Inter Press Service » Carey L. Biron http://www.ipsnews.net Turning the World Downside Up Tue, 23 Sep 2014 14:07:54 +0000 en-US hourly 1 http://wordpress.org/?v=3.9.2 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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U.S. Waives Sanctions on Myanmar Timberhttp://www.ipsnews.net/2014/08/u-s-waives-sanctions-on-myanmar-timber/?utm_source=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_campaign=u-s-waives-sanctions-on-myanmar-timber http://www.ipsnews.net/2014/08/u-s-waives-sanctions-on-myanmar-timber/#comments Thu, 14 Aug 2014 20:49:42 +0000 Carey L. Biron http://www.ipsnews.net/?p=136138 Commercial logging and firewood extraction for domestic use have accelerated Myanmar's deforestation rates in the last three decades. Credit: Amantha Perera/IPS

Commercial logging and firewood extraction for domestic use have accelerated Myanmar's deforestation rates in the last three decades. Credit: Amantha Perera/IPS

By Carey L. Biron
WASHINGTON, Aug 14 2014 (IPS)

Civil society groups are split over a decision by the U.S. government to waive sanctions on Myanmar’s timber sector for one year.

The decision, which went into effect late last month, is being hailed by some as an opportunity for community-led and sustainability initiatives to take root in Myanmar, where lucrative forestry revenues have long been firmly controlled by the military and national elites. The European Union, too, is currently working to normalise its relations with the Myanmarese timber sector.“The concern is that the system that is gaining traction with the international timber industry is to bypass any national systemic forestry reform process.” -- Kevin Woods of Forest Trends

Yet others are warning that Washington has taken the decision too soon, before domestic conditions in Myanmar are able to support such a change.

“Lifting sanctions on the timber industry now appears to be a premature move by the U.S., and risks lessening Burma’s impetus towards reform,” Ali Hines, a land campaigner with Global Witness, a watchdog group, told IPS.

“Burma is not yet in a position to state convincingly where and how timber is sourced, meaning that U.S. importers and traders have little way of knowing whether Burmese timber is illegal, or linked to social or environmental harm.”

In June, Washington granted a limited one-year license to the 200 members of the U.S.-based International Wood Products Association (IWPA) to engage in transactions with the Myanma Timber Enterprise, the state logging agency. U.S. officials say the aim of the decision is to allow U.S. companies and customers to help strengthen reforms in the Myanmarese timber trade, hopefully promoting transparency and building nascent sustainability practices.

“Interaction with responsible business can help build basic capacity so that Burma can begin to tackle the long-term systemic issues present in its extractive sectors,” Kerry S. Humphrey, a media advisor with the U.S. State Department, told IPS.

“The State Department has been in consultations with IWPA to ensure that any trade conducted under this license is in line with U.S. Government policies, including promoting sustainable forest management and legal supply chains.”

Humphrey notes that IWPA will now be required to file quarterly reports with the State Department on its “progress in helping to ensure legal timber supply chains”.

Yet critics worry this will simply create two parallel timber sectors, one licit and another that is little changed. The industry, as with Myanmar’s broader extractives sector, has long been notorious for deep corruption and human rights abuses.

“The concern is that the system that is gaining traction with the international timber industry is to bypass any national systemic forestry reform process,” Kevin Woods, a Myanmar researcher with Forest Trends, a watchdog group, told IPS.

Instead, Woods says, the end result could be to “create a wall around a few government-managed timber reserves to feed global tropical timber demand, leaving the rest of the country’s forests located in ethnic conflict zones to be continually pillaged and sold across its borders.”

Free-for-all?

Nearly a half-decade after Myanmar began a stuttering process of pro-democratic reform, many today are increasingly concerned that this process is slowing or even reversing course. Late last month, 72 members of the U.S. Congress warned U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry that conditions in the country have “taken a sharp turn for the worse” over the past year and a half.

Kerry was in Myanmar over the past weekend, where he reportedly raised U.S. concerns over such regression with multiple top government officials.

Yet he also rejected concerns that Washington is “moving too quickly” in rolling back punitive bilateral sanctions on Myanmar. He had gone through “a long list of challenges” with Myanmarese officials, Kerry told journalists Sunday, “in a very, very direct way”.

With the removal of sanctions, however, many worry that Washington is losing important leverage. In the timber sector in particular, some question the extent to which U.S. and other foreign companies will have the wherewithal, or interest, to effect change on the ground in Myanmar – particularly given the tepid commitments made by the country’s government.

“This is not the time for U.S.-based timber importers to be investing in Burma,” Faith Doherty, a senior campaigner at the Environmental Investigation Agency, a watchdog group, told IPS.

“Secretary Kerry … raised serious questions as to the backsliding of reforms and continuing human rights abuses within the country – how do companies within the IWPA think they are able to avoid contributing to these issues that are prevalent throughout the timber sector?”

Indeed, some observers suggest that Myanmar’s opening-up has been accompanied by a sense of free-for-all.

“Illegal logging and natural resource grabbing, including land, in ethnic states and regions … have become worse since the reforms started and the influx of foreign investment into the country,” Paul Sein Twa, with the Burma Environmental Working Group, an advocacy organisation, told IPS.

“Remember, we are still in a fragile peace-building period and there is no rule of law in the conflict areas. So our recommendation is to go slowly on reforming law and policies – to open up more space, engage with civil society organisations and the ethnic armed groups.”

Certification momentum

Any ultimate success in reforming Myanmar’s forestry sector will depend on future actions by both the country’s government and the foreign companies that end up purchasing the country’s timber. Yet some are applauding the lifting of U.S. sanctions as an important opportunity to finally begin the work of reform.

“The problem with sanctions is that they restrict buyers in our country from engaging in the sector – the international marketplace, which today includes strong preferences for sustainable products, is inaccessible,” Josh Tosteson, a senior vice-president with the Rainforest Alliance, a group that engages in the certification of tropical forest products, told IPS.

“Particularly if the lifting of sanctions comes along with some commitments from significant buyers to work cooperatively to support and incentivise the march toward sustainability certification, that can inject some real energy to drive this process forward.”

This week, the Myanmar Forest Department accepted a proposal from the Rainforest Alliance for a pilot production community forest in the country’s south.

“Having market mechanisms there that provide a minimum preference and a new market norm that won’t allow anything other than responsible or sustainably produced products to enter the market – that will be the key element,” Tosteson says.

“Particularly in intra-Asian trade you’ll need to have buying companies get on board with these norms. That will be a significant challenge, but if they’re not stepping up to create these new market norms no other efforts will matter – illicit products will simply flow through the routes of least resistance.”

Edited by: Kitty Stapp

The writer can be reached at cbiron@ips.org

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IFC Warned of Systemic Safeguards Failures in Hondurashttp://www.ipsnews.net/2014/08/ifc-warned-of-systemic-safeguards-failures-in-honduras/?utm_source=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_campaign=ifc-warned-of-systemic-safeguards-failures-in-honduras http://www.ipsnews.net/2014/08/ifc-warned-of-systemic-safeguards-failures-in-honduras/#comments Wed, 13 Aug 2014 00:34:01 +0000 Carey L. Biron http://www.ipsnews.net/?p=136085 By Carey L. Biron
WASHINGTON, Aug 13 2014 (IPS)

For the second time this year, an internal auditor has criticised the World Bank’s private sector investment agency over dealings in Honduras, and is warning that similar problems are likely being experienced elsewhere.

