Inter Press Service » Editors’ Choice http://www.ipsnews.net Turning the World Downside Up Mon, 29 Jun 2015 21:41:43 +0000 en-US hourly 1 http://wordpress.org/?v=4.1.5 Rome March Celebrates Pope’s Call for Urgent Climate Actionhttp://www.ipsnews.net/2015/06/rome-march-celebrate-popes-call-for-urgent-climate-action/?utm_source=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_campaign=rome-march-celebrate-popes-call-for-urgent-climate-action http://www.ipsnews.net/2015/06/rome-march-celebrate-popes-call-for-urgent-climate-action/#comments Sun, 28 Jun 2015 13:06:28 +0000 Sean Buchanan http://www.ipsnews.net/?p=141337 March by people of faith, civil society groups and communities impacted by climate change in Rome on Jun. 28 to express gratitude to Pope Francis for the release of his Laudato Si encyclical on the environment. Photo credit: Hoda Baraka/350.org

March by people of faith, civil society groups and communities impacted by climate change in Rome on Jun. 28 to express gratitude to Pope Francis for the release of his Laudato Si encyclical on the environment. Photo credit: Hoda Baraka/350.org

By Sean Buchanan
ROME, Jun 28 2015 (IPS)

People of faith, civil society groups, and communities affected by climate change marched together in Rome Sunday Jun. 28 to express gratitude to Pope Francis for the release of his Laudato Si encyclical on the environment, and call for bolder climate action by world leaders.

Under the banner of ‘One Earth One Family’, the march brought together Catholics and other Christians, followers of non-Christian faiths, environmentalists and people of goodwill. The march ended in St. Peter’s Square in time for the Pope’s weekly Angelus and blessing.“The truth of the matter is that all of humanity needs to stand united in addressing the crisis of our times. Climate change is an issue for everyone with a moral conscience” – Arianne Kassman, climate activist from Papua New Guinea

The celebratory march was animated by a musical band, a climate choir and colourful public artwork designed by artists from Italy and other countries, whose work played a major role in the People’s Climate March in New York City in September last year.

“As we stand at this critical juncture in addressing the climate crisis, we are particularly grateful to the Pope for releasing this encyclical as an awakening for the world to understand how climate change impacts people across all regions,” said Arianne Kassman, a climate activist from Papua New Guinea who took part in march to speak about the reality of climate change in the Pacific.

“The truth of the matter is that all of humanity needs to stand united in addressing the crisis of our times. Climate change is an issue for everyone with a moral conscience,” she added.

Among the messages relayed to the Pope during the march was a request to make fossil fuel divestment part of his moral message in the urgent need to address the climate crisis.

“The fossil fuel divestment campaign is hinged on the same moral premise communicated by Pope Francis in his encyclical,” said Father Edwin Gariguez, Executive Secretary of Caritas Philippines.

“The campaign serves to highlight the immorality of investing in the source of the climate injustice we currently experience. This is why we hope that moving forward and building on this powerful message, Pope Francis can make fossil fuel divestment a part of his moral argument for urgent climate action.”

A petition urging Pope Francis to rid the Vatican of investments in fossil fuels has already gathered tens of thousands of signatures.

Over recent months, dozens of religious institutions have divested from coal, oil and gas companies or endorsed the effort, including the World Council of Churches, representing half a billion Christians in 150 countries.

In May 2015, the Church of England announced it had sold 12 million pounds in thermal coal and tar sands and just this week the Lutheran World Federation (LWF) announced that it will exclude fossil fuel companies from its investments and call on its member churches with 72 million members to do likewise.

More than 220 institutions have commitments to divest from fossil fuels, with faith institutions making up the biggest segment.

As world leaders prepare to meet in Paris later this year for U.N. climate talks, the growing divestment movement will continue to fuel the ethical and economic revolution needed to prevent catastrophic climate change and growing inequality, a key message from Pope Francis’ encyclical.

“The clear path required to address the climate crisis is one that breaks humanity free from the current stranglehold of fossil fuels on our lives and the planet,” said Hoda Baraka, Global Communications Manager for 350.org, one of the organisers of the march.

“This encyclical reinforces the tectonic shift that is happening – we simply cannot continue to treat the Earth as a tool for exploitation.”

Edited by Phil Harris    

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Ghosts Of War Give Way to Development in Sri Lankahttp://www.ipsnews.net/2015/06/ghosts-of-war-give-way-to-development-in-sri-lanka/?utm_source=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_campaign=ghosts-of-war-give-way-to-development-in-sri-lanka http://www.ipsnews.net/2015/06/ghosts-of-war-give-way-to-development-in-sri-lanka/#comments Fri, 26 Jun 2015 19:13:18 +0000 Amantha Perera http://www.ipsnews.net/?p=141323 http://www.ipsnews.net/2015/06/ghosts-of-war-give-way-to-development-in-sri-lanka/feed/ 17 German Development Cooperation Piggybacks Onto Africa’s E-Boomhttp://www.ipsnews.net/2015/06/german-development-cooperation-piggybacks-onto-africas-e-boom/?utm_source=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_campaign=german-development-cooperation-piggybacks-onto-africas-e-boom http://www.ipsnews.net/2015/06/german-development-cooperation-piggybacks-onto-africas-e-boom/#comments Fri, 26 Jun 2015 15:56:06 +0000 Francesca Dziadek http://www.ipsnews.net/?p=141320 During re:publica 2015, Juliet Wanyiri (centre), illustrates a practical workshop organised by Foondi*, of which she is founder and CEO. Credit: re:publica/Jan Zappner

During re:publica 2015, Juliet Wanyiri (centre), illustrates a practical workshop organised by Foondi*, of which she is founder and CEO. Credit: re:publica/Jan Zappner

By Francesca Dziadek
BERLIN, Jun 26 2015 (IPS)

In a major paradigm shift, the German government is now placing its bets on digitalisation for its development cooperation policy with Africa, under what it calls a Strategic Partnership for a ’Digital Africa’.

According to the German Federal Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development (BMZ), “through a new strategic partnership in the field of information and communication technology (ICT), German development cooperation will be joining forces with the private sector to support the development and sustainable management of Digital Africa’s potential.”

“Digitalisation offers a vast potential for making headway on Africa’s sustainable development,” said Dr Friedrich Kitschelt, a State Secretary in BMZ, noting however that this “benefits all sides, including German and European enterprises.”

Broad consensus about the overlap between public and private interests in attaining sustainable development goals was apparent at two high-profile events earlier this year – the annual re:publica conference on internet and society, and BMZ’s ‘Africa: Continent of Opportunities – Bridging the Digital Divide’ conference, both held in Berlin."Governments will put up walls, but young people will always find ways of circumventing barriers – the key issue is how to bring services locally and work together in democratic internet governance, promoting civil society engagement and private sector partnerships” – Muhammad Radwan of icecairo

In Berlin for re:publica 2015 in May, Mugethi Gitau, a young Kenyan tech manager from Nairobi’s iHub, an incubator for “technology, innovation and community”, delivered a sharp presentation titled ‘10 Things Europe Can Learn From Africa’.  “We are pushing ahead with creative digital solutions,” said Gitau, delivering sharp know-how and hard facts.

The Kenyan start-up iHub is a member of the m:lab East Africa consortium, the region’s centre for mobile entrepreneurship, which was established through a seed grant from the World Bank’s InfoDev programme for “creating sustainable businesses in the knowledge economy”.

In turn, m:lab East Africa is part of the Global Information Gathering (GIG) initiative, which was founded in Berlin in 2003 as a partnership of BMZ, the German Federal Enterprise for International Cooperation (GIZ), the Centre for International Peace Operations (ZIF) and the International Telecommunications Union (ITU).

The m:lab East Africa consortium has spawned 10 tech businesses which have gone regional, and boasts a portfolio of 150 start-ups, including Kopo Kopo, an add on to the M-Pesa money transfer application which has scaled into Africa, the PesaPal application for mobile credits, the Eneza ‘one laptop per child’ project, and locally relevant rural applications such as iCow and M-Farm which help farmers keep track of their yields and cut out the middleman to reach buyers directly.

“We are by nature a people who love to give, crowdsourcing is in our genes, our local villages have a tradition of coming together to help each other out, so it’s no wonder we have taken to sharing and social media like naturals,” Gitau told IPS, mentioning the popular chamas or “merry-go-rounds” whereby people bank with each other, avoiding banking interest costs.

Referring to the exponential tide of 700 million mobile phone users in Africa, which has already surpassed Europe, Thomas Silberhorn, a State Secretary in BMZ, told a re:publica meeting on e-information and freedom of information projects in developing countries: “This is a time of huge potential, like all historical transformations.”

The pace and range of innovative mobile solutions from Africa has been formidable. The creative use of SMS has enabled a range of services which enable urban and, significantly, rural populations to access anything from banking to health services, job listings and microcredits, not to mention mobilising “shit storms” against public authority inefficiencies.

However, the formidable pace of digital penetration has raised concerns about the “digital divide” – the widening socio-economic inequalities between those who have access to technology and those who have not.

Increasingly a North-South consensus is growing concerning three core aspects of digital economic development – the regulation of broadband internet as a public utility; the sustainable potential of mobile technology and low price smart devices to bring effective solutions to a whole gamut of local needs; and the need for good infrastructure as a precondition for environmental protection and as the leverage people need to lift themselves out of poverty.

New models of development cooperation, technology transfer and e-participation governance are emerging in response to the impact of digitalisation on all sectors of society and service provision in areas as disparate as they are increasingly connected including health, food and agriculture – access to education, communication, media, information and data and democratic participation.

“Tackling the digital divide is crucial,” said Philiber Nsengimana, Rwandan Minister of Youth and ICT, addressing BMZ’s ‘Africa: Continent of Opportunities – Bridging the Digital Divide’ conference. “It encompasses a package of vision, implementation and much needed coordination among stakeholders.”

Rwanda, which now boasts a number of e-participation projects such as Sobanukirwa, the country’s first freedom of information project, is committed to universally accessible broadband and is rising to the forefront of Africa’s power-sharing technical revolution. 

The most active proponents of the e-revolution argue that digitalisation also offers the possibility to place governments under scrutiny and have leaders judged from the vantage point of e-participation, open data, freedom of expression and information – all elements of the power-sharing models that have seen the light  in the internet age.

“Governments will put up walls, but young people will always find ways of circumventing barriers – the key issue is how to bring services locally and work together in democratic internet governance, promoting civil society engagement and private sector partnerships,” said Muhammad Radwan of icecairo.

Launched by UNDP Egypt, the icecairo initiative is part of the international icehubs network, which started with iceaddis in Ethiopia and icebauhaus in Germany.

The icehubs network (where ‘ice’ stands for Innovation-Collaboration-Enterprise) is an emerging open network of ‘hubs’, or community-driven technology innovation spaces, that promote the invention and development of home-grown, affordable technological products and services for meeting local challenges.

The network is enabled by GIZ, a company specialising in international development, which is owned by the German government and mainly operates on behalf of BMZ, which is now intent on using a “digital agenda” to guide German development cooperation with Africa.

“Let us take digitalisation seriously,” said Kitschelt. “Let us use the potential of ICT for development, address the digital and educational divide and build on that resourcefulness in our partnerships by advocating for digital rights and engaging in dialogue with the tech community, software developers, social entrepreneurs, makers, hackers, bloggers, programmers and internet activists worldwide.”

Kitschelt’s words certainly found their echo among African e-revolutionaries whose rallying cry has moved forward significantly from “fight the power“ to “share the power”.

However, while this may be well be what the future looks like, there were also those at the re:publica meeting on e-information and freedom of information who wondered about priorities when Silberhorn of BMZ told participants: “”The fact that in many development countries we are witnessing better access to mobile phones than toilets is a clear catalyser for changing development priorities.”

Edited by Phil Harris   

*  Foondi is an African design and training start-up that focuses on creating access to open source, low-cost appropriate technology-related sources to leverage local technologies for bottom-up innovation. It provides a platform for problem setting, designing and prototyping entrepreneurial-based ventures. Its larger vision is to nurture a group of young innovators in Africa working on building solutions that target emerging markets and under-served communities in Africa.

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Fracking Expands Under the Radar on Mexican Landshttp://www.ipsnews.net/2015/06/fracking-expands-under-the-radar-on-mexican-lands/?utm_source=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_campaign=fracking-expands-under-the-radar-on-mexican-lands http://www.ipsnews.net/2015/06/fracking-expands-under-the-radar-on-mexican-lands/#comments Fri, 26 Jun 2015 07:31:38 +0000 Emilio Godoy http://www.ipsnews.net/?p=141313 A Pemex gas distribution terminal. Shale gas will account for an estimated 45 percent of Mexico’s natural gas output by 2026. Credit: Pemex

A Pemex gas distribution terminal. Shale gas will account for an estimated 45 percent of Mexico’s natural gas output by 2026. Credit: Pemex

By Emilio Godoy
MEXICO CITY, Jun 26 2015 (IPS)

“People don’t know what ‘fracking’ is and there is little concern about the issue because it’s not visible yet,” said Gabino Vicente, a delegate of one of the municipalities in southern Mexico where exploration for unconventional gas is forging ahead.

Vicente is a local representative of the community of Santa Úrsula in the municipality of San Juan Bautista Tuxtepec, some 450 km south of Mexico City in the state of Oaxaca, where – he told IPS – “fracking is sort of a hidden issue; there’s a great lack of information about it.”

Tuxtepec, population 155,000, and another Oaxaca municipality, Loma Bonita, form part of the project Papaloapan B with seven municipalities in the neighbouring state of Veracruz. The shale gas and oil exploration project was launched by Mexico’s state oil company, Pemex, in 2011.

Papaloapan B, backed by the governmental National Hydrocarbons Commission (CNH), covers 12,805 square kilometres and is seeking to tap into shale gas reserves estimated at between 166 and 379 billion barrels of oil equivalent.

The project will involve 24 geological studies and the exploratory drilling of 120 wells, for a total investment of 680 million dollars.

But people in Tuxtepec have not been informed about the project. “We don’t know a thing about it,” said Vicente, whose rural community has a population of 1,000. “Normally, companies do not provide information to the local communities; they arrange things in secret or with some owners of land by means of deceit, taking advantage of the lack of money in the area.”

Shale, a common type of sedimentary rock made up largely of compacted silt and clay, is an unconventional source of natural gas. The gas trapped in shale formations is recovered by hydraulic fracturing or fracking.

Fracking involves the massive pumping of water, chemicals and sand at high pressure into the well, a technique that opens and extends fractures in the shale rock deep below the surface, to release the natural gas on a massive scale.

The process generates large amounts of waste liquids containing dissolved chemicals and other pollutants that require treatment before disposal, environmental organisations like Greenpeace warn.

The U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA) puts Mexico in sixth place in the world for technically recoverable shale gas, behind China, Argentina, Algeria, the United States and Canada, based on the analysis of 137 deposits in 42 countries. And Mexico is in eighth position for technically recoverable shale oil reserves.

A map of the areas of current or future fracking activity in Mexico, which local communities say they have no information about. Credit: Courtesy of Cartocrítica

A map of the areas of current or future fracking activity in Mexico, which local communities say they have no information about. Credit: Courtesy of Cartocrítica

Fracking is quietly expanding in Mexico, unregulated and shrouded in opacity, according to the non-governmental Cartocrítica, which says at least 924 wells have been drilled in six of the country’s 32 states – including 349 in Veracruz.

But in 2010 the study “Proyecto Aceite (petróleo) Terciario del Golfo. Primera revisión y recomendaciones” by Mexico’s energy ministry and the CNH put the number of wells drilled using the fracking technique at 1,323 in Veracruz and the neighbouring state of Puebla alone.

In the northeastern state of Tamaulipas, where 100 wells have been drilled, Ruth Roux, director of the Social Research Centre of the public Autonomous University of Tamaulipas, found that farmers who have leased out land for fracking knew nothing about the technique or its effects.

“The first difficulty is that there is no information about where there are wells,” Roux told IPS. “Farmers are upset because they were not informed about what would happen to their land; they’re starting to see things changing around them, and they don’t know what shale gas or fracking are.”

