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Geopolitics of 5G and the South Caucasus

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The age of 5G internet is coming to the South Caucasus. However, as the US-China geopolitical divide looms ever larger, the region enters the global competition where competing visions for 5G’s deployment could hamper the deployment of the new technologies. As a result, Georgia will edge closer to the US, Armenia – to Russia-China telecoms, while Azerbaijan will try to navigate between the two extremes.

A global competition is unfolding between China and the US. So far it has involved economic struggle and some aspects of naval rivalry. A new dimension needs to be addes – technological competition. This is reflected in the race which is underway to deploy next generation 5G mobile networks. In contrast to 3G and 4G (LTE – Long-Term Evolution), where China was largely relegated to the sidelines in the standards-setting process, now it has been heavily involved in the standards process for 5G—a sign of Beijing’s growing ambitions and global influence. 5G will be both quantitatively and qualitatively different from what has come before. For instance, as opposed to the hardware that drives traditional data networks, 5G networks’ primary functions will be software-based.

5G will be fundamentally different from its predecessor, 4G. Initially, vastly higher speeds will not be noticeable as it is likely that 5G will be used by network operators just to boost capacity on existing 4G networks and ensure a consistent service for customers. Ultimately, the speed capacity you get will be contingent upon the spectrum band the operator runs the 5G technology on and how much your carrier has invested in new masts and transmitters.

5G is also groundbreaking as it will usher in an extensive use of artificial intelligence (AI) to manage the network. Its ramifications are wide range: from military to civil spheres. And China has gained a significant advantage as it successfully moves toward commercial-scale deployment of its domestic 5G network in 2020. Consider the following example, in 2019 China’s Huawei signed an agreement with Russian telecoms on development on 5G networks in Russia.

According to some calculations, a full-scale introduction of 5G networks will take more than a decade. The process will be a complex one and the pace of its deployment across Eurasia and specifically in the South Caucasus will depend on a range of different factors such as carrier preferences, government regulatory policies, public and national security concerns, geopolitical alignments and costs of 5G infrastructure itself.

The development of 5G is taking place at the time as the world is becoming divided along economic and increasingly technological lines. The US builds its own bloc where Chinese technologies will have no major role. The same could be said about China. In this bifurcated world, small and techno-economically vulnerable states, which wish to gain access to the advanced technologies, will face tough choices which 5G network technologies to adopt. Small states across Eurasia are likely to face an increasing pressure from the US and its allies to abstain from using China’s 5G model, while Beijing will cushion its 5G offer in large financial benefits (investments, inclusion into the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) etc.). Moreover, for small and relatively poor states Chinese technologies are more affordable than any Western competitors.

This brings us to the South Caucasus, which over the past several years has been gradually transformed into the frontline region between the US and China. Armenia, Azerbaijan and Georgia need 5G to boost their economic performance and relative technological backwardness. 

In Armenia’s case, with its booming IT sector, China’s low cost 5G provides a good opportunity to keep apace in the technologically developing world. Since Viva-MTS, a leading mobile operator in Armenia, belongs to the Russian MTS, which in turn partners with Huawei, Armenia is well placed to become one of the first states in the region to successfully deploy 5G technologies. Indeed, work has already begun, as the head of the department of technological development and resource management of telecommunications management of the Public Services Regulatory Commission of Armenia Armen Hunanyan said in one of his statements. 

Armenia is thus more likely to find itself in the middle of the US-China rivalry compared to Georgia or Azerbaijan. The latter two do not have similar Russian (by extension Chinese) influence in telecommunications. In fact, Baku made an interesting move in December 2019 when Ericsson and Azerbaijani communications service provider Azercell signed a three-year 5G Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) for the joint deployment of 5G projects. As a reminder, Ericsson is one of four companies in the world possessing enough technological prowess to supply the components necessary for building a 5G network. It is notable that US companies are absent from this hi-tech race.

