Peter Sainsbury’s Environment Report: Rewilding the USA’s west and saving the Amazon’s headwaters

Aug 27, 2022
Image: iStock

Wolves and beavers could recreate the wild West. Indigenous communities fight for the Amazon’s sacred headwaters. Is your battery killing mine workers?

Rewilding the Wild West

A group of twenty ecologists and environmentalists has made an evidence-based case for rewilding two keystone species, the gray wolf and the beaver, in a network of reserves across eleven US states bordering the Rockies and the West Coast. Both were widely distributed across the West until the arrival of Europeans. Since then, wolf numbers have dropped from the tens of thousands to about 3,500 and their range has shrunk to about 15% of what it was. Beaver populations are less than 10% of 200 years ago.

Rewilding aims to re-establish vital ecological processes and involves removing troublesome non-native species and restoring essential native species. Through its activities, a keystone species helps to create and maintain an entire ecosystem. It is not easily replaced by another species and so without it the ecosystem would be very different or disappear entirely.

Wolves are apex predators and by keeping the numbers of herbivores under control they have profound effects on ecologies and landscapes. Even just the threat of a wolf attack keeps herbivores wary and on the move. The effects of the reintroduction of wolves on ecologies has been clearly demonstrated in Yellowstone National Park.

Beavers fell trees and shrubs to build dams that create wetlands which enrich habitats for many animal and plant species, increase water and sediment retention, maintain water flows during droughts, provide fire breaks and increase carbon sequestration.

The rewilding report identified eleven areas of contiguous, federally managed lands of at least 5,000 km2 that are, or were, core habitat for wolves. Within these areas, they identified 92 endangered animal and plant species and the threats to them, for instance grazing, logging, mining and oil and gas drilling. Livestock grazing, ubiquitous on federal lands, has enormous impacts on streams and wetlands, the regeneration of trees and fire regimes, and as well as being a significant source of methane emissions can also turn carbon sinks into carbon sources.

The plan for rewilding the reserve network involves: 1) removing livestock, 2) protecting and re-establishing gray wolf populations, and after some woody vegetation has been restored along streams, 3) reintroducing beavers into suitable habitats. The authors recognise the need for the participation of ranchers, Indigenous peoples, recreational groups and government departments in the planning and management of the reserves, that compensation must be provided to farmers who lose their grazing permits, and that plans will be needed for dealing with wolves and beavers that, how dare they!, move out of the reserve network.

‘Although our proposal may at first blush appear controversial or even quixotic, we believe that ultra ambitious action is required. We are in an unprecedented period of converging crises in the American West. Our plan represents a historic opportunity to rewild significant portions of the American West that could serve as an inspiring model for other regions and would ensure our natural heritage remains intact for future generations.’

I don’t know much about this sort of thing but I suspect that apart from the dingo, Australia’s major apex predators are marine animals such as saltwater crocodiles and sharks which are very regrettably threatened because we love to hate them so.

Amazon Sacred Headwaters Initiative

‘Indigenous peoples do not talk about conserving nature, we talk about respecting nature because we see her as our family, we see her as the mother, we see her as our home.’

José Gregorio Díaz Mirabal, Coordinating Body of the Indigenous Organizations of the Amazon Basin.

Water from the Andes of Ecuador and Peru form the headwaters of the Amazon River. The headwaters are the home to more than 30 indigenous nationalities and to dense forests and diverse ecosystems. They are also the site of a ‘modernizing logic’ of deforestation and extraction of oil and minerals for short term profit for a few. The Amazon Sacred Headwaters Initiative (ASHI), an alliance of indigenous nations of the bioregion and their allies, proposes an alternative to this modernising logic, one that seeks to ‘“ecologize” our economies, our political structures and our modes of ethical behaviour’.

