Inter Press Service » Projects http://www.ipsnews.net Turning the World Downside Up Wed, 04 Mar 2015 18:58:49 +0000 en-US hourly 1 http://wordpress.org/?v=4.1.1 By Girls, For Girls – Nepal’s Teenagers Say No to Child Marriagehttp://www.ipsnews.net/2015/03/by-girls-for-girls-nepals-teenagers-say-no-to-child-marriage/?utm_source=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_campaign=by-girls-for-girls-nepals-teenagers-say-no-to-child-marriage http://www.ipsnews.net/2015/03/by-girls-for-girls-nepals-teenagers-say-no-to-child-marriage/#comments Wed, 04 Mar 2015 18:58:49 +0000 Naresh Newar http://www.ipsnews.net/?p=139501 Rashmi Hamal is a local heroine who helped to save her friend from an early marriage. She campaigns actively against child marriages in the Far Western Region of Nepal. Credit: Naresh Newar/IPS

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Poverty turning kids into brides

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

By girls, for girls: A grassroots approach

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Beyond activism: towards a policy of ‘zero prevalence’

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

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

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

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

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

Edited by Kanya D’Almeida

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A fight against suicide

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

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

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

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

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

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

The district has seen about 150 suicides since 2013 alone.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Edited by Kanya D’Almeida

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

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

By Marianela Jarroud
SANTIAGO, Mar 3 2015 (IPS)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Edited by Estrella Gutiérrez/Translated by Stephanie Wildes

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Edited by Phil Harris   

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Edited by Kitty Stapp

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

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

By Marianela Jarroud
SANTIAGO, Mar 2 2015 (IPS)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Edited by Estrella Gutiérrez/Translated by Stephanie Wildes

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The region has always seen natural weather swings.

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

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

Further, it says global warming has had two effects.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Edited by Kitty Stapp

The writer can be contacted at thalifdeen@aol.com

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

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

By Jeffrey Moyo
HARARE, Feb 28 2015 (IPS)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But land rights activists are sceptical about their claims.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Edited by Lisa Vives/ Phil Harris   

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Edited by Estrella Gutiérrez/Translated by Stephanie Wildes

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Rousseff’s Brazil – No Country for the Landlesshttp://www.ipsnews.net/2015/02/rousseffs-brazil-no-country-for-the-landless/?utm_source=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_campaign=rousseffs-brazil-no-country-for-the-landless http://www.ipsnews.net/2015/02/rousseffs-brazil-no-country-for-the-landless/#comments Fri, 27 Feb 2015 19:01:15 +0000 Fabiola Ortiz http://www.ipsnews.net/?p=139404 Farmers with the Landless Workers’ Movement (MST) protest the concentration of land ownership in Brazil, during a Feb. 21 demonstration in support of the occupation of part of the Agropecuaria Santa Mônica estate, 150 km from Brasilia. Credit: Courtesy of the MST

Farmers with the Landless Workers’ Movement (MST) protest the concentration of land ownership in Brazil, during a Feb. 21 demonstration in support of the occupation of part of the Agropecuaria Santa Mônica estate, 150 km from Brasilia. Credit: Courtesy of the MST

By Fabiola Ortiz
RIO DE JANEIRO, Feb 27 2015 (IPS)

In Brazil, one of the countries with the highest concentration of land ownership in the world, some 200,000 peasant farmers still have no plot of their own to farm – a problem that the first administration of President Dilma Rousseff did little to resolve.

In its assessment of the situation in the 2011-2014 period, the Brazilian Pastoral Land Commission (CPT) found the worst progress in that period in terms of agrarian reform in the last 20 years, one of the church-based organisation’s coordinators, Isolete Wichinieski, told IPS.

“Historically, there has been a high concentration of land in Brazil,” she said. But what is worrisome, she added, is that during the first presidency of Rousseff, whose second term started on Jan. 1, 2015, “land ownership has become even more concentrated.”

“There was a fall in the numbers of new rural settlements and of land titling in indigenous territories and ‘quilombos’ (communities of the descendants of African slaves), while on the other hand, investment in agribusiness and agro-industry grew,” said Wichinieski.

Social movements had hoped that Rousseff, who belongs to the left-wing Workers’ Party like her predecessor Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva (2003-2011), would take up the banner of democratisation of land ownership.

But her government’s economic policies have focused on incentives for agribusiness and agro-industry, mining and major infrastructure projects.

According to the CPT report, during the first Rousseff administration (2011-2014), 103,746 families were granted land under the government’s agrarian reform programme. But that figure is actually misleading, because in 73 percent of the cases, the land settlement process was already in progress before the president took office, and the families had already been counted in previous years.

If only the new families settled on plots of their own during Rousseff’s first administration are counted, the total shrinks to 28,000.

The government reported that in 2014 it regularised the situation of just 6,289 families – a number considered insignificant by the CPT.

Since 1995 agrarian reform was given a new boost, with the creation of a special ministry answering directly to the president, and other legal instruments, largely due to the intense lobbying and protests throughout the country by the Landless Workers’ Movement (MST).

As a result, during the presidency of Luis Henrique Cardoso (1995-2003), 540,704 families were given land, and 614,088 were settled on farms during Lula’s two terms (2003-2011), according to the National Institute for Colonisation and Agrarian Reform (INCRA), which reported that 9,128 rural settlements have been created since 2000.

The Dom Tomás Balduíno camp, along the river that crosses the Agropecuaria Santa Mônica estate, next to the first crops planted on the 400 hectares occupied by landless Brazilian peasant farmers. Credit: Courtesy of the MST

The Dom Tomás Balduíno camp, along the river that crosses the Agropecuaria Santa Mônica estate, next to the first crops planted on the 400 hectares occupied by landless Brazilian peasant farmers. Credit: Courtesy of the MST

In order for land reform to be effective, the CPT argues, more settlements must be created and the concentration of rural property ownership must be reduced in this country of 202 million people. But the organisation does not believe Rousseff is moving in that direction, Wichinieski said.

Agrarian reform was not on the agenda of the campaign that led to the president’s reelection in October, and the new government includes names from the powerful rural caucus in Congress, which represents agribusiness and agro-industry.

The agriculture minister is former senator Kátia Abreu, the president of the National Confederation of Agriculture. She surprised people when she stated in a Feb. 5 interview with the newspaper Folha de São Paulo that there are no “latifundium” or large landed estates in Brazil.

“Abreu has backwards, outdated views of agriculture,” complained Wichinieski. “She denies that there is forced labour in the countryside, she isn’t worried about preserving the environment, and she argues in favour of the intensive use of agrochemicals in food production.”

The conflict over land has intensified, according to the CPT, with the expansion of livestock-raising and monoculture farming of soy, sugarcane, maize and cotton, and growing speculation by large landowners with close ties to politicians.

A typical case

One example is the case of the 20,000-hectare Agropecuaria Santa Mônica estate, 150 km from the national capital, Brasilia, in the state of Goiás, part of which has been occupied by families belonging to the MST.

The property belongs to Senator Eunício Oliveira, considered the wealthiest candidate for governor in Brazil in the last elections.

In the Senate, Oliveira heads the Brazilian Democratic Movement Party, Rousseff’s main ally in Congress. He served as communications minister under Lula in 2004-2005 and last year lost the elections for governor of the state of Ceará.

The landless farmers occupying 400 hectares of the Santa Mônica estate sell their agroecological products in nearby towns, promoting chemical-free family farming. Credit: Courtesy of the MST

The landless farmers occupying 400 hectares of the Santa Mônica estate sell their agroecological products in nearby towns, promoting chemical-free family farming. Credit: Courtesy of the MST

Valdir Misnerovicz, one of the leaders of the MST, told IPS that the estate is unproductive and that its only purpose at this time is land speculation.

Strategically located between the municipalities of Alexânia, Abadiânia and Corumbá, Santa Mônica represents the largest land occupation by the MST in the last 15 years.

It all started on Aug. 31, when 3,000 families marched on foot and in 1,800 vehicles to the estate, part of which they occupied.

Since then, more than 2,000 men, women, children and elderly persons have been living in a camp and control 400 hectares of the estate. They are determined to win a portion of the land to farm.

This is one of the MST’s strategies, said Misnerovicz. “We occupy large areas of unproductive land. In the camp we grow a variety of food like green leafy vegetables, manioc, maize, rice, beans and squash. All of the families plant healthy food in chemical-free agroecological community gardens,” he said.

The tents in the Dom Tomás Balduíno camp were set up on the bank of a river that cuts across the estate, which comprises 90 different properties that the senator purchased over the last two decades.

“The day we got there, they tried to keep us out but there were thousands of us. We are never armed. Our strength is in the number of peasants who accompany us,” said Misnerovicz.

In November, a court ruled that Oliveira has the right to recover the property. But the MST leader is confident that despite the risk that the families will be evicted, they will be successful in their bid for the Santa Mônica estate to be expropriated under the land reform programme.

Misnerovicz said the government itself has encouraged the families occupying the land to continue negotiating.

“Then it would be possible, after a year, to make the biggest rural settlement in recent times in Brazil. We were with the president in January, who committed to a plan with targets for settling (MST) families camped around the country,” he said.

INCRA has avoided taking a public position on this specific case. But it pointed out that, by law, “all of the occupied properties are off-limits for inspections to evaluate the situation with a view to agrarian reform.”

The administrator of Santa Mônica, Ricardo Augusto, told IPS that the occupied area is productive agricultural property where soy, maize and beans are grown.

“The purchase of the property was notarised. The MST is not telling the truth. We advocate a negotiated, peaceful solution. Productive, occupied land can’t be expropriated, and there is no interest in selling the property,” he said.

But João Pedro, who was granted a plot of land in a municipality near Santa Mônica, sees things very differently.

During a Feb. 21 demonstration in favour of the occupation, near the camp, the farmer said the families camping there were merely seeking the enforcement of Brazil’s laws: “the land has a social function, and that’s all we want – for the constitution to be applied.”

