Inter Press Service » Featured http://www.ipsnews.net Turning the World Downside Up Thu, 05 Mar 2015 22:08:07 +0000 en-US hourly 1 http://wordpress.org/?v=4.1.1 Newly Recognised Indigenous Rights a Dead Letter?http://www.ipsnews.net/2015/03/newly-recognised-indigenous-rights-a-dead-letter/?utm_source=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_campaign=newly-recognised-indigenous-rights-a-dead-letter http://www.ipsnews.net/2015/03/newly-recognised-indigenous-rights-a-dead-letter/#comments Thu, 05 Mar 2015 19:06:23 +0000 Edgardo Ayala and Claudia Avalos http://www.ipsnews.net/?p=139521 Tito Kilizapa in his workshop in Izalco in western El Salvador. The 74-year-old indigenous craftsman makes and plays the marimba, a percussion instrument that was popular in Central America in the 19th century and which he is trying to revive among children in the area. Credit: Edgardo Ayala/IPS

Tito Kilizapa in his workshop in Izalco in western El Salvador. The 74-year-old indigenous craftsman makes and plays the marimba, a percussion instrument that was popular in Central America in the 19th century and which he is trying to revive among children in the area. Credit: Edgardo Ayala/IPS

By Edgardo Ayala and Claudia Ávalos
IZALCO, El Salvador , Mar 5 2015 (IPS)

Nearly three years after the rights of El Salvador’s indigenous people were recognised in the constitution, there are still no public policies and laws to translate that historic achievement into reality.

In June 2014 the single-chamber legislature ratified a constitutional reform passed in April 2012 which acknowledged new rights of native peoples in this Central American nation. But the leaders of indigenous communities and organisations told IPS they were worried it would all remain on paper.

“There have been changes full of good intentions, but the good intentions need a little orientation,” Betty Pérez, the head of the Salvadoran National Indigenous Coordinating Council (CCNIS), told Tierramérica.

The reform of article 63 of the constitution states that “El Salvador recognises indigenous peoples and will adopt policies aimed at maintaining and developing their ethnic and cultural identity, worldview, values and spirituality.”

These cover a wide range of areas, such as respect for indigenous peoples’ medicinal practices and their collective rights to land. And according to lawmakers of different stripes, the constitutional amendment pays a historic debt to the country’s native people and helps pull them out of the invisibility to which they had been condemned.

Pérez said a process of dialogue is underway between indigenous organisations and communities and the different government ministries involved, with a view to designing public policies, but that little headway has been made because “there is no unified vision and each group is following its own logic.”“If the reform does not establish mechanisms to give it life, if the legislators do not approve the necessary secondary laws, it’s going to be left as dead letter in the constitution.” -- Supreme Court Justice Florentín Meléndez

The CCNIS is pressing for the country to ratify the International Labour Organisation’s (ILO) Convention 169 concerning Indigenous and Tribal Peoples in Independent Countries. But no date has been set for the legislature to ratify the legal instrument, which protects indigenous rights.

Pérez spoke with IPS during the commemoration of the 1932 indigenous uprising, held in this municipality of 74,000 people 65 km west of San Salvador, which was the epicentre of the revolt.

The rebellion in Izalco, demanding better conditions for native people, was brutally repressed by the dictatorship of Maximiliano Martínez (1931-1944), leaving between 30,000 and 40,000 dead.

El Salvador’s indigenous people were ignored and invisible for decades, under the argument that after the massacre, they blended in with the ‘mestiza’ or mixed-race population, abandoning their languages and traditional dress, to avoid persecution under successive military regimes, which accused them of being communists.

For that reason there is little documentation or up-to-date figures on their socioeconomic circumstances in this impoverished country of 6.3 million people.

According to the Perfil de los Pueblos Indígenas de El Salvador, a report on the country’s indigenous people available only in Spanish and jointly produced by the World Bank, the Salvadoran government and indigenous organisations, approximately 10 percent of the country’s population is Amerindian, divided into three major groups: the Nahua/Pipil in the centre and west of the country; the Lenca in the east; and the Cacaopera in the north.

The study, published in 2003, reports that most of the country’s native people depend on subsistence agriculture on leased land, while others work as hired rural labour. A large number of communities also make and sell traditional crafts.

Native organisations and experts say that implementing or applying the constitutional amendment requires the adoption of an integral policy with an inclusive focus and respect for the world vision of each native group, in education, health, environment, labour, community development, and land titling.

The health system, for example, must have an “intercultural” focus making it possible for native people to receive adequate health services that are respectful of their culture, said a 2013 report by then United Nations Special Rapporteur on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples James Anaya, who visited the country in 2012.

That kind of focus would make it possible to recognise traditional practices such as the healing carried out by 88-year-old Rosalío Turush in Izalco – known as Itzalku in the Náhuat language.

The elderly native healer learned to use herbs from her ancestors, and to ease pain with massage in the case of broken bones or sprains.

“Back then, since medicine was hard to come by, people turned to plants,” Turush told Tierramérica. “For example, to cure dysentery, there is a plant called ‘trencillo’.”

“Now people mainly come for me to give them a massage to relieve a pulled muscle, a broken bone, because I’ve still got the touch,” she added.

In order to put the constitutional reform into practice, “secondary laws” to regulate the new rights must be passed. But almost no progress in this direction has been made in the legislature.

“If the reform does not establish mechanisms to give it life, if the legislators do not approve the necessary secondary laws, it’s going to be left as dead letter in the constitution,” said Supreme Court Justice Florentín Meléndez during the commemoration of the massacre here in Izalco.

Meléndez also referred to the touchy issue of indigenous communities’ access to collective land ownership – which was already in the constitution but was never regulated to put it into practice.

“Communal property is already recognised, the only thing that is needed is for the lawmakers to continue moving towards concrete fulfillment of those rights, not just on paper but in real life,” he added.

In the late 19th century, the communal land of the country’s indigenous peoples was taken from them by coffee plantation owners.

The landowners turned tens of thousands of indigenous people and peasant farmers into casual labourers who lived in the most abject poverty on the coffee plantations, sowing the seed of social discontent which, decades later, was one of the causes of the 1980-1992 civil war that left 80,000 people – mainly civilians – dead.

The 1932 uprising also protested the theft of indigenous land.

“That’s where the 1932 massacre came from, because the landowners, if someone didn’t sell them their land, stole it at gunpoint,” Tito Kilizapa, a 74-year-old indigenous craftsman and musician from Izalpo, told Tierramérica.

Pérez, with the CCNIS, pointed out that the constitutional reform was delayed for a decade because of opposition from powerful economic groups, which feared the expropriation of communal land taken from indigenous communities in the 19th century, or other measures that would hurt their own interests.

These groups are also trying to block the approval of the secondary laws needed to implement the constitutional amendment, especially with respect to indigenous access to land.

“We are immersed in a capitalist system, we have groups of power…there are economic and political elements that keep the government from carrying out these processes of change,” Pérez said.

Gustavo Pineda, national director of indigenous affairs in the Secretariat of Culture, told Tierramérica that “these are all processes; changing the situation for indigenous peoples is a long, uphill process.”

The government official said “native peoples have been systematically neglected and ignored for a long time – we’re talking about centuries.”

This story was originally published by Latin American newspapers that are part of the Tierramérica network.

Edited by Estrella Gutiérrez/Translated by Stephanie Wildes

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Can Indigenous and Wildlife Conservationists Work Together?http://www.ipsnews.net/2015/03/can-indigenous-and-wildlife-conservationists-work-together/?utm_source=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_campaign=can-indigenous-and-wildlife-conservationists-work-together http://www.ipsnews.net/2015/03/can-indigenous-and-wildlife-conservationists-work-together/#comments Thu, 05 Mar 2015 11:28:06 +0000 Lyndal Rowlands http://www.ipsnews.net/?p=139518 “The forest used to be for the Baka but not anymore. We would walk in the forest according to the seasons but now we’re afraid,” say the Baka of Cameroon.  Credit: © Survival International

“The forest used to be for the Baka but not anymore. We would walk in the forest according to the seasons but now we’re afraid,” say the Baka of Cameroon. Credit: © Survival International

By Lyndal Rowlands
UNITED NATIONS, Mar 5 2015 (IPS)

Indigenous and wildlife conservationists have common goals and common adversaries, but seem to be struggling to find common ground in the fight for sustainable forests.

The forest lifestyle of the Baka people of Cameroon helps provide improved habitats for wild animals.“When wildlife trafficking and bush meat trade results in the decline in wildlife populations, the very first people to suffer are indigenous people who need those wildlife populations to survive.” -- James Deutsch

When the Baka clear a patch for a camp, the clearing later turns into secondary forest that gorillas prefer, Mike Hurran, Survival International Africa campaigner, told IPS.

“When they harvest wild yams that grow in the forest, they always leave part of the root intact and that spreads the pockets of wild yams through the forest that elephants and wild bush pigs like,” he said.

They have “sophisticated codes of conservation” and have lived sustainably for generations following the ‘ancestor’s path’.

But pressures on the Baka’s forest home are coming from many angles; logging, mining, and illegal poaching.

According to the United Nations Development Program (UNDP), worldwide wildlife trafficking is now worth an estimated 23 billion dollars annually, threatening endangered species and ruining opportunities for sustainable development.

On the ground, tackling wildlife crime is becoming increasingly difficult. Poachers, backed by the same international crime syndicates that traffic in drugs and people, are employing increasingly sophisticated techniques.

At the same time, forests are under increased pressure from resource exploitation. Mining and logging destroy habitats and brings thousands of workers to the forest who themselves hunt, eat and trade wild animals.

“When wildlife trafficking and bush meat trade results in the decline in wildlife populations, the very first people to suffer are indigenous people who need those wildlife populations to survive,” James Deutsch, vice president, conservation strategy for the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS), told IPS.

Deutsch said conservationists and indigenous people have common adversaries, in organised crime syndicates and the extractives industry.

However, Survival International is concerned that although conservationists have in recent years expressed a greater commitment to working with indigenous communities, this is not always reflected on the ground.

“What these anti-poaching squads are doing, and by extension the conservation agencies that fund them, is really just focusing on the least powerful people, who are really just hunting to feed their families as they have for generations,” Hurran said.

“Often the poaching squads [that] enforce wildlife law are maybe corrupt or they don’t have much respect for the human rights of tribal people, such as the Baka,” he said.

“The Baka have told us that even when they are hunting in their special zones, using techniques which are recognised as traditional and legal and hunting just for food and not for sale, sometimes their meat is confiscated, and they are being harassed or beaten by anti-poaching squads,” Hurran added.

Survival International has named specific international conservation organisations that they say provide funding to these anti-poaching squads, including World Wildlife Fund (WWF) in Cameroon.

In a statement provided to IPS, WWF said, “On the ground, advancing the status and rights of tribal communities while also protecting the resources vital to them and the global community is extraordinarily difficult… WWF agrees that parks need people, and models such as Community Based Natural Resource Management being pursued by WWF globally over many years have ensured that many parks have people.

“WWF is open to a collaborative approach to these issues.  WWF is standing by commitments to assist a Cameroon National Human Rights and Freedom Commission investigation of alleged human rights abuses by Ecoguards and military and is reviewing field experience and our activities in support of the Baka and forest protection in Cameroon.”

Deutsch also echoed WWF’s call for a collaborative approach, saying that a deeper partnership between the human rights community and the conservation community is needed to address complex conservation challenges. Survival International also says WCS funds similar anti-poaching squads in the Republic of Congo.

“The conservation community has to be committed to partnering with indigenous people, because that’s the only way that we’re both going to find a future for wildlife, but also do it in such a way that human rights are respected and traditional societies are respected,” Deutsch said.

Deutsch, who previously led WCS’s programmes in Africa for 11 years, said that solutions were not simple and required perseverance, working with local communities on the ground.

One area both sides agree on is shortfalls in national and international laws protecting indigenous people.

WWF’s statement said that complications included “lack of official recognition in law or in practice of customary rights (and) shortfalls in knowledge, commitment and infrastructure necessary to support international human rights agendas.”

Survival International also acknowledges that national and international laws need to provide more protection to tribal people, both on paper and in practice.

“The criteria that the Baka people need to meet in order to hunt legally is very strict and unrealistic, so often they are considered poachers, when they aren’t,” Hurran said.

Speaking at a United Nations event on World Wildlife Day on Tuesday, Nik Sekhran, director of the UNDP’s Sustainable Development Cluster, said, “For many communities and for indigenous people around the world, sustainable use of wildlife and sustainable use of flora for medicines for food … is really critical to their survival.”

The financial benefits of wildlife tourism are often cited as an important reason to support wildlife conservation in developing countries. However, tourism income does not always trickle down to the poorest communities in developing countries.

“It’s particularly a challenge with hunter-gatherer people,” Deutch said. “There are many cases where wildlife tourism has been created and the intention has been to benefit hunter-gatherer societies and yet in some cases it’s been difficult to make sure that the benefits go to those people because they are less able to deal with the scrum for resources that results.”

Edited by Kitty Stapp

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42 Human Rights Groups Slam Indonesia’s Death Penaltyhttp://www.ipsnews.net/2015/03/42-human-rights-groups-slam-indonesias-death-penalty/?utm_source=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_campaign=42-human-rights-groups-slam-indonesias-death-penalty http://www.ipsnews.net/2015/03/42-human-rights-groups-slam-indonesias-death-penalty/#comments Wed, 04 Mar 2015 22:27:42 +0000 Josh Butler http://www.ipsnews.net/?p=139511 By Josh Butler
UNITED NATIONS, Mar 4 2015 (IPS)

More than 40 human rights groups from around the world have penned an open letter to Indonesian President Joko Widodo, pleading for the halting of 10 imminent executions.

The letter, published by the International Federation for Human Rights on Tuesday, “condemn[s] in the strongest possible terms” the planned execution by firing squad of a group of prisoners in Nusakambangan prison, in central Java.

A total of 42 human rights and anti-death penalty groups from countries as far afield as Cameroon, France, Iran, Laos, India, Switzerland, Italy, Vietnam and Nigeria have signed the letter, criticising Indonesia’s execution policy and calling for urgent review of the group scheduled to be killed.

The group includes two Australians, Myuran Sukumaran and Andrew Chan, who have been in Indonesian custody since 2005 after leading the so-called “Bali Nine” drug gang who attempted to smuggle eight kilograms of heroin from Indonesia to Australia.

The pair, sentenced to death in February 2006, have languished on death row ever since, with an exhaustive series of appeals and reviews all ultimately unsuccessful.

