Category Archives: Environment Talk

Chernobyl, 28 years later

On the 26th of April 1986, the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic, and particularly Chernobyl, a city in the North of Ukraine, was the stage of one of the major nuclear catastrophes ever witnessed. Its nuclear plant, located 16 kilometers from the city, had one of its four reactors explode, and due to several malfunctions there was no way to contain the radioactive wave which came out of it. 

Releasing hundreds of times more the amount of radionuclides that were dropped by the two nuclear bombs in 1945, millions of acres of land were contaminated and more than 300 000 people had to be evacuated.

The aftermath of Chernobyl. (source: BBC News)
The aftermath of Chernobyl (Source: BBC News)

Beyond these figures, this accident continued (and continues) to have extreme consequences for people, with thousands having been infected by the waste of Chernobyl, many having eventually died. Indeed, in high doses, radiation is lethal for living organisms, by changing cells and even DNA. Until today, an area of around 2 600 square kilometers is designated as the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone, where access is highly restricted.

While some of us might imagine Chernobyl as a dark place full of weird, radioactive species, this region has developed a quite unique ecosystem. For years now, researchers have pursued field trips in Chernobyl, to explore the biological changes radioactivity has caused.

Though it has many abandoned infrastructures, the most affected area is full of a green and resilient vegetation, which turns it into a post-apocalyptical, yet, quite beautiful scenario. 

Abandoned bumper cars (Source: BoredPanda)
Abandoned bumper cars (Source: BoredPanda)

Although nature has undoubtedly suffered, as this The New York Times short film shows, several species have been able to adapt and live in areas of exposure which would be impossible for humans. 

Yes, biodiversity (from spiders to birds, to even trees) has been severely hit and has experienced mutations induced by radisation. It is undeniable that it has taken many years to be able to thrive again and big animals are seldom spotted in the region. Yet, hope is not lost. Chernobyl fortunately shows that despite what we, humans, might do to our environment, it will be always more resilient than us…

Nevertheless, Chernobyl remains a threat for human lives. While in 1986, a dome of concrete and steal was built around the exploded reactor to try to contain the contamination, this one is no longer safe. Hence, the Ukrainian authorities are now highly investing on a new structure that could definitely stop the spread of any other remnants of radiation. There are hopes that in a not-so-distant future, the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone will disappear, but we will have to wait and see. In the meantime, the efforts to clean the area continue.

You can read this very good piece by The New York Times, which will give you some insight about the Chernobyl catastrophe and its aftermath, or have a look at these amazing photos.

The Gorongosa National Park

The centre of Mozambique hosts an amazing wildlife park known as the Gorongosa. Covering around 4 000 square km, it hosts a large array of species, from elephants to lions  and hundreds of bird types, making it an incredible ecosystem.

The story behind the Gorongosa National Park gives a lot to think about. It started in the 1920’s, when the portuguese government decided that the region should be protected and thus allowed the Mozambique Company to establish there a hunting reserve. Rapidly, the protected area, which initially encompassed 1 000 square km, grew to 3 000 square km. In 1940, the reserve passed to the government’s hands, hunting became forbidden and it progressively became a touristic attraction. In 1960, the portuguese government officially declared that the Gorongosa was a national park. The park made an enormous success thanks to the great amount and diversity of animals it had. It was a great opportunity for safari-tourism in Mozambique, which had never been known for that.

However, in 1964, Mozambique got torn apart by the independence war led by the Mozambique Liberation Front (Frelimo) against the Portuguese colony. Three years after the 1974 independence, the country got into a civil war opposing the Marxist-Leninist government and the rebel group known as RENAMO, endorsed by western powers (aka Mozambican National Resistance, MNR). From that moment on, until the end of the civil war in 1994, the Gorogonsa suffered terrible losses. In 1983, due to combats near that region, the park got shot down, and animals started to be hunted by the fighters, either for food or for profit (thanks to the sale of elephants’ ivory).

By the end of the war, according to scientists, the animal population of the park had been reduced by 95% compared to the 1960’s (some populations were reduced to numbers of 50, while they had walked the park by the thousands). Fortunately, several international institutions (amongst them the European Union and the African Development Bank) began a project of rehabilitation of the park, in order to stop illegal hunting and reinsert species. More importantly, in 2004, Greg Carr, founder of the Carr Foundation, took the rehabilitation of the Gorongosa into his own hands, looking to bring it back to its pre-civil war state. This project has been a huge success so far, largely thanks to the collaboration between the Carr Foundation and the Mozambican government.

Nevertheless, in recent times Mozambique has re-experienced some political violences between the old factions. Given that Afonso Dhlakama (i.e. RENAMO’s leader), has chosen the Gorongosa region as his headquarters and has put an end to the peace agreement of Lusaka, we can only hope that the Gorongosa National Park will not become once again a victim of political rivalries.

Read more about the rebirth of the park in this National Geographic article or visit the website of the park, which will give you a better understanding of the park’s history.

