By Carey L. Biron
WASHINGTON, Mar 10 2014 (IPS)
The multinational food giant Mars, Inc. unveiled Monday a new set of guidelines aimed at ensuring that its palm oil supply lines are completely traceable and sustainable by next year.
Global demand for palm oil has increased substantially in recent years, for use in both foods and household goods. Yet the industry, overwhelmingly centred in Malaysia and Indonesia, has been rife with environmental and labour problems."This isn’t an activist-led commitment. They’re doing it because they want to do it." -- Bastien Sachet
Recent months, however, have seen a cascade of major reform commitments from both palm oil suppliers and well-known consumer brands such as Mars.
“Rapid expansion of palm oil plantations continues to threaten environmentally sensitive areas of tropical rainforest and carbon-rich peatlands, as well as the rights of communities that depend on them for their livelihoods,” Barry Parkin, chief sustainability officer at Mars, best known as the maker of M&Ms and other candies, said Monday.
“We believe that these additional measures will not only help build a genuinely sustainable pipeline for Mars, but will also help accelerate change across the industry by encouraging our suppliers to only source from companies whose plantations and farms are responsibly run.”
Under the new guidelines, Mars will require that all of its suppliers have in place sourcing plans that are both fully sustainable and fully traceable by the end of this year, to be implemented by the end of 2015. The company, headquartered just outside of Washington, is also instituting a “no deforestation” pledge for its palm oil supply as well as its sourcing of paper pulp, soy and beef.
“Four years ago, Nestle decided to go for full traceability and no deforestation, but at the time that decision was seen as very niche because it was being pushed by environmental activists,” Bastien Sachet, director of the Forest Trust, a global watchdog group that focuses on responsible products and whose newest member is Mars, told IPS.
“The great thing about Mars, particularly in their push against deforestation across commodities, is that this isn’t an activist-led commitment. They’re doing it because they want to do it, which means that they see what’s happening.”
In this, Sachet refers to a growing trend from both palm oil supply companies and major consumer brands to recognise that previous industry certification efforts to clean up palm oil supply lines have been relatively ineffective. Ensuring the traceability of palm oil, on the other hand, turns this certification model upside-down.
“Over the last four years, the general public, industry and the brands have struggled to make progress on sustainability with the tool of certification. Meanwhile, we saw forests being trashed in Malaysia and Indonesia, a process that’s also beginning in Africa,” Sachet says.
“But now they’re realising that certification is not the only way to go. Instead, we can get traceability first, figure out where it’s coming from and then figure out what’s happening around its production. Eventually we can incentivise those guys who are doing well with more market share – and penalise those that aren’t.”
While much of the industry is currently based in Southeast Asia, many observers point to looming problems in Africa, where land is starting to be snapped up by speculators. Yet Sachet says the new policies being put in place by the global food industry could be laying the grounds for finding a balance between development and conservation throughout the palm oil industry.
Half the supply
A voluntary certification process for responsible palm oil production, known as the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO), has been in effect for a decade, and most of the major users of palm products do abide by its guidelines. Yet it’s become increasingly clear that RSPO certification has been unable to halt the industry’s mass deforestation and destruction of endangered habitat.
Mars’s Parkin notes that his company “recognised that even though we have already implemented a 100% certified supply of palm oil, this is not enough.”
Other major brands have made similar realisations in recent months, including Unilever, Hershey, Kellogg and L’Oreal. Perhaps more critically, this trend has now included some of the largest global palm oil suppliers, including Wilmar (in December) and Golden Agri Resources (GAR, just last week).
Wilmar alone accounts for more than 40 percent of the global palm oil supply. Altogether, companies controlling a bit more than half of that supply have now committed to having their products be deforestation free by 2015.
As recently as the middle of last year, that figure was zero.
“There has been progress and I definitely think we’re on the right track, though there’s still a long way to go,” Calen May-Tobin, lead analyst for the TropicalForest and Climate Initiative at the Union of Concerned Scientists (USC), a watchdog group here, told IPS.
“It’s also important to remember that these are still just public commitments. The action happens when these commitments get turned into policies and are actually implemented.
Last week, UCS released a scorecard that rated palm oil-related sustainability progress by the packaged food, fast food and personal care industries. May-Tobin, who was a co-author on the new report, notes that much of the new public pressure has been aimed at the packaged-food companies.
“On the one hand, it’s clear that when consumers speak up, these companies listen. On the other hand, I think the report’s major finding was how poorly the fast-food sector did,” May-Tobin says.
“Further, there are still a number of other large traders that now need to follow Wilmar and GAR’s example. We think the consumer companies are equally key in helping drive the traders, as the average consumer doesn’t necessarily know who Bungee or Cargill is, but they know Hershey and Mars.”
Advocacy groups are using the recent momentum to urge holdout companies to unveil their own commitments. Greenpeace, the group widely credited with pushing Nestle to make its landmark pledges in 2010, is currently focusing on the U.S. consumer-goods giant Procter & Gamble (P&G).
“Mars joins a growing list of companies … that are finally promising forest-friendly products to their consumers. It shows that global public pressure is working, and is leaving P&G, which refuses to clean up their supply chains, increasingly isolated,” Areeba Hamid, forest campaigner at Greenpeace International, said Monday.
“P&G is relying on a certification scheme that has failed to prevent rainforest destruction in the habitat of endangered orangutans, or help reduce man-made fires like the ones that covered Singapore in smog last summer. It’s time P&G finally becomes proud sponsors of rainforests and commits to No Deforestation.”Related Articles
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The post Mars Latest to Announce “No Deforestation” Palm Oil Pledge appeared first on Inter Press Service.
By Inés Benítez
MALAGA, Spain, Mar 10 2014 (IPS)
“Who will speak for them now? Who will tell their stories to their families in Cameroon or Ivory Coast?” asked Edmund Okeke, a Nigerian, about the 16 migrants who died while trying to swim to the shore of the Spanish city of Ceuta from Morocco.
The victims were driven back with rubber bullets fired by the Spanish Guardia Civil (militarised police) from the beach of this Spanish enclave in north Africa, on Feb. 6.“The nights were terrible. The waves were like mountains." -- Gora Ndiaye
“These are people living in unbearable conditions of poverty and who are seeking a better life. Why else would they want to leave their country and embark on such a long and dangerous journey?” said Okeke, the president of the Palma-Palmilla Immigrants Association in the southern Spanish city of Malaga.
Okeke has lived here for 14 years and he believes that the actions of the Spanish border authorities “cannot be justified.”
That is why, he told IPS, he is calling on the government of rightwing Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy for a “proper” investigation and the prosecution and trial of “those responsible for giving the order to fire” on people “who were neither aggressive, nor represented a danger to anyone.”
The 16 migrants drowned when dozens jumped into the sea to try to reach Ceuta by swimming around the breakwater separating Moroccan and Spanish waters.
The Interior minister, Jorge Fernández Díaz, admitted on Feb. 13 when he appeared before parliament that the authorities had fired rubber bullets and tear gas from the land to the water.
“But not at the people,” he emphasised in his description of the facts being investigated by the attorney general’s office, following a complaint lodged by a score of non-governmental organisations.
Fernández Díaz visited Ceuta and Melilla, the other autonomous Spanish city in northern Africa, on Mar. 5 and 6. There he announced that the fences separating the enclaves from Morocco would be reinforced with special wire mesh to make them even harder for immigrants to scale.
Every year thousands of Africans, mostly from the sub-Saharan region, try to get into the European Union by climbing the three rows of fences lined with razor wire that separate Moroccan territory from Ceuta and Melilla, or by crossing the border in small boats from Morocco or their home countries.
But swimming across was an even more desperate option.
Tina Adrasubi, a 34-year-old Nigerian, left her home in Benin 13 years ago to come to Spain in order to help her family.
“I went to Mali by car with a friend, and then on foot to Morocco to cross to Ceuta,” she told IPS, rocking her two-month-old daughter, Gloria. Many sub-Saharan Africans take years to reach Morocco.
Each of the young men who drowned has his own story, and perhaps a mother who is waiting for a phone call that never comes, but “it seems that does not matter at all when you are poor,” complained Okeke to IPS.
The five bodies recovered on the Spanish side of the border fence lie in anonymous graves in a Ceutan graveyard. The others were taken to Moroccan morgues.
The governing People’s Party rejected a move in Congress to open a commission of enquiry into the tragedy.
Cecilia Malmström, European Commissioner for Home Affairs, suggested in a letter to minister Fernández Díaz that “the rubber bullets could have provoked panic among the group of immigrants” attempting to swim ashore, contributing to the deaths.
Some 80,000 immigrants, 40,000 in Morocco and another 40,000 in Mauritania, are waiting their chance to enter the EU through Ceuta and Melilla, the minister said on Mar. 4, according to figures provided by Morocco and corroborated by his office.
Union leader Gerardo Cova, who between 2001 and 2007 was head of the Information Centre for Foreign Workers in the resort of Marbella, told IPS: “the government wants to create social alarm and is criminalising immigrants in order to justify its actions and make cutbacks on foreigners’ rights.”
In 2013, a total of about 100,000 immigrants were intercepted trying to cross maritime and land borders into the 28 member countries of the EU.
Spain is the fourth most frequent route of irregular entry, according to the December 2013 figures from the European Agency for the Management of External Borders (Frontex), quoted by its assistant director, Gil Arias.
“Instead of rescuing them, they were treated like animals,” Christiana Nwokeji, the president of the Malaga Union of Nigerian Women, complained to IPS in her home.
While she was talking, a video on the television showed several survivors who managed to swim to shore in Ceuta, only to be immediately sent back to Morocco.
Nwokeji remarked that Spaniards, too, are emigrating because of the extremely high unemployment rate, due to the economic crisis and the new regulations that make it easier to fire workers. “Everyone in the world emigrates when they face a lack of opportunities,” she said.
“I was born in a crisis. We have always lived in crises,” Gora Ndiaye, a 28-year-old Senegalese man, told IPS. He said he felt “very afraid and very cold” in the small boat in which he and 45 of his fellow countrymen spent a week, travelling from Dakar to the Spanish municipality of Hoya Fría on Tenerife, one of the Canary Islands.
Ndiaye, who has a wife and a six-month-old son in Senegal, said “people here have to help Africa,” and he justified migration “because we have no food, we must send money to our families. We cannot live on nothing.”
“The nights were terrible. The waves were like mountains. I felt stabbing pains in my arms and legs,” said Ndiaye, who cannot swim, and who paid about 500 euros (693 dollars) for the crossing in a flimsy boat. “I am lucky to have lived to tell the tale,” he said.
According to Balance Migratorio en la Frontera Sur de 2013” (Migration Balance on the Southern Border 2013), a report presented in February by the Andalusian Human Rights Association (APDHA), 7,550 immigrants were intercepted reaching Spain by boat or through Ceuta and Melilla.
The number of people who died or disappeared in the attempt were 130 in 2013.
The study reported that 45.25 percent of African immigrants, over half of them from sub-Saharan Africa, arrived in boats and 27.4 percent on inflatable rafts. Some 15.75 percent scaled the fences at Ceuta and Melilla.
On Feb. 28, 200 immigrants climbed the fences at Melilla and their celebration of their arrival with hugs and laughter was shown on television.
Yvette Edere, from Ivory Coast, told IPS she felt “very sad” about what happened in Ceuta, and said she “had to struggle very hard” to get legal residence in Spain, where she arrived with a visa 20 years ago.
“Many white people from Europe and the United States come to Africa,” said Okeke. He is presently helping some Spaniards who want to go to work in Nigeria.
“They exploit its gold and its oil, and no one fires on them. There are no barriers or documents required. They are treated like kings,” he concluded.Related Articles
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The post Sea Swallows the Stories of Africans Drowned at Ceuta appeared first on Inter Press Service.
By Derek Davison
WASHINGTON, Mar 10 2014 (IPS)
Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and Bahrain all recalled their ambassadors from Qatar on Wednesday, citing Qatar’s alleged support for organisations and individuals that threaten “the security and stability of the Gulf states” and for “hostile media.”
This came right on the heels of a U.A.E. court sentencing Qatari doctor Mahmoud al-Jaidah to seven years in prison on Monday, for the crime of aiding a banned opposition group called al-Islah, which the U.A.E. government alleges has operational ties to the Muslim Brotherhood.
This was a coordinated move, led by the Saudis, to punish Qatar for supporting Muslim Brotherhood interests around the Middle East (and also for assuming a more prominent role in pan-Arab politics in general), but beyond that it reflects the Saudis’ deep and ongoing concern about an Iranian resurgence in the Gulf.
From the Saudi perspective the Qataris have been punching above their proper weight, and making nice with the wrong people.
Qatar’s ties to the Muslim Brotherhood are clearly the public justification for this row; it is no mystery why Saudi Arabia followed up Wednesday’s diplomatic swipe at Qatar with a decision on Friday to declare the Muslim Brotherhood a terrorist organisation.
