Inter Press Service » Active Citizens Turning the World Downside Up Wed, 20 Aug 2014 00:01:52 +0000 en-US hourly 1 A Life Reserve for Sustainable Development in Chile’s Patagonia Tue, 19 Aug 2014 22:45:32 +0000 Marianela Jarroud A stand at the crafts fair in the city of Coyhaique. The production of locally-made ecological crafts from Patagonia is part of the development alternative promoted by the Aysén Life Reserve project. Credit: Marianela Jarraud/IPS

A stand at the crafts fair in the city of Coyhaique. The production of locally-made ecological crafts from Patagonia is part of the development alternative promoted by the Aysén Life Reserve project. Credit: Marianela Jarraud/IPS

By Marianela Jarroud
COYHAIQUE, Chile, Aug 19 2014 (IPS)

The people of Patagonia in southern Chile are working to make the Aysén region a “life reserve”. Neighbouring Argentina, across the border, is a historic ally in this remote wilderness area which is struggling to achieve sustainable development and boost growth by making use of its natural assets.

“The Aysén Life Reserve mega citizen initiative emerged as a theoretical proposal to have a special region with a special development model, one based on inclusive sustainable development, with and for the people of the region,” activist Peter Hartmann, the creator of the concept and of the coalition that is pushing the project forward, told IPS.

“Many people say we want to chain off the region, but our aim is to use its good qualities, versus the megaprojects of the globalised world, which want to destroy them,” he said.

The southern region of Aysén is one of the least populated – and least densely populated – areas in Chile, with 105,000 inhabitants. This chilly wilderness area of vast biodiversity, swift-flowing rivers, lakes and glaciers also offers fertile land and marine resources that are exploited by large fishing companies.“The model we are building is aimed at strengthening economic development on a local scale, in a democratic fashion, and not with models imposed on us – development that is cooperative and economically and environmentally sustainable in time, under the premise that we are all just passing through this life and that you have to give back what you take.” -- Claudia Torres

“We are tiny and insignificant in this enormous territory,” Claudia Torres, a designer and communicator who was born and raised in Aysén, told IPS with visible pride.

Patagonia covers a total extension of approximately 800,000 sq km at the southern tip of the Americas, 75 percent of which is in Argentina and the rest in Aysén and the southernmost Chilean region of Magallanes.

Patagonia is made up of diverse ecosystems and is home to numerous species of flora and fauna, including birds, reptiles and amphibians that have not yet been identified. It is also the last refuge of the highly endangered huemul or south Andean deer.

Although it is in the middle of a stunning wilderness area, Coyhaique, the capital of Aysén, 1,629 km south of Santiago, is paradoxically the most polluted city in Chile, because in this region where temperatures are often below zero, local inhabitants heat their homes and cook with firewood, much of which is wet, green or mossy, because it is cheaper than dry wood.

It is one of the poorest and most vulnerable regions of the country, where 9.9 percent of the population lives in poverty and 4.2 percent in extreme poverty.

But these figures fail to reflect the poverty conditions suffered by families in the region, the regional government’s secretary of social development, Eduardo Montti, told IPS.

“We are lagging in terms of being able to ensure basic living standards and essential services for the community and to make it possible for the different actors to develop in equal conditions as the rest of the country,” he said.

But, he added, in May the government of socialist President Michelle Bachelet established a plan for remote or impoverished areas which recognises the disparities with respect to the rest of the country, thus helping to more clearly identify the most urgent needs.

He said that in this region it is important “to move ahead in tourism enterprises, strengthen small local economies, share and participate in the development of our local customs, and help make them known to the world.”

“Many people say we want to chain off the region, but our aim is to use its good qualities, versus the megaprojects of the globalised world, which want to destroy them,” says Peter Hartmann, creator of the Aysén Life Reserve initiative in southern Chile. Credit: Marianela Jarroud/IPS

“Many people say we want to chain off the region, but our aim is to use its good qualities, versus the megaprojects of the globalised world, which want to destroy them,” says Peter Hartmann, creator of the Aysén Life Reserve initiative in southern Chile. Credit: Marianela Jarroud/IPS

Torres, an active participant in the Citizen Coalition for the Aysén Life Reserve, said the region is “one of the few that still have the chance to come up with a different kind of development.”

This is one of the few areas in the world that has largely kept its original wilderness intact. Much of the territory is under different forms of protection, including the Laguna San Rafael National Park, a UNESCO World Biosphere Reserve that contains a coastal lagoon and glaciers. The region as a whole is also seeking world heritage site status.

“The model we are building is aimed at strengthening economic development on a local scale, in a democratic fashion, and not with models imposed on us – development that is cooperative and economically and environmentally sustainable in time, under the premise that we are all just passing through this life and that you have to give back what you take,” Torres said.

She added that the project “is a dream and we are working to achieve it. Because people here understand that life itself is part of what makes it special to live here. For example, in this region you can still drink water from a river or a lake, because you know you won’t have problems.”

In her view, cities become dependent on, and vulnerable to, supplies from outside, and “the more independent you are, the better chances you have of surviving.”

“We don’t see this as a life reserve exclusive to Patagonians, but for the whole country. For example, I don’t have problems with the region sharing water with areas that suffer from drought.” But water for crops, drinking, or living – not for big industry, she clarified.

Chile’s Patagonians have a powerful ally in this endeavour: the Argentine side of Patagonia is fighting against the use of watersheds shared with Chile, by mining corporations.

“There is a common element in this big fight: water,” Torres said.

The two sides of the Andes share a long history of close ties and traditions which makes Patagonia one single territory, of great value because of its biodiversity – but highly vulnerable as well.

“We don’t feel like Chile, we feel like Patagonia…Chilean and Argentine,” Torres said.

From the start, the Aysén Life Reserve has shown that it is more than just an idea on paper. Hartmann pointed out that three community-based sustainable tourism enterprises have been established, financed by the Fondo de las Américas (FONDAM).

“We trained the communities in how to take care of their own territory, and in community-based tourism. That gave rise to a successful school for tourism guides,” he said proudly.

“Artisanal fishers from Puerto Aysén have also been making an effort to make their work more sustainable; there are exemplary garbage collection projects, and many crafts are being produced using local products, which is super sustainable,” he added.

Then there is “Sabores de Aysén” (Tastes of Aysén), a stamp that certifies quality products and services reflecting the region’s identity and care for nature. There is also a solar energy cooperative with a steadily growing number of members.

The Life Reserve project, Hartmann said, has two dimensions: awareness-raising and citizen participation. An Aysén Reserva de Vida label was created for sustainable products or processes, to make them more attractive to local consumers and visitors.

The idea of making the region a “Life Reserve” is cross-cutting and has managed to win the involvement of varied segments of society – a positive thing in a region that was highly polarised after 10 years of struggle against the HidroAysén hydroelectric project, which would have built large dams on wilderness rivers but was finally cancelled by the government in June.

The local population was also divided by the mass protests over the region’s isolation and high local prices of fuel and food that broke out in 2012, under the government of rightwing President Sebastián Piñera (2010-2014).

“There is greater awareness, and that is a step forward,” Torres said. “That means there is growing appreciation for what this region has to offer.”

Edited by Estrella Gutiérrez/Translated by Stephanie Wildes

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Militarism Should be Suppressed Like Hanging and Flogging Mon, 18 Aug 2014 07:42:34 +0000 mairead-maguire

In this column, Mairead Maguire, peace activist from Northern Ireland and Nobel Peace Laureate 1976, argues that, in the face of growing militarism, civil society should take a stand for human rights and real democracy, and against violence and war.

By Mairead Maguire
BELFAST, Aug 18 2014 (IPS)

I once asked Dan Berrigan, the great American anti-war activist, for some advice to me in my life as a peace activist. He replied “Pray and Resist”.But I would like to ask how serious we are about resistance? What is our vision? And how does resistance fit into this? What do we need to resist? How can we resist effectively? And what methods are allowed? In resisting, what are our aims and objectives?

Mairead Maguire

Mairead Maguire

I would like to propose that the world’s peace movement adopt a vision of the total abolition of militarism. Such a vision would empower us to know where we are going. It would inspire and energise each of us to pursue our different projects, be it the fight against the arms trade, nuclear abolition, non-killing/non-violence, the culture of peace, the abolition of arms and drone warfare, human rights and environmental rights.

We will know, as we work towards this vision of a demilitarised, disarmed world, that we are part of an ever-growing new ‘consciousness’ of men and women, choosing to uphold human life, the right to individual conscience, loving our enemies, human rights and international law, and solving our problems without killing each other.

Why resist militarism? We are witnessing the growing militarism of Europe, and its role as a driving force for armaments, and its dangerous path, under the leadership of the United States/NATO towards a new ‘cold war’ and military aggression.

The European Union and many of its countries, which used to take initiatives in the United Nations for peaceful settlements of conflicts, particularly allegedly peaceful countries like Norway and Sweden, are now among the most important U.S./NATO war assets.“The greatest danger to our freedoms being eroded by governments and endangered by ‘armed’ groups is a fearful, apathetic, civil community, refusing to take a stand for human rights and real democracy, and against violence and war”

The European Union is a threat to the survival of neutrality, as countries are being asked to join NATO, and forced to end their neutrality and choose (unnecessarily) between West and East.

Many nations have been drawn into complicity in breaking international law through U.S./U.K./NATO wars in Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, and so on, Germany, the third largest exporter of military hardware in the world, continues to increase its military budget and is complicit with NATO, facilitating U.S. bases, from which drones leave to carry out illegal extrajudicial killings on the order of the U.S. president, in countries such as Afghanistan and Pakistan.

Germany has also provided Israel with its nuclear submarine and continues to be complicit under the Geneva Convention in Israeli war crimes against Gaza and in the illegal occupation of Palestine.

We need to abolish NATO and increase our task of dismantling the military-industrial complex, through non-violent and civil resistance.

The means of resistance are very important. As a pacifist deeply committed to non-killing/non-violence as a way to bring about social/cultural/political change, I believe that we need to use means consistent with the end, and it is wrong to use violence.

Our message that militarism and war do not solve our problem of violence challenges us to use new ways and that is why we need to teach the science of peace at every level of society.

We are all aware there are forces at work which are determined to continue their agenda of the militarisation of our societies and there are governments/corporate/media attempts to make violence and war acceptable.

The greatest danger to our freedoms being eroded by governments and endangered by ‘armed’ groups is a fearful, apathetic, civil community, refusing to take a stand for human rights and real democracy, and against violence and war.

We can take hope from the fact that most people want peace not war. However, we are facing a civilisation problem. We are facing a political/ideological challenge with the growth of what president Ike Eisenhower warned the U.S. people against ­– the military/industrial complex. He warned that it would destroy the United States.

We know now that a small group made up of the world’s military/industrial/media/corporate/academic elite – whose agenda is profit, arms, war and
valuable resources – now holds power and has a stronghold on our elected governments. We see this in the gun and Israeli lobbies, among others, which hold great power over U.S. politics.

We have witnessed this in ongoing wars, invasions, occupations and proxy war, all allegedly in the name of ‘humanitarian intervention and democracy’. However, in reality, they are causing great suffering, especially to the poor, through their policies of arms, war, domination and control of other countries and their resources.

Unmasking this agenda of war and demanding the implementation of human rights and international law is the work of the peace movement. We can turn away from this path of destruction by spelling out a clear vision of what kind of a world we want to live in, demanding an end to the military-industrial complex, and insisting that our governments adopt policies of peace.

We, the Peace Movement, are the alternative to militarism and war, and because we want a different world, we must be part of building it. We must not be satisfied with improvements to and reform of militarism but rather offer an alternative.

Militarism is an aberration and a system of dysfunction. Militarism should be outdated and disappear – like hanging and flogging! (END/IPS COLUMNIST SERVICE)

(Edited by Phil Harris)

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Does Iceland Gain From Whaling? Mon, 18 Aug 2014 07:39:28 +0000 Lowana Veal Two fin whaling boats in Reykjavik harbour, shortly before heading out to sea. Credit: Lowana Veal/IPS

Two fin whaling boats in Reykjavik harbour, shortly before heading out to sea. Credit: Lowana Veal/IPS

By Lowana Veal
REYKJAVIK, Aug 18 2014 (IPS)

Although fin whaling by Icelanders has encountered increasing opposition over the last year, Icelandic whaling boats headed off to sea again in mid-June for the first hunt of the summer and by August 14 had killed 80 fin whales.

The story of what then happens to the whales once they have been taken back to Iceland is part mystery and part an economic balancing act between the country’s economic interests and its international image.

As soon as the whales are landed in Iceland, work begins on dismembering the whales. But does the meat get sold and where? How much money does it bring in for the Icelandic economy? And are the costs involved more than the revenue?

All of the whale meat is sent to Japan, but Hvalur hf, the only Icelandic company that hunts fin whales, has encountered a great deal of resistance in transporting it there and has had to resort to commissioning a ship to take the meat directly from Iceland to Japan, undoubtedly leading to extra costs.“The story of what happens to the whales once they have been taken back to Iceland is part mystery and part an economic balancing act between the country’s economic interests and its international image”

IPS was unable to find out the fate of the fin meat sent to Japan earlier this year. Two months after arriving at its final destination, a Japanese source, who did not want to be named, told IPS: “My colleague told me that the whale blubber is still in the cold storage of Osaka customs.” The Japanese embassy in Reykjavik acknowledges that there is at least some sale of fin whale meat, but actual figures do not seem to be available.

