The Dire End of the Bandit 6

Pirates, those outlaws of the high seas, have held a blurred fascination for generations. They share the allure of an in-between realm with horseback bandits, a place free of everyday rules and constricted spaces. Who doesn’t fantasize, from time to time at least, about being outside the drudgery of convention?

Just exactly who the pirates are, though, depends on whose rules they are breaking.

Pirate ship from a children's book. Image: thegraphicfairy

Pirate ship from a children’s book.
Image: thegraphicfairy

For years, the activities of the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society have been considered piratical by the ships and governments they follow and attack. Mainly, by whalers and nations that still permit whaling. And, to a lesser extent, by the allies of these countries. The Sea Shepherd’s logo plays with their self-image as pirates who challenge laws that protect those who hunt endangered marine species.

Back in 2014, the Sea Shepherd began Operation Icefish, a project to chase down and defeat another group that many would call pirates: The Bandit 6, a group of industrial fishing ships that regularly flouted international law by illegally fishing on a grand scale.

By sailing between the loopholes of international fishing regulations, frequently changing registries and flags, and leveraging conflicts between the nations that might have otherwise joined forces to stop them, the ghost ships of the Bandit 6 spent years plundering fish stocks of the Patagonian toothfish, otherwise known as Chilean sea bass.

Patagonian toothfish. Image: Reuters

Patagonian toothfish.
Image: Reuters

The Sea Shepherd mission saw the longest sea chase in recorded history – 110 days – which resulted in the captain of the Thunder scuttling his ship to bury evidence of its activities. Scuttling is such a fun-sounding word for sinking the ship in deep waters and then calling on its Sea Shepherd pursuers to rescue the captain and crew according to maritime convention and law.

The Bandit 6 ships weren’t under attack because the Patagonian toothfish is endangered. At issue was the fact that the vessels, their owners and their buyers operated without accountability. Moreoever, it appears that at least some of the vessels were using slave labor to man their ships and process the catch. It’s estimated that the pirate ships hauled over six times the legal fishing limits of the so-called ‘white gold’ on an annual basis since the late 1990s.

So, as of yesterday, the Viking, the final ship in the loose fleet of the Bandit 6, was blown up by the Indonesian government off the coast of West Java.

Destruction of the Viking. Screenshot/Image: Sea Shepherd

Destruction of the Viking.
Screenshot/Image: Sea Shepherd/YouTube

It follows the scuttling of the Thunder, the capture of the Songhua and Yongding in Cabo Verde as well as the detaining of the Perlon in Malaysia.

The Sea Shepherd organization was instrumental in notifying authorities of the ships’ whereabouts, and obtaining evidence to implicate their captains. In the case of the Thunder, this involved Sea Shepherd crew members boarding the ship as it sank to retrieve the ship log and frozen catch, the very things the captain had hoped to put out of reach.

Since 2014, Indonesia has bombed 150 foreign-owned fishing ships accused of poaching, a policy meant to stop illegal fishing and promote the local fishing industry.

The wreck of the Viking is to be left as a monument against illegal fishing and a warning to the pirates currently known as illegal fishing poachers.

Winged hourglass and skull and crossbones. Glasgow Cathedral, Glasgow, Scotland, UK. Photo: Leo Reynolds/Flickr

Winged hourglass and skull and crossbones.
Glasgow Cathedral, Glasgow, Scotland, UK.
Photo: Leo Reynolds/Flickr


Forest Vs. Trees

Humankind owes its origins to forests. In return, we have been reshaping them for our own uses ever since we learned to use tools and fire.

Jeffrey James terrarium. Image: Jeffrey James

Jeffrey James terrarium.
Image: Jeffrey James

I’ve told the story before of how an Indonesian palm oil trader once explained to me, many years ago, that I needn’t worry about deforestation in Indonesia. Why? Because the indigenous forests had been mostly cleared to make way for palm oil plantations. There was nothing left to worry about any more.

I’ll say one thing for the trader: He knew the difference between a forest and just a lot of trees. One is a habitat, the other is a plantation. Besides the fact that both include life we call trees, there’s not much similarity between the two.

Clear Cut, an installation project by Kjellgren Kaminsky Architecture. Photo: Kjellgren Kaminsky Architecture/Flickr

Clear Cut, an installation project by Kjellgren Kaminsky Architecture.
Photo: Kjellgren Kaminsky Architecture/Flickr

I lived deep in a forest for part of my youth, on a property bordered on two sides by national park and on the other two by undeveloped forest land. The forest was mostly old growth, a rich and varied recipe of bay laurel trees, madrone and manzanita, coastal oak, and the higher one went up the ridge, Bishop pine. The undergrowth was thick and we made paths through hip-high ferns draped in spiderwebs and huckleberry bushes that stained clothing and skin purple. In the spring, small clearings that received direct sunlight would burst forth in carpets of wild iris and forget-me-not.

