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

September 24, 1993

Air Date: September 24, 1993


Carol Browner on Pesticides

Host Steve Curwood talks to EPA Administrator Carol Browner about the Administration's new pesticide plan. The plan would reduce children's risk of exposure to harmful chemicals, and remove some risky pesticides from use entirely. But it could also repeal the Delaney Clause, which requires zero concentration of carcinogens in processed foods, which alarms some critics. (05:06)

Destitution and Deforestation in Nicaragua / Bob Carty

Bob Carty reports from Managua on the alarming depletion of Nicaragua's forests. Unemployed Nicaraguans are chopping trees for farmland and firewood, and cattle ranchers are clearing large areas for grazing. Some scientists say that these activities are unsustainable and will ultimately result in even greater poverty. (08:52)

Rainforest Experts Remembered / Alex van Oss

Alex van Oss remembers two giants in the field of rainforest ecology. Botanist Alwyn Gentry and ornithologist Ted Parker were part of a high-speed survey of rainforest ecosystems called the Rapid Assessment Project. When the two biologists were killed in a plane crash, a huge amount of irreplaceable information vanished with them — but the project, and its race against deforestation, continues. (07:12)

Show Credits and Funders

Show Transcript

Copyright (c) 1993 by World Media Foundation. No portion of this transcript may be copied, sold, or retransmitted without the written authority of World Media Foundation.

HOST: Steve Curwood
REPORTERS: Pye Chamberlayne, Barbara Carriddi, Bob Carty, Alex van Oss
GUEST: Carol Browner

(Theme music intro)

CURWOOD: From National Public Radio, this is Living on Earth.

(Theme music up and under)

CURWOOD: I'm Steve Curwood.

In Nicaragua, years of conflict have left it virtually bankrupt. Many of the unemployed are cutting its forests for firewood and farmland, and the pressure is threatening a fragile rainforest preserve.

BARBORAK: Any effort to colonize this is folly. You're not in any way helping the peasants have a better life. You're doing what I call helping promote sustainable misery.

CURWOOD: Also, a look back at the lives of two exceptional scientists killed in the line of duty while cataloguing South America's forests - botanist Alwyn Gentry and ornithologist Ted Parker.

MITTERMEIER: Ted Parker was the best ornithologist on earth. He had in his brain the vocal repertoires of 4000 bird species, which is unbelievable.

CURWOOD: On Living on Earth right after this news.

Environmental News

NUNLEY: I'm Jan Nunley with this week's environmental news.

Some public lands in the US harbor environmental dangers and pose a massive health and financial threat to Americans. That's according to a report on Interior Department lands by the Senate Government Affairs Committee. From Washington, Pye Chamberlayne has the story.

CHAMBERLAYNE: The report says taxpayers may have to shell out billions to clean up public lands where dangers from chemical poisons, radiation, and military explosives threaten the health and lives of animals and people. It says more than 160 people have died since the Seventies at abandoned mines controlled by Interior. Cattle, sheep and horses have died. Other dangers include tons of radioactive debris, millions of gallons of cyanide, heavy metals and nerve gas toxins, unexploded bombs and artillery shells. The department blames part of the problem on the previous Republican administrations and says it is working on a plan to clean it up. For Living on Earth, this is Pye Chamberlayne in Washington.

NUNLEY: Meanwhile, an internal Department of the Interior report says that the Fish and Wildlife Service is acquiring more wildlife refuges than it can afford to manage. The report by Inspector General Joyce Fleischman says tight budgets have led to maintenance cutbacks at much of the service's 91 million acres, endangering the health of wildlife - and the safety of human visitors. At the same time, the service has continued to buy new land. The Inspector General wants Fish and Wildlife to stop buying land, while it reduces its maintenance backlog. But the service says that would mean that important wildlife habitats could be lost forever.

A government task force says key parts of the 26 million acres of forests stretching from New York's Adirondacks to eastern Maine can't be preserved without more aggressive regional planning. From Maine Public Broadcasting, Barbara Carriddi reports.

