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OPINION: On Reproductive Rights, Progress with Concerns

mer, 10/01/2014 - 12:29

Contraceptives on sale at a store in Sanaa, Yemen. Credit: Rebecca Murray/IPS

By Joseph Chamie
NEW YORK, Oct 1 2014 (IPS)

For most of human history, reproductive rights essentially meant men and women accepting the number, timing and spacing of their children, as well as possible childlessness. All this changed radically in the second half of the 20th century with the introduction of new medical technologies aimed at both preventing and assisting human reproduction.

Those technologies ushered in historic changes in reproductive rights and behaviour that continue to reverberate around the world, giving rise to increasingly complex theological, ethical and legal concerns that need to be addressed.New reproductive technologies have given rise to serious theological, ethical and legal concerns that have not been satisfactorily addressed.

Up until around the middle of the past century, reproductive rights were limited. The available birth control methods were rhythm, coitus interruptus (withdrawal), condoms and for some, the diaphragm.

Those methods in too many instances were unreliable and not considered user friendly. Also, while induced abortion has been practiced for ages, it was a drastic, dangerous and largely unlawful medical procedure.

In 1960, the oral contraceptive pill was introduced, dramatically transforming women’s reproductive rights and behaviour. In addition to the pill, modern methods of family planning, including the intra uterine device (IUD), injectables, implants, emergency contraceptive pills and sterilisation, have given women and men effective control over procreation.

Modern contraceptives have contributed to major changes in sexual behaviour and marriage. Women empowered with modern contraception can choose without the fear of pregnancy whether to have sexual relationships, enabling them to postpone childbearing or avoid it altogether.

And instead of marriage, cohabitation has become increasingly prevalent among many young couples, especially in industrialised countries.

The use of modern contraceptives also facilitated a rapid decline in family size worldwide. Between 1950 and the close of the 20th century, the world’s total fertility rate fell from five children per woman to nearly half that level.

Every major region of the world experienced fertility declines during that half century, with the greatest occurring in Asia and Latin America and the smallest in Africa.

With improved medical techniques, changing social norms and grassroots movements, induced abortion also became increasingly legalised globally. Although some remain strongly opposed to induced abortion, nearly all industrialised countries have passed laws ensuring a woman’s right to abortion.

Also at the 1994 International Conference on Population and Development (ICPD), 179 governments indicated their commitment to prevent unsafe abortion and in circumstances where abortion is not against the law, such abortion should be made safe.

Reproductive rights to terminate a pregnancy, however, have also led to excess female fetus abortions. Particularly widespread in China and India, their sex ratios at birth of 117 and 111 boys per 100 girls are blatantly higher than the typical sex ratio at birth of around 106.

Consequently, the numbers of young “surplus males” unable to find brides are more than 35 million in China and 25 million in India.

The introduction in 1970 of in vitro fertilisation (IVF) – fertilisation in a laboratory by mixing sperm with eggs surgically removed from an ovary followed by uterine implantation – radically altered the basic evolutionary process of human reproduction.

IVF provides childless couples the right and means to have biological children. It is estimated that more than five million IVF babies have followed since the birth of the first “test-tube baby” in 1978.

However, IVF has also raised ethical concerns. In addition to creating a pregnancy through “artificial” means, IVF has become a massive commercial industry prone to serious abuses and exploitation of vulnerable couples in the desire to make profits from childbearing.

IVF also permits gestational surrogacy, which extends reproductive rights to same-sex couples. In contrast to traditional surrogacy, where the surrogate is the actual mother, gestational surrogacy allows the surrogate to be unrelated to the baby with the egg coming from the intended mother or donor.

While those who are childless have a right to have biological children, gestational surrogacy raises challenging ethical questions, such as the exploitation of poor women, as well as complex legal issues, especially when transactions cross international borders.

In 1997, the cloning – or propagation by self-replication rather than through sexual reproduction – of the first mammal, Dolly the sheep, was achieved. The birth of Dolly was a major reproductive development.

Following the cloning of Dolly, scores of other animals, including fish, mice, cows, horses, dogs and monkeys, have been successfully cloned. These developments suggest that in the near future some humans may wish to assert their reproductive rights to be cloned, again raising serious theological, ethical and legal questions.

Among the transhumanist reproductive technologies imagined in the more distant future, one that stands out is ectogenesis, or the development of a fetus outside the human womb in an artificial uterus.

While ectogenesis may expand the extent of fetal viability, free women from childbearing and expand reproductive rights, it poses serious, unexplored medical, ethical and legal issues.

During the past half-century remarkable technological progress has been made in human reproduction. As a result of this medical progress, women and men have acquired wide-ranging reproductive rights and technologies to determine the number, timing and spacing of their children and to overcome childlessness with biological offspring.

