By Carey L. Biron
WASHINGTON, Mar 7 2014 (IPS)
The U.S. government is in the final stages of weighing approval for an overhaul of regulations governing the country’s poultry industry that would see processing speeds increase substantially even while responsibility for oversight would be largely given over to plant employees.
The plan, which was originally floated by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) two years ago, is currently slated to be finalised by regulators next month. Yet opposition has been heating up from lawmakers as well as labour, public health and consumer advocacy groups.
On Thursday, over 100 such groups and businesses delivered a letter, along with nearly 220,000 petitions, to President Barack Obama, asking that the proposal be withdrawn.
“The proposed rule puts company employees in the role of protecting consumer safety, but does not require them to receive any training before performing duties normally performed by government inspectors,” the letter states.
“And lack of training is not the only impact this rule will have on workers. Increased [production] speeds will put worker safety in jeopardy … This proposed rule would let the fox guard the hen house, at the expense of worker safety and consumer protection.”
The proposed rule would see top chicken-processing speeds increased from the current 140 per minute to as high as 175. The rule would also decrease the number of federal inspectors assigned to processing plants by 75 percent, leaving the slack to be picked up by company employees.
The poultry industry has reportedly been pushing for these changes for decades. In return, the government would require that processors bathe each chicken carcass in chlorine and other chemicals, aimed at killing any pathogens that remain on the bird.
Last week, Bennie G. Thompson, a member of Congress, warned that the USDA is “unnecessarily endangering the lives of millions of Americans”.
Federal pilot projects have been testing the new approach since the late 1990s. Yet critics warn that the results have been far less clear-cut than either the government or the industry has suggested.
“We did a snapshot analysis of how many defects employees were missing at these pilot plants, and found there was no consistency,” Tony Corbo, a senior lobbyist Food & Water Watch, an advocacy group, told IPS.
“In one turkey plant, for instance, there was a 99 percent error rate for one inspection category. We became concerned that the USDA was moving forward too fast with this change.”
The federal government’s official watchdog agency has formally corroborated this conclusion.“The industry says there’s no safety problem, but they’re in denial." -- Tom Fritzsche
The USDA “has not thoroughly evaluated the performance of each of the pilot projects over time,” the Government Accountability Office (GAO) warned in a report published in August, the second time it had come out with such findings.
“GAO identified weaknesses including that training of plant personnel assuming sorting responsibilities on the slaughter line is not required or standardized and that faster line speeds allowed under the pilot projects raise concerns about food safety and worker safety.”
In response to the report, the poultry industry noted that the USDA had already updated its analyses in support of the new rule, and that the sector’s safety record is not linked to processing speeds.
“Over the past 14 years of this pilot program there has been no evidence to substantiate the assertion that increased line speeds will increase injuries,” Ashley Peterson, a vice-president with the National Chicken Council (NCC), a trade group, said in a statement.
“It is not in a poultry company’s best interests to operate at speeds that would harm its workers, and common sense tells you it is not in a company’s best interest to operate at speeds that cannot produce safe and high quality poultry products.”
(The NCC has published responses to criticisms of the proposed regulatory changes here.)
For the moment, the Obama administration appears set on pushing through the new rule, characterising it as a cost-cutting measure.
Under the president’s new budget proposal, released earlier this week, the USDA’s inspections funding would be cut by nearly 10 million dollars, despite the fact that no rule has yet been finalised. Earlier, the federal savings have been estimated even higher – some 90 million dollars over three years.
“The 2015 budget recognises fiscal realities,” Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said Tuesday. “Our leaner workforce continues to find ways to implement increasingly complex programs with fewer resources.”
For major poultry companies, meanwhile, speeding up processing speeds would save more than 250 million dollars a year.
“Most vulnerable” workers
Beyond public health, there are significant civil rights concerns surrounding the new poultry regulations proposal, as well. Last week, a national coalition of groups representing minority and poor workers briefed lawmakers here on concerns that the new rules would exacerbate existing labour problems.
“This proposal has us very concerned, as there are already pending requests with the regulators to require a reduction in these work speeds,” Tom Fritzsche, a staff attorney with the Southern Poverty Law Center, a watchdog group, told IPS.
“The health consequences for workers are already very severe, and the concern is that those injury rates are going to go way up. We’re joining other groups in asking whether the same hazards would be so prevalent if the poultry workforce were not made up mostly of women of colour.”
Last year, Fritzsche authored a study on poultry workers in the state of Alabama, three-fourths of whom said they had experienced injury or illness due to their work. Three-quarters also said that the speed of the processing line made their job more dangerous, in addition to broader allegations of egregious safeguards.
Workers “describe what one called a climate of fear within these plants,” the report states. “[E]mployees are fired for work-related injuries or even for seeking medical treatment from someone other than the company nurse or doctor … they describe being discouraged from reporting work-related injuries.”
The report calls poultry workers “among the most vulnerable” in the United States.
“The industry says there’s no safety problem, but they’re in denial. There is a huge and well-documented undercounting in employer-reported data,” Fritzsche says.
“Workers are repeating the exact same motion between 22,000 and 100,000 times per shift, and can develop some permanent disabilities from these repetitive motions. One study out of South Carolina found that 42 percent of workers had carpal tunnel syndrome – that’s astronomically high, and far higher than the industry ever likes to quote.”Related Articles
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The post U.S. Plans to Speed Poultry Slaughtering, Cut Inspections appeared first on Inter Press Service.
By Thalif Deen
UNITED NATIONS, Mar 6 2014 (IPS)
In much of the Arab world, women’s participation in the labour force is the lowest in the world, according to the United Nations, while women in politics is a rare breed both in the Middle East and North Africa.
Perhaps one of the few exceptions is Algeria, says Lakshmi Puri, deputy executive director of U.N. Women."There is no doubt that culture and religion play some role, but the fact remains that over the past 30 years, and particularly in the last decade, we have seen the rising tide of very conservative forces in the region." -- Sanam Anderlini
The North African nation has reached the critical mass of some 30 percent of women parliamentarians, while Saudi Arabia has broken new ground by welcoming women to the Shura council.
Still, with a regional average of female parliamentarians just above 12 percent, the Arab world remains far behind the already low global average of 20 percent, according to U.N figures.
Asked whether this was due to cultural or religious factors, Puri told IPS, “It is not easy to pinpoint a single cause for the low level of women’s participation in the labour force and in politics in the Arab world, and more generally, around the world.”
She said there is no doubt that entrenched gender stereotypes and social norms that condone discrimination against women play a negative role, but other factors also need to be taken into account.
These include, for example, access to and quality of education, opportunities to reconcile professional or political life with family responsibilities, the overall structure of the labour market, and prevalence of violence against women.
When representatives of women’s organisations meet in New York next week, one of the many issues before the U.N. Commission on the Status of Women (CSW) will be the low level of women’s participation in the labour force and in political and social life worldwide.
The CSW, scheduled to hold its annual sessions Mar. 10-21, is the primary inter-governmental policy-making body on gender equality and advancement of women.
This year’s session will focus on challenges and achievements in the implementation of the U.N.’s Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), specifically for women and girls.
Sanam Anderlini, co-founder of the International Civil Society Action Network (ICAN) and a senior fellow at the Center for International Studies at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), told IPS: “We should steer clear of assuming that the low levels of participation in public spaces – political and economic – are ‘entrenched ‘cultural or religious values.’
“There is no doubt that culture and religion play some role, but the fact remains that over the past 30 years, and particularly in the last decade, we have seen the rising tide of very conservative forces in the region – largely supported by regional governments themselves – that are promoting a regressive agenda towards women.”
Let’s not forget that Egypt had a feminist movement in the 19th century, she added.
Puri listed several factors that negatively affect outcomes for women and girls.
These, she pointed out, include family codes and parallel traditional legal and justice systems that deny women property and inheritance rights, access to productive resources, sanction polygamy and early and child marriages, and put women at a disadvantage in marriage and divorce.
At the same time, it is essential to tackle negative misinterpretations of religion or culture that not only condone but perpetuate myths about inherent inequality between men and women and justify gender-based discrimination.
“As we at UN Women have pointed out, along with many faith-based and other organisations, equality between women and men was propounded centuries ago in the Arab region,” Puri said.
At the same time, governments along with all stakeholders, including civil society, need to put in place an enabling environment in order to increase women’s participation in all spheres of life, said Puri.
Anderlini told IPS that in the Arab world – like any other part of the world – there are always different cultural forces at play simultaneously: conservative and progressive.
But in the Arab world, the conservative forces are seeking to erase or discredit the gains made in the past.
“They like to associate ‘women’s rights’ with immorality and westernisation. It is a clear political agenda that is being fomented and we must not fall for the notion that it is ‘cultural’ or religious’,” said Anderlini, who was appointed last year to the Working Group on Gender and Inclusion of the Sustainable Development Network for the U.N.’s post-2015 economic agenda.
She also said Islam calls for equal rights to education for women and men – to equal pay, to women’s rights to inheritance and participation in public life.
“What’s being spread are extreme interpretations of Islam that may be rooted in countries like Saudi Arabia but are newer to Egypt, Tunisia or Lebanon,” she warned.
Asked how women’s participation can be advanced in the Arab region, Puri told IPS, “As elsewhere, achieving the advancement of women’s participation in the political, economic and social spheres in the Arab States requires interventions at multiple levels.”
First, a reform of state constitutions and laws as well as of traditional legal and justice systems and the creation of a conducive policy environment based on international women’s rights norms and instruments, such as the Convention to Eliminate All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) and the 1995 Beijing Platform for Action, needs to be in place.
This environment should not only allow, but also encourage women to participate in the work force and in public life.
It must include temporary special measures, such as quotas in all public institutions. Education, training and skills building is also essential.
In the workplace, reconciling family responsibilities with professional life must be addressed, as women still undertake most of the domestic and care work, said Puri.
This must include effective maternity leave practices and provisions, affordable and accessible childcare and other caregiving structures, as well as incentives for men and boys to play a greater role in undertaking domestic work, such as compulsory paternity leave, she noted.
The policy environment also must focus on preventing violence against women at home, harassment at the workplace and in public spaces, so that women and girls do not fear any repercussions for partaking in public life.
Secondly, she said, there has to be bottom-up change.
“This means changing entrenched patriarchal mindsets and shift from attitudes and beliefs that focus on women’s reproductive role to women’s productive and public roles,” stressed Puri.Related Articles
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By John Feffer
WASHINGTON, Mar 6 2014 (IPS)
As the fate of Ukraine hangs in the balance, U.S. politicians from both parties have been scrambling to take advantage of the crisis.
Republicans in Congress have slammed President Barack Obama for his “trembling inaction.” Meanwhile, Hillary Clinton has revived the hawkish approach of her pre-secretary of state years by comparing Russian leader Vladimir Putin’s actions to Hitler’s.The partisan divisions in the United States are dwarfed by the depth of animosity between those in Ukraine who favour the policies of Moscow and those who side with the new government in Kiev.
With the mid-term elections coming up this fall and the presidential elections beckoning two years hence, the confrontation between Russia and Ukraine has become the latest issue to roil partisan politics in the United States. In this case, however, the divergent rhetoric conceals a broad consensus on how Washington should deal with the crisis.
The situation on the ground in Ukraine, meanwhile, continues to be largely non-violent. But tensions remain at a high pitch.
After protesters in Kiev sent President Viktor Yanukovych in exile to Russia and took power in late February, a pro-Russian backlash gathered force in areas of the country with a large Russian-speaking minority.
The resistance has been most acute on the Crimean peninsula, a semi-autonomous region that is the only part of Ukraine where Russian speakers are in the majority. The region also hosts Russia’s Black Sea fleet, in a leasing arrangement good until 2042.
Russian troops have spread throughout Crimea, effectively neutralizing Ukrainian forces. After armed men stormed the Crimean parliament last weekend, lawmakers hastily chose a new Crimean prime minister, Sergei Aksynov, who leans toward Moscow.
He has called for a referendum on Crimea’s fate on Mar. 16 when voters will choose between Russia and Ukraine. The result is not a foregone conclusion, given the sizable number of Ukrainians and Tatars who live in Crimea.
Secretary of State John Kerry has attempted to negotiate a way out of the impasse, but his meetings this week in Paris and Rome with his counterpart, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, have not yielded a compromise.
Both the United States and the European Union are working quickly to assemble aid packages for the new leadership in Kiev, which presides over a rapidly tanking economy.
These diplomatic efforts have not prevented critics of the Obama administration from seizing the opportunity to repeat complaints that the president is not sufficiently strong.
Congressional opponents urged a military response to the crisis in Libya in 2011, which helped to force the president’s hand and initiate intervention.
Similar criticisms of administration weakness in the face of the use of chemical weapons in the Syrian civil war last August led the administration to ask Congress for authorisation to use military force, a plan made moot by a Russian-brokered plan for the Assad government to give up its arsenal.
The same critics have been quick to recycle their earlier judgments. Obama’s opponent in the 2008 presidential elections, John McCain (R-AZ), echoed comments he made during the Libya and Syria crises when he appeared before the American Israel Public Affairs Committee annual meeting in Washington on Monday.
The situation in Ukraine, he said “is the ultimate result of a feckless foreign policy in which nobody believes in America’s strength anymore.”
His colleague in the House, freshman Congressman Cotton, accused the Obama administration of “trembling inaction.” The Republicans are eager to pick up seats in the mid-term elections and possibly retake control of the Senate.
