Inter Press Service » Special Report http://www.ipsnews.net Journalism and Communication for Global Change Wed, 16 Apr 2014 09:32:20 +0000 en-US hourly 1 http://wordpress.org/?v=3.8.3 Rural Costa Rican Women Plant Trees to Fight Climate Change http://www.ipsnews.net/2014/04/rural-costa-rican-women-plant-trees-fight-climate-change/?utm_source=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_campaign=rural-costa-rican-women-plant-trees-fight-climate-change http://www.ipsnews.net/2014/04/rural-costa-rican-women-plant-trees-fight-climate-change/#comments Wed, 02 Apr 2014 13:39:21 +0000 Diego Arguedas Ortiz http://www.ipsnews.net/?p=133379 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 […]

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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 http://www.ipsnews.net/2014/03/honduran-paradise-doesnt-want-anger-sea/?utm_source=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_campaign=honduran-paradise-doesnt-want-anger-sea http://www.ipsnews.net/2014/03/honduran-paradise-doesnt-want-anger-sea/#comments Wed, 26 Mar 2014 13:17:57 +0000 Thelma Mejia http://www.ipsnews.net/?p=133238 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 […]

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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 http://www.ipsnews.net/2014/03/brazilian-innovation-financed-mozambican-agriculture/?utm_source=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_campaign=brazilian-innovation-financed-mozambican-agriculture http://www.ipsnews.net/2014/03/brazilian-innovation-financed-mozambican-agriculture/#comments Wed, 12 Mar 2014 08:15:41 +0000 Amos Zacarias http://www.ipsnews.net/?p=132711 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 […]

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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 http://www.ipsnews.net/2014/02/rich-railroad-brings-opportunities-brazil/?utm_source=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_campaign=rich-railroad-brings-opportunities-brazil http://www.ipsnews.net/2014/02/rich-railroad-brings-opportunities-brazil/#comments Fri, 28 Feb 2014 01:03:22 +0000 Mario Osava http://www.ipsnews.net/?p=132246 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 […]

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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
ALTO ALEGRE DO PINDARÉ/SÃO LUIS, Brazil, Feb 28 2014 (IPS)

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 http://www.ipsnews.net/2014/02/north-korea-fine-without-south/?utm_source=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_campaign=north-korea-fine-without-south http://www.ipsnews.net/2014/02/north-korea-fine-without-south/#comments Thu, 27 Feb 2014 09:15:43 +0000 Ahn Mi Young http://www.ipsnews.net/?p=132158 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 […]

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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? http://www.ipsnews.net/2014/02/like-new-glacier/?utm_source=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_campaign=like-new-glacier http://www.ipsnews.net/2014/02/like-new-glacier/#comments Mon, 24 Feb 2014 14:18:18 +0000 Marianela Jarroud http://www.ipsnews.net/?p=131985 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. This […]

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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 http://www.ipsnews.net/2014/02/refugees-ski-iraq/?utm_source=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_campaign=refugees-ski-iraq http://www.ipsnews.net/2014/02/refugees-ski-iraq/#comments Sun, 16 Feb 2014 10:19:11 +0000 Jewan Abdi http://www.ipsnews.net/?p=131687 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 […]

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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 http://www.ipsnews.net/2014/02/steel-industry-creates-havoc-brazils-amazon-region/?utm_source=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_campaign=steel-industry-creates-havoc-brazils-amazon-region http://www.ipsnews.net/2014/02/steel-industry-creates-havoc-brazils-amazon-region/#comments Mon, 10 Feb 2014 15:08:57 +0000 Mario Osava http://www.ipsnews.net/?p=131346 “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 […]

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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 http://www.ipsnews.net/2013/11/a-google-for-indias-poor/?utm_source=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_campaign=a-google-for-indias-poor http://www.ipsnews.net/2013/11/a-google-for-indias-poor/#comments Sat, 23 Nov 2013 08:42:38 +0000 Keya Acharya http://www.ipsnews.net/?p=129032 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 […]

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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 http://www.ipsnews.net/2013/11/libyas-fragile-peace-cracks/?utm_source=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_campaign=libyas-fragile-peace-cracks http://www.ipsnews.net/2013/11/libyas-fragile-peace-cracks/#comments Mon, 18 Nov 2013 14:09:12 +0000 Karlos Zurutuza http://www.ipsnews.net/?p=128900 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 […]

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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 http://www.ipsnews.net/2013/11/las-pavas-extracts-a-miracle-from-god/?utm_source=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_campaign=las-pavas-extracts-a-miracle-from-god http://www.ipsnews.net/2013/11/las-pavas-extracts-a-miracle-from-god/#comments Thu, 14 Nov 2013 22:03:51 +0000 Constanza Vieira http://www.ipsnews.net/?p=128827 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 […]

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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 http://www.ipsnews.net/2013/11/oil-palm-expands-on-deforested-land-in-brazils-rainforest/?utm_source=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_campaign=oil-palm-expands-on-deforested-land-in-brazils-rainforest http://www.ipsnews.net/2013/11/oil-palm-expands-on-deforested-land-in-brazils-rainforest/#comments Wed, 13 Nov 2013 15:58:59 +0000 Fabiana Frayssinet http://www.ipsnews.net/?p=128797 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 […]

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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 http://www.ipsnews.net/2013/11/middle-east-women-mean-business/?utm_source=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_campaign=middle-east-women-mean-business http://www.ipsnews.net/2013/11/middle-east-women-mean-business/#comments Wed, 13 Nov 2013 08:59:17 +0000 Rachel Williamson http://www.ipsnews.net/?p=128747 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 […]

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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.

Womenchart1

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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This Bird Has Flown – Forever http://www.ipsnews.net/2013/11/this-bird-has-flown-forever/?utm_source=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_campaign=this-bird-has-flown-forever http://www.ipsnews.net/2013/11/this-bird-has-flown-forever/#comments Mon, 11 Nov 2013 12:34:12 +0000 IPS Correspondents http://www.ipsnews.net/?p=128689 It can take decades after the last sighting of a species for it to be declared extinct.

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An Alagoas foliage-gleaner (Philydor novaesi) photographed in the Frei Caneca Private Reserve in Pernambuco. Credit: Courtesy of Carlos Gussoni

An Alagoas foliage-gleaner (Philydor novaesi) photographed in the Frei Caneca Private Reserve in Pernambuco. Credit: Courtesy of Carlos Gussoni

By IPS Correspondents
CAJÍO, Cuba/RIO DE JANEIRO, Nov 11 2013 (IPS)

The extinction of a single species (a fish off the coast of Cuba, a bird in the Brazilian forest) creates a void that can trigger a whole series of repercussions, from the alteration of ecosystems to increased hunger.

