Tag Archives: Environment

Heat, droughts and an Indian Feast

20 Jan

I’ve been neglectful over the past few weeks. I should have had lots of time over to post during the quiet Christmas . I thought that I would be incredibly sad, missing family and friends but it felt like such a different world and such a different experience that it was hard to correlate the hot weather and sunshine with Christmas Day. And Christmas Day was hot…the thermometer hit 43.2 C across Rio, the highest ever recorded temperature. We decided it was the perfect day to cook an Indian curry! We surrounded the table with four fans as an attempt to try and keep cool, it didn’t stop the sweat dripping.

An Indian Feast on Christmas Day in Brazil

An Indian Feast on Christmas Day in Brazil

Its amazing the lethargy that the heat brings on, the imperative to slow down, lie down, rest, sleep early and the difficulty to generate enthusiasm and excitement to think, communicate, do new things. But this heat is not just a personal challenge. The North East of the country has been suffering the worst drought in 30 years, the amount of milk produced in many states has dropped by 40 – 50% with many animals dying. Friends visiting the Chapada Diamantina near Salvador recently walked along dry riverbeds, in the rainy season! Around 90% of the electrical energy used in Brazil is hydroelectricity. The drought has resulted in low levels of the reservoirs, down to 28-30% of normal levels across the country, a decrease in energy production and a tripling of the use of thermal power plants. Attempts to ensure the continuity of electricity supply by opening the floodgates at hydroelectric plants is depleting the reservoirs even faster. At the same time the high temperatures cause an increase in energy consumption as the use of air conditioning rises. Electricity prices will continue to rise, where inflation was already at 7.8% last year, as well as CO2 emissions.

This has coincided with droughts across the world, particularly in North America, resulting in much higher soybean and corn prices. The result of this, lots of farmers in Brazil switching to growing soybean and corn instead of other crops such as cotton, rises in land prices and huge pressure to convert more land to agriculture.

Its a worrying and vicious cycle if the effects of a changing climate, decreasing agricultural yields and rising food prices just results in the conversion of more land for agriculture, increased habitat destruction, emissions from land-use change and the loss of carbon sinks.

Thankfully the rain has now returned to Rio…abnormally so, with temperatures closer to that of the winter. But I’m not complaining. The fans are silent and our energy has returned!


Green shoots in the favelas

11 Jul

Following the depressing results of the Rio+20 conference I needed something to buoy my spirits and feel optimism about the potential for humans to use our intelligent creativity to solve the challenges ahead. Luckily, help was at hand through two amazing local organisations, Catalytic Communities and Verdejar. For the past 12 years CatComm has been highlighting the resourcefulness, energy, activities and community resilience within the favelas, supporting the communities to communicate their achievements and needs.

During and followering Rio+20 CatComm arranged visits to several different favela communities and projects. I joined a visit to Verdejar, “Going Green”, a project in Complexo do Alemao, made up 13 favelas in the North Zone of Rio. We were slightly late to meet our host Cicero, a history teacher cum co-ordinator of Verdejar, but he showed only enthusiasm as I rattled out questions (fantastically translated by Felicity from CatComm)  as we bounced along in a tiny van. Walking up the hillside, above us was the Serra da Misericórdia and the last remnants of the Atlantic Rainforest in the North Zone, which Verdejar aims to protect and reforest through its newest project. In what was until recently a dilapidated house and a small patch of open ground the local community has created an education building and a space to test and demonstrate agroecology, green sanitation and solar energy practices. As we walk up the small path towards the house on the left was a pit where they are growing banana trees to clean sewage from the houses, filtering the water, recycling the nutrients and producing bananas to eat. On the other side is a forest garden, where they are gradually reforesting the land whilst producing abundant food such as sweetcorn, fruits and salads for the community.

The sewage treatment system is in the foreground and a little of the forest garden on the right of the picture

In their education centre, recently decorated with greetings from all over the world by young people at the Rio+20 youth conference, Cicero shows us a video from a recent workshop where they built a solar thermal water unit on the roof of the building. All that was needed was to flow the water through tiny tubes in a black plastic sheet,  a few licks of white paint on the water butt to keep the water hot and voila! The roofs of Rio are dotted with blue plastic water butts, with this simple technology free hot water courtesy of the sun could be brought to every house in Rio.

Solar thermal heating system on the roof of the education centre

And they are now not working alone. They have projects with the botanical gardens in Brasilia to study the sewage cleaning process and with the biology and geography departments at UFRJ to study the impacts of the Serra da Misericórdia on the region, including the water and creating a cooling microclimate. In contrast to the secretive approach of many chemistry groups it was refreshing to see such openess to share ideas, communicate and work together with anyone interested. I hope that a new connection with the Green Chemistry Group at UFRJ can be developed!

But it was not only the physical steps that they had taken that was impressive but the community they have built around the project. This seems to have been integral since  Luis the Poet first had a vision of creating a green protected space in Complexo do Alemao, wheeled some plants down to an open patch of ground in his wheelbarrow and protected the space with other local people. Today many people help on the vegetable plot and the harvest is shared.