The Saudis, while they share certain conservative Islamic principles with the Brotherhood, are more than a bit put off by the group’s opposition to dynastic rule. Despite that feature of Brotherhood’s ideology, though, the very dynastic Qatari monarchy has been a strong supporter of Brotherhood-allied movements throughout the Middle East and North Africa, in Tunisia, Libya, Egypt (especially), and Syria.
Their rationale for doing so has been two-fold: one, they feel that supporting the Brotherhood abroad should insulate them from the Brotherhood at home, and two, Qatar has been predicting that the Brotherhood would be the main beneficiary of the Arab Spring.
Had they been right in their prediction, Qatar’s regional influence would have been significantly increased as a result, but by the looks of things, they were wrong. The Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party is now outlawed in Egypt, its Ennahda Party in Tunisia has voluntarily agreed to give up power, and it has lost most of its influence within the Syrian opposition.
Last November’s reorganisation of Syrian opposition groups from the Qatar-financed Syrian Islamic Liberation Front to the Saudi-backed Islamic Front can be seen as evidence of the Brotherhood’s, and thus Qatar’s, loss of stature.
A related complaint that these countries have with Qatar is with the country’s Al Jazeera television news network (the “hostile media”).
Al Jazeera has continued to provide media access to Muslim Brotherhood figures in Egypt even as that organization was outlawed by the interim Egyptian government, to the extent that several Al Jazeera journalists are currently on trial in Egypt for aiding the Brotherhood.
These countries are also angry about the fact that Al Jazeera continues to give airtime to Brotherhood-affiliated cleric Yusuf al-Qaradawi. Qaradawi is actually wanted for extradition to Egypt over his comments about the coup that removed the Brotherhood from power there, and he recently lambasted, on Al Jazeera’s airwaves, the U.A.E., for “fighting everything Islamic.”
The reported pressure being placed on Saudi and Emirati journalists working in Qatar to quit their jobs and return home undoubtedly has something to do with the overall irritation with Qatari media.
However, there is another factor at play here: Qatar’s close – too close for Saudi comfort – ties with Iran (the real “organisation” that threatens Gulf – i.e., Saudi – security), which has to do largely with natural gas. Qatar shares its windfall natural gas reserves with Iran, in what’s known as the North Dome/South Pars Field in the Persian Gulf.
The International Energy Agency estimates that it is the largest natural gas field on the planet. Qatar has been extracting gas from its side of the field considerably faster than Iran has been, for a couple of reasons.
For one thing, the North Dome side of the field (the part in Qatari waters) was discovered in the early 1970s, whereas the South Pars side was only discovered about 20 years later, so Qatar had a lot of time to get a head start on developing the field.
For another thing, the North Dome field is pretty much the only game left in Qatar, whose Dukhan oil field is clearly on the decline. Qatar has a huge incentive, then, to develop as much of the North Dome as they can as fast as they can in order to fund their numerous development projects.
There is a potential conflict here, though. Natural gas, like any other gas, tends to flow toward areas of low pressure. So when one end of a gas field is being drained of its gas faster than the other end, some of the gas in the less exploited end may flow to the more exploited end.
This is fine when an entire field is controlled by one country, but in this case, one can easily envision a scenario in which, several years from now, the Iranian government is accusing Qatar of siphoning off its gas.
What this means is that Qatar has a strong incentive to maintain friendly relations with Iran, and on this they have considerable disagreement with their Saudi neighbors.
To Saudi Arabia, Iran is a potential regional rival and must be countered at every turn; their opposition to easing international sanctions against Iran, for example, is not so much about the threat of an Iranian nuclear weapon as it is about fear of Iran escaping from the economic cage in which those sanctions have trapped it.
The proxy war taking place between Saudi and Iranian interests in Syria is the most obvious example of the rivalry between the two nations, and the Saudi move against Qatar can be seen as another front in that proxy war.
Qatar, although it has backed the Syrian opposition, sees things differently where Iran is concerned; in January, Qatari Foreign Minister Khalid bin Mohammad Al-Attiyah publicly called for an “inclusive” approach to Iran, which he argued “has a crucial role” in ending the crisis in Syria.
There is enough historic tension between the Qataris and the Saudis for this kind of disagreement over foreign affairs to provide the basis for a wider fracturing of relations.
For its part, Bahrain has every reason to go along with a Saudi diplomatic move against a suspected regional ally of Iran; after all, it was Saudi intervention that saved Bahrain’s ruling al-Khalifa family from a Shiʿa-led rebellion in 2011, a rebellion that Bahrain accuses Iran of fomenting.
Look, though, at the two GCC members that did not pull their ambassadors from Qatar: Kuwait, where the Brotherhood’s Hadas Party is out of favour, but whose relations with Iran are “excellent”; and Oman, where Sultan Qaboos has been critical of the Brotherhood, but who is close enough to Iran to have served as a go-between for back-channel U.S.-Iran negotiations.
If the issue were really Qatar’s support for the Brotherhood, and not its relationship with Iran, both of these countries may well have joined the others in recalling their ambassadors.
The one country for which this explanation does not make sense is the U.A.E., whose relations with Iran are improving after the two countries recently reached an accord over the disposition of three disputed Gulf islands. In this case, it may really be that Qatar’s support for the Brotherhood, and especially the Jaidah case and Qaradawi’s criticisms, motivated their action.
Qatar’s failed bet on the Muslim Brotherhood made this the right time for the Saudis to move against them, but Saudi fears about an Iranian resurgence may well have been the real reason for their action.Related Articles
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The post What’s Going on in the Gulf? Unsurprisingly, It’s Probably About Iran appeared first on Inter Press Service.
By Jonathan Rozen
UNITED NATIONS, Mar 10 2014 (IPS)
In 2003, Moses Otiti, a 15-year-old from Uganda, was walking in a group with his father when members of the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) ambushed them.
Because he was a child, Moses was the only one to survive. For the next 12 months, he was forced to serve the LRA as a soldier in the rebel group’s war against the Ugandan government.“In the first month when I joined [the LRA], I was not comfortable with the things that were going on, but then I reached a situation where everything became almost normal." -- Moses Otiti
“The reason why they didn’t kill me was because they were really [looking for] people who were young…they really wanted to groom them as soldiers who can fight the battle against the government,” Otiti told IPS.
Conflicts in the modern age are being fought less frequently between states, and more often within them. And with this shift, the use of children in combat has emerged as a striking trend.
Researchers and those who work on the issue of child soldiers say that in conflicts where the phenomenon is present, there is a greater likelihood that mass atrocities will be committed.
“Children don’t have the same capacity to make decisions or to understand what may be right or wrong, or they might not have the same level of life experience or education to determine some of the things that an adult can,” Shelly Whitman, director of the Roméo Dallaire Child Soldiers Initiative, told IPS.
“It is a time when they are very impressionable and they are still figuring out their identity and moral compass.
“Problems of economics, development and social dynamics [are important] to look at as well,” she added. “When we get down to that level, it shows you that there are a whole wider set of problems, it is possible that when that is allowed to happen the [societal] degradation can go further.”
The role of violence
Moses describes the centrality of violence to the recruitment process, explaining how the LRA soldiers threatened to kill him, just like his father, unless he joined their army.
“For them to recruit you, they would cane you until you are at the point where you are about to die, and if you survive that means you can be a soldier. But if you die, that means you would not make a very good soldier…and that would be the end of you,” Otiti told IPS.
Commanders like children because it is easier to manipulate their psychological capacity to participate in mass atrocities. For example, Cambodian child soldiers under the Khmer Rouge were, as a result of this malleability, more ruthless towards civilians than adult soldiers, state Jo Boyden and Sara Gibbs in their book “Children of War”.
“Children are particularly affected by excessive violence because it occurs at a crucial stage of a human being’s development,” Marie Lamensch, assistant to the director at the Montreal Institute for Genocide and Human Rights Studies (MIGS), told IPS.
“The environment in which a child grows up affects his cognitive and affective development. Child soldiers, whether they kill or not, are exposed to physical and verbal violence, they are subject to fear and helplessness,” she said. “That trauma will affect the way they react to their environment, now and in the future.”
This is not to say that children do not have morals.
“[Children forced into military service] have their moral compass in the first few weeks of being abducted, and they know what they are doing is wrong, but the more they kill people, the more they rape or do other things like that, their brain and moral compass switches off,” Moses Makasa, director of development for Watoto, a Ugandan organisation which helps to rehabilitate former child soldiers like Otiti, told IPS.
Otiti’s experience echoes this process. “In the first month when I joined them, I was not comfortable with the things that were going on, but then I reached a situation where everything became almost normal,” he said.
“When I joined them (the LRA), I really felt that what they were doing wasn’t right, but then that thought kept on fading away from my mind…[But] I never liked it.”
Moses explained how this fading distinction between right and wrong made life with the LRA easier to manage.
Past, present and future
Several current conflicts display the correlation between child soldiers and the potential for mass atrocities.
South Sudan and the Central African Republic (CAR) are “two situations where grave violations of human rights are taking place and where there is a great danger of mass atrocities,” said U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon at a meeting of the General Assembly on Jan. 17.
On Feb. 4, the UN also published a special report on children in Syria’s civil war, which indicated the use of children in combat.
In 2002 the Optional Protocol to the Convention on the Rights of the Child on the involvement of children in armed conflict and the 1998 Rome Statute, which established the International Criminal Court, entered into force.
These outlawed the involvement of children under age 18 in hostilities and made the conscription, enlistment or use of children under age 15 in hostilities a war crime. In 2004, the U.N. Security Council also unanimously condemned the use of child soldiers.
Child soldiers are “the most easily identifiable warning tool” for mass atrocities, said Roméo Dallaire, U.N. commanding officer in the 1994 Rwandan peacekeeping mission, Canadian senator and founder of the Roméo Dallaire Child Soldiers Initiative, connecting the recruitment of child soldiers as both a precursor and “primary weapon” of the genocide in Rwanda and any potential future genocide.
Since Moses Otiti escaped from the LRA during a firefight with government forces, he has worked to rebuild his life, and is now studying hard to become a doctor.
“When I was still there, there were certain things they would do, like killing people, and that is how I used to understand things. But when I came home…my understanding of taking peoples lives for granted really changed,” he told IPS. “Every person is very important.”
“These children who are suffering so much today are the ones who will either repair those societies or repeat the violence of these societies in the next generation,” Anthony Lake, head of the U.N. children’s agency UNICEF, said in February.
If the world does not seriously address the education and rehabilitation of these children, “we are going to lose generations,” he warned.Related Articles
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By Dorian Jones
ISTANBUL, Mar 10 2014 (EurasiaNet)
The Russian-Ukrainian crisis over Crimea is forcing Turkey into a delicate balancing act: Ankara feels a need to be seen as a protector of the peninsula’s Tatar minority, yet it does not want to vex Russia’s paramount leader Vladimir Putin in a way that complicates Turkish-Russian economic arrangements.
There are abundant reasons why Turkey is taking a close interest in Crimean developments. Crimea operated as a vassal khanate of Ottoman Empire from the 1470s until 1783. In addition, Turks are bound by a strong cultural connection to Crimean Tatars, an ethnic minority group that comprises roughly 15 percent of Crimea’s population.It would be difficult for Erdoğan to adopt a more aggressive stance toward Russia that would satisfy his domestic audience without risking a major disruption in bilateral trade.
The number of ethnic Tatars now living in Turkey — most of them descendants of those who left Crimea following its 1783 annexation by the Russian Empire — is estimated in the hundreds of thousands.
For all the historical and cultural factors in play, though, it may be domestic political considerations that are the primary factor in shaping the government’s posture on the Tatar-Crimea issue.
Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has been seriously wounded politically in recent weeks by allegations of large-scale corruption within his inner circle and family. He is now scrambling to reinforce his political base as he prepares for his first electoral test since the corruption scandal broke, local elections slated for Mar. 30.
Since Erdoğan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP) draws significant grassroots support from nationalist elements, top government officials are playing up Ankara’s role as a defender of Crimean Tatar interests amid Russia’s armed occupation of the peninsula, which has belonged to Ukraine since 1954.
“Don’t let it cross your mind that our prime minister and president will be indifferent to any issue affecting our people of kin in Crimea and anywhere in the world,” Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu on Mar. 3 assured Tatar association leaders living in Turkey.
Davutoğlu’s comments came a day after hundreds staged a protest in the capital, Ankara, while smaller demonstrations were held in other Turkish cities that have large Tatar communities.
“Today, what’s happening in Crimea is terrifying all of us,” said Zafer Karatay, the Turkish representative of the Crimea-based Crimean Tatar National Parliament, CNN Türk reported.
