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Experts: Without Proof of Ownership, Land Laws Worthless

Land laws mean nothing unless communities can prove their ownership, researchers said Thursday, calling for better tools to map the land and stave off conflict over property.

From South Africa to the Amazon rainforest, battles over land and who owns it are unleashing unprecedented conflict and labyrinthine legal cases as governments and companies seek to exploit ever more of the world’s natural resources, from trees to minerals to rubber.

With an estimated 70 percent of the world unmapped, more than 5 billion people lack proof of ownership, according to the Lima-based Institute for Liberty and Democracy.

Laws no safeguard

Speaking at the Thomson Reuters Foundation’s annual two-day Trust Conference, which focuses on a host of human rights issues, experts said the existence of laws in itself was no safeguard against abuse.

South Africa enshrines security of tenure in its constitution but the government rides roughshod over locals by promoting controversial mining deals, said Aninka Claassens, director of the University of Cape Town’s Land and Accountability Research Center.

More than two decades after the end of apartheid, whites still own most of the land in resource-rich South Africa and ownership remains a highly emotive subject ahead of next year’s national election.

“Our constitution means nothing unless people affected can prove their land rights, that’s why recorded rights are so important,” she said. “Mining is destroying livelihoods and land.”

Who owns what, where

Mapping property rights is crucial to understand “who owns what, where and how,” said Anne Girardin, land surveyor at the Cadasta Foundation, which develops digital tools to document and analyze land and resource rights information.

“That allows you to monitor changes in land resources, but also to better protect them,” she added.

More than 200 activists protecting their land and environment were killed in 2017, according to a survey of 22 countries by Global Witness, marking the deadliest year since the human rights group began collecting data.

Better and more coordinated information is needed to ward off more deadly conflicts, the experts said, citing satellite images and smartphones as tools that could document land.

Technology is plentiful but resources are scattered, Girardin said.

“It would take all the land surveyors we have 200-300 years to map the world’s undocumented land, so we need to be more pragmatic and work together,” she said.

Communities document land

Rampant deforestation means communities should rush to document their own land rather than wait for governments to act, said Nonette Royo, executive director of the International Land and Forest Tenure Facility, which helps indigenous people.

“In the world, forest area the size of Belgium disappears every year,” she said.

For Claassens, land rights should be mapped and recorded in accordance with who uses land as well as who actually owns it.

“Who uses the land? Most often, it’s women,” she said, adding that women were often excluded from property records.

Women are key in the fight for land rights from Brazil to Cambodia, often deployed at the frontline to ward off development and protect family plots, fields and villages.

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‘Perfect Time,’ Ethical Businesses Say, to Drive Social Change

Ethically driven businesses are becoming increasingly popular and profitable but they can face threats for shaking up the existing order, entrepreneurs said on Social Enterprise Day.

When Meghan Markle wore a pair of “slave-free” jeans on a royal tour of Australia last month, she sparked a sales stampede and shone a spotlight on the growing number of companies aiming to meet public demand for ethical products.

“Right now is the perfect time to have this kind of business,” said James Bartle, founder of Australia-based Outland Denim, which made the $200 (150 pound) jeans. “There is awareness and people are prepared to spend on these kinds of products.”

Social Enterprise Day

Social Enterprise Day, which celebrates firms seeking to make profit while doing good, is being marked in 23 countries, including Australia, Nigeria, Romania and the Philippines, led by Social Enterprise UK (SEUK), which represents the sector.

Outland Denim is one such company, employing dozens of survivors of human trafficking and other vulnerable women in Cambodia to make its jeans, which all contain a written thank-you message from the seamstress on an internal pocket.

Bartle said he wanted to create a sustainable model that gives people power to change their future through employment.

More companies are striving to clean up their supply chains and stamp their goods as environmentally friendly and ethical, with women and millennials, people born between 1982 and 2000, driving the shift to products that seek to improve the world.

“For-profits create the mess, and then the not-for-profits clean it up,” said Andrew O’Brien, director of external affairs at SEUK, which estimates that 2 million British workers are employed by a social enterprise. “We are an existential threat to that system, by coming through the middle and forcing businesses to change the way they do business.”

