Tag Archives: international environmental law

The Global Regulation of Mercury

fluorescent light bulbs

The Minamata Convention on Mercury – a global, legally binding treaty which opened for signature today – was agreed to by governments in January (2013) and formally adopted as international law…Countries began the recognition for this new treaty at a special ceremonial opening of the Diplomatic Conference in Minamata, the city where many local people were poisoned in the mid-20th Century after eating mercury-contaminated seafood from Minamata Bay. As a consequence, the neurological syndrome caused by severe mercury poisoning has come to be known as Minamata Disease.

The Minamata Convention provides for controls and reductions across a range of products, processes and industries where mercury is used, released or emitted. The treaty also addresses the direct mining of mercury, export and import of the metal, and safe storage of waste mercury.

“Mercury has some severe effects, both on human health and on the environment. UNEP has been proud to facilitate and support the treaty negotiation over the past four years because almost everyone in the world – be they small-scale gold miners, expectant mothers or waste-handlers in developing countries – will benefit from its provisions,” said Achim Steiner, Executive Director of the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) and Under-Secretary General of the United Nations….Other potential impacts include impaired thyroid and liver function, irritability, tremors, disturbances to vision, memory loss and cardiovascular problems.

“With the signing of the Minamata Convention on Mercury we will be going a long way in protecting the world forever from the devastating health consequences from mercury,” says WHO Director-General Dr Margaret Chan. “Mercury is one of the top ten chemicals of major public health concern and is a substance which disperses into and remains in ecosystems for generations, causing severe ill health and intellectual impairment to exposed populations.”

Under the provisions of the Minamata Convention, Governments have agreed on a range of mercury-containing products whose production, import and export will be banned by 2020. These items have non-mercury alternatives that will be further phased in as these are phased out. They include:

•Batteries, except for ‘button cell’ batteries used in implantable medical devices

•Switches and relays

•Some compact fluorescent lamps

•Mercury in cold cathode fluorescent lamps and external electrode fluorescent lamps

•Soaps and cosmetics (mercury is used in skin-whitening products)

•Some mercury-containing medical items such as thermometers and blood pressure devices.

Mercury from small-scale gold-mining and from coal-fired power stations represent the biggest source of mercury pollution worldwide. Miners inhale mercury during smelting, and mercury run-off into rivers and streams contaminates fish, the food chain and people downstream.  Under the Minamata Convention, Governments have agreed that countries will draw up strategies to reduce the amount of mercury used by small-scale miners and that national plans will be drawn up within three years of the treaty entering into force to reduce – and if possible eliminate – mercury.

The Convention will also control mercury emission and releases from large-scale industrial plants such as coal-fired power stations, industrial boilers, waste incinerators and cement clinkers facilities.

New global treaty cuts mercury emissions and releases, sets up controls on products, mines and industrial plant, UNEP Press Release, Oct 10, 2013

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How to Break Toxic Ships: send them to another country

MV "HANSA BRANDENBURG.  Image from Black Sea News

WWF-Pakistan has warned Pakistan against the import of a European ship, which is suspected to have burnt containers and cargo that may contain a substantial amount of hazardous materials such as heavy metals or PCBs.  Moreover, the vessel is suspected to carry dangerous substances in fire fighting water as well as a significant amount of fuels and oil. This container ship caught fire in July (2013) and was later towed to Port-Louis in Mauritius. (MV “HANSA BRANDENBURG”,).MV Hansa Brandenburg is a 2002-built Liberian-flagged container ship operated by the German shipping company Leonhardt & Blumberg.

WWF-Pakistan considers that this ship if imported to Pakistan may cause severe marine pollution in the Gadani area, which is already stressed because of a number of economic and industrial activities. Unplanned construction such as Fish harbour has already had serious environmental impact in the area, which is also designated as energy corridor and construction of power plants may have impact on the marine environment of the area unless proper mitigative measures are taken. According to WWF-Pakistan Technical Adviser (Marine Fisheries) Muhammad Moazzam Khan, the area of the Gadani is a part of Sonmiani, which is considered to have a rich marine biodiversity especially around Churna and Kaio islands. Dumping of toxic waste might seriously harm the fragile ecosystem of the area.

