Truthout Stories Mon, 05 Dec 2016 13:47:38 -0500 en-gb Nine Things President Obama Could Do Before Leaving Office to Reveal the Nature of the National Security State

President Barack Obama walks along the colonnade from the residence to the Oval Office at the White House on Election Day in Washington, November 8, 2016.  (Photo: Al Drago / The New York Times)President Obama walks along the colonnade from the residence to the Oval Office at the White House on Election Day in Washington, November 8, 2016. (Photo: Al Drago / The New York Times)

In less than seven weeks, President Barack Obama will hand over the government to Donald Trump, including access to the White House, Air Force One, and Camp David. Trump will also, of course, inherit the infamous nuclear codes, as well as the latest in warfare technology, including the Central Intelligence Agency's fleet of killer drones, the National Security Agency's vast surveillance and data collection apparatus, and the Federal Bureau of Investigation's enormous system of undercover informants.

Before the recent election, Obama repeatedly warned that a Trump victory could spell disaster. "If somebody starts tweeting at three in the morning because SNL [Saturday Night Live] made fun of you, you can't handle the nuclear codes," Obama typically told a pro-Clinton rally in November. "Everything that we've done over the last eight years," he added in an interview with MSNBC, "will be reversed with a Trump presidency."

Yet, just days after Obama made those comments and Trump triumphed, the Guardian reported that his administration was deeply involved in planning to give Trump access not just to those nuclear codes, but also to the massive new spying and killing system that Obama personally helped shape and lead. "Obama's failure to rein in George Bush's national security policies hands Donald Trump a fully loaded weapon," Anthony Romero, the executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union, observed recently. "The president's failure to understand that these powers could not be entrusted in the hands of any president, not even his, have now put us in a position where they are in the hands of Donald Trump."

In many areas, it hardly matters what Barack Obama now does. In his last moments, for example, were he to make good on his first Oval Office promise and shut down the prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, Trump could reverse that decision with the stroke of a pen on January 20, 2017.

So, at this late date, what might a president frightened by his successor actually do, if not to hamper Trump's ability to create global mayhem, then at least to set the record straight before he leaves the White House?

Unfortunately, the answer is: far less than we might like, but as it happens, there are still some powers a president has that are irreversible by their very nature. For example, declassifying secret documents. Once such documents have been released, no power on earth can take them back. The president also has a virtually unlimited power of pardon. And finally, the president can punish high-level executive branch or military officials who abused the system, just as President Obama recalled General Stanley McChrystal from his post in Afghanistan in 2010, and he can do so until January 19th. Of course, Trump could rehire such individuals, but fast action by Obama could at least put them on trial in the media, if nowhere else.

Here, then, are nine recommendations for action by the president in his last 40 days when it comes to those three categories: publish, punish, and pardon. Think of it as a political version of "publish or perish."


1. Name innocent drone victims: Last July, the Obama administration quietly released a statement in which it admitted that it had killed between 64 and 116 innocent people in 473 drone strikes in Libya, Pakistan, Somalia, and Yemen between January 2009 and the end of 2015. (Never mind that the reliable Bureau of Investigative Journalism, based in Britain, has recorded a total closer to 800 innocent deaths from the same set of strikes.)

President Obama should immediately name those innocent people his administration has admitted killing, while providing the dates and locations of the incidents, where known. There is a precedent for this: on April 23, 2015, Obama apologized for the deaths in a drone strike in Pakistan of Giovanni Lo Porto and Warren Weinstein, an Italian and an American held captive by Al Qaeda, whom he identified by name. Why not release the names of the rest?

Faisal bin Ali Jaber, a Yemeni engineer, has been asking for just such a response. His brother-in-law Salem and nephew Waleed were killed by a US drone strike in 2012. Yemeni officials gave Jaber $100,000 in cash that they swore was compensation from the US government, but if so, Washington has not acknowledged what it did. Reprieve, a British-based group that supports drone victims, has sued President Obama to get a public apology for Jaber.

2. Make Public Any Reviews of Military Errors: When Obama apologized for the killings of Lo Porto and Weinstein, he said that he had ordered a full review of any mistakes made in that drone strike. "We will identify the lessons that can be learned from this tragedy and any changes that should be made," he announced. Until January 20th, he has the power to make such documents public and prove that lessons have actually been learned. (The only document available on the subject to date is the $1.2 million settlement agreement between Lo Porto's parents and the US embassy in Rome published by Stefania Maurizi in the Italian newspaper L'Espresso.)

There is precedent for such publication. The Pentagon released transcripts and data from an airstrike that resulted in the killing of 23 Afghan villagers on February 21, 2010, in Uruzgan Province after a drone crew mistook them for Taliban militants. Documents relating to US air strikes against a Médecins Sans Frontières hospital in the Afghan city of Kunduz on October 3, 2015, have also been released.

How many similar military investigations (known as AR 15-6 reviews) have been conducted into accidental killings in the war on terror? According to Airwars, another British-based organization, we know, for instance, that the US is looking into a strike that killed at least 56 civilians in Manbij, Syria, this past July. There are guaranteed to be many more such investigations that have never seen the light of day.

The Obama administration consistently claims that groups like Airwars and the Bureau of Investigative Journalism do not have the full story. This flies in the face of multiple reports from Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, Al-Karama, researchers at Stanford and Columbia universities, and even the United Nations, all of whom have investigated and identified a growing number of drone-strike deaths among those without any links to terror or insurgent movements. If evidence to the contrary really exists, this would be the moment for Obama to prove them wrong, rather than simply letting more "collateral damage" be piled on his legacy.

3. Make Public the Administration's Criteria for Its "Targeted Killings": In July and August, under pressure from the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), the Obama administration released a series of documents revealing the procedures it uses to identify and target for assassination individuals responsible for terrorist activities in much of the world -- and the way it has justified such killings internally. If anything, however, those documents (known as the presidential policy guidance, or PPG) have merely suggested how much of the process still remains beyond public view.

"Frustratingly, too much remains secret about the program, including where the PPG actually applies, what its general standards mean in practice, and how evidence that those standards have been met is evaluated -- in addition to who the government is killing, and where," writes Brett Max Kaufman, an ACLU staff attorney.

When Donald Trump first sends out a CIA drone to kill someone chosen by his White House, he will be able to claim that he is doing so under the secret system set up by Obama. Without access to the procedures that Obama pioneered, we will have no way of knowing whether Trump will be telling the truth.

None of these three suggestions would be difficult or even controversial (though don't hold your breath waiting for them to happen). With each, Obama could increase transparency before he inevitably hands over control of the targeted-killing program to Trump. None of this would even faze a future Trump administration, however. So here are a few suggestions of things that might matter for all of us if Obama did them before Trump enters the Oval Office.


4. Disclose Mass Surveillance Programs: Even though Senator Obama opposed the collection of data from US citizens, President Obama has vigorously defended the staggering expansion of the national security state during his two terms in office. "You can't have 100% security and also then have 100% privacy and zero inconvenience," he said in 2013, days after Edward Snowden leaked a trove of National Security Agency data that transformed our view of what our government has collected about all of us. "You know, we're going to have to make some choices as a society."

Thanks to Snowden, we also now know that the US government secretly received permission from the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court to collect all US telephone metadata via programs like Stellarwind; created a program called Prism to tunnel directly into the servers of nine major Internet companies; tapped the global fiber optic cables that lie on the ocean beds; collected text messages via a program called Dishfire; set up a vast database called X-Keyscore to track all the data from any given individual; and even built a program, Optic Nerve, to turn on users' webcams, allowing for the collection of substantial quantities of sexually explicit communications. And that's just the tip of the iceberg. (For a searchable index of all such revelations so far, click here.)

Ironically, a report from the FBI that was finally published in April 2015 shows that this vast effort was largely useless in identifying terrorists. "In 2004, the FBI looked at a sampling of all the [Stellarwind] tips to see how many had made a 'significant contribution' to identifying a terrorist, deporting a terrorism suspect, or developing a confidential informant about terrorists," wrote New York Times reporter Charlie Savage who spent years fighting for access to the documents. "Just 1.2 percent of the tips from 2001 to 2004 had made such a contribution. Two years later, the FBI reviewed all the leads from the warrantless wiretapping part of Stellarwind between August 2004 and January 2006. None had proved useful."

These days most terrorists use encryption or other means like burner phones to make sure that they can't be followed. The only senior operatives being hacked these days seem to be Democratic Party officials like John Podesta and millions of ordinary citizens whose data is stolen. So why not reveal just what programs the government used in these years, what was done with them, why it failed, and what lessons were (or weren't) learned? Evidence of the national security state's massive waste of time and resources might indeed be useful for us to have as we think about how to improve our less than 100% privacy and security. Such disclosures would not imperil the government's ability to seek warrants to lawfully intercept information from those suspected of criminal wrongdoing or terrorism.

5. Make Public All Surveillance Agreements With Private Companies: To this day, the US government has secret agreements with a variety of data companies to trawl for information. Some companies are deeply uneasy about this invasion of their customers' privacy, if only because it probably violates the terms of service they have agreed to and could cause them to lose business (given that they face competition from non-US companies and more secure alternatives).

Take Yahoo, for example. The Justice Department obtained a court order in 2015 to search all users' incoming emails for a unique computer code supposedly tied to the communications of a state-sponsored "terrorist" organization. The company has requested that the government declassify the order to clear its name. It has yet to do so.

Of course, not all companies are as eager to see their government deals revealed. Consider AT&T, the telecommunications giant. Police departments across the country pay it as much as $100,000 a year for special access to the telephone records of its clients (without first obtaining a warrant). The program is called "Hemisphere" and the company requires buyers to keep its existence secret.

The Electronic Frontier Foundation, a San Francisco-based activist group, calls this "evidence laundering." As Adam Schwartz, senior staff attorney on the Electronic Frontier Foundation's civil liberties team, puts it: "When police hide their sources of evidence, the accused cannot challenge the quality or veracity of the government's investigation, or seek out favorable information still in the government's possession. Moreover, hiding evidence from individuals who are prosecuted as a result of such surveillance is antithetical to our fundamental right to an open criminal justice system."

Surely such an argument ought to convince a former law professor? President Obama could easily strike a major blow for fair trials by revealing the extent and the details of these local police contracts, which are essentially an open secret, as well as any other agreements the national security state has with private companies to spy on ordinary citizens. Once again, this would not hamper the government's ability to seek warrants when it can convince a judge that it needs to intercept individual communications.

6. Make Public All Secret Law Created in Recent Years: The last thing we'd want would be for Donald Trump and his future White House adviser, white nationalist Steve Bannon, to enter the Oval Office and start making secret law by wielding executive powers to, say, round up Muslims or deny women their rights.

Stopping Trump from taking this route and creating his own body of secret law is going to be hard indeed, given that Obama has probably signed more secret orders than any previous president. As Elizabeth Goitein, the co-director of the Brennan Center's Liberty and National Security Program, noted in a recent report, the Obama administration has failed to release a minimum of 74 of the Justice Department's Office of Legal Counsel opinions and memos that have been the secret basis for government actions on national security issues -- including detention, interrogation, intelligence activities, intelligence-sharing, and responses to terrorism. In addition, as many as 30 rulings of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court between 2003 and 2013 have not been made public. And an astonishing 807 international agreements, including bilateral ones to control the transportation of narcotics, signed by the US between 2004 and 2014 have never seen the light of day.

Trump, of course, has refused even to publish his tax returns (previously a presidential campaign ritual), so if Obama doesn't come clean, don't expect Trump to release any of the secret law his predecessor made in the next four years. This moment, then, represents a unique opportunity for the president to fulfill his promise of 2009 to create the most open presidency of all time. Sadly, no one expects him to do so. The Obama administration has apparently "abandoned even the appearance of transparency," according to Anne Weisman, executive director of Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, a nonpartisan NGO that tracks government accountability.

