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    Category: Land Clearing

    Options for Clearing Land: Pasture Establishment for … - December 16, 2019 by admin

    Establishing a productive pasture requires more than just putting down seed and straw. Soil tests will help determine the proper amount of lime and fertilizer. These amendments, along with proper seeding rates, should be applied at the right time of year, usually spring or fall, for optimal growth. It can take a year or more to establish a pasture. Pasture management after establishment is also important, and includes mowing, dragging, and maintaining proper stocking rates. In general, in order to maintain a healthy sod and good groundcover you should have a minimum of two acres of pasture for each horse. Keeping more horses on less pasture requires an increased level of management of both horses and grounds in order to maintain the health of both.

    More information on establishing and renovating pastures for horses, forage selection, and grazing management can be found in the Virginias Horse Pastures series, Virginia Cooperative Extension publications 418-101, 418-102, 418-103, and 418-104.

    Trees in pastures are beneficial for a variety of reasons. They provide protection from sun, wind, and rain, and are a beautiful scenic addition. Orienting a row of trees from east to west will result in appropriate turf light and encourage pasture forage. However, horses and trees are not always a good mix. Turning out too many horses on small acreage results in denuded pastures or debarked trees, which is neither attractive nor environmentally friendly. Also, the presence of a large number of livestock can result in soil compaction around trees, which reduces the oxygen available to tree roots and negatively impacts tree growth. Nevertheless, some tree species deal with soil compaction better than others. The compaction tolerant tree list includes many native trees such as sycamore, red maple, hackberry, eastern red cedar, sweetgum, black gum, loblolly pine, oak, black locust, willow, bald cypress and slippery elm (Coder, 2000).

    Regardless of the trees you choose for your pasture, it is best to fence around them to protect the roots and bark while allowing horses to benefit from their shelter. At a minimum, the trunk should be secured with fencing 2 to 4 feet away. Better protection requires a fence 10 to 20 feet away from the trunk, or ideally out to the drip line (picture the tree top as an umbrella, the edge of the umbrella is the drip line) of a mature tree. However, this may decrease the horses use of the tree as shelter. The Virginia Urban Street Tree Selector at provides a tool to determine mature crown width on certain species.

    Finally, some species should be avoided in horse pastures.

    For help in identifying trees, bring samples to your local extension office or try your hand at identifying the species with the help of an online tree identification tool at

    If your objectives involve land clearing, it is important to familiarize yourself with the pros and cons. Planning and attention to detail during the land-clearing process will help protect water and soil resources while keeping costs to a minimum. This publication provides some practical considerations of costs, regulatory issues, biological and environmental factors, and covers effective methods and easily avoided pitfalls.

    For more assistance and information, contact the following public agencies:

    Virginia Cooperative Extension Additional printed educational resources and free subject matter newsletters, soil test kits and interpretation, forage management education, pesticide safety and education, and more at

    Soil and Water Conservation Districts Technical assistance, information, and education on the conservation of natural resources, soil, water, and related resources,

    Natural Resources Conservation Services Federal agency providing both technical and financial assistance related to conserving key natural resources such as soil, water and wildlife,

    Virginia Department of Forestry Offering Consulting Foresters list, timber buyers list, timber selling advice, and forest management planning,

    Southern Piedmont Agricultural Research and Extension Center

    Coder, Kim. 2000. Compaction Tolerant Trees. University of Georgia.

    Downing, Adam, Corey Childs, and C.A. Shea Porr. 2008. To Clear or Not To Clear That Is the Question, Virginia Cooperative Extension publication 465-340,

    Johnson, James E. 1997. Firewood for Home Heating, Virginia Cooperative Extension publication 420-003.

    Magadlela, A.M., M.E. Dabaan, W.B. Bryan, E.C. Prigge, J.D. Skousen, G.E. DSouza, B.L. Arbogast, G. Flores. 1995. Brush clearing on hill land pasture with sheep and goats. Journal of Agronomy and Crop Science 174:1-8.

    McNabb, K. 1997. Environmental Safety of Forestry Herbicides. Alabama Cooperative Extension System. Publication number ANR-846., accessed March 6, 2008.

    Teutsch, C.D., and R.M. Hoffman. 2005. Virginias Horse Pastures: Grazing Management, Virginia Cooperative Extension publication 418-101,

    Teutsch, C.D., and R.M. Hoffman. 2005.Virginias Horse Pastures: Forage Species for Horse Pastures, Virginia Cooperative Extension publication 418-102,

    Teutsch, C.D., and J.H. Fike. 2005. Virginias Horse Pastures: Forage Establishment, Virginia Cooperative Extension publication 418-103,

    Teutsch, C.D., J.H. Fike. 2005. Virginias Horse Pastures: Renovating Old Pastures, Virginia Cooperative Extension publication 418-104,

    The authors wish to thank the following individuals for their contributions in review of this document:

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    No, koalas are not ‘functionally extinct,’ but they are in trouble – PolitiFact - December 16, 2019 by admin

    As catastrophic bushfires spread across parts of Australia, misinformation about one of the regions most beloved animals, the koala, spreads, too.

    Areas of Australia started to burn in September 2019, marking an early start to the regions fire season and scorching more than 5 million acres in News South Wales and parts of Queensland.

    When the fires became international news, online stories like this one went viral with shocking headlines that claim koalas are now "functionally extinct" as a result of the blaze.

    It is true that several hundred koalas have died in the bushfires (some estimates put the death toll in the thousands) and large swaths of the marsupials habitat have been destroyed. However, the claim that koalas are "functionally extinct" is inaccurate.

    The story was flagged as part of Facebooks efforts to combat false news and misinformation on its News Feed. (Read more about our partnership with Facebook.)

    It appears that the idea that koalas are "functionally extinct" started when the Australian Koala Foundation, a local conservation nonprofit that advocates for koala protection and preservation, released a statement in May 2019 calling on Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison to enact the Koala Protection Act, which was written in 2016.

    "The Australian Koala Foundation (AKF) believes Koalas may be functionally extinct in the entire landscape of Australia," the statement says. "The AKF thinks there are no more than 80,000 Koalas in Australia."

    Since the fires, the organization released another statement in October 2019 standing by its use of the term.

    Noah Greenwald, endangered species director at the US-based Center for Biological Diversity, told PolitiFact there are two different definitions of "functionally extinct." One is that a species still occurs in the wild but cant effectively reproduce, so is all but extinct. The other, is that a species is so reduced that it can no longer play its role in the ecosystem. Neither definition, he says, applies to the koala.

    The koala population is indeed declining, but AKFs estimate is much lower than other assessments.

    The International Union for Conservation (IUCN), the global authority on the conservation status of all species, approximates that 300,000 mature adult koalas remain in the wild, and lists the species as vulnerable, a step above endangered and two above critically endangered.

    But IUCN last assessed the koala population in 2014, and the species may very well be worse off due to food degradation, deforestation, hunting, drought and fires over the last several years. That said, another group of scholars studied the koala population in 2016 and found comparable numbers.

    Nevertheless, several wildlife experts reject the notion that koalas are currently "functionally extinct."

    "By either definition, it's hard to see koalas as functionally extinct," Greenwald said. "The last estimate for their numbers is roughly 300,000, and in some places they are very much playing their ecological role of munching on eucalyptus leaves."

    Wildlife conservation experts also told National Geographic that its difficult to measure koala populations, even at the best of times, because the animal has a wide range across eastern Australia, are human-shy and live very high up in trees.

    Christine Adams-Hosking, a postdoctoral research fellow at the University of Queensland in Australia, told PolitiFact that koalas "are certainly not functionally extinct" in Australia. And though they have been affected by habitat loss as a result of the fires, she said, its too early to know the impact.

    "We will never know exact numbers because we dont know how many koalas exactly there were there in the first place," she said. "Time will tell. Over the next few years, the burnt areas will need to be monitored to see how many koalas recolonize the burnt areas and whether they can successfully build up their population numbers again."

    PolitiFact also reached out to the World Wide Fund for Nature-Australia about the claim. The organizations senior manager for land clearing and restoration, Stuart Blanch, told us that while the bushfires are a setback for koala conservation, WWF-Australia does not agree that the species is functionally extinct.

    The organization estimates that from July to November, the fires scorched more than 8% of the known koala forest in New South Wales and that, even before the fires, koala populations disappeared from large areas of eastern and southern Australia.

    "While koalas will survive this bushfire crisis, the longer-term picture in New South Wales and Queensland is not good unless excessive tree clearing is halted," Blanch said. "WWF-Australia has published a report projecting that koalas will become extinct in the wild in eastern Australia by as early as 2050 and highly likely by 2100 if deforestation and other threats continue. "

    The organization said that koalas require remaining eucalypt forests to be preserved, cleared forest areas to be regenerated, and isolated patches of habitat to be connected by newly planted wildlife corridors.

    Our ruling

    As catastrophic bushfires burn in Australia, claims that koalas are now "functionally extinct" have gone viral.

    Many wildlife experts reject this designation, and several estimates suggest there are around 300,000 koalas left in the wild. However, the population is currently listed as vulnerable, and its numbers are steadily declining as fires, and other issues, threaten the animal.

    This claim has some truth to it but omits crucial context that would give a different impression. We rate it Mostly False.

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    No, koalas are not 'functionally extinct,' but they are in trouble - PolitiFact

    November Deforestation Up 104 Percent On Last Year In Brazilian Amazon – IFLScience - December 16, 2019 by admin

    In the last monthsof an especially brutal year for the Amazon, the Brazilian rainforest has experienced a last-minute spurt of destruction.

    Levels of deforestation in Brazils Amazon in November 2019 flared up by almost 104 percent compared to the same month in 2018, according to official satellite data cited by AFP and Reuters. Considering that deforestation usually quietens down towards the end of the year due to the Amazon's rainy season, this rise is especially unusual.

    These November figures build on statistics from Brazil's National Institute for Space Research (INPE) released last month that showed a 29 percent increase in deforestation in 2019 compared to the previous year.Between August 2018 to July 2019, the INPE estimates 9,762 square kilometers (3,769 square miles) of rainforest was slashed, burned, or bulldozed in Brazil that's1.8 million football fields.

    Much attention was given to the fires in the Amazon earlier this year. Despite claims made by the Brazilian government, a survey of the rainforest in Brazil showed the number of fires in August of this year was three times higher than in 2018 and the highest since 2010.

