Inter Press Service » Aid http://www.ipsnews.net Turning the World Downside Up Sun, 25 Jan 2015 23:31:16 +0000 en-US hourly 1 http://wordpress.org/?v=4.1 From Bullets to Ballots: The Face of Sri Lanka’s Former War Zonehttp://www.ipsnews.net/2015/01/from-bullets-to-ballots-the-face-of-sri-lankas-former-war-zone/?utm_source=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_campaign=from-bullets-to-ballots-the-face-of-sri-lankas-former-war-zone http://www.ipsnews.net/2015/01/from-bullets-to-ballots-the-face-of-sri-lankas-former-war-zone/#comments Tue, 20 Jan 2015 19:17:06 +0000 Amantha Perera http://www.ipsnews.net/?p=138736 Many in the Vanni struggle due to a combination of poverty, war-related injuries and untreated trauma. Credit: Amantha Perera/IPS

Many in the Vanni struggle due to a combination of poverty, war-related injuries and untreated trauma. Credit: Amantha Perera/IPS

*By Amantha Perera
VAVUNIYA, Sri Lanka , Jan 20 2015 (IPS)

In four months’ time, Sri Lanka will mark the sixth anniversary of the end of its bloody civil conflict. Ever since government armed forces declared victory over the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) on May 19, 2009, the country has savored peace after a generation of war.

Suffocating security measures have given way to a sense of normalcy in most parts of the country, while steady growth has replaced patchy economic progress – averaging above six percent since 2009.

But these changes have largely eluded the area where the war was at its worst: the Vanni, a vast swath of land in the Northern Province that the LTTE ruled as a de facto state, together with the Jaffna Peninsular, for over a quarter of a century.

Home to over a million people, one-fourth of whom are war returnees, the Vanni has been in the doldrums since ballots replaced bullets.

“Peace should mean prosperity, but that is what we don’t have. What we have is a struggle to survive from one day to another,” Kajitha Shanmugadasan, an 18-year-old girl from the northern town of Pooneryn, told IPS.

She said youth her age were frustrated that multi-billion dollar infrastructure projects have failed to deliver decent jobs. “Look around, we have new highways, new railway lines, but no jobs, for five years people have been suffering, and it should not be [so] when there is peace,” she asserted.

Youth from the Northern Province have historically performed well at national exams, even during conflict times. That trend has held true: at the 2013 university entrance exam, 63.8 percent of those who sat their papers gained the scores required to enter the country’s top universities, a national high.

But with unemployment also at record levels here, and hardly any jobs for university graduates, those like Shanmugadasan are either staying out of universities or leaving the province in search of better prospects.

A new government, the result of presidential elections just a week into the New Year, and the Papal visit to the heart of the former battle zone on Jan. 14, have given rise to new hopes in the Vanni that life will improve for the ordinary people, who suffered during the war and have had little respite since the guns fell silent.

The 72-percent voter turnout in the Northern Province at the Jan. 8 presidential poll – an all-time high for the region – is a reminder to the new regime how desperate the people here are for real change.

During Sri Lanka’s civil conflict, life in the war zone was dominated by the fighting. Thousands of youth either joined the Tigers or were conscripted into their units. Credit: Amantha Perera/IPS

During Sri Lanka’s civil conflict, life in the war zone was dominated by the fighting. Thousands of youth either joined the Tigers or were conscripted into their units. Credit: Amantha Perera/IPS

 

A small child and a woman sit next to LTTE cadres training in a public playground in Kilinochchi, a district in the Northern Province, in this picture taken in June 2004. The Tigers held sway over all aspects of life in areas they controlled until their defeat in 2009. Credit: Amantha Perera/IPS

A small child and a woman sit next to LTTE cadres training in a public playground in Kilinochchi, a district in the Northern Province, in this picture taken in June 2004. The Tigers held sway over all aspects of life in areas they controlled until their defeat in 2009. Credit: Amantha Perera/IPS

Now, young people have more freedom than they did under the Tigers, but many are frustrated by the lack of proper employment opportunities six years after being promised a peace dividend by the government in Colombo. Credit: Amantha Perera/IPS

Now, young people have more freedom than they did under the Tigers, but many are frustrated by the lack of proper employment opportunities six years after being promised a peace dividend by the government in Colombo. Credit: Amantha Perera/IPS

A youth who lost his leg during the conflict stands by his vegetable stall in the town of Mullaitivu in northern Sri Lanka. He has a small family to look after and says he finds it extremely hard to provide for them. Credit: Amantha Perera/IPS

A youth who lost his leg during the conflict stands by his vegetable stall in the town of Mullaitivu in northern Sri Lanka. He has a small family to look after and says he finds it extremely hard to provide for them. Credit: Amantha Perera/IPS

 

A quarter of a million people who were displaced during the last phase of the war, along with tens of thousands of others who fled at other stages of the conflict, have moved back to the Vanni. Many families with small children continue to live in slum-like conditions, as a funding shortfall has left many without proper houses. Credit: Amantha Perera/IPS

A quarter of a million people who were displaced during the last phase of the war, along with tens of thousands of others who fled at other stages of the conflict, have moved back to the Vanni. Many families with small children continue to live in slum-like conditions, as a funding shortfall has left many without proper houses. Credit: Amantha Perera/IPS

Women have been forced to take up the role of breadwinner, with aid agencies suggesting that single females - either widows or women whose partners went missing during the war – now head over 40,000 households in the province. Credit: Amantha Perera/IPS

Women have been forced to take up the role of breadwinner, with aid agencies suggesting that single females – either widows or women whose partners went missing during the war – now head over 40,000 households in the province. Credit: Amantha Perera/IPS

A woman stands in front of this small business she operates in Mullaitivu. The single mother was able to open the shop with the help of a grant she received from the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC). Credit: Amantha Perera/IPS

A woman stands in front of this small business she operates in Mullaitivu. The single mother was able to open the shop with the help of a grant she received from the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC). Credit: Amantha Perera/IPS

The war left tens of thousands disabled, but six years on there are hardly any programmes or facilities that cater to this community. Credit: Amantha Perera/IPS

The war left tens of thousands disabled, but six years on there are hardly any programmes or facilities that cater to this community. Credit: Amantha Perera/IPS

This man, a former member of the LTTE who was blinded in one eye during the war, bicycles over 20 km each day in search of work. A father of one, he has found it hard to adjust to post-war life. Credit: Amantha Perer/IPS

This man, a former member of the LTTE who was blinded in one eye during the war, bicycles over 20 km each day in search of work. A father of one, he has found it hard to adjust to post-war life. Credit: Amantha Perer/IPS

Other former Tigers, like this rehabilitated cadre-turned-barber, were fortunate to benefit from government-sponsored aid programmes. Here, the one-time militant attends to a client at his barber’s shop in the village of Mallavi in Sri Lanka’s north. Credit: Amantha Perera/IPS

Other former Tigers, like this rehabilitated cadre-turned-barber, were fortunate to benefit from government-sponsored aid programmes. Here, the one-time militant attends to a client at his barber’s shop in the village of Mallavi in Sri Lanka’s north. Credit: Amantha Perera/IPS

Many in the Vanni struggle due to a combination of poverty, war-related injuries and untreated trauma. Credit: Amantha Perera/IPS

Many in the Vanni struggle due to a combination of poverty, war-related injuries and untreated trauma. Credit: Amantha Perera/IPS

The immediate aftermath of the war saw thousands of tourists flocking to the region, gawking at the remnants of a bloody past. Their numbers have since dwindled and a war tourist trail now remains mostly deserted. Credit: Amantha Perera/IPS

The immediate aftermath of the war saw thousands of tourists flocking to the region, gawking at the remnants of a bloody past. Their numbers have since dwindled and a war tourist trail now remains mostly deserted. Credit: Amantha Perera/IPS

The election of a new president and the visit of Pope Francis to the former war zone – two monumental events coming within five days of each other in early January – have raised hopes in the north that real, lasting change is close at hand. Credit: Amantha Perera/IPS

The election of a new president and the visit of Pope Francis to the former war zone – two monumental events coming within five days of each other in early January – have raised hopes in the north that real, lasting change is close at hand. Credit: Amantha Perera/IPS

Edited by Kanya D’Almeida

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Pacific Islands Call for New Thinking to Implement Post-2015 Development Goalshttp://www.ipsnews.net/2015/01/pacific-islands-call-for-new-thinking-to-implement-post-2015-development-goals/?utm_source=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_campaign=pacific-islands-call-for-new-thinking-to-implement-post-2015-development-goals http://www.ipsnews.net/2015/01/pacific-islands-call-for-new-thinking-to-implement-post-2015-development-goals/#comments Mon, 19 Jan 2015 14:23:54 +0000 Catherine Wilson http://www.ipsnews.net/?p=138710 Organisations in the Pacific Islands believe that achieving the post-2015 development goals depends on getting implementation right. Credit: Catherine Wilson/IPS

Organisations in the Pacific Islands believe that achieving the post-2015 development goals depends on getting implementation right. Credit: Catherine Wilson/IPS

*By Catherine Wilson
SYDNEY, Jan 19 2015 (IPS)

As the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), a set of poverty-alleviation targets set by the United Nations, come to a close this year, countries around the world are taking stock of their successes and failures in tackling key developmental issues.

The Pacific Islands have made impressive progress in reducing child mortality, however, poverty or hardship, as it is termed in the region, and gender equality remain the biggest performance gaps.

“The main criticism of the MDGs was the lack of consultation, which resulted in a set of goals designed primarily to address the development priorities of sub-Saharan Africa and then applied to all developing countries." -- Derek Brien, executive director of the Pacific Institute of Public Policy (PIPP) in Vanuatu
Only two of fourteen Pacific Island Forum states, Cook Islands and Niue, are on track to achieve all eight goals.

Key development organisations in the region believe the new Post-2015 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) proposed by the United Nations are more on target to address the unique development challenges faced by small island developing states. But they emphasise that turning the objectives into reality demands the participation of developed countries and a focus on getting implementation right.

“The main criticism of the MDGs was the lack of consultation which resulted in a set of goals designed primarily to address the development priorities of sub-Saharan Africa and then applied to all developing countries,” Derek Brien, executive director of the Pacific Institute of Public Policy (PIPP) in Vanuatu, told IPS.

The tropical Pacific Ocean is home to 22 diverse island states and territories, which are scattered across 15 percent of the earth’s surface and collectively home to 10 million people. Most feature predominantly rural populations acutely exposed to extreme climate events and distant from main global markets. Lack of jobs growth in many countries is especially impacting the prospects for youth who make up more than half the region’s population.

Brien believes the ambitious set of seventeen SDGs, to be formally agreed during a United Nations summit in New York this September, have been developed with “much broader input and widespread consultation.”

“From a Pacific perspective, it is especially welcome to see new goals proposed on climate change, oceans and marine resources, inclusive economic growth, fostering peaceful inclusive societies and building capable responsive institutions that are based on the rule of law,” he elaborated.

Pacific Island states are surrounded by the largest ocean in the world, but inadequate fresh water sources, poor infrastructure and climate change are leaving some communities without enough water to meet basic needs. Credit: Catherine Wilson/IPS.

Pacific Island states are surrounded by the largest ocean in the world, but inadequate fresh water sources, poor infrastructure and climate change are leaving some communities without enough water to meet basic needs. Credit: Catherine Wilson/IPS.

Most modern independent nation states emerged in the Oceania region relatively recently in the last 45 years. Thus, the PIPP argues that development progress also depends on continuing to build effective state institutions and leadership necessary for good governance and service provision. New global targets that promise to tackle bribery and corruption, and improve responsive justice systems, support these aspirations.

With 11 Pacific Island states still to achieve gender equality, post-2015 targets of eliminating violence against women and girls, early and forced marriages and addressing the equal right of women to own and control assets have been welcomed.

For instance, in Papua New, the largest Pacific island, violence occurs in two-thirds of families, and up to 86 percent of women in the country experience physical abuse during pregnancy, according to ChildFund Australia.

 

Experts say community justice programmes in Papua New Guinea’s vast village court system could reduce the high numbers of female and juvenile victims of abuse. Credit: Catherine Wilson/IPS

Experts say community justice programmes in Papua New Guinea’s vast village court system could reduce the high numbers of female and juvenile victims of abuse. Credit: Catherine Wilson/IPS

Pacific Island nations say empowering women is the key to addressing population growth across the region. Credit: Catherine Wilson/IPS

Pacific Island nations say empowering women is the key to addressing population growth across the region. Credit: Catherine Wilson/IPS

Customary landowners in the Solomon Islands and Papua New Guinea, both rainforest nations in the Southwest Pacific Islands, are suffering the environmental and social impacts of illegal logging. Credit: Catherine Wilson/IPS

Customary landowners in the Solomon Islands and Papua New Guinea, both rainforest nations in the Southwest Pacific Islands, are suffering the environmental and social impacts of illegal logging. Credit: Catherine Wilson/IPS

Improvement is also hindered by entrenched stereotypes of female roles in the domestic sphere and labour discrimination. In most countries, the non-agricultural employment of women is less than 48 percent.

The major challenge for the region in the coming years will be tackling increasing hardship.

Inequality and exclusion is rising in the Pacific Islands due to a range of factors, including pressures placed on traditional subsistence livelihoods and social safety nets by the influence of the global cash and market-based economy, the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) reported last year.

According to the World Bank, more than 20 percent of Pacific Islanders are unable to afford basic needs, while employment to population is a low 30-50 percent in Micronesia, Fiji, Kiribati, Marshall Islands, Nauru, Samoa, Tonga and Tuvalu.

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Children sit outside an informal housing settlement in Vanuatu. Experts say a lack of economic opportunities is contributing to a wave of youth suicides in the Pacific Islands. Credit: Catherine Wilson/IPS

 

Many people in Freswota, Port Vila, capital of Vanuatu, have spent more than 30 years or most of their lifetimes in informal housing settlements. Credit: Catherine Wilson/IPS

Many people in Freswota, Port Vila, capital of Vanuatu, have spent more than 30 years or most of their lifetimes in informal housing settlements. Credit: Catherine Wilson/IPS

 

In this community in Port Vila, capital of the Pacific Island state of Vanuatu, one toilet and water tap serves numerous families. Credit: Catherine Wilson/IPS

In this community in Port Vila, capital of the Pacific Island state of Vanuatu, one toilet and water tap serves numerous families. Credit: Catherine Wilson/IPS

Rex Horoi, director of the Foundation of the Peoples of the South Pacific, a Fiji-based non-governmental organisation, agrees that the SDGs are relevant to the development needs of local communities, but he said that accomplishing them would demand innovative thinking.

For example, in considering the sustainable use of terrestrial and marine ecosystems, “you have marine biologists working separately and then you have biodiversity experts and environmentalists working separately. We have not evolved in terms of trying to solve human problems with an integrated approach to development,” Horoi claimed.

He called for tangible implementation plans, aligned with national development strategies, to accompany all goals, and more integrated partnerships between governments and stakeholders, such as civil society, the private sector and communities in making them a reality.

At the same time, delivering on the expanded post-2015 agenda will place considerable pressure on the limited resources of small-island developing states.

“Many small island countries struggle to deal with the multitude of international agreements, policy commitments and related reporting requirements. There is a pressing need to rationalise and integrate many of the parallel processes that collectively set the global agenda. The new agenda should seek to streamline these and not add to the bureaucratic burden,” Brien advocated.

PIPP believes industrialised countries must also be accountable for the new goals. The organisation highlights that “numerous transnational impacts from high income states are diverting and even curbing development opportunities in low income countries”, such as failure to reduce carbon emissions, overfishing by foreign fleets and tax avoidance by multinational resource extraction companies.

Brien believes that “rhetorically all the right noises are being made in this respect” with the United Nations promoting the SDGs as universally applicable to all countries.

“However, it remains unclear how this will transpire through implementation. There remains a ‘developing’ and ‘developed’ divide with perhaps still too much focus on this being an aid agenda rather than a development agenda,” he said.

Edited by Kanya D’Almeida

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Aid Freeze Over Energy Controversy a Blow to Tanzanian Economyhttp://www.ipsnews.net/2015/01/aid-freeze-over-energy-controversy-a-blow-to-tanzanian-economy/?utm_source=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_campaign=aid-freeze-over-energy-controversy-a-blow-to-tanzanian-economy http://www.ipsnews.net/2015/01/aid-freeze-over-energy-controversy-a-blow-to-tanzanian-economy/#comments Sun, 18 Jan 2015 13:53:57 +0000 Kizito Makoye http://www.ipsnews.net/?p=138693 Engineers working on a 512 km pipeline to scale up the amount of gas transported to Dar es Salaam plants for electricity generation and other industrial supplies. Allegations of corruption in Tanzania’s energy sector are holding up foreign aid disbursement. Credit: Juma Mtanda

Engineers working on a 512 km pipeline to scale up the amount of gas transported to Dar es Salaam plants for electricity generation and other industrial supplies. Allegations of corruption in Tanzania’s energy sector are holding up foreign aid disbursement. Credit: Juma Mtanda

*By Kizito Makoye
DAR ES SALAAM, Jan 18 2015 (IPS)

As foreign donors drag their feet on injecting badly needed cash into the government’s coffers, local analysts are increasingly worried that this will affect implementation of key development projects that require donor funding.

Donors – including the United Kingdom, Germany and the World Bank – are withholding 449 million out of 558 million dollars pledged for the 2014/15 budget, pending a satisfactory outcome to investigations over corruption in the energy sector.

Senior government officials have been accused by the Parliament of authorising controversial payments of 122 million dollars to Pan Africa Power Solutions Tanzania Limited (PAP), which claims to have bought a 70 percent share of the Independent Power Tanzania Limited (IPTL) – a private energy company contracted by the government to produce electricity.The government’s inability to wipe out corruption in the energy sector is setting a bad precedent because the country is poised to prosper economically in the wake of massive discoveries of natural gas resources.

“Many infrastructure development projects that require donor funding will probably stall due to this problem,” Benson Bana, a political analyst at Dar es Salaam University, told IPS. “Donors are keen to see their money is spent on intended objectives and government must learn a lesson to ensure that public funds are managed well.”

East Africa’s second largest economy after Kenya  is currently implementing a myriad of projects that require donor funding in the energy and  infrastructure sectors, such as construction of ports, roads and power plants  under a  25.2 billion dollar five-year development plan.

But the government said last year that the impending delay in the disbursement of aid funds may prompt it to shelve some critical projects until the next financial year.

The international Monetary Fund (IMF) has added its voice to the ongoing standoff between Tanzania and foreign donors, saying that further delay in disbursement of aid would certainly affect the country’s economic performance.

“Performance … was satisfactory through June, but has deteriorated since and risks have risen, stemming from delays in disbursements of donor assistance and external non-concessional borrowing, and shortfalls in domestic revenues,” the IMF said in a statement posted on its website in January 2015.

Tanzania is one of the biggest aid recipients in sub-Saharan Africa, with an annual aid inflow in grants and concessional loans ranging from 20 to 30 percent of its budget.

The move by donors to freeze aid over corruption concerns, said the IMF, is a stunning blow to the country’s economy.

“It will be critical to the business environment to address the governance issues raised by the IPTL case, which would also unlock donor assistance,” the IMF said.

The Ministry of Finance has unveiled a 19.6 trillion shilling (11.6 billion dollar) budget with plans to borrow 2.96 trillion shillings from domestic sources and about 800 million dollars from external sources to finance key projects.

“Achieving our revenue target is a matter of life or death; we are very serious in our quest to reduce reliance on foreign aid and we are refining our business environment to attract investments that can yield revenues,” said Finance Minister Saada Mkuya.

Critics told IPS that it is not wise for Tanzania to cling to unpredictable foreign aid to finance its budget after more than 50 years of political independence.

“For a country like ours to keep depending on donors to finance our development is not healthy, there’s no doubt many project will fail to take off because of this standoff,” Humphrey Moshi, an economist and professor at the University of Dar es Salaam, told IPS.

Political observers say that the government’s inability to wipe out corruption in the energy sector is setting a bad precedent because the country is poised to prosper economically in the wake of massive discoveries of natural gas resources.

“Corruption in the energy sector can be reduced by introducing strong accountability systems in the sector,” Zitto Kabwe, the chairman of a parliamentary oversight committee on public accounts, told IPS, adding that “legislations that subject contracts to parliamentary vetting and transparency would really help.”

Latest data from the Tanzania Petroleum Development Corporation show that Tanzania has estimated reserves of 53.2 trillion cubic feet of natural gas off its southern coast.  According to local analysts, these resources are more than enough to put the country on a path of economic development while ending its dependence on aid.

As the government grappled to bridge gaps in its budget, donors last week said  that they would only release the rest of the aid money pledged after seeing appropriate action taken against officials implicated in the so-called “escrow scandal”.

“Budget support development partners in Tanzania take the emerging IPTL case with the utmost seriousness and are carefully monitoring its development  as the case involves  large amounts of public funds,” Sinikka Antila, Finland’s ambassador to Tanzania and chairperson of Tanzania’s donor group, was quoted as saying.

In November last year, parliament called on government to sack senior officials, including the country’s Attorney General and  energy minister who, it said, had played an instrumental role to facilitate the dubious IPTL-PAP deal. The Attorney General, Frederick Werema, has since resigned.

In December, in a desperate bid to win back donor confidence, President Jakaya Kikwete sacked Anna Tibaijuka – a senior cabinet minister holding the land and human settlement development portfolio – for allegedly having received a1.6 billion shilling gift from one of the IPTL’s shareholders contrary to the government’s public leadership code of ethics.

In what appears to be a show of strength, the United States, through its Millennium Challenge Corporation (MCC), has expressed serious concern about the country’s sluggish pace in controlling corruption and has urged the government to take firm concrete steps to combat corruption as a condition for the approval of future aid.

“Progress in combating corruption is essential to a new MCC compact, as well to an overall improved business climate in Tanzania,” Mark Childress, U.S. Ambassador to Tanzania said in December 2014.

“We are encouraged by the State House’s announcement of December 9 that it will soon address the parliamentary resolutions linked to IPTL, and we urge quick government action, given the impact on several key development issues.”

Tanzania was one of 10 countries discussed by the MCC Board, which met in December to determine the eligibility of countries to begin or continue the compact development process.

If finalised, this would be Tanzania’s second MCC compact. Between 2008 and 2013, the MCC funded a 698 million dollar compact for investment projects in water, roads and electric power throughout Tanzania.

Edited by Phil Harris    

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Papal Visit Rekindles Hopes in Former War Zonehttp://www.ipsnews.net/2015/01/papal-visit-rekindles-hopes-in-former-war-zone/?utm_source=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_campaign=papal-visit-rekindles-hopes-in-former-war-zone http://www.ipsnews.net/2015/01/papal-visit-rekindles-hopes-in-former-war-zone/#comments Thu, 15 Jan 2015 17:01:57 +0000 Amantha Perera http://www.ipsnews.net/?p=138660 Over 500,000 people gathered at the Madhu Shrine in Sri Lanka’s former conflict zone to hear Pope Francis talk of national reconciliation and healing after two-and-a-half decades of sectarian bloodshed. Credit: Amantha Perera/IPS

Over 500,000 people gathered at the Madhu Shrine in Sri Lanka’s former conflict zone to hear Pope Francis talk of national reconciliation and healing after two-and-a-half decades of sectarian bloodshed. Credit: Amantha Perera/IPS

*By Amantha Perera
MADHU, Sri Lanka, Jan 15 2015 (IPS)

Jessi Jogeswaran, a 20-year-old woman from Sri Lanka’s northern Jaffna district, waited over six hours with 18 friends in the sweltering heat just to get a glimpse of Pope Francis on Jan. 14.

The much-anticipated Papal visit brought well over a million people out into the streets to hear the pontiff’s sermons, first in the capital Colombo and later on in Madhu, a village in Sri Lanka’s northwestern Mannar District.

“If we know what happened to all those who went missing, or what will happen to all those still in prison after the war, we will know that things have changed." -- Ramsiyah Pachchanlam, community empowerment officer with the Vanni Rehabilitation Organisation for the Differently Abled (VAROD)
Young and old alike congregated at designated sites, including those like Jogeswaran who traveled miles to be present for the historic occasion.

The young woman with a disarming smile hides a terrible tale: as an 11-year-old, she endured three years of death and mayhem in her native village of Addankulam in Mannar, caught between advancing government forces and military units of the separatist Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) who at the time controlled a vast swath of land in the north of Sri Lanka.

The six-member family’s flight began in 2007, at the tail-end of the country’s civil conflict, and would last almost two years before, in tattered clothes, they escaped the final bouts of fighting in April 2009.

“The nightmare has not ended, it has become less intense,” Jogeswaran told IPS, sitting in the compound of the Madhu Shrine, a church nestled in the jungle that is home to a statue of the Virgin Mary, which millions around the country believe to be miraculous.

Jogeswaran said that despite the war’s end, thousands of people in the north were still fighting to escape the crutches of abject poverty, recover from the traumatic events of the last days of the war and reunite with relatives lost in the chaos of prolonged battles over a period of 26 years.

“We need peace, both within and without,” she added.

Delivering a short sermon at the shrine, Pope Francis echoed her sentiments.

“No Sri Lankan can forget the tragic events associated with this very place,” he said, referring to the attacks on the church and its use by local residents as a place of refuge during extreme bouts of fighting.

He also acknowledged that the healing process would be hard, and that sustained effort would be required “to forgive, and find peace.”

For scores of people here, however, the wounds are too many to forget. The over 225,000 who were displaced during the war have now returned to a region where some parts boast poverty rates over four times the national average of six percent.

There is an urgent need for some 138,000 houses, amidst a funding shortfall of 300 million dollars. Nearly six years after the war’s end there could be as many as 40,000 missing people, although the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) has records of little above 16,000 dating back over two decades.

While the completion of several large infrastructure projects suggested rapid development of the former war zone – including reconstruction of the 252-km-long rail-line connecting the north and south at a cost of 800 million dollars – few can enjoy the perks, with 5.2 percent unemployment in the Northern Province.

A lack of job opportunities is particularly hard on war widows and female-headed households – estimated at between 40,000 and 55,000 – and the nearly 12,000 rehabilitated LTTE combatants, among whom unemployment is a soaring 11 percent.

Untreated trauma, coupled with a lifting of the LTTE’s long-standing ban on the sale and production of liquor, has pushed alcohol dependency to new heights.

With scores of people seeking solace in the bottle, the northern Mullaitivu District recently recorded the second-highest rate of alcohol consumption in the island: some 34.4 percent of the population identify as ‘habitual users of alcohol’.

Finally, despite the war’s end, there has been no progress on power devolution to the Tamil-majority Northern Province, a root cause of the war.

A new political era: A bright future for the North?

The week before the Papal visit, Sri Lanka underwent a seismic change in its political landscape, when long-time President Mahinda Rajapaksa was defeated by Maithripala Sirisena, who campaigned with the support of a wide array of political parties including those representing Sinhala extremists and others representing the minority Tamil and Muslim populations.

Jogeswaran, who voted to elect a national leader for the first time at the Jan. 8 poll, told IPS that she felt nervously optimistic that things would change.

“We have a new president, who has promised change, now it is up to him to not deceive the voters,” she said.

Ramsiyah Pachchanlam, community empowerment officer with the Vanni Rehabilitation Organisation for the Differently Abled (VAROD), told IPS the northern population was desperate for things to improve.

“There are new roads, new electricity stations and a new train line, but no new jobs,” Pachchanlam said, commenting on the over three billion dollars worth of infrastructure investments made under the former Rajapaksa administration that has not trickled down to the people.

The Sirisena government has shown some signs that it was much more amenable to the needs of minority Tamils than its predecessor.

In his first week in office, Sirisena replaced the long-standing governor of the Northern Province, G. A. Chandrasiri – a former military officer – with G. S. Pallihakara, a career diplomat.

The appointment of a civilian officer to the post was a key demand of the Northern Provincial Council controlled by the Tamil National Alliance (TNA), which had previously accused the former governor of stifling the council’s independence by carrying out instructions received directly from Colombo.

Many hope that greater political autonomy will pave the way to resolution of the most burning issues plaguing the people.

“If we know what happened to all those who went missing, or what will happen to all those still in prison after the war, we will know that things have changed,” social worker Pachchanlam said.

It remains to be seen if change will happen on the ground, but for a brief moment, in that jungle shrine, thousands came together in hope and expectation of a brighter future.

Edited by Kanya D’Almeida

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In the Shadow of Glacial Lakes, Pakistan’s Mountain Communities Look to Climate Adaptationhttp://www.ipsnews.net/2015/01/in-the-shadow-of-glacial-lakes-pakistans-mountain-communities-look-to-climate-adaptation/?utm_source=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_campaign=in-the-shadow-of-glacial-lakes-pakistans-mountain-communities-look-to-climate-adaptation http://www.ipsnews.net/2015/01/in-the-shadow-of-glacial-lakes-pakistans-mountain-communities-look-to-climate-adaptation/#comments Thu, 15 Jan 2015 05:13:20 +0000 Saleem Shaikh and Sughra Tunio http://www.ipsnews.net/?p=138642 A boy grazes his cattle on farmland close to the site of a landslide in northern Pakistan’s Bagrot valley. Credit: Saleem Shaikh/IPS

A boy grazes his cattle on farmland close to the site of a landslide in northern Pakistan’s Bagrot valley. Credit: Saleem Shaikh/IPS

*By Saleem Shaikh and Sughra Tunio
BINDO GOL, Pakistan, Jan 15 2015 (IPS)

Khaliq-ul-Zaman, a farmer from the remote Bindo Gol valley in northern Pakistan’s Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province, has long lived under the shadow of disaster.

With plenty of fertile land and fresh water, this scenic mountain valley would be an ideal dwelling place – if not for the constant threat of the surrounding glacial lakes bursting their ridges and gushing down the hillside, leaving a trail of destruction behind.

“We can safely say that over 16,000 have been displaced due to [glacial lake outburst floods], and remain so even after several months.” -- Khalil Ahmed, national programme manager of a climate mitigation project in northern Pakistan
There was a time when families like Zaman’s lived in these distant valleys undisturbed, but hotter temperatures and heavier rains, which experts say are the result of global warming, have turned areas like Bindo Gol into a soup of natural hazards.

Landslides, floods and soil erosion have become increasingly frequent, disrupting channels that carry fresh water from upstream springs into farmlands, and depriving communities of their only source of fresh water.

“Things were becoming very difficult for my family,” Zaman told IPS. “I began to think that farming was no longer viable, and was considering abandoning it and migrating to nearby Chitral [a town about 60 km away] in search of labour.”

He was not alone in his desperation. Azam Mir, an elderly wheat farmer from the Drongagh village in Bindo Gol, recalled a devastating landslide in 2008 that wiped out two of the most ancient water channels in the area, forcing scores of farmers to abandon agriculture and relocate to nearby villages.

“Those who could not migrate out of the village suffered from water-borne diseases and hunger,” he told IPS.

Now, thanks to a public-private sector climate adaptation partnership aimed at reducing the risk of disasters like glacial lake outburst floods (GLOFs), residents of the northern valleys are gradually regaining their livelihoods and their hopes for a future in the mountains.

Bursting at the seams

According to the Pakistan Meteorological Department (PMD), there were some 2,400 potentially hazardous glacial lakes in the country’s remotest mountain valleys in 2010, a number that has now increased to over 3,000.

Chitral district alone is home to 549 glaciers, of which 132 have been declared ‘dangerous’.

Climatologists say that rising temperatures are threatening the delicate ecosystem here, and unless mitigation measures are taken immediately, the lives and livelihoods of millions will continue to be at risk.

One of the most successful initiatives underway is a four-year, 7.6-million-dollar project backed by the U.N. Adaptation Fund, the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) and the government of Pakistan.

Signed into existence in 2010, its main focus, according to Field Manager Hamid Ahmed Mir, has been protection of lives, livelihoods, existing water channels and the construction of flood control infrastructure including check dams, erosion control structures and gabion walls.

Labourers construct flood-control gabion walls - structures constructed by filling large galvanized steel baskets with rock – in northern Pakistan’s remote Bindo Gol valley. Credit: Saleem Shaikh/IPS

Labourers construct flood-control gabion walls – structures constructed by filling large galvanized steel baskets with rock – in northern Pakistan’s remote Bindo Gol valley. Credit: Saleem Shaikh/IPS

The project has brought tremendous improvements to people here, helping to reduce damage to streams and allowing the sustained flow of water for drinking, sanitation and irrigation purposes in over 12 villages.

“We plan to extend such infrastructure in another 10 villages of the valley, where hundreds of households will benefit from the initiative,” Mir told IPS.

Further afield, in the Bagrot valley of Gilgit, a district in Gilgit-Baltistan province that borders KP, NGOs are rolling out similar programmes.

Zahid Hussain, field officer for the climate adaptation project in Bagrot, told IPS that 16,000 of the valley’s residents are vulnerable to GLOF and flash floods, while existing sanitation and irrigation infrastructure has suffered severe damage over the last years due to inclement weather.

Located some 800 km from Pakistan’s capital, Islamabad, Bagrot is comprised of 10 scattered villages, whose population depends for almost all its needs on streams that bubble forth from the Karakoram Mountains, a sub-range of the Hindu Kush Himalayas and the world’s most heavily glaciated area outside of the Polar Regions.

Residents like Sajid Ali, also a farmer, are pinning all their hopes on infrastructure development that will preserve this vital resource, and protect his community against the onslaught of floods.

An even bigger concern, he told IPS, is the spread of water-borne diseases as floods and landslides leave behind large silt deposits upstream.

Preparing for the worst

Just as risk reduction structures are key to preventing humanitarian crises, so too is building community resilience and awareness among the local population, experts say.

So far, some two million people in the Bindo Gol and Bagrot valleys have benefitted from community mitigation schemes, not only from improved access to clean water, but also from monitoring stations, site maps and communications systems capable of alerting residents to a coming catastrophe.

Khalil Ahmed, national programme manager for the project, told IPS that early warning systems are now in place to inform communities well in advance of outbursts or flooding, giving families plenty of time to evacuate to safer grounds.

While little official data exists on the precise number of people affected by glacial lake outbursts, Ahmed says, “We can safely say that over 16,000 have been displaced, and remain so even after several months.”

Over the past 17 months alone, Pakistan has experienced seven glacial lake outbursts that not only displaced people, but also wiped out standing crops and ruined irrigation and water networks all throughout the north, according to Ghulam Rasul, a senior climatologist with the PMD in Islamabad.

The situation is only set to worsen, as temperatures rise in the mountainous areas of northern Pakistan and scientists predict more extreme weather in the coming decades, prompting an urgent need for greater preparedness at all levels of society.

Several community-based adaptation initiatives including the construction of over 15 ‘safe havens’ – temporary shelter areas – in the Bindo Gol and Bagrot valleys have already inspired confidence among the local population, while widespread vegetation plantation on the mountain slopes act as a further buffer against landslides and erosion.

Scientists and activists say that replicating similar schemes across the northern regions will prevent unnecessary loss of life and save the government millions of dollars in damages.

Edited by Kanya D’Almeida

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Island States Throw Off the Heavy Yoke of Fossil Fuelshttp://www.ipsnews.net/2015/01/island-states-throw-off-the-heavy-yoke-of-fossil-fuels/?utm_source=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_campaign=island-states-throw-off-the-heavy-yoke-of-fossil-fuels http://www.ipsnews.net/2015/01/island-states-throw-off-the-heavy-yoke-of-fossil-fuels/#comments Tue, 13 Jan 2015 21:55:41 +0000 Desmond Brown http://www.ipsnews.net/?p=138625 In 2010, the 13-kilometre-long island of Nevis launched the first-ever wind farm to be commissioned in the OECS with a promise to provide jobs for islanders, a reliable supply of wind energy, cheaper electricity and a reduction in surcharge and the use of imported oils. Credit: Desmond Brown/IPS

In 2010, the 13-kilometre-long island of Nevis launched the first-ever wind farm to be commissioned in the OECS with a promise to provide jobs for islanders, a reliable supply of wind energy, cheaper electricity and a reduction in surcharge and the use of imported oils. Credit: Desmond Brown/IPS

*By Desmond Brown
BASSETERRE, St. Kitts, Jan 13 2015 (IPS)

The Caribbean nation of St. Kitts and Nevis, on a quest to become the world’s first sustainable island state, has taken a giant leap in its programme to cut energy costs.

Last week, the government broke ground to construct the country’s second solar farm, and Prime Minister Dr. Denzil Douglas told IPS his administration is “committed to free the country from the fossil fuel reliance” which has burdened so many nations for so very long.“This farm will reduce the amount of carbon dioxide that St. Kitts and Nevis pumps into the atmosphere. It will move forward our country’s determination to transform St. Kitts and Nevis into a green and sustainable nation." -- Prime Minister Dr. Denzil Douglas

Douglas said the aim is “to harness the power of the sun – a power which nature has given to us in such great abundance in this very beautiful country, St. Kitts and Nevis.

“The energy generated will be infused into the national grid, and this will reduce SKELEC’s need for imported fossil fuels,” he said, referring to the state electricity provider.

“This farm will reduce the amount of carbon dioxide that St. Kitts and Nevis pumps into the atmosphere. It will move forward our country’s determination to transform St. Kitts and Nevis into a green and sustainable nation. It will reduce the cost of energy and it will reduce the cost of electricity for our consumers,” Douglas added.

Electricity costs more than 42.3 cents per KWh in St. Kitts and Nevis.

Construction of the second solar plant is being funded by the St. Kitts Electricity Corporation (SKELEC) and the Republic of China (Taiwan). SKELEC is assuming 45 percent of the cost and the Republic of China (Taiwan) 55 percent of the costs.

The first solar farm, commissioned in September 2013, generates electricity for the Robert L. Bradshaw International Airport.

Meanwhile, as environmental sustainability gains traction in the Caribbean, the executive director of the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), Achim Steiner, said the region is on the right track to better integrate environmental considerations into public policies.

“I think in some respects it is in the Caribbean that we are already seeing some very bold leadership,” Steiner told IPS.

“The minute countries start looking at the implications of environmental change on their future and the future of their economies, you begin to realise that if you don’t integrate environmental sustainability, you are essentially going to face, very often, higher risks and higher costs and perhaps the loss of assets.” He said such assets could include land, forests, coral reefs or fisheries.

Executive Director of the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), Achim Steiner. Credit: Desmond Brown/IPS

Executive Director of the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), Achim Steiner. Credit: Desmond Brown/IPS

Caribbean coral reefs have experienced drastic losses in the past several decades and this has been cited by numerous studies as the primary cause of ongoing declines of Caribbean fish populations. Fish use the structure of corals for shelter and they also contribute to coastal protection.

It has been estimated that fisheries associated with coral reefs in the Caribbean region are responsible for generating net annual revenues valued at or above 310 million dollars.

Continued degradation of the region’s few remaining coral reefs would diminish these net annual revenues by an estimated 95-140 million dollars annually from 2015. The subsequent decrease in dive tourism could also profoundly affect annual net tourism revenues.

Antigua and Barbuda’s Prime Minister Gaston Browne said his government will not be left behind in pursuit of a policy of reducing the carbon footprint by incorporating more renewable energy into the mix.

“Barbuda will become a green-energy island within a short period, as more modern green technology is installed there to generate all the electricity that Barbuda needs,” Browne, who’s Antigua Labour Party formed the government here in June 2014, told IPS.

“My government’s intention is to significantly reduce Antigua’s reliance on fossil fuels. A target of 20 percent reliance on green energy, in the first term of this administration, is being pursued vigorously.”

The International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA) released a new report Monday which provides a plan to double the share of renewable energy in the world’s energy mix by 2030.

IRENA’s renewable energy roadmap, REmap 2030, also determines the potential for the U.S. and other countries to scale up renewable energy in the energy system, including power, industry, buildings, and the transport sector.

“This report adds to the growing chorus of studies that show the increasing cost competitiveness and potential of renewable energy in the U.S.,” said Dolf Gielen, director of IRENA’s Innovation and Technology Centre.

“Importantly, it shows the potential of renewables isn’t just limited to the power sector, but also has tremendous potential in the buildings, industry and transport sectors.”

Next week, efforts to scale up global renewable energy expansion will continue as government leaders from more than 150 countries and representatives from 110 international organisations gather in Abu Dhabi for IRENA’s fifth Assembly.

After spending the better part of 25 years trying to understand the threat of global warming, manifesting itself in greenhouse gas emissions and carbon dioxide emissions, the UNEP executive director said only slowly are we beginning to realise that in trying to address this threat we’re actually beginning to lay the tracks for what he calls “the 21st century economy” – which is more resource efficient, less polluting, and a driver for innovation and utilising the potential of technology.

“So you can take that track and say climate change is a threat or you can also say out of this threat arise a lot of actions that have multiple benefits,” Steiner said.

“We also have to realise that in a global economy where most countries today are faced with severe unemployment and, most tragically, youth unemployment, we need to start also looking at a transition towards a green economy as also an opportunity to make it a more inclusive green economy.”

Steiner said one of the core items that UNEP would like to see much more work on is a better understanding of how countries can reform their taxation system to send a signal to the economy that they want to drive businesses away from pollution and resource inefficiency.

At the same time, the UNEP boss wants countries to also address unemployment.

“So we need to reduce this strange phenomenon that we call income tax which makes labour as a factor of production ever more expensive,” Steiner said.

“So shifting from an income tax revenue base for governments towards a resource efficiency based income or revenue generating physical policy makes sense environmentally. It maintains the revenue base of governments and it also increases the incentive for people to find jobs again. It’s complex in one sense but very obvious in another sense.”

Edited by Kitty Stapp

The writer can be contacted at destinydlb@gmail.com

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European Citizens Call for Increased Aid to Developing Worldhttp://www.ipsnews.net/2015/01/european-citizens-call-for-increased-aid-to-developing-world/?utm_source=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_campaign=european-citizens-call-for-increased-aid-to-developing-world http://www.ipsnews.net/2015/01/european-citizens-call-for-increased-aid-to-developing-world/#comments Mon, 12 Jan 2015 19:12:56 +0000 Thalif Deen http://www.ipsnews.net/?p=138607 In Tapoa, Burkina Faso, a region bordering Niger, the European Commission's humanitarian aid department (ECHO) funds the NGO ACF to provide health and nutrition care as well as food assistance including cash transfers for the poorest families. Credit: © EC/ECHO/Anouk Delafortrie/cc by 2.0

In Tapoa, Burkina Faso, a region bordering Niger, the European Commission's humanitarian aid department (ECHO) funds the NGO ACF to provide health and nutrition care as well as food assistance including cash transfers for the poorest families. Credit: © EC/ECHO/Anouk Delafortrie/cc by 2.0

*By Thalif Deen
UNITED NATIONS, Jan 12 2015 (IPS)

An overwhelming majority of citizens in the 28-member European Union (EU) – which has been hamstrung by a spreading economic recession, a fall in oil prices and a decline of its common currency, the Euro – has expressed strong support for development cooperation and increased aid to developing nations.

A new Eurobarometer survey to mark the beginning of the ‘European Year for Development,’released Monday, shows a significant increase in the number of people in favour of increasing international development aid."The European Year will give us the chance to build on this and inform citizens of the challenges and events that lie ahead during this key year for development." -- Commissioner Neven Mimica

The survey reveals that most Europeans continue to “feel very positively about development and cooperation”.

Additionally, the survey also indicates that 67 percent of respondents across Europe think development aid should be increased – a higher percentage than in recent years, despite the current economic situation in Europe.

And 85 percent believe it is important to help people in developing countries.

“Almost half of respondents would personally be prepared to pay more for groceries or products from those countries, and nearly two thirds say tackling poverty in developing countries should be a main priority for the EU.”

Presenting the results of the survey, EU Commissioner for International Cooperation and Development Neven Mimica said, “I feel very encouraged to see that, despite economic uncertainty across the EU, our citizens continue to show great support for a strong European role in development.

“The European Year will give us the chance to build on this and inform citizens of the challenges and events that lie ahead during this key year for development, helping us to engage in a debate with them,” he added.

Jens Martens, director of the Bonn-based Global Policy Forum-Europe, told IPS the Eurobarometer demonstrates that the overwhelming majority of EU citizens support global solidarity and strengthened international cooperation.

“This is good news. Now, EU governments must follow their citizens,” he said.

EU positions in the U.N.’s upcoming post-2015 development agenda and Financing for Development (FfD) negotiations will become the litmus test for their global solidarity, said Martens, who is also a member of the Coordinating Committee of Social Watch, a global network of several hundred non-governmental organisations (NGOs) campaigning for poverty eradication and social justice.

EU governments must translate the increased citizens support for development now into an increase of offical development assistance (ODA), but also in fair trade and investment rules and strengthened international tax cooperation under the umbrella of the United Nations, he declared.

According to the latest available statistics, only five countries – Norway (1.07 percent), Sweden (1.02), Luxembourg (1.00), Denmark (0.85), United Kingdom (0.72) and the Netherlands (0.67) – have reached the longstanding target of 0.7 of gross national income as ODA to the world’s poorer nations.

In an interview with IPS last November, Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon singled out the importance of the upcoming International Conference on FfD in Ethiopia next July.

He said the ICFD will be “one of the most important conferences in shaping the U.N.’s 17 proposed sustainable development goals (SDGs)” which will be approved at a summit meeting of world leaders next September.

Ban cautioned world leaders of the urgent need for “a robust financial mechanism” to implement the SDGs – and such a mechanism, he said, should be put in place long before the adoption of these goals.

“It is difficult to depend on public funding alone,” he told IPS, stressing the need for financing from multiple sources – including public, private, domestic and international.

Speaking of financing for development, Ban said ODA, from the rich to the poor, is “is necessary but not sufficient.”

Meanwhile, the economic recession is taking place amidst the growing millions living in hunger (over 800 million), jobless (more than 200 million), water-starved (over 750 million) and in extreme poverty (more than one billion), according to the United Nations.

In a statement released Monday, the European Commission provided some of the results of the Eurobarometer on development: At 67 percent, the share of Europeans who agree on a significant increase in development aid has increased by six percentage points since 2013, and a level this high was last seen in 2010.

One in two Europeans sees a role for individuals in tackling poverty in developing countries (50 percent).

A third of EU citizens are personally active in tackling poverty (34 percent), mainly through giving money to charitable organisations (29 percent).

Most Europeans believe that Europe itself also benefits from giving aid to others: 69 percent say that tackling poverty in developing countries also has a positive influence on EU citizens.

Around three-quarters think it is in the EU’s interest (78 percent) and contributes to a more peaceful and equitable world (74 percent).

For Europeans, volunteering is the most effective way of helping to reduce poverty in developing countries (75 percent). But a large majority also believe that official aid from governments (66 percent) and donating to organisations (63 percent) have an impact.

The European Commission says 2015 promises to be “hugely significant for development, with a vast array of stakeholders involved in crucial decision-making in development, environmental and climate policies”.

2015 is the target date for achieving the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) and the year in which the ongoing global post-2015 debate will converge into a single framework for poverty eradication and sustainable development.

2015 is also the year that a new international climate agreement will be decided in Paris.

Edited by Kitty Stapp

The writer can be contacted at thalifdeen@aol.com

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Women ‘Sewing’ a Bright Future in Northern Pakistanhttp://www.ipsnews.net/2015/01/women-sewing-a-bright-future-in-northern-pakistan/?utm_source=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_campaign=women-sewing-a-bright-future-in-northern-pakistan http://www.ipsnews.net/2015/01/women-sewing-a-bright-future-in-northern-pakistan/#comments Mon, 12 Jan 2015 13:27:29 +0000 Ashfaq Yusufzai http://www.ipsnews.net/?p=138592 Afghan widows and orphans in Pakistan have few livelihood options, but a women’s charity is teaching them basic embroidery and sewing to help them start home-based businesses. Credit: Najibullah Musafer/Killid

Afghan widows and orphans in Pakistan have few livelihood options, but a women’s charity is teaching them basic embroidery and sewing to help them start home-based businesses. Credit: Najibullah Musafer/Killid

*By Ashfaq Yusufzai
PESHAWAR, Pakistan, Jan 12 2015 (IPS)

At 46, Naseema Nashad is starting her life over, not out of choice but out of necessity. The Afghan woman was just 25 years old when Taliban militants stormed Kabul and her family was forced to flee to neighbouring Pakistan to escape what they knew would be a brutal regime.

“My father stayed back to run his small business there and he would send us money on a monthly basis,” she told IPS. “We used it to feed our seven-member family, and pay rent on our house in Peshawar [capital of Pakistan’s northern Khyber Pakhtunkwa province].”

“The worst victims of the three-decade-long conflict are women, who have lost their fathers, husbands and male family members [and] are finding it hard to earn a living." -- Ahmed Rasool, professor of international relations at Kabul University
But in 1999, “for no reason” she says, the Taliban killed Nashad’s father. Since then, it has been a daily struggle for the family to survive. Aged 12, 14 and 15, her three brothers quickly found work in local hotels, though they were paid paltry salaries for their labour.

Nashad, on the other hand, could never land anything but odd jobs, which barely gave her enough to survive. What she needed was something fulltime, ideally work she could do from home, that would bring her a regular income.

It was a pipe dream at first, but thanks to the efforts of a vocational centre established by the Afghan Women Organisation, an NGO based in this border city, she is close to making it a reality.

“Now, I have learnt stitching and embroidery and will open a home-based shop very soon. Some of the women who have previously been trained at the centre are helping me,” she added.

She is one of thousands of women, all from war-affected families, who have acquired embroidery and sewing skills over the past five years.

Each woman has her own unique story. Fourteen-year-old Gul Pari, for instance, migrated to Peshawar from Afghanistan seven years ago. As a daily wage-labourer, her father could scarcely make ends meet. There was little choice but for his young daughters to go out in search of work.

Today, Gul and her younger sister Jamila are the owners of a small home-based business, where they take on clients who need garments stitched or altered. They still in a simple mud hut, but at least they now make enough money to comfortably feed the entire family.

Safoora Stanikzai, who heads the Afghan Women Organisation, says she has imparted skills to about 4,000 women since establishing the centre in 2010.

“A majority of the trained women were either widows or orphaned children who had lost their male family members in Afghanistan and were facing severe economic problems here,” Stanikzai tells IPS.

The organisation lacks space and sufficient resources but soldiers on with the little it has. After the women complete their training, they even receive a sewing machine from the centre to facilitate home-based enterprises.

Stanikzai also recruits women found begging on the streets and in marketplaces, and offers them the chance to start their lives afresh – a rare opportunity in this war-torn region, where civilians are often caught between militants and the military, and a massive number of internally displaced persons (IDPs) jostle for space with a resident population already battling a scarcity of homes, jobs and food.

Female Afghan refugees face double-dependency

According to the U.N. Refugee Agency, Pakistan is home to 1.6 million ‘legal’ Afghan residents, while an estimated two to three million undocumented refugees are also believed to have crossed the 2,700-km-long border since the 1979 Soviet invasion.

Passing easily through various unguarded or unchecked entry points in the mountains that form a rocky border between the two nations, Afghans fleeing the war were once welcomed by their brethren in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) and what was formerly known as the North-West Frontier Province, now called KP.

But when the U.S.-invasion of Afghanistan pushed former Taliban militants into the mountains, leading to a rise in armed groups operating with impunity in the tribal belt, the hand of friendship was snatched away and many Afghans now live on the margins, blamed for the rise in militancy and soaring crime in Pakistan’s northern regions.

According to Ahmed Rasool, a professor of international relations at Kabul University, poverty-stricken Afghan refugees have no choice but to remain in Pakistan since they have little to no economic opportunity back home.

“The worst victims of the three-decade-long conflict are women, who have lost their fathers, husbands and male family members [and] are finding it hard to earn a living,” he told IPS.

Some of these widows and orphans are new arrivals, joining the wave that fled Afghanistan in 2001. Others have lived here much longer, and consider Pakistan their home.

But aid that was once was abundant has dwindled. International NGOs and aid agencies followed closely on the heels of departing foreign troops, leaving Afghan refugees in the lurch.

Barely able to meet the needs of its own impoverished population in the north, the Pakistan government has offered little assistance to visitors who are now being told they have outstayed their welcome.

So initiatives like Stanikzai’s vocational centre represent a welcome oasis in an increasingly hostile desert.

Some Afghan women earn as much as 150 dollars per month by altering or stitching women’s garments. Credit: Ashfaq Yusufzai/IPS

Some Afghan women earn as much as 150 dollars per month by altering or stitching women’s garments. Credit: Ashfaq Yusufzai/IPS

Women like 49-year-old Shamin Ara, who received training at the centre five years ago, is just one of the organisation’s many success stories.

She arrived in Pakistan in 1992, and lost her father to tuberculosis six years ago. His death left the family no choice but to seek alms from their rich relatives, she tells IPS.

Now she earns about 150 dollars a month by practicing the skills she learned at the centre. It is a decent wage in a country where the average annual income is 1,250 dollars.

She says she has not yet been able to find a husband, since she still lives in abject poverty. But at least now she can feed her four siblings, and harbours dreams of expanding her business further.

Already she has helped five other Afghan women set up their own shops, and hopes to do more for those like herself, who just need a helping hand.

Edited by Kanya D’Almeida

 

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Bhopal Cloud Hovers Over Industrial Safety in Indiahttp://www.ipsnews.net/2015/01/bhopal-cloud-hovers-over-industrial-safety-in-india/?utm_source=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_campaign=bhopal-cloud-hovers-over-industrial-safety-in-india http://www.ipsnews.net/2015/01/bhopal-cloud-hovers-over-industrial-safety-in-india/#comments Sun, 11 Jan 2015 18:53:51 +0000 Neeta Lal http://www.ipsnews.net/?p=138589 Children with congenital disorders linked to the Bhopal gas leak gather at a candlelight vigil. Credit: Chingari Trust

Children with congenital disorders linked to the Bhopal gas leak gather at a candlelight vigil. Credit: Chingari Trust

*By Neeta Lal
NEW DELHI, Jan 11 2015 (IPS)

Three decades after 40 tons of deadly methyl isocyanate gas leaked from the Union Carbide India Limited plant in the central Indian city of Bhopal on Dec. 3, 1984 – killing an estimated 4,000 almost instantly and maiming and blinding hundreds of thousands of others – the world’s worst industrial disaster remains a sharp lesson on the need for greater safety regulations in Asia’s third-largest economy.

Thirty years on, thousands of children in Bhopal, capital of the state of Madhya Pradesh, as well as in adjoining regions, are still being born with twisted limbs and other physical and mental disabilities caused by their parents’ exposure to the gas.

"Even if we have not seen […] another horrific human tragedy like on the night of Dec. 3, 1984, the country continues to have many mini-Bhopals – industrial accidents, which take lives and throw up a huge challenge of hazardous waste contamination.” -- Sunita Narain, director-general of the Centre for Science and Environment (CSE)
The poisonous vapours, which leached far into the soil and groundwater over the years, are still killing those victims who are too poor to move elsewhere.

“No consolidated record exists to show how many people are still suffering. As a result, even after the government paid compensation – however little – to more than half a million victims, fresh claims are still pouring in,” the Delhi-based Centre for Science and Environment (CSE) said in a book published last month.

According to Amnesty International, about 350,000 kg of toxic waste still covers the Union Carbide factory site. In 2009, 25 years after the tragedy, CSE conducted an independent assessment and found high levels of contamination in the soil and groundwater at the Union Carbide factory site and its adjoining areas.

In 2013, the centre collaborated with experts from across the country to develop a five-year action plan aimed at remediation of soil and toxic waste inside the plant and decontamination of the groundwater in the nearby area.

Intriguingly, even as the disaster continues to spawn books, movies and debates on corporate liability and poor safety regulations in Indian industries, the country’s ability to tackle a similar fiasco is still seriously in question.

“Post-Bhopal, India improved its legislations for chemical industrial disasters and worker safety, but it is still an unfinished business,” Sunita Narain, director-general of CSE, said at the book’s launch.

“Even if we have not seen […] another horrific human tragedy like on the night of Dec. 3, 1984, the country continues to have many mini-Bhopals – industrial accidents, which take lives and throw up a huge challenge of hazardous waste contamination.”

Several experts who spoke with IPS said that while the government has displayed alacrity in setting up sundry committees to assess the damage and recommend safeguards, mishaps continue to wreak havoc in the country’s mines and factories.

The problem is compounded by a lax regulatory environment, and entrenched corruption. As a result, predict economists, exponential growth in Asia’s third largest economy, home to over 1.2 billion people, will continue to come at a significant cost to the environment and human safety.

This is ironic as corporate law experts emphasize that India has one of the most complex and comprehensive laws on industrial safety.

For instance, safety audits are now mandatory in all factories storing hazardous chemicals over a certain threshold.

The Factories Act appoints site appraisal committees to advise on the location of factories using hazardous processes and suggests emergency disaster control plans for workers and local residents.

The Chemical Accidents Rules 1996 was introduced to ensure better safety standards while the Factories Act was remodelled to appoint an “occupier”, from the company’s top management, who would be totally responsible for a mishap, according to risk management consultant B. Karthikeyan

“However, the most significant piece of legislation to be introduced in the aftermath of Bhopal was the Environment Protection Act (EPA) of 1986, which empowers the [Central government] to issue direct orders to close, prohibit or regulate any violating industry,” explains Gita Sareen, a Mumbai-based corporate lawyer.

“The umbrella legislation also implements the mandate of the United Nations Conference on Human Environment to protect and improve the human environment and prevent hazards to human beings and other living creatures,” she told IPS.

But the gap between promises and practices is huge. Health facilities at most factories are still not up to scratch and violators are rarely punished. According to CSE’s records, in 2011 over 1,000 people lost their lives in factory accidents across India and several thousand were injured.

Contamination of land and water is also a growing problem. In 2010, the Union Ministry of Environment and Forests identified 10 toxic sites housing thousands of tonnes of hazardous waste.

“The worst part is that despite so much brouhaha, the site of the Union Carbide factory in Bhopal has still not been cleared of the toxic waste. Various parties are squabbling over how to clean the site, what should be done with the waste and who should pay for it even as the pollution continues to wreak havoc and engulf more areas,” Chandra Bhushan, deputy director at CSE, told IPS.

And while safety consciousness and compliance have improved somewhat in the organised sector involving large corporations due to their corporate image, the unorganised sector is still messy.

“Fire in cracker factories [and] repeated mishaps in acid factories are rampant [and] point to the need for greater surveillance in this sector,” he added. “The crux of the problem is that ‘safety’ still hasn’t become a culture in India unlike the West.”

According to Dr. Shashank Shekhar, a professor with the department of geology at Delhi University, industries continue to pollute, their rampant discharge of industrial effluents being the single biggest reason for water contamination and ill-health of millions of people in India.

In a study he co-authored, Shekhar points out how groundwater across the country is contaminated with cancer-inducing lead, and cadmium, as well as other hazardous materials such as arsenic, nitrate, manganese and iron.

“Heavy metals even in small quantities dissolved in water are highly toxic for a human body and can cause irreparable damage,” the scholar told IPS. “Yet the problem remains unchecked.”

Another problem, point out legal experts, is that in India, the processes for environmental impact assessments (EIA) are flawed.

“The country needs a thorough overhaul of these processes to ensure that there’s objectivity and due diligence involved in the exercise. Currently, industries hire independent assessors for EIA and pay for it from their own pocket. Naturally, the supervisor who is getting paid by the company for the audit will tend to favour his employer and not be impartial in his report,” explains Shekhar.

Rather than adding to the avalanche of existing laws, what will be more effective, say experts, is to have stricter execution of regulations.

Social audits by local citizens’ groups around polluting factories and a transparent remediation process involving stakeholders like the local affected community will produce far better results, suggests Bhushan.

Edited by Kanya D’Almeida

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OPINION: No Nation Wants to Be Labeled “Least Developed”http://www.ipsnews.net/2015/01/opinion-no-nation-wants-to-be-labeled-least-developed/?utm_source=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_campaign=opinion-no-nation-wants-to-be-labeled-least-developed http://www.ipsnews.net/2015/01/opinion-no-nation-wants-to-be-labeled-least-developed/#comments Sat, 10 Jan 2015 01:21:15 +0000 Ahmed Sareer http://www.ipsnews.net/?p=138573 A dhoni in the Maldives. Credit: Nevit Dilmen/cc by 3.0

A dhoni in the Maldives. Credit: Nevit Dilmen/cc by 3.0

*By Ahmed Sareer
NEW YORK, Jan 10 2015 (IPS)

Since 1971, Maldives is one of only three countries that have graduated from the ranks of the world’s “least developed countries” (LDCs) – the other two being Botswana and Cape Verde.

The Maldives graduated on Jan. 1, 2011. The review of LDCs conducted in 1997 concluded that the Maldives was ready for immediate graduation.

Ambassador Sareer. UN Photo/Eskinder Debebe

Ambassador Sareer. UN Photo/Eskinder Debebe

The Maldives government argued that the U.N. criteria for graduation should include a “smooth transition period” in order to bring into place adequate adjustments necessary for full transition into middle-income country status.

The U.N. Resolution adopted on Dec. 20, 2004 endorsed and adopted these arguments. Under that resolution, the Maldives was set to graduate from the list of LDCs on Jan. 1, 2008.

Just six days after adoption of the resolution, the Indian Ocean tsunami struck the Maldives.

The Maldives economy, which had grown at an average of eight percent per annum for two consecutive years, was devastated by the tsunami: 62 percent of the GDP was destroyed; over seven percent of the population was internally displaced; social and economic infrastructure damaged or destroyed in over one quarter of the inhabited islands; 12 inhabited islands were turned into complete rubble.

Following the disaster, and on the request of the Maldives, the General Assembly decided to defer the graduation until 2011, with a smooth transition period until 2014.Donors often assess a country’s need by its developmental status at the U.N., which traps countries such as the Maldives in a vicious cycle being now termed as the “Middle Income Paradox”.

Graduation from LDC does not help a country to overcome the development challenges it faces. Graduation does not make a country less vulnerable to the consequences of its geography.

It is no secret that small island states being assessed for graduation, do not meet the threshold for economic vulnerability.

Small island states often achieve their high development status because of high and consistent investment in human resources, and the social sector as well as government administration.

This leaves limited financial resources for the country to prepare for natural disasters or to carry out mitigation and adaptation measures.

Countries often have to rely on multilateral and bilateral donors for assistance for environmental projects: donors that often assess a country’s need by its developmental status at the U.N., which traps countries such as the Maldives in a vicious cycle being now termed as the “Middle Income Paradox”.

However, all this is conveniently ignored or overlooked.

Graduation from LDC status need not be feared, nor does it need to be an obstacle in a country’s development path. We only fear what we don’t know.

The Maldives’ experience showed that due to the infancy of the graduation programme, the relatively low number of countries that have graduated, and the lack of coordinated commitment from bilateral partners, the graduation process has been far from smooth.

The General Assembly Resolution, which the Maldives helped to coordinate, adopted in December 2012 provided a smooth transition for countries graduated from the LDC list.

The resolution has put into place greater oversight ability for the U.N. and articulated the need for a strengthened consultative mechanism for the coordination of bilateral aid.

The Maldives has tried to make the path for subsequent graduates smoother. Yet, it is a fact that the graduation process still relies on flawed criteria.

While no country wants to be termed the “Least” on any group, it cannot be denied that inherent vulnerabilities and geo-physical realities of some of the countries that often extend beyond their national jurisdiction, need help that are specific and targeted, in order to improve the resilience of those countries.

It is for that reason that the Maldives lobbied extensively with the World Trade Organisation (WTO) to extend the application of TRIPS for all LDCs.

Following graduation, the Maldives also applied to join the EU’s Generalised System of Preferences but new regulations prevented Maldives from the scheme. This posed a significant loss to our fishing industry, which is the export sector in the economy.

The Maldives has been continually exploring the viability of a “small and vulnerable economy” category at the U.N., similar to that which exists in the World Trade Organisation.

Such a category will acknowledge the particular needs of countries arising from the smallness of their economies and inherent geographical realities.

Small island states have continually argued that special consideration needs to be given to SIDS that are slated for graduation. Yet, these voices of concern have fallen largely on deaf years.

But the needs of our people, the development we desire cannot wait to be recognised.

That is why the Maldives decided to take our development path into our own hands. This can be done by consistently employing good policies.

Development is the result of a combination of bold decisions and an ability to seize the opportunities. SIDS have shown to the world that we are not short of smart ideas. Rather than relying on others, we have to develop our own economies our way!

Edited by Kitty Stapp

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Sri Lanka’s Minorities Choose “Unknown Angel” Over “Known Devil”http://www.ipsnews.net/2015/01/sri-lankas-minorities-choose-unknown-angel-over-known-devil/?utm_source=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_campaign=sri-lankas-minorities-choose-unknown-angel-over-known-devil http://www.ipsnews.net/2015/01/sri-lankas-minorities-choose-unknown-angel-over-known-devil/#comments Fri, 09 Jan 2015 17:17:47 +0000 Kanya DAlmeida http://www.ipsnews.net/?p=138568 Fed up with poverty, unemployment and broken promises on a political settlement, Sri Lanka’s Tamil-majority Northern Province voted overwhelmingly in support of opposition candidate Maithripala Sirisena at the Jan. 9 presidential elections. Credit: Amantha Perera/IPS

Fed up with poverty, unemployment and broken promises on a political settlement, Sri Lanka’s Tamil-majority Northern Province voted overwhelmingly in support of opposition candidate Maithripala Sirisena at the Jan. 9 presidential elections. Credit: Amantha Perera/IPS

*By Kanya D'Almeida
COLOMBO, Jan 9 2015 (IPS)

When the initial results started trickling in a little after midnight on Jan. 9, it still wasn’t clear exactly which way the country would swing: had Sri Lanka’s 15 million eligible voters thrown in their lot with incumbent President Mahinda Rajapaksa for a third term? Or would the desire for change put common opposition candidate Maithripala Sirisena at the helm?

It seemed close at first, with the bulk of the Sinhalase masses in the southern and central districts of Hambantota and Ratnapura polling in favour of Rajapaksa and his United People’s Freedom Alliance (UPFA).

But when newscasters began reading out the final tally of votes from the Tamil and Muslim-majority Northern and Eastern Provinces, it became clear that this was no repeat of the 2010 presidential race.

“This year the Tamil people seemed to have taken an oath for change." -- Dr. Jeyasingham, a senior lecturer at the Eastern University of Sri Lanka in Batticaloa
Symbolised by a swan, the ‘rainbow coalition’ National Democratic Front (NDF) swept the 12 electoral divisions in the northern Jaffna district with 253,574 votes, roughly 74.42 percent of the largely Tamil electorate.

The Tamil-majority northern Vanni district saw a landslide win for the NDF, with majority votes in the Mannar, Mullaitivu and Vavuniya polling divisions bringing in 78.47 percent of that region’s total ballots, while the eastern Batticaloa district also voted overwhelmingly in favour of the opposition, bringing Sirisena 81.62 percent of the total.

By six a.m., as daylight crept over the island, longtime President Rajapaksa had accepted defeat, and the new leader was making plans for a swearing-in ceremony at the Independence Square in Colombo.

Despite both candidates hailing from rural Sinhala communities and campaigning largely on a platform of promises to the Sinhala masses, experts say it was the minorities who decided this election.

“This year the Tamil people seemed to have taken an oath for change,” said Dr. Jeyasingham, a senior lecturer at the Eastern University of Sri Lanka in Batticaloa. “People in the North and East voted early – always a sign that change is in the air.

“Today, one thing is clear,” he told IPS, “and that is: minority votes decided this president. Tamils and Muslims [who account for 15 and nine percent of the population, respectively] are an important part of this democratic system and they had enough grievances to vote against the existing government.”

Silent discontent

Few could predict with certainty the outcome of the polls.

Since coming to power in 2005, Rajapaksa has enjoyed widespread popular support, bolstered by his decisive defeat of the separatist Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) in May 2009, which brought an end to Sri Lanka’s 26-year-long civil conflict.

Riding on the war victory, Rajapaksa proceeded to consolidate his position by appointing his flesh and blood to prominent political posts. His three brothers serve, respectively, as the minister of economic development, the defence secretary and the speaker of parliament.

He also embarked on ambitious infrastructure projects, including the construction of major highways and reconstruction of the rail-line linking southern Sri Lanka with the north.

Still, experts say he neglected crucial issues, including delivering on promises to the minority Tamil population to allow them greater political autonomy, initiating a meaningful reconciliation process in the aftermath of the bloody conflict, and ensuring the independence of democratic institutions such as parliament and the judiciary.

Faced with a surprise challenger in the form of his one-time health minister and party secretary Sirisena, Rajapaksa fell back on his post-war rhetoric, ‘defeating terrorism’ in Sri Lanka being the regime’s greatest claim to fame.

Unfortunately for him, the public did not bite. Ironically, the lack of efforts to reconcile with the people of the north and east – who bore the brunt of the final stages of the war for which both the government and the LTTE stand accused of war crimes – proved to be the nail in his coffin.

“The last government failed with respect to any kind of meaningful reconciliation,” Dr. Pakiasothy Saravanamuttu, executive director of the Colombo-based Centre for Policy Alternatives (CPA), told IPS.

“They engaged in land grabs [in the North], got the army involved in the economy, from buying and selling vegetables to running hotels, [and] engaged in human rights violations, in which they were getting away with impunity.”

Voting for change

Grassroots activists on the ground in the North and East have long called attention to wounds left untreated for too long. Many thousands still live with trauma, while others say there was never formal recognition of civilians’ suffering in a battle that claimed between 8,000 and 40,000 lives.

“[People in the North] were not even allowed to mourn their kith and kin,” Jeyasingham asserted. “Burial grounds were demolished. These are all things people have been keeping inside but they couldn’t raise their voices because of state oppression.”

And while press releases boasted of rapid rehabilitation and development in the former war zone, the majority of residents here struggled to find three square meals a day. Unemployment in the Northern Province stands at 5.2 percent, with the Kilinochchi District boasting the highest unemployment rate in the island, at 7.9 percent.

Poverty is also widespread, with government data pointing to a 28.8-percent poverty headcount in the Mullaitivu District, six times the national rate of 6.7 percent. In Mannar, the poverty rate is 20.1 percent, while Jaffna and Kilinochchi each nurse poverty headcounts of 8.3 percent and 12.7 percent, respectively.

“Even government servants struggle to survive on a 30-day basic salary,” Jeyasingham said. “This was clear from the postal votes in the North – it appears almost all public servants had voted against the government.”

Seen against this backdrop, many felt that Rajapaksa’s pre-election appeal to Tamil voters in the North to choose “the known devil” over the “unknown angel” to be in poor taste.

In Muslim-majority areas, too, it was plain where minorities stood.

A spate of violent attacks against Muslim communities in the last year – including a deadly riot in the southern town of Aluthgama that left eight people dead, 80 injured, and several shops in smoldering ruins after being torched by Sinhalese mobs – had many fearing for the future of religious and ethnic plurality in the country.

Public sentiment soured further at what many perceived to be indifference on the part of the government to attacks on Muslim shops and businesses, while tolerance towards the hard-line Buddhist monk-led Bodu Bala Sena (Buddhist Task Force, or BBS), widely believed to be instigators of the inter-religious tensions, pushed many Muslim communities away from the Rajapaksa regime.

It is yet to be seen how the new president will do justice to the huge voter turnout in the North and East. Sirisena’s 100-day work programme promises equality and an end to religious intolerance, Saravanamuttu said, but some political observers fear he may renege on these pledges in favour of placating the Sinhala vote-base.

As for the minorities, they have put their shoulders to the wheel of democracy and forced open the space to air their grievances. They can only hope they will be heard.

Edited by Kitty Stapp

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Integrated Farming: The Only Way to Survive a Rising Seahttp://www.ipsnews.net/2015/01/integrated-farming-the-only-way-to-survive-a-rising-sea/?utm_source=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_campaign=integrated-farming-the-only-way-to-survive-a-rising-sea http://www.ipsnews.net/2015/01/integrated-farming-the-only-way-to-survive-a-rising-sea/#comments Thu, 08 Jan 2015 15:46:55 +0000 Manipadma Jena http://www.ipsnews.net/?p=138561 The Mandal family lives on a half-hectare farm in the Sundarbans and uses integrated methods to ensure survival. Credit: Manipadma Jena/IPS

The Mandal family lives on a half-hectare farm in the Sundarbans and uses integrated methods to ensure survival. Credit: Manipadma Jena/IPS

*By Manipadma Jena
SUNDARBANS, India, Jan 8 2015 (IPS)

When the gentle clucking grows louder, 50-year-old Sukomal Mandal calls out to his wife, who is busy grinding ingredients for a fish curry. She gets up to thrust leafy green stalks through the netting of a coop and two-dozen shiny hens rush forward for lunch.

In the Sundarbans, where the sea is slowly swallowing up the land, Mandal’s half-hectare farm is an oasis of prosperity.

The elderly couple resides in the Biswanathpur village located in what has now been declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site: a massive tidal mangrove forest covering some 10,000 km in the vast Bay of Bengal delta, stretching between India and Bangladesh.

“An integrated farming system virtually replicates nature." -- Debabrata Guchhait, a trainer with the Indraprastha Srijan Welfare Society (ISWS) in the Sundarbans
In this scenic biodiversity hotspot, there is no longer any doubt about the impact of sea-level rise prompted by global warming – studies show that the region lost some 5.5 square km per year between 2001 and 2009, compared to four square km annually over the previous four decades.

As a result, the population here is facing a myriad of crises, a lack of freshwater being one of the most pressing for the primarily subsistence communities who have lived and worked the network of islands that comprise the landmass of the Sundarbans for generations.

The stubborn encroachment of the sea, as well as cyclones, storm surges, eroded farmland lost on the islands’ edges, tidal river floods from concentrated rains, brackish water intruding through breached earthen embankments and increased soil salinity, have all deepened poverty in these villages.

With a population of some four million, research suggests that three out of every 10 people in the Sundarbans now live below the poverty line.

Those like Mandal and his wife have been forced to innovate to stay alive. With traditional farming faltering under the strain of climate change, new methods, such as integrated farming, have been adopted to ensure survival.

Water everywhere, but none for farming

A November 2014 study sponsored by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) pointed out that the dearth of fresh water was reaching a crisis point in the Indian portion of the Sundarbans, occupying a large part of the state of West Bengal.

According to Sugata Hazra, oceanographer and climate change expert at Kolkata’s Jadavpur University, the region urgently requires an infusion of 507 cubic metres of fresh water per day to sustain its estuarine ecosystems and dependent human livelihoods.

Increased salinity now affects farmlands in 52 of the roughly 102 inhabited islands on the Indian side of the forest.

Meanwhile, an observatory on Sagar Island, the largest sea-facing island bearing the brunt of climate impacts, recorded a relative mean sea level rise (MSLR) of 17.8 mm per year from 2001-2009, remarkably higher than the 3.14 mm per year observed during the previous decade.

Making ends meet under such harsh conditions is not easy.

Several farmers’ groups in the Patharpratima administrative block of the South 24-Parganas district told IPS that every family has one or more migrant members, on whose remittances they are increasingly dependent.

Other families, like Sukomal and his wife Alpana Mandal, are turning towards integrated farming methods.

“An integrated farming system virtually replicates nature,” explained Debabrata Guchhait, a trainer with the Indraprastha Srijan Welfare Society (ISWS), which works for community food security.

The technique “brings the farm and household together” so that waste from one area of life becomes an input for another. Staple crops are mixed with other plant and vegetable varieties, while cattle, ducks and hens all form part of the self-sustaining cycle.

The process “reduces farm costs and risks by going organic and by diversifying yield and income sources, while ensuring nutrition,” Guchhait told IPS.

The hens feed on leafy greens, broken grains and maize while their litter is collected and used as organic manure with dung from Mandal’s three cows and two goats. The remaining hen waste drains into the pond, becoming fish feed.

Digging a small pond to help harvest water during the annual monsoon, which typically brings 1,700 mm of rainfall, helped his fortunes immensely.

From one ‘bigha’, a local land measurement unit equal to 0.133 hectares, Mandal now harvests 480 kg of paddy (un-husked rice) – 70 kg more than he did before, and sufficient to cover one month’s worth of household consumption.

With sufficient fresh water in his backyard he now harvests a paddy crop not once but twice annually, harvesting 900 kg in a disaster-free year. After meeting his family’s food needs, he still sells 25,000 rupees (about 400 dollars) worth of his harvest.

Vegetables grown in the tiny space fetch him double that amount, since he plants a mixed crop of over 25 varieties throughout the year. Using every inch of free space, the family has built up crucial resilience against changing climate patterns.

The overflow from the pond provides a catchment area for fish from their paddy fields.

“Our family of four consumes three kg of fish weekly and sells some,” Mandal’s wife, Alpana, tells IPS. Rice with spicy fish curry is a popular staple here.

Still, those practicing integrated farming are few and far between.

“Of our 890 household members in 17 villages, only 15 members have taken up bio-integrated farming,” Palash Sinha, who heads the ISWS in Patharpratima block, told IPS.

“A major reason for the low uptake is the high 12,000-rupee (200-dollar) cost of landscaping integrated farm plots,” he explained. Despite assistance in the form of technical training and monetary support from community organisations, many farmers are reluctant to take the required 5,000-rupee loans.

“For effective landscaping at least 0.072 hectares (720 sq metres) are needed,” Sinha added. “Many farmers do not even have this much land.”

Others associate the integrated method with harder work. “In a good year, income from integrated farms can be 200 percent higher than same-size conventional farms, but labour input is 700 percent more,” Samiran Jana, an integrated bio-farmer, told IPS in the Indrapastha village.

Government assistance for marginal farmers hoping to transform their smallholdings, meanwhile, is extremely low, experts say. For instance, the West Bengal Action Plan on Climate Change – which includes promises on stepping up assistance for integrated farming – is yet to be implemented.

In a country where 56 percent of the workforce is engaged in agriculture, of which some 80 percent are small and landless farmers, experts say that concerted efforts at the federal level are needed to safeguard millions whose lives and livelihoods are bound up with changing weather patterns.

Edited by Kanya D’Almeida

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Organic Farming in India Points the Way to Sustainable Agriculturehttp://www.ipsnews.net/2015/01/organic-farming-in-india-points-the-way-to-sustainable-agriculture/?utm_source=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_campaign=organic-farming-in-india-points-the-way-to-sustainable-agriculture http://www.ipsnews.net/2015/01/organic-farming-in-india-points-the-way-to-sustainable-agriculture/#comments Wed, 07 Jan 2015 09:25:43 +0000 Jency Samuel http://www.ipsnews.net/?p=138544 Using bio-fertilizers, farmers in Tamil Nadu are reviving agricultural lands that were choked by salt deposits in the aftermath of the 2004 Asian tsunami. Credit: Jency Samuel/IPS

Using bio-fertilizers, farmers in Tamil Nadu are reviving agricultural lands that were choked by salt deposits in the aftermath of the 2004 Asian tsunami. Credit: Jency Samuel/IPS

*By Jency Samuel
NAGAPATNAM, India, Jan 7 2015 (IPS)

Standing amidst his lush green paddy fields in Nagapatnam, a coastal district in the southern Indian state of Tamil Nadu, a farmer named Ramajayam remembers how a single wave changed his entire life.

The simple farmer was one of thousands whose agricultural lands were destroyed by the 2004 Asian tsunami, as massive volumes of saltwater and metre-high piles of sea slush inundated these fertile fields in the aftermath of the disaster.

“The general perception is that organic farming takes years to yield good results and revenue. But during post-tsunami rehabilitation work [...] we proved that in less than a year organic methods could yield better results than chemical farming." -- M Revathi, the founder-trustee of the Tamil Nadu Organic Farmers' Movement (TOFarM)
On the morning of Dec. 26, 2004, Ramajayam had gone to his farm in Karaikulam village to plant casuarina saplings. As he walked in, he noticed his footprints were deeper than usual and water immediately filled between the tracks, a phenomenon he had never witnessed before.

A few minutes later, like a black mass, huge walls of water came towards him. He ran for his life. His farms were a pathetic sight the next day.

The Nagapatnam district recorded 6,065 deaths, more than 85 percent of the state’s death toll. Farmers bore the brunt, struggling to revive their fields, which were inundated for a distance of up to two miles in some locations. Nearly 24,000 acres of farmland were destroyed by the waves.

Worse still was that the salty water did not recede, ruining the paddy crop that was expected to be harvested 15 days after the disaster. Small ponds that the farmers had dug on their lands with government help became incredibly saline, and as the water evaporated it had a “pickling effect” on the soil, farmers say, essentially killing off all organic matter crucial to future harvests.

Plots belonging to small farmers like Ramajayam, measuring five acres or less, soon resembled saltpans, with dead soil caked in mud stretching for miles. Even those trees that withstood the tsunami could not survive the intense period of salt inundation, recalled Kumar, another small farmer.

“We were used to natural disasters; but nothing like the tsunami,” Ramajayam added.

Cognizant of the impact of the disaster on poor rural communities, government offices and aid agencies focused much of their rehabilitation efforts on coastal dwellers, offering alternative livelihood schemes in a bid to lessen the economic burden of the catastrophe.

The nearly 10,000 affected small and marginal farmers, who have worked these lands for generations, were reluctant to accept a change in occupation. Ignoring the reports of technical inspection teams that rehabilitating the soil could take up to 10 years, some sowed seed barely a year after the tsunami.

Not a single seed sprouted, and many began to lose hope.

It was then that various NGOs stepped in, and began a period of organic soil renewal and regeneration that now serves as a model for countless other areas in an era of rampant climate change.

The ‘soil doctor’

One of the first organisations to begin sustained efforts was the Tamil Nadu Organic Farmers’ Movement (TOFarM), which adopted the village of South Poigainallur as the site of experimental work.

The first step was measuring the extent of the damage, including assessing the depth of salt penetration and availability of organic content. When it became clear that the land was completely uncultivable, the organisation set to work designing unique solutions for every farm that involved selecting seeds and equipment based on the soil condition and topography.

Sea mud deposits were removed, bunds were raised and the fields were ploughed. Deep trenches were made in the fields and filled with the trees that had been uprooted by the tsunami. As the trees decomposed the soil received aeration.

Dhaincha seeds, a legume known by its scientific name Sesbania bispinosa, were then sown in the fields.

“It [dhaincha] is called the ‘soil doctor’ because it is a green manure crop that grows well in saline soil,” M Revathi, the founder-trustee of TOFarM, told IPS.

When the nutrient-rich dhaincha plants flowered in about 45 days, they were ploughed back into the ground, to loosen up the soil and help open up its pores. Compost and farmyard manure were added in stages before the sowing season.

Today, the process stands as testament to the power of organic solutions.

Organic practices save the day

Poor farmers across Tamil Nadu are heavily dependent on government aid. Each month the state government’s Public Distribution System hands out three tonnes of rice to over 20 million people.

To facilitate this, the government runs paddy procurement centres, wherein officials purchase farmers’ harvests for a fixed price. While this assures farmers of a steady income, the fixed price is far below the market rate.

Thus marginal farmers, who number some 13,000, barely make enough to cover their monthly needs. After the 90-135 day paddy harvest period, farmers fall back on vegetable crops to ensure their livelihood. But in districts like Nagapatnam, where fresh water sources lie 25 feet below ground level, farmers who rely on rain-fed agriculture are at a huge disadvantage.

When the tsunami washed over the land, many feared they would never recover.

“The microbial count on a pin head, which should be 4,000 in good soil, dropped down to below 500 in this area,” Dhanapal, a farmer in Kilvelur of Nagapatnam district and head of the Cauvery Delta Farmers’ Association, informed IPS.

But help was not far away.

A farmer named S Mahalingam’s eight-acre plot of land close to a backwater canal in North Poigainallur was severely affected by the tsunami. His standing crop of paddy was completely destroyed.

NGOs backed by corporate entities and aid agencies pumped out seawater from Mahalingam’s fields and farm ponds. They distributed free seeds and saplings. The state government waived off farm loans. Besides farmyard manure, Mahalingam used the leaves of neem, nochi and Indian beech (Azadirachta indica, Vitex negundo and Pongamia glabra respectively) as green manure.

Subsequent rains also helped remove some of the salinity. The farmer then sowed salt-resistant traditional rice varieties called Kuruvikar and Kattukothalai. In two years his farms were revived, enabling him to continue growing rice and vegetables.

NGO’s like the Trichy-based Kudumbam have innovated other methods, such as the use of gypsum, to rehabilitate burnt-out lands.

A farmer named Pl. Manikkavasagam, for instance, has benefitted from the NGO’s efforts to revive his five-acre plot of farmland, which failed to yield any crops after the tsunami.

Remembering an age-old practice, he dug trenches and filled them with the green fronds of palms that grow in abundance along the coast.

Kudumbam supplied him with bio-fertlizers such as phosphobacteria, azospirillum and acetobacter, all crucial in helping breathe life into the suffocated soil.

Kudumbam distributed bio-solutions and trained farmers to produce their own. As Nagapatnam is a cattle-friendly district, bio solutions using ghee, milk, cow dung, tender coconut, fish waste, jaggery and buttermilk in varied combinations could be made easily and in a cost-effective manner. Farmers continue to use these bio-solutions, all very effective in controlling pests.

“The general perception is that organic farming takes years to yield good results and revenue,” TOFarM’s Revathi told IPS.

“But during post-tsunami rehabilitation work, with data, we proved that in less than a year organic methods could yield better results than chemical farming. That TOFarM was invited to replicate this in Indonesia and Sri Lanka is proof that farms can be revived through sustainable practices even after disasters,” she added.

As early as 2006, farmers like Ramajayam, having planted a salt-resistant strain of rice known as kuzhivedichan, yielded a harvest within three months of the sowing season.

Together with restoration of some 2,000 ponds by TOFarM, farmers in Nagapatnam are confident that sustainable agriculture will stand the test of time, and whatever climate-related challenges are coming their way. The lush fields of Tamil Nadu’s coast stand as proof of their assertion.

Edited by Kanya D’Almeida

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The Rise and Fall of the World’s Poorest Nationshttp://www.ipsnews.net/2015/01/the-rise-and-fall-of-the-worlds-poorest-nations/?utm_source=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_campaign=the-rise-and-fall-of-the-worlds-poorest-nations http://www.ipsnews.net/2015/01/the-rise-and-fall-of-the-worlds-poorest-nations/#comments Wed, 07 Jan 2015 01:08:45 +0000 Thalif Deen http://www.ipsnews.net/?p=138541 Fish being brought in and processed at a market in Cambodia’s northwestern Battambang province. As an LDC, Cambodia exports products duty-free to the EU. Credit: Michelle Tolson/IPS

Fish being brought in and processed at a market in Cambodia’s northwestern Battambang province. As an LDC, Cambodia exports products duty-free to the EU. Credit: Michelle Tolson/IPS

*By Thalif Deen
UNITED NATIONS, Jan 7 2015 (IPS)

The world’s 48 Least Developed Countries (LDCs) – a special category of developing nations created by the General Assembly in 1971 but refused recognition by the World Bank – have long been described as “poorest of the poor” in need of special international assistance for their economic survival.

But only three – Botswana, Cape Verde and the Maldives – have so far “graduated” from being classified as an LDC to a developing nation, based primarily on their improved social and economic performance."This mechanical setting of a target for graduation is impractical and has the potential of undesirable tension for development cooperation at national and global levels." -- Ambassador Anwarul Karim Chowdhury

At a U.N.-sponsored ministerial meeting of Asian and Pacific nations in Nepal last month, four more LDCs, namely Bangladesh, Bhutan, Cambodia and Laos, were singled out as countries on the “threshold of graduation” based on their recent economic and social indicators.

And as economies improve, some predict that at least six more countries – Tuvalu, Vanuatu, Kiribati, Samoa, Angola and Equatorial Guinea (two African nations dependent on oil incomes) – are likely to be forced out of the ranks of LDCs, possibly by 2020 or beyond.

But this outlook may be premature due to several factors, including the impact of the global economic recession, the long-term effects of the decline in oil prices, reduced purchasing power due to falling national currencies, and in the case of Africa, the spread of Ebola.

Ambassador Anwarul Karim Chowdhury, the first U.N. Under-Secretary-General and High Representative for LDCs, Landlocked Developing Countries, and Small Island Developing States (2002-2007), told IPS the 2011 LDCs Conference in Istanbul, Turkey, set an objective of graduating 50 percent of LDCs out of the group by the year 2020.

“But this mechanical setting of a target for graduation is impractical and has the potential of undesirable tension for development cooperation at national and global levels,” he pointed out.

The foremost objective of graduation should be to bring LDCs out of poverty and their structural handicaps, he noted.

“But given the current distressing situation in most of the LDCs in both areas, it would be unwise for either the LDCs or their development partners to go towards realising this target,” Chowdhury added.

The people of these countries, particularly civil society, should be involved in the process to ensure that common people of LDCs do not become the greatest victims, he said.

“This is a reality in LDCs which we should not lose sight of,” he declared.

According to the United Nations, LDCs represent the poorest and weakest members of the international community, comprising more than 880 million people and accounting for less than 2.0 per cent of global Gross Domestic Product (GDP).

Fighting poverty in the LDCs is a key component towards reaching the U.N.’s landmark 2015 Millennium Development Goals (MDGs).

LDCs currently benefit from a range of special support measures from bilateral donors and multilateral organisations, and special treatment under regional and multilateral trade agreements.

The benefits that will be lost or reduced due to LDC graduation include trade preferences, official development assistance (ODA) including development financing and technical cooperation, and other forms of assistance, such as travel support for participation at U.N. conferences and other meetings of multilateral bodies.

As a result, special attention needs to be given to these special measures for graduating LDCs.

Arjun Karki, president of Rural Reconstruction of Nepal and international coordinator of LDC Watch, a network of LDC non-governmental organisations (NGOs), told IPS the aim of the 2011 Istanbul Programme of Action was to enable at least 24 LDCs (half of the existing 48) to graduate by 2020, so the current proposals for graduation have not reached this level.

The majority of LDCs (34 out of 48) are in Africa and to date only two African nations, Angola and Equatorial Guinea, are expected to graduate by 2020.

In both these cases, graduation is solely based on their income criterion (of Gross National Income per capita having exceeded at least twice the upper threshold of 1,190 dollars) while they fare low in the human assets and economic vulnerability criteria.

He said LDCs can only graduate when both LDC governments and development partners take action and it is vital they both have the political will to achieve this.

Gyan Chandra Acharya, the current Under-Secretary-General and High Representative for LDCs, Landlocked Developing Countries and Small Island Developing States, told delegates at the ministerial meeting in Nepal “the path towards graduation should not be an end in itself but should be viewed as a launching pad towards meaningful and transformative changes in the economic structures and the life conditions of people in graduated and graduating LDCs.”

He said sustainable graduation agenda needs to be tied up with that of productive capacity development, structural transformation resilience building and sustainable improvement in human and social capital.

Some of the practices being considered include enhancing investment in the productive sector, upgrading technologies and increasing protection from external shocks, such as climate related events, economic crises and natural disasters, according to a statement released by his office.

Chowdhury told IPS basically, graduation is a positive effort which requires the sincere and wholehearted engagement of both LDCs and their development partners.

“However, fixing an arbitrary target and using a technical approach for graduation could undermine realization of a good objective,” he stressed.

He also warned the ongoing economic crisis in the industrialised countries influenced the setting of the Istanbul target. “As the first High Representative of the new U.N. office established in 2002 to champion the cause of the worlds most vulnerable countries, I had worked diligently to make a space for the smooth transition in the graduation process,” Chowdhury explained.

That arrangement, he said, had made the LDCs less uncomfortable to engage in the process.

“I recall fully the agonising interactions for the graduation of Cape Verde and the Maldives during my tenure,” he said.

The consultative mechanism set up during the smooth transition needs to be closely monitored by the High Representative personally to ensure that the concerns of the graduating LDC have the true support of the U.N. system, he cautioned.

“This was part of my regular firsthand contacts with all of the Cape Verde graduation process,” he added.

Chowdhury also said overcoming of the constraints in two of the three determinants for LDC status to be eligible for graduation requires the full understanding by all sides of the real situation of LDCs.

“It is a pity that the biggest development assistance provider, the World Bank, has refused to accept LDCs in its work as a special category of countries as identified by the United Nations,” he said. “And my repeated visits to and efforts with the Bank headquarters did not get any response for the inclusion of LDCs.”

Edited by Kitty Stapp

The writer can be contacted at thalifdeen@aol.com

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OPINION: Political Islam and U.S. Policy in 2015http://www.ipsnews.net/2015/01/opinion-political-islam-and-u-s-policy-in-2015/?utm_source=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_campaign=opinion-political-islam-and-u-s-policy-in-2015 http://www.ipsnews.net/2015/01/opinion-political-islam-and-u-s-policy-in-2015/#comments Tue, 06 Jan 2015 18:16:46 +0000 Emile Nakhleh http://www.ipsnews.net/?p=138538 President Barack Obama speaks at Cairo University in Cairo, Egypt, Thursday, Jun. 4, 2009. In his speech, President Obama called for a 'new beginning between the United States and Muslims', declaring that 'this cycle of suspicion and discord must end'. Credit: White House photo

President Barack Obama speaks at Cairo University in Cairo, Egypt, Thursday, Jun. 4, 2009. In his speech, President Obama called for a 'new beginning between the United States and Muslims', declaring that 'this cycle of suspicion and discord must end'. Credit: White House photo

*By Emile Nakhleh
WASHINGTON, Jan 6 2015 (IPS)

This year, Arab political Islam will be greatly influenced by U.S. regional policy, as it has been since the Obama administration came into office six years ago. Indeed, as the U.S. standing in the region rose with Obama’s presidency beginning in January 2009, so did the fortunes of Arab political Islam.

But when Arab autocrats perceived U.S. regional policy to have floundered and Washington’s leverage to have diminished, they proceeded to repress domestic Islamic political parties with impunity, American protestations notwithstanding.Coddling autocrats is a short-term strategy that will not succeed in the long run. The longer the cozy relationship lasts, the more Muslims will revert to the earlier belief that America’s war on terrorism is a war on Islam.

This policy linkage, expected to prevail in the coming year, will not bode well for political Islam. Like last year, the U.S. will in 2015 pay more attention to securing Arab autocrats’ support in the fight against Islamic State forces than to the mistreatment of mainstream Islamic political parties and movements, which will have severe consequences in the long run.

Since the middle of 2013, the Obama administration’s focus on the tactical need to woo dictators in the fight against terrorist groups has trumped its commitment to the engagement objective. America’s growing support for Arab dictators meant that Arab political Islam would be sacrificed.

For example, Washington seems oblivious to the thousands of mainstream Islamists and other opposition activists languishing in Egyptian jails.

What is political Islam?

Several assumptions underpin this judgment. First, “political Islam” applies to mainstream Islamic political parties and movements, which have rejected violence and made a strategic shift toward participatory and coalition politics through free elections.

Arab political Islam generally includes the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt and Jordan, Hamas in Palestine, Hezbollah in Lebanon, al-Nahda in Tunisia, and al-Wefaq in Bahrain.

The term “political Islam” does not include radical and terrorist groups such as the Islamic State (ISIS, ISIL or IS), al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, North Africa, Iraq, and Syria, or armed opposition groups in Iraq, Syria, Yemen, and Libya. Nor does it apply to terrorist groups in Africa such as Boko Haram, al-Shabab, and others.

Unfortunately, in the past three years, many policy makers in the West, and curiously in several Arab countries, have equated mainstream political Islam with radical and terrorist groups. This erroneous and self-serving linkage has provided Washington with a fig leaf to justify its cozy relations with Arab autocrats and tolerance of their bloody repression of their citizens.

Repression breeds radicalism

It has also given these autocrats an excuse to suppress their Islamic parties and exclude them from the political process. In a press interview late last month, Egypt’s President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi forcefully denounced the Muslim Brotherhood and pledged the movement would not enter the Egyptian parliament.

Egypt’s recent terrorism laws, which Sisi and other Arab autocrats have approved, provide them with a pseudo-legal cover to silence the opposition, including mainstream political Islam.

They have used the expansive and vague definitions of terrorism included in these decrees to incarcerate any person or group that is “harmful to national unity.” Any criticism of the regime or the ruler is now viewed as a “terrorist” act, punishable by lengthy imprisonment.

The Dec. 28 arrest of the Bahraini Sheikh Ali Salman, Secretary General of al-Wefaq, is yet another example of draconian measures against peaceful mainstream opposition leaders and parties in the region. Regime repression of these groups is expected to prevail in 2015.

Second, whereas terrorist organisations are a threat to the region and to Western countries, including mainstream political Islam in the governance of their countries in the long run is good for domestic stability and regional security. It also serves the interests of Western powers in the region.

Recent history tells U.S. that exclusion and repression often lead to radicalisation.  Some youth in these parties have given up on participatory politics in favour of confrontational politics and violence. This phenomenon is expected to increase in 2015, as suppression of political Islam becomes more pervasive and institutionalised.

Third, the serious mistakes the Muslim Brotherhood and al-Nahda made in their first time ever as governing parties should not be surprising since they lacked the experience of governance. Such poor performance, however, is not unique to them.  Nor should it be used as an excuse to depose them illegally and to void the democratic process, as the Sisi-led military coup did in Egypt in 2013.

Although Islamic political parties tend to win the first election after the toppling of dictators, the litmus test of their popular support lies in succeeding elections. The recent post-Arab Spring election in Tunisia is a case in point.

When Arab citizens are provided with the opportunity to participate in fair and free elections, they are capable of electing the party that best serves their interests, regardless of whether the party is Islamic or secular.

Had Field Marshall Sisi in 2013 allowed the Muslim Brotherhood and President Mohammed Morsi to stay in power until the following election, they would have been voted out, according to public opinion polls at the time.

But Sisi and his military junta were not truly committed to a genuine democratic transition in Egypt. Now, according to Human Rights Watch reports, the current state of human rights in Egypt is much worse than it was under former President Hosni Mubarak.

The U.S. and Political Islam

Upon taking office, President Obama understood that disagreements between the United States and the Muslim world, especially political Islam, were driven by specific policies, not values of good governance. A key factor driving these disagreements was the widely held Muslim perception that America’s war on terror was a war on Islam.

The Obama administration also realised that while a very small percentage of Muslims engaged in violence and terrorism, the United States must find ways to engage the other 1.6 billion Muslims worldwide. That drove President Obama early on in his administration to grant media interviews to Arab broadcasters and give his historic Cairo speech in June 2009.

However, as the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan dragged on, and as drone strikes caused more civilian casualties in Yemen, Afghanistan, and elsewhere, many Muslims became more sceptical of Washington’s commitment to sincere engagement with the Muslim world.

The Arab uprisings beginning in 2011 known as the Arab Spring and the toppling of dictators prompted the United States to support calls for freedom, political reform, dignity, and democracy.

Washington announced it would work with Islamic political parties, particularly the Muslim Brotherhood and al-Nahda, as long as these parties were committed to peaceful change and to the principles of pluralism, elections, and democracy.

That unprecedented opening boosted the fortunes of Arab political Islam and inclusive politics in the Arab world. American rapprochement with political Islam, however, did not last beyond two years.

The way forward

Much as one might disagree with Islamic political ideology, it’s the height of folly to think that long-term domestic stability and economic security in Egypt, Bahrain, Palestine, or Lebanon could be achieved without including the Muslim Brotherhood, al-Wefaq, Hamas, and Hezbollah in governance.

Coddling autocrats is a short-term strategy that will not succeed in the long run. The longer the cozy relationship lasts, the more Muslims will revert to the earlier belief that America’s war on terrorism is a war on Islam.

The Arab countries that witnessed the fall of dictators, especially Egypt, will with Washington’s acquiescence revert back to repression and autocracy, as if the Arab Spring never happened.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of, and should not be attributed to, IPS-Inter Press Service.

Edited by Kitty Stapp

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Spectre of Violence Hangs Over Sri Lanka Pollshttp://www.ipsnews.net/2015/01/spectre-of-violence-hangs-over-sri-lanka-polls/?utm_source=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_campaign=spectre-of-violence-hangs-over-sri-lanka-polls http://www.ipsnews.net/2015/01/spectre-of-violence-hangs-over-sri-lanka-polls/#comments Tue, 06 Jan 2015 10:51:35 +0000 Amantha Perera http://www.ipsnews.net/?p=138533 Violence in the lead-up to the Jan. 8 presidential election in Sri Lanka has poll monitors on edge. Credit: Amantha Perera/IPS

Violence in the lead-up to the Jan. 8 presidential election in Sri Lanka has poll monitors on edge. Credit: Amantha Perera/IPS

*By Amantha Perera
COLOMBO, Jan 6 2015 (IPS)

As 14.5 million Sri Lankans prepare to select their next leader, there is growing fear that violence could mar the Jan. 8 elections, billed as the closest electoral contest in the island’s history.

Election monitors were worried that as incumbent President Mahinda Rajapaksa and his rival Maithripala Sirisena wound down their campaigns on Jan. 5, violence would scare off voters.

Keerthi Tennakoon, executive director of the national election monitoring body Campaign for Free and Fair Elections (CaFFE), observed that a worrying precedent has been set by police who have by and large remained inactive against violations of election laws, especially those perpetrated by government supporters including at least two parliamentarians.

“The last 48 hours before the election are crucial; ordinary voters will not want to risk being assaulted, or worse, if they feel that there is such a risk." -- Keerthi Tennakoon, executive director of the Campaign for Free and Fair Elections (CaFFE)
“The police always appear to be late on the uptake when decisive action by law enforcement can be the most effective deterrent [to violence],” he told IPS.

He pointed to recent clashes in Kahawatta, a town in the central Ratnapura District, as an example. In the early hours of the morning on Jan. 5, while a group of opposition supporters were busy setting up the stage for a rally by common opposition candidate Sirisena in the town’s public grounds, a band of government supporters arrived in eight vehicles and began attacking them.

Rather than running away, the opposition group retaliated. The situation escalated, and shots were fired. Three opposition supporters were injured, and one was rushed to the hospital in critical condition.

Enraged, the opposition supporters launched a retaliatory attack on election offices set up by government followers. The main roads of the town were blocked for at least four hours while the mayhem unfolded.

“Police [did not] take any action until two hours after the initial incident,” CaFFE noted in an update. “They only reacted when the [opposition] United National Party (UNP) supporters started attacking [Deputy Minister Premalal] Jayasekara’s offices,” the monitoring body added.

A couple of hours earlier, another group of government supporters loyal to a deputy minister assaulted officials from the election commissioner’s department in the eastern town of Trincomalee after they had gone to investigate a digital screen in a public space relaying election propaganda.

The attack took place despite the officials being provided security by nine policemen.

“The last 48 hours before the election are crucial; ordinary voters will not want to risk being assaulted, or worse, if they feel that there is such a risk,” Tennakoon said.

Voting for equality?

The elections have been billed as one of closet in recent history. President Rajapaksa, who called elections two years before they were due, is facing a stiff challenge in the form of his one-time health minister Sirisena.

The run-up to the election has been dominated by personal attacks against the top contenders, and has remained largely empty of policy discussions.

Despite robust growth, Sri Lanka still faces vast economic disparities. The richest 20 percent of the population enjoys half of all national income, while the poorest 20 percent has access to just five percent of the country’s wealth.

According to the latest Household Income Survey by the government’s Department of Census and Statistics, the monthly income of the poorest 20 percent of the population was 10, 245 rupees (about 78 dollars), while the richest 20 percent earned a monthly income of 121,368 rupees (about 933 dollars).

Furthermore, the war-ravaged North is mired in poverty despite the civil war ending in May 2009.

Anushka Wijesinha, an economist and policy advisor, observed that the election manifestos are full of promises relating to public spending and low on strategic policies that would ensure long-term stability.

“Unsurprisingly, both manifestos are populist and full of public spending goodies – from welfare handouts to public sector salary hikes. These will boost short-term consumption, and are unlikely to be inflationary as recent inflation has been low. But the spending will hurt the fiscal consolidation efforts of the past few years and public finances may come under increased pressure,” he said.

The elections are likely to create economic uncertainty at least in the short term and will in all likelihood be followed by parliamentary elections. A day after elections were announced on Nov. 20, the Colombo Stock Market recorded its worst slide in over 15 months, and has remained sluggish ever since.

“Both [leading candidates] have a heavy emphasis on state-led initiatives and taxpayer-funded programmes, which in the past have been notoriously inefficient. Instead, focus of policies should be on making it easier for private sector entrepreneurship and innovation to thrive,” Wijesinha asserted.

The election has also seen a crumbling of the broad-based support President Rajapaksa enjoyed in Sri Lanka’s parliament since the war’s end.

Since late 2010, the President has had a two-thirds majority in the 225-member parliament. But a little over a month after elections were called on Nov. 20, 26 members from the government’s camp have crossed over to the opposition.

The Sirisena campaign has also gained the support of parties representing Muslim and Tamil minorities, who together comprise some 15 percent of the country’s population of 21 million.

There has been some attention paid to issues of importance to the minorities, especially development in the Northern Province.

President Rajapaksa campaigned in the North twice and pledged to revitalise the economy and create jobs.

Still, the unemployment rate in the Northern Province is stubbornly high at 5.2 percent, well above the national rate of 4.4 percent and the third highest in the country.

The island’s highest unemployment rate of 7.9 percent was recorded in the Kilinochchi District last year, according to government statistics. Poverty is also rampant in the North, with four of the five districts that make up the province registering rates higher than the national poverty rate of 6.7 percent.

But Muttukrishna Sarvananthan, who heads the Point Pedro Institute of Development based in northern Jaffna, told IPS that if the Northern economy is to regain momentum, more private investment needed to be channeled in.

“I would argue that more private capital investment that could generate a large number of [jobs] is the critical need, rather than foreign aid,” he said, pointing out that policies needed to be formulated with long-term stability in mind.

He also feels that decentralising power could help address political as well as economic grievances. “Fiscal devolution to the provinces should be undertaken immediately to provide the necessary financial resources for the provinces (including the Eastern and Northern Provinces) to operate independently and effectively without interference from the national government,” he stated.

Power devolution has been a critical demand of minority Tamil groups throughout the island’s post-independence history. In fact, the lack of political power was a major catalyst for the growth of separatism and the rise of the separatist Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), which waged a protracted battle for an independent ‘homeland’ for the Tamil people from 1983 until 2009.

However, Ponnadurai Balasundarampillai, former Vice Chancellor of the Jaffna University, told IPS that power devolution would be a tricky subject for any administration.

“If it is a new president, he will have to take stock of the situation. The incumbent presidency has already shown that it favours a more centralised form of governance and administration,” he said.

Edited by Kanya D’Almeida

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OPINION: Doubling Down on Dictatorship in the Middle Easthttp://www.ipsnews.net/2015/01/opinion-doubling-down-on-dictatorship-in-the-middle-east/?utm_source=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_campaign=opinion-doubling-down-on-dictatorship-in-the-middle-east http://www.ipsnews.net/2015/01/opinion-doubling-down-on-dictatorship-in-the-middle-east/#comments Mon, 05 Jan 2015 21:14:31 +0000 Amanda Ufheil-Somers http://www.ipsnews.net/?p=138510 At Tahrir Square. Credit: Mohammed Omer/IPS

At Tahrir Square. Credit: Mohammed Omer/IPS

*By Amanda Ufheil-Somers
WASHINGTON, Jan 5 2015 (IPS)

For a moment, four years ago, it seemed that dictators in the Middle East would soon be a thing of the past.

Back then, it looked like the United States would have to make good on its declared support for democracy, as millions of Tunisians, Egyptians, Bahrainis, Yemenis, and others rose up to reject their repressive leaders. Many of these autocrats enjoyed support from Washington in return for providing “stability.”

Amanda_Ufheil_Somers-113x140Yet even the collapse of multiple governments failed to upend the decades-long U.S. policy of backing friendly dictators. Washington has doubled down on maintaining a steady supply of weapons and funding to governments willing to support U.S. strategic interests, regardless of how they treat their citizens.

Four years after Egyptian dictator Hosni Mubarak’s ouster, for example, the country once again has a president with a military pedigree and an even lower tolerance for political opposition than his predecessor.With a new year upon us, it’s our turn to face down fear and insist that another path is possible.

Mass arrests and hasty convictions of political activists — over 1,000 of whom have been sentenced to death — have reawakened the fear that Egyptians thought had vanished for good after Mubarak was ousted and democratic elections were held.

When the Egyptian military — led by now-president Abdel-Fattah al-Sisi — deposed the democratically elected president Mohamed Morsi in July 2013, the Obama administration wavered about whether it would suspend military aid to Egypt, which U.S. law requires in the case of a coup. Yet despite some partial and temporary suspensions, the U.S. government continued to send military hardware.

Now that Sisi heads a nominally civilian government — installed in a sham election by a small minority of voters — all restrictions on U.S. aid have been lifted, including for military helicopters that are used to intimidate and attack protesters. As Secretary of State John Kerry promised a month after Sisi’s election, “The Apaches will come, and they will come very, very soon.”

In the tiny kingdom of Bahrain, meanwhile, the demonstrations for constitutional reform that began in February 2011 continue, despite the government’s attempts to silence the opposition with everything at its disposal — from bird shot to life imprisonment.

Throughout it all, Washington has treated Bahrain like a respectable ally.

Back in 2011, for instance, just days after Bahraini security forces fired live ammunition at protesters in Manama — an attack that killed four and wounded many others — President Barack Obama praised King Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa’s “commitment to reform.” Neither did the White House object when it was notified in advance that 1,200 troops from Saudi Arabia would enter Bahrain to clear the protests in March 2011.

Since then, there’s been a steady drip of troubling news. A State Department report from 2013 acknowledged that Bahrain revokes the citizenship of prominent activists, arrests people on vague charges, tortures prisoners, and engages in “arbitrary deprivation of life.” (That’s bureaucratese for killing people.)

And what have the consequences been?

Back in 2012, international pressure forced the United States to ban the sale of American-made tear gas to Bahraini security forces. And last August, some U.S. military aid was cut off after the regime expelled an American diplomat for meeting with members of an opposition party.

But that’s it.

Delaying shipments of tanks, jets, and tear gas amounts to little more than a slap on the wrist when the Fifth Fleet of the U.S. Navy remains headquartered outside Bahrain’s capital. And Bahrain’s participation in air raids against the Islamic State has only strengthened the bond between the regime and the White House.

Indeed, the crisis in Iraq and Syria has breathed new life into the military-first approach that has long dominated Washington’s thinking about the Middle East. Any government willing to join this new front in the “War on Terror” is primed to benefit both from American largesse and a free pass on repression.

People power in the Middle East must be matched by popular demand here in the United States to shake the foundations of our foreign policy. With a new year upon us, it’s our turn to face down fear and insist that another path is possible.

This story originally appeared on Otherwords.orgThe views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of, and should not be attributed to, IPS-Inter Press Service.

Edited by Kitty Stapp

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Children Starving to Death in Pakistan’s Drought-Struck Tharparkar Districthttp://www.ipsnews.net/2015/01/children-starving-to-death-in-pakistans-drought-struck-tharparkar-district/?utm_source=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_campaign=children-starving-to-death-in-pakistans-drought-struck-tharparkar-district http://www.ipsnews.net/2015/01/children-starving-to-death-in-pakistans-drought-struck-tharparkar-district/#comments Sat, 03 Jan 2015 17:17:09 +0000 Irfan Ahmed http://www.ipsnews.net/?p=138482 http://www.ipsnews.net/2015/01/children-starving-to-death-in-pakistans-drought-struck-tharparkar-district/feed/ 1 Sri Lanka Still in Search of a Comprehensive Disaster Management Planhttp://www.ipsnews.net/2014/12/sri-lanka-still-in-search-of-a-comprehensive-disaster-management-plan/?utm_source=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_campaign=sri-lanka-still-in-search-of-a-comprehensive-disaster-management-plan http://www.ipsnews.net/2014/12/sri-lanka-still-in-search-of-a-comprehensive-disaster-management-plan/#comments Wed, 31 Dec 2014 05:29:33 +0000 Amantha Perera http://www.ipsnews.net/?p=138454 A novice monk stares at the sea, after taking part in commemoration events to mark the 10th anniversary of the Asian tsunami in Sri Lanka’s southern town of Hikkaduwa. Credit: Amantha Perera/IPS

A novice monk stares at the sea, after taking part in commemoration events to mark the 10th anniversary of the Asian tsunami in Sri Lanka’s southern town of Hikkaduwa. Credit: Amantha Perera/IPS

*By Amantha Perera
KALMUNAI, Sri Lanka, Dec 31 2014 (IPS)

About six months after a massive tsunami slammed the island nation of Sri Lanka on Dec. 26, 2004, large plumes of smoke could be frequently seen snaking skywards from the beach near the village of Sainathimaruthu, just east of Kalmunai town, about 300 km from the capital, Colombo.

A petrified population had devised a makeshift early-warning system that would alert their fellow villagers of any incoming tsunami – burning rubber tires on the sand by the sea.

Residents of small coastal villagers would regularly look up from the task of removing rubble or repairing their demolished houses to check if the dark, smoky trails were still visible in the sky.

“You have to face a monstrous wave washing over your roof, taking everything in its path, to realise that you can’t drop your guard, ever." -- Iqbal Aziz, a tsunami survivor in eastern Sri Lanka
“If the smoke vanished, that meant the waves were advancing and we had to move out,” explained Iqbal Aziz, a local from the Kalmunai area in the eastern Batticaloa District.

Their fears were not unfounded. The villages of Maradamunai, Karativu and Sainathimaruthu, located 370 km east of Colombo, bore the brunt of the disaster, recording 3,000 deaths out of a total death toll of 35,322.

Humble homes, built at such close quarters that each structure caressed another, were pulverized when the waves crashed ashore the day after Christmas. What scared the villagers most was the shock of it all, with virtually no warnings issued ahead of the catastrophe by any government body.

In retrospect, there was plenty of time to relocate vulnerable communities to higher ground – it took over two hours for the killer waves to reach Kalmunai from their origin in northwest Indonesia. But the absence of official mechanisms resulted in a massive death toll.

Trauma and paranoia led to the makeshift early-warning system, but 10 years later the villagers have stopped looking to the sky for signs of another disaster. Instead, they check their cell phones for updates of extreme weather events.

The new system, fine-tuned throughout the post-tsunami decade, is certainly an improvement on its predecessor. Just last month, on Nov. 15, a huge 7.3-magnitude offshore earthquake was reported about 150 km northeast of Indonesia’s Malaku Islands. Villagers like Aziz only had to consult their mobile phones to know that they were in no danger, and could rest easy.

The pulverised beach in Kalmunai, located in eastern Sri Lanka, was stripped of most of its standing structures by the ferocity of the waves. Credit: Amantha Perera/IPS

The pulverised beach in Kalmunai, located in eastern Sri Lanka, was stripped of most of its standing structures by the ferocity of the waves. Credit: Amantha Perera/IPS

“The tsunami was like a wake-up call,” Ivan de Silva, secretary of the ministry of irrigation and water management, told IPS.

Besides the tragic death toll, the reconstruction bill – a whopping three billion dollars – also served as a jolt to the government to lay far more solid disaster preparedness plans.

Dealing with the destruction of 100,000 homes and buildings, and coordinating the logistics of over half a million displaced citizens, provided further impetus for creating a blueprint for handling natural catastrophes.

In May 2005, Sri Lanka implemented its first Disaster Management Act, which paved the way for the establishment of the Disaster Management Council headed by the president.

Three months later, in August 2005, the Disaster Management Centre (DMC) came into being, tasked with overseeing all disaster preparedness programmes, early warnings and post-disaster work.

Now, less than a decade later, it has offices in all of the country’s 25 districts, and carries out regular emergency evacuation drills to prep the population for possible calamities.

In April 2012, the DMC evacuated over a million people along the coast following a tsunami warning, the largest exercise ever undertaken in Sri Lanka’s history.

But the national plan is far from bullet proof. As Sarath Lal Kumara, assistant director of the DMC, told IPS: “Maintaining preparedness levels is an on-going process and needs constant attention.”

In fact, glaring lapses in disaster management continue to cost lives on an island increasingly battered by extreme weather events.

The latest such incident occurred during the same week as the 10th anniversary commemoration of the tsunami, when heavy rains lashed the northern and eastern regions of the country.

By the time the rains eased, 35 were dead, three listed as missing, a million had been marooned and over 110,000 displaced. Most of the deaths were due to landsides in the district of Badulla, capital of the southern Uva Province.

Unfortunately, two months ago, another village in the same district suffered multiple fatalities due to landslides. On Oct. 29, in the hilly village of Meeriyabedda, located on the southern slopes of Sri Lanka’s central hills, a landslide prompted by heavy rains killed 12 and 25 have been listed as missing.

A man walks past the 10-foot wall near the boundary of the Southern Extension of the Colombo harbour, which was built as a protective measure against a future tsunami. Credit: Amantha Perera/IPS

A man walks past the 10-foot wall near the boundary of the Southern Extension of the Colombo harbour, which was built as a protective measure against a future tsunami. Credit: Amantha Perera/IPS

There was no clear early warning disseminated to the villagers, despite the National Building Research Organisation (NBRO) issuing warnings several days before of possible landslides. Nor was any pre-planning undertaken using NBRO hazard maps that clearly indicated landslide risks in the villages.

The twin tragedies were not the first time – and probably won’t be the last – that lives were lost due to failure to effectively communicate early warnings.

In November 2011, 29 people died in the Southern Province when gale-force winds sneaked up the coast unannounced. In July 2013, over 70 were killed in the same region, largely because fisher communities in the area were not informed about the annual southwest monsoon moving at a much faster speed than anticipated.

“We need a much more robust early warning dissemination mechanism, and better public understanding about such warnings,” DMC’s Kumara said.

Fast Facts: Natural Disasters in Sri Lanka

According to the U.N. Office for Disaster Risk Reduction (UNISDR), around 500,000 Sri Lankans are impacted directly by natural disasters each year. The average death toll is roughly 1,200.

The island of little over 20 million people also needs to factor in damages touching 50 million dollars annually due to natural disasters, the most frequent of which historically have been floods caused by heavy rains.
The latter point – cultivating awareness among the general public – is perhaps the single most important aspect of a comprehensive national plan, according to experts.

The recent landslide proved that simple trainings alone are not sufficient to prompt efficient responses to natural disasters.

Meeriyabedda, for instance, has been the site of numerous training and awareness programmes, including a major initiative carried out in conjunction with the Sri Lanka Red Cross Society (SLRCS) in 2009 that involved mock drills and the distribution of rain gauges and loudspeakers to locals in the area.

Yet there was no evidence to suggest that villagers used the training or equipment prior to the landslide.

R M S Bandara, head of the NBRO’s Landslide Risk Research and Management Division, told IPS that while extensive maps of the island’s hazard-prone areas are freely available, they are not being put to good use.

“Not only the [general] public but even public officials are not aware of disaster preparedness. It still remains an issue that is outside public discussions, [except] when disasters strike,” he asserted.

Currently, only those who have faced disasters head-on understand and appreciate the need to think and act at lightening-quick speeds. “You have to face a monstrous wave washing over your roof, taking everything in its path, to realise that you can’t drop your guard, ever,” Aziz said.

Edited by Kanya D’Almeida

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Small Grants for Big Solutions in Northeast Argentinahttp://www.ipsnews.net/2014/12/small-grants-for-big-solutions-in-northeast-argentina/?utm_source=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_campaign=small-grants-for-big-solutions-in-northeast-argentina http://www.ipsnews.net/2014/12/small-grants-for-big-solutions-in-northeast-argentina/#comments Fri, 26 Dec 2014 17:02:10 +0000 Fabiana Frayssinet http://www.ipsnews.net/?p=138430 Soledad Olivera holds her young son in front of her new bathroom, whose toilet and running water replaced an improvised latrine next to her house in a settlement in Bonpland, in the northern Argentine province of Misiones. Credit: Fabiana Frayssinet/IPS

Soledad Olivera holds her young son in front of her new bathroom, whose toilet and running water replaced an improvised latrine next to her house in a settlement in Bonpland, in the northern Argentine province of Misiones. Credit: Fabiana Frayssinet/IPS

*By Fabiana Frayssinet
BONPLAND, Argentina , Dec 26 2014 (IPS)

Summers in northeast Argentina are hot and humid. At siesta time, the people of this rural municipality like to drink “tereré” (cold yerba mate), which until now they had problems preparing because of lack of clean water or electricity. But sometimes small donations can make a big dent in inequality.

Andrés Ortigoza, who lives in one of the villages in Bonpland, proudly shows off his simple new solar panel, which heats up an electric shower. In wintertime, tereré is replaced by hot yerba mate – a caffeinated herbal brew popular in Argentina and neighbouring countries – and taking a cold shower is not easy even for toughened gauchos (the cowboys of the Southern Cone countries) like him.

“We used to wash up with cold water, it was tough in winter….or we’d heat the water with firewood,” he told IPS.

Picada Norte, where Ortigoza lives, was not connected to the power grid until 2010. But service is still patchy and is expensive for local families.

The installation of solar water heaters is one of the projects financed in Bonpland by the Global Environment Facility’s (GEF) Small Grants Programme (SGP).

With its non-repayable grants of up to 50,000 dollars, the SGP has shown how small community initiatives have a positive impact on global environmental problems.

The expansion of forestry activity – mainly aimed at providing raw material for the pulp and paper industry – and the use of firewood as a source of energy are driving deforestation in the jungle in the province of Misiones, which accounts for fully half of Argentina’s biodiversity.

The area forms part of the eco-region of the Parana basin tropical moist forest, which takes a different name in each country that shares it: Brazil, Paraguay and Argentina.

“At an international level, talking about these three countries, there were 80 million hectares around 1950, of which only four million hectares of forest are still standing today, and of them, 1.5 million are in Misiones,” Juan Manuel Díaz, the provincial sub-secretary of ecology, told IPS.

“Our province covers three million hectares and practically half of that is Parana jungle,” he said.

According to Ricardo Hunghanns, president of the Tabá Isiriri-Pueblos del Arroyo Association, 45 percent of productive land in Misiones is currently used by the forestry industry, which since the 1990s has changed the traditional distribution of land and modified the provincial economy.

“This has radically transformed the structure of agriculture in the province, where the paper industry rather than agriculture now represents 80 percent of GDP,” the head of the organisation, which is involved in two SGP projects, told IPS.

The main aim of his association, he said, “is to strengthen the social economy, from the perspective of the inclusion and productive development of our communities.”

For Hunghanns “it is essential to develop projects that diversify agricultural activity, above all to make it possible for those who have been expelled from their own land because their farms are too small, to return, as part of associations.”

In Bonpland, the association is trying to do that through the projects financed by the SGP. But it first has to work out basic questions of subsistence.

Sara Keller suffered from not having water for 45 years. Every day she went to the nearest stream, one km from her village, to haul back 20-litre buckets of water, whether she was pregnant or carrying one of her six children. Calculating the total, she walked over 20,000 km in her life, to fetch water.

But now the 52-year-old married mother of six and grandmother of five, who lives in the village of Campiñas, has running water in her home, thanks to a simple five-km pipe financed by another SGP initiative.

“I really suffered not having water, carrying it from far away in the dry season,” Keller, who now has free time to care for her vegetable garden, sew and even rest, told IPS.

One of the goals of all SGP projects is to include a gender perspective.

Women are often reluctant to take part in meetings because, due to cultural questions, they don’t like to express opinions in front of their husbands, said Hunghanns. But, he pointed out, it is women who establish the priorities for the projects.

That was the case of the project that replaced latrines with toilets. Soledad Olivera, 18, whose husband is a rural worker employed in the extraction of sap or resin, and who has a two-year-old son and is expecting her second child, is happy with the new bathroom in her house in Picada Norte, which replaced a “dirty, smelly latrine”.

“It’s so nice,” she says with a big smile on her face as she looks at the bathroom, complete with a toilet, electric shower, and, especially, running water.

The SGP, implemented by the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), is financing 20 projects in Misiones, which also include the care of water sources, sustainable agricultural development, ecotourism activities with Guaraní indigenous communities, waste management and the production of medicinal herbs.

“The term ‘small donations’ [the translation of small grants in Spanish] isn’t the best. Because it’s a commitment between two sides. We contribute something, and so do the community and the grassroots organisations,” said René Mauricio Valdés, the UNDP representative in Argentina.

In return for the aid, the recipients – whether individuals or institutions – provide labour power, training or machinery (in the case of municipal governments).

In Argentina, the SGP is involved in 52 projects in the provinces of Misiones, Corrientes, Entre Ríos, Formosa, Santa Fe and Chaco, for a total of 1.8 million dollars in grants.

Diana Vega, a representative of Argentina’s Secretariat of the Environment and Sustainable Development, explained to IPS that the SGP was not hurt by the global drop in development aid.

“We staked our bets on this programme because change at a local level is essential for generating real change,” she said.

“We realised that national policies often fail to reach the grassroots or community level. On the other hand, initiatives applied at a more local level, closer to the community, are the ones that can be replicated tomorrow at a provincial or national level.”

Silvia Chalukian, the chair of the SGP’s national committee of directors, said “One of the things I like the most about the SGP is that it is structured in such a way that all of the money reaches the ground level. It isn’t lost in office expenses or administration.”

Furthermore, because it involves small amounts of financing, “there is less red tape and fewer communications problems for the people managing it…people gradually learn to handle the financing during the nearly two years of the project.”

Edited by Estrella Gutiérrez/Translated by Valerie Dee

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