Inter Press Service » Asia-Pacific http://www.ipsnews.net Turning the World Downside Up Sun, 23 Nov 2014 22:19:43 +0000 en-US hourly 1 http://wordpress.org/?v=3.9.3 Azerbaijan’s Rights Activists on the Brinkhttp://www.ipsnews.net/2014/11/azerbaijans-rights-activists-on-the-brink/?utm_source=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_campaign=azerbaijans-rights-activists-on-the-brink http://www.ipsnews.net/2014/11/azerbaijans-rights-activists-on-the-brink/#comments Fri, 21 Nov 2014 19:52:13 +0000 Vugar Gojayev http://www.ipsnews.net/?p=137890 By Vugar Gojayev
BAKU, Nov 21 2014 (EurasiaNet)

When Azerbaijan served as chair of the Council of Europe’s Committee of Ministers, it scoffed at the spirit and purpose of the organisation and moved vigorously to squash all forms of free speech at home.

Now that Baku no longer holds the top spot, civil society activists are worrying about what Azerbaijani authorities will do next.At the moment, the country’s jails hold at least 90 political prisoners, almost double the number in Belarus and Russia combined. These prisoners of conscience face a variety of cooked-up charges, including hooliganism, drug possession, tax evasion and treason.

All civil society actors in Azerbaijan currently are grappling with a daunting dilemma: either stop engaging in rights-related activism or pay a high price, in particular face the prospect of criminal prosecution.

Dozens of activists and independent journalists remain behind bars for no reason other than engaging in rights work or tacitly promoting free speech. At the moment, the country’s jails hold at least 90 political prisoners, almost double the number in Belarus and Russia combined. These prisoners of conscience face a variety of cooked-up charges, including hooliganism, drug possession, tax evasion and treason.

Azerbaijan relinquished its Committee of Ministers chairmanship on Nov. 13. Far from softening its repressive behaviour and cleaning up its awful rights record during its six-month tenure, the government stepped up its suppression of internal dissent.

At least 13 activists were arrested and at least 10 others were convicted on politically motivated charges following flawed trials. Authorities rounded up the country’s most senior human rights defenders and other leading activists, including Leyla Yunus, veteran human rights defender and director of the Institute for Peace and Democracy, and her husband, the political commentator Arif Yunus.

They also detained Rasul Jafarov, chairman of Azerbaijan’s Human Rights Club, Intigam Aliyev, prominent lawyer and chairman of the Legal Education Society, and the famous opposition journalist Seymur Haziyev.

Some of those detained in recent months have serious health conditions. Yet, authorities keep them locked up, even as they fail to provide any information to suggest that pre-trial detention is warranted. They also have not released any credible evidence that would support the charges against these recent detainees.

In addition to politically motivated arrests, dozens of draconian laws regulating the operations of non-governmental organisations (NGOs) have been adopted. The offices of several local and international NGOs were recently raided, their bank accounts frozen and staff interrogated. As a result of increasing pressure, many groups have felt compelled to cease operations.

While the Azerbaijani government has been ruthless in its clampdown, it remains sensitive about its public image, a fact underscored by Baku’s efforts to lavish money on PR in Washington and the EU. Baku’s PR acumen needs to be kept in mind by those who mine for signs of its intentions. Some Western partners have lauded President Ilham Aliyev’s government for releasing four political prisoners in mid-October.

The truth is the release does not change anything, and it is certainly not indicative of a softening of the Aliyev administration’s stance on dissent. It is important to note that before the four were pardoned, they were coerced into acknowledging in writing their “crime,” begging for forgiveness, praising Aliyev, objecting to being called “political prisoners” and denouncing the “anti-Azerbaijan or pro-Armenian activities” of international organizations.

Aliyev’s administration has a habit of using a “revolving door” tactic, releasing few and arresting new political prisoners. Since the October amnesty, at least three more activists have been jailed on bogus charges.

Police accused two of them on hooliganism for “swearing in public place,” and the other faces “narcotics” charges. They all have rejected the accusations, insisting their arrests are retaliation for their rights-related work.

During the Azerbaijani chairmanship, the Council of Europe chose mostly to avert its eyes to Baku’s violations or make toothless statements and merely symbolic criticisms. This head-in-the-sand approach has prompted activists in Baku to question the point of the Council of Europe.

Sadly, Azerbaijan’s refusal to release people imprisoned on politically motivated charges and end its abuses has not affected its relationships with the United States and European Union. Western diplomats tend to prefer backroom diplomacy to public pressure, but, in Azerbaijan’s case, there is absolutely no indication that private talks have had any positive effect.

The international community’s inaction means that the end of the Azerbaijan’s independent human rights community is nearing soon. Unless Aliyev’s government understands that there are serious consequences for its abuses, Baku’s free pass on human rights abuses will continue.

Editor’s note:  Vugar Gojayev is an Azerbaijani researcher and freelance journalist. This story originally appeared on EurasiaNet.org.

Edited by Kitty Stapp

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OPINION: Humanitarian Impact of Nukes Calls For Concerted Actionhttp://www.ipsnews.net/2014/11/opinion-from-shared-concern-to-shared-action-thoughts-on-the-vienna-conference-on-the-humanitarian-impact-of-nuclear-weapons/?utm_source=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_campaign=opinion-from-shared-concern-to-shared-action-thoughts-on-the-vienna-conference-on-the-humanitarian-impact-of-nuclear-weapons http://www.ipsnews.net/2014/11/opinion-from-shared-concern-to-shared-action-thoughts-on-the-vienna-conference-on-the-humanitarian-impact-of-nuclear-weapons/#comments Fri, 21 Nov 2014 18:01:51 +0000 Daisaku Ikeda http://www.ipsnews.net/?p=137886

Daisaku Ikeda is a Japanese Buddhist philosopher and peace-builder and president of the Soka Gakkai International (SGI) grassroots Buddhist movement (www.sgi.org).

By Daisaku Ikeda
TOKYO, Nov 21 2014 (IPS)

As we approach the 70th anniversary next year of the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, there are growing calls to place the humanitarian consequences of their use at the heart of deliberations about nuclear weapons.

Dr. Daisaku Ikeda. Credit: Seikyo Shimbun

Dr. Daisaku Ikeda. Credit: Seikyo Shimbun

The Joint Statement on the Humanitarian Consequences of Nuclear Weapons presented to the U.N. General Assembly in October was supported by 155 governments, more than 80 percent of all member states.

The view powerfully expressed in the Joint Statement, that it is “in the interest of the very survival of humanity that nuclear weapons are never used again, under any circumstances,” expresses the deepening consensus of humankind.

The Third International Conference on the Humanitarian Consequences of Nuclear Weapons will be held in Vienna on Dec. 8-9. This conference and its deliberations should provide further impetus to efforts to end the era of nuclear weapons, an era in which these apocalyptic weapons have been seen as the linchpin of national security for a number of states.

This can only happen when the goal of a nuclear-free world is taken up as the shared global enterprise of humanity with the full engagement of civil society.

Within the agenda of the Vienna Conference, there are two items in particular that require us to adopt the perspective of a shared global enterprise.Today, if a missile carrying a nuclear warhead were to be accidentally launched, there could be as little as 13 minutes before it reached its target.

The first is the examination of risk drivers for the inadvertent or unpredicted use of nuclear weapons due to human error, technical fault or cyber security.

During the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962, people were transfixed in horror as the world teetered on the edge of full-scale nuclear war. It took the leaders of the United States and the Soviet Union 13 days of desperate effort to defuse the crisis.

Today, if a missile carrying a nuclear warhead were to be accidentally launched, there could be as little as 13 minutes before it reached its target. Escape or evacuation would be impossible, and the targeted city and its inhabitants would be devastated.

Further, if such an inadvertent use of a nuclear weapon were met with retaliation of even the most limited form, the impact on the global climate and ecology would result in a “nuclear famine” that could affect as many as two billion people.

The use of a single nuclear weapon can obliterate and render meaningless generations of patient effort by human beings to create lives of happiness, to create societies rich with culture. It is in this unspeakable outrage, rather than in the numerical calculation of the destructive potential of nuclear weapons, that their inhuman nature is most starkly demonstrated.

The second agenda item that will bring into sharp focus the uniquely horrific nature of nuclear weapons—the aspect that makes them fundamentally different from other weapons—is the impact of nuclear weapons testing.

The citizens of Hiroshima and Nagasaki are not the only people to have directly experienced the horrendous effects of nuclear weapons. As the shared use of the term “hibakusha” indicates, large numbers of people continue to suffer from the consequences of the more than 2,000 nuclear weapons tests that have been carried out to date.

Further, communities near nuclear weapons development facilities in the nuclear-weapon states have experienced severe radiation contamination, and there are ongoing concerns about the health impacts on those who have worked in or lived near these facilities.

As these examples demonstrate, the decision to maintain nuclear weapons—even if they are not actually used—presents severe threats to people’s lives and dignity.

Annual global expenditures on nuclear weapons are said to total more than 100 billion dollars. If this enormous sum were to be directed not only at improving the lives of the citizens of the nuclear states, but at supporting countries where people continue to struggle against poverty and inadequate healthcare services, the benefit to humankind would be immeasurable.

To continue allocating vast sums of money for the maintenance of a state’s nuclear posture runs clearly counter to the spirit of the UN Charter, which calls for the maintenance of international peace and security with the least diversion for armaments of the world’s human and economic resources—a call echoed in the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT).

Further, we must face squarely the inhumanity of perpetuating a distorted global order in which people whose lives could easily be improved are forced to continue living in dangerous and degrading conditions.

By taking up these two crucial themes, the Vienna Conference will place in sharp relief the underlying essence of the threat humankind imposes on itself by maintaining current nuclear postures—through the continuation of this “nuclear age.” At the same time, it will be an important opportunity to interrogate security arrangements that rely on nuclear weapons—and to do so from the perspective of the world’s citizens, each of whom is compelled to live in the shadow of this threat.

In 1957, in the midst of an accelerating nuclear arms race, second Soka Gakkai president and my personal mentor Josei Toda (1900–58) denounced nuclear weapons as a threat to people’s fundamental right to existence. He declared their use inadmissible—under any circumstance, without any exception.

The SGI’s efforts, in collaboration with various NGO partners, find their deepest roots in this declaration. By empowering people to understand and face the realities of nuclear weapons, we have sought to build a solidarity of global citizens dedicated to eliminating needless suffering from the face of the Earth.

The impassioned wish of the survivors of Hiroshima and Nagasaki—and of all the world’s hibakusha—is that no one else will have to suffer what they have endured. This determination finds resonant voice throughout civil society in support for the Joint Statement adopted by 155 of the world’s governments.

Even with governments whose understanding of their security needs prevents open support for the Joint Statement, there are real concerns about the inhumane nature of nuclear weapons.

I trust the Vienna Conference will serve to create an enlarged sphere of shared concern. This should then lead to the kind of shared action that will break the current stalemate surrounding nuclear weapons in the months leading up to the 70th anniversary of the world’s only uses of nuclear weapons in war.

Edited by Kitty Stapp

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Will Myanmar’s ‘Triple Transition’ Help Eradicate Crushing Poverty?http://www.ipsnews.net/2014/11/will-myanmars-triple-transition-help-eradicate-crushing-poverty/?utm_source=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_campaign=will-myanmars-triple-transition-help-eradicate-crushing-poverty http://www.ipsnews.net/2014/11/will-myanmars-triple-transition-help-eradicate-crushing-poverty/#comments Fri, 21 Nov 2014 14:21:38 +0000 Amantha Perera http://www.ipsnews.net/?p=137872 Novice monks beg for alms near the Sule Pagoda in downtown Yangon. The barbed wire barricades behind them were once a permanent feature on this busy road, but have been pushed aside to make way for peace. Credit: Amantha Perera/IPS

Novice monks beg for alms near the Sule Pagoda in downtown Yangon. The barbed wire barricades behind them were once a permanent feature on this busy road, but have been pushed aside to make way for peace. Credit: Amantha Perera/IPS

By Amantha Perera
YANGON, Nov 21 2014 (IPS)

Myanmar is never out of the news for long. This has been the case since a popular uprising challenged military rule in 1988. For over two decades, the country was featured in mainstream media primarily as one unable to cope with its own internal contradictions, a nation crippled by violence.

Since 2011, with the release of pro-democracy icon Aung San Suu Kyi from house arrest, as well as democratic reforms, the country experienced a makeover in the eyes of the world, no longer a lost cause but one of the bright new hopes in Asia.

U.S. President Barack Obama has visited the country twice since 2011, most recently this month for the 9th annual East Asia Summit (EAS).

But beneath the veneer of a nation in transition, on the road to a prosperous future, lies a people deep in poverty, struggling to make a living, some even struggling to make it through a single day.

A woman loads bags full of vegetables on to a train carriage in Yangon. Many use the slow-moving passenger trains to transport goods that they will sell in outlying villages, since few can afford road transportation. Credit: Amantha Perera/IPS

A woman loads bags full of vegetables on to a train carriage in Yangon. Many use the slow-moving passenger trains to transport goods that they will sell in outlying villages, since few can afford road transportation. Credit: Amantha Perera/IPS

 

Arranging vegetables into small bundles, this vendor tells IPS she wakes up at three a.m. three days a week to collect her produce. She makes roughly three dollars each day. Credit: Amantha Perera/IPS

Arranging vegetables into small bundles, this vendor tells IPS she wakes up at three a.m. three days a week to collect her produce. She makes roughly three dollars each day. Credit: Amantha Perera/IPS

The commercial capital, Yangon, is in the midst of a construction boom, yet there are clear signs of lopsided and uneven development. By evening, those with cash to burn gather at popular restaurants like the Vista Bar, with its magnificent view of the Shwedagon Pagoda, and order expensive foreign drinks, while a few blocks away men and women count out their meagre earnings from a day of hawking home-cooked meals on the streets.

The former likely earn hundreds of dollars a day, or more; the latter are lucky to scrape together 10 dollars in a week.

 

A woman waits for passersby to buy bird feed from her in Yangon. The World Bank estimates that over 30 percent of Myanmar's 53 million people lives below the national poverty line. Credit: Amantha Perera/IPS

A woman waits for passersby to buy bird feed from her in Yangon. The World Bank estimates that over 30 percent of Myanmar’s 53 million people lives below the national poverty line. Credit: Amantha Perera/IPS

 

A man pushes a cartful of garbage near a busy intersection in Yangon. The 56-billion-dollar economy is growing at a steady clip of 8.5 percent per annum, but the riches are obviously not being shared equally. Credit: Amantha Perera/IPS

A man pushes a cartful of garbage near a busy intersection in Yangon. The 56-billion-dollar economy is growing at a steady clip of 8.5 percent per annum, but the riches are obviously not being shared equally. Credit: Amantha Perera/IPS

The World Bank estimates that the country’s 56.8-billion-dollar economy is growing at a rate of 8.5 percent per year. Natural gas, timber and mining products bring in the bulk of export earnings.

Still, per capita income in this nation of 53 million people stands at 1,105 dollars, the lowest among East Asian economies.

The richest people, who comprise 10 percent of the population, control close to 35 percent of the national economy. The government says poverty hovers at around 26 percent of the population, but that could be a conservative estimate.

According to the World Bank’s country overview for Myanmar, “A detailed analysis – taking into account nonfood items in the consumption basket and spatial price differentials – brings poverty estimates as high as 37.5 percent.”

 

A man collects his harvest from a vegetable plot that is also a putrid water hole just outside of Yangon. The World Bank estimates that at least 32 percent of all children below five years of age in Myanmar suffer from malnutrition. Credit: Amantha Perera/IPS

A man collects his harvest from a vegetable plot that is also a putrid water hole just outside of Yangon. The World Bank estimates that at least 32 percent of all children below five years of age in Myanmar suffer from malnutrition. Credit: Amantha Perera/IPS

 

Women walk with heavy loads after disembarking from a train. Thousands still rely on the dilapidated public transport system, with its century-old trains and belching buses, because they cannot afford anything else. Credit: Amantha Perera/IPS

Women walk with heavy loads after disembarking from a train. Thousands still rely on the dilapidated public transport system, with its century-old trains and belching buses, because they cannot afford anything else. Credit: Amantha Perera/IPS

The country’s poor spend about 70 percent of their income on food, putting serious pressure on food security levels.

But these are not the only worrying signs. An estimated 32 percent of children below five years of age suffer from malnutrition; more than a third of the nation lacks access to electricity; and the national unemployment rate, especially in rural areas, could be as high as 37 percent according to 2013 findings by a parliamentary committee.

Over half the workforce is engaged in agriculture or related activities, while just seven percent is employed in industries.

 

Democracy icon Aung San Suu Kyi admits that Mynmar suffers from a long list of woes, but insists that the first step to healing is the return of the rule of law. Credit: Amantha Perera/IPS

Democracy icon Aung San Suu Kyi admits that Mynmar suffers from a long list of woes, but insists that the first step to healing is the return of the rule of law. Credit: Amantha Perera/IPS

 

Large-scale construction is not unusual in downtown Yangon, where foreign investments and tourist arrivals are pushing up land prices. Officials say they expect around 900,000 visitors this year. Arrivals have shot up by 49 percent since 2011. Credit: Amantha Perera/IPS

Large-scale construction is not unusual in downtown Yangon, where foreign investments and tourist arrivals are pushing up land prices. Officials say they expect around 900,000 visitors this year. Arrivals have shot up by 49 percent since 2011. Credit: Amantha Perera/IPS

Development banks call Myanmar a nation in ‘triple transition’, a nation – in the words of the World Bank – which is moving “from an authoritarian military system to democratic governance, from a centrally directed economy to a market-oriented economy, and from 60 years of conflict to peace in its border areas.”