    Deforestation in the Amazon is primarily driven by agriculture, mining, logging, infrastructure development, and most prominently cattle ranching. Some of the steepest increases in deforestation occurred here between 1991 to 2003. While rates of rainforest destruction were at their highest in 2008, the past few years have seen another resurgence of land clearing.

    Much of this can be blamed on increasing global demand for commodities like beef, soy, and palm oil, however, the rise has also been attributed to the election of President Jair Bolsonaro. Nicknamed Captain Chainsaw by environmentalists, the far-right populist president has continued to challenge the status of protected areas and weaken environmental agenciesin the hopes of forging Brazil into an economic powerhouse.

    Following UN Climate Change Conference COP25 this week, Brazil's environment minister sarcastically tweeteda photograph of a vast beef steak with the caption:"to offset our emissions at COP, a veggie lunch!" PresidentBolsonaro also repeatedly threatened to take Brazil out of the Paris Climate Agreement during his election campaign, although he appears to have softened that stance duringhis first year of presidency.

    The Brazilian president previously accused the INPE of forging deforestation statistics and being "in the service of NGOs." In August 2019, following a very public spat, Bolsonaro evenfired the head of the INPE, Professor Ricardo Magnus Osrio Galvo, and suggested the government would look for a private company to take over from the INPEs duties to monitor the Amazon.

    Needless to say, these accusations remain unfounded as does Bolsonaros claim that this years Amazon fires were started by NGOs andpaid for by Leonardo DiCaprio.

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    November Deforestation Up 104 Percent On Last Year In Brazilian Amazon - IFLScience

    Illegal land clearing in Banteay Srei stopped – The Phnom Penh Post - December 16, 2019 by admin

    Banteay Srei district authority inspected land grab at Siem Reap Provice. Supplied

    Siem Reap provinces Banteay Srei district authorities on Friday stopped and warned of legal action against the unauthorised clearing of forest land led by a machinery owner at the districts Hal village in Tbeng commune.

    District governor Khim Finan told The Post on Sunday that he had gone to the area after receiving reports of a group of individuals clearing the villages forest and digging a canal to construct a private road in secret to grab state land in the area.

    The activities will affect the ecosystem in the forest and disrupt the flow of water in the old canals. It will also affect the residents living downstream who rely on the canal for their livelihood.

    I have instructed village and commune officials and residents directly to put all these illegal activities to an abrupt halt and ensure that such anarchy will not occur again.

    Otherwise, the officials and residents will be held accountable before the law, Finan said, adding that grabbing of state land was illegal.

    Finan said the cutting down of mangrove trees had led to the drying up of water in the area, which would seriously affect water supply in the Siem Reap River.

    If the activities are not stopped on time, in the future, our Siem Reap River will lose water, he said.

    Finan said what he found most concerning was the illegal land-clearing activities in the conserved forest of Banteay Srei district and the Kulen Mountain located in Phnom Kulen National Park.

    These activities, he said, harmed the natural and cultural wealth of Siem Reap.

    Adhoc investigator Sous Narin confirmed the illegal land-clearing activities in the areas.

    Because the authorities didnt solve the problems effectively, they kept entering to clear the forest further. But after being prohibited by the authorities, their activities have discontinued, he said.

    Narin observed that activities related to grabbing of state lands not only occurred in Banteay Srei but in other districts as well.

    Finan said the issue of land grabbing in the Kulen Mountain forests had been happening for a long time. Over the last few years, residents had further encroached on state land by building guardian spirit houses.

    By November this year, the authorities had demolished 49 of the 1,000 illegal constructions that encroached on the forested area of the Kulen Mountain.

    Originally posted here:
    Illegal land clearing in Banteay Srei stopped - The Phnom Penh Post

    A year of big numbers startled the world into talking about nature – Science News - December 16, 2019 by admin

    Some bignumbers from nature made news in 2019. They were enough of a shock to getpeople talking about the dwindling diversity of plants, animals and other lifeon Earth, and what to do about it.

    Some of that dramatic news came from the Amazon, wheresatellites picked up signs of a very active start to the annual fire season.The risk of a record-breaking season renewed worries about one of the richestreservoirs of biodiversity on Earth.

    In August alone, satellite-based imaging instruments calledMODIS logged 11,516 detections of fire in the large, northwestern Brazilianstate of Amazonas. The number isnt individual fires, but the number of pixels,each measuring at least a square kilometer, containing fire activity, explainsLouis Giglio of the University of Maryland in College Park, a specialist indetecting fires with remote instruments. (Higher numbers reported by some newsoutlets tallied detections from an instrument with smaller pixels.)

    As the fire season drew to a close in late October, Giglioworked out the big picture for the year. While fire risk in most of SouthAmerica in 2019 was very average, Amazonas was where chaos ensued, he says.The fire detections for August exceeded all MODIS records for that month, whichgo back almost two decades, Giglio says. He ranks the 2019 fire season, fromlate June through October, as the second worst for Amazon burning, after the2005 season.

    The damage distresses Alexandre Aleixo of the University ofHelsinki, who lived in the Amazon forest studying its birds for 16 years. Heworries that the lure of land for farming in Brazils pro-development politicalclimate is leading to land-clearing fires that easily jump into protectedareas, threatening the biodiversity there.

    Headlines and summaries of the latest Science News articles, delivered to your inbox

    Clearing jungles for soybeans or cattle is a good example of what a 2019 United Nations report called the main threat to nature: humans taking over wilderness for their own uses. That report made news by saying that around a million or so species of plants and animals globally about 1 in 8 face accelerated extinction unless damaged habitats are restored (SN: 6/8/19, p. 5). Dead species walking is one term used in the 1,500-plus-page draft of the report, released in an early form in May by the U.N.s Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services.

    The real total of Earths imperiled species is probablylarger than a million. The U.N. panel didnt assess the abundant forms offungi, which have given humans bread, wine and antibiotics, or the vastuniverse of nonfungal microbes. Even plant and animal numbers are estimates, ofcourse; humans havent come anywhere close to giving names to all of Earthscomplex life.

    The number 3 billion also startled people, prompting stories of the way things used to be. Its the estimated total population drop in birds in the United States and Canada since 1970 (SN: 10/12/19 & 10/26/19, p. 7). Digging into decades of sightings of 529 species, including records from citizen scientists, researchers detected a growing bird deficit. Many rare birds known to be in peril have continued to decline, but unnervingly, even some common birds are dwindling. Pushy and adaptable starlings dropped 63 percent, for example. Today, overall, 29 percent fewer birds, the team estimates, are flying around in the United States and Canada than there were 50 years ago.

    That loss is a punch in the gut, study coauthor PeterMarra of Georgetown University in Washington, D.C., told Science News whenthe research was released. It means fewer beaks to handle many ecosystem jobs,such as nabbing insects out of the air, spreading the pollen of deep-throatedflowers or giving fruit seeds an intestinal ride to new homes.

    Climate change is another of the U.N. reports top five threats to biodiversity, and fighting it by planting trees to trap greenhouse gases sparked conversation this year. Ethiopias office of the prime minister tweeted that the nation planted more than 353 million tree seedlings on a Monday in July, declaring the feat a world record.

    Theres room left on Earth to plant enough trees to trap an enormous amount of carbon, estimated ecologist Tom Crowther of ETH Zurich and colleagues in a high-profile and controversial paper published in the July 5 Science. It claimed that Earth has around 0.9 billion hectares suitable for planting more trees, enough in theory to capture some 205 metric gigatons of carbon (SN: 8/17/19, p. 4).

    The paper brought fresh attention to the science behind the idea, says Alan Grainger, a global change geographer at the University of Leeds in England. But more than 70 scientists joined forces to call those numbers an overestimation on October 18, also in Science. The debate over how much carbon could be captured goes on (SN Online: 11/17/19). Yet Crowther argues that planting trees across just 10 percent of the area the original paper identified would be a worthy goal. Even better, his critics say, is to avoid emitting all those greenhouse gases in the first place.

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    A year of big numbers startled the world into talking about nature - Science News

    DTE to blast down its Conners Creek plant in Detroit, clearing land for FCA Jeep project – Detroit Free Press - December 16, 2019 by admin

    DTE Energy plans to blast down the remains of its Conners Creek power plant Friday morning as part of the land assembly needed for Fiat Chrysler Automobiles' new Jeep plant project on the east side of the city.

    Known as an "explosive felling" rather than the more familiar term of "implosion,"the explosive demolition of thedefunct power plant will take place at 9 a.m. Friday, DTE said. The 75-acre plant site at100 Lycaste St. is fenced and secure so no street closures or nearby evacuations are required.

    A good viewing area for the public may be the eastern end of Belle Isle, across the Detroit River from the plant. But for safety reasons, no viewing area closer to the plant will be available.To ensure public safety, air quality will be monitored after the demolition.

    An "explosive felling" differs from "implosion" in slight but important ways. In an implosion, the explosive charges go off simultaneously so that the structure collapses inward on itself. In an explosive felling, the charges go offmilliseconds apart to make a structure fall in a controlled manner. Think of a three-legged stool and if you remove a leg, the stool falls over.

    DTE has partially removed portions of the structure, including the landmark "Two Brothers" stacks that long served as an east-side landmark.

    AECOM, an American multinational firm, is serving as DTEs engineering consultant for the demolition. The explosive felling be performed by Independence Demolition.

    Limestone is moved into piles to be loaded onto barges to build the fourth reef in the Belle Isle Fish Spawning Reef Project in the Detroit River at the now-shuttered DTE Conners Creek coal-fired power plant on Nov. 30, 2016.(Photo: Ryan Garza, Detroit Free Press)

    Earlier this year, DTE agreed to swap about 40 acres of the plant site for FCA to use as a storage area for new Jeeps producedat the plant now under construction several blocks to the north. In return for giving up part of its Conners Creek site, DTE agreed to take surplus city-owned parcels elsewhere for use as power substations and the like.

    DTEwill retain at least 10 acres of the plant site bordering the Detroit River for its own future use, although no plans have been announced for that parcel. That part of the complex is the site of the now-closed Edison Boat Club, a marina that for decades has operated forDTEemployees.

    The land thatDTEwill keep also includes a small inlet running from the river to the power plant. That canal gained fame several years ago when a beaver lodge was discovered there. Naturalists said it marked the first confirmed return of the once-plentiful beaver to the Detroit River in perhaps a century.