The investigation found that the bank’s private sector investment agency, the International Finance Corporation (IFC), took on a significant stake in a Honduran bank but undertook “insufficient measures” to assess that institution’s own investments. These included at least one company involved in a deadly land dispute.“The philosophy of the World Bank is to ‘end poverty’, but what has happened in this process has been the opposite.” -- La Plataforma Agraria de Honduras

The auditor, known as the Compliance Advisor/Ombudsman (CAO), also levels a broader critique of the IFC’s investments in third-party groups such as the Honduran bank. When dealing with these “financial intermediaries”, the CAO warns, financial considerations appear to be receiving far more attention from officials than the environmental and social policies meant to safeguard local communities.

“IFC acquired an equity stake in a commercial bank with significant exposure to high risk sectors and clients, but which lacked capacity to implement IFC’s environmental and social requirements,” the CAO states in a report released Monday.

“The absence of an environmental and social review process that was commensurate to risk meant that key decision makers … were not presented with an adequate assessment of the risks that were attached to this investment.”

The report focuses on a 2011 IFC investment, worth 70 million dollars, in Banco Ficohsa, Honduras’s third-largest bank. CAO found that important information was withheld between IFC offices over the extent of business between Banco Ficohsa and Corporacion Dinant, an agribusiness company that for years has been accused of waging a violent campaign to expand its palm oil plantations in the country’s Aguan Valley.

In January, CAO issued critical findings on a separate IFC investment in Dinant, from 2009, worth 30 million dollars. Dinant is owned by Miguel Facusse Barjum, one of the wealthiest businessmen in the country and reportedly a backer of the 2009 military coup that ousted a pro-reform president.

Over the past half-decade, more than 100 people have reportedly been killed in the Aguan Valley in clashes between Dinant security personnel and local cooperatives.

IFC has put on hold the Dinant deal and enacted a plan aimed at ameliorating the situation. The new report does not find evidence that the Banco Ficohsa deal was aimed at funnelling additional funds to Dinant, but CAO researchers suggest that the effect was the same.

“[W]aiving a key financial covenant and then taking an equity position in Ficohsa … facilitated a significant ongoing flow of capital to Dinant, outside the framework of its environmental and social standards,” the report states.

Local civil society groups say the effect has been devastating.

“The philosophy of the World Bank is to ‘end poverty’, but what has happened in this process has been the opposite,” La Plataforma Agraria de Honduras, a Honduran network, told IPS in Spanish.

“Instead, we’ve seen greater wealth for corporations and transnational landowners and greater poverty for the poor, who have been driven from their lands. And although the previous CAO report was very critical, the World Bank has continued to finance Dinant through Ficohsa.”

Beneath the intermediaries

In a formal response also released Monday, the IFC does not dispute the CAO findings. But it does suggest that they are no longer relevant, following changes put in place in part in response to the January CAO report on Dinant.

New procedures, for instance, will now allow for additional oversight visits to “medium risk clients”. Multiple new processes will also aim to close information gaps of the type that led to the Ficohsa revelations, including the creation of a new vice-president-level position to focus on “risk and sustainability”.

“Under this new structure, [environmental and social] risk will receive the same weight and attention as financial and reputation risk,” two IFC vice-presidents wrote in a letter to CAO.

Yet the remarkably critical CAO report has already added momentum to an ongoing campaign to convince the World Bank Group to reform the IFC’s dealings with financial intermediaries such as Banco Ficohsa. Such deals have become increasingly important to the IFC’s portfolio over the past decade, but they have traditionally offered far less oversight for the agency.

In such projects, the IFC requires the intermediary to set up a system aimed at ensuring that stringent environmental and social safeguards are met. But analysis of the effects of this system on the ground is left to the intermediary.

“This issue has been questioned in many cases – where a financial intermediary is the one doing the disbursements and the IFC is completely separate and doesn’t know what’s going on,” Carla Garcia Zendejas, a programme director at the Center for International Environmental Law (CIEL), a Washington-based watchdog group, told IPS.

“That’s the case here. Even if you have a system in place to assess these risks, if you’re not doing that properly the whole system is worthless.”

Systemic reassessment

The CAO has repeatedly questioned the IFC’s policies on investments in financial intermediaries (a broad investigation can be found here). This time, the investigators are clear that the Honduras situation is likely not an isolated incident.

“[T]he shortcomings identified in this investigation … are indicative of a system of support to [financial intermediaries] which does not support IFC’s higher level environmental and social commitments,” CAO states.

“CAO’s findings raise concerns that IFC has, through its banking investments, an unanalyzed and unquantified exposure to projects with potential significant adverse environmental and social impacts.”

The auditor warns that, under current disclosure mechanisms, “this exposure is also effectively secret”, and calls for a “reassessment” of the agency’s management of social and environmental risk in its dealings with financial institutions.

Rights advocates note that similar concerns are cropping up in IFC investments in financial intermediaries elsewhere.

“One of this report’s main findings is that there is a breakdown in the IFC’s systems approach to [financial intermediaries], especially in risk categorization,” Jelson Garcia, of the Bank Information Center (BIC), a watchdog group here, told IPS in an e-mailed statement. “This … links to recent cases in Myanmar and India as yet another example of the IFC needing to take stringent and urgent reforms of its financial markets lending approach.”

Advocacy groups say a primary concern is the IFC’s institutional culture, which they say prioritises the volume of loans disbursed over their quality. BIC, CIEL and others are now calling on World Bank Group President Jim Yong Kim to order the preparation of a reform plan in time for the next big World Bank Group meetings, in October.

Edited by: Kitty Stapp

The writer can be reached at cbiron@ips.org

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Forest Rights Offer Major Opportunity to Counter Climate Changehttp://www.ipsnews.net/2014/07/forest-rights-offer-major-opportunity-to-counter-climate-change/?utm_source=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_campaign=forest-rights-offer-major-opportunity-to-counter-climate-change http://www.ipsnews.net/2014/07/forest-rights-offer-major-opportunity-to-counter-climate-change/#comments Thu, 24 Jul 2014 00:14:31 +0000 Carey L. Biron http://www.ipsnews.net/?p=135713 Salvadorans Elsy Álvarez and María Menjivar – with her young daughter – planning plantain seedlings in a clearing in the forest. Credit: Claudia Ávalos/IPS

Salvadorans Elsy Álvarez and María Menjivar – with her young daughter – planning plantain seedlings in a clearing in the forest. Credit: Claudia Ávalos/IPS

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

The international community is failing to take advantage of a potent opportunity to counter climate change by strengthening local land tenure rights and laws worldwide, new data suggests.

