An interview with the Nature Conservancy's China Program.
TNC staff and volunteers repairing signage at Meili Snow Mountain National Park in northwest Yunnan. Community benefits and ecotourism are at the heart of TNC's program to establish national parks in China. Photo by: Tang Ling.
Founded in 1951, The Nature Conservancy (TNC) works in more than 30 countries and has projects in all 50 of the United States. The Conservancy has over one million members, and has protected more than 119 million acres of wild-lands and 5,000 miles of rivers worldwide. TNC has taken an active interest in China, the world's most populated nation, and in many important ways, a critical center of global development. The following is an interview with multiple directors of The Nature Conservancy's China Program.
Mongabay:Please tell our readers about the background and history of The Nature Conservancy's (TNC) work in China.
Zhang Shuang, the Director of the TNC China Program. Zhang Shuang, Director of TNC China Program: Though TNC is a big international organization, we started small in China, in the critically important Northwest corner of the province of Yunnan. We were invited by the Yunnan provincial government to help them complete a regional conservation plan. That was in 1998. We still operate a number of projects in Yunnan but now have also expanded site work into Sichuan, Inner Mongolia, and the Yangtze River Basin.
While the opportunities and need for addressing environmental challenges in China are enormous, we still try to focus our work on select areas, where we can really have an impact. This includes addressing climate change (through restoring forests and creating adaptation strategies), introducing new models of protected areas while strengthening existing conservation landscapes, and minimizing the impact of hydropower and other development in the Yangtze River Basin, China's heartland.
I feel that many NGOs take on more than they can realistically accomplish. Unfortunately, this often makes their work ineffective. And this is why it is vital that The Nature Conservancy China Program step up in an inclusive (of local interests) and measured pace.
Mongabay:Please tell our readers why China matters, especially in the arena of global environmental efforts.
Ma Jian, Deputy Director of TNC China Program. Yu Jie, Climate Change Policy Director of TNC China Program: China’s significance is reflected by its impact on many global economic development and resource consumption figures. Since joining WTO in 2003, China has produced more of the world’s trading commodities than any other nation. The changing lifestyle of the Chinese people has enormous impact.
As a result, China now exceeds the US as the biggest energy consumer in the world and is also now the largest GHGs or "green house gases" emitter. China purchases raw materials globally, mainly from other developing countries, then produces and sells finished goods both domestically and to overseas markets.
Since China is the world's largest consumer of coal, iron ore, copper, aluminum and timber, where our country buys these materials, how it is processed in China, and how Chinese manufacturing affects world resource markets, are the challenges that make China matter.
Mongabay:It has been all too common for many in the conservation community to simply label China as an "environmental bulldozer" in the battle to safeguard global natural resources. What is TNC's position on this line of thought?
Zhang Shuang, Director of TNC China Program: China has rapidly growing resource demands. There’s no denying that. We have a huge population that is focused on development and improving our quality of life. But we at TNC see China—in many ways—more as an opportunity to improve global practices around the environment. This is at the root of our non-confrontational, solutions-oriented approach. Everything happens faster here, especially regarding regulations and attitudes towards the environment. China is already becoming a global leader in fields like green technology and ecological restoration, and is taking many noteworthy actions to address climate change.
Of 26GW (gigawatts) global solar PV production, China manufactured over 80%. Ten percent of the products are consumed domestically and the rest to supply a growing global market.
According to Global Wind Energy Council, China has led the new wind energy installation capacity globally. The country’s new installation was 18GW in 2011, which counts for 2/5 of global wind energy production.
In 2009 alone, China planted 5.88 million hectares of forest, two and a half times more trees every year than the rest of the world combined. This effort represents the largest tree-planting program the world has ever seen.
Mongabay:Please describe some of the conservation highlights that the Conservancy has fostered while working in China.