The forest was only in this condition, more or less untouched except for the occasional dirt road or small cabin, because of the Point Reyes National Seashore. In the 1950s, rather than open the coastal ridge to logging, the government declared it a park. When I was growing up, most of the land that had remained private was still unbuilt. It was idyllic and the experience of living there has stayed with me for life.

Jeffrey James terrarium. Photo: Carlton/Jeffrey James

Jeffrey James terrarium.
Photo: Carlton/Jeffrey James

California has a wealth of old growth forest, but as elsewhere, many of the original forests have been logged and replanted, clear-cut for commercial use, or obliterated in mountain-top removal mining . Like greed, deforestation and (sometimes) reforestation are a human habit. When we look out over temperate forests these days, what we usually see is a sea of dark green conifer – undemanding, quick-growing, commercially useful. Other climates see, well, palm oil plantations. Or farmland. Or oil and coal fields.

Land use choices are often offered up as decision between economic prosperity or stagnation; a forest is all that’s in the way of progress, and anyway, ersatz trees can be replanted elsewhere.

Jeffrey James terrarium. Photo: Jeffrey James

Jeffrey James terrarium.
Photo: Jeffrey James

But reforestation can’t just be a buzzword used to placate or fulfil regulatory requirements with false forests. I’ve written before on the progress of industrial reforestation – this approach only takes on real value if the re-established forests are diverse. And that diversity is exactly what most ‘tree replacement’ projects are lacking. As it turns out, we aren’t as good at recreating nature as we’d like to believe.

A recent study, limited to Europe, suggests that the conifer forests planted in Europe over the past two centuries contribute locally to warmer weather because the dark needles of conifer trees absorb sunlight more than the lighter leaves of a native mixed deciduous forest.

The old saying, you can’t see the forest for the trees, was never so true. Once you’ve known a real forest, you can’t be fooled.

Jeffrey James terrarium. Photo: Jeffrey James

Jeffrey James terrarium.
Photo: Jeffrey James

Yoke of Gold

The history of gold – that is, the history of gold extracted from the planet surface – is inextricably linked with human history.

Gold has always been as much a shining harness as a coveted bauble.

Gustav Klimt's Judith 1

Gustav Klimt’s Judith 1

It has so many qualities we would like to think we ourselves possess: It’s rare but not lonely and scarce, it’s easy to handle and mold but keeps its shape once formed, it doesn’t corrode, and it doesn’t react explosively with other elements.

It’s so pretty, and so desirable.

A nice symbol for the ages, which is probably why we’ve used it in so many different capacities since before recorded history, and why we still like it so much today.

Anything rare and precious to us always comes at a price. And it’s not just the one we pay upon purchase.

The Grasberg mine in Papua, Indonesia, is just one in a long line of gold mines around the world and through the ages, but it has the distinction of being the largest. The mine embodies so much of humanity’s relationship with gold.

There’s much for some and very little for others: The mine has brought vast wealth to its owners, Freeport-McMoRan Copper & Gold Inc., and the Indonesian government.

Those almost nothing for those who extract the gold in the thin air of Puncak Jaya, the highest island mountain in the world (16,024 ft/4884 metres). And whatever else isn’t considered precious – the mine is also the world’s third-largest copper source – is simply discarded.

Satellite view of the Grasberg mine. Source: GoGeometry

Satellite view of the Grasberg mine.
Source: GoGeometry

According to Earthworksaction, a single gold ring generates more than 20 tons of mine waste on average. And the Grasberg mine produces and dumps over 200,000 tonnes of tailings (mine waste) per day (over 80 million tonnes per year).

Mining waste is toxic – the ‘rest’ of the earth from Grasberg mine, the parts considered not precious enough for harvest, have buried over 230 sq. km (88 sq. miles) of forest and wetlands, the surrounding rivers are considered unsuitable for aquatic life.

View of the Grasberg mine. Source:

View of the Grasberg mine.

The high price also includes human rights violations and displacement of indigenous peoples. Half of the gold extracted around the world is mined on the territories of traditional indigenous peoples.

So the next time you find yourself reaching for the gold ring, you might consider its real price.

You can also consider reaching for a gold ring mined and made by supporters of the FairGold initiative.

Gold ripples Source: Pixabay

Gold ripples
Source: Pixabay


Serious Buffoonery

A gathering of orangutans is called a buffoonery. A buffoonery of orangutans implies some very high amusement, and indeed, I imagine if enough of the ginger apes were to get together, hilarity and hijinks might ensue.

But as most people know by now, orangutans don’t have much to laugh about. Between deforestation and the illegal animal trade, it’s all been looking a bit grim for the old man of the forest.

