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Oh Canada: The Harper Government’s Broad Assault on Environment July 4, 2012

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Published on Wednesday, July 4, 2012 by Yale Environment 360


by Ed Struzik

Alberta’s tar sands. (Photograph by Peter Essick | National Geographic)

Outsiders have long viewed Canada as a pristine wilderness destination replete with moose, mountains, and Mounties who always got their man. Recognizing the tourism value of that somewhat dull but wholesome image, successive Canadian governments — both Liberal and Conservative — were content to promote the stereotype in brochures, magazine advertisements, and TV commercials.

The lie of that was evident in the rampant clear-cutting of forests in British Columbia, the gargantuan oil sands developments in Alberta, the toxic mining practices in the Arctic, and the factory fishing that literally wiped out the Canadian cod industry by the 1990s. But this wholesome image endured because progress was made on several environmental fronts, such as creation of many new national parks, and because Canada remains sparsely populated with large swaths of unspoiled boreal forest and tundra.

But Canada’s pristine image — and more importantly its environment — is not likely to recover from what critics across the political spectrum say is an unprecedented assault by the Conservative government of Prime Minister Stephen Harper on environmental regulation, oversight, and scientific research. Harper, who came to power in 2006 unapologetic for once describing the Kyoto climate accords as “essentially a socialist scheme to suck money out of wealth-producing nations,” has steadily been weakening environmental enforcement, monitoring, and research, while at the same time boosting controversial tar sands development, backing major pipeline construction, and increasing energy industry subsidies.

Critics say that assault reached a crescendo in recent weeks with the passage in Parliament of an omnibus budget bill known as C-38, which guts or significantly weakens rules relating to fisheries protection, environmental assessment, endangered species, and national parks. Under this bill, the criteria that currently trigger environmental assessments, for example, have been eliminated, leaving such reviews more to the discretion of the Minister of the Environment and other political appointees. The Fisheries Act will no longer be focused on habitat protection; instead, it will restrict itself largely to the commercial aspects of resource harvesting. Ocean dumping rules will also be changed to allow the Minister of the Environment to make decisions on permitting. And Parks Canada will no longer have to conduct environmental audits or review management plans every ten years. In addition, budgets cuts will eliminate the jobs of hundreds of scientists working for various government departments that focus on the environment and wildlife.

The bill also formally ends Canada’s commitment to the Kyoto Protocol and removes funding for the bipartisan National Round Table on the Economy and the Environment, which for a quarter-century has offered policy solutions on how to grow Canada’s environment in a sustainable way.

One would expect intense criticism of Harper’s policies from environmentalists. But in recent months, hundreds of scientists, at least one university president, and several former Cabinet ministers and politicians — including three from the Conservative Party — have weighed in with scathing attacks on the Harper government.

“We have had lengthy and varied political experience and collectively have served in cabinet in Progressive Conservative and Liberal governments alike,” former fisheries ministers Tom Siddon, David Anderson, John Fraser, and Herb Dhaliwal said in an open letter to Harper on June 1. “We believe we have a fair understanding of the views of Canadians. Moreover, we believe there is genuine public concern over the perceived threat this legislation poses to the health of Canada’s environment and in particular to the well being of its fisheries resources. We are especially alarmed about any possible diminution of the statutory protection of fish habitat, which we feel could result if the provisions of Bill C-38 are brought into force.”

The discontent, however, goes much deeper than that. In addition to Bill C-38, the Harper government has ended funding for the Canadian Foundation for Climate and Atmospheric Sciences, which had doled out more than $100 million in research funding over the past decade. It has withdrawn support for the Experimental Lakes Program in northwestern Ontario, which has used 58 lakes to conduct groundbreaking studies on phosphate, mercury, and bacterial contamination, as well as research on how climate change affects freshwater systems. And it has killed funding for a program that helps keep more than a dozen Arctic science research stations operational.

The elimination or severe reduction of funds for research into climate change and the Arctic has especially serious implications, given that the Canadian Arctic is warming faster than almost any other region on earth. Scientists say that Harper’s sharp cutbacks will mean a drastic shortage of funds to monitor huge environmental changes in the Arctic, including melting sea ice, thawing permafrost, a rapidly changing tundra environment, and widespread impacts on fauna and flora.

“The kindest thing I can say is that these people don’t know enough about science to know the value of what they are cutting and doing,” says David Schindler, co-founder of the Experimental Lakes Project and one of the world’s best-known freshwater scientists. “But I think it goes deeper than that. This government is not going to let anything get in the way of resource development.”

Many think that statement goes to the heart of the matter now that international controversy over the Alberta tar sands and the Keystone XL Pipeline — which would carry that oil across the U.S. to Texas refineries — have put the Canadian government on the defensive. How else, they say, do you account for Natural Resources Minister Joe Oliver writing an open letter last January claiming that “environmental and other radical groups” use “funding from foreign special interest groups to undermine Canada’s national economic interest” — an apparent allusion to international opposition to the Alberta tar sands and related pipeline projects. What else, they add, could be behind the government’s decision this spring to give the Canada Revenue Agency an extra $8 million to crack down on environmental charities?

Justifying the tax crackdown, Harper said recently, “If it’s the case that we’re spending on organizations that are doing things contrary to government policy, I think that is an inappropriate use of taxpayers’ money and we’ll look to eliminate it.”

Tides Canada is one of the charities at the center of this particular controversy. When the Harper government recently accused it of funneling foreign money to advocacy groups that oppose the Keystone pipeline and the Gateway pipeline (which would carry tar sands oil to ports in British Columbia), the head of the organization took the unprecedented step of releasing a detailed account of its grant recipients and international donors.

