Inter Press Service » Carey L. Biron http://www.ipsnews.net Turning the World Downside Up Fri, 24 Oct 2014 06:47:02 +0000 en-US hourly 1 http://wordpress.org/?v=3.9.2 Global South Brings United Front to Green Climate Fundhttp://www.ipsnews.net/2014/10/global-south-brings-united-front-to-green-climate-fund/?utm_source=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_campaign=global-south-brings-united-front-to-green-climate-fund http://www.ipsnews.net/2014/10/global-south-brings-united-front-to-green-climate-fund/#comments Fri, 24 Oct 2014 00:29:03 +0000 Carey L. Biron http://www.ipsnews.net/?p=137357 By Carey L. Biron
WASHINGTON, Oct 24 2014 (IPS)

The United Nations’ key mechanism for funding climate change-related mitigation and adaptation in developing countries is now ready to receive funds, following a series of agreements between rich and poor economies.

The agreements covered administrative but potentially far-reaching policies that will govern the mechanism, known as the Green Climate Fund (GCF). This forward momentum comes just weeks ahead of a major “pledging session” in Berlin that is meant to finally get the GCF off the ground.“One thing that was different in this meeting was the willingness of developing countries to take a stand for certain principles.” -- Karen Orenstein of Friends of the Earth

“The fund now has the capacity to absorb and programme resources that will be made available to it to achieve a significant climate response on the ground,” Hela Cheikhrouhou, the GCF’s executive director, said Saturday following a series of board meetings in Barbados.

The GCF constitutes the international community’s central attempt to help developing countries prepare for and mitigate climate change. The undertaking thus includes an implicit acknowledgment by rich countries that the developing world, although the least responsible for climate change, will be the most significantly impacted.

At the Copenhagen climate summit in 2009, donors agreed to mobilise 100 billion dollars a year by 2020, in an undefined mix of public and private funding, to help developing countries. The GCF is to be a cornerstone of this mobilisation, using the money to fund an even split between mitigation and adaptation projects.

The GCF opened a secretariat last year, in South Korea, but pledges have since come in slowly. Currently, the aim is to get together 15 billion dollars as starter capital, much of which will have to be achieved at the November pledging session.

The fund’s capitalisation did get a fillip last month, when France and Germany pledged a billion dollars each and lesser amounts were promised by Norway, South Korea and Mexico. On Wednesday, Sweden pledged another half-billion dollars, aimed at setting “an example to … other donors.”

Still, that brings the total funding for the GCF to less than three billion dollars, under a fifth of the goal for this year alone.

“The good news is that this meeting finished laying a strong foundation for the fund,” Alex Doukas, a sustainable finance associate with the World Resources Institute, a think tank here, told IPS. “It’s now nearly ready to go – but it can’t get far without ambitious pledges in November.”

Significant attention is now shifting to the United States and European Union, which have yet to announce pledges. Anti-poverty campaigners have estimated that fair pledges would be around 4.8 billion dollars for the United States and six billion dollars for the European Union.

Country ownership

The GCF now has the institutional capacity to receive the funding around which its operations will revolve, but important decisions remain regarding how the fund will disburse that money.

“There’s now more clarity on how the fund will invest, but little guidance on exactly what it will invest in,” Doukas, who attended last week’s board meeting in Barbados, says. “The board has serious homework between now and its next meeting in February to ensure that it has rules in place to prioritise high-impact climate solutions that also deliver development benefits.”

Still, some important initial headway was made in Barbados around how these projects will be defined. Indeed, development advocates express cautious optimism the new agreements will put greater control over these decisions in the hands of national governments.

For instance, projects green-lighted by the GCF will now be required to have a “no objection” confirmation from the government of the country in which the project will be based.

“If you do not have the no-objection [requirement], the funding intermediaries will be able to impose their own conditionalities, even their own programmes, on a country,” Bernarditas Muller, the GCF representative from the Philippines, said during negotiations, according to a civil society summary.

Observers say this agreement came about because developing countries banded together and pushed against demands from rich governments. (The GCF board includes 24 members, half from poor and half from rich countries.)

“One thing that was different in this meeting was the willingness of developing countries to take a stand for certain principles,” Karen Orenstein, an international policy advisor with Friends of the Earth who attended the Barbados discussions, told IPS.

“The no-objection procedure in particular is something we’ve been fighting for, for a long time. If an active no-objection is not provided within 30 days, a project is suspended – that is quite important.”

Still, Orenstein, too, worries that significant decisions have against been pushed off to future meetings of the GCF board.

“The fund still leans too heavily towards multilateral development banks and the private sector,” she says.

“It’s not that the GCF shouldn’t be appealing to the private sector, but we want to sure that the priorities are being driven by developing countries. Even though we have these new agreements, there’s still not nearly enough emphasis on having priorities be set at the country level and below.”

New development discourse

At the same time, under this weekend’s agreements developing countries will now be able to access funding directly from the GCF, rather than having to go through an intermediary. In addition, monies pledges to the fund will not be able to be “earmarked” for particular uses by the donor government.

“Traditionally, a lot of funds for climate change have been delivered through multilateral organisations. They haven’t necessarily done a bad job, but in many cases there’s a trade-off between a country’s priorities versus that of the organisation’s,” Annaka Carvalho, a senior programme officer with Oxfam America, a humanitarian and advocacy group, told IPS.

“Making sure that countries are in the driver’s seat in directing where these resources are going is really important. Ultimately, only national governments are accountable to their citizens for delivering on adaptation and investing in low-emissions development.”

Carvalho, who was also at the Barbados negotiations, says that the opportunity once the GCF gets off the ground isn’t only about reacting to climate change. She says the fund can also help to bring about a new development paradigm.

“We’ve been hoping the fund will act as a catalyst for shifting the development discourse away from the forces that have caused climate change and instead towards clean energy and resilient livelihoods,” she says.

“A core part of the fund is supposed to realise sustainable development, but there’s always this line between climate and development. In fact, disconnecting these two issues is impossible.”

Edited by Kitty Stapp

The writer can be reached at cbiron@ips.org

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U.S. Revisiting “Broken” Workplace Chemicals Regulation Processhttp://www.ipsnews.net/2014/10/u-s-revisiting-broken-workplace-chemicals-regulation-process/?utm_source=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_campaign=u-s-revisiting-broken-workplace-chemicals-regulation-process http://www.ipsnews.net/2014/10/u-s-revisiting-broken-workplace-chemicals-regulation-process/#comments Wed, 22 Oct 2014 01:05:25 +0000 Carey L. Biron http://www.ipsnews.net/?p=137309 Of the tens of thousands of chemicals thought to be in regular use in the United States today, the government’s main labour regulator oversees fewer than 500. Credit: Bigstock

Of the tens of thousands of chemicals thought to be in regular use in the United States today, the government’s main labour regulator oversees fewer than 500. Credit: Bigstock

By Carey L. Biron
WASHINGTON, Oct 22 2014 (IPS)

The U.S. government will soon begin receiving public suggestions on how federal regulators should update their oversight of toxic chemicals in the workplace.

The new information-gathering process, which began last week and will continue for the next six months, could result in the first major overhaul of related regulations in more than four decades. Of the tens of thousands of chemicals thought to be in regular use in the United States today, the government’s main labour regulator oversees fewer than 500."Many workers are currently being exposed to levels of chemicals that are legal but not safe … The process through which OSHA issues new exposure limits or updates old ones is broken.” -- OSHA chief David Michaels

“New chemicals are being introduced into worksites every year, and we are struggling to keep pace with the potential hazards,” David Michaels, the top official at the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), an office within the Labour Department, told journalists while unveiling the new request for information.

“As a result, 40 years after the creation of OSHA, thousands of American workers are still becoming ill and dying from exposure to hazardous chemicals.”

The agency is now in the early stages of what could be a landmark attempt to expand this oversight. While the current move applies solely to workers, if successful it could mark a new phase for U.S. chemicals regulation in general – long criticised for having essentially ceded control to the chemicals industry.

The key laws on chemical safety in the United States date back to the 1970s, and are almost universally seen as so weak as to be nearly worthless. Yet while momentum among lawmakers to update these laws has picked up recently, the replacement proposals have been fiercely derided by public health and environmental groups.

Now, the chemicals industry suggests that it supports OSHA’s plan to revisit its regulatory regime, though sector has ardently fought stricter regulation in the past. Indeed, one its main lobby groups intimates that current efforts are already successful.

“We share OSHA’s commitment to protect the safety of workers and to keep regulatory programs up-to-date,” a spokesperson for the American Chemistry Council, a trade association, told IPS. “Our companies have reduced their recordable injury and illness incidence rates by 80 percent since 1990.”

Yet the spokesperson also warned against government overreach.

“As the administration moves forward,” he noted, “we urge them to continue to engage stakeholders and to pursue a clear, workable approach that will focus on workplace exposures that represent a significant risk of harm and that will yield the greatest safety benefits.”

Dangerously outdated

In regulating hazardous chemicals that workers come in contact with while on the job, the crux of OSHA’s oversight mechanism is a list of what are known as permissible exposure limits (PELs). These set caps on the amount of specific airborne chemicals – for instance, formaldehyde, asbestos or lead – beyond which would be considered unhealthy.

Understandably, these figures are haggled over by public health experts, labour representatives and business owners. However, far more concerning than the specifics of the PELs is how difficult – indeed, near impossible – it has been to add new compounds to this list.

As OSHA’s Michaels noted, of the tens of thousands of chemicals in regular use in the United States today, the agency’s PELs number only around 500 compounds. Further, this list has seen almost no change since it was created in 1971, with updates or additions for only some 30 chemicals.

“Many of these PELs are dangerously out of date and do not adequately protect workers,” Michaels stated.

“As a result, many workers are currently being exposed to levels of chemicals that are legal but not safe … The process through which OSHA issues new exposure limits or updates old ones is broken.”

Any major rewrite of OSHA’s chemicals oversight could have an inordinate impact on marginalised communities across the United States. Immigrants, racial minorities and the poor are all overrepresented in a spectrum of sectors that tend to see the highest use of hazardous chemicals.

Further, while U.S. labour regulations for the most part do not extend overseas, including at U.S.-owned ventures in other counties, significant regulatory changes in Washington could have important knock-on effects throughout certain sectors.

“This process does have the potential to improve working conditions abroad,” Matt Shudtz, the acting executive director at the Center for Progressive Reform, a watchdog group here, told IPS.

“Many multinational companies have safety departments. So if they have a plant in the United States where they’re addressing these hazards, they could choose to apply that same principle across the board.”

A spokesperson for OSHA likewise told IPS: “Hopefully the updated PELs will encourage employers all over the world to protect their workers from chemical hazards.”

Selective enforcement

Shudtz’s office is strongly supporting the new moves from OSHA as well as an eventual expansion of the agency’s PELs. But he also notes that a new rulemaking process is not the only way to deal with the current problem.

The legislation that governs OSHA gives it the power to write regulations for specific hazards. But this process is significantly constrained by a requirement, from the early 1990s, that the agency engage in a cost-benefit analysis for any regulatory action.

Such an approach has been a top priority for U.S. businesses and industry, and is reflected in the warning from the American Chemistry Council quoted at the beginning of this article.

But Shudtz and others point to a “catchall” provision, called the General Duty Clause, that allows OSHA to cite a company for hazardous behaviour if there exists both general industry agreement that the behaviour is dangerous and an obvious alternative.

“In the chemicals industry there are consensus-based standards that a lot of employers follow because they protect workers fairly well. And in general, those standards are more up to date than OSHA’s,” Shudtz says.

“The General Duty Clause says that OSHA can use those consensus standards as the basis for its enforcement. Unfortunately, they rarely take that opportunity.”

This is likely due to limited resources, as companies can challenge negative citations and thus drag out the process significantly and expensively. Yet Shudtz says that strong but selective enforcement under the General Duty Claus could achieve an important goal.

“If OSHA were to choose a chemical where there’s widespread exposure and a clear standard that could be applied, and engage in a few enforcement cases and really stick to their guns,” he says, “that would send an important message to other employers that they ought to be abiding by stricter standards.”

Edited by Kitty Stapp

The writer can be reached at cbiron@ips.org

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Pressure Building on Obama to Impose Ebola Travel Banhttp://www.ipsnews.net/2014/10/pressure-building-on-obama-to-impose-ebola-travel-ban/?utm_source=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_campaign=pressure-building-on-obama-to-impose-ebola-travel-ban http://www.ipsnews.net/2014/10/pressure-building-on-obama-to-impose-ebola-travel-ban/#comments Fri, 17 Oct 2014 01:27:23 +0000 Carey L. Biron http://www.ipsnews.net/?p=137228 Children in the town of Gueckedou, the epicentre of the ebola outbreak in Guinea. Credit: ©afreecom/Idrissa Soumaré

Children in the town of Gueckedou, the epicentre of the ebola outbreak in Guinea. Credit: ©afreecom/Idrissa Soumaré

By Carey L. Biron
WASHINGTON, Oct 17 2014 (IPS)

President Barack Obama is under significant pressure to impose a range of restrictions on travellers coming to the United States from West African countries affected by the current Ebola outbreak.

Yet public health experts and development advocates warn that such restrictions would harm the already reeling economies of Ebola-hit countries in the region, and squeeze the international community’s ability to get health workers and goods into these countries.“If we get this wrong and just hunker down and hide, we will make this problem worse both in West Africa and in the United States.” -- Charles Kenny of the Center for Global Development

“An accelerated mobilisation of personnel and resources is necessary to control the Ebola epidemic in West Africa and care for patients, through the establishment of new Ebola management centres,” Tim Shenk, a press officer with Medecins Sans Frontieres, the humanitarian group that has been at the core of the international response to the epidemic, told IPS.

“For this reason, it is crucial that airlines continue flying to the affected region.”

Calls for halting flights and imposing visa restrictions have been floating around Washington since the virus’s spread caught the world’s attention over the summer. Yet these have strengthened substantially in recent days, following the confirmation of three cases of Ebola in the United States.

The first of those was unknowingly carried by a man from Liberia. He died last week after infecting two of the health workers attending to him, and the case has prompted an intense and at times vitriolic response.

“A temporary ban on travel to the United States from countries afflicted with the virus is something that the president should absolutely consider,” John Boehner, the leader of the U.S. House of Representatives and one of the most powerful figures in Washington, said Wednesday.

In fact there are no direct air connections between the United States and any of the three countries most affected by the current outbreak. Further, it would be extremely complex to impose such a ban in tertiary transit countries.

On the other hand, it would be possible to create additional hurdles for those applying for U.S. visas in West Africa. But this would do nothing to deal with, for instance, the many U.S. passport holders living in these countries, and would likewise be logistically complex.

Nonetheless, Boehner was echoing a clear tide of U.S. support for the imposition of travel restrictions. According to a poll released Tuesday, two-thirds of people in the United States would support “restricting entry” of incoming travellers from Ebola-afflicted countries.

The federal government’s response to Ebola has suddenly become a defining issue in the U.S. midterm elections, slated for next month.

Dangerous isolation

The current Ebola outbreak has now killed more than 4,000 people, almost all in Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone. On Thursday, United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon urged the international community to make available a billion dollars to allow those combating the disease to meet a target of reducing the virus’s transmission rates by the beginning of December.

In the United States, meanwhile, the public support for travel restrictions has risen by six percentage points since just last week. And lawmakers, many of whom are currently in the last stages of political campaigns, are responding.

Though Congress is currently on recess, lawmakers held a rare hearing on Ebola Thursday. By Thursday evening, members of Congress who supported some sort of travel restrictions outnumbered those who didn’t by 56 to 13, according to a list compiled by a Washington newspaper.

