Sad news from Central Africa, for its wildlife and people. Civil strife has broken out again in Congo, even though the civil war has formally ended and mostly free and fair elections were held earlier this year. Rebels loyal not to the central government, but to a warlord, have taken over large areas of the Virunga National Park, home to perhaps 700 of the world’s remaining mountain gorillas.
Park guard stations were looted by rebel soldiers, rifles taken and rangers, over 100 of whom have been killed in past fighting, forced to flee. That means the gorillas currently have no formal protection. Danger is close at hand: this year, nine gorillas have been killed by rebel soldiers or kingpins of a booming charcoal trade that’s eating up the gorilla’s remaining habitat (in some cases the assailants may be one and the same). A good story about this, with wrenching photos, appeared in Newsweek. Nearly 200,000 people have fled the region this year, too.
Read more about the situation here. Also read daily on-the-ground blogs from the Virunga park rangers. They’re working hard to get information about the gorillas’ situation and are as worried as many of us around the world are about their fate.
Before leaving for their August recess, the House of Representatives passed a farm bill. The Senate takes up the legislation when it returns in September. To most people engaged in the debate about the substance and priorities of the farm bill, the legislation on the table is, with some small modifications, more or less business as usual’and not the wholesale reform many have called for. Stay tuned as the bill nears completion. At least there are more ways to do that now.
From mainstream media like the New York Times, the Washington Post, and NPR to Web-based sites like the Huffington Post, to agriculture industry journals like Feedstuffs, the 2007 farm bill has made news, probably like no farm bill before. (See media coverage of the Brighter Green/Farm Sanctuary white paper on the bill in the News section.) That’s good . . . although (there’s always an although it seems with this kind of issue) not many of the reports delved deep into the issue of subsidies and how they play out across the food chain. I didn’t hear much of anything about the connection between subsidies for feed drops making factory farming not only economically viable but inevitable.
In August, the coverage of farm bill issues has been pretty thin, although local food and organic foods continue to capture much ink, bandwidth and bytes. An article about the many uses for the season’s harvest of tomatoes has topped the New York Times‘ most emailed articles list for days. I haven’t read the story, but I can attest that the heirloom tomatoes provided by my local CSA have been fantastic . . . with more to come.
Recently, the New York Times published two important editorials (the unsigned pieces that members of the editorial board write). The first expressed dismay about the lack of real change in the current farm bill draft voted out of the House of Representatives and awaiting Senate action. The second lamented the spread of factory farms across the U.S. and directed readers to a map produced by Food & Water Watch that indicates the location of every factory farm in the U.S. You can view the map < a href="http://www.factoryfarmmap.org"> here.
And here’s my letter to the Times pointing out what links the two editorials, a connection the editors themselves didn’t make:
There’s an important link between your editorials on the lack of farm bill reform (July 28, 2007) and the spread of polluting, noxious and cruel factory farms (July 31, 2007): massive subsidies for corn and soy, which become low-cost feed for animals raised for meat. The subsidies keep prices low, plantings high and corporate operations at the trough – making the explosion of factory farming practically inevitable. As the animals become cheap food, our national epidemic of obesity and the chronic diseases that go with it gain speed. In 1950, about a billion animals were raised as food in the U.S. Today, that number hovers around 10 billion. Decades of farm bills larded with billions of dollars in subsidies have created this landscape of agglomeration. Slashing the subsidies in this year’s farm bill would be one of the best ways of slowing the march of factory farms across the U.S. (and the world). We’d also have a chance at reclaiming our public health, our environment, and some of our humanity in relationship to other animals.
At the end of March, I got an on-the-ground view of the impacts of climate change. The scene wasn’t pretty. I found myself in a pick-up truck driving into the Rift Valley about an hour outside Nairobi. In the best of times, the valley is dry and has an austere, almost out-of-this-world brownish beauty. When the seasonal rains fall, the grass turns green and animals’cows, goats and the occasional zebra or gazelle’come to graze. In the part of the valley where I was, however, the rains hadn’t come and it was bone dry. As the truck wound into the valley, we stopped frequently as women climbed aboard. Public transportation here is erratic to non-existent. The women, dressed in traditional Maasai red-patterned sheets and beautifully, primary-color-beaded jewelry, needed to get to a meeting with, as it happened, me.
As we drove, Joseph ole Simel, founder of a Kenyan NGO, the Mainyoito Pastoralist Integrated Development Organization (MPIDO) filled me in on the local effects of global warming. The communities here, nearly all Maasai herders of cows, sheep and goats, are going from one crisis to another, he said. The rains fail more often now. The elders can recall drought, but when it came then, it was only once in ten years. That gave people time to recover. Now, that time is gone. As a result, livestock populations are decreasing all over Maasailand, the traditional lands of the Maasai people. Without the livestock, families don’t have money, so they can’t pay school fees for their children. Girls are the first to suffer. They’re often forced to drop out of school and married off so their fathers can get some cows and goats as dowry in return. Raised rates of early marriage follow droughts.
A few years ago, I was in Wyoming and late one evening, the group of us, organized by Keystone Conservation, based in Bozeman, MT, joined a few wildlife biologists for a night of “spotlighting.” No, not some arcane western ritual, but a hunt of sorts: for nocturnal animals. We were in search of black-footed ferrets, those rather mysterious, slender little mammals that used to populate the Great Plains. Over the past century or so, as their main (read: usually only) food source, the once-ubiquitous prairie dog, has been exterminated in their millions (perhaps billions, and a process that continues) by ranchers, the ferret’s fortunes, like those of the prairie dog, took a decided turn downward.
But biologists and activists have been waging a still-lonely battle to bring the ferrets back and protect what remains of prairie dog communities. That night of spotlighting, we spotted a few of the ferrets, a captive population that had been bred and released. Their bright green eyes were almost uniquely luminous under the glare of the spotlight held aloft so we could see the creatures. The ferrets seemed mildly dismayed, possibly bemused, but mostly unfazed. They returned to their dens, which are prairie dog dens as well. The prairie dogs do the digging and the ferret, as a higher-up-the-food-chain predator, moves in. (Sounds familiar, no?) It wasn’t clear if the ferrets would make it. The program was new, the livestock ranchers still hostile.
So, imagine my delight when I came across an article saying that ferrets were thriving in Wyoming. The program has been a success. Drum roll please. There are now . . . 223 ferrets in the Shirley Basin region. I guess that’s not a small enough number to sneeze at, but there are more people, it seems, on my subway car in the morning. Ferrets used to be classified as the most endangered mammal in the world. It’s good to have them around again in larger numbers, and with them, the prairie dog and some modicum of prairie. But I wish the threshold for success’and cries of “They’re BACK”‘was higher.