CARRIDDI: In its report, the Northern Forest Lands Council concludes that the economy of the Northeast depends heavily on its forests, and those forests are in danger of disappearing. Among the biggest threats are tax policies that discourage landowners from keeping their property in timber, and development pressures. The report also says raw log exports are sending some of the region's manufacturing jobs overseas. All sides of the issue agree that the Council's findings provide a basis for developing a management plan for the region. In its report the Council has proposed a laundry list of planning options ranging from a tax on hiking boots to protecting biologically sensitive areas. Recommendations are due in mid-December. For Living on Earth, I'm Barbara Carriddi.

NUNLEY: Three South American nations are cracking down on illegal mining in the Amazon. The action follows a recent massacre of Yanomami Indians by renegade miners. Venezuela has begun expelling hundreds of gold panners from national parks, Columbia is deporting 29 illegal Brazilian gold prospectors, and the new Brazilian environment minister has pledged to expel all miners from Yanomami territory.

This is Living on Earth.

Delays in a crash asbestos cleanup program in New York City's public schools continue to disrupt classes for thousands of students. The asbestos problem surfaced last month, when New York officials found large amounts of exposed asbestos in older school buildings, which had recently been given a clean bill of health by inspectors. The city found that many of those inspections were flawed and possibly fraudulent. Students in the affected schools are attending classes elsewhere until the cleanup is complete.

In one of the largest deals of its kind, the New York Botanical Garden and the Pfizer Pharmaceutical Company have teamed up to search for sources of new drugs in the plant kingdom. The $2 million dollar deal will send researchers from the Garden across the US to collect plants, which Pfizer will then test for medicinal value. Dr. Michael Bailick, director of the Garden's Institute of Economic Botany, says many companies are starting to look beyond the lab for new drugs.

BAILICK: The trend now is going to be going back to nature and looking at chemicals that even the brightest synthetic chemist with a lifetime of work couldn't come up with.

NUNLEY: Bailick says a quarter of the drugs in the US come from plants, yet few plant species have been tested for pharmaceutical value. And Bailick adds you don't have to travel to the tropics to make these drug discoveries.

BAILICK: We thought that it was time to make a statement about the value of biological diversity in our own backyards in the United States.

NUNLEY: If any promising plant specimens are found, the New York Botanical Garden will share in the profits.

Two endangered Chinese pandas won't be coming to the San Diego Zoo, at least for a while. US Fish and Wildlife officials have told the zoo that importing "Shi Shi" and "Shun Shun" for breeding purposes won't help preserve the species, and might encourage poaching in China. Lending and borrowing pandas for educational and breeding programs has become big business for both zoos and the Chinese Government. The San Diego Zoo had planned to pay China three million dollars for a three-year panda visit. The zoo is now left with an empty million-dollar panda exhibit area and gift shop. Zoo officials say they'll appeal the order.

That's this week's environmental news. I'm Jan Nunley.

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(Theme music up and under)

Carol Browner on Pesticides

CURWOOD: This is Living on Earth, I'm Steve Curwood.

When the National Academy of Sciences reported this summer that children face special risks from pesticide residues in food, the Clinton Administration promised sharp reductions in pesticide use. Well, the Clinton plan has just been presented to Congress, and it's getting mixed reviews. Environmental activists generally praise it, but some criticize economic exemptions to proposed health standards, and they don't like repealing the ban on trace amounts of cancer-causing pesticides in processed food. Agrichemical companies like that repeal, but they don't like a provision that allows states to choose tougher standards. EPA Administrator Carol Browner is heading up the administration's pesticide reform effort. She's with us from her office in Washington. Thanks for joining us.

BROWNER: Thank you, Steve. It's a pleasure to talk with you.

CURWOOD: Now, you told Congress that the need to change the use of farm chemicals is urgent, and that makes me wonder - how safe is our food supply?

BROWNER: We have the safest food supply in the world, but we have an opportunity to do an even better job and that's what we're asking Congress to do - to make sure that we take every opportunity to protect the children of this country, to achieve pesticide use reductions so that we can protect our drinking water and ground water and our other natural resources.

CURWOOD: In your view, do you think there are a lot of unsafe pesticides on the market today?

