US Justice Department Says It Disrupted Russian Intelligence Hacking Network

Washington — The U.S. Justice Department said on Thursday it disrupted a Russian intelligence hacking network.

“For the second time in two months, we’ve disrupted state-sponsored hackers from launching cyber-attacks behind the cover of compromised U.S. routers,” U.S. Deputy Attorney General Lisa Monaco said in a statement.

The Justice Department said that a January 2024 court-authorized operation neutralized the network of hundreds of small office/home office (SOHO) routers controlled by Russian intelligence and used “to conceal and otherwise enable a variety of crimes.”  

“In this case, Russian intelligence services turned to criminal groups to help them target home and office routers, but the Justice Department disabled their scheme,” Attorney General Merrick Garland added.

Garland said the Justice Department was accelerating efforts to disrupt the Russian government’s cyber campaigns against the United States and its partners, including Ukraine.

Health Agencies Call for Stepped-up Action to Eliminate Cervical Cancer

GENEVA — Health agencies are urging governments and civil society to step up action to eliminate cervical cancer, a vaccine-preventable disease that kills a woman every two minutes, mostly in low- and middle-income countries.  

“It is the fourth-most common cancer among women worldwide. It is also one of the few types of cancer that can be prevented by a vaccine,” said Herve Verhoosel, spokesperson for Unitaid, an organization that provides affordable lifesaving health products for people in low- and middle-income countries. 

“Vaccination against human papillomavirus, the leading cause of cervical cancer, together with HPV screening and treatment, is a proven path to elimination,” Verhoosel said Tuesday in advance of the first global forum on elimination of cervical cancer. 

The forum, which takes place from March 5 to 7 in Cartagena, Colombia, is hosted by Spain, Colombia and nine leading development and health agencies. 

348,000 women died in 2020

Verhoosel said, “The forum offers a watershed moment for the world to collectively accelerate progress on a groundbreaking promise made in 2020, when nearly 200 countries signed on to the WHO’s global strategy to eliminate cervical cancer.” 

The World Health Organization, Unitaid and other aid agencies provided the statistics on case rates. The WHO estimates 348,000 women died of cervical cancer in 2020, 90% of them from low- and middle-income countries. It warns annual deaths from cervical cancer will likely reach 410,000 by 2030 “if we do not change course.” 

To put countries on the path to elimination, the WHO has set three targets: It calls for 90% of girls to be vaccinated with the HPV vaccine by age 15; 70% of women to be screened with a high-performance test by age 35 and again at 45; and for 90% of women with cervical disease to receive treatment. 

The WHO says sub-Saharan Africa has the highest cervical cancer burden globally. It notes the HIV epidemic has worsened the situation because the common HPV virus is sexually transmitted. 

Prebo Barango, cross-cutting specialist on noncommunicable diseases and special initiatives at the WHO, explains that the prevalence of cervical cancer in some countries “demonstrates the inequity of access to prevention and health care as well as social and economic deprivation” in the affected communities. 

He stressed the importance of vaccinating young girls and making access to screening and early treatment for older women more widely available. 

“It is not an either-or approach,” he said. He notes, however, that “access to screening and treatment has been very, very low because most countries have no coverage for these procedures.” 

Barriers to vaccination

The WHO reports that only one in five adolescent girls has been vaccinated against HPV, despite the vaccine’s proven efficacy. Barango explained that a key constraint related to its use is that the recommended age of 14 for receiving the vaccine “falls outside of the normal vaccination age for children.” 

Besides that, he said, “During COVID-19 there was a significant drop in the uptake of these vaccines because schools were closed” and many health facilities were focused on dealing with the pandemic. 

The World Health Organization says cost effective and evidence-based tools for screening and treatment are available. Despite this, it says barriers and inequities in the hardest-hit areas remain unacceptably high. The WHO notes that fewer than 5% of women in low- and middle-income countries are ever screened for cervical cancer. 

Unitaid spokesperson Verhoosel observed that the WHO’s recommendation of a one-dose HPV vaccine instead of the previous two-dose recommendation could prove to be a game changer. 

“A one-dose HPV vaccine opens new opportunities to reach more girls worldwide and will significantly reduce costs and logistical barriers,” he said. 

The nonprofit GAVI vaccine alliance is providing millions of low-cost HPV vaccine doses to developing countries at the affordable price of around $5.00 per dose. And Unitaid says that, together with its partners, it “has secured agreements that have reduced the price of HPV tests by nearly 40%.” 