Chan and Sukumaran had their clemency appeals recently rejected by Widodo, despite intense lobbying from the Australian government. The affair has strained ties between Indonesia and Australia.

The letter claims the rationale behind executions for drug-related crimes are based on “an outdated and criticized” Indonesian study, saying the impact of drugs on Indonesian society was vastly overstated and that there is no evidence that executing those involved with narcotics has any deterrent effect.

Widodo has stood behind the death sentence for Chan and Sukumaran against mounting international pressure, claiming the lives of 4.5 million Indonesians are “in ruin” because of drugs.

The condemned group said to also include Brazilian, Filipino, Ghanaian, Nigerian and French citizens - was expected to be executed in coming days. However, in an interview with Al-Jazeera, Widodo said the executions would not take place this week. The execution date is tipped to be revealed on Friday.

Your decision to authorize more executions in the coming weeks and months has tarnished Indonesia’s international image and risks damaging bilateral relations between Jakarta and capitals of abolitionist countries, which represent 70% of the international community,” the letter states.

“Executions are against Article 28(a) of the Indonesian Constitution, which guarantees everyone’s right to life. They are also in breach of Indonesia’s international legal obligations under Article 6 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), which recognizes every human being’s inherent right to life.

The letter calls for Indonesia to halt and commute all planned executions and instate a moratorium on further sentences, and abolish the death penalty altogether.

Follow Josh Butler on Twitter @JoshButler

Edited by Roger Hamilton-Martin

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Opinion: Reforming Mental Health in Indiahttp://www.ipsnews.net/2015/03/opinion-reforming-mental-health-in-india/?utm_source=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_campaign=opinion-reforming-mental-health-in-india http://www.ipsnews.net/2015/03/opinion-reforming-mental-health-in-india/#comments Wed, 04 Mar 2015 21:31:08 +0000 Minto Felix http://www.ipsnews.net/?p=139509 About 10 percent of the Indian population of 1.2 billion people experiences a form of mental illness - that is about 200 million people. Credit: IPS

About 10 percent of the Indian population of 1.2 billion people experiences a form of mental illness - that is about 200 million people. Credit: IPS

By Minto Felix
NEW DELHI, Mar 4 2015 (IPS)

India is not only poised for greatness, some say it is already on its way. The events that have shaped the nation’s dialogue over the past month showcase an India with a bold vision – to transform industry, to close the gap on inequality and ultimately, to redefine its place as a leader among the world.

Yet, it is a baffling reality that political leaders from across the spectrum have failed to adequately respond to one of the most pressing human challenges facing India today. A challenge that not only comes attached with significant consequences to the most important asset of the country – it’s people – but also, if not taken seriously, is likely to impede upon the continued progress achieved by the nation.

India has only one psychiatrist for every 343,000 people, and one of the highest suicide rates in the world.
The challenge of mental illness is an urgent priority for the country, one that requires collective action and constructive reforms.

Imagine this: by the year 2020, depression and anxiety is set to be the biggest illness facing humanity, costing the world about 13 trillion dollars to treat.

In India, conservative measures from the Bangalore-based National Institute of Mental Health and Neurosciences (NIMHANS) estimate that about 10 percent of the population experiences a form of mental illness – that is about 200 million people.

Whether they’re Bollywood celebrities like Deepika Padukone, who recently and poignantly blogged about her struggle with anxiety, or the painful stories of suicide that have emerged in recent years from farmers grappling with the pressures of prolonged drought, mental illness impacts individuals from every walk of life and throughout the lifespan.

It is also well established that mental illness particularly impacts those most vulnerable in our communities, especially those that experience poverty and discrimination.

With the exception of India’s first Mental Health Policy, which was launched to positive public reception in October last year, we have seen little to no action follow suit in driving through core reforms identified.

Further, with mental health expenditure occupying only 0.83 percent of the total health budget, which, in turn, also continues to be a tiny fraction of overall government expenditure, the plausibility of important change occurring in this arena remains grim. So what’s needed to shift the status quo?

1. Start an informed conversation

The essential first step in driving positive change on mental ill-health is to learn about it. Whilst there certainly have been improvements over the past decade, the mental health literacy amongst Indians remains low.

This is problematic for several reasons, as it allows for misinformation to propagate at the community level, and as a natural consequence, stigmatising attitudes that prevent individuals from seeking the appropriate help they require.

Improved understanding of mental illness not only removes stigma, it also builds compassion – of how to adequately care for oneself, as well as for others, when experiencing mental health difficulties.

A population that is mental health literate is also armed with the tool kit to be powerful agents of change, and can confidently hold medical professionals, governments and policy makers to account in improving the status of mental health in India. To have individuals experiencing mental illness labeled as inadequate and deprived of their humanity is simply not acceptable in 2015.

2. Build world-class infrastructure

It is altogether unacceptable that India has only one psychiatrist for every 343,000 people, and it is worrying that India has among the highest suicide rates in the world, particularly within its youth population.

This reflects poorly resourced infrastructure, and also inadequate services to match the deep needs experienced by the population.

In some senses, the answer is simple – increase the amount of funds directed towards tackling mental illness, and in other senses, the solutions are more complex – of determining quality care coordination across states, of making investments in priority areas such as youth mental health, and working to increasing the number of trained mental health professionals.

As is the case with technology and infrastructure, India should aspire to have a word-class mental health system that is efficient, effective, and accessible by its entire population.

3. Age of innovation

One of the genuine achievements of the past year with regards to mental health is the decriminalisation of attempted suicide. The repeal of this legislation is an important step in working towards reducing the number of suicides, but also reflects the broader societal factors that need to be addressed in strengthening the mental health of Indians.

Economic, social and political factors all play a vital role in strengthening or damaging a person’s level of health, and this is no different with mental illness.

Countless NGOs and government agencies around the country are implementing exciting projects that seek to alleviate mental illness, as well as surrounding factors of gender based violence, homelessness, and drug abuse. However, in order for these projects to make a lasting difference, they need be implemented on a larger scale.

The Banyan, a Chennai based mental health NGO, is leading the way in this space, with both its innovative service delivery in working with vulnerable women experiencing mental illness but equally, in its commitment to scale through establishing partnerships with universities in other parts of India and government agencies to increase the organisation’s reach.

By the very same token, it is indeed the role of the government to evaluate, to encourage, and extend the full potential of these initiatives. There is a pressing need to build a bank of evidence-based solutions for tackling this health issue.

There is no health without mental health, and the call for reform is crystal clear. If we are able to promote the full mental health of each and every person living in this country, India can only be stronger, richer, and indeed a more fulfilled nation.

Edited by Kanya D’Almeida

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By Girls, For Girls – Nepal’s Teenagers Say No to Child Marriagehttp://www.ipsnews.net/2015/03/by-girls-for-girls-nepals-teenagers-say-no-to-child-marriage/?utm_source=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_campaign=by-girls-for-girls-nepals-teenagers-say-no-to-child-marriage http://www.ipsnews.net/2015/03/by-girls-for-girls-nepals-teenagers-say-no-to-child-marriage/#comments Wed, 04 Mar 2015 18:58:49 +0000 Naresh Newar http://www.ipsnews.net/?p=139501 Rashmi Hamal is a local heroine who helped to save her friend from an early marriage. She campaigns actively against child marriages in the Far Western Region of Nepal. Credit: Naresh Newar/IPS

Rashmi Hamal is a local heroine who helped to save her friend from an early marriage. She campaigns actively against child marriages in the Far Western Region of Nepal. Credit: Naresh Newar/IPS

By Naresh Newar
BAJURA, Nepal, Mar 4 2015 (IPS)

If not for a group of her school friends coming to her rescue, Shradha Nepali would have become a bride at the tender age of 14.

Hailing from the remote village of Pinalekh in the Bajura District of Nepal’s Far-Western Region, 900 km from the capital, Kathmandu, the teenager was a likely candidate for child marriage.

“We are not afraid anymore because a majority of our community members now want to fight against child marriages." -- 16-year-old Rashmi Hamal, president of the all-girls Jyalpa Child Club in Far-West Nepal
Her family of six survive on an income of less than a dollar a day – subsisting largely off the produce grown on their tiny farm and scraping together a few extra coins working as underpaid daily labourers.

Mahesh Joshi, coordinator of the local non-governmental organisation PeaceWin, tells IPS that such abject poverty is one of the primary drivers of early marriage in Nepal, a choice taken by many adolescent girls with few prospects beyond a lifetime of hard work, and hunger.

Nepali herself tells IPS she was “unaware of the consequences” of her decision at the time.

Had her friends not intervened, she would have joined the already swollen ranks of Nepal’s child brides – according to a 2013 study by Plan Asia and the International Centre for Research on Women (ICRW), 41 percent of Nepali women between the ages of 20 and 24 were married before the legal age of 18.

The United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) has classified Nepal as one of the world’s top 10 countries with the highest rates of child marriage. But now, thanks to an all-girls-led initiative around the country, the tide may be about to turn.

Poverty turning kids into brides

South Asia is home to an estimated 42 percent of the world’s child brides, with Nepal ranked third – behind Bangladesh and India – according to a study by the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA).

A myriad of causes fuels child marriage in Nepal, home to an estimated 27.8 million people, of whom 24 percent live below the poverty line, says the World Bank.

Nepal’s National Women’s Commission believes economic, social and religious factors all play a role. In the country’s southern Tarai belt, for instance, continuation of the dowry system keeps the practice of child marriage alive. The younger the girl, the less her parents are expected to pay the groom, forcing many to part with their daughters at an ever-younger age.

Others simply choose to marry off their daughters so they have one less mouth to feed.

And while girls’ education is gaining more importance, it is still not considered a priority among rural, impoverished communities – UNICEF says the basic literacy rate among women aged 15-24 is 77.5 percent, a number that falls to 66 percent for secondary school enrolment.

Early marriages have been recognised, internationally and domestically in Nepal, as a violation of girls’ basic human rights, and a practice that has hugely negative repercussions across the board.

“Young girls who are underage when they marry are likely to suffer from a series of health and psychological problems,” explains UNFPA Nepal Deputy Representative Kristine Blokhus.

“There is a real risk of death during delivery, and even if a young girl survives, she may face life-long health problems,” the official tells IPS.

Child marriage severely limits a girl’s future prospects, often sealing her access to labour markets and condemning her to a lifetime of dependence on her husband or his family.

Experts say this is the beginning of a cycle of disempowerment, wherein a girl with few choices becomes trapped in a situation where limited options dwindle ever further.

By girls, for girls: A grassroots approach

When initiatives to fight against the practice gain ground, it is cause for celebration among activists, policy-makers, and families who opt for child marriage as a last resort in the face of extreme hardship.

Shradha Nepali nearly became a bride at the age of 14. She was saved by an intervention from a local all-girls club that fights against child marriages. Credit: Naresh Newar/IPS

Shradha Nepali nearly became a bride at the age of 14. She was saved by an intervention from a local all-girls club that fights against child marriages. Credit: Naresh Newar/IPS

The district of Bajura, where Shradha Nepali and her friends live, is leading the way on these efforts, with communities across the district competing to declare their respective villages ‘child marriage-free zones’: a bold statement against an age-old practice.

Bajura is located in the Far-Western Region of Nepal, home to some of the country’s most remote and developmentally challenged villages; incomes here are low and child marriages are correspondingly high.

Changing attitudes here is not easy, but that hasn’t stopped girls like 16-year-old Rashmi Hamal, president of the Jyalpa Child Club in the remote Badi Mallika Municipality, from trying.

“We are not afraid anymore because a majority of our community members now want to fight against child marriages,” Hamal tells IPS.

She is one of 10 girls who came together in 2014 with the help of PeaceWin and a youth-led agency called Restless Development, with support from UNICEF, to strategise on how best to stem the practice once and for all.

“These girls are local heroes; they have really proven themselves [in their] persistent educational campaigns, and by inspiring their parents to join their cause,” says Hira Karki, a local social mobiliser from PeaceWin.

It was this club that rescued Nepali from her marriage, shortly after she ran away from home. Although the girl’s mother doesn’t fault her for wanting to flee, she is visibly relieved to have her daughter back, and determined to make her stay.

“I cannot blame her [for running away] because she wanted to escape hardship at home. I [now] hope to support her in every way possible,” the 35-year-old mother tells IPS.

Today, Nepali is one of the club’s most active campaigners against child brides. Their success is tangible: over 84 schools in Bajura and the neighbouring districts of Kalikot, Accham and Mugu have launched similar initiatives in the last year.

“The best part of anti-child marriage activism here is that we have campaigners from our own community who live here and get the chance to educate their own adult members without antagonising them,” a local school principal, Jahar Sing Thapa, tells IPS.

Though small, each club is contributing to the country’s overall efforts to stem the practice. In the past five years, UNFPA says the rate of child marriage has declined by 20 percent.

Beyond activism: towards a policy of ‘zero prevalence’

While independent, local efforts are praiseworthy, they alone will not be adequate to tackle the problem at a national scale.

“We have learnt from our own experience that simply raising awareness against underage marriages is not enough,” UNICEF Nepal’s Deputy Representative Rownak Khan tells IPS in Kathmandu, adding that a multi-sector approach involving financial literacy, life-skills training and income-generation support for adolescent girls will all need to become part of the country’s arsenal against early marriages.

All these services are now core components of the government’s national level ‘Adolescent Development Program’, initiated in 1998.

Kiran Rupakhetee, chief of the government’s Child Protection Section, tells IPS that a variety of government ministries are now working together, resulting in the drafting of the government’s first national strategy document against child marriage.

Combined with some 20,000 child-run clubs across the country, this multi-pronged approach promises to bring real changes across the country, and move Nepal closer to the day when it can call child marriage a thing of the past.

Edited by Kanya D’Almeida

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Tech-Savvy Women Farmers Find Success with SIM Cardshttp://www.ipsnews.net/2015/03/tech-savvy-women-farmers-find-success-with-sim-cards/?utm_source=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_campaign=tech-savvy-women-farmers-find-success-with-sim-cards http://www.ipsnews.net/2015/03/tech-savvy-women-farmers-find-success-with-sim-cards/#comments Wed, 04 Mar 2015 04:46:06 +0000 Stella Paul http://www.ipsnews.net/?p=139489 Members of a women-farmers’ collective demonstrate use of a devices that sends daily bulletins on weather patterns, crops and other matters of importance to farming communities in rural India. Credit: Stella Paul/IPS

Members of a women-farmers’ collective demonstrate use of a devices that sends daily bulletins on weather patterns, crops and other matters of importance to farming communities in rural India. Credit: Stella Paul/IPS

By Stella Paul
MAHABUBNAGAR, India, Mar 4 2015 (IPS)

Jawadi Vimalamma, 36, looks admiringly at her cell phone. It’s a simple device that can only be used to send or receive a call or a text message. Yet to the farmer from the village of Janampet, located 150 km away from Hyderabad, capital of the southern Indian state of Telangana, it symbolises a wealth of knowledge that changed her life.

