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Always the challenge for an organization working with marginalized children in Asia is how to really alter an existing imbalance – for example to provide education or skills to working children otherwise deprived of learning and a childhood in a way that will make a meaningful difference to their futures.

It is not so complicated to establish an educational program or direct children into government schools – when these exist or there are places. There is real desire among those for whom education is not a given, to live the dream and to learn.

But even when education can be made a reality, it is often not enough to just put children in school, or sit them in front of a blackboard and teacher for a few hours a day. There are so many factors that act against the instinct to learn: lack of food or safe drinking water, cold weather when children don’t have enough clothing, hot weather when they must learn outside or in rooms without windows, absence of sanitation and healthcare, little support from parents, and family pressure to work, among them.

In India, where, along with support from a UK-based partner, ADMCF has been working with a local organization to encourage children out of what is often hazardous work and back to school, the challenges for learners are myriad.

The NGO works with marginalized urban populations in the worst conditions imaginable. The problem remains: can it offer education without thinking about nutrition, healthcare, encouraging family support (not financial) and expect permanent results in the children’s lives? Can we expect, particularly in the most challenging communities that access to education alone will lead to a better future?

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This has been particularly true in the wake of India’s well-intentioned Right to Education Act, which determined in August 2009 much as the name suggests that all Indian children should be in school from 6-14.

This meant that our partner organization, which had established drop-in centres as way stations between work and school, was forced to rethink how it worked with children who had never attended school or had dropped out years previously.

Instead, after a brief transition, all children had to be quickly enrolled in government school, whether they were ready or not. They no longer had the luxury of longer preparation in a safer environment ahead of enrollment.

This was tricky enough in major urban areas, where there were schools and places and children could be supported in after-school programs in the same centres. But in the poorest urban slums in India that are home to significant Dalit or untouchable populations (many migrants from rural areas), there are often no government school options – despite the fact that according to official statistics, 96.6 per cent of children in India ages 6 to 14 are now enrolled.

IMG_5184If there are schools, there are no places. If there are places, the classes are massively overcrowded or there is discrimination against Dalits. If there is no discrimination, the teachers don’t show up for class. In any case, for the poorest children, there frequently is little learning to be had in official schools.

Enter our partner NGO, which provides that stepping stone to education but faces the many questions above. They now must mainstream their primary and secondary school children into schools that don’t exist, or where they don’t learn. Their own centres must not be schools. So what is the learning path?

For a child with enough money there is a proliferation of private schools stepping into the lacunae created by failing government education. But how does an education NGO step in to provide support to ALL marginalized children, not just the brightest, how does it make sure that all children it contacts receive the education to which they are entitled under Indian law yet can’t access?

Then, at the same time, how does an organization in a country as vast as India, where marginalized children are easily discarded by law and society, provide the conditions for learning given limited resources and India’s education act?

Clearly, there should be more provisions made to support education for India’s poorest children, particularly in a country that traditionally has placed such value on learning.

 

This first appeared as an Op-ed in the October 25 opinion pages of the SCMP.

We might finally have an administration that cares about cleaning our filthy air. Indications are that the new administration led by C.Y.Leung will act to finally stem the choking smog that represents Hong Kong’s No 1 public health crisis and is a major impediment to the city’s competitiveness.

Last week, in his first address to the reconvened Legislative Council, the chief executive said improving air quality was among his top objectives. In a move that already stirred optimism about the government’s determination to protect public health, Leung last month named environmentalist Christine Loh Kung-wai undersecretary for the environment.

It was also encouraging to see, a day after Leung’s address, Secretary for the Environment Wong Kam-sing calling roadside pollution the city’s greatest problem, and that a basket of initiatives to improve the city’s air quality would be introduced next year. These, he said, would aim to comply with World Health Organisation standards rather than the outdated air quality measures still in use.

Among the initiatives being considered are “carrot and stick” policies that include removing some 60,000 heavily polluting diesel vehicles from our roads.

Such measures are urgently needed. Some older vehicles have been on the road for as long as 20 years and should be refused registration if they don’t comply with vehicle emission standards.

While atmospheric pollution might have improved somewhat – due mainly to lower emissions from the city’s power stations – the concentration of roadside emissions remains unacceptably high, and it is these emissions that affect us the most.

Wong has said that 80 per cent of roadside pollutants come from outdated commercial diesel vehicles.

Retiring obsolete commercial diesel vehicles will improve our air and our health. It’s also worth remembering that research from the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology showed that, 53 per cent of the time, pollution that affects us most comes not from across the border, but from our own roads and ships on the harbour.

Indeed, the recent flurry of positive announcements from the government came amid a string of bad air days and public health warnings to moderate outdoor activity.

According to Hong Kong University’s Hedley Environmental Index, which measures the cost of pollution, yesterday was a “clear day” (one that complies with WHO air quality guidelines) in Hong Kong. The last such day was September 22, which means that our air stayed bad for more than a month.

According to the index, there have been only 59 clear days so far this year. The polluted days represent a cumulative HK$33 million in health-related and other costs.

Beyond the direct cost to our economy, surveys of business executives regularly point to our smoggy air as a real obstacle in recruiting and retaining workers – whether foreign or local. Patience is wearing thin.

By now we have heard from doctors and scientists that our dangerously high level of pollutants raises the risk of such conditions as bronchitis, asthma, pneumonia, headaches, lung cancer, stroke and heart attack.

So we should applaud the suggestion of phasing out outdated commercial diesel vehicles, despite what I imagine will be heavy lobbying from the transport sector.

As Wong pointed out, mainland China is phasing out diesel vehicles more than 15 years old, so why should we be any different? The government’s carrot will include subsidies to soften the blow of replacing vehicle fleets.

It is encouraging that the administration has also spoken about retrofitting Euro II and III franchised buses with selective catalytic reduction devices to reduce nitrogen oxide emissions and might even tighten emission standards for LPG and petrol vehicles as well.

Here’s hoping that our new government will finally act to protect our health.

 

Eating Asia’s Forests

Lisa Genasci —  October 20, 2012 — 4 Comments

View of palm oil plantation in Cigudeg, Bogor

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Most of us don’t realize that many of the products we use, the foods we eat are causing deforestation on a massive scale in Southeast Asia and are devastating to our planet’s biodiversity.

The culprit is palm oil, which is a key ingredient in many common foods, shampoos, soap and pet products, lubricants, pesticides and paints.  It even helps fuel our cars.

Palm oil has become a silent part of our everyday lives and accounts for 30 percent of world vegetable oil. And that’s how it’s usually identified on the list of ingredients – as vegetable oil so we often don’t even know what we are using.

Our consumption of the versatile lipid is soaring.  Demand is predicted to more than double by 2030 and to triple by 2050. China is the biggest consumer of palm oil, importing 18 per cent of global supply.

In Indonesia and Malaysia, forests are being cleared at an alarming rate, estimated at 2 million hectares a year, wiping out endangered species such as the orangutan, the black sun bear, the Sumatran tiger and many others.  The two countries produce 90 percent of the world’s palm oil.

A new study by Stanford and Yale researchers estimates that 75 percent of deforestation in Indonesia was directly attributable to land use changes, from forestry to plantation. The study was released this month and published in the journal Nature Climate Change

Indonesia already has 8 million hectares of oil palm plantations, but has plans for another four million by 2015 dedicated to biofuel production alone. In total, the country produced more than 23 million tonnes of biofuels last year and is setting aside 18 million hectares to produce much more.

Malaysia in 2011 produced 18.9 million tonnes of palm oil on nearly 5 million hectares and was the second largest producer of palm oil.

Beyond feeding our snack habit, another challenge for forests is that governments are pushing to increase the use of biofuel, which ironically is seen as a quick fix to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. In the EU By 2020, 10 per cent of fuel will be biofuel, while China expects 15 per cent of its fuel to be grown in fields.

But in both Indonesia and Malaysia, in order to plant palm oil, often carbon-rich peatlands are being drained and then burned, releasing stored C02 into atmosphere already clogged with greenhouse gases from razing dry land forests. This represents possibly more carbon emissions than burning fossil fuels.

English: Deforestation and forest burning for ...

And not infrequently palm oil plantations are just an excuse for clearing forest because the profits associated with sales of tropical timber are substantial. In this case, companies seek concessions and access to land that is forested but don’t ever bother to plant palm oil.

We might think that forest and peat swamp loss in Southeast Asia sounds bad but it’s far away so why do we care?

We care for many reasons.  But if we are thinking purely about self-interest, the effects of forest loss can be seen globally in changing climate patterns and erratic weather.

Forest cutting is responsible for 17 per cent of global carbon emissions, meaning this is the third largest source of greenhouse gas emissions and equal to emissions for the entire global transport sector. It is also comparable to the total annual CO2 emissions of the US or China, according to the UK Eliasch Review, “Climate Change, Financing Global Forests”.

If the international community does nothing to reduce deforestation, modeling for the Eliasch Review estimates that the global economic cost of climate change alone caused by deforestation could reach $1 trillion a year by 2100.

Beyond the effects of climate change from deforestation, we look to forests as sources of vital biodiversity.