A buffoonery of orangutans Artist: Kim Rebecca

A buffoonery of orangutans
Artist: Kim Rebecca

Many years ago, I spent some time working in the biofuels sector, and palm oil was gaining market shares over other types of biodiesel.

Palm oil has some advantages in that palm oil trees can be grown and harvested year round and the yield per acre is better than many other oil crops, including soybeans and rapeseed.

But even back then, we all knew that palm oil had some very serious drawbacks. Besides a couple of technical disadvantages (for example, palm oil biodiesel isn’t as resistant to cold weather as other biodiesel oils, and it has to be transported over rather large distances from plantation to end user), there is one key problem with palm oil: The best growing climates for palm oil plantations are sometimes shared by rainforests. Which means that palm oil production is often based on mass deforestation.

I remember asking an oil trader from Indonesia, a fellow who was proposing some major trade with my company, about this small hiccup in what was supposed to be a renewable, eco-friendly fuel production. What role did safeguarding habitat, for orangutans and countless other creatures and plants, play in sustainable palm oil production?

His response? He laughed and told me that the majority of the Indonesian rainforest had been chopped down and converted to plantations already, so I didn’t need to worry about it anymore. The damage had been done, it was time to make some lemonade out of the environmental lemons we had on hand. As for the animal and plant life? Maybe they’d live in the new plantations, if they didn’t hinder the farming.

Palm oil plantation, Indonesia Photo: Cempaka/Reuters

Palm oil plantation, Indonesia
Photo: Cempaka/Reuters

The company I worked for at the time decided we didn’t need to deal in palm oil at all. It’s nice to take a stand, but in any case, palm oil isn’t just being used for biodiesel fuel. Its uses are many and like the little lies told for social convenience, palm oil can be found almost everywhere.

The Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO), an organization founded in 2004, around the same time I had that disconcerting conversation, undertook an initiative to decouple palm oil production from deforestation. And while the Indonesian trader may have thought he was selling me on palm oil futures, it turns out he was only partially correct. Not all rainforests had been eradicated, and orangutans aren’t really tolerated on plantations.

The RSPO has had some real success lately in achieving the goal of getting companies to agree to use only sustainably produced palm oil that does not result from deforestation. And this, in turn, is good for wildlife and rainforests alike.

Indonesian palm oil crop Source: EUObserver/Friends of the Earth

Indonesian palm oil crop
Source: EUObserver/Friends of the Earth

I suppose a fatalistic approach to matters as they stand might be a comfort to some. After all, if all is lost, why worry about losing any more? Make hay while the sun shines.

A buffoonery of a different sort.

I’m glad organizations like the RSPO, the companies that have decided to join the initiative, and the many wildlife conservation groups in these areas don’t have the same fatalistic sense of humor as my ex-conversation partner.

For an on-the-ground look at deforestation in progress, here’s a good documentary on the complexities of the issues in Papua New Guinea, On Our Land.

The Proverbial Drop

The recent Warsaw Climate Change Conference ended with a couple of modest successes, the main one being that the conversation will continue between nations as to what to do about man-made impact on the climate.

An initiative to support efforts at slowing deforestation received funding to the tune of $280 million from three countries.

Developed countries couldn’t quite bring themselves to say more than they would be willing to ‘contribute’ to emission cuts, rather than ‘commit’ to them.

Mainly, the nations who use the most keep insisting that change will be slow, and expensive.

Developing countries requested the twenty developed nations which have contributed to and profited most from the fossil fuel economy to pledge funds to mitigate, adapt and readjust this economy and its effects.

Amounts requested were between $70 billion per year by 2016, or  $100 billion by 2020.

Meanwhile, an editorial piece by former United Nations Secretary General Kofi Annan in the New York Times today states that the developed countries currently subsidize the fossil fuel economy to the tune of $485 billion.

That’s $485 billion every single year.

Not all expensive habits are worth keeping.

So here’s hoping that even a drop in the bucket will create enough ripples to make a change.

Input and Loss

At the UNFCCC COP19 in Warsaw this week, a new programme was launched under the auspices of the World Bank: The BioCarbon Fund Initiative for Sustainable Forest Landscapes (ISFL).

The initial funding amount is set at $280 million USD. Norway has pledged up to $135 million to the initiative, Britain $120 million and the United States $25 million. The fund also hopes to attract further private and public funding.

I thought it would be an interesting exercise to use the Global Forest Change tool released this week to look at forest change in each of the contributing countries, also in relation to their contribution to this new initiative.

