IWC Talks Marred by Conflict

Talks deteriorated Thursday at the 63rd Annual Meeting of the International Whaling Commission (IWC) in Jersey between pro-whaling nations and those advocating for whale conservation. 

Tension between opposing parties culminated with the push for a vote on the creation of a whaling sanctuary in the southern Atlantic oceanic basin. 

Representatives from pro-whaling nations – Japan, Iceland, and other Caribbean and African countries – walked out of the discussion.

Although they returned before the close of the last day’s meetings, an agreement was not reached on the issue, and the vote will be postponed until next year. 

“The turmoil on the last day of the talks underscored the discord between nations that oppose hunting whales and whaling nations led by Japan,” reported The Associated Press

Several environmental groups along with IWC delegates from the U.S. have spoken out in frustration over a lack of progress made at the meeting. 

“As long as we choose to continue fighting, all of the IWC’s members will lose; and the world’s whales deserve better,” said U.S. delegate Monica Medina

In particular, discussions regarding conservation issues and the health of the world’s cetaceans made no headway. 

Notably unaddressed were major points of concern for whale conservationist states.  U.S.  delegates hoped to discuss a range of topics, from ocean debris and destructive noise pollution to whale collisions with ships.

“Acrimony is often the enemy of conservation – in this case, it meant that a critical meeting on whales failed to address the greatest threats they face,” Wendy Elliott, head of the WWF’s delegation told BBC News. 

“Several whale and dolphin species are in crisis – teetering on the brink of extinction – and conservation must be front and foremost at next year’s IWC meeting, for the sake of the whales and the commission.”

Despite a bitter ending note, the commission did reach a few agreements earlier in the meeting. 

In response to allegations of “cash for votes,” the commission agreed to make some fiscal reforms.  
Japan was previously accused of paying for developing nations’ membership dues in exchange for support on certain pro-whaling issues. 

Despite denial by the Japanese, commissioners elected to avoid further scandal by banning future payments in the form of cash or check.  Traceable bank transfers will now be the only accepted forms of payment. 

Additionally, several countries pledged money to support research on smaller, severely threatened whale species. 

Delegates also agreed upon censuring the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society for risky and unsafe policies in their efforts to thwart Japanese whaling ships in Antarctic waters. 

Although commercial whaling was banned in 1986, countries like Japan continue to fund whaling operations under the guise of “scientific research,” despite intense media scrutiny and scandal. 

South American countries led the charge against such pro-whaling nations at the talks, driving hard for a vote on the proposal for a new whale sanctuary. 

As these countries rely upon a healthy whale population to market whale watching for their eco-tourism industry, they are not expected to deviate from their anti-whaling stance. 

Representatives from all countries have been encouraged to compromise over the coming months so that the issue can be put to a vote in 2012 when the IWC reconvenes in Panama. 

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US and World Bank Sign Global Water Collaboration Agreement

In honor of World Water Day on March 22nd, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and World Bank President Robert B. Zoellick signed a memorandum to facilitate collaboration on global water issues. Also in attendance were Jeff Seabright of the Environment and Water Resources branch of Coca-Cola, and Steve Hilton of the Conrad N. Hilton Foundation.

The agreement was developed to address numerous water distribution and sanitation issues which are expected to worsen as the population grows. In light of existing and predicted water shortages around the world, the US and The World Bank outlined a stratagem of cooperation to enhance and stimulate action.

Their target is to mitigate water scarcity due to climate change, drought, flooding, poverty and depletion of natural water resources. Clinton said of the response, “The water crisis is a health crisis, it’s a farming crisis, it’s an economic crisis, it’s a climate crisis, and increasingly, it is a political crisis. And therefore, we must have an equally comprehensive response.”

The delegates plan to utilize any available technologies, including NASA’s remote sensing technologies, to resolve instances of water scarcity. The aid of 19 other US government agencies is also enlisted in the project. The World Bank plans to assimilate the work and technology of these agencies into their current water projects, which distribute $5 billion a year in water related assistance to developing nations.

