A published statement by 145 scientists from 22 countries expresses new worries about the health effects of flame retardants used in mattresses, furniture, electronics, and other consumer products, while also questioning the chemicals’ efficacy.
The statement, published today in Environmental Health Perspectives, a peer-reviewed journal, says that brominated and chlorinated flame retardants have been found in the bodies of both humans and wildlife, linger in the environment and can travel great distances. While toxicity information is lacking, studies have linked the compounds to cancer, birth defects and other serious health problems, the scientists say, even though “their overall benefit in improving fire safety has not been proven.”
In fact, according to the statement, the chemicals, when burned, can “increase the release of carbon monoxide, toxic gases and soot which are the cause of most fire deaths and injuries.” They “leach continuously” out of finished products and accumulate in indoor air.
Despite banks’ assurances that they’re fixing foreclosure documentation problems and that the crisis may amount to a “blip in the housing market ,” the lawyer who helped spark the foreclosure furor  said that the banks’ solutions to the problem have so far been inadequate and don’t address the underlying structural deficiencies that plague the foreclosure process.
Banks have defined the problems as procedural errors that “can be fixed in the near term ” and did not lead “to foreclosures which should not have otherwise occurred .”
But Thomas Cox—whose deposition  of GMAC robo-signer  Jeffrey Stephan brought fresh scrutiny on the foreclosure process—told me that in Maine, where GMAC has resumed foreclosure sales, the fixed and re-filed documents he’s seeing are “more of the same, cheap stuff.”
“There’s a structural mess in their departments that they’re not fixing,” Cox told me. “[Banks] refuse to organize their servicing departments in a way that would produce accurate results. There’s a foreclosure department that doesn’t talk to the department handling modifications.”
(We’ve also reported  on homeowners caught between the divisions of the banks that are trying to help them keep their home and the divisions that are plowing forward with foreclosure proceedings.)
“It’s a structural problem that led to these bad affidavits, because they set it up like an assembly line. They won’t structure a servicing department so that one person is the go-to responsible person for a homeowner’s file.” Cox said. “I’ve seen no evidence yet that they’ve changed that structure.”
He added: “They’ve done such a great job of PR, saying they’ve reviewed their files and there’s really no problem in underlying documentation systems and basically all the facts are correct.”
Cox, who says he can only provide a “boots on the ground experience,” is hardly the only one who thinks the problem is systemic.
In testimony before the Congressional Oversight Panel yesterday, Katherine Porter, a University of Iowa law professor and expert on mortgage servicers, noted that despite banks’ attempts to narrowly characterize the problems as minor technicalities, the flaws in the process are far from fixed  [PDF]:
The problems in such cases range from the imposition and collection of improper fees, a lack of standing to foreclose in judicial foreclosure states, the pursuit of foreclosure without rights in the note and mortgage, mortgage origination fraud, or liability to investors for poor underwriting or improper servicing. The key point is that the vast majority of the alleged problems cannot accurately be described as “technicalities.”
“Because [the banks] are being allowed to control the definition of error and are being allowed to audit themselves, we cannot have confidence in such reports,” Porter noted.
Weeks after the discovery of problems with foreclosure documentation, Bank of America, GMAC, and JPMorgan Chase—all of which had previously halted foreclosures—have resumed some or all of them.
Bank of America this week reported finding some errors in the first several hundred cases it examined , but according to the bank none serious enough to result in wrongful foreclosure. It’s currently resubmitting documents in more than 100,000 cases.
Wells Fargo, which had largely managed steer clear of the scandal despite our report  and others  ($) showing flaws in the company’s foreclosure process, just yesterday admitted to similar errors. The bank is refiling documents in 55,000 foreclosure cases  but is not stopping foreclosure proceedings.
Housing and Urban Development Secretary Shaun Donovan has said that the problems are not “systemic” but are “an issue with particular institutions .”
Other administration officials, including Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke, said that regulators were still investigating “to determine whether systemic weaknesses  are leading to improper foreclosures.”
The Obama administration has publicly thrown its support  behind a 50-state probe by states’ attorneys general and has rejected calls  for a nationwide moratorium on foreclosures, out of concern for the consequences it could have on the housing market .
A federal investigation into contaminated Chinese-made drywall has been a long, hard tug-of-war for U.S. investigators trying to pry information from Chinese government officials and manufacturers. When a team of investigators traveled to China last year, the tug-of-war became physical, with a Chinese official trying to wrest a piece of drywall from an American’s hands.
The federal probe is the largest defective-product investigation  ever conducted by the Consumer Product Safety Commission. But almost two years after it began, the CPSC still hasn’t been able to figure out what materials in the Chinese drywall are triggering the release of sulfur gases. The gases have a chemical smell and have corroded wiring and appliances in thousands of U.S. homes. They’ve also been linked to respiratory ailments, nosebleeds and sinus problems.
The best chance for solving the mystery came last year, when a team of CPSC investigators traveled to China to inspect drywall-manufacturing plants and gypsum mines. But the trip did not go as planned, according to CPSC officials, including an inspector who was part of the group and who spoke with ProPublica and the Sarasota Herald-Tribune.
Chinese government officials interfered with their investigation by rushing the Americans through inspection sites, blocking their attempts to ask questions and take samples and engaging in a coordinated campaign to intimidate them, the CPSC officials said. At one point, a crowd of employees was ordered to block the entrance to a gypsum mine and encircle the Americans.
“We were surrounded,” the inspector said. “There were five of us and 50 of them.”
The CPSC officials interviewed for this story, including the inspector, spoke on condition of anonymity, citing the ongoing nature of the investigation.