 

A man pushes his bicycles laden with scrap in the streets of Yangon. Despite rapid economic growth, disparities seem to be widening, with 10 percent of the population enjoying 35 percent of Myanmar’s wealth. Credit: Amantha Perera/IPS

A man pushes his bicycles laden with scrap in the streets of Yangon. Despite rapid economic growth, disparities seem to be widening, with 10 percent of the population enjoying 35 percent of Myanmar’s wealth. Credit: Amantha Perera/IPS

The biggest challenge it faces in this transition process is the task of easing the woes of its long-suffering majority, who have eked out a living during the country’s darkest days and are now hoping to share in the spoils of its future.

 Edited by Kanya DAlmeida

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Pakistani Sikhs Back in the ‘Dark Ages’ of Religious Persecutionhttp://www.ipsnews.net/2014/11/pakistani-sikhs-back-in-the-dark-ages-of-religious-persecution/?utm_source=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_campaign=pakistani-sikhs-back-in-the-dark-ages-of-religious-persecution http://www.ipsnews.net/2014/11/pakistani-sikhs-back-in-the-dark-ages-of-religious-persecution/#comments Thu, 20 Nov 2014 13:03:47 +0000 Ashfaq Yusufzai http://www.ipsnews.net/?p=137841 Sikhs in northern Pakistan are fleeing the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA), where threats, intimidation and attacks are making life impossible for the religious minority. Credit: Ashfaq Yusufzai/IPS

Sikhs in northern Pakistan are fleeing the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA), where threats, intimidation and attacks are making life impossible for the religious minority. Credit: Ashfaq Yusufzai/IPS

By Ashfaq Yusufzai
PESHAWAR, Pakistan , Nov 20 2014 (IPS)

Balwan Singh, an 84-year-old shopkeeper living in Pakistan’s northern Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province, is well past retirement age, but any illusions he may have had about living out his golden years in peace and security have long since been dashed.

The elderly man is a member of Pakistan’s 40,000-member Sikh community, which has a long history in this South Asian nation of 182 million people.

“The constitution limits the political rights of Pakistan’s non-Muslims." -- Javid Shah, a Lahore-based lawyer
Though constituting only a tiny minority, Sikhs feel a strong pull towards the country, believed to be the birthplace of Guru Nanak, the founder of Sikhism.

Sikhs have lived on the Afghan-Pakistan border among Pashto-speaking tribes since the 17th century, but in the last decade the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) – once a cradle of safety for Sikhs fleeing religious persecution – have become a hostile, violent, and sometimes deadly place for the religious community.

For many, the situation now is a veritable return to the dark ages of religious persecution.

Today, Balwan is just one of many Sikhs who have abandoned their homes and businesses in FATA and taken refuge in the neighbouring Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KP) province.

“We are extremely concerned over the safety of our belongings, including properties back home,” Balwan, who now runs a grocery store in KP’s capital, Peshawar, tells IPS.

Balwan is registered here as an Internally Displaced Person (IDP), along with 200,000 others who have left FATA in waves since militant groups began exerting their control over the region in 2001.

Calling Sikhs ‘infidels’, the Taliban and other armed groups set off a wave of hostility towards the community. Shops have been destroyed and several people have been kidnapped. Others have been threatened and forced to pay a tax levied on “non-Muslims” by Islamic groups in the area.

According to police records, eight Sikhs have been killed in the past year and a half alone. When Balwan arrived here in Peshawar, he was one of just 5,000 people seeking safety.

“We want to go back,” he explains, “but the threats from militants hamper our plans.”

Karan Singh, another Sikh originally hailing from Khyber Agency, one of seven agencies that comprise FATA, says that requests to the government to assist with their safe return have fallen on deaf ears.

“Maybe the government doesn’t grant us permission to go back because it doesn’t want to enrage the Taliban,” speculates Karan, also an IDP now living in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa.

The 51-year-old, who now runs a medical store in Peshawar, is worried about the slow pace of business. “We earned a good amount from the sale of medicines in Khyber Agency, but we have exhausted all our cash since being displaced.”

Indeed, many Sikhs were business owners, contributing greatly to the economy of northern Pakistan.

Now, hundreds of shops lie abandoned, slowly accumulating a layer of dust and grime from neglect, and scores of Sikhs are reliant on government aid. The average family needs about 500 dollars a month to survive, a far greater sum than the 200-dollar assistance package that currently comes their way.

The situation took a turn for the worse in June of this year, when a government-sponsored offensive in North Waziristan Agency, aimed at rooting out militants once and for all from their stronghold, forced scores of people to flee their homes amidst bombs and shelling.

Some 500 Sikh families were among those escaping to Peshawar. Now, they are living in makeshift camps, unable to earn a living, access medical supplies and facilities or send their children to school.

Male children in particular are vulnerable, easily identifiable by their traditional headdress.

While some families are being moved out and resettled, Sikhs say they are consistently overlooked.

“We have been visiting registration points established by the government to facilitate our repatriation, to no avail,” Karan laments.

Dr. Nazir S Bhatti, president of the Pakistan Christian Congress, says, “About 65 Christian families, 15 Hindu families and 20 Sikh families are yet to be registered at the checkpoint after leaving North Waziristan Agency, which has deprived them of [the chance to access] relief assistance.”

Such discrimination, experts say, is not conducive to a pluralistic society.

According to Muhammad Rafiq, a professor with the history department at the University of Peshawar, Sikhs are the largest religious minority in Pakistan after Hindus and Christians.

Thus the current situation bodes badly for “religious harmony and peaceful coexistence in the country”, he tells IPS.

He says that minorities have to contend not only with the Taliban but also Islamic fundamentalists who regard any non-Muslim as a threat to their religion. By this same logic, Hindus and Christians have faced similar problems: threats, evictions and, sometimes, violent intimidation.

Kidnapping for ransom has also emerged as a major issue, with some 10 Sikhs being kidnapped in the past year alone, prompting many to pack up their belongings and head for cities like Peshawar, says Lahore-based Sardar Bishon Singh, former president of the Pakistan Sikh Gurdwara Parbandhak Committee (PSGPC).

Bishon’s shop in Lahore, capital of the Punjab province, was looted in September 2013, but he says the police didn’t even register his report.

“Thieves broke into my shop and took away 80,000 dollars [about eight million rupees] but the Lahore police were reluctant to register a case,” Bishon recalls.

He says the police are afraid, “because the Taliban are involved and the police cannot take action against them [Taliban].”

Some experts say the problem runs deeper than religious persecution in Pakistan’s troubled tribal areas, extending into the very roots of Pakistan’s political system.

“The constitution limits the political rights of Pakistan’s non-Muslims,” says Javid Shah, a Lahore-based lawyer.

“Only Muslims are allowed to become the president or the prime minister. Only Muslims are allowed to serve as judges in the Federal Shariat Court, which has the power to strike down any law deemed un-Islamic.”

He believes these clauses in the constitution have “emboldened” the people of Pakistan to treat minorities as second-class citizens.

This mindset was visible on Aug. 6 when a Sikh trader, Jagmohan Singh, was killed and two others injured in an attack on a marketplace in Peshawar.

“We have no enmity with anyone,” says Pram Singh, who sustained injuries in the attack. “This is all just part of the Taliban’s campaign to eliminate us.”

He alleges that the gunmen, who arrived on a motorbike, did not face any resistance when they rode in to the marketplace. “Police arrived after the gunmen had left the scene,” he adds.

On Mar. 14 this year, two Sikhs were killed in the Charsadda district in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa but their killers are yet to be identified, Pram says.

While eyewitness accounts point to negligence on the part of the authorities, some believe that the government is doing its best to address the situation.

Sardar Sooran Singh, a lawmaker in KP, insists that the government is providing security to members of the Sikh community, who he says enjoy equal rights as Muslims citizens.

Peshawar Police Chief Najibullah Khan tells IPS that they have been patrolling markets in the city where Sikh-owned shops might be vulnerable to attack.

“We have also suggested that they avoid venturing out at night, and inform the police about any threat [to their safety],” he says.

Edited by Kanya D’Almeida

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Depression Casts Cloak of Infertility Over Kashmir Valleyhttp://www.ipsnews.net/2014/11/depression-casts-cloak-of-infertility-over-kashmir-valley/?utm_source=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_campaign=depression-casts-cloak-of-infertility-over-kashmir-valley http://www.ipsnews.net/2014/11/depression-casts-cloak-of-infertility-over-kashmir-valley/#comments Wed, 19 Nov 2014 12:02:32 +0000 Shazia Yousuf http://www.ipsnews.net/?p=137817 Of the 100 patients seen at Kashmir’s psychiatric facilities each day, roughly 75 are women. Credit: Shazia Yousuf/IPS

Of the 100 patients seen at Kashmir’s psychiatric facilities each day, roughly 75 are women. Credit: Shazia Yousuf/IPS

By Shazia Yousuf
SRINAGAR, India, Nov 19 2014 (IPS)

It was almost midnight when Mushtaq Margoob woke up to the incessant ringing of his phone. It was his patient, a young woman whom Margoob, a renowned Kashmiri psychiatrist and head of the department of psychiatry at the only psychiatric hospital in Kashmir, had been treating for depression for many years.

“See me now. I don’t have time till tomorrow,” the patient screamed down the phone. “I might have killed myself by then.”

The woman was educated, had a PhD in Bioscience and came from a rich family. After her marriage last year, the symptoms of her depression had begun to fade away, and she had started crawling back to a normal life.

“I have gifted lifelong sadness to my daughter.” -- Shahzada Akhtar, a Kashmiri woman living with PTSD
But the day she made the hasty phone call to the doctor, she had learned something that shattered her life into fragments all over again.

“I have been diagnosed with Premature Ovarian Failure [POF],” she said to Margoob at his home. “If I cannot have any children, what should I live my life for?”

Although Margoob was able to pacify her with timely counseling and medication, the diagnosis and the constant reminder of being infertile have taken his patient back into deep depression.

“The mental stress due to ongoing conflict has taken a toll on the physical health of young women, especially their maternal health,” explains Margoob.

Downward spiral of mental and maternal health

The conflict here, which dates back to the 1947 partition of India and Pakistan, has claimed some 60,000 lives as Indian armed forces, Pakistani troops and ordinary Kashmir citizens struggle to assert control over the bitterly contested region.

The “pro-freedom” uprising of 1989, launched by Kashmiris who resented the presence of Indian and Pakistani troops, morphed into a long-standing resistance movement that has left deep scars on Kashmiri society.

As a result, the area known as the Kashmir Valley, tucked in between towering mountain ranges in the northern Indian state of Jammu and Kashmir, is witnessing an alarming increase in childlessness and infertility among local women.

Infertility is becoming increasingly common among young Kashmiri women, who are suffering from stress and trauma due to the long-standing conflict in the region. Credit: Shazia Yousuf/IPS

Infertility is becoming increasingly common among young Kashmiri women, who are suffering from stress and trauma due to the long-standing conflict in the region. Credit: Shazia Yousuf/IPS

Physical and mental health experts cite conflict-related stress as the main cause of the health crisis among women, which has robbed thousands of their fertility.

The most recent Indian National Family Health Survey (NFHS) indicates that 61 percent of currently married Kashmiri women report one or more reproductive health problems.

This is significantly higher in comparison to the national average of 39 percent. The percentage of POF among infertile women below 40 years of age is also abnormally high – 20 to 50 percent – when compared to the nationwide rate of one to five percent.

“Stress causes structural changes in the brain and disturbs the secretion of various neurotransmitters. These changes lead to various physical ailments including thyroid malfunction, which in turn can cause infertility among women of childbearing age,” Margoob explains to IPS.

According to statistics available with the Government Psychiatric Diseases Hospital, 800,000 Kashmiris are suffering from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and most of them are women. PTSD, like many other mental health disorders, directly affects women’s childbearing capacity.

Stress and stigma

In Kashmir, psychiatry OPDs are run at two hospitals – the Shri Maharaja Hari Singh (S.M.H.S) facility in Srinagar, and the Government Psychiatric Diseases hospital – six days a week. Of almost 100 patients seen at each OPD every day, 75 are females.

One of the many women who frequents these facilities is 20-year-old Mir Afreen, who grew up watching her mother battling mental illness. In 1996, when Afreen was only two, her mother, Shahzada Akhtar, received a message about the death of her cousin brother in cross-fire.

“I had met him only a day before. I couldn’t believe he had died. I tried to cry out his name but had lost my voice,” recalls Akhtar.

Akhtar never recovered from the sudden, devastating news, and soon developed PTSD.

In consequence, her daughter’s childhood quickly slipped into darkness. Afreen often saw her mother sedated, sleeping for days at a time, going without food, and crying for no apparent reason.

She was always taken along to psychiatric clinics, hospitals and faith healers where her mother searched for a cure for her condition. Happiness was far, far away from their home.

“I have gifted lifelong sadness to my daughter,” Akhtar tells IPS tearfully.

Her statement is not too far from the truth. For the last several years, Afreen has been complaining about chest pains and breathlessness. Akhtar first thought it was due to stress, or her daughter’s recent obesity.

But when Afreen developed facial hair and her monthly cycles became irregular, Akhtar took her to a gynecologist.

“The doctor uttered a long name which I couldn’t understand, so I asked her to explain the [condition] to me,” Akhtar says. “She told me if this is not treated, Afreen will never have children.”

Afreen was diagnosed with Polycystic Ovarian Syndrome (PCOS). Unknown and almost non-existent before the conflict, the syndrome now affects 10 percent of Kashmiri females including teenagers.

A major endocrine disorder in women of reproductive age and one of the leading causes of infertility across the world, PCOS has emerged as another major cause of infertility among Kashmiri women in recent years.

Medical experts have identified stress as one of the main reasons for the emergence of PCOS in Kashmir. A study conducted by Sher-i-Kashmir Institute of Medical Sciences (SKIMS), the major tertiary healthcare facility in Kashmir, on 112 women with PCOS, found that 65 to 70 percent of them had psychiatric illnesses including PTSD, depression and Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD).

Akhtar feels helpless. Unlike other ailments, Afreen’s particular health issue is not up for discussion, not even with her own siblings. If the word spreads, she thinks, it will ruin her daughter’s marriage prospects and thus destroy her life.

“Even when I take her to the doctor, I make sure that no one sees us,” reveals Akhtar. “I first check the place and then let my daughter in.”

Afreen does the same. She has not revealed anything about her condition to her friends. When the girls talk about their grooms and life after marriage, she keeps mum. When it is the time for her medication, she secretly swallows the pills without water.

Current trends predict a bleak future

Nazir Ahmad Pala, an endocrinologist at SKIMS, says that more and more young females visit the endocrinology department for various disorders. A good number of disorders, he says, are born from depression.

Anxiety over the possibly loss of male breadwinners is prompting many women to choose education and employment over marriage. Credit: Shazia Yousuf/IPS

Anxiety over the possibly loss of male breadwinners is prompting many women to choose education and employment over marriage. Credit: Shazia Yousuf/IPS

“In the past, the department received mostly older patients but now around 20 percent of our patients are school and college going girls with endocrine abnormalities. This trend is disturbing,” Pala tells IPS.

The young girls mostly complain of obesity and ovulatory disturbances that bring a temporary halt in their menstrual cycles.

The condition is called Central Hypogonadism and is common in depressed women, explains the doctor. Another equally frequent ailment is galactorrhea, a spontaneous secretion of milk from the mammary glands due to an abnormal increase of prolactin levels in the body caused by antidepressant intake.

“Unfortunately most of the [conditions], in one way or the other, lead to infertility. And the root cause of all these [conditions] is the stressful life that women have been living in the post-conflict era,” Pala asserts.

Experts here are sounding warnings about the catastrophic shape that women’s health in the Valley is taking. A study conducted at SKIMS on maternal health indicates that 15.7 percent of Kashmiri women of childbearing age will never have an offspring without clinical intervention.

Another conflict-related cause of infertility among Kashmiri women is late marriages. Over the war years, the marital age has risen from an average of 18-21 to 27-35 years. Because of economic insecurity and anxiety over the prospect of losing male breadwinners, women are choosing education and employment over marriage.

“Economic instability and insecurity is eating our society like termites,” says Margoob.

The doctor reveals that cut-throat competition in schools and colleges to earn a secure future has hugely disturbed the mental health of young girls as well.

Dissociative Disorders (DD), marked by disruptions or breakdowns in identity, memory or perception, are rapidly increasing in young school- and college-going girls, along with conditions like Panic Disorder, all of which interrupt the “smooth journey to motherhood”, Margoob says.

*Patients’ names have been changed on request.

Edited by Kanya D’Almeida

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A Game-Changing Week on Climate Changehttp://www.ipsnews.net/2014/11/a-game-changing-week-on-climate-change/?utm_source=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_campaign=a-game-changing-week-on-climate-change http://www.ipsnews.net/2014/11/a-game-changing-week-on-climate-change/#comments Wed, 19 Nov 2014 00:55:41 +0000 Joel Jaeger http://www.ipsnews.net/?p=137813 UN Climate Wall at COP 15, Copenhagen. Credit: Troels Dejgaard Hansen/cc by 2.0

UN Climate Wall at COP 15, Copenhagen. Credit: Troels Dejgaard Hansen/cc by 2.0

By Joel Jaeger
UNITED NATIONS, Nov 19 2014 (IPS)

- In recent days, two major developments have injected new life into international action on climate change.