“I can sum it up for you in one sentence: there is less of everything,” says fisherman Lázaro Andrés Gorrín. He earns his living from the waters of the Gulf of Batabanó, which bathe the coast of his humble fishing village, Cajío, in southwest Cuba.

Fishing is the traditional lifeblood of more than 577 coastal towns and villages in Cuba, but it is an endangered livelihood due to reduced fish stocks throughout the country.

“Now it takes a whole day to catch enough fish just to cover the bottom of the cooler, which means very little income,” said Gorrín as he showed Tierramérica the few tiny lane snappers (Lutjanus synagris) he had caught that day. “You can’t support a family with this,” added his wife, who was waiting on shore for him to help carry his catch home.

Overfishing is the main cause of the decreased stocks of lane snappers in the Gulf of Batabanó, as well as the almost complete disappearance of the Nassau grouper (Epinephelus striatus) throughout its entire habitat, among other losses.

The decline in fish stocks has been highly evident since 1990. Other contributors include pollution, rising sea temperatures, and higher salinity, since the damming of rivers results in less fresh water flowing to the Cuban coasts.

The size of the fish has diminished, and the species less popular among the population have become more predominant, according to research by marine scientist Rodolfo Claro.

That is why Gorrín, 41, and other coastal fishermen are “seriously thinking” about plying their trade in rivers, lakes and reservoirs or even seeking out new ways to make a living.

Some of them, however, believe they are too old to give up the livelihood passed down to them by their ancestors.

This is the case of Roberto Díaz, 53, who works alongside Gorrín. The two men head out daily in a small motorboat to an area roughly 40 miles off the coast of Cajío, where they fish with nylon fishing lines and rustic trammel nets.

“I’m still here even though it gets harder to make a good income every day. There are also a lot of regulations. There’s a ban on catching a number of different species, and on using certain equipment and methods,” Díaz told Tierramérica.

Fifteen years ago, Gorrín and Díaz, members of a fishing cooperative, went out on rafts and filled their cooler every day with snappers, groupers and other fish species that abounded in the area.

Fishermen Díaz and Gorrín display their meagre day’s catch of lane snappers. Credit: Jorge Luis Baños/IPS

Fishermen Díaz and Gorrín display their meagre day’s catch of lane snappers. Credit: Jorge Luis Baños/IPS

But the waters around Cuba were seriously overfished between the 1960s and 1980s.

In 1985 alone, 78,000 tons of fish were harvested off the country’s coasts. Since then, and in the midst of the economic crisis that began in the 1990s, the fishing sector has shrunk and prohibitions have been established for certain areas and species.

In 2012, total fish production, including farmed fish, was 48,498 tons. Lane snappers accounted for just 1,694 tons, and Nassau groupers, a mere 26 tons.

In 2007 the use of seine nets was banned because of the destruction they caused to the marine habitat.

“Trawlers and seine nets finished off the lane snappers,” said Díaz.

Since there are very few formal jobs in fishing, there has been an increase in informal and subsistence fishing activity, which also takes a bite out of fish stocks. Sometimes it is clandestine, while in other cases it is legalised as sport fishing.

Tierramérica talked to an electrician from the municipality of Quivicán, near Cajío, who goes out fishing on the weekends to supplement his family’s diet, using a tractor tire inner tube as a raft. He cannot venture more than 400 metres offshore, he noted.

“Even if I wanted to, I couldn’t only do this for a living,” explained the electrician, who asked to remain anonymous. While fishing began as a hobby for him when he was boy, today it serves a more essential purpose: putting food on his family’s table. “I don’t know if what I do is legal,” he commented.

The life support system that generates the planet’s air, water and food is powered by an estimated 8.7 million living species. Very little is known about a large share of them. Some become extinct before we even know they exist; others, when they have just been discovered.

Farewell to a natural means of insect control

A few thousand kilometres south of Cajío, in the Atlantic Forest of northeast Brazil, the bird known as the Alagoas foliage-gleaner (Philydor novaesi) is no longer seen. Measuring 18 centimetres long and reddish-brown in colour, the bird was first discovered in 1979 in the state of Alagoas.

Back then, the species was “relatively easy to find” on the edges of clearings in the forest, said biologist Tatiana Pongiluppi, project coordinator at the conservation organisation SAVE Brasil, which forms part of the BirdLife International global partnership.

Its name derives from the fact that it “gleans” its food – primarily insects – from leaves, bark, crevices and debris.

Surveys conducted in 1992 and 1998 revealed that the species had already become rare. And it was sighted for the last time on Sep. 13, 2011, when it was filmed by photographer Ciro Albano.

The Alagoas foliage-gleaner played an important role in controlling the insect population. It also attracted bird watchers from around the world, thus generating tourism-related income.

In 1998 only single individuals of the species were observed. In 2000, just four of them were found in the Pernambuco Endemism Centre, an area rich in biodiversity north of the São Francisco River.

The main cause of the bird’s disappearance is deforestation, driven by a number of factors: the expansion of sugar cane plantations, charcoal production, and the harvesting of timber for the furniture industry, Pongiluppi told Tierramérica.

Their natural habitat is in areas with tall trees and large quantities of bromeliad plants, whose dried leaves provide the small birds with an abundance of food.

The Atlantic Forest once extended along the entire length of Brazil’s Atlantic coast, from the far north to the south, and included portions of eastern Paraguay and northeast Argentina. It covered a total area of 1.3 million square kilometres.

Today barely seven percent of its original forest cover remains, yet is still one of the planet’s greatest storehouses of biodiversity, with 20,000 species of plants, 849 of birds, 370 of amphibians, 200 of reptiles, 270 of mammals and 350 of fish.

There is not a single specimen of Philydor novaesi living in captivity. “They are insectivores, and no techniques have been developed to keep and breed them in captivity,” explained Pongiluppi.

Officially, the species is considered “critically endangered”. Extinction can only be declared when there is no doubt that the last living specimen has died, and that can take decades.

“We cannot state with authority that the individuals sighted in recent years have died, because we have no proof. But there have been no recorded sightings of this species since 2011, despite the efforts of ornithologists and bird watchers,” who have made numerous trips to the area in search of the bird, said Pongiluppi. The same unfortunate fate awaits a number of other bird species in the region.

Seven species of fauna have already been declared extinct in Brazil, specialist Ugo Eichler Vercillo from the Chico Mendes Institute for Biodiversity Conservation told Tierramérica: a dragonfly, two earthworms, an ant, a frog and two bird species.

