5 reasons why biodiversity is a big deal
MNN.com > Earth Matters > Wilderness & Resources 5 reasons why biodiversity is a big deal Earth’s species are now vanishing at rates unprecedented in human history. That matters for more reasons than many people realize. Russell McLendon May 6, 2019, 11:19 a.m. More than half of all known species inhabit rainforests, like this one in Malaysia’s Kinabalu Park. (Photo: Nokuro/Shutterstock)
“Biodiversity as a whole forms a shield protecting each of the species that together compose it, ourselves included.” — E.O. Wilson, “Half-Earth”
Earth is teeming with life, from huge blue whales and redwoods to tiny bacteria, archaea and fungi. It’s not just the only planet known to host any life at all; it has so many species in so many places we still aren’t even sure how many there are.
We do know, however, that Earth is losing species unusually quickly at the moment. We’re seeing a mass extinction event , something that’s happened at least five times before on Earth, albeit never in human history — and never with human help.
Extinction is part of evolution, but not like this. Species are vanishing more quickly than any human has ever seen; the extinction rate for vertebrate animals is now 114 times higher than the historical background rate. Humans are driving this in several ways, from poaching to pollution, but the No. 1 factor is habitat loss.
This is raising deep concerns about Earth’s biodiversity, which, as biologist E.O. Wilson has pointed out, is like an ecological shield for us and other species. According to a landmark U.N. report released in May 2019, today’s extinction rate is both unprecedented in human history and rapidly rising, “with grave impacts on people around the world now likely.” Around 1 million animal and plant species are now threatened with extinction, the report warns, many within years or decades.
“Ecosystems, species, wild populations, local varieties and breeds of domesticated plants and animals are shrinking, deteriorating or vanishing. The essential, interconnected web of life on Earth is getting smaller and increasingly frayed,” says report co-chair Josef Settele, an entomologist at Germany’s Helmholtz Center for Environmental Research, in a statement . “This loss is a direct result of human activity and constitutes a direct threat to human well-being in all regions of the world.”
According to another recent study, biodiversity loss has crossed the “safe” threshold in most of the world, leaving many ecosystems in danger of collapse.
A map of biodiversity loss in ecological hotspots around the world. (Image: Newbold et. al. /Science)
“This is the first time we’ve quantified the effect of habitat loss on biodiversity globally in such detail,” lead author and University College London researcher Tim Newbold said in a statement , “and we’ve found that across most of the world biodiversity loss is no longer within the safe limit suggested by ecologists.”
Published in the journal Science, the study found that 58 percent of Earth’s land surface — an area home to 71 percent of all humans — has already lost enough biodiversity “to question the ability of ecosystems to support human societies.”
That certainly sounds bad. But why is biodiversity so important? Can’t technology keep civilization running, regardless of what happens to the wildlife in dwindling forests, grasslands or wetlands? Here’s a closer look at why biodiversity is a big deal — and why it’s in our own best interest to preserve what’s left.
The red-tailed bumblebee is an important crop pollinator in Europe. (Photo: Pippa Sanderson/Shutterstock) 1. Food
About 75 percent of our food supply comes from just 12 plant species, and more than 90 percent of global livestock production comes from just 15 species of mammals and birds. That’s deceptive, though, because those 27 species — along with many others that also provide food for humans — couldn’t exist without help from hundreds of thousands of lesser-known species working behind the scenes.
A wide range of wildlife makes agriculture possible, including bats, bees, birds, dragonflies, frogs, ladybugs, mantises, moles, nematodes, salamanders, spiders, toads and wasps, among countless others. Of 264 crops grown in the European Union, more than 80 percent depend on insect pollinators, while bees alone boost U.S. crop revenue by more than $15 billion per year. Worldwide, bats save corn farmers about $1 billion annually by eating pests like corn earworm larvae.