Most of the manufacturing companies the Amer icans visited refused to disclose even the most basic information about the chemicals they put into their drywall or the manufacturing processes they use. Despite these limitations, the Americans noticed serious quality-control problems at all the plants and mines they visited. The inspectors were so desperate to get samples that they slipped away from their government handlers twice to buy drywall directly from vendors. The vendors said at least one brand of drywall being sold in China smells so bad that contractors refuse to buy it.
China’s failure to cooperate with the CPSC on drywall demonstrates how little recourse U.S. consumers have when they buy defective products imported from abroad, public interest advocates and international trade experts say. Nearly 20 percent of all U.S. imports come from China, according to U.S. Census Bureau statistics . Only Canada sells more goods to the United States.
“It shows that an agency like the CPSC has no leverage to get a foreign government to cooperate if that government doesn’t want to,” said Pamela Gilbert, who was the CPSC’s executive director in the Clinton administration and is now a partner at Cuneo Gilbert & LaDuca. “I believe that’s true with all the regulatory agencies that have had trouble with Chinese products.”
Gilbert pointed to a range of defective products that China has exported in recent years, including pet food, toothpaste, pharmaceuticals and children’s toys.
The problem won’t be resolved, she said, until “the highest levels of the U.S. government, like the State Department, get involved.” CPSC officials close to the drywall investigation told ProPublica and the Sarasota Herald-Tribune that they’ve asked the State Department and the White House for help in dealing with the Chinese, but they wouldn’t provide details about the discussions.
This week, a CPSC delegation led by Chairwoman Inez Tenenbaum is in Beijing for trade talks with China. Tenenbaum is expected to discuss the drywall investigation, along with other product safety issues.
The CPSC officials who spoke with ProPublica and the Herald-Tribune about the 2009 trip to China said their government hosts were cordial when they arrived but that the relationship quickly became tense.
The Americans shared a bus with officials from China’s General Administration of Quality Supervision, Inspection and Quarantine, known as AQSIQ, which employs more than 30,000 people throughout the country. More officials followed in black sedans, with a new group switching in each time they passed into a new province.
“It was very carefully choreographed,” one of the U.S. officials said. “We spent a lot of time with party officials and not as much time in the plants as we wanted to do.”
The Americans had spent months preparing for their trip. They visited U.S. sites where gypsum, a white sedimentary rock used to make drywall, is mined. They studied how another form of gypsum—known as flue gas desulfurization gypsum or FGD gypsum—is produced from ash created by coal-fired power plants. They also visited drywall-manufacturing plants where they were told which chemicals went into the final product.
The CPSC officials said they couldn’t name the U.S. or Chinese sites.
The team’s first stop in China was a plant in the city of Linyi in Shandong province. Both Taishan Gypsum Co. and Knauf Plasterboard Tianjin, the two companies accused of manufacturing most of the defective drywall exported to the United States, have said the gypsum they used may have come from mines in Shandong province. Taishan’s manufacturing plant is also located in Shandong.
Although the plant managers were polite, they wouldn’t reveal the chemical additives they used or explain how they monitor the quality of their product. What the team saw wasn’t encouraging.
“Gauges weren’t labeled, the plant was very dirty and it was clear that there were very few process controls,” the CPSC inspector said. Without proper gauges, workers couldn’t monitor the quality of the material as it made its way down the line.
The team also didn’t see any documentation for the raw gypsum that was arriving from a nearby mine. In the United States, the CPSC official said, gypsum is labeled with a truck number, load number and other information that identifies its origin and consistency. “They didn’t have any of that,” the official said.
When the U.S. team started taking photographs inside the plant, their government handlers began getting nervous. When they asked for a sample of the finished product, they were offered a precut piece of drywall that had been laminated in plastic. Eventually the plant manager gave them what they wanted—a sample right off the assembly line—but a government official grabbed it from the CPSC inspector’s hands.
“Then we snatched it back. Eventually, we won the tug-of-war,” the CPSC inspector said.
The Chinese officials were infuriated.
“The handlers all began talking real loud on their cell phones. They were obviously upset and told our translator that they were angry that we took photos and samples at the plant. We were told that there would be no samples and no photos at the next stop.”
When they stepped off the bus at the next stop, a gypsum mine, about 50 employees blocked some of the mine entrances and began taking pictures of the Americans. “The clear aim was to intimidate us,” the CPSC inspector said.
The Americans had hoped to gather samples and learn how the miners avoided deposits of sulfur or other minerals that some scientists suspect may be causing the drywall problem. “But they refused to answer any of our questions,” the CPSC inspector added. “They wouldn’t let us grab a sample.”
The visit was supposed to last several hours, but it was over in less than 30 minutes.
CPSC officials said they phoned the U.S. Embassy in Beijing from the bus and reported that the Chinese officials were interfering with the investigation, but the CPSC wouldn’t tell ProPublica and the Herald-Tribune how the embassy responded.
As the bus approached a second mine in Shandong province, overpowering smells of sulfur and then livestock seeped inside. They were told the odor was from a nearby hog farm, but there was no farm in sight.
At the mouth of the mine the inspectors were shocked to see miners separating pieces of rock by hand—a process CPSC officials said is unheard-of in the United States and that the inspector described as “ludicrous.” Modern mines have tools and testing equipment on site to ensure that the rock they’re extracting is gypsum and that it is pure enough to be used in products such as drywall.
