Inter Press Service » Best of the Year News and Views from the Global South Wed, 24 May 2017 22:39:39 +0000 en-US hourly 1 Zimbabwe’s Unfolding Humanitarian Disaster – We Visit the 18,000 People Forcibly Relocated to Ruling Party Farm Wed, 25 Jun 2014 21:21:09 +0000 Davison Mudzingwa and Francis Hweshe More than 18,000 people live in the Chingwizi transit camp in Mwenezi district, about 150 kms from their former homes in Chivi basin as they wait to be allocated one-hectare plots of land by the government. Credit: Davison Mudzingwa/IPS

More than 18,000 people live in the Chingwizi transit camp in Mwenezi district, about 150 kms from their former homes in Chivi basin as they wait to be allocated one-hectare plots of land by the government. Credit: Davison Mudzingwa/IPS

By Davison Mudzingwa and Francis Hweshe
MASVINGO, Zimbabwe, Jun 25 2014 (IPS)

As the villagers sit around the flickering fire on a pitch-black night lit only by the blurry moon, they speak, recounting how it all began.

They take turns, sometimes talking over each other to have their own experiences heard. When the old man speaks, everyone listens. “It was my first time riding a helicopter,” John Moyo* remembers.

“The soldiers came, clutching guns, forcing everyone to move. I tried to resist, for my home was not affected but they wouldn’t hear any of it.”

So started the long, painful and disorienting journey for the 70-year-old Moyo and almost 18,000 other people who had lived in the 50-kilometre radius of Chivi basin in Zimbabwe’s Masvingo province.“We don’t want this life of getting fed like birds.” -- John Moyo, displaced villager from Chivi basin

When heavy rains pounded the area in early January, the 1.8 billion cubic metre Tokwe-Mukosi dam’s wall breached.

Flooding followed, destroying homes and livestock. The government, with the help of non-governmental organisations, embarked on a rescue mission. And even unaffected homes in high-lying areas were evacuated by soldiers.

According to Moyo, whose home was not affected, this was an opportunity for the government, which had been trying to relocate those living near Chivi basin for sometime.

“They always said they wanted to establish an irrigation system and a game park in the area that covered our ancestral homes,” he tells IPS.

For Itai Mazanhi*, a 33-year-old father of three, the government had the best excuse to remove them from the land that he had known since birth.

“The graves of my forefathers are in that place,” he tells IPS. Mazanhi is from Gororo village.

After being temporarily housed in the nearby safe areas of Gunikuni and Ngundu in Masvingo province, the over 18,000 people or 3,000 families were transferred to Nuanetsi Ranch in the Chingwizi area of Mwenezi district, about 150 kms from their former homes.

 Chingwizi is an arid terrain near Triangle Estates, an irrigation sugar plantation concern owned by sugar giant Tongaat Hulett. The land here is conspicuous for the mopane and giant baobab trees that are synonymous with hot, dry conditions.

The crop and livestock farmers from Chivi basin have been forced to adjust in a land that lacks the natural fertility of their former land, water and adequate pastures for their livestock.

The dust road to the Chingwizi camp is a laborious 40-minute drive littered with sharp bumps and lurking roadside trenches.

From the top of an anthill, a vantage point at the entrance of this settlement reveals a rolling pattern of tents and zinc makeshift structures that stretch beyond the sight of the naked eye. At night, fires flicker faintly in the distance, and a cacophony of voices mix with the music from solar- and battery-powered radio sets. It’s the image of a war refugee relief camp.

A concern for the displaced families is the fact that they were settled in an area earmarked for a proposed biofuel project. The project is set to be driven by the Zimbabwe Bio-Energy company, a partnership between the Zimbabwe Development Trust and private investors. The state-owned Herald newspaper quoted the project director Charles Madonko saying resettled families could become sugarcane out-growers for the ethanol project.

This plan was subject to scathing attack from rights watchdog Human Rights Watch. In a report released last month, the organisation viewed this as a cheap labour ploy.

“The Zimbabwean army relocated 3,000 families from the flooded Tokwe-Mukorsi dam basin to a camp on a sugar cane farm and ethanol project jointly owned by the ruling Zimbabwe African National Union-Patriotic Front [ZANU-PF] and Billy Rautenbach, a businessman and party supporter,” read part of the report.

Sugar cane fields like this one in Chisumbanje are planned to feed the ethanol project in Mwenezi district. The displaced villagers from Chivi basin fear they will be used as cheap labourers. Credit: Davison Mudzingwa/IPS

Sugar cane fields like this one in Chisumbanje are planned to feed the ethanol project in Mwenezi district. The displaced villagers from Chivi basin fear they will be used as cheap labourers. Credit: Davison Mudzingwa/IPS

The sugarcane plantations will be irrigated by the water from the Tokwe-Mukosi dam. Upon completion, the dam is set to become Zimbabwe’s largest inland dam, with a capacity to irrigate over 25,000 hectares.

Community Tolerance Reconciliation and Development, COTRAD, a non-governmental organisation that operates in the Masvingo province sees the displacement of the 3,000 families as a brutal retrogression. The organisation says ordinary people are at the mercy of private companies and the government.

“The people feel like outcasts, they no longer feel like Zimbabweans,” Zivanai Muzorodzi, COTRAD programme manager, tells IPS.

Muzorodzi, whose organisation has been monitoring the land tussle before the floods, says the land surrounding the Tokwe-Mukosi dam basin was bought by individuals, mostly from the ruling ZANU-PF party.

“Villagers won’t own the land or the means of production. Only ZANU-PF bigwigs will benefit,” Muzorodzi says.

The scale of the habitats has posed serious challenges for the cash-strapped government of Zimbabwe. Humanitarian organisations such as Oxfam International and Care International have injected basic services such clean water through water bowsers and makeshift toilets.

“It’s not safe at all, it’s a disaster waiting to happen,” a Zimbabwe Ministry of Local Government official stationed at the camp and who preferred anonymity tells IPS. “The latrines you see here are only one metre deep. An outbreak of a contagious disease would spread fast.”

Tendai Zingwe fears her child might contract diarrhoea due to poor sanitation conditions in Chingwizi camp. Credit: Davison Mudzingwa/IPS

Tendai Zingwe fears her child might contract diarrhoea due to poor sanitation conditions in Chingwizi camp. Credit: Davison Mudzingwa/IPS

Similar fears stalk Spiwe Chando*, a mother of four. The 23-year-old speaks as she sorts her belongings scattered in small blue tent in which an adult cannot sleep fully stretched out. “I fear for my child because another family lost a child due to diarrhoea last week. This can happen to anyone,” she tells IPS, sweating from the heat inside the tent. “I hope we will move from this place soon and get proper land to restart our lives.”

This issue has posed tensions at this over-populated camp. Meetings, rumour and conjecture circulate each day. Across the camp, frustrations are progressively building up. As a result, a ministerial delegation got a hostile reception during a visit last month. The displaced farmers accuse the government of deception and reneging on its promises of land allocation and compensation.

Children stampede for reading material at the Chingwizi transit camp. Most of the kids had their schooling disrupted due to the displacement. Credit: Davison Mudzingwa/IPS

Children stampede for reading material at the Chingwizi transit camp. Most of the kids had their schooling disrupted due to the displacement. Credit: Davison Mudzingwa/IPS

The government has promised to allocate one hectare of land per family, at a location about 17 kms from this transit camp. This falls far short of what these families own in Chivi basin. Some of them, like Mazanhi, owned about 10 hectares. The land was able to produce enough food for their sustenance and a surplus, which was sold to finance their children’s education and healthcare.

Mazanhi is one of the few people who has already received compensation from the government. Of the agreed compensation of 3,000 dollars, he has only received 900 dollars and is not certain if he will ever be paid the remainder of what he was promised. “There is a lot of corruption going on in that office,” he tells IPS.

COTRAD says the fact that ordinary villagers are secondary beneficiaries of the land and water that once belonged to them communally is an indication of a resource grabbing trend that further widens the gap of inequality.

“People no longer have land, access to water, healthcare and children are learning under trees.”

For Moyo, daily realities at the transit camp and a hazy future is both a painful reminder of a life gone by and a sign of “the next generation of dispossession.” However, he hopes for a better future.

“We don’t want this life of getting fed like birds,” says Moyo.

*Names altered for security reasons.

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Ethiopian Scribes Try to Preserve Dying 4th Century Art Thu, 08 May 2014 09:44:10 +0000 James Jeffrey The ika bet (treasury), in which manuscripts are stored, of Debre Damo monastery, located far to the north of Ethiopia. Credit: James Jeffrey/IPS

The ika bet (treasury), in which manuscripts are stored, of Debre Damo monastery, located far to the north of Ethiopia. Credit: James Jeffrey/IPS

By James Jeffrey
DEBRE LIBANOS, Ethiopia, May 8 2014 (IPS)

Misganew Andeurgay changes his bamboo-made pen for another, dips it in a tiny pot of viscous liquid and, on a parchment page filled with black script, begins to trace in scarlet-red ink the Amharic word for god. 

For centuries Ethiopian scribes like Misganew have written holy texts in manuscripts made out of leather and with worshipful respect, inscribing on them holy names in red ink.

“It is a difficult job but I like it,” 50-year-old Misganew, who has taught and practised the craft of writing Amharic calligraphy for 21 years, tells IPS. He adds that sitting on the floor for hours on end as he writes is hard on his knees and legs.

He travelled 700km from Gondar in northern Ethiopia to work at Debre Libanos, 100km north of Addis Ababa, because here leather is more accessible and he can make more money. His family, including his five children, wait for him in Gondar.

Misganew Andeurgay, 50, copying a religious text onto parchment at Debre Libanos, 100km north of Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. Credit: James Jeffrey/IPS

Misganew Andeurgay, 50, copying a religious text onto parchment at Debre Libanos, 100km north of Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. Credit: James Jeffrey/IPS

But concerns are mounting that Ethiopia’s manuscript tradition and the many livelihoods and skills associated with it — such as calligraphy, parchment production, book binding, and illustration arts — are under threat.

Ethiopia’s growing economy has achieved an average 10 percent growth since 2004. This is set to continue in the coming years with a somewhat reduced but still high eight percent growth rate. Although the story of this Horn of Africa nation’s economy is heartening in appearance, it is hardly a story of a rising tide of prosperity that has lifted all people along with it.“We need to promote the skills in a modern way and make them useful for contemporary life.” -- Hasen Said, chief curator of the Ethnological Museum in Addis Ababa.

Scribes, for example, have been adversely affected by the country’s burgeoning leather industry. In 2011, total shipments of leather and leather products generated 2.8 billion dollars and by 2020 that figure could increase by another four billion dollars, according to the Ethiopian Ministry of Industry. But this seemingly positive trend has driven up the price of leather, the raw material on which scribes depend.

Manuscript making is becoming increasingly expensive while already being immensely time consuming compared to the printed press. Because of this, parchment manuscript production in Ethiopia is declining, says John Mellors, an Ethiophile and independent researcher who has visited Ethiopia regularly since 1995.

“Another problem is that scribes are increasingly struggling to find patrons who traditionally have bought books for churches or themselves,” Mellors tells IPS.

Many people in larger towns assume parchment books stopped being made many years ago and so wouldn’t even consider commissioning a book to be made, he explains.

Misganew works for about 12 hours a day as he slowly and steadily traces graceful Amharic characters along faint grooves etched into the parchment.

By the end of the month he can usually produce a book of at least 32 pages, which could sell for about 3,000 birr (157 dollars) — if he can secure a customer.

A young novice monk at Debre Damo monastery in the Tigrai region far to the north of Ethiopia, close to Eritrea. For hundreds of years monks preserved Christianity and its influence on Ethiopia’s parchment manuscript tradition. Credit: James Jeffrey/IPS

A young novice monk at Debre Damo monastery in the Tigrai region far to the north of Ethiopia, close to Eritrea. For hundreds of years monks preserved Christianity and its influence on Ethiopia’s parchment manuscript tradition. Credit: James Jeffrey/IPS

But in general, scribes’ average earnings are now so low that it is putting off a new generation from taking up the craft, further endangering the manuscript tradition, Mellors says.

It is generally agreed that the origin of parchment making found in Ethiopia today likely lies with Christian monks who braved crossing the Red Sea around the 4th century and brought the bible with them.

“These texts were subsequently copied by scribes onto parchment using techniques that appear to have changed very little up until the present day,” Mellors says.

Methods exist in Ethiopia that have not been used in European parchment production for over a thousand years, Richard Pankhurst, a renowned authority on Ethiopian manuscript illustration, tells IPS.

“This makes Ethiopia unique in keeping the tradition so far into the modern age,” Pankhurst adds.

Although how much longer it can survive in these modern times is the question at stake.

“The basic method for making parchment manuscripts in Ethiopia should survive as it’s reasonably well documented already,” Mellors says.

While British leather manufacturer Pittards, which has sourced leather from Ethiopia for nearly 100 years, announced that it wants to give something back by helping protect the country’s ancient parchment manuscript-making tradition and the skills associated with it, concerns remain.

“We don’t want to end up with just iPads,” Hasen Said, chief curator of the Ethnological Museum in Addis Ababa, tells IPS. “We need to promote [manuscript] skills in a modern way and make them useful for contemporary life.”

New technologies as well as older forms can coexist in a country like Ethiopia that has a rich history while becoming more of a global nation, Hasen argues.

Medhane Alem Adi Kasho, a rock-hewn church found in the Tigrai region of northern Ethiopia and in which some of Ethiopia's precious ancient artefacts such as parchment manuscripts are stored. Credit: James Jeffrey/IPS

Medhane Alem Adi Kasho, a rock-hewn church found in the Tigrai region of northern Ethiopia and in which some of Ethiopia’s precious ancient artefacts such as parchment manuscripts are stored. Credit: James Jeffrey/IPS

The medieval monastery at Debre Libanos, which houses the last school for apprentice scribes, is a source of some hope that the tradition of parchment manuscript production will survive, Hasen says.