There are still challenges though. The Serra da Misericórdia is now protected by law but with frustration Cicero described how mining for cement manufacturing still goes on, with the people nearby suffering from the dust produced, let along the destruction of the precious remaining ecosystem.

However, I hope the vision of Luis the Poet will live on. Cicero was surprised by the current interest and enthusiasm from outside the favela in Verdejar, a project that has grown from a small seed and been watered with love and care. But it is these seeds that we need, these green shoots sprouting everywhere to feel optimism that we do have the creativity and will to create a more sustainable world.

For more examples of sustainable projects in the favelas watch the video by CatComm on “The favela as a sustainable model”

What a disappointment..but there’s hope

23 Jun

Well what a disappointment Rio+20 was, or at least the official UN conference. Once again, like previous environmental conferences politicians keep kicking the real decisions to be made into the long-grass. In the final text there are vague assertions about the direction to be taken, but if any organisation had spent a year and huge amounts of resources developing a plan such as this they’d think it had all been a waste of time if there were no specific targets, no deadlines and no resources committed. I’m particularly concerned about how sustainability appears to be defined in the document (see also George Monbiot’s discussion). The three traditional pillars are highlighted – economic, environmental and social – but the economic aspect has mutated into the requirement of sustained economic growth. Some areas of the world definitely do need economic growth to lift their populations out of poverty but sustained economic growth for the whole world is not a recipe for solving the major environmental challenges we face but to accentuate them. One paragraph is truly troubling:

“We recognize that urgent action on unsustainable patterns of production and consumption where they occur remains fundamental in addressing environmental sustainability and promoting conservation and sustainable use of biodiversity and ecosystems, regeneration of natural resources and the promotion of sustained, inclusive and equitable global growth.”

If anyone can explain to me how sustainable patterns of consumption and production are compatible with sustained global growth please let me know. Unless they mean they aim to promote the continued expansion of the globe itself?

And what were the leaders doing for 3 days in Rio? With the text agreed before they arrived and the Brazilians trying to prevent chaos by refusing to reopen the text they made set speeches (how dull and fruitless, couldn’t they have just emailed them to each other), had pretty pictures taken and visited the sights (I definitely spotted the Venezulans heading up to the statue of Christ the Redeemer).

Venezuala's ministers enjoy a trip up Corcovado

Venezuala’s ministers enjoy a trip up Corcovado

But elsewhere in the city there was a little bit more hope. At the people’s summit there were some excellent workshops, talks, theatre, music and so much passion and warmth and lots of connections being made between groups from across the world. I went to a fantastic talk about ecovillages and the challenges and benefits of living in communities from Macaco Tamerice from Damanhur in Italy. I was particularly interested in the new currency that they are planning on setting up between ecovillages in Europe with the potential to open it up to other people with similar interests as a means to create a more localised economy separate from the current system.

The Rural Women’s Assembly was full of inspiring, strong women standing up for their communities and livelihoods. Particularly striking was a young woman from South Africa who talked about how they had challenged a pharmaceutical company that had patented their traditional medicinal knowledge as a weight loss solution, claiming that the community had died out. A woman form Lesotho described how they had formed co-operatives in order to have a stronger voice and that the government is now meeting and listening to them and how they were sharing and multiplying their seeds to have more resilience. A women from Paraguay also told how the different indigenous groups were meeting to share their experiences to make their opposition stronger.

The Rural Women's Assembly

The Rural Women’s Assembly

Another discussion focused on the campaign for climate jobs (jobs that help reduce CO2 emissions)  in the current economic climate around the world with so many people are unemployed. Issues were raised about the challenge of linking the environmentalists and people focused on poverty or jobs whilst a guy from Zimbabwe raised concerns about becoming dependent on technology from developed countries without the technical skills to maintain it. He told how Zimbabwe had had solar energy since the 1990s, but that the loss of scientists and engineers meant that when anything broke it could not be fixed.

The final workshop I went to was about biomimicry – taking inspiration from nature. There were some fascinating examples, including adding bobbles on the edges of wind turbines based on hump-backed whales which improves they efficiency by 30%, basing the shape of cars on the boxfish which actually makes them more aerodynamic and uses less material, harvesting dew in the desert based on a beatle’s shell with the aim to create a forest in the Sahara. On a larger scale people are also working to create production systems that work like an ecosystem. Its all really interesting work but we also need to make sure that these systems are definitely beneficial and more sustainable products and systems.

So the people’s summit was great. I met some people who are working on environmental projects here in Rio so I hope I can get more involved in those. However, I was disappointed with a few things, the lack of information about what was going on and where, the lack of real examples at the summit about how we can live more sustainably (there was virtually no renewable energy generated onsite despite the sunshine!) and the masses of consumerism. Not corporate consumerism but half the people present seemed to be selling something, in particular from the indigenous groups. Their way of life has been trampled, they often have little space to grow food and survive, this was a great opportunity to sell a few things, but I felt sad to see so many feathered ornaments, belts and necklaces set out for sale and people spending time selling things instead of building campaigns and connections.