“They weren’t doing any kind of testing, they were just looking at it,” the CPSC inspector said. “They looked like they were straying” into areas of the formation that could contain sulfur or other contaminants “and then just trying to sort out the bad stuff by hand as it came out.”
Asked why the company wasn’t testing for contaminants, a company representative told the team the mine was fulfilling its contract with its customers and there was no government requirement to do so.
The team tried to get a sample of the rock.
“When I tried to go over and take a sample out of a huge pile of rocks, I was told it was too dangerous because of the machinery nearby,” the CPSC inspector said. “But there was no equipment anywhere near it.”
Instead, the inspectors were handed a piece of rock that looked “nothing like what was piled up on the ground.”
“It looked like a showpiece that you would put on your desk,” the inspector said.
The U.S. Geological Service later confirmed that the rock was gypsum, but there was no way of knowing if it came from the mine the Americans had visited.
The CPSC “suspected this mine as having problems,” the inspector said. “I was well-briefed before I left. We had a list of questions. None of them were answered.”
The second plant the group toured made its drywall from FGD gypsum. Using this form of gypsum in drywall is increasingly popular in the United States as well as in China because it’s cheap and plentiful. FGD gypsum is so similar in chemical composition to naturally mined gypsum that manufacturers say it’s difficult to tell whether drywall has been made from one source or the other.
Again, the Chinese officials tried to rush the Americans through the plant.
“They wanted us in and out of that plant in 10 minutes,” the CPSC inspector said. “But we just took our time, which made them really upset.”
The Americans weren’t allowed to take a sample of the drywall, but they got a sample of the FGD gypsum the company was using. But only one of their questions was answered: How did the plant keep track of where the coal ash came from?
The question was an important one because without proper documentation it’s impossible to track drywall made with tainted gypsum back to its source. In the United States, deliveries of mined gypsum or FGD gypsum come with a certificate that is supposed to specify critical details such as water and sulfur content, CPSC officials said.
The answer surprised the U.S. team. The FGD gypsum came from five different power plants, and when it arrived it was dumped together in a big pile.
“I asked if there is some kind of conformity certificate that says where all the material is coming from. They said no,” the CPSC official said.
Back to Beijing
The last plant on the CPSC trip used both FGD and naturally mined gypsum. It was located southeast of Beijing, in the city of Tianjin. Tianjin is home to a plant owned by German-based Knauf Group, whose Chinese subsidiary, Knauf Plasterboard Tianjin, is one of the main players in the U.S. drywall crisis.
The managers at the Tianjin plant seemed more eager to cooperate with the U.S. team, and they shared the full list of chemicals used in their product. The facility was also more modern than the other plants they had visited. “If I were to build a plant, this one had a lot of what I’d like to have in it,” the CPSC inspector said.
But the inspector also found a problem. “Despite all of this good stuff, all of its raw materials were co-mingled and dumped,” he said. “So there was not much in the way of keeping track” of where the gypsum came from.
Dan Harris, an attorney with Seattle-based Harris & Moore, which represents clients in both the United States and China, said he wasn’t surprised about the lack of documentation in China’s drywall industry.
“There are a lot of industries where the Chinese don’t track goods terribly well,” Harris said. “Until there is a reason to keep better records, they aren’t going to do it. Perhaps this will be the reason.”
“Quite a Spectacle”
As their trip drew to a close, the CPSC delegation returned to Beijing for a final set of meetings with Chinese officials—and to make a last-ditch effort to collect more samples.
That night three of them slipped out and took a taxi to a Beijing street market, where they’d been told drywall was sold. They bought as many kinds of drywall as they could find, cutting small samples from each piece and cramming them into their backpacks.
“The vendors were kind of shocked,” the CPSC official said. “They couldn’t understand why we would buy the whole sheet and then cut a small piece out of it.”
The next day, on their way to meet with a Chinese government administrator, they spotted a large building-supply market. On their lunch break, they rushed back to the market and began asking the vendors questions they couldn’t get answered by the Chinese companies they visited. “We actually got more information from them than from anyone else,” the inspector said.
“It was quite a spectacle. People wondered, ‘What all these Americans were doing here?’” one of the officials said. “We were there for about two hours, putting drywall samples into our backpacks and briefcases.”
The vendors told them the quality of the drywall they dealt with varied widely. They said some of it had a foul odor, and one vendor mentioned a specific brand that was known for its bad smell. The vendor was shocked when the Americans asked to buy some.
“He said he didn’t have any because his customers all complained about it,” said the CPSC inspector, who would not divulge the name of the brand.
The team sent the samples back to the United States through the U.S. Embassy in Bejing, because they worried that Chinese officials might seize them at the airport.
“We didn’t want to take a chance,” the inspector said.
China hasn’t provided any more information to the CPSC since the U.S. delegation returned home 14 months ago.
In May, the CPSC released test results  of 10 Chinese drywall samples that released the highest levels of sulfur gas. It said that three of the 10 were manufactured in 2009, more than a year after Chinese-made drywall began causing corrosion and health problems for U.S. homeowners.
The agency is continuing to test the samples, but it still hasn’t determined what is causing the problem. The CPSC officials interviewed by ProPublica and the Herald-Tribune said that without more information from China about raw materials and production methods, they may never be able to answer the question.
When ProPublica and the Herald-Tribune told Florida Sen. Bill Nelson what happened to the CPSC in China, he said China’s treatment of the U.S. delegation was “inexcusable.” Florida has been especially hard hit by the drywall problem.
“The president should consider the strongest economic sanctions against China until they own up to their responsibility to American consumers,” Nelson said. The White House did not respond to questions for this story.