For her part, Hillary Clinton is looking further ahead to the 2016 elections. During her 2008 presidential bid, she derided Obama for his lack of experience in foreign policy and called his willingness to talk with America’s adversaries “naïve.”
Obama went on to win the election and appointed Clinton his secretary of state. In her new position, she implemented the foreign policy she had previously criticised, particularly in her negotiations with the leadership in Myanmar.
Despite her misgivings about Vladimir Putin – during the 2008 elections she famously said that he lacked a soul – she led the team responsible for pushing the “reset” button on U.S.-Russian relations.
Although her reservations about Putin are not new, her comments comparing Russian actions in Crimea to the Nazi invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1938 certainly establish distance between her and the administration she once served.
Clinton has not come out and said that President Obama is weak, but her invocation of the Nazi seizure of the Sudetenland suggests that appeasement might be just around the corner.
Yet the administration and its critics do not offer substantially different recommendations for dealing with Ukraine.
The Obama administration has sent fighter jets to the region, but only to monitor the air space. No one is talking military options. The only different of opinion is over the relative mix of economic sanctions and diplomatic sticks.
The partisan divisions in the United States are, of course, dwarfed by the depth of animosity between those in Ukraine who favour the policies of Moscow and those who side with the new government in Kiev.
But despite demonstrations and counter-demonstrations, stand-offs between Russian and Ukrainian troops in Crimea, and the seizure and re-seizure of public buildings by competing factions in eastern Ukraine, so far there’s been no more violence than what might occur in an average European soccer match.
Even though politicians in the United States are failing to model bipartisan behaviour, there is still a chance that the different sides in Ukraine can find a compromise that keeps the country together and also protects the rights of minorities.
Much depends on Russian intentions and Ukrainian reactions, but also on the ability of policymakers in Washington to keep their own political ambitions in check.Related Articles
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By Martin Khor
GENEVA, Mar 6 2014 (IPS)
Several developing countries are now being engulfed in new economic crises as their currency and stock markets are experiencing sharp falls, and the end is not yet in sight.
The “sell-off” in emerging economies has also spilled over to the American and European stock markets, thus causing global turmoil.
Countries whose currencies were affected in the second half of January include Argentina, Turkey, South Africa, Russia, Brazil and Chile.
A hike in interest rates by Turkey and South Africa has so far failed to stem the depreciation of their currencies.
An America market analyst termed it an “emerging market flu” and several global media reports tend to focus on weaknesses in individual developing countries.
However, the broad sell-off is a general response to the “tapering” of purchase of bonds by the U.S. Federal Reserve, which marks the slowdown of its easy-money policy that has been pumping many hundreds of billions of dollars into the banking system.
On Jan. 29, the Federal Reserve reduced its monthly asset purchase by another 10 billion dollars to 65 billion dollars, following the 10 billion reduction in December. It gave a new boost to the weakening of emerging market currencies.
A lot of the Federal Reserve money pumping had earlier been taken up by American investors and placed in emerging economies as they searched for higher yield.
With the tapering expected to raise yields in the U.S., money is flowing out from bonds and stocks in the emerging economies, putting pressure on their currencies. The capital flows have reversed direction.
The current “emerging markets sell-off” thus cannot be explained by ad hoc events. It is a predictable and even inevitable part of a boom-bust cycle in capital flows to and from the developing countries, which originates from the monetary policies of developed countries and the behaviour of their investment funds.
This cycle, which has been very destabilising to the developing economies, has been facilitated by the deregulation of financial markets and the liberalisation of capital flows which in the past had been carefully regulated.
This prompted massive and increasing bouts of speculative international flows by Western investment funds, motivated by the search for higher yields. Emerging economies, having higher economic growth and interest rates, attracted the investors.
Yilmaz Akyuz, chief economist at South Centre, analysed the most recent boom-bust cycles in his paper Waving or Drowning?
A boom of private capital flows to developing countries began in the early years of the 2000s but came to an end with the flight to safety triggered by the Lehman collapse in September 2008. However, the flows recovered quickly. By 2010-12, net flows to Asia and Latin America exceeded the peaks reached before the crisis.
This recovery was largely caused by the easy-money policies and near zero interest rates in the U.S. and Europe.
In the U.S., the Federal Reserve pumped 85 billion dollars a month into the banking system by buying bonds. It was hoped the banks would lend this to businesses to generate recovery, but in fact investors placed much of the funds in the Western stock markets and in bonds and shares in developing countries.
The surge in capital inflows led to a strong recovery in currency, equity and bond markets of major developing countries. Some of these countries welcomed the new capital inflows and the boom in asset prices.
But others were upset that the inflows caused their currencies to appreciate (thus making their exports less competitive) and that the ultra-easy monetary policies of developed countries were part of a “currency war” to make the latter more competitive.
In 2013, the capital inflows into developing countries weakened due to the European crisis and the prospect of the Federal Reserve “tapering”.
This weakening took place at a bad time – just as many of the emerging economies saw their current account deficits widen. Thus, their need for foreign capital increased just as inflows became weaker and unstable.
In May-June 2013 there was a preview of the current sell-off when the Federal Reserve announced it could soon start “tapering”. This led to sudden sharp currency falls including in India and Indonesia.
However, the Federal Reserve postponed the taper, but in December it finally announced a reduction of its monthly bond purchase from 85 to 75 billion dollars, with more to come.
There was then no sudden sell off in emerging economies, as the markets had already anticipated it and the Federal Reserve also announced that interest rates would be kept at current low levels until the end of 2015.
By now, however, the investment mood had already turned against the emerging economies. Many of them were now termed “fragile”, especially those with current account deficits and dependent on capital inflows.
Many of the so-called fragile countries are in fact members of the BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa) that had been viewed just a few years before as the most powerful emerging economies driving global growth.
In this atmosphere of deepening concerns, it just required a “trigger” to cause a simultaneous sell-off in currencies and markets of developing countries.
Several factors were to emerge which together constituted a trigger. These were a “flash” report indicating contraction of manufacturing in China; the sudden fall in the Argentinian peso; and expectations of further tapering by the Federal Reserve.
For two days (Jan. 23 and 24) the currencies and stock markets of several developing countries were in turmoil, which spilled over to the U.S. and European stock markets.
The turmoil continued into the following week, seeming to confirm investor disenchantment with emerging economies, and a reversal of capital flows.
The depreciation in currency and the capital outflows could put strains on the affected countries’ foreign reserves and weaken their balance of payments.
The accompanying fall in currency would have positive effects on export competitiveness, but negative impacts in accelerating inflation (as import prices go up) and debt servicing (as more local currency is needed to repay the same amount of debt denominated in foreign currencies).
The post New Economic Crisis Engulfing Developing Countries appeared first on Inter Press Service.
By Keya Acharya
ALAPPUZHA, (India), Mar 6 2014 (IPS)
Farming, tourism, poor fishing practices along with misdirected policies are muddying the famous backwaters of Kerala, one of India’s best known holiday destinations. Nowhere is this misuse more visible than in and around the 95-km-long Vembanad Lake.
Bearing the brunt are small fishing communities which are caught between dwindling fish catch, worsening water quality and the usurpation of banks – traditionally used as fish-landing points – by tourism operators.The lack of a mix of saline and freshwater, vital to fish breeding, has affected fish species.
“Until about eight to 10 years ago, I would collect this amount in just two-three hours,” says fisherman Ashokan, pointing to a mound of black clams in his canoe-like boat. “Now I work the whole day to procure it,” he tells IPS.
Kerala’s backwaters, a tourist hotspot, are made up of a 1,500-km waterway network of canals, lagoons, lakes and rivers that run parallel to the Arabian Sea and are fed by both saline and fresh water, contributing to a unique ecosystem. Many areas in these wetlands are below sea level, allowing sea water to flow inwards.
Major towns and cities dot the backwaters, such as the historic port city of Alleppey, now called Alappuzha, where the Maharaja of Travancore oversaw the building of canal waterways in the 18th century.
At the heart of this entire ecosystem is the Vembanad wetland area, spread over 36,500 hectares and fed by six large rivers and seawater. It is a lifeline for over 1.6 million people living on the lake’s banks.
More than 150 species of fish are found in Vembanad Lake. The Horadandia atukorali fish is found only around Pathrimanal island in the lake. The ecological significance of Vembanad’s rich biodiversity has made it the country’s largest Ramsar site, meant to accord protection for conservation.
But being a Ramsar site has not brought any protection for Vembanad Lake so far.
The waters of the lake are now divided by the Thanneermukkom barrage, built in 1975 to shut out saltwater ingress into fields in a bid to promote double cropping of paddy in areas surrounding the lake.
The lake’s sea water ingress traditionally helped flush out waste while containing flood waters. The lack of a mix of saline and freshwater, vital to fish breeding, has affected fish species.
“Prawns spawn at the mouth of the estuary and baby shrimps are carried inwards into the lake with tidal sea waters, but they are now trapped, unable to flow inwards because of the barrage,” T.D. Jojo from the Ashoka Trust for Ecology and Environment (ATREE) tells IPS.
Chemicals from reclaimed farmlands, illegally discharged effluents from tourism houseboats and lakeside industries such as coconut husk retting have contributed to significant pollution in the lake.
The Thanneermukkom barrage, built on the narrowest part of the lake’s width, closes its gates each year from Dec. 15 to Mar. 31, and this has proved to be long enough to hamper fish breeding and also cause decomposition of nutrients in the lake.
As fishing stocks have decreased, fishermen have begun using methods that harm fishlings. Over-fishing is now a problem in Vembanad.
ATREE scientists have been working the last six years to conserve the ecology of the lake. “We now have 13 lake protection groups, trained to check water quality in the lake,” says Dr. Priyadarsanan Dharmarajan, team leader of the ATREE Vembanad conservation project.
Fishers, whose complaints on the lake’s deteriorating health were not taken seriously for years, now feel vindicated by data that shows low salinity and high acidity corresponding exactly to the shutting of the barrage gates.
“We want both saline and freshwater for farming and fishing, so we have asked for the barrage to be opened a little earlier,” says Murlidharan, member of a joint farmer-fishing forum and a fisherman for 30 years.
But the forum has small farmers whose voices are not heard by rich farming interests.
“Our primary concern is paddy. It is not possible to open the Thanneermukkom barrage a little earlier,” district collector N. Padmakumar, Alappuzha’s top administrative official, tells IPS. “The ratio of farmers to fishermen is 10 to one. Whose interest should I protect?”
He is also short of answers on the ecological degradation of Vembanad. “It (degradation) has happened historically. I don’t have a magic wand to make things right. There should be political will on the part of the government to do something.”
The resorts on the lake’s banks blame the houseboats for the pollution, but the houseboat owners deny this. “Houseboats don’t pose a problem for the lake,” says operator Dilip Kumar.
He also tries to sweep aside allegations of declining fish catch. “You can get prawns as big as this (pointing from his fingers down to his elbow) for 80 rupees (1.15 dollars) a kilogram,” he says.
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By Pavol Stracansky
MOSCOW, Mar 6 2014 (IPS)
Elena Smolenskaya doesn’t hesitate a second when asked what she thinks about the Russian military intervention in Crimea. The 23-year-old Moscow student is convinced that President Vladimir Putin had no choice but to order troops into the country.
“The military action was right to protect Russian people in Crimea. This is why the majority of Russian people support what President Putin is doing. He is protecting Russian interests,” she told IPS.“The adoption of more restrictive laws is a possibility against the current backdrop of anti-Western hysteria in state-sponsored and loyalist media.”
Elena’s view is far from uncommon – especially in areas outside the country’s major cities where support for Putin has always been highest – and appears to be growing every day.
Before the Ukrainian revolution polls in Russia had shown that the majority of Russians were against intervention in their western neighbour’s affairs, but the mood appears to have shifted in the last few weeks.
While there were demonstrations in Moscow against the occupation at the weekend – swiftly suppressed with the arrest of hundreds – there were much larger counter protests in support of it. In Russia’s second city, St Petersburg, more than 15,000 turned up at a rally supporting the military operation in Crimea.
Local analysts say that many Russians see the new government in Kiev as strongly anti-Russian and made up of dangerous neo-fascists. This image was reinforced when soon after Moscow-friendly former Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovych fled the country, its new leaders proposed a law banning Russian as an official language.
In a survey by the independent Russian Levada polling group at the end of February, 43 percent of respondents described the Ukrainian protests and subsequent revolution as a violent coup, and almost a quarter categorised it as a civil war. A poll by the same organisation showed that a third thought that the overthrow of the Yanukovych regime was led by Ukrainian nationalists supported by Western secret service agents.
Clashes in Eastern Ukraine between pro-Russian locals and supporters of the Kiev government after the revolution reinforced these views.
As attention turned to Crimea, which was part of Russia until 1954 when then Soviet leader Nikita Krushchev made it part of Ukraine republic within the Soviet Union, many agreed with Kremlin claims that military intervention was a necessity to protect the almost 60 percent of Crimea’s population that is ethnic Russian, and help protect a people and culture which many in Russia see as their own.
Vasily Gomelsky, a 56-year-old clerk in Moscow, told IPS: “President Putin is right and I completely support him. He just wanted to protect the Orthodox [Christian] civilisation that has been there for hundreds of years. We were all afraid of what might happen if neo-fascists [in Kiev] take over there.”
Russian media, much of which is formally or informally state-controlled, has widely pushed the same view.
