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Gaza Under Fire – a Humanitarian Disaster

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Following an Israeli airstrike, Palestinian youth inspect the building their families lived in. Credit: Khaled Alashqar/IPS

By Khaled Alashqar
GAZA CITY, Jul 22 2014 (IPS)

As a result of over two weeks of Israeli bombardment, thousands of Palestinian civilians have fled their homes in the north of Gaza and sought refuge in schools run by the UNRWA, the U.N. agency for Palestinian refugees.

Among the worst affected are Gazan children who have been forced to live in constant fear and danger, according to Dr. Sami Awaida, a specialised child psychiatrist for the Gaza Mental Health Programme – a local civil society and humanitarian organization that focuses on war trauma and mental health issues concerning children and adults in Gaza.“Children in Gaza have already suffered from two recent violent and shocking experiences in 2009 and 2012 … This trauma now re-generates previous pain and shock and also leads to a mental state of permanent fear and insecurity among children here” – Dr. Sami Awaida, a specialised child psychiatrist for the Gaza Mental Health Programme

Describing the impact of the current trauma, Awaida told IPS:  “Children in Gaza are suffering from anxiety, fear and insecurity because of this war situation.  The challenge we now face as mental health practitioners is ‘post-traumatic disorder’.”

“This means that children in Gaza have already suffered from two recent violent and shocking experiences in 2009 and 2012,” he continued. “This trauma now re-generates previous pain and shock and also leads to a mental state of permanent fear and insecurity among children here.”

Since Monday July 7, Israel has subjected the Gaza Strip to a severe military assault and engaged with the Palestinian factions in a new round of violence.

The Palestinian Ministry of Health has so far reported 230 Palestinians killed; most of them are entire families who were killed in direct shelling of Palestinian houses. Meanwhile, the number of injured has risen to 2,500. Many of the injured and the dead are children.

Hospitals in Gaza are currently suffering from a severe shortage of medical supplies and medicines. Ashraf Al-Qedra, spokesperson for the Gaza Ministry of Health, has called on the international community “to support hospitals in Gaza with urgent medical supplies, as Israel continues its military attacks, leaving more than 800 houses completely destroyed and 800 families without shelter.”

Since Israel began its current offensive against Gaza, its military forces have been accused of pursuing a policy of destroying Palestinian houses and killing civilians. Adnan Abu Hasna, media advisor and spokesperson for UNRWA in Gaza, told IPS that “UNRWA has officially demanded from Israel to respect international humanitarian law and the neutrality of civilians in the military operation.”

He added: “UNRWA stresses the need to fulfill the obligations of the U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon to immediately stop violence, due to the increasing number of children and women killed in the Israeli striking and bombardment of Gaza.”

Assam Yunis, director of the Al-Mezan Centre for Human Rights in Gaza, spoke to IPS about the stark violations of human rights and the urgent need for justice and accountability. “The current situation is catastrophic in every aspect,” he said.

“Human rights abuses are unbelievable and these include targeting medical teams and journalists, in addition to targeting children and women by Israel.  This points to clear violations of international law as well as war crimes.  Israel must be held legally accountable at the international level.”

Analysing the situation, Gaza-based political analyst and intellectual Ibrahim Ibrash says he believes that “Israel will never manage to end and uproot both Hamas movement and the Palestinian resistance from Gaza. On the other hand, the Palestinian militant groups will never manage to destroy and defeat Israel.”

He told IPS that the consequences for the Palestinians at the internal level after this military aggression ends will be critical, including “a split between the Palestinian people and the Palestinian Authority; many people will be outraged with the Palestinian leadership, and this of course will leave Gaza in a deplorable state.”

This critical crisis in Gaza comes against a backdrop of a continued blockade imposed on the territory by Israel, widespread unemployment, severe poverty, electricity cuts, closure of borders and crossings since 2006, destroyed infrastructure and a stagnant Gazan economy, combined with a lack of political progress at the Israeli-Palestinian political level.

The real truth that no one can deny is that the civilian population, including women and children, in Gaza are the real victims of this dangerous conflict.

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Stunting: The Cruel Curse of Malnutrition in Nepal

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Sadhana Ghimire, 23, makes sure to give her 18-month-old daughter nutritious food, such as porridge containing grains and pulses, in order to prevent stunting. Credit: Mallika Aryal/IPS

By Mallika Aryal
RASUWA, Nepal, Jul 22 2014 (IPS)

Durga Ghimire had her first child at the age of 18 and the second at 21. As a young mother, Durga didn’t really understand the importance of taking care of her own health during pregnancy.

“I didn’t realise it would have an impact on my baby,” she says as she sits on the porch of her house in Laharepauwa, some 120 kilometers from Nepal’s capital, Kathmandu, nursing her third newborn child.

It is late in the afternoon and she is waiting expectantly for her two older daughters to return from school. One is nine and the other is six, but they look much smaller than their actual age.

“They are smaller in height and build and teachers at school say their learning process is also much slower,” Durga tells IPS. She is worried that the girls are stunted, and is trying to ensure her third child gets proper care.

A recent United Nations Children Fund (UNICEF) report shows that Nepal is among 10 countries in the world with the highest stunting prevalence, and one of the top 20 countries with the highest number of stunted children.

“Reducing stunting among children increases their chances of reaching their full development potential, which in turn will have a long-term impact on families’, communities’ and the country’s ability to thrive.” -- Peter Oyloe, chief of USAID Nepal’s Suaahara (‘Good Nutrition’) project at Save the Children-Nepal
UNICEF explains stunting as chronic under-nutrition during critical periods of growth and development between the ages of 0-59 months. The consequences of stunting are irreversible and in Nepal the condition affects 41 percent of children under the age of five.

“Nepal’s ranking […] is worrying, not just globally but also in South Asia,” Giri Raj Subedi, senior public health officer at Nepal’s ministry of health and population, tells IPS.

A 2013 progress report on the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) done by Nepal’s National Planning Commission (NPC) says while the number of stunted children declined from 57 percent in 2001 to 41 percent in 2011, it is still high above the 30 percent target set by the U.N..

“Stunting is a specific measure of the height of a child compared to the age of the child, and it is indicative of how well the child is developing cognitively,” says Peter Oyloe, chief of party of USAID Nepal’s Suaahara, or ‘Good Nutrition’ project at Save the Children Nepal.

Oyloe adds, “Reducing stunting among children increases their chances of reaching their full development potential, which in turn will have a long-term impact on families’, communities’ and the country’s ability to thrive.”

Child health and nutrition experts argue that, while poverty is directly related to inadequate intake of food, it is not the sole indicator of malnutrition or increased stunting.

Saba Mebrahtu, chief of the nutrition section at UNICEF-Nepal, says the immediate causes include poor nutrient intake, particularly early in life. Fifty percent of stunting happens during pregnancy and the rest after infants are born.

“When we are talking about nutrient-rich food […] we are talking about ensuring that children get enough of it even before they are born,” says Mebrahtu. The time between conception and a child’s second birthday is a crucial period, she said, one of rapid growth and cognitive development.

Thus it is incumbent on expecting mothers to follow a careful diet before the baby is born.

Basic education could save lives

Sadhana Ghimire, 23, lives a few doors down from Durga. Separated by a few houses, their approaches to nutrition are worlds apart.

Ghimire breast-fed her 18-month-old daughter exclusively for six months. She continues to make sure that her own diet includes green leafy vegetables, meat or eggs, along with rice and other staples, as she is still nursing.

She gives credit to the female community health-worker in her village, who informed her about the importance of the first 1,000 days of a child’s life.

In preparation for her daughter’s feeding time, Ghimire mixes together a bowl of homemade leeto, a porridge containing one-part whole grains such as millet or wheat and two-parts pulses such as beans or soy.

“I was only using grains to make the leeto before I was taught to make it properly by the health workers and Suaahara,” she says.

However, making leeto was not the most important lesson Ghimire learned as an expecting mother. “I had no idea that simple things like washing my hands properly could have such a long term effect on my daughter’s health,” she says.

Even seemingly common infections like diarrhoea can, in the first two years, put a child at greater risk of stunting.

“That is because the nutrients children are using for development are used instead to fight against infection,” says Mebrahtu emphasising the need for simple practices such as proper hand washing and cleaning of utensils.

If children are suffering from infection due to poor hygiene and sanitation they can have up to six diarrhoeal episodes per year, she warns, adding that while “children recover from these infections, they don’t come back to what they were before.”

Fighting on all fronts

Food insecurity is one of the biggest contributing factors to stunting in Nepal. Rugged hills and mountains comprise 77 percent of the country’s total land area, where 52 percent of Nepal’s 27 million people live.

Food insecurity is worst in the central and far western regions of the country; the prevalance of stunting in these areas is also extreme, with rates above 60 percent in some locations.

Thus experts recognise the need to fight simultaneously on multiple fronts.

“Our work in nutrition has proven again and again that a single approach to stunting doesn’t work because the causes are so many – it really has to be tackled in a coordinated way,” says UNICEF’s Mebrahtu.

In 2009 the government conducted the Nutrition Assessment and Gap Analysis (NAGA), which recommended building a multi-sector nutrition architecture to address the gaps in health and nutrition programmes.

“The NAGA study stated clearly that nutrition was not the responsibility of one department, as was previously thought,” Radha Krishna Pradhan, programme director of health and nutrition at Nepal’s NPC, tells IPS.

Nepal is also one of the first countries to commit to the global Scaling Up Nutrition (SUN) movement, which recognises multiple causes of malnutrition and recommends that partners work across sectors to achieve nutritional goals.

Thus, in 2012, five ministries in Nepal came together with the NPC and development partners to form the Multi-Sector Nutrition Plan (MSNP).

Public health experts say MSNP is a living example of the SUN movement in action and offers interventions with the aim of reducing the current prevalence of malnutrition by one-third.

Interventions include biannual vitamin D and folic acid supplements for expectant mothers, deworming for children, prenatal care, and life skills for adolescent girls.

On the agricultural front, ministries aim to increase the availability of food at the community level through homestead food production, access to clean and cheap energy sources such a biogas and improved cooking stoves, and the education of men to share household loads.

MSNP’s long-term vision is to work towards significantly reducing malnutrition so it is no longer an impending factor towards development. The World Bank has estimated that malnutrition can cause productivity losses of as much as 10 percent of lifetime earnings among the affected, and cause a reduction of up to three percent of a country’s GDP.

At present the Plan is in its initial phase and has been implemented in six out of 75 districts in Nepal since 2013.

(END)

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Food Insecurity a New Threat for Lebanon’s Syrian Refugees

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By Mona Alami
BEIRUT, Jul 22 2014 (IPS)

A declining economy and a severe drought have raised concerns in Lebanon over food security as the country faces one of its worst refugee crises, resulting from the nearby Syria war, and it is these refugees and impoverished Lebanese border populations that are most vulnerable to this new threat.

A severe drought has put the Lebanese agricultural sector at risk. According to the Meteorological Department at Rafik Hariri International Airport, average rainfall in 2014 is estimated at 470 mm, far below annual averages of 824 mm.

The drought has left farmers squabbling over water. “We could not plant this year and our orchards are drying up, we are only getting six hours of water per week,” says Georges Karam, the mayor of Zabougha, a town located in the Bekfaya area in Lebanon.“Any major domestic or regional security or political disruptions which undermine economic growth and job creation could lead to higher poverty levels and associated food insecurity” – Maurice Saade of the World Bank's Middle East and North Africa Department

The drought has resulted in a substantial decline in agricultural production throughout the country. “The most affected products are fruits and vegetables, the prices of which have increased, thus affecting economic access of the poor and vulnerable populations,”says Maurice Saade, Senior Agriculture Economist at the World Bank’s Middle East and North Africa Department.

According to the Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO), food security exists when all people, at all times, have physical and economic access to sufficient, safe and nutritious food to meet their dietary needs. Although most households in Lebanon are considered food secure, lower income households are vulnerable to inflationary trends in food items because they tend to spend a larger share of their disposable income on staples, explains Saade.

Lebanon’s poverty pockets are generally concentrated in the north (Akkar and Dinnyeh), Northern Bekaa (Baalbek and Hermel) and in the south, as well as the slums located south of Beirut. These areas currently host the largest number areas of refugee population, fleeing the nearby Syria war.

According to Clemens Breisinger, senior research fellow at the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI), Lebanon currently imports about 90 percent of its food needs. “This means meant that the drought’s impact should be limited in term of the food available on the market,” he says.

However, populations residing in Lebanon’s impoverished areas are still at risk, especially those who are not financially supported by relatives (as is the custom in Lebanon) or benefit from state aid or from local charities operating in border areas. Lebanese host populations are most likely the most vulnerable to food insecurity, explains Saade.

According to the UNHCR, there are just over one million Syrian refugees in Lebanon. While the food situation is still manageable thanks to efforts of international donors who maintain food supplies to the population, “these rations are nonetheless always threatened by the lack of donor funding,” Saade stresses. In addition, refugee populations are largely dependent on food aid, because they are essentially comprised of women and children, with little or no access to the job market.

Given that Lebanon depends to a large extent on food imports, mostly from international markets, maintaining food security also depends on the ability of lower income groups to preserve their purchasing power as well as the stability of these external markets.

“This means that any major domestic or regional security or political disruptions which undermine economic growth and job creation could lead to higher poverty levels and associated food insecurity,” says Saade.

In addition any spikes in international food prices, such as those witnessed in 2008, could lead to widespread hunger among vulnerable populations.