For Georgia 5G will provide a much faster data download and upload speeds as well as much wider coverage from across the globe. With a chance of reaching 1Gbps, as opposed to presently provided 45Mbps, internet operations speed will be about 10-20 times faster. It could also help the country correct its overall technological underdevelopment in the provinces. The Georgian National Communications Commission announced that the introduction of 5G internet in Georgia will begin in 2020, but the pandemic and a general economic slowdown might change the deployment schedule. All in all, presently the telecom company Magti is arguably best poised to become a leader in the emerging industry.

Georgia also hopes that 5G technologies be applied to boost the country’s defence and security capabilities, especially in the light of the ongoing military troubles with Russia. Faster information flow will be crucial for developing more efficient defence capabilities along occupation lines near Abkhazia and the Tskhinvali region, where Tbilisi faces creeping occupation of lands and an endless string of kidnappings. However, the deployment of 5G might also bear risks as militarily developed states will be better positioned to use the 5G technologies to collect sensitive security and defence information from Georgia’s vital state sectors. On that front, deeper cooperation with US security services and the military sector will be crucial. However, there is a much larger problem Georgia, along with Armenia and Azerbaijan, could face due to the deployment of China-produced 5G. As the US-China divide grows and Washington is increasingly worried that Beijing might use this superiority for military and economic purposes incompatible with Western security practices, US pressure on South Caucasus states is likely to ramp up. Georgia will be under particular scrutiny as it positions itself as an ally of the US in the region and simultaneously seeks closer economic relations with China. In the long run Tbilisi may face the dilemma of having to choose between Washington’s support and the use of China’s technological advancements. 

With Armenia and Azerbaijan, it will be different to a varying degree. Security-wise Armenia is more related to Russia and its telecoms, Azerbaijan not so much. Moreover, as both are not openly aspiring to join Western political or military organizations, harsh US pressure on Yerevan and Baku might be less expected than in the case of Georgia. Still, a certain push from the US for a China-free 5G alternative will follow. It could hamper 5G deployment in the South Caucasus, the development which would once again indicate how global geopolitics is shaping the timing and level of the use of China’s or China-free 5G technologies.

Author’s note: first published in Caucasus Watch

Emil Avdaliani specializes on former Soviet space and wider Eurasia with particular focus on Russia's internal and foreign policy, relations with Iran, China, the EU and the US. He teaches history and international relations at Tbilisi State University and Ilia State University (Georgia).

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Implementation of virtual reality and the effects in cognitive warfare

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Photo: Lux Interaction/Unsplash

With the increasing use of new technologies in warfare situations, virtual reality presents an opportunity for the domain of cognitive warfare. Nowadays, cognitive skills are treated equally as their physical counterparts, seeking to standardize new innovative techniques. Virtual reality (VR) can be used as a tool that can increase the cognitive capabilities of soldiers. As it is understandable in today’s terms, VR impacts the brain directly. That means that our visual organs (eyes) see one object or one surrounding area, but brain cells perceive and react to that differently. VR has been used extensively in new teaching methods because of the increased probability of improving the memory and learning capabilities of students.

Besides its theoretical teaching approach and improvement of learning, VR can be used systematically towards more practical skills. In medicine for example students can have a full medicine lesson on a virtual human being seeing the body projected in 3D, revolutionizing the whole field of medicine. If that can be used in the medical field, theoretically it will be possible to be used in combat situations, projecting a specific battlefield in VR, increasing the chances of successful engagement, and reducing the chance of casualties. Knowing your terrain is equally important as knowing your adversary.

The use of VR will also allow us to experience new domains relating to the physical health of a person. It is argued that VR might provide us with the ability to effectively control pain management. Since VR can stimulate visual senses, then it would be safe to say that this approach can have higher effectiveness in treating chronic pain, depression, or even PTSD. The idea behind this usage is that the brain itself is already powerful enough, yet sometimes when pain overwhelms us we tend to lose effectiveness on some of our senses, such as the visual sense. An agonizing pain can blurry our vision, something that we cannot control; unless of course theoretically, we use VR. The process can consist of different sounds and visual aids that can trick the mind into thinking that it is somewhere that might be the polar opposite of where it is. Technically speaking, the mind would be able to do that simply because it works as a powerful computer, where our pain receptors can override and actually make us think that we are not in such terrible pain.

