August 21, 2019

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NEED TO KNOW

AMAZON BASIN

Gasping For Air

Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro has been under fire for his stewardship of the precious Amazon Basin, the so-called “lungs of the Earth” that filter carbon out of the atmosphere and sustain a remarkably diverse ecology.

Deforestation has soared under the conservative president and former army captain who served under Brazil’s military junta in the 1970s and 1980s. Woodcutters cleared more than 1,620 square miles of Brazilian Amazon forest between Jan. 1, when Bolsonaro took office, and late July, wrote Science magazine. That’s 50 percent more than in the same seven-month period last year and double the amount lost in that period in 2017.

Bolsonaro has denied the veracity of the data, setting off debates in Brazil about fake news, the media and the frequent inclination among politicians to twist the truth. “Mr. Bolsonaro often makes spurious statements,” reported the New York Times in coverage of the president sacking the head of the agency that tracks deforestation in the Amazon.

Meanwhile, the Amazon has experienced a record number of fires this year, according to new data released by the country’s space agency, the National Institute for Space Research. The agency said its satellite data detected more than 72,000 fires since January, an 83 percent increase over the same period of 2018.

Recently, the president offered a novel solution to a dilemma posed by a journalist in Brasilia, the country’s capital. The journalist asked Bolsonaro whether it was possible to simultaneously grow the economy, feed the hungry and protect the environment.

“It’s enough to eat a little less,” the president said, according to Agence France-Presse. “You talk about environmental pollution. It’s enough to poop every other day. That will be better for the whole world.”

Writing in the Washington Post’s letter section, a Brazilian diplomat defended Bolsonaro’s policies, saying the government is developing a better system to monitor deforestation.

German officials weren’t convinced. They intend to stop paying aid to Brazil to fund conservation projects that might preserve trees, Deutsche Welle reported. Bolsonaro didn’t appear to care. “They can use this money as they see fit,” he said. “Brazil doesn’t need it.”

Brazil needs to take action, however. The world is on “deathwatch” for the Amazon, the Economist warned, explaining that ranching and agriculture were transforming the rainforest. “South America’s natural wonder may be perilously close to the tipping point beyond which its gradual transformation into something closer to steppe cannot be stopped or reversed, even if people lay down their axes,” the British magazine wrote.

The Amazon continues to educate humanity. Researchers, for example, recently discovered that the Amazon acquires a vital nutrient – phosphorus – from smoke that wafts across the Atlantic Ocean from fires in Africa, the New Scientist reported.

That’s knowledge that makes the pronouncements of presidents seem small in comparison.

WANT TO KNOW

ARMS CONTROL

Good for the Goose

Russia and China criticized the Pentagon’s test on Monday of a cruise missile that was banned under the recently abandoned Intermediate-range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty, saying such actions risk prompting a Cold War-era style arms race.

Moscow also cited the test as possible evidence that the Pentagon had been developing the banned land-based, intermediate-range missile even before President Donald Trump pulled the US out of the treaty two weeks ago, Newsweek reported. Trump pulled out of the pact claiming Russia was not honoring it.

“It is noteworthy that the test of an advanced Tomahawk-type missile was conducted just 16 days after the US withdrew from INF,” said Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov. “Perhaps, there can be no clearer and more explicit confirmation of the fact that the United States has been developing such systems for a long time.”

Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Geng Shuang agreed.

“This move by the US will trigger a new round of an arms race, leading to an escalation of military confrontation and a serious negative impact on the international and regional security situation,” Geng said.

SRI LANKA

Tarnished Reputation

Sri Lanka rejected international criticism of its selection of a military officer accused of committing human rights violations during the country’s 26-year war against Tamil separatists as the new chief of the army, saying the meddling was “unwarranted and unacceptable.”

On Monday, the South Asian country selected Shavendra Silva, 55, as army chief, prompting criticism from the US, United Nations and civil society groups, Reuters reported. The delegation of the European Union in Sri Lanka said Tuesday that the decision “undermines Sri Lanka’s efforts towards national reconciliation and sends a worrying message to victims and survivors of the war.”

Reuters quoted a defense analyst as saying the move could also prompt the US to stop its military assistance to the island nation, though it was not clear how likely that is.

A UN panel has accused Silva’s army division of torturing prisoners and executing unarmed rebels in the final week of the war, which ended in 2009.

BURKINA FASO

A Rising Emergency

Islamist extremists killed at least 24 soldiers in northern Burkina Faso in one of the deadliest such attacks ever to hit the West African nation, President Roch Marc Christian Kabore said Tuesday.

“It is a record that saddens us both at the level of the people of Burkina Faso in general, and at the level of the government in particular,” Kabore said, the Associated Press reported.

Seven more soldiers were wounded and another five are missing, according to Al Jazeera.

So far, the country has not identified a particular group as the perpetrators, but a source in the security establishment told AFP that it appeared to be a “well-prepared” and “coordinated” assault by a heavily armed force.

Extremist violence has been increasing in Burkina Faso, where such attacks have already killed hundreds of people and prompted thousands more to flee their homes. The government declared a state of emergency last year, and in May Kabore’s foreign minister warned that the problem is growing throughout the Sahel region, which includes Mali, Niger and Chad, and could soon destabilize West Africa.

DISCOVERIES

Atomik Martinis

Vodka martinis are about to become nuclear-powered, thanks to science.

An international team of researchers has created the first “artisan vodka” using grain and water from the irradiated Chernobyl exclusion zone, in Ukraine.

“So we took rye that was slightly contaminated and water from the Chernobyl aquifer and we distilled it,” Professor Jim Smith, one of the producers, told the BBC.

Smith and his team had been studying the recovery of the exclusion zone for years and started the vodka project after growing crops in the zone.

The aptly named “Atomik” is more of a grain spirit than a vodka, and it’s not radioactive, thanks to the distillation process.

“This is no more radioactive than any other vodka,” assured Smith. “Any chemist will tell you, when you distill something, impurities stay in the waste product.”

So far, only one bottle has been produced, but the scientists behind the newly founded Chernobyl Spirit Company hope to produce 500 bottles this year for tourists visiting the exclusion zone.

They also aim to boost the local economy and help the struggling communities around the exclusion zone.

“Because now,” added Smith, “after 30 years, I think the most important thing in the area is actually economic development, not the radioactivity.”