In the last one hundred years the state of Earth's health has gone through numerous significant changes. Oil reserves across the world are rapidly running out, formerly untouched ecosystems are now centers of commerce and development, and technology has infiltrated the very foods we consume.
It would be overly cynical to claim that all, or even most, of modern developments are in some way detrimental to the state of our world. To the contrary, many new technological advances have greatly benefited how humanity lives. However, as responsible citizens, we must remember that for every advantageous development there is a potential disadvantage. That it to say, we must move away from past eras in which natural resources such as coal and fossil fuels were utilized in excess and realize that the key to humanity's longevity is to consume what the Earth provides in moderation. As sophisticated as technological knowledge may become, we must remember that no technology is at all capable of sustaining an over-exploited planet. As the human population grows so does the responsibility of each individual to do what she can to ensure that future generations are able to profit from the planet that we all share.
The interns at the World Information Transfer recognize and accept this responsibility and through their articles they seek to inform the public of both the positive and negative aspects of the planet's most pertinent ecological issues in the hopes that the reader may himself become more respectful of his environment.
--Kyle Waddy, New York University, World Information Transfer
Perhaps the one true statement that can be made about all NGOs can only be one that purely recognizes the great variety and the differences among them. The NGO world is as varied as the species on this Earth, including "species" such as tiny local community nonprofits to international Northern based NGOs, virtual giants that function more like profit- than non-profit-making organizations. Much can be said simply about the differences in the types of NGOs without even delving into the differences found in the causes they work for and the geographical regions of the world they work in. The NGO world has furthermore become a virtual alphabet soup, with new acronyms every year being added to the mix, deepening the confusion and headache when it comes to discussing all of them and discussing them in general terms. Because of all of their differences, their growth in numbers in the past few years and the appearance of some financial scandals surrounding them, an attempt to analyze NGOs in "general terms" without making false statements about one NGO has become hard, but not impossible.
Recent years have made it harder to distinguish between profit making entities and businesses that Northern-based international NGO giants run. Nonprofits selling products with their logo on them and some Northern NGO's virtual monopoly of smaller NGO's funding has made it hard to tell whether these organizations are more similar to each other as NGOs, or to their corporate entity relatives.
Along with these increasing scandals, loss of public trust in NGOs and the nonprofit sector has increased. People are no longer willing to donate money freely to these social cause organizations because of a fear or lack of knowledge and trust in how the money will be spent, doubting if it will even be spent towards the cause it is supposed to fund. The vagueness of NGO's mission statements also provide even more confusion because they are often so broad and unclear that it is hard to decipher what exactly it is they are trying to accomplish or who they are trying to serve. The vague mission statements that do not provide much information make it then more difficult to determine if an NGO has successfully completed and achieved its goals. Questions then arise about how exactly an NGO's activities can be measured or evaluated to find if they succeeded or failed. Furthermore, who or what entity is to determine and take the responsibility to see that these tax-exempt organizations are spending their donations wisely or even accomplishing the goals and purposes set forth in their mission statement when it is often unclear what the goals or purposes are in the first place?
But there is perhaps a deeper question that follows all of these. It is the question of whether it is in fact the individual NGOs who are at fault or whether the fault lies within the NGO structure; a structure defined by a limited budget, an oftentimes not-competent-enough staff, poor leadership and authority figures and which remains more or less true of all NGOs? It is a well-known fact that professionals with higher degrees prefer to go to the profit-making world because of higher salaries and better opportunities. But are higher salaries really the key or will the nonprofit sector forever suffer from the tradeoff between keeping the middle class dedicated professionals who are willing to receive the salary they earn because they live for the cause they work for, rather than trying to attract the experts in the field who perhaps have greater knowledge and more answers to the cause?
NGO's budget continues to be an influencing factor in the amount of time, resources and help an NGO can dedicate to any one cause. It is a defining characteristic of their structure, which then spirals into the problems of less time and resources to train staff or even less time to train volunteers. Perhaps the solution to the problem of untrained and inefficient staff is the education of young people about the nongovernmental and nonprofit sector, and its nature and the perks to working in it.
Although the questions raised dealing with staff effectiveness and knowledge, accomplishing mission goals and remaining true to the NGO structure plagues NGOs all over the world, NGOs in developing countries of the world are especially vulnerable to these problems. Not only are NGOs in these countries living in the developing economic, political and social conditions that cause them to have even less resources than their Northern neighbors, but they are also struggling as other NGOs and other nonprofits all over the world are.