In what researchers say is the most detailed study on the issue to date, new analysis suggests that in areas formally overseen by local communities, deforestation rates are dozens to hundreds of times lower than in areas overseen by governments or private entities. Anywhere from 10 to 20 percent of worldwide greenhouse gas emissions are attributed to deforestation each year."This model of government-owned and -managed forests usually doesn’t work. Instead, it often creates an open-access free-for-all.” -- Caleb Stevens

The findings were released Thursday by the World Resources Institute, a think tank here, and the Rights and Resources Initiative, a global network that focuses on forest tenure.

“This approach to mitigating climate change has long been undervalued,” a report detailing the analysis states. “[G]overnments, donors, and other climate change stakeholders tend to ignore or marginalize the enormous contribution to mitigating climate change that expanding and strengthening communities’ forest rights can make.”

Researchers were able to comb through high-definition satellite imagery and correlate findings on deforestation rates with data on differing tenure approaches in 14 developing countries considered heavily forested. Those areas with significant forest rights vested in local communities were found to be far more successful at slowing forest clearing, including the incursion of settlers and mining companies.

In Guatemala and Brazil, strong local tenure resulted in deforestation rates 11 to 20 times lower than outside of formally recognised community forests. In parts of the Mexican Yucatan the findings were even starker – 350 times lower.

Meanwhile, the climate implications of these forests are significant. Standing, mature forests not only hold massive amounts of carbon, but they also continually suck carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere.

“We know that at least 500 million hectares of forest in developing countries are already in the hands of local communities, translating to a bit less than 40 billion tonnes of carbon,” Andy White, the Rights and Resources Initiative (RRI)’s coordinator, told IPS.

“That’s a huge amount – 30 times the amount of total emissions from all passenger vehicles around the world. But much of the rights to protect those forests are weak, so there’s a real risk that we could lose those forests and that carbon.”

White notes that there’s been a “massive slowdown” in the recognition of indigenous and other community rights over the past half-decade, despite earlier global headway on the issue. But he now sees significant potential to link land rights with momentum on climate change in the minds of policymakers and the donor community.

“In developing country forests, you have this history of governments promoting deforestation for agriculture but also opening up forests through roads and the promotion of colonisation and mining,” White says.

“At the same time, these same governments are now trying to talk about climate change, saying they’re concerned about reducing emission. To date, these two hands haven’t been talking to each other.”

Lima link

The new findings come just ahead of two major global climate summits. In September, 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 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, but few have directly connected this potential with local tenure.

“The international community hasn’t taken this link nearly as far as it can go, and it’s important that policymakers are made aware of this connection,” Caleb Stevens, a proper rights specialist at the World Resources Institute (WRI) and the new report’s principle author, told IPS.

“Developed country governments can commit to development assistance agencies to strengthen forest tenure as part of bilateral agreements. They can also commit to strengthen these rights through finance mechanisms like the new Green Climate Fund.”

Currently the most well-known, if contentious, international mechanism aimed at reducing deforestation is the U.N.’s REDD+ initiative, which since 2008 has dispersed nearly 200 million dollars to safeguard forest in developing countries. Yet critics say the programme has never fully embraced the potential of community forest management.

“REDD+ was established because it is well known that deforestation is a significant part of the climate change problem,” Tony LaVina, the lead forest and climate negotiator for the Philippines, said in a statement.

“What is not as widely understood is how effective forest communities are at protecting their forest from deforestation and increasing forest health. This is why REDD+ must be accompanied by community safeguards.”

Two-thirds remaining

Meanwhile, WRI’s Stevens says that current national-level prioritisation of local tenure is a “mixed bag”, varying significantly from country to country.

He points to progressive progress being made in Liberia and Kenya, where laws have started to be reformed to recognise community rights, as well as in Bolivia and Nepal, where some 40 percent of forests are legally under community control. Following a 2013 court ruling, Indonesia could now be on a similar path.

“Many governments are still quite reluctant to stop their attempts access minerals and other resources,” Stevens says. “But some governments realise the limitations of their capacity – that this model of government-owned and -managed forests usually doesn’t work. Instead, it often creates an open-access free-for-all.”

Not only are local communities often more effective at managing such resources than governments or private entities, but they can also become significant economic beneficiaries of those forests, eventually even contributing to national coffers through tax revenues.

Certainly there is scope for such an expansion. RRI estimates that the 500 million hectares currently under community control constitute just a third of what communities around the world are actively – and, the group says, legitimately – claiming.

“The world should rapidly scale up recognition of local forest rights even if they only care about the climate – even if they don’t care about the people, about water, women, biodiversity,” RRI’s White says.

“Actually, of course, people do care about all of these other issues. That’s why a strategy of strengthening local forest rights is so important and a no-brainer – it will deliver for the climate as well as reduce poverty.”

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U.S. Debating “Historic” Support for Off-Grid Electricity in Africahttp://www.ipsnews.net/2014/07/u-s-debating-historic-support-for-off-grid-electricity-in-africa/?utm_source=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_campaign=u-s-debating-historic-support-for-off-grid-electricity-in-africa http://www.ipsnews.net/2014/07/u-s-debating-historic-support-for-off-grid-electricity-in-africa/#comments Mon, 21 Jul 2014 23:02:57 +0000 Carey L. Biron http://www.ipsnews.net/?p=135654 Sub-Saharan Africa has large potential for hydropower generation, but is yet to exploit it. Pictured here is the Kariba Dam. Credit: Kristin Palitza/IPS

Sub-Saharan Africa has large potential for hydropower generation, but is yet to exploit it. Pictured here is the Kariba Dam. Credit: Kristin Palitza/IPS

By Carey L. Biron
WASHINGTON, Jul 21 2014 (IPS)

Pressure is building here for lawmakers to pass a bill that would funnel billions of dollars of U.S. investment into strengthening Africa’s electricity production and distribution capabilities, and could offer broad new support for off-grid opportunities.

With half of the U.S. Congress having already acted on the issue, supporters are now hoping that the Senate will follow suit before a major summit takes place here during the first week of August. That event is expected to include heads of state or representatives from as many as 50 African countries."We could see an energy revolution that looks similar to what happened with mobile phones – leapfrogging centralised systems altogether and moving towards transformative solutions.” -- Justin Guay

The summit, the first time that such an event has been organised in Washington, will focus in particular on investment opportunities. As such, many are hoping that the three-day event’s centrepiece will be President Barack Obama’s signing of a broad investment deal aimed at Africa’s power sector.

“The overwhelming majority of the African leaders are going to be coming to Washington emphasising trade and investment, and in that context this issue is very central to their many constituencies – touching on economic, political and social issues,” Ben Leo, a senior fellow at the Center for Global Development, a think tank here, told IPS.

“Coming forward with something concrete that will lead to additional capital, tools or engagement will be noticed and welcomed. But lack thereof would also have a message for African leaders and others travelling to Washington.”

A U.S. Senate subcommittee did pass a bill, called the Energize Africa Act, late last month, but much remains to be done. The legislation now needs to be voted on by the full Senate, after which the final proposal would have to be brought into alignment with a similar bill voted through by the House of Representatives in May.

