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Oil, acid, plastic: Inside the shipping disaster gripping Sri Lanka

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Fires crews attempt to put out the fire onboard the X-Press Pearl. The ship would burn for two weeks before finally sinking. Photo: Unsplash/Nilantha Ilangamuwa

It’s visible in satellite images from just off Sri Lanka’s coast: a thin grey film that snakes three kilometres out to sea before disappearing into the waves.

This, experts say, is fuel oil leaking from the X-Press Pearl, a Singapore-flagged cargo ship that caught fire and sank off Sri Lanka’s western coast last month.

The slick is a visceral reminder of what observers say is a slow-motion environmental disaster – one of the worst in the country’s history – and of the mammoth effort that will be needed to clean it up.

“This is the biggest environmental catastrophe to hit Sri Lanka since the 2004 Indian Ocean Tsunami,” said Thummarukudyil Muraleedharan, the acting head of the disasters and conflicts branch with the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP).

Thummarukudyil is among more than a half-dozen UNEP experts advising Sri Lanka’s government on how to contain the toxic fallout from the X-Press Pearl, which was carrying 81 containers of dangerous goods when it sank in June, according to its owner, X-Press Feeders. The ship’s cargo included 25 tonnes of nitric acid, 348 tonnes of oil and, according to independent estimates, up to 75 billion small plastic pellets known as nurdles that has created a pollution crisis—one that could plague Sri Lanka for years.

“This is a toxic ship,” said Hemantha Withanage, Executive Director of Sri Lanka’s Centre for Environmental Justice, an advocacy group. “This will be a long-running disaster.”

Fire down below

Crew members first noticed smoke coming from the X-Press Pearl’s hold on 20 May while the ship was anchored off Colombo, Sri Lanka’s capital. Over the next two weeks, fire crews battled a raging inferno punctuated by at least two major explosions. As the ship slowly sunk—it would be 17 June before it settled on the seabed—strong currents scooped up shipping containers and sprinkled them along Sri Lanka’s coast.

One container surfaced more than 100 kilometres south of the wreck, coating prime tourist beaches near the southwestern resort town of Galle with nurdles.

“It was like a cluster bomb,” said Hassan Partow, part of UNEP’s disaster response team.

Plastic pollution

For Sri Lankans, the small plastic pellets, which are about the size of a lentil, have been the most visible sign of the X-Press Pearl sinking.

Using publicly available data, Withanage estimates the ship contained 70-75 billion individual pellets. Partow said the disaster is the single-largest release of nurdles into the ocean ever reported.

The plastic has flooded onto beaches around Colombo. One, Sarukkuwa, was blanketed in meter-deep piles of plastic. The nurdles also turned up in the gills and guts of fish. Local fishers, who have been barred from the rich fishing grounds around Colombo, have blamed the nurdles for killing sea life, though that claim is still being investigated by Sri Lanka scientists. Withanage said pellets have also been found in a turtle sanctuary 300km north of Colombo.

Over time the pellets, which will take up to 1,000 years to disintegrate, may build up in the food chain, sickening fish and potentially humans, Withanage said. “When it comes to the environment, every plastic nurdle is a disaster.”

Making matters worse, many of the pellets were charred, causing them to crumble into a potentially toxic powder when disturbed.

“These weren’t just virgin pellets,” said Partow. “Around half were combusted, so the jury is out about their toxicity.”

In the immediate aftermath of the X-Press Pearl sinking, hundreds of Sri Lankan navy, air force and coast guard members were deployed in a massive clean-up operation overseen by the Marine Environment Protection Authority.  Working around the clock under strict COVID-19 lockdown restrictions, they have so far collected more than 53,000 bags of pellets, burnt plastic and other debris mixed with sand. The small size of the plastic pellets means that many had to be hand sieved.

There is no way, though, to clean plastic pellets still in the ocean.

“What is in the sea could be there for a long time,” said Thummarukudyil.

A toxic brew

It also appears likely that at least some of the highly corrosive nitric acid aboard the X-Press Pearl seeped into the ocean. Experts are worried it may have scalded sea life at a nearby coral reef. Sri Lanka’s government has recovered turtle carcases that show signs of burns, though Partow said scientists are still examining the animals and that it was too early to determine what had killed them.