While producing the study “Diagnosis and analysis of the social impact of the exploration and exploitation of shale gas/oil related to culture, legality, public services, and the participation of social actors in the states of Coahuila, Nuevo León and Tamaulipas”, Roux and her team interviewed five sorghum farmers and two local representatives from four municipalities in Tamaulipas.

The researcher said the preliminary findings reflected that locals felt a sense of abandonment, lack of respect, lack of information, and uncertainty. There are 443 homes near the 42 wells drilled in the four municipalities.

The industry sees the development of shale gas as strategically necessary to keep up production levels, which in April stood at 6.2 billion cubic feet per day.

But according to Pemex figures from January 2014, proven reserves of conventional gas amounted to just over 16 trillion cubic feet, while shale gas reserves are projected to be 141 trillion cubic feet.

By 2026, according to Pemex projections, the country will be producing 11 billion cubic feet of gas, 45 percent of which would come from unconventional deposits.

The company has identified five basins rich in shale gas in 11 states.

For the second half of the year, the CNH is preparing the tender for unconventional fossil fuel exploitation, as part of the implementation of the energy reform whose legal framework was enacted in August 2014, opening up electricity generation and sales, as well as oil and gas extraction, refining, distribution and retailing, to participation by the domestic and foreign private sectors.

The historic energy industry reform of December 2013 includes nine new laws and the amendment of another 12.

The new law on fossil fuels leaves landowners no option but to reach agreement with PEMEX or the private licensed operators over the occupation of their land, or accept a court ruling if no agreement is reached.

Vicente said the law makes it difficult for communities to refuse. “We are worried that fracking will affect the water supply, because of the quantity of water required and the contamination by the chemical products used. When we finally realise what the project entails, it’ll be a little too late,” he said.

Local residents of Tuxtepec, who depend for a living on the production of sugar cane, rubber and corn, as well as livestock, fishing and trade, know what it is to fight energy industry projects. In 2011 they managed to halt a private company’s construction of the small Cerro de Oro hydroelectric dam that would have generated 14.5 MW.

The formula: community organisation. “We’re organising again,” the local representative said. “What has happened in other states can be reproduced here.”

Papaloapan B forms part of the Veracruz Basin Integral Project, which would exploit the shale gas reserves in 51 municipalities in the state of Veracruz.

Pemex has already drilled a few wells on the outer edges of Tuxtepec. But there is no data available.

Farmers in Tamaulipas, meanwhile, “complain that their land fills up with water” after fracking operations, and that “the land isn’t producing like before,” said Roux, who added that exploration for shale gas is “a source of conflict…that generates violence.”

The expert and her team of researchers have extended their study to the northern states of Nuevo León and Coahuila, where 182 and 47 wells have been drilled, respectively.

Each well requires nine to 29 million litres of water. And fracking uses 750 different chemicals, a number of which are harmful to health and the environment, according to environmental and academic organisations in the United States.

Edited by Estrella Gutiérrez/Translated by Stephanie Wildes

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Heat Wave Picking Off Pakistan’s Urban Poorhttp://www.ipsnews.net/2015/06/heat-wave-picking-off-pakistans-urban-poor/?utm_source=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_campaign=heat-wave-picking-off-pakistans-urban-poor http://www.ipsnews.net/2015/06/heat-wave-picking-off-pakistans-urban-poor/#comments Thu, 25 Jun 2015 16:23:52 +0000 Zofeen Ebrahim http://www.ipsnews.net/?p=141304 Children from informal settlements in Pakistan’s most populous city, Karachi, are often sent out with large containers to fetch water from taps outside private homes, set up by wealthier residents as an act of charity. Credit: Zofeen T. Ebrahim/IPS

Children from informal settlements in Pakistan’s most populous city, Karachi, are often sent out with large containers to fetch water from taps outside private homes, set up by wealthier residents as an act of charity. Credit: Zofeen T. Ebrahim/IPS

By Zofeen Ebrahim
KARACHI, Jun 25 2015 (IPS)

Over 950 people have perished in just five days. The morgues, already filled to capacity, are piling up with bodies, and in over-crowded hospitals the threat of further deaths hangs in the air.

Pakistan’s port city of Karachi, home to over 23 million people, is gasping in the grip of a dreadful heat wave, the worst the country has experienced since the 1950s, according to the Meteorology Department.

“In all my 25 years of service, I’ve never seen so many dead bodies arriving in such a short time." -- Mohammad Bilal, head of the Edhi Foundation’s morgue
Temperatures rose to 44.8 degrees Celsius on Saturday, Jun. 20, dropped slightly the following day and then shot back up to 45 degrees on Tuesday, Jun. 23 putting millions in this mega-city at risk of heat stroke.

Though the entire southern Sindh Province is affected – recording 1,100 deaths in total – its capital city, Karachi, has been worst hit – particularly due to the ‘urban heat island’ phenomenon, which climatologists say make 45-degree temperatures feel like 50-degree heat.

In this scenario, heat becomes trapped, turning the city into a kind of slow-cooking oven.

Every single resident is feeling the heat, but the majority of those who have succumbed to it come from Karachi’s army of poor, twice cursed by a lack of access to electricity and condemned to live in crowded, informal settlements that offer little respite from the scorching sun.

Already crushed by dismal health indicators, the poor have scant means of avoiding sun exposure, which intensifies their vulnerability.

Anwar Kazmi, spokesperson for the Edhi Foundation, Pakistan’s biggest charity, tells IPS that 50 percent of the dead were picked up from the streets, and likely included beggars, drug users and daily wage labourers with no choice but to defy government advisories to stay indoors until the blaze has passed.

Two days into the crisis, with every free space occupied and corpses arriving by the hundreds, the city’s largest morgue, run by the same charity, began burying bodies that had not been claimed.

“In all my 25 years of service, I’ve never seen so many dead bodies arriving in such a short time,” Mohammad Bilal, who heads the Edhi Foundation’s mortuary, tells IPS.

The government has come under fire for neglecting to sound the alarm in advance. Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif and Sindh Chief Minister Syed Qaim Ali Shah issued belated warnings by ordering the closure of schools and government offices.

Hospitals, meanwhile, are groaning under the strain of attempting to treat some 40,000 people across the province suffering from heat exhaustion and dehydration.

Saeed Quraishy, medical superintendent at Karachi’s largest government-run Civil Hospital, says they have stopped all elective admissions in order to focus solely on emergencies cases.

Experts say this highlights, yet again, the country’s utter lack of preparedness for climate-related tragedies.

And as always – as with droughts, floods or any other extreme weather events – the poor are the first to die off in droves.

Energy and poverty

The crisis is shedding light on several converging issues with which Pakistan has been grappling: energy shortages, the disproportionate impact of climate change on the poor and the fallout from rapid urbanisation. In Karachi, the country’s most populous metropolis, these problems are magnified manifold.

Though a census has not been carried out since 1998, NGOs say there are hundreds of millions who live and work on the streets, including beggars, hawkers and manual labourers.

More than 62 percent of the population here lives in informal settlements, with a density of nearly 6,000 people per square kilometre.

Many of them have no access to basic services like water and electricity, both crucial during times of extreme weather. The ‘kunda’ system, in which power is illegally tapped from the electrical mains, is a popular way around the ‘energy apartheid’.

Just this month, the city’s power utility company pulled down 1,500 such illicit ‘connections’.

But even the 46 percent of households across the country that are connected to the national electric grid are not guaranteed an uninterrupted supply. With Pakistan facing a daily energy shortage of close to 4,000 mega watts, power outages of up to 20 hours a day are not unusual.

At such moments, wealthier families can fall back on generators. But for the estimated 91 million people in the country who live on less than two dollars a day, there is no ‘Plan B’ – there is only a battle for survival, which too many in the last week have fought and lost.

For the bottom half of Pakistani society, official notifications on how to beat the heat are simply in one ear and out the other.

Taking lukewarm showers, using rehydration salts or staying indoors are not options for families eking out a living on 1.25 dollars or those who live in informal settlements where hundreds of households must share a single tap.

The government has advised residents of Pakistan’s port city of Karachi to stay indoors until a deadly heat wave passes, but for daily wage labourers this is not an option: no money means no food. Credit: Zofeen T. Ebrahim/IPS

The government has advised residents of Pakistan’s port city of Karachi to stay indoors until a deadly heat wave passes, but for daily wage labourers this is not an option: no money means no food. Credit: Zofeen T. Ebrahim/IPS

Lashing out at the government’s indifference and belated response to the crisis, Dr. Tasneem Ahsan, former executive director of the Jinnah Postgraduate Medical Centre (JPMC), tells IPS that preventive action could have saved countless lives.

“The government should have taken up large spaces like marriage halls and schools and turned them into shelters, supplying electricity and water for people to come and cool down there.”

She also says officials could have parked water bowsers in poorer localities for people to douse themselves, advised the population on appropriate clothing and distributed leaflets on simple ways to keep cool.

The media, too, are at fault, she contends, for reporting the death count like sports scores instead of spreading the word on cost-effective, life-saving tips “like putting a wet towel on the head”.

Government inaction

Intermittent protests against power outages, aimed largely at the city’s main power company, K-Electric, served as a prelude to the present tragedy.

Though the country has an installed electricity capacity of 22,797 MW, production stands at a dismal 16,000 MW. In recent years, electricity demand has risen to 19,000 MW, meaning scores of people are either sharing a single power line or going without energy.

Meanwhile, civil society has been stepping in to fill the void left by the government, with far better results than some official attempts to provide emergency relief.

With most hospitals paralyzed by the number of patients, volunteers like Dr. Tasneem Butt, working the JPMC, have taken matters into their own hands. Using social media as a platform, she has circulated a list of necessary items including 100-200 bed sheets, 500 towels, bottled water, 15-20 slabs of ice and – perhaps most importantly – more volunteers.

“I got them immediately,” she tells IPS. “Now I’ve asked people to hold on to their pledges while I arrange for chillers and air-conditioners.

“The emergency ward is suffocating,” she adds. “It’s not just the patients who need to be kept cool, even the overworked doctors need this basic environment to be able to work optimally.”

Last week, the government of the Sindh Province cancelled leave for medical personnel and brought in additional staff to cope with the deluge of patients, which is expected to increase as devout observers of the Holy Ramadan fast succumb to fatigue and hunger.

The monsoon rains are still some days away, and until they arrive there is no telling how many more people will be moved from the streets into graves.

Interestingly, while other parts of the province have recorded higher temperatures, the deaths have occurred largely in Karachi due to urban congestion and overcrowding, experts say, with the majority of deaths reported in poor localities like Lyari, Malir and Korangi.

The end may be in sight for now, but as climate change becomes more extreme, incidents like these are only going to increase in magnitude and frequency, according to climatologists like Dr. Qamar-Uz-Zaman Chaudhry

Edited by Kanya D’Almeida

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Security Council Action on Gaza War Crimes a Non-Starterhttp://www.ipsnews.net/2015/06/security-council-action-on-gaza-war-crimes-a-non-starter/?utm_source=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_campaign=security-council-action-on-gaza-war-crimes-a-non-starter http://www.ipsnews.net/2015/06/security-council-action-on-gaza-war-crimes-a-non-starter/#comments Wed, 24 Jun 2015 21:23:38 +0000 Thalif Deen http://www.ipsnews.net/?p=141293 Scenes of the aftermath of the devastating Gaza conflict, which took place during the previous summer. 14 October 2014. Credit: UN Photo/Eskinder Debebe

Scenes of the aftermath of the devastating Gaza conflict, which took place during the previous summer. 14 October 2014. Credit: UN Photo/Eskinder Debebe

By Thalif Deen
UNITED NATIONS, Jun 24 2015 (IPS)

When a U.N. panel released a 217-page report accusing both Israel and Hamas of possible war crimes committed during the 50-day conflict in Gaza last July, the chances of Security Council action were remote because of the traditional U.S. commitment to stand by Israel – right or wrong, mostly wrong.

Israel carried out over 6,000 air strikes killing 2,251 Palestinians, including 1,462 civilians, while the more than 6,600 rockets and mortars fired by Hamas killed six civilians and injured 1,600, according to the report.“When Israeli officials are put in the dock, U.S. officials ought to be right in there with them. Their conduct is inexcusable." -- Michael Ratner

“The death toll alone speaks volumes,” said the report by a two-member panel chaired by U.S. jurist Mary McGowan Davis and which included Doudou Dienne, a lawyer and former senior U.N. official from Senegal. “And the scale of the devastation was unprecedented.”

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu dismissed the report as “flawed and biased”.

But at a briefing Tuesday, U.S. State Department Spokesperson John Kirby refused to comment on whether the Security Council or the International Criminal Court (ICC) would act on the U.N. report.

Kirby told reporters the United States challenges “the very mechanism which created” the panel, which was appointed by the Human Rights Council, of which Washington is a member.

“We’re not going to have a rebuttal to it. We’re certainly going to read it, as we read all U.N. reports. But we challenge the very foundation upon which this report was written, and we don’t believe that there’s a call or a need for any further Security Council work on this,” Kirby said.

Asked about a possible referral to the ICC, he said: “We do not support any further U.N. work on this report.”

Told about the United States welcoming a similar human rights inquiry on North Korea while rejecting an inquiry for Gaza, he said: “Because we’ve long said – and you know that we reject the basis under which this particular commission of inquiry was established because of the very clear bias against Israel in it.”

The question that also remained unanswered was: if the United States thinks the report is biased against Israel, does it also mean it is biased against Hamas?

“I’m saying that we object to the report,” Kirby reiterated.

Asked if the United States objects to the entire report, he said “to the foundation upon which the commission was established, and therefore the product that resulted from that work.”

Michael Ratner, President Emeritus of the Center for Constitutional Rights, told IPS that once again, as it was true in the 2008-2009 Israeli assault on Gaza, the U.N. Commission of Inquiry report on last year’ s Gaza war was devastating regarding Israel’s commission of war crimes.

He said 65 percent of the 2,251 Palestinians killed were civilians and international legal requirements of distinction and proportionality were ignored.

“Yes, the report also condemned Palestinian armed groups but the overwhelming majority of the crimes were laid at the feet of the Israelis. And now what?” Ratner asked.

“Once again the U.S., Israel’s primary war-crime enabler, ostrich-like, ignores the evidence of Israeli crimes and continues to give it billions so that more crimes can be committed,” Ratner said.

“When Israeli officials are put in the dock, U.S. officials ought to be right in there with them. Their conduct is inexcusable,” he declared.

Balkees Jarrah, Counsel, International Justice Programme at Human Rights Watch (HRW), told IPS the ICC now has a mandate over serious crimes dating back to June 13, 2014, committed on or from Palestinian territory.

Such crimes, he said, include indiscriminate attacks on civilians, whether committed by Israelis or Palestinians – including abuses during the 2014 conflict in Gaza.

The court’s prosecutor, Fatou Bensouda, is currently conducting a preliminary examination to determine whether to pursue a formal investigation.

With an ICC probe now possible, Israel and Hamas must show that they are willing and able to credibly investigate serious allegations, and hold accountable those who violated the laws of war, he said.

“The U.N. Gaza report makes clear that neither side is currently doing that,” said Jarrah.

Ratner told IPS: “Again, we will see the Security Council not take any action as U.S. vetoes are always a looming threat. But the crimes of Israel and reporting on them remain.”

The next stop, he pointed out, will surely be the ICC and this week, if all goes as planned, Palestine will submit its documentation of three sets of crimes: settlements, war crimes and treatment of prisoners.

“Israel of course will do nothing except scream that Palestine is not a state—an argument already lost,” he added.

The prosecutor can of course look into the rockets coming from Gaza into Israel as well, and it is likely that if she opens a preliminary investigation into Israel’s conduct, she will also look at the Palestinians .

While there is no real doubt regarding violations of the laws of war by Israel, and how the Gaza assaults were carried out, there will be counter arguments by it about proportionality and the like, he noted.

However, when it comes to settlement activity there is no counter-argument Israel can make. It’s an absolute war crime for which there is no defence. Ultimately, the ICC to have any legitimacy will need to take on the issue, he added.

“Let’s hope for the people of Palestine the court does it sooner than later,” declared Ratner.