Already hard-pressed by the fallout from the ongoing corruption scandal, as well as lingering resentment relating to the Gezi Park protests last summer, it could be politically crippling for Erdogan’s government to be deemed at home to be soft on issues regarding Turkic kin.
“They [AKP leaders] don’t want to be criticised by the nationalist constituency for having failed to protect the Tatars,” Sinan Ülgen, a visiting scholar at Carnegie Europe in Brussels, said of the Turkish government. “It cannot be seen to be indifferent to the fate of Tatars, its own kin, at a time when it portrays itself as protector of victimized people in the Middle East.”
Despite strong statements of support — as well Davutoğlu’s early March visit to Kyiv, during which he met with representatives of the Crimean Tatar community — officials in Ankara are striving to contain nationalist fervor.
Economics is the reason. Turkey relies on Russia for over half of its natural gas supplies. The country, which ranks as Turkey’s sixth largest export market (worth 7.2 billion dollars in 2013, according to Turkstat), is also important for many Turkish companies. By the end of 2012, Turkish foreign direct investment in Russia was worth nine billion dollars, according to the Ministry of Economy.
With Turkish-Russian relations already tense over differences on Syria policy, Ankara seems reluctant to push Russia too hard at this time on Crimea. During a Mar. 5 telephone call between Erdoğan and Putin, the Turkish prime minister, according to an official statement, placed responsibility for the Crimea situation “foremost” on those now in charge in Kyiv.
Erdoğan added that “instability would negatively affect the entire region.”
In Mar. 6 comments on state-run television, Turkish Energy Minister Taner Yıldız played down any concerns that Russian gas supplies would be disrupted, adding that there was no need to seek alternative supplies from countries, such as Azerbaijan.
Keeping the proper diplomatic balance may get trickier for Erdoğan in the coming weeks and months. Crimea’s recent referendum, which voiced a desire for the peninsula to be annexed by Russia, could create a dilemma for Ankara, said Ülgen, the analyst.
Turkey’s emphasis on Ukraine’s territorial integrity and concern about the persecution of the Crimean Tatars under both Russian and Soviet rule mean that “Turkey would need to become much more critical of Russia, if Crimea was to secede to Russia,” said Ülgen.
At a Mar. 6 news conference in the Crimean capital, Simferopol, Crimean Tatar leader Mustafa Jemiliyev claimed that the Turkish foreign minister told him Turkey “would immediately get involved,” if the Crimean Tatars found themselves at risk.
Any clash involving Crimean Tatars and the local Russian population on the peninsula would stir up nationalist passions in Turkey and up the pressure on the government to take some sort of action.
“There would be certain nationalist individuals [in Turkey] who might be willing to go there [Crimea] and fight,” said Ümut Uzer, an expert on Turkic peoples and Turkish nationalism at Istanbul Technical University.
It would be difficult for Erdoğan to adopt a more aggressive stance toward Russia that would satisfy his domestic audience without risking a major disruption in bilateral trade.
A more confrontational position “poses a fundamental difficulty because [Turkey] doesn’t want its political and economic relationship with Russia endangered … especially as Prime Minister Erdoğan and Russian President Vladimir Putin appear to share a good relationship,” Ülgen said.
Editor’s note: Dorian Jones is a freelance reporter based in Istanbul. This story originally appeared on EurasiaNet.org.Related Articles
By Mallika Aryal
KATHMANDU, Mar 10 2014 (IPS)
Around 4.3 million of Nepal’s 27 million population lack citizenship documents, rendering them stateless, says a report by the Forum for Women, Law and Development (FWLD), which works to promote and protect the interests of Nepali women.
Today in Nepal one cannot register birth, file for a change of address, buy or sell land, acquire a passport, open bank accounts, sit for higher-level examination, register to vote or even get a mobile phone card without citizenship documents."Our constitution and law are essentially saying a Nepali man can marry anyone and his child will be Nepali but if a woman marries a foreigner, her child will have problems getting citizenship."
“Citizenship identification is the fundamental piece of document which connects an individual to the state. Without it a person has no proof of existence,” says lawyer Sabin Shrestha of FWLD.
In 2006, Nepal had passed the Citizenship Act, which guaranteed Nepali citizenship to children born to a Nepali mother or a Nepali father. Nepal’s 2007 interim Constitution and a 2011 Supreme Court directive backed the Act.
But in 2012, things became tougher. The Constituent Assembly members drafted a new provision, which stated that Nepali citizenship would be granted only to those who could prove that their mother and father both were Nepali citizens.
Getting citizenship through the mother, however, is particularly difficult.
“Difficulty in getting citizenship through the mother is not the only reason why millions of Nepalis are stateless. But acquiring citizenship through the mother is still extremely difficult,” Shrestha told IPS.
Nepal went from requiring citizenship of just the father before the 2006 citizenship law was passed, to that of either mother or father, and with declared requirements now for both mother and father. However, this requirement has not been fully written or passed.
Besides, the, 2006 citizenship law provisions often get lost when they reach the Chief District Officer level. The CDO can in effect grant citizenship to whoever he pleases.
Arjun Kumar Sah, 24, was born in Nepal to a Nepali mother and Indian father and has lived in the country all his life. When Sah turned 16, he applied for citizenship but was told that he couldn’t because his father is not Nepali. After the Citizenship Act was passed in 2006, Sah went back to apply through his mother’s name but was denied again.
Early last year Sah filed a writ petition in the Supreme Court against the Home Ministry, the District Administration Office and the Office of the Prime Minister demanding citizenship through mother. “The Supreme Court sent a letter asking the three why I have not been granted citizenship even though my mother is Nepali, but it has been nine months and I am yet to receive a reply,” Sah tells IPS.
If a Nepali man marries a foreign woman, their children get citizenship based on descent. However, when a Nepali woman marries a foreigner, their children can only get naturalised citizenship. That is, when a Nepali woman marries a foreign man, their child is not given citizenship by descent. The same rules don’t apply when a Nepali man marries a foreign woman – so getting Nepali citizenship still depends very much on what nationality the father is.
“Nepal’s Constitution and law have made getting citizenship through the mother a conditional right, attaching citizenship to a Nepali father and making the role of women useless,” lawyer Sushama Gautam tells IPS.
Advocate Dipendra Jha, who is fighting Sah’s case, says the new provision is regressive, and against the spirit of democracy and the idea that all citizens are equal.
“If we look at it from the gender angle, you see a huge disparity – our constitution and law are essentially saying a Nepali man can marry anyone and his child will be Nepali but if a woman marries a foreigner, her child will have problems getting citizenship. What kind of equality is that?”
Deepti Gurung has two daughters. She wants to register their birth so they can become citizens, but every time she is at the local ward office or at the Chief District Officer’s (CDO) office, they ask her to identify the father.
“I raised my daughters by myself, I cared for their needs, I worry about their future, and the father abandoned them when they were young. So why is the government trying to bring him back in the picture?” Gurung asks. She says that not providing citizenship through mother is the biggest form of violence against women.
Gurung argues that a lot is left to the discretion of the CDO. When a Nepali citizen comes of age, the village committee recommends him or her to the district administration office, and the CDO eventually authorises and grants citizenship. “A lot depends on how sensitive the CDO is to that particular case,” says Gurung.
Activists say there may be more people being denied citizenship in little pockets, especially in southern Nepal because of the open border and cross marriages between India and Nepal, but citizenship is a national problem.
“It is especially prevalent among economically disenfranchised families,” says Jha. “Sah’s father never applied for citizenship because he ran a small business and didn’t really need government services but his children are living in a different world where citizenship documents are needed to access all kinds of services.”
Sah is studying for a Masters in Business Administration in Kathmandu. “I am graduating soon, how will I find a job without citizenship papers?” Sah asks.
The number of stateless people is growing every year. “This problem is multiplying because stateless people are giving birth to children who simply cannot apply for citizenship,” says FWLD’s Shrestha.
Discussions in Nepal around citizenship often get linked to issues of sovereignty and national security, especially in relation to Nepal’s open border with India.
But, asks Jha, “Should we be worrying about another country taking over Nepal when we have 4.3 million stateless people inside our own country that we don’t know what to do with?”
Srijana Chettri of the Asia Foundation, Nepal, argues, “You have to think about the risks and vulnerabilities that a stateless person faces – whether it is trafficking, exploitation, abuse or fraudulent migration.”
After months of political uncertainty, Nepal elected a new Constituent Assembly in November 2013 to write the Constitution. Activists say this is the right time to lobby for change in the rigid regulations regarding citizenship.Related Articles
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By Martin Khor
GENEVA, Mar 9 2014 (IPS)
If you or some family members or friends suffer from cancer, hepatitis, AIDS, asthma or other serious ailments, it’s worth your while to follow the negotiations on the Trans Pacific Partnership Agreement and other similar bilateral trade agreements.
It’s really a matter of life and death. For the TPPA can cut off the potential supply of cheaper generic medicines that can save lives, especially when the original branded products are priced so sky-high that very few can afford them.
Recently, a cancer specialist in New Zealand (one of the TPPA counties) warned that the TPPA would prolong the high cost of treating breast cancer because of new rules to protect biotechnology-based cancer drugs from competition from generics. And this will affect the lives of cancer patients.
Some cancer medicines can cost a patient over 100,000 dollars for a year’s treatment. But generic versions could be produced for a fraction, making it possible for patients to hope for a cure and a reprieve from death.
In India, local companies are leading the fight to make medicines more affordable to thousands of patients suffering from breast, kidney, liver and
gastrointestinal cancer and chronic leukemia.
For example, an Indian company produced a generic drug for kidney and liver cancer 30 times cheaper than the branded product (140 dollars versus 4,580 dollars for a month’s treatment) after it was given a compulsory license.
India has a law that disallows patents for a newer form of drugs or known substances unless it improves the medicine’s efficacy or effectiveness. Under the World Trade Organisation (WTO) rules, countries are free to set their own standards for novelty, or whether a product is novel enough to be eligible for a patent.
Also, in many countries, the patent law allows for companies to obtain compulsory licenses to import or make generic versions of original medicines. Governments grant such licenses if the branded products are too expensive and the original companies do not offer attractive terms for a voluntary license to other firms.
Multinational companies have strongly opposed compulsory licenses or the Indian-type laws that allow for patents only for genuine innovations.
This is where the TPPA comes in. Mainly at the insistence of the United States, countries are being asked to accept standards of intellectual property, that go beyond the rules of the WTO’s.
Especially noteworthy is the U.S. insistence that the TPPA countries agree to give a type of intellectual property known as “data exclusivity” for five years to companies producing original medicines.
This is extended to eight or 12 years for “biologics”, or medicines made with biotechnology. Many of the new medicines for treating cancers are biologics.
This will cause immense problems for patients waiting for cheaper medicines because “data exclusivity” prevents generic companies from relying on the safety and clinical trial data of the original company to get safety clearance for their generic products.
Thus, even if a generic company can prove that its medicine is bio-equivalent to the original medicine that has already passed the safety standard required by the health regulatory authorities, it will not be allowed to sell its medicine unless it comes up with its own safety and clinical trial data.
This goes against the current practice of generic medicines and safety standards. But the U.S. is insisting on this in the TPPA.
Few generic companies have the funds or technical ability to do their own clinical trials, and thus generic medicines could well be prevented from being used in TPPA countries for five to 12 years – even if the medicines are not patented.
That is the most significant aspect of the TPPA, and this is why so many groups of patients, health organisations and independent medical experts have been outraged and outspoken in their opposition to the agreement.
According to Jamie Love of Knowledge Ecology International, an expert on drugs and patents, the average cost of eight biologic cancer drugs registered with the U.S. drug authorities in 2011-2013 is 128,000 dollars (for a year’s treatment), with the most expensive being over 390,000 dollars. At such prices, hardly anyone in developing countries can afford these medicines.
In mid-February, eight prominent organisations including Medicins Sans Frontieres, Oxfam, Public Citizen, Health Gap and Knowledge Ecology International, issued a strong statement on their deep concern about the public health implications that the TPPA’s measures will have for millions of patients in need of access to affordable medicines around the whole Asia-Pacific region.
Said the groups: “The negotiations must take into account the health needs of all patients living in TPPA countries, and the U.S. must halt its efforts to limit countries’ freedom and flexibilities, otherwise the TPPA will jeopardize many, if not millions, of lives.”
Developments in India, which is not a TPPA country, show the patient-friendly policies that can emerge when public health concerns are given priority.
For instance, an Indian company is producing a generic version of the drug Gleevac, which is used to treat a chronic form of leukemia as well as gastrointestinal cancer, bringing the cost of treatment down from 70,000 dollars a year (in the U.S.) to 2,500 dollars a year in India.
This was possible because the Indian government denied the original company a patent on Gleevac because it was not judged to be novel enough, and an objection to that decision was rejected by the Indian Supreme Court.
