Inter Press Service » Trade & Investment Turning the World Downside Up Fri, 24 Oct 2014 18:31:22 +0000 en-US hourly 1 Central Asia Hurting as Russia’s Ruble Sinks Thu, 23 Oct 2014 16:35:04 +0000 David Trilling and Timur Toktonaliev By David Trilling and Timur Toktonaliev
BISHKEK, Oct 23 2014 (EurasiaNet)

Pensioner Jyparkul Karaseyitova says she cannot afford meat anymore. At her local bazaar in Kyrgyzstan’s capital, Bishkek, the price for beef has jumped nine percent in the last six weeks. And she is not alone feeling the pain of rising inflation.

Butcher Aigul Shalpykova says her sales have fallen 40 percent in the last month. “If I usually sell 400 kilos of meat every month, in September I sold only 250 kilos,” she complained.On Oct. 20 a “large player” also sold about 600 million dollars, which kept the tenge stable at about 181/dollar. Observers believe the “large player” is a state-run company with ample reserves, but are mystified that the Central Bank refuses to comment and concerned that the interventions appear to be growing.

A sharp decline in the value of Russia’s ruble since early September is rippling across Central Asia, where economies are dependent on transfers from workers in Russia, and on imports too. As local currencies follow the ruble downward, the costs of imported essentials rise, reminding Central Asians just how dependent they are on their former colonial master.

The ruble is down 20 percent against the dollar since the start of the year, in part due to Western sanctions on Moscow for its role in the Ukraine crisis. The fall accelerated in September as the price of oil – Russia’s main export – dropped to four-year lows. The feeble ruble has helped push down currencies around the region, sometimes by double-digit figures.

In Bishkek, food prices have increased by 20 to 25 percent over the past 12 months, says Zaynidin Jumaliev, the chief for Kyrgyzstan’s northern regions at the Economics Ministry, who partially blames the rising cost of Russian-sourced fuel.

In Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan, remittances from the millions of workers in Russia have started to fall. In recent years, these cash transfers have contributed the equivalent of about 30 percent to Kyrgyzstan’s economy and about 50 percent to Tajikistan’s. As the ruble depreciates, however, it purchases fewer dollars to send home.

Transfers contracted in value during the first quarter of 2014 for the first time since 2009, the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development said last month, “primarily due” to the downturn in Russia. The EBRD added that any further drop “may significantly dampen consumer demand.”

“A weaker ruble weighs on [foreign] workers’ salaries […] which brings some pain to these countries,” said Oleg Kouzmin, Russia and CIS economist at Renaissance Capital in Moscow.

This month the International Monetary Fund said it expects consumer prices in Kyrgyzstan to grow eight percent in 2014 and 8.9 percent in 2015, compared with 6.6 percent last year. Kazakhstan and Tajikistan should see similar increases. A Dushanbe resident says he went on vacation for three weeks in July and when he returned food prices were approximately 10 percent higher. In Uzbekistan, the IMF said it expects inflation “will likely remain in the double digits.”

The one country unlikely to feel the pressure is Turkmenistan, which is sheltered from the market’s moods because it sells its chief export – natural gas – to China at a fixed price.

One factor that could sharply and suddenly affect the rest of the region is a policy shift at Russia’s Central Bank, which has already spent over 50 billion dollars this year defending the ruble. Some, like former Finance Minister Alexei Kudrin, have condemned efforts to prop up the currency, arguing that a weaker ruble is good for exports.

The tumbling ruble and the drop in the price of oil have helped steer Kazakhstan’s economy into a cul-de-sac, slowing growth projections, forcing officials to recalculate the budget, and suggesting the tenge is overvalued. The National Bank already devalued the currency by 19 percent in February.

On Oct. 21, National Bank Chairman Kairat Kelimbetov urged Kazakhs not to worry about another devaluation, but investors grumble that he said the same thing less than a month before February’s devaluation.

Another devaluation would send a distress signal to investors, says one Almaty banker. Astana “lost a fair bit of credibility last time,” the banker said on condition of anonymity, fearing new legislation designed to combat panic selling.

“They need to be much more careful about how they handle expectations going forward. And that is affecting how things are happening this time. People seem to be a lot more dollarised compared to a year ago and more hesitant to hold large tenge balances.”

“My personal position?” the banker added. “I’m not holding tenge.”

Meanwhile, a mystery investor has been propping up the tenge by selling hundreds of millions of dollars a day, according to Halyk Finance in Almaty. On Oct. 21 “a larger player, again offsetting the intraday trend, sold about 650 million dollars,” Halyk said in a note to investors.

On Oct. 20 a “large player” also sold about 600 million dollars, which kept the tenge stable at about 181/dollar. Observers believe the “large player” is a state-run company with ample reserves, but are mystified that the Central Bank refuses to comment and concerned that the interventions appear to be growing.

In Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, central banks have dipped into limited reserves to ease their currencies’ slides. Nevertheless, the Kyrgyz som has fallen by 12 percent against the dollar this year, the Tajik somoni by about 5 percent. The World Bank said this month it expects the somoni to sink further.

Renaissance Capital’s Kouzmin cautions against the bank interventions in Central Asia, which use up reserves and widen trade deficits. “It makes sense for the national banks of these countries to let currencies depreciate to some extent to keep national competitiveness,” he told

Overall, the slowdown in Russia has long-term effects on Central Asia. “Portfolio investors look at the region as a whole. If you’re a CIS fund, the news on Russia has been bad and has caused the withdrawal of funds” from the region, said Dominic Lewenz of Visor Capital, an investment bank in Almaty. “So the trouble in Russia has hit things here.”

GDP growth projections have fallen markedly across the region, but nowhere near the levels seen during the 2008-2009 financial crisis. Everything, it seems, depends on Ukraine. Any worsening scenario there would have “far-reaching implications” for the region, possibly on food security, according to the EBRD.

Back at the bazaar in Bishkek, Orunbay Jolchuev was forced this month to increase by 15 percent what he charges for flour. But at least sales have not been affected. “We all need flour, we all need to eat bread, macaroni, dough,” Jolchuev said. “It’s not something people can cut back even if it becomes too expensive.”

Editor’s note:  David Trilling is EurasiaNet’s Central Asia editor. Timur Toktonaliev is a Bishkek-based reporter. This story originally appeared on

Edited by Kitty Stapp

]]> 0
Añelo, from Forgotten Town to Capital of Argentina’s Shale Fuel Boom Thu, 23 Oct 2014 16:01:56 +0000 Fabiana Frayssinet The main street of Añelo, a remote town in Argentina’s southern Patagonia region which is set to become the country’s shale oil capital. In 15 years the population will have climbed to 25,000, 10 times what it was just two years ago. Credit: Fabiana Frayssinet/IPS

The main street of Añelo, a remote town in Argentina’s southern Patagonia region which is set to become the country’s shale oil capital. In 15 years the population will have climbed to 25,000, 10 times what it was just two years ago. Credit: Fabiana Frayssinet/IPS

By Fabiana Frayssinet
AÑELO, Argentina, Oct 23 2014 (IPS)

This small town in southern Argentina is nearly a century old, but the unconventional fossil fuel boom is forcing it to basically start over, from scratch. The wave of outsiders drawn by the shale fuel fever has pushed the town to its limits, while the plan to turn it into a “sustainable city of the future” is still only on paper.

The motto of this small town in the province of Neuquén is upbeat and premonitory: “The future found its place.”

But for now the town’s roads, most of which are unpaved and throw up clouds of dust from the heavy traffic of trucks and luxury cars driven by oil company executives, contradict that slogan.

“Many eyes around the world are on Añelo, but unfortunately we don’t have a good showcase, to put us on display,” the director of the town’s health centre, Rubén Bautista, told IPS.

“We are living on top of black gold, they take riches out of our soil, but they leave practically nothing to the local population,” added the doctor who, along with three other colleagues, covers the health needs of a population that doubled, from 2,500 to 5,000, in just two years.According to conservative projections, Añelo will have a population of 25,000 in 15 years, including people directly employed by the oil industry, indirect workers, and their families, who have begun to pour into the new mecca for Argentina’s energy self-sufficiency plans.

Añelo, a bleak town on the banks of the Neuquén river surrounded by fruit trees, goats and vineyards, is the town closest to the Loma Campana shale oil field, which is being worked by Argentina’s state oil company YPF and the U.S.-based Chevron.

It is only eight km from the oil field, which is part of new riches that hold out the biggest promise for revenue to fuel the country’s development: Vaca Muerta, a 30,000-sq km geological reserve that is rich in shale oil and gas and has made this country the second in the world after the United States in production of unconventional fossil fuels.

But the black gold is not shining yet in Añelo – which means forgotten place in the Mapuche indigenous language – located some 100 km north of Neuquén, the provincial capital.

The health centre, which refers serious cases to hospitals in the provincial capital, has just two ambulances, while 117 companies from across the planet are setting up shop in and around the town.

According to conservative projections, Añelo will have a population of 25,000 in 15 years, including people directly employed by the oil industry, indirect workers, and their families, who have begun to pour into the new mecca for Argentina’s energy self-sufficiency plans.

“They are people who come to Añelo with the idea of finding a better future…thinking about what unconventional fossil fuels could mean in their lives,” YPF Neuquén’s communications manager, Federico Calífano, told IPS.

YPF alone has 720 employees in the area. The workers come from nearby towns as well as other provinces, and from abroad, brought in by international companies in the construction, chemistry, hotel, transportation and services industries.

The town’s only hotel is full, and camps spring up on any flat area, with containers turned into comfortable temporary lodgings for the workers. Rent for a small apartment is five times what people pay in the most expensive neighbourhoods in Buenos Aires.

“We are building a city from scratch,” Añelo Mayor Darío Díaz told IPS, although he pointed out that even before the shale boom the town was “a strategic waypoint.”

YPF has been exploiting unconventional fossil fuels in the region since the 1980s, but “when their work was done they would leave,” Díaz explained. “This is much more intensive; there will be a lot of work over the next 30 years.”

“The town has infrastructure for around 2,500 inhabitants. It is too small now given the new demand for basic services like water, electricity, roads, and dust emission,” the province’s environment secretary, Ricardo Esquivel, told IPS.

The sound of hammering and pounding is constant. Two workers, who make the 120-km commute back and forth every day from Cipolletti, in the neighbouring province of Río Negro, are working on a new sidewalk. “It’s spectacular.There’s a lot of work here for everyone. More people are needed. The problem is housing,” construction worker Esteban Aries told IPS.

The YPF Foundation carried out an “urban footprint” study which gave rise to the Añelo Local Development Plan. The plan has the support of the Inter-American Development Bank (IDB) and its Emerging Sustainable Cities Initiative.

Carried out together with the local and provincial governments, the plan outlines different growth scenarios with the aim of assessing the risks and vulnerabilities of the area.

It addresses, among other aspects, “what surface area the city should have, how the urban planning process should start, what the diagram should look like, what services are needed – what Añelo is going to need today and in two, three, or five years,” Calífano said.

YPF reported that the work had already begun, including an expansion of the sanitation system, construction of homes for doctors, and a vocational training centre, linked to the needs of the oil industry. Primary healthcare clinics were set up in two trailer trucks – although Dr. Bautista said that’s not enough.

The economic growth has brought heavy traffic. The government is planning a two-lane highway to Vaca Muerta, on the so-called “oil route”, to keep the trucks out of the town.

“The steadily growing number of accidents is overwhelming,” Bautista said. The average has increased from 10 traffic and work-related accidents a month two years ago to 17 today.

“You have to keep in mind that most of the activity has been going on for a year,” said Pablo Bizzotto, YPF’s regional manager of unconventional fuels in Loma Campana, where some 20 wells are drilled every month, which has driven production up from 3,000 to 21,000 barrels per day of oil.

“There are things that we will obviously work out together with the authorities, as we go. This is all very new,” he said.

Agricultural engineer Eduardo Tomada left everything behind in Buenos Aires and invested his savings to open up a restaurant in Añelo, which is now packed with workers.

His cook, local resident Norma Olate, said she was happy because she’s earning more. But she nostalgically remembers when her town was “practically a sand dune.”

Development has brought work, “but also bad things,” the 60-year-old Olate told IPS. “There have been armed robberies, which we didn’t see here before.”

Olate, who has young, single daughters, said she is also worried about “the invasion of men.”

“So many men!” she said, laughing. “I’m not interested anymore, but the girls…there are guys who come and deceive them, a lot of them end up pregnant….that’s bad for the town too.”

Provincial lawmaker Raúl Dobrusín of the opposition Popular Unity party denounced the rise in prostitution, drug trafficking and use, alcoholism and corruption.

“We say the only things modernised in Añelo were the casino and the brothel,” he said ironically.

Dobrusín complained about the government’s lack of “planning” and “control” over these and other problems, such as real estate speculation and prices that are now unaffordable for many people in the town.

Nevertheless, for Mayor Díaz the balance is positive. “We have to take advantage of this opportunity for Añelo to develop as a town and improve the living standards of our people. What worries me is whether we will make the necessary investments quickly enough,” he said.