There is good news, however, as there has been increased attention paid to these "southern" NGOs, especially by large international organizations such as the United Nations, who has taken recent increasing, although small steps, to try to include these southern NGOs and bring them to the tables of international conferences. There have been attempts and attention paid to bridging the gap between Northern and Southern NGOs, attempts to try to increase the presence and funding given to southern NGOs, and attempts to bridge the communication between international organizations, like the United Nations and all types of NGOs. In the summer of 2004, the United Nations held a conference entitled "We the People; Civil Society, the United Nations, and Global Governance", led by an expert panel, which included former Brazilian President Fernando Henrique Cardoso, among others. A more coordinated organization and plan for the role of the civil society in the UN was discussed. It was also recommended that civil society be recognized as an important and valuable asset, and that its boundaries should be expanded. The difficult situation of southern NGOs in lacking the resources to meet the harsh NGO accreditation requirements of some UN organizations and the need to make it easier for NGOs from all over the world to be able to obtain consultative status in the United Nations were also important issues discussed at this conference. A direct result of this conference was the UN's first "General Assembly Informal Interactive Hearings with Members of Civil Society", which occurred the summer of the following year, 2005. Jean Ping, the President of the General Assembly at this session, recognized the importance of paying attention to NGOs and other members of civil society in this meeting, saying that it was "imperative" for governments and other actors to partner with civil society for increased development. This meeting, which lasted for two days in June, was so groundbreaking and significant because it was the first time a UN body had direct and open consultations with members of civil society on several matters including the Millennium Development Goals. Furthermore, it was at this conference that a special effort was made by some countries including Denmark, to bring some smaller southern NGOs from developing countries to the United Nations. These conferences represent these small, although significant steps that the United Nations has taken in the past years to increase the voice of NGOs and civil society in its work, and to improve the communication between the two.
If the solution to world poverty and other sicknesses that plague the world is truly acting locally and thinking globally, then smaller NGOs in developing countries of the world are the true answer and key that should to be paid attention to and that should be given more funding. These southern NGOs will not be able to accomplish the tasks themselves, however. The Northern NGO international giants need to work at both funding their smaller and poorer neighbors and also making sure that what the smaller NGOs are working for and doing on the ground does not get lost so that the true needs of the people in these developing countries will be heard and met.
There is a long road ahead for the future of NGOs, one in which the solutions to NGO budgeting and volunteer/staff problems will not be found overnight, and one in which it may seem that there are currently more questions than answers. Undoubtedly, it will take time until the world's smallest NGO will have a chance at participating and being heard at international conferences in the same light as its Northern neighbors. There is good news in the increasing number of NGOs every year and in the statistics of how much they are accomplishing, whether it be in the numbers of people they have served in their respective communities or the number of schools and aid centers they have raised in the most impoverished of places. And although the many causes they work for are as varied as the acronyms that represent them, their presence cannot be ignored, nor can their future, which is vital in so many ways to the everyday issues facing a global society and the dilemmas faced by governments in international affairs. NGOs are the truest and most direct connections with the world's people; the one way in which people's desires can be brought in front of the highest ranking diplomats and politicians, be heard, and most importantly lead to change. NGOs in civil society have been called "academies for democratic learning" by Charles Reilly, who has written on the topic of democratic development through NGO cooperation. On this note, it must be recognized above all when attempting to discuss NGOs in general terms, that attempts at improving their inner structure, at improving the communication within the NGO world and between the NGO world and the international community, and at improving the way in which they can better serve an increasingly global society are of uttermost importance. It is after all, through the energy, determination, and resources of the committed individuals who are behind these organizations in the nations of the world, that we will learn to take the right path for change and through which the push for change will eventually come.
--Daniella Burgi-Palomino, Tufts University, World Information Transfer Intern
Bushfires are among Sub-Saharan Africa's most urgent problems. Each year millions of people are forced to migrate southward in search of more fertile tracts of land since bushfires have left their only source of native areas scorched and barren.
A bushfire is defined as an uncontrolled fire often occurring but not limited to rural, wild areas. While natural forces- including lightening- have been cited as the main cause of these uncontrolled fires, current evidence reveal that most bushfires are actually set deliberately. However, not all intentional bushfires are malicious in nature; in fact most are set by people seeking alternative food sources since the soil is no longer fertile. Group hunters set fires to flush their game from densely forested areas while they wait poised to attack. Despite the obvious dangers, the practice continues year after year. Cowherds, mainly Fulani tribesmen in Sub-Saharan Africa, set fire to the bush to encourage new plant growth, which more often spreads to other farms and causes extensive property-damage. Occasionally, bushfires are caused unintentionally, in particular as the result of careless disposal of cigarette butts and fuel spills from vehicles.
