engineers can either apply sunscreen or tip some iron into the sea. Sounds odd? Let’s have a closer glance:

The problem at hand is the fabulous fusion reactor in the sky, also known as sun, sending us its rays which penetrate the Earth’s surface and escape back to space. Luckily there is a warming blanket around the planet, also known as greenhouse gases, reflecting some of the escaping rays back to the otherwise frosty planet. But now humans started to render this blanket ever more cosy and thick by adding more greenhouse gases, like CO2.

Geo-engineers can now either apply some sun-screen around the Earth to prevent sun’s warming rays from reaching Earth in the first place, or take away some of the blanket’s layers. The former sounds awfully science fiction like and includes millions of little mirrors in space or adding sun-blocking, and very poisonous, sulphuric substances to the atmosphere. The latter appears more inviting: The excessively warming CO2-layers in the atmosphere can be easily removed. How?

Away with the Warming Blanket

One example of CO2 removal is indeed tipping iron in the sea: Tiny floating algae called phytoplankton pull carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere. When they die, the plankton sinks to the seabed, taking the carbon with them. Over thousands of years, this strips CO2 from the air, lowering temperatures. But many ocean regions are short of iron, which plankton needs to grow, so the process does not occur. Adding iron should stimulate plankton growth in these areas. Sounds too good to be true? It probably is. At best it might soak up a tenth of emissions, and the effects of doing it on a large scale are not known. What a conundrum: The deployment of geo-engineering techniques, if feasible and effective, could reduce the magnitude of climate change and its impacts on biodiversity. At the same time, most geo-engineering techniques are likely to have unintended impacts on marine biodiversity, particularly when deployed at a climatically-significant scale, together with significant risks and uncertainties. Uncertainties include trans-boundary effects, and resulting geopolitical tensions about risks and benefits. The atmosphere simply does not stop at countries’ borders, making a prior international agreement indispensable.

Even if such agreement can be reached, the sun-screen option seems more hazardous, since it leaves the root problem of climate change unsolved and would be hard to stop once started. On the other hand, CO2 sinks to thin the warming blanket deserve a chance, especially ecosystem-based approaches. Mimicking Mother Nature’s climate change mitigation practices might be most apt. This does not even need to involve complicated and potentially dangerous iron-fertilization and the like – it can be as simple as planting a tree. Or rather some million trees – or even better, not cutting them in the first place.

Cutting trees brings us to a further green technology, which will be explored in next weekend’s Biodiversity Sunday. Also find out, who can eat 365 times more grain than the average person, how the ASEAN can become the energy heart of Asia, and whether we can really technologize our way out.

Read more in part 2

First Published  BusinessMirror 2013-09-07

Anything Grows – A Sustainable Sponge Sun, 09 Nov 2014 12:00:24 +0000 Read more]]> A little brain teaser: Sea roses are reproducing quickly and cover the pond behind your house. The covered area doubles every day. In 48 days the whole pond is covered. How long does it take to cover half the pond?  If your answer is, instead of 24, only one day to cover the entire half of the pond, then you might guess the power exponential growth. This type of growth happens on many different occasions. Just take your kitchen sponge. It smells a bit funny? That is exponential growth at work. A few initial individuals colonize the sponge, feed of the food residues on it and reproduce, reproduce, reproduce. 2, 4, 8, 16, 32, 64, 128, and within no time you end up with myriads of bacteria. After a while though they will reach the limits of the sponge and its food residue resources, and the bacteria start to die, contributing to the nasty smell.

The Power of Growth

What works for bacteria also does for other species, like cockroaches, rabbits – or humans. The latter with a particular success: Within a couple of centuries, the initial few million humans on our own little kitchen sponge grew mind-blowingly fast. In the last 20 years more than 1.6 billion people joined us, now 7.25 billion humans. But how is that even possible?

The buzzword is growth rate. As a rule of thumb, divide 70 by the growth rate and you receive the doubling time of a population. Take the Philippines as an example:  Its growth rate of about 2% is among the highest in Southeast Asia, and the world. The 50 million Filipinos from the mid-1980s doubled 35 years later (70 divided by 2), to now 100 million. In contrast, with a rate of about 0.6%, Thailand only grew from 55 to 70 million inhabitants.

These growth rates are influenced by a number of factors.  Especially the last 100 years have seen a rapid increase in population due to medical advances and massive increase in agricultural productivity, made possible by the Green Revolution. Also political and social factors, such as religion, matter. The comparison between Buddhist Thailand and the Catholic Philippines gives a good example.

But not only social factors distinguish us from bacteria. Besides our population, also a thing we invented grows exponentially – our money. Not on your bank account? Well, worldwide the economy grows exponentially. Take some of the aspiring nations of Asia as examples, with previous growth rates of up to ten percent. Their economy doubles in – 70 divided by 10 – 7 years.  Much faster than population does. That’s great news, however only if you equate economic growth – growth in GDP – with development. Yet, we start to realize the intrinsic flaw in this equation: GDP measures ‘utility’, not welfare. For the GDP a car accident is as beneficial as a hospital bill.

The Ability to Sustain

These three factors – population and economic growth, and our political, social and technological influence on it – leave us humans with the same problems as the bacteria on the sponge. We reached the limits of our resources. Currently we would need one and a half Earths to maintain our population. That’s one and a half times our warming atmosphere to cope with the CO2 we emit; one and a half times Southeast Asia’s 100,000 km² of coral reefs providing livelihood for millions; and, one and a half times the region’s 50 mangrove species protecting the islands’ shores. With no backup sponge, let alone an extra Earth in our kitchen cupboard.

The only difference to the bacteria is that, hopefully, we are a bit smarter to escape our destiny. We have the ability to sustain our presence on the sponge, before dying off.

Rings a bell? The ability to sustain. Sustain-ability. Sustainability is not only the motto of the ASEAN Centre for Biodiversity (ACB). Together with the Deutsche Gesellschaft für Internationale Zusammenarbeit (GIZ) ACB works for the conservation of Southeast Asia’s biodiversity, and its sustainable use.

Sustainability is as old as methuselah, with its 301st birthday this year. It was first formulated, fittingly by the German Carl von Carlowitz in 1713, as the sustained yield of a forest. No more timber could be cut than would regrow. In essence, do not spend more than you earn. Sounds like motherhood and apple pie? Nevertheless, it took another 300 years for this unpalatable truth to trickle down. These days, sustainability has a meteoric career, being mentioned in at least 4000 article titles in academic journals, every year. What is more, sustainability left the realm of science. Just take the brand new ‘Barbie BCause’, ‘for eco-conscious girls who believe that being sustainable is the right thing to do’.

Agreeing with Barbie

The world community agrees with Barbie. During the ultimate sustainability conference in 2012, dubbed Rio+20, member states decided to come up with a brand new compilation of the right things to do – the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). The SDGs are the successors of the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), which had mixed results, to be euphemistic. Undeniably, there have been successes in health, access to infrastructure and increased income. However, the environment is left by the wayside, billions remain poor, the global climate machine is broken, ecological productivity is lost and equality is in the ropes.

The latter issue seems crucial: Making available enough food for the billion hungry people would mean producing only 1% more food. Giving electricity to the 1.4 billion who currently have none would raise global carbon emissions by just 1%. In other words, it is not primarily the needs of the majority of the world’s growing population that threaten the Earth, like the bacteria’s sponge. It is much rather the significantly faster economic growth and the overconsumption of a few.   It seems that the creators of the Development Goals were just not talking about sustainable development. We spend more, than we earn, contradicting good old Carlowitz. Chin up, the MDGs are about to terminate anyway, and next year we can come up with new goals.

There are two options for these goals and the destiny on our sponge. Both revolve around growth.

Green Growth is a path of economic growth that uses natural resources in a sustainable manner. How this is supposed to work will be discussed next week, 13-14 November 2014. During the Green Growth and Sustainable Development Forum 2014 the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) comes together to ‘address the social implications of green growth’. Will inclusive green growth be a solution in an increasingly unequal world, as the 1% from above show? Or is growth itself the problem rather than a solution? Is growth -measured in GDP- really desirable, even if caused by car accidents or pollution? And wasn’t growth in overconsumption the reason for the nasty smell in the first place?

If overconsumption lies at the root of long term environmental issues and social inequalities, what is the alternative to growth then? De-growth. Sounds obvious? At least according to thinkers and activists who argue that reducing consumption does not require individual martyring and a decrease in well-being. Much the opposite, degrowthists want to maximize happiness and well-being through economic and social models that are independent of growth. The world’s largest de-growth conference, in the German city of Leipzig last September showed concrete steps towards a society beyond the imperative of growth, be it Free Money Day, Transition Towns or Degrowth Downunder.

It seems there is no one fits all solution, no magic formula. However, sustainability is far from being an empty formula. It is much more: A framework for orientation, a platform for a committed discourse about a common good, an acceptance of complexity, it is a global, long-term, non-fatalist perspective, it is a vision. We cannot miss the chance to capture and apply this vision in the new Sustainable Development Goals.  A vision for sustain-ability on our little kitchen sponge – without leaving a nasty smell.

Philipp Gassner | Special to the BusinessMirror BusinessMirror – November 8, 2014

give back from Degrowth Conference 2014 on Vimeo.

No Net Loss? – Payment for Environmental Sins Sun, 26 Oct 2014 23:43:22 +0000 Read more]]> At first, Adam and Eve lived happily with God in the Garden of Eden. Then, one sunny day a snake appeared. Innocently, the snake told Adam and Eve how delicious the fruit looked, hanging from the close-by tree. But both knew that God had forbidden them to eat from the fruit. Well, the snake had its ways and after a while managed to tempt them into eating the fruit. After doing so, Adam and Eve became shamed of their nakedness and God expelled them from the Garden. This is how guilt came into this world. Eventually, Adam and Eve were forgiven for their sin, but they had to endure the temporal punishment of toiling in the sun.

This concept of guilt and punishment, according to the teachings of the Roman Catholic Church, is also true in everyday life: If you damage someone’s car, the owner can forgive you, but you still owe the debt of repairing the car. For Catholics –and not only for car drivers – guilt needs to be forgiven. If not, the consequence may be eternal punishment in hell. To be forgiven, Catholics can seek for indulgence, for instance in the form of a public Rosary or the Stations of the Cross.

Green Indulgence

Modern-day sins don’t necessarily come in the form of apples, but we are at risk of losing our Garden of Eden, too. Biodiversity is decreasing, ecosystems are degrading, the climate is warming. Regular reminders like Typhoon Hayan ring a bell that, just like Adam and Eve, we put our paradisiacal planet at peril. Call that an original sin!

Regrettably, there’s no confessional box big enough for the entire Earth. Yet, there are options for a green indulgence. The idea is simple: In 2013 we emitted a record 36 billion tons of CO2, which is 50% more than ocean, forests and other sinks can absorb. Since our planet has one connected atmosphere, we can reduce emissions in some part of the world to compensate for an emission made elsewhere. These so called carbon offsets are already common and traded on two global markets. On the compliance market companies, governments and others buy carbon offsets in order to comply with CO2 caps they are allowed to emit. On the voluntary market everybody can purchase carbon offsets to mitigate their own greenhouse gas emissions. For example, for your recent holiday flight, who can magically take away your emission sins? There is no carbon confession, but the so called Clean Development Mechanism. CDM offsets are typically achieved through financial support of projects that reduce the emission of greenhouse gases, most commonly renewable energy or planting of trees – a lot of trees! Three hundred of them are needed to compensate the CO2 of a single flight from Manila to New York over one year.

No Net Loss

Trees can, at the same time, contribute to biodiversity. However, it is much more complex to compensate for biodiversity loss. Unlike carbon emissions, biodiversity cannot simply be swapped elsewhere. It is hard to equate a Banyan tree in the Philippines with an Oak tree in Germany, or a jungle, or a coral reef. Apparently they don’t even have them there.

Nevertheless, there is a sinfully steep decline in our global biodiversity Garden of Eden, largely due to land use changes and destruction of habitats. And if biodiversity, with all the services it provides, does not get a price tag, who will consider this seemingly free good when building a highway or a goldmine? This is especially true in Southeast Asia where a third of worldwide coral reefs and mangrove forests are threatened, together with the livelihoods for over 500 million people. A sufficient reason for the ASEAN Centre for Biodiversity (ACB) together with the Deutsche Gesellschaft für internationale Zusammenarbeit (GIZ) to support the valuing of the services of the region’s biodiverse ecosystems. PES is one approach: While it’s not the acronym for Payment for Environmental Sins, the scheme offers Payment for Environmental Services. Such services, like cleaning water or providing food, are estimated in the billions. Why not offer incentives to farmers or landowners in exchange for managing their land to provide ecological services?

Placing financial value on biodiversity has created a marketplace for retaining and restoring habitats. Just like carbon offsets aim at carbon neutrality, biodiversity offsets want no net loss. If a biodiverse habitat is destroyed, let’s say a forest to build houses, a different site must be restored. This so called receptor sites should have the same amount, type and quality of habitat at a new location.

This is already being done in 45 programs around the world with an estimated conservation impact of 187,000 hectares annually. North America dominates with offsets worth US$ 3 billion, but also in Asia things are happening, with Japan, Mongolia and Vietnam leading. Recognizing that in forest rich Vietnam over 800 hydropower plants and over 5,000 mineral mines compete with biodiversity, the country is in the process of introducing a biodiversity offset policy. Also Carbon offset policies have reached a considerable, but stagnating size, with the compliance market worth $5.5 billion in 2006 and the voluntary market accounting for $705 million in 2008.

A peculiar example at the crossroad of carbon and biodiversity offsets, provides the Ecuadorian Yasuni National Park. Arguably the most biologically diverse spot on Earth is also home to 20% of Ecuador’s to crude oil reserves. Recognizing this explosive fact, the Yasuní-ITT Initiative promised to spare the park in exchange for compensation from the international community. If funds of at least 50% of the potential profits of the oil reserves were raised, the government would leave them and the park untouched. But despite the engagement of Leonardo DiCaprio, Al Gore and many more the funds were not sufficient.

Coldplay Forests

In addition to the lacking willingness of ‘environmental sinners’ to pay, one can pick holes in the whole concept of biodiversity and carbon confessions. There is a long history how confessions can be abused, starting in the Middle Ages. Greedy commissaries sent professional ‘pardoners’ to sell indulgences to earn the maximum amount of money for their projects. The ‘Butter Tower’ of Rouen Cathedral got its nickname because the funds to build it were raised by the sale of indulgences allowing the use of butter during Lent. This, and other misuse, was famously criticized by Luther in his Ninety-Five Theses, starting the Protestant Reformation.

Perhaps not a reformation, but a word of warning is also due here. The well-known instance of the ‘Coldplay forest’ shows why: The British band supported a tree planting project, which unfortunately resulted in a grove of dead mango trees. Indeed, it is tricky to guarantee for the permanence of tree-planting offsets. And even if the trees survive, they need decades or centuries to grow. Offsetting today’s loss with tomorrow’s benefit is known as ‘forward selling’. This is problematic for stopping biodiversity loss and climate change where every year matters.

Before selling and substituting comes measuring, however, which is as difficult as ecosystems are complex. Area alone is not a good measure of the amount of biodiversity. How many monkeys, mushrooms and maggots might live in one hectare of rainforest, let alone the estimated 10 million yet undescribed species? And how many kilograms of mushrooms are worth one kilogram of monkey, if you need to substitute them? Substituting the social, spiritual and sustenance value of biodiversity for local communities, is even harder to do. Communities can’t just simply move and live elsewhere.

Biodiversity Butter Towers

Technicalities aside, offsetting schemes are also at danger of becoming biodiversity butter towers, giving the guilty a way to pay for absolution rather than changing their behavior: Business as usual without social or political change, at a small cost, to solve two of mankind’s biggest problems. Sounds too good to be true? Perhaps it is!

To recap: We cannot manage what we do not value. It makes sense to speak out just how much our atmosphere and ecosystems are worth for us – and how much inaction could cost us. And it makes sense to finally start paying the stewards of mother nature for their hard work. To make the message heard, money might be the language of choice that everybody understands, from smallholder to big business. The biodiversity business case is a real one. But in addition to carbon confessions we owe the debt for real conservation and real CO2 reduction. Just like the driver at fault in an accident owes his debt. Thus, let’s aim for payment for environmental services, not for environmental sins.

ACB shows how real conservation can be done, promoting the cooperation of scientists, politicians, businessmen and citizens in the region. The 33 ASEAN Heritage Parks are but one example how to conserve and manage Southeast Asia’s biodiversity. On a larger scale, the World Parks Congress to be held this November in Australia will present ‘Parks, people, planet: inspiring solutions’. As a landmark global forum on protected areas it will certainly also discuss about biodiversity indulgences. What indulgences are not -also not the green ones- explains the Catholic online forum ‘Fisheaters’: ‘They are not get out of Hell free cards; they are not the forgiveness of the guilt of sin; they are not permission to commit sins in the future’.

Philipp Gassner | Oct 18, 2014 Special to the BusinessMirror

Mockumentary ‘Biodiversity offsetting, making dreams come true’ from Global Motion

Stubborn Planet – Risk, Ruin, Resilience Mon, 13 Oct 2014 08:01:09 +0000 Read more]]> Imagine, a good old pal of yours gets diagnosed with a serious disease. Would you react like this? “He feels fine, this can’t be happening.” “Why him? It’s not fair!” “I’ll do anything, can’t you stretch it out? A few more years.” “I’m so sad, why bother with anything?”It’s going to be OK. If I can’t fight it, I may as well prepare for it.”

These Five Stages of Grief, described by psychiatrist Elisabeth Kübler-Ross in 1969 are typical for resistance to change. And they also apply if the patient is known as Earth. Suffering from a disease called global warming; the first stage would be Denial, too. Just look at the many climate change deniers who continue to fight an uphill battle against the largest scientific consensus in history about the existence of man-made global warming. Followed by Anger, Bargaining, Depression, let’s hope they also come to Acceptance eventually: “If we can’t fight it, we may as well prepare for it.”

To prepare for climate change and accompanying natural disaster we have to look at risks. Risk can be defined as undesirable consequences of actions, where two things matter: the extent of the damage and the probability of occurrence. For instance, in the very improbably case of a meteorite wiping all the life from our green Earth, the potential damage of the risk is very high. Less extreme, there is risk in our everyday life. To increase the probability of one’s death by one in a million, one can choose to travel 6 minutes by canoe, eat 40 tablespoons of peanut butter, fly 1.000 miles by jet, smoke 1.4 cigarettes or live 2 days in New York’s polluted air. Your peanut butter eating habit aside, the latter gives an indication where many health risks in our lives come from: the environment. Environmental hazards are responsible for an estimated 25% of the total burden of disease worldwide.

Cozy Planet

This burden can be luckily reduced and managed, since the Earth itself is similarly stubborn towards change as we humans are. Call it stubborn or resilient. More precise, resilience is the ability of a system to cope with change and to respond to a disturbance by resisting damage and recovering quickly. One example is the Earth’s delicate climate system itself. The sun is sending us its rays which penetrate the Earth’s surface and escape back to space. Luckily there is a warming blanket around the planet, also known as greenhouse gases, reflecting some of the escaping rays back to the otherwise frosty planet. The most famous of such blankets is carbon dioxide, CO2. If it is too thin, we freeze: 850 million years ago during the Cryogenian Earth resembled a snowball with only 4 ºC, nearly frozen from the poles to the equator and 85% ice cover. Then again you also don’t want the blanket too thick and sweat a lot, like 100 Million years ago during the ‘Cretaceous Warmth’ with average temperatures of 22 ºC. All of the Earth’s glaciers were melted, tropical plants and reptiles were found close to the Earth’s poles and one third of today’s land areas were under water, including the center of the United States. Fortunately, the Earth yo-yoed to a cozy CO2 blanket, under which you can measure a pleasant 13.6 º C, making space for the modern humans to spread to all parts of the world. This was possible through the resilience of geological mechanisms, storing and releasing CO2 for example via forests, swamps or oceans, thus balancing our climate.

Underwater USA

This delicate balance, however, can also be tipped once human activities affect ecosystem resilience too much. And this is happening at the very moment: Reduction of biodiversity, exploitation of natural resources, pollution, land-use, and climate change are increasingly causing regime shifts in ecosystems, often to less desirable and degraded conditions – such as an underwater USA.

Even more than the USA, Southeast Asia and the Pacific suffer from the current global warming and the impacts of natural disasters, mainly due to the large number of people living along the coast and in low-lying islands. Those islands are not the most convenient places to be, once the leftovers from snowball Earth, the polar ice covers melt into the sea. Mind you, sea levels were up to 40 meters higher than today, when temperatures were 4 ºC warmer. As 40 meters are hard to imagine, let’s start with 8.2 mm. That’s the annual sea level rise Australia’s National Tide Facility has measured on the Carteret Islands, Papua New Guinea – the 0.6 km2 small island with a maximum elevation of 1.5 meters which 2,600 people call their home. Or called, to be precise. Coupled with climate change’s tendency towards more severe weather patterns, the island is predicted to be completely submerged next year. Not wanting to wait till they had to swim away, in May 2009, the entire community of Carteret was forced to leave their home for good, becoming the first official climate change refugees.

Climate Change means Ocean Change

But these refugees do not only have to fear rising sea levels. Rapidly growing greenhouse gas concentrations are driving the entire ocean system toward conditions not seen for millions of years. Since oceans absorb more than 90% of the global warming they become warmer, more acidic, change their salinity, their concentration of oxygen and their circulation patterns. This leads among others to a decline in phytoplankton, a critical part of our planetary life support system. Mind you, these tiny green ‘plant drifters’ produces half of the oxygen we breathe. Another grim example of what we have to expect gave the 1998 El Niño event, when exceptionally high temperatures caused the bleaching and death of 16% of all corals worldwide. Experts agree that under current scenarios 90% of coral reefs will have dramatically changed or disappeared by mid-century. If, and when they go, they will take with them about one-third of the world’s marine biodiversity, over a billion people rely for their daily food.

These people are all too often poor people, who pay for disaster with their lives. In 2009, six of the ten countries with the highest mortality rates and GDP losses from natural disasters were in Asia, with 82 % of all lives lost in disasters since 1997. The regions will also bear the highest adaptation cost of the estimated $100 billion a year in a 2° warmer world.

How can this happen? Isn’t the world with its ecosystem supposed to be stubborn towards change and thus very resilient? Let’s go back to 1983, when a sudden, unexpected collapse of the Caribbean coral reefs occurred. Why had the resilient ecosystem become so vulnerable? Following several centuries of overfishing, the once diverse community of herbivores, grazing on algae, had been extinguished. This left the control of the algae cover almost entirely to a single species of sea urchin. When this species abruptly disappeared, the reefs choked immediately below the deadly algae layer. They had shifted irreversibly what caused huge economic losses.

Insurance on the Cheap

To prevent economic losses it is common sense to take out an insurance. Likewise, here the diversity of algae eaters acted as natural insurance, providing resilience. Alright, better safe than sorry then. Let’s get an insurance against the risks of climate change and its natural disasters. But who will provide this? Surely not AXA or Allianz! The answer waits just around the corner of the beach of Carteret Island: a couple of inconspicuous, torpedo-shaped seedlings in the sand. Wading a bit further in the chest-deep, brackish, tea-coloured water, we can see towering giants. 25 meter tall Mangroves, which are the best example of biodiversity resilience – even in the face of the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami, the deadliest natural disasters in recorded history. When the rumbling 30 meter wave hit three mangrove-sheltered villages of the Cuddalore District on India’s East shore, the lucky inhabitants experienced the cushion effect of mangroves. Already 30 trees per 100 square meters reduce the maximum flow of a tsunami by more than 90 %. Satellite photographs remarkably show how in contrast the two neighboring villages without mangroves were found in shreds.

And this trick does not only work to protect from the odd tsunami, but also from much more frequent calamities, such as typhoons and floods. Even though mangroves can only be planted in an appropriate habitat with the right sea stream and sand dynamics, sometimes involving restoration efforts, the potential is huge. No wonder that Vietnam decided to plant and protect nearly 12,000 hectares of mangroves, spending US$1 million but saving annual expenditures of well over US$7 million, on dyke maintenance alone. Try to get such interest rate from your bank.

Besides planting and protecting mangroves for better resilience, climate and disaster resilience has become a major goal for national and international bodies. Efforts encompass social, economic, technological, and political strategies that are being implemented at all scales of society, from local community action to global treaties. The International Day for Disaster Reduction, October 13, for instance, encourages every citizen and government to take part in building more disaster resilient communities, nations and regions. In the region of Southeast Asia the ASEAN Centre for Biodiversity (ACB) addresses the problem in numerous ways, with support from the German Development Cooperation’s (GIZ) Project on the nexus between biodiversity and climate change.

Blue Carbon Locked into the Soil

The fact that both are closely inter-linked, brings us back to the Acceptance of the problem: “If we can’t fight it, we may as well prepare for it.” But wouldn’t it be better to fix climate change in the first place, rendering an insurance against it obsolete? Just take the inconspicuous mangroves who point at the solution by addressing the root cause. This cause is the boosted carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere, which lead to the warming greenhouse gas effect. Just like any other tree, mangroves capture carbon from the air and store it in their wood. But mangroves do an even better job. To discover their secret, we have to dig deep in the muddy, grubby ground. In the rich, tidally submerged soil mangroves store about 90% of the fixed carbon in the form of organic material, which decomposes very slowly. Thus they continuously lock huge amounts of blue carbon into the soil under the sea level: 1,000 tons per hectare, more than three times as much as tropical forest on land. That’s true resilience towards climate change, transforming the five stages of grief to: Denial, Anger, Bargaining, Depression, Fight!

First Published 19 Jul 2014. Written by Philipp Gassner | Special to the BusinessMirror


The Wolf Whisperer – Steward of the Garden of Eden Thu, 02 Oct 2014 14:37:05 +0000 Read more]]> There was a wolf, terrifying and ferocious, who devoured men as well as animals.’ Naturally, the townsfolk of Gubbio were frightened and didn’t dare to leave their houses after nightfall. Only one brave champion was prepared to help. He had compassion upon the residents, and went up into the hills to find the wolf. Before long, all his companions had fled, petrified by the thought of the wolf. But he carried on. When he finally happened upon the beast, he made the sign of the cross and ordered: ‘Brother Wolf, you do much harm in these parts and you have done great evil’. Marvelously the wolf lay down and was tamed. The people learned to feed the wolf regularly and in return, the wolf would no longer hunt them. When the townspeople asked the hero for his name, he simply answered ‘Francis’.

No, it wasn’t Pope Francis. But indeed, Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio of Argentina, upon his election as Pope on March 2013, chose Francis as his papal name in honor of our hero, St Francis of Assisi. As legends like this one have it, the saint had a great love for animals and the environment. For this reason, in 1979, Pope John Paul II declared St Francis to be the Patron of Ecology. In his honor, today, October 4, Catholics celebrate the feast day of St Francis, who preached the duty of the people to protect and enjoy nature as the stewards of God’s creation.

Worthy of Your Respect

But doesn’t Genesis 1:28 state: ‘God blessed them and said to them, ‘Be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth and subdue it. Rule over the fish of the sea and the birds of the air and over every living creature that moves on the ground’? Some have understood this key bible quote as the separation of man and nature, giving people the right to exploit the environment.  St. Francis would strongly disagree. And for good reason: just look at Noah’s Ark which was not only for humans but all creatures. Also Adam, stemming from the Hebrew word ‘adamah’, means ground or earth, implying the connection between human beings and the earth. Not surprisingly, a broad range of Christian institutions are engaged in the environmental movement.