While those who do not support a travel ban were all Democratic, the support for such restrictions stretches across both parties.

“I’ve been struck by just how intense this political pressure has become, and the pressure is bipartisan,” J. Stephen Morrison, the director of the Global Health Policy Center at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a Washington think tank, told IPS.

“While the arguments made against travel bans have been solid, they don’t win the day with the public. Further, if the base population carrying the virus continues to grow, the threat won’t ease and neither will this pressure.”

Even as lawmakers increasingly funnel – and perhaps fuel – concern over Ebola in this country, the Obama administration remains adamant that it is not considering any travel restrictions beyond health scans and interviews at international airports.

“Shutting down travel to that area of the world would prevent the expeditious flow of personnel and equipment into the region,” Josh Earnest, the White House press secretary, told journalists Wednesday. “And the only way for us to stop this outbreak and to eliminate any risk from Ebola to the American public is to stop this outbreak at the source.”

Earnest did not reject the possibility completely, however, noting that a travel ban is “not on the table at this point.”

Yet many of those closest to the Ebola response warn that travel restrictions would be not only unfeasible but outright dangerous, exacerbating the outbreak.

“You don’t want to do something that inadvertently accelerates the economic collapse of these countries or impedes the flow of health workers and critically needed commodities,” CSIS’s Morrison says. “Our ability to get ahead of this crisis necessitates the flow, back and forth, of thousands of health-care workers and commodities.”

Indeed, such concerns have already been borne out. African Union aid workers, for instance, were recently delayed for a week getting into Liberia due to travel restrictions imposed in a number of African countries.

“It has been quite challenging over the last several months, because there have been a reduction in commercial flights … a reduction in shipping that comes into the country,” Debra Malac, the U.S. ambassador to Liberia, told journalists Thursday. “[That’s made it] very difficult to get things like food as well as supplies in that are critically needed in order to help address this epidemic.”

Devastating economies

U.S. travel restrictions could also pose significant economic risks, both to Ebola-hit countries and Africa as a whole.

“There’s a lot of air traffic between Africa and the U.S. that’s very important for trade and investment, the tourism industry, for the diaspora,” CSIS’s Morrison says. “All of that is reliant on air links, so how do you make sure you’re not kicking the pins out of those economic processes?”

Already there are widespread fears over the financial impacts of Ebola on Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone.

Earlier this week, the World Health Organisation warned that the virus now threatens “potential state failure” in these countries. Last week, the World Bank estimated that the epidemic could cost West African countries some 33 billion dollars in gross domestic product.

“If we get this wrong and just hunker down and hide, we will make this problem worse both in West Africa and in the United States,” Charles Kenny, a senior fellow at the Center for Global Development, a think tank here, told IPS.

“Imposing any kind of travel ban would tank the economy of these three countries, and that will have knock-on effects on dealing with the disease – increasing the suffering and the number of people with the disease.”

Edited by Kitty Stapp

The writer can be reached at cbiron@ips.org

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Ahead of Myanmar Trip, Obama Urged to Demand Extractives Transparencyhttp://www.ipsnews.net/2014/10/ahead-of-myanmar-trip-obama-urged-to-demand-extractives-transparency/?utm_source=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_campaign=ahead-of-myanmar-trip-obama-urged-to-demand-extractives-transparency http://www.ipsnews.net/2014/10/ahead-of-myanmar-trip-obama-urged-to-demand-extractives-transparency/#comments Wed, 15 Oct 2014 00:33:47 +0000 Carey L. Biron http://www.ipsnews.net/?p=137175 Myanmar now has three years in which to put in place a series of transparency standards and publicly report on government extractives revenues, payments from mining and drilling companies, and related issues. Credit: Bigstock

Myanmar now has three years in which to put in place a series of transparency standards and publicly report on government extractives revenues, payments from mining and drilling companies, and related issues. Credit: Bigstock

By Carey L. Biron
WASHINGTON, Oct 15 2014 (IPS)

Lawmakers here are urging President Barack Obama to put transparency in the extractives sector at the centre of an upcoming trip to Myanmar.

While the government of Myanmar has recently engaged in a series of bilateral and multilateral pledges to make its lucrative but highly opaque mining and oil and gas industries more transparent, advocates increasingly warn that officials are failing to keep these promises."The real heart of the issue for civil society in Burma is the details of these contracts. They also want to start talking about the tremendous amount of money the Burmese government makes off of these oil and gas deals, and how most of that doesn’t benefit the people of Burma.” -- Jennifer Quigley

The U.S. government has been a key sponsor in facilitating these pledges, and many now see President Obama’s visit, slated for next month, as an important opportunity to prompt legal change in Myanmar, also known as Burma. Myanmar officials are currently revising related legislation, although little is known about these secretive talks.

Supporters say reforms, particularly around public information on extractives deals and revenues, could help to ensure that Myanmar’s significant natural resources wealth is used for development rather than simply enriching businesses close to the regime.

“Despite commitments to transparency and good governance, decision-making over the management of Burma’s national resources remains largely hidden from public scrutiny … the gap between the Burmese government’s promises and its delivery is widening,” 16 members of the U.S. Congress warned President Obama in a letter sent Tuesday.

“We therefore urge you, during your visit to Burma, to call on the Burmese government to ensure provisions on transparency and accountability are incorporated into revised laws, regulations and policies governing the extractives sector, and negotiated into new contracts and licenses.”

The letter, a copy of which was seen by IPS, includes backing from both Republicans and Democrats. Last year, the United States initiated a partnership between the Myanmar extractives industry and the Group of 8 (G8) rich countries, which could offer Obama additional leverage in demanding new transparency measures.

The lawmakers’ call comes not only a month ahead of President Obama’s planned trip to Myanmar (his second), but also as a global summit on extractives transparency begins in the country’s capital, Naypyidaw. The two-day meeting of the Extractives Industries Transparency Initiative (EITI), which promotes guidelines that are currently followed by 46 countries, comes just three months after Myanmar became one of the EITI’s newest candidate countries.

Under these guidelines, Myanmar now has three years in which to put in place a series of transparency standards and publicly report on government extractives revenues, payments from mining and drilling companies, and related issues.

Just a month after its EITI candidature was accepted, Myanmar signed several dozen contracts with domestic and international oil and gas companies. Yet according to Tuesday’s letter, the terms of those contracts remain secret, as are ongoing revisions to policies overseeing the extractives sector.

“The laws and regulations governing the extractive industries are currently being revised behind closed doors, with no public consultation,” the lawmakers state.

“Drafts of the first of these new pieces of legislation contain no provisions on public disclosure of data and do not reflect any of the promises of greater transparency made by the government through the EITI process.”

Beneficial owners

The contracts signed in August were for 36 oil and gas blocks, both on land and offshore, auctioned off to 46 local and global companies over the past year. While the details of those contracts remain under wraps, until recently almost nothing was known even of these companies’ owners.

Around the country’s EITI application, an international watchdog group called Global Witness began focusing on what’s known as ultimate beneficial ownership – information on who, ultimately, controls and benefits from a company’s activities. In June, the group had such information on the companies involved in just three of the blocks.

Yet after requesting information directly from the companies, Global Witness last week reported that many more companies had come forward with these details. The companies were also asked whether any of their beneficial owners were politically powerful individuals in Myanmar.

“In total, 28 companies have now participated in Global Witness’ ownership review, and we have been provided with full beneficial ownership details of all partners in 17 oil and gas blocks,” the group says in a new report, published Friday. “This shows that businesses can and will provide such information if they have an incentive, such as protection of their reputation, to do so.”

Global Witness says the information remains unverified and that a “hard core” of 18 companies continue to refuse to provide any information. Still, the group says this corporate response has already set a surprising international example.

“Not only is this significant locally, but it puts Myanmar in the unlikely position of setting a global precedent on transparency, as it’s the first time anywhere in the world that companies have systematically declared their ultimate ownership,” Juman Kubba, an analyst at Global Witness, told IPS.

“Our findings show that companies can reveal their owners if they’re pushed to do so. It’s now up to the Myanmar government with the support of the U.S. and other backers to make that push so that all oil, gas and mining company ownership in the country is public.”

Outside the framework

Still, some worry that the recent corporate disclosure wasn’t actually carried out through the EITI framework, thus suggesting that the government’s transparency pledges remain weak. They also dispute whether beneficial ownership is of foremost importance in the Myanmar context.

“This disclosure is incredibly important on the global scale, but when it comes to Burma the real concern has never been about ownership but rather about conflict related to resources,” Jennifer Quigley, the president of the U.S. Campaign for Burma, an advocacy group, told IPS.

“This wasn’t done through the EITI in this instance, and the real heart of the issue for civil society in Burma is the details of these contracts. They also want to start talking about the tremendous amount of money the Burmese government makes off of these oil and gas deals, and how most of that doesn’t benefit the people of Burma.”

Quigley says that Myanmar’s government has long been comfortable making pledges it has no intention of keeping, and she see little prospect of that changing in the near term. Still, she says the United States has linked itself so closely to extractives transparency in Myanmar that President Obama will need to broach the subject during his trip next month.

“This is really an area in which the U.S. has married itself to the Burmese government,” she says. “So they need to be paying more attention to the fact that the Burmese government isn’t living up to its EITI promises.”

Edited by Kitty Stapp

The writer can be reached at cbiron@ips.org

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World Bank Pushes Private Sector for Major Investments in Infrastructurehttp://www.ipsnews.net/2014/10/world-bank-pushes-private-sector-for-major-investments-in-infrastructure/?utm_source=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_campaign=world-bank-pushes-private-sector-for-major-investments-in-infrastructure http://www.ipsnews.net/2014/10/world-bank-pushes-private-sector-for-major-investments-in-infrastructure/#comments Thu, 09 Oct 2014 23:58:56 +0000 Carey L. Biron http://www.ipsnews.net/?p=137095 A new road is built near Victoria Falls on the Zimbabwe-Zambia border. Credit: David Brossard/cc by 2.0

A new road is built near Victoria Falls on the Zimbabwe-Zambia border. Credit: David Brossard/cc by 2.0

By Carey L. Biron
WASHINGTON, Oct 9 2014 (IPS)

The World Bank has initiated a major call to action for private sector investors around infrastructure projects in developing countries.

World Bank Group President Jim Yong Kim on Thursday launched a new initiative, worth some 15 billion dollars, aimed at motivating banks, pension funds and other institutional investors to turn their focus to the pressing, and growing, infrastructure needs in developing countries.“Institutional investors have deep pockets – insurance and pension funds have some 80 trillion dollars in assets.” -- World Bank President Jim Yong Kim

In announcing the new Global Infrastructure Facility (GIF), Kim estimated these needs would require up to a trillion dollars of additional investment each year through the end of this decade. That’s twice as much as these countries are currently spending.

The private sector has turned away from infrastructure in developing countries and emerging economies in recent years, the bank reports. Between 2012 and last year alone, such investments declined by nearly 20 percent, to 150 billion dollars.

“Given the scale of infrastructure financing needs in developing countries, we definitely welcome an initiative like this,” Marilou Uy, the incoming director of the Group of 24 (G24) developing countries and a former bank official, told IPS.

“The private sector’s role here is especially important: to find good models to work with, so that private investment in developing countries can start to rise again and grow to levels even higher than before.”

In a surprise to many, the bank’s sister organisation, the International Monetary Fund (IMF), this week came out forcefully in favour of public spending, particularly on infrastructure. The IMF and World Bank are currently holding semi-annual meetings here in Washington.

The GIF will start a number of pilot ventures later this year, reportedly with a focus on climate-friendly projects and those that can promote trade. But it will not be financing these initiatives directly.

Rather, it will aim to turn the private sector’s attention back towards the road, bridges, energy production and other large-scale physical projects that make up the foundation of any country’s economic and social development.

“Institutional investors have deep pockets – insurance and pension funds have some 80 trillion dollars in assets,” Kim said Thursday, speaking with reporters.

“But less than 1 percent of pension funds are allocated directly to infrastructure projects, and the bulk of that is in advanced countries. The real challenge is not a matter of money but a lack of bankable projects – a sufficient supply of commercially viable and sustainable infrastructure investments.”

Fundamental bottleneck

The World Bank is hoping the GIF will function as a conduit through which major investors, together with the development institution’s own experts, can advise governments how to structure infrastructure projects in order to entice investors looking for long-term opportunities. Kim said a “massive infrastructure deficit” in developing countries today constitutes a “fundamental bottleneck” in addressing poverty, the bank’s key mandate.

Perhaps in response to past criticisms, the bank also notes that the GIF will not simply try to move as much money into these projects as possible.

“We know that simply increasing the amount invested in infrastructure may not deliver on the potential to foster strong, sustainable and balanced growth,” Bertrand Badre, the institution’s managing director, said in a statement. “A focus on the quality of infrastructure is vital.”

The GIF will focus on fostering particularly complex partnerships between the public and private sectors, known as PPPs. In anticipation of Thursday’s announcement, the World Bank Group’s private-sector arm, the International Finance Corporation (IFC), has reportedly been ramping up its PPP units around the world.

Yet the growing dependence on the private sector in development aims continues to spark concern among many development advocates and anti-poverty campaigners, who worry that the goals of for-profit entities are often at odds with the public good.

“While the bank’s new infrastructure facility is welcome, we are concerned that any sudden push into new big-ticket infrastructure deals must improve the lives of ordinary people,” Nicolas Mombrial, the head of the Washington office of Oxfam International, a humanitarian and advocacy group, said Thursday.

“Therefore, the World Bank must ensure that new infrastructure lending comes fitted with proper safeguards in place to protect the poorest and most vulnerable communities from clients that might be more interested in profit over development. We need safeguards for people and not just for investors.”

The head of the GIF, meanwhile, cautions that the initiative is still in its very early days.

“I have been meeting with civil society organisations who were really interested in engaging with us on the GIF,” Jordan Schwartz, the official in charge of the new programme, told IPS.

“Like them, we want to ensure that decisions around infrastructure investment are sensitive to a wide range of environmental, social and economic considerations, so that not only is there benefit for the poor and for economic activity generally but so the investments are sustainable. We look forward to continuing that dialogue.”

PPP worries

Concerns around public-private partnerships are particularly notable around public water systems. In recent years, private companies around the world have shown growing interest in stepping into partnerships to resuscitate public water infrastructure that has often been underfunded for decades.

The World Bank’s IFC has been a major proponent of such deals. Yet some of these have sparked powerful backlash from critics who note that water privatisation has often resulted in higher costs and inequitable service.

This week, for instance, activists in Nigeria stepped up a campaign to urge the government to pull out of discussions with the IFC around a potential water project in Lagos. They say the scheme’s details are being kept from the public.

“Around the world, the IFC advises governments, conducts corporate bidding processes, designs complex and lopsided water privatisation contracts, dictates arbitration terms, and is part-owner of water corporations that win the contracts it designs and recommends, all while aggressively marketing the model to be replicated around the world,” Akinbode Oluwafemi, with Environmental Rights Action, a Nigerian advocacy group, told reporters Wednesday in Lagos, according to prepared remarks.

“Not only do these activities undermine democratic water governance, but they constitute an inherent conflict of interest within the IFC’s activities in the water sector, an alarming pattern seen from Eastern Europe to India to Southeast Asia.”

According to World Bank estimates, public money makes up some two-thirds of PPP financing around the world today. Watchdog groups say this underscores the heavy government subsidies that these projects have typically required, especially for important improvements.

