The delicate ecosystem of the Gulf of Mexico was wounded long before Katrina stormed ashore, and her wildlife was poisoned by chemicals streaming down the Mississippi River long before BP stirred a few million gallons of crude into her waters. The Louisiana Universities Marine Consortium (LUMCON) has been monitoring hypoxia — lack of oxygen — in the Gulf waters since 1985. Much of this hypoxia is caused by agricultural chemicals and farm animal waste products that flow into the Mississippi from 19 states to the north. (Iowa alone is estimated to be responsible for 25% of the farm chemicals and fecal matter pouring into the Gulf.) Efforts are underway to reduce the agricultural pollution that is contributing heavily to the Dead Zone, but more must be done to make a positive impact on the area.
Yesterday, Blue Planet Green Living received an email from Dr. Nancy Rabalais, Executive Director of LUMCON, with the group’s latest report. The following information is reprinted from “2010 DEAD ZONE – ONE OF THE LARGEST EVER,” dated 1 August 2010, from Cocodrie, Louisiana. (Only some of the graphics are reproduced here.) — Joe Hennager
The area of hypoxia, or low oxygen, in the northern Gulf of Mexico west of the Mississippi River delta covered 20,000 square kilometers (7,722 square miles) of the bottom and extended far into Texas waters. The relative size is almost that of Massachusetts. The critical value that defines hypoxia is 2 mg/L, or ppm, because trawlers cannot catch fish or shrimp on the bottom when oxygen falls lower.
This summer’s hypoxic zone (“dead zone”) is one of the largest measured since the team of researchers from Louisiana Universities Marine Consortium and Louisiana State University began routine mapping in 1985. Dr. Nancy Rabalais, Executive Director of LUMCON and Chief Scientist aboard the research vessel Pelican, was unsure what would be found because of recent weather, but an earlier cruise by a NOAA fisheries team found hypoxia off the Galveston, Texas area. She commented “This is the largest such area off the upper Texas coast that we have found since we began this work in 1985.” She commented that “The total area probably would have been the largest if we had had enough time to completely map the western part.”
LSU’s Dr. R. Eugene Turner had predicted that this year’s zone would be 19,141 to 21,941 square kilometers (average 20,140 square kilometers or 7,776 square miles), based on the amount of nitrate-nitrogen loaded into the Gulf in May. “The size of the hypoxic zone and nitrogen loading from the river is an unambiguous relationship,” said Turner. “We need to act on that information.”
The size of the summer’s hypoxic zone is important as a benchmark against which progress in nutrient reductions in the Mississippi River system can be measured. The Mississippi River/Gulf of Mexico Nutrient Management Task Force supports the goal of reducing the size of the hypoxic zone to less than 5,000 square kilometers, or 1,900 square miles, which will require substantial reductions in nitrogen and phosphorus reaching the Gulf. Including this summer’s area estimate, the 5-year average of 19,668 square kilometers (7,594 square miles) is far short of where water quality managers want to be by 2015.
Instead of the usual continuous band of low oxygen along the coast, this summer’s distribution was a patchwork of several areas. The scientists think that this result is because of recent tropical storm activity. Hurricane Alex crossed mid-Gulf earlier in July and stirred up water everywhere, mixing oxygen into the bottom layer. Low oxygen conditions subsequently returned. Later, Tropical Depression Bonnie scattered workers and ships away from the Deepwater Horizon oil spill area and threatened the beginning of the summer’s shelfwide hypoxia mapping cruise. “The threat of high water and seas kept the R/V Pelican at the dock one day longer than planned,” said Rabalais.
This year the mapping started south of Atchafalaya River and headed west instead of starting at the Mississippi River delta, because of expected high seas on the eastern part of the study area. The research group found a large area of hypoxia to the west, well past Galveston Bay, and far offshore, but did not have time to finish the map there. The ship returned to the Atchafalaya River area and began working its way to the east. Another large area of low oxygen was found nearer to the Mississippi River delta.