Edited by Estrella Gutiérrez/Translated by Valerie Dee

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From the Police Station Back to the Hellhole: System Failing India’s Domestic Violence Survivorshttp://www.ipsnews.net/2015/02/from-the-police-station-back-to-the-hellhole-system-failing-indias-domestic-violence-survivors/?utm_source=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_campaign=from-the-police-station-back-to-the-hellhole-system-failing-indias-domestic-violence-survivors http://www.ipsnews.net/2015/02/from-the-police-station-back-to-the-hellhole-system-failing-indias-domestic-violence-survivors/#comments Fri, 27 Feb 2015 18:03:42 +0000 Shai Venkatraman http://www.ipsnews.net/?p=139401 Government data indicates that 40 percent of all Indian women have experienced domestic violence, but activists believe the figure is closer to 84 percent. Credit: Stella Paul/IPS

Government data indicates that 40 percent of all Indian women have experienced domestic violence, but activists believe the figure is closer to 84 percent. Credit: Stella Paul/IPS

By Shai Venkatraman
MUMBAI, Feb 27 2015 (IPS)

“One time my husband started slapping me hard on the face because I had not cooked the rice to his satisfaction,” Suruchi* told IPS. “He hit me so hard that my infant daughter fell from my arms to the ground.”

For 20 years 47-year-old Suruchi, a resident of India’s coastal megacity Mumbai, faced physical and verbal abuse within the walls of her home. Her husband would often lock her out of their apartment through the night and one day even tried to strangle her.

“I had hoped all along that by obeying [my husband] things would eventually get better. While recovering in hospital I understood [...] that I owed it to myself and my children to walk out.” -- a domestic violence survivor in Mumbai
“I never knew what would set him off – it could be talking to a neighbour or looking out of the window. I would get ready for work in the morning and he would suddenly announce that I had to stay home all day.”

Suruchi had no access to her earnings as she was expected to hand her salary over to her in-laws. “On the rare occasion that I spoke out, I would get beaten up.” Her parents sensed that she was unhappy but Suruchi never told them the full story.

She was just 20 when she got married, she told IPS, and the constant abuse has left a profound impact on her and her children, especially her son who is anxious and largely uncommunicative.

It was only after she suffered a nervous breakdown following an especially violent assault that she finally acted.

“I had hoped all along that by obeying him things would eventually get better. While recovering in hospital I understood that my attitude had fuelled the abuse and that I owed it to myself and my children to walk out.”

Today Suruchi has put the past behind her. She lives independently and is pursuing a degree in law. However, her story is all too common in millions of homes across India.

A 2006 government survey, the last time the state collected comprehensive household data, stated that 40 percent of Indian women faced domestic violence.

Considering that women comprise over 48 percent of India’s population of 1.2 billion people, this means that hundreds of millions of people are living a nightmare in what is considered the world’s largest democracy.

However many experts believe that a 2003 survey conducted by a non-profit and supported by the Planning Commission of India that threw up a figure of 84 percent paints a more accurate picture.

“It tells us that many cases are going unreported,” says Rashmi Anand, a domestic violence survivor who runs a free legal aid and counseling service for victims in the capital, New Delhi, in collaboration with the police.

Interestingly, figures for domestic violence reported in crime statistics in many states are significantly higher than those that find their way into national-level databases.

An abundance of violence, too few solutions

In a 2013 study by the New Delhi-based think tank National Council for Applied Economic Research, over half of the married women surveyed said that they would be beaten up for going out of the house without permission (54 percent); not cooking properly (35 percent) and inadequate dowry payments (36 percent).

Indian law bans dowry, but the practice remains widespread.

Studies also indicate that economic and social gains have put women at far greater risk in a deeply patriarchal country like India.

A 2014 report in Population and Development Review, a peer reviewed journal, shows that women who are more educated than their husbands are at higher risk of domestic violence as men see in it a way to re-assert their power and control over their wives.

In 1983 domestic violence was recognised as a criminal offence under Section 498-A of the Indian Penal Code. However only in 2005 was a separate civil law to deal with the specifics of domestic violence introduced.

Among other things, the law defines domestic violence and widens the scope to verbal, economic and emotional violence. It also takes into account a woman’s need for financial support and protects her from being thrown out of her home and provides for monetary relief and temporary custody of children.

Since it came into force, activists say there has been a gradual rise in the number of women seeking help.

“Earlier women would seek legal help only when they were thrown out of their marital homes”, says New Delhi-based lawyer C.P Nautiyal, who counsels victims of domestic violence.

“Most women believe that suffering verbal abuse or being slapped by their husbands is expected behaviour. Since the law came into being there is greater awareness regarding domestic violence.”

However, there is still considerable stigma attached to being divorced and this prevents many women from reaching out.

“Economically women in India have made great progress but not so much when it comes to personal growth,” says Anand. “The attitude remains skewed when it comes to relationships. A woman continues to be defined by marriage and this cuts across all classes.”

Veteran lawyer and women’s rights activist Flavia Agnes agrees.

“There is a lot of pressure to stay married,” she tells IPS. “I have found that even highly placed women don’t like to reveal that they are divorced or separated. It’s like being raped, they will hide it as much as possible.”

Experts say that it is women from under-educated or underprivileged backgrounds who are reaching out for help in greater numbers. “Those who come from the upper classes are generally more reluctant to walk out as they stand to lose social status or a certain lifestyle,” Agnes says.

However it is precisely those women who are reaching out in greater numbers that the system is failing the most.

Most keenly felt is the lack of adequate government-run shelters. Barring the southern state of Kerala where shelter homes for domestic violence victims have been set up across 12 districts, authorities in other states have been neglectful.

“I am constantly looking for places where I can send impoverished, battered women to stay,” says Anand. Of the five shelters for women in crisis in the capital New Delhi, only two are functional. Even these can accommodate just 30 women each, and not for more than a month.

“Women are kept like prisoners there,” Agnes tells IPS about the shelters. “They can’t leave, not even to go to their places of work. Children above seven cannot stay with their mothers. Only those who are utterly destitute and desperate consider staying there.”

Another critical need is for fast-track courts to ensure cases get heard rapidly. The Indian legal system is notoriously slow and cases drag on for years, even decades.

However tougher laws alone cannot stem the tide of domestic violence as long as attitudes stay rooted in patriarchy.

The last government study done in 2006, the National Family Health Survey (NFHS), revealed that over 51 percent of Indian men didn’t think it wrong to assault their wives. More shockingly, 54 percent of the women themselves felt such violence was justified on certain grounds.

Activists say such biases are reflected every time a victim of domestic violence comes seeking help.

“We see it on the part of the police, NGOs, stakeholders and religious authorities,” points out Agnes. “The protection officer is supposed to collect evidence, file an order and take the victim to court. Instead the tactic is to tell her, ‘He slapped you a few times that’s all. Don’t make a big deal and sort it out’, and she is sent back to the hellhole.

“We have to stop this current approach of putting a Band-Aid on a gaping, bleeding wound [if we want] change to come about,” she stressed.

*Name changed upon request

Edited by Kanya D’Almeida

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Sometimes a Single Tree Is More Effective than a Governmenthttp://www.ipsnews.net/2015/02/sometimes-a-single-tree-is-more-effective-than-a-government/?utm_source=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_campaign=sometimes-a-single-tree-is-more-effective-than-a-government http://www.ipsnews.net/2015/02/sometimes-a-single-tree-is-more-effective-than-a-government/#comments Thu, 26 Feb 2015 20:03:16 +0000 Mallika Aryal http://www.ipsnews.net/?p=139375 Every morning Raj Kumari Chaudhari offers prayers to this mango tree where she took shelter during the floods in 2014 in mid-west Nepal. Credit: Mallika Aryal/IPS

Every morning Raj Kumari Chaudhari offers prayers to this mango tree where she took shelter during the floods in 2014 in mid-west Nepal. Credit: Mallika Aryal/IPS

By Mallika Aryal
BARDIYA, Nepal, Feb 26 2015 (IPS)

Every morning, Raj Kumari Chaudhari walks from her home to the other end of Padnaha village, located in the Bardiya district of mid-west Nepal, to a big mango tree to offer prayers.

The tree is majestic, its branches spreading as far as the eye can see. “This tree doesn’t bear fruit, but it saved my family from death,” she says. In her eyes, this single tree did more for her family at their time of need than the government of Nepal.

“We’re no strangers to rebuilding our lives […] but I hope my daughters won’t have to do it over and over again, like we did.” -- Raj Kumari Chaudhari, a survivor of the floods that swept away her village in mid-West Nepal in August, 2014
On the night of Aug. 14, 2014, Chaudhari lost her home when a big flood washed her entire village away. Her husband grabbed their eldest daughter, while she carried her twins on her shoulders, and ran.

When they reached the other side of the village, they realized there was no escape. They climbed the nearest tree and took shelter. In a matter of minutes 11 other people from her village had climbed the tree.

“My six-month old baby was the youngest amongst us, I tied him with my shawl so he wouldn’t fall,” says Kalpana Gurung, 27.

Bardiya, one of three districts in mid-west Nepal, was the hardest hit by last year’s flood; the District Disaster Relief Committee of Bardiya says more than 93,000 people were affected.

The gushing waters killed 32 and 13 still remain missing. Almost 5,000 people were affected in Padnaha village where the Chaudhari family lived.

The year 2014 was considered the deadliest on record in Nepal in terms of natural disasters. According to the Ministry of Home Affairs 492 people were killed and over 37,000 households affected by disasters between April 2014 and February 2015.

Still, experts say, the government hasn’t formulated a long-term response for those like the Chaudhari family who survived these catastrophic events.

Raj Kumari and Hira Lal Chaudhari, their 11-year-old daughter, and their eight-year-old twins survived the August 2014 flood in mid-west Nepal by climbing a mango tree and waiting for the waters to recede. Credit: Mallika Aryal/IPS

Raj Kumari and Hira Lal Chaudhari, their 11-year-old daughter, and their eight-year-old twins survived the August 2014 flood in mid-west Nepal by climbing a mango tree and waiting for the waters to recede. Credit: Mallika Aryal/IPS

It took the community of Padnaha five months to get their lives back together. Now 12 families have rebuilt their homes. “This entire village was like a desert after the floods,” Raj Kumari Chaudhari, one of the survivors recalls. Credit: Mallika Aryal/IPS

It took the community of Padnaha five months to get their lives back together. Now 12 families have rebuilt their homes. “This entire village was like a desert after the floods,” Raj Kumari Chaudhari, one of the survivors, recalls. Credit: Mallika Aryal/IPS

“The government has no direction, no plans for rehabilitating survivors – those who lost [their] lands essentially became stateless,” says Madhukar Upadhya, a watershed and landslide management expert.