The province is preparing a “strategic development plan” for Añelo, along with nearby “oil micro-cities”, which will include the construction of an industrial park, schools, hospitals, roads and housing, and increased security.

“We’re not going to build an oil camp in Añelo without a city,” the mayor summed up.

Edited by Estrella Gutiérrez/Translated by Stephanie Wildes

]]> 1
The Nagoya Protocol: A Treaty Waiting to Happen Wed, 22 Oct 2014 16:13:10 +0000 Stella Paul Tribal women handle flowers from the Mahua tree, indigenous to central India. India was one of the first countries to ratify the Nagoya Protocol. Credit: Stella Paul/IPS

Tribal women handle flowers from the Mahua tree, indigenous to central India. India was one of the first countries to ratify the Nagoya Protocol. Credit: Stella Paul/IPS

By Stella Paul
PYEONGCHANG, Republic of Korea, Oct 22 2014 (IPS)

For over 20 years, Mote Bahadur Pun of Nepal’s western Myagdi district has been growing ‘Paris polyphylla’ – a Himalayan herb used to cure pain, burns and fevers.

Once every six months, a group of traders from China arrive at Pun’s house and buys several kilos of the herb. In return, Pun gets “a lump sum of 5,000 to 6,000 Nepalese rupees [about 50 dollars],” he tells IPS.

But ask Pun who these traders are and what they plan to do with bulk quantities of Paris polyphylla, listed as a vulnerable species by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN), and he stares blankly.

“This is a medicinal herb, so I assume they use it to make medicines,” is his only explanation.

“The Nagoya Protocol is a huge opportunity that can help [states] bring down the cost of biological conservation." -- CBD Executive Secretary Braulio Ferreira de Souza
In fact, trade in Paris polyphylla has been banned since it falls under the Annapurna Conservation Area, the largest protected area in Nepal covering over 7,600 square kilometres in the Annapurna range of the Himalayas.

From ancient times local communities have utilised the herb to cure a range of ills, but traders like those who come knocking at Pun’s door are either unaware or unconcerned that Paris polyphylla represents centuries of indigenous knowledge, and is thus protected under a little-known international treaty called the Nagoya Protocol.

Adopted in 2010 at the 10th meeting of the Conference of the Parties to the United Nations Convention on Biological Diversity (COP 10) in Japan, the agreement “provides a transparent legal framework for […] the fair and equitable sharing of benefits arising out of the utilization of genetic resources.”

Designed to prevent exploitation of people like Pun by traders who buy traditional medicinal resources for a paltry sum before turning huge profits from the sale of cosmetics or medicines derived from these species, the treaty covers all genetic resources including plants, herbs, animals and microorganisms.

Impressive in its scope, the protocol has hitherto largely been confined to paper. This year, however, at the recently concluded COP 12, which ran from Oct. 6-17 in Pyeongchang, South Korea, scores of experts agreed to put the provisions of the treaty front and center in efforts to preserve biological diversity worldwide.

With support from 54 countries – four more than the mandatory 50 ratifications required to bring the treaty into effect – the Nagoya Protocol will now form a crucial component of the post-2015 development agenda, as the world charts a more sustainable path forward for humanity and the planet.


According to environmentalists and scientists, the Nagoya Protocol could help curb ‘biopiracy’, broadly defined as the misappropriation of traditional or indigenous knowledge through the system of international patents that primarily benefit large multinationals in developed countries.

For instance, a pharmaceutical company that develops and sells herbal-based medicines will now – under the terms of the protocol – be required to share a portion of its profits with the country from which the resources, or the traditional knowledge governing the resources, originate.

In turn, these earnings are expected to help low-income countries finance conservation efforts.

A clause on access also provides mechanisms for local communities or countries to limit or restrict the use or extraction of a particular resource.

These clauses guard against biopiracy of the kind that was witnessed in the 1870s when the British explorer Henry Wickham smuggled 70,000 rubber tree seeds from Brazil, which were subsequently dispatched as seedlings to plantations across South and Southeast Asia, thus breaking the Brazilian monopoly over the rubber trade.

Nearly a century later, in the 1970s, Brazil again fell victim to biopiracy when the U.S.-based pharmaceutical giant Squibb used venom from the fangs of the jararaca, a pit viper endemic to Brazil, in the creation of captopril, a medication used to treat hypertension.

The New York Times reported that the drug earned the company revenues of 1.6 billion dollars in 1991, but Brazil itself did not see a cent of these profits.

The potential success of the treaty hangs on the support it receives in the international arena. So far, two-thirds of the parties to the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) have failed to ratify the protocol, representing what some have referred to as a “missed opportunity”.

“The Nagoya Protocol is a huge opportunity that can help the parties bring down the cost of biological conservation,” CBD Executive Secretary Braulio Ferreira de Souza told IPS, adding, however, that nothing will be possible until nations make the agreement legally binding.

Brazil, home to the world’s largest rainforest that is considered a mine of genetic resources, is yet to throw its weight behind the Nagoya agreement, a move experts say would benefit over three million indigenous people living in the Brazilian Amazon.

Roberto Cavalcanti, secretary for biodiversity in the Brazilian environment ministry, informed IPS that President Dilma Rousseff has submitted the legislation under an urgency provision, so it’s now in the top three pieces of legislation pending approval by Congress.

“We anticipate that with the approval of Brazil’s new domestic Access and Benefits Sharing (ABS) legislation, there will be a good environment for the ratification of the Protocol,” he added.

The government has already begun the task of informing local communities about the merits of the Nagoya Protocol and its economic benefits for generations to come.

The work is being done in collaboration with the environmental conservation organisation Grupo de Trabalho Amazonico, which is helping to educate communities around the country.

Since January this year, the organisation has helped over 10,000 locals put together a set of rules called Protocolo Communitaro (Community Protocols), which promotes preservation and sustainable use of forests and water sources, including medicinal plants and fish.

Missing skills

Unlike Brazil, several other countries are struggling to pave the way for ratification of the Protocol, largely due to a lack of technical and economic capacity.

This past June, the CBD organised a workshop in Uganda where several African states could learn more about the treaty and its ABS mechanism.

Countries like the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), home to a huge reserve of genetic resources and biological diversity including the world’s second largest rainforest, attended the workshop and admitted to being constrained by financial and technical limitations in implementing international agreements.

Chairperson and Chief Executive Officer of the Global Environment Facility (GEF) Nayoko Ishii told IPS her office stands ready to increase financial support to developing countries that lack capacity.

The GEF’s 15-million-dollar Nagoya Protocol Implementation Fund (NPIF) has already begun to support global initiatives, including a 4.4-million-dollar project to help Panama operationalise the ABS mechanism.

However, Ishii added, demand for the support has to come from within.

“Every country has a different degree of capacity. People come to us with a plan to build a particular skill in a particular area and there are of course specific programs for that.

“But I would encourage them to look at the entire strategy as one big capacity building investment [and] use that money wisely, to better manage their protected area systems [and] their administrative structures,” she concluded. 

Edited by Kanya D’Almeida

]]> 0
OPINION: Europe is Positioning Itself Outside the International Race Wed, 22 Oct 2014 08:23:35 +0000 Roberto Savio

In this column, Roberto Savio, founder and president emeritus of the Inter Press Service (IPS) news agency and publisher of Other News, argues that the crisis of internal governance, fomented by a latter-day Protestant ethic of fiscal sacrifice, is pushing Europe to the side lines of world affairs.

By Roberto Savio
ROME, Oct 22 2014 (IPS)

The new European Commission looks more like an experiment in balancing opposite forces than an institution that is run by some kind of governance. It will probably end up being paralysed by internal conflicts, which is the last thing it needs.

During the Commission presided over by José Manuel Barroso (2004-2014), Europe has become more and more marginal in the international arena, bogged down by the internal division between the North and the South of Europe.

Roberto Savio

Roberto Savio

We are going back to a new Thirty Years’ War – which took place nearly five centuries ago – between Catholics and Protestants. Catholics are considered profligate spenders, and there is a moral approach to economics from the Protestant side.

The Germans, for example, have transformed debt into a financial “sin”.  The large majority of Germans support the stern position of their government that fiscal sacrifice is the only way to salvation, and the looming economic slowdown will only strengthen that feeling. As a result, the handling of Europe’s internal governance crisis has largely pushed Europe to the side lines of the world.

It is a mystery why it is in the interests of Europe to push Russia into a structural alliance with China and, in such a fragile moment, inflict on itself losses of trade and investment with Russia which could reach 40 billion euro next year.“We are going back to a new Thirty Years’ War – which took place nearly five centuries ago – between Catholics and Protestants. Catholics are considered profligate spenders, and there is a moral approach to economics from the Protestant side.”

The latest issue of the prestigious Foreign Affairs magazine – the bible of the U.S. elite – carries a long and detailed article on “Why the Ukraine Crisis is the West’s Fault” by Chicago academic John J. Mearsheimer, who documents how the offer to Ukraine to join the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) was the last of a number of hostile steps that pushed Russian President Vladimir Putin to stop a clear process of encroachment.

Mearsheimer wonders how all this was in the long term interests of the United States, beyond some small circles, and why Europe followed. But politics now has only a short-term horizon, and priorities are becoming conditioned by that approach.

A good example is how European states (with the exception of the Nordic states), have been slashing their international cooperation budgets. Not only have Spain, Italy and Portugal – and of course Greece – practically eliminated their official development assistance (ODA) budgets, but France, Belgium and Austria have also been following suit. Meanwhile China has been investing heavily in Africa, Latin America and, of course, Asia where the term ‘cooperation’ would not be the most appropriate.

But the best example of Europe’s inability to be in sync with reality is the last cut in the Erasmus programme, which sends tens of thousands of students every year to another European country. Has it been overlooked that one million babies have been born to couples who met during their Erasmus scholarships, and that this programme is being cut at a moment when anti-Europe parties are sprouting everywhere?

In fact, education – and especially culture (and medical assistance) – are under a continuous reduction in spending. As Giulio Tremonti, Finance Minister under Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, famously said, “you don’t eat with culture”.

The per capita budget for culture in southern Europe is now one-seventh that of northern Europe. Italy, which according to UNESCO holds 50 percent of Europe’s cultural heritage, has just decided in its latest budget to open up 100 jobs in the archaeological field with a gross monthly salary of 430 euro. In today’s market, this is half what a maid receives for 20 hours of work a week.

Italian politicians do not say so explicitly, but they believe that there is already such rich heritage that there is no need for further investment and, anyhow, the tourists continue to arrive. The budget for all Italian museums is close to the budget of the New York Metropolitan Museum … in the real world, this is like somebody who wants to live by showing the mummified body of his great grandmother for the price of a ticket!

It can be said that, in a moment of crisis, the budget for culture can be frozen because there are more urgent needs. But no need is more urgent than to keep Europe running in the international competition in order to ensure a future for its citizens. And yet, the budget for research and development, which is essential for staying in the race, is also being cut year by year.

Let us look at the situation since 2009. Spain has reduced investment in R&D by 40 percent, which has led to a 40 percent cut in financing for projects and a 30 percent cut in human resources. Italian universities have witnessed a total cut of 20 percent in spending which has meant a reduction of 80 percent in hiring and 100% in projects, while 40 percent of PhD courses have disappeared.

France has cut hiring in centres of research by 25 percent and in universities by 20 percent. Less than 10 percent of demand for projects receives financing because funds are no longer available.

Greece has cut budget for centres of research and universities by 50 percent since 2011, and has frozen the hiring of any new researchers.

In the same period in Portugal, universities and research centres have suffered a cut of 50 percent, the number of scholarships for PhDs has been cut by 40 percent and post-doctoral courses by 65 percent.

It is important to recall that the Lisbon Strategy, the action programme for jobs and growth adopted in 2000,  aimed to  make the European Union “the most competitive and dynamic knowledge-based economy in the world, capable of sustainable economic growth with more and better jobs and greater social cohesion” by 2010. Not only were most of its objectives not achieved in 2010, but Europe continues to slide backwards. The Lisbon Strategy had set 3 percent of GNP for R&D, but southern Europe is now below 1.5 percent.

A notable exception is the United Kingdom. The current government, which works in strong synchronicity with the City and its industrial constituency, has funded a 6 billion euro “Innovation and Research Strategy for Growth” plan to the applause of the private sector.

China is steadily increasing steadily its R&D budget, which is now 3 percent (what the Lisbon Strategy had set for Europe), but it aims to reach 6 percent of GNP by 2020 and, in just seven years, China has become the largest producer of solar energy, bankrupting several U.S. and European companies.

Is cutting Europe’s future in international competition really in the interests of Germany? Or it is that politics are losing the view of the forest while they discuss how many trees to cut, to reach a compromise between the Catholics and the Protestants?