Since it's very unlikely that Obama will reverse course on surveillance and secret law in the next 40 days, here at least are some suggestions on what he might still accomplish as the nation's chief law enforcer.


7. Punish Anyone Who Abused the Drone or Surveillance Programs: We don't really know who ordered the drone strikes that knocked off so many innocent people. But the names of the architects of the program are known and, more importantly, the president undoubtedly has all the names he needs.

And if Obama does want to clean house before Trump takes over, why not identify and dismiss the individuals who designed the NSA's surveillance programs that infringed in major ways on our privacy without uncovering any terrorists?

8. Punish Those Responsible for FBI Domain Management Abuses: Since the attacks of September 11, 2001, the FBI has developed a network of more than 15,000 informants as part of its Domain Management program. Many of them were recruited to infiltrate Muslim communities to identify terrorists. For the last 15 years, this vast sting program has been used to round-up Muslims and put them in prison.

In the process, plenty of "terror operations" were created, but few real ones broken. We already know the details of many of the abuses involved. Back in 2011, for instance, a Mother Jones investigation found that 49 "successful" prosecutions of "terrorists" were the result of sting operations set up by FBI agents provocateurs. "You realize that many of these people would never have committed a crime if not for law enforcement encouraging, pressuring, and sometimes paying them to commit terrorist acts," Andrea Prasow of Human Rights Watch wrote in a report on the program in 2014.

Whistleblowers have come forward to expose the abusive tactics employed by the FBI in such cases. Take Craig Monteilh, an ex-convict hired by the Bureau to infiltrate mosques in southern California. After he had a change of heart, Monteilh helped local Muslims sue the agency. The case was, in the end, reluctantly dismissed by District Judge Cormac Carney who wrote that "the state secrets privilege may unfortunately mean the sacrifice of individual liberties for the sake of national security." Other informants, like Saeed Torres, have since come forward to expose other aspects of the program. The government has never acknowledged any of this.

It is very likely that this same group will be called upon to support Donald Trump's orders if a Muslim registry is ever set up. So this would be the moment for Obama to crack down in some fashion on this hapless system of profiling and entrapment before the Trump administration can expand it.


9. Pardon Edward Snowden, Chelsea Manning, and the other whistleblowers: Last but not least, why not pardon Edward Snowden, Chelsea Manning, and the other whistleblowers who served the public good by letting us know what the president wouldn't? As of now, Barack Obama will go down in history as the president who prosecuted more truth-tellers, often under the draconian World War I-era Espionage Act, than all other presidents combined. Stephen Kim, Jeffrey Sterling, John Kiriakou, and Thomas Drake were government officials who talked with journalists. They were subsequently jailed or had their lives turned upside down. Others like Chelsea Manning and Barrett Brown have been jailed for hacking or for the release of documents relating to surveillance, US wars abroad, and other national security matters.

Gabe Rottman of the ACLU sums the situation up this way: "By my count, the Obama administration has secured 526 months of prison time for national security leakers, versus only 24 months total jail time for everyone else [who ever leaked] since the American Revolution."

On this issue, Obama has already made his position clear enough. Of Snowden, in particular, he told Der Spiegel earlier this month, "I can't pardon somebody who hasn't gone before a court and presented themselves."

For a constitutional law professor, that's a terrible argument. "The power of pardon conferred by the Constitution upon the President is unlimited except in cases of impeachment," the Supreme Court ruled in 1866. "It extends to every offence known to the law, and may be exercised at any time after its commission, either before legal proceedings are taken or during their pendency, or after conviction and judgment. The power is not subject to legislative control."

It also flies in the face of history and of the president's own actions. "Richard Nixon hadn't even been indicted when Gerald Ford issued a full, free, and absolute pardon unto Richard Nixon," comments the Pardon Snowden campaign. "Nor had the thousands of men who had evaded the Vietnam War draft, who were pardoned unconditionally by Jimmy Carter on his first day in office. President Obama himself pardoned three Iranian American men earlier this year in the framework of the nuclear deal with Iran. Like Snowden, the three had been indicted but hadn't stood trial when they were pardoned."

Given how rarely Obama has issued presidential pardons, it seems unlikely that he will act. "He's pardoned fewer people than any president since James Garfield, who was fatally shot in 1881 after less than three months in office," writes Steven Nelson at US News & World Report. Indeed, Bush pardoned twice as many people as Obama in his first seven years in office, a record that he might want to ameliorate. (In fairness, it should be noted that Obama has set a record for commuting jail sentences.)

Will Obama act on any of these nine recommendations? Or will he simply hand over the vast, increasingly secretive national security state that he helped build to a man whom he once declared to be "unfit" not just for the presidency but even for a job at a retail store. "The guy says stuff nobody would find tolerable if they were applying for a job at 7-Eleven," Obama told an election rally in October.

Now, it's his move. Forget about 7-Eleven; Obama will not have to apply for, or campaign for, his next well-paid job, whatever it may be. But there is the little matter of his legacy, of truth, and oh, yes, of the future security of the country.

News Mon, 05 Dec 2016 12:06:22 -0500
Overpaid Oil CEOs for Top Diplomat?

Reuters is reporting that Donald Trump is considering ExxonMobil CEO Rex Tillerson and former ExxonMobil CEO Lee Raymond for the post of Secretary of State.

As someone who's been analyzing CEO pay for more than 20 years, I feel like I know these guys.  So I couldn't resist pulling out excerpts from two of our annual "Executive Excess" reports in which Raymond and Tillerson played starring roles. First, in 2006, our report zeroed in on the CEOs who were profiting from the war in Iraq. Lee Raymond, as the outgoing CEO of ExxonMobil, was cashing in bigtime on war-related oil price volatility, something he readily admitted he had no control over. While ordinary Americans were feeling "pain at the pump," high oil prices had sent the value of his pay package soaring. Here's the timely excerpt:

Lee Raymond, ExxonMobil CEO, 1999-2005:

In 2005, ExxonMobil collected $36 billion in profit, the grandest annual profit total ever recorded anywhere. Last November, called before Congress to explain the rising gas prices that appear to have fueled these record profits, ExxonMobil's Lee Raymond explained that rising prices reflect global supply and demand, nothing more.

"We are all," Raymond assured Congress, "in this together, everywhere in the world."

We're all in this together, except Raymond. As ExxonMobil CEO in 2005, his basic salary alone ran 63 times the average paycheck in the oil industry. Raymond's $4 million salary last year amounted to a weekly take-home of $83,333.

But Raymond hardly had to content himself with just salary in 2005. His overall pay for the year totaled $69,684,030.

Raymond retired from ExxonMobil at the end of 2005, and his near $70 million in compensation for the year seemed, at the time, a more than ample reward for his career of service to company shareholders. Company directors disagreed. This past April, news reports revealed that Raymond walked off into the retirement sunset with a going-away pay package that sets a staggeringly new golden parachute standard.

This retirement package -- a grab-bag of stock options, restricted stock awards from previous years, retirement-independent salary, and bonuses, plus a $1 million consulting contract, security services, a car and driver, access to the company corporate jet, and $210,800 in country club fees -- would add up to nearly $400 million.

"He is a porker of the first order," executive pay expert Graef Crystal told Bloomberg after the news of Raymond's good fortune broke. "Those CEOs out there who are doing better at the trough must be thrilled he's flying fighter cover for them."

Rex Tillerson, ExxonMobil CEO, 2006-Present:

And now on to ExxonMobil's current CEO, Rex Tillerson. In 2015, our Executive Excess report was the first to analyze how CEO pay practices are rewarding corporate leaders for accelerating climate change. The report documented, for example, how oil executive bonuses encourage behaviors that further lock their companies into fossil fuel dependency instead of diversifying into renewables.

At ExxonMobil, the company's proxy statement cited successful drilling in "the first ExxonMobil-Rosneft Joint Venture Kara Sea exploration well in the Russian Arctic" among the reasons for awarding high executive payouts in 2014. The Russian government-owned Rosneft has a dismal environmental, safety, and transparency record, according to Greenpeace. Within months of the ExxonMobil bonus awards, international sanctions against Russia led to the scrapping of this controversial joint venture.

Here's More From That Report About Tillerson:

A regular on lists of America's highest-paid corporate executives, Rex Tillerson pocketed $33 million in 2014, raising his total compensation over the past five years to $165 million. His gargantuan reward package doesn't just reflect the massive size of his firm, the nation's second-largest. As detailed later in this report, ExxonMobil aggressively uses stock repurchases to boost share prices, a move that in turn inflates Tillerson's equity-based pay. Between 2003 and 2013, buybacks accounted for an estimated 51 percent of ExxonMobil earnings per share growth. As of year-end 2014, Tillerson, who became ExxonMobil chair and CEO in 2006, was sitting on more than $166 million worth of unvested stock grants.

In the midst of all this share repurchasing, ExxonMobil has also been spending generously to support climate deniers. In the 2014 election cycle, ExxonMobil's PAC dished out $715,000 in campaign contributions to candidates who have either denied or raised questions about climate science. ExxonMobil, adds the Union of Concerned Scientists, also continues to quietly fund climate denial organizations.

Shareholders have pushed hard for change at ExxonMobil. They've introduced 62 climate-related resolutions over the past 25 years. Management has opposed every one. CEO Tillerson, ironically, has little tolerance for environment-threatening behavior in his own backyard. Last year, his efforts to block a fracking project in his posh Dallas suburb made the front page of The Wall Street Journal.

In a follow-up article in AlterNet, I noted that when a Catholic priest and shareholder activist urged investment in renewables at the company's annual meeting in 2015, Tillerson openly mocked him.

I know I should add something thoughtful here about how Tillerson or Raymond might perform as our nation's top diplomat, including in global climate negotiations and international efforts to fight global poverty. Sorry, I've got nothing to say.

News Mon, 05 Dec 2016 00:00:00 -0500
"Financial Disaster": Could Dakota Access Pipeline Lose Its Contracts With Oil Companies January 1?

Throughout November, protesters held dozens of demonstrations worldwide at banks to demand they divest from the $3.8 billion Dakota Access pipeline. Already, the largest bank in Norway, DNB, has been pressured to sell its assets in the companies behind the pipeline, and it's considering whether to terminate three separate loans the bank has made to finance the project. Meanwhile, a new report has exposed the "Rickety Finances Behind the Dakota Access Pipeline." Published by the Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis and the Sightline Institute, it spotlights a potential economic weakness of the project: the January 1 deadline by which Energy Transfer Partners had promised oil companies it would have completed construction. Missing the January 1 deadline opens up the possibility the pipeline company may lose its contracts with oil companies. We speak with co-author Clark Williams-Derry, director of energy finance at the Sightline Institute, and Michael Vendiola, member of the Swinomish Indian tribal community who helped organize a protest at Wells Fargo in solidarity with Standing Rock and with the Canadian First Nations resisting another major oil pipeline -- the Kinder Morgan Trans Mountain expansion project.

Please check back later for full transcript.

News Mon, 05 Dec 2016 00:00:00 -0500
How Donald Trump Is Connected to the Flint Water Crisis

Flint, Michigan still does not have clean drinking water.

Now, President-elect Donald Trump -- whose campaign stump speech included a crude joke about the city's water crisis -- has tapped one of the people responsible for the crisis to join his Cabinet.

Betsy DeVos, Trump's pick for Secretary of Education, and her family have a long history of using their wealth to manipulate Michigan state elections and push through "reforms" that undercut local democracy. She's a staunch advocate of privatization measures that shift power from people to corporations -- and one of those measures led directly to the poisoning of Flint's water and citizens.

Betsy DeVos and the Law That Poisoned Flint

In trying to get to the root of the crisis in Flint, many have pointed to Michigan's emergency manager law, which allows the governor to bypass the elected government and appoint a single official to take over a city's budgeting. The law was actually overturned by a popular referendum in 2012, but sneakily pushed back through state legislature by Governor Rick Snyder immediately afterwards in a way that prevented it from being subject to another public vote.