At the G20 summit in Australia, the United States pledged 3 billion dollars and Japan pledged 1.5 billion dollars to the Green Climate Fund (GCF), bringing total donations up to 7.5 billion so far. The GCF, established through the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, will distribute money to support developing countries in mitigating and adapting to climate change."While the figures might sound big, they pale in comparison to the actual needs on the ground and to what developed countries spend in other areas – for instance, the U.S. spends tens of billions of dollars every year on fossil fuel subsidies.” -- Brandon Wu of ActionAid USA

The new commitments to the GCF came on the heels of a landmark joint announcement by U.S. President Barack Obama and Chinese President Xi Jinping, creating ambitious new targets for domestic carbon emissions reduction.

The United States will aim to decrease its greenhouse gas emissions between 26 and 28 percent below 2005 levels by 2025. China will aim to reach peak carbon emissions around the year 2030 and decrease its emissions thereafter.

The two surprising announcements “really send a strong signal that both developed and developing countries are serious about getting to an ambitious climate agreement in 2015,” said Alex Doukas, a climate finance expert at the World Resources Institute, a Washington, DC think tank.

The GCF aims to be the central hub for international climate finance in the coming years. At an October meeting in Barbados, the basic practices of the GCF were firmly established and it was opened to funding contributions.

The 7.5 billion dollars that have been committed by 13 countries to the GCF bring it three quarters of the way to its initial 10-billion-dollar goal, to be distributed over the next few years. The gap may be closed on Nov. 20 at a pledging conference in Berlin. Several more countries are expected to announce their contributions, including the United Kingdom and Canada.

While the fund is primarily designed to aid developing countries, it has “both developed and developing country contributors,” Doukas told IPS. “Mexico and South Korea have already pledged resources, and other countries, including Colombia and Peru, that are not necessarily traditional contributors have indicated that they are going to step up as well.”

The decision-making board of the GCF is split evenly between developed and developing country constituencies.

“For a major, multilateral climate fund, I would say that the governance is much more balanced than previously,” Doukas said. “That’s one of the reasons for the creation of the Green Climate Fund, especially from the perspective of developing countries.”

As IPS has previously noted, the redistributive nature of the GCF acknowledges that the developing countries least responsible for climate change will often face the most severe consequences.

Advocates hope that the United States’ and Japan’s recent contributions will pave the way for more pledges on November 20th and a more robust climate finance system in general.

According to Jan Kowalzig, a climate finance expert at Oxfam Germany, the unofficial 10-billion-dollar goal for the GCF was set by developed countries, but developing countries have asked for at least 15 billion dollars.

The 10-billion-dollar goal is “an absolute minimum floor for what is needed in this initial phase,” he told IPS.

Brandon Wu, a senior policy analyst at ActionAid USA and one of two civil society representatives on the GCF Board, asserts that the climate finance efforts will soon need to be scaled up drastically.

“While the figures might sound big, they pale in comparison to the actual needs on the ground and to what developed countries spend in other areas – for instance, the US spends tens of billions of dollars every year on fossil fuel subsidies,” he told IPS.

The GCF may run into problems if countries attach caveats to their contributions, specifying exactly what types of activities they can be used for.

“Such strings are highly problematic as they run against the consensual spirit of the GCF board operations,” Kowalzig said.

He also warned that some of the contributions may come in the form of loans which need to be paid back instead of from grants.

After the pledging phase, much work remains to be done to establish a global climate finance roadmap towards 2020.

“The Green Climate Fund can and should play a major role,” Kowalzig said, “but the pledges, as important and welcome as they are, are only one component of what developed countries have promised to deliver.”

The other major development of the past week, Obama and Xi’s carbon emissions reduction announcement, also deserves both praise and scrutiny.

In an op-ed in the New York Times, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry made clear the historic nature of the agreement.

“Two countries regarded for 20 years as the leaders of opposing camps in climate negotiations have come together to find common ground, determined to make lasting progress on an unprecedented global challenge,” he wrote.

While Barack Obama may be committed to cutting greenhouse gas emissions, Congress has expressed reservations. Mitch McConnell, soon to be the Senate majority leader, has called the plan “unrealistic” and complained that it would increase electricity prices and eliminate jobs.

On the Chinese side, Xi’s willingness to act on climate change and peak carbon emissions by 2030 was a substantial transformation from only a few years ago.

Andrew Steer, president and CEO of the World Resources Institute, said in a press release that China’s announcement was “a major development,” but noted that a few years difference in when peak emissions occur could have a huge impact on climate change.

“Analysis shows that China’s emissions should peak before 2030 to limit the worst consequences of climate change,” he said.

Researchers have said that China’s emissions would have peaked in the 2030s anyway, and that a more ambitious goal of 2025 could have been possible.

Still, the agreement indicates a new willingness of the world’s number one and number two biggest carbon emitters to work together constructively, and raises hopes for successful negotiations in December’s COP20 climate change conference in Lima, Peru.

Héla Cheikhrouhou, executive director of the GCF, was unapologetically enthusiastic about the new momentum built in recent days.

“This week’s announcements will be a legacy of U.S. President Obama,” she announced. “It will be seen by generations to come as the game-changing moment that started a scaling-up of global action on climate change, and that enabled the global agreement.”

Edited by Kitty Stapp

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Iranians Keep Hope Alive for Final Nuclear Dealhttp://www.ipsnews.net/2014/11/iranians-keep-hope-alive-for-final-nuclear-deal/?utm_source=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_campaign=iranians-keep-hope-alive-for-final-nuclear-deal http://www.ipsnews.net/2014/11/iranians-keep-hope-alive-for-final-nuclear-deal/#comments Tue, 18 Nov 2014 11:06:19 +0000 Jasmin Ramsey http://www.ipsnews.net/?p=137807 With both countries' flags placed side by side, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry sits across from Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif in Vienna, Austria, on Jul. 13, 2014, before beginning a bilateral meeting focused on Iran's nuclear programme. Credit: State Department

With both countries' flags placed side by side, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry sits across from Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif in Vienna, Austria, on Jul. 13, 2014, before beginning a bilateral meeting focused on Iran's nuclear programme. Credit: State Department

By Jasmin Ramsey
WASHINGTON, Nov 18 2014 (IPS)

In the United States, the negotiations aimed at a final deal between world powers and Iran over its nuclear programme—in a crucial phase this week—are far from the minds of average people. But for many Iranians, the talks hold the promise of a better future.

“I really hope for a fair agreement,” Ahoora Rostamian, a 30-year-old financial engineer living in the Iranian city of Isfahan, told IPS in a telephone interview.“I have seen broad support and trust for [lead Iranian negotiator] Javad Zarif among the people…he may well be the most popular politician in Iran.” -- Adnan Tabatabai

“It is very important both economically and politically…(A)lmost all sectors of industry are affected by the sanctions, and only the people, not the government, are paying the price,” he said.

From the capital city of Tehran, Mohammad Shirkavand, who expects a final deal to be signed by the Nov. 24 deadline, said it would “alleviate tensions and allow Westerners to get to know the real Iran.”

“Iran has been developing even under a massive sanctions regime, but when there is a final nuclear deal, the situation will be much better,” said the medical engineer and tour guide.

“People are indeed very hopeful,” Adnan Tabatabai, a Berlin-based analyst who regularly travels to Iran, told IPS. “I have seen broad support and trust for [lead Iranian negotiator] Javad Zarif among the people…he may well be the most popular politician in Iran.”

Iran and the P5+1 (the U.S., Britain, France, Russia, and China, plus Germany) began a marathon round of meetings Nov. 18 in Vienna aimed at achieving a final deal by next Monday.

That would mark the one-year anniversary of the signing in Geneva of the interim Joint Plan of Action, which halted Iran’s nuclear programme from further expansion in exchange for moderate sanctions relief.

All of the officials involved in the negotiation have insisted that a comprehensive agreement remains possible by the self-imposed deadline.

But three days of talks last week in Oman—which hosted initially the secret U.S.-Iran meetings in March 2013 that paved the way for unprecedented levels of bilateral exchanges—concluded without a breakthrough.

“The Iranian team went back to Tehran with new ideas from Oman and will have a chance to respond to them in Vienna,” Kelsey Davenport, the director for nonproliferation policy at the Washington-based Arms Control Association, told IPS.

“There’s still a week left, and that’s a lot of time on the diplomatic clock,” said Davenport, who closely monitors Iran’s nuclear programme. “The negotiators are committed to reaching a deal by the deadline, and it’s still possible.”

The details of the negotiations remain secret, but leaked comments to the press suggest that while the negotiators are close to a deal, they remain stuck on the size and scope of Iran’s uranium enrichment programme as well as the terms of the sanctions relief that would result from a final deal.

Iran wants to maintain enough centrifuges and other nuclear infrastructure to be self-reliant and reach industrial-scale production for what they insist is a civil nuclear programme by 2021. But the U.S. and its allies want Iran to significantly scale back its current operations.

The failure to sign a deal so far has left some in Iran feeling hopeless—though not about their negotiating team’s ability to push for the best deal.

“I am not very optimistic about a final deal because if the P5+1 were seriously determined to reach a deal they could have achieved that by now,” said Sadeghi, a 29-year-old student also from Isfahan. “They have previously proven that what they’re seeking is halting Iran’s peaceful nuclear activity, not a genuine deal.”

Back in Tehran, Sobhan Hassanvand, a journalist who closely monitors the talks for Shargh, a reformist newspaper, told IPS he expects at least a partial deal by the end of the month.

“On both sides there are rational people who want the deal… Both sides have shown some flexibility, and tried to fight hardliners,” he said.

“They have gotten this far, and the final steps can be breathtaking…I am hopeful and optimistic,” added Hassanvand.

The negotiating teams from both the U.S. and Iran, led by Acting Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman and Foreign Minister Javad Zarif, respectively, face tough domestic opposition, with powerful adversaries working hard to get their demands onto the negotiating table.

Before the end of this week, committees in the U.S. House and Senate—both of which will be controlled by Republicans as of January—will hold a series of hearings focused on the alleged dangers of a “bad deal”.

Activist groups—both for and against diplomacy with Iran—have also scheduled briefings for Congressional staffers and reporters in the run-up to Nov. 24.

“There are some members of Congress who oppose a diplomatic solution with Iran,” Davenport told IPS. “Many of them are pushing for more stringent sanctions, but that will only drive Iran away from table and lead both sides down the path of escalation.

“But the majority of Congress needs to consider the alternative to a diplomatic resolution…if we don’t achieve a deal we could easily go down the path of another war in the Middle East,” she said.

U.S. President Barack Obama has also received strong criticism for allegedly sending a secret letter last month to Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ali Khamenei, that “appeared aimed at buttressing the campaign against the Islamic State and nudging Iran’s religious leader closer to a nuclear deal,” according to a Nov. 6 report in the Wall Street Journal.

Though the content of the reported letter has not been officially revealed, some U.S. Republican and hawkish Democratic politicians, as well as Israeli officials, described it as evidence of Obama’s desperation for a deal, particularly in light of the need for Iran’s cooperation in Washington’s efforts to “degrade and ultimately destroy” Islamic State forces in Iraq and Syria.

Meanwhile in Iran, the country’s ultimate decision-maker, Ayatollah Khamenei, once again expressed support last week for the country’s negotiating team through speeches and his Twitter account.

But he has also consistently expressed doubt about the Obama administration’s sincerity and its ability to negotiate for a fair deal, insisting that Washington is ruled by the Israeli government, which has made no secret of its opposition to Obama’s approach.

Iranian President Hassan Rouhani has also been the target of political grumblings by domestic powerbrokers for his handling of the nuclear issue. But last week saw many of his critics directing their distrust at the United States.

“In the nuclear debate, our key point is that we have complete trust with respect to the negotiating team, but this point must not be missed, that our opposing side is a fraud and a liar,” said Mohammad Hossein Nejatand, a commander of the revolutionary guards, on Nov. 14.

“Instead of writing letters, Obama should demonstrate his goodwill,” said Ayatollah Movahedi-Kermani during Friday prayers in Tehran.

Iranians meanwhile appear generally confident about their negotiating team’s strategy.

“They are doing a good job…The problem is (that) the other side is not looking for a “deal,” but for Iran to give up,” said Sadeghi.

Tabatabai said Iranians were more likely to blame the U.S. than their own government if no deal is concluded.

“In that case people may conclude that whether Iran’s foreign policy is provocative or reconciliatory, the isolation and demonisation of their country will prevail,” he said.

“This is exactly the main argument of opponents of a deal in Tehran,” he added. “In their view, hostility towards Iran is a given—and if it’s not channeled through the nuclear file, another issue will be used to maintain enmity with Iran.”

Edited by Kitty Stapp

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Building Disaster Resilience Amidst Rampant Povertyhttp://www.ipsnews.net/2014/11/building-disaster-resilience-amidst-rampant-poverty/?utm_source=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_campaign=building-disaster-resilience-amidst-rampant-poverty http://www.ipsnews.net/2014/11/building-disaster-resilience-amidst-rampant-poverty/#comments Mon, 17 Nov 2014 10:51:01 +0000 Amantha Perera http://www.ipsnews.net/?p=137790 Soldiers wait for instructions before they begin search operations at the Meeriyabedda landslide site in central Sri Lanka. Credit: Contributor/IPS

Soldiers wait for instructions before they begin search operations at the Meeriyabedda landslide site in central Sri Lanka. Credit: Contributor/IPS

By Amantha Perera
COLOMBO, Nov 17 2014 (IPS)

Of the thousands of landslide-prone villages he has visited and worked with, R M S Bandara, a high-ranking official from Sri Lanka’s National Building Resources Organisation (NBRO), says only one has made him sit up and take note.

Keribathgala, located in the Ratnapura District about 120 km southeast of the capital, Colombo, is the only village out of thousands that keeps a regular tab on the rain gauge donated by the Disaster Management Ministry’s NBRO, the focal point for all landslide-related services in the country.

“It is the only village that calls us back to discuss the information they have and get advice from us. We have distributed thousands of rain gauges, and this has been the only interactive relationship,” Bandara, who heads the NBRO’s Landside Risk Research and Management Division, tells IPS.

“No one was looking at a rain gauge or other signs. People in these parts are more worried about where their next meal will come from.” -- B Mahendran, a resident of Meeriyabedda
The official said that most villages pay no heed to NBRO advice and training.

“A deadly landslide will occur maybe once every 10 years, so people don’t take notice of them or the dangers they pose,” he explains.

But such negligence can be deadly. On Oct. 29, at 7:15 in the morning, a large section of a hillside in the village of Meeriyabedda in the Badulla District, about 220 km from Colombo, caved in.

Two weeks later, when rescue workers finally gave up looking for victims, 12 bodies had been recovered and 25 were listed as missing.

This was a tragedy that could have been avoided, according to experts like Bandara. There had been two minor landslides in the village in 2005 and 2011. On both occasions the NBRO carried out surveys and recommended that the village be relocated.

In 2009 the NBRO carried out a large-scale community awareness programme that included conducting mock drills and handing a rain gauge over to the village. Bandara says another such programme was carried out last year as well.

All signs at Meeriyabedda prior to the landslide pointed to a disaster waiting to happen. Warnings for relocation had come as early as 2005 and the night before the disaster villagers were alerted to the possibility of a catastrophe. Very few moved out.

Though there is no evidence left of the reading on the rain gauge at Meeriyabedda, a similar device maintained by the NBRO at a nearby school indicated that at least 125 mm of rain had fallen overnight. That information, however, never reached the village.

“People really don’t pay attention to the equipment or the signs, partly [because] disasters don’t occur every day,” Bandara asserts, adding that despite the infrequency of natural hazards, daily vigilance is essential.

Testimony from villagers in Meeriyabedda supports his assessment.

“No one was looking at a rain gauge or other signs,” admits B Mahendran, a resident of the unhappy village. “People in these parts are more worried about where their next meal will come from.”

Villagers here travel 60 km daily to make a wage of about 400 rupees (a little over three dollars). Such hardships are not unusual in this region, home to many of Sri Lanka’s vast plantations. Government data indicate that poverty levels here are over twice the national average of 6.7 percent.

The literacy level in the estate sector is around 70 percent, roughly 20 percent below the national average, and U.N. data indicate that 10 percent of children living on plantations drop out of school before Grade Five, five times the national average dropout rate of just over two percent.

Most victims of this latest landslide were working at a sugarcane plantation about 30 km away, after they lost their jobs in nearby tea plantations, villagers tell IPS.

“Poverty here is a generational issue,” explains Arumugam Selvarani, who has worked as a child health official in Meeriyabedda since 2004. “Government and outside interventions are needed to lessen the impact.” She feels that the government needs to put in more effort to ensure the sector is linked to national planning and systems, and monitor such linkages continuously.

She herself has worked to improve nutrition levels among children for nearly a decade, but she believes that such efforts have “zero impact if they are ad-hoc and infrequent”.

Such initiatives need to be sustained over a long period of time in order to be really effective.

This is especially true in the arena of disaster preparedness, experts say, where government support is needed to keep early warning systems fine-tuned all year round, particularly in poverty-stricken areas where the fallout from natural disasters is always magnified by socio-economic factors like poor housing and food insecurity.

Sri Lanka has made some strides in this regard. Eight months after the 2004 Asian tsunami slammed the country’s coastal areas, the government established the Disaster Management Centre (DMC) to oversee preparedness levels around the island.

The 25 DMC district offices coordinate all alerts and evacuations with assistance from the police, the armed forces and the Sri Lanka Red Cross Society (SLRCS). In fact a village in the same district where the landslide occurred had a mock drill conducted by the DMC just six days before the disaster.

But DMC officials themselves admit there is an urgent need for a uniform country-wide disaster preparedness mechanism.

“Along the coast we are pretty prepared, because of all the work we have done since 2005, but we need such levels of action now to spread to the rest of the country,” says DMC spokesperson Sarath Lal Kumara.

