Inter Press Service » Special Report Turning the World Downside Up Tue, 16 Sep 2014 19:11:52 +0000 en-US hourly 1 Can Land Rights and Education Save an Ancient Indian Tribe? Tue, 19 Aug 2014 12:28:03 +0000 Manipadma Jena Bonda women in the remote Tulagurum Village in the eastern Indian state of Odisha seldom allow themselves to be photographed. Credit: Manipadma Jena/IPS

Bonda women in the remote Tulagurum Village in the eastern Indian state of Odisha seldom allow themselves to be photographed. Credit: Manipadma Jena/IPS

By Manipadma Jena
MALKANGIRI, India, Aug 19 2014 (IPS)

Scattered across 31 remote hilltop villages on a mountain range that towers 1,500 to 4,000 feet above sea level, in the Malkangiri district of India’s eastern Odisha state, the Upper Bonda people are considered one of this country’s most ancient tribes, having barely altered their lifestyle in over a thousand years.

Resistant to contact with the outside world and fiercely skeptical of modern development, this community of under 7,000 people is struggling to maintain its way of life and provide for a younger generation that is growing increasingly frustrated with poverty – 90 percent of Bonda people live on less than a dollar a day – and inter-communal violence.

“The abundant funds pouring in for the Bonda people's development need to be transparently utilised so that the various inputs work in synergy and show results." -- Dambaru Sisa, the first ever Upper Bonda to be elected into the state legislature in 2014
Recent government schemes to improve the Bonda people’s access to land titles is bringing change to the community, and opening doors to high-school education, which was hitherto difficult or impossible for many to access.

But with these changes come questions about the future of the tribe, whose overall population growth rate between 2001 and 2010 was just 7.65 percent according to two surveys conducted by the Odisha government’s Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes Research and Training Institute (SCSTRTI).

First land rights, then education

In a windowless mud hut in the Bonda Ghati, a steep-sloping mountainous region in southwest Odisha, Saniya Kirsani talks loudly and drunkenly about his plans for the acre of land that he recently acquired the title to.

The 50-year-old Bonda man has illusions of setting up a mango orchard in his native Tulagurum village, which will enable him to produce the fruity liquor that keeps him in a state of intoxication.

His wife, Hadi Kirsani, harbours far more realistic plans. For her, the land deeds mean first and foremost that their 14-year-old son, Buda Kirsani, can finally go back to school.

He dropped out after completing fifth grade in early 2013, bereft of hopes for further education because the nearest public high school in Mudulipada was unaffordable to his family.

Upper and Lower Bondas

Since the mid 20th century, many Bonda families left their original lands and settled in the foothills of Malkangiri, where they have easier access to ‘mainstream’ services such as education and employment.

Known as the Lower or Plains Bondas, they are now found in as many as 14 of Odisha’s 30 districts due to rapid out-migration.

Upper and Lower Bondas have a combined total population of 12,231, registering a growth rate of 30.42 percent between 2001 and 2011 according to census data, compared to a low 7.65-percent growth rate among the Upper Bondas who remain on their ancestral lands.

The sex ratio among Upper Bonda people is even more skewed than in other tribal groups, with the female population outweighing males by 16 percent.

A 2009 baseline survey in Tulagurum village among the age group 0-six years found 18 girls and only three boys.

SCSTRTI’s 2010 survey of 30 Upper Bonda villages found 3,092 men and 3,584 women.

The Upper Bonda are one of 75 tribes designated as a Particularly Vulnerable Tribal Group (PTG) in India, including 13 in Odisha state alone.
Moreover, he would have had to walk 12 km, crossing hill ranges and navigating steep terrain, to get to his classroom every day.

Admission to the local tribal resident school, also located in Mudulipada, required a land ownership document that would certify the family’s tribal status, which they did not possess.

The Kirsani family had been left out of a wave of reforms in 2010 under the Forest Rights Act, which granted 1,248 Upper Bonda families land titles but left 532 households landless.

Last October, with the help of Landesa, a global non-profit organisation working on land rights for the poor, Buda’s family finally extracted the deed to their land from the Odisha government.

Carefully placing Buda’s only two sets of worn clothes into a bag, Hadi struggles to hold back the tears welling up in her eyes as she tells IPS that her son is now one of 31 children from the 44-household village who, for the first time ever, has the ability to study beyond primarily school.

She is not alone in her desire to educate her child. Literacy among Upper Bonda men is a miserable 12 percent, while female literacy is only six percent, according to a 2010 SCSTRTI baseline survey, compared to India’s national male literacy rate of 74 percent and female literacy of 65 percent.

For centuries, the ability to read and write was not a skill the Bonda people sought. Their ancient Remo language has no accompanying script and is passed down orally.

As hunters and foragers, the community has subsisted for many generations entirely off the surrounding forests, bartering goods like millet, bamboo shoots, mushrooms, yams, fruits, berries and wild spinach in local markets.

Up until very recently, most Upper Bondas wove and bartered their own cloth made from a plant called ‘kereng’, in addition to producing their own brooms from wild grass. Thus they had little need to enter mainstream society.

But a wave of deforestation has degraded their land and the streams on which they depend for irrigation. Erratic rainfall over the last decade has affected crop yields, and the forest department’s refusal to allow them to practice their traditional ‘slash and burn’ cultivation has made it difficult for the community to feed itself as it has done for hundreds of years.

Mainstreaming: helping or hurting the community?

Since 1976, with the establishment of the Bonda Development Agency, efforts have been made to bring the Upper Bonda people into the mainstream, providing education, better sanitation and drinking water facilities, and land rights.

“Land ownership enables them to stand on their own feet for the purpose of livelihood, and empowers them, as their economy is predominantly limited to the land and forests,” states India’s National Commission for Scheduled Tribes (NCST), a key policy advisory body.

Efforts to mainstream the Bonda people suffered a setback in the late 1990s, when left-wing extremists deepened the community’s exclusion and poverty by turning the Bonda mountain range into an important operating base along India’s so-called ‘Red Corridor’, which stretches across nine states in the country’s central and eastern regions and is allegedly rife with Maoist rebels.

Still, Odisha’s tribal development minister Lal Bihari Himirika is confident that new schemes to uplift the community will bear fruit.

“Upon completion, the ‘5000-hostel scheme’ will provide half a million tribal boys and girls education and mainstreaming,” he told IPS on the sidelines of the launch of Plan International’s ‘Because I Am A Girl’ campaign in Odisha’s capital, Bhubaneswar, last year.

The state’s 9.6 million tribal people constitute almost a fourth of its total population. Of these tribal groups, the Upper Bonda people are a key concern for the government and have been named a Particularly Vulnerable Tribal Group (PTG) as a result of their low literacy rates, declining population and practice of pre-agricultural farming.

Social activists like 34-year-old Dambaru Sisa, the first ever Upper Bonda to be elected into the state legislature in 2014, believe mainstreaming the Bonda community is crucial for the entire group’s survival.

Orphaned as a child and educated at a Christian missionary school in Malkangiri, Sisa now holds a double Masters’ degree in mathematics and law, and is concerned about his people’s future.

“Our cultural identity, especially our unique Remo dialect, must be preserved,” he told IPS. “At the same time, with increased awareness, [the] customs and superstitions harming our people will slowly be eradicated.”

He cited the Upper Bonda people’s customary marriages – with women generally marrying boys who are roughly ten years younger – as one of the practices harming his community.

In customary marriages, Bonda women marry boys who are seven to 10 years their junior. Typically, a 22-year-old woman will be wed to a 15-year-old boy. Credit: Manipadma Jena/IPS

In customary marriages, Bonda women marry boys who are seven to 10 years their junior. Typically, a 22-year-old woman will be wed to a 15-year-old boy. Credit: Manipadma Jena/IPS

Women traditionally manage the household, while men and boys are responsible for hunting and gathering food. To do so, they are trained in archery but possession of weapons often leads to brawls within the community itself as a result of Bonda men’s quick tempers, their penchant for alcohol and fierce protection of their wives.

A decade ago, an average of four men were killed by their own sons or nephews, usually in fights over their wives, according to Manoranjan Mahakul, a government official with the Odisha Tribal Empowerment & Livelihood Programme (OTELP), who has worked here for over 20 years.

Even now, several Bonda men are in prison for murder, Mahakul told IPS, though lenient laws allow for their early release after three years.

“High infant mortality, alcoholism and unsanitary living conditions, in close proximity to pigs and poultry, combined with a lack of nutritional food, superstitions about diseases and lack of medical facilities are taking their toll,” Sukra Kirsani, Landesa’s community resource person in Tulagurum village, told IPS.

The tribe’s drinking water is sourced from streams originating in the hills. All families practice open defecation, usually close to the streams, which results in diarrhoea epidemics during the monsoon seasons.

Despite a glaring need for change, experts say it will not come easy.

“Getting Bonda children to high school is half the battle won,” Sisa stated. “However, there are question marks on the quality of education in residential schools. While the list of enrolled students is long, in actuality many are not in the hostels. Some run away to work in roadside eateries or are back home,” he added.

The problem, Sisa says, is that instead of being taught in their mother tongue, students are forced to study in the Odia language or a more mainstream local tribal dialect, which none of them understand.

The government has responded to this by showing a willingness to lower the required qualifications for teachers in order to attract Bondas teachers to the classrooms.

Still, more will have to be done to ensure the even development of this dwindling tribe.

“The abundant funds pouring in for Bondas’ development need to be transparently utilised so that the various inputs work in synergy and show results,” Sisa concluded.

Edited by Kanya D’Almeida

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What’s More Important, the War on AIDS or Just War? Wed, 13 Aug 2014 07:20:13 +0000 Kanya DAlmeida and Mercedes Sayagues The budgets of many African countries reflect greater interest in arms deals than in managing the deadly HIV epidemic. Credit: Thomas Martinez/IPS

The budgets of many African countries reflect greater interest in arms deals than in managing the deadly HIV epidemic. Credit: Thomas Martinez/IPS

By Kanya D'Almeida and Mercedes Sayagues

They say there is a war on and its target is the deadly human immunodeficiency virus (HIV).   

This war runs worldwide but its main battleground is sub-Saharan Africa, where seven out of 10 HIV positive persons in the world live – 24.7 million in 2013. The region suffered up to 1.3 million AIDS-related deaths in the same year, according to the United Nations.

A ragtag army is fighting the war on AIDS. Sometimes it is comprised of well-dressed aid officials sitting in conference rooms allocating funds. At other times, it deploys shabby foot soldiers – community healthcare workers and AIDS activists – into desolate rural areas with no running water, let alone antiretroviral therapy.

With many competing health problems, funding for AIDS is a growing concern. Yet a look at the defence of budgets of several countries plagued by HIV portrays a startling picture of governments’ priorities, with huge military expenditures belying the argument that the key obstacle to winning the war against AIDS is money.

Nigeria's Military Budget Dwarfs AIDS Budget
With an HIV prevalence of three percent, Nigeria has the second largest number of people living with HIV in Africa – 3.4 million in 2012, according to UNAIDS.

Government’s response to the epidemic picked up last year but is still woefully inadequate. Many people are not accessing the treatment and care services they need, or at a steep price. Out of pocket expenditure for HIV and AIDS services accounts for 14 percent of household income, according to the United Nations Children’s Fund.
Nigeria has US$600 million for AIDS until 2015, with donors shelling out 75 percent. This is an improvement: government provided only seven percent of total AIDS funding in 2010, compared to 25 percent now.
This year, the government is expected to allocate 373 million dollars to HIV programmes and 470 million in 2015, to meet the target of contributing half of AIDS financing needs.
But it remains to be seen if this will be done. Nigeria has many competing health priorities, and the recent Ebola fever outbreak will require extra funding and urgency.
Meanwhile, the proposed defence budget for 2014 awarded 830 million dollars to the Nigerian army, 440 million to its navy, and 460 million dollars to the air force.
In total, the country has allocated 2.1 billion dollars to defence this year, according to the Nigerian Budget Office.
This includes 32 million dollars for two offshore patrol vessels purchased from China, and 11.2 million dollars for the procurement of six Mi-35M attack helicopters, according to DefenceWeb.

And, as the 2015 deadline for the United Nations Millennium Development Goals looms large – with donor countries tightening their purse strings – health experts worry about financing for HIV prevention and AIDS treatment after 2015.

New funding for AIDS in low- and middle-incoming countries fell three percent from 2012 to 8.1 billion dollars in 2013, says a joint report by the Kaiser Family Foundation and the Joint United Nations Programme on HIV/AIDS (UNAIDS) released in June.

Five of the 14 major donor governments – the U.S., Canada, Italy, Japan and the Netherlands – decreased AIDS spending last year.

And yet, while governments claim to be too cash-strapped to fight the AIDS war, funding for other wars seems much more forthcoming.

Spending on arms and on AIDS

Africa will need to do more with less to manage AIDS, concludes a 2013 UNAIDS report entitled Smart Investments.

In Kenya, a funding shortfall is expected soon, since the World Bank’s 115 million-dollar ‘Total War on HIV/AIDS’ project expired last month.

Meanwhile, the country’s defence budget is expected to grow from 4.3 billion dollars in 2012-2014 to 5.5 billion dollars by 2018, as the country stocks up on helicopters, drones and border surveillance equipment, according to the news portal DefenceWeb.

True, Kenya is under attack from Al-Shabaab terrorists. Still, five out of 10 pregnant Kenyan women living with HIV do not get ARVs to protect their babies.

Mozambique’s fighter jets

In Mozambique, a dearth of funding puts the country’s recent military expenditures into a harsh light.

Daniel Kertesz, the World Health Organization representative in Mozambique, told IPS the country’s six-year health program has a 200 million dollar finance gap per year.

Mozambique being very poor, it is difficult to see how the country – with 1.6 million infected people, the world’s eighth burden – will meet its domestic commitments.

“Today, Mozambique spends between 30 and 35 dollars per person per year on health. WHO recommends a minimum of 55-60 per person per year,” Kertesz said.

The same week, the government announced it had fixed eight military fighter jets, which it had discarded 15 years ago, in Romania, and is receiving three Embraer Tucano military aircraft from Brazil for free, with the understanding that purchase of three  fighter jets will follow.

According to a 2014 report by the Economic Intelligence Unit, Mozambique’s spending on state security is expected to rise sharply, partly owing to the acquisition, by the ministry of defence, of 24 fishing trawlers and six patrol and interceptor ships at the cost of 300 million dollars – equal to half the 2014 national health budget of 635.8 million dollars.

 The same week the refurbished fighter jets landed at Maputo airport, the press reported that the main hospital in Mozambique’s north-western and coal-rich Tete province went for five days without water.

Indeed, the country’s public health system is in such dire straits that the United States President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR) meets 90 percent of the health ministry’s annual AIDS budget.

Military Spending in Africa
Angola spent 8.4 percent of its 69 billion dollar budget on defence and just 5.3 percent on health in 2013.
In 2013, Morocco’s military expenses of 3.4 billion dwarfed its health budget of just over 1.4 billion dollars.
South Sudan spent one percent of its GDP on health and 9.1 percent on military and defence in 2012.

“The state budget for social programmes is not increasing at the same level as military, defence and security spending,” Jorge Matine, a researcher at Mozambique’s Centre for Public Integrity (CIP), told IPS.

“We have been pushing for accountability around the acquisition of commercial and military ships for millions of dollars,” he said.

A coalition of NGOs has requested the government to explain “its decision to spend that money without authorisation from Parliament when the country is experiencing severe shortages of personnel and supplies in the health sector,” Matine explained.

The coalition argues that, if defence spending remained as it was in 2011, the country would save 70 million dollars, which could buy 1,400 ambulances (11 per district, when many districts have only one or two) or import 21 percent more medicines.

A similar pattern unfolds across the continent where, according to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI), military spending reached an estimated 44.4 billion dollars in 2013, an 8.3 percent increase from the previous year. In Angola and Algeria, high oil revenues fuel the buying spree.

The South Africa-based Ceasefire Campaign reported recently that arms deals with private companies are also on the rise in Africa, with governments expected to sign deals with global defence companies totalling roughly 20 billion dollars over the next decade.