Nitrogen and phosphorus delivered from the Mississippi and Atchafalaya rivers stimulate high rates of algal growth as phytoplankton. When these algae, or fecal material from their consumers, settle to bottom waters, decomposition of this organic matter by bacteria consumes dissolved oxygen. There is little chance for oxygen from the surface layers to penetrate to the bottom, because of a strong layering of fresher, warmer water over the colder, saltier Gulf of Mexico water during the summer. The result is oxygen depletion, with concentrations so low that many types of fish, shrimp and crabs must flee the area or suffocate. The remaining animals that live in the sediments die if the oxygen continues to fall toward zero.
Much of the area where hypoxia occurs on the Louisiana coast had been exposed to oil from the British Petroleum Deepwater Horizon oil disaster. Up to and through the time of the research cruise, there were documented areas of oil sheen seen in satellite imagery west of the Mississippi River. Crew members and scientists were on the lookout for signs of oil, but only found thick oil in the crook of the delta west of Southwest Pass. [Note: work goes on around the clock, so at least 10 hours of sampling each day were in the dark.] Surface water samples intended for hydrocarbon analyses were collected at most stations.
The high biological productivity seen in surface waters to the west of the river was not unusual considering the prediction of size for 2010 and the continued flux of fresh water and nutrients from the river. “It would be difficult to link conditions seen this summer with oil from the BP spill,” said Rabalais, “in either a positive or negative way.” The slicks were not continuous over large areas for extended periods of time, which would be necessary to see the localized effects of toxicity or oxygen drawdown. Rabalais, who accidentally surfaced from a scuba dive into a surface oil slick in May, had seen miles and miles of phytoplankton thick waters before the slick moved in. “The Mississippi River nutrient-enhanced growth of phytoplankton is what fuels the hypoxic zone, and has for many years,” she said.
For details of the 2010 hypoxia cruise, visit http://www.gulfhypoxia.net.
Blue Planet Green Living (Home Page)
We’ve heard it all before. We’ve read it a million times, and now we’re sick of it. We’ve all had it up to here about why we shouldn’t eat red meat. You did hear about the recent study published in The Archives of Internal Medicine — the one in which researchers followed half million people for ten years. Oh, you missed that one?
It involved 322,263 men, and 223,390 women ages 50 to 71. That’s my demographic — and the single largest demographic in the US. Maybe it’s your demographic, too. Or your parents’ or grandparents’ (if you’re really young). Ever wonder why we Baby Boomers are experiencing such high rates of obesity, diabetes, heart disease and cancer?
One answer is red meat. Hamburgers. Steaks. Hot dogs. Italian beef. Chili. Stew. Roasts. Even bologna. As a nation, we love red meat — so much so that we’re eating twice as much red meat today as people did 50 years ago.
Is it just because of good marketing? Is it because we’re all gluttons, having “Super-Sized” our diets and our waists? Look around. See anyone who’s overweight? Ask them what they ate today. Could be they had a meat appetizer, meat on their salad, a bacon wrapped triple burger or a meat-lover’s pizza. We consume meat like we’re addicted to it.
Meat Intake and Mortality, a research study directed by Rashmi Sinha, followed people who ate between one to four ounces of meat a day. After 10 years, researchers reported a 20 to 40 percent increase in mortality — considered a “modest” increase by study reviewers — among subjects who ate the most red and processed meat. Maybe 20 percent higher could be called modest, but a 40 percent increase is huge, in my mind. And if you or a loved one count among the 20 percent, there’s nothing modest about such numbers.
If you apply these figures over the whole U.S. population, we could prevent the deaths of 1 million men and half a million women every decade. Perhaps you’re young enough to be thinking, Those old people are going to die soon anyway.
To that I say, If this trend continues, young people will be affected much earlier in your lives and your mortality will be even greater. And that’s not me eating sour grapes. It’s a scary fact: Red meat can kill you.
Interestingly, white meats (poultry and fish) don’t seem to have the same effect. The study revealed an “inverse association” between death rate and consumption of white meat. So, if you’re determined to eat meat, it seems that white meat is the safer bet.