NBRO’s Bandara has other ideas on how to strengthen disaster resilience. Effective utilisation of available data is topmost on his list. For instance, the NBRO has developed hazard maps for all 10 landslide-prone districts in the island. The map for the Badulla District, accessible online, clearly identifies Meeriyabedda as a high-risk area.

The problem is that no one is using this important information.

Bandara says these maps should form the basis of building codes and evacuation routes. Sadly, this is not the case.

DMC’s Kumara tells IPS that in a country comprising 65,000 sq km, land is at a premium and land management is a delicate issue. “There are so many overlapping concerns and agencies.”

He says it is not easy to follow each hazard map to the letter. The houses hit by the landslide, for instance, were built years before the maps were developed – relocating them would be a huge challenge, and efforts to do so sometimes run into resistance from the villagers themselves.

What experts and villagers can agree on is the need to have a dedicated government official overseeing disaster preparedness levels. Some experts suggest using the Divisional Secretariats, Sri Lanka’s lowest administrative units, to monitor their respective areas and feed into the DMC’s national network.

“All the drills, all the preparations will be useless unless there is an official or an office that is unambiguously tasked with coordinating such efforts in real time,” according to Indu Abeyratne, who heads SLRCS’s early warning systems.

In Meeriyabedda, such ambiguity cost three-dozen lives. Perhaps it is time to realign the system, to ensure that a trained official is present at the village level to carry information to the proper authorities.

Edited by Kanya D’Almeida

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Women’s Safety Schemes Go Mobile in Indiahttp://www.ipsnews.net/2014/11/womens-safety-schemes-go-mobile-in-india/?utm_source=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_campaign=womens-safety-schemes-go-mobile-in-india http://www.ipsnews.net/2014/11/womens-safety-schemes-go-mobile-in-india/#comments Fri, 14 Nov 2014 16:49:44 +0000 Sujoy Dhar http://www.ipsnews.net/?p=137760 Scores of women in India are downloading and using mobile ‘safety apps’ as a way of guarding against rape. Credit: vgrigas/CC-BY-SA-2.0

Scores of women in India are downloading and using mobile ‘safety apps’ as a way of guarding against rape. Credit: vgrigas/CC-BY-SA-2.0

By Sujoy Dhar
NEW DELHI, Nov 14 2014 (IPS)

It was 9:45 pm when 23-year-old Manira Chaudhury, a final-year Master’s student in New Delhi, who was traveling home in a rickshaw, pressed a button on her smart phone that sent out emergency alerts to two of her closest friends.

Immediately, two frantic calls followed.

“I am safe,” Chaudhury assured her distressed friends. “I was just checking that the app works.”

She uses VithU, a mobile phone app developed by Channel V, which was launched in November last year in India in the aftermath of the horrific rape-murder of a 23-year-old paramedical student in a moving bus in the Indian capital on Dec. 16, 2012.

The smart phone app is activated by tapping twice on an icon on the screen, which instantly sends the following message to pre-loaded emergency contacts: ‘I am in danger. I need help. Please follow my location’, along with details of the sender’s whereabouts.

“Fortunately I have never faced a situation where I felt the need to use it,” Chaudhury tells IPS. “But I think it is important to have it. I don’t think girls should have to live in constant fear of an attack but at the same time we cannot live in denial.

“We know bad things are happening out there and it’s wise to take certain precautions,” she explains.

After ‘Nirbhaya’

"I don’t think girls should have to live in constant fear of an attack but at the same time we cannot live in denial. We know bad things are happening out there and it’s wise to take certain precautions." -- Manira Chaudhury, a final-year Master’s student in New Delhi
While dime-a-dozen safety apps are now available in India, mostly launched by mobile phone companies and other private groups, the Government of India plans to launch a safety app of its own later this month, as an auxiliary service to the existing 181 helpline for women, which was started after the fatal Delhi bus rape.

“This new app will also facilitate pre-registering of crimes based on perceived threats,” says Khadijah Faruqui, a women’s rights activist and human rights lawyer who is heading the 181 Helpline.

Safety apps are just one of many responses to the 2012 gang rape, which sparked massive protests around this country of 1.2 billion, with scores of people taking to the streets to demand tougher laws, increased security measures, sensitization of the police force and stronger government action to tackle sexual violence against women.

Lawmakers and politicians responded to the tragedy by pushing out the Criminal Law Amendment Ordinance, 2013, which incorporates various sexual crimes into the penal code, and promises stiffer penalties for offenses such as stalking, voyeurism or harassment.

The government also established six new fast-track courts to hear rape cases, and experts say there has been an explosion in public debate about women’s safety.

Still, millions of women continue to live in fear, while the frequency and brutality of rapes appears unchanged despite tougher laws.

The latest figures provided by India’s National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB) in 2012 point to 24,923 rapes per year, while police reports from various cities show an alarming rise in assaults in 2013-2014.

India’s financial hub, Mumbai, which used to be considered a safe place for women, witnessed a 43-percent rise in the number of reported rapes this year compared to the previous year, according to the city’s police.

Meanwhile, the capital city saw an alarming five-fold rise in sexual assaults in 2013, police records say.

An abundance of apps

Against this backdrop, many women have welcomed the rise in innovative solutions to the constant threat of sexual violence.

For instance, Microsoft India recently released the safety application called ‘Guardian’ for Windows phones, which allows users to select a ‘track me’ feature that enables friends and family to follow the person in real-time using cloud services, among others.

The app also comes with an SOS alert function and a feature that allows the user to record evidence of an attack.

According to Microsoft-IT India Managing Director Raj Biyani, “It is a robust personal security app with more safety features and capabilities than any other comparable app available to Indian smart phone users today.”

Then there is Circle of 6, which won the 2011 Apps Against Abuse challenge sponsored by the Obama Administration and works by offering users a number of icons that send the user’s selected ‘circle’ messages for help, interruption, or advice.

Originally designed to guard against date rapes in the United States, the app’s developers saw a 1,000-percent rise in the number of downloads in India after the Nirbhaya tragedy, prompting them to translate the app into Hindi and tailor it to fit the Indian context.

According to Circle of 6–New Delhi, the app has been programmed in both English and Hindi and it has been designed in a gender-neutral manner.

Says Nancy Schwartzman, a representative of the team who created Circle of 6, “Administrations should make Circle of 6 a priority and should invest in the future of safety with this technology. Circle of 6 is […] a smart and efficient way to centralize both social and emergency communications.”

The app creators said the hotlines have been pre-programmed so that they are in sync with the 24/7 women’s hotline of New Delhi and the women counseling and support service run by the NGO Jagori.

A user of the app, who feels uneasy to contact the police, can also reach out to the Lawyer’s Collective, a leading public interest legal service provider.

Government gets on board

Taking its cue from private initiatives by IT firms and advocacy groups, the government is now pouring resources into the issue of women’s safety.

Under former Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, the finance ministry approved proposals aimed at streamlining police, mobile and legal services in the country, resulting in the creation of a fund worth one trillion rupees (about 16 billion dollars) to be used exclusively on projects aimed at enhancing women’s safety.

For example, a proposal by the ministry of home affairs, designed in consultation with the ministry of information technology, calls for integration of the police administration with the mobile phone network to rapidly trace and respond to distress calls.

The ministry of information technology also plans to issue instructions to all mobile phone manufacturers to introduce a mandatory SOS alert button to all handsets.

The scheme will be launched in 157 cities in two phases.

Yet another project – known in its initial stage as ‘design and development of an affordable electronic personal safety device’ – being undertaken by the Indian Institute of Technology (IIT) aims to roll out a self-contained safety system in the form of a wristwatch.

India’s ministry of road transport and highways has proposed a scheme that will cover 32 towns, each with a population of over one million people, where public transportation vehicles will be fitted with GPS tracking devices to enhance law enforcement’s ability to respond to attacks.

Still, an app alone cannot solve the massive problem of violence against women in India, with an average of 57 cases of rape reported every day, according to an analysis of government data by the Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative (CHRI).

According to Jasmeen Patheja, founder of a student-led project at the Srishti School of Art, Design and Technology in Bangalore known as Blank Noise, the “solution is not in the app itself, but its function and role and space for intervention.”

But Rimi B. Chatterjee, a writer and activist based in Kolkata who also teaches English in the prestigious Jadavpur University, which is leading a viral protest against the molestation of a girl student on campus in September this year, is skeptical about the effectiveness of the apps.

“I am personally not sure about their efficacy and I fear that they can actually be launched by companies to bank on the insecurity of women to make money. So I have never advised my students to use them,” says Chatterjee.

“The solution to women’s safety is in the counselling and training of men and not in development of apps. The problem is not with the women, it lies with men and their mindset, as young men are learning to disrespect women from their seniors,” she says.

However, according to Faruqui, an app like the one to be launched in connection with the 181 Helpline on Nov. 25, on the International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women, the aim will be to address the gaps in the existing apps and ensure that a woman in distress can find timely assistance.

Edited by Kanya D’Almeida

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Dhanapala to Receive IPS Award for Nuclear Disarmamenthttp://www.ipsnews.net/2014/11/dhanapala-to-receive-ips-award-for-nuclear-disarmament/?utm_source=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_campaign=dhanapala-to-receive-ips-award-for-nuclear-disarmament http://www.ipsnews.net/2014/11/dhanapala-to-receive-ips-award-for-nuclear-disarmament/#comments Thu, 13 Nov 2014 21:44:54 +0000 Thalif Deen http://www.ipsnews.net/?p=137749 By Thalif Deen
UNITED NATIONS, Nov 13 2014 (IPS)

Jayantha Dhanapala, a former U.N. under-secretary-general for disarmament affairs (1998-2003) and a relentless advocate for a world free of nuclear weapons, will be the recipient of the 2014 International Achievement Award for Nuclear Disarmament sponsored by Inter Press Service (IPS) news agency.

“Short of actually dismantling nuclear devices himself,” says Dr. Randy Rydell, until recently a senior political affairs officer at the U.N. Office for Disarmament Affairs, “he has contributed enormously in constructing a solid foundation upon which the world community will one day fulfill this great ambition.”

Current president of the Nobel Prize-winning Pugwash Conferences on Science and World Affairs (since 2007) and a former Sri Lankan ambassador to the United States, Dhanapala played a crucial role in the 1995 Conference of States Parties to the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT).

Credit: CC BY-SA 3.0

Credit: CC BY-SA 3.0

The award – which is co-sponsored by the Tokyo-based Soka Gakkai International (SGI), a 12-million-strong, lay Buddhist non-governmental organisation (NGO) which is leading a global campaign for the abolition of nuclear weapons – will be presented at an official ceremony at the United Nations Nov. 17.

The event, to be attended by senior U.N. officials, ambassadors and representatives of the media and civil society, is being hosted by the U.N. Correspondents’ Association (UNCA).

Douglas Roche, a former senator, an ex-Canadian ambassador for disarmament, and visiting professor at the University of Alberta, told IPS, “When the Non-Proliferation Treaty was indefinitely extended in 1995, the person most responsible for making nuclear disarmament a permanent legal obligation was Ambassador Jayantha Dhanapala.”

He said Dhanapala’s “masterful diplomacy” – threading a course between the powerful nuclear weapons states and the non-nuclear world – was responsible for delineating three specific promises.

First, the systematic and progressive efforts towards elimination of nuclear weapons; second, a Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty by 1996; third, an early conclusion of negotiations for a fissile material ban.

“Jayantha raised both the global norm and the conscience of the world that nuclear weapons are incompatible with the full implementation of human rights,” said Roche, founding chairman of the Middle Powers Initiative and chairman of the U.N. Disarmament Committee at the 43rd General Assembly sessions in 1988.

Jonathan Granoff, president of the Global Security Institute (GSI), told IPS “it is fair to say that no one has done more to preserve and strengthen the international legal system constraining the spread of nuclear weapons and setting clearly the compass point for the universal elimination of nuclear weapons than Ambassador Jayantha Dhanapala.”

“His leadership in the U.N.’s Department of Disarmament Affairs and president of the 1995 Review and Extension Conference was rooted in an insight that clearly guides his life,” he added.

As a young student during the Cuban missile crisis, he wondered “how could the two superpowers of the time place millions of innocent citizens in non-nuclear weapon and non-aligned states in danger of the blast, radiation, climatic and genetic effects of such a weapon exchange?” Granoff recounted.

Dhanapala has tirelessly made nations, organisations, and individuals aware and empowered to act on the realisation that nuclear weapons and civilisation present a choice: one or the other, he pointed out.

“His work in the international field has exemplified the fusion of idealistic aspirations based on universal values and practical policies informed by the constraints of political realities and power,” said Granoff, who is also a senior advisor of the American Bar Association’s Committee on Arms Control and National Security.

He was also instrumental in reviving U.N. interest in the subject of “disarmament and development” at a time when military spending was once again starting to rise in the post-Cold War era, as social and economic needs went unmet in vast sectors of the world.

Dhanapala served as director of the U.N.’s Institute for Disarmament Research (1987-1992), where he successfully expanded its financial base while also broadening its areas of research to include non-military challenges to security.

Dhanapala has also been a member of two of the most influential international commissions established to advance nuclear disarmament: the Canberra Commission (1996) and the International Weapons of Mass Destruction Commission (Blix Commission, 2006).

He was later awarded a MacArthur Foundation grant, which enabled the publication of his book, ‘Multilateral Diplomacy and the NPT: An Insider’s Account.’

He has served or is continuing to serve on several advisory boards of institutions known for their work in supporting nuclear disarmament and non-proliferation, including the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, the Stanford Institute of International Studies, the Geneva Centre for Democratic Control of Armed Conflict, the International Committee of the Red Cross, and the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies, among others.

He has served as honourary president of the International Peace Bureau.

In all of his posts held over his career, said Rydell, he has inspired his colleagues to fight persistently for the interests of the world community even in the face of great obstacles.

“One day, this will be how nuclear disarmament is finally achieved,” he added.

Rydell said Dhanapala was one of the U.N.’s most prolific voices for global nuclear disarmament, which was apparent in his countless major keynote addresses, book chapters, articles, oped pieces, and frequent meetings with NGOs.

Roche told IPS: “If the nuclear weapons states had lived up to the standards set by Ambassador Dhanapala, the world would be a safer place today. Dhanapala had the vision to move forward in a way that held the international community together. We must not give up on that course.”

Reflecting on the diplomatic achievements of Dhanapala’s home country, Granoff said Sri Lanka is a small island and the world owes it a big thank you for producing several towering figures who have been instrumental in advancing global security, the rule of law, and standards of intelligence and virtue in global public service.

To state the case succinctly: “Without Ambassador Hamilton Shirley Amerasinghe there would be no Law of the Sea Treaty.”

Judge Christopher Weeramantry’s work on the International Court of Justice (ICJ), where he helped define global legal standards of justice and practicality in the fields of nuclear weapons and sustainable development, is matched in excellence only by the wisdom and insightful legal analysis found in his prolific writings, making him one of the most respect international legal minds of modern times, said Granoff, who is also on the advisory board of Lawyers Committee on Nuclear Policy.

Sri Lanka, having barely emerged from four and half centuries of crippling colonialism, was threatened along with other countries by a contest for global supremacy in which it wanted no part, he added.

The past recipients of the IPS International Achievement Award for their contributions to peace and development include: Brazilian President Lula da Silva (2008), U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan (2006), Global Call to Action Against Poverty (2005), Group of 77 developing countries (2000), U.N. Secretary-General Boutros Boutros-Ghali (1995), and Finnish President Martti Ahtisaari (1991).

Edited by Kitty Stapp

The writer can be contacted at thalifdeen@aol.com

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How a Small Tribe Turned Tragedy into Opportunityhttp://www.ipsnews.net/2014/11/how-a-small-tribe-turned-tragedy-into-opportunity/?utm_source=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_campaign=how-a-small-tribe-turned-tragedy-into-opportunity http://www.ipsnews.net/2014/11/how-a-small-tribe-turned-tragedy-into-opportunity/#comments Thu, 13 Nov 2014 11:59:20 +0000 Malini Shankar http://www.ipsnews.net/?p=137736 An Irula couple fishes in the creeks of the Pichavaram Mangrove Forest in Tamil Nadu. Credit: Malini Shankar/IPS

An Irula couple fishes in the creeks of the Pichavaram Mangrove Forest in Tamil Nadu. Credit: Malini Shankar/IPS

By Malini Shankar
PICHAVARAM, India, Nov 13 2014 (IPS)

When the Asian tsunami washed over several Indian Ocean Rim countries on Boxing Day 2004, it left a trail of destruction in its wake, including a death toll that touched 230,000.

Millions lost their jobs, food security and traditional livelihoods and many have spent the last decade trying to pick up the pieces of their lives. But for a small tribe in southern India, the tsunami didn’t bring devastation; instead, it brought hope.

Numbering some 25,000 people, the Irulas have long inhabited the Nilgiri Mountains in the states of Tamil Nadu and Kerala, and have traditionally earned a living by ridding the farmland of rats and snakes, often supplementing their meagre income by working as daily wage agricultural labourers in the fields.

“If we were not included in the [Scheduled Tribes] List we would never have benefited from [development] schemes. We would have remained hunter-gatherers, eating rats and hunting snakes." -- Nagamuthu, an Irula tribesman and tsunami survivors
Now, on the eve of the 10-year anniversary of the tsunami, the Irulas in Tamil Nadu are a living example of how sustainable disaster management can alleviate poverty, while simultaneously preserving an ancient way of life.

Prior to 2004, the Irula people laboured under extremely exploitative conditions, earning no more than 3,000 rupees (about 50 dollars) each month. Nutrition levels were poor, and the community suffered from inadequate housing and sanitation facilities.