Credit: Marshall Patstanza and Nqabomzi Bikitsha/IPS

Credit: Marshall Patstanza and Nqabomzi Bikitsha/IPS

Failing Abuja 

At the same time, the 2001 Abuja Declaration, whose signatories committed to allocating at least 15 percent of gross domestic product to health, has “barely become a reality”, Vuyiseka Dubula, general-secretary of the South Africa-based Treatment Action Campaign, told IPS.

 “Regardless of our calls, very few countries have even come close to 12 percent, including some of the richer African countries such as South Africa and Nigeria,” Dubula said.

Between 2000-2005, she added, “almost 400,000 people died from AIDS in South Africa; during that same period we spent so much money on arms we don’t need, and one wonders whether that was a responsible [use] of public resources.”

Mozambique is a sad example of Abuja failure. Back in 2001, Mozambique’s health budget represented 14 percent of the total state budget, tailing the Abuja target. It declined to a low of seven percent in 2011 and clawed to eight percent since.

“Financing mirrors the priorities of the government,” Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, Ethiopia’s minister of foreign affairs and former minister of health, told IPS. “We have seen that in countries that had the political will to turn around their health sectors, they upscale finance and really invest in the health sector.”

If this is true, the budgets of many African countries reflect greater interest in arms deals than in managing the deadly HIV epidemic.

Edited by: Mercedes Sayagues

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In Pakistan, Militants Wear Aid Workers’ Clothing Fri, 01 Aug 2014 18:40:42 +0000 Ashfaq Yusufzai Fearing the presence of militants, personnel from law enforcement agencies keep a strict watch on camps set up by relief groups in the Bannu district of Pakistan’s northern Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KP) province. Credit: Ashfaq Yusufzai/IP

Fearing the presence of militants, personnel from law enforcement agencies keep a strict watch on camps set up by relief groups in the Bannu district of Pakistan’s northern Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KP) province. Credit: Ashfaq Yusufzai/IP

By Ashfaq Yusufzai
PESHAWAR, Pakistan, Aug 1 2014 (IPS)

Muhammad Tufail, a 22-year-old resident of Mardan, one of 26 districts that comprise Pakistan’s northern Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KP) province, has recently become a volunteer aid worker.

Moved by the plight of nearly a million refugees fleeing a military offensive in the North Waziristan Agency of the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA), which began on Jun. 15, Tufail now spends his days distributing food rations and medical supplies to beleaguered residents of huge camps for the displaced.

Tufail tells IPS that he and other volunteers see to the needs of some 10,000 families on a daily basis. “We cannot leave our people in distress,” the young man says with conviction.

“We have been keeping a strict eye on the relief camps organised by some jihadist outfits. We want to make sure they are not used for the recruitment of civilians for terrorist activities.” -- Akram Khan, a police inspector in Bannu
His passion is admirable, but the organisation he works for is dubious at best. Known simply as the Al-Rehmat Trust (ART), this charity group is widely considered a front for the outlawed Kashmir-based Jaish-e Mohammed (‘the army of Mohammed’ or JeM).

Banned in Pakistan since 2002, JeM is today a designated terrorist organisation, and stands accused of orchestrating the 2001 Indian Parliament attack.

Though the group itself has been lying low since 2003, its huge membership reveals itself during times of national crisis as efficient and well-endowed providers of relief.

“We were the first to start rescue efforts when a massive earthquake hit northern Pakistan in 2005,” Tufail tells IPS proudly. “Our volunteers rescued people from the debris and saved their lives.”

“I have devoted my own life to serve the people from this platform because ART serves people selflessly,” he says confidently.

It is this very gumption – expressed by scores of impressionable young people who serve these front groups – that have officials and law enforcement personnel extremely concerned about the influence of terrorist organisations during times of trouble.

“We have been keeping a strict eye on the relief camps organised by some jihadist outfits,” Akram Khan, a police inspector in Bannu, home to the majority of the IDPs, tells IPS. “We want to make sure they are not used for the recruitment of civilians for terrorist activities.”

Still, he is concerned that the sprawling camps, filled to beyond their capacity with desperate, vulnerable and traumatised civilians, provides a perfect recruiting ground for terrorists dressed as aid workers.

“The displaced are in need of monetary and social assistance”, which jihadist elements are more than willing to provide, he says.

“The nation is already experiencing hard times due to soaring terrorism – we can’t afford to allow militant groups to grow at the cost of displaced people,” he adds.

Yet this is exactly what appears to be happening, political analyst Dr. Khadim Hussain, chairman of the Baacha Khan Trust Education Foundation, tells IPS.

Besides JeM’s charity wing ART, the Jamat ud-Dawa (JuD), a missionary-style front group for the feared Lashkar-e-Taiba (‘army of the good’ or LeT) has also been active in relief efforts, rushing to the aid of those displaced by natural or man-made disasters, and winning the hearts of many who see the government’s emergency response as inadequate, he says.

The Falah-e-Insaniyat Foundation (FIF), also believed to be a front group for the LeT, has been providing medicines and foodstuffs to thousands of families who don’t know where their next meal will come from.

“We were the first to reach Bannu and start relief work because we couldn’t bear to see our Muslim bretherin in crisis,” Muhammad Shafiq, a volunteer with ART, tells IPS.

Shaukat Ali Mahsud, a displaced man with a family of seven to care for, says he is “thankful to both the organisations for their sincerity and devotion”.

“These people are helping us. They are not terrorists, they are just very good Muslims,” he tells IPS, adding that he personally knows dozens of families who have received life-saving support from volunteers with one of the many groups believed to be charity wings for terrorist outfits.

“We will never forget their help in these trying times,” he asserts.

Government turns a blind eye

Several major players in the world of geopolitics – including India, the United States and the United Kingdom – have designated groups like JeM and LeT as “deadly terrorist organisations” and accused them of waging proxy wars in Indian-occupied Kashmir.

Due to heavy international pressure, both groups have been keeping a relatively low profile, but the massive humanitarian crisis caused by the government’s efforts to wipe out the Taliban from their mountainous stronghold on the Afghan border has brought JeM and LeT back into the limelight, Muhammad Shoaib, an analyst at the University of Peshawar, tells IPS.

“These outfits, with the help of the state, have carefully maintained their welfare wings to prove that they are more than just militant formations,” he states.

The allegation that major terrorist groups enjoy government support is not new, and takes on added weight during times of national crisis.

For instance, numerous secular NGOs eager to commence relief operations among the displaced have been unable to secure the required ‘No Objection Certificate’ (NOC), a document issued by the government as proof that a particular programme or activity is authorised by the state.

Jawadullah Shah, who heads the Rural Health Foundation, hasn’t been able to secure an NOC despite submitting an application to the government on Jun. 18. He says the delay is preventing his organisation from carrying out aid work.

On the other hand, he tells IPS, ART has been actively working with the affected populations without any hindrance.

“The government, as well as army officers, are extremely cooperative; it has been smooth sailing,” according to ART volunteer Shafiq.

Meanwhile, the JuD, which stands accused of orchestrating the 2013 attack on the Indian consulate in Jalalabad, western Afghanistan, is also extremely active in the aftermath of disasters, despite being branded a terrorist operation by the United Nations Security Council in 2008.

The Pakistan government says there is no evidence linking the group with terrorist activity.

“We are running hospitals, schools and colleges for the poor people in Pakistan,” Hafiz Muhammad Saeed, founder of the JuD who has been accused by the Indian government of plotting the 2008 Mumbai terror attacks, tells IPS.

“Helping displaced people is our foremost duty. We sent relief goods worth over five million dollars to flood-hit areas of Pakistan 2010 and we have so far sent supplies worth two million dollars to Bannu,” he adds.

The FIF, believed to be closely aligned with the LeT and the JuD, is also playing a major role.

“We have deployed 500 volunteers to Bannu. We dispatch 10 trucks with relief goods almost every day,” FIF’s chairman Hafiz Abdur Rauf tells IPS.

Though the displaced are grateful for the assistance, experts and officials are determined to stamp out what they see as militant groups infiltrating vulnerable populations and recruiting foot soldiers from their midst.

Hussain, of the Baacha Khan Trust Education Foundation, does not mince his words when describing the systematic recruitment operation: “As we have witnessed during disasters like the earthquake in 2005, the military operation in Swat in 2009 and the floods in 2010, these groups use charity work to win the hearts and minds of Pakistani people by creating ‘soft corners’ of moral and economic assistance.”

Instead of allowing the radicalisation of displaced people, the government should be de-radicalising the militants to achieve lasting peace, he tells IPS.

The very simple and effective strategy pursued by militant groups must not be allowed to continue unchecked, he adds.

“The war against militants currently being waged in the northern province will be meaningless if other militant entities are allowed to grow with impunity at the same time,” Hussain concludes.

Edited by Kanya D’Almeida

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From Tigers to Barbers: Tales of Sri Lanka’s Ex-Combatants Mon, 14 Jul 2014 17:56:12 +0000 Amantha Perera Aloysius Patrickeil, once a member of the feared Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), now spends his time giving his loyal customers haircuts in a small town in Sri Lanka's Northern Province. Credit: Amantha Perera/IPS

Aloysius Patrickeil, once a member of the feared Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), now spends his time giving his loyal customers haircuts in a small town in Sri Lanka's Northern Province. Credit: Amantha Perera/IPS

By Amantha Perera
KILINOCHCHI, Sri Lanka, Jul 14 2014 (IPS)

People are willing to wait a long time for a few minutes in the hands of Aloysius Patrickeil, a 32-year-old barber who is part-owner of a small shop close to the northern town of Kilinochchi, 320 km from Sri Lanka’s capital, Colombo.

Old men with bushy moustaches sit on chairs alongside youngsters sporting trendy haircuts and beards in the latest styles from Tamil movies, while mothers drag their kids into the long line for the barber’s coveted chair.

“He is the best in town,” Kalliman Mariyadas, a young man waiting his turn, says confidently.

“They want a better life, they want to live like ordinary people.” -- Murugesu Kayodaran, rehabilitation officer for the Kilinochchi District Divisional Secretariat
A few years ago, Patrickeil wasn’t such a famous man, nor did he wish to be one. Till 2009 he was a member of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), the armed separatist group that fought a 26-year-long civil war with successive Sri Lankan governments for independence for the country’s minority Tamil population.

Patrickeil, now the father of a one-and-a-half year-old infant, was part of the LTTE’s naval arm known as the Sea Tigers until a military offensive decimated the rebel group in 2009.

Today, he is wary of divulging details of his past career.

“There is no point – what happened, happened. I don’t want to go back there,” he tells IPS, while massaging the head of one of his middle-aged clients.

His main aim now is to make sure his enterprise keeps making money. “People will always want to get haircuts, so it is a good job selection,” he says with a smile.

A beloved member of the community, he loves to talk of his shop and his future plans, but not so much about his violent past and involvement in a conflict that claimed some 100,000 lives on both sides.

A man transports bananas in the northern town of Jaffna, the political and cultural hub of Sri Lanka's Northern Province, which has reaped at least some of the peace dividends. Credit: Amantha Perera/IPS

A man transports bananas in the northern town of Jaffna, the political and cultural hub of Sri Lanka’s Northern Province, which has reaped at least some of the peace dividends. Credit: Amantha Perera/IPS

When the Sri Lankan government declared victory over the Tigers in May 2009, after a bloody battle in the former rebel-held areas in the north and east of the country, close to 12,000 LTTE cadres either surrendered or were apprehended by military forces, according to government data.

By June this year over 11,800 were released following rehabilitation programmes of varying length, leaving 132 in detention.

Patrickeil himself was in detention, and then underwent rehabilitation (including vocational training) until February 2013; like thousands of other former militants, he must now navigate the former war zone as a civilian.

“They want a better life, they want to live like ordinary people,” says Murugesu Kayodaran, rehabilitation officer for the Kilinochchi District Divisional Secretariat.

But after years of war, violence and no sense of what “ordinary” life means, he tells IPS, this seemingly simple task is harder than it first appears.

Of the released ex-Tigers, most are engaged in manual labour in the north, according to data provided by the Bureau of the Commissioner General of Rehabilitation. Other popular areas of employment include the fishing industry, the farming sector or the government’s civil defence department.

14652000325_ab5f725cb4_zCurrently, 11 percent of rehabilitated former LTTE fighters are listed as unemployed, more than two-and-a-half times the national unemployment rate.

Very few official programmes offer assistance. One government loan scheme provides individuals with up to 25,000 rupees (192 dollars), but so far only 1,773 who qualify for the programme have received the money, according to existing records.

An initiative undertaken by the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) offers grants of 50,000 rupees (roughly 380 dollars), but since 2013 only 523 have received the modest sum.

“We try to help the most deserving cases after careful evaluation,” M S M Kamil, head of ICRC’s Economic Security Department, tells IPS. The lack of complimentary schemes, however, means that thousands are floundering without a steady income.

Kayodaran says that sustained long-term assistance is needed to foster careful reintegration of thousands of ex-combatants, many of whom still feel stigmatised.

“They feel they need financial independence to be able to feel normal like the others, but there are other underlying issues like depression, trauma and lack of family support that remain unaddressed,” he says.

A little help goes a long way

Just a few miles west of Patrickeil’s popular salon, 37-year-old Selliah Bavanan works alone in his tire repair shop in the small town of Mallavi. Also a former Tiger, he is evasive about his role in the group.

All he confides to IPS is that “the situation at the time demanded that we make the decision to join the group.”

Selliah Bavanan, an ex-LTTE cadre, now runs a tire repair shop in the Northern Province, and avoids talking about his past. Credit: Amantha Perera/IPS

Selliah Bavanan, an ex-LTTE cadre, now runs a tire repair shop in the Northern Province, and avoids talking about his past. Credit: Amantha Perera/IPS

Now he keeps a close eye on the road that links Kilinochchi, the main financial hub in the region, with the western parts of the district.

“My primary customers are the big vehicles,” he states, adding that there are many that take the route these days, ferrying material for the large-scale development work taking place in areas that were held by the Tigers until early 2009.

When he received the ICRC grant earlier this year, Bavanan made an astute decision – he invested the money in equipment for his humble enterprise and has seen a sharp spike in customers ever since.

“I make between 1,500 and 3,000 rupees (about 11-21 dollars) daily; it is good money,” he insists, while repairing a large, punctured tire.

Patrickeil received a similar grant and invested the money in mirrors, scissors and other accessories for the shop that was owned by a friend. “I pay half my daily income to the owner,” says Patrickeil who also makes about 3,000 rupees per day in a region where the monthly cost of living is some 25,000-30,000 rupees (190-230 dollars).

Life on this small income is not easy, with many ex-combatants in the region supporting extended families. One injured former LTTE cadre that IPS spoke with was supporting a family of three, plus a younger brother and two ageing parents.

Those left disabled by the war, both civilians and ex-combatants, make up over 10 percent of the population of Sri Lanka's Northern Province, but very little official assistance is directed at them. Credit: Amantha Perera/IPS

Those left disabled by the war, both civilians and ex-combatants, make up over 10 percent of the population of Sri Lanka’s Northern Province, but very little official assistance is directed at them. Credit: Amantha Perera/IPS

Officials like ICRC’s Kamil say that rehabilitated former female combatants find job options even more restrictive than their male counterparts.

Psychological assistance programmes for those traumatised by years of war are just getting off the ground in the former conflict areas, but none of them are designed specifically for ex-combatants.

There is also no official data on how many former LTTE members were wounded, but government records suggest that at least 10 to 20 percent of the Northern Province’s population of some 1.1 million people are war-injured, a large number of which were combatants during the conflict.

They say their biggest challenge now is social acceptance and financial independence. While the immediate outlook is bleak, many harbour aspirations of improved circumstances in the years to come.

“First there was war, then there was peace; now we have poverty, and hopefully the next stop will be prosperity,” says Patrickeil’s customer Mariyadas, standing up for his turn with the Sea Tiger-turned-barber.


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Violence Casts Shadow Over ‘Himalayan Viagra’ Harvest in Nepal Fri, 27 Jun 2014 11:39:44 +0000 Naresh Newar Hundreds of thousands of harvesters flock to high-altitude pastures in Nepal to gather a fungus known as ‘Himalayan Viagra’. Credit: Uttam Babu Shrestha

Hundreds of thousands of harvesters flock to high-altitude pastures in Nepal to gather a fungus known as ‘Himalayan Viagra’. Credit: Uttam Babu Shrestha

By Naresh Newar
KATHMANDU, Jun 27 2014 (IPS)

Intense competition during harvest season for a fungus dubbed ‘Himalayan Viagra’ – coveted for its legendary aphrodisiac qualities – has sparked violence in Nepal’s remote western mountains, causing concern among security officials here about the safety of more than 100,000 harvesters.