When IPS visited the monastery all the students were yet to return from their Easter break. The monk IPS talked to was reluctant to be drawn into a conversation about how student numbers were faring, and suggested that such matters were best left in god’s care.

But many national treasures are poorly looked after due to the lack of adequate space and resources available for storage and restoration, according to the Society of Friends of the Institute of Ethiopian Studies.

Throughout Ethiopia’s long history, Ethiopia has had to contend with silver crosses made from Maria Theresa dollars, crowns, ornate incense burners, precious religious icons and the like being taken out of the country illegally.

The monk IPS spoke with was quick to point out that the hundreds of manuscripts looted by the British Army after the Makdela Expedition in 1868 still reside in the United Kingdom.

Judging by the evidence, it will likely take more than strong faith if Ethiopia’s manuscripts, associated traditions and other artefacts are to survive.

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Unravelling the Civil War Propaganda Thu, 16 May 2013 14:01:15 +0000 Lal Aqa Sherin An Afghan soldier protects the palace of King Amanullah (1919-1929) that was partly destroyed in the 1992-1996 civil war. Credit: Giuliana Sgrena/IPS

An Afghan soldier protects the palace of King Amanullah (1919-1929) that was partly destroyed in the 1992-1996 civil war. Credit: Giuliana Sgrena/IPS

By Lal Aqa Sherin
KABUL, May 16 2013 (IPS)

Western fears of a civil war in Afghanistan are growing ahead of the scheduled pullout of international troops in 2014. However, experts here say the situation on the ground is not comparable to either 1988, when the Soviets withdrew from the country, or the mujahideen’s rise to power in 1992, which plunged the country into civil war.

Speaking to BBC’s Radio 4 last month, British Defence Secretary Philip Hammond described the future of Afghanistan as uncertain, echoing a British Parliamentary Defence Committee warning that the country could descend into civil war within a few years.

But locals who have been watching the situation closely do not share this bleak prognosis of the country’s future.

Retired Colonel Mohammad Sarwar Niazai, a military observer, says the situation is different to what it was in the early 1990s when the Soviets pulled out, leaving the communist government of Mohammed Najibullah without support and presenting seven jihadi parties, armed and aided by the United States, with the perfect opportunity to seize power.

This time around, “no one can get the government out forcibly,” Niazai told IPS, referring to the fact that the U.S. and its coalition partners in the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) have promised to stand by Afghan President Hamid Karzai and his government for the foreseeable future.

Recently retired ISAF Commander General John Allen, speaking in Washington on Mar. 25, said the U.S. and its allies would retain a presence in Afghanistan big enough to bolster Afghan forces after the withdrawal of international combat troops at the end of 2014.

Still, Kabul Regional Chief of the Afghan Independent Human Rights Commission (AIHRC) Shamasullah Ahmadzai warned that the roughly 336,000-strong Afghan National Army, though highly motivated, is in serious need of the weapons and arms promised by western allies during talks about the pullout.

Strategic interests

As international media reports of “impending” or “inevitable” conflict continue to proliferate, experts here contend that Western countries with a vested interest in maintaining their military presence have conjured the bogey of civil war to justify continued engagement.

“Their…goal is to create fear in Afghanistan,” Ghulam Jailani Zwak, head of the Afghan Analytical and Advisory Centre, told IPS, adding that he sees “no substance” in the predictions of chaos after 2014.

“Over the last 11 years, Afghanistan has built up a functioning civil society and a strong parliament that has shown it can stand up to the executive,” he said referring to the fact that at the end of 2012, 11 ministers were issued summons to appear in parliament or face impeachment for failing to spend 50 percent of their annual budgets in the last financial year.

Abdul Ghafoor Lewal, head of the Regional Studies Centre, believes threats of civil war are a deliberate Western ploy to maintain a military presence here, particularly in the Bagram airfield, one of the largest U.S. military bases in Afghanistan, located in the Parwan province.

Western powers would like Afghans to believe that foreign troops are their “best bet for security,” Lewal told IPS. The government must be “wise, prudent and…protect itself from the machinations of the West,” he added.

Meanwhile, Major General Rahmatullah Raufi, former commander of Paktia Army Corps and erstwhile governor of the southern province of Kandahar, dismisses the fears of war, claiming Afghans are more united now than they were 11 years ago.

A clear example of this was seen at the third ministerial conference of the Istanbul Process, held in Almaty, Kazakhstan’s largest city, on Apr. 26.

Originally intended to foster regional cooperation in the so-called ‘heart of Asia’ – primarily between Afghanistan and its neighbours – this year’s high-level gathering delved into a host of social issues, from education to disaster management, to help strengthen the war-torn country’s economic stability.

The independent Afghanistan Analysts Network said the Afghan government’s participation made clear that it saw the regional initiative as crucial to securing its future after 2014.

Afghan Foreign Minister Zalmai Rassoul, who led the delegation, said Afghanistan was “determined to reclaim (its) rightful place” as an economic centre connecting South Asia, Central Asia, Euroasia and the Middle East.

Moreover, according to experts like Member of Parliament (MP) Habibullah Kalakani – a former jihadi commander who fought against the Soviets – Afghan civil society is no longer “pliant” to foreign interests.

Independent media and human rights organisations including the AIHRC, whose president Sima Samar won the Alternative Nobel Prize last year, are widely respected and have earned international recognition for their efforts to build a culture of peace here.

Kalakani also pointed to the increasing number of educated young Afghans who are perfectly positioned to help their country make a democratic transition.

According to the Institute of International Education (IIE), only 4,000 students submitted applications for university admission in 2004. In 2005 this number increased tenfold to 40,000, reached 52,000 in 2006 and finally passed the 120,000-mark in 2012.

Girls now occupy 25 percent of the seats in public universities, a numbers that is increasing annually, while 52 new private universities have popped up around the country.

Defence Ministry Deputy Spokesperson Siamak Herawi agreed that 2014 will be a “year of change” but insisted there was good reason to believe “the change will be positive not negative,” he told Killid, adding that, this time around, “Afghan hands” will help to build the country.

* Lal Aqa Shirin writes for Killid, an independent Afghan media group in partnership with IPS.

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Africa Cashes in on Mineral Wealth Mon, 24 Dec 2012 12:44:11 +0000 Ed McKenna In the forest in Gbarpolu County, northwest Liberia, a group of men work on a surface gold mine. Credit: Travis Lupick/IPS

In the forest in Gbarpolu County, northwest Liberia, a group of men work on a surface gold mine. Credit: Travis Lupick/IPS

By Ed McKenna
ADDIS ABABA , Dec 24 2012 (IPS)

Many of the fastest-growing countries in the world are in Africa, the poorest continent on the planet, but the potential for recently-discovered resources to generate broad-based inclusive development opportunities is massive and remains under-exploited.

“I don’t believe that African nations are even close to understanding the enormous wealth that is their natural resource endowment,” David Doepel, chair of the Africa Research Group at Australia’s Murdoch University, told IPS.

African countries preparing to cash in on mineral wealth in East Africa include Tanzania, Uganda, Mozambique and Ethiopia, based on recent discoveries of oil and gas.

In 2010, Guinea alone represented over eight percent of total world bauxite production, Zambia and the Democratic Republic of Congo have a combined share of 6.7 percent of the total world copper production, and Ghana and Mali together account for 5.8 percent of the total world gold production, while Ethiopia also accounts for one-sixth of the world’s tantalum production.

A World Bank report issued in October claimed consistent high commodity prices and strong export growth show that African countries need to value the economic importance of their unexploited natural resources.

Well-managed revenue from Africa’s resources could increase economic activity in the long term, create jobs, reduce poverty and improve access to health and education,said Doepel.

“It is vitally important for any resource-rich country to have a focus of maximising the total value of any of its natural resources over the lifetime of that resource – that is a combination of maximising returns and minimising negative consequences (both environmental and social). Opportunism and urgency to extract are not necessarily ingredients for maximising value,” warned Doepel.

African countries like Nigeria have been losing out to corruption and short-sightedness in pursuit of quick profits in the oil sector. Nigeria is Africa’s largest crude oil exporter, shipping more than two million barrels per day, and is also home to the world’s ninth-biggest gas reserves. An investigative report requested by Nigeria’s oil ministry released in October revealed that a lack of transparency in the West African nation’s oil sector led to a loss of revenue of 29 billion dollars between 2002 and 2012.

The Revenue Watch Institute is a non-profit policy institute that promotes the effective, transparent and accountable management of oil, gas and mineral resources for the public good. Alexandra Gillies, head of governance at the institute, told IPS that African countries need to be circumspect at every stage of exploiting their recently-discovered oil reserves.

“For new African producers, striking a good deal can be a real challenge. They often lack capacity and familiarity with the oil sector as compared with the oil companies, and political agendas can make leaders overly anxious to begin production quickly, sometimes at the expense of better, long-term deals.”

Current working models that ensure the private sector and the government are held to account are starting to succeed in countries like Ghana.

“Ghana has taken some promising steps with its young oil sector. They have created a citizen-led Public Interest and Accountability Commission to oversee the collection and allocation of oil revenues,” said Gillies.

Countries endowed with natural resources have a tendency to heavily depend on economic activity solely based around extracting and exporting the resource as a primary product. This approach limits economic opportunities for development and makes a country vulnerable to fluctuations in commodity prices and levels of demand, according to Doepel. For example, Nigeria possesses 2.9 percent of the world’s oil and gas reserves and hazardously depends on oil and gas for 90 percent of its export revenue.

Focusing on maximising revenue by taking oil out of the ground and exporting it without any value addition could be seen as dangerous short termism and as a barrier to long-term inclusive development, he said. It is not just the resources that are a source of development but also the potential for local industry to be built around the extraction of resources.

Extraction industries offer huge opportunities for job creation and skill enhancement to improve the lives of ordinary Africans, said Doepel. He is convinced that many of the skills required by the extractive industries are transferable and could be utilised to help generate and expand economic activity in developing countries with an emerging industrial base.

“Mechanical engineers and civil engineers can work on building an open cut mine and just as easily work on water purification plants and roads and bridges,” he said.

Economic benefits can be achieved “as long as the extraction industry is deeply linked to the national and local economies and the ‘mining spend’ is captured rather than ‘exported’ along with the ore,” said Doepel.

There are many opportunities ahead for enterprising Africans to play a role in their country’s development based on the continent’s untapped resources, said Francis Steven George, CEO of Innovation Africa, an organisation that provides consulting to companies and institutions on how to exploit business opportunities for development and poverty reduction.

“Citizens can benefit by participating in the exploration of the resources. They can gain employment or can become suppliers or service providers to the industry. Governments need to help by creating an enabling environment. For example, investment in the education system to enable the relevant degree programmes to meet the needs of the industry, or by providing soft loans to local entrepreneurs who participate in the industry,” he told IPS.

Countries like Ethiopia, which has recently discovered vast mineral reserves such as gold, tantalum, oil and potash, are taking inspiration from countries like Botswana as they strive to maximise development opportunities. In early 2012 Botswana demanded that diamond company De Beers move much of its diamond-sorting operations from the United Kingdom to Botswana in an effort to localise value addition.

Citing this as a good example of how mining can enrich a country, the Ethiopian government seems determined to exercise maximum transparency and caution to ensure mining revenues benefit its population of over 90 million, which makes it Africa’s second-most populous nation.

“We want our country to benefit from our resources in the broadest sense. Development for all and not just a few is our goal,”  Ethiopia’s State Minister of Mines Tolesa Shagi told IPS.

British Nyota Minerals is set to be the first foreign company to receive a mining license to extract gold on the basis of its own exploration in western Ethiopia in the coming months.

Recent surveys indicate an estimated 500 tonnes of gold reserves in Ethiopia. According to mining experts, extraction of gold could rise to 40 tonnes a year from just over four tonnes last year, earning the country around 1.7 billion dollars based on current commodity prices.

Ethiopia is planning to sign up to Publish What You Pay, an international initiative subscribed to by over 70 countries, early next year. It holds governments of resource-rich nations accountable for the management of revenues from extraction industries.

Organisations like the Revenue Watch Institute are emphatic about the need for transparency from governments to ensure countries make the most of their resources and embark on a course of sustainable development that improves the lives of ordinary Africans.

“After the deals are signed, governments must regulate operations, maximise complex revenue streams like profit taxes, manage these revenues which are very volatile, and spend them on valuable development projects. Across all these functions there are risks of corruption, of decisions driven by patronate, favoritism and short-term political considerations,” said Gillies.

The message is clear – by having 30 percent of the world’s extractive resources, Africa has one of the greatest opportunities it will ever have to graduate its people out of poverty.

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Ceasefire Means ‘Nothing’ to Gaza Fishers Mon, 17 Dec 2012 15:31:24 +0000 Eva Bartlett Mohammed Baker (70) has been fishing for half a century. He remembers the days when Palestinian fishers could go out to sea without fear of being attacked, arrested or killed. Credit: Eva Bartlett/IPS

Mohammed Baker (70) has been fishing for half a century. He remembers the days when Palestinian fishers could go out to sea without fear of being attacked, arrested or killed. Credit: Eva Bartlett/IPS

By Eva Bartlett
GAZA CITY, Dec 17 2012 (IPS)

Shortly after Israel and Hamas signed a ceasefire agreement on Nov. 21, the Israeli navy abducted 30 Palestinian fishers from Gaza’s waters, destroyed and sank a Palestinian fishing vessel, and confiscated nine fishing boats in the space of four days.

The Palestinian Centre for Human Rights (PCHR) reported that fourteen fishers from a single family, stationed just three nautical miles from the coast of the Gaza Strip, were all arrested on Dec. 1.

Some fishers were only two miles off Gaza’s coast when they were attacked with machine gun fire and arrested by the Israeli Navy. Ranging from the ages of 14 to 52, the majority in their late teens and early twenties, these fishers hail from some of Gaza’s poorest families.

According to Mifleh Abu Riyala, a representative of the General Syndicate of Marine Fishers, the ceasefire has made no difference to Palestinian fishers.