But when the giant waves receded and NGOs and aid workers flocked to India’s southern coast to rebuild the flattened, sodden landscape, the Irulas received more than just a hand-out.

They were finally included on the government’s List of Scheduled Tribes, largely thanks to the efforts of a government official named G.S. Bedi from the tsunami-ravaged coastal district of Cuddalore in Tamil Nadu.

Inclusion on the list enabled the community to become legal beneficiaries of state-sponsored developmental schemes like the Forest Rights Act and other sustainable fisheries initiatives, thereby improving their access to better housing, and bringing greater food and livelihood security.

More importantly, community members say, the post-tsunami period has marked a kind of revival among Irulas, who are availing themselves of sustainable livelihood schemes to conserve their environment while also increasing their wages.

Bioshields conservation – the way forward for sustainable development

Under the aegis of the M S Swaminathan Research Foundation (MSSRF), Irulas are now part of a major livelihood scheme that has boosted monthly earnings seven-fold, to roughly 21,000 rupees or about 350 dollars in the Pichavaram Mangrove Forest of Tamil Nadu where their traditional homes are located.

Some 180 Irula families are directly benefitting from training programmes and subsidies granted to their tribal cooperatives, also known as self-help groups.

Members of the tribe are sharpening their skills at fishing, sustainable aquaculture and crab fattening, gradually moving further and further away from a life of veritable servitude to big landowners.

Perhaps most importantly, Irulas are incorporating mangrove protection and conservation into their daily lives, a step they see as necessary to the long-term survival of the entire community.

Indeed, it was the Pichavaram Mangrove Forest, located close to the town of Chidambaram in Tamil Nadu, that spared the community massive loss of life during the tsunami, protecting some 4,500 Irulas, or 900 families, from the full impact of the waves.

Snuggled between the Vellar estuary in the north and Coleroon estuary in the south, the Pichavaram forest spans some 1,100 hectares, its complex root system and inter-tidal ecosystem offering a sturdy barrier against seawater intrusion, waves and flooding.

According to statistics provided by Dr. Sivakumar, a marine biologist with the MSSRF in Chennai, the unlucky few who perished in the tsunami were those who were caught outside of the ecosystem’s protective embrace – some seven people from the Kannagi Nagar and Pillumedu villages, as well as 64 people who were stranded on the MGR Thittu, both located on sandbars devoid of mangroves.

The experience opened many tribal members’ eyes to the inestimable value of mangroves and their own vulnerability to the vagaries of the sea, sparking a grassroots-level conservation effort under the provisions of India’s Forest Rights Act.

“Until we were enlisted in the Scheduled Tribes List we did not know our rights, we were neither successful as hunter-gatherers nor as daily wage agricultural labourers,” says 55-year-old Pichakanna, an Irula tribal man who has happily exchanged agricultural employment for fishing and aquaculture activities that allow him to participate in mangrove conservation efforts in Tamil Nadu.

His salary now comes from prawn farming in the biodiverse mangrove forests, he tells IPS.

Dr. M. S. Swaminathan, chairman of the MSSRF, believes that “by conserving mangrove forests [we are] protecting the most productive coastal ecosystem that guarantees […] livelihood and ecological security.

“Bioshields are an indispensable part of Disaster Risk Resilience,” he adds.

This union between job creation and disaster management has been a stroke of unprecedented good fortune for the Irula people.

Thirty-three-year-old Nagamuthu, an Irula member whose parents – hailing from the Pichavaram forests – survived the tsunami, tells IPS, “If we were not included in the [Scheduled Tribes] List we would never have benefited from [development] schemes. We would have remained hunter-gatherers, eating rats and hunting snakes.

“Now we have developed a mangrove plantation on forest land granted to us by the government, and the Forest Rights Act has also given us fishing rights in the Protected Area of the Pichavaram Mangroves.”

Such developments are crucial at a time when mangroves are disappearing fast. According to a new study by the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), “mangroves are being destroyed at a rate three to five times greater than the average rates of forest loss.”

By 2050, South Asia could lose as much as 35 percent of its mangroves that existed in 2000. Emissions resulting from such losses make up about a fifth of deforestation-related global carbon emissions, the report says.

Irulas now harvest minor forest produce from the rich waters around the mangroves, such as clusters of natural pearl oysters, which are very high in protein, for their own consumption.

“We have also learnt the skill of crab trapping, and we have installed crab fattening devices close to our homes deep in the mangrove creeks,” Nagamuthu tells IPS. “This has helped us carve out a sustainable livelihood.”

Tribe members have also been taught to dig canals in the eco-friendly ‘fish bone’ pattern that helps bring tidal creeks directly to their doorstep, where they can catch fresh fish for breakfast.

This canal system, now recommended by the Government of India, also helps in decreasing soil salinity, prevents mangrove degradation, and improves fish yields.

This, in turn, has improved livelihood security. Coupled with the acquisition of new and improved equipment – such as nets, boats, oars, engines, hooks and traps – many fisher families have completely turned their lives around.

Residents of villagers such as Killai, Pillumedu, Kannaginagar, Kalaingar, Vadakku, T.S. Pettai, and Pichavaram have now created a community fund that gathers 30 percent of each families’ monthly income; the savings have been used to construct a village temple, a school and drinking water facilities for 900 families from some seven villages.

Pichakanna, who is now the village elder for the newly established MGR Nagar Township, tells IPS proudly that the community fund has also helped establish an ‘early warning helpline’, which uses voice SMS technology to inform fisherfolk about wave height and wind direction, as well as provide six-hourly weather forecasts and early warnings of approaching cyclones.

A voice SMS broadcast aimed at women also passes on information about health and hygiene, maternity benefits and minimum wages.

While heads of states and development experts fly around the world to discuss the post-2015 ‘sustainable development’ agenda, here in Pichavaram, a forgotten tribe is already practicing a new way of life – and they are pointing the way forward to a sustainable future.

Edited by Kanya D’Almeida

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Fishing for Peace in Koreahttp://www.ipsnews.net/2014/11/fishing-for-peace-in-korea/?utm_source=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_campaign=fishing-for-peace-in-korea http://www.ipsnews.net/2014/11/fishing-for-peace-in-korea/#comments Tue, 11 Nov 2014 10:21:38 +0000 John Feffer and Michal Witkowski http://www.ipsnews.net/?p=137695 The disputed Northern Limit Line (NLL) that forms the maritime border between North and South Korea in the Yellow Sea cuts through a number of small islands and winds through rich fishing grounds. Credit: lamoix/CC-BY-2.0

The disputed Northern Limit Line (NLL) that forms the maritime border between North and South Korea in the Yellow Sea cuts through a number of small islands and winds through rich fishing grounds. Credit: lamoix/CC-BY-2.0

By John Feffer and Michal Witkowski
WASHINGTON, Nov 11 2014 (IPS)

Environmental problems, by their nature, don’t respect borders. Air and sea pollution often affect countries that had nothing to do with their production. Many extreme weather events, like typhoons, strike more than one country. Climate change affects everyone.

These environmental problems can aggravate existing conflicts among countries. But they can also bring countries together in joint efforts to find solutions. A case in point is the Northern Limit Line (NLL) in Korea.

The NLL is the oft-disputed border between North and South Korea in the Yellow Sea off the west coast of the peninsula. Although the two countries agreed to a territorial boundary at the 38th parallel following the Korean War armistice, they have never agreed on the maritime boundary in the Yellow Sea, which threads between a number of islands and through rich fishing grounds.

Over the years, North and South Korea have exchanged artillery fire across the NLL, and naval vessels as well as fishing boats have clashed in the area on a number of occasions.

Various environmental challenges have only sharpened the conflict. But with a new imperative to address these environmental problems, the NLL can offer the two Koreas an opportunity to chart a new relationship for the 21st century.

Anatomy of a Dispute

North Korea maintains six naval squadrons on the [Northern Limit Line]. The North’s fleet consists of approximately 430 combat vessels. The South’s fleet is smaller in numbers, with about 120 ships and 70 aircraft. But it has the military edge, due to the size of the vessels and their technological superiority.
The NLL region has been a zone of contention between North and South Korea for more than six decades. It has been the site of several clashes between the Koreas.

Among the most notable are the naval confrontations of 1999 and 2002, the 2009 gunboat incident near Daecheong Island, the 2010 artillery shelling of Yeonpyeong Island, and the sinking of the Cheonan, a South Korean navy ship.

This maritime border is heavily militarised. North Korea maintains six naval squadrons there. According to South Korea’s National Intelligence Service, the North’s fleet consists of approximately 430 combat vessels—around 60 percent of which are stationed around the coastal borders.

Due to the decline of the North Korean economy, the fleet mostly consists of smaller vessels used for covert operations and for escorting fishing boats around the NLL.

The South’s fleet is smaller in numbers, with about 120 ships and 70 aircraft. But it has the military edge, due to the size of the vessels and their technological superiority. It’s further reinforced by the presence of the U.S. Seventh Fleet in nearby Yokosuka, Japan.

South Korean troops, along with their American counterparts, carry out annual drills in the region, which always raise tensions along the disputed maritime border.

North Korea does not recognise the present border arrangement. Furthermore, the 200-mile Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) regime set by the U.N. – which grants states special resource exploration rights in a sea zone stretching 200 miles from their land borders – cannot be applied in a close-quarter situation such as the NLL.

The fishing zones that lie within the NLL are the source of fierce contention between both South and North Korea.

One of the major arguments that North Korea has made around the disputed NLL is that South Korea has access to the majority of fisheries within the current boundaries, while the North occupies far less territory than it potentially could.

When the NLL was being drawn up, the international standard for territorial water limits was three nautical miles; by the 1970s, however, 12 nautical miles became the norm. The North’s argument is that the current setting prevents it from accessing neighbouring sea areas, which, in Pyongyang’s view, should belong to the North.

Such a border set-up fails to acknowledge that small islands, such as Yeonpyeong Island, are not equivalent to continental masses in terms of generating maritime boundaries.

Environmental issues

Overfishing and other destructive fishing practices that have continued for decades have had perhaps the greatest impact on the NLL’s environmental situation. Such activities have caused habitat destruction and biomass change in the Yellow Sea.

For instance, due to overfishing between the 1960s and the 1980s, the number of invertebrates and fish dropped by over 40 percent. With the decrease in fish populations, more effort is required to maintain the desired catch capacity, and many commercially significant species have been severely depleted. As a result, the species composition and the relative proportions of the fish found in the region have been altered.

One country alone cannot ensure the region’s sustainability. The trans-boundary nature of these issues requires a cooperative approach.

The nature of the Yellow Sea – and in particular the seabed on which the NLL is located – limits water circulation, increasing the amount of harmful sediments and aggravating the quality of the water. This has decreased the sea’s ability to “cleanse itself,” making the area around the NLL even more vulnerable to pollution and the harmful effects of human activities on land.

Habitat depletion can greatly affect local communities as well as cause problems for the fishing industry. Development projects on the South Korean side have been a major factor in this process.

More than 30 percent of marshland fields have been lost in South Korea between 1975 and 2005 due to dam construction, embankment, and dikes. Rice paddy fields have been lost as a result of reclamation and the lowering of water tables in nearby lakes.

An ever-increasing market demand for seafood boosts the profitability of short-term-oriented fishing activities. Insufficient pollution prevention only aggravates the situation.

Possible Solutions

As a result of the tense security situation and the unresolved border – along with the lack of a peace treaty between the Koreas to formally end the Korean War – any sort of consensus on the matter of the NLL in the context of inter-Korean relations is difficult to achieve.

One proposed solution is the establishment of a joint fishing zone between the two countries. This zone would boost the North’s fishing industry and could serve as a start to a trust-building process between the neighbours.

Such a process would be based on increased economic cooperation in the NLL region that could lead to further improvements in relations and make future collaboration more likely.

The “Sunshine Policy,” a period of North-South engagement in the late 1990s and early 2000s, was an attempt at establishing such cooperation. In the negotiations regarding the NLL during that period, North Korea demanded changes in the border situation that had to be met before it could agree to participate in the 2007 inter-Korean summit.

The South reportedly agreed to this condition. However, the summit failed to bring any real closure to the matter: concrete decisions were left to be discussed in the future.

The overall framework dating back to the Sunshine Policy’s prime is still in place. For instance, the Kaesong Industrial Park – a joint North-South venture on the northern side of the DMZ – is still operational. Ties between the Koreas could be further enhanced by cooperation around the NLL region.

Some ideas have already been put forward and were initially agreed upon by both sides. In 2000, for example, the two countries came to an agreement along the maritime boundary on the east side of the peninsula where South Korean boats shared the profits from their squid fishing in Northern waters.

Also in 2000, the two sides agreed to create a special peace and cooperation zone around the west coast of the Korean Peninsula.

Another proposal was to combine a joint fishing zone with a common industrial complex in Haeju, a port city on the Northern side. Finally, the Koreas agreed to establish a “peace sea” from the island of Yeonpyeong right to the estuary of the Han River.

No military presence would be allowed in this area. With the South’s withdrawal from the Sunshine Policy framework under the right-wing President Lee Myung-Bak, however, the joint projects were put on hold.

A resuscitation of such joint projects could potentially move cooperation beyond the issue of the NLL to other areas of both business and policy-making. Two major obstacles would need to be overcome in order for such a solution to work.

First, an independent body to monitor the area would need to be appointed to prevent breaches of the agreement and to ensure that both parties follow environmental rules. This mechanism would have to recognise the specificity of the issues surrounding the NLL and formulate policies accordingly.

Second, the two sides would have to agree on a peaceful dispute resolution mechanism.

A universal solution that can resolve the NLL issue does not exist. A carefully devised policy that takes into account the political and economic tensions between the two Koreas may be the answer.

Importantly, the NLL would have to be gradually demilitarised to reduce the probability of any unwanted conflict that could destabilise the area. However, there is minimal possibility that the two countries will agree to reduce their military positions given that the two countries signed the armistice nearly six decades ago but never agreed on a peace treaty.

Thus, for such a solution to become possible, economic cooperation must come first.

The views expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily represent the views of, and should not be attributed to, IPS-Inter Press Service. Read the original version of this story here.

Edited by Kanya D’Almeida

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Filipinos Take to the Streets One Year After Typhoon Haiyanhttp://www.ipsnews.net/2014/11/filipinos-take-to-the-streets-one-year-after-typhoon-haiyan/?utm_source=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_campaign=filipinos-take-to-the-streets-one-year-after-typhoon-haiyan http://www.ipsnews.net/2014/11/filipinos-take-to-the-streets-one-year-after-typhoon-haiyan/#comments Mon, 10 Nov 2014 11:53:07 +0000 Diana Mendoza http://www.ipsnews.net/?p=137683 One year after Typhoon Haiyan, more than four million people still remain homeless. Credit: European Commission DG ECHO/Pio Arce/Genesis Photos-World Vision/CC-BY-ND-2.0

One year after Typhoon Haiyan, more than four million people still remain homeless. Credit: European Commission DG ECHO/Pio Arce/Genesis Photos-World Vision/CC-BY-ND-2.0

By Diana Mendoza
MANILA, Nov 10 2014 (IPS)

People covered their bodies with mud to protest against government ineptitude and abandonment; others lighted paper lanterns and candles and released white doves and balloons to remember the dead, offer thanks and pray for more strength to move on; while many trooped to a vast grave site with white crosses to lay flowers for those who died, and to cry one more time.

These were the scenes this past Saturday, Nov. 8, in Tacloban City in central Philippines, known as ground zero of Typhoon Haiyan.

One year after the storm flattened the city with 250-kph winds and seven-metre high storm surges that caused unimaginable damage to the city centre and its outlying areas and killed more than 6,500 people, hundreds remain unaccounted for.

Nov. 8 marked the first anniversary of Haiyan, known among Filipinos as Yolanda, the strongest storm ever to make landfall in recorded history.

Thousands of stories, mostly about loss, hopelessness, loneliness, hunger, disease, and deeper poverty flooded media portals in the Philippines. There were also abundant stories of heroism and demonstrations of extraordinary strength.

Understanding the scope of the disaster

"We have felt a year's worth of the government's vicious abandonment, corruption, deceit, and repression, and have seen a year's worth of news and studies that confirm this situation." -- Efleda Bautista, one of the leaders of People Surge, a group of typhoon survivors
There may be some signs that suggest a semblance of revival in Tacloban City, located about 580 km southeast of Manila, but it has yet to fully come back to life – that process could take six to eight years, possibly more, according to members of the international donor community.

Still, the anniversary was marked by praise for the Philippines’ “fast first-step recovery” from a disaster of this magnitude, compared with the experience of other disaster-hit places such as Aceh in Indonesia after the 2004 Asian tsunami that devastated several countries along the Indian Ocean.

In its assessment of the relief and reconstruction effort, released prior to the anniversary, the Philippines-based multilateral Asian Development Bank (ADB) said that while “reconstruction efforts continue to be a struggle”, a lot has been done.

“The ADB has been in the Philippines for 50 years, and we can say that other countries would not have responded this strongly to such a huge crisis,” ADB Vice President for East Asia and Southeast Asia Stephen Groff told a press conference last week.

Canadian Ambassador to the Philippines Neil Reeder echoed his words, adding, “The ability of the country to bounce back was faster than we’ve ever seen in other humanitarian disasters.”

Experts say that Filipinos’ ‘bayanihan’ – a sense of neighbourhood and communal unity – helped strengthen the daunting rehabilitation process.

“Yolanda was the largest and most powerful typhoon ever to hit land and it impacted a huge area, including some of the poorest regions in the Philippines. It is important that we look at the scale and scope of this disaster one year after Yolanda,” Groff stressed.