The Komsomolskaya Pravda national daily carried an interview with a 20-year-old Russian activist present at the pro-EU Euromaidan demonstrations in Kiev earlier who claimed that there were “German and American mercenaries” among the protestors leading younger members of the Ukrainian radical far right Pravy Sektor movement.
Criticism of the occupation in any media has been scarce. Where it has occurred it has, in some cases, been swiftly dealt with by the authorities.
Prof. Andrei Zubov of the Moscow State Institute of International Relations – which was founded by and remains institutionally a part of the Russian Foreign Ministry – wrote an article in the Vedemosti national daily condemning the intervention and likening President Putin to Hitler.
In another interview he said that the Russian president had “clearly lost his mind.”
He was sacked early this week. He said he believed the Foreign Ministry had forced his bosses to get rid of him.
Some critics say the professor’s dismissal typifies the approach to dissent of an administration which has been widely condemned by activists and the international community for its crackdown on rights since Putin began his latest presidential term in 2012.
The adoption of controversial legislation on gay propaganda, a crackdown on third sector organisations, repression of political opponents and systematic harassment of activists, among others, have all been cited as examples of Russian authorities’ disregard for rights.
Others warn that new-found support in the wake of the conflict will allow President Putin to pursue even more rigorous curbs on basic freedoms.
“Overall, Putin’s foreign policy commands support. The Crimean conflict will allow him to consolidate the country and the majority of the population will, in the end, support him. It will also allow him to put an additional squeeze on dissent,” Nikolai Sokov, a Senior Fellow at the Vienna Centre for Disarmament and Non-Proliferation (VCDNP), told IPS.
Just last week an anti-terrorist bill giving security forces sweeping powers in cases of suspected terrorism was approved by Russian parliament in a first reading.
The bill included, among other things, heavily-criticised controls of internet use. But it was approved without problems and one MP was reported as saying that critics need only go to Kiev to see why the bill was so desperately needed.
“The bills were actually introduced several weeks ago but the Ukraine conflict ensured they would be adopted,” said Sokov.
Also, the Russian State Agency for Financial Monitoring said Wednesday that it had launched an investigation after uncovering that Ukrainian ultra-nationalists were being funded by the same donor organisations as some Russian NGOs.
Controversial legislation forces NGOs in Russia which receive finance from abroad to be registered as ‘foreign agents’, and are subject to regular checks by local authorities.
Tanya Lokshina, Russia programme director at Human Rights Watch, told IPS: “The news of the investigation is very threatening for all NGOs which receive foreign funding.”
She added: “The adoption of more restrictive laws is a possibility against the current backdrop of anti-Western hysteria in state-sponsored and loyalist media.”
Meanwhile, support for President Putin among ordinary Russians appears firm with many saying it is he, rather than the West, who is looking to avoid escalating the current crisis into a war.
“Some people did fear that [occupying Crimea] could lead to war, but as we have seen, President Putin has acted sensibly with regard to this. He is looking out for Russian interests, not looking for confrontation,” Smolenskaya told IPS.Related Articles
- Crimea Faces a ‘Frozen Conflict’
- EU No Instant Saviour for Ukraine
- U.S. Hawks Take Flight over Ukraine
By Ivet González
SAN JUAN Y MARTÍNEZ, Cuba, Mar 6 2014 (IPS)
Near the close of the harvest , local people in the Cuban municipality of San Juan y Martínez, which boasts the finest tobacco plantations in the world, are seeing their hopes of a plentiful season dashed by unexpected winter rains.
“It’s been a bad year, a rebellious one as we call it. There was a lot of rain, which rots the plants. Tobacco needs sun during the day and cold at night,” 67-year-old Dámaso Rodríguez, a worker on the Valle plantation in this municipality, 180 kilometres west of Havana, in the province of Pinar del Río, told IPS.
“We are late with the farm chores,” said Yamilé Venero, a young tobacco worker on the same plantation. “It’s not worth planting again,” added María Teresa Ventos, a 54-year-old woman who comes every season to string the tobacco leaves onto long poles for drying in this agricultural industry which is a source of temporary jobs for women.
Since November, when the season started, there has been too much rain in the province which was expected to supply 70 percent of the 26,400 tonnes of tobacco leaf forecast for the 2013-2014 harvest. San Juan y Martínez and the neighbouring municipality of San Luis were severely affected; between them they provide 86 percent of the tobacco for the prized and costly Havana cigars.
Local sources reported the loss of 813 hectares in Pinar del Río and partial damage in a further 1,000 hectares, out of the provincial plan for 15,000 hectares. Many farms had to uproot their tobacco plants and replant three times over.
Tobacco is Cuba’s third export, after nickel and medical products.
In 2013, the country earned 447 million dollars from tobacco, eight percent more than in 2012 when the Anglo-Cuban corporation Habanos S.A. made 416 million dollars. It is the sole vendor of Cuban cigars worldwide, trading in 160 countries, with most of its business in Europe, although cigars are doing well in Asia and the Middle East.
The storm clouds over Pinar del Río, in the west of the country, may hurt sales this year, along with other problems like tough anti-tobacco laws in Europe and the economic blockade imposed by the United States on Cuba because of the of conflict between Washington and Havana that has gone on for half a century.
To weather the damage done by the downpours, plantations in Pinar extended their planting season, which usually ends in January, by 45 days, and delayed other major tasks of the current tobacco harvest. They have also resorted to harvesting “capadura” (lower quality) leaf and plant regrowth, in order to maximise production.
On the Valle plantation, 12 skilled men continue to harvest tobacco leaves and take them to a high-roofed wooden barn at one side of the estate. Inside, 12 women string the leaves in bunches and arrange them on long poles which are then hung in tiers right up to the slanted roof for traditional curing (controlled drying) in air.
“After all, the tobacco is good quality, but not as good as before,” Rodríguez said. This veteran tobacco grower, the son and grandson of peasant farmers, is concerned that the strange weather in his birthplace “is no longer the same” as it was three decades ago.
The unique combination of temperature, soil and humidity in the Vuelta Abajo region, in the west of the province, is essential for the development of the best handmade premium cigars on the planet, a process that involves close to 190 different operations.
Only here can all the types of leaf be grown that are used in making cigars, the successors to the rolled leaves smoked by native people on the island of Cuba when Spanish colonists arrived in 1492.
Dayana Hernández and Aliet Achkienazi, researchers at the state Meteorology Institute, have forecast that this territory will become warmer every decade this century, unsettling the conditions that give Cuban cigars their exclusive taste, aroma and texture and have earned them their protected designation of origin (PDO).
The PDO protects agricultural products that have a quality and characteristics fundamentally or exclusively due to geographical factors in their place of origin. In this case it is reserved for cigars of over three grams, made in Cuba according to traditional methods from varieties of Cuban black tobacco.
The study “Impacto del cambio climático sobre el cultivo del tabaco en la zona de Pinar del Río, Cuba” (Impact of climate change on tobacco cultivation in the area of Pinar del Río, Cuba) analysed particularly productive districts in the province, including San Juan y Martínez and San Luis.
On the basis of future climate scenarios, the authors forecast that rising temperatures will not cause great harm in the next few decades, but later on, as warming increases, crop yields will decline. However, in the north of the area they studied, the climate will be more stable and it is less likely that temperatures will exceed 25 degrees Celsius.
The study found that “the impact of climate change can be mitigated in conditions compatible with the sustainable development” of the delicate tobacco leaf. It recommended “further research” into the effects of imbalances in the rainfall patterns on the plantations.
The experienced eye of Francisco José Prieto, the manager of the Valle plantation, who owns 4.5 hectares that have belonged to his family since his grandfather’s days, led him to take steps ahead of the inclement weather.
He planted early, and was already harvesting “when the rains intensified,” he told IPS. “I didn’t have to replant,” said this member and president of the Tomás Valdés Credit and Services Cooperative (CCS), which groups 50 farms in Vuelta Abajo.
The CCSs were created in the 1960s as voluntary associations of small farmers who retain ownership of their land, and gain collective access to technologies, financing and sales facilities for their products.
But in spite of his efforts, Prieto doubts whether this harvest will be as good as the last, when his farm produced 158 quintals (7,272 kilos), a record result.
Prieto uses soil conservation techniques on his land. He sprays the tobacco only once, and after the harvest, he plants crop varieties that improve the soil, like maize and jack beans. “They provide shade, conserve nutrients that otherwise would be washed away by the rains, and they are dug in as a green manure,” he said.
The 44,863 people living in San Juan y Martínez, on large estates dotted with simple houses with light roofs, depend on the success of each tobacco harvest. “We are paid fixed wages, with bonuses for productivity,” union leader Celeste Muñoz told IPS.
Constantly working dry tobacco wrapper leaf from the last harvest on her roller, Muñoz, employed for the last 17 years in a centre for tobacco collection, selection and processing, said that her team of 50 women is trying to “recover as much dry leaf as possible.”
She is not sure whether it is “because of the climate, the fertilisers or the variety planted,” but she claims that the yield “is less than before. We got as many as 1,000 quintals (46,039 kilos) of dry leaf in one season,” she said nostalgically.Related Articles
- Rising Temperatures Hurt Pollination – and Food Production
- Cuba Seeks to Guarantee Food Supplies in Changing Climate
- Cuba Develops Crops Adapted to Climate Change
By Thalif Deen
UNITED NATIONS, Mar 5 2014 (IPS)
When the crisis in Ukraine moved into the august chambers of the Security Council last week, it was virtually dead on arrival.
After two meetings last Saturday and Monday, the Council remained politically deadlocked, unable or unwilling either to adopt a resolution or come up with the lowest common denominator: a presidential statement with the concurrence of its 15 members."We have a predictable standoff in the Security Council, just as it happened in most previous phases of this long-running rivalry." -- Stephen Zunes
Still, James Paul, who served for more than 19 years as the executive director of the New York-based Global Policy Forum, does not rule out the significance of the United Nations in the ongoing political turbulence in Ukraine.
“This is a situation where multilateral diplomacy is needed and peacemaking is urgently required,” Paul told IPS.
The United Nations can be a venue for solutions, he pointed out, but not in the way the pundits usually think. Currently, Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, while on the road in West Africa, is actively and remotely engaged in helping resolve the crisis. So is his deputy, Jan Eliasson, who is in Ukraine. Ban also named Robert Serry of the Netherlands as his Special Envoy to Ukraine.
On Tuesday, the former Dutch ambassador to Ukraine was confronted by an unidentified mob while he was on a visit to Crimea.
Stephen Zunes, professor of politics and coordinator of Middle Eastern Studies at the University of San Francisco, told IPS the end of the Cold War did not end the pattern of both Russia and the United States running roughshod over the U.N. Charter through illegal military intervention.
Security Council "Spinning Its Wheels"
Barbara Crossette, a former U.N. bureau chief for the New York Times and currently U.N. correspondent for the Nation, told IPS when U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov worked together last year to broker the Syrian chemical weapons deal, the two of them proved the Security Council could be made to work as it should.
"So I have been wondering these last couple of weeks about where Lavrov now stands in Russian or U.S. eyes as he has to maneuver within Putin's confrontational policies just when he was playing a very positive role in both Syria and Iran," she said.
Both Kerry and Lavrov, who met last week to discuss Ukraine, are expected to meet again later this week in Geneva to continue their talks.
Crossette said everybody she spoke with for a piece she wrote for the Nation thought to one degree or another that Lavrov is extremely smart and capable -- even crafty in how much credit he gave Kerry -- and constructive in his approach when he is free to be.
"Yesterday I heard a BBC correspondent in Geneva report on how surreal it seemed to see Lavrov start out a speech in moderation, and then suddenly switch to a Putinesque harangue 'as if he had written in the paragraph on the way over on the plane' -- or had it inserted for him."
So one question might be: does Lavrov have any significant role in this crisis? And who is writing the policy script for the Russian U.N. mission?
"If I were closer to the story, I would say that I get the sense that the Security Council is spinning its wheels, while the situation is playing out in Ukraine and Moscow [and the EU] while New York has a very small role, if any," she said.“And, with both countries invested with the power of the veto, the United Nations remains powerless to stop it,” he said.
In an increasingly interdependent world, however, providing a forum to debate, expose, and challenge such aggression enables the United Nations to still have a positive impact, added Zunes, who has written extensively on the volatile politics of the Security Council.
Paul, who closely monitored the world body for nearly two decades, told IPS, “On Ukraine, we have a predictable standoff in the Security Council, just as it happened in most previous phases of this long-running rivalry.”
The Council is blocked by the veto of the Russians, just as it is also often blocked by the veto of the United States.
But this does not mean that the United Nations is out of the game, as many believe, he noted.
“The media feed on public meetings and statements, but in fact much diplomacy at the United Nations is informal and takes place in the corridors, as the saying goes,” he added.
The P5 (the Security Council’s five permanent members, namely the United States, Britain, France, China and Russia) meet constantly out of the limelight, over lunch or in conference rooms in their respective missions.
These meetings, he noted, “are an absolutely central mechanism for communication between the rivals and a potential means to resolve the conflict or key elements of it.”
Governments do not want to acknowledge this, since they are playing their most aggressive cards. Threats are being exchanged, outrage expressed, military forces moved, and so on, Paul said.
“But we can expect that an accommodation will be reached in absolute private – quite possibly, with the good offices of the U.N. as a means to strike a bargain inside Ukraine among the political factions,” he told IPS. ”Then we may see the P5 present a resolution to the Security Council, as they did in the case of Syria, which at least partially defuses the situation.”
That is the real U.N. functioning in a very garrulous and unstable world. “Let us hope it works again this time,” he added.