Her phone is fitted with what the farmers call a GreenSIM, which sends her daily updates on the weather, health tips or agricultural advice.

“My profits have increased from 5,000 to 20,000 rupees (80-232 dollars) each season.” -- Jawadi Vimalamma, a smallholder farmer participating in a mobile technology scheme to create awareness among rural women.
Three years ago, a single message on this mobile alerted Vimalamma to the benefits of crop rotation.

“My profits have increased from 5,000 to 20,000 rupees (80-232 dollars) each season,” says the smallholder farmer, who now grows rice, corn, millet and peanuts on her three-acre plot, instead of relying on a single crop for her livelihood.

Not far away, in the neighbouring village of Kommareddy Palli, a woman farmer named Kongala Chandrakala is using the same SIM card on a device nicknamed a ‘phablet’ – a low-cost combination mobile phone and tablet computer that dispenses vital information to small farmers.

The little machine has been a lifeline for this woman, who survived years of domestic violence before striking out on her own.

“Fifteen years ago, I was a school dropout, living in an abusive marriage. Today, I have my own farm, and am making money,” Chandrakala tells IPS.

Both women are members of Adarsh Mahila Samakhya (AMS), an all-women collective that helps empower smallholder women farmers through modern technologies.

The collective has 8,000 members, 2,000 of whom use the GreenSIM card, the result of a collaboration between the International Crop Research Institute for the Semi Arid Tropics (ICRISAT) – an international research organisation headquartered in Hyderabad – together with the Indian Farmers’ Fertiliser Cooperative and Bharti Airtel – one of India’s largest mobile service providers.

The scheme began in 2002, when the government asked ICRISAT to help train local farmers in drought-resilient agricultural practices. When the Institute started searching for local partners on the ground to help execute the project, AMS – then a fledgling group of just a handful of women – came forward.

Shortly after, the collective used its small office to host a Village Knowledge Centre, a kind of experimental technology hub where women could learn how to operate basic devices such as mobile phones and computers, and use them to get information on climate change, groundwater levels, and adapted farming techniques that would help them increase the yields on their small plots of land.

According to Dileep Kumar, senior scientist at ICRISAT, the most popular tool by far has been the GreenSIM, which disseminates a variety of bulletins daily, ranging from market prices, to weather forecasts, to tips on accessing farmers’ welfare schemes, as well as guides to crop planning and best-practices for fertiliser use.

A fight against suicide

A mobile phone may seem like a humble intervention into the vast and poverty-ridden arena of Indian agriculture, but it has proved to be a literal lifesaver for many.

Data from the 2011 census indicates that there are 144.3 million agricultural labourers in India, including 118.6 million cultivators, comprising over 30 percent of the country’s total workforce of roughly 448 million people.

A huge portion of this workforce survives on between one and two dollars a day, pushing many people heavily into debt as they struggle to make payments on farm equipment, and costly pesticides and fertilisers.

A changing climate, resulting in extreme weather events and prolonged periods of drought, does not help the situation, and scores of farmers are impacted by what experts are calling the country’s agrarian crisis.

With few options open to them, hundreds of thousands of farmers choose death over life: data from the Indian National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB) indicates that 270,940 farmers have committed suicide since 1995, rounding out to a total of 45 farmer deaths every single day.

Mahbubnagar, the district where the AMS is located, is well known for its recurring droughts and a wave of suicides. The district receives only 550 mm of rainfall each year, well below India’s national average of 1,000-1,250 mm per annum.

The district has seen about 150 suicides since 2013 alone.

Erkala Manamma, president of the AMS collective, claims that the introduction of the GreenSIM is changing this reality. Crop failure is less of a crisis here today than it was a decade ago, and thousands of farmers now feel empowered by the knowledge source that fits snugly in the palms of their hands.

Gopi Balachandriya, a 50-year-old farmer from Rachala village in Mahbubnagar District, is one such example.

In December 2013, he was waiting for an astrologically auspicious day to harvest peanuts on his three-acre farm until a message on his GreenSIM cell phone one morning warned him of a coming storm. “I quickly harvested my crop before the rains came. It saved me from losing my produce,” he recalls.

A similar message helped Mallagala Nirmala, a farmer from the village of Moosapet, understand the need for sustainable usage of fertilisers.

One day a voice message asked, ‘Have you had your farm soil tested?’ A curious Nirmala visited the Village Knowledge Centre where she learnt the basics of healthy soils, including when to add inputs of additional nutrients, which she receives free of cost from ICRISAT. The farmer is now the secretary of AMS.

One of the more tangible results of this experiment in knowledge sharing has been better profit for the farmers involved. Chandrakala, one of 20 female farmers using the ‘phablet’, has increased the rice yield on her one-acre farm from 55 to 75 kg at each harvest.

If she hears, via voice message, that groundwater levels are too low to support a healthy rice crop, she switches to growing grass, which she sells to a nearby community-managed dairy that produces 2,000 litres of milk a day.

Having these options allows her to make between 20 and 30,000 rupees each season, a princely sum compared to the average earnings of farming families in the region, which barely touch 10,000 rupees a month.

The GreenSIM initiative is certainly not the first time groups have partnered together to empower farmers using modern technology.

In the northern Indian state of Haryana, for instance – where 70 percent of the population of roughly 25 million people relies on agriculture for a living – widespread use of a handheld device known as the GreenSeeker, which calculates the health of a particular crop using infrared censors, had massive success among rural communities.

And in 2013, the World Bank reported on a scheme using a mobile phone app that allowed insurance agencies to collect reliable data on crop yields, thus enabling them to offer lower premiums to farmers who rely largely on rain-fed agriculture and were desperately in need of robust safety nets in the form of insurance policies.

In the first year alone, some 400,000 farmers in 50 districts across the northern and western states of Maharashtra and Rajasthan benefitted from the scheme.

The challenge for policy makers is how to replicate such initiatives on a wider scale, in order to ease the abject poverty facing millions of farmers across India – particularly the women, who are most vulnerable to the crushing impacts of poverty and hunger.

Edited by Kanya D’Almeida

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Gaza Reconstruction, Hampered by Israeli Blockade, May Take 100 Years, Say Aid Agencieshttp://www.ipsnews.net/2015/03/gaza-reconstruction-hampered-by-israeli-blockade-may-take-100-years-say-aid-agencies/?utm_source=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_campaign=gaza-reconstruction-hampered-by-israeli-blockade-may-take-100-years-say-aid-agencies http://www.ipsnews.net/2015/03/gaza-reconstruction-hampered-by-israeli-blockade-may-take-100-years-say-aid-agencies/#comments Tue, 03 Mar 2015 18:07:51 +0000 Thalif Deen http://www.ipsnews.net/?p=139469 Scenes of the aftermath of the devastating Gaza conflict, which took place during the previous summer. Credit: UN Photo

Scenes of the aftermath of the devastating Gaza conflict, which took place during the previous summer. Credit: UN Photo

By Thalif Deen
UNITED NATIONS, Mar 3 2015 (IPS)

Despite all the political hoopla surrounding an international pledging conference in Cairo last October to help rebuild Gaza, the reconstruction of the Israeli-devastated territory is apparently moving at the pace of paralytic snail.

Sarah Leah Whitson, executive director, Middle East and North Africa Division at Human Rights Watch (HRW), told IPS the reconstruction of Gaza has been so inadequate that at current rates, aid agencies calculate it will take 100 years just to import enough construction materials.“It is utterly deplorable that the international community is once again failing the people of Gaza when they need it most." -- Catherine Essoyan of Oxfam

“The blockade of Gaza is collective punishment, and donors to Gaza should not just fulfill their pledges but pressure Israel to lift it and Egypt to stop supporting it,” she said.

In several cases, Whitson said, children have died from hypothermia in winter storms due to lack of shelter and heating.

Oxfam International, reaffirming the time frame, said it could take “more than 100 years to complete essential building of homes, schools and health facilities in Gaza — unless the Israeli blockade is lifted.”

Quoting aid agencies on the ground, the London-based charity said Gaza needs more than 800,000 truckloads of construction materials to build homes, schools, health facilities and other infrastructure required after repeated conflicts and years of blockade.

Yet in January, only 579 such trucks entered Gaza. This is even less than the 795 trucks that entered the previous month, Oxfam said, in a statement released here.

Around 100,000 people – more than half of them children – are still living in shelters, temporary accommodation or with extended family after their homes were destroyed. Tens of thousands more families are living in badly damaged homes.

Catherine Essoyan, Oxfam’s regional director, said, “Only an end to the blockade of Gaza will ensure that people can rebuild their lives. Families have been living in homes without roofs, walls or windows for the past six months.”

She said many have just six hours of electricity a day and are without running water. Every day that people are unable to build is putting more lives at risk.

“It is utterly deplorable that the international community is once again failing the people of Gaza when they need it most,” Essoyan said.

Last week, 30 non-governmental organisations (NGOs) and humanitarian aid agencies – including Oxfam, ActionAid, Save the Children International, Norwegian Refugee Council, Movement for Peace and Handicap International – said six months have passed since the August 2014 ceasefire ended over seven weeks of fighting between Israeli forces and Palestinian armed groups in the Gaza Strip.

In a joint statement titled “We must not fail Gaza”, they said: “As UN agencies and international NGOs operating in Gaza, we are alarmed by the limited progress in rebuilding the lives of those affected and tackling the root causes of the conflict.”

The Israeli-imposed blockade continues, the political process, along with the economy, are paralysed, and living conditions have worsened, the groups warned.

Reconstruction and repairs to the tens of thousands of homes, hospitals, and schools damaged or destroyed in the fighting has been woefully slow. Sporadic rocket fire from Palestinian armed groups has resumed.

Overall, the lack of progress has deepened levels of desperation and frustration among the population, more than two-thirds of whom are Palestinian refugees, they said.

The 30 organisations also included U.N. agencies such as UN Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA), U.N. Women, World Food Programme (WFP), World Health Organisation (WHO), the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) and the Office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights (UNOHCHR).

When the 54-day conflict between Hamas and Israel ended last August, there were 1,976 Palestinians, mostly civilians, and 459 children who were killed largely by aerial bombings. In contrast, 66 Israelis were killed, including two soldiers.

The hostilities also left about 108,000 people homeless, completely destroyed 26 schools and four primary health centres, and destroyed or damaged 350 businesses and 17,000 hectares of agricultural land, according to a U.N. assessment. Additionally, about 7,000 homes were destroyed and 89,000 damaged.

Unemployment in Gaza, already at 45 percent, climbed even higher since the fighting, the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) reported.

Meanwhile, the aid agencies also complained little of the 5.4 billion dollars pledged in Cairo has reached Gaza.

Cash assistance to families who lost everything has been suspended and other crucial aid is unavailable due to lack of funds. A return to hostilities is inevitable if progress is not made and the root causes of conflict are not addressed.

The funds were pledged mostly by the European Union (568 million dollars) and oil-blessed Gulf nations, including Qatar (1.0 billion dollars), Saudi Arabia (500 million dollars, pledged before the conference), United Arab Emirates and Kuwait (200 million dollars each) and the United States (212 million dollars).

The aid agencies said Israel, as the occupying power, is the main duty bearer and must comply with its obligations under international law. In particular, it must fully lift the blockade, within the framework of U.N. Security Council Resolution 1860 (2009).

“The fragile ceasefire must be reinforced, and the parties must resume negotiations to achieve a comprehensive settlement of the Israeli-Palestinian issue. All parties must respect international law and those responsible for violations must be brought to justice.”

Accountability and adherence to international humanitarian law and international human rights law are essential prerequisites for any lasting peace, the group said.

Also imperative, Egypt needs to open the Rafah Crossing, most urgently for humanitarian cases, and donor pledges must be translated into disbursements.

Under the blockade, Oxfam said, exports of agricultural produce from Gaza have fallen in the last year to just 2.7 percent of the level before the blockade was imposed.

Fishermen are still restricted to an enforced fishing limit of six nautical miles – far short of where most fish are – and farmers are restricted from accessing much of the most fertile farmland.

Gaza continues to be separated from the West Bank, and most people are still prevented from leaving. The border with Egypt has also been shut for most of the past two months, preventing thousands of people from travelling.

Edited by Kitty Stapp

The writer can be contacted at thalifdeen@aol.com

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Women Leaders Call for Mainstreaming Gender Equality in Post-2015 Agendahttp://www.ipsnews.net/2015/03/women-leaders-call-for-mainstreaming-gender-equality-in-post-2015-agenda/?utm_source=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_campaign=women-leaders-call-for-mainstreaming-gender-equality-in-post-2015-agenda http://www.ipsnews.net/2015/03/women-leaders-call-for-mainstreaming-gender-equality-in-post-2015-agenda/#comments Tue, 03 Mar 2015 18:01:22 +0000 Marianela Jarroud http://www.ipsnews.net/?p=139467 Chilean President Michelle Bachelet during the closing ceremony of the international meeting “Women in power and decision-making: Building a different world”. On the podium, U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon and U.N. Women Executive Director Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka. Credit: Government of Chile

Chilean President Michelle Bachelet during the closing ceremony of the international meeting “Women in power and decision-making: Building a different world”. On the podium, U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon and U.N. Women Executive Director Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka. Credit: Government of Chile

By Marianela Jarroud
SANTIAGO, Mar 3 2015 (IPS)

Women leaders from every continent, brought together by U.N. Women and the Chilean government, demanded that gender equality be a cross-cutting target in the post-2015 development agenda. Only that way, they say, can the enormous inequality gap that still affects women and children around the world be closed.

“We celebrate that there has been progress in these last twenty years (since the Fourth World Conference on Women in Beijing) in this area…and the evidence is all the people around who came, shared their experiences, the good, the bad, the struggle ahead, the challenges ahead,” U.N. Women Deputy Executive Director Lakshmi Puri told IPS.

And while “some countries have made no progress at all, some countries, some progress, and some countries better progress, no country has reached what we should need to reach,” she added.“At the current pace of change, it will take 81 years to achieve gender parity in the workplace, more than 75 years to reach equal remuneration between men and women for work of equal value, and more than 30 years to reach gender balance in decision-making.” – Santiago Call to Action

“If you’re talking about poverty, you need voice, participation and leadership for women, if you’re talking about economy, you need voice and participation, if you’re talking education, you need women – both education for voice, participation and leadership, capacity-building, and you need them to be leaders in education,” she said.