Wildlife doesn’t just protect and pollinate food; it often is our food, too. Hundreds of millions of people rely on daily protein from wild-caught fish, for example, including many fish that depend on healthy coral reefs. And while we mostly eat just a few domesticated crops today, about 7,000 plant species have been cultivated as food in human history — and their wild relatives hold a cache of genetic diversity that may prove priceless as drought or disease threaten monoculture crops.
About 70 percent of known plants with cancer-fighting properties exist only in rain forests. (Photo: soft_light/Shutterstock) 2. Health
Biodiversity is linked to human health in several ways. By having a diverse mix of plants, fungi and animals to eat, we ensure nutrition that buffers our bodies against disease and other hardships. Higher biodiversity has also been linked to lower instance of disease , with studies finding lower human rates of Lyme disease, malaria, acute respiratory infection and diarrhea around protected natural areas.
But even when we can’t avoid getting sick, biodiversity still swoops in to the rescue.
Medical discoveries frequently begin with research on the biology or genetics of plants, animals, fungi and bacteria. This inspiration is especially prevalent in rain forests, biodiversity hotspots that contain half of all known species. The asthma drug theophylline comes from cacao trees, for example, and about 70 percent of plants with cancer-fighting properties occur only in rain forests. Yet medical insights can be found in other ecosystems, too, such as forests of eastern North America, where the eastern red cedar produces a compound that fights antibiotic-resistant bacteria.
“Every time a species goes extinct or genetic diversity is lost, we will never know whether research would have given us a new vaccine or drug,” points out the National Wildlife Federation. And as The Economics of Ecosystems and Biodiversity (TEEB) initiative notes , “all ecosystems are a potential source of medicinal resources.”
Soil biodiversity is key to the health of grasslands, like this one in Colorado. (Photo: U.S. Bureau of Land Management) 3. Ecosystem services
Food and medicine are just two of many ” ecosystem services ” humans can expect from biodiverse habitats. Here are a few other examples: Clean air: From old-growth forests to ocean phytoplankton, the oxygen we breathe is generated by photosynthesizing members of ecosystems around the world. Plants also absorb a variety of pollutants from the air, and sequester the excess carbon dioxide emissions that fuel climate change. Clean water: Forests help soil absorb more water, which can reduce flooding, limit erosion, filter out contaminants and refill aquifers. Wetlands also excel at “phytoremediation,” or cleaning hazardous chemicals from water and soil. Different species bring different skills, so the more the merrier. Healthy soil: Soil naturally bustles with lots of arthropods and microorganisms, which are easy to overlook but provide a wide range of benefits. They provide food for slightly larger creatures, help nutrients cycle through soil, boost nutrient availability to roots and enhance plant health, among other things. Raw materials: Biodiverse ecosystems supply us with a diversity of raw materials, including wood, biofuels and plant oils that come from both wild and cultivated species. Materials from different plants offer different properties, such as harder or softer wood, or oils with varying smoke points.
As biodiversity falls below safe limits, these services are in jeopardy for a growing number of people. “Decision-makers worry a lot about economic recessions, but an ecological recession could have even worse consequences — and the biodiversity damage we’ve had means we’re at risk of that happening,” said Andy Purvis, a researcher at Imperial College London and co-author of the 2016 study. “Until and unless we can bring biodiversity back up, we’re playing ecological roulette.”
Anglers work near a coral reef in Indonesia, where people rely heavily on wild fish. (Photo: Ethan Daniels/Shutterstock) 4. Resilience
One of the single most important aspects of biodiversity is that it provides insurance. According to the insurance hypothesis : “Biodiversity insures ecosystems against declines in their functioning because many species provide greater guarantees that some will maintain functioning even if others fail.”
When an ecosystem has lots of different species, they can fill an array of different ecological niches, while in a monoculture they’re all competing for the same niche. Biodiversity tends to increase overall rates of photosynthesis, and it also buffers the community against illness. Plant viruses often specialize in a certain species, genus or family of plants, so one viral strain can obliterate all members of a monoculture. In a biodiverse ecosystem, on the other hand, all the eggs are not in a single basket.