While the nitric acid has likely dissipated into the ocean, concerns have now turned to another toxic chemical carried by the X-Press Pearl: epoxy resin. Around 9,800 metric tonnes of epoxy was aboard and experts worry that if it was in toxic liquid form—as opposed to solid form—that it could spread along the Sri Lankan coast.

The ship also contained a witches’ brew of other chemicals, including methanol, gear oil, brake fluid and urea, along with lead, copper and lithium batteries, according to Withanage.

The question of oil

Exactly how much toxic material remains in the ship’s hold or in containers on the ocean floor remains unknown. Sri Lanka’s annual monsoon, coupled with a country-wide COVID-19 lockdown, has hampered salvage efforts.

The ship’s owner, X-Press Feeders, said much of the cargo could have been incinerated in the fire, including the black, molasses-like fuel that powered the X-Press Pearl. But the UN team thinks that even if the oil was burnt it is unlikely to have evaporated. Instead, it would probably be transformed into a more viscous mixture.

“We should assume the oil is still there,” said Thummarukudyil. The ship, he added, was carrying enough oil to blanket Sri Lanka’s entire western coast. “The potential is there for this to be a lot worse than what we’ve already seen.”

Disaster response 

The UNEP staff working on the X-Press Pearl sinking are part of a disaster response unit jointly run by the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA).  The unit has helped broker an agreement between the Sri Lankan government and the X-Press Pearl’s owner to contain a potential offshore oil spill as well as clean-up the shoreline. Specialized equipment, including inflatable booms designed to trap oil, arrived in Colombo on 2 July.

“The United Nations is supporting the Government of Sri Lanka to address the disaster of the MV X-Press Pearl,” said UN Resident Coordinator in Sri Lanka Hanaa Singer-Hamdy. “We are coordinating international efforts and mobilizing partners to ensure a cohesive and coherent response to the crisis (and) ensure prevention of such disasters in the future.”

UNEP has called for the ship’s owner and insurer to hash out what Partow called a “peer-reviewed, government-approved” road map for removing the X-Press Pearl and the stray containers on the ocean floor, saying they constitute the most immediate risk of pollution.

“This plan needs to be developed now so that when the conditions allow, the ship can be removed and properly decommissioned,” said Partow.

Sri Lanka’s government is also pushing the ship’s owners and insurers to refloat the X-Press Pearl.

“The Sri Lankan government is deeply concerned about its environment and the livelihood of the vulnerable fishing communities,” said Dharshani Lahandapura, Chairperson of Sri Lanka’s Marine Environment Protection Authority. “The foremost thing that the owners and salvors, caretakers and wreck removers have to do is remove the wreckage, underwater containers and debris as soon as possible.”

For Withanage, time is of the essence. “It is a business for them,” he said of the salvage company hired to raise the ship and the vessel’s owners. “But it is our environment. As long as the ship is there contamination is there.”

UNEP will deliver a final report on the disaster to Sri Lanka’s government next week. It will contain recommendations for the clean-up and suggestions for how Sri Lanka, a country vying to become a major shipping hub, can handle future maritime disasters. Partow said UNEP will also stand by to advise Sri Lanka on longer-term environmental monitoring.

Ghostly scene

Today, the ship sits largely submerged in 21 metres of water, its castle and a few charred cranes poking up over the waves. A caretaker ship circles it 24 hours a day, keeping tabs on the oil leak.

Partow, who toured the wreck by boat and in a helicopter, saw plastic pellets mixed with oil bobbing in the waves around the vessel. Brown patches of oil surrounded by a grey sheen stretched two to three kilometres out into the sea.

He described the 186-metre-long ship, which entered service in February, as a “write off.”

Thummarukudyil has spent 18 years responding to oil spills around the world. When asked if the X-Press Pearl was the worst maritime ecological disaster he’d seen, he paused.

“There are lots of chemicals still sitting there,” he said. “This story is not yet over.”

UN Environment

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Scientists turn underwater gardeners to save precious marine plant

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Whoever said there’s nothing more boring than watching grass grow, wasn’t thinking about seagrass. Often confused with seaweeds and rarely receiving the attention they deserve, there’s nothing boring about seagrasses. In fact, they are one of the most productive ecosystems in the world.