Risky business 

Britain has the world’s largest social enterprise sector, according to the U.K. government. About 100,000 firms contribute 60 billion pounds ($76 billion) to the world’s fifth largest economy, SEUK says.

Elsewhere in the world, it can be a risky business.

“I get threats,” said Farhad Wajdi who runs Ebtakar Inspiring Entrepreneurs of Afghanistan, which helps women enter the workforce by training and providing seed money for them to operate food carts in the war-torn country. “I can’t go to the provinces.”

His work has met resistance in parts of Afghanistan, a conservative society where women rarely work outside the home.

“A social enterprise can lead to sustainable change in those communities,” Wajdi said on the sidelines of the Trust Conference in London. “It can propagate gender equality and create friction for social change at a grassroots level.”

Niche? Window dressing?

There is, however, a danger that social enterprise will remain a niche form of business or become window-dressing for firms that just want to improve their public image.

“I don’t want social enterprise to become the next (corporate social responsibility), another (public relations) move,” said Melissa Kim, the founder of Costa Rican-based Uplift Worldwide, which supports social enterprises.

“To me this is just good business, and good sustainable business is not just about the environment and human rights … if you care about your relationships internally and externally you will stay in business.”

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China Woos Pacific Islands With Loans, Showcase Projects

As world leaders land in Papua New Guinea for a Pacific Rim summit, the welcome mat is especially big for China’s president.

A huge sign in the capital, Port Moresby, welcomes Xi Jinping, picturing him gazing beneficently at Papua New Guinea’s leader, and his hotel is decked out with red Chinese lanterns. China’s footprint is everywhere, from a showpiece boulevard and international convention center built with Chinese help to bus stop shelters that announce their origins with “China Aid” plaques. 

On the eve of Xi’s arrival for a state visit and the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation meeting, newspapers in the country ran a full-page statement from the Chinese leader. It exhorted Pacific island nations to “set sail on a new voyage” of relations with China, which in the space of a generation has transformed from the world’s most populous backwater into a major economic power. 

With both actions and words, Xi has a compelling message for the South Pacific’s fragile island states, long both propped up and pushed around by U.S. ally Australia: they now have a choice of benefactors. With the exception of Papua New Guinea, those island nations are not part of APEC, but the leaders of many of them have traveled to Port Moresby and will meet with Xi.

The APEC meeting, meanwhile, is Xi’s to dominate. Headline-hogging leaders such as Russia’s Vladimir Putin and U.S. President Donald Trump are not attending. Trump’s stand-in, Vice President Mike Pence, is staying in Cairns in Australia’s north and flying into Papua New Guinea each day. Australia’s new prime minister, Scott Morrison, the country’s fifth leader in five years, is barely known abroad.

“President Xi Jinping is a good friend of Papua New Guinea,” its prime minister, Peter O’Neill, told reporters. “He has had a lot of engagement with Papua New Guinea and I’ve visited China 12 times in the last seven years.”

Pacific island nations, mostly tiny, remote and poor, rarely figure prominently on the world stage but have for several years been diligently courted by Beijing as part of its global effort to finance infrastructure that advances its economic and diplomatic interests. Papua New Guinea with about 8 million people is by far the most populous, and with its extensive tropical forests and oil and gas reserves is an obvious target for economic exploitation.

Six of the 16 Pacific island states still have diplomatic relations with Taiwan, a sizeable bloc within the rapidly dwindling number of nations that recognize the island regarded as a renegade province by Beijing. Chinese aid and loans could flip those six into its camp. A military foothold in the region would be an important geostrategic boost for China, though its purported desire for a base has so far been thwarted. 

Beijing’s assistance comes without the oversight and conditions that Western nations and organizations such as the World Bank or International Monetary Fund impose. It is promising $4 billion of finance to build the first national road network in Papua New Guinea, which could be transformative for the mountainous nation. But experts warn there could also be big costs later on: unsustainable debt, white elephant showpieces and social tensions from a growing Chinese diaspora.