At the Security Council meeting Monday, Ambassador Vitaly Churkin of the Russian Federation tried to justify his country’s military intervention as an attempt to protect “millions of Russians living in Ukraine.”
While both U.S. President Barack Obama and his Secretary of State John Kerry have dismissed these arguments, Churkin, recalling the October 1993 U.S. invasion of the Caribbean island of Grenada, pointed out Washington did so “to protect thousands of U.S. nationals living there.”
Zunes said Kerry’s admonishment to Russian President Vladimir Putin that “you just don’t invade another country on phony pretext…in direct, overt violation of international law,” while valid, rings hollow coming from a man who so vigorously supported the illegal U.S. invasion of Iraq on the phony pretext it had “weapons of mass destruction.”
He said the most severe human consequence resulting from the crisis in Ukraine may be that it could further undermine potential Russian cooperation with international efforts to resolve the civil war in Syria, thereby further prolonging that bloody conflict.
The negative fallout from the Russian-U.S. confrontation could not only impact on the peace talks on Syria but also on several other areas of cooperation between the two major powers, including Iran, North Korea and the Middle East.
Paul said in the Ukraine conflict, the great powers are clashing aggressively in the periphery of Russia in what might be called the battle for Eurasia.
There have been a number of related conflicts before, including the Balkan Wars, the war in Iraq and the Syrian conflict, he pointed out. The eastward expansion of the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) and the European Union (EU) are related developments.
“The military conflicts related to this process are often presented in the media as binary conflicts between good and evil,” Paul said. But they are in fact cynical geopolitics, like the Great Game in the nineteenth century, he added.
The moves by the two sides have typically been reckless and a very serious danger to peace. Neither the Western powers nor the Russian government, are acting in support of democratic forces or just outcomes, he said.
“This is perfectly clear in Syria and it is equally true in Ukraine. So binary thinking is false thinking,” Paul said.Related Articles
- Security Council Holds Second Emergency Meeting on Ukraine
- U.S. Hawks Take Flight over Ukraine
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By Bijoyeta Das
NEW DELHI, Mar 5 2014 (IPS)
For years Joba Hemron, 50, prayed that her cough would go away. She was diagnosed with Tuberculosis (TB) in 2011. She was put on a Directly Observed Treatment Short-course (DOTS), provided free at a public health clinic in Bongaigaon district in Assam.
But soon she began missing too many doses. “My sons work in the fields, I was too weak to go on my own to get the pills,” she says. She went to a private clinic, hoping to collect all the medicines at once. That was expensive, which meant she could again not complete the course."Each time the patient moves from one doctor to another, physicians tinker around with the drug combination, further worsening the drug resistance."
Three years and five doctors later, she kept losing weight. “I took medicines whenever convenient but I was only getting worse.” Her family sold a goat and with the money traveled to the state’s capital, Guwahati.
She was diagnosed with multi-drug resistant TB (MDR-TB). “I don’t know what this means, no one explains anything. Will I get well?” she asks. Her frail body shakes as cough rakes her lungs.
For many like Hemron, lack of proper diagnosis and interrupted dosages are increasing their resistance to available drugs. Drug resistance is human-made – an iatrogenic disease resulting from mismanagement of TB, experts say.
Drug resistant TB can occur as a primary infection or develop during a patient’s treatment. India accounted for the greatest increase in MDR-TB in 2012 with an estimated 64,000 new cases.
India provides free TB treatment through the Revised National Tuberculosis Control Programme (RNTCP), which reaches 1.5 million patients. TB remains the deadliest infectious disease in the country with two deaths every three minutes. India has more than a quarter of TB cases globally.
Ramanan Laxminarayan, vice-president of the Public Health Foundation of India says the national TB programme is “stuck in the 1990s.” It is yet to rope in all available tools and involve the private sector.
“Every case of MDR-TB can be 20 times more expensive to treat than a sensitive strain and cause much greater inconvenience, pain and suffering for the patient,” he adds.
Despite regular adherence to medicines, some patients are becoming resistant to frontline drugs. In Mumbai, doctors at Hinduja Hospital said they had identified patients who are “totally drug resistant,”and did not respond to any available drugs. The Indian government rejected the claim.
According to the World Health Organisation (WHO), about 450,000 people contracted DR-TB in 2012. About half of them are in India, China and Russia. An estimated four-fifths of DR-TB cases are still undetected. There were 170,000 MDR-TB deaths globally in 2012.
Madhukar Pai, associate director at McGill International TB Centre, a research organisation situated at the McGill University Health Centre in Montreal, Canada, explains that neither public nor private healthcare providers offer quality TB care. He says there are many instances of wrong drug regimens, low quality drugs, scarce monitoring of treatment adherence, patient movement between providers, adding single new drugs to already failing regimens, and inadequate use of drug-susceptibility testing. All this results in MDR and extensively drug resistant (XDR) TB.
MDR-TB treatment is expensive, the treatment often lasts up to two years, with increased risks. Access to the two new MDR-TB drugs— bedaquiline and delamanid, remains limited. They are available in India only through compassionate use mechanisms.
Most patients in India go the private sector but some abandon treatment because of high costs. By the time patients end up in public hospitals they infect many, and also develop severe forms of drug resistance, Pai says.
“In the private sector, irrational TB prescriptions are so common – doctors make up their own drug combinations. This is disastrous. And each time the patient moves from one doctor to another, physicians tinker around with the drug combination, further worsening the drug resistance,” he says.
About 10 percent of drugs in India are estimated by some doctors to be fake, which can muddle up treatment. Testing for drug-resistance is limited in the public sector. “Empiric treatment is used,” Pai says, not treatment that is tailored to a patient’s drug susceptibility profile. This results in selection of drug resistant strains.
The solution isn’t “merely technological”, says Mike Frick of the Treatment Action Group, a research and policy think thank based in the U.S.
New diagnostic machines like GeneXpert may uncover more cases of drug resistance but “it cannot solve the health system’s failure to link patients to the highest level of care that is their right,” says Frick. India fails to provide psycho-social and economic support for patients.
Globally, funding for research into TB has fallen. Governments have slashed budgets; Pfizer and AstraZeneca have abandoned anti-invectives research – increasing the wait for better drugs, diagnostics and vaccines. “It decreases our chances of replacing toxic drugs in the current MDR-TB regimen with newer, safer drugs that are easier for patients to tolerate,” Frick tells IPS.
In 2013, there were numerous reports of drug stock-outs in India, which the government denied. Many patients had to stop treatment; others were turned away from clinics. When treatment is incomplete, it creates an opportunity for drug-resistance to develop.
“The cruel irony is that even as Indian generic manufacturers continued to produce many of the TB drugs that people in other countries depend on, the Indian government couldn’t guarantee TB drug availability to its own people,” Frick adds.
TB is an opportunistic disease and HIV positive patients are more susceptible. Daniel, who asked only his first name be used, is a HIV positive patient. Six months ago he was diagnosed with MDR-TB. “The medicines are so hard, drain me of all strength,” he says.
He is forced to go to public hospital because of the exorbitant costs of medicines. “But there are long waits and everyone comes to know about you. It only adds to the existing stigma.”Related Articles
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By Miriam Gathigah
NAIROBI, Mar 5 2014 (IPS)
Lupita Nyong’o’s Oscar victory for her supporting performance in the critically acclaimed film “12 Years a Slave” has raised hopes of a much-needed boost to Kenya’s fledgling entertainment industry.
Nyongo’s global success, cemented by her Academy Award win on Mar. 2, has proved that, “Just like medicine or teaching, entertainment can be a serious career choice particularly for the many unemployed and talented youths in the country,” says Nairobi-based market analyst Danson Mwangangi.
But that new attitude to the arts is only just developing.
From Nairobi to Hollywood“The main problem is that many people have not fully appreciated that entertainment is a job just like any other and they are not willing to pay to watch a performance” -- Kenyan actor Paschal Kilei
Many Kenyan theatre aficionados like local playwright Peter Nderi remember 31-year-old Nyong’o as Juliet in Shakespeare’s classic play performed at the Phoenix Players here in Nairobi. “She was only 14 years old but even then, she showed great promise as an actor,” Nderi tells IPS.
But Nyong’o’s success, he says, has not been overnight. Hollywood’s newest it-girl paid her dues working as part of production crews for various films, including “The Constant Gardener”, “where she ran errands, including fetching the cast coffee,” says Nderi.
He also points to Nyong’o’s 2007 feature-length documentary “In My Genes”, which explores the challenges people with albanism face as a minority group in Kenya and which Nyong’o wrote, directed and produced.
She later starred in the MTV Africa sex-ed drama series “Shuga”, produced in partnership with the U.S. government’s anti-AIDS initiative PEPFAR and MTV’s Staying Alive Foundation.
Born in Mexico to Kenyan parents, Nyong’o was raised in Kenya where she honed her acting skills on the local theater cirquit before attending Yale School of Drama, one of the United States’ most renowned acting programmes.
The new frontier
For Kenya, which is seeing some 40 percent of its workforce unemployed – 70 percent of those being people below the age of 35 – victories like Nyong’o’s are a happy note in the effort to develop a vibrant entertainment sector that could lift the economy.
“It is the new frontier for job creation,” Mwangangi tells IPS, adding that the government, through the Kenya Film Commission, has set an objective to generate 10 percent of its gross domestic product (GDP) from the entertainment industry, incuding all creative and cultural activities.
Recent World Bank statistics show 800,000 job seekers competing for just 50,000 jobs annually, making the governmet’s efforts appear a welcome initiative for many young poeple.
But the entertainment industry is not for the faint-hearted, local performers say, whose experiences highlight that the country still has a long way to come before it sees cultural activities as a valid profession.
“The main problem is that many people have not fully appreciated that entertainment is a job just like any other and they are not willing to pay to watch a performance,” says Paschal Kilei, a struggling actor with a talent group called ‘Talent Tappers’ in Mombasa County in Kenyas Coast Province some 482 km from the capital Nairobi.
As a result, Kilei and his colleagues have been left to perform for free in the hope that, with time, people will begin to appreciate their work and pay to watch them perform.
The Talent Tappers do “magnate theatre”, in Kilei’s words, consisting of random performances in market places, bus stations, “Basically anywhere where there are a large number of people going about their business.”
And while their acts are well received, it hasn’t brought them any money yet.
Kilei is not alone. Asia Majimbo, another Mombasa-based actor, says that even for established performers the pay is not enough to fully depend on their craft.
“TV actors who earn about 250 dollars per episode are actually the envy of many,” says Majimbo. “In a month, about four episodes will air, or even less. And an actor may not even appear in all the episodes unless they are the main characters.”
Nderi highlights a lack of formal training as another factor impairing the industry.
“Many actors-slash-actresses in the country take on acting as a hobby, so they do not fully invest in it by trying to get some training in it, which affects the quality of their work.”
While not every Kenyan performer has access to a Yale drama eduction to set themselves apart like Nyong’o, Kenyan actors need not be discouraged, says Mwangangi.
The government’s keenness to boost the economy through enterntainment has already resulted in a mandate for the Kenya Film Commission to establish a film school in the country, he says, while Kenya’s 47 counties have all been encouraged to promote the entertainment industry as an avenue for job creation.
In building the industry, Kenya has a big brother on the continent to learn from, according to Mwangangi. “Nollywood, which is Nigeria’s film industry produces about 50 movies per week — much more than what Hollywood produces… second only to India’s Bollywood,” he says.
Both Nigeria and Kenya are particularly poised to reap the benefits from their expanding middle class, acording to the analyst, with Kenya’s middle-bracket income earners having doubled to 6.5 million in the last decade, according to the African Development Bank.
Although Kenya’s film industry still lags behind Nigeria’s, it has been growing steadily in the last seven years, according to Kenya’s Film Commission, which boasts an 85-percent growth in the number of film establishments and an increase of over 45 percent of people involved in the industry.
“The Samaritans”, a comedy series centered around the absurdities of a dysfunctional NGO in Kenya, is a recent example of a Kenyan production garnering international attention, with clips and reviews making its rounds on top news sites and social medica across the internet.
Hussein Kurji, producer of “The Samaritans”, tells IPS that he was looking for something “innovative.” And he’s seeing his efforts pay off.
“The show has received over 150,000 hits in the last 14 days across Vimeo and YouTube and 90,000 hits for the show’s trailer on YouTube alone.”
Kurji and Nyong’o exemplify the ability for Kenyan entertainers to excel in spite of challenges posed by a still-nascent industry.
They also embody a creative spirit that Kenya hopes to tap to attract people to the fedgling sector, perhaps best summed up in Nyong’o’s parting words at the Oscars: “…No matter where you are from, your dreams are valid.”
The post Oscar Win To Boost Kenya’s Fledgling Entertainment Industry appeared first on Inter Press Service.
By Jim Lobe
WASHINGTON, Mar 5 2014 (IPS)
In the latest twist in a 21-year-old environmental pollution case, a U.S. federal judge Tuesday ruled that the victims of massive oil spillage and their U.S. attorney could not collect on a nine-billion-dollar judgement by Ecuador’s supreme court against the Chevron Corporation.
In a racketeering case brought by the U.S. oil giant, the judge found that the lawyer, Steven Donziger, and his associates had used bribery and falsified evidence to prevail against Chevron in Ecuador’s courts and thus should not be permitted to collect damages.“Misconduct on the part of a couple of lawyers... is not a get-out-of-jail-free card for a corporation that has committed massive toxic contamination.” -- Marco Simons
“It is distressing that the course of justice was perverted,” the District Court Judge Lewis Kaplan wrote in a nearly 500-page ruling.