The new reproductive technologies, however, have also given rise to serious theological, ethical and legal concerns that have not been satisfactorily addressed. Anticipated future medical breakthroughs in human reproduction make it even more imperative for the international community of nations to address the growing challenges and concerns regarding reproductive technologies and rights.

Edited by Kitty Stapp

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Vaca Muerta, Argentina’s New Development Frontier

mer, 10/01/2014 - 10:53

A YPF driling derrick at the Vaca Muerta shale oil and gas field in Loma Campana in the Neuquén basin in southwest Argentina. Credit: Fabiana Frayssinet/IPS

By Fabiana Frayssinet
LOMA CAMPANA, Argentina , Oct 1 2014 (IPS)

Production here has skyrocketed so fast that for now the installations of the YPF oil company at the Loma Campana deposit in southwest Argentina are a jumble of interconnected shipping containers.

Argentina is staking its bets on unconventional oil and gas resources, and the race to achieve energy self-sufficiency and surplus fuel for export can’t wait for the comfort of a real office.

“The camp here is our temporary offices,” Pablo Bizzotto, regional manager of unconventional resources of the state-run YPF, told a group of foreign correspondents during a visit to this oilfield in the southwestern province of Neuquén. “I apologise. But this is what we were able to set up quickly when we began the operations.”

Since last year, Loma Campana, some 100 km from the city of Neuquén, has been the Argentine oil company’s operating base, where 15 to 20 wells are drilled every month in the Vaca Muerta shale oil and gas field in the Neuquén basin.

There are currently more than 300 wells producing unconventional gas and oil here and in other oil camps in this part of Argentina’s southern Patagonia region. Some 250 are operated by YPF and the rest by foreign oil companies.

The final installations, with offices and a control and remote operation room, will be ready by mid-2015. But work at the wells is moving ahead at a different pace.

From January 2013 to mid-2014, daily oil output climbed from 3,000 to 12,000 barrels per day, before jumping to 21,000 in September.

“Loma Campana is the only large-scale commercial development [of shale oil and gas] outside of the United States. The rest are just trials,” said Bizzotto, explaining the magnitude of the operations in Vaca Muerta, which contains shale oil and gas reserves at depths of up to 3,000 metres.

Unlike conventional oil and gas extracted from deposits where they have been trapped for millions of years, shale oil and gas are removed from deep parent-rock formations.

According to YPF, which has been assigned 12,000 sq km of the 30,000 sq km in Vaca Muerta, the recoverable potential is 802 billion cubic feet of gas and 27 billion barrels of oil.

A worker walking near pipes used to extract shale oil and gas at YPF’s Loma Campana oilfield in the southwest Argentine province of Neuquén. The shipping containers used as temporary offices can be seen in the background. Credit: Fabiana Frayssinet/IPS

With that potential, the country now has 30 times more unconventional gas and nine times more unconventional oil than traditional reserves. Thanks to recoverable shale resources, Argentina now has the world’s second largest gas reserves, after China, and the fourth largest of oil, after Russia, the United States and China, according to YPF figures.

Bizzotto said that in terms of both quantity and quality, as measured by variables of organic matter, thickness and reservoir pressure, the reserves are comparable to the best wells in the Eagle Ford Shale in the U.S. state of Texas.

Rubén Etcheverry, former president of the Gas y Petróleo de Neuquén, a public company, said the reserves open up “a new possibility for development and self-sufficiency from here to five or ten years from now.”

This is encouraging for a country like Argentina, whose reserves and production had declined to the point where over 15 billion dollars in fuel had to be imported.

“The possibility of converting these resources into reserves means that Argentina could have gas and oil for more than 100 years,” Etcheverry, who is also a former Neuquén energy secretary, told IPS.

But the challenge is just that: turning the shale resources into actual reserves.

Since 2013, YPF has invested some two billion dollars in Vaca Muerta.
But because of the magnitude of the resources and the country’s difficulties in obtaining financing from abroad, Etcheverry said “new actors are needed” in order to achieve the required volumes of investment, which he estimates at 100 billion dollars over the next five or six years.

YPF, which was renationalised in 2012, when it was expropriated from Spain’s Repsol oil company that controlled it since 1999, is now looking for foreign partners – a strategy that some political and social sectors see as undermining national sovereignty.

In Loma Campana, YPF operates one portion with the U.S. oil giant Chevron and is developing another shale gas field with the U.S. Dow Chemical.

Other companies involved in the area are Petronas from Malaysia, France’s Total, the U.S.-based ExxonMobil, the British-Dutch Shell, and Germany’s Wintershall, while negotiations are underway with companies from other countries, including China and Russia.