Palestinians are allowed, under the current Israel-Hamas ceasefire, “to fish six miles out”, he told IPS, “but the Israeli gunboats still attack us, whether we are six or three miles out.”

The Oslo accords granted Palestinian fishers the right to fish twenty nautical miles out at sea, a right the Israeli navy has unilaterally vetoed, downsizing the fishing “limits” since the 1990s to a mere three miles, until this past November’s ceasefire allowed a slight increase, to six nautical miles.

“But there are no fish at six miles, the sea floor is still sandy. It is only after seven miles out that the sea floor becomes rocky and the fish are plentiful,” Abu Riyala stressed.

“It is our sea, in order to live we must be able to access it.”

Mohammed Baker (70) has been fishing for half a century. He remembers the days when Gaza’s sea was open to Palestinian fishers, and when there was no fear of being attacked, arrested or killed by the Israeli navy.

Two of his sons, Amar (34) and Omar (21), were among the 14 fishers attacked by Israeli gunboats on Dec 1. The Israeli navy has still not returned their “hassaka” (a small fishing boat).

Like many of Gaza City’s fishers, the Bakers live in the Beach Camp, one of the Strip’s most overcrowded refugee camps.

Amar, married with six children, was still being held by Israeli authorities on Dec. 5 when his father, Mohammed, recounted the events of that fateful day to IPS.

“Israeli gunboats and smaller zodiacs surrounded my sons’ hassaka and made them strip naked, jump into the sea, and swim to one of the Israeli boats,” Mohammed told IPS.

“They put a bag on Amar’s head and took him to Ashdod. Amar has asthma, I’m very worried about his health.” Mohammed has still not been able to speak with his son.

Four days after Amar’s abduction, Mohammed went to the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), whose work includes visiting and monitoring Palestinian prisoners’ conditions in Israeli jails and detention centres.

“They told me Amar is forbidden from talking with anyone. He is under interrogation,” Mohammed said.

Amar now stands accused of “being part of the Palestinian resistance”, a charge based on his previous job of making coffee and tea for Hamas officers.

“My son was a ‘kitchen boy’. People who work for the government are still civilians,” Mohammed stressed, echoing the tenets of international humanitarian law.

Stripped of their only boat and a member of their family, the Bakers face even more dire circumstances than ever.

“There is no ceasefire for fishers. We’re ordinary people, we work to earn just 30 or 40 shekels (seven to 10 dollars) per day to feed our families,” Mohammed lamented.

Khadr Baker (20) was lucky that he was not killed during an encounter with the Israeli navy on Nov. 28, during which his boat was gunned down as punishment for fishing just over three miles from the Beach Camp coast.

His father, Jamal Baker (50), spoke to IPS about Khadr’s arrest, explaining that Israeli gunboats appeared without warning and began firing at close range on Khadr’s small motorboat.

“The Israelis ordered the four fishers on Khadr’s hassaka to strip and jump into the sea, which is extremely cold this time of year,” Jamal told IPS.

“They made Khadr tread water for half an hour, and kept machine gunning around him,” said Jamal. The hassaka eventually caught fire and exploded, sinking soon after.

“The Israelis took Khadr on their boat, handcuffed him naked, and beat and interrogated him for three hours, accusing him of working with the Palestinian resistance,” the boy’s father told IPS.

Without their boat, the family of ten has no income. “I sold my nets so that we can eat,” Jamal said simply.

PCHR reported other attacks on fishers that day: in one case, the navy attacked and abducted five fishers from the al-Hessi family, damaging – and eventually confiscating – the large fishing trawler they were on. The boat has not yet been returned.

In February 2009, Rafiq Abu Riyala, then 23, was shot in his back – by an Israeli soldier standing less than 20 metres away – with a dum-dum bullet, which explodes on impact.

The hassaka fisher was only two miles off Gaza’s coast when attacked. One of two breadwinners in his family, Rafiq Abu Riyala cannot now fish in cold weather. “The shrapnel bits in my back make it too painful when it is cold out,” he told IPS.

Mahar Abu Amia (40) has sixteen people to provide for. “My wife fishes also,” he told IPS. “But we have no chance: we reach six miles and they shoot, we go only three miles and they shoot. What is this ceasefire? It means nothing for us.”


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Detained at the Eastern Border – Part 1 Sun, 16 Dec 2012 05:41:36 +0000 Claudia Ciobanu The immigration detention centre of Lesznowola, situated in a forest about 15 kilometers south of the Polish capital Warsaw in a former military compound, is notorious for its poor conditions. Credit: Claudia Ciobanu/IPS

The immigration detention centre of Lesznowola, situated in a forest about 15 kilometers south of the Polish capital Warsaw in a former military compound, is notorious for its poor conditions. Credit: Claudia Ciobanu/IPS

By Claudia Ciobanu
WARSAW, Dec 16 2012 (IPS)

A recent hunger strike, involving over 70 migrants detained in heavily guarded centers across Poland, is forcing the country to face its new responsibilities as a migration hub within the European Union.

Poland currently has six detention centres, which host ‘irregular migrants’, or foreigners caught living illegally in Poland, awaiting deportation after their asylum claims have been rejected or after getting caught trying to cross the Polish border that leads deeper into the EU.

At the end of October, an estimated 375 migrants were being held in these centres. Among them were 33 children, including at least one year-old baby; three of the children were unaccompanied.

Georgians and Russians of Chechen nationality currently make up the bulk of migrants in Poland, though more recently Syrians, too, have had a significant presence in detention centers.

The hunger strikers, mostly Georgians and Chechens, were demanding better conditions in the camps, but also disputed the use of detention as a means of addressing the thorny issue of migration.

The protest was coordinated across four camps: Lesznowola, Bialystok, Biala Podlaska, and Przemysl. It lasted only a few days, ending when humanitarian organisations visited the camps and promised to work with the institutions’ management on improving living conditions.

The detention camps in Poland have functioned under the authority of the National Border Guards since 2008 and conditions inside vary widely.

Lesznowola, situated in a forest about 15 kilometers south of Warsaw in a former military compound, is notorious for its poor conditions. Biala Podlaska, located in the eastern town by the same name, close to the border with Belarus, is a modern facility constructed in 2008 and funded almost entirely by the European Union.

At first glance, the two camps could not differ more. The narrow corridors at Lesznowola are replaced by shiny, freshly painted spaces in Biala Podlaska.

The non-English, non-Russian-speaking management staff at Lesznowola stand in stark contrast to a highly communicative management team – equipped with translators – at Biala Podlaska, where staff in perfectly pressed uniforms roam around the corridors wearing professional smiles.

Biala Podlaska is equipped with a green football field, while Lesznowola only has plans to eventually build one on part of its cemented courtyard surrounded by barbed-wire-topped walls.

But upon entering the halls of either institution, it quickly becomes clear that, for those living behind bars almost round the clock – with the exception of mealtimes, exercises and the occasional educational activity – the situation is exactly the same.

At the first sound of visitors approaching, adults and children stick their heads out of the cells that line the hallway, their hands and faces pushed against the bars, curious, waiting. Even a mundane visit becomes a noteworthy event in a place where nothing happens.

Kicked around “like a ball”

Thirty-six-year-old Iranian Leila Naeimi, who was released in early October after spending two months in Lesznowola, has harsh words about the conditions there.

“Everywhere you see only walls, everywhere the guards are with us, they treat us like animals,” she told IPS, adding that guards make daily inspections at 6 a.m., entering the rooms without even knocking on the door.

Naeimi, who she fled Iran fearing prosecution for her work as a women’s rights activist, says that she has often been the target of sexually abusive comments from border guards, both when entering Poland and also in the detention centre.

She claims basic hygiene products were never sufficient and that the food served in the centre was of poor quality.

Her greatest grievance, however, has to do with the EU’s attitude towards migrants in general.

“They can send you from country to country whenever they want, they think they can play with people’s lives…as if I was a ball they can just kick around.

“We need normal lives, we wouldn’t have left our countries if things had been good there. I’ve had too many problems just because I’m Iranian, just because of my nationality,” Naeimi lamented.

Osman Rafik, a 33-year-old Pakistani man who was detained in Bialystok at the time of this interview, has already spent eight months in the camp, but decided against joining the migrants’ hunger strike, claiming its goals were too “ambitious” and “diverse”.

While he did complain about conditions in the camp and even asked IPS for help with securing medicines, his primary concern was not with everyday life in the camp but with the arbitrary nature of migration policies.

“We keep being asked why we came to this country if we are from Pakistan, but they must understand that we are not criminals just because we crossed the borders into Europe.

“I would like to stay here in Poland if I (am) released,” he continued. “After all, it has been almost one year since I have been in this country and life is not so long, people live about 50 years on average. They (the immigration authorities) have already taken away one year of my life.

“We cannot go back to Pakistan, we have problems there, but authorities here do not understand that, they treat us all the same, whether we have problems back home or not,” he concluded.

*This story is the first of a two-part series on immigration in the European Union.

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War Widows Struggle in a ‘Man’s World’ Thu, 13 Dec 2012 18:03:05 +0000 Amantha Perera "War or no war, it is still a man's world out there,” says war widow Rajina Mary from Sri Lanka's northern Kilinochchi District. Credit: Amantha Perera/IPS

"War or no war, it is still a man's world out there,” says war widow Rajina Mary from Sri Lanka's northern Kilinochchi District. Credit: Amantha Perera/IPS

By Amantha Perera
DHARAN, Nepal, Dec 13 2012 (IPS)

Sita Tamang’s husband went missing sometime in 2004, two years before Nepal’s civil war came to an end. A native of Dharan, a town about 600 kilometres southeast of Kathmandu, Tamang waited seven years after his disappearance before she tried to claim compensation offered by the government after a 2006 peace deal ended this country’s bloodshed.

When she finally managed to get hold of government officials in Dharan overseeing compensation procedures, she was met with the thorny request that she “prove” her marriage to the father of her three children, whom she had lived with for a decade and a half.

As was customary, Tamang and her husband had gone through the traditional marriage ceremony but had not obtained any civil documents.

In addition to taking care of her three children, including two daughters, Tamang was saddled with the added burden of seeking the required paperwork before even beginning the bureaucratic process of securing compensation.

“That is the way things are here,” she told IPS simply. “Women will always have it a bit hard.”

Thousands of miles away, in northern Sri Lanka, Rajina Mary, a 38-year-old war widow with four children, ran into similar hurdles when she began constructing a new house with assistance from the Sri Lanka Red Cross in late 2010, about a year and a half after this country’s civil war ended.

“The labourers would not take orders or instructions from me because I was a woman. They are used to taking orders from men,” Mary told IPS, standing in front her house in the village of Selvanagar in the northern Kilinochchi district, deep in the former war zone.

When the workmen refused to follow her instructions, Mary and her children were forced to take over the construction themselves, digging most of the foundation and carrying hundreds of bricks and cement sacks.

“It was cheaper for us. But that is the way things are here, it is a very male-dominated society,” Mary said, echoing Tamang’s words.

Aid workers, counsellors and experts working in post-conflict regions in the two South Asian countries say the patriarchal nature of rural societies makes them unenviable locations for widows or female heads of households.

A woman remains pensive during a support group meeting for families of missing persons in the southeastern Nepali town of Biratnagar Credit: Amantha Perera/IPS.

“There is a lot of anxiety, a lot of depression. Most of these women live in isolation without anyone to talk to, even when they live among family,” Srijana Bhandari, a counsellor with the Women’s Rehabilitation Centre (WOREC) working in Dharan, told IPS.

After her husband disappeared in 2004, one woman struggled for seven years to send her son to school and seek assistance for her young daughter’s epileptic condition. It was only in November 2011, when WOREC began talking to her, that she finally opened up about the many challenges confronting women suddenly left to fend for themselves and their families.

Now, thanks to the advocacy group’s intervention, her son has a scholarship at the village school and she receives a monthly medical stipend for her daughter.

“Before we spoke with her, she was finding it really hard, there was no one to help her, some members of her family even looked at her as a burden,” Kamal Koirala, WOREC’s programme coordinator, told IPS.

Even on the rare occasions when women find new marriage prospects, they come under enormous pressure – ironically from their female in-laws – to reject the offer. As a result, many women end up eloping, leaving their children behind, WOREC officials said.

Koirala told IPS that women rarely, if ever, open up about pressure brought on them to turn to sex work, but said aid workers have strong suspicions that the practice is widespread.

The situation is not much different in Sri Lanka according to Saroja Sivachandran, who heads the Centre for Women and Development, a non-governmental organisation working on gender issues in the country’s northern Jaffna peninsula.

Despite a three-decade-long conflict in which many females fought alongside their male counterparts, especially among the ranks of the separatist Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), northern Tamil society is still steeped in patriarchal values, Sivachandran told IPS.

“The problem is that now, single women or female heads of households – and there are thousands of them – have to compete with males for everything from jobs to housing assistance,” she said.

In both countries, scores of women were left to navigate the post-war landscape after the fighting ended.

The Nepali Red Cross lists 1401 persons as still missing, six years after the conflict ended. Officials say at least 90 percent of the families left behind are now headed by women, 80 percent of whom are mothers.

In Sri Lanka, the United Nations estimates that around 30,000 of the 110,000 families that have returned to the former war zone in the northern province are headed by women.

In 2010, the World Bank found that two-thirds of the participants in a cash for work programme worth 5.5 million dollars were women.

In fact, programme managers made special allowances for the women by offering more flexible working hours. The programme also paid elders who looked after children while their mothers or caregivers took part in the work scheme.

But the women who are faced with rebuilding their lives after decades of war, while also dealing with the suffocating customs and traditions of male dominance that date back generations, say there is very little chance of things changing.

“It was like this even during the fighting, why should it change when there is no fighting?” Mary asked.