Bangkok Says Work from Home as Pollution Blankets City

Bangkok — Bangkok city employees have been told to work from home to avoid harmful air pollution, as a layer of noxious haze blanketed the Thai capital Thursday.

City authorities asked for cooperation from employers to help workers in the city of some 11 million people avoid the pollution, which is expected to last into Friday.

The air monitoring website IQAir ranked Bangkok among the 10 most polluted cities in the world Thursday morning.

Levels of the most dangerous PM2.5 particles — so tiny they can enter the bloodstream — were more than 15 times the World Health Organization’s annual guideline, according to IQAir.

Bangkok governor Chadchart Sittipunt said late Wednesday that all city employees would work from home Thursday and Friday.

“I would like to ask for cooperation from the BMA network of about 151 companies and organizations, both government offices and the private sector,” he said in a statement, adding that more than 60,000 people were affected.

BMA is an abbreviation for the Bangkok Metropolitan Administration.

Chadchart said at least 20 of Bangkok’s 50 districts were expected to have unhealthy levels of PM2.5 particles, and the problem would linger because of calm weather.

Air quality in Thailand regularly plummets in the early months of the year as smoke from farmers burning stubble in the fields adds to industrial emissions and vehicle exhaust fumes.

Bangkok and the northern city of Chiang Mai ranked among the most polluted cities in the world on a number of days last year.

A public health crisis is brewing over the problem, with at least two million people in Thailand needing medical treatment because of pollution in 2023.

The government of Prime Minister Srettha Thavisin, which took over in August, has promised to make tackling air pollution a “national agenda,” and a draft Clean Air Act was endorsed by his Cabinet last month.

But the problem persists, and a court in Chiang Mai last month ordered the government to come up with an urgent plan to tackle air pollution within 90 days.

Scientists Create New Map of the World’s Coral Reefs

SYDNEY — Using satellite technology and sophisticated machine learning, a team led by marine experts in Australia have created new maps of the world’s coral reefs.

The scientists discovered there are more coral reefs around the world than previously documented, with Indonesia, Australia and the Philippines having the most coral reefs. 

Over 100 trillion pixels of data were examined. The result is a high-resolution map that gives fresh insight into the distribution of reefs.

The Allen Coral Atlas initiative has identified approximately 348,000 square kilometers of shallow coral reefs globally to depths of up to 30 meters, an increase from previous estimates.

Experts hope the study will allow politicians, scientists and environmentalists to better understand and manage coral reef systems.

Coral reefs face a range of threats, including climate change, overfishing and pollution.

Australia’s Great Barrier Reef — the only living thing visible from space – is also undermined by industrialization and coral-eating crown of thorns starfish.

“In Australia we, kind of, had a reasonable idea of where a lot of our reefs might have been,” Mitchell Lyons from the School of the Environment at Australia’s University of Queensland told the Australian Broadcasting Corp. “But for some jurisdictions across the southwest Pacific or Indonesia, Philippines, there were not very good, consistent maps of where coral reefs were.  I guess the advantage of having these consistent maps all over the globe is that we can start to report and account and, I guess, conserve.”

The maps are publicly available through the Allen Coral Atlas and Google Earth Engine.

The project receives funding from a company founded by the Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen and managed by Arizona State University in partnership with conservationists and the University of Queensland.

The full study was published in the journal Cell Reports Sustainability.  It states that “coral reefs possess a quarter of all marine life and contribute to the well-being and livelihoods of a billion people worldwide.”

Private US Moon Lander Launched Half Century After Last Apollo Lunar Mission

CAPE CANAVERAL, Florida — A moon lander built by Houston-based aerospace company Intuitive Machines was launched from Florida early Thursday on a mission to conduct the first U.S. lunar touchdown in more than a half century and the first by a privately owned spacecraft.

The company’s Nova-C lander, dubbed Odysseus, lifted off shortly after 1 a.m. EST (0600 GMT) atop a Falcon 9 rocket flown by Elon Musk’ SpaceX from NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral.

A live NASA-SpaceX online video feed showed the two-stage, 25-story rocket roaring off the launch pad and streaking into the dark sky over Florida’s Atlantic coast, trailed by a fiery yellowish plume of exhaust.