After the 2008 flooding of the Koshi River in east Nepal the government established a disaster-training centre, the police force now has a disaster division and Nepal’s army has a disaster directorate. But the government’s focus is on rescue and relief, and not rehabilitation and resettlement, experts say.

Living on a knife’s edge in disaster-prone Nepal

Chaudhari’s family and the majority of her neighbours are from the Tharu community, indigenous to western Nepal. They are former ‘kamaiya’, meaning people affected by the oppressive system of bonded labour that was abolished by law only in 2002.

After being liberated, her family were evicted from their homes by their former masters and lived out in the open for years. Two years ago, the government finally resettled them in Padnaha.

“It took us a long time to build our homes, the kids were finally feeling settled, and then the floods washed away everything,” Chaudhari tells IPS.

After spending 24 hours on the tree branches, water swirling below, Chaudhari and her family were finally able to come down and rush to a school nearby. When the water level receded, they saw that everything had been washed away.

“We may have lost our homes and belongings, but unlike other survivors of floods and landslides, we still had our lands to come back to,” says 18-year old Sangita, another tree survivor.

With assistance in the form of raw materials from Save the Children, and Nepal’s 13-day Cash for Work programme that provided them 3.5 dollars a day for their labour, the community started to rebuild.

In a matter of a few days 12 households cleared away the debris and erected their huts.

Kalpana Gurung inspects her vegetable garden and hopes she will harvest enough green leafy vegetables for her family this spring. As a nursing mother, she is worried she won’t be able to provide enough nutrition to her nine-month-old baby. Credit: Mallika Aryal/IPS

Kalpana Gurung inspects her vegetable garden and hopes she will harvest enough green leafy vegetables for her family this spring. As a nursing mother, she is worried she won’t be able to provide enough nutrition to her nine-month-old baby. Credit: Mallika Aryal/IPS

Eleven-year-old Saraswati Chaudhari and her twin sisters Puja and Laxmi are ready for school. Activists say the government must formulate a comprehensive disaster management plan to safeguard families living in disaster-prone areas. Credit: Mallika Aryal/IPS

Eleven-year-old Saraswati Chaudhari and her twin sisters Puja and Laxmi are ready for school. Activists say the government must formulate a comprehensive disaster management plan to safeguard families living in disaster-prone areas. Credit: Mallika Aryal/IPS

Eighteen-year-old Sangita remembers the night when she woke up to water surrounding her bed. Pointing at the tree where she took shelter she says, “That tree over there saved my life, but I want to forget about that horrible night.” Credit: Mallika Aryal/IPS

Eighteen-year-old Sangita remembers the night when she woke up to water surrounding her bed. Pointing at the tree where she took shelter she says, “That tree over there saved my life, but I want to forget about that horrible night.” Credit: Mallika Aryal/IPS

Today, Chaudhari has planted some vegetables in the garden, an additional source of nutrition for her family. She is worried that what happened last year may happen again and she realizes now that she has to be prepared.

Climate experts say that the little model community is not sustainable – changes in weather patterns mean that every monsoon is likely to bring floods and even landslides to vulnerable regions of Nepal.

A study released last year by the Climate and Development Knowledge Network (CDKN) found that climate variability and extreme weather events costs the government of Nepal the equivalent of between 1.5 and two percent of its gross domestic product (GDP) each year.

Twelve massive floods over the last four decades have cost every single affected household, on average, the equivalent of 9,000 dollars.

Considering that the country’s average income per family was about 2,700 dollars in 2011, this represents a major burden, borne primarily by the poor – like the Chaudhari family – who live in disaster-prone areas.

Every year since 1983, floods in Nepal have caused an average of 283 deaths, destroyed over 8,000 houses and left close to 30,000 affected families to deal with the fallout of the disaster.

As Chaudhari gazes off into the distance towards their sacred mango tree she says, “We’re no strangers to rebuilding our lives […] but I hope my daughters won’t have to do it over and over again, like we did.”

Edited by Kanya D’Almeida

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Families of ‘Desaparecidos’ Take Search into Their Own Handshttp://www.ipsnews.net/2015/02/families-of-desaparecidos-take-search-into-their-own-hands/?utm_source=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_campaign=families-of-desaparecidos-take-search-into-their-own-hands http://www.ipsnews.net/2015/02/families-of-desaparecidos-take-search-into-their-own-hands/#comments Thu, 26 Feb 2015 16:33:56 +0000 Emilio Godoy http://www.ipsnews.net/?p=139372 “Forced disappearance, a strategy of terror” reads a sign with the Mexican flag, held by a family member during a Feb. 19 ceremony to celebrate the 15th year anniversary of HIJOS, one of the first organisations created by the families of ‘desaparecidos’ to search for their loved ones and fight for justice. Credit: Emilio Godoy/IPS

“Forced disappearance, a strategy of terror” reads a sign with the Mexican flag, held by a family member during a Feb. 19 ceremony to celebrate the 15th year anniversary of HIJOS, one of the first organisations created by the families of ‘desaparecidos’ to search for their loved ones and fight for justice. Credit: Emilio Godoy/IPS

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

Carlos Trujillo refuses to give up, after years of tirelessly searching hospitals, morgues, prisons, cemeteries and clandestine graves in Mexico, looking for his four missing brothers.

The local shopkeeper has left no stone unturned and no clue unfollowed since his brothers Jesús, Raúl, Luís and Gustavo Trujillo vanished – the first two on Aug. 28, 2008 in the southern state of Guerrero and the last two on Sep. 22, 2010 on a highway that joins the southern states of Puebla and Veracruz.

“The case has gone nowhere; four agents were assigned to it, but there’s still nothing concrete, so I’m forging ahead and I won’t stop until I find them,” Trujillo told IPS.

On Feb. 18, Trujillo and other relatives of “desaparecidos” or victims of enforced disappearance founded the group Familiares en Búsqueda María Herrera – named after his mother – as part of the growing efforts by tormented family members to secure institutional support for the investigations they themselves carry out.

“We want to create a network of organisations of victims’ families,” the activist explained. “One of the priorities is to strengthen links and networking, to ensure clarity in the search process, and to share tools. The aim is for the families themselves to carry the investigations forward.”

The group is investigating the disappearance of 18 people. Prior to the creation of the organisation, some of the members found six people alive, in the last two years.“Each one of us started with our own particular case. We didn’t understand what disappearance was; we had to learn. We didn’t know we had a right to demand things. The search started off with problems, no one knew how to work collectively, and we gradually came up with how to do things.” -- Diana García

With determination and courage, the family members visit morgues, police stations, prisons, courtrooms, cemeteries and mass graves, trying to find their lost loved ones, or at least some clue that could lead them in the right direction.

The group grew out of the Movement for Peace with Justice and Dignity, which in 2011 brought together the families of victims of the wave of violence in Mexico, and held peace caravans throughout the country and even parts of the United States, where the movement protested that country’s anti-drug policy.

Enforced disappearance became a widespread phenomenon since the government of conservative Felipe Calderón (2006-2012) declared the “war on drug trafficking.” His successor, the conservative Enrique Peña Nieto, has not resolved the problem, which has become one of the worst tragedies in Latin America’s recent history.

But the phenomenon has only drawn international attention since the disappearance of 43 students of the Ayotzinapa rural teachers’ college, which exposed a cocktail of complicity and corruption between the police and the mayor of the town of Iguala and a violent drug cartel operating in Guerrero.

Thursday marks the five month anniversary of their disappearance.

The families have not stopped their indefatigable search for the students, even though the attorney general’s office announced a month ago that they were killed by the organised crime group “Guerreros Unidos” and their bodies were burnt.

The humanitarian crisis prompted the United Nations Committee on Enforced Disappearances to demand on Feb. 13 that Mexico pass specific laws to combat the problem, create a registry of victims, carry out proper investigations, and provide justice and reparations to the victims’ families.

Mexico’s office on human rights, crime prevention and community service has reported that in this country of 120 million people, 23,271 people went missing between 2007 and October 2014. However, the office does not specifically indicate how many of these people were victims of enforced disappearance, as opposed to simply missing. Human rights organisations put the figure at 22,600 for that period.

Most enforced disappearances are blamed on drug cartels, which dispute smuggling routes to the lucrative U.S. market, in some cases with the participation of corrupt local or national police. The victims are mainly men from different socioeconomic strata, between the ages of 20 and 36.

“Each one of us started with our own particular case,” Diana García, whose son was disappeared, told IPS. “We didn’t understand what disappearance was; we had to learn. We didn’t know we had a right to demand things. The search started off with problems, no one knew how to work collectively, and we gradually came up with how to do things.”

Her son, Daniel Cantú, disappeared on Feb. 21, 2007 in the city of Ramos Arizpe in the northern state of Coahuila.

García, who has two other children and belongs to the group Fuerzas Unidas por Nuestros Desaparecidos en Coahuila, is convinced that only by working together can people exert enough pressure on the government to get it to search for their missing loved ones.

With the support of the Centro Diocesano para los Derechos Humanos Fray Juan de Larios, a church-based human rights organisation, a group of family members of victims came together and founded Fuerzas Unidas in 2009, which is searching for a total of 344 people.

The organisation successfully advocated the creation of a new local law on the declaration of absence of persons due to disappearance, in effect since May 2014, as well as the classification of enforced disappearance as a specific crime in the state of Coahuila.

Other groups have emerged, such as Ciencia Forense Ciudadana (Citizen Forensic Science), founded in September to create a forensic and DNA database.

“The initiative is aimed at a massive identification drive,” one of the founders of the organisation, Sara López, told IPS. “To do this we need a registry of victims of disappearance, a genetic database, and a databank for what has been found in clandestine graves.”

The project plans to cover 450 families affected by enforced disappearance and to reach 1,500 DNA samples. So far it has gathered 550, and it has representatives – victims’ relatives – in 10 of the country’s 33 states.