As it turns out, The Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation — established by Intel co-founded Gordon Moore — is among its biggest U.S. donors. It gave Tides an $8 million grant to support marine planning and science in British Columbia and nearly $10 million for salmon conservation initiatives. Tides Canada also got $2.4 million from several American foundations that wanted the money to support a land-use agreement between aboriginal groups and the province of British Columbia.

Ross McMillan, president and CEO of Tides Canada, denies that his charity is involved in political activity. The decision to go public, he says, was designed to “send a clear message to our critics that we have nothing to hide in our work.”

Harper hasn’t helped his cause by muzzling government scientists who have been conducting research on everything from permafrost to polar bears. Timely access to these scientists has been the subject of several newspaper articles and editorials. Hoping to resolve the long-standing problem, the Canadian Science Writers Association sent a letter to the Prime Minister in February calling on him to “tear down the wall that separates scientists, journalists, and the public.”

In the letter they noted how government scientists such as David Tarasick and Kristina Miller were prohibited from speaking to journalists even though their separate studies on the ozone layer and declining salmon populations were published in the journals Nature and Science.

The letter made little impression on the government. When 2,500 scientists, aboriginal leaders, and decision makers attended the International Polar Year Conference in Montreal in April, Canadian scientists were reminded not to talk to the media even though the government of Canada was the primary sponsor of the conference.

In June, former Conservative Member of Parliament Bob Mills took the extraordinary step of holding a press conference with the Green Party criticizing the government for killing the National Round Table on the Economy and the Environment, established in 1988 by former Conservative Prime Minister Brian Mulroney.

“I’ve always said that if you’re smart, you surround yourself with really smart people,” said Mills. “And if you’re dumb, you surround yourself with a bunch of cheerleaders. We don’t need cheerleaders. What we need are smart people. And in the Round Table, a collection from all walks of life, all different political stripes, it didn’t matter — but they were pretty smart people.”

Insurance industry executive Angus Ross added, “I think that perhaps the Prime Minister has forgotten that the name of the round table is not the National Round Table on the Environment or the Economy. It’s the National Round Table on the Environment and the Economy.”

Environment Minister Peter Kent, a former journalist, claims that the Round Table had outlived its usefulness.

“When it was created a quarter of a century ago, there were very few sources of policy advice on the relationship between the environment and the economy,” he told the House of Commons recently. “That is not the case today. This $5 million can be better spent elsewhere to protect the environment and the economy.”

Melissa Gorrie, a staff lawyer for the environmental law group Ecojustice, marvels at the persistence with which the Harper government is pressing ahead with its assault on the environment. She knows because she and her colleagues have successfully gone to the Federal Court of Canada several times to get the government to use emergency measures under the Species at Risk Act to protect declining caribou and sage grouse populations.

With each victory, the government has found a way not to act on the court order. Much of the stalling comes from procedural wrangling and disagreements about what constitutes an “imminent threat.” In the case of caribou, when all else failed the government came up with a draft recovery plan that satisfies none of the complainants nor any of the scientists who have been studying caribou for the past quarter-century.

“My colleagues and I have been talking about this quite a lot lately,” said Gorrie. “It’s either a vendetta and a total assault on the anything environmental or a total disinterest in the issue. Whatever it is, I don’t think we’ve seen anything quite like this in Canada.”

© 2012 Yale Environment 360



Ed Struzik

Canadian author and photographer Ed Struzik has been writing on the Arctic for three decades. In previous articles for Yale Environment 360, he has written about a potential uranium mining boom in Nunavut and about a controversial plan to kill wolves in Alberta.

Helen Caldicott Slams Environmental Groups on Climate Bill, Nuclear Concessions December 22, 2009

Posted by rogerhollander in Energy, Environment.
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Tuesday 22 December 2009

by: Art Levine, t r u t h o u t | Report

Dr. Helen Caldicott, the pioneering Australian antinuclear activist and pediatrician who spearheaded the global nuclear freeze movement of the 1980s and co-founded Physicians for Social Responsibility (PSR), has joined with left-leaning environmental groups here in an uphill fight to halt nuclear power as a “solution” to the global warming crisis. “Global warming is the greatest gift the nuclear industry has ever received,” Dr. Caldicott told Truthout.

The growing rush to nuclear power was only enhanced, experts say, by the weak climate deal at the Copenhagen 15 climate conference. The prospects for passage of a climate bill in Congress – virtually all versions are pro-nuclear – were enhanced, most analysts say, because it offered the promise that China might voluntarily agree to verify its carbon reductions and it could reassure senators worried about American manufacturers being undermined by polluters overseas. But at the two-week international confab that didn’t produce any binding agreements to do anything, Caldicott and environmental activist groups were marginalized or, in the case of the delegates from Friends of the Earth, evicted from the main hall.
The upshot of the latest trends boosting nuclear power – although no nuclear reactor has been built in America since the 1970s – are indeed grim, she said. “Nothing’s going to work to stop them but a meltdown,” she said, fearing the prospects of such a calamity. “I don’t know how else the world is going to wake up.”
Her fears may sound apocalyptic, but as Truthout will explore in more depth in part II of this article, the dangers of a meltdown, terrorist attack and radiation damage are far greater than commonly known. That’s because of what federal and Congressional investigators, advocacy groups and medical researchers say is a culture of sloppy security, health and safety oversight by a cozily pro-industry Nuclear Regulatory Commission. (An NRC spokesman denied those allegations in a written statement to Truthout.) The quasi-independent agency is funded primarily by fees from nuclear power plants. On top of all that, the Obama administration is planning to offer about $20 billion in loan guarantees to fund two new uncertified and risky reactors designs that have faced safety and cost overrun problems overseas.
Despite nuclear energy’s apparent dangers, Dr. Caldicott was a Cassandra crying out at the Copenhagen conference with little or no attention from the major government and media players there. Caldicott, who was featured on major American TV news shows and magazines during the 80s, who met one on one with President Reagan and addressed about a million people opposing nuclear weapons in New York City in June, 1982, found herself speaking to groups as small as 50 people in Copenhagen. Although still an active lecturer, author and radio broadcaster, she was essentially ignored by the media, even with the six minutes or so she was given to speak to an outdoor rally of 100,000 protesting the global leaders’ inaction inside the main hall. “It was a shemozzle,” she said of her time in Copenhagen.