Meanwhile, the entire Congress is scheduled to go into recess for a month at the end of July. Still, backroom talks are reportedly well underway.

“There’s growing pressure and momentum in the Senate, as well as a growing appreciation of how doing this is both strategic and important,” Leo says. “Not having a bill to sign would certainly be a missed opportunity in terms of the optics and concreteness of action, either before or when everyone’s in Washington.”

Some 68 percent of the sub-Saharan population lacks access to electricity. Both the House and Senate bills would seek to assist African countries in expanding basic electricity access to some 50 million people.

“Our support for this bill is a direct response to what we hear from African leaders, citizens and global development experts,” Tom Hart, U.S. executive director of ONE, an advocacy group that focuses on eliminating poverty in Africa and has mounted a major campaign in favour of the Senate bill, said in a statement.

“[O]ne of the biggest challenges for overcoming extreme poverty is the inability for millions of people to access the basic electricity necessary to power health clinics, farms, schools, factories and businesses.”

Beyond the grid

The current legislative push comes a year after President Obama unveiled a new initiative called Power Africa, proposed during his June 2013 trip to the continent. Seen as the president’s signature development plan for the region, Power Africa aims to double energy access in sub-Saharan countries through a mix of public and private investment.

While Power Africa is ambitious, its long-term impact greatly depends on the legislation currently under debate.

For instance, while Power Africa directly affects just six countries, the bills before Congress take a continental approach. Likewise, as an executive-level project, the initiative’s policy priorities can only be cemented through full legislation.

Power Africa initially came under significant fire from environmental and some development groups for its reliance on fossil fuel (particularly natural gas) and centralised power projects. Many groups say that such a focus is ultimately counterproductive for poor and marginalised communities.

Yet last month, the United States announced a billion-dollar initiative to focus on off-grid energy projects across the continent. This approach could now be codified through the legislative discussions currently taking place in Congress.

“Congress is now looking to pass a bill that would be relatively historic in terms of its support for beyond-the-grid markets,” Justin Guay, Washington representative for the Sierra Club, a conservation and advocacy group, told IPS. “The [Senate] bill is the first legislation we’ve seen starting to drive investment to unlock that potential.”

To date, Guay says, most investment from the U.S. government and multilateral agencies has skewed in favour of fossil fuels and centralised power generation. For the first time, the new legislation could start to balance out this mix – a potential boon for the environment and local communities alike.

“If you look at the energy access problem in sub-Saharan Africa, it’s largely a rural issue. So this bill could stimulate distributed, clean-energy solutions that can get into the hands of poor populations today, rather than forcing them to wait decades in the dark for power,” Guay says.

“In this way, we could see an energy revolution that looks similar to what happened with mobile phones – leapfrogging centralised systems altogether and moving towards transformative solutions.”

The House’s companion bill includes fewer progressive provisions than the Senate version, but it also doesn’t include amendments that could deliberately doom the legislation. Still, it remains to be seen how conservatives in the House react to the Senate’s proposals.

Strengthened support

These new opportunities have broadened support for the Senate’s legislation. On Friday, for instance, the Global Off Grid Lighting Association, a Germany-based trade group, expressed its “strong support” for the Energize Africa Act.

The legislation is also being welcomed by African environmentalists.

“We believe this bill has emerged as a strong source of support for our efforts to address energy poverty,” Mithika Mwenda, secretary general of the Pan African Climate Justice Alliance, said in a letter to U.S. lawmakers from earlier this month.

“We are particularly supportive of new efforts to expand loan guarantee authority at USAID” – the main U.S. foreign aid agency – “as well as the goal of ending kerosene based lighting. Both of these aspects are critical to ending energy poverty in poor rural areas.”

Meanwhile, both the House and Senate bills have enjoyed an unusual level of bipartisan support. Still, it’s not clear whether that will translate into the passage of a new law – particularly by the U.S.-Africa Leaders Summit, slated for Aug. 4-6.

“There’s not a lot of time left, so it’s is very difficult,” the Center for Global Development’s Leo says. “However, if it doesn’t pass by the summit, the summit will invariably create a lot of action shortly thereafter.”

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U.S. Accused of Forcing EU to Accept Tar Sands Oilhttp://www.ipsnews.net/2014/07/u-s-accused-of-forcing-eu-to-accept-tar-sands-oil/?utm_source=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_campaign=u-s-accused-of-forcing-eu-to-accept-tar-sands-oil http://www.ipsnews.net/2014/07/u-s-accused-of-forcing-eu-to-accept-tar-sands-oil/#comments Thu, 17 Jul 2014 23:59:06 +0000 Carey L. Biron http://www.ipsnews.net/?p=135619 Mining tar sands oil at Fort McMurray in Alberta, Canada. Credit: Chris Arsenault/IPS

Mining tar sands oil at Fort McMurray in Alberta, Canada. Credit: Chris Arsenault/IPS

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

Newly publicised internal documents suggest that U.S. negotiators are working to permanently block a landmark regulatory proposal in the European Union aimed at addressing climate change, and instead to force European countries to import particularly dirty forms of oil.

Environmentalists, working off of documents released through open government requests, say U.S. trade representatives are responding to frustrations voiced by the oil and gas industry here. This week, U.S. and E.U. officials are in Brussels for the sixth round of talks towards what would be the world’s largest free-trade area, known as the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP).“These documents show that the U.S. is simply not interested in an open, transparent [negotiation] process.” -- Bill Waren

“These documents show that the U.S. is simply not interested in an open, transparent [negotiation] process,” Bill Waren, a senior trade analyst with Friends of the Earth U.S., a watchdog group, told IPS. “Rather, U.S. representatives have been lobbying on the [E.U. regulatory proposal] in a way that reflects the interests of Chevron, ExxonMobil and others.”

The oil industry has repeatedly expressed concern over the European Union’s potential tightening of regulations around transport fuel emissions, first proposed in 2009 for what’s known as the Fuel Quality Directive (FQD). Yet according to a report released Thursday by Friends of the Earth Europe, the sector now appears to have convinced the U.S. government to work to permanently block the implementation of this standard.

Current negotiating texts for the TTIP talks are unavailable. But critics say the negotiations are forcing open the massive E.U market for a particularly heavy form of petroleum known as tar sands oil, significant deposits of which are in the Canadian province of Alberta.

“Since the adoption of the revised Fuel Quality Directive in 2009, the international oil companies … petroleum refiners, the Cana­dian government and the Albertan provincial government have spent enormous resources and used aggressive lobbying tactics to delay and weaken the implementation proposal,” the new report, which is being supported by a half-dozen environmental groups, states.

“The oil industry and the Canadian government … are afraid that the FQD could set a precedent by recognising and labelling tar sands as highly polluting and inspire similar legislation elsewhere.”

Safeguarding investments

At issue is the mechanism by which the European Union would determine the greenhouse gas emissions of various types of oil and gas. As part of Europe’s broader climate pledges, the FQD was revised to reduce the emissions of transport fuels by six percent by the end of the decade.