Earlier this year, a group of North American animal rights and environmental groups started to pressure North American companies to stop buying fish from Icelandic fishing company HB Grandi because of its links with Hvalur hf. Almost immediately, the Canadian/U.S. company High Liner Foods said it would no longer buy fish from HB Grandi and a number of other companies followed suit, including the U.S. health food chain Whole Foods.

The campaigners also called on U.S. President Barack Obama to invoke the Pelly Amendment, which allows the President to embargo any and all fisheries products from countries operating in a way that undermines a conservation treaty – in this case, the International Convention for the Regulation of Whaling.

Obama decided to invoke the Amendment, and has already implemented one albeit diplomatic rather than economic action, which was not to invite Iceland to the large international “Our Ocean” conference hosted by the United States in June.

Besides the well-known Pelly Agreement, there is also the Packwood-Magnuson Amendment of the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act, which allows the President to block foreign fleets from access to U.S. fisheries if their country is deemed to have diminished the effectiveness of an international conservation programme.

In 1984, Iceland and the United States signed an agreement whereby Iceland would obtain fishing permits in U.S. waters if it agreed to stop whaling. Due to various complications, although Iceland stopped whaling for 20 years in 1986, it did not start fishing in U.S. waters until December 1989 and then only caught a few tonnes of fish.

In spring this year, Social Democrat MP Sigridur Ingibjorg Ingadottir and seven other Icelandic opposition MPs tabled a parliamentary resolution calling for an investigation into the economic and trade repercussions for Iceland of whaling.

There was not enough time to discuss the matter in the last parliamentary session that ended mid-May, but Ingadottir is currently revising and updating the proposal with a view to submitting it early in the next parliamentary session, which starts in September.

“There are two main aspects to the proposal. One concerns the economic and trade interests of the country and the second Iceland’s image on an international scale,” she told IPS.

According to a report published in 2010, “In the years 1973-1985, when Hvalur hf pursued whaling of large cetaceans, whale processing usually stood for about 0.07 percent of GNP. The contribution of whaling itself to GNP is not known.” Minke whaling is not included in these figures.

Ingadottir, who trained as an economist, says that this figure is very low. “At that time, whaling was an industry and pursued systematically. Since then, a range of other large industries and commercial enterprises have sprung up, so the figure is likely to be lower,” she notes.

Gunnar Haraldsson, Director of the University of Iceland’s Institute of Economic Studies and one of the authors of the 2010 report, told IPS: “The problem is that no official figures exist on the returns of whale watching and various other parameters, thus there is a need to collect this sort of data specifically. It is therefore necessary to carry out a new study if we want to know what the national gains (and costs) actually are.”

Whale watching has blossomed over the last few years and at least 13 companies run whale-watching trips from various places around Iceland. Between 2012 and 2013, the number of whale watchers increased by 45,000, and the total number is now around 200,000 annually.

Three MPS had also called for an inquiry into whaling in the autumn of 2012. This was supposed to cover overall benefits to the economy, including economic interests, animal welfare issues and international obligations. A committee was set up to look into the organisation and grounds for whaling, but this petered out.

“The committee has not actually been dissolved, but it hasn’t met since the new government took over (in May 2013],” Asta Einarsdottir from the Ministry of Industries and Innovation told IPS. When asked why the committee had not met, Einarsdottir replied: “The Minister has not had a chance to meet with the Chair of the committee, despite repeated requests.”

Einarsdottir said that the committee was quite large and included representatives from the whale-watching and conservation sectors as well as from the whaling industry and various ministries.

Meanwhile, Icelandic lamb has also been affected by the whaling dispute. Over the last few years, Icelandic lamb has been exported to the United States and sold in the Whole Foods chain of shops under the banner of “Icelandic lamb”.

Last year, however, the chain decided not to brand the lamb as Icelandic because Iceland’s whaling activities had given Iceland a bad name. The expected increase in sales did not occur, and considerable pressure had to be applied to persuade them to keep selling the meat at all.

Ingadottir is forthright in her opinions. “Are they damaging our interests? Are they protecting a narrow group of interests rather than the national interest? What are we actually protecting with this whaling?” she asks, adding: “Iceland has to come up with very good reasons for pursuing whaling in order to continue doing it.”

(Edited by Phil Harris)

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Trauma Kits and Body Bags Now Fill Aleppo School Sat, 16 Aug 2014 17:44:11 +0000 Shelly Kittleson A central Aleppo street after a barrel bomb attack, August 2014. Credit: Shelly Kittleson/IPS

A central Aleppo street after a barrel bomb attack, August 2014. Credit: Shelly Kittleson/IPS

By Shelly Kittleson
ALEPPO, Syria, Aug 16 2014 (IPS)

Volunteer civil defence units operating here in Syria’s largest city careen through crater-pocked routes of precariously hanging, pancaked concrete where barrel bombs have struck.

Greyish dust blankets the dead, the alive and the twisted steel jutting out.  The panicked confusion immortalised in innumerable photos – with bloodied survivors raking desperately through the rubble for loved ones – is granted a modicum of order by the arrival of the rescue teams, in their distinctive white hard hats and black knee pads and boots.

When IPS arrived on the scene a few moments after the explosion of one such barrel bomb in early August, the men were already there, looking for survivors amid the rubble. One stood ready ear glued to his walkie-talkie, eyes darting between onlookers he was trying to keep at a safe distance and the sky – the first barrel bomb is almost always followed by another within 10-30 minutes, targeting would-be rescuers.One [rescue worker] stood ready, ear glued to his walkie-talkie, eyes darting between onlookers he was trying to keep at a safe distance and the sky – the first barrel bomb is almost always followed by another within 10-30 minutes, targeting would-be rescuers

The Hanano civil defence centre in eastern Aleppo is a repurposed school, its corridors dusty and empty except for a few firemen’s boots airing out, a broom, and a few morale-boosting posters of the civil defence men in uniform.

Body bags and trauma kits sit alongside fuel for Bobcat excavating and rubble-clearing equipment, pickaxes with USAID logos on them, drills and boxes of firemen’s suits, propped up against chalkboards still bearing the marks of lessons once taught in them.

Many of the men are in their twenties, clean-shaven, former university students. Khaled Hijjo, a former law student in his mid-twenties and head of the centre, told IPS that the rescue and fire teams work in two shifts: 12 hours on, 12 hours off.

At the moment there is only one medical specialist at the centre, he said, so this specialist is on call 24 hours a day. The man, who did not give his name, said he had worked for the Syrian Red Crescent even prior to the 2011 uprising and subsequent violence, but that he had no time to train the other men in basic first aid.

Correct carry and extraction procedures prevent aggravating injuries, including paralysing spinal injuries, and the heavy equipment received has proven vital to remove rubble and save those trapped underneath.

For the past four months, the rescue workers have been receiving a salary from the government-in-exile and courses from a number of foreign bodies and governments.

Entry-level first responders are given a salary of 175 dollars, while the heads of the various centres instead receive 200, civil defence chief and former English teacher Ammar Salmo told IPS, adding that 21 members of the team had been killed by barrel bombs while on duty.

When the bombs bring down entire buildings, ‘’many are trapped and nothing can be done. There are five still alive in one area that we know of, but there is no way to get them out’’, one local media activist told IPS, saying he felt helpless, and that taking pictures of the dead and wounded had ceased to make him feel useful

Though many of the local media activists have been given expensive cameras and satellite equipment and attended training programmes funded by Western nations in southern Turkey, virtually none of them seem to have had any basic first aid training.

Given the extremely severe shortage of trained medical staff left in Aleppo after the repeated attacking of medical facilities by the regime, the civil defence teams play an even more vital role in saving lives.

Ambulances donated from abroad and brought in through the sole supply road still under rebel control into the city go with the first responder team in central Aleppo, while those injured in the surrounding countryside are taken in cars to the nearest first aid centre. Communication is possible only via walkie-talkie, because there is no mobile phone reception.

A training centre was recently established inside Syrian territory but outside of the city, where team members were attending 20-day training sessions a few at a time, said Salmo.

He added that more civil defence centres were currently being set up in the Idlib region further to the west, and that it was proving easier to manage them than those in Aleppo, because many of the men ‘’were regime defectors and are more familiar with how institutions work.’’

He said the deputy chief of civil defence was a former regime general, and that four other former generals are currently working with them.

Of the instructors at the training centre, Salmo told IPS,  ‘’five are defectors from Assad’s forces, including a general teaching how to deal with barrel bombs and fire, and two doctors serve as medical experts to train the men in first aid.’’

The group has experienced some minor problems with some of the armed groups. One team member also told IPS that some of the heavy equipment had been ‘’borrowed’’ for a day by a Free Syrian Army group a few weeks earlier, but that they had promised that they would return it soon.

‘’We’re trying to solve the matter through dialogue,’’ he said.

When asked whether the group had had problems with the more extremist groups such as the Al-Qaeda affiliate Jabhat Al-Nusra, he scoffed, saying ‘’Jabhat Al-Nusra doesn’t need our things. They already have enough money.’’

No fire engines or other emergency vehicles could be seen in the immediate vicinity of a civil defence centre near a front line where IPS spoke to Salmo, who said that the teams had to be careful.

‘’Once you are seen as more organised,’’ he noted, ‘’you’re also seen as more of a danger to the regime.’’

(Edited by Phil Harris)

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Laws that Kill Protesters in Mexico Thu, 31 Jul 2014 22:34:02 +0000 Daniela Pastrana Students from the high school attended by José Luis Alberto Tehuatlie, during the boy’s Jul. 22 funeral in the town of San Bernardino Chalchihuapan, in the Mexican state of Puebla. Credit: Daniela Pastrana /IPS

Students from the high school attended by José Luis Alberto Tehuatlie, during the boy’s Jul. 22 funeral in the town of San Bernardino Chalchihuapan, in the Mexican state of Puebla. Credit: Daniela Pastrana /IPS

By Daniela Pastrana

People in this town in the central Mexican state of Puebla found out the hard way that protesting can be deadly.

A new law passed in Puebla makes it possible for police to use firearms or deadly force to break up demonstrations.

Local inhabitants felt the impact of the measure during a harsh crackdown on a protest against another law that they say undermines their autonomy.

A dead 13-year-old boy, another who lost three fingers, a third with a broken jaw and teeth knocked out, a driver who lost an eye, and 37 others injured by beatings and tear gas were the price this Nahua indigenous town of 3,900 people paid for blocking a road to demand the repeal of a state law that transferred responsibility over civil registries from local community authorities to the municipalities.

“It’s not fair that they attack the people like this just because we are asking that our community life, our authorities, be respected,” Vianey Varela, a first year high school student, told IPS.

On Jul. 9, when local residents blocked the Puebla-Atlixco highway some 150 km from Mexico City, the state police first used the powers given to them by the Law to Protect Human Rights and Regulate the Legitimate Use of Force by the police, which the state legislature passed in May.

The “Ley Bala” or Bullet Law, as it was dubbed by journalists, allows Puebla state police to use firearms as well as “non-lethal weapons” to break up “violent” protests and during emergencies and natural disasters.

The roadblock was mounted to protest another state law approved in May, which took away from the local authorities the function of civil registry judges or clerks and put it in the hands of the municipal governments.Since May, in at least 190 villages and towns in the state, no one has been born, no one has died, and no one has been married – at least officially, because there are no records.

As a result, since May, in at least 190 villages and towns in the state, no one has been born, no one has died, and no one has been married – at least officially, because there are no records.

Javier Montes told IPS that he became “presidente auxiliar”- a post just under mayor – of San Bernardino Chalchihuapan in May, but added that “I still haven’t signed a thing. The archives are in our care, but we don’t have stamps or the necessary papers. And in the municipal presidency [mayor’s office] they don’t know what to do, so in the meantime nothing is being registered.”

“We sent letters to all the authorities,” said Montes, who has received anonymous threats for speaking out. “They never responded. When the ink and paper ran out, and our fingers were worn out from so much typing, we went out to protest and this is what happened.”

The town is in the municipality of Ocoyucan and the local inhabitants belong to the Nahua indigenous community. According to the latest estimates by the government’s National Commission for the Development of Indigenous Peoples, the native population of Puebla is one million people – one quarter of the state’s total population.

In Mexico’s municipalities there is a “presidente” or mayor, and “presidentes auxiliares”, who are the highest level authorities in the communities, many of which are remote and located far from the seat of the municipal government.

The presidentes auxiliares name the police chief and run the town. And up to May they were also the civil registry judges or clerks..

They are directly elected by local voters without participation by the political parties, and they tend to be highly respected local leaders who are close to the people.

In the Jul. 9 police crackdown, 13-year-old José Luis Alberto Tehuatlie was hit by a rubber bullet in the head and died after 10 days in coma.

