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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

January 4, 2002

Air Date: January 4, 2002


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Afghan Opium

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The opium poppy has traditionally been Afghanistan? main cash crop and chief employer, in a land ravaged by war, drought and poverty. With the fall of the Taliban, some say poppy production may experience a renaissance under the new interim government. Host Diane Toomey talks with Alfred McCoy, professor of history at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, about the state of the poppy in the new Afghanistan. (08:00)

Bird Watch 9/11 / Brent Runyon

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Commentator Brent Runyon explains how watching the interaction between birds helped explain what happened on September 11th. (02:50)

Business Update / Jennifer Chu

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Living on Earth's Jennifer Chu reports on an effort in Germany to recycle the country's old Deutsche marks, as the new year ushers in a new currency. (01:15)

Almanac: Burning of the Clavie

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This week, facts about the annual burning of the clavie. Every 11th of January, a fiery ritual marks a second New Year? celebration in the little town of Burghead, Scotland. (01:30)

Bio-Piracy / Tatiana Schreiber

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The Mexican state of Chiapas contains an abundance of medicinal plants used by the indigenous healers in the region. A few years ago, an American scientist working there began a project to search for drugs based on these plants, as well as preserve traditional knowledge and provide income to local communities. But some local people accused the project of bio-piracy and the project was cancelled. Tatiana Schreiber reports on what went wrong. (13:00)

SUV Tickets

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It? hard enough to find parking in New York City, but a group of environmental activists is making it even harder for sport utility vehicles. They?e handing out tickets, albeit fake, to SUV owners. Host Diane Toomey talks with Carrie McLaren, editor of Stay Free! Magazine and head of this ticket-tagging team. (03:00)

Health Note / Cynthia Graber

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Living on Earth? Cynthia Graber reports on the development of a mechanical leech that could replace the real leeches used in post-surgical healing. (01:20)

Blue Frontier

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Host Diane Toomey talks with David Helvarg, author of the book "Blue Frontier: Saving America? Living Seas," about the collapse of fish stocks along America? coastlines. (06:30)

Longwall Mining / Ann Murray

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Longwall mining is a high tech coal extraction technique that accounts for almost half of U.S. underground coal production. But, in highly residential southwestern Pennsylvania, longwall mining is causing damage to property, people? health, and the environment. Ann Murray reports. (10:00)

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Show Credits and Funders

This Week's Music

Show Transcript

HOST: Diane Toomey
REPORTERS: Tatiana Shreiber, Ann Murray
GUESTS: Alfred McCoy, Carrie McLaren, David Helvarg
UPDATES: Jennifer Chu, Cynthia Graber


TOOMEY: From National Public Radio, this is Living on Earth. I'm Diane Toomey. Afghanistan is a country in ruins, but there's one crop that's always done a booming business. This week, we look at opium and its role in the future of the Afghan economy. And in the hills of southwestern Pennsylvania, coal companies and property owners square off over a controversial law that allows mining underneath homes and businesses.

HOFFMAN: We don't divide this coal up at the end of the day and take it home in our lunch buckets; we sent it in by railroad car to power plants who make electricity that you and I use.

FILAPELLI: I don't know of any other industry that's allowed to come in and totally destroy your house and then think it's okay just because they pay you. I just don't think that an industry has a right to do that.

TOOMEY: Those stories, and why parking your SUV in the Park Slope section of Brooklyn, New York, may get you a ticket. It's Living on Earth, right after this.


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Afghan Opium

TOOMEY: This is Living on Earth. I'm Diane Toomey, sitting in for Steve Curwood. In the war in Afghanistan, the soldiers, tanks and headquarters of the Taliban and Al Qaeda forces have been the primary targets of American bombs. But U.S. pilots were also given secondary targets--laboratories suspected of processing opium. For decades, Afghanistan's number one cash crop has been the opium generating poppy, and that nation is the world's largest source of opium and heroin. Now that Afghanistan is under new leadership, its drug trade is under new scrutiny.

Alfred McCoy is a professor of history at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and an expert in the worldwide heroin trade. Professor McCoy, welcome to Living on Earth.

McCOY: Thank you, Diane.

TOOMEY: Throughout its regime, the Taliban has wavered back and forth on its approval of opium production. Tell us about the history of the Taliban and opium.

McCOY: Sure. By 1990, after ten years of the covert war against the Soviet Union, Afghanistan's opium production had gone from about 250 tons in 1980 to 2,500 tons by 1990 and 1991. That's a tenfold increase, very substantial. And then, the crop bounced up and down until the Taliban took power in 1996. In their three years in power they doubled the country's opium crop to a record harvest of 4,600 tons in 1999. That was enough to account for 75% of the world's heroin supply.

And what the Taliban did was they engaged in this kind of oblique dialogue with the United Nations, and basically what they would do is say, "Give us international recognition; give us this seat in the United Nations. Take it away from the Northern Alliance and we will ban opium." And in July of 2000, the head of the Taliban, Mullah Omar, made, what looks like, a calculated gamble. He issued an edict which banned all opium production, so that the country's opium production crashed from 4,600 tons in 1999 to only 180 tons in this year. That was a phenomenal decline. And then, a few weeks after Mullah Omar issued this ban in July 2000, he sent a top level delegation of his diplomats to the United Nations in New York and they attacked the Northern Alliance as a bunch of drug dealers--which, by the way, they are--and they asked for the seat. Well, of course, the whole of the United Nations and all of its complexities, has had problems with the Taliban, like women for example, and they didn't get the seat, and they went back disgruntled.