Countries that join the TPPA will find it very difficult or impossible to undertake policies and practices similar to India’s, should the U.S. proposals in the intellectual property chapter be accepted.
Moreover, countries that don’t produce the generic drugs have the option to import them from India and other generics-producing countries. But if the TPPA imposes data exclusivity rules of the type desired by the U.S., it would be difficult to import and sell them.
Some countries are opposed to some of the U.S. proposals. The views and positions that defend public health must prevail, for after all, it is a matter of life and death.
By Jeffrey Moyo
HARARE, Mar 9 2014 (IPS)
Shyline Chipfika, 26, is one of thousands of Zimbabwean women in urban centres who have struck gold by growing potatoes. And a lot of their success has to do with an import ban.
“I used to be a mere housewife, and my life has changed in a big way after I ventured into potato growing,” Chipfika told IPS.“Who said women can’t provide for their families? Really, watch what the potato magic has done for many women here." -- Grace Mbiza
Chipfika’s husband, faced with joblessness, turned to hawking at a local commuter omnibus terminus in the capital, Harare, after the company he worked for shut down in 2008 owing to the hyperinflation that crippled many sectors of the economy.
Chipfika’s rags-to-riches story is a very rare one in Zimbabwe, and she boldly declares she will not abandon the potato-growing venture anytime soon.
“I used to stay in a small apartment, but thanks to this venture, I have managed to extend my apartment into a respectable piece of property,” she said.
The potatoes do not require large amounts of land, just ordinary backyards, where the women plant seeds in sacks filled with fertile soil.
“The potato growing method on urban yards by women here is very simple yet extremely productive, although since time immemorial, urban yards have often been wasted by many who have not seen any value in them,” agricultural extension officer Mike Hunde, based in Zimbabwe’s Mashonaland East Province in Marondera, 70 kilometres outside Harare, told IPS.
The officers are engaged by the government to facilitate agricultural research that enhances productivity.
The government promotes potatoes for food security, and as a way of backing local producers like Chingama and many others. In 2013, it banned imports of this staple food, and the crop took off.
Taking advantage of the ban, women in Zimbabwe’s towns and cities have since formed associations to get financial aid from pro-women non-governmental organisations to intensify local potato production.
According to the Urban Women Farmers’ Union, a trade union for women potato growers in Harare, there are 151 associations that women in towns and cities have formed to mobilise funding to cater for their potato growing ventures, with 16,150 women involved in potato production.
“Since the ban of potato imports here, as women potato growers only, we are supplying potatoes to eight percent of the national market, with huge scale indigenous potato growers dominating 88 percent of the market, while a few urban men who have emulated us are supplying the other four percent of the market,” Abigail Mlambo, secretary general of the Urban Women Farmers’ Union, told IPS.
“As an association of 12 potato growers here, we approached non-governmental organisations to seek funding to advance our urban potato growing project,” Nancy Chikwari told IPS.
After securing 1,000 dollars to buy inputs, Chikwari said their project expanded rapidly. Today, the women’s association boasts of sending their children to colleges and universities without financially straining their husbands.
“In 2013 alone, we harvested 30 tonnes and sold each 15-kilogramme packet for eight dollars, raking in thousands of dollars in profits,” Chikwari told IPS, adding that all of them now owned a car and a house in the capital thanks to potato growing.
Women in this Southern African nation make up the majority of jobless. According to the Central Statistical Office, of the country’s 13 million people, 60 percent (7.8 million) are women and 66 percent of them (5.14 million) are unemployed.
Official figures from 2013 indicate that only 850,000 people are formally employed.
The World Food Programme estimates the unemployment rate in Zimbabwe to be around 60 percent, despite the large numbers of people employed in the informal sector.
But for many urban women now undertaking potato farming at home, unemployment has become a thing of the past.
“Women like me no longer worry about employment. I make extensive sales from the potatoes I reap from my backyard,” 44-year-old Lina Chingama from Norton, a town 40 kilometres west of Harare, told IPS.
Chingama said she harvests the potatoes three times in a year and gets 1,200 kilogrammes of potatoes each time. A 10 kilogramme bag of potatoes fetches about 10 dollars at the local market.
This means Chingama pockets 1,200 dollars for the 1,200 kilogrammes she harvests each time.
Traditionally regarded as dependent upon their male counterparts, owing to urban potato farming, many women have even become breadwinners.
“Who said women can’t provide for their families? Really, watch what the potato magic has done for many women here. We are not just sleeping in towns, but rather fending for our families too,” Grace Mbiza, a women’s rights activist, told IPS.
Independent environmentalist Archibald Chigumbu said the process used by women to grow the potatoes is ecologically friendly.
“Their method does not harm the environment, as ordinary sacks with potato plants are placed within urban yards to nurse potatoes as they develop,” Chigumbu told IPS. He said common potato varieties grown here include Amythest, Mont Claire, BPI, Jacaranda, Opal and Emerald.
Ronald Museka, chair of the Potato Council of Zimbabwe, an organisation representing growers, told IPS, “We want to ensure there is enough production for the local market and urban women are just doing that. Soon they may start exporting.”
Zimbabwe’s Agriculture Minister Joseph Made is strongly supportive of these urban women’s ventures.
“Women have championed a grand move, maximising potato yields in their ordinary domestic yards and at the end of the day smiling all the way to the bank. We will not hesitate an inch to support them in every way possible,” Made told IPS.
But women potato growers here may face another hurdle with unpredictable local authorities, as the by-laws on such projects in towns are unclear.
“Yes, women are doing well, but council authorities haven’t approved urban agriculture and I’m unsure about what may or may not befall their potato projects,” a top local authority official speaking on the condition of anonymity, told IPS.Related Articles
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The post Women Turn Potatoes into Gold in Zimbabwe’s Cities appeared first on Inter Press Service.
By Khaled Alashqar
GAZA CITY , Mar 9 2014 (IPS)
Like almost everyone else in Gaza, these six are angry about the Israeli-imposed blockade and the resulting misery. Except, that they are expressing their anger through music –without the music itself sounding angry.
There’s much to say – or sing if you prefer to say it that way. More than a million-and-a-half people in Gaza are living under a tight blockade. Poverty and widespread despair have radically increased as a result.There’s much to say – or sing if you prefer to say it that way. More than a million-and-a-half people in Gaza are living under a tight blockade.
Unemployment is reaching high levels particularly among graduate students. Dreams of a better and secure future lie shattered in the impoverished territory.
In these difficult circumstances, these six have chosen to sing through their Watar Band; Watar means ‘tune’ in Arabic. The musical six mostly use Western instruments, and sing in Arabic, English and French.
Following the Israeli assault on Gaza in 2009 which led to the death of more than 1,400 people and massive destruction, Ala Shoublak, founder and leading member of the band, gathered musician friends to set up the band.
“Everything was destroyed, including schools, roads and buildings, and the only theatre in Gaza that belongs to the Palestinian Red Crescent Society was bombed. We just decided to take our music instruments and sit on top of the destroyed theatre and sing for peace and freedom despite the ugly smell of death all around.”
After that brave start five years back, the band developed further and became more structured. They bought new instruments and began to do public shows.
The group has gradually become well known and attracts many fans, especially among school and university students in Gaza Strip. This is not surprising, because they sing the hopes and aspirations of youth for a better life, and for a peaceful future free of conflict and siege.
The band has two clear objectives, Ala Shoublak tells IPS: “To resist first the occupation and the blockade through music which delivers messages of peace and freedom, and second, to communicate the hopes of the youth amidst suffering in Gaza to the outside world. That’s why we use English and French in our songs as well.”
The band has recently produced a song called ‘Dawsha’ (meaning ‘noise’ in Arabic) that has become very popular. Many youth come up to sing with the band through such songs.
Media student Mariam Abu-Amer joined the band during a project called ‘Gaza Sings for Freedom and Peace’. “It was a unique and special experience to singe with Watar,” she told IPS. “My participation gave me the opportunity to express my dreams and hopes to my people and to the world as a young woman in Gaza. It also allowed me to encourage female participation in music bands in Gaza as it’s generally limited.”
Despite success, the band lacks the funds and professional support it needs. It’s unable to produce an album because of funding problems.
All along, the group face the fundamental problem that in the political and economic crisis, music is not a priority. The Hamas-led government is focused on urgent humanitarian needs.
Director-General of the Ministry of Culture Mohammed Alaraieer told IPS that the government is trying to “deal with the cultural needs and situation in all forms and encourage artists and culturists to focus on the just cause of Palestine and Israeli occupation, but the ministry is not able to give much assistance because of the blockade and closure.”
Groups like Watar band therefore seek support from international organisations and institutions that are based in Gaza. The French Cultural Centre has allowed the band to use its premises for workshops and to host concerts. It also has also connected them with European bands, and organised a cultural tour to France and other countries in Europe.
The Edward Said National Institute of Music is the only place in Gaza that teaches music and provides professional training. Until recently it had only a small a number of students attending classes, but numbers increased following the Watar success in finding international audiences.
Director of the Institute Ibrahim Al-Najar told IPS that the Watar band’s “education and good command of international languages and excellent use of social media allow them to develop their skills and present their work globally. They put on wonderful performances and deserve to be supported. But, he said, that success only “represents individual efforts.”
But the success is in part a result of the very difficulties Gazans face. “The youth are generally ambitious and hopeful, and success comes also out of suffering, and this is what motivated Watar band to form and attempt to reach international audiences, especially given that the political circumstances here have cut the world off from the people of Gaza,” Prof. Fadil Abu-Hein, who teaches psychology and sociology at Al-Aqsa University in Gaza told IPS.
Periodic instances of using the arts to express resistance and anguish have been arising in Gaza. Last year Mohammed Assaf from Gaza won the Arab Idol contest. Many who cannot fight the blockade fight it their own way through music and the arts.Related Articles
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By Beena Sarwar
BOSTON, United States, Mar 8 2014 (IPS)
On one of her many visits to Pakistan recently, Sarah Peck, director of the US-Pakistan Women’s Council, spent some time talking to young women medical students in Pakistan. She was struck by their passion and commitment — and by the hurdles they face.
The US-Pakistan Women’s Council is working with expatriate Pakistani doctors to find ways to encourage women qualifying as doctors in Pakistan to practice medicine.
Women outnumber male students in medical colleges across Pakistan, forming up to 85 percent of the student body in private universities and 65 percent in the public sector.
But only about half of them end up working as doctors. There are no nationwide figures for this estimate, but the Pakistan Medical and Dental Council’s records show the discrepancy between the number of women medical students and women doctors in Pakistan.
Less than half the 138,789 doctors registered with this nationwide body are women, 62,315. For specialists, the numbers are even lower – of the total 29,914 specialists registered with PMDC, only 8,056 are women.
The pattern is also visible in doctors from Pakistan coming to the United States.
“When doctor couples come here, the husband starts to work, the wife takes care of the family,” says Dr Jamila Khalil, president of APPNE, the New England chapter of APPNA, the Association of Physicians of Pakistani Descent of North America.
“I grew up here, I was already a dentist by the time I got married,” she told IPS. A Pashtun from Pakistan’s northwest region bordering Afghanistan, she is a dentist and mother of two teens.
“It was very hard,” she added, her New England twang evident in her pronunciation of the last word, ‘haahd’.
The hurdles women doctors face in Pakistan and how to support them came under discussion at a lunch meeting that Sarah Peck attended recently in Somerville, Massachusetts convened by APPNE.The US-Pakistan Women’s Council has powerful political connections. It was launched in September 2012 by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, flanked by two of Pakistan’s most powerful and glamorous women, the then Foreign Minister Hina Rabbani Khar and Ambassador Sherry Rehman.
The initiative, housed at the American University, is a public-private partnership between the State Department and American University, in collaboration with the Organisation of Pakistani Entrepreneurs (OPEN). Its mission is to promote education, employment, and entrepreneurship.
The Council’s aim to promote people-to-people relations between the U.S. and Pakistan represents a major shift in Washington’s foreign policy towards Pakistan since the Obama administration took over.
Previous U.S. governments focused on transactional ties with Pakistan’s powerful military establishment, pursuing short-term strategic agendas with long-term disastrous consequences.
One of the organisers, Dr Khalil Khatri, a dermatologist and former president of APPNE, was also present at the APPNA winter session in Karachi last December where Peck met women medical students.
At the Karachi meeting women medical students had identified many different factors behind the difficulties they face in practicing medicine.
There are social pressures and lack of support, with mothers, mothers-in-law, and husbands often not wanting women to work. Families may help young couples with household matters and childcare but they also pressure them to conform to traditional gender roles.
Then, those who don’t go into ob-gyn or pediatrics have to deal with male patients, frowned upon in that highly gender segregated society – although the women medical students at the Karachi meeting said they had no issues seeing male patients.
