Tuesday, January 31, 2012

675. Jonathan Idema: Child of U.S. Imperialism Dies

By Douglas Martin, The New York Times, January 29, 2012

Jonathan K. Idema in Kabul, Afghanistan,
in 2004 (credit, Ahmad Massood, Reuters)
Jonathan K. Idema, a convicted con man who gained notoriety in post-invasion Afghanistan as a swaggering hunter of terrorists, then ignominy when he was imprisoned for taking Afghans hostage and torturing them, died Jan. 21 at his home in Bacalar, Mexico. He was 55.

Penny Alesi, a former girlfriend, said the cause was AIDS. A State Department spokesman confirmed the death.
Mr. Idema was a fast-talking, sunglasses-wearing, AK-47-toting fortune hunter and a flamboyant figure in Kabul, the capital, in the early 2000s. He flaunted his experience as a member of the Army’s Special Forces, or Green Berets. and let on that he was in cahoots with American and Afghan intelligence officials as he pursued the big rewards offered for leaders of Al Qaeda. He cultivated the news media, often with tall tales.
He provided broadcasters with videotape of supposed terrorist training camps; was interviewed as a covert operative by National Public Radio and Fox News; and insinuated himself into a book by the author Robin Moore, “The Hunt for Bin Laden.” Few knew he had served three years in federal prison in the 1990s on 58 counts of fraud. That information came out in 2004 when he was tried in Afghanistan for imprisoning and torturing eight men in a private jail that he and his civilian colleagues ran in the hope of getting information about terrorists and bounty money. (They wore uniforms with the American flag on the sleeves and called themselves Task Force Saber 7.) The case was widely compared to the abuse of prisoners at Abu Ghraib in Iraq.
His defense was that he had been working for the American and Afghan governments. Both denied it, although at the trial American military officials acknowledged taking his calls and once interrogating a suspect he had captured before releasing him.
“Perhaps if he did something successful, the government would pay attention to him,” a Western diplomat said to The New York Times.
Sentenced to 10 years in prison, Mr. Idema was pardoned by President Hamid Karzai after 3. He said he did not know Mr. Karzai’s reasons, nor why he had been given an apartment-style cell in prison with satellite television, Persian carpets and specially prepared meals.
Jonathan Keith Idema’s eventful life began May 30, 1956, in Poughkeepsie, N.Y., and ended in Mexico in a town on the Yucatan Peninsula, where he called himself Black Jack, ran a charter boat, was said to hold orgies and flew a pirate flag over his house.
He sued people constantly. One was Steven Spielberg. Mr. Idema contended that he was the basis of the George Clooney character, a Special Forces operative, in the 1997 movie “The Peacemaker,” produced by Mr. Spielberg’s company, DreamWorks. The claim was dismissed, and Mr. Idema was ordered to pay $267,079 in legal fees.
His father said Mr. Idema had been an Eagle Scout. He himself said the direction of his life was set when he saw the 1968 John Wayne movie “The Green Berets,” loosely based on a book by Mr. Moore. Mr. Idema joined the Green Berets after enlisting in the Army at 18. The Vietnam War was ending, and he saw no combat, though he later claimed he did.
He was honorably discharged but not allowed to re-enlist, according to testimony in a 1994 trial. An Army evaluation made public at the trial had described him as “unmotivated, unprofessional, immature.”
During the 1980s he did security work in Haiti and Thailand. He said he sometimes took his dog, Sarge, who parachuted out of airplanes with him and sniffed for bombs.
Back at home, he was arrested as many as 36 times in the 1980s and 1990s on various charges, including possession of stolen property and assault with a firearm. He was never convicted.
In 1991 he went to Lithuania to train local police officers. There, he contended, he discovered a black market in backpack-size nuclear weapons, though many weapons experts consider the existence of such weapons unlikely. He nevertheless contributed to a “60 Minutes” segment on the issue. When the F.B.I. asked him to reveal his Lithuanian sources, he refused. His refusal, he later claimed, prompted a federal prosecution against him for business fraud.
That business was making products for paintball combat games. He was convicted of purchasing materials using faked credit references.