“Biodiversity allows for ecosystems to adjust to disturbances like extreme fires and floods,” the NWF adds. “If a reptile species goes extinct, a forest with 20 other reptiles is likely to adapt better than another forest with only one reptile.”
Sunrise illuminates the canopy of a rain forest in Sri Lanka. (Photo: Sergieiev/Shutterstock) 5. Ethics, aesthetics and awe
There are many practical reasons to preserve biodiversity. It saves us money and effort, protects our lives and livelihoods, and ensures we have enough to eat. It’s also worth noting, however, that biodiversity is bigger than any one species, including us.
By leaving biodiversity intact, we let natural evolutionary processes continue. That’s a long-term benefit beyond the scale of human lifetimes, but that doesn’t mean it’s not important. Evolution lets organisms adapt to environmental change, and who are we to interfere with that? Since it’s possible for humans to thrive without destroying the ecosystems — and lives — around us, why destroy them? As a species capable of ruining ecosystems, we have a moral obligation not to screw everything up.
And, finally, the most basic beauty of biodiversity is the beauty itself. Spending time in nature offers many perks for people, like more creativity, better memory and faster healing. Feeling awe at the sight of nature can even reduce pro-inflammatory proteins in the body. But we don’t need science to tell us that. All it takes is one step into an old-growth forest, or one paddle into an ancient estuary, to make clear that we aren’t just lucky to be alive — we’re lucky the world around us is, too.
Editor’s note: This article has been updated with new information since it was originally published in July 2016.
US Sends B-52 Bombers to Mideast After Reported Threats from Iran
Headlines US Sends B-52 Bombers to Mideast After Reported Threats from Iran A U.S. Air Force B-52 Stratofortress assigned to the 23rd Expeditionary Bomb Squadron from Andersen Air Force Base, Guam performs a flyover during the opening ceremonies of Aero India 2019 at Air Force Station Yelahanka, India Feb. 20 (U.S. Air Force/Senior Master Sgt. Pedro Jimenez) 7 May 2019
Four B-52 Stratofortress bombers are being sent to the Mideast to support the aircraft carrier Abraham Lincoln in moves aimed at countering threats from Iran , U.S. Central Command said Tuesday.
The B-52s, from Barksdale Air Force Base , Louisiana, are deploying to Al Udeid Air Base in Qatar, a hub for U.S. air operations in the region, CBS News reported .
The U.S. has only occasionally been without a bomber presence in the Mideast since 9/11, but the last bombers that had been in the region — B-1 Lancers from Dyess Air Force Base , Texas — returned home in March, according to the Air Force .
Navy Capt. Bill Urban, a CENTCOM spokesman, said in a statement that “the Air Force is deploying B-52s to the U.S. Central Command” area of operations, adding, “We are not going to provide a specific timeline for that deployment.”
Related: CNO: Navy’s Response to Iran Proves New Unpredictable Deployment Model Works
On Sunday, White House National Security Adviser John Bolton announced that a bomber task force and the Lincoln would be deployed to the Mideast to guard against renewed but unspecified threats from Iran about mounting attacks, possibly through proxies, against U.S. troops and interests in the region.
The deployments would “send a clear and unmistakable message to the Iranian regime that any attack on United States’ interests, or on those of our allies, will be met with unrelenting force,” he said in a statement. “The United States is not seeking war with the Iranian regime, but we are fully prepared to respond to any attack, whether by proxy, the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, or regular Iranian forces.”
The Lincoln had been in the eastern Mediterranean. Chief of Naval Operations Adm. John Richardson said Monday at the annual Sea-Air-Space exposition in Washington, D.C., that sending the carrier to the Gulf region had been planned “for some time now” as part of a routine deployment.
However, at the direction of the White House, Marine Gen. Kenneth McKenzie, the new commander of CENTCOM, requested that the deployment of the Lincoln to the Gulf be accelerated, The New York Times reported .
Acting Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan said via Twitter on Monday that he approved the request as a “prudent repositioning of assets in response to indications of a credible threat by Iranian regime forces.”