And so, in September of this year, just nine days before the World Trade Tower bombing, the Voice of Shariat, the Taliban's radio station, announced to farmers that they could replant. So, between the Taliban revoking the ban or rescinding the ban and then their total collapse, their loss of control by November, farmers have been free to replant, just in time for the spring harvest.

TOOMEY: Professor, should I read anything more into that timing of the rescinding of the ban than simply they felt rebuffed and decided that they weren't going to get recognition and why not start replanting?

McCOY: If you read The New York Times, for example, R.W. Apple, Jr., wrote a column a couple of weeks ago speculating why did the Taliban fall apart so quickly? This was a mystery that military analysts can't explain. They expected these were tough fighters that beat the Soviet Red Army; why did they just collapse? And one explanation was, "Oh, we hit their communications," or "Our bombs were more effective." Well, that's a military explanation, and that's part of it. But I suspect that when we look back on the fall of the Taliban, it won't be October 7th, 2001, the start of U.S. bombing, that was critical. I think what we may see is that July 28th, 2000, Mullah Omar's edict banning opium, may turn out to have been more critical.

Here's a whole society that had dedicated its prime land, much of its water, most of its labor, all of its merchant capital to the production of one crop, and the whole society, such as it was surviving, was surviving from that crop: opium. And then they destroyed it, they really destroyed it, and they plunged the society into poverty, in the midst of a horrible, devastating drought, the worst drought in the past century. And so the society collapsed, leaving a hollow shell with a military shield around it. And when our bombs fell, that shield shattered and the whole thing fell apart.

TOOMEY: Now that the Northern Alliance is in power, are farmers now free to plant poppies?

McCOY: I think they're free to plant poppy, but I think commanders who were pushed out of power by the Taliban are now coming back into power, and they're the ones that controlled the traffic beyond the farm gate. And so they're going to be ordering peasants to plant; they're going to be imposing a tax on the drugs. After the Taliban issued their opium ban in July of last year, the Northern Alliance regions, particularly Badakshan province, was the source of 83 percent of Afghanistan's opium production. And the Northern Alliance have long been major protectors of heroin smuggling.

Many of the local commanders whom we're now working with rounding up the Taliban and are pursuing the caves in Tora Bora, many of those figures are major drug lords. And, particularly around Tora Bora, they're the ones that control the heroin labs.

TOOMEY: In your opinion, Professor McCoy, what is the U.S. government going to do about Afghanistan's opium production, and what have they said publicly, at this point?

McCOY: I expect that the international agencies and the United States are going to be inadequate in dealing with the problem. Look, when we talk about rebuilding agriculture around the globe, what we talk about is really rebuilding annual field crops. We're willing to stick around for a year or two to get farmers back on their feet, to help them get in one, two, maybe three crops. But putting back field crops is not the question. It's really rebuilding the flocks and, most importantly, replanting the orchards. It's a ten year rebuilding effort, and I just don't think the United States or the international community has the staying power. But, the drug lords are there, and they'll be there tomorrow.

TOOMEY: Where does this leave the poverty-stricken people of Afghanistan?

McCOY: Well, actually, the studies we have, and they're quite extensive, by the United Nations during the 1990s, showed that the Afghan opium industry operated within the context of Afghani civil society with almost no violence. That's to say, farmers put their crops in the field. They got crop loans from merchants. They delivered their crops. They kept their contracts. The merchants then traded with each other, exported it across the border. Merchants traveled about the country carrying substantial amounts of money in a society that was incredibly violent and riven with civil war, and there was no violence.

TOOMEY: Why is the drug trade in Afghanistan carried out in such a gentlemanly fashion?

McCOY: Because it's rational. It's carried out apart from the politics. It's run by the merchants and the farmers. It does not involve the commanders and the clan leaders, the warlords. They collect the tax from the merchants. They collect a tax, sometimes, from the farmers. But they don't involve themselves in the actual production. So, this is one part of the society that's separated from the country's tremendously problematic politics. This is one of the things that Afghan society does well. For the ordinary people of Afghanistan opium is, for the time being, an effective solution. Look, it takes lots of labor, okay? The country is short of employment. It takes much less water than conventional field crops, and water is in scarce supply. Landless laborers can get jobs. It solves all of the country's problems, for the time being. It's perverse in its genius, but nonetheless, it's a genius.

TOOMEY: Alfred McCoy is professor of history at the University of Wisconsin, and author of the book "The Politics of Heroin: CIA Complicity in the Global Drug Trade." Professor, thanks for joining me today.

McCOY: Diane, thank you very much.

TOOMEY: A U.S. State Department spokeswoman denied Professor McCoy's allegation that the U.S. is turning a blind eye to opium production in Afghanistan. She told Living on Earth that one of the U.S. government's key priorities in the wake of the Taliban collapse is to put an end to the production and trafficking of opium in Afghanistan. She says the U.S. hopes to work with the interim government there to establish alternative cash crops and other economic development programs.


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Bird Watch 9/11

RUNYON: On the afternoon of September 11th I took a break from the TV and walked to the edge of the little pond I live on on Cape Cod.

TOOMEY: Brent Runyon is a writer who lives in Woods Hole, Massachusetts.

RUNYON: All day I'd been hearing fighter jets taking off from the air force base nearby, and at the shoreline, I saw a pair of them streak across the horizon. The jets moved so fast that the roar of their engines didn't reach me until they were almost out of sight. And as the sound faded, I noticed a bunch of birds circling overhead. There was a single large bird, a hawk, I thought, and a bunch of smaller, non-hawk birds, circling and squawking around it. Okay, I'm not exactly a world-class ornithologist. I imagined that the hawk had attacked one of the non-hawks and the non-hawks had come together to chase the big guy away. And that's exactly what they did, after a fifteen minute battle in the sky.