Breisinger believes that despite increased awareness of the international community, the factors leading to a new food crisis are still present.Increased demand for food generally, fuel prices, the drop in food reserves, certain government policies as well as the diversion of grain and oilseed crops for biofuel production are elements that put pressure on the food supply chain and can eventually contribute to hunger in certain vulnerable countries.

To avoid such a risk, some countries have implemented specific measures such as building grain reserves. “I am not sure how Lebanon has reacted so far,” says Breisinger.  With little government oversight and widespread corruption, Lebanon’s vulnerability to food insecurity has been compounded by unforgiving weather conditions, a refugee crisis and worsening economic conditions which, if left unattended, could spiral out of control.

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Creating a Slum Within a Slum

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In 2009, nearly 5,000 Kibera residents were relocated to the KENSUP Soweto East settlement, pictured here. However many say the housing project has become a slum. Credit: George Kebaso/IPS

By Adam Bemma
NAIROBI, Jul 22 2014 (IPS)

At the eastern edge of Nairobi’s Kibera slum, children gather with large yellow jerry cans to collect water dripping out of an exposed pipe. The high-rise grey and beige Soweto East settlement towers above them. A girl lifts the can on top of her head and returns to her family’s third floor apartment.

Inside, 49-year-old mother Hilda Olali is sweeping the floor. She’s had enough. Her family of five has no running water or electricity in their two bedroom apartment.The rancid smell of refuse wafts into the apartment throughout the day. Hilda Olali's considering a move back to the slum, turning in her family's brick and mortar home for her old mud and tin shack.

“When we first arrived we really enjoyed life. But now it’s hard because we don’t have water for weeks. This forces me to go and buy water outside. I can’t afford that,” she told IPS.

Outside her kitchen window, garbage has been accumulating over the last six months. The rancid smell of refuse wafts into the apartment throughout the day. She’s considering a move back to the slum, turning in her family’s brick and mortar home for her old mud and tin shack.

“In the slum things were cheap. When we came here they took us as if we were people who could afford expensive things,” she added.

It’s been 12 years since the Kenya Slum Upgrading Programme, or KENSUP, launched its pilot project in Kibera. Many residents feel the government and United Nations’ Human Settlements Programme, or U.N. Habitat, have abandoned them soon after its doors opened.

In 2009, nearly 5,000 Kibera residents were relocated to the KENSUP Soweto East settlement. The 17 five-storey buildings are home to around 1,800 families. Population estimates in Kibera range from 800,000 to 1.2 million, making it one of Africa’s largest slums.

“We were told to move and it’s like we were forced. They [KENSUP] were carrying everything for us. Transport was arranged by them. I had seven rooms in the slum. Here I only have three,” Olali said.

According to the U.N., cities are now home to half of the global population. Forty percent of Kenya’s 43 million people are living in urban areas. More than 70 percent of Nairobi’s 3.1 million people live in 200 informal settlements, or slums. A lack of affordable housing in the city makes Kibera an attractive place to settle.

Godwin Oyindo, 24, is a recent university graduate and a close friend of Olali’s son. He grew up in Kibera and was hopeful this housing project would change the lives of all its residents.

“This slum upgrading project was established to address a few things in Kibera, the security of tenure, the housing of people, accessibility to services, and also to generate economic activities. One of their main objectives is a slum free society,” Oyindo told IPS.

Back in 2003, the government of Kenya and U.N. Habitat began working together to improve housing and quality of living for residents not only in Nairobi, but in Mombasa, Mavoko Kisumu and Thika. KENSUP is mandated to improve living standards for 5.3 million urban slum dwellers by 2020.

U.N. Habitat came on board with its Participatory Slum Upgrading Programme, working alongside KENSUP providing expertise and technical advice. The officer in charge of this department, Joshua Mulandi Maviti, said objectives have been met in all projects.

“Kibera was the focus of our work with the ministry,” Maviti told IPS. “But we also coordinated infrastructure, land tenure, water and sanitation projects across Kenya, in Mombasa, Kisumu and Mavoko.”

Justus Ongera, 24, shares a room with his younger sister in a two bedroom apartment in the Soweto East settlement. The two share the apartment with another family. Ongera believes he may need to instruct residents on how to improve sanitation.

“When we first moved in the garbage outside was cleared every two weeks. Now it’s been rotting there under the sun for six months,” he told IPS. “This is a serious health hazard. Something needs to be done.”

Due to the 12 years which have elapsed since the contract began, U.N. Habitat ended its collaboration with KENSUP once contracts expired, according to Maviti. But he assures this doesn’t mean it’s the end of the relationship.

“The government of Kenya and the ministry haven’t engaged with us on the issues faced by Soweto East residents. We need to hear from them officially to be able to help,” Maviti said.

Olali is now weighing her options, whether or not she should move her three kids out of this apartment project and back into the slum. The fact that she has no running water forces to make a long trek through Kibera to visit the public toilet. This costs her five Kenya shillings each time.

“It all adds up, costing me even more money,” Olali said. “Some women didn’t even know how to flush a toilet before moving in, but now they do. We’ve all experienced a lot living here.”

Kenya’s Ministry of Land, Housing and Urban Development, along with KENSUP, turned down requests to be interviewed for this story.

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U.S. Debating “Historic” Support for Off-Grid Electricity in Africa

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Sub-Saharan Africa has large potential for hydropower generation, but is yet to exploit it. Pictured here is the Kariba Dam. Credit: Kristin Palitza/IPS

By Carey L. Biron
WASHINGTON, Jul 21 2014 (IPS)

Pressure is building here for lawmakers to pass a bill that would funnel billions of dollars of U.S. investment into strengthening Africa’s electricity production and distribution capabilities, and could offer broad new support for off-grid opportunities.

With half of the U.S. Congress having already acted on the issue, supporters are now hoping that the Senate will follow suit before a major summit takes place here during the first week of August. That event is expected to include heads of state or representatives from as many as 50 African countries."We could see an energy revolution that looks similar to what happened with mobile phones – leapfrogging centralised systems altogether and moving towards transformative solutions.” -- Justin Guay

The summit, the first time that such an event has been organised in Washington, will focus in particular on investment opportunities. As such, many are hoping that the three-day event’s centrepiece will be President Barack Obama’s signing of a broad investment deal aimed at Africa’s power sector.

“The overwhelming majority of the African leaders are going to be coming to Washington emphasising trade and investment, and in that context this issue is very central to their many constituencies – touching on economic, political and social issues,” Ben Leo, a senior fellow at the Center for Global Development, a think tank here, told IPS.

“Coming forward with something concrete that will lead to additional capital, tools or engagement will be noticed and welcomed. But lack thereof would also have a message for African leaders and others travelling to Washington.”

A U.S. Senate subcommittee did pass a bill, called the Energize Africa Act, late last month, but much remains to be done. The legislation now needs to be voted on by the full Senate, after which the final proposal would have to be brought into alignment with a similar bill voted through by the House of Representatives in May.

Meanwhile, the entire Congress is scheduled to go into recess for a month at the end of July. Still, backroom talks are reportedly well underway.

“There’s growing pressure and momentum in the Senate, as well as a growing appreciation of how doing this is both strategic and important,” Leo says. “Not having a bill to sign would certainly be a missed opportunity in terms of the optics and concreteness of action, either before or when everyone’s in Washington.”

Some 68 percent of the sub-Saharan population lacks access to electricity. Both the House and Senate bills would seek to assist African countries in expanding basic electricity access to some 50 million people.

“Our support for this bill is a direct response to what we hear from African leaders, citizens and global development experts,” Tom Hart, U.S. executive director of ONE, an advocacy group that focuses on eliminating poverty in Africa and has mounted a major campaign in favour of the Senate bill, said in a statement.

“[O]ne of the biggest challenges for overcoming extreme poverty is the inability for millions of people to access the basic electricity necessary to power health clinics, farms, schools, factories and businesses.”

Beyond the grid

The current legislative push comes a year after President Obama unveiled a new initiative called Power Africa, proposed during his June 2013 trip to the continent. Seen as the president’s signature development plan for the region, Power Africa aims to double energy access in sub-Saharan countries through a mix of public and private investment.

While Power Africa is ambitious, its long-term impact greatly depends on the legislation currently under debate.

For instance, while Power Africa directly affects just six countries, the bills before Congress take a continental approach. Likewise, as an executive-level project, the initiative’s policy priorities can only be cemented through full legislation.

Power Africa initially came under significant fire from environmental and some development groups for its reliance on fossil fuel (particularly natural gas) and centralised power projects. Many groups say that such a focus is ultimately counterproductive for poor and marginalised communities.

Yet last month, the United States announced a billion-dollar initiative to focus on off-grid energy projects across the continent. This approach could now be codified through the legislative discussions currently taking place in Congress.

“Congress is now looking to pass a bill that would be relatively historic in terms of its support for beyond-the-grid markets,” Justin Guay, Washington representative for the Sierra Club, a conservation and advocacy group, told IPS. “The [Senate] bill is the first legislation we’ve seen starting to drive investment to unlock that potential.”

To date, Guay says, most investment from the U.S. government and multilateral agencies has skewed in favour of fossil fuels and centralised power generation. For the first time, the new legislation could start to balance out this mix – a potential boon for the environment and local communities alike.

“If you look at the energy access problem in sub-Saharan Africa, it’s largely a rural issue. So this bill could stimulate distributed, clean-energy solutions that can get into the hands of poor populations today, rather than forcing them to wait decades in the dark for power,” Guay says.

“In this way, we could see an energy revolution that looks similar to what happened with mobile phones – leapfrogging centralised systems altogether and moving towards transformative solutions.”

The House’s companion bill includes fewer progressive provisions than the Senate version, but it also doesn’t include amendments that could deliberately doom the legislation. Still, it remains to be seen how conservatives in the House react to the Senate’s proposals.

Strengthened support

These new opportunities have broadened support for the Senate’s legislation. On Friday, for instance, the Global Off Grid Lighting Association, a Germany-based trade group, expressed its “strong support” for the Energize Africa Act.

The legislation is also being welcomed by African environmentalists.

“We believe this bill has emerged as a strong source of support for our efforts to address energy poverty,” Mithika Mwenda, secretary general of the Pan African Climate Justice Alliance, said in a letter to U.S. lawmakers from earlier this month.

“We are particularly supportive of new efforts to expand loan guarantee authority at USAID” – the main U.S. foreign aid agency – “as well as the goal of ending kerosene based lighting. Both of these aspects are critical to ending energy poverty in poor rural areas.”

Meanwhile, both the House and Senate bills have enjoyed an unusual level of bipartisan support. Still, it’s not clear whether that will translate into the passage of a new law – particularly by the U.S.-Africa Leaders Summit, slated for Aug. 4-6.

“There’s not a lot of time left, so it’s is very difficult,” the Center for Global Development’s Leo says. “However, if it doesn’t pass by the summit, the summit will invariably create a lot of action shortly thereafter.”

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Spain: A Precarious Gateway to Europe for Syrian Refugees

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Spanish Refugee Aid Commission centre in the southern city of Malaga. The banner on the second floor balcony reads, “The right to live in peace.” Credit: Inés Benítez/IPS

By Inés Benítez
MALAGA, Spain, Jul 21 2014 (IPS)

Little Samir covers his face with his hands as he plays under the orange tree in the centre of the inner courtyard of the Spanish Refugee Aid Commission (CEAR) centre in the southern city of Malaga. He is four years old and has spent nearly a year in Spain, where he arrived with his parents, fleeing the war in Syria.

Samir (not his real name) and his family, who remain anonymous at their request, were among millions of Syrians who abandoned their homes and way of life to escape the conflict that flared up in March 2011.

Some of those who seek protection in the European Union come to Spain by plane with a visa, but others come through Morocco, crossing the borders into the Spanish enclaves of Ceuta and Melilla in North Africa, with fake documents purchased on the black market.

“The journey from Syria to Spain can take up to three or four months,” Wassim Zabad, who is from Damascus and has lived in Malaga for 11 years, told IPS.

“Why does Spain offer less help to refugees and take longer to process asylum applications than Germany or Sweden? If I had known it, I would have travelled to another country." -- Adi Mohamed, a 33-year-old Syrian
Many people reach Morocco after travelling through Egypt, Libya and Algeria, said Zabad, who owns a travel agency specialising in taking Spanish tourists to Lebanon, Egypt and Syria. Business is bad because of the conflicts in those countries.

In his view, the conditions for refugees “are quite bad” in Spain, which is why “98 percent of Syrians” move on to other countries where they may have relatives or believe there are better facilities and economic assistance, especially France, Germany or Sweden.

Francisco Cansino, the CEAR coordinator for eastern Andalusia, told IPS that the majority of Syrians his organisation helps, coming from the Melilla Centre for the Temporary Stay of Immigrants (CETI), prefer to request asylum in other EU countries, although the standard procedure is for them to seek asylum in the country of entry, and this is what they are told.

The European Commission’s Dublin II Regulation of Feb. 18, 2003 establishes the principle that the first safe country entered by an asylum seeker is responsible for examining the asylum application, and provides for the transfer of an asylum seeker to that EU country.

“They don’t stay. They leave because they think their chances are better in other countries. They ask to leave the same day they arrive. They say they have relatives in Europe,” Cansino said. In his view, Syrian refugees are “suddenly facing an abyss of uncertainty.”

Four Syrians – a couple with two children – have been living at the Malaga CEAR centre for the past few weeks. They receive shelter, food, clothing, a monthly allowance (equivalent to 68 dollars per person), Spanish language classes and job training programmes. CEAR is an independent volunteer-based humanitarian organisation.