“The GIF is part of a larger, renewed push for big infrastructure, which is troubling in part because of the history of human rights and environmental abuses associated with these projects,” Shayda Naficy, director of the International Water Campaign at  Corporate Accountability International, an advocacy group, told IPS.

“But it is also troubling because even where infrastructure is a dire need, as it is in the water sector, the emphasis being placed on the private sector is leading us in pursuit of illusory solutions. At least in the case of water, the private sector is not interested in making these investments in infrastructure.”

Edited by Kitty Stapp

The writer can be reached at cbiron@ips.org

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U.S. Investigation into Illegal Timber Imports a “Sea Change”http://www.ipsnews.net/2014/10/u-s-investigation-into-illegal-timber-imports-a-sea-change/?utm_source=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_campaign=u-s-investigation-into-illegal-timber-imports-a-sea-change http://www.ipsnews.net/2014/10/u-s-investigation-into-illegal-timber-imports-a-sea-change/#comments Tue, 07 Oct 2014 00:35:03 +0000 Carey L. Biron http://www.ipsnews.net/?p=137022 Illegally logged timber seized by the Ayun villagers in Pakistan's Chitral district. A ban on trade in illegally harvested timber, wildlife and fish is omitted from the current fast-track legislation in the U.S. Congress. Credit: Imran Schah/IPS

Illegally logged timber seized by the Ayun villagers in Pakistan's Chitral district. A ban on trade in illegally harvested timber, wildlife and fish is omitted from the current fast-track legislation in the U.S. Congress. Credit: Imran Schah/IPS

By Carey L. Biron
WASHINGTON, Oct 7 2014 (IPS)

A year after a U.S. company was accused of engaging in the systematic importing of flooring made from illegally harvested timber, pressure is mounting on federal agencies currently investigating the allegations.

In September 2013, federal authorities executed search warrants of two of the offices of Lumber Liquidators, the largest specialty flooring company in the United States. The company was suspected of importing illegally logged hardwood from far eastern Russia, in contravention of U.S. law.“Illegal wood can’t hide and these products can’t be laundered as easily as they have been in the past." -- Alexander von Bismarck

Around the same time, a civil society group, the Environmental Investigation Agency (EIA), published a detailed report on the accusations, including extensive evidence suggesting that Lumber Liquidators was able to trade in this illicit hardwood through a Chinese supplier. In May, Greenpeace again questioned the company for doing business with suppliers reportedly linked to illegal logging in the Amazon.

Lumber Liquidators is currently being investigated by three U.S. agencies, and these probes are ongoing. While observers say that the complexities of such an international investigation would typically require timeframes of a year or more, in recent days green groups and others have stepped up pressure on the U.S. government to ensure accountability in the Lumber Liquidators case.

“There’s real reason to believe that Lumber Liquidators broke the law, and we’re particularly interested in this case being fully investigated and enforced,” Jesse Prentice-Dunn, with the trade programme at the Sierra Club, a conservation and advocacy group, told IPS.

“We’ve been educating our members about U.S. law on this issue, and they have been very enthusiastic. A huge number of our members are now asking President Obama to fully enforce these laws.”

On Friday, the Sierra Club announced that more than 100,000 of its members had submitted petitions warning that “many companies will not move to make their supply chain sustainable until they see strong enforcement of the law.” Similar concerns were voiced in a letter sent last week by environment and organised labour groups to the three U.S. officials in charge of the Lumber Liquidators probes.

Meanwhile, Lumber Liquidators also took fresh action last week, announcing a new sustainability policy and website. In a release, the company noted that the new policy includes DNA testing of harvested timber, internal and external lumber audits, as well as a move towards sourcing within North America and “away from regions considered to have lower oversight”.

Yet in making the announcement, the company, which has maintained its innocence throughout the past year, outraged watchdog groups by suggesting that its past missteps had been more about communications than systemic problems.

“Admittedly, we’ve been more focused on our sustainability efforts than communicating broadly about them,” Ray Cotton, a Lumber Liquidators vice president, said in a statement unveiling the new website.

Asked by Canadian reporters whether it had ever sold wood “sourced illegally in the Russian Far East”, the company says “No,” in an official statement provided by EIA. It also claims both that the EIA investigation “contained fundamental inaccuracies and unsubstantiated claims” and that the report never alleged that Lumber Liquidators had violated U.S. law.

“Lumber Liquidators’ statement is extremely disturbing,” Alexander von Bismarck, the executive director of EIA’s U.S. office, told IPS.

“Certainly that doesn’t give folks confidence in the company’s sustainability plan, if the overall focus is simply on improving communications. Rather, the first step towards substantive action would need to be taking a sober view on what has actually happened.”

In the balance

The U.S. law at the heart of the federal investigations is known as the Lacey Act, passed in 2008. It is widely seen as a pioneering piece of legislation, and one that some say is already having a global impact, including in China.

As in the allegations surrounding Lumber Liquidators, China has emerged in recent years as a major intermediary for the global wood industry, both licit and illicit. Over the past decade, Chinese exports of wood products have increased by upward of 30 percent per year.

Today, the country is the world’s largest exporter of wood products, with more than 12 percent of the global market, valued at almost 12 billion dollars in 2012. Yet that sector is also said to be one of the most opaque of any commercial market with which the United States trades.

Still, EIA’s von Bismarck says that some changes have started to take place in how the Chinese authorities are approaching the issue of illegal wood laundering. He also notes that this is what makes the Lumber Liquidators case – and the potential response by U.S. authorities, following the current investigations – so important.

While the Chinese authorities, for the first time, have started discussing illegal logging in international fora, the response has been incomplete, von Bismarck warns. This is largely because of the extent to which companies are still able to ignore laws like the Lacey Act.

“That allows Chinese industry to make the assessment that they don’t need to change their practices – because the wood is still getting in,” he says.

“So the whole situation is hanging in the balance, and the Lumber Liquidators case is a critical signal to the Chinese industry associations that are currently deciding which way they are going to go. That will decide whether, in a few years, we will have a new law of the land for the wood trade.”

While some environmentalists have started to criticise the Lacey Act, von Bismarck says the current investigation is proof that the legislation is working.

“The fact that the U.S. government is investigating a case that involves illegal logging in one country and manufacturing in another before it gets to the United States is a very positive sign for the overall efficacy of the law,” he says.

“Illegal wood can’t hide and these products can’t be laundered as easily as they have been in the past, and that could bring about a sea change in the industry. That probably hasn’t yet been digested by all corners of the global wood industry, but it will be.”

Edited by Kitty Stapp

The writer can be reached at cbiron@ips.org

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New Global Declaration “Insufficient” to Tackle Deforestationhttp://www.ipsnews.net/2014/10/new-global-declaration-insufficient-to-tackle-deforestation/?utm_source=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_campaign=new-global-declaration-insufficient-to-tackle-deforestation http://www.ipsnews.net/2014/10/new-global-declaration-insufficient-to-tackle-deforestation/#comments Fri, 03 Oct 2014 00:42:25 +0000 Carey L. Biron http://www.ipsnews.net/?p=136974 The Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) has the world’s second-largest tropical forest landscape. Here, slash and burn agriculture and charcoal are the main causes of greenhouse gases emissions. Credit: Taylor Toeka Kakala/IPS

The Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) has the world’s second-largest tropical forest landscape. Here, slash and burn agriculture and charcoal are the main causes of greenhouse gases emissions. Credit: Taylor Toeka Kakala/IPS

By Carey L. Biron
WASHINGTON, Oct 3 2014 (IPS)

Heads of state, civil society groups and the leaders of some of the world’s largest companies this week urged their peers to sign on to a landmark new global agreement aimed at halting deforestation by 2030, even as others are warning the accord is too lax.

The New York Declaration on Forests was signed last week by some 150 parties at a United Nations-organised climate summit. Outlining pledges and goals for both the public and private sectors, for the first time the declaration set a global “deadline” for deforestation: to “At least halve the rate of loss of natural forest globally by 2020 and strive to end natural forest loss by 2030.”“The 2030 timeline would allow deforestation to continue for a decade and a half. By then the declaration could be self-fulfilling, as there might not be much forest left to save.” -- Susanne Breitkopf of Greenpeace

The declaration offered one of the most concrete outcomes of the U.N. summit, and underscored new global interest in the climate-related potential of conserving the world’s forest cover. The agreement’s text estimates that achieving the goals set out in the accord could reduce greenhouse gas emissions by up to 8.8 billion tonnes per year by 2030.

Yet since the agreement’s unveiling, some groups have voiced stark concerns, particularly around the declaration’s extended timeline and weak enforcement mechanisms. Indeed, the agreement is legally binding on neither states nor companies.

“The 2030 timeline would allow deforestation to continue for a decade and a half. By then the declaration could be self-fulfilling, as there might not be much forest left to save,” Susanne Breitkopf, a senior political advisor with Greenpeace, told IPS.

“Equally, private companies shouldn’t be allowed to continue deforesting and sourcing from deforestation until 2020 – they should stop destructive practices and human rights violations immediately.”

On Wednesday, a Nigerian development group similarly called into question the declaration’s timeframe.

“The declaration seems to make those who have the capacities for massive destruction of community forests to think that they have up to 2020 to continue destruction unchecked, and unencumbered. This is dangerous,” the Rainforest Resource and Development Centre said in a statement.

“Some of these companies have the capabilities to wipe out forests the size of Cross River State of Nigeria in one year. Collectively, they have the capacity to wipe out valuable community forest areas up to the size of India in a few years.”

Instead, the centre says the New York Agreement should have put in place “definite sanctions” starting this year.

Powerful alliance

The declaration was initially endorsed by 32 national governments, though Brazil remains a notable holdout. In addition to halting deforestation, the agreement aims to restore some 350 million hectares of degraded lands by 2030.

The accord was also formally backed by 40 multinational companies and financial firms, and seeks to “help meet” private-sector goals of halting deforestation linked to commodities by the end of the decade. Separately, the Consumer Goods Forum (CGF), consisting of 400 large companies with global sales of three trillion dollars, has pledged to remove deforestation from its supply chains by 2020.

“A powerful alliance of business, governments and civil society has come together to sign the New York Declaration to stop the destruction of natural forests and to restore those that have been degraded,” Helen Clark, the administrator of the United Nations Development Programme, said in a video posted Tuesday.

“To deliver on the declaration, companies and communities are asking governments to show strong leadership in reaching a new climate agreement in Paris next year. So we invite all stakeholders to join us in this effort by signing on to the New York Declaration on Forests.”

Clark was joined in this call by the leaders of Norway and Liberia, as well the CEOs of the consumer goods giant Unilever, the palm oil supplier Golden Agri Resources and others. Major civil society voices, including the World Wildlife Foundation (WWF) and World Resources Institute (WRI), both U.S.-based organisations, likewise supported the declaration.

WRI, a prominent think tank, has called the declaration “the clearest statement to date by world leaders that forests can be a major force in tackling the climate challenge.” Further, the institute estimates that a restoration of just 150 million hectares of degraded lands could help to feed an additional 200 million people by 2030.

According to U.N. statistics, some 13 million hectares of forest are disappearing, on average, each year. While the importance of those forests is currently receiving new interest in terms of slowing global climate change, forest destruction also has major impact on the economies and survival of local communities.

In many places, illegal forest clearing is closely related to poor governance and corruption. Yet the fact remains that much of today’s deforestation is fuelled by large-scale agricultural production to supply commodities to other countries.

According to findings published last month by Forest Trends, a watchdog group here, at least half of global deforestation is taking place illegally and in support of commercial agriculture – particularly to supply overseas markets. Overall, some 40 percent of all globally traded palm oil and 14 percent of all beef likely comes from illegally cleared lands, Forest Trends estimates.

Years of inaction

As part of the New York Declaration, five European countries pledged to develop new procurement policies aimed at cutting down on the consumption of products linked to deforestation. In addition, the declaration was backed by a second agreement between three of the world’s largest palm oil companies to help protect forests in Indonesia, a major producer.

“We find it very encouraging that the biggest players in the palm oil industry globally are finally acknowledging their responsibility for the tremendous destruction palm oil expansion has and is causing,” Laurel Sutherlin, a communications strategist at the Rainforest Action Network, an advocacy group that is not planning to endorse the New York Declaration, told IPS.

“But so much time has been lost due to inaction that we are now at a point where a 2030 voluntary deadline is simply not sufficient to address the urgency of the problem. The fact is, deforestation rates in Indonesia are continuing to rise, conflicts between companies and communities are escalating, and reports of labour abuses are increasing.”

Greenpeace, too, has publicly declined to back the New York Declaration. The group’s Breitkopf points out that the agreement is weaker than certain existing deforestation accords, and thus could even dampen forward momentum.

“Most governments long ago signed up to the Convention on Biological Diversity,” she says, referring to the 1992 treaty. “That agreement obliges them to halt biodiversity loss and manage forests sustainably by 2020. Now, the New York Declaration threatens to undermine previous commitments.”

Edited by Kitty Stapp

The writer can be reached at cbiron@ips.org

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U.S. to Create National Plan on Responsible Business Practiceshttp://www.ipsnews.net/2014/09/u-s-to-create-national-plan-on-responsible-business-practices/?utm_source=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_campaign=u-s-to-create-national-plan-on-responsible-business-practices http://www.ipsnews.net/2014/09/u-s-to-create-national-plan-on-responsible-business-practices/#comments Tue, 30 Sep 2014 00:14:55 +0000 Carey L. Biron http://www.ipsnews.net/?p=136936 By Carey L. Biron
WASHINGTON, Sep 30 2014 (IPS)

The United States will begin developing a national action plan on responsible business practices, following on several years of related advocacy from civil society.

The plan will detail how the United States will implement landmark U.N. guidelines outlining the responsibility of multinational businesses to respect human rights. While the United Nations has urged participating governments to draft concrete plans for putting into practice the guidelines, known as the Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights, thus far only three countries have done so – Denmark, the Netherlands and the United Kingdom.“What we’ll expect is what we’ve seen in the past, where industry is not going to want anything that’s binding.” -- Human Rights Watch’s Arvind Ganesan

Yet on the sidelines of last week’s U.N. General Assembly, President Barack Obama for the first time announced that his administration would begin formulating such a plan.

“[W]e intend to partner with American businesses to develop a national plan to promote responsible and transparent business conduct overseas,” the president stated. “We already have laws in place; they’re significantly stronger than the laws of many other countries. But we think we can do better.”

Obama suggested that clarity around responsible business practices is good for all involved, including industry and local communities.

“Because when [companies] know there’s a rule of law, when they don’t have to pay a bribe to ship their goods or to finalise a contract, that means they’re more likely to invest, and that means more jobs and prosperity for everybody,” the president said.

A White House fact sheet noted that the plan would aim to “promote and incentivize responsible business conduct, including with respect to transparency and anticorruption.” It also stated that the plan would be “consistent” with the U.N. Guiding Principles and similar guidelines from the OECD grouping of rich countries.

Additional details on the formulation process are not yet available, though observers expect a draft next year. For now, however, advocacy groups are applauding the president’s announcement as preliminary but significant.

“This could end up being a very important step, but now we’ll be looking to see how the U.S. articulates how it expects companies to respect rights at home and abroad,” Arvind Ganesan, the director of the business and human rights programme at Human Rights Watch, told IPS.

“More importantly, we’ll be looking to see whether this process results in any teeth – mechanisms to ensure that companies act responsibly everywhere.”

Task of implementation

In 2011, the U.N. Human Rights Council unanimously backed the Guiding Principles, which are meant to apply to all countries and companies operating both domestically and internationally.

Yet thus far, formal adherence to the Guiding Principles has been only stuttering. In late June, the council called on governments to step up the process of drafting national action plans.