“There is no ‘Robin Hood’ defense to illegal and wrongful conduct,” he went on. “And the defendants’ ‘this-is-the-way-it-is-done-in-Ecuador’ excuses – actually a remarkable insult to the people of Ecuador – do not help them.”
Chevron applauded the judgement “as a resounding victory,” while Donziger and his attorneys said they would take the ruling to the same appeals court that overturned a similar judgement in the case rendered by Kaplan in 2011. At that time, Chevron appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court to uphold Kaplan’s original ruling, but the Court rejected the appeal without comment.
Donziger himself called Kaplan’s latest judgement, which followed a six-week trial conducted late last year, “an appalling decision resulting from a deeply flawed proceeding that overturns a unanimous ruling by Ecuador’s Supreme Court. …We are confident we will be fully vindicated in the U.S., as we have been in Ecuador.”
The case was first filed in the U.S. federal court in 1993 on behalf of 30,000 mostly indigenous residents of the Lago Agrio region of the Ecuadorean Amazon where Texaco, which was acquired by Chevron in 2001, had operated continuously from the 1960s until 1992. For much of that period, it worked in partnership with Petroecuador, which took over all of Texaco’s operations in the region when the U.S. oil giant left.
The plaintiffs claim that Texaco dumped more than 70 billion litres of toxic liquids, left some 910 waste pits filled with toxic sludge, and flared millions of cubic metres of toxic gases – poisoning the environment in one of the most biologically diverse areas in South America and creating serious health problems, including an unusually high incidence of cancer, for people living in the region.
Apparently concerned that U.S. courts would be more sympathetic to the plaintiffs’ case, Texaco persuaded Judge Jed Rakoff to have the case transferred to Ecuador in 2002 — when it was ruled by a conservative government eager for foreign investment — on condition that the company waive certain defences, such as the expiration of the statute of limitations, and ensure that any judgement would be enforceable in the U.S. The Ecuadorean case was filed the following year.
Chevron has long argued that the damages cited by the plaintiffs are exaggerated and that, in any case, Texaco extinguished its obligations when it carried out a 40-million- dollar environmental remediation project as part of a 1995 agreement with the Ecuadorean government that covered 37.5 percent of the well sites and waste pits in the concession area.
The remaining sites were to be cleaned up by Petroecuador, according to Chevron.
But the plaintiffs, who are backed by a number of local and international green groups, have argued that Chevron, having drilled all of the original sites, also remains responsible for Petroecuador’s portion, as well as for the continuing health and other impacts of its operations that are not covered by the 1995 agreement.
The trial court in Ecuador ruled against Chevron and granted the plaintiffs, who were represented by Donziger and his associates, an 18 billion dollar judgement. The country’s Supreme Court subsequent upheld the judgement but reduced the damages to 9.5 billion dollars.
Chevron, however, has sought to prevent the plaintiffs from collecting any of the money, by, among other steps, withdrawing all of its assets from Ecuador and initiating a racketeering suit against Donziger and his team based on its charges that they used bribery and other corrupt methods to win the case and extort billions of dollars from the company.
To sustain those charges, it subpoenaed tens of thousands of documents, emails, and other materials from Donziger and other lawyers, as well as activist groups that supported the case. It even subpoenaed out-takes from a 2009 documentary produced by film-maker Joe Berlinger, “Crude,” about the case.
In his testimony last November, Donziger himself admitted making mistakes, such as concealing his interactions with and payments to a court-appointed expert witness who produced a report on which the Ecuadorean courts relied for the assessment of damages.
One former Ecuadorean judge testified for Chevron that plaintiffs paid him to ghostwrite opinions for the presiding judge who had been promised half a million dollars by Donziger for a favourable ruling. Both Donziger and the presiding judge, Nicolas Zambrano, vehemently denied those charges.
Nonetheless, Kaplan, who has never questioned the extent of the environmental damage wrought by the oil companies’ operations in the region, ruled in favour of Chevron, noting that “an innocent defendant is no more entitled to submit false evidence, to co-opt and pay off a court-appointed expert or to coerce or bribe a judge or jury than a guilty one.” He also noted that Donziger himself stood to win more than 600 million dollars in contingency fees.
If upheld, Kaplan’s ruling would prevent Donziger and the plaintiffs from collecting any damages from Chevron in U.S. courts. It also requires them to turn over any damages against Chevron they might collect in foreign courts to the company.
The plaintiffs have brought cases in three countries where Chevron has major operations and assets — Canada, Brazil, and Argentina – to enforce the Ecuadorean judgment, and Chevron’s CEO Tuesday told reporters Tuesday that Kaplan’s ruling should bolster the case in those countries.
The judgement, according to Deepak Gupta, who represented Donziger, amounted to “what is in effect a global anti-collection injunction that would preclude enforcement of a judgement from one country in every jurisdiction.” He noted that was one of the main reasons why the appeals court overturned Kaplan’s 2011 decision.
Marco Simons, legal director of EarthRights International, told IPS Tuesday’s judgement was vulnerable on other grounds as well. He said the law over whether the kinds of injunctions issued by Kaplan could be employed under the federal racketeering law remains unsettled.
In addition, he noted, the fact that Kaplan had found that the Ecuadorean judicial system had not provided due process “offers a good basis for re-filing the substantive case against Chevron in U.S. courts.”
“And even if all of what Judge Kaplan said about the fraudulent conduct of the attorneys was true, the answer shouldn’t necessarily be that Chevron gets away with no liability for what it has done in the Ecuadorean Amazon,” he said. “Misconduct on the part of a couple of lawyers, which is what Judge Kaplan suggested, is not a get-out-of-jail-free card for a corporation that has committed massive toxic contamination.”Related Articles
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The post Chevron Wins Latest Round in Ecuador Pollution Case appeared first on Inter Press Service.
By Bryant Harris
WASHINGTON, Mar 5 2014 (IPS)
U.S. President Barack Obama released a 3.9-trillion-dollar budget proposal for the coming fiscal year, shaping an ideological battle over the role of government in reducing poverty that will likely define the coming election year.
In addition to conventional support for the economically vulnerable, such as extending unemployment insurance, Obama’s proposal, released Tuesday, seeks to expand tax credits for moderate- and low-income earners while replacing any revenue losses by closing tax loopholes on high-income earners.
“At a time when our deficits are falling at the fastest rate in 60 years,” Obama said, “we’ve got to decide if we’re going to keep squeezing the middle class, or if we’re going to continue to reduce the deficits responsibly, while taking steps to grow and strengthen the middle class.”
With a very conservative, Republican-dominated House of Representatives, it is unlikely that Congress will cooperate with the White House’s proposal. Indeed, Obama’s proposal is all the more striking in just how diametrically opposed it is to a recent Republican report on U.S. anti-poverty efforts, itself released on Monday.
As the 2014 election approaches, conservatives seem determined to reemphasise their opposition to welfare programmes. On Monday, Paul Ryan, a member of the House of Representatives and the Republicans’ lead budget expert, released a report criticising social safety net programmes stemming from the “War on Poverty,” a 1960s-era initiative designed to combat the effects of poverty.
Ryan suggests that key War on Poverty programmes have had the perverse impact of keeping poor people poor.
“The president’s budget is yet another disappointment, because it reinforces the status quo,” Ryan, the party’s vice-presidential candidate in 2012, said Tuesday. “It would demand that families pay more so Washington can spend more.”
Ryan also accused Obama of proposing a 1.8-trillion-dollar tax increase.
The White House says the budget calls for ending “inefficient and unfair tax breaks that benefit the wealthiest”. During his speech Tuesday, Obama supported “closing tax loopholes that right now only benefit the well-off and the well-connected.”
Obama’s budget does seek to expand certain tax credits, such as the Child Tax Credit and Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC), both of which give low-income workers a greater return on their tax refunds.
Under the proposal, the EITC’s maximum refund for childless workers would double to 1,000 dollars. The credit would also become available to young workers between the ages of 21 and 24 as well as older workers up to the full retirement age.
The proposal seeks to balance this expansion of the EITC by closing “tax loopholes” for high-income earners. As in previous years, the proposal also stipulates that millionaires must not pay less than 30 percent of their income, in order to prevent them from taking advantage of tax preferences that have allowed some high-income earners to pay less in taxes than middle-class workers.
While Ryan and fiscal conservatives have voiced their support for the EITC in the past, some conservative analysts are arguing against Obama’s proposal to make the EITC more accessible to younger workers and workers without children.
“[The EITC] is an effective measure that has encouraged work,” Rachel Sheffield, a policy analyst at the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank, told IPS.
“What the president is proposing is expanding the EITC to individuals who don’t have children, so single adults, and that’s problematic because it’s likely … to have marriage penalties. It would potentially reward fathers who don’t marry or support their children. When the person marries the subsidy would be eliminated.”
Sheffield considers an expansion of the EITC equivalent to expanding welfare programmes, long a target of conservative ire.
“It’s simply adding to our massive welfare programme that federally funds 80 means-tested welfare programmes at a cost that’s nearing one trillion [dollars] a year,” she said.
How to measure poverty
The proposals from both President Obama and Paul Ryan state that they have the best interests of the poor at heart. But on Tuesday, Democrats struck back at Ryan’s budget, suggesting that years’ worth of proposals from the Republicans would have negatively impacted poor communities.
“For several years now, Chairman Ryan has proposed annual budgets that would deeply cut programmes for the poor,” Sharon Parrott, a vice-president at the Centre on Budget and Policy Priorities, a left-leaning think tank, wrote Tuesday. “The Ryan budgets have consistently secured between 60 and 67 percent of their budget cuts from programmes for low- or moderate-income people.”
Ryan’s report argues that under the War on Poverty, the poverty rate in the United States has only decreased by 2.3 percent. But Parrot argues that Ryan misrepresents important statistics regarding poverty reduction.
Parrot contends that because the report relies on the official measure of poverty, rather than a calculation known as the Supplemental Poverty Measure (SPM), it ignores the role of certain social safety net programmes in fighting poverty, including the EITC, the Child Tax Credit and various low-income housing assistance programmes.
Under the SPM, the rate of poverty has fallen by 10 percent since 1967, rather than 2.3 percent.
“Ryan buries this fact, failing to note the deep reductions in poverty under the SPM since the 1960s until page 201 of his report,” Parrot wrote.
Nonetheless, conservative analysts warn that the SPM has its own set of problems.
“The traditional poverty measure gauges how much people can buy, whereas the SPM turns the poverty measure into a relative poverty measure – how much a person can buy compared to their neighbour,” Sheffield told IPS.
“By making it a relative poverty measure, even if the incomes of all Americans tripled over night, you’d still have poverty with this measure. The official poverty measure is a good measure of self-sufficiency, such as how many individuals are relying on government assistance.”
Meanwhile, economists cited by Ryan’s report have been claiming that their findings have been misconstrued.
For instance, the Columbia Population Resource Center’s Jane Waldfogel notes that Ryan only used the group’s data starting from 1969. In ignoring data between 1967 and 1969, she says, Ryan ignored 36 percent of the decline in poverty.
Likewise, Barbara Wolfe, an economist at the University of Wisconsin, says the report outright misstated her research on housing assistance and labour outcomes, while ignoring another of her studies that found that “the housing programme has more benefits than costs”.Related Articles
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The post Duelling U.S. Budgets Herald Showdown over Poverty appeared first on Inter Press Service.
By EurasiaNet Correspondents
BISHKEK, Mar 4 2014 (EurasiaNet)
Kara-Keche, a sprawling deposit containing about 430 million tonnes of coal in mountainous Naryn Province, is a key asset for Kyrgyzstan’s struggling economy.
It’s not just the government and an array of local companies plying the open pit mines that are interested in the dirty black stuff. Last November, a shootout at Kara-Keche among gangsters highlighted an unsavory side of the business.
According to the government’s development strategy, Kyrgyzstan could be sitting on over 3.3 billion tonnes of coal—enough, by some measures, to provide the country with energy for centuries. But with coal production split across a network of inefficient producers, prices are high, meaning that Kyrgyzstan now sources much of its coal abroad.
The strategy says the industry is in “a condition of crisis.” Foreign investors – seen by authorities as a potential balm – are curious, but cautious given the lack of transportation infrastructure, corruption and violence—conditions similar to those which have hampered the development of the country’s gold sector.
Today, annual production is a quarter of what it was during its Soviet-subsidised peak in the late 1970s, according to Almaz Alimbekov, head of the Mining Policy Department at Kyrgyzstan’s Ministry of Economy.
Bishkek’s central heating plant, the country’s largest coal-powered operation, relies on imports from neighbouring Kazakhstan for 70 percent of its coal consumption; those imports cost the impecunious state budget roughly 40 million dollars a year. The remaining 30 percent comes from Kara-Keche and other Kyrgyz deposits, Alimbekov says.
Coal is a popular topic of discussion, not least because it is used to heat homes across the country during Kyrgyzstan’s harsh winters. Last winter, according to the 24.kg news agency, prices for heating coal varied from roughly 50 dollars a tonne to over 200 dollars a tonne, with prices tending to rise as temperatures drop. Communities closest to coal mines often expect to receive coal at discounted rates, though social assistance is not a mandatory aspect of mining licenses.