Estimates are that nearly half of the world’s species of plants, animals and microorganisms will be destroyed or severely threatened over the next 25 years because of rainforest deforestation. As rainforest species disappear, so do many possible cures for disease.

At least 120 prescription drugs sold worldwide come from plant-derived sources. While 25% of Western pharmaceuticals are derived from rainforest ingredients, less than 1% of tropical trees and plants have been tested by scientists. We just don’t know enough about the significance of forests to sit back while they disappear.

Locally, the consequences of deforestation on such massive scale are even more immediate.  Forests help regulate regional rainfall, offer defense from floods, maintain soils and their moisture, and generally offer ecosystem services crucial for maintaining life and livelihoods. Globally, an estimated 1.6 billion people depend on forests for their welfare and livelihoods to one degree or another.

So is it worth it to eat that biscuit, that chocolate, choose a shampoo that contains palm oil and how do we know if it’s not even labeled?

The rule is that if the label shows the saturated fat content is close to 50%, there is a good chance that the vegetable oil will in fact be palm oil. Among those items that should be immediately suspect are biscuits, processed foods, chocolates and snacks.

Other key tip-offs that a food item might contain palm oil listed among ingredients are cocoa butter equivalent (CBE), cocoa butter substitute (CBS), palm olein and palm stearine.

When looking at ingredients in non-food products such as soaps and detergents, those that contain palm oil include: elaeis guineensis, sodium lauryl sulphate, cetyl alcohol, stearic acid, isopropyl and other palmitates, steareth-2, steareth-20 and fatty alcohol sulphates.

Next time you reach for a snack, paint a wall or fill up your car, do your best to make sure palm oil isn’t an ingredient or at least that the brand claims to use oil from sustainable sources.

There are many issues around what makes palm oil sustainable as well as the industry body, the Round Table on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) itself, but this is at least a step in the right direction.

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Angkor Hospital is the spectacular facility in Siem Reap, Cambodia I have written about in previous blog posts. Last year, the hospital offered 157,000 treatments to children free of charge, ranging from physical therapy and dental care to heart surgery. The boy above is an AHC heart patient who prior to surgery could hardly walk. When I came across him with his mother in the packed waiting room – back for a check up – he was running across the courtyard. His mother wanted to show me his scar.

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The hospital includes an incredible team of 49 Cambodian doctors and 149 Cambodian nurses, not to mention an equally dedicated support staff of 130. Although foreign teams do sometimes assist and train in more complicated procedures, there are only two full-time foreign doctors and two full-time foreign nurses at AHC. Above is the ER team comparing notes on patients.

The AHC budget for this year is US$4.5 million U.S., which works out to a cost per child of US$23. This compares to an average cost per child in the U.S. of US$1,853. Throughout this year, an average of 1,400 children were visiting the Emergency room at AHC and its satellite clinic thirty kilometers away, while 290 patients required admission. On average, the hospital’s three surgeons performed seven surgeries daily.

Those numbers have increased over the past few months, however, with a regional dengue outbreak and a larger number of patients seeking quality medical care they can’t find or afford elsewhere. In some cases, patients have had to rest on mats in the corridor for lack of ward space, while others have been sent to other hospitals.

A new four-floor building is now under construction. This will help improve medical care and create an additional 250 sq meters in the main hospital. Among the additions will be a neonatal ward, a new ward for recovering children, an expanded ER and labs (including the research lab, which is a partnership with Oxford University). Beyond the recent pressure from larger numbers of patients, an April medical audit identified a lack of adequate space, the small ER and lack of neonatal unit as the top three weaknesses of AHC.

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AHC works hard to provide the quality of medical care and compassion that a sick child would receive in a developed world context. The type of treatment offered at AHC, which is free of charge, is rare in Cambodia. This includes support to chronically ill patients, physiotherapy and palliative care for very sick children.  A home care program follows up with many such patients and includes a social work team.

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Some patients and their parents who aren’t able to see a doctor on the day they arrive must wait until the next day. The hospital provides cooking facilities, clean water and mosquito netting, which, innovatively, is tied between benches in the waiting area.

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These two children were waiting with their mother and a sick sibling, who needed medical attention.

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Beyond providing medical care and support to government hospitals around Cambodia in developing their medical and nursing protocols, AHC helps educate communities about issues related to health care. Some of the main causes of sickness, the main reasons that patients end up at AHC’s gates, are drinking contaminated water, poor sanitation and poor nutrition. In the context of working in one of Cambodia’s poorest regions where malnutrition is surprisingly still rife, AHC staff teaches children and their families the basics to keep them healthy.

Many brands that say they are producing sustainable product are in reality greenwashing their textile production in China, according to the latest report from five environmental NGOs in China.

“Sustainable Apparel’s Critical Blind Spot,” which can be found here,  was a follow on from a report I wrote about here released in April that named 49 global fashion brands using polluting factories in China and suggested consumers make a “green choice” when buying clothes.

Led by Ma Jun’s  Institute for Environmental and Public Affairs, “Cleaning up the Fashion Industry”  listed 6,000 water pollution violations by manufacturers of goods ranging from sports apparel to luxury handbags.

Subsequently, 30 brands began conversations with IPE about how to improve the environmental performance of their supply chain, according to Ma Jun.

Clothing brands and retailers such as H&M, Nike, Esquel, Levi’s Adidas, Walmart, Burberry and Gap have all established regular screening mechanisms, are actively identifying pollution violations in their supply chain and have pushed more than 200 textile and leather suppliers to clean up.

Adidas, Nike, Levi’s and H&M have begun to address environmental challenges with their dyeing and finishing suppliers, the report said.

The latest investigation looked deeper into supply chains following a letter sent September 25th by the NGOs to the 49 brands requesting information about pollution management issues at materials suppliers.

Besides IPE, authors of the report were, Friends of Nature, Green Beagle, Envirofriends and Nanjing Greenstone

In all, 22 of the brands receiving the letter, including Marks & Spencer, Disney, J.C. Penney, Polo Ralph Lauren and Tommy Hilfiger gave limited or no responses to specific questions relative to emissions violation problems in their supply chain. This despite Marks & Spencer, for example, promoting its “Plan A”, which is a sustainable business benchmark for global textile companies and retailers.

Companies promoting sustainability should “not continue to let suppliers pollute the environment and hurt communities whilst using concepts such as ‘zero waste’ and ‘carbon neutral’ to greenwash their performance,” the environmental NGOs wrote in the report.

The report draws attention to the fact that textile exports from China have dropped recently, weighed by higher labor costs in China, trade barriers, the appreciation of the RMB and higher resource costs.

Big brands have moved some of their cut and sew production to South and Southeast Asia.  Nike shut down its only shoe factory in China and recently, Adidas also closed its only factory in China, leading people to believe China is steadily losing its status as the textile factory to the world.

But materials production is still concentrated in China, with exports of these products rising steadily, according to the report. This is the most polluting portion of the apparel supply chain.

In the raw materials processing sector, which includes dyeing and finishing, exports are growing steadily. According to the 2011/2012 China Textile Industry Report, for the six main printing and dyeing product categories, the total amount of exported printed and dyed cloth was 14.412 billion meters which showed a year on year growth of 13.76%.

The value of exported printed and dyed products was US$16.979 billion, which showed a year on year growth of 31.26%. However, at the same time the total value of all exported textile products only increased by 0.49%.

The cut and sew industry provides the most jobs, uses less water and energy and pollution discharge is not a big problem. However, the reverse is true for textile production. Essentially, China has kept the dirty part of the business, while allowing the relatively clean, job-creating cut and sew industry to wane.

The problem is that enforcement of pollution remains weak in China, while the cost of inputs like water and energy are still relatively low. So dyeing and finishing companies often avoid any water or energy savings initiatives and disregard pollution control, ignoring environmental laws and regulations.

Sustainable apparel in particular,  has a ”dangerous blind spot,” according to the report, which means that dyeing and finishing mills and factories lower their environmental standards to cut costs and win orders in a race to the bottom.

Essentially the problem is that most apparel and retail brands still choose not to look into the polluting part of their business – the bottom of the supply chain. Consequently, materials manufacturers are still trying to produce in the cheapest way possible in order to keep costs low for fast fashion.

We as consumers must recognize that we have a choice not to buy the cheapest item on the shelves, to acquire less and from companies that truly care about not doing harm to our planet.

We know that our oceans play a critical role in assuring human wellbeing, providing food, livelihoods and recreation as well as helping to regulate global climates.

We also know that our oceans are in trouble, with many marine species headed for extinction. Ocean acidification, rising sea temperatures, rising sea levels, hypoxia, overuse of marine resources and pollution rank among the greatest challenges. All of these are well-discussed in a Stockholm Environment Institute study, Valuing the Ocean, which makes an important argument for valuing and protecting ocean services.

But how do we gauge the health of our oceans and marine resources – a daunting task given the many interlinked and complex benefits and threats?

Recently responding to this question, a broad group of marine conservationists and scientists released the Ocean Health Index,which is a sort of marine GDP, reflecting the health of our marine environments and how sustainably we are using them.

An account of the Index was published in the Aug. 30th issue of Nature.

The groundbreaking tool is not just a measure of how pristine the waters of any country might be, but rather considers how we humans benefit from our marine ecosystems and how our oceans are faring globally in terms of provision of services to us.