So far in 2014, some 200 people from Syria have been cared for in this centre, Cansino said.

“Only a minority of Syrian refugees come to Spain. The majority are displaced within Syria itself or seek safety in neighbouring countries,” David Ortiz, the head of the Red Cross Refugee Reception Centre in Malaga, told IPS.

At this Red Cross centre, one of seven in the country, 13 of the 20 beds are occupied by Syrians and Palestinians who were living in Syria. Among them are two families with children, who have been attending school since they arrived.

A total of 100,000 people have died in the war in Syria, 10,000 of them children. About 2.6 million people have fled to other countries, and 6.5 million are internally displaced, according to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR).

“Syrian refugees come to us tremendously traumatised,” said Ortiz. They have to rebuild their lives, learn a new language and find work in a country like Spain, where the unemployment rate is over 25 percent, he said.

A report on the situation of refugees in Spain, presented by CEAR in June, indicates that the country received 4,502 applications for asylum in 2013, compared to 2,588 in 2012, owing to an increase in applications from persons from Mali (1,478) and Syria (725).

According to Eurostat data cited in the CEAR report, in 2013 some 435,000 asylum seekers came to the EU. The largest group came from Syria (50,000) and the applications were mainly directed to Germany, with 109,580 applications, followed by France and Sweden. But only three percent of Syrian refugees have been granted asylum in Europe.

“I hope to find stability here in Spain,” said Adi Mohamed, a 33-year-old Syrian, who had a visa that allowed him to fly to Malaga in April, where he lives with some Syrian friends. He owns a restaurant in Palmira, near Homs, and he is worried about the safety of his parents and the five brothers and sisters he left behind.

Mohamed, who ran a restaurant with fifty employees, asked, “Why does Spain offer less help to refugees and take longer to process asylum applications than Germany or Sweden? If I had known it, I would have travelled to another country,” he said.

The length of stay in the refugee reception centres is six months, renewable for the same period in the “very frequent” case that the asylum application has not yet been determined. Families with children may stay for up to 18 months, Ortiz said.

“Asylum processing times are different in different EU countries, and so are benefits for refugees,” said Ortiz. He complained that the Dublin Regulation was “unfair” to oblige refugees to apply for asylum in the country where they first enter the bloc.

In a report published Jul. 9, Amnesty International (AI) says that while 1.82 billion euros (2.46 billion dollars) of EU funding was allocated to control of its external borders between 2007 and 2013, only 700 million (950 million dollars) was spent on improving the situation for asylum seekers.

The AI report accuses EU migration policies of “putting the lives and rights of refugees and migrants at risk” when they try to cross into the EU, especially through Bulgaria, Greece and Spain, and warns that some 23,000 people have lost their lives trying to get into Europe since 2000.

Several NGOs have denounced inadequate conditions at the Melilla CETI, which houses hundreds of Syrian and sub-Saharan migrants, as well as delays in processing asylum applications, which prevents them from leaving Ceuta or Melilla under Spanish law.

According to the UNHCR report ‘Syrian Refugees in Europe: What Europe Can Do to Ensure Protection and Solidarity’, published Jul. 11, the CETI was housing 2,161 people as of Jun. 12, when its maximum capacity is 480. Among them were 384 Syrian adults and 480 children.

(END)

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Indigenous Communities Say Education, Funding Key to Fighting HIV/AIDS

lun, 07/21/2014 - 18:39

Doris Peltier, Aboriginal Women and Leadership Coordinator with CAAN, was diagnosed with AIDS at the age of 44. Credit: Neena Bhandari/IPS

By Neena Bhandari
SYDNEY, Jul 21 2014 (IPS)

Marama Pala, hailing from Waikanae on the west coast of the North Island of New Zealand, was diagnosed with HIV at 22. The news of her diagnosis spread like wildfire in her tight-knit Maori community.

That was in 1993 but even today, she says, there is a “shame and blame” attitude surrounding HIV, which disproportionately impacts the region’s indigenous population.

“If you are HIV positive, you are seen as ‘dirty’, as someone who must be a drug user or a prostitute. Our people are not seeking help because of this stigma, discrimination and criminalisation – the fear of being charged, hunted down, ostracised or put in jail,” says Pala, who, together with her Pacific Islander HIV-positive husband, runs the INA (Maori, Indigenous, South Pacific) HIV/AIDS Foundation.

“We can’t just pretend that HIV/AIDS exists in isolation. The problem of social justice is systemic. We have to encourage nation states to follow the recommendations from the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of the Indigenous People." -- Trevor Stratton, IIWGHA Coordinator for the Canadian Aboriginal AIDS Network (CAAN)
The Foundation takes a cultural approach to HIV/AIDS awareness, education, prevention and intervention.

“In the past five years the number of new infections has […] increased in the Pacific Island community living in New Zealand and especially among the Maoris because we are late testers. People who [engage] in risky behaviour [seldom] get tested until they are very, very sick,” Pala, a mother of two, tells IPS.

“Our women are dying because they are afraid to go on medication, partly because they are afraid of the stigma and discrimination. Antiretroviral drugs are widely available in our country and they should not be dying in this time and age,” says Pala, who is a member of the board of directors for the International Council of AIDS Service Organisations (ICASO).

With HIV and AIDS disproportionately affecting indigenous people across the world, there is a strong need for culturally appropriate programmes designed, championed and delivered by indigenous people, activists and experts say.

Many indigenous women are living in silence with even their immediate families not knowing that they have HIV.

“There are 130 aboriginal women who are living with HIV in Australia, but apart from myself there is only one other woman who speaks openly about living with HIV,” says Michelle Tobin, who contracted the disease at the age of 21.

She began dating a man who told her that he had HIV but “I was naïve and just believed that it wouldn’t happen to me,” she admits. “Within six months I was diagnosed with HIV. I had a baby so I focused all my attention on her.”

“In the early 1990s in Melbourne we weren’t offered treatments when we were first diagnosed. In those days we lost a lot of people in the early stage of the disease, including my late husband,” Tobin, who belongs to the Yorta Yorta Nation, tells IPS.

As a descendant of the Stolen Generation and an aboriginal woman living with HIV and now AIDS, she has experienced stigma and discrimination, especially from within her own family, who disowned her.

Some in her community still think she is contagious and don’t want to be near her, but her struggle has made Tobin a passionate and vocal advocate for indigenous women living with HIV/AIDS.

According to Tobin, chair of the Anwernekenhe National HIV Alliance and a committee member of PATSIN (Positive Aboriginal Torres Strait Islander Network), “Aboriginal women are a minority within the minority of the HIV epidemic. We need more resources and funding [to] enable women to speak out about prevention, treatments, isolation, confidentiality, housing and the whole spectrum of issues that impact us.”

In addition to endorsing targets set out in the United Nations Political Declaration on HIV and AIDS, Australia has also adopted the Eora Action Plan on HIV 2014, which sets strategic targets to bring greater attention to HIV prevention, including best clinical care for aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples living with HIV.

The recent International Indigenous Pre-conference on HIV and AIDS hosted by the International Indigenous Working Group on HIV & AIDS (IIWGHA) in partnership with the Australian Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Organising Committee (AATSIOC), held in Sydney on Jul. 17-19, was themed ‘Our story, Our Time, Our Future.’

It highlighted the need for increased epidemiological data with a focus on indigenous ethnicity. Lack of data about the level of treatment take-up amongst indigenous people living with HIV is posing a challenge for Treatment as Prevention (TasP) strategies.

“We have evidence in Canada that aboriginal people are getting HIV three-and-a-half times faster than the rate of the general population,” Trevor Stratton, IIWGHA Coordinator for the Canadian Aboriginal AIDS Network (CAAN), tells IPS.

“We believe those trends exist all over the world, but we don’t have the epidemiological data. We are advocating for epidemiological evidence as that is what we need for the dominant cultures to recognise us as a key population at greater risk of HIV and AIDS along with gay men and sex workers, so governments can free up the money for us and we can create our own solutions,” he asserts.

Forty-nine-year-old Stratton, a citizen of the Mississaugas of the New Credit First Nation, Ontario, with mixed English and Ojibwe heritage, was diagnosed with HIV in 1990.

He believes that indigenous people are particularly vulnerable due to “colonisation, neo-colonialism, resource extraction, and assimilation amongst other similar issues” that push them down on social determinants of health and put them at higher risk of all poor health outcomes.

According to the Australian Bureau of Statistics, the rate of HIV diagnoses among Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women was substantially greater than among Australian-born non-Indigenous women (1.5 compared with 0.4 per 100,000 population).

Between 2004 and 2014, 231 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people were diagnosed with HIV. In 2013, the rate of newly diagnosed HIV infections was greater in the indigenous population (5.4 per 100,000) compared to the Australian-born non-indigenous population (3.9 per 100,000).

“We can’t just pretend that HIV/AIDS exists in isolation,” Stratton says. “The problem of social justice is systemic. We have to be able to leverage international human rights mechanisms so countries can be held accountable.

“We have to encourage nation states to follow the recommendations from the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of the Indigenous People and the International Labour Organisation’s Convention 169, which talks of how to engage indigenous people,” he concludes.

IIWGHA has been working at increasing knowledge and addressing the entrenched stigma of HIV and AIDS within indigenous communities and supporting indigenous-directed research and awareness initiatives.

Its mandate and strategic plan are based on the 2006 ‘Toronto Charter: Indigenous People’s Action Plan’ that acknowledges the right of indigenous peoples to autonomy, social justice and human rights.

Doris Peltier, Aboriginal Women and Leadership Coordinator with CAAN, has been working with women living way below the poverty line, some of whom had their children taken away when they were diagnosed with HIV.

Diagnosed with AIDS at the age of 44 while actively using drugs in Toronto, Peltier believes systemic issues – such as the fear of losing one’s child to the authorities – act as barriers preventing people from discussing their condition.

“A social system that is supposed to be there to support women is actually the one that is putting barriers up for the women,” Peltier tells IPS.

When she decided to go home and reconnect with her family and her First Nations community in Wikwemikong, Ontario, some supported her but others remained reluctant to embrace her.

People wouldn’t let her use their dishes and asked her to clean the toilet after use.

“Soon rumours began to circulate and one of the words being used to talk about me was ‘Wiinaapineh’ (dirty disease). I stood my ground and became better with medication, and my family’s support and encouragement,” Peltier says.

“People have to know that there is help available, there is treatment and prevention and that they can have a good quality life,” concludes Peltier, who is today a great-grandmother.

For her, one of the key responses to high rates impacting indigenous women is to empower them to tap into their inner strength and resilience, and break the code of silence to speak up about HIV/AIDS

(END)

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Fragility of WTO’s Bali Package Exposed

lun, 07/21/2014 - 18:19

By Ravi Kanth Devarakonda
GENEVA, Jul 21 2014 (IPS)

The “fragility” of the World Trade Organization’s ‘Bali package’ was brought into the open at the weekend meeting in Sydney, Australia, of trade ministers from the world’s 20 major economies (G20).

The Bali package is a trade agreement resulting from the 9th Ministerial Conference of the WTO in Bali, Indonesia, in December last year, and forms part of the Doha Development Round, which started in 2001.

The G20 group of countries includes Argentina, Australia, Brazil, Canada, China, France, Germany, India, Indonesia, Italy, Japan, Korea, Mexico, Russia, Saudi Arabia, South Africa, Turkey, United Kingdom, the United States, and the European Union.“… the Bali package is not just about trade facilitation and it also includes other issues ... That was the premise on which the developing countries agreed to trade facilitation and it has to be self-balancing” – South African trade minister Rob Davies

During the Sydney meeting, India and South Africa challenged the industrialised countries present to come clean on implementation of the issues concerning the poor countries in agriculture and development, according to participants present at the two-day meeting.

Ahead of the G20 leaders meeting in Brisbane, Australia, in mid-November, Sydney hosted the trade ministerial meeting to discuss implementation of the Bali package, particularly the trade facilitation agreement (TFA). The TFA has been at the heart of the industrialised countries’ trade agenda since 1996.

More importantly, Australia, as host of the November meeting, has decided to prepare the ground for pursuing the new trade agenda based on global value chains in which trade facilitation and services related to finance, information, telecommunications, and logistics play a main role.

“I said the Bali package is not just about trade facilitation and it also includes other issues,” South Africa’s trade minister Rob Davies told IPS Monday. “That was the premise on which the developing countries agreed to trade facilitation and it has to be self-balancing.”

Davies said that “the issue is that while South Africa doesn’t need any assistance, many developing and poor countries have to make investments and implement new procedures [because of the TFA]. What was there in the [TF] agreement is a series of best endeavour provisions in terms of technical and financial support together with best endeavour undertakings in terms of issues pertaining to least developed countries in agriculture and so on.”

Over the last few months, several industrialised countries, including the United States, have said that they can address issues in the Bali package concerning the poor countries as part of the Doha Single Undertaking, which implies that nothing is agreed until everything is agreed.

The specific issues that concern the interests of the least-developed countries include elimination of cotton subsidies and unimpeded market access for cotton exported by the African countries, preferential rules of origin for the poorest countries to export industrial products to the rich countries, and preferential treatment to services and services suppliers of least developed countries, among others.

“Even if there is an early harvest there has to be an outcome on other issues in the Bali package,” the South African minister argued.

There is lot of concern at the G20 meeting that if the trade facilitation protocol is not implemented by the end of this month, the WTO would be undermined.

“What we said from South Africa is to commit on the delivery of the outcomes in the Bali package,” Davies told IPS. “And a number of developing countries present at the meeting agreed with our formulation that there has to be substantial delivery of the outcomes in the Bali package.”