Taking action to combat extinction

Embattled by erratic weather and a persistent disease that has decimated the area’s coffee plantations, indigenous women in the province of Lamas, in the Amazon rainforest of northern Peru, did not sit back and cry over the loss of the crops that allowed their grandmothers to put food on the table. They set out to save them.

The women sought support from the Federation of Kechwa Indigenous Peoples of the Region of San Martín in order to revive the planting of two species of tubers, sachapapa (Discorea trífida) and dale dale (Calathea allouia), a root vegetable, michuksi (Colocasia esculenta), and the oilseed sacha inchi (Plukenetia volubilis).

In numerous villages “the seeds for these crops had completely disappeared, and they had to be obtained in other communities, sometimes far away,” notes a report from the humanitarian organisation Oxfam, which provided funding for this initiative, launched in 2011.

On half-hectare plots, the women plant sachapapa, dale dale and michuksi, which take a year to be ready to harvest, alongside other food crops with shorter growing cycles: peanuts, corn, beans and leafy vegetables.

The elders in each community helped to revive the traditional farming methods and to design an agricultural calendar. The women, organised in “mothers clubs”, elected a coordinator for each village.

While the initial plan was to grow food for their own families, the women realised that in the city of Lamas there was a demand for the traditional dishes “that grandma used to cook,” and they decided to promote the newly revived agricultural diversity at regional food fairs and competitions.

The community of Chumbakiwi, with a population of around 330, took first place at the inaugural fair by presenting 79 different crop varieties.

Each village decided what to do with the income earned. Some of them created a fund in order to acquire more seeds and continue to preserve them.

With reporting by Ivet González (Cajío), Fabíola Ortiz (Rio de Janeiro) and Milagros Salazar (Lima).

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

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Breaking New Ground for Trans Children http://www.ipsnews.net/2013/11/breaking-new-ground-for-trans-children/?utm_source=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_campaign=breaking-new-ground-for-trans-children http://www.ipsnews.net/2013/11/breaking-new-ground-for-trans-children/#comments Thu, 07 Nov 2013 16:04:04 +0000 Ines Benitez http://www.ipsnews.net/?p=128679 Gabi was born six years ago biologically male, but dressed up as a princess and wore necklaces and long hair so that everyone saw a little girl instead. “They aren’t children locked into the wrong body, but children born with genitals of the opposite gender than the one they identify with,” her mother, Pilar Sánchez, […]

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“Half man, half woman”: a drawing by an eight-year-old girl from Aragón, Spain that shows her inner conflict before her family accepted her female identity. “The man part has a broken heart,” the little girl, who was born a boy, tells her mother. Credit: Courtesy Asociación Chrysalis

“Half man, half woman”: a drawing by an eight-year-old girl from Aragón, Spain that shows her inner conflict before her family accepted her female identity. “The man part has a broken heart,” the little girl, who was born a boy, tells her mother. Credit: Courtesy Asociación Chrysalis

By Inés Benítez
MÁLAGA, Spain/BUENOS AIRES , Nov 7 2013 (IPS)

Gabi was born six years ago biologically male, but dressed up as a princess and wore necklaces and long hair so that everyone saw a little girl instead.

“They aren’t children locked into the wrong body, but children born with genitals of the opposite gender than the one they identify with,” her mother, Pilar Sánchez, tells IPS in an interview in their home in the southern Spanish city of Málaga.

The brand-new green skirt of the girl’s uniform from the school Gabi attends with her two brothers, ages eight and 13, has hung in a closet unused since September. The school won’t let her dress as a girl, in infringement of regulations set by the government of the region of Andalusía.

Gabi’s mother and the families of two other transsexual children, ages eight and nine, who also attend Málaga schools, asked the Andalusía government to ensure that their children are called on in class by the names they go by, which reflect their chosen gender identity; that they are allowed to use uniforms and other clothing that reflects their gender identity; and that they can use the bathroom they feel comfortable using.

Two schools lashed out at the government’s decision, which was favourable to the families. But not Gabí’s school.

However, a group of around 100 parents at the school called the government decision “arbitrary” and argued that “no thought has been given to the adverse effects that it can cause in the normal social and psychological development of the rest of the students,” according to a signed statement that they delivered to the regional government.

Trans laws

Argentina recognises by law the right for people to have identity cards and other legal documents that match their gender identity. This even applies to children, if their parents agree, and only involves a simple administrative procedure.

In Andalusía in southern Spain, groups of transsexuals called off a hunger strike planned for Thursday Nov. 7 after the “comprehensive law on transsexualism” began to be debated again in the regional legislature on Wednesday. The bill had been stalled since 2009.

The bill would establish the free self-determination of gender identity and the decentralisation of health care for transsexuals, and would put an end to the treatment of transsexualism as a pathology.

As things now stand, transsexuals in need of public health care in Andalusía must go to the Unit of Transsexualism and Gender Identity in the Málaga provincial hospital.

Psychological tests are carried out there to officially determine whether the individual is transsexual and thus has a right to hormonal treatment or surgery.

“Transsexual children are a reality that is concealed by prejudice,” says Sánchez. She says she is living a “nightmare” because “I’m the school idiot, when the only thing you want is for your child to be happy.”

“They have a right to be happy, to be who they are,” Mar Cambrollé, president of the Association of Transsexuals of Andalusía, says during activities against discrimination and hate crimes held Oct. 24 in Málaga. “Denying them that right is cruel, and it is a crime.

“In a secular state, laws and the rule of law must prevail over ideologies and religion,” says Cambrollé, referring to the stance taken by Gabi’s school, which is run by a Catholic foundation and is partly funded by public money.

The principle of equality and non-discrimination on gender grounds is enshrined in article 14 of the Spanish constitution.

As he wraps the string around a top, nine-year-old Carlos Martín, short-haired and olive-skinned, tells IPS that he is happy in his new school in Málaga, where he is treated as the boy he feels like, even though he was born a girl.

“They have been mean to my boy since he was seven years old,” says his mother María Gracia García, referring to the school he used to attend, which was a “hell” where he was called “transvestite” and teased and bullied.

Schools in Spain have no protocol for how to deal with transsexual children.

“These are kids who have nightmares, who have a hard time concentrating, who don’t want to go to school,” says Cambrollé. “Treating them in accordance with the gender they identify with restores their happiness.”

She said gender identity “is an innate, immutable feeling that is fixed between the ages of two and five.”

Eva Witt, the mother of David, who was born a girl eight years ago, underlines that children “persistently assert their identity since they first start to express themselves. They draw themselves according to the gender they feel, and they assume that role in games.”