In search of baseline measures, scientists and marine experts calculated standards for the many ways we use the ocean. It comprises ten goals for a healthy human–ocean system in the waters of a country’s exclusive economic zone, which usually stretch 200 mile offshore.

The index now offers hard numbers to show how close or far each  coastal country is to balanced use of the Big Blue.

The country goals for a balanced marine environment include clean water, food provision, carbon capture, biodiversity, coastal protection, recreational opportunities, artisanal fisheries, support of local economies, and a “sense of place.”

Globally, the overall index score was 60 out of 100, with developed countries largely performing better than developing countries. Only 5% of countries scored higher than 70, while 32% scored lower than 50.

Rather predictably, while northern European countries tended to score highly, much of  West Africa, for example, did not score so well.

Researchers hope the Ocean Health Index will build awareness of the state of the world’s ocean, and work as a catalyst and guide for business and government decision-makers to develop effective policies promoting ocean health.

Researchers intend to release an updated version annually that responds to  new data that will overtime refine the index.

The Ocean Health Index was developed with the contributions of more than 65 ocean experts including the National Center for Ecological Analysis and the Synthesis and the University of British Columbia’s Sea Around Us project. Founding partners are Conservation International, The National Geographic Society and The New England Aquarium.

One of the more important conversations that emerged from June’s Rio+20 Summit was around valuing natural resources and, ultimately, moving our economies beyond GDP as a sole measure of growth.

The concept is not a new one but it did seem gain traction.  Included among the side events on one day alone were at least two standing-room-only sessions on the topic: “Measuring the Future We Want” and the Natural Capital Summit.

In Measuring the Future, the panel recognized that over the last 20 years we have seen poverty decline but at the cost of growing environmental challenges. The call was for governments to institute a framework for natural capital accounting.

The Natural Capital Summit, meanwhile, featured speeches from Britain’s Nick Clegg and Norwegian Prime Minister, Jens Stoltenberg, as well as remarks from the presidents of Gabon and Costa Rica, illustrating clearly the level of interest in the topic.

“How to value nature is one of the most important political decisions,” Stoltenberg said, shortly after Clegg had talked over a masked heckler, accusing world leaders and the World Bank of commoditizing nature.

Despite the mask and the point well taken about assigning value to nature, the reality is not so simple. As we have it now, few benefit from our forests, oceans, our extractive industries and water.  The costs of pollution are borne by us all rather than the polluter.

This creates a world where we are rapidly depleting our natural resources for the enrichment of a few, and economic growth, as measured by GDP, is vastly inflated.

Both Rio+20 side sessions were short on answers or plans of action, despite some participants stating the desire to help international gatherings move beyond declarations – something that is sorely needed.

As a path toward action, however, also at Rio, the United Nations Environmental Program (UNEP) and the UN Environmental Program, the International Human Dimensions Programme on Global Climate Change (IHDP) introduced the Inclusive Wealth Index.

The idea is to consider a country’s assets to get a better picture of a country’s wealth and the sustainability of its growth.  In reporting every two years, IHDP will calculate the IWI for 20 countries that together account for almost three-quarters of global GDP.

Unsurprisingly, the first report showed that despite strong GDP growth, the United States, China, Brazil and South Africa had significantly depleted their natural capital base.  This was calculated as the total of renewable and non-renewable resources such as fisheries, forests and fossil fuels.

Again, not surprisingly, China showed the most dramatic difference between GDP and IWI. GDP growth alone was measured at 422 percent between 1990 and 2007 but IWI measured over the time was just 45 percent.

The report also showed that future growth, as measured by IWI, was dependent on the sustainable use of resources since all countries surveyed had a higher share of natural than manufactured capital.

The key factor here is that countries are using their natural resources faster than they can be replenished, thus challenging future economic development.

The strong sense in Rio was that governments need to step in to create a policy framework by which natural capital can be valued in order for real change to happen. The private sector, of course, wants a level playing field.

Meanwhile, some leading companies that are among the biggest beneficiaries of natural resources and free pollution, also stepped into the discussion this week in Rio.

Twenty-four of them, including Cocoa-Cola, Xerox, Dow Chemical and Kimberly-Clark announced a four-step framework for a methodology that would value natural resources.

Two-thirds of our planet’s land and water ecosystems are now significantly degraded thanks to human activity and climate change is only accelerating the damage. The UN estimates that mismanagement of natural assets costs the global economy an estimated $6.6 trillion a year or 11 percent of GDP collectively.

According to the report, these costs are expected to reach $28 trillion by 2050 and threaten core business interests through potential supply chain disruptions or costly substitutions, regulatory or legal risks.

KPMG has estimated that if companies had to pay for their own environmental bills they would lose 41 cents for every $1 in earnings.

The text of Valuing Natural Capital acknowledges that “each year our planet’s land and water systems produce an estimated $72 trillion worth of “free” goods and services essential to a well-functioning world economy.”

Because these are not bartered and sold in the marketplace it is hard to assign them with a value or corporate or government financial statements. “As a result this value has been largely unaccounted for in business decisions and market transactions.”

But this is starting to change, according to the document, with, “business executives recognizing the business imperative of safeguarding them.”

Among the natural goods and services on which the global economy was seen to depend are: Clean water and air; affordable raw materials and commodities; fertile soils; fisheries; buffers to floods, droughts, fires and extreme weather; barriers to the spread of disease; biological information to propel scientific and medical breakthroughs.

Still, the report although strong on the challenges is short on how natural resources will actually be valued.

Puma has been a leader in this field. Last year the company introduced an environmental profit and loss screening that represented an interesting step toward assigning economic value to resources consumed, to emissions and toward determining the true cost of production for the apparel and shoe brand. I have written about this here.

Finally, also this week the leaders of 37 banks, investment funds and insurance companies agreed to take better stock of the stress put on ecosystems by the economic activity they manage, and work towards integrating natural capital into products and services.

The Natural Capital Declaration is once again short on detail, but at least represents an acknowledgement of the issue.

 

 

In Rio this week up for discussion and negotiation (mostly negotiation) is a 49-page draft document that aims to establish clear sustainable development goals and action to achieve them.

The United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development, better known as Rio Plus 20, marks 20 years since the Earth Summit, which at the time was the largest gathering of heads of state ever to talk about environmental challenges.

This time, the agenda has been softened to be about sustainable development, with an emphasis on development. Indeed, some people here don’t seem to believe that environment really plays any part in the conference. Earth isn’t anywhere isn’t mentioned – despite that this is clearly supposed to be a follow-on to the earlier event.

Yet it’s hard to imagine how the discussion of sustainable development can take place without careful consideration of our natural environment.

The reality and the urgency is that our world’s population is expected to rise from its current 7 billion to more than 9 billion in 2050. That’s scary in a world where already an estimated 3 billion people don’t have clean water to drink and 14 percent of our planet, to adequate food.

According to the final version of the Rio Plus 20 Common Vision submitted today under the title, The Future We Want, one in five people, over 1 billion people, still live in extreme poverty. By 2050 two-thirds of our world will live in cities.

So where we find food and water for another 2 million people in 38 years is the crux of the challenge and one that really can’t be denied, regardless of political leaning.

And we live in Asia, where most of that future population growth is expected to occur. This places the challenges front and centre for those of us engaged in work to combat environmental challenges and with communities without adequate means to survive.

Despite the enormity of the task at hand, however, few here in Rio are optimistic that real change will come from or be led by the conference.

The Brazil delegation worked hard in recent days to ram through a document that is in essence hollow, fearing more than anything a repeat of the Copenhagen disaster when no one could agree on anything.

I guess the sense is that if they can at least agree on nothing meaningful that’s better than agreeing on nothing at all over the three-day official proceedings, which begin Wednesday?

The conference document finalized today was, “the result of intensive and prolonged negotiations,” according to the press release, and is a “compromise text,” in which, “countries have had to both give and take to achieve progress.”

The text is to be approved by heads of state at the conference conclusion on Friday. Significantly, Barack Obama, David Cameron and Angela Merkel will not be present in Rio.

Still, the text does include a commitment at least to the concept of sustainable development and recognition that eradicating poverty is one of our greatest challenges. It emphasizes the urgency around “freeing humanity from hunger and poverty”.

The text establishes the clear linkages between sustainable development and the environment, between sustainable development and the means to bolster our struggling economies, and emphasizes the value of public-private partnerships.

Sadly, the hope that this translates into government action is absent from the jaded community spending long hours being bused among several distant event locations in fancy and frigid coaches that have nothing to do with sustainable development other than collective transport.

Part of the skepticism also derives from the fact that the earlier Rio conference ended with two treaties aimed at curbing emissions of greenhouse gases and conserving biological diversity that have since languished amid lack of political will.

There is, additionally, a certain exhaustion generally with the promotion of international frameworks to make sweeping change toward environmental progress.

Those just have been too hard to achieve in our economically challenged world that doesn’t yet seem to link better development, protection of our natural world and an improved economic environment.

like the posh buses, the main conference venue itself is a reflection of misunderstanding of the challenges we face. The huge Riocentro is two hours in traffic from Ipanema and Copacabana, where most participants are staying.