And when Michigan voters said they didn't want their local democracies hijacked, they had good reason. It was Flint's emergency financial manager Darnell Earley who all but forced the city to switch its water source to the polluted Flint River.

Earley both overruled a city council vote that would have prevented the switch and declined an offer from neighboring Detroit to provide safe, sanitized water. But if Earley is responsible for the disastrous decision itself, those who paved his way to power are also to blame -- and that's where Betsy DeVos comes in.

Since the 1970s, the DeVos family has invested at least $200 million in far-right think tanks, media outlets, PACs, and other causes, with a particular focus on their home state of Michigan. Along with the Koch brothers, they're major funders of the Mackinac Center for Public Policy, a Michigan-based partner of the Heritage Foundation and architect of the state's emergency manager law. Between 1998 and 2011, four DeVos-controlled foundations have given $560,000 to the Mackinac Center; that figure doesn't include donations from personal trusts or corporations, which do not have to be reported.

With the Mackinac Center working to craft the legislation that would advance the DeVos' privatization agenda, they needed a governor who would push it through to law. So in 2010, the family spent $1.9 million in the election that put Governor Snyder in power.

Months later, Snyder signed the emergency manager act into law and appointed a Mackinac executive as the state's first emergency manager. That manager's first move? Outsource the city of Pontiac's water system to a company indicted on federal conspiracy charges and Clean Water Act violations.

The writing was on the wall for Flint.

Betsy DeVos and the Trump Administration

The results of the type of pro-corporate, anti-democratic measures DeVos stands for are clear. We've seen what happens when politicians abuse their power to wrest democracy from the hands of the people -- and it's still unfolding in Flint.

With DeVos as Secretary of Education, we could see the same happen to public schools. DeVos has long maneuvered to strip funding and resources from public schools, favoring instead a voucher system that diverts public funding to private and religious schools. Among many other consequences, that could have grave implications for science and climate change education in schools across the country.

Furthermore, selecting DeVos -- a Koch-esque member of the billionaire GOP donor class -- runs directly counter to Trump's campaign promise to reform Washington by "draining the swamp" of establishment Republicans.

As far as Flint goes, Trump blamed the whole fiasco on "incompetent politicians" in a speech earlier this month. By his own measure, it looks like he just nominated one for his Cabinet.

News Mon, 05 Dec 2016 10:59:58 -0500
"People Can Protect the Rights of Everyone in Their Community"

MP3 Link

Janine Jackson interviewed Sue Udry about civil liberties under Trump for the November 18, 2016, episode of CounterSpin. This is a lightly edited transcript.

Janine Jackson: Watching social media, interest and energy around issues seems to swell and dissipate. But moving toward a functioning, inclusive democracy requires sustained work: building institutions, organizing, so that in times of acute crisis we have structures, or at least models of ways to respond.

From promises of mass surveillance, stepped-up stop and frisk, to religion-based bans on entry to the country, a Trump White House looks to be a nightmare for civil rights and liberties. Here to talk about how folks are planning to get through it is Sue Udry. She's executive director of the Bill of Rights Defense Committee, joined now with the Defending Dissent Foundation. She joins us by phone from Washington, DC. Welcome to CounterSpin, Sue Udry.

Sue Udry: Hi, Janine. It's great to be here.

Well, one hardly knows where to start. It's difficult to think of a person from whom the Bill of Rights more requires defense, and this is coming off decades that have not been kind to it. You don't want to immobilize people, but you also want to say that the danger is real. But organizers have institutional memories, right, and have seen, maybe not exactly this, but things enough like this that we can see some way forward in terms of what we do.

Exactly. I think for a lot of us, the main problem is that President Bush followed by President Obama really have, the Democrats and Republicans have, worked together to assemble some pretty powerful tools of repression that can be used and abused to crush dissent and attack people of color and immigrants and Muslims. That's what concerns us. When the keys to the empire are turned over to a President Trump, he's going to be able to use and build on some already pretty expansive executive branch authorities, and we can't count on Congress to be any check on his powers at all, I'm afraid.

So the way that we're looking at this is really kind of the way that we've always organized, which is to focus at the local level and work to build -- well, we're calling it building walls of resistance around communities, so that people can protect the rights of everyone in their community, particularly their most vulnerable neighbors, Muslims and immigrants, LGBTQ folks, and people of color. And I think that's where our energy's going to go.

I wanted to draw you out further on that, because I think that people are looking and have been looking to other levels of government, to community, local, even statewide, as a site for resistance. But those structures need support, and in some cases they need creating. So I wonder if you could tell us a little more about the campaign that the committee has to use local laws and resolutions to protect civil liberties.

It's not necessarily an easy task we have ahead of us, because there are a number of different programs that we need to be worried about where local action can be taken to protect people. And so what we've drawn up is two different model ordinances that communities can use to ask their city councils or their county councils to enact in order to -- the theory behind the model legislation is to break the ties between local police and the federal law enforcement and intelligence and immigration enforcement agencies. So it really relies on an idea of noncooperation, so that local police are not supporting federal programs to oppress and repress and discriminate.

And are protecting their right to opt out of that.

Exactly. So that's one angle of it. And then, the other angle that's always been necessary is to restrict local police from profiling people in a discriminatory manner -- you know, pulling people over because they're African-American, or because they're Muslim, or something like that. So enacting really strict nondiscriminatory policing laws is also key to that.

So those are kind of the ways that the legislation can work, and the ways that communities need to organize to get them passed is to build strong coalitions, which they should be doing anyway in their communities.

Right now, I feel like that's happening a lot: People are reaching out at the community level to talk to their neighbors and different organizations that they might be working with, and trying to figure out, OK, how are we going to work together to confront this? So I think that makes the progressive movement stronger, and that's what we're going to need.

Absolutely. You sort of touched on this. I think it's important that we identify policies or proposals as bad or as harmful because we think they're bad or harmful, and not because they come from Donald Trump.


It seems to me that the people who are losing the most here -- are in the most real danger, besides to their feelings -- they seem to be the ones saying most strongly that the status quo ante is not the goal, that we really want to not just go back to where we were, but to try to work to create something better.

Yeah, I think that's very true. And then, from what I heard, the statement that came out of the Black Lives Matter movement today was, our work goes on the same as it has been. It's not like things were wonderful under a President Obama, and so we know what we've got to do, and we've been doing it. We just need to do it harder now.

Exactly. On a different tack, I wonder what you make of something like this op-ed that ran in The Washington Post, where the writer, Petula Dvorak, says that people who are out in the street protesting Trump are protesting democracy, and that those street protests are equivalent to something like spray-painting a swastika on a synagogue. How do you react to a media figure saying something like that?

Yeah, that's incredible to me. I didn't read her op-ed, but it's interesting. So she's got a platform from which to speak her ideas. Millions of people in the United States do not have a platform that she has, and our only way to communicate our concern about a Trump presidency is to be out in the street. And so I think that's appalling, I think it's -- you know, she's a journalist, she can say whatever she wants. I'm more worried about when that point of view comes from people who are potentially going to be part of a Trump administration.

The sheriff of Milwaukee, whose name I'm forgetting right now, he said some very incendiary things about protesters and how one should respond to protests, which he called riots. So that's really my concern. Journalists are going to -- you know, haters are going to hate, it's when they're in positions of power and authority over us that I really get concerned.

And just to be clear, we have a right to peaceful protests, do we not? I mean, I think a lot of people who never thought of doing it want to do it, and voices that tell them that it's destructive, that it goes against the founding principles of democracy, I think that can be a real discouragement to people.

Oh, it's absolutely, it's absolutely unacceptable. Absolutely. But it's a constant refrain. Whenever there are large protests, there are always voices in the media, and voices even among elected officials and authorities, that put down the protesters and call them all sorts of unjustified things. And that's absolutely not acceptable. We have a right to be out there, and in fact a duty to be out there. That's what a democracy is. It doesn't start and end in the voting booth. People need to remain active and engaged in civil society, and we say, dissent is essential to democracy.

Let me just ask you finally, before the election many in the media had seemed to talk about Trump as if he were a joke. And they would say critical things about him… but we know the tendency to normalize, a word we're hearing a lot lately, and frankly also to curry favor. So I have some doubts about where media are going to put their focus going forward, corporate media. Because I see a lot of elements out there that are growing up in resistance, that could be showcased, that media could be covering -- those stories of what organizers are doing. I'm concerned that that won't happen. But from your perspective, what could a press corps do that would be wind at your back for the work that you're doing? What kinds of stories, what kinds of reporting, do you think would be helpful at this point in time?

I think covering the concerns of people, and what people are doing constructively to really strengthen their communities, I think that would be essential. I agree with you that the corporate media is -- they know that Trump is not a strong proponent of the First Amendment, and they know that he's attacked even corporate media, right? And so, if they think they're going to be able to win his favor by being nice to him, I think they're wrong, and I think they'll just be ruining their reputation.

But we really count on the alternative media and folks who are independent of corporate funding, and we rely on those outlets to get the word out. And I think, more and more, that's where people are turning, rather than your corporate media. Because they totally let us down during this election cycle.

We've been speaking with Sue Udry. She's executive director of the Bill of Rights Defense Committee and Defending Defense Foundation. You can find them online at Sue Udry, thank you very much for joining us this week on CounterSpin.

Thanks so much, Janine.

News Mon, 05 Dec 2016 10:26:59 -0500
#NoDAPL: Why the Black Snake Isn't Slain

 Atop his horse, Prophesy, JJ Stadel of the Cheyenne River Sioux of South Dakota celebrates after learning that permits would not be approved for a section of the Dakota Access Pipeline, at the Oceti Sakowin protest camp, just outside the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation in Cannon Ball, North Dakota, December 4, 2016. (Photo: Alyssa Schukar / The New York Times) Atop his horse, Prophesy, JJ Stadel of the Cheyenne River Sioux of South Dakota celebrates after learning that permits would not be approved for a section of the Dakota Access pipeline, at the Oceti Sakowin protest camp, just outside the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation in Cannon Ball, North Dakota, December 4, 2016. (Photo: Alyssa Schukar / The New York Times)

Yesterday, as caravans of veterans continued to join the thousands of veterans already converging in Standing Rock, as part of a lauded "self-deployment" aimed at shielding Water Protectors from further police violence, an unexpected victory was announced by the Army Corps of Engineers: The long-awaited easement permit that would allow completion of the Dakota Access pipeline (DAPL) would be withheld pending an environmental impact study. Celebrations, both personal and public, erupted around the country, as Natives and other Water Protectors and supporters absorbed the news that eight months of collective action and prayer had yielded this moment, when the power structure itself blinked in the face of our unity.

For eight months, Water Protectors have held up calls to "kill the black snake" as a battle cry in Standing Rock. The phrase is a reference to a Lakota prophecy that says there will be a great black snake that will run through the land and bring destruction to the people and to the Earth. Now, politicians are being applauded and nonprofits are sending out fundraising emails that claim the black snake is, at long last, dead.

But here's the thing: As long as there is money in this pipeline, there's a good chance oil will follow. I have heard numerous arguments to the contrary, and would of course prefer for one of those arguments to prove true. Some believe that the pipeline will be rerouted, as the Army Corps of Engineers again hinted was possible (a "victory" that would be wholly incomplete, as the movement's goal is to "kill the Black Snake," not resituate it). Others have pointed out that the contracts that have kept the project funded are set to expire in the near future. But history has taught us that the Army Corps' efforts to placate Water Protectors have no substantive value. The idea that this struggle might be resolved by a reroute effort rings hollow after so many months of dangled hopes and ongoing police violence. This administration has taken no concrete action to stop the pipeline, and has once again kicked the can down the road -- this time into the hands of the Trump administration. And while it's true that environmental impact statements can in fact take years to complete, no attention to detail -- either legal or environmental -- should be expected under a president-elect who has promised to govern in the style of an autocrat.