The Puebla state government initially denied that rubber bullets had been used. But the public outrage over the boy’s death forced Governor Rafael Moreno to announce that he would repeal the law.

Puebla is not the only place in Mexico where there have been attempts to regulate public protests. In the last year, the legislatures of five states have discussed similar bills.

The first was, paradoxically, the Federal District, in Mexico City, which has been governed by the leftwing Party of the Democratic Revolution (PRD) since 1997.

In the capital street protests are a daily occurrence, but since the very day that Enrique Peña Nieto was sworn in as president, on Dec. 1, 2012, demonstrations and marches have frequently turned violent.

A Federal District bill on public demonstrations, introduced in December 2013 by lawmakers from the rightwing opposition National Action Party, failed to prosper.

In April, the southeastern state of Quintana Roo, ruled by the governing Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), became the first part of Mexico to regulate protests.

A state law, the “Ley de Ordenamiento Cívico”, known as the “anti-protest law,” is a toned-down version of another initiative that would have required demonstrators to apply for a permit to protest at least 48 hours ahead of time.

But the law maintains the ban on roadblocks and allows the police “to take pertinent measures” against demonstrators.

Other initiatives to regulate and allow the “legitimate use of force” have been adopted in the states of San Luis Potosí and Chiapas.

Global rights groups like Article 19 and Amnesty International have spoken out strongly against these laws aimed at regulating demonstrations, pointing to a worrisome tendency towards the criminalisation of social protests in Mexico since 2012.

But the governmental National Human Rights Commission has failed to make use of its legal powers to promote legal action challenging the anti-protest initiatives as unconstitutional.

On the contrary, in October 2013 it recommended that the Senate amend article 9 of the constitution referring to the freedom to hold public demonstrations and to the use of public force.

The Jul. 9 protest was not the first time rubber bullets have been used in Puebla.

Just hours before Tehuatlie’s death was confirmed, the Puebla state secretary of public security, Facundo Rosas, showed a document from the secretariat of national defence which indicated that the government had not purchased rubber bullets under the current administration.

However, in December 2011 the state human rights commission rebuked the Puebla police chief for the use of rubber bullets to evict local residents of the community of Ciénega Larga, when 70-year-old Artemia León was injured, as reported by the Eje Central online news site.

It became clear in conversations that IPS held with people in San Bernardino Chalchihuapan that they are very angry. Hundreds of people attended the boy’s funeral, on Jul. 22, where many of them called for the governor’s resignation.

“Why doesn’t he try the rubber bullets on his own kids,” said one man after the funeral, which was attended by some 40 “presidentes auxiliares” from other communities.

So far no one has been held accountable for the boy’s death.

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The Silent Power of Boycotts and Blockades Tue, 08 Jul 2014 17:18:21 +0000 Kanya DAlmeida Nonviolent rally in front of the US Embassy in Chile, asking for the withdrawal of US troops from occupied territories. Credit: Rafael Edwards/Ressenza via Flickr/ CC 2.0

Nonviolent rally in front of the US Embassy in Chile, asking for the withdrawal of US troops from occupied territories. Credit: Rafael Edwards/Ressenza via Flickr/ CC 2.0

By Kanya D'Almeida
CAPE TOWN, Jul 8 2014 (IPS)

Peruse a few reports on global military expenditure and you will not be able to shake the image of the planet as one massive army camp, patrolled by heavily weaponised guards in a plethora of uniforms.

Last year, the world spent about 1.76 trillion dollars on military activity according to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI). The year before, arms sales among SIPRI’s ‘Top 100’ companies touched 410 billion dollars. It is estimated that 1,000 people die from gun violence every single day.

The newly founded Pan African Network on Nonviolence and Peacebuilding is the first regional initiative of its kind dedicated to connecting African grassroots organisers around nonviolent resistance.
But scattered amongst the barracks of this planetary war zone are scores of white flags, wielded daily by the many millions of people engaged in nonviolent resistance to the forces that threaten their existence.

Nearly 120 of these peace activists are currently assembled in Cape Town’s City Hall, for the quadrennial meeting of the 93-year-old War Resister’s International (WRI), a global network of activists from far-flung regions fighting on every imaginable front, from anti-trafficking in Australia to peace and reconciliation in Rwanda.

Returning to the very pulpit from where he led the historic 1989 March for Peace, Archbishop Desmond Tutu addressed the forum’s participants Saturday night by invoking memories of the long and bloody struggle against apartheid.

“Take our thanks back to your countries,” he told the audience, “even the poorest of which stood ready to receive South African exiles and refugees.” Drawing on the conference’s theme ‘Small Actions – Big Movements: the continuum of nonviolence’, he urged greater collaboration between disparate movements, in order to find strength in unity.

“The U.S. Command in Africa (AFRICOM) has now expanded to approximately 2,000 troops on the continent, covering 38 countries,” WRI Conference Coordinator Matt Meyer told IPS.

“With almost no money but a lot of passion and an understanding of the need for unity in the face of militarism, violence, and a re-colonisation of the land, we brought together people from every continent and 33 African countries to say: ‘We will continue to resist. We will build a beautiful new tomorrow.’”

Running from Jul. 4-8, the gathering offers a bird’s eye view of the life-affirming campaigns that often get pushed off front pages in favour of headlines proclaiming death and war.

While not often on the news, the efficacy of the peace movement is being documented elsewhere. Analysing a century’s worth of data, the World Peace Foundation found that between 1900 and 2006, nonviolent movements had a 53-percent success rate, compared to a 22-percent success rate for violent movements.

Other tangible successes include the long list of victories recently secured by the Palestinian Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement, according to Omar Barghouti, a founding committee member of the Palestinian Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel (PACBI).

With three basic demands (ending the occupation as defined by the 1967 borders; ending Israel’s system of legal discrimination against Palestinians; and enforcing the right of return for Palestinian refugees), the civil society initiative calls for the same global solidarity that erupted during the fight against apartheid in South Africa, and urges companies to withdraw their investments from firms that directly profit from the occupation of Palestine.

In the last three years alone, many major pension funds in Europe have divested from Israeli banks, including the 200-billion-dollar financial giant PGGM, the second-largest pension manager in the Netherlands.

Gender and Militarism

With women and children disproportionately impacted by conflict and militarisation, the Women Peacemaker’s Program (WPP) played a major role in the conference, releasing its annual May 24 report here just days before the WRI gathering.

Organising their work under the larger umbrella of what WPP Program Officer Sophie Schellens called “gender sensitive active nonviolence”, the organisation is comprised of a network of some 50 partners based on every continent.

“This is a politically sensitive topic, since we are analysing militarism and the military from a gender perspective,” Schellens told IPS.

“For instance, an indigenous Manipur-based woman activist in our network, Sumshot Khular, connects the links between militarism, development and politics, and the specific effects of this alliance on women.”

An article by Khular in WPP’s report, ‘Gender and Militarism: Analyzing the Links to Strategize for Peace,’ notes that South Asia is home to more than 160 million indigenous people, yet few governments formally recognise their rights, leaving many at the mercy of developers carrying out coal and uranium mining, and oil and gas exploration.

“The aggressive development models associated with intensive militarisation have been ravaging not only our land and resources, but also our people – especially women and girls,” Khular writes.

According to Schellens, these affected women are now coming together in large numbers to “defy these militarised structures.”
In addition, the 810-billion-dollar sovereign wealth fund of Norway decided this year to pull investments from Israeli firms operating in the West Bank; the Luxembourg Pension Fund followed suit, citing ethical concerns over the building of settlements on occupied Palestinian land.

In addition, said Barghouti, “Bill Gates, the richest man in the world, recently divested from the British-Danish-owned G4S, one of the largest private security companies in the world; the United Methodist Church – one of the richest in the U.S. – pulled its 18-billion-dollar fund out of companies operating on occupied Palestinian land; and the Presbyterian church has divested from companies like Caterpillar, HP and Motorola Solutions because of their involvement in the occupation.”

With its 15-billion-dollar defense budget, the Israeli government is not taking this lightly, and has identified the BDS movement as a strategic, rather than societal, threat.

“Israel recently shifted overall responsibility for fighting BDS from the ministry of foreign affairs to the ministry of strategic affairs,” Barghouti said Monday, “the same ministry that deals with the Iranian threat, and Israel’s relationship with the U.S.”

Elsewhere, too, authoritarian regimes are recognising the legitimate power of nonviolent resistance. A South Sudanese activist, wishing to be identified only as Karbash A M, told IPS that the Sudanese government in Khartoum has issued a blanket ban on NGOs conducting nonviolence trainings among refugee communities.

But in the face of a political crisis that has claimed tens of thousands of lives since South Sudan declared independence in 2011, Marmoun said, a handful of organisations continue to train hundreds of community leaders and youth activists in the tactics of nonviolence, even as a wave of arms and ammunition threatens to drown the country.

Documenting over 14 case studies of peaceful resistance, the second edition of WRI’s Handbook for Nonviolent Campaigns, released here Sunday, offers a tip-of-the-iceberg analysis of the proliferation of nonviolent movements around the world, from protests against the Indonesian military in West Papua, to the diaspora solidarity movement for Eritrea.

Recognising a continuum between the moral commitment to nonviolence adopted by Gandhi, the strategic decision to exercise nonviolence in Eastern Europe in the 1980s, and a “willingness to use nonviolent methods […] but no commitment to avoid low-level physical violence,” the Handbook offers practical advice to activists and organisers from Colombia to South Korea and beyond.

Another major development here this week was the founding of the Pan African Network on Nonviolence and Peacebuilding, the first regional initiative of its kind dedicated to connecting African grassroots organisers around nonviolent resistance.

“I am delighted we have been able to give birth to this network here in Cape Town,” Nozizwe Madlala-Routledge, executive director of the South Africa-based organisation Embrace Dignity – which fights to end sex trafficking and the commercial exploitation of women – told IPS.

“At the last count, 33 African countries are represented in the network, with a 16-member steering committee, each from a different country.

“We are also making an effort to ensure representation from island states like Mauritius and the Canary Islands,” she stated, adding that the network will play a crucial role in elevating the voices of civil society on issues of governance, development and corruption.

Experts here say such a network could be hugely important in combating the U.S.’ increased military presence in Africa, such as plans to construct a 220-million-dollar Special Operations compound at the base of the U.S.’ Camp Lemonnier in Djibouti.

The actions may be small, but their impacts are felt at the highest level.

“We can now call ourselves the ‘three percent people’,” Anand Mazgaonkar, a representative of the National Alliance of Peoples’ Movements (NAPM) in Gujarat, India, said at a plenary session Monday, “because a recent intelligence report in India has named all of us involved in movements as collectively responsible for a three percent damage to the country’s gross domestic product (GDP).”

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Rights Experts Urge Action on Gender Equality in Taiwan Wed, 02 Jul 2014 19:48:03 +0000 Dennis Engbarth Taiwanese women hold aloft a LGBT flag during Taiwan`s 11th annual LGBT Pride March in Taipei City Oct. 26, 2013. Credit: Dennis Engbarth/IPS

Taiwanese women hold aloft a LGBT flag during Taiwan`s 11th annual LGBT Pride March in Taipei City Oct. 26, 2013. Credit: Dennis Engbarth/IPS

By Dennis Engbarth
TAIPEI, Jul 2 2014 (IPS)

Prominent international human rights experts are calling on the Taiwan government to quickly enact a comprehensive anti-discrimination act, revamp the law on citizenship and take a wide range of other actions to curb gender discrimination.

A five-member commission issued 35 recommendations after an intense review of Taiwan’s second national report on the implementation of the Convention on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW).

The commission members from Kenya, Malaysia the Philippines, South Korea and the United States met at the Civil Service Training Center in Taipei City June 23-26.

"It is...commendable, that a country which is not a UN member state has voluntarily undertaken to adopt the standards of CEDAW..." -- Mary Shanthi Dairiam, United Nations Development Program (UNDP) Gender Equality Taskforce
More than 230 government officials and some 100 representatives of non-governmental organizations joined in the review. The event consisted of discussions with the 55 civil society organizations, as well as a day-long questioning session with Taiwan government officials on issues raised by NGOs in nearly 30 “parallel reports.”

Zoe Ye of the Intersex, Transgender and Transsexual People Care Association, reminded the committee of the case of Tsai Ya-ting, a trans-woman whose application for a national identity card was rejected in 2002. She committed suicide the following year.

“The government has not learned from this lesson and has ignored the urgent desire of transgender persons to adopt a legal gender status in accord with their self-identity,” according to Ye.

The Taiwan government currently requires applicants for gender change to undergo psychological examinations and the surgical removal of reproductive organs before changes in official registration are approved, a requirement which Ye stressed violates five UN human rights conventions, including CEDAW.

Other NGO representatives stressed infringements on women’s land rights, faulting the government for failure to conduct gender impact-assessments for many of its development plans that involve large-scale land expropriations.

These “threaten the right to adequate housing for rural women and all aspects of their lives,” said Lu Shih-wei of Taiwan Rural Front and Wild at Heart Legal Defence Association.