There, air conditioning blasts through huge buildings that are no model of efficiency – either in space or energy consumption.

At the same time, Rio Plus 20 is largely white and male – at least this is particularly true of the official and business delegations. Amongst the NGO community, women are better represented.

At the alternative youth summit in Flamengo, three hours from Riocentro in traffic and closer to Rio’s pulsing centre, the situation is considerably different.

Here, the youth and community-connected people are basing themselves, including many of the smaller NGOs – and diversity is evident in the variety of national dress, skin hues and music that accompanies many events.

In a long stretch of tents, people gather for animated discussion or to listen to seminars on topics related to conservation and sustainable development. Here, the environment is very much present although it’s hard to see where, concretely, the discussion will lead.

Official delegations are noticeably lacking these communities – the NGOs and youth. This is despite the final text emphasizing wide agreement among business, NGOs and government.

Perhaps one bright light here in Rio seems to be the talk on many levels of the importance of valuing our natural resources. Companies, NGOs and governments alike seem to recognize the need to bring environmental value into economic decision-making.

And engaging the private sector, governments, communities in this important dialogue, in partnerships to achieve results, is key to real change.  As always in large gatherings it’s the back-room learnings and discussion that are the real drivers for change.

 

 

I am constantly surprised that Hong Kong does not pay more attention to its water supply, that something so vital to our city is far from secured by our government.

How many of us know that 75 percent of our water comes from the Dongjiang River, while only 25 percent of the city’s drinking water is supplied by reservoirs from within the territory? That while Singapore has similar water concerns, the island nation is investing in technology to conserve, recycle and desalinate water to ensure adequate supply, yet our government simply is not.

This is wrong for many reasons but here are two of the most obvious:

1) China is experiencing a significant water crisis and is acting aggressively to ensure its own supply. As Civic Exchange’s Su Liu recently pointed out while speaking on a panel, “We in Hong Kong don’t see the big picture – 40 million compared to our 7 million also rely on the Dongjiang. If water tensions rise on the mainland – where is the priority? ” You can more read about the excellent discussion on China’s water stresses moderated by http://www.ChinaWaterRisk.org’s Debra Tan, here.

2) The Lower Dongjiang River Basin is becoming intensely  industrialized and urbanized meaning industrial pollution regionally is a real concern. At the same time, agriculture further inland has intensified and pollutants from farms, such as pesticides and fertilizers are just as dangerous in drinking water as industrial materials. So How safe is our water in reality? Clearly local testing shows that currently the water we drink meets health standards but can we be sure that will always be the case?

To my first point, China registers a 50-billion-cubic meter water shortage annually, with two-thirds of cities having trouble accessing water, according to a China Daily article last week quoting Chen Lei, the country’s minister of water resources. In all, China’s water consumption apparently has exceeded 600 billion cubic meters, accounting for 74 percent of the country’s exploitable water resources.

In January, the central government issued a document asking the entire country to limit the scale of water exploitation, improve the efficiency of water usage and curb water pollution. According to the article, China aims to reduce water consumption per 10,000 yuan ($1,597) industrial value-added output to less than 40 cubic meters by 2030, raise the effective water use coefficient of farmland irrigation water to above 0.6 and improve water quality.

Chen also has said the nation will set water consumption quotas for local governments and continue to perfect the water price formation mechanism in order to promote water resource conservation and protection.

So it sounds as though Su Liu has the right idea – the Chinese government priority won’t be to keep prices low and supply constant for the 7 million Hong Kongers drawing ever higher upstream on the Dongjiang.

And we are vulnerable. Our water agreement with Guangdong was renewed in late 2011 but only for another three years, until 2014 and for a maximum supply of 820 million cubed meters from the Dongjiang, a major tributary to the Pearl River, 83 kilometers north of Hong Kong. Our current accord commits to this supply regardless of drought.  But the river also supplies fresh water to seven other cities, including Guangzhou, Dongguan and Shenzhen. All of those cities, however, have seen allowances decreased during drought years so will Hong Kong continue to receive privileged treatment?

At the same time, we would be ill-equipped for any water rationing. As China Water risk has pointed out here, Hong Kong uses more water per capita than Paris, London, Singapore or Melbourne and over 50 percent of our water is for domestic use. This compares to just 15 percent of water usage in China being for municipal use.

Part of the problem is that our tariffs are among the lowest in the world. As CWR points out, the first 12 cubic meters of water used every four months is free for all domestic users. Countries with comparable GDP per capita such as Netherlands, Switzerland and the U.S. all have higher water tariffs.

But tariffs are also low in China and the expectation is that with a push on the mainland toward water conservation, pricing will likely at some point rise to a water tariff level of 2-3 percent of average household income. That should also translate to higher prices in Hong Kong.

Turning to pollution, I have written several blogs on the lack of enforcement of water quality standards in China. The intense industrial development throughout China, but particularly in the south, has helped fuel annual GDP growth in the double digits but it has also rendered many rivers, lakes and reservoirs, indeed much of the country’s groundwater, essentially useless for agriculture or consumption.

Of the country’s 26 key lakes and reservoirs monitored, only 23 percent fall within grade 1-111, while 19 percent of China’s seven major river basins monitored are  considered essentially useless. Finally, almost 74 percent of groundwater is considered grade IV-V standard, or excessively polluted. More information on China’s water pollution can be found here.

We should remember that a river collects the water in its basin and that means that all the pollutants within the Dongjiang Basin could potentially end up in Hong Kong’s water supply – not a pleasant thought. Will we have to wait for a major accident on the Dongjiang or its feeders before the Hong Kong government wakes up to our vulnerability?

For now, Hong Kong water quality data, although only through September last year, can be found here, on the Water Supplies Department website.

Hong Kong consumers have the ability to sustain a significant tariff hike.  That would help us move toward greater water conservation and at the same time provide  the resources for the city to invest in making options such as desalination and water recycling economically viable. What are we waiting for?

I recently spent a week at Angkor Hospital for Children in Siem Reap, Cambodia with Francesco Caruso, director of ADMCF’s Children at Risk program and Ryan Glasgo, our new finance director. Both are working hard to help bring the hospital to the point where it can become a fully Cambodian institution.

When the hospital was founded in 1999 by Japanese photographer Kenro Izu and then was nurtured into being in partnership with an American board as a free pediatric hospital, Cambodia was a very different place.

Now there is a growing middle class, many of whom would be fully able to pay something for medical care. AHC for now, however, is still entirely free to any Cambodian child.

At the same time, the hospital in 2012 has a talented and dedicated medical and administrative staff that is fully capable of taking the hospital forward.

There is now an almost entirely Cambodian staff of 149 nurses and 46 doctors, including AHC’s executive director. Only two doctors and two nurses are foreign.

Last year, the hospital treated more than 150,000 children for illnesses ranging from acute diarrhea to tuberculosis. The Outpatient Department sees between 400 and 600 patients daily, while the Inpatient unit of 40 beds is almost always full.

An emergency room has eight beds, four of these in a separate isolation ward. There are plans to build a separate neonatal ward since on any day 10 of the patients are babies and many have suffered birth trauma or are premature.

Surgeries in the one operating theatre range from hernias to heart repair.

A pediatric Satellite clinic that is part of the government hospital in Sotnikum, 35 kilometers from Siem Reap, last year treated 12,300 Children. The Satellite staff works closely with the government hospital to build the quality of care offered there, with a focus on assisting the lab, X-ray unit and pharmacy, which the clinic shares. The clinic also has  installed an emergency button in the delivery room to summon a Satellite  doctor to assist any baby in distress.

AHC  also has become northern Cambodia’s premier pediatric teaching facility. The Medical Education program includes a three-year residency program for every doctor who joins and then on-going internal education and fellowships abroad.  ME also offers internships and trainings  for medical staff  from other hospitals.

“What we are developing is to be shared,” the hospital’s executive director, Dr. Bill Housworth emphasized, explaining the hospital’s full engagement via the AHC External Program with both the Ministry of Health in Phnom Penh and directly with many of Cambodia’s government hospitals.

The AHC Capacity Building program works with rural Health Care Centres and communities to provide education on nutrition, hygiene, sanitation and relevant disease – some of the main challenges for the AHC patient population.

The hospital, Satellite, Medical Education and  CB programs together cost US$4.5 million last year. This amount is covered almost exclusively by donor funding and is a challenge for the hospital to raise each year.

Consequently, AHC is of necessity looking at revenue-generating programs and already for a fee provides hospital services to the children of some local NGO workers and airport staff in Siem Reap.

Although public hospitals are not free in Cambodia, about 30 percent of the rural population has what is known as a Health Equity Card, which establishes that they are poor and reimburses some of the medical costs and travel expenses to get to the hospital. But even then, it is not uncommon for doctors and hospital administrators to ask patients for payment ahead of treatment.

Private clinics are expensive and don’t necessarily provide a better quality of care, underlining the importance of a hospital like Angkor for the population that just cannot pay medical costs.

Research shows that the most common reason for impoverishment in Cambodia remains emergency healthcare costs, which force families to enter an often unending spiral of debt. For families who have a child with a chronic disease, healthcare costs can be devastating.