BROWNER: I think that there are pesticides that are high-risk that we need to work to bring them down to an acceptable standard, a rigorous health-based standard. We have several deadlines in the proposal that we made that will force pesticides off the market if they cannot meet a rigorous health-based standard. Again, it's not going to be health versus economics, it's going to be health - health first and foremost. The other thing about the package that I think's important to note is, no longer will the burden be on EPA to show that a pesticide is unsafe. The burden will be on the industry to demonstrate that the use as it relates to particular foods is absolutely safe.

CURWOOD: But in your provision if I read it correctly, the agricultural chemical industry can say, okay, we may have a problem here but it's necessary to the food supply, we get a ten year exemption -

BROWNER: No, it's, there's a transitional period of five years maximum. At the end, if they are not below negligible risk they are off the market.

CURWOOD: Now, I want to talk about some of the aspects of your proposal. There's one pretty controversial that's taking some heavy cannon fire already and that's to get rid of the Delaney Clause, which currently bans any amount of pesticide residue in processed food, or residues that are known to cause cancer in animals. Why do you want to get rid of that provision?

BROWNER: Well, first of all, the Delaney Clause deals with a very narrow part of what people eat, what's on your dinner plate at the end of the day. We want to make sure that in every instance, we're looking at not just cancer but we're looking at chronic effects, we're looking at acute effects, we're looking at birth defects, we're looking at genetic defects, looking at what happens to a pregnant woman, and we're looking at what happens to children. So we want to expand the scope of what we look at.

CURWOOD: Why do you want to eliminate the provision of the law that would outlaw the use of chemicals known to cause cancer in animals? I understand that you're concerned about the other effects of pesticides, and I think a lot of people are as well, but why make it legal to use chemicals that are known to cause cancer -

BROWNER: First of all, we're not making it legal to use anything that is not used today, and in fact we will be changing the uses of many, many things. Delaney focuses on a narrow part of the diet, of the American public's diet. The risk, as it has been interpreted over the last thirty years is called something, something called ten to the minus six - that is a .00001 risk. We are not suggesting that that should be changed. It is almost identical to a zero risk and we will continue as it relates to carcinogens in processed food to apply that very, very stringent standard which we have applied.

CURWOOD: Why are so many environmentalists cranky with your package?

BROWNER: Well, I think that there are particular issues for each of them that are of greater significance than other issues. The groups that I've been talking to do agree that as a comprehensive package this is light years ahead of where we have been. They also agree that what we are doing for kids, we are meeting all of the recommendations put forward by the National Academy of Sciences as it relates to children and infants, that that is something that they are immensely happy with.

CURWOOD: Currently the law of the land is Delaney. About a year ago EPA published a list of chemicals that should be pulled off the market under Delaney. Are you going to take measures to get the chemicals that are now against Delaney off the market?

BROWNER: Right now we will do exactly what the judge has ordered us to do. We take seriously that we have a judge's order and we will comply with the judge's order, and we are moving through that process.

CURWOOD: Carol Browner is the administrator of the US Environmental Protection Agency.

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(Music up and under)

Destitution and Deforestation in Nicaragua

CURWOOD: If the Central American nation of Nicaragua didn't have enough to worry about - an unstable government, a bankrupt economy and continuing political violence - it now has yet another problem: a looming environmental disaster. Since the government of Violeta Chamorro was elected three years ago, Nicaragua's forests have been ravaged. The government itself admits that, at the current rate, the nation's remaining forests will disappear in 20 years. Bob Carty has our story.

(Sound of forest)

CARTY: On the outskirts of Managua, there's an extinct volcano called Nejapa. People from the city used to walk down the slopes of Nejapa's crater, down to the bottom where a small lake echoed with the sounds of croaking frogs and water birds and turtles falling off their sunning rocks, splashing into the water. Today, though, Nejapa is silent. And you can walk across the lake.

(Sound of walking on crumbling clay)

CARTY: This is not a Biblical feat. Not any more. The Nejapa lagoon is now just a flat bed of cracked clay that crumbles under your feet. Last March, the lagoon disappeared. Experts say that deforestation, coupled with a severe dry season, caused the water table to fall below the level of the crater floor. And Nejapa isn't alone. In May, a second lagoon near Managua dried up. At least five others, including the source of Managua's drinking water, are in the process of extinction. So are 38 rivers. Even Lake Managua, a giant in Central American terms, is visibly receding. Jim Barborak is a protected-areas specialist with the Wildlife Conservation Society in Central America.