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Next time you are swimming and enjoying the sea’s cool embrace look down and try to spot the slender blades of seagrass, a remarkable marine plant that plays a vital role in the coastal environment but is now under threat.

Forming dense underwater meadows, seagrasses are vital to maintain fisheries, absorb carbon and protect coastlines from erosion – but their future is threatened by climate change, pollution and other impacts of human activities, scientists say. 

The plants grow in shallow coastal waters in all regions except the Antarctic. They act as nurseries or feeding grounds for hundreds of species of seafood, including sea bream, octopus, cuttlefish and Alaska pollock – one of the most fished species in the world.

In the Mediterranean alone at least 30% of the value of commercial fisheries landings comes from fish that rely on seagrass for food and protection while they are young. They also provide important fishing grounds for recreational fishing.

‘Despite covering a very low proportion of our ocean floor, they make a significant contribution to fisheries and local economies,’ said Marija Sciberras, assistant professor of fisheries conservation at Scotland’s Heriot Watt University.

Dr Sciberras studied seagrass meadows in Mallorca as part of a project called PIONEER. She found that fish had higher body mass in areas with higher density of seagrass.

But the growth rate of juvenile fish was higher in areas with lower density of seagrass. This could be because they need to grow fast because they are more exposed to predators, she said.

Seagrass stress

Seagrass species globally are facing growing stress caused by human activities. The underwater meadows are sometimes ripped up to make way for new port infrastructure, dykes, or seawalls – even though the plants protect coastlines from storm erosion.

In regions where seagrasses are protected by law – including the European Union – they must be reforested if this happens. But attempts to do so often fail, said Francesca Rossi, senior researcher at France’s National Centre for Scientific Research (CNRS) at the University of Côte d’Azur.

‘They try to plant seagrasses in areas where they weren’t before’ – locations which are not their natural habitat – said Dr Rossi, who is coordinator of HEALSEA project.

Seagrasses can also be uprooted by boats which anchor over them or drag fishing equipment through them, leaving bare sediment behind. It can take years for them to recover.

HEALSEA researcher Laura Soissons studied the impact of yet another stressor that affects seagrass: pollution from fertilisers. This can reduce the amount of light reaching seagrass leaves and slow their growth.

Dr Soissons found that seagrasses often show no obvious signs of stress until they pass a tipping point after which they suddenly collapse.

Researchers want to find ways to spot signs of stress in the plants before they reach that tipping point. These could be used help to protect seagrasses – and other species, said Dr Rossi.

The impact of declining meadows on fish species, for example, is likely to be devastating, she said. ‘If we don’t have a habitat where the species can feed, hide or reproduce … this species is lost.’

‘Seagrass is fundamentally important for all coastal ecosystems and for humans, because they create life, they protect life and they protect from coastal erosion,’ she added.

Despite the crucial role they play, data on the existence and decline of seagrass meadows is limited. However, a picture is emerging of plants struggling to survive in many regions.

One study in the Mediterranean found that between 13% and 50% of the areal extent of one species – Posidonia oceanica – was lost between 1842 and 2009. The remaining meadows may have lost much of their shoot density and become more fragmented.

Globally, rates of seagrass decline average about 7% a year according to another study.

Carbon sink

Any decline in seagrass could affect oceans’ ability to absorb carbon.

Seagrass meadows absorb carbon up to 35 times faster than tropical rainforests, according to WWF. And although they only cover 0.2% of the sea floor, they absorb 10% of the oceans’ carbon each year, the conservation organisation says.

Unlike many land plants, seagrasses store most of the carbon they absorb in their roots, so the carbon remains buried underground even after they die.

Species which grow faster or have denser structures are particularly good at absorbing carbon. So the ocean’s ability to absorb carbon is impacted both if seagrass meadows shrink in size, and if certain species are lost, said Nick Kamenos, Reader in Global Change at Britain’s University of Glasgow.

Climate change

And that decline could worsen with climate change, which is already warming seawaters and increasing their acidification. 

Dr Kamenos coordinated a project called SEAMET which studied the impact of climate change on seagrasses in the Atlantic, Pacific and Indian Oceans and the Mediterranean Sea. They also tested plants in the laboratory.