Want to get the full scoop? Read the study at The Archives of Internal Medicine website (be aware though, there’s a fee for downloading the study). If you’re a red-meat lover, the results should scare the meat out of you.
Blue Planet Green Living (Home Page)
If someone asked you to define a pivotal experience that changed the course of your life, would you have to think long and hard before answering? For Robyn O’Brien, the event is as vivid as when it occurred more than three years ago. O’Brien is the founder of AllergyKids, an organization dedicated to protecting children with allergies from being harmed by the very foods they eat. She is also the author of The Unhealthy Truth: How Our Food Is Making Us Sick and What We Can Do About It, which was released for sale by Random House today.
Blue Planet Green Living (BPGL) visited with O’Brien by phone from her home in Colorado. She began the interview by describing the morning that changed her life. What follows is Part 1 of a two-part interview.
BPGL: Your new book, The Unhealthy Truth, tells about the overwhelming numbers of children who have developed food allergies. What prompted your interest in this topic?
O’BRIEN: In January of 2006, I was a mother of four. My youngest was almost a year old. I was just like any mom, scrambling around, tight budget, picky eaters, slinging breakfast across the kitchen table. I wasn’t a foodie, so the breakfast that morning was blue yogurt, Eggo waffles, and scrambled eggs. I thought, This is a balanced meal. It’s got dairy. It’s got calcium. It’s got the eggs for the protein. That’s about as “Martha” as I got.
I had made scrambled eggs for the older kids. And, you know how in the pediatrician’s office they always say, ‘Introduce solid foods one at a time to watch for an allergic reaction?’ We didn’t have a family history of food allergies, so I thought, Fortunately, that’s one of those issues I don’t have to worry about. And so, food allergies never crossed my mind with my older children.
I was slinging the food out, and I threw some on my youngest’s highchair tray just to see. She pushed it away, and didn’t want it. I didn’t care. She was eating her banana and that was fine. Then she started to get fussy. As the morning wore on, she was really fussy, so I figured she must be tired. It was around 9 o’clock, and I put her down for a nap.
In all “mother-of-fourness,” I never really checked on my fourth child when she was napping. She was happy, and I knew she was fine. I didn’t worry about her. And, for whatever reason — I do not know why — that morning, I went and checked on her. I got into her room, and her face was so swollen, and so red. I looked at her, and thought, Oh my god, what has happened to this child?
And still, in complete oblivion to food allergies, I turned to my older three kids and said, “Did you guys put something in Tory’s face?” They all just looked at me with those blank, little-kid stares, and I thought, Oh, my gosh. They have no idea what I’m talking about. What has just happened to this child? I had no idea.
So I called the pediatrician’s office — it was a Saturday morning — and they said, ‘This sounds like an allergic reaction.’ My husband took the older three, and I raced Tory in there. The pediatrician said, ‘Yes, Robyn, this is an allergic reaction. What did you feed her for breakfast?’
I said, “This is what was out.”
And she said, “Oh, wheat, dairy, eggs, those are some of the top allergens.”
I said, “What are you talking about?” And it started this massive learning curve. So I came home that day, and I thought, Oh, my gosh, since when did food get so toxic?
BPGL: That was obviously a terrifying experience for all of you. How did you move from fear to action?
O’BRIEN: I kept asking, “How does my child have this problem?” My background is financial research. I am a complete research wonk. I think it’s fascinating. It’s absolutely my passion to research stuff. So I started looking into the numbers, and I realized, “This is a huge problem!” At that point, the statistics that were being recorded were 1 out of 17 children under the age of three [had food allergies]. At the time, I thought, That is a huge number. What is going on?
Over that weekend, I started educating myself. Literally, within a couple of days, I was wondering, How am I going to protect this kid in my house? The older three can’t read yet. An egg is safe for them, but not for her. And eggs are in cupcakes… They’re in anything.