Mr. Idema went to Afghanistan in November 2001 to make a documentary for National Geographic on humanitarian efforts there, but he soon abandoned the project and turned to bounty hunting and fighting. He began calling himself Jack and telling journalists he was an adviser to the Northern Alliance, the Afghan group then trying to oust the ruling Taliban. He became a regular on conservative talk radio in the United States.

In 2002, he provided what he said were Qaeda training videos to “60 Minutes II,” which broadcast them. Rolling Stone magazine quoted Dan Rather as saying that Mr. Idema was “an adventurer with a conscience.”
He had a temper. He once fired a shot within six inches of the head of a reporter for The Dallas Morning News. He threatened to punch the broadcast journalist Geraldo Rivera.
Mr. Idema made big, unprovable boasts. One was that he had discovered handwritten Qaeda plans to assassinate President Bill Clinton at a Malaysian summit meeting in 1998. Mr. Clinton did not attend, but Vice President Al Gore did. No attack was attempted.
Interested in his exploits, Mr. Moore, who had Parkinson’s disease, enlisted Mr. Idema to help write the 2003 book “Task Force Dagger: The Hunt for Bin Laden.” Mr. Idema ended up writing and rewriting chapters, mostly to glorify the “Jack” character — himself. Mr. Moore later disavowed the changes.
After his release from the Afghan prison, Mr. Idema did not return to the United States. Ms. Alesi, his former girlfriend, said he feared being prosecuted there for any number of things. Instead he went to Dubai and then England before moving to Mexico.

