Passion for lava

People have different passions. Some people are enthusiastic about coffee, others adore shiny things, yet others are passionate about nature and wildlife. Passion for nature makes people chain themselves to trees, parade naked to protest the fur trade, sail in rough seas to stop whale killing, climb oil rigs to protest drilling etc.

Now in Iceland, a group of environmentalists (lead by the NGO “Friends of the lava” are passionate about protecting a lava field, close to Reykjavík called Gálgahraun (Gallow-lava), from being dug up and buried under major roadworks. Some people might think this very odd. Why protect a small piece of lava since Iceland has so much of it? There is lava pretty much everywhere! There are a number of reasons why this particular lava field is unique and should be kept unspoiled. This lava was formed in the eruption of Búrfell, 8000 years ago and is protected by law. This beautiful lava field is mostly intact, and contains amazing geological features and old historical paths used by our ancestors. It also has a strong resonance for cultural reasons, as our best known painter, Jóhannes Kjarval, used scenes from the Gálgahraun lava field as inspiration for some of his famous paintings. Furthermore, it is one of the last unspoiled lava fields within the greater Reykjavík area. What upsets people about the situation is that the planned (and possibly illegal) road construction is completely unnecessary. It will only serve a low number of people (Álftanes has a population of 2.484) and the road construction will cost a fortune (approx 6 million Euros). The argument put forward for the new road layout is that the old road has caused accidents because of icing but out of 44 roads within the greater Reykjavík area, 21 roads were considered more dangerous than the Álftanes road, and of 1427 roads in the whole country, 301 roads have more accidents than Álftanes road. The road could be improved and made much safer for a fraction of what the new road would cost. I don’t know exactly what drives the municipality of Garðabær and The Icelandic Road and Coastal Administration to pursue this insane road construction but something about the whole thing stinks very badly.

Four nature NGO’s have sued the municipality to halt the road construction, but have not been able to change the planned work and the lawsuit is still being processed in court. In the last weeks hundreds of people have been protecting the lava field and they set up a rota to make sure there was always someone in the lava field protecting it from the bulldozers. These brave people are making a human shield to protect something they love. Today, the police started dragging them away and are carrying them handcuffed like they were the criminals. On days like these it doesn’t feel like Iceland is a country of law and order anymore.

If you want to help in any way, you can either show up in Gálgahraun and protest or transfer a donation to their bank account number: 140 05 71017, kennitala. 480207 – 1490. All help is greatly appreciated.

Addition at 13:30 on 21st of October: I just came from Gálgahraun and the bulldozers are already ruining this amazing lava field. Dozens of people have been arrested, there is police everywhere and we all (even the police) stood there horrified watching the screaming bulldozer tear down delicate lava features. The people responsible will stop at nothing, their greed has no limits.

Hraunavinir 1

Hraunavinir 2

Communicating environmental challenges with photography

Photography is art. Photography is a way of expressing yourself – a way of sharing. Photographs tell stories – stories of people, nature, cultures and events. Photographs are good to dissminate knowlegde and raise awareness. I like photos and photo exhibitions. Good photograps make me laugh or want to cry,  they fill my imagination and make me want to travel the world.

In Reykjavik‘s City Hall, I recently saw a memorable photo exhibition with photos from Angola taken by five talented photographers from Kenya, Ghana, Tanzania, Zimbabwe and Angola. The theme of the exhibition was “Save and protect the earth/Salvar e preservar o planeta“ and the photos covered  important issues such as water, health, megacities, resources and soil. The exhibition has been travelling the world since it was first presented at the UN Commission on Sustainable Development‘s session in 2010. The aim of the exhibition was to encourage the Angolan population to get involved with sustainable develpment issues as stated in the exhibition‘s flyer. The photos focus on Angola‘s soil, water, people, complexes and resources – but they look very familiar. Photos of people doing their daily routines; working, trading, laughing or worrying about their loved ones, are universal and could have been taken in many other places on Earth. The same goes for the nature, the soil we grow our crops in and the water we drink. The exhibition covers pressing issues of major importance for our future on Earth and that together with high quality photos make the exhibition breathtaking.