“This is the beauty of having a dynamic force,” Richardson said on Twitter. “The U.S. Navy can easily maneuver to protect national interests around the globe.”
Tensions between the U.S. and Iran have heightened since President Donald Trump last year withdrew the U.S. from the landmark 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) negotiated by the Obama administration, which was aimed at limiting Iran’s development of nuclear weapons.
The deal had been worked out by the U.S., Britain, France, China and Russia, plus Germany, the so-called “P5 + 1.” Other signatories remain in the JCPOA.
Trump later imposed tougher sanctions on Iran intended to force political change in the regime.
Iranian President Hassan Rouhani is expected to make a speech Wednesday outlining Iran’s intent to “diminish its commitments” to the JCPOA, according to Iran’s state news agency IRNA.
— Richard Sisk can be reached at .
These Robotic Objects Are Designed to Be Stabbed and Beaten to Help You Feel Better
Children Beating Up Robot Inspires New Escape Maneuver System Lessons Learned from Observing 90 Untrained Participants Abusing a Flying Robot Robotic Tortoise Helps Kids to Learn That Robot Abuse Is a Bad Thing At a human-computer interaction conference this week in Glasgow, U.K., Carnegie Mellon University researcher Michal Luria is presenting a paper on “Challenges of Designing HCI for Negative Emotions.” The discussion includes a case study involving what Luria calls “ cathartic objects ”: robotic contraptions that you can beat, stab, smash, and swear at to help yourself feel better.
In the paper, presented at the ACM CHI Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems , Luria and co-authors Amit Zoran and Jodi Forlizzi point out that technology tends to try and handle negative emotions by attempting to “fix” them immediately:
Technology is often designed to support positive emotions, yet it is not very common to encounter technology that helps people engage with emotions of sadness, anger or loneliness (as opposed to resolving them)… As technology gains a central role in shaping everyday life and is becoming increasingly social, perhaps there is a design space for interaction with social and personal negative emotions.
The researchers acknowledge that it’s going to be challenging to find “cathartic” ways of engaging with negative emotions using technology that can demonstrably improve well-being, and that studying the topic is going to be tricky as well. But it certainly seems like an important design space to investigate, especially as we look to social robots of all kinds to play a more prominent role in our lives. Luria built her “cathartic objects” to explore a range of possible physical interactions:
Object 1 senses when it is poked with a sharp object. It responds in side-to-side gestures that signal it has absorbed the pain. When too many objects are inserted, it continues shaking until everything is removed, to encourage completion of a catharsis cycle.
Object 2 allows the user to verbally express frustration through cursing. The object recognizes cursing words, “absorbs” them, and “re-purposes” them as light energy.
Object 3 is a doll-like prototype that laughs in an irritating way when it senses the user is angry. Its goal is to encourage the user to physical express their emotional state using the doll. As the user hits the soft prototype against something, it stops laughing and re-evaluates the user’s need for additional catharsis.
Object 4 allows the user to create a personalized message, and then to destroy it. The user inscribes a ceramic tile and inserts it into the object to destroy with a hammer. As a result, the tile breaks and triggers a sequence of expressive light and sound, but is kept inside the object. The object allows the user to address a specific source of frustration without doing harm, and to use the artifact to document and reflect on their cathartic action.
Photo: Michal Luria This device senses when you poke it with a sharp object, and when too many are inserted into it, it will shake continuously until you removed them. Michal Luria, who built the device, says one of her friends felt sorry for the object because it reminded her of the ottoman in “Beauty and the Beast.” It’s worth pointing out that these robotic objects are not being improperly used or “mistreated.” Here, the robots are being interacted with in exactly the way they were designed for. If it helps, think of these robots as being akin to a punching bag, although you could say there’s a big difference between a silent punching bag and a robotic object that appears to have agency and reacts to your, er, inputs. So, clearly, encouraging aggression towards such objects brings up some deep ethical questions.
We asked Luria, who is currently a Ph.D. candidate at CMU’s Human-Computer Interaction Institute, about this and other issues via email.