I thought, God, that's perfect. That's a perfect metaphor. Those little birds going after the big one, man, that's just like us and those jets going after the terrorists. I thought about that for a few minutes, about how perfect it was, and then I changed my mind and decided that we weren't the little birds, we were the hawk. I thought, that hawk is on the run right now, but you'd better believe that hawk is coming back, and he's going to get those pesky little non-hawks. I switch back and forth for a while, trying to figure out who was who and what was going to happen, and then went back inside to watch more TV.

A few weeks later, a friend told me a story which helped clear this whole thing up. Every morning, she walks her son to school and watches from the hallway as the teacher leans over and "smells" each one of the children. She assumed the smelling ritual was just another of the many weird New Age things that goes on at her son's school. Well, when she asked her son about it, he said that the ritual had nothing to do with smelling. That every morning, the teacher leans down and whispers in one kid's ear, "You're a hawk." And to the rest he whispers, "You're a pigeon." In the afternoon, they play a game in which all the children sit in a circle and stare at each other. The pigeons try to figure out who among them is the hawk, while the hawk surreptitiously winks at the pigeons, killing them off, one by one.

And that's what got me thinking again about that September day at the pond. I think that it's hard to figure out who's who. Sometimes we're hawks, sometimes we're pigeons, and sometimes we're an angry swarm of non-hawks. And that whatever we think we are, everything can change, in a moment.

TOOMEY: Brent Runyon is a writer, and fledgling birdwatcher, who lives in Woods Hole, Massachusetts.

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Business Update

TOOMEY: Coming up, how activists scuttle plans for a major biological prospecting project in Chiapas, Mexico. First, this Environmental Business Note from Jennifer Chu.

CHU: It's 2002 and that means it's in with the new and out with the old. And, in Europe, it's in with the euro and out with the francs, the deutsche mark, the guilder and the lira. Twelve member states of the European Union are circulating the new euro dollars and coins, lots of coins. What to do with all those old Austrian shillings, Irish pounds and Spanish pesetas being traded in is still up in the air. The German government expects up to 130,000 tons of old coins to be returned in Germany alone, and it's selling them to the German firm Norddeutsche Affinerie, Europe's largest copper producer. Norddeutsche Affinerie recently started recycling Germany's old deutsche mark, using the copper to mint the distinctive outer band of the new euro coins. The company is also bidding on similar coin recycling contracts in the 11 other participating European nations. Right now, Sweden, Denmark and Great Britain are holding on to their current currencies. When the transition is over the total number of coins expected to be returned in Europe will top 100 billion. That's this week's Business Note, I'm Jennifer Chu.

TOOMEY: And you're listening to Living on Earth.


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Almanac: Burning of the Clavie


TOOMEY: It's Living on Earth. I'm Diane Toomey. While most folks have put away their New Year's hats and streamers until next year, people who live in a town in Northern Scotland have found a way to keep the party going, just one more night. Every 11th of January, residents of Burghead, Scotland heartily celebrate the Burning of the Clavie. The tradition dates back to a few centuries before the birth of Christ, when Pict people, the earlier settlers of the area, inhabited the fishing village on the North Sea. At this coldest and darkest time of the year, the Picts thought it a good idea to liven things up a bit by carrying an enormous torch around town. The torch is called the clavie and it's made from a large whisky barrel that's split in half. One half is filled with sticks and tar; the other serves as a base. Legend has it the two halves of the barrel represent the old and the new years coming together, and that the fire burns away the past year's sins.

A town resident is appointed the Clavie King and is given the task of lighting the barrel from a local hearth. He and nine helpers carry the clavie clockwise around town and up to the ruins of an ancient Pictish fort, where more fire is added and the clavie burns until it falls apart. People snatch up the embers for good luck, and the coals are sometimes sent to relatives who've moved away.

The clavie ritual used to be held on the first day of the new year, but in the 1750s the Scottish calendar went from Julian to Gregorian and New Year's was moved up 11 days. While other parts of Scotland rioted over losing the time, the people of Burghead decided to make the best of it and simply have two New Year's celebrations. And for this week, that's the Living on Earth Almanac.


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TOOMEY: The Mexican state of Chiapas is one of the most biologically diverse places in the world, thanks, in part, to the many medicinal plants used by the indigenous people there. A few years ago, an American scientist working in the region launched a bio-prospecting project to search for drugs based on these plants. The effort was also designed to preserve traditional knowledge and generate income for local people. But opponents called the project "bio-piracy" and it generated so much controversy it had to be cancelled. Supporters say the product's demise is a loss, both for science and the local community. Tatiana Schreiber has our report.


SCHREIBER: Don Antonio Perez Mendez is a short man with a big grin. He always has a smile as he tends to customers at the small herbal medicine store of an indigenous healer's group in San Cristobal de las Casas, in the highlands of Chiapas. A customer asks if it's safe for a pregnant woman to take this cough syrup.

Photo: Tatiana SchreiberDon Antonio Pe'req Perez, President of COMPITCH,
Council of of Organizations of Traditional Healers
and Midwives of Chiapas.
(Photo: Tatiana Schreiber)


SCHREIBER: The shop, in a poor neighborhood on the outskirts of town, is threadbare. There's a two burner gas stove for preparing herbal syrups, tinctures and salves, one long table for packaging and labeling medicines, and several tall wooden cabinets containing drawer after drawer of dried local plants.