Edited by Kitty Stapp

The writer can be contacted at thalifdeen@aol.com

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Costa Rican Women Try to Pull Legal Therapeutic Abortion Out of Limbohttp://www.ipsnews.net/2015/06/costa-rican-women-try-to-pull-legal-therapeutic-abortion-out-of-limbo/?utm_source=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_campaign=costa-rican-women-try-to-pull-legal-therapeutic-abortion-out-of-limbo http://www.ipsnews.net/2015/06/costa-rican-women-try-to-pull-legal-therapeutic-abortion-out-of-limbo/#comments Wed, 24 Jun 2015 17:21:01 +0000 Diego Arguedas Ortiz http://www.ipsnews.net/?p=141285 In public hospitals in Costa Rica, like the Rafael Ángel Calderón hospital in San José, there is no protocol regulating legal therapeutic abortion, for doctors to follow. As a result, physicians restrict the practice to a minimum, leaving women without their right to terminate a pregnancy when their health is at risk. Credit: Diego Arguedas Ortiz/IPS

In public hospitals in Costa Rica, like the Rafael Ángel Calderón hospital in San José, there is no protocol regulating legal therapeutic abortion, for doctors to follow. As a result, physicians restrict the practice to a minimum, leaving women without their right to terminate a pregnancy when their health is at risk. Credit: Diego Arguedas Ortiz/IPS

By Diego Arguedas Ortiz
SAN JOSE, Jun 24 2015 (IPS)

The lack of clear regulations and guidelines on therapeutic abortion in Costa Rica means women depend on the interpretation of doctors with regard to the circumstances under which the procedure can be legally practiced.

Article 121 of Costa Rica’s penal code stipulates that abortion is only legal when the mother’s health or life is at risk. But in practice the public health authorities only recognise risk to the mother’s life as legal grounds for terminating a pregnancy.

“The problem is that there are many women who meet the conditions laid out in this article – they ask for a therapeutic abortion and it is denied them on the argument that their life is not at risk,” Larissa Arroyo, a lawyer who belongs to the Collective for the Right to Decide, an organisation that defends women’s sexual and reproductive rights, told IPS.

“The problem isn’t the law, but the interpretation of the law,” said Arroyo.

She and other activists are pressing for Costa Rica to accept the World Health Organisation’s definition of health, which refers to physical, mental and social well-being, in connection with this issue.

Many doctors in public hospitals, unclear as to what to do when a pregnant woman requests an abortion, refuse to carry out the procedure regardless of the circumstances.

Illegal abortion in Costa Rica is punishable by three years in prison, or more if aggravating factors are found.

“It’s complicated because in the interactions we have had with doctors, they tell us: ‘Look, I would do it, but I’m not allowed to’,” said Arroyo.

Others say they have a conscientious objection to abortion, in this heavily Catholic country.

In Costa Rica, abortion is illegal in all other situations normally considered “therapeutic”, such as rape, incest, or congenital malformation of the fetus.

Activists stress the toll on women’s emotional health if they are forced to bear a child under such circumstances.

“Many women don’t ask for an abortion because they think it’s illegal,” Arroyo said. “If both women and doctors believe that, there’s no one to stick up for their rights.”

This creates critical situations for women like Ana and Aurora, two Costa Rican women who were carrying fetuses that would not survive, but which doctors did not allow them to abort.

In late 2006, a medical exam when Ana was six weeks pregnant showed that the fetus suffered from encephalocele, a malformation of the brain and skull incompatible with life outside the womb.

Ana, 26 years old at the time, requested a therapeutic abortion, arguing that carrying to term a fetus that could not survive was causing her psychological problems like depression. But the medical authorities and the Supreme Court did not authorise an abortion. In the end, her daughter was born dead after seven hours of labour.

The Collective for the Right to Decide and the Washington-based Center for Reproductive Rights brought Ana’s case before the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR), as well as that of Aurora, who was also denied the right to a therapeutic abortion.

Her case is similar to Ana’s. In 2012, it was discovered that her fetus had an abdominal wall defect, a kind of birth defect that allows the stomach, intestines, or other organs to protrude through an opening that forms on the abdomen. Her son, whose legs had never developed, and who had severe scoliosis, died shortly after birth.

In 2011, the United Nations Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) expressed concern that “women do not have access to legal abortion because of the lack of clear medical guidelines outlining when and how a legal abortion can be conducted.”

It urged the Costa Rican state to draw up clear medical guidelines, to “widely disseminate them among health professionals and the public at large,” and to consider reviewing other circumstances under which abortion could be permitted, such as rape or incest.

The international pressure has grown. Costa Rican Judge Elizabeth Odio, recently named to the San José-based Inter-American Court of Human Rights, said in a Jun. 20 interview with the local newspaper La Nación that “it is obvious that therapeutic abortion, which already exists in our legislation, should be enforced.”

“There are doctors who believe therapeutic abortion is a crime, and they put women’s lives at risk,” said Odio.

In March, Health Minister Fernando Llorca acknowledged that “there is now a debate on the need for developing regulations on therapeutic abortion – a debate that was necessary.”

Activists are calling for a protocol to regulate legal abortion, established by the social security system, CCSS, which administers the public health system and health services, including hospitals. But progress towards a protocol has stalled since 2009.

“For several years we have been working on a protocol with the Collective and the CCSS,” said Ligia Picado, with the Costa Rican Demographic Association (ADC). “But once it was completed, the CCSS authorities referred it to another department, and the personal opinions of functionaries, more emotional than legal, were brought to bear.”

The activist, a member of one of the civil society organisations most heavily involved in defending sexual and reproductive rights, told IPS that “the problem is that there is no protocol or guidelines that health personnel can rely on to support the implementation of women’s rights.”

Picado said the need for the protocol is especially urgent for women whose physical or emotional health is affected by an unwanted pregnancy and who can’t afford to travel abroad for an abortion, or to have a safe, illegal abortion at a clandestine clinic in this country.

Statistics on abortions in this Central American country of 4.7 million people are virtually non-existent. According to 2007 estimates by ADC, 27,000 clandestine abortions are practiced annually. But there are no figures on abortions carried out legally in public or private health centres.

Groups of legislators have begun to press the CCSS to approve the protocol, and on Jun. 17 the legislature’s human rights commission sent a letter to the president of the CCSS.

“We hope the CCSS authorities will realise the need to issue the guidelines so that doctors are not allowed to claim objections of conscience and will be obligated to live up to Costa Rica’s laws and regulations,” opposition lawmaker Patricia Mora, one of the authors of the letter, told IPS.

Edited by Estrella Gutiérrez/Translated by Stephanie Wildes

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Grenada Rebuilds Barrier Reefshttp://www.ipsnews.net/2015/06/grenada-rebuilds-barrier-reefs/?utm_source=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_campaign=grenada-rebuilds-barrier-reefs http://www.ipsnews.net/2015/06/grenada-rebuilds-barrier-reefs/#comments Wed, 24 Jun 2015 16:46:16 +0000 Desmond Brown http://www.ipsnews.net/?p=141280 Globally, 75 percent of coral reefs are under threat from overfishing, habitat destruction, pollution and acidification of the seas due to climate change. Credit: Bigstock

Globally, 75 percent of coral reefs are under threat from overfishing, habitat destruction, pollution and acidification of the seas due to climate change. Credit: Bigstock

By Desmond Brown
BASSETERRE, St. Kitts, Jun 24 2015 (IPS)

The Eastern Caribbean nation of Grenada is following the example of its bigger neighbours Belize and Jamaica in taking action to restore coral reefs, which serve as frontline barriers against storm waves.

Coral reefs also play an extremely important role in the Caribbean tourism economy, as well as in food production and food security, but they have been adversely affected by rising sea temperatures and pollution.“We will actually create coral nurseries where we will harvest live coral from some of the healthy colonies around the island." -- Kerricia Hobson

An assessment of the vulnerability of Grenada, conducted between September and October 2014, identified several areas that are particularly vulnerable that did not already have interventions. Two such areas were Grand Anse on mainland Grenada and the Windward community on the sister island Carriacou.

“What we will be doing through this project is actually establishing coral nurseries and this is the first time it will be done in the Organisation of Eastern Caribbean States (OECS),” Kerricia Hobson, Project Manager in the Environment Division in Grenada’s Ministry of Agriculture, Lands, Forestry, Fisheries and the Environment, told IPS.

“We will actually create coral nurseries where we will harvest live coral from some of the healthy colonies around the island. We will propagate them in the nursery and when they are sufficiently mature, we will plant them on existing reef structures.”

The reef restoration is being done jointly by the Government of Grenada and the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) under the Coastal Eco-system Based Adaptation in Small Island Developing States (Coastal EBA Project).

Hobson spoke with IPS on the sidelines of a communication symposium to demystify the complexities of communicating on climate change and its related issues.

The June 18-19 symposium was held here under the OECS Rally the Region to Action on Climate Change (RRACC project), which is funded by the United States Agency for International Development (USAID).

Hobson noted that Grenada and its Caribbean neighbours get a lot of economic benefits from their coastal ecosystems, particularly through tourism and fisheries; and they also provide protection to the coastlines.

But she said a number of factors have led to the destruction of coral reefs.

“A lot of them are climate-related but some of them are the result of human activities. In the Caribbean we have a history of not recognising the importance of some of these structures,” she said.

“Like mangroves, with coral reefs some of the destruction is actually due to things like pollution which comes from land run-off. For example our agricultural sector, there is a tradition of farming close to water sources because it’s easier to get the water for your plants and your animals but it also means that when it rains all of the excess fertilizers and the faeces from your animals wash into the river and because we live on an island, five minutes after it rains these things end up on the reef.

“So what you end up having is a reef that is dominated by algae which overgrow the reefs,” Hobson explained.

Kerricia Hobson says Grenada is launching a coral reef restoration project, the first in the Eastern Caribbean. Credit: Desmond Brown/IPS

Kerricia Hobson says Grenada is launching a coral reef restoration project, the first in the Eastern Caribbean. Credit: Desmond Brown/IPS

The findings of a three-year study by 90 international experts, released in 2014, said restoring parrotfish populations and improving other management strategies, such as protection from overfishing and excessive coastal pollution, can help reefs recover and even make them more resilient to future climate change impacts.

In Belize, live coral cover on shallow patch reefs has decreased from 80 percent in 1971 to 20 percent in 1996, with a further decline from the 20 percent in 1996 to 13 percent in 1999.

In 1980, Hurricane Allen – the worst storm to hit Jamaica in the past 100 years – smashed the reefs, decimating the ecosystem.

Globally, 75 percent of coral reefs are under threat from overfishing, habitat destruction, pollution and acidification of the seas due to climate change.

The Inter-governmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), in its fifth assessment report on climate change impacts and adaptation, said that damage to coral reefs has implications for several key regional services.

It said coral reefs account for 10 to 12 percent of the fish caught in tropical countries, and 20 to 25 percent of the fish caught by developing nations.

Coral reefs contribute to protecting the shoreline from the destructive action of storm surges and cyclones, sheltering the only habitable land for several island nations, habitats suitable for the establishment and maintenance of mangroves and wetlands, as well as areas for recreational activities. The report noted that this role is threatened by future sea level rise, the decrease in coral cover, reduced rates of calcification, and higher rates of dissolution and bioerosion due to ocean warming and acidification.

In the tourism sector, the IPCC said more than 100 countries benefit from the recreational value provided by their coral reefs.

With the advent of climate change, Caribbean countries have been told they have to start acting now, since their future viability is based on their present responsibility.

Dr. Dale Rankine, a researcher at the Caribbean Institute for Meteorology and Hydrology (CIMH) in Barbados, said there are certain things countries have to start doing now, if they have not already started.

“One is mitigation, which is really to limit the amount of greenhouse gases. We have to lobby all the major emitters because collectively all of the small island states really emit very little. We have to pursue a green economy,” Rankine told IPS.

“Adaptation is also a major thing. For adaptation, we have to weigh the cost of action versus inaction right across the different sectors.

“Climate change is not an add-on. Some of the very things that are being advocated for climate change adaptation are the same things that we want to do for sustainable development. So it is not an add-on, it is really something that we can pursue whilst doing the same things but in a more sustainable manner,” he added.

Rankine also suggested that countries start embedding climate change considerations in all of their development planning and look at diversification in the agricultural sector “because some of the crops are just not going to survive in the future”.

Edited by Kitty Stapp

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On Kenya’s Coast, a Struggle for the Sacredhttp://www.ipsnews.net/2015/06/on-kenyas-coast-a-struggle-for-the-sacred/?utm_source=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_campaign=on-kenyas-coast-a-struggle-for-the-sacred http://www.ipsnews.net/2015/06/on-kenyas-coast-a-struggle-for-the-sacred/#comments Tue, 23 Jun 2015 18:58:31 +0000 Miriam Gathigah http://www.ipsnews.net/?p=141260 In addition to being the caretakers of sacred forests, the Mijikenda community in southern Kenya practice agriculture and engage in livestock rearing. Credit: Miriam Gathigah/IPS

In addition to being the caretakers of sacred forests, the Mijikenda community in southern Kenya practice agriculture and engage in livestock rearing. Credit: Miriam Gathigah/IPS

By Miriam Gathigah
KAYA KINONDO, Kenya, Jun 23 2015 (IPS)

Travel into the heart of Kenya’s southern Coast Province, nearly 500 km from the capital city of Nairobi, and you will come across one of the planet’s most curious World Heritage Sites: the remains of several fortified villages, revered by the indigenous Mijikenda people as the sacred abodes of their ancestors.

"If you have evil intentions within this forest, a curse will befall you and we believe that you may not even come out alive.” -- Rashid Bakari, a member of Kenya's Mijikenda community
Known locally as ‘kaya’, these forested sites date back to the 16th century, when a migration of pastoral communities from present-day Somalia is believed to have led to the creation of several villages covering roughly 200 km across this province’s low-lying hills.

Having thrived for centuries, developing their own language and customs, the kayas began to disintegrate around the early 20th century as famine and fighting took hold.

Today, although uninhabited, the kayas continue to be worshipped as repositories of ancient beliefs and practices.

Thanks to careful nurturing by the Mijikenda people, the groves and graves in the kayas are all that remains of what was once an extensive coastal lowland forest.

But they are under threat.

The discovery in the last three years of large deposits of rare earth minerals in this region has marked the kaya forests out as targets for extraction, development and displacement of the indigenous population.

As property developers and resource explorers eye these ancient lands, locals are squaring off for a fight in what the World Bank has called one of the fastest-growing economies in sub-Saharan Africa.

‘Bound to our forests’

Mnyenze Abdalla Ali, a representative of the Kaya Kinondo Council of Elders, which represents a kaya forest in Kwale County at the southern-most tip of the province, tells IPS that the Mijikenda people “consider themselves culturally and spiritually bound to their forests.”

Numbering some 1.9 million people, according to the most recent census, the Mijikenda community comprises nine distinct tribes who nevertheless share a language and culture.

Each tribe has its own unique kaya, which simply refers to ‘home’ or to a village built in a forest clearing, Ali explains.

Because the forests are believed to hold the secrets and spirits of ancestors passed, the community is vigilant about their protection. According to one resident of Kaya Kinondo, Hamisi Juma, “Nothing can be taken out of the forest – not even a fallen twig can be used as firewood in our homes.”

She tells IPS that forest debris is only used during rituals and traditional ceremonies, “when we slaughter goats and use twigs to lit the fire. This happens within the forest and only for the purposes of the ritual.”

As a result, some 50 kayas spread throughout Kwale County, Mombasa County and Kilifi County in the Coast Province are home to an exceptionally high level of biodiversity.

Kenya’s own ministry of environment, water and natural resources has declared the region a biodiversity hotspot and pledged to allocate the necessary funds and resources to its protection.

But it is more than just a rich ecological belt.

The local community carefully tends to the outskirts of kaya forests, which also serve as the ancient burial grounds of their ancestors, nurturing a diverse ecosystem that is home to rare plant and bird species. Credit: Miriam Gathigah/IPS

The local community carefully tends to the outskirts of kaya forests, which also serve as the ancient burial grounds of their ancestors, nurturing a diverse ecosystem that is home to rare plant and bird species. Credit: Miriam Gathigah/IPS

When the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO) decided to add the kaya forests to its prestigious World Heritage List of over 1,000 protected sites back in 2008, it referred to the area as “an outstanding example of traditional human settlement […] which is representative of a unique interaction with the environment.”