At the age of six, David obtained an identity card with his male name – one of three that have been granted so far in Spain to transgender minors, explains Witt, who heads the Chrysalis association which represents some 50 Spanish families with transsexual children.

Argentina has gone even further.

Six-year-old Luana, who was born biologically male like her fraternal twin brother, now has an identity card where she figures as a girl, and a birth certificate that has been modified to show the gender with which she identifies.

The situation was traumatic for the family, and led the mother, Gabriela (whose last name is withheld at her request), to take her child to doctors and psychologists.

The process was painful, she tells IPS, although she clarifies that her daughter is happy now.

Luana’s psychologist, Valeria Paván, says “She has no pathology or deficit of any kind. She simply builds her identity in a different manner, and as professionals we must reflect on how this affects our practice.”

Luana’s case was the first time that a state has intervened to recognise the transsexual identity of a child at such a young age and without requiring a court decision, according to the Argentine Homosexual Community.

“Suddenly you understand everything, all the pieces fit together,” the mother of a nine-year-old girl born into a boy’s body in Aragón in the northeast of Spain tells IPS. “You realise that you weren’t letting your daughter be who she was.”

Since her female gender identity was recognised, “she’s very happy” and wants to go outside with her long hair and dresses.

But the families interviewed by IPS can’t stop thinking about what lies ahead and worrying about what will happen when their children hit puberty.

In Spain, sex reassignment surgery is not allowed until the age of majority.

But Witt explains that it is possible to start reversible treatment with hormone blockers, which help prevent the suffering of adolescents “who bind their breasts” to hide the physical changes in their bodies dictated by biology.

With reporting by Marcela Valente in Buenos Aires.

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‘I Sold My Sister for 300 Dollars’ http://www.ipsnews.net/2013/11/i-sold-my-sister-for-300-dollars/?utm_source=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_campaign=i-sold-my-sister-for-300-dollars http://www.ipsnews.net/2013/11/i-sold-my-sister-for-300-dollars/#comments Wed, 06 Nov 2013 08:54:06 +0000 Annabell Van den Berghe http://www.ipsnews.net/?p=128622 Amani has just turned 22. Two months ago she fled from the civil war in Syria and left her house in capital Damascus. After a dangerous nightlong trip she arrived at Zaatari, the refugee camp just over the border in Jordan, where her parents and two sisters had already lived for over a year. In […]

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This road through the Zaatari refugee camp has been named Champs Elysées. Arab men come scouting around here for virgins. Credit: Liny Mutsaers/IPS.

This road through the Zaatari refugee camp has been named Champs Elysées. Arab men come scouting around here for virgins. Credit: Liny Mutsaers/IPS.

By Annabell Van den Berghe
ZAATARI CAMP, Jordan, Nov 6 2013 (IPS)

Amani has just turned 22. Two months ago she fled from the civil war in Syria and left her house in capital Damascus. After a dangerous nightlong trip she arrived at Zaatari, the refugee camp just over the border in Jordan, where her parents and two sisters had already lived for over a year.

In Damascus she had lived together with her husband and five children in an apartment in the old city centre. Like many Syrian girls she got married when she was still a child. She had just turned 15 when she found the man of her dreams and decided to wed.

“In Syria things are different,” she tells IPS. “Girls get married very early; it is a tradition. But it doesn’t mean we are all married off to strangers. I got to choose my husband and he got to choose me. We could never be more happy than when we were together.”“I have seen Jordanians, Egyptians and Saudis passing by the tents in search of a virgin to take along. They pay 300 dollars, and they get the girl of their dreams.”

Five children later, the civil war broke out in the country she loved but whose unfair policies and corrupt government she disliked. Living in the capital where the government of President Bashar al-Assad was still in control did not make life easier for her and her family.

Her husband took up arms from the first days of the armed revolt and joined the Free Syrian Army. Soon, he became leader of one of the biggest battalions fighting the regime in Damascus.

Amani herself was also fighting with the rebels, despite the five children she had to look after.

“Women aren’t as strong as men, but sometimes they are more strategic. One can’t work without the other.” But a deadly attack on their apartment killed her husband and four of her children.

Amani escaped and only managed to save her youngest daughter.

“When I heard the regime’s air jets approaching, I hid my little daughter underneath the sink of our kitchen. She just fit in the small space next to the garbage. She was just a baby. The other kids had run to their dad to seek protection. And I, in panic and to see what was going on, ran into the street.

“Seconds after reaching the street an explosion destroyed the entire house. Within the debris I could only find my little baby.”

After the tragedy, Amani took the dangerous trip from Damascus to the refugee camp. But life in Zaatari was anything but a respite.

“We are locked up like monkeys in a cage. The moment you walk into the camp, there is no way out any more.”

The camp is overpopulated. A sea of tents spans 3.3 square kilometres, accommodating 150,000 refugees – three times the number it was built for almost two years ago.

The artificial settlement in the middle of a dry desert is afflicted by sandstorms and disease. The little humanitarian aid that makes it to the camp cannot reach all the people who need it. Those who want bread, or blankets to protect themselves against the bitter cold, have to buy them from the few individuals that receive this aid for free, and then sell it illegally.

An entire underground economy has taken root in the camp. The struggle for food is fierce, and only a lucky few earn enough money to sustain a family.

“I work seven days a week, at least 10 hours a day, for an NGO that takes care of the smallest children here in the camp. After working an entire week, I get three dollars. With an ill mother, an elderly father and a baby to take care of, this life is untenable,” Amani says. “My older sister and her husband still have all their children, thank god, but this means five extra mouths to feed.”

Nourishing a family of ten with only three dollars a week quickly became impossible. Amani brought her younger sister, Amara, to work at the same NGO. But doubling the income was still not enough to take care of all of them.

There was only one way to get money quickly, a route that many families took before Amani did – and that was to as good as sell one of the girls. Amani sent off her younger sister Amara, 14, to some sort of marriage.

“It isn’t rare in Syria to marry at the age of 16. Most Arab men are aware of this, and often come to Syria to find a young bride. These days, they come to find them at the camps, where almost everybody is desperate to leave.

“I have seen Jordanians, Egyptians and Saudis passing by the tents in search of a virgin to take along. They pay 300 dollars, and they get the girl of their dreams.”

Amani says she had no choice. “I knew she wasn’t in love, but I also knew that he would take care of her. I would have sold myself, but Amara was the only virgin in our family. We had to sell her, in order to allow the rest of us survive. What else could I do?”

Amara was married to a Saudi man that passed by their tent and asked her father for her hand. That was after he had met Amani, who had told him of the family’s financial desperation and that her younger sister was still not married off. With this marriage Amani secured critical money for her family – at least for the time being.

