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Building a green economy, brick by brick

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Eduardo Romero has spent a lifetime in bricks—as a brickmaker for 28 years, and a bricklayer before that. Germandy Perez-Galeno/UN Uruguay

In Uruguay, thousands of families earn a precarious livelihood making bricks, using traditional methods that are often inefficient and harmful to the environment. A UN project, in collaboration with the Uruguayan government, aims to make the industry less polluting, whilst preserving jobs for the many artisans who depend on it. 

Land, fire and water

When Eduardo Romero was 40 years old, he was fired from his job as a bricklayer. It was 1992, in the city of Durazno, Uruguay. With his few belongings on his shoulder, Eduardo headed for the north of the country and stopped only when he found work. It was in the city of Tranqueras, and his new source of income came from land, fire and water: Eduardo started making bricks.

Today, five jobs, two ventures, three children and 28 years later, Mr. Romero is still linked to this insecure industry, which is both an easy source of employment for those who need it most, but where people work without social security or insurance, and with their labour rights continuously violated. “It is a precarious sector,” says Mr. Romero. “We are always on the edge of town, wearing dirty clothes.” 

Reliable statistics on the industry are hard to come by, but estimates suggest that there are some 14,000 families working in 3,500 production units across the country. The informal nature of the work makes for high turnover. 

Changing traditions

On top of the pressure on individual workers, the industry has a negative impact on the environment; emissions are high and some brickmakers, lacking other sources of fuel, burn protected species of trees.

During the brickmaking season, which lasts from September to April, an artisanal producer can make an average of about 30,000 bricks per month; the entire sector in Uruguay yields enough bricks every year to build at least 1,500 new houses, plus hundreds of businesses, kilns, factories, and more.

Eduardo is one of a growing number of artisanal producers who are changing the way they make bricks and, in the process, helping the entire country enjoy a cleaner environment. But in a sector like this, changing traditions is difficult.

Turning mud and garbage into solid foundations

Making bricks the traditional way, is an art that requires several stages. First the elements are obtained to make the raw material: water, soil, clay, sand, and organic matter such as horse dung.

This material is mixed and put into moulds, then laid out to dry for three days. Then they are baked in an oven, with firewood serving as the main fuel, for between two and seven days, and allowed to cool. Four days later they are ready for sale.

At each stage of the process, there are abundant occupational hazards and environmental impacts.

‘Far behind in technological terms’

In addition, this method is far more inefficient than modern, mechanized techniques: according to the government, factories can churn out bricks almost seven times faster than an artisanal producer.

“The artisanal brick industry is far behind in technological terms,” says Pablo Montes, who works for the Uruguayan government, and is also national coordinator of PAGE Uruguay (Partnership for Action on the Green Economy), a project involving the UN and the Uruguayan Government.

He explains that there are significant obstacles to artisans moving to newer techniques: it has fewer job opportunities; it also requires certification that most artisans don’t have, whether for the expense, or because many have not finished primary school and can barely read or write.   

That’s why PAGE is looking to support the artisanal industry, helping workers to enjoy greater rights and higher incomes, and cutting pollution during the production process. 

PAGE staff talked to brickmakers from all over the country, looking for improvements at every stage of the production process, and brought in consultants from other countries – such as Colombia, which has already undergone its own transformation – to give workshops on how to make better bricks.

By doing so, PAGE is helping to move Uruguay closer to the twin goals of a greener and more prosperous economy. The project is still in progress, and is developing even better methods and training more brickmakers. 

Artisanal, safer, greener

“Transforming the industry will allow these ventures to be successful,” says Mr. Romero. Still, he has no illusions that such a change will be easy to achieve.

“In this profession, there are men and women who have made an honest living for decades or for their whole lives,” he explains. Artisanal brickmaking is a way of life, a tradition. Countless homes and businesses in every part of Uruguay have been built with bricks made by the hands of anonymous laborers. They have invested their lives in the profession, and they are proud of what they have created. 

“That is what we are trying to defend,” says Mr. Romero. Even as he changes his own way of working, with guidance from PAGE, he realizes that not everyone will be so quick to adapt. Some may be sceptical of outsiders who come to teach them a skill they’ve practiced for many years. 

Pablo Montes of PAGE is optimistic that brickmakers will be won over by the benefits that the new ways of working offer them. “We want to keep the industry artisanal, while making it safer and greener,” he says. “We can have both.”

Environment

Muscovites Apply for 700 Trees to be Planted in Honor of Their Newborn Children

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moscow plant trees

The Our Tree project launched two years ago by Moscow’s Department of Information Technology and Department of Nature Management and Environmental Protection has quickly become very popular among Muscovites. Thanks to this annual campaign, city residents can now celebrate the happiest event in their family life – the birth of a child – by giving their baby a unique gift – their own personal tree.

Any parent who is permanently resident in Moscow can apply for a tree within three years of the birth of their child. To do so, they need only have an account on the mos.ru website. On average, 700 Muscovites apply for a tree to be planted in honor of their newborn child each month.

In two months, young parents have submitted more than 1,500 online applications to participate in the Our Tree project and plant seedlings in honor of their newborn kids in the autumn. That’s twice as many as during the same period in spring. Acceptance of applications began on January 16 and will continue until June 15.

Last autumn, more than 5,000 trees were planted as part of the project, with linden, Norway maple, pine, white willow and rowan trees being the most popular choices. Spring planting of personal saplings will soon begin.