A planned bushfire in the Central African Republic in 1987
Acts of mischief are also a cause of bushfires. Warring factions and rebels have sometimes used arson as a tool to abduct children who later become child soldiers and sex slaves. Cattle robbers also rely on fires sometimes to hide their tracks.
Did you know?
Bushfires can significantly help reduce the number of rodents in a given area.
Due to the prevalence of bush fires in Sub-Saharan Africa, large tracts of land are being exposed to desertification. The soil that is exposed as a result of the burnt ground foliage is constantly subjected to torrential rains, thus depleting the soil of nutrients through erosion and leaching. Some environmentalists argue that bushfires leave fertile, potash-rich ash, however they fail to realize that the extreme rains in these terrains wash most of the top soil away including the newly produced ash due to lack of ground vegetation. Crop yields therefore become more and more meager every year until the soil can no longer support any substantial growth.
Besides ethnic conflicts, bushfire is by far the leading cause of migration in Sub-Saharan
Africa. It is actually accelerating climate change in the region since it reduces vegetal prevalence thereby lowering carbon dioxide capacity, which has serious implications on precipitation.
Conservationists have also blamed the loss of large number of biological diversity to bushfires. It is believed to be the leading culprit in floral and fauna extinction. Recently some twenty species of flora exclusive to the Ibity Massif of Madagascar were feared to be at the risk of extinction due to bushfires according to the National Geographic News. Fires have also threatened the longevity of the largest manmade forest in South Africa.
In order to realize the Millennium Development Goals in Sub-Saharan Africa, it is of the utmost importance that a lasting solution be found to the menace of the bushfires. These untamable disasters are maiming wildlife, destroying families, devastating lands, and drying rivers; all of which will undoubtedly have dramatic effects on the environment.
--Lovelace Saprong, Columbia University, World Information Transfer Intern
Genetic engineering began in the 1970s, when scientists started introducing new traits to micro-organisms, plants, and animals through related and non-related species, most often in crop plant species to provide resistance to pests and total herbicides. "Genetically modified organisms (GMOs) can be defined as organisms in which the genetic material (DNA) has been altered in a way that does not occur naturally by mating or natural recombination." Genetically modified microorganisms, which are living microscopic entities, are used in the production of numerous vitamins, flavorings and additives. Desirable traits have also been added to enhance the food we eat. Delayed ripening in fruit is currently being developed, and animals such as fish can be genetically modified to enhance their quality, accentuating certain characteristics, such as their resistance to cold. Several concerns include unknown future risks to health, the modification of natural species, and the loss of biodiversity, while potential benefits include the creation of insect resistant plants with the flexibility to use less harmful pesticides, killing weeds without killing crops, reduced application of herbicides, increased productivity and yield, and improved nutrition.
Numerous countries have taken divergent stances on allowing GMOs in their country. The United States, however, has no regulations while the European Union has strictly regulated this technology since the 1990s based on the "precautionary principle". This allows countries to ban the use of GMOs based on unknown future risks to the population, letting undefined fears of indefinable consequences to be presented as evidence in EU law and UN conventions. A genetically modified organism or a GM food or feed product can only be put on the market in the EU after it has been authorized on the basis of a detailed procedure, including: labeling and traceability requirements to prevent trans-boundary movement, mandatory post-market monitoring requirements including the long-term effects associated with other GMOs and the environment. This procedure is based on a scientific assessment of the risks to health and the environment. European Food Safety Authority (EFSA), composed of independent scientists, tests and produces a report for any products containing of consisting of GMOs after they are approved for entry by all the member states. Goal of EU legislation: 1) to protect human health and the environment and 2) to ensure the free movement of safe genetically modified products within the EU.
Despite the apparent benefits, many individuals still distrust the genetic engineering of every-day food products.
A number of Member States have invoked the so-called 'safeguard clause'. This safeguard clause provides that where a Member State has justifiable reasons to consider that a GMO, which has received written consent for placing on the market, constitutes a risk to human health or the environment, it may provisionally restrict or prohibit the use and/or sale of that product on its territory.