SCHREIBER: An older man, a woman and a small boy sit on the concrete floor of a room just off the store, packaging a mixture of dried herbs from a big pile in front of them. They say this combination of plants is good for calming the nerves and helping you sleep. Along with Don Antonio, they're members of Omiech, a group of indigenous healers and midwives from this part of Chiapas. Don Antonio says one of their goals is to pass on their knowledge about the Mayan system of medicine to the next generation.


VOICEOVER: Because our first parents, our grandparents, great grandparents, great-great grandparents transmitted this, they used six kinds of medicines, which they cured with candles, with incense, with alcohol, with animals, with stones and with plants. This is how it was from the beginning, before the Spanish. For this reason, the knowledge that we are rescuing and promoting has been known from the beginning.

SCHREIBER: Don Antonio says the Mayan medical system is a holistic one that uses not only the six kinds of treatments, but also prayer, taking the pulse to diagnose illness, and eating or not eating certain foods. It's the complexities of the whole system that need to be passed on, but most agree there's great danger of this knowledge being lost.

BERLIN: The real enemy to the conservation of traditional knowledge, and to its promotion, are the younger generations of the societies with whom we're working.

SCHREIBER: Dr. Brent Berlin is an ethnobiologist and anthropologist who studied Mayan medicinal plants in Chiapas for the past four decades.

BERLIN: The traditional knowledge is not in vogue, and they've learned the lesson well. That to be a member of modern society, first thing you would like to do is to treat that knowledge, the traditional knowledge, as garbage, and to get down to the pharmacy as quickly as you can to buy all that good stuff that the West has laid on us.

SCHREIBER: To counter that notion, Berlin conceived of a project that would promote the use of local herbal medicine. He says a critical part of the effort would have been a comprehensive survey of plant species in the region.

BERLIN: First of all, we'd know what was here in a way that we don't know at the moment. And on the basis of that knowledge be able to say, "Okay, as far as I can tell, of the 5,000 species of the region, these species are documented only in this little small crevice, or this little small valley of such and such. That region is a region for serious ecological conservation efforts."

Photo: Tatiana SchreiberActivists denounce biopiracy at the First Conference
for Biological and Cultural Diversity in June, 2001, Chiapas, Mexico.
(Photo: Tatiana Schreiber)

SCHREIBER: The project received a grant from the International Cooperative Biodiversity Group, or ICBG, a U.S. government effort. The money was to have funded ongoing research into medicinal plants and their uses, as well as bio-prospecting--that's the search for potential pharmaceuticals, often involving private drug companies. Conservation and community development were also part of the plan. Project partners included a U.S. and a Mexican university, as well as an organization, not yet established, that was to represent the Mayan peoples. A fourth partner was a European company that would carry out any drug development to come out of the research. But when news of private industry participation and the possibility of patents reached the indigenous healers organizations, they were worried.

At the herbal medicine shop Don Antonio stirs a mixture of plants simmering in a big metal pot.


VOICEOVER: What will happen later with our children, grandchildren, about using our plants? If they patent, it means that someone else would own it... this person....So we began to prepare ourselves. We organized to stop the project.

SCHREIBER: The indigenous healers called it "biopirateria," bio-piracy. Carlos Gomez is a Chol Indian who works with Don Antonio at the shop.


VOICEOVER: Our conception of the world is that, for us, all knowledge developed by Indian peoples we take as owners, but in a collective form, not an individual form. That's why we reject the patents on life, because we consider it as life. Why? Because it's what gives us life, no? Medicine, then, is part of us. It gives us life.

SCHREIBER: Supporters of the ICBG project acknowledge that this idea of collective ownership of knowledge and resources is a challenge to existing patent law. But they say if the project had moved forward, they could have negotiated this complex terrain in a way that would have benefited the Mayan Indians. Supporters also claim that the healers' groups were unduly influenced by non-indigenous Mexican advisors, and they say international anti-globalization groups also played a role. The bio-prospecting project epitomized two of these activist rallying points. They're opposed to all patents on life, and they fear the concentration of profits in the hands of large corporations.


SCHREIBER: At this meeting, which was organized by several traditional healers' groups with the help of outside advisors, Indian participants are learning about bio-prospecting and patenting.


SCHREIBER: The question of whether one can patent an entire plant is complicated. Mexican patent law prohibits it but U.S. and European patent laws do not, so, in fact, whole plants have been patented, making their use by others subject to fines. But these patents are currently in dispute. Other complexities, left out of the workshop, include the idea that to be patented something must be new, never before isolated, or it must be used in a novel way. And the workshop doesn't mention proposals in the ICBG scheme that would have allowed the indigenous groups to veto any proposed patent. Critics of the project point out, though, that in its procedures for obtaining informed consent from the indigenous communities the word "patent" was never even mentioned, something Dr. Berlin admits.

BERLIN: No, we have not presented a notion about what a patent is, no, we have not. I'm not certain how that would be done, and I know that our detractors have not thought about how it would be done. In such a way as that I can sit down with Dona Maria--okay, you guys have talked about what patents are, and she can tell me what a patent is.
This is a very difficult thing for all of us to do.

SCHREIBER: What researchers did do was visit each community and present a short theatre piece in that town's indigenous language in which they talked about the remote chance of any profits ensuing from the research.

BERLIN: No one has ever claimed that it is the only and best way to do it. I can make the claim that we have gone further than any other bio-prospecting project in history in trying to outline what it is that we're doing, why we're doing it, and what are the potential benefits and dangers in doing it.

SCHREIBER: Berlin went back to the drawing board and tried to come up with a new proposal that would focus on defining informed consent. What must it include? How wide a community of people must be involved?