UNESCO also noted that the kaya represent a “fundamental source of the Mijikenda people’s sense of ‘being-in-the-world’ and of place within the cultural landscape of contemporary Kenya.”

Furthermore, the forests are highly prized as a repository of medicinal plants and herbs, according to Eunice Adhiambo, project manager at Ujamaa Centre, a non-governmental organisation founded on the philosophy of “building social capital, not capital accumulation” as put forward by Tanzania’s first independent leader, Julius Nyerere.

Dedicated to empowering exploited communities in Kenya, the Ujamaa Centre supports the Mijikenda’s struggle to preserve these “unblemished and very unique landscapes”, Adhiambo tells IPS.

“Although kaya forests constitute about five percent of the remaining closed-canopy forest cover of Kenya’s coast, 35 percent of the highest conservation-value sites are found here,” she adds.

“If developers have their way,” she says, “we will lose so much of the richness that Mother Nature has given us. We have the responsibility of conserving this gift because we cannot buy it anywhere.”

But not all residents of this country of 20 million people share this view – particularly not economists, investors and policymakers keen to realise a forecasted economic growth rate increase from 5.4 percent in 2014 to six or seven percent over the 2015-2017 period.

Rare earth minerals – a tempting opportunity

Kenya’s profile as a potential top rare earth minerals producer rose significantly when, in 2012, mineral explorer Cortec Mining Kenya Ltd. announced it had found deposits worth 62.4 billion dollars.

At the time, the mineral exploration company planned to sink between 160 million and 200 million dollars into a drilling operation at its Mrima Hill prospect, also home to kaya forests.

The corporation projected initial output of 2,900 to 3,600 tonnes of niobium, an element used in high-temperature alloys for special kinds of steel, such as is used in the production of gas pipelines, cars and jet engines.

Experts estimated the deposit at Mrima Hill to be the sixth largest in the world, with a mine life of 16-18 years.

Fully exploited, it would put Kenya among the ranks of the major niobium exporters; in 2012, Brazil accounted for 95 percent of the world’s combined annual niobium production of 100,000 tonnes, while Canada followed at a distant second place.

As environmental groups and civil society organisations concerned about the impact of mining on sensitive ecological and cultural sites mounted a huge challenge, the government revoked an initial 21-year license granted to the company – though it did not cite environmental causes for its decision.

In early 2015, the government upheld a court decision to revoke the license, and announced plans to bring mineral exploration under state control.

On Mar. 20, Mining Minister Najib Balala stated in a press release, “Not […] Cortec or any other company will be allowed to do exploration at Mrima. It will be handled on behalf of the people of Kenya and especially the people of Mrima and Kwale County as a whole.”

This news has not, however, been met with much optimism from indigenous communities, who continue to view Kenya’s ambitious economic development agenda with trepidation.

Both the extractive and real estate sectors have emerged as major drivers of the country’s growth in the coming decade, and deposits of rare earth minerals could be a huge boon for the country.

Ernst & Young say demand for rare earth minerals is rising, with their market share estimated at between four and six billion dollars in 2015.

While China currently meets 90 percent of global demand, Kenya – along with other African nations like Somalia, Tanzania, Mozambique and Namibia – could crack the Asian giant’s monopoly.

In addition, discoveries of oil and natural gas in 2013 in Turkana County, on Kenya’s border with South Sudan, together with news that explorers had tapped into titanium deposits along the 500-km coastline, re-ignited fears of massive encroachment and destruction of kaya forests.

According to Kenya’s 2015 National Economic Survey, “The overall value of mineral production rose by 6.1 percent to stand at KSh 20.9 billion [about 212 million U.S. dollars] from KSh 19.8 billion [201 million U.S. dollars] in 2013, mainly on account of production of Titanium ore.”

The Ujamaa Centre says that some indigenous communities are beginning to give in to the pressures of extractive industries and the lure of quick money from real estate developers.

Kaya Chivara, located in Kilifi County, for instance, is completely degraded as a result of human encroachment, while others – particularly those in mineral-rich Kwale Country – are at high risk.

“Imminent niobium extraction will certainly degrade the forest,” Ujamaa’s Adhiambo predicts, stressing that the Mijikenda people are now poised to play a major role in halting any potentially destructive development.

‘A curse or a blessing’

So far, despite developers of all stripes hungering after the land – with some property developers even buying up tracts that encroach into protected areas – Kaya Kinondo remains in safe hands.

Some kaya forests, particularly in Kilifi County in Kenya’s Coast Province, have been heavily degraded due to extractive industries. Credit: Miriam Gathigah/IPS

Some kaya forests, particularly in Kilifi County in Kenya’s Coast Province, have been heavily degraded due to extractive industries. Credit: Miriam Gathigah/IPS

The Council of Elders has been vigilant about protection of the forest, and the community has fallen back on their belief in powerful rituals to ward off bad omens.

Mijikendas say that two pillars govern the spirit of the kaya forests: either a curse or a blessing.

Rashid Bakari, a kaya guide who works with youth from the community to bring visitors into the forests, tells IPS, “If you have evil intentions within this forest, a curse will befall you and we believe that you may not even come out alive.”

For those who do not subscribe to his convictions, the Kenyan constitution is also proving to be a source of protection, with Article 44 providing for community participation in the resolution of disputes over customary land.

The Ujamaa Collective, which works to enhance popular participation in socio-economic processes and supports community based decision-making and governance, believes the government must be held accountable to these clauses.

Adhiambo also tells IPS that her organisation is “encouraging communities to work with the local governments to help them preserve what is left of their natural heritage.”

She says that community discussions with Josephat Chirema of the County Assembly Committee of Culture and Development has borne fruit, with the committee member promising to introduce debate in the Kwale County Assembly to establish and obtain detailed information about kayas – and the need to work with indigenous communities for their preservation.

Now, caretakers of several other kayas are working closely with the Kaya Kinondo Council of Elders, for lessons on how to salvage what is left of their hallowed heritage.

Edited by Kanya D’Almeida

This article is part of a special series entitled ‘The Future Is Now: Inside the World’s Most Sustainable Communities’. Read the other articles in the series here

This reporting series was conceived in collaboration with Ecosocialist Horizons
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Studying and Working Poses New Challenges for Argentina’s Youthhttp://www.ipsnews.net/2015/06/studying-and-working-poses-new-challenges-for-argentinas-youth/?utm_source=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_campaign=studying-and-working-poses-new-challenges-for-argentinas-youth http://www.ipsnews.net/2015/06/studying-and-working-poses-new-challenges-for-argentinas-youth/#comments Tue, 23 Jun 2015 17:52:43 +0000 Fabiana Frayssinet http://www.ipsnews.net/?p=141259 A boy helps his mother, Graciela Ardiles, do chores on their small farm in Arraga in the northern Argentine province of Santiago del Estero. Thanks to a rural development programme that has boosted the family’s income, she says her children will be able to continue studying, and even go on to university, unlike her parents. Credit: Fabiana Frayssinet/IPS

A boy helps his mother, Graciela Ardiles, do chores on their small farm in Arraga in the northern Argentine province of Santiago del Estero. Thanks to a rural development programme that has boosted the family’s income, she says her children will be able to continue studying, and even go on to university, unlike her parents. Credit: Fabiana Frayssinet/IPS

By Fabiana Frayssinet
BUENOS AIRES, Jun 23 2015 (IPS)

Until not too long ago, youngsters in Argentina faced a choice: whether to study or drop out and go to work. But now most children and adolescents in Argentina who work also continue to study – a change that poses new challenges for combating school dropout, repetition and truancy, as well as the circle of poverty.

The change is revealing, according to Néstor López at the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation’s International Institute for Education Planning (IIEP UNESCO), which together with the International Labour Organisation (ILO) produced the report “Trabajo infantil y trayectorias escolares protegidas en Argentina” on child labour and education, launched this month, which discusses the new situation.

“When you analysed what was happening with teenagers 20 years ago, you saw two different situations,” López said in an interview with IPS. “There were adolescents in school and adolescents who worked.”

“But what you see now is that school enrollment rates have gone up significantly, which has meant to some extent a reduction in their rates of participation in the labour market, but has also meant an increase in the proportion of adolescents who both study and work,” he said.

In 2013, practically all children in Argentina between the ages of five and 14 and 84 percent of adolescents between 15 and 17 were in school, the study says.

Gustavo Ponce, an ILO expert in prevention and eradication of child labour, said measures like the 2006 National Education Law, which made education obligatory until the last year of secondary school (17 or 18 years of age), contributed to the new trend of adolescents working and studying at the same time.

“Progress has also been made in terms of legislation and regulations, with a law that raised the minimum working age to 16, which included the question of protection of adolescent workers aged 16 and 17,” Ponce told IPS.

He was referring to a law that protects young people from heavy or dangerous work, or work that makes it impossible for them to attend school or endangers their health.

He was also referring to the 2013 reform of the penal code, which made child labour a crime.

In their report, the ILO and UNESCO mentioned these measures as well as others, such as the Universal Child Allowance cash transfer programme, which have helped discourage child labour by boosting the incomes of poor families.

“Yes, you could say there has been a policy to eradicate child labour,” said Ponce.

López said that what is needed now is to continue improving school enrollment and attendance among adolescents. According to the new study, of the children between the ages of five and 13 who both work and attend school, approximately one-third repeat the year, compared to 13 percent of children who do not work.

With regard to truancy, the report cites statistics from a Labour Ministry survey of activities among children and adolescents, pointing out that 20 percent of those who both work and study frequently miss school, compared to 10 percent of those who only attend school.

And in the case of adolescents who work, 26 percent do not go to school, and 43 percent of those who do attend school are held back. Among those who only study, 27 percent repeat the year.

“It’s better than if they were just working,” said López. “It’s good for kids who are working to also be studying, preparing for their future. You could say it’s a positive thing if the kids who have to work can also go to school.”

Overall, though, “it’s negative because what the statistics, studies and common sense show is that these kids have a lower quality educational experience, because they don’t have time to do their homework, they don’t have time to study, they go to school tired, they miss school more, and they get less out of the educational experience for different reasons,” he added.

According to the Labour Ministry, child labour was reduced 66 percent from 2004 to 2012 – from 450,000 children working in 2004 to 180,000 in 2012.

But another concern are less visible forms of child labour, such as unpaid housework and caregiving, which especially affect girls and young women, including caring for younger siblings, cleaning the house, fixing meals, and taking care of small barnyard animals.

“Educational level is one of the main mechanisms used by the labour market to select workers. Access or lack of access to formal education is one of the aspects most heavily associated with the process of intergenerational accumulation of social disadvantage,” says the report.

Among the measures to encourage school attendance, the ILO proposes improving the network of free public services that support caregivers, including childcare centres, preschools, and double shifts in schools. In Argentina, schoolchildren attend either the morning or the afternoon shift. But full-day schools are becoming more common in low-income areas, enabling mothers to work.

The ILO also proposes campaigns to combat certain beliefs or customs, especially in rural areas.

“When we interview parents, for example, it’s clear that they think it’s normal to feed and milk the livestock before going to school, as if it were a way to help out at home and a positive learning experience rather than work that children do at home,” the report says.

The trade unions, meanwhile, say the concept of eradicating child labour should also be included in the educational curriculum.

Hernán Rugirello, with the Confederación General del Trabajo central trade union’s social research centre, told IPS about an initiative carried out by the union in Mar del Plata, a city 400 km south of Buenos Aires. With the help of the teachers’ union, the issues surrounding child labour have begun to be taught in schools there.

“It’s important to put this problem on the agenda, so that young people will also start understanding it and will become agents of transmission of knowledge, bringing the issues home with them,” he said.

Edited by Estrella Gutiérrez/Translated by Stephanie Wildes

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Critics of World Bank-Funded Projects in the Line of Firehttp://www.ipsnews.net/2015/06/critics-of-world-bank-funded-projects-in-the-line-of-fire/?utm_source=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_campaign=critics-of-world-bank-funded-projects-in-the-line-of-fire http://www.ipsnews.net/2015/06/critics-of-world-bank-funded-projects-in-the-line-of-fire/#comments Mon, 22 Jun 2015 23:16:41 +0000 Kanya DAlmeida http://www.ipsnews.net/?p=141252 The World Bank has increased financial support for the cotton sector in Uzbekistan, despite evidence that the industry is rooted in a system of forced labour. Credit: David Stanley/CC-BY-2.0

The World Bank has increased financial support for the cotton sector in Uzbekistan, despite evidence that the industry is rooted in a system of forced labour. Credit: David Stanley/CC-BY-2.0

By Kanya D'Almeida
UNITED NATIONS, Jun 22 2015 (IPS)

For an entire month beginning in February 2015, a group of between 40 and 50 residents of the Durgapur Village in the northern Indian state of Uttarakhand would gather at the site of a hydroelectric power project being carried out by the state-owned Tehri Hydro Development Corporation (THDC).

All day long the protestors, mostly women and their children, would sit in defiance of the initiative that they believed was an environmental and social danger to their community, singing folk songs that spoke of their fears and hopes.

“I had expected a very constructive conversation with the World Bank. Instead all I am hearing are non-responses." -- Jessica Evans, senior advocate on international financial institutions at Human Rights Watch
Their actions were well within the bounds of the law, but the reactions of THDC employees to their peaceful demonstration were troubling in the extreme.

According to one of the women involved, THDC contractors and labourers routinely harassed them by hurling abusive slurs – going so far as to call the women ‘prostitutes’ and make derogatory comments about their caste – and attempted to intimidate them by threatening “severe” consequences if they didn’t call off their picket.

In a country where activists and communities demanding their rights are routinely subjected to identical or worse treatment at the hands of both state and private actors, this tale may not seem at all out of the ordinary.

What sets it apart, however, is that this hydroelectric project was not simply a government-led scheme; it is financed by a 648-million-dollar loan from the World Bank.

Governed by a set of “do no harm” policies, both the Bank and its private sector lending arm, the International Finance Corporation (IFC) have – on paper at least – pledged to consult with and protect local communities impacted by its funding.

But according to a new report by Human Rights Watch, the Bank has not only systematically turned a blind eye to reports of human rights abuses associated with its projects, it also lacks necessary safeguards required to avoid further violations in the future.

When silence and negligence equals complicity

Based on research carried out over a two-year period between May 2013 and May 2015, in Cambodia, India, Uganda and Kyrgyzstan – the latter following allegations of rights abuses in Uzbekistan – the report entitled ‘At Your Own Risk: Reprisals Against Critics of World Bank Group Projects’ found that Bank officials consistently fail to respond in any meaningful way to allegations of severe reprisals against those who speak out against Bank-funded projects.

In some cases, the World Bank Group has even turned its back on local community members working with its own officials.

Addressing the press on a conference call on Jun. 22, the report’s author, Jessica Evans, highlighted an incident in which an interpreter for the Bank’s Inspection Panel was flung into prison just weeks after the oversight body concluded its review process.

Withholding all identifying details of the case for the security of the victim, Evans stated that, besides questioning government officials “behind closed doors”, the Bank has so far remained completely silent on the fate of an independent activist working to strengthen the Bank’s own process.

Such actions, or lack thereof, “make a mockery out of [the Bank’s] own stated commitments to participation and accountability,” the report concluded.

HRW has identified dozens of cases in which activists claim to have been targeted – harassed, abused, threatened or intimidated – for voicing their objections to aspects of Bank or IFC-funded initiatives for a range of social, environmental or economic reasons.

Because the bulk of communities in close proximity to major development schemes tend to be among the poorest or most vulnerable, and therefore lack the access or ability to formally lodge their complaints, the true number of people who have experienced such reprisals is “sure” to be much higher than the figures stated in the report, researchers revealed.

Evans told IPS, “On this issue of reprisals the World Bank’s silence and inaction has already crossed the line” into the realm of compliance.

She added that the Inspection Panel raised the issue of retaliation back in 2009, giving the Bank ample time to take necessary steps to address a chronic and pervasive problem.

Instead, it continues to engage with governments that have a poor human rights track record, while remaining apparently deaf to pressures and demands from civil society to strengthen mechanisms that will protect powerless and marginalized communities from violent backlash.

