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PICTURE OF GLOBE, MAP, GPS FINDERTable of Contents

Gas Clouds Shoot Down Indonesia Volcano

Learning a Few Lessons From a Tragic Moment

Food for Children, Jobs for Mothers

Swedish Spruce May Be World's Oldest Living Tree

How Countries Worsen the Food Price Crisis

Climate Clash, Round 2

 

 

 

 

 

 

Gas Clouds Shoot Down Indonesia Volcano

CHRIS BRUMMITT

(US News and World Report 5-15-06)

Indonesian villagers burned incense and floated offerings to the spirits, hoping to ward off an eruption of Mount Merapi, but volcanic activity intensified to its highest level yet - with one blast sending debris more than two miles down the slope. A scientist warned that a growing lava dome could collapse. As activity increased, villagers who had not left were told to stand by for possible evacuation and waited in groups by the side of the road on the slopes of the volcano. "I am panicking this time," said Katimi, a mother of three who had taken refuge in a mosque earmarked as an evacuation point. "Merapi appears angry."

One of the eruptions sent an avalanche of debris and ash rolling almost 2 1/2 miles down the mountain's western flank, said Ratdomopurbo, the region's chief vulcanologist. It was followed by several other huge explosions on the crater. Despite a government evacuation order, many farmers were in the fields to tend animals and crops on the volcano's fertile slopes, ignoring black clouds billowing into the sky and fresh scars scorched by lava flows on the mountain's western flank. "I cannot force them," said Widi Sutikno, the official coordinating the government's emergency operation. "All I can do is tell them to keep looking up at the mountain and have a motorbike ready."

More than 4,500 people living in villages closest to the crater or next to rivers that could provide paths for hot lava had been evacuated a day after scientists raised the alert status for Merapi to the highest warning after weeks of volcanic activity. Sutikno said 18,000 others who live lower down the slopes were not considered in immediate danger and had not been ordered to leave their homes on the 9,800-foot mountain that rises from the plains of Indonesia's densely populated Java Island.

In one of the villages in the shadow of Merapi, holy men and hundreds of people lit incense and set rice, fruit and vegetables floating down a river in a ceremony they believed would appease the spirits and prevent an eruption. "It's bound to help," Parsi, a villager who like many Indonesians using only one name, said after the ceremony. "Everyone around here believes in this. It is in our blood." Although most Indonesians are Muslim, many also worship ancient spirits, especially in Central Java province. "All the things we are doing here are to try to make us safe," said Assize Asyhori, an Islamic preacher who took part in the ceremony. "Only Allah knows if Merapi will explode."

Police at roadblocks prevented vehicles from getting within five miles of the volcano's crater, but allowed evacuated villagers to walk in, advising them to leave again by nightfall. "My feeling is it will not blow at this time," a 30-year-old farmer, Budi, said as he returned to cut grass to feed his cows. Scientists, however, feared an eruption could be imminent for Merapi, which is about 250 miles east of Indonesia's capital, Jakarta. The mountain, which is one of 129 active volcanoes in Indonesia, sent out a searing cloud of gas that burned 60 people to death when it last erupted in 1994. About 1,300 people died in a 1930 eruption.

The deadly clouds, which contain a mix of hot ash, rock fragments and volcanic gas, are a big worry, said Sugiono, one of the scientists on a team monitoring the volcano 24 hours a day. He said a glowing dome of lava being formed by magma forced to the surface was poised to collapse and could send searing clouds down the mountain at several hundred miles an hour. "Hot clouds keep appearing all the time," Sugiono said. "If you get stuck in them, then you have no chance."

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Learning a Few Lessons from a Tragic Moment

By Brian Duffy

(US News and World Report 5-8-06)

All the venting and fulminating about gas prices here last week just about drowned out the 20th anniversary of the fire in the fourth block of the Chernobyl nuclear power plant. Not far from the crippled plant, mourners lighted candles in memory of the firefighters who died trying to contain the blaze. But though it went largely unnoticed in much of the rest of the world, the anniversary highlighted how much, and how little, have changed in the way the world sees, and seeks to meet, its spiraling energy needs. Republicans and Democrats risked almost bodily harm as they sought to outpander each other over the growing panic at the pump. Calls for investigations of oil companies' eye-popping profits, a suspension of the federal tax on gasoline, scrapping environmental rules--virtually every boneheaded idea out there had more than its share of champions. No one, of course, even tried to make the case that the global energy picture has profoundly changed, that this is not 1973, and that if we don't start changing our ways soon, really bad things are going to happen.