In April, Nelson wrote a letter  to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, urging her to push China “to act responsibly and help find a remedy” for the drywall issue. Nelson told Clinton he was particularly alarmed by the fact that he had “raised the issue of defective drywall directly with Premier Hu Jintao” in April 2010 and the premier said he knew nothing about the drywall problem.
In June, the State Department told  Nelson that it had met with a Chinese product-safety minister and had urged that Chinese companies meet with the CPSC and discuss a “fair arrangement to benefit the Americans who have suffered.” The Chinese government said “the matter was under careful review.”
The State Department would not respond to specific questions about whether it has offered any additional help to CPSC. Instead it sent a statement saying it “believes that coming to a fair resolution of this trade-related problem is a matter of great importance to the United States, and should be of similar importance to China.”
But earlier this month, an attorney representing Taishan— which is owned in large part by the Chinese government—suggested that  the company’s executives still aren’t convinced that their drywall is problematic.
“They absolutely do not understand why their high-quality drywall allegedly emitted excessive amounts of hydrogen sulfide,” Taishan’s attorney, Joe Cyr, told the New Orleans federal court that is hearing multidistrict litigation about the drywall problem.
Harris, the trade attorney, said China has little incentive to cooperate with the federal investigation.
“The Chinese government doesn’t care at all about homeowners in the U.S.,” Harris said. “Let’s face it. They care about protecting companies in China. If that means not sharing samples with the U.S., then that’s what they are going to do.”
Rep. Pete Sessions, the firebrand conservative from Dallas, Texas, has relentlessly assailed the Democratic-passed stimulus law as a wasteful “trillion dollar spending spree” that was “more about stimulating the government and rewarding political allies than growing the economy and creating jobs.”
But that didn’t stop the Republican lawmaker from reaching his hand out behind the scenes to seek stimulus money for the suburb of Carrollton after the camera lights went dark and the GOP campaign against the 2009 stimulus law quieted down.
The affluent city’s rail project is “shovel-ready,” Sessions wrote Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood in February, urging his cabinet agency to give “full and fair consideration” to the city’s request for $81 million in stimulus money, according to a copy of the letter obtained by the Center for Public Integrity. Ironically, his letter suggested the project would create jobs, undercutting the very public argument he has made against the stimulus.
“Carrollton’s project will create jobs, stimulate the economy, improve regional mobility and reduce pollution,” the lawmaker wrote.
When asked about the letter, Sessions suggested to the Center that he did not want his “strong, principled objection to the bill to prevent me” from getting his congressional district its share of the massive spending pot.
Sessions was hardly alone.
Scores of Republicans and conservative Democrats who voted against the $787 billion American Recovery and Reinvestment Act subsequently wrote letters requesting funds for projects in a massive, behind-the-scenes letter-writing and phone call campaign, documents obtained by the Center show.
Those asking for money include Tea Party favorites like freshman Massachusetts Sen. Scott Brown and Rep. Michele Bachmann, R-Minn., former presidential candidates Ron Paul and John McCain and Republican congressional leaders like Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky and Rep. Mike Pence of Indiana.
Many Democratic leaders who had boasted they prevented lawmakers from inserting special spending requests in the stimulus law when it passed also engaged in the behind-the-scenes letter writing to secure funding afterwards, including Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid.
Seattle Film Guide Oct 29-Nov 4
Opening This Week
The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest Bill White Reviews it for Seattle PostGlobe
Inside Job “lucid yet stupefying account of the 2006 global economic meltdown” j. hoberman, the weekly
Aftershocks (Tangshan Dadizheng) Based on the Tangshan Earthquake in 1976 that took the lives of 240,000 people.
Saw 3D “I have no intention of seeing Saw 3D” Lindy West, The Stranger
Douchebag “the terror of female control motivates the acting out” melissa anderson, the weekly
Howl (NWFF, Oct 29-Nov.4) Bill White Reviews it for Seattle PostGlobe
Ed Thigpen: Master of Time Rhythm and Taste (NWFF, Nov. 1-3) Bill White Reviews it for Seattle PostGlobe
Ornette: Made in America (NWFF, Oct. 29-30) Bill White Reviews it for Seattle PostGlobe
Valentine’s Day (Grand Illusion, Nov. 2-3) Local director Brion Rockwell’s tribute to the “roughies” of the mid-sixties tries to be more than it is and ends up being tamer that it should be. His road movie keeps returning the question of whether a relationship that begins with zipless sex in a video store can blossom into a bona fide love affair. At times I felt like I was watching a heavily edited porno movie while listening to Aimee Mann’s album “The Forgotten Arm.” Still, those who still respect names like Harry Novak as a ‘seal of quality’ will enjoy the ride from Milwaukee to Tacoma with this baseball player and his squeeze. If that doesn’t grab you, there is the subplot about a hit man who suffers a vocational crisis after killing a pole dancer.