“China’s engagement in infrastructure in PNG shouldn’t be discounted. It should be encouraged but it needs to be closely monitored by the PNG government to make sure it’s effective over the long term,” said Jonathan Pryke, a Papua New Guinea expert at the Lowy Institute, a think tank in Sydney.

“The benefits of these projects, because a lot of them are financed by loans, only come from enhanced economic output over a long time to be able to justify paying back these loans,” he said.

“The history of infrastructure investment in PNG shows that too often there is not enough maintenance going on,” Pryke said. “There’s a build, neglect, rebuild paradigm in PNG as opposed to build and maintain which is far more efficient.”

Some high-profile Chinese projects in Papua New Guinea have already run into problems. A promised fish cannery hasn’t materialized after several years and expansion of a port in Lae, the major commercial center, was botched and required significant rectification work. Two of the Chinese state companies working in the country, including the company responsible for the port expansion, were until recently blacklisted from World Bank-financed projects because of fraud or corruption.

Xi’s newspaper column asserted China is the biggest foreign investor in Papua New Guinea, a statement more aspirational than actual. Its involvement is currently dwarfed by the investment of a single company—ExxonMobil’s $19 billion natural gas extraction and processing facility.

Australia, the former colonial power in Papua New Guinea, remains its largest donor of conventional foreign aid. Its assistance, spread across the country and aimed at improving bare bones public services and the capacity of government, is less visible. 

But its approach is shifting in response to China’s moves. 

In September, the Australian government announced it would pay for what is typically a commercial venture — a high-speed undersea cable linking Australia, Papua New Guinea and the Solomon Islands that promises to make the internet and telecommunications in the two island countries faster, more reliable and less expensive.

Earlier this month, Australia announced more than $2 billion of funding for infrastructure and trade finance aimed at Pacific island nations and also agreed to joint development of a naval base in Papua New Guinea, heading off feared Chinese involvement. It is also boosting its diplomatic presence, opening more embassies to be represented in every Pacific island state.

“The APEC meeting is shaping up to be a faceoff between China and Australia for influence in the Pacific,” said Elaine Pearson, the Australia director of Human Rights Watch.

That might seem a positive development for the region, but Pearson cautioned that competition for Papua New Guinea’s vast natural resources has in the past had little positive impact on the lives of its people.

“Sadly exploitation of resources in PNG has fueled violent conflict, abuse and environmental devastation,” she said.

 

 

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Upset by Trump’s Iran Waivers, Saudis Push for Deep Oil Output Cut

When U.S. President Donald Trump asked Saudi Arabia this summer to raise oil production to compensate for lower crude exports from Iran, Riyadh swiftly told Washington it would do so.

But Saudi Arabia did not receive advance warning when Trump made a U-turn by offering generous waivers that are keeping more Iranian crude in the market instead of driving exports from Riyadh’s arch-rival down to zero, OPEC and industry sources say.

Angered by the U.S. move that has raised worries about over supply, Saudi Arabia is now considering cutting output with OPEC and its allies by about 1.4 million barrels per day (bpd) or 1.5 percent of global supply, sources told Reuters this week.

“The Saudis are very angry at Trump. They don’t trust him anymore and feel very strongly about a cut. They had no heads-up about the waivers,” said one senior source briefed on Saudi energy policies.

Washington has said the waivers are a temporary concession to allies that imported Iranian crude and might have struggled to find other supplies quickly when U.S. sanctions were imposed on November 4.

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said on November 5 that cutting Iranian exports “to zero immediately” would have shocked the market. “I don’t want to lift oil prices,” he said.

A U.S. source with knowledge of the matter said: “The Saudis were going to be angry either way with the waivers, pre-briefed or even after the announcement.”

A U.S. State Department official said: “We don’t discuss diplomatic communications.”

The U.S. shift towards offering waivers adds to tension between the United States and Saudi Arabia, as Washington pushes for Riyadh to shed full light on the murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi in the Saudi consulate in Turkey.

