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On Kenya’s Coast, a Struggle for the Sacred

Tue, 06/23/2015 - 14:58

In addition to being the caretakers of sacred forests, the Mijikenda community in southern Kenya practice agriculture and engage in livestock rearing. Credit: Miriam Gathigah/IPS

By Miriam Gathigah
Jun 23 2015 (IPS)

Travel into the heart of Kenya’s southern Coast Province, nearly 500 km from the capital city of Nairobi, and you will come across one of the planet’s most curious World Heritage Sites: the remains of several fortified villages, revered by the indigenous Mijikenda people as the sacred abodes of their ancestors.

"If you have evil intentions within this forest, a curse will befall you and we believe that you may not even come out alive.” -- Rashid Bakari, a member of Kenya's Mijikenda community
Known locally as ‘kaya’, these forested sites date back to the 16th century, when a migration of pastoral communities from present-day Somalia is believed to have led to the creation of several villages covering roughly 200 km across this province’s low-lying hills.

Having thrived for centuries, developing their own language and customs, the kayas began to disintegrate around the early 20th century as famine and fighting took hold.

Today, although uninhabited, the kayas continue to be worshipped as repositories of ancient beliefs and practices.

Thanks to careful nurturing by the Mijikenda people, the groves and graves in the kayas are all that remains of what was once an extensive coastal lowland forest.

But they are under threat.

The discovery in the last three years of large deposits of rare earth minerals in this region has marked the kaya forests out as targets for extraction, development and displacement of the indigenous population.

As property developers and resource explorers eye these ancient lands, locals are squaring off for a fight in what the World Bank has called one of the fastest-growing economies in sub-Saharan Africa.

‘Bound to our forests’

Mnyenze Abdalla Ali, a representative of the Kaya Kinondo Council of Elders, which represents a kaya forest in Kwale County at the southern-most tip of the province, tells IPS that the Mijikenda people “consider themselves culturally and spiritually bound to their forests.”

Numbering some 1.9 million people, according to the most recent census, the Mijikenda community comprises nine distinct tribes who nevertheless share a language and culture.

Each tribe has its own unique kaya, which simply refers to ‘home’ or to a village built in a forest clearing, Ali explains.

Because the forests are believed to hold the secrets and spirits of ancestors passed, the community is vigilant about their protection. According to one resident of Kaya Kinondo, Hamisi Juma, “Nothing can be taken out of the forest – not even a fallen twig can be used as firewood in our homes.”

She tells IPS that forest debris is only used during rituals and traditional ceremonies, “when we slaughter goats and use twigs to lit the fire. This happens within the forest and only for the purposes of the ritual.”

As a result, some 50 kayas spread throughout Kwale County, Mombasa County and Kilifi County in the Coast Province are home to an exceptionally high level of biodiversity.

Kenya’s own ministry of environment, water and natural resources has declared the region a biodiversity hotspot and pledged to allocate the necessary funds and resources to its protection.

But it is more than just a rich ecological belt.

The local community carefully tends to the outskirts of kaya forests, which also serve as the ancient burial grounds of their ancestors, nurturing a diverse ecosystem that is home to rare plant and bird species. Credit: Miriam Gathigah/IPS

When the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO) decided to add the kaya forests to its prestigious World Heritage List of over 1,000 protected sites back in 2008, it referred to the area as “an outstanding example of traditional human settlement […] which is representative of a unique interaction with the environment.”

UNESCO also noted that the kaya represent a “fundamental source of the Mijikenda people’s sense of ‘being-in-the-world’ and of place within the cultural landscape of contemporary Kenya.”

Furthermore, the forests are highly prized as a repository of medicinal plants and herbs, according to Eunice Adhiambo, project manager at Ujamaa Centre, a non-governmental organisation founded on the philosophy of “building social capital, not capital accumulation” as put forward by Tanzania’s first independent leader, Julius Nyerere.

Dedicated to empowering exploited communities in Kenya, the Ujamaa Centre supports the Mijikenda’s struggle to preserve these “unblemished and very unique landscapes”, Adhiambo tells IPS.

“Although kaya forests constitute about five percent of the remaining closed-canopy forest cover of Kenya’s coast, 35 percent of the highest conservation-value sites are found here,” she adds.

“If developers have their way,” she says, “we will lose so much of the richness that Mother Nature has given us. We have the responsibility of conserving this gift because we cannot buy it anywhere.”

But not all residents of this country of 20 million people share this view – particularly not economists, investors and policymakers keen to realise a forecasted economic growth rate increase from 5.4 percent in 2014 to six or seven percent over the 2015-2017 period.

Rare earth minerals – a tempting opportunity

Kenya’s profile as a potential top rare earth minerals producer rose significantly when, in 2012, mineral explorer Cortec Mining Kenya Ltd. announced it had found deposits worth 62.4 billion dollars.

At the time, the mineral exploration company planned to sink between 160 million and 200 million dollars into a drilling operation at its Mrima Hill prospect, also home to kaya forests.

The corporation projected initial output of 2,900 to 3,600 tonnes of niobium, an element used in high-temperature alloys for special kinds of steel, such as is used in the production of gas pipelines, cars and jet engines.

Experts estimated the deposit at Mrima Hill to be the sixth largest in the world, with a mine life of 16-18 years.

Fully exploited, it would put Kenya among the ranks of the major niobium exporters; in 2012, Brazil accounted for 95 percent of the world’s combined annual niobium production of 100,000 tonnes, while Canada followed at a distant second place.

As environmental groups and civil society organisations concerned about the impact of mining on sensitive ecological and cultural sites mounted a huge challenge, the government revoked an initial 21-year license granted to the company – though it did not cite environmental causes for its decision.

In early 2015, the government upheld a court decision to revoke the license, and announced plans to bring mineral exploration under state control.

On Mar. 20, Mining Minister Najib Balala stated in a press release, “Not […] Cortec or any other company will be allowed to do exploration at Mrima. It will be handled on behalf of the people of Kenya and especially the people of Mrima and Kwale County as a whole.”

This news has not, however, been met with much optimism from indigenous communities, who continue to view Kenya’s ambitious economic development agenda with trepidation.

Both the extractive and real estate sectors have emerged as major drivers of the country’s growth in the coming decade, and deposits of rare earth minerals could be a huge boon for the country.

Ernst & Young say demand for rare earth minerals is rising, with their market share estimated at between four and six billion dollars in 2015.

While China currently meets 90 percent of global demand, Kenya – along with other African nations like Somalia, Tanzania, Mozambique and Namibia – could crack the Asian giant’s monopoly.

In addition, discoveries of oil and natural gas in 2013 in Turkana County, on Kenya’s border with South Sudan, together with news that explorers had tapped into titanium deposits along the 500-km coastline, re-ignited fears of massive encroachment and destruction of kaya forests.

According to Kenya’s 2015 National Economic Survey, “The overall value of mineral production rose by 6.1 percent to stand at KSh 20.9 billion [about 212 million U.S. dollars] from KSh 19.8 billion [201 million U.S. dollars] in 2013, mainly on account of production of Titanium ore.”

The Ujamaa Centre says that some indigenous communities are beginning to give in to the pressures of extractive industries and the lure of quick money from real estate developers.

Kaya Chivara, located in Kilifi County, for instance, is completely degraded as a result of human encroachment, while others – particularly those in mineral-rich Kwale Country – are at high risk.

“Imminent niobium extraction will certainly degrade the forest,” Ujamaa’s Adhiambo predicts, stressing that the Mijikenda people are now poised to play a major role in halting any potentially destructive development.

‘A curse or a blessing’

So far, despite developers of all stripes hungering after the land – with some property developers even buying up tracts that encroach into protected areas – Kaya Kinondo remains in safe hands.

Some kaya forests, particularly in Kilifi County in Kenya’s Coast Province, have been heavily degraded due to extractive industries. Credit: Miriam Gathigah/IPS

The Council of Elders has been vigilant about protection of the forest, and the community has fallen back on their belief in powerful rituals to ward off bad omens.

Mijikendas say that two pillars govern the spirit of the kaya forests: either a curse or a blessing.

Rashid Bakari, a kaya guide who works with youth from the community to bring visitors into the forests, tells IPS, “If you have evil intentions within this forest, a curse will befall you and we believe that you may not even come out alive.”

For those who do not subscribe to his convictions, the Kenyan constitution is also proving to be a source of protection, with Article 44 providing for community participation in the resolution of disputes over customary land.

The Ujamaa Collective, which works to enhance popular participation in socio-economic processes and supports community based decision-making and governance, believes the government must be held accountable to these clauses.

Adhiambo also tells IPS that her organisation is “encouraging communities to work with the local governments to help them preserve what is left of their natural heritage.”

She says that community discussions with Josephat Chirema of the County Assembly Committee of Culture and Development has borne fruit, with the committee member promising to introduce debate in the Kwale County Assembly to establish and obtain detailed information about kayas – and the need to work with indigenous communities for their preservation.

Now, caretakers of several other kayas are working closely with the Kaya Kinondo Council of Elders, for lessons on how to salvage what is left of their hallowed heritage.

Edited by Kanya D’Almeida

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Smart Phones New Tool to Capture Human Rights Violations

Tue, 06/23/2015 - 14:31

Some organisations are developing alert applications that journalists, human rights defenders and others can use to send an emergency message (along with GPS co-ordinates) to their friends and colleagues if they feel in immediate danger. Credit: Johan Larsson/ cc by 2.0

By Thalif Deen
UNITED NATIONS, Jun 23 2015 (IPS)

The widespread use of digital technology – including satellite imagery, body cameras and smart phones – is fast becoming a new tool in monitoring and capturing human rights violations worldwide.

Singling out the role of Information and Communication Technologies (ICTs), the U.N. Special Rapporteur on Summary Executions Christof Heyns says: “We have all seen how the actions of police officers and others who use excessive force are captured on cell phones and lead to action against the perpetrators.”“We must guard against a mind-set that ‘if it is not digital it did not happen.'" -- Christof Heyns

Billions of people around the world now carry a powerful weapon to capture such events in their pockets, he said.

“The fact that this is well-known can be a significant deterrent to abuses,” Heyns said, in a report to the 29th session of the 47-member Human Rights Council, which began its three-week session in Geneva June 15.

Heyns said the hardware and software that produce and transmit information in the digital space can play an increasing role in the protection of all human rights, including the right to life, by reinforcing the role of ‘civilian witnesses’ in documenting rights violations.

In his report, Heyns urged the U.N. system and other international human rights bodies to “catch up” with rapidly developing innovations in human rights fact-finding and investigations.

“The digital age presents challenges that can only be met through the smart use of digital tools,” he said.

Javier El-Hage, General Counsel at the New York-based Human Rights Foundation (HRF), told IPS that HRF can corroborate the special rapporteur’s findings that ICTs, like cellphone cameras or even satellite imagery, play a key role in documenting extrajudicial executions.

From democratic societies like Germany or the United States where ‘civilian witnesses’ documenting instances of police brutality and extrajudicial executions create an effective check on law enforcement abuse, to societies under competitive authoritarian regimes like Kazakhstan or Venezuela where witnesses themselves can face extrajudicial execution for filming police brutality, ICTs play a huge role in documenting this egregious type of human rights violation, he said.

“Even in North Korea, the world’s most repressive and tightly closed society, satellite imagery has long helped determine the exact location and population estimates of prison camps, and recently helped uncover a disturbing case of executions by firing squad, where executioners used anti-aircraft machine guns.”

In his report, Heyns told the Human Rights Council the hardware and software that produce and transmit information in the digital space can play an increasing role in the protection of all human rights, including the right to life, by reinforcing the role of ‘civilian witnesses’ in documenting rights violations.

He said various organisations are developing alert applications that journalists, human rights defenders and others can use to send an emergency message (along with GPS co-ordinates) to their friends and colleagues if they feel in immediate danger.

“New information tools can also empower human rights investigations and help to foster accountability where people have lost their lives or were seriously injured,” the Special Rapporteur said.

The use of other video technologies, ranging from CCTV cameras to body-worn “cop cams”, can further contribute to filling information gaps.

Resources such as satellite imagery to verify such videos, or sometime to show evidence of violations themselves, is also an important dimension, he noted.

But despite the many advantages offered by ICTs, Heyns said it would be short-sighted not to see the risks as well.

“Those with the power to violate human rights can easily use peoples’ emails and other communications to target them and also to violate their privacy,” he said.

The fact that people can use social media to organise spontaneous protests can lead authorities to perceive a threat – and to over-react.

Moreover, there is a danger that what is not captured on video is not taken seriously. “We must guard against a mind-set that ‘if it is not digital it did not happen,’” he stressed.

El-Hage told IPS his Foundation also agrees with the special rapporteur that ICTs are a double-edged sword because through them governments can “easily access the emails and other communications” of law-abiding citizens, especially political opponents, journalists and human rights defenders, “to target them and violate their privacy.”

HRF has recently denounced the cases of targeted surveillance and persecution against pro-democracy activists Hisham Almiraat in Morocco and Waleed Abu AlKhair in Saudi Arabia, and was among the organisations that submitted a white paper to the U.N. Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Expression to inform his own report on the way ‘encryption’ and ‘anonymity’ can protect both the rights to privacy and free speech.

In his report, Heyns also cautioned that not all communities, and not all parts of the world, are equally connected, and draws special attention to the fact that “the ones that not connected are often in special need of protection.”

“There is still a long way to go for all of us to understand fully how we can use these evolving and exciting but in some ways also scary new tools to their best effect,” Heyn said pointing out that not all parts of the international human rights community are fully aware of the power and pitfalls of digital fact-finding.

Edited by Kitty Stapp

The writer can be contacted at thalifdeen@aol.com

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Young People Lend a Hand to Trinidad’s Ailing Watersheds

Tue, 06/23/2015 - 14:00

Feast or famine: Just three years ago, flooding in Trinidad's capital of Port of Spain left residents little choice but to wade through the deluge. But lately drought has become a problem in the dry season. Credit: Peter Richards/IPS

By Jewel Fraser
PORT OF SPAIN, Jun 23 2015 (IPS)

For a decade, the Water and Sewerage Authority (WASA) of Trinidad and Tobago had been mapping the country’s water quality. Five years ago, they started to notice a worrying trend.

The watersheds in the western region of Trinidad had progressed from being of moderate quality in some places to being outright bad. By 2010, a survey of the country showed more than 20 per cent of the watersheds were in serious trouble.“By adopting these ecological measures to protect our river water supplies, we can reduce the need for more energy intensive and more costly measures of obtaining water such as desalination.” -- Dr. Natalie Boodram

“We have raised the alarm bell,” said senior hydrologist David Samm. ”WASA is concerned.”

WASA received a lot of bad press during the recently concluded dry season. Residents whose communities were roiled with protests almost weekly over lack of access to potable water vehemently criticised the agency while waving placards and publicly burning tyres.

WASA is the designated body responsible for all of Trinidad and Tobago’s water sources and supply.

But factors beyond its control, like climate change and climate variability, are significant contributors to the crisis.

“During the dry season we would have longer droughts so we will not have as much water for groundwater recharge,” explained Samm, adding, “there is more intense rainfall for a given time period and because of continued development we have more flooding problems during the rainy season.”

That has resulted in more surface runoff “and that water is being flushed through the watercourses and out to sea. Therefore, we have less recharge of our groundwater systems,” he explained.

He told IPS that 60 per cent of Trinidad and Tobago’s potable water comes from surface water sources.

There has also been major housing construction along the east-west corridor of Trinidad, he pointed out. “With climate change and the increase in impervious cover (due to urbanisation) the recharge of our groundwater system will be reduced,” Samm said. As well, “with urban growth, you see garbage in the rivers – refrigerators.”

The authority decided it needed to act to protect the health of the watersheds on which its water supply depends. It introduced the Adopt-A-River programme in the summer of 2013. Since its rollout, several of the country’s rivers have been adopted, including six of the most important, and there are 175 citizens working with the Adopt-A-River programme.

Though river adoption programmes are known in several states in the U.S., the programme in Trinidad and Tobago is among the first for the Caribbean.

WASA’s decision to focus on preserving ecosystems was a forward-looking approach to the issue of sustainably ensuring access to potable water for all, as evident from observations made in the Executive Summary of the United Nations World Water Development Report 2015. Commenting on the water situation worldwide the report states the following:

“Most economic models do not value the essential services provided by freshwater ecosystems, often leading to unsustainable use of water resources and ecosystem degradation. Pollution from untreated residential and industrial wastewater and agricultural run-off also weakens the capacity of ecosystems to provide water-related services.

“Ecosystems across the world, particularly wetlands, are in decline. Ecosystem services remain under-valued, under-recognized and under-utilized within most current economic and resource management approaches. A more holistic focus on ecosystems for water and development that maintains a beneficial mix between built and natural infrastructure can ensure that benefits are maximized.”

In keeping with the U.N.’s Millennium Development Goals’ focus on reducing poverty and environmental degradation by helping communities to help themselves, the UNDP provided funds for one of Trinidad and Tobago’s Adopt-A-River participants

Through its Global Environment Facility’s Small Grants Programme (SGP), the UNDP provides funds and technical support to civil society organisations working on “projects that conserve and restore the environment while enhancing people’s well-being and livelihoods at the community level.”

The Social Justice Foundation, which works in underdeveloped areas of Central and South Trinidad, received funding of just under 50,000 dollars from the SGP, which it matched with 65,000 dollars of its own money to sponsor an Adopt-A-River programme involving at-risk and disadvantaged youths in the communities of Siparia and Carlsen Field.

The programme ran for nine months from September 2014 to June 2015, during which time young people have been trained as eco-leaders and taught skills in water testing to monitor the health of the rivers in their communities, using La Motte test kits, as well as video production to record the work done.

They learned how to test for temperature, pH, alkalinity, turbidity, dissolved oxygen, phosphate and nitrate and to record the changes in these parameters over the nine months of the project.

Mark Rampersad, administrative manager at the Social Justice Foundation, told IPS that WASA’s Adopt-a-River unit “further refined the project’s scope and depth as well as facilitating the various seminars and workshops, which featured environmental awareness.”

The Caparo River in Central Trinidad and Coora River in South Trinidad were the two rivers adopted by the Social Justice Foundation for their Adopt-A-River initiative.

Though the programme has enjoyed some favourable response from communities and schools, corporate support for the programme has not been as great as the Adopt-A-River unit would have liked. However, Samm said, the unit has been successful in its Green Fund application and will be furthering its community outreach with the funds awarded.

Preserving the health of the rivers was also based on financial considerations, said Raj Gosine, WASA’s head of Water Resources. “It is very expensive to treat poor water quality, so WASA’s motive was also financial.”

“The key thing is to stress that we can all make a positive contribution,” Gosine added.

Along with water quality monitoring and public education, WASA’s Adopt-A-River programme includes reforestation and forest rehabilitation, as well as clean-up exercises.

Global Water Partnership-Caribbean’s Programme Manager Dr. Natalie Boodram told IPS, “Programmes like Adopt-A-River which encourage reforestation of watershed and riparian zones (i.e., areas along the bank of a river or watercourse) help protect water supplies by encouraging water infiltration as opposed to surface runoff.

“By adopting these ecological measures to protect our river water supplies, we can reduce the need for more energy intensive and more costly measures of obtaining water such as desalination.”

Edited by Kitty Stapp

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Studying and Working Poses New Challenges for Argentina’s Youth

Tue, 06/23/2015 - 13:52

A boy helps his mother, Graciela Ardiles, do chores on their small farm in Arraga in the northern Argentine province of Santiago del Estero. Thanks to a rural development programme that has boosted the family’s income, she says her children will be able to continue studying, and even go on to university, unlike her parents. Credit: Fabiana Frayssinet/IPS

By Fabiana Frayssinet
BUENOS AIRES, Jun 23 2015 (IPS)

Until not too long ago, young people in Argentina faced a choice: whether to study or drop out and go to work. But now most adolescents in Argentina who work also continue to study – a change that poses new challenges for combating school dropout, repetition and truancy, as well as the circle of poverty.

The change is revealing, according to Néstor López at the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation’s International Institute for Education Planning (IIEP UNESCO), which together with the International Labour Organisation (ILO) produced the report “Trabajo infantil y trayectorias escolares protegidas en Argentina” on child labour and education, launched this month, which discusses the new situation.

“When you analysed what was happening with teenagers 20 years ago, you saw two different situations,” López said in an interview with IPS. “There were adolescents in school and adolescents who worked.”

“But what you see now is that school enrollment rates have gone up significantly, which has meant to some extent a reduction in their rates of participation in the labour market, but has also meant an increase in the proportion of adolescents who both study and work,” he said.

In 2013, practically all children in Argentina between the ages of five and 14 and 84 percent of adolescents between 15 and 17 were in school, the study says.

Gustavo Ponce, an ILO expert in prevention and eradication of child labour, said measures like the 2006 National Education Law, which made education obligatory until the last year of secondary school (17 or 18 years of age), contributed to the new trend of adolescents working and studying at the same time.

“Progress has also been made in terms of legislation and regulations, with a law that raised the minimum working age to 16, which included the question of protection of adolescent workers aged 16 and 17,” Ponce told IPS.

He was referring to a law that protects young people from heavy or dangerous work, or work that makes it impossible for them to attend school or endangers their health.

He was also referring to the 2013 reform of the penal code, which made child labour a crime.

In their report, the ILO and UNESCO mentioned these measures as well as others, such as the Universal Child Allowance cash transfer programme, which have helped discourage child labour by boosting the incomes of poor families.

“Yes, you could say there has been a policy to eradicate child labour,” said Ponce.

López said that what is needed now is to continue improving school enrollment and attendance among adolescents. According to the new study, of the children between the ages of five and 13 who both work and attend school, approximately one-third repeat the year, compared to 13 percent of children who do not work.

With regard to truancy, the report cites statistics from a Labour Ministry survey of activities among children and adolescents, pointing out that 20 percent of those who both work and study frequently miss school, compared to 10 percent of those who only attend school.

And in the case of adolescents who work, 26 percent do not go to school, and 43 percent of those who do attend school are held back. Among those who only study, 27 percent repeat the year.

“It’s better than if they were just working,” said López. “It’s good for kids who are working to also be studying, preparing for their future. You could say it’s a positive thing if the kids who have to work can also go to school.”

Overall, though, “it’s negative because what the statistics, studies and common sense show is that these kids have a lower quality educational experience, because they don’t have time to do their homework, they don’t have time to study, they go to school tired, they miss school more, and they get less out of the educational experience for different reasons,” he added.

According to the Labour Ministry, child labour was reduced 66 percent from 2004 to 2012 – from 450,000 children working in 2004 to 180,000 in 2012.

But another concern are less visible forms of child labour, such as unpaid housework and caregiving, which especially affect girls and young women, including caring for younger siblings, cleaning the house, fixing meals, and taking care of small barnyard animals.

“Educational level is one of the main mechanisms used by the labour market to select workers. Access or lack of access to formal education is one of the aspects most heavily associated with the process of intergenerational accumulation of social disadvantage,” says the report.

Among the measures to encourage school attendance, the ILO proposes improving the network of free public services that support caregivers, including childcare centres, preschools, and double shifts in schools. In Argentina, schoolchildren attend either the morning or the afternoon shift. But full-day schools are becoming more common in low-income areas, enabling mothers to work.

The ILO also proposes campaigns to combat certain beliefs or customs, especially in rural areas.

“When we interview parents, for example, it’s clear that they think it’s normal to feed and milk the livestock before going to school, as if it were a way to help out at home and a positive learning experience rather than work that children do at home,” the report says.

The trade unions, meanwhile, say the concept of eradicating child labour should also be included in the educational curriculum.

Hernán Rugirello, with the Confederación General del Trabajo central trade union’s social research centre, told IPS about an initiative carried out by the union in Mar del Plata, a city 400 km south of Buenos Aires. With the help of the teachers’ union, the issues surrounding child labour have begun to be taught in schools there.

“It’s important to put this problem on the agenda, so that young people will also start understanding it and will become agents of transmission of knowledge, bringing the issues home with them,” he said.

Edited by Estrella Gutiérrez/Translated by Stephanie Wildes

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Conservation Successes Eclipsed by Species Declines

Tue, 06/23/2015 - 13:09

By Roger Hamilton-Martin
UNITED NATIONS, Jun 23 2015 (IPS)

Although strong gains have been made in some areas of conservation, many species are facing increasing threats to their survival.

According to an update from the International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources Red List of Threatened Species, conservation successes like the Iberian Lynx and the Guadalupe Fur Seal have been overshadowed by more species declines and concerns over the lion, African Golden Cat, New Zealand Sea Lion populations.

“(The update) confirms that effective conservation can yield outstanding results,” said Inger Andersen, IUCN Director General, in a statement. “Saving the Iberian Lynx from the brink of extinction while securing the livelihoods of local communities is a perfect example.

“But this update is also a wake-up call, reminding us that our natural world is becoming increasingly vulnerable. The international community must urgently step up conservation efforts if we want to secure this fascinating diversity of life that sustains, inspires and amazes us every day.”

Aside from successful conservation efforts in southern Africa, the West African lion subpopulation has been listed as critically endangered due to habitat conversion, a decline in prey caused by unsustainable hunting, and human-lion conflict.

Rapid declines have also been recorded in East Africa – historically a stronghold for lions – mainly due to human-lion conflict and prey decline. Trade in bones and other body parts for traditional medicine, both within the region and in Asia, has been identified as a new, emerging threat to the species.

The Red List provides taxonomic, conservation status and distribution information on plants, fungi and animals; cataloguing and highlighting those plants and animals that are facing a higher risk of global extinction.

It includes 77,340 assessed species, providing a useful snapshot of what is happening to species today and highlighting the urgent need for conservation action. Of the assessed species, 22,784 are threatened with extinction.

According to the update, 99 percent of tropical Asian slipper orchids – some of the most highly prized ornamental plants – are threatened with extinction.

Eighty-five percent of species on the Red List are threatened by the loss and degradation of their habitat, and illegal trade and invasive species are also key drivers of population decline.

“It is encouraging to see several species improve in status due to conservation action,” remarked Jane Smart, Director, IUCN’s Global Species Programme. “However, this update shows that we are still seeing devastating losses in species populations.”

Edited by Kitty Stapp

Opinion: Sub-Saharan Africa, Addis and Paris

Tue, 06/23/2015 - 12:53

Artisanal diamond miners at work in the alluvial diamond mines around the eastern town of Koidu, Sierra Leone. Credit: Tommy Trenchard/IPS

By Jomo Kwame Sundaram and Rudi von Arnim
ROME, Jun 23 2015 (IPS)

After the turn of the century, growth in sub-Saharan Africa (SSA) picked up again after a quarter century of near stagnation for most, mainly due to increased world demand for minerals and other natural resources.

The region became second only to East Asia in recovering from the global slowdown following the 2008-2009 financial crisis.Thanks to the failure of development over the preceding quarter century, SSA was the only region not to make any progress in reducing the population share in poverty, with the number of poor people actually rising significantly.

During the decade 2003-2013, growth was faster, averaging 2.6 percent per capita annually. The SSA growth acceleration of the past decade fueled hopes that growth on the continent had finally begun to accelerate and catch up.

Annual SSA per capita real GDP growth had averaged a respectable two percent in the 1960s, but had slowed down from the late 1970s. Over the next two decades, real per capita income for sub-Saharan countries shrank by about three quarters of a percentage point annually on average.

While SSA growth resumed in the last decade, reliance on natural resource extraction has compromised its developmental impact. Such economic activity, especially in mining, has few linkages to the rest of the national economy, thus limiting its growth and employment creation impacts as well.

As its economic performance has closely followed the vagaries of the global commodity price cycle, SSA growth in the last decade was largely driven by the minerals boom on the continent.

But the high commodity prices of the past decade have been reversed by the spreading global economic slowdown and the Saudi decision to drastically reduce oil prices.

However, natural resource extraction does not have the same potential to accelerate development as manufacturing. No country has successfully developed without substantially increasing manufacturing or high-end services. Sub-Saharan Africa has not done well on this score in recent decades.

While the manufacturing share of GDP for all developing countries has risen over 23 percent, it has fallen in SSA to 8 percent from 12 percent in the 1980s. Meanwhile, the primary commodities’ share of total SSA exports reached almost 90 percent in the past decade.

Premature and inappropriate trade liberalisation has damaged SSA’s limited export capacities. The region’s share of world merchandise exports fell from 5 percent in the 1950s to 1.8 percent during 2000-2010. Meanwhile, its share of world manufactured exports stands at a paltry one-fifth of one percentage point.

Trade liberalisation has also undermined the fiscal capacities of many governments in poor countries, with dire consequences for development and social progress.

Since many transactions in developing countries are informal, and hence untaxed, poor developing country governments have traditionally relied on trade tariffs to raise revenue.

Thus, trade liberalisation has reduced their ability to raise revenue, without providing alternate sources. As a consequence, the share of government spending in GDP has fallen from an average of around 16 percent during 1980-1999 to 13 percent during recent years.

Thus, neither trade nor financial liberalisation has helped accelerate economic growth in SSA. Growth requires investments, but investment as a share of SSA GDP has fallen in recent decades, to only 17 percent before the crisis.

External financial liberalisation from the 1980s was supposed to draw in foreign resources, but portfolio investments in SSA are negligible, and more crucially, ill-suited to facilitate sustainable growth.

Instead, there have been net outflows of capital from the world’s poorest region to international financial centres, including tax havens.

Appropriately targeted ‘greenfield’ foreign direct investment (FDI) has more potential to make a positive impact. However, Africa’s share of FDI to all developing economies has fallen from 21 percent in the 1970s to only 11 percent in recent years, or from 5 percent to 3 percent of global FDI.

To make matters worse, FDI in SSA overwhelmingly involves natural resource extraction, with few developmental spillovers from such investments.

According to World Bank estimates, the share of the SSA population living in extreme poverty rose from 50 percent in 1980 to 58 percent in 1998 before falling back to 50 percent in 2005.

Thanks to the failure of development over the preceding quarter century, SSA was the only region not to make any progress in reducing the population share in poverty, with the number of poor people actually rising significantly.

A decade ago, in 2005, the G8 summit at Gleneagles committed to increasing Official Development Assistance (ODA) by 50 billion dollars by 2010. The Gleneagles summit also promised to increase ODA to Africa by 25 billion dollars to 64 billion. Actual delivery fell short by 18 billion dollars, or by 72 percent!

In 2012 dollars, annual ODA to SSA hovered around 50 billion during 2006-2013, up from about 42 billion in 2005, but well short of what was promised. G8 aid to Africa falls well short of promised levels, even below the contributions from the small Nordic countries.

Not surprisingly, the recent G7 summit made no reference to the Gleneagles promises. Instead, it focused on addressing climate change, and it seems likely that climate finance conditionalities will undermine the principle of common, but differentiated responsibilities.

The struggle leading to the Conference of Parties in Paris will be to ensure that climate finance will be additional to the longstanding ODA promises, and will promote climate justice and development.

Edited by Kitty Stapp

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Critics of World Bank-Funded Projects in the Line of Fire

Mon, 06/22/2015 - 19:16

The World Bank has increased financial support for the cotton sector in Uzbekistan, despite evidence that the industry is rooted in a system of forced labour. Credit: David Stanley/CC-BY-2.0

By Kanya D'Almeida
UNITED NATIONS, Jun 22 2015 (IPS)

For an entire month beginning in February 2015, a group of between 40 and 50 residents of the Durgapur Village in the northern Indian state of Uttarakhand would gather at the site of a hydroelectric power project being carried out by the state-owned Tehri Hydro Development Corporation (THDC).

All day long the protestors, mostly women and their children, would sit in defiance of the initiative that they believed was an environmental and social danger to their community, singing folk songs that spoke of their fears and hopes.

“I had expected a very constructive conversation with the World Bank. Instead all I am hearing are non-responses." -- Jessica Evans, senior advocate on international financial institutions at Human Rights Watch
Their actions were well within the bounds of the law, but the reactions of THDC employees to their peaceful demonstration were troubling in the extreme.

According to one of the women involved, THDC contractors and labourers routinely harassed them by hurling abusive slurs – going so far as to call the women ‘prostitutes’ and make derogatory comments about their caste – and attempted to intimidate them by threatening “severe” consequences if they didn’t call off their picket.

In a country where activists and communities demanding their rights are routinely subjected to identical or worse treatment at the hands of both state and private actors, this tale may not seem at all out of the ordinary.

What sets it apart, however, is that this hydroelectric project was not simply a government-led scheme; it is financed by a 648-million-dollar loan from the World Bank.

Governed by a set of “do no harm” policies, both the Bank and its private sector lending arm, the International Finance Corporation (IFC) have – on paper at least – pledged to consult with and protect local communities impacted by its funding.

But according to a new report by Human Rights Watch, the Bank has not only systematically turned a blind eye to reports of human rights abuses associated with its projects, it also lacks necessary safeguards required to avoid further violations in the future.

When silence and negligence equals complicity

Based on research carried out over a two-year period between May 2013 and May 2015, in Cambodia, India, Uganda and Kyrgyzstan – the latter following allegations of rights abuses in Uzbekistan – the report entitled ‘At Your Own Risk: Reprisals Against Critics of World Bank Group Projects’ found that Bank officials consistently fail to respond in any meaningful way to allegations of severe reprisals against those who speak out against Bank-funded projects.

In some cases, the World Bank Group has even turned its back on local community members working with its own officials.

Addressing the press on a conference call on Jun. 22, the report’s author, Jessica Evans, highlighted an incident in which an interpreter for the Bank’s Inspection Panel was flung into prison just weeks after the oversight body concluded its review process.

Withholding all identifying details of the case for the security of the victim, Evans stated that, besides questioning government officials “behind closed doors”, the Bank has so far remained completely silent on the fate of an independent activist working to strengthen the Bank’s own process.

Such actions, or lack thereof, “make a mockery out of [the Bank’s] own stated commitments to participation and accountability,” the report concluded.

HRW has identified dozens of cases in which activists claim to have been targeted – harassed, abused, threatened or intimidated – for voicing their objections to aspects of Bank or IFC-funded initiatives for a range of social, environmental or economic reasons.

Because the bulk of communities in close proximity to major development schemes tend to be among the poorest or most vulnerable, and therefore lack the access or ability to formally lodge their complaints, the true number of people who have experienced such reprisals is “sure” to be much higher than the figures stated in the report, researchers revealed.

Evans told IPS, “On this issue of reprisals the World Bank’s silence and inaction has already crossed the line” into the realm of compliance.

She added that the Inspection Panel raised the issue of retaliation back in 2009, giving the Bank ample time to take necessary steps to address a chronic and pervasive problem.

Instead, it continues to engage with governments that have a poor human rights track record, while remaining apparently deaf to pressures and demands from civil society to strengthen mechanisms that will protect powerless and marginalized communities from violent backlash.

Take the case of Elena Urlaeva, who heads the Tashkent-based Human Rights Alliance of Uzbekistan, and who was arrested in a cotton field on May 31, 2015, while documenting evidence of the Uzbek government’s massive system of forced labour in cotton production.

According to HRW, Urlaeva was detained, abused and sexually violated during an extremely violent cavity probe. On the grounds that they were searching for a data card from her camera, male doctors and policemen conducted such a rough and invasive search that the ordeal left her bleeding.

She was forbidden from using the bathroom and eventually forced to go outside the station in the presence of male officers who called her a “bitch”, filmed her in the act of relieving herself and threatened to post the video online if she complained about her treatment.

Evans told IPS all of this occurred against a backdrop of the World Bank’s increased financial support of the cotton sector – already it has pledged over 450 million dollars to three major agricultural projects of the Uzbek government – despite evidence that the industry is rooted in a system of forced labour.

In the absence of any robust mechanism within the World Bank to make continued funding conditional on compliance with international human rights standards, there is a “real risk” that independent monitors and rights activists will continue to face situations as horrific as the one Urlaeva recently endured, Evans stressed.

A ‘disappointing’ reaction

Both the World Bank and the United Nations have tossed the issue of development-related rights abuses from one forum to another.

In his May 2015 report to the U.N. Human Rights Council (HRC), Special Rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights Philip Alston stressed the urgency of “putting questions of resources and redistribution back into the human rights equation.”

He decried several member states’ attempts to keep international economics, finance and trade “quarantined” from the human rights framework, and blasted international financial institutions (IFIs) for contributing to this culture of impunity.

“The World Bank can simply refuse to engage with human rights in the context of its policies and programmes, IMF does the same, and the World Trade Organisation is little different,” Alston remarked, adding that these bodies throw the issue at the HRC, while the latter simply knocks the ball back into the financiers’ court.

It is becoming akin to a game of political ping-pong, with the ball representing the human rights of some of the most impoverished people in the world – at whom multi-million-dollar development projects are ostensibly targeted.

Gretchen Gordon, coordinator of Bank on Human Rights, a global coalition of social movements and grassroots organisations working to hold IFIs accountable to human rights obligations, told IPS, “You can’t have successful development without robust civil society participation in setting development priorities, designing projects, and monitoring implementation.”

If development banks and their member states neglect to take leadership and implement the necessary protocols and policies, she said, “they will continue to see increasing development failures, human rights abuses, and conflict.”

If the World Bank Group’s initial reaction to HRW’s comprehensive research is anything to go by, however, Bank on Human Rights and other watchdogs of its ilk have their work cut out for them.

Though HRW’s researchers invited the Bank and the IFC’s input with an in-depth list of questions back in April, they have received nothing but a rather “bland response” that failed to address the issue of reprisals at all and simply stated that the Bank “is not a human rights tribunal.”

“I had expected a very constructive conversation with the World Bank,” Evans said. “Instead all I am hearing are non-responses. We have proposed really pragmatic recommendations for how the Bank can work effectively in challenging environments, but we are a long way from that at the moment.”

Both the Bank’s Inspection Panel and the IFC’s Compliance Advisor Ombudsman (CAO) have greeted the report with enthusiasm, but they are independent bodies and remain largely powerless to effect change at the management level of the World Bank Group.

This power lies with the Bank’s president, Jim Yong Kim, who will have to “take the lead and send a clear message to his staff that the question of reprisals is a priority issue,” Evans concluded.

Edited by Kitty Stapp

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U.N. Names Winners of First Nelson Mandela Prize

Mon, 06/22/2015 - 13:54

Nelson Mandela, Deputy President of the African National Congress of South Africa, raises his fist in the air while addressing the Special Committee Against Apartheid in the General Assembly Hall, June 22, 1990. Credit: UN Photo/Pernaca Sudhakaran

By Kitty Stapp
UNITED NATIONS, Jun 22 2015 (IPS)

The winners of the first-ever United Nations Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela Prize were announced Monday by General Assembly President Sam Kutesa, 25 years to the day that Mandela addressed the U.N. General Assembly to denounce apartheid in his home country of South Africa.

They are Dr. Helena Ndume of Namibia, and Jorge Sampaio of Portugal.

Kutesa said that the winners were chosen from about 300 applicants for the prize from a variety of sources, including member states as well as observer states of the U.N., institutions of higher education, intergovernmental organisations and NGOs.

The Prize was established in June 2014 by the General Assembly to recognise the achievements of those who dedicate their lives to the service of humanity by promoting the purposes and principles of the United Nations, while honouring and paying homage to Nelson Mandela’s extraordinary life and legacy of reconciliation, political transition, and social transformation.

Dr. Ndume is a Namibian ophthalmologist, widely renowned for her charitable work among sufferers of eye-related illnesses in Namibia. Dr. Ndume has ensured that some 30,000 blind Namibians have received eye surgery and are fitted with intra-ocular lens implants free of charge.

She is currently the head of the ophthalmology department at Windhoek Central Hospital, Namibia’s largest hospital, and is one of only six Namibian ophthalmologists. Ndume has also set up eye camps in Angola, working with international organisations to bring eye surgery to the country’s poor.

Jorge Sampaio is a Portuguese lawyer and politician who was president of Portugal from 1996 to 2006. He became a leader in the struggle for the restoration of democracy in his country, and also served as deputy minister for external cooperation and as mayor of Lisbon from 1989 to 1995.

He is a strong advocate of the European integration project, actively supported its enlargement to all democratic countries in Europe as well as to Turkey, and played an active role in engaging ordinary people, in particular youth, in public debates on European affairs.

Sampaio is now a member of the Club de Madrid, a grouping of more than 80 former democratic statesmen that works to strengthen democratic governance and leadership worldwide by drawing on the experience of its members.

In May 2006, Sampaio was appointed by the United Nations Secretary-General as his first Special Envoy for the Global Plan to Stop Tuberculosis, where he raised the international visibility of this poverty disease’s scale and its impact on the Millennium Development Goals’ agenda.

In April 2007, U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon designated him as High Representative for the Alliance of Civilizations, a position he held till September 2012.

Ban said the United Nations hoped to carry on Mandela’s “lifelong work through this meaningful prize.”

Chaired by the President of the General Assembly, the United Nations selection Committee for the Prize this year was composed of the Permanent Representatives of Algeria, Latvia, Mexico, Saudi Arabia and Sweden, representing the five United Nations geographical regional groups.

The Permanent Representative of South Africa was an ex-officio member of the Committee. The U.N. Department of Public Information served as the secretariat.

The award ceremony will take place on July 24 at United Nations Headquarters in New York. It will be part of the annual commemoration by the General Assembly of Nelson Mandela International Day.

Edited by Kanya D’Almeida

Democracy on the Retreat in Over 96 of the 193 U.N. Member States, Says New Study

Mon, 06/22/2015 - 13:22

U.S. police arrest May Day protester in Oakland, California. Credit: Judith Scherr/IPS

By Thalif Deen
UNITED NATIONS, Jun 22 2015 (IPS)

Democracy is on the retreat and authoritarianism is on the rise in more than 96 of the U.N.’s 193 member states, according to a new report released here.

The two regions of “highest concern” for defenders of civic space are Sub-Saharan Africa and the Middle East and North Africa, which between them account for over half of the countries counted."Legitimate civil society activities are worryingly under threat in a huge number of countries in the global North and South, democratic and authoritarian, on all continents." -- Dr. Dhananjayan Sriskandarajah

These violations are increasing not only in countries perceived to be democratic but also in countries with blatantly repressive regimes.

“The widespread systematic attack on these core civil society liberties has taken many forms, including assault, torture, kidnapping and assassination,” says the CIVICUS Civil Society Watch Report.

“We have known for some time that encroachments on civic space and persecution of peaceful activists were on the rise but it’s more pervasive than many may think,” said Dr. Dhananjayan Sriskandarajah, Secretary-General of CIVICUS, a South Africa-based international alliance dedicated to strengthening citizen action and civil society worldwide.

“Our monitoring in 2014 shows that legitimate civil society activities are worryingly under threat in a huge number of countries in the global North and South, democratic and authoritarian, on all continents,” he added.

The report says while activists engaged in political reform, uncovering corruption and human rights violations continue to be targeted, those defending local communities from land grabs and environmental degradation, as well as those promoting minority group rights, have been subjected to various forms of persecution.

“The link between unethical business practices and closing civic space is becoming clearer as global inequality and capture of power and resources by a handful of political and economic elite rises. “

Advocacy for equitable sharing of natural resources and workers’ rights is becoming increasingly fraught with danger, says the report.

The examples cited range from the killings of environmental activists in Brazil to the intimidation of organisations challenging the economic discourse in India, to arbitrary detention of activists opposing oil exploration in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC).

 

Jenni Williams (in white cap) addresses Women of Zimbabwe Arise members at Zimbabwe’s parliament building in Harare with the police looking on. Zimbabwe is one of the African countries where repression of civic freedoms appears to have intensified. Credit: Misheck Rusere/IPS

Asked to identify some of the worst offenders, Matthew Reading of CIVICUS told IPS: “We don’t provide a ranking of the countries’ violations, but we are able to categorise limitations on civil society activities into completely closed countries and active violators of civic freedoms.”

He said “closed countries” are where virtually no civic activity can take place due to an extremely repressive environment. These include Eritrea, North Korea, Syria, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan.

There is a second list of countries that are active violators of civil society rights – meaning they imprison, intimidate and attack civil society members and put in place all kinds of regulations to limit the activities of civil society organisations (CSOs), particularly those working to uncover corruption and human rights violations, Reading said.

These include Azerbaijan, Bahrain, Belarus, China, Cuba, Egypt, Ethiopia, Iran, Saudi Arabia and Vietnam.

The report also points out some of the tactics deployed to close civic space include passing restrictive laws and targeting individual civil society organisations (CSOs) by raiding their offices, freezing their bank accounts or deregistering them.

A number of democracies are also engaging in illicit surveillance of civil society activists, further weakening respect for human rights.

Stigmatisation and demonisation of civil society activists by powerful political figures and right-wing elements remains an area of concern.

“When citizens’ most basic democratic rights are being violated in more than half the world’s countries, alarm bells must start ringing for the international community and leaders everywhere,” said Sriskandarajah.

Reading told IPS governments in Bahrain, Egypt, Jordan, Oman, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates have stepped up their efforts to prevent public demonstrations and the activities of human rights groups.

“There appears to be no let-up in official censorship and repression of active citizens in authoritarian states like China, Cuba, Iran, North Korea, and Vietnam.”

In sub-Saharan Africa, he said, the repression of civic freedoms appears to have intensified in countries such as Angola, Burundi, Ethiopia, Gambia, Rwanda, Sudan, Swaziland and Zimbabwe.

And activists and civil society groups in many countries in Central Asia and Eastern Europe — where democracy remains fragile or non-existent such as Azerbaijan, Belarus, Hungary, Kyrgyzstan, Russia, Turkey, Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan — are also feeling the heat following governments’ reactions to scuttle demands for political reform.

In South-East Asia, Reading pointed out, countries such as Cambodia and Malaysia have a history of repressive governance and in Thailand, where the military seized power through a recent coup, new ‘security’ measures continue to be implemented to restrict civic freedoms.

Asked what role the United Nations can play in naming and shaming these countries, Reading said the U.N. Human Rights Council has emerged as a key international forum for the protection of civic freedoms particularly through the Universal Periodic Review process where each country gets its human rights record reviewed every four years.

The Office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) is currently collating best practices to create a safe and enabling environment for civil society.

The U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Raad Al-Hussein has been an active supporter of civil society’s ability to operate freely, as was his predecessor, Navi Pillay, who was ardent advocate of civic freedoms, Reading said.

Edited by Kitty Stapp

The writer can be contacted at thalifdeen@aol.com

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Opinion: Pope Francis’ Timely Call to Action on Climate Change

Mon, 06/22/2015 - 10:22

Pope Francis, wearing a yellow raincoat, celebrates mass amidst heavy rains and strong winds near the Tacloban Airport Saturday, January 17, 2015. After the mass, the Pope visited Palo, Leyte to meet with families of typhoon Yolanda victims. The Pope's visit to Leyte was shortened due to an ongoing typhoon in the area. Credit: Malacanang Photo Bureau/public domain

By Tomás Insua
BOSTON, Jun 22 2015 (IPS)

On June 18, Pope Francis issued Laudato Si, the first ever encyclical about ecology, which promises to be a highly influential document for years to come. The encyclical, which is the most authoritative teaching document a Pope can issue, delivered a strong message addressing the moral dimension of the severe ecological crisis we have caused with our “throwaway culture” and general disregard for our common home, the Earth.

One of the most important points of this document is that it connects the dots between social justice and environmental justice. As a parishioner from Buenos Aires I have seen firsthand how Jorge Bergoglio cared deeply about both issues, and it is beautiful to see how he is bringing them together in this historical encyclical.Climate change is a moral issue, so the exasperating lack of ambition of our political leaders in the climate negotiations raises the urgency of mass civic mobilisation this year.

The most prominent example of this connection is how our role in causing climate change is hurting those who had nothing to do with this crisis, namely the poor and future generations.

Although the encyclical will have an impact on Catholic teaching for generations to come, its timing at this particular juncture is no accident. As the Pope himself stated, “the important thing is that there be a bit of time between the issuing of the encyclical and the meeting in Paris, so that it can make a contribution.”

The Paris meeting he referred to is the crucial COP21 summit that the United Nations will convene in December, where the world’s governments are expected to sign a new treaty to tackle human-made climate change and avoid its worst impacts.

This is significant because the international climate negotiations have been characterized by a consistent lack of ambition during the past two decades, allowing the climate change crisis to exacerbate. Greenhouse gases emissions have grown 60 percent since world leaders first met in the Rio Earth Summit of 1992, and continue to accelerate setting the foundation for a severe disruption of the climate system.

Scientists are shouting at us, urging humankind to change course immediately, but we are not listening. That is why strong moral voices such as the one of Pope Francis have the potential to change people’s hearts and overcome the current gridlock.

Climate change is a moral issue, so the exasperating lack of ambition of our political leaders in the climate negotiations raises the urgency of mass civic mobilisation this year. Faced with the clear and present threat of climate change, governments have long used the supposed passivity of their citizens as an excuse for inaction.

The climate movement is growing fast and is building up pressure at an increasing scale, but its growth rate needs to be boosted to meet the size of the challenge. Pope Francis’ encyclical has the potential to draw a huge amount of people to the climate movement by inspiring the world’s 1.2 billion Catholics, as well as non-Catholics who are open to his message, to mobilise in this important year.

Catholics are already responding to the Holy Father’s call by scaling their mobilisation, mainly through the recently founded Global Catholic Climate Movement. This is a coalition of over 100 Catholic organizations from all continents, aiming to raise awareness about the moral imperative of climate change and to amplify the encyclical’s message in the global climate debate by mobilising the Church’s grassroots.

The flagship campaign of the movement is its recently launched Catholic Climate Petition, which the Pope himself endorsed a month ago when we met him in the Vatican, with the goal of collecting at least one million signatures for world leaders gathered in the COP21 summit in Paris. The ask, to be delivered in coalition with other faith and secular organisations, is for governments to take bold action and keep the global temperature increase below the dangerous threshold of 1.5 degrees Celsius, relative to pre-industrial levels.

At the same time, people of all faiths are coming together with a strong moral call for action through initiatives such as Fast for the Climate – whereby participants fast on a monthly basis to show solidarity with the victims of climate change – and the People’s Pilgrimage – a series of pilgrimages in the name of climate change led by Yeb Saño, former Philippine climate ambassador, and designed to culminate in a descent on Paris around COP21.

Leaders of other faiths will furthermore join their Catholic counterparts in celebration of the encyclical on June 28, when the interfaith march “One Earth, One Human Family” will go to St. Peter’s Square as a sign of gratitude to Pope Francis.

Whatever happens, this year will go down in the history books. Be sure of that. The Pope has made a massive contribution to making sure it’s remembered for all the right reasons. Now it’s our turn to step up and finish the job.

Edited by Kitty Stapp

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Opinion: The Oceans Need the Spotlight Now

Mon, 06/22/2015 - 07:10

Dr. Palitha Kohona was co-chair of the U.N. Ad Hoc Open-ended Informal Working Group to study issues relating to the conservation and sustainable use of marine biological diversity beyond areas of national jurisdiction

By Dr. Palitha Kohona
COLOMBO, Jun 22 2015 (IPS)

The international community must focus its energies immediately on addressing the grave challenges confronting the oceans. With implications for global order and peace, the oceans are also becoming another arena for national rivalry.

Amb. Palitha Kohona. Credit: U.N. Photo/Mark Garten

The clouds of potential conflict gather on the horizon. The U.N. resolution adopted on June 19 confirms the urgency felt by the international community to take action.

His Holiness the Pope observed last week, “Oceans not only contain the bulk of our planet’s water supply, but also most of the immense variety of living creatures, many of them still unknown to us and threatened for various reasons. What is more, marine life in rivers, lakes, seas and oceans, which feeds a great part of the world’s population, is affected by uncontrolled fishing, leading to a drastic depletion of certain species… It is aggravated by the rise in temperature of the oceans.”

The oceans demand our attention for many reasons. In a world constantly hungering for ever more raw material and food, the oceans, which cover 71 percent of the globe, are estimated to contain approximately 24 trillion dollars of exploitable assets. Eighty-six million tonnes of fish were harvested from the oceans in 2013, providing 16 percent of humanity’s protein requirement. Fisheries generated over 200 million jobs.

However, unsustainable practices have decimated many fish species, increasing competition for the rest. The once prolific North Atlantic cod, the Pacific tuna and the South American anchovy fisheries have all but collapsed with disastrous socio-economic consequences.Increasingly the world's energy requirements, oil and gas from below the sea bed, as well as wind and wave power, come from the realm of the oceans, setting the stage for potentially explosive confrontations among states competing for energy sources.

Highly capitalised and subsidised distant water fleets engage in predatory fishing in foreign waters causing tensions which could escalate. In a striking development, the West African Sub Regional Fisheries Commission recently successfully asserted, before the International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea (ITLOS), the responsibility of flag States to take necessary measures to prevent illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing.

Increasingly the world’s energy requirements, oil and gas from below the sea bed, as well as wind and wave power, come from the realm of the oceans, setting the stage for potentially explosive confrontations among states competing for energy sources. The sea bed could also provide many of the minerals required by strategic industries.

As these assets come within humanity’s technological reach, inadequately managed exploitation will cause damage to the ocean ecology and coastal areas, demonstrated dramatically by the BP Horizon blowout in the Gulf of Mexico. (Costing the company over 42.2 billion dollars).

Cross-border environmental damage could give rise to international conflicts. A proposal to seek an advisory opinion from the ICJ on responsibility for global warming and sea level rise was floated at the U.N. by Palau in 2013.

The oceans will also be at the centre of our efforts to address the looming threat of climate change. With ocean warming, fish species critically important to poor communities in the tropics are likely to migrate to more agreeable climes, aggravating poverty levels.

Coastal areas could be flooded and fresh water resources contaminated by tidal surges. Increasing ocean acidification and coral bleach could cause other devastating consequences, including to fragile coasts and fish breeding grounds.

The ocean is the biggest sink of greenhouse gases (GHGs). The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has warned that the rapid increases in anthropogenic GHGs will aggravate ocean warming and the melting of the ice caps. Some small island groups might even disappear beneath the waves.

Scientists now believe that over 70 percent of anthropogenic GHGs generated since the turn of the 20th century were absorbed by the Indian Ocean which is likely to result in unpredictable consequences for the littoral states of the region, already struggling to emerge from poverty.

The increasing ferocity of natural phenomena, such as hurricanes and typhoons, will cause greater devastation as we witnessed in the cases of Katrina in the U.S. and the brutal Haiyan in the Philippines.

The socio-economic impacts of global warming and sea level rise on the multi-billion-dollar tourism industry (476 billion dollars in the U.S. alone) would be far reaching. All this could result in unmanageable environmental refugee flows. The enormous challenge of ocean warming and sea level rise alone would require nations to become more proactive on ocean affairs now.

The international community has, over the years, agreed on various mechanisms to address ocean-related issues. But these efforts remain largely uncoordinated and with the developments in science, lacunae are being identified progressively.

The most comprehensive of these endeavours is the laboriously negotiated Law of the Sea Convention (LOSC) of 1982. The LOSC, described as the constitution of the oceans by Ambassador Tommy Koh of Singapore, who presided over the final stages of the negotiations, details rules for the interactions of states with the oceans and with each other with regard to the oceans.

Although some important states such as the U.S., Israel, Venezuela and Turkey are not parties to the LOSC (it has 167 parties), much of its content is accepted as part of customary international law. It also provides a most comprehensive set of options for settling inter-state disputes relating to the seas and oceans, including the ITLOS, headquartered in Hamburg.

The LOSC established the Sea Bed Authority based in Kingston, Jamaica which now manages exploration and mining applications relating to the Area, the sea bed beyond national jurisdiction, and the U.N. Commission on the Continental Shelf before which many state parties have already successfully asserted claims to vast areas of their continental shelves.

With humanity’s knowledge of the oceans and seas expanding rapidly and the gaps in the LOSC becoming apparent, the international community in 1994 concluded the Implementing Agreement Relating to Part XI of the LOSC and in 1995, the Straddling Fish Stocks Agreement.

Additionally, the United Nations Environment Programme has put in place a number of regional arrangements, some in collaboration with other U.N. agencies such as the FAO and the IMO, for the conservation and sustainable use of marine resources, including fisheries.

The IMO itself has put in place detailed agreements and arrangements affecting the oceans and the seas in relation to shipping. The FAO has been instrumental in promoting regional mechanisms for the sustainable use of marine and coastal fisheries resources.

In 2012, the U.N. Secretary-General launched the Oceans Compact. States negotiating the Post-2015 Development Goals at the U.N. have acknowledged the vast and complex challenges confronting the oceans and have proceeded to highlight them in the context of a Sustainable Development Goal.

The majority of the international community now feel that the global arrangements for the sustainable use, conservation and benefit sharing of biological diversity beyond national jurisdiction need further strengthening. The negotiators of the LOSC were not fully conscious of the extent of the genetic resources of the deep. Ninety percent of the world’s living biomass is to be found in the oceans.

Today the genetic material, bio prospected, harvested or mined from the oceans is providing the basis for profound new discoveries pertaining to pharmaceuticals. Only a few countries possess the technical capability to conduct the relevant research, and even fewer the ability to convert the research into financially beneficial products. The international community’s concerns are reflected in the U.N. General Assembly resolution adopted on June 19.

Many developing countries are concerned that unless appropriate regulatory mechanisms are put in place now by the international community, the poor will be be shut out from the vast wealth, estimated at three billion dollars per year, expected to be generated from this new frontier. Over 4,000 new patents, the number growing at 12 percent a year based on such genetic material, were registered in 2013.

A U.N. working group, initially established back in 2006 to study the question of concluding a legally binding instrument on the conservation, sustainable use and benefit sharing of biological diversity beyond the national jurisdiction of states, and co-chaired by Sri Lanka and The Netherlands from 2009, submitted its report in January 2015, after years of difficult negotiations.

For nine years, consensus remained elusive. Certain major powers, including the U.S., Russia, Japan, Norway and the Republic of Korea held out, contending that the existing arrangements were sufficient. These are among the few which possess the technological capability to exploit the genetic resources of the deep and convert the research in to useful products.

The U.N. General Assembly is now expected to establish a preparatory committee in 2016 to make recommendations on an implementing instrument under UNCLOS. An intergovernmental conference is likely to be convened by the GA at its 72nd Session for this purpose.

The resulting mechanism is expected to complement the existing arrangements on biological genetic material under the FAO and the Convention on Biological Diversity (Nagoya Protocol) applicable to areas under national jurisdiction.

This ambitious U.N. process is likely to create a transparent regulatory mechanism facilitating technological and economic progress while ensuring equity.

A development with long term impact, especially since Rio+20, was the community of interests identified and strengthened between the G 77 and China and the EU with regard to the oceans.

Life originated in the primeval ocean. Humanity’s future may very well depend on how we care for it.

Edited by Kitty Stapp

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International Cooperation is Key to Effective Public Services

Sat, 06/20/2015 - 12:10

By Beatriz Ciordia
UNITED NATIONS, Jun 20 2015 (IPS)

“Civil service excellence can only be achieved if countries have access to an international forum where they can exchange innovative approaches and initiatives,” Patrick Keuleers, Director of the Governance and Peacebuilding Team of the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), said Friday.

The event, “International cooperation on civil service excellence: A bridge to achieving sustainable development goals”, was co-organised by the Permanent Mission of Kazakhstan and the U.N. Development Programme (UNDP).

“There must be a senior level global exchange of knowledge and expertise not just following the traditional North-South schema, but also on South-South and triangular basis,” said Stephen Tull, U.N. Resident Coordinator and UNDP Resident Representative in the Republic of Kazakhstan.

Building strong public services, especially in developing countries, is more important than ever. As Tull stated, effective and responsive administrations are, according to the U.N., a key element to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and to implement the Post-2015 Development Agenda.

Speakers at the conference put special emphasis on the 16th SDG, which promotes peaceful and inclusive societies for sustainable development, aims to provide access to justice for all and builds effective, accountable and inclusive institutions at all levels.

Kairat Abdrakhmanov, Permanent Representative of the Republic of Kazakhstan to the United Nations, also said that civil service excellence cannot be achieved without a change in the structure of international governments and organisations.

“A long-term vision of reforms require a new generation of political leaders and policymakers,” he said.

Speakers also stressed the importance of institutionalising dialogue as a way to ensure political engagement and commitment to build new organisations and institutions.

Empowering dialogue would also encourage citizens to participate in the process of decision-making and facilitate the collection and dissemination of data.

Rolf Alter, Director of Governance and Territorial Governance of the OECD, explained that achieving civil service excellence also means creating inclusive administrations in terms of gender and ethnic backgrounds.

“Diversity, inclusiveness and equity are fundamental pillars here. High quality and inclusive public services do not have to be contradictory realities because they all converge in the same idea: achieving sustainable development,” he said.

Edited by Kitty Stapp

Opinion: Ethical Challenges to Advertising

Sat, 06/20/2015 - 06:00

In this column, Hazel Henderson, president of Ethical Markets Media (USA and Brazil) and author of 'Mapping the Global Transition to the Solar Age' and other books, writes that advertising need not necessarily be manipulative – it can be a powerful force for educating, inspiring and showcasing the best innovations for growing more inclusive, greener, knowledge-rich and sustainable societies.

By Hazel Henderson
ST. AUGUSTINE, Florida, Jun 20 2015 (IPS)

Challenges to advertisers and marketers arose in the past century. Critics deplored the role of cigarette marketers who exploited the aspirations of women by associating smoking with liberation. 

Such manipulations were explored by Vance Packard in The Hidden Persuaders (1957), along with Marshal McLuhan’s The Medium is the Message (1967) and Stuart Ewen’s Captains of Consciousness (1974).  The use of subliminal advertising (rapid flashing of product images faster than human cognition) was challenged and the public discussion led to its disuse.

Hazel Henderson

By the 1980s, Ian Mitroff and Warren Bennis described the “deliberate manufacturing of falsehood” in The Unreality Industry (1989), followed by William Schrader’s Media Blight and the Dehumanizing of America (1992), Naomi Klein’s No Logo (1999) and Neil Postman’s Amusing Ourselves to Death (2005).

Fast forward to today’s ethical challenges.

Political advertising of candidates was likened to selling toothpaste as it emerged in the 1970s and summarized by Charles Lewis in The Buying of the President (1996) and James Fallows in Breaking the News (1996). Today, the gutting of restrictions on money in U.S. elections has led to the well-financed blizzard of attack ads that lead millions of voters to turn off their TV sets in disgust. Media corporations and their TV channels have come to rely on such financial bonanzas during elections.

What this confirms is that advertising influences media owners and the content of programmes and often distorts news coverage, leading to subtle commercial censorship rarely recognised as a threat to free speech in the U.S. Constitution’s First Amendment.

Civic groups’ limited funding precludes challenging false and misleading advertising and the “greenwashing” of many companies’ poor environmental records. “Civic groups’ limited funding precludes challenging false and misleading advertising and the “greenwashing” of many companies’ poor environmental records”

I summarised these issues a few years ago in an interview in Forbes magazine on why I founded the EthicMark Awards for “advertising that uplifts the human spirit and society”.

These Awards recognise that advertising, a global 500 billion dollars a year  industry, can be a powerful force for good beyond consumerism, in educating, inspiring and showcasing the best innovations for growing more inclusive, greener, knowledge-rich and sustainable societies.

The newest challenge to advertisers comes from Silicon Valley with the many apps that allow users to skip and block ads, including AdBlockPlus (downloaded 400 million times), as well as add-ons to Chrome and Firefox browsers.  Ad block users have grown to 200 million a month, according to PageFair and The Economist.

Advertisers could redeem their reputations and business models via Truth in Advertising Assurance Set Aside (TIAASA) which would disallow their tax exempt funds on false advertising and then award these funds to civic challengers to hire ad agencies to prepare counter-advertising campaigns.

All this highlights the growing vulnerability of media business models in the United States, other industrial societies and worldwide.

Many new media business models which no longer rely on advertising are debated in The Death and Life of American Journalism (2010) by Robert McChesney and John Nichols who compare media access policies in many countries which subsidise investigative journalism, such as Britain’s BBC.

In the United States, foundations support news organisations such as the National Geographic, the Center for Public Integrity and ProPublica, and media outlets such as the Columbia Journalism Review. The American Prospect and The Nation are largely funded by subscribers as well as PBS and NPR in broadcasting, along with many internet-based media such as The Real News Network.

Google banned ad-blocking apps in 2013, yet alternative web-browsers such as UC Browser already claims 500 million users, mostly in China and India, and Eyeo launched its ad-blocking browser available for mobile devices running Google’s Android.  These battles will rage on until legal systems – always lagging behind technology – catch up.

Two reports from the Aspen Institute’s Communications and Society Program led by Charles Firestone – “Navigating Continual Disruption” and “The Atomic Age of Data” – discuss the digitisation of ever more sectors of industrial societies and the internet of things (IOT).

In the United States, the monopolising of internet access by Comcast, AT&T and Verizon has restricted broadband access to millions in less affluent, rural communities and prevented small towns from competing with public broadband systems, as reported by the Center for Public Integrity and Susan Crawford in Captive Audience (2013).

The good news follows the analysis and proposals of Kunda Dixit in DatelineEarth: Journalism as if the Planet Mattered (IPS, 1997) and includes Dan Gillmore’s We the Media (2004) on grassroots journalism; David Bollier’s In Search of the Public Interest in the New Media (2002); Democratizing Global Media (2005); Making the Net Work: Sustainable Development in a Digital Society (2003) from Britain’s Forum for the Future; and Jaron Lanier’s Who Owns the Future? (2013). (END/COLUMNIST SERVICE)

Edited by Phil Harris   

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

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Take Good News on Afghanistan’s Reconstruction With a ‘Grain of Salt’

Fri, 06/19/2015 - 19:09

Students at the Afghanistan National Institute of Music. Credit: Shelly Kittleson/IPS

By Kanya D'Almeida
UNITED NATIONS, Jun 19 2015 (IPS)

Since 2002, a year after it invaded Afghanistan, the United States has poured over 100 billion dollars into developing and rebuilding this country of just over 30 million people. This sum is in addition to the trillions spent on U.S. military operations, to say nothing of the deaths of 2,000 service personnel in the space of a single decade.

Today, as the U.S. struggles to salvage its legacy in Afghanistan, which critics say will mostly be remembered as a colossal and costly failure both in monetary terms and in the staggering loss of life, many are pointing to economic and social gains as the bright points in an otherwise bleak tapestry of occupation.

“Much of the official happy talk on [reconstruction] should be taken with a grain of salt – iodized, of course – to prevent informational goiter.” -- John F. Sopko, the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction
Among others, official groups like the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) say that higher life expectancy outcomes, better healthcare facilities and improved education access represent the ‘positive’ side of U.S. intervention.

From this perspective, the estimated 26,000 civilian casualties as a direct result of U.S. military action must be viewed against the fact that people are now living longer, fewer mothers are dying while giving birth, and more children are going to school.

But the diligent work undertaken by the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR) suggests that “much of the official happy talk on [reconstruction] should be taken with a grain of salt – iodized, of course – to prevent informational goiter.”

Formed in 2008, SIGAR is endowed with the authority to “audit, inspect, investigate, and otherwise examine any and all aspects of reconstruction, regardless of departmental ownership.”

In a May 5 speech, John F. Sopko, the Special Inspector General, called the reconstruction effort a “huge and far-reaching undertaking” that has scarcely left any part of Afghan life untouched.

Poured into endless projects from propping up the local army and police, to digging wells and finding alternatives to poppy cultivation, funds allocated to rebuilding Afghanistan now “exceed the value of the entire Marshall Plan effort to rebuild Western Europe after World War II.”

“Unfortunately,” Sopko said, “from the outset to this very day large amounts of taxpayer dollars have been lost to waste, fraud, and abuse.

“These disasters often occur when the U.S. officials who implement and oversee programs fail to distinguish fact from fantasy,” he added.

‘Ghost schools, ghost students, ghost teacher’

In one of the most recent examples of this disturbing trend, two Afghan ministers cited local media reports to inform parliament about fraud in the education sector, alleging that former officials who served under President Hamid Karzai had falsified data on the number of active schools in Afghanistan in order to receive continued international funding.

“SIGAR takes such allegations very seriously, and given that they came from high-ranking individuals in the Afghan government, and also that USAID has invested approximately 769 million dollars in Afghanistan’s education sector, SIGAR opened an inquiry into this matter,” a SIGAR official told IPS.

Submitted on Jun. 18 to the Acting Administrator for USAID, the official inquiry raises a number of questions, including over widely cited statistics that official development assistance has led to a jump in the number of enrolled students from an estimated 900,000 in 2002 to more than eight million in 2013.

While USAID stands by these figures, sourced from the Afghan Ministry of Education’s Education Management Information System (EMIS), it is unable to independently verify them.

Faced with allegations of “ghost schools, ghost students, and ghost teachers”, SIGAR has requested an immediate response from USAID as to whether the agency is able to investigate allegations of fraud, and verify that it is receiving accurate data, in order to ensure that U.S. tax dollars are not being wasted, the SIGAR official explained.

This is no easy undertaking in a place where students are spread out over an estimated 14,226 schools primarily in rural areas, and where even the education ministry does not keep tabs on security threats, or the literacy of teachers, let alone the particulars of curricula.

Last year SIGAR reported that the education ministry continues to count students as ‘enrolled’ even if they have been absent from school for three years, suggesting that the actual number of kids in classrooms is far below the figure cited by the government, and subsequently utilised by U.S. aid agencies.

In his May 5 speech Sopko claimed that a top USAID official believed there to be roughly four million children in school – less than half the figure on which current funding commitments is based.

There is no question that continued funding is needed to bolster Afghanistan’s education system.

According to the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO) office in Kabul, the country continues to boast one of the lowest literacy rates in the world, standing at approximately 31 percent of the population aged 15 years of age and older.

There are also massive geographic and gender-based gaps, with female literacy levels falling far below the national average, at just 17 percent, and varying hugely across regions, with a 34-percent literacy rate in Kabul compared to a rate of just 1.6 percent in two southern provinces.

These are all issues that must urgently be addressed but according to oversight bodies like SIGAR, they must be addressed within a system of efficiency, transparency and accuracy.

Furthermore, discrepancies between official statistics and reality are not limited to the education sector but manifest in almost all areas of the reconstruction process.

Take the issue of life expectancy, which USAID claimed last year had increased from 42 years in 2002 to over 60 years in 2014.

If accurate, this would represent a tremendous stride towards better overall living conditions for ordinary Afghans. But SIGAR has cited a number of different statistics, including data provided by the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) World Factbook and the United Nations Population Division, which offer much lower numbers for the average life span – some as low as 50 years.

Although the original data comes directly from the USAID-funded Afghanistan Mortality Survey, conducted in 2010 by the Afghan Ministry of Public Health, and would therefore appear to pass the reliability test, SIGAR is concerned that “USAID had not verified what, if anything, the ministry had done to address deficiencies in its internal audit, budget, accounting, and procurement functions.”

While SIGAR is not able to put a concrete number on losses resulting from poorly planned programmes, theft and corruption by both American and Afghan elements, and weak administration of monies placed directly in the hands of Afghan ministries, a SIGAR official told IPS it is hard to imagine that the overall cost to U.S. taxpayers “is not in the billions of dollars.”

Edited by Kitty Stapp

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Amazon Dam also Brings Health Infrastructure for Local Population

Fri, 06/19/2015 - 16:16

The new General Hospital in Altamira, which has not yet opened, will be the most modern facility of its kind in this city in Brazil’s Amazon rainforest, receiving the most serious cases from the 11 municipalities affected by the construction of the giant Belo Monte hydroelectric dam. Credit: Mario Osava/IPS

By Mario Osava
ALTAMIRA, Brazil, Jun 19 2015 (IPS)

Extensive public health infrastructure and the eradication of malaria will be the most important legacy of the construction of the Belo Monte hydropower dam in Brazil’s Amazon jungle for the population affected by the megaproject.

In the six municipalities in the area of the dam, where an action plan to curb malaria has been implemented, the number of cases plunged nearly 96 percent between 2011 and 2015: from 3,298 in the period January to March 2011, just before construction began, to 141 in the same period this year.

Two municipalities have had no cases this year as of May, said Dr. José Ladislau, health manager for Norte Energía, the consortium of private companies and public enterprises that won the concession to build and run Belo Monte for 35 years.

“For the past two years no one has fallen ill with malaria in Brasil Novo – that’s the best news,” said Noedson Carvalho, health secretary of that municipality which is located 45 km from the Xingú river, where the giant hydroelectric dam with a capacity to generate 11,233 MW is being built.

Malaria, which is endemic in the Amazon, is a major factor in rural poverty, Ladislau told IPS. And the Xingú river basin used to have one of the highest malaria rates in the country.

The number of cases has plummeted throughout most of the northern state of Pará, where the lower and middle stretches of the Xingú river run, thanks to mass distribution of insecticide-treated mosquito nets and early diagnosis and treatment.

The results in the vicinity of Belo Monte, where the rural population is highly vulnerable to malaria, were obtained through an 11-million-dollar offensive by Norte Energía which included the construction of laboratories and the purchase of vehicles and long-lasting mosquito nets.

“Belo Monte has given Brasil Novo what it would not have obtained on its own in centuries,” Carvalho told IPS. He mentioned the 42-bed hospital and five basic health units, which now form part of the municipal public health system.

The hospital was already there, but it was private. And due to financial problems, it had shut its doors in April 2014, leaving the 22,000 people of Brasil Novo without a hospital, just when demand was rising due to the influx of workers from other parts of the country, drawn by the Belo Monte construction project.

Sewage runs down one of the main streets of Altamira, even though there is a sewer system. Poor sanitation leaves the city’s children at risk of diarrhea, which is the cause of many admissions to the hospitals in this Amazon rainforest city near the Belo Monte hydropower dam. Credit: Mario Osava/IPS

“There are 30 births a month here, on average; it was a terrible situation to have no hospital in the city,” the municipal health secretary said.

Basic health clinics were also upgraded or installed in the town. But the most serious cases will be sent to Altamira, the biggest city in the area, with a population of 140,000 according to unofficial estimates.

The Brasil Novo municipal government negotiated the purchase and renovation of the hospital, with funds from Norte Energía, through the Regional Sustainable Development Plan (PDRS). It will now be a public hospital catering to the entire population free of charge.

The PDRS, funded by the company, is focused on implementing public policies and local projects.

It comes on top of the Basic Environmental Project (PBA), a set of 117 initiatives and actions to be carried out by the consortium building the Belo Monte dam, as compensation for 11 municipalities affected by the hydropower plant.

The total investment in these projects is 1.2 billion dollars – the biggest contribution to local development by a megaproject in Brazil. The investment, a condition for obtaining the necessary environmental permits, represents 14 percent of the Belo Monte construction project’s total budget.

Three new and three renovated hospitals are the main health infrastructure provided to the 11 municipalities in question.

The biggest one, the Altamira General Hospital, with 104 beds, including 10 in intensive care, is ready to open. It inherited equipment and staff from an old municipal hospital that had 98 beds and will be turned into a maternity and infant care centre.

A new basic health unit in the São Joaquim neighbourhood, where families displaced from areas to be flooded by the Belo Monte dam have recently been resettled. The consortium building the hydropower complex on the Xingú river in the Brazilian Amazon has built 30 of these units in the five municipalities that have been felt the greatest impact from the megaproject. Credit: Mario Osava/IPS

The new hospital has fully automated and centralised modern communication, lighting, air conditioning and piped water systems, and extremely strict hygiene with regard to uniforms, staff, waste disposal and sanitation, said Norte Energía’s health manager, Dr. Ladislau.

There has been criticism that the investment did not sufficiently increase hospital capacity, because the number of beds was limited by the size of the existing hospitals that were remodeled or expanded.

But Ladislau said it made no sense to create too big a system, with high maintenance and operating costs that poor municipalities would find it hard to face.

“The idea is to build a strong health network in this region of 11 municipalities…with a focus on primary health care,” and to that end Norte Energía built 30 basic health units, distributed in five municipalities, with seven in Altamira alone, he said.

“With the new health centres, improved sanitation and other preventive measures, the pressure on hospital beds will be reduced,” he said. Some 1,500 children under five are admitted to the Altamira Municipal Hospital annually, most of them for diarrhea – a problem that is avoidable with good sanitation, he pointed out.

The resettlement of families from houses on stilts on lakes and other areas to be flooded by the Belo Monte dam in new neighbourhoods built on high ground will significantly reduce the incidence of diarrhea, he said.

The basic health units installed in those neighbourhoods offer healthcare, dental care, home visits, health promotion and disease prevention, and a system of statistics to put together community health profiles making it possible to plan purchases of medicines, syringes and other supplies, said Ladislau.

The infrastructure provided by Norte Energía will depend on the municipal administration and staff which will provide services, including maintenance.

Brasil Novo is an impoverished municipality that will receive very little in the way of royalties from Belo Monte, and will find it hard to keep the hospital running, the local health secretary Carvalho admitted.

But there will be no shortage of doctors thanks to the central government’s More Doctors programme, which hired thousands of Cuban physicians willing to work in Brazil’s hinterland, and which is also managing to get Brazilian doctors to participate, he said.

But a hospital needs surgeons and other specialists who are more difficult to draw to towns in the Amazon.

There is a risk that hospitals with 32 to 42 beds in Brasil Novo and two other municipalities will be underused, because the local populations range from 15,000 to 25,000 people, and the most serious or complex cases will be referred to the bigger and better equipped hospitals in Altamira.

One illustration of the difficulty in attracting qualified personnel was the attempt to open a medical school on the Altamira campus of the Federal University of Pará, which failed due to the dearth of professors with a doctorate degree.

Local residents also criticise the company for delays in the health projects, which were supposed to get underway earlier in order to meet the increased demand caused by the influx of workers from other regions.

The delays were aggravated by the temporary closure of the health services to build new installations. That happened, for example, in the case of the General Hospital, a large facility that used to be a modest primary health clinic in a poor neighbourhood in Altamira.

“What was already precarious is now even worse,” said Marcelo Salazar, head of the non-governmental Socioenvironmental Institute in Altamira.

Edited by Estrella Gutiérrez/Translated by Stephanie Wildes

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U.N. Takes First Step Towards Treaty to Curb Lawlessness in High Seas

Fri, 06/19/2015 - 16:14

A turtle swims in a Marine Protected Area. Credit: Foreign and Commonwealth Office

By Thalif Deen
UNITED NATIONS, Jun 19 2015 (IPS)

The 193-member General Assembly adopted a resolution Friday aimed at drafting a legally binding international treaty for the conservation of marine biodiversity and to govern the mostly lawless high seas beyond national jurisdiction.

The resolution was the result of more than nine years of negotiations by an Ad Hoc Informal Working Group, which first met in 2006.“This groundbreaking decision puts us on a path toward having a legal framework in place that will allow for the comprehensive management of ocean areas beyond national jurisdiction.” -- Elizabeth Wilson

If and when the treaty is adopted, it will be the first global treaty to include conservation measures such as marine protected areas and reserves, environmental impact assessments, access to marine genetic resources and benefit sharing, capacity building and the transfer of marine technology.

The High Seas Alliance (HSA), a coalition of some 27 non-governmental organisations (NGOs), played a significant role in pushing for negotiations on the proposed treaty and has been campaigning for this resolution since 2011.

Asked if the treaty will be finalised by the targeted date of 2018, Elizabeth Wilson, director of international ocean policy at The Pew Charitable Trusts, a member of the HSA, told IPS: “Not exactly, although we do expect significant progress.”

The first round of formal negotiations is expected to take place in 2016 and continue through 2017.

The General Assembly will decide by September of 2018 on the convening of an intergovernmental conference to finalise the text of the agreement and set a start date for the conference.

Wilson said it is likely that the intergovernmental conference would then meet multiple times over approximately two years to accomplish this goal.

Asked how the treaty will change the current “lawlessness” in the high seas, Wilson said: “This groundbreaking decision puts us on a path toward having a legal framework in place that will allow for the comprehensive management of ocean areas beyond national jurisdiction.”

Today, she pointed out, the high seas are governed by a patchwork of inadequate international, regional, and sectorial agreements and organisations.

A new treaty would help to organise and coordinate conservation and management. That includes the ability to create fully protected marine reserves that are closed off to harmful activities. Right now there is no way to arrange for such legally binding protections, she added.

Sofia Tsenikli of Greenpeace said: “The high seas accounts for nearly half our planet – the half that has been left without law or protection for far too long. A global network of marine reserves is urgently needed to bring life back into the ocean – this new treaty should make that happen.”

In a statement released Friday, the HSA said the resolution follows the Rio+20 conference in 2012 where Heads of State committed to address high seas protection.

The conference came close to agreeing to a new treaty then, but was prevented from doing so by a few governments which have remained in opposition to a Treaty ever since.

Asked about the significant difference between the 1982 landmark Law of the Sea Treaty and the proposed high seas treaty, Wilson told IPS the U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), which is recognised as the “constitution” for global ocean governance, has a broad scope and does not contain the detailed provisions necessary to address specific activities, nor does it establish a management mechanism and rules for biodiversity protection in the high seas.

Since the adoption of UNCLOS in 1982, there have been two subsequent implementing agreements to address gaps and other areas that were not sufficiently covered under UNCLOS, one related to seabed mining and the other related to straddling and highly migratory fish stocks, she added.

This new agreement will be the third implementing agreement developed under UNCLOS, Wilson said.

According to HSA, Friday’s resolution stresses “the need for the comprehensive global regime to better address the conservation and sustainable use of marine biological diversity in areas beyond national jurisdiction.”

It allows for a two-year preparatory process (PrepCom) to consider the elements that could comprise the treaty.

This will begin in 2016 and culminate by the end of 2017, with a decision whether to convene a formal treaty negotiating conference in 2018.

The “high seas” is the ocean beyond any country’s exclusive economic zone (EEZ) ‑ amounting to 64 percent of the ocean ‑ and the ocean seabed that lies beyond the continental shelf of any country, according to a background briefing released by the HSA.

These areas make up nearly 50 percent of the surface of the Earth and include some of the most environmentally important, critically threatened and least protected ecosystems on the planet.

Edited by Kitty Stapp

The writer can be contacted at thalifdeen@aol.com

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Opinion: 2015 and Beyond, Young Voices, Loud Demands

Fri, 06/19/2015 - 08:44

Daniele Brunetto is Youth Amabassador for The ONE Campaign in Belgium.

By Daniele Brunetto
BRUSSELS, Jun 19 2015 (IPS)

As a young person interested in development, my heart beats a little faster when I look at the potential of 2015. There has never been so much at stake as this year for the future of our planet.

Courtesy of Daniele Brunetto.

2015 is full to bursting with game-changing moments for development. The recent G7 summit got the ball rolling on the post-2015 agenda, while other key moments of the year include the United Nations General Assembly in September, when the new Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) will be agreed on, and the U.N. Climate Change Conference in Paris in December, which will close this pivotal year.

However, the number one moment for me this year is the Third International Conference on Financing for Development, from July 13 to 16. Here, world leaders, civil society and relevant actors from the private sector will gather in Addis Ababa and set out a path for financing the next 15 years of international development.

Why is Addis such a momentous opportunity? Firstly, it is about learning from the past and looking to the future – working out where the Millennium Development Goals succeeded, and where they fell short – and most importantly, how this can be rectified in the future.We want to see ambitious, concrete and measurable commitments to end extreme poverty by 2030, making sure the poorest are put first and that no-one is left behind.

Secondly, Addis provides a crucial opportunity to move the discussion beyond aid, and to engage with private sector investment and increase domestic resource mobilisation, through fighting corruption and curbing illicit financial flows.

Thirdly, it allows for a reassessment of what exactly aid is for, and whom it should be directed to over the next 15 years and beyond. Embracing alternative sources of financing for development is vital, but this must be coupled with the mapping out of aid flows to where it is most needed.

Seeing as the Least Developed Countries have limited means to generate domestic revenue and attract foreign investment, and that these countries have far greater proportions of people living in extreme poverty, it doesn’t take a genius to work out that it is those countries which should be prioritised when it comes to aid flows.

So, how are things looking? Are world leaders ready to come to Addis and to ensure that the new Goals are well financed, well tracked, and that they meet the basic needs of all?

Let’s look at the European Union. It’s the world’s largest provider of Official Development Assistance (ODA), and its overall levels of spending are increasing year after year. However, its own target of spending 0.7 percent of its collective GNI on ODA remains decidedly unmet.

Although EU leaders have recently reaffirmed their commitment to reaching this target as part of the post-2015 agenda, they have not set out a clear roadmap on how and when this will be implemented, which brings their commitment into question.

Among the European countries who could take the lead on this, I would like to see my own country, Italy, stepping up. Although Italy’s investment in ODA leaves a lot to be desired (Italy gave just 0.16 percent of its GNI in ODA in 2014), it has demonstrated a clear ambition to reach the goal soon and to ensure an increasing amount of transparency in investment in developing countries.

It was indeed under the Italian Presidency of the Council of the European Union that new anti-money laundering rules were approved, something which can help combat illicit financial flows from developing countries. While the rules leave it up to member states to render this information public, this is undeniably a step forward, and I can only be happy about this achievement of my country!

So, what can I do, as a young ‘development geek’, a ‘factivist’, in order to make sure this year doesn’t pass in vain? Lots, as my time campaigning with ONE has proven!

As a young anti-poverty activist, I have learned that world leaders are not as distant to young voices as I expected, and that our demands do not fall on deaf ears. With my fellow Youth Ambassadors, for example, I was able to convince over half of the Members of the European Parliament to publicly commit to do everything in their capacity to end extreme poverty by 2030.

We, as young people, must show leaders how important it is to us to bring about the end of extreme poverty within a generation. Supported by powerful data and irrefutable facts, we must push our representatives to stand up for the world’s poorest and seize the opportunities this year offers with both hands.

We want to see ambitious, concrete and measurable commitments to end extreme poverty by 2030, making sure the poorest are put first and that no-one is left behind. This year we can shape a better future, and we, as young people, must play our part and make our voices heard.

Edited by Kitty Stapp

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Opinion: Building Civil Service Excellence in the Post-2015 Development Agenda

Fri, 06/19/2015 - 06:35

Ambassador Kairat Abdrakhmanov is Permanent Representative of the Republic of Kazakhstan to the United Nations.

By Kairat Abdrakhmanov
UNITED NATIONS, Jun 19 2015 (IPS)

This September, we usher in the post-2015 development agenda with a set of Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) agreed upon by Member States, with civil society participation, based on national, regional and global consultations.

These goals are transformative and their impact goes far beyond the current Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) in vision, complexity, outreach and implications.

Kairat Abdrakhmanov, Permanent of Representative of the Republic of Kazakhstan to the United Nations. Credit: UN Photo/Mark Garten

Amongst them is Goal 16, according to which countries will “promote peaceful and inclusive societies with justice for all and build effective, accountable and transparent institutions at all levels”.

Building civil service excellence will therefore certainly be critical to achieving this goal. Likewise, the proposed Goal 17 on means of implementation calls for institutional capacity building in developing countries to support national plans to operationalise all the SDGs, including through North-South, South-South and Triangular cooperation.

Both of these gave birth to the idea of creating the Regional Hub of Civil Service in Astana, at the initiative of the Republic of Kazakhstan with a view to seek innovative mechanisms to ensure equitable, effective and efficient delivery of public service to its people.

But the intent was also for the wider region of Central Asia and CIS countries to gain from it through advancing “the knowledge base, evidence-informed solutions, practical tools and guidance, and pursuit of emerging and innovative public administration and management models and thinking”.

The idea of setting up this Hub arose from the struggles of a country in transition. Kazakhstan, since its Independence, just like other newly independent nations in the region witnessed profound political, socio-economic and administrative transformations.This scholarship scheme has been serving to level the playing field by providing access to quality education and developing capable and well qualified human capital.

In the early nineties, the economic linkages of Kazakhstan with other 14 republics were abruptly discontinued which led to increased unemployment, devaluation of savings and galloping inflation of up to 2500 per cent.

Against this backdrop, the President of Kazakhstan, H.E. Mr. Nursultan Nazarbayev, first of all, initiated socio-economic reforms, followed by innovations and reforms in the administrative sphere, which the evolving times demanded.

Having no experience of market economy, the Government had to implement reforms with the available personnel. However, the President’s long term vision of subsequent reforms required a new generation of public sector leaders and technocrats which resulted in a generous scholarship programme offered by the Government.

The objective was to provide talented youth with free access to education in leading universities globally. Since 1993, about 10,000 Kazakh students gained degrees in the best universities and joined the job market at home, including the civil service.

This scholarship scheme has been serving to level the playing field by providing access to quality education and developing capable and well qualified human capital.

Having stabilised economic growth in the 1990s, Kazakhstan went further and was first among the CIS countries to significantly modernise its civil service with meritocracy as the key principle.

We acknowledged that the sustainability of reforms was heavily dependent on the quality of institutions, and of the civil service, in particular.

Importantly, the key characteristics of reforms in Kazakhstan have always been logical consistency and continuity. A clear indication of this is the set of five institutional reforms recently announced by our President, the first of which is improved civil service modernisation.

The aim here is to form a professional, accountable and transparent state apparatus in order to ensure sustainable development of the country. The responsible body for this is the National Commission on Modernisation headed by the Prime Minister of Kazakhstan.

Under this process of transformation, criteria will be established to monitor activities and evaluate the efficiency of each Government agency, concerned minister or local governor.

The role of communities in state bodies and local administration will also be strengthened by allowing them to participate and monitor results of strategic plans and development programmes. Civil society will also be engaged in the process of identifying budgets, relevant laws and regulations.

In this endeavour, the U.N. Development Programme (UNDP) as a trusted partner has been continuously supporting the reform efforts in Kazakhstan since our Independence. Now, we count on the longer term strategic partnership with UNDP all the more, particularly with regards to all the five institutional reforms.

Clearly, Kazakhstan believes in sharing accumulated experience and knowledge, as well as promoting cooperation among the countries and institutions in its region and beyond. Therefore, Kazakhstan’s initiative of the Regional Hub of Civil Service in Astana was founded by 25 countries and five international organisations, at a founding conference in 2013, with UNDP as the key partner.

The aim of the Astana Hub is to facilitate regional, as well as inter-regional professional dialogue in order to promote civil service excellence. This idea has resonated with the Hub today comprising more than 30 countries in 2014, including OECD and EU member countries, as well as China, India, Turkey, and CIS countries. The Hub is thus fostering dialogue between countries of Europe and Asia.

Last year also saw the Hub taking concrete shape with an agreement between the Government of Kazakhstan and UNDP, by which Kazakhstan agreed to make considerable resources available to support the Hub and thus expand its scope and gains to enhance the field of civil service in the region and beyond.

As Helen Clark, the Administrator of UNDP, noted, “establishment of the Hub and its success has been made possible because countries like Kazakhstan are ready to share their experiences with reforms…such as the introduction of meritocracy into professional civil service”.

According to UNDP, “the Hub also offers the potential for continuing Kazakhstan’s emerging global role in providing official development assistance (ODA) to other countries”.

Kazakhstan, with guidance from UNDP, has established its national agency for international aid, called KazAID, which marks an important evolution and achievement in the country’s significance regionally and globally. The support and partnership will focus on Africa, the landlocked countries and small island developing states.

Kazakhstan will continually aspire to serve as an active contributor to the global development agenda. Our efforts will add practical solutions for implementing the post-2015 phase most effectively, with particular relevance to Sustainable Development Goal 16, which calls for inter alia promoting accountable institutions and ensuring responsive, inclusive, participatory and representative decision-making at all levels.

To conclude, Kazakhstan, stands ready and is fully committed to help facilitate regional and interregional initiatives in civil service excellence, and contribute concretely to the achievement of the SDGs in the coming years.

Edited by Kitty Stapp

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Farmers Find their Voice Through Radio in the Badlands of India

Fri, 06/19/2015 - 01:57

Radio Bundelkhand, based in central India, has about 250,000 listeners, of whom 99 percent are farmers. Credit: Stella Paul/IPS

By Stella Paul
TIKAMGARH, India, Jun 19 2015 (IPS)

Eighty-year-old Chenabai Kushwaha sits on a charpoy under a neem tree in the village of Chitawar, located in the Tikamgarh district in the central Indian state of Madhya Pradesh, staring intently at a dictaphone.

“Please sing a song for us,” urges the woman holding the voice recorder. Kushwaha obliges with a melancholy tune about an eight-year-old girl begging her father not to give her away in marriage.

“The radio station is by, of and for the people of this region." -- Naheda Yusuf, head of Radio Bundelkhand
The melody melts into the summer air, and the motley crowd that has gathered around the tree falls silent.

“Thanks for so much for singing to ‘Radio Bundelkhand’,” says Ekta Kari, a reporter-producer at the community radio station based in this predominantly farming district, before switching off the device.

With a listenership of some 250,000 people spread across over a dozen villages in Bundelkhand, an agricultural region split between the states of Madhya Pradesh and Uttar Pradesh, the station is lifting up some of India’s most beaten down communities by getting their voices out on the airwaves and bearing good tidings in a place long accustomed to nothing but bad news.

Endless hardships

Some 18.3 million people occupy this vast region. The majority of them are farmers, and the list of hardships they face on a daily basis is endless.

According to the Planning Commission of India, a loss of soil fertility caused by erratic weather, coupled with severe depletion of the groundwater table, has made life extremely hard for those who work the land.

Crop losses due to unseasonal rains and recurring heat waves have also become common over the last decade. Last year, a majority of farmers lost over half of their winter crop due to unexpected heavy rains.

Two out of every three farmers interviewed by IPS concurred that extreme weather has made farming, already a backbreaking occupation, something of a nightmare in these parts.

Recurring droughts between 2003 and 2010 forced many people to abandon traditional mixed cropping of millets and pulses and switch to mono-cultures like wheat, which require heavy inputs.

NGOs have also pointed to unequal land distribution policies in the region as a major cause of farmers’ strife, with millions of families unable to practice anything beyond very small-scale, subsistence agriculture given the paltry size of their plots.

Earlier this year, plagued by poor weather, miserable harvests and alleged apathy to their plight by both state and federal government bodies, scores of starving and debt-ridden farmers threw in the towel.

In the first two weeks of March, roughly a dozen farmers in Bundelkhand had committed suicide.

This follows a pattern in the region that speaks to the desperation these rural communities face – according to India’s National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB), 3,000 farmers in Bundelkhand committed suicide between 1995 and 2012.

While this represents only a fraction of all suicides across the country’s agricultural belt, which is now approaching 300,000, Bundelkhand’s death toll is no trifling number.

Given this harsh reality, an outsider might find it hard to fathom how an intervention as simple as a community radio station could make a difference. But for the listeners who toil here daily, the radio has become something of a lifeline.

“Our station, our issues”

Naheda Yusuf, a senior programme manager at the Delhi-based media non-profit Development Alternatives, which helped launch Radio Bundelkhand back in 2008, tells IPS that 99 percent of the listeners are farmers.

Although the villages that make up the bulk of the audience lie in different states, they all fall into the larger Bundelkhand region and so share a distinct culture, traditions and dialect.

“The radio station is by, of and for the people of this region,” Yusuf explains. “It connects with them in their Bundeli dialect, and provides information on issues that concern them.”

Over 75 percent of the shows are dedicated to agricultural issues including farming techniques, pest control practices, market prices, weather forecasts, and climate change updates.

While some of the information is sourced daily from government agencies like the departments of agriculture and meteorology, most of it comes from six reporter-producers who interact directly with the community to gather news and views most relevant to their listeners.

Every day, each of them produces at least one live show, during which the audience is asked to call in with their questions and comments.

“It’s your show,” one commentator announces on the air, “so if you don’t share your opinions, we can’t get it right.”

One of the most popular shows on Radio Bundelkhand is ‘Shuv Kal’ meaning good tomorrow. Its central theme is climate change and its effect on the farming community.

One of the show’s two producers, Gauri Sharma, says they discuss water access, deforestation and solar energy. They also pay homage to the river Betwa, a tributary of the Yamuna that waters these lands, and encourages farmers not to waste the precious resource.

“We discuss planting trees around the farms, so excess water from irrigation pumps can be utilised,” Sharma tells IPS. “We also spread awareness about renewable energy.”

The response from the audience has been encouraging, she adds, especially among the youth who call and write in to share how the station has shaped their practices.

In one such letter, an 18-year-old farmer from the village of Tafarian shared that he had “planted 22 fruit trees around his farm, stopped using polythene and begun vermicomposting” as a result of listening to the show.

Portable, affordable, accessible

Another listener, Jayanti Bai of Vaswan village, says the radio station literally saved her entire crop. “The leaves of my okra plants were turning yellow,” she tells IPS. “Then I heard of a medicine on the radio, which I sprayed on the leaves – it saved me.”

She now wants to buy a radio for the entire community and tie it to a tree so the women in her neighbourhood can listen to it together. It will take some saving – the most popular device used here costs about 1,000 rupees (about 15 dollars) and that is more than she can afford in one go.

But in a region that experiences eight to 10 hours of power cuts a day, and where only 48 percent of the female population and just over 70 percent of the male population is literate, a radio is a far more viable option than a television, or newspapers.

Farmers also tell IPS a radio’s portability makes it a more attractive choice since it can be taken to “work” – meaning carried into the fields and played loud enough for workers to hear as they go about their tasks.

Because the station caters to a largely female audience, it tackles issues that are particularly relevant to women listeners. One of these is the question of suicide, which many women see as a male phenomenon.

“Have you ever heard of a woman farmer committing suicide?” asks 46-year-old Ramkumari Napet, of Baswan village. “It is because she thinks, ‘What will happen to my children when I am gone?’”

Women contend that men require more help in understanding their relationships both to themselves and their families. And indeed, the radio station is helping them determine these blurry lines.

“Last week an anonymous caller said his brother was thinking of committing suicide,” Sharma tells IPS. “He [the caller] said he was going to try to talk his brother out of it.”

Edited by Kanya D’Almeida

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Worldwide Displacement at the Highest Level Ever Recorded

Thu, 06/18/2015 - 19:38

A new mother watches over her child at the Ifo 2 Refugee Camp Hospital in Dadaab, Kenya, which is supported by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). Credit: UN Photo/Evan Schneider

By Roger Hamilton-Martin
UNITED NATIONS, Jun 18 2015 (IPS)

A horrific year of war, humanitarian crises, human rights violations and persecution has caused a sharp rise in global forced displacement.

The United Nations Refugee Agency (UNCHR) released Thursday its annual report of global trends on refugees, asylum seekers, stateless persons and the internally displaced. The report makes for sober reading two days before World Refugee Day on June 20.

The report states that global forced displacement reached unprecedented levels in 2014, with 59.5 million people fleeing their homes worldwide. An estimated 13.9 million individuals were newly displaced due to conflict or persecution.

High Commissioner for Refugees Antonio Guterres noted in a statement accompanying the report, “For an age of unprecedented mass displacement, we need an unprecedented humanitarian response and a renewed global commitment to tolerance and protection for people fleeing conflict and persecution.”

Syria became the leading country of origin of refugees in 2014, with 95 per cent of those fleeing the country for surrounding nations. Turkey, for the first time, became the largest hosting country worldwide, with 1.59 million refugees. One million Syrians registered there in 2014.

Many Syrian refugees fled to Lebanon in 2014, where at the end of the year almost one in four inhabitants was a refugee. In April, Guterres noted that the numbers of refugees Lebanon has absorbed would be unthinkable in most Western countries.

“The equivalent of what we have in Lebanon in the United States would be more than 80 million refugees coming into the U.S.,” he said.

If the United Kingdom received the equivalent influx, it would have to accommodate more than 15 million refugees.

The report highlighted the heavy burden being shouldered by developing regions. Two decades ago, they were hosting about 70 per cent of the world’s refugees. By the end of 2014, this proportion had risen to 86 per cent – at 12.4 million persons, the highest figure in more than two decades.

The 30 countries with the largest number of refugees per one dollar GDP per capita were all members of developing regions. More than 5.9 million people, representing 42 per cent of the world’s refugees, resided in countries whose GDP per capita was below 5,000 dollars.

Rising numbers have stretched resources to the limit, with the World Food Programme suffering acute shortfalls in funding, leaving it unable to feed refugees in desperate need of support.

Executive Director of the U.N. World Food Programme Ertharin Cousin released a statement Thursday saying, “South Sudan is on the verge of a hunger catastrophe, violence is worsening in Iraq and Syria, and there are new trouble-spots in Yemen and Nigeria. Needs increasingly outpace resources and this poses a moral and financial challenge to the international community.”

Data indicate that the number of unaccompanied or separated children seeking asylum has reached levels unprecedented since at least 2006, when UNHCR started systematically collecting data of that kind.

Edited by Kitty Stapp

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