SCHREIBER: Dr. Berlin is fluid in Tzeltal, the Mayan language spoken in the highland community of Oxchuc. He's handing out copies of a new book to people who helped start botanical gardens that were part of the ICBG project. The book's a compendium of local traditional medical practices and its author is Elois Ann Berlin, a medical anthropologist and Berlin's spouse and research partner. Both Berlins are tall and white, standing several heads above their Tzeltal colleagues. Brent Berlin says the project's detractors were quick to latch onto the idea of gringo North Americans once again plundering indigenous knowledge, but not all local indigenous people were opposed to the project.


Sylviano Encino is one of the Indians from Oxchuc that worked with Dr. Berlin. Over coffee at the local institute where Berlin works, Encino says his group supports patenting.


VOICEOVER: Because we know that if there were plants from which a patentable medicine comes from, who will be happy? Both of us are happy. Why? Because, in the long term, we need a better future. It's a social benefit for us. It's a social help. Well, economically speaking, it's what we want.

SCHREIBER: Encino says his group was already benefitting from the documentation and exchange of traditional knowledge between communities, part of the initial stage at the ICBG project. But opponents say as long as indigenous rights to control their natural resources are in question, and as long as privatization of what had been public knowledge is part of the package, they're against any bio-prospecting project in Mexico.


SCHREIBER: At the Museum of Mayan Medicine, in San Cristobal, prayers that are an essential part of the Mayan health system play over a loudspeaker. Agripino Bautista, a guide at the museum, says opponents of the Chiapas bio-prospecting project aren't opposed to sharing their knowledge, or even to the commercialization of their product.


VOICEOVER: We are in favor of it, but we are against domination and the way that others impose their own ideology so that we can't compete. We want to express our own opinion and have it respected like they want to be respected. Well, they should also respect us.

SCHREIBER: For now, the ICBG Maya project is off the table. Although Berlin's new proposal was approved, the Mexican college involved in the project recently announced the complete cancellation of the effort, saying the political climate is too contentious to allow it to go forward.

Joshua Rosenthal is with the National Institutes of Health where the ICBG projects are coordinated. He says the agency never anticipated the degree of controversy the project would generate.

ROSENTHAL: Over time, the drumbeat of the accusations were primarily what people heard, and the complexities of multi-party public/private research-based enterprises are really too hard to communicate in soundbites, in any language, to anybody.

SCHREIBER: Rosenthal and other participants in the ICBG Maya project say its loss shuts down not only important scientific research, but discussion about how to pursue bio-prospecting ethically. Opponents are claiming a victory for indigenous people who want to develop their own agendas for both conserving the biological richness of Chiapas and developing its economic potential. For Living on Earth, I'm Tatiana Schreiber.

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SUV Tickets

TOOMEY: You're listening to NPR's Living on Earth. SUV owners in the Park Slope section of Brooklyn, New York, now have a nemesis besides the meter maid. Recently, a patrol of eight people have started ticketing SUV's there for, well, just being SUV's. The tickets aren't real but their message is. Carrie McLaren, publisher
of "Stay Free" magazine and head of this ticketing team, joins me now from her office in Brooklyn. Ms. McLaren, welcome to Living on Earth.

McLAREN: Hi, thanks, it's good to be here.

TOOMEY: Ms. McLaren, tell me how this works. You first put up fake "No SUV" parking signs in your neighborhood, right?

McLAREN: Exactly.

TOOMEY: And then what happened?

McLAREN: Well, then, after we put up the signs we went around and put a ticket on every SUV that was in those areas.

TOOMEY: Were there a lot of SUV's?

McLAREN: There were a lot more than we had expected. We made a little over 600 tickets and we ran out, so we didn't even get to finish the neighborhood that we were planning on ticketing.

TOOMEY: What were some of the violations that you printed on your fake tickets?

McLAREN: We had things like "Increasing U.S. Reliance on Foreign Oil," "Conspicuous Consumption," "Endangering Other Drivers," that sort of thing.

TOOMEY: What are some of the penalties for these violations that you've come up with?

McLAREN: We put things like, you know, "You have to go green for your next car"; "You have to use your SUV for car pools only, and donate money to environmental causes." Those were the ones we circled.

TOOMEY: The tickets looked quite real, didn't they?

McLAREN: Yeah. The look of them looked exactly like the New York parking ticket, but we tried to make it as clear as possible on the text that it was a joke and that they didn't owe any money or have to send anything in. It was just a little activist message that we were trying to get out.

TOOMEY: And did your neighbors take it in the light-hearted jovial way you meant it?

McLAREN: Well, no. And I was actually a little surprised at how mad--I mean, we expected people to get mad, but I didn't expect the people get as mad as they did. I mean, we put a Web address on the tickets for where people could leave some feedback, so we had some SUV drivers post things. Someone called us "terrorists." Someone wrote, in a sort of New York dialect, where he said, "If you toucha my car, I breaka your face.

TOOMEY: Ms. McLaren, how did you come up with this idea?

McLAREN: I was reading in the newspapers about how people have become just more interested in buying SUV's after 9/11, and it struck me because one of the problems is our reliance on foreign oil, and SUV's are big gas guzzlers. And the patriotic response is to be more conservative with the fuel that they use, so that we aren't so reliant on these other countries. And after I had read about this I was walking around my neighborhood and noticed on a couple of streets that SUV's were pretty much almost bumper-to-bumper. I said, "Oh, it would be great to put a "No SUV" parking sign there. Our streets would be empty."

TOOMEY: Carey McLaren is publisher of "Stay Free" magazine and lives in Brooklyn, New York. Thanks for joining us today.

McLAREN: Thank you.

