Air Date: November 8, 1996
Steve Curwood talks with former Bush Administration Environmental Protection Agency head William Reilly, and current Sierra Club political director Dan Weiss on the outcome of the November 5th general election, and their views on changes to anticipate among congressional committees and national policy. (10:33)
The Nature of the Beltway/ Keith Schneider
Commentator Keith Schneider reflects on his first trip back to Washington, D.C. in three years since he left there as an environmental reporter for The New York Times, and the changes he found there. (03:13)
Electromagnetic Fields Report
Steve Curwood talks with Dr. Charles Stevens, chief reviewer of a blue ribbon panel by the National Research Council (N.R.C.) examining summary findings on research conducted over the past 17 years into the health dangers associated with living close to power lines. The N.R.C. could not find any "smoking gun" but links to childhood leukemia persist despite some recent headlines to the contrary. (06:51)
The Living on Earth Almanac
Facts about . . . the London highway M-25, popularly known as the "Road to Hell." (01:15)
Gapping the Pan American Highway/ Bob Carty
The Darien Gap is the thin peninsula of land that connects Central and South America . The Darien Gap remains a natural land barrier of diverse Amazonian forest despite the clearcutting and road building of vast portions of the region. The Pan American Highway extends between Alaska and Argentina except at the Gap, and now some interests would like to fill the gap and link through this land zone which is home to several tribes of indigenous people. As Bob Carty reports, the remaining Indians' lives would be permanently transformed by connecting the continent's superhighway. (14:45)
Aftermath of War
In tribute to Armistice Day, Steve Curwood talks with author Donovan Webster about his new book titled Aftermath, in which Mr. Webster traveled the world documenting the death toll and destruction of twentieth century wars. (10:05)
Copyright c 1996 by World Media Foundation. No portion of this transcript may be copied, sold, or transmitted without the written authority of World Media Foundation.
HOST: Steve Curwood
NEWSCASTER: Jan Nunley
REPORTERS: Bob Carty, Terry FitzPatrick, Doug McPherson
COMMENTATOR: Keith Schneider
GUESTS:William Reilly, Dan Weiss, Dr. Charles Stevens, Donovan Webster
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CURWOOD: From National Public Radio, this is Living on Earth.
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CURWOOD: I'm Steve Curwood.
A look back at the recent national elections finds solid support for environmental protection regardless of party.
REILLY: You can't really point to anybody who won big for having been against the environment in most of the country. It doesn't help politically.
CURWOOD: We'll look at the emerging bipartisan moderate majority for the environment and what that might mean in the upcoming battles in Washington. Also, answers and questions about the possible dangers from electric power lines. A blue ribbon panel says no danger can be proved -- yet.
STEVENS: There's an association, a statistical association, between living near a power line and an increased incidence of childhood leukemia. The question is, what caused that association?
CURWOOD: This week on Living on Earth, but first this news.
NUNLEY: From Living on Earth, I'm Jan Nunley. The fight to force Florida's sugar growers to pay more toward the cost of cleaning up the Everglades may not be over. A constitutional amendment that would have forced farmers to pay an estimated $900 million in the next 25 years got only 46% of the vote on election day. But 2 companion amendments did pass, adding the polluter pays principle into the state's constitution, and establishing a trust fund for Everglades restoration. Environmental activists hope this will be the basis of a legislative effort to force farmers to clean up their pollution. The campaign over a penny a pound tax on sugar was the most expensive referendum in Florida history.
Voters in several states approved initiatives to restrict certain forms of hunting in what turned out to be a big victory for animal welfare organizations. Living on Earth's Terry FitzPatrick reports.
FITZ PATRICK: Animal rights groups have been waging a state by state campaign to outlaw what they consider unsporting or inhumane practices. They scored major victories in 5 of the 8 states where hunting initiatives were on the ballot. In Alaska, voters have restricted the use of airplanes to track down and kill wolves. In Colorado and Massachusetts, the use of leghold traps will no longer be allowed. The most widespread ballot initiative, however, involves the practice of luring bears to the kill with bait, or tracking bears, cougars, and bobcats with packs of hunting dogs. Voters have banned these techniques in Washington and Massachusetts. In Oregon, voters upheld a ban they approved 2 years ago. Election day did bring a few victories for hunters. Efforts to ban the baiting or hounding of bears failed in Idaho and Michigan. And in Alabama, voters amended the state constitution to make hunting a protected right. For Living on Earth, this is Terry FitzPatrick reporting.
NUNLEY: In other election news, Maine's voters defeated a proposed ban on clear-cutting in 10 million acres of forest land. Voters instead approved a measure that calls for less severe logging restrictions. The alternative measure will have to be voted on again because it failed to win 50% of the vote. In Montana, voters rejected a proposal to put stricter standards on wastewater produced by the mining industry. The measure would have required mining companies to do more to remove cyanide and other impurities from wastewater before it is dumped. And Idaho voters rejected an attempt to overturn Governor Phil Batt's nuclear waste deal with the Federal Government. Batt's agreement lets the government ship 110 more tons of radioactive waste to the Idaho National Engineering Laboratory.
Thirty-three thousand acres of New Hampshire mountain tops will be protected under an agreement between private landowners and state foresters. New Hampshire Public Radio's Doug McPherson reports.
McPHERSON: About 20% of New Hampshire forest lands above 2,700 feet is owned by paper companies and investors. The volunteer agreement limits road building and clear cutting on these lands and promotes ecologically safe harvesting methods. Patrick Hackley of the New Hampshire Timberland Owner's Association says landowners were eager to forestall government regulation.
