Category Archives: Environment

Wangari Maathai

While working at the United Nations, my first job as a reporter, I was eager to please. As I was working on a story about African governments selling land to private investors, Nobel Laureate Wangari Maathai was coming to the U.N. to talk about her efforts on how she has helped women restore the forest without private investment in her home country of Kenya, and across the world. The Green Belt Movement she started help revolutionize the way economists think about developing nations prosper, and she was at the forefront of showing other leaders how to accomplish this.

The day she came to the U.N. a press conference was held but no individual interviews were scheduled. At the time you can tell she was aging but her mind was still sharp. When the conference was older I rushed up to the stage and calmly asked for an interview. I could not believe she said yes. She asked to do it up the stairs where there was more space, she was walking gingerly while I was behind her but the whole time she made sure I was there. When we got to the top I started the interview and literally the entire room was silent. It was just me, my recorder, and one of the most respected women in the world. All the reporters were behind us listening clearly pissed it was not them talking to her but wanted to stay to hear what she had to say. The whole thing lasted about five minutes and she was great the entire time, thoughtfully thinking about her answers to every single one of my questions. At the end I remember hearing another reporter say “she gave him great quotes.” While my time at the U.N. was short this was definitely one of the biggest highlights.

The story I wrote is below. Please read it and realize that one person can make a big difference.

Farming for Peace

As food prices continue to soar, countries from around the world began to buy land in parts of Africa where the ground is fertile for agricultural development. Today, 50 million hectares (more than twice the size of England) have already been bought or are currently being negotiated for, and these numbers continue to rise.

On the African continent, one out of every three people suffers from malnourishment. African governments believe selling land to agribusinesses is a way to help those living in poverty and feed the people who are unable to get food. Leaders on the continent have said these investments are crucial to improve the continents low agricultural productivity. To make these deals possible, governments offer agribusinesses (who are afraid of corruption and lack of infrastructure within the countries) lucrative deals which minimize the risk of losing their investment.

According to the World Bank, three quarters of Ethiopia’s arable land is not being used to farm. Experts argue that if foreign investors are able to finance projects, this land can produce vast amounts of needed food. But farmers employed by these corporations get paid just 75 cents a day and Ethiopian farmers are not allowed to own land. Since 2007, 3 million hectares of land has been sold, which amounts to 4 percent of the country.
Critics argue there are other policies governments can enact that help people without selling land. 2004 Nobel Peace laureate Wangaari Maathai told MediaGlobal that “governments always give excuses that they need revenue to improve the quality of life of the very people that complain land is being degraded.” Most land considered to be owned by the people has no legal binding, and there are no formal boundaries showing who owns what. When governments give permission to agro business to farm on the land, individuals feel their rights are being violated and claim they own the land which is being sold.

Agro businesses often use chemicals that can seriously damage the land and can take hundreds of years to revitalize. While the government argues the land is not being used, researchers say some of the land is used for livestock or purposely left unused to prevent nutrient depletion and erosion.
The Green Belt Movement, started by Maathai, works with local farmers, governments, and universities to cultivate land and empower the people who live on it. A method being used to involve individuals is by drawing maps that determine land barriers between the farms. Once those borders are agreed to, governments are able to implement policies that allow more food to be grown.

Maathai’s programs have inspired others around the world. By empowering local farmers, governments do not have to sell land because those farmers are able to accomplish what agro businesses promise to do. One such program is taking place in Rwanda.

Being a landlocked state, local farming is very important to Rwanda’s people and economy. Much of the farming is done by individuals who own half a hectare of land or less, barely enough to feed their families, let alone make a profit. Rwanda’s Intensification Program gives small farmers access to advanced seeds and fertilizers making it easier to grow food. The government helps organize and gives financial support to groups of farmers. This ensures certain foods are being grown, and allows the farmers to make a profit by combining the sales of their crops.

When the program started in 2007, just 3.5 percent of Rwanda’s budget was allocated toward agriculture, but today it has more than doubled. In the past three years, the use of maize, wheat, and beans in Rwanda increased almost tenfold, from 28,788 hectares to 254,000. This growth made Rwanda food secure and allowed the country to export its surpluses.

Small investment in local farming, like in Rwanda, act as catalysts to greater economic prosperity. In order to avoid the worst case scenario, policies regarding agriculture will have to change. As Maathai put it: “An economic system that allows some regions to be so rich and others to be so poor, especially when the poor are in resource rich regions, is extremely unfair. It is unsustainable and eventually it could undermine peace.”


Leave a comment

Filed under Environment

Nuclear Puzzle

A guy named Gregory Jaczko is about to get more exposure to the media then he has ever wanted. He was appointed by President Obama in 2009 to be the Chairman of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC), and will be testifying before Congress this coming week on a report that came out, from the NRC, that concluded “Mr. Jaczko failed to fully inform the other four members that he was issuing budget guidance that would essentially halt the commission’s work on the project, which was to decide whether the Energy Department should be allowed to build and operate the dump.”