Sunday, January 29, 2012

674. Book Review: The Origins of AIDS

By Peter Piot, Science, December 3,  2011: Vol. 334 no. 6063 pp. 1642-1643 
The Origins of AIDS by Jacques Pepin Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 2011. 309 pp. $85, £45. ISBN 9781107006638. Paper, $28.99, £17.99. ISBN 9780521186377.
Since the investigation of the first known outbreak of Ebola hemorrhagic fever in 1976 in Yambuku area, Zaire (now Democratic Republic of Congo), which was largely due to unsafe medical injections, I have been fascinated by the sometimes devastating consequences of medical injections. Add to this the finding that between 1976 and 1986 HIV prevalence remained unchanged at 0.8% in the same region (1), and I read Jacques Pepin's The Origins of AIDS in one go.
Pepin, an infectious disease specialist at the Université de Sherbrooke, Quebec, has vast experience as a clinician and epidemiologist in Africa. In this concise book, he draws on three decades of scientific and historical research to comprehensively address one of the big enigmas of medical history: the origin of AIDS—a disease first reported only as recently as 1981. Thanks to extraordinarily meticulous virological, genetic, and ecological studies, we have very strong evidence that HIV-1 stems from the genetically very close strains of simian immunodeficiency virus (SIVcpz) of the chimpanzee Pan troglodytes troglodytes from central Africa. However, the course and causes of the initial spread of HIV-1 in humans after the virus crossed host species remain unclear, with very few of the details firmly established.
Pepin confronts us in great detail with some puzzling facts that suggest the epidemic that to date has infected over 60 million people originated with fewer than ten people scattered over central Africa. During the first decades of the 20th century, each of these ten became infected with one of four genetic groups of HIV-1 (M, N, O, and P) from chimpanzees. Pepin's central thesis is that medical injections and procedures jump-started the HIV epidemic in Africa, building up a critical mass of HIV-infected individuals. This mass then ultimately gave rise to a predominantly sexually transmitted epidemic. He agrees with most other experts in the field that today medical injections play only a minor role in the global spread of HIV. And he summarizes the overwhelming evidence against Edward Hooper's hypothesis (2) that the emergence of the disease “was triggered by the contamination of an oral polio vaccine with a simian immunodeficiency virus through the use of chimpanzee cells during vaccine production.”
The author makes some brave assumptions and extrapolations from mostly isolated facts—just as paleontologists have no choice but to draw a complete skeleton on the basis of a few pieces of bones, date it, and estimate the place of the new individual in human evolution. Tapping the archives and medical literature of the colonial powers in West and Central Africa, he presents a plethora of details going back to as far as the beginning of the 20th century. They reveal little-known and sometimes shocking elements of not-so-distant medical history, such as a French colonial surgeon implanting chimpanzee testicles in men seeking eternal youth and experimental injections of chimpanzee blood in patients with syphilis in Belgium.
On the basis of both contemporary concepts of transmissibility and historic demographic and behavioral data, Pepin suggests that the efficiency of sexual transmission of HIV-1 was too low to enable the virus to spread beyond a few individuals. He then shows how mass campaigns organized by French and Belgian colonial administrations to treat tropical diseases such as yaws, sleeping sickness, leprosy, syphilis, and malaria exposed hundreds of thousands of people to intravenous or intramuscular injections with potentially contaminated needles and glass syringes. These campaigns affected both rural and urban populations, and in areas of habitat of P. troglodytes troglodytes north of the Congo River they may have been the defining factor in slowly building up enough infected individuals to sustain human HIV-1 infection. For decades the reproductive rate Ro of HIV-1 in Africa was clearly around 1, and AIDS remained at very low prevalence levels. But eventually a fatal combination of urbanization, prostitution, and mass treatment of sexually transmitted infections generated a perfect storm in Léopoldville (now Kinshasa), the capital of Belgian Congo, for amplifying the spread of the disease. The presence of over 4000 Haitian United Nations employees during the turbulent years after the independence of Congo in 1960 probably led to the introduction of HIV-1 in Haiti. The rest of the story is well documented.
The Origins of AIDS presents the defining pandemic of our modern times as a tragedy embedded in colonization, urbanization, and public health campaigns. It reminds us that well-intentioned human interventions can have unpredictable and disastrous microbiologic consequences. Extensively referenced, the well-written book reads like a detective story, while at the same time providing a didactic introduction to epidemiology and evolutionary genetics. As far as the origins of AIDS are concerned, unless some completely new evidence emerges, it will be difficult to come up with a better explanation than Pepin's. The role of medical injections in the initial spread of HIV in Africa is quite plausible. It is certainly consistent with more recent outbreaks of HIV among injecting drug users seen in various countries and with the massive iatrogenic epidemic of hepatitis C virus infection in Egypt as a result of mass treatment of schistosomiasis. Nonetheless, the actual key events in the spread of HIV-1 may not be covered by a rational model of average probabilities of transmission and behaviors As Pepin himself comments, we may never know whether “the pandemic was in essence caused by an unpredictable factor: bad luck.”
References and Notes
1.              N. Nzila, et al.,  N. Engl. J. Med. 318, 276 (1988).
 MedlineWeb of Science
2.              E. Hooper, The River: A Journey to the Source of HIV and AIDS (Penguin, London, 1999); reviewed in R. A. Weiss, Science 286, 1305 (1999).
FREE Full Text

The reviewer is at London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, Keppel Street, London WC1E 7HT, UK, E-mail: peter.piot@lshtm.ac.uk

