Monthly Archives: March 2012

The “Mystery” of X-37B

Very few people know the purpose behind the Air Force’s X-37B, even while it continues to orbit close to a Chinese space lab.The military’s mysterious, experimental unmanned space plane is doing such a good job that its mission has been extended indefinitely–if only anyone knew what its mission was.  Details on the mission involving the X-37B are virtually nonexistent. The official U.S. Air Force fact sheet says the vehicle is being used as an “experimental test program to demonstrate technologies for a reliable, reusable, unmanned space test platform for the U.S. Air Force.”

In November, the Air Force announced that the X-37B’s mission was being extended beyond its planned 270 days. At a breakfast with reporters Thursday, General William Shelton, head of the Air Force Space Command, said the mission, whatever it is, has been extended indefinitely.”We don’t have an exact re-entry date for it, but we’ve had a successful mission and we’re very happy with its performance,” he said. “That vehicle is performing a great service.”

Asked to give adjectives for the X-37B, he offered up “spectacular,” and “game-changing.”  In January, Spaceflight magazine reported that the vehicle is closely following the orbit of China’s spacelab, Tiangong-1, leading the magazine to suspect that the X-37B is spying on that satellite.  “Space-to-space surveillance is a whole new ball game made possible by a finessed group of sensors and sensor suites, which we think the X-37B may be using to maintain a close watch on China’s nascent space station,” Spaceflight editor David Baker told the BBC in January. China is expected to send manned missions to Tiangong-1 later this year.Other experts have refuted Baker’s claims, speculating that the X-37B could be used to covertly deploy smaller satellites, while conspiracy theorists have wondered if the X-37B could deliver weapons from space.

Here’s what is known about the X-37B: The 29-foot ship was built in a Huntington Beach, Calif., lab by Boeing. It looks like a miniature, solar-powered version of a space shuttle, and it’s the second “orbital test vehicle” the military has launched into space–the first was launched in 2010. The Air Force calls it the “newest and most advanced re-entry spacecraft,” and it has the ability to land autonomously. Technologies being tested “include advanced guidance, navigation and control, thermal protection systems, avionics, high temperature structures and seals, conformal reusable insulation, lightweight electromechanical flight systems, and autonomous orbital flight, reentry and landing.”

Beyond that, the X-37B has been shrouded in secrecy–from its mission to its budget. Thursday, Shelton repeatedly dodged questions about what the military is up to with the ship.”I think there’s a good reason to keep [the budget of the X-37B] as quiet as we possibly can,” he said. “If you reveal budgets, you sometimes reveal the capabilities, the amount of technology inserted into a program. It’s a good, strategic national security decision

Jason Koebler, Military’s Secret ‘Space Plane’ Mission Extended Indefinitely: Very few people know the purpose behind the Air Force’s X-37B, even while it continues to orbit close to a Chinese space lab,chicagotribune.com, May 26, 2012

Legally Blank: floating armouries targeting pirates

Private security firms are storing their guns aboard floating armouries in international waters so ships that want armed anti-piracy guards can cut costs and circumvent laws limiting the import and export of weapons, industry officials say.  Companies and legal experts described the operation of the armouries as a “legal gray area” because few, if any, governments have laws governing the practice. Some security companies have simply not informed the governments of the flag their ship is flying, industry officials said.

Storing guns on boats offshore really took off as a business last year. Britain — where many of the operators are from — is investigating the legality of the practice, which has received little publicity outside of shipping industry circles.  Floating armouries have become a viable business in the wake of increased security practices by the maritime industry, which has struggled for years to combat attacks by Somali pirates. But those in the industry say the standards vary widely.  Governments and industry leaders “need to urgently address standards for floating armouries and get flag state approval,” said Nick Davis of the Maritime Guard Group. “Everything has got to be secured correctly, recorded, bonded, the correct locks, and so on. It’s not just a case of find a room, put some weapons in it and everybody chill out.Some floating armouries did not have proper storage for weapons, enough watchmen, or enough space for guards to sleep indoors, forcing them to sleep on deck, he said.  In the absence of applicable laws, he said, “companies are just being economical with the truth.”….

There are between 10 and 12 ships operating as floating armouries at any one time. About half a dozen are located in the Red Sea, three off Fujairah in the United Arab Emirates and a couple off the island nation of Madagascar, said Thomas Jakobsson of Sea Marshals Ltd.  “Many companies are too small to be able to comply with regulations. It costs a lot of money,” he said. His company only used floating armouries licensed by the Djibouti government and flew the flag of landlocked Mongolia, he said. He believed most of the rest were not operating legally, he said.