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Homeless Again http://www.ipsnews.net/2013/10/homeless-again/?utm_source=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_campaign=homeless-again http://www.ipsnews.net/2013/10/homeless-again/#comments Fri, 04 Oct 2013 22:01:57 +0000 Ines Benitez http://www.ipsnews.net/?p=127957 A police cordon kept everyone out of the Buenaventura “corrala” on Thursday after the police evicted 13 families living in the occupied building in the centre of this southern Spanish city early in the morning. “Tonight we’ll sleep at a friend’s house. I don’t have any work or money. We have to start over again […]

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Families and activists protest the Oct. 3 eviction from the Buenaventura squatter community. Credit: Inés Benítez/IPS

Families and activists protest the Oct. 3 eviction from the Buenaventura squatter community. Credit: Inés Benítez/IPS

By Inés Benítez
MÁLAGA, Spain , Oct 4 2013 (IPS)

A police cordon kept everyone out of the Buenaventura “corrala” on Thursday after the police evicted 13 families living in the occupied building in the centre of this southern Spanish city early in the morning.

“Tonight we’ll sleep at a friend’s house. I don’t have any work or money. We have to start over again from scratch, and it’s really complicated,” Catalina González, 39, told IPS, crying.

The families, who have been living here since February, unable to afford other housing, have a total of 12 children between them.

The corralas are communities of squatters that have emerged in crisis-stricken Spain in the last few years, as foreclosures and evictions have skyrocketed due to the housing and mortgage crisis.A total of 362,776 people in Spain lost their homes because of mortgage arrears and foreclosures between 2008 and 2012. -- Platform for Mortgage Victims

The term corrala refers to the galleried tenement buildings with common courtyards and shared services that proliferated in working-class neighbourhoods in Spain’s cities in the 16th to 19th centuries, and has been adopted to stress the sense of community in the occupied buildings.

González, who comes from Barcelona in the northeast, sought shelter in one of the apartments in Buenaventura, a four-storey block of flats, two months ago. She had just arrived from Italy, fleeing her husband who she said mistreated her sons, four-year-old Leónidas and three-year-old Manuel.

The children were playing, sitting on the ground with their two dogs, near a police van while several officers tried to reach, with the help of fire fighters, three activists who were resisting the eviction order and protesting from their perch on the rooftop of the building.

Dozens of people who have been evicted, members of social movements like Stop Desahucios (Stop Evictions), the 15M “indignados” movement, and squatters from other corralas in Málaga gathered for several hours in the street under intermittent rainfall, chanting slogans like “people without a home, homes without people, how can this be?” or “another eviction, another occupation”, until the authorities arrested several activists and left.

The Buenaventura building belonged to the Bankinter bank, which acquired it after the construction company went under and sold it – complete with families living in some of the apartments – to Gestiones Hospedalia, a real estate company.

There are some 3.5 million vacant housing units in this country of 47 million people, equivalent to 14 percent of the housing stock, and 700,000 of them are in the southern region of Andalusia, according to the National Institute of Statistics (INE).

Although most of the people who were occupying the Buenaventura apartments have found a place to stay for the time being, “some families have nowhere to go,” José Cosín, a local lawyer, told IPS.

Cósín is an activist with the Platform for Mortgage Victims (PAH), which helps block evictions and foreclosures and repairs empty buildings to provide housing for people in need, while trying to negotiate social rents.

Montse, who has an 11-year-old daughter and preferred not to give her last name, told IPS that she was going to live in a trailer.

Andrés Clemente said he would ask a friend if he could stay in his garage again.

Carolina, who also wanted to remain anonymous, and her children will stay for now at a friend’s place in the La Suerte corrala – another occupied building.

Since the start of the economic crisis in 2007, the number of occupied buildings has soared. Many of the buildings are brand-new, and owned by banks or real estate companies.

The squatters in Buenaventura held months-long talks with the local and regional authorities, the bank and the company that owns the building.

“But in the end we got nowhere. They’ve been fooling around with us, and merely referred us to the social services,” said Leticia Gómez, 32, who was living in the corrala because she “had nowhere to go” after breaking up with her partner.

The Málaga city government gave each family evicted from the corrala an average of 1,000 euros (1,362 dollars) to cover the cost of rent for the first few months. But those who received the payment say it is not enough help, and are asking for the empty units to be converted into affordable housing, where each family pays according to their income.

“They gave me 900 euros (1,226 dollars) for three months rent. And after that what am I supposed to do? We’ll be back on the streets again,” said Yuli Fajardo, 42, hugging her cinnamon-coloured dog.

José Manuel, standing next to her, said he would occupy an apartment in another empty building. He described how early that morning, the police broke through a human chain that had formed around the corrala to prevent the eviction operation.

Finding a place to rent is not easy for these people, who often have no guarantor to sign for them and no formal job, and who can’t afford to put down a deposit of several months’ rent.

Some of the people who were evicted complained that the police used excessive force and “tore the doors off.”

The police, however, told IPS that the operation “went normally.”

“Even the heavens are crying for us,” Kira Vela, 37, exclaimed when she heard thunder.

Vela ended up in Buenaventura after she lost her home in the Málaga neighbourhood of Ciudad Jardín because she got behind on her mortgage payments. One of her three children, Yolanda, was also living in the corrala with her one-year-old baby.

A total of 362,776 people in Spain lost their homes because of mortgage arrears and foreclosures between 2008 and 2012, according to a report by PAH.

So far, the organisation has managed to block 757 evictions and has rehoused 712 people.

Soaring unemployment, which stands at over 26 percent in Spain – the highest rate in Europe after Greece – has led many families to lose their homes when they are unable to meet rent or mortgage payments. Dozens of people have committed suicide because of the evictions.

“There are many empty homes,” Carmen Gil, who lives near Buenaventura, commented to IPS while watching the protesters shout at a dozen police officers posted at the entry to the building. “They should give them to these families with kids. It’s not a crisis, it’s a scam.”

A number of the people evicted from the building have been out of work for years. Many of them used to work in the construction industry.

“If I could afford to pay rent, I would,” Clemente, a carpenter, told IPS.

In April, the government of the autonomous region of Andalusía, where Málaga is located, approved a decree-law on the social function of housing, establishing the need for a stock of social housing units.

The regional law also provides for the temporary expropriation – for a period of three years – of the housing units of families facing imminent eviction, “in cases where there is a risk of social exclusion or a threat to the physical or mental health of persons.”

“Why do we have to leave?” eight-year-old José asked his mother Silvia, who was holding him and his six-year-old sister Esther by the hand during a protest demanding “the right to a roof over our heads” the day before the eviction.