Friday, January 27, 2012

673. In Honduras, a Mess Made in the U.S.

Obama welcomes Honduras president Lobo

By Dana Frank, The New York Times, January 26, 2012
IT’S time to acknowledge the foreign policy disaster that American support for the Porfirio Lobo administration in Honduras has become. Ever since the June 28, 2009, coup that deposed Honduras’s democratically elected president, José Manuel Zelaya, the country has been descending deeper into a human rights and security abyss. That abyss is in good part the State Department’s making.
The headlines have been full of horror stories about Honduras. According to the United Nations, it now has the world’s highest murder rate, and San Pedro Sula, its second city, is more dangerous than Ciudad Juárez, Mexico, a center for drug cartel violence.
Much of the press in the United States has attributed this violence solely to drug trafficking and gangs. But the coup was what threw open the doors to a huge increase in drug trafficking and violence, and it unleashed a continuing wave of state-sponsored repression.
The current government of President Lobo won power in a November 2009 election managed by the same figures who had initiated the coup. Most opposition candidates withdrew in protest, and all major international observers boycotted the election, except for the National Democratic Institute and the International Republican Institute, which are financed by the United States.
President Obama quickly recognized Mr. Lobo’s victory, even when most of Latin America would not. Mr. Lobo’s government is, in fact, a child of the coup. It retains most of the military figures who perpetrated the coup, and no one has gone to jail for starting it.
This chain of events — a coup that the United States didn’t stop, a fraudulent election that it accepted — has now allowed corruption to mushroom. The judicial system hardly functions. Impunity reigns. At least 34 members of the opposition have disappeared or been killed, and more than 300 people have been killed by state security forces since the coup, according to the leading human rights organization Cofadeh. At least 13 journalists have been killed since Mr. Lobo took office, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists.
The police in Tegucigalpa, the capital, are believed to have killed the son of Julieta Castellanos, the rector of the country’s biggest university, along with a friend of his, on Oct. 22, 2011. Top police officials quickly admitted their suspects were police officers, but failed to immediately detain them. When prominent figures came forward to charge that the police are riddled with death squads and drug traffickers, the most famous accuser was a former police commissioner, Alfredo Landaverde. He was assassinated on Dec. 7. Only now has the government begun to make significant arrests of police officers.
State-sponsored repression continues. According to Cofadeh, at least 43 campesino activists participating in land struggles in the Aguán Valley have been killed in the past two and a half years at the hands of the police, the military and the private security army of Miguel Facussé. Mr. Facussé is mentioned in United States Embassy cables made public by WikiLeaks as the richest man in the country, a big supporter of the post-coup regime and owner of land used to transfer cocaine.
And yet, in early October, Mr. Obama praised Mr. Lobo at the White House for leadership in a “restoration of democratic practices.” Since the coup the United States has maintained and in some areas increased military and police financing for Honduras and has been enlarging its military bases there, according to an analysis by the Fellowship of Reconciliation. Congress, though, has finally begun to push back. Last May, 87 members signed a letter to Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton calling for a suspension of military and police aid to Honduras. Representative Howard L. Berman of California, the ranking Democrat on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, wrote to her on Nov. 28, asking whether the United States was arming a dangerous regime. And in December, Senator Patrick J. Leahy, Democrat of Vermont, and others obtained conditions on a small portion of the 2012 police and military aid appropriated for Honduras.
Why has the State Department thrown itself behind the Lobo administration despite brutal evidence of the regime’s corruption? In part because it has caved in to the Cuban-American constituency of Representative Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, the Republican chairwoman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, and her allies. They have been ferocious about Honduras as a first domino with which to push back against the line of center-left and leftist governments that have won elections in Latin America in the past 15 years. With its American air base, Honduras is also crucial to the United States’ military strategy in Latin America.
As Honduras plunges into a tragic abyss, it’s time to finally cut off all police and military aid. “Stop feeding the beast” is the way Ms. Castellanos, the academician whose son was killed, puts it. She, like other human rights advocates, insists that the Lobo government cannot reform itself.
The State Department is beginning to help address the situation behind the scenes. But Honduran human-rights activists, along with many of us in the United States who care about Honduras, do not believe that this administration can, or should, manage a cleanup of the very cesspool it helped to create by supporting a government that owes its power to a coup.
Instead, we need to respect proposals for alternative approaches that Honduran human-rights advocates and the opposition are beginning to formulate. These come from people who are still fighting against the coup and who continue to risk paying the price of being shot dead by state security forces.
They, not the State Department, have the right to lead their country forward.
Dana Frank, a professor of history at the University of California, Santa Cruz, is at work on a book about the A.F.L.-C.I.O.’s cold-war intervention in the Honduran labor movement.