"Yu Jie, Climate Change Policy Director of TNC China Program. Ma Jian, Deputy Director of TNC China Program: We have been working with the Three Gorges Dam Corporation and Chinese government agencies on a plan for sustainable hydropower on the Yangtze River. If implemented, this plan will be revolutionary by managing the river in an integrated way that provides benefits to both the basin’s 400 million people and hundreds of native fish species. Dams would be operated in ways that mimic natural rivers flows that fish need to survive, while producing more electricity and restoring downstream floodplain wetlands. Last June, the Three Gorges Dam released excess water flows to help trigger breeding in downstream carp species – supporting China’s most important fishery species.
In Yunnan and Sichuan, we are also helping restore over 7000 hectares of natural forests that will be certified to deliver benefits to local communities, wildlife, and climate change by sequestering atmospheric carbon.
Mongabay:What main challenges does your group feel China faces in its efforts to work for a healthy local environment? What areas could be improved? And what are some of the positive steps that China has taken regarding environmentalism.
Ma Jian, Deputy Director of TNC China Program: Though it is growing rapidly, the environmental movement in China is really still in its infancy. China is at the same tipping point that the U.S. was 50 years ago with widespread pollution and environmental degradation. And like the U.S., China is starting to take significant actions to address these problems. One notable area of action is China’s pledge to reduce carbon intensity up to 45% of 2005 levels by 2020. Another incredible goal is to restore 400,000 sq. km of forests and increase 1.3 billion cubic meters of the standing volume in China by 2020! These are huge commitments that require a great deal of support not only from the government but also from society and organizations like TNC.
In one case, we worked with the government to develop a thorough biodiversity database and set of conservation recommendations that later were key components in the government’s National Biodiversity Conservation Strategy and Action Plan. It is huge for an NGO to be referenced like this in a central government plan. We’re also working with a wide range of agencies to introduce new conservation models to China such as a modern national parks system and privately funded nature preserves called land trust reserves. We’re also facilitating scientific exchanges between U.S. and Chinese partners to improve capacity in areas like sustainable hydropower and wildlife monitoring on the Yangtze, as well as analyzing the already occurring impacts of climate change on people and nature. Though, currently, TNC has a very real impact on Chinese conservation policy, it is still limited by rapid development in China. We still have a long way to go.
Mongabay:Many of our readers may not realize that an increasing shortage of freshwater in China poses one of China's greatest environmental and economic challenges. In a departure from the standard Nature Conservancy "land conservation model,” a focus of TNC China has been the development and management of watershed projects. Please describe how this came about, what progress has been made, and what challenges remain.
Collecting water samples on the Upper Yangtze Rare and Endemic Fish Nature Reserve near Chongqing. Promoting effective conservation is at this reserve is crucial for protecting the last habitat on the upper Yangtze for both fisheries species that communities depend on and rare species like the Yangtze sturgeon found no where else in the world. Photo by Yang Bo/TNC. Ma Jian, Deputy Director of TNC China Program: Actually, TNC’s mission is to conserve the lands and waters on which all life depends. Our work on freshwater in China currently focuses on the Yangtze River basin, China's heartland. We are working with government partners to promote an integrated basin management approach for the river’s resources: thinking about Yangtze as a whole system rather than individual provinces and cities acting unitarily without an integrated plan. TNC has helped map the basin’s biodiversity and defined priority areas for conservation. In the face of much unavoidable development, defining these important areas is crucial for sustaining a healthy and productive river ecosystem. At the heart of our Yangtze plan is the operation of dams on the upper Yangtze to mimic natural flows that will sustain downstream ecosystems and help restore floodplain wetlands.
Mongabay:Bringing the concept of global conservation values full circle, TNC China's board of trustees recently fostered the development of the China Global Conservation Fund. What is the primary purpose and intended scope of this philanthropic project?
Zhang Shuang, Director of TNC China Program: We established the fund to provide ways for Chinese philanthropists to contribute to issues they care about globally. The fund was established last year through an announcement from our Board of Director’s member, Jack Ma, and has an initial $15 million scope.
Mongabay:One of the Fund's initial projects has been to help the conservation efforts of the Hirola, a critically endangered antelope from East Africa. Please tell our readers a little bit about this species, and why the Hirola became a priority for the China Global Conservation Fund. What other conservation challenges is the China Global Conservation Fund looking to support?