Recently local media reports have fixed attention on the fallout from a November shootout at Kara-Keche, reputedly between members of a Naryn-based criminal group and bandits loyal to Maksat ‘the Diver’ Abakirov, an alleged gangster from Issyk-Kul province seen as instrumental in provoking unrest in the communities surrounding the Canadian-owned Kumtor gold mine in May 2013.
While no one was reported killed in that shootout, Aibek Mambetaliev – an individual the Vechernii Bishkek newspaper once described as a Naryn mobster responsible for “deciding whom coal could be sold to” – was found dead at the deposit 10 days later.
Then a group identified as Mambetaliev’s relatives reportedly attacked three police officers on trial in connection with his death inside a courtroom on Feb. 20. The relatives set the three on fire with petrol bombs and subsequently kidnapped one; beating him heavily. Another officer escaped the scene and headed towards a local river, where he is presumed to have been drowned by the mob.
The state prosecutor has launched criminal cases against the assailants, but their location is unknown.
Tumult in the coal sector is not new. Back in 2005, following the overthrow of Kyrgyzstan’s first president, renegade opposition leader Nurlan “The Coal King” Motuyev famously seized the Kara-Keche deposit, expelling the companies working there. He went on to preside over a sharp fall in production.
Bringing a sense of order to the sector will require significant foreign investment, says Alimbekov, the Economy Ministry’s mining specialist. Part of the problem, he says, is that some of the country’s best deposits are mined by a bevy of inefficient local companies that “lack capital and are logistically weak,” making them reliant on traders under the influence of racketeers.
“They can’t provide enough coal for [Bishkek’s heating plant] because they don’t have the best technology for extraction and they don’t have the transport,” Alimbekov told EurasiaNet.org. Ideally, he said, Kara-Keche should be mined by a single foreign investor.
Kara-Keche is in a high-mountain valley accessible only by a winding, muddy road that is frequently blocked by landslides. In the valleys below, the roads aren’t much better. Coal must be transported in bulk to be profitable. A railway link connecting the Kara-Keche deposit with the town of Balykchy, where it would connect to an existing line to Bishkek, would help regulate supplies, Alimbekov says, but such a link would cost “huge money.”
Western firms are eyeing the long-stalled China-Kyrgyzstan-Uzbekistan rail link, says Alastair Muir, director of technical operations for Celsius Coal, an Australian mining firm with a license in Kyrgyzstan’s southern Uzgen region.
Kyrgyzstan has “massive potential” for supplying coking coal, a variety used in metallurgy, to steelmakers in the Chinese province of Xinjiang, but “transport is a massive factor for us,” Muir said at the Turkey and Central Asia Mining Summit in Istanbul on Jan. 28. The rail has been on hold for years and shows no sign of being built any time soon.
If foreign investors ever take the plunge, they’ll still have to deal with local communities, warns Valentin Bogdetski, head of the Association of Kyrgyz Miners. Communities’ high expectations for social assistance from mining firms “borders on extortion,” he says, and may frighten investors.
“Some local people think their ‘social package’ entitles them to a lifetime’s worth of free coal,” Bogdetski told EurasiaNet.org. “Under these conditions, production will not be feasible. The government needs to ensure order before we can talk about foreign investment.”
This story originally appeared on EurasiaNet.org.
By Diego Arguedas Ortiz
ALVARADO, Costa Rica, Mar 4 2014 (IPS)
José Alberto Chacón traverses the winding path across his small farm on the slopes of the Irazú volcano, in Costa Rica, which meanders because he has designed it to prevent rain from washing away nutrients from the soil.
His careful husbandry ensures his crops of beans, maize and carrots on his half-hectare parcel of land, which like that of many other farmers in the Pacayas area, is located on steep slopes that are prone to the loss of the land’s fertile layers.
Chacón told IPS that he is constantly applying techniques like designing a winding path, and building terraces or containment walls with harvest leftovers, and he feels like an acrobat leaping from one measure to another to keep his family farm alive.
“It hurts to see soil being washed into the river. I’m getting older and my piece of land will always be the same size, so I have to find ways of making it flat with terraces, so as to keep working it as long as God wills,” said the 51-year-old Chacón, who is married and has three children.
One of his children helps with the sale of excess produce. His 50-year-old wife, Irma Rosa Loaiza, shares the farm work. “We are a model of family agriculture. She comes out to the plot of land itself to help,” said her husband.
The community of Pacayas, one hour east of San José, is located on the eastern end of the fertile Costa Rican central valley, between the Irazú and Turrialba volcanos. The population density is higher than the national average and it receives 2,300 millimetres of rain a year, on slopes of up to 70 percent.
Now climate change is another factor, increasing rainfall and soil erosion. The Ministry of Environment and Energy estimates that erosion has reduced agricultural GDP by 7.7 percent between 1970 and 1989.
The 2014 agricultural census may show a worsening of the situation in this Central American country of 4.4 million people, where agriculture contributed 10.7 percent of GDP in 2000 but 8.67 percent in 2012, according to official figures.
Chacón, wearing black rubber boots and a white hat for protection against the sun, proceeds along the cultivated rows. His field has a 50 percent slope, and there is a height difference of up to 20 centimetres between one maize row and another, sufficient for rainwater not to pour straight down to the Pacayas river in the canyon below.
He is a subsistence farmer, like the rest of the farmers in the area, whose parcels are an average area of 2.5 hectares and who eke their living out of the mountainside. If their crops fail, they do not eat; if they overplant and the soil is washed away, they also fail to put food on the table.
“There has to be a balance between sustainability and food security. I can’t tell local people: this land is unfit for agriculture, you should plant forests, because it is all they have,” agricultural scientist Beatriz Solano, assigned to the area for the past 17 years by the Ministry of Agriculture and Livestock, told IPS.
A study published in 2013 by the journal Environmental Science & Policy describes how “a combination of extreme precipitation, steep topography and questionable land use has led to heavy erosion and impairment of soil regulation services” in the area.
Even families with land on gentler slopes have had to apply new techniques. The certified organic farm Guisol is an example. Its owners, 68-year-old María Solano and 43-year-old Marta Guillén, work small parcels using live hedges to contain erosion, as they showed IPS.
Not all the area’s producers are aware of the importance of such actions. A survey carried out in 2010 by a researcher with the inter-American Tropical Agronomy Research and Training Centre (CATIE), based in this country, found that seven out of 10 farmers in Pacayas did not use soil protection techniques.
Moreover, the small size of the farms means that they do not benefit from payment for forest cover, the preferred system of erosion control in Costa Rica.
Experts say the latest soil conservation practices in family agriculture will be essential in Pacayas, because of the changes in rainfall patterns.
“There used to be steady rainfall from October to January or February, with thick mist. Now it’s more unstable, and without water potatoes do not grow, and it is farmers who lose out, because seeds and fertilisers are increasingly expensive,” 68-year-old farmer Guillermo Quirós, who had to rebuild the drainage channels on his farm two years ago, told IPS.
In 2011 researcher Carlos Hidalgo of the National Institute of Agricultural Innovation and Technology Transfer concluded a research study monitoring soil management in the area.
“It’s a process that has to include all the actors, including municipalities, producers and research centres,” Hidalgo told IPS in his office in San José.
The multi-disciplinary effort is making progress. Every two months, the soil management committee for the Birrís river basin, a group made up of different sectors, meets in Alvarado municipality to which Pacayas belongs. There they plan their work for the next period.
This month the modest town hall of Alvarado hosted the first meeting of 2014, presided over by local environment manager Gabriela Gómez, and seven out of the eight participants were women. In Pacayas, men carry out most of the agricultural work and women take on local planning and conservation.
“We’re gong to ask the TEC (Technological Institute of Costa Rica) to do a study of run-off, so we can improve the ditches, prevent flooding in the lowlands of the district and reduce erosion,” Gómez told IPS. She has led environmental initiatives that have achieved nationwide recognition.
Pacayas is located in the Birrís river basin, a hydrographical complex rising in the mountains above the town, which feeds the hydropower plants of the Costa Rican Electricity Institute (ICE).
The Institute spends close to four million dollars a year removing sediment derived from soil erosion from its reservoirs.
Meanwhile, Chacón and other small farmers keep building terraces following the contours of their plots, to prevent the rains from stripping their topsoil.
The impact is clearly visible. On the other side of the river that borders his field, the earth is reddish and bare and there are only a few green patches lower down the slope. “That soil has already been eroded,” said agricultural scientist Solano.Related Articles
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The post Costa Rican Farmers Become Climate Change Acrobats appeared first on Inter Press Service.
By Daryl G. Kimball
WASHINGTON, Mar 4 2014 (IPS)
Last month, negotiators from the United States, its P5+1 partners (China, France, Germany, Russia, and the United Kingdom), and Iran agreed to a framework for talks on a “comprehensive solution that would ensure Iran’s nuclear programme will be exclusively peaceful.”
The road ahead will be difficult. Many differences must be bridged, and hard-liners in Washington, Tehran, and Jerusalem will throw up obstacles along the way. An effective, multiyear deal can only be achieved if each side is ready to compromise and pursue realistic solutions that meet the other sides’ core requirements.A deal that would require Iran to dismantle major facilities would be politically unsustainable in Iran.
A successful agreement will verifiably roll back Iran’s overall enrichment capacity, block the plutonium path to the bomb, put in place even tougher international inspections, resolve outstanding questions about the purpose of Iran’s programme, and lead to the removal of nuclear-related sanctions. But first, negotiators must resolve several tough issues in the next few months.
Uranium enrichment. The two sides have agreed to negotiate “practical” limits on the scope of Iran’s enrichment activities in order to reduce Tehran’s ability to build nuclear weapons.
Today, Iran has a very limited need for enriched uranium fuel for energy production. Iran has one research reactor, for which it has an ample supply of fuel, and a power reactor that uses fuel to be supplied by Russia for the next 10 years or more.
Tehran says it has plans for up to 16 more reactors, which would require a sizable enrichment capacity, but these plans are many years away from reality.
Consequently, the P5+1 can and should seek a significant reduction in Iran’s current enrichment capacity – from 10,000 operating, first-generation centrifuges at two sites to approximately half that number or less for a period of at least 10 years.
Even with 4,000 or fewer first-generation centrifuges at one site, Iran would have more than sufficient capacity for its foreseeable needs. Along with a cap on the enrichment of uranium to no more than five percent, a reduction in the number of centrifuges would increase the time necessary to produce enough highly enriched uranium for one bomb to six months or more.
Enhanced inspection rights would ensure that any such activity would be readily detected within days.
If Iran tried to build a nuclear arsenal, it would take considerably more than a year to amass enough material for additional weapons, assemble a nuclear device, and develop an effective means of delivery.
So far, Iran has insisted that it wants to be able to develop new, more efficient centrifuges. Consequently, the two sides will likely set limits on the overall capacity of Iran’s enrichment programme rather than the total number of centrifuges.
The P5+1 wants Iran to close its underground enrichment facility at Fordow, which is less vulnerable to air attacks, while Iran opposes dismantling its facilities. The two sides might compromise by agreeing that Iran will effectively halt any significant enrichment at Fordow and convert it to a “research-only” facility.
The Arak reactor. The P5+1 has argued that Iran should abandon its unfinished 40-megawatt heavy-water reactor near Arak, which is well suited for the production of plutonium. One compromise would be to convert Arak into a more proliferation-resistant light-water reactor or, as Iranian officials have suggested, make design and operational changes to reduce its plutonium potential.
These changes could include reducing the power level at least to five megawatts and using uranium fuel enriched to 3.5 percent. Iran is not known to have a reprocessing plant, which would be needed to extract plutonium from spent fuel, but Iran could be required to send Arak’s spent fuel to a third country to further reduce the proliferation risk.
Tougher international inspections. If Iran were to pursue nuclear weapons development, it most likely would try to do so in secret at undisclosed facilities. Consequently, Iran must allow international inspectors access to all sites, including undeclared sites, under the terms of the additional protocol to its existing safeguards agreement with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA).
Once approved by the Iranian parliament, the protocol would be permanent. Further monitoring measures of Iran’s nuclear industry could help detect and deter any secret weapons programme.
Concerns about potential weapons experiments. Iran also will need to accelerate its cooperation with the IAEA to allow the agency to determine with confidence that Tehran is no longer engaged in research with potentially military dimensions. Given that the investigation will continue for some time, the agreement between Iran and the P5+1 should specify that Iran shall not conduct any experiments with nuclear weapons applications.
These step-for-step actions will require a new U.N. Security Council resolution to replace earlier resolutions on Iran’s nuclear programme; positive, prompt follow-up actions by the EU states; and approval by Congress of revised legislation that unwinds nuclear-related sanctions.
It is important that Congress, which has an important role in implementing any final phase deal, supports the P5+1 effort on the basis of a clear understanding and realistic expectation for what the negotiations can deliver.
Unfortunately, some members of Congress say they hope “negotiations succeed in preventing Iran from ever developing a nuclear weapons capability.” Others say they are “hopeful a permanent diplomatic agreement will require the dismantlement of Iran’s nuclear weapons-related infrastructure ….”
According to the U.S. intelligence community Iran has had, at least since 2007, the scientific, technical, and industrial capacity eventually to produce nuclear weapons if it were to choose to do so. That capacity can be reduced but not entirely eliminated, even Iran were required to dismantle its uranium enrichment machines and facilities — and a deal that would require Iran to dismantle major facilities would be politically unsustainable in Iran.
Negotiating a realistic final phase agreement with Iran will be difficult, but a sustainable arrangement is achievable. It is the best and perhaps only alternative to an unconstrained Iranian nuclear programme, the risk of war over the issue, and potentially a nuclear-armed Iran.