Buried “much of (Ryan) Reynolds’ performance consinsists of him grunting and heaving in the dark.” Karina Longworth, The Weekly
Catfish “Much here is hard to swallow – if the viewer is being fished in, and how honest the filmmakers’ surprise at the surprise twists of Catfish is, are things known only to them and God.” Nock Pinkerton, Seattle Weekly
Conviction “presents its heroine as a construct of uncomplicated altruism” melissa anderson, the weekly
Easy A “What this self-annointed Hester Prynne in Juicy Couture must battle most is the script” Melissa Anderson, Seattle Weekly
The Girl who Played With Fire Bill White Reviews it for Seattle PostGlobe
Hereafter “a lugubrious tale of wonderment” j. hoberman, the weekly
Inception “director nolan either can’t articulate or doesn’t believe in a distinction between living feelings and dreams” Nick Pinkerton, Seattle Weekly
It’s Kind of a Funny Story Bill White Reviews it for Seattle PostGlobe
Last Train Home Bill White Reviews it For the Seattle PostGlobe
Let Me In “against all odds and historical precedent, the American remake is as good as the original.” David Schmader, The Stranger
Never Let Me Go “really a story about friendship and jealousy and the cool ease with which humans dehumanize each other out of self-interest” Lindy West, The Stranger
Nowhere Boy Bill White Reviews it for Seattle PostGlobe
Red “Classiest. Comic. Book. Movie. Ever.” Robert Wilonsky, The Weekly
Secretariat “horses make lousy protagonists” Nick Schager, The Weekly
Social Network “Thankfully, (director David) Fincher doesn’t seem to have a Big Message.” Paul Constant, The Stranger
Stone “at odds with its own lofty and base instincts, Stone ultimately channels neither compellingly” Nick Schager, The Weekly
The Town Beef jerky with a soft caramel center.
You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger Bill White Reviews it for Seattle PostGlobe
Waiting for Superman “Davis Guggenheim’s call-to-arms documentary on the failures of the U.S. public-education system,,,originated with his own guilty conscience.” Melissa Anderson, The Weekly
Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps “Has anyone ever told Oliver Stone to shut up? I mean, like ever? Even once? Because there is the serious lack of a filter here.” Lindy West, The Stranger
SPECIAL HALLOWEEN PROGRAMS
GRAND ILLUSION: OCT 29-30 AT 7PM
Super Secret Triple Creature Feature
70’s-80’s, USA, Hong Kong / Color, 35mm / 666min
Join us as we present two heaping helpings of secret insanity! A different mystery triple bill each night that is guaranteed to peel the skin from your eyeballs! A cryptic conflagration of psychotic killers, interstellar terrors and nature gone amok! Do you dare to risk your very soul by stepping into the abyss of unknown horrors?
GRAND ILLUSION OCT 31 AT 7 PM
Color, B&W, 16mm / 90 min
Witness the ultimate onslaught of MONSTER MAYHEM as the Grand Illusion Cinema is overrun with creeps, spooks, ghouls, and fiends! Join us on our journey into the strange, dark world of the SUPERNATURAL. Will you survive the GRAND ILLUSION SPOOKSHOW SPECTACULAR? See if you have what it takes!
Fri & Sat, Oct 29 & 30 at Midnight at the Egyptian!
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The most comprehensive assessment of the world’s vertebrates confirms an extinction crisis with one-fifth of species threatened. However, the situation would be worse were it not for current global conservation efforts, according to a study launched Wednesday at the 10th Conference of the Parties to the Convention on Biological Diversity, CBD, in Nagoya, Japan.
The study, to be published in the international journal Science, used data for 25,000 species from The IUCN Red List of Threatened Species™, to investigate the status of the world’s vertebrates (mammals, birds, amphibians, reptiles and fishes) and how this status has changed over time. The results show that, on average, 50 species of mammal, bird and amphibian move closer to extinction each year due to the impacts of agricultural expansion, logging, over-exploitation and invasive alien species.
“The ‘backbone’ of biodiversity is being eroded,” says American ecologist and writer Professor Edward O. Wilson at Harvard University. “One small step up the Red List is one giant leap forward towards extinction. This is just a small window on the global losses currently taking place.”
Southeast Asia has experienced the most dramatic recent losses, largely driven by the planting of export crops like oil palm, commercial hardwood timber operations, agricultural conversion to rice paddies and unsustainable hunting. Parts of Central America, the tropical Andes of South America, and even Australia, have also all experienced marked losses, in particular due to the impact of the deadly chytrid fungus on amphibians.
Whilst the study confirms previous reports of continued losses in biodiversity, it is the first to present clear evidence of the positive impact of conservation efforts around the globe. Results show that the status of biodiversity would have declined by nearly 20 percent if conservation action had not been taken.
“History has shown us that conservation can achieve the impossible, as anyone who knows the story of the White Rhinoceros in southern Africa is aware,” says Simon Stuart, Chair of IUCN’s Species Survival Commission and an author on the study. “But this is the first time we can demonstrate the aggregated positive impact of these successes on the state of the environment.”
The study highlights 64 mammal, bird and amphibian species that have improved in status due to successful conservation action. This includes three species that were extinct in the wild and have since been re-introduced back to nature: the California Condor, Gymnogyps californianus, and the Black-footed Ferret, Mustela nigripes, in the United States, and Przewalski’s Horse, Equus ferus, in Mongolia.
Conservation efforts have been particularly successful at combatting invasive alien species on islands. The global population of the Seychelles Magpie-robin, Copsychus sechellarum, increased from fewer than 15 birds in 1965 to 180 in 2006 through control of introduced predators, like the Brown Rat, Rattus norvegicus, and captive-breeding and re-introduction programmes. On Mauritius, six bird species have undergone recoveries in status, including the Mauritius Kestrel, Falco punctatus, whose population has increased from just four birds in 1974 to nearly 1,000.