To dispel doubts let’s look at another religion that looks for advice in the Old Testament. Rabbi Daniel B. Fink clarifies that humans, in the Jewish interpretation, ‘are the stewards of the Garden of Eden, but vitally, they are looking after it for God, not for themselves.


Religions of the world, mapped by distribution. Wikimedia Common


Next to Judaism with some 14 million and Christianity with 2.1 billion followers, there is a third Abrahamic religion. With 1.6 billion, Islam is the second largest world religion, and has a word to say about the environment, too: Devote thyself single-mindedly to the Faith, and thus follow the nature designed by Allah, the nature according to which He has fashioned mankind. There is no altering the creation of Allah‘. Surah 30:30 in the Qur’an, leaves no doubt. Just like in the Jewish and Christian faiths, Muslims are instructed to look after the environment and mustn’t destroy it. Coherent with Judaism, humans are only managers of the earth and not proprietors.

Also 1 billion Hindus don’t disagree. ‘For, so sustained by sacrifice, the gods will give you the food of your desire. Who so enjoys their gift, yet gives nothing, is a thief, no more nor less‘. In this way, Bhagavad Gita 3:12, part of the Hindu epic Mahabharata, teaches people that they should use the world selflessly to maintain the natural balance. Thus, they can repay God for the gifts he has given. By living a simple life, humans learn to enjoy spiritual happiness instead of a material one, which exhausts natural resources. The Mahabharata knows: ‘If there is but one tree of flowers and fruit within a village, that place is worthy of your respect.’

Preaching Water but Drinking Wine?

What respect is for Hindus, is ‘loving-kindness’ for about 375 million Buddhists: All beings deserve equal levels of empathy, no matter if elephant, fruit fly or human. Buddha himself explained why: ‘Because the cause was there the consequences followed; because the cause is there, the effects will follow’. At its core, Buddhism is about the interrelationship between karma –the cause- and its effects. Humans are intertwined with natural systems and if they damage the Planet they damage themselves. Peculiarly, in the Buddhist story of Creation, the thriving Garden of Eden is destroyed by greedy humans.

Sadly, this sounds all too familiar. If we imagined the earth was 46 years old, the current damage –be it biodiversity loss or climate change- has been done in the last 60 seconds of the earth’s life, with the spreading out of humans.

What had happened then? Are we all preaching water but drinking wine? Are the critics of Cristian beliefs right that the dualism of man and nature gives an excuse for exploitation? And doesn’t the yearly pilgrimage of 200 million people itself leave a huge carbon footprint?

There is no short answer, but whether we are actively religious or not, religion influences our everyday lives. From our legal systems to our constitution and governments and logically to how we think about the environment: Are we an equal part of a greater unity? Or is this unity only there to serve the human race? Modern science speaks up for the former, highlighting the dependence of humans on ecosystem services, such as fresh air and water. As do many religious movements and authorities, be it the Dalai Lama, stressing environmental protection in Tibet, or the Green Pilgrimage Network. The latter recognizes the mentioned environmental impact of the millions of spiritual journeys and wants to make them more environmentally friendly. Likewise, Indonesia’s fatwa from January 2014 shows that religion can support sustainable behavior. As the first Islamic edict, addressing ecosystem conservation, the fatwa instructs Muslims to stop the illegal trafficking of wildlife. The responsible council put it in plain words: ‘People can escape government regulation, but they cannot escape the word of God.’ This is good news for the ASEAN Centre for Biodiversity (ACB) which coordinates the conservation of Southeast Asia’s biodiversity, with support from the Deutsche Gesellschaft für interantionale Zusammenarbeit (GIZ).

Know Your Peace

Also beyond Southeast Asia the important link between religion and conservation has been recognized. In 1986, HRH Prince Philip invited five leaders of five of the world religions- to speak out how their faith gives good reason to care for nature. As there are more than five world religions, by 1995 Baha’i, Daoism, Jainism and Sikhism had joined the declaration. What other name could the statement receive, but Assisi Declarations on Nature, paying tribute to our wolf whisperer and hero of the environment, St Francis of Assisi.

In the spirit of St Francis, also more than 200 million people worship nature. While indigenous religions, for their vast diversity, do not constitute a world religion, they have much in common. Most indigenous traditions have a deep awareness of the ‘lifeway’, the integral relationship of symbolic and material life. A web of human behaviors within the powerful spiritual world of the local bioregion is described and passed on by indigenous peoples in narrative stories. These stories are the base for traditional environmental knowledge. Christopher Hansard, part of the Canadian First Nations Environmental Network, shares one: ‘The world, the earth, two planets, one of nature, one of man, two worlds in collision, soon we will need to choose, in which world, we shall live, look into your senses, and follow them to their end, and there you will find your place, the world is a hunger, so is the earth, the world is glamour, the earth is love, make your choice, know your peace.’

Surely, St Francis knew his peace. One day he was travelling with his companions. They arrived to a place full of trees bursting with birds. The birds surrounded Francis, captivated by the power of his voice, and not one of them took to the air. Francis said to his companions: ‘Wait for me while I go to preach to my sisters the birds’.

First Published ACB, 02.10.2014

What do you know about Religion and the Environment? Take the test here!

Speechless Diversity – Talking ‘bout the Evolution Sun, 10 Aug 2014 11:21:14 +0000 Read more]]> He must have felt lonely. Very lonely, as he couldn’t talk to anybody. At least not in his native language. The New Guinean Lua had indeed only a single speaker in the whole wide world, as recorded in 2000. Also other residents of the island won’t have a big debate club. The language Bo is spoken by 85 people, Likum and Hoia Hoia by 80, Ak by 75, Karawa by 63, Abom by 15 and Guramalum has only three speakers. In contrast, New Guinea features around 1,000 languages, making it the world’s most linguistically diverse place, where it is not unlikely to be greeted with Hello, Tabeaya, Aelak, Koyao, Selamt, Kawonak, Nayak, Brata or Nareh. Being ennea-lingual certainly dwarfs growing up with two languages.
Around 7000 languages are counted globally. But why? Wouldn’t a single global language make life so much easier? It would at least have avoided famous translation mistakes like the fast food slogan ‘finger lickin’ good’, which came out in Chinese as ‘eat your fingers off’. Also the Dairy Association’s campaign ‘Got Milk?’ would certainly not have translated to: ‘Are You Lactating?’ in Mexico.

The Awiakay language of Papua New Guinea, Embedded from The Guardian Youtube Channel


Murmuring Mates

This would also not have happened to animals which communicate, but don’t formulate words. While Birds only have their songs, primates are a bit more sophisticated with vocalization, hand gestures and body language; however don’t have a spoken language. In contrast, our ability to express complex and infinite thoughts with spoken language is one of the ways we are separated from our primate counterparts by evolution.
And evolution has its funny ways: just take feathers. They were an adaptation to keep freezing birds warm, and were only later used for flying. Likewise, between 30,000 and 100,000 years ago language developed as a result of other evolutionary processes in the brain. Cognitive structures that were used for things like tool making or rule learning happened to be also good for complex communication, as linguist Noam Chomsky and evolutionary biologist Stephen Jay Gould argue.
Nevertheless, language is not a mere, random byproduct of evolution. Think the turtle and its shell which is an evolutionary adaptation, making a population change over time to better survive. Survive for example a bird in its brand new, cozy feather dress, picking at the poor reptile. A shell-protected animal would be more likely to survive than its naked fellow, and the innovation of the shell passed on from generation to generation. That’s natural selection at work. According to the scientists Steven Pinker and Paul Bloom, similarly, Homo sapiens benefited big time, when they began to communicate while hunting, farming and defending themselves: ‘Watch out Arrg, there is a huge saber-toothed tiger over there!’ This gave a distinct survival advantage over their mumbling, murmuring mates, helping language use to spread. Moreover, language helped with successful social interaction. It is hard to imagine using Facebook without any language.

Tree-climbing Kangaroos

This might explain one language but not 7000. To better understand this diversity let’s go back to the second largest Island of the planet: New Guinea is not only linguistically diverse, but also in terms of biological abundance, harboring for instance the tree-climbing kangaroos and more orchid species than found anywhere else in the world. As seen with the turtle and the birds, both language and biological diversity are products of evolution and have evolved in remarkably similar ways. As a result, biodiversity hotspots, such as tropical forests feature high linguistic diversity, whereas deserts for example have few languages. Higher biodiversity can support larger cultural diversity. Both diversities depend on the same environmental factors like temperature, rainfall or topography. When animal populations get isolated long enough from each other, for instance by a mountain range, they split in new, different species. If this happens to communities, they may form new, different languages.

Language diversity is traditionally preserved by indigenous peoples who passed down their knowledge orally from generation to generation. In this way 90% of the world’s languages are spoken by less than 100,000 people. These languages are key to maintain the encyclopedia of traditional indigenous knowledge, cultural identity, traditional heritage and customary laws. Such laws are for instance the base for systems of forest governance that in turn foster the sustainable use and protection of biodiversity.

Inundated Island, Lost Languages

Since biological, linguistic and cultural diversity are inseparable and mutually reinforcing, it is not surprising that they also share the same fate: A quarter of all languages are now threatened with extinction. Linguistic diversity is declining as fast as biodiversity – about 30% since 1970. Different to endangered plants and animals, languages do not usually go extinct because an entire population of speakers dies out. Instead, they are lost within a few generations, as the speakers of a minority, often indigenous language change to a more prevailing one. Be it names, uses, and preparation of medicines, farming methods, spiritual and religious beliefs and practices, or animal and plant species – their loss is irreplaceable and irreparable. At the end of the day, both diversities are fading due to human population growth, increasing consumption and economic globalization, shrinking the differences between parts of the world. When an indigenous language is lost, so too is traditional knowledge on how to maintain biological diversity and address environmental challenges, such as climate change.

Climate change, ironically, often affects indigenous peoples the most, as they are closely dependent on the environment and its resources. This aggravates the difficulties already faced by vulnerable indigenous communities, including human rights violations, discrimination, unemployment or political and economic marginalization: Be it water shortage from shrinking glaciers and snow cover in the Himalayas, droughts and fires in the Amazon region, or vegetation loss that impacts on traditional cattle and goat farming in Africa’s dry Kalahari Basin. Also Papua New Guinea is affected, like much of the Pacific region which is comprised of small island states, the traditional lands of many indigenous peoples. But the sea level rise on PNG’s low Carteret Islands made its 2,600 indigenous peoples the first official climate change refugees, just before their island is predicted to drown next year.

Clashing Cultures

Paradoxically, indigenous communities worldwide contribute little to greenhouse emissions themselves. On the contrary, they are vital to the resilience of many ecosystems they live in. Often indigenous peoples react to the impacts of climate change in creative ways, drawing on their traditional knowledge: Take floating, flood protected vegetable gardens In Bangladesh, planted mangrove storm protection in Vietnam, or wind and solar power on tribal lands in The Great Plains of the US. These valuable contributions by indigenous communities are more and more recognized, after centuries of clashing cultures. All too often, there was conflict between indigenous peoples and conservationists, who saw native people as a problem to be solved by eviction. One of the oldest examples was the conflict in Yosemite Valley, California which became a national park in 1914 with frequently violent expulsions of the Miwok Native Americans who had lived in the valley for already 4,000 years. A more recent, sad reminder was the bizarre scenes of indigenous peoples who, armed with bows and arrows, clashed with the police, near Rio’s Maracanã stadium just weeks before the World Cup in Brazil.

Virtual Villages

It was in Brazils Kari-Oca villages where the Indigenous Peoples Earth Charter was affirmed in 1992, uniting one voice against the exploitation of natural resources upon which indigenous peoples depend. It took another 15 years until the UN General Assembly adopted the Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples on 13 September 2007, emphasizing the rights of indigenous peoples to ‘live in dignity, to maintain and strengthen their own institutions, cultures and traditions and to pursue their self-determined development’. This year the second international Decade for Action and Dignity ends with the International Day of the World’s Indigenous Peoples, 9th of August. Its theme ‘Indigenous peoples building alliances: Honoring treaties, agreements and other constructive arrangements’, gives a vision of peace, friendship and cooperation, which is supported in the region for instance by the ASEAN Centre for Biodiversity (ACB). Supported by the Deutsche Gesellschaft für Internationale Zusammenarbeit (GIZ), ACB focuses on just and sustainable access and benefit sharing of Southeast Asia’s vibrant biodiversity.
Protecting this biodiversity goes hand in hand with maintaining the rich diversity in culture and language. Language rights for indigenous peoples can be a first step, ensuring the recognition in constitutions and laws, to be educated in one’s mother tongue and to establish and have access to media in indigenous languages.

A new kind of media is tested in the village of Erindiroukambe, in the Namibian Kalahari desert. 3D visualizations of the village on tablet computers are supposed to help residents embed their knowledge in a virtual village, stored for future generations. Kasper Rodil, at Aalborg University in Denmark, is currently developing a drawing app for the tablet ‘which imitates the way elders draw diagrams in the sand to explain what they mean’. Let’s see… Perhaps soon Facebook will be used in Bo, Likum, Hoia Hoia, Ak, Karawa, Abom and Guramalum.


First Published 09 Aug 2014 Written by Philipp Gassner / Special to the BusinessMirror

(Car-)Bon Voyage – Small Islands in Big Trouble Thu, 22 May 2014 08:53:53 +0000 Read more]]> The award as the sexiest volcano alive goes to Eyjafjallajökull. As a tongue twister Eyjafjallajökull definitely beat Mount Pinatubo to it. Go ahead, try it yourself: ˈeːɪjaˌfjatl̥aˌjœːkʏtl̥. But as a Volcano, Mount Pinatubo won the race, with its eruption not far from Manila in the summer of 1991, 10,000 times larger than Eyjafjallajökull’s four years ago. Eyjafjallajökull, earns the trophy anyway since it is the world’s first carbon neutral volcano, too. Sounds odd, considering that volcanic eruptions emit millions of tons of carbon. Well, one way for carbon neutrality is a carbon offset – the reduction in emissions of carbon made in order to compensate for an emission made elsewhere, be it a car, a factory or a volcano. But who would pay to offset a volcano? The owner? Officially Eyjafjallajökull belongs to Iceland. Already short on cash the country luckily wasn’t charged for the volcano’s emission. Instead Eyjafjallajökull took care of itself. Its ash plumb grew from the east coast of Canada and the US, to as far west as Siberia and Mongolia, grounding countless commercial airline flights. Thus the planes were kept from emitting CO2 – more or less the same amount as Eyjafjallajökull released: The first carbon-neutral volcanic eruption.


The June 12, 1991 eruption column from Mount Pinatubo taken from Clark Air Base. U.S. Geological Survey Photograph taken by Richard P. Hoblitt. Wikimedia Common


Chilly 100 ppm

But why even talk about carbon neutrality? Let’s see and go on a journey 300 ppm ago. For those who wonder: ppm is short for parts per million, in this case 100 parts of carbon dioxide per one million parts of air. 100 out of 1000.000 doesn’t sound a lot. And it wasn’t. That’s why scientist call the period of the planet 850 million years ago ‘Cryogenian’ or ‘Snowball Earth’, nearly frozen from the poles to the equator.

The problem at hand is the fabulous fusion reactor in the sky, also known as sun, sending us its rays which penetrate the Earth’s surface and escape back to space. Luckily there is a warming blanket around the planet, also known as greenhouse gases, reflecting some of the escaping rays back to the otherwise frosty planet. The most famous of such blankets is carbon dioxide, CO2. But 100 ppm CO2 only make a rather thin blanket leaving the planet freezing with only 4 ºC and 85% ice cover. A true snowball.

Here come our friends in, the sexy volcanoes. Take Mount Pinatubo. On first sight he is a very cool guy, or rather a cooling guy: In addition to CO2 he exhales sulfur dioxide, too. If CO2 is a blanket, sulfur dioxide is a mirror, increasing the global cloud cover so much, that the suns was reflected and the Northern Hemisphere cooled by 0.6°C for 2 years. But if you get to know Pinatubo, Eyjafjallajökull and their buddies, you see that they are hot indeed. Or rather heating. Their enormous CO2 emissions, that would make every smoky coal plant jealous, rendered the Earth’s blanket ever more cosy and thick.

Cosy 230 ppm

Thick and thin blankets came and went throughout the history of the Earth, driven by volcanos among other heating or cooling phenomena. Like a yo-yo, our planet was fluctuating between two dominant climate states: the greenhouse earth and the icehouse or snowball earth. Since nobody wants to live on a snowball, Earth fortunately continued to warm and ended up with a cosy 230 ppm thick CO2 blanket. Under this blanket you could measure pleasant 13.6 º C, 10.000 years ago during the so called Holocene. The ice covers from the last big ice age melt down to 15%, making space for homo sapiens, the modern humans, to spread to all parts of the world and develop civilizations.

Not being sidetracked to stay warm in the cold anymore, Homo sapiens tried to by worthy of its name, and smartly invented lots of stuff like agriculture, and the steam engine. The former helped the hunter and gatherer society of some 15 million people globally to grow to billions, the latter provided the energy for them to move and produce stuff – and more and more CO2 blanket for Earth’s atmosphere from burning fossil fuels. Thus, this gloriously smart invention marked the industrial revolution and the dawn of the so called Anthropocene. The Age of humans, who started to compete with the sexy volcanos to have a global impact on the Earth’s ecosystems and atmosphere, now having 290 ppm CO2 and 13.7 ºC.

From 290 to dripping 400 ppm

290 ppm, 13.7 ºC. Cosy enough for people to thrive. This is when we should have stopped. This is when thinks went wrong. How wrong, shows a peep on the ‘Keeling Curve’, famously displaying rising CO₂ levels as a steep, linear curve. A curve that reached the symbolic threshold of 400 parts per million one year ago on May 9th 2013. How do 400 ppm feel again? Hard to say, since the last time the atmosphere showed such levels 4.5 millions years ago, humans where not yet around to let us know. What we do know, however is that back then the Arctic was ice-free, savannah spread across the Sahara desert, coral reefs suffered mass die-offs, temperatures were 4 ºC warmer than today and polar temperatures even 10 ºC. What that means for the leftovers from snowball Earth, the polar ice covers, you can easily experience on a hot day if you don’t lick your ice-cream fast enough: It melts. And drips. Not on your fresh white shirt as chocolate ice-cream tends to do, but in the oceans. Their levels were up to 40 meters higher than today.

As 40 meters are hard to imagine, let’s start with 8.2 mm. That’s the annual sea level rise Australia’s National Tide Facility has measured on the Carteret Islands, Papua New Guinea. The 0.6 square kilometers island with a maximum elevation of 1.5 meters 2,600 people call their home. Or called, to be precise. Coupled with climate change’s tendency towards more severe weather patterns, the island is predicted to be completely submerged next year. Not wanting to wait till they had to swim away, 5 years ago in May 2009 the entire community of Carteret was forced to leave their home for good, becoming the first official climate change refugees.

Sun Come Up von shootingpeople – Embedded from

Reggae, Mambo, Reggaeton

And they won’t be the last. Just remember the recent catastrophic climate events, such as the ‘Dust Bowl’ like North American drought 2012–14, costing $35 billion in the Midwest alone, or typhoon Haiyan, one of the strongest tropical cyclones ever recorded, killing thousands. Such auspices are felt by so called Small Island Developing States (SIDS) first – and not by coincidence. Their small size and isolation makes them vulnerable to environmental disasters and climate change, while the 32 SIDS of the Caribbean, the Pacific, Africa, the Indian Ocean and South China Sea contribute little to climate change themselves. Their combined population of 63.2 million people lives in an intimate relationship with nature and the oceans. Fish contributes at least half of total animal protein intake in some small islands and Pacific Tuna fisheries alone more than 50% of their export. Coral reefs provide an estimated $ 375 billion per year in goods and services to the world. Also on land, small islands are rich in biological diversity and home to many endemic species, found nowhere else on Earth. The Seychelles, Comoros and Mascarene islands in the Indian Ocean for instance hold numerous critically endangered bird species, amphibians, reptiles and insects. Thus, Small Islands make a contribution to global biodiversity that is out of proportion to their land area. But they are not only biodiversity hot spots. Reggae, Mambo, Reggaeton, Bob Marley, Tito Puente or Rihanna all come from Small Islands, making them cultural hotspots, with 28 World Heritage Sites.

400 ppm: Leave or Change

But in a 400ppm world these hotspots are at peril: Coral reefs are slowly bleaching in warming water to finally die off. Of the 724 recorded animal extinctions in the last 400 years, half were of island species, and at least 90% of the bird species that have become extinct in that period were island-dwellers. And also human island-dwellers like the people of Carteret have to leave.

Leave or change. And for the necessary change, the small size of Small Islands can actually be a blessing.  Many SIDS, including the Maldives, Tuvalu and several Caribbean island states, are working to achieve climate neutrality. Unlike our carbon neutral friend Eyjafjallajökull these states want to get there, using renewable energy or leading the way in ocean conservation efforts. Also some of the largest Marine Protected Areas in the world are being established in the Pacific, supported by initiatives such as the Micronesia Challenge, the Caribbean Challenge Initiative, the Coral Triangle Initiative and the Phoenix Islands Protected Area. In Southeast Asia the ASEAN Centre for Biodiversity aims to protect Island Biodiversity, assisted by GIZ, the German Development Cooperation. In this spirit the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) announced ‘Island Biodiversity’ to be the theme of the International Day for Biodiversity (IDB) on May 22, 2014, coinciding with the designation by the United Nations of 2014 as the ‘International Year of Small Island Developing States.’

These efforts show that SIDS are ideal locations for pilot projects, which can then be rolled out in other countries on a larger scale. There is hope that they can be the change they want to see in the world, as President Mohamed Nasheed, his cabinet and colorful fish made clear. You heard right, they were surrounded by reef fish, when they famously met underwater in October 2009, to highlight the threat of global warming to the Maledives.

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Tropical 1000 or Save 350 ppm?

These threats will increase as CO₂ levels keep rising. And they are rising at an unprecedented speed: Naturally an increase of only 10 ppm would need at least 1,000 years. But the world’s scientists agree in the latest emissions scenarios of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), that we could reach 1000ppm already by the end of the century. Such levels were last seen 100 Million years ago during the ‘Cretaceous Warmth’ with average temperatures of 22 ºC. All of the Earth’s glaciers were melt, tropical plants and reptiles were found close to the Earth’s poles and one third of today’s land areas were under water, including the center of the United States. Let’s rather go back to 350ppm, which are considered save for people and the environment as we know it, including Small Island. We should learn from them, or from Eyjafjallajökull, how to finally become carbon neutral.

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A journey through Earth’s history Embedded from


First Published  17 May 2014 Written by Philipp Gassner / Special to the BusinessMirror

I want to fly away – Destination Flyways Sat, 10 May 2014 09:12:48 +0000 Read more]]> ‘Take only memories and leave only footprints’ charms the travel brochure in bright letters. Also the scenery sounds to die for, doesn’t it? ‘A romantic landscape of coastal tundra, near to crystal clear coastal lagoons and bays.’ Let alone the food: ‘Enjoy our three course menu with a fresh variety of larval invertebrates, midges, mosquitoes, flies, beetles, and spiders. Perfected with a juicy smoothie of selected grass seeds and berries.’ It’s definitely time for a holiday.

Mr. Piper couldn’t agree more. Have you met Mr. Piper? Mr. Sand Piper. He is a bit lonely and bored by his wintery home in Myanmar, Thailand and Vietnam, and by the same old cousin of shrimps and other boring see food. So he doesn’t hesitate long and books the advertised adventure trip to northeastern Russia along the Bering Sea coast of the Chukotsk peninsula and southwards down the Kamchatka peninsula.

Mr. Piper, the Spoon-billed Sandpiper (Eurynorhynchus pygmeus) is only one of the hundreds of bird species travelling the East Asia - Australasian flyway. Photo Courtesy of Smith Sutibut

Mr. Piper, the Spoon-billed Sandpiper (Eurynorhynchus pygmeus) is only one of the hundreds of bird species travelling the East Asia – Australasian flyway. Photo Courtesy of Smith Sutibut


After 8,000 exhausting kilometers, with his neighbor annoyingly close to him and the board entertainment system broken, Mr. Piper finally arrives at the Arctic Circle in the final days of May. The brochure didn’t promise too much: excellent food, stunning scenery and on top lots of handsome girls. The lonely days are over. He immediately begins displaying his best suit he brought. Travel in stile he always says. And before long he meets his dream girl, they get married and live happily ever after. Too good to be true? It was! His wife leaves him only three weeks later and heads back home. Poor Mr. Piper stays behind with their children they just got.

Surely by now you guessed that Mr. Piper is a bird, if the larvae diet didn’t already give him away. He is a migratory Spoon-billed Sandpiper to be more precise. And after his chicks reach fledging age he too departs, with them following the 8,000 km south on their own a few weeks later.

Lay Over Stepping Stones

So to say, Mr. Piper is one of the one billion international tourists every year, spending US$ 1.03 trillion in 2011 alone. But this industry is dwarfed by the billions of migratory birds that set out to travel the world. Mr. Piper doesn’t like to travel alone. He flies together with 200 fellow waterbird species using twice a year the East Asia – Australasian Flyway, connecting Russia to Southeast Asia and Australia. As they travel along, conveniently they don’t have to worry about passports and visas, since they don’t mind any political borders that they cross.


Main international flyways of bird migration, Wikimedia Creative Common


However, one thing they couldn’t get rid of are lay overs. But instead of trying to sleep on an uncomfortable bench in the departure hall of Manila, Jakarta or Tokyo Airport, they use networks of sites that act like ‘stepping stones’ along flyways for resting, feeding, breeding and wintering. Thus spanning continents and oceans, used by a myriad of bird species, flyways represent one of the most spectacular and valuable phenomenon of the world’s natural heritage.

Pollen Luggage

This heritage is used by plenty of migratory animals that are key components of the ecosystems that support all life on Earth. For instance their luggage: Instead of sunscreen and a camera they bring lots of pollen and seeds with them, contributing to ecosystem structure and function. Moreover, they regulate the number of species in ecosystems and provide food for other animals. Animals like us humans – through subsistence, recreational and commercial hunting and fishing. In this way they also have a great significance in many cultures – in legends, stories, religions, medicine and customs, or in the way we measure time and experience seasons. Not surprisingly there is a great deal of people preferring to watch them over eating them: Mr. Piper and co. attract a lot of so called eco-tourists such as whale watchers or bird spotters. The latter already being three million people, give a hint that eco-tourism one of the fastest growing travel sectors in the world.

Quite aware of this, the World Tourism Organization (UNWTO) partnered up with the World Migratory Bird Day, May 10.-11.2014. This year’s theme ‘Destination Flyways: Migratory Birds and Tourism’ promotes building local sustainable tourism by linking together key migratory bird sites, local communities and the global wildlife watching industry – with benefits for both people and migratory birds.

Seawalls and CO2

To grasp the importance of this effort, we could ask Mr. Piper who is one of only 100 breeding pairs remaining in the wild. Some shorebirds show annual declines of nine % and third of the bird species in the flyway are already critically threatened. Why? Mind you, this region is also home to 45 % of the world’s human population, putting many bird sites under threat from land reclamation and degradation. Just take one example of a stepping stone being lost: Saemangeum, the largest seawall in the world, eliminated one of the Yellow Sea’s most important shorebird refueling habitats, which hosted half a million migrating shorebirds.