“The violence has already begun even at the initial stage of the harvest, and we can expect more,” Nepal Police Divisional Inspector General Kesh Bahadur Shahi, head of the Midwestern Development Region headquarters in Surkhet District, 600 km west of the capital Kathmandu, told IPS.

Earlier this month a harvester named Phurwa Tshering (30) was killed in a violent tussle in the Dolpa District, northeast of Surkhet, where tens of thousands of harvesters gather each year.

A second harvester, Thundup Lama, died some days later in a Kathmandu hospital from injuries sustained in the scuffle, amid allegations of police misconduct.

Known among the scientific community as ophiocordyceps sinensis – though harvesters refer to it simply as ‘caterpillar fungus’, and Tibetan traders use the name ‘yartsa gunbu’ (meaning, literally, ‘winter worm, summer grass’) – the fungus germinates underground inside living larvae, mummifies them during the winter, and then emerges through the head of the dead caterpillar, pushing up through the soil in the form of a stalk-like mushroom.

For over 2,000 years people across the Asiatic region have sought this fungus for its healing properties, including its fabled ability to treat diseases of the kidney and lungs, as well as cure erectile dysfunction.

A harvester holds up a single piece of ‘Yartsa Gunbu’, otherwise known as ‘winter worm, summer grass.’ Credit: Uttam Babu Shrestha

A harvester holds up a single piece of ‘Yartsa Gunbu’, otherwise known as ‘winter worm, summer grass.’ Credit: Uttam Babu Shrestha

Since 2001, when the Nepali government legalised harvesting of the fungus, the mountains have become the site of a veritable battle royal.

Lured by the promise of high profits harvesters flock to the Himalayas every June to participate in the two-month hunt for the prized fungus, setting up camp on the northern alpine grasslands of Nepal, Bhutan, India and the Tibetan Plateau, at altitudes of between 3,000 and 5,000 metres above sea-level.

Though each stalk measures no more than four centimeters in length, a single gram of yartsa gunbu can sell for up to 80 dollars (mostly in China), making the dangerous, high-altitude hunt more than worth it for thousands of impoverished farmers.

But because the substance is so rare and so valuable, the collection period often turns deadly. So far, no one has been held accountable for the deaths, and Nepal’s police force has denied allegations of wrongdoing.

Unsatisfied with officials’ assurances, the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) recently deployed an investigation team to the Dolpa district, which borders Tibet.

“Our team has headed for field investigations to the site where the incident occurred and we will also speak to the Nepal police to uncover the truth,” Bed Prasad Adhikari, secretary of the NHRC, told IPS.

“We need to wait until the investigation is concluded, and only then will NHRC reveal the truth to the public,” he added.

In 2011 a local court sentenced six men to life in prison for the murder of seven of their harvest rivals.

While Nepali security officials scramble to patrol some of the world’s roughest terrain, ecology experts warn of over-harvesting and the need for sustainable practices that could support local economies and end the cycle of violence.

Stepping up security

“There is an urgent need for sustainable harvesting practices and an equitable benefit-sharing mechanism with the local people." -- Yam Bahadur Thapa, director general of the Department of Plant Resources (DoPR) at Nepal’s ministry of forests and soil conservation
The police are expecting more violence as the season enters its third week, and have already dispatched 160 personnel attached to the Armed Police Force (APF) – a paramilitary set up during Nepal’s decade-long civil war – to patrol harvesting sites, including the northern Mugu and Dolpa districts.

“We have asked for more personnel from the Nepal police to support our security operation,” Shahi said.

Speaking to IPS in Kathmandu, Police Spokesperson and Senior Superintendent of Police Ganesh KC told IPS this is the first time armed personnel have been deployed to oversee the harvest, and they are facing challenges due to the huge radius of the harvesting zone, and the extremely difficult terrain.

The Dolpa District alone – home to 24 pastures rich in the caterpillar fungus – spans nearly 8,000 square km.

To make matters worse, commercial traders and so-called ‘cartels’ have now joined the fray.

“There is a mafia of traders from Kathmandu and other adjoining Nepali districts near the Chinese border who are involved in the scheme, and they come with huge stacks of cash and will not return empty-handed,” Shahi said. “Some traders even bring helicopters to buy as much as they can.”

From policing to long-term policies

Various studies suggest that China’s booming economy, which has fueled demand for the ‘winter worm, summer grass’, has created a global market for the fungus that touches 11 billion dollars a year.

Nepal currently meets two percent of the global demand for the precious fungus, making it the world’s second largest supplier.

But as demand outpaces supply, and a valuable natural resource is plundered away annually, tensions over access rights have been mounting.

“There is loss of social integrity among local people; there are cases of robbery and deaths as a result [of this harvest],” Yam Bahadur Thapa, director general of the Department of Plant Resources (DoPR) at Nepal’s ministry of forests and soil conservation, told IPS.

“There is an urgent need for sustainable harvesting practices and an equitable benefit-sharing mechanism with the local people,” he noted, adding that the presence of outsiders often exacerbates tensions.

Thapa said the number of harvesters has doubled since 2001, while the number of units collected per person has declined drastically, from 260 pieces of fungus per person in 2006 to less than 125 now.

In addition, he asserted, “The price difference between the local and international market is huge, leading to an inequitable share of income among the primary collectors.”

For instance, a kilogram of fungus sold for 25,000 dollars by a middleman in Nepal could sell for up to 70,000 dollars once it is shipped abroad, he said.

A DoPR draft policy for caterpillar fungus harvest management submitted in April to the prime minister’s cabinet is still awaiting approval. The policy proposes regulating trade to increase government revenue, investing in scientific research, strengthening local institutions and raising awareness among the locals.

“There is no single inch of habitat left untouched…at the end of the harvesting season,” Uttam Babu Shrestha, a research fellow at the Institute of Agriculture and the Environment at the University of Southern Queensland in Australia, told IPS.

His research during the 2011 harvest season in Nepal showed that, “Virtually all harvesters (95.1 percent) believe the availability of the caterpillar fungus in the pastures to be declining, and 67 percent consider current harvesting practices to be unsustainable.”

Shrestha found per capita harvesting to be higher in Nepal than in other countries, which adds to the tension. “Nepal’s harvesters and traders are doing business in a fearful environment,” he said, echoing the concerns of law enforcement officials.

Better central regulation would not only enhance sustainability and security, but would also increase government revenue, experts say.

The official royalty rate of around 10,000 Nepali rupees (about 100 dollars) per kilogram was set when Nepal legalised the harvest in 2001.

Since then, “The market price… has increased up to 2,300 percent and yet the royalty rate is the same,” Shrestha said, describing the stagnant rate as a “missed opportunity.”

The International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development (ICIMOD) estimates that the government of Nepal currently earns about 5.1 million rupees from the trade.

Experts say that by paying local harvesters a higher price, the government could witness a substantial increase in revenue flows.

Until the government agrees upon a comprehensive plan, the high-altitude pastures will continue to see fear, violence and destruction in pursuit of the mysterious fungus.


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Zimbabwe’s Unfolding Humanitarian Disaster – We Visit the 18,000 People Forcibly Relocated to Ruling Party Farm Wed, 25 Jun 2014 21:21:09 +0000 Davison Mudzingwa and Francis Hweshe More than 18,000 people live in the Chingwizi transit camp in Mwenezi district, about 150 kms from their former homes in Chivi basin as they wait to be allocated one-hectare plots of land by the government. Credit: Davison Mudzingwa/IPS

More than 18,000 people live in the Chingwizi transit camp in Mwenezi district, about 150 kms from their former homes in Chivi basin as they wait to be allocated one-hectare plots of land by the government. Credit: Davison Mudzingwa/IPS

By Davison Mudzingwa and Francis Hweshe
MASVINGO, Zimbabwe, Jun 25 2014 (IPS)

As the villagers sit around the flickering fire on a pitch-black night lit only by the blurry moon, they speak, recounting how it all began.

They take turns, sometimes talking over each other to have their own experiences heard. When the old man speaks, everyone listens. “It was my first time riding a helicopter,” John Moyo* remembers.

“The soldiers came, clutching guns, forcing everyone to move. I tried to resist, for my home was not affected but they wouldn’t hear any of it.”

So started the long, painful and disorienting journey for the 70-year-old Moyo and almost 18,000 other people who had lived in the 50-kilometre radius of Chivi basin in Zimbabwe’s Masvingo province.“We don’t want this life of getting fed like birds.” -- John Moyo, displaced villager from Chivi basin

When heavy rains pounded the area in early January, the 1.8 billion cubic metre Tokwe-Mukosi dam’s wall breached.

Flooding followed, destroying homes and livestock. The government, with the help of non-governmental organisations, embarked on a rescue mission. And even unaffected homes in high-lying areas were evacuated by soldiers.

According to Moyo, whose home was not affected, this was an opportunity for the government, which had been trying to relocate those living near Chivi basin for sometime.

“They always said they wanted to establish an irrigation system and a game park in the area that covered our ancestral homes,” he tells IPS.

For Itai Mazanhi*, a 33-year-old father of three, the government had the best excuse to remove them from the land that he had known since birth.

“The graves of my forefathers are in that place,” he tells IPS. Mazanhi is from Gororo village.

After being temporarily housed in the nearby safe areas of Gunikuni and Ngundu in Masvingo province, the over 18,000 people or 3,000 families were transferred to Nuanetsi Ranch in the Chingwizi area of Mwenezi district, about 150 kms from their former homes.

 Chingwizi is an arid terrain near Triangle Estates, an irrigation sugar plantation concern owned by sugar giant Tongaat Hulett. The land here is conspicuous for the mopane and giant baobab trees that are synonymous with hot, dry conditions.

The crop and livestock farmers from Chivi basin have been forced to adjust in a land that lacks the natural fertility of their former land, water and adequate pastures for their livestock.

The dust road to the Chingwizi camp is a laborious 40-minute drive littered with sharp bumps and lurking roadside trenches.

From the top of an anthill, a vantage point at the entrance of this settlement reveals a rolling pattern of tents and zinc makeshift structures that stretch beyond the sight of the naked eye. At night, fires flicker faintly in the distance, and a cacophony of voices mix with the music from solar- and battery-powered radio sets. It’s the image of a war refugee relief camp.

A concern for the displaced families is the fact that they were settled in an area earmarked for a proposed biofuel project. The project is set to be driven by the Zimbabwe Bio-Energy company, a partnership between the Zimbabwe Development Trust and private investors. The state-owned Herald newspaper quoted the project director Charles Madonko saying resettled families could become sugarcane out-growers for the ethanol project.

This plan was subject to scathing attack from rights watchdog Human Rights Watch. In a report released last month, the organisation viewed this as a cheap labour ploy.

“The Zimbabwean army relocated 3,000 families from the flooded Tokwe-Mukorsi dam basin to a camp on a sugar cane farm and ethanol project jointly owned by the ruling Zimbabwe African National Union-Patriotic Front [ZANU-PF] and Billy Rautenbach, a businessman and party supporter,” read part of the report.

Sugar cane fields like this one in Chisumbanje are planned to feed the ethanol project in Mwenezi district. The displaced villagers from Chivi basin fear they will be used as cheap labourers. Credit: Davison Mudzingwa/IPS

Sugar cane fields like this one in Chisumbanje are planned to feed the ethanol project in Mwenezi district. The displaced villagers from Chivi basin fear they will be used as cheap labourers. Credit: Davison Mudzingwa/IPS

The sugarcane plantations will be irrigated by the water from the Tokwe-Mukosi dam. Upon completion, the dam is set to become Zimbabwe’s largest inland dam, with a capacity to irrigate over 25,000 hectares.

Community Tolerance Reconciliation and Development, COTRAD, a non-governmental organisation that operates in the Masvingo province sees the displacement of the 3,000 families as a brutal retrogression. The organisation says ordinary people are at the mercy of private companies and the government.

“The people feel like outcasts, they no longer feel like Zimbabweans,” Zivanai Muzorodzi, COTRAD programme manager, tells IPS.

Muzorodzi, whose organisation has been monitoring the land tussle before the floods, says the land surrounding the Tokwe-Mukosi dam basin was bought by individuals, mostly from the ruling ZANU-PF party.

“Villagers won’t own the land or the means of production. Only ZANU-PF bigwigs will benefit,” Muzorodzi says.

The scale of the habitats has posed serious challenges for the cash-strapped government of Zimbabwe. Humanitarian organisations such as Oxfam International and Care International have injected basic services such clean water through water bowsers and makeshift toilets.

“It’s not safe at all, it’s a disaster waiting to happen,” a Zimbabwe Ministry of Local Government official stationed at the camp and who preferred anonymity tells IPS. “The latrines you see here are only one metre deep. An outbreak of a contagious disease would spread fast.”

Tendai Zingwe fears her child might contract diarrhoea due to poor sanitation conditions in Chingwizi camp. Credit: Davison Mudzingwa/IPS

Tendai Zingwe fears her child might contract diarrhoea due to poor sanitation conditions in Chingwizi camp. Credit: Davison Mudzingwa/IPS

Similar fears stalk Spiwe Chando*, a mother of four. The 23-year-old speaks as she sorts her belongings scattered in small blue tent in which an adult cannot sleep fully stretched out. “I fear for my child because another family lost a child due to diarrhoea last week. This can happen to anyone,” she tells IPS, sweating from the heat inside the tent. “I hope we will move from this place soon and get proper land to restart our lives.”

This issue has posed tensions at this over-populated camp. Meetings, rumour and conjecture circulate each day. Across the camp, frustrations are progressively building up. As a result, a ministerial delegation got a hostile reception during a visit last month. The displaced farmers accuse the government of deception and reneging on its promises of land allocation and compensation.

Children stampede for reading material at the Chingwizi transit camp. Most of the kids had their schooling disrupted due to the displacement. Credit: Davison Mudzingwa/IPS

Children stampede for reading material at the Chingwizi transit camp. Most of the kids had their schooling disrupted due to the displacement. Credit: Davison Mudzingwa/IPS

The government has promised to allocate one hectare of land per family, at a location about 17 kms from this transit camp. This falls far short of what these families own in Chivi basin. Some of them, like Mazanhi, owned about 10 hectares. The land was able to produce enough food for their sustenance and a surplus, which was sold to finance their children’s education and healthcare.

Mazanhi is one of the few people who has already received compensation from the government. Of the agreed compensation of 3,000 dollars, he has only received 900 dollars and is not certain if he will ever be paid the remainder of what he was promised. “There is a lot of corruption going on in that office,” he tells IPS.

COTRAD says the fact that ordinary villagers are secondary beneficiaries of the land and water that once belonged to them communally is an indication of a resource grabbing trend that further widens the gap of inequality.

“People no longer have land, access to water, healthcare and children are learning under trees.”

For Moyo, daily realities at the transit camp and a hazy future is both a painful reminder of a life gone by and a sign of “the next generation of dispossession.” However, he hopes for a better future.

“We don’t want this life of getting fed like birds,” says Moyo.

*Names altered for security reasons.

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India’s ‘Temple Slaves’ Struggle to Break Free Sun, 22 Jun 2014 14:42:31 +0000 Stella Paul Joginis dance outside a temple during a religious festival. Credit: Stella Paul/IPS

Joginis dance outside a temple during a religious festival. Credit: Stella Paul/IPS

By Stella Paul
NIZAMABAD, India, Jun 22 2014 (IPS)

At 32, Nalluri Poshani looks like an old woman. Squatting on the floor amidst piles of tobacco and tree leaves that she expertly transforms into ‘beedis’, a local cigarette, she tells IPS, “I feel dizzy. The tobacco gives me headaches and nausea.”

At the rate of two dollars for 1,000 cigarettes, she earns about 36 dollars a month. “I wish I could do some other job,” the young woman says longingly.

But no other jobs are open to her in the village of Vellpoor, located in the Nizamabad region of the southern Indian state of Telangana, because Poshani is no ordinary woman.