“The Saudis feel they were completely snookered by Trump. They did everything to raise supplies assuming Washington would push for very harsh Iranian sanctions. And they didn’t get any heads up from the U.S. that Iran will get softer sanctions,” said a second source briefed on Saudi oil thinking.

Saudi energy ministry did not respond to a Reuters request for comment.

Since the summer, Riyadh has led the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries, Russia and other producers to hike supplies by over 1 million bpd to keep a lid on prices as U.S. sanctions were imposed.

Brent oil had surged above $86 a barrel in October on tight supply worries, but prices have since slid to $66 on concerns about oversupply.

Unexpected waivers

Trump had wanted lower oil prices before the U.S. midterm elections earlier this month. Washington gave waivers in November to eight buyers to purchase Iranian oil for 180 days.

This was more waivers than were initially expected. Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, a key Trump administration ally, wants prices at $80 or more for his economic reforms, sources familiar with Saudi thinking say.

“The waivers were totally unexpected, especially after calls to raise output. A few people are upset,” said a senior Gulf oil source familiar with the discussions among OPEC and its allies on output policy.

While the United States set a time limit for the waivers, it did not tell the eight recipients how much oil they could buy and has not eased payment restrictions, complicating purchases.

Iran’s oil exports are expected to drop sharply to about 1 million bpd in November from a peak of 2.8 million bpd earlier this year. Although output is expected to recover from December thanks to waivers, it is still not clear by how much.

Riyadh’s concern is to avoid the kind of oversupply in the market that led to a price collapse in 2014 to below $30.

But the lack of clarity about the level of Iran’s supplies makes it tough for Saudi Arabia to work out appropriate production levels, especially after Russia raised output steeply in recent months and has said it wanted to produce more in 2019.

Saudi Arabia would need to convince Russia to join in any move for new supply cuts.

“First the Saudis let oil prices rise to $86 per barrel and then flooded the market. Can they now cut back enough going into a seasonally weak time of the year? Without Russia it won’t be credible,” said Gary Ross, CEO of Black Gold investors.

Saudi Arabia must also contend with rising U.S. production that has hit record levels above 11 million bpd and is set to climb further next year. U.S. exports could surge from the second part of 2019 when new pipeline infrastructure opens.

Rapidan Energy Group said it saw a supply glut now lasting much more than just a few months in 2019.

“Now that the market has correctly priced weaker-than-anticipated Iran sanctions and much bigger inventory builds next year, we wish to emphasize that ‘OPEC plus’ officials face more than a single-year supply tsunami in 2019,” Rapidan said.

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US Envoy for Iran Warns EU Banks, Firms Against Non-Dollar Iran Trade

European banks and firms which engage in a special European Union initiative to protect trade with Iran will be at risk from newly reimposed U.S. sanctions, the U.S. special envoy for Iran warned on Thursday.

It is “no surprise” that EU efforts to establish a so-called Special Purpose Vehicle (SPV) for non-dollar trade with Iran were floundering over fear in EU capitals that hosting it would incur U.S. punishment, Special Representative Brian Hook said.

“European banks and European companies know that we will vigorously enforce sanctions against this brutal and violent regime,” he said in a telephone briefing with reporters.

“Any major European company will always choose the American market over the Iranian market.”

The SPV is seen as the lynchpin of European efforts to salvage the 2015 nuclear accord with Iran from which U.S. President Donald Trump, who took office after the deal was sealed, withdrew in May.

Iran has warned it could scrap the agreement, which curbed its disputed program in exchange for sanctions relief, if the EU fails to preserve the deal’s economic benefits.

The SPV was conceived as a clearing house that could be used to help match Iranian oil and gas exports against purchases of EU goods in an effective barter arrangement circumventing U.S. sanctions, based on global use of the dollar for oil sales.

Brussels had wanted to have the SPV set up by this month, but no country has offered to host it, six diplomats told Reuters this week.

Their reluctance arises from fears that SPV reliance on local banks to smooth trade with Iran may trigger U.S. penalties, severing the lenders’ access to U.S. financial markets, diplomats said.

Criticizing EU efforts to bypass sanctions, Hook reiterated a warning that such an EU effort sent “the wrong signal, at the wrong time.”

However, he added that waivers from sanctions granted to eight of Iran’s biggest oil importers were to ensure the U.S. measures did not harm allies or raise oil prices.

“We have looked at these on a case by case basis, taking into account the unique needs of friends and partners, and also ensuring that as we impose sanctions on Iran’s oil sector that we do not lift the price of oil,” Hook said.

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High-Level China US Trade Talks Resume

China’s Ministry of Commerce says high-level trade talks between officials from the world’s two biggest economies have resumed.  But whether or not Washington and Beijing will be able to strike a deal and avoid a looming sharp hike in tariffs on $200 billion in Chinese goods remains uncertain.

 

Commerce ministry spokesman Gao Feng says the resumption of talks began after U.S. President Donald Trump and Chinese leader Xi Jinping spoke on the phone on November 1st.

 

“Working groups [of both sides] are keeping close contact to carefully carry out a consensus that the two leaders reached during the call,” Gao Feng said Thursday.  He added that companies in both the United States and China have been affected and are responding to the trade dispute, which has triggered tit-for-tat in tariffs on goods.

 

After the phone call earlier this month, Trump said he thought the two could make a deal, but added Washington is prepared to levy more tariffs on Chinese goods if no progress is made.

 

On January 1, Washington’s 10 percent tariff rate on $200 billion in Chinese goods is set to rise to 25 percent.  Trump has also said that if the two can’t reach a deal, Washington would impose tariffs on all remaining Chinese imports, about $267 billion worth. 

 

Trump and Xi are scheduled to meet in the coming weeks on the sidelines of a leaders summit for the Group of 20 nations in Buenos Aires, Argentina.  Earlier this week, there were reports that Chinese Vice Premier Liu He, the country’s top trade negotiator would travel to Washington.

 

According to a Reuters report Thursday that quotes three U.S. government sources, China has delivered a written response to U.S. demands for wide-ranging trade reforms.

 

It was not immediately clear if the response could help bridge a wide gap between the two on trade or meet Trump’s demands for change.

 

The U.S. president has repeatedly criticized Chinese practices of industrial subsidies, intellectual property theft, the lack of a level playing field for U.S. companies in China and the trade deficit.

 

What happens next depends on Beijing’s attitude, said Darson Chiu, a research fellow at the Taiwan Institute for Economic Research.

 

“If Beijing is willing, on the one hand, to reduce the scope of unequal bilateral trade and guarantee that U.S. intellectual property rights will not be infringed upon or forced to hand over technology, there is a good chance the two can reach a consensus,” he said.

 

One way Beijing could do that is by offering to reach a bilateral free trade deal with Washington that includes all of the concerns Trump has addressed: be it currency manipulation, intellectual property rights, concerns about state-owned enterprises.

 

“That way Trump would have to accept [the offer],” Chiu said.  “And at the same time, it would help get those with vested interests out of the way and remove longstanding obstacles to reform that policymakers in China face.”

 

Chiu admits that such a solution is easier said than done and there are many with less liberal views in China.  Those with vested interests, the heads of state-owned enterprises also keep arguing that they can help China weather the storm.

 

At the very least, what the two could hope for is a sort of lowering of tensions, some analysts note.  China is willing to make some concessions, as long as the demands are not too excessive, said Shi Yinhong, a political scientist at Renmin University.

 

“China has long agreed to make concessions: import as many U.S. goods as possible and greatly relax local market access for U.S. companies.  But these may not please Trump, who wants China to fundamentally restructure its economic model and major industrial policies,” Shi said.

 

The United States could also create a monitoring mechanism to ensure China walks its talk this time, he adds.

 

Shi said that while China wants reform too, in his view, the best that could be hoped for is a trade war ceasefire.

 

What that means is the United States would suspend its tariff hike on $200 billion in Chinese goods in exchange for concrete concessions from China, including those Beijing made during negotiations in July.  At the same time, Washington is unlikely to drop its restrictions or increased scrutiny of Chinese high-tech firms, Shi said.

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Draft Brexit Deal Ends Britain’s Easy Access to EU Financial Markets 

The United Kingdom and the European Union have agreed on a deal that will give London’s vast financial center only a basic level of access to the bloc’s markets after Brexit. 

The agreement will be based on the EU’s existing system of financial market access known as equivalence — a watered-down relationship that officials in Brussels have said all along is the best arrangement that Britain can expect. 

The EU grants equivalence to many countries and has so far not agreed to Britain’s demands for major concessions such as offering broader access and safeguards on withdrawing access, neither of which is mentioned in the draft deal. 

“It is appalling,” said Graham Bishop, a former banker and consultant who has advised EU institutions on financial services. The draft text “is particularly vague but emphasizes the EU’s ability to take decisions in its own interests. … This is code for the UK being a pure rule taker.” 

Britain’s decision to leave the EU has undermined London’s position as the leading international finance hub. Britain’s financial services sector, the biggest source of its exports and tax revenue, has been struggling to find a way to preserve the existing flow of trading after it leaves the EU. 

Many top bankers fear Brexit will slowly undermine London’s position. Global banks have already reorganized some operations ahead of Britain’s departure from the European Union, due on March 29. 

Currently, inside the EU, banks and insurers in Britain enjoy unfettered access to customers across the bloc in all financial activities. 

No commercial bank lending

Equivalence, however, covers a more limited range of business and excludes major activities such as commercial bank lending. Law firm Hogan Lovells has estimated that equivalence rules cover just a quarter of all EU cross-border financial services business. 

Such an arrangement would give Britain a similar level of access to the EU as major U.S. and Japanese firms, while tying it to many EU finance rules for years to come. 

Many bankers and politicians have been hoping London could secure a preferential deal giving it deep access to the bloc’s markets. 

Under current equivalence rules, access is patchy and can be cut off by the EU within 30 days in some cases. Britain had called for a far longer notice period. 

The draft deal is likely to persuade banks, insurers and asset managers to stick with plans to move some activities to the EU to ensure they maintain access to the bloc’s markets. 

Britain is currently home to the world’s largest number of banks, and about 6 trillion euros ($6.79 trillion) or 37 percent of Europe’s financial assets are managed in the U.K. capital, almost twice the amount of its nearest rival, Paris. 

London also dominates Europe’s 5.2 trillion-euro investment banking industry. 

Rachel Kent, a lawyer at Hogan Lovells who has advised companies on future trading relations with the EU, said the draft deal did not rule out improved equivalence in the future. 

“I don’t see that any doors have been closed,” she said. “It is probably as much as we could hope for at this stage.” 

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Ocean Shock: Portugal Mourns Sardines’ Escape to Cooler Waters 

This is part of “Ocean Shock,” a Reuters series exploring climate change’s impact on sea creatures and the people who depend on them. 

A priest in a white robe swung an incense burner, leading the way for thousands of marchers as they crammed into a winding cobblestone alley decorated with candy-colored streamers in Lisbon’s ancient Alfama neighborhood. 

Behind the priest, six men carried a life-sized statue of St. Anthony, Lisbon’s patron saint, born more than 800 years ago. The musky incense swirled together with the smoke from orange-hot charcoals grilling whole sardines a few streets away. 

The procession moved along, leaving behind just the smell of the sardines. 

In this city, June is the month to celebrate the saints. Almost every neighborhood throws a party, known as an arraial. 

Some are just a scattering of makeshift tables in alleyways. Others cover several blocks and are jammed with tourists and locals alike. The saints are quickly forgotten in the din of pumping pop music, brass bands, chattering families, indiscreet lovers and flirty teens. The sardines are not. They’re the star of every party. 

The fish are so popular here, fisheries managers estimate that the Portuguese collectively eat 13 sardines every second during a typical June — about 34 million fish for the month. 

But as climate change warms the seas and inland estuaries, sardines are getting harder to catch. Just a week before the festival, authorities postponed sardine fishing in some ports out of a fear that the diminishing population, vulnerable to changes in the Atlantic’s water temperatures, was being overfished. 

In the last few decades, the world’s oceans have undergone the most rapid warming on record. Currents have shifted. These changes are for the most part invisible. But this hidden climate change has had a disturbing impact on marine life — in effect, creating an epic underwater refugee crisis. 

Effect on communities

Drawing on decades of maritime temperature readings, fisheries records and other little-used data, Reuters has undertaken an extensive exploration of the disrupted deep. A team of reporters has discovered that from the waters off the East Coast of the United States to the shores of West Africa, marine creatures are fleeing for their lives, and the communities that depend on them are facing turbulence as a result. 

Here in Lisbon, the decline of the country’s most beloved fish tugs at the Portuguese soul. A nation on Europe’s western edge, Portugal has always turned toward the sea. For centuries, it has sent its people onto the sometimes treacherous oceans, from famous explorers like Ferdinand Magellan and Vasco da Gama to little-known fishermen who left weeping wives on the shore. 

The St. Anthony’s festival commemorates a 13th-century priest who, church doctrine says, once drew a bay full of fish to hear his sermon. It is the capital’s biggest, most joyous celebration of the year. 

At the bottom of the track where two bright yellow funicular trains begin and end an 800-foot vertiginous trip through the Bica neighborhood, a social club and a local cafe set up for the festival. Mostly locals were present, though a few German and French tourists have found their way to the party. 

Four friends sat around a wobbly plastic table perched outside the G.D. Zip Zip social club. There was just enough room for others to walk past and get to the homemade grill where the sardines were being cooked. Three of the friends had sardine skeletons and heads heaped on their plates. They talked about the fish that’s as iconic in Portugal in the summer as a hamburger on the grill in America. 

This year, however, because of limits on fishing, the available fish were mostly frozen. 

“We listen to it all year round that maybe this year, we will not have sardines,” Helena Melo said. 

Fifteen feet up the hill, Jorge Rito, who has been cooking for the club every June for five years, wiped his watering eyes with the back of his hand. He’d just gotten another order and tossed a dozen whole sardines onto the grill in neat rows. 

As he flipped the silvery fish, each seven or eight inches long, a burst of smoke rose from the charcoal, and he wiped his eyes again. 

“Worried? Yes, of course,” he said, removing the fish from the grill and placing them onto a platter. “It is important for our finances, our economies, for us.” 

 

Youngest sardines vulnerable 

 

Just as the next generation of humans may pay the highest price for climate change, the youngest generation of sardines is at risk. 

Susana Garrido, a sardine researcher with the Portuguese Oceanic and Atmospheric Institute in Lisbon, said larval sardines are especially vulnerable to climate change when compared with other similar pelagic species, such as larval anchovies, which are capable of living in a wider range of temperatures. 

Deep seawater upwelling dominates the waters off the western coast of the Iberian Peninsula and keeps the coastal waters cool. But small differences in temperature, especially when sardines are young, can have a significant impact on whether the fish larva dies or grows to maturity, Garrido said. 

Other researchers had tested how well adult sardines survived in a variety of conditions, and there was little evidence that environmental variables such as food abundance and water temperature affected the full-grown fish, she said. So she focused on the larval stage of the species. 

“We did a bunch of experiments varying salinity and all of these other variables, and they survived quite well,” she said. “It was when you change temperature that everything, yes, fell apart. So they have a very narrow range of temperatures where survival is good.” 

Garrido said a recently completed stock assessment showed that the larval sardine population was extremely low. 

“This is getting very serious,” she said. 

The Portuguese sardine population started to fall about a decade ago, even though there were plenty of adults at the time to sustain large catches. And around the same time, southerly species, such as chub and horse mackerel, slowly moved in. 

Chub mackerel, a subtropical species that was once found only in southern Portugal, is now caught all the way up the coast. 

“Probably as a consequence of warming, it is now invading the main spawning area of sardines,” Garrido said. 

Larger forces at work

Alexandra Silva, who works down the hall from Garrido, has been managing the Portuguese sardine stock assessment since the late 1990s — pivotal work that the organization uses to decide the size of the sardine catch. 

When she started, the northern population of the species was in trouble following a period of strong upwelling that brought unusually cold water to the surface. The southern stock, however, was relatively healthy. And in the early years of the century, the species recovered. 

It was not to last. These days, without large numbers of larvae growing to maturity, the population is near collapse all along the coast from Galicia in Spain to the southern end of the Portuguese coast. 

All officials can do is cut down on the fishing. But larger forces, especially climate change, are now affecting the stock in ways that fisheries managers cannot control, the two said. 

Regulators have tried. 

Starting in 2004, they blocked fishing during the spring, when sardines spawn. And for a while, that seemed to work. 

Between 2004 and 2011, the stock remained relatively healthy, with landings ranging from about 55,000 to 70,000 tons, even if the population seemed to be dipping. (From the 1930s to the 1960s, and as recently as the 1980s, fishermen landed more than 110,000 tons in a year.) 

In 2009, the Portuguese proudly announced that the Marine Stewardship Council, an independent monitoring body, had designated the species healthy and sustainable. That year, Portuguese fishermen landed 64,000 tons of the fish. By 2012, however, that number had dropped to 35,000 tons, and the country lost its sustainable certification.  

Since then, fisheries managers have restricted the number of days a week that fishermen can catch sardines, as well as the size of the catch. They’ve also restricted fishing to six months during a year. 

Last year, the catch was limited to about 14,000 tons. 

Further cuts ahead

Earlier this year, the International Council for the Exploration of the Sea, a forum of scientists that advises governments about fisheries management, warned that it would take at least 15 years to restore the stock at current fishing levels.  

After the report, European Union regulators permitted fishermen along the Iberian coast to continue at the current 16,100-ton level. But it also required Portugal, which gets the bulk of the quota, and Spain to submit a plan to restore the stock in October, which may well lead to further quota cuts. 

Fisheries manager Jorge Abrantes handles landings for Peniche, a sleepy fishing town about 60 miles north of Lisbon. He doesn’t think the fishing industry is the culprit. 

For example, Portuguese government stock assessments indicated that the sardine population had decreased by 10 percent to 25 percent in just a few months. Abrantes argued that the dip clearly wasn’t caused by fishermen pulling sardines from the sea, because no sardine nets were in the water during that period. Instead, he said, there are just not enough juvenile sardines to replenish the population. 

In Peniche, fishermen Erbes Martins and Joao Dias sat among piles of nets on a bright but chilly February morning. The two 75-year-old men would have preferred to be fishing for sardines. But the fish were spawning, so they were not allowed to catch them. 

Sure, there were other fish they could catch, but it wasn’t worth it, they say. 

 

Horse mackerel, or carapau in Portuguese, one of the southerly species that now thrive all along the coast, is abundant but doesn’t sell for much at market, Dias said. 

 

“We can’t fish for sardines in October, November, December, January, February, March — six months,” Dias said. “And carapau just doesn’t pay the bills.” 

He said the restrictions on fishing sardines were keeping a new generation from going to sea, because they can’t make enough money. 

 

“When we die,” he said, “no one is going to do the work.” 

‘I would miss this’ 

Lisbon’s Graca neighborhood sits at the highest point in the capital, its pastel homes looking down over the city’s six other hills. For the St. Anthony festival, two stages were set up for music, along with about 20 temporary food and drink stalls. 

 

Luis Diogo Sr., his wife, Rita, and their two children, Luis Jr. and Vera, came out to join the party. Luis Sr. looked across a picnic table at his son, who was well into his third plate of sardines. 

“This is a country between Spain and the sea, so we went to the sea very soon in our history,” he said. The talk turned to the present, and the dwindling catch of the city’s favorite seafood. 

Luis Jr. didn’t pay much attention to his father. He was too focused on his sardines. 

 

“I would miss this very much,” the 17-year-old said, wiping his lips clean after polishing off the last sardine on his plate. 

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