In 2011, the E.U. proposed that tar sands and other unconventional oils be formally characterised as having higher greenhouse gas “intensity” than conventional oil, given that they require more energy to produce – 23 percent higher, according to a study for the European Commission.

Yet tar sands have received massive interest from oil majors in recent years. Some 150 billion dollars were invested in Canadian tar sands between 2001 and 2012, according to Friends of the Earth, a figure expected to grow to nearly 200 billion dollars through 2022.

“Major oil investors want to immediately move as much tar sands oil as possible to Europe,” Waren says. “Over the longer term, they want to get the investments that will allow them to develop the infrastructure necessary to ship that exceptionally dirty fossil fuel to Europe.”

Many investors likely assumed the Canadian tar sands oil would have a ready market in the United States. But not only is the U.S. economy reducing its dependence on oil – particularly imports – but the trans-national transport of Canadian tar sands oils has become a major political flashpoint here, and remains uncertain.

So, last year, oil lobbyists here began to push U.S. trade representatives to use the nascent TTIP talks to safeguard the E.U. market for unconventional oils.

“[I]f the EU approves the proposed amendment to the FQD … it would adversely affect the U.S.-EU relationship, potentially eliminating a $32 billion-a-year flow of trade,” David Friedman, a vice-president with American Fuel & Petrochemical Manufacturers, a major trade association, wrote in a May 2013 letter to the top U.S. trade official.

Now, according to an internal European Commission e-mail uncovered by Friends of the Earth Europe and outlined in the new report, U.S. trade representatives appear to be echoing this analysis.

“[T]he US Mission informed us formally that the US authorities have concerns about the transparency and process, as well as substantive concerns about the existing proposal (the singling out of two crudes – Canada and Venezuela,” the letter, said to be from October 2013, reportedly states.

Canada and Venezuela have the world’s largest deposits of tar sands oil.

The letter also notes that the U.S. negotiators would prefer a “system of averaging out the crudes”, meaning that all forms of oil would simply receive one median score regarding their emissions intensity. This would effectively lift any E.U. bar on unconventional oils – and, according to the Friends of the Earth analysis, add an additional 19 million tons of carbon dioxide to the atmosphere.

‘Threatening’ climate policies

The new revelations come just a week after the leaking of a TTIP paper on E.U. energy policy, which would push the United States to abolish restrictions and automatically approve crude oil exports to the European Union. The document offered a rare glimpse into notoriously secret talks.

“We strongly oppose attempts by the E.U. to use this trade agreement, negotiated behind closed doors, to secure automatic access to U.S. oil and gas,” Ilana Solomon, director of the Responsible Trade Program at the Sierra Club, a conservation and watchdog group, told IPS. “I think there’s strong support for continued restrictions on this issue among both the public and policymakers, due to the implications for both energy security and the climate.”

The new disclosures have indeed caught the attention of the U.S. Congress. Last week, 11 lawmakers renewed a line of questioning from last year about Washington’s influence on E.U. tar sands policy.

“We reiterate that actions pressuring the EU to alter its FQD would be inconsistent with the goals expressed in President Obama’s Climate Action Plan,” the lawmakers wrote to the U.S. trade representative, Michael Froman, “and we remain concerned that trade and investment rules may be being used to undermine or threaten important climate policies of other nations.”

Yet such concerns may already be too late.

Last month, media reports suggested that the European Commission is now considering a proposal to go with the U.S.-pushed “averaging” approach to its fuel-emissions calculation. The same week, Europe’s first shipment of tar sands oil – 570,000 barrels from Canada – reportedly arrived on Spanish shores.

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Major Companies Push for More, Easier Renewable Energyhttp://www.ipsnews.net/2014/07/major-companies-push-for-more-easier-renewable-energy/?utm_source=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_campaign=major-companies-push-for-more-easier-renewable-energy http://www.ipsnews.net/2014/07/major-companies-push-for-more-easier-renewable-energy/#comments Mon, 14 Jul 2014 22:08:31 +0000 Carey L. Biron http://www.ipsnews.net/?p=135556 According to the U.S. government, only around 13 percent of domestic energy production last year was from renewable sources. Credit: Miriam Mannak/IPS

According to the U.S. government, only around 13 percent of domestic energy production last year was from renewable sources. Credit: Miriam Mannak/IPS

By Carey L. Biron
WASHINGTON, Jul 14 2014 (IPS)

Some of the largest companies in the United States have banded together to call for a substantial increase in the production of renewable electricity, as well as for more simplicity in purchasing large blocs of green energy.

A dozen U.S-based companies, most of which operate globally, say they want to significantly step up the amount of renewable energy they use, but warn that production levels remain too low and procurement remains too complex. The 12 companies have now put forward a set of principles aimed at helping to “facilitate progress on these challenges” and lead to a broader shift in the market.“The problem these companies are seeing is that they’re paying too much, even though they know that cost-effective renewable energy is available." -- Marty Spitzer

“We would like our efforts to result in new renewable power generation,” the Corporate Renewable Energy Buyers’ Principles, released Friday, state. The companies note “our desire to promote new projects, ensure our purchases add new capacity to the system, and that we buy the most cost-competitive renewable energy products.”

The principles consist of six broad reforms, aimed at broadening and strengthening the renewable energy marketplace. Companies want more choice in their procurement options, greater cost competitiveness between renewable and traditional power sources, and “simplified processes, contracts and financing” around the long-term purchase of renewables.

Founding signatories to the principles, which were shepherded by civil society, include manufacturers and consumer goods companies (General Motors, Johnson & Johnson, Mars, Proctor & Gamble), tech giants (Facebook, HP, Intel, Sprint) and major retailers (Walmart, the outdoor-goods store REI).

These 12 companies combined have renewable energy consumption targets of more than eight million megawatt hours of energy through the end of this decade, according to organisers. Yet the new principles, meant to guide policy discussions, have come about due to frustration over the inability of the U.S. renewables market to keep up with spiking demand.

“The problem these companies are seeing is that they’re paying too much, even though they know that cost-effective renewable energy is available. These companies are used to having choices,” Marty Spitzer, director of U.S. climate policy at the World Wildlife Fund (WWF), a conservation and advocacy group that helped to spearhead the principles, told IPS.

WWF was joined in the initiative by the World Resources Institute and the Rocky Mountain Institute, both think tanks that focus on issues of energy and sustainability.

“The companies have also recognised that it’s often very difficult to procure renewables and bring them to their facilities,” Spitzer continues. “While most of them didn’t think of it this way at first, they’ve now realised that they have been experiencing a lot of the same problems.”

‘Too difficult’

In recent years, nearly two-thirds of big U.S. businesses have created explicit policies around climate goals and renewable energy usage, according to WWF. While there is increasing political and public compunction behind these new policies, a primary goal remains simple cost-cutting and long-term efficiencies.

“A significant part of the value to us from renewable energy is the ability to lock in energy price certainty and avoid fuel price volatility,” the principles note.

In part due to political deadlock in Washington, particularly around issues of climate and energy, renewable production in the United States remains too low to keep up with this corporate demand. According to the U.S. government, only around 13 percent of domestic energy production last year was from renewable sources.