Agencies asked not to import vessel loaded with toxic chemicals, Daily Times (Pakistan) October 4, 2013

See also the Shipbreaking Business

Operation Rhino: dead rhinos despite arrests

rhino-kruger-park

“While we are still losing animals (latest statistics show Kruger has lost 381 rhinos to date this year) the new strategy is bearing fruit,” SANParks [South Africa] acting head of communications, Reynold Thakhuli, said.  The two dozen arrests bring to 73 the number of rhino poaching related arrests in the park this year…Nationally, 191 suspects have been arrested in connection with rhino poaching so far this year.

He also pointed to a better relationship with Mozambique following an official visit there by Environment Affairs Minister Edna Molewa. “Some arrests have been made inside Mozambique in terms of the hot pursuit concept now that there is more understanding of the problem not only Kruger and SANParks, but also South Africa and the region, faces from rhino poachers,” Thakhuli added.

The hot pursuit strategy was presented to SANParks management at the beginning of last month after Molewa’s visit to Mozambique by Major General (ret) Johan Jooste, Officer Commanding Special Projects in Kruger. It makes provision for rangers, soldiers and other government agencies to track suspected poachers across the border without fear of reprisal.Bearing out Thakhuli’s “still losing animals” statement, the national rhino herd now is 618 less than it was on January 1, 2013…with 15 weeks left in 2013 the 668 all-time high looks sure to be overtaken.The current weekly loss of rhino stands close to 17 animals. If poaching continues at the same kill levels the year-end death toll could surpass the thousand mark.

The South African defence sector is a contributor to the ongoing anti-rhino poaching effort via the SA Air Force, SA Army and the defence industry.Land-based elements are deployed primarily on border protection duties and assisted by SAAF helicopters for Operation Corona but also regularly assist rangers, police and other government agencies in anti-poaching operations.Denel Dynamics has made a Seeker UAV available, manned by trained personnel, to help with tracking poaching suspects. A Seabird Seeker reconnaissance aircraft donated by the Paramount Group adds more eyes in the sky to the ongoing Operation Rhino.

Excerpt, Kim Helfrich, Increased rhino poaching related arrests attributed to more militaristic approach, defenceWeb, Sept. 6, 2013

Drones and the Rhino: the militarization of conservation

The Shipbreaking Business: how European states dump hazardous waste in South Asia

Shipbreaking Bangladesh. Image from wikipedia

Hundreds of European vessels are scrapped under hazardous conditions in South Asia every year. European parliamentarians have approved a new regulation to tackle the problem – but critics say it will have very limited impact…“With this, we will have a safer disposal of ships. About 90 percent of the European vessels are scrapped illegally and the Basel Convention has failed to do something about this,” said Swedish Green MEP Carl Schlyter, who negotiated the agreement with the Council and guided the legislation through the European Parliament. “Last year one European ship was sent to a substandard beaching yard in South Asia every day.”

European Union-registered ships will now have to be recycled at EU-approved facilities that meet specific safety and environmental requirements and are certified and regularly inspected. The European Commission would be obliged to act if NGOs report irregularities.  Both EU ships and non-EU ships would also have to carry an inventory of hazardous materials when calling at ports in the EU. The regulation is likely to enter into force in the beginning of 2014.

Patrizia Heidegger from Shipbreaking Platform, a global coalition of organisations working for safe and sustainable ship recycling, is not pleased with the outcome…She says that the regulation will not have a large impact since ship owners can easily flag out and circumvent the regulation if they don’t want to comply. The coalition wants the regulation to apply to all ships calling at European ports, instead of only the EU-flagged vessels.

Schlyter pushed for an EU fund to subsidise safe recycling of the ships. The fund would have been financed by fees on ships docked in EU ports, but the parliament rejected this part of the proposal.  “Without the ship recycling fund the new regulation won’t be effective. A ship recycling fund would put obligations on the ship owners beyond the flag,” Heidegger said.  “The fund was supported by all the political groups, but then the parliament voted it down after strong lobbying from ship owners and EU ports. The ports claimed that the arrangement would result in over 100 percent increase in fees, which is not true,” Schlyter told IPS.  Schlyter says that with a fund in place it would not pay to flag out. He says that the commission might propose creation of a fund later if the new regulation proves insufficient….

