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Karen Coleman: I feel for the turf-cutters but we need to get real on saving planet

Last week's dramatic scenes of angry turf-cutters pitted against gardai in Clonmoylan's protected bogs could have come straight from a John B Keane novel. There were echoes of 'The Field' about it all, with the rural men and women fighting for their right to work their land.

The fact that the distraught Michael Darcy, whose machines were being confiscated, ended up in hospital made it even more dramatic, not to mention the bizarre burning of one of his machines last Thursday morning.

As a farmer's daughter, I sympathise with the turf-cutters, who want to continue a tradition their families have carried out for generations. Having grown up on a farm in Co Cork, I can empathise with their battle to retain rights to work on land they've accessed for generations.

But the politics of these protected bogs go way beyond rural Ireland. They have a global dimension because their survival is part of the battle to stop the environmental destruction of our planet.

The EU Habitat's Directive isn't some woolly initiative that's been dreamed up by a bunch of tree-huggers in Brussels. It's part of a European effort to protect Europe's endangered habitats from ecological destruction. The 53 raised bogs in Ireland that have been designated protected habitats are vital sanctuaries for rare and protected animals, plants and species. These range from the otter and peregrine falcon to the Greenland white-fronted goose and sphagnum mosses, rushes and bog cotton.

The peatlands are also vital carbon sinks, and their ability to absorb carbon dioxide from the air is critical in the battle against global warming. If the bogs are destroyed, then the carbon dioxide they contain will be emitted into the atmosphere.

Of course, it's tough for the people who're being told they can't cut turf on these protected bogs any more. But we cannot continue to keep exploiting the earth's finite resources just because we've been doing so for generations.

Now, let me put my hands up here and declare that I'm as reluctant as the turf-cutters when it comes to changing my lifestyle to live more sustainably. I'll happily get on a plane for a weekend trip to Barcelona or drive a couple of hundred kilometres for a visit to the west of Ireland. That kind of travelling relies on destructive fossil fuels that contribute to global warming.

That message of environmental jeopardy was brought home last week at the Rio+20 Earth Summit in Brazil. The summit ended up being a damp squib, with global leaders cowering away from adopting more robust methods to save the planet from environmental deterioration and to tackle the growing inequality between the world's rich and poor populations. Oxfam described the summit as a "hoax" and Greenpeace declared it "a failure of epic proportions".

In fact, the real work in Rio was done by environmental campaigners such as Greenpeace, which exploited the summit with typical flair. It released huge inflated balloons in the shape of polar bears to highlight its 'Save the Arctic' campaign.

Greenpeace wants to protect the Arctic from being ravaged by over-fishing and oil and gas exploration.

It is demanding the area be declared an international sanctuary and it wants a ban on oil drilling and unsustainable fishing.

Greenpeace says that in the past 30 years "we've lost as much as three-quarters of the floating ice cap on the top of the world". It ominously declares the volume of that sea ice has shrunk so fast that scientists are calling it a "death spiral".

A-list superstars, including Paul McCartney, Penelope Cruz and Robert Redford, are supporting Greenpeace's Arctic campaign. They signed up to Greenpeace's 'Flag for the Future' scroll, which it plans to put on the Arctic seabed once it gets a million signatures.

Greenpeace has set up a designated website called savethearctic.org. On its opening page, the acclaimed actor John Hurt narrates a short but powerful video. Behind a backdrop of pictures of melting ice, Mr Hurt urges viewers to enjoy the view while it lasts because the Arctic "is disappearing fast".

He warns that this year the oil industry is moving into the Arctic "so that they can drill for the oil which is warming our world and melting the ice.

"It's a vicious circle," Mr Hurt declares in elegant tones.

The Arctic is one of the world's last frontiers of untapped oil and gas reserves. Last month, a US appeals court sided with the US federal government and gave the oil giant Shell the green light to drill for oil in the Alaskan Arctic.

The World Wildlife Fund says the development of the massive infrastructure required for the drilling will destroy habitats and migration routes and lead to the erosion of ecologically sound areas, and that it will prompt further exploitation of resources in the Arctic.

There's also the danger of another ecological disaster like the 2010 Deepwater Horizon explosion that wreaked havoc on the Gulf of Mexico and caused the largest offshore oil spillage in US history. Environmentalists say that a similar blowout in the Arctic would be even more destructive, with its harsh climate making a quick clean-up impossible.

THE prospect of further destruction of this magnificent area is deeply depressing, especially when you see majestic animals like the Arctic's polar bears skating on thin ice for their survival. The fact that their perilous existence could be further endangered by the very oil companies that are producing the fuels that are warming the planet's ice caps is even more egregious.

That brings us back to the turf-cutters in Co Galway and our collective, ongoing reliance on fossil fuels.

We urgently need to cut that dependence and develop alternative sources of energy to allow our precious planet to survive the ecological destruction it is being subjected to.

That means we've got to stop burning fuel such as turf extracted from protected bogs. And we desperately need to find alternative ways of travelling around the globe without destroying the atmosphere.

Irish Independent