    The ConnersCreek power plant first came on line in 1915 and in its heyday employed more than 350 people and generated enough energy to power nearly 400,000 homes. The plant initially burned coal for fuel but later switched to natural gas.DTEceased using the plant to generate power in 1988.

    More: Things are still raw inside Michigan Central Station but progress is happening

    More: Old Kmart headquarters site in Troy still vacant after 13 years. Here's why.

    This 1996 image shows the Conners Creek power plant's "Seven Sisters" and "Two Brothers."(Photo: Mary Schroeder/Detroit Free Press file)

    In 1996,DTEdemolished the "Seven Sisters," the plant's seven identical 352-foot-tall stacks. The "Two Brothers" stacks remained standing until the current demolition got underway and often served as a navigational landmark for boaters and pilots.

    Conners Creek Power Plant played an important role in the growth of Detroit and is an integral part of DTEs history, said Trevor Lauer, president and COO, DTE Electric. While its time as a power plant has passed, the employees who ran it for nearly a century will be remembered and honored by all of us at DTE. We are very pleased that it continues to play a role in Detroits growth.

    Contact John Gallagher at 313-222-5173 or him on Twitter @jgallagherfreep. Read more on business and sign up for our business newsletter.

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    A Community of 50 3D Printed Homes Is Under Construction in Mexico – Singularity Hub - December 16, 2019 by admin

    Last year, the first permitted 3D printed house in the US went up in Austin, Texas. The house was a buzz-generating proof of concept, a wacky example of the cool things tech can do. At the time, its creatorsconstruction technologies startup ICON and housing nonprofit New Storywere raising money to fund construction of homes for low-income families in Latin America.

    Now their proof of concept has turned into something much more concrete (pun intended): today, New Story announced construction of their first community of 3D printed homes, going up in Mexicos southern state of Tabasco. There will be 50 3D printed houses once construction is complete, the first two of which were unveiled today.

    At 500 square feet apiece, the houses arent terribly large, but they each have two bedrooms, a living room, kitchen, and bathroom. Houses are printed in around 24 hours time using a printer called the Vulcan II.

    Speed isnt the printers only advantage; With 3D printing, you not only have a continuous thermal envelope, high thermal mass, and near zero-waste, but you also have speed, a much broader design palette, next-level resiliency, and the possibility of a quantum leap in affordability, said ICON co-founder Jason Ballard. This isnt 10 percent better, its 10 times better.

    Similar to its first iteration, which was used to build the Austin home, Vulcan II is a gantry-style printer on rails, and it pours a concrete mix into a pattern laid out by software one layer at a time. New Story employs local people to prepare and finish the homes, including land clearing, foundations, doors, windows, and roofs.

    Conventional construction methods have many baked-in drawbacks and problems that weve taken for granted for so long that we forgot how to imagine any alternative, Ballard said.

    Located along the Gulf of Mexico in the countrys southern region, Tabasco is a hub for Mexicos oil industry, and has the highest rainfall average in the country. It also has a large indigenous population, many of whom live in poverty despite the states oil revenues. New Storys homes were designed for families currently living in makeshift shelters; the median monthly income of the families that will live in the community is $76.50.

    New Story partnered with local government programs to survey over 500 families in the area, selecting those with the greatest financial and physical need. These families will get zero-interest, zero-profit mortgages and pay 400 pesosaround $20per month for 7 years, with the remainder of the cost subsidized by New Story and funded by private donors.

    Our private group of donors, who we call The Builders, invest directly into our operational and R&D expenses, said Brett Hagler, CEO of New Story. This allows us to take calculated risks, like a 3D printer, without diluting our promise to general donors.

    Families will move into the homes when all of them are completed in 2020.

    ICON and New Story see the Tabasco community as an important step towards their mission to re-imagine the approach to homebuilding and construction and make affordable, dignified housing available to people in need around the world. Theyre currently building or planning communities in Haiti, El Salvador, and elsewhere in Mexico.

    We feel its our responsibility to challenge traditional methods, Hagler said. Linear methods will never reach the billion-plus people who need safe homes. Challenging our assumptions, iterating based on data, and taking calculated risks on innovative ideas will allow us to reach more families with the best possible solutions, exponentially faster.

    Image Credit: New Story

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    A Community of 50 3D Printed Homes Is Under Construction in Mexico - Singularity Hub

    Scorched and on Fire: Earth’s Greatest Forest – The Washington Spectator - December 16, 2019 by admin

    An abridged version of this article appears in the December print edition of The Washington Spectator.

    Wildfires raging in the Amazon ...deliberately set by farmers illegally deforesting land for cattle ranching ...have hit a record number this year....The surge marks an 83 percent increase over the same period of 2018 ...and is the highest since records began in 2013.The New York Times front page, Aug. 20, 2019

    In my land, the land of my ancestors, destruction threatens because huge fires continue to spread, turning the Amazon rain forest into ashes. The current situation is disastrous. Raoni Metuktire, leader of the Kayapo, speech to President Macron on the occasion of G-7 economic summit in Biarritz, France, August 2019

    The increase in deforestation and burning ...has made Brazil a global outcast in an area where the country was previously a protagonist. This threatens the Amazon, the largest heritage of Brazilians, the well-being of the population, and the global climate.Joint declaration of 62 Brazilian civil society organizations at the G-7 summit

    August 1981Territory of Mato Grosso, southern Amazon region, Brazil

    That month, when I was staying at Tombador, was when it really started: the burning. Thousands of square milesand not just in the southern Amazon. It was happening to the north, in Venezuela and Colombia, and to the west, in Bolivia and Peru. Clear the jungle, plant the grass, bring on the cattle. Meat for a hungry world. Riches and prosperity for Brazil, hamburgers for India and Japan.

    And it wasnt only the Amazon. Borneos forests were burning, and Cameroons, Malaysias, Ivory Coasts. You might say it was the beginning of the epoch of the burnings. In the four decades since then, the planet has lost a third of its tropical rain forest cover. The equivalent to all of the United States east of the Mississippi. That vast areaonce a source of oxygen in the basic cycle of terrestrial life and a sponge that soaked up carbon dioxide in the other leg of that cycle, once the living cover that shielded the land from the equatorial suns fierce bombardment, once the mat of plant matter that spewed water vapor into the air so it could fall again as rainall this is gone in one human generation.

    Tuesday, 6:00 a.m.En route by small plane to Fazenda* Tombador on the left bank of the Rio do Sangue, municipality of Juara.

    The four of us leave Cuiab, situated on the southern edge of the Amazon watershed, and fly northward over the unbroken forest. The sight of this vast expanse of nature always triggers in me a sense of awe, and it is what has brought meas a filmmaker clinging to the conviction that through my work I can effect changeinto this little plane above the great forest. On this particular day, the air grows progressively more hazy and tinged with brown as we go. Then, 40 miles from Tombador, right in our path, a tall column looms high in the otherwise cloudless sky. From afar, it looks like a cloud of water vapor. But as we get closer, we see its foot is rooted on the ground, not above it; its hue is yellow, not white; and the land downwind is chalky gray, not green. It is a queimada, a burn.

    When we get closer, Ricardo, the pilot, circles the plume. The rest of usPepe, Tombadors owner; Grimaldi, his lawyer; and Istare down. The burning land is part of a clearing. The fire is creeping across it, but its movement is too slow to be detected. In the part that the fire has not yet reached, one can see that the trees have been recently cut. They lie scattered about, and their leaves have turned a deep reddish brown. It seems incredible that a dense cloud of particulate matter billowing 15,000 feet into the air was generated from nothing more than this thin layer of felled vegetation.

    In the distance, as our eyes follow the Rio do Sangue downriver, we can see Tombadors clearing, 10 miles away. Beyond Tombador there is only one other clearing, a small one, then nothing, just high virgin rain forest, all the way down to the main stream of the Amazon, some 600 miles to the north. The burning land below us was once part of Tombador, but five years ago Pepe sold it to its present owner, a construction magnate from Parana, the state to the south of Sao Paulo. A pushy parvenu, is Pepes assessment whenever his name comes up. Ive been toldopenly by some, obliquely by othersthat the magnate bested Pepe in the deal, which perhaps explains Pepes contempt. The magnate bought two-thirds of Tombadors original land. Then he lumbered the entire extent, removing the commercially valuable timberwhich, it was rumored, he sold for many times what he had paid Pepe for the landbut without cutting so much of the cover that he would be in violation of the laws against clear-cutting. Now he has begun felling the remaining trees on the portion that he is allowed to convert to pasture. This is his first such clearing. It starts at the riverbank and runs inland in a ragged swath for about half a mile.

    Look how messy it is, says Pepe. It goes right down to the water. There is a prohibition against cutting trees within a certain distance of a river, which, I reflect silently, Tombadors own clearing violates as well. From the air, the neighbors clearing appears to be about equal in size to the one now being made ready to burn at Tombador, itself an area of about two square kilometers. This year, 1981, the estimates are that the burning of the worlds rain forests amount to 10,000 times that. Ten thousand such scenes. Ten thousand such clouds of ash.

    We fly on to Tombador. When we touch down, it is evident that things have changed since I was last there, a few months earlier. The hangar, an elegant arch of aluminum-roofed mahogany, is finished. More cows are in the pastures. A rented earthmover, a D-6 Caterpillar, has been brought in. It came with its own operator, a strange small man with thick glasses. His wife, a large jolly person, has replaced the last cook.

    The unskilled labor crew is also new. Pepe sacked the old one en masse the last time I was up here. I dont like the looks of them, was all that he said. There were eight or 10 of them under the informal lead of a blonde woman named Neide, who ran the kitchen. They were all ordered to leave that same day, and as they straggled away through the pastures toward the sawmill and the road beyond, mute and helpless, carrying bundles of their meagre belongings, they seemed to embody the vast chasm that separates the fazendeiros (landowners) from the empregados (laborers) in this part of the world. Pepe locked up the sede (headquarters, office) that night when we went to sleep as a precaution, but the only suggestion of possible reprisal the next morning was that his recently planted Imperial palm shoots had been cut. The likely culprit was eventually judged to be a stray mule.