In her brief speech outdoors in bitterly cold weather, you can see her speaking more slowly than in her usual lecture, so that not one word or grisly fact is missed by her international audience. But you can almost sense her frustration at boiling down into just over six minutes all that she knows about the dangers of atomic weapons and nuclear plants. While inside the Bella Center, no official who really counted was bothering listening to her – or the protesters:

She told the crowd:

The Earth is in the intensive care unit, it is acutely sick. We are all now physicians to a dying planet …
The nuclear power industry has used global warming to say “we’re the answer.” All the money to go into nuclear power, 15 billion dollars per power plant, is being stolen from the solutions to fix the earth – solar, wind, hydro, geothermal, conservation.
The nuclear power industry is wicked. The nuclear power industry was formed by the bomb makers – it’s the same thing. Nuclear power plants are bomb factories – they make plutonium. Two hundred and fifty kilos a year of plutonium that lasts for 250,000 years. You need five kilos to make a nuclear bomb. Any country that has a nuclear power plant has a bomb factory.
If the Second World War were fought today in Europe, none of you would be here; Europe would be a radioactive wasteland because all the nuclear power plants would melt down like Chernobyl. So, war is now impossible in Europe. Do the politicians understand that?
Nuclear power produces massive quantities, hundreds of thousands of tons of radioactive waste, which will get into the water, concentrate into the fish, the milk, the food, human breast milk, fetuses, babies, children. Radioactive iodine causes thyroid cancer. Twelve thousand people in Belarus had thyroid cancer. Radioactive Strontium 90 causes bone cancer and leukemia, [it] lasts for 600 years. Cesium 137 – all over Europe now – in the reindeer, in the lands, in the food, lasts for six hundred years, causes brain cancer. Plutonium, the most dangerous substance on Earth, 1 millionth of a gram cause cancer, lasts for 250,000 years. Causes lung cancer, liver cancer, testicular cancer, damages fetuses so they are born deformed.
Nuclear power, therefore, nuclear waste for all future generations will cause cancer in young children because they are very sensitive, [will cause] genetic disease, congenital deformities. Nuclear power is about disease, and it’s about death. It will produce the greatest public health hazard the world has ever seen for the rest of time. We must close down every single nuclear reactor in Europe and throughout the world…
That’s hardly the spirit of acceptance granted the nuclear industry as part of a hoped-for climate deal by world governments and environmental groups.
She was there for the first week as a guest of the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom and a science adviser to the Spanish government. But for a woman whose organization, PSR, won the Nobel Peace Prize and who has been cited by the Smithsonian as one of the most influential women of the 20th century, she was still unable to wangle even a three-minute opportunity to address the delegates. After she returned home to Australia, she saw the dreary news about the chaotic final days of the conference and the loophole-laden climate “accord.”
“I was deeply depressed,” she said. “I hadn’t done anything, and the world hadn’t done anything in the face of an impending catastrophe.”
It also reinforced her anger at those environmental groups that haven’t strongly opposed nuclear power while they’re supporting legislation that sees nuclear energy as a vital element in reducing carbon emissions. “They’ve sold their souls,” she said bluntly, while attacking the ties of some key groups to the energy industry, especially in such alliances as the US Climate Action Partnership that includes such outfits as Duke Power and the Natural Resources Defense Council. The well-funded coalition is widely credited as having set the template for both the main House and Senate climate bills that have passed the full House and the Senate Environment Committee – all containing provisions for nuclear energy.
Al Gore’s advocacy group, RePower America, also includes environmental and industry groups; a spokesperson said it hasn’t issued any statements on nuclear power and declined to answer charges that by failing to actively oppose nuclear power, it was allowing the spread of nuclear plants to undermine renewable solutions to global warming. (In his writings and some interviews, Al Gore has offered some criticisms of nuclear power, but the Nobel Prize winner hasn’t used his international platform to attack its role in pending legislation or potential treaties.)
In her interview with Truthout, she ripped into those environmental groups that didn’t take strong, public stands against climate bills that included nuclear power, even while she, in turn, has been derided as a Luddite or politically naive. “Some of the people within these organizations are not well educated about the biological effects of radiation and mutation, and what actually happens in the human body and the food chain,” she said. “So, they’ve gone soft on opposing nuclear power, and because they’re all very worried about global warming, they’re about to leap from the global warming frying pan to the nuclear fire.”
She continued, “You don’t replace one evil with another. Anyone who promotes an industry that will induce a global nuclear war that will mean the end of most life on earth, the final epidemic of the human race; or anyone who promotes an industry that down the time track will induce hundreds of thousands of cases of childhood cancers and leukemia, and babies being born grossly deformed; or anyone who would promote an industry that actively promotes disease when we’re so worried about cancer and spend all this money trying to cure it – well, they have sold their souls as far as I’m concerned.”
I noted, “They say they’re not promoting it,” they’re just not actively opposing it.
“If you don’t actively oppose it, it will get through. They know that,” she responded – “especially with all the advertising being spent on by the nuclear industry which is a bunch of lies.” She added, “If you talk to the average person, they believe all this stuff. The power of propaganda is enormous.”
But environmental groups contacted by Truthout deny her claim that they’ve “sold their souls” or failed to vigorously criticize the nuclear industry, pointing to letters and testimony to Congressional committees. Tom Cochran, the senior scientist at NRDC’s nuclear program and perhaps the leading progressive expert on nuclear reactors in the country, pointed out, “Our position is that we’re opposed to additional federal subsidies for the construction of new nuclear plants, but NRDC is in favor of getting climate legislation through the House and Senate. In terms of process, we’re happy to move the process along.” He noted, for instance, “We don’t support all the principles of Kerry-Graham-Lieberman,” the most pro-industry proposal so far. “Our position is clear: we do not support additional subsidies.”
When I asked at what funding amount of subsidies the NRDC might be willing to draw a “line in the sand” and oppose the legislation, he replied, “I’m not going to negotiate through your publication.”
Caldicott and other experts say that even the claims that nuclear power is “clean air energy” fall apart when examined carefully. They have pointed out how over the full fuel lifecycle of a plant – from mining uranium to shipping it to “decommissioning” a plant – the nuclear process emits far more carbon and other greenhouse gases than the industry and its cheerleaders (and environmentalist enablers) admit. Indeed, according to one major study she cited, because of the need to find more uranium as higher-grade uranium disappears, using the poorer quality ores would “produce more C02 emissions than burning fossil fuels directly.”
Even so, “there’s a push for nuclear power,” said Erich Pica, president of Friends of the Earth US. He noted that there were no limits on nuclear power in this latest nonbinding climate agreement – unlike the earlier Kyoto treaty, which the US didn’t sign, that restricted subsidies for nuclear power. And grassroots groups largely aren’t fighting back in a high-profile way against the industry’s drive for a $100 billion bailout in federal subsidies. “Right now, the environmental community wants a climate bill,” said Pica, whose group, along with Greenpeace and a few others, hasn’t supported the legislation moving through Congress, asserting it’s too industry-friendly.
In continuing her decades-long crusade against the health, financial and environmental dangers posed by nuclear energy, Caldicott and her outgunned allies are opposing an array of powerful institutional forces.
They include the Obama administration and its top scientists; an industry that has successfully sold itself as “clean air energy;” the tacit acceptance or muted opposition of such major environmental groups as the Sierra Club and the relative silence on the issue by most influential environmental journalists. All of them are joined in what critics view as a near-“conspiracy of silence” about nuclear power in order to advance the goal of supporting a purportedly carbon-reducing climate bill that can pass Congress.
Indeed, neither most grassroots environmentalists nor members of the broader progressive movement have been engaged to fight a nuclear bailout of $100 billion, if not trillions, in loan guarantees for nuclear plants that would, critics say, dry up funds for renewable industries that could be up and running quickly. In contrast, it takes as long as 10 years to build nuclear plants while the perils of global warming – from rising ocean levels to drought – have already begun.
The largely indifferent response to nuclear power has been in part because activists have taken their cues from leading national environmental organizations and progressive media outlets. And with a few exceptions, such as Mother Jones or Greenpeace, they have not aggressively opposed the advancement of nuclear energy in their eagerness for a climate bill. That stands in sharp contrast to the grassroots environmentalist opposition that coalesced against including a $50 billion bailout in 2007 energy legislation, including a superstar rock video. Despite new petitions today, the organizing against nukes is woefully outdone by supporters of the current climate legislation.
Yet, Helen Caldicott’s passion for stopping nuclear power hasn’t eased, and although she’s older now, she still brings the same fervor and implacable determination to explain the dangers of nuclear energy that she did as a glamorous activist in her 40s speaking to a larger global audience. It was well captured in an Oscar-winning documentary short,If You Love This Planet,”now the title of her syndicated radio show and updated book:

Art Levine, a contributing editor of The Washington Monthly, has written for Mother Jones, The American Prospect, The New Republic, The Atlantic, Slate.com, Salon.com and numerous other publications. He wrote the October 2007 In These Times cover story, “Unionbusting Confidential.” Levine is also the co-host of the “D’Antoni and Levine” show on BlogTalk Radio, every Thursday at 5:30 p.m. EST. He also blogs regularly on labor and other reform issues for In These Times and The Huffington Post.

One Africa. One Degree. Two Degrees is Suicide. December 19, 2009

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 “$10 billion is not enough to buy us coffins”.


December 19, 209

Yesterday in Copenhagen, where leaders have come together to discuss the fate of the climate, lead G77 negotiator, Lumumba Di-Aping of Sudan, broke down in tears. To a small group of press and civil society supporters, he divulged that many African negotiators, pressured by developeing countries, and some succumbing to their own self-interest, were ready to sign a weak deal.

What would a weak deal look like? A deal that locks Africa and the rest of the world into a 2 degree, 450ppm scenario — what President Nasheed of the Maldives, and now many African civil society leaders call a “suicide pact.”

He did not start his speech immediately. Instead he sat silently, tears rolling down his face. He put his head in his hands and said “We have been asked to sign a suicide pact.” The room was frozen into silence, shocked by the sight of a powerful negotiator, an African elder if you like, exhibiting such strong emotion. He apologised to the audience, but said that in his part of Sudan it was “better to stand and cry than to walk away.”

Di-Aping first attacked the 2 degrees C warming maximum that most rich countries currently consider acceptable. Referring continuously to science, in particular parts of the latest IPCC report (which he referenced by page and section) he said that 2 degrees C globally meant 3.5 degrees C for much of Africa. He called global warming of 2 degrees C “certain death for Africa”, a type of “climate fascism” imposed on Africa by high carbon emitters. He said Africa was being asked to sign on to an agreement that would allow this warming in exchange for $10 billion, and that Africa was also being asked to “celebrate” this deal.

He explained that, by wanting to subvert the established post-Kyoto process, the industrialised nations were effectively wanting to ignore historical emissions, and by locking in deals that would allow each citizen of those countries to carry on emitting a far greater amount of carbon per year than each citizen in poor countries, would prevent many African countries from lifting their people out of poverty. This was nothing less than a colonisation of the sky, he said. “$10 billion is not enough to buy us coffins”.

