3 things no one is talking about this Earth Day

Tarantula, pictured above, in Prey Lang, Cambodia. (© Jeremy Holden)

Every year on Earth Day, inboxes and social media feeds fill up with photos of furry animals, impressive national park scenes and pleas to finally — no, seriously — remember to take that reusable bag with you to the grocery store.

But enough of all that. Here instead are three things that no one is talking about this Earth Day.

  1. From fish to spiders, deforestation eats up critical species

Strange as it may seem, tourists flock to a town nicknamed “Spiderville” in Cambodia to taste its traditional snack of tarantulas.

These garlic-fried arachnids are a treat for locals who began experimenting with the dish during the reign of the Khmer Rouge. As rapid development in the area wipes out jungle habitats, tarantulas are becoming harder to find. Traditionally, hunters dig them out of burrows on the jungle floor. Now, as nearby forests are cleared for cashew nut plantations, restaurant owners must pay high prices for middlemen to find the tarantulas farther afield. That has caused the price of the tarantulas to surge to US$ 1 apiece, a nearly tenfold increase in the past decade.

Restaurants serving creepy-crawlies aren’t the only ones feeling the sting of deforestation.

Surging global demand for commodities such as beef, sugar, soy, palm oil and coffee over the past three decades have led to spikes in deforestation across Amazonia, as rainforest is converted to farmland.

Deforestation also threatens fish populations. A 2014 study from the University of Cambridge found that forest debris that drains into lakes bolsters fish diets: In areas with increased forest cover, fish get extra food, which enables them to grow. In areas with sparser leaf litter, fish are underfed and smaller. Fishers  in deforested areas, therefore, have a harder time catching the sizable fish they rely on for food and income.

Ultimately, “no deforestation at all just isn’t possible,” Lisa Famolare, vice president of Conservation International’s Amazonia program, said to Human Nature in 2016. “For example, highly forested countries like Suriname and Guyana will likely have some deforestation as they develop. As we support these countries’ efforts to develop sustainably and avoid deforestation, we must also gain forest in other places.”

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  1. Suck it up, break it down: New hopes for cleaning up the Great Pacific Garbage Patch

Scientists are developing ways that could clean up the plastic in landfills and oceans.

Researchers from Britain’s University of Portsmouth and the U.S. Department of Energy’s National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) recently discovered a plastic-eating enzyme — by accident.

The scientists were examining the structure of a natural enzyme found in a waste recycling center a few years ago in Japan when they discovered that the enzyme could be a recycling solution for millions of tons of plastic bottles that are thrown into landfills each year.

But if plastic still makes it into the oceans, researchers have another idea.

A separate group of scientists recently built an unmanned robot that floats around polluted, urban waters to clean up trash like a Roomba of the sea.

The waste is collected in a basket which the robot then brings back to shore to be emptied, sorted and recycled. The design of the autonomous drone is modeled on a whale shark, which swims around with its mouth open to eat whatever crosses its path.

The robot is powered by rechargeable electric batteries, ensuring that it doesn’t pollute the environment through oil spillage or exhaust fumes. It produces zero carbon emissions and the device is designed to move slowly, allowing fish and birds to swim around it.

“I’m an accidental environmentalist,” said Richard Hardiman, who runs the project called WASTESHARK. “I started exploring where this trash goes — ocean gyres (circular currents), junk gyres, and they’re just full of plastic. I’m very glad that we’re now doing something to lessen the effects.”

One of the biggest and most famous places that ocean trash ends up is the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, which is about three times the size of France. This trash vortex spans waters from the West Coast of North America to Japan. These areas of spinning debris are linked together by the North Pacific Subtropical Convergence Zone. This area is where warm water from the South Pacific meets up with cooler water from the Arctic, which pushes all the trash to one area.

Discarded fishing nets make up almost half of the 80,000 metric tons of garbage floating at sea, and around 20 percent of the total volume of trash is debris from the 2011 Japanese tsunami. Trash is incredibly harmful to marine life. Loggerhead sea turtles often mistake plastic bags for jellyfish, their favorite food. Albatrosses mistake plastic resin pellets for fish eggs and feed them to chicks, which die of starvation or ruptured organs. Seals and other marine mammals can get entangled in abandoned plastic fishing nets.

Conservation International joined the Trash Free Seas Alliance last year to work on stopping plastics from entering the ocean in the first place.

“Half of all species of marine mammals, all known turtle species and 20 percent of seabird species are affected by plastic pollution in the ocean,” said Jen Howard, director for marine climate change at Conservation International’s Center for Oceans. “Plastic debris can pass on toxic substances to humans through consumption. It also causes destruction of habitats and has been shown to introduce non-native species carried long distances on floating debris.”

  1. Climate change affects women differently than men, and they respond differently because of it

In agrarian communities around the world, climate change is not an equal-opportunity problem.

Research has shown that the impacts of climate change — such as drought, floods, extreme weather events and reduced food and water security — frequently take a greater toll on women.

Women make up 70 percent of the world’s poor, meaning that as traditional food sources become more unpredictable and scarce due to changing climate conditions, women risk losing what are often their sole sources of food and income. Just as women are disproportionately affected by climate impacts, they also play crucial roles in preventing climate change and helping their communities adapt to it. For example, according to the U.N. Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO), women could increase yields on their farms by up to 30 percent if they had the same access to resources and services as men.

In the Maasai community in Kenya, cattle cared for by women have a higher survival percentage than those under the care of men during droughts. In South Africa, women traditionally fetch water for domestic use and crops, so they know more about local water supplies and the conditions of their water resources and were able to provide insight to Conservation International’s One Health-WASH project. And in Madagascar, when women were involved in decisions about the octopus fisheries, the community began closing the fisheries for several months at a time to allow them to recover.

“The women had more intimate knowledge of octopus fishing, and any decisions about managing it were going to affect their ability to make money for their families and put food on the table,” Kame Westerman, gender adviser at Conservation International, told Human Nature in March.

As countries discuss how to fight climate change, organizations are working to ensure that women and men are equally included in the decision-making process. A gender-responsive climate agreement, experts say, would ensure that the different needs of men and women are met as communities navigate the effects of climate change.

Morgan Lynch is a staff writer for Conservation International.

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