The increase in the use of floating armouries comes amid a rise in the number of shoot-outs between suspected pirates and private security companies. In February, two Italian marines shot and killed two Indian fishermen the Italians had mistaken for pirates. The investigation may set legal precedents for future shootings by armed ship guards.

A ship that uses a floating armoury will pick up weapons from it at the beginning of its travels through dangerous waters, then drop them off to another floating armoury at the end of the dangerous part of the voyage.

Companies use floating armouries because it’s cheaper for clients than having to take their ship into port to pick up escorts and because there are so many restrictions on bringing weapons into the region around Somalia. Several companies said Middle Eastern nations like Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Yemen were particularly sensitive about foreigners bringing in weapons since the start of political uprisings in the Arab Spring.

Lawyer Alan Cole, the head of the anti-piracy programme at the UN Office on Drugs and Crime, also said taking arms into coastal nations can be a complex process.  Regulations vary from country to country. In the island nation of the Seychelles, police come onboard and lock the armoury, he said. In Mauritius, weapons must be taken off a ship as soon as it is docked and stored in the police lockup.  Regulations can change from day to day, becoming so fluid that ships may put out to sea with armed guards onboard only to find rules have changed once the ship has reached its destination. Egypt, Oman and Kenya all changed the rules regarding the transport of firearms within the past month, Davis said.

But in international waters, the only country with jurisdiction over a ship is the state whose flag the ship is flying. Many ships fly flags from countries like Liberia or Panama, where regulations can be relatively lax.  Even if companies are trying to comply with the law, part of the problem is that legislation has not kept pace with the rapid growth of the maritime private security industry, said Adjoa Anyimadu, a piracy expert at British think tank Chatham House.

“There’s lots of calls — particularly from the shipping industry — for there to be more regulation,” she said. Britain was working on it, she said.  Since February, all British companies and citizens working in maritime security — or providing services to British ships — have to abide by a new regulation governing firearms. The regulation does not contain any standards for floating armouries.

Piracy fighters use floating armouries, Associated Press, Mar. 22, 2012

Managing Radioactive Waste in the United States

Radioactive waste from dozens of states could soon be buried in a Texas dump near the New Mexico border after Texas officials gave final approval Friday (March 23, 2012) to rules allowing the shipments.  Texas lawmakers in 2011 approved the rural Andrews County site to take the waste and the Friday’s unanimous vote by the Texas Low-Level Radioactive Compact Commission cleared a major hurdle to allow the waste burial.  Texas already had a compact legal with Vermont to take its waste. Environmentalists have argued against expanding the program to 36 more states, warning it could result in radioactive material rumbling through the state on trucks with few safeguards in case of an accident. They also say a problem at the waste dump could lead to potential underground water contamination.

Dallas-based Waste Control Specialists, which owns and operates the site, insists it will be safe.

JIM VERTUNO, Texas officials approve radioactive waste dump, Associated Press, Mar. 23, 2012

Low level Radioactive Waste Locations in the United States

Shell in Nigeria: Oil Pollution and Human Rights Abuses

A group of 11,000 Nigerians launched a suit against Royal Dutch Shell at the London High Court on Friday, (March 23, 2012) seeking tens of millions of dollars in compensation for two oil spills in 2008 that they say destroyed their livelihoods. The case will be closely watched by the industry for precedents that could have an impact on other big claims against Western oil companies accused of polluting poor countries, including Chevron’s protracted dispute with Ecuador.

SPDC, a Shell-run joint venture between Nigeria’s state oil firm, Shell, EPNL and Agip, has admitted responsibility for two spills that devastated the Bodo fishing communities in the restive Niger Delta, where a maze of pipelines criss-cross mangrove swamps and creeks.  But Shell and the London lawyers representing the claimants disagree about how much oil was spilt and how much compensation they should get. Talks to resolve it broke down last week.  “They made an offer and the community quite rightly said this is ridiculously low,” said Martyn Day, of the London law firm Leigh Day & Co, who is leading legal proceedings. He said his hope was to resume negotiations with Shell at some point.  Day declined to say how much Shell had offered. He said his clients would be claiming “many millions of dollars” through the High Court, but there was no precise figure because there were 11,000 claimants so far but more might join the action later.