IEEE Spectrum: Why did you decide on these four objects with these specific interaction modes? Were there other kinds of objects that you considered?
Michal Luria: The chosen prototypes were designed to probe a range of physical interaction, as it is a critical part of cathartic expression. The prototypes varied is multiple physical aspects: the interaction input (verbal or physical), the output (movement, light or sound), the quality of interaction (instantaneous, continuous, forceful or gentle), and the material they robotic objects are made of (fabric, ceramics, and plastic). I also tested the idea of cathartic expression that is documented versus one that leaves no trace.
The goal was to create a broad range of nuanced interactions to see how it would influence the cathartic experience. Some ideas that were not created but I might include in future iterations are an Alexa-type device made of concrete that would break in parts when things are thrown at it, and a robotic prototype made of wax that would melt through extended interaction.
“Some ideas that were not created but I might include in future iterations are an Alexa-type device made of concrete that would break in parts when things are thrown at it, and a robotic prototype made of wax that would melt through extended interaction” —Michal Luria, CMU How will you be able to figure out the effectiveness of objects like these without user studies? In your own personal experience, how effective do you feel like these objects are?
It has been extremely challenging to get approval for formal human subject studies that center around negative emotions and destructive behaviors. We also know, according to research in psychology, that people tend to feel aversion towards the idea of any negative emotions, which does not help the case. My first step towards figuring out the effectiveness is through auto-ethnography or auto-biographical methods, that have been recently adopted in HCI design research . These methods has some drawbacks, but might be suitable for understanding long-term and intimate interaction, especially on a topic that is somewhat controversial.
From my anecdotal experiences with the prototypes, I especially enjoyed the verbal one. It felt very cathartic—I think it might have to do with personality and personal preference. When I get very angry my tendency is to swear, but only when a very close person is nearby. I realized that surprisingly I don’t swear when I’m alone, and of course I don’t do it around peers or acquaintances. Even with some closer friends it seems inappropriate. This is why I think it might be an interesting space for robotic objects: We don’t want to take our aggressions on other people, but we also frequently don’t let that energy out when we are alone. Maybe there is a safe space to express negative emotions with technology. Similarly, I enjoyed the prototype that begins laughing when you get too angry—that small encouragement really worked for me.
I hope that as some point I would be able to test these interactions with more people. This might be in through formal user studies, or in an art exhibition.
Are you concerned that using robots like these to assist in the expression of negative emotions might reinforce negative behaviors towards other robots , especially in children?
Yes, 100 percent. I think this is an extremely important question, and is one of the concerns in approving human subject research for this work. That said, this is a question that we are going to have to deal with eventually, not only regarding negative emotions, but also around sex robots, or even a simple interaction like kids saying ‘please’ to Alexa—this has an effect on how we understand human interactions and how we interact with each other.
So I think we need to find a way to safely conduct this kind of research so we can better understand the potential consequences or benefits. Catharsis has been controversial since its early days, but recently researchers have been finding that physical expression of anger in particular contexts , or combined with reflection can be beneficial.
This concern is also the reason for why I designed the prototypes to be somewhat expressive, but overall very non-anthropomorphic. I hope that if the creature you interact with seems nothing like a human but can still give a sense that it absorbs your pain, it might work. I did have a response from a friend who said she felt extremely sorry for the object that is poked with needles, as it reminded her of the ottoman in “Beauty and the Beast.”
Photo: Michal Luria This object is designed to help people who need “a vocal outlet to express their frustration.” The device is always listening but is programmed to recognize only curse words. When curse words are detected, the object “feeds on them and transforms the negative energy into light.” How can robotics as a field make better use of negative as well as positive emotions in human-robot interactions?
I try through this project to push back on the tendency to build technology that sets out to make people “happier” or more efficient. We can’t treat every negative emotion as a problem that should be solved by technology. After reading a wonderful book of essays that highlights the importance of every single emotion that is perceived as “negative,” I came to realize that negative emotions are positive.
