A little bit about me

Me and my two younger brothers at the top of Perry Tower

I have always been interested in sustainability, birding, and business. When I heard I might be able to help setup a sustainable gift shop in Costa Rica I knew I couldn’t turn down the chance. I leave for Costa Rica in a few weeks, but until then I will be posting on this blog. First, I thought I should introduce myself.

Continue reading

Why Is Vanilla So Expensive?

The Economist has not been one of our go-to sources for stories because it has an ideology that sometimes gets in the way of deeper investigation. Their stories and explanations are extremely thorough and very compelling, but we can usually guess the answer before the question is even asked.  Every now and then they surprise us, and here is a good example:

The bitter truth behind Madagascar’s roaring vanilla trade

How did hunger for the humble pod lead to greed, crime and riches? Wendell Steavenson travels to Madagascar to meet the new spice barons

In pods we trust
A quality-control chief in a co-operative in Belambo

I follow Felicité Raminisoa and her father, Romain Randiambololona, up a narrow track along the forested slopes of her family’s farm in southern Madagascar. It is lychee season and, as we walk, we break off branches of fruit and peel off the pink, spiky shells. Large yellow jackfruit grow like Chinese lanterns among loquat and clove trees, pepper vines and coffee plants. Sapphire dragonflies flash by as they chase each other over ponds of tilapia dammed into the valley. The air is muggy under the banana leaves but grows fresher as we climb. In all directions we can see vanilla vines winding around tree trunks. Each zigzag stem has been trained so that it grows no higher than Raminisoa can reach. Every so often she stops at a pale-yellow bloom and parts its waxy petals. With a spike snapped from an orange tree, she delicately scrapes away the membrane separating the anther from the stigma in order to pollinate the flower. This is a task that requires perfect timing. Each flower must be pollinated by hand on the morning it blooms or the beans won’t sprout.

Blooming marvellous
A vanilla flower is pollinated by hand

The family began to plant vanilla vines about 20 years ago mostly as “decoration”, says Randiambololona, his big grin punctuated by a missing tooth. At first the family sold fresh green vanilla pods to tourists, surprised that they would pay anything for them. But in 2014 the price of vanilla began to rise. Over the next three years it went from less than $40 per kilogram to more than $600 per kilogram. It felt like money was growing on their trees. In 2016 Raminisoa travelled to the northern region of Sava, where vanilla has been grown for generations, to learn how to cure the green pods into the commodity that was in such demand: pungent and wizened black beans. Continue reading

Blueprint For Planting Trees

3000 (7)

Redwood trees in Guerneville, California. Photograph: Gabrielle Lurie/The Guardian

Damian Carrington, the Guardian’s Environment editor, shares a report on the value of reforestation for carbon sequestration:

Tree planting ‘has mind-blowing potential’ to tackle climate crisis

Research shows a trillion trees could be planted to capture huge amount of carbon dioxide

MapTree1

The potential for new forests that do not encroach on cropland is high in the UK, Ireland and central Europe. Guardian graphic. Source: Bastin et al, Science, 2019

Planting billions of trees across the world is by far the biggest and cheapest way to tackle the climate crisis, according to scientists, who have made the first calculation of how many more trees could be planted without encroaching on crop land or urban areas.

As trees grow, they absorb and store the carbon dioxide emissions that are driving global heating. New research estimates that a worldwide planting programme could remove two-thirds of all the emissions that have been pumped into the atmosphere by human activities, a figure the scientists describe as “mind-blowing”.

MapTree2.jpg

The potential for new forests that do not encroach on cropland is high in the UK, Ireland and central Europe

The analysis found there are 1.7bn hectares of treeless land on which 1.2tn native tree saplings would naturally grow. That area is about 11% of all land and equivalent to the size of the US and China combined. Tropical areas could have 100% tree cover, while others would be more sparsely covered, meaning that on average about half the area would be under tree canopy. Continue reading

Raptors & Yardbirds

With a couple dozen chickens of our own at any given time, and a few acres of hilly land for them to forage on, the raptors who soar above menace the birds in the yard. But they captivate my attention. As this podcast episode does as well:

A bald eagle flies off with its kill. White Oak Pastures/White Oak Pastures

…He went organic. He started making changes. To replace the chemical fertilizer, he brought in chickens and let them roam free. Free-range chickens would fertilize the grass; the grass would nurture the cattle, and shoppers at Whole Foods would love Harris’s organic beef. It was a great plan.