The United States – which endorsed the June resolution – has been a key focus for many in this process, given the overwhelming size of its economy and the number of multinational companies that it hosts.

Further, U.S. companies have stood accused of a broad spectrum of rights abuse, from extractives companies poisoning local water supplies to private security companies killing unarmed civilians. Often, of course, such problems impact most directly on poor and marginalised communities in developing countries.

The Guiding Principles mandate that governments take on the responsibility to prevent rights abuses by corporations and other third parties. States are also required to provide judicial “remedy” for any such abuse.

This is powerful language, but it remains up to governments to decide how exactly to implement the guidelines. Here, watchdog groups are less optimistic.

While Ganesan welcomes the actions by the three European countries that have developed implementation plans, he has reservations as to how substantive they are.

“Few of them have any real strength,” he says. “While they ask their companies to adopt the Guiding Principles, none of them have put together any kind of mechanism aimed at ensuring that happens.”

In the context of the U.S. announcement, then, there is a sense of caution around whether the United States will be able to put in place rules that require action from corporations.

“We are thrilled to see the United States take on this important initiative,” Sara Blackwell, a legal and policy associate with the International Corporate Accountability Roundtable (ICAR), said in a statement.

Yet Blackwell notes that her office will continue to advocate for a U.S. action plan that goes beyond concerns merely around transparency and corruption.

Rather, she says, any plan needs to include “clear action on important issues such as access to effective remedy for victims of business-related human rights harms and the incorporation of human rights considerations into the U.S. federal government’s enormous influence on the marketplace through its public procurement activities.”

Voluntary initiatives

ICAR has been at the forefront of civil society engagement around the call for the development of national action plans on responsible business practice, including by the United States.

In June, the group, along with the Danish Institute for Human Rights, published a toolkit to guide government officials intent on formulating such plans. Among other points, the toolkit urges the participation of all stakeholders, including those who have been “disempowered”.

In his announcement, President Obama appeared to suggest that the drafting of a U.S. plan would rest on participation from business entities, though it is not yet clear how companies will react. (Three major industry lobby groups contacted for comment by IPS failed to respond.)

At the outset, though, rights advocates are worried by the examples coming out Europe, where governments appear to be relying on voluntary rather than rule-based initiatives.

“What we’ll expect is what we’ve seen in the past, where industry is not going to want anything that’s binding,” Human Rights Watch’s Ganesan says.

“They’ll be happy to agree to accepting human rights in rhetorical or aspirational terms, but they will not want any rules that say they must take certain actions or, for instance, risk losing government contracts. Nonetheless, there is now a real opportunity for the U.S. government to mandate certain actions – though how the administration articulates that will be a critical test.”

Meanwhile, concerns around the potential laxity of the Guiding Principles have already led to a division among rights advocates as to whether a new international mechanism is needed. In a landmark decision at the end of June, the U.N. Human Rights Council voted to begin negotiations towards a binding international treaty around transnational companies and their human rights obligations.

Yet this move remains highly controversial, even among supporters. Some are worried that the treaty idea remains unworkably broad, while others warn that the new push will divert attention from the Guiding Principles.

Edited by Kitty Stapp

The writer can be reached at cbiron@ips.org

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Obama Mandates Climate Resilience in All U.S. Development Projectshttp://www.ipsnews.net/2014/09/obama-mandates-climate-resilience-in-all-u-s-development-projects/?utm_source=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_campaign=obama-mandates-climate-resilience-in-all-u-s-development-projects http://www.ipsnews.net/2014/09/obama-mandates-climate-resilience-in-all-u-s-development-projects/#comments Wed, 24 Sep 2014 00:32:59 +0000 Carey L. Biron http://www.ipsnews.net/?p=136839 U.S. President Barack Obama speaks at the U.N. Climate Summit 2014. Credit: UN Photo/Kim Haughton

U.S. President Barack Obama speaks at the U.N. Climate Summit 2014. Credit: UN Photo/Kim Haughton

By Carey L. Biron
WASHINGTON, Sep 24 2014 (IPS)

All international development assistance and investments from the United States will now be required to take into account the potential impacts of climate change, according to a new rule signed Tuesday by President Barack Obama.

When designing development programmes of any type, federal agencies will need to factor in climate resilience, referring to the ability of a host country or community to anticipate and prepare for global warming-related changes. Those agencies will likewise be required to encourage similar planning by multilateral development institutions.“Climate resilience is of critical importance to the 500 million smallholder farmers that provide the majority of food in developing countries.” -- Frank Rijsberman, CEO of the CGIAR Consortium

“The president is setting the right course with his executive order,” Jennifer Morgan, director of the climate and energy programmes at the World Resources Institute, a think tank here, said in a statement. “We can’t pursue development around the world without recognising the risks that climate change poses every day.”

President Obama announced the new directive at the opening of a United Nations summit on climate that brought together some 120 heads of state to discuss new commitments. There, the president also announced a suite of new “tools” and initiatives aimed at assisting developing countries prepare for the impacts of a changing climate, particularly around the sharing of scientific and weather data.

“Today, I’m directing our federal agencies to begin factoring climate resilience into our international development programmes and investments,” the president said U.N. headquarters in New York.

“And I’m announcing a new effort to deploy the unique scientific and technological capabilities of the United States, from climate data to early-warning systems … to help vulnerable nations better prepare for weather-related disasters, and better plan for long-term threats like steadily rising seas.”

The president did not announce a new U.S. carbon emissions-reduction target during Tuesday’s highly anticipated address. However, he did pledge that such a target would be made public by early next year.

Safeguarding progress

Acknowledging that those countries that bear the least responsibility for climate change “often stand to lose the most”, Obama noted that U.S. assistance for climate-related adaptation efforts has expanded eightfold since 2009.

In an executive order detailing the new mandates, also signed Tuesday, Obama warns that failure to take into account the potential impacts of climate change could “roll back decades of progress in reducing poverty and improving economic growth in vulnerable countries” and weaken the overall effectiveness of U.S. development assistance.

“Development investments in areas as diverse as eradicating malaria, building hydropower facilities, improving agricultural yields, and developing transportation systems will not be effective in the long term if they do not account for impacts such as shifting ranges of disease-carrying mosquitoes, changing water availability, or rising sea levels,” a White House fact sheet notes.

The new mandate could mean, for instance, ensuring that a new road built with U.S. assistance is engineered and sited to withstand strengthened flooding, or that a planned school is moved out of the way of forecasted rising sea waters. It could also mean increased aid focus on agricultural seeds and techniques able to withstand weather extremes, as well as data to allow for better planning by farmers.

“Climate resilience is of critical importance to the 500 million smallholder farmers that provide the majority of food in developing countries,” Frank Rijsberman, the CEO of the CGIAR Consortium, a global organisation that promotes agricultural research to advance food security, told IPS.

“It is an important step for the U.S. to announce that it will mainstream climate resilience in all its development investments – as did a number of other countries and multilateral organisations at the summit.”

A new working group, led by the heads of the U.S. Treasury and USAID, the country’s main foreign aid agency, will now come up with guidelines for integrating these considerations into federal strategies.

But U.S. development agencies are already expressing excitement about the new requirements. An official with USAID told IPS that “it is essential that, as the world’s leading development agency, USAID continue to set a high bar for building resilience into all efforts to end extreme poverty and build flourishing societies.”

An official with the Overseas Private Investment Corporation (OPIC), the U.S. government’s development finance agency, likewise called the executive order “incredibly significant”.

“OPIC is eager to take part in this administration-wide action that underscores the seriousness of the challenge the whole world faces from a changing climate,” Charles Stadtlander, an OPIC spokesperson, told IPS. “If one thing is clear, it’s more cost-effective to act now than to wait until after it’s too late.”

Low-emissions development

In recent years, OPIC has been increasingly lauded by environmentalists and development groups for its overseas investments in renewable energies. Last year, Stadtlander says, those commitments topped 1.2 billion dollars, marking more than a 50-fold increase since 2007.

For some, it is expanding such efforts, and the U.S. government’s still-nascent focus on overseas alternative and low-carbon energy sources, that remains of paramount importance.

Importantly, the new executive order requires that federal agencies “continue seeking opportunities to help international partners promote sustainable low-emissions development”. It also orders the U.S. National Security Council, within a year, to bring together federal agencies to “explore further mitigation opportunities” in U.S. development activities, and to come up with recommendations for additional action.

“An important element of this order is the mandate to continue seeking avenues for mitigation and low-carbon development,” Justin Guay, a Washington representative for the Sierra Club, a conservation and advocacy group, told IPS.

“Already important initiatives like OPIC’s Africa Clean Energy Finance programme are building a pipeline, and new loan guarantees and the private investment they’ll leverage can take that pipeline to scale.”

Guay points to a new U.S. government project, announced this summer, called Beyond the Grid, aimed at expanding renewable energies in Africa. Strengthening that initiative would now offer a key opportunity to put the executive order’s mitigation mandate into action, Guay notes.

Meanwhile, others are expressing concerns over the impact in developing countries of new resilience assistance from the West.

For instance, while President Obama and others on Tuesday inaugurated a new Global Alliance for Climate-Smart Agriculture, aimed at addressing food security in the context of a changing climate, some farmers in developing countries worry the initiative will increase their dependence on foreign interventions.

“Climate smart agriculture will lead to further consolidation of land … creating dependency on so-called new technologies,” La Via Campesina, a global group of smallholders, said Tuesday, “while ignoring traditional tried-and-true adaptive farming techniques and stewardship of seed varieties.”

Edited by Kitty Stapp

The writer can be reached at cbiron@ips.org

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World Bank Reports Major Global Support for Carbon Pricinghttp://www.ipsnews.net/2014/09/world-bank-unveils-major-global-support-for-carbon-pricing/?utm_source=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_campaign=world-bank-unveils-major-global-support-for-carbon-pricing http://www.ipsnews.net/2014/09/world-bank-unveils-major-global-support-for-carbon-pricing/#comments Tue, 23 Sep 2014 00:28:18 +0000 Carey L. Biron http://www.ipsnews.net/?p=136817 By Carey L. Biron
WASHINGTON, Sep 23 2014 (IPS)

Seventy-three countries and 22 lower-level governments offered formal support Monday for a global price on carbon dioxide emissions, including China, Russia and the European Union.

Together, these countries account for more than half of all greenhouse gas emissions, according to the World Bank, which unveiled a major new push towards global carbon pricing. Other backers include South Africa, Indonesia, Mexico and the Philippines.“If governments put good policies and carbon pricing in place, investors can help finance the transition to a low carbon economy.” -- Stephanie Pfeifer

The World Bank also announced that more than a thousand corporations and investors have recently signed several high-level statements on the issue, urging policymakers to take substantive steps towards a global price on carbon emissions.

The data comes as more than 100 government leaders are in New York this week for a United Nations-sponsored summit where governments and the private sector are to announce new climate-related commitments. Around that event, a record 310,000-plus demonstrators took to the streets in New York on Sunday, urging action.

“Today we see real momentum,” World Bank Group President Jim Yong Kim said Monday. “Governments representing almost half of the world’s population and 52 percent of global GDP have thrown their weight behind a price on carbon as a necessary, if insufficient, solution to climate change and a step on the path to low carbon growth.”

While there are several ways to impose a financial cost on carbon – including a tax, a trading system and others – proponents say any of these would bring multiple benefits. They would create economic incentives to both reduce emissions and boost the development of renewable energies, while resulting revenues could be used to finance adaptation and mitigation efforts.

Still, carbon prices have also been blamed for raising costs on day-to-day items, including food. Poorly structured carbon taxes could thus impact most immediately on the poor.

The new support builds on a public statement of backing for carbon pricing that the World Bank published in June. At that time, 40 national and more than 20 sub-national carbon taxes or trading schemes had been set up, accounting for a bit more than a fifth of global emissions.

On Monday, Kim also announced a new public- and private-sector grouping, the Carbon Pricing Leadership Coalition, that will begin meeting to “advance carbon pricing solutions” in advance of widely anticipated negotiations next year in Paris. There, the global community is expected to agree on a new framework for responding to climate change.

“Carbon pricing if expanded to this scale and then globally has the potential to bring down emissions in a way that supports clean energy and low-carbon growth while giving businesses the flexibility to innovate and find the most efficient choices,” the World Bank noted in a feature story on the new initiatives Monday. “This is a wake-up moment.”

Investor energy

Of course, government representatives have been meeting to discuss options around combating climate change for decades, and there is near universal agreement today that actions taken thus far have not been commensurate with the threat.

Further, market-based schemes such as carbon pricing would only offer a partial solution. Yet even so, the World Bank’s new list of supporters doesn’t include some of the most important players, including the United States and India.

The current phase in the climate discussion is nonetheless distinctive for the new corporate support for some sort of global action around climate change, particularly for a broad price on carbon. Just in the past few days, a series of major calls to action have been made by multinational companies and some of the world’s largest institutional investors.

“Support for carbon pricing among the investor community is greater than it’s ever been,” Stephanie Pfeifer, chief executive of the Institutional Investors Group on Climate Change (IIGCC), told IPS.

“Climate change puts the investments and savings of million of people at risk. Investors support ambitious action on climate change and a strong carbon price to reduce these risks and to unlock capital for low carbon investments.”

The London-based IIGCC was involved in developing a major statement from global investors on climate change. The most recent version, released last week, included nearly 350 signatories representing some 24 trillion dollars in assets, and called for carbon pricing, greater support for renewable energy and efficiency, and the phasing out of fossil fuel subsidies.

“Investors are willing and able to invest in low carbon energy,” Pfeifer says. “If governments put good policies and carbon pricing in place, investors can help finance the transition to a low carbon economy.”

Environment and economy

The newly stepped-up interest around climate change on the part of corporate executives and investors underscores a strengthening understanding of climate issues as posing threats beyond the environmental. Increasingly, corporations are being forced to explain to their shareholders how climate change and related regulation could impact on their underlying finances – and how prepared they are for that eventuality.

Last week, a widely discussed study found that many of the world’s largest companies, including the oil giant ExxonMobil and financial services firm Goldman Sachs, are already incorporating internal carbon prices into their financial planning and risk management. “[M]ajor corporations not only recognize climate-related regulatory risks and opportunities, but also are proactively planning for them and are outpacing their governments in thinking ahead,” the report found.

Some proponents say this engagement by the private sector could now provide key energy ahead of the Paris climate negotiations next year.

“These are vast and marked changes, and very different from any other time I can remember. The level of interest on the part of the private sector is radically different than it was even five years ago,” Mindy Lubber, the president of Ceres, a U.S. coalition of investors and others focused on sustainability, told IPS.

“It goes without saying that financial and corporate leaders calling for action does change the debate. It moves the discussion from one of the environment versus the economy to one about both.”

Still, some are concerned that the new focus on the private sector’s role in addressing climate change, including at this week’s U.N. summit, is inverting the proper role of government and state regulation.

“We’re increasingly seeing the private sector telling government how companies can be supported on energy and climate issues,” Janet Redman, director of the Climate Policy Program at the Institute for Policy Studies, a Washington think tank, told IPS.

“That’s a perversion, with public sector energy going into supporting the private sector. Instead, the public sector has to set goals and a framework for how we all need to act, both individuals and the private sector.”