But Mr. Piper’s peers also face more indirect threats, such as habitat fragmentation and degradation caused by climate change. While Mr. Piper emits only a few kilos of carbon dioxide on his 16.000 km travel, humans are not as frugal. For the same trip the average airline passage would emit more than 1.5 tons of carbon dioxide. And since they are produced at cruising altitudes high in the atmosphere, they trigger a series of chemical reactions and atmospheric effects that have a multiplying warming effect. Including this effect one passenger emits an equivalent of close to 4 tons. This is four times the emissions of the average Filipino, a year. Thus civil aircraft –ironically fundamental for international tourism, accounts for two to six percent of global warming, with emissions having risen by 83 % since 1990.

Unfortunately this is not the only environmental impact of tourism, consuming vast amounts of energy, water, land and habitats. Mount Everest’s damaged habitats and slopes littered with garbage from countless tourists, deforestation and water scarcity at the Western Indian coast or the loss of Mr. Pipers habitat in Saemangeum are but some reminders.

No Passport, no Boarders

Luckily, governments, conservation organizations, scientists, and others around the world work together to conserve Mr. Piper’s and other migratory birds’ habitats. For instance habitats in the East Asia – Australasian flyway, the ASEAN Centre for Biodiversity deals with. Its protected area management, supported by GIZ, the German Development Cooperation, focuses on important stepping stones in the region.

Lots of such stones are also to be found in 119 States in the African-Eurasian flyway, used by 255 fellow bird species of Mr. Piper. The Agreement on the Conservation of African-Eurasian Migratory Waterbirds (UNEP/AEWA) aims to conserve those, from the northern reaches of Canada and Greenland, across Europe, the Middle East and Central Asia to the southern tip of Africa.

However, since birds don’t have a passport and don’t know political boarders, international efforts are also crucial. The Convention on the Conservation of Migratory Species of Wild Animals (CMS) under the aegis of the United Nations Environment Program is concerned with the conservation of wildlife and habitats on a global scale. As is BirdLife International, a partnership of 116 independent national NGOs.

Within this framework, sustainable tourism has its role to play: Planning and management can dramatically reduce the impact on environments and bird habitats, and help locals to conserve and benefit from their biodiversity. But an even more important role plays the sustainable tourist, respecting local cultures, supporting local economies and being environmentally conscious. The brochure was right after all: Take only memories and leave only footprints.



First Published ASEAN BIODIVERSITY UPDATES , SPECIAL ISSUE, MAY 2014, by Philipp Gassner

A Healthy Risk? Ancient Answers Mon, 07 Apr 2014 07:21:22 +0000 Read more]]> One hot summer day in ancient Sicily thousands of years ago, Noble Damocles is guest at a banquet of his tyrant king Dionysius. Surrounded by magnificence, power and authority Damocles envies the ruler and exclaims: ‘My king, you are truly extremely fortunate’. Promptly Dionysius offers to switch chairs with Damocles, so that Damocles can taste that very fortune. When Damocles accepts the proposal and sits down in the throne surrounded by every extravagance, Dionysius had arranged a huge, razor-sharp sword hanging above the throne, held only by a single hair of a horse’s tail.

Sounds like quite a health risk to take, doesn’t it? Let’s have a closer look….

We can define risks as undesirable consequences of actions, where two things matter: the extent of the damage and the probability of occurrence. In Damocles’ case the potential damage of the risk is the highest possible, namely the loss of his life, while the probability of occurrence is extremely low, for according to the myth the thread did not break.

Whereas the ‘Sword of Damocles’ has become a byword for a happy situation overshadowed by danger, risks to our health don’t always have to be as extreme. Of course there might always be meteorite on its way to –very improbably- wipe all the life from our green Earth. Yet, everyday life health risks are much more tangible. For instance, to increase the probability of one’s death by one in a million, one can choose to travel 6 minutes by canoe, eat 40 tablespoons of peanut butter, fly 1.000 miles by jet, smoke 1.4 cigarettes or live 2 days in New York’s polluted air.

Your peanut butter eating habit aside, the latter gives an indication where many health risks in our lives come from: the environment. Environmental hazards are responsible for an estimated 25% of the total burden of disease worldwide.

Pollution from Pandora’s box

And air pollution ‘is the single biggest environmental health risk’ with around 7 million deaths a year, according to a report the World Health Organization WHO issued last month. However, much worse affected than New York is Southeast Asia – now the most polluted region in the world with more than 5 million deaths from air pollution. Does this pollution stink from Pandora’s box, we have opened?

Pandora was the first woman on Earth, created by Zeus, the Greek ‘Father of Gods and Men’. One day men didn’t behave well and Zeus is furious with vengeance. Thus he gives Pandora a wedding gift of a beautiful jar, with instructions to not open it under any circumstance. But urged by her curiosity, Pandora can’t help but open it and all evil contained therein escapes and spread over the Earth.

As such evil, the health risk of air pollution can be seen: once freed, it can have persistent and ubiquitous consequences.

Climate Change Oracles

Thousands of years after their creation, people in Greece are often in doubt about important questions in their lives. On such hesitations the blind seeress Pythia can shed light. She is the most famous oracle and lives in the city of Delphi. One day, a weary king comes to the temple and asks the oracle if he would win the battle. She smiles and tells him a great king would win the battle. That was exactly what he had wanted to hear and he goes away happily. However, when he leads his men into battle, they lose and he is killed by the other king – the great king.

Pythia’s prophecies are enigmatic and ambiguous. They might reveal that a major danger is impending, but they won’t tell how high its probability, severity or distribution might be. The oracle is characteristic for many environmental health risks nowadays, which have high uncertainty with regard to both risk dimensions. Take climate change, already causing estimated 150,000 deaths annually. These occur, for instance, from more frequent extreme weather conditions, like Typhoon Haiyan, or from affected patterns of food production, impacting on malnutrition.

The same is true for biodiversity loss and the degradation of ecosystems: for many of the world’s poor, one of the greatest environmental threats to health remains lack of access to safe water and sanitation. Water resources, are replenished and purified by water ecosystems. When they are lost human health and well-being is undoubtedly put at risk, while exact probabilities, the severity or distribution remain yet unclear.

Cyclops Diseases

While sailing home from the Trojan War, the hero Odysseus and his men come ashore to restock their food and water. They are thrilled to find a cave full of sheep, build a fire in the cave, and cook some sheep on a sharpened stick. ‘Uaaagh’, suddenly echoes through the cave and a one-eyed giant appears at the mouth of the cave, swinging a club. Swiftly Odysseus grabs a sharpened stick and blinds the Cyclops, who is restricted by his one eye. Odysseus and his men get safely away by pretending to be sheep making bah-bah sounds until they crawled to safety.

The Cyclops’ limitation to perceive only one part of reality with his one eye describes also many health risks. When viewing them, only one side can be ascertained while the other remains unsure. It is often the case that risks are greatly underestimated whose magnitude can be grasped but whose probability of occurrence is uncertain or continuously changes.

Prominent examples are vector-borne diseases. Mankind has always co-habited with innumerable other living forms. While many of them support us, some few can transmit infectious diseases between humans or from animals to humans. Such ‘vectors’, are for instance mosquitoes, ticks, flies, or fleas. These benefit from tropical climate, inefficient water management, low priority for health impact in development activities, unplanned urbanization and widespread poverty, but also factors of a changing environment. Altering temperature and rainfall conditions as well as deforestation and loss of biodiversity, affect both the transmission and control of the most common vector-borne diseases including malaria, dengue and leishmaniasis. Especially in Southeast Asia malaria is still endemic in 10 of 11 countries, making up 40% of the global population at risk of malaria. With 17% of all infectious diseases, causing more than 1 million deaths annually, also the global magnitude of vector-borne diseases is clear. ‘Vector-borne diseases have significant impact on socioeconomic status of communities, and they vigorously fuel the vicious circle of poverty,’ says Dr. Poonam Khetrapal Singh, Regional Director of the WHO Southeast Asia, indicating the severe effects of such environmental health risks. Nevertheless, cyclops-like, we can’t fully grasp the probabilities of environmental impact. But there is no need to turn to stone.

How to Kill the Beast

Medusa is a beautiful, young woman with magnificent long, silky hair. One day, while she is in goddess Athena’s temple, she fools around with the god Poseidon which angers Athena. She is so mad she changes Medusa’s beautiful hair into hissing serpents and makes her into a horrible looking monster. Medusa is now so horrible that any living thing that looks upon her turns to stone.

In ancient Greece, the world was full of dangers. Some novel phenomena affect people today with the same fear and dread. Instead of turning into stone, however, there are solutions at hand. Remember, Medusa was defeated in the myth with a smart strategy, using a mirror, rather than looking directly in her eyes. Such strategies are emphasized by the WHO, which is reinforcing the linkages between health and environment. An example is ‘Integrated Vector Management’, promoting greatest disease control benefit, while minimizing negative impacts on ecosystems e.g. from the excessive use of chemicals.

Fittingly, this year’s World Health Day on April 7th is inviting to ‘protect yourself from vector-borne diseases’, aiming to create necessary behavioral change. To do so, the WHO works with partners to provide education and improve awareness so that people know how to protect themselves and their communities. But even more important are the conservation of a healthy environment and the mitigation of climate change to minimize the environmental health risks in the first place. On this focuses the ‘Health and Environment Linkages Initiative’ by the WHO and the UN Environment Program, as does the ASEAN Centre for Biodiversity in the region. The Philippine-based Centre,  supported by the GIZ (Deutsche Gesellschaft für Internationale Zusammenarbeit) since 2010, coordinates sustainable use and conservation of biodiversity. After all, the best risk management is prevention: Healthy ecosystems for healthy people. Let’s take this wakeup call seriously and avoid Cassandras’ destiny:

Cassandra was a beautiful young priestess at Apollo’s temple, with great ambition. One day, the mighty god Apollo swings by and is delighted by Cassandra. He is fond of making a deal. If Cassandra kisses him, he would give her the gift of prophecy so she could see into the future. Cassandra does not hesitate. As soon as she is able, she looks eagerly into the future. But she does not like what she sees: Apollo is helping to destroy her beloved city of Troy. She spits in his face. Apollo is furious, and since he could not take away his gift, he adds to it.  From that time on, Cassandra could see the future, but no one believed a thing she said. Later, when Cassandra warned her people that the Trojan horse was a trap, nobody paid the slightest attention. They laughed at her and widely opened the doors…

WHO Infographics


First Published 07.04.2014 ASEAN Biodiversity News, written by Philipp Gassner

Green Challenge Accepted – Communicating Sustainability Tue, 25 Mar 2014 10:31:45 +0000 Read more]]> Green is the new pink. Sustainability is en vogue. And quite rightly so. Illustrations come by the bookful: Take climate change, pollution, the sixth global mass extinction, land degradation, threats to food security. You name it, we have it. The world is hitting the environmental buffers, more and more jeopardizing meaningful development. However, simply gazing at these symptoms will leave us stumped for an answer – numerous global efforts don’t bear fruit. Instead, green ideas have to drill down on the root causes.

The challenge lies beyond the green surface: mankind is using 50 percent more resources than the Earth can sustainably produce and unless we change course, by 2030 even two planets will not be enough. At the same time, half the world’s carbon emissions are produced by just 11 percent of its people, while, with grim symmetry, 50 percent of the world’s people produce just 11 percent of its emissions. In a nutshell, we are currently not living off of our ecological annual interest, but drawing down the accumulated natural capital, leaving future generations with a huge debt. Us humans, we are both the problem and the solution for sustainable development.

To accept the green challenge, we thus have to focus on humans. And we simply are not moved to action by data dumps. Instead, human knowledge is based on emotional stories. People are storytelling organisms that lead storied lives. All too often, the public, scientists and politicians stare at each other over a gulf of mutual incomprehension. Surely, anecdotes don’t make science. Data is important. It informs the story. But it is not the story. Without a compelling story, great ideas – also the green ones – are dead on arrival. To get green ideas across and make sense of the science of sustainability, hence my agenda begins with ‘Once upon a time…’ I try to use the molding power of stories. I turn data into drama, numbers into narrative, and stats into stories – to create real behavior change.

For this, we have to leave the green ivory tower and move from mere scientifically reliable knowledge to a socially robust consensus on sustainability. How leaving the ivory tower might look like, I would like to illustrate, using marine pollution as example. Instead of yawning about the remarkable but nevertheless dull statistics of trash entering the ocean, let’s hitch a hike on a floating motorcycle and go on journey from to friendly floatees.

A man tries to recover salvageable materials from a sea of garbage pushed by strong waves to the Manila Bay as the country experience continuous monsoon rains.  Taken by Remar Alvaran Zamora Photo Courtesy of ACB

A man tries to recover salvageable materials from a sea of garbage pushed by strong waves to the Manila Bay as the country experience continuous monsoon rains. Taken by Remar Alvaran Zamora Photo Courtesy of ACB

Every litter bit hurts

What do space and the ocean have in common? Their vastness, that we know little about it, and that both resemble the mess in a teenager’s room. Rather than piles of tossed out toys, used underwear and dirty dishes, in space one will find a junkyard of spent rocket stages and dead spacecraft. These end up in Earth’s orbit ever since the Soviet Union launched Sputnik 1 in 1957. The number of pieces of space debris has risen to a burgeoning blizzard of over 500,000 fragments in orbit. Even though this space garbage is going to have a major impact on the future economics of space flight, it is of somewhat less concerning to humanity than the equally messy oceans.

A beachcomber’s paradise

Just how messy they are, an unintentional experiment showed when the Japanese tsunami in March 2011 swept about 4.8 million tons of debris into the sea. ‘You don’t often get a chance to take an entire city, put it in the ocean, and see what happens to all the stuff,’ Marcus Eriksen says. The scientist and adventurer sailed after the tsunami garbage on its 7,000-km journey across the Pacific to find out all about marine debris. The debris included a rusting Japanese Harley-Davidson motorcycle, a set of golf clubs, and a 50-meter fishing boat, found by beachcomber in British Columbia.

But beachcombers can only comb fivepercent of the floating debris. The much bigger part ends up in the Earth’s five great subtropical gyres – enormous, slow-moving whirlpools on the ocean’s surface which accumulate debris for years from currents and winds. Thousands of kilometers across, the biggest of these gyres is known as The Great Pacific Garbage Patch. Located between two huge population and industrial centres – Asia and North America –the patch serves as Earth’s mighty bellybutton, covered in thin confetti of plastic;more than three million tons of confetti. In the world’s oceans that sum up to hundreds of million tons. And indeed the marine garbage problem is a problem of plastic, making up 85 percent of all debris in the sea.

6M tons of trash to our Web of Life

Our economy is based on the one-time use of throw away plastics. ‘Instead of hunting and gathering, we now shop. And every time we shop, we accumulate plastic: a toothbrush, a vat of butter, a bag of chips, a candy bar wrapper,they’re all made of plastic,’ illustrates another sailing environmentalist, Josh Berry. Over six million tons a day make their way to the sea, 80 percent of it from land. The rest stems from the 10,000 containers lost by container ships each year or ghost nets, fishing nets left in the ocean, and the like. Once waterborne, debris becomes mobile blown by the wind, or following the flow of ocean currents, ending up in gyres and after decades on the seabed.

Problem solved? Not quite. Unlike in the deep space, the trash in the oceans is of a bigger concern than the threat to the odd satellite, orbiting the blue planet. Its name is well deserved, since blue oceans cover two thirds of the Earth and provide over a billion people with food. You wouldn’t want to trash the place where your food comes from, would you?

Beyond global food security, oceans are essential to the health and survival of all life, power our climate and are a critical ecosystem of the biosphere. The marine ecosystem makes up a large part of biodiversity, the global web of life. Just take the ASEAN region, harboring the mega-diverse coral triangle. It supports six of the world’s seven marine turtle species, 51 of the 70 mangrove species and 75 percent of global coral species. The ecosystem services such reefs provide globally, come to an estimated annual value of $112.5 billion.

Beyond this money, the region is also crucial to the global cycle of plankton, tiny floating marine creatures, which regulate the global climate and feed all other marine animals. But now, for every kilo of plankton per cubic meter of seawater, the great garbage patches contain approximately six kilos of plastic. That means that there is more trash in the oceans than living beings and, even worse, it is passed up the food chain to reach all marine life. A sad fact which endangers the vital biodiversity, the very same beings make up.

Hitching a hike on a floating motorcycle

Coral is smothered by plastic, fish get trapped in drifting ghost nets, birds die from eating plastic. Ninety-five percent of the sea bird Northern Fulmar, found dead on beaches have plastic in their stomachs. Marine debris harms an estimated 100,000 sea turtles and marine mammals, and millions of other sea creatures each year. For instance, plastic shopping bags can clog digestive tracts, causing starvation tricking the animal into thinking it is full.

However, much of the plastic is ending up as microplastic – fragments less than five millimeters across. On the bright sight, this microplastic is hosting life, creating a new niche in the vast oceans. The tiny fragments in the Atlantic Ocean have been colonized by microbes not found in open water, a community dubbed the plastisphere.

Trashing is a good thing then? Hardly, since on the flipside, the plastisphere can also work as a mini raft, transporting dangerous species around the world, like the Vibrio bacteria causing cholera. And such rafts can be much bigger, like our Japanese Harley-Davidson, on which invasive species can be hitching rides around the globe. Hotspots like the bays of San Francisco or Manila amount to global zoos of invasive species, which break the earth’s natural barriers, muck up the area’s marine environments, cost billions of dollars to manage, and endanger local biodiversity.

Another way biodiversity is put in peril is the thin layer of industrial chemicals and petroleum, coating the plastic particles, creating little poison pills that fish eat and absorb. And if fish are feasting on these toxic morsels, then be sure, we are too.

Clean up the world

To avoid feeding on poison and to protect the marine web of life, there is a very easy way: reducing and preventing trash from entering our waterways. It is critical to manage man-made debris at every point, from its manufacture to a product’s consumption. Slowly this is recognized by the plastic industry, meeting on International Marine Debris Conferences to address the ocean garbage issue – with what results remains to be seen.

On a regional level, the ASEAN Centre for Biodiversity – in cooperation with GIZ, the German development cooperation arm – has a strong emphasis on marine topics. The centre, based in the Philippine university town Los Baños, coordinates networks of marine protected areas and takes marine debris seriously.

From Los Baños comes also a clear solution on the local level, as the first Philippine city to enforce a ban on plastic bags in 2008; now followed by 60 other Philippine municipalities, but lobbied against by the plastic industries. Perhaps making the business case is more convincing: Increasing the recycling rate by 14 percent in a few years – thus lowering plastic waste – the Republic of Korea already created economic benefits of $1.6 billion a year.

Until this trickles down, join the global anti-litter movement. True to the motto Clean Up the World, an astounding 35 million volunteer in 130 countries each year. Join them next 15th September – the International Coastal Cleanup. In 2012, the global effort on 28,516 kilometers of global waterways and beaches netted a staggering 5 million kg of trash, equivalent to the weight of 41 blue whales. What to do with all this garbage showed activist David de Rothschild. He built a raft, the Plastiki, from old plastic bottles and sailed into, where else but the Great Pacific Garbage Patch.

If that is too adventurous for you, perhaps you are lucky and find a friendly floatee – 350,000 of them are travelling the world’s oceans since 1992 when some containers with child’s bath toy were washed overboard a cargo ship. As friendly as the red beavers, green frogs, blue turtles and yellow ducks might seem, they still are among the ocean’s silent killers.



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Nature’s Invisible Hand – Simply Complex Mon, 10 Mar 2014 12:26:10 +0000 Read more]]> Stuck in a traffic jam? Trouble with your partner? Stressed by your job?  Zoom away and relax for a moment in wonderland… a place of rainbows and unicorns. But where can we find such mystic place?

The narrow strip of lush evergreen forests along the mountains of the Annamites called Truong Son in Vietnam, and Sai Phou Louang in Laos, might just be it!  Entangled in the rainbow-magic monsoon forests along the legendary Ho Chi Minh Trail, look closely and you might just get a glimpse of a unicorn…

The polite Animal

An Asian unicorn to be precise! And its name is well deserved, owing to its long, sharp parallel horns. Undeniably, the chocolate brown Saolas or Pseudoryx nghetinhensis do have a certain mystique about them. Known as ‘polite’ animals, they walk in a gentle, quiet and slow manner. When they sleep, they have their forelegs tucked under their bodies, necks extended and chins resting on the floor. Then again, to witness this wonder you have to be lucky,very lucky. The eight million year old cousin to the cow, goat and antelope is a relic of the last Ice Age and one of the world’s rarest mammals. Only 11 have been recorded alive. The first one during an expedition lead by Dr. John Mackinnon, the co-director of the ASEAN Regional Centre for Biodiversity Conservation, now known as ASEAN Centre for Biodiversity (ACB), who remembers: ‘I knew it was so ‘wow!’ so ‘new’!’

Snapshot of the rare Asian Unicorn, Saola

Snapshot of the rare Asian Unicorn, Saola. Creative Commons from vi.wikipedia

Also with an undeniable wow factor is the Kangaroo rat, which is so adapted to desert life that it won’t take a single drink of water in its whole life. Or the scallops, which have more than 100 single eyes – commonly blue ones. Or take the clam ‘Ming’, the world’s oldest-recorded animal, born 507-years ago when Leonardo da Vinci was just painting the ‘Mona Lisa’. Sadly Ming just passed away, some 70 million years after the Dino Deinocheirus, an odd mix of a sloth and camel, with 2.4-m-long arms and 20-cm claws. Not wow enough? Then you might like the Glowing Jellyfish, or rather the glow-in-the-dark ice cream, a British company is making from the jellyfish’s luminescent protein.

The Economy of Nature

Glow-in-the-dark, 100 eyes, unicorns! Marveling the resourcefulness of nature’s incredibly ludicrous and squandering inventions one cannot help but wonder: what’s the point and how is this even possible? By sheer chance? Surely not?

Scottish economist and moral philosopher Adam Smith offers an answer. Exactly 238 years ago, on 9 March 1776, he published ‘The Wealth of Nations’. In this fundamental work in classical economics, he illuminates how our incredibly complex, inventive and powerful economy works and developed – a similarly puzzling mystery to nature’s rich biological diversity.   In a nutshell: Each enterprise is doing its best to prosper, yet without the ‘benefit’ of a centralized planner. Something very simple -individual competition- results invisibly to our eye in something very complex – an efficient economy. But how can Smith’s famous metaphor of the invisible hand of the self-regulating market explain our rich natural biodiversity? English naturalist Charles Darwin wondered too, and coined the term ‘Economy of Nature’, according to which life on earth evolves without the guidance of a designer. Instead, in his book ‘Origin of Species’ he explains the ‘invisible hand’ of nature, better known as evolution.

Playing Evolution

“The survival of the Fittest” – rings a bell?  Well, let’s see… To grasp this concept, take a friend and play a little game. You have to guess a word in 20 questions only with yes or no answers. Out of the about one million possible words of the English language that seems impossible, or is it? Just try and see what happens:  ‘Is the word an animal?’ ‘No’. ‘Can I eat it?’ ‘Yes’. ‘Is it a fruit?’ ‘No’…

Step by step you get to the answer, quicker than you think. This is how it works: initially you ask for a category of words, which may be wrong. Thus, in the next round you randomly vary the category and repeat asking, coming closer to the word every step. This is the same with nature: a random genetic mutation causes a variation, for instance slightly thicker fur on a formerly bold animal. In a hot climate this variation is useless,  or even a hindrance. The environment will answer with no. In a colder climate however, the variation is very beneficial, helping to survive the cold. Thus, the variation will be passed on to the next ‘round of questions’, inherited by the following generation. This way of the environment saying yes is called selection. But instead of passing on variations in words like in the game, evolution uses genetic code, also known as DNA. This does not only happen in one individual but the whole genetic pool of many individuals. Repeated over and over again the animal species will become very furry – or glowing in the dark or have 100 eyes.

Stunning Simplicity

Put simply, the stepwise progress of evolution works through hereditary variation plus variation in success of reproduction (selection) plus repetition. Thus, the common understanding of evolution as the ‘survival of the fittest’ can be rephrased as ‘passing on the code of the most successful reproducer’. However, this does not only happen in reproducing animal or plant species. It is a universal principle in many systems, such as culture. Our taste for music, art or food is stored (e.g. in a cookbook), multiplied and passed on (e.g. by a publishing house), and modified (e.g. by the cook). Or take evolutionary algorithms which are used daily for instance by hackers to break password protection or by automated trading systems in the financial sector.

Just like Smith’s invisible hand ‘Darwin’s theory of evolution was a concept of such stunning simplicity – variation, selection, repetition- but it gave rise, naturally, to all of the infinite and baffling complexity of life’ English writer Douglas Adams put it.

Does life get ever more complex then? There are indeed increasingly complex blueprints, like the ones of our eye or brain. But that does not necessarily make it more successful. In fact, the most basic life forms are still dominant on earth, such as the estimated nine million bacteria species which are around for billions of years already.

Going Bankrupt

This notion does not only explain the immense biological diversity around us, but puts us in line with the millions of peer species – inviting a certain humbleness. Sure, throughout history humans tried to push the pause button on their own evolution by building buffers, like houses or medicine, against the natural selection around them. And instead of growing their own thick coat of fur like other animals, men simply learnt to take it off them. But mind you that it is exactly this evolution born diversity around us that makes the global ecosystems resilient to all kinds of threats. If one species fails, the next one steps in. If conditions change, gene pools can adapt. Biodiversity acts as an ecosystem insurance, we are all too dependent on.

But at the same time that we discover our brilliantly rich, complex world in which we live in, we are destroying it at a rate is unprecedented in history- a rate too fast for natural adaptation, since evolution doesn’t happen overnight.  While in Smith’s economy enterprises go ‘bankrupt‘, in nature, species go ’exterminated’.

Which brings us back to our unicorn: the latest was photographed in Vietnam last September 2013 for the first time in the 21st century. Let’s hope it was not the last time, as the unicorn is extremely threatened from hunting and habitat fragmentation. To protect its habitat, Barney Long, a World Wildlife Fund conservation biologist is working with fellow scientists in Vietnam, where he woefully reckoned: ‘If we lose the Saola, it will be a symbol of our failure to protect this unique ecosystem’.

Long couldn’t be more right. The Unicorn is only one of its 5000 fellow species endangered in Southeast Asia, almost a third of all 16,928 species listed as threatened with extinction on the IUCN Red List. And exactly these are the priority of the Unicorn spotter Mackinnon’s heritage, the ACB.  the Philippine-based Centre, Since 2010 supported by the German development cooperation GIZ, coordinate sustainable use and conservation of biodiversity. Well aware that its loss is bad news not only for unicorn lovers but for all Southeast Asians, utterly dependent on the services biodiverse and resilient ecosystems provide. These services include provisioning of water and timber, cleaning of air or supporting of natural cycles, and also recreational and esthetic values.

Such values come to mind when wandering about Vietnam’s wild jungle or dreaming away with rainbows and unicorns… sounds like a much better idea than letting them go ‘bankrupt’, doesn’t it?

First Published ASEAN Biodiversity News, 9.3.2014


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Spare a Dime for Biodiversity – Funding Conservation Mon, 10 Feb 2014 09:18:07 +0000 Read more]]> ‘So I must leave, I’ll have to go. To Las Vegas or Monaco. And win a fortune in a game, my life will never be the same.’ you might hear the Bornean River Turtle, the Malayan Tapir or the Sumatran Rhinoceros whistle the famous ABBA song ‘Money, money, money.’ And indeed, as members of the 2,517 threatened species in Southeast Asia, what they all have in common is their need for money. Conservation needs resources. The survival and well-being of all species require healthy ecosystems, whose conservation depends on long-term, extensive and effective funding. ‘Money, money, money. Must be funny, in the rich man’s world.’