In May, the legislators of the governing right-wing People’s Party (PP) passed a law containing measures to strengthen protection for mortgage-holders, make more affordable housing available, and require banks to renegotiate mortgages.

The law was originally based on two bills: one presented by the executive branch, and the other by PAH, which collected 1.5 million signatures and presented a “popular legislative initiative” to Congress.

But the PAH proposals were eliminated from the final version of the bill.

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Somalia Takes Teaching to the Extreme http://www.ipsnews.net/2013/10/somalia-takes-teaching-to-the-extreme/?utm_source=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_campaign=somalia-takes-teaching-to-the-extreme http://www.ipsnews.net/2013/10/somalia-takes-teaching-to-the-extreme/#comments Fri, 04 Oct 2013 08:08:04 +0000 Ahmed Osman http://www.ipsnews.net/?p=127910 Mukhatar Jama has been teaching at a secondary school in Mogadishu for the past decade. Religious education is part and parcel of the curriculum of all schools in Somalia, but he says most parents are unaware of exactly what their children are being taught – a radical form of Islam. “The Islamic studies curriculum you […]

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Islamic studies curriculum in Somalia’s schools is a radical form of Islam that analysts say is contributing to the growing militancy of the country’s youth. Credit: Ahmed Osman/IPS

Islamic studies curriculum in Somalia’s schools is a radical form of Islam that analysts say is contributing to the growing militancy of the country’s youth. Credit: Ahmed Osman/IPS

By Ahmed Osman
MOGADISHU, Oct 4 2013 (IPS)

Mukhatar Jama has been teaching at a secondary school in Mogadishu for the past decade. Religious education is part and parcel of the curriculum of all schools in Somalia, but he says most parents are unaware of exactly what their children are being taught – a radical form of Islam.

“The Islamic studies curriculum you hear is the pure Wahhabism, exported from Saudi Arabia, that teaches children that all those who are not Wahhabi are non-believers, including the children’s parents, and that it is ok to kill non-Muslims,” Jama told IPS.

While there are no statistics on how many schools there are in Somalia, most here follow the Saudi curriculum, which advocates and inculcates Wahhabism. This is a far more radical interpretation of Islam than the moderate Sufi school that older generation of Somalis follows.

The radicalisation of Somalia’s youth has already started spilling over the war-torn country’s borders to its neighbours, influencing the region’s fragile security situation."Al-Shabaab, which means youth in Arabic, has realised the potential of Somalia’s young and are working to capitalise on it in our schools." -- analyst Omar Yusuf

It has taken root not only in Somalia and Kenya, but in the whole sub-region, Omar Yusuf, an analyst in the Somali capital, Mogadishu, told IPS.

“The event of Westgate is perhaps one of many wake-up calls for governments in the region to tackle the growing radicalisation and the logical next step of deadly militancy in the youth of the region,” Yusuf said.

The Sep. 21 attack on the Westgate Shopping Mall in Nairobi by the Somali Islamist militant group Al-Shabaab left more than 70 dead and dozens injured.

The Al-Qaeda-linked Al-Shabaab had repeatedly vowed to target Kenya after the country’s troops crossed over the border into Somalia in 2011 and ousted the radical group’s fighters from key areas in southern Somalia, including Kismayo.

Al-Shabaab advocates the establishment of an Islamic State not only in Somalia, but in East Africa. It adheres to the fundamentalist Wahhabi school of Islam. The extremist group’s ideology seems to be gaining ground in Somalia due to a number of factors.

“Think about it, schools in Somalia provide Al-Shabaab with the radical ideological teaching for the youth and when they graduate what they just need is to give [them] military training and there you have a qualified Al-Shabaab fighter,” Yusuf said.

Both teachers and parents seem divided over what is being taught at Somali schools, with some accepting it as part of the children’s religious education, and others expressing concern that their children are being indoctrinated to be Wahhabists without their consent.

“I came to know that my son gets indoctrinated with extremist views at school. He had to change schools a number of times but all schools in Mogadishu use the same Wahhabi books that we took from Saudi Arabia. The whole country will covert to Wahhabism in no time,” one parent, who sought anonymity for fear of reprisals, told IPS.

Another parent, Omar Kulmiye, disagreed that his children were being radicalised by this teaching. “I don’t [know] much about religion but I think since they are learning Islam it is ok with me and I have not sensed anything different in my children since they started school five years ago,” he told IPS.

 Zakia Hussen, a researcher with the Mogadishu-based Heritage Institute for Policy Studies (HIPS), explained “there’s no one root cause but several factors that have led to Somali youth being recruited into militancy.”

Hussen said three factors have contributed to radicalisation and militancy among Somali youths. Lack of political participation, and of employment and education opportunities draws youth to militant groups, she said.

“The search for a ‘second family’ and a sense of belonging offered by militant groups…has attracted many youths,” Hussen said. “Young recruits are offered a group to belong to, a job with salary as well as marriage – things that are otherwise hard for them to obtain in Somali society.”

The unemployment rate for youth aged 14 to 29 is 67 percent — one of the highest in the world. According to the United Nations Development Programme’s “Somalia Human Development Report 2012”, 70 percent of Somalia’s 10.2 million people are under the age of 30.

The attack on the Westgate Shopping Mall comes as no surprise as Al-Shabaab has been spreading its radicalising tentacles in the region, local security expert Muhumed Abdi told IPS.

“This was a crisis that has been simmering for years because the radical groups have found not only Somalia but neighbouring countries fertile ground to grow and recruit, with governments in the region seemingly unprepared,” Abdi said.

However, the Somali government, along with the U.N. Children’s Fund (UNICEF) and international partners, is currently trying to implement an ambitious initiative to put one million children to school. Through this Go 2 School Initiative the government has also proposed changes to the curriculum in the hope that this will help fight radicalism. According to UNICEF, enrolment rates here are among the lowest in the world with only four out of every 10 children attending school.

But the government faces huge resistance from private school administrators and parents who fear the changes would make education devoid of religious moral teaching for the young.

Islamist groups have condemned the campaign as an attempt by the government to westernise Somali education and sideline religious studies.

Numerous calls by IPS to Somalia’s ministry of education remained unanswered while one official declined to comment on the allegations that schools are used as breeding grounds for militancy in Somalia.

But Hussen said the Somali government recognised that youth are the “future of Somalia” and need empowerment.

“However, the government has not been very forthcoming in the implementation of this … as youth are still very much marginalised from the political arena,” she explained.

Yusuf agreed, but said the approach needs to be far more radical and start with a critical look at the kind of education Somali children receive in school during their formative years.

