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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

September 2, 2011

Air Date: September 2, 2011



Amazon Forest as a Source of Carbon Dioxide

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In 2005, the Amazon experienced a once-in-a-century drought. Just five years later, the drought was even worse. University of Leeds Professor Oliver Phillips tells host Bruce Gellerman that such extreme droughts cause the Amazon to be a source of carbon dioxide instead of a carbon sink. (05:15)

Lost Frogs Update

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Many species of amphibians have vanished without a trace, due to habitat loss, climate change, and disease. So Robin Moore, an amphibian expert at Conservation International, led The Search for Lost Frogs, which sent researchers around the globe looking for these “missing” species. Moore tells host Bruce Gellerman that the search produced both major disappointments and startling discoveries. (06:45)

Kalimantan / Ingrid Lobet

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Climate and forestry experts are trying to figure out how to reduce carbon emissions from deforestation across large stretches of the tropics. In Indonesia, on the giant island of Borneo or Kalimantan, the powerful environmental group, the Nature Conservancy, is trying to persuade timber companies and government officials to leave more trees standing and make money in the process. (18:00)

Building Up: Vertical Farms

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Professor Dickson Despommier worked with his students at Columbia University to come up with an innovative way to make cities more sustainable. They came up with the vertical farm — a skyscraper of greenhouses. LOE’s Steve Curwood talks with Despommier about how vertical farms could help solve environmental problems associated with agriculture. (07:20)

Birding by Ear

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There’s a lot more to bird watching than meets the eye. Members of the Lowell Association for the Blind learn to tune in to nature and bird by ear. Living on Earth’s Bruce Gellerman went along to see,and hear,how it’s done. (09:00)

Earth Ear / Jeff Rice

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Jeff Rice recorded Canyon Tree Frogs and rare Relict Leopard Frogs in the Lake Mead Recreation Area in Arizona for the University of Utah Marriott Library. (01:00)

Show Credits and Funders

Show Transcript

HOST: Bruce Gellerman
GUESTS: Oliver Phillips, Robin Moore, Dickson Despommier,
REPORTERS: Ingrid Lobet.

GELLERMAN: From Public Radio International - it's Living on Earth.


GELLERMAN: A rainforest without rain…Devastating droughts sap the Amazon's ability to absorb and store carbon dioxide from the atmosphere.

PHILLIPS: The 2005 drought stopped the sink, it flipped it the other way to a source, and it increased the magnitude by two, so (laugh) it went from moderate sink to strong source as a result of 2005.

GELLERMAN: Two "droughts of the century" in just 5 years take their toll on the Amazon. Also - we go birding by ear - with birders who can't see.

GETTE: Oh, there’s a Redstart, that real squeaky song and a Catbird. Oh, the Redstart is really quite close now. Psst - Sometimes when you make that noise you can actually attract the birds to come closer– pssst - psst.

GELLERMAN: We’ll have those stories and more this week on Living on Earth…Stick around!

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ANNOUNCER: Support for Living on Earth comes from the National Science Foundation, and Stonyfield Farm.


Amazon Forest as a Source of Carbon Dioxide

GELLERMAN: From the Jennifer and Ted Stanley Studios in Somerville Mass, this is a recycled edition of Living on Earth - reprising some stories we think bear re-airing. I'm Bruce Gellerman. In recent years 2 severe droughts have devastated parts of the Amazon rainforest and researchers are trying to calculate the damage.

In 2005 the lack of rain in the rainforest was called “the drought of the century" but just 5 years later, the situation was even worse. The forest is drying and the trees are dying, destroying the vast forest region’s ability to absorb carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. University of Leeds researcher Oliver Phillips says instead of acting as a carbon sink, the Amazon forest is becoming a huge source of climate changing gasses.

PHILLIPS: In 2005, we think the Amazon lost about 1 billion tons of carbon. What droughts do is they - they’ve killed trees. As all that dead wood decays, that gets converted into carbon dioxide, and that’s what then goes to the atmosphere. So, what happened - the 2005 drought, what it did was actually…it stopped the sink, it flipped it the other way to a source, and it increased the magnitude by two. So it went from a moderate sink to a strong source as a result of 2005.


PHILLIPS: Yeah, so it was a big impact. A billion metric tons is close to the emissions of all the cars on earth at the moment. In other words, the amount of CO2 that they’re emitting was actually a little bit less than the impact of the 2005 drought. So, the question now after the 2010 drought, which was bigger in climatological terms than 2005, is: did that also kill trees? And we suspect, based on our 2005 analysis, that 2010 will have killed even more trees and have caused even more carbon to be emitted to the atmosphere.

GELLERMAN: Really what we are looking at here is kind of a giant feedback loop - the more drought we have, the more trees die, which will lead to more drought…

PHILLIPS: Well, there are lots of possible interactions in the system. Now, one of them is the system gets drier, then growth may decline and the death of trees may accelerate, so you get release of carbon to the air, and that in turn accelerates climate change. And we expect that the changing climate this century will act to strengthen the dry season, particularly across the southern Amazon. So the kind of droughts we are seeing now - they are consistent with the global climate change picture.

GELLERMAN: Do these intense droughts - do they affect the composition of the forest? The types of trees that survive?

PHILLIPS: Last time, in 2005, we did find that the drought was actually killing some kinds of trees more than others. On some of the plots it was the palms which were really suffering. And that kind of makes sense in ecological terms, because these are species which are found mostly in the western, wet part of the Amazon, and tend to drop out in the drier areas.