In Cambodia, an average of one in 20 children die before their fifth birthday, compared to a rate of one in 120 found in developed nations, according to UNICEF. And four children out of five live in rural areas, where the mortality rate is much higher at 64 deaths per 1,000 live birth.

Government census data shows that in 2010, 40 percent of children under five were too short for their age, stunted by malnutrition. Roughly 30 percent of Cambodians live on less than $1.25 per day, which the World Bank has established as the poverty threshold.

Indeed, Siem Reap province, better known abroad for its 11th century temple complexes and lavish hotels replete with Western tourists, has the third-highest poverty rate among the Cambodian provinces at 52 percent.

For a province of 1 million people, the total health budget of Siem Reap this year is about $2.8 million, according to provincial health officials, and almost two-thirds of that represents support from large foreign government donors.  None of that makes its way to AHC.

Clearly, part of the problem with provincial hospitals is that the government can afford to pay only low salaries to its health workers. Thus doctors, who might earn as little as $100 a month, often supplement their incomes with private clinics that take precedence over any hospital care.

Still, Cambodia is making headway in medical care on offer, in part with the support of AHC.

Part of the problem is the legacy of destruction leftover from the 1975-1979 Khmer Rouge rule, when medical professionals and other educated people were singled out for slaughter. In all, an estimated 1.7 million people were killed or died from forced labor, starvation or disease over the period.

When they marched into Phnom Penh and other cities, the Khmer Rouge emptied the hospitals, eliminated the doctors and then left the care of sick and injured to untrained young soldiers who favored traditional Cambodian remedies over Western medicine.  By the time the Vietnamese ejected the Khmer Rouge from power, there were only an estimated 40 doctors left in the country.

Decades of war and isolation followed, leaving the medical infrastructure in shambles. In the 1990s, NGOs simply took over the health care system without trying to build anything indigenous, and change only began in earnest with the end of the Cambodian Civil War in 1998.

Angkor Hospital is working hard to be part of the solution.

Musahars are among the most discriminated communities in India, a problem I have written about here: https://genascihk.com/2011/04/03/292/. This is a video made for Sister Sudha and the fantastic community of girls she is helping to educate.

Five Chinese environmental groups have named 48 global fashion brands using polluting factories in China and suggested consumers make a “green choice” when buying clothes.

A report  led by Ma Jun and his Institute for Environmental and Public Affairs  and released this week lists 6,000 water pollution violations by manufacturers  of goods that ranged from sports apparel to luxury handbags.

Brands were linked to the factories over seven months of painstaking review of official websites, financial reports, recruitment ads and procurement bids, among other documents, according to IPE.

Over the past eight years the Institute has gathered a database of over 90,000 air and water violations from official government  sources. IPE now works with many brands to make sure they are not using polluting suppliers and to help clean up those that are illegally dumping untreated toxic waste water into rivers.

Between march 22 and March 29  the five environmental groups wrote to the CEOs of each of the 48 brands linked to factories with repeated environmental violations. They asked the brands to ensure their Chinese suppliers would not pollute the environment while manufacturing their products.

While some of the brands named immediately responded to queries from the environmental groups, acknowledged the issues and detailed how they would address the issues, about two-thirds have not yet engaged, Ma Jun said.

Notably, Spanish clothing retailer, Zara, responded by saying that it was not the company’s policy to answer questions about its business model.

Nike, Walmart, Esquel, H&M, Levi’s, Adidas and Burberry were among the companies that responded positively, saying they would work with their Chinese  contractors to improve their environmental performance. Many of these brands were  already working with NGOs to clean their supply chain, IPE said.

Another 32 brands including Marks & Spencer, Esprit, Calvin Klein, Carrefour, Armani and China-based Anta and Youngor have yet to respond, according to the report.

Besides IPE, the other authors of the report, “Cleaning up the Fashion Industry,” were, Friends of Nature, Green Beagle, Envirofriends and Nanjing Greenstone.

China is a global leader in textile manufacturing, responsible for nearly half the world’s fiber and exporting 34 percent of the garments we wear.

This production has contributed significantly to the country’s GDP but has also taken a heavy environmental  toll locally. Ma said that fashion manufacturers discharge 2.5 billion tons of waste water and chemicals into rivers and the ocean, while 80 percent of effluent is generated in fiber dying.

This has a serious impact on the country’s water supplies and is compounded by the fact that the re-use of water in the textile industry lags way behind that of many others, creating a situation where water efficiency is incredibly low, IPE said.

Among the 6,000 violations, a number of factories were given administrative penalties. Many were told to rectify problems such as illegal effluent emissions via secret discharge pipes, directly discharging waste water into waterways, improper use of waste water treatment facilities and pollutant discharges in breach of standards.

Previously, IPE targeted the IT sector, also with information gleaned from the institute’s violations database. We have written about Ma Jun’s efforts here and here.

After five reports looking at the environmental performance of IT sector contractors, most of the brands named had responded to requests for information disclosure and action.

Among the last hold-outs was Apple, which was the focus of the last two reports. The company has since agreed to disclose its connections to suppliers and provide information on contractor environmental performance.

Clearly, Ma Jun and his colleagues hope for a similar response from another industry that is widely credited with some of the worst environmental performance in China.

With IPE and others watching, retailers and brands will no longer be able to hide behind stated ignorance about how a product is manufactured. They will no longer be able to refuse to divulge lists of suppliers or deny responsibility for egregious environmental emissions locally.

Part of the problem for the apparel sector has been the quantity of suppliers used to manufacture just one item of clothing or shoe. This is a problem we have written about here. 

While many brands are getting better at understanding and working with the factories actually putting together the clothes, they tend to know less about the dyers, the spinners and the knitters who cause much of the environmental damage.

yet engaging with polluting contractors in any part of the supply chain has become a serious reputational risk and thus business risk for global brands hoping to squeeze their suppliers on cost.

It is also a wake up call for consumers hooked on cheap product made at huge environmental expense abroad. It’s about time we all made careful choices about how we consume, make sure that brands are using responsible suppliers.

For companies, the argument turns back to fiduciary duty and redefining what that means, something I have written about here.

 

Orangutans inhabiting an Aceh protected peat forest surrounded by oil palm concessions are at risk of being completely wiped out by the end of this year if fires set to clear the land aren’t stopped, according to conservationists in Indonesia.

Ian Singleton of the Sumatran Orangutan Conservation Program (SOCP) said that only about 200 of the 3,000 Orangutans living in the Tripa forest in the early 1990s remain. In all, only an estimated 6,600 Sumatran Orangutans are left anywhere in the wild, he said.

This has come as the pace of burning in the Tripa Peat swamps has accelerated in the past few weeks, possibly as palm oil companies take advantage of Aceh’s uncertain current status under an “interim” Governor, conservationists said.

The real concern is that at the current pace of destruction there will be no remaining High Conservation Value Forest and no more protected wildlife in the area by the end of 2012.

Graham Usher of the Foundation for a Sustainable Ecosystem said that only 12,000 of the original 60,000-hectare forest remains. Much of the forest is now highly fragmented, with the largest remaining block measuring less than 8,400 hectares and only one other fragment over 1,000 hectares.

Any orangutans trapped in the remaining small fragments of forest amid the burning are now effectively refugees of forest that no longer exists and are likely to die from starvation if not killed or captured.

Just in recent months, Usher told a Jakarta press conference, at least 100 Orangutans have been killed, while an additional 100 died between 2009 and 2011 in the process of conversion of the palm oil concessions or from starvation.

According to Usher, over 100 fire hot spots were recorded between 19 and 25 March among the area’s palm oil plantations.This is apparently perhaps the worst burning since satellite monitoring of Indonesia’s fire hot spots began in late 2000.

A number of the fire hotspots were coming from an apparently illegal palm oil concession, considered by many in breach of Indonesia’s moratorium on clearing forest.

The PT Kallista Alam concession permit was, according to the conservationists, issued three months after the government’s moratorium map was issued. There is currently an ongoing legal case in Aceh concerning the same concession in which a decision is expected April 3rd.

This suit alleges that the concession was clearly issued inside the Leuser Ecosystem, which is designated a National Strategic Area for Environmental Protection in Indonesia’s National Spatial Plan, established in 2008 under Government regulation 26.

Conservationists also say that forest clearing and drainage canal construction began in the concession even before the permit was issued, that the permit was issued while the concession was clearly shown as off-limits to any new plantations under the President’s official map establishing a moratorium on new permits.

The request was made Thursday for the government immediately to order all oil palm companies with concessions within the Tripa Peat Swamps in the Leuser Ecosystem to immediately cease all land clearing and burning.

In addition, it was suggested that the government of Norway immediately suspend the 2010 bilateral letter of intent that was the basis of the moratorium until the burning has been thoroughly investigated.

By far the most fire hotspots, however, were located in the PT Surya Panen Subur 2 Concession, a 13,000 hectare palm oil concession that formerly belonged to PT Astra Agro Lestari, in which Hong Kong-based Jardines owns a majority stake.

That was purchased by Astra Agro Lestari in 2007 and then sold to Triputra Group, founded by a former CEO of Astra, according to SOCP, in late 2010, following heavy criticism of Jardines connection to the concession in international press reports.