On Feb. 16, Ciencia Forense identified the remains of Brenda González, who went missing on Jul. 31, 2011 in Santa Catarina, in the northern state of Nuevo León, with the support of an independent forensic investigation carried out by the Peruvian Forensic Anthropology Team.

“With the organisation that we just created, we will also try to provide a broad assessment of the question of enforced disappearances,” Trujillo said.

Human rights organisations say that until the case of the missing Ayotzinapa rural teachers’ college students erupted, the authorities did very little to combat the phenomenon, and failed to adopt measures to comply with sentences handed down by the Inter-American Court on Human Rights.

The plight of the families is described in the song “Desaparecido” by French-Spanish singer-songwriter Manu Chao, dedicated to the thousands of victims of enforced disappearance in Latin America and their families: “I carry in my body a pain that doesn’t let me breathe, I carry in my body a doom that forces me to keep moving.”

And their lives are put on hold while they visit registries, fill out paperwork, lobby, take innumerable risks, and rack up expenses as they search for their loved ones and other desaparecidos.

“For now, I’m not interested in justice or reparations,” said García. “What I want is to know the truth, what happened, where he is. I’m looking for him alive but I know that in the context we’re living in there may be a different outcome. It’ll probably take me many years and I am desperate, but I continue the struggle.”

Her organisation, Fuerzas Unidas, drew up a plan that includes the analysis of crime maps, a genetic registry, awareness-raising campaigns, and proposed measures to hold those responsible for botched investigations accountable.

“The families are more familiar with the situation than anyone else, they know what has to be done. The problem is that we are overwhelmed by the magnitude of the phenomenon in Mexico,” said López.

Edited by Estrella Gutiérrez/Translated by Stephanie Wildes

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Mobile Technology a Lever for Women’s Empowermenthttp://www.ipsnews.net/2015/02/mobile-technology-a-lever-for-womens-empowerment/?utm_source=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_campaign=mobile-technology-a-lever-for-womens-empowerment http://www.ipsnews.net/2015/02/mobile-technology-a-lever-for-womens-empowerment/#comments Thu, 26 Feb 2015 13:39:49 +0000 A. D. McKenzie http://www.ipsnews.net/?p=139367 For Cherie Blair (left), founder of the Cherie Blair Foundation for Women and wife of former British Prime Minister Tony Blair, “empowering women and girls to access education isn’t an option, isn’t a nice thing to do, it’s an imperative”. Credit: A.D. McKenzie/IPS

For Cherie Blair (left), founder of the Cherie Blair Foundation for Women and wife of former British Prime Minister Tony Blair, “empowering women and girls to access education isn’t an option, isn’t a nice thing to do, it’s an imperative”. Credit: A.D. McKenzie/IPS

By A. D. McKenzie
PARIS, Feb 26 2015 (IPS)

Providing women with greater access to mobile technology could increase literacy, advance development and open up much-needed educational and employment opportunities, according to experts at the fourth United Nations’ Mobile Learning Week conference here.

“Mobile technology can offer learning where there are no books, no classrooms, even no teachers. This is especially important for women and girls who drop out of school and need second chances,” said Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka, Executive Director of UN Women.

The agency, which focuses on gender equality and the empowerment of women, joined forces with its “sister” organisation, the U.N. Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO) to host the Feb. 23-27 conference this year.“Mobile technology can offer learning where there are no books, no classrooms, even no teachers. This is especially important for women and girls who drop out of school and need second chances” – Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka, Executive Director of UN Women

The aim, UNESCO said, was to give participants a venue “to learn about and discuss technology programmes, initiatives and content that are alleviating gender deficits in education.”

Participants from more than 70 countries shared so-called best practices and presented a range of initiatives to address the issue, including reducing the costs of access to mobile services in some developing countries, and providing training and free laptops to women teachers in countries such as Israel.

“There is still a persistent gender gap in access to mobile technology,” said keynote speaker Cherie Blair, founder of the Cherie Blair Foundation for Women and wife of former British Prime Minister Tony Blair.

In an interview on the side-lines of the conference, she told IPS that “anything that encourages the education of girls is important” and that it was “particularly significant” that UNESCO and UN Women had joined forces to work together in this area to achieve results.

“We need to encourage women to use technology and we also need to involve men to provide support,” Blair said. She cited research showing that a woman in a low- or middle-income country is 21 percent less likely than a man to own a mobile phone. In Africa, the figure is 23 percent less likely, and in the Middle East and South Asia 24 percent and 37 percent respectively.

“The reasons women cite for not owning a mobile phone include the costs of handsets and data plans, lack of need and fear of not being able to master the technology,” Blair said.

Yet, according to the International Telecommunications Union (ITU), mobile phones are the “most pervasive and rapidly adopted technology in history”, with six billion of the world’s seven billion people now having access.

If there existed gender parity in this access, women could benefit from the technology in a number of ways, including getting information about healthcare and other services, experts said.

They could also potentially follow massive open online courses (MOOCS) such as those offered by an increasing number of universities and other institutions, despite on-going controversy about their benefits. Currently, the majority of students enrolled in MOOCs are men, and often from wealthy backgrounds, surveys suggest.

Whether women live in low-income or rich countries, learning how to use technology could have future benefits especially regarding employment, said Mark West, a UNESCO project officer.

“Ninety percent of jobs in the future are going to require ICT skills,” he told IPS in an interview. “So any idea that it’s not socially or culturally acceptable for women to use technology is extremely dangerous.”

He said the fact that 25 percent fewer women than men currently access the Internet “was alarming” and that changes needed to occur early in education so that girls were not left out of future jobs.

“We don’t often realise how gendered our perceptions of technology are,” he added. “Women are taught from a young age to not like technology, taught that maths and science are not for them, and this is a big problem.”

At university level, only about 20 percent of female students are pursuing careers in computer science, and in the technology sector, only six percent of CEOs are women, according to the ITU.

“We should do more to get women in STEM fields,” said Doreen Bogdan, ITU’s Chief of Strategic Planning and Membership Department, referring to the academic disciplines of science, technology, engineering and mathematics.

Some participants highlighted current programmes to keep girls interested in science, such as camps run by the California-based semiconductor company Qualcomm, which brings sixth-grade female students together to learn coding and tech skills, and does follow-up work with them as they continue their education.

“All of the tech companies are fighting for the same talent pool and there are not enough females in that talent pool because not enough girls are studying it,” said Angela Baker, a senior manager at Qualcomm.

“There’s a ton of research that shows that when you have more women in the industry, companies tend to do better … so we have a vested interest in building that pipeline of girls and women,” she told IPS.

Apart from the STEM fields, girls have made great strides in education over the past 30 years, but there is “still a long way to go,” said experts, who cited U.N. figures showing that globally there are seven girls to every 10 boys in school.

Both UNESCO Director General Irina Bokova and Cherie Blair described education as a “human rights imperative” as well as a development and security imperative.

They stressed that the goal of achieving gender equality in education will continue for the post-2015 development agenda, and that technology has an important role to play.

“Empowering women and girls to access education isn’t an option, isn’t a nice thing to do, it’s an imperative,” Blair said.

Edited by Phil Harris    

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Indigenous Storytelling in the Limelighthttp://www.ipsnews.net/2015/02/indigenous-storytelling-in-the-limelight/?utm_source=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_campaign=indigenous-storytelling-in-the-limelight http://www.ipsnews.net/2015/02/indigenous-storytelling-in-the-limelight/#comments Thu, 26 Feb 2015 09:33:21 +0000 Francesca Dziadek http://www.ipsnews.net/?p=139362 María Mercedes Coroy, first-time lead actress in ‘Ixcanul Volcano’, winner of the Alfred Bauer Prize at the 2015 Berlinale. The film, directed by Guatemalan Jayro Buscamante, emerged from a community-media storytelling project involving local women in discussion groups and script writing workshops in Kaqchikel, one of the 12 regional Mayan languages. Credit: © La Casa de Producción

María Mercedes Coroy, first-time lead actress in ‘Ixcanul Volcano’, winner of the Alfred Bauer Prize at the 2015 Berlinale. The film, directed by Guatemalan Jayro Buscamante, emerged from a community-media storytelling project involving local women in discussion groups and script writing workshops in Kaqchikel, one of the 12 regional Mayan languages. Credit: © La Casa de Producción

By Francesca Dziadek
BERLIN, Feb 26 2015 (IPS)

In recent years, the Berlin International Film Festival, known as the Berlinale, has established a European hub for indigenous voices across a number of platforms, including its NATIVe – A Journey into Indigenous Cinema series and Storytelling-Slams in which indigenous storytelling artists share their stories before opening the floor to contributions from the audience.

This year’s Berlinale, with a focus on Latin America, dabbed a rainbow of native flair to Berlin’s greyest month, with a chorus of voices and perspectives from indigenous people, including Guarani, Hicholes, Xavante, Wichi, Kuikuro, Mapuche, Tzotzil and Quechua.

And it was an indigenous story from Guatemala – ‘Ixcanul Volcano’ by Jayro Buscamante (37), set among the Maya community in the Pacaya volcano region – which took home the Berlinale’s Silver Bear Alfred Bauer Prize this year for a film that “opens new perspectives on cinematic art”."I wanted to reveal the state of impotence, the real situation faced by indigenous women who have no power, told from their own perspective, in their own language” – Jayro Buscamante, director of ‘Ixcanul Volcano’

Ixcanul Volcano is the story of Maria, a 17-year-old Mayan girl from a coffee-farming community in the volcano’s foothills, who is torn between an arranged marriage to the local foreman and her attraction to a young local man, Pepe, who seduces her with his dreams of a different life, beyond the volcano, up north.

Following a botched-up elopement attempt, Maria finds herself bearing the consequences of an unwanted teenage pregnancy. The young girl and her mother, played by Maria Telon, a Mayan community theatre actress-activist, are soon engulfed in a precipice of dramatic circumstances.

Based on true events, Ixcanul Volcano emerged from a community-media storytelling project where Buscamante involved local women in discussion groups and script writing workshops in Kaqchikel, one of the 12 regional Mayan languages. Inevitably, the story came to reflect the glaring nexus among human rights abuses, poverty and powerlessness.