Accessing even that small portion of the market remains unwieldy.

“We know cost-competitive renewable energy exists but the problem is that it is way too difficult for most companies to buy,” Amy Hargroves, director of corporate responsibility and sustainability for Sprint, a telecommunications company, said in a statement.

“Very few companies have the knowledge and resources to purchase renewable energy given today’s very limited and complex options. Our hope is that by identifying the commonalities among large buyers, the principles will catalyse market changes that will help make renewables more affordable and accessible for all companies.”

One of the most far-reaching sustainability commitments has come from the world’s largest retailer, Walmart. A decade ago, the company set an “aspirational” goal for itself, to be supplied completely by renewable energy.

Last year, it created a more specific goal aimed at helping to grow the global market for renewables, pledging to drive the production or procurement of seven billion kilowatt hours of renewable energy globally by the end of 2020, a sixfold increase over 2010. (The company is also working to increase the energy efficiency of its stores by 20 percent over this timeframe.)

While the company has since become a leader in terms of installing solar and wind projects at its stores and properties, it has experienced frustrations in trying to make long-term bulk purchases of renewable electricity from U.S. utilities.

“The way we finance is important … cost-competitiveness is very important, as is access to longer-term contracts,” David Ozment, senior director of energy at Walmart, told IPS. “We like to use power-purchase agreements to finance our renewable energy projects, but currently only around half of the states in the U.S. allow for these arrangements.”

Given Walmart’s size and scale, Ozment says the company is regularly asked by suppliers, regulators and utilities about what it is looking for in power procurement. The new principles, he says, offer a strong answer, providing direction as well as flexibility for whatever compulsion is driving a particular company’s energy choices, whether “efficiency, conservation or greenhouse gas impact”.

“We’ve seen the price of solar drop dramatically over the past five years, and we hope our participation helped in that,” he says. “Now, these new principles will hopefully create the scale to continue to drop the cost of renewables and make them more affordable for everyone.”

Internationally applicable

Ozment is also clear that the new principles need not apply only to U.S. operations, noting that the principles “dovetail” with what Walmart is already doing internationally.

In an e-mail, a representative for Intel, the computer chip manufacturer, likewise told IPS that the company is “interested in promoting renewables markets in countries where we have significant operations … at a high level, the need to make renewables both more abundant and easier to access applies outside the U.S.”

For his part, WWF’s Spitzer says that just one of the principles is specific to the U.S. regulatory context.

“Many other countries have their own instruments on renewable production,” he says, “but five out of these six principles are relevant and perfectly appropriate internationally.”

Meanwhile, both the principles and their signatories remain open-ended. Spitzer says that just since Friday he’s heard from additional companies interested in adding their support.

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Scepticism as “Green Goods” Trade Talks Beginhttp://www.ipsnews.net/2014/07/scepticism-as-green-goods-trade-talks-begin/?utm_source=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_campaign=scepticism-as-green-goods-trade-talks-begin http://www.ipsnews.net/2014/07/scepticism-as-green-goods-trade-talks-begin/#comments Fri, 11 Jul 2014 00:23:44 +0000 Carey L. Biron http://www.ipsnews.net/?p=135493 LM Glasfiber workers hoist a wind turbine blade in Grand Forks, North Dakota. Credit: Tu/cc by 2.0

LM Glasfiber workers hoist a wind turbine blade in Grand Forks, North Dakota. Credit: Tu/cc by 2.0

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

Formal negotiations began this week around the increasingly significant global trade in “environmental goods”, those technologies seen as environmentally beneficial, including in combating climate change.

Attempts have been made to liberalise this market for years. But on Tuesday, 13 countries, constituting nearly 90 percent of the current trade in green goods such as solar panels, wind turbines and wastewater treatment filters, came together in Geneva to try again to reach agreement."There is no definition yet of what actually constitutes an ‘environmental good’, and many of the goods being considered are actually harmful to the environment.” -- Ilana Solomon

Yet there remains significant confusion around the actual potential – or even broader aim – of the talks, towards what’s being called the Environmental Goods Agreement. Green groups are expressing open scepticism of the process, taking place under the World Trade Organisation (WTO).

“From our perspective, we think increasing trade in and use of environmentally beneficial products is incredibly important. But we have really serious concerns about the approach the WTO is taking,” Ilana Solomon, the director of the Responsible Trade Program at the Sierra Club, a conservation and advocacy group, told IPS.

“This approach is about removing tariffs on a list of products that are supposedly beneficial to the environment. But there is no definition yet of what actually constitutes an ‘environmental good’, and many of the goods being considered are actually harmful to the environment.”

The WTO talks are taking place between the United States, the European Union, China, Australia, Japan and others. Representatives are starting from a list of 54 product categories, agreed upon in 2012 among the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) grouping.

The APEC countries are now working to reduce tariffs on these products to below five percent by 2015.

Yet the list includes many items that can be used in ways that could be either environmentally positive or negative. This includes, for instance, waste incinerators, centrifuges, gas turbines, sludge compactors and a variety of technical machinery.

The list would also seem to largely exclude poor countries. Currently, only Costa Rica has joined what are otherwise industrialised and middle-income economies in the talks.

“Poor countries are probably not producing these items,” Kim Elliott, a senior researcher on trade at the Center for Global Development, a think tank here, told IPS. “If they don’t participate in these talks they’ll likely lose out around high tariffs, but they’re probably not going to be doing much exporting.”

While proponents tend to characterise the negotiations in terms of lowering overall prices for green goods, little is said of the potential impact on nascent domestic industries.

“There might well be reasons a developing country would want to develop its own industry in, say, solar panels or wind turbines,” the Sierra Club’s Solomon says. “But having low or no tariffs could impede the ability of these countries to develop their own domestic renewable energy industries.”

Knock-on effects?

The World Trade Organisation does not include climate change in its purview. Yet since the mid-1990s the multilateral organisation says it has worked to establish “a clear link between sustainable development and disciplined trade liberalization – in order to ensure that market opening goes hand in hand with environmental and social objectives.”

Momentum behind the new talks is in part due to a push from President Barack Obama. Last year, as part of a major new focus on climate, the president announced that U.S. officials would engage in the negotiations in order “to help more countries skip past the dirty phase of development and join a global low-carbon economy.”

The administration’s interest in the issue will also be shared by other proponents of expanded free trade. Multilateral trade talks have seen little to no progress over the past two decades, after all, so proponents hope that linking these issues could give a fillip to the multilateral system.

“Everybody, at least on paper, wants to do something on climate change, so this is seen as an issue that might be able to move,” the Center for Global Development’s Elliott says. “The idea is regarded as something of a win-win, as useful for the trading system and also for the planet.”

Of course, the U.S. government’s interest is also around strengthening U.S. exports, and as political pressures have risen around the world around climate change, the trade in green goods has quickly become a major force. According to official estimates, this market’s value doubled between 2011 and 2007, and stood at around a trillion dollars last year.

The U.S. share has been growing by eight percent per year since 2009, amounting to some 106 billion dollars last year.