In South America, protected areas and a combination of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) and the Vicuña Convention helped spark the recovery of the Vicuña Vicugna vicugna (pictured below). Similarly, legislation enacted to ban commercial whaling has seen the Humpback Whale, Megaptera novaeangliae, move from Vulnerable to Least Concern. Unfortunately, very few amphibians have yet shown signs of recovery, but international efforts are escalating, including a programme to reintroduce the Kihansi Spray Toad, Nectophrynoides asperginis, back into the wild in Tanzania. (Story continues after the box below)
Global figures for the 2010 IUCN Red List of Threatened Species
Total species assessed = 55,926
Extinct = 791
Extinct in the Wild = 63
Critically Endangered (possibly extinct) = 3,565
Endangered = 5,256
Vulnerable = 9,530
Near Threatened = 4,014
Total Lower Risk/conservation dependent = 269 (this is an old category that is gradually being phased out of the Red List)
Data Deficient (insufficient data) = 8,358
Least Concern = 24,080
The figures presented above are only for those species that have been assessed for the IUCN Red List to date. Although not all of the world’s species have been assessed, the IUCN Red List provides a useful snapshot of what is happening to species today and highlights the urgent need for conservation action.
The authors caution that their study represents only a minimum estimate of the true impact of conservation, highlighting that some nine percent of threatened species have increasing populations. Their results show that conservation works, given resources and commitment. They also show that global responses will need to be substantially scaled up, because the current level of conservation action is outweighed by the magnitude of threat. In this light, policymakers at the CBD meeting in Nagoya have been calling for a very significant increase in resources – from extremely low current levels – to make the objectives of the Convention achievable.
“This is clear evidence for why we absolutely must emerge from Nagoya with a strategic plan of action to direct our efforts for biodiversity in the coming decade,” says Julia Marton-Lefèvre, Director General of IUCN. “It is a clarion call for all of us – governments, businesses, citizens – to mobilize resources and drive the action required. Conservation does work but it needs our support, and it needs it fast!”
The paper highlights that the percentage of species threatened among vertebrates ranges from 13 percent of birds to 41 percent of amphibians. Although the study focused on vertebrates, it also reports on the levels of threat among several other groups assessed for the IUCN Red List, including 14 percent of seagrasses, 32 percent of freshwater crayfish and 33 percent of reef-building corals.
The level of threat among cycads is extremely critical, with 63 percent threatened with extinction. Cycads, the most ancient group of seed plants alive today, are subject to extremely high levels of illegal harvesting and trade, and are in danger of going the same way as the dinosaurs.
Recently, a United Nations-sponsored study called The Economics of Ecosystems and Biodiversity (TEEB) calculated the cost of losing nature at $2-5 trillion per year, predominantly in poorer parts of the world. A recent study found one-fifth of more than 5,000 freshwater species in Africa are threatened, putting the livelihoods of millions of people dependent on these vital resources at risk.
Failure to meet the internationally agreed 2010 target to reduce biodiversity loss does not mean that conservation efforts have been in vain, as this study demonstrates. However, the erosion of biodiversity has reached such dangerous levels that we cannot afford to fail again. Ambitious targets are needed for 2020, and to meet them will require urgent and concerted action on a greatly expanded scale. It is time for the world’s Governments, meeting in Nagoya, to rise effectively to this global challenge.
Quotes from Red List Partner organizations
“We know what has to be done to save individual species from extinction,” says Alison Stattersfield, BirdLife’s Head of Science and one of the authors on the paper. “Through BirdLife’s Preventing Extinctions Programme we are taking effective and cost-effective action for the world’s critically endangered birds. But much more effort is needed, through NGOs, governments, businesses and committed individuals working together, to stop the slide towards extinction and start to address the root causes of biodiversity loss.”
“This study testifies to the transformative power of conservation,” says Sara Oldfield, Secretary General of Botanic Gardens Conservation International. “It shows that if we can emerge from Nagoya with a clear conservation strategy and the resources to secure the future of the world’s plants, we can radically improve the status of this group of species that has such tremendous cultural and economic importance for society.”
“The critical point from our analysis is the role that conservation plays in slowing species losses. That means we can do something about this global problem by taking concerted action at local national and regional scales,” says Andrew A. Rosenberg, Senior Vice President for Science and Knowledge at Conservation International and an author on the paper.
“This landmark analysis proves that, when guided by detailed data and supported by adequate financing, conservation of threatened species and their habitats works,” says Mary Klein, President and CEO of Natureserve. “We know what can and must be done to safeguard biodiversity – we just need to do much more of it.”
“A recent study on plants coordinated by Kew and involving several IUCN partners (http://www.kew.org/news/one-fifth-of-plants-under-threat-of-extinction.htm) suggested that just over one-fifth of all plant species are threatened, that most threatened plant species are found in the tropics and that the most threatening process is man-induced habitat loss,” says Professor Stephen Hopper, Director of the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew. “Conifers, with a world-wide presence in virtually all types of forest, face extinction for at least 29 percent of species. Many are ‘keystone’ species, without which their ecosystem could collapse, taking other species with them to extinction. Unsustainable logging and deforestation are the main causes. Clearly it is important to continue and increase conservation actions across the globe.”
“The conservation of biodiversity is a daunting challenge that requires a robust base of scientific information and theoretical framework. The Red List Partnership, of which our university is member, is a unique combination of centres of excellence sharing the responsibility of advancing the science of biodiversity assessment and maintaining updated information on the trends of biodiversity status,” says Luigi Boitani of Sapienza University of Rome and an author on the study. “Expanding the coverage of species and monitoring their status through time is a responsibility we cannot postpone anymore.”
“The results of this study suggest that we must adopt a broader and more comprehensive approach to conservation, one that includes not only protected areas but also better strategies to work with rural communities and traditional people to conserve biodiversity in places where people use the land for their support,” says Professor Thomas Lacher Jr. at Texas A&M University and an author on the paper. “We cannnot afford piecemeal approaches.”