“I wanted to reveal the state of impotence, the real situation faced by indigenous women who have no power, told from their own perspective, in their own language,” explained Buscamante, who learnt Kaqchikel growing up among the Maya.

It was his mother, a community health worker, who first told him about the scourge surrounding child-trafficking practices, one of the darkest chapters of Guatemala’s long civil war (1960-1996), involving public health employees and state authorities.

The United Nations has reported a staggering 400 cases of abductions of Mayan children and minors per year, a human rights scandal carried out with impunity.

“There is an insidious social-legal framework which can chain and cheat the poorest of the poor even while pretending to help them out. This leads to a state of impotence and submission, sometimes the only response left available,” explained Buscamante.

Yet, in Berlin, Maria Telon and the hauntingly beautiful, first-time lead, María Mercedes Coroy,  spoke of their gratitude for “liking our story” and for being heard and appreciated, something which, Telon said, is not always the case for indigenous women and communities.

The horrors and human rights crimes perpetrated by the massacre of the Mayan population, which accounted for 85 percent of the victims of the Guatemalan civil war, are outlined in a report by Guatemala’s Historical Clarification Commission’s report titled Memory of Silence”, drafted by three rapporteurs, including German jurist Christian Tomuschat, professor of public international law at Berlin’s Humboldt University.

Memory was the thread linking native perspectives on water, the crucial element sustaining life on the planet and the subject of The Pearl Button (El boton de nazar), Chilean film director Patricio Guzman’s documentary, which took home a Berlinale Silver Bear Prize for Best Script.

Countries which deny their past remain stuck in collective amnesia and Guzman, for whom “a country without documentary cinema is like a family without a family album,” applies this conviction to Chile’s denial of its colonial history and the extermination of its native inhabitants.

The documentary’s title refers to the legend of Jemmy Button, a Yagan teenager who was sold off to a British naval captain in 1830 for the price of a pearl button.

It pays tribute to three of the all but extinguished Yacatan original inhabitants, the “water nomads” of the Patagonian estuary, and to the native wisdom of those who navigated these waters which sustained human existence for centuries.

Interviewed by Guzman, who endured 15 days of detention in Pinochet’s infamous torture stadium in 1973 and is internationally acclaimed for the documentary trilogy ‘The Battle of Chile’ (1975-1978), Gabriela Paterito recalled a 600-mile voyage aged 12 with her mother to collect fresh water.

Asked to translate Spanish words into her own native Kawesquar, Paterito recalls many words including “water”, “sun” and “button” and, pushed to find the equivalent for “police”, she nods replying: “No, we don’t need that.” And as far as God is concerned, her response comes as a resolute: “No, there is no God.”

The fate of Gabriela’s people was sealed in Chile’s colonial past. Five distinct ethnic groups tied to the water environment of the archipelagos were exterminated by Catholic missionaries and conquistadores.

The U.N. Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO) recognises that “indigenous knowledge is the local knowledge that is unique to a culture or society” and that knowledge of the natural world cannot be confined to science because it represents the accumulated knowledge which has sustained human societies in their interaction with the natural world across the ages.

Another protagonist in The Pearl Button explains how the government denies him the use of his handmade canoe,  and consequently access to his own traditional livelihood, ostensibly for  his own protection – a disturbing disconnect in a country which exterminated its native maritime inhabitants and was never able to make use of the  potential of its 2,670 miles of coastline.

“Ixcanul is a significant step for a native, Latin American film. With 80 percent of our screens spewing out U.S. blockbusters it leaves a small niche for alternatives from Europe and a tiny one for Latin American films, Leo Cordero of Mexico’s Mantarraya Distribucion told IPS. “Paradoxically, it is only if the film is well received in Europe and around the world that we can take a chance on it.”

Strongly committed to the Guatemalan peace process and the emancipation of the Maya people, Ixcanul Volcano comes at a time when indigenous media are flourishing with a new understanding of the native retelling of history and film-making as a “common good”.

Bolivia and Ecuador have acknowledged the world view of indigenous people based on a sacred conception of the Law of Rights of mother Earth – the concept of Pachamama, which prioritises the collective good over individual gain.

At the Berlinale’s NATIVe Storytelling-Slam, indigenous perspectives were centre stage.  David Alberto Hernandez Palmar, a Venezuelan video artist and producer of the documentary Owners of Water about an indigenous campaign to protect an Amazonian river, insisted that the Kueka stone, which originated in Venezuela’s Gran Sabana nature reserve in the Pemom Indian lands, should be returned from Berlin’s central park, the Tiergarten. “Mother Earth is sad,” he said.

Whether or not Berlin will become involved in a case of restitution of indigenous property is unsure but, increasingly, indigenous arts, media and communications are building bridges.

“The medium of film can provide a crucial path towards understanding because you have to open up to the perspectives of others,” said Buscamante, who stressed his interest in the relationships among different cultures and ethnic groups.

Edited by Phil Harris    

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Better to Die at Sea, than Languish in Povertyhttp://www.ipsnews.net/2015/02/better-to-die-at-sea-than-languish-in-poverty/?utm_source=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_campaign=better-to-die-at-sea-than-languish-in-poverty http://www.ipsnews.net/2015/02/better-to-die-at-sea-than-languish-in-poverty/#comments Wed, 25 Feb 2015 17:31:46 +0000 Amantha Perera http://www.ipsnews.net/?p=139349 For most Sri Lankans seeking asylum in Australia, there is no pot of gold at the end of the rainbow, just a sad return journey home. Credit: Amantha Perera/IPS

For most Sri Lankans seeking asylum in Australia, there is no pot of gold at the end of the rainbow, just a sad return journey home. Credit: Amantha Perera/IPS

By Amantha Perera
COLOMBO, Feb 25 2015 (IPS)

Weerasinghearachilage Ruwan Rangana had it all planned out last year in September: the big break that would change his life and those of his extended family had finally arrived.

The Sri Lankan youth in his early twenties was not too worried that the arrangement meant he had to make a clandestine journey in the middle of the night to a beach, board a two-decade-old trawler with dozens of others and be ready to spend up to three weeks on the high seas in a vessel designed to carry loads of fish.

“Besides trade and security, a large driver of the Australian government’s foreign policy is its single-minded focus on ensuring that all asylum seekers or refugees are processed at offshore facilities." -- Human Rights Watch
He and his fellow commuters prayed that the boat would not crack in two before it reached Australian waters, where they all expected to find a pot of gold at the end of the proverbial rainbow.

Rangana told IPS that most of the roughly three-dozen people on board were leaving in search of better economic prospects, though members of the minority Tamil community are known to take the same journey to escape political persecution.

The boat ride was the relatively easy part. After reaching Australia, Rangana would have to seek asylum, land a job and secure an income, before beginning the process of bringing his family there to join him.

“At least, that was the plan,” said the young man who was a contract employee of the state-owned Ceylon Transport Board in the remote village of Angunakolapelessa in Sri Lanka’s southern Hambantota District earning a monthly salary of 12,000 rupees (about 90 dollars) when he took the boat ride.

Half of the plan – the life-threatening part – worked. The other part – the life-changing one – did not.

Despite a leaking hull, the vessel did reach Australian waters, but was apprehended by the Australian Navy, newly emboldened by a policy to turn back boatloads of asylum seekers after fast-tracked processing at sea, sometimes reportedly involving no more than a single phone call with a border official.

By mid-September Rangana was back in Sri Lanka, at the southern port city of Galle where he and dozens of others who were handed over to Sri Lankan authorities were facing court action.

Thankfully he did not have to spend days inside a police cell or weeks in prison. He was bailed out on 5,000 rupees (about 45 dollars), a stiff sum for his family who barely make 40,000 rupees (about 300 dollars) a month.

Now he sits at home with no job and no savings – having sunk about 200,000 rupees (1,500 dollars) into his spot on the rickety fishing boat – and makes ends meet by doing odd jobs.

“Life is hard, but maybe I can get to Australia some day. I did get to the territorial waters; does that mean I have some kind of legal right to seek citizenship there?” he asks, oblivious to the tough policies of the Australian administration towards immigrants like himself.

Clamping down on ‘illegal’ entry

Since Australia launched Operation Sovereign Borders in September 2013 following the election of Tony Abbott as Prime Minister, at least 15 boats have been turned back at sea, including the one on which Rangana was traveling, to Indonesia and Sri Lanka.

Last year only one boat reached Australia, according to the government.

The programme has resulted in a significant drop in the number of illegal maritime arrivals in Australia. Compared to the one boat that reached Australia in 2014, the 2012-2013 period saw 25,173 persons reaching the country safely.

In the 10 months prior to the controversial military programme, 281 unauthorized boats arrived with a total of 19,578 people on board, according to the Australian Department of Immigration.

Just this past week, Australian authorities interviewed four Sri Lankans at sea, and sent them back to the island. Officials claim that the new screening process saves lives and assures that Australian asylum policies are not abused.

“The Coalition government’s policies and resolve are stopping illegal boat arrivals and are restoring integrity to Australia’s borders and immigration programme. Anyone attempting to enter Australia illegally by sea will never be resettled in this country,” Immigration Minister Peter Dutton’s office said in a statement this week.

As of end-January, there were 2,298 persons in immigration detention facilities in Australia, of whom 8.1 percent were Sri Lankans.

The policy has been criticised by activists as well as rights groups, including by the office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR).

“UNHCR’s position is that they (asylum seekers) must be swiftly and individually screened, in a process which they understand and in which they are able to explain their needs. Such screening is best carried out on land, given safety concerns and other limitations of doing so at sea,” the agency said in a statement earlier this month.

According to the international watchdog Human Rights Watch, “Besides trade and security, a large driver of the Australian government’s foreign policy is its single-minded focus on ensuring that all asylum seekers or refugees are processed at offshore facilities.

“The government has muted its criticism of authoritarian governments in Sri Lanka and Cambodia in recent years, apparently in hopes of winning the support of such governments for its refugee policies,” the rights group added in a statement released last month.

The end of Sri Lanka’s 26-year-long civil conflict and the election of a new, possibly more democratic government in January this year add to Canberra’s justification for turning away those who seek shelter within its borders.