BARBORAK: What is happening throughout the Pacific slope of Central America, basically from Mexico to central Panama, is an almost total destruction of tree cover. Rampant deforestation, sedimentation, land exhaustion, basically destroying the future, or at least reducing dramatically the options available for this and particularly future generation of Nicaraguans.

(Sound of old truck passing, traffic )

CARTY: You can find the immediate cause of deforestation on a highway right beside the Nejapa volcano. Every morning, there is a procession of firewood into Managua - piles of wood on trucks, on horse-drawn carts, even on the backs of men and women. Firewood represents 57% of the total energy used in Nicaragua. The haze that hangs over Managua isn't smog - it's wood smoke. Of course, firewood isn't the only culprit. Earlier this century, foreign and local businessmen cut much of the forest cover here on the Pacific side of Nicaragua for sugar, cattle, and cotton plantations. And studies now show that rainfall has declined where the forest disappeared. But now, the rate of deforestation is accelerating. Fifteen years of war had crippled Nicaragua's infrastructure and left the majority of people unemployed and impoverished. For many, firewood is the only affordable fuel and the only source of work. As a result, today's rate of deforestation is five times what it was in the 1980's. Danilo Lacayo is the official spokesman for President Chamorro.

LACAYO (translator): The problem is partly an inheritance of the war. If people had good incomes, they wouldn't burn firewood, they'd buy gas. It's a serious problem. Because if there aren't trees, there isn't rain, if there isn't rain, there isn't agriculture, if there isn't agriculture, there is hunger and there is chaos.

(Sound of crickets and frogs in jungle; chain saw)

CARTY: The current battle line against deforestation is 200 miles southeast of Managua, on the San Juan River, which separates Nicaragua from Costa Rica. This is the Grand Reserve of Indio-Maiz, 1,000 square miles of jungle teeming with frogs and crickets - the largest and wettest rainforest on the Caribbean Rim, the home of many unique, unidentified species. But as you cross the boundary leaving the Indio-Maiz reserve, the jungle becomes pasture with only a few charred tree trunks still standing. In Nicaragua, it's illegal to deforest within 200 yards of the river. But here the jungle has been cut right to the shore. Near the riverbank, a farmer rounds up his cattle for a ration of salt.

(Sound of farmer calling cows)

CARTY: The farmer is a wiry, weathered man, although he's only 30 years old. His farming clothes are old army fatigues. His neighbors all call him "Manicheta," which roughly means "hit in the hand." He's a former Sandinista soldier who fought for 13 years, until he settled here 2 years ago with 20 head of cattle.

MIRANDA (translator): You couldn't work here during the war. On one side were the Contras, and on the other the army. When I arrived here it was totally forest. I had to clean it all. There's quite a lot of people coming to this area now, a lot of people. They can't survive on the other side of the country, so they come to this zone.

CARTY: The settlement of this part of the rainforest was supposed to be controlled. The idea was to create a buffer zone to protect the rainforest reserve. Instead, there's been a land rush. Like Manicheta, many of the new settlers are former combatants, either Sandinista soldiers or Contras. Ecologists estimate that because of this colonization, the entire rainforest buffer zone will be gone in just 3 years. Already, part of the reserve itself are coming under the ax. Jim Barborak of the Wildlife Conservation Society laments that it's all for nothing. When turned into pasture or corn fields, the rainforest soils last as little as 3 years before losing their nutrients and washing away.

BARBORAK: It rains 6 meters a year along the Nicaraguan-Costa Rican border. That means that most of this part of Nicaragua is unsuited for agriculture, grazing, or even forestry. Any effort to colonize this is folly. You're not in any way helping the peasants have a better life. You're doing what I call helping promote sustainable misery.