It was that panic, urgent, desperation that a mother has to protect her child. So I sat down. I started sketching out something that I could slap on things around the kitchen that my older three would be able to decipher. And I started sketching out a symbol that even young children could recognize as a warning. I kept simplifying it down, and then when I came up with this symbol, I tried it on my kids, and they totally got it. It was really obvious to a three-, four-, and five-year-old.
BPGL: Your children now had a warning symbol to protect Tory. What made you decide to go beyond your own family’s safety and build a business?
O’BRIEN: I talked to a couple friends, who said, “That is such a good idea!” I thought, it’s kind of the “pink-ribbon” of food allergies. So with that, and my business and finance background, I thought, I’ll just start a little business. I can design products that have this symbol on it, and maybe moms will be able to use it. I can raise some money for research. It’s a win-win. It lets me put my brain to use. I was just thrilled to also be in a position to where I could do something to help protect my child.
That was the launch of AllergyKids. That weekend I went sleuthing through our secretary of state’s database so I could find a name and correspond it with a website that was catchy. I did a lot of homework on that front. I started pulling it together. My sister-in-law does product development in Seattle. So I called her, and she helped me get some products. I thought, I can pull this together in a couple months — it’s such a simple concept — and launch it on Mother’s Day 2006. So that’s what we did.
BPGL: What was the response from the public?
O’BRIEN: It launched on Mother’s Day, and it was just an instant, “Oh, my gosh! Why hasn’t someone done this before?” The press loved it! It was awesome to be in a position to say, “Here’s something that can help moms. And it was a way for us to raise money to give to these nonprofits that are doing research. I felt really good about it. The kids got it. That was my testing ground, these little children.
And then as I started getting more and more attention, I started getting the attention of some of these nonprofits in a really weird way. They would send these emails almost to say, “Please leave the press to us.” I didn’t really understand why.
BPGL: That’s an odd reaction. I’d think everyone would be pleased to see the effect you were having. It obviously didn’t stop you.
O’BRIEN: I kept reaching out. Mothers around the country were so excited. And they were so excited by the press that food allergies were getting and the awareness that I was bringing to it. There was this desperation on so many mothers’ part, to really say, “We’re not making this up. And as crazy as it sounds that a kid could be allergic to food, our kids are allergic to food!”
So they were really grateful and trying to raise money for Awareness Walks in their cities. We were strapped out on debt to launch the company, and they were asking if I could donate money. And I said, “I don’t have any money to donate, but I can donate products, and you can sell them and do whatever you need to with the money to raise the awareness. They loved that.
And all of a sudden, a particular nonprofit food allergies group came back again and said, “We will not accept anything with AllergyKids on it.” And again, I asked, “Why?”
‘Then they started to get pretty aggressive. They sent this letter from their law firm. It claimed that my tag line, “Until there’s a cure, there’s Allergy Kids,” was a copyright infringement from a line that they had in their 2004 annual report, “Until there’s a cure for food allergies, education is key.”
BPGL: What was your response?
O’BRIEN: I’d done a ton of business, finance, equity stuff. So, When I got that letter, I looked at it and I said, “This is hilarious.” Not only, when I went on the website for the law firm listed on the letterhead, there was no website, but the lawyer’s email address was listed as aol.com or something like that, not at a law firm!
BPGL: That’s amazing. Sounds like blatant intimidation tactics.
O’BRIEN: So then, they were claiming that I had copied their tag line. What they had failed to realize, which they couldn’t have realized, is that I had gotten approval for that tag line through the US Patent and Trademark Office. So had there been any copyright and trademark infringement, they wouldn’t have passed the trademark. I showed the letter and a few emails that the had non profit sent out to my attorney, and I said, “This is seems a bit ridiculous. Is this meant to intimidate me?”
He said, “This is defamation.” I showed him all the emails that had come through, and in typical legal fashion, he was a bulldog and wanted to just go after it. I said, “No. I need to understand why they are so threatened by me.”
He couldn’t believe the letter. He fired back — he didn’t even charge me for his response and his time — he fired back and said, “Not only has Robyn been granted the patent by the US Patent and Trademark Office to use this trademark, but in a database search by the US Patent and Trademark Office, the clause, ‘Until there’s a cure’ is used by 27,153 organizations. Why are you targeting her?” It was just hilarious. And that’s when my story turned.