ABBA – Money, Money, Money


Billions in a Blink

And fortunately we do live in a rich man’s world, where money is plentiful. Just look at the global financial markets: The estimated volume of derivative financial products equals a fantastic US$ 720 trillion, dwarfing even the total world’s GDP of US$ 62 trillion. Billions are moved in a blink. Clearly the money is there. It’s just a matter of spending it right, for instance, on the conservation of biodiversity, sustaining the livelihoods of some 600 million people in Southeast Asia alone. However, annually only US $ 19 billion make their way to conservation, while at least $ 80 billion would be necessary for the maintenance and establishment of conservation areas to effectively protect the world’s biodiversity. This is less than 20 % of the global annual spending on soft drinks.

No Magic Bullet

Just take Southeast Asia, harboring immense treasures of biodiversity, which are rapidly lost. Yet, there remains a huge gap of conservation funding, which the ASEAN Centre for Biodiversity (ACB) knows all too well. Based in Los Baños, Philippines the regional organization coordinates efforts on biodiversity conservation and sustainable management. When their initial funding by the European Commission phased out in 2010, the Government of the Philippines stepped in for the core funding, complemented with project related funding by others, e.g. GIZ, the German Development Cooperation. Still, this money is not sufficient to fund the center’s mandate on the long term. ‘A short attention span of donors, decreasing growth in donor countries and competition with other causes’ are the main reason, explains finance consultant Robert LeBlanc. ‘The amount of available money is stable, but split on more topics. There is no magic bullet’. It becomes clear that ACB, and conservation as a whole, need to tap other sources.

Making the business case for biodiversity certainly helps. The private sector starts to feel the impacts of unsustainable value chains. ‘Take cashew butter. When cashew trees are burned ever more for palm oil plantations, food companies have a serious supply problem.’ says LeBlanc. ‘Also, social responsibility is now expected by the shareholders of the 2000 largest companies at the stock markets.’ Conservation can bring into play such self-serving interests of companies and capitalize on the need to act sustainable. ACB and others just have to focus on their strengths, and how they can assist others on their way to become green – be it scientific research or policy coordination.

That’s good news for turtles and tapirs. So let’s have a closer look what their funding options in the ASEAN region could look like.

Rhino Trusts and Turtle Stamps

Take the Bakun Watershed in the mountainous northern Philippines which generates a lot of hydroelectric power, the rest of the country benefits from. Therefore, the host communities of the dams receive a national wealth tax, they can then spend on reforestation, watershed management, public health, and conservation. The formerly priceless watershed services with all its biodiversity are now paid for by the beneficiaries.

Also the beneficiaries of the Bunaken National Park, in North Sulawesi pay for the enjoyment of nature’s services. Visiting divers now finance the conservation programs in the park, and have helped to conserve over 1,000 species of fish, dugongs, marine turtles, and other threatened marine species that live in the region.

If forests are more your cup of tea, why not buy 100 square meters of rain forest? More precisely, its restoration and protection. The Malua BioBank in the Malua Forest Reserve in Malaysia offers with its Biodiversity Conservation Certificates an opportunity for private sector companies working in Malaysia to help fund 34,000 Hectares rain forest area that is home to pygmy elephants, orangutans and rhinos.

And indeed, the Sumatran rhino needs special attention, with its population rapidly decreasing. That’s why Indonesia and the United States have a long-standing rhino partnership. The joint Sumatran Rhino Trust pays the government of Indonesia $60,000 per rhino captured for a captive breeding program, in order to lessen the impact on wild populations.

Well, $60,000 is perhaps a bit much. And what to do with a Rhino in your backyard? So perhaps the next funding model is more appealing and affordable: A couple of cents for the next postcard. Perhaps from Papua New Guinea’s (PNG) natural wonders. In 2007, the Worldwide Fund for Nature (WWF) and national postal service of PNG issued a new series of postal stamps that feature the six species of endangered marine turtles found on the Island. And these are only 6 of the 1,500 different wildlife stamps, issued in 211 countries. Having sold more than 1 billion stamps WWF could fundraise millions for the conservation of endangered species.

The Stakes are High

Endangered species like the Bornean River Turtle, the Malayan Tapir or the Sumatran Rhinoceros might soon be off the hook, if we are only resourceful enough to tap innovative funding and financing strategies. With dwindling biodiversity and the loss of its services, the stakes are high. In the words of Mr. LeBlanc: ‘If I was sitting next to the president of the USA, I’d tell him to support ACB, and conservation, in his interest’. After all, ABBA’s fundraising advice might not be of much help to a turtle or a rhino: ‘In my dreams I have a plan. If I got me a wealthy man I wouldn’t have to work at all, I’d fool around and have a ball… Money, money, money. Must be funny, in the rich man’s world.’

First published 08 Feb 2014 Written by Philipp Gassner / Special to the BusinessMirror


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Trees and the City – Trends of Urban Biodiversity Tue, 14 Jan 2014 20:55:16 +0000 Read more]]> 2014’s New Year’s resolution? Quit smoking, more sport, eat healthy? But certainly not living in the jungle! Oddly, this is true for half the Philippine’s population. No, this is not the late effect of a new year’s hang over speaking. The new year will indeed mark more Filipinos living within then outside jungles. Concrete Jungles. The biggest of them all, known as Metro Manila, harbors estimated 25 million people in its greater sprawl. This quarter of the Philippines entire population, needless to say, don’t live in the trees. However, Bob Marley’s famous metaphor of a concrete jungle is not too farfetched. From a birds eye perspective tangled city labyrinths don’t seem that different to a rainforests or a coral reef. They are just another of Earth’s living systems.

An urbanizing planet, embedded from Stockholm Resilience Centre

Just like other ecosystems, cities provide shelter. A lot of shelter. Although cities occupy just 2 percent of the Earth’s surface, they harbor – like in the Philippines- 50% of the world’s population. But it’s not only human populations who find a home in cities. Also numerous plants and animals are city citizens, contributing to important urban biodiversity hotspots. On the other hand, cities are hotspots of environmental damage, using 75% of the planet’s natural resources. City ecosystems are interconnected with, and draw on their surrounding ecosystems for goods and services. Their products and emissions in turn affect regional and global ecosystems.

Such knock-on effects bring major challenges for 2014 and beyond. By 2050 roughly 70% of the world’s population is expected to be urban, with Southeast Asia a little less hurried: Cambodia is still only 20% urbanized, followed by Vietnam with 30%. Nevertheless, on the average 44% of Southeast Asians are urban dwellers, with Singapore taking the lead: Every single Singaporean calls the city its home. What such a home feels like, shares Dr. Lena Chan, Director of the National Biodiversity Centre, NParks, Singapore in an interview:

Is Singapore symptomatic for the global trend of urbanization?

Dr. Chan: Singapore is highly urbanized. Besides being a high density city, Singapore also has to cater for many other land requirements. Solutions to address these challenges are pressingly needed. Singapore continues to work with agencies, communities and individuals to find innovative ways to improve peoples’ lives and the environment that we live in.

To improve people’s lives, Singapore became a garden city. Or a city in a garden?

Dr. Chan: On 16 June 1963, Mr Lee Kuan Yew, the first Prime Minister of Singapore, planted a Mempat tree (Cratoxylon formosum). It symbolised the birth of a garden city which set off tree-planting on an island-wide scale. This campaign transformed Singapore into a beautiful clean city with flowers and trees. As Singapore becomes more urbanised, we need greenery that functions more than a decorative purpose to ensure that the environment is sustainable and liveable. Hence, Singapore decided to transform itself to a ‘City in a Garden’ in which greenery would be pervasive, and evident even on the city’s buildings in the form of vertical walls and rooftop gardens. Biodiversity would be rich even in urban landscapes, and the community would have an interest and stake in the greening of Singapore.

Talking about biodiversity. What is behind the Singapore index on Cities’ Biodiversity?

Dr. Chan: Many cities around the world, including Singapore, have put in great efforts in biodiversity conservation. How does one know that these efforts are achieving what they aim to do? The Singapore Index on Cities’ Biodiversity, also known as the City Biodiversity Index, is an evaluation tool for assessing the status of a) the biodiversity and ecosystems in a city; b) the ecosystem services that are provided by biodiversity in the city, c) the governance and biodiversity management practices of the city. The Singapore Index comprises 23 indicators that are measured quantitatively and can be tracked by cities over time. The composite index will help cities to evaluate whether biodiversity has improved as a result of their conservation efforts and management efforts. Cities from Asia, Europe, North America, New Zealand and South America have applied the Singapore Index.

How many species are there in Singapore, then?

Dr. Chan: Singapore is located in a biodiversity hotspot. There are many native species found in Singapore from a variety of taxonomic groups. The following list gives an indication of the diversity of native flora and fauna still found in Singapore, in spite of its urbanization: 2145 native vascular plant species, 364 bird species (more than the number of bird species in France), 98 reptile species, 66 freshwater fish species, 306 butterfly species (60 butterfly species are found in the United Kingdom), 35 true mangrove tree species, 256 hard coral species (35% of the global total of 731 hard coral species)…

Many of these species live nestled in the heart of Singapore and not more than 15 kilometers from the busiest shopping areas, in the Bukit Timah Nature Reserve. What is its importance to the city? And does it face challenges, considering the half million visitors per year?

Dr. Chan: Bukit Timah Nature Reserve is conserved for its primary tropical rainforest ecosystem, especially for the rich native biodiversity that it harbors. It is only one of two primary rain forests in the world located within city limits, and was declared an ASEAN Heritage Park in October 2011. BTNR functions as a green lung by cooling the ambient temperature, replenishes the oxygen, cleans the air, moderates the water flow, etc. It is accessible for recreation. It also serves as an educational laboratory for schools and researchers. With greater appreciation of its multiple values, BTNR has seen a rise in the number of visitors in recent years, and it is important to manage the challenges posed by high visitorship. These include outreach efforts on how to appreciate nature and how to carry out one’s recreation in a way that is sensitive to the biodiversity as well as to other visitors.

Such ‘islands’ of biodiversity are good and well, but aren’t they completely isolated by streets and buildings? After all, flowers or reptiles can’t cross a traffic light.

Dr. Chan: Developments potentially result in the fragmentation of sites with natural habitats in cities. It is a growing trend for cities to re-connect these natural areas. Singapore’s efforts to link nature reserves together with green corridors have grown with the placement of the ecological bridge Eco-Link@BKE. Singapore is not the first city to have done this, and each city has to decide on the appropriateness. In Singapore, we believe that the Eco-Link@BKE will add value to the ecological connectivity of the nature reserves and provide a larger effective area for the survival of our native fauna and flora. The park connectors and planting on our roads also contribute to linking up our natural sites.

With 16 million Singapore $ the green bridge is not exactly cheap. Moreover, with high competition for space and soaring rents, can we afford green space in cities?

Dr. Chan: Singapore has decided that greenery should be a major feature in our urban landscape. We believe that greenery will improve people’s lives and make Singapore a great city to work, live, and play. Pervasive greenery will also give Singapore a distinctive edge in attracting foreign investments in this highly competitive global economy.

Nevertheless, there are common reports about Singaporeans being terrified of bee hives and the like. How does this disconnection from nature fit to the image as green city?

Dr. Chan: It is inevitable that as people congregate in highly urbanized environments, they become alienated from the natural habitats. Human-wildlife interactions are common in cities. However, it is increasingly being recognized that biodiversity is important for an enriching and good quality of life. Public awareness and education programs that inform people of the biodiversity and their roles in our lives will help people understand the importance of plants and animals. It is also crucial that people connect with nature by visiting these natural sites and actively participate in biodiversity surveys, gardening, nature walks, etc. These efforts take time and we are seeing early positive signs that outreach and education are helping people develop a healthy appreciation for nature in their neighborhoods. To realize our City in a Garden vision, community involvement is key. We actively engage the community through various initiatives like Community in Bloom, which was set up to promote gardening on a national level. There are now more than 600 community gardens island-wide.

Dr. Lena Chan, thank you very much for sharing these insights into the City in a Garden.

City in a Garden, embedded from NParks, Singapore


Cities like Singapore with rich biodiversity are found all over the world – Berlin, Chicago, Curitiba, Kolkata, Mexico City, Montreal, Nagoya, New York City or São Paulo, to list but a few. Then again, what does it take to turn a concrete jungle into a green jungle again? And at the same time reduce their impact on the real jungles, and other ecosystems out there? One answer comes from an ancient Garden City, Babylon. Its famous hanging gardens inspired a new way of farming: With limited space and lack of land for agriculture just add one dimension: Vertical farming it is – the cultivation of plant or animal life within skyscraper greenhouses.

Such sky farms kill two birds with one stone. They reduce the dependence and impact on surrounding areas while reconnecting people to the origin of their food. Importing 90% of its food, Singapore took this unlikely idea seriously. In 2012, the world’s first three stories high commercial vertical farm was opened in the city, already producing 500 kg of juicy vegetables per day. Biodiversity can be so yummy. Eating healthy – a good New Year’s resolution for the world’s concrete jungles.

Singapore is Pioneering Vertical-Farming Technology, embedded from Journeyman Pictures


First Published 11 Jan 2014 Written by Philipp Gassner / Special to the BusinessMirror


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No Place like Home Wed, 11 Dec 2013 09:31:39 +0000 Read more]]>

Habitats from Oceans Deep to Mountains High

‚Mid pleasures and palaces though we may roam, be it ever so humble, there’s no place like home,’ knows already the famous 19th century song ‘Home! Sweet Home!’ Just how sweet and valuable a home is – as with many things- you might not realize until you lose it. The millions of currently homeless typhoon victims can tell you a thing or two about it. But not only for us humans a place to call home is essential, also to every other species on god’s green earth. Animal or plants call the area they populate ‘habitat’. But what makes a habitat a home? Nice furniture and a cozy fire place? Let’s see and go on an expedition across our green Earth’s habitats.

Shelter on Flotsam Fragments

Habitats can be tiny. Less than 5 millimeters across is the perhaps most peculiar and modern-day habitat. Despite its miniature size, millions of bacteria find a home here, and water striders even lay their eggs on it. Curious what that could be? By accident, humans have created a new home, the ‘Plastisphere’. As we dump millions of tons of plastic waste into the ocean every year, much of it ends up as microplastic. Don’t be fooled, it cruelly harms most marine animals that unintentionally swallow it, but it is also hosting microbes not found in open water. Among them also the nasty ones, like Vibrio bacteria that cause cholera. In this fashion, such plastic micro rafts impressively show one feature of habitats: providing shelter.

The Oldest Habitat?

Shelter to a diverse community of organisms, which could even include fish, might also be provided by the Earth’s possibly oldest habitat. If not the oldest then it is at least the most extreme: Lake Vostok was buried quietly underneath 3700 meters of Antarctic ice for 15 million years, till scientists shouted ‘Drill baby, drill’ in the 1990s. And drilling they did, most recently last year. The possible habitat they found was ice cold, pitch-black, under extreme pressure from the ice above and showed toxically high levels of oxygen. Doesn’t sound much like a cozy habitat, does it? Indeed, scientists are still not sure whether the genetic traces of microorganisms and fish they drilled upon are just contaminations. If the lake was indeed sterile, it would make the only body of water on Earth empty of life. Life always demands for some basic environmental factors like soil, moisture, range of temperature, and availability of light as well as biotic factors such as the availability of food, which habitats provide.

Habitats Driving Wind and Weather

Habitats can provide much more. Their own weather, for instance. Wouldn’t it be odd to need a private weather forecast for your living room? Well, the weather forecast for the world’s second biggest living room is not too exiting: Slightly overcast, 365 days a year. Weather makes its way into Cloud Ladder Hall, a gigantic cave in China and gets trapped inside. Anyway, the clouds don’t matter that much, as the 6 million cubic meter hall is equally dark as lake Vostok. It shows, however, that habitat crucially provide a climate for the species inhabiting it. And not only the climate inside but also way beyond a habitat, as the next stop on the expedition will show.

Like motherhood and apple pie, all species need water. Water from rain that is recycled by one of the worlds’ biggest habitats: Forests. In forests water evaporates, rises to the air, rains again and creates winds, which bring even more water with them. If forest habitats are lost, the rainfall in the continental interiors may decline by up to 90 per cent. To remind you, Sahara the world’s biggest desert was a lush wetland habitat just 6000 years ago.

Beyond the regional environment, forest habitats support a stable climate for the whole wide world as storage of incredible amounts of CO2. What happens when our climate losses this stability was dreadfully witnessed by the sufferers of typhoon Haiyan. While tropical storms are likely to get more powerful in a warming world, they ironically speed up the warming themselves. Take hurricane Katrina, tearing up around 320 million trees when hitting the US east coast in 2005, thus releasing over half the amount of carbon absorbed annually by forests in the US. A percentage likely to be much higher in the tropical Philippines.

Luckily there is a cure offered –how could it be otherwise- by a habitat. Mangroves trees in Southeast Asia are cutting greenhouse gas emissions while protecting against deadly tsunamis or typhoons. Shielding mangrove habitats in Northern Samar, Philippines helped reduce damage from the Nov. 8 storm, as they did during the 2004 tsunami all over the region. Considering this, it is worthwhile investing in such habitats, in addition to immediate disaster relief, to reverse the trend of the Philippines losing about 1 percent of mangroves a year. Mind you, these regional habitats harbor 51 of the global 70 mangrove species diversity.

Diversity in Potential and Threats

Diversity is also the buzzword of the last habitat on our journey: From evergreen rain forests to perpetual ice and snow, from more than 12 m of annual precipitation to high deserts, and from sea level to almost 9 000 m in altitude. It covers around 27 percent of the earth’s land surface, occurs on all continents, in all latitude zones. Of the 20 plant species that provide 80 percent of the world’s food, six originated here: maize, potatoes, barley, sorghum, quinoa, tomatoes and apples.You name it, this habitat has it. But how is this even possible?

By adding another dimension, altitude, compressing a wide range of environmental conditions into a relatively short distance. Often this habitat provide islands, suitable to species which only occur here –so called endemics- isolated from surrounding unfavorable conditions.

We are of course talking about Mountains. This diversity in mountain habitats is also home to very distinctive human communities. 720 million mountain people are directly dependent on the habitat for their sustenance and wellbeing, but also billions of lowland people benefit from mountain energy, timber, biodiversity, recreation and spiritual values. And water: As the water towers of the world, mountains provide freshwater to more than half of humanity.

At the same time humanity must learn not to take their homes for granted. Mountain habitats expose why: While they naturally are high-risk environments with avalanches, landslides, volcanic eruptions or earthquakes, over generations mountain people, as well as plants and animals have learned how to live with such difficulties. After all it takes time to make a home. But now, their well-adapted existence is at peril. Habitat degradation caused by unsustainable clearing of land or effects of climate change, for instance, disturb the delicate balance within and beyond the habitats. As result, rare species of plants and animals face extinction, global and regional climates conditions are distorted and mountain people, already amongst the world’s poorest and most disadvantaged, face further hardship. As this is symptomatic for many habitats of our green Earth, action is urgent to protect our homes.

Habitats as Key

International Mountain Day Address

Doing so and underscoring that ‘Mountains are the key to a sustainable future’ the International Mountain Day is held on 11 December with the identical motto. ‘To create awareness about the importance of mountains to life, to highlight the opportunities and constraints in mountain development and to build partnerships that will bring positive change to the world’s mountains’ says the UN. A good example how this can be done, provides Mt Makiling, a dormant volcano in Laguna province on the island of Luzon, Philippines. The 1,090 m high mountain is a vital habitat, harboring rich biodiversity and providing water and thermal energy to many. Already in 1933 people realized the importance of their very own habitat and declared Mount Makiling a National Park. Now, in October 2013 the mountain was inaugurated the 33rd of the ASEAN Heritage Parks, representatives of Southeast Asia’s ecosystems and an urgent contribution to the protection of its plentiful values. The parks are administered by the ASEAN Centre for Biodiversity (ACB), suitably based at the foot of Makiling, and supported through the Biodiversity and Climate Change Project of GIZ, the German development cooperation. Both stress the parks as a roadmap for all aspects of sustainable mountain development, be it infrastructure, tourism, water or biodiversity. To achieve this, all concerned stakeholders need to be involved, knowing about the fragility of their mountain habitat, as well as all the other places people, plants and animals call home. As the song aptly ends:

Sweet, sweet home!

There’s no place like home,

there’s no place like home!’


 First published 07 Dec 2013 Written by Philipp Gassner / Special to the BusinessMirror


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Art to Save – Nature’s esthetic value Tue, 26 Nov 2013 10:11:12 +0000 Read more]]> Out of Harmony

As the primal creator, one could deem nature herself the world’s true artist. And ‘standing at the junction of art and nature are environmental artists, who are often balanced on an intermediary edge, searching and synthesizing creative, unimagined new ways to redefine our relationship with nature,’ writes art blogger Kimberley Mok.

Environmental art is as old as nature. Whenever artists painted onsite, they developed a deep connection with the surrounding environment and captured these close observations into their canvases. Just think Monet’s impressionist or Henri Rousseau‘s naive accounts of the environment. In the 1970s environmental art then turned into a movement, which critiqued a society out of harmony with the natural environment. This critique opposed outmoded sculpture with new site specific forms, such as Land art, an avant garde notion about sculpture, the landscape and our relationship with it. Land artists were not only portraying the landscape, but engaging it; their art was not simply of the environment, but in it as well. European sculptor Christo gave just one example, when he famously wrapped the coastline at Little Bay, south of Sydney, in 1969.

Home of the Yo-Yo

A long history of sculpture can also be found in Paete, province of Laguna, Philippines. The Wood Carving Capital of the Philippines is famous for its pag-ukit, described by Philippine National hero, José Rizal and now found all over the world, including sculptures in the St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome, or the modern yo-yo, believed to be invented in Paete.


The Philippine's famous Carabao, Wood Carving in Los Banos

The Philippine’s famous Carabao – Wood Carving from Paete


Not a yo-yo, but a scene from the Philippine’s treasure trove of biodiversity, artist Yvette Co created from a storm struck 100 year old tree. As a representative of Southeast Asia’s biodiversity, just like Cristo’s coastline, the Narra tree itself turns into environmental art in a Philippine interpretation: A six 6 foot eagle in a lush and rich forest habitat, chases after a snake coiled on a trunk, preying on the eagle’s treasure, her one offspring. The scene, followed by a lizard and watched by a rat, shows the plentiful and delicate web of life, the spectator himself depends on. Who could articulate our out of tune relation with, and utter reliance on nature any purer than environmental art.


Environmental Artist Yvette Co’s 6 foot eagle. Executed by sculptors from the Philippine’s Wood Carving Capital Paete - Roel Lazaro and Jerry Moralita.

Environmental Artist Yvette Co’s 6 foot eagle.


Executed by the Paete sculptors Roel Lazaro and Jerry Moralita the artwork is part of the exhibit ‘Carvings and Paintings to Save the Forest’. The exhibit is realized by the University of the Philippines and Yvette Co, who re-experienced her love for the science of agriculture and nature, and wants to reconnect people to it. Hosted by the Municipality of Los Banos, lead by its Mayor Cesar Perez and in collaboration with the ASEAN Centre for Biodiversity (ACB), the event is suitably placed next to Mt. Makiling. The mountain is a vital habitat, harboring the rich biodiversity depicted in the artworks, and was thus inaugurated as the 33rd ASEAN Heritage Park, in October 2013. Administered by ACB, these parks are representatives of Southeast Asia’s ecosystems and an urgent contribution to the protection of its plentiful values: Its natural resources, we can eat, breath or drink. Its economic assets, we can sell or trade. And like environmental artist remind us, its pure esthetic values, we can simply enjoy and marvel.

Environmental Artist Yvette Co’s at Work

Environmental Artist Yvette Co’s at Work


The art exhibit will be on display from Nov 24 to Nov 30, 2013, at the bagong Los Banos (New) Municipal Atrium, at Anos , Los Banos. Viewing time is from 9 am top 5pm daily.


First Published: 23 Nov 2013 Written by Philipp Gassner / Special to the BusinessMirror


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Marine conservation – From Seaweed to Flying Dinosours Tue, 29 Oct 2013 14:52:10 +0000 Read more]]> Breaking news: ‘Large flocks of flying dinosaurs have been spotted all over Southeast Asia. The sky above Metro Manila and Singapore, as well as large parts of Thailand and Vietnam was darkened today by estimated 50 million creatures. The dinosaurs are believed to migrate from Russia down to Australia, paying a visit to the ASEAN region on their way. Please remain inside and stay calm.’ This announcement shouldn’t terrify but rather sound quite familiar to most Southeast Asians, since it happens twice a year.

Sleep like a dinosaur

Really? The sky darkened by millions of dinosaurs? Feathered dinosaurs, to be precise – more commonly referred to as birds. But birds don’t share much with Jurassic Park’s star Tyrannosaurus rex, do they? Have a closer look. From their appearance to their sleeping posture they have a lot in common: fossils of more than 20 dino species, like Archaeopteryx, have been collected with preserved feathers. T. rex’s fossilized skin is as soft as that of a bird. With their heads tucked under their arms, dinosaurs even slept like modern birds.

Modern birds are the only kind of dinosaurs that survived their famous mass extinction 65 Million years ago – most likely resulting from an asteroid impact – due to their larger and more complex brain. Having brains helped them to better adapt to the dramatic change in the environment – until now. Sixty-five million years later, the environment is changing again, thanks to a new player with an even bigger brain – Men. His development and resource consumption now critically endangers many surviving dinos.

Just take the Spoon-billed Sandpiper; as few as 100 breeding pairs remain in the wild. Once hatched in the Arctic Circle, the tiny Sandpiper fledglings face their first 8,000 km migration to Myanmar and other parts of Southeast Asia. Together with 200 fellow waterbird species, they use twice a year the East Asia – Australasian Flyway, connecting Russia to Southeast Asia and Australia. At the same time, this region is home to 45 percent of the world’s human population, leaving 33 of the bird species critically threatened. Some shorebirds show annual declines of nine percent. Clearly, the feathered dinosaurs in the flyway have more reason to be terrified by us, then we by them.

Hidden billions

From a seabird’s eye perspective, such threats and decline are symptomatic for the rich marine biodiversity of the region, harboring the Coral Triangle, a mega-diverse area with 75 percent of global coral species. The Triangle is highly vulnerable to the effects of climate change, in combination with other human activities, leaving e.g. 98 percent of Philippine coral reefs at risk. “This is because only 12 percent of the reefs in the region are protected,” as Ms. Annabelle Cruz Trinidad of the Coral Triangle Initiative (CTI) set the scene for the marine session of the 4th ASEAN Heritage Parks (AHP) Conference, held October 1 -4 in Tagatay, Philippines. The 33 AHPs represent biodiverse ecosystems in the region, encompassing, however, only four marine sites.

How can that be, if marine ecosystems are so crucial for feathered dinosaurs, and the livelihoods of millions, providing hundreds of billions to the regional economy?

Because these billions are hidden. “The Philippine Bolinao-Anda coral reefs, for instance, is worth US$38 million per year, consisting mainly of indirect benefits from shoreline protection. Yet, direct use from fisheries, aquaculture, and tourism was only valued at US$ 6 million,” Ms. Trinidad pointed out. And even worse, most reef revenues are not ploughed back into their management. This leaves marine protected areas of developing Asia with a financing gap of 85 percent. As always, we are short on cash. But also on the effective use of it, since capacity is often lacking.