HACKLEY: Large landowners want to be able to control their own destiny, and they realize in order to do this they need to reach out to the public and address public values on private land.
McPHERSON: Proponents of the agreement say it offers more protection than government regulations recently adopted in Vermont, and heads off the bitter clear cutting debate currently underway in Maine. For Living on Earth, I'm Doug McPherson.
NUNLEY: South African scientists are trying to find the link between ostriches and a deadly tick-borne disease. An outbreak of Congo Crimean hemorrhagic fever in Utshorn, the capitol of the lucrative South African ostrich industry, has forced a halt to slaughtering of the birds and exporting of their meat. Seventeen slaughterhouse workers have come down with the disease and one has died. Like the more notorious ebola virus, Congo fever causes rapid degeneration of body organs with massive internal and some external bleeding. About 30% of Congo fever cases are fatal. One of South Africa's top virus specialists says infection could spread during the processing of hides and feathers, when ticks jump from the ostrich skins onto workers.
Scientists from around the world are flocking to Africa with bundles of stinky cheese, to test the hypothesis that mosquitoes like smelly feet. In a letter to the British medical journal Lancet, Dutch researcher Bart Knowles writes that medical entomologists are now buying Limburger cheese and taking it to mosquito-infested areas around the globe, hoping to isolate whatever chemical strong cheese and unclean feet have in common and use it to bait mosquito traps. The research is based on the theory that smell attracts hungry female mosquitoes, the ones that bite, and on the finding that ripening Limburger cheese smells just like odiferous human feet.
That's this week's Living on Earth news. I'm Jan Nunley.
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CURWOOD: It's Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood. Nineteen ninety-six was supposed to be the year the environment emerged as a top election issue. Bill Clinton and Al Gore included the environment in their mantra of what would be cut as a result of Bob Dole's tax plan. And TV ads attacking candidates who voted against the Clean Water Act filled the airways. But how did the environment fare at the ballot box? Here to talk with us about what the election results will mean for environmental policy in the second Clinton Administration is William Reilly, former Environmental Protection Agency administrator under President George Bush, and Dan Weiss, political director of the Sierra Club. Welcome gentlemen.
WEISS: Thanks for having me.
REILLY: Thank you.
CURWOOD: Let's start with the Congressional races. Dan Weiss, let me ask you first. The Sierra Club and the League of Conservation Voters singled out a number of freshmen Republicans and attacked them for voting against environmental bills such as drinking water protection and voting for cuts to the EPA. Do you think those attacks worked?
WEISS: We beat at least a dozen incumbents that had anti-environmental voting records. And we've done some polling to find out why. One of them, for example, Andrea Seastrand in California, we found out that the number one reason why people voted against her was because she voted to weaken clean air and clean water laws. And this was based on a poll that we did the night before the election.
CURWOOD: Bill Reilly, I'm wondering if you agree with Dan Weiss's analysis here. Do you think that their painting of candidates as anti-environmentalist was an effective campaign strategy?
REILLY: It was effective in a number of races, I think. The list of so-called "dirty dozen" that the League of Conservation Voters targeted, 6 of those incumbents went down. I think that the evidence is that where the environment featured, it featured positively. That is, people wanted to support the environment.
CURWOOD: Let's turn now to the state ballot initiatives. Dan Weiss, which referendum result did you think was the most significant?
WEISS: In Florida, on the Everglades referendum, although the sugar tax failed the voters did approve a change in the Florida constitution which now requires polluters to pay the cost of cleaning up environmental mess. And that is unprecedented.
CURWOOD: Bill Reilly, I'm wondering which of the initiatives you think will have the biggest impact now.
REILLY: I think it's very important to recognize that the 2 major bond issues in the country for the environment passed and passed by good margins. That in New York, for $1.75 billion for clean water and for some hazardous waste cleanup; and that in California, which is a little less than a billion for water cleanup of the Sacramento River and the Sanyocan Delta. Those are very big numbers in today's tax-conscious world. That's a significant victory, I think, for the environment. To the extent that you can read anything in some of the other referenda that went down, the proposals to control riparian grazing in Oregon or the pollution controls that were to be imposed on mining in Montana, it may be that the public is saying we want to support the environment but we're very wary of increasing the regulatory apparatus at this time.
CURWOOD: That's an interesting question. I mean, also you could include in that list the failure to get a clear-cut ban in Maine. Dan Weiss, what about you? Do you think that's why those ballot measures were pushed back? That people are skeptical of that tight kind of regulatory situation?
WEISS: Well, I have a very different take on it. I believe that if you spend enough money opposing something on television, that you can convince people that apple pie's bad for them. Montana now is going to put a restriction on how much you can spend on a referendum campaign, and if that restriction had been in place in 1996 we might have seen a very different outcome on the clean water initiative.
CURWOOD: Let's look ahead now to some future environmental policy and legislation. Bill Reilly, we have the same president. Republicans still control both houses. And things look pretty much the same. Does this mean that we should expect a repeat of the last 2 years of environmental legislation and policy?
REILLY: I would be very surprised if we see a repeat of the last 2 years of environmental legislation and politics. I think that the leadership of the House, and Mr. Gingrich in fact has been explicit about this, positioned themselves very badly on the environment, came to be seen as anti-environment, failed to make the distinction between protecting people from excessive regulation on the one hand but ensuring the protection of health and safety and the environment on the other. We have got to see some moving, I think, toward the center on these issues. The moderates in the House will have a very powerful swing balance this time. And I think that if any progress is to be made on the environment it will have to be the result of a consensus. And that means that the edges will not be sharp on either side.
CURWOOD: Dan Weiss, how do you see it?