In reality, the risk for asylum seekers is still high. Newly appointed Minister of Justice Wijeyadasa Rajapakshe told IPS that the government was yet to discuss any changes to accepting returnees. “They will face legal action; change in such a policy is not a priority right now,” he added.

Lawyers working with asylum seekers say their clients are unlikely to face extended jail terms, but could be slapped with fines of up to 100,000 rupees (750 dollars), still a lot of money for poor families.

Even if the legal process is swift, and those impounded are able to post bail, their reasons for wanting to leave remain the same.

Take the case of Kanan*, a young man from the war-torn northern town of Kilinochchi. He took a boat in August 2013 after paying a 750-dollar fee, agreeing to pay the remaining 6,750 dollars once he reached Australia.

He never even made it halfway. Six days into the journey, the boat broke down and was towed ashore by the Sri Lankan Navy.

He was fleeing poverty – his home district boasts unemployment rates over twice the national figure of four percent – and possible political persecution, not an unusual occurrence among the Tamil community both during and after Sri Lanka’s civil war.

He knows that very few have gotten to the Australian mainland and that even those whose cases have been deemed legitimate could end up in the Pacific islands of Nauru or Papua New Guinea.

But Kanan still hopes to give his ‘boat dream’ another try. “There is no hope here; even risking death [to reach Australia] is worth it,” says the unemployed youth.

*Name changed on request

Edited by Kanya D’Almeida

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Falling Oil Prices Won’t Derail St. Lucia’s Push for Clean Energyhttp://www.ipsnews.net/2015/02/falling-oil-prices-wont-derail-st-lucias-push-for-clean-energy/?utm_source=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_campaign=falling-oil-prices-wont-derail-st-lucias-push-for-clean-energy http://www.ipsnews.net/2015/02/falling-oil-prices-wont-derail-st-lucias-push-for-clean-energy/#comments Wed, 25 Feb 2015 16:01:45 +0000 Kenton X. Chance http://www.ipsnews.net/?p=139341 Workers use electricity and firewood to prepare cassava bread in Canaries, St. Lucia. The country’s government says renewable energy can help with value-added in the agricultural sector. Credit: Kenton X. Chance/IPS

Workers use electricity and firewood to prepare cassava bread in Canaries, St. Lucia. The country’s government says renewable energy can help with value-added in the agricultural sector. Credit: Kenton X. Chance/IPS

By Kenton X. Chance
CASTRIES, Feb 25 2015 (IPS)

At Plas Kassav, a roadside outlet in Canaries, a rural community in western St. Lucia, a busload of visitors from other Caribbean countries, along with tourists from North America and Europe, sample the 12 flavours of freshly baked cassava bread on sale.

In the back of the shop, employees busily sift the grated cassava and prepare it for baking. Next to them, an electric motor powers a device that turns grated cassava as it bakes into farine — a cereal made from cassava tubers — in a wood-fired cauldron.Caribbean nations, with their fossil fuel-dependant economies, “don't want to be caught in a situation where today the price of oil is less than 50 dollars a barrel and tomorrow, if the Saudis and the other players decide, that the price of oil could go up to 120 dollars a barrel.” -- Minister James Fletcher

This is one of the ways in which this eastern Caribbean nation of 180,000 people is marrying its tourism and agriculture sectors.

Tourism makes the largest contribution to St. Lucia’s 1.3-billion-dollar economy. And with oil prices expected to continue falling for some time, this 617-square-kilometre island is hoping for significant economic growth on the heels of the slim years since the global financial crisis struck in 2008.

The government says that the move toward renewable energy will see businesses and households paying less for energy and will also strengthen the nation’s argument at the international climate change negotiations.

A renewable energy expert with the International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA) tells IPS that falling oil prices present an excellent opportunity for small island developing states such as St. Lucia and its 14 other Caribbean Community (CARICOM) allies to accelerate their renewable energy programme.

“I think you can look at it as a windfall that buys you time for the transition,” Dolf Gielen says.

He tells IPS that falling oil prices will slow down but will not end the push towards clean energy.

“Oil prices will somewhat slow the acceleration but you will see a continued transition towards renewables,” he says. “Now you have a little more time to plan it and to make sure that it functions well.”

James Fletcher, St. Lucia’s Minister of Public Service, Sustainable Development, Energy, Science and Technology, tells IPS that he agrees that the region needs to accelerate its transition toward renewable energy, but is not certain whether lower fuel prices is really reason to exhale.

“I’m not sure about the breathing space. I think what it does, however, show is that this fuel price game is not one we want to be playing,” Fletcher tells IPS.

He notes that while the price of oil has fallen to 50 dollars a barrel — less than half of what it was half year ago — the decrease did not result from any advances in technology.

“The price of oil right now is being determined by the geopolitics of oil,” he says, noting that Saudi Arabia has increased its production in an effort to make production of shale oil in the United States and Canada less attractive.

Fletcher says that Caribbean nations, with their fossil fuel-dependant economies, “don’t want to be caught in a situation where today the price of oil is less than 50 dollars a barrel and tomorrow, if the Saudis and the other players decide, that the price of oil could go up to 120 dollars a barrel.”

Cruise in Castries Harbour, St. Lucia. The island is hoping to use renewable energy to fuel a greater part of its tourism sector. Credit: Kenton X. Chance/IPS

Cruise in Castries Harbour, St. Lucia. The island is hoping to use renewable energy to fuel a greater part of its tourism sector. Credit: Kenton X. Chance/IPS

If the Caribbean is really serious about sustainable development and wants its economies to develop with some level of certainty, “we can’t be at the mercy of a widely fluctuating oil market,” Fletcher stresses.

“So, for me, what is happening in the oil market is reason why, as much as possible, we should get either out of it or insulate ourselves from it – and that’s why renewable energy makes so much sense to us.”

As opposed to dependence on oil, Fletcher says, if Caribbean countries are depending on renewable energy then there is “much more certainty” of what the price of energy will be.

“… With prices fluctuating so much not because of any huge difference in technology and any difference in supply in the Middle East or any glut in the supply market, I think that’s why we should be getting pursuing our renewable energies programme with more haste and more energy,” Fletcher tells IPS.

In St. Lucia, consumers pay 38 cents for one kilowatt-hour of electricity. The government hopes that its investments in renewable energy could see that price reduced to 30 cents.

St. Lucia is home to Sulphur Sprints, the “world’s only drive in volcano” — a smoking caldera located near Soufrière on the southwestern side of the island, where the natural heat boils the water and geysers shoot into the air at high tide and full moon.

St. Lucia hopes to generate up to 30 megawatts of electricity in Soufriere, home to Sulphur Springs, the “world’s only drive-in volcano”. Credit: Kenton X. Chance/IPS

St. Lucia hopes to generate up to 30 megawatts of electricity in Soufriere, home to Sulphur Springs, the “world’s only drive-in volcano”. Credit: Kenton X. Chance/IPS

It stands to reason that geothermal energy will be the nation’s focus as it pivots to renewable energy.

Fletcher tells IPS wind and solar PV are intermittent sources of energy “and we really can’t complete a transition away from fossil fuel based on intermittent sources, unless we invest heavily in storage, which we really don’t have the capacity to do right now.”

St. Lucia has received financial and technical support from the government of New Zealand, SIDS-DOCK, and the Global Environmental Facility to conduct the initial stage of exploration, which will start soon, Fletcher says.

LUCILEC, the state-owned power company in St. Lucia, will purchase the electricity from the power plant developer, ORMAK of Isreal, and resell it to consumers.

Fletcher tells IPS that the government is pleased with the pace of the negotiations but notes that developing geothermal potential takes time.

“But at least it puts us on track to developing what we believe is as much as 30 megawatts of geothermal energy in Soufriere,” he says.

And while geothermal energy has been identified as the booster that St. Lucia’s tourism industry has been longing for, exploiting that same renewable energy potential could deal a devastating blow to the nation’s tourism product.

“There is one little wrinkle in that, because the drive-in volcano is also located within the Piton Management Area, and the Piton Management Area is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and it is located in one of the policy areas where we are restricted in the level of infrastructural development that can take place,” Fletcher explains.

“So what we will be doing is looking at drill sites outside of the immediate vicinity of the drive-in volcano, but we are quite confident that we will have quite productive wells outside of that immediate area.”

St. Lucia is also exploring the development of a 12-megawatt wind farm on the island’s east cost and has been having discussion with an entity in the United States in this regard.

The third element of the renewable energy push is solar PV, the first stage of which will be done by LUCILEC, which has invited responses to proposal for a 1.2-megawatt facility in the south of St. Lucia, the intention being that it will be scaled up to 3 megawatts in the near future.

In this regard, the government is working with the Carbon War Room and the Clinton Initiative, which have been supporting the renewable energy programme.

Fletcher tells IPS that the move toward renewable energy, coupled with energy saving initiatives — such reducing from 4.0 million dollars to 2.6 million annually the amount spent on street lighting by switching to LED bulbs — will have a “tremendous” impact on St. Lucia.

The government is moving to make its own buildings more energy efficient, and will take to Parliament legislation to provide home and land tax, income tax rebate for people who are retrofitting their homes with energy efficient devices or installing grid-tie solar PV.

“What that does is many-fold. First of all, it causes our economic sector to be much more competitive,” Fletcher says, adding that a large portion of spending in the tourism sector is on energy.

“When you now superimpose on that the work we are doing with renewables, that, hopefully, will cause a reduction in the price of electricity from what it is right now, which 38 US cents per hour, to something approaching 30 cents. Then the expenditure by our hotels, by our manufacturing sector, the expenditure by people who are interested in value-added in agriculture, that expenditure goes down and it makes those sectors more competitive,” Fletcher tells IPS.

“On the household side, any money that is not being spent on energy is money that can be spent on something else. And so our focus is not just on the commercial establishments but also to get our residential consumers to benefit from the reduction in the cost of electricity, but also by putting in energy saving measures in their homes and giving them concessions to do that, that they will realise significant savings where their energy expenditure is concerned.”

Fletcher is one of St. Lucia’s and CARICOM’s negotiator at the global climate change talks, where the nations of the worlds are slated to sign a binding deal for reducing global warming in Paris later this year.