Shell says 4,000 barrels of oil in total were spilt in Bodo in 2008 as a result of operational failures and a clean-up was completed in 2009. It says that since then, more oil has been spilt due to sabotage and oil theft, known as “bunkering“…..

Day disputed this. He said experts had put the amount spilt because of Shell’s two operational failures at 600,000 barrels, and that any bunkering that took place in the area would account for no more than 1 percent of that.  In a report in November 2011, human rights group Amnesty International blamed Shell for spilling 280,000 barrels in Bodo and called on it to pay $1 billion to clean up the Niger Delta.  If the figures given by Amnesty or by Day are close to the truth, that would make the Bodo spill one of the biggest in history. By comparison, the volume spilt in Alaska in the Exxon Valdez disaster was estimated at 257,000 barrels.  The discrepancies between the different estimates of the Bodo spills illustrate how hard it is to get an accurate picture of what goes on in the remote creeks of the Delta.

In a region where millions of people scrape a living from subsistence fishing or farming and live in mud-huts with no electricity, the presence for decades of a multi-billion-dollar oil industry with its high-tech equipment and luxurious compounds for expatriate workers has led to deep resentment.  Pipeline sabotage by militants campaigning for a greater share of oil revenues, or by local criminals looking to benefit from clean-up contracts, are common there.

Industry experts say bunkering may have siphoned off as much as 20 percent of Nigerian production. Kidnappings for ransom of foreign workers have also been a problem at certain periods, and governments have responded by paying off the gangs.

Rivalries between neighbouring communities over their perceived rights to compensation or other revenues to be had from oil companies operating in their areas frequently boil over into violent conflict, adding to the Delta’s poisonous mix.  SPDC’s Sunmonu gave a flavour of this on Friday when he told BBC Radio 4 that the company wanted to help but there was “lots of intra-communal strife making it difficult for anyone to have meaningful negotiations”. He said lots of people who claimed to have been affected by the Bodo spills were lying.  The Bodo case is particularly troublesome for Shell because the area is in Ogoniland, a part of the Delta that was the scene of one of the company’s worst public relations disasters.  In 1995, nine Ogoni activists including the environmentalist Ken Saro-Wiwa, who had been campaigning against Shell’s activities in his homeland, were tried on trumped-up charges and hanged by the then military dictatorship of Sani Abacha.  Saro-Wiwa has become a martyr to many environmental activists around the world. Although Shell was not directly responsible for his death, it was widely blamed for cooperating with Abacha’s brutal and corrupt regime.

The case has echoes of a legal saga involving Chevron’s operations in Ecuador that has spanned nearly two decades.

REFILE-Nigerians sue Shell in London over Delta pollution, Reuters, Mar. 23, 2012

Illegal Logging and Organized Crime

Every two seconds, across the world, an area of forest the size of a football field is clear-cut by illegal loggers.1 In some countries, up to 90 percent of all the logging taking place is illegal.2 Estimates suggest that this criminal activity generates approximatel US$10–15 billion annually worldwide—funds that are unregulated, untaxed, and often remain in the hands of organized criminal gangs. Thus far, domestic and international efforts to curb forest crimes have focused on preventative actions, but they have hadlittle or no significant impact. While prevention is an essential part of enforcement efforts to tackle illegal logging, it has not halted the rapid disappearance of the world’s old-growth trees. New ideas and strategies are needed to preserve what is left of forests.

This paper suggests that current practice be combined with a more targeted, punitive approach, through more effective use of the criminal justice system. It argues that the criminal justice system should form an integral part of any balanced and organized nstrategy for fighting forest crime. This strategy should include initiatives to enhance the efficiency of criminal justice in combating illegal logging—that is, the investigation, prosecution, and conviction of cases, as well as the confiscation of the proceeds of criminal activity. These initiatives should be deployed in parallel with preventive programs, and the two approaches should complement and reinforce each other.

The criminal justice system has been used in the fight against illegal logging, but only in very sporadic instances and in limited and ineffective ways. Moreover, in those few cases, it has tended to target low-level criminals whose involvement in illegal logging is due to poverty. As such, it has created no real deterrent and has encouraged skeptics to further discount the relevance of criminal justice methods. Large-scale illegal operations are carried out by sophisticated criminal networks, and law enforcement actions need to be focused on the “masterminds” behind these networks—and the high level corrupt officials who enable and protect them. Pursuing these important targets through the criminal justice system will require creativity and a clear focus on those criminal justice rules and procedures that prove most effective…..