Technology will support water and weather forecasting which will help communities prepare for droughts, floods, and other weather conditions which might impact the water supply. They will also facilitate hygiene, water access, and water distribution projects while rehabilitating watersheds and wetlands. Improved irrigation is another goal in many regions, as well as increased political and social cooperation in an between nations. According to the US policy website, both parties also hope to pool their financial assets to invest in water and sanitation.

The US is already one of the leading donors to foreign development, and between 2005 and 2009 the US provided $3.4 billion in water-related foreign aid. The US Agency for International Development, or USAID, is a primary stake holder in these endeavors. Currently, USAID has water based projects underway in Indonesia, India, Haiti, Cambodia, and numerous other nations. Another foreign affairs agency, the US Millenium Challenge Corporation, has begun a $275 million operation in Jordan to improve water access and sanitation.

Coca-Cola representative Jeff Seabright also pledged $6 million to the water shortage in Africa. The Coca-Cola Africa Foundation aims specifically enable women in water scarce regions with a program called RAIN: Water for Africa. Many African women in water stressed regions spend a large portion of the day collecting water for cooking and drinking. Rather than attending school, many girls accompany their mothers on the walk to collect water each day. The chore frequently prevents female education and perpetuates poverty, a matter which Coca-Cola is focusing their efforts on.

Steven Hilton also dedicated $50 million to water-related improvements at the commemoration. 

Zoellick stressed the urgency of ensuring a water secure future for people around the world, an issue which The World Bank has grappled with numerous times before. Poverty, disease, and high infant mortality are each linked to problems of water sanitation. “Look at almost any poverty issue- you will find water. A lack of safe water and adequate sanitation is the world’s single largest cause of illness, responsible for two million deaths a year. That’s four people every minute- most of them children,” he explained.

As the population is expected to reach 9 billion in 2050, concern over water distribution and sanitation will need to be met in a swift and productive manner. Donal Steinberg of USAID noted, “Our presence here today reflects a basic truth in the development challenges we face: no single government, international institution, civil society group, or private corporation has a monopoly on good ideas, dedicated commitment, or ground truth,” a guiding principle of the World Water Day commemoration.

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US Endorses UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples

December 17, 2010
On Friday, President Barack Obama announced the United States will endorse the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, lending US support to an effort designed to help repair some of the historical injustices done to indigenous communities throughout the world.  The Obama administration’s decision is a reversal from the former US position, taken in 2007 when President George W. Bush decided not to endorse the declaration.

Though the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples is not a legally binding treaty, it provides clear guidelines that nations concerned about the rights of their indigenous populations should follow.  For example, Article 3 of the declaration states that, “Indigenous peoples have the right to self-determination. By virtue of that right they freely determine their political status and freely pursue their economic, social and cultural development.”  Article 10 of the says, “Indigenous peoples shall not be forcibly removed from their lands or territories,” while Article 20 states, “Indigenous peoples deprived of their means of subsistence and development are entitled to just and fair redress.” 

Other parts of the declaration establish that indigenous communities and individuals should be allowed to maintain their traditional culture, religion, and language, should be guaranteed full economic and political rights, and should be protected from forced assimilation into another culture.  In many respects the declaration represents an acknowledgement by world leaders that indigenous peoples around the world are still being subjected to discrimination and cultural prejudice, and that more is needed from national governments to ensure their rights are fully respected.

The Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples was first adopted by the United Nations in 2007.  At that time only four UN countries declined to endorse the resolution: Canada, Australia, New Zealand, and the United States.  Perhaps not coincidentally, all four of these countries have relatively large populations of indigenous inhabitants, and so are affected by the resolution more than others.  However after at first rejecting the resolution, both New Zealand and Australia decided to grant their endorsements after all.  In April of 2010, President Obama said the US would reconsider its position.  Then in November Canada granted its endorsement, leaving the US the only country not to support the declaration.  Today’s announcement from President Obama means the declaration is universally supported by UN countries.

The announcement has already been hailed by human rights organizations like the American Civil Liberties Union.  It is also welcomed by environmental groups that frequently partner with indigenous communities who want to preserve their traditional way of life.  The Rainforest Action Network (RAN), for instance, has applauded President Obama for reversing the US position.  “This is an enormously important announcement,” said RAN’s Mike Gaworecki in an email to supporters.  “There is now a global consensus that will improve the lives of Indigenous peoples everywhere.”

For years RAN has been working with indigenous communities from Canada to Ecuador who are trying to regain control of their lands and prevent environmentally destructive activity there.  Right now RAN’s Change Chevron campaign is seeking to draw attention to a class-action lawsuit filed by indigenous communities in Ecuador against Chevron Corporation for polluting their land and water.  While drilling for oil in the Ecuadorean Amazon between 1964 and 1990, a company later acquired by Chevron (Texaco) released over eighteen billion gallons of toxic waste into the water supply of local communities. 

RAN points to the Chevron case an example of the kinds of abuses of indigenous rights still going on in the world today.  Though adoption of the Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples doesn’t guarantee an end to destruction of traditional lands, it does provide a framework for governments to follow when dealing with companies like Chevron.  It remains to be seen how countries like the United States will adhere to the guidelines laid out in the declaration, and in doing so bolster protection of the rights of indigenous peoples.

Photo credit: Keith Kristoffer Bacongco

Thanks to Global Treaty, Ozone Layer is Recovering

By: Nick Engelfried

September 17, 2010

With activists and policymakers still struggling to reach agreement on an international treaty to curb global warming, a recent report shows how another major environmental treaty has been successful in averting harm to human health and the planet.  According to a new United Nations report, the Montreal Protocol to reduce the use of ozone-depleting substances seems to have successfully halted the shrinking of the ozone layer, and is now allowing the Earth’s protective shield of ozone to recover.

Though it is considered a harmful pollutant at ground level, ozone in the planet’s upper atmosphere provides necessary protection against the sun’s ultraviolet rays.  During the 1970s and ‘80s, scientists became concerned that chemicals then used as an ingredient for aerosols sprays, refrigerants, and even the manufacture of Styrofoam were eating away at the ozone layer—threatening to increase skin cancer, cataracts, and other human health risks.  Continued damage to the ozone layer would also have stunted the growth of vegetation worldwide, and caused mass die-offs of phytoplankton in the oceans.

In response to the threat, most countries that produced ozone depleting chemicals signed the Montreal Protocol in 1987.  This global treaty was designed to gradually phase out use of substances that harm the ozone layer, and has mostly eliminated ozone depleting chemicals like chlorofluorocarbons.  Though the treaty was strongly opposed by industries which used these compounds, predictions that the Montreal Protocol would significantly damage the economy proved unfounded. 

Meanwhile the treaty has come to be seen as a major victory for planetary health.  This week a team of United Nations scientists released a report that shows the Montreal Protocol is clearly working—though the fact that compounds like chlorofluorocarbons remain in the atmosphere a long time means the impact of eliminating them was not felt immediately.  Scientists now believe the ozone layer has stopped shrinking, and will begin to recover over the course of the next few decades.  The ozone shield in most parts of the world is expected to recover to 1980 levels by about the year 2050. 

In areas like Antarctica, where ozone damage has been particularly severe, the recovery process could take decades longer.  Yet as long as countries stay true to commitments not to use ozone-depleting substances, the Montreal Protocol should allow the entire ozone layer to eventually repair itself.

Could this success serve as a model for a treaty to curb global warming?  Global warming differs from ozone depletion in that greenhouse gases are much more widespread than compounds like chlorofluorocarbons, and fossil fuels are somewhat more complicated to replace than ozone-depleting substances.  However the Montreal Protocol does show that when presented with a large enough threat, countries from around the world can come together to avoid environmental catastrophe.  If major economies eventually forge a treaty to prevent further warming of the planet, they may indeed look to the Montreal Protocol as an example.

Photo credit: NASA Goddard Space Flight Center