I have never been to Angola, but this autumn I will revisit Angola‘s neighbouring country Namibia on a work mission. I know that issues such as soil, water and resources will catch my eye on the trip along with the stunning beauty of the Namib Desert. Equipped with my camera I will be able to communicate Namibia‘s golden desert, amazing biota and environmental challenges when back home.

Below are two of my photos from a work mission to Niger, West Africa in 2012.
The people who live on the Gorou Beri plain close to Niamey in Niger work on restoring degraded land in order to improve their food security and livelihood.

Land degradation is a serious challenge in Niger, West Africa, threatening the welfare of its people.

How to eat a rainforest and apply its blood to your skin!

YosriLadangKelapaSawit2What a strange and dreadful title you might ask but the fact is that you are probably doing it every single day without realizing it. Pristine rainforests are now, as we speak, being chopped down as areas are cleared for the mass production of palm oil. Animals and indigenous people have few places to go to once the trees have been removed. Countless oil palms are planted in desolated areas once covered with rainforest, their fruits producing palm oil, one of the most common vegetable oil on the market. Because it is so cheap and contains saturated fat, palm oil is used in bread, cakes, cereal, meat, chocolate, sweets, noodles, shampoo, cosmetics, biofuels… you name it. Don’t be deceived by “sustainable palm oil” labels, it hardly exists and as the use of palm oil in food or cosmetics is rarely explicitly labelled (usually only referred to as “vegetable oil” or a complicated chemical name on the packaging), it is hard to avoid buying products including it without contacting the producers, which often give very dubious answers.

All the way through my childhood a poster of an Australian rainforest was hanging in my room. I used to dream of the day I would visit a magical forest like that. In high school I worked on a project on endangered animals and rainforests and I have been smitten ever since, but also sad and angry. Very angry and appalled with humans and how we treat the planet. This was the first time in my life I was angry about something other than my teenage world. The rainforests were degrading fast and what could a teenager do with this information? I didn’t think it would be possible for a girl in Iceland to make a difference in this world but I followed my dream. I became a wildlife biologist and have been to rainforests in Malaysia, Indonesia, Australia and Madagascar; I have seen pristine rainforests but also degraded ones. I have seen bulldozers working their way through the forest but also seen healing secondary forests. I have seen amazing rainforest creatures, small and large and I love them all (as horrific as mosquitoes and leeches can be, the nerd in me finds them quite fascinating, especially when feasting on someone else than me…). I know now that one person can make a difference in this world and therefore I will not stop, even though I sometimes annoy the hell out of my family and friends!

I have been talking about palm oil production to people in Iceland since 2010 and very few people I meet realize what a big problem it causes. Thankfully there are international groups and organisations such as Rainforest Action Network (RAN) that raise awareness, but rainforests are still being destroyed to make room for palm oil plantations (and other products like soy). The demand for palm oil keeps growing; it is, after all, the cheapest vegetable oil on the market. Hence the root of the problem is the exponential demand for cheap vegetable oil. There are both terrifying news of e.g. the loss of the Sumatran rainforests within 20 years and some signs of hope where “The heat is now on other large palm oil and paper companies after Asia Pulp and Paper (APP), one of the world’s largest such companies, was persuaded this year by international and local Indonesian groups to end all rainforest deforestation and to rely solely on its plantations for its wood.” Furthermore, some UK biscuit manufacturers are reducing palm oil in their products. But despite rules and legislations there are numerous examples of illegal logging. Even the Roundtable on Sustainable Palmoil (RSPO) has failed since they give certifications to companies who continue logging pristine rainforests. Producers and politicians lie or keep their heads buried in the sand because they are making money. Lots and lots of money.

I do encourage everyone to boycott products containing palm oil but sadly that alone is not enough. We need to stop further growth of the palm oil industry. It is time for serious action so please, spread the word. Please write to politicians, your favourite food/cosmetic companies, start and sign petitions and so forth. The rainforests are crucial for the well being of our Earth, the pale blue dot. Our only home.

Crop protection – worthwhile, but not exciting?

