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Politics and penguins: The fight to save Antarctica

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On January 27, 1820, Russian explorer Fabian von Bellingshausen gazed excitedly through his binoculars upon the long sought after terra incognita, the land we know today as Antarctica.

Three days later a British expedition, led by Irish naval officer Edward Bransfield, spotted the tip of the Antarctic Peninsula. The next year, in 1821, John Davis, an American sealer and explorer, was the first person to step foot on mainland Antarctica.

The discovery of the Antarctic continent came at a time when planetary concerns were more about territory claimed than the climate crisis, but the sights they beheld two centuries ago remain just as dramatic and breathtaking today. The question is – for how much longer?

Not yet the realm of man

In 2018, I was part of a scientific expedition on board the icebreaker Arctic Sunrise exploring the Antarctic Peninsula. We pushed through into the remote wilderness of the Weddell Sea.

“It’s hard to imagine any human influence here as the Arctic Sunrise gently pushes through a sea of ice,” I wrote.

“A lone ship in an unexplored sea. It cannot feel more isolated, remote and just stunning.

“Here too exists a spectacular festival of life. It is the realm of blue whales and orcas, of leopard seals and penguins and myriad marine animals, of thousands of species yet to be discovered. It is not yet the realm of man. And many want to keep it that way.”

Indeed the purpose of that 2018 expedition (above) was to provide backup science for a bid to create a vast Marine Protected Area (MPA) in the Weddell Sea.

That year the bid failed, stymied by objections from Russia, China and Norway at the annual meeting of the Commission for the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources (CCAMLR), the international body that oversees marine conservation in Antarctica.

But this month a new, repurposed version comes under scrutiny, at a time when protection of our oceans is more important than ever.

Andrea Kavanagh oversees the Pew Charitable Trusts’ efforts to protect Antarctica’s Southern Ocean, especially from overfishing.

“We can’t afford to delay reducing the impacts of commercial fishing because climate change impacts are already damaging the region with ever-increasing temperatures,” she told Al Jazeera.

There is a big push to reduce the continuing assault on crucial krill fisheries. These crustaceans are at the heart of the Antarctic marine food web, serving as a main food source for the region’s iconic animals such as blue whales, fur seals and penguins. But factory ships are hoovering up the krill in ever-increasing quantities, threatening the delicate food chain.

Studies show that designating MPAs would protect the region’s unique marine ecosystem for generations to come and actually boost fisheries on the outside of the protected zones.

Marine parks

This year there are three marine parks up for designation – in the East Antarctic, the Weddell Sea, and the Antarctic Peninsula. Together that equates to more than three million square kilometres (1.8 million square miles) of the Southern Ocean that could be regulated and protected from all kinds of human activity.

The governments of Chile and Argentina have thrown their weight behind the push to protect waters around the Antarctic Peninsula. A joint scientific expedition to the region was recently the subject of a spectacular documentary filmed by National Geographic’s Pristine Seas project.

Evidence of the deterioration of this vital wilderness was abundant. Mercedes Santos of the Argentine Antarctic Institute said they use penguins as indicators of ecosystem health.

“In the [penguin] colonies where we work there has been a 70 percent reduction in size,” Mercedes said. “That’s a worrisome number. Lots of failures. It’s sad. We know that Antarctica, that the Antarctic Peninsula is changing very quickly.”

And just as telling is the state of the sea ice. Lieutenant Commander Engelbert Mori is chief of the Chilean Arturo Prat research base on the South Shetland Islands.

“We have meteorological data since 1947,” he said. “In the past, 20 years ago, the ocean was frozen for four to six months. Now it freezes for only a month or a month and a half. The climate has changed here in Antarctica.”

A virtual affair

This year the CCAMLR meeting is, of course, a virtual affair, ramping up the challenge of achieving consensus without the benefit of face-to-face meetings.

But 2020 not only marks 200 years since the discovery of Antarctica; it will also see the 61st anniversary of the Antarctic Treaty. And that was an agreement reached at the height of the Cold War when countries agreed to protect an entire continent.