Although the benefits of VR could be useful for our health we would still need to deal with problems that concern our health when we use a VR set.  It is possible that the brain can get overloaded with new information and the new virtual environments. VR poses some problems to some people, regarding the loss of the real environment and creating feelings of nausea or extreme headaches. As a result, new techniques from cognitive psychologists have emerged to provide a solution to the problem. New technologies have appeared that can desaturate colors towards the edge of the headset in order to limit the probability of visual confusion. Besides that, research shows that even the implementation of a virtual nose when someone wears a VR headset can prevent motion sickness, something that our brain does already in reality.

However, when it comes to combatants and the implementation of VR in soldiers, one must think of maybe more effective and fast solutions to eliminate the problems that concern the confusion of the brain. Usage of specific pharmaceuticals might be the key. One example could be Modafinil which has been prescribed in the U.S. since 1998 to treat sleep-related conditions. Researchers believe it can produce the same effects as caffeine. With that being said, the University of Oxford analyzed 24 studies, where participants were asked to complete complex assignments after taking Modafinil and found out that those who took the drug were more accurate, which suggests that it may affect higher cognitive functions.

Although some of its long-term effects are yet to be studied, Modafinil is by far the safest drug that can be used in cognitive situations. Theoretically speaking, if a long exposure to VR can cause headaches and an inability to concentrate, then an appropriate dose of Modafinil can counter the effects of VR. It can be more suitable and useful to use on soldiers, whose cognitive skills are better than civilians, to test the full effect of a mix of virtual technology and pharmaceuticals. VR can be a significant military component and a simulation training program. It can provide new cognitive experiences based on foreign and unknown terrains that might be difficult to be approached in real life. New opportunities arise every day with the technologies, and if anyone wanted to take a significant advantage over adversaries in the cognitive warfare field, then VR would provide a useful tool for military decision-making.

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Vaccine Equity and Beyond: Intellectual Property Rights Face a Crucial Test

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The debate over intellectual property rights (IPRs), particularly patents, and access to medicine is not new. IPRs are considered to drive innovation by protecting the results of investment-intensive R&D, yet arguably also foster inequitable access to affordable medicines.

In a global public health emergency such as the COVID-19 pandemic, where countries face acute shortages of life-saving vaccines, should public health be prioritized over economic gain and the international trade rules designed to protect IPRs?

The Agreement on Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPs), to which all 164 member states of the World Trade Organization (WTO) are a party, establish minimum standards for protecting different forms of IPRs. 

In October 2020, India and South Africa – countries with strong generic drug manufacturing infrastructure – invoked WTO rules to seek a temporary waiver of IPRs (patents, copyrights, trade secrets, and industrial designs) on equipment, drugs, and vaccines related to the “prevention, containment or treatment of COVID-19.” A waiver would mean that countries could locally produce equipment and vaccines without permission from holders of IPRs. This step would serve to eliminate the monopolistic nature of IPRs that give exclusive rights to the holder of IPRs and enable them to impose procedural licensing constraints.

Brazil, Japan, the European Union (EU), and the United States (US) initially rejected the waiver proposal. That stance changed with the rise of new COVID-19 mutations and the associated increase in deaths, with several countries facing a public health crisis due to vaccine supply shortages. The position of many states began shifting in favor of the India-South Africa proposal, which now has the backing of 62 WTO members, with the US declaring support for the intent of the temporary waiver to secure “better access, more manufacturing capability, more shots in arms.” Several international bodies, the World Health Organization (WHO), and the UN Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights have voiced support.

Some countries disagree about the specific IPRs to be waived or the mechanisms by which IPRs should be made available. The EU submitted a proposal to use TRIPS flexibilities such as compulsory licensing, while others advocate for voluntary licensing. The TRIPS Council is conducting meetings to prepare an amended proposal to the General Council (the WTO’s highest-level decision-making body in Geneva) by the end of July 2021.