Because the role of the criminal system in fighting illegal logging has thus far been minimal, there are few documented successes, and little data to explain why the criminal justice system has not been more widely used in this context. To find new ideas as to how the criminal justice system can be used against illegal loggers, this paper therefore draws on experience gained from dealing with other types of crime (money laundering, corruption, and so forth).

The policy and operational recommendations made in this paper are based on legal and operational frameworks that are already in place in almost every country in the world. By making good use of these existing frameworks, we can take an important step towards ensuring the preservation and the sustainable management of the world’s forests.

Policy recommendations:

■ Develop an integrated criminal justice strategy for illegal logging that adopts and implements clear and comprehensive policies. To be effective, the strategy must target high-level corruption and the companies that pay bribes. It must aim for successful investigations, prosecutions, and the confiscation of the proceeds of crime. The strategy should include clear objectives and an assessment process for tracking progress….

■ Improve domestic cooperation. Domestic cooperation between agencies involved at different stages of the fight against illegal logging should be strengthened….

■ Enlist the private sector. When looking into the financial dimension of forest crimes, financial institutions and other entities obligated to report suspicious transactions to financial intelligence units need to be fully mobilized. This can be done through implementing due diligence measures and by monitoring transactions made by politically exposed persons (PEPs) and actors in the forestry sector…  Enhanced due diligence applies to PEPs in recognition that by virtue of their position, there is an increased risk of money laundering.

■ Engage civil society actors. . .

■ Include criminal justice as part of development assistance programs to combat illegal logging. …The implementation of anti-money laundering measures, as well as other steps suggested in this paper, should be included as part of country assistance strategies.

Operational recommendations….

■ Follow the money. Illegal loggers can be convicted of money laundering related to many different predicate crimes. This can result in additional jail time and/or fines above those imposed for the underlying forest crime. Furthermore, asset confiscation deprives criminals of the fruits of their crimes and makes it more costly for them to continue their operation.

■ Enforce anti-money laundering and due diligence requirements. Regulators should strictly enforce know your customer and due diligence requirements— particularly those for enhanced due diligence in the case of transactions of PEPs and suspicious transactions within the forestry sector. Regulators should also enforce compliance with the Financial Action Task Force (FATF)

Excerpts from Executive Summary, “Justice for Forests Improving Criminal Justice Efforts to Combat Illegal Logging” by Marilyne Pereira Goncalves et al., (Wolrd Bank, 2012)

When Governments Hack Each Other: how to steal secrets and cover your tracks

The number of cyber attacks against Chinese websites surged in 2011, rising to 8.9 million computers affected, up from 5 million in the previous year, according to a report published by China Daily.  It claimed a total of 47,000 overseas IPs were involved in the attacks, with the majority located in Japan, US and South Korea.  The report, released yesterday by China’s National Computer Network Emergency Response Technical Team and Coordination Center (CNCERT), found 11,851 IP addresses based overseas had gained control of 10,593 Chinese websites in 2011.  “China has become the world’s biggest victim of cyber attacks,” Zhou Yonglin, director of CNCERT’s operation department, told People’s Daily.  The report claims Japan was the source of most attacks (22.8 percent), followed closely by the United States (20.4 percent) and the Republic of Korea (7.1 percent).  Attacks ranged from wiping servers and defacing websites to stealing personal and corporate data from Chinese web users.  Although it was discovered that many hackers used Trojan programs to steal personal data, Zhou said “money is not the sole motivation”, as in several cases the hackers had intended to access state networks and steal confidential government information.  To assist damaged private websites and maintain online security, the Ministry of Industry and Information Technology has launched several investigations, and authorities claim they prevented the spread of online viruses 14 times last year.

People’s Republic itself has been accused several times of creating a cyber army for espionage purposes. In March last year, hackers with Internet addresses based in China launched an attack intended to steal files relating to the G20 summit held in Paris. The following October, two US satellites were discovered to have been hacked repeatedly, with evidence once again pointing at China.  Then, in November, the US Office of the National Counterintelligence Executive singled out China and Russia as the most aggressive “collectors” of American secrets. In return,China had claimed 75,000 cyber attacks it repelled in 2010 originated from US IP addresses.  It is important to note that the theoretical location of the IP address is by no means a guarantee that an attack was launched from a particular location. Hackers often use proxy servers to hide their identity, or take advantage of Tor’s anonymity network to cover their tracks.