“There is a need for holistic approach to youth problems in Somalia because Al-Shabaab, which means youth in Arabic, has realised the potential of Somalia’s young and are working to capitalise on it in our schools. We need to change that,” Yusuf said.

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Egyptian Revolution Brings an IVF Rush http://www.ipsnews.net/2013/10/egyptian-revolution-brings-an-ivf-rush/?utm_source=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_campaign=egyptian-revolution-brings-an-ivf-rush http://www.ipsnews.net/2013/10/egyptian-revolution-brings-an-ivf-rush/#comments Thu, 03 Oct 2013 07:47:45 +0000 Rachel Williamson http://www.ipsnews.net/?p=127906 The young couple inspecting Dr Bassem Elhelw’s Cairo Fertility Clinic knew what they wanted from him: a baby boy. They also knew they wanted the child by in vitro fertilisation (IVF). After only four months of marriage they were already experienced at this game. They had seen two other fertility doctors, and the young woman […]

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A fertility clinic in Cairo. Credit: Rachel Williamson/IPS

A fertility clinic in Cairo. Credit: Rachel Williamson/IPS

By Rachel Williamson
CAIRO, Oct 3 2013 (IPS)

The young couple inspecting Dr Bassem Elhelw’s Cairo Fertility Clinic knew what they wanted from him: a baby boy. They also knew they wanted the child by in vitro fertilisation (IVF).

After only four months of marriage they were already experienced at this game. They had seen two other fertility doctors, and the young woman had undergone two ovulation inductions to stimulate egg development.

Elhelw said that had his advice been to be patient and try less invasive procedures before going straight to IVF, the couple would have moved on to their fourth doctor.

Assisted reproductive technologies (ART) in Egypt have boomed of late. According to specialists such as Elhelw this is now a fertile area for practitioners in it only for the cash.

Doctors and reproductive experts say IVF treatments have risen significantly after the Jan. 25 revolution of 2011. "It's easy for the wealthy but fertility is too important for Egyptians, even the poor will ask for money to get it done." -- Dr Ashraf Sabry, director of three fertility clinics

Across-the-board restrictions of what could be shown on television channels ended with the departure of former president Hosni Mubarak after the revolution. IVF clinics in Cairo and Alexandria began heavy advertising campaigns following the easing of restrictions.

Elhelw said a profusion of “infomercial”–style television advertising is now reaching once-isolated rural provinces, and greater awareness was creating excessive expectations of what the technology could do.

But beyond such specific changes, medical personnel say the 2011 revolution and the turmoil since have created a new dynamic. With the revolution came a governmental vacuum and a societal shift.

“I think what’s changed now is an attitude to infertility rather than cases of infertility,” Elhelw told IPS. “Attitudes changed because in the last two years things were happening very fast. The pace of life in Cairo used to be very slow.”

Sperm counts among Egyptian men are already low, as documented by Yale reproductive researcher Marcia Inhorn in her 2004 study Middle Eastern Masculinities in the Age of New Reproductive Technologies: Male Infertility and Stigma in Egypt and Lebanon.

Inhorn told IPS that Middle Eastern women, besides, suffer from an above-average incidence of polycystic ovary syndrome, and obesity-related problems are a major fertility issue for Egyptian women.

These problems have been exacerbated since the revolution, medical personnel say. Unemployment and social tensions are driving a change that has put shisha cafes at the centre of the social lives of young men and women, leading them to spend long hours in smoke-filled environments. Smoking is a known cause of infertility.

“Smoking is hematotoxic, it’s not good for sperm quality,” Inhorn said, adding that at least 50 percent of men in the Middle East smoke.

Dr Ashraf Sabry, director of three eponymous fertility clinics in and around Cairo, said 60 to 70 percent of his business was from male infertility. He attributes this partly to cigarettes and partly to a rise in the social acceptability of young men smoking in shisha cafes since 2011. 

“It’s too easy to smoke,” he said. “These boys spend so much time in these cafes, they can go through two or three shishas at one time.”

He said unlicensed cafes were now common and it had become socially acceptable for young women to smoke shisha in cafes, as well as cigarettes, and young men and even boys were spending hours in shisha cafes where once they would not have been permitted entry.

Such factors are pushing more Egyptians into seeking medical help to conceive, medical personnel say.

“Our observation in the infertility centre in Maadi or the infertility centre at Al-Azhar University, where we have a public unit for IVF, is that the number of couples who are coming for treatment of male infertility is on the rise,” said Dr Gamal Serour, director of the IVF Unit at Al-Azhar University in Cairo and expert in Islamic reproductive law. He added that male and female infertility affects about 10 to 15 percent of Egyptian couples.

Regulation of medical treatments has not been on the Egyptian government’s radar since January 2011. A draft law proposed in late 2010 to further regulate aspects of IVF such as sex selection fell by the wayside.

Ministry of Health spokesman Dr Mohamed Fathalla declined to say whether legislation would be introduced to control fertility centres.

The sector is loosely supervised by the Health Ministry and the Egyptian Medical Syndicate, and guided by Islamic law.

With governmental attention focussed elsewhere, bad practices are flourishing. Expensive and unnecessary procedures are thrust on patients such as full IVF treatment where only hormone regulation may be required.

Elhelw said he had not personally seen many women physically hurt by other doctors, but these cases were not uncommon in his clinic. Sabry said he saw “a lot” of women who had been physically, mentally and financially hurt by reckless practitioners.

“I will be happy [to see greater regulation]. These cowboys are hurting our business.”

Sabry said he had refused egg donation in his clinics. The practice is forbidden under Islamic law, though IVF is not.

IVF was introduced into Egypt in 1986 and a set of Islamic guidelines quickly followed. Many were reassured that such treatment was not forbidden by religion.

But since then, calls for a dedicated national supervisor, clinic registration, doctor accreditation, and the draft law in 2010 have fallen by the wayside as Egyptians focussed on building a new democracy.

This also means the precise number of clinics and practitioners is unknown.

Dr Ragaa Mansour, one of the pioneers of IVF in Egypt and a director of the Egyptian IVF&ET Centre, told IPS that “there is no national accreditation specific to IVF and there is no body that monitors and follows up the practice in each IVF centre.”

Serour does not believe legislation is needed.

Such legislation would inhibit flexibility with new technologies, he said.

The cost for a round of treatment ranges between 6,000 to 12,000 Egyptian pounds (870 to 1,740 dollars) for basic IVF, and between 25,000 to 30,000 Egyptian pounds (3,600 to 4,300 dollars) to choose the sex of a child.