Non-member committed to CEDAW

Taiwan ratified CEDAW in 2007 under the previous centrist Democratic Progressive Party government of then president Chen Shui-bian, but the United Nations Secretariat rejected the ratified treaty for deposit since Taiwan is not a UN member state.

Instead, CEDAW was directly incorporated into Taiwan’s domestic law through an “enforcement act” effective January 1, 2012.

“It is almost unique, and commendable, that a country which is not a UN member state has voluntarily undertaken to adopt the standards of CEDAW and other human rights treaties,” Mary Shanthi Dairiam, a member of the United Nations Development Program (UNDP) Gender Equality Taskforce, told IPS.

Still, “the defensiveness of government officials here is the same as elsewhere,” according to Shanthi, who is a former member of the UN Committee on the Elimination of all Forms Discrimination against Women (CEFDW).

Speaking to IPS, Democratic Progressive Party legislator Yu Mei-nu said that  the realization of CEDAW objectives may be hampered by “martial law mentalities” of certain government officials. But the convention has “provided a platform for citizens and civil society organizations to link with international society and fight for human rights at home,” according to Yu.

Main recommendations 

Chief among the 35 recommendations were calls to set a deadline to enact “comprehensive legislation covering all fields of gender discrimination” as soon as possible; establish an independent national human rights institution; prompt revision of laws on nationality, domestic violence, human trafficking and marriage equality; and passage of long-denied bills to protect domestic workers, along with ratification of the International Convention on the Rights of All Migrant Workers and Members of their Families.

The committee further stressed the need for “gender impact assessments” for government policies and development plans.

It called for abolishing the surgical requirement for trans women, as well as the mandatory HIV testing requirement for entry, stay and residence of women living with HIV/AIDS.

The panel was led by Shin Heisoo, representative of the Korea Center for UN Human Rights Policy and a member of the UN Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights. Shin previously participated in the review of CEDAW state reports from 2001 to 2008.

“I hope the government of Taiwan is contemplating how to implement these recommendations…” Shin concluded, “Especially since we have heard that there has been a deterioration of civil and political and economic human rights.”

UNDP’s Shanti echoed the need for action. “The government officials said they have revised over 33,000 laws and regulations. But what the world community wants to know is not what the state says it is doing, but what is actually being achieved in terms of real improvement in gender equality.”


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Chile’s Patagonia Celebrates Decision Against Wilderness Dams Wed, 11 Jun 2014 00:47:51 +0000 Marianela Jarroud Patagonia Without Dams activists broke out in cheers when they heard the decision reached by a ministerial committee to reject the HidroAysén dam project on Tuesday Jun. 10. Credit: Courtesy of Greenpeace Chile

Patagonia Without Dams activists broke out in cheers when they heard the decision reached by a ministerial committee to reject the HidroAysén dam project on Tuesday Jun. 10. Credit: Courtesy of Greenpeace Chile

By Marianela Jarroud
SANTIAGO , Jun 11 2014 (IPS)

The Chilean government rejected Tuesday the controversial HidroAysén project for the construction of five hydroelectric dams on rivers in the south of the country. The decision came after years of struggle by environmental groups and local communities, who warned the world of the destruction the dams would wreak on the Patagonian wilderness.

“This is a historic day,” Juan Pablo Orrego, the international coordinator of the Patagonia Without Dams campaign, told IPS after the decision was announced.

“I am moved that the citizens – because this was a victory by the citizens – managed to finally inspire a government to do the right thing in the face of a mega-project,” he added.

The decision was reached after a three-hour meeting by a committee of ministers of the government of socialist President Michelle Bachelet, who took office for a second term in March.

The committee, made up of the ministers of environment, energy, agriculture, mining, economy and health, unanimously accepted the 35 complaints presented against the project, 34 of which were introduced by communities and others opposed to the initiative and the last of which was presented by the company itself.

The decision took six years to arrive, after a number of legal battles. And in response to the announcement people took to the streets in Patagonia, a wilderness region in southern Chile, to celebrate.

“This ministerial committee has decided to accept the complaints presented by the community, by the citizens, and annul the environmental permit for the HidroAysén project,” Environment Minister Pablo Badenier told reporters, declaring that the dam had been rejected by the government.

The company, owned by Italian firm Endesa-Enel (which holds a 51 percent share) and Chile’s Colbún, has 30 days to appeal the resolution in an environmental court in Valdivia, in southern Chile.

During the election campaign, President Bachelet had stated that the dams were not viable.

In May, when her administration unveiled its energy agenda, she said she would promote renewable unconventional energy sources and the use of natural gas, in contrast with the plan of her predecessor, Sebastián Piñera (2010-2014), which favoured hydropower.

The HidroAysén project, presented in August 2007, was to involve the construction of five large hydroelectric dams on the Baker and Pascua rivers in Patagonia. But the following year, 32 of the 34 public agencies called on to pronounce themselves did so against the project.

Environmental groups, with the support of some government officials, have proposed UNESCO world heritage site status for the southern region of Aysén, where the dams were to be built some 1,600 km south of Santiago. Patagonia is not only biodiverse but is also one of the biggest reserves of freshwater in the world.

The dams would have flooded a total of 5,910 hectares of wilderness, for a total capacity of 2,750 MW for the national grid (SIC).

Chile has a total installed capacity of 17,000 MW: 74 percent in SIC, 25 percent in the great northern grid (SING), and the rest in medium-sized grids in the southern regions of Aysén and Magallanes.

The project also included a 1,912-km power line, the longest in the world, which was to run through nine of the 15 regions of this long narrow South American country.

Energy Minister Máximo Pacheco said the HidroAysén project “suffers from serious problems in its execution because it did not treat aspects related to the people who live there with due care and attention.”

He added that as energy minister “I have voted with complete peace and clarity of mind with respect to this project.”

Pacheco also said “the decision that was reached today does not compromise in the least the energy policy that we have designed in the energy agenda, but specifically refers to one project.”

Orrego, the environmentalist, said the decision against the construction of the HidroAysén dams “points to the end of the era of the thermoelectric and hydroelectric energy mega-projects – an era that in the developed countries ended a long time ago.”

Chile imports 97 percent of its fossil fuels and its energy mix is made up of 40 percent hydropower and the rest of polluting fossil fuels, used in thermoelectric plants.

The fact that Chile lacks domestic oil and natural gas means the cost of producing electricity per MW-hour is among the highest in Latin America – over 160 dollars, compared to 55 dollars in Peru, 40 in Colombia and 10 in Argentina.

The executive director of the association of electric companies (ASEL), Rodrigo Castillo, said on Tuesday that the resolution “refers to one project in particular and does not make it impossible to use hydrological resources in southern Chile in the future.”

But René Muga, the head of the association of power plants (AGG), said HidroAysén represented 40 percent of the energy needed by the country in the next 10 years, equivalent, according to his figures, to what seven or eight coal-fired plants would produce. “That energy is really necessary,” he argued.

Orrego said the Bachelet administration’s decision could bring it “very powerful political consequences.”

“It is a brave move,” the environmentalist said. “But it was inspired by the citizens, of that we have no doubt.”

“These many years of struggle have culminated in this resounding victory for the citizens,” Orrego added.

The Patagonia Without Dams campaign waged by a coalition of environmental and citizen groups and led by Orrego and prominent environmentalist Sara Larraín managed to mobilise the entire country against the HidroAysén project and drew international attention to the planned wilderness dams.

In opinion polls, three-quarters of respondents have said they were opposed to the dams. And in early 2011, more than 100,000 people took to the streets against HidroAysén.

Orrego, who won the Right Livelihood Award in 1998, expressed his gratitude to Chile, “because this campaign was carried out by the entire country.”

He also acknowledged the participation of “allies” in other countries, such as Argentina, Belgium, Italy and Spain.

In the Aysén región, critics of the project waited in a local cinema for the announcement of the ministerial committee’s decision, before marching through the streets of Coyhaique, the regional capital, to celebrate.

Patricio Segura of the Citizen Coalition for the Aysen Life Reserve told IPS that the government’s decision “was the right thing in terms of sustainability and the construction of the energy mix that we as a country deserve.”

“We hoped President Michelle Bachelet’s political commitment would be fulfilled, as well as the duty to set aside an irregular project that advanced due to lobbying and pressure,” he added.

Segura said the project “generated tremendous polarisation in the Aysén region,” and he complained that “they managed to divide the people of Aysén without even laying one brick.”

As a result, he said, this decision lays the foundation “for us to sit down in Aysén and discuss what really matters, which is the Aysén Life Reserve.”

“Now we have to discuss a sovereign and sustainable energy mix for the Aysén region, including our region’s abundant water resources and wind energy,” he added.

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Train on the Move to Unite Basques, Scots and Catalans Mon, 09 Jun 2014 15:16:41 +0000 Karlos Zurutuza Demonstrators in the village of Beasain, halfway along the 123-km long human chain “for the right to decide”. Credit: Karlos Zurutuza/IPS

Demonstrators in the village of Beasain, halfway along the 123-km long human chain “for the right to decide”. Credit: Karlos Zurutuza/IPS

By Karlos Zurutuza
BEASAIN, Spain, Jun 9 2014 (IPS)

“Around 150,000 showed up to claim that we, Basques, want to decide the future of this country,” Urtzi Urrutikoetxea, journalist, writer and member of the Basque people’s organisation Gure Esku Dago (GED), told IPS after on the 123-kilometre long human chain “for the right to decide” organised Sunday.

“This is just the beginning of a train that will link the Basque Country with both Scotland and Catalonia,“ said the Basque intellectual.

“Initially we thought we´d be done with 50,000 so it is definitely been a huge success,” he noted, referring to the number of demonstrators that lined up holding hands between Durango and Pamplona, respectively 418 and 450 km north of Madrid.

Gure Esku Dago, which stands for “It lies in our hands” in the Basque language, was set up in June 2013 as a platform which, according to Urrutikoetxea, “vows to serve as an umbrella organisation for local initiatives aimed at the activation and citizen support for the right to decide of the Basques.”"We cannot but adhere to an initiative that is rooted in the most fundamental right to decide within a democracy. And this is the very basic point where both Spanish and Basque nationalists should come together" – Laura Mintegi, Basque MP

The Basque people have their own language and culture and live on both sides of the Pyrenees. Theirs is a territory divided into different political-administrative organisations: the Basque Autonomous Community and the Chartered Community of Navarre in Spain, and three provinces in France. Their total population is estimated at about three million. Well over two-thirds live in the Basque Autonomous Community.

Alongside several trade unions and social agents, the two main political forces in the Basque Parliament, the right-wing Basque Nationalist Party (PNV) and the left-wing Euskal Herria Bildu – with 27 and 21 seats respectively of the 75 in the Basque chamber – supported the demonstration.

“The citizenship has remained expectant for too many years, trying to figure out what the political parties´ next moves would be. Today they have lost the fear to remain ignored and unheard so they have decided to take the initiative,” Laura Mintegi, Basque MP and Parliamentary spokesperson for Euskal Herria Bildu, told IPS.

Mintegi summed up the reasons behind her group joining the human chain: “We cannot but adhere to an initiative that is rooted in the most fundamental right to decide within a democracy. And this is the very basic point where both Spanish and Basque nationalists should come together.”

But key actors such as the Popular Party (PP) – Spain´s ruling party – are still far from following suit. Laura Garrido holds one of the ten seats the conservative coalition has in the Basque chamber, where the Popular Party is the fourth force.

The 43-year-old MP labelled the Basque nationalist parties´ attitude as “disruptive”, while she accused them of “fostering instability.”

“Theirs is a dangerous challenge to the established order. Far from uniting the Basques, it only encourages confrontation among us,” Garrido told IPS.

Asked about the reasons for her party preventing a vote on independence, the conservative political leader was categorical:

“The Spanish Constitution does not provide any such legal instruments, so a referendum of this kind is simply not a feasible option.”

The “Basque nationalists versus Spanish constitutionalists” equation may not coincide with today´s national political scenario. Even members of the opposition Spanish Socialist Workers’ Party (PSOE) and other left-wing Spanish parties have publicly showed support for Sunday´s demonstration.

Gemma Zabaleta, who served form many years as a Minister of Employment and Social Affairs in the Basque Government, has repeatedly stated that she would not favour an independent Basque Country, and that she would like to defend her position in a plebiscite.

“It is, by far, the most democratic, healthiest and most clarifying formula. Hampering such a referendum only boosts nationalist feelings even further,” said Zabaleta during a conference last April.

But perhaps one of the biggest arguments to refute the thesis that a referendum lies exclusively in the agenda of Basque nationalist sectors is the call on the citizenship to participate in the human chain by the Podemos (“We can”) political party, created in March this year by Spanish leftist activists.

Only three months after it was registered as a political party, Podemos won five seats in the European Parliament elections on May 25. Their arrival in the Spanish political arena has been spectacular and many political analysts see them as the outcome of the so called “Indignants´ movement”, which led a series of massive protests in demand of radical changes in Spanish politics back in 2011.

“The right of the peoples of Europe to become a state, provided that´s the citizenship´s will, is clearly stated in our political programme,” Carolina Bescansa, head of Podemos’ Unit of Political Analysis told IPS.