The only thing that prevents proposals like these from getting over the line is a lack of political will. Surely that now has to change, to protect a threatened continental ecosystem that has evolved in perfect and fragile balance over thousands and thousands of years.

Your environment round-up

1. Carbon cuts: In a bid reach net-zero emissions by 2050, a group of top asset owners, whose portfolios have a combined worth of $5 trillion, have committed to phasing out between 16 and 29 percent of carbon emissions linked to their investments during the next four years.

2. Wind power: Last week, Prime Minister Boris Johnson announced plans to funnel 160 million British pounds ($207m) into manufacturing sites for wind turbines as part of the UK’s “green industrial revolution” scheme. Johnson says the UK will become “the world leader in clean wind energy”.

3. Decarbonising cargo: As planes are grounded and shipping routes disrupted under lockdown, Berlin-based journalist Paul Hockeno makes the case for decarbonising trade routes over land and sea.

4. Battling wildfires: Embers – small, glowing and easy-to-miss pieces of wood or debris – are responsible for igniting 90 percent of homes and buildings during wildfires, according to the Insurance Institute for Business and Home Safety in the United States. But researchers are finding ways to model and track these windborne fire starters and create ember-resistant buildings to beat them.

The final word

Tipping points are so dangerous because if you pass them, the climate is out of humanity’s control: if an ice sheet disintegrates and starts to slide into the ocean there’s nothing we can do about that.

James Hansen, American climatologist

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US to base Coast Guard ships in western Pacific to tackle China

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The United States will deploy Coast Guard patrol ships in the western Pacific to counter what it described as “destabilizing and malign” activities in the region by China, the country’s top security adviser said on Friday.

The US Coast Guard was “strategically homeporting significantly enhanced Fast Response Cutters … in the western Pacific,” White House National Security Advisor Robert O’Brien said in a statement.

Describing the US as a Pacific power, the statement added that China’s “illegal, unreported, and unregulated fishing, and harassment of vessels operating in the exclusive economic zones of other countries in the Indo-Pacific threatens our sovereignty, as well as the sovereignty of our Pacific neighbors and endangers regional stability”.

It said US efforts, including by the Coast Guard, were “critical to countering these destabilizing and malign actions.”

The Coast Guard did not immediately respond to a request for comment on the statement, which came just ahead of a planned visit to Asia by US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo.

US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo (left) and Australia’s Foreign Minister Marise Payne pose prior to their bilateral meeting in Tokyo on October 6, 2020 ahead of the four Indo-Pacific nations’ foreign ministers meeting. – (Photo by CHARLY TRIBALLEAU / POOL / AFP)

Pompeo led a meeting of the so-called Quad in Tokyo this month. Washington hopes the grouping of the US, Japan, India and Australia can act as a bulwark against China’s growing assertiveness and extensive maritime claims in the region, including to nearly all of the South China Sea.

On Sunday, Pompeo will begin a five-day tour of India – where he will be accompanied by US Defense Secretary Mark Esper – and then he will continue on to Sri Lanka, Maldives, and Indonesia. Maritime security and a “free and open Indo-Pacific” will be high on the agenda, the State Department said.

Incursions

In July, Esper condemned a “catalogue of bad behaviour” in the South China Sea over the previous months, accusing the Chinese military of having sunk a Vietnamese fishing boat, harassing Malaysian oil and gas vessels and escorting Chinese fishing fleets into Indonesia’s exclusive economic zone.

O’Brien added that the Coast Guard, which is under the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), was also studying whether to permanently station several of its patrol ships in the area of American Samoa in the South Pacific.

Last month, Indonesia protested after Chinese coastguard ships travelled into its exclusive economic zone, which is situated between its own territorial waters and international waters and where the state claims exclusive rights to develop natural resources.

China claims almost the whole of the South China Sea as its own. Vietnam, Malaysia, Taiwan, and the Philippines also claim the parts of the sea nearest to their shores.

The US Navy regularly conducts what it calls “freedom of navigation” operations in the disputed sea – angering China, which has developed military outposts on islands and islets.

