Wednesday, 31 March 2004

Latest newsletter, SPAM and the ebulletin

Supporters of the World Land Trust will soon be getting their printed newsletter. While we are very encouraged that large numbers are also signing up to our ebulletin, the old fashioned paper version still has a role to play. But for how much longer? If you would like to help spread the word, and have somewhere you could place some WLT brochures, or back issues of newsletters, please let us know. Ideal places include vetinerary surgeries and doctors waiting rooms -- our local surgeries were please to help us in this way. It's still the best way of reaching those who do not use the internet.

At present we still have problems to overcome with the electronic version. We sent out over 2,500 last week -- a very cost effective way of communicating with our supporters. But over 100 bounced back, probably because the recipient's server treated the newsletter as SPAM. So if you read this and think you should have received our ebulletin, you will need to resubscribe, and ensure that you make changes to your settings to allow it through your filters. We in turn will be working with those ISPs that we identify as blocking us, to ensure they realise that these are not unsolicited emails, and certainly do not have dodgy content.

Wednesday, 24 March 2004

GM Crops and Birds

Among the trustees of the WLT we are fortunate to have Professor Renton Righelato, who is not only a keen naturalist, but a professional biologist with particular expertise in food technology. I am very please to include in this blog some of his comments on the current debate over GM crops. I think he adds a very important perspective to a complex and controversial issue:

GM Crops and Birds

As a biologist engaged in both nature conservation and food science, I sometimes feel beleaguered, faced with a plethora of unscientific arguments against GM and disingenuous justifications put forward by the supporters of the technology. I was involved in developing the current regulatory framework for safety evaluation of GM and other "novel foods" and I am confident that the scrutiny given to these foods ensures that they are at least as nutritious and safe to eat as their non-GM counterpart. I am less confident that we are assessing possible environmental impacts effectively.

The GM crops currently approved in Europe have been modified to be resistant to broad spectrum herbicides or to make a protein that kills several classes of insect pests. They make crops cheaper to grow by reducing the number of applications of chemicals to control weeds or insects. Depending on exactly how the crops are grown and treated with chemicals, they could be harmful or helpful to wildlife. In February 2004, the British Ornithologists' Union held a conference at the Royal Society to explore the implications for farmland birds. This is important because the crashing populations of many farmland bird species over the last 25 years have been the most obvious indicator of the damage to biodiversity resulting from intensification of farming.

To assess the impact of growing some of these crops, the UK government carried out farm-scale evaluations between 2000 and 2002. The trials were carried out with genetically modified, herbicide-resistant sugar beet, fodder beet, spring oilseed rape and fodder maize over three years, each at twenty or more sites. The GM planted plots were compared with conventional varieties and management practice in adjacent plots in the same fields. Throughout each year, the range of weed species, the seed produced, the seed bank (the seed accumulating in the soil) and the insects and other invertebrates in the plots were monitored – these represent the food that might be available to mammals and birds.

  • In sugar beet and oilseed rape, weed mass and seed rain in the GM plots were less than a third than the conventional plots.
  • With GM maize, there was almost twice as much weed mass and seed rain compared with conventional maize
  • Unsurprisingly, the invertebrates were affected in the same way as the weeds on which they rely.

Based on these results, the government has announced its intention to approve the use of the herbicide tolerant maize but not the beet or oilseed rape. But the use GM maize is unlikely to have a significant beneficial effect on bird populations, because both it and conventional maize are poor for weeds and their seeds. Moreover, the herbicide used in the conventional maize treatment, the persistent soil herbicide, atrazine, is shortly to be banned and alternative management regimes may well prove less damaging.

Genetic modification of crops may well have a role to play in ameliorating the loss of biodiversity caused by intensive farming, but not from the crops and management regimes so far tested in the UK.

The main take home message for me was that the differences in food available to birds in these trials was trivial compared with the ten fold or more decreases that have come about over the last 25 years from winter sowing, herbicide and pesticide use, more efficient harvesting and more complete use of the land for the crop. So, any substantive change in agricultural practice should be subject to as thorough an environmental impact assessment as these GM crops.

Had this principle been applied in the "green (a somewhat ironic description now!) revolution", we might have avoided the desecration of much of our landscape, the loss of many plant and insect habitats and the elimination of winter feeding for much of our wildlife –the legacy of our headlong rush into agricultural intensification we now struggle to ameliorate.

Renton Righelato

Friday, 19 March 2004

Mentioning the unmentionable: the cost of raising funds

One thing rarely mentioned in newsletters, bulletins and other communications is the cost of fund raising and administration. It's somehow taboo. But a good organisation requires good administration, and raising funds does cost money.

I was horrified to learn that many charities spend £50 or more to recruit a new donor -- which is probably one of the reasons that there is presure to outlaw 'chugging'. Chuggers are those people (usually personable young students), who stop you on the street and "ask you a few questions" which relate to charity donations. This way they get names and addresses of potential donors, and they are paid by the number of new donors that sign up.

The World Land Trust, like any good charity keeps its admin costs to a minimum, but we need to grow over the next year or so if we are to remain cost effective. Since we started back in 1989, there is so much more legislation and regulation. This means that very small organisations cannot really be cost effective, if they spend all their time filling in forms, and keeping up with the latest regulations. Over the years, the World Land Trust has built up an exceptionally effective infrastructure, and we have in place all the mechanisms for managing our finances -- a complex issue when working overseas. But the reality is that we could actually work with several more projects if we had the funds.

And that is where you, the readers of this Bulletin come in. We need to expand our network. Our existing supporters are mostly very loyal, and are very generous. They seem to like what we are doing, and are pleased to be part of it. Can you spread the word? We don't want to waste valuable resources on expensive advertising campaigns, and consequently the most cost effective way of spreading message is by word of mouth. And in the 21st century, this means by email. If everyone on this mailing list sent five copies of the current bulleting to friends and colleagues, and suggested that they might like to become a partner, and everyone took up that suggestion, it would raise well over another $200,00. And that would certainly buy several square miles of wonderful habitat in Ecuador or another Ranch in Patagonia. So please, if you like what we are doing, spread the message.

Tuesday, 9 March 2004

Saving forest, acre by acre

Listening to the BBC this morning while dressing, I caught the item about the UK government's Chief Scientist, Sir David King, being silenced for speaking out on global warming -- go to this link for more:

Sir David has pointed out that more people could die as a result of the consequences of global warming, than from international terrorism. While this is not a debate I intend to become involved in -- to me it so obviously true, his other statements are cause for serious alarm. Those concern the disastrous rates of forest destruction, which MUST be halted if the biodiversity (and species diversity) of the planet is to be conserved. And the UK, along with nearly all governments, but particularly the US are doing far too little, far too late.

But the WLT is trying to do its bit, acre by acre, supported by thousands of individuals.

I realise that our efforts are tiny, and could easily be dismissed as insignificant and inconsequential. But in the dozen or so years since the WLT was first established, several other organisations very similar, or direct copies have sprung up, and if you then start counting the number of individuals who have supported us over the years (certainly more than 20,000) and if schools and like mind family and friends are included then it soon multiplies up. Add all the environmental groups in the UK together, and it's a powerful political force, that politicians can ignore at their own peril. Buying an acre may be gesture politics in the big global picture. But for the Jocotoco Ant-Pitta, and several other endemics, it really was a life saving gesture. So buying an acre really does make a difference.

Threatened lions

Nearly two decades ago I put forward a proposal to the Council of the Fauna and Flora Preservation Society (now Fauna & Flora International) that there was a need for a project to address the conservation issues of the African Lion. I reckoned that its populations were becoming seriously fragmented, and it was already extinct over most of its former range. My opinion was that as the national emblem of England, it would be a good flagship species, and that the reason it was not considered threatened was only that it was still common in national parks, so visitors always saw them. The eminent members of council -- mostly scientists -- did not agree with me and the project was never adopted. And this was despite the fact that the once common and widespread Asiatic Lion was already confined to a single, tiny population. And the Barbary Lion and Cape lions were both extinct in the wild. I was therefore particularly interested in the current issue of Oryx, FFI's journal, which carries an article on the status of the African Lion -- which is indeed threatened now, with a highly fragmented range.

This made me think about the lion of the New World. The Mountain Lion, Puma, Panther, Cougar -- all the same animal. It too once had a very wide range, but has long gone from most of the Easter USA (though it is making a bit of a comeback), and elswhere throughout its range it is seriously persecuted. It is a large predator, and it does kill domestic livestock. And from time to time they do kill humans. But what it's real status is, is very little known as they are one of the most secretive of all large carnivores. Unlike the sociable African Lion, Pumas are largely solitary. And when there are humans around, generally strictly nocturnal. As I pointed out earlier, despite hours and hours of field work, dozens and dozens of prey remains, miles of tracks, the puma has yet to be seen on the Estancia la Esperanza. But we know they are there and we know they have had cubs. But we also know that there are no pumas on the whole of the Valdes Peninsula -- the largest protected are in the vicinity. So what real hope is there for the puma? We are currently designing a project on the puma -- not yet more research. There's too much research and not enough action, so we will be implenting a programme designed to help the pumas on the Estancia la Esperanza, but at the same time reduce the conflicts with sheep farmers.

Monday, 8 March 2004

The Pumas are getting closer -- latest news from Patagonia

Latest news from the Estancia la Esperanza, in Patagonia, is that the puma kills are being found even with a few metres of the managers accommodation. But still the puma hasn't been seen. Two or three kills a week have been the norm for several months, of a mixture of sheep and guanacos. The only problem with this is that the sheep are the main source of income for managing the Reserve. It's easy to see how local sheep farmers take revenge on the pumas and kill them, despite legal protection. But we are trying to show that sheep and pumas can live in harmony. Once the guanaco numbers have rebuilt, the sheep kills will probably decline. At least that's the theory. The reality is that guanacos are indeed the natural prey for puma, and on the Estancia, they do show a preference for them over sheep. Pumas rarely revisit a sheep kill, but they will return two or three nights in succesion to a guanaco kill.

But this reminds me of one of my tried and tested hobby-horses. The big cats that allegedly roam the English countryside. How is it that in a place where the puma is know to be present, where two or three fresh kills are found each week are found, together with droppings and footprints, in an open landscape with no trees, pumas are never seen. Whereas in England (black) panthers are seen, but kills rarely if ever found, and footprints and droppings are also a rarity.

But back to the Patagonian pumas. If they are to continue to survive -- and they are very rare outside our ranch, the FPN (our local partner) will need help. It costs around $3000 a month to maintain, warden and protect the area. Not a lot, but with the sheep disappearing, we need alternative incomes. We are going to refurbish the farm buildings, and this will then help generate income from accommodation fees -- but right now we need donations and grants to carry out the refurbishment. Will you help?

The Argentine peso was equal to 1$US a couple of years ago. It is now 1$US = around 3 pesos, so a donation now achieves a lot more. Do visit our donantions page and support this project -- a few minutes of your time, and a few dollars, Euros, pounds, roubles, or almost any other currency. Make your donation on the internet, and even though you make it in stirling, it will come out of your account in your own currency.

Tuesday, 2 March 2004

Books for NGOs -- the World Land Trust Library service

A little known, but highly effective service that the World Land Trust provides, is books for non-government organisation (NGOs). We receive publishers' returns, and books surplus to requirements from several sources, but in particular, the well-known Natural History Book Service (see who have the most extensive catalogue of wildlife and environment books to be found anywhere. In developing countries good reference books are often virtually unobtainable, and so by sending out small consignments with birdwatchers and other field naturalists and travellers we are able to help in an extremely effective way. The books are free, but since they are heavy, postage is often out of the question -- so we are looking for some sponsors. Then we could send out bigger consignments. A sponsorship of £100 would allow us to send a really useful basic library to an NGO in the tropics. £5000 would sponsor the whole project for over a year. It's not a huge amount, surely someone out there could help -- the benefits are out of all proportion to the cost.