The Critically Endangered hirola. Zhang Shuang, Director of TNC China Program: The fund itself was established after we took our China Board of Trustees members to visit TNC project sites in Kenya last year. It was an eye-opening trip for them: seeing firsthand the incredible wildlife in Kenya, as well as some of the conservation threats. China’s wildlife consumption is often blamed for the escalating poaching in Africa. But there we were with some of China’s most influential and wealthy individuals setting up a fund to help protect Africa’s wildlife. That is why the Hirola Project was chosen first, it is one of Africa's—and the planet's—most endangered species. The fund is now looking to support conservation projects on nearly every continent. It is really inspiring. And while these Chinese entrepreneurs (who comprise our Board of Directors) are making significant contributions to efforts within China, in line with the country's economic trends, they too are becoming more globally oriented and thinking about issues beyond our national borders. As their business interests expand abroad, they are more connected to the global community. They want to contribute to sustainability and protect nature not just in China but also in places they care about around the world.
This is very significant because they bring a tremendous amount of new support for environmental initiatives and a much needed expansion of global conservation projects. This trend also adds a new dimension to Chinese investment abroad. It is not purely development oriented and profit driven. It shows they understand promoting sustainability and conservation benefits for all parties involved: business, nature, and communities. These forward-thinking entrepreneurs are setting a very compelling example for others. As positive outcomes from projects supported by these pioneering entrepreneurs occur, the process will expand exponentially. Continuing rewards will encourage them to do more and influence others to do the same. What we are seeing now is only the beginning.
Mongabay:There are factions within global geopolitics that would argue the collective weight of years of environmental degradation will work to greatly curtail (if not thwart) China's current spectacular growth to global prominence. Does your group see merit in this premise? How can China best develop sound environmental policies to not only maintain and further the prosperity of the Chinese people but also encourage the adoption of these views on a global basis?
Monitoring staff at the Motianling Land Trust Reserve in northern Sichuan setting up motion sensor cameras to collect information on the reserve's rich wildlife including giant pandas, takin, and golden snub-nosed monkeys. Photo by Zhang Ming/TNC. Yu Jie, Climate Change Policy Director of TNC China Program: It is true that certain geo space has limited our development capacity. Severe levels of environmental degradation not only affect development output, but also harm public health. Issues like resource extraction, energy consumption and climate change also have a global impact. Solutions for environment problems should be based on the agreement of sound environmental, economic, and social policies. Currently, the biggest barrier for natural conservation and environment quality is China’s (growthcentric) economic model.
The government-driven high growth rate can leave little space for sound environment impact assessment and affects the power balance during policy making and implementation. Only when these domestic challenges are also sorted out will the planet benefit from a healthier, sustainable, Chinese development. But this is the same challenge - the need to balance development and sustainability—that most people in the developing and developed world now face. Maybe we can learn from each other over time?
Frankenfoods: Why Is the Gates Foundation Helping Monsanto Push Genetically Modified Food?
Monsanto and the Gates Foundation claim genetically modified crops will revolutionize agriculture in Kenya, but critics warn the technology is ill-suited to the needs of farmers.
May 10, 2012 |
Photo Credit: Paige Aarhus/The Indypendent
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NAIROBI, Kenya—In the sprawling hills of the Kangundo district in Kenya’s Eastern Province, just a few hours outside of capital city Nairobi, Fred Kiambaa has been farming the same small, steep plot of land for more than 20 years.
Born and raised just outside Kathiini Village in Kangundo, Kiambaa knows the ups and downs of agriculture in this semi-arid region. He walks up a set of switchbacks to Kangundo’s plateaus to tend his fields each morning and seldom travels further than a few miles from his plot.
Right now, all that remains of his maize crop are rows of dry husks. Harvest season finished just two weeks ago, and the haul was meager this time around.
“Water is the big problem, it’s always water. We have many boreholes, but when there is no rain, it’s still difficult,” he said.
Kiambaa and his wife, Mary, only harvested 440 pounds of maize this season, compared to their usual 2,200. They have six children, meaning there will be many lean months before the next harvest, and worse: Though March is Kenya’s rainiest month, it’s been mostly dry so far.