“Similarly health: you want women leaders in the health sector. Just as they need to have a voice in the design of the health sector and services,” said Puri, from India. “Women in the media is another critical area – you need voice, participation and leadership for women in the media, otherwise you will never get past the inequality and the negative stereotyping of women and their role in the media.”

The high-level event, “Women in power and decision-making: Building a different world”, held Feb.27-28 in the Chilean capital, assessed the advances made towards gender equality in the last 20 years and what still needs to be done.

One example raised at the meeting was the failure to reach the goal on gender balance in leadership positions.

The participants also discussed the route forward, towards the Sustainable Development Goals, for the period 2015-2030, designed to close gaps, build more resilient societies, and move towards sustainable prosperity for all.

The SDGs will replace the eight Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), which set out the international community’s collective development and anti-poverty targets for the 2000-2015 period.

The women leaders meeting in Santiago demanded that gender equality be mainstreamed into the 17 projected SDGs to prevent the progress from being slow and uneven, as it has been in the last 20 years in the case of the Beijing Platform for Action agreed at the Fourth World Conference on Women in September 1995.

U.N. Women Deputy Executive Director Lakshmi Puri at the high-level international event “Women in power and decision-making: Building a different world”, held Feb. 27-28 in Santiago, Chile. Credit: Marianela Jarroud/IPS

U.N. Women Deputy Executive Director Lakshmi Puri at the high-level international event “Women in power and decision-making: Building a different world”, held Feb. 27-28 in Santiago, Chile. Credit: Marianela Jarroud/IPS

“At the current pace of change, it will take 81 years to achieve gender parity in the workplace, more than 75 years to reach equal remuneration between men and women for work of equal value, and more than 30 years to reach gender balance in decision-making,” reads the Call to Action document produced by the conference in Santiago, part of the activities marking the 20 years since Beijing.

Puri pointed out that in the future SDGs, number five will promote “gender equality and empowerment of women and girls.”

But she said it is equally important for “the other SDGS to have gender-sensitive targets and indicators that capture on one hand the impacts and needs of women, and that also capture the agency of women,” she said.

“How can you get health for all without health for women and by women and for women; similarly how can you get education for all, and sustainable energy for all. So all of those SDGs are intimately related to this, to the realisation and achievement of the gender equality goal.”

“I was looking at an IPS article about the gender goal which said it is not a wish-list but a to-do list, so then I used it for the call to action (in Santiago),” she said.

The Santiago call to action calls for a renewed political commitment to close remaining gaps and to guarantee full implementation of the 12 critical areas of the Beijing Platform for Action by 2020.

This includes balanced representation of women and men in all international decision-making processes, including the Post-2015 Development Agenda, the SDGs, financing for development and climate change processes.

It also includes the empowerment of women, the realisation of human rights of women and girls, and an end to gender inequality by 2030 and to the funding gap on gender equality, as well as the matching of commitments with means of implementation.

The executive director of Oxfam International, Winnie Byanyima of Uganda, told IPS that in the post-2015 agenda, “gender equality should be measured in all the goals, in other words, each goal must be measured for how it is achieved for men and for women, in different ethnic groups, in cities, in rural areas….so that we will know that each sustainable development goal has been achieved not only for men but also for women, not only for boys but also for girls, rather than averages.”

She stressed that “the technical groups working within…the United Nations must make sure that they select standards and indicators that are going to be measurable in a gender disaggregated way so that all countries are able to collect gender disaggregated data to enable monitoring progress for men and women.”

In the conference’s closing event, Chilean President Michelle Bachelet said that “for those of us who have taken part in this gathering, it is not possible to think of a successful development agenda that does not have at its heart the central aim of achieving equality between boys and girls, and men and women.”

“We need the banner of equality to wave soon in all nations, and we must be optimistic, because we have a real possibility to make every place on earth more humane, more just, more dignified, for each person who lives there,” she said.

Edited by Estrella Gutiérrez/Translated by Stephanie Wildes

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Families See Hope for Justice in Palestinian Membership of ICChttp://www.ipsnews.net/2015/03/families-see-hope-for-justice-in-palestinian-membership-of-icc/?utm_source=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_campaign=families-see-hope-for-justice-in-palestinian-membership-of-icc http://www.ipsnews.net/2015/03/families-see-hope-for-justice-in-palestinian-membership-of-icc/#comments Tue, 03 Mar 2015 07:38:58 +0000 Khaled Alashqar http://www.ipsnews.net/?p=139457 Sahar Baker (left), with Ahed Baker (right) and sister-in-law in front of their beach camp house, with photographs of the four cousins killed by Israeli gunboats in summer 2014 while playing football on the beach in Gaza. Credit: Khaled Alashqar/IPS

Sahar Baker (left), with Ahed Baker (right) and sister-in-law in front of their beach camp house, with photographs of the four cousins killed by Israeli gunboats in summer 2014 while playing football on the beach in Gaza. Credit: Khaled Alashqar/IPS

By Khaled Alashqar
GAZA CITY, Mar 3 2015 (IPS)

“I have lost all meaning in life after the death of my child, I will never forgive anyone who caused the tearing apart of his little body.  I appeal to all who can help and stand with us to achieve justice and punish those who killed my child.”

As the tears rolled down her cheeks and with a rattle in her voice, 47-year-old Sahar Baker recalled the last moments of her ten-year-old son Ismail, who was killed along with three of his cousins after being targeted by Israeli gunboats while they were playing football on the beach during the Israeli attacks on Gaza last summer."We will not forget how our children were killed in cold blood without any reason. We hope that the Israeli army commanders will be tried before international justice and that they will be punished for the killing of the children" – Ahed Baker

Sahar’s plea for justice may soon be one step nearer now that the Palestine Government is set to formally join the International Criminal Court (ICC), which deals with war crimes, crimes against humanity and genocide.

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas signed the Rome Statute, the ICC’s founding treaty, on Dec. 31, after the U.N. Security Council rejected a Palestinian attempt to set a deadline for Israel to end its occupation of territories it captured in 1967. U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon has said the Palestinians will formally join the ICC on Apr. 1.

Mohammad Shtayyeh, a member of the executive committee of the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO), is reported as having said that a first complaint will be filed against Israel at the ICC on Apr. 1 over the Israeli war against Gaza last year and Israeli settlement activity.

Palestinian membership of the ICC “provides an opportunity to raise the issues on Israel’s use of force based on occupation and crimes against the people and the land in Palestine, where we did not have the capacity before to sue Israel for its crimes against the Palestinians,” Palestinian Foreign Minister Riad Al-Malki told the press during a visit to Brazil to attend the inauguration ceremony of President Dilma Rousseff at the beginning of January.

The Baker family, who live in a beach camp in Gaza, is now hoping that Palestinian membership of the ICC will open the door for the prosecution of Israeli leaders and army officers for their crimes.

Sahar’s cousin Ahed Baker, father of Zakaria (10) and grandfather of Ahed Atif (9), shares her pain and bitterness. He is still looking for a way to bring the Israeli army to trial for the murder of his son and grandson, another two of the four young cousins killed on the beach. He told IPS that he and his family would do everything possible to ensure that their case makes its way to the ICC.

Sahar Baker holds a photograph of her ten-year-old son Ismail, killed along with three of his cousins during the Israeli attacks on Gaza in summer 2014. Credit: Khaled Alashqar/IPS

Sahar Baker holds a photograph of her ten-year-old son Ismail, killed along with three of his cousins during the Israeli attacks on Gaza in summer 2014. Credit: Khaled Alashqar/IPS

“We will not forget how our children were killed in cold blood without any reason,” said Ahed. “We hope that the Israeli army commanders will be tried before international justice and that they will be punished for the killing of the children.”

Palestinian leaders have long waved the card of membership of the ICC as a form of pressure on the Israeli government in their attempt to secure a Palestinian state.

However, apart from its political and legal benefits, Palestinian membership of the international court has created some serious implications for the Palestinians.

Israel has already frozen the transfer to the Palestinian Authority of tax funds owed to it. These funds are generally allocated for the salaries of Palestinian public employees and government operating expenses in Gaza and the West Bank, and the freeze is hampering the functioning of the Palestinian Unity Government and undermine the already weak public sector in Palestine.

Israel has also indicated that further ‘punitive’ steps will be taken soon against the Palestinians as a result of joining the ICC. Membership of the ICC thus appears to be the start of a new lengthy battle for Palestinians.

Some Palestinian human rights centres, including the Al Mezan Centre for Human Rights in Gaza City, are now working against the clock to compile documentation on the numerous cases of civilians who were killed during last summer’s Israeli war against Gaza, to be able to submit all the documents required for the ICC to investigate war crimes in Gaza and hold Israel accountable.

“Over the long years of occupation, there has been no equity for civilian victims and this, in my point of view, was a key reason that Israel waged three wars in less than five years. In fact, it has been due to the absence of justice and a sense that occupation is immune to accountability,” Issam Younis, Director of the Al Mezan Centre told IPS.

“Going to the ICC will bring justice to victims through international justice and ensure that there are no repeated offences of occupation without accountability,” he said.

According to Palestinian human rights advocates, membership of the ICC carries two overlapping purposes for Palestinian people and their leaders.

For the Palestinian people, of Gaza in particular, it not only opens an important door to achieving justice but also helps to criminalise the entire Israeli occupation establishment and its vicious atrocities against humanity.

For the Palestinian leadership, on the other hand, it seeks to strengthen the political, legal and diplomatic status of Palestine at the international level and pressure Israel to accept the creation of an independent Palestinian state in future negotiations.

What underpins the two goals is a historical desire for real justice and protection. Whether the ICC can deliver, only time will tell.

Edited by Phil Harris   

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For Women in Asia, ‘Home’ Is a Battlegroundhttp://www.ipsnews.net/2015/03/for-women-in-asia-home-is-a-battleground/?utm_source=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_campaign=for-women-in-asia-home-is-a-battleground http://www.ipsnews.net/2015/03/for-women-in-asia-home-is-a-battleground/#comments Tue, 03 Mar 2015 02:01:56 +0000 Kanya DAlmeida http://www.ipsnews.net/?p=139463 All across Asia, men face almost no consequences for domestic violence and women have few places to turn for help, allowing the abuse to continue in a vicious cycle. Credit: Mallika Aryal/IPS

All across Asia, men face almost no consequences for domestic violence and women have few places to turn for help, allowing the abuse to continue in a vicious cycle. Credit: Mallika Aryal/IPS

By Kanya D'Almeida
UNITED NATIONS, Mar 3 2015 (IPS)

Nearly half of the four billion people who reside in the Asia-Pacific region are women. They comprise two-thirds of the region’s poor, with millions either confined to their homes or pushed into the informal labour market where they work without any safeguards for paltry daily wages. Millions more become victims of trafficking and are forced into prostitution or sexual slavery.

Others find themselves battling an enemy much closer to home; in fact, for many women the greatest threat is inside the home itself, where domestic abuse and intimate partner violence is a daily occurrence.

Half of all South Asian nations, and 60 percent of countries in the Pacific, have no laws against domestic violence. -- Asia Pacific Forum (APF)
UN Women says that women in Asia and the Pacific retain one of the world’s highest rates of gender-based violence, much of it concentrated within a single home or perpetrated by a spouse or intimate partner.

In the Pacific Island nation of Papua New Guinea, for instance, 58 percent of women claim to have experienced physical, sexual or emotional abuse in relationships, while 55 percent say they were forced into sexual encounters against their will.

In Fiji, an island nation in the South Pacific, 66 percent of women report the use of violence by intimate partners; 44 percent suffered the abuse while pregnant.

In East Timor, one in four women experience physical violence at the hands of a partner every year and 16 percent of married women report being coerced by their husbands into having sex.

Any number of reasons could explain this grim reality. According to the Asia Pacific Forum (APF), “Women in the region experience some of the lowest rates of political representation, employment and property ownership in the world.”

Even those who have jobs earn less than their male counterparts, with a pay gap for women in the region ranging from 54-90 percent, despite the existence of laws supposedly guaranteeing ‘equal pay for equal work’.

A complete absence of legal provisions against sexual harassment in the workplace means that between 30 and 40 percent of working women in Asia and the Pacific report experiencing verbal, physical or sexual abuse, APF says.

The organisation also found that half of all South Asian nations, and 60 percent of countries in the Pacific, have no laws against domestic violence.

In this legal vacuum, men face almost no consequences for their actions and women have few places to turn for help, allowing the abuse to continue in a vicious cycle.

It also means that government data on abuse are, at best, extremely conservative estimates, since most women do not report violent incidents – either from fear of reprisals or because of a lack of faith in the legal system to deliver any solutions.

In India, for example, the most recent government household survey found that 40 percent of women had been abused in their homes; but an independent survey backed by the Planning Commission of India puts the number closer to 84 percent.

In Indonesia, where the police recorded over 150,000 cases of violence against women in 2009 – 96 percent of which were incidents involving a husband and wife – activists estimate that just one out of 10 cases actually gets reported; meaning the real number of survivors of domestic violence is at least nine times higher than official figures indicate.

Last year the Philippine Commission on Women (PCW) reported that 2013 was one of the worst years for women, with the highest number of reported incidents of violence.

Citing statistics from the 2008 National Demographic and Health Survey (NDHS), the Commission stated that 14.4 percent of married women, and 37 percent of separated or widowed women, experienced spousal abuse.

Four percent of all women who have ever been pregnant have suffered violence at the hands of a partner, while three in five abused women report long-lasting physical and psychological impacts of the violence or battery.

Policy-makers say tougher implementation of laws partially accounts for the increased number of reported incidents, which saw a 49.5 percent rise from 2012.

The same could soon be true in China, where the recently released draft of the country’s first anti-domestic violence law was hailed by civil society as a step towards stemming rampant abuse – physical, sexual and psychological – in millions of households.

Data from the government-run All-China Women’s Federation show that some 40 percent of women have been subjected to physical or sexual violence in their relationships, while just seven percent of battered women report the violence to the authorities.

U.N. agencies say a dearth of laws against marital rape in the region has fostered a sense of impunity among husbands. In 2012, UN Women found that only eight countries across Asia and the Pacific had laws that specifically criminalised marital rape, leading millions – including women – to feel that men were justified in sexually or physically abusing their wives.

Too often, the legal system operates in ways that leaves women out in the cold and allows perpetrators of violence to walk free.

Courts are largely inaccessible to women in rural areas; legal fees and the price of forensic examinations are cost-prohibitive to women who are not in control of their own finances; and male biases within the police force means that law enforcement officials are largely unsympathetic to the few who dare come forward to report abuse.

