Equilibrium & Sustainability

Equilibrium/Sustainability — Fighting illegal gold mining in the Amazon

Miners work at Eldorado do Juma wildcat gold mine, near Apui, in the Brazilian Amazon, Thursday, Feb. 1, 2007. Eldorado do Juma is Brazil’s newest boom town which since December has been the destination for thousands of fortune seekers hoping to strike it rich in the heart of the Amazon jungle. (AP Photo/Victor R. Caivano)

A young Amazonian woman won a prestigious international prize yesterday for her work challenging gold miners digging up her people’s lands. 

When gold miners began stripping the ancestral forests of the Cofán people with bulldozers, Alexandra Narvaez formed a “forest patrol” to confront them, according to a statement from the Goldman Environmental Prize. 

With drones, camera traps and stealthy patrols, they documented enough illegal activities to convince the government of Ecuador to cancel the mining concessions — for which she and collaborator Alex Lucinante were this year’s Goldman Prize winners for Latin America. 

Narvaez was the first Cofán woman to join such a patrol. 

“As women we have to defend Mother Earth, to speak out for the future of our children and defend our way of life in spite of the machismo and being afraid,” Narvarez told The Guardian. 

“It’s been beautiful to be part of this struggle with other women from my community,” she added. 

Also noteworthy: While still a teenager, Nalleli Cobo — North America’s Goldman Prize winner — founded a community group whose lawsuit against the city of LA that led to the banning of oil and gas in city limits. 

We covered that ban in January. 

Welcome to Equilibrium, a newsletter that tracks the growing global battle over the future of sustainability. We’re Saul Elbein and Sharon Udasin. Send us tips and feedback. A friend forward this newsletter to you? Subscribe here. 

Today we’ll look at a list of new Securities and Exchange Commission rules aimed to bring order to the often-misleading world of sustainable investment, followed by a U.N. study that suggests thirsty nations tap more “unconventional” water resources.  

New SEC rules aim to combat greenwashing 

New federal rules could help ensure that funds labeled as environment, social and governance (ESG) actually deserve the name — and the high fees they command. 

Drilling down: On Wednesday, the Security and Exchange Commission (SEC) proposed new rules to combat the practice of greenwashing, which is the misleading marketing of unsustainable investments under the ESG label. 

Rules of the road: If adopted, the new rules would provide clear direction as to what constitutes an ESG-focused fund — potentially bringing some order to an anarchic sector. 

A related rule, also introduced on Wednesday, would require any fund that labeled itself as ESG-focused to put at least 80 percent of its money into such investments. 

A glimpse inside: “ESG encompasses a wide variety of investments and strategies. I think investors should be able to drill down to see what’s under the hood of these strategies,” SEC Chair Gary Gensler said a statement. 

Investors liked it: Large asset managers have long struggled with telling the truly sustainable funds from the greenwashed ones, and were a major impetus behind the SEC’s new ESG rules. 

“Brokers, advisors, and investors must have clarity,” CEO Chris Lacovella of the American Securities Association, which represents large asset managers, said in a statement. 

Fund managers pushed back: They will be the ones who have to meet the new requirements. 

 “The proposal for some funds to disclose emissions related to their holdings seems to be unworkable,” Eric Pan of the Investment Company Institute told The Wall Street Journal. 

Rampant confusion: A January study by climate nonprofit As You Sow found two-thirds of ESG-advertised funds invested in unsustainable industries like fossil fuels. 

The investigation found that formal SEC filings from the “greenwashing companies” were difficult to distinguish from more legitimate ones, according to the study.  

Telltale signs: A reliance on wiggle words like ““may consider,” “seek,” “believe,” “pursue,” “may” and “might,” As You Sow found. 

If the rule passes: Expect fewer ESG funds, but more reputable ones. 

ESG investment aims to keep migrants at home 

A new flood of investment could soon begin pouring into social enterprises in Central America in the hopes of providing alternatives for migrants leaving countries battered by climate change, political instability and civil violence. 

That’s according to a new initiative announced on Thursday by business, civil society and policy leaders at the World Economic forum in Davos, Switzerland. 

New business, new opportunity: “We will bring together local business leaders to drive change and create opportunities to improve the socioeconomic and environmental conditions in their societies,” Marisol Argueta, who runs the Latin American agenda for the World Economic Forum, said in a statement. 

Going to the roots: The proposed framework aims to connect big investors with local businesses to help grow businesses in Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador that will encourage people to stay, rather than seeking their fortunes in Mexico, the U.S. or Canada. 

Building on Biden: The framework expands on President Biden’s 2021 executive order directing federal agencies to address undocumented migration from those countries with a “root cause” strategy, according to a White House fact sheet. 

As part of that effort, spearheaded by Vice President Harris, private companies and foundations like PepsiCo, Mastercard, Bancolombia and Cargill have promised $1.2 billion in investment, Guatemala’s Prensa Libre reported earlier this month. 