Which is why the Chernobyl anniversary, oddly enough, offers just a small glimmer of hope. More than three decades ago, when he helped found the group Greenpeace, Patrick Moore believed that "nuclear energy was synonymous with nuclear holocaust." It was hardly a radical view, and it became crystallized in the minds of many with the disaster at Pennsylvania's Three Mile Island plant in 1979 and the meltdown at Chernobyl seven years later. Funny how time can change perspective. A few weeks ago, writing in the Washington Post, Moore broke ranks with his Greenpeace confederates and said that nuclear power "may just be the energy source that can save our planet from another possible disaster: catastrophic climate change."

Sadly, we don't have decades to change our blinkered views on energy, the single greatest economic challenge of our times. But if old nuke haters like Moore can change their spots, there's no reason that SUV-driving, fossil-fuel-loving Americans can't, too.

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Food for Children, Jobs for Mothers

Melanie Stetson Freeman

(CSM 5-10-06)

The sounds and smells of food being prepared drift out of a small kitchen and into a crowded room where about 20 benches overflow with mothers holding small children dressed in their Sunday best. Earlier on this Thursday, the kids ate a free breakfast of milk and boiled eggs. Lunch will soon be served: rice with fish sauce.

The scene repeats itself every weekday - same mothers, same overdressed children - as part of Sr. Rosemary Fry's crusade against hunger in Cap Haitien, Haiti's second-largest city. Her program helps about 125 youngsters - a small dent in this poor nation where malnutrition is widespread. "They live with a tremendous amount of courage," Sister Rosemary says. "Just to get a meal every day is a battle here, just to wash your clothes." Toddlers rush to hug Sister Rosemary whenever she is near; adults look up to her with grateful eyes.

In a country this poor, there are degrees of poverty. With her small budget, Sister Rosemary chose to target her nutrition program for the most malnourished - children under age 5. UNICEF estimates that nearly 42 percent of Haitian children in this age group suffer from chronic malnutrition. Before they are admitted into the program, infants are weighed and measured. Most children fall far below the normal height and weight for their ages. Their progress is assessed each month and an in-house nurse sees the children regularly to address the causes of malnutrition: worms, infection, poor hygiene, and a lack of proper food.

Nathan Nickerson is executive director of Konbit Sante, a nonprofit based in Portland, Maine, that is dedicated to supporting sustainable healthcare in Cap Haitien. He met Sister Rosemary three years ago and was impressed with her "quite comprehensive" effort to address not only the immediate needs in the community but also the long-term solutions to the problems it faces. To him, Sister Rosemary's example "gives us hope in what a person with perseverance, vision, and good humor can do in a situation like that."

As lunch is served, the women line up in an orderly fashion, collect a plastic bowl brimming with food, sit down, and concentrate on feeding their little ones. The mothers and children wear their best clothes to show respect to those helping them. If their clothes aren't clean, they believe they shouldn't come, Sister Rosemary says. Occasionally the mothers sneak a bite themselves. Although Sister Rosemary insists that the food is strictly for the children, realistically, there is too much food in each bowl to fit inside one small child. The mothers are hungry, too.

While at Sisters of St. Joseph of Toronto, a Roman Catholic order, Sister Rosemary responded to her order's call to work in the third world. She'd planned to work in Nigeria. But, after hearing of problems in her own hemisphere, she visited Haiti in 1986. She fell in love with the people and their country, changed her plans, and dedicated her life to improving theirs. The need is great in a country where most homes lack running water, only 10 percent have electricity, and seven of 10 working-age adults are jobless. Aid programs started by individuals, church groups, and nonprofit organizations are prevalent here. Foreigners from wealthier lands have stepped in to try to fill voids left by an ineffective, fiscally poor government. Sister Rosemary's work is largely supported by donations from her church and its congregation in Toronto as well as from Canadian schoolchildren who raise money for the effort. Aside from helping babies and toddlers, some 166 kids who have "graduated" from the nutrition program have had their school tuition paid. In Haiti, "public" school costs $150 per year. With a median income of less than $400 a year, most families cannot afford it.

Inside the same modest, two-story building where the families gather, Sister Rosemary also offers a program that teaches these mothers how to run a business in order to support their families. They learn how to make a business plan, save money, and reinvest profits. "The women don't realize they need money to buy goods again to sell," Sister Rosemary says. "They spend it all. We ask them to save 20 percent of their profit to put back into their businesses."