According to provincial lawmaker Raúl Dobrusín of the opposition Unión Popular party of Neuquén, the oil companies are waiting for the Senate to approve a controversial new law on hydrocarbons.

The legislation would grant 35-year concessions, reduce the tariffs the companies pay for imports, and allow them to transfer 20 percent of the profits abroad, and if they do not do so they would be paid locally at international values and without tax withholding, Dobrusín said.

The development of unconventional fossil fuels has also run into criticism from environmentalists.

Hydraulic fracturing or “fracking” is the technique used for large-scale extraction of unonventional fossil fuels trapped in rocks, like shale gas. To release the natural gas and oil, huge volumes of water containing toxic chemicals are pumped underground at high pressure, fracturing the shale. The process generates large amounts of waste liquids containing dissolved chemicals and other pollutants that require treatment before disposal.

Environmentalists say fracking pollutes aquifers and releases more toxic gases than the extraction of conventional fossil fuels.

“There is no doubt that it causes pollution. Wells are abandoned without being cleaned up. Here in Plottier the water contains heavy metals and isn’t potable in most places, and we blame that on conventional production that has polluted the groundwater,” Darío Torchio, who has a business in Plottier, a city of 32,000 located 15 km from Neuquén, told IPS.

“Oil is a heavy inheritance for our descendants, which ruins everything, while the wealth goes to the companies,” said Torchio, a member of the Permanent Comahue Assembly for Water.

Silvia Leanza, with the environmental Ecosur Foundation, said Argentina is opting for a development model based on “neoextractivism”.

These plans, she told IPS, are “designed in the central countries as part of the neoliberal economic development and globalisation package, where we are suppliers of raw materials.”

“The focus is on the exploitation of a non-renewable resource, fossil fuels, which also has an economic impact, because that money could go towards clean energy sources that could also be developed in Patagonia,” Carolina García, an activist with the Multisectorial contra el Fracking group, told IPS.

“This is an alarm signal,” Etcheverry said. “The timeframe is very short. We had reserves for the next eight or 10 years.”

But the government of Cristina Fernández has no doubts about the model of development being followed.

“When unconventional gas and oil production in Vaca Muerta reaches 1,000 wells, the gross geographical product will tend to grow between 75 and 100 percent in the province of Neuquén. That will have a three to four percent impact on the country’s gross domestic product,” argued the head of the cabinet, Jorge Capitanich.

Edited by Estrella Gutiérrez/Translated by Stephanie Wildes

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Zimbabwe’s Family Planning Dilemma

mar, 09/30/2014 - 21:58

There has been an increase in pregnancies among Zimbabwean adolescents aged 15-19 years, from 21 percent between 2005 and 2006 to 24 percent between 2010 and 2011. Credit: Credit: Jeffrey Moyo/IPS

By Ignatius Banda
BULAWAYO, Zimbabwe, Oct 1 2014 (IPS)

Pregnant at 15, Samantha Yakubu* is in a fix. The 16-year-old boy she claims was responsible for her pregnancy has refused to accept her version of events, insisting that he was “not the only one who slept with her”.

Now Yakubu has dropped out of school and, like many sexually active youth in Zimbabwe, faces an uncertain future.

The issue of contraceptive use remains controversial and divisive in this country of 13.72 million people.

Parents and educators are agreed on one thing: that levels of sexual activity among high-school students are on the rise. What they do not agree on, however, is how to deal with the corresponding inrcrease in teenage pregnancies.

“Lack of adequate, medically accurate information on puberty leaves young people dependent on uninformed peer sources and unguided Internet searches for information." -- Stewart Muchapera, communications analyst with the UNFPA in Zimbabwe.
While Zimbabwe has made huge gains in some areas of reproductive health, including stemming new HIV infections, according to the Health Ministry, various United Nations agencies have raised concerns about the growing number of adolescent pregnancies, which experts say point to a low use of prophylactics and a dearth of other family planning methods.

According to the U.N. Population Fund (UNFPA), contraceptive use in Zimbabwe stands at 59 percent, one of the highest in sub-Saharan Africa. Still, this is lower than the 68 percent mark that the government pledged to achieve by 2020 at the 2012 London Summit on Family Planning.

A proposal last year by a senior government official to introduce contraceptives into schools, allowing condoms to be distributed free of charge, was met with disbelief and anger among parents, who insisted this was tantamount to promoting promiscuity among learners.

There is still no agreement between parents and educators about the stage at which students can be introduced to sex education.

“Lack of adequate, medically accurate information on puberty leaves young people dependent on uninformed peer sources and unguided Internet searches for information,” says Stewart Muchapera, a communications analyst with the UNFPA in Zimbabwe.