Furthermore, women in Asia are woefully underrepresented in the legal system. While UN Women reports that a “quarter of judges and around a fifth of prosecution staff in East Asia and the Pacific are women […] South Asia lags behind, with women making up just nine percent of judges and four percent of prosecution staff.”

These numbers are even more dismal in the police, with women in South Asia comprising a mere three percent of the police force, a figure that rises to just nine percent for East Asia and the Pacific.

Home to four of the five fastest-growing economies in the world, Asia’s shining visage is darkened by the shadow of misery its women face in their own homes.

Absent the implementation of robust laws, sustained efforts to improve women’s representation at all levels of government and genuine measures to ensure women gain a sturdy economic foothold in all countries in the region, experts say it is unlikely that domestic violence will decline.

Edited by Kitty Stapp

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U.N. Member States Accused of Cherry-Picking Human Rightshttp://www.ipsnews.net/2015/03/u-n-member-states-accused-of-cherry-picking-human-rights/?utm_source=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_campaign=u-n-member-states-accused-of-cherry-picking-human-rights http://www.ipsnews.net/2015/03/u-n-member-states-accused-of-cherry-picking-human-rights/#comments Mon, 02 Mar 2015 21:38:24 +0000 Thalif Deen http://www.ipsnews.net/?p=139454 Protestors gather outside the White House to demonstrate against torture on the 10th anniversary of the opening of the U.S. prison facility at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba. Charles Davis/IPS

Protestors gather outside the White House to demonstrate against torture on the 10th anniversary of the opening of the U.S. prison facility at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba. Charles Davis/IPS

By Thalif Deen
UNITED NATIONS, Mar 2 2015 (IPS)

The United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (UNHCHR) Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein has criticised member states for ‘cherry-picking’ human rights – advocating some and openly violating others – perhaps to suit their own national or political interests.

Despite ratifying the U.N. charter reaffirming their faith in fundamental human rights, there are some member states who, “with alarming regularity”, are disregarding and violating human rights, “sometimes to a shocking degree,” he said.

“One Government will thoroughly support women’s human rights and those of the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) community, but will balk at any suggestion that those rights be extended to migrants of irregular status. Another State may observe scrupulously the right to education, but will brutally stamp out opposing political views." -- United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein
Addressing the opening session of the Geneva-based Human Rights Council (HRC) Monday, Zeid faulted member states for claiming “exceptional circumstances” for their convoluted decisions.

“They pick and choose between rights,” he pointed out, without identifying any member state by name.

“One Government will thoroughly support women’s human rights and those of the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) community, but will balk at any suggestion that those rights be extended to migrants of irregular status.

“Another State may observe scrupulously the right to education, but will brutally stamp out opposing political views,” he noted.  “A third State will comprehensively violate the political, civil, economic, social and cultural rights of its people, while vigorously defending the ideals of human rights before its peers.”

Asked for her response, Peggy Hicks, global advocacy director at Human Rights Watch (HRW) told IPS, “Prince Zeid has hit the nail on the head.”

If every government that professed a commitment to human rights followed through consistently, she added, “we’d have a much different – and better – world.”

In an ironic twist apparently proving Zeid’s contention, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry lashed out at the “appalling human rights record” of several nations, blasting Syria and North Korea while singling out human rights violations in Crimea and by separatists in Ukraine.

But he did not condemn the devastation caused by Israel’s 50-day aerial bombardments of Palestinians in Gaza last year nor the rocket attacks on Israel by Hamas.

The death toll in the Gaza bombings was 1,976 Palestinians, including 1,417 civilians and 459 children, according to figures released by the United Nations, compared with the killing of 66 Israelis, including two soldiers.

The Palestinians have accused Israel of war crimes and are pushing for action by the International Criminal Court (ICC) in The Hague: a move strongly opposed by the United States.

Kerry told the HRC the United States believes that it can continue to make progress and help the U.N. body fulfill its mandate to make the world a better and safer place.

“But for that to happen, we have to get serious about addressing roadblocks to our own progress. And the most obvious roadblock, I have to say to you, is self-inflicted,” he said.

“I’m talking, of course, about HRC’s deeply concerning record on Israel,” Kerry added.

“No one in this room can deny that there is an unbalanced focus on one democratic country,” he said, as he openly advocated the cause of Israel, one of the closest political and military allies of the United States.

And no other nation, he said, has an entire agenda item set aside to deal with it. Year after year, there are five or six separate resolutions on Israel, he told delegates.

This year, he said, there was a resolution sponsored by Syrian President Bashar al Assad concerning the Golan (which has been occupied by Israel since the 1967 war).

“How, I ask, is that a sensible priority at the very moment when refugees from Syria are flooding into the Golan to escape Assad’s murderous rule and receive treatment from Israeli physicians in Israeli hospitals?”

Kerry referred to the Council’s “obsession” with Israel, which, he argued, “actually risks undermining the credibility of the entire organisation.”

Zeid told the HRC the only real measure of a Government’s worth is not its place in the “solemn ballet of grand diplomacy” but the “extent to which it is sensitive to the needs – and protects the rights – of its nationals and other people who fall under its jurisdiction, or over whom it has physical control.”

Some policy-makers persuade themselves that their circumstances are exceptional, creating a wholly new reality unforeseen by the law, Zeid said, adding that such logic is abundant around the world today.

“I arrest arbitrarily and torture because a new type of war justifies it. I spy on my citizens because the fight against terrorism requires it. I don’t want new immigrants, or I discriminate against minorities, because our communal identity is being threatened now as never before. I kill without any form of due process, because if I do not, others will kill me,” he noted.

“And so it goes, on and on, as we spiral into aggregating crises,” Zeid declared.

Edited by Kanya D’Almeida

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Everyone Benefits from More Women in Powerhttp://www.ipsnews.net/2015/03/everyone-benefits-from-more-women-in-power/?utm_source=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_campaign=everyone-benefits-from-more-women-in-power http://www.ipsnews.net/2015/03/everyone-benefits-from-more-women-in-power/#comments Mon, 02 Mar 2015 18:38:47 +0000 Marianela Jarroud http://www.ipsnews.net/?p=139448 Group photo at the high-level international meeting on Women in Power held Feb. 27-28 in Santiago, Chile, which analysed the human rights of women, as part of the major events held worldwide 20 years after the World Conference on Women in Beijing. Credit: Ximena Castro/Government of Chile

Group photo at the high-level international meeting on Women in Power held Feb. 27-28 in Santiago, Chile, which analysed the human rights of women, as part of the major events held worldwide 20 years after the World Conference on Women in Beijing. Credit: Ximena Castro/Government of Chile

By Marianela Jarroud
SANTIAGO, Mar 2 2015 (IPS)

Women’s participation in decision-making is highly beneficial and their role in designing and applying public policies has a positive impact on people’s lives, women leaders and experts from around the world stressed at a high-level meeting in the capital of Chile.

“It is not about men against women, but there is evidence to show through research that when you have more women in public decision-making, you get policies that benefit women, children and families in general,” Winnie Byanyima, executive director of Oxfam International, told IPS.

“So women tend, when they’re in parliament, for example, to promote women’s rights legislation. When women are in sufficient numbers in parliaments they also promote children’s rights and they tend to speak up more for the interests of communities, local communities, because of their close involvement in community life,” she added.

Byanyima, from Uganda, is one of the more than 60 women leaders and government officials who met Friday Feb. 27 and Saturday Feb. 28 at the meeting “Women in power and decision-making: Building a different world”, organised by U.N. Women and the Chilean government in Santiago.“There is already enough evidence in the world to show the positive impact of women's leadership. Women have successfully built and run countries and cities, economies and formidable institutions.” -- Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka

The conference was led by Chilean President Michelle Bachelet, who was the first executive director of U.N. Women (2010-2013), and her successor, Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka of South Africa. U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon also took part in the inauguration of the event.

The meeting kicked off the activities marking the 20th anniversary of the Fourth World Conference on Women, held in September 1995 in the Chinese capital, where 189 governments signed the Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action, which contained a package of measures to bolster gender equity and women’s empowerment.

Two decades later, defenders of the human rights of women recognise that progress has been made, although they say it has been slower and more limited than what was promised in the action plan.

In terms of women’s access to decision-making, representation remains low.

In 1995, women accounted for 11.3 percent of the world’s legislators, and only the parliaments of Denmark, Finland, the Netherlands, Norway and Sweden had more than 30 percent women. And only three women were heads of state and seven were heads of government.

Today, women represent 21.9 percent of parliamentarians globally, and 39 lower houses of Congress around the world are made up of at least 30 percent women. In addition, 10 women are heads of state and 15 are heads of government.

In Latin America and the Caribbean, one of every four legislators is a woman, and in the last 23 years, six women were elected president of their countries, four of them in the last decade. And three of them were reelected.

In March 2014 Bachelet took office for a second time, after her first term of president of Chile in 2006-2010. In Brazil, Dilma Rousseff began her second consecutive term on Jan. 1. And in Argentina, Cristina Fernández has been president since 2007, and was reelected in 2011.

Winnie Byanyima, executive director of Oxfam International, during her participation in the high-level event “Women in power and decision-making: Building a different world”,in Santiago, Chile. Credit: Marianela Jarroud/IPS

Winnie Byanyima, executive director of Oxfam International, during her participation in the high-level event “Women in power and decision-making: Building a different world”,in Santiago, Chile. Credit: Marianela Jarroud/IPS

“Women in power and decision-making: Building a different world” was attended by a number of high-level women leaders, such as Lithuanian President Dalia Grybauskaité, First Deputy Prime Minister of Croatia Vesna Pusic, several vice presidents, and ministers from around the world.

Speakers mentioned achievements as well as multiple political, cultural, social and economic barriers that continue to stand in the way of women’s access to positions of power.

There are still countries that have not made progress, said Byanyima, of Oxfam, one of the world’s leading humanitarian organisations.

Tarcila Rivera, a Peruvian journalist and activist for the rights of indigenous women, told IPS that when assessing the progress made in the last two decades, “it should be made clear that we have advanced but have only closed some gaps.”

Rivera, the founder of the Centre for Indigenous Peoples’ Cultures of Peru, said the progress made has been uneven for native and non-native women, while there are continuing gaps in education, participation, violence and economic empowerment.

According to the Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean (ECLAC), one of every two women in the region is outside the labour market, and one of every three does not have her own income, while only one of every 10 men is in that position.

Another study by the United Nations regional body concluded that if women had the same access to employment as men, poverty would shrink between one and 14 percentage points in the countries of Latin America.

“There is already enough evidence in the world to show the positive impact of women’s leadership,” said Mlambo-Ngcuka, who prior to heading U.N. Women served as South Africa’s first female vice president (2005-2008).

“Women have successfully built and run countries and cities, economies and formidable institutions,” she added.

But she said “We know that this is not happening enough, and we know that there can be both overt and subtle resistance to women’s leadership. We also know the devastating impact of leaving things as they are. We know that for women’s leadership to thrive, and for change to happen, all of us need greater courage and decisiveness.

“According to available data, it will be some 50 years before gender parity is reached in politics. Unless political parties take bolder steps,” she said.

Mlambo-Ngcuka recounted that during a Thursday Feb. 26 meeting with Chilean civil society representatives she called on a pregnant woman set to give birth in six weeks.

“I reminded everyone that her unborn daughter will be 50 before her world offers equal political opportunity. And that baby will be 80 before she has equal economic opportunity.”

According to the female leaders and experts meeting in Santiago, change cannot continue to be the sole responsibility of civil society groups that defend the rights of women, but requires action by the authorities and those in power – both men and women.

“The heirs of Beijing are the heirs of voices that call on us and urge us to put equality on the political agenda,” said Alicia Bárcena of Mexico, the executive secretary of ECLAC.

“Twenty years after the Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action, women know what is needed to reach gender equality. Now it is time to act,” she said.

Edited by Estrella Gutiérrez/Translated by Stephanie Wildes

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Syrian Conflict Has Underlying Links to Climate Change, Says Studyhttp://www.ipsnews.net/2015/03/syrian-conflict-has-underlying-links-to-climate-change-says-study/?utm_source=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_campaign=syrian-conflict-has-underlying-links-to-climate-change-says-study http://www.ipsnews.net/2015/03/syrian-conflict-has-underlying-links-to-climate-change-says-study/#comments Mon, 02 Mar 2015 17:59:45 +0000 Thalif Deen http://www.ipsnews.net/?p=139443 On a drought-hit farm in Syria, December 2010. Credit: Caterina Donattini/IPS

On a drought-hit farm in Syria, December 2010. Credit: Caterina Donattini/IPS

By Thalif Deen
UNITED NATIONS, Mar 2 2015 (IPS)

Was the four-year-old military conflict in Syria, which has claimed the lives of over 200,000 people, mostly civilians, triggered at least in part by climate change?

A new study by Columbia University’s Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory says “a record drought that ravaged Syria in 2006-2010 was likely stoked by ongoing man-made climate change, and that the drought may have helped propel the 2011 Syrian uprising.”"Added to all the other stressors, it helped kick things over the threshold into open conflict." -- climate scientist Richard Seager

Described as the worst ever recorded in the region, the drought is said to have destroyed agriculture in the breadbasket region of northern Syria, driving dispossessed farmers to cities, where poverty, government mismanagement and other factors created unrest that exploded in spring 2011.

“We’re not saying the drought caused the war,” said a cautious Richard Seager, a climate scientist at Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory, who co-authored the study.

“We’re saying that added to all the other stressors, it helped kick things over the threshold into open conflict. And a drought of that severity was made much more likely by the ongoing human-driven drying of that region.”

Doreen Stabinsky, a professor of Global Environmental Politics at College of the Atlantic, Maine, U.S., told IPS that obviously the Syrian war is a complex situation that cannot be explained solely due to drought and the collapse of agricultural systems.

“Yet we know that agricultural production will be one of the first casualties of the climate catastrophe that is currently unfolding,” she noted.

Indeed, she said, climate change is not some far-off threat of impacts that will happen in 2050 or 2100.

“What this research shows is that climate impacts on agriculture are happening now, with devastating consequences to those whose livelihoods are based on agriculture.

“We can expect, even in the near-term, more of these types of impacts on agricultural systems that will lead to large-scale migrations – within countries and between countries – with significant human, economic, and ecological cost,” she added.

And what this research shows more than anything is that the global community should be taking the climate crisis – and its impacts on agricultural production – much more seriously than it has to date, said Stabinsky, who is also a visiting professor of climate change leadership at Uppsala University in Sweden.