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An island built from coral: How Indonesia’s Bajau made a home

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Bungin Island, Sumbawa, Indonesia – Scattered across many of the islands and coastal communities in Southeast Asia, the Bajau, numbering about one million people, are the world’s largest remaining group of sea nomads. But their culture is under threat.

In the Sulu Sea between Borneo and the Philippines, where the Bajau have roamed the ocean for 1,000 years, insurrection by the Abu Sayyaf armed group has led to an increased military presence and curfews restricting movements on both sides of the border.

On the islands of southern Thailand, where the group are known as Moken, they live in stilt shanties that cling like barnacles to coastlines that are rapidly being consumed by buildings built for tourists.

In Indonesia and peninsula Malaysia, many Bajau have given up ocean-based life by marrying people from local communities and seeking jobs in the cities.

But one Bajau community on the Indonesian island of Sumbawa has preserved its unique way of life by building their own islet out of coral, allowing it to evolve separately from the mainland.

With 3,500 residents on just 8.5 hectares (21 acres) of land, Bungin Island also stands out as the most densely populated of Indonesia’s 17,000 islands.

No crime

When the first Bajau arrived in Sumbawa from the southern Philippines 200 years ago, Bungin Island was just a sandbank on the north coast. In the Bajo language, Bungin means “a mound of white sand”.

Traditionally, the Bajau harvested coral to make foundations for their homes, expanding what was once a sandbank [Ian Neubauer/Al Jazeera]

They built their spartan stilt houses on the sand, but as their numbers grew, they enlarged the island by harvesting coral to build foundations for houses on low-lying sections of the surrounding reef. With the help of relatives and friends, it typically takes a week to build a 70-square metre (172-square acre) plot and structure.

“We have a good life here and we have enough money because all the time, every day and night, we are looking for fish,” said Surat, a Bungin Island elder, who like many Indonesians goes by only one name.

The Bajau are accomplished fishermen and free-divers who can remain underwater for as long as eight minutes on a single breath. Some children have their eardrums pierced to prevent them from bursting from water pressure while diving.

Studies of Bajau who start diving from young have shown their spleens, the organs which store oxygenated red blood cells, are 50 percent bigger than average.

Bungin Island has also developed a strong sense of community. When the heat of the day eases at dusk, people come out onto the tightly packed streets to shop, mingle, eat and pray in the mosque.

The Bajau are renowned for their ability to free dive and are famous for their salted fish [Ian Neubauer/Al Jazeera]

Indonesians are renowned for their hospitality but on Bungin Island they really roll out the red carpet, sharing drinks, meals, laughter and conversation with visitors. And apparently, there is no crime on the islet.

“We don’t have locks on our doors,” said Rizky, Surat’s neighbour. “Everyone knows each other so it’s not possible to steal anything here.”

‘The problem with corona’

The nature of the sea gypsies’ lifestyle means they have missed out on many basic services.

Bajau communities in Indonesia are lacking “in the areas of health and education … [and] many Bajau are illiterate,” found the Joshua Project, a research project focused on Indigenous cultures with Christian minorities.

In the mid-1990s, the Indonesian government embarked on several large infrastructure projects to drag Bungin Island into the 21st century.

It built a wide sand causeway linking the island to the mainland and making it easier for islanders to sell their salted fish at mainland markets.

Nearly all the Bajau on Bungin island are Sunni Muslims [Ian Neubauer/Al Jazeera]

It also built a large government school on the mainland-end of the causeway and connected the islet to the national power grid. And tackled overcrowding by shipping in thousands of tonnes of sand to reclaim an additional 2.5 hectares (6.1 acres) of land from the seafloor.

The causeway also had an unintended effect – it turned Bungin Island into Sumbawa’s leading attraction for domestic tourists who would come to marvel at the paper-eating goats.

As plants cannot grow on the islet, the domesticated goats that roam the streets search instead for paper, cardboard and cloth. For many children, the highlight of visiting the islet was to feed the goats pages from their exercise books. For adults, it was long lazy lunches at Resto Apung, a floating seafood restaurant and fish farm with breathtaking coast and mountain views.

