Archive April 2010

Sugar, You Ain’t So Sweet Matthew Wood Apr 26

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’Sugar? No problem! Ethanol? No problem!’ the Padre assures his audience. ’It’s the model…’ the model for biofuel production in Brazil that he’s here to denounce.

Tiago Thorlby, a Scottish ex-pat priest, belongs to an ecumenical church organisation called Comissão Pastoral da Terra, CPT (The Land Pastoral Commission) and for 25 years has worked with rural Brazilians marginalised by the monocultive agribusiness of sugar cane.

Tiago Thorlby 1

Kay Weir of the Pacific Institute for Resource Management and editor of Pacific Ecologist, and Peter Barrett of Victoria University’s Climate Change Research Institute (and until recently the director of the Antarctic Research Centre), hosted Padre Thorlby in Wellington last week, where he spread the word about New Zealand’s (and particularly Wellington’s) importing of unsustainable and unethical Brazilian-made biofuels. He brought with him some arresting footage, and countless personal anecdotes, of the plight of sugar cane workers in Pernambuco, where manual labour is commonly tantamount to slavery.

When Padre Thorlby first arrived in Brazil in the 1960s, 70% of the population lived and worked on the land. Today, that figure has dropped to just 17%; in part a response to a latifundiary land use system, which includes sugar cane estates of up to a million hectares. This neo-feudalism is only intensifying, as more and more land is annexed for the current boom in sugar cane. Plantations displace forests and pesticides lay waste to waterways. Around 17 litres of noxious stillage is created for every litre of ethanol that rolls off the production line.

And when the economic bust arrives, as it invariably does, you can be sure that it will be those at the bottom of the heap that will come out worst off, warns Thorlby.

Human rights abuses easily slip by unnoticed in a system rife with corruption and bribery. ’Who needs subsidies when you own the judge?’ As of 1998 sugar barons owed tens of millions in fines for crimes against the environment, debts that have not been, or are likely to be, settled. Many deaths have directly resulted from the system, from transport accidents, overwork and even assassinations. Thorlby himself has received numerous death threats for his activism. The Padre considers the current Brazilian model as a classic case study in the unseen costs of western capitalism and points out that ’some crimes’, given enough time and distance, ’become institutionalised’.

Thorlby’s remedy: land reform in Brazil and more responsibility from the developed world. Biofuels are considered by many to be only useful as an energy stop-gap, to be used while our modern society weans itself off fossil fuels, rather than being a long-term solution. Perhaps our time and money would be better spent developing sustainable alternative energy sources from within our own country, instead of importing spurious clean energy from half a world away.


Resolution from the public meeting: ‘The Reality behind Brazilian biofuels in New Zealand,’ presentation by Padre Thorlby, Pastoral Lands Commission (CPT) Brazil, followed by a panel discussion, held on Earth Day, 22 April 2010, 6 — 8.40pm, at St John’s Hall, Wellington, corner Willis/Dixon Streets.

Resolution: ’This meeting calls for the NZ government to halt the import of biofuels from Brazil and other third world countries because of their unsustainable production and their social and environmental impacts and calls for a mandatory sustainability code for biofuels.’

The Meeting was organised by the Pacific Institute of Resource Management, PIRM, and supported by the Latin American Solidarity Committee; the Alternative Technology and Living Association & Friends of the Earth NZ. – see and for recording see –

The Panel was chaired by economist Bill Rosenberg, NZ Council of Trade Unions, and included Paul Bruce, Wellington Regional Councillor; Father Gerard Burns, chair of Caritas/ social justice worker; Doug Clover, convenor, Sustainable Energy Forum; Jim Kebble, founder, Commonsense Organics and Kay Weir, Editor, Pacific Ecologist – see issue 17 at and biofuels submissions at

Tiago Thorlby 2

Photos (c) Matthew Wood 2010

Two Birds, One Stone Matthew Wood Apr 15

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P1110243Each year the School of Biological Sciences and the School of Geography, Environment and Earth Sciences at Victoria University of Wellington join forces to take 2nd year science students to Lake Rotoiti in Nelson Lakes National Park. The Environmental Studies/Biology 222 paper combines the two complementary disciplines in a single field trip.

The course takes a holistic approach to explaining the environment of the area, exploring the intricate interconnections between geology, geomorphology, and the floral and faunal assemblages. At one moment students are shown the control of vegetation by geology — the alkaline soils derived from the ultramafic ophiolite rocks of the Red Hills provide sustenance for only a thin cover of the most undemanding scrub — the next, how forest cover (or the lack of it) can alter natural denudation rates by orders of magnitude. Fire ravaged the forest cover on the north face of Mt. Robert in the early 20th century, leading to ever-deepening scree-filled gullies and the reactivation of dormant colluvial fans.

The landscape of Lake Rotoiti has largely been hewn from the geological basement by glaciers, which have advanced periodically throughout the Quaternary. Today the ice is long gone, but its legacy is written in landforms; a moraine here, a truncated spur or two there. The barren mountain slopes left behind  by retreating ice at the end of the last glaciation have been transformed into stratified soils by untold generations of beech forest. Choruses of tui and bellbirds fill the canopy at lower elevation while weka and New Zealand robins forage for terrestrial invertebrates across the forest floor below.

The major assessment for the course requires the students to propose and execute a field study in the area using the scientific tools they have been equipped with earlier in the week: soil sampling and description, bird call, insect and tree species identification and landform sketching. The second week is coming to an end and the group projects are looking good! Hopefully students from each academic camp will go home appreciating that when it comes to understanding our natural environment, the perspectives of geologists and biologists are by no means mutually exclusive.

Photos (c) Matthew Wood 2010

Pano Rotoiti Crop

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