Max Smolaks, China ‘World’s Biggest’ Cyber Attack Victim?,TechWeekEurope. Mar. 20, 2012

To stop Poachers from Killing Elephants, Stop Consumers from Buying Ivory

Almost 24 tonnes of illegally harvested ivory were seized by investigators in 2011—the largest haul since records began in 1990 and more than twice the amount in 2010. Traffic, a wildlife watchdog, reckons around 2,500 elephants must have died to produce so much ivory. This year could be worse. More than 200 elephants were killed in a single state of Cameroon in the first six weeks of 2012.  This threatens to return African elephants to the crisis times of the 1970s and 1980s, when poaching was rampant and extinction loomed for many populations. This led to an ivory trade ban, in 1989, and in turn to a collapse in demand for ivory. Elephant populations have since recovered. Yet the effects of the ban seem to be wearing thin, especially in east, west and central Africa, where wildlife protection is generally weak and the poaching heaviest.

Illegally gathered ivory typically leaves Africa from Kenya or Tanzania in shipping containers. It often passes through Malaysia, where forged papers disguise its origins. Most is then dispatched to China or Japan. Some tusks also pass through the bazaars of Cairo, where Chinese traders are the biggest buyers  China is the biggest recipient of poached African ivory; and the country’s demand for the stuff is surging. A study of two Chinese cities for Traffic, by Esmond Martin and Lucy Vigne, concluded that since 2004 the number of ivory items for sale there had grown by 50%.

Some ivory can be traded legally, for example when the elephant that grew it died of natural causes or was shot to protect people or crops. Some African countries have stocks that predate the ban, which they can also sell. Such legal ivory sells for around $900 a kilogram in China’s wholesale market, with the average tusk weighing between five and nine kilograms. A cheaper sort comes from extinct woolly mammoths, which are periodically excavated from Siberia’s tundra.

In southern Africa, where there is relatively little poaching, support for lifting the trade ban is strong. But east African countries, especially Kenya, which led the original campaign for it, say this would increase demand for ivory, which would often be met by poaching—given how easy it is to pass off illegal ivory as the legal kind. The collapse in demand for ivory that followed the trade ban supports that argument. So does the recent research by Mr Martin and Ms Vigne. Though legal ivory in China’s markets is meant to be marked as such, they found this was true of less than half the ivory for sale in Guangzhou in January 2011. Only a tenth of shops selling ivory had the necessary licenses.

Yet if the trade ban is losing its force, what will save the elephants? Iain Douglas-Hamilton, the founder of Save the Elephants, an advocacy group, says educating Chinese shoppers about the bloody origins of their purchase would help. There is currently an advertising campaign in China to do so. It features Chinese celebrities, like Yao Ming, a basketball star, and Ding Junhui, a snooker player, urging people not to buy products from endangered species. “When the buying stops,” they say, “the killing can too.”

Poaching: Black ivory, Economist, Mar. 20, 2012, at 73

Environmental Impact of Shipping and Resource Extraction in the Arctic

A rapid increase in shipping in the formerly ice-choked waterways of the Arctic poses a significant increase in risk to the region’s marine mammals and the local communities that rely on them for food security and cultural identity, according to an Alaska Native groups and the Wildlife Conservation Society who convened at a recent workshop.  The workshop—which ran from March 12–14—examined the potential impacts to the region’s wildlife and highlighted priorities for future management of shipping in the region. The meeting included participants from the Alaska Eskimo Whaling Commission, Eskimo Walrus Commission, Alaska Beluga Whale Committee, Ice Seal Committee, Indigenous People’s Council for Marine Mammals, and the Inuit Circumpolar Council. Other participants included the University of Alaska, government agencies such as the U.S. Coast Guard, Arctic Research Commission, and the Marine Mammal Commission, and regional Alaska Native groups such as Kawerak Inc., North Slope Borough, Northwest Alaska Borough, and Association of Village Council Presidents.

At issue is the effect of climate change on Arctic waters, which over the last few decades have become increasingly ice-free during the summer and fall. The lengthening of the open-water season has led to new industrial developments, including oil and gas activities and a rising number of large maritime vessels transiting either the Northern Sea Route over the Russian Arctic from Europe, or the Northwest Passage through the Canadian Arctic from the Atlantic. Whichever route is being used, the only gateway to the Pacific is through the Bering Strait—an important migratory pathway for marine mammals. In spring and fall for example, almost the entire bowhead whale and walrus populations migrate through this narrow strait.

In the past, multi-year sea ice in the Arctic basin that extended to both the Canadian and Russian Federation coastlines had been a serious obstacle for large ships.  “The disappearance of summer sea ice from the region’s coastal areas is leading to major changes in this part of the world,” said Dr. Martin Robards, Director of WCS’s Beringia Program and one of the event’s organizers. “The presence of large ocean-going vessels is expected to increase as the region becomes more attractive to both international shipping and extractive industries seeking minerals, oil, and gas. The northern sea route is 30 percent shorter than the comparable route linking northern Europe to Asia via the Suez Canal, which only supports the conclusion that the Bering Strait is likely to get busier. We need to ensure that the mutual interests shared by Alaska Natives and the conservation community for the health and safety of marine mammals are included in the protection of the region’s natural resources.”

A number of studies have raised significant concerns about the impacts from shipping and resource extraction on large whales. The North Atlantic right whale, a close relative of the bowhead whale, occurs in heavily industrialized waters of the East Coast of North America. Estimated to number only between 400-450 individuals, the North Atlantic right whale is threatened by mortalities from vessel strikes and entanglement in fishing gear. Based on scientific insights that reflected the needs of these whales, new speed restrictions, navigational alternatives, and vessel tracking systems in areas of importance to North Atlantic right whales were successfully implemented in Canadian and U.S. waters, minimizing the possibility of large vessels striking whales. Similar accommodations—particularly in funnel areas such as the Bering Strait—will become essential as vessel traffic increases, if strikes and other impacts to bowhead whales are to be minimized.

Apart from the risk of ship strikes, large vessels also emit low-frequency noises that can disrupt important behavioral functions for whales and potentially impair their ability to communicate and navigate. Degradation of the acoustic habitat can have consequences not only for whales, but also for other marine mammals such as walrus, and even fish.

“There is mounting evidence that human-generated sounds in the marine environment have negative effects on marine life,” said Dr. Howard Rosenbaum, Director of The Wildlife Conservation Society’s Ocean Giants Program. “An increase in background noise from increased shipping, coupled with increases in underwater noise from industrial activities and other potential stressors, is of great concern for the Arctic’s marine species and their important habitats.”

Another threat to bowheads and other Arctic denizens: an oil spill in a region with little or no capacity for containment.“The lack of international response capability to a spill in these waters is a serious concern in light of the increased interest in oil and gas exploration, or the rise in transportation of petroleum products by tankers through the Arctic,” added Robards. “A comprehensive approach is clearly needed to prepare for a potential environmental disaster in a region where marine mammals transit both national and international waters.”

Outcomes from the workshop will help inform both future research on the effects of development on fragile Arctic ecosystems and support Alaska natives as they seek to actively protect the health and safety of the marine mammal populations they rely on. This will help engage local communities and their representatives with the regulatory decisions being made by the U.S. Coast Guard, the U.S. and Russian Governments, and the International Maritime Organization.

“The involvement of local communities in this process is crucial for both the cultural integrity and the conservation of the Arctic,” said Dr. Caleb McClennen, Director of the Wildlife Conservation Society’s Marine Conservation Program. “This workshop will ensure that Alaska’s Native organizations have a seat at the table for the key decisions on the future of this biologically diverse region

Arctic Peoples Convene to Address Potential Impacts of Increased Shipping on Marine Mammals, Press Release, Wildlife Conservation Society, Mar. 16, 2012

Gene Banks: protecting the seeds that feed the world

Opened in 2008, the Svalbard vault is a backup for the world’s 1,750 seed banks, storehouses of agricultural biodiversity. To illustrate the need for it, the Philippines’ national seed bank was destroyed by fire in January, six years after it was damaged by flooding. Those of Afghanistan and Iraq were destroyed in recent wars. Should the conflict in Syria reach that country’s richest store, in Aleppo, the damage would now be less. Some 110,000 Syrian seed samples are now in the Svalbard vault, out of around 750,000 samples in all. “When I see this,” says Mr Fowler, looking lovingly at his latest consignment, “I just think, ‘thank goodness, they’re safe.’”