WEISS: I can see it going one of two ways. On the one hand there is an opportunity to revive some consensus proposals that were killed in the waning days of the last Democratic Congress, and then Republicans tried to weaken laws in the 104th. I hope some of those consensus efforts are, like around Superfund toxic cleanup program, will be revived. On the other hand, Trent Lott said today he's going to revive the regulatory reform bill that would have devastated our environmental laws. Senator Bond of Missouri says he's going to go after the so-called takings legislation that would force taxpayers to pay polluters not to pollute. If in fact they pursue this agenda, they're going to find themselves caught again in another environmental firestorm.
CURWOOD: Dan Weiss, I'm wondering what you see from President Clinton during his second term.
WEISS: First of all, I think President Clinton is going to continue to vigorously oppose efforts to weaken environmental laws. And if Trent Lott follows through on his attempt to bring regulatory reform up, President Clinton will be right out there opposing it. Second, I think he's going to try and use his executive authority, as he's done earlier this year, to expand the community Right-to-Know program to improve environmental protection. Third, as he tried to do in the 103rd Congress, I believe that President Clinton is going to try and build consensus around environmental reform, like they did on Safe Drinking Water Act a few months ago.
CURWOOD: Bill Reilly, how about you? Do you expect President Clinton to emerge as an environmental leader, or will his attention be elsewhere?
REILLY: President Clinton played a largely defensive role in the last Congress. He managed to ward off some unfortunate, and I think very bad attacks on the environment. He did not in my view make the environment a priority, either in the first two years of his administration or even the last two. I would expect that he will continue to make good calls on the environment, but I don't really anticipate that he will give a very high priority to that issue. We do have an opportunity to pass a new Superfund law. It's possible the Clean Air Act would be reauthorized in this Congress. If I were at the White House and I saw any indication of receptivity on the part of the Republican leadership in the House and Senate on some of these measures, that would affect me and I would be inclined to give a higher priority to legislative reform on the environment.
CURWOOD: Let's talk about some of the personalities of the second Clinton Administration. And of course at the top of the list is the Vice President, Al Gore. Bill Reilly, you spent plenty of time around the White House and Al Gore is considered the most powerful vice president in recent history. And of course at the same time he's obviously thinking about the year 2000. Do you think Al Gore is going to push this administration on environmental issues in this second term?
REILLY: I have to say that Al Gore, despite his really impressive knowledge of the environment, did not in my opinion exercise that much influence to move the Administration on the environment in the first term. I think that Vice President Gore will continue to be involved in the environment, but he has been very involved and I think productively, in fact, on government reform efforts and on some foreign policy issues involving Russia and disarmament. I would suspect that he will continue to spend much if not most of his efforts in some of those other areas.
CURWOOD: Dan Weiss, do you agree?
WEISS: I would expect that Vice President Gore will continue to be very involved in environmental policy within the Administration. And I think a role that he's uniquely suited to play will be in addressing global environmental problems. As you know, back in July the Administration committed to reducing carbon dioxide emissions that cause global warming by the year 2005, and now we've got some tougher negotiations with our allies ahead of us. I would expect Vice President Gore to play a very important role in those negotiations.
REILLY: The climate treaty negotiations will be fascinating to watch. The United States now is committed, as a result of a decision made last summer, to propose realistic and enforceable timetables for control of greenhouse gases for reducing the expected increase in their generation and presumably controlling them seriously. It's unclear how that will be done, but I would be surprised if energy taxes don't resurface as a major priority necessary to keep the US commitment on climate.
CURWOOD: And what are the chances of getting any kind of new taxes through the present arrangement on the hill?
REILLY: This is an issue, climate change, that's going to require a lot of education. Most polls indicate the country is not really that aware or informed about the climate problem, about global warming. To the extent that the President and Vice President make it an issue or want to see us move forward on it, they're going to have to educate the country and deal with the very substantial part of the economic sector that's very opposed to any new costs of energy, any taxes or any regulatory controls on generation of greenhouse gases.
CURWOOD: Hazel O'Leary is leaving the Energy Department. We'll see some new personalities on the environment in the Clinton Administration. Dan Weiss, any idea who we might see?
WEISS: There are a number of good people that could fill that slot. One of them includes Bill Richardson, Congressman from New Mexico, who served on both the Energy Committee and the Natural Resources Committee in the House and is well-versed in these issues. Another possibility would be former Colorado Senator Tim Wirth. I think one of the most important positions that we know is open that needs to be filled is chief of the Forest Service. Under the salvage rider that was signed last year by President Clinton, it's led to a lot of clear-cutting in our national forests, and we need to have a chief of the Forest Service that can get that agency to comply with both the letter and the spirit of environmental laws. So that's going to be a very important appointment that's not at the cabinet level but will have a lot to say over the state of the environment over the next 4 years.
CURWOOD: Dan Weiss is political director of the Sierra Club. William Reilly served as EPA Administrator during the Bush Administration. Thank you both for joining us.
REILLY: Thanks for having me.
WEISS: Thanks for having me.
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CURWOOD: Washington, DC, is a place where people and ideas turn over a lot. Elections, journalistic assignments, and shifting lobbying priorities help make it a town of transients and changing beliefs. The DC environmental lobby is no exception, says commentator Keith Schneider. Mr. Schneider, who used to write for the New York Times, left the Beltway a few years ago to head a land use group in rural Michigan. He recently returned and tells us what he found.
SCHNEIDER: Where I live now there are no famous politicians. Campaigns that cost more than a few hundred dollars are rare. Rural communities here grapple with hyper-growth and haphazard development, problems due in no small part to poor decisions made by people in the city that I left. I'm an advocate now, not a reporter, so I regarded my return to Washington as a chance to help correct some of those mistakes. Naturally, I also was curious. Had anything changed?