European ship owners dumped 365 toxic ships on South Asian beaches last year, according to the Shipbreaking Platform.  Of the top 10 European “global dumpers” in 2012, Greek ship owners were number one, dumping 167 ships on Asian beaches. German ship owners represented the second largest group of toxic ship dumpers with 48 ships, followed by ship owners from the UK with 30 ships, and Norway with 23 ships scrapped on beaches in South Asia.  According to the coalition most of the end-of-life ships sent by European ship owners did not fly an EU flag but flags from Panama, Liberia, the Bahamas or St Kitts-and-Nevis.  Bangladesh tops the list of countries having the greatest number of ships scrapped every year, with India and Pakistan trailing far behind. Unskilled and unprotected workers manually handle poisonous chemicals and are also exposed to the risk of explosion while dismantling old vessels.

Excerpts,By  Ida Karlsson, New EU Rules ‘Fail’ Against Shipbreaking Dangers, IPS, July 17, 2013

See also Greens against the Workers

Antarctica: Environment and Geopolitics

antarctica. image from wikipedia

The meeting  (week of July 14, 2013)of the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources (CCAMLR) offers a “unique opportunity” for representatives of 24 countries and the European Union to…  designate the world’s largest marine reserves  Nature conservation is also a question of geopolitical interests — an arena in which no country wants to lose influence. The countries at the meeting are those active in Antarctica, in either a business or scientific capacity. So far, two opposing camps have remained insistent on their positions.

On the one side, the Western nations have proposed marine reserves. The United States and New Zealand are proposing to protect the Ross Sea area along Antarctica’s east coast. In some areas, fishing would be banned; in other areas, strict limits would be imposed. But China, Japan, Ukraine, Norway and and Russia, in particular, have shown little interest in an agreement. All have considerable business interests in the region.

Norwegian ships also catch vast quantities of krill off the coast of Antarctica to feed large salmon farms back home. The government in Oslo has little interest in major marine reserves on the southern continent. Norway has considerable influence, as well. The CCAMLR negotiations in Oslo are being led by Terje Løbach, an official at the Norwegian Fisheries Ministry. At the last CCAMLR meeting in Australia, his country was among those that offered the most adamant resistance to creating marine reserves. Participants claim Løbach used his advantage as the leader of the meeting to further the positions of his government rather than seek compromises. The conference in Australia ultimately failed to reach any agreement…

Russian representatives, for example, are leading the opposition against the US-New Zealand proposal for a marine protection area in the Ross Sea area. New Zealand and the US are proposing fishing quotas for the 2.3 million-square-kilometer area. But the Russians feel they have been cheated in the considerations. “They fear that the bear skin will be divided up without them,” one participant said.

Antarctica Conference: Deal Could Preserve Pristine Waters, Associated Press, July 15, 2013

Deforestation in Indonesia: slowdown

Rafflesia

Indonesia’s president, Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, is not known as a conviction politician… On the environment, though, Mr Yudhoyono has been uncommonly courageous. In 2009, two years after world leaders met on the island of Bali to agree on a “road map” to slow climate change, Mr Yudhoyono pledged Indonesia to cutting its carbon emissions by at least 26% by 2020. Then, in 2011, he imposed a two-year moratorium on forest-clearing concessions under a $1 billion agreement with the Norwegian government. The money is meant to support a UN programme to reduce emissions from deforestation and forest degradation. On May 16th Mr Yudhoyono once again showed his environmental mettle: despite intense pressure from commercial interests, he signed a decree extending the moratorium for two more years.

This is good news for Indonesia’s forests, home to a dizzying diversity of wildlife, from endangered orangutans and rhinos to a Rafflesia that produces the largest flower on earth (1 metre, or three feet, wide). It is also a fillip for global efforts to combat climate change. According to a 2007 study by the World Bank, Indonesia is the world’s largest emitter of greenhouse gases after America and China, mostly because of the destruction of forests and peatlands.