Calling the current deal that was being proposed “worse than no deal”, he called on Africans to reject it — “I would rather die with my dignity than sign a deal that will channel my people into a furnace.” Africans had to make clear demands of their leaders not to sign on. He suggested a couple of slogans: “One Africa, one degree” and “Two degrees is suicide”

Alberta’s Tar Sands Make Canada a Climate Criminal December 1, 2009

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Published on Tuesday, December 1, 2009 by The Guardian/UK

Canada’s image lies in tatters. It is now to climate what Japan is to whaling

by George Monbiot

When you think of Canada, which qualities come to mind? The world’s peacekeeper, the friendly nation, a liberal counterweight to the harsher pieties of its southern neighbour, decent, civilised, fair, well-governed? Think again. This country’s government is now behaving with all the sophistication of a chimpanzee’s tea party. So amazingly destructive has Canada become, and so insistent have my Canadian friends been that I weigh into this fight, that I’ve broken my self-imposed ban on flying and come to Toronto.

So here I am, watching the astonishing spectacle of a beautiful, cultured nation turning itself into a corrupt petro-state. Canada is slipping down the development ladder, retreating from a complex, diverse economy towards dependence on a single primary resource, which happens to be the dirtiest commodity known to man. The price of this transition is the brutalisation of the country, and a government campaign against multilateralism as savage as any waged by George Bush.

Until now I believed that the nation that has done most to sabotage a new climate change agreement was the United States. I was wrong. The real villain is Canada. Unless we can stop it, the harm done by Canada in December 2009 will outweigh a century of good works.

In 2006 the new Canadian government announced it was abandoning its targets to cut greenhouse gases under the Kyoto protocol. No other country that had ratified the treaty has done this. Canada was meant to have cut emissions by 6% between 1990 and 2012. Instead they have already risen by 26%.

It is now clear that Canada will refuse to be sanctioned for abandoning its legal obligations. The Kyoto protocol can be enforced only through goodwill: countries must agree to accept punitive future obligations if they miss their current targets. But the future cut Canada has volunteered is smaller than that of any other rich nation. Never mind special measures; it won’t accept even an equal share. The Canadian government is testing the international process to destruction and finding that it breaks all too easily. By demonstrating that climate sanctions aren’t worth the paper they’re written on, it threatens to render any treaty struck at Copenhagen void.

After giving the finger to Kyoto, Canada then set out to prevent the other nations striking a successor agreement. At the end of 2007, it singlehandedly blocked a Commonwealth resolution to support binding targets for industrialised nations. After the climate talks in Poland in December 2008, it won the Fossil of the Year award, presented by environmental groups to the country that had done most to disrupt the talks. The climate change performance index, which assesses the efforts of the world’s 60 richest nations, was published in the same month. Saudi Arabia came 60th. Canada came 59th.

In June this year the media obtained Canadian briefing documents which showed the government was scheming to divide the Europeans. During the meeting in Bangkok in October, almost the entire developing world bloc walked out when the Canadian delegate was speaking, as they were so revolted by his bullying. Last week the Commonwealth heads of government battled for hours (and eventually won) against Canada’s obstructions. A concerted campaign has now begun to expel Canada from the Commonwealth.

In Copenhagen next week, this country will do everything in its power to wreck the talks. The rest of the world must do everything in its power to stop it. But such is the fragile nature of climate agreements that one rich nation – especially a member of the G8, the Commonwealth and the Kyoto group of industrialised countries – could scupper the treaty. Canada now threatens the wellbeing of the world.

Why? There’s a simple answer: Canada is developing the world’s second largest reserve of oil. Did I say oil? It’s actually a filthy mixture of bitumen, sand, heavy metals and toxic organic chemicals. The tar sands, most of which occur in Alberta, are being extracted by the biggest opencast mining operation on earth. An area the size of England, comprising pristine forests and marshes, will be be dug up – unless the Canadians can stop this madness. Already it looks like a scene from the end of the world: the strip-miners are creating a churned black hell on an unimaginable scale.

To extract oil from this mess, it needs to be heated and washed. Three barrels of water are used to process one barrel of oil. The contaminated water is held in vast tailings ponds, some so toxic that the tar companies employ people to scoop dead birds off the surface. Most are unlined. They leak organic poisons, arsenic and mercury into the rivers. The First Nations people living downstream have developed a range of exotic cancers and auto-immune diseases.

Refining tar sands requires two to three times as much energy as refining crude oil. The companies exploiting them burn enough natural gas to heat six million homes. Alberta’s tar sands operation is the world’s biggest single industrial source of carbon emissions. By 2020, if the current growth continues, it will produce more greenhouse gases than Ireland or Denmark. Already, thanks in part to the tar mining, Canadians have almost the highest per capita emissions on earth, and the stripping of Alberta has scarcely begun.

Canada hasn’t acted alone. The biggest leaseholder in the tar sands is Shell, a company that has spent millions persuading the public that it respects the environment. The other great greenwasher, BP, initially decided to stay out of tar. Now it has invested in plants built to process it. The British bank RBS, 70% of which belongs to you and me (the government’s share will soon rise to 84%), has lent or underwritten £8bn for mining the tar sands.

The purpose of Canada’s assault on the international talks is to protect this industry. This is not a poor nation. It does not depend for its economic survival on exploiting this resource. But the tar barons of Alberta have been able to hold the whole country to ransom. They have captured Canada’s politics and are turning this lovely country into a cruel and thuggish place.

Canada is a cultured, peaceful nation, which every so often allows a band of Neanderthals to trample over it. Timber firms were licensed to log the old-growth forest in Clayaquot Sound; fishing companies were permitted to destroy the Grand Banks: in both cases these get-rich-quick schemes impoverished Canada and its reputation. But this is much worse, as it affects the whole world. The government’s scheming at the climate talks is doing for its national image what whaling has done for Japan.