He said the typhoon affected 16 million people, or 3.4 million families, and damaged more than one million homes, 33 million coconut trees, 600,000 hectares of agricultural land, 248 transmission towers and over 1,200 public structures such as provincial, municipal and village halls and public markets.

Also damaged were 305 km of farm-to-market roads, 20,000 classrooms and over 400 health facilities such as hospitals and rural health stations.

In total, the storm affected more than 14.5 million people in 171 cities and municipalities in 44 provinces across nine regions. To date, more than four million people still remain homeless.

Philippine President Benigno Aquino III has faced criticism from affected residents, who used Saturday’s memorial to blast the government for its ineptitude in the recovery process.

Efleda Bautista, one of the leaders of People Surge, a group of typhoon survivors, told journalists, “We have felt a year’s worth of the government’s vicious abandonment, corruption, deceit, and repression, and have seen a year’s worth of news and studies that confirm this situation.”

Protesters burned a nine-foot effigy of the president on the day of the anniversary.

Early morning on Nov. 8 more than 5,000 people holding balloons, lanterns, and candles walked around Tacloban City in an act of mourning and remembrance.

The Roman Catholic Church declared the anniversary date as a national day of prayer as church bells pealed and sirens wailed at the start of a mass at the grave-site where nearly 3,000 people are buried.

Hundreds of fishermen staged protests to demand that the government provide new homes, jobs, and livelihoods, accusing government officials of diverting aid and reconstruction funds.

Filipino netizens recalled that they cried nonstop while helplessly watching on their television and computer screens how Tacloban City was battered by the storm.

They posted and shared photos of Filipinos who were hailed as heroes because they volunteered to meet and drive survivors to their relatives in Manila and other places as they alighted from military rescue planes.

“Before” and “after” pictures of the area also made the rounds on the Web.

‘Billions’ in international assistance

President Aquino in a visit to nearby affected Samar island before the storm anniversary said, “I would hope we can move even faster and I will push everybody to move even faster, but the sad reality is the scope of work we need to do can really not be done overnight. I want to do it correctly so that benefits are permanent.”

The Philippine government estimates the need for a 170-billion-peso (3.8-billion-dollar) master-plan to rebuild the affected communities, including the construction of a four-metre-high dike along the 27-km coastline to prevent further damage in case of another disaster.

Alfred Romualdez, the mayor of Tacloban City, told journalists two million people are still living in tents and only 1,422 households have been relocated to permanent shelters. As many as 205,500 survivors are still in need of permanent houses.

The recovery process was successful in erecting new electricity posts a few months after the storm, while black swaths of mud have now been replaced by greenery, with crops quickly replanted, and rice fields thriving once more.

Government, private, and international aid workers also restored sanitation and hygiene programmes in the aftermath of the storm.

The ADB announced it was trying to determine whether or not to provide a further 150 million dollars worth of official assistance to Yolanda survivors on top of the 900 million dollars already pledged in grants and concessions at the start of reconstruction efforts.

The United States’ Agency for International Development (USAID) is expected to provide a 10-million-dollar technical assistance plan to develop 18,400 projects across the country. These will cover other hard-hit areas outside of Tacloban City, such as Guian in Eastern Samar, which will also receive 10 million dollars from the United Arab Emirates (UAE) for rehabilitation programmes.

The Canadian government also offered 3.75 million Canadian dollars to restore livelihoods and access to water to the affected provinces of Leyte and Iloilo.

The Philippine government assured that the billions donated, offered and pledged by the international community would be safely accounted for, monitored, guarded and reported on with transparency.

Panfilo Lacson, a senator who was designated in charge of the rehabilitation programme, said that already he has confirmed reports that some bunkhouses in Tacloban and Eastern Samar were built with substandard materials and that someone had colluded with contractors for the use of substandard materials to generate kickbacks.

“That’s when I realised we have to monitor the funds,” he said.

He asked Filipinos to share information that they know about irregularities on the management and administration of the billions of pesos from the national coffers and donor organisations for rebuilding communities.

Edited by Kanya D’Almeida

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Choosing Between Death and Death in Pakistanhttp://www.ipsnews.net/2014/11/choosing-between-death-and-death-in-pakistan/?utm_source=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_campaign=choosing-between-death-and-death-in-pakistan http://www.ipsnews.net/2014/11/choosing-between-death-and-death-in-pakistan/#comments Thu, 06 Nov 2014 18:31:50 +0000 Ashfaq Yusufzai http://www.ipsnews.net/?p=137628 More and more tents are coming up to house displaced people in northern Pakistan. Credit: Ashfaq Yusufzai/IPS

More and more tents are coming up to house displaced people in northern Pakistan. Credit: Ashfaq Yusufzai/IPS

By Ashfaq Yusufzai
PESHAWAR, Pakistan , Nov 6 2014 (IPS)

Residents of the Khyber Agency, one of seven administrative districts that comprise northern Pakistan’s Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA), are in the worst possible predicament: either course of action they choose now, they say, could result in death.

As Pakistan’s military offensive against the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) expands slowly from North Waziristan Agency to the restive Khyber Province, civilians must decide whether or not to defy a Taliban ban on travel.

If they stay, they risk becoming victims of army shelling and gunfire, aimed at rooting out terrorists from the Afghan-Pakistan border regions where they have operated with impunity since 2001. If residents attempt to flee, they will face the wrath of militants who rely on the civilian population to provide cover against a wholesale military bombardment of the region.

“The people fear the Taliban because they destroyed the houses of 50 tribesmen who left the area last year. We are stuck between them and the army. The only way is to migrate to safer places.” -- Zahir Afridi, a former resident of the Tirah locality in Khyber Agency
At the end of October, members of the TTP issued a warning to local residents that their houses would be blown up if they followed the army’s evacuation orders, which came in the form of pamphlets dropped from helicopters ahead of a three-day deadline to militants to lay down their arms or face a major offensive.

Literally caught between the devil and the deep blue sea, some residents have chosen to heed the Taliban’s threat, while others are risking life and limb to escape the embattled zone and find refuge in safer areas.

Zahir Afridi, a resident of the Tirah locality in Khyber Agency, recently escaped to the Jallozai refugee camp located 35 km southeast of FATA’s capital, Peshawar, by pretending that his two-year-old daughter had fallen ill and was in urgent need of medical treatment.

“The Taliban allowed us [to leave] on the condition that we would return after Begum [his daughter]’s recovery, but actually we cannot return for fear of our lives,” he tells IPS.

“The people fear the Taliban because they destroyed the houses of 50 tribesmen who left the area last year,” he says. “We are stuck between them and the army. The only way is to migrate to safer places.”

Experts say that civilians act as a kind of “human shield” for the militants, who would otherwise be isolated and vulnerable to attack. Dr. Khadim Hussain, chairman of the Bacha Khan Trust Education Foundation (BKTEF), an organisation that promotes peace, democracy and human rights, tells IPS that keeping civilians trapped in a war zone is a “well established and successful strategy employed by militants” to escape the full force of military campaigns.

An authority on terrorism in Pakistan, Hussain is unsurprised by the Taliban’s migration ban in the Jamrud and Bara localities. He says militants employ “various tactics” to maintain their position of power, including “kidnapping for ransom, extortions, and killings.”

The use of human shields is nothing new either.

Shams Rehman, a political analyst at the Government College, Peshawar, tells IPS that militants successfully used local residents as human shields in the Swat district of the northern Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KP) province, which they ruled from 2007 to 2009.

“Though the army started operations in Swat in 2009 [they] couldn’t get the desired results because the Taliban was using residents” to protect them from an all-out offensive, he says.

It was not until early 2010 that the government decided to issue a mass evacuation alert to the population – warning them to take shelter in camps in the nearby Mardan district – before launching a major military operation.

In this way, “the government isolated the militants and defeated them,” Rehman explains.

It is this same model that the government is now following in North Waziristan, where, over the last 10 years, members of the TPP and Al Qaeda have established a robust base from which to plan and execute their activities.

For many years the government could do nothing about the presence of this unofficial ‘headquarters’ due to the large civilian population living amongst the terrorists.

Mushtaq Khan of the Jamaat-e-Islami party says that now, with nearly 18.9 percent of land in North Waziristan cleared of all residents, the government is doing what it could not for the past decade: inundate the area with firepower in a bid to completely flush out all the militants.

The campaign, which began on Jun. 15, has so far resulted in the displacement of over 500,000 residents, who are now living in camps in the neighbouring KP province.

The journey to the sprawling ‘tent cities’ erected for IDPs in towns like Bannu was not easy. Some died along the way, after trudging for hours in a summer heat wave that at times touched 45 degrees Celsius.

Many were separated from their families en route. Those who made it safely to Bannu might have been considered the lucky ones – that is, until it became evident that the living conditions in the camps were abysmal, with food shortages, a near-total absence of clean water sources and sanitation facilities, and limited medical personnel and supplies.

Now, residents of the Khyber Agency are facing a similar plight.

Muhammad Shad, who recently reached Peshawar along with his 12-member family, claims he and his clan walked for five hours before finding a vehicle that would carry them safely to the capital.

“The situation was extremely bad; all of us felt threatened,” the 55-year-old daily wage labourer tells IPS from the Jallozai camp, where he now lives, adding that scores of his friends and neighbours are still being “held hostage” by the Taliban.

He explains that threats from militants are not empty words. To prove this, the TTP set 20 houses in Khyber Agency ablaze on Aug. 14; they belonged to former militants who had handed their weapons over to the army.

Despite these terror tactics, residents continue to flee en masse – with some 95,000 making it out of Khyber Agency – willing to risk retribution for a chance to live free of the militants’ control.

“Life under the Taliban was not easy,” says Shahabuddin Khan, a resident of South Waziristan Agency, who migrated to Peshawar two months ago along with his family, after having faced violence, threats and intimidation by militants.

He considers himself lucky to have escaped, explaining, “Those who can afford to rent houses outside their native areas [do so], while the poor ones are destined to stay back and face a life of perpetual uncertainty.”

In total, over a million people have been uprooted from their homes in northern Pakistan, forced to flee from one province to another in search of a normal life.

Military spokesman Asim Bajwa tells IPS that “decisive action” on the part of the government has enabled them to clear certain areas of militants, thus allowing people to live peacefully.

“The people should cooperate with the army so they [the militants] are defeated forever,” he asserts.

Edited by Kanya D’Almeida

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OPINION: For Azerbaijan, Time to Address the Potential Salafi Dangerhttp://www.ipsnews.net/2014/11/opinion-for-azerbaijan-time-to-address-the-potential-salafi-danger/?utm_source=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_campaign=opinion-for-azerbaijan-time-to-address-the-potential-salafi-danger http://www.ipsnews.net/2014/11/opinion-for-azerbaijan-time-to-address-the-potential-salafi-danger/#comments Wed, 05 Nov 2014 21:28:24 +0000 Eldar Mamedov http://www.ipsnews.net/?p=137609 By Eldar Mamedov
BAKU, Nov 5 2014 (EurasiaNet)

Earlier in October, Azerbaijani news media reported the death of a professional Azerbaijani wrestler, Rashad Bakhshaliyev, who was killed in Syria while fighting for the Islamic State. The news, which came as a surprise to many in Azerbaijan, underscores an emerging security threat for Azerbaijan.

Hundreds of Azerbaijanis are known to have joined Islamic State (IS) forces in Syria. Concern is starting to build that these battle-hardened jihadists could one day set their sights on challenging President Ilham Aliyev’s administration in Azerbaijan.Salafis have a solid foothold in Azerbaijan, and at least some of them are prone to radicalisation, as the steady stream of Azeris who have left their homeland to go fight in Syria and Iraq demonstrates.

Some prominent militants now fighting in Syria, most notably field commander Hattab al-Azeri, have already started verbally attacking the Aliyev government for its secularism and corruption.

Azerbaijan would seem to make an attractive target for IS jihadists. It is one of the few countries in the world with the Shia Muslim majority population, and the IS is virulently anti-Shia. On a geopolitical level, going after Azerbaijan would also seem attractive for the IS, given Baku’s links to Russia, the United States and Iran, three countries that are among the IS’ chief antagonists.

Azerbaijan itself would seem to present a vulnerable target. While it has a strong security apparatus, widespread corruption has weakened many state institutions in the eyes of the population.

In addition, Azerbaijan is home to a substantial, indigenous community of Salafis, followers of a particularly puritanical interpretation of Sunni Islam. While not all Salafis are apt to become jihadists, jihadists have come from Salafi ranks. There is a danger that at least some non-violent Salafis may sympathize with the goals, if not tactics, of the jihadists and become radicalised.

Virtually unheard of in Azerbaijan until the early 1990s, Salafism has spread rapidly since. No credible data exist on the number of Salafis in Azerbaijan today, but their presence is relatively strong in the Sunni-majority northern parts of the country, the capital city of Baku and the town of Sumgait.

Several factors explain the rise of Salafism in Azerbaijan. First, the long legacy of official Soviet atheism warped the popular understanding of traditional Shia tenets, which for centuries had formed the moral and ethical bedrock of Azerbaijani society.

The Bolsheviks created a spiritual void and inadvertently paved the way for more extreme religious beliefs to fill it once the communist system collapsed in 1991. It is noteworthy that in their efforts to denigrate the Shias, Salafis have made prolific use of derogatory depictions of religious figures, almost entirely Shia, in early Soviet films.

Soviet atheists and post-Soviet Salafis may be strange bedfellows, but, working in tandem, they have succeeded in destroying the traditional religious underpinning of Azeri society.

Anti-Iranian policies carried out by various Azerbaijani governments since the 1990s have contributed to the spread of Salafism. After the breakup of the Soviet Union in 1991, isolating Iran was one of the explicit policy goals of successive American administrations.

Officials in Baku at the time believed an alliance with the United States was essential for achieving their own strategic goals, namely regaining control of the Nagorno-Karabakh enclave. So Azerbaijan readily aligned its policies with a US-promoted regional framework that excluded Iran. This enabled Gulf states, including Saudi Arabia and Kuwait, through the establishment of charities and banks, to foster the spread of Salafi beliefs in Azerbaijan.

Throughout the 1990s and early 2000s, Azerbaijani authorities saw no reason to take action to check the spread of Salafism. If anything, they saw its proliferation as a healthy counterbalance to Iran’s efforts to export its influence to Azerbaijan. While pro-Iranian Shia elements have been openly critical of the Aliyev administration, Salafis in Azerbaijan have tended to emphasise loyalty to the government and have shied away from political activism.

In recent years, authorities have awakened to the potential Salafi threat. But addressing it now is infinitely more challenging than it would have been a decade ago. Salafis have a solid foothold in Azerbaijan, and at least some of them are prone to radicalisation, as the steady stream of Azeris who have left their homeland to go fight in Syria and Iraq demonstrates.

It is clear that jihadists, especially those now engaged in Syria, do not recognise state borders and consider the entire Muslim world as fertile ground for the expansion of their self-proclaimed “caliphate.” Thus, no Muslim-majority state should feel secure enough to ignore this threat.

The Aliyev administration in recent years has ruthlessly persecuted independent journalists and civil society activists, and the pace and scope of its crackdown has intensified in 2014. Over the same period, Baku has occasionally clashed with the United States and European Union, in particular Germany, over what Azerbaijani officials contend are the West’s “double standards” on human rights.

These policies merely weaken Baku’s ability to address its most serious security threat – the metamorphosis of Salafism into militant Islam. Stability in Azerbaijan would be much better served if Baku focused on taking action that would diminish the potential for international and homegrown jihadism.

Editor’s note:  Eldar Mamedov is a political adviser to the Socialists & Democrats Group in the European Parliament. He writes in his personal capacity. This story originally appeared on EurasiaNet.org.

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

Edited by Kitty Stapp

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Learning, Dating and Hooking Up: Sex Education Goes Online in Cambodiahttp://www.ipsnews.net/2014/11/learning-dating-and-hooking-up-sex-education-goes-online-in-cambodia/?utm_source=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_campaign=learning-dating-and-hooking-up-sex-education-goes-online-in-cambodia http://www.ipsnews.net/2014/11/learning-dating-and-hooking-up-sex-education-goes-online-in-cambodia/#comments Wed, 05 Nov 2014 18:15:41 +0000 Michelle Tolson http://www.ipsnews.net/?p=137604 Srun Srorn, trainer for the E-learning project, shows teachers at Koh Kong High School how the sexual education curriculum works. Credit: Michelle Tolson/IPS

Srun Srorn, trainer for the E-learning project, shows teachers at Koh Kong High School how the sexual education curriculum works. Credit: Michelle Tolson/IPS

By Michelle Tolson
KOH KONG PROVINCE, Cambodia, Nov 5 2014 (IPS)

The transition to puberty can be an awkward experience for youth to navigate. In Cambodia, sex education is moving increasingly into the virtual realm, with the Internet and mobile phones providing welcome spaces for young people to learn, seek help and stay safe.

Cambodia is classified as one of the world’s Least Developed Countries (LDCs), with 20 percent of the population living below the poverty line, while another 20 percent are just 0.30 dollars a day above the poverty line, according to the World Food Programme (WFP).

Illiteracy has been linked with poverty and only 74 percent of rural communities are literate. Cambodia has been heavily influenced by the NGO culture, which has helped bring about some improvements, yet when it comes to sexual and reproductive health and rights (SRHR), these organisations have tended to focus on addressing poor maternal health or at-risk groups, such as entertainment workers.

"This is the difficulty that we experience [in Cambodia: making people aware that counseling is a way of providing emotional support and empowerment as well as exploring options without judgment or assumption.” -- Sean Sok Phay, executive director of Child Helpline Cambodia
Youth, on the other hand, particularly those from poorer families and in rural areas, have not received much attention, particularly those who engage in romantic relationships outside of marriage.