Daryl Kimball is executive director of the independent, non-partisan Arms Control Association in Washington, D.C. He has been engaged in research and policy work on nuclear nonproliferation and arms control matters since 1989. This essay is based on an earlier version published in Arms Control Today.Related Articles
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By Hazel Henderson
ST.AUGUSTINE, Florida, Mar 4 2014 (IPS)
Providing water for our still growing human population is reaching crisis levels. Water is vital for agriculture, energy production and industrial processes worldwide. Floods and droughts in Asia, Latin America, Europe and the United States accompanied unprecedented typhoons and winter storms. While none could be linked directly to climate change, the debate surfaced. Mainstream media started covering these issues more broadly.
The Earth’s surface is largely covered with water. So, why has the world’s attention focused on the three percent of fresh water on our planet, on water management, pollution, waste and recycling? Yet 97 percent of the water on Earth is saline: oceans, salty lakes and brackish wetlands ignored in most policy, finance, business and public debates!
At last, unnoticed research on the 10,000 salt-loving halophyte plants which grow in deserts and thrive on seawater is coming to light. I have long reported on saline agriculture, noting that halophyte plants can provide humans with food, fibre, edible oils and biofuels. Indeed, the only biofuels that meet ethical criteria are those based on algae grown on seawater.
Today, as water-related risks reach crisis levels, they are changing traditional risk analysts’ focus on financial risk. In the World Economic Forum’s Global Risk in 2014, water rose to third place behind fiscal crises in key economies and structurally high unemployment/underemployment. The United Nations General Assembly Open Working Group on Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) cited water and drought issues high on its agenda while many countries’ delegates voted to make oceans a stand-alone focus of the SDGs.
The International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA) provides a welcome global focus on the needed transition to renewable energy, many forms of which will conserve water and provide better methods of desalination and treatment.
Fossil-fueled and nuclear power plants are prodigious gulpers of water, another reason for the shift to renewables. Additional risk factors focus on the rising ocean levels and acidification as CO2 emissions are absorbed by oceans which are heating faster than previous models predicted. This led to renewed interest in ocean thermal differentials as a source of electricity along with ocean currents and wave energy technologies.
Embracing this broader view, the 14th Delhi Sustainable Development Summit connected the dots in February 2014 as Attaining Energy, Water and Food Security for All. The International Conference on Sustainability in the Water-Energy-Food Nexus, May 19-20, 2014 in Bonn, Germany, takes the same systems approach.
The Earth Systems Science programme at NASA is the most comprehensive approach to understanding how our planet processes the daily free photons from the Sun, through the atmosphere and ocean currents, which combined with geothermal energy from its core, create the conditions for life on Earth. This daily information on how our planet functions and our human effects on it must now be cranked into all financial and business risk-analysis models, as I outline in Mapping the Global Transition to the Solar Age: from Economism to Earth Systems Science, with foreword by NASA Chief Scientist Dennis Bushnell, who is also an expert on halophyte plants and saline agriculture.
Bringing desert areas into food, fibre and fuel production by employing saline agriculture and these thousands of salt-loving plants is now the lowest hanging fruit for humanity to address its myriad crises of tunnel vision: inequality, poverty, pollution, food, water, energy and political conflicts.
Desert-greening science has been quietly maturing for decades with experiments in many countries in the Middle East, China, Australia, Mexico and the U.S. Today, business plans are emerging, such as DESERTCorp, by the Planck Foundation in Amsterdam, as well as the work of Carl Hodges in Egypt and the U.S.; Allan Savorys Savory Institute in Zimbabwe and Australia and the Grasslands Project in South Dakota, U.S., with the Capital Institute; the research of Mae-Wan Ho of ISIS in Britain; Wes Jacksons Land Institute in Kansas, U.S; Janine Benyus at Biomimicry 3.8; Gunter Pauli at ZERI; and many other projects.
A biofuels breakthrough was announced, January 22, in Abu Dhabi that Boeing, in partnership with the United Arab Emirates (UAE) are producing biofuel for jet aircraft made from algae grown on desert land, irrigated with seawater. This Sustainable Bioenergy Research Consortium (SBRC) is affiliated with the MASDAR Institute.
Director Alejandro Rio states, the UAE has become a leader in researching desert land and seawater to grow sustainable biofuel feedstocks with potential applications in other parts of the world. Other airlines are also researching biofuels, but all seem to find that oils from tar sands and shale are too dirty for jet fuel and that oil companies seem unwilling to refine these dirty oils to the standards needed for aviation since they see this market as too small. Meanwhile, worries about shale fuels include their huge water requirements, methane emissions, pipeline leaks, earthquakes and other environmental problems.
None of these hazardous forms of energy are needed! Humanity can now stop digging up the Earth and look up harvesting the free photons from our Sun as green plants do, providing our food. Let’s now green our desert areas, growing salt-loving crops using abundant land, salt waters and sunlight. Lets accelerate the global transition, to the more equitable, knowledge-rich, cleaner, greener economies now within our grasp!
By Michelle Tolson
PHNOM PENH, Mar 4 2014 (IPS)
An uneasy calm prevails in Cambodia after the government crackdown on protests by garment workers in January. With public gatherings banned and charges framed against 23 union leaders and activists, labour discontent may not be spilling on to the streets, but it is simmering.
Prime Minister Hun Sen has now called for removal of the ban on public assembly.“This is a critical juncture for garment workers and trade unions to use their leverage as a voting bloc to pressure both parties for better wages."
“The government should not be suppressing the demonstrators if they want to prove that Cambodia is a democratic country,” Phorn Sreywin, a 26-year-old garment worker, told IPS.
She has the support of the Workers Information Centre (WIC), which supports women in the garment industry, but voices asking for higher minimum wages in this impoverished Southeast Asian country appear to have been muffled for the time being.
“There should never have been a ban as this contradicts the Constitution and treaties ratified by Cambodia,” Naly Pilorge, Director of the human rights NGO LICADHO, told IPS by e-mail.
The Garment Manufacturers Association in Cambodia (GMAC), 93 percent of which comprises foreign business owners, mostly from Singapore, Hong Kong, Taiwan and South Korea, has cited the International Labour Organisation’s (ILO) convention number 87 to claim that workers have no “right to strike”.
“Freedom of association cannot be used as an excuse to get away with illegal behaviour and undermine a government’s ability to govern,” said a statement on GMAC’s website, alluding to the protests of Jan. 2-3 by garment workers, which led to military action.
GMAC claims that the strike by garment workers was violent.
“A multiplicity of unions in the workplace continues to create challenges, including but not limited to an increasing mass of unrepresentative unions, infighting amongst unions on the factory floor to gain popularity, misrepresentation of membership numbers due to double counting, and inability to engage with the unions constructively,” it said.
Activists, however, say that this amounts to intimidation by GMAC.
International trade unions around the world have protested in front of Cambodian consulates in support of the country’s garment workers.
Trade unions have also condemned GMAC for stating that it condoned the military action on striking garment workers Jan. 3 that killed four of them, left one missing and seriously injured over 30.
“The response from the Cambodian government is very oppressive,” said Pranom Somwong, a labour activist and consultant for the Clean Clothes Campaign who helped organise a protest in Bangkok in front of the Cambodian consulate.
She also told IPS that factory owners were “confrontational” vis-a-vis the unions. “Denying workers the right to freedom of assembly and the right to a living wage is unacceptable,” she said.
In the days leading up to the protest, the Labour Ministry had approved an increase in the minimum wage for garment workers, from 80 to 95 dollars a month. But trade unions and workers protested, saying it was not enough to live on, and demanded a monthly minimum wage of 160 dollars.
Labour activists are now being threatened with loss of job or with lawsuits, Sophea Chrek, interim coordinator for WIC, told IPS.
Tola Moeun, head of the advocacy organisation, Community Legal Education Centre, explained that factory owners have threatened labour leaders with lawsuits. “Yang Sophorn (president of the Cambodian Alliance of Trade Unions) was sued by suppliers (factory owners) for mobilising workers to strike,” he pointed out.
He highlighted another problem.
Despite 90 percent of garment workers being women, men tend to lead the labour unions, partly owing to the combative environment. “Women do not feel confident in their positions or are not provided enough opportunities to grow, especially due to their poor wages and short term contracts,” he told IPS.
Thida Khus, Executive Director of SILAKA, an organisation that trains women, believes women workers hold the key to shaping their work environment.
“Women workers need to lead and use their natural leadership quality to deal with the environment, using better negotiation skills with the thugs in factories, with the government and with the elites who are looking after their bosses’ interests,” Khus told IPS.
Labour researcher Dennis Arnold has written a report detailing how the bargaining power of workers in Cambodia weakened under the 2005 WTO free trade agreement (FTA).
He found that, prior to the agreement, most workers in registered factories had long-term contracts with holiday pay benefits, including sick and maternity leave. But afterwards the contracts became short-term, covering just three to six months, and with no benefits. Factory owners said western brands preferred flexibility in their contracts but the shift also made factory workers easier to manage.
There are an estimated 400,000 workers in registered factories, but if those in unregistered factories, and workers who are part of the supply chain were to be included, the number would be around 600,000, he says.
Arnold told IPS that the elite siphon off money through “bribes, bureaucracy and corruption”, contributing to the already high cost of production, and this is used by factory owners as a reason for not raising wages.
“This is a critical juncture for garment workers and trade unions to use their leverage as a voting bloc to pressure both parties for better wages,” Arnold said. “This is part of broader efforts to redistribute wealth and power in favour of workers – and you see very clearly the deep resistance to this by GMAC and the ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP).”
The opposition Cambodian National Rescue Party (CNRP) is completely on board.
Mu Sochua, CNRP’s elected lawmaker and Director General of Public Affairs, told IPS, “Strong trade unions, strict implementation of the labour law (against short-term contracts) and ILO conventions must be upheld and the government and global brands should be allowed no excuses to delay negotiations for living wage.”
A spokesperson for H&M, one of the largest brands sourcing from Cambodia, told IPS on e-mail that the company plans to work towards a living wage “by 2018”.Related Articles
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By Pavol Stracansky
KIEV, Mar 4 2014 (IPS)
Crimea could remain under Russian control indefinitely as the current crisis – described by some politicians as Europe’s gravest since the end of the Cold War – threatens to turn into a “frozen conflict”, experts say.
The Ukrainian peninsula is now under de facto Russian military control with Ukrainian military bases surrounded, and control of infrastructure and strategic buildings across the region in the hands of Russian commanders.Many in Crimea regard themselves as Russian, and since the break-up of the Soviet Union local secession movements have had varied levels of support.
And despite increasingly harsh rhetoric and threats of the strongest possible diplomatic action from U.S. and European leaders, many experts believe that there is little the West can do to loosen Moscow’s grip on the region.
Ian Bond, Director of Foreign Policy at the Centre for European Reform (CER) think tank in London, told IPS: “Unfortunately, things have got to the point where it looks that the best case scenario for the development of the present situation is that Russian troops end up staying in Crimea, the situation there will remain as it is now, and this becomes a ‘frozen conflict’.”
Crimea, today an autonomous republic in Ukraine, has long had close cultural ties with Russia. It is home to the majority of Ukraine’s ethnic Russians, many of whom came there during the forced repatriation of more than 200,000 Tartars – Turkic Muslims who lived in the region for centuries – in 1944.
They were sent to labour camps in Central Asia and replaced by Russians on the orders of Soviet dictator Josef Stalin who was angry at alleged collaboration between local Tartars and the Nazis during World War II. Tartars today make up a significant minority of Crimea’s population.
The Crimea was also part of Russia until 1954 when then Soviet leader Nikita Krushchev made it a part of Ukraine republic within the Soviet Union.
Russia has maintained a physical presence on the peninsula in the form of its massive naval base in the Black Sea port of Sevastopol, which it holds under a lease agreement with Kiev and which gives Russian troops the right to move around parts of Crimea.
Many in Crimea regard themselves as Russian, and since the break-up of the Soviet Union local secession movements have had varied levels of support.
The Euromaidan protests in Kiev, a series of protests through winter to demand closer integration with the EU, failed to gain support on the peninsula. As the revolution came to an end, calls for independence in Crimea grew louder, as did those for help from Moscow as clashes broke out among pro-Russian and pro-Kiev groups in some parts of eastern Ukraine.
The calls were answered by Moscow with the Kremlin claiming its troops were needed to protect Russian citizens. The troops, although not universally feted by locals, have not faced any aggression.
Locals in Crimea who spoke to IPS said that there was a wary peace in many towns and cities in the region and that the situation was far less tense than the media had been reporting.
Alexandr Yakushechkin, 45, from Simferopol, said: “Things here are actually quiet and peaceful. There are Russian soldiers only in front of two main administration buildings in Simferopol but nowhere else.”
He added that he did not expect Russian soldiers to stay in Crimea past a March 30 referendum on the country’s future status.
But others are already planning for the long-term presence of Russian soldiers and what that could mean for the economy in a region which relies heavily on tourism.
Gala Amarando, who works in the local tourist industry in Simferopol, told IPS: “People in Crimea live for the tourist season and they know things this summer may be complicated. They are already thinking of having to slash prices and ways to attract holidaymakers.”
With Moscow showing no signs of backing down on its intervention and moving more and more soldiers into the peninsula every day, some experts believe Russian troops could become a permanent presence, citing the 2008 invasion of the Georgian breakaway region of South Ossetia.