By developed world standards these prices are low but minimum wage in Egypt is around 730 Egyptian pounds (105 dollars) a month. Yet people find the money somehow, says Sabry.

“It’s easy for the wealthy but fertility is too important for Egyptians, even the poor will ask for money to get it done.”

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Ugandan Women Put On Their Boxing Gloves http://www.ipsnews.net/2013/10/ugandan-women-put-on-their-boxing-gloves/?utm_source=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_campaign=ugandan-women-put-on-their-boxing-gloves http://www.ipsnews.net/2013/10/ugandan-women-put-on-their-boxing-gloves/#comments Wed, 02 Oct 2013 08:23:05 +0000 Amy Fallon http://www.ipsnews.net/?p=127878 Helen Baleke took up boxing at 16, after she was attacked by a man in Kampala’s Katanga slum. But the beating turned her into what she is today – one of only several female Ugandan amateur boxers. “He beat me so bad that I started crying and bleeding from the nose,” Baleke tells IPS, speaking […]

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Diana Tulyanabo (l), 20 and her half-sister Helen Baleke (r) at the Rhino Boxing Club in Katanga. Credit: Amy Fallon/IPS

Diana Tulyanabo (l), 20 and her half-sister Helen Baleke (r) at the Rhino Boxing Club in Katanga. Credit: Amy Fallon/IPS

By Amy Fallon
KAMPALA
, Oct 2 2013 (IPS)

Helen Baleke took up boxing at 16, after she was attacked by a man in Kampala’s Katanga slum. But the beating turned her into what she is today – one of only several female Ugandan amateur boxers.

“He beat me so bad that I started crying and bleeding from the nose,” Baleke tells IPS, speaking through an interpreter in the local Luganda language from a mud shack in Katanga which she shares with 23 family members.

“I came from the village [in Kayunga District] to Kampala with my pride … and believe that no man could ever beat me,” says the now 24-year-old Baleke.

Baleke had always liked fighting, “even way back in school”. The Rhino Boxing Club in Katanga waived the eight-dollar membership fee to allow her to start training there following her attack.

She spent three weeks learning boxing after the incident, and then tracked down her assailant. When she found him, she grabbed him by the shirt.

“I looked for that guy to show him that I can really defend myself,” says Baleke. "I want to discover if I’ve got real talent – can I be beaten or am I a champion?” -- amateur boxer Helen Baleke

Today Baleke has been in 14 fights in Uganda and Kenya and has three medals to her name. She and her half sister Diana Tulyanabo, 20, train daily at the Rhino Boxing Club in Katanga along with Lydia Nantale, 17, and Maureen Nakilyowa, 23, who also live in the slum.

Several other Ugandan females have shown promise in the ring. Agnes Adong, Hawa Daku, Eva Zalwango and Fiona Tugume, along with the two sisters, are in fact currently applying to become the first female members of the Uganda Professional Boxing Commission (UPBC), says its vice-president Salim Saad Uhuru.

He has no doubt that the country’s female boxers can go on to great things if given more support.

“We can send a woman representing Uganda to the Olympics, absolutely. We’re going to train them to be the best.”

But Uhuru, who is also vice-chairman of the National Resistance Movement, Uganda’s ruling political party, for Kampala Central District, says corruption is holding the country’s potential athletes back.

“I blame the Ministry of Sports. It has let us down absolutely. If you see the officials who went to the last Olympics, there were more than participants. That is so absurd. How do you pay an official more money than a participant?” He did not elaborate on how much the officials or athletes were paid.

Uganda took 16 athletes to last year’s Games, 12 of them were Olympics newcomers.

But the women of Katanga, which is believed to be home to about 20,000 people, face other struggles besides corruption.

Early marriage and pregnancy along with sexual assault are challenges they face, says Juliet Segujja, the head volunteer for Kids Club Kampala, the only NGO working in the slum.

“Most girls when they are young, they just go on the streets so they can get money from guys,” says Segujja, 23, who lives in Katanga.

Life is far from easy for the women boxers. Nakilyowa, 23, has four children and being a single mother and training daily is a lot to juggle. Baleke and her sibling collect banana peels, which their mother sells on the side of the road near Katanga as animal feed for one dollar a packet.

But they dream of Olympic glory.

Uganda’s male boxers have been successful internationally. Kassim Ouma is a former International Boxing Federation junior middleweight champion, and Joseph Lubega, a Commonwealth Games silver medalist. John “The Beast” Mugabi and Eridad Mukwanga, have both won silver at Olympic Games, while Leo Rwabwogo won bronze.

But no female boxer from Uganda has ever gone to the Olympics.

Canadian-based junior welterweight Natalie “Sugar” Brown, who has never been to Africa or met the country’s boxing sisters, would love to change this.

She plans to come to Uganda later this year to mentor Baleke and Tulyanabo, as part of the Women Boxers of Kampala Project. It is a long-term project launched by Lori Steinhorst, the president of Bad Girls Boxing and Classic Women Warriors, two Washington-based organisations, which involves matching Uganda’s female boxers with professional American boxers to guide them in the hope of getting them to the 2016 games.

“I would like to encourage the female boxers of Uganda to learn the sport of boxing and to gain all of the benefits in and out of the ring by passing on my experiences and education on to them,” Brown tells IPS.

Brown and Steinhorst, along with Mary “Merciless” McGee, a former U.S. lightweight title-holder, will travel to Uganda to identify female boxers to develop.

Brown, McGee and Steinhorst have retired world champion boxer Laila Ali, the daughter of retired heavyweight boxing legend Muhammad Ali, working with them “behind the scenes”.

“We have no idea if they [Baleke and Tulyanabo] are elite level athletes with the potential to participate at the Olympic level, that is why we must go find out,” Steinhorst tells IPS.

“However…they may be other women boxers there as well that are working towards that goal … we just don’t know at this point.”

If any of the ladies meet Olympic requirements they hope to begin a fundraising campaign and may take the Ugandan women to the U.S. to train.

If they do make it to the U.S. the training conditions will be hugely different from what they are used to. Baleke, Tulyanabo, Nantale and Nakilyowa have benefitted from donations of proper equipment over the past few years. But they still practise regularly with only one pair of gloves between them and without any mouth guards, putting themselves at risk. Nakilyowa and Nantale usually shadow box due to lack of decent sports gear.

They also face another huge problem that threatens to hold back their own professional development: lack of competition.

“We don’t have opponents that are reliable,” says Baleke.

“When we’re going to have a fight the opponent doesn’t show up. It can be so demotivating.

“We want to be involved in serious fights, professional fights. I want to discover if I’ve got real talent – can I be beaten or am I a champion?”

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