She is a former jogini, which translates loosely as a ‘temple slave’, one of thousands of young Dalit girls who are dedicated at a very young age to the village deity named Yellamma, based on the belief that their presence in the local temple will ward off evil spirits and usher in prosperity for all.

Poshani says she was just five years old when she went through the dedication ritual.

First she was bathed, dressed like a bride, and taken to the temple where a priest tied a ‘thali’ (a sacred thread symbolising marriage) around her neck. She was then brought outside where crowds of villagers were gathered, held up to their scrutiny and proclaimed the new jogini.

“Women here now see the jogini system as a violation of Dalit people’s human rights." -- Kolamaddi Parijatam, a rights activist in Vellpoor.
For several years she simply lived and worked in the temple, but when she reached puberty men from the village – usually from higher castes who otherwise consider her ‘untouchable’ – would visit her in the night and have sex with her.

Poshani says she was never a sex worker in the typical sense of the word, because she was never properly paid for her ‘services’. Rather, she was bound, by the dedication ritual and the villagers’ firm belief in her supernatural powers, to the temple.

The only time of year she was considered anything more than a common prostitute was during religious festivals, when she performed ‘trance’ dances as a divine medium through which the goddess Yellamma spoke.

But the majority of her nearly three decades of servitude was marked by violence, and disrespect.

Although a strong anti-jogini campaign in Vellpoor is making strides towards outlawing the centuries old practice, women like Poshani have little to celebrate. Though she relishes being free from sexual bondage, she struggles to survive on her own with no home, no land and a debt-burden of 200,000 rupees (about 3,300 dollars), which she borrowed from a local moneylender.

Visibly undernourished, Poshani represents the condition that most mid-life joginis find themselves in: sexually exploited, trapped in poverty, sick and lonely.

A cultural tradition or a caste-based system of exploitation?

According to official records, there are an estimated 30,000 joginis – also known as devdasis or matammas – in Telangana today. An additional 20,000 live in the neighbouring state of Andhra Pradesh.

In both states, over 90 percent of the joginis are from Dalit communities.

Temple prostitution has been legally banned in the state of Andhra Pradesh since 1988. Under the law, known as the Jogini Abolition Act, initiating a woman into the system is punishable with two to three years, and with a fine of up to 3,000 rupees (33 dollars).

But this is too soft a law for so heinous a crime, says Grace Nirmala, a woman’s rights activist based in the state capital Hyderabad. Nirmala, who heads an organisation called Ashray (meaning ‘shelter’), has been working for over two decades to rescue and rehabilitate jogini women.

“[Joginis] live away from their families and have no rights […],” Nirmala tells IPS. “Her life is completely ruined. For that, the punishment is a couple of years of jail time or a few thousand rupees in fines. How can this be justified?”

She added that most policemen in the state are not even aware of the law, which makes it hard to abolish the practice completely.

Superstition also plays a major role in keeping the tradition alive, with many villagers believing that joginis possess divine powers.

“Sleeping with a jogini […] is a way to invoke that supernatural power and please the goddess,” Nirmala explained. “In many families, if there is a nagging problem, the wife will ask her husband to go and sleep with the village jogini so that it will go away.”

Others, however, believe that India’s deeply entrenched caste-system is responsible for perpetuating this systematic abuse of so many thousands of women.

According to Jyoti Neelaiah, a Hyderabad-based Dalit rights leader, “The jogini system is not just a violation of women’s rights but a also of human rights, because it’s always a Dalit woman who is made a jogini and those whom she serves are always from a dominant caste.”

She tells IPS the whole system is, in fact, a “power play” by which dominant social groups oppress the weaker, more marginalised members of society.

In Telangana, for instance, some of the biggest supporters of the jogini system are members of the wealthy, land-owning Reddy caste, as well as Brahmin priests.

Kolamaddi Parijatam, a social activist who has been mobilising rural women against the jogini system for the past six years, including those in the village of Vellpoor, which is home to 30 joginis, shares Neelaiah’s analysis.

She refutes the theory put forward by various organisations and even scholars that the practice of dedicating women to the local temple has deep cultural roots and should therefore be preserved.

Given that Dalits comprise nearly 17 percent of the population of the newly created state of Telangana, activists say that villages like Vellpoor are well placed to lead the movement for legal reform.

“Women here now see the jogini system as a violation of Dalit people’s human rights,” Parijatam tells IPS. “So whenever anyone says that the jogini system is a cultural tradition, they ask: ‘Then why not make a non-Dalit woman a jogini?’”

Local efforts gain steam

Enraged at the government’s inability to clamp down on the practice, local women have doubled up as vigilantes in a bid to rescue women from the dedication ceremony.

“Dedications of joginis typically occur between the months of February and May when people in our region celebrate the festival of the goddess Yellamma,” Subbiriyala Sharada, head of an all-jogini women’s group in Vellpoor, tells IPS.

“Our group strictly monitors the celebrations and if we get to know a girl has been dedicated to the goddess, we immediately call the police.”

Having been apathetic to the plight of joginis for decades, police are gradually beginning to act in accordance with the law, largely due to pressure from local activist groups. However, their progress is very slow, and activists carry the lion’s share of the burden of reporting violations of the law and ensuring the arrest of perpetrators.

But this, too, only solves part of the problem, because as soon as the dedication ritual is performed, the girl will continue to live with the stigma – remaining vulnerable to sexual slavery – until she is either properly rehabilitated, or until the end of her life.

Activists are currently lobbying the Indian government to divert resources from its ‘Special Component Plan’ – which provides social and economic support to marginalised communities in the form of vocational training, financial loans and alternative livelihood opportunities – to the rehabilitation of joginis, who have long been excluded from government assistance schemes.

Their inclusion as legitimate recipients of aid would significantly reduce the burden on most jogini women, who struggle – among other things – to raise their children in a safe environment.

According to Neelaiah, children of joginis risk verbal abuse and alienation in the community if their mother’s identity is revealed. Girl children are particularly vulnerable, as they face the double risk of being trafficked or forcible dedicated to the deity in their mother’s place.

These girl children are in special need of protection, she says.

Both Neelaiah and Nirmala are helping to send children of joginis to school, which they feel is the best way to protect them.

Fifteen-year-old Prashant, son of a former jogini named Ganga Mani, is one of the lucky ones who managed to complete the 10th grade and is now planning to enroll in a high school.

Mani, who is barely literate, is pinning all her hopes on her son for a better future. “One day he will become a big police officer. Our life will then change,” she tells IPS with a smile.


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

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

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

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

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

But the group is getting a fresh start.

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

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

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

But the top priority has been planting trees.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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A Honduran Paradise that Doesn’t Want to Anger the Sea Again Wed, 26 Mar 2014 13:17:57 +0000 Thelma Mejia One of the walkways built by the community of Santa Rosa de Aguán to connect the local houses with the beach to preserve the sand dunes. Credit: Thelma Mejía/IPS

One of the walkways built by the community of Santa Rosa de Aguán to connect the local houses with the beach to preserve the sand dunes. Credit: Thelma Mejía/IPS

By Thelma Mejía
SANTA ROSA DE AGUÁN, Honduras , Mar 26 2014 (IPS)

At the mouth of the Aguán river on the Caribbean coast of Honduras, a Garífuna community living in a natural paradise that was devastated 15 years ago by Hurricane Mitch has set an example of adaptation to climate change.

“We don’t want to make the sea angry again, we don’t want a repeat of what happened with Mitch, which destroyed so many houses in the town – nearly all of the ones along the seashore,” community leader Claudina Gamboa, 35, told IPS.

Around the coastal town of Santa Rosa de Aguán, the stunning landscape is almost as pristine as when the first Garífunas came to Honduras in the 18th century.

The people who came from the sea

The Garífunas make up 10 percent of the population of 8.5 million of Honduras, which they reached over two centuries ago.

The Garífunas are descendants of Africans captured and brought to the region by European slave ships that sank in the 17th century off the island of Yarumei – now St. Vincent – where they settled and intermarried with native Carib and Arawak people.

From St. Vincent, which was under British dominion, they were expelled in 1797 to the Honduran island of Roatán. Later, the Spanish colonialists allowed them to move to the mainland, and they spread along the Caribbean coast of Honduras and other Central American countries.

To reach Santa Rosa de Aguán, founded in 1886 and home to just over 3,000 people, IPS drove by car for 12 hours from Tegucigalpa through five of this Central American country’s 18 departments or provinces, until reaching the village of Dos Bocas, 567 km northeast of the capital.

From this village on the mainland, a small boat runs to Santa Rosa de Aguán, located on the sand in the delta of the Aguán river, whose name in the Garífuna language means “abundant waters.”

Half of the trip is on roads in terrible conditions, which become unnerving when it gets dark. But after crossing the river late at night, under a starry sky with a sea breeze caressing the skin, the journey finally comes to a peaceful end.

A three-year project to help the sand dunes recover, which was completed in 2013, was carried out by the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) through the Global Environment Facility’s (GEF) Small Grants Programme, with additional support from the Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation (SDC).

The project sought to generate conditions that would enable the local community to adapt to the risks of climate change and protect the natural ecosystem of the dunes.

The initiative enlisted 40 local volunteers, almost all of them women, who went door to door to raise awareness on the importance of protecting the environment and to educate people about the risks posed by climate change.

“They called them crazy, and thought the people working on that were stupid, but I asked them ‘don’t stop, just keep doing it.’ Now there is greater awareness and people have seen the winds aren’t hitting so hard,” Atanasia Ruíz, a former deputy mayor of the town (2008-2014) and a survivor of Hurricane Mitch, told IPS.

She and Gamboa said the women played an essential role in raising awareness on climate change, and added that thanks to their efforts, the project left an imprint on the white sand and the local inhabitants.

People in the community now understand the importance of protecting the coastal system and preserving the dunes, and have learned to organise behind that goal, Gamboa said. “It’s really touching to see the old women from our town picking up garbage for recycling,” she said.

The sand dunes act as natural protective barriers that keep the wind or waves from smashing into the town during storms.

“When the sea got mad, it made us pay. When Mitch hit, everything here was flattened, it was just horrible,” Gamboa said.

Some people left town, she said, “because we were told that we couldn’t live here, that it was too vulnerable and that the sea would always flood us because there was no way to keep it out.

“But many of us stayed, and with the knowledge they gave us, we know how to protect ourselves and our town,” she said, proudly pointing out how the vegetation has begun to grow in the dunes.

In late October 1998, Hurricane Mitch left 11,000 dead and 8,000 missing in Honduras, while causing enormous economic losses and damage to infrastructure.

Santa Rosa de Aguán was hit especially hard, with storm surges up to five metres high. The bodies of more than 40 people from the town were found, while others went missing.

The effort to recover the sand dunes along the coast included the construction of wide wooden walkways to protect the sand.

In addition, the remains of cinder block houses destroyed by Mitch were finally removed, to prevent them from inhibiting the natural formation of dunes.

The project also introduced recycling, to clear garbage from the beach and the sandy unpaved streets of this town, where visitors are greeted with “buiti achuluruni”, which means “welcome” in the Garífuna language.

Lícida Nicolasa Gómez is an 18-year-old member of the Garífuna community who prefers to be called “Alondra”, her nickname since childhood.

“I loved it when they invited me to the dunes and recycling project, because we were deforesting the dunes, hurting them, destroying the vegetation, but we’re not doing that anymore,” she said.

“We even made a mural on one of the walls of the community centre, to remember what kind of town we wanted,” she added, with a broad smile.

The mural of scraps of plastic and other recyclable materials made on the community centre wall by the people of Santa Rosa de Aguán to celebrate their way of life and the beauty of Garífuna women, and remind the town of the need to mitigate climate change. Credit: Thelma Mejía/IPS

The mural of scraps of plastic and other recyclable materials made on the community centre wall by the people of Santa Rosa de Aguán to celebrate their way of life and the beauty of Garífuna women, and remind the town of the need to mitigate climate change. Credit: Thelma Mejía/IPS

The mural includes scraps of plastic, metal, tiles and bottle tops. It reflects the beauty of the Garífunas, showing people fishing, crops of mandioc and plantain, and the sea and bright sun, while reflecting the desire to live in harmony with the environment.

The sand dunes are up to five metres high in this small town at the mouth of a river that runs through the country’s tropical rainforest.

Hugo Galeano, from GEF’s Small Grants Programme, told IPS that Santa Rosa de Aguán became even more vulnerable after Hurricane Mitch, which affected the local livelihoods based on fishing, farming and livestock.

For this community built between the river and the sea, flooding is one of the main threats to survival, said the representative of the GEF programme.

Ricardo Norales, 80, told IPS that, although the sand dunes and vegetation are growing, “the location of our community means we are still exposed to inclement weather.

“With the project, we saw how the wind and the sea don’t penetrate our homes as much anymore. But we need this kind of aid to be more sustainable,” he said.

The history of Santa Rosa de Aguán is marked by the impact of tropical storms and hurricanes, which have hit the town directly or indirectly many times since it was founded.

But the sand dunes are once again taking shape along the shoreline, where the community has built walkways to the sea.

Local inhabitants want their town to be seen as an example of adaptation to climate change and the construction of alternatives making survival possible. Several of them said they did not want an “ayó” – good-bye in Garífuna – for their community.

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Brazilian Innovation for Under-financed Mozambican Agriculture Wed, 12 Mar 2014 08:15:41 +0000 Amos Zacarias Erasmo Laldás on his strawberry farm in Naamacha, Mozambique. Credit: Amos Zacarias/IPS

Erasmo Laldás on his strawberry farm in Naamacha, Mozambique. Credit: Amos Zacarias/IPS

By Amos Zacarias
MAPUTO, Mar 12 2014 (IPS)

Some of the technological excellence that revolutionised Brazil’s tropical agriculture is reaching small producers in Mozambique. But it is not enough to compensate for the underfinancing of the sector.

Last year, Erasmo Laldás, a 37-year-old farmer who has worked for 15 years in Namaacha, a village 75 kilometres from Mozambique’s capital Maputo, planted 15,000 seedlings of Festival, a new strawberry variety originated in the United States.

Laldás produced seven tonnes of strawberries, employing eight workers. He sold all his produce in Maputo, and in January was the lead vendor in that market, because there was already a shortage of the fruit in South Africa, his main competitor.Mozambique invests very little in the agricultural sector, although it has been increasing its expenditure. In 2013 it devoted 7.6 percent of its budget to agriculture, equivalent to some six billion dollars.

“The fruit is very good quality, it does not require as many chemical products as the South African strawberries and its harvesting season is longer than the native variety that I was growing before,” he told IPS.

Laldás is the first Mozambican producer to benefit from Brazilian and U.S. aid through technical support to the Mozambique Food and Nutrition Security Programme (PSAL).

Created in 2012, the project brings together the Mozambique Institute of Agricultural Research (IIAM), the Brazilian Agricultural Research Corporation (EMBRAPA) and the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), to expand production and distribution capabioities for fruit and vegetables in this African country.

First of all, studies were needed to adapt seeds to the local climate.

IIAM received more than 90 varieties of tomato, cabbage, lettuce, carrot and pepper, which are being tested at the Umbeluzi Agricultural Station, 25 kilometres from Maputo.

“The results of the trials are encouraging; we identified 17 varieties that have the desired phytosanitary characteristics, and are ready to be distributed to farmers.

“We are waiting for them to be registered and approved under the seal of Mozambique,” IIAM researcher Carvalho Ecole told IPS, regretting that his country has not registered new fruit and vegetable varieties for the past 50 years.

Fruit and vegetable growing is a key sector for generating employment and income among small farmers, as this produce represents 20 percent of family expenditure, according to Ecole.

“For a long time, horticulture was neglected. When talking about food security the government thought only about maize, sorghum and cassava,” Ecole said. Moreover, “our producers still do not have credit or financing,” he complained.

South Africa is the largest supplier of fruit and vegetables for southern Mozambique. IIAM figures show that prior to 2010, nearly all the onions, 65 percent of tomatoes and 57 percent of cabbages consumed in the cities of Maputo and Matola were South African. And those proportions have been maintained.

As a result, prices are high. A kilo of tomatoes costs between 50 and 60 meticals (between 1.60 and 2 dollars) and onions a little less. When the new varieties that have been tested are available for national small farmers, prices will be lower, Ecole said.