At first glance it seemed, not much. After landing at National Airport I noticed a group of onlookers watching Colin Powell park a new Thunderbird. The Washington Post was filled with stories on welfare, Iraq, and Dick Morris's sex romp. Washington appeared to be the same old tableau of political celebrity, crisis management, and titillating scandal.
I was happy to discover, though, that something was different. Dynamic, Washington-based environmental organizations that had little prominence when I left have matured and they are now leading a new progressive movement. And they're making a difference. Among the most effective, the Surface Transportation Policy Project, a national coalition trying to end America's 50-year-old policy of building new roads. Instead, they want to focus resources on repairing old roads and encouraging cheaper, less damaging alternatives, like rail.
Another group is Taypayers for Common Sense. This research organization uncovers Federal subsidies and pork barrel projects that not only waste billions, but disfigure neighborhoods and the land. In 1996, the young group helped stop an unnecessary billion dollar dam across the American River in California.
A third organization is American Farmland Trust, which has saved thousands of acres of prime crop land from being engulfed by suburban sprawl. They are the fastest growing environmental group in Washington.
What ties these groups together? Three big ideas. First, the budget deficit. Once a concern of arch conservatives, the deficit is now a powerful tool for environmentalists to argue for an end to wasteful tax policy and destructive subsidies. Second, the environment. Even conservative policy groups are coming to understand the appeal of a cleaner world. Third, a longing for real communities. Across the political spectrum, Americans are calling for new policies that make neighborhoods and cities worth living in again. I heard lots of environmentalists in Washington talking about fiscal responsibility, environmental safety, and quality of life.
Those of us working outside of Washington find none of this surprising. Across the country, a wave of young regional environmental organizations have matured in the 1990s. They are working with local governments on these problems which affect so many Americans. It was heartening to see that inside the Beltway environmental leaders are starting to get it.
CURWOOD: Commentator Keith Schneider heads the Michigan Land Use Institute, an environmental research and policy group based in Benzonia, Michigan.
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CURWOOD: Is radiation from electric power lines dangerous to your health? Find out what science knows, ahead on Living on Earth.
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CURWOOD: It's Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood. Recent newspaper headlines declared that scientists can find no health risks from the electromagnetic fields produced by power lines, utility transformers, and household appliances. This from a study by the National Research Council, which compiled 17 years of work on the subject. It was intended to settle once and for all the controversial question of whether or not EMFs cause childhood leukemia, brain tumors, and other disorders. But already the report itself is causing controversy. Several of its authors say the Research Council presented its findings in a way that minimizes the prospect of danger from electromagnetic fields. But the chair of the committee that produced the document, a physician named Charles Stevens, says his panel has come up with the best answers and advice that science can provide right now. Dr. Stevens told me that the research reached 2 important yet seemingly conflicting conclusions.
STEVENS: We looked at epidemiological studies, studies on whole animals, studies on cells and tissues, and the bottom line was that we could find no convincing, compelling, consistent evidence for a health effect of -- adverse health effect of electromagnetic fields. The second thing has to do with the epidemiological studies, and that is that our review committee concluded that the epidemiological studies have demonstrated a small but significant hazard associated with living near power lines, and the job of scientists now is to discover why living near a power line might be hazardous.
CURWOOD: Now, I'm confused a little bit by something here. What you've said is that there is a statistical relationship between people who have leukemia, childhood leukemia, and living close to power lines.
CURWOOD: And yet you say that there is no health risk.
CURWOOD: Now, how can you say definitively there is -- and I'm looking at the cover of your press release -- there are no adverse health effects to be seen from residential exposure to electromagnetic fields?
STEVENS: Well, one thing you have to understand is that scientists can never prove that something is safe. All we can do is identify hazards or fail to find a hazard. In the case of electromagnetic fields, people have been looking for 17 years quite hard to try to find an adverse effect, and so far they've turned up none.
CURWOOD: So, when I pick up a newspaper like the Boston Globe, for example, and I see a headline talking about this story it says electromagnetic research review finds no danger, that's accurate? There's no danger from EMFs and public health?
STEVENS: No. What's accurate is that we found no danger. That's what the story says and that's what we said. We found no evidence that it's dangerous.
CURWOOD: Well, is this misleading the public to think that there is no danger? Because that headline says, "Finds no danger." Now, if I'm reading that I say hey, that's got to be safe.
STEVENS: Well, you know, there are a lot of things in life that we don't know if there's a hazard associated with them or not. A lot of, sometimes we find that things are actually beneficial in the long run. Sometimes we find they're neutral. Sometimes we find that there's a hazard associated with them. You see, there's an association, a statistical association between living near a power line and an increased incidence of childhood leukemia. That's for sure. The question is, what caused that association? Did the power lines cause the association? Or was there something in addition that are associated with power lines? Maybe power lines are markers of old homes on busy streets that have some other hazard associated with them, has nothing whatsoever to do with power lines.
CURWOOD: I understand that argument perfectly well, but what are we to do with that information? If in fact there is this correlation, and you can't tell us what causes it, does it mean that we can give EMFs a clean bill of health and say there is no health risk? There are no adverse health effects?
STEVENS: In order to make reasonable public policy, what you have to do is you have to identify what the hazard is, and in this case we know that there is something about the neighborhoods where those kids were living, but we don't know it was the power lines. And maybe it was their income level, maybe we should tell them not to be poor. I think that would be a better thing to avoid than the power lines.