The World Trade Organization ruled on February 7, 2006 that the European Union and six member states had broken trade rules by barring entry to genetically modified crops and foods, mainly corn, cotton and soybeans. The complaint was brought against the EU by leading GMO producers- the United States, Argentina and Canada. WTO trade judges found that the EU, whose consumers are deeply suspicious of GMOs, had applied an effective moratorium on GMO imports between June 1999 and August 2003, which is barred under WTO rules. It also found that six individual states -- France, Germany, Austria, Italy, Luxembourg and Greece -- broke the rules by applying their own bans on marketing and importing GMOs.
Europe's shoppers are famously wary of GMO products, often dubbed "Frankenstein foods" by European media. The ruling supports a 15-year study funded by the European Union itself found that biotech plants and products have not "shown any new risks to human health or the environment" and concluded that these foods are in fact safer than conventional foods. Opposition is estimated at more than 70 percent, a stark contrast to the United States where the products are far more widely accepted. "This ruling enables developing nations to feel confident that they can adopt the modern crop technologies they need to feed their people while retaining access to European export markets."
Some 222 million acres were planted with biotech crops last year, more than one-third was in developing countries. Approximately 8.5 million farmers, with roughly 90 percent living in developing countries, grow biotech crops. That represents a huge contribution to the economies of the poorest countries in the world. Europe's resistance to genetically modified foods is affecting Africa: not only are genetically modified imports banned but the unscientific fears have spread too. Kenya is considering halting experiments, Zambia continues to ban donations of genetically modified maize for famine relief and even SA, with 645000ha placing it among the top 14 growers of genetically engineered crops, faces new restrictive legislation. Ecuador, as of May 2006, has also banned GMO in food aid, stating it is their sovereign right to choose non-GM options.
The EU tightly restricts imports to a very few genetically modified products so African countries would face yet another barrier to trade if they took advantage of the benefits of genetically modified crops. All this is based on the vague "precautionary principle". Drought, fungi, and virus are all things that African nations face that can potentially be eliminated through the use of GMO foods, where the current use of conventional growing methods is not cutting it.
-- Justine Freisleben, Franklin & Marshall College, World Information Transfer Intern
Recycling is more important at work than it is at home. As is commonly known, to produce paper it is necessary to cut down trees. More than 300 million tons of paper are produced each year, which is equivalent to an entire forest being cut down. According to the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), in 2003, paper and paperboard products account for 35% of the entire waste stream, and out of the 83 million tons of paper and paperboard generated each year, only 48.1% of them are recovered. Sadly, most of the recyclable paper products are being dumped into landfills.
As a global association of governments facilitating co-operation in international law, international security, economic develop, and social equity; and as a place where the world expects solutions to various environmental, economical, social and political problems, how recycling conscious is the United Nations?
Americans use enough office paper each year to build a 10-foot-high wall 6,815 miles long, or two and a half times the distance from New York to Los Angeles.
Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources, "Recycling Facts and Figures," PUBL CE-163, 2002
The United Nations is undeniably a huge consumer for paper, as most of their documents are printed in the six official languages: English, French, Spanish, Russian, Chinese, and Arabic; the demand for printed documents is very high. Although the papers not utilized are recycled the overwhelming majority, the already printed documents have to go through a very complicated chemical process, which includes separating the lead and ink in the paper, and various other processes before the paper can be reused again.
Think globally, act locally. Save paper, save our world!
Minimizing paper use is the easiest way to counteract the negative effect of deforestation it is very important to reduce office paper at the source. Ones office can reduce the amount of paper it uses by:
Printing only the amount needed, limit the distribution of correspondences and reports to those who really need paper copies,
Using a single space format for the text of final reports,
Limiting computer printouts. Use electronic mail for sending and receiving business messages. Review text on the computer screen to limit mistakes on drafts. Actively encouraging all employees to use less paper.
--Judy Kayee SIN, DePaul University, World Information Transfer Intern
Substantial population growth and increased commercial activity have led China to become one of the world's leading economic powers. As the population grows China's energy needs continue to increase. Due to China's huge population and geographical size, increased energy use may have a huge global impact.
Coal serves as China's main source of energy. According to China.org.cn, China's use of coal accounted for 66.1% of its total energy use in 2002. The burning of coal has drastic effects on the local environment due to the amount of sediment and carbon dioxide released into the air. Because of the proven detrimental effects of coal burning China is attempting to reduce its usage of coal in favor of other forms of energy. Unfortunately, these alternative forms of energy, mainly oil and natural gas, are in high demand throughout the world. Consequently China's entry into the world energy market may prove to have dire effects on the availability of these resources to other nations.