Wheat & aphidsCrop protection has been on my mind a lot for the past six years or so. My professional interest lies in protecting crop plants from insect pests, but there are other facets to crop protection too, as diseases and weeds also affect plants and their potential yield. The interest in this topic among the general public and funding bodies is not great. Discussing insect pests is a bit like going to a party and talking about the latest illness you had. It makes people look uncomfortable, like you‘ve shared too much detail of some ghastly bodily function – unless they‘ve previously had a problem with a particular pest and then it‘s like a meeting of two people suffering from back pain, the stories flow, solutions are discussed and the importance of the problem acknowledged.

870 million people still go hungry in the world every day and the world population is expected to grow from 7 billion to 9 billion by 2050, but global agricultural growth is slowing down (OECD-FAO). Consumption patterns are changing with more people wanting to choose a diet including meat, which requires more energy to produce than a vegetarian diet. All this leads to the conclusion that we will need to produce more food – preferably without damaging more of our natural habitats. That is why it is equally important to safeguard crop yields as it is to increase the yield potential of plants. Insect pests, weeds and diseases are responsible for a large proportion of yield losses worldwide and affect most crops to some extent. Crops have been bred for increased yield, but a number of studies have reported benefits to pests and pathogens of higher yielding crop varieties, as these opportunists benefit from the higher nutritional quality of the plant tissues. A review on crop losses to pests (Oerke, 2006) reported potential yield losses ranging between 50% in wheat to 80% in cotton. Actual losses are somewhat lower than these figures, ranging from 23-40% in six major crops in 2001-2003. This means that there is less food to consume from an area of land, which can lead to higher food prices. The availability of crop protection measures varies widely between regions and despite the increase in pesticide use actual crop losses have not decreased in the past 40 years. In December 2012 the Association of Applied Biologists and the National Farmers Union in the UK sent an open letter to the Minister of State for Agriculture and Food, emphasizing the need for research and development of alternative approaches to crop protection and knowledge transfer of those to growers and agronomists.

Food security has been a big issue for the past couple of years and will be for the foreseeable future. We need to produce more food and it needs to be more evenly distributed. We need to reduce food waste, increase yields and to safeguard the yield potential of the crops we plant. For protecting our crops there are no silver bullets, research takes time, especially when it needs to be tested in field conditions. Once a resistance mechanism is identified, developing it, or breeding resistance into existing high yielding crop varieties is a time consuming process. Insects and other pests are incredibly variable and in many instances we don‘t even know their basic biology well enough. We need more people, time and resources to study this in order to combat these pests. The reason they are able to proliferate to such an extent is that we have created artificial habitats for them, vast expanses of food source, and it is no wonder they react like children in a sweetshop, eat all you can, no restraint, no worry.

The fact is that going into the future we are likely to need more food, not less, and in order to achieve optimum crop yields we need to have robust crop protection. For this we need research. Last year I had a research proposal rejected and when we sought feedback, one of the comments was that the proposed research was „worthwhile, but not exciting“. Now, I am not saying the project should have been funded if there were other better applications. My feeling, however, is that now is maybe not the time to be only exciting – we need results and they will take a while to develop. Protecting your crops is like buying insurance, no one wants to spend money that they don‘t have to spend, but in the end when we land on rough times, having a roof over your head or being able to feed your children is more important than taking them to a theme park. Or is it not?

Does soil make your heart beat?

Soil usually doesn´t make people jump with excitement. It is not as scary as snakes, beautiful like an orchid or magnificent as giraffes and elephants. Let’s admit it – many people really don´t think soil is sexy. I am not a soil scientist and I have to confess that I find plants more attractive than soils. That shouldn‘t come as a surprise since I am trained as a plant ecologist. Instead of studying soil profiles, I spent eight years studying lovely arctic and alpine plant species in the stunning landscapes of the Swiss Alps, Greenland, Svalbard and Iceland.

Nevertheless, soils are extremely important and actually quite interesting and attractive if I come to think of it. They are full of life. They hold more carbon than vegetation and the atmosphere combined and they reinforce our planet´s life support system. Knowing the importance of soil and its ties with global food security, it is a worrying fact that land degradation is a major global challenge, affecting the life of millions of people, especially in the poorest part of the world.