We are now making of economics a moral science, which makes of Europe an unusual world. (END/IPS COLUMNIST SERVICE)

(Edited by Phil Harris)

]]> 1
Pacific Islanders Take on Australian Coal Tue, 21 Oct 2014 07:27:09 +0000 Suganthi Singarayar Of 10 million Pacific Islanders, nearly 50 percent live within 1.5 km of the coastline. These communities are at grave risk of numerous climate-related catastrophes from floods and tropical storms to destruction of agricultural lands. Credit: Catherine Wilson/IPS

Of 10 million Pacific Islanders, nearly 50 percent live within 1.5 km of the coastline. These communities are at grave risk of numerous climate-related catastrophes from floods and tropical storms to destruction of agricultural lands. Credit: Catherine Wilson/IPS

By Suganthi Singarayar
SYDNEY, Oct 21 2014 (IPS)

The recent blockade of ships entering the world’s largest coal port in Newcastle, Australia, has brought much-needed attention to the negative impacts of the fossil fuel industry on global climate patterns. But it will take more than a single action to bring the change required to prevent catastrophic levels of climate change.

This past Friday, 30 ‘climate warriors’ from 12 Pacific Island nations paddled traditional canoes into the sea, joined by scores of supporters in kayaks and on surfboards, to prevent the passage of eight of some 12 ships scheduled to move through the Newcastle port that day.

The blockade lasted nine hours, with photos and videos of the bold action going viral online.

The warriors hailed from a range of small island states including Fiji, Papua New Guinea (PNG), the Solomon Islands and Samoa – countries where the results of a hotter climate are painfully evident on a daily basis.

“We are divided by the oceans, by the air, but we are standing on the same land and the same mother earth.” -- Mikaele Maiava, a climate warrior from the South Pacific island nation of Tokelau
Coastline erosion, sea level rise, floods, storms, relocation of coastal communities, contamination of freshwater sources and destruction of crops and agricultural lands are only the tip of the iceberg of the hardships facing some 10 million Pacific Islanders, over 50 percent of whom reside within 1.5 km of the coastline.

For these populations, the fossil fuel industry poses one of the gravest threats to their very existence.

Coal production alone is responsible for 44 percent of global CO2 emissions worldwide, according to the Centre for Climate and Energy Solutions. However, none of the small island nations are responsible for this dirty industry. That responsibility lies with Australia, the fifth-largest coal producing country in the world after China, the United States, India and Indonesia.

The World Coal Association estimates that Australia produced 459 million tonnes of coal in 2013, of which it exported some 383 million tonnes that same year.

So when the warriors chose Australia as the site of the protest, it was to urge the Australian people to support Pacific Islanders in their stance against the fossil fuel industry.

Arianne Kassman, a climate warrior from PNG, told IPS, “The expansion of the fossil fuel industry means the destruction of the whole of the Pacific.”

“The impact of climate change is something that we see every day back home. While people read about it and hear about it and watch videos we see how much the sea level has risen,” Kassman added.

Logoitala Monise from Tuvalu, a low-lying Polynesian island state halfway between Australia and Hawaii, told IPS that her home is plagued by such climate-related impacts as King tides, coastal erosion and drought, the latter being an alien concept to most Tuvaluans.

In 2011, a state of emergency was called because the islands had not received rain for six months. Monise said rainwater was their only source of relief: it was used to drink, wash and raise animals.

The increasing frequency of drought has caused the loss of livestock and plants, and major disease outbreaks in Tuvalu.

All these things, she pointed out, were the direct result of climate change.

Elsewhere in the Pacific, changing weather patterns are wreaking havoc on an ancient way of life, splitting families apart as many are forced to migrate overseas. In fact, the world’s first “climate change refugee” claimant was a national of Kiribati, who claimed his home was “sinking”, but was denied asylum in New Zealand.

Monise said her main reason for coming to Australia was to speak out against climate change so that “we Pacific Islanders can live peacefully in our homelands rather than be called climate change refugees.”

But Pacific Islanders are up against a massive industry that will not be easily dismantled.

Coal ‘essential’ for Australian economy

The warriors witnessed this first-hand when they travelled to Maules Creek, near Boggabri in the Gunnedah basin in New South Wales (NSW), where Whitehaven Coal has a 767-million-dollar open cut coal project. There have been ongoing protests against the mine due to concerns ranging from biodiversity issues to concerns that the mine will cause a decrease in water table levels.

The Maules Creek community states that the Leard Forest in which the Maules Creek mine is located is an 8,000-hectare ‘biodiversity hotspot’ and has been identified as Tier 1, meaning that it cannot sustain any further loss and is also critical for the continuation of biodiversity in that area.

But these concerns may fall on deaf ears.

Coal is Australia’s second largest export earner after iron ore and according to Australia’s Prime Minister, Tony Abbott, it is essential for Australia’s prosperity.

Speaking on Monday at the opening of the Caval Ridge mine in central Queensland, a joint venture between BHP and Mitsubishi, Abbott said the mine, which will produce five-and-a-half million tonnes of coking coal a year, will add 30 million dollars to the Moranbah local economy and tens of millions of dollars to the wider regional, state and national economy.

He said the mine’s opening was a sign of hope and confidence in the coal industry.

He said, “It’s a great industry and we’ve had a great partnership with Japan in the coal industry. Coal is essential for the prosperity of Australia. Coal is essential for the prosperity of the world. Energy is what sustains prosperity and coal is the world’s principle energy source and it will be for decades to come.”

Another project that was approved in July is the Carmichael mine in Queensland’s Galilee basin. According to Greenpeace Australia it will have six open cut mines and five underground mines and would involve the clearing of 20,000 hectares of native bushland.

In an opinion piece on ABC Online, Ben Pearson, Greenpeace campaigns director, wrote that the burning of coal from the mine will emit 130 million tonnes of carbon dioxide every year for the 90-year life of the mine, which will directly cancel the 131 million tonnes of carbon dioxide that is predicted to be reduced through the government’s Direct Action plan.

According to Julie Macken from Greenpeace Australia, “What will ultimately have an effect is when there’s a chorus of voices from the low-lying Pacific nations, when there is a chorus of voices from the global financial community stating that coal is in structural decline and when the international community [and] the parties at the Paris Conference on Climate Change commit to take strong action against climate change.

“When these three things come together against the prospect of catastrophic climate change, then politicians will see that they need to do something,” Macken told IPS.

This, she said needs to happen in the next decade, otherwise the future for young people like her 20-year-old daughter is “cooked”.

Indeed, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) says that current levels of carbon in the atmosphere are higher than they have been in three million years, and are projected to keep growing unless drastic changes are made to production and consumption patterns worldwide.

Education will be a crucial part of efforts to bring about massive international action on climate change, and the Pacific climate warriors are doing their part in their home countries.

Kassman said that 90 percent of the people who live in PNG’s rural areas do not have access to education and while they are aware that the sea level is rising, that there’s erosion along the shoreline and that food crops are changing, they don’t yet understand why.

She said 350 PNG, associated with, the U.S.-based organisation that supported the recent blockade, believes that the best way to raise awareness in a country with over 800 language groups is to train young people and send them out to the communities.

While PNG has one of the world’s lowest carbon footprints, the opening of the Exxon Mobile PNG LNG gas plant has raised the level of that footprint.

But local efforts will not be adequate without major pressure on the big polluters.

“We are taught by our parents to do the right thing,” Mikaele Maiava, a climate warrior from the South Pacific island nation of Tokelau, said at a press conference on Oct. 11. “We are divided by the oceans, by the air, but we are standing on the same land and the same mother earth.”

He said that his fellow warriors did not just represent today’s generation but the generation of the “blood that’s to come” and urged the global community to “stand together with us now and forever” in the fight against catastrophic climate change.

Edited by Kanya D’Almeida

]]> 0
OPINION: Innovation Needed to Help Family Farms Thrive Sun, 19 Oct 2014 21:52:09 +0000 Jomo Kwame Sundaram Peruvian peasant women working on the family plot of land near the village of Padre Rumi in the Andean department of Huancavelica. Credit: Milagros Salazar/IPS

Peruvian peasant women working on the family plot of land near the village of Padre Rumi in the Andean department of Huancavelica. Credit: Milagros Salazar/IPS

By Jomo Kwame Sundaram
ROME, Oct 19 2014 (IPS)

Family farms have been contributing to food security and nutrition for centuries, if not millennia. But with changing demand for food as well as increasingly scarce natural resources and growing demographic pressures, family farms will need to innovate rapidly to thrive.

Meanwhile, sustainable rural development depends crucially on the viability and success of family farming. With family farms declining in size by ownership and often in operation as well, improving living standards in the countryside has become increasingly difficult over the decades.They are the stewards of the world’s agricultural resources and the source of more than four-fifths of the world’s food supply, but many are poor and food-insecure themselves.

Agricultural land use is increasingly constrained by the availability of arable land for cultivation as other land use demands increase. Addressing sustainable rural development involves economic and social considerations as well as ecological and resource constraints.

More than half a billion family farms worldwide form the backbone of agriculture in most countries. Although family farms account for more than nine out of 10 farms in the world, they have considerably less farm land. They are the stewards of the world’s agricultural resources and the source of more than four-fifths of the world’s food supply, but many are poor and food-insecure themselves.

Innovation challenge

Family farms are very diverse, and innovation systems must take this diversity into account. While some large farms are run as family operations, the main challenge for innovation is to reach smallholder family farms. Innovation strategies must, of course, consider family farms’ agro-ecological and socio-economic conditions.

Public efforts to promote agricultural innovation for small and medium-sized family farms should ensure that agricultural research, advisory services, market institutions and infrastructure are inclusive. Applied agricultural research for crops, livestock species and management practices should consider the challenges faced by family farms. A supportive environment for producer and other rural community-based organisations can thus help promote innovation.

Jomo Kwame Sundaram

Jomo Kwame Sundaram

The challenges facing agriculture and the institutional environment for agricultural innovation are more complex than ever. Effective innovation systems and initiatives must recognise and address this complexity. Agricultural innovation strategies should focus not only on increasing yields and net real incomes, but also on conserving natural resources, and other objectives.

An innovation system must consider all stakeholders. Therefore, it must take account of the complex contemporary policy and institutional environment for agriculture and the range of stakeholders engaged in decision-making, often with conflicting interests and priorities, thus requiring appropriate government involvement.

Public investments in agricultural R&D as well as extension and advisory services should be increased to emphasise sustainable intensification, raising yields and closing labour productivity gaps. Agricultural research and advisory services should therefore seek to raise productivity, improve sustainability, lower food prices, reduce poverty, etc.

R&D should focus on sustainable intensification, continuing to expand the production frontier in sustainable ways, working systemically and incorporating both traditional and other informal knowledge. Extension and advisory services should focus on closing yield gaps and raising the labour productivity of small and medium-sized farmers.

Partnering with producer organisations can help ensure that R&D and extension services are both inclusive and responsive to farmers’ needs.

Institutional innovation

All family farmers need an enabling environment for innovation, including developmental governance, growth-oriented macroeconomic conditions, legal and regulatory regimes favourable to family farms, affordable risk management tools and improved market infrastructure.

Improved access to local or wider markets for inputs and outputs, including through government procurement from family farmers, can provide strong incentives for innovation, but farmers in remote areas and other marginalised groups often face formidable barriers.

In addition, sustainable agricultural practices often have high start-up costs and long pay-off periods. Hence, farmers need appropriate incentives to provide needed environmental services. Effective local institutions, including farmer organisations, combined with social protection programmes, can help overcome these barriers.

The capacity to innovate in family farming must be supported at various levels and in different spheres. Individual innovation capacity and capabilities must be developed through education, training and extension. Incentives can create the needed networks and linkages to enable farmers, researchers and others to share information and to work towards common objectives.

Effective and inclusive producer organisations, such as cooperatives, can be crucial in supporting innovation by their members. Producer organistions can help their members better access markets and innovate and also ensure a voice for family farms in policy-making.

Innovation is not merely technical or economic, but often requires institutional, systemic and social dimensions as well. Such a holistic view of and approach to innovation can be crucial to inclusion, efficacy and success.

Edited by Kitty Stapp

The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations released The State of Food and Agriculture: Innovation in Family Farming on Oct. 16.

]]> 0
Pressure Building on Obama to Impose Ebola Travel Ban Fri, 17 Oct 2014 01:27:23 +0000 Carey L. Biron Children in the town of Gueckedou, the epicentre of the ebola outbreak in Guinea. Credit: ©afreecom/Idrissa Soumaré

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dangerous isolation

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Devastating economies

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

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

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

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

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

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

Edited by Kitty Stapp

The writer can be reached at

]]> 0
Africa Can Be its Own ‘Switzerland’ Thu, 16 Oct 2014 04:58:30 +0000 Busani Bafana A water kiosk in Blantyre, Malawi. A combination of including private equity investment and domestic resource mobilisation will help Africa unlock is financial resources to drive its development. Credit: Charles Mpaka/IPS

A water kiosk in Blantyre, Malawi. A combination of including private equity investment and domestic resource mobilisation will help Africa unlock is financial resources to drive its development. Credit: Charles Mpaka/IPS

By Busani Bafana
MARRAKECH, Oct 16 2014 (IPS)

Africa has the capacity to access at least 200 billion dollars for sustainable development investment but it will remain a slave to foreign aid unless it improves the climate for investment and trade and plugs illicit financial flows, development experts say.

“Africa is not poor financially but it needs to get its house in order,” Stephen Karingi, director of regional integration, infrastructure and trade at the United Nations Economic Commission for Africa (ECA), told IPS during the commission’s Ninth African Development Forum, which is being held in Morocco from Oct. 13 to 16.