Why would Jardines want any association with a palm oil concession located in a protected area and, indeed, why would the company then turn around and sell that under pressure to a loose associate rather than set it aside for conservation?

By Gary Stokes, Sea Shepherd

That coveted bowl of shark fin soup, those shark cartilage capsules said to bring health benefits, might not only be bad for the oceans but also pose a risk for degenerative brain disease in humans.

A new study from University of Miami researchers shows shark fin contains high concentrations of  a neurotoxin linked to neurodegenerative diseases including Alzheimer’s and Lou Gehrig’s disease (also Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, ALS).

The findings, published in the journal Marine Drugs, followed the testing of seven species of shark: blacknose, blacktip, bonnethead, bull, great hammerhead, lemon, and nurse sharks for β-N-Methylamino-L-alanine, or BMAA.  Samples were collected as fin clips from live shark in South Florida waters.

The study’s co-author, Professor Deborah Mash, director of the University of Miami Brain Endowment Bank, was part of   a 2009 study that showed patients diagnosed with Alzheimer’s Disease and ALS had unusually high levels of BMAA in their brains of up to 256 ng/mg. By contrast, healthy people, the study showed, had no BMAA, or only trace quantities of the toxin in their bodies.

In this latest study, the team found high BMAA levels of between 144 and 1836 ng/mg in shark fins.

BMAA is produced by cyanobacteria, which are found  in lakes, rivers, estuaries, and marine waters where nutrient loading from agricultural and industrial runoff, sewage, groundwater inflow and atmospheric pollution accelerate bloom growth.

This is then eaten by small aquatic marine animals, which in turn are consumed by sharks, potentially posing a health risk to consumers of shark products.

The study cautioned that, “further studies are needed to confirm this finding and to demonstrate that widespread BMAA detections in sharks may occur outside of South Florida coastal waters.”

High concentrations of BMAA were, however, detected in the fins of some sharks collected in areas with no active cyanobacteria blooms. Sharks are highly migratory, making it likely that they pass in and out of areas where cyanoblooms may have occurred over time, the study says.

Consumers in Asia eat shark fin soup at wedding or official banquets and purchase shark fin cartilage powder or capsules  as dietary supplements, which claim to combat and/or prevent a variety of illnesses.

However, the study points out that, “the benefits of these supplements have not been significantly proven, nor has shark cartilage been reviewed by the US Food and Drug Administration.

Let’s hope regular consumers of shark products think carefully about their health before slurping down another bowl of shark fin soup or popping more cartilage capsules.

Articles in the New York Times and elsewhere last week have criticized Apple for using Chinese suppliers whose workers are ill-paid, overworked and subject to hazardous conditions.

In a full-page spread, The New York Times compared Apple’s financial strength and reputation for innovation with a less-flattering portrait of how its products are made: “ …the workers assembling iPhones, iPads and other devices often labor in harsh conditions…  Problems are as varied as onerous work environments and serious — sometimes deadly — safety problems.”

An “outraged” Apple CEO, Tim Cook, responded swiftly in a strongly worded email to Apple employees cited widely, “we care about every worker in our worldwide supply chain” and “any suggestion that we don’t care is patently false and offensive to us.”

The truth is, nothing like the manufacturing capability found in southern China now exists in the U.S. and nowhere in the U.S. could workers be relied on to dedicate the long hours under similarly challenging  conditions.  Recent attention has focused on Apple supplier, Foxconn, where the iPhone is assembled.  The facility has close to a million employees, many working six days a week, often spending up to 12 hours a day at the plant. Many workers earn less than $17 a day.  That clearly helps improve Apple’s margins.

U.S. news show host, John Stewart, last week described Foxconn as “Fear Factory”  and detailed conditions at the factory,  its treatment of employees, large dormitories of employees, repression of employees who try to unionize and nets around the buildings to prevent suicides.  According to Stewart, the cost savings on an IPod is 23 percent to the consumer.

Understandably there is anger brewing in the U.S. toward companies such as Apple that employ tens of thousands of workers outside the United States to take advantage of lax labour laws abroad. There is a growing voice in the United States for a boycott of the ubiquitous Apple products.

In a separate article, the New York Times pointed out that Apple employs 43,000 people in the United States and 20,000 overseas and many more people work for Apple’s contractors: an additional 700,000 people engineer, build and assemble iPads, iPhones and Apple’s other products.

When asked by President Obama last year about overseas workers and whether or not Apple products might be produced at home, Steve Jobs was quoted as replying that those jobs were not coming back to the United States.

According to the same article, the hugely profitable Apple last year, it earned over US$400,000 in profit per employee, more than Goldman Sachs, Exxon Mobil or Google.

The stories on bad labor practices by Apple suppliers, however, follow five reports from a coalition of now 41 environmental groups in China documenting the performance and willingness of IT brands producing in China to address serious environmental violations by their suppliers.

Many of the environmental violations have led to occupational safety issues and hazardous chemical exposure for workers.

In the first of the reports, the environmental groups contacted the CEOs of 29 top IT brands, asking specific questions about suppliers’ environmental performance and provided evidence of pollution violations.  As they look to production abroad to skirt labour restrictions at home, companies look to avoid environmental regulation that should protect air, water and soil from excessive emissions.

The Chinese NGOs’ engagement process has from the start actually yielded fruit, with a number of brands such as HP and Samsung responding to requests for information and addressing issues in their supply chains. But a few, including Apple Inc., ironically were initially extremely slow in communicating, and less than willing to address the supply chain issues being raised

Hence, two of the reports, in January and August last year, focused specifically on Apple, which had failed to disclose adequate information relating to its suppliers or their environmental violations to the environmental groups, led by Ma Jun’s  Institute of Public and Environmental Affairs (IPE).

Most of the recent negative stories about Apple and the building campaign against the company fail to even mention Apple’s environmental lapses – including the New York Times full-page story, except in passing.

The Chinese environmental NGOs campaign to improve disclosure and environmental performance by brands and their suppliers is something we have written about here and here – long before the Apple news became mainstream.

In a significant success for the NGO coalition, earlier last month, for the first time Apple’s  annual supplier responsibility report  released a list identifying many of its suppliers and acknowledging some of their environmental and labour violations first publicized by IPE.

Indeed, a look at the reports showed that more than half of the suppliers audited by Apple have violated at least one aspect of the code of conduct every year since 2007, and in some instances have violated the law, according to the New York Times Story.

IPE’s website list of non-compliant factories in China reached 94,725, while the Water Pollution maps now used by many brands to filter their supply chains and make sure they are not using polluting suppliers, registered 6,220,696 page views.

IPE is now working directly with 30 such brands to screen suppliers and 550 companies have responded to being placed on the polluters list by seeking dialogue with IPE.

Since releasing its list of suppliers and acknowledging environmental breaches, Apple has also agreed to continue conversations with IPE later this month and potentially to encourage two suppliers to engage in a pilot third-party audit monitored by the Chinese NGOs.

In all, 3,122 companies have undergone a third-party audit or a document review audit process and this has led to 94 companies being removed from the polluters list.

Reprinted from the South China Morning News, January 16, opinion written by Sophie Le Clue, ADMCF’s director of environmental programs:

In one sense, 2011 was a good year for sharks. The movement in Asia against consuming shark fin gained momentum against a
backdrop of new legislation to ban the trade in California as well as several Canadian cities. In a domino effect, shark sanctuaries were declared worldwide, covering thousands of square kilometers.

In China, the business community also rallied against shark fin. To date, 142 business leaders including chairmen and chief
executives of leading companies such as Lenovo, Haier and China Merchants Bank pledged not to eat it, while hotels and clubs have committed to not serving the infamous soup.

On the government side, in 2011 45 members of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference signed the “Motion on
Development of Regulations on Prohibiting Shark Fin Trade”. Some members of the National People’s Congress also signed the
motion, which will be considered by the government later this year.

Meanwhile, the Hong Kong and Shanghai Hotels Group’s surprising and insightful move to ban the product across all outlets, including its famed Peninsula hotels, was perhaps a fitting end to the year.

Despite these moves, there is a long way to go. There are enormous challenges to implementing regulatory controls and many shark populations globally remain endangered, some threatened with extinction in the near future.

As a result, eyes are now firmly on Hong Kong, the centre of the global shark fin trade and itself a driving force in declining shark
populations.Yet it seems resolute in enabling such ecologically important endangered species to be traded with little regulatory control.

Approximately 10,000 tonnes of shark fin from millions of sharks are imported into Hong Kong every year with virtually no regulation as to species. According to some estimates, this equates to around half of the global trade.

To provide context: of the 507 shark species, only 256 have been assessed by the World Conservation Union (IUCN) to determine their conservation status and of these, 56 per cent, or 143 species, have been identified as threatened with extinction, either now or in the near future. Many of these species are freely traded in Hong Kong.

Last year, questions by legislators on the topic of shark fin met with the standard response: that the government adheres strictly to Cites (the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora) requirements.

Quite why this prevents the government from regulating trade in endangered species not under Cites remains to be seen.
The paradox, however, is startling. Cites was drafted as a result of a resolution adopted in 1963 at an IUCN meeting and came into force as an international agreement in 1975.