Meanwhile, previous studies have also linked climate change – water shortages and drought – as triggering conflicts in Darfur, Sudan.

Asked about Syria, Dr Colin P. Kelley, lead author of the study, told IPS: “From what I’ve read , there is little evidence of climate change (precipitation or temperature) contributing to the Darfur conflict that erupted in 2003.

“I know this has been a controversial topic, though,” he added.

According to the new Columbia University study, climate change has also resulted in the escalation of military tension in the so-called Fertile Crescent, spanning parts of Turkey and much of Syria and Iraq.

It says a growing body of research suggests that extreme weather, including high temperatures and droughts, increases the chances of violence, from individual attacks to full-scale wars.

Some researchers project that human-made global warming will heighten future conflicts, or argue that it may already be doing so.

And recent journalistic accounts and other reports have linked warfare in Syria, Iraq and elsewhere in part to environmental issues, especially lack of water.

The new study, combining climate, social and economic data, is perhaps the first to look closely and quantitatively at these questions in relation to a current war.

The study also points out the recent drought affected the so-called Fertile Crescent, where agriculture and animal herding are believed to have started some 12,000 years ago.

The region has always seen natural weather swings.

But using existing studies and their own research, the authors showed that since 1900, the area has undergone warming of 1 to 1.2 degrees Centigrade (about 2 degrees Fahrenheit), and about a 10-percent reduction in wet-season precipitation.

“They showed that the trend matches neatly with models of human-influenced global warming, and thus cannot be attributed to natural variability,” according to the study.

Further, it says global warming has had two effects.

First, it appears to have indirectly weakened wind patterns that bring rain-laden air from the Mediterranean, reducing precipitation during the usual November-April wet season.

Second, higher temperatures have increased evaporation of moisture from soils during the usually hot summers, giving any dry year a one-two punch.

The region saw substantial droughts in the 1950s, 1980s and 1990s. However, 2006-10 was easily the worst and longest since reliable record keeping began.

The researchers conclude that an episode of this severity and length would have been unlikely without the long-term changes.

Other researchers have observed the long-term drying trend across the entire Mediterranean, and attributed at least part of it to manmade warming; this includes an earlier study from the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has predicted that the already violent Mideast will dry more in coming decades as human-induced warming proceeds.

The study’s authors say Syria was made especially vulnerable by other factors, including dramatic population growth— from 4 million in the 1950s to 22 million in recent years.

Also, the ruling al-Assad family encouraged water-intensive export crops like cotton, the study notes.

Illegal drilling of irrigation wells dramatically depleted groundwater that might have provided reserves during dry years, said co-author Shahrzad Mohtadi, a graduate student at Columbia’s School of International and Public Affairs (SIPA) who did the economic and social components of the research.

The drought’s effects were immediate. Agricultural production, typically a quarter of the country’s gross domestic product, plummeted by a third, according to the study.

In the hard-hit northeast, it said, livestock herds were practically obliterated; cereal prices doubled; and nutrition-related diseases among children saw dramatic increases.

As many as 1.5 million people fled from the countryside to the peripheries of cities that were already strained by influxes of refugees from the ongoing war in next-door Iraq.

In these chaotic instant suburbs, the Assad regime did little to help people with employment or services, said Mohtadi. It was largely in these areas that the uprising began.

“Rapid demographic change encourages instability,” say the authors. “Whether it was a primary or substantial factor is impossible to know, but drought can lead to devastating consequences when coupled with preexisting acute vulnerability.”

Edited by Kitty Stapp

The writer can be contacted at thalifdeen@aol.com

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Environmental Damage to Gaza Exacerbating Food Insecurityhttp://www.ipsnews.net/2015/03/environmental-damage-to-gaza-exacerbating-food-insecurity/?utm_source=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_campaign=environmental-damage-to-gaza-exacerbating-food-insecurity http://www.ipsnews.net/2015/03/environmental-damage-to-gaza-exacerbating-food-insecurity/#comments Sun, 01 Mar 2015 16:39:38 +0000 Mel Frykberg http://www.ipsnews.net/?p=139435 Safa Subha and three-year-old Rahat rely on Oxfam aid for food to fight malnutrition after having been accustomed to living on a diet of bread and tea. Credit: Mel Frykberg/IPS

Safa Subha and three-year-old Rahat rely on Oxfam aid for food to fight malnutrition after having been accustomed to living on a diet of bread and tea. Credit: Mel Frykberg/IPS

By Mel Frykberg
BEIT LAHIYA, Northern Gaza Strip, Mar 1 2015 (IPS)

Extensive damage to Gaza’s environment as a result of the Israeli blockade and its devastating military campaign against the coastal territory during last year’s war from July to August, is negatively affecting the health of Gazans, especially their food security.

“We were living on bread and tea and my five children were badly malnourished as my husband and I couldn’t afford proper food,” Safa Subha, 37, from Beit Lahiya told IPS.

“My children were suffering from liver problems, anaemia and weak bones. It was only after I received regular food vouchers from Oxfam and was able to purchase eggs and yoghurt that my children are now healthier.Lack of dietary diversity is an issue of concern, particularly for children and pregnant and lactating women, due to the lack of large-scale food assistance programmes and the high prices of fresh food and red meat

“But it is still a struggle as I have to ration out the food and my doctor has warned me to keep giving the children these foods to prevent the malnutrition returning,” said Safa.

According to the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), in several communities, lack of dietary diversity was highlighted as an issue of concern, particularly for children and pregnant and lactating women, due to the lack of large-scale food assistance programmes and the high prices of fresh food and red meat.

Before the war, Safa’s husband Ashraf worked as a farmer, renting a piece of land on which he grew produce that he then sold.

“My husband used to earn about NIS 300 per week (about 75 dollars) from farming. After the land became too dangerous to farm, because of Israeli military fire and much of it destroyed in Israeli bombings, my husband tried to earn some money renting a taxi,” said Safa.

However, Ashraf’s attempts to support his family as a taxi driver did not provide sufficient income for their survival.

“He can only use the taxi a couple of days a week because it doesn’t belong to him and he often doesn’t have money to buy fuel because it is so expensive and Israel only allows limited amounts of fuel into Gaza because of the blockade,” said Safa.

Kamal Kassam, 43, from Beit Hanoun, in the northern Gaza Strip, has had to rely on Oxfam’s Cash for Work programme to support his wife and five children aged 6 to 12.

During the war the Kassam’s had to flee to a U.N. shelter after the family home was destroyed by Israeli bombs, which also wounded his wife and left one of his daughters severely traumatised, suffering from epilepsy and soiling herself at night.

Kassam’s wife Eman is ill and another daughter needs regular medical treatment for cancer.

The Kassams were provided with a temporary tin caravan to live in by aid organisations but were unable to purchase food or school clothes because they had received housing aid and were therefore “less desperate”.

“I used to work in a factory but lost that job after Israel’s blockade. Before the war I made about NIS 30 (about 7.50 dollars) a day by picking up and delivering goods from my donkey cart,” Kassam told IPS.

But during a night of heavy aerial bombardment, a bomb killed his donkey and destroyed the cart as well as his only way of supporting his family.

Israel’s extensive bombing campaign during the war also destroyed or damaged, infrastructure, including Gaza’s sole power plant and water sanitation projects.

As a result, untreated sewage is pumped out to sea and then floods back into Gaza’s underground water system, contaminating drinking water and crops and leading to outbreaks of disease.

Israeli restrictions on imports, including vital spare parts for the repair of sewerage infrastructure and agricultural equipment such as fertiliser and seedlings, has limited crop production.

Furthermore, the regular targeting of fishermen and farmers, trying to access their land and Gaza’s fishing shoals in Israel’s Access Restricted Areas (ARAs), by Israeli security forces has severely hindered the ability of Gazans to earn a living from farming and fishing.

OCHA identified the most frequent concerns regarding food security and nutrition as “loss of the source of income and livelihoods due to severe damage to agricultural lands; death/loss of animals; inability to access agricultural lands, particularly in the Israeli-imposed three-kilometre buffer zone; and loss of employment.”

Food insecurity in Gaza is not caused by lack of food on the market alone. It is also a crisis of economic access to food because most Gazans cannot afford to buy sufficient quantities of quality food.

“As a result of the lack of economic access to food due to high unemployment and low wages, the majority of the population in Gaza has been pushed into poverty and food insecurity, with no other choice but to rely heavily on assistance to cover their essential needs,” said ‘GAZA Detailed Needs Assessment (DNA) and Recovery Framework: Social Protection Sub-Sector’, a report by the World Bank, European Union, United Nations and the Government of Palestine.

“The repetition of one harsh economic shock after the other has resulted in an erosion of household coping strategies, with 89 percent of households resorting to negative coping mechanisms to meet their food needs (half report purchasing lower quality food and a third have reduced the number of daily meals),” said the DNA report, adding that the situation was expected to worsen in 2015.

Edited by Phil Harris   

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Farm Projects Boost Bangladeshi Women, Childrenhttp://www.ipsnews.net/2015/03/farm-projects-boost-bangladeshi-women-children/?utm_source=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_campaign=farm-projects-boost-bangladeshi-women-children http://www.ipsnews.net/2015/03/farm-projects-boost-bangladeshi-women-children/#comments Sun, 01 Mar 2015 16:39:05 +0000 Josh Butler http://www.ipsnews.net/?p=139423 Women organise themselves into small collectives, to better bargain and trade their produce. Credit: Helen Keller International

Women organise themselves into small collectives, to better bargain and trade their produce. Credit: Helen Keller International

By Josh Butler
NEW YORK, Mar 1 2015 (IPS)

Women in Bangladesh are carving healthier, wealthier futures for themselves and their children – and they have chicken eggs and pineapples to thank.

Since 2009, the non-profit group Helen Keller International has overseen programmes in the eastern Bangladesh region of Chittagong, mentoring women in agriculture to produce food not only for their own families, but also to sell at market."It’s not just about growing their incomes, it’s about education leading to healthier and more productive lives.” -- Kathy Spahn

Kathy Spahn, president of HKI, said one-fifth of homes in Chittagong are considered hungry, while half the children are stunted and one-third are underweight due to poor nutrition. In the area HKI works, around 75 percent of people survive on just 12 dollars a month.

“The area is stigmatised and has little access to health services,” Spahn said at an event this week organised by Women Advancing Microfinance New York.

“We’re teaching women to grow nutritious fruit and vegetables, raise chickens for meat and eggs, and grow enough to sell at markets for extra money.”

The programme, ‘Making Markets Work For Women,’ or M2W2, gives both initial start-up capital and ongoing guidance. Women in Chittagong, who may have previously been viewed solely as homemakers, are given tools to grow nutrient-rich crops like spinach and carrots to feed their own families, as well as more lucrative crops like pineapple and maize to sell.

Chickens are raised, eggs are eaten and sold, ginger and turmeric are harvested and refined and packaged using supplied machinery; and women who never before had any control over family finances are suddenly bringing in their own income to pay for education and healthcare.

Helen Keller International – named for its founder, the inspirational deaf and blind author and activist – traditionally focused on sight and blindness projects, but today focuses on a broader gamut of health and nutrition issues, including blindness caused by Vitamin A deficiency. The group now runs 180 programmes in more than 20 Asian and African countries.

“HKI has been working in Bangladesh since 1978, doing work on nutritional blindness. Doing nutrition surveillance there, we saw the deeper pockets of Vitamin A deficiency,” Spahn told IPS.

“We call the programme ‘enhanced homestead food production.’ With that, comes nutrition information. It’s not just about growing their incomes, it’s about education leading to healthier and more productive lives.”

Women organise themselves into small collectives, to better bargain and trade their produce. While each household may only produce an amount too small to make market sale effective, joining forces with other women means each collective has a larger volume to sell.

“We want to build their capacity in business and marketing. We give them training on market research, demand, book-keeping, and organise the households into groups so they can aggregate their products,” Spahn said.

Credit: Helen Keller International

Credit: Helen Keller International

A group savings scheme is also offered, whereby women can place some of their income into a shared pool that any member can access for large expenses such as hospitalisation or replacement of packaging machinery.

“If something breaks down, we can’t replace it because that’s not sustainable. This is about development, not charity,” Spahn said.

M2W2 was originally a three-year pilot programme from 2009 to 2012, but received an extra injection of funds from the British government to continue until January.

“We are looking for more support to keep going,” Spahn said.

The programme’s outcomes are resounding. Spahn said of the 2,500 households involved, “nearly all” saw a 30 percent increase in income.

“When we started, everybody had a poor diet. Three years later, nobody did,” she said.

Eggs, a rich source of Vitamin A, helped address deficiency of that vitamin and vision problems associated with such deficiencies, but Spahn said the most powerful benefit was social, rather than physical.

“We found 90 percent of women had the sole decision over the money their raised. They were bargaining more efficiently, and feeling more empowered,” she said.

Empowerment and financial independence for women is one of the ideological pillars of Women Advancing Microfinancing New York. WAMNY board member Danielle LeBlanc said the microfinancing and social entrepreneurship can be among the simplest and most effective ways to advance the economic prospects of disenfranchised women in poorer countries.

“With an opportunity to earn income on their own, it helps women gain some independence and increase the financial sustainability of their families,” LeBlanc told IPS.

“When women received the profits from these businesses, they spent it back on their families – sending their kids to school, improving their home. The goal is not just to help create businesses, but to improve the welfare of the family.”

LeBlanc said the term ‘microfinancing’ was a broad concept, viewed differently by many parties. She said governments consider it to be grants of under 50,000 dollars and that banks consider the threshold to be closer to 250,000, but LeBlanc said vast progress can be made with an initial outlay of as little as a few hundred dollars.

“In the U.S., microfinancing might help out street vendors like in New York City, or to fund home daycare centres, or even small businesses with shopfronts. Overseas, we can be talking about the very poor, like women selling goods by the roadside, farmers, or craft makers,” she said.

“To us, the increase in income for a family in poor countries might seem very small, but it makes a huge difference in their lives. It helps increase the nutrition of children, increases the standing of the woman in the family, or can put a tin roof on a thatched house.”

LeBlanc said the increase standing of women in the eyes of their husbands and their community is one of the most important benefits that such projects can offer.

“It changes from community to community, but when women start bringing income into their family, it increases their confidence and they move from being totally dependant on their husband to someone bringing income into the house,” she said.

“There is more respect there for the woman. It makes a huge difference.”

She said the M2W2 programme was selected for presentation at the WAMNY event on Tuesday because of its “holistic” approach to empowering women, benefiting families, and changing communities.