Take the case of Elena Urlaeva, who heads the Tashkent-based Human Rights Alliance of Uzbekistan, and who was arrested in a cotton field on May 31, 2015, while documenting evidence of the Uzbek government’s massive system of forced labour in cotton production.

According to HRW, Urlaeva was detained, abused and sexually violated during an extremely violent cavity probe. On the grounds that they were searching for a data card from her camera, male doctors and policemen conducted such a rough and invasive search that the ordeal left her bleeding.

She was forbidden from using the bathroom and eventually forced to go outside the station in the presence of male officers who called her a “bitch”, filmed her in the act of relieving herself and threatened to post the video online if she complained about her treatment.

Evans told IPS all of this occurred against a backdrop of the World Bank’s increased financial support of the cotton sector – already it has pledged over 450 million dollars to three major agricultural projects of the Uzbek government – despite evidence that the industry is rooted in a system of forced labour.

In the absence of any robust mechanism within the World Bank to make continued funding conditional on compliance with international human rights standards, there is a “real risk” that independent monitors and rights activists will continue to face situations as horrific as the one Urlaeva recently endured, Evans stressed.

A ‘disappointing’ reaction

Both the World Bank and the United Nations have tossed the issue of development-related rights abuses from one forum to another.

In his May 2015 report to the U.N. Human Rights Council (HRC), Special Rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights Philip Alston stressed the urgency of “putting questions of resources and redistribution back into the human rights equation.”

He decried several member states’ attempts to keep international economics, finance and trade “quarantined” from the human rights framework, and blasted international financial institutions (IFIs) for contributing to this culture of impunity.

“The World Bank can simply refuse to engage with human rights in the context of its policies and programmes, IMF does the same, and the World Trade Organisation is little different,” Alston remarked, adding that these bodies throw the issue at the HRC, while the latter simply knocks the ball back into the financiers’ court.

It is becoming akin to a game of political ping-pong, with the ball representing the human rights of some of the most impoverished people in the world – at whom multi-million-dollar development projects are ostensibly targeted.

Gretchen Gordon, coordinator of Bank on Human Rights, a global coalition of social movements and grassroots organisations working to hold IFIs accountable to human rights obligations, told IPS, “You can’t have successful development without robust civil society participation in setting development priorities, designing projects, and monitoring implementation.”

If development banks and their member states neglect to take leadership and implement the necessary protocols and policies, she said, “they will continue to see increasing development failures, human rights abuses, and conflict.”

If the World Bank Group’s initial reaction to HRW’s comprehensive research is anything to go by, however, Bank on Human Rights and other watchdogs of its ilk have their work cut out for them.

Though HRW’s researchers invited the Bank and the IFC’s input with an in-depth list of questions back in April, they have received nothing but a rather “bland response” that failed to address the issue of reprisals at all and simply stated that the Bank “is not a human rights tribunal.”

“I had expected a very constructive conversation with the World Bank,” Evans said. “Instead all I am hearing are non-responses. We have proposed really pragmatic recommendations for how the Bank can work effectively in challenging environments, but we are a long way from that at the moment.”

Both the Bank’s Inspection Panel and the IFC’s Compliance Advisor Ombudsman (CAO) have greeted the report with enthusiasm, but they are independent bodies and remain largely powerless to effect change at the management level of the World Bank Group.

This power lies with the Bank’s president, Jim Yong Kim, who will have to “take the lead and send a clear message to his staff that the question of reprisals is a priority issue,” Evans concluded.

Edited by Kitty Stapp

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Take Good News on Afghanistan’s Reconstruction With a ‘Grain of Salt’http://www.ipsnews.net/2015/06/take-good-news-on-afghanistans-reconstruction-with-a-grain-of-salt/?utm_source=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_campaign=take-good-news-on-afghanistans-reconstruction-with-a-grain-of-salt http://www.ipsnews.net/2015/06/take-good-news-on-afghanistans-reconstruction-with-a-grain-of-salt/#comments Fri, 19 Jun 2015 23:09:29 +0000 Kanya DAlmeida http://www.ipsnews.net/?p=141228 Students at the Afghanistan National Institute of Music. Credit: Shelly Kittleson/IPS

Students at the Afghanistan National Institute of Music. Credit: Shelly Kittleson/IPS

By Kanya D'Almeida
UNITED NATIONS, Jun 19 2015 (IPS)

Since 2002, a year after it invaded Afghanistan, the United States has poured over 100 billion dollars into developing and rebuilding this country of just over 30 million people. This sum is in addition to the trillions spent on U.S. military operations, to say nothing of the deaths of 2,000 service personnel in the space of a single decade.

Today, as the U.S. struggles to salvage its legacy in Afghanistan, which critics say will mostly be remembered as a colossal and costly failure both in monetary terms and in the staggering loss of life, many are pointing to economic and social gains as the bright points in an otherwise bleak tapestry of occupation.

“Much of the official happy talk on [reconstruction] should be taken with a grain of salt – iodized, of course – to prevent informational goiter.” -- John F. Sopko, the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction
Among others, official groups like the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) say that higher life expectancy outcomes, better healthcare facilities and improved education access represent the ‘positive’ side of U.S. intervention.

From this perspective, the estimated 26,000 civilian casualties as a direct result of U.S. military action must be viewed against the fact that people are now living longer, fewer mothers are dying while giving birth, and more children are going to school.

But the diligent work undertaken by the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR) suggests that “much of the official happy talk on [reconstruction] should be taken with a grain of salt – iodized, of course – to prevent informational goiter.”

Formed in 2008, SIGAR is endowed with the authority to “audit, inspect, investigate, and otherwise examine any and all aspects of reconstruction, regardless of departmental ownership.”

In a May 5 speech, John F. Sopko, the Special Inspector General, called the reconstruction effort a “huge and far-reaching undertaking” that has scarcely left any part of Afghan life untouched.

Poured into endless projects from propping up the local army and police, to digging wells and finding alternatives to poppy cultivation, funds allocated to rebuilding Afghanistan now “exceed the value of the entire Marshall Plan effort to rebuild Western Europe after World War II.”

“Unfortunately,” Sopko said, “from the outset to this very day large amounts of taxpayer dollars have been lost to waste, fraud, and abuse.

“These disasters often occur when the U.S. officials who implement and oversee programs fail to distinguish fact from fantasy,” he added.

‘Ghost schools, ghost students, ghost teacher’

In one of the most recent examples of this disturbing trend, two Afghan ministers cited local media reports to inform parliament about fraud in the education sector, alleging that former officials who served under President Hamid Karzai had falsified data on the number of active schools in Afghanistan in order to receive continued international funding.

“SIGAR takes such allegations very seriously, and given that they came from high-ranking individuals in the Afghan government, and also that USAID has invested approximately 769 million dollars in Afghanistan’s education sector, SIGAR opened an inquiry into this matter,” a SIGAR official told IPS.

Submitted on Jun. 18 to the Acting Administrator for USAID, the official inquiry raises a number of questions, including over widely cited statistics that official development assistance has led to a jump in the number of enrolled students from an estimated 900,000 in 2002 to more than eight million in 2013.

While USAID stands by these figures, sourced from the Afghan Ministry of Education’s Education Management Information System (EMIS), it is unable to independently verify them.

Faced with allegations of “ghost schools, ghost students, and ghost teachers”, SIGAR has requested an immediate response from USAID as to whether the agency is able to investigate allegations of fraud, and verify that it is receiving accurate data, in order to ensure that U.S. tax dollars are not being wasted, the SIGAR official explained.

This is no easy undertaking in a place where students are spread out over an estimated 14,226 schools primarily in rural areas, and where even the education ministry does not keep tabs on security threats, or the literacy of teachers, let alone the particulars of curricula.

Last year SIGAR reported that the education ministry continues to count students as ‘enrolled’ even if they have been absent from school for three years, suggesting that the actual number of kids in classrooms is far below the figure cited by the government, and subsequently utilised by U.S. aid agencies.

In his May 5 speech Sopko claimed that a top USAID official believed there to be roughly four million children in school – less than half the figure on which current funding commitments is based.

There is no question that continued funding is needed to bolster Afghanistan’s education system.

According to the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO) office in Kabul, the country continues to boast one of the lowest literacy rates in the world, standing at approximately 31 percent of the population aged 15 years of age and older.

There are also massive geographic and gender-based gaps, with female literacy levels falling far below the national average, at just 17 percent, and varying hugely across regions, with a 34-percent literacy rate in Kabul compared to a rate of just 1.6 percent in two southern provinces.

These are all issues that must urgently be addressed but according to oversight bodies like SIGAR, they must be addressed within a system of efficiency, transparency and accuracy.

Furthermore, discrepancies between official statistics and reality are not limited to the education sector but manifest in almost all areas of the reconstruction process.

Take the issue of life expectancy, which USAID claimed last year had increased from 42 years in 2002 to over 60 years in 2014.

If accurate, this would represent a tremendous stride towards better overall living conditions for ordinary Afghans. But SIGAR has cited a number of different statistics, including data provided by the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) World Factbook and the United Nations Population Division, which offer much lower numbers for the average life span – some as low as 50 years.

Although the original data comes directly from the USAID-funded Afghanistan Mortality Survey, conducted in 2010 by the Afghan Ministry of Public Health, and would therefore appear to pass the reliability test, SIGAR is concerned that “USAID had not verified what, if anything, the ministry had done to address deficiencies in its internal audit, budget, accounting, and procurement functions.”

While SIGAR is not able to put a concrete number on losses resulting from poorly planned programmes, theft and corruption by both American and Afghan elements, and weak administration of monies placed directly in the hands of Afghan ministries, a SIGAR official told IPS it is hard to imagine that the overall cost to U.S. taxpayers “is not in the billions of dollars.”

Edited by Kitty Stapp

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Amazon Dam also Brings Health Infrastructure for Local Populationhttp://www.ipsnews.net/2015/06/amazon-dam-also-brings-health-infrastructure-for-local-population/?utm_source=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_campaign=amazon-dam-also-brings-health-infrastructure-for-local-population http://www.ipsnews.net/2015/06/amazon-dam-also-brings-health-infrastructure-for-local-population/#comments Fri, 19 Jun 2015 20:16:40 +0000 Mario Osava http://www.ipsnews.net/?p=141223 The new General Hospital in Altamira, which has not yet opened, will be the most modern facility of its kind in this city in Brazil’s Amazon rainforest, receiving the most serious cases from the 11 municipalities affected by the construction of the giant Belo Monte hydroelectric dam. Credit: Mario Osava/IPS

The new General Hospital in Altamira, which has not yet opened, will be the most modern facility of its kind in this city in Brazil’s Amazon rainforest, receiving the most serious cases from the 11 municipalities affected by the construction of the giant Belo Monte hydroelectric dam. Credit: Mario Osava/IPS

By Mario Osava
ALTAMIRA, Brazil, Jun 19 2015 (IPS)

Extensive public health infrastructure and the eradication of malaria will be the most important legacy of the construction of the Belo Monte hydropower dam in Brazil’s Amazon jungle for the population affected by the megaproject.

In the six municipalities in the area of the dam, where an action plan to curb malaria has been implemented, the number of cases plunged nearly 96 percent between 2011 and 2015: from 3,298 in the period January to March 2011, just before construction began, to 141 in the same period this year.

Two municipalities have had no cases this year as of May, said Dr. José Ladislau, health manager for Norte Energía, the consortium of private companies and public enterprises that won the concession to build and run Belo Monte for 35 years.

“For the past two years no one has fallen ill with malaria in Brasil Novo – that’s the best news,” said Noedson Carvalho, health secretary of that municipality which is located 45 km from the Xingú river, where the giant hydroelectric dam with a capacity to generate 11,233 MW is being built.

Malaria, which is endemic in the Amazon, is a major factor in rural poverty, Ladislau told IPS. And the Xingú river basin used to have one of the highest malaria rates in the country.

The number of cases has plummeted throughout most of the northern state of Pará, where the lower and middle stretches of the Xingú river run, thanks to mass distribution of insecticide-treated mosquito nets and early diagnosis and treatment.

The results in the vicinity of Belo Monte, where the rural population is highly vulnerable to malaria, were obtained through an 11-million-dollar offensive by Norte Energía which included the construction of laboratories and the purchase of vehicles and long-lasting mosquito nets.

“Belo Monte has given Brasil Novo what it would not have obtained on its own in centuries,” Carvalho told IPS. He mentioned the 42-bed hospital and five basic health units, which now form part of the municipal public health system.

The hospital was already there, but it was private. And due to financial problems, it had shut its doors in April 2014, leaving the 22,000 people of Brasil Novo without a hospital, just when demand was rising due to the influx of workers from other parts of the country, drawn by the Belo Monte construction project.

Sewage runs down one of the main streets of Altamira, even though there is a sewer system. Poor sanitation leaves the city’s children at risk of diarrhea, which is the cause of many admissions to the hospitals in this Amazon rainforest city near the Belo Monte hydropower dam. Credit: Mario Osava/IPS

Sewage runs down one of the main streets of Altamira, even though there is a sewer system. Poor sanitation leaves the city’s children at risk of diarrhea, which is the cause of many admissions to the hospitals in this Amazon rainforest city near the Belo Monte hydropower dam. Credit: Mario Osava/IPS

“There are 30 births a month here, on average; it was a terrible situation to have no hospital in the city,” the municipal health secretary said.

Basic health clinics were also upgraded or installed in the town. But the most serious cases will be sent to Altamira, the biggest city in the area, with a population of 140,000 according to unofficial estimates.

The Brasil Novo municipal government negotiated the purchase and renovation of the hospital, with funds from Norte Energía, through the Regional Sustainable Development Plan (PDRS). It will now be a public hospital catering to the entire population free of charge.

The PDRS, funded by the company, is focused on implementing public policies and local projects.

It comes on top of the Basic Environmental Project (PBA), a set of 117 initiatives and actions to be carried out by the consortium building the Belo Monte dam, as compensation for 11 municipalities affected by the hydropower plant.

The total investment in these projects is 1.2 billion dollars – the biggest contribution to local development by a megaproject in Brazil. The investment, a condition for obtaining the necessary environmental permits, represents 14 percent of the Belo Monte construction project’s total budget.

Three new and three renovated hospitals are the main health infrastructure provided to the 11 municipalities in question.

The biggest one, the Altamira General Hospital, with 104 beds, including 10 in intensive care, is ready to open. It inherited equipment and staff from an old municipal hospital that had 98 beds and will be turned into a maternity and infant care centre.

A new basic health unit in the São Joaquim neighbourhood, where families displaced from areas to be flooded by the Belo Monte dam have recently been resettled. The consortium building the hydropower complex on the Xingú river in the Brazilian Amazon has built 30 of these units in the five municipalities that have been felt the greatest impact from the megaproject. Credit: Mario Osava/IPS

A new basic health unit in the São Joaquim neighbourhood, where families displaced from areas to be flooded by the Belo Monte dam have recently been resettled. The consortium building the hydropower complex on the Xingú river in the Brazilian Amazon has built 30 of these units in the five municipalities that have been felt the greatest impact from the megaproject. Credit: Mario Osava/IPS

The new hospital has fully automated and centralised modern communication, lighting, air conditioning and piped water systems, and extremely strict hygiene with regard to uniforms, staff, waste disposal and sanitation, said Norte Energía’s health manager, Dr. Ladislau.

There has been criticism that the investment did not sufficiently increase hospital capacity, because the number of beds was limited by the size of the existing hospitals that were remodeled or expanded.

But Ladislau said it made no sense to create too big a system, with high maintenance and operating costs that poor municipalities would find it hard to face.

“The idea is to build a strong health network in this region of 11 municipalities…with a focus on primary health care,” and to that end Norte Energía built 30 basic health units, distributed in five municipalities, with seven in Altamira alone, he said.

“With the new health centres, improved sanitation and other preventive measures, the pressure on hospital beds will be reduced,” he said. Some 1,500 children under five are admitted to the Altamira Municipal Hospital annually, most of them for diarrhea – a problem that is avoidable with good sanitation, he pointed out.

The resettlement of families from houses on stilts on lakes and other areas to be flooded by the Belo Monte dam in new neighbourhoods built on high ground will significantly reduce the incidence of diarrhea, he said.