At the Sydney meeting, the industrialised countries pushed hard for a common stand on the protocol for implementing the Trade Facilitation Agreement by July 31. The TF protocol is a prerequisite for implementing the trade facilitation agreement by the end of July 2015.

The United States also cautioned that if there is no outcome by the end of this month, the post-Bali package would face problems. “Talking about post-Bali agenda while failing to implement the TFA isn’t just putting the cart before the horse, it’s slaughtering the horse,” U.S. Trade Representative Ambassador Michael Froman tweeted from Sydney.

The industrialised countries offered assurances that they would address the other issues in the Bali package, including public distribution programmes for food security, raised by developing countries. But they were not prepared to wait for any delay in the implementation of the TF agreement.

Over the last four months, the developing and poorest countries have realised that their issues in the Bali package are being given short shrift while all the energies are singularly focused on implementing the trade facilitation agreement.

The African countries are the first to point out the glaring mismatch between implementation of the TFA on the one hand and lack of any concerted effort to address other issues in the Bali package on the other. The African Union has suggested implementing the TFA on a provisional basis until all other issues in the Doha Development Agenda are implemented.

The industrialised countries mounted unprecedented pressure and issued dire threats to the African countries to back off from their stand on the provisional agreement. At the AU leaders meeting in Malibu, Equatorial Guinea, last month, African countries were forces to retract from their position on the provisional agreement.

However, South Africa, Tanzania, Zimbabwe and Uganda insisted on a clear linkage between the TFA and the Doha agenda.

India is fighting hard, along with other developing countries in the G33 coalition of developing countries on trade and economic issues, for a permanent solution to exempt public distribution programmes for food security from WTO rules in agriculture.

New Delhi has found out over the last six months that the industrialised countries are not only creating hurdles for finding a simple and effective solution for public distribution programmes but continue to raise extraneous issues that are well outside the purview of the mandate to arrive at an agreement on food security.

India announced on July 2 that it will not join consensus unless all issues concerning agriculture and development are addressed along with the TF protocol.

India’s new trade minister Nirmala Sitaraman, along with South Africa, made it clear in Sydney that they could only join consensus on the protocol once they have complete confidence that the remaining issues in the Bali package are fully addressed.

Against this backdrop, the G20 trade ministers on Saturday failed to bridge their differences arising from their colliding trade agendas.

The developing countries, particularly India, want firm commitment that there is a permanent solution on public distribution programmes for food security along with all other issues concerning development, an Indian official told IPS.

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Refugees Living a Nightmare in Northern Pakistan

lun, 07/21/2014 - 10:15

Doctors examine internally displaced children from North Waziristan Agency at a free medical clinic in Bannu, a district of Pakistan’s northern Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province. Credit: Ashfaq Yusufzai/IPS

By Ashfaq Yusufzai
PESHAWAR, Pakistan, Jul 21 2014 (IPS)

Some fled on foot, others boarded trucks along with luggage, rations and cattle. Many were separated from families, or collapsed from exhaustion along the way. They don’t know where their next meal will come from, or how they will provide for their children.

In the vast refugee camps of the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KP) province, civilians who fled the Pakistan Army’s military offensive against the Taliban in the country’s northern Waziristan Agency now walk around in a state of delirious confusion.

Medical officials here say that almost all the 870,000 internally displaced people in KP are deeply traumatised by over a decade of war in the northern provinces, where they were caught in the crossfire between government forces and militants who crossed the border from Afghanistan into Pakistan’s Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) in 2001.

“We examined about 300,000 patients at the psychiatry wards of the KP hospital in 2013; 200,000 of them belonged to FATA. This included 145,000 women and 55,000 children." -- Muhammad Wajid, a psychiatrist at the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Teaching Hospital in Peshawar
Now, as the army conducts air raids on the 11,585-square-kilometre North Waziristan Agency in a determined bid to wipe out the Taliban, war-weary civilians are once again bearing the brunt of the conflict, forced to leave their ancestral homes and seek refuge in neighbouring KP where shelter, clean water, food and medical supplies are stretched thin.

IDPs have been streaming in since the military operation began on Jun. 15, reaching close to a million by mid-July, officials here say. So far, aid has come in the form of food rations and medical supplies for the wounded, as well as those left dehydrated by the scorching 45-degree heat.

But very little is being done to address the psychological trauma that affects nearly everyone in these camps.

“The displaced population has been living in rented houses or with relatives where they lack water, sanitation and food due to which they are facing water and food-borne ailments,” Consultant Psychiatrist Dr. Mian Iftikhar Hussain tells IPS. “But the main problems are psychological disorders, which are ‘unseen’.”

Sitting in front of the Iftikhar Psychiatric Hospital in Peshawar, capital of KP and 250 miles from the largest refugee camp in Bannu, 50-year-old Zarsheda Bibi tells IPS her entire family fled Waziristan, leaving everything behind.

Far worse than the loss of her home and possessions, she says, is the loss of her one-year-old grandson, who died on the long and arduous journey to KP.

“She doesn’t sleep properly because she dreams of her deceased grandson every night,” says Iftikhar, who is treating Bibi for post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

According to Javid Khan, an official with the National Disaster Management Authority, PTSD is one of the most common ailments among the displaced.

He recounts to IPS his recent interaction with a woman in a camp in Bannu, whose husband was killed by shelling in Miramshah, the headquarters of North Waziristan.

“Now she is completely disoriented and extremely concerned about the future of her three sons and one daughter,” he says, adding that those who were uprooted are sure to develop long as well as short-term disorders as a result of prolonged stress, anxiety and fear.

Other conditions could include de-personalisation, classified by DSM-IV as a dissociative disorder in which a person experiences out-of-body feelings and severe disorientation; as well as de-realisation, an alteration in perceptions of the external world to the point that it appears unreal, or ‘dream-like’.

Experts say that people torn from their native villages, thrust into completely new surroundings and experiencing insecurity on a daily basis are highly susceptible to these types of conditions, which are associated with severe trauma.

Khan says women and children, who comprise 73 percent of IDPs according to the World Health Organisation (WHO), are likely to be disproportionately impacted by PTSD, as well as disorders related to anxiety, stress, panic and depression.

Muhammad Junaid, a psychologist working with the displaced, says that victims are also suffering from poor self-esteem, as they are forced to occupy tents and shacks, in extremely unsanitary conditions.

Mothers are particularly impacted by their inability to provide for their families, he tells IPS, adding that permanent phobias are not uncommon.

Another major concern among health officials here is how the situation will affect children, many of whom are at a very sensitive age.

“From childhood to adolescence, a child passes through dramatic phases of physical and mental development,” Junaid says. “During this transition, they gain their identity, grow physically and establish familial relationships, as well as bonds with their community and society as a whole.”

Ripped from their ancestral homes and traditional communities, he says, this process will be interrupted, resulting in long-term mental conditions unless properly addressed.

Parents are equally worried about what displacement might mean for their children’s education.

“Two of my sons are very good at their studies,” Muhammad Arif, a shopkeeper from Mirali, an administrative division in North Waziristan, confides to IPS. “They would do well in class and get good positions. Now there’s no school and I fear they will not progress with their education.”

Even if they were to return to Waziristan, he says, the future looks bleak, since the army operation has devastated homes, buildings and business establishments. Everything will have to be built back up from scratch before the people can return to a normal life, he laments.

After nearly a month in the camp, Arif’s 10-year-old son Sadiq has all but given up hope. Through tears, he tells IPS that children like him have “no sleep, no play, no education.”

“I don’t know what the future holds for us,” he says.

For long-time health experts in the region, the situation is a frightening climax of a crisis that has been building for years, ever since the army began a crackdown on insurgents in the rugged, mountainous regions of northern Pakistan nearly 12 years ago.

“Around 50 percent of the residents of FATA have suffered psychological problems due to militancy and subsequent military operations,” Muhammad Wajid, a psychiatrist at the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Teaching Hospital in Peshawar tells IPS.

“We have examined about 300,000 patients at the psychiatry wards of the KP hospital in 2013; 200,000 of them belonged to FATA. This included 145,000 women and 55,000 children,” he says.

Since 2005, nearly 2.1 million FATA residents have taken refuge in KP, according to Javid, posing a real challenge to the local government, which has struggled to balance the needs of the displaced with its own impoverished local population.

The latest wave of refugees has only added to the government’s woes, and many in the region fear the situation is on a knife’s edge, especially in the holy month of Ramadan, when there is a desperate need for proper sanitation and food to break the daily fast.

(END)

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Malnutrition Hits Syrians Hard as UN Authorises Cross-Border Access

sam, 07/19/2014 - 08:09

Syrian mother and child near Ma'arat Al-Numan, rebel-held Syria, in autumn 2013. Credit: Shelly Kittleson/IPS

By Shelly Kittleson
BEIRUT, Jul 19 2014 (IPS)

Gaunt, haggard Syrian children begging and selling gum have become a fixture in streets of the Lebanese capital; having fled the ongoing conflict, they continue to be stalked by its effects.

Most who make it across the Syria-Lebanon border live in informal settlements in extremely poor hygienic conditions, which for many means diarrhoeal diseases, malnutrition, and – for the most vulnerable – sometimes death.

By the end of January, almost 40,000 Syrian children had been born as refugees, while the total number of minors who had fled abroad quadrupled to over 1.2 million between March 2013 and March 2014.Most who make it across the Syria-Lebanon border live in informal settlements in extremely poor hygienic conditions, which for many means diarrhoeal diseases, malnutrition, and – for the most vulnerable – sometimes death.

Lack of proper healthcare, food and clean water has resulted in countless loss of life during the Syrian conflict, now well into its fourth year. These deaths are left out of the daily tallies of ‘war casualties’, even as stunted bodies and emaciated faces peer out of photos from areas under siege.

The case of the Yarmouk Palestinian camp on the outskirts of Damascus momentarily grabbed the international community’s attention earlier this year, when Amnesty International released a report detailing the deaths of nearly 200 people under a government siege. Many other areas have experienced and continue to suffer the same fate, out of the public spotlight.

A Palestinian-Syrian originally from Yarmouk who has escaped abroad told IPS that some of her family are still in Hajar Al-Aswad, an area near Damascus with a population of roughly 600,000 prior to the conflict. She said that those trapped in the area were suffering ‘’as badly if not worse than in Yarmouk’’ and had been subjected to equally brutal starvation tactics. The area has, however, failed to garner similar attention.

The city of Homs, one of the first to rise up against President Bashar Al-Assad’s regime, was also kept under regime siege for three years until May of this year, when Syrian troops and foreign Hezbollah fighters took control.

With the Syria conflict well into its fourth year, the U.N. Security Council decided for the first time on July 14 to authorize cross-border aid without the Assad government’s approval via four border crossings in neighbouring states. The resolution established a monitoring mechanism for a 180-day period for loading aid convoys in Turkey, Iraq and Jordan.

The first supplies will include water sanitation tablets and hygiene kits, essential to preventing the water-borne diseases responsible for diarrhoea – which, in turn, produces severe states of malnutrition.

Miram Azar, from UNICEF’s Beirut office, told IPS that  ‘’prior to the Syria crisis, malnutrition was not common in Lebanon or Syria, so UNICEF and other actors have had to educate public health providers on the detection, monitoring and treatment’’ even before beginning to deal with the issue itself.

However, it was already on the rise: ‘’malnutrition was a challenge to Syria even before the conflict’’, said a UNICEF report released this year. ‘’The number of stunted children – those too short for their age and whose brain may not properly develop – rose from 23 to 29 per cent between 2009 and 2011.’’

Malnutrition experienced in the first 1,000 days of a child’s life (from pregnancy to two years old) results in lifelong consequences, including greater susceptibility to illness, obesity, reduced cognitive abilities and lower development potential of the nation they live in.

Azar noted that ‘’malnutrition is a concern due to the deteriorating food security faced by refugees before they left Syria’’ as well as ‘’the increase in food prices during winter.’’

The Syrian economy has been crippled by the conflict and crop production has fallen drastically. Violence has destroyed farms, razed fields and displaced farmers.

The price of basic foodstuffs has become prohibitive in many areas. On a visit to rebel-held areas in the northern Idlib province autumn of 2013, residents told IPS that the cost of staples such as rice and bread had risen by more than ten times their cost prior to the conflict, and in other areas inflation was worse.

Jihad Yazigi , an expert on the Syrian economy, argued in a European Council on Foreign Affairs (ECFR) policy brief published earlier this year that the war economy, which ‘’both feeds directly off the violence and incentivises continued fighting’’, was becoming ever more entrenched.

Meanwhile, political prisoners who have been released as a result of amnesties tell stories of severe water and food deprivation within jails. Many were detained on the basis of peaceful activities, including exercising their right to freedom of expression and providing humanitarian aid, on the basis of a counterterrorism law adopted by the government in July 2012.

There are no accurate figures available for Syria’s prison population. However, the monitoring group, Violations Documentation Centre, reports that 40,853 people detained since the start of the uprising in March 2011 remain in jail.

Maher Esber, a former political prisoner who was in one of Syria’s most notorious jails between 2006 and 2011 and is now an activist living in the Lebanese capital, told IPS that it was normal for taps to be turned on for only 10 minutes per day for drinking and hygiene purposes in the detention facilities.

Much of the country’s water supply has also been damaged or destroyed over the past years, with knock-on effects on infectious diseases and malnutrition. A major pumping station in Aleppo was damaged on May 10, leaving roughly half what was previously Syria’s most populated city without running water. Relentless regime barrel bombing has made it impossible to fix the mains, and experts have warned of a potential humanitarian catastrophe for those still inside the city.