672. Japanese Experts Question Safety of—and Need for—Nuclear Power

Portest against nuclear power in Tokyo

By Dennis Normile, Science Insider, January 27, 2012
TOKYO—Japan is preparing for the possibility of a summer without nuclear power as utilities and safety experts squabble over the safety of the country's remaining reactors. And a key government minister is calling the power industry's bluff—that blackouts will occur if plants idled for inspection are not brought online—by saying the nation could avoid disruption by relying on conservation and thermal power.
By law, nuclear power plants must be periodically shut down for maintenance and inspection; utilities need national and local permission to restart operations. In the wake of the Fukushima disaster, last summer the governing Democratic Party of Japan required "stress tests," analyses of a facility's ability to withstand natural disasters, to be part of the periodic inspection routine. That analysis was carried out for two reactors at a plant in Ohi on the Japan Sea coast and submitted for review to Japan's Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency (NISA), which concluded they had passed. Operator Kansai Electric Power is seeking approval to restart the two reactors.
But today two members of a NISA advisory committee called the stress tests flawed and "not proof of safety." At a press conference, Hiromitsu Ino, a materials scientist and professor emeritus at the University of Tokyo, and Masashi Goto, a former nuclear power plant designer, said their concerns were simply ignored in the final report.
Ino said there are nine issues the stress tests failed to address. He said the criteria for the tests should reflect lessons learned from the Fukushima disaster, but that the studies into the sequence of events that led to the cascade of failures are ongoing. Without the results of those studies, he says, the criteria being used are "subjective and unclear." He notes that the stress tests called for checking facility resistance to shaking 1.8 times the design earthquake, yet seismologists have noted that those design events are based on the historical record and it is now clear that much more powerful earthquakes have occurred over geologic time. The analyses also do not consider the inevitable degradation over time of a reactor's materials.
Meanwhile, Economy, Trade and Industry Minister Yukio Edano was reported in this morning's Asahi Shimbun (newspaper) as saying it is conceivable that none of the country's nuclear power plants will be operating this summer because of the difficulty of gaining local approval to restart. Of Japan's 54 nuclear reactors, only three are currently operating, and they must shut down for periodic inspection by the end of April.
Although gaining local approval is not legally required, Edano's comments indicate that the national government might support the stance of local officials, which puts a very high hurdle in front of the utilities. The governor of Fukui Prefecture, which hosts the Ohi nuclear power plant, is on record as opposing the restart of any commercial nuclear power plants. "I am hoping that in this situation decisions will reflect what local people want," Ino said.
Edano told the newspaper that thermal power and conservation efforts should get the country through the summer without the cutbacks and blackouts imposed last year. He added that his ministry is working on countermeasures to handle reduced power output.
A new national energy policy is due by the end of the summer, and observers expect it could call for a phase-out of nuclear power. A sudden and permanent shut down of all reactors, however, would be a huge surprise.

671. Who Owns the World?

World Economic Forum at Davos, Switzerland, 2011

By Nick Buxton,  Transnational Institute, January 27, 2012

This week as the world's elites met in the swiss skiing village of Davos, Transational Institute's (TNI) Corporate Power project launched a series of powerful infographics, to expose the Global 0.001%, the corporations they run and the cost of corporate power.

The infographics can be seen here: http://www.tni.org/report/state-corporate-power-2012

Some of the most compelling stats that stand out from the infographics are:
                8 of the top 10 richest companies in the world are fossil fuel companies
                1% of the world's companies, almost all banks, control 40% of the shares of the world's major corporations
                0.15% of the world's population control two-thirds of world GDP, and with their assets could pay the costs of universal and primary school education for 190 year. 
                A tiny percentage of the global population, 0.001%, control $15.4 trillion dollars
                the extensive corporate ties of those who have pushed forward the neoliberal project
Over the next few months, TNI will be producing a further series of infographics looking more closely at issues of land, water, energy, trade and investment.