Related link:

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Health Note


TOOMEY: Just ahead, how high-tech underground coal mining is shaking the very foundations of some southwestern Pennsylvania homes and businesses. First, this Environmental Health Note, from Cynthia Graber.

GRABER: Throughout history leeches have had a role to play in medicine. These bloodsucking creatures have been used to treat everything from stomachaches to gout, and recently, scientists discovered that leeches can help keep blood flowing after certain surgical procedures. When tissue is moved from place to place, as in limb or finger reattachment, leeches can keep new blood flowing to the site until the veins have time to grow back. They also release an anti-coagulant that keeps blood moving even after the leech is removed. Today, leech therapy is used in hospitals across the nation, but not without some complications. Leeches aren't perfectly sterile, and of course there's the "ick" factor for the patients who may not want leeches attached to their bodies and for doctors and nurses who may not be crazy about applying leeches.

So scientists at the University of Wisconsin have developed a mechanical leech. It performs the same tasks. Gentle suction keeps blood flowing to the site and a slow release of an anti-coagulant prevents blood clots. The device can also reach deeper into the tissue than real leeches and help treat a larger area of the body. But scientists and doctors say the biggest benefit is that they'll no longer have to stick leeches onto their patients. The researchers have applied for a patent and are now working out the final details of the robo-leech, such as making sure it doesn't suck out too much blood as it does its work. That's this week's Health Note. I'm Cynthia Graber.

TOOMEY: And you're listening to Living on Earth.


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Blue Frontier

TOOMEY: It's Living on Earth; I'm Diane Toomey. There are plenty of fish in the sea, or so the old saying goes. But according to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization, more than 70 percent of the world's major marine fisheries are overfished. A recent study in the journal Science found that overfishing was to blame for the collapse of marine ecosystems in many parts of the world, even more than climate change or pollution.

David Helvarg has been talking with fishermen, fishery managers and scientists. The result of those conversations is a book called "Blue Frontier: Saving America's Living Seas." And its chapter on overfishing begins with a view of the catch at New York's Fulton Fish Market.

HELVARG (READING): I look around as we walk into the market. The streets are full of hardworking men and freshly killed fish-boxes, crates, handtrucks, and forklifts full of fish and half the guys carrying wooden handled metal hooks over their shoulders or in loops by their hips. We pass some Australian yellowtail, some octopus and live crabs, sea urchin roe and skate wings, catfish and grunts, whiting and butterfish. Still, the Fulton Fish Market is tiny, compared to others, like Tokyo's Tsukiji. What they all have in common is globalization, the creation of a world market for anything indigenous to the sea. The urchin caught in California, Maine, or Alaska one morning could have its gonads removed and served in a Tokyo nightspot the next evening. A white abalone from California could be the centerpiece of a 450 dollar dinner in Hong Kong, which is why there are only about 2,000 of this extinction-bound species of sea snail left in the ocean. Giant geoduck clams caught in Puget Sound have been smuggled into Canada for shipment to Asia, just as polluted black clams have been smuggled from Mexico into the United States for sale in East L.A. Things from the ocean once considered useless or inedible, like baby eels, skates, dogfish, horseshoe crabs, and sea urchins all now have their market.
TOOMEY: So globalization is to blame for depleted fish stocks?

HELVARG: It's really a combination of markets and technology. It's kind of like the western frontier, where for a hundred years we were out their shooting buffalo. But between 1860 and 1880, you had this coming together of technology and marketing, of the Sharp's repeating rifle and the railheads and the rails that could bring the skins back to eastern markets. Today we have this technology in our fisheries inherited from the military, from the Navy, including sonar and satellite tracking of the fish, stronger engines and nylon for netting, and we're able to target the fish and we're able to market them globally. And that combination is deadly. Basically, we've over-capitalized our fisheries, where we have more capacity for catching the fish than the fish are able to reproduce. And that's why you see the decline.

TOOMEY: Paint a picture for me of how serious the problem is, of depleted fish stocks.

HELVARG: Literally, we're taking so much biological capital out of the sea. I use the analogy with aircraft carriers-we have twelve aircraft carriers in the world today, but every year we take the equivalent in weight of 900 aircraft carriers out of the sea. That's 90 million tons of living bio-mass and it simply can't be sustained. We know what the problems are, but we're not addressing them. Part of the problem is that we created a system here in the United States, within our own 200-mile-zone, where in 1976 we kicked out the factory trawlers that were from overseas, foreign trawlers. And as one fisherman said to me, "With great American ingenuity we've learned to rape the resource better than the foreigners ever did." And at a certain point, the catching capacity simply crashed the resource and that's what we're left with today.

TOOMEY: So, what are the solutions for overfishing?

HELVARG: Well, there are so many acronyms in fisheries that I thought I'd get into it. So, I actually came up with what I call "The Blueplate Special."


HELVARG: The "B" is for "buybacks." We literally have too much gear in the water and we have to make a federal commitment, a state commitment, to buying back some of the fishing boats that are out there.

The "L" is for "limited entry." Once we reduce the size of the fleet we have to limit the people who are out there fishing. We can't allow more fishing power than the fish's ability to reproduce and sustain themselves.

The "U" is for "underwater reserves." Scientists are seriously talking that we need twenty percent of our blue frontier as no-take zones: areas where fish reproduce and propagate and can come back to some of the historic abundance that they've had in the past.

And along with the underwater reserves we mostly need what I call "E"--an "end to the conflict of interest." We've built a system of fishery management with built-in conflict of interest, where industry is telling industry how much it can do, and that doesn't work.
But I think if we combine those different tools that are out there, it's possible that we can have healthy fisheries for many generations down. I mean, I'm a body surfer and a diver. You know, I just think a lot of us feel a spiritual connection to the ocean. And getting so much out of it, we've got to give something back; we've got to give some of our time and our political energy.