“It is working with various women’s issues, from joint savings programmes to technical assistance and increasing farming output,” she said. “It is getting women working together, to co-operate as a community. Projects like this encourage our members to think outside the box for how to work.”

At its core, M2W2 is a simple one – give seeds and tools to women, show them how to farm, and teach them how to sell their produce. But both Spahn and LeBlanc said that, in the field of microfinance, often the simplest ideas can have the most impressive outcomes.

“The key to whether a programme is successful isn’t necessarily the budget, it’s about whether it is based on a need. It needs clear communication with the community, if it is a programme they like and can use,” LeBlanc said.

Spahn said HKI is currently working on a project in African countries including Mozambique and Burkina Faso, helping women there to grow sweet potatoes to make into chips, bread and cookies – again, both to sell and to feed to their own families.

“We’ve always said, we should aim for complex problems and simple solutions. We want to take a problem apart, and find a solution that isn’t overwhelming,” Spahn said.

“The problem is in scaling things up, from one community to a nationwide programme. Once you have the solution, how do you reach the people hardest to reach? How do you take it past the village?”

Spahn said HKI hopes to institute the M2W2 programme in other other countries.

Edited by Kitty Stapp

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Opinion: War on Wildlife Crime – Time to Enlist the Ordinary Citizenhttp://www.ipsnews.net/2015/03/opinion-war-on-wildlife-crime-time-to-enlist-the-ordinary-citizen/?utm_source=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_campaign=opinion-war-on-wildlife-crime-time-to-enlist-the-ordinary-citizen http://www.ipsnews.net/2015/03/opinion-war-on-wildlife-crime-time-to-enlist-the-ordinary-citizen/#comments Sun, 01 Mar 2015 14:46:38 +0000 Dr. Bradnee Chambers http://www.ipsnews.net/?p=139432 Dead addax (white antelope) hunted by soldiers in Chad – “We should not underestimate the seriousness of wildlife crime”. Credit: John Newby/SCF

Dead addax (white antelope) hunted by soldiers in Chad – “We should not underestimate the seriousness of wildlife crime”. Credit: John Newby/SCF

By Bradnee Chambers
BONN, Mar 1 2015 (IPS)

It is no exaggeration to say that we are facing a “wildlife crisis”, and it is a crisis exacerbated by human activities, not least criminal ones.

Whatever our definition of wildlife crime, it is big business. In terms of annual turn-over it is up there narcotics, arms and human trafficking – and the proceeds run into billions of dollars each year, helping to finance criminal gangs and rebel organisations waging civil wars.“Whatever our definition of wildlife crime, it is big business. In terms of annual turn-over it is up there with narcotics, arms and human trafficking – and the proceeds run into billions of dollars each year”

With seven billion people on the planet, it is tempting to shrug one’s shoulders and ask “What difference can any one individual make?”  Such an attitude means that we are in danger of repeating the “tragedy of the commons” – everyone making seemingly rational decisions in their own immediate interests – but this is a short-sighted approach that undermines the common good and ultimately sows the seeds of its own downfall.

With seven billion people on the planet, it is also tempting to say that people’s need for food, shelter and well-being should take precedence over nature conservation, but the two are not necessarily irreconcilable.  In fact far from it – the two often go hand in hand and are totally compatible – non-consumptive use of wildlife, such as whale-watching and safaris, provide sustainable livelihoods for thousands of people.

Extinction has been an ever-present phenomenon, with a few species losing their specialised niche or being edged out to a more aggressive competitor or, in the case of dinosaurs, being wiped out by a meteorite strike.

The number of species going extinct is increasing fast, at a rate that cannot be attributed to natural causes and it is clear that there is a human foot pressing down heavily on the accelerator pedal.

South Africa reports record numbers of rhinos killed for their horn; demand for ivory is pushing the elephant to the brink; tiger numbers might have risen in India of late but the wild population and the range occupied by the cats are a fraction of what they were at the beginning of the twentieth century.

And we are not just losing vital pieces in the elaborate jigsaw puzzle of ecosystems; we are losing elements of our natural heritage that contribute to human culture and society, and the lifeblood of sustainable activities that create employment in the tourism sector, generating foreign exchange and significant tax revenues.

Wildlife crime is not an abstract. It affects us all and there is more that individuals can do to make a difference than they perhaps imagine.  Understanding the consequences of killing the animals and highlighting the connection between the increased poaching and organised criminal gangs and terrorists have been extremely helpful in strengthening  political messages and in persuading  the public to demand that more be done.

The gangs care little about the fate of the animals – either the individuals they kill or the survival of the species.  They think nothing of shooting the rangers who stand in their way.  They do care about their profits and high demand for ivory in East Asian markets has sent the price through the roof – not that the poacher in the field or the craftsman in the backstreet workshop receive much of a share.

If demand evaporates, the price will fall and killing elephants for their ivory will no longer be a viable business. The gangs will have to find some other source of income, but they would have to do this soon anyway, as current levels of poaching mean that there will not be any elephants left in 30 years.

The maxim “get them while they are young” applies to many things, not least the environment and junior members of the household often influence the family’s behaviour with regard to recycling, saving energy and water, food purchases and a range of other “green issues”. So raising awareness among the younger generation of the need to tackle wildlife crime is crucial.

The fight against wildlife crime has to be conducted on several fronts.  It does register on governments’ radar and pressure from civil society can help keep it high on the agenda.  The public has a vital role to play in keeping pressure on governments, either individually or through local pressure groups and NGOs. People can also modify their own behaviour by minimising their footprint on the planet.

We should not underestimate the seriousness of wildlife crime, but nor should we dismiss the potential impact of the actions of individuals as consumers, customers or voters.

Edited by Phil Harris  

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Opinion: Manipulate and Mislead – How GMOs are Infiltrating Africahttp://www.ipsnews.net/2015/03/opinion-manipulate-and-mislead-how-gmos-are-infiltrating-africa/?utm_source=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_campaign=opinion-manipulate-and-mislead-how-gmos-are-infiltrating-africa http://www.ipsnews.net/2015/03/opinion-manipulate-and-mislead-how-gmos-are-infiltrating-africa/#comments Sun, 01 Mar 2015 10:29:47 +0000 Haidee Swanby and Maran Bassey Orovwuje http://www.ipsnews.net/?p=139429 “There is no doubt that African small-scale producers need much greater support in their efforts, but GM seeds which are designed for large-scale industrial production have no place in smallholder systems”. Credit: La Via Campesina/2007/Creative Commons

“There is no doubt that African small-scale producers need much greater support in their efforts, but GM seeds which are designed for large-scale industrial production have no place in smallholder systems”. Credit: La Via Campesina/2007/Creative Commons

By Haidee Swanby and Mariann Bassey Orovwuje
JOHANNESBURG, Mar 1 2015 (IPS)

The most persistent myth about genetically modified organisms (GMOs) is that they are necessary to feed a growing global population.

Highly effective marketing campaigns have drilled it into our heads that GMOs will produce more food on less land in an environmentally friendly manner. The mantra has been repeated so often that it is considered to be truth.

Now this mantra has come to Africa, sung by the United States administration and multinational corporations like Monsanto, seeking to open new markets for a product that has been rejected by so many others around the globe.“It may be tempting to believe that hunger can be solved with technology, but African social movements have pointed out that skewed power relations are the bedrock of hunger in Africa”

While many countries have implemented strict legal frameworks to regulate GMOs, African nations have struggled with the legal, scientific and infrastructural resources to do so.

This has delayed the introduction of GMOs into Africa, but it has also provided the proponents of GMOs with a plum opportunity to offer their assistance and, in the process, helping to craft laws on the continent that promote the introduction of barely regulated GMOs and create investor-friendly environments for agribusiness.

Their line is that African governments must adopt GMOs as a matter of urgency to deal with hunger and that laws implementing pesky and expensive safety measures, or requiring assessments of socio-economic impacts, will only act as obstructions.

To date only seven African countries have complete legal frameworks to deal with GMOs and only four – South Africa, Burkina Faso, Egypt and Sudan – have approved commercial cultivation of a GM crop.

The drive to open markets for GMOs in Africa is not only happening through “assistance” resulting in permissive legal frameworks for GMOs, but also through an array of “philanthropical” projects, most of them funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.

One such project is Water Efficient Maize for Africa (WEMA), funded by the Gates Foundation in collaboration with Monsanto. Initially the project sought to develop drought tolerant maize varieties in five pilot countries but, as the project progressed, it incorporated one of Monsanto’s most lucrative commercial traits into the mix – MON810, which enables the plant to produce its own pesticide.

Interestingly, MON810 has recently come off patent, but Monsanto retains ownership when it is stacked with another gene, in this case, drought tolerant.

WEMA has provided a convenient vehicle for the introduction of Monsanto’s controversial product, but it has also used its influence to shape GM-related policy in the countries where it works.

The project has refused to run field trials in Tanzania and Mozambique until those countries amend their “strict liability” laws, which will make WEMA, and future companies selling GMOs, liable for any damages they may cause.

WEMA has also complained to governments about clauses in their law that require assessment of socio-economic impacts of GMOs, saying that assessment and approvals should be based solely on hard science, which is also often influenced or financed by the industry.

African civil society and smallholders’ organisations are fighting for the kind of biosafety legislation that will safeguard health and environment against the potential risks of GMOs, not the kind that promotes the introduction of this wholly inappropriate technology.

About 80 percent of Africa’s food is produced by smallholders, who seldom farm on more than five hectares of land and usually on much less.  The majority of these farmers are women, who have scant access to finance or secure land tenure.

That they still manage to provide the lion’s share of the continents’ food, usually without formal seed, chemicals, mechanisation, irrigation or subsidies, is testament to their resilience and innovation.

African farmers have a lot to lose from the introduction of GMOs – the rich diversity of African agriculture, its robust resilience and the social cohesion engendered through cultures of sharing and collective effort could be replaced by a handful of monotonous commodity crops owned by foreign masters. 

There is no doubt that African small-scale producers need much greater support in their efforts, but GM seeds which are designed for large-scale industrial production have no place in smallholder systems.

The mantra that GMOs are necessary for food security is hijacking the policy space that should be providing appropriate solutions for the poorest farmers.

Only a tiny fraction of farmers will ever afford the elite GM technology package – for example in South Africa, where over 85 percent of maize production is genetically modified, GM maize seed costs 2-5 times more than conventional seed, must be bought annually and requires the extensive use of toxic and expensive chemicals and fertilisers.

What is more, despite 16 years of cultivating GM maize, soya and cotton, South Africa’s food security continues to decline, with some 46 percent of the population categorised as food insecure.

It may be tempting to believe that hunger can be solved with technology, but African social movements have pointed out that skewed power relations – such as unfair trade agreements and subsidies that perennially entrench poverty, or the patenting of seed and imposition of expensive and patented technology onto the world’s most vulnerable and risk averse communities – are the bedrock of hunger in Africa.

Without changing these fundamental power relationships and handing control over food production to smallholders in Africa, hunger cannot be eradicated.

A global movement is growing and demanding that governments support small-scale food producers and “agro-ecology” instead of corporate agriculture, an agricultural system that is based on collaboration with nature and is appropriate for small-scale production, where producers are free to plant and exchange seeds and operate in strong local markets.

Edited by Phil Harris    

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

This opinion piece was originally published by Common Dreams.

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Bamboo – An Answer to Deforestation or Not in Africa?http://www.ipsnews.net/2015/02/bamboo-an-answer-to-deforestation-or-not-in-africa/?utm_source=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_campaign=bamboo-an-answer-to-deforestation-or-not-in-africa http://www.ipsnews.net/2015/02/bamboo-an-answer-to-deforestation-or-not-in-africa/#comments Sat, 28 Feb 2015 19:37:14 +0000 Jeffrey Moyo http://www.ipsnews.net/?p=139394 Bamboo nursery in Africa. There is debate over whether commercially-grown bamboo could help reverse the effects of deforestation and land degradation that has spread harm across the African continent. Credit: EcoPlanet Bamboo

Bamboo nursery in Africa. There is debate over whether commercially-grown bamboo could help reverse the effects of deforestation and land degradation that has spread harm across the African continent. Credit: EcoPlanet Bamboo

By Jeffrey Moyo
HARARE, Feb 28 2015 (IPS)

Deforestation is haunting the African continent as industrial growth paves over public commons and puts more hectares into private hands.

According to the Environmental News Network, a web-based resource, Africa loses forest cover equal to the size of Switzerland every year, or approximately 41 000 square kilometres.

The United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) is also on record as saying the African continent loses over four million hectares (9.9 million acres) of natural forest annually, which is twice the world’s average deforestation rate. And deforestation, according to UNEP, accounts for at least one-fifth of all carbon emissions globally.

The dangerous pace of deforestation has triggered a market-based solution using bamboo, a fast-growing woody grass that grows chiefly in the tropics.“If grown in the right way, and under the right sustainable management system, in certain areas, bamboo can play a role in reversing ecosystem degradation” – Troy Wiseman, CEO of EcoPlanet Bamboo

“The idea of bamboo plantations is a good one, but it triggers fear of widespread starvation as poor Africans may be lured into this venture for money and start ditching food crops” – Terry Mutsvanga, Zimbabwean human rights activist

EcoPlanet Bamboo, a multinational company, has been expanding its operations in Africa while it promotes the industrialisation of bamboo as an environmentally attractive alternative fibre for timber manufacturing industries that currently rely on the harvesting of natural forests for their raw resource. The company’s operations extend to South Africa, Ghana and Nicaragua.

For EcoPlanet and some African environmentalists, commercially-grown bamboo could help reverse the effects of deforestation and land degradation that has spread harm across the African continent.

“If grown in the right way on land that has little value for other uses, and if managed under the right sustainable management system, bamboo can play a role in restoring highly degraded ecosystems and connecting remnant forest patches, while reducing pressure on remaining natural forests,” Troy Wiseman, CEO of EcoPlanet Bamboo, told IPS.

Happison Chikova, a Zimbabwean independent environmentalist who holds a Bachelor of Science Honours Degree in Geography and Environmental Studies from the Midlands State University here, agreed.

“Bamboo plants help fight climate change because of their capacity to absorb carbon dioxide and act as carbon sinks while the plants can also be used as a source for wood energy, thereby reducing the cutting down of indigenous trees, and also the fact that bamboo can be used to build shelter, reduces deforestation in the communal areas where there is high demand of indigenous trees for building purposes,” Chikova told IPS.

But land rights activists are sceptical about their claims.

“The idea of bamboo plantations is a good one, but it triggers fear of widespread starvation as poor Africans may be lured into this venture for money and start ditching food crops,” Terry Mutsvanga, an award-winning Zimbabwean human rights activist, told IPS.