Mozambique also imports mangos, bananas, oranges, avocados, strawberries and other fruit from South Africa.

“We need to train and empower local small farmers so that in the years to come they can produce enough to supply the domestic market,” José Bellini, EMBRAPA’s coordinator in Mozambique, told IPS.

Agricultural cooperation is the path chosen by Brazil, ever since the Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva government (2003-2011), to consolidate its development aid policy, especially in Africa.

Embrapa, a state body made up of 47 research centres located throughout Brazil and several agencies abroad, has worked to transfer part of the knowledge of tropical agriculture accumulated over its 41 years of existence to other countries of the developing South. Its office for Africa was installed in Ghana.

But Brazil’s presence in Mozambique became unequalled with the creation of ProSAVANA, the Triangular Co-operation Programme for Agricultural Development of the Tropical Savannah in Mozambique, supported by the Brazilian and Japanese cooperation agencies (ABC and JICA, respectively), inspired by the experience that made the South American power a granary for the world and the largest exporter of soya.

The goal in the next two decades is to benefit directly 400,000 small and medium farmers and indirectly another 3.6 million, strengthening production and productivity in the northern Nacala Corridor.

Brazil is to build a laboratory for soil and plant analysis in the city of Lichinga. Embrapa is training IIAM researchers and modernising two local research centres.

But ProSAVANA is a controversial programme.

Small farmers and activists are afraid that it will reproduce Brazilian problems, such as the predominance of agribusiness, monoculture, the concentration of land tenure and production by only a few transnational companies, in a country like Mozambique where 80 percent of the population is engaged in family agriculture.

Students at the Agrarian Middle Institute in Inhambane study the development of a variety of lettuce at the Umbeluzi Agricultural Station in Mozambique. Credit: Amos Zacarias/IPS

Students at the Agrarian Middle Institute in Inhambane study the development of a variety of lettuce at the Umbeluzi Agricultural Station in Mozambique. Credit: Amos Zacarias/IPS

Supporting the PSAL makes sense in a very different way. It focuses on vegetable growing, and is clearly aimed at small producers and improving local nutrition. But it suffers from limitations of scale and resources.

“We cannot improve our production system without investment. We have taken a giant step, there is more research and technology transfer, but large investments are needed as well,” said Ecole.

Mozambique invests very little in the agricultural sector, although it has been increasing its expenditure. In 2013 it devoted 7.6 percent of its budget to agriculture, equivalent to some six billion dollars.

Thirty percent of the country’s population are hungry, according to 2012 figures from the Technical Secretariat for Food and Nutrition Security. And nearly 80,000 children under the age of five die every year from malnutrition, according to Save the Children, an NGO.

There is no justification for these figures in Mozambique, which has a favourable climate and plentiful labour for large-scale agricultural production, Ecole said.

Namaacha illustrates the contradiction. It is the only district in the country that produces strawberries. It was able to supply the entire Maputo market, but many producers were bankrupted by lack of credit, said Cecília Ruth Bila, the head of the fruits section in IIAM.

“The small farmers find it difficult to get financing, and our banks do not help much, so producers give up,” she complained.

Nearly 150 strawberry farmers in Namaacha gave up growing them in the last five years because they lacked access to credit, according to information from the section.

Laldás is one of the few to continue. Perhaps that is why his dreams are so ambitious. This year he has asked for 150,000 seedlings to expand his growing area to three hectares, and meanwhile he is seeking financing to put in electricity, three greenhouses, an irrigation system and a small improvement industry.

“It will cost me a total of nearly six million meticals [nearly 200,000 dollars],” he said with optimism.

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

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Rich Railroad Brings Few Opportunities in Brazil Fri, 28 Feb 2014 01:03:22 +0000 Mario Osava Informal vendors sell food and drinks to passengers on the Carajás Railroad at Alto Alegre do Pindaré, in the northwest of the Brazilian state of Maranhão. This source of income will disappear when the trains are modernised and their windows sealed shut. Credit: Mario Osava/IPS

Informal vendors sell food and drinks to passengers on the Carajás Railroad at Alto Alegre do Pindaré, in the northwest of the Brazilian state of Maranhão. This source of income will disappear when the trains are modernised and their windows sealed shut. Credit: Mario Osava/IPS

By Mario Osava

The Carajás railroad, regarded as the most efficient in Brazil, runs a loss-making passenger service for the benefit of the population. But this does little to make amends for its original sin: it was created to export minerals and crosses an area of chronic poverty.

Three decades after it was built, the Carajás corridor, or area of influence, of the railway that transports one-third of the iron ore exported by Brazil remains a supplier of cheap labour for more prosperous regions and large projects in the Amazon, IPS found in a visit to the region.“The Vale train has brought me only woe and loss." -- Evangelista da Silva

Auzilandia, a village of 12,000 people and humble dwellings either side of the tracks, “is empty” at the end of every year, according to Leide Diniz. Her husband has gone, “for the second time,” over 3,000 kilometres south to the state of Santa Catarina, a three-day bus journey.

He left their three children with her in November to work in a restaurant during the tourist season in the southern hemisphere summer. “He earns some money and comes back,” said his wife, who accepts the situation because “there are no jobs here.”

For the past few years most of the unemployed workers in Alto Alegre do Pindaré, a municipality of 31,000 people, have migrated to Santa Catarina for seasonal work. Auzilandia is part of this municipality in the heartland of Maranhão, a transition state between the semi-arid northeast of Brazil and the Amazon rainforest.

The main street of Auzilandia, a village of 12,000 people in the municipality of Alto Alegre do Pindaré. Many adults here migrate 3,000 kilometres to the south in the southern hemisphere summer for work, because of the lack of opportunities in this village bisected by the Carajás Railroad. Credit: Mario Osava/IPS

The main street of Auzilandia, a village of 12,000 people in the municipality of Alto Alegre do Pindaré. Many adults here migrate 3,000 kilometres to the south in the southern hemisphere summer for work, because of the lack of opportunities in this village bisected by the Carajás Railroad. Credit: Mario Osava/IPS

Two-thirds of the 892 kilometres of the Carajás Railroad go through Maranhão, but this state continues to send workers to many other regions of the country, in general for temporary or precarious work, like artisanal gold mining in Amazonia or harvesting sugarcane.

It is also the main source of the victims of modern slavery, especially in stock raising and charcoal making. Its Human Development Index is next to last among the 27 Brazilian states and its per capita income is the lowest.

The Carajás Railroad and the transnational Brazilian mining giant Vale, that has the concession, will have a new opportunity to aid local development. Its tracks, so far one-way,  are in the process of being made two-way, and mining extraction in the Serra dos Carajás (Carajás mountains) in the Amazonian state of Pará is about to be doubled up.

From 2018, some 230 million tonnes a year of the highest grade iron ore on the world market will be extracted.

The railway widening will extend to the deep water port of Ponta da Madeira in São Luis, the capital of Maranhão, which exports the production of  Carajás, including manganese, copper and other minerals that make Vale the second largest minerals exporter in the world.

An investment of 19.5 billion dollars is required, most of it in logistics.

Accidents, in spite of safety measures

His grandparents were working in the field, his mother was hand-pounding rice in a mortar and his older brother was cutting his hair. No one noticed when the 15-month-old baby crawled across the patio, through the gate and reached the railway a few metres away.

This is how Leidiane de Oliveira Conceição relates the tragic story of how she lost her son.

“The Vale train has brought me only woe and loss. The worst thing was when it killed my grandson, but once it also ran over 14 bred (pregnant) cows of mine,” complained grandfather Evangelista da Silva, who is claiming an indemnity for land taken over by the railway.

Vale’s trains are regarded as the safest in Brazil.

Safety features include electronic barriers, viaducts, information campaigns and 24-hour patrols that remove “more than 80 at-risk people a month,” like those intoxicated with drink or visually impaired, according to Elmer Vinhote, a supervisor at the Carajás Railroad operational control centre.

Accidents and crashes have fallen from 20 in 2009 to “three or four” a year now, he said.

But accidents and legal disputes seem inevitable. Mario Farias’ mother was killed by a train in 1996 and they have still not received the indemnity. In Auzilandia, an inebriated old man was saved by the patrol a few months ago, according to local people.

Dozens of families complain of cracks in their houses, caused by the construction of a viaduct over the rails, and are claiming new houses further away, or indemnities.

At its peak, railroad construction will employ 8,645 workers, Vale said. There will be 1,438 permanent jobs when the dual-track railway comes into operation and the priority will be to hire local people, the company promised.

A drop in the bucket towards development in such a vast area of influence. The most significant aid will come from the social investments of this company, one of the most profitable in Brazil.

A new mining bill, to be approved this year, will compel a small proportion of Vale’s income to be spent for the benefit of municipalities that are indirectly impacted by its activities.

To ensure these and other resources and to make better use of them, the 23 municipalities on the path of the railroad in Maranhão have joined forces to coordinate their actions and their relations with Vale.

The company assessed local economic interests and designed “projects for each micro-region along the railroad,” according to Zenaldo Oliveira, Vale’s director of logistics operations. In one community it may fund a cassava flour mill, in another fruit growing and juice production, he said.

Vale, founded by the state in 1942 and privatised in 1997, only supports education, health and income generation initiatives, he said, because these have been identified as the major problems hindering local development.

At present, with a single track for both directions, there are 12 freight trains daily from Carajás to São Luis. The trains are said to be the longest in the world, with 330 railcars, four locomotives, and each carrying more than 30,000 tonnes of minerals, totalling over 100 million tonnes a year.

On the return journey they carry fuel, fertiliser and other products consumed in the interior.

Passenger trains operating at subsidised fares, because “the local population is unable to afford the real cost,” provide the “social benefit” of cheap, permanent transport in a region where the rains often make roads impassable, Oliveira said.

At 15 stops, especially at Alto Alegre do Pindaré, vendors of cold drinks and food, most of them women, swarm to the train offering their wares to the railroad’s 360,000 passengers a year through the open windows.

This precarious income may disappear with the new project, as the cars will be air conditioned and the windows will be closed. “We will seek solutions” before the changeover, perhaps organising vendor cooperatives, Vale’s Oliveira said.

A workers and vendors cooperative has existed in Alto Alegre for some time, founded with support from Vale. Ten years ago it used to sell food to the railroad’s canteen, but “only for a short time,” according to its 58-year-old coordinator, Alice Cunegundes, a mother of three.

Afterwards the cooperative, which had as many as 93 members, supplied up to 3,000 meals a day to the mayor’s office, until the present mayor, elected in 2012, cancelled the arrangement, knocking the stuffing out of the initiative, she complained.

Supporting enterprise, improving schools and training thousands of workers are some of the social and environmental actions of Vale and its Foundation.

But “they are one-off projects that do not promote effective development in the territory,” said George Pereira, the executive secretary of the Itaquí-Bacanga Community Association, another “product of Vale’s social investments,” which serves 58 neighbourhoods around Ponta da Madeira.

Moreover, they are inadequate compensation for the damages suffered by the population of the Carajás corridor, according to Justiça Nos Trilhos (Justice on the Tracks), a campaign made up of social and religious movements to defend the rights of the people affected by the railroad.

In 2012, its denunciations and those of Articulaçao Internacional dos Atingidos pela Vale (International Network of People Affected by Vale) led to the company being selected for The Public Eye award, created by international organisations like Greenpeace to single out the worst corporate offenders against human rights and the environment.

Fatal accidents, pollution with mineral dust and cracks in houses close to the railway line are some of the impacts on local people.

The railroad must answer for its own sins as well as those of its twin partner, iron mining. It is also part of the Programa Grande Carajás (Grand Carajás Programme), a group of mining, steel, aluminium, pulp and paper, ranching and hydropower companies with which the government intended to develop the eastern Amazon region in the 1980s.

The programme created accelerated deforestation, lethal pollution around iron industry centres, slave labour and other forms of violence, while there was little progress in human development, acording to the statistics.

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North Korea Doing Fine Without the South Thu, 27 Feb 2014 09:15:43 +0000 Ahn Mi Young A new ski resort opened in North Korea last year is drawing many tourists. Credit: Koryo Tours, Beijing.

A new ski resort opened in North Korea last year is drawing many tourists. Credit: Koryo Tours, Beijing.

By Ahn Mi Young
SEOUL, Feb 27 2014 (IPS)

If the North Korea of the 1990s was seen as a starving nation that produced an exodus of hungry people, then the picture should be even gloomier now – six years after it stopped receiving South Korea’s generous aid. But it’s not. The nation of 24 million people, widely said to be the most secretive in the world and a nuclear threat, appears to have weathered the years well.

Today, more people are reported to be better off. Many are engaged in trade. Its communist regime, inherited by the 30-something supreme leader of North Korea Kim Jong-Un after his father’s death in 2011, is actively wooing foreign investors and tourists, and introducing reforms. Pyongyang has even softened its attitude towards Seoul to resume talks.

North Korea has been gradually weaned off South Korean food and goods.Ordinary North Koreans no longer depend on rations from Pyongyang as these have more than halved in the past years.

From 1998 to 2007, the liberal government in Seoul used to supply some 400,000 tonnes of rice, large quantities of milk powder and medicines for infants, cement and construction equipment and fertilisers to North Korea each year. Truckloads of cargo used to cross the heavily-fortified border that has separated the two Koreas since the 1950 to 1953 Korean war.

Each month, thousands of South Korean tourists used to visit the North’s scenic Mount Kumgang, yielding millions of dollars for Pyongyang.

But ties between the two Koreas almost froze after a conservative government took office in Seoul in 2008. South Korea halted all trade with North Korea, and most investment, in May 2010 after the sinking of one of its warships, which Seoul attributed to Pyongyang.

The loss of Seoul as its largest donor resulted in Pyongyang becoming more dependent on China, its largest benefactor and only ally. According to the Korea International Trade Association (KITA), from 2012 to 2013, bilateral trade between China and North Korea increased 10 percent to 6.54 billion dollars.

North Korea has also been forced to become more self-reliant.

There are more now of the so-called “middle class” businessmen, including about 240,000 North Koreans who own 50,000-100,000 dollars worth of assets like apartments, according to the Chosun Ilbo newspaper published from Seoul.

“These new middle classes indicate that Pyongyang allows farmers or ordinary people to do business in the market. Earlier, doing business was unthinkable unless they proved their loyalty to the communist party,” an unnamed Seoul official was quoted as saying in the newspaper.

North Korean defectors in South Korea explain that these well off people are usually former farmers, traders or diplomats. A recent Media Research survey of 200 North Korean defectors indicates that at least 80 percent of ordinary North Koreans are engaged in local trade.

Ordinary North Koreans no longer depend on rations from Pyongyang as these have more than halved in the past years. The so-called “super-class apartments” in the North Korean capital are sold at rates of 100,000 dollars each.

According to the World Food Programme (WFP), fewer North Koreans now say they need more food. Its 2013 survey says 46 percent of respondents have “adequate” food compared to 26 percent in the 2012 survey.

If all this is any indication, then the suspension of aid from Seoul created only short-term difficulties for the North, but in the long run it helped reform the economy.

With no food or aid from the South, workers who used to handle these supplies lost their jobs and had to find something else to do. “Many of them became sellers who are hawking in one market after another,” said Joo Sung-Ha, a Seoul-based North Korea expert.

Also, as the U.S. mounts pressure on China to make North Korea denounce nuclear weapons, Pyongyang will have to continue looking for other sources of funds, say analysts.

Already, North Korea has launched a series of reforms. In June 2012, it introduced a “family farm” system, wherein each farm family gives 30 percent of its harvest to the government and keeps the rest as its private wealth.

North Korea also announced the construction of 14 economic zones, where foreign investors can do business.

This January, a new ski resort was opened in the western city of Wonsan where foreign tourists can mingle with locals and drink European beers and even Coca-Cola.

Pyongyang has also proposed resumption of talks with Seoul. This month, for the first time after 2007, high-level officials from the two Koreas sat down to discuss the reunion of families separated during the 1950 to 1953 war.

Kim Jong-Un has reason to reform. He leads a nation that is perceived as a nuclear threat to the world. To reinforce his legitimacy, he must reduce the country’s heavy dependence on China and try to open up the economy.

But can such reforms bring about real change?