The U.N. decision earlier this month was made subsequent to refusal by the Syrian regime to comply with a February resolution demanding rapid, safe, and unhindered access, and the Syrian regime had warned that it considered non-authorised aid deliveries into rebel-held areas as an attack.

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U.S. Ranks Near Bottom Globally in Energy Efficiency

ven, 07/18/2014 - 19:26

Energy-saving compact fluorescent lightbulbs (CFLs). Credit: Anton Fomkin/cc by 2.0

By Julia Hotz
WASHINGTON, Jul 18 2014 (IPS)

A new ranking has lauded Germany for its energy efficiency, while condemning the United States for lagging near the bottom.

The American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy (ACEEE), a non-profit here, called the U.S. economy’s inefficiency “a tremendous waste” of both resources and money, in a scorecard released Thursday. Looking at 16 of the world’s largest economies, the rankings use 31 metrics to measure efficiency-related measures within each nation’s legislative efforts as well as the industrial, transportation and building sectors.“The most important kilowatt hour is the one you don’t have to produce.” -- Mark Konold

“A country that uses less energy to achieve the same or better results reduces its costs and pollution, creating a stronger, more competitive economy,” the ACEEE’s report begins. “While energy efficiency has played a role in the economies of developed nations for decades, cost-effective energy efficiency remains a massively underutilized energy resource.”

Though Germany produced the highest overall score- with 65 out of 100 possible points- and came in first in the “industry” sector, China had the top-scoring assessment in the “buildings” category, Italy had the most efficient “transportation” sector, and France, Italy and the European Union tied three-ways in the “national efforts” division.

Rachel Young, an ACEEE research analyst, told IPS that the U.S government has taken important recent steps to limit carbon emissions, particularly from existing power plants. But she recommends much broader actions.

The U.S. needs to “implement a national ‘energy savings’ target, strengthen national model building codes, support education and training in the industrial sector, and prioritise energy efficiency in transportation,” she says. Doing so, Young suggests, would not only reduce emissions but also save money and create jobs.

ACEEE’s focus has traditionally been on improving energy efficiency in the United States. But the new scorecard’s broad emphasis – on how energy efficiency makes for both an environmentally and financially wide investment – can be applied to international economies as well.

The Worldwatch Institute, a think tank here, is one of the many international development-focused organisations that have adopted this approach.

“We think that energy efficiency is one of the fastest ways that countries can get more mileage out of their energy usage,” Mark Konold, the Caribbean project manager at the Worldwatch Institute, told IPS. “The most important kilowatt hour is the one you don’t have to produce.”

Citing the Caribbean, West Africa, Central America and South America as prime examples, Konold says energy efficiency can be a wise economic investment for governments and individuals alike.

“Especially in island countries, which face disproportionately large energy bills, energy efficiency can go a long way in terms of reducing [an individual’s] financial burden,” he says. “Something as simple as window installations can make buildings in these island countries more efficient.”

Paradigm shift?

Worldwatch and others increasingly consider energy efficiency a key element in the sustainability agenda.

Konold, who recently co-authored a study on sustainable energy in Jamaica, believes it is critical to examine the return on investment of energy-efficient practices. Doing so, he says, can help determine which cost-effective energy models should be implemented in developing nations.

Such recommendations are particularly relevant given the international community’s growing focus on efficiency issues.

The United Nations and the World Bank, for instance, recently established the Sustainable Energy for All (SE4ALL) initiative to help “promote [a] paradigm shift” towards sustainability in developing countries. As one its three objectives, SE4ALL mandates “doubling the global rate of improvement in energy efficiency”.

“There is a growing realisation that energy efficiency is the lowest-cost energy and greenhouse gas emission option,” Nate Aden, a research fellow the climate and energy programme at the World Resources Institute, a think tank here, told IPS. “This is especially important for developing countries that are trying to address energy access while also addressing climate change.”

Part of this new focus is specifically due to the SE4ALL initiative, Aden says. Further,  he believes that the programme’s other two goals – doubling the share of renewable energy and providing universal energy access – are “consistent and complimentary” with energy efficiency.

“For example, in India, there’s a lot of discussion about the appropriate choices going forward, given that you have hundreds of millions who still lack access to energy,” Aden says. “You have to ask what the right choice is in terms of not only producing low-carbon emissions, but also in bringing energy to people.”

Aden also spoke enthusiastically about the “unique perspective” that private companies may take on energy efficiency, pointing to the efficiency efforts of Phillips, a U.S.-based lighting company. Aden believes that the ACEEE’s call for more energy-efficient practices will help make companies “able to plan effectively and be well-positioned from the supplier side” of energy.

Cultural change

While actions by the international community will clearly be important in implementing energy-efficient strategies from the top down, some are also emphasising the need for cultural change at the individual level.

“A huge chunk of this issue is education and awareness-building,” Worldwatch’s Konold says. “And once we start to spread the message that individuals can better their own situation, that’s when we start seeing a change,”

He says there is a profound lack of awareness around energy in many countries, pointing to a phenomenon he refers to as “leaving the air-conditioning on with the windows open”. But Konold emphasises that individuals can indeed make broad, substantive impact if they adopt more energy-saving behaviours in their homes.

This sentiment was echoed by the ACEEE’s Young, whose report pointed out that Americans are particularly guilty of energy-wasting behaviours, consuming roughly 6.8 tonnes of oil equivalent per person. This put the U.S. in second to last place in terms of individual energy consumption, only beating out Canada, where estimated oil consumption was 7.2 tonnes.

Based on this phenomenon, Young believes that individuals should “take advantage of incentives offered by their local utilities and governments to learn more about what they can do to reduce energy waste”, and to check out the ACEEE website, which “has dozens of consumer tips on improving energy efficiency.”

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Child Migrants – A “Torn Artery” in Central America

ven, 07/18/2014 - 18:39

At the conclusion of the International Conference on Migration, Childhood and Family, civil society organisations called for migrants to be seen as human beings rather than just statistics in official files. Credit: Casa Presidencial de Honduras

By Thelma Mejía
TEGUCIGALPA, Jul 18 2014 (IPS)

The migration crisis involving thousands of Central American children detained in the United States represents the loss of a generation of young people fleeing poverty, violence and insecurity in Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador, the countries of the Northern Triangle of Central America where violence is rife.

Some 200 experts and officials from several countries and bodies met in Tegucigalpa to promote solutions to the humanitarian emergency July 16-17 at an International Conference on Migration, Childhood and Family, convened by the Honduran government and the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF).

The conference ended with a call to establish ways and means for the countries involved to implement a plan of action with sufficient resources for effective border control and the elimination of “blind spots” used as migrant routes.

They also called for the rapid establishment of a regional initiative to address this humanitarian crisis jointly and definitively, in recognition of the shared responsibility to bring peace, security, welfare and justice to the peoples of Central America.“It is like someone has torn open an artery in Honduras and other Central American countries. Fear, grinding poverty and no future mean we are losing our lifeblood – our young people. If this continues to happen, the hearts of our nations will stop beating” – Cardinal Óscar Andrés Rodríguez Maradiaga of Honduras

But the declaration “Hoja de Ruta: Una Invitación a la Acción” (Roadmap: An Invitation to Action) does not go beyond generalisations and lacks specific commitments to address a crisis of unprecedented dimensions.

The U.S. government says that border patrols have caught 47,000 unaccompanied minors crossing into the United States this year. They are confined in overcrowded shelters awaiting deportation.

José Miguel Insulza, Secretary General of the Organisation of American States (OAS), told the conference that in 2011 there were 4,059 unaccompanied minors who attempted to enter the United States. But this figure rose to 21,537 in 2013 and 47,017 so far in 2014.

“These huge numbers of children are from Mexico, Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador. According to the data, 29 percent of the minors detained are Hondurans, 24 percent are Guatemalans, 23 percent are Salvadorans, and 22 percent are Mexicans,” said Insulza, who called for the migrants not to be criminalised.

Images of hundreds of children, on their own or accompanied by relatives or strangers, climbing on to the Mexican freight train known as “The Beast” on their way to the U.S. border, finally aroused the concern of regional governments.

The U.S. administration’s announcement that it would begin mass deportations of children apprehended in the past few months was also a factor. Honduran minors began to be deported on July 14.

The Tegucigalpa conference brought together officials and experts from countries receiving and sending migrants. According to analyses by participants, in Guatemala migration is motivated by poverty, while in El Salvador and Honduras people are fleeing citizen insecurity and criminal violence.

Honduran President Juan Orlando Hernández said these migrants were “displaced by war” and that an emergency “has now erupted among us.”

Out of every nine unaccompanied minors who cross the border into the United States, seven are Hondurans from what are known as the “hot territories” of insecurity and violence, the president said.

Ricardo Puerta, an expert on migration, told IPS that the Central American region is losing its next generation. “This is hitting hard, especially in countries like Honduras where people are fleeing violence and migrants are aged between 12 and 30.

“We are losing many new and good hands and brains, and in general they will not return. If they do come back it will be as tourists, but not permanently,” he said.

Laura García is a cleaner. She earns an average of 12 dollars for each house or office she cleans, but she can barely get by. She wants to emigrate, and does not care about the risks or what she hears about the hardening of U.S. migration policies, whose officials endlessly repeat that Central American migrants are “not welcome”.

“I hear all that, but there is no work here. Some days I clean two houses, some days only one and sometimes none. And as I am over 35, no one wants to give me a job because of my age. I struggle and struggle, but I want to try up in the North, they say they pay well for looking after people,” she told IPS in a faltering voice.

She lives in the poor and conflict-ridden shanty town of San Cristóbal, in the north of Tegucigalpa, which is controlled by gangs. After 18.00, they impose their own law: no one goes in or out without permission from the crime lords.

“They say that a lot can happen on the way (migrant route), attacks, kidnappings, rapes, they say a lot of things, but with the situation as it is here, it’s the same thing to die on the way than right here at the hands of the ‘maras’ (gangs), where you can be shot dead at any time,” Garcia said.

At the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops in Washington on July 7, Honduran cardinal Óscar Andrés Rodríguez Maradiaga spoke about the despair experienced in Honduras and the rest of Central America.

“It is like someone has torn open an artery in Honduras and other Central American countries. Fear, grinding poverty and no future mean we are losing our lifeblood – our young people. If this continues to happen, the hearts of our nations will stop beating,” said the cardinal in a speech that has not yet been disseminated in Honduras.

Rodríguez Maradiaga criticised the mass deportations of Honduran children who have started to arrive from Mexico and the United States. “Can you imagine starting your adult life being treated as a criminal? Where would you go from there?” he asked.

The Catholic Church in Honduras has insisted that fear and extreme poverty, together with unemployment and violence, lead parents to take the desperate measure of sending their children off on the dangerous journey of migration in order to save their lives. The Church is demanding inclusive public policies to prevent the flight of a generation.

Violence in Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador is considered to have grown as a result of the displacement of drug trafficking cartels from Mexico and Colombia, due to the war on drugs waged by the governments of those countries.

In 2013, the homicide rate in El Salvador was 69.2 per 100,000 people, in Guatemala 30 per 100,000 and in Honduras 79.7 per 100,000, according to official figures.

At present over one million Hondurans are estimated to reside in the United States, out of a total population of 8.4 million. In 2013 remittances to Honduras from this migrant population amounted to 3.1 billion dollars, according to the Honduran Association of Banking Institutions.

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Why No Vetoed Resolutions on Civilian Killings in Gaza?

ven, 07/18/2014 - 17:27

Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon (centre right) briefs the Security Council on Jul. 10 on the crisis in Israel and the Gaza Strip. Credit: UN Photo/Evan Schneider

By Thalif Deen
UNITED NATIONS, Jul 18 2014 (IPS)

As the civil war in Syria continues into its fourth year, the Western nations sitting on the U.N. Security Council (UNSC) have unsuccessfully tried to condemn the killings of civilians, impose punitive sanctions and accuse the Syrian government of war crimes – in four vetoed and failed resolutions.

The United States, France and Britain forced a vote on all four resolutions despite implicit threats by China and Russia, allies of beleaguered Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, to exercise their vetoes. And they did.The question looming large over the United Nations is why China and Russia aren't initiating a new draft resolution condemning the aerial bombardments of civilians in Gaza, demanding a no-fly zone and accusing Israelis of war crimes.

All five countries are veto-wielding permanent members of the UNSC.

The vetoes drew strong condemnations from human rights groups, including a coalition of eight non-governmental organisations (NGOs) which described the last veto by Russia and China as “a shameful illustration of why voluntary restraint on the use of the veto in mass atrocity situations is essential to the Council’s ability to live up to the U.N. charter’s expectations.”

But the question now looming large over the United Nations is why China and Russia aren’t initiating a new draft resolution condemning the aerial bombardments of civilians in Gaza, demanding a no-fly zone and accusing Israelis of war crimes.

Such a resolution is certain to be vetoed by one, or all three, of the Western powers in the UNSC, as China and Russia did on the resolutions against Syria. But this time around, it will be the Western powers on the defensive, trying to protect the interests of a country accused of civilian killings and war crimes.

Still, an Asian diplomat told IPS that even if a draft resolution is doomed to be shot down during closed-door informals for lack of nine votes, an attempt could have been made to expose the mood of the UNSC  - just as Western nations keep piling up resolutions against Syria even when they are conscious of the fact they will be vetoed by Russia and China, embarrassing both countries.