“This paper is proof that conservation is working. Now we have to scale-up our efforts to match the unprecedented threats faced by the natural world,” says Professor Jonathan Baillie, Director of Conservation Programmes at the Zoological Society of London and an author on the paper.
“While the outlook for many species is still grim, this report is a testament to the real and valuable impact conservation work can have,” says Harriet Nimmo, Chief Executive of Wildscreen, who are working with IUCN to help raise the public profile of the world’s threatened species. “We need to urgently address our disconnection from the natural world and will only succeed in rescuing species from the brink of extinction if we successfully communicate their plight, significance, value and importance.”
The study involved some 174 authors from 115 institutions and 38 countries. It was made possible by the voluntary contributions of more than 3,000 scientists under the auspices of IUCN’s Species Survival Commission, and a growing partnership of organizations, including BirdLife International, Botanic Gardens Conservation International, Conservation International, NatureServe, Royal Botanic Gardens Kew, Sapienza Università di Roma, Texas A&M University, Wildscreen and the Zoological Society of London. For information about more species on the IUCN Red List please visit www.iucnredlist.org
The IUCN Red List of Threatened Species™
The IUCN Red List of Threatened Species™ (or the IUCN Red List) is the world’s most comprehensive information source on the global conservation status of plant and animal species. It is based on an objective system for assessing the risk of extinction of a species should no conservation action be taken.
Species are assigned to one of eight categories of threat based on whether they meet criteria linked to population trend, population size and structure and geographic range. Species listed as Critically Endangered, Endangered or Vulnerable are collectively described as ‘Threatened’.
The IUCN Red List is not just a register of names and associated threat categories. It is a rich compendium of information on the threats to the species, their ecological requirements, where they live, and information on conservation actions that can be used to reduce or prevent extinctions.
The IUCN Red List threat categories
The IUCN Red List threat categories are as follows, in descending order of threat:
Extinct or Extinct in the Wild;
Critically Endangered, Endangered and Vulnerable: species threatened with global extinction;
Near Threatened: species close to the threatened thresholds or that would be threatened without ongoing specific conservation measures;
Least Concern: species evaluated with a lower risk of extinction;
Data Deficient: no assessment because of insufficient data.
Critically Endangered (Possibly Extinct): this is not a new Red List category, but is a flag developed to identify those Critically Endangered species that are in all probability already Extinct but for which confirmation is required,for example, through more extensive surveys being carried out and failing to find any individuals.
IUCN, the International Union for Conservation of Nature, helps the world find pragmatic solutions to our most pressing environment and development challenges by supporting scientific research; managing field projects all over the world; and bringing governments, NGOs, the UN, international conventions and companies together to develop policy, laws and best practice.
The world’s oldest and largest global environmental network, IUCN is a democratic membership union with more than 1,000 government and NGO member organizations, and almost 11,000 volunteer scientists and experts in some 160 countries. IUCN’s work is supported by over 1,000 professional staff in 60 offices and hundreds of partners in public, NGO and private sectors around the world. IUCN’s headquarters are located in Gland, near Geneva, in Switzerland.
We live in the era of the education test. Education reformers want to measure how kids are learning and how teachers are teaching. While data is great, what can be lost in this drive to measure every step in school is the importance of social and emotional development in learning.
This importance is increasingly backed up by research, a new report says.
Mastery of socio-emotional skills is linked with better performance in the classroom, while a lack of development can lead to academic problems, the report says. It looks at the growing mountain of research, including one large-scale study that found developmentally focused approaches to these so-called soft skills led to an 11-point increase in academic achievement and a drop in behavioral problems.
Read the full story here.
The short answer is that microfinance is a set of financial services such as small loans for the poor aimed at helping people get themselves out of poverty.
Sounds fairly straightforward, right? In reality, there’s a fight for the soul of microfinance going on and some of that battle has been playing out here at home.
There has been an explosion of “profit-maximizing” microfinance organizations lately which some say threatens to undermine the credibility of this anti-poverty scheme — if not its fundamental social purpose. But the proponents of profit-driven, commercial microfinance say it is the only way to really grow these services, to reach the many millions more in need of help.
As would be expected in the midst of such a struggle, there’s been a bit of conflict, drama and confusion surrounding microfinance lately, such as:
- The abrupt closure and mysterious reorganization of the Seattle-based for-profit microfinance firm Unitus. The organization laid off its staff several months ago with little explanation and stopped communicating with its donors after coming into some big-time profits (initially estimated at about $70 million) for its investors.
- More recently, the police actions taken against India’s biggest microfinance organization SKS. The company, which had earlier changed from non-profit to for-profit and then went public with an IPO this summer, provided Unitus (which in 2006 had created an equity fund that invested in SKS) with its big financial windfall.
The founder of SKS, Vikram Akula, started out in the “social business” tradition of his mentor Nobel Laureate Muhammad Yunus. But he has since become an advocate of commercial and profit-driven microfinance.
Yesterday, Akula was supposed to appear in person at another debate on the topic of profit-driven microfinance, at an event in New York City sponsored by the Asia Society. He instead had to do it from India by videoconference. The moderator only said he was “detained” — not that he was facing possible arrest due to allegations of SKS lenders strong-arming poor people to the point of inciting suicides.
The allegations may turn out to be untrue and it seems unlikely Akula will actually be arrested. But at least you can’t say microfinance is just another one of those boring, bleeding heart, do-gooder activities.