That was August 1, 2006 when I got that letter. All of a sudden, I stepped back, and I saw it. Why are these guys trying to get me out of here? Why have they been so dismissive? They were threatened by something, and I couldn’t figure out what. That’s when I started pulling their financial statements to see who funded them, to see if there might be a reason they were trying to run mothers out, or if they had done it to other mothers with cease-and-desist letters and stuff like that. And that’s where the rest of my story begins.
BPGL: So, if they had just left you alone, rather than trying to strong arm you, they wouldn’t have caused themselves any trouble. Instead, they in essence woke a sleeping tiger.
O’BRIEN: As I began to look into what incentive this organization might have to keep me and other moms in our place, in August of 2006, I learned that back in 1998, Kraft had funded the development of that particular group’s website, and had been the sole sponsor ever since. As I started to learn who had funded them, there was a lot of interesting information in their financial reports.
I thought, Why would Kraft have an incentive to be the sole sponsor of this website? If there was a big Kraft logo on their home page, would I take this information differently? I would.
And so, that’s when I started doing research. I needed to know what’s changed in our food that suddenly made it such a threat to our kids. Now I was raised on meat and potatoes in Houston. I was not a foodie, so a lot of this new consciousness came from being in Boulder now, where there’s a real health-conscious foodie culture. I started looking into changes in food. I started signing up for Google alerts on food allergies and novel proteins being inserted into foods, since kids with food allergies were reacting to the proteins in foods.
One night a month later, one popped through. It was about a tiny study at a university in Michigan, and it was looking into the role of genetically modified organisms in food allergies. I had never heard of genetically modified organisms. I was so not a foodie. What is a GMO? Is it like an Omega 3? Does it enhance nutrition? I started looking into what a GMO was. And that night I just didn’t sleep. Could this be the missing link? Could this be the connection? I was so naïve. I thought, That nonprofit food allergies group must not be aware of this. It’s not on their website anywhere. They must not be aware of this.
BPGL: You gave them the benefit of the doubt, even after their failed attempt to scare you off?
O’BRIEN: Yes, I started reaching out again, thinking if they were just aware, it would be so great. They would be aware that there’s this link here and that all of these scientists have been raising red flags and sounding the alarm bells on the allergenicity of these things. I thought they must have just been so caught up trying to deal with all the mothers that they didn’t have time. I was so willing to give them the benefit of the doubt.
With that, that was when I was absolutely shut out. And that’s when I thought, There’s something going on here. So then I started looking at Kraft and thinking, Does Kraft use this stuff? Sure enough they do. There’s a website that was developed a few years ago. It’s Krafty.org. (Or Krafty.com). Good Morning America highlighted it on their website in a story they ran in August of that same year. It really links how the processed food industry has been using these genetically engineered proteins of soy and corn in their foods since they were introduced in 1998, which is when Kraft took over the funding of that website.
BPGL: I’m looking now, but the site is nowhere to be found.
O’BRIEN: I know. You’ll have to pull some strings and ask for Good Morning America to dig into their files!
Anyway, as I kept unearthing the information, I thought, This is an unbelievable story. How in the world am I supposed to get it out? As I kept unearthing how these chemicals and proteins have been engineered into our food supply, it was a real downer. I learned that developed countries around the world had found [genetically modified organisms] unsafe for animals, and in some cases, didn’t even allow them to be planted in their fields. And, yet, we were feeding them to our children, and they were in baby formula!
It was a really hard thing to unearth. I struggled with it, because I had been such a believer in the system. It was there to protect us. I was raised that way. It was a lonely period, because as I was trying to inform other mothers in the food allergy world, my reputation had been sullied by that nonprofit group. They sent out emails!
BPGL: Did you take action against the group for what they were saying about you?