Stephen Zunes, professor of politics and coordinator of Middle Eastern Studies at the University of San Francisco, told IPS just as the Russians and Chinese have blocked Security Council action regarding Syria’s attacks on civilians in crowded urban areas, the United States has successfully blocked Security Council action regarding Israeli attacks on civilians in crowded urban areas.

Though both involve serious violations of international humanitarian law, precedent would dictate that U.N. action on Israel’s assault on Gaza would be even more appropriate because it is an international conflict rather than a civil war, said Zunes, who has written extensively on the politics of the Security Council.

“What is hard to explain is why the Security Council has not been willing to force the United States to take the embarrassing step of actually vetoing the measure, as it has on four occasions with Russia and China in regard to Syria,” he asked.

Ian Williams, a longstanding U.N. correspondent and senior analyst at Foreign Policy in Focus, told IPS the UNSC is determined to prove that governments do not have principles, only interests.

Since the end of the Cold War, the Palestinians have had no sponsors or patrons.

He said even the Russians and the Chinese weigh the strength of the Israel Lobby in the U.S., and increasingly in Europe, and calculate whether it is in their interests to alienate Washington even more.

Since they see few tangible diplomatic, economic or political benefits from backing the Palestinians, let alone Hamas, they allow atrocities to go unchecked in Gaza while raising their hands in horror about lesser, and less calculated, crimes elsewhere, said Williams.

“And the Russians would have to explain why they defend Assad for similar behaviour against his own people,” he added.

Only popular indignation will force the hand of governments – and the French government knows that, which is why they have banned pro-Palestinian demonstrations, he noted.

Addressing an emergency meeting of the UNSC Friday, Dr Riyad Mansour, the permanent observer of the State of Palestine, told delegates the 10-day death toll from heavy F-16 air strikes has been estimated at 274, mostly civilians, including 24 women and 62 children, and over 2,076 wounded and more thatn 38,000 displaced.

These are figures, he said, that could be corroborated by U.N. agencies on the ground.

Mansour accused Israel of war crimes, crimes against humanity, state terrorism and systematic violation of human rights.

But as of Friday, there were no indications of a hard-hitting resolution focusing on the plight of the 1.7 million residents under heavy fire and who are being defended by the militant group Hamas, accused of firing hundreds of rockets into Israel, with just one Israeli casualty.

Vijay Prashad, George and Martha Kellner Chair of South Asian History and Professor of International Studies at Trinity College, told IPS that a declaration – adopted at a summit meeting of leaders of Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa (BRICS) in Brazil last week – mentions Palestine and Israel in terms of the Middle East peace process, but it does not take a direct position on the ongoing war on Gaza.

“It would have been an apposite place to have crafted a separate and pointed resolution in solidarity with the Palestinians alongside the stated claim to the celebration of the U.N. Year of Solidarity with the Palestinian People,” he said.

He added that it also says something about the lack of confidence by the BRICS members on the Security Council who felt betrayed by Resolution 1973 (on Libya) and did not draft a resolution to call for a No Fly Zone over Gaza based on the principles of Responsibility to Protect (R2P).

The West has drafted resolutions on Syria, knowing that Russia and China would veto them as a way to deliberately put their rivals in a poor light, he added.

He asked why the BRICS states on the Security Council (currently Russia and China) did not produce a resolution to show the world that the West (or at least the U.S.) is willing to allow the calculated slaughter of the Palestinians at the same time as they want to be the ones to arbiter who is a civilian and what it means to responsibly protect them.

This only shows the BRICS states are not willing to directly challenge the West not in a defensive way (by vetoing a Western resolution), but in an aggressive way (by making the West veto a resolution for ending the slaughter in Gaza), he added.

Brazil, the current chair of BRICS, said in a statement released Friday the Brazilian government rejects the current Israeli ground incursion into Gaza, which represents a serious setback to peace efforts.

“Such an offensive could have serious repercussions for the increased instability in the Middle East and exacerbate the already dramatic humanitarian situation in the Occupied Palestinian Territory,” the statement said.

“We urge the Israeli forces to strictly respect their obligations under the International Humanitarian Law. Furthermore, we consider it necessary that Israel put an end to the blockade on Gaza immediately.”

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Do Not GM My Food!

ven, 07/18/2014 - 14:19

By Julio Godoy
BERLIN, Jul 18 2014 (IPS)

Attempts to genetically modify food staples, such as crops and cattle, to increase their nutritional value and overall performance have prompted world-wide criticism by environmental, nutritionists and agriculture experts, who say that protecting and fomenting biodiversity is a far better solution to hunger and malnutrition.

Two cases have received world-wide attention: one is a project to genetically modify bananas, the other is an international bull genome project.

In June, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation announced that it has allocated some 10 million dollars to finance an Australian research team at the Queensland University of Technology (QUT), working on vitamin A-enriched bananas in Uganda, by genetically modifying the fruit.

On the other hand,  according to its project team, the “1000 bull genomes project” aims “to provide, for the bovine research community, a large database for imputation of genetic variants for genomic prediction and genome wide association studies in all cattle breeds.”“It makes little sense to support genetic engineering at the expense of (traditional, organic) technologies that have proven to substantially increase yields, especially in many developing countries” – ‘Failure to Yield’, a study by the U.S. Union of Concerned Scientists

In both cases, the genetic modification (GM) of bananas and of bovines is an instrument to allegedly increase the nutritional value and improve the overall quality of the food staples, be it the fruit itself, or, in the case of cattle, of meat and milk.

James Dale, professor at QUT, and leader of the GM banana project, claims that “good science can make a massive difference here by enriching staple crops such as Ugandan bananas with pro-vitamin A and providing poor and subsistence-farming populations with nutritionally rewarding food.”

In the ‘1000 bull genomes project’, the scientists involved (from Australia, France, Germany, and other countries) have sequenced – that is, established the order of – the whole genomes of hundreds of cows and bulls. “This sequencing includes data for 129 individuals from the global Holstein-Friesian population, 43 individuals from the Fleckvieh breed and 15 individuals from the Jersey breed,” write the scientists in an article published in Nature Genetics of July 13.

The reactions from environmental activists, nutritionists, and scientists could not be more critical. The banana case has even prompted a specific campaign launched in India – the “No to GMO Bananas Campaign”.

The campaign, launched by Navdanya, a non-governmental organisation founded by the international environmental icon Vandana Shiva, insists that “GMO bananas are … not a solution to” malnutrition and hunger.

The group argues that so-called bio-fortification of bananas – “the genetic manipulation of the fruit, to cut and paste a gene, seeking to make a new or lost micronutrient,” as genetic expert Bob Phelps has put it – is a waste of time and money, and constitutes a risk to biodiversity.

“Bananas are highly nutritional but have only 0.44 mg of iron per 100 grams of edible portion,” a Navdanya spokesperson said. “All the effort to increase iron content of bananas will fall short the (natural) iron content of indigenous biodiversity.”

The rationale supporting bio-fortication suggests that the genetic manipulation can multiply the iron content of bananas by six. This increase would lead to an iron content of 2.6 mg per 100 grams of edible fruit.

“That would be 3,000 percent less than iron content in turmeric, or lotus stem, 2,000 percent less than mango powder,” the spokesperson at Navdanya said. “The safe, biodiverse alternatives to GM bananas are multifold.”

Scientists have indeed demonstrated that the GM agriculture has so far failed to deliver higher yields than organic processes.

In a study carried out in 2009, the U.S. Union of Concerned Scientists demonstrated that the yields of GM soybeans and corn have increased only marginally, if at all. The report, “Failure to Yield“, found out that increases in yields for both crops between 1995 and 2008 were largely due to traditional breeding or improvements in agricultural practices.

“Failure to Yield” also analyses the potential role in increasing food production over the next few decades, and concludes that “it makes little sense to support genetic engineering at the expense of (traditional, organic) technologies that have proven to substantially increase yields, especially in many developing countries.”

Additionally, the authors say, “recent studies have shown that organic and similar farming methods that minimize the use of pesticides and synthetic fertilizers can more than double crop yields at little cost to poor farmers in such developing regions as Sub-Saharan Africa.”

Yet another ground for criticism is the fact that Bill Gates has repeated an often refuted legend about the risk of extinction of the banana variety Cavendish, grown all over the world for the North American market.

In his blog, Gates claims that “a blight has spread among plantations in Asia and Australia in recent years, badly damaging production of … Cavendish. This disease, a fungus, hasn’t spread to Latin America yet, but if it does, bananas could get a lot scarcer and more expensive in North America and elsewhere.”

The risk of extinction, however, is practically inexistent, as the United Nations Food and Agricultural Organisation (FAO), among other institutions, had already shown in 2003.

“What is happening is the inevitable consequence of growing one genotype on a large scale,” said Eric Kueneman, at the time head of FAO’s Crop and Grassland Service. That is, monoculture is the main cause of the fungus.

“The Cavendish banana is a “dessert type” banana that is cultivated mostly by the large-scale banana companies for international trade,” recalled Kueneman, today an independent consultant on agriculture.

On the other hand, as FAO numbers show, the Cavendish banana is important in world trade, but accounts for only 10 percent of bananas produced and consumed globally. Virtually all commercially important plantations grow this single genotype, and by so doing, make the fruit vulnerable to diseases. As FAO said in 2003, “fortunately, small-scale farmers around the world have maintained a broad genetic pool which can be used for future banana crop improvement.”

Actually, the most frequent reasons for malnutrition and starvation can be found in food access, itself a consequence of poverty, inequity and social injustice. Thus, as Bob Phelps, founder of Gene Ethics, says, “the challenge to feed everyone well is much more than adding one or two key nutrients to an impoverished diet dominated by a staple food or two.”

The same goes for the genome sequencing of bulls and cows, says Ottmar Distl, professor at the Institute for Animal Breeding and Genetics at the University of Hannover. “Some years ago, we thought that it would impossible to obtain more than 1,000 kilograms of milk per year per cow,” Distl said. “Today, it is normal to milk 7,000 kilograms, and even as much as 10,000 kilograms per year.”

But such performance has a price – most such “optimised” cows calve only twice in their lives and die quite young.

And yet, the leading researchers of the “1000 bull genomes project” look at further optimising the cows’ and bulls’ performance by genetic manipulation of the cattle in order to, as they say in their report, meet the world-wide forecasted, rising demand for milk and meat.

Distl disagrees. “Whoever increases the milk output hasn’t yet done anything against worldwide malnutrition and hunger.” In addition, he warned, the constant optimisation of some races can lead to the extinction of other lines, thus affecting the populations depending precisely on those seldom older races.

It goes without saying that such an extinction would hardly serve the interests of the world’s consumers.

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St. Lucia Builds Resilience to Drought and Flooding

ven, 07/18/2014 - 12:42

By Desmond Brown
CASTRIES, St. Lucia, Jul 18 2014 (IPS)

Caribbean Grapples with Intense New Cycles of Flooding and Drought

ven, 07/18/2014 - 12:39

Dr. Paulette Bynoe, a specialist in community-based disaster risk management, climate change adaptation policy and environmental management, says integrated water resource management is critical. Credit: Desmond Brown/IPS

By Desmond Brown
CASTRIES, St. Lucia, Jul 18 2014 (IPS)

As unpredictable weather patterns impact water availability and quality in St. Lucia, the Caribbean island is moving to build resilience to climate-related stresses in its water sector.

Dr. Paulette Bynoe, a specialist in community-based disaster risk management, climate change adaptation policy and environmental management, says integrated water resource management is critical."All governments must work together within the region and lessons learnt in one country can be translated to other countries." -- Dr. Paulette Bynoe

“We have been making progress…making professionals and other important stakeholders aware of the issue. That is the first step,” she told IPS.

“So in other sectors we can also look at coordination whether we talk about agriculture or tourism. It’s important that we think outside of the box and we stop having turfs and really work together,” she added.

Earlier this month, Bynoe facilitated a three-day workshop on Hydro-Climatic Disasters in Integrated Water Resource Management (IWRM) in St. Lucia. The workshop was held as part of the Organisation of Eastern Caribbean States-Reducing the Risks to Human and Natural Assets Resulting from Climate Change (OECS-RRACC) project.

Participants were exposed to the key principles of IWRM and Disaster Risk Reduction (DRR); the implications of climate change and variability for water resources management; policy legislation and institutional requirements needed at the community level to facilitate DRR in IWRM; the economics of disasters; and emergency response issues.

Rupert Lay, a water resources specialist with the RRACC Project, said the training is consistent with the overall goals of the climate change demonstration project in GIS technology currently being implemented by the OECS Secretariat.

“What we need to do now in the region and even further afield is to directly correlate the effects, the financial impacts of these adverse weather conditions as it relates to water resources,” he told IPS.

“We need to make that link strongly so that all of us can appreciate the extent to which and the importance of building resilience and adapting to these stresses.”

On Jul. 9, the St. Lucia Water and Sewage Company (WASCO) placed the entire island under a water emergency schedule as the drought worsened. The government has described the current situation as a “water crisis”.

The crisis, initially declared for the north of the island, has expanded to the entire country.

Managing director of WASCO Vincent Hippolyte said that there had not been sufficient rainfall to meet the demands of consumers. At the most recent assessment, the dam’s water level was at 322 feet, while normal overflow levels are 333 feet.

“Despite the rains and the greenery, drought conditions exist because the rivers are not moving. They do not have the volume of water that will enable WASCO to extract sufficient water to meet demand,” he said.

“We are in the early stages in the drought situation. It is not as severe as the later stages, but we are still in drought conditions.”