What was hard, they said, is the harassment they face, like finding the locks broken on their changing room doors, making it difficult for them to strip and scrub down. Male peers and supervisors don’t take this seriously. In fact, those who complain face further problems.
Transport issues and security concerns, especially for those working late night shifts, are also daunting.
“One way to tackle the security and transport problem would be to arrange shuttles for women medical students especially after hours,” suggested Dr Nasar Quraishi, a pathologist visiting from New Jersey.
One of Dr Khatri’s nieces in Karachi recently started working as a doctor there. “When she has to work late nights, her parents are constantly worried. Two of my other nieces are in medical school there, but they also have every intention of practicing.”
Saima Firdous, 32, a medical student from Pakistan doing her residency at Harvard University says there is a need for “more women-only medical colleges in Pakistan, so that more people allow girls to study medicine.”
“Coming from a conservative, rural family, I found it really hard,” she told IPS. “Our culture doesn’t allow girls to live or travel alone. I’ve had to fight a lot.”
Her brother didn’t want her to attend the co-ed medical school in their city, Rawalpindi, but he also didn’t want her to go to the only women’s medical college in Pakistan, in Lahore, where she would have to live in a hostel.
“It was my three older sisters, who themselves have never been to school, who stood by me and supported me,” said Firdous, who for two years conducted a television show on the state-run Pakistan Television aiming to educate rural dwellers about basic health issues.
She received a major blow when the man she was in love with and about to marry, a U.S.-qualified physician who had encouraged her in her studies, told her that she could finish medical school, but he didn’t want her working as a doctor.
“I refused,” she said. “I hadn’t studied all those years to sit at home.”
Traveling alone to the United States, where she initially stayed with family friends, was another hurdle. “When I’m done, in another two or three years, I want to return to Pakistan and work, motivate other girls,” added Firdous.
“Women doctors are already respected role models in Pakistan, in all fields. Women have a loud voice in media and society in general,” said Dr Naheed Usmani, a paediatric oncologist from Pakistan who lives and works in the Boston area, and has also worked in Pakistan for several years.
The Council should train women doctors from the Pakistani diaspora to mentor and help students problem-solve, she told Peck.
The Council could also use its network to identify and train mentors based in Pakistan.
In the long term, there is a need to “increase motivation among women medical students and support them to not give up,” Dr Khatri told IPS. “Secondly, educate society to develop a system where medical students are enabled to carry on their work after graduating.”
The Council’s partnership with U.S. doctors of Pakistani origin provides no quick-fix solutions to these myriad problems, but it is a step in the right direction.
Erum Sattar, a law student from Karachi and president of the Harvard Pakistan Student Group who was present at the lunch, said that the Pakistani students at Harvard would help in any way, perhaps by facilitating video conferencing for mentors and connecting people.Related Articles
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By Bryant Harris
WASHINGTON, Mar 8 2014 (IPS)
Advocacy and accountability groups are urging the U.S. Congress to enact new mechanisms that would allow it to hold multinational corporations accountable for rights infringements abroad.
At a congressional briefing on Thursday, legal experts and advocates from Amnesty International, the International Corporate Accountability Roundtable (ICAR) and Earthrights International proposed measures Congress could take to ameliorate corporate abuses abroad.“We understand that corporate lobbying is necessary, but at the same time there should be more transparency in that process in order to ensure justice.” -- Seema Joshi
“International law itself requires a country to provide a remedy to individuals who are harmed by citizens,” ICAR’s Gwynne Skinner, an associate professor of law at Willamette University College of Law, told IPS.
“So we’re failing if we’re not providing any remedies to victims who are hurt by our citizens and of course corporations are citizens now, right?” (Skinner was referring to a 2010 Supreme Court decision that allowed corporations to make unlimited political donations on the grounds that they are eligible for the same constitutional rights as individuals.)
Earthrights International and other legal advocacy groups have partnered to create a report card indexing the track record of each U.S. lawmaker on corporate accountability. Marco Simons, Earthrights International’s legal director, noted Congress’s lacklustre record on the issue.
“Unfortunately, so far the results have not been very pretty,” Simons said. “The average score in the Senate was 26.6 percent and 44.2 percent in the House. Twelve representatives and 45 senators received a score of zero.”
Representatives from Amnesty International called for increased transparency in corporate lobbying efforts.
“We are looking at a proposal to deftly deal with the corporate-government relationship,” said Seema Joshi, Amnesty International’s head of business and human rights. “We understand that corporate lobbying is necessary, but at the same time there should be more transparency in that process in order to ensure justice.”
In particular, advocates are calling for reforms to the Alien Tort Statute (ATS), a unique law that allows foreign nationals to sue human rights abusers in U.S. courts. Last year, the Supreme Court significantly limited the scope of the statute against multinational corporations in a case known as Kiobel v. Royal Dutch Petroleum.
“Shell [a subsidiary of Royal Dutch Petroleum] and other multinational corporations are free to do business in the United States, and free to commit human rights abuses in other countries around the world, and not have any fear that the victims of those abuses would be able to gain access to a U.S. federal court to obtain justice for those abuses,” Simons said.
“This essentially contravenes the fundamental purpose of the Alien Tort Statute – to not provide protection in the United States for those who violate international law.”
In light of the Kiobel ruling, Earthrights and ICAR are calling on Congress to implement legislation that would explicitly allow victims to sue multinational corporations that operate in the United States for human rights abuses abroad, regardless of where in the world they’re based.
On Thursday, the panellists noted the difficulty in pursuing ATS cases against corporations irrespective of the Kiobel ruling, which often prompts plaintiffs to sue in state courts.
In Doe v. Unocal, another ATS case involving corporate complicity in the abuses of a military regime, Earthrights represented a client from Myanmar in the California court system after the case was thrown out of federal courts.
“Unocal and its partners contracted with the Burmese military regime to provide security and other services for their pipeline project,” Simons told IPS. “In the course of providing these services and, unfortunately very predictably, the Burmese soldiers conducted a series of human rights abuses, including widespread forced labour, torture, and killings.”
Another case, Al Shimari v. CACI, dealt with a private military contractor’s alleged use of torture in the interrogation of an Iraqi prisoner. After the federal courts dismissed that case, an appeal was likewise dismissed because of the precedent set by the Kiobel case.
In addition to ATS reform, ICAR’s Skinner proposed altering limited liability rules so parent corporations could be held liable for human rights abuses of smaller companies that they own.
“A parent company can have a wholly owned subsidiary – as shareholders, they own shares of that corporation – and then, of course, have no liability whatsoever except for the investment that they’ve made in that corporation,” Skinner said.
“Today what we see is this becoming a tool for large, transnational businesses to outsource the risk yet get all of the profit. So many very complex corporate organisations exist so that corporations have minimal risk but get these benefits.”
While some have argued that victims of human rights abuses should simply litigate in their own country, the Kiobel and Unocal cases indicate that many of the countries in question directly perpetrate the documented abuses themselves and have a weaker, more corrupt judicial system.
Skinner points to the relative strength of the U.S. judicial system as a reason why corporations are better off litigating in the United States rather than in developing countries.
She cites the lawsuit brought by Ecuadorians against Chevron, the U.S. oil company, for polluting the Lago Agrio region. This week, the judge ruled in favour of Chevron because of allegedly fraudulent evidence used by the prosecution.
“This kind of proves the point that corporations should actually want to be in front of United States courts,” Skinner told IPS.
“If you’re in front of a court in a country that’s not a developed country, you don’t know what you’re going to get. At least in the United States you’re going to get … a pretty fair trial. So isn’t it in a business’s interest to be in front of a U.S. court?”Related Articles
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- Opponents of “Corporate Personhood” Eye U.S. Constitution
The post Congress Pressured on Multinational Corporate Accountability appeared first on Inter Press Service.
By Humberto Márquez
CARACAS, Mar 7 2014 (IPS)
Seven of the 20 people killed in the street protests that have shaken Venezuela since the second week of February were shot in the head, a testimony to the role being played by firearms in the political struggle in this oil-rich country.
The armed forces and the police, and a few thousand licensed civilians, carry legal firearms, but there are hundreds of thousands, perhaps millions, of illegal weapons, according to Amnesty International.“They are parapolice groups that control everything from security to the micro-trafficking of drugs and other crimes in their territories." -- Luis Cedeño
The 1999 constitution “expressly forbids the use of firearms and toxic substances to control peaceful demonstrations,” activist Marino Alvarado, of the human rights organisations Provea, told IPS.
Who owns and fires the weapons, when some urban areas are shrouded every evening in the smoke of tear gas grenades mingled with that of the burning barricades, and shots ring out, fired by unknown persons from vehicles, mostly motorcycles?
The first person to be shot to death, on Feb. 12, was carpenter Bassil Dacosta, at the end of an opposition march in the centre of Caracas. Agents of the Bolivarian National Intelligence Service (SEBIN, the political police) were present – in defiance of an order confining them to barracks, according to President Nicolás Maduro – and so were pro-government members of the so-called “colectivos” (collectives).
The second victim, at the same demonstration, was Juan Montoya, the leader of one of the colectivos, who was carrying an identity document issued by the Caracas police.
A young model on her first demonstration, a neighbour who was closing the gate of his housing complex as hostile bikers approached, and a sergeant of the National Guard who was clearing rubble from a barricade, were the next victims, in the central states of Carabobo and Aragua.
A female student died from pellets fired at point-blank range. Dozens of people were injured by metal or plastic pellets.
Policing the protests in more than 50 cities is mainly the job of the Bolivarian National Guard, which is a domestic security corps similar to Chile’s carabineros (militarised police) or the Spanish Guardia Civil, and a component of the armed forces along with the army, navy and air force.
The combined armed forces total some 135,000 troops in this country of nearly 28 million people.
Within the National Guard, the People’s Guard, created in 2011 by then president Hugo Chávez (1954-2013) for the purposes of surveillance and citizen security, has been very active against the protests.
The Bolivarian National Police, created in 2009, is also involved, while by law regional and municipal police corps must refrain from action. Some of these are under the jurisdiction of opposition mayors.
But the novelty, found in Caracas and half a dozen cities in the interior of the country, is the colectivos, civilian groups of government supporters whose members, mounted on motorbikes and carrying firearms, have attacked demonstrators, shops, homes and vehicles in opposition neighbourhoods.
“The behaviour pattern of these groups supports the theory that they are very probably coordinated with the People’s Guard to act on the margins of the constitution, with their display and use of war weapons,” Rocío San Miguel, the head of the NGO Citizen Watch for Security, Defense and National Armed Forces, told IPS.
Some of these groups arose in the 23 de Enero public housing estate in the west of Caracas, from the remnants of urban guerrilla groups active prior to Chávez’s taking office in 1999, and they each control small territories.
“They are parapolice groups that control everything from security to the micro-trafficking of drugs and other crimes in their territories, on the margins of state authority, and they shield themselves behind their supposed loyalty to the government,” Luis Cedeño, the head of the NGO Paz Activa, told IPS.
After Juan Montoya was killed, some of his comrades in the Leonardo Pirela colectivo in the 23 de Enero housing estate held a vigil over his coffin, wearing camouflage fatigues and balaclavas and carrying fake small arms in their bags.
When the funeral procession passed the territory of La Piedrita, another colectivo, it received a one-minute gun salute, with a display of rifles and profuse firing of ammunition into the air.
“We don’t have any weapons at this time. But if Venezuelan democracy is threatened by a coup, as it was in 2002, we will bring out our weapons and our hoods. We have the weapons put away. They are in the hands of other revolutionary organisations on the continent,” said activist Alberto Carías.
Carías is the president of the Túpac Amaru Revolutionary Movement (MRTA), a splinter group from the Tupamaro Revolutionary Movement, which has spread from 23 de Enero throughout the country as a legal leftwing party giving electoral support to Chávez and Maduro.
Opposition groups call the civilian groups that oppose them and dismantle their barricades “tupamaros” or “colectivos” without distinction, and this language has spread through the cities where the protests have multiplied.
But the vast majority of colectivos are peaceful neighbourhood groups that support the government, carrying out the government’s social work programmes or developing their own projects, according to research by NGOs and the media.
When the protests began, Maduro warned against “demonising the colectivos.” Later, on Mar. 5, he called on them specifically to help combat opposition protests in a speech commemorating the anniversary of Chávez’s death.
“I call on the UBCH (Chávez Battle Units, cells of the governing United Socialist Party of Venezuela), on the community councils and on the colectivos: when a candle (of violence) is lit, put it out,” said the president.
In a matter of hours, groups of civilians on motorbikes arrived to dismantle the barricades that opposition protesters had built with trash bags and set on fire, in Caracas and in cities in the southwest.
On Thursday Mar. 6, shots were fired near some of these barricades in the east of Caracas, killing one biker and a National Guardsman, in an example of the violence exercised by the opposition.