O’BRIEN: That’s not in my nature, but that’s what the attorney wanted to do. I said no because I wanted to understand why they were doing it. In hindsight, I’m so grateful that the group [went after me], because I knew I had done nothing wrong. It was such an enormous red flag. You can only have the comfort to [stand your ground] when you are so totally standing in the truth. I tried to reach out to mothers, but they didn’t want to hear it. It was understandable, because they’d held these guys [from the food allergy website] up to the highest standard, and they had the doctors on a pedestal. I understood, because it was crushing for me to learn it. It was crushing.
BPGL: Many people would have been defeated at that point, with not only the folks at the nonprofit food allergy group speaking out against you, but also the moms themselves. That had to be a disheartening point for you. What kept you going?
O’BRIEN: I thought, if I can’t communicate with these mothers — the allergy moms, the ones who had put their trust in these doctors and their faith in this organization, that may or may not have had their best interest at heart — I’ve got to find my choir, and the people who already know this. That’s when I started reaching out to people like Nell Newman, Paul Newman’s daughter who founded Newman’s Own Organics and the scientists who had been researching food allergies, and becoming part of that team. I knew that I couldn’t just do it by myself as a mom in suburbia, Colorado. As I joined their team, they were glad at this passionate mother, but again it was sort of like, “Who are you?” and, “We’re glad that we’ve got a mom on board, but we’re the scientists.”
And I think, again, what wasn’t recognized, the thing that I really contributed to the messaging and the politics of this was the money ties. You know, these scientists weren’t aware that the pediatric allergists [speaking out against me] had been funded by Monsanto. They weren’t aware that there were patents involved and royalty streams, and that’s really what makes the story. You’ve got to step back and say, “Sure it’s ‘science based.’ But ‘science based’ in industry-funded data. Did funding influence this research?” It’s talked about in the Wall Street Journal all the time now. We need full disclosure. If we had full disclosure, if these guys were wearing baseball caps that had “Monsanto” scribbled across the front of them, or if that nonprofit group had put “KRAFT” on their website with a big logo, you probably wouldn’t listen to them the same way.
Part 1: AllergyKids Founder Seeks to Protect Children from Harmful Foods (Top of Page)
Blue Planet Green Living (Home Page)
When Elsita Kiekebusch agreed to conduct an environmental awareness campaign for Integrated Environmental Consultants Namibia (IECN), she expected to face challenges. After all, the Namibian landscape can be harsh and inhospitable at times, and she would be driving across some of the most remote and desolate areas of the nation. While the results of her survey proved unspectacular, the journey itself contained surprises that made it an unforgettable adventure.
Miriam Kashia, international editor for Blue Planet Green Living (BPGL), interviewed Kiekenbusch by email to find out about both her experiences and the work that sent the young woman on her remarkable journey.
BPGL: What type of work have you been doing for IECN?
KIEKENBUSCH: I’ve been focused on a coastal awareness campaign along the Atlantic coast of Namibia. My co-workers and I have interviewed approximately 250 local citizens and members of affiliated institutions — such as the provincial Councils and environmental Conservancies — to assess the impact of the campaign since its commencement a year and a half ago.
As the entire western border of Namibia is the ocean, you can imagine the incredible distances that we had to cover in order to carry out the survey. In one week, we went south to the small German-style port of Lüderitz, stopping at various sites along the way for the interviews. Then last week, we headed out into the unbelievably remote Kunene Region with the IECN land cruiser packed full with jerry cans, food, camping equipment, 2 spare tires, a toolbox and more.
BPGL: I understand you had quite an adventure. What are some of the more memorable experiences you had along the way?
KIEKEBUSCH: We experienced bad roads like never before. At times sandy; at times stony; at times wet, steep, and muddy. It seemed like our car had seen it all, when we drove straight down a dry riverbed composed solely of boulders. We had to race to catch up with our translator-guide, who enjoyed driving his Government-owned truck as fast as he possibly could. (I’m talking 75 mph on gravel roads!) And this was just the first day.