The basic health units installed in those neighbourhoods offer healthcare, dental care, home visits, health promotion and disease prevention, and a system of statistics to put together community health profiles making it possible to plan purchases of medicines, syringes and other supplies, said Ladislau.

The infrastructure provided by Norte Energía will depend on the municipal administration and staff which will provide services, including maintenance.

Brasil Novo is an impoverished municipality that will receive very little in the way of royalties from Belo Monte, and will find it hard to keep the hospital running, the local health secretary Carvalho admitted.

But there will be no shortage of doctors thanks to the central government’s More Doctors programme, which hired thousands of Cuban physicians willing to work in Brazil’s hinterland, and which is also managing to get Brazilian doctors to participate, he said.

But a hospital needs surgeons and other specialists who are more difficult to draw to towns in the Amazon.

There is a risk that hospitals with 32 to 42 beds in Brasil Novo and two other municipalities will be underused, because the local populations range from 15,000 to 25,000 people, and the most serious or complex cases will be referred to the bigger and better equipped hospitals in Altamira.

One illustration of the difficulty in attracting qualified personnel was the attempt to open a medical school on the Altamira campus of the Federal University of Pará, which failed due to the dearth of professors with a doctorate degree.

Local residents also criticise the company for delays in the health projects, which were supposed to get underway earlier in order to meet the increased demand caused by the influx of workers from other regions.

The delays were aggravated by the temporary closure of the health services to build new installations. That happened, for example, in the case of the General Hospital, a large facility that used to be a modest primary health clinic in a poor neighbourhood in Altamira.

“What was already precarious is now even worse,” said Marcelo Salazar, head of the non-governmental Socioenvironmental Institute in Altamira.

Edited by Estrella Gutiérrez/Translated by Stephanie Wildes

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U.N. Takes First Step Towards Treaty to Curb Lawlessness in High Seashttp://www.ipsnews.net/2015/06/u-n-takes-first-step-towards-treaty-to-curb-lawlessness-in-high-seas/?utm_source=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_campaign=u-n-takes-first-step-towards-treaty-to-curb-lawlessness-in-high-seas http://www.ipsnews.net/2015/06/u-n-takes-first-step-towards-treaty-to-curb-lawlessness-in-high-seas/#comments Fri, 19 Jun 2015 20:14:34 +0000 Thalif Deen http://www.ipsnews.net/?p=141222 A turtle swims in a Marine Protected Area. Credit: Foreign and Commonwealth Office

A turtle swims in a Marine Protected Area. Credit: Foreign and Commonwealth Office

By Thalif Deen
UNITED NATIONS, Jun 19 2015 (IPS)

The 193-member General Assembly adopted a resolution Friday aimed at drafting a legally binding international treaty for the conservation of marine biodiversity and to govern the mostly lawless high seas beyond national jurisdiction.

The resolution was the result of more than nine years of negotiations by an Ad Hoc Informal Working Group, which first met in 2006.“This groundbreaking decision puts us on a path toward having a legal framework in place that will allow for the comprehensive management of ocean areas beyond national jurisdiction.” -- Elizabeth Wilson

If and when the treaty is adopted, it will be the first global treaty to include conservation measures such as marine protected areas and reserves, environmental impact assessments, access to marine genetic resources and benefit sharing, capacity building and the transfer of marine technology.

The High Seas Alliance (HSA), a coalition of some 27 non-governmental organisations (NGOs), played a significant role in pushing for negotiations on the proposed treaty and has been campaigning for this resolution since 2011.

Asked if the treaty will be finalised by the targeted date of 2018, Elizabeth Wilson, director of international ocean policy at The Pew Charitable Trusts, a member of the HSA, told IPS: “Not exactly, although we do expect significant progress.”

The first round of formal negotiations is expected to take place in 2016 and continue through 2017.

The General Assembly will decide by September of 2018 on the convening of an intergovernmental conference to finalise the text of the agreement and set a start date for the conference.

Wilson said it is likely that the intergovernmental conference would then meet multiple times over approximately two years to accomplish this goal.

Asked how the treaty will change the current “lawlessness” in the high seas, Wilson said: “This groundbreaking decision puts us on a path toward having a legal framework in place that will allow for the comprehensive management of ocean areas beyond national jurisdiction.”

Today, she pointed out, the high seas are governed by a patchwork of inadequate international, regional, and sectorial agreements and organisations.

A new treaty would help to organise and coordinate conservation and management. That includes the ability to create fully protected marine reserves that are closed off to harmful activities. Right now there is no way to arrange for such legally binding protections, she added.

Sofia Tsenikli of Greenpeace said: “The high seas accounts for nearly half our planet – the half that has been left without law or protection for far too long. A global network of marine reserves is urgently needed to bring life back into the ocean – this new treaty should make that happen.”

In a statement released Friday, the HSA said the resolution follows the Rio+20 conference in 2012 where Heads of State committed to address high seas protection.

The conference came close to agreeing to a new treaty then, but was prevented from doing so by a few governments which have remained in opposition to a Treaty ever since.

Asked about the significant difference between the 1982 landmark Law of the Sea Treaty and the proposed high seas treaty, Wilson told IPS the U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), which is recognised as the “constitution” for global ocean governance, has a broad scope and does not contain the detailed provisions necessary to address specific activities, nor does it establish a management mechanism and rules for biodiversity protection in the high seas.

Since the adoption of UNCLOS in 1982, there have been two subsequent implementing agreements to address gaps and other areas that were not sufficiently covered under UNCLOS, one related to seabed mining and the other related to straddling and highly migratory fish stocks, she added.

This new agreement will be the third implementing agreement developed under UNCLOS, Wilson said.

According to HSA, Friday’s resolution stresses “the need for the comprehensive global regime to better address the conservation and sustainable use of marine biological diversity in areas beyond national jurisdiction.”

It allows for a two-year preparatory process (PrepCom) to consider the elements that could comprise the treaty.

This will begin in 2016 and culminate by the end of 2017, with a decision whether to convene a formal treaty negotiating conference in 2018.

The “high seas” is the ocean beyond any country’s exclusive economic zone (EEZ) ‑ amounting to 64 percent of the ocean ‑ and the ocean seabed that lies beyond the continental shelf of any country, according to a background briefing released by the HSA.

These areas make up nearly 50 percent of the surface of the Earth and include some of the most environmentally important, critically threatened and least protected ecosystems on the planet.

Edited by Kitty Stapp

The writer can be contacted at thalifdeen@aol.com

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Farmers Find their Voice Through Radio in the Badlands of Indiahttp://www.ipsnews.net/2015/06/farmers-find-their-voice-through-radio-in-the-badlands-of-india/?utm_source=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_campaign=farmers-find-their-voice-through-radio-in-the-badlands-of-india http://www.ipsnews.net/2015/06/farmers-find-their-voice-through-radio-in-the-badlands-of-india/#comments Fri, 19 Jun 2015 05:57:18 +0000 Stella Paul http://www.ipsnews.net/?p=141212 Radio Bundelkhand, based in central India, has about 250,000 listeners, of whom 99 percent are farmers. Credit: Stella Paul/IPS

Radio Bundelkhand, based in central India, has about 250,000 listeners, of whom 99 percent are farmers. Credit: Stella Paul/IPS

By Stella Paul
TIKAMGARH, India, Jun 19 2015 (IPS)

Eighty-year-old Chenabai Kushwaha sits on a charpoy under a neem tree in the village of Chitawar, located in the Tikamgarh district in the central Indian state of Madhya Pradesh, staring intently at a dictaphone.

“Please sing a song for us,” urges the woman holding the voice recorder. Kushwaha obliges with a melancholy tune about an eight-year-old girl begging her father not to give her away in marriage.

“The radio station is by, of and for the people of this region." -- Naheda Yusuf, head of Radio Bundelkhand
The melody melts into the summer air, and the motley crowd that has gathered around the tree falls silent.

“Thanks for so much for singing to ‘Radio Bundelkhand’,” says Ekta Kari, a reporter-producer at the community radio station based in this predominantly farming district, before switching off the device.

With a listenership of some 250,000 people spread across over a dozen villages in Bundelkhand, an agricultural region split between the states of Madhya Pradesh and Uttar Pradesh, the station is lifting up some of India’s most beaten down communities by getting their voices out on the airwaves and bearing good tidings in a place long accustomed to nothing but bad news.

Endless hardships

Some 18.3 million people occupy this vast region. The majority of them are farmers, and the list of hardships they face on a daily basis is endless.

According to the Planning Commission of India, a loss of soil fertility caused by erratic weather, coupled with severe depletion of the groundwater table, has made life extremely hard for those who work the land.

Crop losses due to unseasonal rains and recurring heat waves have also become common over the last decade. Last year, a majority of farmers lost over half of their winter crop due to unexpected heavy rains.

Two out of every three farmers interviewed by IPS concurred that extreme weather has made farming, already a backbreaking occupation, something of a nightmare in these parts.

Recurring droughts between 2003 and 2010 forced many people to abandon traditional mixed cropping of millets and pulses and switch to mono-cultures like wheat, which require heavy inputs.

NGOs have also pointed to unequal land distribution policies in the region as a major cause of farmers’ strife, with millions of families unable to practice anything beyond very small-scale, subsistence agriculture given the paltry size of their plots.

Earlier this year, plagued by poor weather, miserable harvests and alleged apathy to their plight by both state and federal government bodies, scores of starving and debt-ridden farmers threw in the towel.

In the first two weeks of March, roughly a dozen farmers in Bundelkhand had committed suicide.

This follows a pattern in the region that speaks to the desperation these rural communities face – according to India’s National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB), 3,000 farmers in Bundelkhand committed suicide between 1995 and 2012.

While this represents only a fraction of all suicides across the country’s agricultural belt, which is now approaching 300,000, Bundelkhand’s death toll is no trifling number.

Given this harsh reality, an outsider might find it hard to fathom how an intervention as simple as a community radio station could make a difference. But for the listeners who toil here daily, the radio has become something of a lifeline.

“Our station, our issues”

Naheda Yusuf, a senior programme manager at the Delhi-based media non-profit Development Alternatives, which helped launch Radio Bundelkhand back in 2008, tells IPS that 99 percent of the listeners are farmers.

Although the villages that make up the bulk of the audience lie in different states, they all fall into the larger Bundelkhand region and so share a distinct culture, traditions and dialect.

“The radio station is by, of and for the people of this region,” Yusuf explains. “It connects with them in their Bundeli dialect, and provides information on issues that concern them.”

Over 75 percent of the shows are dedicated to agricultural issues including farming techniques, pest control practices, market prices, weather forecasts, and climate change updates.

While some of the information is sourced daily from government agencies like the departments of agriculture and meteorology, most of it comes from six reporter-producers who interact directly with the community to gather news and views most relevant to their listeners.

Every day, each of them produces at least one live show, during which the audience is asked to call in with their questions and comments.

“It’s your show,” one commentator announces on the air, “so if you don’t share your opinions, we can’t get it right.”

One of the most popular shows on Radio Bundelkhand is ‘Shuv Kal’ meaning good tomorrow. Its central theme is climate change and its effect on the farming community.

One of the show’s two producers, Gauri Sharma, says they discuss water access, deforestation and solar energy. They also pay homage to the river Betwa, a tributary of the Yamuna that waters these lands, and encourages farmers not to waste the precious resource.

“We discuss planting trees around the farms, so excess water from irrigation pumps can be utilised,” Sharma tells IPS. “We also spread awareness about renewable energy.”

The response from the audience has been encouraging, she adds, especially among the youth who call and write in to share how the station has shaped their practices.

In one such letter, an 18-year-old farmer from the village of Tafarian shared that he had “planted 22 fruit trees around his farm, stopped using polythene and begun vermicomposting” as a result of listening to the show.

Portable, affordable, accessible

Another listener, Jayanti Bai of Vaswan village, says the radio station literally saved her entire crop. “The leaves of my okra plants were turning yellow,” she tells IPS. “Then I heard of a medicine on the radio, which I sprayed on the leaves – it saved me.”

She now wants to buy a radio for the entire community and tie it to a tree so the women in her neighbourhood can listen to it together. It will take some saving – the most popular device used here costs about 1,000 rupees (about 15 dollars) and that is more than she can afford in one go.

But in a region that experiences eight to 10 hours of power cuts a day, and where only 48 percent of the female population and just over 70 percent of the male population is literate, a radio is a far more viable option than a television, or newspapers.

Farmers also tell IPS a radio’s portability makes it a more attractive choice since it can be taken to “work” – meaning carried into the fields and played loud enough for workers to hear as they go about their tasks.

Because the station caters to a largely female audience, it tackles issues that are particularly relevant to women listeners. One of these is the question of suicide, which many women see as a male phenomenon.

“Have you ever heard of a woman farmer committing suicide?” asks 46-year-old Ramkumari Napet, of Baswan village. “It is because she thinks, ‘What will happen to my children when I am gone?’”

Women contend that men require more help in understanding their relationships both to themselves and their families. And indeed, the radio station is helping them determine these blurry lines.

“Last week an anonymous caller said his brother was thinking of committing suicide,” Sharma tells IPS. “He [the caller] said he was going to try to talk his brother out of it.”

Edited by Kanya D’Almeida

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Pope Could Upstage World Leaders at U.N. Summit in Septemberhttp://www.ipsnews.net/2015/06/pope-could-upstage-world-leaders-at-u-n-summit-in-september/?utm_source=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_campaign=pope-could-upstage-world-leaders-at-u-n-summit-in-september http://www.ipsnews.net/2015/06/pope-could-upstage-world-leaders-at-u-n-summit-in-september/#comments Thu, 18 Jun 2015 23:26:41 +0000 Thalif Deen http://www.ipsnews.net/?p=141208 His Holiness Pope Francis departs Malacañan Palace aboard a Pope Mobile after the Welcome Ceremony for the State Visit and Apostolic Journey to the Republic of the Philippines on January 16, 2015. Credit: Malacañang Photo Bureau/public domain

His Holiness Pope Francis departs Malacañan Palace aboard a Pope Mobile after the Welcome Ceremony for the State Visit and Apostolic Journey to the Republic of the Philippines on January 16, 2015. Credit: Malacañang Photo Bureau/public domain

By Thalif Deen
UNITED NATIONS, Jun 18 2015 (IPS)

Judging by his recent public pronouncements – including on reproductive health, biodiversity, the creation of a Palestinian state, the political legitimacy of Cuba and now climate change – Pope Francis may upstage more than 150 world leaders when he addresses the United Nations, come September.

“The Pope will most likely be the headline-grabber,” predicts one longtime U.N. watcher, “particularly if he continues to be as outspoken as he has been so far.”“The failure of global summits on the environment make it plain that our politics are subject to technology and finance.” -- Pope Francis

As his mostly socio-political statements become increasingly hard-hitting, the Argentine-born Il Papa, the first Pope from the developing world, is drawing both ardent supporters and hostile critics.

Last January, during a trip to Asia, he dropped a bombshell when he said Catholics should practice responsible parenthood and stop “breeding like rabbits.”

In the United States, the Pope has been criticised by right-wing conservatives for playing a key behind-the-scenes role in the resumption of U.S. diplomatic relations with Cuba, and incurred the wrath of the pro-Israeli lobby for recognising Palestine as a nation state.

In fact, most of his pronouncements are closely in line with the United Nations – and specifically its socio-economic agenda.

In his 184-page Encyclical released Thursday, the Pope says “Our immense technological development has not been accompanied by a development in human responsibility, values and conscience.”

“Faced with the global deterioration of the environment, I want to address every person who inhabits this planet. In this Encyclical, I especially propose to enter into discussion with everyone regarding our common home.”

The Pope also complains how weak international political responses have been.

“The failure of global summits on the environment make it plain that our politics are subject to technology and finance,” he said.

There are too many special interests, and economic interests easily end up trumping the common good and manipulating information so that their own plans will not be affected, the Pope declared.

Speaking on the global environment last year, he said: “The monopolising of lands, deforestation, the appropriation of water, inadequate agro-toxics are some of the evils that tear man from the land of his birth.”

“Climate change, the loss of biodiversity and deforestation are already showing their devastating effects in the great cataclysms we witness,” he added.

Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, who has consistently warned against the devastating effects of climate change, praised Pope Francis for his papal encyclical which highlights that “climate change is one of the principal challenges facing humanity, and that it is a moral issue requiring respectful dialogue with all parts of society.”

He agreed with the encyclical’s findings that there is “a very solid scientific consensus” showing significant warming of the climate system and that most global warming in recent decades is “mainly a result of human activity”.

Ban urged governments to place the global common good above national interests and to adopt an ambitious, universal climate agreement in Paris this year.

Tim Gore, Oxfam International Climate Adviser, told IPS the Pope has set out how climate change is at its most basic a moral issue – it is a deep injustice that the pollution of the world’s richest people and countries drives harmful climate disruption in the poorest communities and countries.

“Anyone that is concerned about injustice should rightly be concerned about climate change, and in making his call, the Pope joins many other leaders of faith, civil society and trade unions. Climate change is all of our business,” he said.

Janet Redman, director of the Climate Policy Programme at the Washington-based Institute for Policy Studies, said: “Pope Francis is crystal clear — the current development model, based on the intensive use of coal, oil, and even natural gas, has to go. In its place, we need renewable sources of energy and new modes of production and consumption that rein in global warming.”

Taxing carbon, divesting from fossil fuels, and ending public corporate welfare for polluters can help end the stranglehold dirty energy companies have on our governments, economies and societies, she added.

In a statement released Thursday, former U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan, currently chair of the Africa Progress Panel and Kofi Annan Foundation, said as Pope Francis reaffirms, climate change is an all-encompassing threat.

“It is a threat to our security, our health, and our sources of fresh water and food. Such conditions could displace tens of millions of people, dwarfing current migration and fuelling further conflicts,” Annan said.

“I applaud the Pope for his strong moral and ethical leadership. We need more of such inspired leadership. Will we see it at the climate summit in Paris?,” he added.

In the United States, the criticisms have come mostly from right-wing conservatives, who want the Pope to confine himself to religion, not politics.

Representative Jeff Duncan, a Republican from South Carolina and a strong supporter of Israel, said Pope Francis should avoid the Palestine debate altogether – the Vatican should focus on spiritual matters and stay out of politics.

Asked Tuesday, just ahead of the Pope’s statement on climate change, former Florida Governor Jeb Bush, who is running for the Republican nomination for the U.S. presidency, said: “I think religion ought to be about making us better as people, less about things [that] end up getting into the political realm.”

Edited by Kitty Stapp

The writer can be contacted at thalifdeen@aol.com

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From Residents to Rangers: Local Communities Take Lead on Mangrove Conservation in Sri Lankahttp://www.ipsnews.net/2015/06/from-residents-to-rangers-local-communities-take-lead-on-mangrove-conservation-in-sri-lanka/?utm_source=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_campaign=from-residents-to-rangers-local-communities-take-lead-on-mangrove-conservation-in-sri-lanka http://www.ipsnews.net/2015/06/from-residents-to-rangers-local-communities-take-lead-on-mangrove-conservation-in-sri-lanka/#comments Wed, 17 Jun 2015 17:24:57 +0000 Amantha Perera http://www.ipsnews.net/?p=141176 Young mangrove plants tended by women beneficiaries from the Small Fishers Federation of Lanka have helped the Puttalam Lagoon regain some of its lost natural glory. The success of the programme has prompted the government to support an island-wide project worth 3.4 million dollars. Credit: Amantha Perera/IPS

Young mangrove plants tended by women beneficiaries from the Small Fishers Federation of Lanka have helped the Puttalam Lagoon regain some of its lost natural glory. The success of the programme has prompted the government to support an island-wide project worth 3.4 million dollars. Credit: Amantha Perera/IPS

By Amantha Perera
KALPITIYA, Sri Lanka, Jun 17 2015 (IPS)

Weekends and public holidays are deadly for one of Sri Lanka’s most delicate ecosystems – that is when the island’s 8,815 hectares of mangroves come under threat.

“The mangroves are a part of our life, our culture. We destroy them, we destroy ourselves.” -- Douglas Thisera, also known as Sri Lanka's Mangrove Master
With public officials, forest rangers and NGO workers on holiday, no one is around to enforce conservation laws designed to protect these endangered zones. Except the locals, that is.

Residents of the Kalpitiya Peninsula in the northwest Puttalam District are no strangers to the wanton destruction of the area’s natural bounty. Kalpitiya is home to the largest mangrove block in Sri Lanka, the Puttalam Lagoon, as well as smaller mangrove systems on the shores of the Chilaw Lagoon, 150 km north of the capital, Colombo.

For centuries these complex wetlands have protected fisher communities against storms and sea-surges, while the forests’ underwater root system has nurtured nurseries and feeding grounds for scores of aquatic species.

Perhaps more important, in a country still living with the ghosts of the 2004 Asian Tsunami, mangroves have been found to be a coastline’s best defense against tidal waves and tsunamis.

Many poor fisher families in western Sri Lanka also rely heavily on mangroves for sustenance, with generation after generation deriving protein sources from the rich waters or sustainably harvesting the forests’ many by-products.

But in Sri Lanka today, as elsewhere in the world, mangroves face a range of risks. The United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) says that the unique ecosystems, capable of storing up to 1,000 tonnes of carbon per hectare in their biomass, are being felled at three to five times the rate of other forests.

Over a quarter of the world’s mangrove cover has already been irrevocably destroyed, driven by aquaculture, agriculture, unplanned and unsustainable coastal development and over-use of resources.

On the west coast of Sri Lanka, despite government’s pledges to protect the country’s remaining forests, the covert clearing of mangroves continues – albeit at a slower rate than in the past.

But a small army of land defenders, newly formed and highly dedicated, is promising to turn this tide.

Douglas Thisera, better known as the Mangrove Master, has spent the last two-and-a-half decades protecting the mangroves of Sri Lanka’s northwest Puttalam District. Credit: Amantha Perera/IPS

Douglas Thisera, better known as the Mangrove Master, has spent the last two-and-a-half decades protecting the mangroves of Sri Lanka’s northwest Puttalam District. Credit: Amantha Perera/IPS

When residents become rangers

They call him the ‘Mangrove Master’, but his real name is Douglas Thisera. A fisherman turned vigilante, he is the director for conservation at the Small Fisheries Foundation of Lanka (Sudeesa) and spends his days patrolling every nook of the Chilaw Lagoon for signs of illegal destruction.

Massive Boost for Mangroves

Last month, the Sudeesa programme received a massive boost from the U.S.-based NGO Seacology to expand its operations island-wide. The Sri Lankan government also signed on as a major partner for the five-year, 3.4-million-dollar mangrove protection scheme.

The project will use Sudeesa’s original initiative as a blueprint to pair conservation with livelihood prospects on a much larger scale.

The plan is to provide assistance to over 15,000 persons, half of them widows and the rest school dropouts, living close to Sri Lanka’s 48 lagoons where mangroves thrive.

There will be 1,500 community groups who will look after the mangroves and also plant 3,000 hectares’ worth of saplings.

In a further boost to conservationists, on May 11 the Sri Lankan government declared mangroves as protected areas, bringing them under the Forest Ordinance.

The move now makes commercial use of mangroves illegal, and the government has pledged to provide forest officials for patrols and other members of the armed forces for replanting programmes.

This is a huge step away from previous governments' policies and reflects a commitment from the newly-elected administration to conservation and sustainability - both priorities at the international level as the United Nations moves towards a pot-2015 development agenda.

“We can dream big now,” says the Mangrove Master, scanning the horizon.
He has been replanting and conserving mangroves since 1992, so he knows these forests – and its enemies – like the back of his hand.

“Suddenly we will see earth movers and other machinery clearing large tracts of mangroves – by the time pubic officials are alerted, the destruction is already done,” he tells IPS.

This pattern follows decades of state-sanctioned deforestation that began in the early 90s, when an aggressive government-backed prawn-farming scheme was taking root around the lagoon and private corporations as well as politically-linked business enterprises were eyeing and clearing the mangroves indiscriminately.

For years Thisera tried to draft the local community into conservation efforts, but they were up against a Goliath.

He recalls one instance, back in 1994, when a powerful politician cleared a 150-metre stretch of forest almost overnight. “We were helpless then, we did not have the organisational capacity to take on such figures.”

By 2012, prawn farming, salt panning, solid waste disposal and hotel construction for the country’s thriving tourist sector had conspired to cut Sri Lanka’s mangrove cover by 80 percent, according to some estimates.

Today, under the aegis of a major mangrove conservation programme in the region, Thisera not only has financial backing for his efforts – he has a network of residents just as dedicated to the task as he is.

The project is led by Sudeesa, whose chairman, Anuradha Wickramasinghe, believed that only “community-based” action could hope to save the disappearing forests.

But this was easier said than done.

Poverty stalks the population of Sri Lanka’s northwest coast, and the most recent government statistics indicate that the average income among fisher families is just 16 dollars a month, with 53 percent of the population here living below the national poverty line.

Unemployment is roughly 20 percent higher than the island-wide average of 4.1 percent, and most families spend every waking moment struggling to put food on the table.

So Sudeesa created a micro-credit scheme to incentivize conservation efforts, and tailored the programme towards women. Women are offered a range of loans at extremely low interest rates to start home-based sustainable ventures. In exchange, they care for young saplings, help replant stretches of mangrove forest and take it upon themselves to prevent illegal clearing for commercial purposes.

Together they have planted 170,000 saplings covering an area of 860 hectares in the district – and they are working to multiply this number.

Futures tied to the land

The entire scheme relies on community action.

Women are put in charge of designated locations, mostly close to their homes. When encroachment or illegal harvesting takes place, they use local networks and cell phones to get the word out.

Here, the Thisera plays a pivotal role, acting as an intermediary between local watchdogs and networks of public officials, which he can activate when the women raise a red flag.

Last year this rudimentary conservation machine managed to halt encroachment by a private company with a stake in prawn farming by forcing it to dismantle fencing around the mangroves and retreat to demarcations laid down in government maps of the area.

Thisera says powerful business interests present the biggest menace to locals. Although an epidemic in the late 1990s decimated most of the prawn farms, leaving large, empty man-made tanks in place of mangrove ecosystems, companies have been reluctant to retreat and many continue to pay taxes on former areas of operations.

“They want to keep a legal hold on the land for other purposes,” Thisera explains, such as tourism on the northern ridge of the Puttalam Lagoon that has seen a revival since the end of the country’s civil war in 2009.

Already two islands have been leased out to private companies, though no major construction operations have yet begun.

When they do, however, they will be forced to reckon with Thisera and his unofficial rangers.

“The mangroves are a part of our life, our culture,” Thisera explains. “We destroy them, we destroy ourselves.”

Self-confidence and self-reliance

Cut off from the country’s commercial hubs and major markets, women in this district have long had to rely on their wits to survive.

Take Anne Priyanthi, a 52-year-old widow with two children who until three years ago had struggled to feed her family. She tried to lift herself out of poverty by applying for a bank loan – but was refused on the basis that she did not “meet the criteria”.

In 2012 Sudeesa granted her a loan of 10,000 rupees – about 74 dollars – which she used to start a small pig farm. Today, she earns a monthly income of 25,000 rupees, or 182 dollars.

It seems a pittance – but it means her kids can stay in school and in these impoverished parts that is a monumental success.

Another beneficiary of Sudeesa’s conservation-livelihood project is 58-year-old Primrose Fernando, who now works as a coordinator for the NGO. The widow has three daughters, one of whom has a minor disability.

With her loan she was able to set up a small grocery shop for the disabled daughter and also invest in an ornamental fish breeding business.

“Without this assistance I would have been left destitute,” Fernando tells IPS.

Since 1994 Sudeesa had given out loans to the tune of 54 million rupees (over 400,000 dollars) to 3,900 women in the Puttalam District. Officials say that the loans have a repayment rate of over 75 percent.

By conserving the mangroves, thousands of women have also carved out a better life for themselves and their families and no longer spend every waking moment wondering where their next meal will come from. Credit: Amantha Perera/IPS

By conserving the mangroves, thousands of women have also carved out a better life for themselves and their families and no longer spend every waking moment wondering where their next meal will come from. Credit: Amantha Perera/IPS

Now the loans scheme falls under a registered public organisation called Sudeesa Social Enterprises Corporation, of which 683 of the most active women are shareholders.

“It is the shareholders who run the orgainsation now, who decide on loans, repayments and follow-up action in case of defaulters,” explains Malan Appuhami, a Sudeesa accountant.

The operation is not your average micro-credit scheme – interest rates are less than three percent, and since the women are all part of the same community, they are more interested in helping each other succeed than hunting down defaulters.

For instance during the months of June to September, when rough seas limit a fisher family’s catch, the shareholders create more flexible repayment plans.

In a country where the female unemployment rate is over two-and-a-half times that of the male rate, and almost twice the national figure of 4.2 percent, the conservation-livelihood scheme is a kind of oasis in an otherwise barren desert for women – particularly older women without a formal education, as many in the Puttalam District are – seeking paid work.

Suvineetha de Silva, a Sudeesa credit officer, tells IPS that there has been a visible shift in women’s outlooks and attitudes – no longer ragged and shy, they now ripple with the confidence of those who have taken matters into their own hands.

Some have even been able to send their kids to university, de Silva says, something that was “unheard of” a decade ago, when the simple act of completing primary school was considered a luxury for youth whose parents needed the extra labour to help feed the family.

Other women are spending more time at home, with the result that sustainable cottage industries like home bakeries, dress making ventures and even hairdressing operations are thriving.

Best of all is that Puttalam’s mangroves now have a fighting chance, with determined women keeping watch over them.

Globally, an estimated 100 million people live in the vicinity of mangrove forests. What would it mean for the future of biodiversity if all of them followed Sri Lanka’s example?

Edited by Kanya D’Almeida

This article is part of a special series entitled ‘The Future Is Now: Inside the World’s Most Sustainable Communities’. Read the other articles in the series here.

 

This reporting series was conceived in collaboration with Ecosocialist Horizons
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Domestics in Mexico Face Abuse and Scant Protectionhttp://www.ipsnews.net/2015/06/domestics-in-mexico-face-abuse-and-scant-protection/?utm_source=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_campaign=domestics-in-mexico-face-abuse-and-scant-protection http://www.ipsnews.net/2015/06/domestics-in-mexico-face-abuse-and-scant-protection/#comments Tue, 16 Jun 2015 15:59:29 +0000 Emilio Godoy http://www.ipsnews.net/?p=141155 Domestics celebrating the approval of the convention concerning decent work for domestic workers (Convention No. 189) at International Labour Organisation headquarters in Geneva in June 2011. Credit: ILO

Domestics celebrating the approval of the convention concerning decent work for domestic workers (Convention No. 189) at International Labour Organisation headquarters in Geneva in June 2011. Credit: ILO

By Emilio Godoy
MEXICO CITY, Jun 16 2015 (IPS)

Her last two jobs left a bitter taste in the mouth of Yoloxochitl Solís, a 48-year-old single mother from Mexico. She sums up the experience in two words: abuse and discrimination.

“My employer would throw the food and medicine back in my face,” Solís told IPS. “She started to be rude to me, because she didn’t like me to say hello to people who were visiting her, she wanted me to stay shut up in the kitchen – I couldn’t even go out to the bathroom.”

Solís, who raised her 24-year-old son on her own, and whose first name means “flower heart” in the Náhuatl indigenous tongue, worked from 2000 to 2005 in a home in Villa Olímpica, a middle-class neighbourhood on the south side of Mexico City, where she cleaned, cooked and took care of a woman in her eighties.

“The hostile way she treated me was really strange, because there was no reason for them to discriminate against anyone,” she said, talking about the elderly woman and her son, who was in his sixties.

She earned roughly 20 dollars a day, two of which paid for her one-hour commute to and from work every day. Her workdays were long, from Monday through Saturday, and the only benefit she received was a small annual bonus. Tired of the mistreatment, she finally quit.“Domestic workers are fired without justification, accused of theft, thrown in jail over accusations of all kinds just to avoid paying them, and suffer sexual harassment. They have no protection, and their work is not valued.” -- Marcelina Bautista

But her next job was even worse. She was recommended by a nephew, and began to look after a stroke victim who had two children, also in Villa Olímpica.