The government said that experts predicted the drought would persist through the month of August.

Bynoe said what’s happening in St. Lucia and elsewhere in the Caribbean is consistent with the projections of the Inter-Governmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) and the Climate Modeling Group from the University of the West Indies.

She said both bodies had given possible future scenarios of climate change as it relates to the Small Island Developing States, and how climate change and climate variability could affect water resources.

“I think generally the issue is that in the region there is a high likelihood that we can have a shortage of water so we can experience droughts; and perhaps at the same time when we do have precipitation it can be very intense,” Bynoe, who is also Director of the School of Earth and Environmental Sciences at the University of Guyana, said.

She noted that the models are saying there can either be too little water or too much water, either of which could create serious problems for the Caribbean.

“With too much water now you can have run off, sedimentation, water pollution and water contamination which means in countries where we depend on surface water the treatment of water become critical and this will then bring cost implications because water treatment is very costly,” Bynoe explained.

“But also, if you are going to treat water you have to use a lot of energy and energy is one of the sectors that contribute to greenhouse gasses. So you can see where the impact of climate change is affecting water but with water treatment you can also contribute to climate change.”

For St. Lucia and its neighbours, Bynoe said lack of financial resources tops the list of challenges when it comes to disaster mitigation and adapting new measures in reference to hydro-climatic disasters.

She also pointed to the importance of human capital, citing the need to have persons trained in specific areas as specialists to help with modeling, “because in preparation we first have to know what’s the issue, we have to know what’s the probability of occurrence, we have to know what are the specific paths that we can take which could bring the best benefits to us.”

She used her home country Guyana, which suffers from a high level of migration, as one example of how sustainable development could be negatively affected by capital flight.

“But you also need human capital because first of all governments must work together within the region and lessons learnt in one country can be translated to other countries so that we can replicate the good experiences so that we don’t fall prey to the same sort of issues,” Bynoe said.

“But also social capital within the country in which we try to ensure that all stakeholders are involved, a very democratic process because it’s not only about policymakers; every person, every household must play a role to the whole issue of adaptation, it starts with the man or woman in the mirror,” she added.

In October 2010, Hurricane Tomas passed very near St. Lucia killing 14 people and leaving millions of dollars in monetary losses. The island was one of three Eastern Caribbean countries on which a slow-moving, low-level trough on Dec 24, 2013 dumped hundreds of millimetres of rain, killing 13 people.

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As Winds of Change Blow, South America Builds Its House with BRICS

ven, 07/18/2014 - 10:36

Russian President Vladimir Putin, Prime Minister of India Narendra Modi, President of Brazil Dilma Rousseff, President of China Xi Jinping and South African President Jacob Zuma take a family photograph at the 6th BRICS Summit held at Centro de Eventos do Ceara' in Fortaleza, Brazil. Credit: GCIS

By Diana Cariboni
MONTEVIDEO, Jul 18 2014 (IPS)

While this week’s BRICS summit might have been off the radar of Western powers, the leaders of its five member countries launched a financial system to rival Bretton Woods institutions and held an unprecedented meeting with the governments of South America.

The New Development Bank (NDB) and the Contingent Reserve Arrangement signal the will of BRICS countries (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa) to reconcile global governance instruments with a world where the United States no longer wields the influence that it once did.“The U.S. government clearly doesn't like this, although it will not say much publicly.” -- Mark Weisbrot

More striking for Washington could be the fact that the 6th BRICS summit, held in Brazil, set the stage to display how delighted the heads of state and government of South America – long-regarded as the United States’ “backyard”— were to meet Russia’s president Vladimir Putin.

At odds with Washington and just expelled from the Group of Eight (G8) following Russia’s intervention in the Ukrainian crisis, Putin was warmly received in the region, where he also visited Cuba and Argentina.

In Buenos Aires, Putin and the president of Argentina, Cristina Fernández, signed agreements on energy, judicial cooperation, communications and nuclear development.

Argentina, troubled by an impending default, is hoping Russian energy giant Gazprom will expand investments in the rich and almost unexploited shale oil and gas fields of Vaca Muerta.

Although Argentina ranks fourth among the Russia’s main trade partners in the region, Putin stressed the country is “a key strategic partner” not only in Latin America, but also within the G20 and the United Nations.

Buenos Aires and Moscow have recently reached greater understanding on a number of international issues, like the conflicts in Syria and Crimea, Argentina sovereignty claim over the Malvinas/Falkland islands and its strategy against the bond holdouts.

Meanwhile, the relationship between Washington and Buenos Aires remains cool, as it has been with Brasilia since last year’s revelations of massive surveillance carried out by the National Security Agency against Brazil.

Some leftist governments –namely Bolivia, Venezuela and Ecuador— frequently accuse Washington of pursuing an imperialist agenda in the region.

But it was the president of Uruguay, José Mujica –whose government has warm and close ties with the Barack Obama administration— who better explained the shifting balance experienced by Latin America in its relationships with the rest of the world.Transparency clause

In an interview before the summit, Ambassador Flávio Damico, head of the department of inter-regional mechanisms of the Brazilian foreign ministry, said a clause on transparency in the New Development Bank’s articles of agreement “will constitute the base for the policies to be followed in this area.”

Article 15, on transparency and accountability, states that “the Bank shall ensure that its proceedings are transparent and shall elaborate in its own Rules of Procedure specific provisions regarding access to its documents.”

There are no further references to this subject neither to social or environmental safeguards in the document.

After a dinner in Buenos Aires and a meeting in Brasilia with Putin, Mujica said the current presence of Russia and China in South America opens “new roads” and shows “that this region is important somehow, so the rest of the world perhaps begins to value us a little more.”

Furthermore, he reflected, “pitting one bloc against another… is not good for the world’s future. It is better to share [ties and relationships, in order to] keep alternatives available.”

Almost at the same time, Washington announced it was ready to transfer six Guantanamo Bay detainees to Uruguay, one of the subjects Obama and Mujica agreed on when the Uruguayan visited the U.S. president in May.

Mujica has invited companies from United States, China and now Russia to take part in an international tender to build a deepwater port on the Atlantic ocean which, Uruguay expects, could be a logistic hub for the region.

But beyond Russia, which has relevant commercial agreements with Venezuela, the real centre of gravity in the region is China, the first trade partner of Brazil, Chile and Perú, and the second one of a growing number of Latin American countries.

China’s president Xi Jiping travels on Friday to Argentina, and then to Venezuela and Cuba.

“The U.S. government clearly doesn’t like this, although it will not say much publicly,” said Mark Weisbrot, co-director of the Center for Economic and Policy Research.

“With a handful of rich allies, they have controlled the most important economic decision-making institutions for 70 years, including the IMF [International Monetary Fund], the World Bank, and more recently the G8 and the G20, and they wrote the rules for the WTO [World Trade Organisation],” Weisbrot told IPS.

The BRICS bank “is the first alternative where the rest of the world can have a voice.  Washington does not like competition,” he added.

However, the United States’ foreign priorities are elsewhere: Eastern Europe, Asia and the Middle East.

And with the exception of the migration crisis on its southern border and evergreen concerns about security and defence, Washington seems to have little in common with its Latin American neighbours.

“I wish they were really indifferent. But the truth is, they would like to get rid of all of the left governments in Latin America, and will take advantage of opportunities where they arise,” said Weisbrot.

Nevertheless, new actors and interests are operating in the region.

The Mercosur bloc (Argentina, Brazil, Paraguay and Uruguay) and the European Union are currently negotiating a trade agreement.

Colombia, Chile, México and Perú have joined forces in the Pacific Alliance, while the last three also joined negotiations to establish the Trans-Pacific Partnership.

In this scenario, the BRICS and their new financial institutions pose further questions about the ability of Latin America to overcome its traditional role of commodities supplier and to achieve real development.

“I don’t think that the BRICS alliance is going to get in the way of that,” said Weisbrot.

According to María José Romero, policy and advocacy manager with the European Network on Debt and Development (Eurodad), the need to “moderate extractive industries” could lead to “changes in the relationship with countries like China, which looks at this region largely as a grain basket.”

Romero, who attended civil society meetings held on the sidelines of the BRICS summit, is the author of “A private affair”, which analyses the growing influence of private interests in the development financial institutions and raises key warnings for the new BRICS banking system.

BRICS nations should be able “to promote a sustainable and inclusive development,” she told IPS, “one which takes into account the impacts and benefits for all within their societies and within the countries where they operate.”

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India’s Cut-Rose Sector Pushes Past Barriers

ven, 07/18/2014 - 08:33

Rose growers in Bangalore, India, rely on sustainable rainwater harvesting techniques. Credit: Keya Acharya/IPS

By Keya Acharya
BANGALORE, Jul 18 2014 (IPS)

Neat rows of pampered-looking rose plants, drip-irrigated and ‘misted’ by tiny sprinklers, grow inside temperature-controlled greenhouses with high domes opened periodically for fresh air, offering 10 million cut-rose stems for export each year.

The 25-hectare farm, located roughly 35 km outside the southern Indian city of Bangalore, belongs to Suvarna Florex, arguably India’s largest cut-rose exporter.

But though the plants are thriving, the industry is hassled by such thorny issues as the high royalty rates of its foreign-bred roses and steadily increasing input costs.

“This is a billion-dollar industry, controlled by European [mainly Dutch and French] breeders." -- Dr. Thilak Subbaiah, horticultural consultant
Occupying a niche in the flower market – hitherto dominated by traditional demand for loose flowers for cultural and religious occasions – the cut-rose industry in India is on the rise, registering a 17-20 percent increase last year alone, with growers exporting some 76.73 million tonnes, mainly roses, in 2012-2013.

Major export destinations are Europe, the United Arab Emirates (UAE), Japan, Canada and Australia.

Until 2010, the Bangalore-based operation Karuturi commanded nearly 10 percent of the cut-rose market in Europe and expanded rapidly from rose farms in Kenya to agricultural crops in Ethiopia.

Tangled in a web of bankruptcy, violations of labour and taxation laws in Kenya and money troubles – among others – in Ethiopia, Karuturi faced a storm of criticism over its controversial acquisition on paper of 400,000 hectares of virgin lands in Ethiopia at a very inexpensive rate, beginning in 2010.

The move, which some called a ‘land grab’ and which resulted in the threat of displacement of thousands and the loss of livelihoods for many in the Gambella region of Ethiopia, quickly became synonymous with Karuturi’s notorious founder Sai Ramakrishna, whose reputation tainted India’s operations in Africa.

According to a disgruntled rose-grower and former chief of the forest services in the neighbouring state of Andhra Pradesh, R. D. Reddy, Ramakrishna is “a playboy in all respects; one who speculated in stocks with borrowed money and lost heavily, and now the whole industry in India is being blamed because of him.”

Dr. Manjunatha Reddy, a Dubai-based Indian industrialist with a rose farm located just five km away from Karuturi’s flower operations in the Holata region, near the Ethiopian capital Addis Ababa, says that the ‘takeover on paper’ in the Gambella region is symptomatic of Ramakrishna’s speculative Ponzi-like financial schemes.

“His misdeeds have really turned public sentiment against Indian industry in Africa,” he told IPS, adding that a bad commercial reputation goes viral in a continent where local communities rely heavily on the land for their livelihoods.

Reddy says other Indian enterprises like telecommunications and farming have also been tarnished with the same negative image cast by Karuturi’s actions on the ground.

“We now have difficulty even in raising funds for agri-business from venture capitalists and investment brokers,” Reddy asserted.

Karuturi’s head offices in Bangalore did not respond to IPS’ repeated requests for an interview.

A matter of royalties

Other growers, situated in the elevated Deccan plateau lands surrounding the southern cities of Bangalore and Pune, dismiss Karuturi’s reputation as ‘immaterial’, nothing more than an embarrassment for the sector.

What’s really bothering major players in the industry, according to Suvarna Florex Managing Director Sridhar Chowdary, are the “huge royalties we have to pay foreign breeders for rose varieties.”

An ‘introduced industry’ stemming from the demand for cut-flowers in the international market, India’s flower sector was initially heavily in debt due to huge capital expenses incurred from the purchase of foreign greenhouse infrastructure imported from the Netherlands, along with Dutch patents for its roses.

On average, each grower incurred costs of up to 20 million rupees (roughly 332,000 dollars) per hectare of rose farm. Now, 20 years later, the cost of setting up a farm with indigenous technology costs less than half that amount.

“This is a billion dollar industry, controlled by European [mainly Dutch and French] breeders,” horticultural consultant Dr. Thilak Subbaiah told IPS.

“There is no way we can compete,” he stressed, adding that problem is made worse by Indian horticultural institutes’ lack of attention to breeding research.

According to Anne Ramesh, president of the South India Floriculture Association and chairman of Suvarna Florex, royalty rates for Indian growers average between 0.85 and 1.25 euros per plant for each variety of rose.

“This is the same rate as Kenya, which grows 100 percent [of its flowers] for export, whilst we grow half that percentage at best, the rest being for the domestic market,” he told IPS. “We find it unfair to have the same rate of royalty imposed on us.”

Small steps in a growing industry

As late as 2007 the industry at large was still complaining about a marked lack of awareness on exporters’ needs and a dearth of any government assistance.

Cold-chain systems for transportation, facilitated international flights, phyto-sanitary inspections and the lack of any financial incentives for the industry were among the top concerns over half a decade ago.

Recents developments, however, have stemmed some of the criticisms directed at the administration.

A cold-chain flower-auction centre set up in Bangalore, capital of the state of Karnataka, is described by rose-growers as one of the best in the world market. This, coupled with speedy transportation and easy facilitation at Bangalore’s Kempegowda International Airport, is putting a smile on many exporters’ faces.