But then, the eagles started to descend on Harris’s farm. Eagles eat chicken. Eagles love chicken…

For Further Consideration

more-from-less-9781982103576_lgWith the most unlikely of titles to catch my attention in a long while, I gave HOW THE IPHONE HELPED SAVE THE PLANET a chance, and am glad for it. The author is the cofounder of MIT’s Initiative on the Digital Economy, so I was inclined to assume it was an essay titled ironically and give him the benefit of the doubt. Which led to some surprises in the essay, which then led me to read the pre-publication press for the book to the right. Let’s hope that Mr. McAfee is on to something true:

The more than 2 billion iPhones sold since Apple launched it exactly 12 years ago have done a lot of good for their owners, but it seems like they’ve been bad news for the planet. Building that many devices requires a lot of metal, plastic, glass, and other natural resources. Some of them, including cobalt, are mined by hand, reportedly sometimes by children, in desperately poor countries like the Democratic Republic of Congo. Others, like rare-earth elements, are in comparatively short supply. A project of the European Chemical Society found a “serious threat” that humanity could run out of many of these elements within a century. Continue reading

Are Certifications Doing Enough?

gettyimages-1036297224_custom-8e4a3818628f60728b6d922749c32445dba0fe0f-s1200-c85

Cocoa producers of the Yakasse-Attobrou Agricultural Cooperative gather cocoa pods in a certified Fair Trade-label cocoa plantation in Adzope, Ivory Coast. Sia Kambou/AFP/Getty Images

Our friends who generally oppose regulations and other efforts to protect people and the environment, saying that these protections inhibit growth and innovation and often fail to achieve the protections they are supposed to create, may sometimes have a point. But from our perspective, they too often point in the wrong direction. Constant monitoring to evaluate the efficacy of these protections is a point we might agree on, assuming we are not ideologically driven on either side of this topic.  With every big step forward towards greater sustainability, it is important to pause and consider the impact. Among other things, we must ask whether we are doing enough:

Fair Trade Helps Farmers, But Not Their Hired Workers

It’s a disturbing question that haunts many shoppers with good intentions: What am I actually accomplishing by buying coffee or chocolate with the Fair Trade label? Does the extra money that I pay actually benefit the people who harvested those beans?

Researchers have been curious, too. They’ve found that, in fact, small farmers in Latin America and Africa do benefit from the minimum price that Fair Trade guarantees and the extra money it delivers to farmer cooperatives. Researchers have documented higher wages, greater participation in community decisions, and even greater gender equity. Continue reading

Mammals of Akagera National Park

Impala, zebras, topi, and waterbuck share this savanna scene in Akagera National Park

The next park we visited on the Rwanda Study Tour after Nyungwe was Akagera National Park. Although the park was created in 1934, it’s only been run by a partnership between the Rwandan government and an NGO called African Parks—which helps manage about fifteen parks on the continent—since 2010. At this point, a change in operation style and protection started to help wildlife bounce back as well as increase visitation to the park. Back in 2010, the park hosted around fifteen thousand visitors per year and only made about $200,000 (while losing money), but last year the park received thirty-six thousand visitors and made $2,000,000 (getting out of the red for the first time).

A zebra gives itself a dustbath while a impala, two topi, and a warthog watch on

Continue reading

A Daily Grind Unlike Yours

33a8ae702.jpg

JOHN CUNEO

Ed Yong, one of the excellent science writers who does not shy away from troubling findings–but mostly amazes us with pure inspiration about how nature works–has a real downer of a career for us to contemplate today. It is a long read, less dark than it first sounds, and worth the read:

The Last of Its Kind

The biologist David Sischo has a tragic assignment: keeping vigil over a species’ sole survivor, then marking its extinction in real time.