So Rio+20 is over. Once again there were many disappointments, it has not been a transformative moment, and it seems that we do not have the leaders with the vision and courage to truly face up to the challenge. So instead it is up to us as individuals and communities to build the future we want.

The people march

21 Jun Greenpeace calling for a green and fairer world

Wow! Today was the global mobilisation connected to Rio+20 and I joined the march in the centre of Rio. The march was deafening, the sound of whistles and singing is still ringing in my ears, with trucks passing through the crowds with enormous loudspeakers getting the crowds chanting and singing songs that everybody seemed to know. There was a great atmosphere. As would be expected in the home of samba there were lots of bands and people dancing. Lots of imaginative protest on display as well with large trade union groups (the universities are currently on strike), environmental groups from across the world and peasant and indigenous rights groups. There was a huge diversity of civil society from Brazil present and a surprisingly low police presence. They didn’t really seem to know what was going on with traffic chaos caused when the march was too long for one of the main streets and end up blocking a square that I don’t think it was supposed to – the police just stood around looking on. Whether the leaders that assembled at the main conference took any notice I don’t know – the office staff definitely knew we were there. Check the photos out below.

Rio+20 comes to town

17 Jun The world from above

Everywhere around Rio there are little reminders of the arrival of Rio+20 in town. Although the main summit is happening far out to the West of the main city there are activities at the museums, art galleries, ‘the world from above’ exhibition in the centre with a huge map of the globe to walk and dance on as well as the increased presence of soldiers and the military police. I’ve really wanted to make it to the people’s summit, a gathering of groups from all over the world to explore and discuss ideas. I feel ashamed that I haven’t followed all the politics and the build-up to the Rio+20 conference so I want to immerse myself and learn as much as possible whilst it is going on.

The world from above

The world from above

We wandered through the people’s summit yesterday. It’s quite an amazing spectacle. Huge marquees, tents and stalls spread along the Parque do Flamengo along the beachfront near the centre of the city with hundreds of people milling around. There are several different sections based around different areas of struggles – Social Justice and Environmental Rights, Defense of the Commons Against the Market, Food Sovereignty, Energy and Extraction Industries, Work towards an alternative economy and a new paradigm for Society. Each theme seems to be organised by a different group and so has quite a different atmosphere. The area around Energy and Extraction Industries is organised by a few companies and has little enclosed meeting rooms set-up with touch-screens to sign-up to the discussions, whilst elsewhere the marquees are open-sided with handed painted banners and scrawled paper signs, or groups of people meeting under the trees. There is a huge diverse range of groups, from local Rio environmental groups working on reforestation, to international organisations such as Greenpeace, lots of indigenous groups from across South America , small companies and everyone inbetween! I hope I will manage to make it to one of the big plenary sessions in the next few days, I’m really interested to see how common decisions are made across such diverse groups.

Enter the People's Summit!

Enter the People’s Summit!

Discussion under the trees

Discussion under the trees

I find the the economic activity that goes alongside these events fascinating as well – they have there own specific consumerism that seems to be similar here in Rio to events I’ve been to in the UK or elsewhere. You’ll find tie-dyed clothes, woven bags, Marxist books, posters and T-shirts, beaded jewellery and organic food, with the areas with stalls selling handicrafts and produce busier than the workshops!

I’ve also been lucky to chat to some of the negotiators from the Ugandan and DRC groups, taking a little time out to enjoy the atmosphere in Rio at a beautiful bar just below Sugarloaf mountain. Although they told us that they are still so many sticking points and only a third of the final document is agreed they still seem optimistic about the negotiations. I suppose they have to remain so and it seems there is always a way to reach a decision you just have to know what each side wants and what you are prepared to give. For these countries their main issue appears to be funding for moving towards a ‘green economy’ (the buzzword for this event) whilst the developed nations refuse to contemplate fixing a specific figure in the final document. From my perspective it seems crazy not to invest what is a paltry figure in global economic terms (they are discussing $30bn – $100bn) to support countries to leapfrog to a more sustainable economy. It seems crazy as well that  all the money spent by governments during the economic crises has not been focused on taking us towards a more sustainable path. I really hope that technology and science can in the future develop a more open-source approach, enabling everybody to benefit from the best research into renewable energy. However, countries seem to be becoming more fixated on national sovereignty and the protection of their specific interests. But perhaps that has always been the case and in my naivety I hoped there might be a stronger global spirit driving international negotiations. I also hope that the paradigm of ever-continuing economic growth may change…but that’s another discussion!

Discussing Rio+20 with an amazing view

Discussing Rio+20 with an amazing view

If you want to read more about the negotiations happening inside the conference there is an excellent daily news bulletin from the IISD – you just need to get through the acronyms!