I will not pretend that this country is the only obstacle to an agreement at Copenhagen. But it is the major one. It feels odd to be writing this. The immediate threat to the global effort to sustain a peaceful and stable world comes not from Saudi Arabia or Iran or China. It comes from Canada. How could that be true?

© 2009 Guardian News and Media Limited

George Monbiot is the author of the best selling books The Age of Consent: a manifesto for a new world order and Captive State: the corporate takeover of Britain. He writes a weekly column for the Guardian newspaper. Visit his website at www.monbiot.com

A “Green Tsunami” in Brazil: The High Price of Clean, Cheap Ethanol January 24, 2009

Posted by rogerhollander in Brazil, Environment, Human Rights, Labor.
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brazilian-sugar-workerA Brazilian worker harvests sugar cane by hand. Sugar cane is grown in large monoculture tracts in Brazil to satisfy a global demand for ethanol. According to human rights workers, this ethanol industry is being built on the backs of Brazilian workers who are ruled over by “gangs” and who live and die like slaves. (Photo: Tatiana Cardeal)


22 January 2009

by: Clemens Höges, Der Spiegel

Brazil hopes to supply drivers worldwide with the fuel of the future — cheap ethanol derived from sugarcane. It is considered an effective antidote to climate change, but hundreds of thousands of Brazilian plantation workers harvest the cane at slave wages.

    In the middle of the night, the plantations around Araçoiaba in Brazil’s ethanol zone are on fire. The area looks like a war zone during the sugarcane harvest, as the burning fields light up the sky and the wind carries clouds of smoke across the countryside.

    The fires chase away snakes, kill tarantulas and burn away the sharp leaves of the cane plants. In the morning, when only embers remain, tens of thousands of workers with machetes head into the fields throughout this region in northeastern Brazil. They harvest the cane, which survives the fire and which is used to distill ethanol, the gasoline of the future.

    Hours earlier, Antonio da Silva attempts to get up from his plank bed. He doesn’t need an alarm clock, even at two in the morning. The pain wakes him up. He looks at the other two beds in the room, where his children sleep — four young girls and two boys. Once outside, in front of the hut, he says he may not be able to feed them for much longer.

    He knows a hernia finished him, and it was the hernia that forces him to push his intestines into place when he straightens up after bending over. He feels two types of pain: a dull throbbing pain in his groin that has been there for a long time, and the sharp pain he experiences whenever he cuts sugarcane with his facão, or machete.

    When foremen realized he was holding his intestines in place with his hand, they chased him off the plantation. They are uninterested in sick old men when plenty of young, strong workers can take their place. According to a study done at the University of São Paulo, cane cutters last an average of 12 years on the job before they are so worn out that they have to be replaced. Da Silva is 43, an old man on the plantations.

    Though his hernia was repaired in the hospital, the doctor told him he should no longer cut cane, especially not for the next few months. Otherwise the wound might reopen and possibly kill him.

    Only 11 days later, da Silva was back to cutting cane, this time on a different plantation, far in the south of Araçoiaba. He looks strong, with his muscular upper body and short haircut. No one at the new plantation is aware of his pain.

    “What can I do?” da Silva asks. “There is nothing else here. Those who do not cut sugarcane go hungry. And then there are the children.” He packs his facão and a canister containing five liters of water, just enough to last him through the heat of the day. He walks to one of several waiting buses that arrive, late at night, to take the men from Araçoiaba to the plantations.

    Da Silva must harvest three-and-a-half tons of sugarcane by sunset. This is his daily quota, enough to make about 300 liters of biofuel. To do this, da Silva will have to strike the cane with his facão about 3,000 times, working among the ashes and embers and under the scorching sun. If the doctor is right, one of those blows will eventually tear open his groin again.

    Da Silva is one of about a million people toiling away on the plantations and in Brazil’s ethanol factories. Many live and suffer much as their ancestors did — as slaves on sugar plantations. Government investigators occasionally liberate a handful of cane workers, but in such a big country the officials are few and far between. The real power lies in the hands of militias, or capangas, working for the sugar barons. They intimidate workers and drive away small farmers with bulldozers, all in support of a global vision. “By 2030 we will be the world’s largest fuel supplier,” says Brazilian President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva. If all goes according to plan, ethanol will provide his country — and the rest of the world — with a bright future.

    The Power of the Sun

    In 2008 Brazil produced just under 26 billions liters of ethanol, a number projected to rise to 53 billion by 2017. There’s no shortage of buyers. More than 30 countries worldwide use ethanol as an additive to gasoline. The United States plans to satisfy about 15 percent of its fuel requirements with biofuel by 2012, while the European Union wants ethanol to constitute 10 percent of each liter of gasoline sold by 2020.

    The Swedes are at the forefront of this development. Last summer they signed an agreement with Brazilian companies for the delivery of 115 million liters of ethanol. The Swedes, wanting to be good people, have stipulated in their agreement that slave labor or children may not be used to produce their biofuel. In return they will pay a premium of five to 10 percent.

    Lula’s plan is even more far-reaching. The president dreams of a green belt surrounding the globe along the equator. This belt of sugarcane would link large parts of the tropical Third World, where the cane grows best. Poor people of the earth could use Brazilian know-how to distill ethanol. Their governments could join forces to form an organization like OPEC, but for biofuel.

    They could supply fuel to wealthy countries and become wealthy themselves. They would also help to save the world from climate collapse, because ethanol combustion produces only as much carbon dioxide as the plant has extracted from the air. In other words, cars could go on driving forever, and the world would continue to hum along, driven by the rays of the equatorial sun. At least this is what Lula imagines.