Of floating fences and pink patrols

And we are short in fences. Unlike their counterparts on land, marine protected areas cannot easily be fenced against outside threats. Threats come from hunters. Mine-hunters. While luckily there is not a single sea mine to be found on the Philippine Tubbataha Reef, on 17 January 2013 the minesweeper USS Guardian famously ran aground on the UNESCO World Heritage-listed coral reef. Destroying the reef on a size of about five basketball courts was certainly no joy to the millions of flying dinosaurs who depend on this last intact seabird rockery of the country, they use on their exhausting journey along the flyway to fuel up on fish. Fish and the entire fauna are so plentiful that one can find 80 of all 111 know coral species here. The biodiversity value of this richness dwarfs the mere US$ 600 charged per m2 of destroyed reef, as Ms. Songco, Superintendent of the protected area remarked.

It’s exactly this vibrant value, not sea mines, what a different kind of hunters is after. For poachers, the protected and productive atoll is a true magnet within its plundered surroundings. Without floating fences being invented yet, poaching makes strict law enforcement by rangers indispensable. On their difficult job in the middle of the Sulu Sea, 15 boat hours away from their families, they are supported with good equipment, proper training and motivation. “If they ask us to paint their boats pink we do so, as long as they patrol the reef day and night,” Songco said. In these efforts, the protected area management is supported by GIZ, the German Development Cooperation, who also works with the ASEAN Centre for Biodiversity to contribute to environmental awareness around the region.

This awareness is crucial, since many ask why on earth the armed forces of the Philippines should protect a bunch of fish. “Only in the Philippines you will find that people are still smiling when arrested for poaching’, as happened on an illegal Chinese vessel caught in 2006,” Sogong narrates. But such hard measures can only bear fruit if combined with soft ones, like education, outreach and partnership. Such promotion of compliance works: enforcement costs decreased dramatically in the last decade, locals now even text in when they see poachers coming from the outside.

Planet, people, profit

From outside its boundaries come most risks to marine protected areas. Therefore, the economic situation of people living there needs to be considered carefully. Simply locking people out, won’t work. “There is always a triple bottom line: Planet, People, Profit,” said Dr. Rili Djohani, Executive Director of CTI. The Center guides the communities in the region to realize the conservation benefit for entire fisheries. The spill-over of fish from thriving protected breeding grounds sustains the Coral Triangle tuna industry, worth alone US$ 3 billion a year. It becomes clear that the livelihoods of over 100 million people are not threatened by conservation but maintained, or even increased, if alternatives to destructive fishing are applied. Just take seaweed cultivation. You might not like its fishy taste, but it is en vogue for cosmetics, medicines and textiles. A trial with 1,000 farmers is promoted by CTI in the Indonesian Nusa Penida, a learning site to share knowledge throughout the region.

Yet another alternative, bringing in US$ 900.000 a year in Thailand’s four marine AHPs alone, is ecotourism. Prudently planned ecotourism. Dr. Niphon Phongsuwan of the Phuket Marine Biological Center explained just how carefully ecotourism should be implemented. The Green Fins project of environmentally-friendly dive operators and the Andaman Marine Protected Areas Network work together as reef guardians. And guardians are desperately needed for Thailand’s reefs, weakened by climate change-induced bleaching of corals. In 2010, bleaching killed large parts of the reef building Acropora corals. Named in honor of Her Majesty Queen Sirikit of Thailand, Acropora sirikitiae should be at the heart of all Thais.

And at the heart of all Southeast Asians, with their destiny closely linked to marine resources. Dangers from the outside, be it warships, poachers or climate change need “regional and trans-boundary mechanism, based on scientific findings and backed by solid financing,” the AHP Conference session concluded. One example of such regional approach is the East Asian-Australasian Flyway Partnership with 15 government partners, many of them in the ASEAN. Dr. Llewellyn Young of the Ramsar Convention on Wetlands highlighted that without international cooperation on conservation of the flyway, many waterbird species will face extinction in the near future.

For the extinction of the other dinosaurs, the continued survival of pigeons, puffins and penguins – thanks to their big brains – may be a small consolation. Let’s keep it this way. Watching the feathered dinos taking off into the sunset, let’s hope that our brains too are big enough – for their and our survival.


First Published 26 Oct 2013, Written by Philipp Gassner / Special to the BusinessMirror


On a Shopping Spree – How Much’s the Nature? Fri, 18 Oct 2013 11:59:40 +0000 Read more]]> ‘This is where we make most of our planets, you see’, Arthur Dent, protagonist of the Sci-Fi classic Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, is welcomed to a planet factory, moving through massive chunks of whole worlds being built. Fiction aside, what would it take to build such a world? The occasional ocean, a couple of cows and fish, many mountains, a few fluffy clouds on top, a bunch of bushes and trees with apples and pears, et voilà. A quick run to the mall should do.
At the latest in front of the checkout you might wonder how much your shopping spree will be. Let’s see: 5 billion liters of oceans, 2 million tons of trees, 10.000 cows, and 67 cubic kilometers of clouds? Hard to sum up, isn’t it? Well, if we want to compare different forms of capital, apples and pears so to say, we obviously require a common measurement standard. That’s why they came up with money, no need to reinvent the wheel. So how much would the ocean be, or the forest? Easy as that, just look up the price for the ocean’s fish or the forest’s timber. But timber is not all a forest embraces. It provides many other benefits to society: The mere pleasure of wandering about it, the carbon it stores or the oxygen it produces. Unfortunately oxygen does not have a price nor a market – it is an externality.



A child playing in the floodwaters that hit area of Padang Tiji, Pidie Aceh district, Aceh province, Indonesia.

A child playing in the floodwaters that hit area of Padang Tiji, Pidie Aceh district, Aceh province, Indonesia.


Chocolate Externalities

To get a better grasp of this economic lingo, just imagine living next to a chocolate factory. Every morning you weak up to the divine smell of chocolate, nonetheless you surely won’t pay the factory for this joy. On the flipside of this positive externality, the factory can also produce negative ones, for instance poisoning a river with its chocolate sludge. For this, society will have to pay, not the factory, since pollution is not traded on a market and therefore doesn’t have a price. No price means no cost for the company and no incentive for its manager to reduce the pollution of the river. Likewise, most environmental goods, and externalities do not have a market.
The creation of an artificial market is the only solution to generate a price, which can then guide decision makers. For decision makers in climate change this is already being done. After hearing the simple message of the renowned Stern Review ‘damages from global warming are way more expensive than its prevention’, formerly priceless CO2 is now traded on the stock markets, at least in some parts of the world, like the EU. For carbon this is fairly easy. One ton costs a few dollars. But how much is the wide array of values of ecosystem services and biodiversity?

Sufficient Reason to Value

The answer is more than € 1 trillion – close to the combined GDP of all ASEAN countries. And this is just one year’s worth of biodiversity loss, as Dr. Luke Brander, a lead author of the study on ‘The Economics of Ecosystem Services and Biodiversity’ (TEEB) explained. You see, externalities sum up. Only after identifying these, they can be demonstrated and captured. On its way to do so the TEEB initiative is hosted by the United Nations Environment Program and supported by the European Commission and many countries. Germany’s development cooperation GIZ, for instance, has been a global player in TEEB from the start and translates it to a regional level now. And what better region than Southeast Asia, where externalities -not from chocolate factories but from deforestation, overfishing and pollution – threaten a third of worldwide coral reefs and mangrove forests among other unique ecosystems. These sustain the livelihoods for over 500 million people – sufficient reason for GIZ and the ASEAN Centre for Biodiversity (ACB) to support the valuing of the services of the region’s biodiverse ecosystems.

Worth a Journey through Southeast Asia

Many of these can be found in the 33 ASEAN Heritage Parks (AHP), which where the focus of the 4th AHP Conference, October 1st -4th 2013 in Tagatay, Philippines. During the conference Mr. Norman Ramirez of ACB introduced the ASEAN TEEB study, showing specific case studies in Southeast Asia’s key ecosystems. On a brief journey along them, and other regional studies, the listeners were taken to learn what came to light.

Departure in Thailand: If you ask Thai shrimp farmers how much they can make of a coastal strip, they will readily tell you that 9 years worth of timber harvest from mangroves merely generates US$ 500 per hectare, while a shrimp farm in its place will bring in US$ 10.000. A clear business case for cutting the mangroves. Wait a minute, what about externalities? Factoring in positive externalities, like storm protection from mangroves, and negative ones of the shrimp farm, like restoration costs, it looks quite differently: Mangroves create benefits of 12.000 US$ per hectare while shrimp farms even cost society, namely 10.000 US$ per hectare. This is no news to Thailand, guided for the past three decades by its King Bhumibol Adulyadej’s philosophy of Sufficiency Economy. This Economy is very similar to The Economics of Ecosystem Services and Biodiversity in its attempt of happiness development, balancing economic activities with their negative externalities. As Thais would say TEEB is ‘Old whisky in a new bottle’, Ms. Piyathip Eawpanich, GIZ Co-Director of the ECO-BEST Project remarked. Still, the project, aiming to enhance and communicate the TEEB idea in Thailand has no easy task in selling to the variety of park rangers, economists and people this ‘new bottle’ of the valuation of ecosystem services.

Moving on to the Mekong region, such services even include Elephant Draught Power, narrated Dr. Lucy Emerton, Chief Economist of the Environment Management Group, Sri Lanka. Since elephants are commonly used to transport timber from the forest, they are a so called provisioning service of the ecosystem, and sure enough economically valuable. Together with supporting services like seed dispersal, cultural services like ecotourism and regulation services like crop pollination, the Mekong’s biodiversity adds US$ 7.3 billion to the region’s economy per year. Emerton’s study impressively shows that every dollar spent on conservation leverages US$ 40 of payback. This is confirmed by studies in Indonesia’s AHP Leuser Forest or Vietnam’s Hon Mun Marine Protected Area, which make it very clear: Short term gains of unsustainable resource exploitation are always dwarfed by long term losses. In 2050 lost mangroves could cost US$ 2 billion, loss of reef related fisheries even US$ 5.6 billion to the region – a year.

It Pays

That conservation pays off, Vietnam indeed realized, where the ASEAN trip ended. The country successfully internalized externalities of deforestation by introducing PES. Yet a new acronym? What is behind it then? ‘Payment for Ecosystem Services’ essentially means getting paid to do nothing, said Emerton. Her college Pham Hong Luong of VNFOREST agreed and explained how this scheme works: Every landowner gets paid US$ 20 per hectare of forest if they don’t clear cut the trees, hence avoid externalities. A small, but fruitful incentive that resulted in significant national forest cover increases. That such incentive can work on a much bigger scale shows a glance to the North. Since 1999, the Chinese government has invested more than $100 billion in PES after realizing that environmental damage detracted three to ten percent from the country’s GDP. Identifying, demonstrating and capturing these externalities, China is now on track for its goal of restoring 40 million hectares of forest – an area bigger than Japan – by 2020, via paying 120 million farmers to plant trees. The country has clearly understood the message of TEEB: At the dentist or with climate change, prevention and conservation pay off.

This holds good globally: A study, recently published in the journal Science estimates the costs of the maintenance and establishment of conservation areas to effectively protect the world’s biodiversity: $ 80 billion a year. Sounds enormous? Only at a first glance. It is less than 20 % of global spending on soft drinks, and only a tiny fraction of the value of these ecosystems.
The value of valuation becomes clear: Non-valuation automatically means the attribution of zero value to goods – be it chocolate sludge, elephant draught power or oxygen from a tree. If you don’t value it, you won’t save it.
Or rather, ‘if you don’t love it, you won’t save it’ as Noralinda binti Haji Ibrahim, Senior Forestry Officer in Brunei Darussalam concluded the TEEB session of the AHP conference, pointing to the critique of the monetization of nature. Beyond doubt, TEEB is an important tool, but biodiversity needs clear thresholds, given that it cannot be simply substituted. As the saying goes: ‘When the last tree is cut down, the last fish eaten and the last stream poisoned, you will realize that you cannot eat money.’ Mind you, manufacturing a new planet remains Science Fiction and nature is clearly not a shopping mall.

First Published, 12 Oct 2013, Written by Philipp Gassner / Special to the BusinessMirror


Every Litter Bit Hurts Sun, 15 Sep 2013 07:31:59 +0000 Read more]]>

It’s Coastal Cleanup Day

What do space and the ocean have in common? Their vastness, that we know little about it, and that both resemble the mess in a teenager’s room. Rather than piles of tossed out toys, used underwear and dirty dishes, in space one will find a junkyard of spent rocket stages and dead spacecraft. These end up in Earth’s orbit ever since the Soviet Union launched Sputnik 1 in 1957. The number of pieces of space debris has risen to a burgeoning blizzard of over 500,000 fragments in orbit. Even though this space garbage is going to have a major impact on the future economics of space flight, it is of somewhat less concerning to humanity than the equally messy oceans.

A Beachcomber’s Paradise

Just how messy they are, an unintentional experiment showed when the Japanese tsunami in March 2011 swept about 4.8 million tons of debris into the sea. ‘You don’t often get a chance to take an entire city, put it in the ocean, and see what happens to all the stuff,’ Marcus Eriksen says. The scientist and adventurer sailed after the tsunami garbage on its 7000 km journey across the Pacific to find out all about marine debris. This debris included a rusting Japanese Harley-Davidson motorcycle, a set of golf clubs and a 50 m fishing boat, found by beachcomber in British Columbia.

But beachcombers can only comb 5 % of the floating debris. The much bigger part ends up in the Earth’s five great subtropical gyres – enormous, slow-moving whirlpools on the ocean’s surface which accumulate debris for years from currents and winds. Thousands of kilometers across, the biggest of these gyres is known as The Great Pacific Garbage Patch. Located between two huge population and industrial centers – Asia and North America –the patch serves as Earth’s mighty bellybutton, covered in thin confetti of plastic. More than three million tons of confetti. In the world’s oceans that sums up to hundreds of million tons. And indeed the marine garbage problem is a problem of plastic, making up 85 % of all debris in the sea.

6.000.000 Tons of Trash to our Web of Life

Our economy is based on the one-time use of throw away plastics. ‘Instead of hunting and gathering, we now shop. And every time we shop, we accumulate plastic: a toothbrush; a vat of butter; a bag of chips; a candy bar wrapper; it’s all made of plastic,’ illustrates another sailing environmentalist, Josh Berry. Over six million tons a day make their way to the sea, 80 % of it from land. The rest stems from the 10,000 containers lost by container ships each year or ghost nets, fishing nets left in the ocean, and the like. Once waterborne, debris becomes mobile blown by the wind, or following the flow of ocean currents, ending up in gyres and after decades on the seabed.

Problem solved? Not quite. Unlike in the deep space, the trash in the oceans is of a bigger concern than the threat to the odd satellite, orbiting the blue planet. Its name is well deserved, since blue oceans cover two thirds of the Earth and provide over a billion people with food. You wouldn’t want to trash the place where your food comes from, would you?

Beyond global food security oceans are essential to the health and survival of all life, power our climate and are a critical ecosystem of the biosphere. The marine ecosystem makes up a large part of biodiversity, the global web of life. Just take the ASEAN region, harboring the mega-diverse coral triangle. It supports six of the world’s seven marine turtle species, 51 of the 70 mangrove species and 75% of global coral species. The ecosystem services such reefs provide globally, come to an estimated annual value of $112.5 Billion.

Beyond this money, the region is also crucial to the global cycle of plankton, tiny floating marine creatures, which regulate the global climate and feed all other marine animals. But now, for every kilo of plankton per cubic meter of seawater the great garbage patches contain approximately six kilos of plastic. That means that there is more trash in the oceans than living beings and, even worse, it is passed up the food chain to reach all marine life. A sad fact which endangers the vital biodiversity, the very same beings make up.

Hitching a Hike on a Floating Motorcycle

Coral is smothered by plastic, fish get trapped in drifting ghost nets, birds die from eating plastic. 95 % of the sea bird Northern Fulmar, found dead on beaches have plastic in their stomachs. Marine debris harms an estimated 100,000 sea turtles and marine mammals, and millions of other sea creatures each year. For instance plastic shopping bags can clog digestive tracts, causing starvation tricking the animal into thinking it is full.

However, much of the plastic is ending up as microplastic – fragments less than 5 millimetres across. On the bright sight this microplastic is hosting life, creating a new niche in the vast oceans. The tiny fragments in the Atlantic Ocean have been colonised by microbes not found in open water, a community dubbed the plastisphere.

Trashing is a good thing than? Hardly, since on the flipside, the plastisphere can also work as a mini raft, transporting dangerous species around the world, like the Vibrio bacteria causing cholera. And such rafts can be much bigger, like our Japanese Harley-Davidson, on which invasive species can be hitching rides around the globe. Hotspots like the bays of San Francisco or Manila amount to global zoos of invasive species, which break the earth’s natural barriers, muck up the area’s marine environments, cost billions of dollars to manage, and endanger local biodiversity.

Another way, biodiversity is put at peril are a thin layer of industrial chemicals and petroleum, coating the plastic particles, creating little poison pills that fish eat and absorb. And if fish are feasting on these toxic morsels, then be sure, we are too.

Clean up the World

To avoid feeding on poison and to protect the marine web of life, there is a very easy way: Reducing and preventing trash from entering our waterways. It is critical to manage man-made debris at every point, from its manufacture to a product’s consumption. Slowly this is recognized by the plastic industry, meeting on International Marine Debris Conferences to address the ocean garbage issue – with what results remains to be seen.

On a regional level the ASEAN Centre for Biodiversity – in cooperation with GIZ, the German development cooperation arm – has a strong emphasis on marine topics. The center, based in the Philippine university town Los Baños, coordinates networks of marine protected areas and takes marine debris seriously.

From Los Baños comes also a clear solution on the local level. As the first Philippine city it enforced a ban on plastic bags in 2008, now followed by 60 other Philippine municipalities – but lobbied against by the plastic industries. Perhaps making the business case is more convincing: Increasing the recycling rate by 14% in a few years – thus lowering plastic waste – the Republic of Korea already created economic benefits of $1.6bn a year.

Until this trickles down, join the global anti-litter movement. True to the motto Clean Up the World, an astounding 35 million volunteer in 130 countries each year. Engage already today, 15th September, in the 27th International Coastal Cleanup. Last year the global effort on 28,516 kilometers of global waterways and beaches netted a staggering 5 million kg of trash, equivalent to the weight of 41 blue whales. What to do with all this garbage showed activist David de Rothschild. He built a raft, the Plastiki, from old plastic bottles and sailed into, where else but the Great Pacific Garbage Patch.

If that is too adventurous for you, perhaps you are lucky and find a friendly floatee. 350.000 of them are travelling the world’s oceans since 1992 when some containers with child’s bath toy were washed overboard a cargo ship. As friendly as the red beavers, green frogs, blue turtles and yellow ducks might seem, they still are among the ocean’s silent killers.

First published on Wednesday, 30 November 2013, 08:00, Written by Philipp Gassner / Special to the BusinessMirror


Born to be wild in a warming world Sun, 25 Aug 2013 10:53:29 +0000 Read more]]> Ridden a Tamaraw lately? Then guess yourself lucky, as for this unique experience there are only two options: Either as an old timer fan, exploring Asia’s wilderness in a Tamaraw Asian Utility Vehicle, built by Toyota in the 1970s. Or on the back of its namesake Tamaraw, the Mindoro dwarf buffalo.

What both share is their ruggedness – and their minuscule number of lasting examples. The former lives on in the successor car models Rewo or Innova. The later, and its 350 remaining peers, however, can only be found on Mt. Iglit-Baco in the outback of the Philippine Island Occidental Mindoro, as its name Bubalus mindorensis already suggests. A bit further south, likewise the Indonesian Toyota Kijang shares its design with the Toyota Tamaraw. Yet the name lending Barking Deer Kijang looks quite different to the Tamaraw, the largest land mammal endemic to the Philippines.

The one meter tall and compact Tamaraw is slightly hairier, and has shorter horns than the national animal of the Philippines, the water buffalo Carabao. The Carabao however only dwarfs the Tamaraw a little, both in size and fame. Toyota aside, the Tamaraw is a mascot of a many sport teams, features the TV show ‘Born to be Wild’ and can be found on the old Philippine one-Peso coins.

Nevertheless, this national symbol of the Philippines not only disappeared from the coin but also from the wild. The Tamaraw is now listed as one of the world’s most endangered animals. Still in the early 1900s around 10,000 of these fierce and solitary individuals, truly born to be wild, grazed the tropical highland forests of Mindanao. But this forest has been lost more and more during the last century to farming and high human population growth. Now there is yet another factor in the equation, endangering the iconic animal: climate change – ironically sped up by the emissions of the many Tamaraws and Kijangs on Asia’s roads.

Escaping the final nail in the coffin

Climate change adds to the global challenge of biodiversity conservation. It is threatening individual species – like the Tamaraw – as well as entire ecosystems, with negative consequences for human well-being. Increasing temperatures and altered precipitation regimes already result in distribution changes of species. When it is getting warmer – uncomfortably warm – animals and plants have two escape options to more pleasant climates: Moving polewards, or moving upwards. Both options are very limited for the Tamaraw, once they reached the southern end of their habitat or the peak of Mt. Iglit-Baco. Also drier conditions, as predicted for the Philippines, can make it quite un-intimate for the dwarf buffalo, which appreciates the proximity of waterholes. This is true for many other animals and plants. 20-30 percent of species assessed in a current global review could be wiped of the face of the planet if climate change leads to global average temperature rises greater than 1.5-2.5 degrees – a very likely scenario.

Fury, Adorable and Locking Away Carbon

In order to avoid this scenario and the final nail in the coffin of the Tamaraw and its millions of contemporaries, let’s drill down on what is called mitigation, the reduction of climate change. And a very peculiar contemporary might be able to give an answer how exactly this mitigation can look like.

Slapping the water with their broad furry tail, these adorable semi-aquatic rodents do not exactly seem to be the saviors of the world but they are very busy in trying so. Beavers are doing their bit for carbon capture and storage. ‘The dams they build, and the wetlands produced as a result, lock away a surprising amount of carbon’ says Ellen Wohl of Colorado State University in an interview with the New Scientist. ‘Beaver dams cause water to breach riverbanks, creating areas of wetland known as beaver meadows, which contain large amounts of sediment and organic material. If the dam breaks the meadows dry out, exposing the material to the air and releasing some of the carbon stored within them.’ In her study in the US Rocky Mountain National Park, beavers accounted for 8 per cent of the carbon stored in the landscape.

Albeit not living in Southeast Asia’s landscapes, beavers remarkably show how one species can have a key role in the functioning of a whole terrestrial ecosystem. Combined, these ecosystems sequester about 3 billion tons of atmospheric carbon annually, approximately 30 percent of all anthropogenic CO2 emissions. On the flipside, the current loss of such ecosystems and their species, results in 10 percent of all human greenhouse gas emissions. For these emissions primarily deforestation is to blame, but also other land use change triggering soils and peatlands to relieve their stored carbon – 5 billion tons of carbon in Indonesia’s peatlands alone.

Stumped for an answer how to reduce their third highest carbon emissions worldwide, Indonesian decision makers, amongst others, should consider the role of their ecosystems and species very carefully in their policies. Accordingly, the most widespread land-use based mitigation policy is the United Nations’ Reduced Emissions from Deforestation and Degradation (REDD) scheme. This scheme develops ‘win-win’ mitigation policies that are beneficial for both the climate and biodiversity. Especially important for the biodiverse ASEAN region, such win-win is high up on the agenda of the Biodiversity and Climate Change Project (BCCP) of GIZ, the German development cooperation arm at the ASEAN Center for Biodiversity (ACB). The Philippine based Center coordinates conservation and sustainable management of Southeast Asia’s vibrant richness in species.

To Learn How to Learn to Live with Climatic Change

Having seen that species like the busy beaver make an important contribution to climate change mitigation, this is not enough. Supporting the beaver and its peers with win-win strategies can only slow and halter future warming. The currently occurring warming, however, can already be felt with all its consequences, like more frequent storms or droughts. To learn to live with such consequences requires adaptation, complementing mitigation efforts.

To learn how to learn to live with climatic change, another wild creature might shed some light on. The North American Chrysemys picta can tell a story about the need for adaptation. Chrysemys picta is one of many reptile species whose sex is determined by temperature. Eggs in warm nests are likely to hatch as females, while males hatch in cooler nests. In a nutshell, males do not stand a chance in a warmer world, if they happen to be painted turtles. A temperature rise of just around 1 °C is all it would take for the species to become 100 per cent female and earmarked for extinction.

This is very unfortunate for the turtle, as well as all crocodilians, a bunch of turtles and lizards, and some fishes, living in a world about to fail the two degree target. Not to fail too, females adapt: They can shift their nesting dates by about 10 days to ensure their eggs develop at temperatures that produce an even mix of males and females. If that does not do the trick, they might lay their eggs in shadier locations. In case even the shade gets too hot, reptiles need to evolve the ability to cope with warmer conditions. However, climate change is happening so rapidly that an evolutionary response, especially in long-lived organisms, is not likely.

What is true for our little turtle also works for an entire ecosystem. Ecosystems can adapt to a warming world. But only to a slowly and not too much warming world, and only if such systems are healthy. Like the Tamaraw’s encroached highlands, other weakened habitats are just overwhelmed by yet another pressure. Take the decades long overfishing of Southeast Asia’s rich coral reefs, for which climate change could be the literal final nail in the coffin, too. On the other hand, most healthy ecosystems have a rather high natural capacity to adapt to climate change.

A capacity many countries could benefit from, which are now starting to develop and implement adaptation policies to cope with impacts. So far adaptation strategies tend to focus on technological, structural, social, and economic developments, while the linkages between biodiversity and adaptation are often overlooked.

However, ecosystem-based adaptation can be a cost-effective alternative to very expensive measures. Just take the habitat of the painted turtle. In order to adapt to more floods from rivers and wetlands in a warmer climate one could build pricy dams, possibly endangering the turtle and its contemporaries even more and taking away other goods and services like fisheries. Particularly relevant to the poor, such goods and services can be, however, maintained with an ecosystem based adaptation mechanism, while providing the same flood protection. Possible preventive strategies, such as reduced deforestation, afforestation or soil conservation are much cheaper than dams and the like.

And cheaper is the buzz word if we want to stick with economic lingo. Now ‘triple win’ policies are possible: Let’s bring the stories of the conservation of the iconic Tamaraw and Kijang, the mitigation efforts of the busy Beaver and the adaptation of the Painted Turtle together. Unmistakably, links between biodiversity and climate change flow both ways and are interconnected. Only by aligning the conservation of biodiversity with climate change mitigation and adaptation, the world’s species, born to be wild, stand a chance to stay wild. Including our very own species, Homo sapiens.

First published on Saturday, 24 August 2013 18:20, Written by Philipp Gassner / Special to the BusinessMirror

Mangroves: Insurance against wrath of nature Fri, 26 Jul 2013 09:03:49 +0000 Read more]]> Relax in our fabulous, affordable wooden beach cottages with sweeping sea views and crystal clear water full of vibrant tropical fish. Enjoy a cold drink in your hand and a warm, salty breeze on your face as the sun sets over our endless white beach. Awake to the sound of rumbling waves…

And tourists all over South Asia did. That it would be the rumbling of a 30 meter wave was not mentioned in the travel brochure. The wave, known as the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami, turned out to be the deadliest natural disasters in recorded history, hitting Indonesia, Sri Lanka, India, and Thailand the hardest. When booking their holiday to these destinations, tourists would have been happy to tick an insurance option against this kind of disaster. As would be all 200 million people worldwide, living directly along coastlines, and in particular the millions of South Asians affected by tsunamis.