Mutsvanga’s fears of small sustainable farms losing out to foreign-owned export-driven plantations were echoed by Nnimmo Bassey, a renowned African environmentalist and head of the Health of Mother Earth Foundation, an ecological think-tank and advocacy organisation.

“No one can seriously present a bamboo plantation as a cure for deforestation,” Bassey, who is based in Nigeria, told IPS, “and unfortunately the United Nations system sees plantations as forests and this fundamentally faulty premise gives plantation owners the latitude to see their forest-gobbling actions as something positive.”

“If we agree that forests are places with rich biodiversity, it is clear that a plantation cannot be the same as a forest,” added Bassey.

Currently, bamboo is widely grown in Africa by small farmers for multiple uses. The Mount Selinda Women’s Bamboo Association, an environmental lobby group in Chipinge, Zimbabwe’s eastern border town, for example, received funding from the International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD) through the Livelihood and Economic Development Programme in order to create sustainable rural livelihoods and enterprises by using bamboo resources.

Citing its many benefits, IFAD calls bamboo the “poor man’s timber.”

Further, notes IFAD, bamboo contributes to rural poverty reduction, empowers women and can be processed into boats, kitchen utensils, incense sticks, charcoal and footwear. It also provides food and nutrition security as food and animal feed.

Currently, EcoPlanet Bamboo’s footprint in Africa includes 5,000 acres in Ghana in a public-private partnership to develop commercial bamboo plantations. In South Africa’s Eastern Cape, certification is under way to convert out of production pineapple plantations to bamboo plantations for the production of activated carbon and bio-charcoal to be sold to local and export markets.

Environmentalist Bassey worries whether all these acres were unutilised, as the company claims. “Commercial bamboo, which will replace natural wood forests and may require hundreds of hectares of land space, may not be so good for peasant farmers in Africa,” Bassey said.

EcoPlanet Bamboo, however, insists it does not convert or plant on any land that could compete with food security.

“(We) convert degraded land into certified bamboo plantations into diverse, thriving ecosystems, that can provide fibre on an annual basis, and yet maintain their ecological integrity,” said Wiseman.

Wiseman’s claim, however, did not move long-time activist Bassey and one-time winner of the Right Livelihood Prize, an alternative to the Nobel Peace Prize, who questioned foreign ownership of Africa’s resources as not always to Africa’s benefit.

“Plantations are not owned by the weak in society,” said Bassey. “They are owned by corporations or rich individuals with strong economic and sometimes political connections. This could mean displacement of vulnerable farmers, loss of territories and means of livelihoods.”

Edited by Lisa Vives/ Phil Harris   

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Tobacco Workers in Cuba Dubious About Opening of U.S. Markethttp://www.ipsnews.net/2015/02/tobacco-workers-in-cuba-dubious-about-opening-of-u-s-market/?utm_source=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_campaign=tobacco-workers-in-cuba-dubious-about-opening-of-u-s-market http://www.ipsnews.net/2015/02/tobacco-workers-in-cuba-dubious-about-opening-of-u-s-market/#comments Sat, 28 Feb 2015 15:57:26 +0000 Ivet Gonzalez http://www.ipsnews.net/?p=139419 Tobacco pickers carry leaves to one of the sheds where they are cured on the Rosario plantation in San Juan y Martínez, in Vuelta Abajo, a western Cuban region famous for producing premium cigars. Credit: Jorge Luis Baños/IPS

Tobacco pickers carry leaves to one of the sheds where they are cured on the Rosario plantation in San Juan y Martínez, in Vuelta Abajo, a western Cuban region famous for producing premium cigars. Credit: Jorge Luis Baños/IPS

By Ivet González
SAN JUAN Y MARTÍNEZ, Cuba , Feb 28 2015 (IPS)

“We have to wait and see,” “There isn’t a lot of talk about it,” are the responses from tobacco workers in this rural area in western Cuba when asked about the prospect of an opening of the U.S. market to Cuban cigars.

“If the company sells more, I think they would pay us better,” said Berta Borrego, who has been hanging and sorting tobacco leaves for over 30 years in San Juan y Martínez in the province of Pinar del Río, 180 km west of Havana.

The region of Vuelta Abajo, and the municipalities of San Juan y Martínez, San Luis, Guane and Pinar del Río in particular, combine ideal climate and soil conditions with a centuries-old farming culture to produce the world’s best premium hand-rolled cigars.

In this area alone, 15,940 hectares are planted every year in tobacco, Cuba’s fourth top export.

While continuing to hang tobacco leaves on the Rosario plantation, Borrego told IPS that “there is little talk” among the workers about how they might benefit if the U.S. embargo against Cuba, in place since 1962, is eased, as part of the current process of normalisation of bilateral ties.

Borrego said “it would be good” to break into the U.S. market, off-limits to Cuban cigar-makers for over half a century. And she said that raising the pay of day workers and growers would be an incentive for workers, “because there is a shortage of both female and male workers since people don’t like the countryside.”

Cuban habanos, rum and coffee represent a trade and investment opportunity for Havana and Washington, if bilateral ties are renewed in the process that on Friday Feb. 27 reached the second round of talks between representatives of the two countries.

Habanos have become a symbol of the thaw between the two countries since someone gave a Cuban cigar to U.S. President Barack Obama during a Dec. 17 reception in the White House, a few hours after he announced the restoration of ties.

Berta Borrego in the shed where she hangs green tobacco leaves to dry. For over 30 years she has dedicated herself to that task and to selecting the dry leaves for making cigars, on the Rosario plantation in the Cuban municipality of Juan y Martínez. Credit: Jorge Luis Baños/IPS

Berta Borrego in the shed where she hangs green tobacco leaves to dry. For over 30 years she has dedicated herself to that task and to selecting the dry leaves for making cigars, on the Rosario plantation in the Cuban municipality of Juan y Martínez. Credit: Jorge Luis Baños/IPS

Among the first measures approved by Washington to boost trade and ties between the two countries was the granting of permission to U.S. tourists to bring back 100 dollars worth of cigars and rum from Cuba.

But the sale of habanos in U.S. shops, where Nicaraguan and Dominican cigars reign, is still banned, and U.S. businesses are not allowed to invest in the local tobacco industry here.

Furthermore, the lifting of the U.S. embargo depends on the U.S. Congress, not the Obama administration.

In 2014, Tabacuba adopted a plan to double the production of tobacco leaves in the next five years, in the 15 Cuban provinces where over 16,000 producers, mainly private farmers or members of cooperative, produce tobacco.

Experts say that while Cuba stands out for the quality of its tobacco, it is not among the world’s biggest producers – which are China, the United States, Brazil, India and Turkey, in that order – nor is it among the countries with the highest yields –which are Taiwan, Spain, Italy, Japan and the United States.

In fact, due to armed conflicts in different parts of the world, high import tariffs in Europe, and climate change in Cuba, the sales of the country’s cigar company, Habanos SA, fell one percent from 2013 to 2014, to 439 million dollars.

But when it happens, annual sales of habanos in the U.S. market are expected to climb to at least 250 million dollars, according to estimates by the only company that sells Cuban cigars, Habanos SA, a joint venture between the state-run Tabacuba and Britain’s Imperial Tobacco Group PLC.

The corporation estimates that 150 million cigars from the 27 Cuban brands could be sold, once the U.S. market opens up.

The new permission for visitors to take home 100 dollars worth of cigars was called “symbolic” by Jorge Luis Fernández Maique, vice president of the Anglo-Cuban company, during the 17th Habanos Festival, which drew 1,650 participants from 60 nations Feb. 23-27 in Havana.

“The increase in sales in Cuba won’t be big,” the businessman forecast during the annual festival, which includes tours to tobacco plantations and factories, visits to auctions for humidors – a specially designed box for holding cigars – and art exhibits, and combined cigar, wine, rum and food tastings.

In its more than 140 locations worldwide, La Casa del Habano, an international franchise, sells a pack of 20 Cohiba Mini cigarrillos for 12 dollars, while a single habano cigar costs 50 dollars.

Premium cigars are the end result of a meticulous planting, selection, drying, curing, rolling and ageing process that involves thousands of humble, weathered hands like those of day worker Luis Camejo, who has dedicated eight of his 33 years to the tobacco harvest.

During the October to March harvest, Camejo picks tobacco leaves and hangs them in the shed on the Rosario plantation. Like the others, he is reticent when asked how he and his fellow workers could benefit from increased trade with the United States. “I wouldn’t know,” he told IPS.

A benefit auction for humidors in the Habanos Festival. The festival drew 1,650 participants from 60 countries to the Cuban capital this year. Credit: Jorge Luis Baños/IPS

A benefit auction for humidors in the Habanos Festival. The festival drew 1,650 participants from 60 countries to the Cuban capital this year. Credit: Jorge Luis Baños/IPS

He said he earns 1,200 Cuban pesos (50 dollars) a month during harvest season, and a bonus in convertible pesos after the plantation owner sells the tobacco to the state-run companies.

That is more than the average of 19 dollars a month earned by employees of the state, by far the largest employer in this Caribbean island nation. But it is not enough to cover people’s needs, given that food absorbs 59 to 75 percent of the family budget, according to the Centre of Studies on the Cuban Economy.

“To reach a dominant position in markets, we have to grow from below, that is, in quality and yield, because Vuelta Abajo isn’t growing,” said Iván Máximo Pérez, the owner of the 5.4-hectare Rosario plantation, which produces 2.5 tons of tobacco leaves per hectare. “In terms of production, the sky is our limit,” he told IPS with a smile.

In his view, “tobacco is profitable to the extent that the producer is efficient.”

“The current harvests even allow me to afford some luxuries,” he admitted.

He said he continues to plant tobacco because “it’s a sure thing, since the state buys everything we produce, at fixed prices based on quality.”

Pérez, known as “El Gallego” (the Galician) among his people, because of his northern Spanish ancestry, is using new technologies on his farm, where he employs 10 men and eight women and belongs to one of the credit and services cooperatives that produce for the tobacco companies.

He has his own modern seedbed, is getting involved in conservation agriculture, plants different varieties of tobacco, uses organic fertiliser, and has cut insecticide use to 30 percent.

“I never thought I’d reach the yields I’m obtaining now,” he said. “Applying science and different techniques has made me see tobacco in a different light.”

Edited by Estrella Gutiérrez/Translated by Stephanie Wildes

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Opinion: Goals for Gender Equality Are Not a ‘Wish List’ – They Are a ‘To Do List’http://www.ipsnews.net/2015/02/opinion-goals-for-gender-equality-are-not-a-wish-list-they-are-a-to-do-list/?utm_source=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_campaign=opinion-goals-for-gender-equality-are-not-a-wish-list-they-are-a-to-do-list http://www.ipsnews.net/2015/02/opinion-goals-for-gender-equality-are-not-a-wish-list-they-are-a-to-do-list/#comments Fri, 27 Feb 2015 22:49:39 +0000 Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka http://www.ipsnews.net/?p=139408 A women-led village council in rural Bangladesh prepares a “social map” of the local community. Credit: Naimul Haq/IPS

A women-led village council in rural Bangladesh prepares a “social map” of the local community. Credit: Naimul Haq/IPS

By Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka
SANTIAGO, Feb 27 2015 (IPS)

This weekend, at the invitation of President Michelle Bachelet and myself, women leaders from across the world are meeting in Santiago de Chile. We will applaud their achievements. We will remind ourselves of their contributions. And we will chart a way forward to correct the historical record. History has not been fair to women – but then, women usually didn’t write it.

This meeting will be an opportunity to take a hard look at the world that is, and the world that will be. The case is urgent, not only for individual women and their human right to equality, but for everyone. The “perfect storm of crises” as one expert has called it, threatens food, energy and water supplies. It threatens political and economic stability in all our countries. It could upend any prospects for balanced and sustainable development.

On the other hand, mobilising the potential of women and maximising their contribution will turn aside some of the worst effects of climate change and help ensure food and water supply; will help correct massive economic inequality between the few and the many; will mitigate conflict and political instability, and help to build lasting peace. Women’s rights are human necessities.

At the heart of our discussion is how to put more women in positions of power. Across the 192 U.N. member countries:

  • Only 19 women are heads of state or government;
  • One in five parliamentarians are women;
  • One in 20 city mayors are women;
  • One in four judges and prosecutors, and
  • Fewer than one in 10 police officers are women.

Women leaders are just as hard to find in economic life – only one in five board seats in major companies are held by women. And this is despite evidence of increased company earnings when women are on the board!

So how do we get there from here? We already have a road map. It was agreed by 189 world leaders back in 1995, at the Fourth World Conference on Women in Beijing. Countries have made a good start with better overall education and health care for women; but they haven’t followed through on the rest of the package, especially political participation and economic empowerment. At the present rate of progress, it will take 81 years for women to achieve parity in employment. Women, and their countries, can’t wait that long.

This year, the 20th anniversary of the Beijing conference, the year when the U.N. will adopt sustainable development goals for the next 15 years, offers a unique opportunity to make a new start.

First of all, today’s leaders must make a personal commitment to increase women’s presence in decision-making – not just in their numbers, but in their contributions. There are many ways to do this – quotas and numerical targets for women’s participation; training and mentorship to boost women’s confidence and capacity; private-sector engagement matching public-sector initiatives. Countries will find their own ways, if the will is there.

Employers must ensure equal hiring, payment and promotion policies; support to balance work-life conditions, and give women the opportunity to lead. Managers must learn to welcome women’s input and contribution.

Leaders who lead by example in their daily lives will win allies in every aspect of their work for gender equality. They can win allies in the media too – at least to avoid reflexive disparagement, negative stereotyping and casual sexism; and at best to celebrate the positive and constructive contribution of women leaders, even in the toughest environments.

Then there are many women who struggle and suffer every day. They are the everyday heroines of our age, and their fight for equality deserves a wider audience. We shouldn’t have to wait for another vicious attack or another assassination before we learn their names.

These measures sound ambitious, but they are fully realistic. We know from our own experience in leadership, that we can achieve them all. The 1995 Beijing platform for action is not a “wish list”; it’s a “to do list.” If today’s leaders front-load gender equality, if they start now to make good on those 20-year-old promises, we can look forward to serious progress by 2020, and gender equality by 2030.

“The arc of the moral universe is long,” said Martin Luther King, “but it bends toward justice.” Where women are concerned, we have to bend that arc a lot faster now, to make up for all the years it didn’t bend at all. At stake are not only justice and human rights but also perhaps survival itself.

Edited by Kanya D’Almeida

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