“The right of the people to decide on their future is not a nationalist claim, but a purely democratic demand,” insisted Bescansa, a professor of Political Science who calls for an “urgent restoration of democracy and participation lost at the hands of the ruling oligarchy in Spain.”

Public disenchantment with key institutions formed in the 1970s after a four-decade long dictatorship is, indeed, widespread in Spain after long and deep economic crisis, and an endless list of corruption scandals.

Also touched by the latter, Spanish king Juan Carlos I abdicated on June 2 after a 39-year reign, so the Spanish Government is currently working around the clock over the coronation of Philip VI. Meanwhile, thousands keep marching across the country for the abolition of the monarchy that was reinstated in 1975.

The next crucial date on the agenda will likely be November 9, when 7.5 million Catalans will hold a referendum over independence from Spain. The plebiscite date was announced by Catalan President Artur Mas in December 2013, only three months after a massive human chain criss-crossed Catalonia

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Protests Threaten to Paralyse Brazil Ahead of World Cup Mon, 26 May 2014 23:35:03 +0000 Fabiola Ortiz Professors and public employees of the Federal University of Rio Grande do Norte, a state in northeast Brazil, in a demonstration during the strike they have been holding since March. The state capital, Natal, is one of the 12 cities hosting the FIFA World Cup. Credit: Fabíola Ortiz/IPS

Professors and public employees of the Federal University of Rio Grande do Norte, a state in northeast Brazil, in a demonstration during the strike they have been holding since March. The state capital, Natal, is one of the 12 cities hosting the FIFA World Cup. Credit: Fabíola Ortiz/IPS

By Fabiola Ortiz
RIO DE JANEIRO, May 26 2014 (IPS)

As the FIFA World Cup approaches, the streets of Brazil are heating up with strikes and demonstrations, and there are worries that the social unrest could escalate into a wave of protests similar to the ones that shook the country in June 2013.

Groups of public and private sector workers have been on strike for days, creating a hectic backdrop for the Jun. 12-Jul. 13 global football championship.

In the southern city of São Paulo a strike by bus drivers last week generated the worst traffic jams in the history of the city. And on May 21, some 8,000 police marched to the esplanade of ministries in the capital Brasilia, in a protest supported by the federal and military police forces.

In the 12 cities that will host the World Cup matches, at least 15 protests are scheduled for the event’s opening day.

Trade unions are taking advantage of the spotlight on Brazil to pressure the centre-left government of Dilma Rousseff to meet their demands.

Even workers in over a dozen Brazilian consulates in the United States and Europe, responsible for issuing visas to those interested in flying to Brazil for the sporting event, went on strike last week.

And staff at LATAM airlines – the region’s largest carrier, formed by the merger of Brazil’s Tam and Chile’s Lan – threatened a strike or slowdown that could bring airports to a halt and disrupt hundreds of international flights during the World Cup.

Professors at 90 percent of the country’s federal and state universities and teachers at state and municipal primary schools across the country have also gone on strike, while many public cultural foundations and museums have closed their doors.

“A general strike hasn’t been ruled out,” Sergio Ronaldo da Silva, secretary general of the main federal workers’ union, CONDSEF, told IPS.

“This isn’t all happening because of the World Cup,” he said. “We had been talking for a long time about going on strike. Our complaints aren’t connected to the championship – they are demands we have been voicing for years.”

If the situation remains unchanged, this country of 200 million people could grind to a halt during the World Cup, Ronaldo da Silva admitted, after pointing out that the authorities have not set a date for negotiations. He added that as the opening match approaches, relations could become even more tense.

“The federal government should have foreseen this scenario,” the trade unionist said. “They want to show the image of Brazil as a first world country, but our health system is almost broken down, and the same thing is true of education and public transport.”

CONDSEF represents around 80 percent of Brazil’s 1.3 million federal public employees.

“On May 30 we’re going to discuss the possibility of a general strike, in our confederation. The government has been hearing the message since last June’s protests,” Ronaldo da Silva said.“The government generated an exaggerated sense of expectation among the public, which has fallen flat. It promised a lot and has delivered very little. The outlook has changed and the protests are a reflection of those changes.” -- Pedro Trengrouse

In late 2013, the government signed more than 140 labour agreements with a number of different trade unions, pledging – among other things – a 15.8 percent raise, to be paid in three annual quotas.

But at that time, the projected inflation rate was much lower than today’s rate of 26 percent, the unions complain. “Of the agreements that were signed, 70 percent are not being fulfilled,” said Ronaldo da Silva.

Another problem facing the public sector is the exodus of public employees. In the latest recruitment process, in 2011, 240,000 were hired – and nearly half have already left their jobs, according to CONDSEF.

Since February 2012, legislators have been discussing proposals for preventing strikes during the World Cup. Draft law 728/2011, currently under debate in the Senate, would limit strikes ahead of and during the global sporting event.

Under the bill, unions organising a strike would have to announce it 15 days ahead of time, and 70 percent of workers would have to remain on the job.

And in February the government introduced a bill to limit protests and strikes, but there are doubts that it will be approved in the next few days.

Justice Minister José Eduardo Cardozo said strikes, demonstrations or other measures should not create chaos and disorder or generate economic damage or violence.

“The police, who serve the constitution, know that strikes are prohibited by Supreme Court rulings,” he said. “We can use the national security forces and the armed forces to guarantee law and order,” he added, to reassure the public.

On May 13, Sports Minister Aldo Rebelo predicted that the World Cup would be a peaceful time of public celebration.

“If protests occur, they’ll be isolated incidents,” he said. “I believe the country is ready because Brazil’s legislation protects peaceful demonstrations and prevents violent protests. I don’t think there are many people interested in seeing the World Cup turn chaotic because of violent protests.”

“I think we’re prepared, that public security is going to work. The safety of visitors and guests is assured. There is no risk,” he maintained.

But Pedro Trengrouse, a member of the Brazilian Lawyers Institute who specialises in sports law, said there is a climate of frustration that is very different from the initial enthusiastic reception of the 2009 announcement that Brazil would host the World Cup.

“The government generated an exaggerated sense of expectation among the public, which has fallen flat. It promised a lot and has delivered very little. The outlook has changed and the protests are a reflection of those changes,” Trengrouse told IPS.

When Brazil was selected as the host of the 2014 World Cup, no one was thinking about protests, he pointed out, because 80 percent of the population at the time supported Brazil’s bid for hosting the event, according to opinion polls.

Today, however, 55 percent of respondents say the World Cup is likely to bring the country more problems than benefits.

In 2008 and 2009, Trengrouse worked as a United Nations consultant in the service of the Brazilian government for legislative affairs related to sports, especially the World Cup.

The lawyer said the government associated the World Cup with the major structural transformations that Brazil needed, but that they would have had to be carried out with or without the mega sports event.

And in two years time, Rio de Janeiro will also host the 2016 summer Olympics.

“A balance must be struck,” Trengrouse said. “The workers’ right to strike for better conditions is inalienable. But strikes must not hurt the public. There is opportunism in some sectors. Protests cannot be allowed to give rise to criminal activities, vandalism and fascist rallies.”

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Conflict with Local Communities Hits Mining and Oil Companies Where It Hurts Sun, 18 May 2014 09:39:03 +0000 Stephen Leahy Rosa Tanguila, a Quechua indigenous woman, cleaning up the pollution caused by Texaco in a stream in her community, Rumipamba, in Ecuador’s Amazon jungle region. Credit: Gonzalo Ortiz/IPS

Rosa Tanguila, a Quechua indigenous woman, cleaning up the pollution caused by Texaco in a stream in her community, Rumipamba, in Ecuador’s Amazon jungle region. Credit: Gonzalo Ortiz/IPS

By Stephen Leahy
UXBRIDGE, Canada , May 18 2014 (IPS)

Conflicts with local communities over mining, oil and gas development are costing companies billions of dollars a year. One corporation alone reported a six billion dollar cost over a two-year period according to the first-ever peer-reviewed study on the cost of conflicts in the extractive sector.

The Pascua Lama gold mining project in Chile has cost Canada’s Barrick Gold 5.4 billion dollars following 10 years of protests and irregularities. No gold has ever been mined and the project has been suspended on court order.

And in Peru, the two billion dollar Conga copper mining project was suspended in 2011 after protests broke out over the projected destruction of four high mountain lakes. The U.S.-based Newmont Mining Co, which also operates the nearby Yanacocha mine, has now built four reservoirs which, according to its plan, are to be used instead of the lakes.

“Communities are not powerless. Our study shows they can organise and mobilise, which results in substantial costs to companies,” said co-author Daniel Franks of Australia’s University of Queensland, who is also deputy director of the Centre for Social Responsibility in Mining.

“Unfortunately conflicts can also result in bloodshed and loss of life,” Franks told Tierramérica.

The study is based on 45 in-depth, confidential interviews with high-level officials in the extractive (energy and mining) industries with operations around the world.

“Conflict translates environmental and social risk into business costs” was published May 12 in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS). A special report “Costs of Company-Community Conflict in the Extractive Sector” based on the study is also available.

“We wanted to document the costs of bad relationships with communities. Companies aren’t fully aware and only some investors know the extent of the risk,” Franks said.

“If companies are interested in securing their profits then they need to have high environmental and social standards and collaborate with communities,” Franks said in an interview.

Investing in building relationships with communities is far less costly than conflict. Local people are not generally opposed to development. What they oppose is having little say or control over how development proceeds, he added.

“We want development that benefits indigenous people and doesn’t just benefit someone’s brother-in-law,” said Alberto Pizango, president of the  Interethnic Association for the Development of the Peruvian Rainforest (AIDESEP), an indigenous rights organisation in Peru representing 1,350 Amazon jungle communities.

Peruvian indigenous leader Alberto Pizango, who is on trial in connection with the 2009 massacre in Bagua, has at the same time been asked by the Environment Ministry to help plan the next climate summit. Credit: Coimbra Sirica/BurnessGlobal

Peruvian indigenous leader Alberto Pizango, who is on trial in connection with the 2009 massacre in Bagua, has at the same time been asked by the Environment Ministry to help plan the next climate summit. Credit: Coimbra Sirica/BurnessGlobal

“Indigenous people have something to say about harmonious development with nature. We don’t want development that destroys our beloved Amazon,” Pizango told Tierrámerica from Lima.

Pizango has been actively resisting the government of Peru’s selling of petroleum concessions to foreign companies on lands legally titled to indigenous people.

The struggle turned violent outside the northern jungle town of Bagua on Jun. 5, 2009, when armed riot police moved to evict peaceful protesters blocking a road. In the clash 24 police officers and 10 civilians were killed.

Pizango and 52 other indigenous leaders were charged with inciting violence and 18 other crimes. They went on trial May 14 in Bagua.

The indigenous people were protesting 10 legislative decrees they considered unconstitutional, which were put in place by the government to foment private investment in native territories.

“We had no choice and thought our protests were fair and that we were right. But it was too high a price. We don’t want to see that again. We want to move from the ‘big protest’ to the ‘big proposal,” said Pizango, who faces a life sentence if he is found guilty.

The study published in PNAS shows that the violence in Bagua could have been avoided if companies and the government acknowledged indigenous rights and worked with local communities.

“It is with great sadness I say this has yet to happen in Peru,” said Pizango, who was not even in Bagua when the violent clash occurred.

Meanwhile, Peru’s Environment Ministry has asked Pizango and AIDESEP to assist in the planning of the big U.N. climate conference to be held in Lima at the end of the year. The indigenous leader hopes the event will show the world that native people can protect the forest and the climate.

Repairing relationships between communities and companies and governments is difficult, said Rachel Davis, a Fellow at the Corporate Social Responsibility Initiative at Harvard University.

“It is much harder for a company to repair its relationship with a local community after it has broken down; relationships cannot be ‘retro-fitted’,” said Davis, a co-author of the study.

Franks compares this to a divorce, pointing out that only rarely do partners remarry.

Leading mining corporations have apparently begun to understand this, and are implementing the U.N. Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights and adopting the International Council on Mining and Metals Sustainable Development Framework, Davis said in a statement.

But this is not the case in the oil and gas sector. “Their culture is very different. They’re not used to dealing with communities,” said Franks.

The study shows that environmental and water issues are the biggest triggers of conflicts. Activities like hydraulic fracking for unconventional gas and oil are on the rise and are affecting water. Big conflicts are coming, he predicts.

“It’s a good report but doesn’t address the broader economic and political pressure to push projects through quickly,” said Jamie Kneen of MiningWatch Canada.

Shareholders want big returns on their investments and governments want their royalties sooner rather than later. All of this makes corporations less willing to compromise or to take the time to find alternatives that might be acceptable to local people,” Kneen told Tierrámerica.

“Companies know there will be problems with local communities. Companies often gamble that any conflict will not get too high a profile and try to hide this risk from investors,” he added.

Not all conflicts are resolvable, Kneen said. “Some communities will never accept any risk of contamination to their water.”