Georgia had tried to bring the region to heel with force but Moscow sent in troops amid claims that the people of South Ossetia were in danger. Georgia lost one-fifth of its territory in the ensuing battle and while the West imposed sanctions and Russia signed a ceasefire agreement saying it would withdraw troops, it never honoured it fully, and troops remained.
This raises questions over the effectiveness of any potential Western sanctions against Russia this time around.
The CER’s Bond told IPS: “What Russia learnt from the 2008 conflict in Georgia is that there were sanctions for a while and then they were forgotten fairly soon, and Barack Obama came into office and started to try and reset relations between Washington and Moscow.
“What Vladimir Putin may be thinking now is that if no blood is shed, the consequences may not be that bad, and the next U.S. president may try and reset relations with Moscow again. Perhaps Putin is thinking it is worth the risk.”
Some believe that targeted sanctions – particularly against the massive wealth of Russia’s ruling elite held abroad – may have some effect in making the Kremlin at least consider its position, others argue that Crimea will be used by Putin as collateral until he gets what he wants – a government that will have the support of all Ukrainian regions and honour previous deal he had made with Kiev.
Nikolai Sokov, a Senior Fellow at the Vienna Centre for Disarmament and Non-Proliferation (VCDNP), told IPS: “The only thing that can change his mind [about holding Crimea] is an effective government in Kiev that can hold the country together and stick to earlier agreements.”
However, there is a fear that Putin may, having successfully gained control of Crimea, try to intervene in other parts of East Ukraine where pro-Russian sentiment is also strong – with terrible consequences.
Support for Russia and its military is seen as far less clear cut in regions in East Ukraine outside Crimea, and armed conflict between Russian troops and either the Ukrainian army or paramilitary pro-western groups would be almost certain.
Bond told IPS: “While the best case scenario is a ‘frozen conflict’, the worst case scenario is that Putin intervenes in other parts of Ukraine. Then it would get really bad. The consequences of this, not just for Ukraine but the wider world as well, really do not even bear thinking about.”Related Articles
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By Jim Lobe
WASHINGTON, Mar 4 2014 (IPS)
A familiar clutch of hawks have taken wing over the rapidly developing crisis in Ukraine, as neo-conservatives and other interventionists claim that President Barack Obama’s preference for diplomacy over military action invited Russian aggression.
At stake in the current crisis, according to these right-wing critics, are not only Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity, but also Washington’s “credibility” as a global superpower and the perpetuation by the U.S. and its western allies of the post-Cold War international order."[It] makes about as much sense as saying that a proper response to a terrorist act by an Afghanistan-based group is to launch a war against Iraq.” -- Paul Pillar
Some right-wing commentators, such as Michael Auslin of the neo-conservative American Enterprise Institute (AEI), which played a major role in drumming up support for the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq, have even compared Russian President Vladimir Putin’s moves to occupy the Crimean peninsula to Adolf Hitler’s absorption of Czechoslovakia’s Sudetenland as a result of the notorious Munich agreement in 1938.
“The toxic brew of negative perceptions of Western/liberal military capability and political will is rapidly undermining the post-1945 order around the world,” he wrote on the Forbes magazine website Monday.
“One can only assume that China, Iran, and North Korea are watching Crimea just as closely as Putin watched Washington’s reactions to East and South China Sea territorial disputes, Pyongyang’s nuclear provocations, and Syria’s civil war,” according to Auslin, echoing a line of attack against Obama that has become a leitmotiv among his fellow interventionists.
“(T)here is more than (Russian Prime Minister Vladimir) Putin to think about,” according to Elliott Abrams, a leading neo-conservative who served as George W. Bush’s top Middle East aide, wrote Monday on the National Review website.
“Tyrants in places from Tehran to Beijing will also be wondering about the cost of violating international law and threatening the peace and stability of neighbors. What will China do in neighboring seas, or Iran do in its tiny neighbor Bahrain, if actions like Putin’s go without a response?” he asked.
As yet there have been few voices in favour of taking any military action, although both the lead editorial in Monday’s Wall Street Journal and Freedom House President David Kramer called for Obama to deploy ships from the U.S. Sixth Fleet into the Black Sea, and Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham called for reviving Bush-era plans to erect new missile defence systems along Russia’s European periphery.
But the president, who spent 90 minutes on the phone with Putin Saturday in an unsuccessful effort to persuade the Russian leaders to send Russian troops in Crimea back to their barracks, is being pressed hard to take a series of tough actions against Moscow.
Secretary of State John Kerry, who is scheduled to travel to Kiev Tuesday in a show of support for its new government that may include one billion dollars in U.S. aid as part of a much larger Western economic package to be led by the International Monetary Fund (IMF), listed a number of moves Sunday that Washington has already taken or is actively considering adopting.
In addition to coordinating international – particularly European – condemnation of Putin’s moves against Ukraine, Kerry also said Washington had cancelled upcoming bilateral trade talks and is considering boycotting the G8 summit that Putin is scheduled to host in Sochi in June, if not suspending or formally expelling Russia from that body.
If Russia doesn’t “step back” from its effective takeover of Crimea, he said Sunday, “there could even be, ultimately, asset freezes (and) visa bans” against specific individuals and economic enterprises associated with the current crisis. He called Russia’s move “an incredible act of aggression.”
“We are examining a whole series of steps — economic, diplomatic — that will isolate Russia and will have a negative impact on Russia’s economy and its status in the world.,” Obama himself warned Monday during a joint press appearance with visiting Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
At the same time, however, he stressed that he was still looking for a diplomatic way out of the crisis – possibly with the help of the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) that reportedly began sending monitors to the Ukraine Monday evening — which could reassure Moscow regarding the protection and welfare of Russian-speakers in eastern Ukraine and Crimea in whose interests Moscow has justified its actions to date.
The administration and most analysts here agreed that Washington’s freedom of action in reacting to the current crisis must necessarily be coordinated with its European allies, some of which, including the continent’s economic powerhouse, Germany, are strongly disinclined to escalate matters. Germany gets about one-third of its gas supplies from Russia and has long considered a cooperative relationship with Moscow to be critical to maintaining stability in central Europe.
Such constraints clearly frustrate the hawks here, even as some of them, such as Sen. John McCain, acknowledged Monday that Washington had no ready military option and would, in any event, have to coordinate closely with Brussels as the crisis unfolds.
But, speaking before the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), McCain also blamed Obama’s alleged timidity – particularly his failure to carry out his threat to take military action against Syria last September – for the situation. “(T)his is the ultimate result of a feckless foreign policy in which nobody believes in America’s strength anymore,” McCain said to thunderous applause from the hawkish audience whom Netanyahu will address Tuesday.
Indeed, Israel-centred neo-conservatives, for whom Obama’s “weakness” and “appeasement” in dealing with perceived adversaries have become a mantra over the past five years, have been quick to use the Ukraine crisis to argue for toughening Washington’s position in the Middle East, in particular.
“In the brutal world of global power politics, Ukraine is in particular a casualty of Mr. Obama’s failure to enforce his ‘red line’ on Syria,” according to the Journal’s editorial writers, who stressed that “(a)dversaries and allies in Asia and the Middle East will be watching President Obama’s response now. …Iran is counting on U.S. weakness in nuclear talks.”
“Like Putin, the ayatollahs likely see our failure to act in Syria … as a sign that they can drive a hard bargain indeed with us over their nuclear weapons program, giving up nearly nothing and getting sanctions relief,” wrote Abrams on his Council on Foreign Relations blog over the weekend.
“And now they see us reacting (so far) to Russian aggression in Ukraine, sending troops across the border into the Crimea, with tut-tutting,” he added in a call for Congress – likely to be echoed by Netanyahu here this week — to pass stalled legislation imposing new sanctions against Tehran.
“That makes about as much sense …as saying that a proper response to a terrorist act by an Afghanistan-based group is to launch a war against Iraq,” replied Paul Pillar, the intelligence community’s top analyst for the Near East and South Asia from 2000 to 2005, on his nationalinterest.com blog Monday.
Jim Lobe’s blog on U.S. foreign policy can be read at Lobelog.com.Related Articles
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By Mitchell Plitnick
WASHINGTON, Mar 4 2014 (IPS)
The failure of peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians could lead to a significant shift in public opinion in the United States regarding Israel’s future, according to a new poll released Monday.
When asked about two options in the event the two-state solution to the Israel-Palestine conflict was no longer on the table, 65 percent of U.S. citizens said they preferred a democratic state where Jews and Arabs are equal, against only 24 percent who supported “the continuation of Israel’s Jewish majority even if it means that Palestinians will not have citizenship and full rights.”"We always assume that pro-Israel means people will accept immoral situations if they have to and that’s not true.” -- Shibley Telhami
The Barack Obama administration has repeatedly warned both parties that the window of opportunity for a two-state solution to their conflict is closing.
This is widely understood to be driving the frenetic efforts by U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry to cobble together a framework for further talks which he hopes would culminate in a permanent status agreement by the end of 2014. But should these efforts fail, the United States has no alternative to the current two-state formula.
The poll, commissioned by pollster Dr. Shibley Telhami, the Anwar Sadat professor for peace and development at the University of Maryland, indicates that, as Telhami said, “if the two-state solution fails, the conversation among the American public might shift to that of a one-state solution as the next-best thing.”
In that context, United States citizens hold the value of one person, one vote very strongly. Telhami told IPS that this value was held even among those polled who felt the United States should be favouring Israel over the Palestinians in negotiations.
“We asked if you want the U.S. to lean toward Israel, towards the Palestinians or to stay neutral. As usual, two-thirds want the United States to be neutral and among the rest, most want it to lean toward Israel. So we asked that segment what they would do if the two-state solution was no longer an option. And we still got 52 percent of that segment who would support one state with equal citizenship.
“We always assume that pro-Israel means people will accept immoral situations if they have to and that’s not true,” Telhami continued. “A lot of people try to reconcile their support for the cause with their moral view of the world and that view is antithetical with occupation or inequality for many of these people.
“So for them, two states is a way out, where they can say ‘I’m not paying too much attention to occupation now because it will be going away.’ But if the two-state solution goes away then the status quo looks permanent and I think people, even the segment that primarily cares about Israel, will have an issue with that.”
The possibility of the two-state solution finally collapsing seems stronger with each passing day. Despite some positive statements from Kerry and Obama, the sentiments that have been expressed by both Israeli and Palestinian leadership have, almost from the beginning, been pessimistic and accusatory, with each side seeming to jockey for position to avoid blame for what they have portrayed as the inevitable failure of the U.S.-brokered efforts.
On Monday, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas told the leader of the left-wing Israeli Meretz party that there is strong opposition within the Palestinian Authority to continuing talks beyond the agreed upon deadline of Apr. 29.
Abbas has repeatedly stated that ongoing Israeli settlement construction makes negotiations very difficult for Palestinians and sends the message that while the Palestinian leadership talks with Israel, the Israelis are simply taking the West Bank through settlement expansion.
Bolstering Abbas’ case, the Israeli Central Bureau of Statistics released a report on Monday which stated that starts on new settlement building in the occupied West Bank increased by 123.7 percent in 2013.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who arrived in Washington on Monday for a meeting with President Obama and the annual conference of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), accused the Palestinians of not doing enough to advance peace talks and called on them to recognise Israel as a Jewish state.
Netanyahu vowed to stand firm against pressures on him to make compromises on what he referred to as “our crucial interests. “
Given these stances, it seems there is little hope for Kerry’s dogged efforts. Obama warned of the consequences of failure in an interview published Sunday with Bloomberg’s Jeffrey Goldberg when he said “if you see no peace deal and continued aggressive settlement construction…If Palestinians come to believe that the possibility of a contiguous sovereign Palestinian state is no longer within reach, then our ability to manage the international fallout is going to be limited.”
Indeed, this poll shows that even within the United States, fallout will be a factor.
“Americans still have a generally favourable view of Israel and think it ought to live in peace and security,” Stephen Walt, professor of international affairs at Harvard University’s John F. Kennedy School of Government and co-author of “The Israel Lobby and U.S. Foreign Policy”, told IPS.
“But much of that support is fairly soft, and most Americans do not support backing Israel no matter what it does. This latest poll confirms that basic view, and suggests that Israel cannot count on deep U.S. support if peace talks fail and its control over the West Bank and/or Gaza becomes permanent.”
But Leon Hadar, lecturer in Israel Studies at the University of Maryland and senior analyst with Wikistrat, disagrees and believes this poll does little but satisfy the “wishful thinking of some.”
“My guess is that most Americans would support the establishment of a democratic and liberal system here, there and everywhere, including in Saudi Arabia, Congo, and certainly China,” Hadar told IPS.
“But the main problem is that there is no constituency in the U.S. or for that matter among the Israelis and the Palestinians advancing such a formula. That’s very different from the South Africa story when you had powerful constituencies in this country, including Congress, pushing for that.”
Telhami disagrees. “It may not have a direct impact on foreign policy. I don’t expect even 80 percent support for a single, democratic state will mean the White House and State Department will suddenly support it. But it results in a lot of civil society pressure.
“U.S. foreign policy is based on a lot of considerations, and domestically it is more responsive to groups that are better organised and today that means groups that are supportive of Israeli government positions. But I think the discourse itself will alter the priorities and put a lot of strain on the relationship.
“This will mean pushing the government to act on this issue. We see it now, with academic boycotts and boycotting of settlement products. Those things can happen at a level that changes the dynamic of policymaking.”Related Articles
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