Before his surprise presidential victory, Donald Trump actually campaigned in Bismarck -- the 90 percent white capital of North Dakota -- speaking in support of extraction projects and pipelines like DAPL. Trump has made his intentions clear, and he will soon have all the power of the executive branch. He has outlined his plans with regard to struggles like this one, and we can't afford not to take our autocrat-elect at his word.

In response to Sunday's news, Energy Transfer Partners and Sunoco Logistics stated that the corporations remain "fully committed to ensuring that this vital project is brought to completion and fully expect to complete construction of the pipeline without any additional rerouting in and around Lake Oahe," adding that, "Nothing this Administration has done today changes that in any way." By referring to the authority at hand as "this Administration," the corporate forces at work are clearly laying their cards on the table. They are betting on Trump, which seems a reasonable gamble.

In a response statement, the Sacred Stone encampment noted the companies' remarks and added, "The Trump administration could easily approve the project early next year." The Protectors also noted that, "The Obama Administration has never guaranteed the water protectors or the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe that they would use force to stop Dakota Access from drilling under the river without a permit, if necessary."

We must be prepared for a rollback of our present gains under Trump, unless we continue to pressure those with the power to stop this pipeline. It's not over until the money runs out, and while a number of funding contracts expire on January 1, financial contracts are not magic carriages that turn into pumpkins at midnight. If those investing in the pipeline still believe it will be a profitable venture (which, with the Trump administration about to take power, it well could be) they will not shut off the flow of cash.

Fortunately, we, the public, have something to say about whether or not this project remains profitable. Supporters and Protectors around the country have targeted financial institutions with protests and direct actions. Some have moved their money out of these banks to encourage them to divest from the pipeline project. And those efforts should continue.

In my years of organizing, I have learned that concessions should not be met with less action, but with more. When the opposition is weakened, in any way, we should swing harder until whatever we are fighting simply can't pull itself from the floor again. This round may have been won, but there will be more battles to come, and if we do not remain vigilant, I have no doubt we will lose them.

In Trump and Energy Transfer Partners, we are dealing with intractable enemies. Both have stated their intentions, in no uncertain terms, with no regard for the law or the wishes of the current administration. And while President Obama may have skirted a potential stain on his legacy, the days ahead could bring more struggle than ever before.

Of course, I could be wrong. This whole project could crumble at our feet in the coming days in the wake of this blow, but no available evidence indicates Energy Transfer Partners will relent. With $3.7 billion at stake, corporate interests have repeatedly aligned with state power to incarcerate, brutalize and torture our people in order to push us from the path of this pipeline -- both literally and figuratively. We as Native people have been underestimated at every turn, but we cannot afford to underestimate the enemies of our survival now.

That's why, if you support this cause, you must continue to fight. Don't let this story fade into the background of a moment rife with political conflict and discord. Do not stop talking about what our people are up against, or what they've endured so that the struggle could come this far. Do not stop moving your money. Do not stop rolling into banks associated with this pipeline, causing disruptions and shutting them down. Be as educated as you can, not just about DAPL, but about environmental racism, colonialism and the fight for Native sovereignty. If you have become a part of this movement moment, remain a part of this constellation of action and prayer, because it's not over, and you are still needed.

I realize that some may feel I am minimizing a victory or taking a cynical view. I would argue that skepticism -- as opposed to cynicism or outright optimism -- is strategic. And we have to be strategic right now. Whether we are talking about actions at small bank branches, staged by troupes of friends who are new to movement work, or those braving the elements in Oceti Sakowin -- almost 10,000 strong in a snowy landscape of empowered peoples -- this is a story that remains unfinished. We are all armed with pens, and so is the other side, and I for one intend to keep writing.

All of that said, this is a moment of great joy and pride for many of us. Having repeatedly traveled to the front lines to lend whatever assistance I could, and with a number of friends having made a home there, I was more than moved when I heard about this development. As I sat in a restaurant with a friend, discussing television shows and holiday plans, I received word and found myself weeping and unable to focus on the messages I was receiving from friends, each echoing news we could barely believe. Those tears continued in sporadic episodes for hours, and as I write these words, on the night of this victory, I know I will probably continue to lose my composure. While others have sacrificed much more, I have given my heart to this struggle, and to its stories, which I have strived to tell in the name of justice and so that my people may live. I know I am not alone in this feeling of relief, knowing that we may have more time to wage this fight. And I am sure I am not the only one who felt as though my ancestors were watching as we gained this ground.

And yet, no one I know on the ground in Standing Rock intends to leave after hearing this news. They do not believe that Energy Transfer Partners will stop drilling, as the company has refused to honor restrictions placed upon it in the past. My friends likewise don't believe that Trump will respect any effort to reconsider the path of the pipeline. The people I know and love in Standing Rock have dug in for a full fight, and their heels remain grounded in the soil of Lakota country.

It is our duty to likewise dig in, wherever we are, and fight with every tool at our disposal until the Black Snake is dead and gone. Our freedom, and the survival of the natural world itself, depend on our ability to stay united and oppose these acts of violence, against both land and human beings. We know that amid the havoc of climate change, all life on Earth hangs in the balance. With so much at stake we must not relent. So keep swinging. And don't stop until our enemies can't pull themselves from the floor.

Mni Wiconi. And it must always be protected.

Opinion Mon, 05 Dec 2016 00:00:00 -0500
Donald Trump and the Republicans: The Art of the Steal

President-elect Donald Trump listens to Vice President-elect Mike Pence at the Carrier plant in Indianapolis, on December 1, 2016.  (Photo: AJ Mast / The New York Times)President-elect Donald Trump listens to Vice President-elect Mike Pence at the Carrier plant in Indianapolis, on December 1, 2016. (Photo: AJ Mast / The New York Times)

During the campaign Donald Trump boasted that he could kill someone on Fifth Avenue and it wouldn't affect his standing among his supporters. Whether or not this is true, this appears to be the approach that Trump and his fellow Republicans are taking to their role in governing. The basic story is that they can rip off the public as much as they want, because ain't no one going to stop them. They could be right.

The most immediate issue is Trump's refusal to sell his assets and place the proceeds in a blind trust. This was a practice followed by every president in the last half century. The idea is that the president should be making decisions based on what they think is good for the country, not based on what they think will fatten their pocketbooks.

Trump's proposal in this area is essentially a joke. The idea is he turns over the operation of his empire to his kids. It's not clear how this helps at all. His kids will never discuss any business issues with him and also have no opportunity to discuss policy with their father or father-in-law?

Perhaps more importantly, he knows what properties are in his empire. This means that if he decides to make an issue of the crackdown on opposition by Turkey's president, Recep Erdoğan, it is likely that Erdoğan will retaliate against the Trump resorts in Turkey. The same applies to his dealings with many other countries.

We shouldn't have to rely on a "trust me" pledge from the president that the financial interests of his family will not be a consideration in his foreign policy. That is exactly why prior presidents put their assets into a blind trust. And, there is little reason to believe that Trump is more honest than our past presidents.

It is also important to realize that divestment of Trump's empire is not an insoluble problem. The key is to have an appraisal process, which would set a value on his assets. Trump can then lock in this price by buying an insurance policy, which would protect him from the risk that the assets may be sold off at a lower price than the appraisal. The proceeds from the sale of properties would be put directly in a blind trust. Any extra funds go to a designated non-Trump affiliated charity.

From the point of the appraisal forward, Trump would have no financial stake in his empire. That would end this huge conflict of interest problem.

It appears that Trump's indifference to problems of conflict of interest is likely to extend to his top appointees as well. Politico reported on evidence that Steven Mnuchin, Trump's nominee as treasury secretary, used the money from a tax exempt foundation under his control, to engineer a lobbying campaign. According to the article, when Mnuchin was chair of the bank OneWest, he used funds from the bank's foundation to make payments to nonprofits that later lobbied on the bank's behalf.

If Politico's information is accurate, and the payments were in fact made to support a lobbying campaign, then it would be a clear case of tax fraud. A nice twist to this story is that as treasury secretary, Mnuchin would be responsible for overseeing the IRS.

We have yet to see the full list of top level appointees, but it is already clear that it will include some of the richest people in the country. Wlibur Ross, the billionaire private equity fund manager, is slated to head the Commerce Department. His pick for secretary for the Department of Education is Betsey DeVos, an heir to a multibillion-dollar fortune.

If Trump refuses to hold himself to the same ethical standards as past presidents, it is difficult to believe that he will pressure his cabinet and top advisers to avoid conflicts of interest. And given the wealth of some of his appointees, there will be plenty of opportunity for conflict.

In fact, it looks like the tidal wave of conflicted government has already spilled over to the legislative branch. Senate Majority leader Mitch McConnell announced that he will not recuse himself from voting on Elaine Chao, Trump's pick to head the Department of Transportation. Chao also happens to be McConnell's wife.

When it comes to ethics in government, presidents usually start out setting high standards which they don't always live up to. By refusing to put his holdings in a blind trust, Trump is starting in the sewer. It is likely to go down from there.

Opinion Mon, 05 Dec 2016 10:49:14 -0500
We've Been Sold a Lie for Two Decades About Genetically Engineered Foods

It appears Europe has been right all along to renounce genetically engineered (GE) crops. An in-depth examination recently published by The New York Times found that GE crops have largely failed to achieve two of the technology's primary objectives: to increase crop yields and decrease pesticide use.

(Photo: Unsplash)(Photo: Unsplash)

Editor's note from AlterNet: The terms GE (genetic engineering) and GMO (genetically modified organism) are often used interchangeably, but their meanings are different. GMOs, which are produced when plant breeders select genetic traits that may also occur naturally, have been around for centuries. Common examples are seedless watermelons and modern broccoli. The subject of much recent debate are GE foods, which have only been around in recent decades and are produced by transferring genes between organisms. The resulting GE organisms -- either plant-, or in the case of GE salmon, animal-based -- would not otherwise occur in nature. This article is about GE foods.

In 1994, a tomato known as Flavr Savr became the first commercially grown genetically engineered food to be granted a license for human consumption. Scientists at the California-based company Calgene (which was scooped up by Monsanto a few years later) added a specific gene to a conventional tomato that interfered with the plant's production of a particular enzyme, making it more resistant to rotting. The tomato was given the all-clear by the US Food and Drug Administration.

Since then, both the United States and Canada have embraced the genetic engineering of food crops, while Europe has broadly rejected the use of such technology. Only five EU nations -- the Czech Republic, Portugal, Romania, Slovakia and Spain -- grow GE crops, and in such minor amounts that all five countries make up less than 0.1 percent of GE cultivation worldwide.

It appears Europe has been right all along to renounce GE crops. An in-depth examination recently published by the New York Times found that GE crops have largely failed to achieve two of the technology's primary objectives: to increase crop yields and decrease pesticide use. Pesticides in particular have come under increasing fire in recent years, not only for their negative impact on human health and wildlife, but for decimating populations of key food crop pollinators; specifically bees, which we rely on to pollinate a third of food crops.

While consumer awareness of the effects of pesticides has grown, the ongoing battle over GE crops has largely zeroed in on whether or not such foods are safe to consume. But as Times investigative reporter Danny Hakim points out in his article about the paper's analysis, "the debate has missed a more basic problem" -- that GE crops have "not accelerated increases in crop yields or led to an overall reduction in the use of chemical pesticides."

Analyzing academic and industry research, as well as independent data, the Times compared results on the two continents and found that the "United States and Canada have gained no discernible advantage in yields -- food per acre -- when measured against Western Europe." The paper also cited a recent National Academy of Sciences report that found "little evidence that the introduction of GE crops were resulting in more rapid yearly increases in on-farm crop yields in the United States than had been seen prior to the use of GE crops."

New York Times: Behind the Times?

For many farmers, researchers and activists, the Times' conclusion was not news. Ronnie Cummins, co-founder of Organic Consumers Association, a nonprofit advocacy group based in Minnesota, told AlterNet that the paper's analysis simply "confirms what many of the world's best scientists have said for years: GE crops have benefitted no one except the corporations selling the chemicals required to grow them."