I have been able to feel much more comfortable being sad or angry or bored, and I hope that as a field we can support these kinds of emotions too (in humans! not robots!) and consider them regardless of their complexity. This is especially true for social robots. We are designing social robots to learn, understand, and respond to emotional cues, and at the moment as designers we have no idea about how a robot should deal with negative emotions of any kind—they probably shouldn’t just ignore them.
How would you like to continue this research?
I am currently working on integrating the objects in long-term autobiographical research to see whether they are effective for catharsis over time. I am also interested in researching how robots should respond to natural negative expressions among users (rather than encourage them)—social robots are going to be exposed to negative emotions if they are going to be in intimate spaces, so we should probably begin to think about that.
[ Michal Luria ]
Comment on Why People Are Drawn To You, According To Your Zodiac Sign by Why People Are Drawn To You, According To Your Zodiac Sign – peter-travel.com
Updated May 5, 2019 Jeff Isy
In life and relationships, people come and go. You may know why, but sometimes you’re not exactly sure. But while those people chose to leave, there are still those who choose to stay. Why do they stay? Well, because of you.
Despite our negative traits, our zodiac signs remind us that we also have positive ones. And according to WNQ-Astrology , everyone possesses an inner beauty that shines through to win people over, despite these negative traits.
Aries (March 21 – April 19): Aries are natural leaders; thus, they’re trend-setters, not followers. And even though they can be impulsive and have a habit of not finishing what they started, they already got the ball rolling and draw people in because of their enthusiasm and optimism.
Taurus (April 20 – May 20): Even though Taurus is known as the stubborn sign, Tauruses are actually charming and down-to-earth. They win people over by coming off as classy due to their sensuality and appreciation of the finer things in life. Not to mention, they’re also generous and loyal friends.
Gemini (May 21 – June 20): Although Gemini’s impulsive nature makes it difficult to keep up with their daily antics, this is what makes them exciting people to be around. They’re energetic and always have something clever to say. There’s never a dull moment with Gemini.
Cancer (June 21 – July 22): Cancers can be oversensitive and self-involved. But people can look past that because Cancers are one of the most loyal, dependable, and caring friends to have in your life. They shower people they care about with love, affection, and gifts to make sure they know they’re being cared for.
Leo (July 23 – August 22): Yes, Leos are the most vain of all the signs, and their confidence and ambition can be overwhelming for some, but there’s more to them than that. Leos are fiercely loyal and some of the most generous friends to have. People are drawn to their enthusiasm and passion in everything they do.
Virgo (August 23 – September 22): The most analytical of the signs, Virgos also have an analytical approach to how they present themselves to others, from their makeup to the actual conversations. They win people over by being realistic and true to themselves and others. Not to mention, they’re also some of the most reliable friends.
Libra (September 23 – October 22): Like Leos, Libras can be vain as well as indecisive. However, these traits can be overshadowed by their grace and diplomatic nature, which is how they win people over. Of all the signs, they’re the social butterflies who love company and always strive for peace and harmony amongst their group of friends.
Scorpio (October 23 – November 21): The opposite of Libras, Scorpios aren’t social butterflies and often thrive on their own. But they win people over for being some of the most loyal and most passionate friends. Everything they love and care about is met with enthusiasm, which includes the people who stay to deal with their moods.
Sagittarius (November 22 – December 21): Sagittarians can be unemotional and anti-social at times, which makes people want to leave. But the reason they stay? They discover that Sagittarians are some of the most exciting and adventurous friends around.
Capricorn (December 22 – January 19): Capricorns can be distrustful, and their confidence in themselves and their abilities may come off as vain and arrogant. But this confidence is actually what draws people in. When Capricorns want to win someone over, they can be the most sympathetic and dedicated friend, and they know it.
Aquarius (January 20 – February 18): The rebel of the zodiac, Aquarius is always looking for something fun, new and exciting. This is how they win people over, because having new friends is like having new adventures and they will treat it as such.