Alvarado said that in calling on civilians to control the protests, the president “is violating the constitution, which puts the responsibility for maintaining public order in the hands of the uniformed police force.”
Retired officers belonging to opposition groups allege that Maduro is calling on these civilian groups because his support among the conventional armed forces is waning, especially in the air force, the navy and part of the army.
According to the newspaper El Nacional, two colonels of the National Guard were arrested for protesting against excessive repression.Related Articles
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- Political Violence in Venezuela, a Game With No Clear End
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The post Gun Violence Darkens Political Unrest in Venezuela appeared first on Inter Press Service.
By Alisa Hatfield
JOHANNESBURG, Mar 7 2014 (IPS)
When Phumzile Khoza* came to the central Johannesburg antenatal clinic on a chilly day in August 2013, she was feeling on edge. Not about the medical procedures – she already had two children – but about talking to the nurse.
This was her third pregnancy living with HIV, but the first with a new partner from whom she had been hiding her status for the past two years.
This pregnancy had been rocky from the start. Khoza had been trying to convince her partner to join her for HIV testing, but he refused. Without couples’ counseling, Khoza was afraid to disclose, and it was becoming harder to take and hide her daily medication of antiretrovirals (ARV).
Khoza’s partner was now regularly slapping her, punching her stomach, and kicking her during arguments. Khoza feared it would get worse if he learned she was HIV-positive.
Although she wanted help, Khoza imagined the nurses would not have time to talk through her complex situation. Plus, she had seen how angry the nurses became with women who defaulted on ARV treatment.
Looking back on that antenatal visit, Khoza reflected: “I was stressing about the way I lived my life, stressing about my past, stressing about my pregnancy. And I had no one.”
Khoza’s story is increasingly common. An estimated one in four South African women experience intimate partner violence in the 12 months leading up to childbirth.
Violence in pregnancy is associated with pregnancy loss, miscarriage and neonatal death, higher rates of postpartum depression and poor health gains for infants.
In a systematic review of the literature, Dr Simukai Shamu, a Medical Research Council expert on violence, found that prevalence of violence among pregnant women in Africa is among the highest reported globally, and that a major risk factor for violence is HIV infection.
“Because most studies are cross-sectional, it’s difficult to tell whether violence was a result of demands or changes in life due to pregnancy, or if the pregnancy was the outcome of violence,” Shamu told IPS.
Since early 2013, a team from Wits Reproductive Health and HIV Institute (Wits RHI) has been interviewing women living with violence in Johannesburg.
Lead researcher Nataly Woollett said that many women described pregnancy as a time of greater violence.Fast Facts about HIV in South Africa
• 18% HIV prevalence among people aged 15-49
• 150,000 women newly infected in 2012
• 14,000 new infections among children in 2012
• 3 million women live with HIV
Source: UNAIDS 2013
“Partly because they had to disclose their HIV status and partly because men use the woman’s antenatal visit –where testing is virtually mandatory – as a proxy for their own HIV status, so they are curious about the results,” she told IPS.
At the same clinic, IPS met Martha Ramphele*, who described the rapid escalation of violence that landed her in hospital while six-months pregnant: “He started telling me that I’m a fool and stupid. And then he strangled me and let his cousin beat me up.”
Ramphele reported the incident to the police, but later withdrew the charges to protect her safety and financial security. She suspected her HIV disclosure led to physical abuse, but she couldn’t be sure.
No one can say precisely what triggers violence, but often the blend of stress associated with pregnancy, the shifting power and control dynamics, coupled with a new HIV diagnosis, are enough to heighten conflict.
The nurses’ response
Violence in pregnancy impacts negatively on the health of HIV positive women.
Sister Marieta Booysen, a senior nurse with the Aurum Institute, a research organisation in Johannesburg, explained that pregnant women in violent relationships are the most likely to quit treatment: “When you tell a patient she is HIV-positive but she is scared to disclose to her partner, it is that very same patient who will default on her medication later.”
The Wits RHI team found that most antenatal nurses interviewed recognised that violence hurts adherence to ARV treatment but few know how to deal with the issue.
The poor health care response can partly be attributed to the lack of training but it may also reflect the fact that many nurses suffer violence at home and are afraid to respond.
Dr Nicola Christofides, an expert on both violence and HIV based at Wits University, explained that “nurses who experience violence in their own lives […] are either very sensitive to the issue of violence in their patients’ lives and very receptive, or the opposite, where they are actually in denial and shut down.”
Antenatal nurses want training to respond to violence, the WITS RHI project found.
IPS talked to Khoza at the antenatal clinic five months after she had first met a Wits RHI nurse of the Safe & Sound project, which identifies violence in pregnancy and provides one-on-one counseling and referrals in three antenatal clinics in Johannesburg.
The nurse referred Khoza to the nearest hospital offering psychological care and counseling. “It is nice to talk about the difficult things if you have someone who understands the situation and gives you clues,” Khoza said.
Khoza had never spoken about the violence in her life until the antenatal visits. A few months later, she separated from the abusive partner and is finding ways to support her children.
“I still have stress but I don’t put that in my heart. I just tell myself everything is going to work out all right even though it is difficult,” Khoza said.
* Name changed to protect her safety.Related Articles
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The post Dangerous Combo: Violence in Pregnancy and HIV in South Africa appeared first on Inter Press Service.
By Stella Paul
ANANATAGIRI, India, Mar 7 2014 (IPS)
Chintapakka Jambulamma, 34, looks admiringly at a solar dryer. It’s the prized possession of the Advitalli Tribal Women’s Co-operative Society- a collective of women entrepreneurs that she leads.
She opens up a drawer in the dryer, scoops out a handful of the medicinal plant Kalmegh and exclaims, “Look, it’s drying so fast.”“We work hard, gather good quality herbs and seeds. Our life depends on this money. Why should we settle for less?”
Around her, women from the co-operative break into laughter. The women are from the Koya and Konds tribes in the Eastern Ghat mountains of southern India. The forest has always been their home and their source of sustenance. Now, these women are tapping the sun that shines through it.
The solar dryer has four panels attached. It was installed two years ago by the Kovel Foundation – a non-profit group that helps forest tribes defend their rights and improve their livelihood.
The dryer – one of the two such machines installed by the foundation so far, cost about a million rupees (17,000 dollars) says Krishna Rao, director of the foundation.
The investment has been worth it, he says, because the women are using it to run a business sustainably. “There are 2,500 women from 20 villages in the cooperative. None of them have studied beyond the junior school. Yet, they know how to run a business well,” Rao tells IPS.
“They are organised and work well as a team. Also, they are learning how to collect the roots, leaves and fruits without harming the mother plant, so that their resources don’t run dry.”
The forests of this region yield more than 700 non-timber forest products that include leaves, edible herbs, medicinal plants, fungi, seeds and roots. Most popular among them are honey, gum, Amla (Indian gooseberry), Tendu leaves, Mahua flowers and soap nuts.
Koyas and Konds have made a living for centuries off such forest products. Penikala Ishwaramma, 23, is one of the herb gatherers. On a good day she gathers 20-25 kg of herbs. This year there is a bumper growth of the kalmegh herb in the forest, and Ishwaramma has gathered 116 kg of it.
The forest department buys much of this produce – 25 products must be sold to the department alone. But tribal people find the department’s procurement process slow and its prices lower than the market price. The forest department pays 45 rupees for a kilogram of gooseberry, while the existing market price is more than 60 rupees (about a dollar).
It’s this disappointment with government prices that drove the women to build their own collective business of selling forest products. Within two years, they are close to earning the 200,000 rupees (3,300 dollars) the Kovel Foundation loaned them.
The foundation had also provided basic entrepreneurial skill-building. Every day women like Ishwaramma bring their bounty directly to the cooperative where the managing team weighs and buys them, paying much higher than the government rate.
“We work hard, gather good quality herbs and seeds, “ says Ishwaramma. “Our life depends on this money. Why should we settle for less?”
But making a profit for the cooperative depends on producing good quality herbs quickly and efficiently – a difficult task as the women lack proper infrastructure to store or dry their produce. In addition, forests villages are very vulnerable to extreme weather, especially cyclonic storms.
According to the Disaster Management department of Andhra Pradesh state in southern India, the area has witnessed over 60 cyclones in the past 40 years, and the frequency is rising.
Using solar energy to dry their herbs has helped the women minimise risks of damage. In 2013, their forest was hit by five big cyclones – Mahasen. Phailin, Helen, Lehar and Madi. Yet the group didn’t lose much of their produce.
“Before a storm approaches, we try to dry as much of the herbs as possible and quickly pack them,” says Jambulamma. “We no longer need to leave them in the courtyard to dry.”
With drying and packaging no longer under weather, the group is now focusing on building a network of regular buyers, which would help them break even.
Bhagya Lakshmi, programme manager at the Kovel Foundation which connects the women with herbal product manufacturers, agrees. “They have already got their first big client which is a Bangalore-based herbal pharmaceutical company called Natural Remedies Private Limited. Currently, they are buying kalmegh in bulk quantity. We are trying to find more firms who will buy other products from them.”
Besides establishing a clientele, the women are planning to upgrade their technology. Krupa Shanti heads five forest villages in the area. Shanti says she is proud of the women’s cooperative and would like to see it grow bigger.
The government has installed a solar photo voltaic station at a nearby school that can convert and store solar power. Shanti is lobbying authorities to install one such station in her village.
“The government has so many welfare schemes. But for forest women like us, the best scheme is one that will help us become economically independent. If the government installs a solar charging station in each of our villages, we can expand this business and change our future.”Related Articles
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By Rachel Williamson
CAIRO, Mar 7 2014 (IPS)
The group of buildings near Tahrir Square could be modern campus-style office space anywhere. It’s hard to believe that just outside the heavy steel gates lies downtown Cairo, the noisy, polluted and now troubled heart of Egypt.
The buildings are now a new IT hub called the GrEEK, after its history as a Greek school and its current incarnation as a technology hub, and are the intended nucleus of a rising Egyptian ‘Silicon Alley’.The possibility of disruption from Tahrir Square to business as usual at the tech hub is a continuing reminder here that Egypt is not out of the political woods yet.
The location was the chief attraction for venture capitalist Ahmed Alfi when he decided in 2012 to build an ‘ecosystem’ for tech entrepreneurs.
The campus is close to the junction of the main metro lines and just a few stops from the national train station. Alfi said residents of Greater Cairo and from many of the surrounding cities could be at the business park within an hour and a half.
Alfi has ten tenants already in the office space he lets out, and “four or five” negotiating space, he told IPS.
Rent for a 50-square-metre office can vary from 450 dollars per month to 1,500 dollars on the lower floors. To put that in context, the new minimum wage for public sector workers is 172 dollars a month.
Alfi is clear about his aims for the campus: to give Egypt’s engineers and scientists a place to build technology businesses and thereby boost the sputtering economy. “My interest is its impact on the culture of entrepreneurs and on the Egyptian economy,” said Alfi.
“I don’t feel a responsibility towards the restoration of downtown. I mean, there’s some, but I feel a responsibility towards taking the really, really smart kids here who aren’t part of an ecosystem and getting them to work together and get some dynamism to happen.”
Those “kids” are the much talked of entrepreneurs in Egypt’s tech revolution who are reimagining their country as they want it to be. They are educated, usually bilingual, and tapped into regional entrepreneurial and business networks.
Marwa Sadek, founder of the digital marketing agency 20 Uses, mentored start-ups in Alfi’s Flat6Labs business incubator for the last two years, and couldn’t wait to get involved when she heard about the venture.
“I wanted to be in a place that is a business hub,” she said, having moved into a fashionably spartan second floor office in January. “When all the companies move in, the GrEEK campus is going to be a strong source of economic activity.”
Not only has the exposure to other businesses expanded 20 Uses’ client base, Sadek will soon have all the facilities on site needed to run a business, such as meeting rooms and cafes.
Yassar el-Zahhar chats happily about the plans for his health food start-up to service the geeks on the new campus. “You can smell the success here,” he told IPS. “Being here makes me take the power from the entrepreneurs around me.”
But all the excitement and business acumen inside the campus are unlikely to benefit those working just outside the gates. Continuing political agitation in Tahrir Square is one factor that raises questions just how much positive influence will flow out into the wider community.
Sadek’s main problem is the proximity to the square. She’s had to postpone meetings “three or four times” in the last two months because protests made the campus difficult or dangerous to reach.
Sadek said this would not discourage her from working from the GrEEK. But the possibility of disruption from Tahrir Square to business as usual at the tech hub is a continuing reminder here that Egypt is not out of the political woods yet.
GrEEK seems a world apart from Tahrir Square. The downtown area is “full of nasty people,” said el-Zahhar. “You can’t walk in peace in downtown.”
That means business for his food outlet at the GrEEK haven. “This will be protecting you. Protecting the girls, protecting the nice guys… I don’t think downtown will make any use of us, we are here to make money not spend money.”