"I'm glad that the New York Times has now discovered what those of us in agriculture have known for 20 years, that the old and exaggerated claims of genetic engineering by Monsanto and their allies are bogus," Jim Gerritsen, an organic farmer, told AlterNet. "They have not panned out and I'm glad that now the newspaper of record has made this clear to a lot of people." Gerritsen and his wife Megan have owned and run Wood Prairie Family Farm in northern Maine for 40 years. "A lot of us have been saying this for a long time," he said.

While it may not be news for those working toward a more sustainable food system, the Times story was unexpected. Andrew Kimbrell, executive director of the Center for Food Safety, an environmental nonprofit based in Washington, DC, told AlterNet that the Times piece is "a surprising ray of light illuminating the longstanding GE crops debate." He said that the paper "for so many years had ignored the science about genetic engineering and bought the Big Lie" that Monsanto and its cohorts have been telling the public for so long: "that GE crops 'reduce pesticide use, increase yield and are key to feeding the world.'"

Seeing Through Monsanto's Propaganda

These recent findings fly in the face of Monsanto's stated claim that "the introduction of GM traits through biotechnology has led to increased yields." But the company is sticking to its guns. When shown the Times' findings, Robert T. Fraley, the company's chief technology officer, claimed the paper had selectively chosen the data in its analysis to put the industry in a bad light. "Every farmer is a smart businessperson, and a farmer is not going to pay for a technology if they don't think it provides a major benefit," said Fraley. "Biotech tools have clearly driven yield increases enormously."

On its website, Monsanto backs its claim by citing statistics reported by PG Economics, a UK-based agricultural industry consultancy. However, that firm that has been exposed as a corporate shill by, a UK-based nonprofit that tracks deceptive PR practices. PG Economics has been commissioned to write reports on behalf of industry lobby groups whose members include the Big Six agrichemical giants: BASF, Bayer, Dupont, Dow Chemical, Monsanto and Syngenta.

"Most of the yield advancement since GE crops were first commercialized is attributable to traditional breeding techniques, not the GE traits," Mark Kastel, co-founder of the Cornucopia Institute, a farm policy research group based in Wisconsin, told AlterNet. Kastel, who worked for several agribusiness giants including International Harvester, J.I. Case and FMC before making what he calls the "paradigm shift to sustainable farming," said that since GE crops were introduced in the US, farmers have experienced boom-and-bust cycles and today are "generally hurting," regardless of the scale of their farming operations. "GE crops have not been a panacea for economic sustainability," he said.

Instead, GE crops have been a source of financial growth for the agrichemical industry. Kimbrell said that the Big Six "make tens of billions of dollars in profits by selling ever more pesticides, especially herbicides. Why would they spend hundreds of millions of research dollars and then billions in advertising and lobbying to promote crops that actually 'reduce pesticides' and thereby destroy their bottom line? Are these companies committing economic suicide in an altruistic attempt to feed the world? Obviously not. You can accuse Monsanto of many things, including myriad corporate crimes over many decades, but altruism is not one of them. The vast majority of [genetically engineered crops] are not designed to decrease herbicide use, but to massively increase it."

A Toxic Plague

The Times' Hakim notes that, according to US Geological Survey data, while insecticide use has actually fallen by a third since GE crops were introduced in the US in the mid-'90s, herbicide use has exploded, growing by more than a fifth over that same period. French farmers, by contrast, have been able to reduce insecticide use by a far greater margin -- 65 percent -- while decreasing herbicide use by more than a third. "Although some insecticide use has been reduced, overall agrochemical applications have grown exponentially," said Kastel. 

American tomatoes may take longer to rot than their conventionally grown European counterparts. But with GE tomatoes being one of the most pesticide-contaminated foods in the US food supply -- not to mention the fact they won't feed more people (there'll be a staggering 8.5 billion of us by 2030, 11.2 billion by 2100) -- the Flavr Savr is just a trick, and perhaps ultimately a dangerous one. While the real toll of industrialized GE agriculture on human and environmental health is hard to calculate, its track record is dismal. By some estimates, pesticides have killed an estimated 250 million bees in a just a few years. The Times reported that some commercial beekeepers have lost more than a third of their bees in 2013. Pesticides have also impacted populations of fish, amphibians and songbirds.

But it's not just wildlife that suffers. The general public is ingesting pesticides on a regular basis. Kastel notes that "eaters are consuming copious amounts of biological insecticides built into the genome of corn," adding that "the cumulative health impacts are unknown." People who live near GE crops have to contend with an additional health impact: pesticide drift, agrichemicals blown into their communities by the wind.

The heavy reliance on pesticides has started a vicious cycle, leading to the rise of pesticide-resistant superweeds. "Weeds and insects are becoming resistant to the herbicides and genetic insecticides that are spliced into the plants," said Gerritsen. "To combat resistance, some farmers are using a chemical cocktail of multiple herbicides while biotech companies are introducing resistance to even more powerful and toxic chemicals." He estimates there may be 60 to 80 million acres of farmland in the US with "superweeds" that have built up a resistance to RoundUp. Cummins said superweed resistance has forced farmers to "use higher and higher amounts of increasingly dangerous poisons" so that "soils are eroded and degraded. Water is polluted. Foods are contaminated. And to what end?"

It may take years, even decades to fully understand the unintended consequences of industrialized agriculture. "These chemicals are largely unknown," David Bellinger, a professor at the Harvard University School of Public Health, told the New York Times. His research has linked the loss of millions of IQ points among children 5 years old and younger in the US to a single class of insecticides. "We do natural experiments on a population," he said, referring to human exposure to agrichemicals, "and wait until it shows up as bad."

Activists of the World, Unite

Hakim also points out that "profound differences over genetic engineering have split Americans and Europeans for decades," noting that anti-GE sentiment across the pond has been much more active, with Monsanto drawing the ire of thousands of protesters in cities like Paris and Basel, as GE opposition is firmly established as a primary plank of Europe's Green political movement.

The prospect of a Monsanto-Bayer merger has only galvanized the opposition in Europe, even as activists recognize new and different kinds of challenges ahead. Jan Perhke of the Coalition Against Bayer-Dangers, a German NGO, says that Bayer's diversification has made it a more difficult target than Monsanto, whose business is simple: GE seeds and pesticides. Monsanto, which has emerged as the primary worldwide target of the anti-GE movement, has been steeped in controversy recently, particularly since RoundUp's main ingredient glyphosate was deemed a "probable carcinogen" by the World Health Organization in 2015.

"We have tried to put the focus not only on Monsanto, and to let people know that behind Monsanto there are many agrochemical multinationals which are very big and also have very dangerous products," Perhke told DW. There has been speculation that, if the merger goes through, Bayer will drop the Monsanto name, which would force activists to rebrand their campaigns.

Many anti-GE activists can be found in Vermont, the first state to pass GMO-labeling legislation. In its 2016 report "Vermont's GMO Addiction: Pesticides, Polluted Water, and Climate Destruction," the nonprofit group Regeneration Vermont describes the terrible impact chemical-based industrial agriculture has had on the state's economy and environment:

The true nature of GMO agriculture in Vermont today is a stark and dangerous difference from the promises of its corporate advocates. According to data collected by the Vermont Agency of Agriculture, pesticide use is up 39% and increasing rapidly while, at the same time, new pesticides are being added to the arsenal. Climate-threatening nitrogen fertilizers have been up about 17% per year in the decade of GMO's rise to dominance (2002-2012) and climbing as our denuded soils require more and more inputs for high production. And the pollution to our climate, water and soil from these increases continues to rise, keeping us on a steady degenerative decline, environmentally, economically and culturally.

Lining Corporate Coffers

"The great economic promise of genetically engineered crops has flowed primarily to bankers, suppliers and the biotechnology industry," said Kastel. "Rather than improving the bottom line, it enabled farmers to grow larger and automate crop production with fewer people involved."

The agrichemical industry is the chief beneficiary of those economic benefits. Over the past 15 years, the combined market capitalizations of Monsanto and Syngenta have grown more than sixfold. And these companies are profiting on both ends. "They sell the seeds and the poisons sprayed on those seeds. Great for their bottom line, terrible for the rest of us and the planet," said Kimbrell. "For Monsanto and the other chemical companies, genetically engineering crops is just another way to significantly increase profits." If the mergers of Monsanto and Bayer on one side, and Syngenta and ChemChina, a Chinese state-owned agrichemical company, on the other, were to go through, the two newly created behemoths would each have combined values in excess of $100 billion.

Meanwhile, bees are dying in worrisome numbers, in part due to the increased use of neonicotinoids, a dangerous class of pesticides produced by Syngenta, Bayer and Dow Chemical and commonly used on GE corn, soybean, canola and cereal, as well as many fruits and vegetables. But because bees work for free, the estimated $15 billion in ecosystem services they provide to society each year is not included in economic calculations.

Is It Too Late?

Even as crop yields have shown no improvement versus conventional methods, US growers have increased their use of herbicides as they have converted key crops -- including cotton, corn and soybean -- to modified varieties. Meanwhile, American farmers have been overtaken by their counterparts in France, Europe's biggest agricultural producer, in the overall reduction of pesticides.

Is it too late for the US and Canada to get off this ruinous track of industrialized agriculture? For advocates of sustainable agriculture, regenerative agriculture and agroecology -- who seek to place farming within the context of natural ecosystems as opposed to objects of chemical-based production -- the answer is a resounding no.

"Research has shown that agroecologically based methods -- such as organic fertilizers, crop rotation and cover crops -- can succeed in meeting our food needs while avoiding the harmful impacts of industrial agriculture," argues the Union for Concerned Scientists, a nonprofit advocacy group based in Cambridge, Massachusetts. "As farmers incorporate these practices into their work, many benefits emerge: Less pollution. Healthier, more fertile soil that is less vulnerable to drought and flooding. A lighter impact on surrounding ecosystems, resulting in greater biodiversity. Reduced global warming impact. Less antibiotic and pesticide resistance."

In fact, a 2015 global study conducted by researchers at Washington State University and published in the peer-reviewed Proceeding of the National Academy of Sciences found that despite lower yields, the profit margins for organic agriculture are significantly greater than conventional agriculture. Part of that increased profit margin may come from not having to pay a premium for Big Ag's seeds and pesticides.

"Why would a farmer want to pay a premium for RoundUp Ready soybeans if the RoundUp is no longer working?" Gerritsen says. "What has been happening, widespread, is that farmers are going back to non-GE soybeans and growing them as they did before the RoundUp Ready soybeans came in 20 years ago. Then, the best among them have figured out that there is a growing market worldwide for a non-GMO soybeans." He notes that some US farmers raising conventionally grown, non-GMO soybeans have found competitive markets in Asia, where they receive a premium for their produce. An added benefit for these farmers is that they can save their seeds instead of having to buy them each season from Monsanto, which actually leases its seeds and regulates them as intellectual property. For thousands of years prior, seeds were considered a part of the wealth of the commons, free and available to anyone who planted and grew crops.

But moving from industrial agriculture to organic farming isn't easy, especially when the transition period to get organic certification exposes growers to financial risk. The authors of the Washington State University study say that the impetus for change must come from policymakers, who should "develop government policies that support conventional farmers converting to organic and other sustainable systems, especially during the transition period," a 36-month withdrawal period from the time a farmer last used an unapproved material, like a pesticide.

But considering the powerful Big Ag lobby, getting policymakers to help farmers move to organic is a daunting task. Gerritsen acknowledges that "it's hard to out-gun the tremendous resources of Monsanto and what basically amounts to a calculated propaganda effort to misrepresent reality, to gain position and dominance." He says the deck is stacked against farmers. "Sadly, this is nothing new to agriculture. The history of agriculture is one where farmers who were spread out and independent by nature and by geography have a hard time competing with the concentrated power structures within agriculture. This has gone on for 150 years. Only now, the accelerated rates of concentration is no more stark than in the seed industry. Just a small handful of companies now control the vast majority of world seed resources. Monsanto is chief among them."