The launch, previously set for Wednesday morning, was postponed for 24 hours because of irregular temperatures detected in liquid methane used in the lander’s propulsion system. SpaceX said the issue was later resolved.

Although considered an Intuitive Machines mission, the IM-1 flight is carrying six NASA payloads of instruments designed to gather data about the lunar environment ahead of NASA’s planned return of astronauts to the moon later this decade.

Thursday’s launch came a month after the lunar lander of another private firm, Astrobotic Technology, suffered a propulsion system leak on its way to the moon shortly after being placed in orbit on January 8 by a United Launch Alliance (ULA) Vulcan rocket making its debut flight.

The failure of Astrobotic’s Peregrine lander, which was also flying NASA payloads to the moon, marked the third time a private company had been unable to achieve a “soft landing” on the lunar surface, following ill-fated efforts by companies from Israel and Japan.

Those mishaps illustrated the risks NASA faces in leaning more heavily on the commercial sector than it had in the past to realize its spaceflight goals.

Plans call for Intuitive Machines’ Nova-C vehicle, a hexagonal cylinder with four legs, to reach its destination after about a weeklong flight on February 22 for a landing at crater Malapert A near the moon’s south pole.

If successful, the flight would represent the first controlled descent to the lunar surface by a U.S. spacecraft since the final Apollo crewed moon mission in 1972, and the first by a private company.

The feat also would mark the first journey to the lunar surface under NASA’s Artemis moon program, as the U.S. races to return astronauts to Earth’s natural satellite before China lands its own crewed spacecraft there.

IM-1 is the latest test of NASA’s strategy of paying for the use of spacecraft built and owned by private companies to slash the cost of the Artemis missions, envisioned as precursors to human exploration of Mars.

By contrast, during the Apollo era, NASA bought rockets and other technology from the private sector, but owned and operated them itself.

NASA announced last month that it was delaying its target date for a first crewed Artemis moon landing from 2025 to late 2026, while China has said it was aiming for 2030.

Small landers such as Nova-C are expected to get there first, carrying instruments to closely survey the lunar landscape, its resources and potential hazards. Odysseus will focus on space weather interactions with the moon’s surface, radio astronomy, precision landing technologies and navigation.

Intuitive Machine’s IM-2 mission is scheduled to land at the lunar south pole in 2024, followed by an IM-3 mission later in the year with several small rovers.

Last month, Japan became the fifth country to place a lander on the moon, with its space agency JAXA achieving an unusually precise “pinpoint” touchdown of its SLIM probe last month. Last year, India became the fourth nation to land on the moon, after Russia failed in an attempt the same month.

The United States, the former Soviet Union and China are the only other countries that have carried out successful soft lunar touchdowns. China scored a world first in 2019 by achieving the first landing on the far side of the moon.

China’s VPN Usage Nearly Doubles Amid Internet Censorship

WASHINGTON — Last year, VPN usage in China nearly doubled, according to data from IT education news outlet Techopedia, this despite the country’s strict regime of internet controls of everything from overseas websites to online games.

China’s “Great Firewall” is one of the world’s most comprehensive internet censorship regimes, preventing citizens from accessing websites like Instagram, Wikipedia and YouTube, as well most major news organizations including VOA.

VPNs are outlawed in China because they allow users to jump the “Great Firewall” and securely connect to the internet outside the country while blocking their IP address.

Rob Binns, a journalist with Techopedia, said China’s increasingly strict censorship policies may explain the rise in VPN usage there.

“Looking at VPN usage versus what it’s combating, which is online censorship, we are seeing online censorship in a range of countries, particularly China, becoming more strategic and more surgical,” Binns told VOA in an interview. 

In 2021, Chinese regulators limited teenagers’ access to video games to three hours per week — from 8 to 9 p.m. on Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays — before unveiling more severe restrictions last December which set spending limits on video game platforms and banned incentives for daily logins.

Binns said these regulations on minors may particularly motivate Chinese usage of VPNs.

“With that younger demographic, which is traditionally, extremely, highly tech-literate demographic, they’re always going to be looking for ways to kind of circumvent that top-down pressure from governments and find ways to get around that,” Binns said. “And if that means turning to VPNs to circumvent that, then that’s certainly what we’re seeing.”

Analysts say VPNs empower Chinese internet users to discuss major political issues on the internet without facing governmental blowback.