    Now, as we leave the plane and walk off the airstrip through a relentless heat, ash falling like snow, Graudo, the manager, comes running up. A quick, sturdy, middle-aged Afro-Brazilian man, Graudo has an efficient manner and friendly compliance to authority that have earned him his place as Pepes favorite manager, overseeing his most prized property. The talk is of the neighbors burn. Its column of smoke towers over us. The air smells curiously like a barbecue. This morning their foreman came over looking for help, says Graudo. I am on the verge of suggesting that we go over to give him some. But Pepe forestalls this impulse. I hope you didnt give him any, he replies.

    For the love of God, no! Graudo declares. Their meanness surprises me. I had thought that the code here honored friendship and cooperationeven if the owners happened to be rivals. Now I see it is more complicated.

    Graudo tells us that the foreman begged desperately for him to bring Tombadors earthmover so that a firebreak could be cut. But Graudo put him off, telling him he would like to, but the Cat was broken.

    Well done, says Pepe.

    The poor foreman rushed off in a frenzy. Everyone, Graudo adds, smelled drink on him.

    Just then, the cooks son, a barefoot 10-year-old, runs up, shouting, Lunch is ready! and we all head toward the sede. On the way, Grimaldi asks Graudo:

    How bad is it?

    They could lose the whole thing, is his sobering reply.

    By now I have learned that a burn is not just a burn. It can be early or late. It can be clean or not. And much rides on the result. If the cut vegetation is fired when it is still too moist, it will not burn thoroughly, seeds will survive; and then with the return of the rains, the half-burnt land, its soil saturated with nutrients from the ash, will quickly cover itself in vines. The resulting tangle is worse by far than virgin jungle and is considered lost. This is why the neighbors foreman was so agitated. It is only the middle of the dry season, and the trees that his crews felled were still too green to burn thoroughly. It was too early. But burning too late would be just as bad. Wait too long, and the rains will return. Then the wood will be wet, and again the burn will be ruined.

    Either way, there is nothing worse for the land-clearer than a bad burn. In the case of Pepes neighbor, it looks like he is going to lose the derubada (felling)amounting to a seasons labor for two gangs of 15 men eachand the progress of his fazenda will be set back a year.

    Graudo says, No one likes the foreman.

    Nor the owner, Pepe adds quickly. All agree that the fire was arson, set on purpose, because if it had been an accident it could have been stopped in the beginning, before it got out of hand. Im curious to see the burn, so just before we enter the sede, I catch up to Pepe and ask if we can go over there.

    No, he answers tartly, wed be considered snooping. This rings untrue. And sure enough, a few moments later, with everyone speculating on the cause of the burn, the real reason comes out.

    Theyve had nothing but trouble with the people there, Graudo says. I imagine hes playing to Pepes enmity. But then he adds, Neides crew really riled things up. Now I understand: Neide, whom Pepe fired from here, found work for herself and her band at the neighborsand Pepe has no wish to encounter them there.

    We enter the sede, wash off the grit from the smoke and the ride in the Cessna, and sit to eat. I look around: Pepe, at the head of the massive table hewn from his own forests, piled with meat from his own pastures, fish from his own waters; Grimaldi, the lawyer, his silver-haired chamberlain; Graudo, captain of his recruits, and below them, the surveyor, the accountant, the road-cutter, the pilot and me.

    At the table they are talking: Neide and her people. A band of gypsies. She disrupted things. Her brothers were lazy, too. Graudo admits he was charmed by her. Expelled from here, she led her little band through the forest, two nights in the jungle. When they arrived at the neighbors fazenda, the foreman hired them on the spot to speed the lagging derubada.

    Within a few weeks, there was already trouble. Neides boyfriend took offense at the attentions of another man. Knives were drawn. A line was scratched in the dirt. Someone crossed it and fell dead in the ensuing duel.

    Everyone saw it, Graudo adds.

    As we drain our iced lemonades, from out in the pastures comes the lowing of cows.

    Wednesday, 6 a.m.

    After breakfast, Pepe orders the new Imperial palm shoots that he brought up in the plane to be planted in a row parallel to the river. They grow slowly but become huge: a majestic sight for his childrens childrens children. Then we wipe the dew off the cracked plastic seats of a mufflerless jeepPepe, Grimaldi, Graudo, and meand pile in to drive out to inspect Tombadors new derubada.

    Here in the southern Amazon, the forest is cleared by cutting and burning it. The under-story is felled (the rosada, or reddening) and left to dry, opening up the forest floor. Then the trees themselves are cut (the derubada) and allowed to dry in place during the four-month winter dry season, from June to September. Then everything is burned (the queimada), raising the towering clouds of smoke and ash that satellite photography has lately made so notorious.

    We start off, the jeep sputtering down the airstrip that serves as the road for as far as it goes. I look back: there is Tombadors little cluster of low white buildings, already insignificant against the immense forest and the overarching sky, and beyond them, the corrals and the head cowboys shack, its walls hung with cowhides stretched on circular frames of saplings and looking like so many hex signs.

    At the end of the runway, we leave the pounding sun for the limpid shade of the second growth (mostly gangly Cecropias and arching bamboos with four-inch pseudothorns), and finally gain the jungle. Here, the ground does not look much different from a wood lot in England or the eastern United States. Logged several years ago for its mahogany and veneer woods, it is now rather thin and airy.

    After going for perhaps half an hour, the road suddenly bursts into an extensive clearing. This is last years derubada. It is in the shape of a fat L, almost a mile long on each of the outside legs. About 10 months have passed since it was burnedpoorly, it turns outand some of it has come back in vines.

    But there is not one live tree, only tens of thousands of charred, shattered trunks, (the way I imagine) as in the photographs of Shiloh, or Verdun. I wade through the waist-high bunches of grass, planted by air, that are supposed to become fodder for cattle. Graudo and Pepe discuss the necessity of saturating the vines with broad-leaf herbicides, after which theyll turn cows onto the new grass, so that their hooves can spread the root masses before they become too tough.

    I mount a stump to get a better view. I have seen this sight before, all this forest turned to pasture. But since boyhood I have been imbued with the romance of cattleand in my head, I try to take up my hosts arguments: People have to eat. A man is worth more than a tree. If someones going to do it, it ought to be me; at least Ive got a conscience. But it doesnt help.

    The derubada is roughly 500 acres, or three-quarters of a square mile, in area. The plan for Tombador is to clear a plot this size each year until a quarter of the total forest coverthe maximum allowable under Brazilian lawhas been removed. That maximum at Tombador, 10,000 acres, if put into pasture, could support 5,000 cows; if cultivated for soybean feed for the cattle, perhaps three times that many. Fifteen thousand head: meat for a year for 50,000 human mouths.

    It never fails: go out to the frontier, grab as much land as you can, and hold on. Pepes father did it in the 1940s on what was then the frontier, in Parana State, beyond Sao Paulo. Now the frontier has galloped 1,000 miles farther north, and the son will do it here.

    At Tombador, the family has 42,000 acres, most of it high virgin jungle. At a fazenda named Agrotrans, 80 miles to the east, they have another 44,000. And 150 miles to the north, they have a tract they call Colniza. It is 1.2 million acres.

    A million acres is an area of 1,600 square miles. All of greater Los Angeles. Twice Mexico City. Four times London. On any modest world map, Pepes familys holdings would be visible. The island of Manhattan, 70 times smaller, would not.

    Later that morning

    We all make our way on foot to the new derubada, adjacent to the one from last year. We walk throughover, under, and aroundthe recently felled trees and brush toward the distant thump of ax blows. Drawing nearer, we hear a sound like cicadas that rises to a crescendo and then falls. Soon we see it is the machadeiros, or woodcutters, filing their iron axes with whetstones, which they do incessantly. They stop for a moment and stare at us, then resume their work, as if impelled by some instinctive agenda calling them to denude the earth.

    Labor contractors, known as empreiteiros, recruit the machadeirosmostly from the coastal cities a great distance away. Organized into gangs of 15 to 20 men each, they are set down in the middle of the jungle, where they stay for five or six months, living in crude huts and working from dawn to dusk in the breathless air of the close jungle, amid heat and insects.

    The work is heavy and dangerous. Many contract malaria. Snakebite is common. So are accidents with their heavy axes and poleaxlike bush hooks. Infections are rampant, and heat exhaustion disables many. They endure their labors until the annual rains drive them out of the jungle to the frontier towns on its periphery, where they live in boarding houses and idle away their salaries in bars and brothelsthere being few jobs they can find during the wet season.

    These machadeiros bake in the sun that burns relentlessly on any spot where the forest has been felled. Gleaming with sweat and grime, scarred with the welts of a thousand bites, stained by the clouds of chord tobacco smoke that they blow in the air to drive off the insects, they are lean from their unvarying diet of rice and black beans, pork rind, strong coffee and oily tapir meat.

    Their eyes are flashing, their movements sure and fluid. They dont know who we are. They were hired as a gang. They only know that their bosses carry guns and we are their bosses bosses.

    With their heavy straight-handled axes, they cut a two-foot-thick tree as we watch. It brings down a tangle of others with it, as intended. We move on and watch a larger tree being cut. It falls with finality, shaking the ground all around where we stand. A few hoots go up from other cutters off in the woods after the crash.

    Then we pass through their camp: rows of plastic-covered lean-tos, sour-smelling hammocks, and plastic refuse. Graudo tells us that he had supplied the men with denatured alcohol as the simplest remedy for minor skin injuries but found that they were drinking the stuff. He then mixed insect repellent with it, and told them so.

    But theyre drinking it anyway, he says.

    Derubada work inevitably seems to fall behind schedule, and so the contractors drive the gangs mercilessly, often at the point of a gun. Last week, Graudo comments, one of the bosses whacked a woodcutter behind the ear with a machete. It cut his head right open. You could see the bone. No one seemed surprised.

    We work our way back through the derubada clumsilywe are not of the woods. Pepe mandates a small copse at the summit of a slight rise as a scenic overlook, and orders the trees left unmolested there.

    When we reach the jeep again, Grimaldi seems relieved and breaks into a chorus of High Noon, from the old Gary Cooper movie, which he must have learned back in his exchange-student days in the States. He and I sing, Do not forsake me, oh my darling... all the way back to the sede.

    Thursday, 11 a.m. Town of Juara

    In this era, each fazenda had its own short-wave radio. These sets, the size of suitcases, powered by direct current, sharing a common transmission band and assigned times of use, were their owners link to the outside world. It was a thin, worn link that worked some days, others not. There was static, aggravated by the weather, and interference from other users. The batteries held their charge fitfully. Rarely was contact made between the intended callers in less than a half-hour. Fifteen minutes was a lucky day. And once made, it was fleeting. The other party would fade in and out. In those weirdly modulating signals, you could feel all the hundreds of miles stretching across the plains and savannas, fields and farms, pastures and swamps of the backlands. A good operator had to have patience and brevity in equal measure. You spoke clearly and quickly, and listened hard.