If regulators approve the $66 billion Bayer-Monsanto merger, the resulting corporation would have control of nearly a third of the world's seed market and nearly a fourth of the pesticide market.

"In all probability, one story, albeit a major one, is probably not enough to finally debunk Monsanto and friends' Big Lie about GE crop technology," Andrew Kimbrell said about the Times' analysis. "You will probably continue to see the common sense-defying claims for a while yet. But if as the ancients said, the truth is like a lion; just let it loose. Then maybe we can finally go past the already failed but still dangerous GE experiment and move to an ecological agriculture that really will reduce and eventually eliminate pesticides and provide a secure sustainable food future for us all."

Whether or not the US and Canada will move toward a more sustainable agricultural model remains to be seen. But one thing is certain: The 20-year-old experiment with genetically engineered crops has proven to be a false promise, suggesting that the creation of completely new organisms is better left in the hands of Mother Nature, not scientists in laboratories.

"When you begin to genetically engineer organisms by mixing plant and animal genes, you now have the ability to alter ecosystems, which can have unintended consequences," Robert Colangelo, founding farmer and CEO of Green Sense Farms, America's largest network of commercial and sustainable indoor vertical farms, told AlterNet. "Mankind does not have a good track record when it tries to alter nature."

News Mon, 05 Dec 2016 10:44:10 -0500
Top Scientists: Amazon's Tapajós Dam Complex "a Crisis in the Making"

The Tapajós River, Brazil. More than forty dams would turn this free flowing river and its tributaries into a vast industrial waterway threatening the Tapajós Basin’s ecosystems, wildlife, people, and even the regional and global climate. (Photo: International Rivers on Flickr, licensed under an Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0) license)The Tapajós River, Brazil. More than 40 dams would turn this free-flowing river and its tributaries into a vast industrial waterway threatening the Tapajós Basin's ecosystems, wildlife, people and even the regional and global climate. (Photo: International Rivers on Flickr, licensed under an Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0) license)

Brazil is forging ahead with plans to build a vast hydropower dam complex in the heart of the Amazon that would convert the now remote and wild Tapajós river system into a tamed industrial waterway for the purpose of transporting soybeans -- development that scientists and NGOs say will threaten Amazonian biodiversity, ecosystems, traditional livelihoods, indigenous cultures, and the global climate.

A total of 42 large dams are planned or under construction in the Tapajós Basin, a biologically and culturally rich region, and one of eight areas of Amazonian biological endemism. Fed by tributaries in the states of Mato Grosso, Rondônia and Amazonas, the main stem of the Tapajós flows northeast through Pará state, and drains into the Amazon River at the city of Santarém. The Basin covers 189,962 square miles (492,000 square kilometers) and is more than twice the size of the UK.

Its forests and waterways are home to species such as the jaguar, giant otter, and river dolphin, as well as little-known and range-restricted species found nowhere else in the world. Many plants and animals here remain unknown to science. Traditional river communities and indigenous people rely upon the basin's natural resources for their livelihoods.

A lowland tapir (Tapirus terrestris) swimming across a river. This is just one of many threatened species in the Tapajós region, a vast area recognized as one the Amazon’s eight areas of biological endemism. (Photo © Tom Ambrose)A lowland tapir (Tapirus terrestris) swimming across a river. This is just one of many threatened species in the Tapajós region, a vast area recognized as one the Amazon's eight areas of biological endemism. (Photo © Tom Ambrose)

Dams are slated for construction on the Tapajós River, as well as on its principal tributaries, the Jamanxim, Juruena and Teles Pires rivers; the 7 major dams prioritized in Brazil's 2013-2022 Ten Year Energy Expansion Plan for the Tapajós River and Teles Pires Basin would together put 1,479.5 square miles (3,831.9 square kilometers) underwater.

Amazon Scientists: "Effects Would Clearly Be Devastating"

The recent suspension of the largest of these, the São Luiz do Tapajós dam, was hailed as a conservation and human rights victory: if it remains unbuilt, then 280 square miles (722 square kilometers) of forest will be spared inundation. There is, however, concern that this dam won't stay dead, with rumblings throughout Brazil's Temer administration that the suspension of São Luiz do Tapajós will be reversed.

But no matter: there will be many severe impacts from the more than 40 other dams, especially when all of them are considered together, warns Philip Fearnside, an expert on Amazonian development and deforestation. Reservoirs flood forests, displace people, emit greenhouse gases (especially in the tropics), and disrupt the flow of water downstream and between river channels and floodplains.

In opening up barge and ship navigation from Mato Grosso state to the Amazon River and the Atlantic Ocean, the industrial waterway will promote the expansion of the soy industry, driving further major deforestation in the Amazonian interior. Negative interactions between dam construction, industry, and additional infrastructure -- including major new roads and railways -- coupled with human migration into the region, will trigger a cascade of indirect impacts on the forest ecosystem, unless plans are changed drastically to mitigate these impacts.

"The effects would clearly be devastating, both for the ecology and connectivity of the greater Tapajós Basin as well as for its diverse groups of indigenous peoples," William Laurance, a professor at James Cook University, Australia, and a leading authority on tropical rainforest ecology, told Mongabay. "It is not overstating matters to term this a crisis in the making."

A female jaguar (Panthera onca) pauses on a riverbank. Even species that aren’t typically associated with rivers, such as jaguars, make use of riverbanks to hunt for prey. (Photo © Tom Ambrose)A female jaguar (Panthera onca) pauses on a riverbank. Even species that aren't typically associated with rivers, such as jaguars, make use of riverbanks to hunt for prey. (Photo © Tom Ambrose)

Stewart Maginnis, global director of IUCN's Nature-based Solutions Group, and former director of its Forest and Climate Change Program, shares this concern: "The impacts on freshwater biodiversity, indigenous people, and the opening up of new areas for agriculture bring the risk of further deforestation and land-use changes in the Amazon Basin."

Despite the immensity of these potential impacts, the public is still mostly unaware of the "complexity and ambitions" of the plans in the Tapajós, says prominent Amazon conservation biologist Thomas Lovejoy, director of the Center for Biodiversity and Sustainability at George Mason University, and senior fellow at the UN Foundation.

Plan Benefits Construction Firms, Energy Industry and Agribusiness

One factor driving the so-called "Tapajós Complex" forward is the Brazilian government's appetite for hydroelectric energy production and for funding big infrastructure projects.

Fearnside argues that these national energy needs have not only been "greatly exaggerated," but that they could easily be met by alternative power sources. "The projections [of Brazil's future energy needs] ignore all limits, [and forecast] astronomical electricity use within a few years," statistics that are then used to justify the planned hydroelectric projects, he says.

The building of mega-dams (including the recently completed but controversial Belo Monte Dam) has hugely benefited Brazil's gigantic construction firms, along with the nation's ruling political parties, who in the past have received very generous campaign contributions from contract-winning companies.

Construction is already underway at the São Manoel dam site on the Teles Pires river, with three other dams completed or nearing completion. The Teles Pires is a major tributary of the Tapajós River. (Photo by International Rivers on Flickr, licensed under an Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0) license)Construction is already underway at the São Manoel dam site on the Teles Pires river, with three other dams completed or nearing completion. The Teles Pires is a major tributary of the Tapajós River. (Photo by International Rivers on Flickr, licensed under an Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0) license)

"The first priority [for Brazil should be] to use less electricity," argues Fearnside, a professor at Brazil's National Institute of Research in the Amazon (INPA). And if the country needs to move beyond energy efficiency to increase production, then "Brazil has enormous potential for wind and solar power."

Another driving force behind the Tapajós Dam Complex is the "tremendous pressure" from the soy industry, which stands to reap major benefits from the cheap improved transportation afforded by the industrial waterway. That is coupled with the importance of soy exports to the Brazilian economy, significance vastly magnified by the current urgency of Brazil's severe economic crisis.

Together, these factors mean that "there is much political willingness to facilitate [Tapajós development] regardless of the consequences" asserts Fearnside. Links between government and agribusiness are stronger than ever, with one of Brazil's largest soy planters, Blairo Maggi, recently appointed as the Minister for Agriculture. "The largest of the Maggi family's 12 properties would be served by the first branch of the planned waterway, the Teles Pires branch," Fearnside notes.

Because hydroelectric projects facilitate lock-building and the flooding of otherwise impassable rapids, the 40+ new dams are inextricably linked with, and vital to, the planned industrial waterway. Laurance and Fearnside see the resulting "all-or-nothing" approach to dam construction as especially dangerous. Without the need for the industrial waterway some hydroelectric dams might not be a priority for the government at all.

In the Name of National Security

A major concern in the Tapajós Basin is that the government will turn a blind eye to potential social and ecological impacts, bulldozing a path forward. In the past, the Brazilian government has repeatedly used national "security suspensions" as a means of overturning environmental licensing restrictions and thwarting social resistance to major infrastructure projects including dams, opting instead for economic growth -- which is deemed a national security imperative.

This legal provision is a holdover from Brazil's 1964-1985 military dictatorship. Indeed, the "security suspension" provision has already been used to make way for four new dams already under construction on the Teles Pires River, a Tapajós tributary. Though a judge ordered two of those dams stopped, the decision was overruled via a "security suspension."

Soy and forest in the Brazilian Amazon. The soy industry will be one of the main beneficiaries of the Tapajós industrial waterway, which will open up barge and ship navigation between Mato Grosso state, the Amazon River, Atlantic ports, and beyond. Because dams facilitate lock-building, and the flooding of formerly impassable rapids, they and their reservoirs are inextricably linked with the plans for the waterway. Scientists are concerned about the resulting “all or nothing” approach to this rapid infrastructure development. (Photo by Rhett A. Butler)Soy and forest in the Brazilian Amazon. The soy industry will be one of the main beneficiaries of the Tapajós industrial waterway, which will open up barge and ship navigation between Mato Grosso state, the Amazon River, Atlantic ports and beyond. Because dams facilitate lock-building, and the flooding of formerly impassable rapids, they and their reservoirs are inextricably linked with the plans for the waterway. Scientists are concerned about the resulting "all or nothing" approach to this rapid infrastructure development. (Photo by Rhett A. Butler)

Meanwhile numerous measures are being moved through the Brazilian Congress that, if passed, could fast track the dams. In addition, the government -- apparently in preparation for Tapajós Complex construction -- has in recent years quietly reduced the size of major federally protected areas along the region's rivers, eliminating protections to floodplains in order to anticipate and prevent any legal conflict with the dams and their reservoirs when the projects were finally initiated.

The fear among NGOs and indigenous groups is that government officials are setting the stage to quickly green light dam construction throughout the Tapajós Basin. "Governmental indifference, bordering on hostility, to the natural systems in the earth's last large tropical forest ecosystem is nothing short of outrageous," says Lawrence Hurd, a professor at Washington and Lee University, USA.

Hydrological Impacts

One of the most immediate and direct effects of any dam is the obstruction of water: downstream flow, seasonal fluctuations, and natural flood pulses are all diminished and controlled by dams and reservoirs -- doubly so in rainforests which can fluctuate between very wet flood seasons, and very dry seasons with low water.

Dams interrupt essential natural connections, blocking the flow of nutrients, sediments, and aquatic life between headwaters and river channels downstream, and across floodplains.

"Hydrological connections sustain the ecological, economic and cultural integrity of the Tapajós River system," Woods Hole Research Center, USA, scientist Marcia Macedo explains. "The Tapajós Hydroelectric Complex would fundamentally change the flow of water" in the basin.

Michael Coe, an earth system scientist also at Woods Hole, sees the "complete re-engineering of the free-flowing river system" as a real cause for concern, because "even very small changes in flow timing and magnitude can cause very large changes in ecosystem processes. In particular, I worry about the health and viability of the riparian zones along these rivers," says Coe.