Certainly business interests, in the United States and industrialised countries around the world, are showing significant interest in the new talks. On Tuesday, nearly 50 major business groups and trade associations wrote to the WTO negotiators to “strongly endorse” their efforts.

The industry groups also expressed hope that an accord around environmental goods could act as a catalyst for broader liberalisation.

“An ambitious [agreement] will further increase global trade in environmental goods, lowering the cost of addressing environmental and climate challenges by removing tariffs that can be as high as 35 percent,” the groups stated.

“In addition to its intrinsic commercial importance and desirability, a well-designed [agreement] can act as a stepping stone to lowering tariffs and other trade barriers in other sectors and associated value chains.”

Backdoor liberalisation

The U.S. administration may share this view. The Sierra Club’s Solomon points to a recent letter from Michael Froman, the United States’ top trade official, requesting the U.S. International Trade Commission to research the potential impact of trade liberalisation around environmental goods.

“In the absence of a universally accepted definition of an ‘environmental good,’” Froman wrote, “I request that, for the purpose of its analysis, the Commission refer to the items contained in the list attached to this letter.”

That list, which extends to 34 pages, contains hundreds of items not currently on the APEC list. These range from natural products (honey, palm oil, urea, coconut fibres, bamboo) to the technical (pipes and casings “of a kind used in drilling for oil and gas”) to the seemingly random (vacuum cleaners, cameras).

“This appears to suggest that this exercise isn’t about protecting the environment but rather about expanding the current model of free trade – a backdoor attempt to achieve liberalisation on a broad range of goods,” Solomon says.

“As this process moves forward, we’ll need a full environmental impact assessment of everything on the list under consideration. And it can’t just be the end uses that are examined, but rather the whole lifecycle of a product’s impact that is taken into account.”

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U.S. Overseas Coal Financing May Be Restartinghttp://www.ipsnews.net/2014/07/u-s-overseas-coal-financing-may-be-restarting/?utm_source=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_campaign=u-s-overseas-coal-financing-may-be-restarting http://www.ipsnews.net/2014/07/u-s-overseas-coal-financing-may-be-restarting/#comments Mon, 07 Jul 2014 21:51:58 +0000 Carey L. Biron http://www.ipsnews.net/?p=135416 Mauritians protest against the construction of a 100-megawatt (MW) coal power plant in Pointe-aux-Caves, on the west of the island. They say the project will cause irreparable damage to them and the environment of this Indian Ocean island nation. Credit: Nasseem Ackbarally/IPS

Mauritians protest against the construction of a 100-megawatt (MW) coal power plant in Pointe-aux-Caves, on the west of the island. They say the project will cause irreparable damage to them and the environment of this Indian Ocean island nation. Credit: Nasseem Ackbarally/IPS

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

Landmark new policies that have sharply curtailed U.S. financing for international coal projects may be rolled back, the result of a sudden, polarised fight over a little-known government agency here.

The debate revolves around an entity called the Export-Import Bank, which for much of the past century has made federal money available to promote U.S. exports.

In December, as part of President Barack Obama’s government-wide push to enact federal policies to counter global climate change, the bank voted to significantly limit its financing of overseas coal projects, unless they put in place expensive “carbon capture” technology to store emissions underground."To even have [the Ex-Im Bank] consider this coal project is an example of them going rogue – directly flouting restrictions they never supported in the first place.” -- Justin Guay

Multiple countries and international financial institutions have subsequently followed this model to put in place their own guidelines on energy-related funding.

“When it came to direct U.S. support, that policy change ended our ability to finance new coal plants, except in rare circumstances,” Justin Guay, a Washington representative for the Sierra Club, a conservation and advocacy group, told IPS.

“That was a historic step in curbing financing of the dirtiest and most outdated sources of energy. It was also one of the most significant pieces of progress we’ve had from this administration on fossil fuels.”

The agency did make exceptions for the poorest countries, however, allowing U.S. financing of coal projects in these countries if they use whatever is deemed the cleanest technology available. This loophole may now be significantly expanded to include many more countries, as part of a largely unrelated fight.

In recent months, conservative lawmakers here have seized on the institution, known as the Ex-Im Bank, as an example of government waste and corporate cronyism, given its role in subsidising certain U.S. businesses. The bank’s multi-year authorisation from the U.S. Congress needs to be renewed by the end of September, and in recent weeks a furious campaign has built around whether that approval should go forward.

On the chopping block may be the new coal policies, offered as a sweetener to draw back conservative lawmakers in favour of re-approving the Ex-Im Bank.

Coal compromise

Leading bipartisan compromise proposals in both the U.S. House and Senate would now see the bank’s authorisation extended for several more years but would also largely gut the coal policy, according to multiple reports.

“If we are truly committed to protecting our global environment, the U.S. should lead the world in clean coal technology and export that technology to the rest of the world,” Joe Manchin, a key lawmaker in charge of oversight for the Ex-Im Bank, said in a statement last week.

Manchin, a moderate Democrat from a coal-rich state, has reportedly proposed significantly expanding the number of poor countries that would be eligible for Ex-Im assistance around coal projects. Similar proposals are being worked on in the House of Representatives, though none of these have yet been made public.

Other lawmakers, too, have recently switched their views on the bank’s reauthorisation due to political pressures around coal. Presumably, a change on this issue could woo them to back the agency once again.

“[I]t is inappropriate to use the bank’s financing mechanisms to drive an ideological agenda rather than promote U.S. exports,” Shelley Moore Capito, a Republican in the House, said recently. “The administration’s policies come at a time when we should be ensuring the United States is leading the world in developing new coal plant technologies.”

Still, for some of the Ex-Im Bank’s most ardent critics, the attempt to link the agency’s re-authorisation to a weakening in its coal policies is not working.

“The Obama administration’s targeting of coal is absurd, but it is not important in the debate over the Export-Import Bank,” Dan Holler, communications director for Heritage Action for America, a conservative advocacy group, told IPS.

“While some lawmakers and special interest groups want to talk about coal, the real issue is whether the Bank’s charter deserves to be authorized at all. Heritage Action believes it should be allowed to expire.”

‘Rogue’ actions

The Ex-Im Bank’s new restrictions around coal would likely have a significant impact on overall U.S. support for such projects worldwide.

Of the agency’s massive budget – this year, 32 billion dollars – around a quarter consists of energy-related lending. And while assistance for coal projects has gone up and down over time, during some years the agency has offered some two billion dollars in financing for the industry.

That’s been seen by some as a misalignment of priorities: even as coal plants in the United States have been shutting down around tightened carbon regulation, the U.S. government has continued to finance more and more such projects overseas.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the Ex-Im Bank’s new coal policy was controversial from the start – not only among some lawmakers but also, reportedly, among the agency’s management. Just weeks after the new requirements were voted in, lawmakers were able to pass a little-noticed legal provision that temporarily stayed the change through September.

The bank, meanwhile, has used this interlude to begin consideration of a massive and contentious coal-fired power plant in Jharkhand, in northeastern India. That development was announced at the beginning of this month.