We very much hope you will help build the growing global awareness on inequality and corporate power by sharing these infographics with your own networks and friends. I suggest some options for promotion below.

Thanks for your support.

Nick Buxton

PS. Options for promoting the TNI infographics

                Send around an email to your lists or friends promoting the infographics among your networks.
                If you are on Facebook, go to our Facebook gallery and share with your friends
                If you are on twitter, tweet about the infographics. You can retweet this: https://twitter.com/#!/transinstitute/status/162630624639860736 or any one of the recent tweets on each infographic by TNI'
                If you have an email list or newsletter on different topics, put a link as a PS or as "recommended"
                If you are reading a news article on a similar subject, consider adding a comment and post a link through to the website
Thanks for any support you can give.

twitter: @nickbuxton
skype: nickbuxton

Sign up to TNI's fortnightly e-news: http://www.tni.org/civicrm/mailing/subscribe

Thursday, January 26, 2012

670. Deforestation of the Amazon in Brazil Continues

By Alexei Barrionevo, The New York Times, January 24, 2012

Deforestation in Brazil, driven largely by clearing land for cattle,
as in Mato Grosso, above, has lessened. But there has been
a shift under President Dilma Rousseff.
SÃO PAULO, Brazil — Brazil has made great strides in recent years in slowing Amazon deforestation and showing the world it was serious about protecting the mammoth rain forest.

The government has used police raids, as in the state of Pará, above, to find illegal deforesters.

The rate of deforestation fell by 80 percent over the past six years, as the government carved out about 150 million acres for conservation — an area roughly the size of France — and used police raids and other tactics to crack down on illegal deforesters, according to both environmentalists and the government. Brazil’s former environment minister, Marina Silva, became an internationally respected defender of the Amazon. She ran for president in 2010 on the Green Party ticket and won 19.4 percent of the votes.
But since Dilma Rousseff was elected president in late 2010, there have been signs of a shift in the government’s attitude toward the Amazon. A provisional measure now allows the president to decrease the lands already created for conservation. The government is granting more flexibility for large infrastructure projects during the environmental licensing process. And a proposal would give Brazil’s Congress veto power over the recognition of indigenous territories.
“What is happening in Brazil is the biggest backsliding that we could ever imagine with regards to environmental policies,” said Ms. Silva, who now devotes her time to environmental advocacy.
Now, a bill seeking to overhaul the 47-year-old Forest Code, a central piece of environmental legislation, is the most serious test yet of Ms. Rousseff’s stance on the environment.
The debate over the law has revealed the stark disconnect between a population that is increasingly supportive of conserving the Amazon and a Congress in which agricultural interests in the country’s rural north and northeast still hold sway. The furor comes as Brazil is set to hold a United Nations conference on sustainable development in Rio de Janeiro in June.
Before taking office last January, Ms. Rousseff promised to veto any revision of the Forest Code that granted amnesty to landowners who had previously deforested illegally. Then her government negotiated a version of the code, approved by the Senate in December, that would give amnesty to farmers who broke the law before 2008 — provided they agreed to plant new trees. The House is expected to debate the legislation once again in March, with Ms. Rousseff holding final veto power.
The fight over the Forest Code has stoked the age-old struggle over development versus conservation in Brazil, a country that bears the weight of international pressure to protect the Amazon from deforestation because its sheer scale could affect global climatic conditions. Ms. Rousseff, a former energy minister, has so far flashed a more pro-development stance, environmentalists say, shifting the balance from the administration of her predecessor, Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, who appointed Ms. Silva.
Agriculture represents 22 percent of Brazil’s gross domestic product. The so-called ruralists in Congress say that the old code is holding back Brazil’s agricultural potential and that it needs updating to allow more land to be opened up to production. Environmentalists counter that there is already enough land available to double production and that the proposed changes would open the door to a surge in deforestation.
Last May, the House approved a more sweeping amnesty for those who had illegally deforested, outraging environmentalists and scientists. It did not help that the deputies refused to receive a group of respected Brazilian scientists that issued a report condemning the changes.
“In the House, there was very little consultation with scientists,” said Carlos Nobre, a scientist at Brazil’s National Institute for Space Research who specializes in climate issues. Still, he said, scientists “waited too long to realize that the House wanted to radically change the Forest Code, creating a broad and unrestricted license to deforest.”
Ms. Silva, who was raised in the Amazon, resigned in 2008 after a backlash by rural governors to restrictions on illegal deforestation she had put in place. But she left what environmentalists consider an effective policy to control Amazon deforestation. Among other tactics, Mr. da Silva’s government used satellite images to home in on deforesters, organized police raids and blacklisted the worst offenders.
“The ruralists have pushed so much to change the Forest Code because the government actually started enforcing it under Marina Silva,” said Stephan Schwartzman, director for tropical forest policy at the Environmental Defense Fund in Washington.
The vote in the House showed how heavily represented the less developed north and northeast are in Brazil’s Congress, a relic of the military dictatorship.