Most fledgling entrepreneurs in this program are traveling saleswomen, carrying goods on their heads as Haitian women so elegantly do. Throughout the day, they come to Sister Rosemary's small shop to stock up on goods to sell, including soap, hair products, peanut butter, and toys. To buy new inventory and build savings, they carefully hand over a few dirty, wadded-up pieces of paper money from previous sales. The transactions are meticulously recorded in a logbook. Sister Rosemary's 12 employees, who run the nutrition program and a community bank, help the mothers save for rent, school fees, even a bed. For the most successful, the funds may go toward a home. Most of the women conduct their business in hushed, serious voices, as they work toward their goal of self-sufficiency.

The New York-based Trickle UP program grants these women $50, a micro-investment to help them get started. Participants are not expected to repay the initial investment, but after three months, they must report on their progress in order to receive another $50. In a year's time, they send a final report. Then they are on their own. One hundred and six women have succeeded; more are trying. Jean Vernet is program associate for Haiti in the Trickle UP Program. He's never met Sister Rosemary, but he lauds the success she's had administering their microgrant program. He puts her success rate at 99 percent. A big reason for this is the fact that the community comes to her for a variety of reasons - food for their children, advice, help with school fees, and more. So by the time someone wants to enroll in Trickle UP, they have a well-established relationship with the nun. "The relationship is key," Mr. Vernet says. He also notes that while there are many charitable groups at work in Haiti, "very few work with the poorest of the poor." By starting with a feeding center for malnourished children, Sister Rosemary attracts the most impoverished and tirelessly to expand the services she offers. She has no plans to return to Canada, preferring to stay on here, her adopted home, where she can make such a difference.

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Swedish Spruce may be World's Oldest Living Tree

Niklas Pollard

(Reuters 4-11-08)

Scientists have found a cluster of spruces in the mountains in western Sweden which, at an age of 8,000 years, may be the world's oldest living trees. The hardy Norway spruces were found perched high on a mountain side where they have remained safe from recent dangers such as logging, but exposed to the harsh weather conditions of the mountain range that separates Norway and Sweden.

Carbon dating of the trees carried out at a laboratory in Miami, Florida, showed the oldest of them first set root about 8,000 years ago, making it the world's oldest known living tree, Umea University Professor Leif Kullman said.

California's "Methuselah" tree, a Great Basin bristlecone pine, is often cited as the world's oldest living tree with a recorded age of between 4,500 and 5,000 years. Two other spruces, also found in the course of climate change studies in the Swedish county of Dalarna, were shown to be 4,800 and 5,500 years old.

"These were the first woods that grew after the Ice Age," said Lars Hedlund, responsible for environmental surveys in the county of Dalarna and collaborator in climate studies there. "That means that when you speak of climate change today, you can in these (trees) see pretty much every single climate change that has occurred."

Although a single tree trunk can become at most about 600 years old, the spruces had survived by pushing out another trunk as soon as the old one died, Professor Kullman said. Rising temperatures in the area in recent years had allowed the spruces to grow rapidly, making them easier to find in the rugged terrain, he added.

"For quite some time they have endured as bushes maybe 1/2 meter tall," he said. "But over the past few decades we have seen a much warmer climate, which has meant that they have popped up like mushrooms in the soil."

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How Countries Worsen the Food Price Crisis

Kent Garber

(US News and World Report 4-9-08)

Since early 2007, when food prices began marching noticeably upward, there have been violent riots in more than a dozen countries, growing malaise in developed areas, including the United States, and a fluid debate about the origins of the spike. On the last point, a consensus has emerged. A slew of factors—record fuel prices, ethanol production, unprecedented demand, the effects of climate change—have been blamed, creating a sort of perfect storm for the world's food supply. Although each merits attention, another culprit must now be added: the human reaction to the crisis.

Since the first of the year, additional jumps in food prices have bred not only uneasiness and widespread fear but also, in recent weeks, extreme responses. Countries in Asia and South America are clamping down on exports or banning them, often at the behest of panic-stricken leaders worried about inflation. Further down the supply chain, savvy farmers and producers are hoarding food to delay its sale. In a sense, the unfolding scene is a sort of "prisoner's dilemma" known in game theory: Individuals (and individual countries) are moving to protect their own interests—"defecting" rather than cooperating—as supplies become more precious.

The effect, some analysts say, has been to drive the market cost of food—rice and wheat, in particular—even higher and to further destabilize countries at risk of violence and hunger. "A lot of these countries [with bans] have poor populations, and they're worried about inflation, and they know that if they keep supplies high, they can lower costs," said U.S. Department of Agriculture economist Andy Aaronson. "That's just supply-and-demand economics, but it's a psychology that's going to have to break."