Red regions on this map of the Amazon show areas of below average rainfall in 2005. (Photo: NASA)

So the implication is: if we have several of these droughts, one after the other, that would drive some change in the composition - or if you like, the biodiversity - of the system. And of course, naturally, we would expect that those kinds of trees which are more resilient to drought may turn out to be the winners if this process continues.

GELLERMAN: But those trees which you call winners - are they good at absorbing carbon - lots of carbon? Or are the losers the ones that absorb carbon?

PHILLIPS: On average the trees in the drier part of the Amazon are a little bit shorter than in the wetter part. So we expect if the forest dries, that the average height of the tree will start to decline. It will change in form, in the kinds of species, and some carbon will be lost.

GELLERMAN: The last sentence of your study in Science really sent shivers up my spine, and I’m going to quote, it says, “If drought events continue, the era of intact Amazon forest buffering the increase in atmospheric carbon dioxide may have passed.” In other words, if we have more droughts, then the Amazon’s ability to absorb more carbon dioxide is over.

PHILLIPS: Yeah, yup. That’s possible. I mean, when you think about the implications of that, it’s really - the earth is a big place, obviously, and it’s not just the Amazon which is important in affecting the rate in which CO2 is increasing in the atmosphere. There are other big carbon sinks too…there’s African forest, which is also large, and there are forests in the temperate zone, in the US and in Europe - there are big forest areas which are probably currently absorbing carbon.

And if you add up all of those forest areas around the world, they provide us with a hell of a service so far in slowing down the rate at which CO2 is accumulating in the atmosphere. The scenario for this century now is what’s going to happen to those carbon sinks. If those sinks slow down and stop, then we can emit that much less carbon dioxide if we want to keep our earth a safe place to live.
GELLERMAN: Oliver Phillips is a professor of Geography at the University of Leeds in the UK, and co-author of the study, “The 2010 Amazon Drought” in Science Magazine.

Related links:
- Oliver Phillips’ Home Page
- Click Here to Read the Abstract of the Report 2010 Amazon Drought

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[MUSIC: Booker T Jones “Harlem House” from The Road From Memphis (Anti Records 2011)]

Lost Frogs Update

GELLERMAN: Teams of scientific sleuths have been scanning the globe for lost frogs.
The researchers weren’t searching for your ordinary garden variety frog, but a hundred species of amphibians that haven’t been seen in at least a decade - some in more than a century.


The Sharp Snouted Day Frog has been missing for 13 years.


Well, the results of the global frog survey are now in and there are many surprises, and some major disappointments. Robin Moore, an amphibian expert at Conservation International, led the search. And Robin, we spoke last fall when you just started looking for the frogs. Welcome back!

MOORE: Thank you for having me!

GELLERMAN: You hoped to find a hundred lost species of frogs, and you didn’t even come close.

MOORE: Yeah, we found a total of four in the end. So it was a disappointing number for sure.

GELLERMAN: Well number one on your top-ten list of lost frogs to find was something called the Golden Toad in Costa Rica. Did you find it?

MOORE: We did not find the Golden Toad. That was one I was disappointed about. I was hoping that some species may come out the woodwork, you know - some species that we thought had gone may turn up to be there. But the Golden Toad was one that just remained elusive and did not turn up.

GELLERMAN: What do you think happened to it?

MOORE: It would seem that this deadly fungus that’s been wiping throughout the world may have been responsible. And it may be a combination of the fungus with climate change, and I think it’s likely that, as in the case of a lot of amphibians, it’s just a lot of factors are conspiring to make a sort of deadly cocktail of threats to amphibians.

GELLERMAN: You had high hopes for the Mesopotamia Beaked Toad - what happened to the Mesopotamia Beaked Toad? I love the way that sounds.

MOORE: (Laughs). Yeah, the Mesopotamia Beaked Toad, ironically, lives in Colombia. It hasn’t been seen in almost a hundred years. I was hopeful that we might come across this, and unfortunately we didn’t find this species. But our lack of finding our lost species in Colombia was made up for by some potentially new species that we came across. So it was kind of a bittersweet expedition.

GELLERMAN: Yeah, I guess you found a frog, a species of frog, that has no name - it was never been found before.

Dr. Robin Moore found the Silent Valley Tropical Frog, a “lost” frog that hadn’t been seen for 30 years, in a trash can in India. (Credit: SD Biju)

MOORE: Well, there’s a toad with red eyes that really is an unusual species - it has no name, it’s never been found. So it’s really - right now - a mystery as to what this is. We’ve been doing a little brainstorming on what to call it and we’re not sure actually what we will name it. We want to call it something that’s descriptive and sort of appropriate to where we found it and what it looks like, because it’s very unusual with these red eyes.

GELLERMAN: You found it in the rainforest, right?

MOORE: Yeah.

GELLERMAN: How about the Colombia Red-Eye Rainforester?

MOORE: Yeah. (Laughs). Yeah, it could be!

GELLERMAN: You really struck it rich in India. There was one frog that was found in a trashcan?

MOORE: Yeah, we came across one of the lost frogs - hadn’t been seen for 30 years - in a rubbish bin, in a trashcan.

GELLERMAN: So how did you know to look in a trashcan for a frog?

MOORE: I wasn’t actually looking for a frog when I lifted the lid of the trashcan - I was disposing of a banana skin. So it really was unexpected. It started bouncing around the inside of the rubbish bin, so I just pulled it out, and Dr. Biju, who we were with from the University of Delhi, was able to instantly recognize it as one of the lost frogs.

GELLERMAN: You also went to Haiti. And I think the real challenge there is not just finding the frogs, but finding the forest.

MOORE: One of the things we wanted to highlight with our expedition there is that there is still some forest left. There’s some small patch of beautiful cloud forest perched on top of this rugged mountain - very remote, isolated area. So we went to show the world that there is still incredible biodiversity and species that live nowhere else. One of the species we came across is the Ventriloquial Frog.


MOORE: We were able to hear its call - it has a very distinctive call.

GELLERMAN: Kind of weird!

MOORE: Yeah, it’s quite a complex call for such a little frog. And one of the interesting features is that it actually throws its call. So how we usually find these frogs is we listen for the call, and then we hone in on the source of the call and we find the frog. With this one, we were honing in and it was leading us to nowhere - the frog was throwing its call, so it made it very challenging to actually find this thing.

GELLERMAN: The one I really am curious about is one in Haiti called the Mozart Frog - why is it called the Mozart Frog?

MOORE: Yeah, it’s got a very interesting name and interesting story actually. The person that described that frog took some call recordings and when he plotted them out on an audiogram, they bore a remarkable resemblance to the musical notes in one of Mozart’s scores.

Dr. Robin Moore searches for “lost” frogs along a rocky stream in Colombia. (Credit: Robin Moore)


MOORE: So, he called it the Mozart Frog after this.

GELLERMAN: You also found a frog with a very “froggy” voice.


MOORE: Yeah, we also found the Macaya Burrowing Frog. This is another surprise because this had never been found in this area before. So it had the team a little baffled actually, when we heard and when we found this one because it really - it wasn’t even on our list of ones that we hoped to find.

GELLERMAN: Do you have a favorite frog call that you can mimic?

MOORE: (Laughs). I…There is a video online where I was asked to do some frog calls and I’ve never lived it down. But I think one of my favorite ones is a frog in Australia called the Pobblebonk Frog. And it basically just goes: pobblebonk, pobblebonk, pobblebonk. It’s basically named after exactly how the call sounds - pobblebonk.

GELLERMAN: What is it about frogs that you find so fascinating?

MOORE: I always found them fascinating growing up. I think it was the fact that I could pick them up and play with them and I could take the tadpoles home and watch them develop. I felt a very intimate connection with them that I couldn’t get with birds or mammals that would bite me.

And now that I’m older, amphibians, to me, are at the forefront of an extinction crisis, so they’re an exceptionally important group of vertebrates that are sounding an alarm - they’re telling us something is wrong. And they play a very important role in our ecosystems that we’re all reliant on. So to me, they’re extremely fascinating, but also very important animals.

GELLERMAN: Well, Robin Moore, I really enjoyed talking with you - thank you very much.

MOORE: Okay, thank you very much.

GELLERMAN: Robin Moore travels the world in search of amphibians for Conservation International.

Related link:
Learn more about “The Search For Lost Frogs”

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[MUSIC: War “River Niger” from The Very Best Of War (Far Out Productions 2003)]

GELLERMAN Just ahead - REDD is the new green in Borneo’s rainforest. Keep listening to Living on Earth!

[MUSIC: Gerald Clayton: Bootleg Bruise” from Bond: The Paris Sessions (Universal International 2010)]


GELLERMAN: It’s a recycled edition of Living on Earth, I'm Bruce Gellerman. What’s green, green, green and REDD all over? Give up? It’s REDD - spelled R-E-D-D: REDD is a market mechanism designed to preserve the world’s rainforests. REDD stands for reducing emissions from deforestation and degradation.

The way REDD works is simple in principle: make a tree more valuable if it’s left standing than if it’s cut down. Potentially, REDD forests could be worth billions but the REDD mechanism is still experimental, so the Nature Conservancy, perhaps the world's wealthiest environmental organization, is trying to get REDD off the drawing board and put it to work in the rainforest of Borneo, where it might serve as an example for the rest of Indonesia, and perhaps the world. From eastern Borneo, Living On Earth's Ingrid Lobet reports.


LOBET: Borneo. Indonesians call it Kalimantan, tropical forest iconic for its orangutans and its seeming endlessness. Coal mines and oil palm trees have flattened much of it but you can still see much of it, if you get up high enough. Nawa Irianto, with The Nature Conservancy, climbs the rungs of a fire tower.

IRIANTO: Kalimantan in the past was almost all like this. All of the island! But now only in the remote area we can find a few like this.

LOBET: Far below, a blur of brown-grey swings from tree to tree: monkeys.

IRIANTO: If brown or reddish, then it's the very rare one: Coo-coo-coo-coo!

East Borneo Images: Cutting Timber with Less Destruction, Fewer Emissions

LOBET: For years The Nature Conservancy tried to protect forests like this by buying them. But even a group with a billion dollar budget can only afford to buy a fraction of the forest. It’s a kind of triage: Conservancy biologists pore over satellite photos of disappearing forest. They know most can't be saved.

GRISCOM: I think, you know, the mentality that we, the conservation community, has had for a long time is sort of this painful process of prioritizing only the most critically endangered places.

LOBET: That's Bronson Griscom, a climate specialist with The Nature Conservancy. Once wildlife experts identify the very most endangered places, they try to protect them, for example, by making them into a park.

GRISCOM: And that is and remains a core strategy for The Nature Conservancy. But the world is not going to be one big park and we recognize that.

LOBET: Even when land is protected as national park, these parks often exist only on paper. Hungry people -- sometimes people who were displaced to create the parks in the first place -- farm and hunt inside the parks. Plantation companies build roads. Park rangers are few and underpaid.

Faced with this reality, The Nature Conservancy made a major break with the past. It began working with logging companies. Griscom says conservationists figured out a lot more animals survive in a timber concession than a forest converted to agriculture.

GRISCOM: The difference between a well-managed forest, logged using sustainable, well thought-out logging practices, that are designed to mimic natural disturbance, and a converted forest -- converted to some kind of plantation like oil palm -- is night and day. You are talking about a system that is maintaining almost all the biodiversity on the one hand as compared to a system that is maintaining very little of it

LOBET: The Nature Conservancy says: just come take a look.


LOBET: So we travel to the end of the road and from there take a boat to Long Pay, an indigenous Dayak village.



LOBET: Jonas Lakan, a community leader, welcomes visitors into a traditional raised house. There’s a computer and maps of the village's traditional forests. Just a few years ago, Lakan recounts, this village was locked in a conflict with a well-known timber company that was clear-cutting.


VOICEOVER: They logged our fruit trees. They even cut down the trees where we keep our bees.

LOBET: At a certain point the community got fed up with the company, and took away the keys to the bulldozers in protest. This cutting was contrary to the way they’d used the forest for hundreds of years.


VOICEOVER: We held a protest and halted their production. We shut them down for three years.

LOBET: And for three full years, there was a standoff. Villagers and logging company didn’t talk. The Nature Conservancy got involved and people in Long Pay village began to organize and then negotiate with the timber company. They won the right to monitor tree-felling, and the company agreed to avoid cutting in certain areas.


VOICEOVER: With TNC's assistance for mediation, we took the company back. Before the conflict, they cut down any kind of timber they wanted. Now we monitor their activities and they cannot take any tree under two feet in diameter. That's our way of conserving our forest. Because if we cut the small ones, we won’t have any trees left.

LOBET: So, resolution. And now several people have filled Jonas Lakan's living room, and they want to say why this forest is crucial for people who live here.


VOICEOVER: Everything we do, we take from the forest-- potatoes, vegetables, sago palm, rattan, you can gather them and even get enough to sell them.


VOICEOVER: To me the forest is like my car! Because I can get wood to make my boat from trees there. That’s why we care so much about our forest because it's like our transportation.


VOICEOVER: We're very careful about which trees we cut down. In fact we only cut down trees when we need to build our boats or our houses because we depend on the trees for our bees.

LOBET: At the mention of bees, several people have something to say.


VOICEOVER: Honey is our sugar, we mix it in water and drink it!


VOICEOVER: It's so much easier for people who don't depend on the forest, they can just made decisions from afar. But for us who depend on it, if the forest is gone, what will we do?

LOBET: The villagers say that they're satisfied now with the timber company and the logging is more sustainable. The Nature Conservancy is trying to build a replicable model based on experiences like this one in Long Pay. They’re hoping to help build a model for all of Borneo. Or even the whole country. A model for keeping carbon out of the air, having communities benefit and protecting forest life at the same time.

To understand how, remember that as part of international climate talks, richer countries are pledging billions of dollars to poorer nations to help them develop cleanly, so they can leapfrog the dirty industry of the last century. Billions of dollars are being committed to preserving forests and the carbon within them to address climate change. These billions dwarf the interest the world has ever shown in rainforest protection until now. Again, The Nature Conservancy's Bronson Griscom.

GRISCOM: You are really talking about financing for forests all over the place. And a level of financing that would generate national scale reductions of substantial decrease of the total deforestation across a country. Instead of dealing with, sort of this triage approach, prioritize a few spots and go after those, it’s really a much bigger scale.

LOBET: In fact The Nature Conservancy sees international climate finance as the last big opportunity for tropical conservation. But for carbon money to actually change the game, village-level efforts like the one in Long Pay must be scaled up to whole-country reductions in carbon emissions. In this area of Borneo that cannot be done without timber companies because they lease 40 percent of the land. So The Nature Conservancy is approaching them, one by one, to get them to improve their practices.


LOBET: It's an approach some environmental groups would find questionable.


LOBET: Red splinters spike up like daggers from a fresh tree stump.


LOBET: And swiftly, a 240 horsespower Caterpillar bulldozer drags the log, wracking the trees along the way. Finally, bulldozer and log arrive at the logging road, a muddy gash.


LOBET: Probably 80 feet across, 60 feet of road another ten feet of pile. When it rains, these roads pour silt into the streams. This is Belayan River Timber’s concession. It’s been clear-cutting. But the man in charge here, Pak Totok, instead of seeming defensive, seems dismayed.

TOTOK: (Bahasa Indonesia translation) As a forester this makes me very sad. My conscience wants more sustainable foresting. In the future, we will keep learning to do things better.

LOBET: Do things better because Belayan River Timber and The Nature Conservancy are coming up with less destructive ways of logging.


LOBET: Using engines much smaller than bulldozers.


LOBET: Think of this as "no-gash" logging. Again, Bronson Griscom:

GRISCOM: With this system, you are sliding the logs along a very narrow skid road that requires no bulldozer. So, in the spirit of small is beautiful, we have a much smaller machine, it’s an engine. Do you know how much horsepower?

MAN 4: Twenty-two!

GRISCOM: Twenty-two horsepower. And what is the bulldozer?


MAN 4: Three hundred. Two hundred to three hundred.

GRISCOM: So you have an engine that is ten times smaller, that is powering a big spool with a metal cable on it, and is just a very simple device.
LOBET: This cable-winch system uses one-tenth the fuel of logging with bulldozers. It's low-key enough that one guy is riding a log on its slow path uphill as if it’s a surfboard. Smaller engines mean fewer emissions. And fewer roads mean fewer cut trees. More carbon left in the forest. The Nature Conservancy is now working with eight of the 13 timber companies who own rights in this district.

LOBET: One of them recently won FSC or Forest Stewardship Council certification. Here again is the Conservancy's Nawa Irianto.

IRIANTO: In this plot we still can see, lets see: one, two, three, four, five, six, seven big trees. Means per hectare there are still seven big trees. It's still a healthy forest.

LOBET: Irianto is showing off a forest that still has large trees, even though it was logged. This selective logging is a middle path between clear-cutting and roping off the forest. If forests are harvested sustainably, they have the potential to sequester more carbon than if they’re simply left alone. The bulldozer logging path too is already growing over. That’s because the operator left small hills like giant speed bumps every 20 yards.

LOBET: You've built a berm here so that when it rains the water isn’t going to flow down the skid road.

IRIANTO: Yes, yes, and then the water run that way slowly, slowly and slowly and not heavy material down to the river system.

LOBET: Nawa Irianto is the one who does much of the work of persuading timber operators here to adopt these progressive practices. He’s perennially sunny and caffeine-charged and happy to explain.


VOICEOVER: Usually there is resistance when they encounter an environmental organization. Because most non-profits are all about advocacy. But once they see we have an economic approach, and that there will be benefits to certification because they will get a premium price, and they can see nearby another company got certified, it's easier for us to convince the owners to move forward with certification.

LOBET: Certified lumber can fetch three and a half times the price of non-certified. As part of the certification, this company also has an inspector now: a tree guardian. His name is Bisam.

How about some of your guys working out here-- don’t they say "Hey can I take this one? This one's good?”


VOICEOVER: Yeah, they say that sometimes, but I forbid them from cutting the tree. I say, “No, you can't, because this is a protected tree. If you want to cut a tree, do it in your own village, on land owned by your community. You can do whatever you want there, but not here.”

LOBET: Bisam is part of the new face of Indonesia and many other developing countries; well-educated young professionals who want sustainable development. And later, in the timber camp barracks where he sleeps, Bisam says not just his education, but also things he has witnessed also make him yearn for forest protection.


VOICEOVER: There are floods now, and there didn't used to be. My own home was destroyed by a flood. My house was destroyed because the deforestation means forest cannot absorb rainwater anymore.

LOBET: But if The Nature Conservancy hopes to lower forest carbon emissions across this whole district in Eastern Borneo, it must work not just with logging companies. It will also have to work closely with government at several levels. Government controls who gets to do what with land. Private ownership of land in Indonesia is practically unknown. Government slates different tracts for different uses. So The Nature Conservancy is making itself a presence right inside government offices.

NASHR: Working directly with them. So we go to their office, they come to our office, transferring knowledge, to show them like, the whole world is looking on them.

LOBET: That is Fakhrizal Nashr. He is The Nature Conservancy’s main government liaison in the region. Nashr says you wouldn't believe the impact it has on local officials when they get access to modern land use tools—like satellite maps and simulations.

NASHR: If you can imagine the bupati, the head, the number one person in the district. If he comes to his office room and he sees his area. ‘This is the forest that I got,’ and he can play with that: ‘If I do this, if I change this, what will be the impact, what will be the economic gains?’ Then he knows what kind of decision he is going to make and how that is going to affect his own people.

LOBET: Nashr wants to show local officials that conservation forestry can pay.

NASHR: We need to put more options to the forest. We need to put that it is not only palm oil conversion that is the most viable economically for this area, but there are more than that.

LOBET: What The Nature Conservancy hopes to do, is contract with logging companies and other industries across the district to lower their carbon emissions. In exchange, they'll be paid. The initial money to pay them will come from donors like France and Norway. Eventually the emissions reductions become a commodity that can be sold by a special Indonesian board set up for that purpose. This effort provides a crucial, first-of-its-kind link between a local project and a national government's promises to reduce emissions.


LOBET: The Nature Conservancy’s efforts in Indonesia are well known and often cited by Indonesian officials. The whole project is still very much in the early stages, no contracts signed and no carbon credits sold. But the group’s hope is that it has found a way to protect forest and the amazingly diverse life within it. If enough of that life is left there, the warm wet forests here can regenerate, absorbing more of the carbon human beings send out. Nature then, helping to save us from ourselves. For Living on Earth, I’m Ingrid Lobet.

Related links:
- Ongoing Critical Look at Carbon Forestry
- Sekala Forest Climate Center Indonesia
- Tropical Forest Foundation
- Center for International Forestry Research
- Alternatives to Slash and Burn
- Questioning FSC Certification in Indonesia
- Forest Watch Indonesia (Global Forest Watch)
- Greenpeace Indonesia
- The Nature Conservancy East Kalimantan

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[MUSIC: Michael Conn, Ian Ritchie “Indonesia” from Globe Trekker: Ambient Journeys (Pilot Film And TV Productions Ltd 2006)]

GELLERMAN: Coming up – 65th floor: cucumbers, tomatoes, broccoli; growing garden veggies vertically to feed cities in the future. And we go bird watching with the blind - it's Living on Earth!

ANNOUNCER: Support for Living on Earth comes from the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation; Gilman Ordway - for coverage of conservation and environmental change, and the Sierra Club, welcoming students back to college with Sierra magazine's annual ranking of America's coolest schools. Online at sierraclub.org/livingonearth. This is Living on Earth on PRI, Public Radio International.

[MUSIC: Larry Young: Plaza De Toros from The Complete Blue Note Recordings Of Larry Young (Mosaic Records 1995)]

Building Up: Vertical Farms

GELLERMAN: You’re listening to a recycled edition of Living on Earth… I'm Bruce Gellerman. It’s official: more than half the people in the world live in cities. True, but sad says scientist Dickson Despommier.

DESPOMMIER: In reality the city has assumed the role of a monstrous parasite when viewed from an ecological perspective.

GELLERMAN: But that unflattering assessment doesn’t have to apply to cities in the future says Despommier. In his book “The Vertical Farm: Feeding the World in the 21st Century.” Despommier believes things will be looking up - literally - he predicts we’ll be growing crops hydroponically, without soil in high rise buildings.

Dickson Despommier drew inspiration for the book from his students at Columbia University. He spoke with Living on Earth’s Steve Curwood.

DESPOMMIER: A full class of students that didn’t want to hear anymore of gloom and doom about the environmental destruction that was going on outdoors - they said, ‘we want to work on something more positive.’ So I let them. I said, 'this is your money, this is your time, what would you like to do?' About a week later they came back to me and they said, ‘We think rooftop gardening in NYC would be a good idea.’ So, I said, ‘Great. Tell me how many acres of rooftops we’ve got, tell me which crops you would grow, and tell me how many people you can feed with 2,000 calories per day per person.’

They answered that question and they could feed about two percent of Manhattan only. So I said wait a minute, now don’t get discouraged here. Take your idea off the roof and move it into the building itself. Let’s talk about how many floors of a building you could actually do this in. That began the discussion.

Author Dickson Despommier. (Photo: Marlene Bloom)

CURWOOD: So if I were to be standing in front of a vertical farm, my eyes closed, and I open them - what would I see?

DESPOMMIER: Oh, you’d be amazed. You’d be absolutely amazed. First of all, you wouldn’t see the building, because all you would see would be the plants growing inside of a totally transparent building. It would look like the plants were being suspended in midair, and they were growing on…you couldn’t actually tell what they were growing on. And, in fact, they’re not growing in soil at all, they’re being grown hydroponically.

CURWOD: Where do you get the nutrients if you use hydroponics?

DESPOMMIER: So all you have to do is line up all the chemicals that plants need, and all the chemicals that humans need - which is about 6 more than plants need - and combine them together in the right ratios, dissolve them into water and feed them to your plants. Most people would cringe when they hear that for the first time, but no one would cringe if I told you it’s just like using MiracleGro on your plants. ‘Oh yeah, I understand that part.’

CURWOOD: How feasible do you think this is, Professor? I mean, what are the present examples of vertical farms?

DESPOMMIER: Well, there are none, as we speak. But I can almost guarantee you that within a year from now, there will be many. The country of Qatar has an enormous interest in this. China, India - they’re very interested in food security and food safety. They want food that’s produced by themselves, and if you live in Qatar, that’s not going to happen unless, somehow, you import all the soil.

Even then, you don’t have the right climate for all of this. So everything that they’re going to do has to be done indoors. If you go around the world and you say ‘where would vertical farming fit in beautifully into the needs of those places,’ you can find places like Iceland that have no soil, basically, whatsoever. They have six months of darkness, how can they possibly grow anything there? If you grow it indoors, and you use geothermal energy for your grow lights, the next thing you know you’ve got vertical farms going up.

Dr. Despommier’s book.

CURWOOD: So in the vertical farm, how do you deal with the waste?

DESPOMMIER: Right! Well, we don’t call it that - we call it unrealized energy. Let’s take corn for an example. I would take that part we don’t eat. I would dry it down to completion, I would then powder it and I would run it through a device, which is currently in use throughout Japan called the plasma arc gassifier.
And what that does, is it takes any solid material and reduces it back to its elements. And what you get back from that device is the energy to run the device, first. You get no residual material that you have to worry about, and the last thing that you get back, which is much more important, is that you get some product produced by this process that you can then use in the form of a gas to burn and to create carbon dioxide water and heat. And the heat is then used to generate energy. The carbon dioxide and water can be fed right back into the vertical farm. It’s a closed-loop agricultural system, basically.

CURWOOD: Ok, today’s agriculture and new food movement is predicated on a couple of things - organic agriculture, locality and seasonality - what about thinking of June and strawberries, that sort of thing?

DESPOMMIER: I don’t blame you. I think I can’t argue against a fresh picked strawberry in the wild. I love wild strawberries, and people don’t even know what a wild strawberry looks like, most of them. People criticize hydroponically grown - artificial - they call it 'artificial food' - but I would just call it ‘indoor farming’.
They used to criticize a lot of the products produced by these farms because they didn’t taste good. They looked great, but when you got them to the table, they have nothing in common with the plants that you expected them to be. That was about ten or 15 years ago, and I think, once consumerism said, you know, ‘We don’t want plants that look good, we want plants that taste good,’ they went back and reexamined all of the qualities of plants.

They found out, very soon, that the reason why outdoor plants taste so good some years, but not every year, is because of the stresses that the plants have undergone during the growing season, particularly just before harvest. So to know what the characteristics of the plants are to begin with, means that you can control it.

CURWOOD: What do traditional farmers think of this idea?

A vertical farm that Dr. Despommier helped conceptualize with Eric Ellingsen. (Photo: Eric Ellingsen and Dr. Dickson Despommier.)

DESPOMMIER: You would expect I’d get a lot of hate mail. (Laughs). But I get a lot of curious mail from farmers who - they want to know about the ease of hydroponic farming. They want to know about the productivity of it. They want to know about the yields. A lot of them have seen the light, in the sense that - how many good years in a row do you think that a farmer gets? I don’t care where they live and I don’t care what crop they’re growing, if you have ten years in a row I’ll be willing to bet you that you don’t get more than four or five good years out of that. So they’re looking for alternatives, they’re curious, they’re not threatened at all by this.

CURWOOD: So where’s the natural connection to the land and the earth for people in this?

DESPOMMIER: Yeah. There’s no natural connection to the earth. And I must qualify that statement by saying that since farming is only 12,000 years old, and since we are, at least in terms of evolution, about 200,000 years old - farming is a really very recent addition to the human technology tool chest. And let’s say for instance that it’s not possible to address climate issues, the climate just keeps getting worse. You know what happens to farming?

For every degree of increase in the average temperature of the planet’s atmosphere, it’s estimated we lose about ten percent of the agriable land on this planet. If that continues up to five degrees, you can see the consequences would be horrible for an ever-increasing population of people unless we learn how to farm in another way. So the choices are almost zero. I think we have to address ‘how can a city live like an ecosystem?’ That’s the bottom line for this whole project, is to make food production at the center of an ecological behavior pattern, and make them imitate the balanced ecosystems that are still left.

GELLERMAN: Dickson Despommier teaches Environmental Health Sciences at Columbia University. His book is “The Vertical Farm: Feeding the World in the 21st Century.” He spoke with Living on Earth’s Steve Curwood.

Related link:
Learn more about the vertical farm

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[MUSIC: Tommy McCook “Yellow Bird” from Blazing Horns/Tenor In Roots (Blood And Fire Records 2003)]

Birding by Ear

GELLERMAN: An hour north of Boston, on Plum Island, is the Parker River National Wildlife Refuge, a 46 hundred-acre birder paradise.

GETTE: It’s one of the most spectacular birding areas on the east coast.

GELLERMAN: And Bill Gette should know. He’s Sanctuary Director of Massachusetts Audubon’s Joppa Flats Education Center—just up the coast from the national refuge.

GETTE: It includes marshlands, saltwater marshes, ocean beaches, some upland forest on the mainland side. We have a lot of nesting birds, including the endangered piping plover and least tern. So people come into this area to view birds throughout the year.

GELLERMAN: And then there are people who come here once a year who don’t view birds.

DONOVAN: I used to think birding was all watching with binoculars and everything. That’s what I used to think.

GELLERMAN: Dorothy Donovan is a lifelong bird lover - she’s been coming to the national refuge every year more than a decade, but she’s never seen a bird.

DONOVAN: I’ve always liked birds. My mother used to have us watch the birds in the yard. We’d all go out and she’d tell me what was going on and I would listen to them sing. It’s always been a part of my natural world.

GELLERMAN: When did you lose your sight?

DONOVAN: I was one of those premature babies who got too much oxygen.

GELLERMAN: So you were born without sight?

DONOVAN: Basically, yes.

GELLERMAN: Dorothy Donovan is with the Lowell Association for the Blind. The group has been part of Mass Audubon’s Birding by Ear program since it started 11 years ago.

Mass Audubon's Bill Gette leads the Blind Birders on their walk.

GETTE: Ok, we’re going to meet over here….

(car horn)

GELLERMAN: The blind birders gather in a parking lot at the national refuge. Bill Gette leads the group slowly down a dirt path into a maritime forest filled with 30-foot pin-cherry and birch.

(sfx Yellow Warbler)

GETTE: Ok, why don’t we do this folks. We’re going to move up…a little bit…there’s a little bit of a hill…but if you listen to your left hand side…there’s a Yellow Warbler. And it’s singing sweet sweet sweet…I’m so sweet or sweet sweet sweet sweeter than sweet…Oh do you hear the Towhee?


GELLERMAN: The path pitches down. It’s slippery. Some of the blind birders use canes, but not all.

GETTE: Just go slow, haha - just don’t make any rash moves.

GELLERMAN: Bill Gette discovers something at every step. He stops, and waits for the group to collect.

GETTE: When we go on these trips we’re birding by ear but we also make an attempt to show and have them smell as many different things, so use as many senses as possible.

GELLERMAN: There’s moss, honeysuckle and bayberry. Gette snaps off a twig from a low bush.

GETTE: This is certainly a nice one smell that.

GELLERMAN: Oh, smells like a rose - that’s a rose?

GETTE: Yes, that’s a rose. A beautiful rose, pink color, rose and the thorns. Folks, I’m going to pass back a rose. It has little thorns so you’ll want to be careful of that but smell the flower. It’s a beautiful Rosa Rugosa.

CINASVICH: Oh, you find a lot of this on Cape Cod near the beach.

GELLERMAN: Sharon Cinsavich has macular degeneration — and just had cataract surgery in both eyes. But she wouldn’t miss the birding by ear field trip for the world.

CINSAVICH: It’s very important because I have a lot of faith and it makes me feel closer to God’s nature and that’s good.


GETTE: Oh, there’s a Redstart, that real squeaky song - and a Catbird. Oh, the Redstart is really quite close. Let me just – psst - sometimes when you make that noise you can actually attract the birds come closer – pssst - psst.

GELLERMAN: Bill Gette can hardly finish a sentence without identifying a bird. He’s a world-class birder and naturalist. The Birding by Ear program for the blind was his idea.

GETTE: Can you imagine being blind? OK? I can’t imagine it. And I can’t imagine not being interested in natural history either. It's part of my soul or whatever you want to say. So we so enjoy it but we also think it’s a really important part of the Massachusetts Audubon mission, to get out and try to get as many people excited about the natural world and conserving it as we possible can. That’s what we’re in the business to do.

GELLERMAN: Mass. Audubon volunteers lead the birders out of the steps down the forest path onto a narrow boardwalk stretching out over the Merrimack salt marsh.

VOLUNTEER: Yeah, we’re going left again. Now there’s a little lip, not a step just a little lip, about an inch down.

[canes tapping]

Violet Santamaria goes birding (Photo: Bruce Gellerman)

GELLERMAN: Violet Santamaria tap, tap, taps her cane, to make sure she doesn’t fall into the salty muck. She has a little vision in one eye, but her hearing is sharp, and she quickly identifies the song of the marsh wren that Bill Gette describes as a burst of bubbles.

GETTE: It’s a small bird only about the size of a chickadee.

SANTAMARIA: Oh, oh, oh! Hear that bird! I’ve never seen a marsh wren. But I can hear it – haha! – chip – chip – haha! Chip – chip – chip!

DESMARIS: It’s so peaceful you don’t even hear traffic. Just nature – haha!

GELLERMAN: 84-year-old George Desmaris wears thick, thick glasses but navigates without a cane.

DESMARIS: Well, between cataracts and macular degeneration, I’m almost legally blind.

GELLERMAN: Do you feel like you’re missing anything not being able to see the birds?

DESMARIS: Well I can hear them - ha ha! It doesn’t feel any different. I just can’t see them as well but I enjoy it just as much as I did before.

GELLERMAN: Here’s a step.

DESMARIS: Yep, it is a little frustrating not being able to see all the finer points of it as I once could but hey - it’s beautiful.

GELLERMAN The day is crystal clear and warm. Tall green grasses and cattails line the boardwalk as it cuts a path through the salt marsh. It’s a wonderful sight even for those with just peripheral vision.

HESS: See, I have an advantage! See the dark green? You’ve got a white boardwalk down through the center - more or less it’s bleached - and I can see it.

GELLERMAN: Ed Hess lost his most of his sight to macular degeneration 6 years ago but he’s a birding by ear veteran.

HESS: I enjoy it - it’s about my 5th trip here with the blind. Thoroughly enjoy it.

GELLERMAN: I see you’ve got a camera.

HESS: Yeah.

GELLERMAN: So you take pictures?

HESS: Yeah, always took pictures. I enjoy photographs.

GELLERMAN: So even though you can’t see so well, you still take pictures?

HESS: Yeah, I aim in the general direction and then I go to one of these stores where you can adjust the size and what scope you have on it and all like that. I still have a very expensive camera I can’t use with a telephoto lens. I can’t see what I’m homing in on.

Bill Gette scoops up salt marsh mud at the Parker River National Wildlife Refuge.

GELLERMAN: Photographer Al Trudeau has his sight. He’s come to the refuge to take photos. His expensive camera is perched on a tripod; a humongous lens points to a distant tree but Trudeau isn’t having much luck spotting birds.

TRUDEAU You hear it. You locate it. You try to get the visual. My end result is visual.

GELLERMAN: Can you identify the sounds of the birds.

TRUDEAU: I’m not good at it….hahah!

GELLERMAN: But Bill Gette sure is.

GETTE : We had the Catbird, the Yellow Warbler, Common Yellowthroat….

GELLERMAN: He ticks off the birds we’ve heard this day. He says not being able to see the birds isn’t a handicap.


GETTE: In some cases actually to survey birds, it’s better to listen for them because you’ve seen 2 birds but I’m sure there are at least 20 that we’ve already experienced but we’ve only seen 2. Right behind you there’s a Redstart. There’s a Towhee again singing drink your tea, hear that song.

GELLERMAN: The birds will be in full voice throughout the summer but Bill Gette warns stay away until mid-August - or the greenhead flies will eat you alive.

GETTE: But in the fall you should come back sometime in the evening when we have 30 or 40 thousand Tree Swallows here. It’s a natural history wonder, it’s just fantastic.

GELLERMAN: A gift for the ear, the eye, and all the senses. For Living on Earth I’m Bruce Gellerman.

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Earth Ear


GELLERMAN: We leave you this week in a narrow canyon.
In the Lake Mead National Recreation Area in Arizona, Canyon treefrogs bleat loudly on a warm spring evening. And if you listen closely, you might hear the faint chuckling of the relict leopard frog. It’s rare, most of these frogs can be found around Lake Mead.

The Relict Leopard Frog (Photo: Alice Abela)


Jeff Rice made this recording for the University of Utah Marriott Library, westernsoundscape.org.


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GELLERMAN: Living on Earth is produced by the World Media Foundation. Our crew includes Bobby Bascomb, Eileen Bolinsky, Ingrid Lobet, and Helen Palmer, with help from Sarah Calkins, Gabriela Romanow and Sammy Sousa. Jeff Turton is our technical director. Alison Lirish Dean composed our themes. You can find us anytime at L-O-E dot org - and check out our facebook page, it’s PRI’s Living on Earth. And while you’re on line, visit myplanetharmony.com. Our sister program, Planet Harmony, welcomes all and pays special attention to stories affecting communities of color. Log on and join the discussion at myplanetharmony dot com. Steve Curwood is our executive producer. I'm Bruce Gellerman. Thanks for listening!

ANNOUNCER: Funding for Living On Earth comes from the National Science Foundation supporting coverage of emerging science. And Stonyfield farm, organic yogurt and smoothies. Stonyfield invites you to just eat organic for a day. Details at justeatorganic dot com. Support also comes from you, our listeners, the Go Forward Fund and Pax World Mutual Funds, integrating environmental, social, and governance factors into investment analysis and decision making. On the web at Pax world dot com. Pax World for tomorrow.

ANNOUNCER 2: PRI – Public Radio International


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