The crisis in India illustrates the urgency of the situation. India produces and supplies Covishield, licensed by AstraZeneca; and Covaxin, which is yet to be included on the WHO’s Emergency Use Listing (EUL). Due to the devastating public health crisis, India halted its export of vaccines and caused a disruption in the global vaccine supply, even to the COVID-19 Vaccines Global Access (COVAX) program. In the meantime, the world’s poorest nations lack sufficient, critical vaccine supplies.

International law recognizes some flexibility in public health emergencies. An example would be the Doha Declaration on TRIPS and Public Health in 2001, which, while maintaining the commitments, stresses the need for TRIPS to be part of the wider national and international action to address public health problems. Consistent with that, the body of international human rights law, including the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR), protects the right to the highest attainable standard of health.

But as we race against time, the current IPR framework may not allow for the swift response required. It is the rigorous requirements before a vaccine is considered safe to use under Emergency Use Authorizations and procedural delays which illuminate why IPR waivers on already approved vaccines are needed. Capitalizing on the EUL’s approved vaccines that have proven efficacy to date and easing IPR restrictions will aid in the timely supply and access of vaccines.

A TRIPS waiver may not solve the global vaccine shortage. In fact, some argue that the shortages are not an inherent flaw in the IP regime, considering other supply chain disruptions that persist, such as the ones disrupting microchips, pipette tips, and furniture. However, given that patent licensing gives a company a monopoly on vaccine commercialization, other companies with manufacturing capacity cannot produce the vaccine to scale up production and meet supply demands.

Neither does a temporary waiver mean that pharmaceutical companies cannot monetize their work. States should work with pharmaceuticals in setting up compensation and insurance schemes to ensure adequate remuneration.

At the College of Law at Hamad Bin Khalifa University, our aim is to address today’s legal challenges with a future-oriented view. We see COVID-19 as a case study in how we respond to imminent and existential threats. As global warming alters the balance of our ecosystem, threats will cascade in a way that is hard to predict. When unpredictable health emergencies emerge, it will be human ingenuity that helps us overcome them. Even the global IP regime, as a legal system that regulates ideas, is being tested, and should be agile enough to respond in time, like the scientists who sprang into action and worked tirelessly to develop the vaccines that will soon bring back a semblance of normal life as we know it.

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Sputnik V in the International Arena

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Over a year since the World Health Organization (WHO) declared the COVID-19 outbreak a pandemic in March 2020, the disease is far from under control. Although global case rates on the whole have declined, 15 countries remain near or at the peak of their infection curve. Even countries well below their peak daily infection rates – such as the United Kingdom and Morocco – recently have witnessed an uptick in cases. Just this summer, the virus’ global death toll surpassed 4 million. Fortunately, scientists’ efforts to develop vaccines against COVID-19 have been fruitful: 16 vaccines have been either authorized for emergency use or fully approved. Russia’s Sputnik V is one of the most effective of them, yet one of the most controversial as well.

An important tool in humankind’s fight against the pandemic, Sputnik V is being overlooked by western powers on political grounds.

Sputnik V: controversy and advantages

Much of the controversy surrounding the Gamaleya Institute’s vaccine in western media and political discourse stems from the details surrounding Sputnik V’s approval. Russia’s Ministry of Health issued a registration certificate for the vaccine on August 11, 2020, thus making Sputnik V the world’s first vaccine to be granted regulatory approval for use against COVID-19. Instead of igniting international celebration, this development was met largely with skepticism as many considered the move premature. Typically, vaccines undergo extensive Phase 3 trials before government authorization for use. Sputnik V’s Phase 3 trials, however, did not begin until September 2020, after the vaccine had been registered. Since then, the Russian Ministry of Health’s unorthodox approach to approving the vaccine has been weaponized against Sputnik V.