Restricting trade is an old and powerful tactic, and countries use it liberally, to protect farmers and consumers, to keep unwanted products out, or to keep internal stockpiles up. In fact, even before the current food crisis became apparent, many countries had begun blocking exports of products that have become expensive or scarce only recently; Argentina, in 2006, banned certain cuts of meat and later extended the ban to wheat.

But since the first of the year, a critical mass has taken hold. Rice, which is the staple food for roughly half of the world's population, or more than 3 billion people, has been particularly affected. China, Vietnam, and Egypt have imposed limits on the amount of rice they will export. India, at the end of March, banned "non-basmati" rice shipments outright and has continued to ratchet up the minimum price of basmati exports, which are known for their higher quality. Thailand, the world's largest rice exporter, is reportedly flirting with the idea of doing the same, even as its farmers toil to plant a third crop of rice this year, one more than usual. Wheat, too, has seen the scythe of political maneuvering: Last week, Russia extended for 60 days a ban on wheat exports. China and Argentina have adopted restrictions; in Pakistan, where farmers have just begun to harvest the annual wheat crop, officials yesterday said the country most likely will fall millions of acres below the expected goal, prompting the government to dispatch soldiers to guard grain elevators. "Now that the market is so nervous, governments get more nervous," said Joachim von Braun, director general at the International Food Policy Research Institute. "In addition to export bans, they try to build up storage to be on the safe side, and governments become part of the speculators."

The motivation for such bold measures is not hard to discern. Since the first of the year, rice prices in some areas have doubled; wheat, on average, is up 115 percent in a year. (In 2008, rice prices could jump another 50 percent, according to estimates.) Because the forces that kindled the rise in prices in the first place, such as increased consumption internationally and competition with biofuel production, are unlikely to subside anytime soon, countries rightfully see high prices as a pervasive threat. Unrest could mount; governments could fall.

Egypt, with an increasingly politically restive population, represents a case in point. In recent weeks, clashes in bread lines have reportedly become routine and sometimes violent. The state-owned daily newspaper reports that 12,000 people have been arrested for selling flour on the black market. Rice prices, meanwhile, rocketed from just over $200 per ton last October to $430 per ton at the end of March. The government responded on April 1 by suspending rice exports for six months. The response had an immediate pull: This week, prices have fallen by more than $100— still high but nonetheless an improvement.

At the same time, individuals further down the totem pole are implementing their own safeguards. From Egypt to India, reports of hoarding and speculation have become commonplace. Farmers, expecting higher prices in the near future, are keeping their crops under lock and taking them out of the supply chain. Distributors are doing the same, hoping to benefit from inflated retail prices. In the Philippines, which imports much of its rice, the country's president, Gloria Arroyo, has dispatched an Anti Rice Hoarding Task Force to arrest suspected hoarders. (Fast-food restaurants there, including McDonald's and KFC, have been asked to halve the amount of rice they serve with a usual meal.) Fear of shortages has even found its way to Hong Kong: In recent weeks, the price of rice in most supermarkets has climbed 30 percent, prompting a spree of panic-buying before Hong Kong officials on Monday were able to guarantee supplies from Thailand, which already provides 90 percent of its rice.

The panics in Hong Kong and the Philippines illustrate an important point: As exporting countries stop exporting and shore up supplies internally, countries that rely on imports are increasingly vulnerable. One result, apart from alarm, is that an international game of hot potato has ensued, shifting the squeeze to other countries. In the case of rice, the demand has been shifted to the United States, among others. "We're seeing a lot of nontraditional markets coming to us," said Thomas Wynn, director of market development for the U.S. Rice Producers Association, noting that the United States is now shipping rice to Cuba, Africa, and the European Union. The United States should meet the demand, Wynn said, but the extra trade will bring side effects: stockpiles going down, prices, once again, going up.

Meanwhile, humanitarian agencies, which provide much-needed food to volatile countries like Iraq and Afghanistan, are getting lashed from all sides: higher prices, locked supplies, millions of people newly priced out of the market.

To a certain extent, analysts say, these protective measures can't be avoided. "If you asked every ambassador in the world to come to a meeting," said Bobby Coats, a professor at the University of Arkansas Cooperative Extension Service, "and everyone showed up and you asked the question, 'Does your country have a policy of protecting your agricultural sector?' everyone is going to raise their hands. Nothing will breed chaos faster than the nonavailability of food to people who are used to having it."