Now, a wave of online learning is filling crucial gaps in the knowledge system.

One such initiative is a major E-learning platform being rolled out with support from the ministry of education, youth and sport (MoEYS), aimed at improving young people’s access to vital information.

“NGOs focus on the population in general, birth spacing, maternal health, but not sweetheart relationships that youth have,” Kuth Sovanno, administrative officer in the school health department of the MoEYS said recently to a roomful of teachers at Koh Kong High School during the launch of the E-learning initiative.

It is being piloted in 24 secondary schools in the provinces of Bantey Meanchey, Battambong, Pursat, Kampong Chhnang, Takeo, Kampot, Koh Kong and Sihanoukville (Kampong Som province) and Phnom Penh. At present, the plan is to expand the programme to reach 100 schools.

Sovanno tells IPS that tapping into social media is a way to get the information out to youth who flock to Facebook to socialise. Youth are beginning to see online access as an important source of information, so the MoEYS maintains an up-to-date website, which is not always the case with the other ministries.

Cambodia’s mobile phone sales have mushroomed, resulting in an estimated 134-percent mobile phone penetration, with cell phones being cheaper than land lines, while social media – accessed through Internet cafes and mobile devices – was believed to have played a major role in the 2013 elections.

In this same way, youth are breaking away from traditional restrictions on sexual and reproductive health education, says Srun Srorn, advisor to One World UK, partnering with the MoEYS to launch the E-learning programme.

Srorn is an activist who uses social media to reach marginalised youth, including the LGBT community, drug users, sex workers and migrant workers. His volunteer-led organisation, CamASEAN, reaches 2,000 members through social media.

Chheon Rachana, a 28-year-old female activist for LGBT issues who teaches about sexual orientation, gender identity and expression for Rainbow Community Kampuchea (RoCK) and CamASEAN, tells IPS that many girls do not talk to their parents or female teachers for advice on seemingly basic topics like menstruation; instead, most reach out to friends.

While some schools make use of NGO support to supply poor rural students with feminine products at school, many girls continue to face challenges in acquiring the most essential products and services.

“Poor girls ask for money from their parents or from someone close to them in their family,” explains Rachana. She herself did not tell her parents when she started menstruating, but had a sympathetic relative help buy her monthly feminine products.

Things become even more challenging for teens learning about safer sex, abortions and sexual orientation.

“The traditional Cambodian style of reproductive and sexual health education means that most youth have to find out by themselves by book, [and] share [this information] with their friends because they don’t learn this at school,” Rachana says.

She thinkx the Internet is changing this, though she maintains the importance of accurate information – something that is not always possible given the very nature of the Web.

NGOs such as the Reproductive Health Association of Cambodia (RHAC), which also supports the E-learning initiative, trains peer educators to provide accurate information and emotional support in several provinces but adolescents without access to this especially benefit from mobile, SMS and online counseling.

Sean Sok Phay, executive director of Child Helpline Cambodia, which, along with Inthanou, provides counselors for the new website www.youthchhlat.org, tells IPS, “Online and phone counseling is a new concept in Cambodia. Many people often refer [to] counseling as giving advice or instructing people to do certain thing. This is the difficulty that we experience: making people aware that counseling is a way of providing emotional support and empowerment as well as exploring options without judgment or assumption.”

He describes the service as “pro-poor” and especially helpful for youth in rural areas, as one-on-one counseling can be expensive, while this service is free. The use of mobile phones allows for privacy to talk about these topics either online, by calling or through SMS.

The MoEYS recently published a life skills book for youth that tackles changes in adolescents’ bodies, but also social issues such as drug use and learning about sexually transmitted infections (STIs), which is paired with the E-learning project that has its own curriculum as well.

“Each student has time at the computer already so it will be easier because they are shy to learn [about sexual reproductive health],” Theary, a high school teacher who has taught grades 7-9 at Koh Kong High for the past seven years, tells IPS.

Computer labs, such as the one in Koh Kong High School, will introduce the website’s lessons to students offline first because of the school’s slow Internet connection but they can also access the lessons online at Internet cafes or through mobile phones.

The new website was launched in March of this year.

“Many youth have sex before marriage now, compared to traditional times,” adds Srorn of One World UK, who trains teachers on how to use the E-learning platform.

“Girls already learn by themselves and use porn videos for this. Internet cafes are not expensive, just 1000 riels [0.24 dollars] an hour so poor girls can learn this way. Males use karaoke bars, beer gardens, massage parlors.”

Koh Kong town, situated close to the Thai border, has many massage parlors and some casinos.

“Middle-class and [upper]-class girls can walk or take a moto bike along the riverside in cities [to meet potential sex partners], while high-class girls go to hip-hop clubs where they can meet a guy. But youth also use the Internet for this. They can use Skype, Facebook messenger and phone sex to hook up.”

Chheon agrees that meeting girlfriends and boyfriends online is common these days. But she says it is important that they meet in public places first and not away from other people for safety reasons.

According to a 2013 U.N. report, 20 percent of men in Cambodia said they had forced a woman to have sex, half of whom claimed to have done so as a teenager.

For those surviving an assault, phone and online counseling can be a lifesaver.

“A girl in a village [who has] been raped … will not only face discrimination, she will have a very difficult time in terms of trauma, stress, and feelings of suicide. Phone counseling, online and text message counseling is playing a role to create the means or opportunity for such a community,” points out Sok Phay from the Child Helpline.

But perhaps what is most urgently needed is information about practicing safer sex.

Monyl Loun, executive director of Inthanou, the other counseling service supporting the project, tells IPS that while love and relationships are “natural” at the age of puberty, the important thing is to learn about the “responsibilities of love, and information to prevent … unintended pregnancy, HIVs and STIs.”

Karaoke videos that play on televisions in buses and even the simplest cafes show romantic partners ending their lives over relationship problems.

“KTV songs and dances are about love, broken hearts and marriage,” explains Srun, adding that most music videos depict couples killing or hurting themselves as a solution to their problems.

But counselors working round the clock in Cambodia hope the new technology-savvy mode of sex education will remind youth that love does not have to end in tragedy.

Edited by Kanya D’Almeida

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Inside Pakistan’s Untapped Fishing Industryhttp://www.ipsnews.net/2014/11/inside-pakistans-untapped-fishing-industry/?utm_source=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_campaign=inside-pakistans-untapped-fishing-industry http://www.ipsnews.net/2014/11/inside-pakistans-untapped-fishing-industry/#comments Tue, 04 Nov 2014 10:40:41 +0000 Zofeen Ebrahim http://www.ipsnews.net/?p=137573 According to the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF)-Pakistan, nearly 400 million gallons per day of untreated waste from Karachi goes into the sea, making a fisherman’s job an extremely dirty one. Credit: Zofeen Ebrahim/IPS

According to the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF)-Pakistan, nearly 400 million gallons per day of untreated waste from Karachi goes into the sea, making a fisherman’s job an extremely dirty one. Credit: Zofeen Ebrahim/IPS

By Zofeen Ebrahim
KARACHI, Nov 4 2014 (IPS)

If you want to know what ‘sea traffic’ looks like, just go down to the Karachi Harbour. Built in 1959, the dockyard houses close to 2,000 big and small boats anchored in the grey sludge at the edge of Pakistan’s southern port city, which opens into the Arabian Sea.

Life on the jetty, an all-male domain, is anything but dull. The air is thick with the smell of fish. With anywhere from 100,000 to 150,000 men working here on a given day, mornings are crowded and noisy with vendors auctioning and buyers inspecting the catch.

Loading and unloading of goods continues uninterrupted well into the afternoon; boats are being geared up for the voyage – rations are inspected, fuel, water and ice are stocked, last minute checks of the nets, the ropes and the engines are underway.

Fishermen operating off the Karachi Harbour in southern Pakistan can earn up to 15,000 rupees (about 145 dollars) per month, but their income is dependent on their catch. As a result, many fisher families live in poverty. Credit: Zofeen Ebrahim/IPS

Fishermen operating off the Karachi Harbour in southern Pakistan can earn up to 15,000 rupees (about 145 dollars) per month, but their income is dependent on their catch. As a result, many fisher families live in poverty. Credit: Zofeen Ebrahim/IPS

At one end of the harbour, mammoth-sized wooden arks lie in various stages of completion. Close by, fishing nets are being newly woven or repaired. A medium-sized boat (45 to 55 feet in length) carries anywhere from 20 to 25 fisherman; they go deep into the sea for a maximum of a month.

The income fluctuates – if the catch is good each fisherman can earn as much as 15,000 rupees (about 145 dollars) that month, but there is no fixed salary. These men only get a percentage based on their haul. There is a ban imposed by the government during the months of June and July because it is the best season for prawns, the mainstay of the fishery industry here in Pakistan.

Every day some 2,000 boats jostle for space in the murky waters of one of Pakistan’s oldest harbours. Credit: Zofeen Ebrahim/IPS

Every day some 2,000 boats jostle for space in the murky waters of one of Pakistan’s oldest harbours. Credit: Zofeen Ebrahim/IPS

The Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) covers an area of about 240,000 sq km and the maritime zone of Pakistan, including the continental shelf, extends up to 350 nautical miles from the coastline.

Thus the country has the potential to become a major producer of seafood, not only for local consumption but for the global market as well. Currently, nearly 400,000 people are directly engaged in fishing in Pakistan and another 600,000 in the ancillary industries.

A fisherman walks in front of one of the many half-constructed wooden arks that lie strewn about the Karachi harbour. Credit: Zofeen Ebrahim/IPS

A fisherman walks in front of one of the many half-constructed wooden arks that lie strewn about the Karachi harbour. Credit: Zofeen Ebrahim/IPS

However, an industry that can earn valuable foreign exchange and create a huge job market contributes a dismal one percent to Pakistan’s GDP, with annual exports touching just 367 million dollars in 2013-2014, primarily to countries like China, the United Arab Emirates (UAE), Thailand, Saudi Arabia, Malaysia, Indonesia and Korea.

The average annual catch is almost 600,000 metric tons of more than 200 commercially important fish and shellfish species, found in and around the Karachi Harbour.

Illegal nets made of fine mesh end up trapping small, commercially unviable fish in massive quantities. Between 70 and 100 trucks, each loaded with 10,000 kg of trash fish, leave Karachi’s harbour each day. Credit: Zofeen Ebrahim/IPS

Illegal nets made of fine mesh end up trapping small, commercially unviable fish in massive quantities. Between 70 and 100 trucks, each loaded with 10,000 kg of trash fish, leave Karachi’s harbour each day. Credit: Zofeen Ebrahim/IPS

“This includes the catch from other harbours, even from Balochistan [located on the south-western coast], all of which comes here to be sold inland or exported,” says Sagheer Ahmed, spokesperson for the Karachi Fisheries Harbour Authority (KFHA).

One way to increase the role of fisheries in national GDP, says Muhammad Moazzam Khan, ex-director general of the Marine Fisheries Department, is to put a stop to over-exploitation of fish stocks.

The harbour is an all-male domain. Anywhere from 100,000 to 150,000 men work here on any given day. Credit: Zofeen Ebrahim/IPS

The harbour is an all-male domain. Anywhere from 100,000 to 150,000 men work here on any given day. Credit: Zofeen Ebrahim/IPS

What was once an indigenous occupation, small fishermen say, has turned into a greedy enterprise, resulting in overharvesting of marine resources.

Kamal Shah, spokesperson for the Pakistan Fisherfolk Forum, a non-governmental organisation working for the rights of the local fishing community, says, “The indigenous people know how to recharge the marine life; they respect nature and follow the principles of sustainable livelihood, which seems lost on those who want to get rich quick.”

Before heading out to sea, fishermen gather in groups to see to the final details of their voyage: stocking up on food, checking the engines and repairing their nets. Credit: Zofeen Ebrahim/IPS

Before heading out to sea, fishermen gather in groups to see to the final details of their voyage: stocking up on food, checking the engines and repairing their nets. Credit: Zofeen Ebrahim/IPS

Khan, currently a technical advisor to the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF)-Pakistan, worries about extinction of several marine species. He lamented the depletion of shrimp, lobster, croaker, shark and stingrays due to over-exploitation.

“Recovery of these resources is very slow and even if these fisheries are closed down, it would still take decades to restore their stock,” he says.

Nearly 400,000 people are directly engaged in fishing in Pakistan and another 600,000 are involved in the ancillary industries according to the Karachi Fisheries Harbour Authority (KFHA). Credit: Zofeen Ebrahim/IPS

Nearly 400,000 people are directly engaged in fishing in Pakistan and another 600,000 are involved in the ancillary industries according to the Karachi Fisheries Harbour Authority (KFHA). Credit: Zofeen Ebrahim/IPS

Activists, like Shah, say a major problem is the use of illegal (fine mesh) nets that end up catching juvenile fish as opposed to the government-approved nets for deep sea and creek fishing.

These illegal nets literally sieve undersized fish that are economically not viable, but nevertheless important for keeping the marine ecosystem balanced.

Ahmed of the KFHA says Pakistan exported 50 million dollars worth of “trash fish” in the last financial year. “As many as 70 to 100 trucks each loaded with 10,000 kg of trash fish leave the KFHA every day,” he explains.

The WWF-Pakistan is worried about the extinction of several marine species. Experts are particularly concerned about the depletion of shrimp, lobster, croaker, shark and stingrays due to over-exploitation. Credit: Zofeen Ebrahim/IPS

The WWF-Pakistan is worried about the extinction of several marine species. Experts are particularly concerned about the depletion of shrimp, lobster, croaker, shark and stingrays due to over-exploitation. Credit: Zofeen Ebrahim/IPS

Shah also blames the “industrial waste from factories and organic waste from the cattle colony” that goes untreated into the sea. According to the WWF-Pakistan, nearly 400 million gallons per day of untreated waste from Karachi goes into the sea.

But there is some good news for Pakistan’s fishing industry.

After blocking fish exports for six years, last year the European Union (EU) de-listed two of the more than 50 Pakistani companies and this year it is hoped another five will get the green signal. “More than 20 percent of the fish export went to the EU,” according to KFHA’s Ahmed.

Male children are roped into their father's occupation very early in life, when they are taken onboard the ships as helpers. Few fisher families send their kids to school. Credit: Zofeen Ebrahim/IPS

Male children are roped into their father’s occupation very early in life, when they are taken onboard the ships as helpers. Few fisher families send their kids to school. Credit: Zofeen Ebrahim/IPS

An ineffective cold chain and low standards in traceability (tracking the supplier, date and time of transactions) were identified as major issues.

“Boats did not meet the specifications. Often the wooden floor and the wooden containers where catch was stored did not meet the hygiene standards, machines used to haul the net often leaked oil on the floor and the fish hold was found to be rusty,” Ahmed says.

Today nearly 1,000 boats have been modified. Fiberglass cladding in the fish-holds and the increased use of plastic crates have replaced wooden containers. This has also helped maintain the temperature required to keep the catch fresh.

The fishermen perform multiple tasks on the boat. This man makes fresh rotis (flat bread) from whole-meal flour, which the men eat with the fish they catch.  Credit: Zofeen Ebrahim/IPS

The fishermen perform multiple tasks on the boat. This man makes fresh rotis (flat bread) from whole-meal flour, which the men eat with the fish they catch. Credit: Zofeen Ebrahim/IPS

In addition, processing and packaging factories have started tracking the catch to adhere to the EU’s condition of traceability of the catch.

While Pakistan is slowly reclaiming the EU market and has found its foothold in newer ones, it has a long way to go before establishing itself as a world-class fisheries hub.

Perhaps most importantly it will have to tackle increasing pollution that has decimated some of the most important fishing grounds along the Karachi coast. Similarly, it will have to combat the kind of environmental degradation caused by land reclamation and mangrove denudation, both of which reduce natural levels of productivity along the coast, especially in the Sindh province.

Edited by Kanya D’Almeida

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Kyrgyzstan’s Teachers Quitting to Take Better Paying, Unskilled Jobshttp://www.ipsnews.net/2014/11/kyrgyzstans-teachers-quitting-to-take-better-paying-unskilled-jobs/?utm_source=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_campaign=kyrgyzstans-teachers-quitting-to-take-better-paying-unskilled-jobs http://www.ipsnews.net/2014/11/kyrgyzstans-teachers-quitting-to-take-better-paying-unskilled-jobs/#comments Mon, 03 Nov 2014 15:04:07 +0000 an EurasiaNet correspondent http://www.ipsnews.net/?p=137547 Students play basketball outside a school in Barskoon, eastern Kyrgyzstan, in February 2013. Average teacher wages of less than 100 dollars is driving many teachers to quit the profession and instead take on better paying unskilled work. Credit: David Trilling/EurasiaNet

Students play basketball outside a school in Barskoon, eastern Kyrgyzstan, in February 2013. Average teacher wages of less than 100 dollars is driving many teachers to quit the profession and instead take on better paying unskilled work. Credit: David Trilling/EurasiaNet

By an EurasiaNet correspondent
BISHKEK, Nov 3 2014 (EurasiaNet)

Minovar Ruzieva, 38, was an English teacher in Osh until last summer. The mother of four now sells Chinese clothes at a local bazaar. Like many other teachers in Kyrgyzstan, she could not survive on her “scant salary,” so she took unskilled work to make ends meet.