Korean Demilitarized Zone

The first time someone suggested that Korea should be divided in two taking as the dividing line the 38th parallel north, was when both the Russian Empire and the Japanese Empire wanted to control this area in 1896. Eventually, the Japanese Empire took control of Korea, until 1945, when it was forced to surrender it to the control of the Allies in the post-war.

After that, while negotiating what would fall under American and Soviet authority, the Americans suggested that Korea be divided following the 38th parallel north between the two powers, the territory underneath being the border. After the Korean war ended in 1953, a demilitarized zone was established between the two Koreas, trying to put a stop to any further combats. This area also follows the 38th parallel.

Despite being an area of great tensions between the two countries, where soldiers stand riffles in hand on both sides, this demilitarized zone has a very surprising feature. It is an enormous ecological reserve, a “green ribbon”, that hosts a big number of different species of fauna and flora. Even some species that have disappeared in other parts of Asia have been found there.

What is outstanding is thinking how a place that arose from war could become a biodiversity sanctuary, where peace seems to reign. It also reminds us of one of the things that will be lost if one day a war between the two Koreas breaks again. Check out pictures of this reserve on National Geographic, or read more about it here.

The Yasuní Oil Exploitation

The Yasuní Natural Park in Ecuador is a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve, that covers almost 10 000 km², is supposedly one of the most biologically diverse places in the world, and has several indigenous peoples that, for some, still live apart from the modern society. This rain forest is particularly known for containing approximately 20% of Ecuador’s reserves of crude.

In 2007, Ecuador’s President, Rafael Correa, went to the General Assembly of the United Nations and presented the Yasuní-ITT (Ishpingo-Tiputini-Tambococha oil fields) Proposal. The objective was to protect these crude reserves, and in particular to protect the natural park and its riches. Indeed, the exploitation of oil would severely endanger the species that live in the park, but mostly the populations. What was his idea? These oil reserves would amount to more or less $7 billion for his country. Since not drilling would be beneficial for the entire international community (due to the carbon emissions that would be issued, the peoples that would be endangered and exploiting a natural park that is a “biosphere reserve”), he asked the United Nations members to give to Ecuador half of the money that would otherwise be extracted from the soils. The amount he asked for was thus of $3.6 billion, that would revert to the Ecuadorian State.

Many, even in Ecuador, criticized him for this initiative, specially because Ecuador is the only country that has in its Constitution the Rights of the Environment, just as the Rights of People. In this interesting video about this controversy, an activist makes the following comparison: “That is a blackmail […] I can’t say ‘I have three children, if I don’t get enough [money] to feed my three children, I will sell one of my children’ […] the state has an obligation to protect this reserve [and] to protect what is in there […]”. Whether one agrees with this or not, the truth is that the international community did not really support Correa’s initiative. Ecuador was only able to gather 4% of the asked funds. Correa said “The world has failed us.”.  Therefore, in 2013, President Correa announced that the Yasuní-ITT area was going to be exploited. Blame and shame, or necessary decision?…

Fracking

Fracking, scientifically known as induced hydraulic fracturing, is a means to explore Earth’s natural resources. It consists in fracturing the soils, through the injection of a liquid at high pressure, in order to extract natural gas or crude oil. The technic exists since the 1940’s, but has been improved in the last decades. The injected liquid is composed of water, sand and a great number of chemicals.

We chose to write about this subject because the process of fracking has been quite criticized in recent years. It is said to be prejudicial for the communities which live around the drilling sites, since it generates a lot of toxic waste, contributing to air and water pollution. In the United States, for instance, thanks to an aggressive lobbying by the gas industry, fracking enjoys exemptions from important environmental legislation, such as from the Safe Drinking Water Act. On the other hand, opposed interest groups are trying to ban this process, for it not only consumes large amounts of fresh water, but also returns it much more polluted. Countries such as France have banned this process due to public pressure. However, in many other countries this technic is used and the United States is the champion of it. Future will tell what the environmental inheritance will be. Keep following this issue, since it is a hot topic and we will hear more and more about it.

Check out this website about the dangers of fracking, or listen to this more objective video about the process, or check out the movie Promised Land, by Gus Van Sant, that gives you an idea about the stakes involved in this matter, or even the documentary Gasland.

Tuvalu Underwater Threat

In the 16th century, while traveling to discover what mysteries the Pacific Ocean concealed, Álvaro de Mendaña de Neira found a small group of nine islands. A British protectorate in the 19th century under the name of Ellice Islands, acquiring its independence in 1978, this small State is now known as Tuvalu. We have all heard the warnings of the environmental community, concerning global warming and the threat of the rise of the sea level. Well, this threat is a reality for many nations, and Tuvalu is one of them. Tuvalu has an average of 2 meters above the sea-level, having its highest point at 5 meters above it. With a population of around 10 000 people, a true rise of the sea level would mean a massive displacement of people who would loose their home. Environmentalists and the own government of Tuvalu, estimate that possibly in 30 to 50 years, Tuvalu could disappear from the map, literally. The government keeps warning the international community to reduce their levels of pollution, which not only endangers one of their main resources, corals and fish, but also their homes. Lets hope it is not too late… You can learn more about this matter here!