That night found us camped next to the beautiful Hoanib riverbed. We were up late, because we had decided to blend in with local culture and slaughter a goat for dinner. By dinner, I mean that we ate the meat for the next three days straight. We were unable to buy purified water anywhere, but beer was available everywhere, so we drank that for three days straight, too.
The food and drink put us in high spirits even after we discovered that our car battery had died when we left the lights on in the dark, and we had no jumper cables. The next morning, we found ourselves stranded in practically every way you can think of.
Our translator-guide had awakened early in the morning. He drove across the riverbed, and went to the nearest small settlement, Purros, to find jumper cables. When he didn’t return, we suspected the worst — if he wasn’t dead or maimed, then we figured he was drunk and gone forever.
But soon we realized that the dry river to Purros had flooded overnight, so our translator-guide couldn’t have returned even if he wanted to. It was the flash-flood season in Namibia — a country with no permanent rivers within its borders — so in the rainy season, dry riverbeds in the desert can suddenly fill with water from rainfall miles away.
Certainly, the Hoanib was no calm stream that morning! It had become a raging torrent about 100 feet across, with rapids, rocks, unreliable sandbars — altogether impassable by any sort of vehicle.
So that was how we found ourselves trapped on the wrong side of the river from where we had to go next. Our car battery was dead, the petrol (gas) was low. There was no cell phone service. And we had no food, as our goat-meat and pots were in the back of the truck that our guide drove — and he had gone AWOL.
Somehow, we made it out of there. With the help of some tourists, who were also stranded at the campsite, we jump-started our car. A nice British lady fed us breakfast and directed us to a nearby lodge where we could buy petrol. And then there was nothing to do but wait for the water level to drop.
Around 3 p.m., we heard honking across the river and looked up to see our guide on the other side. He gestured wildly, and somehow managed to communicate to us that we should go to another spot further downriver. We felt we had no choice but to attempt the crossing before any new afternoon rains could catch up with us.
We put the Land Cruiser into 4-wheel drive and ventured forward. The roar of the engine clashed with the sound of rushing water, as she swayed perilously from side to side. Somehow she finally made it across, and we were able to continue on our way towards the coast.
I’m pleased to report that we ultimately survived the trip. We had a nice few days at Swakopmund on the coast, and we’re now back in Windhoek, where I’m writing up a final report.
BPGL: You mentioned that you work for IECN. Tell me about what they do.
KIEKEBUSCH: Integrated Environmental Consultants Namibia (IECN) is a private consulting company in the environmental field. It focuses on capacity building and sustainable development, basically applying the science to environmental issues. They do multiple consultancies (short-term projects) for many organizations, including the UN, Ministry of Environment and Tourism, the Namibia Polytechnic, and University of Namibia.
This consultancy — the one for which we did the project — was for the Namibian Coastal Management Project (NACOMA), which was developed by the Ministry of Environment and Tourism. NACOMA’s main goal with this research consultancy is to develop a legal framework by writing a white paper for the sustainable management of all of Namibia’s coast. The project has been ongoing for five years.
NACOMA wanted to have civilian input during the process, so they also began a coastal awareness campaign in 2007. They worked in four coastal regions of Namibia (Kunene, Hardap, Erongo, Karas).
The group distributed informational pamphlets, produced educational materials, worked with schools and youth groups, produced various media communications — newspaper articles, went on radio talk shows, television interviews, etc., about the white paper development process. They also addressed general issues of concern, such as quad-biking, which is a serious threat along the fragile coastal environment.
BPGL: What is particularly special about this coastal region?
KIEKEBUSCH: The harsh Namib desert all along the coast is where the cold, wet air from the South Atlantic polar currents meet the hot and extremely dry air of the desert. That confluence has resulted in a unique ecology and biodiversity not found anywhere else on Earth.
The Namibian coast contains many different types of natural resources. They need to be used wisely and in a way that one type of resource does not damage another. We need to plan how to use resources and protect them at the same time.
BPGL: Aren’t there laws that protect the area?