The researchers found that plants respond differently to temperature rises, depending on the species and their location. But many are at risk, especially those already living at the limits of their heat tolerance, said Dr Kamenos.

Meadows in the Arctic are also at high risk, he said. This region is projected to have the fastest rate of warming over the century, and rapid acidification.

Variable temperatures are another risk linked to climate change. Plants which have been used to stable conditions for millennia are unlikely to tolerate temperatures which change from year to year, said Dr Kamenos.

The combination of rapid warming and increased variability in temperatures ‘can push some of these systems over the edge’, he said.

Acidification is another threat. It damages plants and animals with calcium carbonate structures, including tiny marine plants called coralline algae which live in seagrass meadows. These algae are important in absorbing carbon.

‘How seagrasses will respond to climate change is still not well understood,’ said Dr Kamenos. ‘But the evidence is that it’s not fantastic,’ he added.

One important way to help seagrasses cope with its impacts is to protect them from other stressors including pollution and damage from construction and boats.

The EU has set targets to protect 30% of its sea area, restore marine ecosystems and curb pollution in its waters. Globally, more than 70 countries are pushing for the UN Convention on Biological Diversity to adopt a target of protecting 30% of marine waters by 2030.

Improving their habitat will give seagrasses ‘a very small amount of extra breathing space until we can get a grip on climate change’, said Dr Kamenos.

“But that is not an excuse to be to be lethargic about acting on climate change because there… we need to act fast,” he added.

The research in this article was funded by the EU. If you liked this article, please consider sharing it on social media.

The research in this article was funded by the EU. This article was originally published in Horizon, the EU Research and Innovation Magazine.

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Introducing India’s first ever diving grant

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Mumbai-based Vidhi Bubna, the founder of ‘Coral Warriors’, India’s first ever diving grant, is a keen humanitarian and is passionate about conserving marine life. ‘Coral Warriors’ focuses on making diving more accessible to Indian citizens and raising awareness about the impact of climate change and underwater pollution on corals.

Coral reefs are the basis for the formation of other organisms and are integral to marine ecosystems. They maintain levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere and purify by absorbing toxic elements in the water. However, they survive only in specific conditions. Climate change and growing industrialization are negatively impacting the corals at a large scale. Layers of toxic chemicals in the water prevent sunlight reaching the corals, which results in severe damage. Scientists from the University of Hawaii, Manoa predict that over 70% of all living coral will disappear in the next 20 years.

In this interview, Vidhi talks about her inspirations and what it means to be a Coral Warrior.

To start with, could you summarize what Coral Warriors does?

Coral Warriors is India’s first-ever diving grant. We essentially sponsor Indian citizens to go diving; they can choose the location they want to dive at. Our goal is to get more youth involved in diving so they can see the prevalent coral damage first-hand and do something about it. Many Indians don’t know what corals are, and we’d like to create awareness as well as save the corals.

What inspired you to start this organization? Why have you chosen to focus on corals?

I am an advanced scuba diver myself and have witnessed coral damage in Andamans, while learning to dive, as well as in the Maldives. I wanted to do something about this issue because most Indians aren’t aware about marine pollution, and simply aren’t doing enough.

What sort of change does Coral Warriors strive to bring about?

The first change we want to bring about is creating more awareness about corals, so people can help protect them. We also want to see more Indians involved in adventure activities like diving. In my experience, when a child wants to learn an adventure sport, most Indian parents aren’t supportive enough as they believe these sports are risky. I would love to see that change, and support people who are unable to access enough funds to go diving.

How does Coral Warriors select the most deserving candidates for the grant?

Out of the numerous grant applications we receive, we have an independent selection committee that chooses the candidates. Sponsoring all the applicants would be unrealistic because funds are limited. The committee selects the people that are passionate about climate change as well as deserving of the scholarship. Ideally, these people would be able to bring about a lot of change- and could even be the next Greta Thunberg!

What obstacles have you faced since the organization started?

One of the main obstacles has been acquiring funding. There are plenty of organisations focused on air pollution and road pollution. Both of these are visible; thus they get more funding. Most people are unable to observe the coral degradation underwater. Hence getting funding from the public, especially in India, is a challenging task.
Coral Warriors does accept donations, and also approaches universities abroad for funding. Universities abroad are generally more aware of marine damage, and therefore are more likely to help.

How is Coral Warriors looking to spread awareness on coral ecosystems?

As far as creating awareness goes, we host free online workshops where we talk about coral damage and environmental impact. Additionally, we offer an in-depth education about marine biodiversity- one cannot even imagine the abundancy of marine life. For instance, seeing a manta ray for the first time will change your life. You would never have seen something that beautiful before.

If there were three things you want the reader of this interview to take away, what would they be?

The first thing is that climate change is very real. We should not pay heed to people who tell us otherwise. The second thing is, just because we cannot see marine life and the ongoing underwater pollution, it doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist. It is happening as we speak right now. The third thing is that as we know these things are occurring, we should collectively be able to do something about it. These are the three main takeaways I would want readers to absorb.

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The Meeting Point between Pandemic and Environmental

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Humans in the Anthropocene

Humans are born from history, on the other hand, history is born from human life. Currently, humans have been in the Anthropocene, the era after the Holocene, a time when humans were more powerful in nature. This results in an imbalance of give and take activities between humans and the nature they inhabit. With rapid population growth, human needs will also increase. This increase in human needs will have an impact on the availability of existing natural resources. Exploitation of natural products such as coal, natural gas and others, this is accompanied by waste from production and human activities that produce waste in many sectors of life. What has been exploited by humans the impact is no longer comparable to what nature gives. Although nature has the ability to self-regenerate, but with human activities that are so aggressive in this era of globalization, it defeats the natural processes of nature. The presence of factories around the world after the steam engine and the industrial revolution occurred, weapons such as missiles, atomic bombs as a means of war for fellow humans, rockets and all kinds of vehicles of human ambition to export nature, all produce residual waste that is released, resulting in a large carbon footprint. affect the atmosphere which is as a protector and temperature regulator on earth. Not to mention the mining of many other crops.

The question that may often be asked but doesn’t need to be answered is “why should humans care about all that?”

In the last 100 years, the earth’s average temperature has increased between 0.4 to 0.8 C. The ambition of the countries in the world today is 1.5 degrees Celsius, whereas humans are facing the risk of an increase of 4 degrees, which means it will be the same with the temperatures that occurred between the Ice Age and the Holocene. In other words, humans are still far behind with the rate of destruction that exists. This warming will result in the emergence of many disasters in human life. Global warming is expected to cause the glaciers at both poles to melt and make the volume of sea water increase, most likely some islands on earth are at risk of sinking, especially the Indonesian archipelago which is a young land in geological history. Not only that, other impacts will be felt on climate change, a matter of months, days, seasons. Nature which is the main benchmark for farmers, fishermen and various sectors of work related to climate and seasons will feel a prediction crisis, several regions in Indonesia experience crop failures due to the calculations they do based on seasonal calculations are no longer accurate, even though these calculations have been passed down from generation to generation. inherited. But climate change and global warming have messed up astronomy. Maybe this is also what makes the Mayan calendar (piktun) only predict until 2012.

Not only the estimated harvest season, natural imbalances also cause the spread of disease vectors from animals to humans. Until now there has been no single plausible theory that definitely and accurately explains where COVID-19 came from and how it will disappear. Research is still being done, all theories put forward by scientists can be true. But scientists who study the environment, viruses, pandemics, health have found this conundrum, which all starts with “environmental imbalance”. If we describe briefly, in the food chain there is one missing which then results in advantages and disadvantages between predators and prey. If the rice field snakes are hunted by farmers, the rats will live more, and then they will eat the rice too, eventually the farmers will fail to harvest. Likewise, the case of COVID-19, with the large number of killings of wildlife, has shifted the pattern of the food chain.

Covid 19 and the balance of nature

There are many theories that explain the origin of the pandemic that humans are experiencing now, but until now there is no definite news about where the origin and cause of the catastrophe exists. US intelligence agencies say they may never be able to identify the origins of Covid-19, but they have concluded the virus was not created as a biological weapon. Apart from the specifics of covid 19 which is a virus, whose existence can never be seen with the naked eye, a number of scientists believe that the covid 19 pandemic occurs due to natural imbalances. The COVID-19 pandemic which was determined by the World Health Organization (WHO) or world health agency on March 11, 2020, could also occur due to the interruption of the food cycle which resulted in the explosion of a component of life without a predator in the same period of time.

The SARS-VoV-2 virus is a disease that originates from animals and is transmitted to humans. It is possible that the disease originated in bats, then spread through other mammals.

Even though it is not made in a laboratory, it does not mean that humans have no role in the ongoing pandemic. A recent study by scientists from Australia and the US found that human actions on natural habitats, loss of biodiversity and destruction of ecosystems contributed to the spread of the virus.

The number of infectious diseases has more than tripled every decade since the 1980s. More than two-thirds of these diseases come from animals, and about 70% of that number comes from wild animals. Infectious diseases that we know, for example: Ebola, HIV, swine flu and bird flu, are diseases that can be transmitted from animals to humans.

COVID-19 is also spreading rapidly as the world’s population is becoming more and more closely connected. This situation that surprised many people, had actually been warned by scientists for a long time. Joachim Spangenberg, Vice President of the European Institute for Sustainability Research, said that by destroying ecosystems, humans create conditions that cause animal viruses to spread to humans. “We created this situation, not the animals,” said Spangenberg. In 2016 UNEP Frontier has been warned that at least every four months a new zoonotic disease will emerge. This is due to human activities as follows:

Deforestation and habitat destruction

because humans are increasingly opening up areas inhabited by wild animals to graze livestock and take natural resources, humans are also increasingly susceptible to pathogens that have never previously left the area, and leave the bodies of the animals they inhabit.

“We’re getting closer to wild animals,” said Yan Xiang, a virologist at the University of Texas Center for Health Sciences. “And that puts us in touch with those viruses.” While David Hayman, professor of infectious disease ecology at Massey University, New Zealand said, the risk is also increasing not only through humans entering natural habitats, but also through animals. human pet

In addition, the destruction of ecosystems also has an impact on which types of viruses thrive in the wild and how they spread.

David Hayman emphasized, in the last few centuries, tropical forests have been reduced by 50%. This has a very bad impact on the ecosystem. In a number of cases, scientists have succeeded in revealing, if animals at the top of the food chain went extinct, animals at the bottom, such as mice that carried more pathogens, took their place at the top of the food chain.

“Each species has a special role in the ecosystem. If one species takes the place of another, this can have a major impact in terms of disease risk. And often we can’t predict the risk,” explains Alica Latinne of the Wildlife Conservation Society.

Evidence showing a link between the destruction of ecosystems and the increased risk of spreading new infections has led experts to emphasize the importance of the concept of “One Health”.

Wild animal trade

Markets selling wild animals and products from wild animals are another incubator for infectious diseases. Scientists consider it very likely that the SARS-CoV-2 virus that causes the disease COVID-19 emerged in a wild animal market in Wuhan, China.

Spangenberg explains that placing sick and stressed animals in cramped cages is an “ideal way” to create new pathogens, and spread disease from one species to another. Therefore, many scientists have urged the holding of stricter regulations for the wild animal market.

That is also the call of Elizabeth Maruma Mrema, Chief Executive of the Secretariat of the UN Convention on Biological Diversity. He has called for a worldwide ban on wild animal markets. But Mrema also reveals that for millions of people, especially in poorer regions of the world, these markets are a source of income.

Indonesia’s position in the eyes of the world

Indonesia is a country with a very large tropical forest, in COP 26 it was stated that Indonesia is the last bastion of planet earth along with the Amazon and the Congo forests. save a lot of germplasm, Indonesia’s forest area totals 128 million ha. Indonesia is a country with the third largest tropical rainforest in the world. That means, a lot of germplasm stored in it. This will also be a big scourge if the vast forest cannot be maintained properly. The expansion of residential areas, planting of oil palm, clearing land and roads will destroy some of the existing germplasm. Currently, humans have lost 8% of animal species and another 22%. If Indonesia participates in efforts to reduce and destroy the environment intentionally or unintentionally, we can estimate what will happen in the future.

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