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

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Lagging Urban Transport Works Hinder World Cup Sustainability Thu, 15 May 2014 01:28:15 +0000 Fabiola Ortiz Stands in the Arena Dunas in the city of Natal in Northeast Brazil, one of the eight FIFA World Cup stadiums granted a sustainable construction certificate. Credit: Fabíola Ortiz/IPS

Stands in the Arena Dunas in the city of Natal in Northeast Brazil, one of the eight FIFA World Cup stadiums granted a sustainable construction certificate. Credit: Fabíola Ortiz/IPS

By Fabiola Ortiz
NATAL, Brazil, May 15 2014 (IPS)

Brazil’s efforts to promote the image of an environmentally sustainable World Cup have focused on the stadiums built for the tournament. But the 12 cities where the matches will be played are in a race against time to complete the urban transport projects.

Natal, the capital of the state of Rio Grande do Norte in the Brazilian Northeast, is one of the cities that will host the World Cup 2014, and four games will be played here. This city of 800,000 people is known in this country as the “city of the sun” because there are more than 300 days of sunshine a year, enjoyed by visitors to the state’s 400 km of beaches.

This is the city with the cleanest air in South America, according to a study carried out in 1994 by the National Institute for Space Research (INPE) in partnership with the United States National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA). Water quality here is also excellent, because the water is “filtered” by the vast dunes surrounding the city.

Natal, which receives 1.5 million tourists a year, is now seeking an image of a sustainable city during the World Cup, which will take place in Brazil Jun. 12-Jul. 13.

The Arena Dunas stadium in Natal was officially inaugurated on Jan. 22, with a capacity for 42,000 spectators. The cost went 30 percent over the 190 million dollar budget, but at least the project is considered environmentally sustainable.

The OAS construction company, which built and is managing the stadium, will harvest rainwater, which will cut water consumption by 40 percent. And nearly 100 percent of the waste generated will be recycled.

In contrast with how early the stadium was finished, the urban transport works in the city run the risk of not being completed by the World Cup kickoff match on Jun. 13 – which could hurt the image of Natal as a sustainable World Cup city.

Unfinished transportation works around the stadium in Natal where the first of the four FIFA World Cup matches to be hosted by this city will take place on Jun. 13. Credit: Fabíola Ortiz/IPS

Unfinished transportation works around the stadium in Natal where the first of the four FIFA World Cup matches to be hosted by this city will take place on Jun. 13. Credit: Fabíola Ortiz/IPS

Of the seven transport projects planned, only one was completed, a year ago. At that time the remaining six were still only on paper, and three ended up being cancelled, after the city government admitted that it was unable to implement them.

The mayor of Natal, Carlos Eduardo Alves of the opposition Democratic Labour Party (PDT), told IPS that the city would be ready to host the World Cup thanks to 250 million dollars in federal funds.

“When Natal was chosen to be one of the host cities, it had 53 months to build the infrastructure and complete the projects. When I took office in January 2013, there were only 18 months to go, and nothing had started yet,” he said.

A total of 1,450 people are employed in shifts, 24/7, on the infrastructure projects.

Organised citizens one, expropriations zero

In 2012, the people of Natal were taken by surprise by the announcement that on Capitão Mor Gouveias avenue, one of the city’s main arteries, the property of 3,000 residents and 200 business owners was to be expropriated to make way for the construction of a road from the new airport to the stadium.

“One morning an official came to my business and handed me a letter informing me that half of the 200 square metres of my shop would be expropriated. He did so in a rude manner, and I was indignant. So we decided to fight the measure,” Jonas Valentim, 73, told IPS.

Valentim’s business has operated there for 30 years, and he was scared. “When we found out that the World Cup would be coming here, we were happy. But it was because we didn’t know it would deal us such a blow.”

He became one of the representatives in Natal of the “association of people affected by the World Cup works” (APAC), created in 2012 He is also a member of the World Cup People’s Committee, which has protested that the infrastructure works are not in line with the needs of the city.

In the case of Capitão Mor Gouveia avenue, the local residents and business owners managed to avoid forced eviction by asking specialists at the regional university to help draw up an alternative project, since the authorities had not consulted experts.

“We made suggestions to use avenues with less traffic, where no expropriations would be necessary,” said Valentim. That is the project currently being implemented – and no one has been evicted.

Alves guaranteed that six tunnels and a viaduct would be finished by May 31. A second viaduct won’t be done on time, but it will nevertheless be open to traffic during the World Cup.

“Natal won’t end after the World Cup,” the mayor said. “It will leave us with the biggest drainage system in the city, which cost 60 million dollars, and which will be 70 percent complete by the start of the World Cup.”

He added that 4,000 trees would be planted around the city.

He also said the big problem facing Brazilian cities today is traffic congestion, which is why tunnels and viaducts are being built, to ease traffic jams.

But the coordinator of transport research in the Civil Energy Department of the Federal University of Rio Grande do Norte, Enilson Medeiros dos Santos, doubts that the six transport construction projects around the stadium will be finished in time for the tournament.

“I don’t think they’ll be completed,” Santos said. “The viaduct of the BR-101 freeway [next to the stadium] was not in the original project and doesn’t stand a chance of being finished – work got started on it really late.”

Santos, a prominent voice in urban planning in Natal, complained that his team was not consulted when the transport plans were drawn up.

“The city that it took the longest for the federal government’s funds to reach was Natal,” he said. “The moment for planning is past; now concrete spending plans are needed.”

Santos also complained about a lack of information. Of the cities that will host the World Cup games, Natal was ranked the lowest on transparency in investment in 2013 by the Ethos Institute.

“No one has access to the executive projects, it’s all a total mystery,” he said.

According to Santos, Natal was the fruit of an accelerated development process and is one of the cities in the Northeast with the highest number of motor vehicles per capita.

The city has one motor vehicle for every four inhabitants, while demand for public transport is falling. There are more than 260,000 vehicles in the city, and since 2000 the number of cars has risen at a rate of 20,000 a year.

“The city does not have chronic congestion, but traffic has gotten worse quickly in the last 10 years. We had already pointed out the problem in 1998, if the city failed to put in place high-quality public transport systems,” Santos said.

In June 2012, during the United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development (Rio+20), FIFA, the international governing body of association football, announced that it would invest 20 million dollars to make the 2014 World Cup the first with a comprehensive sustainability strategy.

The strategy included “green” stadiums, waste management, community support, reducing and offsetting carbon emissions, renewable energy, climate change and capacity development, according to FIFA and the Local Organising Committee.

FIFA also stated that it would give priority to environmentally-friendly suppliers, and that it would carry out studies to assess the environmental impacts on the areas around the stadiums.

In addition, the construction projects had to obtain environmental permits, as a condition for receiving financing from the country’s state-owned development bank, the BNDES.

Another BNDES requisite was for the stadiums and other installations to receive LEED (Leadership in Energy & Environmental Design) certification granted by the U.S. Green Building Council, which is recognised by more than 130 countries.

Eight of the 12 World Cup stadiums followed sustainable construction guidelines, using water and energy saving technologies and recycled materials such as demolition waste.

But what apparently will not be sustainable is the use of the stadium after the World Cup. There is a danger that the Arena Dunas will become a white elephant because football matches in that area do not generally draw more than 6,000 people, OAS business manager Artur Couto acknowledged to IPS.

That means it would take over 3,000 matches just to pay off the construction costs.

But Couto defended the stadium as a multi-use structure. “It was built with the concept of multi-functionality, to be a living cell in the city. There are 40 dates for football games a year, but there are other uses as well, such as concerts and shows.”

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Latin America’s LGBTI Movement Celebrates Triumphs, Sets New Goals Sat, 10 May 2014 09:19:32 +0000 Ivet Gonzalez Members of the Tropicana dance company animate a session of the conference of the International Association of Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Trans and Intersex People for Latin America and the Caribbean, in the Cuban resort town of Varadero. Credit: Jorge Luis Baños/IPS

Members of the Tropicana dance company animate a session of the conference of the International Association of Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Trans and Intersex People for Latin America and the Caribbean, in the Cuban resort town of Varadero. Credit: Jorge Luis Baños/IPS

By Ivet González
VARADERO, Cuba , May 10 2014 (IPS)

Although it might not seem to be, Latin America is the most active region in the world when it comes to the defence of the rights of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex (LGBTI) people.

That is due to the maturity and intelligent strategies that the LGBTI movement has come up with in a number of the region’s 33 countries, where the level of respect for sexual orientation and gender identity still varies a great deal, however, activists from around the region told IPS at a conference in the Cuban resort town of Varadero.

“The most progressive and interesting proposals are emerging in the Americas,” said Mexican activist Gloria Careaga during the sixth Regional Conference of the International Association of Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Trans and Intersex People for Latin America and the Caribbean (ILGALAC), which was held here this week.

Leading the changes are Argentina and Uruguay, said Careaga, the co-secretary of the global federation, which was founded in 1978 and has Consultative Status to the United Nations Economic and Social Council.

These two Southern Cone countries have passed laws against discrimination and legalising same-sex marriage and adoptions.

Careaga added that other countries that have taken major steps are Brazil, Colombia and Mexico. She also stressed the progress made in Cuba, where “public displays of homosexuality” were illegal until the 1990s, and which is now hosting the May 6-10 regional conference.

In general terms, the Caribbean is the part of the region that is lagging the most in terms of LGBTI rights.

Today, homosexuality is only criminalised in two Latin American countries, Belize and Guyana. That is compared to nine Caribbean island nations that penalise same-sex acts, especially male on male.

Antigua and Barbuda, Barbados, Saint Vincent and the Grenadines, Dominica, Grenada, Jamaica, St. Kitts and Nevis, St. Lucia and Trinidad and Tobago provide for prison sentences of between 10 and 50 years for people convicted of engaging in same-sex acts.

And since 1976, Trinidad and Tobago has barred homosexuals from entering the country.

For these and other reasons, the conference in the Plaza America Convention Centre in Varadero, 121 km east of Havana, is the first held in the Caribbean region. The gathering brought together representatives of more than 200 organisations belonging to ILGALAC, along with participants from Europe and the United States.

Rainbow flags, the global symbol of respect for free sexual orientation and gender identity, and signs with inclusive messages adorn the convention centre’s corridors and halls.

Despite the situation in the Caribbean, this region as a whole continues to gain ground in the fight against deep-rooted homophobia and sexism.

To explain the advances made, Careaga stressed that every country has outlined its own agenda, adapted to its specific context.

Argentine lawyer Pedro Paradiso, who has been involved in the cause for over 20 years, said the evolution of LGBTI activism has been a key factor.

“We have gradually changed. At first the struggle was much more about victimisation and protests. But our approach began to expand and to be renovated. Now we are subjects of rights,” the member of the Argentine Homosexual Community, an organisation that emerged over three decades ago, told IPS.

In his view, raising the self-esteem of the non-heterosexual population and taking an approach based on their rights as a collective were decisive, although he said there were many other factors involved.

According to Paradiso, the movement started out by empowering itself and gaining in visibility. Later it began to gain institutional status and to demand sexual and reproductive rights as human rights. It also started forging ties with other social movements, and alliances were forged with political parties and public and private institutions like universities.

In addition, the movement gained ground in international forums like the United Nations and the Organisation of American States, which can exercise pressure to some extent on governments and member states.

And to the extent that each legal system allowed, the LGBTI community has used the courts to forge paths, sometimes tortuous, towards equality.

That is the case of Colombia, where same-sex couples legalise their unions in the courts, while waiting for a law on same-sex marriage. “The process is like a long, painful birth,” said Anaís Morales of the Corporación Femm, which groups lesbian and bisexual women in that South American country.

The 25-year-old feminist activist said women are still outnumbered in the fight for sexual and reproductive rights. “Gay men are the most visible,” Morales told IPS.

In general terms, the women’s organisations present in Varadero agreed that women suffer from double discrimination because of their gender and sexual orientation, and said they needed greater access to assisted reproduction techniques, respectful treatment in health services, and better connections between the women’s and lesbian rights movements.

The first transgender city council member in Chile, Zuliana Araya, told IPS that the LGBTI movement needed to forge closer internal ties. “Among ourselves there can be no discrimination,” said the city councillor from Valparaíso, who is an activist in a local union of trans persons.

“Just because the majority of our [trans] community is involved in commercial sex work doesn’t mean we should be left out,” said Araya, 50, whose activism led her into a career in politics, in a country that passed legislation against discrimination in May 2012. “We are still in the stage of demanding our rights,” she said.

Bringing about a cultural and social shift towards respect for sexual and gender diversity is the big challenge, even in Argentina and Uruguay, whose legislation is among the most advanced in the world.

The hindering effects of religious fundamentalism and political conservatism are also felt, especially in the Caribbean. Although gay Dominican activist Davis Ventura told IPS that “there are many Caribbeans.”

The 40-year-old Ventura said the criminalisation of same-sex relations in the English-speaking Caribbean makes activism virtually impossible, or confines it to international forums, while a “mid” level of progress has been made in the Spanish-speaking countries – Cuba, the Dominican Republic and Puerto Rico – and the islands with French and Dutch influence are the most progressive.

Firm steps have been taken in Puerto Rico at the municipal level, while there are associations that have gained visibility in the Dominican Republic and Cuba passed the first anti-discrimination law in the Caribbean in 2013, when it approved a new labour code that explicitly protects the labour rights of non-heterosexuals.