KIEKEBUSCH: While Namibia has a comprehensive draft set of environmental laws applicable to the entire country, there is no specific coastal legislation or national coastal area policy. Laws dealing with coastal management issues are currently outdated and totally inadequate. They’re also reactive, rather than proactive, in achieving integrated coastal area management objectives that meet our current ecological, economic and social needs.
BPGL: What are some of the threats to the ecological integrity of the Namibian coast?
KIEKEBUSCH: The Namibian coast is sparsely populated, so overpopulation isn’t the primary environmental threat. The significant threats to this fragile area come from several sources:
- Uncontrolled activities in protected areas, such as mining, tourism, off-road driving, and recreational fishing
- Land reclamation for urban and commercial development
- Marine pollution from the fishing industry, mining, oil and gas extraction, and harbor activities
- Overfishing and over-harvesting
- Introduction of invasive alien species through mariculture development
- Excessive water exploitation for mining and consumption
- Environmental variability and global climate change
These activities have a cumulative impact on the coastal environment, causing steady degradation and threatening not only the environment, but the economy and health of all Namibians as well.
BPGL: What did you discover with your research survey about the environmental impact of the coastal awareness campaign in Namibia?
KIEKEBUSCH: We traveled to the four coastal regions of Namibia and interviewed members of the public and members of related institutions (Ministry of Fisheries, Regional and Town Councils, etc.). Our survey tested knowledge of coastal issues and knowledge of NACOMA and its goals.
We traveled as far as Lüderitz, Opuwo, Terrace Bay (Skeleton Coast Park) and, of course, Swakopmund and Walvis Bay. The results weren’t amazing. Our main conclusion was that NACOMA had spread itself too thin during the awareness-raising process, so we recommended that they target certain interest groups more than in the past. We also recommended that they stay away from the more inland areas. People in these areas were less informed and had less of an interest, because they don’t live near the coast anyway.
BPGL: To what degree has the campaign succeeded in its goals so far?
KIEKEBUSCH: We saw increases in environmental awareness in some areas. We also saw a large increase in the usage of the website, which was another thing we were evaluating. That was a good sign. NACOMA certainly completed many different communication activities that they intended to, and I think they got a lot of public interest in the white paper process. People came to the discussions to give input. Involving various shareholders in this process is a key to its success.
BPGL: I understand that Namibia is the only country in the world that has environmental protection written into its constitution.
KIEKEBUSCH: Yes, Namibia is one of the only countries that has a phrase in the constitution something along the lines of “every citizen has the right to a healthy and clean environment.”
This coastal management process is certainly something that should be commended — in fact, the whole of the Namibian coast at the moment is being considered to become a national park. It’s hard to provide environmental protection for a large and diverse area of land such as Namibia, particularly with limited resources and staff.
One of the biggest problems faced along the coast — our area of concentration for this study — is the destruction left by holiday-makers during the Christmas/New Years holidays. People have been leaving trash and driving around the desert in off-road vehicles, which is very damaging to the environment. 2007 was a particularly bad year, but serious measures were taken to control that destruction in 2008, and it seems that they were successful in limiting the damage.
BPGL: Earlier, you mentioned “quad-biking,” and now you’ve just mentioned the use of off-road vehicles. How are quad-biking and off-road vehicles threatening the coastal environment?
KIEKEBUSCH: Quad-bikes are also called ATVs (all-terrain vehicles). Imagine a motorcycle with four wheels. A big problem is holidaymakers (mostly from South Africa) coming up to Namibia in December to do a lot of off-road driving in the dunes and gravel plains of the desert. These are very vulnerable areas. Track marks disrupt the soil micro-environment and leave scars on the land that take many years to go away. They also run over small animals and bird eggs along the way.
BPGL: Now that the research project is finished, what’s the next likely step in your career?
KIEKEBUSCH: Actually, I have a new job. I recently joined the staff of the Gobabeb Research and Training Centre in the Namib Desert. The centre is basically a research station/environmental education institution. My project, in association with NASA (the US National Aeronautics and Space Agency), is a study of bacteria capable of living underneath rocks in extremely arid conditions. We are hoping to inform the search for life on Mars.
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