Across the road from the GrEEK, Reda Feuad sipped tea in his IT shop as he waited for customers. Feuad doesn’t see the upstarts next door replacing his long-standing relationships with clients around the country.
The generational and educational difference between Feuad and the GrEEK tenants was clear: where Feuad spoke Arabic only and connected with his Egyptian clients via phone and sometimes in person, his new neighbours have regional and international ambitions, speak two or more languages and are constantly available by phone, and email, Facebook and Twitter.
No signs of this are evident yet, but some expect the influx of smart, innovative problem solvers to have some impact on the downtown area.
Heba Gamal, managing director of the economic development NGO Endeavour Egypt, hoped it would revive the community through foot traffic and social interactions with “young, enthusiastic, excited” business leaders.
“I think the downtown culture will be affected because it will want to, I mean smart entrepreneurs will definitely come in and want to tailor to that new segment of clientele that is suddenly available to them,” she said.
GrEEK CEO Tarek Taha is keen to be a good neighbour and has commissioned local carpenters and furniture makers to renovate heritage-listed buildings.
“We clearly understand where we’re located and we want to have an impact within the environment around us… I know this is a really small incremental effect but it’s very important to us.”Related Articles
- Women Targeted in Tahrir Square
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By Carey L. Biron
WASHINGTON, Mar 7 2014 (IPS)
The U.S. government is in the final stages of weighing approval for an overhaul of regulations governing the country’s poultry industry that would see processing speeds increase substantially even while responsibility for oversight would be largely given over to plant employees.
The plan, which was originally floated by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) two years ago, is currently slated to be finalised by regulators next month. Yet opposition has been heating up from lawmakers as well as labour, public health and consumer advocacy groups.
On Thursday, over 100 such groups and businesses delivered a letter, along with nearly 220,000 petitions, to President Barack Obama, asking that the proposal be withdrawn.
“The proposed rule puts company employees in the role of protecting consumer safety, but does not require them to receive any training before performing duties normally performed by government inspectors,” the letter states.
“And lack of training is not the only impact this rule will have on workers. Increased [production] speeds will put worker safety in jeopardy … This proposed rule would let the fox guard the hen house, at the expense of worker safety and consumer protection.”
The proposed rule would see top chicken-processing speeds increased from the current 140 per minute to as high as 175. The rule would also decrease the number of federal inspectors assigned to processing plants by 75 percent, leaving the slack to be picked up by company employees.
The poultry industry has reportedly been pushing for these changes for decades. In return, the government would require that processors bathe each chicken carcass in chlorine and other chemicals, aimed at killing any pathogens that remain on the bird.
Last week, Bennie G. Thompson, a member of Congress, warned that the USDA is “unnecessarily endangering the lives of millions of Americans”.
Federal pilot projects have been testing the new approach since the late 1990s. Yet critics warn that the results have been far less clear-cut than either the government or the industry has suggested.
“We did a snapshot analysis of how many defects employees were missing at these pilot plants, and found there was no consistency,” Tony Corbo, a senior lobbyist Food & Water Watch, an advocacy group, told IPS.
“In one turkey plant, for instance, there was a 99 percent error rate for one inspection category. We became concerned that the USDA was moving forward too fast with this change.”
The federal government’s official watchdog agency has formally corroborated this conclusion.“The industry says there’s no safety problem, but they’re in denial." -- Tom Fritzsche
The USDA “has not thoroughly evaluated the performance of each of the pilot projects over time,” the Government Accountability Office (GAO) warned in a report published in August, the second time it had come out with such findings.
“GAO identified weaknesses including that training of plant personnel assuming sorting responsibilities on the slaughter line is not required or standardized and that faster line speeds allowed under the pilot projects raise concerns about food safety and worker safety.”
In response to the report, the poultry industry noted that the USDA had already updated its analyses in support of the new rule, and that the sector’s safety record is not linked to processing speeds.
“Over the past 14 years of this pilot program there has been no evidence to substantiate the assertion that increased line speeds will increase injuries,” Ashley Peterson, a vice-president with the National Chicken Council (NCC), a trade group, said in a statement.
“It is not in a poultry company’s best interests to operate at speeds that would harm its workers, and common sense tells you it is not in a company’s best interest to operate at speeds that cannot produce safe and high quality poultry products.”
(The NCC has published responses to criticisms of the proposed regulatory changes here.)
For the moment, the Obama administration appears set on pushing through the new rule, characterising it as a cost-cutting measure.
Under the president’s new budget proposal, released earlier this week, the USDA’s inspections funding would be cut by nearly 10 million dollars, despite the fact that no rule has yet been finalised. Earlier, the federal savings have been estimated even higher – some 90 million dollars over three years.
“The 2015 budget recognises fiscal realities,” Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said Tuesday. “Our leaner workforce continues to find ways to implement increasingly complex programs with fewer resources.”
For major poultry companies, meanwhile, speeding up processing speeds would save more than 250 million dollars a year.
“Most vulnerable” workers
Beyond public health, there are significant civil rights concerns surrounding the new poultry regulations proposal, as well. Last week, a national coalition of groups representing minority and poor workers briefed lawmakers here on concerns that the new rules would exacerbate existing labour problems.
“This proposal has us very concerned, as there are already pending requests with the regulators to require a reduction in these work speeds,” Tom Fritzsche, a staff attorney with the Southern Poverty Law Center, a watchdog group, told IPS.
“The health consequences for workers are already very severe, and the concern is that those injury rates are going to go way up. We’re joining other groups in asking whether the same hazards would be so prevalent if the poultry workforce were not made up mostly of women of colour.”
Last year, Fritzsche authored a study on poultry workers in the state of Alabama, three-fourths of whom said they had experienced injury or illness due to their work. Three-quarters also said that the speed of the processing line made their job more dangerous, in addition to broader allegations of egregious safeguards.
Workers “describe what one called a climate of fear within these plants,” the report states. “[E]mployees are fired for work-related injuries or even for seeking medical treatment from someone other than the company nurse or doctor … they describe being discouraged from reporting work-related injuries.”
The report calls poultry workers “among the most vulnerable” in the United States.
“The industry says there’s no safety problem, but they’re in denial. There is a huge and well-documented undercounting in employer-reported data,” Fritzsche says.
“Workers are repeating the exact same motion between 22,000 and 100,000 times per shift, and can develop some permanent disabilities from these repetitive motions. One study out of South Carolina found that 42 percent of workers had carpal tunnel syndrome – that’s astronomically high, and far higher than the industry ever likes to quote.”Related Articles
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The post U.S. Plans to Speed Poultry Slaughtering, Cut Inspections appeared first on Inter Press Service.
By Thalif Deen
UNITED NATIONS, Mar 6 2014 (IPS)
In much of the Arab world, women’s participation in the labour force is the lowest in the world, according to the United Nations, while women in politics is a rare breed both in the Middle East and North Africa.
Perhaps one of the few exceptions is Algeria, says Lakshmi Puri, deputy executive director of U.N. Women."There is no doubt that culture and religion play some role, but the fact remains that over the past 30 years, and particularly in the last decade, we have seen the rising tide of very conservative forces in the region." -- Sanam Anderlini
The North African nation has reached the critical mass of some 30 percent of women parliamentarians, while Saudi Arabia has broken new ground by welcoming women to the Shura council.
Still, with a regional average of female parliamentarians just above 12 percent, the Arab world remains far behind the already low global average of 20 percent, according to U.N figures.
Asked whether this was due to cultural or religious factors, Puri told IPS, “It is not easy to pinpoint a single cause for the low level of women’s participation in the labour force and in politics in the Arab world, and more generally, around the world.”
She said there is no doubt that entrenched gender stereotypes and social norms that condone discrimination against women play a negative role, but other factors also need to be taken into account.
These include, for example, access to and quality of education, opportunities to reconcile professional or political life with family responsibilities, the overall structure of the labour market, and prevalence of violence against women.
When representatives of women’s organisations meet in New York next week, one of the many issues before the U.N. Commission on the Status of Women (CSW) will be the low level of women’s participation in the labour force and in political and social life worldwide.
The CSW, scheduled to hold its annual sessions Mar. 10-21, is the primary inter-governmental policy-making body on gender equality and advancement of women.
This year’s session will focus on challenges and achievements in the implementation of the U.N.’s Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), specifically for women and girls.
Sanam Anderlini, co-founder of the International Civil Society Action Network (ICAN) and a senior fellow at the Center for International Studies at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), told IPS: “We should steer clear of assuming that the low levels of participation in public spaces – political and economic – are ‘entrenched ‘cultural or religious values.’
“There is no doubt that culture and religion play some role, but the fact remains that over the past 30 years, and particularly in the last decade, we have seen the rising tide of very conservative forces in the region – largely supported by regional governments themselves – that are promoting a regressive agenda towards women.”
Let’s not forget that Egypt had a feminist movement in the 19th century, she added.
Puri listed several factors that negatively affect outcomes for women and girls.
These, she pointed out, include family codes and parallel traditional legal and justice systems that deny women property and inheritance rights, access to productive resources, sanction polygamy and early and child marriages, and put women at a disadvantage in marriage and divorce.
At the same time, it is essential to tackle negative misinterpretations of religion or culture that not only condone but perpetuate myths about inherent inequality between men and women and justify gender-based discrimination.
“As we at UN Women have pointed out, along with many faith-based and other organisations, equality between women and men was propounded centuries ago in the Arab region,” Puri said.
At the same time, governments along with all stakeholders, including civil society, need to put in place an enabling environment in order to increase women’s participation in all spheres of life, said Puri.
Anderlini told IPS that in the Arab world – like any other part of the world – there are always different cultural forces at play simultaneously: conservative and progressive.
But in the Arab world, the conservative forces are seeking to erase or discredit the gains made in the past.
“They like to associate ‘women’s rights’ with immorality and westernisation. It is a clear political agenda that is being fomented and we must not fall for the notion that it is ‘cultural’ or religious’,” said Anderlini, who was appointed last year to the Working Group on Gender and Inclusion of the Sustainable Development Network for the U.N.’s post-2015 economic agenda.
She also said Islam calls for equal rights to education for women and men – to equal pay, to women’s rights to inheritance and participation in public life.
“What’s being spread are extreme interpretations of Islam that may be rooted in countries like Saudi Arabia but are newer to Egypt, Tunisia or Lebanon,” she warned.
Asked how women’s participation can be advanced in the Arab region, Puri told IPS, “As elsewhere, achieving the advancement of women’s participation in the political, economic and social spheres in the Arab States requires interventions at multiple levels.”
First, a reform of state constitutions and laws as well as of traditional legal and justice systems and the creation of a conducive policy environment based on international women’s rights norms and instruments, such as the Convention to Eliminate All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) and the 1995 Beijing Platform for Action, needs to be in place.
This environment should not only allow, but also encourage women to participate in the work force and in public life.
It must include temporary special measures, such as quotas in all public institutions. Education, training and skills building is also essential.
In the workplace, reconciling family responsibilities with professional life must be addressed, as women still undertake most of the domestic and care work, said Puri.
This must include effective maternity leave practices and provisions, affordable and accessible childcare and other caregiving structures, as well as incentives for men and boys to play a greater role in undertaking domestic work, such as compulsory paternity leave, she noted.
The policy environment also must focus on preventing violence against women at home, harassment at the workplace and in public spaces, so that women and girls do not fear any repercussions for partaking in public life.
Secondly, she said, there has to be bottom-up change.
“This means changing entrenched patriarchal mindsets and shift from attitudes and beliefs that focus on women’s reproductive role to women’s productive and public roles,” stressed Puri.Related Articles
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By John Feffer
WASHINGTON, Mar 6 2014 (IPS)
As the fate of Ukraine hangs in the balance, U.S. politicians from both parties have been scrambling to take advantage of the crisis.
Republicans in Congress have slammed President Barack Obama for his “trembling inaction.” Meanwhile, Hillary Clinton has revived the hawkish approach of her pre-secretary of state years by comparing Russian leader Vladimir Putin’s actions to Hitler’s.The partisan divisions in the United States are dwarfed by the depth of animosity between those in Ukraine who favour the policies of Moscow and those who side with the new government in Kiev.
With the mid-term elections coming up this fall and the presidential elections beckoning two years hence, the confrontation between Russia and Ukraine has become the latest issue to roil partisan politics in the United States. In this case, however, the divergent rhetoric conceals a broad consensus on how Washington should deal with the crisis.
The situation on the ground in Ukraine, meanwhile, continues to be largely non-violent. But tensions remain at a high pitch.
After protesters in Kiev sent President Viktor Yanukovych in exile to Russia and took power in late February, a pro-Russian backlash gathered force in areas of the country with a large Russian-speaking minority.