The ASHI vision is that ‘The Amazon Sacred Headwaters is permanently protected and restored as a living bioregion, inspired by indigenous peoples’ forest stewardship visions and practices.’ The extremely detailed and comprehensive Bioregional Plan identifies six critical issues: extractivism, deforestation, social inequality and impoverishment, territorial demands and lack of governance and planning, loss of ancestral knowledge and cultural and educational weakening, and the critical condition of health and sanitation. The plan’s very detailed strategies, actions and targets seek to:

  • Strengthen the Amazonian wellbeing: improve the living conditions of Amazonian populations while maintaining biodiversity and cultural vitality.
  • Ensure indigenous self-determination and territorial governance.
  • Stop the advance of extractive industries: permanently protecting the Sacred Headwaters as off-limits to extractive industries.
  • Promote forest and river conservation and restoration.
  • Eliminate forest loss and ecosystem destruction: promote a prosperous economy based on activities that regenerate forests.

‘It is time for the work that indigenous peoples have done to be recognized. Our rights remain invisible, as do the viable solutions that are rooted in our own management models, validated by science as the only way to avoid the continued agony and destruction of the Amazon that we’ve known. This agony is in every felled tree and indigenous relative who is killed while defending his or her home.’ José Gregorio Díaz Mirabal again.

Clean nickel is a myth

Indonesia produces a third of the world’s nickel. Nickel is an essential component of lithium-ion batteries, currently the best option for EVs, storage of rooftop solar energy, etc. Companies such as Tesla are crying out for more nickel, for more nickel mines. But mining nickel destroys the local environment. It removes the local vegetation, pollutes the rivers and seas, creates landslides that destroy villages and kill villagers, and generates enormous amounts of dust. Working conditions in the mines are often extremely dangerous with many on-site deaths every year.

‘From Dreams to Dust’

This 10-minute, award-winning film features Lapola, an Indonesian fisherman who turned to driving a truck in a nickel mine for the added income. Lapola and his young family live in a previously picturesque coastal community that has been destroyed by open-pit mines. His wife lost her first husband in an accident while driving a truck at the mine.

Fracking associated with childhood leukaemia

Fracking is certainly a blight on the countryside. The hundreds of chemicals that are pumped underground to crack the rocks and release the natural gas frequently pollute aquafers and surface water. Fracking undoubtedly creates a stink. And it unequivocally produces lots of greenhouse gases. But it’s been less clear whether living near fracking wells actually harms human health, even though many of the chemicals used are known or suspected to cause cancer.

A new study from Pennsylvania has found that, compared with matched children who haven’t been exposed to fracking, children who lived close to fracking sites while their mothers were pregnant and up to a year before being diagnosed have a 2-3-fold increased incidence of acute lymphoblastic leukaemia (ALL). This is the commonest form of childhood leukaemia and is responsible for about 25% of all childhood cancers. The increased incidence of ALL was greatest in pregnant mothers and children living within 2 km of fracking wells and progressively decreased at distances of 5 km and 10 km.

The peak incidence of ALL is in 2-4 year olds, suggesting that environmental toxins may be responsible for some of the cases by causing genetic mutations that accumulate and cause the cancer. The researchers suggest that their results are consistent with this hypothesis in a two-step process. First, exposure to toxic chemicals while the child is in utero causes mutations that predispose the child to the later development of ALL. Second, further exposure in the child’s early years causes more mutations that lead to the actual development of the leukaemia. The research also suggests that exposure may occur through both the air and the water supplies.

To halt global warming fracking needs to stop but these results suggest that while it is still happening more consideration needs to be given to the buffer zone that should be established between fracking sites and private residences, schools and childcare centres.

Make your garden a habitat

I’m not completely naïve, I don’t this this is going to solve every environmental crisis the world faces but I still think it looks like a great idea. Woollahra Council is offering a series of three Backyard Habitat Workshops providing participants with practical tips, inspiration and even free plants to help ‘graduates’ create a native garden to benefit themselves and the local wildlife. The first workshop focuses on attracting birds, bees and butterflies, the second on the elements of a good habitat for local species and the third is visit to some local habitat projects. I assume that other local councils have similar initiatives.

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