In addition, the government has made some important concessions that have greatly reduced the burden on local growers.

“The South India Floriculture Association approached the government with our financial constraints and we subsequently got a one-time waiver of 50 percent of our heavy loans [in 2004-2005] incurred due to imported infrastructure,” Ramesh said.

“Today we have greenhouse-technology pioneers, we have employment at the village-level and small farmers who can put up greenhouses because of state and central government incentives. We managed to progress because the government saw the industry as a way to rural development,” he stated.

In the neighbouring state of Tamil Nadu alone, the rose industry employs 10,000 women and 3,000 men.

Rural farmers now cater mostly to the domestic market, says Satish Aswathappa, co-owner of Nandi Floriculture, based in Devanahalli, about 40 km outside Bangalore city.

“We are farmers ourselves, we deal directly with other rural farmers who give us their roses and we have a same-day system of grading and sending the roses by public bus to Hyderabad [capital of Andhra Pradesh],” he added.

Environmental concerns also influence the industry, whether domestic or export-oriented.

Chowdary says protective environmental measures are perceived by growers as “survival technologies.”

Walking IPS around Suvarna Florex’s huge farm, Chowdary demonstrated how rainwater is collected in aqeducts and then channeled into a central pond, reducing dependency on groundwater.

There are also checkdams, plastic sheeted ‘ponds’ where rainwater is held in troughs, recharge measures around groundwater pumps and wells, and vermicomposting of plant leafage for manuring.

With groundwater sources steadily depleting due to overusage by consumers and mismanagement by the government, the quality of groundwater has also suffered, he said, which could be disastrous for rose-growers since the plants thrive best when fed uncontaminated water.

Rose growers guzzle water at the rate of millions of litres per week for a farm covering 25 hectares. Sustainable rainwater harvesting techniques are crucial, since an hour’s rain provides enough water to sustain a 25-hectare plot for two days.

Still, input costs remain high, since the use of chemicals has increased in “application and in price”, according to Subbaiah. “We also pay more than government-stipulated wages plus incentives just to ensure the [workers] turn up,” he added

Organic compost has depleted too as lands and cattle around the cities disappear into urbanisation.

Despite these problems, a steadily increasing domestic market means the industry will likely be around for a while.

(END)

 

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U.S. Accused of Forcing EU to Accept Tar Sands Oil

jeu, 07/17/2014 - 19:59

Mining tar sands oil at Fort McMurray in Alberta, Canada. Credit: Chris Arsenault/IPS

By Carey L. Biron
WASHINGTON, Jul 17 2014 (IPS)

Newly publicised internal documents suggest that U.S. negotiators are working to permanently block a landmark regulatory proposal in the European Union aimed at addressing climate change, and instead to force European countries to import particularly dirty forms of oil.

Environmentalists, working off of documents released through open government requests, say U.S. trade representatives are responding to frustrations voiced by the oil and gas industry here. This week, U.S. and E.U. officials are in Brussels for the sixth round of talks towards what would be the world’s largest free-trade area, known as the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP).“These documents show that the U.S. is simply not interested in an open, transparent [negotiation] process.” -- Bill Waren

“These documents show that the U.S. is simply not interested in an open, transparent [negotiation] process,” Bill Waren, a senior trade analyst with Friends of the Earth U.S., a watchdog group, told IPS. “Rather, U.S. representatives have been lobbying on the [E.U. regulatory proposal] in a way that reflects the interests of Chevron, ExxonMobil and others.”

The oil industry has repeatedly expressed concern over the European Union’s potential tightening of regulations around transport fuel emissions, first proposed in 2009 for what’s known as the Fuel Quality Directive (FQD). Yet according to a report released Thursday by Friends of the Earth Europe, the sector now appears to have convinced the U.S. government to work to permanently block the implementation of this standard.

Current negotiating texts for the TTIP talks are unavailable. But critics say the negotiations are forcing open the massive E.U market for a particularly heavy form of petroleum known as tar sands oil, significant deposits of which are in the Canadian province of Alberta.

“Since the adoption of the revised Fuel Quality Directive in 2009, the international oil companies … petroleum refiners, the Cana­dian government and the Albertan provincial government have spent enormous resources and used aggressive lobbying tactics to delay and weaken the implementation proposal,” the new report, which is being supported by a half-dozen environmental groups, states.

“The oil industry and the Canadian government … are afraid that the FQD could set a precedent by recognising and labelling tar sands as highly polluting and inspire similar legislation elsewhere.”

Safeguarding investments

At issue is the mechanism by which the European Union would determine the greenhouse gas emissions of various types of oil and gas. As part of Europe’s broader climate pledges, the FQD was revised to reduce the emissions of transport fuels by six percent by the end of the decade.

In 2011, the E.U. proposed that tar sands and other unconventional oils be formally characterised as having higher greenhouse gas “intensity” than conventional oil, given that they require more energy to produce – 23 percent higher, according to a study for the European Commission.

Yet tar sands have received massive interest from oil majors in recent years. Some 150 billion dollars were invested in Canadian tar sands between 2001 and 2012, according to Friends of the Earth, a figure expected to grow to nearly 200 billion dollars through 2022.

“Major oil investors want to immediately move as much tar sands oil as possible to Europe,” Waren says. “Over the longer term, they want to get the investments that will allow them to develop the infrastructure necessary to ship that exceptionally dirty fossil fuel to Europe.”

Many investors likely assumed the Canadian tar sands oil would have a ready market in the United States. But not only is the U.S. economy reducing its dependence on oil – particularly imports – but the trans-national transport of Canadian tar sands oils has become a major political flashpoint here, and remains uncertain.

So, last year, oil lobbyists here began to push U.S. trade representatives to use the nascent TTIP talks to safeguard the E.U. market for unconventional oils.

“[I]f the EU approves the proposed amendment to the FQD … it would adversely affect the U.S.-EU relationship, potentially eliminating a $32 billion-a-year flow of trade,” David Friedman, a vice-president with American Fuel & Petrochemical Manufacturers, a major trade association, wrote in a May 2013 letter to the top U.S. trade official.

Now, according to an internal European Commission e-mail uncovered by Friends of the Earth Europe and outlined in the new report, U.S. trade representatives appear to be echoing this analysis.

“[T]he US Mission informed us formally that the US authorities have concerns about the transparency and process, as well as substantive concerns about the existing proposal (the singling out of two crudes – Canada and Venezuela,” the letter, said to be from October 2013, reportedly states.

Canada and Venezuela have the world’s largest deposits of tar sands oil.

The letter also notes that the U.S. negotiators would prefer a “system of averaging out the crudes”, meaning that all forms of oil would simply receive one median score regarding their emissions intensity. This would effectively lift any E.U. bar on unconventional oils – and, according to the Friends of the Earth analysis, add an additional 19 million tons of carbon dioxide to the atmosphere.

‘Threatening’ climate policies

The new revelations come just a week after the leaking of a TTIP paper on E.U. energy policy, which would push the United States to abolish restrictions and automatically approve crude oil exports to the European Union. The document offered a rare glimpse into notoriously secret talks.

“We strongly oppose attempts by the E.U. to use this trade agreement, negotiated behind closed doors, to secure automatic access to U.S. oil and gas,” Ilana Solomon, director of the Responsible Trade Program at the Sierra Club, a conservation and watchdog group, told IPS. “I think there’s strong support for continued restrictions on this issue among both the public and policymakers, due to the implications for both energy security and the climate.”

The new disclosures have indeed caught the attention of the U.S. Congress. Last week, 11 lawmakers renewed a line of questioning from last year about Washington’s influence on E.U. tar sands policy.

“We reiterate that actions pressuring the EU to alter its FQD would be inconsistent with the goals expressed in President Obama’s Climate Action Plan,” the lawmakers wrote to the U.S. trade representative, Michael Froman, “and we remain concerned that trade and investment rules may be being used to undermine or threaten important climate policies of other nations.”

Yet such concerns may already be too late.

Last month, media reports suggested that the European Commission is now considering a proposal to go with the U.S.-pushed “averaging” approach to its fuel-emissions calculation. The same week, Europe’s first shipment of tar sands oil – 570,000 barrels from Canada – reportedly arrived on Spanish shores.

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Public Stockholding Programmes for Food Security Face Uphill Struggle

jeu, 07/17/2014 - 18:12

By Ravi Kanth Devarakonda
GENEVA, Jul 17 2014 (IPS)

Framing rules at the World Trade Organization for maintaining public stockholding programmes for food security in developing countries is not an easy task, and for Ambassador Jayant Dasgupta, former Indian trade envoy to the WTO, “this is even more so when countries refuse to acknowledge the real problem and hide behind legal texts and interpretations in a slanted way to suit their interests.”

“The major problem is that the WTO’s Agreement on Agriculture (AOA) was negotiated in early 1990s and there are many issues which were not taken into account then,” says Ambassador Dasgupta, who played a prominent role in articulating the developing countries’ position on food security in the run-up to the WTO’s ninth ministerial meeting in Bali, Indonesia, last year.

“If the WTO has to carry on as an institution catering for international trade and its member states, especially the developing and least-developed countries, the rules have to be modified to ensure food security and livelihood security for hundreds of millions of poor farmers,” Ambassador Dasgupta told IPS Thursday.

Ironically, the rich countries – which continue to provide tens of billions of dollars for subsidies to their farmers – are insisting on inflexible disciplines for public stockholding programmes in the developing world.“Credible disciplines for food security are vital for the survival of poor farmers in the developing countries who cannot be left to the vagaries of market forces and extortion by middlemen” – Ambassador Jayant Dasgupta, former Indian trade envoy to the WTO

The United States, a major subsidiser of farm programmes in the world and charged for distorting global cotton trade by the WTO’s Appellate Body, has called for a thorough review of farm policies of  developing countries seeking a permanent solution for public stockholding programmes to address food security.

“Food security is an enormously complex topic affected by a number of policies, including trade distorting domestic support, export subsidies, export restrictions, and high tariffs,” says a United States proposal circulated at the WTO on July 14.

“These policies [in the developing countries],” continues the proposal, “can impede the food security of food insecure peoples throughout the world.” The United States insists that food security policies must be consistent with the rules framed in the Uruguay Round of trade negotiations that came into effect in 1995.

“Public stockholding is only one tool used to address food security, and disciplines regarding its application are already addressed in the Agreement on Agriculture,” the United States maintains.

The agriculture agreement of the trade body was largely based on the understandings reached between the two largest subsidisers – the European Union and the United States – which culminated in what is called the Blair House Agreement in 1992. The major subsidisers were provided a “peace clause” for ten years (1995-2005) from facing any challenges to their farm subsidy programmes at the WTO.

The AOA also includes complex rules regarding how its members, especially industrialised countries, must reduce their most-distorting farm subsidies.

In the face of increased legal challenges at the WTO and also demands raised for steep cuts in subsidies during the current Doha trade negotiations, several industrialised countries shifted their subsidies from what are called most trade-distorting “amber box” measures to “green box” payments which are exempted from disputes. Jacques Berthelot, a French civil society activist, says that the United States has placed some of its illegal subsidies into the green box.

When it comes to disciplines on food security, however, the United States says it is important to ensure that “[food security] programmes do not distort trade or adversely affect the food security of other members.”  The United States has suggested several “elements” for a Work Programme on food security, including the issue of public stockholding programmes, for arriving at a permanent solution. Washington wants a thorough review of how countries have implemented food security in developing countries.

The U.S. proposal, says a South American farm trade official, is aimed at “frustrating” the developing countries from arriving at a simple and effective solution that would enable them to continue their public stockholding programmes without many hurdles. “The United States is interested in preserving the Uruguay Round rules but not address the issues raised by the developing countries in the Doha Round of trade negotiations that seek to address concerns raised by developing countries,” the official adds.

The G-33 group – with over 45 developing and least-developed countries – has brought the food security issue to the centre-stage at the WTO. Over the last two years, the G-33, led by Indonesia with China, India, Pakistan, the Philippines, Kenya, Nigeria, Zimbabwe, Bolivia, Cuba and Peru among others, has called for updating the external reference price based on 1986-88 prices to ensure that they can continue with their public stockholding programmes under what is called de minimis support for developing countries.

Following the G-33’s insistence on a solution for public stockholding programmes for food security, which became a make-or-break issue at the WTO’s Bali ministerial meeting, trade ministers had agreed on a decision “with the aim of making recommendations for a permanent solution.” The ministers directed their negotiators to arrive at a solution in four years.

Over the last six months, there has been little progress in addressing the core issues in the Bali package raised by developing countries, including food security. “We are deeply concerned that the Ministerial Decision on Public Stockholding for Food Security Purposes is getting side-lined,“ India told members at the WTO on July 2.

“In this and other areas, instead of engaging in meaningful discussion, certain members have been attempting to divert attention to the policies and programmes of selected developing country members,” says New Delhi, emphasising that “the issues raised are in no way relevant to the core mandate that we have been provided in the Bali Decisions.”

At a time when the industrialised countries want rapid implementation of the complex agreement on trade facilitation, their continued stonewalling tactics on the issues raised by developing countries has created serious doubts whether food security issue will be addressed in a meaningful manner at all.

“Credible disciplines for food security are vital for the survival of poor farmers in the developing countries who cannot be left to the vagaries of market forces and extortion by middlemen,” says Ambassador Dasgupta. “The delay in addressing food security will pose problems for millions of people below poverty who are dependent on public distribution programmes.”

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