DR Congo cancels timber contracts


The Democratic Republic of Congo government has cancelled nearly 60% of timber contracts in the world’s second-largest tropical rainforest, the BBC News website reports.

It follows a six-month review of 156 logging deals aimed at stamping out corruption in the sector and enforcing legal and environmental standards.

At the end of the World Bank-backed process, government ministers found that only 65 timber deals were viable.

New contracts will be issued for 90,000 sq km (35,000 square miles) of forest.

Environment Minister Jose Endundo told a news conference in the capital Kinshasa that the other agreements would be cancelled.

“I will proceed within the next 48 hours to notify those applicants having received an unfavourable recommendation from the inter-ministerial commission through decrees cancelling their respective conventions,” he was quoted as saying by Reuters news agency.

“Upon notification of the cancellation decision, the operator must immediately stop cutting timber.”

Mr Endundo also said the government planned to respect a moratorium, introduced during Congo’s 1998-2003 war but widely ignored, on granting new logging deals.

The BBC’s Thomas Fessy in Kinshasa says all the timber agreements were struck during the conflict.

Amid rampant corruption, huge concessions were gifted to logging companies, which paid almost no tax, he says.

Monday’s decision should reduce the surface area exploited by timber firms by up to half, according to our correspondent.

The Congo Basin is home to the second largest tropical forest in the world after the Amazon, but campaigners say it is being eaten away by logging, mining and agricultural land clearance.

Sarah Shoraka, of Greenpeace, says the new rules must be enforced to protect a vital resource.

“Real economic development is what’s needed,” she told the BBC’s Focus on Africa programme.

“We’ve highlighted tax evasion, and there’s often quite serious disputes between local people and these logging companies.

“The logging companies promise hospitals and schools and they hardly ever deliver these things on the ground.”

Source: BBC News website

Date: 19/01/2009

Challenge to plant methane link


The recent finding that plants could be a major source of the atmosphere’s methane is challenged by new research, reports BBC News environment correspondent Richard Black.

A 2006 study suggested plants could account for almost half of the global production of the greenhouse gas.

But a UK-based team now reports that under normal conditions, plants just convey methane from the soil to the air without actually producing it.

Writing in a Royal Society journal, they suggest identifying sources of methane is key for climate control.

The gas is about 20 times more potent, molecule for molecule, than carbon dioxide.

After remaining stable for almost a decade, there have been signs in the last two years that concentrations have begun to grow again, which according to some observers presages an era of faster-rising temperatures.

The research that sparked the debate was published almost exactly three years ago by a group from the Max Planck Institute for Chemistry in Mainz, Germany.

Frank Keppler’s team found that plants emitted methane from their leaves under normal growing conditions, although the output increased in high sunlight and high temperatures.

They suggested that plants possessed a hitherto undiscovered biochemical pathway that could generate the gas.

The finding surprised scientists, and other groups tried to replicate it – with mixed results.

“It just didn’t make sense, and wasn’t something that had entered into any of our minds,” said Ellen Nisbet, leader of the group that has just published the latest findings in the Royal Society’s Proceedings B.

“But then we looked at the details of the experiments they’d done, and they were clearly very well done – we just didn’t like the conclusions,” she told BBC News.

Part of her team’s work involved growing several different varieties of plant, including maize and rice, in media that contained no organic material, so eliminating the chances of methane being formed through decay in soil.

They found during these experiments, conducted in closed chambers, that the plants produced no methane at all.

In another experiment, they compared the genomes of several plants with those of bacteria that produce methane by biochemical pathways that are well understood.

Plants, they concluded, could not generate the gas by any known pathway because they do not possess the right genes.

In a third strand of investigation, Dr Nisbet fed basil plants with water containing dissolved methane.

Later, the air from that chamber was analysed and found to contain the gas. The team concludes that plants do emit methane during transpiration – the release of water from leaves – but only the methane they have absorbed in water from soil.

“I think this does tell us that the vast majority of methane emitted in normal growth conditions is explained by the absorption of methane in the soil water,” said Dr Nisbet, who conducted the research at the University of Cambridge but who now works at the University of South Australia in Adelaide.

In stressful conditions, such as high temperatures or high intensities of ultraviolet radiation, plants can begin to decay, which also emits methane – but this is not significant under normal conditions, according to this analysis.

Dr Keppler suggested the new research does not disprove his idea that a new methane-producing pathway in plants is awaiting discovery.

“The paper is adding transpiration as a source of methane – that’s a nice observation although not entirely new; it’s been found in other studies that rice plants act as tubes to conduct methane to the air,” he told BBC News.

“But we clearly showed in previous studies that emissions came from the plant itself.”

His research team is now actively looking for that elusive new biochemical pathway.

So the issue is clearly not completely settled yet.

Source: BBC News website

Date: 14/01/2009

Escaped beaver felling trees in SW England


A beaver that has been felling trees in south-west England after escaping from a farm is being hunted by conservationists, the BBC News website reports.

The beaver is one of three that broke out of the farm in Lifton, Devon, in October, owner Derek Gow said.  The other two have since been re-captured.

The last six-stone (38kg) animal is believed to be felling trees up to 20 miles (32km) away on the banks of the River Tamar, near Gunnislake, Cornwall.

Mr Gow said he was to use “honey traps” to find the missing animal.

Mr Gow keeps 24 of the animals under licence from government agency Natural England as part of a wildlife photography business.