“For too long we have allowed the narrative of Africa to be one about raw materials and natural resources coming out of Africa, yet Africa can take advantage of its own comparative advantages, including these natural resources, and become the leader in the value chains that require these raw materials.”

Research by the ECA shows that the total illicit financial outflows in Africa over the last 10 years, about 50 billion dollars a year, is equivalent to nearly all the official development assistance received by the continent.

“Africa is ready for transformation and we have the continental frameworks [for it],” said Karingi.

A combination of luring private equity investment, remittances and domestic resource mobilisation will help Africa unlock is financial resources to drive its development.

Sub-saharan Africa has one of the highest number of hungry people and has a growing youth population in need of jobs.

According to the McKinsey Global Institute, GDP growth has averaged five percent in Africa in the last decade, consistently outperforming global economic trends. This growth has been boosted by, among other factors, improved governance and macroeconomic management, rapid urbanisation and expanding regional markets.

Currently Africa is estimated to have a 100-billion-dollar annual funding gap for infrastructure development with about 45 billion dollars of this set to come from domestic resources.

Carlos Lopes, ECA executive secretary, said developing countries must strive to mobilise additional financial resources, including through accessing financial markets. He added that at the same time developed countries must honour the financial commitments they have made in international forums.

“The continent must embark on reforms to capture currently unexplored or poorly-managed resources,” Lopez said.

This is the first time that the Africa Development Forum has focused on the continent’s development.

Discussions focused on enhancing Africa’s capacity to explore innovative financing mechanisms as real alternatives for financing transformative development in Africa.

It aims to forge linkages between the importance of mainstreaming resource mobilisation and the reduction of trade barriers into economic, institutional and policy frameworks, and advancing the post-2015 development goals.

Macroeconomic policy division head at ECA, Adama Elhiraika, told IPS that the new sustainable development goals present an opportunity for Africa to excel by prioritising its development issues.

Elhiraika said Africa has all the ingredients to be a financial hub and investment magnet along the lines of “Switzerland” if only it can improve its investment and trade climate, tackle corruption and raise money internally.

“We need to get our policies right and allow for the kind of investments that people [can make] in Switzerland,” Elhiraika said.

“Given the size of Africa, there is need to promote free movement of capital, which is as important as the free movement of goods and services in boosting trade and investment.”

According to the World Bank, of the 50 economies that recorded improved in their regulatory business environment in 2013, 17 are from Africa, with eight of those economies being ranked ahead of mainland China, 11 ahead of Russia and 16 ahead of Brazil.

Edited by: Nalisha Adams

]]> 0
Regional Trade Agreements Cannot Substitute the Multilateral System Wed, 15 Oct 2014 07:55:55 +0000 Roberto Azevedo

In this column, Roberto Azevêdo, Director-General of the World Trade Organisation (WTO), notes that regional trade agreements have proliferated in recent years and become more complex. However, he argues that while economies become more interconnected across borders and regions, such agreements do not – and probably cannot ¬– fully address the gains from trade that can be obtained through global value chains.

By Roberto Azevêdo
GENEVA, Oct 15 2014 (IPS)

Regional trade agreements have grown very rapidly in recent years, and today the World Trade Organisation (WTO) has been notified that 253 are in force.

Clearly RTAs are not a new phenomenon.

In fact they pre-date the multilateral system because, in a sense, they were the seeds which grew into the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade. Created in 1947, GATT was replaced in 1994 by the WTO.

WTO Director-General Roberto Azevêdo. Credit: WTO/CC BY SA-2.0

WTO Director-General Roberto Azevêdo. Credit: WTO/CC BY SA-2.0

GATT was effectively a multilateralisation of the network of reciprocal trade agreements that countries had been pursuing for some years previously, so the system as we know it today has its roots in these agreements.

But of course things have changed in recent years. These agreements are not only more numerous, they are becoming increasingly complex.

While over 80 percent of RTAs notified are bilateral agreements, we are seeing more and more large regional agreements.

And we are seeing more agreements between countries in different regions, rather than between neighbours. This is very different from the pattern we saw during the GATT years.

In addition we see many more developing countries negotiating RTAs today.

This proliferation of agreements, each with their own sets of rules, has been dubbed a “spaghetti bowl” ­and I would certainly agree that we are seeing a significant increase in the level of complexity inside the agreements and in their relations with each other.

Most RTAs today make deeper and more extensive commitments, and have moved beyond commitments only in the sphere of market access for goods.“Although these initiatives [regional trade agreements] show that WTO members continue to liberalise trade, fragmentation of the trading system cannot be a substitute for the benefits of negotiating one set of rules for all”

A question which requires further consideration is how RTA provisions can be complementary to the multilateral trading system.

For some issues such as market access for goods and services, most RTAs grant their partners a higher level of market access than that available through the WTO.

For other issues, the picture is less straightforward.

Take, for example, RTA provisions on anti-dumping rules. In general, RTAs do not appear to have gone much further beyond where we are in the WTO today. Meanwhile, for issues such as investment, which is touched on by some RTAs, there are no WTO rules.

Another trend that has been noted in the past few years is negotiations that could potentially bring together a number of existing RTAs in so-called “mega-regional” negotiations.

While the trend to negotiate new RTAs continues, liberalising trade bilaterally or regionally is only a part of the picture.

As I have said many times,­ these initiatives are important for the multilateral trading system ­ but they cannot substitute it.

To start with, there are many big issues which can only be tackled in an efficient manner in the multilateral context through the WTO.

Trade facilitation was negotiated successfully in the WTO because it makes no economic sense to cut red tape or simplify trade procedures at the border for one or two countries. If you do it for
one country, in practical terms you do it for everyone.

Financial or telecommunication regulations cannot be efficiently liberalised for just one trade partner ­ so it is best to negotiate services trade-offs globally in the WTO. Nor can farming or fisheries subsides be tackled in bilateral deals.

Disciplines on trade remedies, such as the application of anti-dumping or countervailing duties, cannot significantly go beyond WTO rules.

The simple fact is that very few of the big challenges facing world trade today can be solved outside the global system. They are global problems demanding global solutions.

Another important aspect, leaving aside the content of the agreements, is their geographical scope. RTAs tend to exclude the smallest and most vulnerable countries. That is a major source of concern.

And, as our economies become more interconnected across borders and regions, RTAs do not – and probably cannot ­– fully address the gains from trade that can be obtained through global value chains.

Indeed, the strict, product-specific rules of origin that often accompany RTAs may actually be detrimental to value chains and therefore exclusionary for some. The smaller the country, the smaller the company, the smaller the trader, the bigger the likelihood that it will be excluded.

There is also concern that by creating different sets of rules and regulations, RTAs may be burdensome for traders and business. This is the point of complexity that is a concern for many.

Finally, although these initiatives show that WTO members continue to liberalise trade, fragmentation of the trading system cannot be a substitute for the benefits of negotiating one set of rules for all.

Ideally, this is where we should be putting our focus.

But in order to ensure this, one thing we clearly need to do is to deliver on what we agreed during the WTO word trade negotiations in Bali in December last year.

We are now halfway through an intensive consultation period to resolve the current impasse on this ­but, as things stand today, at this point in time we do not have a solution.

While this situation persists, I think the risk of disengagement increases exponentially. And this point is underlined by the proliferation of these other approaches.

For the sake of the multilateral system, and all those who stand to benefit from it, I think we have to find a solution to our current problems and put our work here at the WTO back on track. And we have to do it quickly. Time is not on our side. (END/IPS COLUMNIST SERVICE)

(Edited by Phil Harris)

]]> 0
Ahead of Myanmar Trip, Obama Urged to Demand Extractives Transparency Wed, 15 Oct 2014 00:33:47 +0000 Carey L. Biron Myanmar now has three years in which to put in place a series of transparency standards and publicly report on government extractives revenues, payments from mining and drilling companies, and related issues. Credit: Bigstock

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Beneficial owners

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Outside the framework

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

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

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

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

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

Edited by Kitty Stapp

The writer can be reached at

]]> 0
Vanuatu Puts Indigenous Rights First in Land Reform Tue, 14 Oct 2014 11:01:10 +0000 Catherine Wilson Customary land remains a vital source of food security, cash incomes and social wellbeing in Pacific Island countries, such as Vanuatu, where formal employment is only 20 percent. Credit: Catherine Wilson/IPS

Customary land remains a vital source of food security, cash incomes and social wellbeing in Pacific Island countries, such as Vanuatu, where formal employment is only 20 percent. Credit: Catherine Wilson/IPS

By Catherine Wilson
PORT VILA, Oct 14 2014 (IPS)

Stemming widespread corruption in the leasing of customary land to investors is the aim of bold land reform, introduced this year in the Southwest Pacific Island state of Vanuatu, which puts the rights of traditional landowners above the discretionary powers of politicians.

Less than one hour from the capital, Port Vila, is the village of Mangaliliu, one of many across this sprawling nation of 82 islands and more than 247,000 people where livelihoods centre on agriculture and fishing.

Here, villagers are battling the loss of their traditional land due to a lease negotiated without their consent.

“We thought the tourism business or selling our land would give us work and employ a lot of our people, but now we realise we made a mistake." -- Mangaliliu’s Chief Mormor
“Somebody from another village leased one piece of our land to an investor. I tried to stop him. When he started bulldozing the land, I went with my people and took palm leaves, which we use as a sign of [something that is] taboo [forbidden]. We hung them all along the road and the case is now in court,” Mangaliliu’s Chief Mormor recounted.

Pristine coastlines and sea views on the country’s main island of Efate have attracted foreign investors interested in property and tourism development and now an estimated 56.5 percent of coastal land on the island has been leased for periods up to 75 years.

More than 80 percent of land in Vanuatu is customary, with ownership held by extended families, who are custodians for the next generation. Rights of use for farming or commercial enterprises are decided by group consensus, as are proposals on leasing to other parties. The importance of land to the culture, identity, food security and social wellbeing of Pacific Islanders is reflected in most national laws, which only allow the lease – not sale – of customary land.

Yet today with the penetration of the cash economy land has also become a source of windfalls to villagers and politicians alike.

“People have learned that if they sell [lease] one piece of land they can buy a car, satellite dish or speedboat,” Mormor said. “It can take many years to save this sort of money, so it is just like a miracle if you sell land.”

However under group custodianship conflict can quickly arise if, for example, “I have a brother who sells a piece of land and doesn’t ask permission of me or my sister, or my children, or my sister’s children,” he added.

In the past, the lands minister could personally decide on disputed leases. The World Bank’s Justice for the Poor programme reports that 21.4 percent of all new leases since the country’s independence in 1980 have been signed under this provision. Last year alleged improper land dealings accounted for almost two-thirds of lawsuits against the government.

Now, the ambitions of land reform by indigenous leader Ralph Regenvanu, who was appointed lands minister in 2013, have become a reality.

In December last year new laws were passed making it mandatory that all members of customary landowner groups give their prior informed consent to any leases over their land. Potential investors must apply to a land management planning committee for approval to conduct negotiations with custom owners. Two customary institutions, Nakamals and Custom Area Land Tribunals, will decide the outcome of disputes, rather than the courts.

According to Regenvanu, investor confidence will increase because now when “you get a lease you can be assured that it was gained lawfully.” But he also believes that the economic and social security which land provides to his people will be strengthened.

Steve Namali of the Vanuatu National Council of Chiefs in Port Vila commented that, while consultation on the reforms had not been conducted nationwide, he believed they would help address the fraudulence of land deals in the past.

With adult literacy in the province estimated at 27.6 percent, the greater thoroughness of the approval process should also improve local awareness of the ramifications of entering into land agreements. For example, reclaiming land on a lease expiry often requires compensation to the lessee for developments, even though many villagers do not have the financial means to reimburse an investor the value of a tourist resort or luxury home.

Local communities often “don’t understand what is going to happen in the long term” and that most likely “at the end of a lease, it [land] will never come back to traditional tenure,” Joel Simo of the Melanesian Indigenous Land Defence Alliance (MILDA), a regional civil society landowner solidarity network, said in Port Vila.

“There is now a process in place that has to be followed and it will stop individuals going and doing their own thing,” he said. “It has been a good change for Vanuatu, especially because of this land boom and people selling land left, right and centre.”

International investors from Australia, Europe and Asia have largely driven growth in the real estate market, along with the nation’s tax haven status. In 2012, foreign direct investment (FDI) amounted to 37.7 million dollars or 4.8 percent of GDP, but Mormor claims local people have seen few benefits.

“We thought the tourism business or selling our land would give us work and employ a lot of our people, but now we realise we made a mistake,” he said.

Despite average GDP growth of four percent over the past decade, with a high of 8.5 percent in 2006, an estimated 40 percent of people have incomes below the poverty line.

“I think people want development, but what type of development and in whose interests?” Simo queried. He believes protecting indigenous landownership makes sense when the traditional economy, which includes subsistence and smallholder agriculture, is the biggest employer in Melanesia.