Insurance on the Cheap

Alright, better safe than sorry: For the next trip to the beach, we shall take a tsunami insurance. But who will provide this? Surely not AXA or Allianz. The answer waits just around the corner of the beach: A couple of inconspicuous, torpedo-shaped seedlings in the sand. And these will insure against a 30 meter wave? Wading a bit further in the chest-deep, brackish, tea-coloured water, we can see towering giants. 25 meter tall and densely packed, with webs of entangled prop roots extending like skirts from each trunk. That is more like it. But what might these tall mangling structures be? Mangling is the right catchword. Mangle is the Spanish origin for the word mangrow, today known as Mangroves. Mangroves narrowly refer to the plant family Rhizophoraceae and are, in words of one syllable trees up to medium height that grow along the seashore of the tropics and subtropics.

Sure, these trees provide an enjoyable scenery, yet, how on earth can a few trees insure tourists and coast dwellers from a fierce tsunami? The 2004 tidal wave did not only leave horrific human tragedy in its wake but also some lessons. Lessons learnt by the lucky inhabitants of three mangrove-sheltered villages of the Cuddalore District on India’s East shore. And even more so by their, not so lucky, neighbors. The former experienced the cushion effect of mangroves protecting their villages. Already 30 trees per 100 square meters reduce the maximum flow of a tsunami by more than 90 percent. Satellite photographs remarkably show, how the later found their two villages in shreds, due to deciding against this insurance option provided by mother nature.

And as insurance provider mother nature is now being taken seriously on the market. Some insurance agencies offer cheaper policies for resorts with beaches seamed by mangroves. Not only to protect from the odd tsunami, but also from much more frequent calamities, such as typhoons and floods. Calamities, which sound all too familiar to millions of oceanfront Philippinos, Indonesians or Indians. Let alone the people of Fiji, Tuvalu, or the Federated States of Micronesia, who live just 2 meters above sea level. Sea levels which are on the rise as the globe warms and the poles melt. Such rise turns average surf into a flood. And storms, multiplied by the very same global warming, into small tsunamis.

Blue Carbon Locked into the Soil

Better be climate change insured than – of course by mangroves. Mangroves which can yet do much more. They can fix climate change in the first place, and thus render an insurance against it obsolete. Sounds too good to be true? How can a couple of trees in the water mitigate climate change? Well, by addressing the very cause of it, the boosted carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere, which lead to the warming greenhouse gas effect. Just like any other tree, mangroves capture carbon from the air and store it in their wood. But mangroves do an even better job. To discover their secret, we have to dig deep in the muddy, grubby ground. In the rich, tidally submerged soil mangroves store about 90% of the fixed carbon in the form of organic material, which decomposes very slowly. Thus they continuously lock huge amounts of “blue carbon” into the soil under the sea level: 1,000 tons per hectare, more than three times as much as tropical forest on land.

Mother Nature’s Bank Account

This carbon lock is great news for the climate and great news for us. We can kick back and conveniently continue our beach holiday, enjoying the wooden beach cottages, the colorful fish, the sweeping views and the clear water, as advertised in the brochure. Without having to worry about mangroves anymore.

Or do we? Sorry to say, but without mangroves the travel brochure would read quite differently: Dull views, lifeless oceans, filthy water and no wooden cottage. Indeed, mangroves are spot on all-rounders: They are a source of timber and construction materials, e.g. for beach resorts, while, at the same time providing them with sweeping panoramas, promoting wellness and recreation. They filter coastal pollution, prevent soil erosion and improve biodiversity. For instance they are home to the endangered Kalimantan Proboscis Monkey. Besides, they capture and accumulate sediments in their roots, which serve as nursery to many species of fish that feed the world. Nearshore fisheries, critically important to millions of costal communities in Southeast Asia and worldwide, but also most large-scale commercial offshore fisheries are utterly dependent on mangroves as breeding grounds.

No wonder that Vietnam decided to plant and protect nearly 12,000 hectares of mangroves, spending US$1 million but saving annual expenditures of well over US$7 million, on dyke maintenance alone. Try to get such interest rate from your bank. If you include the other services provides by mangroves, one square kilometer of mangroves is worth jaw-dropping $900,000 a year. What a nice savings account for every coastal community. But this account has a flip side: By hastily taking too much money out of the it – say in form of timber for a beach cottage, worth a couple of hundred dollars – you will lose an incredible amount of yearly interest rate.

ASEAN: Bestowed with Mangroves

For the ASEAN region as whole, this foregone annual benefits is estimated at staggering US$ 2.2 billion by year 2050, with Indonesia expected to suffer the highest losses at US$ 1.7 billion per year. Sadly, many have not realized the vast value of their mangrove account yet. While Southeast Asia’s account contributes 35 percent of the mangroves found on earth, half of it was already lost during the last decades. With grim symmetry also half of global mangroves are lost, as well as half of Philippine mangroves, or half of Vietnam’s mangrove rich Mekong Delta. ‘An area of 628 square kilometers of mangrove got stripped away each year throughout the last couple of decades,’ stressed Demetrio L. Ignacio, Jr., Acting Executive Director of the ASEAN Centre for Biodiversity, in his message as keynote speaker during the Regional Symposium on Mangrove Ecosystem Conservation in Southeast Asia, held on 27 February 2013 in Surabaya, Indonesia. Indonesia contributes around three million hectares of mangroves, an estimated 21 percent of the world’s remaining supply. But conversions to oil palm plantations and shrimp ponds makes Indonesia rapidly losing its green fringes. Similarly in the region, mangroves are lost to aquaculture, to urban, coastal and agricultural development.

This not only causes a huge financial loss, but also loss in biodiversity, loss in esthetic value, and loss in food and livelihoods – particularly severe for the estimated 600 million people, depending directly on mangrove resources. And what is more, loss in carbon storage. Almost 1.2 billion tons of carbon is emitted annually from mangroves, 10 percent of carbon emissions from deforestation globally.

Mangroves for the Future

‘Our biggest challenge is to make the public aware of these true values of mangroves,’ summarizes Mr. Ignacio, whose Centre addresses the problem in numerous ways, with support from the German Development Cooperation’s Biodiversity and Climate Change Project (GIZ BCCP). But how do they want to save mangroves with all their values?

By planting them, easy as that. And you can almost watch them growing. On suitable ground, some species can reach up to two meters within two years. A cakewalk. What is more challenging, is to protect your new planted seedlings, as well as old-growth mangrove forest. As we have seen, they are just so versatile in the goods they provide that people get easily lured into making the fast buck, rather than using the full mangrove potential. To realize this potential, mangroves conservation needs to be mainstreamed into development planning, what the initiative Mangroves for the Future tries to do. Set up after the 2004 tsunami, it offers grants to communities to protect their mangroves, which has been implemented already in about 90 projects across South and Southeast Asia. In these projects people are also trained to understand how best to use and protect their precious mangroves.

Such understanding of Mangroves is also crucial in the bigger picture. Mangroves research is a little bit behind compared to other tropical forest issues. The multitalented plants simply challenge the talents of scientists, as well as decision makers. Forging collaboration between science and policy is thus high up on the mangrove agenda of the ASEAN Centre for Biodiversity, the mangrove knowledge hub of the region.

And also on the agenda of next week’s International Mangrove Action Day. Let’s all take action and help the little torpedo shaped seedling to protect us from waves – by protecting it from the wave of deforestation. Help it to provide shelter, livelihood, food, water and a stable climate. Help it to grow in its role as a true multi-tasker of nature.

First published on Saturday, 20 July 2013 16:56, Written by Philipp Gassner / Special to the BusinessMirror

From Reef to Ridge Sun, 14 Jul 2013 18:14:52 +0000 Read more]]>

A Sunday Stroll through the Philippine’s latest ASEAN Heritage Park

Plummeting down a 500 meter deep valley on your Sunday trip is perhaps not the most tempting outlook for most readers. But once you become finally conscious about the fact that you are safely strapped to a reassuringly strong steel cable, spanning the whooping 1.5 km between two mountain ridges, you might actually enjoy this unique zipline experience in Misamis Occidental, Mindanao. As soon as the adrenaline rush settles down a little, it is worthwhile taking a glance around: The mountain Barangay Hoyohoy, behind you, Barangay Guimad in front of you, Ozamiz, 850m lower, on the coastline to the right, Mt. Malindang to the left and Labo River, running down the mountain range, beyond you. In next to no time you will make out a remarkable difference between the lush and vivid rainforest on the left hand side, and the landscape on the right hand side, featuring bare land and endless parallel rows of monotonous palm plantations.

ASEAN Heritage Parks as answer to staggering deforestation

Sadly, the latter represents much of the present day Philippines, and Southeast Asia for that matter. Only about 15% forest cover are left in the once entirely woody Philippines, with one-third lost just between 1990 and 2005. In Southeast Asia deforestation accounts for jaw-dropping 555,587 km² between 1980 and 2007, equivalent to the total area of Thailand.

This ravage of ecosystems has dire consequences for mankind, including the alteration of local and global climates, soil erosion, pollution of water resources, extinction of species and desertification, among many others. Accordingly, deforestation is estimated to reduce the global GDP by about 7% in 2050, if only measured in economic terms. However, we cannot afford to lose forests as the livelihoods for hundreds of millions of indigenous people, the warrant of a stable climate and ultimately for its intrinsic value and beauty.

A beauty worth defending. Galvanized by such sad and costly effects, it is imperative to preserve the indispensable values of our natural ecosystems and resources, which brings us back to the left hand side of the picture: The Mount Malindang Range Natural Park, part of the 10 to 15% of the world’s land surface that is categorized as protected areas. The Philippines feature 240 of such protected areas, which proved to be the single most effective way of conservation. Since environmental problems, however, are not confined to individual countries like the Philippines, protection beyond national boarders is essential.

For Southeast Asia such supra-national protection is realized through the network of ASEAN Heritage Parks (AHPs), areas of high-conservation importance, preserving an inclusive and representative spectrum of ecosystems in the region. The 32 AHPs in the 10 ASEAN member states are established to facilitate greater awareness, appreciation, and conservation of the ASEAN’s rich natural heritage, and to generate collaboration among the states in its conservation.

The recent launching of Mount Malindang last year, as the fourth Philippine AHP, provides a rather suitable occasion for a nice Sunday stroll up the green slopes of this stunning mountain range, giving a prime example for the features, importance and challenges of AHPs.

A Snapshot of Mt Malindang’s Ecosystems form shore to top

To begin the trip, we have to put our bathing trunks on and immerse ourselves into the aquatic landscape of the park. The coastal zone consists of shallow marine waters, which harbour colourful coral reefs, thriving seagrass beds, a seaweed ecosystem, diverse mangrove forest and nipa swamps. Here we can marvel the voluptuous richness of 59 seaweed species, 60 algae species, over 100 plankton species, among manifold fish, sponges, sea fans, anemones, worms, shrimps, lobsters, crabs, shells, slugs, nudibranchs, clams, octopods, starfish, sea-urchins, feather stars and sea snakes, to only name a few. This habitat type serves as important sanctuary for fish and nursery for their young, it support the marine food web and protects the shoreline from erosion. Considering that 87% of the province’s population lives within 50km of the coast and directly or indirectly depends on marine natural resources, this ecosystem is of utter most importance, but also at peril: Much of the coastal area is already converted to residential area, coconut farms or rice fields.

Well-towelled, we shoulder our bag and leave the coast to follow along the river system of Mt. Malindang, equally influenced by human settlement and utilization. Despite the domestic and irrigation use of water, fishing and the mining of gravel and sand, the two main streams of the park, Langaran and Layawan River could so far maintain a fair water quality.

It is important to recognize that energy and material flows link the aquatic system intimately to the terrestrial ecosystem, which we enter now. This is especially true for the agro-ecosystem in lower altitudes, consuming high amounts of irrigation water. The system features 73 species of cultivated crops, including vegetables, cereals, agro-forestry and grass-dominated areas, besides 164 animal species. It is also home to the majority of the over one million people, who depend on the Malindang Range.

Already less populated is the adjacent natural Lowland Dipterocarp Forest, from 220-500 m above sea level, featuring 175 plant species, with 25 m high trees, and over 250 different animals. Increasing human encroachment for cultivation, and unregulated extraction of forest products, such as firewood and timber, however, convert this ecosystem to much less diverse mixed forest or plantation forest. These plantations are mostly monocultures, dominated by Cocos and Acacia.

Likewise, also the Dipterocarp Forest from 450-900 m is affected and the remaining forest can be found only in small and discrete patches. Moreover, areas cleared by logging cannot be cultivated here, due to the steep slopes.

Following along Layawan River uphill, were the vegetation becomes more and more dense, we will encounter the Subanen, the indigenous ‘river people’ community of Misamis Occidental. They comprise 75% of the occupants of the natural park and are traditionally hunters and gatherers, but most have settled down to plant corn, vegetables, bananas and coconuts. Thus they shape the agricultural systems of higher altitudes, using mainly the traditional form of shifting cultivation, which involves a short period of agriculture with subsistence crops like cassava, followed by fallow. Besides providing food and material for shelter, the forests are also a source of traditional medicine to them, some of which remain available and are used to this day. One example is the bark of Almaciga, used to treat stomach-ache. The Subanos still enjoy an intimate relationship with nature, and take only what is needed for their subsistence. Furthermore, they protect the mountain by reporting poachers and by supporting the Protected Area Office in their conservation efforts. Fernando Magante, provincial tribal coordinator for the Subanen, laments that Malindang’s rich biodiversity is increasingly affected by incidences of illegal logging. He hopes that the declaration as an AHP will strengthen the commitment to defend the park and their home.

After this first exhausting ascent let us catch our breath and cool our feet in picturesque Lake Duminagat. This eight ha crater lake, located at the heart of the park is not only an important water source for the adjacent rural villages, but also a silent witness of the geologic history of Mt. Malindang. A series of volcanic eruptions over some two million years followed by severe erosion has formed this deeply dissected mountain range of lavas and built-ups. Other indicators of Malindang’s fiery past are the hot springs of Sebucal and Tuminawan, extensive volcanic rocks and the carbonized woods are Mansawan.

Sufficiently refreshed, we now leave the Subanos and ascent the very steep slopes of the Submontane Diperocarp forest. It features over 160 plant and 150 animal species, many endemic to Mindanao and found nowhere else in the world. This forest type provides important ecological services, above all the stabilisation of the steep terrain. The steepness makes the forest also poorly accessible to illegal logging, the fortunate reason why only its lower parts have been logged.

At a similar altitude, up to 1,400 m, we will come across a true forest giant, Agathis philippinensis, eponymous for the Almaciga Forest. The tallest representative reaches remarkable 45 m into the cloudy sky and has a circumference of 11 m, rendering it also a sought-after and now threatened source for timber.

From 1,400 onwards we cross the threshold to the biodiversity hotspot of the park. The very dense Montane Forest harbours with over 270 plant species alone, a big share of Malindang’s 2,283 recorded species, a number which is estimated to be higher by magnitudes. The most prominent inhabitant is the Philippine Eagle, which, contrary to its synonym ‘Monkey Eating Eagle’, mainly feeds on flying lemurs. 36 individuals of the about 400 remaining and highly endangered pairs of eagles in the country find shelter in the park. To protect this heraldic Philippine animal, the private Philippine Eagle Foundation works together with the local communities and prepares the release of eagles, hatched in the Davao Eagle Centre.

The Philippine Eagle is however in no way the only noteworthy bird in the park, which is lucky enough to host 162 different bird species. 60 of them can be found at the last leg of our hike from 1,700 m to the cold and windy 2,424 m peak of Mt. Malindang, where, according to Loreto Ocampos, congress man of Misamis Occidental and also a keen mountaineer, the only sound you hear is the chattering of your bones. This altitude is dominated by the Mossy Forest. On our way through this enchanted world of dwarfed trees with gnarled trunks and prop roots, covered with mosses and ferns you begin to appreciate why the Subanos considered this place sacred and used it for religious ceremonies. Luckily, this forest remains fairly intact and gives a very neat example of the enduring 18,000 ha primary forest of the park’s 33,700 ha forested area.

On the way back we have time to recap the extraordinary diversity in species and habitats, caused by the plentiful environmental conditions along the slopes of Mt. Malindang, and supporting a huge number of people. However, as we have also witnessed, there are many man-made threats putting the ecological integrity of the park at peril. As Herminia Ramiro, the Governor of Misamis Occidental, put it, ‘it is not the righteous people who will protect their village from the storm, but it is the swamps and forests surrounding it, which provide the protection. In turn, it is the mission of righteous people to safeguard these swamps and forests’. A gloomy reminder of this was last year’s devastating flood in Metro Manila. Its million or so residents affected would certainly agree and appreciate intact ecosystems around them, holding back the torrential water masses.

Good Governance to protect our Web of Life

Having seen the significance of preserving ecosystems, such as Mt. Malindang, what is the best way to achieve this?

This question will be at the heart of the Fourth ASEAN Heritage Parks Conference in Cagayan de Oro City on 1-4 October 2013. The Conference is spearheaded by the ASEAN Centre for Biodiversity (ACB) with support from the German Development Cooperation’s Biodiversity and Climate Change Project (GIZ BCCP), and the Government of the Philippines through the Department of Environment and Natural Resources and the Department of Tourism.

Already during the last National ASEAN Heritage Parks Conference on 4-5 August 2012 in Oroquieta City, Misamis Occidental, Nereus Acosta, secretary and presidential adviser for environment protection, tried to answer this question. He cogently pointed out the four elements of good governance for sustainable development in the Natural Parks and beyond: ‘Its natural capital, the people dependent on it, the technology to protect it, and the economy supported by it’. He further emphasized three capital Cs as prerequisites for ecological protection:

Conservation, like motherhood and apple pie, comes first, now strongly supported by the declaration of areas as AHPs. To achieve this, Capacity needs to be strengthened, both carrying capacity of the ecosystem, as well as the caring capacity of the stakeholders involved with its protection.

And last, but not least, Cost is an essential factor of appreciating the value of the services ecosystems provide us with. For instance, the major export of Misamis Occidental, the 7th poorest province, is fresh oxygen from the forests, a commodity, which does not have a price tag, and thus a low visibility for decision makers. The concepts of Payment for Ecosystem Services (PES), applied in the natural park, are a promising way out.

On such solutions the conference in October will follow up on, and set them in the bigger picture: Not only, how the unique AHPs, and their effective management, can contribute to the international strategy on global biodiversity protection, but also to the reduction of poverty. This bigger picture will be filled with 32 smaller pictures of the ASEAN Heritage Park photo exhibit, showing the stunning and diverse heritage of Southeast-Asia.

‘Preserving this heritage and thus the ecological security of the country and the region, is at least as important for national security as the Scarborough Shoal,’ Mr. Acosta highlighted. ‘We can talk political security, employment and investment – at the end of the day we return to what sustains life and fuels our economy – ecology, which is more than just natural resources. If we hit the buffers of ecology, we get disconnected from the global web of life. If we cannot protect the support system of life, there is no life to sustain.’

And we have to be aware, that in contrast to the 500 m zipline fall into the Labo River valley, there is no harness and safety cable for our quickly plummeting biodiversity – the ecological support system of all life on earth.

First Published on Saturday, 06 July 2013 16:25, Written by Philipp Gassner / Special to the BusinessMirror and  Saturday, 27 July 2013 17:51 Written by Philipp Gassner / Special to the BusinessMirror

Farm to Fork – Leaving a Smaller Foodprint Wed, 05 Jun 2013 07:32:09 +0000 Read more]]> How would you react if you sit at the dinner table and without warning somebody takes away one third of your dish? One third of your rice, one third of your beef, one third of your veggies, and what’s worst, one third of your ice cold beer.

No, this is not the latest diet advice from a life-style magazine, to lose a couple of pounds. Neither is it a swoop of your food-jealous neighbor’s fork. It is daily reality. More than one third of the food produced every day does not end up on our plates or in our stomachs – it gets lost or wasted. That sums up to 1.3 billion tons. To grasp the dimension: This is five times the combined weight of all humans in the world or 3000 Empire State Buildings. A whole city made from garbage every year. Hard to imagine?

Let’s follow your dinner from farm to fork to see if and how that is possible.

Our Food’s Journey

On a visit to a local farm, the very beginning of the food supply chain, we can witness numerous reasons why the food does not reach our plate. We better be quick, since some clouds are forming in the distance, foretelling a storm. Have you checked the weather forecast today? The farmer certainly has, since he is utterly dependent on the weather. Weather extrems like storms or draughts are the main reason for the loss of his harvest. Unfortunately, climate change is loading the dice for ever more increasing extrems, as typhoon-plagued Philippine farmers will readily tell you. Such extrems are often followed by pest infestations, resulting in further loss. But also malfunctioning machinery or on-farm losses in storage, due to rodents, parasites or fungi are widespread, particularly in low income countries.

Such inherent losses are complemented by selective harvesting, due to economic factors, such as regulations and standards for quality and appearance. If a tomato is not round, red and shiny enough, it may well not be sold, and thus not harvested.

Say, the tomato is deemed suitable and leaves the farm, even now it is not save, since it is still a long way to your table. Direct production losses are followed by post harvest loss. Again, heat, humidity and pests can spoil food. You don’t want rotten tomato or some moldy rice with your beef, do you? Such vegetables and rice are lost. This does not only apply to your dish, but happens on a large scale. Up to 45 percent of rice vanishes this way in China, and as much as 80 per cent in Vietnam. Other low income countries experience similar challenges: Poor infrastructure and transportation, lack of refrigeration and inadequate packaging result in high losses.

Just too much to finish?

But even if such infrastructure is in place, as is the case in most industrialized countries, it is still not dinner time. Beforehand, you or your chef have to go to the shops. And here we are, one step further along the food supply chain, the retail level, where loss is largest in developed countries. Nevertheless, inadequate market facilities, such as unsanitary conditions and lack of refrigeration, make it a problem of low income countries, too. Just think of the last visit to the market with tomatoes sweltering in the sun. Similarly, up to 55% of fruits and vegetables are lost due to poor temperature management during display.

Say, your chef managed to snatch a bunch of tomatoes, there is yet a lot that can go wrong. Often planning, communication and coordination is lacking, in particular in central kitchens. He might have just bought too many tomatoes, since less guests show up than expected, or the kitchen help already did the shopping. Much greater factors at this stage are, however, again quality standards that over-emphasize appearance as well as the interpretation of best before, sell-by or use-by dates add. The bottle of beer was already expired? Sorry, we have to ditch it, and you have to go with tap water. Nonetheless, at the time of disposal food is often still edible, and drinks drinkable.

Sounds familiar from your fridge, where there rot some veggies in the back? Or from the last party, where there was just too much cake to finish? Poor planning and leftovers in households contribute to the biggest wastage in the food supply chain, especially in the industrialized world. Just take the allegedly green Germany as example, where 61% of food waste occurs at the household level.

Combined, all this indeed amounts to the staggering 1.3 billion tons, lost or wasted every year – the equivalent to more than half of the world’s annual cereals crop. It is highest in North America with 294 kg of food lost per person and year, and lowest in Southeast Asia with still 125 kg of food – mainly fruits and vegetables. And the problem is on the rise. US per capita food waste has progressively increased by 50% from 1974 till 2009, symptomatic for industrialized countries and emulated by developing and transitional countries.

The Hidden Costs on Our Bill

What does this ever-increasing problem mean then, besides leaving the table still slightly hungry?

It means that our global agriculture and food production system is very inefficient. This inefficiency produces high costs. For you, in order to have the same sized dinner as usual, the bill will be on third higher. How much higher this is, showed a recent assessment of yearly discarded, purchased and edible food in the US, accounting for $43 billion. Quite a big tip. However, our food does not only have obvious, economic costs, one can see on the bill, but also well hidden environmental and social costs.

For instance, 70 per cent of our fresh water globally goes into producing food, like your dinner. Each kilogram of your beef requires 15,000 liters of water, of your rice 3000 liters and of your tomatoes 240 liters. Then wasting food not only uses water, but also land. Around half the world’s 100 million km2 of fertile land is already used to grow food. A twentieth hectare is needed to supply your rice and a whole hectare for your beef.

In a nutshell, food is responsible for about one quarter of climate impacts from private consumption and about one third of other environmental impacts, such as deforestation, land degradation, or biodiversity loss. If food is wasted or lost, the environmental impacts related to its production have been in vain.

In addition to the undue environmental impacts, the disposal of food discards causes pollution: The left overs of your dinner will end up on a landfill, making up the largest component of materials sent there. In the landfill the residues of your dinner break down, resulting in the production of methane, a greenhouse gas 25 times more potent than carbon dioxide, and releasing nutrients, which can pollute water bodies.

Such pollution, climatic change, deforestation and biodiversity loss are particularly relevant to Southeast Asia, the ultimate biodiversity hotspot, and very vulnerable to the effects of global warming, as the ASEAN Center for Biodiversity (ACB) calls attention to. The Center coordinates conservation and sustainable management of Southeast Asia’s vibrant biodiversity, thus also addressing agricultural influences. In this endeavor, GIZ, the German development cooperation arm supports the Philippine-based Center.

The Philippines themselves provide a sad example for environmental costs of food waste: It is the third most vulnerable country to climate change, large parts are deforested, air and water is polluted, and 90 percent of coral reefs, as the prime source of protein, are endangered. Can we really afford such undue costs?

This would be at least hard to explain to the about 925 million undernourished people worldwide and the 2.6 million children dying of hunger every year. Mind you, that food security is still a major concern in large parts of the developing world, and global demand for food will increase for at least another 40 years. ‘In a world of seven billion people, set to grow to nine billion by 2050, wasting food makes no sense – economically, environmentally and ethically,’ to quote the Executive Director of the UN Environment Programme (UNEP) Achim Steiner.


Embedded from UNEP World Environment Day 2013


Lessons Learnt from Chinggis Khan

Food waste is not only unaffordable, but also unnecessary. Why? Let’s take a glance at Mongolia, one of the fastest growing economies in the world and one that is aiming for a transition to a green economy. ‘It is not a big waster or loser of food, but the traditional and nomadic life of many of its people does have some ancient answers to the modern-day challenge of food waste,’ as Achim Steiner points out. The Mongol general Chinggis Khan and his soldiers used a traditional food called Borts to gallop across Asia, not reliant on elaborate supply chains. Borts is essentially concentrated beef equal to the protein of an entire cow but condensed to a little ball. This remarkable method of keeping food, without refrigeration, maps out a way to preserving and thus not wasting food.

Aptly, Mongolia is the global host for this week’s World Environment Day, with the motto ‘Think.Eat.Save: Reduce Your Foodprint’. It is also the name of a campaign that UNEP and the Food and Agricultural Organization of the UN (FAO), in cooperation with many partners from the public and private sector, launched earlier this year. Every year on June 5th, people across the planet celebrate the World Environment Day, to improve the environment now and for the future. This year they come together to show how to reduce your personal foodprint, whether in your home, whether on your farm, whether in the supermarket, in a canteen, in a hotel or anywhere else where food is prepared and consumed.

Think, Eat, Save

Leaving a smaller foodprint is a child’s play. With relative ease and a few simple changes to our habits, we can significantly cut the jaw-dropping food squandering. Just think, eat, save.

First, think: As we have seen, food loss and waste stem to a large extend from consumer behavior.

Let’s just be a bit better informed and organized, and a bit less picky. A best-before-date does not necessarily mean, we have to toss it straightaway. Also, planning of food shopping and proper storage is not too hard. And why not take the slightly miss-shaped tomato next time. Ugly veggies are equally jummy.

Valuing food a little more, and putting our values into practice, may well inspire decision makers to do their share. More coordination along the entire food chain and smart investments in food infrastructure would make all the difference.

Secondly, eat. Enjoy your dinner, and if your eyes were just too big, just wrap it and eat it the next day. Likewise, many charity organizations already work with retailers to collect and use discarded food which is still safe, tasty and nutritious. Let’s support them.