The moratorium excludes concessions leased before May 2011 and does not protect secondary forest. But Frances Seymour, a former head of the Centre for International Forestry Research now at the Packard Foundation in Washington, DC, says that the extension is important because it also identifies threatened peatlands for preservation. Indonesia’s peatlands are a vital habitat, partly because they are huge absorbers of carbon from the atmosphere, just like forests. The forestry minister, Zulkifli Hasan, claims the moratorium has slowed the pace of deforestation to 450 hectares (1,100 acres) a year, down from an annual 3.5m hectares in the late 1990s and early 2000s. That represents a very large cut in the carbon that would otherwise have been released into the Earth’s atmosphere.

Some of the biggest logging and plantation firms are starting to take their environmental responsibilities seriously, too. In February Asia Pulp and Paper, a subsidiary of the Sinar Mas Group, announced an end to all natural-forest clearance—a victory for Greenpeace and other environmental campaigners that had organised international boycotts of its products. Now the firm has opened its concessions to the Forest Trust, an environmental group, to ensure that future plantation development does not take place in forests, including forested peatlands. Its announcement followed a similar commitment in 2011 by Golden Agri-Resources, Sinar Mas’s palm-oil subsidiary.

Some of the old problems still bedevil Indonesia’s efforts to combat climate change. Environmental governance remains weak, the result of a decentralised government and conflicting laws and regulations. The president’s own task-force on climate change often fails to impose its will on ministries determined to defend their fiefs.

The forestry ministry is widely seen as corrupt, even by Indonesian standards, and officials have been caught selling permits to exploit forested areas. National development schemes, such as Mr Yudhoyono’s “master plan” to turn the country into one of the world’s ten biggest economies by 2025, do not always take account of the environmental impact. His government has yet to finalise a reference map of the country’s forests on which everyone can agree. Meanwhile, convincing local leaders of the case for preserving their forests remains a challenge.

The transparency introduced since Indonesia signed the original letter of intent with the Norwegians in 2010 has transformed the conservation debate. A constitutional court ruling on May 16th, for example, allows indigenous people to exercise their traditional rights over a forest. Mr Yudhoyono deserves credit for helping this freer debate to take place.

Indonesia’s forests: Logging the good news,Economist, May 25, 2013, at 40

Deforestation in Cambodia: rubber barons and their bankers

cambodia illegal logging--Illegal logging in the Cardamom Mountain, Koh Kong Province, Cambodia, 2007 Image from wikipedia

Along Route 7 in Cambodia’s remote north, dozens of small tractors known as “iron buffaloes” are plying a dilapidated piece of highway. Under cover of darkness, they transport freshly cut timber into nearby sawmills. The drivers wear masks, their tractors fitted with just one dim lamp at the front. Each carries between three and six logs which locals say were felled illegally on or near the Dong Nai rubber plantation, owned by Vietnam Rubber Group (VRG).

Illegal logging and land-grabbing have long been problems in Cambodia. A new report entitled “Rubber Barons” by Global Witness, a London-based environmental watchdog, has highlighted the issue once again. Dong Nai features prominently in the report, which claims that luxury timbers like rosewood, much in demand for furniture in China and guitars in the West, were culled as a 3,000-hectare (7,400-acre) section of forest was illegally cleared.

Global Witness says that local and foreign companies have amassed more than 3.7m hectares of land in Cambodia and Laos since 2000, as governments have handed out huge land concessions, many in opaque circumstances. Two-fifths of this was for rubber plantations, dominated by state companies from Vietnam, the world’s third-largest rubber producer.

The report claims that VRG and another Vietnamese company, HAGL, are among the biggest land-grabbers, and have been logging illegally in both Cambodia and Laos. It says that, through Vietnam-based funds, the two companies have received money from Deutsche Bank, while HAGL also has investment from the IFC, the private-sector arm of the World Bank. The two Vietnamese companies have denied any wrongdoing. Deutsche Bank and the IFC say they are studying the findings.

The report says that the two companies have failed to consult local communities or pay them compensation for land they formerly used. The companies routinely use armed security forces to guard plantations. Large areas of supposedly protected intact forest have been cleared, in violation of forest-protection laws and “apparently in collusion with Cambodia’s corrupt elite”.

Global Witness is urging authorities in Cambodia and Laos to revoke the two companies’ land concessions, which cover 200,000 hectares and are held through a network of subsidiaries. It thinks both companies should be prosecuted.

Logging in South-East Asia: Rubber barons, Economist, May 18, 2013

See also Bankers with Chainsaws