In comparison, “many [formal sector] jobs available involve cheap labour and that only gets people into more poverty,” he said. Formal employment in Vanuatu is only 20 percent and the average local wage is 316 dollars per month. So, he continued, “If you don’t have a job, you fall back to the land,” which is the only safety net.

Mormor now wants to retain his land for community-driven projects, such as fish farming and coconut oil production. He is happy that the new laws will help protect the land for his children, but also admits the more thorough land registration and approval process, if he engages with development partners, will take much longer than in the past.

“I could be dead when these projects start,” he laughs.

While Vanuatu’s new laws are popular, it remains to be seen how well they work, and if they eliminate political cronyism.

Edited by Kanya D’Almeida

]]> 0
Curbing the Illegal Wildlife Trade Crucial to Preserving Biodiversity Mon, 13 Oct 2014 12:00:18 +0000 Stella Paul South Africa’s white rhinoceros recovered from near-extinction thanks to intense conservation efforts. Credit: Kanya D’Almeida/IPS

South Africa’s white rhinoceros recovered from near-extinction thanks to intense conservation efforts. Credit: Kanya D’Almeida/IPS

By Stella Paul
PYEONGCHANG, Republic of Korea, Oct 13 2014 (IPS)

For over five years, 33-year-old Maheshwar Basumatary, a member of the indigenous Bodo community, made a living by killing wild animals in the protected forests of the Manas National Park, a tiger reserve, elephant sanctuary and UNESCO World Heritage Site that lies on the India-Bhutan border.

Then one morning in 2005, Basumatary walked into a police check-post and surrendered his gun. Since then, the young man has been spending his time taking care of abandoned and orphaned rhino and leopard cubs.

Employed by a local conservation organisation called the International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW), part of the Wildlife Trust of India, Basumatary is today a symbol of wildlife conservation.

Engaging locals like Basumatary into wildlife protection and conservation is an effective way to curb wildlife crimes such as poaching, smuggling and the illegal sale of animal parts, according to Maheshwar Dhakal, an ecologist with Nepal’s ministry of environment and soil conservation.

“[Law enforcement personnel] must have proper arms. They must also have tools to collect evidence, and records. They need transportation and mobile communication to act quickly and aptly. Without this, despite arrests, there will be no convictions because of a lack of evidence." -- Maheshwar Dhakal, an ecologist with Nepal’s ministry of environment and soil conservation
On the sidelines of the ongoing 12th Conference of the Parties of the United Nations Convention on Biological Diversity (COP 12) in Pyeongchang, South Korea, Dhakal told IPS that poverty and the prospect of higher earnings often drive locals to commit or abet wildlife crime.

Thus efforts should be made to combine conservation with income generation, so locals can be gainfully employed in efforts to protect and preserve biodiversity.

“Conservation efforts must also create livelihood opportunities within the local community,” he added.

“Everyone wants to earn more and live well. If you just tell people, ‘Go save the animals’, it’s not going to work. But if you find a way to incentivize protecting [of] wildlife, they will certainly join the force,” said Dhakal, adding that his own country is moving rapidly towards a ‘zero poaching’ status.

Poaching – a global problem

Poaching and the illegal wildlife trade are a universal menace that has been causing severe threats including possible extinction of species, economic losses, as well as loss of livelihood across the world.

According to the recently released Global Biodiversity Outlook 4 (GBO-4), the latest progress report of the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD), the current annual illegal wildlife trade stands at some 200 billion dollars annually.

The illicit enterprise is also thriving in Asia, touching some 19 billion dollars per year according to the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN)’s Wildlife Enforcement Network.

Law enforcements agencies regularly confiscate smuggled products and consignments of skins and other body parts of animals including crocodiles, snakes, tigers, elephants and rhinos. The killing of tigers and rhinos is a specific concern in the region, with both creatures facing the impending risk of extinction.

One of the biggest killing fields for poachers is the Kaziranga National Park (KNP) in India’s northeastern Assam state, a UNESCO World Heritage Site and home to two-thirds of the world’s remaining Great One-horned Rhinoceroses. In addition, the park boasts the highest density of tigers globally, and was officially designated as a tiger reserve in 2006.

The 185-square-mile park had 2,553 rhinos in 2013. However, 126 rhinos have been killed here in the past 13 years, with 21 slaughtered in 2013 alone, according to the state’s Environment and Forest Minister Rakibul Hussain.

Illegal trade spawns conflict, disease

There is also a direct link between the illegal wildlife trade and political conflicts across the world, says a joint report by the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) and INTERPOL, which puts the exact volume of the illegal trade at 213 billion dollars annually.

Much of this money “is helping finance criminal, militia and terrorist groups and threatening the security and sustainable development of many nations,” the report states.

According to the report, several militia groups in central and western Africa are involved in the illegal trade of animals and timber. These groups profit hugely from the trade, including through the sale of ivory, making between four and 12.2 million dollars each year.

Another report published this past February by Chatham House, the Royal Institute of International Affairs in UK, also pointed to the example of the extremist Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA), which has been reported to harvest tusks from elephants in the Democratic Republic of the Congo and barter with Sudanese soldiers or poachers for guns and ammunition.

But the trouble does not end there.

Maadjou Bah is part of a COP-12 delegation from the West African country of Guinea, where an Ebola outbreak in December 2013 has since spread to the neighbouring countries of Liberia and Sierra Leone, killing at least 4,300 people to date.

Bah told IPS that illegal hunting and trade in wildlife species increases the possibility of the Ebola virus spreading to other countries. Though the government of Guinea has designated 30 percent of its forests as ‘protected’, the borders are porous, with trafficking and trade posing a continuous threat.

Besides primates, fruit bats are known to be natural carriers of the Ebola virus, and since trade in bats forms part of the illegal global chain of wildlife trade, it is possible that Ebola could travel outside the borders where it is current wreaking havoc, according to Anne-Helene Prieur Richard, executive director of the Paris-based biodiversity research institute ‘Diversitas’.

“We don’t know this for sure since there is a knowledge gap. But certainly the risk is there,” she told IPS.

Using the law

Continued poaching is largely the result of slow law enforcement, according to Braullio Ferreira de Souza Dias, executive secretary of the U.N. Convention on Biological Diversity.

“Enforcement has to be a priority for government[s],” he told IPS.

This can be accomplished by, among other methods, providing law enforcement personnel with the skills and equipment they need to crack down on illegal activity. Forest guards, for instance, should be properly equipped – technically and financially – to prevent crime.”

“There is a need for capacity building in the law enforcement units,” Dhakal explained. “But that doesn’t just mean attending workshops and trainings. It means weapons, tools and technologies.

“They must have proper arms. They must also have tools to collect evidence, and records. They need transportation and mobile communication to act quickly and aptly. Without this, despite arrests, there will be no convictions because of a lack of evidence,” he said.

This is especially crucial in trans-boundary forests, where a lack of proper fencing allows poachers to move freely between countries.

Sometimes, the solutions are simpler.

“For example,” Dias stated, “Nepal has forged partnerships between the government and local communities. But what motivated the [people] to go out [of their way] to find time to prevent poaching? It’s that 50 percent of all earnings in Nepal’s national parks are directed towards local communities. [Officials] convinced them that if the poaching doesn’t stop then it would mean fewer visitors and lesser earnings,” he asserted.

A look at the country’s recent increase in the number of tigers and rhinos are proof of its successful conservation efforts: in the 1970s, Nepal had only a hundred tigers left in the wild. Today there are 200 and the country is aiming to double the number by 2020.

Similarly, the number of rhinos, which was a paltry 100 in the 1960s, is now 535. “We have recruited local youths as intelligence units who collect information on the movement of poachers. It works,” reveals Dhakal.

Experts say that ending demand globally is crucial to halting poaching and illegal trade. For this, collective action at the international level must be given top priority.

Dhakal, who is also the main spokesperson for the South Asian Wildlife Enforcement Network (SAWEN), told IPS that the network has roped in several governments in the region, along with organisations like the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) and INTERPOL.

Gaurav Gogoi, a member of the Indian parliament, says that governments can also cooperate at a bilateral level. “In the markets of Vietnam a single gram of rhino horn powder fetches up to [approximately 3,000 dollars],” he explained, adding that he is involved in lobbying events to push Vietnam to ban all products made of rhino horns in order to curb poaching elsewhere, including the Indian state of Assam.

“If you have poaching, it’s because there is someone out there who wants to buy those products. We have to address that,” Dias said.

Edited by Kanya D’Almeida

]]> 1
New Trains, New Hopes, Old Anguish Sat, 11 Oct 2014 13:18:26 +0000 Amantha Perera Youth ride on a southbound train on the newly laid northern rail track near Mankulam in the northern Kilinochchi District. Built in 1914 with the final aim of linking Sri Lanka with southern India, operations on the line ceased in 1990 before recommencing in late 2013. Credit: Amantha Perera/IPS

Youth ride on a southbound train on the newly laid northern rail track near Mankulam in the northern Kilinochchi District. Built in 1914 with the final aim of linking Sri Lanka with southern India, operations on the line ceased in 1990 before recommencing in late 2013. Credit: Amantha Perera/IPS

By Amantha Perera
JAFFNA, Sri Lanka, Oct 11 2014 (IPS)

The kids of Kodikaman, a dusty village straddling the newly laid railway line in Sri Lanka’s northern Jaffna District, enjoy a special treat these days.

For hours on end, they wait expectantly at the edge of the rails for a track construction engine to pass by; when it nears, they rush to place metal coins on the track and when the trundling vehicle has passed, they run back gleefully to pick up the disfigured money.

This little ritual is just one of many signs that the new line, re-laid here after 24 years, is a big deal all over the Vanni, the northern region of Sri Lanka that bore the brunt of the country’s three-decade-old conflict that ended in May 2009.

Playful children run to the train track in the village of Kodikaman to collect their coins, which they had placed on the rails to be flattened by passing construction engines. Credit: Amantha Perera/IPS

Playful children run to the train track in the village of Kodikaman to collect their coins, which they had placed on the rails to be flattened by passing construction engines. Credit: Amantha Perera/IPS

The last train that plied the line through Kodikaman, some 380 km north of the capital, Colombo, ran on the night of Jun. 13, 1990, when the separatist Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) attacked the popular Yal Devi (Jaffna Princess) express.

The Yal Devi had previously been attacked in 1985, also by the Tigers, resulting in reduced train service throughout Sri Lanka’s northern province for almost an entire generation.

So when the first trains to enter the Vanni in over two decades did so in September 2013, school children came out in hordes just to catch a glimpse of the carriages passing through Kilinochichi, the town that was, for over a decade, the Tigers’ de-facto economic and administrative nerve centre.

Workers put the final touches on the main railway station in the northern Sri Lankan town of Jaffna, days before its scheduled opening on Oct. 13. Credit: Amantha Perera/IPS

Workers put the final touches on the main railway station in the northern Sri Lankan town of Jaffna, days before its scheduled opening on Oct. 13. Credit: Amantha Perera/IPS

“The entire public here is waiting for this dream to come true,” said S L Gupta, project director for IRCON, the government-owned Indian company – a subsidiary of Indian Railways – that is reconstructing 252 km of train links in the Vanni at a cost of 800 million dollars.

The project got off the ground in February 2011 and large sections have already been completed. Trains now ply up to Madhu Road on the northwestern line and up to Pallai, about 17 km south of Jaffna, on the northern line.

On Oct. 13, Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapaksa will officially declare open the track all the way to Jaffna.

Mine warning signs keep visitors off the cleared jungle path where the northern railway once ran, near the village of Murukandhi, in the Kilinochchi District of Sri Lanka’s Northern Province. Credit: Amantha Perera/IPS

Mine warning signs keep visitors off the cleared jungle path where the northern railway once ran, near the village of Murukandhi, in the Kilinochchi District of Sri Lanka’s Northern Province. Credit: Amantha Perera/IPS

“It will be momentous,” Gupta asserted.

Vadevil Jayakumar, a native of Kilinochchi, agrees with this assessment. He takes the train weekly with his wife, his sister and his young niece.

“It’s cheap, it’s convenient and faster than the bus,” Jayakumar told IPS, riding on the footrest of one of the carriages, his sister and niece occupying the open door at the other end of the train car.

Indeed, a ticket from Colombo all the way up to the Vanni – covering a distance of some 264 km – costs just 180 rupees (about 1.25 dollars). But the novelty of the trains, many say, ends there.

“Very few take the train, they prefer the bus still,” said Nesarathnam Praveen, the 23-year-old stationmaster of the Madhu Road terminus. He says the bulk of his commuters pass through here only when there are festivals at the famous Madhu Church, which attracts thousands from in and outside the province.

On ordinary days, he confesses, this little station lies mostly empty.

Even on the Yal Devi, returning from Colombo on a stifling October afternoon, the bulk of the passengers are government military personnel returning to their posts up north.

A man sleeps in a virtually empty train car as it travels between Kilinochchi and Pallai. The bulk of the passengers on this train, hailing from the capital Colombo, were returning military personnel. Credit: Amantha Perera/IPS

A man sleeps in a virtually empty train car as it travels between Kilinochchi and Pallai. The bulk of the passengers on this train, hailing from the capital Colombo, were returning military personnel. Credit: Amantha Perera/IPS

Part of the problem, passengers say, is that trains here don’t run as regularly as they do elsewhere in the country. In fact, the most frequent carriers on the northwestern line are former road buses that have been converted into rail-friendly vehicles that move in pairs along the track.