A nesting beach used by the Giant Amazon River Turtle (Podocnemis expansa). The reservoirs created by Tapajós Basin dams will flood hundreds of square miles, and radically alter the flow of water within the river systems. Aquatic and floodplain habitats will be altered and destroyed, including nesting beaches such as this one. (Photo by Camila Ferrara)A nesting beach used by the Giant Amazon River Turtle (Podocnemis expansa). The reservoirs created by Tapajós Basin dams will flood hundreds of square miles, and radically alter the flow of water within the river systems. Aquatic and floodplain habitats will be altered and destroyed, including nesting beaches such as this one. (Photo by Camila Ferrara)

Another impact of blocked flow: the concentration of methylmercury in reservoirs, and downstream from reservoirs -- a partial result of the mercury that is used in gold mining in the Amazon. Once consumed by fish, the toxin bio-accumulates up the food chain; those at the top, such as large predators and people, consume the highest quantities of this toxic metal which poses a serious health risk. Amazon dams have sometimes shown dangerous levels of methylmercury -- a real risk on the Tapajós, which already sees high concentrations of this toxic compound in some parts of the river.

All of these negative hydrological impacts are compounded and magnified when multiple dams are built in series along the same river, or in a river system, which would happen all across the Tapajós Complex.

But despite these clear cumulative impacts being "much larger than the sum of the parts" as Coe puts it, threats are always evaluated by the government on a dam-by-dam basis, and cumulative impacts are not considered.

Many scientists argue that for the Tapajós Complex to be evaluated properly, all the dams must be analyzed together and in advance, in order to gain a clear perspective regarding the cumulative environmental effects of altered flows.

Biodiversity Impacts

The hydrological changes wrought by the construction of the Tapajós dams will have profound effects on the species living within the freshwater ecosystem: connectivity is crucial for healthy and genetically diverse populations.

A rufescent tiger heron (Tigrisoma lineatum) caught in the act. Species such as this will see both their habitat and their fish prey impacted by dam construction. (Photo © Tom Ambrose)A rufescent tiger heron (Tigrisoma lineatum) caught in the act. Species such as this will see both their habitat and their fish prey impacted by dam construction. (Photo © Tom Ambrose)"It is easy to predict the overall impact of dams on fish species communities: diversity will decrease both above and below the dams, some species will go extinct locally and, because tropical fish often have limited ranges of occurrence, regionally as well," Hurd, who studies tropical fish diversity, told Mongabay.

Mitigating these impacts is all but impossible, he explains. That's why he sees the development of the Tapajós as a looming "environmental disaster." Dams change water flow, depth, temperature, sedimentation, and oxygen levels, and Amazonian "[f]ish species are exquisitely adapted to these environmental characteristics."

The dams would also act as barriers to movement and migration, making annual spawning runs upstream impossible for many species, says WWF-Brazil's science program coordinator Mariana Napolitano Ferreira. Dam-obstructed migration has already been documented for giant catfish elsewhere in the Amazon basin. Although some efforts to incorporate fish ladders into dams have been made in the past, these have not been successful. And even if fish are able to somehow return upstream to spawn, juvenile fish coming back downstream may find their way past dams impassable.

Changes in fish populations will be felt by their predators, including two species of river dolphin, says researcher Claryana Araújo, of the Federal University of Goiás, Brazil. Freshwater dolphins also risk population fragmentation and isolation by some of the planned dams, she says.

Turtles will lose habitats and nesting beaches to dam reservoirs. "[I]nundating such massive areas of forest will destroy the populations of 11 species of turtles," with 6 facing complete extirpation due to the destruction of their foraging habitat and nesting areas, Richard Vogt, turtle conservationist at INPA, told Mongabay.

Some species, such as the giant Amazon river turtle (Podocnemis expansa) migrate hundreds of kilometers to return to their historic nesting beaches over their 80-100 year lifespans, Vogt explains, so "destroying these sites will affect the integrity of these populations" and "disrupt the ability of these species to find mates."

A pair of capped herons (Pilherodius pileatus). The connectivity of the Amazon’s freshwater habitats is crucial for aquatic species, but is threatened by dam construction which diminishes the flood cycles that naturally inundate the floodplain. (Photo © Tom Ambrose)A pair of capped herons (Pilherodius pileatus). The connectivity of the Amazon's freshwater habitats is crucial for aquatic species, but is threatened by dam construction which diminishes the flood cycles that naturally inundate the floodplain. (Photo © Tom Ambrose)With Tapajós Basin reservoirs putting thousands of hectares of forest underwater, hundreds of species living on river islands, along riverbanks, and within the floodplain forest would see their habitat disappear. Numerous protected conservation areas and their forests and wetlands would be affected too.

Threatened species in the region include the giant armadillo (Priodontes maximus), giant anteater (Myrmecophaga tridactyla), white-cheeked spider monkey (Ateles marginatus), and oncilla, or little spotted cat (Leopardus tigrinus).

Construction of the Tapajós Complex would also see the "[d]irect loss of habitat for many bird species," Alexander Lees, an ornithologist at Cornell University, USA, told Mongabay. "The region is home to a suite of restricted range bird species, all of which are poorly known and already at risk of global extinction because of forest loss."

Those at greatest risk include the Golden-crowned Manakin (Lepidothrix vilasboasi); the Tapajós Hermit (Phaethornis aethopygus); the Tapajós Scythebill (Campylorhamphus cardosoi), which was only recently described by science; and the Cone-billed Tanager (Conothraupis mesoleuca) "which remains Critically Endangered and very poorly known," Lees says.

Once indirect deforestation is taken into account -- due to the building of dam service roads, electric transmission lines, plus towns to support construction workers -- habitat loss and fragmentation becomes even more serious.

Laurance, who has studied the impacts of road construction on deforestation, sees this indirect impact as an even greater threat to forest cover than the dams themselves. "Such roads frequently open a Pandora's Box of illegal activities, such as forest encroachment, wildfires, poaching, illegal logging, that are highly destructive to forests and wildlife," he states.

Social and Economic Impacts

For the many thousand people belonging to indigenous groups and traditional riverine communities in the Basin, rivers and forests are central to their way of life, and the Tapajós Complex will bring unwelcome change. But even people living in cities are being affected by the vast undertaking. The cities of Santarem and Itaituba have, for example, already been impacted as soy port infrastructure has been put in place, bringing new jobs, but also adding to urban problems such as pollution, crime and overcrowding.

Indigenous Munduruku living on the Teles Pires River taking part in a mapping workshop. Indigenous people and river communities have seen, and will continue to see, territory lost, fisheries disrupted and depleted, and food security diminished, with the construction of the Tapajós Complex dams. (Photo by International Rivers on Flickr, licensed under an Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0) license)Indigenous Munduruku living on the Teles Pires River taking part in a mapping workshop. Indigenous people and river communities have seen, and will continue to see, territory lost, fisheries disrupted and depleted, and food security diminished, with the construction of the Tapajós Complex dams. (Photo by International Rivers on Flickr, licensed under an Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0) license)

The Chacorão Dam alone, on the Tapajós River, "would flood 11,700 hectares [45 square miles] in the Munduruku Indigenous Land", reveals Fearnside, who recently highlighted a series of actions taken by the government to chip away at legal restrictions on big infrastructure projects, threatening indigenous territories.

In an earlier interview for Mongabay, Brent Millikan, the Amazon Program Director at the NGO International Rivers, said that the socio-environmental conflicts associated with the Tapajós Complex "have been closely associated with chronic violations of human rights and environmental legislation, the undermining of democratic institutions, authoritarianism and, ultimately, rampant corruption."

"A human rights crisis, driven by the flooding of indigenous territories and forced relocation of indigenous villages -- which is illegal under Brazil's constitution -- would be exacerbated by the loss of fisheries, reduced fertility of fertile floodplains, and polluting of clean water sources," says Amazon Watch's Christian Poirier.

The "grim consequences" of hydropower development for fish, turtles and mammals have knock-on effects on the human population, as these species "form the basis of local food security and livelihoods" for resident communities, Poirier notes.

Hurd elaborated further, saying that migratory fish are both "the most important source of protein for regional human populations" and "perhaps the most immediately vulnerable victims of dam construction." These fish also form the basis for regional commercial fisheries in the Tapajós Basin. Their loss would force the Basin's human population to look elsewhere to meet its protein needs.

Camila Jericó-Daminello, a research analyst with the Conservation Strategy Fund (CSF), studied the possible economic impacts of just one of the dams, the São Luiz do Tapajós project, were it to go ahead. "Considering negative economic impacts on household incomes, water provision, and climate regulation, the environmental costs associated with the project, but not formally accounted for [in official environmental assessments], are at least BRL $1.9 billion (USD $590 million) considering a 30 year timeframe," she observes.

"Despite the scale of these costs, almost no information about the dam had until recently been shared with civil society and local populations," says Jericó-Daminello.

The main stem of the Tapajós River, one of the last great undammed rivers of the Amazon. When combined with the Juruena River, it flows for roughly 1,200 miles through the heart of the Amazon rainforest. Scientists continue to discover species that are new to science here. An Environmental Impact Assessment for just one proposed dam uncovered eight new mammal species. (Photo by Zoe Sullivan)The main stem of the Tapajós River, one of the last great undammed rivers of the Amazon. When combined with the Juruena River, it flows for roughly 1,200 miles through the heart of the Amazon rainforest. Scientists continue to discover species that are new to science here. An Environmental Impact Assessment for just one proposed dam uncovered eight new mammal species. (Photo by Zoe Sullivan)

Although São Luiz do Tapajós is currently on hold, these financial predictions hint at the astronomical economic costs if the remaining 40+ dams are constructed. The full social and economic price of the Tapajós Complex have yet to be analyzed, and no overall evaluation has ever been put before the people most likely to be impacted.

As Isabel Rosa, a researcher at the German Center for Integrative Biodiversity Research notes, Brazil has a large indigenous population deeply reliant on the Amazon rainforest: "If the Brazilian legal system is not doing its job in protecting its citizens' interests, who will?"

Climate Impacts

Although dams are traditionally promoted as clean energy sources, there is increasing recognition among scientists and policymakers that hydropower reservoirs (especially in the tropics) are far from green: carbon dioxide and methane -- a greenhouse gas more than 20 times as potent as CO2 -- are both released in significant amounts from organic matter in submerged soils and decaying vegetation.

The Amazon's living forest usually acts as a carbon sink, sequestering CO2 and keeping it out of the atmosphere. "Accelerated forest loss" due to reservoirs and further forest clearance for roads, from illegal logging and other causes, will therefore "have significant impacts in terms of carbon emissions," Rosa notes. Coe adds that "Brazil's contribution to global climate change" would increase as a result.

"The worst-case scenario indicates an indirect effect of infrastructure development [in the Tapajós] of over 200,000 square kilometers [77,220 square miles] of deforestation," reveals climatologist Carlos Nobre, program scientist of Brazil's National Institute for Climate Change, which would be "very serious," with "some level of regional climate change, such as increased temperatures," expected if deforestation on this scale takes place.

A storm over an agricultural landscape in the Braziliam Amazon. The Amazon forest generates more than half of its own rainfall, and deforestation affects the way water is recycled into the atmosphere, with forest clearance leading to more drought. Scientists warn that the local and global climate could be affected by the Tapajós Complex. (Photo by Rhett A. Butler)A storm over an agricultural landscape in the Braziliam Amazon. The Amazon forest generates more than half of its own rainfall, and deforestation affects the way water is recycled into the atmosphere, with forest clearance leading to more drought. Scientists warn that the local and global climate could be affected by the Tapajós Complex. (Photo by Rhett A. Butler)

Scientists know that the loss of forest cover changes the way water cycles through an ecosystem, with less water returned to the atmosphere. Because the Amazon generates much of its own rain through this evapotranspiration process, major deforestation can lead to rainfall reductions, and, in the extreme, to severe drought.