But when Indonesia temporarily banned domestic travel in April to mitigate the spread of COVID-19, tourism came to an end. With Indonesia’s coronavirus outbreak still surging, it has yet to recover.

“We had many tourists before the problem with corona,” said Surat. “But as we live so close together it is impossible to socially distance. The restaurant and our guesthouse had to close.”

Rubbish dump

The causeway has also brought more worrying problems.

Plastic and other household waste has collected around the shore of Bungin Island [Ian Neubauer/Al Jazeera]

Before it was built, islanders ate only seafood, some greens and ric, and used organic materials like coconut shells and palm fronds as bags.

Easy access to the mainland introduced cheap packaged foods, water bottles and plastic bags and no waste management system to deal with it.

The result is that Bungin Island has been turned into a rubbish dump; its shores are carpeted with tonnes of rotting waste – all of which ends up in the delicate marine ecosystem the Bajau depend on to survive.

When asked about the problem, islanders laugh – a typical Indonesian response to awkward questions and social situations.

But a study published by the University of Queensland in July on plastic literacy in remote Indonesian coastal communities found a majority of people in the communities did not see the plastic waste as a threat and believed its only negative effect was to “make the village look dirty”.

The study’s authors suggested a two-pronged solution: the creation of “rubbish banks” – a term used in Indonesia for a recycling facility where plastic can be sold, sorted, shredded and moved down the value chain; and plastic awareness and environmental education.

Goats live on the island subsisting on a diet of paper and cardboard [Ian Neubauer/Al Jazeera]

Awareness initiatives have already led to changes of some centuries-old traditions.

In the past, customary law dictated that young people who wanted to marry had to harvest coral to build a home of their own. The 21st-century residents of Bungin have different ideas.

“Now, if you get married, you stay with your parents and slowly, you save up money to buy a house on Bungin,” said Surat. “Most people do it this way because it’s easier than building with coral and doesn’t hurt the reef where the fish live so we can keep on fishing.”

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NIH director says Covid-19 vaccine authorization ‘might not happen’ this year

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French President Emmanuel Macron (2nd L) chairs a meeting with the medical staff of the René Dubos hospital center, in Pontoise, in the Val d'Oise, on October 23, 2020, as the country faces a new wave of infections to the Covid-19.
French President Emmanuel Macron (2nd L) chairs a meeting with the medical staff of the René Dubos hospital center, in Pontoise, in the Val d’Oise, on October 23, 2020, as the country faces a new wave of infections to the Covid-19. Ludovic Marin/AFP/Getty Images

France reported a new daily record for coronavirus infections with 42,032 new cases in the past 24 hours, according to numbers released by country’s health agency on Friday.

This brings the total number of confirmed cases in France to 1,041,075, according to French government statistics, and marks the first time the government’s coronavirus case tally has surpassed 1 million. 

France also recorded 298 additional coronavirus deaths, bringing the death toll to 34,508, according to the French Health Agency. 

According to government data, an additional 976 coronavirus patients have been admitted to the hospital, and a further 122 coronavirus patients entered intensive care in the last 24 hours. 

Speaking at a health center this afternoon, French President Emmanuel Macron said he expects France will have to live with the virus until at least the summer of 2021.

“When I listen to the scientists, and the Scientific Council, we foresee [living with the virus] at best until next summer,” Macron said. “It is still too early to say whether we are moving towards wider local re-confinements, we will try each time to reduce the places, the moments when we have identified that the virus was circulating a lot. This is the strategy we will pursue.”

Macron added that the government aims to implement new restrictions in the most targeted way possible. 

From midnight on Friday, France’s nighttime coronavirus curfew will be extended more widely, with 46 million French people affected, announced French Prime Minister Jean Castex on Thursday. 

To note: According to the latest data from Johns Hopkins University, France has recorded 1,048,924 coronavirus cases and 34,236 deaths. CNN’s Paris Bureau is working on clarifying the discrepancy between state statistics and the university’s numbers.

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