Kim Jong-Un, who succeeded his father Kim Jong-Il and grandfather Kim Il-Sung, is being accused of encouraging cult loyalty to keep his family in power. Last year, he purged the country’s number two leader, his uncle Jang Seong-Thack, executing him on treason charges.

“Kim is now terrifying the nation by sending hundreds of Mr. Jang’s men to concentration camps,” according to Cho Myong-Chull, a lawmaker in South Korea who used to be a professor at North Korea’s Kim Il-Sung University in Pyongyang.

Many North Koreans say their government cares more about itself than feeding its people. Around 90 percent of those surveyed by Media Research feel there is a wide gap between the rich and the poor today due to the emergence of the new rich. Industries have been hit by lack of electricity.

But at the same time, more North Koreans are getting to know about the outside world. The Media Research survey of North Korean defectors finds that 70 percent of them had already seen South Korean TV dramas and heard K-pop songs while living in North Korea.

More than three million North Koreans are believed to own cell phones. Most defectors settled in South Korea speak to their family members back home through mobile phones.

There are more than 26,100 North Korean defectors living in South Korea. They say that in the 1990s they left home to escape hunger. But since 2007, more left in search of a better life and better education for their children.

In recent years, North Korea has tried to woo back defectors instead of persecuting them. In fact, fewer people have left for South Korea since Kim Jong-Un took power, according to the South Korean Ministry of Unification.

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Where Would You Like Your New Glacier? Mon, 24 Feb 2014 14:18:18 +0000 Marianela Jarroud El Morado Superior glacier in the Andes mountain chain in central Chile. Credit: Orlando Ruz/IPS

El Morado Superior glacier in the Andes mountain chain in central Chile. Credit: Orlando Ruz/IPS

By Marianela Jarroud
SANTIAGO, Feb 24 2014 (IPS)

The idea sounds like harebrained science-fiction, but the accelerated retreat of glaciers due to global warming and the effects of mining is leading scientists to seek to restore or recreate these valuable reservoirs of fresh water.

“There are a number of technologies for saving and creating new glaciers,” Chilean glaciologist Cedomir Marangunic told Tierramérica.“To create a new glacier the natural process must be simulated, that is, winter snow accumulation must be greater than the summer melting. And that is not difficult to achieve; the main thing is to do it at minimum cost and in an environmentally sustainable way.” – Cedomir Marangunic

This sounds like a sweet promise for Chile, a mining country with at least 3,100 glaciers, most of which are clearly retreating, according to official data.

Glaciers, huge masses of ice and recrystallised snow, store 69 percent of the planet’s fresh water. They form when annual snowfall exceeds the amount of snow melted in summer, and accumulate enormous amounts of material over geologically short time frames.

But when it comes to the work of human hands, the time needed to create a glacier depends on the money invested, Marangunic said. The minimum time for a sufficient mass of snow to turn completely to ice is three years, he said.

“The natural process must be simulated, that is, winter snow accumulation must be greater than the summer melting. And that is not difficult to achieve; the main thing is to do it at minimum cost and in an environmentally sustainable way,” said Marangunic, a geologist at the University of Chile who holds a doctorate in glaciology from Ohio State University in the United States.

The techniques he has tested “aim at reducing melting on the ice surface, or at increasing snow accumulation,” he said.

In experiments in Chile, an artificial deposit of ice was covered with rocky detritus, which reduced ablation (the loss of ice mass) to one-quarter or one-fifth of normal, the expert told Tierramérica.

Marangunic heads a company that carries out research projects on glaciers, snow and avalanches. In 2007 he did an experiment transporting a mass of ice from one place to another.

Using mining trucks, 30,000 tonnes of ice were taken in one day to a pre-prepared site. In its original location, the ice was retreating 15 cm per year, while in the new site it retreated 30 cm the first year, but then less and less, as expected. In 2012, the ice retreated only three centimetres.

The expert tried transforming an ice field into a small glacier, by putting up barriers like those used for avalanche protection or on ski pistes, and modifying them to change wind direction during storms. This had the effect of doubling snow accumulation.

Among the most frequently used techniques is “covering part of the glacier surface with geotextile sheets, which reduces surface ablation,” the glaciologist said.

Marangunic pointed out that care was needed, for example, when a glacier suffers impacts and “water flows into the glacier’s basin due to rapid melting of the ice mass, but is then removed for artificial snow accumulation.”

The whole process, he said, “may affect the local ecosystem, which must be managed in order to avoid harm.”

In the view of Matías Asun, the head of Greenpeace Chile, these studies are inconclusive and “provide no basis to indicate they may be viable, sufficient, successful, cost-effective technologies, let alone that they may be applicable to all areas where there are glaciers.”

In a dry winter, for instance, there would not be enough snow for the accumulation a new glacier needs. And, because of climate change, it is expected that there will be increasingly more dry winters, Asun said.

“I don’t doubt the good intentions of those who are trying to develop strategies to protect glaciers, because it is a fact that many of the risks could be minimised,” Asun told Tierramérica.

“The key thing is to protect existing glaciers effectively. The glaciers are there, and they should stay there,” he said.

In Latin America, 82 percent of the reserves of fresh water in glaciers are in Chile, according to Greenpeace. But a large proportion of Chilean glaciers are, or will be, threatened by climate change and the actions of the mining industry.

“They are a strategic water reserve and an important part of the region’s heritage, yet at the moment they are not protected by law,” as they are in neighbouring Argentina, Asun said.

Current legislation allows a productive project to encroach on a glacier, if the impact is stated in the environmental impact study and some form of compensation is made.

In a recent appearance before parliament, glaciologist Alexander Brenning, of the University of Waterloo in Canada, said the magnitude of interventions on glaciers in Chile was unparalleled in the world, and he urged that the cumulative effects be assessed.

Parliament is studying a bill that would include a clear definition of glaciers and a permanent register of them.

In Marangunic’s view, it is essential that the definition does not close off a large part of the territory to all kinds of activities, such as tourism or development projects, “without contributing anything to the permanence of glaciers.”

The ownership status of glaciers must be established, especially those situated on private land, he said.

“Will they be able to be purchased and traded, as happens with water rights?” asked the expert, referring to the Water Code of the dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet (1973-1990), which made water a private resource.

Mining projects like the Anglo American company’s Los Bronces, the state Chile Copper Corporation’s Andina 244 and Escalones, and Barrick Gold’s Pascua Lama, are the main threat to several glaciers in this country, according to environmentalists.

For Marangunic, in contrast, while “some mining” may damage glaciers, “environmental pollution in big cities like Santiago, or smoke from burning pastures and forests,” also affect the ice masses.

Therefore, in his view, the future law must be even-handed for all. “How can Santiago be penalised for producing the smog that affects the glaciers in the mountains?” he asked.

Stopping the retreat of a relatively small glacier can be achieved in a year. “But getting a glacier that has been shrinking for decades or centuries back to its original size will surely take as long again,” although a large investment may accelerate the process, he said.

In Asun’s view, “the urgent thing now is not to wait thousands of years to reproduce a glacier, to see if it works, but to proteet what is already there.”

Playing God “turns out like we saw in Jurassic Park. Since the glaciers are there, let’s protect them,” he concluded.

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

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Refugees Ski Too, in Iraq Sun, 16 Feb 2014 10:19:11 +0000 Jewan Abdi Igor Urizar teaches Syrian refugees to ski on the slopes of Iraqi Kurdistan. Credit: Nuzha Ezzat/IPS.

Igor Urizar teaches Syrian refugees to ski on the slopes of Iraqi Kurdistan. Credit: Nuzha Ezzat/IPS.

By Jewan Abdi
PENJWIN, Iraqi Kurdistan, Feb 16 2014 (IPS)

No one here has heard of the Sochi Winter Olympics. But the snow conditions are perfect in these Kurdish mountains of Iraq and 11-year-old Syrian refugee Hassan Khishman is thrilled to glide on skis for the first time.

“It’s brought back the good times with friends in Syria,” the Syrian Kurd boy tells IPS after sliding down a tiny slope.

Located on the Iranian border around 300 km northeast of Baghdad, the mountain village Penjwin was known as a major hub of refugees fleeing Saddam Hussein’s campaigns. Smugglers’ caravans still cross these rugged border valleys with all sorts of goods packed on mule backs. Mines continue to pose a major concern."I only hope that they will be able to do this again, or any other activity that helps bring back their childhood - even if it is just for a few hours.”

But the area where locals have been skiing has been carefully chosen to avoid cruel surprises. War is becoming a distant memory for these highlanders. For some children like Hassan, the slopes have thrown up a happy surprise.

The youngsters have been brought here from refugee camps at the initiative of ski instructor Igor Urizar – a Spaniard who set up Iraq’s first ski school here – to help them escape the bitter memory of war.

“We fled Syria because of the war. There were many among us who died, and the food became very expensive,” says Hassan who left his native town Hasakah and crossed the border almost a year ago.

He now lives in the Arbad refugee camp in Suleymania province, 260 km northeast of Baghdad. It is one of six refugee settlements in the Kurdish autonomous region.

According to the UN, over 200,000 Syrian refugees have taken shelter in Iraq’s stable northern region. Huddled in tents, they’re all facing one of the coldest winters ever recorded in the region.

Helin Kaseer is three years older than Hassan and could identify those who forced her family to flee Girke Lege, a Kurdish village.

“We left Syria eight months ago because of the growing presence of Islamists in our area. There was a lot of fighting and several of my friends were kidnapped, so we couldn’t go to school,” explains the girl.

For her, too, the chance to ski has come as a “huge surprise”. She wishes there were more opportunities because “many more children from the camp wanted to come, but did not get the chance.”

Urizar, the man who initiated the skiing opportunity for the children, explains why the other children had to be left out.

“We have just enough equipment for a few dozen. Besides, getting the necessary permission for them to leave the camp for just one day has been a real nightmare,” says 38-year-old Uzirar, who planted the seeds of skiing in a place as improbable as Iraq.

Before his first visit to Penjwin in 2010, Urizar was a ski instructor in the northern Spanish region Navarra where every year about 5,000 schoolchildren enjoy a week of skiing in the Pyrenees.

With the support of the Tigris Association, a Basque-Kurdish NGO, his dream to export this project to the Kurdish mountains seems to be on the right track.

Local villagers as well as government officials are thrilled with Iraq’s first ski school here, and the second set up in Ranya, 430 km northeast of Baghdad.

Falah Salah, the Tigris local coordinator, ensures that the skiing project continues with the personal backing of Hero Khan, the wife of Iraqi President Jalal Talabani, for the second consecutive year.

Salah is planning to run for the Iraqi parliament in elections in April, so he’s passing on the baton to Khalid Mohamad Qadir, head of Penwjin’s Youth Centre.

“Three years ago, Tigris invited us to the Pyrenees to check the possibilities of cross-country skiing as part of sustainable development,” explains Qadir, as he tries to manage a bunch of anxious children waiting for their turn.

“Over the past two years, the Roncal Valley Ski School has trained young Kurds who are now teaching a growing number of visitors in our area. Most of them are Kurdish but we have recently had people from France and Holland too,” he says.

After putting on his boots over three pairs of socks, Mohamed Ibrahim is ready. The 13-year-old native of Tirbespiye, 600 km northeast of Damascus, smiles but says that nothing can help him forget what he witnessed in Syria.

“The jihadists began to harass and kill us in our area. There was no food, no oil. So we left just at the first opportunity to escape. I’ve never been so scared in my life,” he tells IPS.

As the children jump on a bus back to the camp, just before the sun sets behind the snow-capped peaks, Urizar seems relaxed. It has been a hectic and stressful week due to bureaucratic hurdles and rain forecast which, thankfully, proved wrong.

“I cannot help thinking that these kids will have to sleep in those tents again,” says Urizar, drying the skis before putting them away.

“I only hope that they will be able to do this again, or any other activity that helps bring back their childhood – even if it is just for a few hours.”


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Iron Hell in Brazil’s Amazon Region Mon, 10 Feb 2014 15:08:57 +0000 Mario Osava Florencio de Souza Bezerra points with his foot to a mound of dangerously inflammable charcoal dust on a roadside in Piquiá de Baixo. Credit: Mario Osava/IPS

Florencio de Souza Bezerra points with his foot to a mound of dangerously inflammable charcoal dust on a roadside in Piquiá de Baixo. Credit: Mario Osava/IPS

By Mario Osava
PIQUIÁ DE BAIXO, Brazil, Feb 10 2014 (IPS)

“My nephew was eight years old when he stepped in the ‘munha’ [charcoal dust] and burned his legs up to the knees,” said Angelita Alves de Oliveira from a corner of Brazil’s Amazonia that has become a deadly hazard for local people.

Treatment in faraway hospitals did not save the boy’s life, because “his blood had become toxic, the doctor said,” said Oliveira, 61, who has been working as a teacher for the last 30 years. “My sister was never the same after she lost her youngest child.”

Oliveira’s own husband suffered from similar burns, as the scars on his legs show."An examination a year ago showed shadows on my lungs, and the doctor accused me of being a long-time smoker, but I have never touched a cigarette.” -- Angelita Alves de Oliveira

“Munha” is pulverised charcoal waste left over from the production of pig-iron, an intermediate in steel production. It has made the village of Piquiá de Baixo, in the Brazil’s eastern Amazon region, a tragic case study in industrial pollution.

Piquiá is a rural village in Açailandia municipality in the state of Maranhão, which grew out of workers’ camps set up in 1958 to build the Belém-Brasilia highway, a major axis of development and integration in the centre-north of Brazil, which was responsible for several environmental and social disasters.

The railway that opened in 1985 to transport iron ore from the huge mining province of Carajás sealed the fate of Açailandia as a logistics crossroads and steel industry hub. Piquiá de Baizo was hemmed in by five pig-iron plants, the railway and large mining storehouses.

Making charcoal to feed the steel furnaces was added to traditional cattle ranching, and transformed Açailandia into a focal point for deforestation and slave labour.

These blights have receded in the face of state persecution and various pressures. But pollution in Piquiá has worsened, according to the testimonies of people interviewed by IPS.

Pulverised charcoal waste is still a menace. Dryness makes it inflammable at the lightest touch. This is what cost Oliveira’s nephew his life in 1993, when few people knew how lethal the black dust was.

A family smiles for the camera from the shade of a tree. The highway separates them from the pig-iron plants that are making like impossible in their neighbourhood. Credit: Mario Osava/IPS

A family smiles for the camera from the shade of a tree. The highway separates them from the pig-iron plants that are making like impossible in their neighbourhood. Credit: Mario Osava/IPS

People took heed and accidents have become less frequent, but they have not been eradicated. A child of seven was burned to the waist in 1999 and died three weeks later.

“I have seen cows incinerated,” said Florencio de Souza Bezerra, who used to be a small-scale farmer and is now an active member of the Piquiá Residents Community Association. He has lived in Piquiá for 10 years with his nine children and two grandchildren, in a big wooden house with a large yard.

Mounds of munha can be seen in the streets where the steel plant trucks pass, and in at least one unroofed materials storehouse that IPS was able to enter unrestricted.

But the most frequent complaint of local people is the air pollution. “Just over a year ago a girl died from iron dust in her lungs and cancer, after 15 days in intensive care,” said Bezerra.

In the village square, he points out the houses where residents have died of respiratory illnesses.

Oliveira said “an examination a year ago showed shadows on my lungs, and the doctor accused me of being a long-time smoker, but I have never touched a cigarette.” She wants to “give life and hope” to her grandchildren, who live here “exposed to pollution 24 hours a day.”

“I have lived a long time, but my grandchildren haven’t,” said Oliveira. Her house is next to the Gusa Nordeste plant, one of the five industrial units that produce pig-iron.

The situation worsened “two years ago,” she said, when the company started producing cement. Now it spreads clouds of black dust that cover everything in seconds and, some mornings, make her house invisible from the main road, only 30 metres away.

For the company this has spelled progress, as they can use blast furnace slag as an input for cement production, avoiding bulky waste and providing the local construction market with a product that formerly had to be hauled in from a long way away.

Gusa Nordeste proclaims that it is being responsible for the environment because it uses munha as a fuel, saving granulated charcoal, and utilises gas derived from pig-iron production to generate all its electrical energy needs.

But the truth, recognised by the justice system, several authorities and the industry itself, is that air, water and soil pollution have made it impossible for the people of Piquiá de Baixo to continue to live where they have been for over four decades.