He tells IPS that at the international climate change negotiations, St. Lucia has been saying to developed countries that they have to reduce their emissions of greenhouse gases to keep global warming to two degrees above pre-industrial levels, as proposed by experts.

“Now, it strengthens our case. It strengthens our moral argument if we can say that a country like St. Lucia that contributes … something like 0.00078 per cent of all green house gases, we recognise the importance of this being a global effort and we are still committing to reducing our carbon footprint by 30, 40, 50 per cent.

“Then we believe that the big emitters, like the United States, like the European countries, like China, like Russia, that they also should be doing more to reduce their greenhouse emissions. So, I think it strengthens our hand in the international negotiations where climate change is concerned,” Fletcher tells IPS.

Edited by Kitty Stapp

The writer can be contacted at Kentonxtchance@gmail.com

Follow him on Twitter @KentonXChance

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Big Trouble in the Air in Indiahttp://www.ipsnews.net/2015/02/big-trouble-in-the-air-in-india/?utm_source=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_campaign=big-trouble-in-the-air-in-india http://www.ipsnews.net/2015/02/big-trouble-in-the-air-in-india/#comments Wed, 25 Feb 2015 01:46:00 +0000 Neeta Lal http://www.ipsnews.net/?p=139327 Vehicle ownership in India is projected to hit 400 million by 2040 from the current 170 million, which could prompt a five-fold increase in poisonous gases emitted by cars and trucks. Credit: Neeta Lal/IPS

Vehicle ownership in India is projected to hit 400 million by 2040 from the current 170 million, which could prompt a five-fold increase in poisonous gases emitted by cars and trucks. Credit: Neeta Lal/IPS

By Neeta Lal
NEW DELHI, Feb 25 2015 (IPS)

Like many others of her age, 15-year-old Aastha Sharma, a Class 10 student at a private school in India’s capital, New Delhi, loves being outdoors, going for walks with her friends and enjoying an occasional ice-cream. But the young girl can’t indulge in any of these activities.

Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), a lung disorder likely caused by Delhi’s heavily polluted air, has severely cramped the girl’s lifestyle, confining her mostly to her home.

An estimated 1.5 million people die annually in India due to indoor and outdoor air pollution.
For the past three years, Sharma’s life has been a whirligig of doctors’ prescriptions, missed social outings and a restricted diet that does not include most of her favourite foods. Along with books and a lunchbox, she also packs a nebulizer in her satchel daily to ward off the wheezing attacks that she has now come to dread.

“I’m sick of the endless do’s and don’ts I have to follow. When will I be able to lead a free life?” the teen wonders.

Many other youngsters in Delhi are asking the very same question as they grapple with the effects of rampant air pollution in this city of 18 million, believed to be world’s most polluted.

Particulate matter: a deadly matter

Greenpeace India, an environmental NGO, recently released findings of its air quality monitoring survey highlighting how poor the air was inside five prominent schools in the capital.

“Air pollution levels inside Delhi’s schools are alarmingly high and children are consistently breathing bad air. The new government needs to acknowledge the severity of air pollution in the city,” said Aishwarya Madineni, a campaigner with Greenpeace.

Another study conducted in 2014, which monitored 11,628 school-going children from 36 schools in Delhi in different seasons, found that every third child in the city had reduced lung function because of particulate pollution.

In a report submitted last year to the Supreme Court, the country’s Environment Pollution (Prevention and Control) Authority urged the apex court to order all schools in Delhi to shut down on days when air pollution levels posed a threat to public health.

Studies by the United States’ Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) point out that when children are exposed to particulate matter – a complex mixture of acids (nitrates and sulfates), organic chemicals, metals, and soil or dust particles – of 2.5 micrometers, it can trigger a raft of deadly respiratory illnesses.

The International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) classified particulate matter pollution as carcinogenic to humans in 2013 and designated it as a “leading environmental cause of cancer deaths.”

“Apart from mucous membranes and nasal cavities, air pollution also severely irritates eyes and skin. Exposure to high levels of pollution can lead to serious health [issues] in the long run,” warns Dr. Abha Sood, a senior consultant oncologist at the New Delhi-based Max Hospital.

Mothers’ exposure to pollution for prolonged periods, adds the specialist, can lead to malformation of organs in newborns.

“[Particulate Matter] of less than 10 micrometers in diameter (PM 10) is particularly insidious as it gets lodged deep inside the lungs and penetrates the bloodstream, heightening a person’s vulnerability to cancer and heart disease,” she explains.

A national crisis

India’s high levels of air pollution, ranked by the WHO as being among the worst in the world, are adversely impacting the life spans of its citizens, reducing most Indian lives by over three years, says a study by economists from the Universities of Chicago, Harvard and Yale.

Over half of India’s population – roughly 660 million people – live in areas where fine particulate matter pollution is above India’s standards for what is considered safe, said the study.

If India reverses this trend to meet its air standards, this demographic would gain about 3.2 years in their expected life spans, according to the study. In other words, cleaner air would save 2.1 billion life-years, it said.

Furthermore, India has the distinction of recording the world’s highest death rate from chronic respiratory diseases, and more deaths from asthma than any other nation, according to the WHO. The health organisation also claims that India is home to 13 of the world’s 20 most polluted cities.

An estimated 1.5 million people die annually in India due to indoor and outdoor air pollution, which also contributes to both chronic and acute heart disease, the leading cause of death in the country.

In a report submitted to the Supreme Court in December 2014, the country’s Environment Pollution (Prevention and Control) Authority called for increasing the tax on diesel cars, and banning all private vehicles on high air pollution days.

The report also advised that cars older than 15 years be taken off the city’s roads and air purifiers installed at crowded markets; it also called for a crackdown on the burning of trash.

However, the implementation of these measures has been patchy at best, say health activists. Worse, vehicle ownership in India is projected to hit 400 million by 2040 from the current 170 million, says a joint study by the Energy and Resources Institute at the University of California, San Diego, and the California Air Resources Board.

This could result in a health crisis – a three-fold increase in PM 2.5 levels and a five-fold increase in poisonous, highly reactive gases emitted by cars and trucks, the study predicted.

The economic cost of pollution is already proving to be a heavy burden for Asia’s third largest economy. A 2013 World Bank Report highlighted how pollution and other environmental challenges costs India 80 billion dollars a year, nearly six percent of its gross domestic product (GDP).

About 23 percent of child mortality and 2.5 percent of all adult deaths in the country can be attributed to environmental degradation, the study further stated.

Coal-based power: adding fuel to the fire

Air pollution is now the fifth-leading cause of death in India. Between 2000 and 2010, the annual number of premature deaths linked to air pollution across India shot up six-fold to 620,000, according to the Centre for Science and Environment (CSE), an advocacy group in New Delhi.

Another CSE study out this week has sounded alarm bells over air pollution, particularly from coal-based power plants. The two-year comprehensive environmental audit, conducted on 47 thermal power plants owned by the Centre, state governments and private players, has found that Indian thermal power plants were among the most inefficient in the world, on an average operating at 60 to 70 percent of their installed capacity.

The coal-based power plants were also found to have carbon dioxide emissions that were 14 percent higher than similar plants in China. Also, 76 percent of the plants were unable to meet the targets for ulitisation of ‘fly ash‘, imposed by the Union Ministry of Environment and Forests (MoEF).

With the government showing little interest in formulating a cohesive action plan – involving all stakeholders – for tackling the many-headed hydra of air pollution, it looks like Sharma and her nebulizer will be inseparable for a while.

Edited by Kanya D’Almeida

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Syria’s “Barrel Bombs” Cause Human Devastation, Says Rights Grouphttp://www.ipsnews.net/2015/02/syrias-barrel-bombs-cause-human-devastation-says-rights-group/?utm_source=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_campaign=syrias-barrel-bombs-cause-human-devastation-says-rights-group http://www.ipsnews.net/2015/02/syrias-barrel-bombs-cause-human-devastation-says-rights-group/#comments Tue, 24 Feb 2015 22:18:26 +0000 Thalif Deen http://www.ipsnews.net/?p=139328 A girl cries near a damaged car at a site hit by what activists said were barrel bombs dropped by government forces in Aleppo's Dahret Awwad neighbourhood Jan. 29, 2014. Credit: Freedom House/cc by 2.0

A girl cries near a damaged car at a site hit by what activists said were barrel bombs dropped by government forces in Aleppo's Dahret Awwad neighbourhood Jan. 29, 2014. Credit: Freedom House/cc by 2.0

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

The warring parties in the brutal four-year-old military conflict in Syria, which has claimed the lives of over 200,000 civilians and triggered “the greatest refugee crisis in modern times,” continue to break every single pledge held out to the United Nations.

Despite Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon’s plea for a political rather than military solution to the country’s ongoing civil war, both the Syrian government and the multiple rebel forces continue to escalate the conflict with aerial attacks and artillery shelling, hindering the delivery of humanitarian aid.“Amid talk of a possible temporary cessation of strikes on Aleppo, the question is whether Russia and China will finally allow the U.N. Security Council to impose sanctions to stop barrel bombs.” -- Nadim Houry

But the worst of it, says Human Rights Watch (HRW) in report released Tuesday, is the use of locally improvised deadly “barrel bombs.”

By examining satellite imagery, HRW said, it has identified at least 450 distinct major damage sites in 10 towns and villages held by rebel groups in Daraa and over 1,000 in Aleppo between February last year and January this year.

“These impact sites have damage signatures strongly consistent with the detonation of large, air-dropped munitions, including improvised barrel and conventional bombs dropped by helicopters. Damages that possibly result from the use of rockets, missiles, or fuel-air bombs are also likely in a number of instances,” the group said.

According to HRW, barrel bombs are unguided high explosive weapons that are cheaply made, locally produced, and typically constructed from large oil drums, gas cylinders, and water tanks, filled with high explosives and scrap metal to enhance fragmentation, and then dropped from helicopters usually flying at high altitude.

Asked if the explosives in the barrel bombs originate either from Russia or China, two strong political and military allies of the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, the United Nations Director of HRW Philippe Bolopion told IPS: “We are not in a position to say where the high explosive is coming from but barrel bombs are pretty primitive and made from commonly found materials.”