Forest change Norway 2000-2012. The blue and red colors indicate net forest gain and loss, respectively. The colors here are almost exclusively seen on the Swedish side of the border. Norway does not rank among the top 50 nations in terms of deforestation, Sweden ranks 13th. Image via Global Forest Change / Earth Energy Partners

Forest change Norway 2000-2012. The blue and red colors indicate net forest gain and loss, respectively. The colors here are almost exclusively seen on the Swedish side of the border. Norway does not rank among the top 50 nations in terms of deforestation, Sweden ranks 13th.
Image via Global Forest Change / Earth Engine Partners

With a goal of encouraging reduced greenhouse gas emissions from the land sector, including REDD+ (Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and forest Degradation), ISFL is intended to “help countries identify and promote climate-smart agricultural and low-carbon land-use practices in selected geographical areas where agriculture is a major cause of deforestation.”

The deforestation culprit in question is, by and large, commercial agriculture in regions including Latin America; subsistence and commercial agriculture contribute equally to an estimated two-thirds of deforestation in other areas like Africa and subtropical Asia.

The initiative sets itself the task of “adopting a landscape approach, (which) means implementing a development strategy that is climate smart, equitable, productive and profitable at scale and strives for environmental, social, and economic impact.”

Forest change in the United Kingdom 2000-2012, which is not among the top 50 nations in terms of forest loss.  Image via Global Forest Change / Earth Energy Partners

Forest change in the United Kingdom 2000-2012, which is not among the top 50 nations in terms of forest loss.
Image via Global Forest Change / Earth Energy Partners

Measures include “protecting forests, restoring degraded lands, enhancing agricultural productivity, and improving livelihoods and local environments.”

According to this Reuters article, one of the key problems faced by initiatives seeking to reduce deforestation is that “parties are focusing all their energy arguing about the politics of who governs REDD+ finance, when the real issue is a lack of demand.”

This is according to Matt Leggett, head of policy at forest think-tank Global Canopy Programme, who also stated that “the program must create demand for nearly 1.5 billion tones of carbon dioxide equivalent to cut deforestation by half, but current projects are only set to cut emissions by 160 million tones.”

Forest change in the United States 2000-2012. The US ranks 3rd globally in terms of net forest loss.  Image via Global Forest Change / Earth Energy Partners

Forest change in the United States 2000-2012. The US ranks 3rd globally in terms of net forest loss. (Canada ranks 4th.)
Image via Global Forest Change / Earth Energy Partners

Global Forest Map

A gorgeous new tool for assessing gain and loss in global forests was released this week by University of Maryland researchers, the result of a five year, broad-based collaborative project. The interactive map of Global Forest Change is powered by Google’s computing cloud will offer a means to establish forestry baselines around the world, with a great amount of detail.

Animation showing forest loss in Riau, on the Indonesian island of Sumatra. Much of this deforestation was to establish plantations for pulp and paper, timber, and palm oil production. Click image to enlarge.

This excellent article quotes the project’s lead author Matthew Hansen on the map and accompanying study (published in Science): “This is the first map of forest change that is globally consistent and locally relevant. Losses or gains in forest cover shape many important aspects of an ecosystem including, climate regulation, carbon storage, biodiversity and water supplies, but until now there has not been a way to get detailed, accurate, satellite-based and readily available data on forest cover change from local to global scales.”

It didn’t surprise me that Brazil and Indonesia are among the top five countries with the highest level of deforestation since 2000. The policies of those countries favor development of heavily forested, biodiverse areas.

Global Forest Map The red areas indicate net forest loss. Click on the image for the interactive map. Source: Earth Engine Partners

Global Forest Map
The red areas indicate net forest loss.
Click on the image for the interactive map.
Source: Earth Engine Partners

As an Indonesian palm oil representative once told me, we shouldn’t worry about the loss of rainforest because it was mostly all cut down already, anyway. In its place, palm oil plantations. “Trees are trees, so we have offset deforestation with sustainable new forests.”

The new Global Forest Change tool accounts for this as well, with layered levels of data allowing users to see whether the forests in question are old growth, diverse habitats, or newer second-growth utility forests.

It did come as a surprise that Russia has lost more forest than any other nation, and that the top five are rounded out by the United States and Canada.

From, “Improved understanding of the state of forests through tools like these should boost the ability of decision makers — from lawmakers to business leaders — to establish policies that better protect forests.”

Trash Tsunami

This certainly isn’t the case for all beaches and surf areas surrounding Java, but…photographer Zak Noyle was shooting Indonesian surfer Dede Surinaya in a remote, mostly uninhabited bay and this is what they found.

This shot was taken in the formerly pristine waters off of Java, Indonesia. According to several sources, the 17,000 islands of Indonesia have a serious problem with trash disposal. Java, with a population of 135 million people, is the world’s most populated island.

Many areas lack reliable, clean waste disposal systems, so many people burn their trash, including plastic garbage. Whatever doesn’t get burned ends up in the most unlikely places, while strong currents can carry trash far from any town or city where it was generated.

Looks an ideal testing ground for new ideas for waste disposal infrastructure and technologies on limited land mass.


HuffingtonPost article – Photographer Captures Waves of Trash in Indonesia by Gabriela Aoun