    Yesterday, Pepe was on the radio here, calling the secretary in the company office back in Sao Paulo, 1,800 miles to the south. The secretary then relayed Pepes message to Helio, the manager of Fazenda Agrotrans, 40 miles from where we sit. The message: Meet in Juara today.

    Juara is the nearest town to Tombador. Agrotrans is the same distance away but in another direction. Helio, whom I have not met, is the counterpart to Graudo here at Tombador. Juara has a few thousand inhabitants and is eight years old, the same age as Tombador and two years younger than Agrotrans, making it a typical frontier town of the Mato Grosso.

    Ricardo flies us over in the little Cessna. The air is murky and smells of ash. Were there in 15 or 20 minutes. He circles the town to alert a taxi, then lands on the dirt runway. The taxi appears, and we drive the few miles into town for our rendezvous.

    As we go, we pass small farmsteads interspersed with patches of mangled jungle that belong to the colons, the dirt farmers: subsistence emigrants who have come here, mostly from the huge Brazilian cities down south, with little more than the clothes on their backs and dreams of a better future. Each plot is a variant on the same theme: a simple cabin, usually made of heavy, unpainted planks, with one or two rooms and no porches; an outhouse nearby; a yard with a few pigs and chickens; a hand-dug well with rope and bucket; a vegetable garden with papaya, citrus, guava, and a few mango trees; all surrounded by small fields of coffee and manioc, planted and tended by hand among the stumps and roots of the burnt but uncleared jungle. The bulk of the territorys population lives on these farms. And although their aggregate production is only a fraction of the great fazendas, these small homesteads support many more owners.

    We reach Juaras main street. It runs straight and wide down a gentle slope for 10 or 15 blocks. The roadbed is dirt and rutted four feet deep in some places; several large piles of cobblestones nearby promise to change this. Walk around the corner of the main street, and the shops end. Go a few blocks farther, and you are back among the farmsteads.

    Yet the town is full of movement. People bustle along the sidewalks; weathered vehicles, mostly pickups but also bicycles, tractors, and horse-drawn carts, rumble up and down the main street. There is a sense of mission here, even urgency. Young men, most of whom appear to be farmers, scurry among the various dry-goods storefronts. The fazendeiros and businessmen are in pressed jeans, but the more usual costume is short shorts, a thin collared shirt open to the navel, flip-flops, and any hat: cowboy, baseball, even the occasional panama. Most are unshaven. All carry little wrist purses containing ones essential documents in this bureaucratic land. Laborers are often in tank trunks, nothing more.

    Women, a decided minority, wear frock dresses or blouses with shorts. Children wear T-shirts and shorts. Shirts are generally loud colors and many bear insignias or slogans. Loudspeakers at a corner hardware store hawk washing machines. Theyre a model with wringers that catch fingers and have been out of circulation in most parts of the world for half a century. But this is a frontier. Here everything is new, everything is the best you can do. Boots, soled with old tires, are sold in bins. Dresses are made from bolts of gingham. Goods lie in piles on the floors of the stores: seed corn, scythes, sacking, hoe heads, meat grinders, potatoes, aluminum wash basins, thread.

    Away from the main street, many of the buildings are shacks, but near the center they are more likely to be sprawling, one-story structures of cinder block, plastered inside and out, with tile or tin roofs. The floors in the restaurants and stores are concrete, but the ceilings are solid mahogany, milled tongue-in-groovereflecting the abundance and low cost of this noble wood.

    In one of these wood-ceilinged restaurants, Pepe has arranged to meet Helio. The menu here is the same as in the othersbeef, rice, chicken, manioc (boiled, grated, roasted, or fried), and beansbut Pepe favors it for its cold beers. It is a cavernous room with four small tables, all unoccupied, and a tiny arched window through which plates are passed from the kitchen. The concrete floor is painted dark red, the walls a bright yellow. They are bare, except for a few calendars put out by Japanese chain-saw manufacturers and a strange, graceful object of rich maroon wood festooned with a knot of brilliant feathers.

    We sit. Waiters, still boys, scurry over with beers. Then a man appears in the doorway.

    Helio, says Pepe, without standing.

    He is very small. His frame is willowy, his legs spindly and turned inward. As he removes his battered straw hat and walks toward us, he exudes dignity and self-possession. He greets us warmly but properly. He accepts a beer.

    He must be in his late fifties. A sharp horizontal line runs across the middle of his forehead, white above, red below. He has only a few long gray hairs lying straight back across his pate. He wears thick glasses, behind which his blue eyes float like a pair of moonstones. But there is something in them that conveys depth. I take him for a seeker.

    The boys bring plates of food. Helio talks earnestly. He cannot stay, but we should enjoy the meal. He must return because he has a ride waiting thatll take him three-quarters of the way back. Hell walk the last 10 miles. The jeep? Still not working. The rear axle snapped last year. He has been here since yesterday. Doesnt want to spend another night away, because the cows are being rounded up for the annual branding. His foreman tries hard, but he doesnt have the touch when it comes to moving them through the chute. Why wont Pepe just take him in the plane, I wonder to myself. Its a 15-minute flight.

    A boy removes our empty beer bottles. Another, stupefyingly cold, Pepe tells him. Now he and Graudo give Helio the news. First the killing at the neighbors, then the runaway burn.

    Bad luck for the neighbor, Helio answers, removing his spectacles as he considers his words. Then, smiling and looking back and forth from Pepe to Graudo, he launches into a brief account which I realize is more a course of instruction for Graudo, who I sense has never conducted one beforeon how to achieve a good burn.

    Use every man you can put out there. There must be some wind. Keep them upwind, though, or youll lose somebody. Each prepares as large a pile of combustible matter as he can. Hundred-meter intervals. Everyone lights at once. You want to create a partial vacuum. The fire will suck in air below. It will act like a furnace. Many, many times hotter than a normal bonfire.

    Graudo listens carefully, gratefully. Now Pepe asks Helio something about grass seed for the newly opened pastures at Tombador.

    The cowsll fatten better on the Colonial. Its greasier, Helio says, meaning it has a higher fat content.

    I leave them to their discussion and walk over to peer at the wooden object hanging on the wall. It is a bow the simplest kind, a longbowthat forms a single arc when drawn. The wood is extremely hard and dense. It is six feet long, almost straight, its stave a slightly bulging triangle in cross section. The bowstring is palm fiber, twisted and bleached; its long, unused tail is wound around the upper half of the bowa feature, characteristic of Amazonian aboriginal archery, that allows for the knotting point to be readily adjusted. A little pom of iridescent feathers adorns the stave. I hunt up the restaurants owner to ask where he got it, but he cant recall.

    Wild Indians, he declares, from before all this, he waves his arm to encompass the restaurant, the town, long, long ago.

    All of eight years, I think to myself. I hold the bow. It is as heavy as a piece of iron. Great strength would be needed to draw it. I hold an end to my nose and sight down its length: The lines are utterly true. How would someone have made such a precise and elegant object? It would hardly be easy for an expert woodworker with all the tools of the industrial world to make something as fine.

    Even more striking than its precision is the bows humanity. True, it is a weapon and a valued tool with which someone plied a living as well. But hours, weeks, months went into its making, more than were necessary for it to function properly. The bow was clearly an object of pride and beauty for its owner. And for years, maybe decades, it was in use. The tuft of feathers is a trophy case, cataloging curiosities and triumphs.

    The body of the bow is dense heartwood taken from the core of a large tree. Splitting the raw staves from the massive and resistant parent trunk must have been a huge effort in itself, involving many hands working patiently and systematically with wedges of stone and wood, mallets to drive them, and other staves to pry them away. But how was such a tree ever felled? Later I would learn it was with stone-headed axes, which themselves took months to make, probably after firing or ringing the tree to kill it, then chipping away at it with the none-too-sharp axes. Honing the stave into the bow would have been done by using animal teethrodent incisors or pig caninesas cutting blades and rocks as files. All was done slowly, in its own time.

    There are no arrows with this bow. But I have seen them since, and they amaze me even more. More than the bow, they must be integrally and geometrically perfect. Straight as an arrow is the minimum specification. But while Amazonian longbows are models of simplicity, the arrows are more elaborate. The foreshaft, to which the head of wood, or split cane, or palm splinters, or bone, or stone, or shell is hafted, can be asymmetrical (I have seen ones with crooks in them), but they must be heavier than the shafts. Rushes and canes are the preferred shafts, sought at long distances and in trade. On the tail end of the shaft, two split feathers are stitched with surgical precision in a mild spiral to guide the flight. These are usually pieces cut from the wing feathers of large birdsparrots, hawks, owls, eagles, vultures. Other feathers, small and brilliant, adorn the joint where the head and foreshaft meet. The shafts and heads are often marked with beautiful and intricate designsthe makers mark. Sometimes the binding fibers are worked into patterns as well. I have counted 15 different materialsthreads, resins, waxes, pigmentsused in the manufacture of a single arrow, and there were likely others I missed.

    I reflect I am sitting in a town that is the age of a child, built by the advance members of a spreading civilization with an unconstrained hunger for resources, which originated half a world away and has been developing at varying rates continuously since before the Pyramids were raised along the Nile. And yet here on the wall is an object belonging to an entirely different civilization, one clearly capable of brilliant material production, whose members occupied this region up to a decade ago. They had probably lived in this forest for centuries or even millennia; they showed great talent for manual work and a refined aesthetic sense. And now they are gone with barely a trace.

    I return to the table just as everyone is standing to leave. It has been resolved that Fazenda Tombador will avail itself of the reserve of grass seed Helio has been storing at Agrotrans and that we are to fly the plane over to Agrotrans to pick it up. At least Helio wont have to walk home, I tell myself as we step outside into the afternoon sun.