How has it gone? The groups claim to have deployed $150 million in new agricultural production and another $150 million in new industry, which they say has directly affected 2 million people in the region. 

‘More investment, please’: While trillions of dollars are now going into green investments, those funds “can never make their way to the countries that need them most” because they are deemed risky, Egyptian minister for international cooperation Rania Al Mashat told The Guardian. 

Egypt will host the COP 27 U.N. Climate Change Conference in Sharm El Sheikh in November. 

One solution to reduce risk: Greater collaboration or guarantees — or coordinated investments — between rich- or poor- country governments and big lenders, The Guardian reported. 

“We want this COP to be about moving from pledges to implementation,” Al Mahat told the Guardian. 

UN experts call upon nations to tap ‘unconventional water resources’ 

As drought conditions continue to dry up the planet, United Nations water experts are calling upon countries to tap the Earth’s abundant “unconventional water resources” such as those found deep underground or in icebergs. 

Benefiting billions: “Harnessing the potential of unconventional water sources could benefit billions of people,” Manzoor Qadir, deputy director of the U.N. University’s Institute for Water, Environment and Health, said in a statement.  

“These sources will be essential to building a future in arid areas,” added Qadir, lead editor of a new book called Unconventional Water Resources.  

Helping relieve shortages: Qadir and his colleagues determined that these potential supplies could help alleviate shortages of water for drinking, sanitation, agriculture and economic development, according to a press release published alongside the book. 

What are unconventional water resources? Some such supplies include millions of cubic kilometers of water found deep in land-based and seabed aquifers, as well as in fog, icebergs and the ballast holds of thousands of ships, the authors found.  

Other critical resources include desalination facilities and wastewater treatment options, according to the researchers.  

Potential trade-offs, high costs: At the same time, Qadir acknowledged that implementing national action plans to tap these resources will first require assessments of the environmental trade-offs, as well as comprehensive cost analyses and innovative financing mechanisms. 

To learn more about these potential water resources, please click here to read the full story.  

Wealthiest incur most wildfire damage; low-income most exposed 

While wealthy homeowners in the U.S. West are enduring the most damage from wildfires, the poorest households are most likely to be situated in wildfire hazard zones.  

The finding was part of a study published on Thursday in Environmental Research Letters.  

What the study found: The top 10 percent most valuable homes in the western U.S. are 70 percent more likely to be in high wildfire danger zones than median-value properties. 

High-value homes have incurred the most damage: Recent wildfires have had the most impact on high-income, white and elderly communities, as well as on owners of high-income properties, the authors explained.  

Low-value homes have the most exposure: But the study also revealed disproportionate exposure to wildfire hazards among the least expensive homes in the Western U.S. and among Native American communities.  

Isn’t that contradictory? Not really. Many more expensive properties located in wildfire hazard areas are concentrated in high-density areas, the authors explained.  

Meanwhile most of the wildfire hazard zones in the western U.S. are sparsely populated and predominantly include less expensive properties, according to the study.  

Calls for equitable funding: “Wildfire mitigation policies that deliver financial assistance to high-hazard areas could be subsidizing wealthy households,” Molly Robertson, study co-author and a research associate at the nonprofit Resources for the Future, said in a statement.  

A focused approach: “However, high wildfire hazard areas are quite heterogeneous, so addressing concerns associated with costs of increasing wildfire hazard may call for a geographically targeted approach focused on reducing the burden for the most vulnerable communities,” Robertson added. 

Thirsty Thursday 

Drought comes for India’s mangoes, a slight reprieve for Colorado and a hidden toxin haunts a Great Lake. 

Mangoes are the latest victim of India’s heat wave, drought 

  • India’s ongoing heat wave has devastated the country’s mango crops, jeopardizing the livelihoods of thousands of small farmers, The New York Times reported. The crisis is just one example of the challenges India is facing to secure its long-term food supply, amid the worsening impacts of climate change, according to the Times.  

Drought improves — slightly — in Colorado 

  • Drought conditions improved for the first time in months in Colorado after more than 8 inches of snow hit mountain areas and more than an inch of liquid precipitation drenched lower elevations last week, CBS4 in Denver reported. Nonetheless, 90 percent of the state is still experiencing drought, according to CBS4. 

Cutting phosphorous pollution could make Lake Erie more toxic 

  • Plans to cut phosphorous pollution in Lake Erie to control blooms of toxic algae could actually make the water more toxic — unless regulators cut nitrogen pollution as well, according to a new study in Science. Cuts in cloudy phosphorous leaves nitrogen-eating bacteria more light, allowing them to multiply and excrete more toxins, the study found.  

Please visit The Hill’s sustainability section online for the web version of this newsletter and more stories. We’ll see you on Friday. 

Tags amazon gold mining California Central America COP 27 drought Equilibrium esg Florida Gary Gensler mangoes migrants New York Sustainability Texas water resources wildfires
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