The Svalbard vault is protected by two airlocks, at the end of a tunnel sunk 160 metres into the permafrost of Norway’s Arctic archipelago, outside the village of Longyearbyen, one of the world’s most northerly habitations. It is maintained at a constant temperature of -18°C. This is serious disaster preparedness: if its electricity were cut, Mr Fowler reckons the vault would take two centuries to warm to freezing point. He also enthusiastically points to its concave tunnel-head, designed to deflect the force of a missile strike. Such precautions have spawned the facility’s nickname: the Doomsday Vault.

Mr Fowler, who manages it on behalf of Norway’s government, an association of Nordic gene banks and an international body, the Global Crop Diversity Trust, reckons the vault contains samples of around two-thirds of the world’s stored crop biodiversity. To augment this, he will also soon embark on a project, funded with $50m from Norway, to collect the seeds of many crops’ wild ancestors.

Most seed banks were created in the 1970s and 1980s, towards the end of a global surge in crop yields, wrought largely through the adoption of hybridised seed varieties, known as the Green Revolution. The idea was born of a realisation that a vast amount of agricultural biodiversity was being lost, as farmers abandoned old seeds, often locally developed over centuries, for the new hybrids.  The extent of the loss, which continues today, is poorly documented. The extinction of non-human species is generally better studied than the loss of the genetic material that sustains humanity. Yet, largely on the basis of named crop varieties that are no longer extant, the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organisation estimates that 75% of crop biodiversity has been lost from the world’s fields. India is reckoned to have had over 100,000 varieties of rice a century ago; it now has only a few thousand. America once had around 5,000 apple varieties, and now has a few hundred. Such measures probably underestimate the scale of the losses, because a single traditional seed variety often contains a lot of genetic diversity.

It is hard to quantify how much this matters; but the long-term risks are potentially huge. Agricultural biodiversity is the best hedge against future blights, including pests, diseases and climate change. That is why plant breeders, from poor smallholders to the world’s biggest biotech firms, masters of the genetically modified organism (GMO), continuously update their genetic stock, often from obscure sources.  “If we ignore genetic diversity while we develop GMO products, we risk a disease or pest emerging that will wipe those types out,” says John Soper, head of crop genetics research at Pioneer Hi-Bred, the seed division of DuPont, a chemicals giant. He says the firm has drawn genetic material from its stock of wild American sunflower seeds three or four times in the past decade, in a bid to make its commercial varieties resistant to broomrape, a parasitic blight of southern Europe. It also has plans to cope with climate change, having recently opened a research outfit in chilly western Canada. It is trying to develop local varieties of maize (corn) and soyabean, which are not grown there commercially, but may be as the temperature climbs.

Yet biotech firms cannot be relied upon to look after crop biodiversity. Their gene banks are too small and too concentrated on a handful of commercial crops. Their urge to make profits is not necessarily aligned with the wider cause of feeding mankind. Hence a recent push to boost national gene banks, of which the Svalbard vault is a product….In many such developing countries, gene banks are impoverished and badly managed, which is another threat to their stocks. Pondering one of the risks, Mr Fowler warns “a millennium of agricultural activity can disappear one night in a bowl of porridge.”

Yet seed banks are not the only answer to saving crop biodiversity: it also needs conserving in fields. This is because seed banks rarely store varieties of crop that do not produce seeds, including cassava, bananas and many other fruits and berries. They also rarely record local knowledge of their deposits, which can be almost as important as the seeds themselves. Unlike seed banks, moreover, nature is anything but ossified: it is gloriously adaptable. Over the past 15 years in West Africa, for example, populations of traditional sorghum varieties have been observed shortening their growth cycle by two weeks in response to a curtailed rainy season. The best way to harness this adaptability is simply to let nature get on with it.

Farmers’ eagerness to jettison their wily old landraces is understandable. Improved varieties of seed are estimated to have boosted yields by 21-43%, independently of fertilisers and other inputs. To conserve crop biodiversity amid the inevitable rush for hybrids, seed banks have an important role. But another solution—as to many climate-related problems—is to make drastic improvements in land-use planning, and then encourage strategically placed farmers to dedicate a small area to traditional crops. Ways of doing this include developing niche markets for their endearingly old-school vegetables and grains or even, as in Nepal, with the national equivalent of a harvest festival. Its government regularly dishes out prizes to those farmers with the most biodiverse land.

Excerpt, Agricultural biodiversity: Banking against Doomsday, Economist, Mar. 10, 2012, at 71