    In his dream, Brazil would lead the world in this “new era of humanity,” as a Saudi Arabia of biofuel. Experts estimate that if every car in the world ran on ethanol, Lula’s country could satisfy one-fourth of global demand. In the ethanol age, as the president predicts, the world will be greener, more modern and — globally speaking — far more equitable than it is today. “When we think of ethanol, our goal is to help the poor,” says Lula. “The world must become cleaner, and the world needs jobs,” he preaches. He also insists that biofuel is a solution for both problems, in other words, a “historic opportunity.”

    It is a compelling dream. Politicians around the world, along with agricultural corporations like Cargill, investors like George Soros and even multinationals like Shell want it to become reality. Now that 189 governments have ratified the Kyoto Protocol, they will need ethanol to meet its CO2 reduction targets. When German Chancellor Angela Merkel visited Lula in Brazil last May, the two leaders signed an energy agreement. Experts are now examining how Brazilian ethanol can flow from the pumps at German gas stations.

    Part of the charm of Lula’s vision is that nothing would change for people in industrialized countries. They would not be forced to economize, and car manufacturers would simply have to install a few different gaskets in their engines, as VW has been doing in Brazil for a long time. Ethanol would even be cheap, with Brazil’s factories producing it at a cost of about 20 cents a liter. Most of all, drivers, with the power of the sun in their tanks, could step on the gas with a clear conscience.

    “Bullshit,” says Father Tiago. “The promise of biofuel is a lie. Anyone who buys ethanol is pumping blood into his tank. Ethanol is produced by slaves.”

    The padre is familiar with the dark sides of Lula’s vision. He cares for the people for whom the president’s dream has meant living a nightmare.

    A Long Tradition of Sugar Slavery

    Tiago, a Catholic monk from Scotland, pushes back his worn cap made of Harris Tweed. He has a hooked nose and wrinkles in his face, and his beard is almost completely grey. He says he has never been able to accept the notion that the happiness of some people is often based on the unhappiness of others — and that men like Antonio da Silva pay the price for cheap eco-fuel.

    Father Tiago believes that no one should be allowed to treat people like slaves. The ancestors of Brazil’s big landowners established the first plantations shortly after Christopher Columbus brought sugarcane to the New World. First they drove Indians into their fields, then they shipped in blacks from Africa. The nightmare of trans-Atlantic slavery began with sugarcane.

    Now the crop gives up ethanol as well as sugar, and a green tsunami is rolling across Brazil. sugarcane is grown on more than six million hectares (14.8 million acres, roughly the size of Sri Lanka or the U.S. state of West Virginia). One hectare is about the size of a soccer field. But this is only the beginning, with plans in place to expand production to cover 10 million hectares. Machines can gather the harvest in the flat fields of the south, but not in the hilly north.

    Father Tiago is driving north on Federal Highway 101, the country’s sugarcane highway. The region bordering the Atlantic Ocean is called Zona da Mata, or Forest Zone. But the rain forests were cut down long ago, and Zona da Mata has since been turned into Brazil’s ethanol zone. The sugar barons divert rivers and streams, and they raze entire villages. As devout Catholics, they leave only the chapels and churches standing, which results in the curious sight of small chapel towers, unreachable by road, now and then protruding from a sea of green.

    The Kiltegan Fathers, a group of Irish missionaries, sent Brother Tiago to Brazil in 1968. In 1975, the National Conference of Bishops established the Commissão Pastoral da Terra (CPT). Its aim is to improve the lives of field workers by practicing what Father Tiago calls “good religion.” “Bad religion,” he says, is the faith preached in the plantation churches, constantly promising the workers a better life in the next world.

    An Industry Run By Gangs

    The CPT gave him a car — a VW Gol, the more angular Brazilian version of the Golf. Traveling on behalf of the CPT, Father Tiago spends his days on the 101 and in the ethanol villages lining the secondary roads. He knows many people in the region, and he spends much of his time bringing people together, as well as providing advice and comfort.

    One of the poverty-stricken bedroom villages for cane cutters on Tiago’s route is Araçoiaba, a flat collection of dirty huts and houses in the sweltering heat. The important parts of Araçoiaba are the large squares where buses line up at night.

    Antonio da Silva moved to the town with his family five years ago. They threw plastic tarps over a handful of branches to build the hut where they still live today. The door consists of scraps of cloth nailed to a board, and boards placed around a hole in the tarp form the window. The furniture, arranged on the bare earth floor, consists of the plank beds and a cabinet.

    The children usually play in the dirt, and the girls often have infections. Raw sewage runs through open ditches. When it rains the entire tent city turns into a muddy morass. It was once a garbage dump, until the ethanol boom began attracting more and more people to the region. Today it is called Araçoiaba Nova, an effort to evoke the promise of the future.

    Da Silva could not have ended up anywhere else. He is illiterate and had no other opportunities. His father died when he was seven. When his mother fell ill, she gave Antonio a facão and sent him to the foreman on the plantation.

    The machete, with a blade wider than a hand, is sharpened seven or eight times a day. It’s sharp as a razor blade. The hook at the end of the blade can make serious wounds.

    The act of cutting the cane consists of two strokes with the facão. The first stroke separates the cane from the root, and the second removes the remaining leaves from the stalk, allowing the worker to twist the stalk with his free hand. The motions are fast and fluid, but the double stroke requires strength, even the first, second or third time. After 3,000 or 4,000 strokes a day, by evening the men are often too exhausted to speak.

    Da Silva learned the laws of sugarcane before he learned to cut. The first is that no law is above the words of the feitor, or foreman. The feitor determines what the workers earn, who is hired and who is fired.

    Da Silva learned that men could collapse and die on the spot from working too hard in the searing sun and not having enough drinking water. It happens often. He learned that no one would help if he sliced into his foot with the facão, and that those who cannot work have nothing to eat. He learned that anyone who makes trouble quickly finds himself face-to-face with the capangas, who crisscross the plantations in Jeeps and on dirt bikes. They carry radios and weapons. Officially, they are considered security guards who watch over the plantations. In reality, the capangas circle the workers like aggressive dogs encircling a herd.