These rainfall losses won't only be felt in the Amazon: 'Well over half of the rain that falls over Southern Brazil [beyond the Amazon's boundaries] is originally put into the atmosphere by trees in the Amazon Basin," says Abby Swann, a scientist studying the links between ecosystems and climate at Washington University, USA.

One consequence of this forest clearance/reduced rainfall relationship is significantly lower river levels, which would reduce the generating capacity and economic viability of the hydropower dams that triggered the deforestation in the first place.

The outlook over the longer-term is uncertain, but these climatic impacts could be devastating, not just for Brazil but for our planet.

"I think the Amazon is pretty close, at 20 percent deforestation, to the tipping point of unraveling the hydrological cycle right now," said Amazon researcher Lovejoy. "The historic droughts of 2005 and 2010, and the drought this year, are, I believe, early flickers and warnings."

Lovejoy sees the combined deforestation impacts of the Tapajós Complex as potentially sufficient to "push the system beyond the tipping point," meaning that rainfall levels would decrease to the extent that they could no longer maintain the current Amazon ecosystem. The rainforests would begin to die.

If that happens, another tipping point is of concern to scientists: the time at which the Amazon rainforest as a whole stops sucking carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and ceases being a carbon sink, and instead becomes a carbon source, sending the greenhouse gases long held in its trees into the sky.

A night monkey (Aotus sp.). With the coming of dams, indirect deforestation due to additional infrastructure (transmission lines, roads, enlarged settlements, etc.), pose an even greater threat to forest cover than the dams and reservoirs themselves. Amazon dams and the roads they spawn also increase access for illegal loggers. Rainforest wildlife suffer widespread habitat loss and fragmentation as a result. (Photo by Rhett A. Butler)A night monkey (Aotus sp.). With the coming of dams, indirect deforestation due to additional infrastructure (transmission lines, roads, enlarged settlements, etc.), pose an even greater threat to forest cover than the dams and reservoirs themselves. Amazon dams and the roads they spawn also increase access for illegal loggers. Rainforest wildlife suffer widespread habitat loss and fragmentation as a result. (Photo by Rhett A. Butler)

Alarmingly, indications of such a shift are already showing up, even without the massive deforestation projected for the Tapajós Basin. Record 21st century droughts have temporarily shut down the Amazon carbon sink -- another example of those SOS "flickers and warnings" coming from the Amazon ecosystem. A permanent shutdown would have huge implications for the global climate, but predicting when this tipping point will be reached is not easy. "[T]here is still a lot of uncertainty in how tropical forests are, and will, respond to climate change," Swann emphasizes.

Nobre's studies indicate that the threshold may lie not close to 20 percent deforestation as Lovejoy suggests, but at 40 percent deforestation. "From that perspective, one should be cautious not to encourage further deforestation because there are other drivers of change [that are] also reasons of concern," he says. For example, warming of 4 degrees Celsius would also trigger serious feedbacks within the forest system, so "unchecked global warming presents a great danger of reaching a tipping point."

The truth is that our science isn't yet robust enough to know precisely where these tipping points are. But scientists like Lovejoy and Nobre warn that our wholesale destruction of Amazon forests is playing with fire. In a recent interview, when asked what he saw as the greatest threat to the Amazon, Lovejoy responded: "The intersection between uncoordinated infrastructure and the hydrological cycle."

Calls for Action

Scientists and NGOs say that Brazilian hydropower development needs to change in two major ways if this "crisis in the making" is to be averted. First, the infrastructure licensing process must be strengthened, not weakened. Second, the cumulative effects of multiple dam development across entire drainage basins must be considered and respected during the planning process.

"The biggest policy priority for freshwater conservation in the Amazon is restructuring the legal process for approval of large hydroelectric projects like the Tapajós Dam Complex," Macedo says.

"Social and environmental externalities need to be included in cost benefit analyses and used during decision making processes," Jericó-Daminello adds. "Indigenous people's rights must also be recognized, including [their] involvement throughout the licensing process and in providing consent (or not!) for projects."

A royal flycatcher (Onychorhynchus coronatus). Scientists urge Brazil to take an integrated, basin-wide approach to hydropower development in the Amazon, and to pursue alternatives to hydropower for energy production in order to protect the region’s vast web of life. (Photo © Tom Ambrose)A royal flycatcher (Onychorhynchus coronatus). Scientists urge Brazil to take an integrated, basin-wide approach to hydropower development in the Amazon, and to pursue alternatives to hydropower for energy production in order to protect the region's vast web of life. (Photo © Tom Ambrose)

Fearnside sees a vigorous defense of the existing dam licensing process against the many attacks now underway in Brazil's Congress as an urgent priority. "Despite its many problems, [the licensing system] is essential to keeping consideration of environmental and social impacts in the picture, as shown by the recent archiving of the São Luiz do Tapajós [dam]," he asserts.

Especially alarming to Fearnside and others is that the Congress, partly under the aegis of Agriculture Minister Maggi, has gone so far as to propose a constitutional amendment (PEC 65) that would essentially gut environmental and indigenous protections.

Integrated, basin-wide assessments of dam impacts, and the maintenance of free-flowing rivers within watersheds, are just some of the approaches scientists are urging Brazil to adopt. "It is of fundamental importance that the set of dams now being planned should be assessed as a set," says WWF-Brazil, in a report outlining their conservation vision for the Tapajós basin.

Scientific tools exist to facilitate this approach, which could form "part of a proactive planning process for Brazil's energy infrastructure," says Jericó-Daminello, pointing to CSF's Hydrocalculator Tool, which includes evaluation of the social, economic and climate implications of proposed infrastructure developments -- an analysis that can be performed to include and compare multiple projects. Using this tool during the planning stage "would greatly improve environmental and likely economic impacts."

But ultimately, a shift from hydropower to other sources of energy production is called for, say experts: "Alternatives exist that allow the country to have a diversified energy matrix that is clean and secure and that would be competitive from the economic and environmental standpoint," WWF-Brazil states in their report.

"What is needed is forest restoration not further deforestation," concludes Lovejoy. "I think it is time to rethink the plans for Amazon energy."

News Sun, 04 Dec 2016 00:00:00 -0500
International Implications of Canada's Kinder Morgan Pipeline Approval

Canadian Prime Minister Trudeau's recent decision to approve a major expansion of the Kinder Morgan Trans Mountain pipeline has negative implications that go well beyond the borders of the Great White North.

Canada is currently the largest supplier of oil to the United States. We export more oil to the US than Saudi Arabia, Venezuela and Mexico combined. We are a secure, stable and reliable trading partner with the US for a product that can make or break their economy.

Right now, Canada has almost zero ability to transport its oil to anywhere other than the United States. There is no big spigot off of our east, west or north coasts that allows for overseas export to other markets, particularly in Asia. 

Approving the Kinder Morgan Trans Mountain pipeline expansion changes all of that, and for the first time Canada might be capable of shipping significant amounts of oil to markets other than the United States (assuming the project is actually completed -- a big question mark given ongoing First Nations' legal challenges and resistance from British Columbians).

This fact has got to have the attention of the US government. Their stable, reliable and secure oil supply is now, for the first time in history, under threat of going to other markets.

What Is President-elect Donald Trump Thinking About This?

I would bet this announcement is on President-elect Trump's radar. Trump has promised to renegotiate or even terminate the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) with Canada and Mexico. Trump has also promised to restart the process of building the Keystone XL pipeline that would significantly expand transport capacity for tar sands oil from Canada to the United States and foreign export markets via the Gulf of Mexico. 

While there is no doubt a benefit to Canada diversifying the customer base for its oil products, it may come at the expense of ticking off our biggest customer to the south. In the complicated world of geopolitics and oil, who knows where this could lead.

Trudeau Just Knocked Over the First Domino 

Here is a graph showing the largest proposed oil and gas projects in the world, along with the carbon emissions they will put into our atmosphere:

2016 1204tr 1

According to a report earlier this year by Oil Change International, if these projects are built, we are toast. Burnt toast that is.

It is crucial to the earth's climate that the projects represented in this graph are never built. Canada is in that top five as you can see, and you can also see that some not-too-cooperative countries are also in the top five, including Russia and Iran. 

What kind of message does Trudeau's approval of the Kinder Morgan Trans Mountain pipeline project send to these other countries like Russia, Iran and Qatar?

I don't think it is much of a stretch to say that if there was any inkling of hesitation amongst these other countries to not proceed with building their own new pipelines, that has all been thrown out the window with Trudeau's decision. 

In fact, it is most likely that many of the countries in this graph will speed up their timelines, so as to maintain a competitive edge in the oil market over us Canadians. 

Oceans Have No Borders

The Kinder Morgan pipeline expansion will increase oil tanker traffic from around 60 tankers per year to more than 400. So instead of a massive oil tanker coming through Vancouver's waterfront and the Burrard Inlet on average every couple of weeks, we will now see on average one a day.

Experts have always said that when it comes to oil tankers, spills are not a question of if, but when. We have been relatively lucky so far that the only major spill from the existing Trans Mountain pipeline happened on land. And no matter how prepared we could be for a spill in our Inner Harbor here in Vancouver (which history has shown not to be the case), the problem is likely not containable within our own borders.

According to media reports last year, the neighboring Washington State government is “worried about Canada's ability to respond to oil spills.” And they should be considering that the US-Canada ocean border is only a few miles from where all these oil tankers would travel through. The US San Juan islands for instance is a major tourism destination and home to diverse marine life, and is in serious risk from any spill that happens just up the coast.

First Nations communities on both sides of the border are tied together in the Salish Sea, which predates any borders. The Coast Salish nations, along with many other First Nations' communities, are strongly opposed to this pipeline and so we will see mounting opposition and court proceedings, with implications that will likely reach across the Canada-US border. 

Our friends in the US take on a lot of risk from a potential oil spill, but see none of the economic benefits of Canada's expanded oil export capabilities.

All risk and no reward is likely something that is not sitting too well with Washington State Governor Jay Inslee, who is a very vocal supporter of action on climate change.

What About the Paris Agreement?

The Paris Agreement, negotiated late last year by 195 countries, commits the vast majority of world leaders to dealing with the issue of climate change by committing to significantly reducing their country's greenhouse gas emissions over the coming decades.

At the time, newly-elected Prime Minister Trudeau and his Environment Minister Catherine McKenna were a breath of fresh air at the Pairs climate talks.  As much as we are a small country (by population), Canada is a significant player at these climate negotiations because per-capita we are historically a large emitter of greenhouse gas pollution. We also hold massive amounts of greenhouse gas reserves in our oil sands and other fossil fuel deposits. So to see Trudeau and McKenna step up at the Paris climate talks was a big deal. 

The Paris Agreement is both a functional document and a symbolic one, and in many ways its symbolism is the more powerful of the two.

The Paris Agreement sent a resounding message to the world that business-as-usual is no longer acceptable. It made clear to the global business community that the days of paying lip service to concerns about climate change is no longer acceptable, and markets have reacted. 

Speaking of lip service, did you hear about Prime Minister Trudeau approving a new expansion in oil sands pipelines that will lock in massive new amounts of carbon being pumped into our atmosphere? 

Somehow Trudeau and his government think they can reconcile a commitment to the Paris Agreement on climate change with the construction of a new pipeline that will greatly increase emissions of the very thing the agreement is trying to reduce.

On paper Trudeau might be able to make that case, but he is missing the real point of the Paris Agreement and that is the signal it sends out to the world. 

With Trudeau approving the Kinder Morgan pipeline expansion, he and his government have just thrown a big bucket of sloppy crude onto that clear and resounding signal the Paris Agreement sent out to the world. 

Between domestic unrest and the international ramifications, this pipeline decision will likely come to define much of Trudeau's time in government, which quite honestly I think is something this Prime Minister really didn't think through that well.

News Sun, 04 Dec 2016 00:00:00 -0500