“Circumvention tools like VPNs can enable people in China to access the global internet, including spaces where they can express themselves freely without fear of censorship,” Kian Vesteinsson, a senior research analyst for technology and democracy at the nonprofit Freedom House, which advocates for political freedom, told VOA in an emailed response. “During unprecedented nationwide protests in late 2022, many Chinese people used VPNs to sidestep the Great Firewall and share their views on otherwise-inaccessible social media platforms.”

Vesteinsson said access to a free, open internet potentially threatens the ruling Chinese Communist Party — hence the government’s crackdowns on internet usage.

“Circumvention technology helped produce one of the most open challenges to CCP rule in decades,” Vesteinsson told VOA. “CCP authorities responded to the 2022 protests in part by scrubbing references to VPNs from the Chinese internet.”

“People face severe consequences for using prohibited VPNs, particularly if they belong to a marginalized ethnic or religious minority or try to access content censored by the authorities,” Vesteinsson added. “The government even removes discussion of VPNs from China-based social media platforms, preventing people from learning about circumvention technology.”

Analysts expect further crackdowns could lead either to additional upticks in VPN usage or a reluctance to use VPNs, depending on how China chooses to further enhance its censorship regime.

“The exact nature of the crackdown, as well as accompanying measures are what decides which effects it is likely to have,” Antonia Hmaidi, a senior analyst at the Berlin-based think tank Mercator Institute for China Studies, told VOA in an email. “China has been so successful in managing its internet partly through making the Great Firewall work not only with fear, but also friction and flooding.”

Hmaidi adds that instead of cracking down, China could also slow the speed of all connections outside the country, which would make it more inconvenient to use VPNs, and maintain an approved list of fast connections for companies.

Pope Urges Catholics to Swap Social Media for Reflection as Lent Begins

ROME — Pope Francis urged Catholics to forgo worldly trappings and focus on essentials as he opened the season of Lent with a traditional Ash Wednesday Mass on one of Rome’s historic seven hills.

He criticized people’s tendency to lay bare their lives on social media, deploring “a world in which everything, including our emotions and deepest feelings, has to become ‘social.'”

Instead, the faithful should enter their “inner chamber” to find time for quiet reflection and prayer, the 87-year-old pontiff said in a homily.

Lent is a 40-day period of penance that leads to Easter, the most important Christian festival, which celebrates the day on which Christians believe Jesus rose from the dead.

It represents the 40 days Jesus is said in the Bible to have spent fasting in the desert. During the season, Catholics are asked to fast, remember the needy and reflect on mortality.

“Life is not a play: Lent invites us to come down from the stage and return to the heart, to the reality of who we are,” Francis said.

“Let us not be afraid to strip ourselves of worldly trappings and return to the heart, to what is essential.”

He spoke at a service held in the Basilica of Santa Sabina on Rome’s Aventine Hill, preceded by prayers in a nearby church and a procession of cardinals and bishops.

Mass goers, including the pope, had ashes sprinkled on their heads in the Ash Wednesday ritual that, for the world’s more than 1.35 billion Catholics, serves as a reminder of mortality.

Biden is on TikTok Despite Security Concerns

In an effort to connect to younger voters, the Biden campaign has joined TikTok. But while many users have welcomed the move, security experts and even legislators have expressed disapproval amid long-standing privacy concerns surrounding the use of the Chinese-owned app. VOA’s Veronica Balderas Iglesias has details from Washington. (Produced by: Veronica Balderas Iglesias)

New Delhi’s Deadly Air Pollution Prompts Some to Quit City

The Indian capital’s severe air pollution, which has failed to improve despite efforts, is prompting a small but growing number of people to leave New Delhi to escape the health hazards posed by dirty air. Many are relocating to the western coastal city of Goa, which has witnessed an influx of what are being called pollution migrants. Anjana Pasricha spoke to two families on why they decided to quit the capital. Video: P. Pallavi

Oscar Nominees From Films ‘Oppenheimer,’ ‘Barbie’ Gather for Luncheon

LOS ANGELES — The casts of “Barbie” and “Oppenheimer” gathered Monday for the annual Academy Award nominees’ luncheon along with other Oscar hopefuls coming together for photos, hugs and congratulations. 

The luncheon is a warm, feel-good, egalitarian affair where little-known first-time nominees in categories like best animated short get to rub shoulders and share tables with acting nominees like Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone. 