    Thursday, 4 p.m.Fazenda Agrotrans, at the confluence of the Arinos and Peixes Rivers, Juara, Mato Grosso

    The state of things at Pepes two fazendas could not be more at variance: At Tombador, the dining table is a single, massive plank of fine hardwood, 40 inches wide and 14 feet long. Here at Agrotrans, plastic cloth is tacked over warped boards. At Tombador, the mahogany deck chairs are modelled at Pepes order on the classic Adirondack style; here, the chairs are molded plastic and steel tubing. There, kerosene lanterns cast their soft light; here, the electric bulbs are bare. There, the hammocks are hand-woven cotton; here, straight acrylic.

    On the walls of Agrotranss sede hang a few calendars from seed and fertilizer firms and a headless snake skeleton, cartilage and all, eight feet long and as big around as a human thigh, frozen in death into an S. Also a flyswatter, a cattle prod, a set of horse spurs, a few battered wide-brimmed straw hats, a mud wasp nest that reminds me of a pre-Columbian mask, and a hand-lettered cardboard sign reading, how good it is to live in the country, under which a subversive hand has scrawled, depends on the place. There is also the freshly tanned skin of a huge jaguar, spanning most of one wall. When we enter, the first thing Pepe does is take it down and roll it up: Macho (a male), is all he says as he hands it to Ricardo to be stowed in the plane. Helio declares that it has killed more than a dozen calves and required a hired hunter to ambush and eliminate it after he tried and failed. And if he is pained to see his trophy confiscated, he shows no sign of it. A few weeks later, I will spot it under Pepes coffee table in his atelier in So Paulo.

    Beyond the sede, other buildings stand in a row: three bunkhouses; a cookhouse; and the last and largest, a sort of shed, dirt-floored, that serves as a barn and machine shop; all a faded, peeling white. A few scattered outbuildingsgenerator shack and water tower among them complete the compound.

    Surrounding all this, and separated from it by another fence, are the pasturesroughly 6,000 acres at this time. They extend in a rectangle over a piece of ground that rolls gently into a shallow trough and up again on the other side, a distance of perhaps three miles. Their circular corral, easily 40 yards across, can be made out on the far rise. Right now, the pastures are a dull olive, it being the end of the short but severe dry season. In the distance, blending in with the landscape, are the whitish zebu cattle, whose lowing sometimes reaches us. Beyond the pastures, and ringing them on all sides, is the jungle wall, dark green, looking exactly like the side-on view of a piece of heavy pile carpet. They dont even bother to fence it. This is the face of a frontier.

    Pastures, Fazenda Agrotrans

    I am alone, on foot. The sky is white. The sun is somewhere in it. The ground is hard, with many bare patches. The grass, parched and wilted, in shaggy bunches six feet tall, is interspersed with rough weedy brush, often with thorns or hairy, felt-like leaves that the cattle avoid. Many logs, gray, burnt, half-rotted, lie fallen. Earthen pillars, five or six feet high, house the termites that eat the logs. Tall, pencil-thin palms stand erect, like inverted paintbrushes. And everywhere, right up to where the cleared land meets the untouched jungle, is the predominant feature of this scene: the standing, dead skeletons of huge trees.

    These are the giants of the forestthe climax growth: 100, 130, 150 feet highthat were left where they stood when the land was cleared. By felling only the lesser trees, along with the brush and vines, Helios men got them all in the end, big and small, with the fires. They are all bleached and dead now. At Tombador, the large trees were taken for lumber. But here, they were never cut commercially. Perhaps here they werent the species that yielded good wood. More likely, they were simply too massive to handle: 12 feet in diameter and twice the specific gravity of Douglas Fir.

    At Tombador, after the large trees were lumbered, the smaller ones left standing were eventually brought down by the ax. There, only their charred stumps remained after the burnings: neat and easier to plant under. Here, standing death is everywhere. Everyone calls it a sad fazenda. They talk of the many human deaths when they opened it up, a decade ago. They point to the graveyard, almost invisible in the weeds. The unremembered, mostly woodcutters. Snakebite. Fights. Malaria. Indians. Drink. But it is the trees that say death now.

    There are cattle all around me. Tall, gray, horned, humped. They are skittish and stand in little groups at a distance, watching me, erect, alert, wild. The leaders, mostly older females, break away and trot closer, then trot back. Now I hear a sharp clack. Over a rise, 50 yards away, two bulls are fighting. A cave painting. Horns locked, heads down, muscles straining. Panting. Two, three minutes pass. The cows watch, grazing desultorily. Sometimes one of the bulls throws the other back and, horns still locked, they go thrashing through the brush.

    Eventually, one of the combatants gets pushed back a few steps too many. Only a few, but its over. Heads shake. Horns disengage. The loser stares, blinking at the winner, then turns, ears low, and trots off, showing the whites of his eyes as he looks back over his shoulder in fear or shame. The victor standshead high, eyeing his rival into the distancethen bellows the cows into line and moves off with them.

    I climb a rock outcropping in the middle of the pastures. It is a signal feature here, visible for miles, the size and shape of a Mayan pyramid. It rises to treetop levelonly now, of course, there are no trees. But a half-mile away, beyond the blanched skeletons, the termite mounds, the semi-wild cattle, and the overgrazed weeds, stands the jungle, green and intact, stretching to the horizon.

    The din coming from it drifts over the intervening space. Not a drone exactly, nor a hum. More a scream. One can distinguish certain individual callsa bird, a frog, a cicadabut the whole of this sound is something much greater than the parts. It is the sound of a vast community, a dense existence of animal and vegetable life intertwined. Thousands, tens of thousands, billions of organisms. All living, working, resting, loving, eating together. Nature fashions life to fit any environment: steep or flat, cold or hot, watery or solid. But where else does the primordial scream reach such a pitch? Not in the desert, not in the ocean. Not in the composting, deciduous woods of my Pennsylvania childhood, which stand five months a year without a leaf. The Amazon forest, I reflect, is natures greatest city.

    Thursday, 8 p.m. Fazenda Tombador

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    Scorched and on Fire: Earth's Greatest Forest - The Washington Spectator

    OpenSurface land-use tracking platform launches at COP25 – Daily Planet` - December 16, 2019 by admin

    A pilot with the Chilean government and the IDBs Natural Capital Lab, funded by IDB Lab and EIT Climate-KIC, OpenSurface uses authoritative land records in conjunction with satellite imagery and ground- sourced data to help prioritise resource allocation. The platform combines fourth-generation technologies such as artificial intelligence, secure ledgers, remote sensing, and the internet of things to automatically compare planned, authorised activities with how forests are actually being managed or depleted. It then intelligently alerts staff at CONAF (Corporacin Nacional Forestal) whenever and wherever the two diverge.

    According to the special report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), emissions from agriculture, forestry, and land clearing make up around one quarter of the worlds greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. Improvements in land management could not only offer drastic cuts in global emissions, but also enhance agricultural sustainability, improve food security, and safeguard biodiversity.

    OpenSurface stands for next-generation digital MRV in land management. Outcomes can be linked to alerts or payments creating accurate, timely, and automated services for different stakeholders, says Nick Beglinger, CEO of Cleantech21, the foundation that brought the OpenSurface team, winners of Hack4Climate at COP23 in Bonn, together.

    This can scale globally, making monitoring, reporting and verification (MRV) more effective and affordable than ever before. This allows for new levels of trust between governments, companies and projects internationally, continues Patrick Brgi, Co-founder of South Pole, a global climate solutions provider and the Executing Agency behind the multi-partner international initiative that gave rise to OpenSurface. It can be a platform for exploring new ways to integrate diverse data sources, and new kinds of cooperation the more data, the greater the possibilities.

    This is an exciting project for CONAF, and indeed for Chiles natural capital and climate commitments. Its a great opportunity and we are looking forward to using this pioneering technology to improve the monitoring of forest activities, says Jose Antonio Prado Donoso, Head of the Chilean governments Climate Change and Environmental Services Unit. The OpenSurface platform will be an important tool to reduce deforestation, and particularly forest degradation the main problem affecting native forests in Chile. We hope, and would support and encourage, other governments to join us.

    OpenSurface represents real innovation in MRV. It has potential to scale rapidly, and opens the opportunities for better governance, protection and eventual investments into land use and sustainability, says Riyong Kim, Director, Decision Metrics and Finance at EIT Climate-KIC.

    Funded by IDB Lab and EIT Climate-KIC, with support from ETH Zurich and initiated by Cleantech21, OpenSurface is a collaboration between an international team of developers and climate experts, including South Pole Carbon Asset Management, DS3 Lab and Scout Impact R&D. Interested parties are invited to get in touch at to collaborate or to become pilot partners.

    View post:
    OpenSurface land-use tracking platform launches at COP25 - Daily Planet`

    China’s Belt and Road Initiative Threatens to Pave the Planet – Sierra Magazine - December 16, 2019 by admin

    IN 1965, AS A MONSOON LASHED the Malaysian island where Tengku Azam's family had lived for more than a half century, his grandfather led them across a lagoon and through a swampy forest to drier ground inland. The tree canopy was thick, and when the family settled about a mile away from their slowly eroding island, they named their new home Dark Landing.

    Tengku, who was 17 at the time, had spent his childhood learning about the marine life that swirled around Dark Landing's mangroves and nipa palms. When he retired from fishing as he neared 70, he set up a school to educate local fishermen's children about the same clams, fish, and painted terrapins at which he had once marveled in the lagoon, the ones that had adapted over centuries to its brackish waters. "It's my responsibility to make sure our fishing heritage is protected," Tengku, who has the agility of a man half his age, told me recently on his front porch. (In Malaysia, as in China, names are typically rendered surname first.)

    Wetlands in Malaysia's Setiu District

    Tengku's ethic of stewardship also spurred him to convince the authorities in his native state of Terengganu to formally protect part of the local wetlands. The result was Setiu Wetlands State Park, which was established in 2018 near the lagoon and the adjacent South China Sea. It is about the size of New York's Central Park and includes both the island where Tengku was born and the mangrove forest through which his grandfather once led the family to Dark Landing.

    The park is a small part of what scientists say may be the most ecologically interesting complex of wetlands in Malaysiaone that has faced severe environmental threats for much of Tengku's adulthood. For decades, the Setiu District has experienced a steady encroachment of palm-oil plantations and sand-mining operations as well as upstream logging in the highlands that lie inland from the swamp. All that development has created profits for Malaysian conglomerates and jobs for local workers but has strained the hydrological systems that regulate the delicate balance of fresh and salty water in Setiu's lagoon and estuaries. It has also fueled erosion, both in upstream forests and along a wide sandbar that separates the lagoon from the sea.