A proposal to resettle the 312 families living in Piquiá de Baixo on 38 hectares of land six kilometres from its present location has been approved by the justice system and the municipal council.

In December, justice authorities ordered the expropriation of the land and valued it at the equivalent of 450,000 dollars, but the owner is demanding four times that sum, so the residents of Piquiá are still waiting.

The community has come up with its own urban project, including the designs for the houses, the school, the square, shops and churches, said Antonio Soffientini, a member of Justice on the Rails, a network of dozens of organisations supporting those affected by the Carajás mining region.

Eroded street and dilapidated houses in Piquiá de Baixo. Residents have long waited for relocation on land expropriated by the justice system. Credit: Mario Osava/IPS

Eroded street and dilapidated houses in Piquiá de Baixo. Residents have long waited for relocation on land expropriated by the justice system. Credit: Mario Osava/IPS

In the mountain range of Serra dos Carajás, the giant mining company Vale extracts close to 110 million tonnes of iron ore a year. The ore is transported by rail 892 kilometres to the port of Ponta da Madeira in São Luis, the capital of Maranhão, to be exported.

A small proportion of the iron ore remains in Açailandia. As the supplier to the local pig-iron industry, Vale has direct responsibility for the pollution, according to Justice on the Rails.

“Vale could stop supplying ore until the industry instals filters and puts an end to the dreadful situation in Piquiá,” said Soffientini, an Italian member of the Catholic order of Comboni missionaries.

That would create an unemployment crisis in Açailandia, said Zenaldo Oliveira, Vale’s global director of logistics operations.

This steelmaking hub has already experienced a decline in activity since 2008. The 6,000 jobs it provided then have fallen to 3,500 today, according to Jarles Adelino, the president of the Açailandia metalworkers union.

The union leader complained of the high price charged by Vale for its iron ore, which amounts to half the cost of pig-iron production.

However, the declining activity is not apparent in the city of Açailandia, with its hotels filled to capacity and other signs of prosperity. Several plants in the surrounding area offer temporary work, said Adelino, and each position at a pig-iron plant generates 10 indirect jobs.

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

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A Google for India’s Poor Sat, 23 Nov 2013 08:42:38 +0000 Keya Acharya Tribal women from Chattisgarh in India record a message. Credit: Purushottam Thakur/IPS.

Tribal women from Chattisgarh in India record a message. Credit: Purushottam Thakur/IPS.

By Keya Acharya
RAIPUR, India, Nov 23 2013 (IPS)

Deep in the forests of central India live the Gond tribals, an almost forgotten lot, neglected as much by the state as by mainstream media. Many cannot read or write. But thanks to a new technology, and the rapid spread of mobile phones through India, they are now picking up their cell phone and making their voice heard.

A tele-news platform called CGNet Swara is helping change their world.

Ask Naresh Bunkar, a 38-year-old tribal in Chhattisgarh state who has used it time and again. “Computer mein chhappa jata hai” (“It gets typed on the computer”), he tells IPS proudly in Hindi, pointing out how CGNet Swara helps news spread through the Internet.

Through it, tribals air their grievances, share news and get administrative work done – all for free.

“I don’t need to pay one paisa for it,” says Bunkar, a field leader of sorts for tribals in the area.“It’s going to sound very strange for a computer nerd to tell you that technology is not the secret ingredient here.” - Bill Thies

It was through CGNet Swara that he first reported how a forest ranger had taken a bribe of 99,000 rupees (1,000 dollars) from 33 tribal families while promising them land deeds under India’s Forest Rights Act (2006). The news was circulated, and two months later he called again to say that the official had returned the money and apologised.

In another example of CGNet Swara’s influence, a teacher who had stolen school money, classroom furniture and food grains given by the government for tribal children was suspended after a report on his misdeeds was aired on the network.

Encouraged by such success stories, tribals have swiftly embraced CGNet Swara, which literally means ‘Chhattisgarh’s voice’ through the Internet. Started for the central Indian state, where 32.5 percent of the population is tribal, it is fast spreading to other parts of this vast country to reach out to areas that were beyond the pale of modern communication.

“While Indian states got divided on linguistic lines, the Gonds of central India were forgotten,” Shubhranshu Choudhary, a former BBC journalist, told IPS.

“They don’t have a newspaper in their native Gondi language, but the only new thing I have found on my return here is that most people now have cell phones,” he says.

Choudhary used that cell phone knowledge to set up CGNet Swara in 2010. The system operates in a region beset with Maoist insurgency. Its inhabitants often find themselves caught in the crossfire between the guerrillas and state forces.

A native of Chhattisgarh, he says the ferment in the region stems from years of neglect.

“We are trying to create another ‘development’ paradigm,” says Choudhary. “This communication system could well become the Google of the poor.”

Here’s how it works. When a tribal dials the number +91 80 500 68000, the message goes to a server in Bangalore. The caller disconnects and waits. Within seconds he receives a call and a recorded voice tells him to speak after the beep.

The server has been set up by Bill Thies, a self-confessed geek from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) working at Microsoft’s Research Laboratory in India’s IT capital Bangalore.

Using a simple desktop and modem, Thies used a freely available software called Asterisk to build 10 lines that automatically call back ‘missed call’ numbers and then record a two-minute message from the caller.

“But,” says Thies, “it’s going to sound very strange for a computer nerd to tell you that technology is not the secret ingredient here.”

The ‘secret ingredient’ is the unique media networking system set up by Choudhary, whose community interests aligned with Thies in user-generated technology.

‘Swara’ now has 400 callers daily, dialling Thies’ server in Bangalore to either listen to or record their own news.

Each message goes to the moderator, Choudhary, and through him to about 50 strategically located volunteer sub-editors for cross-checking of facts and local follow-up.

The volunteers are educated Indians, well-versed in their spheres of work and residence, coming from a web-based Yahoo group called CGNet, set up in 2004 by Choudhary and journalist Frederick Noronha of Goa.

For instance, Bunkar’s message on the forest official’s bribe demand was first checked by CGNet’s locally based editorial volunteers for accuracy. It was then sent to the principal chief conservator of forests who found the allegation to be true and suspended the official.

The network – with the website – has even helped people access a popular rural job guarantee scheme.

The state government, however, seems reluctant to acknowledge its potential as a parallel system of governance.

“I personally find it an effective source of feedback and grievance redressal from the grassroots. I do make use of it off and on,” Chhatttisgarh Chief Secretary Sunil Kumar, the state’s top bureacrat,  told IPS, taking care to emphasise the non-official nature of the way he uses it.

Choudhary calls the network a kind of ‘citizen journalism’ wherein there is local news for local residents who are otherwise neglected by the mainstream media.

CGNet Swara now covers all of Chhattisgarh. It’s also popular in the nearby states of Madhya Pradesh and Jharkhand. The news system has spread by word of mouth to the tribal belt across Gujarat, Rajasthan, Odisha, Jharkhand and Andhra Pradesh – an area Choudhary calls the ‘media dark zone’.

Ironically, the region’s ultra-left Maoist radicals, who claim to fight for the marginalised, have issued threats to Choudhary, asking him to close down CGNet Swara.

Choudhary, who divides his time between Delhi and Bhopal, says the Maoists are threatened by the concept of self-empowerment that the news system has brought to its users.

CGNet Swara is evolving into a radio system using a free medium-wave bandwidth, and Choudhary believes users will pay a small amount for subscribing. Running on a UN Democracy Fund and Knight Fellowship finances so far, the system is now looking for financial independence.

A health consultation network called Swasthya Swara is also being set up where traditional healers who make use of herbal medicines will be on air.

“We are extending our Swara system into a mobile-based voice portal,” says Choudhary. “There is no need for a newsroom now. Geography is now history.”

And, for the unempowered tribal population of India, whose numbers run into tens of millions, that’s indeed good news.

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Libya’s Fragile Peace Cracks Mon, 18 Nov 2013 14:09:12 +0000 Karlos Zurutuza Protesters at Tripoli’s Algeria square. Credit: Karlos Zurutuza/IPS.

Protesters at Tripoli’s Algeria square. Credit: Karlos Zurutuza/IPS.

By Karlos Zurutuza
TRIPOLI, Nov 18 2013 (IPS)

Car accident in Omar Mokhtar Avenue in downtown Tripoli. Nobody was injured but there’s a bumper hanging off the back of a car. In just a few seconds, a group gathers around.

“Forget about insurance companies in Libya,” says Mansur, a 30-year-old satellite dish installer. “The main problem is that you can easily run into somebody who produces a gun; everyone carries one in their glove box. In such a case there are two options:

“You can get back to your car smoothly and leave, but you could also call a brother or a cousin of yours in one of those militias so he backs you up with heavy artillery.”

In Libya, the police and the army are names on paper to entities that do not exist on the ground. Security, or the lack of it, comes from the myriad insurgent groups who rose up against former dictator Muammar Gaddafi, but who only pay allegiance to local, or even individual, interests.“So far we have avoided a new war thanks to a fragile balance of forces, but we are all aware that this cannot last much longer."

Government officials put their number at around 250,000. Nobody knows the exact figure.

But Libyans are increasingly angry since last Friday, when Tripoli witnessed the biggest spike in violence since the end of the war in 2011. A peaceful march meant to protest the impunity with which militias operate in the country’s capital ended up with 48 killed and almost 500 injured.

Local residents have been gathering in renewed protests such as the one in Algiers Square in central Tripoli last Sunday. Abdul Hamid Najah, a local lawyer, was there.

“Gaddafi would have reacted in the very same way, but we all knew he was ready to kill in cold blood. How could we possibly receive the same treatment from the very same people who helped us oust him? One of my neighbours was killed and another had to be taken urgently to Italy after he was badly injured.”

He says the “passivity” of the government is the main source of instability in post-war Libya.

“As long as militias remain in Tripoli, violence can only increase,” Mosarek Hobrara, another among the protesters and a human rights activist working for mediation from the Switzerland-based Centre for Humanitarian Dialogue, told IPS. The sooner they leave, the better for us Libyans.”

Just behind him stood high school student Maha Hamid carrying a hand-made banner: ‘Tripoli is calling for help’.

The 48-hour emergency declared by the Libyan government after Friday’s killings shut most of the otherwise busy centre of the Libyan capital. Local schools and the university also closed.

“In Tripoli I only feel completely safe in Gorji  (southwest of the capital) because the local militia is Amazigh,” Shokri, a member of Libya’s biggest minority group, told IPS.

“I usually go home on the weekends but always use bypass roads to avoid the main route across Aziziyah (south of the capital). That’s the territory controlled by the Warshafana tribe, who were loyal to Gaddafi.”

Text messages are a popular warning device: ‘Militias are clashing in eastern Tripoli, better take the ring road’, says one typical message.

Some like Kemal Hassan make things simpler. He is one of the thousands of Tunisians currently working in Tripoli due to a dent in tourism back home. He says he never goes out after six. He hasn’t left the hotel at all since last Friday.

“There’s random shooting in the streets every now and then. Most here got used to it but I’m afraid I can’t.”

In fact, “random” describes much of Tripoli’s daily life. A group of four can suddenly pop out of a rickety car and start asking for “papers” to all those stuck in a rush-hour traffic jam. This IPS reporter was requested to hand his passport to a group of teenagers dressed in plain clothes but armed with assault rifles. But such harassment is a relatively minor problem.

Abu Muntalib was killed last Saturday by militiamen who broke into the Fallah refugee camp south of Tripoli. Muftar, who was displaced from what is now the ghost town Tawargha, shared the details with IPS:

“A group of men came on Friday night in a car with a Misrata sticker on the windshield and asked us whether we were from Tawargha. Four other men came back the following day; they aimed their rifles at our people, killing one and wounding two.”

Once a vibrant city of 30,000, Tawargha was turned in Gaddafi’s last days into his headquarters during a two-month siege of the rebel enclave of nearby Misrata, 187 km southeast of capital Tripoli. Displaced families handed IPS a list of relatives who had been allegedly kidnapped at gunpoint by Misrata militias over the last few weeks, the majority of them at the very entrance of the camp.

“We don’t dare to go outside but, as you see, even inside we can be assaulted,” Yousef Mohamed, a 20-year-old displaced person told IPS from inside the barracks where he was recovering from a gunshot in his left leg.

People from all walks of life complain about the dire security situation in their country. Wail Brahimi is one of those Libyans who returned from exile in the heat of the revolution “to help rebuild the country.” Two years after Gaddafi was brutally killed by rebels, this lawyer from the University of London is considering going back to the UK.

“So far we have avoided a new war thanks to a fragile balance of forces, but we are all aware that this cannot last much longer. Actually, we might well be on the brink of civil war after last Friday incidents.”

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Las Pavas Extracts a Miracle from God Thu, 14 Nov 2013 22:03:51 +0000 Constanza Vieira Carmen Moreno in the Las Pavas community kitchen. Credit: Gerald Bermúdez/IPS

Carmen Moreno in the Las Pavas community kitchen. Credit: Gerald Bermúdez/IPS

By Constanza Vieira
LAS PAVAS/BOGOTÁ , Nov 14 2013 (IPS)

The rural community of Las Pavas in northern Colombia received this year’s National Peace Prize Wednesday in recognition of its peaceful struggle for land that is claimed by an oil palm company, in a case that became an international symbol of the conflict over land in this country.

The day before, the members of the community, organised in the Asociación Campesina de Buenos Aires (Asocab – Peasant Association of Buenos Aires), were formally recognised as victims of forced displacement in a ceremony held in the offices of the government’s Unit for Integral Assistance and Reparations for Victims in Bogotá.

Inclusion on the official Registry of Victims strengthens Asocab in its legal battle against the company with which it is disputing ownership of the land – Aportes San Isidro SA.

As of Oct. 1 the registry included the names of 5,087,092 victims of forced displacement, out of a total of 5,845,002 victims of crimes committed since 1985 in Colombia’s nearly half-century civil war.

Adjacent to the 1,338-hectare Las Pavas hacienda, Buenos Aires is a small village in the municipality of El Peñón in the northern province of Bolívar, some 270 km southeast of the provincial capital Cartagena de Indias.

The village, which has a single street, is on Papayal island located between the river of that name and the Magdalena river, which crosses Colombia from south to north.

People in this area live in villages like Buenos Aires and depend on fishing, farming and raising farm animals for a living.

Through the Unit for Integral Assistance and Reparations for Victims, the state has rectified its previous position, and now officially recognises that the community was forcibly displaced at least twice from Las Pavas, where they worked the land.

“This is an admission of judicial incomprehension because it wasn’t understood that this community was displaced from its source of livelihood, not its place of residence” in Buenos Aires, said Juan Felipe García with the Javeriana Pontifical University’s legal clinic on land, which is providing legal assistance to Asocab.

“Today we’re going to celebrate because the truth has triumphed,” he told IPS.The campesinos want to change the name of Las Pavas, “which reminds us of difficult times,” says Misael Payares. It will now be called Milagro de Dios (Miracle of God).

The decision benefits 464 people belonging to the 124 families grouped together in Asocab. However, it does not imply recognition of ownership of the Las Pavas land.

The dispute over ownership of the hacienda is a separate legal case, which is before the Council of State and could drag on for 10 more years, the director of the legal clinic, Roberto Vidal, told IPS.

“What lies ahead now is working with the community to decide what measures they want to prioritise; reaching all of the institutional agreements necessary; coordinating with the various institutions; and obtaining the reparations they are demanding,” the director of the Victims Unit, Paula Gaviria, told IPS.

“We have to wait for the authorities to comply,” said Asocab leader Misael Payares, “so that we can see our dream come true, which is to stay in Las Pavas.”

The hacienda has been at the centre of the wider dispute over land in Magdalena Medio, a stunningly beautiful region that used to be coveted by the drug barons because of its location, which is strategic in the logistics of the trafficking of cocaine by air.

On a nearby farm, Rancho Lindo, planes landed and took off until 1983. “Were they shipping firewood, manioc, yams, or what?” Payares quipped.

Since that year, Jesús Emilio Escobar Fernández, a cousin of and front man for notorious drug lord Pablo Escobar (1949-1993), has figured on paper as the owner of Las Pavas.

Up to 1963 the land was unused publicly owned rural property.