“The rain surely is not coming well this year. Rain is the key. We can only pray,” he said.
Farmers like Kiambaa are central to a push to deploy genetically modified (GM) technology within Kenya. In recent years, donors such as the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation have invested millions of dollars into researching, developing and promoting GM technology, including drought-resistant maize, within the country — and have found a great deal of success in doing so through partnerships with local NGOs and government bodies.
The Kenya Agricultural Research Institute (KARI), a semi-autonomous government research institution, recently announced that after years of trials, genetically modified drought-resistant maize seeds will be available to Kenyan farmers within the next five years. Trial GM drought-resistant cotton crops are already growing in Kidoko, 240 miles southeast of Nairobi.
Researchers and lobbyists argue that in a country so frequently stricken by food shortages, scientific advancements can put food into hungry bellies. Drought-resistant seeds and vitamin-enriched crops could be agricultural game changers, they say.
But serious concerns about viability, corporate dependency and health effects linger — even while leading research firms and NGOs do their best to smooth them over.
Agriculture dominates Kenya’s economy, although more than 80 percent of its land is too dry and infertile for efficient cultivation. Kenya is the second largest seed consumer in sub-Saharan Africa, and Nairobi is a well-known hub for agricultural research. According to the Ministry of Agriculture, farming is the largest contributor to Kenya’s gross domestic product, and 75 percent of Kenyans made their living by farming in 2006.
Half of the country’s total agricultural output is non-marketed subsistence production — meaning farms like Kiambaa’s, where nothing is sold and everything is consumed.
On top of that, the country is still reeling from the worst drought in half a century, which affected an estimated 13 million people across the Horn of Africa in 2011. Kenya is home to the world’s largest refugee camp, housing 450,000 Somalis fleeing violence and famine, increasing the pressure to deal with food security challenges.
Prime Minister Raila Odinga recently called on parliament to assist the estimated 4.8 million Kenyans, in a country of about 40 million, who still rely on government food supports, as analysts predict that this year’s rainy season will be insufficient to guarantee food security.
“The situation is not good... Arid and semi-arid regions have not recovered from the drought,” Odinga said.
At the African Agricultural Technology Foundation (AATF), a massive NGO working on GM research and development in partnership with KARI, Regulatory Affairs Manager Dr. Francis Nang’ayo says GM crops are “substantially equivalent” to non-genetically modified foods and should be embraced as a solution to persistent drought and hunger.
In 2008, the AATF received a $47 million grant from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. This partnership involved the Howard G. Buffett Foundation and American seed giant Monsanto.
In 2005, the Water-Efficient Maize for Africa (WEMA) program became one of the first main partners in a program aimed at developing drought-resistant maize for small-scale African farmers. Monsanto promised to provide seeds for free. The Gates Foundation claimed at the time that biotechnology and GM crops would help end poverty and food insecurity in sub-Saharan Africa. In 2010, the Wall Street Journal reported that the Gates Foundation had invested $27.6 million in Monsanto shares.
Donors had been investing millions in KARI for decades in an effort to develop seeds that would produce pest- and disease-resistant plants and produce higher yields. Monsanto promised results, with the goal of distributing its seeds to small-scale farmers across Kenya, Mozambique, South Africa, Tanzania and Uganda.
Since then WEMA’s African partners have made major strides in bringing GM crops to Kenya, most notably when KARI announced in March that it is set to introduce genetically modified maize to farmers’ fields by 2017. Until 2008, South Africa had been the only country using GM technology. Now Kenya, Tanzania, Uganda, Malawi, Mali, Zimbabwe, Nigeria and Ghana are researching GM seeds and growing trial crops of cotton, maize and sorghum.
“Five years ago it was only South Africa that had a clear policy. Since then a number of countries have put their acts together by publishing policies on GM technology laws. In Kenya we’re moving on to create institutional mechanisms,” said Dr. Nang’ayo.
But Nang’ayo and his team face several challenges. Popular opinion on the technology is deeply divided in Kenya, in large part due to suspicions about the giant foreign corporations that control it.