    The Belt and Road Initiative is so enormous that its impacts could erode the gains that China and other countries have made in recent years in fighting climate change.

    Now comes a new threat: a 400-mile, cross-country railroad financed by the Chinese government that is scheduled to cut through Setiu. Biologists say that the railroad would likely disrupt the waters that flow from the mountains into the lagoonin the process potentially pushing the wetlands toward their ecological breaking point. Changes in salinity could kill freshwater flora and fauna, they say, while the reduced water flow could exacerbate erosion on the sandbar, allowing the South China Sea to overwhelm the lagoon.

    The multibillion-dollar project, known as the East Coast Rail Link, is one of many that fall within China's Belt and Road Initiative, a colonial-style endeavor that links infrastructure loans with geostrategic diplomacy. The BRI is part of China's larger effort to project its own institutions as alternatives to the Western-led order represented by the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund. Some see the initiative as a 21st-century riposte to the Marshall Plan, the postWorld War II American campaign to finance infrastructure and maintain a US military presence in parts of Europe that were not under Soviet control.

    The BRI is deeply rooted in Chinese politics. Since the 1990s, China's economic boom has been driven in part by state-financed investments in domestic infrastructure. Chinese engineers have built the world's largest high-speed rail network, with over 15,000 miles of dedicated track completed since 2008. But as the Chinese economy slows, and as Beijing and Washington square off in a bitter trade war, China's ruling Communist Party is pursuing overseas infrastructure projects as a way to keep domestic business churning.

    Tengku Azam is a retired fisherman who spearheaded the effort to create Setiu Wetlands State Park.

    It would be difficult to overestimate the BRI's scale. The project, which launched in 2013, could end up involving as many as 125 countries and costing $8 trillion by 2049. Top Chinese officials have described it as a vast network of roads, rail lines, and maritime shipping routes that will radiate outward from China's land and sea borders like a spiderweb. It will eventually include oil and gas pipelines in Myanmar, Russia, and Kazakhstan; highways in Pakistan; a railroad in Kenya; hydropower dams in Cameroon and Zambia; and dozens of other projects across Asia, Africa, and Europe.

    The Belt and Road Initiative is so enormous that its impacts could erode the gains that China and other countries have made in recent years in fighting climate change and other pressing environmental problems. China has significantly tightened its domestic environmental laws since the 1990s, and it says that the BRI will hew to the same rules. Yet many Chinese companies apply weaker environmental standards abroad than they do at home, and many conservation experts are skeptical about Beijing's assurances. William Laurance, an authority on the BRI at James Cook University in Australia, wrote that the project is part of a global "tsunami" of infrastructure development that is mostly driven by China. He warns that it threatens to "open a Pandora's box of environmental crises, including large-scale deforestation, habitat fragmentation, wildlife poaching, water pollution, and greenhouse gas emissions."

    CHINA'S RISE is the geopolitical story of the 21st century; its infrastructure plans outline the ambitions of a nascent superpower. The Belt and Road Initiative is also a signature of the age of Xi Jinping, the country's most powerful leader since Mao Zedong. He launched it the year after coming to power and has called it the "project of the century."

    Amaleea Hayu, a Malaysian shop owner, supports the rail project.

    The BRI is designed to speed the movement of goods to and from China while boosting investments by state-affiliated companies in steel plants, coal-fired power stations, and other markers of Beijing's expanding industrial footprint. China also plans to diversify its energy sources and reduce its need to move oil through geopolitical hot spots like the Persian Gulf and the South China Sea.

    Malaysia's East Coast Rail Link, scheduled for completion in 2026, fits perfectly into China's larger plans. It will connect two parts of Malaysia that don't have much in commonthe cosmopolitan west and the conservative eastand allow cargo to move from the capital, Kuala Lumpur, toward Kuantan, an eastern port city on the South China Sea. From there, the railroad will head north up the rural east coast, passing Setiu, and end at Malaysia's border with Thailandbut not before stopping at a billion-dollar industrial park in Kuantan that opened in 2017 and is dominated by Chinese companies.

    When protected areas are bisected by infrastructure projects, they tend to be vulnerable to secondary threats like poaching and illegal logging.

    When China invests in so-called frontier economies like Malaysia's, the parameters of its infrastructure projects are often fixed once they have been financed and approved, said Alex Lechner, a landscape ecologist at the University of Nottingham's Malaysia campus who studies the BRI. "Millions of dollars have been invested, and the environment becomes an obstacle to be overcome," he told me. That may be true for Setiu, where the railroad company's Chinese contractor has already built a giant factory in the swamp. Even Tengku has not been told where the tracks will goor whether the contractor plans to do environmental mitigation in the area.

    When protected areas are bisected by infrastructure projects, they tend to be vulnerable to secondary threats like poaching and illegal logging.

    Setiu sits along a coastline flanked by tin-roofed homes, wooden fishing boats, and the spires of village mosques. When I visited last summer, the coastal scenes reminded me not of western Malaysia but of rural places I had visited in poorer Southeast Asian countries like Cambodia and Myanmar. The area felt worlds away from Kuala Lumpur's garish high-rises and shopping malls.

    Development has already impacted river flows.

    A few rail sections were already under construction south of Setiu, mostly in and around the peatlands that run north and south along Malaysia's east coast. It was tempting to think that some of the railroad's obvious economic upsidesconstruction jobs, tourists from Kuala Lumpurwould outweigh its environmental risks. What was the harm in draining a swamp or two?

    This is essentially the view of the Malaysian government and the consultancy that it paid to study the railroad's likely environmental impacts. A 138-page summary of a 2017 environmental impact assessment of the railroad's initial route talks at length about how the design would mitigate the fragmentation of forests and wildlife habitats. The word "peat" appears just three times; "swampy" once; "wetland" not at all.

    But peatlands, which occur across a vast area of Malaysia, are more complex than they look. The term peatlands refers to both surface wetlands and the porous soil beneath, which forms from dead, waterlogged plants. Because peatlands store groundwater and regulate a wetland's salinity, some scientists liken them to kidneys. The environmental impacts can be substantial when they are drained.

    In recent decades, developers across Malaysia have converted peatlands into palm-oil plantations, aquaculture farms, and industrial zones, while logging companies have destabilized upstream watersheds by clearcutting virgin forests. "Per hectare of land, you create more money and jobs than leaving it as a wetland," Edlic Sathiamurthy, a paleohydrologist who studies the watersheds of Malaysia's east coast, told me. "That's always the justification."

    Palm oil may have earned Malaysian tycoons billions of dollars, but the peatland conversion process has been linked to severe environmental problems, including land-clearing fires that spew carbon dioxide into the atmosphere and flash flooding triggered by groundwater drainage. Edlic told me that while the East Coast Rail Link might only graze Malaysia's Central Forest Spinea network of protected areas known for their exceptional biodiversitymuch of it would be built in and around peatlands.

    The Kuantan Industrial Park is dominated by Chinese companies.

    Setiu is particularly vulnerable to the railroad's impacts, Edlic said, because it has a unique topography: peatlands, estuaries, mangroves, and a lagoon with high biological diversity, all jammed onto a narrow plain between the coast and a mountain range. The railroad could disrupt the area's delicate ecological balance to a point of no returneffectively destroying the habitats that once transfixed a young Tengku. "This is a very highly erodible environment," Edlic told me. "Once it gets eroded, we're not talking in terms of years. We're talking in terms of months."

    OFFICIALS IN BEIJING SOMETIMES describe the Belt and Road Initiative as a modern variation on the ancient Silk Roadthe trade routes that linked merchants from imperial China to the outside world. The BRI will embody the "Silk Road Spirit," the Chinese government said in a 2015 mission statement. "Reflecting the common ideals and pursuit of human societies," it said, "it is a positive endeavor to seek new models of international cooperation and global governance, and will inject new positive energy into world peace and development."

    Or perhaps not. Many economists and development experts say that China is essentially offering cheap infrastructure loans to poorer countries as a type of political coercion. One glaring example is a Sri Lankan port that a state-owned Chinese firm plowed money into despite clear signs that the local government could never afford it. China recently took over the portwhich happens to be strategically placed near India, a geopolitical rivalas debt collateral. The move prompted criticism that Beijing was engaging in a textbook example of "debt-trap diplomacy."

    President Xi has denied that the BRI is a vehicle for political coercion or the expansion of the Chinese influence. "The Belt and Road Initiative is an economic cooperation initiative, not a geopolitical or military alliance," he said last year. "It is an open and inclusive process and not about creating exclusive circles or a China club." But whatever one thinks of China's ambitions, one thing is clear: The BRI's giant industrial footprint will be so vast that the environmental costs are bound to be huge.

    Evaluating the environmental merits of BRI projects is tricky because many of them are shrouded in secrecy, propaganda, and endless bureaucracy. President Xi has said that he is committed to pursuing BRI projects that support "green, low-carbon, circular, and sustainable" development. Yet while China has made strides recently to flatten its greenhouse gas emissions, some climate experts fear that the BRI's sheer size will inevitably boost resource extraction and fossil fuel consumption. For example, the BRI will intensify dependence on fossil fuels by facilitating the shipment of oil and gas and financing the construction of new coal-fired power plants. Such concerns are especially acute in Southeast Asia, a region with exceptional biodiversity, a growing population, and plans to build hundreds of coal-fired power plants by 2030.

    Only locals are permitted to fish in Setiu Wetlands State Park.

    Biologists worry that BRI projects will cut through rainforests, peat swamps, and other ecologically sensitive areasa thousand Setiuswithout much consultation with local residents or environmental experts. Road and rail projects around the world have already severely impacted ecologically sensitive areas, and a raft of new BRI projects may push local ecosystems beyond their tipping points, seven environmental scientists wrote recently in the journal Nature Sustainability.

    Not every BRI road and railroad will belch coal or destroy pristine rainforests, of course. Yet a recent study in Conservation Biology found that proposed BRI road and rail routes would overlap with biodiversity hot spots for over 4,138 animal and 7,371 plant species across Asia and Africa. That's a problem, because when protected areas are bisected by infrastructure projects, they tend to be vulnerable to secondary threats like poaching and illegal logging.

    "A lot of environmental scientists feel like we're at this crossroads," Lechner, the landscape ecologist, told me. "We've got climate change that's out of control and biodiversity loss and land-use change, and in Southeast Asia we have oil palmthere are all these critical things all happening at this critical moment in time. And sometimes you think, 'Do we really need BRI to be adding to that?'"