In the hopes of securing viable sources of fuel, China is now beginning to rely more on its neighbor to the north: Russia. Plans to build pipelines between eastern Russia and China are thought to be beneficial to both countries. Natural gas pipelines from Siberia were sought by both Japan and China. Furthermore, Chinaoil and the Yukos Corporation of Russia have reached an agreement to build a crude oil pipeline from Angarsk in eastern Russia to Daqing in northeastern China. President Vladimir Putin favored China since it offered over $13 billion dollars and the Japanese offered only $12 billion. Though the official plans were under negotiation, they were halted by protest from groups of citizens led by non-governmental organizations. These groups were concerned that the pipelines would have threatened precious natural habitats and landscapes, located outside Irkutsk (Russia) around Lake Baikal. Currently, China's energy needs and Russia's hope to modernize by exporting energy continue to sustain both nations' hopes of increased commercial activity.
A view of the pristine Lake Baikal, which might be threatened by the construction of gas lines between Russia and China.
Increasing international trade continue to be a priority for China. Joining the World Trade Organization as well as forming stronger regional alliances have been major components of China's new diplomacy. Due to the impact that China's growth will have on the globe, it is important to understand the importance of greater international transactions.
--Luis Lizarazo, Lehigh University, World Information Transfer Intern
What do the great potato famine in Ireland, the dust bowl in the American South and the failure of French grape harvests over 100 years ago have in common? They all exemplify the havoc wreaked by an agricultural technique known as monoculture. In the 1800s the Irish fed their growing population by planting lumper potato plants that were genetic clones of each other. As environmental conditions changed, a disease known as Phytophthora infestans swept through the potato fields; Ireland's farmers went bankrupt and the economy was devastatedi A similar lack of genetic variation in European grape farms and American cotton fields resulted in infamous economic and humanitarian disasters in these disparate regions as well. Examples of modern day monoculture abound in the form of bananas, wheat and corn. ii
Did you know?
Biological diversity among crops is the key to a successful, viable harvest
As applied to agricultural techniques, monoculture refers to the sowing of a very small number of genetic strains of a plant species. Monoculture field crops can be very risky since they have a single point of failure. Plants with homogenous genetic makeup are susceptible to the same environmental hazards and the end result can be total devastation of monoculture farms.
Besides increased susceptibility to pests, agricultural monoculture has other disadvantages. Monoculture exhausts soils and depletes it of much needed nutrients. In the long run this effect can lower crop yields, making life more difficult for farmers and consumers.iii Crops grown in monoculture must obtain their nutrients from fertilizers since soil does not have enough naturally occurring nutrients that plants need.
Despite these risks, most major crops today are grown in monoculture. Monoculture predominates for several reasons. First and foremost, it enables economies of scale. Farmers are able to reduce costs by growing one variety of a crop, thus lowering the market price of produce. So monoculture provides for predictable economies and dependable markets. Secondly, monoculture is demand driven. Consumers have naturally grown to demand varieties of crops that store well (such as "main" crops of potatoes) and have specific traits (i.e. sweet, seedless bananas). It should come as no surprise then that monoculture crops tend to be more attractive and tasteful.
A typical cotton field in the American South
There are several solutions that have been proposed to the problems created by monoculture. One obvious approach is to increase the diversity of crop species sown. This solution leads to more stable crop yields, since crops are less susceptible to pests and soil is in better shape. In addition, mixed planting can improve nitrogen levels available to the next crop planted in the same soil. Replacing traditional crop varieties with newer, imported cultivariates is another approach. The most widely used solution today is to apply fungicides and pesticides to crops. Unfortunately, the pesticide solution brings its own set of problems for the environment and human health.
Today the world population is growing at a rapid pace. Farmers face increasing pressures from their governments and agricultural corporations to adopt monoculture techniques and increase crop yields to keep pace with population growth regardless of long term impacts or risks. Will the global monoculture disasters of the past revisit us in the 21st century?
--Amiya Dingare, Columbia University, World Information Transfer Intern
First row from left to right: Daniella Burgi-Palomino, Judy Kayee Sin, Lovelace S.
Second row from left to right: Kyle Waddy, Amiya Dingare
Not pictured: Luis Lizarazo