The project they are talking about is Yucca Mountain, Nevada, which is about 90 miles away from Las Vegas. According to the article, Jaczko used to work for Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, who has always been fighting to keep Yucca Mountain from becoming a permanent site for nuclear waste. During the 2008 election, Obama, while being in favor of nuclear energy, said many times Yucca Mountain will not become a place for nuclear storage. More information has come out since then making it clear Obama and Reid are close. It was Reid who convinced Obama to run for President, and when the Republican National Committee put millions into “Daschelzing” Reid last year, Obama held events and fundraisers in Nevada.

Policy wise though, it made no sense for Obama to be in favor of using nuclear energy but not store it at Yucca. Time and time again the NRC has said Yucca Mountain was the best place to store nuclear energy and was close to it in President (W’s) Bush’s first term. Bush signed the law to turn the area into a storage facility, only for it to be vetoed by the Governor, and then overturned by Congress.

As far as Jaczko is concerned, the report said he did not break any laws, but he obviously didn’t make any friends. Obama put him on the commission to look at other sites in the country that can be built for storage. It’s an example of a political appointment, and someone coming in with an agenda. It’s the nature of the game. But while other sites around the country are closer to residential areas, Yucca is closest to volcanic lava on federal land. Using nuclear energy is clean, creates jobs, is more efficient, and costs less than other forms of energy. According to World Nuclear the price of generating nuclear fuel is cheaper then coal and gas, making it cheaper for consumers in the long run. Readers know I want to visit Las Vegas again, but people don’t like to see wind turbines in their back yard, and solar power can’t be used everywhere or at any time.

I write a lot about how politics get in the way of good policies being put together, this is an example of that. At the same time, politics is also a necessary evil. If it wasn’t for Harry Reid, Obama may not have run for President, and of course the alternatives to a democracy/a republic don’t look to good. All the pundits were saying nuclear energy would take a step back after the earthquake in Japan, but eventually there’s going to be more nuclear plants in this country, it just makes too much sense. Designs for nuclear plants have improved since the one at Fukushima was built, and obviously we don’t have to build them on a fault line. There’s a smart way to do it, and eventually enough politicians will solve the puzzle to get it done.

Leave a comment

Filed under Clean Energy, Congress, Environment, global warming, Harry Reid, Nuclear, Politics, President Obama, Reid

Obama Should Go Nuclear

This whole talk of compromise is bogus. President Obama was able to pass the tax cuts, don’t ask don’t tell, and START, because the public was on his side. Polling consistently showed the American people were in favor of these two issues, and Republicans didn’t want to look like they were not representing the people before they official gained power. But it will be a lot tougher the next two years and it will be important for Obama to pick specific issues that he can claim victory on.

Controlling the White House gives Democrats the ability to set the agenda and control the conversation. That means it is even more important to pick issues that they know they can win political points with since there will be so few of them coming up. By Obama saying he received a shellacking in this election cycle, he down played any new victories that may occur in the future, that way when he does get his initiatives passed through Congress, it is a bigger victory.

If the Republicans goal is to make Obama a one term president, there is no reason to give them an inch of breathing space. The energy legislation that passed the House this past term isn’t going anywhere. While the bill received bipartisan support, it was still a close vote and very contentious. But there are a lot of elements in it that both sides can vote for. One of them is the expansion of nuclear energy.

Obama has consistently said he is in favor of creating more nuclear sites in the United States, and many Republicans have had this on their agenda. The list includes John McCain, Mitch McConnell, and soon to be the Chairwomen of the Senate’s Energy and Natural Resources Committee, Lisa Murkowski. There will be plenty of quotes that can be used to contradict what these Senators will be saying if Obama decides to push this issue. But it is one that he needs to use the bully pulpit in order to get what he wants.

The microphone is going to be set on high for this one too. There are a lot of Not In My Back Yard issues when it comes to nuclear power. People either think of Chernobyl or Three Mile Island and do not want an instance such as that to effect their communities. Both of these accidents were caused by human error, unlike the BP oil spill which was caused by human error. That’s why the Department of Justice is suing BP believing the disaster could have been avoided. More regulation will be needed for the new nuclear plants, but it is hard to make an argument that current plants and refineries don’t need it either.

One of the factors involved with using nuclear technology is where to store the waste that comes from using the material. But while there are currently 104 nuclear power plants operating in the United States, the amount of material that would have to be stored would cover seven yards on a football field. The technology for storing this material has been improved insurmountable since the last two nuclear accidents.

While building new nuclear plants are expensive, there is still plenty of money to be made from building them, particularly with the right incentives that the federal government can provide. In the meantime, the money that is being spent will create jobs. That’s why other countries like England are planning to build more of them. And I haven’t gotten into the environmental benefits of using more nuclear power.

One of the reasons Obama had such a hard time with the media is because he was not specific enough in what he wanted. The public option was the prime example. The official position was “I’m in favor of a public option, but it does not have to be in the final bill for the bill to be effective.” While policy junkies or people who work in the health sector may have understood what he was saying, it was confusing. And it didn’t allow him to own the issue and take credit for the pieces of legislation that will benefit people.

The White House needs to keep it short and understandable. Not everyone is a physicist and kept up on the news coming out of the nuclear sector. Next year Obama is going to have to stop trying to teach, and needs to preach instead.



Leave a comment

Filed under Carbon dioxide, Energy, Environment, global warming, Jobs, Nuclear, Obama, Poitics