Pisces (February 19 – March 20): Although Pisces is very sensitive, emotional and idealistic, this is exactly how they draw people in. They’re passionately devoted to people in their life that they care about, and will always see the good in everyone. Related
Mexican drug cartels, poppy farmers and the US fentanyl crisis | Mexico
Mexico Mexican drug cartels, poppy farmers and the US fentanyl crisis How Mexico’s drug cartels are feeding the US opioid crisis, and putting the country’s poppy farmers out of business. by John Holman 07 May 2019 17:00 GMT
Sinaloa, Mexico – Three young men wearing yellow plastic overalls and gas masks huddled around a large pot on an industrial-sized Bunsen burner sitting in a clearing in the woods of the Northern Mexican state of Sinaloa.
Punteros (lookouts) were posted nearby.
“We’ve made a deal with them,” said the man in charge, referring to local and state police.
The three Sinaloa Cartel members first added the poppy-gum residue to the pot, stirring its contents with a large wooden ladle traditionally used by Mexican families to make pozole stew.
One of the men then took out a small plastic bag filled with what looked like baking powder. In reality, however, this substance – fentanyl – is dangerous and potent. The man made the sign of the cross against his chest and shook the powder into the pot while the others continuously stirred.
Eventually, the mixture’s juices were drained, sifted and refined. The two-day process resulted in chiva sintentical, or synthetic heroin, which would later be smuggled across the Mexican border into the United States .
Until about two years ago, drug cartels would have relied on poppy gum mixed with chemicals to make heroin. But now, poppies play a lesser role, if one at all, in making synthetic heroin and other drugs sent to the US. Instead, drug cartels are turning to fentanyl. Fentanyl is added to a pot to make synthetic heroin [John Holman/Al Jazeera]
According to the US Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA), fentanyl, a synthetic opioid, is 50 times more potent than heroin. Opioids were responsible for the majority of the US’s 72,000 overdose deaths in 2017. China and Mexico are the two major sources of fentanyl, which US President Donald Trump has called a “horror drug”.
While the US administration put pressure on China to try and stop the drug from entering the states, criminal organisations – including the Jalisco Nueva Generacion and the Sinaloa Cartel -south of the border are grabbing hold of a large part of the fentanyl trafficking market, and in turn, pushing traditional poppy farmers out business. The poppy farmers: Growing to survive
About 150km north of where the Sinaloa Cartel members were manufacturing synthetic heroin, three poppy farmers headed up into the pine forest to take a look at their crops from above.
A luminous carpet of pink, red and purple flowers glinted in the first rays of the morning sun. The plot is hidden, like so many others, within the craggy folds of the Sierra Madre mountains. Poppies have been grown here for more than a century. They’re cultivated, not for their beauty, but for their gum. 190502102452680
Farmers here have been selling their crop to drug traffickers for generations. Although they admit the crop is illegal, they say they are merely growing it to survive.
“There isn’t enough land to grow quantities of corn [and] tomatoes for profit,” one farmer Al Jazeera. “If everyone in the community did that, we wouldn’t earn enough to buy shoes, clothes [and] school bags for the children.”
But over the last two years, poppy gum has lost much of its worth, decimating the farmers’ work and their livelihoods. While residue from their poppies is occasionally used to cut fentanyl, heroin itself is no longer the preferred drug of choice for traffickers here.
“Our clients in the US now just ask for fentanyl,” says an independent drug trafficker in the Sinaloan state capital of Culiacan. “They don’t want heroin from poppy plants because they say that fentanyl is stronger, more potent. It means they can cut it and earn more when they distribute it in the streets.” Poppy residue is seen on a poppy plant in northern Mexico [John Holman/Al Jazeera]
As a result, the price per kilo for poppy gum has plummeted to around a third of its former value in Sinaloa, according to farmers and local media.