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Dreams of a ‘Green Utopia’ Wither in the Maghreb Wed, 12 Dec 2012 13:47:09 +0000 Julio Godoy The Desertec Industrial Initiative plans to install a network of solar thermal, photovoltaic, and wind plants across the Maghreb region. Credit: Green Prophet1/CC-BY-2.0

The Desertec Industrial Initiative plans to install a network of solar thermal, photovoltaic, and wind plants across the Maghreb region. Credit: Green Prophet1/CC-BY-2.0

By Julio Godoy
BERLIN, Dec 12 2012 (IPS)

When the Desertec Industrial Initiative (DII), an alliance of 21 major European corporations, first unveiled plans to install a network of solar thermal, photovoltaic, and wind plants across the North African Maghreb region to generate electricity, the project was greeted as a ‘green utopia’.

Expected to generate 100 gigawatts by 2050, the project demanded an investment of 400 billion euros.

In a study released last summer, Desertec predicted that an integrated power system for Europe, the Middle East and North Africa would allow Europe to meet its carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions reduction target of 95 percent in the power sector by importing up to 20 percent of its electricity from the Maghreb, thus saving 33 billion euros per year.

Meanwhile, the project would enable Middle Eastern and North African countries to meet their own energy needs using the abundant solar and wind resources in the region, and achieve 50 percent of CO2 reductions in the power sector despite a massive increase in demand.

The region would benefit from an export industry worth up to 63 billion euros per year.

Now, three years since the project was announced, the Desertec dream is yet to be realised, and euphoria has given way to harsh criticisms ranging from accusations of incompetence to shortfalls in corporate governance.

The project has been nicknamed “desperate tec” by internal staff members discontent with its trajectory.

Huge potential

In a so-called White Book on the project, the DII claimed, “The long-term economic potential of renewable energy in EUMENA (Europe, Middle East and North Africa) is much larger than present demand, and the potential of solar energy dwarfs them all.”

Based on figures by German research institutes and the Club of Rome, the report estimates, “From each square kilometre (km²) of desert land, up to 250 gigawatts of electricity can be harvested each year using the technology of concentrating solar thermal power.”

Indeed, every square kilometre of land in MENA “receives an amount of solar energy that is equivalent to 1.5 million barrels of crude oil. A concentrating solar collector field with the size of Lake Nasser in Egypt (Aswan), of some 6,000 square kilometres, could harvest energy equivalent to the present Middle East oil production”.

Morocco, which will host the pilot project, has been especially keen to see the venture come to fruition, since it will have a huge impact on the local economy, particularly with regard to job creation in the renewables sector.

Back in 2009, ‘green networks’ were created in several cities around the kingdom, including in Casablanca. Comprised of small firms run by young professionals, these networks were designed to create the necessary infrastructure for the project.

“We have created companies, received training, but in reality nothing has happened yet,” Abdellah Benjdi, one of the young company heads, told IPS.

Ordinary citizens suffering from astronomical electricity bills in Morocco are eagerly awaiting the so-called ‘green utopia’.

But by all indications, their patience is not about to be rewarded.

Endless obstacles

Experts first received confirmation of Desertec’s difficulties on Nov. 7 in Berlin, during the official presentation of the first solar thermal, photovoltaic and wind plants to be installed in the southern-central Moroccan province of Ouarzazate, which are scheduled to deliver electricity by 2014.

Although construction plans have technically been sealed, they still depend on Spanish approval – Spain being the primary partner in the project – to allow the electricity generated at the site to be transported to Europe.

The Spanish government, battered by a grave economic recession, has so far been unable to confirm its support for the project, a situation that is unlikely to change given that Spain is a net exporter of electricity to Morocco and would not like to see this trend reversed by successful implementation of the pilot project in Ouarzazate, experts say.

The DII alliance includes the leading German Deutsche Bank and the Spanish transmission agent and grid operator, TSO Red Eléctrica.

“The business case for a Desertec Reference Project, prepared by (us) and the Moroccan Solar Agency Masen, has been extensively discussed for the past two years with Spanish companies, the TSO Red Eléctrica and the European Commission, and declared feasible,” DII CEO Paul van Son said during the presentation in Berlin.

The first project in Morocco led by the German energy giant RWE would comprise an installed capacity of 100 megawatts of photovoltaic and wind power.

A second project, using solar thermal plants and overseen by Saudi Arabia’s ACWA Power International, will have an installed capacity of 160 megawatts.

Both plants are expected to be functional by 2014.

Van Son confirmed, “Investors have been found, initial subsidies are available, and industry wants to get involved.” But Spain refused to send representatives to the presentation in Berlin, and has so far failed to undersign the Morocco project.

Van Son is convinced that “the other partners in this negotiation, from Morocco and the EU, will be able to convince Spain,” since the Spanish government, too, stands to benefit from the project.

Lack of coordination

But Spain’s refusal is just one example of the enormous political, technical and financial coordination hurdles the venture must overcome.

Another indication of these difficulties came in late October, when the German electronics giant Siemens announced its withdrawal from the alliance, despite being a founding member of the DII back in 2009.

This move has been widely interpreted as proof that Desertec is failing.

According to Friedrich Fuehr, founding member of the board of directors at the Desertec Foundation, the DII “has been following the wrong strategy”.

Fuehr told IPS that DII’s main responsibility since 2009 was to conceive a political roadmap that could overcome all international coordination difficulties and solve the pressing questions of how subsidies and taxes would be implemented.

Fuehr, a prestigious German lawyer and business consultant, said that “a coalition of such powerful and capable private companies such as the Deutsche Bank, UniCredit, RWE and SCHOTT Solar should be able to formulate within three years the political framework they need to make Desertec come true”.

“But we are still waiting for this framework,” Fuehr said. “Instead, the DII has concentrated all its action in launching one single model project (in Ouarzazate).”

Fuehr lamented that the energy revolution the world needs in order to confront the realities of global warming “is already happening. But Desertec is not involved in it”.

*Abderrahim El Ouali contributed to this report from Casablanca.

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Longer Lives, Lower Incomes for Japanese Women Mon, 10 Dec 2012 18:30:45 +0000 Suvendrini Kakuchi For many Japanese women, old age is becoming synonymous with poverty and loneliness. Credit: Isado/CC-BY-ND-2.0

For many Japanese women, old age is becoming synonymous with poverty and loneliness. Credit: Isado/CC-BY-ND-2.0

By Suvendrini Kakuchi
TOKYO, Dec 10 2012 (IPS)

When Hiroko Taguchi retired this past April, at the age of 64, from her job as an insurance sales agent, she joined the rapidly growing ranks of Japan’s aging women who now outnumber their male counterparts.

Taguchi, a divorcee who lives alone, is heavily dependent on her pension to support what will likely be a lengthy retirement, given that women in Japan live, on average, about seven years longer than men. A survey conducted earlier this year by the Health and Welfare Ministry revealed that women account for 87.3 percent of Japan’s record number of 50,000 centenarians.

“I am lucky I did not quit my job when I married, as was the norm for women of my age,” Taguchi told IPS. Indeed, she is one of a very small number of women in Japan for whom old age is not synonymous with poverty and loneliness.

Most of her contemporaries who were part-time workers or full-time homemakers in their youth and middle age now draw monthly public pensions of just 500 dollars or less – barely enough to cover their living costs.

A patriarchal social structure that has boxed women into the role of caretaker and homemaker is largely responsible for the vulnerable situation many old Japanese women now find themselves in.

According to government data, 70 percent of women leave their jobs when they start a family, returning to the workplace – often as part-time workers – only when their children are older; this pattern significantly reduces their chances of drawing a decent pension after retirement.

Additionally, the fact that women are experiencing increasingly long life spans means that many outlive their husbands and become entirely reliant on the state welfare system.

Social experts here say Taguchi’s sunset years provide a spotlight into the diverse issues that women in Japan’s graying society face today.

“More women than men face poverty in their old age given their (life spans) and lower incomes,” pointed out Professor Keiko Higuchi, an expert on aging populations at Tokyo Kasei University, as well as an advisor to the government on gender and policies that affect the elderly.

Aging in a patriarchal society

Japan currently has the world’s fastest aging society. Experts estimate that by 2025 more than 27 percent of the population will be over 65 years old.

If the present trends continue, experts predict that 40 percent of the senior population will be female: women are clocking 86.5 years, compared to 79.6 years for men.

Higuchi, who is also a prominent women’s rights activist, has lobbied the government long and hard to develop policies that meet the needs of elderly women.

Among the many issues that aging women face are loneliness, higher prospects of disability and growing poverty in a nation that is grappling with a huge public debt and threatening further cuts in social services and state welfare.

Official statistics from the Health and Welfare Ministry confirm this grim picture – government data shows that 80 percent of those over 65 years and living alone are women, mostly divorcees and widows.

Women also comprise 70 percent of the population in nursing homes, with poverty affecting 25 percent of the female population over 75 years compared to 20 percent among males.

The Ministry also reported that in 2011 there were almost 420,000 women over the age of 65 who depended on welfare handouts, compared to 324,000 men.

According to the prominent Japanese feminist Junko Fukazawa, who counsels women facing domestic violence – a risk she says is increasingly common for older women living with their husbands or sons – deep-rooted gender discrimination makes women even more vulnerable to the troubles of the sunset years.

Social traditions that have forced women to take care of the family while men worked outside “is the prime reason why women give up their jobs when they have children, (and end up with) lower paying jobs and financial instability in their old age”, Fukazawa told IPS.

“The situation is ironic,” she added, pointing out that those who have traditionally been the primary caregivers for young and old alike are now becoming a population that needs the most support.

The critical need to focus national aging policies on women is gaining traction around the world. A new report, ‘Aging in the Twenty-First Century’, released in September by the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA), calls on governments and other stakeholders to take heed of the mounting body of evidence that women are living longer than men, and adjust their national plans accordingly.

The report documented figures around the world that showed that for every 100 women aged 80 years and over, there are only 61 men.

Aging in Japan, the world’s third largest economy, illustrates some of these pressing issues against the backdrop of a shrinking working population, which is expected to plummet from 80 to 52 million by 2050.

For the younger generation of Japanese women, who are coming of age during a time of government austerity and desperate attempts to reduce public spending, the forecast is alarming.

Already this generation of women is beginning to feel the crunch of poverty, with Labour Department statistics pointing to a rise in lower-paid part-time female employment, a trend that indicates an erosion of retirement stability for a large portion of the labour force.

For Higuchi, “The current aging picture clearly shows that Japan’s economic growth policies have eroded traditional family values that protected old people and have been particularly unfair to women.”

Meanwhile, women like Taguchi are moving cautiously down the road. “Acutely aware that I would face a lonely future, I have saved for decades and will continue to do so. At least I can avoid poverty – I hope so, anyway.”



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Somaliland Rising from the Ruins of Somalia Mon, 03 Dec 2012 06:19:37 +0000 Matthew Newsome About 30,000 ships pass by Berbera Port in Somaliand every year from Europe, the Middle East and Asia. Credit: Nicholas J Parkinson/IPS

About 30,000 ships pass by Berbera Port in Somaliand every year from Europe, the Middle East and Asia. Credit: Nicholas J Parkinson/IPS

By Matthew Newsome
HARGEISA, Dec 3 2012 (IPS)

As Somalia starts to emerge from its quagmire of instability and chaos, 20 years of relative peace and stability are starting to pay dividends for its close neighbour Somaliland, as this November it struck its first major oil deal since seceding from Somalia in 1991.

Anglo-Turkish company Genel Energy received its licence from the Somaliland government in early November to explore and develop oil and gas reserves after pledging almost 40 million dollars for exploration activities. Genel told IPS “Somaliland provides an exciting geological opportunity, and we look forward to starting work in the region.”

The independent oil and gas exploration and production company has become the first foreign investor to commit a significant amount of capital to the country’s energy sector, after initial investigations demonstrated “numerous oil seeps” confirming “a working hydrocarbon system,” a statement from Genel said.

Genel Energy, headed by erstwhile BP CEO Tony Hayward, is due to start exploration before the end of the year.

The driving force of this Horn of Africa nation’s economy has traditionally been livestock. With a huge livestock population that triples the 3.5 million civilian population, the livestock trade generates up to 65 percent of the country’s GDP, Somaliland’s Minister of Planning Dr. Saad Shire told IPS.

Livestock triples Somaliland’s 3.5 million civilian population and generates up to 65 percent of the country’s GDP. Credit: Brett Keller/IPS

With a limited national budget of 120 million dollars, the Somaliland government is now starting to receive much-needed revenue from foreign private investors to support its development.

Somaliland’s oil and gas reserves attracted the attention of other giant energy companies such as South African-based Ophir Energy, Jacka Resources Ltd of Australia, and Petrosoma Ltd, a subsidiary of British-based Prime Resources – all of whom announced their readiness to invest.

Somaliland has suffered from not being internationally recognised for the last 21 years. Its unconfirmed legal identity has hindered its economic prospects – few insurance companies have been prepared to insure foreign investors here. Subsequently, investors have tended to regard Somaliland as an economic leper.

For these reasons the country has also been ineligible for financial support from the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank.

However, in 2012 Somaliland’s private sector started to progress against the odds.

At the beginning of the year, the first United Kingdom-Somaliland investment conference was held to stimulate bilateral trade recognition. And a 17-million-dollar Coca-Cola plant launched in May by a Djibouti conglomerate made it the largest private investment in Somaliland since 1991. Investors are seeing Coca-Cola’s decision to have an operation in the region as a positive statement about the country’s stable business climate.

Somaliland’s Berbera port is also expected to attract major investment in the coming years. It is considered the jewel in the country’s economic crown. Built originally by the Soviet Union during the Cold War, the port currently serves as a major gateway for the country’s livestock exports. There is huge potential for it to be a juncture for oil and gas exports coming out of Africa’s landlocked countries like Ethiopia.

“We are strategically located – Berbera is located in a maritime lane – 30,000 ships pass by our port every year from Europe, the Middle East and Asia. We can develop Berbera into a major port like Singapore – with container terminals, free zones, oil refineries, and services related to maritime business,” Shire said.

The port manager, Ali Omar Mohamed, is irrepressibly enthusiastic about the potential of expanding the port to make it a regional trading hub between Africa and the Middle East.

“This port can be as big and as successful as Djibouti. It is only a matter of time before it attracts investment to modernise and expand it so that we can have the increased capacity we need to realise its full economic potential,” he told IPS.

Shire is confident that if Somaliland produces a stronger commercial legal framework, with proper safety measures to increase private investor confidence, it will attract investment to transform the country into a prosperous flourishing democracy like Singapore. “We have stability and access to a port, we have what investors are looking for. If Singapore can do it, I think we can,” he said.

The lack of insurance available to investors is the biggest barrier to the country’s development according to J. Peter Pham of the Michael S. Ansari Africa Center, which was set up to help transform United States and European policy approaches to Africa.

“Without international recognition and the consequent access to international financial institutions, Somalilanders face serious obstacles to achieving the economic development which would ordinarily accrue to a state with their record of political stability and democratic governance,” he told IPS.

“It is not just a matter of accessing development assistance and international credit, but also of having a legal framework whereby potential private-sector partners could obtain insurance and otherwise secure their investments,” he said.

According to Pham, Somaliland will never be in a position to fully benefit from the natural resources it is endowed with as long as it is refused nationhood status.

“The potential natural resources of Somaliland – including hydrocarbons, minerals, and fisheries – cannot be really tapped in the absence of a resolution of the sovereignty question.”

The urgent need for foreign investment was highlighted in a 2012 to 2016 national development plan produced by the government in December 2011. It outlines the need for overdue investment in the country’s infrastructure such as road building and waste disposal. The total capital required to fund this plan is 1.19 billion dollars.

According to Shire, the bulk of the investment for this is expected to come from external sources like aid donors and foreign investors.

However, there is a danger that without prompt recognition from the international community, development will be too slow and may cause sections of the population to become disaffected and vulnerable to groups like Somalia’s Al-Qaeda-linked Al-Shabaab.

According to Pham, the international community’s inertia in responding to the issue of Somaliland’s nationhood is placing the country in clear and present danger and making it vulnerable to influence from the Islamist terrorist group.

“What the international community needs to understand is that unless something is done to spring Somaliland from the limbo to which it has been consigned, things may not remain all that smooth.

“A growing population of young people whose prospects are limited by the constraints on economic development may find themselves a receptive audience for voices very different from the farsighted leaders who built Somaliland from the ruins of the former Somalia,” he said.


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The Price of Ignoring the Sexuality of Kenya’s HIV-Positive Youth Thu, 29 Nov 2012 14:40:29 +0000 Miriam Gathigah Teenagers who are known to be HIV positive are treated like social pariahs, often due to lack of information among their peers. Credit: Letuka Mahe/IPS

Teenagers who are known to be HIV positive are treated like social pariahs, often due to lack of information among their peers. Credit: Letuka Mahe/IPS

By Miriam Gathigah
NAIROBI, Nov 29 2012 (IPS)

It all started with a fight, one that would change his life forever.

It was in that moment of fighting with another teenage boy that Cedric Owino from the sprawling Mathare slum, one of Kenya’s biggest informal settlements, accidentally discovered that he was HIV positive.

Until then it had been a secret his grandmother had kept from him – for 15 years.

“While we were fighting, the mother of the other boy started shouting that I might scratch her son and infect him with HIV,” Owino, 15, tells IPS.

Consequently, a bitter argument ensued between Owino and his grandmother, who is his guardian, since he is an orphan. She confirmed that he has been HIV positive since he was a baby.

“Disclosure is not easy,” Mwema Omollo, Owino’s grandmother, tells IPS. “If you tell your child, you fear that it will change how they live. People are still very much afraid of HIV. My daughter refused to take antiretroviral (ARV) drugs when she discovered that she was HIV positive. I didn’t want this to become Cedric’s fate too.”

Her daughter was afraid that if she did take ARVs, people in her community who dispensed the medication would realise her status.

Since he found out, Owino has twice attempted suicide.

“My family knew I was infected, why tell me that the drugs I take are for asthma, while they know it’s because I am HIV positive?” he asks. He dropped out of grade eight at the Young Stars Academy soon after discovering his status.

Owino is not the only teenager struggling to come to terms with his status. Anthony Andega, another HIV positive 15-year-old, also tried to commit suicide when he found out two years ago.

He cut himself with a knife. But because of the stigma surrounding the virus, people refused to come to his aid. A friend of Andega’s later told him that even though he had been bleeding profusely, people refused to touch or help him.

“No one wants to touch where you have touched. You become isolated,” Andega tells IPS. Not only that, but the news of his status spread.

“In this neighbourhood, we go to the same schools. If people know you have HIV, this information is spread all over school,” he says.

The Kenya Population Data Sheet says stigma towards adolescents and teenagers living with HIV is high, with “55 percent of adolescents interviewed indicating that they preferred that the HIV status of their family members be kept secret.”

According to statistics from the Ministry of Health, of adults aged 15 to 64 years, an estimated 7.1 percent, or 1.4 million, are living with HIV in Kenya. Further, among youth aged 15 to 24 years, 3.8 percent are infected, rivalling older adults aged 50 to 64, whose prevalence is five percent.

Demonstrators against the suspension of Round 11 of Global Funding for Aids, TB and Malaria, earlier in the year. Credit: Miriam Gathigah/IPS

Doctors Without Borders, which has worked in Mathare with caregivers to improve the rate of disclosure among families affected by HIV, reports that only two percent of family members disclose their status to each other.

It is an issue of concern. Ann Mburu, a nurse who works for Adolescents Count Today (ACT), a project targeting HIV positive teenagers or those who have been affected by HIV, says “the number of HIV positive adolescents is likely to increase as most adolescents practice sex with their peers without any knowledge of their status.”

“Since parents and guardians don’t easily disclose to older children who are infected, HIV/AIDS will remain a big blow to the community with increased stigmatisation and discrimination due to the secrecy,” she says

Family Health Options Kenya (FHOK) has rolled out ACT in Thika in Central Kenya, and in Eldoret and Nakuru in the Rift Valley region.

“Despite 22 percent of boys and 11 percent of girls having had sex by the age of 15, 60 percent of adolescents considered themselves not to be at risk of HIV infection,” explains Esther Muketo, programme manager at FHOK. National figures are unavailable.

Paediatrician Dr. Alice Muchemi has seen many teenagers grapple with their HIV status.

“Teenage years are often difficult, self-confidence is usually fragile. Rejection from the opposite sex is often viewed as a tragedy. Their bodies are also hungry to indulge in sex. But teenagers who are known to be HIV positive are treated like social pariahs, often due to lack of information among their peers,” Muchemi tells IPS.

Kenya’s National Guidelines for HIV Testing and Counselling permit health workers to inform children “who are pregnant, married, or sexually active” of their HIV status. But this does not always happen.

“Since sexually active children do not always disclose that they are having sex, and because it’s not expected that they are, they are also not told that they are HIV positive,” Muchemi explains.

Before discovering that he was HIV positive, Owino had been sexually active for a year and had only used a condom on one occasion.

“Just like most boys here, we have sex when an opportunity presents itself. I thought of HIV as a disease for grown-ups,” Owino justifies.

Now that he knows his status he has not attempted to contact his former partners. “Mathare is a big slum, I don’t know where these girls live now. Even if people know about my status, I am not going to talk about it,” he says.

According to Plan Kenya, which carried out a study among HIV positive adolescents aged 10 to 19 years in Nairobi and the Nyanza region, “most HIV positive adolescents are or intend to be involved in sexual relationships. More than four-fifths have been in a sexual relationship and more than two-thirds of these are still in a relationship.” Nyanza has the highest prevalence of HIV in Kenya, almost twice the national prevalence at 15.3 percent.

Paul Ndegwa, an HIV positive activist, says that while the government is succeeding in its fight against paediatric HIV, it is largely ignoring the needs of HIV positive teenagers. According to UNAIDS, the Joint United Nations Programme on HIV/AIDS, there has been a 40 percent reduction in new infections among children in Kenya.

“The problem is in the transition into adolescence and teenage years. You are dealing with young people who are at an age where they don’t communicate well. The needs of HIV positive teenagers are real and they are ignored just the same way the sexual and reproductive health needs of teens in general are ignored,” he tells IPS.

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/UPDATE*/ Africa – Calling for a GMO-Free Continent Thu, 29 Nov 2012 11:22:36 +0000 Busani Bafana maizecrop

By Busani Bafana

South African smallholder farmer Motlasi Musi is not happy with the African Centre for Biosafety’s call for his country and Africa to ban the cultivation, import and export of all genetically modified maize. “I eat genetically modified maize, which I have been growing on my farm for more than seven years, and I am still alive,” he declared.

Musi, 57, a maize farmer in the Fun Valley area of Olifantsvlei, outside Johannesburg, and a beneficiary of South Africa’s Land Redistribution for Agricultural Development programme, has embraced the science of biotechnology with gusto.

“What have changed are my yields and my income.” He said that he earned about 225 dollars more per hectare for his GM maize crop than he did when farming ordinary maize.

He is also a member of The Truth About Trade, which describes itself on its official website as “a nonprofit advocacy group led by American farmers – narrowly focused, issue specific – as we support free trade and agricultural biotechnology.”

“For me it has largely been the exposure to biotechnology issues. They are not a seed company and the issue we are talking about here is GM seed so I do not see how that means I am influenced by them and in my views.”

He said that he was helping reduce food insecurity in South Africa by growing and selling GM maize.

“Biotechnology has a very big role in food security,” Musi told IPS. “The climate has changed and I know that with drought-tolerant seed I have a tool to fight climate change. I cannot guarantee that the rain will come and I if plant crops which are not drought tolerant, I could get into debt and lose my farm.”

South African smallholder farmer Motlasi Musi is not happy with the African Centre for Biosafety’s call for his country and Africa to ban the cultivation, import and export of all genetically modified maize. Courtesy: Busani Bafana

A report in April 2012 by the Climate Emergency Institute titled “The Impact of Climate Change on South Africa” said the country is experiencing a gradual, yet steady, change in climate with temperatures showing a significant increase over the last 60 years. Temperatures in South Africa are predicted to rise in costal regions by one to two degrees Celsius by 2050.

But the ACB does not believe that GMOs can deliver food security on the continent, specifically in South Africa, a leading African producer of GMOs.

The organisation is behind an African Civil Society statement calling for a ban on GM maize in South Africa and on the continent, which it hopes to submit to African governments. To date 656 signatures have been collected on the online statement, including those of 160 African organisations.

“We have sent an open letter to our minister of agriculture in October to ban GM maize in South Africa,” Haidee Swanby, an officer with ACB, told IPS.

“We (South Africa) have been cultivating, importing and exporting GM crops for 14 years with absolutely no impact on food security whatsoever. In fact, a bag of mealie meal is 84 percent more expensive than it was four or five years ago due to international prices and the extensive use of maize for biofuel production.”

GMOs in Africa

Apart from GM maize, South Africa also grows weed-tolerant GM soybeans and insect-resistant and weed-tolerant GM cotton.

South Africa is one of only three countries in Africa, along with Burkina Faso and Egypt, currently planting commercialised GM crops. Nigeria, Kenya and Uganda are currently conducting field trials, while six African countries have enabling biosafety laws allowing the safe development and commercialisation of GM products.

Swanby said there was a need to improve access to food, by addressing poverty, unemployment and issues around land tenure, service delivery, infrastructure, access to markets, and unfair global trade practices.

“Genetically modified food has never been labelled in South Africa so there is no way to know if it is causing health problems,” Swanby said, calling for a rigorous scientific study into the health implications of GM food.

“If someone is getting sick, how are they going to trace it back to GMOs when they don’t know they’re eating them? We want more science, not less!”

The ACB has a supporter in Friends of the Earth International, which is also lobbying for a GMO-free Africa.

The organisation’s coordinator Nnimmo Bassey told IPS that GMOs do not deliver on the promises made by the biotechnology industry. He argued that hunger in Africa is used as an excuse to contaminate and erode genetic diversity on the continent.

Bassey said that GM crops are neither more nutritious nor better yielding nor use fewer pesticides and herbicides. And he said they are unsafe for humans and for the environment.

“It is all about market colonisation,” Bassey told IPS. “GM crops would neither produce food security nor meet nutrition deficits. The way forward is food sovereignty – Africans must determine what crops are suitable culturally and environmentally. Up to 80 percent of our food needs are met by smallholder farmers. These people need support and inputs for integrated agro-ecological crop management. Africa should ideally be a GMO-free continent.”

Friends of the Earth International cites failed GMO experiments in Africa with Bt cotton (a strain of cotton that had the Bacillus thuringiensis bacterium inserted into its genetic code) in Burkina Faso and South Africa where they had been touted as the crops to pull smallholder farmers out of poverty.

Global developer and supplier of plant genetics, including hybrid seed, DuPont Pioneer, said that the effect of switching from saved seed to hybrid seed is dramatic.

The company’s vice president responsible for Asia, Africa and China, Daniel Jacobi, told IPS that of the 24 million hectares of maize planted annually in sub-Saharan Africa, about a third was hybrid seed.

Furthermore, farmers get a fuller yield from hybrid seeds by using fertiliser and agronomic practices, reducing post-harvest losses and getting the crop to market, he maintained.

“We can spend a long time and gain a lot of productivity in sub-Saharan Africa by doing all those things without ever getting to the introduction of GMOs,” Jacobi said following a tour of the DuPont Pioneer facility in the Midwestern U.S. state of Iowa.

“I think we tend to get wrapped up in the debate about GMOs and how multinational companies are forcing GMOs down the throats of local farmers. I think we ought to be focused on helping farmers do the best job they can do today by using hybrid seed and let us not let those priorities get lost in the big philosophical debate about GMOs.”

AfricaBio, a biotechnology stakeholder association formed in 1999, says a vast majority of the South African population are struggling to meet their daily needs and GM products offer a proven solution.

“For 14 consecutive seasons, South Africans have planted and consumed foods and food products derived from approved GM crops as part of their diet and no confirmed cases of harm to consumers of GM foods have been reported,” AfricaBio chief executive officer Nompumelelo Obokoh told IPS.

Meanwhile, Musi remained unhappy about the call to ban GM maize. “Africans should come to a realisation that all this is happening in the name of contraceptive imperialism. Africa missed out during the Green Revolution – we must not miss the Gene Revolution. Let Africans decide for Africa,” he said.

(*Adds information that Musi is a member of The Truth About Trade. Story first moved on Nov. 23, 2012)

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Taking the Knowledge of Doha Back to Kenya’s Rural Communities Wed, 28 Nov 2012 13:37:15 +0000 Mantoe Phakathi Turkana women in Kenya. Turkana district was one of the hardest-hit areas in the Horn of Africa in the 2011 drought that affected the entire region. Credit: Isaiah Esipisu/IPS

Turkana women in Kenya. Turkana district was one of the hardest-hit areas in the Horn of Africa in the 2011 drought that affected the entire region. Credit: Isaiah Esipisu/IPS

By Mantoe Phakathi
DOHA, Nov 28 2012 (IPS)

The skyscraper Qatari capital city of Doha is a far cry from Cecilia Kibe’s home in Turkana district, a remote area in Kenya inhabited by mostly nomadic communities and pastoralists hit hard by the effects of climate change.

But the agriculturalist-cum-sociologist has come here to the 18th Conference of the Parties (COP18) to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), thanks to funding from the Mary Robinson Foundation for Climate Justice (MRFCJ), to sit and listen as scientists, researchers, top government officials and activists argue their case.

Kibe is on a mission – to gather as much knowledge as possible to share with the women in her community. Turkana district was one of the hardest-hit areas in the Horn of Africa in the 2011 drought that affected the entire region.

According to Oxfam International, Turkana district has gone without good rain for about five years. And this has affected the community severely. In 2011 the United Nations news agency IRIN reported “Turkana has experienced malnutrition rates of up to 37.4 percent; the highest recorded in 20 years and more than double the U.N. World Health Organization emergency threshold of 15 percent.”

Back in Turkana district, Kibe runs an information-sharing network that she started because she refused to allow herself and the other women in her village to continue suffering from hunger as they repeatedly lost their crops in the prolonged drought.

“Most women in African rural communities still attribute the impact of climate change to different myths, including that God is upset with people,” Kibe told IPS.

“I work with 4,000 champions (women) who educate their fellow community members and help them come up with adaptation strategies,” she said. She named her organisation Kenya Climate Justice Women Champions, and has now expanded her network to benefit over 3,000 households.

“In turn the women identify their areas of need and, based on the information I get from international conferences such as this one, we start projects that address those challenges,” said Kibe. The projects are funded by MRFCJ.

She said that often the information from conferences such as COP 18 does not filter down to the people most affected by climate change.

“We need to get the information from this conference to help them understand what exactly is happening,” said Kibe.

Top of Kibe’s priority list of things to tackle is food insecurity. And the cultivation of cassava, a drought-tolerant crop, has been identified as part of the strategy to combat this. Previously people in Kibe’s area grew maize, which often failed because of the lack of rain.

Another priority is addressing water insecurity, Kibe said. Back home, women and children have to travel long distances to fetch water, which in many cases is contaminated.

“We have introduced solar water cleaning, which is a technology that uses a device that easily purifies water when placed in the sun,” explained Kibe. “It’s just a press of a button.”

Women are also encouraged to plant five trees each to combat carbon emissions.

What Kibe is doing is important. According to Trish Glazebrook, a researcher from the University of Texas:  “Knowledge transfer is very important because we know that in as much as women need to adapt, they also have to mitigate through climate smart technologies for their farming and sources of domestic energy.”

She told IPS that women in sub-Saharan Africa are not only victims of climate change, but are also contributing to pollution because they lack the technology to improve their farming methods and remain heavily dependent on agriculture, a sector that contributes to global emissions.

But Robinson, who was the first female president of Ireland, said Kibe’s story was a compelling case of why women should be adequately represented at the COP 18.

“A lot of rural women like Cecilia are doing a lot of work on the ground to adapt, but they are hardly recognised and they work with limited resources,” Robinson said.

Speaking at the first ever Gender Day at COP 18 on Nov. 27, Robinson called for more active participation of women in the conference. For more than 10 years gender organisations have advocated aggressively for this day to be recognised in the climate negotiation process.

“We need gender balance in all the UNFCCC bodies, including the attendance,” she said.

Christiana Figueres, executive secretary of the UNFCCC, concurred.

“It’s very dumb not to maximise the participation of a group that is over 50 percent of the world population,” she said.

She said she was proud that the gender text was included in the UNFCCC process, although the words needed to be transformed into action.

Mozambican Minister of Environment Acinda Abreu said that society as a whole needed a mind shift to allow women to make meaningful contributions at all levels of the climate change process.

“Adaptation strategies should prioritise the farmers, particularly women who are mainly into subsistence agriculture, and the communities they live in,” she said.

The special advisor at the International Union for Conservation of Nature, Francois Rogers, told IPS that women from all walks of life have to be adequately trained to give them the capacity to participate in policy-formulation processes at the local, regional and international levels.

“It should not be just about meeting quotas, but we should ensure that they have confidence in understanding the issues so that they can fully participate in the decision making,” he said.


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Chinese and Brazilian Firms Building the New Angola Tue, 27 Nov 2012 16:20:29 +0000 Mario Osava Signs in Chinese reflect China’s heavy participation in the construction of the new Angola. Credit: Mario Osava/IPS

Signs in Chinese reflect China’s heavy participation in the construction of the new Angola. Credit: Mario Osava/IPS

By Mario Osava
LUANDA, Nov 27 2012 (IPS)

“In Luanda there are no matches.” This was the first line of a report written by Nobel Literature laureate Gabriel García Márquez in the Angolan capital in 1977.

Soap, milk, salt and aspirin were other products that were hard to come by in a city that, he wrote, “surprised” visitors with “its modern, shining beauty,” although it was actually “a dazzling empty shell.”

The emphasis that the Colombian writer put on the shortages suffered by the war-torn country injured the pride of the Angolans who read his report. But he effectively described the chaos inherited from Portuguese colonialism and the war of independence, a year and a half after Angola became independent.

Today, 35 years later, it is the excesses and glaring contrasts that shock the visitor to this city in southwestern Africa. Shiny new cars on brand-new roads and highways lined by thousands of still-empty or half-built office buildings, apartment blocks and residential towers stand in sharp contrast to the sprawling slums around the city.

Signs on construction sites written in Chinese clearly reflect the Asian giant’s high level of participation in the construction of today’s new Angola.

The most ambitious project carried out by companies from China is the Nova Cidade de Kilamba (Kilamba New City), a huge development designed to house half a million people, 20 km south of downtown Luanda.

When it is completed, the new neighbourhood will have more than 80,000 apartments built for large families – the norm in Angola – in buildings five to 13 storeys high. The development is also to be fitted out with dozens of schools, child care centres, health clinics and shops.

Nearly one-quarter of the buildings have been completed. But almost all of them are empty, even though more than 3,000 apartments were already available when the development was inaugurated in July 2011.

Also involved in building the new city are Brazilian firms, especially construction giant Odebrecht, which is in charge of key projects like electricity and water grids and the construction of roads.

The foreign presence in the massive new developments “is not something to be admired, because it shows that there are no national companies with the capacity to build them,” said one of Angola’s most prominent writers, Artur Pestana, better known as Pepetela, who is also a professor of sociology.

“The Chinese build faster, they work round-the-clock shifts, and they offer almost interest-free long-term loans,” he said. But they employ few Angolan workers and “there are many complaints about the quality of their construction work,” he added.

Meanwhile, Brazilian companies “apparently learned their lesson from a few initial fiascos which made them the butt of national jokes, and they now stand out for the quality of their work,” which enables them to compete with the Chinese, said the author, who has published many historical novels that are critical of the government of José Eduardo dos Santos, president since 1979.

Odebrecht, a Brazilian consortium that operates in 35 countries, became a leader in infrastructure works in Angola after 1984, when it signed a contract for the construction of the Capanda hydroelectric dam on the Kwanza river, 360 km from the capital, built to supply Luanda.

The civil war, which broke out after independence, led to lengthy delays in construction of the dam, which did not begin to generate electricity until 2004.

The end of the armed conflict in 2002 unleashed a wave of investment in the reconstruction and modernisation of Angola, fuelled by the country’s oil revenue and Chinese credit.

Besides the construction of other large hydropower dams, Odebrecht is involved in the production of sugar, ethanol and electricity from sugarcane, and is expanding the waterworks and sanitation in Luanda, while building condominiums, roads and highways.

It is also dedicated to diamond mining, and controls the chain of 29 Nosso Super supermarkets.

It was the first non-oil company from Brazil to begin to operate in Angola with a “long-term outlook,” said Victor Fontes, director general of the Angolan company Elektra, which specialises in power and water grids. He said this had the positive effect of attracting other firms also interested in the long haul, instead of just short-term opportunities.

The director of institutional relations at Odebrecht Angola, Alexandre Assaf, told IPS that the consortium is committed to “continuity” in Angola, above and beyond the effects of wars or the global economic crisis.

Five years ago, only nine percent of the “strategic posts” in the company were held by Angolans – a proportion that has risen to 41 percent, he noted, to illustrate the company’s commitment to local development.

In that group, Assaf included not only directors and managers, but also young university graduates who have been hired by the company to be trained as future leaders.

But Elektra’s Fontes argued that Odebrecht’s “near-monopoly position in some sectors hinders local initiative” by standing in the way of the development of small and medium-sized local firms that could work on smaller-scale projects, such as the upgrading of streets and neighbourhoods, that do not require the involvement of transnational corporations.

In addition, the country pays “more than what is reasonable for certain infrastructure works and services” carried out by the Brazilian company, which are of high quality but are also costly, said Fontes.

He acknowledged, however, that Odebrecht “has brought good management and performance strategies, and the best in the construction industry in the area of workplace safety,” for example.

The challenge faced by foreign and Angolan companies is addressing the serious problems that have accumulated in Luanda, where the population has grown exponentially.

In 1970, Luanda was home to just over 475,000 people, according to the last census carried out by the Portuguese colonial government. Today, the population of the city is over seven million.

But the condominiums and residential towers mushrooming around the city have not curbed the housing shortage, because those in need of homes cannot afford to purchase or rent the new units, which were built for a middle class that is still small. And despite the large number of empty housing units, the prices have not gone down.

A lack of piped water and electricity services are also common complaints in the midst of the construction fever.

The solution is on its way, according to government plans, whose strategic projects are being carried out by Odebrecht. But it will take years to silence the back-up generators heard all around the city during the frequent blackouts, and to ensure a steady supply of piped water.

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Children Face the Fallout of Gaza War Tue, 27 Nov 2012 08:52:08 +0000 Mel Frykberg Seven-year-old Nisma Kalajar from Shijaiya in Gaza City has stopped talking after suffering head fractures in a fall from the third floor during an Israeli attack. Credit: Mel Frykberg/IPS.

Seven-year-old Nisma Kalajar from Shijaiya in Gaza City has stopped talking after suffering head fractures in a fall from the third floor during an Israeli attack. Credit: Mel Frykberg/IPS.

By Mel Frykberg
GAZA CITY, Nov 27 2012 (IPS)

As Israel and Hamas separately celebrate the ceasefire and their “victory” over the other following Israel’s blistering eight-day military assault on the Gaza strip, civilians continue to pay the price.

According to the Palestine Centre for Human Rights (PCHR) more than 160 Palestinians lost their lives by Nov. 21, the last day of the bloody confrontation between the world’s third most powerful military and Palestinian fighters. The dead included at least 103 civilians, 33 of them children. More than a thousand Palestinians were wounded, including 971 civilians – 274 of them children.

Three of the Palestinian civilians killed were journalists who died after repeated Israeli attacks on media buildings where Palestinian and foreign journalists were working. Six Israelis were killed as indiscriminate rocket fire from Gaza targeted Israeli cities.

But the war and its consequences have been the hardest for Gaza’s children, unable to comprehend the volatility and the political intricacies in the place they call home.

“Mamma, mamma,” cries Muhammad Abu Zour, 7, in the Zeitoun neighbourhood of Gaza city. His head is bandaged and one of his eyes is purple and badly swollen. His eyes flicker upwards and backwards.

“There is a possibility that he has severe brain damage as there is internal bleeding within his skull,” nurse Sana Thabat, 23, from Gaza’s Shifa Hospital tells IPS.

Muhammad was wounded last week after Israeli F-16 fighter jets targeted his family home as the occupants slept. The shelling killed two women from the Abu Zour family; Sahar Fadi Abu Zour, 20, Nisma Helmi Abu Zour, 21; and Muhammad’s little brother Eyad Abu Zour, 5.

The Israeli jets had been targeting the home of an alleged militant next door. The Zeitoun neighbourhood is densely populated by civilians and far from any Hamas military compounds.

In another case of Israeli “collateral damage” 11 members of the Dalu family, including four women and four children, were killed when an Israeli missile hit a four-storey house belonging to Jamal Mahmoud Yassin al-Dalu 52, in the north of Gaza city last Sunday.

Alia Kalajar, 23, from Shijaiya in Gaza weeps silently as she holds the hand of her seven-year-old daughter Nisma. “Nisma has stopped talking and we don’t know if she will ever talk again. She has a head fracture and is bleeding internally too,” Kalajar tell IPS.

The little girl fell from her home on the third floor of a building that was struck by an Israeli drone. Nineteen Palestinian civilians were injured in that strike.

Abdel Azis Ashour, 6, from Zeitoun has shrapnel injuries in both his legs. He was playing with his seven brothers and sisters last Tuesday when an Israeli drone targeted his neighbourhood.

His cousin was killed and five other civilians were injured. But the little boy remains cheerful despite the grim circumstances and the pain he is in. “I’m not afraid of the Israelis,” he tells IPS as he flashes the V for victory sign.

Shifa Hospital staff has been forced to work long hours with limited medical equipment and dwindling supplies of medicines.

“I’ve seen so many dead and injured children. In the end one becomes a little numb to the situation,” nurse Adnan Bughadi, 22 from Shijaiya tells IPS. “Most of us have been working double shifts to cope with all the wounded, and it is very tiring. At one stage the floors were covered in blood and there was a shortage of beds for the wounded.”

“The hospital is running low on some essential medicines and has run out of others,” nurse Thabet tells IPS. “I find it very distressing seeing the number of children and other civilians killed but what can we do? We have to keep going.”

The PCHR has called for an international fact-finding mission “to investigate war crimes committed by Israeli forces against Palestinian civilians in the Gaza Strip, and to take necessary measures to prosecute the perpetrators.” (END)

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War Tourism Skips Reality Sat, 24 Nov 2012 09:19:48 +0000 Amantha Perera Tourists from southern Sri Lanka walk past the gutted remains of the Jordanian cargo vessel Farah III, which was commandeered by the LTTE. Credit: Amantha Perera/IPS

Tourists from southern Sri Lanka walk past the gutted remains of the Jordanian cargo vessel Farah III, which was commandeered by the LTTE. Credit: Amantha Perera/IPS

By Amantha Perera
MULLAITIVU, Sri Lanka, Nov 24 2012 (IPS)

The tour guide’s voice echoes around the dark, musty room, three stories underground. Fifty visitors – among them mothers holding infants, youths snapping pictures on mobile phones and grandparents leaning against the walls – are crammed into the narrow stairwell that leads down into the chamber, listening attentively to his every word.

The tourists have travelled hundreds of kilometres to see this underground bunker, once home to the most feared man in Sri Lanka: the leader of the separatist Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), Velupillai Prabhakaran.

Located a short drive south of the town of Puthukkudiyiruppu, a former LTTE operations hub in the northern Mullaitivu District, some 330 kilometres from the capital Colombo, the bunker complex is nestled deep within the jungle.

The massive compound boasts a firing range, a semi-underground garage, a jogging path, a film hall and a small funeral parlor where the Tiger leader paid his final respects to fallen cadres.

“This is out of this world, how did they ever build something like this?” a woman who gave her name as Ranjini asked while walking down the narrow stairs.

Other attractions on the tour of former rebel-held areas include the shipyard where the Tigers experimented with building submersibles, complete with a dry dock and the skeletal remains of the Farah III, a Jordanian cargo vessel that was commandeered by the LTTE.

What is sidelined, however, are details of the beleaguered Tamil population that lived in this region throughout 30 years of civil war, and is now struggling to survive.

Beneath war attractions, suffering continues

The Sri Lankan military came across the bunker complex after the Tigers were defeated in May 2009, signaling the end of a three-decade-long civil war in which the LTTE fought the Sri Lankan government for control over the north and east of the island in order to establish a separate state for the minority Tamil population.

Puthukkudiyiruppu and Mullaitivu, once the central command headquarters of a massive guerilla operation, now play host to thousands of visitors, mostly from the majority-Sinhalese southern regions of the country.

But while these guided tours offer locals a rare glance into the inner workings of the Tigers’ de facto state and the extent of its former military capacity, rights activists fear that many tourists are missing the “bigger picture” – the horrors of the aftermath of the war and the suffering that has become an everyday experience for tens of thousands who were displaced during the last bouts of fighting.

“I feel the (tourists) don’t have sense of what really happened here, or they don’t want to know,” Ruki Fernando, a rights activist who formerly headed the Human Rights in Conflict Programme at the national rights body, the Law and Society Trust, told IPS.

The facts surrounding the final stages of the war have been hotly contested in and outside the country: local rights groups, international humanitarian observers and aid workers claim at least 40,000 were killed, while the government insists that figure is closer to 7,000.

An internal review of the United Nations’ actions in Sri Lanka during the last phase of the war, released in early November, has reignited the furor over what happened here during the first half of 2009 and who was responsible.

The government has maintained a firm line that the Tamil civilians caught in the crossfire of the conclusive battle were “rescued” in a humanitarian operation and moved to safety in government “welfare camps”, while U.N. officials and aid workers classified this process as mass incarceration of Tamil civilian survivors in open-air detention centres, in violation of international law.

These unresolved questions are now being sidelined as the tourists arrive in droves, intent on one thing only – seeing as many of the war relics as possible, according to Saroja Sivachandaran, head of the Centre for Women and Development, a gender-based rights group in northern Jaffna.

“They fail to see that they are travelling through an area of absolute destruction where thousands still live in makeshift shelters,” she told IPS.

Some 450,000 displaced people, including around 236,000 who were rendered homeless during the last months of the war, are only now returning to their home villages in the north, even though basic amenities are still scarce in the region.

So far, just 21,000 permanent houses have been constructed for the roughly 170,000 still in search of homes.

The latest U.N. situation reports warn of serious funding shortfalls for rehabilitation work, a bleak forecast for the displaced.

Prashan de Visser, president of the national youth movement ‘Sri Lanka Unites’, told IPS that the gulf between visitors and those living in the former war zone stems from language barriers and a long history of cultural and social.

Sri Lanka Unites has engaged its island-wide base of 10,000 members to breach the ethnic divides, but there is still a long way to go since misconceptions are deeply “ingrained in the (social) system”, de Visser told IPS.

Sri Lanka Unites organises field tours and conferences for youth from all over the island, and for members of the vast Sri Lankan diaspora. Its main annual event, the Future Leaders’ Conference, was held in Jaffna this year, brining over 10,000 youth together for a week of activities.

During these intimate interactions, de Visser said, youth from different ethnic groups begin to see through the cultural and social barriers that have held them apart for so long.

This year, a group of youth leaders from the southern-most district of Hambantota pledged to raise 300,000 rupees (about 2,300 dollars) for work in the north after taking a field tour of the war-affected areas.

But most of the visitors flocking to the region are unlikely to make similar pledges.

Fernando warned that ‘gawking tourists’ will only reinforce ethnic divides instead of bridging them.

“This is still a massive curiosity park for the visitors, they really don’t want to see beyond the (thrills) offered by attractions like the bunker,” said Mahendran Sivakumar, a 61-year-old retired government education official who lived in the war zone throughout the entire conflict.


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Mental Health, Another Victim of Climate Change Fri, 23 Nov 2012 21:02:49 +0000 Patricia Grogg Stress and anguish are normal reactions among people who go through a natural disaster. Credit: Jorge Luis Baños/IPS

Stress and anguish are normal reactions among people who go through a natural disaster. Credit: Jorge Luis Baños/IPS

By Patricia Grogg

“The city looked as if it had been bombed. On the way to my office, I passed people who had the same shocked look on their faces as I did. We would look at each other, and even though we were strangers, we’d ask ‘How did things go for you? Did anything happen to your house?’ It was a kind of warm solidarity that did me a lot of good.”

This is what a journalist in Santiago de Cuba told IPS, as she described at least one positive aspect of the collective reactions after a disaster like the one suffered by this eastern Cuban city on Oct. 25, when Hurricane Sandy, despite the weather alerts and government warnings, caught a large part of the population off guard.

The estimates of economic losses caused by the storm in eastern Cuba have not yet been published. But the damage was severe, and 11 people were killed.

But there is another, less-noticed, dimension: the psychological impact, which can be seen in people’s eyes when they talk about losing everything – their homes, their furniture, their household appliances, even their memories.

“I was really scared. I crawled into a cabinet when the wind tore the roof off my room. My neighbours pulled me out of the house and helped me cross the street to where other families whose homes were also damaged had taken shelter,” 70-year-old Isabel de la Cruz, from the city of Guantánamo, which was also hit hard, told IPS.

Depression, anxiety, despair, irritability and aggressiveness are all symptoms shown by people around the world who have gone through a natural disaster.

“Just think, we fell asleep with the beauty and woke up with the beast,” said a local resident who worked in a hotel that was totally destroyed by the storm.

“People are depressed and disoriented,” said Father Eugenio Castellanos, the Catholic priest at the shrine of Our Lady of Charity of El Cobre, Cuba’s patron saint. “I have noticed psychological imbalances because of the losses suffered, in more than a few people,” he told IPS.

The priest estimated that 90 percent of the homes in El Cobre, a village near Santiago de Cuba, felt Sandy’s impact.

Juan González Pérez told IPS that in the days after the hurricane, there were outbreaks of violence in some areas, especially when people stood in line to buy basic products that had been scarce.

“We had been without electricity for many days, and they started to sell kerosene for cooking,” said Pérez, a local spiritualist leader. “Although there was enough for everyone, there were arguments and fights in the line. When people get desperate, they tend to get aggressive.”

He said he told his followers “to come together, get along, share with people who don’t have enough, and not to give in to despair.”

In Mar Verde, a beach neighbourhood where Sandy made landfall 15 km from Santiago, Dr. Elizabeth Martínez has provided assistance to more than 100 people who are being housed in summer cabins that were not destroyed because they are set further back from the shore.

“The psychological impact is huge. But no one here was killed, and no one is sick,” she said.

After the hurricane hit, healthcare efforts were mainly focused on preventing epidemics from breaking out. “We are holding meetings on health in the neighbourhood, teaching people how to avoid transmissible diseases, and about the importance of purifying water before drinking it,” she said.

According to experts, between one-third and one-half of any population exposed to natural disasters suffers some kind of psychological problem, although in the majority of cases it would be considered a normal reaction in the face of extreme events.

But because of the impact of climate change, weather events like hurricanes threaten to increase in intensity.

“When I found my neighbours in the lower floors, we were in shock. But someone said: ‘We’re going to get into the entryway that is blocked by these fallen trees,’ and we started working, although at first no one was talking,” said one woman who works in the tourist industry. In the first few days after the storm, many people were on the streets removing rubble and cleaning up.

Due to the greater frequency and intensity of tropical storms, health authorities in Cuba began to focus in the 1990s on the psychological impact of hurricanes and other natural disasters. In 2008, when the country was hit by three hurricanes, the government ordered that more attention be given to the question by health authorities.

In an article on the issue, Dr. Alexis Lorenzo Ruiz explained that psychological and social aspects of disasters are taken into account, both in the training of personnel and in the organisation of health programmes that reach the entire country, with an emphasis on the most vulnerable sectors, such as children, adolescents and the elderly.

From a mental health point of view, in natural disasters, the entire population “suffers tension and anxiety to a greater or lesser degree, directly or indirectly,” Katia Villamil and Orlando Fleitas wrote, noting that the impact in such circumstances is more severe among low-income sectors.

The two professionals said the most frequent reactions ranged from “normal” ones, like manageable anxiety or mild depression, to emotional numbness, exacerbation of pre-existing psychiatric conditions or post-traumatic stress disorder.

Hurricane Sandy caused damage not only in Santiago de Cuba but also in the eastern provinces of Guantánamo and Holguín. The government of Raúl Castro has not yet announced the amount of economic losses, although preliminary, partial figures released a few days after the storm mentioned an estimate of 88 million dollars.

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Political Provocateurs Expose Kenya’s “MaVultures” Wed, 21 Nov 2012 13:10:09 +0000 Mike Elkin Boniface Mwangi organised a group of graffiti artists to create controversial murals around Nairobi depicting the nation’s political elite as vultures and criticising the populace for voting them into office again and again. Credit: Mike Elkin/IPS

Boniface Mwangi organised a group of graffiti artists to create controversial murals around Nairobi depicting the nation’s political elite as vultures and criticising the populace for voting them into office again and again. Credit: Mike Elkin/IPS

By Mike Elkin
NAIROBI, Nov 21 2012 (IPS)

A new website linking corruption and other scandals to high-ranking Kenyan politicians, created by a team of political provocateurs, has become one of the most-visited web pages in the country., which means “many vultures” in Swahili, aims to collect, condense, and air the past wrongdoings of Kenya’s political class. Going live on Nov. 13, the site is the latest project from activist Boniface Mwangi, known for his political graffiti murals around Nairobi and his photographic exhibitions that documented the violent aftermath of the 2007 presidential elections.

Following a disputed election result in December 2007, riots and politically motivated tribal disputes broke out, leaving around 1,200 people dead and displacing 600,000.

Mwangi, 29, a freelance photographer, was twice awarded, in 2008 and 2010, CNN’s Mohamed Amin Photographic Award, named after a Kenyan photojournalist, for his work covering the post-election violence.

“Yo have y’all checked out” tweeted Kenyan entertainment magazine Blink. “I think you need to check it out before you cast your vote next year.” Kenyans will be going to the polls to elect a new president in March 2013.

“Thanks for the info,,” tweeted a local twitter user called Msanifu. “I now know why/whom I should not vote for.”

The website so far features profiles on 17 politicians, including Uhuru Kenyatta, the son of Kenya’s first president, a current presidential candidate, and also one of the men under an International Criminal Court investigation for crimes against humanity during the 2007 post-election violence, which Kenyans refer to as “the Violence”.

Money laundering, land grabbing, drug trafficking and murder are just a few of the accusations pins on its targets. Aside from articles, the site includes videos, infographics on each politician, and Wild-West-style wanted posters available for download. It is financed by anonymous donors.

Mwangi told IPS in an interview at his Nairobi office that the goal of the website was to educate Kenyans about the baggage their political leaders and candidates are carrying leading up to the presidential elections.

“We’re going to put online the records of every person involved in the government, every corruption case they’ve been in, and every accusation about them,” Mwangi said.

“So when you go to vote you’ll have this platform to have an informed perspective. We have grand-scale corruption in this country, and the same guys involved in the corruption have been for the past 49 years. So we can compare them and us. When they say, ‘we are together’, we will see that we are not together. Our kids don’t go to foreign schools, and we don’t have villas in the United Kingdom.”

Boniface Mwangi is known for his political graffiti murals around Nairobi and his photographic exhibitions that documented the violent aftermath of the 2007 presidential elections. Credit: Mike Elkin/IPS

According to Transparency International, the Berlin-based non-governmental organisation that documents global corruption, Kenya’s score in 2011 for perceived corruption was 2.2 out of 10, with 10 being clean. Overall, 153 out of 183 countries on the index ranked as less corrupt than Kenya. Transparency International estimated that corruption is costing Kenya up to 357 million dollars per year.

Mwangi said he moved into political activism out of frustration and anger after witnessing the post-election violence. In 2009 he founded Picha Mtaani, a traveling photo exhibition of the riots and killings, as a way to remind Kenyans of what happened.

Turning his gaze toward corruption, Mwangi then organised a group of graffiti artists to create controversial murals around Nairobi depicting the nation’s political elite as vultures and criticising the populace for voting them into office again and again.

In June, he led a rally that carried 49 black coffins to parliament while in session. Each coffin represented every year the politicians enjoyed impunity since independence in 1963. On them they stenciled, “Bury the vulture with your vote,” and each coffin was labeled with a political scandal.

Authorities painted over many of the graffiti murals in the Kenyan capital, but one of Mwangi’s most iconic images remains intact near the Nairobi city market. In it a man with a vulture head sits on a throne wearing a sly grin with a teacup in one hand and the other handcuffed to a briefcase. The thought cloud above him reads: “They loot, rape, burn and kill in my defence. I steal their taxes, grab land, but the idiots will still vote for me.”

“You know what a vulture does?” asked Nairobi taxi driver Kimani Jong Kimani Nganga as he looked at the mural. “It eats meat. We have had politicians since the elections that have been eating us. So we should change that.”

Mwangi said that he wants to provoke a response among Kenyans, because their apathy toward clear cases of political and financial abuse only emboldens those who seek to take advantage of the system.

“Recently, teachers and doctors were striking over low pay, and the members of parliament sat down and over 30 minutes awarded themselves a pay raise,” Mwangi said.

“There was no uproar. Two hundred people can do this in a country of 40 million people and no one goes to the streets. What do you call that? Zombies, cowards… It defeats logic how people can be slaves to a system and never speak out. People see injustice every day and they watch it happen.”

Fear of the consequences of speaking out, he said, is one of the main reasons for Kenyans’ silence. So Mwangi said he is thinking of planning a protest where everyone will wear masks.

“This country is very small, the majority of the companies are owned by politicians and vultures, so if some people protest they fear repercussions or being fired. With masks, people can show their true colours.”

*Additional reporting by Lucas Laursen

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Tough Foreign Policy Challenges for Somalia’s “Iron Lady” Tue, 20 Nov 2012 13:17:09 +0000 Abdurrahman Warsameh Somalia's first female Foreign Minister Fauzia Yusuf Haji Adan has a tough road ahead. Credit: Abdurrahman Warsameh/IPS

Somalia's first female Foreign Minister Fauzia Yusuf Haji Adan has a tough road ahead. Credit: Abdurrahman Warsameh/IPS

By Abdurrahman Warsameh
MOGADISHU, Nov 20 2012 (IPS)

As little-known politician Fauzia Yusuf Haji Adan was sworn in as Somalia’s first female foreign minister and deputy prime minister on Monday Nov. 19, the stateswoman who hails from the unrecognised, self-proclaimed republic of Somaliland is tipped to become the country’s “Iron Lady”.

This is according to Adan´s political ally Mohamed Daahir Omar, who used to work closely with her in local Somaliland politics, in which he is currently active.

“We know Fauzia as a person with strong determination and as an approachable individual who likes to form consensus. But when she has to make a decision, she just goes for it and works to convince others of her way. She was mostly successful, and for that she can be considered Somalia’s Iron Lady,” Omar told IPS from Hargeisa, the capital of Somaliland, referring to Adan’s strong will.

Adan, who returned from her first state visit to neighbouring Djibouti on Nov. 18 and missed the official swearing-in ceremony of the cabinet on Nov. 15, takes on the mantle of leadership in a country with a number of tough foreign policy challenges.

While details of Adan and her background are sketchy, and she has been reluctant to grant interviews to the press, Omar said that because of her skill as a consensus-builder, the new foreign minister could play a role in bridging the divide between this Horn of Africa nation and Somaliland.

One of her first tasks will be to advance tentative and delicate talks between the Somali government and politicians in the northern state. Somaliland unilaterally declared independence from the rest of Somalia following the collapse of the country’s government in 1991.

“The talks between Somalia and Somaliland will be an acid test for Adan because as a northerner she will have to show her people that she does not want to force them into a union (with Somalia) that they don’t want.

“But at the same time as a key minister in the federal government she has to represent the views of the government – the sanctity of national unity and sovereignty,” Garaad Jama, an analyst from the Centre for Policy Development, a think tank in Somalia, told IPS.

Adan, who is only one of two women in the 10-member cabinet appointed by Prime Minister Abdi Farah Shirdon, will also have to deal with the growing friction between Kenya and Somalia over the formation of local administration areas in southern Somalia.

The Kenyan military captured the Al-Shabaab-controlled southern Somali port city of Kismayo in late September. The port was one of the key strongholds of the Al-Qaeda-linked Islamist radical group.

But Kenya has reportedly been pushing for the region in southern Somalia known as Azania or Jubaland – where Kismayo is the main city – to be given the status of an autonomous state, to serve as a buffer zone between Kenya and the chaos in Somalia.

The Somali government has repeatedly voiced its opposition to the creation of such a state, which it fears would become a Kenyan satellite rather than a local administration that would fall under its control.

Although Kenya vehemently denied the charges, its soldiers in control of Kismayo’s airport prevented a Somali government delegation from entering the city on Nov. 7, after a local militia leader objected to their arrival.

“The signs are already not good, with deteriorating relations between Kenya and the new Somali government and other tough and pressing challenges,” Maryan Muumin, a women’s rights activist from the Somalia National Women’s Organisation (SNWO) in Mogadishu, told IPS.

“It seems that the daunting task for the new foreign minister is clear cut and it’s for Adan to deal with the challenges facing her, not only as Somalia’s foreign minister, but as the first woman to hold that post,” she said.

Adan will also have to deal with Al-Shabaab, which still poses a threat to the government in many parts of southern and central Somalia.

Al-Shabaab, which is opposed to women taking up roles outside the home and has imposed strict Sharia law in parts of the country that it controls, has threatened to target Somalia’s United Nations-backed government leaders. The militant group led a failed attempt to assassinate the country’s new President Hassan Sheikh Mohamud on Sep. 12, his second day in office.

“Although Al-Shabaab is now on the back foot, the group is the greatest threat to any government in Somalia,” Jama said “How this new government deals with the militant group, which has assassinated several ministers and other top government officials, will be a major test for the ministers, including the first female foreign minister.”

Adan described her appointment as a precedent that will open doors for Somali women.

“This is a historic day not only for Somali women but for all Somalia,” Adan said after the announcement of her appointment on Nov. 4.

Haliam Elmi from SNWO told IPS that Adan’s appointment was “a gift not only for Somali women but also for Africa and the world at large because women’s situations are similar in many parts of the world.”

She said she hoped that it would result in the acceptance of women’s participation in politics in this conservative Muslim country.

“This is a step in the right direction and we hope that society will finally accept women’s ascent on the political ladder,” she told IPS.

But Adan will have a tough road ahead of her. Not everyone has welcomed her appointment. Somalia’s Islamic clergy, for example, said that Adan’s appointment was against the teachings of Islam.

“In Muslim society women are given the highest role a human being can take, which is rearing children and being head of a Muslim home. What we hear from the government is in contradiction to our way of life as a Muslim society, and nothing but calamity will come from giving such political leadership roles to Fauzia, not only for her, but for her family and society in general,” said Sheikh Ali Mohamoud, a Muslim cleric in Mogadishu.

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First Burning Homes, Now Border Patrols Tue, 20 Nov 2012 08:44:08 +0000 Naimul Haq Border guards in Bangladesh are refusing entry to Rohingya refugees from Myanmar. Credit: Anurup Titu/IPS

Border guards in Bangladesh are refusing entry to Rohingya refugees from Myanmar. Credit: Anurup Titu/IPS

By Naimul Haq
COX'S BAZAR, Bangladesh, Nov 20 2012 (IPS)

In late August, Mohammad Saifuddin (not his real name), together with his wife, three daughters and son, fled the carnage of communal violence in western Myanmar’s Rakhine province and headed for the border of neighbouring Bangladesh.

Horrified by attacks on the minority Rohingya Muslims by the majority Buddhist community this past summer, the Saifuddin family embarked on what they described as a “horrific” five-day-long journey to reach the nearest border town of Teknaf in the Cox’s Bazar district of southeast Bangladesh, some 200 kilometres away.

Six other families accompanied the Saifuddins on a perilous journey that involved crossing the Mayu River and meandering across hilly forests.

“We moved during the night to evade detection. The journey seemed endless with the children unable to continue walking. At times we had no food or water, and were sometimes completely lost,” Ejaz Ahmed, who brought his wife and family across the border, told IPS.

But instead of arriving on safe soil, as they had hoped, the refugees have met strict border control and a hostile local government, highlighting the precariousness of life for this stateless Muslim population in Southeast Asia.

No rest for refugees

Refugees embark on long, perilous journeys by land and sea, only to be turned away. Credit: Anurup Titu/IPS

Sparked by reports in late May that three Rohingya Muslim men had allegedly raped a Buddhist Rakhine woman, the violence left thousands of families from the farming and fishing villages of Maungdaw, Buthidaung, Kyauktaw, Rathedaung, Minbya and Mrauk U homeless, with no access to food, water, medical supplies or shelter.

Within a month 83,000 out of a population of about 800,000 Rohingyas had fled their ancestral homes in Rakhine. By June, 95 people had been killed.

Some of the survivors now living around the camps in Bangladesh told IPS they had no choice but to flee.

“I saw my neighbours being dragged out of their homes and beaten to death. We fled to escape being killed,” Rehana Begum told IPS.

Mujibor Rahman, a vegetable shop owner in Kyauktaw village, said “On a dark night in June a dozen men attacked our local market where they picked up young Muslim men and (stabbed them) with rapiers. Many died on the spot while others were left moaning on the ground.”

But stories of these “genocide-like” conditions have failed to sway the Bangladeshi government, which has tightened border security at all points of entry.

Authorities have given Border Guards Bangladesh (BGB) strict instructions to deny entry to any “intruder” from Myanmar, whether travelling by boat or on foot.

As a result, scores of Rohingyas are said to be languishing on the other side of the roughly 270-kilometre land border in makeshift camps.

BGB Commander for Cox’s Bazaar, lieutenant colonel Mohammad Khalequzzaman, told IPS that since August over 1,300 Rohingyas were sent back through the Tumbru and Ghundum border points.

In total, some 2,600 Rohingyas have been sent back since the first wave of refugees arrived about four months ago. The Home Ministry in Dhaka estimates that number could rise to nearly 10,000 by early next year.

“We have intensified our patrols around the Naf River”, which forms one of the borders between the two countries, Coast Guard Station Officer Commander Badrudduza told IPS.

Armed BGB members and coast guards in speedboats are patrolling the Naf, searching for refugees. But the vast Bay of Bengal, which lies to the south of Bangladesh and southwest of Myanmar, still facilitates several points of entry for those who arrive in dilapidated wooden boats, mostly at night.

“It’s very dangerous to take such a coastal route. Coast guard troops from both countries often shoot at us,” Mohammad Kalam Hossain, who recently arrived in Teknaf with a group of 26 men, women and children from Ponnagyun, a coastal fishing village in south Rakhine, told IPS.

“In the last two weeks more people fled, fearing fresh attacks. The only safe place for us is Bangladesh,” Mohammad Jahangir Alam, a fisherman from Myebon village, told IPS.

Those who do manage to enter Bangladesh are in perpetual fear of being caught by the intelligence or being reported to the police.

Since they speak the local dialect and bear a strong resemblance to Bangladeshi people, many refugees are able to slip into village and town life undetected.

But once caught, refugees receive “no mercy”. “The authorities will force you to disclose the whereabouts of others, and send (everyone) back. That’s why we try to avoid exposure during the daytime,” Julekha Banu, who escaped to Bangladesh in September, told IPS.

Legal quagmire

Though the issue is only now receiving front-page coverage in international media, the plight of Rohingya Muslims dates back several decades, ever since the ruling military junta in Myanmar stripped them of their citizenship.

During a 1978 military assault known as the King Dragon Operation, 200,000 Rohingyas were driven from Rakhine State to Bangladesh, where they lived in squalid refugee camps for decades.

A similar purge in 1991-92 sent another 250,000 Myanmar nationals of Rohingya ethnicity streaming across the border.

Though Burmese officials at the time identified those refugees as their own citizens, political leader Aung San Suu Kyi is now referring to the refugees as “illegal immigrants from Bangladesh”, a fact the Foreign Ministry here has vehemently denied.

A Foreign Ministry spokesperson in Dhaka, speaking under condition of anonymity, told IPS that Bangladesh is already stretched to its limit, with two refugee camps, Ukhiya and Kutupalong, housing over 30,000 displaced Rohingyas. An additional 200,000 Rohingyas are estimated to be living in Bangladesh as undocumented immigrants.

This legal quagmire has effectively rendered the Rohingya people ‘stateless’, with limited access to employment, education, healthcare and public services in either country.

Speaking to IPS on the phone from Geneva, the U.N. Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Myanmar, Tomás Ojea Quintana, said, “The situation… is very critical. I am concerned about the Rohingyas who have no homes, food, water or medical care… They require immediate humanitarian aid.”

He added, “Bangladesh should fulfill its obligations under international law by respecting and protecting the human rights of all people within (its) borders, regardless of whether they are recognised as citizens.”

In August Quintana was refused entry into Bangladesh to see the situation here.

Meanwhile, refugees continue to live in limbo, unsure whether they will be allowed to stay or forced to return to a nightmare, which took place “under the nose of the Yangon regime”, according to survivors.

“This is our new home,” a refugee woman in Cox’s Bazar told IPS. “Please let us stay here.”


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