TOOMEY: David, do you eat fish?

HELVARG: Yeah. And they're sustainable fish I eat and sometimes, in a guilty moment, I might take a shrimp, but I prefer some of the fish that are being well-harvested, like salmon, like striped bass.

TOOMEY: So, if you return to the Fulton Fish Market in 10 or 20 twenty years time, what do you expect to see?

HELVARG: I really don't know. I expect and I hope with my book to build a political constituency to protect our oceans. If that happens, then we ought to have fish there. We ought to have a bounty of fish; and it ought not to be tuna from Ecuador and Vietnam, or mussels from New Zealand. It ought to be our own fish. We ought to be eating locally and sustainably. I think it's possible, but it won't happen with the system we have now, the system of fisheries mismanagement. If it keeps going the way it's going now, with the seals guarding the salmon pens, then we're going to lose it. And there won't be fish there and we'll all be eating out of aquacultural factory farmed fish. But it's really up to us; we're on the cutting edge right now. And at one level, I consider it very lucky. It's not every nation that gets a second chance on a new frontier like this.

TOOMEY: David Helvarg is author of the book "Blue Frontier: Saving America's Living Seas." Thanks for speaking with us today.

HELVARG: Thank you, Diane.

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Longwall Mining

TOOMEY: One way to extract coal from the earth is a high-tech mining practice called longwall mining. Longwall mining operations take large blocks of coal from deep underground mines, and they account for nearly half of all U.S. underground coal production, mostly in the East and Midwest. In the past decade, the state of Pennsylvania revised its laws to allow longwall mining underneath private property. As Ann Murray reports, some residents say the practice is ruining their homes and businesses.


MURRAY: In a gravel lot beside the Greene County Humane Society, Jane Gapen crouches next to a row of plastic animal carriers. The shelter's longtime director is counting noses.


MURRAY: This morning, these dogs are heading to foster homes, but the fate of the Humane Society's remaining animals is far from certain. The shelter, the only one in this hilly mining community, is closing after a very turbulent year. Last January, RAG Emerald Resources extracted the coal buried 40 stories beneath the small red brick building. The shelter sank nearly two feet within a week. The cats and small dogs were moved to a house owned by RAG, but the big dogs had to stay. Gapen walks inside the kennel, ventilated by large electric fans, to point out the damage.

Photo: Courtesy of Jane GapenJane Gapen stands in front of walls
shored up with wooden planks at the
Humane Society of Greene County.
(Photo: Courtesy of Jane Gapen)

GAPEN: You can see the wet floor. This morning they disinfected this room, and, when they do, the water rushes back here. And so-

MURRAY: Because it's-

GAPEN: Because the building is tilted up. Over there, where you see all the wood, that's there because the wall was caving in. It's shoring the wall up.

MURRAY: The most recent crisis, says Gapen, has made it impossible to keep the shelter open.

GAPEN: The rats ate the inside of our furnaces down here, so we're unable to heat. It's just not conducive for adoptions, obviously. Folks don't come to adopt anymore.

MURRAY: Gapen acknowledges the Humane Society and RAG have come to an agreement. A new shelter will be built next spring, but she says she's far from satisfied.

GAPEN: By Pennsylvania law, they do have to replace, or give you the funds to replace, the building that they destroy. They destroyed also my business, my adoption, my abuse work, my education programs. We've lost hundreds of animals because of their work, and they can never do anything to replace that.

MURRAY: Surface damage has become a hot button issue for scores of people in Southwestern Pennsylvania. Just south of Pittsburgh, 40 percent of Greene County is above active longwall mines, as is 20 percent of neighboring Washington County. Together, the two counties produce the largest quantity of longwalled coal in the United States. Ten other states have longwall mines, mostly in sparsely populated rural areas, but states such as Ohio, West Virginia and Illinois are tackling some of the same issues as Pennsylvania.

The high extraction technique used by longwall operations allows them to compete with highly productive surface mines. Underground coal operators favor longwall mining. It's safer, more efficient and, so, more profitable than traditional deep mines, because fewer miners are needed and more coal is extracted.


MURRAY: At RAG's Emerald Mine, a high speed elevator takes miners deep underground.

BRYJA: We just dropped 650 feet from the surface to the Pittsburgh Number Eight Seam Coal level.

MURRAY: Jim Bryja is Emerald's mine manager. He's eager to show off the technology that keeps over 3,000 people employed by area mines.


MURRAY: Bryja walks through a passageway, to a loading area for rail mounted trams. The trams move workers and equipment through tunnels called entries.

BRYJA: This is the openings; this is three parallel entries that delineate our longwall block.


MURRAY: Bryja hops from the tram and approaches the brightly lit worksite. A two million dollar track-mounted shear travels back and forth across the width of a massive block of coal.

BRYJA: This is the actual coal cutting machine. As you can see, it's cutting a path of coal approximately six and a half feet high by three and a half feet deep.

MURRAY: The process looks a lot like meat being sliced in a deli. The shaved coal falls onto a conveyor. As the shearing machine advances, hydraulic ceiling supports lower and move with the shear. The overlying soil and rock shift and collapse safely behind the supports. This sequence happens over and over until all of the coal has been cut from the block. Blocks or panels can be as wide as three football fields and over two miles long. Because so much coal is removed, the surface above the panel will quickly sink, sometimes up to four or five feet. The mining industry calls this immediate surface drop "planned subsidence."