He said the escaped animal was one of three that got out of Upcott Grange Farm and it was suspected the electric fence around the beaver pen failed after flooding in the area.

He said: “We’ve checked the fence, we can’t find any holes at all. We can’t think of any other way they might have got out.”

The other two, both females, were soon recovered after from a nearby lake, but not before they had felled a number of trees on the River Thrushel.

It is believed the male has travelled further in a bid to find a mate.

Mr Gow said: “I know where he is, but he’s occupying a territory of probably a kilometre in length.”

He added that he planned to catch the escapee by using a number of “honey traps”, boxes that have the scent of a female beaver.

“Using the scent from one of the female beavers, we’ll be able to catch the male beaver fairly quickly,” he explained.

Beavers were hunted to extinction in England and Wales during the 12th Century and disappeared from the rest of the country 400 years later.

They were hunted for their fur and throat glands, which were believed to have medicinal properties.

Source: BBC News website

Date: 30/12/2008

Hackers ‘aid’ Amazon logging scam


Hackers have helped logging firms in Brazil evade limits on tree felling, says a Greenpeace report.

The hi-tech criminals penetrated a computer system designed to monitor logging in the Brazilian state of Para, according to a report on the BBC News website.

Once inside the system, hackers issued fake permits so loggers could cut down far more timber than environmental officials were prepared to allow.

Greenpeace estimates that 1.7m cubic metres of illegal timber may have been removed with the aid of the hackers.

Drawing on information released by Brazilian federal prosecutor Daniel Avelino, Greenpeace believes hackers were employed by 107 logging and charcoal companies.

“Almost half of the companies involved in this scam have other law suits pending for environmental crimes or the use of slave labour,” said Mr Avelino in a statement issued by Greenpeace.

Mr Avelino is suing the companies behind the mass hack attack for two billion reals (£564m) – the estimated value of the timber illegally sold.

The Brazilian investigation of the hackers began in April 2007 and more than 30 ring leaders were arrested during the summer of that year. The ongoing investigation means that now 202 people face charges for their involvement in the subversion of the logging system.

The hack was made possible by a decision in 2006 to do away with paper forms to help monitor whether logging and charcoal firms were keeping to the quotas they were set.

Instead, the Amazon state of Para turned to a fully-computerised system that issued travel permits for the timber logging firms were removing. The intent was that travel permits would stop being issuedonce logging companies had reached their annual quota.

With the help of the hackers, Brazilian logging firms were able to issue fake permits allowing them to bust through these caps.

“We’ve pointed out before that this method of controlling the transport of timber was subject to fraud,” said Andre Muggiati, Greenpeace campaigner in Manaus. “And this is only the tip of the iceberg, because the same computer system is also used in two other Brazilian states.”

Source: BBC News website

Date: 15/12/2008

Urban tree loss hitting sparrow populations


The population of house sparrows in Britain has fallen by 68% in the past three decades, according to the RSPB.

A report by the charity said the paving over of front gardens and removal of trees had caused a big decline in insects which the birds eat.

It suggests that sparrows are now disappearing altogether from cities such as London, Bristol and Edinburgh, the BBC News website reports.

Dr Will Peach, from the RSPB, said many gardens had become “no-go areas for once-common British birds”.

Scientists from the RSPB joined forces with De Montfort University and Natural England to investigate the decline of the house sparrow.

They studied numbers in Leicester over a three-year period and found that they fell by nearly a third.

Dr Peach said every pair of house sparrows must raise at least five chicks a year to maintain the population, but many were starving to death in their nests or were too weak to live long after fledging.

The study did find that chick survival was higher in areas where insects, such as aphids, were more abundant.

Dr Peach said: “Peanuts and seeds are great for birds for most of the year, but sparrows need insects in summer – and lots of them – to feed their hungry young.

“Honeysuckle, wild roses, hawthorn or fruit trees are perfect for insects and therefore house sparrows.

“The trend towards paving of front gardens and laying decking in the back, and the popularity of ornamental plants from other parts of the world, has made many gardens no-go areas for once common British birds.”

He said gardeners could help sparrows by “being lazy, doing nothing and allowing the garden to be a little bit scruffy”.

The study, published in the journal Animal Conservation, concluded that the decline in house sparrows in Britain began in the mid-1980s.

In London, numbers fell by 60% between 1994 and 2004.

The house sparrow has been added to the list of species identified by the UK Biodiversity Action Plan as in need of greater protection.

Source: BBC News website

Date: 20/11/2008

UK city stages ‘tree-athlon’


Hundreds of trees have been planted in Greater Manchester as part of the city’s first “tree-athlon” event, reports the BBC News website.

About 500 people took part in a 5km (three-mile) run in Heaton Park, before each was given a sapling as a prize.

Competitors could either plant the tree at home or in specially-created woodland in the park after the event.

The race, which took place at 1430 BST, was organised by the charity Trees for Cities, which aims to raise money to plant trees in urban areas.

Councillor Richard Cowell, of Manchester City Council, said: “As well as cutting our carbon footprints, trees are an important part of our response to climate change and our drive to become Britain’s greenest city.

“Whether you’re taking part in the Tree-athlon or the Tree Party, this is a wonderful opportunity for families and young people to enjoy a good day out whilst learning about the importance of trees.”

Trees for Cities has been running greening projects in Greater Manchester since 2005.

It works in partnership with the Red Rose Forest, one of 12 Community Forests in England that are regenerating the environment in and around many of England’s urban centres.

Source: BBC News website

Date: 05/10/2008

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