By placing trade restrictions on species at risk, it aims to ensure that the international trade in wild animals and plants does not
threaten their survival. Yet it only includes three species of shark, despite valiant efforts to introduce several others in 2010,
when countries with vested interests in the trade, such as Japan, reportedly bargained with fellow signatories to ensure that highly lucrative shark species – albeit critically endangered – were not included in the convention’s regulatory appendices.

Science and sustainability, the cornerstone of conservation, clearly gave way to commercial interests. For sharks at least, Cites is failing. So when an administration such as Hong Kong hides behind its Cites’ commitment in response to questions about the shark trade, despite the convention’s obvious failings, we know we are in troubled waters.

We can only hope that the next chief executive will have more foresight. Hong Kong remains a gateway to the shark fin trade in
Asia; with a little vision it could make eating shark fin history and have a major impact on an issue of global significance.

This is what the air should look like in HK but rarely does Photo by Ella Smith

Hong Kong finally has found its voice amid government inaction to  clean our air and protect our health. And long may it last – at least until we have real action to address the pollution.

Newspapers this morning featured banner headlines on air pollution, including the SCMP’s  “Clean-Air Targets Don’t measure Up” and then inside, “Gasp it’s Worse Than we Thought.”

Yesterday, the government said it would toughen its clean-air targets for the first time since 1987, but only marginally, and admitted they will still fall far short of World Health Organization standards.

And this four-and-a half-years after first engaging a consultant to review air quality objectives then launching a six-month public consultation that ended in late 2009. The environment secretary sat on the recommendations until yesterday and they were announced unchanged – by the consultation or time.

The new objectives impose tougher limits on the atmospheric concentration for seven pollutants including sulfur dioxide, nitrogen dioxide, carbon monoxide and lead.

For the first time the city also will measure airborne particles smaller than 2.5 micrometres in diameter, known as PM2.5. These are more harmful than the larger particles currently measured.

The government apparently also has identified 22 measures to help achieve the new standards, which are to be introduced over a three-year period after 2014. This will allow infrastructure projects to proceed without delay.

Thus the government, in reality, will allow our air to be made even dirtier while it finishes some mammoth construction such as the Hong Kong-Zhuhai-Macau bridge and a third runway at the airport.

Oh, and the steps to be taken apparently will extend the life expectancy of the average person in Hong Kong by one month.

Secretary for the Environment, Edward Yau, was quoted in the South China Morning Post as saying, “We have to understand that the ultimate WHO guidelines are a distant target” and pointing to regional pollution as the principal source of pollutants.

Yet 2007 research by Alexis Lau from the HK University of Science and Technology and Civic Exchange, “Relative Significance of Local Vs. Regional Sources: Hong Kong’s Air Pollution,” showed that 53 percent of the time the pollution that affects us most is locally generated by buses, trucks, shipping and power plants.

The basic, undisputed message for a long time has been, Hong Kong can do much to clean up its own air and improve the health of its residents.

Despite this, little has been done in recent years, despite urging from Clean Air Network, Civic Exchange, Friends of the Earth and many other environmental groups.

And herein lies the paradox: The HK government speaks and acts as though we are a developing nation, yet HK is one of the world’s richest cities. The government sits on reserves estimated at US$80 billion.

We are so rich in fact that last year the government announced that it would give a cash handout to each adult permanent resident (even those living abroad and those who patently did not need the extra money), of HK$6,000, or US$700. That massive handout cost the government HK$37.98 billion that certainly could have been used to better effect to clean our air.

Meanwhile, Roadside pollution levels reached a record high last year. The number of days that pollution was rated “high” hit 20%. That is five times more than in 2005. And, embarrassingly, the HK government is clearly playing catch up to Beijing, which in response to an online campaign earlier this month said it would provide hourly updates of PM2.5 measurements.

Clearly gone are the days when Beijing looked to Hong Kong for direction and innovation.

Meanwhile, the Civic Exchange yesterday said a revamped environmental index run by Hong Kong University researchers showed that air pollution here is more harmful than previously thought, costing HK$40 billion annually, up from previous estimates of HK$16 billion.

The number of premature deaths per year over the past five years should also be revised upward to 3,200 from 1,000, according to the Hedley Environmental Index. This, of course, is not information that the HK government is gathering.

The sad reality is that Hong Kong’s air has been deteriorating steadily over the past 20 years with almost no action by government to alter the trend.  Pollution now poses a serious threat to public health and we should be angry, very angry.

Yesterday the Shangri-La  took the courageous step of declaring that effective immediately, the group’s 72 hotels and resorts would no longer serve shark fin in any restaurants or at wedding banquets.

The announcement falls under the company’s new sustainable seafood policy, which also includes a decision to phase-out Bluefin tuna and Chilean sea bass in all hotel restaurants within the year.

In a press release, the hotel said that in December 2010 the company initiated the process of becoming shark fin free with the removal of shark fin products from its restaurant menus. “The new policy is a continuation of Shangri-La’s journey towards environmental support,” the release said

This follows the Peninsula Hotel’s decision in November last year to stop serving the soup in its restaurants and at wedding banquets as of January 1st this year.

The hotels should be applauded for their actions, which were not easy in a city that sees 50 percent of the global shark fin trade and where consumption of the soup at special events has been second-nature. Here, shark fin soup is seen as a symbol of wealth and  prestige and consumed most often at weddings and corporate banquets.

Yet as the consumption of the soup has increased in recent years with greater affluence in Asia, shark populations have dwindled.  In some species. populations have declined by as much as 90 percent. As many as 73 million sharks are caught annually, with millions of these believed caught for their fins alone.

Shark flesh is not a  high-value meat, while dried fins can be sold for as much as $300 a pound. A bowl of the soup in Hong Kong can fetch as much as $100. Thus is some cases, shark are finned at sea  with the bodies thrown back to drown in a practice that is both wasteful and cruel.

Bloom, the HK Shark Foundation, WWF and other conservation groups have been working hard in Hong Kong over the past few years to educate consumers and the trade about the ramifications of declining shark populations for our oceans.

The work has included research to understand both the cultural attitudes toward consumption of shark fin soup and the trade in shark products;  educating the hotels on biodiversity issues related to sharks and learning about the challenges of ceasing sales of shark products; encouraging consumers to consider shark fin free weddings; encouraging companies to sign a pledge not to serve shark fin soup at banquets.

Despite a swell action from local and national governments worldwide to ban consumption of shark fin products, the Hong Kong government (consistent with its course of rarely acting in public or conservation interest) has refused to consider any such action – even a ban on serving at official banquets.

In reality, the assumption is that because of the cost, little shark fin soup is actually served at official banquets in Hong Kong and indeed government officials have alluded to this.

Certainly, however, with the growing awareness around threats faced by our oceans, the sense of inevitability of action as shark populations decline, the government must now be feeling the heat.

Last week the HK Marine Products Association was certainly feeling the heat. The trade group placed half-page ads in leading Chinese publications titled (in English translation) “Is eating Shark Fin Guilty?” and arguing  that

  • Shark fin is simply a by-product of the shark fishing industry
  • CITES bans trade in only four species therefore fishing should be allowed in others
  • Any conservation of a species should be based on scientific evidence not emotion
  • States  the MPA uses resources sustainably and contributes to conservation

Clearly, shark fins, for reasons stated above are not by-products of any shark fishing industry and clearly conservation of a species should be based in scientific fact, which exists and is documented: sharks are in significant decline.We would welcome any communication from the MPA related to their sustainable practices and conservation work.

The CITES issue mentioned in the ads is an interesting one and is raised frequently by the MPA, as well as both the HK and Beijing governments, which hide behind the treaty. The main point here is that CITES is not effective in protecting shark species globally and should not be used, counter-intuitively, as a a justification to fish endangered

CITES was drafted as a result of a resolution adopted in 1963 at an IUCN (The World Conservation Union) meeting and entered into force in 1975 as an international agreement. Today, it has 175 signatories.

Its aim: to ensure that the international trade in wild animals and plants does not threaten their survival. The CITES mechanism to achieve this is by placing trade restrictions on species at risk. The Convention is, therefore, undoubtedly an important wildlife conservation agreement.

Yet CITES only includes three species of shark, despite that according to IUCN 143 species are threatened with extinction, either now or in the near future.

So why should a conservation agreement exclude threatened species? The answer lies in the fact that for a species to be bought under CITES trade restrictions, the signatories must vote.

In 2010, for example, six shark species were proposed for inclusion in CITES. Countries with vested interests in the shark trade, such as Japan, bargained with fellow signatories to ensure that highly lucrative species, albeit critically endangered, were not included in the Convention’s regulatory appendices. Science and sustainability clearly gave way to commercial interests.

In Hong Kong, CITES remains the only mechanism for regulating the shark fin trade and to make matters worse its implementation is unclear.

The Agricultural, Fishery and Conservation Department (AFCD) of the Hong Kong government is responsible for monitoring the trade in endangered plant and animal species.

Currently, visual identification is a commonly used to identify imported plants or animal species. While this may be appropriate for many species, it is extremely difficult, in practice, to determine the shark species from a fin without the carcass, and even more difficult if the fin has been bleached or processed. It is understood that AFCD do not carry out any DNA analysis.