The hacienda was abandoned after 1992, as a result of the crackdown on Escobar’s Medellín drug cartel. An enormous tree growing out of a swimming pool is testament to the fact that the property was abandoned.

The people of Buenos Aires, who have large families and are often illiterate, decided then to plant crops on part of the land of Las Pavas, and set up the Association of Peasant Women of Buenos Aires.

Later they learned that, according to article 52 of a 1994 law, the owners of privately-owned rural land lost their property rights if the land was used for drug trafficking or if it had been abandoned for at least three years.

So they occupied Las Pavas, and Asocab was born in 1997, to cultivate cacao, plantain and oak.

The left-wing guerrillas (which emerged in Colombia in 1964) used to simply pass by Buenos Aires, on their way to a nearby hill covered with coca crops, which drew many temporary harvest workers.

Sometimes they would demand payment of a tax, in the form of a chicken or a pig, from the campesinos working Las Pavas, and once they shot and killed a man who they accused of being an army informant.

When the far-right paramilitaries (which began to be formed in 1981) arrived in the area along the Papayal river in 1998 and set up camp a 20-minute walk from Buenos Aires, the guerrillas pulled out.

The paramilitaries “started to kill people,” one of the founders of the women peasant association, Carmen Moreno – whose brother is ‘disappeared’ – told IPS.

Bodies missing the head or legs would float down the river past Buenos Aires. “Even the kids would see them. And they would come shouting ‘Mommy! Mommy! There’s a leg floating by….It’s a woman, mommy, because the toenails are painted!”

But all through those years, hunger would push the villagers, confined to Buenos Aires, to brave their fear and panic over and over again and return to Las Pavas to plant and harvest their crops.

In 2006 they began the legal proceedings to get the state to revoke the existing land title, under the 1994 law. They even applied for and were granted farming loans from state institutions.

But in 2007 it turned out that the front man Escobar Fernández had sold Las Pavas to the companies Aportes San Isidro and CI Tequendama – the latter of which belongs to the Daabon group.

These firms say that no authority informed them that the private ownership status of the land was in question – which made it legally impossible to buy or sell the land.

The companies set up an oil palm production project, drying up wetlands, diverting streams and blocking roads.

President Andrés Pastrana (1998-2002) made oil palm production his administration’s chief agribusiness strategy, and his successor Álvaro Uribe (2002-2010) continued that policy.

The government decided that 66,000 hectares of oil palm should be grown in Papayal, and that a palm oil refinery to produce biofuels should be installed there.

Oil palm is the third-largest crop in Colombia, planted on more than 400,000 hectares and employing over 130,000 workers, according to the international organisation Solidaridad, which promotes responsible food production and sustainable alternatives to fossil fuels.

Oil palm has great production potential compared to other oil-producing plants, and its use is growing in the food, hygiene and cosmetics industries as well as the emerging biodiesel industry.

But in Las Pavas, palm oil is no longer being produced, and the legal battle continues.

In 2009, the companies in question got the police to evict the local campesinos. The incident cost Daabon its contract as the main palm oil supplier for The Body Shop cosmetics chain, whose parent company is L’Oreal.

Daabon preferred to pull out of the project rather than negotiate with Asocab, as The Body Shop had urged it to.

The local campesinos returned to Las Pavas in 2011. Since then they have been living there, some of them in shifts, in a settlement with two dirt roads running between improvised dwellings covered with black plastic.

In the hacienda house, Aportes San Isidro has posted armed men, without official authorisation.

The campesinos constantly complain about intimidation, destruction of crops, tires shot out on Asocab’s tractors, theft of livestock, or fires set to seeds stocks or nearby brush by incendiary device attacks on the camp.

“An outlaw group no longer has control; a few companies do,” said Payares.

“We haven’t had a human victim yet, because we have been smart enough to keep that from happening,” said Efraín Alvear, the community’s historian.

“Conquest without rifles” is the title of the book he has been writing by hand for years about the story of Asocab, he told IPS.

After their inclusion in the registry of victims and the award of the National Peace Prize, the campesinos plan to change the name of Las Pavas. “That name reminds us of difficult times,” says Misael Payares. It will now be called Milagro de Dios (Miracle of God).

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Oil Palm Expands on Deforested Land in Brazil’s Rainforest Wed, 13 Nov 2013 15:58:59 +0000 Fabiana Frayssinet African palm mixed with native vegetation along a road in Brazil’s Amazon rainforest. Credit: Fabiana Frayssinet/IPS

African palm mixed with native vegetation along a road in Brazil’s Amazon rainforest. Credit: Fabiana Frayssinet/IPS

By Fabiana Frayssinet
MOJÚ/TOMÉ-AÇÚ, Pará, Brazil , Nov 13 2013 (IPS)

The green of the oil palm plantations is unbroken along kilometre after kilometre of red soil, devastated in the past by loggers and ranchers. The oil palm, a sign of alarm for some and of hope for others, is here to stay in the Amazon rainforest state of Pará in the extreme north of this country.

The vegetation along the road that sets out from Belém, the state capital, has lost the deep-green exuberance of the rainforest, which has been replaced by “dendê”, as the African oil palm (Elaeis guineensis) is known in Brazil.

The traffic jams in the city give way to over 150 km of paved and dirt roads, lined by oil palm plantations and the occasional cattle pasture, and interrupted every once in a while by a small town.

According to the National Institute for Space Research (INPE), Brazil’s Amazon region lost 111,087 sq km of forest cover between 2004 and 2012, including 44,361 sq km in Pará.

The Agropalma company, which sells palm oil to the food, hygiene and cosmetics industries, set up shop 27 years ago on this land initially cleared to make way for cattle pasture. It now owns more than 39,000 km of dendê in Pará.

Rat poison

IPS had access to formal complaints that were investigated by the Pará public prosecutors office on the supposed use of banned rat poison in oil palm plantations.

The plantations reportedly use Klerat – authorised only for accredited companies, in urban settings – to combat wild rodents.

Klerat is a powerful anticoagulant that causes internal bleeding and does not kill immediately. If people hunt and eat an animal that has ingested the poison, they run the risk of being poisoned as well.

More recently it was followed by other companies, interested in biodiesel: Belém Bioenergia (BB), owned by the state-run Petrobras and the private Portuguese firm Galp Energia, and Biopalma, a palm oil producer that was purchased by the Vale mining company.

“It is an economically sustainable, environmentally correct and socially enriching project,” BB’ agribusiness director, Antônio Gonçalves Esmeraldo, told IPS.

According to the executive, BB chooses the land it buys based on agroecological mapping by the Brazilian governmental agricultural research agency, Embrapa, which highlights areas that have already been deforested and degraded by cattle ranchers.

Oil palm employs 10,914 people in this state of nearly eight million people.

An 8,500-hectare estate leased by BB, which employed five people when it was dedicated to cattle-raising, will give work to 850 locals once it has been planted in oil palm, Esmeraldo said.

The company aims to plant oil palm on a total of 60,000 hectares by 2015. It has planted half of that so far, including 6,000 hectares tended by family farmers who will sell the company their output, and the rest of which are leased to large landholders.

Biopalma, for its part, will obtain oil from 60,000 hectares of its own, and from the harvest of another 20,000 hectares farmed by 2,000 small producers.

The aim is biodiesel to mix in a proportion of 20 percent with the gasoil used to run the mining company’s machinery and the locomotives of Vale, César Abreu, the firm’s director of bioenergy, told IPS.

According to Melquíades Santos Filho, Biopalma’s communications manager, dendê helps restore the biological balance of degraded land by mixing with native flora. He said his company has managed to get native species that are nearly extinct, like the jaguar, to reappear in the plantation forests.

In 2012, oil palm covered 140,000 hectares in Pará, and 67 percent of the production went to the food and cosmetics industries and 33 percent to biofuels, according to a study by agronomist D’Alembert Jaccoud.

The private sector projects extending that surface area to 329,000 hectares by 2015 and expanding the portion destined to biofuel to 47 percent, Jaccoud told IPS.

The government of Pará says that by 2022, oil palm plantations for biofuel will cover 700,000 hectares.

The Programme for the Sustainable Production of Palm Oil determines which degraded areas are apt for planting with oil palm. According to Embrapa, some 10.4 million hectares of already deforested and degraded land are available.

Processing the fruit of the oil palm in Biopalma, a municipality in Mojú in the northern state of Pará. Credit: Fabiana Frayssinet/IPS

Processing the fruit of the oil palm in Biopalma plant in Mojú, a municipality in the northern state of Pará. Credit: Fabiana Frayssinet/IPS

The expansion would make Brazil the world’s third-largest producer of palm oil, after Indonesia and Malaysia, according to the government of Pará.

But the fear is that this country will follow in the footsteps of Indonesia and Malaysia, which today supply 86 percent of the global market thanks to intense deforestation, partly by forest fires that create clouds of smoke that even affect the rest of Southeast Asia.

After Africa, where legal insecurity paves the way for land-grabbing by Chinese and European countries, “the other great frontier is the Amazon rainforest, where Brazil has the biggest stock of land,” Jaccoud said.

The National Biofuel Production Programme is fomenting the planting of oil palm. By law, gasoil vehicles in Brazil must use a mix of five percent biodiesel, and the goal is to reach seven percent. It would be “an obligatory captive market,” Jaccoud said.

The Ministry of Agrarian Development has staked its bets on biofuel, which is obtained from soy, sunflower, castor, canola and oil palm, among other species.

Proponents point out that biodiesel releases fewer greenhouse gases than fossil fuels and that it contributes to diversifying the country’s energy mix.

The government also hopes to reduce imports of gasoil.

And by promoting family farming of oil palm, it is working to generate income and jobs, while stimulating local economies in rural areas.

Jaccoud said that while the government’s programmes are well-intentioned, the necessary controls and oversight are still missing.

He said there is a danger that land ownership will become further concentrated, that consumption of pesticides will grow, and that the areas on the outskirts of large cities will become even poorer and more dangerous as a result of rural migration.

Guilherme Carvalho, an educator with the non-governmental programme FASE Amazônia, is worried that palm oil companies are trying “to force family farmers to invest in this monoculture crop and abandon food crops, which would create food insecurity, a loss of autonomy over their land and dependence on market prices.”

The contracts that Biopalma and BB sign with small farmers establish that they only have to use 10 hectares of their land for oil palm, while the rest remains free for growing food and other traditional crops.

But for now, family farms represent only a small part of the oil palm plantations in Pará.

João Meirelles, director of the Peabirú Institute, said oil palm is “an attempt to restore the jungle” in tropical areas, and is preferable to soy or cattle.

But he appealed to the “social responsibility” of companies, urging them to avoid the pitfalls of the sugar cane industry, where land is concentrated in a few hands and precarious labour conditions prevail among migrant workers.

Biopalma director Márcio Maia dismissed the argument that land ownership is overly concentrated.

“In the Amazon region there are major irregularities in land titling, which scares away important players who are interested in investing in this crop,” he said.

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Middle East Women Mean Business Wed, 13 Nov 2013 08:59:17 +0000 Rachel Williamson EduKitten founders Sarah Abunar, COO (left) and Rana Said, CEO (right); absent is Ahmed Galal, marketing. Credit: Rachel Williamson/IPS

EduKitten founders Sarah Abunar, COO (left) and Rana Said, CEO (right); absent is Ahmed Galal, marketing. Credit: Rachel Williamson/IPS

By Rachel Williamson
CAIRO, Nov 13 2013 (IPS)

Evidence is mounting to suggest women entrepreneurs are more common in the Middle East than in startup capital Silicon Valley, and some even say it’s a more supportive place for them to start a business.

Yasmin Elayat, an Egyptian-American born and bred in California’s Silicon Valley, told IPS she felt the ecosystem of investors, business mentors and other entrepreneurs in Egypt and the Middle East was more supportive than those in the U.S. or Europe when she began working out the details for her now-inactive media business GroupStream in 2011.

“It’s a more encouraging environment for women entrepreneurs,” she said. “There’s something else going on here, whether you want to call it culture or environment.”

Elayat, 31, said the only time her gender became an issue was in Europe during a three-month startup boot-camp in Copenhagen.

A male entrepreneur from Eastern Europe was dumbfounded to discover that she was not an employee of GroupStream, but the CEO, and on another occasion, after pitching the business to a group, a male mentor directed all his questions towards her male co-founder.

Elayat is one of a growing pool of women in the Middle East/North Africa (MENA) region jumping into entrepreneurial ventures, although it’s difficult to pin down just how large that pool is.

A recently released study by Global Entrepreneurship Monitor (GEM) suggested women in MENA were the least likely in the world to start a business, with only four percent of the adult female population considered entrepreneurs.

However, a big problem with the study was that it did not include data from startup powerhouses Jordan, Lebanon, the UAE and Qatar (Israel was included separately).

In Jordan the number of female-led startups is closer to one-third, near the global average of 37 percent, and in Egypt, Hossam Allam founder of angel investment group Cairo Angels, told IPS that about half of the businesses invested in so far involved mixed-gender teams.

Moreover, in regional entrepreneur competitions the mix of male and female participants is similar, such as in the 2012 MIT Enterprise Forum Arab Startup Competition where almost half of the competitors were women, as was the winner Hind Hobeika.

The number of women entrepreneurs throughout the region probably lies somewhere in between, at about 15-20 percent. To put this in perspective, the GEM study found 10 percent of the U.S. adult female population was involved in entrepreneurial activity in 2012, and five percent in developed Europe.

There are several reasons for the rise of the woman entrepreneur in the Middle East, and one is that the startup environment has grown up with them.

Not only have multiple business incubators and accelerators sprung up in major cities across the region in the last three years, but so have organisations and competitions specifically targeting women.

These include entrepreneur news and investment website Wamda’s ‘Wamda for Women’ initiative, Lebanese business incubator Berytech’s Women Entrepreneur Competition, the Roudha Foundation in Jordan, AMIDEAST’s Arab Women’s Entrepreneurship Programme – and the list goes on.


Other reasons are rising access to education, and opportunities provided by the internet.
The World Bank says more women in the Middle East now attend university than men, and GroupStream’s Elayat said that compared with her first-year computer engineering course in the U.S., where she was one of two female students, the gender mix when she transferred to the American University in Cairo was “about half-half”.

Co-founder of Arabic-language parenting website Supermama, Yasmine el-Mehairy, said that in contrast to the low numbers of women studying computer science and engineering in Western countries, girls throughout the Arab region were funnelled into the hard-to-enter university science courses because of good high school grades.

“Women are more inclined to work harder during high school, so it was easier for them to get higher grades, where men were more interested in PlayStation and football,” she said.

“It was natural selection for you to go based on your grades to the university that was more prestigious or do the majors that were more prestigious [such as science and engineering].”

The Economist’s Ludwig Siegele wrote in July that the number of women-led startup businesses could flourish further because the internet wasn’t inherently male-dominated and also enabled highly educated women to start a home-based business if, as in Saudi Arabia, her family might object if she went outside to work.

But make no mistake – the unique challenges faced by women entrepreneurs in the Middle East are vast, from the wearying day-to-day frustrations to deeply rooted ideas about a woman’s place in society.

The 2013 Wamda for Women roundtable events in Cairo, Doha, Amman and Riyadh illustrated the difficulties women entrepreneurs in these countries face.

Generally the difficulties were the fight to be seen an equals; a dearth of role models; the challenge of balancing family and work commitments; and male bias.

Fida Taher, Jordanian media executive and founder of cookery website Zaytouneh, agrees.

She told Chris Schroeder, author of Startup Rising: The Entrepreneurial Revolution Remaking the Middle East: “First, some men get intimidated by a strong woman.

“Second, others – and I will try to sound as proper as possible – think a business relationship with a woman should be a personal one. Finally, some men underestimate women in general, and believe that women are not capable of delivering good results.”

Sarah Abu Nar, 28, co-founder of Egyptian company EduKitten which sells Arabic-language edutainment apps, explained her real-life experiences of these issues.

They included convincing investors the two women would and could put as much time into the business as their male co-founder, and people telling them they couldn’t run a business because they needed that time to look after their home, husbands and family.

But she also had a solution, one followed often out of necessity by all the entrepreneurial businesswomen spoken to by IPS.

“Don’t waste your time talking to people, convincing them you’re good… Don’t waste your time doing all this, do your actions and then your actions will speak louder than your words.”

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