However, there are voices arguing that there is no actual LGBTI movement as such in Cuba.

Manuel Vázquez, the head of legal advisory services in the National Sex Education Centre (CENESEX), a public institution, told IPS that “we are seeing groups that are actively asking for, demanding and discussing sexual rights.”

In the view of Maykel González, of the Proyecto Arcoíris (Rainbow Project), activism is still emerging.

Arcoíris, which describes itself as “independent and anti-capitalist”, the non-governmental Cuban Multidisciplinary Society for the Study of Sexuality, and initiatives supported by government institutions like CENESEX or the National Centre for the Prevention of STI/HIV/AIDS represented Cuba in the ILGALAC conference.

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Brazil Assumes Leadership in Future of Internet Governance Fri, 25 Apr 2014 18:38:17 +0000 Marcia Pinheiro 0 Persecution of Uganda’s Gays Intensifies as Rights Groups Go Underground Wed, 23 Apr 2014 16:23:20 +0000 Amy Fallon Sandra Ntebi, who runs a hotline and helps Uganda’s lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex (LGBTI) community find alternative, safe accommodation, pictured here at the 2013 Gay Pride parade. Credit: Amy Fallon/IPS

Sandra Ntebi, who runs a hotline and helps Uganda’s lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex (LGBTI) community find alternative, safe accommodation, pictured here at the 2013 Gay Pride parade. Credit: Amy Fallon/IPS

By Amy Fallon
KAMPALA, Apr 23 2014 (IPS)

As she sits in a Kampala hotel holding a mobile phone that rings frequently, Sandra Ntebi tells IPS: “I’m really exhausted. I don’t know where to start. We have many cases pending.” Ntebi manages a hotline and is helping Uganda’s lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex (LGBTI) community find alternative, safe accommodation after they have faced harassment.

“Right now, some people have been thrown out of their homes, some are in jail. Every day there are cases.”

It’s nearly 4.30pm on Tuesday, Apr. 22, just over two months since Uganda’s President Yoweri Museveni signed a draconian anti-gay bill that further criminalises homosexuality in this East African nation.Many activists had fled Uganda to seek asylum in different countries, while most LGBTI organisations were closed “due to fear”.

So far today Ntebi has received calls relating to four new cases concerning LGBTI people or those perceived to be LGBTI that include incidents of evictions by landlords, police arrests and mob attacks.

In total she and a colleague have received reports of about 130 different cases across the country since Museveni inked his signature on the Anti-Homosexuality Act 2014 in late February.

The law prescribes life imprisonment for some homosexual acts and also criminalises the “promotion of homosexuality”, among other measures.

“The situation is tense. Right now this act is promoting violence,” says Ntebi.

“I get the reports since I have the hotline. We sit down later with the details then categorise them into evictions, arrests and assaults.”

Today her co-worker has received a call about a new incident in Hoima, western Uganda. Among the cases Ntebi is dealing with is a fresh attack on Brenda, an HIV positive, transgender sex worker in her late 30s who lives just outside the capital, Kampala.

In March Brenda was “paraded” before local media, outed as a transsexual, beaten, undressed and arrested.

“We bailed her out, she went back to her house in the village and she couldn’t even leave because people were out every day waiting for her,” says Ntebi. “They were throwing stones.”

Brenda went to stay with a friend based on advice from the LGBTI hotline. Then on Thursday, Apr. 17, she was beaten again, taken to hospital and is now holed up in a hotel.

“We’re trying to secure a house for her to rent,” says Ntebi, who on Wednesday went to help Brenda.

Around Mar. 19, the same time that Brenda was first attacked, three Ugandan men who were perceived to be gay were assaulted and admitted to the Mulago Hospital in Kampala. A few weeks later, Ntebi says, the team were alerted to a possible suicide of an LGBTI person by an embassy.

On Apr. 3 crime intelligence officers raided the Makerere University Walter Reed Project clinic, a non-profit collaboration between Makerere University in Kampala and the U.S. Military HIV Research Programme. Police claimed the project, one of the few in Kampala willing to offer services to LGBTI people with AIDS, was “carrying out recruitment and training of young males in unnatural sex acts.”

Many activists and other members of the gay community are now in hiding, says Ntebi, who is wearing a black vest from a 2006 campaign run by Sexual Minorities Uganda (SM-UG), an NGO and the umbrella for all homosexual organisations in Uganda. The words “Leave me in peace” are embroidered on the back.

Ntebi says many activists had fled Uganda to seek asylum in different countries, while most LGBTI organisations were closed “due to fear”.

Ntebi now only goes to work at her office when it’s absolutely essential.

Beyondy is the nickname for a 23-year-old fashion designer who is in hiding.

He used to spend his days sewing a dress for a client or mastering routines for upcoming events, like the second Gay Pride parade in 2013.

Since the bill was signed he has moved to a tiny one-bedroom shack, tucked away at the back of a slum in a lively Kampala suburb. Beyondy now spends his days mostly indoors watching music videos by Beyoncé, Pink and Rita Ora, only going outside when he has to.

“I like Rita’s style – the blonde hair, her red lipstick,” cooes Beyondy, wearing a T-shirt and board shorts showing off his muscular build, when IPS met him recently.

“I wanted to be a performer, for people to see my talent and discover me. But right now I think it’s impossible. Right now it’s all about survival, saving your life and being quiet, being underground all the time.”

In the past Beyondy was attacked “a lot”, and fears he’ll be targeted again now that the anti-gay act is in force.

“You know someone was saying recently, ‘if we had a choice between forgiving a rapist and a gay person, we’d rather choose a rapist,’” he says.

Activists are hoping a petition filed in March challenging the act will come up in the country’s constitutional court early next month.

According to the Ugandan newspaper The Observer, the government has filed a defence, claiming the act does not contravene the right to equality and freedom from cruel, inhumane and degrading punishment guaranteed under the country’s constitution. The government wants the petition dismissed.

But even if the law is overturned Beyondy says it will take much more than a court ruling to change social attitudes towards homosexuality in Uganda.

In the current climate of homophobia, which activists stress has been “imported” to Uganda via western evangelists, virtually everyone is aware they can use another person’s sexuality to exact revenge.

“It’s in people’s minds and even if it’s overturned they’ll still think about it.”

But he’s adamant he will remain in Uganda to “rebuild both personally and professionally”.

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Civil Society Wants More Influence in New Development Agenda Thu, 17 Apr 2014 22:48:27 +0000 Emilio Godoy One of the debates at the first high-level meeting of the Global Partnership for Effective Development Cooperation in Mexico City. Credit: Mexican government

One of the debates at the first high-level meeting of the Global Partnership for Effective Development Cooperation in Mexico City. Credit: Mexican government

By Emilio Godoy
MEXICO CITY, Apr 17 2014 (IPS)

Making international cooperation more effective requires a civil society with greater influence in the negotiations of the development agenda that the world’s governments are to adopt in 2015, civil society representatives said at an international meeting in Mexico.

The first High-Level Meeting of the Global Partnership for Effective Development Cooperation (GPEDC) was held Apr. 15-16 in the Mexican capital, where civil society organisations demanded that a human rights focus be incorporated in international development aid flows.

At the gathering, the GPEDC also called for international cooperation to include a more enabling environment for civil society organisations (CSOs), as well as greater transparency and better accountability.

“There are two key issues: preserving the Partnership, which is complex due to its plurality and diversity of opinions, and improving the monitoring of issues,” the executive director of Oxfam Mexico, Carlos Zarco, told IPS.

The GPEDC, which brings together over 100 governments and non-governmental organisations (NGOs), emerged in Busan, South Korea in November 2011 with the aim of finding novel approaches to development aid.

That aid is now flowing along new paths, such as growing South-South cooperation, with an expanding role of emerging nations as donors, and triangular cooperation, where one developing country cooperates with another, with financial support from a nation of the industrialised North.

Against that backdrop, the United Nations members are negotiating the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), to be adopted in 2015 to extend and expand the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) agreed by the international community in 2000, which have only been partially met.

Three years after Busan, “There is a shrinking space for CSOs, with more restrictive policies. Governments choose which CSOs to consult with, there are limited public consultations with CSOs,” María Theresa Lauron, an activist with the Asia-Pacific Research Network, told IPS.

Lauron said there was a growing trend to restrict access to information. She also mentioned new forms of financing that limit the effectiveness of NGOs, and growing pressure on CSOs that voice criticism, to get them to align themselves with the governments of aid recipient nations.

The first high-level meeting of the GPEDC drew some 1,500 delegates of governments, academia, international agencies and civil society, who focused on issues like mobilising development aid resources at a national level, South-South and triangular cooperation, and participation by the business sector.

At the start of the meeting, United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-moon called for continued strategies of oversight, transparency and accountability and efforts to fight corruption, and said a strong commitment to reducing poverty was needed – a reference to the first of the eight MDGs, which is to halve extreme poverty from 1990 levels.

CSOs complain that a portion of development aid goes to financing infrastructure works like large hydropower dams, gas pipelines and roads that violate the rights of local communities and generate conflicts in recipient nations.

The principles established in Busan call for ownership and leadership of development strategies by aid recipient countries, a focus on results that matter to the poor in developing countries, inclusive partnerships among development actors based on mutual trust, and transparency and accountability to one another.

They also emphasise the need for recipients of development aid to work together and form partnerships, to have a greater influence in designing development strategies, and to guarantee that the funds will be used effectively in projects.

The report “An enabling environment for civil society organisations: A synthesis of evidence of progress since Busan”, which was analysed at the meeting, found practices that reduce social participation in international cooperation.

It cited, for example, multiple, vaguely worded regulations; costly, complex procedures for registering organisations; vague arguments for not allowing an organisation to register; legal proceedings against activists critical of government policies; and blocked access to international financing.

“Governments decide where CSOs can work,” Vitalice Meja, executive director of Reality of Aid Africa, told IPS. “Areas such as environment, human rights and extractive industries face threats. We need to revise the punitive laws and establish a national dialogue with governments and CSOs.”

One example is Bolivia, one of the 12 countries studied in the report. The “Pilot study on Enabling Environment Bolivia” found that there were leaders of social organisations questioning the work of NGOs and their role as intermediaries in the management of resources, as well as government criticism of NGOs for supposed meddling in projects.

“The calculating position of some NGOs in response to the risk that the current government will accuse them of being traitors or of opposing the process of change, lead[s] them to silence their critical voice,” concludes the report by Susana Eróstegui of the National Union of Institutions for Social Action Work in Bolivia.

These conditions, the report says, hinder the work of NGOs in the post-2015 agenda.

For that reason, the GPEDC launched the Civil Society Continuing Campaign for Effective Development, which from now to the end of 2016 will work to assert the right of NGOs to participate in development policies.

The goal will be to establish development aid policies that are clearly influenced by civil society’s positions on human rights, democratic ownership and inclusive partnerships, and global, subregional and regional dialogue to push for international standards on an enabling environment.

During the high-level meeting, Mexico’s conservative President Enrique Peña Nieto presented an inclusive cooperation strategy, whose focus, IPS learned, would be a plan for Africa managed by the Mexican Agency for International Development Cooperation, seeking to emulate programmes that Brazil has carried out in Africa.

One new phenomenon is that emerging economies such as Brazil, China and South Africa are taking on different roles in the field of development aid, and are reluctant to accept the same standards as those followed by traditional donors from the industrialised North.

“There are many requirements for traditional aid, and none for emerging economies,” said Oxfam Mexico’s Zarco. “These have to accept standards” in terms of national ownership, transparency, accountability and inclusive development, he added.

The Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) presented “Making Development Cooperation More Effective: 2014 Progress Report”, which found a slow pace of compliance with the Busan agreement and “mixed results”.

“Much more needs to be done to transform cooperation practices and ensure country ownership of all development efforts, as well as transparency and accountability among development partners,” says the report, which is based on data from 46 countries that receive development cooperation.

The report was drawn up under the auspices of the Global Partnership, which is jointly supported by the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) and the OECD.

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Soaring Child Poverty – a Blemish on Spain Wed, 09 Apr 2014 19:05:23 +0000 Ines Benitez Families demonstrating to demand respect for their right to a roof over their heads, before the authorities evicted 13 families, including a dozen children, from the Buenaventura “corrala” or squat in the southern Spanish city of Málaga. Credit: Inés Benítez/IPS

Families demonstrating to demand respect for their right to a roof over their heads, before the authorities evicted 13 families, including a dozen children, from the Buenaventura “corrala” or squat in the southern Spanish city of Málaga. Credit: Inés Benítez/IPS

By Inés Benítez
MALAGA, Spain, Apr 9 2014 (IPS)

“I don’t want them to grow up with the notion that they’re poor,” says Catalina González, referring to her two young sons. The family has been living in an apartment rent-free since December in exchange for fixing it up, in the southern Spanish city of Málaga.

Six months ago González, 40, and her two sons, Manuel and Leónidas, 4 and 5, were evicted by the local authorities from the Buenaventura “corrala” or squat – an old apartment building with a common courtyard that had been occupied by 13 families who couldn’t afford to pay rent. The evicted families included a dozen children.