Last week, an international conference on Soil Carbon Sequestration for climate, food security and ecosystem services was held in Reykjavik. Scientists from all over the world gathered to share their knowledge and ideas as well as thinking of ways to bridge the gap between science, policy and action in relation to soil carbon sequestration – a critical issue in the quest to make a real difference and live in a sustainable world. At the conference, I introduced our work at the United Nations University Land Restoration Training Programme, and how we strive to link science/knowledge, policy and action. The programme offers annually a six-month training course for specialists coming from developing countries faced with severe land degradation. Our aim is to graduate specialists who are able to act on their knowledge, drive actions at local community to policy levels and we hope that our trainees are able to make the critical link between the science, policy and action on return to their home countries. Testimonials from former trainees give us hope that they are able to do so and that our programme is a fruitful platform for learning and sharing ideas on how to combat land degradation and restore degraded land with the multiple benefits for climate, food security and ecosystem services.

Dryas octopetala

Summer has arrived in Iceland. On a hike last weekend in the foothills of a volcano, I saw one of my favourite plant species flowering, the mountain Avens (Dryas octopetala). The beautiful white flower caught my attention and filled my heart with joy. What about the soil, which the mountain Avens could not live without? Yes, it did catch my attention and I can’t wait to dive into the Icelandic volcanic soils this summer with my three year old daughter. Together, we will feel its texture, look at its colour and maybe taste it as well. In addition, I will tell her about its magic – its importance – its biota. Although I am still not convinced that soil is sexy, I do find it fun, exciting, attractive and important. What more can you ask for?

Hafdis Hanna

Some coverage of the conference in the international media:

Inter Press News Network

Al Jazeera global news network

Reuters Alert Net

Jakarta Globe

The Green movement in Iceland

RM og HHAe graenagangaBefore the economical crisis in 2008, Iceland had been governed by the Independence Party for 18 years, much of that time in coalition with the Progressive Party (both centre-right parties). These parties have fought hard for their heavy industry plans and their biggest achievement was the extremely controversial Kárahnjúkar hydropower plant in the highlands, which was built in 2004-2007 after one of the greatest protest ever seen in Iceland. The power plant has a combined capacity of 690 MW and produces power for the aluminium smelter in Reyðarfjörður on the east coast. It is safe to say that the whole project failed to live up to expectations. Hálslón reservoir can rise up to 57 km2 followed by a great sandstorm risk, workers building both power plant and aluminium smelter were in large part foreigners and the projects did not create as many jobs for Icelanders as promised. The latest impact has been the destrucion of Lake Lagarfljót, now so thick with clay from the diverted glacier river Jökla that little life thrives in it. These things were all predicted by scientists and other specialists but warnings were ignored. Shortly after the aluminium smelter in Reyðarfjörður started operating the whole economy of Iceland collapsed and one must wonder if there was some causal link?

After four years under the reign of a left-winged government and a competent Environmental Minister, the tides have now changed. The Progressive- and Independence parties are back in power and already waging a war against Icelandic nature. They want more power plants and they want them fast. Not to create energy for the people themselves but for heavy industry. It would be easy just to bow our heads in defeat and cry silently, hoping that in the next four years the government would not do irreversible harm. But we refuse to do nothing. We will fight and call out to environmentalists in Iceland and abroad to help us. I proudly work for Landvernd, the Icelandic Environment Association, which joined forces with other nature NGO‘s in Iceland and started the Green movement. We made 1000 green flags and got 5000 people (in Reykjavík, a city of 120.000 inhabitants) , at a very short notice, to march for nature on 1st of May 2013, carry the flags and symbolically place them in front of the parliament. It was incredible and we felt strong and united. But one green march is not enough, we need to keep moving and grow in numbers. In the first weeks in power, the new prime minister has made some startling statements, one in particular where he belittles the numerous comments from the public, NGO‘s, municipalities and others on the Master Plan for hydro and geothermal energy resources in Iceland. We joined forces again and a couple of thousands of us met in front of the Government House on the 28th of May where the numerous comments were given to the prime minister‘s PA. We raised our green flags to the sky and our hearts filled with hope. We will do it again and again until our voices are heard and our land is safe.