Greta Gerwig and Margot Robbie, whose snubs for best director and best actress, respectively, for “Barbie” caused a major stir, were both present for the nominations they did get and were all smiles before lunch. 

Gerwig, nominated for adapted screenplay, was surrounded by selfie-seekers as soon as she entered the ballroom. 

Robbie, up for best picture as a “Barbie” producer, beamed nearby as she hugged and chatted with a woman who got one of the best actress spots, Sandra Hüller of “Anatomy of a Fall.” 

The centerpiece of the event in Beverly Hills, California, is a class photo of the entire group of nominees. Nearly all of them usually attend, both as part of the Oscars experience and as part of their unspoken campaigns for votes. 

Before the luncheon began, nominees including Cillian Murphy, a favorite for best actor for “Oppenheimer,” and Da’Vine Joy Randolph, a favorite for best supporting actress for “The Holdovers,” made the rounds of media outlets whose reporters are set up in cabanas around the Beverly Hilton pool. 

Steven Spielberg, nominated for best picture as a producer of “Maestro,” chatted with a small group on the patio. 

Less famous nominees packed into the ballroom and posed for group pictures.

They’ll later be seated for a vegetarian menu of king oyster mushrooms and wild mushroom risotto.

The event is also a chance for the leadership of the Academy, including President Janet Yang to give speeches and address their prominent members in person.

She used last year’s luncheon to address what she called the Academy’s “inadequate” response to Will Smith slapping Chris Rock at the previous year’s ceremony. 

Yang’s remarks this year had a much lighter tone, and dealt with more banal matters, like the timing of the Oscars ceremony.

“In case any of you have been in a nominations haze, we are starting an hour earlier this year,” she said.

When she saw surprise around the room she said, “Ooh, some people didn’t know! I’m glad I reminded you!”

She drew groans when she added that the Oscars come on the first day of daylight-saving time. 

Biden Campaign Joins TikTok, Despite Security Concerns 

washington — President Joe Biden’s reelection campaign Monday defended its new TikTok account as a vital way to boost its appeal with young voters, even as his administration continued to raise security concerns about whether the popular social media app might be sharing user data with China’s communist government.

The campaign’s inaugural post featured the president being quizzed on Sunday’s Super Bowl — and included a reference to the latest political conspiracy theory centering on pop superstar Taylor Swift.

“The president’s TikTok debut last night — with more than 5 million views and counting — is proof positive of both our commitment and success in finding new, innovative ways to reach voters in an evolving, fragmented and increasingly personalized media environment,” Biden reelection deputy campaign manager Rob Flaherty said in a statement.

At the White House, though, national security communications adviser John Kirby said that “there are still national security concerns about the use of TikTok on government devices, and there’s been no change to our policy not to allow that.”

Kirby referred most questions about TikTok to the Biden campaign and ducked a more general query about whether it was wise to use the app at all. He said the potential security issues “have to do with concerns about the preservation of data and potential misuse of that data and privacy information by foreign actors.”

Both the FBI and the Federal Communications Commission have warned that TikTok’s Chinese owner, ByteDance, could share user data — such as browsing history, location and biometric identifiers — with that country’s authoritarian government. Biden in 2022 signed legislation banning the use of TikTok by the federal government’s nearly 4 million employees on devices owned by its agencies, with limited exceptions for law enforcement, national security and security research purposes.

Separately, the secretive and powerful Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States has been reviewing the app for years while trying unsuccessfully to force TikTok ownership to divest from its parent company. The White House said Monday the review was continuing.

With 150 million U.S. users, TikTok is best known for quick snippets of viral dance routines. But Senator Josh Hawley, a Missouri Republican, posted on X that Biden’s campaign is “bragging about using a Chinese spy app even though Biden signed a law banning it on all federal devices.”

The Biden campaign said it had been mulling establishing a TikTok account for months and had ultimately done so at the urging of youth activists and organizations, who argued that the app was key to reaching young voters.

The campaign said it was using a separate cellphone to engage on TikTok to isolate the app from other work streams and communications, including emails. The campaign said it was taking additional steps but declined to name them, citing security concerns.

White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said she wasn’t in contact with the campaign and had no advance warning that its TikTok account was going live.

Mexican Avocado Scarcity Affects Super Bowl Guacamole

MEXICO CITY — As the Super Bowl approaches, there could be problems for guacamole, a favorite game-time food in America: A lack of rain and warmer temperatures has resulted in fewer avocados being shipped from Mexico.