Trains can’t outstrip poverty

Despite their multi-million-dollar price tag, the new rail links are yet to provide the spark needed to jumpstart the Vanni economy, still in the doldrums despite five years of peace and a massive reconstruction effort in the Northern Province exceeding three billion dollars.

A man on a bicycle watches the Yal Devi pass by near the northern town of Kilinochchi. Despite mega development projects, poverty is still rampant in the region and the bicycle remains one of the main modes of transport. Credit: Amantha Perera/IPS

A man on a bicycle watches the Yal Devi pass by near the northern town of Kilinochchi. Despite mega development projects, poverty is still rampant in the region and the bicycle remains one of the main modes of transport. Credit: Amantha Perera/IPS

Poverty is rampant in the region. The poverty headcount in the Mullaitivu District is a national high of 28.8 percent, almost six times the national average of 6.7 percent and 20 times that of the 1.4 percent recorded in the Colombo District.

Other districts in the north are not faring much better: Kilinochchi has a poverty rate of 12.7 percent, Mannar 20.1 percent and Jaffna 8.3 percent.

Only Vavuniya, the southern-most of the five northern districts and the gateway to the rest of the country, is performing well, with a poverty ratio of 3.4 percent.

Unemployment rates follow a similar trend, with Kilinochchi recording a rate of 7.9 percent, nearly double the national average of 4.4 percent, while all districts other than Vavuniya recorded rates higher than the national benchmark.

The primary reason for this, experts say, has been slow job creation. Fishing and agriculture constitute the bulk of the Vanni’s economic activity, but policies aimed at creating markets and bringing in buyers are rare.

Private sector involvement, while on the rise, has not been able to breathe life into an economy repeatedly amputated by the conflict.

Economists blame  a lopsided policy framework, that has poured millions into large infrastructure development without paying adequate attention to revitalising local income generation, for the chronic poverty in the north on

Anushka Wijesinha, economist and policy advisor at the Colombo-based think-tank Institute of Policy Studies, told IPS that if transporting bulk cargo by rail is made cheaper, goods from the Vanni could achieve a more attractive price.

But for the northern railway to become a real purveyor of economic success, more attention, more incentives and more funds need to be directed to the medium- and small-scale Vanni entrepreneur.

“The new transport [line] can certainly boost economic connectivity of businesses in Jaffna and Mannar,” Wijesinha said. “But enterprise policies must focus on helping to grow indigenous businesses in these regions. Otherwise the enhanced connectivity might benefit businesses coming from outside into these regions more than it helps businesses that are already struggling to grow.”


“Policies that improve the business climate, access to finance, technology and business skills will be key,” Wijesinha concluded.

Economist Muttukrishna Sarvananthan, who specialises in the northern economy, told IPS that before the conflict erupted, the northern region brought in the highest per-region revenue to the Railways Department. This was likely due to the fact that the Northern Line was the longest in the country, with 83 station stops.

Sarvananthan, who heads the Point Pedro Institute of Development in Jaffna, emphasised that the government needs to come up with an integrated plan to capitalise on cheaper costs made possible by the railway.

“The Government should incentivise private businesses to set up warehouses adjoining the main railway stations in order to spur cargo trade via railroads,” he stated.

“The re-opening of the rail line to the Northern Province provides healthy competition to road transport services, both cargo and passenger, thereby reducing the transport costs to passengers and businesses alike.

“The resulting reduction in the transaction costs of businesses is likely to benefit consumers by the reduction in prices of consumer goods and services,” he concluded.

If no such integrated plans are made, a familiar refrain will echo in the Vanni, with a large infrastructure project leaving a poverty-stricken community in awe, but in reality no better off than they were before.

Edited by Kanya D’Almeida

]]> 4
Karabakh Question Clouds Armenia’s Eurasian Union Accession Sat, 11 Oct 2014 10:55:18 +0000 Marianna Grigoryan By Marianna Grigoryan
YEREVAN, Oct 11 2014 (EurasiaNet)

Armenia has finalised its accession to the Russia-led Eurasian Economic Union, an intended regional counterweight to the European Union. But while Armenian and Russian officials focus on future prosperity, some Armenian observers believe membership in the bloc could exacerbate Armenia’s security challenges.

During an Oct. 10 meeting of the Supreme Eurasian Economic Council, held in Minsk, Belarus, Armenian President Serzh Sargsyan confirmed that Armenia would be formally admitted to the Eurasian Economic Union (EEU) when it launches on Jan. 1, 2015.“Currently, we have no expectations with regard to security. We see only threats.” -- Aghasi Yenokian, director of a Yerevan-based think-tank

The Armenian government approved the draft text of the accession agreement in early October, Armenian media reported. The EEU will be an outgrowth of the existing customs union among Russia, Belarus and Kazakhstan.

Armenian political analysts greeted the accession announcement with mixed feelings, in part because the final text of the pact has not been subjected to public scrutiny. There is particular concern about the pact’s ramifications for Armenia’s relationship with the Nagorno Karabakh territory, an enclave inhabited by ethnic Armenians who aspire to gain international recognition of their de-facto independence from Azerbaijan.

A draft released earlier this year implied that a customs post would be established between Armenia and Karabakh. Local economists say that such an economic barrier would paralyse Karabakh’s economy since the territory depends on Armenia as its primary market for its limited selection of exports.

Beyond the potential economic ramifications, many Armenians would see the establishment of a customs regime as tantamount to the cutting of cultural ties with Karabakh, an act that could leave the territory – and, consequently, Armenia itself – vulnerable to possible Azerbaijani aggression.

“Currently, we have no expectations with regard to security. We see only threats,” commented Aghasi Yenokian, director of the Armenian Center for Political and International Studies, a Yerevan-based think-tank.

Over the past year, Armenian officials have said repeatedly that Armenia’s membership in the Eurasian Economic Union takes into account security guarantees for both Armenia and Karabakh, but no proof of this has been offered.

As a result, uncertainty continues to swirl around the future of the Armenia-Karabakh trade relationship. Two of the EEU’s three members, Belarus and Kazakhstan, are on record as categorically opposed to allowing Armenia to share the bloc’s trade advantages with Karabakh, which none of the members recognise as a country independent from Azerbaijan.

In Minsk, however, Kazakhstani President Nursultan Nazarbayev stated that a “compromise” had been reached “on a delicate question within the borders by which Armenia will be joined to our union,” the ITAR-TASS news agency reported.

Details were not immediately available.

Members of the ruling Republican Party of Armenia contacted by declined to comment on the challenges that EEU membership could pose for Armenia’s ties with Karabakh.

“There is a very complicated period awaiting us, taking into account the somewhat unfriendly attitude of the EEU to Armenia, particularly on the part of Nazarbayev and [Belarusian President Alexander ] Lukashenko,” commented Styopa Safarian, director of the Armenian Institute of International and Security Affairs.

President Sargsyan, a native of Karabakh, does not, however, appear to share such worries. Congratulating Russian President Vladimir Putin on his Oct. 7 birthday, Sargsyan stated that Putin’s “consistent efforts” for a peaceful resolution of the 26-year Karabakh conflict with Azerbaijan, and his support for Armenia’s EEU membership “deserve the deepest appreciation.”

Opposition parties have also adopted conciliatory stances toward Russia, observers note. This fact leaves some analysts glum; to them, it means the political class is unlikely to push hard to promote Armenia’s interests within the EEU.

“The opposition and the authorities do their best not to make the Kremlin angry,” said Styopa Safarian, the analyst and former member of the opposition Heritage Party. “This situation is not encouraging at all.”

Editor’s note:  Marianna Grigoryan is a freelance reporter based in Yerevan and editor of This story originally appeared on

Edited by Kitty Stapp

]]> 0
Marine Litter: Plunging Deep, Spreading Wide Fri, 10 Oct 2014 08:26:17 +0000 Manipadma Jena There are an estimated 13,000 pieces of plastic litter afloat every single square kilometer of ocean. Credit: Bo Eide Snemann/CC-BY-2.0

There are an estimated 13,000 pieces of plastic litter afloat every single square kilometer of ocean. Credit: Bo Eide Snemann/CC-BY-2.0

By Manipadma Jena
ATHENS, Oct 10 2014 (IPS)

Imagine a black-footed albatross feeding its chick plastic pellets, a baby seal in the North Pole helplessly struggling with an open-ended plastic bag wrapped tight around its neck, or a fishing vessel stranded mid-sea, a length of discarded nylon net entangled in its propeller. Multiply these scenarios a thousand-fold, and you get a glimpse of the state of the world’s oceans.

With an average of 13,000 pieces of plastic litter estimated to be afloat every single square kilometer of ocean globally, and 6.4 million tonnes of marine litter reaching the oceans every year according to the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), researchers and scientists predict a bleak future for the great bodies of water that are vital to our planet’s existence.

A conservative estimate of overall financial damage of plastic to marine ecosystems stands at 13 billion dollars each year, according to a press release from UNEP released on Oct. 1.

“To entirely rid the ocean of litter is an aspiration not expected to be achieved in a lifetime, even if we stop waste inputs into the sea, which we still have not. The cost is too much. Much of the waste has been broken down and is beyond our reach. To clean the sea surface of [floating] litter itself will take a long time." -- Vincent Sweeney, coordinator of the Global Programme of Action for the Protection of the Marine Environment from Land-based Activities (GPA).
With the 12th Conference of the Parties to the Convention on Biological Diversity (COP12) currently underway in Pyeongchang, South Korea, the issue of marine health and ocean ecosystems is in the spotlight.

Of the 20 Aichi Bioiversity Targets agreed upon at a conference in Nagoya, Japan in 2010, the preservation of marine biodiversity emerged as a crucial goal, with Target 11 laying out the importance of designating ‘protected areas’ for the purpose of protecting marine ecosystems, particularly from the harmful effects of human activity.

Speaking to IPS on sidelines of the 16th Global Meeting of the Regional Seas Conventions and Actions Plans (RSCAP) held in Athens from Sep. 29-Oct. 1, Tatjana Hema, programme officer of the marine pollution assessment and control component of the Mediterranean Action Plan, told IPS that marine debris results from humane behaviour, particularly land-based activities.

The meeting drew scientists and policymakers from around the globe to chart a new roadmap to stop the rapid degradation of the world’s seas and oceans and set policies for their sustainable use and integration into the post‐2015 development agenda.

There was a near unanimous consensus that marine littler posed a “tremendous challenge” to sustainable development in every region of the world.

The issue has been given top priority since the Rio+20 Earth Summit in Brazil in 2012, and Goal 14 of the 17 proposed Sustainable Development Goals – which will replace the MDGs as the U.N.’s main blueprint for action at the end of this year – set the target of significantly reducing marine pollution by 2025.

“We did not have any difficulty pushing for the explicit inclusion of this goal in the proposed SDGs,” Jacqueline Alder, head of the freshwater and marine ecosystems branch at the Division of Environmental Policy Implementation for the UNEP told IPS. “After all, oceans are everyone’s problem, and we all generate waste.”

Wastes released from dump-sites near the coast or river banks, the littering of beaches, tourism and recreational use of the coasts, fishing industry activities, ship-breaking yards, legal and illegal dumping, and floods that flush waste into the sea all pose major challenges, experts say.

Similarly, plastics, microplastics, metals, glass, concrete and other construction materials, paper and cardboard, polystyrene, rubber, rope, fishing nets, traps, textiles, timber and hazardous materials such as munitions, asbestos and medical waste, as well as oil spills and shipwrecks are all defined as marine debris.

“Organic waste is the main component of marine litter, amounting to 40-80 percent of municipal waste in developing countries compared to 20-25 percent in developed countries,” Hema said.

Microplastics, however, emerged as one of the most damaging pollutants currently choking the seas. This killer substance is formed when plastics fragment and disintegrate into particles with an upper size limit of five millimeters in diameter (the size range most readily ingested by ocean-dwelling organisms), down to particles that measure just one mm in diameter.

“Micro- and nano-plastics have been found [to have been] transferred to the micro-wall of algae. How this will affect the food chain of sea creatures and how human health is going to be affected by ingesting these through fish, we still do not know,” UNEP’s Vincent Sweeney, who coordinates the Global Programme of Action for the Protection of the Marine Environment from Land-based Activities (GPA), told IPS.

Fishermen haul in their catch on a beach in Sri Lanka’s eastern Trincomalee District. Experts say a large portion of marine litter is a by-product of the global fishing industry. Credit: Kanya D’Almeida/IPS

Fishermen haul in their catch on a beach in Sri Lanka’s eastern Trincomalee District. Experts say a large portion of marine litter is a by-product of the global fishing industry. Credit: Kanya D’Almeida/IPS

“The extent of the microplastic problem till now is somewhat speculative; we still do not have a sense of how much of the oceans are affected,” he added.

Ocean SDG targets have to stand up to four criteria: whether they are ‘actionable’, ‘feasible’, ‘measureable’ and ‘achievable’.