CURWOOD: Should we be doing more research on whether or not EMFs are associated with childhood leukemia, brain tumors, and other problems that have been linked to them or associated with them?
STEVENS: Well, you know, most of the -- a lot of studies have been done already.
CURWOOD: So we should stop? We know enough on this, do you think, at this point?
STEVENS: Well, now, exactly when, exactly how research priorities in a society like ours are set is a very complicated thing.
CURWOOD: Understood, but do you think that we know enough now? That we really don't need more studies?
STEVENS: Well, we certainly need to know why it is that proximity to power lines is associated with childhood leukemia. We definitely need research for that. And there are a number of other open questions. Some of them are noted in the report where we called for additional research. But our job wasn't to set research priorities; our job was just to evaluate the health effects of electromagnetic fields.
CURWOOD: What is a prudent behavior to have? Knowing the association but not having the proof. What should we do? Should we assume that the EMFs pose no risk and just ignore them as a problem, unless and until it's demonstrated that they are?
STEVENS: Well, you know, this is something that everybody, I think, has to decide for themselves. For my personal, the way I decide these things, is that I try to avoid risks that I know and understand. That I know that it's actually a risk. And I don't worry about things that haven't been identified, because there are going to be risks there and I'm sure that I could avoid some of them, but I have no idea what they are. And so, since I don't know what to avoid I don't worry about it. And that's just the way I would do it. But other people, if they see these studies, they see the association, that association worries them, then they should, those people should not live near power lines.
CURWOOD: Well, thank you. Charles Stevens is a doctor of medicine and a professor at the Salk Institute in La Jolla, California. Thanks for joining us.
STEVENS: Well, thank you for having me, Steve. I enjoyed it.
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CURWOOD: It's NPR's Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood.
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CURWOOD: The drive to join the north and south sections of the Pan-American Highway. That's just ahead on Living on Earth.
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CURWOOD: It's Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood.
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CURWOOD: It's 117 miles long and called the world's largest parking lot. It's not an L.A. freeway or the Long Island Expressway, but M-25, a highway that circumnavigates London. M-25 opened 10 years ago as the longest bypass in the world and is still Europe's busiest road. Some 700,000 cars use it during morning rush hour. Despite heavy traffic, the M-25 has only 3 lanes on each side, which might explain its legendary stall-outs. According to an engineer who helped to design the road, the government of Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher didn't want to pay more to accommodate increased demand. The M-25 has rarely been out of the headlines. A police car once had to rescue an elderly woman who somehow ended up cycling the wrong way down an outside lane. And a few years ago, a gentleman named William Allen spent 2 days circling London on the motorway after getting lost on the way to his daughter's house. And for this week, that's the Living on Earth Almanac.
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MAN (reading Keats): Then I felt like some watcher of the skies when a new planet swims into his ken. Or like stout Cortes, when with eagle eyes he stared at the Pacific, and all his men looked at him with a wild surmise. Silent, upon a peak in Darien.
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CURWOOD: Poet John Keats got it wrong, if course. It wasn't Cortes but Balboa who looked upon the Pacific from a Darien peak. Despite Mr. Keats' promotion, the Darien remains one of the most unknown places on Earth. The Darien is a thin peninsula of land that links Central and South America right at the juncture of Panama and Colombia. The Darien jungle is so think there's not a single road through it. It's the only place from Alaska to Argentina where there's a gap in the Pam-American Highway. As Bob Carty reports, governments and entrepreneurs wish to close the Darien Gap with a highway. Opponents say such a road would come at too high a price to humans and the environment.
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CARTY: The Pan-American Highway snakes through the mountains of Central America, rushes along the coastal plain, leaps over the Panama Canal on the Bridge of the Americas, and then heads toward the border of Colombia 8 hours away.
ELTON: As you go east from Panama City along the Inter-American Highway, there's a tremendous amount of deforestation. So you really need binoculars just to see the trees. I mean, it's been cut down so far either side.
CARTY: Charlotte Elton is a British-born economist, a Panamanian citizen, a director of the Center for Economic and Social Studies, and a bird watcher. So she visits the Darien's parks and Indian reserves for both research and recreation.
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ELTON: And then the road discontinues and then it gets worse and you find that this -- it's mud, basically, when the buses get stuck in it. And then you get to Yavisa, which is where the road ends. And the main way of traveling around in the Darien is still by water, by river.
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CARTY: From Yavisa, where the Darien begins, you can drive back to Alaska, almost 8,000 miles, but you can't motor over to Colombia just 67 miles away. What gets in the way is a territory almost the size of West Virginia, a land of rainforests and rivers, mountains and swamps, jaguars and ocelots.
ELTON: The Darien Gap, the forest in the center of the heart of the Americas there, has been described by a biologist as the umbilical cord of the Americas. And that if it's cut open, that area, by a road, the continent will bleed to death.
COATES: The Darien of course is the -- the site of one of the more diverse tropical forests that is still essentially intact.
CARTY: Tony Coates is the deputy director of the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute in Panama City. For 25 years he's been studying the Darien because it's a unique place where the rock and animals and plants of 2 subcontinents meet and mix in an extraordinary diversity.
COATES: You could comfortably describe a Canadian pine forest with about 6 species, and most of the North American temperate forest would be easily described by 25 species. In a full Darien forest, we may well get up to something like 8- or 900 species of trees in one tiny region. Many, many more times than in all of Canada and all of North America.
CARTY: And the Darien is also home to 3 indigenous cultures: the Kuna, the Wounnan, and the Emberra.