“The skewed proportional representation in Brazil has shown that the environmentalists have much less power in Congress than they have in public opinion,” said Gilberto Câmara, director of the National Institute for Space Research, which monitors Amazon deforestation.

Days after the House vote last May, a poll by Datafolha showed that 85 percent of Brazilians believed the reformed code should prioritize forests and rivers, even if it came at the expense of agricultural production.
After weeks of debate, the bill the Senate approved in December was somewhat more palatable to environmentalists. Rather than outright amnesty for past illegal deforestation, the Senate version lets farmers replant to avoid fines. The legislation now goes back to the House.
“We have to reconcile the generation of income with sustainability,” Izabella Teixeira, the current environment minister, said after the vote.
For Marcos Jank, president of the Brazilian Sugarcane Industry Association, a major reason to change the code is to legalize countless Amazon properties lacking land titles that have complicated the tracking of illegal activity. “When you have a Forest Code that legalizes land titles, then that has the effect of reducing deforestation, not increasing it,” he said.
The government claims the code will reforest about 60 million acres, much of it in the Amazon, which the Environment Ministry calls “the largest reforestation program in the world.” But who will pay for all those new trees? And will the government enforce the replanting requirements?
“The small producers don’t have the money to replant,” Mr. Jank said. “You need to develop programs to help them.”
There are also questions about the size of lands being exempted from the legal requirement to preserve 80 percent of the trees in Amazon properties. The new law would exempt “small” properties of up to four “fiscal modules,” which in the Amazon are almost 1,000 acres combined.
“That is a large property in any part of the world,” Mr. Nobre said. “I see great risk here if this definition is maintained.”
Despite the concerns, there is no denying that deforestation in Brazil, driven largely by clearing land for inefficient cattle grazing, has been on a downward trend. Beyond that, a new generation of satellites over the next two years will give Brazil access to images from seven satellites, up from the current two.
If people abide by the law — a big if — Mr. Câmara and other scientists are predicting that the Brazilian Amazon has a chance by 2020 to become a “carbon sink,” in which the amount of forest being replanted is larger than the amount being deforested.
“President Rousseff is extremely aware of this,” Mr. Câmara said. “When I told her, she almost fell off her chair.”
But to make that happen, “there has to be very strong government financing and support for people to recover the forest,” he said.

669. Song Birds and Bats Suffer from Mercury Poisoning

Wood Thrush suffers neurological disorder
caused by mercury poisoning
By Anthony De Palma, The New York Times, January 23, 2012

The strict new federal standards limiting pollution from power plants are meant to safeguard human health. But they should have an important side benefit, according to a study being released on Tuesday: protecting a broad array of wildlife that has been harmed by mercury emissions.