Edited by Kitty Stapp

The writer can be reached at cbiron@ips.org

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New Fund to Build on “Unprecedented Convergence” Around Land Rightshttp://www.ipsnews.net/2014/09/new-fund-to-build-on-unprecedented-convergence-around-land-rights/?utm_source=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_campaign=new-fund-to-build-on-unprecedented-convergence-around-land-rights http://www.ipsnews.net/2014/09/new-fund-to-build-on-unprecedented-convergence-around-land-rights/#comments Thu, 18 Sep 2014 23:53:18 +0000 Carey L. Biron http://www.ipsnews.net/?p=136732 Paraguayan Indians fight to enforce collective ownership of their land at the Inter-American Court. Credit: Milagros Salazar/IPS

Paraguayan Indians fight to enforce collective ownership of their land at the Inter-American Court. Credit: Milagros Salazar/IPS

By Carey L. Biron
WASHINGTON, Sep 18 2014 (IPS)

Starting next year, a new grant-making initiative will aim to fill what organisers say has been a longstanding gap in international coordination and funding around the recognition of community land rights.

The project could provide major financial and technical support to indigenous groups and forest communities struggling to solidify their claims to traditional lands. Proponents say substantive action around land tenure would reduce growing levels of conflict around extractives projects and land development, and provide a potent new tool in the fight against global climate change.“Yes, the forests and other non-industrialised land hold value. But we must also value the rights of those who inhabit these areas and are stewards of the natural resources they contain." -- Victoria Tauli-Corpuz

The new body, the International Land and Forest Tenure Facility, is being spearheaded by the Rights and Resources Initiative (RRI), a Washington-based coalition, though the fund will be an independent institution. The Swedish government is expected to formally announce the project’s initial funding, some 15 million dollars, at next week’s U.N. climate summit in New York.

“The lack of clear rights to own and use land affects the livelihoods of millions of forest-dwellers and has also encouraged widespread illegal logging and forest loss,” Charlotte Petri Gornitzka, the director general of the Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency, said Wednesday.

“Establishing clear and secure community land rights will enable sustainable economic development, lessen the impacts of climate change and is a prerequisite for much needed sustainable investments.”

As Gornitzka indicates, recent research has found that lands under strong community oversight experience far lower rates of deforestation than those controlled by either government or private sector entities. In turn, intact forests can have a huge dampening effect on spiking emissions of carbon dioxide.

This is a potential that supporters think they can now use to foster broader action on longstanding concerns around land tenure.

Governments claim three-quarters

National governments and international agencies and mechanisms have paid some important attention to tenure-related concerns. But not only have these slowed in recent years, development groups say such efforts have not been adequately comprehensive.

“There is today an unprecedented convergence of demand and support for this issue, from governments, private investors and local people. But there remains no dedicated instrument for supporting community land rights,” Andy White, RRI’s coordinator, told IPS.

“The World Bank, the United Nations and others dabble in this issue, yet there has been no central focus to mobilise, coordinate or facilitate the sharing of lessons. And, importantly, there’s been no entity to dedicate project financing in a strategic manner.”

According to a study released Wednesday by RRI and Tebtebba, an indigenous rights group based in the Philippines, initiatives around land tenure by donors and multilaterals have generally been too narrowly tailored. While the World Bank has been a primary multilateral actor on the issue, for instance, over the past decade the bank’s land tenure programmes have devoted just six percent of funding to establishing community forest rights.

“Much of the historical and existing donor support for securing tenure has focused on individual rights, urban areas, and agricultural lands, and is inadequate to meet the current demand from multiple stakeholders for secure community tenure,” the report states.

“[T]he amount of capital invested in implementing community tenure reform initiatives must be increased, and more targeted and strategic instruments established.”

As of last year, indigenous and local communities had some kind of control over around 513 million hectares of forests. Yet governments continue to administer or claim ownership over nearly three-quarters of the world’s forests, particularly in poor and middle-income countries.

From 2002 to 2013, 24 new legal provisions were put in place to strengthen some form of community control over forests, according to RRI. Yet just six of these have been passed since 2008, and those put in place recently have been relatively weaker.

Advocates say recent global trends, coupled with a lack of major action from international players, have simply been too much for many developing countries to resist moving aggressively to exploit available natural resources.

“Yes, the forests and other non-industrialised land hold value,” Victoria Tauli-Corpuz, the United Nations’ special rapporteur on indigenous peoples and a member of the advisory group for the International Land and Forest Tenure Facility, said in a statement.

“But we must also value the rights of those who inhabit these areas and are stewards of the natural resources they contain. Failure to do so has resulted in much of the local conflict plaguing economic development today.”

Unmapped and contested

Experts say the majority of the world’s rural lands remain both unmapped and contested. Thus, the formalisation of land tenure requires not only political will but also significant funding.

While new technologies have made the painstaking process of mapping community lands cheaper and more accessible, clarifying indigenous rights in India and Indonesia could cost upwards of 500 million dollars each, according to new data.

Until it is fully up and running by the end of 2015, the new International Land and Forest Tenure Facility will operate on the Swedish grant, with funding from other governments in the works. That will allow the group to start up a half-dozen pilot projects, likely in Indonesia, Cameroon, Peru and Colombia, to begin early next year.

Each of these countries is facing major threats to its forests. Peru, for instance, has leased out nearly two-thirds of its Amazonian forests for oil and gas exploration – concessions that overlap with at least 70 percent of the country’s indigenous communities.

“If we don’t address this issue we’ll continue to bump into conflicts every time we want to extract resources or develop land,” RRI’s White says.

“This has been a problem simmering on the back burner for decades, but now it’s reached the point that the penetration of global capital into remote rural areas to secure the commodities we all need has reached a point where conflict is breaking out all over.”

The private sector will also play an important role in the International land and Forest Tenure Facility, with key multinational companies sitting on its advisory board. But at the outset, corporate money will not be funding the operation.

Rather, White says, companies will help in the shaping of new business models.

“The private sector is driving much of this damage today, but these companies are also facing tremendous reputational and financial risks if they invest in places with poor land rights,” he says.

“That growing recognition by private investors is one of the most important shifts taking place today. Companies cannot meet their own growth projections as well as their social and environmental pledges if they don’t proactively engage around clarifying local land rights.”

Edited by Kitty Stapp

The writer can be reached at cbiron@ips.org

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World Bank Tribunal Weighs Final Arguments in El Salvador Mining Disputehttp://www.ipsnews.net/2014/09/world-bank-tribunal-weighs-final-arguments-in-el-salvador-mining-dispute/?utm_source=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_campaign=world-bank-tribunal-weighs-final-arguments-in-el-salvador-mining-dispute http://www.ipsnews.net/2014/09/world-bank-tribunal-weighs-final-arguments-in-el-salvador-mining-dispute/#comments Tue, 16 Sep 2014 00:05:17 +0000 Carey L. Biron http://www.ipsnews.net/?p=136639 By Carey L. Biron
WASHINGTON, Sep 16 2014 (IPS)

A multilateral arbitration panel here began final hearings Monday in a contentious and long-running dispute between an international mining company and the government of El Salvador.

An Australian mining company, OceanaGold, is suing the Salvadoran government for refusing to grant it a gold-mining permit that has been pending for much of the past decade. El Salvador, meanwhile, cites national laws and policies aimed at safeguarding human and environmental health, and says the project would threaten the country’s water supply.“This mining process would use some really poisonous substances – cyanide, arsenic – that would destroy the environment. Ultimately, the people suffer the consequences." -- Father Eric Lopez

The country also claims that OceanaGold has failed to comply with basic requirements for any gold-mining permitting. Further, in 2012, El Salvador announced that it would continue a moratorium on all mining projects in the country.

Yet using a controversial provision in a free trade agreement, OceanaGold has been able to sue El Salvador for profits – more than 300 million dollars – that the company says it would have made at the goldmine. The case is being heard before the International Centre for the Settlement of Investment Disputes (ICSID), an obscure tribunal housed in the Washington offices of the World Bank Group.

“The case threatens the sovereignty and self-determination” of El Salvador’s people, Hector Berrios, coordinator of MUFRAS-32, a member of the Salvadoran National Roundtable against Metallic Mining, said Monday in a statement. “The majority of the population has spoken out against this project and [has given its] priority to water.”

The OceanaGold project would involve a leaching process to recover small amounts of gold, using cyanide and, critics say, tremendous amounts of water. Those plans have made local communities anxious: the United Nations has already found that some 90 percent of El Salvador’s surface water is contaminated.

On Monday, a hundred demonstrators rallied in front of the World Bank building, both to show solidarity with El Salvador against OceanaGold and to express their scepticism of the ICSID process more generally. The events coincided with El Salvador’s Independence Day.

“We’re celebrating independence but what we’re really celebrating is dignity and the ability of every person to enjoy a good life, not only a few,” Father Eric Lopez, a Franciscan friar at a Washington-area church that caters to a sizable Salvadoran community, told IPS at the demonstration.

“This mining process would use some really poisonous substances – cyanide, arsenic – that would destroy the environment. Ultimately, the people suffer the consequences: they remain poor, they are sick, women’s pregnancies suffer.”

Provoking unrest?

The case’s jurisdictions are complicated and, for some, underscore the tenuousness of the ICSID’s arbitration process around the Salvador project.

It was another mining company, the Canada-based Pacific Rim, that originally discovered a potentially lucrative minerals deposit along the Lempa River in 2002. The business-friendly Salvadoran government at the time (since voted out of power) reportedly encouraged the company to apply for a permit, though public concern bogged down that process.

Frustrated by this turn of events, Pacific Rim filed a lawsuit against El Salvador under a provision of the Dominican Republic-Central American Free Trade Agreement (DR-CAFTA) that allowed companies to sue governments for impinging on their profits. While Canada, Pacific Rim’s home country, is not a member of DR-CAFTA, in 2009 the company created a subsidiary in the United States, which is.

In 2012, ICSID ruled that the lawsuit could continue, pointing to a provision in El Salvador’s investment law. The country’s laws have since been altered to prevent companies from circumventing the national judicial system in favour of extra-national arbiters like ICSID.

Last year, OceanaGold purchased Pacific Rim, despite the latter’s primary asset being the El Salvador gold-mining project, which has never been allowed to go forward. Although OceanaGold did not respond to a request for comment for this story, last year the company noted that it would continue with the arbitration case while also seeking “a negotiated resolution to the … permitting impasse”.

For its part, the Salvadoran government says it has halted the permitting process not only over environmental and health concerns but also over procedural matters. While these include Pacific Rim’s failure to abide by certain reporting requirements, the company also appears not to have gained important local approvals.

Under Salvadoran law, an extractive company needs to gain titles, or local permission, for any lands it wants to develop. Yet Pacific Rim had such access to just 13 percent of the lands covered by its proposal, according to Oxfam America, a humanitarian and advocacy group.

Given this lack of community support in a country with recent history of civil unrest, some warn that an ICSID decision in OceanaGold’s favour could result in violence.

“This mining project was re-opening a lot of the wounds that existed during the civil war, and telling a country that they have to provoke a civil conflict in order to satisfy investors is very troublesome,” Luke Danielson, a researcher and academic who studies social conflict around natural resource development, told IPS.

“The tribunal system exists to allow two interests to express themselves – the national government and the investor. But neither of these speak for communities, and that’s a fundamental problem.”

Wary of litigation

Bilateral and regional investment treaties such as DR-CAFTA have seen massive expansion in recent years. And increasingly, many of these include so-called “investor-state” resolution clauses of the type being used in the El Salvador case.

Currently some 2,700 agreements internationally have such clauses, ICSID reports. Meanwhile, although the tribunal has existed since the 1960s, its relevance has increased dramatically in recent years, mirroring the rise in investor-state clauses.

ISCID itself doesn’t decide on how to resolve such disputes. Rather, it offers a framework under which cases are heard by three external arbiters – one appointed by the investor, one by the state and one by both parties.

Yet outside of the World Bank headquarters on Monday, protesters expressed deep scepticism about the highly opaque ISCID process. Several said that past experience has suggested the tribunal is deeply skewed in favour of investors.

“This is a completely closed-door process, and this has meant that the tribunal can basically do whatever it wants,” Carla Garcia Zendejas director of the People, Land & Resources program at the Center for International Environmental Law, a watchdog group here, told IPS.

“Thus far, we have no examples of cases in which this body responded in favour of communities or reacted to basic human rights violations or basic environmental and social impact.”

Zendejas says the rise in investor-state lawsuits in recent years has resulted in many governments, particularly in developing countries, choosing to acquiesce in the face of corporate demand. Litigation is not only cumbersome but extremely expensive.

“Governments are increasingly wary of being sued, and therefore are more willing to accept and change polices or to ignore their own policies, even if there’s community opposition,” she says.

“Certain projects have seen resistance, but political pressure often depends on who’s in power. Unfortunately, the incorrect view that the only way for development to take place is through foreign investment is still very engrained in many of the powers that be.”

While there is no public timeframe for ISCID resolution on the El Salvador case, a decision is expected by the end of the year.

Edited by Kitty Stapp

The writer can be reached at cbiron@ips.org

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Majority of Consumer Products May Be Tainted by Illegal Deforestationhttp://www.ipsnews.net/2014/09/majority-of-consumer-products-may-be-tainted-by-illegal-deforestation/?utm_source=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_campaign=majority-of-consumer-products-may-be-tainted-by-illegal-deforestation http://www.ipsnews.net/2014/09/majority-of-consumer-products-may-be-tainted-by-illegal-deforestation/#comments Thu, 11 Sep 2014 23:43:39 +0000 Carey L. Biron http://www.ipsnews.net/?p=136591 Stacks of confiscated timber logged illegally in the National Tapajos forest, Brazil. Credit: UN Photo/Eskinder Debebe

Stacks of confiscated timber logged illegally in the National Tapajos forest, Brazil. Credit: UN Photo/Eskinder Debebe

By Carey L. Biron
WASHINGTON, Sep 11 2014 (IPS)

At least half of global deforestation is taking place illegally and in support of commercial agriculture, new analysis released Thursday finds – particularly to supply overseas markets.

Over the past decade, a majority of the illegal clearing of forests has been in response to foreign demand for common commodities such as paper, beef, soy and palm oil. Yet governments in major markets such as the United States and European Union are taking almost no steps to urge corporations or consumers to reject such products.“The biggest threat to forests is gradually changing, and that threat is today from commercial agriculture." -- Sam Lawson of Earthsight

Indeed, doing so would be incredibly difficult given the incredibly widespread availability of potentially “dirty” products, the new analysis, published by Forest Trends, a Washington-based watchdog group, suggests. In many countries, consumers are likely using such products on a regular basis.

“In the average supermarket today, the majority of products are at risk of containing commodities that come from illegally deforested lands,” Sam Lawson, the report’s author and director of Earthsight, a British group that investigates environmental crime, told IPS.

“That’s true for any product encased in paper or cardboard, any beef, and any chicken or pork given that these [latter] animals are often raised on soy. And, of course, palm oil is now in almost everything, from lipstick to ice cream.”

In the absence of legislation to prevent such products from being imported and sold, Lawson says, “There’s always this risk.”

Overall, some 40 percent of all globally traded palm oil and 14 percent of all beef likely comes from illegally cleared lands, the paper estimates. The same can be said of a fifth of all soy and a third of all tropical timber, widely used to make paper products.

Meanwhile, some three-quarters of Brazilian soy and Indonesian palm oil are exported. Such trends are growing in countries such as Papua New Guinea and the Democratic Republic of Congo.

While many case studies on these issues have previously been published on particular countries, sectors or companies, the new report is the first to try to extrapolate that data to the global level.

“Consumer demand in overseas markets resulted in the illegal clearance of more than 200,000 square kilometers of tropical forest during the first 12 years of the new millennium,” the report estimates, noting this adds up to “an average of five football fields every minute”.