Theoretically her workday was from 8:30 to 15:00. “But I would leave as late as eight o’clock at night; there was always something to do, and even if I was ill, I couldn’t miss work.”

In March, Solís ended up sick in bed with a fever in her home in the poor neighbourhood of Magdalena Contreras, to the south of Mexico City. “They shouted at me, insulted me, wouldn’t listen,” she said. As a result, she quit the job she had since 2006.

Stories like hers are routine in Mexico, where domestic workers suffer discrimination, exploitative working conditions, sexual harassment and low wages, with little protection from the law.

Mexico has not yet ratified International Labour Organisation (ILO) Convention 189 concerning decent work for domestic workers, which was adopted in 2011 and went into effect two years later.

The binding convention, which Mexico signed in 2011, asserts that domestic workers are entitled to the same basic rights as other workers, including weekly days off, limits to hours of work, minimum wage coverage, overtime compensation, clear information on the terms and conditions of employment, freedom of association, collective bargaining, protection from abuse and harassment, formal contracts, social security coverage and maternity leave.

Convention 189 is accompanied by Recommendation 201, a non-binding instrument that provides practical guidance on possible legal measures to help enforce the rights and principles established in the convention.

The recommendation also addresses areas not covered by the convention, such as vocational training policies and programmes, international cooperation, and protection of the rights of domestic workers employed by diplomatic personnel.

“Domestic workers are fired without justification, accused of theft, thrown in jail over accusations of all kinds just to avoid paying them, and suffer sexual harassment,” said Marcelina Bautista, founder and director of the non-governmental Centre for Support and Training for Domestic Workers (CACEH).

“They have no protection, and their work is not valued,” Bautista, originally from the impoverished southern Mexican state of Oaxaca, told IPS.

Bautista, who is also the Latin America regional coordinator of the International Domestic Workers Federation, speaks from experience: she began to work as a domestic in Mexico City at the age of 14.

The abuse she experienced opened her eyes to the difficulties faced by domestics, and she returned to school with the aim of helping to improve conditions for maids.

CACEH receives three to five complaints a day, most of them involving unfair dismissal and discrimination, which are referred to a group of pro bono lawyers if they are not settled through dialogue. The Centre also offers advice to domestics about their rights, and runs a job placement programme.

The numbers tell the story

In the report “Labour Conditions of Domestic Workers”, published in April by the National Commission for the Prevention of Discrimination, stresses the classism, violence, racism and grievances suffered by domestics.

An estimated 2.3 million people, over 90 percent of them women, work as domestics in this Latin American country of 120 million people.

Domestics tend to have little formal schooling, are often paid under the table, have long workdays, and frequently inherit their positions from their mothers or other family members.

Based on surveys among domestics and their employers, the National Commission found that the main conflicts arose from false accusations of theft, searches of their belongings, verbal abuse including putdowns and insults, and even physical mistreatment.

Domestics interviewed complained that they had no social security coverage, were paid low wages and were mistreated, and that they had to do heavy and demanding work with no set working hours.

They also complained that their employers violated the terms of their contracts.

They said they had become domestics because they couldn’t afford to continue their studies and did not have other options.

The average age of the respondents was 35, while 28 percent were between the ages of 18 and 25, and five percent were minors.

Of those interviewed, 36 percent began to work between the legal working age of 15 and 18, and 21 percent started before turning 15.

In addition, 23 percent were indigenous, and of that portion, 33 percent had suffered derogatory treatment and 25 percent were prohibited from speaking their own language.

During the 104th Session of the ILO’s International Labour Conference, held Jun. 1-13 in Geneva, the Mexican government reported that it was studying how to reconcile Convention 189 and Recommendation 201 with the Federal Labour Law that was amended in 2012 without including the commitments assumed in Convention 189.

But the government did not meet the prior invitation by the ILO Committee of Experts on the Application of Conventions and Recommendations to send the text to the legislature as early as possible for ratification, in order for it to enter into effect.

The Latin American countries that have ratified the convention so far are Argentina, Bolivia, Colombia, Costa Rica, Dominican Republic, Ecuador, Nicaragua, Paraguay and Uruguay, according to the ILO.

Solís admitted that she had no idea there was an international convention that could protect her and other domestic workers. “It’s very important for us to be oriented about our work and our rights,” she said.

Bautista said it was difficult to raise awareness among decision-makers. The activist said Convention 189 was “fundamental because it is better than any national law. Furthermore, legislation must be brought into line with the convention; the laws do not protect domestic workers.”

Edited by Estrella Gutiérrez/Translated by Stephanie Wildes

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Israel’s Deadly Game of Divide and Conquer Backfiringhttp://www.ipsnews.net/2015/06/israels-deadly-game-of-divide-and-conquer-backfiring/?utm_source=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_campaign=israels-deadly-game-of-divide-and-conquer-backfiring http://www.ipsnews.net/2015/06/israels-deadly-game-of-divide-and-conquer-backfiring/#comments Tue, 16 Jun 2015 06:36:03 +0000 Mel Frykberg http://www.ipsnews.net/?p=141150 Gazans celebrate "victory" over Israel following last year’s war. Now, desperate to maintain the calm in Gaza, Israel has been conducting intermittent, off-the-record indirect talks with Hamas, which it describes as a “terror organisation”. Credit: Mel Frykberg/IPS

Gazans celebrate "victory" over Israel following last year’s war. Now, desperate to maintain the calm in Gaza, Israel has been conducting intermittent, off-the-record indirect talks with Hamas, which it describes as a “terror organisation”. Credit: Mel Frykberg/IPS

By Mel Frykberg
RAMALLAH, West Bank, Jun 16 2015 (IPS)

Israel’s deadly game of divide and conquer against its enemies could be coming home to roost with a vengeance, especially as the Islamic State (ISIS) grows in strength in neighbouring countries and moves closer to Israel’s borders.

Desperate to maintain the calm in Gaza, Israel has been conducting intermittent, off-the-record indirect talks with Hamas through U.N., European and Qatar intermediaries despite vowing to never negotiate with Hamas which it describes as a “terror organisation”.

Israel helped promote the establishment of Hamas in the late 1980s in a bid to thwart the popularity of the Palestinian Authority-affiliated Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO) which was then also regarded as a “terrorist organisation” and the most powerful and popular Palestinian political movement.

But Israel’s indirect support of ISIS-affiliated Syrian opposition groups could be an even bigger gamble.“Despite ISIS ultimately being a threat to Israel, it currently fits in with Israel’s strategy of weakening the military capabilities of Iran and Syria, both enemies of ISIS, the same way a previously powerful Iraqi military had threatened Israel”

As the Omar Brigades calculated, the Israel Defence Forces (IDF) responded by attacking Hamas military targets in the coastal territory because they hold the Gaza leadership responsible for any attacks on Israel.

“Israelis, we learn, are essentially being used as pawns in a deadly game of chicken between Hamas and these Salafist rivals,” said Alison Kaplan Sommer, a columnist with the Israeli daily Haaretz.

“The Salafists refuse to abide by the informal truce that has kept the tense quiet between Hamas and Israel since the Gaza war – and Hamas is not religious and fundamentalist enough for their taste.

“Firing rockets into Israel serves a dual purpose for them. It makes a statement that they are true jihadists, unlike the Hamas sell-outs who abide by truces – and it also happens to be an excellent way for them to indirectly strike back at their Hamas oppressors. Why, after all, go to the trouble of attacking Hamas when you can so easily get Israel to do it for you?”

Israel’s dual policy of covertly supporting ISIS-affiliated Jihadists in Syria in a bid to weaken Israel’s arch-enemy Syria has taken several forms.

U.N. observers in the Golan Heights have released reports detailing cooperation between Israel and Syrian opposition figures including regular contacts between IDF soldiers and Syrian rebels.

Israel is also regularly admitting wounded Syrian opposition fighters to Israeli hospitals and it is not based on humanitarian considerations.

Israel finally responded by saying the wounded were civilians reaching the border by their own accords but later conceded it was coordinating with armed opposition groups.

“Israel initially had maintained that it was treating only civilians. However, reports claimed that members of Israel’s Druze minority protested the hospitalisation of wounded Syrian fighters from the al-Qaeda-linked al-Nusra Front in Israel,” reported the Global Research Centre for Research on Globalisation.

The last report distributed to U.N. Security Council members in December described two U.N. representatives witnessing Israeli soldiers opening a border gate and letting two unwounded people exit Israel into the Golan Heights.

The Syrian ambassador to the United Nations also complained of widespread cooperation between Israel and Syrian rebels, not only for treatment of the wounded but also other aid.

U.N. observers remarked in a report distributed last year that they identified IDF soldiers on the Israeli side handing over two boxes to armed Syrian opposition members on the Syrian side.

Despite ISIS ultimately being a threat to Israel, it currently fits in with Israel’s strategy of weakening the military capabilities of Iran and Syria, both enemies of ISIS, the same way a previously powerful Iraqi military had threatened Israel.

When the United States began operations against ISIS, a senior Israeli high command seemed reluctant to give any support and called the move a mistake.

It was easier to deal with terrorism in its early stages [ISIS] than to face an Iranian threat and the Hezbollah, he said. “I believe the West intervened too early and not necessarily in the right direction,” he told Haaretz anonymously.

“Israel is pursuing a policy that in the long term will ultimately be self-defeating. In a bid to divide Syria, Israel is supporting ISIS but this will backfire in that ISIS is growing in strength and destroying societies in its path and it will eventually turn its sights on Israel,” Professor Samir Awad from Birzeit University, near Ramallah, told IPS.

It is possible that ISIS could topple future regimes that Israel is hoping for support from, including Syrian rebels who hinted at a peace with Israel once Syrian President Bashar Assad is toppled.

Jacky Hugi, the Arab affairs analyst for Israeli army radio Galie-Zahal who confirmed on the Al Monitor website that Israel was taking the Syrian rebels side in the fighting, had a warning.

“We should stop with the illusions – the day ‘after Assad’ won’t bring about a secular liberal ruling alternative. The extremist organisations are the most dominant factions in Syria nowadays,” said Hugi. “Any void left in Syria will be seized by them, not the moderate rebels.”

According to political analyst Benedetta Berti of Israel’s Institute of National Security Studies, Israel is closely monitoring its northern front, specifically the Golan Heights.

“Israel believes that there is no current threat from the rebels as they are too busy with the Syrian war,” Berti told IPS. “However, if we extend the time frame, then the situation could change when Syrian rebels may want to attack Israel from the northern borders.”

Edited by Phil Harris    

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Opinion: GM Cotton a False Promise for Africahttp://www.ipsnews.net/2015/06/opinion-gm-cotton-a-false-promise-for-africa/?utm_source=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_campaign=opinion-gm-cotton-a-false-promise-for-africa http://www.ipsnews.net/2015/06/opinion-gm-cotton-a-false-promise-for-africa/#comments Mon, 15 Jun 2015 08:58:31 +0000 Haidee Swanby http://www.ipsnews.net/?p=141132 Zambian cotton grower sitting on his bales. Some African governments and local cotton producers have high hopes that GM technology will boost African competitiveness in the dog-eat-dog world that characterises the global cotton market. Credit: Nebert Mulenga/IPS

Zambian cotton grower sitting on his bales. Some African governments and local cotton producers have high hopes that GM technology will boost African competitiveness in the dog-eat-dog world that characterises the global cotton market. Credit: Nebert Mulenga/IPS

By Haidee Swanby
MELVILLE, South Africa, Jun 15 2015 (IPS)

Genetically modified (GM) cotton has been produced globally for almost two decades, yet to date only three African countries have grown GM cotton on a commercial basis – South Africa, Burkina Faso and Sudan.

African governments have been sceptical of genetically modified organisms (GMOs) for decades and have played a key role historically in ensuring that international law – the Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety – takes a precautionary stance towards genetic engineering in food and agriculture.

They have also imposed various restrictions and bans on the cultivation and importation of GMOs, including on genetically modified (GM) food aid.

But now resistance to GM cultivation is crumbling as a number of other African countries such as Malawi, Ghana, Swaziland and Cameroon appear to be on the verge of allowing their first cultivation of GM cotton, with Nigeria and Ethiopia planning to follow suit in the next two to three years.“Scrutiny of actual experiences [with GM cotton] reveals a tragic tale of crippling debt, appalling market prices and a technology prone to failure in the absence of very specific and onerous management techniques, which are not suited to smallholder production”

Some African governments and local cotton producers have high hopes that GM technology will boost African competitiveness in the dog-eat-dog world that characterises the global cotton market.

At the moment African cotton productivity is declining – it now stands at only half the world average – while global productivity is increasing. The promise of improving productivity and reducing pesticide use through the adoption of GM cotton is thus compelling.

However, African leaders and cotton producers need to take a close look at how GM cotton has fared in South Africa and Burkina Faso to date, particularly its socioeconomic impact on smallholder farmers.

Scrutiny of actual experiences reveals a tragic tale of crippling debt, appalling market prices and a technology prone to failure in the absence of very specific and onerous management techniques, which are not suited to smallholder production.

As stated by a farmer during a Malian public consultation on GMOs, “What’s the point of encouraging us to increase yields with GMOs when we can’t get a decent price for what we already produce?”

In Burkina Faso, the tide turned against GM cotton after just five seasons as low yields and low quality fibres persisted. In South Africa, GM cotton brought devastating debts to smallholders and the local credit institution went bust. Last season, smallholders contributed to less than three percent of South Africa’s total production.

In Malawi, Monsanto has already applied to the government for a permit to commercialise Bollgard II, its GM pest resistant cotton, to which there has been a strong reaction from civil society and an alliance of organisations has submitted substantive objections.

Even Malawi’s cotton industry, the Cotton Development Trust (CDT), has publically voiced its concerns over a number of issues, including inadequate field trials, the high cost of GM seed and related inputs, and blurred intellectual property arrangements.

In addition, CDT has expressed unease over the potential development of pest resistance and the inevitable applications of herbicide chemicals.

Regional economic communities (RECs), such as the Common Market for East and Southern Africa (COMESA) and the Economic Community for West African States (ECOWAS), are also key players in readying their member states for the commercialisation of and trade in GM cotton, through harmonised biosafety policies. Together COMESA and ECOWAS incorporate 34 countries in Africa.

The COMESA Policy on Biotechnology and Biosafety was adopted in February 2014 and member states validated the implementation plan in March 2015.

The ECOWAS Biosafety Policy has been through an arduous process for more than a decade now and pronounced conflicts between trade imperatives and safety checks have stalled agreement between stakeholders. However, recent reports indicate that agreement between member states and donor parties has been reached and a final draft of the Biosafety Policy will soon be published.

Experiments and open field trials with GM cotton have been running for many years in a number of African countries and are increasingly at a stage where applications for commercial release are imminent.

However, there are many obstacles to the birth of a new GM era in Africa, chief among them the fact that this high-end technology is simply not appropriate to resource-poor farmers operating on tiny pieces of land, together with fierce opposition from civil society and sometimes also from governments.

Attempts by the biotech industry to impose policies that pander to investors’ desires at the expense of environmental and human safety may be easier to realise at the regional level, through the trade-friendly RECs. This is where many biotech industry resources and efforts are currently being channelled.

Despite whatever legal environments may be implemented to enable the introduction of GM cotton regionally or nationally, the fact remains that Africa’s cotton farmers are operating in a difficult global sector – prices are erratic and distorted by unfair subsidies in the North, institutional support for their activities is often lacking, and high input costs are already annihilating profit margins.

Fighting for the introduction of more expensive technologies that have already proven themselves technologically unsound in a smallholder environment is deeply irresponsible and short-sighted.

It is time that African governments turn their resources to improving the local environments in which cotton producers operate, including institutional and infrastructural support that can bring long-term sustainability to the sector, without placing further burdens and vulnerability on some of the most marginalised people in the world.

Civil society actions will continue to vehemently oppose and challenge the false solutions promised by GM cotton and will insist on just trading environments and true and sustainable upliftment for African cotton producers.

Edited by Phil Harris   

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

* This opinion piece is based on the author’s more extensive paper titled Cottoning on to the Lie, published by the African Centre for Biodiversity, June 2015

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