Thus, CITES clearly is not an effective mechanism to monitor the shark fin trade in Hong Kong.

Scientific research based on DNA testing shows that in 2006 approximately 40% of the auctioned fin weight in the Hong Kong market came from 14 shark species listed on the IUCN Redlist of Threatened species.

So bravo to the Shangri-La and the Peninsula hotels for taking action, the 112 companies in Hong Kong that have signed the WWF pledge not to sell or buy shark fin as part of their corporate activities.

Going shark free is a groundswell here and abroad that we certainly hope will continue in time to save the apex predators and our oceans.

Forest Impact Bonds:

Lisa Genasci —  January 4, 2012 — Leave a comment

We have been thinking a lot about Social Impact bonds and how the concept might apply to conservation finance, which is something about which we ponder a great deal.

Why not a Forest Impact Bond, issued against promised aid streams from sovereign development banks wanting to mitigate climate change and/or promote forest conservation?

These could work in circumstances where communities are key to protecting High Conservation Value forest.

FIBs would be focused on impact-driven community development (schools, livelihoods, health, education) but linked also to real conservation outcomes.

Time is slipping as we try to establish the best way to protect ourselves at scale from climate change, manage and protect our forests for future generations.

The multiple challenges around forest conservation is something we’ve written about previously in this blog here and here.

In essence, the problem is how to compensate governments and landholders for the huge rewards they reap cutting trees from native tropical forests; how to balance development with conservation.

Since 57 percent of the world’s forests are located in developing countries, it is hard to make the economic argument that these areas should not be developed for the benefit of the national population.  Indeed, timber revenues represent the major, sometimes only, export commodity of a country.

The Commission on Climate and Tropical Forests has estimated  that 17 percent of greenhouse gas emissions – an amount equal to the transportation sector – are from deforestation.

At the same time, the scale of financing required to halve deforestation will reach US$30 billion annually by 2020, the U.S.-based commission estimated in the same report.

Only turning to the global capital markets will provide sufficient funding to meet the challenge deforestation presents today.  That strategy could include the use of bonds, which would allow the desperately needed investment at scale.

Communities and Livelihoods the Key to Conservation

Key to this discussion is that not only do governments and landholders need to be compensated for not chopping forests for timber, but local livelihoods are also often linked to forests.

Nearly 90 percent of the 1.2 billion people living in extreme poverty worldwide depend on forests, which provide them with building materials, food, coffee, cocoa, medicinal plants and income from other sources.

Without access to the forests not only do many of these people lose livelihoods but they also may lose their crops to droughts or floods as climates change with deforestation.

Thus communities living in and around forested areas are key to their protection.

Still, even with access to forests, local populations who face the immediate need of supporting their families often don’t recognize the value of conserving forests for the longer term because they cannot meet their immediate needs for food, housing, clothing and education, among others.

Thus, local communities need both education on the value of long-term forest conservation to their own lives (livelihoods, water etc) and help establishing alternative and sustainable income sources.

At the same time, battling to defeat poverty, poor nations argue they cannot be expected to forfeit income from economic activities that lead to deforestation, particularly since there are global  benefits from developing world forest services – carbon, water etc.

They have argued collectively that if global powers want to preserve the rainforests and their natural services provided then those must be paid for.


Rainforest Bonds Not a New Conversation

Indeed, for many years now there has been talk of rainforest bonds, which would help pay the large upfront capital expenditure required to invest in development, livelihoods, conservation to maintain the forests.

Under conventional thought, either forest carbon revenue or other sources of income such those generated by sustainable timber, agriculture or ecosystem service markets (water, biodiversity for example,) would repay investors.

But the conversation around REDD carbon has stalled with regulatory uncertainty. Additionally, in Asia certainly, we are a long way from any scalable ecosystem markets, while the significant upfront investment needed to promote agriculture as an alternative or to build local livelihoods to protect forests is just not available philanthropically.

And that’s just it…the bond conversation has gone on for years with significant players like the Prince’s Rainforest Trust and others eventually pulling back given the difficulties in identifying revenue streams that would work.

Turning to Forest Impact Bonds

So why not step back entirely from the conversation around how to make forests pay and look instead to the large sums promised by sovereign development banks at Copenhagen (US$4.5 billion) and other aid that has yet to find a home for want of knowledge of how to invest those funds with surety and with impact.

And that’s not surprising. Over the past two decades, substantial funds have flooded into Indonesian conservation  (usually to secure national parks or protect wildlife and its habitat) without corresponding transformational change. Over the same period, deforestation has only accelerated, fueled by burgeoning consumption, population explosion and massive urbanization.

So the problem remains, how to ensure that limited funding for conservation is spent with measurable and significant impact? How to balance development and conservation and raise the funds from global capital markets to pay for both?

Indeed, we must increase the availability of performance-linked finance to protect forests for local communities and local governments, in order to maintain them for global biodiversity and as carbon sinks.

In 2007, a similar discussion emerged in the UK around improving social outcomes and reducing uncertainty of funding for social services.

Shortly thereafter, London-based Social Finance introduced the concept of social impact bonds, which target funds to specific projects with measurable results.

If the identified targets are reached, the UK government saves on social programs and those savings are used to repay bond investors, in certain cases with interest. If targets are not reached, bond investors lose out as they would in any junk bond investment.

Turning to the U.S, in last year’s  budget speech, President Obama announced that he had set aside US$100 million for social impact bonds and at the same time two Boston-based companies have recently been established to apply the UK social impact bond concept to the U.S. context.

Why could this innovative approach to generating social impact in the UK and the U.S. not work also to protect forests in Indonesia, targeting communities and livelihoods but at the same time generating extra and measurable impact in conservation?

Given the argument above, and the lack of current appetite for REDD+ and other forms of eco-securitisation backed by forest assets or credits, might we then apply the social impact bond example to community development initiatives in a country like Indonesia?

In this scenario, international government funds, funds from multi-laterals with an interest in combating climate change and conserving  forests for future generations pool funds in an SPV that are then allocated to community development initiatives with specific parameters and measures of impact.

The key would be to persuade the local government to join what would essentially be billed as a development initiative but with additional conservation benefits.

The SPV funds would be available to repay investors in the event that the community development programs, livelihood initiatives, the conservation targets achieve desired results. In this way, the pooled funds are used only if they have been effective and only after impact has been achieved and quantified.

Country funds would likely have to be established separately, with their own fund administrators (local country officials?)  and project monitors.

An initial pilot would likely include just one country – Indonesia perhaps – and one specific target: perhaps livelihoods and education around several conservation areas.

For in-country implementing partners we could draw on local NGOs to support conservation (research and protection) and identify appropriate targets. Microfinance institutions could support business initiatives where appropriate and rural development organizations would help build agricultural businesses that local communities in Indonesia want to generate income.

Legal organisations would need to be employed to help sort out land-titling to establish a legal basis to land ownership. Education NGOs could be employed to boost local knowledge around conservation, while healthcare providers could support rural health development.

This would then be associated by local communities, along with improved education, for example, with conservation of their local forests.

So rather than trying to pry an uncertain financial return out of forest services or REDD+ (although if these markets develop in the future, certainly these could be added to SPV funds) we are trying  to achieve only effective allocation of government/multilateral resources  and measurable impact.

At the same time, however, there could be a return on investor depending on the effectiveness of the programs., while a tranche structure with different risk/return profiles could be used to simultaneously appeal to both groups.

The difference with the UK Social Impact Bond, of course, would be the potential for shared savings. Although it would be important to have local governments as key participants, it is unlikely their own development investments would make this worthwhile.

Who would buy Forest Impact Bonds?

There is growing interest on the part of institutional investors in markets where there are environmental and social as well as financial returns or where there are at least screens for negative impact.

According to Eurosif, total SRI assets under management increased dramatically from €2.7 trillion to €5 trillion, as of December 31, 2009. This represents spectacular growth of about 87% since 2007.

The sense is that when environmental social and governance issues start to affect share price or impact bottom lines boardrooms will take note.

Increasingly, SRI is a mainstream criterion in equity analysis and several stock exchanges have launched tradable indices that track SRI companies or ESG alongside financial performance.  And ratings agencies are emerging to rank companies on their ESG performance.

At the same time, part of the consideration around forests is that they have long carried appeal to institutional investors.

According to an article in The Banker from 2007, more than US$30 billion globally is invested in forest assets, although mostly through funds and largely in the US.

These investments generally offer competitive returns with low or negative correlation to traditional asset classes making them a counter-cyclical hedge.

In Summary…

  • A FIB is a contract with the public sector in which it commits to pay for improved environmental and social outcomes
  • On the back of this contract, investment is raised from investors motivated perhaps not only by commercial but also by environmental and social returns.
  • This investment is used to pay for a range of social outcomes such as poverty alleviation of local communities, improved health and education, all tied to and contingent on conservation of an area of high-conservation value local forest
  • The financial returns investors receive are dependent on the degree to which outcomes improve i.e, they may receive part or all of the initial investment back, and in some cases additional financial returns.
  • A FIB shifts emphasis from paying for inputs and outputs to paying for impacts
  • In its purest form, a FIB has a risk profile more similar to an equity investment than a debt investment