Western media has also repeatedly called into question Sputnik V’s efficacy and safety. A study in the respected, peer-reviewed medical journal the Lancet, however, found that Sputnik V has an efficacy rate of 91.6% and is low-risk. Although a group of scientists raised concerns about the study’s integrity citing lack of transparency, no major scientific studies demonstrating that Sputnik V’s efficacy is significantly lower than reported have been published to date. Respected western media sources, such as the New York Times and the BBC, cite the Lancet’s figure when reporting on Sputnik V’s efficacy. Meanwhile, a report by the Argentinian Ministry of Health found that Sputnik V is one of the safest vaccines widely used in Argentina. As summarized in the Lancet: “the development of the Sputnik V vaccine has been criticised for unseemly haste, corner cutting, and an absence of transparency. But the outcome reported here is clear and the scientific principle of vaccination is demonstrated, which means another vaccine can now join the fight to reduce the incidence of COVID-19.”

Regardless of such controversy, the vaccine has several key advantages – namely its efficacy, affordability, and transportability. Sputnik V is one of only three vaccines globally with an efficacy of over 90% – the other two being Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna. Running at less than $10 per dose on international markets, Sputnik V is the cheapest vaccine in this efficacy range. For comparison, the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine runs between $14.50 and $20.00 on international markets, while Moderna’s vaccine sells for between $18.00 and $33.00 a dose. Sputnik V is also much easier to transport than its U.S./German counterparts. The Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna vaccines must be stored at -70.0°C and -20.0°C respectively, whereas Sputnik V must be kept at a temperature range from 2 to 8°C, meaning that it can be stored in conventional refrigerators. This makes delivering the vaccine notably easier, especially to remote areas. Thus, Sputnik V is poised to make an important contribution to the global inoculation campaign.

Hurdles and victories in the international arena

Russia’s frontrunner vaccine has experienced a mix of hurdles and victories in the international arena. The biggest hurdles are regulatory in nature. For example, one major obstacle preventing the vaccine’s distribution is that the European Medicines Agency (EMA) – the EU agency responsible for authorizing and evaluating medicines – has not yet approved Sputnik V. The EMA is still undergoing its rolling revue of the vaccine, and it appears that approval is unlikely to be granted until September at the earliest. Italian Prime Minister Mario Draghi recently raised the possibility that Sputnik may never get the EMA’s approval, casting further doubt on the vaccine’s future in Europe. The EMA’s regulatory hesitancy towards Sputnik V has prevented major EU players, such as Germany and France, from buying millions of doses of the vaccine.

Sputnik V similarly has not yet been cleared for Emergency Use Listing by the WHO. The UN agency found production violations at the Sputnik V manufacturing site in Ufa during a June examination. Although the WHO’s concerns have since been addressed according to Russian Press Secretary Dmitry Peskov, the incident has further put on hold the Russian Direct Investment Fund’s (RDIF) commitment to supply the United Nations International Children’s Emergency Fund with 220 million doses of Sputnik V. In a similar vein, the RDIF applied for Sputnik V to participate in COVID-19 vaccine access program COVAX earlier this year. Discussions with the Vaccine Alliance Gavi regarding Sputnik V’s inclusion in the COVAX Facility’s Portfolio of COVID-19 vaccines, however, are still ongoing.

Although Sputnik V’s lack of EMA and WHO approval has hampered its international rollout, the ongoing authorization process has not eliminated the vaccine’s global relevance. In fact, the Russian vaccine is currently authorized for emergency use in nearly 70 countries and being used in 45. Two EU member states, Hungary and Slovakia, even have begun inoculating their citizens with Sputnik V without a greenlight from the EMA. Meanwhile, India and Turkey have ordered 250 million and 50 million doses of the vaccine, respectively. One thing is clear: Sputnik V is in high demand internationally despite the regulatory hurdles and controversies it faces. Trust in the Russian vaccine also remains markedly high notwithstanding these challenges. A poll conducted by British market research firm YouGov during February and March of this year found that, of participants who had a preference, 54.0% trusted Russia to produce a vaccine and 33.2% preferred to be vaccinated with Sputnik V. According to the survey, Russia and the United States are tied for the most trusted vaccine producing country, and Sputnik V is the second most preferred vaccine after Pfizer-BioNTech, which 36.6% of respondents favored. The survey featured respondents from the following 9 countries, collectively accounting for 25% of the global population: India; Brazil; Mexico; the Philippines; Vietnam; Argentina; Algeria; the UAE; and Serbia.