The western state of Michoacan, which supplies almost 90% of the creamy textured fruit for the big game, has suffered a hotter, drier climate that has led to a lack of water in growing areas.

Lakes in the state are literally drying up: Desperate avocado growers send tanker trucks down to suck up the last water, or divert streams, to feed their thirsty orchards, sparking conflicts. The state received about half the rain it normally gets last year, and reservoirs are at about 40% of capacity, with no rain in sight for months.

Meanwhile, some growers are illegally cutting down pine forests that feed the water system to plant more avocados. To top it all off, another American obsession — tequila — is starting to cause problems too.

The whole situation is not good for avocados. Last year, avocado exports from Michoacan for the Super Bowl grew by 20% to 140,000 tons. This year, that number actually declined by 2,000 tons, despite increased planting; meaning fewer of the creamy textured fruit in U.S. produce departments. Alejandro Méndez, the state secretary of the environment, estimates 30% of avocado orchards in Michoacan are now water-stressed.

Something’s got to give, and with consumers demanding more environmentally conscious produce, state officials are finally putting together a sustainable certification program.

The certification program would presumably result in growers improving their water use, enabling them to offer consumers both greener avocados and more of them.

Coming soon to a grocery store near you: fruit with a sticker saying something like “this avocado wasn’t grown on deforested land,” or “this avocado used water responsibly.”

Officials are still working on a catchy slogan for the greener avocados. But given that it’s coming from the same people who brought you years of Super Bowl ads about avocados from Mexico, a catchy slogan is highly likely.

“The idea is that there is going to be a certification sticker with a QR code that you can scan with your telephone, and that link will take you to a page with a satellite photo of the orchard … and the forest associated with the orchard,” said Méndez.

Because they use more water than pine forests, growers will have to contribute to a fund that ensures several acres of forest are preserved for each acre of orchard.

“So with that orchard, you can be assured the dollar you paid for this avocado is going to preserve this piece of forest,” said Méndez, who estimates about 70% of the orchards in place before 2011 were planted on old farmland, not forests. But the remaining 30% give the rest a bad name, he complains.

The decision to act comes not a moment too soon. The Center for Biological Diversity said Thursday that more than 28,000 people have signed an online petition calling on grocery chains to adopt more sustainable avocado-sourcing policies.

“Many people in Mexico have lost their forests and water because of the 304 million pounds [138 kilograms] of avocados we’ll be eating on Super Bowl Sunday,” said Stephanie Feldstein, the center’s director for population and sustainability. “Our obsession with avocados has a horrific hidden cost. It’s time for grocery chains to take responsibility and make sure they’re not buying avocados grown in deforested areas.”

Up to now, there hasn’t been much consumers could do. There are few certified sustainable avocados available year-round on the market, and if you want guacamole, there’s not much else you can use. That’s despite all the news coverage about how avocado growers and packers have to pay protection money to drug cartels.

Julio Santoyo, a front-line anti-logging activist in Villa Madero, Michoacan, says he’s taking a wait-and-see attitude toward the new certification program. Until then, Super Bowl this year — like every year — was “a kick in the pants,” he said.

“The growth in illegal orchards continues unabated,” Santoyo said. “We assume that more than half of the avocados consumed around the Super Bowl are from illegal planting.

“Up to now, the Mexican government has not taken practical steps to certify environmentally sustainable avocado production,” he said.

The crisis is clear in the once heavily forested, lake-dotted state. Lake Cuitzeo, Mexico’s second largest, was once a vast sheet of water reflecting blue skies near the state capital; it is now about 60% dry, exposing kilometers of dry ground and grass.

And poor Michoacan faces new threats from U.S. consumers: Part of the state next to neighboring Jalisco is certified to grow the blue Weber agave, the only plant from which true tequila can be distilled.

While agave likes drier, hotter, poorer soils than avocados, growers are still cutting down native scrub and low, thorny woods to plant the spikey-leafed seedlings, whose barrel-like centers will later be cooked down and fermented.

It’s a relatively new problem, fed by rising demand for tequila.

“In the last two years, the price for a kilo of agave went up a lot, it went up to almost 35 or 40 pesos [about $2] per kilo,” Méndez said.

“We have 50 million agave plants,” he said. “It’s grown a lot, and we have started to see deforestation as well in that area.”