The little brown bat, which is already stressed by white-nose syndrome, is another species affected by mercury exposure.
Songbirds and bats suffer some of the same types of neurological disorders from mercury as humans and especially children do, says the study, “Hidden Risk,” by the Biodiversity Research Institute, a nonprofit organization in Gorham, Me., that investigates emerging environmental threats.
Methylmercury, the most toxic form of the heavy metal, was found to be widespread throughout the Northeast — not just in lakes and rivers, as had already been known, but also in forests, on mountaintops and in bogs and marshes that are home to birds long thought to be at minimal risk.
The new study found dangerously high levels of mercury in several Northeastern bird species, including rusty blackbirds, saltmarsh sparrows and wood thrushes. Previous studies have shown mercury’s effects on loons and other fish-eating waterfowl, as well as bald eagles, panthers and otters. In one study, zebra finches lost the ability to hit high notes in mating songs when mercury levels rose, affecting reproduction.
“We’re seeing many other species in a much larger landscape of harm from mercury,” said the principal author, David C. Evers, who is the institute’s executive director. He called the Environmental Protection Agency’s new mercury standards, adopted last month and scheduled to take effect over the next four years, “an excellent step forward in reducing and minimizing the impact on ecosystems and improving ecological health, and therefore our own health.”
Mercury, which occurs naturally in the earth, is released into the air when coal is burned in power plants. The gaseous mercury can drift hundreds of miles before settling back to earth, sometimes along with rain. The mercury can be absorbed by tree leaves; when they fall to the ground they are swarmed by bacteria and other organisms that convert the mercury to its organic form. The organic form, methylmercury, is a neurotoxin that can enter the food chain. Small insects, worms and snails that feed on forest litter absorb the mercury. In turn, they are eaten by birds and other small animals, and so on through the food chain.
Dr. Evers said levels of contamination were highest in habitats like marshes and beaver ponds that go through cycles of wet and dry, even if they are far from power plants. He also found that threshold levels at which some species begin to feel the effects of mercury are much lower than previously thought.
Songbirds with blood mercury levels of just 0.7 parts per million generally showed a 10 percent reduction in the rate at which eggs successfully hatched. As mercury increases, reproduction decreases. At mercury levels of greater than 1.7 parts per million, the ability of eggs to hatch is reduced by more than 30 percent, according to the study.
Over all, birds in contaminated sites were found to be three times as likely to abandon their nests or exhibit abnormal incubation or feeding behavior. In some nests, the chicks seemed to have been affected most; they vocalized less and did not beg as aggressively to be fed.
Such consequences mimic the effects of mercury on humans whose primary contact with the toxin is through the consumption of fish. The contamination can be passed to children in the womb or while they are nursing, damaging their nervous systems and impairing their ability to learn.
“It’s incredibly important that someone is following what is happening to these birds,” said Joanna Burger, a behavioral ecologist at Rutgers University who has studied mercury contamination in animals. “The birds not only act as sentinels to what is happening in nature, but the results of these studies propose hypotheses for effects that have not yet been identified for people.” 
Dr. Evers has been studying mercury in terrestrial species for 11 years across 11 states, from Virginia to Maine, continually adding new species and ecosystems. In the latest study, done in cooperation with the Nature Conservancy, biologists found that little brown bats, already stressed by white nose syndrome in the Northeast, accumulate substantial amounts of mercury because they can live up to 30 years — three times as long as songbirds.
The mercury is believed to cause bats to act erratically, and in some cases to lose their adeptness at avoiding wind turbine blades.
“What people don’t realize is that our rain isn’t just acidic,” said Timothy H. Tear, director of science for the Nature Conservancy in New York. “It is neurotoxic.”
The effects of mercury can lead to the degradation of entire ecosystems, Dr. Tear explained. “You don’t see birds falling off tree limbs because they have too much mercury,” he said, “but they’re not doing the job they used to.”