Sputnik V has been particularly successful in Latin America, a core region of the United States’ sphere of influence. Repeated polling has shown that Sputnik V enjoys high levels of confidence in Latin American countries, especially Argentina and Peru. The Russian vaccine got an early start in the region when on December 29, 2020, Argentina became the first Latin American country to administer the Sputnik V vaccine to its citizens. Mexico followed suit on February 24 and Nicaragua on March 2, 2021. To the surprise of many observers, on June 4 Brazil joined the list of countries that have approved Sputnik V.

Unfortunately, alongside the success Sputnik V has experienced in Latin America, the vaccine has also encountered a substantial challenge: supply shortages. Both Mexico and Argentina are currently facing shortages of Sputnik V’s second dose – and the problem is not confined to the region. Luckily, Russia’s strategy for eliminating supply shortages not only promises to see more people vaccinated, but also provides an opportunity for Russia to collaborate with its international partners: the country will manufacture vaccines abroad. Starting in July, 5 to 6 million doses of Sputnik V are set to be produced outside of Russia per month. Manufacturing countries include India, South Korea, and Brazil. The Argentine laboratory Richmond produced its first half million doses on June 18. The data sharing and collaboration necessary to manufacture Sputnik V abroad have the potential to increase Russia’s soft power in partner countries.

The other major players

It is crucial to note that Russia’s Sputnik V is only one piece in the puzzle of fighting COVID-19. Although an in-depth review of every country’s current approach to vaccine policy is beyond the scope of this article, a brief overview of the major vaccine providers’ – the United States, the United Kingdom, and China – global vaccine distribution is in store.

Unlike Russia, whose approach to vaccine distribution has been global facing since Sputnik V’s development, the United States initially favored domestic distribution and stockpiling of American vaccines. The Biden Administration has since turned course. The U.S. recently pledged to share 80 million U.S. vaccine doses by the end of June and to purchase 500 million additional doses of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine for lower-income countries over the next year. Pfizer-BioNTech is currently being distributed in 105 countries, Moderna in 55, and Johnson&Johnson in 27.

The United Kingdom’s Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine is currently being used in 178 countries, making it the most widely-used COVID-19 vaccine to date. Although evidence that the vaccine is linked to blood clots put a rut in its distribution, the vaccine is performing well internationally. Meanwhile, China’s Sinopharm-Beijing and Sinovac vaccines are being used in 40 and 32 countries, respectively. China has favored international distribution of its vaccines since the beginning of the pandemic and has shipped more vaccines abroad than any other country. The vaccines referenced in this article – among others – have collectively led to 22.2% of the world’s population having received at least one dose of a COVID-19 vaccine.

Conclusion

Western, especially American, media has portrayed Sputnik V in an overwhelmingly negative light. The Russian vaccine is represented more as a political tool than a health solution. Hiccups in the road to Sputnik V distribution are cited as evidence that the vaccine is not to be trusted. This approach to Sputnik V is fundamentally flawed. Regulation and safety inspections are crucial to safe vaccination efforts; finger-pointing and name-calling are not. Ultimately, vaccination should take precedence over politics. Alongside other vaccines, Sputnik V will propel us into a post-pandemic world.

Above all else, Sputnik V is a highly efficacious vaccine against COVID-19. When Sputnik V successfully performs its function – safely preventing vaccinated people from contracting and dying from the virus – a growth in vaccinated individuals’ trust of Russia will organically follow. This happy side effect undoubtedly has the potential to promote Russia’s image abroad and increase the country’s soft power. But even if Russia’s political gains from Sputnik V turn out to be small, humankind’s gains in lives saved will be immeasurable.

From our partner RIAC

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