    The risks for environmental harm are particularly rife in countries with high levels of biodiversity and low standards of public transparency. Malaysia is among the most biodiverse places on Earth, and its political elites are almost cartoonishly corruptfor example, Najib Razak, the former prime minister, who first approved the East Coast Rail Link. Months after losing the 2018 election, Najib was charged in connection with a graft scheme in which about $4.5 billion was pilfered from his own government. A witness later testified that Najib had offered the East Coast Rail Link (worth about $16 billion at the time) to Chinese investors as a way to make his other debt problems disappear.

    SETIU'S UNIQUE GEOLOGY has been forming since the South China Sea retreated thousands of years ago, leaving lagoons behind as if they were puddles after a rainstorm. Today, the place is an ecological gem: a series of nine interconnected ecosystems spanning sea, beach, mudflat, lagoon, estuary, river, islands, coastal forest, and mangrove forest. Scientific papers speak of Setiu in almost reverent terms. Tengku told me that when he asked the royal family in Terengganu to declare some land near the lagoon a protected area, they agreed almost immediately.

    Setiu Wetlands State Park covers about 2 percent of the area's total wetlands and sits within walking distance of Tengku's home in Dark Landing. On a scorching summer day, Tengku walked me through the park, our cheeks brushing the edges of nipa palms. After about 15 minutes, we emerged at the brackish lagoon where he fished for more than a half century.

    Tengku told me that he'd always been fascinated by the interdependence of Setiu's ecosystems. The lagoon is a mix of freshwater from the mountains and saltwater that enters through an inlet. Over the centuries, complex communities of fish, turtles, and mollusks have developed routines calibrated to the lagoon's salinity. "If the salinity here changes, the fish won't survive," he said.

    As Tengku spoke, one of his neighbors, Panoha Nawi, waded through the water carrying a sack of clams that he had harvested from the lagoon's muddy bottom. He planned to sell his catch in a nearby town for about $12. One condition of the state park's designation was that only local fishers would be allowed to go clamming within the preserve, and Panoha said that the measure had clearly boosted the harvests. "Before, there was too much competition," he said.

    Shovel Ready

    The Chinese government plans to remodel the globe's architecture. Here's a snapshot.

    $50 billionAmount China has already spent on BRI-related energy projects

    $1.3 trillionAmount China may invest in Belt and Road countries by 2027

    $8 trillionMinimum estimated cost of the BRI by 2049

    105,711 milesLength of proposed BRI roads based on current plans

    46,876 milesLength of the US interstate highway system

    49,989 milesLength of proposed BRI rail lines based on current plans

    140,000 milesLength of the US freight rail network

    28,278,527Tons of cement it would take to build the proposed BRI rail lines

    15%Cement productions current share of Chinas CO2 emissions

    46,876 milesLength of the US interstate highway system

    91,222Estimated number of protected areas that may be affected by BRI projects

    265Estimated number of threatened, endangered, or critically endangered species in planned BRI corridors

    Tengku said that if the state park was an example of how the area's delicate ecology could be successfully conserved, everything else that was happening in and around Setiuaquaculture, sand mining, palm-oil cultivationunderscored the threats to its future. Investors may have spent money on those activities to turn a profit, he added. "But they didn't really see into the future."

    The next day, Tengku took me to see the threats. Our first stop was the shores of the South China Sea, where a local sand-mining company had built an export pier. From a distance, and through the early-morning haze, the sand-loading site looked innocuous. But the company, Terengganu Silica, has said that it can load 800 tons of sand per hour. Tengku said he worried where all that sand would come from.

    From the beach, we drove a few miles inland, to a jetty on the lagoon where a fishing boat had just come in from the sea. As a heavy rain started, Tengku stood under an open-air shelter watching the fishermen unload their catch. A storm had forced them to come in early, and their haularound 44 poundswas about a quarter of what it might have been on a big day.

    Ibnur Sirien, a 22-year-old fisherman on the boat, said that most of his friends had already migrated to Malaysian cities as laborers; he had stayed behind partly because his father owns the boat. Echoing a scientific consensus, Ibnur told me that the South China Sea fishery has been steadily declining in recent years. "But there's not much other work here," he said.

    Our next stop was farther inland. Tengku stopped his 4x4 truck at a bridge that crossed a stream, then clambered down a bank and stood, shin deep, in the current. The stream once ran several feet higher and much cleaner at this time of year. But a few years ago, he said, a company cut the local cashew trees and replaced them with a palm-oil plantation, lowering the surface-water flow and quality. And because the stream emptied into the lagoon, the impacts were felt miles away. "The pollution here affects the whole ecosystem," he said.

    Surface-water pollution isn't the only consideration. Hydrologists study "base flow," a measure of how much water seeps into a stream or river from below. It's a wonky term, and one that isn't mentioned in the environmental report on the East Coast Rail Link. But base flow matters in a place like Setiu because groundwater beneath peatlands helps to maintain surface-water salinity. And, as Tengku said, fish don't like changes in their habitat.

    Edlic, the paleohydrologist, told me that because Setiu sits on a narrow coastal plain, the railroad will have to pass through it one way or another. The key question, he said, is whether the developer will pay to elevate the train tracks on stilts that extend to bedrock. The cheaper option would be to build directly on the peatlands, further impeding the base flow that moves freshwater from the mountains into Tengku's favorite lagoon. "It all depends on how they actually do the construction," Edlic said.

    POWERFUL CIVILIZATIONSRome and Persia and ancient China itselfhave always built roads and other infrastructure as a way to bolster their traders and militaries. One of history's biggest infrastructure builders has been the United States, which has projected its geopolitical agenda through its controlling stakes in the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund, which finance road, rail, and hydropower projects across the developing world.

    Shovel Ready

    The Chinese government plans to remodel the globe's architecture. Here's a snapshot.

    China's Belt and Road Initiative appeals to countries that are spooked by President Trump's insular "America First" vision and believe Beijing's investments will help guarantee their long-term security and prosperity. Malaysia, for one, has long been an important US ally in Southeast Asia, but it also has strategic reasons to get along with China. It has a large ethnic Chinese population and a prime position on the South China Sea, where Beijing is building military bases on artificial islands.

    China has said that Malaysia is strategically located along the "Maritime Silk Road," and the East Coast Rail Link is among the largest infrastructure projects in the BRI catalog. In the run-up to Malaysia's 2018 election, Najib Razak's challenger, Mahathir Mohamad, tied Najib to the rail project to paint him as a pro-China lackey. But after Mahathir won, he decided to renegotiate the project instead of canceling it. He later said that the rail link would go ahead, for about two-thirds of the earlier price, partly because the $5 billion penalty for canceling it would be too expensive for a country with massive debts.

    Mahathir's announcement included a silver lining for environmentalists: The East Coast Rail Link's revised route would mostly avoid crossing Malaysia's Central Forest Spine. But because Mahathir's government did not release its exact plans, some environmental groups continued to worry. I.S. Shanmugaraj, the executive director of the Malaysian Nature Society, told me last summer that many scientists and environmental groups remained in the dark about the project's scope.

    The project's developer, Malaysia's state-owned rail operator, engaged the same outside consulting firm that studied the original route's environmental impacts in 2017. But Shanmugaraj told me that the firm was hardly impartial. "If the consultant is tied to the developer," he asked, "even though it's selected by the government and they are licensed, at the end of the day, who's the paymaster?"

    (A spokesman for the firm, ERE Consulting Group, told me that he could not comment without prior approval from Malaysia Rail Link, which did not respond to an emailed request for comment. The project's principal contractor, China Communications Construction Company, also did not respond to an email. None of the three agreed to give Sierra a copy of any project documents.)

    Some observers wonder if Malaysia, which is groaning under the weight of debts, really needs a new railroad. They note that an existing passenger rail line, which was built by British colonial authorities in the early 20th century, already connects Kuala Lumpur to the rural northeast.

    Others, however, are eager for the new rail connection. On my trip along Malaysia's east coast, I met several people who welcomed the project. One was Amaleea Hayu, who runs a tie-dye shop in Cherating, a beach town known for its surf breaks. We spoke on a summer morning at a seaside restaurant that served coffee with roti canai, Indian-style bread with curry. It was the off-season, and business was slow. She said that a train stop in Cherating could be the perfect catalyst for attracting tourists from Kuala Lumpur. "It sounds great," she said.

    Even Lee Chean Chung, a state legislator who has been a vocal critic of the environmental impacts of mining and logging concessions, was guardedly optimistic. Lee told me that he supported the plan because it would bring jobs and trade to Kuantan, where his constituents live. He noted that Kuantan's industrial park, built largely through Chinese investment, is a major part of the region's economic-development agenda.

    "But the thing is, on the east coast, environmental concerns are generally lower," Lee told me over lunch in Kuantan. He added that while Chinese manufacturers and logging firms operating in eastern Malaysia had grown less "reckless" over the years, the local authorities still have a deplorable record when it comes to policing illegal logging and industrial pollution. "How can you make sure, when this megaproject is conducted, that you have enough people to do the checking to make sure they do not encroach onto forestlands? Or, if there is precious timber to be taken away, how do you make sure they will not try something funny?" he asked. "They are exploiting our regulations to their advantage."

    BACK IN SETIU, Tengku drove farther into the wetlands and parked his truck beside a blue factory the size of an airplane hangar. The marquee read "China Communications Construction Company." Beside photos of a bridge across China's Yangtze River, a sign said "Connecting lives. Accelerating growth."

    Tengku, hands on his hips, walked the building's perimeter warily, as if looking for a way inside. Near one corner, he found a Malaysian worker in jeans and sneakers, who explained that the building was a fabrication plant for making railroad equipment. The man, who declined to give his name, said that about half the workers were local and the other halfmostly managers and engineerswere from China.

    The worker was loading engine oil and coolant into a generator, but only after he had wedged his truck into a ditch and tossed a hose over the factory's fence. He said it was an awkward and needlessly dangerous setup. Tengku asked why it had to be that way, and the man replied that the contractor had apparently built the walls and entrances of this factory without fully thinking through the logistics.

    "They're just trying to cut costs," he said.

    This article appeared in the January/February 2020 edition with the headline "The Train and the Swamp."

    China's Belt and Road Initiative Threatens to Pave the Planet - Sierra Magazine

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