Tom Hoffman is spokesman for Consol Energy, the country's largest longwall operator. He says when it comes to mine subsidence, the best surprise is no surprise.

HOFFMAN: We know subsidence is going to occur right away, and the coal company that extracts that coal is responsible immediately to compensate for the damage that occurs.

MURRAY: A 1994 law, called Act 54, brought Pennsylvania in line with federal mining regulations. Act 54 requires coal companies to repair or pay for structural and water supply damage in mined areas. It also removed a state restriction on undermining houses built before 1966, making it legal to extract coal under all homes. Consol's Tom Hoffman applauds Pennsylvania's current deep mining law as both restorative and fair.

HOFFMAN: There's ample evidence out there to suggest that what's happening here is really a proper compromise. We don't divide this coal up at the end of the day and take it home in our lunch buckets. We send it by railroad car to power plants who make electricity that you and I use.

FILAPELLI: I don't know of any other industry that's allowed to come in and totally destroy your house and then think it's okay just because they pay you. I just don't think that an industry has a right to do that, an inherent right.

MURRAY: Mimi Filapelli runs the Tristate Citizens Mining Network, a grassroots educational group that supports communities impacted by mining. She believes the longwall industry benefits from Pennsylvania's deep mining law, and, for many residents whose homes have been damaged, compensation comes at a high price.

FILAPELLI: Going to lots of meetings and public hearings, we're always running into folks who've had a lot of stress. One of our member's husband has been having mini-strokes. We've had other people who have gotten to the point where they felt nearly suicidal over the stress that they've lived through.

MURRAY: Since 1984, 650 homes in Greene and Washington counties have been undermined. For various structural and geological reasons, some buildings have gone virtually unscathed, and others have been damaged or destroyed. Consol's Tom Hoffman insists the industry is sympathetic to the plight of property owners.

HOFFMAN: We try to take into account as we mine the understandable concerns and emotions that people have about this. But we're not really in a position to say, "But we're simply not going to extract our resources."

MURRAY: As longwall mines continue to extract coal from bigger and bigger panels, not only homes and buildings have been impacted. Reports of groundwater damage have increased. Wells have gone dry. Springs have relocated. And streams have drained. The U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service blames long wall mining for the loss of springs connected to 38 dry area streams. Agency biologist Ed Perry say subsidence may be affecting the local fish population.

PERRY: If the longwall mining subsides a stream, what happens is it interferes with the ability of the stream to move sediment through that reach. Instead of sediment being carried further downstream, down to the major rivers and ultimately out to the ocean, the sediment starts to collect in the stream channel, and only fish that can tolerate a lot of sediment do well in these conditions.

MURRAY: According to a recent state study, one in four families living above area mines is without permanent drinking water. Under state law, coal companies now have up to three years to restore or replace damaged water supplies.

LEVDANSKY: Clearly, when we passed the law seven, eight years ago, we did not anticipate all of the environmental and property owner impacts. It's time to amend Act 54. Again, not to ban the use of longwall mines, but to recognize that they have had impacts that nobody considered when we passed the law.

MURRAY: Representative Dave Levdansky is one of 29 state legislators who's co-sponsoring the Coal Community's Fairness Act, a package of amendments intended to make Pennsylvania's deep mining law more protective of water supplies, roads, groundwater and buildings. Although the proposed bill doesn't call for a ban on longwalling, Levdansky says it's going to be an uphill battle, against the mining union
and industry, to get the act into law.

LEVDANSKY: The UMWA, as well as the coal companies, are opposed to the legislation. Those are powerful political blocks, obviously. But we've got to start the debate somewhere.

MURRAY: Levdansky expects months of political sparring in this ongoing attempt to define the rights of coal companies and the people who live and work above their mines. For Living on Earth, I'm Ann Murray, in Greene County, Pennsylvania.

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TOOMEY: And for this week, that's Living on Earth. Next week: Four years ago, an ice storm swept through northern New York state and New England and up into Canada. On its way, it felled trees and froze utility poles and left thousands without power for weeks. But one town had something to gain after losing electricity.

MAN: The ice storm really revealed to us a vibrant network of community ties that I think most people had thought maybe had withered away. But it was still there, and it was energized, as the power grid became de-energized.

TOOMEY: The grid, the village, and the ice storm, next time, on Living on Earth.


TOOMEY: We leave you this week with an example of how a small sound can make a big splash. Off the cast of New South Wales, Australia, Rik Rue got his microphone really, really close to those tiny little wavelets found in tidal pools. He took the sounds, did some editing and some mixing and came up with a composition called "Ocean Flows."


TOOMEY: Living on Earth is produced by the World Media Foundation, in cooperation with Harvard University. Our production staff includes Anna Solomon-Greenbaum, Cynthia Graber, Maggie Villiger, Jennifer Chu, and Gernot Wagner, along with Peter Shaw, Leah Brown, Susan Shepherd, Carly Ferguson and Milisa Mu駃z. Special thanks to Ernie Silver.

We had help this week from Jessica Penney. Allison Dean composed our themes. Environmental sound art, courtesy of Earth Ear. Our technical director is Dennis Foley. Liz Lempert is our western editor, Eileen Bolinsky is our senior editor, and Chris Ballman is the senior producer of Living on Earth. Steve Curwood returns next week. I'm Diane Toomey. Thanks for listening.

ANNOUNCER: Funding for Living on Earth comes from the World Media Foundation Environmental Information Fund. Major contributors include the William and Flora Hewlitt Foundation, for coverage of western issues; the National Science Foundation, supporting environmental education; and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, supporting the Living on Earth Network, Living on Earth's expanded Internet service.

ANNOUNCER: This is NPR, National Public Radio.


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