Seattle is home to a number of organizations active in microfinance. Yunus frequently visits here and there are often events on this topic. Later this week in fact, at Seattle University, there will be a public forum in which experts discuss the “social performance” of microcredit loans.
So I decided to put the question “What is microfinance?” to three local (well, one is quasi-local) leaders in this movement: Rick Beckett, president of Global Partnerships, Ed Bland, outgoing president of Unitus, and Alex Counts, president of the Grameen Foundation.
Note: The Grameen Foundation has offices in both D.C. and Seattle. Counts was the one who debated Akula by video yesterday (which you can watch here).
All of these organizations have done a lot to expand microfinance worldwide, but in different ways. In a nutshell, Global Partnerships and the Grameen Foundation do it as non-profits and Unitus is (or was anyway) doing it as a for-profit entity.
That’s the first difference, but it isn’t necessarily the most important one.
Beckett, who worked for years as a financial analyst in health care, notes that being non-profit doesn’t necessarily mean an organization is socially motivated. Lots of health care organizations are non-profit and yet many of them, he says, are often primarily focused on making money.
“I don’t think it’s useful for people to think of non-profit as good and for-profit as bad,” said Beckett.
Yunus’ pioneering Grameen Bank in Bangladesh, he noted, operates as a for-profit bank but with a clear anti-poverty mission, community ownership and social purpose.
For Beckett, the distinguishing feature of microfinance is that it clearly serves a “social purpose” above and beyond merely managing loans.
Global Partnerships, for example, works in Nicaragua with a local microfinance organization called Pro Mujer. They combine giving out loans to poor women with providing them access to health and educational services. The loans help them financially, Beckett said, but it is the combination of financial, social and health programs that really makes the difference.
“That doesn’t give any return to an investor, may even reduce the financial return, but it has a social return,” Beckett says. People who donate to Global Partnerships may (and did recently) see a return on their investment, he says, but that’s secondary.
Counts agrees that what distinguishes microfinance from other forms of financial services is its social focus. The problem, Counts says, is that SKS can claim to be serving a social purpose — getting loans to poor people — even as it is also trying to also make a lot of money for its shareholders.
“I think SKS has veered pretty heavily toward profit-maximizing and it has compromised its claim to be serving a social purpose,” Counts says. But that’s just his opinion, he says, and Akula clearly disagrees with him.
To try to bring some clarity and definition to the field, Counts said the Grameen Foundation is working with a number of other organizations to develop an industry standard for measuring social impact.
But until the industry adopts a standard for assessing social purpose, Counts says one way for the public or donors to tell the difference is that socially motivated microfinance organizations tend to impose reasonable limits on executive compensations, caps on what investors can make and so on. And like the Global Partnerships example, he says, most of the financial programs tend to be accompanied by other services such as health and education.
“The difference is between doing microfinance for a social purpose, in which you can do at a profit but the main purpose is social, or doing microfinance mostly aimed at maximizing profit with the expectation, but no requirement, of a social benefit,” says Counts.
Bland, outgoing president of Unitus, said he agreed that there needs to be some way to measure social impact in microfinance — how many clients actually get out of poverty, educational and health improvements. But ultimately, Bland says, microfinance is still mostly about getting money into the hands of poor people.
“Many microfinance institutions struggle because they are so small, they have no economies of scale and often run out of money,” he said.
Unitus’ goal was to accelerate the growth of these microfinance organizations, increase their stability and get more money out to poor people.
“The product here is money,” Bland says, and the best way to increase the pool of money is through the more aggressive, commercial approach taken by SKS.
“You have to be careful not to get too greedy and take resources away from the poor, but we think it is okay for investors to get a return,” Bland says. This approach increases the resources available to do loans.
Another way to differentiate a responsible microfinance institution from an exploitative one, says Bland, is to look at their loan interest rates. SKS charges somewhere around 25 percent, he noted, while the controversial Mexican microfinance company Banco Compartamos charges something like 85 percent on loans.
“You can tell if an interest rate is reasonable or not,” he says. “We think you can do this as a for-profit operation, give investors a reasonable return and serve a social purpose.”
Bland said he didn’t want to get into much detail regarding Unitus’ financial windfall from the SKS IPO and the reorganization. At the end of this month, he said he will leave Unitus and issue a letter describing the organization’s financial condition, how the money that came in was distributed and where the organization goes from here.
“Any of the funds that come back to Unitus will be directed to the benefit of the poor and not to individuals,” Bland says. “That remains a strong commitment of our board.”
Amy Gardner’s recent reporting on the Tea Party in the Washington Post has been very insightful. Today’s piece (10/27/10) deals with the activists’ views of the media. There’s a standard right-wing whine about mainstream media neglect, but actual Tea Party activists see things differently:
Most local tea party organizers interviewed in an extensive canvass this month by the Washington Post said media coverage of their groups has been fair, suggesting that perceptions of antagonism between the tea party and traditional news media are overstated.
Seventy-six percent of local organizers said that coverage of their groups is either very fair or somewhat fair. Only 8 percent said coverage has been very unfair; 15 percent said somewhat unfair.
It’s difficult to imagine many progressive activists could say the same thing. The truth is that Tea Party activism has received an abundance of press coverage. But Gardner tries to make the case that this wasn’t so, at least early on:
Read more here:
There’s a lot of sound and fury these days about reforming international development. The Obama Administration wants to “modernize” U.S. foreign aid — make it more effective, efficient.
Owen Barder, a development expert based in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, and author of the great blog Owen Abroad, has some excellent advice for the change-makers:
Abandon top-down design strategies and embrace evolution.
Read more here: