Inter Press Service » Labour http://www.ipsnews.net Journalism and Communication for Global Change Thu, 17 Apr 2014 10:39:00 +0000 en-US hourly 1 http://wordpress.org/?v=3.8.3 Ending Modern Slavery Starts in the Boardroom http://www.ipsnews.net/2014/04/ending-modern-slavery-starts-boardroom/?utm_source=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_campaign=ending-modern-slavery-starts-boardroom http://www.ipsnews.net/2014/04/ending-modern-slavery-starts-boardroom/#comments Wed, 16 Apr 2014 23:11:07 +0000 Farangis Abdurazokzoda http://www.ipsnews.net/?p=133731 Modern-day slavery can be eradicated from multinational supply chains, but only if global businesses contribute to greater transparency and collaboration, according to new recommendations by Sedex Global and Verite. “Human trafficking and slavery in the supply chain are global issues,” Mark Robertson, head of marketing and communications at Sedex Global, which provides a collaborative platform for responsible […]

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Child labourers rescued in Delhi waiting to be sent back to their villages. Credit: Bachpan Bachao Andolan/IPS

Child labourers rescued in Delhi waiting to be sent back to their villages. Credit: Bachpan Bachao Andolan/IPS

By Farangis Abdurazokzoda
WASHINGTON, Apr 16 2014 (IPS)

Modern-day slavery can be eradicated from multinational supply chains, but only if global businesses contribute to greater transparency and collaboration, according to new recommendations by Sedex Global and Verite.

“Human trafficking and slavery in the supply chain are global issues,” Mark Robertson, head of marketing and communications at Sedex Global, which provides a collaborative platform for responsible supply-chain data, told IPS.“Modern day slavery carries risks for companies. It can seriously affect a brand’s reputation.” -- Mark Robertson

“But these issue are not unsolvable and there are good examples of companies – and initiatives – tackling the issue.”

There are thought to be some 11.7 million victims of forced labour in Asia, followed by 3.7 million in Africa and 1.8 million in Latin America. Slave labour is part of the production of at least 122 consumer goods from 58 countries, according to the 2012 International Labour Organisation statistics listed in the briefing.

The U.S. federal government compiles its own such list of products produced by slave or child labour. According to the latest update, last year, some 134 goods from 73 countries use child or forced labour in the production processes.

Certain sectors are particularly vulnerable to human trafficking and forced labour. According to the new briefing and backed up by these other lists, particularly problematic sectors include agriculture, mining and forestry, as well as manufacturers of apparel, footwear and electronics.

“Asia is the source of many of the world’s manufactured goods, and also home to half the world’s human trafficking – the majority of which is forced labour,” Anti-Slavery International’s Lisa Rende Taylor notes in the report.

Almost 21 million people are victims of human trafficking worldwide, according to the briefing, 55 percent of whom are women and girls.

Migrant workers and indigenous populations are considered particularly vulnerable to forced labour. The briefing highlights issues that analysts say have not yet been sufficiently addressed, such as “broker-induced hiring traps”, exacerbated by steadily increasing volumes of migrant workers all around the world.

“For workers, labour brokerage increases migration and job acquisition costs and the risk of serious exploitation, including slavery,” the report states. Further, the presence of both well-organised and informal brokerage companies “in all cases” increases migrant vulnerability.

“The debt that is often necessary for migrant workers to undertake in order to pay recruitment fees, when combined with the deception that is visited upon them by some brokers about job types and salaries, can lead to a situation of debt-bondage,” the report states.

Globalised supply chains

Sedex and Verite highlight the importance of sourcing from responsible businesses and offer recommendations for both brands and suppliers on how to engage in ethical practices in supply chains.

“We are hoping to help companies understand the risks that they and their partners face with regard to the modern slavery,” Dan Viederman, the CEO of Verite, a watchdog group, told IPS. “It takes more commitment from companies to really understand what is happening amongst the hidden process among their business partners.”

Viederman says the new campaign by Verite and Sedex Global will work to motivate companies and their suppliers.

Globalisation and “complex and multi-tiered” supply chains have made it massively more difficult to detect forced labour and human trafficking, the new report states. Thus, “companies need tools, protocols and policies to effectively audit trafficking and to establish mechanisms to protect workers.”

The briefing recommends companies step up actions to “raise awareness internationally and externally of the risks of human trafficking” and to establish corporate policies to address related issues. Particularly important is to “map supply chains, which would help identify vulnerable workers and places of greatest risk.”

Sedex Global, with over 36,000 partners, allows member companies to upload all social audit types, which are primary tools for brands to assess their own facilities and those of their suppliers to detect workers abuse.

The Sedex platform highlights social audits, conducted between 2011 and 2013, that show that a “lack of adequate policies, management and reporting on forced labour” as well as a “lack of legally recognised employment agreements, wages and benefits” can indicate a risk of forced labour being present.

“Modern day slavery carries risks for companies,” Robertson says. “It can seriously affect a brand’s reputation.”

Nor is slavery an issue that affects only developing countries.

“Since 2007, more than 3,000 cases of labour trafficking inside the United States have been reported – nearly a third from 2013 alone,” Bradley Myles, the CEO of the Polaris Project, a U.S. anti-trafficking group, says in the new report.

“And there are so many more people who are trapped that we haven’t heard from yet. Business can and should take steps to eradicate this form of modern slavery from their operations and supply chains.”

California model

Consumers also have enormous power – if they use it. But “the issue has not pervaded the conscience of society quite yet,” Karen Stauss, director of programmes for Free the Slaves, an advocacy group, told IPS.

“The word hasn’t gotten out. Consumer power, the company’s buying as well legislative powers, should all be part of the resolution.”

Stauss says a good model comes from a state law here in the United States, called the California Transparency in Supply Chain Act, or SB-657. This would require publicly traded companies to disclose what efforts they are making to eradicate human trafficking and slavery from their supply chains.

Many companies, however, do not yet appear to have formal anti-slavery policies. According to the Corporate and Social Responsibility press release, out of 129 companies urged to conform with the California law by Know the Chain, an anti-slavery group, only 11 have done so.

The director of communications of Humanity United, Tim Isgitt said, “After months of outreach to these corporations, approximately 21 percent on the list are still not in compliance with the law.”

“It is necessary to push all businesses, not only progressive ones, to be more transparent to their customers and their investors in their supply chains,” Free the Slaves’ Stauss says.

“Although multinationals might not be directly involved in the exploitation of forced labour, they can help confront it by using their buying power to influence their direct and marginal partners who are involved in the production of the raw materials, where human trafficking and forced slavery are most prevalent.”

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CEOs at Big U.S. Companies Paid 331 Times Average Worker http://www.ipsnews.net/2014/04/ceos-big-u-s-companies-paid-331-times-average-worker/?utm_source=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_campaign=ceos-big-u-s-companies-paid-331-times-average-worker http://www.ipsnews.net/2014/04/ceos-big-u-s-companies-paid-331-times-average-worker/#comments Wed, 16 Apr 2014 00:03:37 +0000 Jim Lobe http://www.ipsnews.net/?p=133702 In new data certain to fuel the growing public debate over economic inequality, a survey released Tuesday by the biggest U.S. trade-union federation found that the CEOs of top U.S. corporations were paid 331 times more money than the average U.S. worker in 2013. According to the AFL-CIO’s 2014 Executive PayWatch database, U.S. CEOs of […]

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Fast food workers protest for higher wages in New York City, July 2013. Credit: Annette Bernhardt/cc by 2.0

Fast food workers protest for higher wages in New York City, July 2013. Credit: Annette Bernhardt/cc by 2.0

By Jim Lobe
WASHINGTON, Apr 16 2014 (IPS)

In new data certain to fuel the growing public debate over economic inequality, a survey released Tuesday by the biggest U.S. trade-union federation found that the CEOs of top U.S. corporations were paid 331 times more money than the average U.S. worker in 2013.

According to the AFL-CIO’s 2014 Executive PayWatch database, U.S. CEOs of 350 companies made an average of 11.7 million dollars last year compared to the average worker who earned 35,293 dollars.Of all Western countries, income inequality is greatest in the United States, according to a variety of measures.

The same CEOs averaged an income 774 times greater than U.S. workers who earned the federal hourly minimum wage of 7.25 dollars in 2013, or just over 15,000 dollars a year, according to the database.

A separate survey of the top 100 U.S. corporations released by the New York Times Sunday found that the media compensation of CEOs of those companies last year was yet higher — 13.9 million dollars.

That survey, the Equilar 100 CEO Pay Study, found that those CEOs took home a combined 1.5 billion dollars in 2013, slightly higher than their haul the previous year. As in past years, the biggest earner was Lawrence Ellison, CEO of Oracle, who landed 78.4 million dollars in a combination of cash, stocks, and options.

The two surveys, both released as tens of millions of people filed their annual tax returns, are certain to add to the growing public debate about rising income and wealth inequality.

It is a theme that came to the fore during the 2011 Occupy Wall Street movement and that President Barack Obama has described as the “defining challenge of our time” as the 2014 mid-term election campaign gets underway. He has sought to address it by, among other measures, seeking an increase the minimum wage, extending unemployment benefits, and expanding overtime pay for federal workers.

Obama’s focus on inequality — and the dangers it poses — has gained some important intellectual and even theological backing in recent months.

In a major revision of its traditional neo-liberal orthodoxy, the International Monetary Fund (IMF) last month released a study raising the alarm about the impact of negative impacts of inequality on both economic growth and political stability, with IMF Managing Director Christine Lagarde warning that it created “an economy of exclusion, and a wasteland of discarded potential” and threatens “the precious fabric that holds our society together.”

Pope Francis has also spoken repeatedly – including in a private meeting with Obama at the Vatican last month – about the dangers posed by economic inequality, while the World Economic Forum’s Global Risks Report, published in January, identified severe income disparity as the biggest risk to global stability over the next decade.

Meanwhile, an epic new study by French economist Thomas Piketty, ‘Capital in the Twenty-First Century,’ that compares today’s levels of inequality to those of the Gilded Age of the late 19th century, is gaining favourable reviews in virtually every mainstream publication.

Piketty, whose work is based on data from dozens of Western countries dating back two centuries and argues that radical redistribution measures, including a “global tax on capital,” are needed to reverse current trends toward greater inequality, is speaking to standing-room-only audiences in think tanks here this week.

In addition, the Supreme Court’s ruling earlier this month lifting the aggregate limits that wealthy individuals can contribute to political campaigns and parties has added to fears that, in the words of a number of civic organisations, the U.S. political system is moving increasingly towards a “plutocracy”.

Of all Western countries, income inequality is greatest in the United States, according to a variety of measures. In his book, Pikkety shows that inequality of both wealth and income in the U.S. exceeds that of Europe in 1900.

The 331:1 ratio between the income of the 350 corporate CEOs in the Pay Watch survey and average workers is generally consistent with the pay gap that has prevailed over the past decade.

That ratio contrasts dramatically with the average that prevailed after World War II. In 1950, for example, the differential between the top corporate earners and the average workers was only around 20:1. As recently as 1980 – just before the Reagan administration began implementing its “magic of the marketplace” economic policies – the ratio had climbed only to 42:1, according to Sarah Anderson, a veteran compensation watcher at the Institute for Policy Studies here.

“I don’t think that anyone, except maybe Larry Ellison, would claim that today’s managers are somehow an evolved form of homo sapiens compared to their predecessors 30 or 60 years ago,” said Bart Naylor, Financial Policy Advocate at Public Citizen, a civic accountability group.

“Those who built the pharmaceutical industry and the hi-tech industry …were fine senior executives, and they didn’t drain the economy the way today’s senior executives insist on doing,” he told IPS. “The machinery of awarding senior executive pay is clearly broken.”

What is particularly galling to unions and their allies is that many top companies argue that they can’t afford to raise wages at the same time that they are earning higher profits per employee than they did five years ago. While the average worker earned 35,293 dollars last year, the S&P’s 500 Index companies earned an average of 41,249 dollars in profits per employee – a 38 percent increase.

“Pay Watch calls attention to the insane level of compensation for CEOs, while the workers who create those corporate profits struggle for enough money to take care of the basics,” said AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka.

“Consider that the retirement benefits of the CEO of Yum Brands, which owns KFC, Taco Bell, and Pizza Hut, has benefits of over 232 million dollars in his company retirement fund, all of which is tax deferred,” said Anderson. “It’s quite obscene when you know it’s a corporation that relies on very low-paid labour.”

Congress is currently considering several measures to address the issue, although most of them are opposed by Republicans who enjoy a majority in the House of Representatives.

Nonetheless, a tax package introduced by the Republican chairman of the powerful House Ways and Means Committee would close one large loophole that permits CEOs to deduct so-called “performance pay” – what they earn when they achieve certain benchmarks set by their board of directors – from their taxes.

“It’s pretty outrageous when the CEOs of some of the biggest companies of the National Restaurant Association are essentially getting heavily subsidised when so many of their workers are relying on public assistance and fighting for an increase in the minimum wage,” Anderson told IPS.

In addition, the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) is expected to formally adopt a long-pending rule that would require publicly held corporations to disclose how the pay received by their CEO compares to that of their employees, including full-times, part-time, temporary, seasonal and non-U.S. staff.

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Is Puerto Rico Going the Way of Greece and Detroit? http://www.ipsnews.net/2014/04/puerto-rico-going-way-greece-detroit/?utm_source=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_campaign=puerto-rico-going-way-greece-detroit http://www.ipsnews.net/2014/04/puerto-rico-going-way-greece-detroit/#comments Tue, 15 Apr 2014 12:28:42 +0000 Carmelo Ruiz-Marrero http://www.ipsnews.net/?p=133680 Puerto Rican society has been shaken to its foundations by the announcement in February by Standard & Poor’s and Moody’s credit rating agencies that they had downgraded the island’s creditworthiness to junk status. “The problems that confront the commonwealth are many years in the making, and include years of deficit financing, pension underfunding, and budgetary […]

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Electric utility workers of the UTIER labour union protest for safer workplace conditions. UTIER spearheads the fight against privatisation and against the Puerto Rico government's unpopular emergency economic measures. Courtesy of Photo Jam

Electric utility workers of the UTIER labour union protest for safer workplace conditions. UTIER spearheads the fight against privatisation and against the Puerto Rico government's unpopular emergency economic measures. Courtesy of Photo Jam

By Carmelo Ruiz-Marrero
SAN JUAN, Apr 15 2014 (IPS)

Puerto Rican society has been shaken to its foundations by the announcement in February by Standard & Poor’s and Moody’s credit rating agencies that they had downgraded the island’s creditworthiness to junk status.

“The problems that confront the commonwealth are many years in the making, and include years of deficit financing, pension underfunding, and budgetary imbalance, along with seven years of economic recession,” said Moody’s."Working people are faced with three choices: they can migrate, resign themselves to poverty, or go out to the street to organise and struggle for justice." -- Luis Pedraza-Leduc

Located in the Caribbean Sea, Puerto Rico has been a Commonwealth of the United States since 1952.

Moody’s added that the island’s worsening economic situation has “now put the commonwealth in a position where its debt load and fixed costs are high, its liquidity is narrow, and its market access has become constrained.”

In order to meet its debt obligations, the PR legislature has considered enacting fiscal measures that are strongly opposed by labour unions, including dipping into the public school teachers’ retirement fund. Law 160, the retirement “reform”, was approved by both House and Senate earlier this year.

Unions have headed to court to challenge the law. On Apr. 11, the Puerto Rico Supreme Court ruled some key provisions were unconstitutional because they breached teachers’ contracts.

Schoolteachers’ unions declared the ruling a triumph, although the court upheld other parts of the law that adversely affect Christmas bonuses, summer pay and medical benefits.

The current fiscal crisis is the result of the commonwealth economic model’s failure, according to union official Luis Pedraza-Leduc.

“Our economic model, based on providing cheap labour to the pharmaceutical and petrochemical industries and light manufacturing, has exhausted itself,” said Pedraza-Leduc, who runs the UTIER utility workers union’s Solidarity Programme (PROSOL) and is spokesperson of the Coordinadora Sindical, a coalition of over a dozen unions.

“In recent decades there has been a worldwide trend towards reducing state involvement in the economy to a minimum,” he told IPS.

“Things that were considered basic services provided by the state are now turned into commodities as private enterprise moves in to fill those spaces. Rather than reducing these essential services, the government went into debt.”

According to a chart provided by the office of PR Governor Alejandro Garcia-Padilla, the commonwealth’s public debt reached 10 billion dollars in 1987, when the Popular Democratic Party (PDP) ruled, and passed the 20-billion-dollar mark in 1998 under governor Pedro Rossello, of the New Progressive Party.

Under PDP governor Sila M. Calderon (2001-2004) the debt went over 30 billion dollars. And at the end of his 2009-2012 mandate, NPP governor Luis Fortuño left the country with more than 60 billion in debt. Garcia-Padilla belongs to the PDP.

Pedraza-Leduc recalls that successive governors undertook neoliberal measures that made matters even worse.

“Governor Rossello privatised the health sector, the phone company and the water utility. Governor Acevedo-Vila [of the PDP, 2004-2007] imposed a sales tax on retail sales [known as IVU],” he said.

Governor Fortuño laid off over 30,000 public sector workers, and introduced “public-private partnerships”, which were decried by labour unions as thinly disguised privatisation schemes. Upon beginning his mandate in early 2013, Garcia-Padilla privatised the San Juan international airport and is considering new taxes.

The Puerto Rico Constitution obligates the government to honour its debts.

“In order to pay bondholders, the government could close down schools, reduce the number of Urban Train daily trips, scale down 911 emergency phone services, and freeze the hiring of employees”, warned Pedraza-Leduc. “They are considering reducing Christmas bonuses and sick leave days.”

According to University Puerto Rico economist Martha Quiñones, “We are having here the same crisis as Greece and Detroit, but here it is broader because of our colonial situation.

“We had an economic model based on bringing foreign corporations and enticing them with cheap labour and tax incentives,” she told IPS, calling this the “exogenous” model, which is based on bringing investment from outside.

“It did not work. Not enough jobs were created, and the unemployed do not pay taxes. Locally owned businesses ended up picking up the tax burden that foreign investors were exempted from, which caused many of them to close. Local and foreign businesses were not competing in conditions of equality.”

Quiñones said that the model’s death knell was the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) and other similar trade deals that the U.S. has struck, which made even cheaper labour available in other parts of the world.

Successive Puerto Rico governments made up for these failures by requesting help from the U.S. government in the form of food stamps and unemployment benefits, and other forms of social assistance. Another way was by issuing bonds, which led to long-term debt and the current debacle.

As an alternative, Quiñones advocates an “endogenous” economic model, which strengthens local capabilities rather than looking abroad for deliverance. “The government must support locally owned businesses,” she said. “Those are the businesses that create jobs at home and pay taxes.

“The government must also collect the IVU sales tax, which most retailers simply pocketed. A progressive tax reform is needed, plus rich tax evaders must be brought to justice. Start by investigating businesses that take only cash, and individuals who are taking second mortgages. Those are pretty obvious red flags.”

She also advocates that the health system be changed to single payer, “which would be more efficient than the current inefficient and unsustainable health system we have now.

“Working people are faced with three choices: they can migrate, resign themselves to poverty, or go out to the street to organise and struggle for justice,” said Pedraza-Leduc.

But he admits that the prospects for all-out popular struggle are uncertain at best. “The lack of class consciousness complicates the outlook. Maybe we are not prepared for a confrontation,” he said.

To him, the way out of the impasse lies in education. “I propose an educational project, a Union School [Escuela Sindical] that can transcend the unions and branch out into broader issues and thus further the political struggle.

“And we need a new model for our country, we need to speak concretely about justice and a fair distribution of wealth.”

He also called for a reexamination of Puerto Rico’s relationship with the U.S. “Under our current status we are not allowed to sign trade agreements with other countries. We could be associating ourselves with other countries, and also get cheaper oil from Venezuela. But under our current status we cannot.”

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Conflict Fuels Child Labour in India http://www.ipsnews.net/2014/04/conflict-fuels-child-labour-india/?utm_source=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_campaign=conflict-fuels-child-labour-india http://www.ipsnews.net/2014/04/conflict-fuels-child-labour-india/#comments Tue, 15 Apr 2014 07:35:17 +0000 Stella Paul http://www.ipsnews.net/?p=133665 Early in the morning, 14-year-old Sumari Varda puts on her blue school uniform but heads for the village pond to fetch water. “I miss school. I wish I could go back,” she whispers, scared of being heard by her employer. Sumari is from Dhurbeda village, but now lives in another, Bhainsasur, both located in central India’s […]

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Sumari, a child trafficked from Maoist-affected district Narayanpur cleans the floor instead of going to school. Credit: Stella Paul/IPS.

Sumari, a child trafficked from Maoist-affected district Narayanpur cleans the floor instead of going to school. Credit: Stella Paul/IPS.

By Stella Paul
KANKER, India, Apr 15 2014 (IPS)

Early in the morning, 14-year-old Sumari Varda puts on her blue school uniform but heads for the village pond to fetch water. “I miss school. I wish I could go back,” she whispers, scared of being heard by her employer.

Sumari is from Dhurbeda village, but now lives in another, Bhainsasur, both located in central India’s Chhattisgarh state. She puts on her school uniform to fetch water because it is one of the few pieces of clothing she has.“Some are employed as domestic workers, others are sold to sex traders." -- child rights activist Mamata Raghuveer

Her native village Dhurbeda falls in Abujhmad, a forest area in Narayanpur district that is reportedly one of the largest hideouts of the outlawed Communist Party of India-Maoist, which leads a violent rebellion against the state in some parts of the country.

Nine months ago, a distant relative from state capital Raipur visited Sumari’s parents, who were worried that she might be asked to join the Maoists some day. The relative, whom Sumari calls “Budhan aunt”, took her away, promising to send her to a city school.

Instead, she sent Sumari to Bhainsasur, about 180 km from Raipur. Now the girl toils for more than 14 hours a day in the house of the aunt’s brother, cooking, washing, fetching water and sometimes also looking after cattle.

Sumari is one of thousands of children trafficked out of Chhattisgarh every year. According to a 2013 study published by the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), more than 3,000 children are trafficked from the state each year.

The report focuses on the northern districts that are deemed less affected by the conflict. Districts such as Dantewada, Sukma, Bijapur, Kanker and Narayanpur, which are considered the hotbed of the Maoist movement, are not included in the report.

The reason is an acute shortage of data, says a government official at the department of rural development who doesn’t wish to be named for fear of punitive action. The official tells IPS that researchers and surveyors stay away from the remote districts.

“In April 2010, Maoists killed 76 security personnel in Dantewada. Since then, the conflict has reached such a level that few actually dare to visit districts like Dantewada, Sukma or Narayanpur. If you don’t go into the field, how will you collect information and data.”

Bhan Sahu, founder of Jurmil Morcha, the state’s only all-tribal women’s organisation that fights forced displacement of forest tribal communities, believes the absence of data is actually helping the traffickers.

“Every time a massacre or an encounter takes place between the Maoists and the security forces, many families flee their villages. Traffickers target these families, pay them some money and offer to take care of their children.

“But the government doesn’t want to admit either the migration or the trafficking. So the traffickers are not under any pressure,” Sahu tells IPS. She has reported several cases of trafficking for CG-Net Swara, a community newswire.

Jyoti Dugga, 11, who plays hula-hoop with iron rings to entertain tourists on the beaches of Goa in western India, also hails from Chhattisgarh. Her elder brother had been jailed for alleged links with Maoists. Her parents were worried that she too might be arrested. Three years ago they agreed to send her away with a neighbour called Ramesh Gota, addressed by Jyoti as “uncle”.

“Uncle said he had many contacts and could give me work, so my parents sent me with him,” says Jyoti, who also massages tourists’ feet. She shares a small room with three other children, all of whom are from Chhattisgarh and look malnourished.

Earlier this month, 20 children who were being forced to work in a circus in Goa were rescued by the police. But Gota, Jyoti’s employer, seems too clever to be caught – he keeps moving the children from one beach to another.

The government denies such trafficking and exploitation of children.

Ram Niwas, assistant director-general in the Chhattisgarh police department, claims that human trafficking has “gone down considerably” since anti-human trafficking units were sanctioned. “The process of identifying such districts is under way and they would be prioritised,” he tells IPS.

The UNODC report says Chhattisgarh’s performance in implementing child protection schemes is inadequate. “The district child protection units are not in existence, and the child welfare committees are not working to their proper strength,” says the report.

According to the report, the state is not serious in taking back children who have been trafficked out.

Child rights activist Mamata Raghuveer, in neighbouring Andhra Pradesh state agrees. She heads the organisation Tharuni, which rescues trafficked children in collaboration with the state government. According to Raghuveer, 65 girls have been rescued in the past two years. Most were from Chhattisgarh’s conflict-hit districts.

“Girls as young as seven and eight are brought out of their home by men,” Raghuveer tells IPS. “Some are employed as domestic workers, others are sold to sex traders. When the men are in danger of being caught, they vanish, abandoning the girls.”

The government has a National Child Labour Policy (NCLP) for rehabilitation of children forced into labour. Rescued children in the 9-14 age group are enrolled at NCLP special training centres where they are provided food, healthcare and education, says Kodikunnil Suresh, national minister of state for labour and employment told parliament in February. “Currently there are 300,000 children covered by the scheme,” he said.

This IPS correspondent met nine-year-old Mary Suvarna at an NCLP centre in Warangal in Andhra Pradesh. She was rescued a year ago from the city railway station. Mary says she lived in a forest village called Badekeklar. It’s unlikely she will ever return home.

She has a dream. “I want to be a police officer.”

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Brazil’s FIFA World Cup Preparations Claim Lives http://www.ipsnews.net/2014/04/brazils-fifa-world-cup-preparations-claim-lives/?utm_source=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_campaign=brazils-fifa-world-cup-preparations-claim-lives http://www.ipsnews.net/2014/04/brazils-fifa-world-cup-preparations-claim-lives/#comments Fri, 11 Apr 2014 18:43:30 +0000 Fabiola Ortiz http://www.ipsnews.net/?p=133611 The pressure to complete 12 football stadiums in Brazil in time for the FIFA World Cup in June has meant long, exhausting workdays of up to 18 hours, which has increased the risk of accidents and deaths. Nine workers have already died on the work sites – seven in accidents and two from heart attacks. […]

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The Andrade Gutierrez construction company is responsible for the works at the Arena da Amazônia stadium in the northern Brazilian city of Manaus, where four workers have died. Credit: Glauber Queiroz – Portal da Copa, Gobierno de Brasil

The Andrade Gutierrez construction company is responsible for the works at the Arena da Amazônia stadium in the northern Brazilian city of Manaus, where four workers have died. Credit: Glauber Queiroz – Portal da Copa, Gobierno de Brasil

By Fabiola Ortiz
RIO DE JANEIRO, Apr 11 2014 (IPS)

The pressure to complete 12 football stadiums in Brazil in time for the FIFA World Cup in June has meant long, exhausting workdays of up to 18 hours, which has increased the risk of accidents and deaths.

Nine workers have already died on the work sites – seven in accidents and two from heart attacks.

The last fatal accident happened on Mar. 29 at the Arena Corinthians in the southern city of São Paulo, when 23-year-old Fábio Hamilton da Cruz fell to his death from scaffolding, eight metres up.

More deaths

Poor working conditions have also claimed lives in sports installations that are not on the official FIFA list.

On Apr. 15, 2013, a portion of the stands in the Arena Palestra stadium of the Palmeiras club in the city of São Paulo collapsed, killing Carlos de Jesus, a 34-year-old worker, and injuring another.

And Araci da Silva Bernardes, 40, was killed by an electric shock while installing a lighting panel in the Arena do Grêmio stadium in the southern city of Porto Alegre on Jan. 23, 2013.

His death led to a partial suspension of the works by the justice authorities, who required proof from the company that it had corrected the safety violations.

But on Monday Apr. 7, the Labour Ministry authorised a resumption of the work, because the stadium has to be ready for the World Cup opening match on Jun. 12.

On Feb. 7, Portuguese worker Antônio José Pita Martins, 55, died after being struck on the head while dismantling a crane in the Arena da Amazônia stadium in the northern city of Manaus.

Marcleudo de Melo Ferreira, 22, was killed at the same construction site at 4 AM on Dec. 14 after falling from a height of 35 metres when a rope broke.

That same day, 49-year-old José Antônio da Silva Nascimento died of a heart attack while working on the site’s convention centre. The family complained about the harsh working conditions and the long workdays “from Sunday to Sunday”.

Another worker, Raimundo Nonato Lima da Costa, 49, had died from severe head injuries after falling from a height of five metres at the Arena da Amazônia construction site on Mar. 28, 2013.

In São Paulo, two workers – 42-year-old Fábio Luiz Pereira and 44-year-old Ronaldo Oliveira dos Santos – were killed when a crane collapsed Nov. 27, 2013 at the Corinthians club stadium, better known as “Itaquerão”.

And Abel de Oliveira, 55, died of heart failure on Jul. 19, 2012 while working at the Minas Arena, popularly known as “Mineirão”, in the south-central Brazilian city of Belo Horizonte.

The first fatal accident in the preparations for the FIFA World Cup happened on Jun. 11, 2012, when 21-year-old José Afonso de Oliveira Rodrigues fell from a height of 30 metres at the Brasilia National Stadium.

FIFA-World-Cup-2014-Death-Toll

Click on the image to enlarge.

“The government puts pressure on the companies, and they take it out on the workers, who are paying with their lives,” Antônio de Souza Ramalho, president of the Sintracon-SP civil construction workers union of São Paulo and a state legislator for the Brazilian Social Democracy Party, told IPS.

“It was irresponsible to delay the works and then, with the deadline looming, kill workers with exhausting workdays of up to 18 hours,” he said.

“The sins of the World Cup are going to have repercussions for years. We can’t accept accidents, they are criminal,” he said.More than 60 workers died in the construction works for the Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia, according to the Building and Wood Workers International (BWI). By contrast, no one was killed in the preparations for the 2012 Olympic Games in London.

According to the trade unionist, workers had already warned of the danger of a collapse of the crane that killed two labourers in São Paulo.

At the Corinthians stadium construction site, a quarry was hastily filled to hold a crane, instead of building a solid cement base, Ramalho said.

“The workers themselves and the safety engineers warned that it was unsafe. We know it was done hastily, because making a cement base takes 60 days, and would have cost more money. They preferred to improvise,” he said.

The results of the investigation into the deaths have not yet been made public.

In December, the Labour Ministry and Odebrecht, the contractor, signed an agreement stipulating that crane workers cannot do overtime or work at night.

And under the agreement, the workday for the rest of the workers must be seven and a half hours, with a one hour lunch break, and they can only work two hours overtime per day.

But according to Ramalho, the agreement is not being respected. “I filed a complaint for the police to investigate. But we have very little legal protection,” he said.

One of the biggest irregularities at the São Paulo work sites are contracts where the worker is paid for a specific job within a designated timeframe. “By paying for a completed task, labour laws that include the cost of social benefits are evaded. Everyone knows this, but there’s no way to prove it,” Ramalho complained.

The president of the Sinduscon-AM civil construction workers union in the northern state of Amazonas, Eduardo Lopes, told IPS that “risk is inherent in construction, but the race to complete projects quickly generates greater danger, without a doubt.”

However, “in the two fatal accidents [on the Arena da Amazônia] work site, the men were using safety equipment,” he said. “The problem was carelessness by the workers who failed to respect safety norms and went into restricted areas.”

What is clear is that when deadlines approach and time starts running out, prevention is pushed to the backburner, admitted mechanical engineer and workplace safety expert Jaques Sherique with the Rio de Janeiro engineering council.

In the remodelling of the Maracanã stadium in Rio de Janeiro, completed in April 2013, no one was killed, but several were injured, mainly due to inadequate disposal of materials, cuts from mishandling materials, and lengthy working days, including working nights.

“The work ends and the worker gets sick afterwards. When the stadium is shining and ready, the workers end up overwhelmed, exhausted and stressed out,” Sherique said.

Civil construction is the industry that generates the most jobs in Brazil: 3.12 million new jobs in 2013. But it is also the area where the number of work-related accidents is growing the most: from 55,000 in 2010 to 62,000 in 2012 – a 12 percent increase, according to the Labour Ministry.

In São Paulo, the number of workplace accidents in the construction industry rose fivefold in the last two years: from 1,386 in 2012 to 7,133 in 2013, according to statistics compiled by Sintracon-SP.

More than 60 workers died in the construction works for the Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia, according to the Building and Wood Workers International (BWI).

By contrast, no one was killed in the preparations for the 2012 Olympic Games in London.

“Workers are often glad when they have accidents because they are sent home to rest. And those who refuse to rest will develop injuries and ailments later on,” said Sherique.

He said it is strange but the labour-related ailments that are gaining ground in the construction industry are mental and psychological problems.

“It is a perverse and under-registered problem,” the invisible base of the “iceberg” of workplace safety, he said.

But this does not worry industry, especially in the construction of sports infrastructure, which involves an intense pace of work, heavy pressure and tight deadlines.

Under Brazilian law, workers exposed to unsafe, hazardous or unsanitary conditions must receive extra compensation amounting to six percent of their wages.

“This isn’t reasonable or right, but most of the time these health problems aren’t even reported,” said Sherique.

In 2011, the Superior Labour Court launched a national programme for the prevention of workplace accidents. But “it hasn’t provided concrete results,” the expert said.

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Tajikistan’s Government Distances Itself from Labour Migrants http://www.ipsnews.net/2014/04/tajikistans-government-distances-labour-migrants/?utm_source=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_campaign=tajikistans-government-distances-labour-migrants http://www.ipsnews.net/2014/04/tajikistans-government-distances-labour-migrants/#comments Fri, 11 Apr 2014 13:13:58 +0000 an EurasiaNet correspondent http://www.ipsnews.net/?p=133608 Labour migrants make up Tajikistan’s economic lifeline, but that’s a fact the Central Asian country’s leadership doesn’t seem eager to acknowledge. Migrants contribute the equivalent of 48 percent of Tajikistan’s GDP, according to the World Bank, making the impoverished country the most remittance-dependent in the world. Estimates vary, but almost half of Tajikistan’s male workforce […]

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Central Asian migrants, including many from Tajikistan, gather in Moscow to pray during the Islamic holy day of Eid al-Fitr, in early August 2013. Estimates vary, but almost half of Tajikistan’s male workforce is thought to be working abroad, mostly in Russia. Credit: David Trilling/EurasiaNet

Central Asian migrants, including many from Tajikistan, gather in Moscow to pray during the Islamic holy day of Eid al-Fitr, in early August 2013. Estimates vary, but almost half of Tajikistan’s male workforce is thought to be working abroad, mostly in Russia. Credit: David Trilling/EurasiaNet

By an EurasiaNet correspondent
DUSHANBE, Apr 11 2014 (EurasiaNet)

Labour migrants make up Tajikistan’s economic lifeline, but that’s a fact the Central Asian country’s leadership doesn’t seem eager to acknowledge.

Migrants contribute the equivalent of 48 percent of Tajikistan’s GDP, according to the World Bank, making the impoverished country the most remittance-dependent in the world. Estimates vary, but almost half of Tajikistan’s male workforce is thought to be working abroad, mostly in Russia.“Why don’t we replace the billboards featuring photos of the president with pictures of the people who feed us every day?” -- Olga Tutubalina

The migrant-labour role in the economy is having trouble fitting in with the image of Tajikistan that President Imomali Rakhmon’s administration wants to project to the outside world. Rakhmon has spent huge sums on mega-projects in the capital Dushanbe partly in an effort to distance the country from its reputation as Central Asia’s poorest state.

The government also doesn’t look kindly upon those who would like to honor labour migrants. The most recent such initiative began in February, when Tajik blogger and journalist Isfandiyor Zarafshoni started a petition calling for the construction of a monument to migrant workers.

“Every city in Tajikistan has a monument to Ismoil Somoni, founder of the Tajik state. Many cities and regional centers still have monuments of Vladimir Lenin. Some cities and regions have monuments of [medieval poets] Rudaki and Ferdowsi. But why don’t we have the most necessary and most important monument, to the Labour Migrant?” Zarafshoni told EurasiaNet.org.

“They leave behind their families and children, parents and dreams. With their hard work, they build the Tajikistan in which we live today. They are often treated badly, insulted and humiliated, go unpaid, are beaten and even killed,” Zarafshoni continued.

In 2013, 942 Tajik guest workers returned to Tajikistan from Russia in coffins.

The government has not formally commented on the latest initiative, but officials tell EurasiaNet.org the idea is a non-starter. “I don’t see a need for a monument,” said Suhrob Sharipov, an MP for Rakhmon’s People’s Democratic Party of Tajikistan.

This isn’t the first time recently that the Tajik government has appeared uneasy acknowledging the country’s economic reliance on migrants. Last July, the National Bank stopped publishing remittance data, arguing it could be “politicized.” The change has done little to hide the information, as data is still available from transfer points in Russia.

Critics say the government is trying to bury its head in the sand. On April 1, the Asian Development Bank said Tajikistan’s robust 7.4 percent growth in 2013 was “supported mainly by remittances,” and warned the economy is slowing as the government does too little to attract private investment.

The International Monetary Fund has repeatedly said Tajikistan’s dependence on migrant transfers leaves it vulnerable to external shocks and has encouraged the government to focus on local job creation.

In 2011, Olga Tutubalina, editor of Dushanbe’s Asia Plus newspaper, also proposed a monument to migrants. Back then she wrote an open letter to the government, noting that Tajikistan’s population survives because of the labour migrants working in Russia and Kazakhstan.

“Why don’t we replace the billboards featuring photos of the president with pictures of the people who feed us every day?” Tutubalina told EurasiaNet.org.

A spokesman for Rakhmon’s party says monuments are installed for heroes. Migrants, he argues, go abroad to enhance their personal lives. Therefore, they’re not heroes.

“There are 200 million migrants worldwide, but none of their countries have installed a monument to them,” People’s Democratic Party spokesman Usmon Solih told EurasiaNet.org.

His claim is not exactly accurate: Mexico, for example, boasts monuments to its citizens who have gone to the United States to better their lives and the lives of their families back home. Meanwhile, Istanbul has a monument to the unnamed and overlooked porter, outside the famous Grand Bazaar.

Building a monument would “acknowledge that labour migrants play an important role in the internal politics of Tajikistan,” said Shokirdjon Hakimov, deputy chairman of the opposition Social Democratic Party.

Authorities will not permit a monument because their own “ineffective economic policy” has forced migrants to leave the country, which is embarrassing. The National Bank’s decision to stop publishing remittance data was “a political decision,” added Hakimov.

Sharipov, the MP close to Rakhmon, insists the government is not embarrassed. He dismissed the idea the country is financially dependent on migrants and rejected accusations the National Bank’s decision to withhold data was political.

But outside of those in government, few in Dushanbe’s chattering classes seem to buy official explanations. Any acknowledgement of labour migrants’ significance, said political scientist Saimiddin Dustov, “would mean admitting the impotence and the irrelevance of the government’s economic programmes.”

This story originally appeared on EurasiaNet.org.

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World Bank, IMF Urged to Act on New Inequality Focus http://www.ipsnews.net/2014/04/world-bank-imf-urged-act-new-inequality-focus/?utm_source=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_campaign=world-bank-imf-urged-act-new-inequality-focus http://www.ipsnews.net/2014/04/world-bank-imf-urged-act-new-inequality-focus/#comments Thu, 10 Apr 2014 21:37:31 +0000 Farangis Abdurazokzoda http://www.ipsnews.net/?p=133571 Global income inequality threatens economic and social viability, according to a World Bank report released Thursday, reiterating a new but increasingly forceful narrative from both the bank and International Monetary Fund (IMF). Yet as the two Washington-based institutions gather here this week for semi-annual meetings, anti-poverty campaigners are calling on the bank and IMF to translate […]

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Residents of Nairobi's Mathare slum, one of the largest in Kenya. Credit: Miriam Gathigah/IPS

Residents of Nairobi's Mathare slum, one of the largest in Kenya. Credit: Miriam Gathigah/IPS

By Farangis Abdurazokzoda
WASHINGTON, Apr 10 2014 (IPS)

Global income inequality threatens economic and social viability, according to a World Bank report released Thursday, reiterating a new but increasingly forceful narrative from both the bank and International Monetary Fund (IMF).

Yet as the two Washington-based institutions gather here this week for semi-annual meetings, anti-poverty campaigners are calling on the bank and IMF to translate such rhetoric into practice.“Fewer than 100 people control as much of the world’s wealth as the poorest 3.5 billion combined.” -- World Bank President Jim Yong Kim

“World Bank President Jim Kim and IMF Managing Director Christine Lagarde have been vocal about the dangers of skyrocketing inequality, but there is still a long way to go,” Max Lawson, the head of policy and advocacy for Oxfam GB, a humanitarian and advocacy group, told IPS.

“There’s no trade-off between growth and inequality,” concurred his colleague, Nicolas Mombrial, of Oxfam America. “There will be no inclusive growth if economic inequality remains out of control.”

Oxfam and other groups are now calling on the World Bank and IMF to take concrete action to address issues associated with wealth inequality worldwide. IMF policies in particular have been criticised in the past for particularly negative impacts on poor and marginalised communities.

“We are pleased to see the IMF recognise that drastic fiscal consolidation policies have been a drag on growth, something that unions have been saying since the inappropriate shift to austerity made in 2010,” Sharan Burrow, general secretary of the International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC), said Thursday.

“The IMF’s undermining of labour standards and collective bargaining institutions in several European countries, for example, has already had important impacts on income distribution that are likely to intensify in the future. We urgently call for a review and major changes in the Fund’s labour market policies.”

Oxfam’s Lawson lists at least three areas that he would like to see receive serious consideration by the IMF and the World Bank.

“First of all, it is necessary to develop a more adequate measurement of income inequality,” he says. “This needs to look at not only the income of the bottom 40 percent of the world’s income earners are measured but also the income flows of the world’s top 10 percent.”

Lawson suggested that the IMF, given its constant and influential interaction with the world’s governments, would be particularly well placed to advance a stronger measurement of inequality.

“Secondly, it is necessary to reform taxation schemes,” Lawson continued. “It is not fair that a billionaire pays a lower percentage in tax than a bus driver. And thirdly, it is essential to provide access to universal health care and education.”

Oxfam is also calling on governments to address inequality by focusing more robustly on tax dodging and related financial secrecy. Along with others, the group is calling for a global goal to end extreme inequality as part of the discussion around the post-2015 international development goals.

“We cannot hope to win the fight against poverty without tackling inequality,” Oxfam says. “Widening inequality is creating a vicious circle where wealth and power are increasingly concentrated in the hands of a few, leaving the rest of us to fight over crumbs from the top table.”

Widening gap

Inequality has become a particularly prominent topic in international policy discussions over the past two years. In part this is because, in the aftermath of the global economic downturn of 2008, the rich have bounced back much more quickly than the poor – thus widening the inequality gap.

A recent list of global billionaires published by Forbes underscored the scope of the problem. According to that data, just 67 people have as much wealth as the poorest 3.5 billion people.

“Fewer than 100 people control as much of the world’s wealth as the poorest 3.5 billion combined,” World Bank Group President Jim Yong Kim said Thursday at the start of the World Bank-IMF Spring Meetings. At similar meetings last year, Kim announced a new bank goal of eliminating extreme poverty by 2030.

Yet on Thursday he warned that economic growth is not enough to reach that goal.

“Even if all countries grow at the same rates as over the past 20 years, and if the income distribution remains unchanged, world poverty will only fall by 10 percent by 2030, from 17.7 percent in 2010,” he said.

“We need a laser-like focus on making growth more inclusive and targeting more programmes to assist the poor directly if we’re going to end extreme poverty.”

Kim’s warning is underscored in a press release published on Thursday by the bank.

“Rising inequality of income can dampen the impact of growth on poverty,” the paper says.

“In countries where inequality was falling, the decline in poverty for a given growth rate was greater. Even if there is no change in inequality, the ‘poverty-reducing power’ of economic growth is less in coun­tries that are initially more unequal.”

The paper emphasises that the governments and donors can’t aim only to lift people out of extreme poverty, but also have to ensure that people aren’t “stuck just above the extreme poverty line due to a lack of opportunities that might impede progress toward better livelihoods.”

“Persistent inequality, where the rich are continuously advantaged and the rest struggle to catch up, makes people frustrated with the system,” Carol Graham, a scholar at the Brookings Institution, a Washington think tank, told IPS.

“Such inequality pre-programmes the public perception downward. And even in countries where there is a progress with regard to inequality, and social frustration impacts political instability.”

In a blog post, Carol Graham and another researcher tie recent protests in Chile, Brazil, Russia, Turkey, Venezuela, Ukraine and even the Arab Spring to widening income differential or inequality.

“The protesters are not a nothing-to-lose risk taker, but middle-aged, middle income, and more educated than average people who are unhappy about an unfair advantage of the rich and a lack of opportunities for the poor,” they write, calling the “prototypical” protestors “frustrated achievers”.

“Extreme inequality is particularly dangerous in countries in political and economic transition,” they note.

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Obama Says Gender Pay Gap Is No Myth, It’s Math http://www.ipsnews.net/2014/04/obama-says-gender-pay-gap-myth-math/?utm_source=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_campaign=obama-says-gender-pay-gap-myth-math http://www.ipsnews.net/2014/04/obama-says-gender-pay-gap-myth-math/#comments Wed, 09 Apr 2014 21:32:42 +0000 Farangis Abdurazokzoda http://www.ipsnews.net/?p=133553 Since his re-election in 2012, President Barack Obama has stepped up his rhetoric around gender equality issues in the United States, but he has yet to get a partisan U.S. Congress to go along with a series of legislative proposals he put forward. On Tuesday, Obama bypassed Republican opposition by signing two executive orders aimed […]

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President Barack Obama signs executive actions to strengthen enforcement of equal pay laws for women, at an event marking Equal Pay Day, in the East Room of the White House, Apr. 8, 2014. Credit: Official White House Photo by Pete Souza

President Barack Obama signs executive actions to strengthen enforcement of equal pay laws for women, at an event marking Equal Pay Day, in the East Room of the White House, Apr. 8, 2014. Credit: Official White House Photo by Pete Souza

By Farangis Abdurazokzoda
WASHINGTON, Apr 9 2014 (IPS)

Since his re-election in 2012, President Barack Obama has stepped up his rhetoric around gender equality issues in the United States, but he has yet to get a partisan U.S. Congress to go along with a series of legislative proposals he put forward.

On Tuesday, Obama bypassed Republican opposition by signing two executive orders aimed at addressing wage disparities between men and women in the United States.

While the non-legislative executive orders he unveiled on Tuesday deal only with narrow issues, supporters say they offer an important initial attempt on Obama’s part to address stubborn disparities between how much money U.S. men versus women take home.

“Women make up nearly half of the nation’s workforce and are the primary breadwinners in 4 in 10 American households with children under age 18,” the president stated Tuesday in a speech at the White House. And yet “women still make only 77 cents to every man’s dollar. For African American women, Latinas, it’s even less.”

Obama said such statistics are an “embarrassment”. He is now calling on lawmakers and the public to recognise that it is the time for a valuation of individual’s contribution to the economy based solely on merit – and that this should not be constrained by gender.

Obama’s mandate will affect federal contractors, requiring that they publish wage data by both gender and race in order to ensure they’re complying with laws on wage equality that are already on the books. A second order prohibits those contractors from taking actions against employees who compare their salaries.

Tuesday is marked in the United States as Equal Pay Day.

“These orders … will help erase Equal Pay Day from the calendar,” the National Organisation for Women (NOW), and advocacy group, said Tuesday. “NOW applauds the executive orders President Obama is signing today, and what it represents — a step towards equality for women. It’s about recognising women’s work as equal to their male peers – and above all else, fairness.”

Some researchers suggest the wage-gap problem in the United States could be even greater than Obama indicates.

“Most studies I have seen that include many other characteristics of workers and the jobs using the same data tend to leave about 30 percent of the gender gap unexplained,” Jeffrey Hayes, study director at the Institute for Women’s Policy Research (IWPR), a think tank, told IPS.

Hayes warns that it is possible to “overcontrol” such models.

“For example, you can statistically control for the occupations and industries in which women and men work and this would explain some of the gap,” he says. “But if access to the good-paying jobs is one of the mechanisms that could be discriminatory, the researcher could be underestimating discrimination if only the unexplained part is considered as potential discrimination.”

Despite long understanding of the issue of gender-based wage gap in the United States, the situation appears to have stayed roughly the same for at least the past decade.

According to a comprehensive 2013 IWPR study, the earnings gap – measured as the ratio of women’s median annual earnings for full-time year-round workers – was 76.5 in 2012, thus corroborating Obama’s figure. Further, that study indicates this number remained unchained since 2004.

The gender wage gap is “not a myth”, Obama said Tuesday. The IWPR study concurs, stating this disparity is “a reality for women across racial and ethnic groups”.

Political tactic?

President Obama has previously signed a bill that should help bridge the wage disparity between male and female. In fact, the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Restoration Act of 2009, named after a retired tire plant supervisor who discovered she was paid far less than her male counterparts, was the first bill signed by the president upon taking the office.

“From signing the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act to establishing the Equal Pay Task Force, I have strengthened pay discrimination protections and cracked down on violations of equal pay laws,” Obama said Tuesday.

“And I will continue to push the Congress to step up and pass the Paycheck Fairness Act, because this fight will not be over until our sisters, our mothers, and our daughters can earn a living equal to their efforts.”

Yet according to some estimates, the gender wage gap continues to extend right into the White House. A recent analysis by the American Enterprise Institute (AEI), a neoconservative think tank, found that female White House staff members on average earn 88 cents for every dollar that male staffers make.

Yet the National Organisation for Women is urging quick passage of the PFA.

“The Paycheck Fairness Act helps women fight the wage gap by requiring greater transparency from employers – who would have to show that wage differences are job-related and not gender-based – and protects employees from retaliation when they share information about compensation,” the group said Tuesday.

“NOW urges the Senate to pass this bill immediately. If equal pay for women were instituted immediately, across the board, it would result in an annual $447.6 billion gain nationally for women and their families. Over fifteen years, a typical woman loses $499,101 because she is paid less than a man. It’s unacceptable.”

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U.S.-Colombia Labour Rights Plan Falls Short http://www.ipsnews.net/2014/04/u-s-colombia-labour-rights-plan-falls-short/?utm_source=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_campaign=u-s-colombia-labour-rights-plan-falls-short http://www.ipsnews.net/2014/04/u-s-colombia-labour-rights-plan-falls-short/#comments Wed, 09 Apr 2014 00:18:23 +0000 Jim Lobe http://www.ipsnews.net/?p=133528 Three years after Colombia agreed to U.S. demands to better protect labour rights and activists, a “Labour Plan of Action” (LPA) drawn up by the two nations is showing mixed results at best, according to U.S. officials and union and rights activists from both countries. Pointing to continuing assassinations of union organisers, among other abuses, […]

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Military checkpoint on the Atrato River. Credit: Jesús Abad Colorado/IPS

Military checkpoint on the Atrato River. Credit: Jesús Abad Colorado/IPS

By Jim Lobe
WASHINGTON, Apr 9 2014 (IPS)

Three years after Colombia agreed to U.S. demands to better protect labour rights and activists, a “Labour Plan of Action” (LPA) drawn up by the two nations is showing mixed results at best, according to U.S. officials and union and rights activists from both countries.

Pointing to continuing assassinations of union organisers, among other abuses, U.S. lawmakers and union leaders here are calling on President Barack Obama and Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos to do much more to ensure that the LPA achieves its aims.“In spite of numerous new labour laws and decrees... companies still are violating worker rights in Colombia with impunity." -- Richard Trumka

“(V)iolence against trade unionists continues; in the three years since the Labour Action Plan was signed, 73 more trade unionists were murdered in Colombia. That alone is reason enough to say the Labour Action Plan has failed,” said Richard Trumka, the president of the biggest U.S. union confederation, the AFL-CIO, Monday in response to a new report by the Colombia’s National Labour School (ENS).

“In spite of numerous new labour laws and decrees, and hundreds of new labour inspectors not a single company fined by the Ministry of Labour for violating the law and workers’ rights has paid up, and companies still are violating worker rights in Colombia with impunity,” he added.

For years Colombia has been considered one of the most dangerous countries in the world for trade unionists, more than 3,000 of whom have been killed since the mid-1980s.

While Colombia has long been given preferential trade treatment by Washington as part of its broader “war against drugs” in the Andean region, the administration of President George W. Bush negotiated a free-trade agreement (FTA) with Colombian President Alvaro Uribe in 2006.

But the deal was strongly opposed by the AFL-CIO, labour and human rights-groups, and their allies in Congress who refused to ratify the FTA without provisions designed to substantially improve the country’s labour rights performance.

The pact was essentially put on ice until Obama and Santos signed what is formally known as the United States–Colombia Trade Promotion Agreement in April 2011 to which the Labor Action Plan (LAP) was attached.

The LAP — which, among other provisions, required the Colombian government to protect union leaders; enact legislation to ensure that workers could become direct employees instead of subcontractors; establish a new ministry of labour; and prosecute companies that prevent workers from organising — aimed to bring Colombia’s labour practices up to international standards.

While the original intention was to delay the FTA’s implementation until after the LAP’s conditions had been met, Congress approved the FTA in October 2011.

The activists insisted this week that the approval was premature in that it relieved the pressure on the Santos government to fully carry out the LAP.

“The approval of the FTA by the United States Congress, without verifying full compliance with the LAP, significantly reduced the political will behind the plan and contributed to decisively in turning the LAP into a new frustration for Colombian workers,” according to a joint statement issued Monday by Trumka and the leaders of two of Colombia’s trade union movements, the Confederation of Workers of Colombia (CTC) and the Union of Colombian Workers (CUT).

The statement, which also called for a “serious review” of the FTA’s impact on Colombia’s agricultural and industrial sectors and on its exports to the U.S., was also signed by more than a dozen other trade-union and human rights groups in the U.S. and Colombia.

For its part, the Office of the U.S. Trade Representative (USTR), which oversees the implementation of both the LAP and the FTA, gave the record of the past three years a more positive spin in its own report released Monday.

“Three years ago, the Colombian Labor Action Plan gave the United States and Colombia an important new framework, tools and processes to improve safety for union members and protections for labor rights. We have made meaningful progress to date, but this is a long-term effort and there is still work to be done,” USTR Michael Froman said.

The department’s report noted that 671 union members have been placed in a protection programme, which in 2013 had a nearly 200 million dollar budget; that more than 250 vehicles had been assigned assigned to union leaders and labour activists for full-time protection; and that the prosecutor general has assigned over 20 prosecutors to devote full-time to crimes against union members and activists, among other achievements.

It also noted that the number of union members who have been murdered for their organising activities has been reduced to an average of 26 per year since the LAP took effect from an annual average of nearly 100 in the decade before it.

“The action plan has been a good effort, and I know the government [in Bogota] has been taking it seriously,” said Michael Shifter, president of the Inter-American Dialogue (IAD), a hemispheric think tank.

“Of course, the activist groups are right to press harder for compliance and to hold both the U.S. and the Colombian governments to account on this, but the fact is that there has been progress and there should be more,” Shifter, a specialist on the Andean countries, told IPS.

In its report, the ENS concluded that the LAP had overall failed to produce meaningful results in protecting worker rights, including the right to be free from threats and violence or in prosecuting recent and past murders of trade union leaders.

“We would like to emphasize that thousands of workers and their trade union organizations have tried to make use of the new legal provisions that protect them against labor abuses, but mmost have found themselves more vulnerable since judges, prosecutors, and labor inspectors almost always refuse to provide the protection available under the new legal framework,” the ENS report concluded.

In many cases, it said, efforts to gain protection had “only backfired on workers,” particularly those working in ports and palm plantations.

ENS’s conclusions echoed those of a report released last October by U.S. Reps. George Miller and James McGovern, both of whom serve on the Congressional Monitoring Group on Labor Rights in Colombia.

“The ENS report reminds us that we have a very long way to go in successfully implementing the LAP and ensuring that workers can safely and freely exercise their fundamental rights,” the Group said, adding that the new U.S. ambassador to Colombia, Kevin Whitaker, make LAP’s implementation a priority and highlight illegal forms of hiring, the use of collective pacts by companies to thwart union organising, and the problem of impunity for anti-union activity.

Jim Lobe’s blog on U.S. foreign policy can be read at Lobelog.com.

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Colombia’s Breadbasket Feels the Pinch of Free Trade http://www.ipsnews.net/2014/04/colombias-breadbasket-feels-pinch-free-trade/?utm_source=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_campaign=colombias-breadbasket-feels-pinch-free-trade http://www.ipsnews.net/2014/04/colombias-breadbasket-feels-pinch-free-trade/#comments Tue, 08 Apr 2014 18:11:21 +0000 Helda Martinez http://www.ipsnews.net/?p=133521 “Things are getting worse and worse,” Enrique Muñoz, a 67-year-old farmer from the municipality of Cajamarca in the central Colombian department of Tolima, once known as the country’s breadbasket, said sadly. “Over the past five decades, the situation took a radical turn for the worse,” activist Miguel Gordillo commented to IPS, referring to what is […]

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The home of a poor farming family in the mountains of Cajamarca, in the central Colombian department of Tolima. Credit: Helda Martínez/IPS

The home of a poor farming family in the mountains of Cajamarca, in the central Colombian department of Tolima. Credit: Helda Martínez/IPS

By Helda Martínez
IBAGUÉ, Colombia , Apr 8 2014 (IPS)

“Things are getting worse and worse,” Enrique Muñoz, a 67-year-old farmer from the municipality of Cajamarca in the central Colombian department of Tolima, once known as the country’s breadbasket, said sadly.

“Over the past five decades, the situation took a radical turn for the worse,” activist Miguel Gordillo commented to IPS, referring to what is happening in Tolima, whose capital is Ibagué, 195 km southwest of Bogotá.

“Fifty years ago, Ibagué was a small city surrounded by crops – vast fields of cotton that looked from far away like a big white sheet,” said Gordillo, head of the non-governmental Asociación Nacional por la Salvación Agropecuaria (National Association to Save Agriculture).

Seeds, also victims of the FTAs

Miguel Gordillo mentioned another problem created by the FTAs: seeds.

In 2010, the Colombian Agricultural Institute (ICA), a government institution, prohibited farmers from saving their own seeds for future harvests, the expert pointed out.

ICA established in Resolution 970 that only certified seeds produced by biotech giants like Monsanto, Syngenta and DuPont, the world leaders in transgenic seeds, could be used.

The measure “ignores a centuries-old tradition that started with indigenous peoples, who always selected the best seeds for planting in the next season. Today, in the areas of seeds, fertilisers, agrochemicals, we are at the mercy of the international market,” Gordillo said.

“In Tolima we planted maize, tobacco, soy, sorghum and fruit trees, and the mountains that surrounded Cajamarca were covered with green coffee bushes protected by orange trees, maize and plantain, and surrounded by celery,” Muñoz said.

His voice lost in the past, he said the farms in the area also had “piggies, chickens, mules, cows; everything was so different.”

Gordillo said, “In the north of the department we had fruit trees of all kinds, and the rivers were chock full of fish. There’s still rice, some maize, coffee…but even the fish have disappeared.

“In short, in five decades the look of this agricultural region has changed, and today it’s all freeways, residential complexes, gas stations, and here and there the odd field with crops,” he complained.

As a result, everything changed for Muñoz. “My wife and I are now supported by our kids who work, one in Ibagué and two in Bogotá. On the farm we have a cow, whose milk we use to make cheese that we sell, and we plant food for our own consumption.”

Muñoz plans to take part in the second national farmers’ strike, on Apr. 27, which the government is trying to head off.

The first, which lasted from Aug. 19 to Sep. 9, 2013, was held by coffee, rice, cotton, sugar cane, potato and cacao farmers, who demanded that the government of Juan Manuel Santos revise the chapters on agriculture in the free trade agreements (FTAs) signed by Colombia, especially the accord reached with the United States.

The national protest was joined by artisanal miners, transport and health workers, teachers and students, and included massive demonstrations in Bogotá and 30 other cities.

Clashes with the security forces left 12 dead, nearly 500 injured and four missing.

Colombia has signed over 50 FTAs, according to the ministry for economic development.

The highest profile are the FTA signed in 2006 with the United States, which went into effect in May 2012, and the agreement with the European Union, that entered into force in August 2013, besides the FTAs with Canada and Switzerland. Another is currently being negotiated with Japan.

In 2011, Colombia founded the Pacific Alliance with Chile, Mexico and Peru, and Panama as an observer. It also belongs to other regional integration blocs.

“Colombia’s governments, which since the 1990s have had the motto ‘Welcome to the future’, lived up to it: that future has been terrible for Tolima and the entire country,” Gordillo said.

In the last four years, coffee farmers have held strikes until achieving subsidies of 80 dollars per truckload of coffee.

In this South American country of 48.2 million people, agriculture accounts for 6.5 percent of GDP, led by coffee, cut flowers, rice and bananas. But that is down from 14 percent of GDP in 2000 and 20 percent in 1975.

“Agriculture is doing poorly everywhere, and Tolima is no exception,” the department’secretary of agricultural development, Carlos Alberto Cabrera, told IPS.

“Rice, which is strong in our department, is having a rough time,” he said. “In coffee, we are the third-largest producers in the country, and we hope to become the first. There’s not much cotton left. In sorghum we are the second-largest producers. Soy is disappearing, tobacco too, and many products are now just grown for the food security of our farmers.”

In the search for solutions, “we have invited ministers and deputy ministers to the region, but their response has been that we should plant what sells, to stay in the market of supply and demand,” he said.

But Cabrera said that in the case of Tolima, the FTAs weren’t a problem. “We haven’t felt any effect, because the only thing we export is coffee. Rice is for national consumption, and sorghum goes to industry,” he said.

Gordillo, meanwhile, criticised that when ministers visit the department, “they say farmers should plant what other countries don’t produce, what they can’t sell to us. In other words, they insist on favouring others. They forget that the first priority should be the food security of our people, and not the other way around.”

Because of this misguided way of looking at things, he said, “our farmers will hold another national strike. People from Tolima and from many other regions of the country will take part, because the government isn’t living up to its promises, and all this poverty means they have to open their eyes.”

The government says it has fulfilled at least 70 of the 183 commitments it made to the country’s farmers after last year’s agriculture strike.

The farmers were demanding solutions such as land tenure, social investment in rural areas, protection from growing industries like mining and oil, and a fuel subsidy for agricultural producers.

The government says it earmarked 500 million dollars in support for agriculture in the 2014 budget.

In the last few weeks, the ministry of agriculture and rural development has stepped up a campaign showing off its results, and President Santos has insisted in public speeches that “a new farmers’ strike is not justified.”

The authorities are also pressing for dialogue to reach a national pact with farmers, as part of their efforts to ward off the strike scheduled for less than a month ahead of the May 25 presidential elections, when Santos will run for a second term.

Small farmers and other participants in a Mar. 15-17 “agricultural summit” agreed on eight points that should be discussed in a dialogue, including agrarian reform, access to land, the establishment of peasant reserve zones, prior consultation on projects in farming and indigenous areas, protection from FTAs, and restrictions on mining and oil industry activities.

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Youth Around the World See Meagre Opportunities http://www.ipsnews.net/2014/04/youth-around-world-see-meager-opportunities/?utm_source=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_campaign=youth-around-world-see-meager-opportunities http://www.ipsnews.net/2014/04/youth-around-world-see-meager-opportunities/#comments Thu, 03 Apr 2014 22:49:18 +0000 Bryant Harris http://www.ipsnews.net/?p=133413 Although half the world’s population is under 25 years old, young people in more than two dozen countries feel that their opportunities for educational, economic and societal advancement are limited, according to new research released here Thursday. Researchers say the results should help to drive and prioritise both public and private investment in services. In order […]

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Young Bangladeshi women raise their fists at a protest in Shahbagh. Credit: Kajal Hazra/IPS

Young Bangladeshi women raise their fists at a protest in Shahbagh. Credit: Kajal Hazra/IPS

By Bryant Harris
WASHINGTON, Apr 3 2014 (IPS)

Although half the world’s population is under 25 years old, young people in more than two dozen countries feel that their opportunities for educational, economic and societal advancement are limited, according to new research released here Thursday.

Researchers say the results should help to drive and prioritise both public and private investment in services.“The youth bulge can become a security, economic and humanitarian worry, and even maybe a disaster, or it can become a resource for development and change.” -- William Reese

In order to assess the many factors that contribute to healthy lifestyles for youth, the International Youth Foundation (IYF) and the Centre for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), the latter a think tank here, put together the Global Youth Wellbeing Index.

The index aggregates data from 30 countries, representing around 70 percent of the world’s youth population, and rates the wellbeing of youths in each country on a scale from zero to one.

“This is certainly … one of the biggest issues we’re dealing with in the world today,” Christopher Nassetta, the CEO of Hilton Worldwide, the index’s principle funder, said at the index’s launch.

“It hasn’t been an issue that really has been discussed around the world the way that, in my mind, it should be, in the sense of really getting governments, civil society and business … to really think about the issues.”

Nassetta says each of these sectors now needs to figure out not only how to attack the problems that can be associated with youth wellbeing, but also the “opportunity”.

Approximately 85 percent of youths under the age of 25 live in developing countries, in some countries comprising almost 40 percent of the total population.

Development advocates and economists suggest such numbers highlight the importance of providing such a large segment of the population with the resources necessary to drive economic growth while maintaining adequate health, security and stability.

“The youth bulge can become a security, economic and humanitarian worry, and even maybe a disaster, or it can become a resource for development and change,” said William Reese, IYF’s president.

Palestinian youth in the Old City of Jerusalem. Credit: Pierre Klochendler/IPS

Palestinian youth in the Old City of Jerusalem. Credit: Pierre Klochendler/IPS

The index collects data on youths between the ages of 15 and 24. Nearly all of this data, drawn from public, independent sources, is from 2008 or later.

The index then establishes 40 indicators to assess six major fields, or “domains”, of relevance to youthful wellbeing: safety and security, information and communication technology, citizen participation, economic opportunity, education, and health. It then determines each country’s overall ranking from the scores in each field.

In the 30 countries assessed, the average score for youths’ overall wellbeing is .576, with two-thirds of countries falling below the average. As for the averages for each specific domain, youths across the world fared best in health and worst in economic opportunity.

Australia has the highest rate of youth wellbeing with a score of .752, while Nigeria comes in last with .375.

Although the index only covers 30 countries at present, its creators hope that its publication will now encourage other countries to run their own wellbeing analyses, potentially encouraging data-driven investment in youth programming.

“A number of these data points are available in many of the countries not included in the index … but we did make some choices to be strategic and to have regional diversity, as well as income diversity, in this first index,” Nicole Goldin, the director of the CSIS department that spearheaded the index, told IPS.

“But to those countries that are not included, we hope that this index can be seen as a framework and a tool so that governments, young people, implementing organisations, corporations and any other stakeholders can take it, run their own wellbeing analysis, and see how they may compare and drive their own policies, programmes and investments to better serve the interests of youth.”

In July 2012, under the leadership of 23-year-old Patrick Arathe, a group of youth without parents started their own farming enterprise in Munda, Solomon Islands. Credit: Catherine Wilson/IPS

In July 2012, under the leadership of 23-year-old Patrick Arathe, a group of youth without parents started their own farming enterprise in Munda, Solomon Islands. Credit: Catherine Wilson/IPS

Data-driven investment

IYF and CSIS hope that governments, civil society and businesses will use the index’s findings to better evaluate and calibrate programmes designed to build youth capacity.

“You can’t manage what you don’t measure,” said Nassetta. “There’s been a massive lack of transparency and data with which to make good investments, whether that’s human capital or financial capital, so the wellbeing index is the start of that.”

For instance, IYF’s Reese noted that developing countries’ heavy investment in certain sectors, like education, have yet to yield desirable results.

“[The] domains can tell us where to invest intelligently,” Reese said. “That can be the host government, but even in some of the poorest countries in the world, their largest expenditure is in education, it’s just not being well spent.”

Reese emphasised that the index is not adversarial in nature, but rather designed for countries to compare and contrast their relative strengths and weakness, and to learn from each other.

“The index will help us compare and frame some needs and look at countries as to where they’re doing better and where they have some gaps,” he said. “Then we can compare across countries – not to name and shame at all, but to look further so we invest better.”

In addition to emphasising the need for more data-driven policies, programmes and investments, many at Thursday’s unveiling of the index highlighted a key component necessary to drive those changes: youths themselves.

“If you’re talking about a post-2015 development agenda, one thing missing from that, based on a youth perspective, is the idea of what the ‘youth problem’ is,” said Angga Dwi Martha, the 23-year-old Youth Advocate at the United Nations Population Fund.

“I think this index can give a very general identification of the problem. And then, as young people, we can [relay] this to our government, the private sector and civil society.”

Others argued that the best way to figure out “what works” to improve youth wellbeing is by actively including and engaging youths in the development process.

According to Emmanuel Jimenez, the World Bank’s director of public-sector evaluations, “We, as older people who design policy, often forget, or don’t do enough, to consult with the ultimate beneficiaries, which are young people.”

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Rural Costa Rican Women Plant Trees to Fight Climate Change http://www.ipsnews.net/2014/04/rural-costa-rican-women-plant-trees-fight-climate-change/?utm_source=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_campaign=rural-costa-rican-women-plant-trees-fight-climate-change http://www.ipsnews.net/2014/04/rural-costa-rican-women-plant-trees-fight-climate-change/#comments Wed, 02 Apr 2014 13:39:21 +0000 Diego Arguedas Ortiz http://www.ipsnews.net/?p=133379 Olga Vargas, a breast cancer survivor, is back in the countryside, working in a forestry programme in the north of Costa Rica aimed at empowering women while at the same time mitigating the effects of climate change. Her recent illness and a community dispute over the land the project previously used – granted by the […]

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Olga Vargas next to the greenhouse with which the Quebrada Grande de Pital Women’s Association began to revitalise its sustainable business, whose priority is reforestation. Credit: Diego Arguedas Ortiz/IPS

Olga Vargas next to the greenhouse with which the Quebrada Grande de Pital Women’s Association began to revitalise its sustainable business, whose priority is reforestation. Credit: Diego Arguedas Ortiz/IPS

By Diego Arguedas Ortiz
PITAL, Costa Rica , Apr 2 2014 (IPS)

Olga Vargas, a breast cancer survivor, is back in the countryside, working in a forestry programme in the north of Costa Rica aimed at empowering women while at the same time mitigating the effects of climate change.

Her recent illness and a community dispute over the land the project previously used – granted by the Agrarian Development Institute, where the women had planted 12,000 trees – stalled the reforestation and environmental education project since 2012 in Pital, San Carlos district, in the country’s northern plains.

But the group is getting a fresh start.

“After the cancer I feel that God gave me a second chance, to continue with the project and help my companions,” Vargas, a 57-year-old former accountant, told IPS in the Quebrada Grande forest reserve, which her group helps to maintain.

She is a mother of four and grandmother of six; her two grown daughters also participate in the group, and her husband has always supported her, she says proudly.

Since 2000, the Quebrada Grande de Pital Women’s Association, made up of 14 women and presided over by Vargas, has reforested the land granted to them, organised environmental protection courses, set up breeding tanks for the sustainable fishing of tilapia, and engaged in initiatives in rural tourism and organic agriculture.

But the top priority has been planting trees.

A group of local men who opposed the granting of the land to the women from the start demanded that the installations and business endeavours be taken over by the community.

The women were given another piece of land, smaller than one hectare in size, but which is in the name of the Association, and their previous installations were virtually abandoned.

“I learned about the importance of forest management in a meeting I attended in Guatemala. After that, several of us travelled to Panama, El Salvador and Argentina, to find out about similar initiatives and exchange experiences,” said Vargas, who used to work as an accountant in Pital, 135 km north of San José.

The most the Association has earned in a year was 14,000 dollars. “Maybe 50,000 colones [100 dollars] sounds like very little. But for us, rural women who used to depend on our husband’s income to buy household items or go to the doctor, it’s a lot,” Vargas said.

The Association, whose members range in age from 18 to 67, is not on its own. Over the last decade, groups of Costa Rican women coming up with solutions against deforestation have emerged in rural communities around the country.

These groups took up the challenge and started to plant trees and to set up greenhouses, in response to the local authorities’ failure to take action in the face of deforestation and land use changes.

“Climate change has had a huge effect on agricultural production,” Vargas said. “You should see how hot it’s been, and the rivers are just pitiful. Around three or four years ago the rivers flowed really strong, but now there’s only one-third or one-fourth as much water.”

In Quebrada Grande, the Agrarian Development Institute dedicated 119 hectares of land to forest conservation, which the Womens’ Association has been looking after for over a decade. Credit: Diego Arguedas Ortiz/IPS

In Quebrada Grande, the Agrarian Development Institute dedicated 119 hectares of land to forest conservation, which the Womens’ Association has been looking after for over a decade. Credit: Diego Arguedas Ortiz/IPS

In San Ramón de Turrialba, 65 km east of San José, six women manage a greenhouse where they produce seedlings to plant 20,000 trees a year.

Since 2007, the six women in the Group of Agribusiness Women of San Ramón have had a contract with Costa Rica’s electric company, ICE, to provide it with acacia, Mexican cedar, and eucalyptus seedlings.

The group’s coordinator, Nuria Céspedes, explained to IPS that the initiative emerged when she asked her husband for a piece of the family farm to set up a greenhouse.

“Seven years ago, I went to a few meetings on biological corridors and I was struck by the problem of deforestation, because they explain climate change has been aggravated by deforestation,” said Céspedes, who added that the group has the active support of her husband, and has managed to expand its list of customers.

Costa Rica, which is famous for its forests, is one of the few countries in the world that has managed to turn around a previously high rate of deforestation.

In 1987, the low point for this Central American country’s jungles, only 21 percent of the national territory was covered by forest, compared to 75 percent in 1940.

That marked the start of an aggressive reforestation programme, thanks to which forests covered 52 percent of the territory by 2012.

Costa Rica has set itself the goal of becoming the first country in the world to achieve carbon neutrality by 2021. And in the fight against climate change, it projects that carbon sequestration by its forests will contribute 75 percent of the emissions reduction needed to achieve that goal.

In this country of 4.4 million people, these groups of women have found a niche in forest conservation that also helps them combat sexist cultural norms and the heavy concentration of land in the hands of men.

“One of the strong points [of women’s participation] is having access to education – they have been given the possibility of taking part in workshops and trainings,” Arturo Ureña, the technical head of the Coordinating Association of Indigenous and Community Agroforestry in Central America (ACICAFOC) , told IPS.

That was true for the Pital Association. When they started their project, the women received courses from the Instituto Nacional de Aprendizaje (national training institute), which made it possible for two illiterate members of the group to take their final exams orally.

Added to these community initiatives are government strategies. More and more women are being included in state programmes that foment agroforestry production, such as the EcoMercado (ecomarket) of the National Forest Finance Fund (Fonafifo).

EcoMercado is part of the Environmental Services Programme of Fonafifo, one of the pillars of carbon sequestration in Costa Rica.

Since Fonafifo was created in the mid-1990s, 770,000 hectares, out of the country’s total of 5.1 million, have been included in the forestry strategy, with initiatives ranging from reforestation to agroforestry projects.

Lucrecia Guillén, who keeps Fonafifo’s statistics and is head of its environmental services management department, confirmed to IPS that the participation of women in reforestation projects is growing.

She stressed that in the case of the EcoMercado, women’s participation increased 185 percent between 2009 and 2013, which translated into a growth in the number of women farmers from 474 to 877. She clarified, however, that land ownership and the agroforestry industry were still dominated by men.

Statistics from Fonafifo indicate that in the EcoMercado project, only 16 percent of the farms are owned by women, while 37 are owned by individual men and 47 percent are in the hands of corporations, which are mainly headed by men.

But Guillén sees no reason to feel discouraged. “Women are better informed now, and that has boosted participation” and will continue to do so, she said.

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U.S. Joins Global Transparency Tide in Extractives Sector http://www.ipsnews.net/2014/03/u-s-joins-global-transparency-tide-extractives-sector/?utm_source=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_campaign=u-s-joins-global-transparency-tide-extractives-sector http://www.ipsnews.net/2014/03/u-s-joins-global-transparency-tide-extractives-sector/#comments Mon, 24 Mar 2014 23:57:05 +0000 Carey L. Biron http://www.ipsnews.net/?p=133189 An unusual combination of industry, government, investors and civil society here is celebrating the United States’ initial acceptance into a prominent global initiative aimed at strengthening transparency and accountability in the extractives industry. Last week, the Extractives Industry Transparency Initiative (EITI) board accepted the U.S. application to become a candidate country in the grouping. The […]

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Artisanal diamond miners at work in the alluvial diamond mines around the eastern town of Koidu, Sierra Leone. So-called ‘blood diamonds’ helped fund civil wars in Sierra Leone and Liberia, but now provide much-needed jobs as well as revenue for the government. Credit: Tommy Trenchard/IPS

Artisanal diamond miners at work in the alluvial diamond mines around the eastern town of Koidu, Sierra Leone. So-called ‘blood diamonds’ helped fund civil wars in Sierra Leone and Liberia, but now provide much-needed jobs as well as revenue for the government. Credit: Tommy Trenchard/IPS

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

An unusual combination of industry, government, investors and civil society here is celebrating the United States’ initial acceptance into a prominent global initiative aimed at strengthening transparency and accountability in the extractives industry.

Last week, the Extractives Industry Transparency Initiative (EITI) board accepted the U.S. application to become a candidate country in the grouping. The United States thus became the first Group of Eight (G8) wealthy nation to formally become part of EITI, and joins around 41 other countries that have already done so.“We’re at the end of the era of easy access to resources, where operators have to go further afield and at greater risk." -- Paul Bugala

EITI, based for the past decade in Oslo, promotes a set of global standards for the oil, gas and mining sector that works to reduce corruption and promote good governance. Proponents say the United States’ participation underlines a strengthening global trend towards transparency, particularly in the extractives sector.

“This is just another part of the wave of transparency – recognition that this information is important not only to investors but also to countries in which industry operates and to the communities that share their environment with mines and drilling,” Paul Bugala, a member of the panel that drew up the U.S. EITI application and an analyst at Calvert Investments, a socially responsible firm, told IPS.

“We’re at the end of the era of easy access to resources, where operators have to go further afield and at greater risk. If investors don’t have project-level payment information, we’re flying blind in many ways.”

The EITI process offers equal voice to government, industry and civil society representatives, and the United States’ application was jointly fashioned – and approved – by broad representation from each of these sectors.

“The oil and gas industry has worked with civil society groups and governments for over a decade through EITI to promote payment transparency in various countries,” Stephen Comstock, an official with the American Petroleum Institute (API), a central industry lobby group, told a trade journal last week.

“Expanding this effort to the United States will hopefully provide U.S. citizens with a new perspective of the significant revenue and economic impact generated from U.S. exploration and production.”

Project-level information

At its base, the EITI standard mandates that governments and companies provide regular disclosure of royalties and revenues from natural resource extraction. The idea is that these parallel reports will allow for easy understanding of money local communities may be owed – and where any discrepancies may be coming from.

The U.S. application will go beyond the standard, to include renewable energy sources and additional minerals. In 2013, the U.S. federal government collected some 14 billion dollars from companies involved in natural resource extraction, typically the country’s second largest source of revenue.

Yet critics say domestic accountability mechanisms are too opaque.

“The kind of information that’s available for the public is aggregated, searchable only by year and state and some commodities,” Mia Steinle, the U.S. EITI civil society coordinator and an investigator at the Project on Government Oversight (POGO), a watchdog group here, told IPS.

“Coal mining communities, for instance, can’t really tell whether they’re getting the money due to them by the federal government. If industry wanted to work in a community that had project-level information, however, its members could make a decision based on whether a previous project had been worthwhile or not.”

Empowering the public with such data is, of course, of particular importance in developing countries, where extractives contracts have often been struck between powerful companies and governments that can be oblivious to local benefit. EITI currently lists 26 countries as compliant with its standards, and another 18 countries as candidates.

The initiative is being bolstered by landmark though pending legislation in the United States and the European Union. Due the E.U. moves, Tullow Oil, a British company, on Tuesday became the first drilling company to offer project-level payments reporting in every country in which it’s operating.

“Tullow’s move shows that global oil companies can disclose such information at little cost and without fear of competitive harm,” Ian Gary, a senior policy manager at Oxfam America, an anti-poverty campaigner, said Tuesday. “The disclosures … show that some oil and mining companies are embracing – rather than fighting – the global transparency tide.”

1504 pending

Yet even as the E.U. moves towards implementation of its new transparency requirements, known as the Accounting Directive, by next year, a similar proposal in the United States remains stuck in litigation. The provision, known as Section 1504, became law back in 2010, but its implementation has since been held up by regulators and industry pressure.

Last year, a proposed Section 1504 rule, which would require disclosure of all payments made by U.S.-listed extractives companies to foreign governments, was struck down in the courts. Campaigners are now pointing to the United States’ EITI candidacy as added impetus for the main regulator, the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC), to speed up its work rewriting the rule.

“The new EITI standard … calls for fully public reporting, by company and by project. This is what the SEC proposed in its 2012 rule,” Jana Morgan, coordinator of Publish What You Pay USA, a pro-transparency group, told IPS.

“The EITI board’s decision puts additional pressure on the SEC to prioritise scheduling a rulemaking for Section 1504. U.S. government support for the Section 1504 rule released in 2012, coupled with its advocacy for U.S. candidacy in the EITI, makes clear that the [Obama] administration views these initiatives as complementary.”

Interestingly, the legal challenge to Section 1504 was spearheaded by the American Petroleum Institute, the group that helped fashion the U.S. EITI application and which has welcomed the country’s new candidature. POGO’s Steinle says that, given the recent court decision, EITI-related project-level reporting for the United States remains unresolved and will be discussed this year.

Nonetheless, she stresses that the EITI discussions between civil society, industry and government representatives were surprisingly fruitful.

“It’s so useful and powerful for those three sectors to be face to face for these types of discussions. We’ve broken down a lot of walls, simply having people get together who would normally never talk to one another,” she says.

“As other countries are committing to EITI or similar initiatives, it’s very important that the United States is now following these good international examples. Hopefully this will help to set an example for those countries that aren’t yet on board.”

The United States will now have three years to bring its reporting into alignment with the EITI standard. U.S. officials say they plan to file their first report in 2015.

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Women Seek Stand-Alone Goal for Gender in Post-2015 Agenda http://www.ipsnews.net/2014/03/women-seek-stand-alone-goal-gender-post-2015-agenda/?utm_source=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_campaign=women-seek-stand-alone-goal-gender-post-2015-agenda http://www.ipsnews.net/2014/03/women-seek-stand-alone-goal-gender-post-2015-agenda/#comments Mon, 24 Mar 2014 23:10:58 +0000 Thalif Deen http://www.ipsnews.net/?p=133186 The 45-member U.N. Commission on the Status of Women (CSW) concluded its annual 10-day session Saturday with several key pronouncements, including on reproductive health, women’s rights, sexual violence, female genital mutilation (FGM) and the role of women in implementing the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs). The heaviest round of applause came when the Commission specifically called […]

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Brazilian women have been making headway in traditionally male-dominated areas. Construction workers in Rio de Janeiro. Credit: Fabiana Frayssinet/IPS

Brazilian women have been making headway in traditionally male-dominated areas. Construction workers in Rio de Janeiro. Credit: Fabiana Frayssinet/IPS

By Thalif Deen
UNITED NATIONS, Mar 24 2014 (IPS)

The 45-member U.N. Commission on the Status of Women (CSW) concluded its annual 10-day session Saturday with several key pronouncements, including on reproductive health, women’s rights, sexual violence, female genital mutilation (FGM) and the role of women in implementing the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs).

The heaviest round of applause came when the Commission specifically called for a “stand-alone goal” on gender equality – a longstanding demand by women’s groups and non-governmental organisations (NGOs) – in the U.N.’s post-2015 development agenda.

Still, the primary inter-governmental policy-making body on gender empowerment did not weigh in on a key proposal being kicked around in the corridors of the world body: a proposal for a woman to be the next U.N. secretary-general (SG), come January 2017.

"A Striking Gap"

Ambassador Anwarul K. Chowdhury, a former U.N. under-secretary-general who is credited with initiating the conceptual and political breakthrough resulting in the adoption of U.N. Security Council resolution 1325 on women and peace and security, told IPS the annual CSW session is the largest annual gathering with special focus on issues which impact on women, and thereby humanity as a whole.

"It attracts hundreds of government and civil society participants representing their nations and organisations. After the very late night consensus adoption, the agreed conclusions of its 58th session, which focused on the post-2015 development agenda, show a striking gap in firmly establishing the linkage between peace and development in the document," he said.

"The mainstream discussions in this context have always been highlighting the point that MDGs lacked the energy of women's equal participation at all decision making levels and the overall and essential link between peace and development. So, in UN's work on the new set of development goals need to overcome this inadequacy. Somehow this still remains in the outcome of CSW-58.

"Adoption of the landmark U.N. Security Council resolution 1325 boosted the essential value of women's participation. Its focus relates to each of the issues on every agenda of the U.N. There is a need for holistic thinking and not to compartmentalise development, peace, environment in the context of women's equality and empowerment," Ambassador Chowdhury said.

"It is necessary that women's role in peace and security is considered as an essential element in post-2015 development agenda."
“I did not hear it, but it’s a good question to raise given that a major section of the CSW’s ‘Agreed Conclusions’ were on ensuring women’s participation and leadership at all levels and strengthening accountability,” Mavic Cabrera-Balleza, international coordinator at the Global Network of Women Peacebuilders (GNWP), told IPS.

She said that in pre-CSW conversations, she heard the names of two possible candidates from Europe – whose turn it is to field candidates on the basis of geographical rotation – but both were men.

“The question is: Is the United Nations ready for a woman SG?” she asked.

Dr. Abigail E. Ruane, PeaceWomen Programme Manager at the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom (WILPF), told IPS the biggest thing at the CSW session was support for a gender equality goal in the post-2015 development agenda and the integration of gender throughout the proposed sustainable development goals (SDGs).

She said the recognition of the link between conflict and development was also important because it is not one that is usually recognised.

Asked about the proposal for a woman SG, she said: “I didn’t hear any discussion of a woman SG in the sessions I participated in.”

Harriette Williams Bright, advocacy director of Femmes Africa Solidarite (FAS), also told IPS the various civil society and CSW sessions she attended did not bring up the discussion of a woman as the next SG.

Still, she said the commitment of the CSW to a stand-alone goal on gender equality is welcomed and “we are hopeful that member states will honour this commitment in the post-2015 development framework and allocate the resources and political will needed for concrete progress in the lives of women, particularly in situations of conflict.”

Antonia Kirkland, legal advisor at Equality Now, told IPS her organisation was heartened that U.N. member states were able to reach consensus endorsing the idea that gender equality, the empowerment of women and the human rights of women and girls must be addressed in any post-2015 development framework following the expiration of MDGs in 2015.

“Throughout the process there has been broad agreement that freedom from violence against women and girls and the elimination of child marriage and FGM must be achieved,” she said.

“Equality Now believes sex discriminatory laws, including those that actually promote violence against women and girls, should be repealed as soon as possible to really change harmful practices and social norms,” Kirkland added.

Cabrera-Balleza of GNWP said the call for a stand-alone goal on gender equality; women’s empowerment and human rights of women and girls; the elimination of FGM and honour crimes, child, early and forced marriages; protection of women and girls from violence; the protection of women human rights defenders; the integration of a gender perspective in environmental and climate change policies and humanitarian response to natural disasters; “are all reasons to celebrate.”

She regretted the CSW conclusions did not make a link between peace, development and the post-2015 agenda.

The earlier drafts of the Agreed Conclusions were much stronger in terms of defining this intersection, she noted.

“I hate to think delegates see peace and development and gender equality and women’s empowerment as disconnected issues or that peace is an easy bargaining chip. …that there is no text on the intersection of peace, security and development defies logic,” she said. “How can we have development without peace and how can we have peace without development?”

Cabrera-Balleza pointed out that “even as we hold governments accountable to respond to this gap, we need to have a serious dialogue among ourselves too as civil society actors – across issues, across different thematic agendas.”

Dr. Ruane of WILPF told IPS that despite longstanding commitments to strengthen financing to move words to action, including through arms reduction, such as included both in the plan of action at the Earth Summit in Rio (1992) and the Beijing women’s conference (1995), “governments gave in to pressure to weaken commitments and ended up reiterating only support for voluntary innovative financing mechanisms, as appropriate.”

In a statement released Monday, Development Alternatives with Women for a New Era (DAWN) said that while the MDGs resulted in a reduction of poverty in some respects, the goals furthest from being achieved are those focused on women and girls – particularly on achieving gender equality and improving maternal health.

Executive Director of U.N. Women Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka said the agreement represents a milestone toward a transformative global development agenda that puts the empowerment of women and girls at its centre.

She said member states have stressed that while the MDGs have advanced progress in many areas, they remain unfinished business as long as gender inequality persists.

As the Commission rightly points out, she said, funding in support of gender equality and women’s empowerment remains inadequate.

Investments in women and girls will have to be significantly stepped up. As member states underline, this will have a multiplier effect on sustained economic growth, she declared.

At the conclusion of the session, CSW Chair Ambassador Libran Cabactulan of the Philippines said “it is critical, important and urgent to appreciate every tree in the forest, and have an agreement on how big, how tall or how fat each tree.

“At the same time, we need to be mindful of the entire forest,” she added, pointing out that “the absence of peace and security in the discourse on post-2015 agenda does not make a whole forest.”

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OP-ED: While Women Progress, Men Fall Behind http://www.ipsnews.net/2014/03/op-ed-women-progress-men-falling-behind/?utm_source=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_campaign=op-ed-women-progress-men-falling-behind http://www.ipsnews.net/2014/03/op-ed-women-progress-men-falling-behind/#comments Thu, 20 Mar 2014 18:28:53 +0000 Joseph Chamie http://www.ipsnews.net/?p=133116 – International Women’s Day and the UN Commission on the Status of Women (CSW) are overlooking a critical trend: while girls and women are making notable gains, boys and men are falling behind. On most major measures, such as education, employment, income and health, women are moving forward and men are simply not keeping up. […]

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By Joseph Chamie
UNITED NATIONS, Mar 20 2014 (IPS)

– International Women’s Day and the UN Commission on the Status of Women (CSW) are overlooking a critical trend: while girls and women are making notable gains, boys and men are falling behind.

On most major measures, such as education, employment, income and health, women are moving forward and men are simply not keeping up.In order to facilitate gender equality in employment, occupation and income, it will be necessary to eliminate the “glass ceiling” as well as the “glass floor”.

Certainly noteworthy gender differences exist across regions and countries, especially when comparing developed and developing nations. Women’s progress towards equality continues to encounter resistance, especially among socially conservative sectors of society. Generally speaking, however, the standing of women and girls has been improved considerably worldwide and in some cases has even exceeded men and boys.

Women have more opportunities than ever before. In the past, wife, homemaker and mother were the sequence of traditional roles ascribed to women. Today, increasing numbers of women can pursue education, employment and careers as well as participate in business, politics, sports and culture in much the same way as men.

In the vital area of higher education, women have achieved an educational advantage over men. After centuries of male dominance, worldwide women now outnumber men in both university attendance and graduation.

In most countries with data women’s university enrollment and graduation rates exceed those of men. In some countries, such as Brazil, Canada, Poland, Sweden and the United States, about 60 percent of the university students are women, with the achievement gap accumulating over time. For instance, during the last 10 years two million more women than men graduated from college in the United States.

Also in developing countries as diverse as Argentina, Iran, Nigeria and Saudi Arabia, women constitute the majority of university students. Among the world’s two largest populations, China and India, women are moving toward parity with men at universities, 48 and 42 percent, respectively.

Joseph Chamie. Credit: UN Photo/Mark Garten

Joseph Chamie. Credit: UN Photo/Mark Garten

At the secondary level, girls outperform boys with better grades, teacher assessments, college entrance exams and lower school dropout rates than boys. Consequently, some colleges have affirmative action policies for boys in order to achieve a gender balance.

Achieving educational gender equality requires special attention and increased efforts aimed at improving the education of boys and men as well as girls and women.

Even with an educational advantage, women continue to lag behind men in employment, income and occupational level. Such disparities may be a vestige of the past given that they decrease with increasing education.

With the passage of time women’s educational advantage may translate into less gender income inequality as many studies find that a college degree pays off in higher wages over a lifetime.

Moreover, in many developed countries the numbers of traditional jobs for men in construction and manufacturing are shrinking. In the U.S., for example, 78 percent of the jobs lost since 2007 were held by men, leaving one out of every five working age men out of work.

Encouraging signs of women’s career progress are evident in many countries. For example, in less than a generation the percent of women attending medical schools has steadily risen in many countries including the Australia, Canada, the United Kingdom and the United States, reaching parity with men.

Women have also made modest gains in the political sphere as well, with increasing numbers elected and appointed to legislative, judicial, executive bodies and offices. The global average in national parliaments stands at about 22 percent, up from 11 percent in 1995. In some countries, such as Belgium, Cuba, Netherlands, Senegal, South Africa and Sweden, women account for 40 percent or more of the national legislatures.

Nevertheless, in order to facilitate gender equality in employment, occupation and income, it will be necessary to eliminate the “glass ceiling” as well as the “glass floor”. While the glass ceiling is an invisible barrier limiting women’s advancement to the highest levels in the workplace and corporate boardrooms, the glass floor is an invisible barrier limiting men’s entry into more traditional female occupations, such as nurses, secretaries and primary school teachers.

Although some progress has been made, occupations continue to be largely segregated by sex. While men dominate such fields as engineering, manufacturing, computer sciences, women are concentrated in less remunerative fields such as education, humanities, health and welfare. The challenge for policy makers, educators and parents is how to overcome these differences without limiting personal choice.

Women and men should have the freedom to select their field of study and pursue an occupation of their choosing. However, in order to achieve gender balances across major disciplines, professions and subsequent career advancements, both sexes will need to take the same coursework throughout the secondary level, including math, science and the humanities.

Much remains to be done to achieve gender equality. However, it would be a mistake to overlook the achievements of girls and women as well as the falling behind of boys and men.

It should be kept in mind that boys and girls are raised together within families, households and communities, not segregated into male and female micro-environments. The unfinished business in the 21st century to achieve full gender equality requires comprehensive policies and programmes aimed at addressing the rights, needs and well-being of girls and boys and women and men.

Joseph Chamie is a former Director of the United Nations Population Division.

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Pepsi Pledge Signals Momentum on Land Rights http://www.ipsnews.net/2014/03/pepsi-pledge-signals-momentum-land-rights/?utm_source=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_campaign=pepsi-pledge-signals-momentum-land-rights http://www.ipsnews.net/2014/03/pepsi-pledge-signals-momentum-land-rights/#comments Tue, 18 Mar 2014 21:09:37 +0000 Carey L. Biron http://www.ipsnews.net/?p=133065 PepsiCo, the world’s second largest food and beverage manufacturer, has agreed to overhaul its longstanding policies around land rights, instituting a series of new safeguards and transparency pledges throughout its global supply chains. Anti-poverty and development advocates are lauding the announcement, made Tuesday at the company’s New York headquarters. Coming on the heels of a […]

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Sugar cane being sold at a market on the edge of Phnom Penh. The global soft drinks market alone is thought to use some 176 million tonnes of sugar each year. Credit: Michelle Tolson/IPS

Sugar cane being sold at a market on the edge of Phnom Penh. The global soft drinks market alone is thought to use some 176 million tonnes of sugar each year. Credit: Michelle Tolson/IPS

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

PepsiCo, the world’s second largest food and beverage manufacturer, has agreed to overhaul its longstanding policies around land rights, instituting a series of new safeguards and transparency pledges throughout its global supply chains.

Anti-poverty and development advocates are lauding the announcement, made Tuesday at the company’s New York headquarters."These companies are very competitive, and it turns out that a simple index, aimed at encouraging a ‘race to the top’, is an effective tool." -- Chris Jochnick

Coming on the heels of a similar pledge made late last year by Coca-Cola, the move appears to strengthen a new trend in corporate recognition of land rights, while also offering clear recognition of the growing power of consumer demand.

PepsiCo’s new pledge includes a “zero tolerance” policy for agriculture-related “land-grabbing”, or large-scale land acquisitions, among all of its commodity suppliers, only the second such company to do so.

In addition to its namesake sugared soft drink, PepsiCo owns a vast empire of well-known consumer brands, including Gatorade, Tropicana, Quaker and Frito-Lay.

“Agriculture is an integral part of PepsiCo’s supply chain,” Paul Boykas, vice president for public policy at PepsiCo, said Tuesday.

“Regardless of the source of the commodity – whether from suppliers, directly or indirectly, a farm or processor – this land policy defines our intentions and the actions we as a company will take to recognise land rights throughout our supply chain.”

With annual sales of some 65 billion dollars, PepsiCo is the world’s second-largest producer of soft drinks, producing global brands including Mountain Dew, Miranda and others. The global soft drinks market alone is thought to use some 176 million tonnes of sugar each year, while PepsiCo’s commodity usage spans hundreds of ingredients.

In its new land policy, PepsiCo notes that it sources its raw materials from a “wide range” of land tenure set-ups, both formal and informal. As an initial step, the company says it will “comprehensively map”, and then implement a “presumption of transparency” throughout, its supply chains.

It has also pledged to implement free, prior and informed consent (FPIC) principles when either the company or its suppliers are acquiring land, with the aim of ensuring a substantive conversation and negotiating process with local communities.

Further, when the company or its suppliers are operating in a country that does not have “adequate land rights protections”, PepsiCo says it will lobby the national government of that country to put in place and implement specific FPIC principles.

This land in Liberia has been leased by the government to Equatorial Palm Oil for 50 years. PepsiCo’s new pledge includes a “zero tolerance” policy for agriculture-related “land-grabbing”, or large-scale land acquisitions, among all of its commodity suppliers. Credit: Wade C.L. Williams/IPS

This land in Liberia has been leased by the government to Equatorial Palm Oil for 50 years. PepsiCo’s new pledge includes a “zero tolerance” policy for agriculture-related “land-grabbing”, or large-scale land acquisitions, among all of its commodity suppliers. Credit: Wade C.L. Williams/IPS

This unusual step is part of a broader commitment to be public and vocal about its new land policies, an agreement reportedly won through discussions with the anti-poverty group Oxfam International.

“This commitment to be a public advocate – towards others in the industry, towards governments and suppliers – is new terrain, both for campaigners and certainly for the companies themselves,” Chris Jochnick, the director of the private sector department at Oxfam America, told IPS.

“It’s very helpful to have major companies advocating on these issues at both the global and national level, among their industry peers and vis-à-vis the direct suppliers. For local communities and NGOs, it’s also useful to be able to point to these major companies and say that they’re insisting on FPIC standards.”

Race to the top

Both the recent Coca-Cola and now the PepsiCo pledges came about in part due to negotiations with and public pressure organised over the past year by Oxfam, and Jochnick says the new commitments are significant. He particularly points to the zero tolerance for land grabbing as “very ambitious”.

A year ago, Oxfam began a new initiative aimed at highlighting the land policies adopted by 10 of the world’s largest consumer brands, including PepsiCo and Coca-Cola. In November, Oxfam and others filed a shareholder resolution calling on PepsiCo to file an annual report “focused on the issue of land rights along the company’s supply chains”.

“PepsiCo’s sources of sugar include suppliers that have been linked to land grabs, which poses risk to the company and shareholder value,” the resolution stated. “PepsiCo must urgently recognize this problem and take steps to ensure that land rights violations are not part of its supply chain.”

In November, Coca-Cola announced that it would institute a “zero tolerance” policy for land-grabbing. Since then, almost 275,000 people have signed petitions calling on PepsiCo to follow suit.

“We’ve been surprised ourselves with how much pressure consumers have been able to exert, and how sensitive the brands are to that kind of engagement,” Jochnick says.

“These companies are very competitive, and it turns out that a simple index, aimed at encouraging a ‘race to the top’, is an effective tool. These companies would choose to be a leader rather than be perceived as a laggard.”

A year ago, just two of the companies on Oxfam’s list of 10 had even begun talking about land rights. According to an updated scorecard released last month, seven companies are now making specific commitments on the issue (the scores don’t include the new pledges by PepsiCo).

“We feel there’s real momentum around land rights right now,” Jochnick says. “So the next step will be to use that action to push the suppliers – Cargill, Bunge – to focus more broadly on land.”

Weak standards

As part of its new commitments on Tuesday, PepsiCo noted its ongoing participation in at least two multi-stakeholder groupings, aimed at creating voluntary social and environmental standards around the production of palm oil and sugarcane. Global demand for these products is currently surging, constituting the majority of the recent increase in land-grabbing.

Yet activists have increasingly panned these industry-led certification initiatives, including the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) and Bonsucro, which focuses on the global sugar supply. Nonetheless, for the moment PepsiCo says it will continue its participation in both groupings.

“PepsiCo’s new land policy is a positive step. But instead of taking responsibility for eliminating land grabbing from its palm oil supply chain, PepsiCo is relying solely on the inadequate standards of the RSPO,” Gemma Tillack, a senior forest campaigner at the Rainforest Action Network (RAN), a watchdog group, told IPS.

“The RSPO continues to certify companies that destroy rainforests and cause massive climate pollution and human rights violations. To fully address these serious problems, PepsiCo must join other leading consumer companies and adopt a truly responsible palm oil sourcing policy.”

Last week, RAN and other advocacy groups formally opened to applications a new standards initiative, the Palm Oil Innovation Group (POIG), which aims to “build on” the RSPO process. In a joint statement released last week, POIG’s membership said it will “prove that palm oil production does not need to be linked to forest destruction, social conflict or worsen climate change.”

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Georgia Opts for Gold Mining at Protected Historical Site http://www.ipsnews.net/2014/03/georgia-opts-gold-mining-protected-historical-site/?utm_source=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_campaign=georgia-opts-gold-mining-protected-historical-site http://www.ipsnews.net/2014/03/georgia-opts-gold-mining-protected-historical-site/#comments Tue, 18 Mar 2014 18:46:47 +0000 Paul Rimple http://www.ipsnews.net/?p=133054 It turns out the choice between gold and historical preservation is an easy one to make for officials in Georgia: the government is going for gold. EurasiaNet.org has learned the Georgian Ministry of Culture and Heritage Protection has given Russian-owned mining company RMG Gold the green light to excavate gold from Sakdrisi-Kachagiani, a nine-hectare site […]

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Environmental activists and representatives of Georgia’s Ministry of Environment stand outside the Sakdrisi-Kachagiani mining site after guards stopped them from entering on Mar. 17. Credit: Paul Rimple

Environmental activists and representatives of Georgia’s Ministry of Environment stand outside the Sakdrisi-Kachagiani mining site after guards stopped them from entering on Mar. 17. Credit: Paul Rimple

By Paul Rimple
TBILISI, Mar 18 2014 (EurasiaNet)

It turns out the choice between gold and historical preservation is an easy one to make for officials in Georgia: the government is going for gold.

EurasiaNet.org has learned the Georgian Ministry of Culture and Heritage Protection has given Russian-owned mining company RMG Gold the green light to excavate gold from Sakdrisi-Kachagiani, a nine-hectare site in southeastern Georgia that many archeologists claim contains the remnants of one of the world’s oldest gold mines.

In 2004, archeologists from the National Museum of Georgia and the German Mining Museum unearthed caves and mining tools at the site that are believed to date to the third millennium, BC.

It is uncertain when the company will begin mining the site. Approximately half of its workforce has been on strike since January 24, seeking higher wages. Some critics hint the company is using the archeological controversy as cover for questionable labor practices.

Opponents are also upset with the government’s evident willingness to allow the destruction of what may be a unique site. Officials have additionally brushed off a call by civil-society activists for an independent study into Sakdrisi the site’s archeological significance.

During a Mar. 17 trip by a EurasiaNet.org correspondent to the area, accompanied by government representatives, two manned security vehicles sat outside the entrance to Sakdrisi-Kachagiani. The company continues to block entrance to the site, even to Ministry of Environment officials. It cites the potential for damage by outsiders and lingering issues about the site’s status as the cause.

Caves and mining tools discovered at the site during a 2004 excavation by the National Museum of Georgia and the German Mining Museum are believed to date to the third millennium, BC.

But in its March 14 decision, the Culture Ministry cited a supposed lack of proof that Sakdrisi had ever functioned as a gold mine as a reason for lifting the site’s protected status as a a “cultural monument.”

For the past eight years, Sakdrisi had enjoyed protection, a designation that prevented mining at the site, located near the village of Kazreti, where a vast copper mine owned by RMG Gold’s sibling, RMG Copper, is located.

In a March 13 discussion with university students, Prime Minister Irakli Gharibashvili indicated that another factor played into the government’s decision to lift the site’s protected status. Noting the supposed lack of evidence for Sakdrisi’s past, the prime minister stressed that RMG Gold has invested 300 million dollars into the Georgian economy and employs 3,000 people.

For a country with an official unemployment rate of 16 percent, an economic growth rate of under 2 percent such earnings and employment figures are not exactly trivial. In addition, the government experienced a drastic shortfall in tax revenues for 2013.

RMG Gold, an entity that evolved from Georgia’s former mega-mining company Madneuli, is believed to rank as one of the country’s largest taxpayers. RMG Gold executives claim that to find fresh gold and maintain their operations, they need access to Sakdrisi-Kachagiani.

With gold prices now at 43.67 dollars per gramme, it appears it wasn’t difficult for officials to buy into RMG Gold’s argument. In 2013, gold accounted for 2.9 percent (35.52 million dollars) of the country’s export earnings.

Gocha Aleksandria, vice-president of the Georgian Trade Union Confederation, is among RMG Gold’s critics who note that the company started complaining about the Sakdrisi ban’s adverse impact on earnings only after it was hit with a strike.

RMG Gold representatives have claimed that as long as they can’t mine the area, they cannot pay higher wages or keep on idle workers. On Jan. 31, one week after the strike began, the company dismissed 184 workers allegedly for these reasons.

“We see it as retaliation for the strike,” Aleksandria said, speaking for the confederation’s membership.

The government has appointed mediators to settle the strike, but Aleksandria says the process is moving slowly. Even with a full work force, Mikheil Kvaratskhelia, head of RMG Gold’s Health, Safety and Environment Department, reckons it will be “a couple of years” before the Sakdrisi-Kachagiani site is blasted for mining.

Skirting Sakdrisi-Kachagiani, the last in a series of five ore pits, is not an option, the company says. Geologists claim that ore from the site, believed to be the richest in gold, must be blended with that from the four other pits to get a consistent grade of gold. Preliminary exploration work has only just begun on the first pit, about two kilometres away.

Civil-society activists are bracing for a long fight. “The government has a responsibility to explain, to argue its position, not just ignore [opponents],” commented Kakha Bakhtadze, a representative of the Caucasus Environmental NGO Network (CENN), one of the signers of a petition to Prime Minister Gharibashvili to preserve Sakdrisi’s protected status.

The disregard that officials have exhibited toward those Georgians who want to protect Sakdrisi, “means that tomorrow the government can decide to destroy another cultural monument and do what it wants,” Bakhtadze alleged.

The message the Culture Ministry is sending is mixed. In a Mar. 14 statement, it called the claims about Sakdrisi’s archeological value a “myth,” yet it also announced intentions to invite independent international experts to monitor RMG Gold’s mining at the site in case of “some scientific” discovery.

For Irakli Matcharashvili, program coordinator at Green Alternative, another of the Georgian NGOs opposing the ministry’s decision, the plan makes no sense. “If this is a myth, why do they need a commission of experts? It’s just words.”

RMG Gold spokesperson Ekatarina Jojua has no information about a potential monitoring. “It’s beyond our scope,” Jojua said. “It’s not clear who or how this will be done. It’s up to the ministry.”

Bakhtadze, the CENN representative,believes the government is suffering from short-sightedness. “The mine might be around for five or ten years. That’s all. They will have destroyed the environment and [our] cultural heritage.”

Editor’s note: Paul Rimple is a freelance reporter based in Tbilisi. This story originally appeared on EurasiaNet.org.

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IMF Urges Redistribution to Tackle Growing Inequality http://www.ipsnews.net/2014/03/imf-urges-redistribution-tackle-growing-inequality/?utm_source=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_campaign=imf-urges-redistribution-tackle-growing-inequality http://www.ipsnews.net/2014/03/imf-urges-redistribution-tackle-growing-inequality/#comments Thu, 13 Mar 2014 22:14:48 +0000 Carey L. Biron http://www.ipsnews.net/?p=132841 The International Monetary Fund (IMF) is wading strongly into the global debate over the impact of growing income inequality, offering a series of controversial findings that push back on long-held economic orthodoxy – of which the fund itself has long been a key proponent. The IMF, arguably the world’s premiere financial institution, is stating unequivocally […]

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Biomass is the basic source of fuel for many in the southern Mexican state of Chiapas. Credit: Mauricio Ramos/IPS

Biomass is the basic source of fuel for many in the southern Mexican state of Chiapas. Credit: Mauricio Ramos/IPS

By Carey L. Biron
WASHINGTON, Mar 13 2014 (IPS)

The International Monetary Fund (IMF) is wading strongly into the global debate over the impact of growing income inequality, offering a series of controversial findings that push back on long-held economic orthodoxy – of which the fund itself has long been a key proponent.

The IMF, arguably the world’s premiere financial institution, is stating unequivocally that income inequality “tends to reduce the pace and durability” of economic growth. In a paper released Thursday, the fund also suggests that a spectrum of approaches to “progressive” redistribution – national tax and spending policies that are purposefully tilted in favour of the poor – would decrease inequality and hence “is overall pro-growth”.“This is the final judgment on inequality being bad for growth.” -- Nicolas Mombrial

“This is the final judgment on inequality being bad for growth,” Nicolas Mombrial, a spokesperson for Oxfam, a humanitarian group, told IPS in a statement.

“The IMF’s evidence is clear: The solutions to fighting inequality are investing in health care and education, and progressive taxation. Austerity policies do the opposite, they worsen inequality … We hope this signals a long-term change in IMF policy advice to countries – to invest in health and education and more progressive fiscal policies.”

For the past half-century, the Washington-based IMF has operated as the world’s “lender of last resort” for failing economies. In return for offering short-term loans to governments in economic crisis, the fund typically demands the imposition of a range of often stringent austerity measures aimed at solidifying the country’s finances.

After years of frustration over these conditions by anti-poverty campaigners, the IMF has recently engaged in a broad reappraisal of this approach. In November, the fund proposed an overhaul of its debt-restructuring guidance, though formal introduction of this proposal has now been pushed back to June, following pushback.

“Although the main points are not new, the IMF paper is nonetheless significant because the organisation has typically been at the more conservative end in its policy advice – from being seen to restrict measures that would ameliorate the worst impacts of crises on those in deepest poverty, for example, to promoting quite damagingly regressive changes to tax systems in their country advice,” Alex Cobham, a research fellow with the London office of the Center for Global Development (CGD), a think tank based here, told IPS.

“Nonetheless, we should not expect massive or immediate changes in IMF policy. The situation of tax policy demonstrates very well how the organisation can continue to promote in-country the same approaches that their own research has discredited.”

Hot subject

The new advice on income inequality will likely be received sceptically in many corners, though the fund is giving the findings its full backing. While Thursday’s release came in the form of a staff paper, the report was given a high-profile rollout here, including an introduction from the fund’s second-highest official, David Lipton.

“Some may be surprised that the fund is engaging in this debate on the design of redistributive policies … [but] one reason why we are discussing this issue today is it’s becoming a hot subject,” Lipton, the fund’s first deputy managing director, said Thursday at the report’s unveiling.

“The interest in redistribution, as reflected in public surveys and our discussions with our members, shows that interest is higher than in the past. Our members want to explore with us how they can pursue distributive policies in an efficient manner.”

The IMF is quick to note that the new paper, which builds on a research note released last month, constitutes not recommendations but rather advice to its 188-country membership, while country-specific design for any redistributive mechanism remains of paramount importance. Nonetheless, the “efficient” options it is offering to both developing and developed governments consider are striking.

These include placing higher taxes on the rich than on other segments of society, as well as strengthening property taxes, potential for which the fund says is particularly significant in developing countries. It also suggests considering increasing the age at which citizens become eligible for pensions and other state old-age programmes.

Many of these suggestions have long been pushed by development advocates as well as global labour-rights activists.

“We’re pleased that the IMF has finally caught up with what the global union movement has been saying for years – that inequality is the number one threat to the economic recovery,” Philip Jennings, the general secretary of UNI Global Union, said in a statement. “The only way out of this crisis is inclusive, sustainable economic growth with a living wage for all.”

CGD’s Cobham says the paper will give support to policymakers who want to tackle inequality, and could serve as the basis for a broader global agreement on the issue.

“It may in fact mark an important moment in establishing the breadth of the consensus that reducing income inequality should be one of the targets of the post-2015 framework that will succeed the Millennium Development Goals,” he says.

Greatest risk

A half-decade since the start of the global economic crisis, inequality has risen to the top of global agendas.

In January, the World Economic Forum warned that the growing gap between rich and poor, brought about by globalisation, constituted “the most likely risk to cause an impact on a global scale in the next decade”. The previous month, President Barack Obama likewise stated that income inequality is “the defining challenge of our time”.

Much of this new focus is because the global concentration of wealth that has taken place over the past three decades has increased in recent years, and today stands at modern record levels. According to analysis by Credit Suisse, just one percent of the global population owns around half of the world’s wealth.

According to the new IMF paper, this trend is particularly pronounced in the West, especially in the United States. In developing countries, income inequality has been growing in the Middle East and North Africa, though recently it has begun to decrease in sub-Saharan Africa and, particularly, in Latin America.

Despite this recent downward trend, however, Latin America retains one of the highest levels of inequality of any region.

While the fund points to a variety of social spending as a key way to reduce these levels, the IMF’s Lipton warns that such spending needs to be better designed or risk increasing inequality.

“Fiscal policy has played a major role in reducing inequality in the past and is the primary tool available for governments to affect income distribution,” he said Thursday. “Whether these policies help, or hurt growth, is all a matter of design.”

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Mars Latest to Announce “No Deforestation” Palm Oil Pledge http://www.ipsnews.net/2014/03/mars-latest-announce-deforestation-palm-oil-pledge/?utm_source=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_campaign=mars-latest-announce-deforestation-palm-oil-pledge http://www.ipsnews.net/2014/03/mars-latest-announce-deforestation-palm-oil-pledge/#comments Mon, 10 Mar 2014 23:01:43 +0000 Carey L. Biron http://www.ipsnews.net/?p=132637 The multinational food giant Mars, Inc. unveiled Monday a new set of guidelines aimed at ensuring that its palm oil supply lines are completely traceable and sustainable by next year. Global demand for palm oil has increased substantially in recent years, for use in both foods and household goods. Yet the industry, overwhelmingly centred in […]

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By Carey L. Biron
WASHINGTON, Mar 10 2014 (IPS)

The multinational food giant Mars, Inc. unveiled Monday a new set of guidelines aimed at ensuring that its palm oil supply lines are completely traceable and sustainable by next year.

Global demand for palm oil has increased substantially in recent years, for use in both foods and household goods. Yet the industry, overwhelmingly centred in Malaysia and Indonesia, has been rife with environmental and labour problems."This isn’t an activist-led commitment. They’re doing it because they want to do it." -- Bastien Sachet

Recent months, however, have seen a cascade of major reform commitments from both palm oil suppliers and well-known consumer brands such as Mars.

“Rapid expansion of palm oil plantations continues to threaten environmentally sensitive areas of tropical rainforest and carbon-rich peatlands, as well as the rights of communities that depend on them for their livelihoods,” Barry Parkin, chief sustainability officer at Mars, best known as the maker of M&Ms and other candies, said Monday.

“We believe that these additional measures will not only help build a genuinely sustainable pipeline for Mars, but will also help accelerate change across the industry by encouraging our suppliers to only source from companies whose plantations and farms are responsibly run.”

Under the new guidelines, Mars will require that all of its suppliers have in place sourcing plans that are both fully sustainable and fully traceable by the end of this year, to be implemented by the end of 2015. The company, headquartered just outside of Washington, is also instituting a “no deforestation” pledge for its palm oil supply as well as its sourcing of paper pulp, soy and beef.

“Four years ago, Nestle decided to go for full traceability and no deforestation, but at the time that decision was seen as very niche because it was being pushed by environmental activists,” Bastien Sachet, director of the Forest Trust, a global watchdog group that focuses on responsible products and whose newest member is Mars, told IPS.

“The great thing about Mars, particularly in their push against deforestation across commodities, is that this isn’t an activist-led commitment. They’re doing it because they want to do it, which means that they see what’s happening.”

Workers on Bugala Island work to clear the rainforest to make way for an expanding palm tree plantation. Palm oil production is one of Uganda's rising industries. Credit: Will Boase/IPS

Workers on Bugala Island work to clear the rainforest to make way for an expanding palm tree plantation. Palm oil production is one of Uganda’s rising industries. Credit: Will Boase/IPS

In this, Sachet refers to a growing trend from both palm oil supply companies and major consumer brands to recognise that previous industry certification efforts to clean up palm oil supply lines have been relatively ineffective. Ensuring the traceability of palm oil, on the other hand, turns this certification model upside-down.

“Over the last four years, the general public, industry and the brands have struggled to make progress on sustainability with the tool of certification. Meanwhile, we saw forests being trashed in Malaysia and Indonesia, a process that’s also beginning in Africa,” Sachet says.

“But now they’re realising that certification is not the only way to go. Instead, we can get traceability first, figure out where it’s coming from and then figure out what’s happening around its production. Eventually we can incentivise those guys who are doing well with more market share – and penalise those that aren’t.”

While much of the industry is currently based in Southeast Asia, many observers point to looming problems in Africa, where land is starting to be snapped up by speculators. Yet Sachet says the new policies being put in place by the global food industry could be laying the grounds for finding a balance between development and conservation throughout the palm oil industry.

Half the supply

A voluntary certification process for responsible palm oil production, known as the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO), has been in effect for a decade, and most of the major users of palm products do abide by its guidelines. Yet it’s become increasingly clear that RSPO certification has been unable to halt the industry’s mass deforestation and destruction of endangered habitat.

Mars’s Parkin notes that his company “recognised that even though we have already implemented a 100% certified supply of palm oil, this is not enough.”

Other major brands have made similar realisations in recent months, including Unilever, Hershey, Kellogg and L’Oreal. Perhaps more critically, this trend has now included some of the largest global palm oil suppliers, including Wilmar (in December) and Golden Agri Resources (GAR, just last week).

Wilmar alone accounts for more than 40 percent of the global palm oil supply. Altogether, companies controlling a bit more than half of that supply have now committed to having their products be deforestation free by 2015.

As recently as the middle of last year, that figure was zero.

“There has been progress and I definitely think we’re on the right track, though there’s still a long way to go,” Calen May-Tobin, lead analyst for the TropicalForest and Climate Initiative at the Union of Concerned Scientists (USC), a watchdog group here, told IPS.

“It’s also important to remember that these are still just public commitments. The action happens when these commitments get turned into policies and are actually implemented.

Last week, UCS released a scorecard that rated palm oil-related sustainability progress by the packaged food, fast food and personal care industries. May-Tobin, who was a co-author on the new report, notes that much of the new public pressure has been aimed at the packaged-food companies.

“On the one hand, it’s clear that when consumers speak up, these companies listen. On the other hand, I think the report’s major finding was how poorly the fast-food sector did,” May-Tobin says.

“Further, there are still a number of other large traders that now need to follow Wilmar and GAR’s example. We think the consumer companies are equally key in helping drive the traders, as the average consumer doesn’t necessarily know who Bungee or Cargill is, but they know Hershey and Mars.”

Advocacy groups are using the recent momentum to urge holdout companies to unveil their own commitments. Greenpeace, the group widely credited with pushing Nestle to make its landmark pledges in 2010, is currently focusing on the U.S. consumer-goods giant Procter & Gamble (P&G).

“Mars joins a growing list of companies … that are finally promising forest-friendly products to their consumers. It shows that global public pressure is working, and is leaving P&G, which refuses to clean up their supply chains, increasingly isolated,” Areeba Hamid, forest campaigner at Greenpeace International, said Monday.

“P&G is relying on a certification scheme that has failed to prevent rainforest destruction in the habitat of endangered orangutans, or help reduce man-made fires like the ones that covered Singapore in smog last summer. It’s time P&G finally becomes proud sponsors of rainforests and commits to No Deforestation.”

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Sea Swallows the Stories of Africans Drowned at Ceuta http://www.ipsnews.net/2014/03/sea-swallows-stories-africans-drowned-ceuta/?utm_source=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_campaign=sea-swallows-stories-africans-drowned-ceuta http://www.ipsnews.net/2014/03/sea-swallows-stories-africans-drowned-ceuta/#comments Mon, 10 Mar 2014 19:20:38 +0000 Ines Benitez http://www.ipsnews.net/?p=132629 “Who will speak for them now? Who will tell their stories to their families in Cameroon or Ivory Coast?” asked Edmund Okeke, a Nigerian, about the 15 migrants who died while trying to swim to the shore of the Spanish city of Ceuta from Morocco. The victims were driven back with rubber bullets fired by […]

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Demonstrators with torches and placards reading “No more deaths on the borders” in Malaga on Feb. 12, to call for an investigation into the deaths of 15 immigrants six days earlier in Ceuta, a Spanish enclave in northern Africa. Credit: Inés Benítez/IPS

Demonstrators with torches and placards reading “No more deaths on the borders” in Malaga on Feb. 12, to call for an investigation into the deaths of 15 immigrants six days earlier in Ceuta, a Spanish enclave in northern Africa. Credit: Inés Benítez/IPS

By Inés Benítez
MALAGA, Spain, Mar 10 2014 (IPS)

“Who will speak for them now? Who will tell their stories to their families in Cameroon or Ivory Coast?” asked Edmund Okeke, a Nigerian, about the 15 migrants who died while trying to swim to the shore of the Spanish city of Ceuta from Morocco.

The victims were driven back with rubber bullets fired by the Spanish Guardia Civil (militarised police) from the beach of this Spanish enclave in north Africa, on Feb. 6.“The nights were terrible. The waves were like mountains." -- Gora Ndiaye

“These are people living in unbearable conditions of poverty and who are seeking a better life. Why else would they want to leave their country and embark on such a long and dangerous journey?” said Okeke, the president of the Palma-Palmilla Immigrants Association in the southern Spanish city of Malaga.

Okeke has lived here for 14 years and he believes that the actions of the Spanish border authorities “cannot be justified.”

That is why, he told IPS, he is calling on the government of rightwing Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy for a “proper” investigation and the prosecution and trial of “those responsible for giving the order to fire” on people “who were neither aggressive, nor represented a danger to anyone.”

The 15 migrants drowned when dozens jumped into the sea to try to reach Ceuta by swimming around the breakwater separating Moroccan and Spanish waters.

The Interior minister, Jorge Fernández Díaz, admitted on Feb. 13 when he appeared before parliament that the authorities had fired rubber bullets and tear gas from the land to the water.

“But not at the people,” he emphasised in his description of the facts being investigated by the attorney general’s office, following a complaint lodged by a score of non-governmental organisations.

Fernández Díaz visited Ceuta and Melilla, the other autonomous Spanish city in northern Africa, on Mar. 5 and 6. There he announced that the fences separating the enclaves from Morocco would be reinforced with special wire mesh to make them even harder for immigrants to scale.

Every year thousands of Africans, mostly from the sub-Saharan region, try to get into the European Union by climbing the three rows of fences lined with razor wire that separate Moroccan territory from Ceuta and Melilla, or by crossing the border in small boats from Morocco or their home countries.

But swimming across was an even more desperate option.

Tina Adrasubi, a 34-year-old Nigerian, left her home in Benin 13 years ago to come to Spain in order to help her family.

“I went to Mali by car with a friend, and then on foot to Morocco to cross to Ceuta,” she told IPS, rocking her two-month-old daughter, Gloria. Many sub-Saharan Africans take years to reach Morocco.

Each of the young men who drowned has his own story, and perhaps a mother who is waiting for a phone call that never comes, but “it seems that does not matter at all when you are poor,” complained Okeke to IPS.

The five bodies recovered on the Spanish side of the border fence lie in anonymous graves in a Ceutan graveyard. The others were taken to Moroccan morgues.

The governing People’s Party rejected a move in Congress to open a commission of enquiry into the tragedy.

Cecilia Malmström, European Commissioner for Home Affairs, suggested in a letter to minister Fernández Díaz that “the rubber bullets could have provoked panic among the group of immigrants” attempting to swim ashore, contributing to the deaths.

Some 80,000 immigrants, 40,000 in Morocco and another 40,000 in Mauritania, are waiting their chance to enter the EU through Ceuta and Melilla, the minister said on Mar. 4, according to figures provided by Morocco and corroborated by his office.

Union leader Gerardo Cova, who between 2001 and 2007 was head of the Information Centre for Foreign Workers in the resort of Marbella, told IPS: “the government wants to create social alarm and is criminalising immigrants in order to justify its actions and make cutbacks on foreigners’ rights.”

In 2013, a total of about 100,000 immigrants were intercepted trying to cross maritime and land borders into the 28 member countries of the EU.

Spain is the fourth most frequent route of irregular entry, according to the December 2013 figures from the European Agency for the Management of External Borders (Frontex), quoted by its assistant director, Gil Arias.

“Instead of rescuing them, they were treated like animals,” Christiana Nwokeji, the president of the Malaga Union of Nigerian Women, complained to IPS in her home.

While she was talking, a video on the television showed several survivors who managed to swim to shore in Ceuta, only to be immediately sent back to Morocco.

Nwokeji remarked that Spaniards, too, are emigrating because of the extremely high unemployment rate, due to the economic crisis and the new regulations that make it easier to fire workers. “Everyone in the world emigrates when they face a lack of opportunities,” she said.

“I was born in a crisis. We have always lived in crises,” Gora Ndiaye, a 28-year-old Senegalese man, told IPS. He said he felt “very afraid and very cold” in the small boat in which he and 45 of his fellow countrymen spent a week, travelling from Dakar to the Spanish municipality of Hoya Fría on Tenerife, one of the Canary Islands.

Ndiaye, who has a wife and a six-month-old son in Senegal, said “people here have to help Africa,” and he justified migration “because we have no food, we must send money to our families. We cannot live on nothing.”

“The nights were terrible. The waves were like mountains. I felt stabbing pains in my arms and legs,” said Ndiaye, who cannot swim, and who paid about 500 euros (693 dollars) for the crossing in a flimsy boat. “I am lucky to have lived to tell the tale,” he said.

According to Balance Migratorio en la Frontera Sur de 2013” (Migration Balance on the Southern Border 2013), a report presented in February by the Andalusian Human Rights Association (APDHA), 7,550 immigrants were intercepted reaching Spain by boat or through Ceuta and Melilla.

The number of people who died or disappeared in the attempt were 130 in 2013.

The study reported that 45.25 percent of African immigrants, over half of them from sub-Saharan Africa, arrived in boats and 27.4 percent on inflatable rafts. Some 15.75 percent scaled the fences at Ceuta and Melilla.

On Feb. 28, 200 immigrants climbed the fences at Melilla and their celebration of their arrival with hugs and laughter was shown on television.

Yvette Edere, from Ivory Coast, told IPS she felt “very sad” about what happened in Ceuta, and said she “had to struggle very hard” to get legal residence in Spain, where she arrived with a visa 20 years ago.

“Many white people from Europe and the United States come to Africa,” said Okeke. He is presently helping some Spaniards who want to go to work in Nigeria.

“They exploit its gold and its oil, and no one fires on them. There are no barriers or documents required. They are treated like kings,” he concluded.

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