    “These Men Live Like Slaves”

    On the plantations, workers are not entitled to eat anything but corn meal with water, the daily subsistence food of cane cutters. Their wages are insufficient to buy anything else.

    They work six days a week. Da Silva earns about 400 real (about €130, or $172) a month during the season, which last about five or six months. One of the curses of monoculture is that there is no work for sugarcane cutters in the northeast except during the harvest season. In other words, they and their families must survive on their earnings for an entire year. This is far too little, especially when a kilo of beans costs 5.80 real (about €2, or $2.65).

    Without the five sisters from the “Sacred Heart of Christ,” da Silva would be unable to feed his family. Once a month the sisters, who operate a children’s home, give him a basket of rice, corn, milk powder and soap. Every day, one of his daughters is permitted to spend the day at the home, together with 174 other children. The nuns feed them and teach them writing and arithmetic. “When the children come here, they are so thin that you can see every rib,” says the mother superior, Sister Conceição, 72.

    She devotes herself to fighting for the girls’ future. “Many become prostitutes when they are this tall,” says Sister Conceição, holding her hand about 1.50 meters (five feet) off the ground. It is not about money, she says. “They give themselves away for a piece of salt meat,” until they become pregnant and try to perform abortions with bicycle spokes. “Some die in the process,” says the mother superior.

    Two brothers, 17 and 18 years old, live in another hut in Araçoiaba. They began working in the sugar fields 10 years ago. They had no childhood, and now they have no future. They can see what the future holds when they look at men like Antonio da Silva. “The heat, the dirt and the wounds are bad enough,” says the elder of the two, “but the worst of it is that we will have to stay here forever, because there is nothing else.”

    “These men are held like slaves. Slavery is illegal, but they are slaves,” says José Lourenço da Silva. Many here share the surname da Silva. Most are descendants of slaves, who had only first names. When the plantation owners were forced to free their slaves in 1888, thousands were given the same surnames.

    “We Learn Nothing at All”

    José Lourenço da Silva is the president of the STR farm workers’ union in Aliança, another of the ethanol villages. The wind carries the stench of squalor across the open inner courtyard of the building that houses his offices. Lourenço, peering over the edge of his reading glasses, is wearing an ironed shirt and carries a ballpoint pen in his shirt pocket. In the ethanol zone, these are the insignia of an intellectual, and yet Lourenço feels more like a fighter.

    He has survived three murder attempts, committed by capangas, as he believes. The last time, he says, he barely escaped with his life. He had received a telephone call — a pretense to lure him out to a plantation. As he was driving back home, three bullets struck his car.

    The people who pin their hopes on Lourenço sit on white plastic chairs in the hallway outside his office. “The ethanol boom may be good for Brazil, but it is devastating for the people,” he says, adding that Lula’s dream has been a disaster. In the six years since Lula has been in office in Brasilia, says Lourenço, the number of people seeking his help, sitting outside his office in Aliança, has doubled. He has even had to bring out more plastic chairs.

    Many of their cases relate to accidents, but most are about wages. The cane is not weighed to determine how many tons the men have cut on a given day. Instead, the feitor measures the sections of the field each worker has cleared with a long stick, which he twirls in his hand like a drum major twirling his baton. If he wishes, he can allow the stick to slide through his hand, thereby reducing the section of land a worker has cleared — and his wages. In many cases, the plantations simply pay the workers nothing or only a portion of the wages they are owed.

    When that happens, Lourenço drives to the offending plantation, where he examines records and re-measures the cleared fields. He argues with the feitor, and he can be very annoying. But he has little real power.

    Fábio Farias, on the other hand, has power — at least in theory. “When we look at the numbers, there appear to be no problems on the plantations,” says Farias, an official at the labor ministry in Recife, the capital of the state of Pernambuco. “They indicate that when it comes to accidents, we have a better record than Switzerland. The problem is that our numbers are wrong. In other words, we learn nothing at all.” The plantations, says Farias, are worlds unto themselves, places where no one reports accidents or abuse. He has far too few people to monitor them, he says — nine inspectors for 140,000 workers.

    Farias sits in a small office where the plaster is peeling from the ceilings and the computer is broken, suffocating in his files. He wears a suit and tie to work, and beads of sweat glisten on his forehead. This is no country for ties and yet, despite everything, Farias wants to preserve his dignity.

    He knows that work on the plantations is far more dangerous than it ought to be. “The use of pesticides alone is outrageous,” he says, adding that they are often spread onto the fields by hand — by workers wearing neither masks nor gloves. “There is long-term damage, and there are cases of poisoning.”

    Because Farias has so few inspectors, they can only search a plantation or a factory — and close it, if necessary — once every few months. When that happens, they file lawsuits, sometimes for slavery, but always for violations of all kinds of rules and regulations.

    José Nunes da Silva spent 12 years cutting cane, until he was so worn out that he could no longer work. Nowadays he buries the dead of Araçoiaba. Their paths through the cane end at his feet.

    There are nice graves in his cemetery, graves with crosses on them, where capangas and feitores lie. But the bodies of cane cutters are usually buried for only two years. After that, he digs up the remains of the ethanol men and carts them to the back to a spot at the back of the cemetery, next to the garbage dump, where they are burned. Bones protrude from the ashes, and stray dogs roam around.

    The gravedigger usually pours a petroleum mixture onto the remains of the cutters and sets them on fire. “No one smells it,” he says, “because the plantations are burning anyway.”

    The bodies are burned to avoid payment of the 15 real (about €5, $7) annual fee for each gravesite — too costly for the widow of a cane cutter.


    Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan.