The science of Earth and the human policies that change it…

Scitable launched more than ten new blogs covering a wide range of topics including neuroscience, geology, oceanography, physics and more, next week.

My first post on Nature’s new Scitable blog details the difficulties governments face to find the balance between exploiting and protecting ecological systems. As part of the new Environment group blog.

“The science of Earth and the human policies that change it.” This will be the tagline of the new Environment group blog on Scitable. The science is the easy part (he says without a hint of hyperbole). More and more we shall come to learn that the most difficult thing, the most complicated mechanisms, the most complex systems at play, lay quite firmly on the human side. On the human interactions and manipulations of Earth.

Examples are numerous, but one recent example highlights quite well the many actors involved in any one issue. Those actors are: government policy against science, against large corporations and against local people.

The example is this… In the northern part of the Peruvian rainforest of the Amazon jungle, the Achuar and Kichwa indigenous people live in a region that straddles the modern borders of Ecuador and Peru. The region’s remoteness has, up until now, been a great way for these people to conserve their cultural heritage. But national governments have taken to dividing the Amazon into hydrocarbon blocks-geographic areas set aside for the exploration and production of oil and gas.

In March, the Peruvian government declared a state of emergency-an environmental emergency-stating that it had found evidence of widespread environmental damage (high levels of barium, lead, chrome and petroleum-related compounds at different points along the Pastaza valley). But the reality is that the Achuar and Kichwa have been complaining for decades about the pollution. Recent government studies have shown extremely high lead and cadmium levels in blood tests from Achuar communities. Most likely from the rivers they can no longer drink from.

It is not only a problem of health, but a problem of a way of life. Certain parts of the region are managed by the local people both to preserve biodiversity and to provide sustainable supplies of forest products like seeds, fruits and medicinal plants. All of these are under threat from potential environmental disaster caused by exploration.

The temptation for further exploration into the Amazon is only compounded by government policy. International bidding rounds on new oil and gas blocks in Colombia, Ecuador, and Peru will continue to push more into the most remote parts of the Amazon. All states across the Amazon face the same challenge of achieving that delicate balance between protecting the Amazon and profiting from it. If governments are to reap the rewards of the vast natural resources deep inside the jungle, the task will be to minimize the associated ecological and social risks of this policy. Even exploring has a certain amount of biodiversity impact associated with it. Trees are felled, swaths of forests are cleared to build access roads, drilling platforms, and routes for pipelines. Deforestation in itself commits certain wildlife species to extinction.

The Loreto region in Peru occupies a space larger than Germany. It is one of the most active and dynamic hydrocarbon zones in the Amazon. The number of active blocks in the region is counted in the dozens, covering a large range of project development stages-from production to exploration. Oil production is big in the region. It was in the 1970s that the oil fields within the Pastaza river basin were opened up to oil companies. Back then it was Occidental Petroleum doing the exploration. Today it is Pluspetrol. In February, they produced 15,127 barrels per day, which equates to 24% of the total crude oil produced in Peru that month. Taking into account the vast scale of the work going on in the region, the question is how to make sure something doesn’t go wrong.

Ways to mitigate potential risks are few and far between. In Peru, a new law passed on the 26th March of this year, set out for the first time certain environmental quality standards that must be met. The problem has always been that no real set of best practices exist for things on this scale. That is, a best practice that minimizes the environmental impact associated with a typical practice. That is what a recent paper published in PLOS One by Matt Finer, from the Center for International Environmental Law and colleagues from other institutions, tries to address.

The case study is one within the Loreto region of north Peru itself. “Loreto makes an ideal case study because it is one of the largest and most dynamic hydrocarbon zones in the Amazon. Following the state of emergency, there is an added urgency to develop methods to minimize the impacts of any future development,” said Finer.

There is no real easily accessible and precise data on planned activities and infrastructure. As a result some sort of “best way to do things” guidelines are missing. This makes it very difficult for policy makers to properly evaluate proposed projects, and to be firm with the oil companies up front on their expectations for the environment.

Best practices can work it seems. Ones that are based on both Peruvian law and the latest advances in technology. And given the fact that a vast majority of blocks allocated overlap on indigenous territories and what are supposed to be protected areas, this type of scientific knowledge is a welcomed necessity.


What had I twaught…

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