CARTY: In an Indian village on the Sambu River, barefoot children gather around a foreigner and giggle with surprise over the operation of a tape recorder. Anthropologists believe that as many as 2 million aboriginal people once lived in the Darien. But Balboa and his Conquistadors brought muskets and swords and diseases. Ninety percent of the native population was wiped out. Today only 14,000 Indians live in the Darien. They are all desperately poor. Still, for them, the jungle is a sanctuary, and the idea of putting a highway through it is nothing less than a threat to their existence.
CARTY: Facundo Sanapi is an Emberra leader.
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SANAPI: (speaks in Spanish)
TRANSLATOR: For us, development is to conserve our culture, our nature, our medicines. For them, development is to devastate. We do not want this highway. We are the ones who will suffer. It seems they think there is a gap here, a space they have to open. We don't understand this word: gap, tapon, the Darien Gap. For us there is no gap.
CARTY: But for others the Darien is a gap: a gap in a vision begun in 1923 of a 16,000 mile Pan-American Highway. One of the most ardent promoters of a highway through the Darien Gap is Colombia's ambassador to Panama, Alfonso Araujo.
ARAUJO: (speaks in Spanish)
TRANSLATOR: This is a dream of all Latin America, of all the Americas. One hundred and ten kilometers stands between South America and Central and North America. Economically the highway represents extraordinary development. There is no development in the world, in the United States or Europe, that is not based on land transportation. The road would let us go from Alaska to Patagonia, and if it is not built it would be like a wall of China put in the way of Latin American development. That's why we insist on breaching this gap.
CARTY: But breaching the gap will not be easy. Up until the 1950s, highway builders were defeated simply by the impenetrability of the forests and rivers and swamps. Then the plans were put on hold. It had been recognized that the jungle was a natural barrier that kept hoof in mouth disease confined to South America. In the 1970s another attempt to build the highway was halted by environmental protests in the United States. Now, the old dream has been revived by the talk of expanding continental commerce under free trade treaties. The most eager promoters are Colombian government officials, plus exporters and truckers throughout the region. There is also some interest and some outstanding promises up in Washington. Economist Charlotte Elton.
ELTON: Most recently, in November '95, the Congress passed a law requiring the Department of Transportation to do studies about that missing link for free trade and promoting trade in the Americas, particularly what it would do for US trade. The US government, in fact, has a commitment to pay two thirds of it if it were built, so more pressure is built up for a highway.
CARTY: In Panama itself, though, opinion is very mixed. Native groups and environmentalists are stridently against the highway. Cattle ranchers are worried hoof in mouth disease will spread from Colombia. On the other side of the debate, business in the Panama Free Zone argue that a highway will stimulate exports. Banana, logging, and mining companies would welcome a road to open up the untapped natural resources of the Darien. And so, the Panamanian government's position is ambiguous.
ELTON: At the moment the official position seems to be against it, but at the same time a willingness to go along with studies, a willingness to go to meetings to talk about it. It's always a good idea to hedge your bets. This is the way that business is done in Panama.
CARTY: Panama's equivocal posture on the Darien Highway stems from a number of economic, legal, and technical concerns. The highway would be relatively expensive to build and maintain. If it is to be built with dollars, it would have to satisfy environmental impact concerns established by US courts when the project was halted in the 70s. There's still the question of keeping South American diseases from coming north, and police forces complain that a highway would make it easier for traffickers to ship cocaine out of Colombia. Colombian ambassador Alfonso Araujo believes he has an answer to all the objections.
ARAUJO: (Speaks in Spanish)
TRANSLATOR: We have a campaign to eradicate hoof in mouth disease. By the time the road is built, hoof in mouth will be gone. I believe the land border would be more controllable with a highway. Now, there is no control. There are narcos in the area. I would say a highway would make it more controllable. We argue that the highway can be built without damaging the environment. If it is destroyed it is because of the incompetence of governments which do not take measures to avoid damage to ecosystems. There are many highways in the world which do not destroy the environment.
CARTY: Tony Coates of the Smithsonian disagrees. Dr. Coates says wherever a road has been built into a Latin American jungle, it has brought loggers and ranchers and settlers, and predictable results.
COATES: A road into the heart of a forest is like a knife into the heart. A couple of decades or so ago, the Inter-American Highway was built all the way to the town of Yavisa and the Darien, and if you drive that road now you will see nothing but smoldering remains of forests on either side. You will see enormous trucks with trunks of trees that have diameters of 6 to 8 meters being hauled out of that road. It's an agricultural frontier that inexorably eats its way across the country, destroying both the forest and the indigenous cultures that live within them.
CARTY: For environmentalists, there is an irony in the Darien Highway debate. The roadway is not required by the volume of trade it might carry, they say, and there are alternatives. Juan Carlos Navarro is executive director of the National Association for Conservation of Nature in Panama.
NAVARRO: The safest, quickest way, smartest way to travel, between Panama and Colombia today, is simply to fly. The prices are competitive and the service is very good. You can have a container ship go from Cristobal in Panama City to the port of Cartajena in the Caribbean coast of Colombia quicker than it would take you to go by car. Finishing the Pan-American Highway between Panama and Colombia is totally unnecessary and would be a tragedy.
CARTY: And the highway proposal is not the only threat to the Darien rainforest. Environmentalist Juan Carlos Navarro points out that at the current rate of deforestation, it could be all gone in a matter of decades.
NAVARRO: In Panama specifically, we're losing about 100,000 acres of rainforests every year. And most of the deforestation is taking place in Darien. You have on the one hand mining companies that are getting concessions in the area. You have logging companies that are going into the area. You have indigenous people who are selling out their native lands to logging companies. The pressure on the existing forests is already reading the limits of the Darien National Park and Reserve, and also the limits of the indigenous territories.