Since then, she told IPS, her sons “don’t like the police because they think they stole their house.”

Spain has the second-highest child poverty rate in the European Union, following Romania, according to the report “The European Crisis and its Human Cost – A Call for Fair Alternatives and Solutions” released Mar. 27 in Athens by Caritas Europa.

Bulgaria is in third place and Greece in fourth, according to the Roman Catholic relief, development and social service organisation.

The austerity measures imposed in Europe, aggravated by the foreign debt, “have failed to solve problems and create growth,” said Caritas Europa’s Secretary General Jorge Nuño at the launch of the report.

“We’re doing ok. The kids are already pre-enrolled in school for the next school year,” said González, a native of Barcelona, who left the father of her sons in Italy when she discovered that “he mistreated them.”

She started over from scratch in Málaga, with no family, job or income, meeting basic needs thanks to the solidarity of social organisations and mutual support networks.

According to a report published this year by the United Nations children’s fund UNICEF, in 2012 more than 2.5 million children in Spain lived in families below the poverty line – 30 percent of all children.

UNICEF reported that 19 percent of children in Spain lived in households with annual incomes of less than 15,000 dollars.

“Child poverty is a reality in Spain, although politicians want to gloss over it and they don’t like us to talk about it because it’s associated with Third World countries,” the founder and president of the NGO Mensajeros de la Paz (Messengers of Peace), Catholic priest Ángel García, told IPS.

Spain’s finance minister Cristóbal Montoro said on Mar. 28 that the information released by Caritas Europa “does not fully reflect reality” because it is based solely on “statistical measurements.”

But in Málaga “there are more and more mothers lining up to get food,” Ángel Meléndez, the president of Ángeles Malagueños de la Noche, told IPS.

Every day, his organisation provides 500 breakfasts, 1,600 lunches and 600 dinners to the poor.

For months, González and her sons have been taking their meals at the “Er Banco Güeno”, a community-run soup kitchen in the low-income Málaga neighbourhood of Palma-Palmilla, which operates out of a closed-down bank branch.

According to Father Ángel, child poverty “isn’t just about not being able to afford food, but also about not being able to buy school books or not buying new clothes in the last two years.”

“It’s about unequal opportunity among children,” he said.

The crisis in Spain is still severe. The country’s unemployment rate is the highest in the EU: 25.6 percent in February, after Greece’s 27.5 percent.

In 2013, the government of right-wing Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy approved a National Action Plan for Social Inclusion 2013-2016, which includes the aim of reducing child poverty.

Caritas Europa reports that at least one and a half million households in Spain are suffering from severe social inclusion – 70 percent more than in 2007, the year before the global financial crisis broke out.

“Entire families end up on the street because they can’t afford to pay rent,” Rosa Martínez, the director of the Centro de Acogida Municipal, told IPS during a visit to the municipal shelter. “More people are asking for food. They’re even asking for diapers for newborns because they are in such a difficult situation.”

Of the nearly 26 percent of the economically active population out of jobs, half are young people, according to the National Statistics Institute, while the gap between rich and poor is growing.

As of late March, 4.8 million people were unemployed, according to official statistics. The figures also show that the proportion of jobless people with no source of income whatsoever has grown to four out of 10.

Social discontent has been fuelled by austerity measures that have entailed cutbacks in health, education and social protection.

A report on the Housing Emergency in the Spanish State, by the Platform for Mortgage Victims (PAH) and the DESC Observatory, estimates that 70 percent of the families who have been, or are about to be, evicted include at least one minor.

“The right to equal opportunities is dead letter if children are ending up on the street,” José Cosín, a lawyer and activist with PAH Málaga, told IPS.

Cosín denounced the vulnerable situation of the children who were evicted along with their families from the Buenaventura corrala on Oct. 3, 2013.

Fifteen of the people who were evicted filed a lawsuit demanding respect of the children’s basic rights, as outlined by the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child, which went into effect in 1990.

The Convention establishes that states parties “shall in case of need provide material assistance and support programmes, particularly with regard to nutrition, clothing and housing.”

The number of families in Spain with no source of income at all grew from 300,000 in mid-2007 to nearly 700,000 by late 2013, according to the report Precariedad y Cohesión Social; Análisis y Perspectivas 2014 (Precariousness and Social Cohesion; Analysis and Perspectives 2014), by Cáritas Española and the Fundación Foessa.

And 27 percent of households in Spain are supported by pensioners. Grown-up sons and daughters are moving back into their parents’ homes with their families, or retired grandparents are helping support their children and grandchildren, with their often meagre pensions.

“When times get rough, the social fabric is strengthened,” said González. She stressed the solidarity of different groups in Málaga who for three months helped her clean up and repair the apartment she is living in now, which is on the tenth floor of a building with no elevator, and was full of garbage and had no door, window panes or piped water.

González complained that government social services are underfunded and inefficient, and said she receives no assistance from them.

Like all young children, her sons ask her for things. But she explains to them that it is more important to spend eight euros on food than on two plastic fishes. It took her several weeks to save up money to buy the toys. Last Christmas she took them to a movie for the first time.

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Colombia’s Breadbasket Feels the Pinch of Free Trade Tue, 08 Apr 2014 18:11:21 +0000 Helda Martinez The home of a poor farming family in the mountains of Cajamarca, in the central Colombian department of Tolima. Credit: Helda Martínez/IPS

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

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

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

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

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

Seeds, also victims of the FTAs

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Biofortified Beans to Fight ‘Hidden Hunger’ in Rwanda Sun, 06 Apr 2014 16:36:24 +0000 Fabiola Ortiz Joane Nkuliye, a rural entrepreneur from Rwanda’s Eastern Province, grows biofortified beans on a commercial scale. Credit: Fabíola Ortiz/IPS

Joane Nkuliye, a rural entrepreneur from Rwanda’s Eastern Province, grows biofortified beans on a commercial scale. Credit: Fabíola Ortiz/IPS

By Fabiola Ortiz
KIGALI, Apr 6 2014 (IPS)

Joane Nkuliye considers herself an activist. She is part of a select group of farmers producing biofortified crops on a commercial scale in Rwanda. 

Nkuliye owns 25 hectares in Nyagatare district, Eastern Province, two hours away from the capital, Kigali. She was awarded land by the government and moved there in 2000, with plans of rearing cattle. But she soon realised that growing food would be more profitable and have a greater impact on the local community as many of the kids in the area suffered from Kwashiorkor, a type of malnutrition caused by lack of protein.

“I have a passion for farming. We are being subsidised because very few people are doing commercial farming,” the entrepreneur, who is married with five children and has been farming for over 10 years, told IPS.

Biofortification on a Global Scale

Every second person in the world dies from malnutrition. In order to fight the so-called hidden hunger — a chronic lack of vitamins and minerals — biofortification aims to increase nutrition and yields simultaneously.

HarvestPlus is part of the CGIAR Consortium research programme on Agriculture for Nutrition and Health (A4NH), which helps realise the potential of agricultural development to deliver gender-equitable health and nutritional benefits to the poor.

The HarvestPlus programme is coordinated by the International Centre for Tropical Agriculture and the International Food Policy Research Institute. It has nine target countries: Nigeria, Zambia, Democratic Republic of Congo, Rwanda, Uganda, Ethiopia, Bangladesh, India and Pakistan. Brazil has also begun introducing biofortified crops.

The director of HarvestPlus, Howarth Bouis, told IPS that the goal was to reach 15 million households worldwide by 2018 and ensure that they were growing and eating biofortified crops such as cassava, maize, orange sweet potato, pearl millet, pumpkin and beans.

“It is always a challenge but it’s much easier than it was before, because we have the crops already. Years ago I had to say we wouldn’t have [made an] impact in less than 10 years. Now things are coming out and it has been easier to raise money,” Bouis said.

Four years ago, she was contacted by the NGO HarvestPlus, which is part of a CGIAR Consortium research programme on Agriculture for Nutrition and Health. The NGO is considered a leader in the global effort to improve nutrition and public health by developing crops and distributing seeds of staple foods that are rich in vitamins and minerals.

HarvestPlus provided Nkuliye with seeds, packaging, outlets for distribution and know-how. Now she grows biofortified beans on 11 of her 50 hectares of land.

“After harvesting beans I grow maize as an intercrop. I also grow sweet bananas, pineapples and papaya. I harvest 15 tonnes of food; I talk in terms of tonnes and not kilos,” she smiled.

Nkuliye was invited by HarvestPlus to speak at the Second Global Conference on Biofortification held in Kigali from Mar. 31 to Apr. 2, which was a gathering of scientists, policymakers and stakeholders.

Rwanda has ventured into a new agricultural era as it boosts its food production and enhances the nutrition level of the crops grown here.

In this Central African nation where 44 percent of the country’s 12 million people suffer from malnutrition and micronutrient deficiency, biofortified foods, like beans, are seen as a solution to reducing “hidden hunger” — a chronic lack of vitamins and minerals.

One in every three Rwandans is anaemic, and this percentage is higher in women and children. An estimated 38 percent of children under five and 17 percent of women suffer from iron deficiency here. This, according to Lister Tiwirai Katsvairo, the HarvestPlus country manager for the biofortification project, is high compared to other countries in sub-Saharan Africa.

Biofortified beans have high nutritional levels and provide up to 45 percent of daily iron needs, which is 14 percent more than commonly-grown bean varieties.

They also have an extra advantage as they have proved to produce high yields, are resistant to viruses, and are heat and drought tolerant.

Now, one third of Rwanda’s 1.9 million households grow and consume nutritious crops thanks to an initiative promoted by HarvestPlus in collaboration with the Rwandan government. The HarvestPlus strategy is “feeding the brain to make a difference,” Katsvairo said.

The national government, which has been working in partnership with HarvestPlus since 2010, sees nutrition as a serious concern. According to Rwanda’s Minister of Agriculture and Animal Resources Agnes Kalibata, five government ministers are working cooperatively to address nutrition issues here.

She said that biofortified crops ensured that poor people, smallholder farmers and their families received nutrients in their diets. Around 80 percent of Rwanda’s rural population rely on agriculture for their livelihoods.

“Beans in Rwanda are our staple food, they are traditional. You cannot eat a meal without them. Beans that are biofortified have the main protein that will reach everybody, they are the main source of food,” she said.

Katsvairo explained that Rwanda has 10 different varieties of biofortified beans and that Rwandan diets comprise 200 grams of beans per person a day.

“Our farmers and population cannot afford meat on a daily basis. In a situation like this we need to find a crop that can provide nutrients and is acceptable to the community. We don’t want to change diets,” Katsvairo told IPS.

The ideologist and geneticist who led the Green Revolution in India is an advocate of what he calls “biohappiness”. Mankombu Sambasivan Swaminathan became famous for the Green Revolution that increased food production and turned India into a sustainable food producer.

“I am an enthusiast of biofortification. It is the best way to add nutrients like iron, zinc and vitamin A. In the case of biofortification it is a win-win situation,” he told IPS.

According to Swaminathan, who has been described by the United Nations Environment Programme as “the Father of Economic Ecology”, the concept of food security has grown and evolved into nutritious security.

“We found it is not enough to give calories, it is important to have proteins and micronutrients.”

Swaminathan says it is also a way of attacking silent hunger — hunger caused by extreme poverty.

“It fortifies in a biological matter and not in chemical matter, that is why I call it biohappiness,” said the first winner of the World Food Prize in 1987. He  has also been acclaimed by TIME magazine as one of the 20 most influential Asians of the 20th century.

According to Katsvairo, Rwanda has become an example to other sub-Saharan countries as the issue of nutrition is now part of public strategic policy here.

“Rwanda is still at the implementation stage but it is way ahead of other African countries,” confirmed Katsvairo.

Meanwhile, Nkuliye aims to expand her farm over the next few years and increase her crop of biofortified beans.

“I wanted to improve people’s lives. My husband is proud of me but I feel I haven’t done enough yet,” she said. Currently, she employes 20 women and 10 men on a permanent basis and hires temporary workers during planting and harvesting.

She first started her business with a three-year bank loan of five million Rwandan Francs (7,700 dollars). Now, she has applied for 20 million Rwandan Francs (30,800 dollars).

“I want to buy more land, at least 100 hectares. What I am producing is not enough for the market,” Nkuliye explained. While she harvests tonnes of produce to sell to the local market, she says it is not enough as demand is growing.

But she is proud that she has been able to feed her community.

“I have fed people with nutritious beans, I changed their lives and I have also changed mine. We have a culture of sharing meals and give our workers eight kilos of biofortified food to take to their families,” she said.

Fabíola Ortiz was invited by HarvestPlus and Embrapa-Brazil to travel to Rwanda.

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Rural Costa Rican Women Plant Trees to Fight Climate Change Wed, 02 Apr 2014 13:39:21 +0000 Diego Arguedas Ortiz Olga Vargas next to the greenhouse with which the Quebrada Grande de Pital Women’s Association began to revitalise its sustainable business, whose priority is reforestation. Credit: Diego Arguedas Ortiz/IPS

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

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

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

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

But the group is getting a fresh start.

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

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

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

But the top priority has been planting trees.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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