“The Bank is in the process of conducting a full due diligence review of the financial, technical and environmental aspects of the project,” Stevan M. Horning, a spokesperson for the agency, told IPS. He confirmed that, because of the recent legal wrangling, “no analysis is being performed with respect to the … project’s compliance with” the new coal guidelines, though it will be reviewed for the agency’s pre-existing safeguards.

Horning noted that no decision would be forthcoming on the project, known as Tilaiya, until next month at the earliest.

Environmental advocates, meanwhile, say the Ex-Im Bank is operating on its own, disregarding President Obama’s climate priorities.

“President Obama pushed for this new rule over the agency’s objections, and now we’re seeing them openly defy the president’s actions,” the Sierra Club’s Guay says.

“The agency operates under the president’s administration and is part of the push to fulfil his agenda. So to even have them consider this coal project is an example of them going rogue – directly flouting restrictions they never supported in the first place.”

He continues: “The administration and Congress will have to actively rein them in.”

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Obama Urged to Sanction Mozambique over Elephant, Rhino Poachinghttp://www.ipsnews.net/2014/07/obama-urged-to-sanction-mozambique-over-elephant-rhino-poaching/?utm_source=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_campaign=obama-urged-to-sanction-mozambique-over-elephant-rhino-poaching http://www.ipsnews.net/2014/07/obama-urged-to-sanction-mozambique-over-elephant-rhino-poaching/#comments Wed, 02 Jul 2014 23:33:29 +0000 Carey L. Biron http://www.ipsnews.net/?p=135347 Some 50,000 elephants are being killed each year in Africa, alongside 1,000 rhinos, leaving perhaps as few as 250,000 elephants in the wild globally. Credit: PJ KAPDostie/cc by 2.0

Some 50,000 elephants are being killed each year in Africa, alongside 1,000 rhinos, leaving perhaps as few as 250,000 elephants in the wild globally. Credit: PJ KAPDostie/cc by 2.0

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

Environmentalists are formally urging President Barack Obama to enact trade sanctions on Mozambique over the country’s alleged chronic facilitation of elephant and rhinoceros poaching through broad swathes of southern Africa.

Investigators say substantial evidence exists of Mozambique’s failure to abide by international conventions against wildlife trafficking, including to back up allegations of state complicity.“We believe that there are ex-military officials who are providing political protection to the [trafficking] syndicates who are arming and funding these poaching teams." -- Allan Thornton

While President Obama last year mounted a new initiative by the U.S. government to tackle international wildlife trafficking, with a particular focus on ivory, some say Mozambique’s actions are undermining those efforts – and threatening these species worldwide.

A new petition, publicly announced Wednesday, now provides evidence on the issue and urges the president to make use of legal authorities to encourage Mozambique to crack down on poachers.

“Mozambique continues to play an ever-growing and uncontained role in rhinoceros and elephant poaching,” Susie Ellis, executive director of the International Rhino Foundation, one of the petitioners, told IPS.

“Although they have been given direction by the international community to enact certain controls, those have been only superficial and have had no meaningful effect. If you look at the large-scale poaching and illegal trade in rhino horn and elephant ivory out of Mozambique, it’s directly undercut President Obama’s [efforts] on wildlife trafficking.”

Increasingly working hand in hand with organised crime, poachers over the past three years have killed record numbers of elephants and rhinoceroses, particularly in Africa. Some 50,000 elephants are being killed each year in Africa, alongside 1,000 rhinos, leaving perhaps as few as 250,000 elephants in the wild globally.

Driving this illicit market is increased consumer demand in Asia, particularly in China and Vietnam. According to a U.N. report from last year, large seizures of ivory bound for Asia have more than doubled since 2009.

The new petition focuses on the central international agreement around wildlife trafficking, known as the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES), and warns that Mozambique’s outsized role in African ivory poaching is diluting the convention’s effectiveness. The CITES standing committee is meeting next week in Switzerland.

“Available evidence indicates that Mozambican nationals constitute the highest number of foreign arrests for poaching in South Africa. Organized crime syndicates based in Mozambique are driving large scale illegal trade in rhino horn and elephant ivory,” the petition states.

“Given the scope and depth of the illegal killing and trade in rhino and elephant products by Mozambican nationals, we urge the United States to … enact substantial trade sanctions.”

High-level complicity

Supporters say that strong action by the Mozambican authorities would have a significant and immediate impact on the global supply of illicit ivory.

Officials reportedly estimate that 80 to 90 percent of all poachers in South Africa’s massive Kruger National Park are Mozambican nationals. Local groups say that on most nights more than a dozen separate poaching parties can be prowling the park, most from well-documented “poaching villages” located across the border in Mozambique.

Meanwhile, enforcement of wildlife-related legislation in Mozambique is said to be essentially non-existent, with penalties for poaching and trafficking thus far not effective. Yet changing that situation has been complicated by what appears to be state collusion.

“It’s impossible for that level of illegal activity to be going on without high-level complicity,” Allan Thornton, president of the Environmental Investigation Agency (EIA), a watchdog group based here and in London that co-authored the new petition, told IPS.

“We believe that there are ex-military officials who are providing political protection to the [trafficking] syndicates who are arming and funding these poaching teams. There is substantial evidence implicating both the police and military.”

Mozambique keeps strict control over the types of weapons used by the country’s poachers, Thornton notes, yet such weapons are available to the military. Similarly, police and military uniforms have repeatedly been found in poaching camps.

Thornton says that putting together the new petition took several months, due to the mass of evidence available.

“If all Mozambican citizens were prevented from illicitly crossing over the border, poaching would drop significantly. But there has been no enforcement on the Mozambique side, despite legal obligations under CITES,” he says.

“We believe that the Mozambique government should be held accountable for their activities and act rapidly against these poachers, criminal syndicates and those protecting them. They could close this trade literally in a week.

Unparalleled scope

Thornton says his office is not yet clear on whether the Obama administration has exerted diplomatic pressure on the Mozambique government over the issue of wildlife trafficking. But in filing the new petition, these groups are highlighting the fact that the president does indeed have the legal backing to act on the issue.

Under U.S. legislation known as the Pelly Amendment, the president is allowed to impose trade sanctions if a country is certified to be “diminishing the effectiveness” of an international conservation programme. (U.S. officials could not be reached for comment for this story.)

Further, there is notable precedent under which past determinations – set in motion by EIA petitions – have met with particular success. Two decades ago, for instance, a similar petition was lodged around the trafficking of rhinoceros and tiger parts through Taiwan into China.

That effort resulted in U.S. trade sanctions. Over the following two years, both the Taiwanese and Chinese governments engaged in a broad crackdown on these trades.

“This had a huge impact on reducing demand [for ivory] and reducing the poaching of rhinos virtually around the world,” Thornton says.

“We saw rhino populations stabilise worldwide, because two of the biggest markets had closed for demand. This is the same thing we’re now looking for in Mozambique.”

He continues: “And we’re hoping for a particularly prompt response, because the scope of illegal activities we’re currently seeing – where one country is sending hundreds of poachers into another country – is almost unparalleled.”

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