Monsanto-patented seeds are usually costly, which has led to numerous accusations of exploitation and contemporary colonialism. But how long will these particular strains of seeds last? What are the guarantees? Critics fear dependence on corporate fertilizers and pesticides, the emergence of super-weeds and pests that can no longer repel GM varieties, and terminator seeds that only last for one planting season.
At Seattle’s AGRA Watch, a project of the Community Alliance for Global Justice, director Heather Day said there aren’t enough questions being asked about introducing GM technology to developing countries.
“Our campaign started because of our concern about the Gates Foundation’s influence on agriculture and the lack of transparency and accountability. We also have ecological concerns, in terms of food sovereignty and farmers’ ability to control their food system. We need to be concerned about the industrialization of the agricultural system,” she said.
AGRA Watch’s objective is to monitor and question the Gates Foundation’s push for a “green revolution” in Africa.
Monsanto has promised an indefinite supply of royalty-free seeds for this project, but Day said the pitfalls have the potential to devastate the continent’s agriculture.
“Genetically modified crops actually haven’t been that successful,” Day said. “We’ve seen massive crop failure in South Africa, and farmers there couldn’t get financial remedies or compensation for their losses. There’s genetic resistance and super-pests, these things are happening now, and it’s not surprising. It’s what you would expect from an ecological standpoint.”
The horror stories are real — in India, for example, farmers who purchased Bollgard I cotton seeds from 2007 to 2009 wound up spending four times the price of regular seeds, and paying dearly for it. It was believed that Monsanto’s patented GM seeds would be resistant to pink bollworms, which were destroying cotton crops across swaths of India, but by 2010 Monsanto officials were forced to admit that the seed had failed and a newer breed of far more aggressive pests had emerged. The solution? Bollgard II, an even stronger GM cotton seed.
As of December 2011, Monsanto was actively promoting the latest Bollgard III cotton seed, stronger than ever before. Pesticide spending in India skyrocketed between 2007 and 2009, forcing thousands of farmers into crushing debt, and hundreds more into giving up their land. Some media outlets later drew a connection between the Bollgard debacle and a rash of suicides across farms that had purchased the seeds.
Kenya is a country where land-grabbing is all too common, be it on the coast to make way for new tourist resorts, or in Nairobi, where slum demolitions left hundreds homeless when the government bulldozed several apartment buildings to reclaim an area near the Moi Air Base.
Farmers here are skeptical of risking everything for a few seasons of higher yields. In Kangundo, Kiambaa said he would try GM technology if it was a matter of life or death — but he is wary.
Kiambaa uses the Katumani breed of maize, a widely available seed that is reasonably drought-tolerant and affordable. Higher yields are tempting, of course, but Kiambaa said he doesn’t want to chance his livelihood on a foreign corporation. While his family has been on the land for decades now, Kiambaa said they didn’t get to farm it until British colonialists returned it to local farmers. He pointed out trees that line the steep hillside, planted by the British.
“It’s because of Mzungus that we have charcoal,” he said, smiling wryly.
After the last harvest, Kiambaa can’t even afford to use Kenya’s standard DAP fertilizer, which costs 59 cents per pound. Instead, he has a lone cow tied to a post in his fields.
“This provides the fertilizer we need. We can’t afford anything else. The maize yield could have been much better, but we know our plants will grow each year. It is better we keep it the way it is. My family has been on this land for 100 years. We have always survived,” he said.
At the National Biosafety Authority (NBA), CEO Willy Tonui claims media hysteria and inaccurate reporting are to blame for resistance to GM technology, arguing the NBA maintains stringent guidelines about GM seeds in Kenya. Referring to the plans to allow GM maize seeds in by 2017, Tonui said, “The National Biosafety Authority does not have the mandate to introduce GM maize or any other crop into Kenya. We only review applications that are submitted to the authority. To date, the authority has not received any application on commercial release of GM maize or any other crop.”
Anne Maina, advocacy coordinator for the African Biodiversity Network (ABN), a coalition of 65 Kenyan farming organizations, said that’s not a good enough answer.