While much this illegal clearing is being facilitated by corruption and lack of capacity in developing countries, Lawson places the culpability elsewhere.

“It’s companies that are carrying out these acts and they bear ultimate responsibility,” he says. “Big consumer countries also need to stop undermining the efforts of developing countries by allowing these products unfettered access to their markets.

Logging lessons

The ramifications of degraded forestlands, of course, are both local – impacting on livelihoods, ecosystems and human health – and global. Standing, mature forests not only hold massive amounts of carbon but also continually suck carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere.

Between 2000 and 2012, the emissions associated with illegal deforestation for commercial agriculture each year was roughly the same as a quarter of the annual fossil fuel emissions in the European Union.

The new findings come just ahead of two major global climate summits. Later this month, U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon will host international leaders in New York to discuss the issue, and in December the next round of global climate negotiations will take place in Peru, ahead of intended global agreement next year.

The Lima talks are being referred to as the “forest” round. Some observers have suggested that forestry could offer the most significant potential for global emissions cuts.

This rising global consensus around the importance of maintaining forest cover in the face of global climate change has led to significant international efforts to tackle illegal logging. And these have met with some important success.

Yet Earthsight’s Lawson says that some of the companies that were previously involved in illegally cutting tropical hardwoods are now engaging in the illegal clearing of forests to make way for large-scale agriculture.

“The biggest threat to forests is gradually changing, and that threat is today from commercial agriculture,” he says. “What we need now is to repeat some of the efforts that have been made in relation to illegal logging and apply those to agricultural commodities.”

The European Union, for instance, is currently in the process of implementing a bilateral system of licensing, in order to allow for legally harvested timber to be traced back to its source. Similar bilateral arrangements, Lawson suggests, could be introduced around key commodities.

Proven legality

Such a process would charge governments and multinational companies with ensuring that globally traded commodities do not originate from illegally cleared forestlands. In essence, this would create a situation in which the base requirement for entry into major markets would be proven legality.

Today, of course, the choice of whether or not to purchase a product made with ingredients potentially sourced from illegally deforested lands is up to the consumer – if that information is available at all. Yet such a new arrangement would turn that responsibility around entirely.

“All of this onus on the consumer bothers me – it really shouldn’t have to be so difficult to make these choices,” Danielle Nierenberg, the president of Food Tank, a Washington think tank focused on sustainability issues, told IPS.

“The fact is, consumers are still blind to these issues – despite the growth of the local food movement in Western countries, there remains significant demand for a range of inexpensive products. That’s why the real action has to come from the corporate side, and governments need to take a bigger interest.”

The United States has landmark legislation in place that bans the use of illegally sourced wood products in the country. By many accounts, that legal regime has been notably effective in cutting off the country’s massive market to those products.

Yet for now, Nierenberg says that there is no political appetite in Washington to do something similar regarding agricultural commodities.

“Instead, the real opportunity for government initiative comes from the developing world,” she says. “They need to invest more in small- and medium-scale farmers, protect their lands from land grabs, and invest in simple agricultural technologies that actually work. That’s where the real change could happen.”

Edited by Kitty Stapp

The writer can be reached at cbiron@ips.org

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U.S. Military Joins Ebola Response in West Africahttp://www.ipsnews.net/2014/09/u-s-military-joins-ebola-response-in-west-africa/?utm_source=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_campaign=u-s-military-joins-ebola-response-in-west-africa http://www.ipsnews.net/2014/09/u-s-military-joins-ebola-response-in-west-africa/#comments Mon, 08 Sep 2014 22:45:46 +0000 Carey L. Biron http://www.ipsnews.net/?p=136550 As one of the Ebola epicentres, the district of Kailahun, in eastern Sierra Leone bordering Guinea, was put under quarantine at the beginning of August. Credit: ©EC/ECHO/Cyprien Fabre

As one of the Ebola epicentres, the district of Kailahun, in eastern Sierra Leone bordering Guinea, was put under quarantine at the beginning of August. Credit: ©EC/ECHO/Cyprien Fabre

By Carey L. Biron
WASHINGTON, Sep 8 2014 (IPS)

The U.S. military over the weekend formally began to support the international response to the Ebola outbreak in West Africa.

Advocates of the move, including prominent voices in global health, are lauding the Pentagon’s particularly robust logistical capacities, which nearly all observers say are desperately needed as the epidemic expands at an increasing rate.On Monday, the United Nations warned of an “exponential increase” in cases in coming weeks.

Yet already multiple concerns have arisen over the scope of the mission – including whether it is strong enough at the outset as well as whether it could become too broad in future.

President Barack Obama made the first public announcement on the issue on Sunday, contextualising the outbreak as a danger to U.S. national security.

“We’re going to have to get U.S. military assets just to set up, for example, isolation units and equipment there to provide security for public health workers surging from around the world,” the president said during a televised interview. “If we don’t make that effort now … it could be a serious danger to the United States.”

While the United States has spent more than 20 million dollars in West Africa this year to combat the disease, Washington has come under increased criticism in recent months for not doing enough. Obama is now expected to request additional funding from Congress later this month.

The military’s response, however, has already begun – albeit apparently on a very small scale for now, and in just a single Ebola-hit country.

A Defence Department spokesperson told IPS that, over the weekend, Secretary of Defence Chuck Hagel approved the deployment of a “25-bed deployable hospital facility, equipment, and the support necessary to establish the facility” in Liberia. For now, this is the extent of the approved response.

The spokesperson was quick to note that additional planning is underway, but emphasised that the Pentagon is responding only to requests made by other federal agencies and taking no lead role. Further, its commitment to the hospital in Liberia, the country most affected by the outbreak, is limited.

The Department of Defence “will not have a permanent presence at the facility and will not provide direct patient care, but will ensure that supplies are maintained at the hospital and provide periodic support required to keep the hospital facility functioning for up to 180 days,” the spokesperson said.

“This approach provides for the establishment of the hospital facility in the shortest possible period of time … Once the deployable hospital facility is established, it will be transferred to the Government of Liberia.”

On Monday, Liberia’s defence minister, Brownie Samukai, said his government was “extremely pleased” by the announcement.

“We had discussions at the Department of Defence on the issues of utilising and requesting the full skill of United States capabilities, both on the soft side and on the side of providing logistics and technical expertise,” Samukai, who is currently here in Washington, told the media. “We look forward to that cooperation as expeditiously as we can.”

No security needed

The current Ebola outbreak has now killed some 2,100 people and infected more than 3,500 in five countries. On Monday, the United Nations warned of an “exponential increase” in cases in coming weeks.

Yet thus far the epidemic has resulted in an international response that is almost universally seen as dangerously inadequate. Obama’s statement Sunday nonetheless raised questions even among those supportive of the announcement.

Medecins Sans Frontieres (MSF), the French humanitarian group, remains the single most important international organisation in physically responding to the outbreak. While MSF has long opposed the use of military personnel in response to disease outbreaks, last week it broke with that tradition.

Warning that the global community is “failing” to address the epidemic, the group told a special U.N. briefing that countries with “civilian and military medical capability … must immediately dispatch assets and personnel to West Africa”.

Yet while MSF has welcomed Obama’s announcement, the group is also expressing strong concerns over the president’s reference to the U.S. military providing “security for public health workers”.

MSF “reiterates the need for this support to be of medical nature only,” Tim Shenk, a press officer with the group, told IPS. “Aid workers do not need additional security support in the affected region.”

Last week, MSF urged that any military personnel deployed to West Africa not be used for “quarantine, containment or crowd control measures”.

The Defence Department spokesperson told IPS that the U.S. military had not yet received a request to provide security for health workers.

Few guidelines

The United States is not the only country now turning to its military to bolster the flagging humanitarian response in West Africa.

The British government in recent days announced even more significant plans, aiming to set up 68 beds for Ebola patients at a centre, in Sierra Leone, that will be jointly operated by humanitarians and military personnel. The Canadian government had reportedly been contemplating a military plan as well, although this now appears to have been shelved.

Yet the concerns expressed by MSF over how the military deployment should go forward underscore the fact that there exists little formal guidance on the involvement of foreign military personnel in international health-related response.

The World Health Organisation (WHO), for instance, has no broad stance on the issue, a spokesperson told IPS. As the WHO is an intergovernmental agency, it is up to affected countries to make related decisions and request.

“Each country handles its own security situation,” Daniel Epstein, a WHO spokesperson, told IPS. “So if governments agree to military involvement from other countries, that’s their business.”

Another spokesperson with the agency, Margaret Harris, told IPS that the WHO appreciates “the skills that well-trained, disciplined and highly organised groups like the US military can bring to the campaign to end Ebola.”

Yet there is already concern that the U.S. military response could be shaping up to be far less robust than necessary.

MSF’s Shenk noted that any plan from the U.S. military would need to include both the construction and operation of Ebola centres. Thus far, the Pentagon says it will not be doing any operating.

While around 570 Ebola beds are currently available in West Africa, MSF estimates that at least 1,000 hospital spaces, capable of providing full isolation, are needed in the region.

In a series of tweets on Monday, Laurie Garrett, a prominent global health scholar with the Council on Foreign Relations, a Washington think tank, expressed alarm that the Defence Department’s Ebola response was shaping up to be “tiny” in comparison to what is needed.

Edited by Kitty Stapp

The writer can be reached at cbiron@ips.org

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Global Summit Urged to Focus on Trillion-Dollar Corruptionhttp://www.ipsnews.net/2014/09/global-summit-to-focus-on-eradication-of-trillion-dollar-corruption/?utm_source=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_campaign=global-summit-to-focus-on-eradication-of-trillion-dollar-corruption http://www.ipsnews.net/2014/09/global-summit-to-focus-on-eradication-of-trillion-dollar-corruption/#comments Fri, 05 Sep 2014 18:15:17 +0000 Carey L. Biron http://www.ipsnews.net/?p=136512 By Carey L. Biron
WASHINGTON, Sep 5 2014 (IPS)

New analysis suggests that developing countries are losing a trillion dollars or more each year to tax evasion and corruption facilitated by lax laws in Western countries, raising pressure on global leaders to agree to broad new reforms at an international summit later this year.

These massive losses could be leading to as many as 3.6 million deaths a year, according to the ONE Campaign, an advocacy group that focuses on poverty alleviation in Africa. Recovering just part of this money in Sub-Saharan Africa, the organisation says, could allow for the education of 10 million more children“Whenever corruption is allowed to thrive, it inhibits private investment, reduces economic growth, increases the cost of doing business, and can lead to political instability. But in developing countries, corruption is a killer” – ONE Campaign
 a year, or provide some 165 million additional vaccines.

“Whenever corruption is allowed to thrive, it inhibits private investment, reduces economic growth, increases the cost of doing business, and can lead to political instability. But in developing countries, corruption is a killer,” a report on the findings, released Wednesday, states.

“When governments are deprived of their own resources to invest in health care, food security or essential infrastructure, it costs lives, and the biggest toll is on children.”

The new analysis focuses on a spectrum of money laundering, bribery and tax evasion by criminals as well as government officials. The lost money is not development aid but rather undeclared or siphoned-off business earnings – immense tax avoidance resulting in a decreased base from which governments can fund essential services.

International trade offers a key point of manipulation, the report says, with the extractive industries particularly vulnerable. In Africa alone, exports of natural resources grew by a factor of five in the decade leading up to 2012, offering clear prospects for growth alongside lucrative opportunities for corruption on a mass scale.

“Between 2002 and 2011 we saw an exponential increase in illicit financial flows across the globe,” Joseph Kraus, a transparency expert at the ONE Campaign, told IPS.

“Yet while we’re all familiar with corruption in developing countries, it takes two to tango – that money often ends up in the financial centres of the Global North. Those banks, lawyers and accountants are all essentially facilitators of that corruption, so in order to get at the root of this issue we need to go after the problems there.”

Real opportunity

Advocates including the ONE Campaign are currently stepping up pressure on industrialised countries to institute a series of across-the-board transparency measures. Some are aimed at corruption in developing countries, such as strengthening disclosure laws impacting on the extractives industry and bolstering “open data” standards to allow citizens increased oversight over their governments’ dealings.

Several other reforms would need to be carried out by developed countries, particularly those housing major financial centres such as the United States and United Kingdom. These would include new standards requiring governments to automatically exchange tax information, to mandate the publication of full information on corporate ownership, and to force multinational corporations to report on their earnings on a country-by-country basis.

In certain circles, such demands have been percolating for years. But current circumstances could offer unusual opportunity for such changes.

“In the last two years we’ve seen an acceleration of this agenda,” Kraus says. “Eighteen months ago, no one was talking about phantom firms or anonymous shell companies. But these issues have gained a lot of momentum in a short period of time, and there is real opportunity coming up.”

This new energy has been motivated particularly by concerns in advanced economies over shrinking government budgets in the aftermath of the global economic downturn. Yet developing countries arguably stand to benefit the most from substantive reforms, provided they’re structured accordingly.

Advocates of such changes are now looking ahead to a summit, on Nov 15 and 16 in Australia, of the members of the Group of 20 (G20) world’s largest advanced and emerging economies as well as two major meetings of finance ministers in the run-up to that event.

The G20 represent about two-thirds of the world’s population, 85 percent of global gross domestic product and over 75 percent of global trade.

The members of the G20 are Argentina, Australia, Brazil, Canada, China, France, Germany, India, Indonesia, Italy, Japan, Republic of Korea, Mexico, Russia, Saudi Arabia, South Africa, Turkey, the United Kingdom, the United States and the European Union.

The G20 has taken on a primary role in issues of global financial stability and, more recently, in pushing the automatic exchange of tax information between governments. A new global standard on such exchange could be approved by the G20 ministers in November, among other actions.

“For too long, G20 countries have turned a blind eye to massive financial outflows from developing countries which are channelled through offshore bank accounts and secret companies,” according to John Githongo, an anti-corruption campaigner in Kenya.

“Introducing smart policies could help end this trillion dollar scandal and reap massive benefits for our people at virtually no cost. The G20 should make those changes now.”

Coordinated response

In fact, many G20 countries have instituted some of these reforms on their own. The U.K. government, for instance, has taken unilateral action on publicising information on corporate ownership, while the United States was the first to pass strong transparency requirements for multinational extractives companies.

While such piecemeal national legislation can spur other countries to action, many feel only a comprehensive approach would have a chance at having a substantial impact. Further, many governments have pledged to act on these issues, but have yet to actually follow through.

“Illicit financial flows are a perfect example of a transnational problem, in that you have two legal regimes in which loopholes are being exploited,” Josh Simmons, a policy counsel at Global Financial Integrity, a Washington watchdog group that supplied data for the new ONE Campaign report, told IPS.

“So when an international cooperative body is able to identify these loopholes, they can get member countries to move in sync to address the situation. But if only one country tries to do so, businesses would probably just move elsewhere.”

Others are looking even more broadly than the G20. A paper released last month by researchers with the Center for Global Development, a think tank here, calls for the inclusion of anti-tax-evasion aims in the new global development goals currently being negotiated under the United Nations.

Indeed, even while there could be real movement at the G20 on several of these issues this year, the work on the other end of this equation – in developing countries – remains onerous.

“We need to get developing countries’ tax systems up to speed, strengthen their financial intelligence units and get their anti-laundering laws up to code. And that is proceeding, but much more under the radar given its complexity,” Simmons says.

“Still, that’s where people are actually bearing the brunt of this problem. Tax avoidance in the United States contributes to the national debt, but in developing countries it’s literally causing people to go hungry.”