(Sound of tugboat motor and barge)

CARTY: On the San Juan River, a tugboat pulls a fenced-in barge loaded with 100 head of cattle. Rainforest destruction here is not only caused by the peasant farmer trying to survive - it's also caused by cattle ranchers trying to finance their next trip to Europe. Neither is subject to government control. In the case of the small farmer, a handful of rangers can't stop thousands of hungry peasants. In the case of the big cattle ranchers, the government is actually supporting them as one of Nicaragua's few viable exporters. Presidential spokesman Danilo Lacayo says the government is doing its best with what it's got.

LACAYO (translator): This is one of our priorities. Here in Nicaragua, there are five fundamental challenges - unemployment, production, national reconciliation, peace, and the conservation of nature. Because if nature isn't conserved, we won't have a future. President Violeta has created great extensions of forest which can't be cut. The problem is economic resources.

CARTY: Those economic resources are already scarce and getting scarcer. Since the war, Nicaragua has become the second poorest nation in Latin America. The ecology will likely continue to pay for Nicaragua's vicious treadmill of political instability and economic stagnation. It's a high price to pay. Without trees, the soil runs off and sedimentation destroys current and potential sources of income, from hydro dams and ocean and river fishing. The loss of the jungle also means the loss of the wealth in precious woods, eco-tourism, and rainforest fruits, nuts and medicines. Jim Barborak.

BARBORAK: What the country is doing is drawing down its natural assets, to think of it in banker terms, and depleting its possibilities of taking out loans against that capital, you might say, to finance its future. And so its best use for Nicaragua and for mankind, for the long term, is leaving those trees standing where they are today.

(Sound of river rapids)

CARTY: Near the edge of the Indio-Maiz rainforest, the ruins of a colonial fort overlook some rapids on the San Juan River. This is El Castillo. Here, the Spanish empire once used the fort, the white water, and the jungle to form an almost impenetrable defense against the British navy and assorted pirates. Today the legacy of recent wars is as noticeable as the ruins of past ones. There is no longer any jungle here; the forest has fallen under the ax of recent migrations. Someone here at El Castillo seems to have recognized the potential tragedy. Beside the ruins of the fort, a poetic warning is written on a wooden sign. It says: "Civilization was born when the first tree was felled and will die when the last one falls." For Living on Earth, I'm Bob Carty on the San Juan River in Nicaragua.

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(Sound of water - fade under)

Rainforest Experts Remembered

CURWOOD: Late this summer two of the world's most prominent field biologists were killed in an plane crash, while surveying Ecuador's countryside. Al Gentry and Ted Parker were making "rapid assessments" of biodiversity in the area, sometimes just ahead of loggers and developers. The loss of the two was a stunning blow to rainforest protection efforts - they were among the most knowledgeable in the world about tropical birds and plants. Alex van Oss reports from Washington.

VAN OSS: For those who are not birders or botanists, it's hard at first to understand the passion Ted Parker and Alwyn Gentry brought to their work, and the impression they made on students and colleagues. But appreciation comes quickly once you file through the detailed reports made by the Rapid Assessment Program or RAP team, or listen to their field recordings and hear what they heard in the forests far away.

(Sound of recorded bird songs)

VAN OSS: Colleagues and family recall the almost made-for-Hollywood characters of Parker and Gentry - their doggedness in the field, their humor under hard conditions, and their encyclopedia knowledge of the Andes' plants and birds. Much of this information was unpublished, and the scientists' knowledge was wiped out in the plane crash last August. Russell Mittermeier is president of Conservation International, which sponsors the Rapid Assessment Programs.

MITTERMEIER: Ted was the best ornithologist on earth. He had in his brain the vocal repertoires of 4000 bird species, which is unbelievable.

VAN OSS: Al Gentry and Ted Parker were killed while flying over an area of Ecuador later to be traversed on foot. These airplane surveys are a risky but necessary first step in the rapid assessment approach to conservation. They help to locate remote forest areas and allow scientists to make a mental map of the terrain, and the species of plants and animals they may later find and collect. Ted Parker recorded hours of bird songs, many now at the Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology.