“Who’s controlling the industry?” she asked. “If you are going to talk to the National Biosafety Authority, they’ll tell you the information is available, but there is a confidential business information clause where whoever is controlling the industry is not held accountable. The level of secrecy and lack of transparency is unacceptable.”
The ABN has actively lobbied the government since 2004 to crack down on GM technology slowly filtering into Kenya, with some measure of success. A 2009 Biosafety Act required all GM imports to pass stringent government standards before entering the country.
Maina recognizes the uphill battle she’s facing.
“Our public research institutions must shift their focus back to farmers’ needs,” she told The Indypendent, “rather than support the agenda of agribusiness, which is to colonize our food and seed chain. We believe that the patenting of seed is deeply unethical and dangerous.”
Joan Baxter is a journalist who has spent years reporting on climate change and agriculture in Africa. Reporting now from Sierra Leone, Baxter was quick to point out that even if a farmer chooses not to use GM technology, it won’t guarantee crop safety.
“Farmers are always at risk of contamination from GM seeds. That has been shown in North America. The farmers [in Africa] may lose their own seeds, perhaps be given GM seeds for a year or two, then have to purchase them and be stuck in the trap and in debt,” she said.
Like Maina, Baxter sees a problem in how GM technology is being marketed, and slowly introduced, into African countries, under the guise of ending famine. With climate change becoming an increasingly influential factor in the GM debate, Baxter said companies claiming to help are only looking for profit.
“Basically this is disaster capitalism. The disaster of hunger and drought, climate change and policy-related, is now a profit opportunity for Monsanto and Syngenta. The Gates Foundation buying shares in Monsanto tells you what the real agenda is: To get GMOs in Africa,” she said.
In 2010, NBA’s CEO resigned after it was revealed that 280,000 tonnes of GM maize had found its way into Kenya from South Africa through the Port of Mombasa.
Farmers mobilized en masse after the Dreyfus scandal (named for the South African company responsible for shipping the seeds) was revealed, marching on Parliament to demand an end to secret imports. After the most recent GM announcement, however, there were no protests. The long rains that would ensure a good yield haven’t come. The drought may continue.
Added to the potential problems with GM technology are health risks—the strains of maize that were illegally imported in 2010 had been deemed unsafe for children and the elderly. Maina also worries about animal feeding trials that showed damage to liver, kidney and pancreas, effects on fertility, and stomach bleeding in livestock that has consumed GM feed. A more recent study carried out on pregnant women in Canada found genetically modified insecticidal proteins in their blood streams and in that of their unborn children, despite assurances from scientists that it wasn’t possible.
The political scandal that erupted after 2010’s illegal imports brought GM technology into the forefront of Kenyan public debate, but last year’s massive drought has shifted public and political discourse. The ABN doesn’t have a $47 million grant to keep it going, and the pressures it faces from politicians and corporations, now waging their own propaganda war, are overwhelming.
At the McLaughlin-Rotman Centre for Global Health in Toronto, researchers recently released a report titled “Factors in the adoption and development of agro-biotechnology in sub-Saharan Africa.” The report, which was financed by a grant by the Gates Foundation, came to the conclusion that &ldquooor communication is affecting agbiotech adoption,” and that “widespread dissemination of information at the grassroots level and can spread misinformation and create extensive public concern and distrust for agbiotech initiatives.”
Lead researcher Obidimma Ezezika declined to comment on Monsanto’s involvement with GM technology, and denied that his team was creating corporate propaganda.
“I think it is important to actively and soberly engage in the debate by offering facts to the policy makers, media and public on ag-biotech which will dispel fears and anxieties,” he told The Indypendent.
The mounting evidence, health questions and political scandals all mean Kenya would be wisest to take a step back before jumping on board the GM train, says Maina.
“Our key concern is that the development of insecticides and pesticides is primarily the emergence of companies getting farmers to buy highly toxic chemicals, which they will become totally dependent on. We don’t yet know the extent of the health risks posed, nor how we are expected to trust companies that have a record of putting small farmers out of business. It is time for sober second thought,” she said.
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