Edited by Ronald Joshua

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Criminalisation of Homelessness in U.S. Criticised by United Nationshttp://www.ipsnews.net/2014/09/criminalisation-of-homelessness-in-u-s-criticised-by-united-nations/?utm_source=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_campaign=criminalisation-of-homelessness-in-u-s-criticised-by-united-nations http://www.ipsnews.net/2014/09/criminalisation-of-homelessness-in-u-s-criticised-by-united-nations/#comments Tue, 02 Sep 2014 22:41:08 +0000 Carey L. Biron http://www.ipsnews.net/?p=136460 Men line up to receive food distributed by Coalition for the Homeless volunteers at 35th St, FDR Drive, in New York City. Credit: Zafirah Mohamed Zein/IPS

Men line up to receive food distributed by Coalition for the Homeless volunteers at 35th St, FDR Drive, in New York City. Credit: Zafirah Mohamed Zein/IPS

By Carey L. Biron
WASHINGTON, Sep 2 2014 (IPS)

A United Nations panel reviewing the U.S. record on racial discrimination has expressed unusually pointed concern over a new pattern of laws it warns is criminalising homelessness.

U.S. homelessness has increased substantially in the aftermath of the financial downturn, and with a disproportionate impact on minorities. Yet in many places officials have responded by cracking down on activities such as sleeping or even eating in public, while simultaneously defunding social services.

The new rebuke comes from a panel of experts reviewing the United States’ progress in implementing its obligations under a treaty known as the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination, commonly referred to as CERD or the race convention.

“The Committee is concerned at the high number of homeless persons, who are disproportionately from racial and ethnic minorities,” the CERD panel stated in a formal report released on Friday, “and at the criminalization of homelessness through laws that prohibit activities such as loitering, camping, begging, and lying in public spaces.”

This was only the second time that the United States’ record on race relations and discriminatory practices, and particularly the federal government’s actions in this regard, have been formally examined against the measuring stick of international law.

The panel not only called on the U.S. government to “abolish” laws and policies that facilitate the criminalisation of homelessness, but also to create incentives that would push authorities to focus on and bolster alternative policy approaches.

The CERD findings were actually the second time this year that new U.S. laws around the criminalisation of homelessness have been criticised at the international level. Similar concerns were expressed by the Human Rights Committee, which warned the cumulative effect was “cruel, inhuman, and degrading”.

“These are human rights experts who have seen human rights abuses all over the globe, but still when they hear about these issues in the United States it boggles their mind,” Eric S. Tars, a senior attorney with the National Law Center on Poverty & Homelessness, told IPS.

The CERD panel underscored these concerns by requesting additional information from the U.S. government before the country’s next such review, in 2017. The other issues so highlighted included racial profiling and gun violence, areas that have typically received far more interest from policymakers and the media.

Questionable progress

The formal review of the United States’ progress on implementing the race convention took place over two days in mid-August, attended by some 30 U.S. officials and dozens of civil society groups. The federal government’s formal report to the committee is available here, while non-government analyses lodged with the commission covering education, housing, gun violence, health care, immigration and other issues, are available here.

Observers say the mere act of the government going before an international body to discuss these issues was important, a sense strengthened by the significant delegation and substantive response offered by the administration of Barack Obama.

“In many ways it undercuts the idea of U.S. exceptionalism – that we don’t have human rights violations here,” Ejim Dike, the executive director of the U.S. Human Rights Network, a leading organiser around the CERD review, told IPS following the CERD discussions.

“In fact we have a lot of human rights violations, and our racial past and unfortunate racial present are indications of these concerns. Sometimes the headlines are so reminiscent of what happened during the 1950s and 1960s that it begs the question of how much progress we actually have made.”

Indeed, some metrics of racial discrimination in the United States are currently worse than they were decades ago. An official summary of the review’s discussions between the U.N. experts and civil society groups noted one committee member’s shock “to realize that in spite of several decades of affirmative action in the United States to improve the mixing up of colors and races in schools … segregation was nowadays much worse than it was in the 1970s.”

Likewise, recent years have underscored the significant racial disparities that continue to characterise homelessness in the United States, a discrepancy noted by the U.N. panel. This pattern has continued and has even been strengthened in the aftermath of the 2007-2008 financial crisis.

In 2010, for instance, African-Americans were seven times more likely to need emergency housing than whites, according to statistics from the Institute for Children, Poverty and Homelessness, a research organisation. Similar discrepancies can be seen in the case of Hispanics and other minority groups.

This is important because, unlike U.S. domestic law, the race convention prohibits policies that have the effect of being discriminatory, regardless of whether or not they are meant to discriminate.

Banning sleeping, eating

As important as this continued racial pattern is how officials are responding to the new surge in homelessness. Even as the financial downturn in recent years has simultaneously squeezed state budgets and led more people to lose their jobs and homes, the official response has been to strengthen enforcement – to make homelessness more difficult.

Over the past three years, for instance, the number of U.S. cities that have banned sleeping in cars has grown by 119 percent, according to findings released in July. Bans on sleeping or camping in public have likewise risen by 60 percent during that same time.

“These numbers in general are going up and in some cases going up significantly,” the National Law Center’s Tars says. “The only cases in which those numbers are going down is where some cities have removed ordinances banning panhandling and sleeping in certain areas, and instead replaced them with bans that cover the whole city.”

Meanwhile, the financial recession has increased poverty in places where such problems hadn’t previously been visible, in suburban and rural communities. Social services were likely already weak in these areas, and the economy’s broader troubles have led authorities to slash these budgets even further.
“First the communities and governments are cutting resources for homeless shelters and related organisations and saying this isn’t the government’s responsibility. But then some are even making it difficult for charities to deal with the issue – for instance, by punishing people for eating donated food in public,” Tars says.

“In fact, there’s significant evidence that criminalisation is often more expensive and less effective than providing affordable housing.”

Nonetheless, the new focus on austerity budgets in other countries, particularly in the European Union, is seeing governments across the globe increasingly turn to this U.S. model of criminalisation. In June, an Australian researcher noted a new “proliferation” of enforcement-based homelessness laws and policies internationally.

Edited by Stephanie Wildes

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Large Dams “Highly Correlated” with Poor Water Qualityhttp://www.ipsnews.net/2014/08/large-dams-highly-correlated-with-poor-water-quality/?utm_source=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_campaign=large-dams-highly-correlated-with-poor-water-quality http://www.ipsnews.net/2014/08/large-dams-highly-correlated-with-poor-water-quality/#comments Fri, 29 Aug 2014 00:34:45 +0000 Carey L. Biron http://www.ipsnews.net/?p=136401 Fishermen's boats on the Mekong River in northern Laos. There are already 30 existing dams along the river, and an additional 134 hydropower projects are planned for the lower Mekong. Credit: Irwin Loy/IPS

Fishermen's boats on the Mekong River in northern Laos. There are already 30 existing dams along the river, and an additional 134 hydropower projects are planned for the lower Mekong. Credit: Irwin Loy/IPS

By Carey L. Biron
WASHINGTON, Aug 29 2014 (IPS)

Large-scale dams are likely having a detrimental impact on water quality and biodiversity around the world, according to a new study that tracks and correlates data from thousands of projects.

Focusing on the 50 most substantial river basins, researchers with International Rivers, a watchdog group, compiled and compared available data from some 6,000 of the world’s estimated 50,000 large dams. Eighty percent of the time, they found, the presence of large dams, typically those over 15 metres high, came along with findings of poor water quality, including high levels of mercury and trapped sedimentation.“The evidence we’ve compiled of planetary-scale impacts from river change is strong enough to warrant a major international focus on understanding the thresholds for river change in the world’s major basins." -- Jason Rainey

While the investigators are careful to note that the correlations do not necessarily indicate causal relationships, the say the data suggest a clear, global pattern. They are now calling for an intergovernmental panel of experts tasked with coming up with a systemic method by which to assess and monitor the health of the world’s river basins.

“[R]iver fragmentation due to decades of dam-building is highly correlated with poor water quality and low biodiversity,” International Rivers said Tuesday in unveiling the State of the World’s Rivers, an online database detailing the findings. “Many of the world’s great river basins have been dammed to the point of serious decline.”

The group points to the Tigris-Euphrates basin, today home to 39 dams and one of the systems that has been most “fragmented” as a result. The effect appears to have been a vast decrease in the region’s traditional marshes, including the salt-tolerant flora that helped sustain the coastal areas, as well as a drop in soil fertility.

The State of the World project tracks the spread of dam-building alongside data on biodiversity and water-quality metrics in the river basins affected. While the project is using only previously published data, organisers say the effort is the first time that these disparate data sets have been overlaid in order to find broader trends.

“By and large most governments, particularly in the developing world, do not have the capacity to track this type of data, so in that sense they’re flying blind in setting policy around dam construction,” Zachary Hurwitz, the project’s coordinator, told IPS.

“We can do a much better job at observing [dam-affected] resettled populations, but most governments don’t have the capacity to do continuous biodiversity monitoring. Yet from our perspective, those data are what you really need in order to have a conversation around energy planning.”

Dam-building boom

Today, four of the five most fragmented river systems are in South and East Asia, according to the new data. But four others in the top 10 are in Europe and North America, home to some of the most extensive dam systems, especially the United States.

For all the debate in development circles in recent years about dam-building in developing countries, the new data suggests that two of the world’s poorest continents, Africa and South America, remain relatively less affected by large-scale damming than other parts of the world.

Of course, both Africa and South America have enormous hydropower potential and increasingly problematic power crunches, and many of the countries in these continents are moving quickly to capitalise on their river energy.

According to estimates from International Rivers, Brazil alone is currently planning to build more than 650 dams of all sizes. The country is also home to some of the highest numbers of species that would be threatened by such moves.

Not only are Brazil, China and India busy building dams at home, but companies from these countries are also increasingly selling such services to other developing countries.

“Precisely those basins that are least fragmented are currently being targeted for a great expansion of dam-building,” Hurwitz says. “But if we look at the experience and data from areas of high historical dam-building – the Mississippi basin the United States, the Danube basin in Europe – those worrying trends are likely to be repeated in the least-fragmented basins if this proliferation of dam-building continues.”

Advocates are expressing particularly concern over the confluence of the new strengthened focus on dam-building and the potential impact of climate change on freshwater biodiversity. International Rivers is calling for an intergovernmental panel to assess the state of the world’s river basins, aimed at developing metrics for systemic assessment and best practices for river preservation.

“The evidence we’ve compiled of planetary-scale impacts from river change is strong enough to warrant a major international focus on understanding the thresholds for river change in the world’s major basins, and for the planet as a whole system,” Jason Rainey, the group’s executive director, said in a statement.

Economic burden

Particularly for increasingly energy-starved developing countries, concerns around large-scale dam-building go beyond environmental or even social considerations.

Energy access remains a central consideration in any set of development metrics, and lack of energy is an inherent drag on issues as disparate as education and industry. Further, concerns around climate change have re-energised what had been flagging interest in large dam projects, epitomised by last year’s decision by the World Bank to refocus on such projects.

Yet there remains fervent debate around whether this is the best way to go, particularly for developing countries. Large dams typically cost several billion dollars and require extensive planning to complete, and in the past these plans have been blamed for overwhelming fragile economies.

A new touchstone in this debate came out earlier this year, in a widely cited study from researchers at Oxford University. Looking at nearly 250 large dams dating back as far as the 1920s, they found pervasive cost and time overruns.

“We find overwhelming evidence that budgets are systematically biased below actual costs of large hydropower dams,” the authors wrote in the paper’s abstract.

“The outside view suggests that in most countries large hydropower dams will be too costly … and take too long to build to deliver a positive risk-adjusted return unless suitable risk management measures … can be affordably provided.”

Instead, the researchers encouraged policymakers in developing countries to focus on “agile energy alternatives” that can be built more quickly.

On the other side of this debate, the findings were attacked by the International Commission on Large Dams, a Paris-based NGO, for focusing on an unrepresentative set of extremely large dams. The group’s president, Adama Nombre, also questioned the climate impact of the researchers’ preferred alternative options.

“What would be those alternatives?” Nombre asked. “Fossil fuel plants consuming coal or gas. Without explicitly saying it, the authors use a purely financial reasoning to bring us toward a carbon-emitting electric system.”

Edited by: Kitty Stapp

The writer can be reached at cbiron@ips.org

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World Bank Urged to Rethink Reforms to Business-Friendliness Reporthttp://www.ipsnews.net/2014/08/world-bank-urged-to-rethink-reforms-to-business-friendliness-report/?utm_source=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_campaign=world-bank-urged-to-rethink-reforms-to-business-friendliness-report http://www.ipsnews.net/2014/08/world-bank-urged-to-rethink-reforms-to-business-friendliness-report/#comments Tue, 26 Aug 2014 21:20:33 +0000 Carey L. Biron http://www.ipsnews.net/?p=136361 Workers arrive early in the morning at the One World Apparel factory in Port-au-Prince to assemble garments for export from Haiti. Credit: Ansel Herz/IPS

Workers arrive early in the morning at the One World Apparel factory in Port-au-Prince to assemble garments for export from Haiti. Credit: Ansel Herz/IPS

By Carey L. Biron
WASHINGTON, Aug 26 2014 (IPS)

Civil society groups from several continents are stepping up a campaign urging the World Bank to strengthen a series of changes currently being made to a major annual report on countries’ business-friendliness.

The World Bank is in the final stages of a years-long update to its Doing Business report, one of the Washington-based development institution’s most influential analyses yet one that has also become increasingly controversial. Critics now say the first round of changes, slated to go into effect in October, don’t go far enough."It’s a public relations exercise but with reasonably solid metrics behind it, and it’s the joining of these two things that makes Doing Business valuable in the policy world.” -- Scott Morris of the Center for Global Development

On Monday, a coalition of 18 development groups, watchdog organisations and trade unions called on the World Bank Group to take “urgent action” to implement “significant changes” to the Doing Business reforms. In particular, they are asking the bank to adhere more closely to detailed recommendations made last year by a bank-commissioned external review panel chaired by Trevor Manuel, a former planning and finance minister for South Africa.

“It looks like the flaws found by the Independent Panel chaired by Trevor Manuel will be ignored and its recommendations are nowhere close to being implemented,” Aldo Caliari, director of the Rethinking Bretton Woods Project at the Center of Concern, a Catholic think tank here, told IPS. “This is in spite of a wide chorus of civil society organisations and shareholders that supported them.”

While the World Bank’s mission is to fight global poverty, Caliari and others dispute whether the Doing Business report’s metrics are pertinent to poor communities. Others say they can be outright detrimental.

Both civil society investigations and the Manuel commission have suggested “how little relevance the areas and indicators have to the reforms that matter to small and medium companies in developing countries,” Caliari says. “They seem far more oriented to support operations of large transnationals in those countries.”

Such concerns stem from the outsized influence that the Doing Business report has built up, particularly in the developing world, since it was introduced in 2003. Reportedly, the report is used by some 85 percent of global policymakers.

The core of the report remains a simple aggregated ranking of countries, known as the Ease of Doing Business index. While based on a complex series of business-friendliness metrics, the high profile of the index results has inevitably led governments to compete among one another to raise their country’s ranking and, hopefully, strengthen foreign investment.

Yet a direct effect of this competition, critics say, is governments being pushed to adhere to a uniform set of policy recommendations. These include lowering taxes and wages and weakening overall industry regulation, thus potentially endangering the poor.

“[T]he report’s role is to inform policy, not to outline a normative position, which the rankings do,” the 18 groups wrote to World Bank Group President Jim Kim at the end of July. “Doing Business needs to become better aligned with moves towards greater country-owned and led development and an appreciation of the importance of a country’s circumstances, stage of development and political choices.”