(Laughing children, flute-like noises)
CARTY: In the village of Sambu, children show a visitor how they can make flute-like noises with their hands. It is hard, perhaps impossible, for them to imagine how a road could destroy their way of life. But then, their ancestors might have thought the same thing about a couple of hundred Spaniards. Dr. Tony Coates of the Smithsonian says what's at stake here is fundamentally a question of values and priorities.
COATES: There will always be interests in any developed country for a highway that increases commercial interchange. It's sort of like asking the Department of Commerce whether it wants to have more interstates. The price you pay for that increased convenience in commerce is the death of an incredible pharmaceutical source of new products, the loss of 3 cultures, and I would suspect that if we did a careful cost-benefit analysis it wouldn't be worth it.
CARTY: What's going to happen?
COATES: My gut feeling is that there'll be an enormous fight and it'll go on perhaps for a decade or 2, but unless human politics changes dramatically it will eventually get built.
CARTY: In the short term, the future of the Darien depends largely on a study being done in Washington. Last year Congress instructed the Department of Transportation to evaluate the benefits of a Darien Gap highway for American industry and trade. That macro-economic pre-feasibility study is expected late next year. For Living on Earth, I'm Bob Carty on the Sambu River in the Darien rainforest of Panama.
CURWOOD: The clear and present dangers from past wars coming up on Living on Earth.
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CURWOOD: It's Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood. On the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month, four years after it began, World War I came to an end. Here in the US, the day is called Armistice Day, although few of us can recall why. North Americans have largely forgotten about this war that killed more than 5 million military personnel, injured nearly 13 million more, and left an estimated 8 million civilians dead. But the nations in which World War I was fought have very real reminders. Shells from the so-called "war to end all wars" still accidentally explode and kill people to this day. In his book Aftermath, writer Donovan Webster traveled the world documenting the damage that all of this century's major wars have done to the landscape and its people. His tour began in France, where artillery shells left over from World War I are a common sight and a small corps of men called demineurs have the job of cleaning up this military pollution.
WEBSTER: We were driving along the Chemin de Dam which is the site of 2 large battles, and we were trying to get to this little town called Chevre Rival, and it took us a while to get there because we were having to keep stopping to pick up shells that were just incidentally laid along the roadside. We would drive down the road a little farther and a farmer named Corvitz, we have to go see. And he comes charging out of his house. He's got his boots on, he's been waiting for us all morning, he's waving his fists in the air and he's like, "I've got some shells and grenades over here!" So we go over across the road to his barn, and up against his barn is a pile of rags. And he lifts this, some of the rags off this pile and there are a couple of shells and a couple grenades and they lift them up. We start taking them to the car and he says, "Look, I've got an orchard in here, do you want to go collect there, too? I hate it because I've got to mow up there and I'm always afraid children are going to be playing in the pile I have of shells and, you know, dud shells, they're unexploded artillery shells. And that they may have moved one, my mower will hit it and I'll blow up. And we said well sure, we're here. We drive up into his orchard and he stops and he points. And it looked like a refuse pile at a construction site. I mean, he's got a mound as high as your thighs of unexploded shells. These guys are just, they're just shaking their heads, they're like... and we finally, Remy Delouse, who's the co-leader of this group, turns to me and says, "Now, you see what I'm talking about?"
CURWOOD: Now, on the cover of your book, there's a man, he's got thick rubber gloves and he has, looks like old shells just covered with dirt and barnacles and slime. There's no face on this person. But he's holding these, this unexploded ordnance almost lovingly.
WEBSTER: Yeah, it's remarkably low tech. They go out in the mud and they pick them up and they carry them back to a truck and then they put them in the back of the truck and they take them to a depot, and then one week out of every month they blow up what they've collected. They dig a pit so that all the blast is directed upward, and then they blow them up. So they know they're all gone, for good.
CURWOOD: Now it's been -- what, 50 years since there last was a battle fought in France? It's been, what -- 80 years since the end of World War I. Now, how many people die from leftover munitions from those wars?
WEBSTER: Roughly 90 people a year, on average, are killed or injured by these, and this is just in France. This isn't in Holland or, you know, Denmark or anything like that. But France had the biggest problem because they really had the static war. I mean, they had 2 armies just throwing shells at each other for 4 years.
CURWOOD: So 90 people a year you figure in France, that's probably more people than are killed, say, in aircraft every year there.
WEBSTER: Likely, yeah. I mean, that's as many people as -- Americans killed in the Gulf War, you know.
CURWOOD: From which war do they get most of their stuff?
WEBSTER: Oh, by far, 80%, 90% from the first World War. There were just that many more shells fired. The detonators didn't work as well. There was 15% detonator failure, they estimate. And there were days when they'd shoot 11 million shells, in a day, from one place.
CURWOOD: Eleven million shells?
WEBSTER: At the Chemin de Dam. You know, they're littering the soil there, and that's why they've had to close off those forests. But World War I by far has the most shells. I mean, they clean 800, 900 tons of shells a year. They could clean a lot more. And that's a number that never changes.
CURWOOD: And the government has what? 100, 125 people doing this.
WEBSTER: Their hiring practices are sort of quiet. It's not an equal opportunity kind of a thing. You get tapped to come in by people who do it. And so, yeah, the year I was there, there were 123.
CURWOOD: And how many die each year?
WEBSTER: Average 18.
CURWOOD: So, in other words, 5 years is a long time to keep this job alive.