Last but not least, save. Not only some bucks on your dinner’s bill, but much more. Save our environment from the undue onslaught of modern agriculture. Save yourself the trouble of building cities from food waste, instead save people from going to bed hungry.

It has never been easier to save the world. This is your unique chance to slow down climate change, pollution, biodiversity loss and starvation, while at the same time enjoying all tree thirds of your dinner. Three thirds of your rice, three thirds of your beef, three thirds of your veggies, and of course three thirds of your ice cold beer. Bon Appetite!

First Published on Saturday, 01 June 2013 17:36, Written by Philipp Gassner / Special to the BusinessMirror

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The World’s Oldest Science Dying Sun, 19 May 2013 16:57:48 +0000 Read more]]>

Taxonomist as Endangered Species

Parastratiosphecomyia stratiosphecomyioides, Micropachycephalosaurus hongtuyanensis, Aquila chrysaetos simurgh. Put yourself in Noah’s position, when he had the tedious task to select two of every kind for his Ark. Would you be able to spell, let alone identify this fly, dinosaur and eagle? It might be a bit easier for the bug Orizabus subaziroI, which can be red either forward or in reverse direction, the beetle Agra schwarzeneggeri, the spider Calponia harrisonfordi or the ant Proceratium google. But have you ever heard of them? Unlike Noah in the Genesis, you could now just flash your Smartphone, open the DNA Barcode App, scan every animal passing by, the name would pop up on your screen, and you could tick it off the list. This app works just like the scanner of a supermarket, which distinguishes for instance different cans of tomato soup and shows their price, using the little black stripes of the Universal Product Code (UPC). Instead of the black stripes on a can this new gimmick uses snippets of the DNA, the genetic information of every living being, to tell you whether you deal with the cicada Zyzza or the sponge Zyzzya. Two items may look, or sound, very similar to the untrained eye or ear, but in both cases the barcodes are distinct. Filling the Ark is dead easy now.

The World’s Oldest Profession

Sounds a bit too much like science fiction? Sorry to say, you are right. Even though science has made tremendous progress and we know have an electronic catalogue of almost all know plants and animals, such scanner of the ‘Barcode of Life’ is still a long way ahead. More on this later. For now, luckily the good old taxonomists are still out there to help you. Taxonomists are the stamp collectors among the scientists, as the physicist Ernest Rutherford would have said, who by the way dismissed all of the science that falls outside physics as mere “stamp collecting”. Well, they do not quite collect stamps, rather animals and plants, or more so, their names. And doing so, taxonomy, the art of naming and sorting things, is the world’s oldest profession: ‘So the man gave names to all the livestock, the birds in the sky and all the wild animals’, knows already the book of Genesis (2:20).

This naming has likely been taking place as long as mankind has been able to communicate. It would always have been important to know the names of poisonous and edible plants and animals, in order to communicate this information to other members of the family or group.

Following Noah, one could call Shen Nung, Emperor of China about 3000 BC, the second big taxonomist. He is said to have tasted hundreds of plants with the goal of learning their medicinal value. The Greek philosopher Aristotle, 384-322 BC, used a less culinary tactic but dwarfed his Chinese colleague with his claim to classify no fewer than all living things. It took however another 2000 years to master the discipline of taxonomy. More influential than ABBA, and more celebrated than Björn Borg, the perhaps most famous Swede Carolus Linnaeus invented taxonomy as we know it. Already by the age of eight he was given the nickname ‘the little botanist’, due to his keen interest in flowers. But he struggled, like many others, with the higgledy-piggledy scientific names, used in the early 18th century. The humble tomato for instance was called Solanum caule inermi herbaceo, foliis pinnatis incises acemis simplicibus. Try to remember that next time you ask for tomatoes at the market. Instead, the little botanist gave all the plants a much easier name in two parts, and the tomato became Solanum lycopersicum. Even a Chinese grocer, who calls the vegetable 西红柿, would now know what you want: a nice red tomato.

 Our global life-support system, built from bio-divers ecosystems

In biology a tomato is known as a species, the basic unit of classification. A species is often defined as a group of organisms capable of interbreeding and producing fertile offspring. A Dalmatian and a Boxer could, since they are both members of the species ‘dog’, even though their pubs might be funny to look at. A zebra and a horse could not, they are two different species. The total number of such species in the world is unknown, but probably come to between 5 and 30 million. If you ad bacteria species, this number would be much higher, since just one teaspoon of soil can have staggering one billion bacteria.

Together this fantastic variety can be described as biological diversity or biodiversity. We humans entirely depend on biodiversity for survival. Just take the wood from different trees, clean water from wetlands species, oxygen from green plants, food from all kinds of animals and fish, or the mere beauty of a butterfly on a flower. Combined, these services from bio-divers ecosystems build our global life-support system.

How many of these services have you used today, how many of these species have you already seen? Perhaps the Auroch, Tarpan, Tasmanian Tiger, Quagga-zebra, Steller’s Sea Cow, Bluebuck, Pyrenean Ibex, Falkland Islands Wolf, Atlas Bear, Caribbean Monk Seal, Bali Tiger and Javan Tiger, Eastern Cougar, or the Western Black Rhinoceros? Most probably not, since all these animals are prominent peers of the ten thousands of species, snuffed out every year. In contrast, each year, we also celebrate the discovery of new species, but only about 15,000. That means we are losing species way faster than we can yet discover and name them. We lose them before we even knew they were there, with all their services and potential, such as new medicines against cancer or HIV. An out crying shame.

Two out of three ecosystems on Earth are damaged, while most extinctions happen silently and are undocumented. Identification of large, charismatic animals may be easy. Everybody can spot an elephant. However, the majority of organisms – and organisms going extinct – are insects, plants, fungi and microorganisms. But could you tell the 70,000 or so different ant species apart? How do decision makers then decide where to establish protected areas if they do not even know what is being protected? How can developing countries ensure that they reap the benefits of the use of their biological diversity if they do not know the biological diversity of their own nation?

It is crystal clear that we need to learn more about our fanciful biodiversity with all its unique species. But is it on the cards? Cataloging all unknown species could take US$263 billion, according to a recent estimate. Money worthwhile spent to preserve our live-support system, our drip and ventilator, if you may. And just a quarter cut of the annual US military budget would easily raise the money, no worries.

The much bigger challenge is the fact that taxonomists themselves are an endangered species. We simply lack the qualified species experts needed. This is the main stumbling block to identifying the millions of unknown creatures out there. Even worse, most taxonomists work in industrialized countries, which typically have less animals and plants than the tropical developing countries.

The ASEAN’s concealed treasure trove

Southeast Asia provides the best example: The region is mega-diverse: More than 20% of the global biodiversity, 35% of the global mangrove forests and 30% of coral reefs can be found here. And even though most of these rich ecosystems are at peril, with species number in steep decline, taxonomic research in the ASEAN region is far from being in in the top list of priorities among scientists and funding institutions. Young people consider taxonomic research as a low career prospect. Taxonomy is just not cool enough, if kids even know about it. Likewise the media sector has a low awareness of the treasure trove of biodiversity information in the region, although they have a big role in its dissemination.

Mr. Demetrio L. Ignacio, Jr., Acting Executive Director of the ASEAN Centre for Biodiversity (ACB) confirms that the lack of trained human resources and inadequate capacities on taxonomy is one of the main obstacles to the protection of biological diversity. ACB, based in Los Baños, Philippines, is coordinating sustainable biodiversity management in the region and focuses on the management of taxonomic information. Since September 2010, GIZ, the German development cooperation arm, through the Biodiversity and Climate Change Project (BCCP), supports ACB in its pursuit to improve the capacity to effectively catalogue the region’s biological resources.

Making taxonomy cool again

But what exactly can be done?

It starts at the local level. For instance, ACB and the Ministry of Environment of Japan are collaboratively conducting taxonomic capacity building programs in Southeast Asian countries – recently in Indonesia, Malaysia and the Philippines. However, no country can have all the taxonomic capacity it requires. The incredible diversity of the network of life in the region is just too overwhelming. It needs a network of collaboration itself. In the ASEAN region, such network is being established through the project Taxonomic Capacity Building and Governance for Conservation and Sustainable Use of Biodiversity funded by the Government of Japan. Furthermore, the East and South East Asia Biodiversity Information Initiative (ESABII) was started in January 2009 in collaboration with the ten ASEAN Member States, China, Japan, Mongolia, and Republic of Korea and six organizations including ACB. ESABII aims to gather scattered information, develop useful information database, and make them easily accessible to policy and decision makers through its website.

Furthermore, relevant government agencies, universities and institutions in each country should establish taxonomy research centers by providing the necessary incentives and employment opportunities. How this can work shows the project to assess the status of marine taxonomy in the ASEAN, through collaboration of many scientific institutions, such as the Raffles Museum of Biodiversity Research, in Singapore and the National Museum of the Philippines.

However, taxonomy is a global science, as global as biodiversity, which does not know political boarders. Thus, next Wednesday’s Global Biodiversity Day is a good reminder of this global dimension. The day marks the anniversary of the international Convention of Biological Diversity, adopted on 22 May 1992, and aims to increase understanding and awareness of biodiversity issues. Already at the second meeting of the Conference the importance of taxonomy was appreciated, resulting in the Global Taxonomy Initiative (GTI). GTI is a regional and global technical cooperation network as a key mechanism for meeting national taxonomic needs, such as expertise, tools and information, crucial to identify and monitor biodiversity, and threats to it.

And, as mentioned before, soon every kid could become equipped with such expertise, tools and information. Well, the App shop still does not have the DNA Barcode App in stock, but modern taxonomy already uses database technologies such as the Catalogue of Life. This catalogue attempts to list every documented species and already has 1.4 million entries, covering more than 74% of all known species. The combination of this catalogue and the DNA Barcode App could make playing Noah really easy, and taxonomy cool again. Just walk around the forest, scan animals and plants, and if they are not listed, it is your unique chance to name a new species. But sorry to say, Carmenelectra shechisme, Han solo, Oedipus complex or La cerveza are already taken.

First Published:ASEAN Centre for Biodiversity, News, 15.5.2013

Also Published on Saturday, 25 May 2013 16:41, Written by Philipp Gassner / Special to the BusinessMirror


Steering the Earth-Ship Mon, 22 Apr 2013 07:38:28 +0000 Read more]]> ‘First, I couldn’t eat the food! It’s not noodles, it’s potatoes. Potatoes, potatoes. Fried potatoes, European style. From the beginning, I said I don’t want to eat potatoes. But after maybe 300 days we had to eat powders mixed with cold water instead and I said: I want potatoes’ complained Wang Yue, in an interview with the New Scientist, on his return to Earth in November 2011. You heard right: The Chinese researcher and his five colleagues were the first humans to travel to the planet Mars, which took them mind-boggling 260 days – and 260 days back. Even though 17-month in windowless isolation, with poor food, weren’t exactly a small step for the volunteers, it was a giant leap for mankind – on its way to colonize the red planet.

Agreed, it is a bit late for April Fool’s day, but if you have followed the news, there was no manned spaceflight to the red planet – yet. The Mars 500 mission was only a simulated round trip to Mars without stepping foot off Earth.

Nevertheless, the idea is as old as science fiction, and neither Ronald Reagan, nor George Bush, nor German rocket scientist Wernher von Braun were shy to proclaim the quick colonization of our brother planet. The idea is not even rocket science – it is rather straightforward.  Currently mankind is using 50% more resources than Earth can sustainably produce and unless we change course, already in 20 years two planets will just be enough. So do the math: If we trash the first planet, we need to get a second one. Then we can live on happily ever after. Business as usual, easy as that.

Or is it?

A pocked-sized mirror image of Earth

As a matter of fact, Mars is the most hospitable planet in the Solar System other than Earth, given its proximity and surface conditions which are similar to Earth, such as the availability of frozen ground water or an existing atmosphere. It is the most hospitable planet, however far from being welcoming, if you are not a big fan of nights below -80 °C, reduced gravity or month-long sandstorms blocking out most of the light and if you do not need oxygen. ‘No big deal’ Reagan or Bush might have said, ‘a little terraforming and we will be fine’. And so man tried. Not ‘earth-shaping’ in a strict sense, to deliberately modify a strange planet to be similar to the biosphere of Earth, in order to make it habitable. But only practice makes the master, right?

Instead of Mars, scientists chose Arizona to spend $200 million, play a little genesis, and built ‘Biosphere 2’. The name is akin to Earth’s life system, Biosphere 1 if you will. Covering an area of two and a half football fields, this research facility is the largest closed system ever created. The millions well spent, the scientist crafted a perfect pocked sized mirror image of Earth, featuring rainforest, an ocean with a coral reef, mangrove wetlands, savannah grassland, fog desert, and an agricultural system.

On the sixth day of creation, how could it be otherwise, mankind entered Biosphere 2, to ‘have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the birds of the air, and over every creeping thing that creeps upon the earth’. And the crew of eight people, sealed inside for two years from 1991 to 1993, did. Soon, the scientist had to learn the hard way, just how enormously complex the web of interactions within the different life systems was. CO2 levels fluctuated wildly, oxygen dropped, most of the vertebrate species and all of the pollinating insects died, while insect pests, like cockroaches, boomed. Lacking oxygen and running out of food, suffering from malnutrition, fatigue and psychological conflicts, the biospherians could not stay autonomous. Although mission 2 in 1994 achieved complete sufficiency in food production, a severe dispute within the management team ended the experiment after a few months.

What can we learn from this unique experiment and personal hardship of the researchers, making the potato problems of the mars astronauts look like a stroll in the park? That human psychology thwarts a peaceful co-existence, be it within miniature Earth or the real one? Beyond doubt.

However, more importantly, the try out presented lessons learnt by the bookful about Earth, its fragile living systems, and its place in the universe.

 A birds-eye view on the blue planet Earth

The most memorable view on this very place in the universe was certainly provided by the Soviet satellite Sputnik in October 1957. For the first time we were able to see simply how small and delicate our little blue planet in the vastness of space is. This marked a step towards the ‘birds-eye’ principle of Earth System Science, the ability to obtain a panoramic view of the Earth by observing it from a distance. From this distance, the Earth System could be observed as what it really is. A single, self-regulating system comprised of physical, chemical, biological and human components. A coupled human and ecological system. The processes within this system are studied by Earth System Science, emerging as a holistic super-discipline, with Biosphere 2 as a prime example.

Just like in the experiment, scientist soon realized what this close interlinkage between nature and society also meant. As foreseen in the book of genesis, mankind now has dominion over every creeping thing that creeps upon the earth. Since the industrialization in the 18th Century, human exploitation of the Earth’s resources has increased dramatically and is now so pervasive and profound in its consequences that it is influencing the very dynamics and functioning of Earth itself. And this does not even require rockets from Cuba or Pyongyang. With human population growth, modern technology, over-consumption, fossil fuel use, land cover changes, and the dispersal of chemicals, mankind started to make more than history — it made geological history. We opened the Anthopocene, the era of ‘men’, as Eva Lövbrand from the Centre for Climate Science and Policy Research, Sweden puts it.

And, unlike the six daring scientist of the mockup Mars 500 mission, we are really steering ‘spaceship Earth’ through the Anthropocene era.

A second Copernican revolution

Understanding this astonishing fact, at the end of the Cold War the U.S. decided to take the pulse of the planet via NASA’s Mission to Planet Earth program. The resulting international partnership to build a ‘Global Earth Observation System of Systems’ (GEOSS) aims to exchange and coordinate the data obtained from all Earth observation satellites. It sets out to monitor the entire Earth, to provide ‘the full picture’, which was, according to the renowned climate scientist Hans Joachim Schellnhuber, a second Copernican revolution.

Just like in the 16th century Copernicus removed the Earth from the center of the galaxy, now the human-centered world view gets questioned. The understanding of ‘nature’ and ‘society’ as distinct domains dissolve, the ‘natural order of things’ is challenged. Humbled by the scale, complexity and vulnerability of the Earth we now need a new ethical framework for Earth stewardship. An eco-centric philosophy, so to speak. An understanding of the world as an intrinsically dynamic, interconnected web of relations in which there are no dividing lines between the living and non-living, or the human and non-human, says Lövbrand. And in which Men is certainly not the dominator but on a par with all other elements of the global ecosystem.

The Fragile Cargo of Spaceship Earth

For this endeavor a flag showing the Earth, as seen from space, seems appropriate. Tomorrow you are likely to see this flag waving all over the world, for it is Earth Day, the largest secular holiday in the world, celebrated by more than a billion people every year. It is observed in 192 countries, and coordinated by the nonprofit Earth Day Network, chaired by the first Earth Day 1970 organizer Denis Hayes. Across the globe, individuals, communities, organizations, and governments acknowledge the amazing planet we call home and take action to protect it.

This April, 22 will show ‘The Face of Climate Change’. A climate change just like the biospherians experienced, but on a much bigger scale, an Earth scale. Earth Day will tell the world the stories of people, animals and places affected by climate change – and of those stepping up to do something about it.

A man in Vietnam worried about relocating his family as sea levels rise, a farmer in Thailand struggling to make ends meet as prolonged drought ravages the crops, a fisherman on Sumatra whose nets often come up empty, a child in the Philippines who lost her home to a super-storm, a woman in East Timor who can’t get fresh water due to more frequent flooding and cyclones. These many different faces of climate change, especially in the ASEAN region, are also at the core of the Biodiversity and Climate Change Project (BCCP) of GIZ, the German development cooperation arm. GIZ supports the institutionalization of the ASEAN Center for Biodiversity (ACB), based in Los Baños, Laguna, Philippines. An interactive digital display of all the images will be shown at thousands of events around the world, including next to federal government buildings in countries that produce the most carbon pollution, calling on our leaders to act boldly together.

The first call was voiced by UN Secretary-General U Thant when he officially established the international Earth Day in 1971: ‘May there be only peaceful and cheerful Earth Days to come for our beautiful Spaceship Earth as it continues to spin and circle in frigid space with its warm and fragile cargo of animate life’.

Indeed, if we do not manage to safely steer spaceship Earth and its cargo, there might only be one escape capsule. This job advertisement of Mars One, a nonprofit organization based in the Netherlands, which intends to establish a human settlement on Mars in 2023, all of a sudden sounds tempting, doesn’t it?

You are resilient, adaptable, curious, creative and resourceful? You have a deep sense of purpose, the capacity for self-reflection and ability to trust? You are over 18 years old? And you are looking for a lifetime adventure? Look no further, you have found your dream job: Astronaut on a mission to Mars. And be sure, on the 260 day flight there will be plenty of potatoes. There is just on catch: Mars One only provides a one-way ticket.

First published on Saturday, 20 April 2013 18:32 Written by Philipp Gassner / Special to the BusinessMirror

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World Health Day for a Healthy World Tue, 02 Apr 2013 17:31:23 +0000 Read more]]>

In mother nature’s drugstore

A little headache from last night’s party? Just have a quick asprin and you will feel better in no time. The box is empty and the pharmacy closed? No need to worry. A short stroll in the close by forest will do the trick. Even if you do not see the painkiller pills growing on the tree, be sure they are there: A tiny bit of the bark and leaves of a willow tree, et voilà, your headache should be gone. Already some 400 years BC the Greek Hippocrates knew about this trick, becoming the father of Aspirin, and by the way, modern medicine. The first records of traditional remedies, such as the oils of cedar, cypress, licorice, myrrh and poppy, date back even further, to 2600 BC, and they are still being used today.

Once you are in nature’s own pharmacy you might as well stay for some more shopping. How about some microbes, such as Penicillin, the almost exclusive source of all antibiotics? Or some Artemisinin from the sweet wormwood plant, the most effective anti-malarial drug used today? The latest thing: Paclitaxel from the Pacific Yew tree, used in treating breast, ovarian, and other cancers. Maybe some venom of the cone snail C. magus, called ziconotide, 1000 times more potent than morphine, but not addictive? This shopping list could go on and on.

And the best thing about it, mother nature will not even send a bill for this treasure chest of medicine, unlike every other pharmaceutical company – even though her profit could be overwhelming: Natural products have been the source of more than 60% of new drugs approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) over the past three decades, while undiscovered cancer treatments from marine organisms alone could be worth between jaw-dropping US $563 billion and $5.69 trillion, according to a recent study. Take the example of the mentioned cone snails whose 140,000 substances show potential in the treatment of Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s disease, epilepsy, and heart attacks.

Losing before Discovering

So far only 100 of these substances have been characterized, while the very source of these valuable animals is at peril. In Southeast Asia alone, where more than half of the marine cone snail species live, around 90% of coral reefs are threatened. 50% of mangroves have already been destroyed worldwide. This is symptomatic for the global biosphere undergoing dramatic changes. Rates of species loss are occurring at a rate 1000 times faster than before humans walked the earth, putting at least 50% of all species alive today at risk of extinction within the next century.

Such onslaught on biodiversity means that we are losing, before discovery which might eventually lead to the bankruptcy of the natural drugstore.

In the Mall of Biodiversity

Apart from medicine, what else do we need to stay healthy? Let us continue shopping in the mall of biodiversity. Next to the pharmacy we find the grocery store with food shelves filled to the top, thanks to biodiversity. Diverse ecosystems play a crucial role in human nutrition, as they ensure the sustainable productivity of soils and provide the genetic resources for all crops, livestock, and marine species harvested for food. Access to sufficient nutritious variety of food is clearly a fundamental determinant of health.

On the way we also should get some vaccinations against a whole range of infectious diseases. Intact and diverse ecosystems provide an important natural control and thus prevention from the emergence and spread of diseases in animals, plants and humans. These include expensive livestock illnesses, zoonotic outbreaks and global pandemics. In contrast, human impacts on biodiversity, such as deforestation, land-use change or water management helped the recent infamous outbreaks of SARS, Ebola, avian influenza or malaria.

Some pampering for our social, cultural and spiritual health? No problem, a stop at the park will fix this. Access to greenspace has been associated with improved health outcomes, shorter hospital visits, reduced anti-social behavior, or diseases of affluence such as diabetes or obesity. Next door there is an insurance agency where we can get a low-cost insurance against all kinds of natural disasters threatening our health and well-being: Some mangroves as tsunami protection, a forest to prevent landslide and a wetland to buffer floods. That should do.

Climate Change Insurance on the Cheap

Wait a minute, there is a promotion for a climate change insurance, provided by nature in the form of diverse and thus resilient ecosystems. This comes in handy, since the planet warms gradually, but the effects of extreme weather events – more storms, floods, droughts and heatwaves – will be abrupt and acutely felt, all certainly not good for our health.

Dr. Margaret Chan, Director-General of the World Health Organization (WHO) points out five major health consequences of climate change:

First, rising temperatures and more frequent droughts and floods can compromise food security. Malnutrition, much of it caused by periodic droughts, is already responsible for an estimated 3.5 million deaths each year.

Second, more frequent extreme weather events mean more potential deaths and injuries caused by storms and floods. These are often followed by outbreaks of diseases, such as cholera, especially when water and sanitation services are damaged or destroyed.

Third, both scarcities of water, essential for hygiene, and contaminated excess water will increase diarrheal disease, already accounting for about 1.8 million deaths each year.

Fourth, heatwaves, can directly increase morbidity and mortality, mainly in elderly people with cardiovascular or respiratory disease. 2003’s heatwave for instance had a terrifying death toll of 70,000 in Europe alone.

Finally, changing temperatures and patterns of rainfall are expected to alter the geographical distribution of insect vectors that spread infectious diseases, like malaria and dengue.

A Smart Investment for Climate Change in Southeast Asia

Living in Southeast Asia such a climate insurance is particularly important, since the region will be affected way above average. Decreasing fresh water, rising sea levels, increasing floods and storms, and intensifying risks of hunger and diseases render the Philippines for example the third most threatened nation by climate change worldwide.

In a nut shell, global warming is likely to compromise all the invaluable health services, we have window-shopped before. Thus our climate change insurance seems like a smart investment. However, as with any other insurer, the insurance premium will depend on our preload. An unhealthy lifestyle such as smoking or drinking will increase the risk for our health and thus the extent of the premium. Accordingly, deforestation, oil spills or CO2 emissions can and should be set against the value of intact nature. The better we treat our ecosystems, the lower will be the premium, the safer will be the protection against climate change impacts and the better will be the consequences for our health. It is time for action.

Healthy Planet, Healthy People

Today’s World Health Day sponsored by the WHO and marking the anniversary of its First World Health Assembly in 1948, can be seen as a call for such action. ‘While the reality of climate change can no longer be doubted, the magnitude of consequences, and — most especially for health — can still be reduced’, says Dr. Chan. Protecting human health needs to be anchored at the heart of the global climate change and biodiversity agenda.

Act Locally Think Globally for a Better Health

This can start at the local level, where traditional knowledge plays an important role, not only for natural medicine but also for sustainable agriculture and food security. Climate change mitigation, happening on the ground, offers many win-win opportunities for enhancing population health. Take the example of the Philippines Department of Education which is mainstreaming climate change education into its public school curriculum.

Regionally and internationally, consideration of the health impact of climate change can help political leaders move with appropriate urgency, as UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon’s puts it. ‘We must respond with urgent action to stabilize the climate, achieve the Millennium Development Goals, and encourage individual action’. The project BiodivHealthSEA, for example, focuses on local impacts and perceptions of global changes in health and biodiversity in Southeast Asia.

Another regional initiative is the ASEAN Center for Biodiversity (ACB), based in Los Baños, Laguna, Philippines, coordinating sustainable biodiversity management. Since September 2010, GIZ, the German development cooperation arm, through the Biodiversity and Climate Change Project (BCCP), supports the institutionalization of ACB’s core program on biodiversity and its nexus with climate change, as well as health.

The project takes the good health as a precious commodity seriously. Following the Economics of Ecosystems and Biodiversity approach (TEEB), i.e. demonstrating the economic and social value of ecosystem services, such as health, raises awareness and informs management and policy decisions. To sum up, we need to make invisible health and insurance services visible – economically tangible.

In comparison, this year wealthy nations will donate more than 13 billion euros to procure food and medicines, to improve sanitation and freshwater access for the worlds poorest. As we have seen, other investments may be just as valuable, if not more so, for ensuring health and well-being. There may be no greater strategic investment in health than in the protection of biodiversity and climate.

Health is our most basic human right and one of the most important indicators of sustainable development. Without an intact eco and climate system we may end up paying the hidden price for nature’s health services – giving us a much bigger headache than last night’s party.

First published on Monday, 1.4.2013, Asean Centre for Biodiversity written by Philipp Gassner

Also published on Saturday, 06 April 2013 17:03 Written by Philipp Gassner / Special to the BusinessMirror

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An environmental gender agenda Tue, 02 Apr 2013 17:22:25 +0000 Read more]]>

An environmental gender agenda

Man is tampering with the buttons of the world’s climate machine and pushes the global ecosystem ever further to its limits. Or is it men? Let’s take a glance at two hotspots of damage to our natural system: On a clear morning, north of the city of Palembang on Sumatra, Indonesia, Ahmad kisses his wife Lia goodbye, to go logging in a forest, which has declined half over the last years. Likewise worldwide it is largely men, not women, chopping down tropical and boreal forest, thus responsible for 20% of world greenhouse gas emissions.

Or let us follow Joseph, who just leaves his wife Maricel for a day of fishing on the Philippine Island Malapascua, known to have lost most of its coral reefs already. It is men, again not women, overfishing our ocean, leaving 80% of global fish stocks fully or over-exploited.

Now, what can we learn from this? That, as so often, men trigger the gloom and doom in the world?