In its report last June, the Manuel commission likewise urged the bank to drop the ranking system entirely, noting that this constituted “the most important decision the Bank faces with regard to the Doing Business report.”

Maintained but reformed

In response, the bank is reforming the methodology behind its ranking calculations. In part, this includes broadening its analysis to use data from two cities in most countries, rather than just one.

More broadly, the new calculations will constitute an effort simultaneously to continue to offer a relative score for each country but also to decrease the importance of the specific ranking.

“This approach will provide users with additional information by showing the relative distances between economies in the ranking tables,” an announcement on the changes stated in April. (The bank was unable to provide additional comment by this story’s deadline.)

“By highlighting where economies’ scores are close, the new approach will reduce the importance of difference in rankings,” the announcement continues. “And by revealing where distances between scores are relatively greater, it will give credit to governments that are reforming but not yet seeing changes in rankings.”

Some development scholars have pushed against the Manuel commission’s recommendations on the index, defending the need for the bank to maintain its aggregate rankings in some form.

“The Doing Business report isn’t a research exercise – it’s a policymaking tool. Because of the rankings it has a unique value, particularly for those countries that have a long way to go on economic reform,” Scott Morris, a senior associate at the Center for Global Development, a think tank here, told IPS after the Manuel commission’s report was published.

“Internally, it gives government officials something simple and targeted to latch onto, much more than a 500-page report would do. It’s a public relations exercise but with reasonably solid metrics behind it, and it’s the joining of these two things that makes Doing Business valuable in the policy world.”

Decent jobs created?

Yet others warn that the rankings themselves continue to be problematic, even in their new form.

The reforms are “not satisfactory, as the rankings will continue to influence the policy agenda of many developing countries despite their methodological flaws,” Tiago Stichelmans, a policy and networking analyst at the European Network on Debt and Development, told IPS in an e-mail.

“The problem of the rankings is the fact that they are based on regulatory measures in a single city (which is due to become two cities) for every country and are therefore irrelevant to many communities. The rankings also have a bias in favour of deregulatory measures that have limited impact on development.”

Of course, many would support the idea of tracking country-by-country policies aimed at encouraging industry to help bolster development metrics. But Stichelmans says this would require major changes, including a move away from the report’s current focus on reforms to the business environment.

“A shift from promoting low tax rates and labour deregulation to taxes paid, decent jobs created and [small and medium enterprises] supported would be a step in the right direction,” he says.

Ideas from NGOs have included indicators on corruption and human rights due diligence, Stichelmans continues, “but this must be accompanied by a drastic overhaul.”

For now, some of the newly announced changes are expected to be incorporated into the Doing Business report for 2015, slated to be released in late October. Other reforms, including some yet to be announced, will be introduced in future reports.

Edited by: Kitty Stapp

The writer can be reached at cbiron@ips.org

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U.S., Brazil Nearing Approval of Genetically Engineered Treeshttp://www.ipsnews.net/2014/08/u-s-brazil-nearing-approval-of-genetically-engineered-trees/?utm_source=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_campaign=u-s-brazil-nearing-approval-of-genetically-engineered-trees http://www.ipsnews.net/2014/08/u-s-brazil-nearing-approval-of-genetically-engineered-trees/#comments Wed, 20 Aug 2014 23:35:52 +0000 Carey L. Biron http://www.ipsnews.net/?p=136255 By Carey L. Biron
WASHINGTON, Aug 20 2014 (IPS)

The U.S. and Brazilian governments are moving into the final stages of weighing approval for the commercialisation of genetically engineered eucalyptus trees, moves that would mark the first such permits anywhere in the world.

The Brazilian government is slated to start taking public comments on such a proposal during the first week of September. Similarly, U.S. regulators have been working on an environmental impact assessment since early last year, a highly anticipated draft of which is expected to be released any day.

Technician Christine Berry checks on futuristic peach and apple “orchards”. Each dish holds tiny experimental trees grown from lab-cultured cells to which researchers have given new genes. Credit: USDA Agricultural Research Service

Technician Christine Berry checks on futuristic peach and apple “orchards”. Each dish holds tiny experimental trees grown from lab-cultured cells to which researchers have given new genes. Credit: USDA Agricultural Research Service

Despite industry claims to the contrary, critics warn that the use of genetically engineered (GE) trees would increase deforestation. The approvals could also spark off a new era of such products, which wouldn’t be confined solely to these countries.

“If Brazil and the United States get permission to commercialise these trees, there is nothing to say that they wouldn’t just export these products to other countries to grow,” Anne Petermann, the executive director of the Global Justice Ecology Project (GJEP) and the coordinator of the Campaign to Stop GE Trees, a network that Wednesday announced a new global initiative, told IPS.

“These GE trees would grow faster and be more economically valuable, so it’s easy to see how current conventional plantations would be converted to GE plantations – in many parts of Africa, Latin America and Asia. Further, both Europe and the U.S. are currently looking at other genetically engineered trees that bring with them a whole additional range of potential impacts.”

While the United States has thus far approved the use of two genetically modified fruit trees, the eucalyptus is the first GE forest tree to near release. Similar policy discussions are currently taking place in the European Union, Australia and elsewhere, while China has already approved and is using multiple GE trees.

The plantation approach

The eucalyptus is a particularly lucrative tree, currently the most widely planted hardwood in the world and used especially to produce pulp for paper and paper products.

In the United States, the trees would also likely be used to feed growing global demand for biofuels, particularly in the form of wood pellets. In 2012 alone, U.S. exports of wood pellets increased by some 70 percent, and the United States is today the world’s largest such producer.

U.S. regulators are currently looking at two types of eucalyptus that have been genetically engineered to withstand frosts and certain antibiotics, thus allowing for plantations to be planted much farther north. The company requesting the approval, ArborGen, says the introduction of its GE seedlings would quadruple the eucalyptus’s range in the United States alone.

ArborGen has estimated that its sales could see 20-fold growth, to some 500 million dollars a year by 2017, if GE trees receive U.S. approval, according to a comprehensive report published last year by the Washington-based Center for Food Safety. Likewise, Brazilian analysts have suggested that the market for eucalyptus products could expand by some 500 percent over the coming two decades.

Yet the eucalyptus, which has been grown in conventional plantations for years, has been widely shown to be particularly problematic – even dangerous – in monoculture.

The eucalyptus takes unusually high levels of water to grow, for instance, and is notably invasive. The trees are also a notorious fire hazard; during a devastating fire in the U.S. state of California in the 1990s, nearly three-quarters of the blaze’s energy was estimated to come from highly combustible eucalyptus trees.

In addition, many are worried that approval of the GE proposals in the United States and Brazil would, inevitably, act as a significant boost to the monoculture plantation model of production.

“This model has been shown to be very negative for local communities and nature, expelling and restricting the access of people to their territories, depleting and contaminating water sources – especially in the Global South,” Winifridus Overbeek, coordinator of the World Rainforest Movement, a global pressure group, told IPS from Uruguay.

“Many of these plantations in Brazil have hindered much-needed agrarian land reform under which hungry people could finally produce food on their own lands. But under the plantation model, most of the wood produced is destined for export, to attend to the ever-increasing paper demand elsewhere.”

Overbeek says Brazilian peasants complain that “No one can eat eucalyptus.”

More wood, more land

Despite the rise of digital media over the past decade, the global paper industry remains a behemoth, responding to demand for a million tonnes of paper and related products every day. That amounted to some 400 million tonnes of paper used in 2010, according to the World Wildlife Fund, and could increase to 500 million tonnes per year by the end of the decade.

A key argument from ArborGen and others in favour of genetically engineered trees, and the plantation system more generally, is that increased use of “farmed” trees would reduce pressure on native forests. Indeed, ArborGen’s motto is “More Wood. Less Land”.

Yet as the world has increasingly adopted the plantation approach, the impact has been clear. Indonesia, for instance, has allowed for the clear-cutting of more than half of its forests over the past half-century, driven particularly by the growth of palm plantations.

According to U.N. data, plantations worldwide doubled their average wood production during the two decades leading up to 2010.  But the size of those plantations also increased by some 60 percent.

“While it sounds nice and helpful to create faster-growing trees, in reality the opposite is true. As you make these things more valuable, more land gets taken over for them,” GJEP’s Petermann says.

“Especially in Brazil, for instance, because we’ve seen an intensification of wood coming from each hectare of land, more and more land is being converted.”

In June, more than 120 environmental groups from across the globe offered a vision on comprehensive sustainability reforms across the paper sector, traditionally a key driver of deforestation. That document, the Global Paper Vision, encourages users and producers to “refuse fibre from genetically modified organisms”.

“Theoretically, arguments on the benefits of GE trees could be true, motivated by increasing competition for wood resources,” Joshua Martin, the director of the Environmental Paper Network (EPN), a U.S.-based umbrella group that spearheaded the vision document, told IPS.

“But ultimately this is an attempt to find a technological solution – and, we feel, a false solution given the dangers, both known and unknown, around this experimental use. Instead, we advocate for conservation and reducing consumption as logical first steps before manipulating nature and putting natural systems at risk of contamination.”

Edited by: Kitty Stapp

The writer can be reached at cbiron@ips.org

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Despite Current Debate, Police Militarisation Goes Beyond U.S. Bordershttp://www.ipsnews.net/2014/08/despite-current-debate-police-militarisation-goes-beyond-u-s-borders/?utm_source=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_campaign=despite-current-debate-police-militarisation-goes-beyond-u-s-borders http://www.ipsnews.net/2014/08/despite-current-debate-police-militarisation-goes-beyond-u-s-borders/#comments Mon, 18 Aug 2014 23:27:13 +0000 Carey L. Biron http://www.ipsnews.net/?p=136197 "Hands Up, Don't Shoot": A rally in support of Michael Brown. Credit: Shawn Semmler/cc by 2.0

"Hands Up, Don't Shoot": A rally in support of Michael Brown. Credit: Shawn Semmler/cc by 2.0

By Carey L. Biron
WASHINGTON, Aug 18 2014 (IPS)

The shooting of an unarmed black teenager by a white police officer in the southern United States earlier this month has led to widespread public outrage around issues of race, class and police brutality.

In particular, a flurry of policy discussions is focusing on the startling level of force and military-style weaponry used by local police in responding to public demonstrations following the death Aug. 9 of 18-year-old Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri.“We have a lot of military equipment and hardware looking for a place to end up, and that tends to be local law enforcement.” -- WOLA's Maureen Meyer

The situation has galvanised support from both liberal and conservative members of Congress for potential changes to a law that, since the 1990s, has provided local U.S. police forces with surplus military equipment. The initiative, overseen by the Department of Defence and known as the “1033 programme”, originally came about in order to support law-enforcement personnel in the fight against drug gangs.

“We need to de-militarise this situation,” Claire McCaskill, one of Missouri’s two senators, said last week. “[T]his kind of response by the police has become the problem instead of the solution.”

In a widely read article titled “We Must Demilitarize the Police”, conservative Senator Rand Paul likewise noted that “there should be a difference between a police response and a military response” in law enforcement.

During attempts to contain public protests in the aftermath of the shooting, police in Ferguson used high-powered weapons, teargas, body armour and even armoured vehicles of types commonly used by the U.S. military during wartime situations. Now, it appears the 1033 programme will likely come under heavy scrutiny in coming months.

“Congress established this programme out of real concern that local law enforcement agencies were literally outgunned by drug criminals. We intended this equipment to keep police officers and their communities safe from heavily armed drug gangs and terrorist incidents,” Carl Levin, chair of the powerful Senate Armed Services Committee, said Friday.

“[W]e will review this programme to determine if equipment provided by the Defense Department is being used as intended.”

Drugs and terrorism

Despite this unusual bipartisan agreement over the dangers of a militarised police force, there appears to be no extension of this concern to rising U.S. support for militarised law enforcement in other countries.

While a 2011 law requires annual reporting on U.S. assistance to foreign police, that data is not yet available. However, during 2009, the most recent data available, Washington provided more than 3.5 billion dollars in foreign assistance for police activities, particularly in Afghanistan, Colombia, Iraq, Mexico, Pakistan and the Palestinian Territories.

According to an official report from 2011, “the United States has increased its emphasis on training and equipping foreign police as a means of supporting a wide range of U.S. foreign-policy goals,” particularly in the context of the wars on drugs and terrorism.

In the anti-terror fight, African countries are perhaps the most significant recipients of new U.S. security aid. Yet a new report from Human Rights Watch (HRW) highlights the dangers of this approach, focusing on the U.S.-supported Anti-Terrorism Police Unit (ATPU) in Kenya.

The report, released Monday, builds on previous allegations against the ATPU of arbitrary arrests, enforced disappearances and extrajudicial killings. Yet neither the Kenyan authorities nor the ATPU’s main donors – the United States and United Kingdom – have seriously investigated these longstanding allegations, HRW says.

Washington’s support for the ATPU has been significant, amounting to 19 million dollars in 2012 alone. Yet while U.S. law mandates a halting of aid pending investigation of credible reports of rights abuse, HRW says Washington “has not scaled down its assistance to the unit”.

“The goals of supporting the police in general are laudable and in line with concerns over rule of law,” Jehanne Henry, a senior researcher with HRW’s Africa division, told IPS.

“The problem here is it’s clear that, notwithstanding the goals of the assistance, it’s serving to undermine rule of law because the ATPU is taking matters into its own hands. So, our call is for donors to be smarter about providing this kind of assistance.”

Unseen since the 1980s

Meanwhile, Mexico and Latin American countries have been seeing an uptick in U.S. assistance for security forces as part of efforts to crack down on the drug trade.

“Currently the Central American governments are relying more and on their militaries to address the recent surge in violence,” Adriana Beltran, a senior associate for citizen security at the Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA), a watchdog group here.

“While the U.S. is saying it’s not providing any assistance to these forces, there is significant assistance being provided through the Department of Defence for counter-narcotics, which is channelled through the militaries of these countries.”

According to a new paper from Alexander Main, a senior associate at the Center for Economic and Policy Research (CEPR), a think tank here, U.S. security assistance to the region began strengthening again during the latter years of President George W. Bush’s time in office.

“Funding allocated to the region’s police and military forces climbed steadily upward to levels unseen since the U.S.-backed ‘dirty wars’ of the 1980s,” Main writes, noting that a “key model” for bilateral assistance has been Colombia. Since 1999, an eight-billion-dollar programme in that country has seen “the mass deployment of military troops and militarized police forces to both interdict illegal drugs and counter left-wing guerrilla groups”.

Yet last year, nearly 150 NGOs warned that U.S. policies of this type, which “promote militarization to address organized crime”, had been ineffective. Further, the groups said, such an approach had resulted in “a dramatic surge in violent crime, often reportedly perpetrated by security forces themselves.”

Mexico has been a particularly prominent recipient of U.S. security aid around the war on drugs.

“From the 1990s onward, the trend has been to encourage the Mexican government to involve the military in drug operations – and, over the past two years, also in public security,” Maureen Meyer, a senior associate on Mexico for WOLA, told IPS.

In the process, she says, civilian forces, too, have increasingly received military training, leading to concerns over human rights violations and excessive use of force, as well as a lack of knowledge over how to deal with local protests – concerns startlingly similar to those now coming out of Ferguson, Missouri.

“You can see how disturbing this trend is in the United States, and we are concerned about a similar trend towards militarised police forces in Latin American countries,” Meyer notes. “We have a lot of military equipment and hardware looking for a place to end up, and that tends to be local law enforcement.”

Edited by: Kitty Stapp

The writer can be reached at cbiron@ips.org

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