Commerce or Corruption: The Economics of Mega-Dams


May 7, 2015 (Sarawak, Malaysia)

The Borneo Project has released Commerce or Corruption?, the second film in a series of short documentaries exposing the realities of proposed mega­-dam construction in Sarawak, Malaysia. The film release coincides with the 555th day of the community-led Baram Dam blockades. Mega­-hydro projects are driven by the Malaysian government through the Sarawak Corridor of Renewable Energy, or SCORE. If built, these dams will force tens of thousands of people from their land, drive untold species extinct, pollute the rivers ­­the lifelines of the jungle ­­ and produce more greenhouse gas emissions per megawatt of energy than a coal­fired power plant.

“The damage inflicted by these dams would be massive, and the benefits are still unclear. Given that there is no sound reason to build these dams, the question becomes, why are these dams being built, and why now? ” asked Jettie Word, Executive Director of The Borneo Project.

Commerce or Corruption?, exposes the government’s true motivation behind the dams: personal financial gain. Private companies involved in construction and transmission stand to make gigantic profits from building the dams. Many of these companies are controlled by relatives and friends of the governor of the state, Taib Mahmud. Taib has been in power since the 1970s. Doling out the contracts would add even more gold to the already over­flowing coffers of politicians and their well­connected family members.

These mega­-dams also assume an outrageous energy demand growth rate. Sarawak currently produces significantly more energy than it can use, and proponents have no concrete plans for how to use or sell the energy.

The ongoing Baram Dam blockades, community-led non­-violent direct actions, involve men, women and children and have prevented loggers and the dam developer, Sarawak Energy Bhd (SEB), from accessing the construction area since October, 2013. The blockade is maintained by indigenous Kenyah, Kayan, and Penan people and demonstrates the tremendous local resistance to dam development and logging. Despite opposition to the dams, the government of Sarawak and SEB continue to overlook widespread grievances and push for unnecessary and harmful development. If completed, the Baram Dam will inundate 26 villages and displace between 6,000 and 20,000 people.

Broken Promises, the next film in the series, will be released in July. It will highlight the devastating impacts of forced relocation on indigenous communities. All of the films will be available on Malaysia Kini TV’s youTube channel, and on The Borneo Project website.

About The Borneo Project​– For over twenty years, the Borneo Project has worked with indigenous communities to protect their rainforests and land rights. Learn more at

Press Release Contact: Jettie Word, Executive Director The Borneo Project,

From the Wild: A Close Partnership All the Way From Rwanda

Written by: Valerie Akuredusenge

Hi! My name is Valerie Akuredusenge, the Program Director of Conservation Heritage – Turambe, (CHT). I grew up in Gakenke District in the Northern Province of Rwanda. I began my journey in wildlife conservation as a tour guide, leading others through the dense rainforests of central Africa. I facilitated influential conservation experiences for tourists by bringing them up close and personal with some of the world’s most amazing wildlife. 

As my love and appreciation of this wildlife grew through those experiences, I knew I needed to share this excitement with the local communities living alongside animals like mountain gorillas.  I joined Art of Conservation in 2006 and became a leader in conservation education. I have taught over 2,800 children in communities bordering Rwanda’s Volcanoes National Park about how to maintain healthy lives for the continued prosperity of the local communities and gorilla populations as well. Additionally, I am creating the next generation of Rwanda’s wildlife conservationists by inspiring local students to care about their natural resources, and act on behalf of wildlife and habitats.

CHT Staff, Left to Right: Innocent, Eric, Oliver and Valerie. Photo credit of CHT.

In 2013, I became the Program Director of Conservation Heritage – Turambe, an off – shoot of the very successful international non–profit organization called Art of Conservation that worked in Rwanda for over 6 years conducting conservation and health awareness programs in Musanze District, Rwanda.

Conservation Heritage – Turambe is local non-profit organization based in Musanze District in the Northern Province of Rwanda. CHT works with local communities bordering Volcanoes Natinal Park home to the critically endangered mountain gorillas.

Since 2013, CHT has worked as a local non-profit organization in Rwanda. In Kinyarwanda, Turambe translates to “let us be sustainable”.  All 7 of the CHT staff members are Rwandan and committed to continuing the important and inspiring work that was done by AoC previously.

The goal of CHT is to educate local communities near Volcanoes National Park to ensure they live in harmony with mountain gorillas and their habitat. CHT believes that disease transmission between mountain gorilla populations and human populations is a major threat to gorillas. To make sure the lives of mountain gorillas and that of human populations next to the park is in balance, CHT conducts year – long after school conservation and health awareness classes in communities near the Volcanoes National Park, home to mountain gorillas.

Students living close to mountain gorillas learn about this critically endangered species. Photo credit of CHT.

To be able to do it, the CHT team and I utilize different methods to deliver conservation and health messages to local communities.  Art is a great tool we use to help spread our messages and also make our program more unique.

CHT Artist Eusebe teaches local kids about mountain gorillas using artistic methods. Photo credit of CHT.

Through our classroom programming, CHT teaches over 200 local schoolchildren about conservation and health. These conservation lessons instill in students an understanding and compassion of nature and wildlife. Local community members are also encouraged to stay healthy because the health of wildlife is linked to that of people.

CHT students learn staying healthy messages like how to wash their hands and how to brush their teeth. Photo credit of CHT.

CHT’s work also improves local livelihoods through different initiatives. We conduct tree-planting activities to prevent soil erosion, provide animal habitat and create beautiful green space. We also donate water tanks to schools to ensure water availability.

Additionally we do community outreach through our local schools by conducting conservation and health awareness classes to remote schools.  We host annual events including the 3k Gorilla Fun Run to increase gorilla awareness with communities and partners and we host annual tennis tournaments to raise awareness of CHT and mountain gorillas, and how to stay healthy.

At the very end of our year long after school programming, we host a very big event – Parents As Partners’ Open House – to share with our partners, local authorities, parents of kids and participants of our program what we have achieved during the year and celebrate!

To achieve our goal, we also partners with different conservation organizations including the Houston Zoo. One of the Houston Zoo missions in the protection of mountain gorillas is to make sure they are safe in wild and partner with conservation organizations.  In this context, CHT is really honored to be have Houston Zoo staff here for a one-month visit.  Houston Zoo staff is incredibly helping my staff and me in capacity building where she has been assisting, coaching, teaching and training and inspiring us on how best we can improve our way of planning and improving our documents.

Together with her expertise, the CHT team including me have gained a lot of experience in strategic planning, evaluation, writing documents, and many more.  In addition to capacity building, Houston Zoo has been a very close partner of CHT. They have been sponsoring CHT’s staff salaries, project development, raising funds for CHT and marketing the project. We are very fortunate to be with their staff member, Martha, who is really making us strong readers in conservation to be able to reach our goal.  My staff and I cannot wait to use what we learnt from the Houston Zoo.

To learn more and to donate to Conservation Heritage-Turambe and/or Gorilla Doctors please read more HERE!


The leading cause of death in developing countries might surprise you

Richard Fuller via Ensia

It’s time to pay attention to a startling stealth killer


What’s the leading cause of death in low- and middle-income countries?

A.  malnutrition and undernutrition

B.  tuberculosis, malaria & HIV/AIDS

C.  pollution

If you guessed “C,” you got it. Exposures to polluted soil, water and air (both household and ambient) killed 8.4 million people in these countries in 2012.

Another statistic worth pondering: That 8.4 million is out of about 9 million people killed by pollution worldwide in 2012. In other words, this is not a “rich country” problem. This is a problem contained to the developing world.

To put this in perspective, World Health Organization statistics show that 56 million people died in 2012 — that’s every person who passed away on the planet, whether from car accidents, suicides, old age, cancer, hospital errors, lightning strike, infectious diseases, parachute failures, war or any number of other reasons. So, pollution killed nearly one in seven of them.

Contaminated outdoor air accounted for 3.7 million deaths. Another 4.2 million people died from particulates exposure in indoor air from cooking stoves. About 1 million died from chemicals and contaminated soil and water. And 840,000 succumbed to poor sanitation. All of these data come directly from WHO’s website and databases, except for the soil statistics, which are sourced from more recent numbers (likely understated) from the Global Alliance for Health and Pollution.

In the same year, 2012, 625,000 people died from malaria, 1.5 million from HIV/AIDS and 930,000 from tuberculosis. That’s one-third the number of people that pollution kills, and yet this troika of terrible diseases attracts over $20 billion per year from international charities and governments.

Slow and Indirect

It’s important to note that pollution rarely kills people directly or quickly. Instead, it causes heart disease, chest infections, cancers, respiratory diseases or diarrhea. Pollution acts as a catalyst, increasing the rates of these diseases above normal. For this reason, WHO considers pollution a risk factor — a threat to human health similar to obesity, smoking, malnutrition or poor exercise. But pollution is the king of all risk factors. Worldwide, its fatality numbers dwarf those caused by any other risk factor in any other context.

It’s hard to imagine just how bad it can be. Try, though, to imagine this scenario:

You wake up each day on the dirt floor of a shack you and your family lashed together with cast-off materials from a nearby construction site for a five-star hotel. Your husband works 70 hours a week sorting chemicals in a badly run pesticides factory. Lately, he’s come home coughing up blood. He looks thinner and more exhausted each week, and you want to tell him to stop, but how can you? The pennies he earns are the only things feeding your kids.

So you head to the local pond with your plastic bucket. The water you scoop from the pond is brown and stinks of human waste, but there’s nothing else to drink. You try straining it through cheesecloth, but it doesn’t do much good. Meanwhile, the factory next door to your slum, the one the government recently shut down, has started operating again — but only at night. Its chimneys pump out serpents of thick smoke, and there’s no way of knowing what’s burning. Last week, your eldest child started coughing through the night. The rest of your children are sickly and slow to learn even the most basic concepts. None of your friends or family can help you since, curiously, almost everyone in your neighborhood has the same problems.

Our economy is global and so are the pollutants it generates.

You are one of the poisoned poor, without voice and without hope. Regulations that might exist to combat the conditions are never enforced. You cannot simply pick up and move to another town — it took you years to establish yourself to this extent. And anyway, where exactly would you go? Every village shares this plight. Like the rest of the world’s underprivileged, you have become cannon fodder in the ongoing war of growth.

How can we fix this problem?

Our economy is global and so are the pollutants it generates. Contaminated air from China can now be measured in other countries. Mercury from gold mining and coal plants can be found in fish, and arsenic has been found in rice.

Many highly polluting industries have moved from developed countries to poor countries with less environmental regulation and technology to manage and remediate chemicals. Clean technologies and green growth are possible for emerging economies and can prevent decades of future contamination that will harm us all. Western nations have had success in cleaning up pollution and can now transfer technology and funding to low- and middle-income countries.

Of critical importance is making sure pollution is included in the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals, which look at how to achieve future development sustainably after the current Millennium Development Goals expire this year.

Prioritizing the prevention and cleanup of pollution will not only save lives, but also mitigate climate change and reduce threats to biodiversity. Glancing through the program priorities of major international organizations, the low priority of pollution is startling, given its impact. The likely reason for this is a lack of awareness, as well as not knowing where to begin to address this complex set of problems.

Of critical importance is making sure pollution is included in the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals, which look at how to achieve future development sustainably after the current Millennium Development Goals expire this year and include topics such as ending poverty, promoting sustainable agriculture, ensuring equitable education and more. The current draft does not include a goal for pollution on its own, although pollution is included in the health goal. That text — sub-goal 3.9 — currently calls to reduce death and disability from all types of pollution. This language needs to stay in the final text, because the SDGs will define international and national efforts for the coming years.

The Global Alliance on Health and Pollution is galvanizing resources to help low- and middle-income countries address priority pollution problems. In addition to education on all forms of pollution, GAHP helps countries:

— identify and assess toxic pollutant threats, especially for contaminated sites

— create a planning process to prioritize action for problems posing the greatest risk to human health

— implement solutions to save lives.

The technology and knowledge exists in wealthy countries to address this health and economic threat. Solutions can be implemented in low- and middle-incomes countries for a fraction of the cost spent in the West addressing legacy toxic pollutants from industrialization.

Which means, pollution is not inevitable. It is a problem that is solvable, in our lifetime. View Ensia homepage

Caring About Nature is… Depressing

I’m reposting this blog because this topic has recently been a recurring discussion in my field and I know professionals that want to do something about it! Email me to find out more.

Original post: Caring About Nature is… Depressing.

DECEMBER 8, 2014

Caring About Nature is… Depressing

In reading reviews submitted by students in the Field Ecology course I teach, it is humbling yet somewhat euphoric to discover how much they enjoy the class and their instructor. One remark oft-repeated is how they appreciate my enthusiasm for the material. Motivating students has to be a top priority for any teacher and the best way to do that is to have passion for your work. But some days (even weeks) can be so difficult, at least for me. Perhaps I’ve become too connected to the natural world? Its “pain” becomes my pain.

Oil Sands mining at Ft. McMurray, Alberta (Associated Press)

In isolation, watching only the “wild” beings, there is such wisdom imparted. I hesitate to put the human good/bad spin on Nature, but even in the most “difficult” moments, like predation, enormous sagacity is imparted as we gain understanding of the processes at play. These important perspectives have allowed me to abandon many fears, particularly that of death, because Nature clearly demonstrates all is cyclical – nothing ends, it simply changes form.

However, one of the most significant lessons Nature shares is, for me, the most burdensome to internalize – living in the moment. All the wild creatures have this innate skill. Even the most socialized recognize and experience grief but, at the same time, let go of it enough to continue on. Elephants are an excellent example of this behavior. But the continual exposure to humankind’s assault on Nature and the inevitable helplessness one can experience in combating the onslaught often can be overwhelming. Concern about the future of the planet and all its wild inhabitants is inevitable for those of us who live in close relationship with the natural world.

Consider these headlines from just the past year:

“Snipers” in Britain Target Fox
Most Americans Support Keystone Pipeline
Bill to Force Intelligent Design Instruction
Governor Devotes $2 Million to Kill 500 Wolves
Invertebrate Species Populations Plummet
Wildlife Devastated by Sudanese War

Photo courtesy of Missouri Dept. of Conservation

Ugh… But one must trudge on, particularly with students who look up to you for guidance and knowledge.

So how does one cope with the seemingly endless parade of travesties perpetuated by humans? I’ve no firm answers other than to continue to practice a lifestyle as sustainable as possible (dietary choices are most profound), teach these concepts to all who will heed the message, and spend more time in Nature if for nothing else than its ability to heal. Also, distancing oneself from social media might be helpful, particularly those hot button issues where derogatory commentary from both the pro and con sides can be quite demoralizing.

Please feel free to share your coping mechanisms in the comments below. As the adage says, misery loves company!

Water Defense to the Rescue

Water Defense to the Rescue by Dr. Sarah Oktay, Director, University of Massachusetts Nantucket Field Station

June 28, 2014 | Filed under: Island Science and tagged with: water conservation, water defense, water pollution, water quality

A few months ago I attended a water quality presentation up at the Massachusetts State House at the invitation of my friend and our most excellent Cape and island House Representative Tim Madden and island buddy Bob Patterson. The subject was a new water quality initiative with students at the Cape Cod Community College launched by the non-profit group Water Defense Founded by actor, director, and clean water advocate, Mark Ruffalo, Water Defense is a non-profit organization dedicated to clean water. From their website at “Our mission is to use technology and public engagement to keep our waterways and drinking water sources free from contamination and industrial degradation. We believe it is a fundamental human right for people to have access to clean water, as well as to know what’s in it. Water Defense utilizes state of the art Environmental Indicators to measure contamination and the accumulation of contaminants over time, which include but are not limited to oil and related chemicals and organometallic compounds. Our water testing methods are the first line of defense in protecting clean water sources.”


© Allison C. Hanes

I was pleasantly surprised at how knowledgeable Mr. Ruffalo and the Water Defense team, including Executive Director John Pratt and Chief Scientist Scott Smith, were about water quality issues and source functions, in situ (in place) water testing, and environmental impacts. Their passion and dedication to responding quickly to environmental disasters and their need to get information out to the public quickly impressed me. As a chemical oceanographer with over twenty years of experience (starting at the age of twelve of course) in trace metal, radioisotope, and carbon tracking chemistry in natural systems, I also was naturally curious as to whether their methods were reliable and viable. If CeeLo Green was writing this he’d throw in “undeniable, classifiable, and verifiable” and make this article sound not only cooler but even more scientific. Fortunately, this is a serious group that wants to make a difference by engaging and enabling people to find out what is in their water and helping them remediate or remove these toxins.

Water Defense specifically concentrates on tracking leftover oil and contaminants from oil spills, oil related accidents, and fracking operations around the U.S. Scott Smith started deploying his company’s ( open cell foam boom material at these sites to see if it could sequester (collect and entrain) oil pollutants. One design uses an artificial eelgrass structure to effectively mimic high surface area materials in nature This is a type of biomimicry ( The open cell nature of this foam means that it has tons of sponge-like holes that are formed haphazardly, giving the material a surface area of two square feet for every cubic inch of material. The material is naturally “biophilic” or organic loving and is in effect hydrophobic, which means it attracts organically bound contaminants while releasing or repelling water. It also is relatively inert, and a “green material” with a low carbon footprint and the ability to attract particle reactive materials. Opflex is a petrochemical, like many plastics, so in essence we are fighting fire with fire. OPFLEX materials are much lighter than traditional oil boom material and able to absorb up to 30 times their weight in oil. We are investigating whether they can be used to collect other organic contaminants like pesticides, paints, or construction and cleaning chemicals.

There are two problems that Water Defense and Scott and Mark are trying to address with this new technology. One is that many water sampling groups can only afford to do “snap-shot” type water testing, taking grab samples via trained volunteers at the surface of a pond, lake, bay or river. Often they don’t have the means to do water column testing which requires that special sampling containers called Niskin, Beta, or Van Dorn bottles are used. When researchers want to take a sample of seawater from within the water column they often use a relatively simple device called a Niskin Bottle that can be opened at both ends. The open bottle is lowered into the ocean (or into a pond or bay) on a wire from a boat until it reaches a certain depth and then the bottle is closed by a weighted trigger (called a “messenger”) that is sent down the cable from the surface. My students and I use these in the harbor and in some of our ponds and are able to deploy them from small boats. Although oceanographers and limnologists (those who study freshwater systems) usually take samples from multiple depths and from the sediment too, it is often not possible or affordable for municipalities, civic associations, and citizen science groups who do the lion’s share of water testing in this country to follow suit.

The second issue is that most testing is episodic and only records the instantaneous concentration of pollutant. Fish, shellfish, plants, and other biota spend their whole lives in water and they bioaccumulate toxins, storing them up in either their muscles, brain, fatty tissues or reproductive organs depending on the type of contaminant ( heavy metals, pesticides, PCBs etc. all have different affinities for different parts of the body). Land based creatures drinking water and eating potentially contaminated animals or plants also sequester materials within their bodies, building up higher levels of toxins over time. When I did research on radioactive iodine around the world I used Spanish moss as a biophilic organic atmospheric sampling device that could passively scavenge iodine from the air as it grew, even epiphytes like moss are not immune from natural or manmade elements in the air. Long term cumulative testing is often expensive and involves either 1) using live animals from oysters to marine mammals as reservoirs that must have tissue samples extracted to test for contaminants or 2) installing equipment that sample water bodies frequently over time. As we mentioned above, live animals concentrate metals and chemicals in various parts of the body and keep some things in their tissues while excreting or breaking down other compound. As a result it takes a fair amount of detective work to figure out how they ended up with x amount of y in their bodies. Underwater sampling “robots” and devices are finicky and expensive and they require maintenance and underwater chemical use too that can be a big pain in the gas chromatograph if you get my drift.

This is where materials like Opflex can be helpful in addition to its use as a media for absorbing oil. The Opflex material can be deployed on moorings, docks, in ponds and along shorelines to passively filter water; individual sections can be removed from the eelgrass mops and sampled over time for gas derivatives, organic pollutants such as pesticides and particle reactive molecules like phosphate who can’t pass by a substrate without wanting to join the party. This material could be placed in filters to extract contaminants from the water column. If you have ever run an aquarium, you will recall that you use a lot of different substances for filtration like charcoal for organic matter, cation exchange columns for metals and biological bacteria present on the surface of bioballs to remove hydrophobic stuff.


© Allison C. Hanes

The Opflex material is relatively innocuous and inert and easy to deploy by untrained personnel. Here on Nantucket at the UMass Boston Nantucket Field Station, we are evaluating the Opflex material in natural systems by deploying it in different water bodies around the island to see if we can measure specific contaminates of concern (CECs). We want to understand what it records in pure water (intrinsic background levels), what its detection limits are and how it holds up in real world environments. We will also be retrieving and testing it throughout the season to evaluate its effectiveness as a time capsule for long term sampling. Evaluating long term chemical burdens can help us understand what scallops or fish or osprey may be dealing with as well as what types of issues (or non issues) humans may encounter. Toxic chemicals can have sudden or acute effects or long term chronic effects. Starting in a controlled environment such as Nantucket with no industry and identifiable sources of contaminants makes it much easier to apply these tools worldwide.

Come see for yourself this Saturday June 28th at 10:00 am at the Nantucket Field Station at 180 Polpis Road. You can meet Mark Ruffalo and the rest of his team, hear about recent Cape and Island testing results, and see a demonstration of how Opflex’s material can be used as a long term water sampler. We will have a short press conference from 10-11 am; feel free to email me at for more information. I hope you can also catch the Nantucket Film Festival’s Spotlight Film, Begin Again, starring Keira Knightley, Adam Levine and Mark Ruffalo and written and directed by John Carney at the Dreamland’s Main Theatre at 12:45 pm. Come early to hear Mark Ruffalo introduce the film. Go to to see the trailer. Last but not least, please do your part to keep our water clean and our environment healthy.



I love unmade beds. I love when people are drunk and crying and cannot be anything but honest in that moment. I love the look in people’s eyes when they realize they’re in love. I love the way people look when they first wake up and they’ve forgotten their surroundings.

I love the gasp people take when their favorite character dies. I love when people close their eyes and drift to somewhere in the clouds. I fall in love with people and their honest moments all the time. I fall in love with their breakdowns and their smeared makeup and their daydreams. Honesty is just too beautiful to ever put into words.