WEBSTER: It's a young man's job. The guy who I interviewed at the beginning is, was in late 40s when I interviewed him. And that year we're sitting at lunch and he says, "This has been a really good year." It's the end of September. "We've only lost 11 men." Three weeks later he lifted up an artillery shell that appeared to have some poison gas in it. He put on his gas mask, he put on his gloves. He lifted it up. Gas escaped, got under his mask, and gravely wounded him. He's back at work now, finally, you know, 3 years later, and he still -- it's, you know, he's not fully at work.
CURWOOD: How much land have the French cleared of their unexploded munitions, do you think?
WEBSTER: They estimate 2 million acres, although it's not really clear. You know, we would drive through places that have been okayed for farming again, and every mile or 2 there's still a shell that the farmer's found in his field and drags to the side of the road.
CURWOOD: Let me try to get this right. How long would it take for France to get rid of all these unexploded munitions on their territory at the present rate they're going?
WEBSTER: They wouldn't tell me. They have no -- I expect they have no idea. They estimate, still, though, there are 10 million unexploded and buried shells around Verdun alone.
CURWOOD: You mean you talked about how a -- what, how many tons of ordinance would fall on one square meter?
CURWOOD: And -- I mean, how do they even find bodies after something like that?
WEBSTER: Perhaps -- early on the thing that affected me the most was at Verdun, where more than a million men were lost in that siege. And only 290,000 identifiable bodies remained. And these were just -- I mean, these were bodies they could tell were bodies. The 710,000 others were, you know, rough and change, they wrote off. They said well, explosions took them, the mud swallowed them. Of the 290,000 bodies they recovered, they could only identify 130,000 -- or 160,000 of them; the other 130 were merely parts. And they took those parts and put them in a big building that is just as sobering as any place on earth. I mean, 130,000 men, and they've got -- it's really rough, it's amazing.
CURWOOD: Go ahead.
WEBSTER: You just, you go there and it's a very, it looks like a piece of French bread, sort of. And it's maybe a quarter mile long. It's just a block house but it's beautifully done. They've got little windows in the bottom. They originally took the bodies, they put them all in a provisional warehouse and then forgot about them. I mean, all the places I went pretty much part of it is about active forgetting. You know, no one wants to really remember these places. Ultimately, they had to clean up the landscape and everybody from the Red Cross to the Boy Scouts helped them clean it up. Just they felt out of respect both to the dead and to the war, they had to do this, not to mention to clean up France. Well, they finally built this amazing building through international funds and the French spent a lot of money on it and the Church spent a lot of money, the Catholic Church. And along the bottom, base, they put all these men in there. Along the base of the building where you can see inside, where they put them in, it's just bones as far as you can see.
CURWOOD: Now, what about the rest of the world? If 90 people a year die in France from this, how many people die around the world from the stuff that's left over from wars?
WEBSTER: There's never been a number calculated for that. I mean, our State Department generates that 26 to 28,000 people a year are killed by land mines alone.
CURWOOD: Twenty-six to twenty-eight thousand people.
WEBSTER: Yes, and that's down from a high of -- have killed or injured as many as 100,000. That's just 3 years ago. So it's, the situation is stabilizing.
CURWOOD: And that's just from land mines? Or that's from --
CURWOOD: Just from land mines.
WEBSTER: Yeah. And there are between, depending on who you ask, 85 million and 300 million of these in the ground. Forty percent of the people who are killed by them after the war ends are civilians: women, children, collecting wood, going to get the water, you know, especially in the African nations where, you know, fighting for civil wars and things. They use them to ring water holes. They use them to turn civilian populations into refugee populations. It's -- it's chilling.
CURWOOD: Is there anything positive that comes out of this detritus of war?
WEBSTER: Yes. You go to a place like Vietnam, and you fly into Noy Vey Airport, Hanoi, which was once a huge airfield in the war. And as you fly in you see bomb craters as far as you can see that are still in the ground, you know, have been left there for 25 years. The Vietnamese have taken these craters, they've knit them together with dikes. They are always at want for protein as a nation, and they're fish farming in them. And you know, the idea that they have pulled life, you know, turned war inside out and pulled life out of it, that's one of the things I want to do in this book is have people stare at the reality of this and say okay, how can we make it, turn this around? And the Vietnamese have done it all over, you know. In the DMZ, this is one of their favorite stories, they collect all the scrap. They grade it, you know, different grades of scrap metal, steel. They send it to a series of 10 different rolling mills, steel mills, in which case they may turn it into I-beams or wiring conduit. You know, they're building skyscrapers really like crazy now, or else they turn it into ingots, sell it to the Japanese, the Japanese turn it into cars which they sell back to us, and the Vietnamese think that is the funniest thing in the world.
CURWOOD: I want to thank you for taking this time with us today.
WEBSTER: It's been my pleasure. Thank you very much, I love the show.
CURWOOD: Donovan Webster's book is called Aftermath: The Remnants of War. Thank you, sir.
WEBSTER: Thank you.
(Music, theme from The Deer Hunter, up and under)
CURWOOD: And for this week that's Living on Earth. Our senior producer is Chris Ballman. Dan Grossman edited this week's program. Our production team includes George Homsy, Kim Motylewski, Liz Lempert, Constantine Von Hoffman, Jan Nunley, Susan Shepherd, Julia Madeson, and Peter Shaw. We also had help from Michael Giammusso, Kim Chainey, and Jason Kral. Our engineers are Karen Given and Mark Navin at WBUR, and Jeff Martini at Harvard University. Michael Aharon composed our theme. Living on Earth is produced by the World Media Foundation in cooperation with WBUR, Boston, and Harvard University. I'm Steve Curwood, executive producer. And thanks for listening.
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