The resistance has been most acute on the Crimean peninsula, a semi-autonomous region that is the only part of Ukraine where Russian speakers are in the majority. The region also hosts Russia’s Black Sea fleet, in a leasing arrangement good until 2042.
Russian troops have spread throughout Crimea, effectively neutralizing Ukrainian forces. After armed men stormed the Crimean parliament last weekend, lawmakers hastily chose a new Crimean prime minister, Sergei Aksynov, who leans toward Moscow.
He has called for a referendum on Crimea’s fate on Mar. 16 when voters will choose between Russia and Ukraine. The result is not a foregone conclusion, given the sizable number of Ukrainians and Tatars who live in Crimea.
Secretary of State John Kerry has attempted to negotiate a way out of the impasse, but his meetings this week in Paris and Rome with his counterpart, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, have not yielded a compromise.
Both the United States and the European Union are working quickly to assemble aid packages for the new leadership in Kiev, which presides over a rapidly tanking economy.
These diplomatic efforts have not prevented critics of the Obama administration from seizing the opportunity to repeat complaints that the president is not sufficiently strong.
Congressional opponents urged a military response to the crisis in Libya in 2011, which helped to force the president’s hand and initiate intervention.
Similar criticisms of administration weakness in the face of the use of chemical weapons in the Syrian civil war last August led the administration to ask Congress for authorisation to use military force, a plan made moot by a Russian-brokered plan for the Assad government to give up its arsenal.
The same critics have been quick to recycle their earlier judgments. Obama’s opponent in the 2008 presidential elections, John McCain (R-AZ), echoed comments he made during the Libya and Syria crises when he appeared before the American Israel Public Affairs Committee annual meeting in Washington on Monday.
The situation in Ukraine, he said “is the ultimate result of a feckless foreign policy in which nobody believes in America’s strength anymore.”
His colleague in the House, freshman Congressman Cotton, accused the Obama administration of “trembling inaction.” The Republicans are eager to pick up seats in the mid-term elections and possibly retake control of the Senate.
For her part, Hillary Clinton is looking further ahead to the 2016 elections. During her 2008 presidential bid, she derided Obama for his lack of experience in foreign policy and called his willingness to talk with America’s adversaries “naïve.”
Obama went on to win the election and appointed Clinton his secretary of state. In her new position, she implemented the foreign policy she had previously criticised, particularly in her negotiations with the leadership in Myanmar.
Despite her misgivings about Vladimir Putin – during the 2008 elections she famously said that he lacked a soul – she led the team responsible for pushing the “reset” button on U.S.-Russian relations.
Although her reservations about Putin are not new, her comments comparing Russian actions in Crimea to the Nazi invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1938 certainly establish distance between her and the administration she once served.
Clinton has not come out and said that President Obama is weak, but her invocation of the Nazi seizure of the Sudetenland suggests that appeasement might be just around the corner.
Yet the administration and its critics do not offer substantially different recommendations for dealing with Ukraine.
The Obama administration has sent fighter jets to the region, but only to monitor the air space. No one is talking military options. The only different of opinion is over the relative mix of economic sanctions and diplomatic sticks.
The partisan divisions in the United States are, of course, dwarfed by the depth of animosity between those in Ukraine who favour the policies of Moscow and those who side with the new government in Kiev.
But despite demonstrations and counter-demonstrations, stand-offs between Russian and Ukrainian troops in Crimea, and the seizure and re-seizure of public buildings by competing factions in eastern Ukraine, so far there’s been no more violence than what might occur in an average European soccer match.
Even though politicians in the United States are failing to model bipartisan behaviour, there is still a chance that the different sides in Ukraine can find a compromise that keeps the country together and also protects the rights of minorities.
Much depends on Russian intentions and Ukrainian reactions, but also on the ability of policymakers in Washington to keep their own political ambitions in check.Related Articles
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By Martin Khor
GENEVA, Mar 6 2014 (IPS)
Several developing countries are now being engulfed in new economic crises as their currency and stock markets are experiencing sharp falls, and the end is not yet in sight.
The “sell-off” in emerging economies has also spilled over to the American and European stock markets, thus causing global turmoil.
Countries whose currencies were affected in the second half of January include Argentina, Turkey, South Africa, Russia, Brazil and Chile.
A hike in interest rates by Turkey and South Africa has so far failed to stem the depreciation of their currencies.
An America market analyst termed it an “emerging market flu” and several global media reports tend to focus on weaknesses in individual developing countries.
However, the broad sell-off is a general response to the “tapering” of purchase of bonds by the U.S. Federal Reserve, which marks the slowdown of its easy-money policy that has been pumping many hundreds of billions of dollars into the banking system.
On Jan. 29, the Federal Reserve reduced its monthly asset purchase by another 10 billion dollars to 65 billion dollars, following the 10 billion reduction in December. It gave a new boost to the weakening of emerging market currencies.
A lot of the Federal Reserve money pumping had earlier been taken up by American investors and placed in emerging economies as they searched for higher yield.
With the tapering expected to raise yields in the U.S., money is flowing out from bonds and stocks in the emerging economies, putting pressure on their currencies. The capital flows have reversed direction.
The current “emerging markets sell-off” thus cannot be explained by ad hoc events. It is a predictable and even inevitable part of a boom-bust cycle in capital flows to and from the developing countries, which originates from the monetary policies of developed countries and the behaviour of their investment funds.
This cycle, which has been very destabilising to the developing economies, has been facilitated by the deregulation of financial markets and the liberalisation of capital flows which in the past had been carefully regulated.
This prompted massive and increasing bouts of speculative international flows by Western investment funds, motivated by the search for higher yields. Emerging economies, having higher economic growth and interest rates, attracted the investors.
Yilmaz Akyuz, chief economist at South Centre, analysed the most recent boom-bust cycles in his paper Waving or Drowning?
A boom of private capital flows to developing countries began in the early years of the 2000s but came to an end with the flight to safety triggered by the Lehman collapse in September 2008. However, the flows recovered quickly. By 2010-12, net flows to Asia and Latin America exceeded the peaks reached before the crisis.
This recovery was largely caused by the easy-money policies and near zero interest rates in the U.S. and Europe.
In the U.S., the Federal Reserve pumped 85 billion dollars a month into the banking system by buying bonds. It was hoped the banks would lend this to businesses to generate recovery, but in fact investors placed much of the funds in the Western stock markets and in bonds and shares in developing countries.
The surge in capital inflows led to a strong recovery in currency, equity and bond markets of major developing countries. Some of these countries welcomed the new capital inflows and the boom in asset prices.
But others were upset that the inflows caused their currencies to appreciate (thus making their exports less competitive) and that the ultra-easy monetary policies of developed countries were part of a “currency war” to make the latter more competitive.
In 2013, the capital inflows into developing countries weakened due to the European crisis and the prospect of the Federal Reserve “tapering”.
This weakening took place at a bad time – just as many of the emerging economies saw their current account deficits widen. Thus, their need for foreign capital increased just as inflows became weaker and unstable.
In May-June 2013 there was a preview of the current sell-off when the Federal Reserve announced it could soon start “tapering”. This led to sudden sharp currency falls including in India and Indonesia.
However, the Federal Reserve postponed the taper, but in December it finally announced a reduction of its monthly bond purchase from 85 to 75 billion dollars, with more to come.
There was then no sudden sell off in emerging economies, as the markets had already anticipated it and the Federal Reserve also announced that interest rates would be kept at current low levels until the end of 2015.
By now, however, the investment mood had already turned against the emerging economies. Many of them were now termed “fragile”, especially those with current account deficits and dependent on capital inflows.
Many of the so-called fragile countries are in fact members of the BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa) that had been viewed just a few years before as the most powerful emerging economies driving global growth.
In this atmosphere of deepening concerns, it just required a “trigger” to cause a simultaneous sell-off in currencies and markets of developing countries.
Several factors were to emerge which together constituted a trigger. These were a “flash” report indicating contraction of manufacturing in China; the sudden fall in the Argentinian peso; and expectations of further tapering by the Federal Reserve.
For two days (Jan. 23 and 24) the currencies and stock markets of several developing countries were in turmoil, which spilled over to the U.S. and European stock markets.
The turmoil continued into the following week, seeming to confirm investor disenchantment with emerging economies, and a reversal of capital flows.
The depreciation in currency and the capital outflows could put strains on the affected countries’ foreign reserves and weaken their balance of payments.
The accompanying fall in currency would have positive effects on export competitiveness, but negative impacts in accelerating inflation (as import prices go up) and debt servicing (as more local currency is needed to repay the same amount of debt denominated in foreign currencies).
The post New Economic Crisis Engulfing Developing Countries appeared first on Inter Press Service.
By Keya Acharya
ALAPPUZHA, (India), Mar 6 2014 (IPS)
Farming, tourism, poor fishing practices along with misdirected policies are muddying the famous backwaters of Kerala, one of India’s best known holiday destinations. Nowhere is this misuse more visible than in and around the 95-km-long Vembanad Lake.
Bearing the brunt are small fishing communities which are caught between dwindling fish catch, worsening water quality and the usurpation of banks – traditionally used as fish-landing points – by tourism operators.The lack of a mix of saline and freshwater, vital to fish breeding, has affected fish species.
“Until about eight to 10 years ago, I would collect this amount in just two-three hours,” says fisherman Ashokan, pointing to a mound of black clams in his canoe-like boat. “Now I work the whole day to procure it,” he tells IPS.
Kerala’s backwaters, a tourist hotspot, are made up of a 1,500-km waterway network of canals, lagoons, lakes and rivers that run parallel to the Arabian Sea and are fed by both saline and fresh water, contributing to a unique ecosystem. Many areas in these wetlands are below sea level, allowing sea water to flow inwards.
Major towns and cities dot the backwaters, such as the historic port city of Alleppey, now called Alappuzha, where the Maharaja of Travancore oversaw the building of canal waterways in the 18th century.
At the heart of this entire ecosystem is the Vembanad wetland area, spread over 36,500 hectares and fed by six large rivers and seawater. It is a lifeline for over 1.6 million people living on the lake’s banks.
More than 150 species of fish are found in Vembanad Lake. The Horadandia atukorali fish is found only around Pathrimanal island in the lake. The ecological significance of Vembanad’s rich biodiversity has made it the country’s largest Ramsar site, meant to accord protection for conservation.
But being a Ramsar site has not brought any protection for Vembanad Lake so far.
The waters of the lake are now divided by the Thanneermukkom barrage, built in 1975 to shut out saltwater ingress into fields in a bid to promote double cropping of paddy in areas surrounding the lake.
The lake’s sea water ingress traditionally helped flush out waste while containing flood waters. The lack of a mix of saline and freshwater, vital to fish breeding, has affected fish species.
“Prawns spawn at the mouth of the estuary and baby shrimps are carried inwards into the lake with tidal sea waters, but they are now trapped, unable to flow inwards because of the barrage,” T.D. Jojo from the Ashoka Trust for Ecology and Environment (ATREE) tells IPS.
Chemicals from reclaimed farmlands, illegally discharged effluents from tourism houseboats and lakeside industries such as coconut husk retting have contributed to significant pollution in the lake.
The Thanneermukkom barrage, built on the narrowest part of the lake’s width, closes its gates each year from Dec. 15 to Mar. 31, and this has proved to be long enough to hamper fish breeding and also cause decomposition of nutrients in the lake.
As fishing stocks have decreased, fishermen have begun using methods that harm fishlings. Over-fishing is now a problem in Vembanad.
ATREE scientists have been working the last six years to conserve the ecology of the lake. “We now have 13 lake protection groups, trained to check water quality in the lake,” says Dr. Priyadarsanan Dharmarajan, team leader of the ATREE Vembanad conservation project.
Fishers, whose complaints on the lake’s deteriorating health were not taken seriously for years, now feel vindicated by data that shows low salinity and high acidity corresponding exactly to the shutting of the barrage gates.
“We want both saline and freshwater for farming and fishing, so we have asked for the barrage to be opened a little earlier,” says Murlidharan, member of a joint farmer-fishing forum and a fisherman for 30 years.
But the forum has small farmers whose voices are not heard by rich farming interests.
“Our primary concern is paddy. It is not possible to open the Thanneermukkom barrage a little earlier,” district collector N. Padmakumar, Alappuzha’s top administrative official, tells IPS. “The ratio of farmers to fishermen is 10 to one. Whose interest should I protect?”
He is also short of answers on the ecological degradation of Vembanad. “It (degradation) has happened historically. I don’t have a magic wand to make things right. There should be political will on the part of the government to do something.”
The resorts on the lake’s banks blame the houseboats for the pollution, but the houseboat owners deny this. “Houseboats don’t pose a problem for the lake,” says operator Dilip Kumar.
He also tries to sweep aside allegations of declining fish catch. “You can get prawns as big as this (pointing from his fingers down to his elbow) for 80 rupees (1.15 dollars) a kilogram,” he says.
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