Sometime on new year’s day, as the people of Hawaii recovered from a night of revelry, in a trailer on the outskirts of Kailua, Oahu, a 14-year-old snail named George died. David Sischo, who works in the trailer but was taking a rare day off, found out at 7 o’clock the next morning, when a colleague discovered George’s limp body and texted him. “I usually don’t hear from her that early, so before I even read the text, I felt that something bad had happened,” Sischo told me. Continue reading

Messages From Greenland Ice

Greenland Ice.jpg

Surface meltwater ponds in Western Greenland in May 2019. NASA/JEFFERSON BECK

For his third appearance in our pages this year, illuminating a topic we all need to understand more fully, thanks to Jon Gertner for sharing this in Yale e360:

In Greenland’s Melting Ice, A Warning on Hard Climate Choices

Greenland is melting at an unprecedented rate, causing vast quantities of ice to disappear and global sea levels to rise. The fate of the ice sheet is not sealed, but unless CO2 emissions are sharply cut, the long-term existence of Greenland’s ice is in doubt.

InglefieldBredning_June-13-2019_Steffen-M.-Olsen-Twitter_web2.jpg

A team from the Danish Meteorological Institute travels by dogsled across a pond of meltwater in northwest Greenland to retrieve equipment on June 13. STEFFEN M OLSEN/TWITTER

The heat wave arrived early this spring — a shroud of temperate air, sweeping in during early June, which enveloped the Northern Hemisphere’s biggest ice sheet in a stifling hug. At its peak, nearly 45 percent of Greenland’s frozen surface turned to meltwater, coloring the huge white expanse with sapphire lakes and lapis streams. During the warmest stretch, runoff from the ice sheet amounted to about 2 billion tons, which meant that at the same time Greenland was losing water, the North Atlantic was gaining it. Some areas on the island were 40 degrees Fahrenheit above normal for this time of year.

“We didn’t see anything like this prior to the late 1990s,” Thomas Mote, a University of Georgia scientist who monitors summer melting on the ice sheet, explained to CNN. “The melting is big and early,” Jason Box, a climatologist with the geological survey of Denmark and Greenland, informed the Washington Post.

Greenland’s ice sheet covers about 80 percent of the island, and measures about 660,000 square miles; in its center, it runs to a depth of about two miles. According to the most recent NASA studies, the ice sheet holds enough water to raise sea levels by about 24 feet, should it ever disappear completely. Continue reading

Food Traditions & Modern Realities

19-jk-couscous-img_9780_wide-41a7659c6390d490ec35f9afb923320d4f461eb4-s1200-c85

A woman prepares couscous in a small Amazigh (Berber) hamlet on the eastern slopes of Morocco’s High Atlas Mountains. Jeff Koehler for NPR

It seems ages (if only six months) since the folks of the salt, over at National Public Radio (USA), offered a story like this, so thanks to Jeff Koehler – Writer – Photographer – Cook – Traveler for bringing it:

Couscous: A Symbol Of Harmony In Northwest Africa, A Region Of Clashes

In 2016, Algeria announced that it would be applying for UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage status for couscous. If successful, the staple food would join a diverse list of more than 500 cultural treasures ranging from hand puppetry in Egypt and tango dancing in Argentina and Uruguay.

37-jk-couscous-img_0385-1--74611dd6b5912bf25ced34fc7ae62bf31249d558-s1200-c85.jpg

Sweet couscous is popular across the Maghreb. It is generally served with leben, a buttermilk-like fermented drink.
Jeff Koehler for NPR

Couscous refers to both the tiny, hard granules typically made from crushed hard durum wheat semolina, as well as the dish itself. The tiny balls are steamed in a two-level pot with a perforated steamer basket called kiskis (known in much of the world as a couscoussier) over a stew of meat or fish, vegetables and spices, which is served on top.

While a catalog of outside influences has shaped Algeria’s cuisine over the years, it never lost its ancient traditions or uniqueness, wrote Mokhtaria Rezki in her authoritative book Le Couscous Algérian. “Algerian couscous remains in this respect the symbol of our originality and our greatest invention. … If one had to culinarily and symbolically award a medal of our national cultural identity … certainly couscous would be the star and the subject.” So key is couscous to Algerian culture that some simply refer to it as ta’am, or “food.” Continue reading