With the 15-member Security Council deadlocked over Syria, there is little or no hope that Russia and China, two members with veto powers, will ever relent or penalise the Assad regime despite several resolutions.

“We certainly hope they will stand by their own resolution and impose consequences on the regime for thumbing its nose at the Security Council,” Bolopion said.

Asked if protests by HRW and other human rights organisations will be an exercise in futility, he said: “Sadly, when thousands of civilians are being slaughtered, we have to continue to place the Security Council, and Russia and China in particular, in front of their responsibilities, no matter how futile it may sound.”

Nadim Houry, HRW’s deputy Middle East and North Africa director, said: “For a year, the Security Council has done nothing to stop Bashar al-Assad’s murderous air bombing campaign on rebel-held areas, which has terrorized, killed, and displaced civilians.

“Amid talk of a possible temporary cessation of strikes on Aleppo, the question is whether Russia and China will finally allow the U.N. Security Council to impose sanctions to stop barrel bombs,” Houry said.

The Security Council is expected to meet Thursday for its next round of reporting on resolution 2139 of Feb. 22, 2014, which demanded that all parties to the conflict in Syria end the indiscriminate use of barrel bombs and other weapons in populated areas.

In a statement released Tuesday, HRW said non-state armed groups have also conducted indiscriminate attacks, including with car bombs and explosive weapons in government held areas.

The Security Council should impose an arms embargo on the government as well as rebel groups implicated in widespread or systematic indiscriminate attacks, HRW said.

The government attacks have led to the death and injury of thousands of civilians in rebel-held territory, according to HRW researchers.

The Violations Documentation Center (VDC), a local monitoring group, has documented 609 civilian deaths, including 203 children and 117 women, in Daraa from aerial attacks between Feb. 22, 2014, and Feb. 19, 2015.

During the same period they have documented 2,576 civilian deaths in Aleppo governorate from aerial attacks, including 636 children and 317 women.

While deaths from aerial attacks are not exclusively from barrel bombs, residents from rebel-held territory in Daraa and Aleppo told HRW that barrel bombs account for a majority of air strikes.

Last week, Ban appealed to all parties to de-escalate the conflict in order to provide a reprieve for the long-suffering civilians of Syria. An immediate de-escalation is a much needed step towards a political solution to the conflict, he added

U.N. Special Envoy Staffan de Mistura told the Security Council last week that the Syrian government has committed to suspend all aerial attacks and artillery shelling over the entire city of Aleppo for a period of six weeks.

This is in order to allow the United Nations to implement a pilot project of unhindered delivery of humanitarian aid starting with one district in Aleppo and building incrementally to others.

Ban said Security Council resolution 2139 called for an end to the indiscriminate employment of weapons in populated areas in Syria, including shelling and aerial bombardment, and expects the Syrian government to follow through on its commitment.

The secretary-general also appealed to all armed opposition groups in Aleppo to suspend their shelling of the city.

He pointed out that the last four years of war have led to the deaths of over 200,000 civilians, the greatest refugee crisis of modern times and created an environment in which extremist groups and terrorist organisations such as ISIL/Daesh flourish.

The secretary-general recalled Security Council resolutions 2170 and 2178 and stressed that there is no military solution to this conflict.

“This is a political conflict. Ending the killing, reversing the increasing fragmentation of Syria requires a political process, based on the full implementation of the Geneva Communique of 2012, that addresses the deep roots of the conflict and meets the aspirations of all Syrians,” he added.

Edited by Kitty Stapp

The writer can be contacted at thalifdeen@aol.com

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Tackling Corruption at its Root in Papua New Guineahttp://www.ipsnews.net/2015/02/tackling-corruption-at-its-root-in-papua-new-guinea/?utm_source=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_campaign=tackling-corruption-at-its-root-in-papua-new-guinea http://www.ipsnews.net/2015/02/tackling-corruption-at-its-root-in-papua-new-guinea/#comments Tue, 24 Feb 2015 15:50:04 +0000 Catherine Wilson http://www.ipsnews.net/?p=139320 Transparency International (PNG) organises an annual Walk Against Corruption in Papua New Guinea's capital, Port Moresby. Credit: Kanya D’Almeida/IPS

Transparency International (PNG) organises an annual Walk Against Corruption in Papua New Guinea's capital, Port Moresby. Credit: Kanya D’Almeida/IPS

By Catherine Wilson
SYDNEY, Feb 24 2015 (IPS)

Corruption, the single largest obstacle to socioeconomic development worldwide, has had a grave impact on the southwest Pacific Island nation of Papua New Guinea. While mineral resource wealth drove high gross domestic product (GDP) growth of eight percent in 2012, the country is today ranked 157th out of 187 countries in terms of human development.

Key anti-corruption fighters in the country say that money laundering must be tackled to increase deterrence and ensure that stolen public funds earmarked for vital hospitals and schools do not pay for luxury assets abroad.

A patronage system of governance and a culture of secrecy have led to the misappropriation of an estimated half of Papua New Guinea's development budget of 7.6 billion kina (about 2.8 billion dollars) between 2009 and 2011 -- Investigation Task-Force Sweep (ITFS)
“Our police officers, school teachers and health workers live and work in very squalid circumstances,” Lawrence Stephens, chairman of Transparency International (PNG), in the capital, Port Moresby, told IPS.

“So when we see the government awarding a contract for pharmaceutical and medical supplies to a company not qualified to tender, a company quoting a price 40 percent higher than the closest qualified tender and costing the equivalent of 160 new homes for nurses each year of the three-year contract, we blame corrupt individuals for destroying development.”

Papua New Guinea has been given a corruption score of 25/100, where 100 indicates clean governance, in comparison to the world average of 43/100, by Transparency International.

The country’s dedicated anti-corruption team, Investigation Task-Force Sweep (ITFS), launched by the government in 2011, has described the country as a ‘mobocracy’, where a patronage system of governance and a culture of secrecy have led to the misappropriation of an estimated half of the development budget of 7.6 billion kina (about 2.8 billion dollars) from 2009 to 2011.

Large-scale theft of public funds, including foreign aid, is alleged to have occurred across government departments responsible for national planning, health, petroleum and energy, finance and justice.

A 2006 Public Accounts Committee Inquiry into the Lands Department alone concluded that it had conducted itself illegally over many years and given priority to the interests of private enterprise and speculators over the interests and lawful rights of the State. The department’s shortfall in revenue was 5.9 million kina (2.2 million dollars) in 2001 and 4.9 million kina (1.8 million dollars) in 2003.

State capture, where powerful private sector interests exert undue influence over state leaders, officials and procurement processes, has had devastating repercussions for national development. Approval of ‘white elephant projects’ has channelled windfalls to criminal syndicates, Sam Koim, the ITFS Chairman, reported in the Griffith Law Journal.

Koim told IPS that, of 302 cases of corruption entailing revenue of up to 5.3 billion kina (1.9 billion dollars) under investigation, 91 had been prosecuted. Twenty-eight senior public servants have been suspended or removed from office, while two Members of Parliament and two senior public servants have been convicted and jailed.

To date, 8.3 million kina (3.1 million dollars) in proceeds of crime have been recovered, but including all outstanding cases this figure could potentially rise to 500 million kina (187 million dollars). Investigation into corporate tax evasion has led to the restitution of 22.6 million kina (8.4 million dollars).

Globally it is estimated that corruption drains the developing world of up to one trillion dollars every year and what is lost is in the magnitude of 10 times the official development assistance budget, claims the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP).

This has impacted increasing inequality in countries such as PNG, where 40 percent of the population of seven million live below the poverty line, maternal mortality is 711 per 100,000 live births, literacy is just 63 percent and only 19 percent of people have access to sanitation.

It is a vicious cycle, as Koim also believes that the state becomes an alternative source of personal prosperity when there are few legitimate avenues available for people to economically improve their lives.

Banks crucial to fighting corruption

The majority of stolen funds have been transferred through banks to offshore investments. Australia receives about 200 million Australia dollars (155 million dollars) of illicit gains from the Melanesian island state every year, claims the Australian Federal Police.

Several PNG politicians have purchased luxury homes with a total estimated value of 11.5 million Australian dollars (8.9 million dollars) in the northern Australian city of Cairns.

“Without banks and financial institutions, it is impossible to commit economic crimes, such as fraud and money laundering,” states the Investigation Task-Force Sweep (ITFS).

In a report last year on the government’s payment of fraudulent legal fees, ITFS identified numerous control gaps, such as lack of written contracts, oversight of procurement and payment clearance processes and the failure of banks to prevent evidently suspicious transactions.

“The duty imposed on banks to avoid engaging in money laundering should not be limited to ticking the boxes or submitting periodic transaction reports, but also taking proactive steps including rejecting transactions and closing bank accounts,” the report recommended. Sixty-five percent of PNG’s financial sector assets are held by commercial banks, including foreign bank subsidiaries.

There are also gaps between national legislation and banking sector regulations. For instance, money laundering is a criminal offence under the Proceeds of Crime Act (2005), but there is no obligation on banks to check inexplicably large or unorthodox patterns of transactions.

Action is also required by recipient nations, experts say. Professor Jason Sharman of the Centre for Governance and Public Policy at Queensland’s Griffith University told IPS that there was a need for improved government “supervisory responsibility to make sure that Australian banks are not accepting suspect funds from PNG Politically Exposed Persons (PEPs).”

“One of the main weaknesses is in the Australian real estate sector with very little scrutiny of foreign money coming in, especially when, as is often the case, this money is routed via lawyers’ or real estate agents’ trust accounts,” he added.

But progress by the anti-corruption team has accelerated broader action. “A number of PNG-based banks have closed accounts of high risk customers and refused suspicious transactions”, while some international corresponding banks “have refused transactions they view to have originated from illicit sources,” ITFS reports.

Reducing and preventing corruption is a long-term battle, which includes addressing the cultural divide between an introduced western government system and centuries of traditional governance based on a leader’s ability to acquire and distribute resources to his own kin. But if corruption is driven largely by the lure of a quick route to untold personal wealth, then a critical measure now is eliminating safe havens for the plunder.

Edited by Kanya D’Almeida

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