Unlike, for example, the target of reducing ocean acidification (whose only driver is carbon dioxide), which easily meets all four criteria, the issue of marine debris is not as simple, partly because “what shows up on the beach is not necessarily an [indication] of what is inside the ocean,” Sweeney asserted.

“Marine litter can move long distances, becoming international. Ownership is difficult to establish,” he added. Litter also accumulates in mid-ocean ‘gyres’, natural water-circulation phenomenon that tends to trap floating material.

“The risk in not knowing the exact magnitude of marine litter is that we may tend to think it is too big to handle,” Sweeney said, adding, however that “momentum is building up with awareness and it is now getting priority at different levels.”

“To entirely rid the ocean of litter is an aspiration not expected to be achieved in a lifetime, even if we stop waste inputs into the sea, which we still have not. The cost is too much. Much of the waste has been broken down and is beyond our reach. To clean the sea surface of [floating] litter itself will take a long time,” Sweeney asserted.

“Though there are different drivers for marine pollution in each country, the common factor is that we are consuming more and also generating more waste and much of this is plastic,” he concluded.

Aside from insufficient data and the high cost of cleaning up marine litter, the Means of Implementation (MoI) or funding of the SDG ocean targets is yet another challenge for most regions.

Northwest Pacific countries like China, Japan, Russia and Korea, however, have established replicable practices, according to Alexander Tkalin, coordinator of the UNEP Northwest Pacific Action Plan.

“Korea and Japan are major donors and both have introduced legislation specifically on marine litter,” Tkalin told IPS on the sidelines of the meeting.

“Japan has changed legislation to incentivise marine debris cleaning, tweaking its law under which, normally, one pays for littering, but the government now pays municipalities for beach-cleaning after typhoons, when roots and debris from the sea-floor are strewn on beaches,” Tkalin explained.

The Dutch and the U.S. also have strong on-going programmes on marine debris, as does Haiti, according to Sweeney.

The extent of the crisis was brought home when Evangelos Papathanassiou, research director at the Hellenic Centre for Marine Research in Attiki, 15 kilometres from Athens, told visiting regional journalists about his experience of finding a sewing machine at a depth of 4,000 feet in the Mediterranean Sea.

“Even though man-made marine pollution from aquaculture, tourism and transportation are most pressing in the Mediterranean and Black Sea, they are not getting the deserved attention,” he added.

If the new development era is to be a successful one, experts conclude, we terrestrial beings must urgently turn our attention to the seas, which are crying out for urgent assistance.

Edited by Kanya D’Almeida

]]> 0
World Bank Pushes Private Sector for Major Investments in Infrastructure Thu, 09 Oct 2014 23:58:56 +0000 Carey L. Biron A new road is built near Victoria Falls on the Zimbabwe-Zambia border. Credit: David Brossard/cc by 2.0

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Fundamental bottleneck

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

PPP worries

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Edited by Kitty Stapp

The writer can be reached at

]]> 0
Youth Employment Critical to Sustainable Development in Pacific Islands Thu, 09 Oct 2014 05:54:01 +0000 Catherine Wilson In Samoa two in three young people make a living in the informal economy, including selling food items in market areas and bus stops in the capital, Apia. Credit: Catherine Wilson/IPS

In Samoa two in three young people make a living in the informal economy, including selling food items in market areas and bus stops in the capital, Apia. Credit: Catherine Wilson/IPS

By Catherine Wilson
APIA, Oct 9 2014 (IPS)

The size of the youth population in the Pacific Islands is double the global average with 54 percent aged below 24 years, creating enormous challenges for slow-growing small island economies unable to create jobs fast enough.

Generating employment opportunities for tens of thousands of school leavers is now an urgent issue on the Pacific’s post-2015 development agenda. Otherwise a poor landscape of opportunity could jeopardise the potential of a generation whose public and economic participation is vital to progressing sustainable development in the region.

Youth unemployment is estimated at 23 percent in the Pacific Islands region, rising to 46 percent in the Solomon Islands and 62 percent in the Marshall Islands, compared to the global average of 12.6 percent.

"[Institutions] are still bringing out lawyers when there is a desperate need here for electricians and plumbers, and at the university they are producing hundreds of students with commerce degrees, but that is a market adequately filled." -- Jennifer Fruean, chair of the National Youth Council in Samoa
“Youth unemployment in this country is critical and one of our highest priorities,” Jennifer Fruean, chair of the National Youth Council in Samoa, a South Pacific Island developing state located northeast of Fiji, told IPS.

Approximately one quarter of Samoa’s population of 190,372 is employed and economically active and youth account for about half of the remaining unemployed, according to government statistics.

“In the villages, I think that is where most of the youth are static, but there is also a very noticeable shift with urbanisation that is causing a number of youth to come to Apia and they are becoming idle,” she continued.

Lack of sufficient job creation is affecting both young people who lack adequate education, as well as those who possess qualifications and experience. The only route for many of the latter is emigration to larger economies, such as New Zealand, Australia and the United States.

With 76 percent of those with a tertiary education leaving, the country is experiencing a ‘brain drain’ and 44.7 percent of private sector employers are experiencing skills shortages, reports the International Labour Organisation (ILO).

Samoa’s economy, dependent on agriculture, fisheries, tourism and remittances, has been severely impacted in the last 20 years by natural disasters. In 2012 Cyclone Evan devastated infrastructure and crops resulting in economic losses equal to 30 percent of GDP.

The global financial crisis also led to widespread formal sector job cuts in Samoa with waged employment declining from 28,179 in 2006 to 23,365 in 2011 and private sector jobs falling from 16,921 in 2007 to 12,711 in 2010.

Only one-quarter to one-third of Pacific Islanders finishing school are likely to secure formal sector employment, according to the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP). This leaves a high proportion of an estimated more than 5,000 school leavers each year vulnerable to exclusion in Samoa, where formal sector employment is around 30 percent.

The social impacts of high teenage pregnancies and a low secondary school completion rate, with an estimated 35 percent of this age group in Samoa not in education, are also aggravating factors.

Fruean believes the main reason is the inability of families to pay school fees and suggests the government’s introduction last year of fee-free secondary education will help improve the final year retention rate of 48 percent.

But there are also questions about the quality and relevance of education for employment demand.

Institutions “are still bringing out lawyers when there is a desperate need here for electricians and plumbers, and at the university they are producing hundreds of students with commerce degrees, but that is a market adequately filled,” Fruean explained.

Somaya Moll, business, investment and technology expert with the United Nations Industrial Development Organisation (UNIDO), advocates private sector development, which “basically enables people to take charge of their own lives [by giving] them the tools to do so.”

“Self-sufficiency, ownership and accountability are important and it is proven to work,” she told IPS during the United Nations Third International Conference on Small Island Developing States (SIDS) recently held in Samoa’s capital, Apia.

The small size of Pacific islands and their populations is a drawback for ‘economies of scale’, keeping costs of production high. But Moll said introducing entrepreneurship awareness into school curriculums and encouraging financial institutions to consider the creditworthiness of young people could improve the business environment.

The informal economy, which accounts for up to 70 percent of economic activity in the Pacific Islands and Caribbean regions, is a potential growth area, say regional experts.

“It has always been an important source of sustainability [in the Caribbean],” Dessima Williams from Grenada and UNIDO Senior Policy Advisor said during an interview at the U.N. SIDS conference.

“And what has happened recently is that as the formal sector has crashed, more and more other people are entering the informal sector” as are “young people coming out of college who are finding no jobs in the formal sector,” Williams added.

Fruean sees the same potential in Samoa where two-thirds of young people are making a living through informal activities.

“There is so much potential in the informal and agricultural sectors and we encourage the unemployed youth to become economically active in these sectors”, for example, through organic farming or creative production. The cultural and creative industries in the Pacific are reportedly growing at about seven percent per year.

Also “the solution of co-operatives is coming back because the cost of production is so high. A lot of young people [in the Caribbean] are producing music all together, or somebody is writing it and somebody is mixing it, so it is sustainable,” Williams said.

But if the informal sector is to play a role in sustainable and decent job creation, training, skills, working conditions, value addition and production standards need to be improved, she continued. Low productive subsistence activities also need to be up-scaled and developed with greater market orientation and potential for export explored, where feasible. In the agricultural sector alone, which accounts for two thirds of the workforce, only one quarter of production is for the market with the remainder for domestic consumption.

Many young people in the informal sector don’t have experience of budgeting and managing their money, and this is an important area of awareness that needs to be addressed, too, according to the Samoan National Youth Council.

Efforts to galvanise the potential of Pacific Islander youth must be expanded to prevent increased poverty and inequality in the next generation and the social fallout of disaffection when aspirations for productive lives are not fulfilled.

Edited by Kanya D’Almeida

]]> 0
Antigua Faces Climate Risks with Ambitious Renewables Target Mon, 06 Oct 2014 13:13:45 +0000 Desmond Brown By Desmond Brown
HODGES BAY, Antigua, Oct 6 2014 (IPS)

Ruth Spencer is a pioneer in the field of solar energy. She promotes renewable technologies to communities throughout her homeland of Antigua and Barbuda, playing a small but important part in helping the country achieve its goal of a 20-percent reduction in the use of fossil fuels by 2020.

She also believes that small non-governmental organisations (NGOs) have a crucial role to play in the bigger projects aimed at tackling the problems caused by the burning of fossil fuels, such as coal, oil and gas.“We are in a small island so we have to build synergies, we have to network, we have to partner to assist each other." -- Ruth Spencer

Spencer, who serves as National Focal Point for the Global Environment Facility (GEF)-Small Grants Programme (SGP) in Antigua and Barbuda, has been at the forefront of an initiative to bring representatives of civil society, business owners and NGOs together to educate them about the dangers posed by climate change.

“The GEF/SGP is going to be the delivery mechanism to get to the communities, preparing them well in advance for what is to come,” she told IPS.

The GEF Small Grants Programme in the Eastern Caribbean is administered by the United Nations office in Barbados.

“Since climate change is heavily impacting the twin islands of Antigua and Barbuda, it is important that we bring all the stakeholders together,” said Spencer, a Yale development economist who also coordinates the East Caribbean Marine Managed Areas Network funded by the German government.

“The coastal developments are very much at risk and we wanted to share the findings of the IPCC report with them to let them see for themselves what all these scientists are saying,” Spencer told IPS.

“We are in a small island so we have to build synergies, we have to network, we have to partner to assist each other. By providing the information, they can be aware and we are going to continue doing follow up….so together we can tackle the problem in a holistic manner,” she added.

Power lines in Antigua. The Caribbean country is taking steps to achieve energy security through clean technologies. Credit: Desmond Brown/IPS

Power lines in Antigua. The Caribbean country is taking steps to achieve energy security through clean technologies. Credit: Desmond Brown/IPS

The United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has sent governments a final draft of its synthesis report, which paints a harsh picture of what is causing global warming and what it will do to humans and the environment. It also describes what can be done about it.

Ruleta Camacho, project coordinator for the sustainable island resource management mechanism within Antigua and Barbuda’s Ministry of the Environment, told IPS there is documented observation of sea level rise which has resulted in coastal erosion and infrastructure destruction on the coastline.

She said there is also evidence of ocean acidification and coral bleaching, an increase in the prevalence of extreme weather events – extreme drought conditions and extreme rainfall events – all of which affect the country’s vital tourism industry.

“The drought and the rainfall events have impacts on the tourism sector because it impacts the ancillary services – the drought affects your productivity of local food products as well as your supply of water to the hotel industry,” she said.

“And then you have the rainfall events impacting the flooding so you have days where you cannot access certain sites and you have flood conditions which affect not only the hotels in terms of the guests but it also affects the staff that work at the hotels. If we get a direct hit from a storm we have significant instant dropoff in the productivity levels in the hotel sector.”

Antigua and Barbuda, which is known for its sandy beaches and luxurious resorts, draws nearly one million visitors each year. Tourism accounts for 60 to 75 percent of the country’s gross domestic product, and employs nearly 90 percent of the population.

Like Camacho, Ediniz Norde, an environment officer, believes sea level rise is likely to worsen existing environmental stresses such as a scarcity of freshwater for drinking and other uses.

“Many years ago in St. John’s we had seawater intrusion all the way up to Tanner Street. It cut the street in half. It used to be a whole street and now there is a big gutter running through it, a ship was lodged in Tanner Street,” she recalled.

“Now it only shows if we have these levels of sea water rising that this is going to be a reality here in Antigua and Barbuda,” Norde told IPS. “This is how far the water can get and this is how much of our environment, of our earth space that we can lose in St. John’s. It’s a reality that we won’t be able to shy away from if we don’t act now.”

As the earth’s climate continues to warm, rainfall in Antigua and Barbuda is projected to decrease, and winds and rainfall associated with episodic hurricanes are projected to become more intense. Scientists say these changes would likely amplify the impact of sea level rise on the islands.

But Camacho said climate change presents opportunities for Antigua and Barbuda and the country must do its part to implement mitigation measures.

She explained that early moves towards mitigation and building renewable energy infrastructure can bring long-term economic benefits.