In Guerrero, another poppy hot spot in southern Mexico, it is worse. Farmers get seven percent of what they received 18 months ago, said Romain Le Cour Grandmaison, one of the authors of a year-long study on poppy farming from the Network of Researchers in International Affairs . 190114175117692
“If you go to villages in Guerrero, there’s kilos of opium paste rotting because no one comes to buy it,” he said that farmers have told him.
That could mean the death knell for communities dotted across the country. With no demand for their crops, many of the farmers Al Jazeera spoke to are thinking of migrating.
“It’ll be sad to leave because we’ve always lived in the village and been able to get by,” said one farmer.
“Then to realise from one day to the other that this isn’t working anymore, and have go to the other side – that’s tough,” he told Al Jazeera, adding that he is poised to take his wife and two daughters to the US. Mexico drugs: Fentanyl takes over heroin market (2:50)
Not all farmers are considering leaving, though. Others may be tempted to go deeper into organised crime, said Le Cour Grandmaison.
“Some of them have weapons and are now being offered employment by criminal groups as hitmen or other roles. So you actually have people moving into more dangerous and violent roles,” he added. 190322132134756
That’s precisely what the Mexican government wants to avoid. It is already struggling with record levels of violence in the country. Newly unemployed poppy farmers could add to that. But they could also present a golden opportunity for one of the long-stated aims of President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador : luring those on the lowest rungs of organised crime into legal employment.
Responding to a question about Guerrero poppy farmers who are asking for help, Lopez Obrador recently said in a press conference that he is already moving to offer poppy farmers aid.
“Many of them are being helped, and will be helped. All of them. Even in the presidential debates, I suggested that where there was poppy farming, we could stimulate the production of corn and pay a better-than-fair price for the corn to compensate for (losing) the poppy,” he said.
During a February visit to Sinaloa state, Lopez Obrador promised opportunities for young people caught up in organised crime. The farmers Al Jazeera spoke to cautiously welcomed the president’s comments.
“We do want the government to pay attention to this,” one farmer told Al Jazeera. “In part, it’s their job to eradicate poppy fields. But maybe they also have the solution – if they look at us in the Sierra and give support to the families here,” he said, adding that the government should also invest in projects – reforestation and other types of farming – to help the communities in the region. Making fentanyl in Mexico?
Meanwhile, Mexican drug cartels are facing a potential crisis of their own. Not in what they can sell, but from where they get their fentanyl. 171029102559319
Earlier this month, China – from which Mexican cartels import much of their fentanyl – banned production of the drug and many of its precursors.
Cristobal Castaneda Camarillo, the police chief of Sinaloa, predicts the ban will hinder fentanyl production in Mexico somewhat, but he cautioned, “to think that the organised crime groups that are behind this will stay with their arms crossed would be very inadequate”.
Although local authorities deny that cartels have yet to discover how to make fentanyl in Mexico, the DEA’s 2018 Drug Threat Assessment documented the 2016 discovery of at least one fentanyl laboratory where the drug was apparently cooked from scratch. Three members of the Sinaloa Cartel manufacture synthetic heroin [John Holman/Al Jazeera]
The cook and traffickers that Al Jazeera talked to said that the groups they work with are trying to make fentanyl from scratch. If that happens, it will mean a substantial advance in technology from the three young men cooking up imported fentanyl with rudimentary equipment in the woods.
And if Mexico’s powerful criminal groups do get hold of the entire fentanyl supply line, it would be a major setback for both the Mexican government and the Trump administration trying to clamp down on the drug’s entry into the US.
The independent drug trafficker in Culiacan also believed that it could ultimately spell bad news for narcos in Mexico.
“I think fentanyl is going to cause a problem because of so many deaths of those that are using it.” he said. “There’ll come a moment when the federal government is putting more and more blocks on this, closing more and more doors/ports and it’ll be a lot more difficult to do business than now.”
Despite the concern, he has no intention of ceasing to traffic in fentanyl. In a business free of moral or legal concerns, supply and demand remains the only law, and the biggest demand right now continues to be fentanyl.
Editor’s note: Names of individuals quoted in this piece have been withheld to protect their identities due to safety concerns.