“I quit working as a teacher because I was paid only 3,800 soms [68 dollars] per month,” Ruzieva told EurasiaNet.org, pointing out that a kilo of beef would cost 10 percent of her salary. “That salary is enough to buy one nice dress. I managed to tolerate such miserable pay thanks to my husband’s earnings, which support our family. But I am sure a single mother with a child or two would not be able to survive on such a salary.”If in the Soviet heyday schools had their pick among highly qualified teachers, “now we are forced to take anyone who comes, anyone available, regardless of their skills.” -- Oksana Kiseleva

Dismal pay, combined with low social status, is driving younger teachers to leave the profession. In addition, some older teachers who were trained during the Soviet era are retiring, and they are not being replaced. As they go, the quality of public education is plunging, especially outside of Bishkek, leaving a generation of Kyrgyz graduates lacking the skills needed to find well-paying jobs.

“We have 20-to-25-year-olds who cannot even correctly write their names!” said Gaisha Ibragimova, president of the Association of Educational Institutions in Kyrgyzstan, a Bishkek-based lobby group.

Lawmaker Kanybek Osmonaliev, chairman of parliament’s Education, Science, Culture and Sports Committee, says there are about 80,000 schoolteachers in the country, a shortage of at least 2,500.

“The main reason for the shortage of teachers is the low salaries,” Osmonaliev, a former physics teacher, told EurasiaNet.org. “Nowadays teachers get on average 5,500 soms [99 dollars] per month. We need to raise their salaries by at least 30 percent.”

That would cost the state budget 3.5 billion soms, approximately 63 million dollars, Osmonaliev calculates, noting that the impoverished government cannot afford the increase.

On Oct. 15, at a parliamentary hearing where lawmakers discussed teachers’ salaries, they failed to take action. After a heated debate, including threats to dismiss the entire Education Ministry staff, Erkin Sakebayev from the president’s governing Social Democratic Party concluded “there is no need to take a decision because the government will not fulfill it due to the lack of funds.”

Oksana Kiseleva, an administrator at the Olympus School, a public school in Osh, said the shortage of teachers is a “very serious problem.” If in the Soviet heyday schools had their pick among highly qualified teachers, “now we are forced to take anyone who comes, anyone available, regardless of their skills.”

Because of the low salaries, schools across the country lack teachers of geography, mathematics, biology and the Russian language, Kiseleva told EurasiaNet.org.

“Today many teachers work at local bazaars, and basically it is only pensioners who work at schools. A very large percentage of retired teachers still teach,” Kiseleva said. “First of all, they work because their pensions are small, but also because school administrators manage to persuade [teachers to postpone retirement] because we do not have enough.”

The teacher shortage is just one of the causes of the collapse of Kyrgyzstan’s education system. Schools are also crowded and poorly maintained. “Most children do not have textbooks,” the International Crisis Group (ICG) wrote in 2011. The curriculum is “outdated and overloaded […] irrelevant and incoherent.”

Corruption is also a problem, and not just with teachers frequently demanding informal payments from parents or requiring high school students to pay for good grades. Under the former president, Kurmanbek Bakiyev, a state tender for printing textbooks was handed to a company with ties to his son, Maxim, according to the ICG report. The price of textbooks rose, money disappeared, and when the ruling Bakiyev family was chased from the country in 2010, few of the textbooks had reached classrooms.

Local politicians look to foreign donors to fix the problems and are reluctant to accept responsibility, or even acknowledge shortcomings in the system. In 2005 and 2009, Kyrgyzstan scored last in the OECD’s Program for International Student Assessment exam, or PISA; over 80 percent of Kyrgyz 15-year-olds did not meet minimum expectations in literacy, mathematics and science. Rather than strive to make improvements, Kyrgyzstan simply stopped offering the exam.

But for many, the teacher shortage is the most visible problem.

A spokesman at the Ministry of Education and Science, Amantur Akmatov, maintained the ministry is succeeding in filling the teacher shortage, cutting it in half overall the last year, bringing the deficit to 1,200 teachers. But he deferred questions about how the salary gap was funded to the Finance Ministry.

Experts do not trust the Education Ministry’s numbers. Ibragimova, the educational association chief, asserted that Kyrgyzstan lacks 3,000 teachers, especially in science and the Russian language, which is critical since so many Kyrgyzstanis join the migrant exodus to Russia in search of work.

These days people “believe that only the biggest losers, people unable to do anything else with their lives, become teachers, and they think it is a shameful and disgraceful profession,” Ibragimova said.

This story originally appeared on EurasiaNet.org.

Edited by Kitty Stapp

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Lacklustre Early Warning System Brings Tragedy to a Languid Mountainsidehttp://www.ipsnews.net/2014/11/lacklustre-early-warning-system-brings-tragedy-to-a-languid-mountainside/?utm_source=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_campaign=lacklustre-early-warning-system-brings-tragedy-to-a-languid-mountainside http://www.ipsnews.net/2014/11/lacklustre-early-warning-system-brings-tragedy-to-a-languid-mountainside/#comments Sun, 02 Nov 2014 17:25:09 +0000 Amantha Perera http://www.ipsnews.net/?p=137531 Villagers climb through the rubble looking for survivors soon after the Oct. 29 landslide in south-central Sri Lanka Credit: Contributor/IPS

Villagers climb through the rubble looking for survivors soon after the Oct. 29 landslide in south-central Sri Lanka Credit: Contributor/IPS

By Amantha Perera
COLOMBO, Nov 2 2014 (IPS)

When early warning systems fail, death comes quickly to unsuspecting victims of natural disasters. It is a reality that millions of Sri Lankans have experienced repeatedly in the last decade, and yet those responsible for preventing human fatalities continue to make the same mistakes.

The latest such tragedy – a result of ignorance and indifference to imminent danger – struck on the morning of Oct. 29, on the Meeriyabedda tea estate in Koslanda, a hilly region about 220 km east of the capital, Colombo.

After persistent rains, a two-km stretch of hillside caved in early morning, burying an estimated 66 small houses belonging to estate workers under some 30 feet of mud.

An initial situation report by the World Health Organisation (WHO) suggested there had been roughly 300 occupants in these homes; some had been away at work, and most of the children were in school when the disaster occurred.

Four days later four bodies had been recovered and 34 were listed as missing, a figure that was revised from an initial estimate of 100. Over 1,800 have been displaced and most of them may never return to their homes again.

“The real tragedy is there was ample time to move out, warnings telling [villagers] to do so and places that they could move into." -- Indu Abeyratne, manager of the early warning systems of Sri Lanka Red Cross Society (SLRCS)
But the land did not come barreling down the mountainside without a warning. In fact there had been warnings that these houses were a death trap almost a decade ago.

In 2005, the National Building Research Organisation (NBRO) carried out a survey of the area and made its first warning call.

“We found that the land on which the houses were standing was not stable and prone to landslides and our recommendation was relocation,” N K R Seneviratne, NBRO’s geologist for the south-central Badulla District, who headed the survey, told IPS.

In fact some officials at the landslide site said that the 66 houses that had been completely buried by the earth were clearly identified as those most in danger.

Six years later a similar survey was carried out and the recommendations were the same. Small landslides prompted the surveys. In both instances, Seneviratne said, recommendations were conveyed to villagers as well as public officials, who failed to take action on relocation.

Just before this most recent landslide, which occurred around 7.10 in the morning, Seneviratne said that his office had sent a warning to the Haldummulla Divisional Secretariat, the local public authority. Though some villagers were also made aware of the risks, most decided to stay put.

“There were warnings, but all that systematic dissemination process ended once it reached the Divisional Secretariat level; after that, at best, it was ad hoc, at worst nothing seems to have happened,” Indu Abeyratne, manager of the early warning systems of the Sri Lanka Red Cross Society (SLRCS), which is now coordinating relief efforts at the site, told IPS.

The villagers themselves missed the signs. In 2009, the Disaster Management Center (DMC), the main government agency overseeing early warnings and disaster assistance, together with the NBRO and the Red Cross, conducted a major community awareness programme in the Koslanda area.

Local villagers were advised to form community groups to act as watchdogs, scanning for imminent signs of danger and preparing evacuations plans. Megaphones were distributed, which villagers could use to gather crowds in an emergency, while the Meeriyabedda tea estate was also given a simple rain gauge to keep track of the levels of precipitation.

The NBRO has its own rain monitor at a school nearby and it was reading that at least 125 mm of rain had fallen overnight by the morning of Oct. 29. If anyone on the estate has been monitoring the village rain gauge, it should have been clear that the soil below was getting too soggy for anyone’s comfort.

But no one was watching the red flags, and when the earth collapsed in on itself with a loud boom, many were caught unawares.

“The real tragedy is there was ample time to move out, warnings telling them to do so and places that they could move into,” SLRCS’s Abeyratne said.

Gaps in early warning

Why did so many stay put in such eminent danger? That is the gnawing question that many assisting the relief effort are now trying to answer.

Gaps in the early warning mechanism have been identified since the disaster.

The main culprit seems to be the lack of an apex authority in control of local warnings, dissemination, evacuations and the absence of a rehearsed evacuation plan, despite the very real danger of landslides in the area.

Shanthi Jayasekera, the head of the Haldumulla Divisional Secretariat, told reporters that even though warnings had been issued there were no clear instructions on evacuations.

In other parts of Sri Lanka, especially along the coast devastated by the 2004 Asia tsunami, there are rehearsed and tested evacuation and early warning plans.

There are DMC units stationed at each of the country’s 25 districts, spread across its nine provinces, tasked with local coordination of such efforts, while the police and armed forces are used to disseminate warnings and handle mass evacuations.

The last such evacuation took place two-and-a-half years back in April 2012 when over a million left their homes along the coast after a tsunami warning.

Evacuation drills and rehearsals are carried out by the DMC every three months, but none seemed to have covered the Meeriyabedda area.

Less than ten days before the landslide, on Oct. 23, the DMC carried out landslide evacuations drills in six districts including Badulla, but unfortunately Meeriyabedda was not among those chosen.

“There was no such plan here, no one knew where to move out to and how to do it; [most] importantly there was no one, no authority, that was taking the lead,” Sarath Lal Kumara, DMC’s spokesperson, told IPS.

“What we should have had is a government agency-led early warning dissemination plan and an evacuation map,” he said.

Such systems do exist elsewhere in the country. According to Abeyratne, SLRCS’s trained volunteer groups work alongside the DMC and local public bodies, as well as the police and armed forces, during emergencies.

“It is a complex system, but it is a system that has been tested [in] real time here [in Sri Lanka] and has worked,” he said. In fact, SLRCS volunteers were among the first to reach the landslide-affected area this past Wednesday.

Perhaps one of the biggest gaps in the disaster management plan for the area was the failure to take into account the socio-economic conditions of those living in landslide-prone areas.

DMC’s Kumara told IPS said that most of the residents and victims were poor workers earning meager wages at nearby tea plantations.

Seneviratne added that the plantation workers are of Indian origin, descendents of those brought by British colonialists to work on the estates about 200 years ago.

The homes that were destroyed were not really houses, but one-room blocks, a dozen to a row, popularly known as ‘line houses’.

The majority of estate residents have lived this way for generations, earning a living by picking tea, tapping rubber or stripping cinnamon. They are entirely dependent on the plantations to which they belong.

A regional plantation company, Maskeliya Plantations Limited, owns the land where the deadly landslide took place. Three days after the landslide the military had to intervene to prevent villagers from assaulting officials of the company at the landslide site.

Sri Lanka’s disaster preparedness levels have improved from a barebones structure a decade ago, when the tsunami left 35,000 dead or missing. Since then it has been a steep learning curve on how to face up to the challenges of frequent extreme weather events.

“It is a situation that needs careful evaluation, not stopgap solutions,” Seneviratne said.

“Each disaster is a lesson on what can be done better, how to save lives,” SLRCS’s Abeyratne added.

If anyone needs a stark reminder on how important these lessons can be, just look up the mountainside at Meeriyabedda – or what is left of it.

Edited by Kanya D’Almeida

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They Say the Land is ‘Uninhabited’ but Indigenous Communities Disagreehttp://www.ipsnews.net/2014/10/they-say-the-land-is-uninhabited-but-indigenous-communities-disagree/?utm_source=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_campaign=they-say-the-land-is-uninhabited-but-indigenous-communities-disagree http://www.ipsnews.net/2014/10/they-say-the-land-is-uninhabited-but-indigenous-communities-disagree/#comments Thu, 30 Oct 2014 05:10:11 +0000 Amantha Perera http://www.ipsnews.net/?p=137464 Indigenous communities that live in traditional forests likes these on the Indonesian island of Lombok are not consulted when such lands are handed over to commercial entities. Credit: Amantha Perera/IPS

Indigenous communities that live in traditional forests likes these on the Indonesian island of Lombok are not consulted when such lands are handed over to commercial entities. Credit: Amantha Perera/IPS

By Amantha Perera
COLOMBO/BALI, Oct 30 2014 (IPS)

Disregarding the rights of indigenous people to their traditional lands is costing companies millions of dollars each year, and costing communities themselves their lives.

A new paper by the Washington-based Rights and Resources Initiative (RRI) released on Oct. 30 found that a significant portion of forests and reserves in emerging markets is being allocated to commercial operations through concessions, ignoring indigenous communities who have lived on them for generations.

“The granting of concessions without the knowledge or approval of people directly affected by them is obviously a human rights issue of grave concern. But it may also have a real financial impact, and this impact concerns more than just those companies with ground-level operations,” the paper said.

“Most of the time [indigenous communities] are working without any kind of protection and taking on groups with lots of money and state support." -- Aleta Baun, 2013 winner of the Goldman Environmental Prize
It noted that indigenous communities inhabit over 99 percent of lands used by commercial entities through concessions. In some instances, large portions of national land are being divested through concessions.

The figure was 40 percent of all land extent in Peru and 30 percent in Indonesia. With Indonesia’s total land extent covering some 1.8 million square km, the portion of land under concession works out to around 500,000 sq km.

“In most cases governments feel that it is easier and simpler to work when they don’t get the indigenous communities involved,” Bryson Ogden, private sector analyst at RRI, told IPS.

But while companies and governments enter into agreements on lands as if they were not inhabited, when work begins on commercial projects it invariably collides head-on with communities who call the same land their traditional home.

The financial damage resulting from such confrontations can run into millions. A recent paper by the U.S. National Academy of Science noted that one company reported a loss of 100 million dollars during a single year, due to stoppages forced by company-community conflict. The company was not named in the report.

“An economy wide valuation of ‘environmental, social and governance risks’ across the Australian Stock Market in 2012 by Credit Suisse identified 21.4 billion Australian dollars in negative share-price valuation impact,” the paper, entitled ‘Conflict Translates Environmental and Social Risk into Business Costs’, claimed.

RRI’s Ogden said that despite such losses, the global trend still was to sideline indigenous communities when entering into concession agreements. “They remain invisible in most of these contracts.”

Such invisibility on paper can be deadly on the ground. In South Kalimantan, the Indonesian portion of the island of Borneo, serious violence erupted between police and activists during a protest that took place a fortnight ago, Mina Setra, deputy secretary general of Indonesia’s Indigenous Peoples’ Alliance of the Archipelago (AMAN), told IPS.

Such violent altercations are not rare. Earlier this year research by Global Witness, an organisation working on environmental rights, found that between 2002 and 2013 at least 903 citizens engaged in environmental protection work were killed.

During the period under review, according to the report, 41 people were killed in the Philippines because of opposition to mining interests. And in 2012 alone, 68 percent of all land-related murders in Brazil were connected to disputes over deforestation in the Amazon.

The report said that activists facing prosecution lacked local as well as international networks that were tailor-made to assist them.

“The problem we are facing is that there is still no recognition for indigenous peoples’ rights,” AMAN’s Setra said.

For almost four years AMAN and other environmental organisations lobbied the Indonesian parliament to adapt a law that would recognise the rights of indigenous communities. It was to be passed this month, when the government changed, bringing fresh officials into power.

“Now we are back to zero,” Setra said.

RRI’s Ogden said there were signs that some global companies were taking note of the rights of indigenous communities to their land, but AMAN’s Setra said that till there was legal recognition of such rights, commercial agreements were unlikely to include them.

“The companies keep asking us under what terms such communities can be recognized and we have no effective answer until there is a law,” Setra said.

For activists, working in that gray area could turn deadly.

Take the case of Aleta Baun, the Indonesian activist from West Timor, the Indonesia portion of the island of Timor, who in 2000 launched a campaign to stop mining operations that were affecting the lives of her Molo tribe members. She has been waylaid, stabbed and threatened with death and rape.

“Most of the time you are working without any kind of protection and taking on groups with lots of money and state support,” said the 2013 winner of the Goldman Environmental Prize.

In the Paracatu municipality of Brazil, the country’s largest gold mining operation run by a company called Kinross with a total investment of over 570 million dollars has been repeatedly interrupted since 2008 due to conflicts with traditional communities.

The parties signed a new agreement in 2010 that allowed operations to resume in 2011.

In Peru, two dam projects on the Ene-Tambo River have been abandoned after prolonged protests and legal action by the indigenous Ashaninka community, who claim that the projects could displace between 8,000 and 10,000 people.

In 2008 the Tata group pulled out a 350-million-dollar investment from the Indian state of West Bengal, where it intended to produce its signature Nano car, after protests by local communities.

The RRI report said that community rights to forests and other natural reserves were increasingly becoming a factor for commercial operations.

“As we have examined this problem, we have come to think of local populations as a kind of ‘unrecognized counterparty’ to concession agreements. We found that communities often used legal mechanisms to resolve their grievances with concessionaires. This suggests that local communities’ rights over an area have appreciable legal weight, even if government bodies and concessionaires haven’t attributed them much import in the terms of their agreements.”

Ogden said that more data was needed to clearly establish community rights over natural reserves.

Until then, indigenous peoples are left facing gigantic commercial entities in a David-and-Goliath scenario that shows no sign of improving in their favour.

Edited by Kanya D’Almeida

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