Gloom and doom wrought by men

Gloom, such as the ever accelerating loss of biological diversity – the combination and interactions of all life forms that have made Earth a uniquely habitable place for humans. A loss, accompanied by plummeting ecosystem services, such as food, medicines, clean water and soil stabilization, worth billions and billions of the global GDP.

Doom like a possibly six degrees warmer world by the end of the century, a world with more droughts, more storms, and more floods, with rising sea levels and less biodiversity.

Gloom and doom, which are intrinsically interconnected, through the effects of climate change on biodiversity, as well as changes in biodiversity and ecosystem functioning that affect climate change. Gloom and doom which put half of Southeast Asia’s biodiversity at risk, and as much as 88% of its coral reefs, to name only one example; which will shock health and livelihoods, especially in the region’s less developed nations, increasing poverty and vulnerability.

And for all this only men are the ones to hold accountable? Let us take this with a grain of salt.

Social roles and the environment

Stereotypes like the ability to multitask or reverse park a car aside, there are indeed some well-defined differences between the social roles that men and women play, and the power relations in-between. Notably, gender is not based on sex or the biological differences between men and women. Instead, gender is shaped by culture, social relations and natural environments, as Huisinga Norem of the UN Food and Agricultural Organization points out. Gender roles affect economic, political, social and ecological prospects and challenges faced by both men and women, resulting in different labor responsibilities, decision-making processes, and knowledge.

Such difference are also true for natural resource management, climate change and biodiversity conservation. The World Bank summarizes four main variations:

Especially rural women and men have different roles, responsibilities, and knowledge in managing natural resources. Ahmad is in charge of timber harvesting, while Lia collects medicinal plants and picks berries, commodities known as Non Forest Timber Products. Thus, they both use the forest –in a complementary way.

Moreover access to technology, information, and training is mostly targeted to men. Joseph attended a workshop on the impacts of dynamite fishing coral reef ecosystems, while Maricel was too busy cleaning, processing and selling the caught fish. Despite the fact, that the biggest amount of fish is lost post catch, providing a large potential for resource saving practices, as IUCN’s Global Senior Gender Adviser Lorena Aguilar highlights.

Gender differences also exist in rights and access to natural resources, including land, trees, water, and animals. Likewise, women are still absent from climate change and natural resource-related decision-making processes at all levels. Joseph for instance takes part in an ecotourism initiative for the island, while Lia has no chance to make her voice heard in Indonesia’s climate change negotiations.

Such gender differences point at the scale of the problem and its global environmental and social dimensions. To achieve sustainable development, as stipulated for example in the Millennium Development Goals (MDG), both men and women have to be considered along the way. But we first need to focus on those that are less empowered: women.

Gender and Environment: A double-edge relation

Let us have a closer look at the two way relationship between women and the environment.

Firstly, vulnerability to the consequences of global warming and the destruction of ecosystems varies among gender. Vulnerability is to one part determined by the resources on which individuals depend, and, crucially, the entitlement of individuals to use these resources. In particular in rural areas both women and men are highly dependent on biodiversity resources such as fish or wood, while to a large extent, it is only men owning these resources. Moreover, deforestation, as in Ahmad’s and Lia’s forest, means that wood – the most widely used solid fuel – is located further away from their village. In poor communities in most developing countries, women and girls are responsible for collecting firewood, a physically draining task that can take 20 or more hours per week. As a result, Lia now has less time to fulfill her domestic responsibilities, earn money or learn to read. Also her girls are often kept home from school to help gather fuel, perpetuating their cycle of disempowerment.

As with biodiversity, climate change will exacerbate existing vulnerabilities and create new ones, affecting women more severely than men. This is partly because in many countries they make up the larger share of the agricultural work force and partly because they tend to have access to fewer income-earning opportunities. Further, women often manage households and care for family members, which limits their mobility and increases their vulnerability to sudden weather-related natural disasters. In addition, the expected increase in temperature-related illnesses and deaths for example from malaria and dengue fever is likely to increase maternal mortality. Maricel is thus more vulnerable to climate change than Joseph, since she was not involved in the island’s typhoon preparedness training, she is at a higher health risk during pregnancy and less likely to find new occupation if rising sea levels constrain fishery.

Secondly, women play a different role in biodiversity conservation and climate change mitigation and adaptation. This is mainly due to the fact that women and men have knowledge about different things and different knowledge about the same things. Things like biodiversity, which comes in the form of the wealth of knowledge. Such traditional knowledge is controlled, developed and shared by women. Lia’s knowledge on biodiversity, such as wild ancestors of food, medicinal plants and domestic animals is much greater than Ahmad’s. She possesses, just like many other women, a large repertoire of “coping strategies” that they have traditionally used to manage climate variability. For instance is she a saver and managers of diverse seeds, more than 600 in her community, increasing her families’ resilience in case of droughts, amplified by climate change.

Empowering women to participate as equals in information sharing and generation, education and training, technology or financial assistance, has proved to make resource management and conservation more successful. As men are increasingly drawn to seek remunerated work away from their lands and resources women’s role in the management biological resources is ever more increasing.

The rocky Road to Empowerment

Despite such priceless contribution by women to save our climate and ecosystems, daunting challenges remain: Michelle Bachelet, Executive Director of UN Women, decries that inequality persists in gender wage gaps and unequal opportunities, in low representation of women in leadership and in continuing violence against women in all its forms. Two out of three illiterate adults are women. Girls are still less likely to be in school than boys. Every 90 seconds of every day, a woman dies in pregnancy. In a nut shell, women face some of the worst inequities in access to social services, land and other productive assets, which deprives them and the world of the realization of their full potential. ‘No enduring solution to the major changes of our day—from climate change to political and economic instability—can be solved without the full empowerment and participation of the world’s women’, underscored Michelle Bachelet at last year’s International Women’s Day (IWD).

Next week, on 8th of March, IWD’s 105th anniversary, it is important to keep that in mind, while celebrating the tremendous progress made.

Gaining Momentum: The Gender Agenda

And indeed, appositely to this year’s IWD theme, the Gender Agenda is Gaining Momentum:

During the past century, women have taken many steps forward towards legal rights, access to education or participation in public life – and to being stewards of the global climate and ecosystems.

Success can be seen in every region of the world on every level. Take the shores of the severely overfished Zambian Lake Tanganyika, providing livelihood for ten million people, where a local women’s association has turned their backs on fishing and now makes a decent living on rice farming. A story that could inspire Maricel and millions of other fisher folk in the Philippines.

Lia can look at India and Nepal, where recent research proves that community forests with a high proportion of women in key decision-making bodies had significantly improved forest conditions.

For the whole of Southeast Asia the ASEAN Center for Biodiversity (ACB), based in Los Baños, Laguna, Philippines, coordinates sustainable biodiversity management. Since September 2010, GIZ, the German development cooperation arm, through the Biodiversity and Climate Change Project (BCCP), supports the institutionalization of ACB’s core program on biodiversity and its nexus with climate change, as well as gender.

And also on the international level there is progress on this very link. “The third MDG is dedicated to promoting gender equality and the empowerment of women. But when we look at the other seven goals, it is clear that none of them are possible without the inclusion of gender considerations” says Julia Marton-Lefèvre, IUCN Director General. Unlike the UN climate change efforts, the Convention on Biological Diversity acknowledges precisely these gender considerations. The convention adopted a Gender Plan of Action in 2008, stimulating and facilitating efforts to promote gender equality and mainstream a gender perspective from the global to the national level. In the Philippines, for instance, the National Biodiversity Strategy and Action Plan clearly states the importance of gender for the conservation of biodiversity and the equitable sharing of its benefits.

Let us hope, that this effort will empower Maricel who ends a hard day’s wearing work of processing fish, as the sun sets over the coral seamed Island of Malapascua.

And let us use the 8th of March to rise awareness that doom and gloom can only be prevented – a sustainable future can only be reached – by women amd men enjoying equality together, as Ms. Bachelet puts it. Only if the vigor of women, like Maricel and Lia, is included, only then the vastness and variety of the environment can be sustained – in the sense of Virginia Woolf: ‘It would be a thousand pities if women wrote like men, or lived like men, or looked like men, for if two sexes are quite inadequate, considering the vastness and variety of the world, how should we manage with one only?’

Published on Saturday, 02 March 2013 17:35 Written by Philipp Gassner / Special to the BusinessMirror

No water without wetlands Tue, 02 Apr 2013 17:16:07 +0000 Read more]]>

Celebrating World Wetlands Day

Are you reading this newspaper over your Sunday morning breakfast? Bon appetit! And are you washing it down with a glass of water? This will fill up the three bathtubs of water, you just drank. Wait, three bathtubs and still thirsty? Clearly, the water in your breakfast was well hidden – virtual, so to say. We drink, in one form or another, nearly 4 liters of water daily, and use about 150L for washing and other purposes. However, the food we consume each day requires at least 2,000L to produce, 500 times as much. Your breakfast’s virtual water footprint: 140L for coffee, around 80L for toast, 120L for eggs, 240L for milk, coming, in total, to 1,100L or 13,391,400 droplets.

A droplet’s journey

Where does this vast amount of water come from? Let us rewind the journey of one of these droplets to find out. If you are in Metro Manila the tap water comes from the Angat reservoir, located north of the city in Bulacan Province. The water embraced in the glass of milk had to cover a longer distance to your table, most likely from New Zealand’s pastures. Interestingly enough, around 80% of accessibly freshwater used by humans is directed towards agriculture. Our globalized agricultural system means that much of that water use is not in the country where the product is being consumed. Thus, many countries, in particular the industrialized, are essentially exporting their water use, just as they export carbon emissions. For instants, it has been estimated by the Water Footprint Network that Europe exports 42% of its water footprint.

Another leg of the journey in the water cycle back will shed some light on how the water ended up in a large reservoir or a lush green meadow. As you might have guessed the little droplet first evaporated, travelled through the troposphere and returned to earth as rain or snow, feeding rivers or groundwater bodies, which can then be used for agriculture, drinking or sanitation.

Hang on, did we not miss a step here? Almost certainly the droplet would have passed a wetland on its way, the primary resource from which humans derive water. A minor detail? Certainly not, since ‘wetlands take care of water’, which is also the slogan of this weekend’s World Wetlands Day.

Wetlands as water infrastructure

The day’s focus is on the critical link between wetlands and water: without wetlands there will be no water – and without water there will be no wetlands. Undeniably, access to a clean and adequate water supply is critical for human survival, far beyond your breakfast: 41% of the world’s population lives with severe water stress, a number predicted to rise to two-thirds by 2025. The same time when even the tropical Philippines are predicted to be facing water shortage, partly due to their population growth. Already today providing clean water could save most of the 1.8 million children who die every year from diarrhea.

In contrast to this immediate importance of water, less well understood is that wetlands are fundamental regulators of water regimes. Without adequate management of wetlands from the mountains to the sea there is no water of the right quality and quantity where and when it is needed. ‘Wetlands are not competitors for water but rather essential components of water infrastructure, providing a clean source and store of freshwater’, says Anada Tiéga, Secretary General of the international Ramsar Convention on Wetlands.

The new insurance company

Beyond being a caretaker of water, wetlands are one of the most biologically productive natural ecosystems, comparable to the glut of coral reefs. Wetlands include marsh, fen, peatland and other areas where water primarily controls the environment – whether natural or artificial, permanent or temporary, salty or brackish. These environments serve as a habitat for myriads of associated plants and animals, including many endangered and threatened species. Likewise, such plant communities, and the surrounding soil, function like a big carbon jar, thus playing a crucial role in moderating global climate. The degradation peatlands, a common phenomenon in Southeast Asia, equals alone 7% of all fossil fuel CO2 emissions.

To see yet another ecosystem value of wetlands, we can ask some residents of the urban communities, situated on the edge of Vientiane city, Lao PDR. They will happily tattle about the That Luang Marsh providing important resources and agricultural land for their local communities both in the city and in the bordering rural areas. Moreover, the wetland offers substantial flood protection, through the retention of storm runoff generated by the city, and water treatment for domestic, agricultural and industrial wastewater. Every citizen in Southeast Asia’s deluge plagued metropolises, be it Manila or most recently Jakarta, would certainly appreciate similarly functional ecosystems around their homes. The goods and services provided by relatively small That Luang Marsh alone are worth just under US$5 million annually, a number that can be up-scaled many-fold for a megacity.

Compared to the flood damage in the billions, wetlands provide a dirt cheap prophylaxis. Since likely climate change scenarios load the dice in favor of more extreme weather events, it is worthwhile thinking wetlands’ protective services as a new generation of insurance policy, provided not by AXA, Sunlife and Co., but Mother Nature herself. As the third most vulnerable country in a warming world, particularly the typhoon tortured Philippines would benefit big time from this full coverage climate collision insurance.

Wetlands warning: Thing global, act local

If wetlands play such an important role for the journey of the little water droplet and its comrades to our kitchen table, and beyond, why are they still at such stark peril of destruction and degradation? In 2010, a cover story in the scientific top journal Nature drew attention to the nexus between the use and misuse of wetlands and the dire consequences for mankind. In conclusion, the cumulative impacts of dams, pollution, agricultural runoff, the conversion of wetlands and the introduction of exotic species have led to a situation in which some 80% of the world’s population, next to five billion people, live in areas where river waters are highly threatened.

In response to these threats to one of our most precious life support systems, the before mentioned Ramsar Convention on Wetlands of International Importance, was born on 2 February 1971. It is part of the international architecture including the UN Millennium Development Goals, the Green Economy initiative or the Aichi Biodiversity Targets, highlighting the importance of water management in an integrated, cooperative and holistic manner.

42 years later, appositely in the UN International Year of Water Cooperation, this weekend’s anniversary, the World Wetlands Day, shows how Ramsar has set the stage for globally recognizing the value of wetlands ecosystem, increasing awareness and understanding of wetlands’ multiple roles and benefits to humanity. In the last decades national and global initiatives have been intensified to safeguard and restore the lost or degraded hydro-biological functions of wetlands.

A regional illustration for the protection of the staggering 13,204 square kilometers of Ramsar wetlands in the ASENA countries is the ASEAN Center for Biodiversity (ACB). Based in Los Baños, Laguna, Philippines, the center coordinates national and regional efforts on wetland conservation and sustainable management of these ecosystems throughout South East Asia. Since September 2010, GIZ, the German development cooperation arm, through the Biodiversity and Climate Change Project (BCCP), supports the institutionalization of ACB’s core program on biodiversity and its nexus with climate change.

Zooming back in to our breakfast table: Equally important is engagement at the local level. ‘Water is not only the driving force of all nature’, as already Leonardo da Vinci put it, but also of all humans. Every single one of us is utterly dependent on the water wetlands provide us with, rendering wetlands a responsibility of us all.

A company can reduce its environmental impact and monitor its water footprint, as can the individual consumer. We can commit to recycle, reuse and conserve water in our private lives whether it is through rainwater harvesting, water-friendly garden design, cutting water usage in our home or supporting our local wetland.

Your breakfast can be a first step to ease the droplets long and wearing journey, preserving intact wetlands. For instance, by reducing the purchase of products imported from regions with high water scarcity, or with a large water footprint, such as coffee and meat. As the saying goes: Thousands have lived without love, not one without water – and certainly not without the wetlands providing, cleaning and securing it.

First Published on Saturday, 02 February 2013 17:50 Written by Philipp Gassner / Special to the BusinessMirror

2012: The end of the world, after all? Tue, 02 Apr 2013 17:07:00 +0000 Read more]]>

An environmental retrospect

‘Survival pods’ built by a Chinese inventor, underground bunkers developed to safeguard their Italian owners and a skyrocketing interest in one-way tickets to “Apocalypse safe havens”, reported by fare finder websites. Still sounds familiar? Leaving the doomsday believers somewhat disappointed, the 21 December, regarded as the end-date of a 5,125-year-long cycle in the Mesoamerican calendar passed by serenely. No end of human civilization, no start of a period of physical transformation, no beginning of a new era, no meteoroid impacts, not even a single alien invasion. We dodged the bullet of the 2012 phenomenon. Or did we?

It is time to take a different perspective and see what 2012 meant for the global eco- and climate system – our life support system. In this fashion we might be surprised to find catastrophes and transformations after all.

Remainders of global biodiversity pushed towards extinction

Let us start with a 2012 tragedy, rather insignificant at first blush. The rarest animal in the world is no more. Lonesome George, the last of the Pinta Island tortoises, was found dead in June. However, this case is symptomatic for the loss of our species richness worldwide. 2012 will be remembered for its remainders of the global megafauna, such as Bluefin tuna and rhinos, being pushed fiercely towards extinction. Bird and insect numbers continued to plunge, coral reefs retreated, marine life diminished – while over a billion people rely on oceanic ecosystems as a source of food.


Nevertheless, humans thrived – at least their number, with 7.063 billion individuals at the end of 2012. In April the Royal Society forewarned in a significant report that world population needs to be steadied quickly and high consumption in rich countries rapidly reduced to avoid a downward spiral of economic and environmental harms. At today’s rate of population increase, developing countries would have to build the equivalent of a city of a million people every five days from now to 2050.

A new era of climate change

Another disaster, the Mayas did not see coming, hit us in 2012 with a slam. Parts of the planet have seen levels of carbon dioxide rise above 400 parts per million (ppm) for the first time. Although it is largely symbolic, the milestone is an unmistakable aide-mémoire of humanity’s powerful influence on the atmosphere, increasing the greenhouse gas way beyond the pre-industrial concentration of 280 ppm. It is also yonder the arguably save threshold of 350 ppm, e.g. the campaign group fights for.

Call it catastrophe, call it transition, a new era has truly begun in 2012. Global climatic change left the grey shades of academic ivory towers and political disputes, and provided a foretaste to what this era might hold: From metropolises in the United States to the remotest areas of the Philippines, people learnt the hard way what an increase in extreme weather events, triggered by climate change, may feel like.

The worst drought in 60 years, covering two thirds of the US and costing at least $ 150 billion was quickly followed by the opposite extreme: Hurricane Sandy known as one of the worst tragedies to occur in New York City, compared even to 9/11, turned from a weather event, a tragedy, to a humanitarian event and a fiscal topic – with a death toll in the hundreds and damage in the hundred millions. A similarly gloomy reminder was the recent flood in Metro Manila caused by a tropical storm that swept through the Philippines in September leaving 80% of the city underwater and dozens dead – marking the beginning of perhaps a new epoch of climatic superlatives.

Superlatives such as the arguably greatest environmental change in human history, the loss of the Arctic sea ice. Smaller, patchier and thinner than ever the extent of the Arctic ice cap hit a record low in September with 18% or 500,000sq km less than the previous record, and its final collapse predicted to be complete by 2015/16. A horrid scenario, considering sea ice in the Arctic is seen as a key indicator of global climate change.

A deep concern in place of action

Many researchers are connecting the dots between these extreme weather trends and climate change; dots that cannot easily be wiped away anymore, as 2012 showed. And, as cynical as it may sound to the many victims, we seem to need periodic, recurring disasters. People and their nations only react on irrefutable evidence of damage. Australia was plagued by droughts for seven years. It looked as this would influence the way citizens and politicians think. Now, for two years it is raining again, unfortunately taking the issue of climate change off the table.

This national unwillingness and incapability to act is very much mimicked internationally. Some argue that in 2012 governments turned their backs on the living planet, validating that no persistent problem, however severe, will take priority over an immediate concern, however trivial. The world leaders’ apathy cumulated in the Rio Earth Summit in June, where some of the world’s most powerful governments – the US, the UK, Germany and Russia – did not even take the trouble to show their faces. Almost as unsurprising as the postponed end of the world, the final declaration was a caricature of procrastination, a mere expression of ‘deep concern’. Likewise, the climate meeting in Doha at the end of the year was far from a positive transformation of souls and spirits as perhaps yearned for by some Maya inspired new agers. The conference produced a similar combination of absurdity and inconsistency, when governments silently abandoned the 2C target. Instead we’re on track for between four and six degrees, with all the consequences showcased in 2012.

From apocalypticism to realistic solutions

So far 2012’s account suggests many signs of the end of the natural world indeed, but gives no hints for a new political era of adequate action whatsoever. So are we definitely doomed, with human society’s expiry date just postponed to 21 December plus X?

This view might be convenient as it serves the psychological phenomenon of apocalypticism, encapsuling the understandable desire for easy explanations to an increasingly complex world and the freedom from any moral imperatives, admonishing us to act responsibly. Many popular belief systems offer such escape routes, which time and time again prove to be far from the truth. May it be creative deciphering of Bible codes, doomsday books or UFO cults.

A more apt answer to our societies’ problems seems however a realistic view on the world, reflecting success stories and displaying roadmaps, scenarios and strategies to a sustainable future, 2012 was also filled with.

For instance solar panels became the cheapest energy source in parts of the tropics, highlighting one very feasible remedy for climate change. Or take the BP oil spill aftermath, where in November BP pleaded guilty to felony charges related to the Gulf oil spill, one of the biggest environmental disasters ever. For these charges, the company has to pay $4.5 billion, the biggest corporate criminal penalty in U.S. history.

Also in the frustratingly cumbersome quagmire of international environmental negotiations one finds notice on the bright side. One example is the severe global problem of overfishing, where the European Commission reforms passed this year as the major shake-up of the common fisheries policy for decades.

Another spark of optimism was this year’s Conference of Parties (COP 11) of the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD), marking the move from policy-making to implementation, with developed countries redoubling their conservation payments to developing countries by 2015.

If there is hope, it lies with the people

Yet, in the turfs of political lethargy there is hope, and it lies with the people. Opinion polls prove that voters do not support their governments’ inaction. Even a majority of Conservatives believe that the UK should generate most of its electricity from renewables by 2030. In the US, 80% of people polled now say that climate change will be a serious problem for their country if nothing is done about it: a substantial rise since 2009. The real conundrum is that many of these concerned are not prepared to act on their beliefs. Citizens, as well as governments and the media, have turned their faces away from humanity’s greatest problems.

To make best use of the reprieve from 2012’s apocalypse, we must translate these inactive worries into a mass mobilization. Groups such as show how it might be done. Governments care only as much as their citizens force them to care.

So, if you have not concluded your new year’s resolution yet, how about this fairly simple one: Get engaged to save the world from any predicted doomsday – let alone survival pods or underground bunkers.


 First published on Saturday, 12 January 2013 18:37 Written by Philipp Gassner / Special to the BusinessMirror

Giants of biodiversity Tue, 02 Apr 2013 16:59:24 +0000 Read more]]>

A belly full of ecosystems

This story starts with an adventurous walk through a lush, dense and wild mangrove forest, full of humming birds in the canopy and thriving with fish around the flooded roots. Arriving at the coast, one can see fishermen at work – bringing in the daily catch of shrimps from the sheltering mangroves, and colorful fish from coral reefs close by. Kids playing cheerfully in the shallow water, a whale passes in the distance. But hang on a moment – what is this chewing noise? Slowly turning around, a gigantic colossus comes into sight, munching its way through the mangrove forest, filling its enormous belly with trees, shrimps and fish, leaving nothing behind but destruction and misery.

With a sigh of relief, you  find out that this giant is not a danger to you, since it is made of papier-mâché and its belly is full of papier-mâché shrimps and fish.

To fully understand this colorful story of mangroves, their function, their services to humans and their deterioration, the papier-mâché giants tell, let us track back a little.

The Art of Papier-mâché in the Philippines

Some centuries ago, long before the destruction of marine and coastal ecosystems became a heavily debated issue, the Philippines were still a Spanish colony. Along Laguna de Bay many haciendas could be found, where the hacienda owners prohibited the townspeople from holding any celebrations. Aside from the costly preparations, they also wanted to restrict pagan festivities and allowed only one annual celebration. The townspeople took advantage of this sole festivity, prepared lots of food, wore colorful costumes, and held a big procession featuring big papier-mâché caricatures of their Spanish landlords – an art form imported from Mexico by Spanish friars. These multi-colored, humongous, comical and sometimes scary 12-footers were called “Higantes” or giants. First, only two or three higantes were made, representing a “mag-anak” (family), but the tradition soon diversified into many motives.

The heads of the higantes were, and are still made of papier-mâché, using a wooden mould, newspapers and starch, and painted with the details of the face. Bamboo strips or yantok are used as the skeleton frame for the body, which is then covered with yards of cloth resembling their characters. The head is attached to the body and a person can go inside and carry the higante around.

Apart from the Higantes Festival, also known as the Feast of San Clemente, in honor of the patron saint of the fishermen, which is celebrated every November 23 in the town of Angono, Rizal, the art of paper-mâché is also an unbroken 400-year tradition of Paete, Laguna. Nowadays the 30,000 inhabitants of Paete base their livelihoods mainly on woodcarvings and papier-mâché, next to tourism, farming and fishing.

Marine Biodiversity for Sustaining Life and Livelihoods

This close connection of the Higantes to fishing, paintings of Marc Chagall and old lithographic prints inspired the ASEAN Centre for Biodiversity (ACB) and GIZ through the Biodiversity and Climate Change Project (BCCP) to create a papier-mâché exhibit for the Go4BioDiv International Youth Forum being conducted from 6-19 October 2012 in Hyderabad, India in parallel to the 11th Conference of Parties (COP 11) of the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD). The exhibit entitled Mother Nature and the Mangrove Garden is all about ‘conserving coastal and marine biodiversity for sustaining life and livelihoods’, which is also the theme for COP11 and Go4BioDiv 2012.

Mother Nature and the Mangrove Garden is a circular 16 square meter set up of giant papier-mâché human, marine plant and animal sculptures delicately crafted by a team of artisans from Paete, Laguna under the helm of BCCP Consultant, Ms. Yvette Co. It aims to encourage people to take on the responsibility of conserving what Mother Nature has provided us.

Endangered Beauty of our Oceans

This is direly necessary as marine biodiversity is globally at peril. Also known as variability among living organisms and their habitats, it includes the diversity within species, between species and within ecosystems. Biodiversity is essential for human well-being, as it provides valuable services, such as food, medicines or clean air. At the same time, it is under threat from exposure to environmental degradation, pollution and unsustainable resource exploitation, like overfishing. Climate change poses a new challenge as it often exacerbates the impacts of other pressures.

Experts agree that under current scenarios 90% of coral reefs will have dramatically changed or disappeared by mid-century. At the same time, over a billion people rely on marine ecosystems as a source of food and over half a billion people are dependent on oceans and coasts for their livelihoods. Ocean biodiversity is also of utter most importance for the resilience and stability of ecosystems

In Particular, the ASEAN region, featuring the coral triangle, is mega-diverse: It supports 75% of global coral species, 6 of the world’s 7 marine turtle species and 51 of the 70 mangrove species worldwide, with many species endemic to the region. The annual estimated value of ecosystem services from coral reefs comes to $112.5 Billion, mangroves account for $ 5.1 Billion. At the same time the region is highly vulnerable to the effects of climate change, in combination with other human activities, leaving e.g. 98% of Philippine coral reefs at risk.

In response to this threat, ACB as a regional intergovernmental organization, coordinates national and regional efforts on biodiversity conservation and sustainable management in South East Asia. Since September 2010 the GIZ through the BCCP supports the institutionalization of ACB’s core program on biodiversity and its nexus with climate change.

The future lies not only in the conservation of marine biodiversity, but also in the restoration of what has been thriving and healthy in the past. Walk around the Mangrove Garden and see how a perfectly functional mangrove forest can deteriorate with human use and abuse. Moving along, view some examples of how we can do our share in restoring our mangrove forests. Mother Nature has one more reason to smile if we could stop the greedy giant from eating his way through all our ecosystems, the ecosystems we all depend on.

First published on Saturday, 13 October 2012 19:03 Written by Philipp Gassner / Special to the BusinessMirror