The flip side, it seems, is that a bunch of protective measures, taken together, can breed chaos for everyone else. "It's understandable that leaders will take refuge in export bans when they see no other options," von Braun said. "But this policy collectively is a massive policy failure. At a time of scarcity, when more trade is needed, less is permitted."

Von Braun says the World Trade Organization should step in and organize a global response. So far, that hasn't happened. Instead, when substantive discussions occur, they're often between neighbors: India and Bangladesh, Thailand and the Philippines. On a slightly more reassuring note, analysts note that global supplies are tight but not insufficient, barring a natural catastrophe. Some say that prices for crops like rice could plateau before moving higher again in the next few years. As good news goes, that's pretty measly.

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Climate Clash, Round 2

Marianne Lavelle

(US News and World Report 4-9-08)

On the Pacific resort of Bali, among the mangroves and tamarind trees and just across the water from 2,000 smaller Indonesian islands that may sink into the sea if the world continues on its current climatic course, diplomats of 180 nations will gather this week to see if they can agree on a plan to steer clear of potential global catastrophe.

The United Nations Climate Change Conference kicks off negotiations for a treaty to replace the Kyoto Protocol, which expires in 2012. But the gathering includes more than just the 36 industrialized countries that have already agreed to cut fossil fuel emissions. Talks will involve all the nations that signed on to the original 1992 "framework convention" to do something to stop global warming. All eyes are on the two biggest polluters: the United States, which never agreed to the Kyoto limits, and rapidly growing China, which like all poor countries was not required to make cuts.

Over 15 years, the challenge of bridging the chasm between the developed and the developing worlds has only mounted, as has the evidence of peril. In mid-November, in a pointed shout-out to the Bali conferees, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (fresh from the Nobel Prize it shared with Al Gore) issued its final consensus report of more than 2,000 scientists: Warming is "unequivocal," and there is "very high confidence" that humans are the cause. Increased temperatures, snow and ice melt, and rising sea levels are already evident, the IPCC said. Director Rajendra Pachauri said action was needed within two to three years to stave off the risk of mass migrations and conflict over water and food.

"The world has one shot at getting an effective mechanism in place, and this is it," says Philip Clapp, president of the National Environmental Trust, one of 10,000 people expected at the Bali meeting. "The future of millions of people and the climate hinge on this."

Slash and Burn.

But that means finding a way to reduce the burning of the fossil fuels—oil, coal, and natural gas—that power economies at a time when the world's most populous nations are determined to continue progress at lifting their people out of poverty. U.N. leaders called Indonesia's islands a "poignant" setting for the meeting because of their beauty and vulnerability to the extreme climate effects. But Indonesia is also a fitting locale because it has become the world's third-largest contributor to greenhouse gases with its rapid slashing and burning of rain forest for lucrative palm oil plantations. President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono last week launched a campaign to plant 79 million trees before the conference begins. But that would not begin to offset the two to three football fields' worth of forest Indonesia clears every minute. Yudhoyono has urged that rich countries provide financial incentives to help preserve the rain forests that draw carbon from the atmosphere.

The fundamental dispute at Bali will center upon the Bush administration's opposition to binding limits on carbon emissions. Now that drought-stricken Australia's newly elected president has vowed to sign on to Kyoto, the United States will be the only large industrialized holdout. But with some countries, particularly oil-rich Canada, unable to meet their Kyoto goals and even some European Union governments struggling, the Bush administration endorses each nation's coming up with its own climate strategy.

"In climate, what matters in terms of producing results is the character of the national commitment, not the character of the international commitment," James Connaughton, chairman of the White House Council on Environmental Quality, told reporters earlier this fall.

The White House last week credited its policies, such as funding of new technologies, with a 1.5 percent drop in U.S. greenhouse gas emissions from 2005 to 2006, although the Department of Energy attributed the trend to mild weather and high prices dampening demand. Numerous sources expected the Bush administration to counter its critics by announcing soon—perhaps while the parties convene in Bali—new regulatory proposals to force carmakers to reduce carbon emissions and to force refiners to increase the use of ethanol.

Environmentalists view those proposals with skepticism and say negotiators in Bali will approach the Bush administration as an opponent they will have to reckon with for only 13 more months. "They are aware the U.S. is going to field a different team in the second half of these negotiations than in the first half," says David Doniger of the Natural Resources Defense Council. But with the United Nations aiming for a deal by the end of 2009, time is short. "In Bali, let us not point fingers or apportion blame," U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon said recently. "Let us find common ground." But that's a place that's proved hard to locate, even under the same warming sky.

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