Eduard Lysenko, Minister of the Moscow Government and Head of the Department of Information Technology, noted that interest in the Our Tree project among young parents is growing every year: in 2019, more than 2,300 trees were applied for and planted, while in 2020 the number increased to 5,000. More than 4,500 saplings will appear in Moscow’s parks this spring thanks to the project participants.

“A set of online services has been created for families with children on the mos.ru portal. The Our Tree project is another opportunity for young parents to celebrate the important milestone of the birth of their child and to contribute to the city’s ecology. Taking part in the project is very simple – just submit an online application on the portal. Some information is filled in automatically from users’ personal accounts, which makes everything even more convenient. On average, Muscovites order more than 700 seedlings to plant as family trees in their favorite park each month,” said Lysenko.

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Environment

Norwegian scientists finally find good news from Norilsk Nickel

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The state of the environment in the border areas is the main topic of the «Pasvikseminaret 2021», organized by the public administrator in Troms county and Finnmark in cooperation with the municipality of Sør-Varanger municipality.

The purpose of the annual Pasvik seminar is to provide the local population and local politicians all information about the environmental situation in the border area Norway – Russia. Program focused on pollution from the Nickel Plant and monitoring of the environment in the border area.

The activities of Norilsk Nickel have been the main focus of the workshop for many years.

For the first time in many years, Norwegian scientists have found only positive news from Russia.

Tore Flatlandsmo Berglen, a researcher at the Norwegian Institute for Atmospheric Research (NILU), noted a significant improvement in air quality in the border area. Berglen remembered the 70-80s of the last century, when one of the divisions of Norilsk Nickel “Pechenganikel” annually emitted 400 thousand tons of sulfur dioxide into the atmosphere, in the 90s this figure dropped to 100 thousand tons. After the closure plant in Nikel in December 2020, the content of sulfur dioxide and heavy metals in the atmosphere at the border between Norway and the Murmansk region meets all international requirements.

“And I know that these emissions from the Kola MMC will continue to decline. Compared to 2015, this figure will be 85 percent. This is very positive news. Air quality issues are being addressed in the right direction. We have been talking about this for many years and finally the problem has been resolved, emissions significantly reduced. This is the most excellent presentation I have ever make! ” – said Tore Berglen.

Earlier it was reported that Russia’s Norilsk Nickel, the world’s largest producer of nickel and palladium, closed its smelter in the city of Nickel in northern Russia at the end of 2020. Kola is a subsidiary of Norilsk Nickel on the Kola Peninsula with mines, processing plants and pellets in Zapolyarny, as well as metallurgical plants in Monchegorsk and a plant in Nikel, which closed at the end of December 2020.

The Norwegian environmentalists who participated in the workshop also noticed positive changes.

“The smelter is closed and Norilsk Nickel is working hard to become a ‘green’ metallurgical company – it reduces emissions, uses advanced technology and cooperates with Pasvik nature reserve which is our good partner in Russia. Today, a lot of interesting things are happening in the border areas. We have many common interests and there is a certain key to ensuring that everything works out for us – this is good coordination, cooperation, a large knowledge base,” said the representative of the environmental center NIBIO Svanhovd.

Other studies examining water resources, fish, berries, also prove that nature in the border area is recovering. All this testifies to the work of ecologists who care about the environment.

“We see examples of what has already been done. And this allows us to plan with confidence our future joint work, projects,” says senior adviser representative Anne Fløgstad Smeland at the county governor in Finnmark.

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Environment

New project to help 30 developing countries tackle marine litter scourge

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Litter is removed from a beach in Watamu in Kenya. UNEP/Duncan Moore

A UN-backed initiative aims to turn the tide on marine litter, in line with the global development goal on conserving and sustainably using the oceans, seas and marine resources. 

The GloLitter Partnerships Project will support  30 developing countries in preventing and reducing marine litter from the maritime transport and fisheries sectors, which includes plastic litter such as lost or discarded fishing gear. 

The project was launched on Thursday by the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) and the International Maritime Organization (IMO), with initial funding from Norway. 

Protecting oceans and livelihoods 

“Plastic litter has a devastating impact on marine life and human health”, said Manuel Barange, FAO’s Director of Fisheries and Aquaculture.  “This initiative is an important step in tackling the issue and will help protect the ocean ecosystem as well as the livelihoods of those who depend on it.” 

Protecting the marine environment is the objective of Sustainable Development Goal 14, part of the 2030 Agenda to create a more just and equitable future for all people and the planet. 

The GloLitter project will help countries apply best practices for the prevention and reduction of marine plastic litter, in an effort to safeguard the world’s coastal and marine resources. 

Actions will include encouraging fishing gear to be marked so that it can be traced if lost or discarded at sea. Another focus will be on the availability and adequacy of port reception facilities and their connection to national waste management systems.  

“Marine litter is a scourge on the oceans and on the planet”, said Jose Matheickal, Head of the IMO’s Department for Partnerships and Projects. “I am delighted that we have more than 30 countries committed to this initiative and working with IMO and FAO to address this issue.” 

Five regions represented 

The nations taking part in the GloLitter project are in Asia, Africa, the Caribbean, Latin America and the Pacific. 

They will also receive technical assistance and training, as well as guidance documents and other tools to help enforce existing regulations. 

The project will promote compliance with relevant international instruments, including the Voluntary Guidelines for the Marking of Fishing Gear, and the International Convention for the Prevention of Pollution from Ships (MARPOL), which contains regulations against discharging plastics into the sea.

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