(Sound of Cornell tape: "On this tape you will hear some of the most characteristic and distinctive animal voices of the Peruvian rainforest and lake edge - a branch snapping in the canopy, or the rustle of leaves on the forest floor, might signal the unsuspected presence of a large bird or mammal. Just before dawn, a great potu delivers its hair-raising song" . . . fade out animal sound)

WALCOTT: My name is Charlie Wolcott, I'm the director of the Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology. Ted made an extraordinary contribution to our library of natural sounds. We have some 90,000 recordings of more than 5,000 species of birds, and of those 10,000 are Ted's recordings, representing something close to 1000 species.
EMMONS: He used to say that he didn't have any special talent, that anyone could do what he did if they studied hard enough. He said he used to spend days and days and weeks and weeks listening to types over and over and over again, memorizing bird songs.

VAN OSS: Dr. Louise Emmons is a mammologist, and one of the surviving members of the Rapid Assessment team. Emmons says Parker had such discriminating ears that, astonishingly, he could pick out even birds that were unknown - new species. If Ted Parker was a kind of "walking ear" with his microphone, the late botanist Alwyn Gentry was more of an arboreal grazer in the forest, who spend much of his time off the ground.

EMMONS: Al, he would be climbing up trees all the time, he used a climbing device and he'd be clipping off branches and throwing them to the ground, and he would not write anything down much, he'd come back and he would remember just from a pile of leaves all the details on the size of the tree that it was. He was always, I mean if you'd stop the car he'd jump out and collect plants, if you came into camp, if you were standing on the runway waiting for a plane, he'd be stuffing plants into bags.

MITTERMEIER: He had a reputation for doing some really crazy things. I mean, he was working in Ecuador once with an Ecuadoran botanist and they got lost for about three or four days and finally they found their way back into camp, and the Ecuadoran was just almost in a state of shock. Al walks in, sees a plate of cold pancakes sitting there from breakfast eaten earlier in the day, gobbles down the cold pancakes, and says, I saw this really interesting orchid out there and races off back into the forest to collect this orchid that he'd seen.

(Sound of bird song)

VAN OSS: The focus of the RAP teams are areas that are often remote, unmapped, often endangered, and biologically rich, with species seen nowhere else. Time is running out on many forest areas, what with logging and clearing for grazing and agriculture, so Rapid Assessment is just that - rapid, rather than exhaustive. Quick surveys by air and on foot, just a few weeks spend in any given area. Dr. Louise Emmons.

EMMONS: It's quick, it's good science, but it is not a thorough inventory. But that isn't our goal, our goal is to try to find the best places for political reasons, not for scientific reasons, so that the countries in question are able to make a decision as to where to put a park or reserve area, how to plan their land use.

VAN OSS: Conservation International's president, Russell Mittermeier, says that recently Ted Parker and Al Gentry had come into their own as what he calls "bio-politicians," who had developed rapport with top government officials abroad. In just three years, the RAP teams' reports have spurred the creation of reserves and protected forest areas in Belize, Bolivia and Guyana, as well as conservation proposals in Ecuador and Peru. Mittermeier, a primatologist, says that a special Parker-Gentry Fund has been set up to continue the work.

MITTERMEIER: RAP is going to expand, rather than slowing down or dying, we intend to expand it and we intend to have the next RAP expedition deployed sometime within the next three or four months, probably in Brazil, that's one that I'm going to be, Brazil or Guyana, and it's one that I'm going on myself to do some of the monkey work.

VAN OSS: There are plans to review the Ted Parker and Alwyn Gentry field materials for publication. And the Parker bird recordings may be assembled for commercial release on compact disc. For Living on Earth, this is Alex Van Oss in Washington.

Back to top

(Sound of bird call, fade under)

CURWOOD: Let us know what you think about our program. Give us a call on our listener comment line, at 617-868-7454. Or you can write to us, at Living on Earth, Box 639, Cambridge, Massachusetts, 02238. Transcripts and tapes are ten dollars.

Living on Earth is produced and edited by Peter Thomson. The coordinating producer is George Homsy, and our director is Deborah Stavro. Our production team includes Kim Motylewski, Lucia Small, Chris Page, Colleen Singer Coxe, Jessika Belameera, Andrea Cassola and engineer Laurie Azaria. Our theme music was composed by Michael Aharon.

Living on Earth is a project of the World Media Foundation, in cooperation with the Public Media Foundation and WBUR, Boston. I'm Steve Curwood, executive producer.

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