“If we retrain our population early enough in terms of our technical expertise and getting into the renewable market, we can actually lead the way in the Caribbean and we can offer services to other Caribbean countries and that’s a positive economic step,” she said.

“Additionally, the quicker we get into the renewable market, the lower our energy cost will be and if we can get our energy costs down, it opens us for economic productivity in other sectors, not just tourism.

“If we can get our electricity costs down we can have financial resources that would have gone toward your electricity bills freed up for improvement of the [tourism] industry and you can have a better product being offered,” she added.

Edited by Kitty Stapp

The writer can be contacted at

]]> 0
Humanity Failing the Earth’s Ecosystems Mon, 06 Oct 2014 11:31:42 +0000 Kanya DAlmeida A cow stands in the middle of a dried-out agricultural plot in Sri Lanka's northern Jaffna District. Credit: Kanya D'Almeida/IPS

A cow stands in the middle of a dried-out agricultural plot in Sri Lanka's northern Jaffna District. Credit: Kanya D'Almeida/IPS

By Kanya D'Almeida
COLOMBO, Oct 6 2014 (IPS)

In pure numbers, the past few decades have been marked by destruction: over the last 40 years, Earth has lost 52 percent of its wild animals; nearly 17 percent of the world’s forests have been felled in the last half-century; freshwater ecosystems have witnessed a 75-percent decline in animal populations since 1970; and nearly 95 percent of coral reefs are today threatened by pollution, coastal development and overfishing.

A slew of international conferences and agreements over the years have attempted to pull the brakes on what appears to be a runaway train, setting targets and passing legislation aimed at protecting and conserving the remaining slivers of land and sea as yet untainted by humanity’s massive carbon footprint.

In 2010, building on the foundation laid by the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD), scores of experts and activists gathered in Nagoya, Japan, drafted the Strategic Plan for Biodiversity 2011-2020, which included 20 points known as the Aichi Targets, encompassing everything from land preservation to sustainable fishing practices.

Though the goals were subsequently re-affirmed by the U.N. general assembly, and reiterated yet again at the 2012 Rio+20 Earth Summit in Brazil, scientists say losses continue to outpace gains, as forests are chopped down, garbage emptied into oceans and animal habitats razed to the ground to make way for human development and industry.

Against the backdrop of the ongoing 12th meeting of the Conference of the Parties to the CBD (COP 12), a United Nations progress report on the state of global biodiversity released Monday in Pyeongchang, Korea, called urgent attention to unmet targets and challenges ahead.

Coming exactly a year before the halfway point of the 2011-2020 Strategic Plan and the United Nations Decade on Biodiversity, ‘Global Biodiversity Outlook 4’ (GBO-4) called for a “dismantling of the drivers of biodiversity loss, which are often embedded deep within our systems of policy-making, financial accounting, and patterns of production and consumption.”

For instance, according to the World Wildlife Fund (WWF)’s latest Living Planet Report, humans are “using nature’s gifts as if we had more than just one Earth at our disposal.”

The organisation’s Living Planet Index (LPI), based on studies of over 10,000 representative populations of mammals, birds, reptiles, amphibians and fish, found that exploitation of natural resources by humans accounted for the vast majority of wildlife losses in the last four decades (37 percent), followed by habitat degradation (31 percent), climate change (seven percent) and habitat loss (13 percent).

The same report found that human impacts such as increased pollution and construction projects were largely responsible for the steep decline of wildlife in freshwater systems, with 45,000 large dams (over 15 metres) preventing the free flow of some of the world’s major rivers, at a huge cost to biodiversity.

Marine animal populations have also plummeted by 40 percent, making a strong case for the rapid designation of adequate marine protected areas. However, according to the GBO-4 released today, “more than half of marine regions have less than five percent of their area protected.”

Of the five Strategic Goals (A-E) of the 10-year biodiversity plan, GBO-4 highlighted numerous challenges, including threats to natural resources provoked by greatly increased total global consumption levels (Target 4), rising nutrient pollution impacting aquatic and terrestrial biodiversity, compounded by increased pollution from chemicals, fertilisers and plastics (Target 8), a rising extinction risk for birds, mammals and amphibians (Target 12), and a lack of capacity to mobilise concerned citizens worldwide (Target 19).

According to David Ainsworth, information officer for the Secretariat of the Convention on Biological Diversity, “The question of agriculture and food security is probably one of the biggest challenges we are facing.”

“Given that we know we’re looking at a substantial population increase by the end of the decade, which is likely going to be matched with a change in dietary patterns such as the consumption of more meat, we are probably going to experience tremendous pressures on biodiversity just in trying to deal with the agricultural situation alone,” he told IPS.

A lot of this could be solved, he added, by dealing with food production systems, by promoting a different model to the typical, rich, North American diet and by tackling food waste at all stages of the production cycle, from wastage in fields and transportation chains to food distribution centers and even in the home.

Asia-Pacific: under tremendous pressure

With a population of just over 4.2 billion people, the Asia-Pacific region faces a unique set of challenges to preserving its biodiversity.

According to Scott Perkin, head of the Natural Resources Group at the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN)-Asia, the region “has taken some important steps towards the achievement of the Aichi Targets.

“A majority of countries in the region have revised and strengthened their National Biodiversity Strategies and Action Plans (Target 17), and a significant number have ratified the Nagoya Protocol (Target 16),” Perkin told IPS in an email.

But the region as a whole remains under tremendous pressure, he said, adding, “Population growth and rapid economic development continue to fuel the loss and degradation of natural habitats, and much greater efforts will be required if Target 5 on halving the rate of loss of forests and other habitats by 2020 is to be achieved.”

Indonesia alone experienced a deforestation rate of one million hectares a year between 2000 and 2003. A recent study indicates that in 2012 the country likely hacked away 840,000 hectares of primary forest, outstripping even Brazil, which cut down 460,000 hectares that same year.

Perkin said the illegal wildlife trade in Asia is yet another critical issue, one that will make achievement of Target 12 – preventing the extinction of known species – especially challenging.

The region also provides a stark example of the links between biodiversity and economic gains, a point also highlighted in the report released today. According to GBO-4, reducing deforestation rates have been estimated to result in an annual benefit of 183 million dollars in the form of ecosystem services.

The same pattern is evident throughout the Asia-Pacific region, particularly in places where governments have replaced marine resource exploitation with conservation efforts.

In the western Pacific Ocean nation of Palau, for instance, the banning of commercial fisheries has boosted the tiny island’s ecotourism potential, with visitors rushing to explore the country’s bustling coastal waters.

A single shark, which had hitherto brought the country a few hundred dollars for its fin, considered a delicacy in East Asia, now fetches 1.9 million dollars over its entire lifetime.

In Indonesia too, the creation of the world’s largest sanctuary for manta rays has raised the sea-creature’s economic potential from some 500 dollars (when used for meat or medicine), to over one million dollars as a tourist attraction, according to Bradnee Chambers, executive secretary of the U.N. Environment Program (UNEP)’s Convention on the Conservation of Migratory Species of Wild Animals.

Still, it will take more than piecemeal measures to bring about the scale of protection and conservation required to keep biodiversity levels at a safe threshold.

As Ainsworth pointed out, “The core of this issue goes beyond the questions of where we put our roads and highways – it goes to fundamental ways of how we organise ourselves socially and economically in relation to nature and biodiversity.”

Edited by Kitty Stapp

]]> 0
Azerbaijan Pursues Drones, New Security Options Sat, 04 Oct 2014 06:03:20 +0000 Shahin Abbasov By Shahin Abbasov
BAKU, Oct 4 2014 (EurasiaNet)

Heightened tensions with longtime foe Armenia over breakaway Nagorno Karabakh and mediator Russia’s Ukrainian adventure appear to be pushing Caspian-Sea energy power Azerbaijan ever more strongly toward a military strategy of self-reliance.

The strategy comes via two approaches: first, a build-up in Azerbaijani-made military equipment, including drones co-produced with Israel; and, second, a new defense troika with longtime strategic partners Turkey, a member of the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation, and neighbouring Georgia, a NATO-member-hopeful.

Nor is this a strategy just left to paper. On Sep. 11, Azerbaijani Defense Minister Yaver Jamalov announced to reporters that Azerbaijan plans to export 100 drones, co-produced at a local Azerbaijani-Israeli plant, to “one of the NATO countries.” The remarks headlined the country’s first international defense-industry show, ADEX-2014, held on Sep. 11-13 in the Azerbaijani capital, Baku.

Jamalov did not specify the country or the terms of the sale, but the prospect of the deal reinforces the fact, long clear in foreign policy, that Baku sees itself as a regional military force that need no longer pay heed to the likes or dislikes of Russia.

While Azerbaijan has spent “several billion dollars” over the last decade importing a range of Russian-made military equipment, politics now have become an issue, commented military expert Azad Isazade, a former Azerbaijani defense-ministry official.

As it looks on the plans for a trade union with Azerbaijani enemy Armenia, Baku increasingly feels that Moscow’s interests in resolving the 26-year-long Karabakh conflict are more closely aligned with those of Armenia, where Russia already has troops stationed.

By focusing its attention on its own military-production capabilities or on military partnerships with other countries, “the Azerbaijani government wanted to balance the pro-Armenian position of Moscow,” Isazade said.

Elhan Shahinoglu, head of the non-profit Atlas Research Center in Baku, agreed. “I think that after the last meeting of the Azerbaijani, Armenian and Russian presidents in Sochi [in August], [Azerbaijani President] Ilham Aliyev has lost any hope that Moscow is going to play a positive role in the Karabakh conflict’s resolution,” he commented.

The Kremlin’s support for pro-Russian separatists in eastern Ukraine and intervention in the conflict there does little to reassure Baku on this point.

Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev has not specifically addressed such misgivings, but, in his opening remarks at ADEX-2014, commented that “in the current world, countries have to keep facing new security challenges, which make cooperation and the exchange of modern military technologies more important.”

Azerbaijan is due to receive 100 Russian-made T-90C tanks in early 2015, but the shipment is based on a 2010 contract, Trend news agency reported, citing an adviser to Russia’s state-owned weapons-export company, Rosobornexport. Azerbaijan has not announced any more such contracts.

Defense Minister Jamalov claims that Azerbaijan expects by the end of 2015 to be able to meet almost all of its own needs for ammunition and tank and artillery shells, formerly mostly supplied by Russia, Belarus and Ukraine.

Israel, which imports most of its natural gas from Azerbaijan, appears to play a leading role in Azerbaijan’s makeover into a materiel-manufacturer. Israeli Defense Minister Moshe Yaalon visited Azerbaijan for the first time this month to meet President Aliyev and attend ADEX-2014.

At the exhibition, Azerbaijan presented models of two drones produced in conjunction with an unnamed Israeli company – one for reconnaissance ( “Aerostar”) and one for combat-missions ( “Orbiter 2M”).

Overall, 200 companies from 34 countries, including the United States and Russia, took part in the event, which featured products ranging from armored troop carriers to sniper guns.

Only one contract with an Azerbaijani company was signed during the show, however, an Azerbaijani defense-industry representative commented to

South Africa’s Paramount Group, a privately owned defense company which claims to be the largest in Africa, plans to create a joint venture with Azerbaijan’s private AirTechService to work on upgrades to military helicopters and some jets.

The defense industry representative, who asked not to be named, noted, however, that other countries expected to take an interest in Azerbaijani materiel include Arab Persian-Gulf states, and, in Central Asia, Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan.

NATO member states Estonia, Bulgaria, Lativa, Lithuania, Poland and Romania, all of which have indicated they will increase defense spending in response to the Ukrainian-Russian conflict, also feature among the sales-targets, the representative said.

But weapons manufacturing alone does not provide Azerbaijan with a sense of security.

Like other former Soviet republics, Azerbaijan, with one eye on the Karabakh flare-up and another on the Ukrainian civil war, is trying to find new ways to protect itself from Russian pressure, noted Shahinoglu.

On Aug. 19, Defense Minister Hasanov met with Georgian Defense Minister Irakli Alasania and Turkish Defense Minister Ismet Yilmaz in the exclave of Nakhchivan, President Aliyev’s ancestral home, to address the “military-political situation in the region,” as the government-friendly AzerNews put it.

After the meeting, Georgian Defense Minister Alasania, the most publicly talkative of the three, said the trio plans to defend collectively regional pipelines and railroads – strategic projects in which all three already cooperate – in case of military aggression in any of the three countries.

Joint military exercises also will be held, although the 30,000-troop exercises currently underway in Azerbaijan only include Azerbaijani forces.

While one Russian security analyst has questioned the pact’s significance since Turkey and Azerbaijan already are military allies, defense expert Isazade countered that Turkey’s presence will constrain Moscow in its treatment of Georgia and Azerbaijan, and reassure the international community that energy resources will be protected.

“If there would be just an alliance of Baku and Tbilisi, Moscow would not care,” he elaborated. “But Turkey, which is a NATO member and also has wide links and cooperation with Russia, is an important factor of stability for the region.”

So far, no official response has come from Moscow.

Originally published by

Shahin Abbasov is a freelance correspondent based in Baku.    

]]> 0