“The fertility rate among teenage girls aged 15-19 in 2010/11 was 115 per 1,000 girls, a significant increase from 99 per 1,000 girls in 2005/6,” Muchapera tells IPS, adding that geographic location also determines the likelihood of early pregnancy, with girls living in rural areas twice as likely to be affected than their urban counterparts.

In fact, the rate of adolescent pregnancies is just 70 per 1,000 girls in urban areas, compared to 144 per 1,000 girls in rural areas, he adds.

The Zimbabwe Demographic and Health Survey (ZDHS) reports that nine out of 10 sexually active girls aged 15 to 19 are in some form of a marriage, and that for two out of three girls who first had sex before age the of 15, sex was forced against their will.

The risk of maternal death is twice as high for girls aged 15 to 19 as for women in their twenties, experts say, and five times higher for girls aged 10 to 14 years.

Currently, Zimbabwe has a maternal mortality ratio of 790 deaths per 100,000 live births and an under-five mortality rate of 93 deaths per 1,000 live births.

Janet Siziba, a peer educator with the Matabeleland Aids Council, says there is a stigma attached to early pregnancy, with many forced to drop out of school or endure financial hardships after the birth of a child, particularly after the disappearance of an adolescent father.

“You can escape both pregnancy and HIV by increased condom use and, perhaps more importantly, by using other female contraceptives [such as the female condom and oral contraceptives],” Siziba tells IPS.

But with young people getting mixed messages on contraceptives, the trend is unlikely to change anytime soon. In fact, the country’s registrar-general Tobaiwa Mudede has actually warned women against using contraceptives, on the grounds that they cause cancer and are a ploy by developed countries to stem population growth in Africa.

Family planning advocates including the Zimbabwe National Family Planning Council (ZNFPC) called his comments retrogressive especially at a time when the country’s health system is struggling to stem maternal mortality and also provide adequate antenatal care.

Through its National Adolescent Sexual and Reproductive Health Strategy (ASRH), the Ministry of Health now allows adolescents to access contraceptives at public institutions such as clinics and hospitals, but peer educators are concerned that youth are not too eager to collect contraceptives in full view of the public.

The result is an increase in pregnancies among adolescents in the 15-19 age group from 21 percent between 2005 and 2006 to 24 percent between 2010 and 2011.

Experts say that conservative attitudes towards contraceptive use could slow down global efforts under the multi-sector Family Planning 2020 (FP2020) initiative, which seeks to increase access to contraception for women and girls between 15 and 49 years of age in developing countries.

According to the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation–supported FP2020 project, 260 million people from developing countries had access to contraceptives in 2012, and the initiative aims to add 120 million more by the year 2020.

*Names have been changed

This story originally appeared in a special edition TerraViva, ‘ICPD@20: Tracking Progress, Exploring Potential for Post-2015’, published with the support of UNFPA, the United Nations Population Fund. The contents are the independent work of reporters and authors.

Edited by Kanya D’Almeida

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OPINION: A Roadmap to Living – and Thriving – in Harmony with Nature

mar, 09/30/2014 - 13:30

Coral reef ecosystem at Palmyra Atoll National Wildlife Refuge. Credit: Jim Maragos/U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

By Braulio Ferreira de Souza Dias
MONTREAL, Canada, Sep 30 2014 (IPS)

In Nagoya, Japan, in 2010, the international community made a commitment to future generations by adopting the Strategic Plan for Biodiversity 2011–2020 and 20 Aichi Biodiversity Targets.

In doing this, governments recognised that biodiversity is not just a problem to be solved, but rather the source of solutions to 21st century challenges such as climate change, food and water security, health, disaster risk reduction, and poverty alleviation.  In taking this action, countries affirmatively recognised that biodiversity is essential for sustainable development and the foundation for human well-being.We now know that real change does not come from ‘silver bullet’ solutions, but from those strategies that simultaneously address the multiple underlying causes of biodiversity loss.

The Strategic Plan for Biodiversity 2011-2020 and its Aichi Biodiversity Targets are a framework for the world to achieve the vision of human beings living in harmony with nature.  If achieved, by the middle of the 21st century, we will enjoy economic and social well-being while conserving and sustainably using the biodiversity that sustains our healthy planet and delivers the benefits essential to us all.

This is within our reach. And if we succeed, we will ensure that by the end of this decade, the ecosystems of the world are resilient and continue to provide for our well-being and contribute to eradication of the poverty that holds back human aspirations.  The Aichi Biodiversity Targets are about taking action now for the benefit of our collective future.

We are now approaching the mid-way mark of the United Nations Decade on Biodiversity.  Governments of the world will meet in Pyeongchang, Republic of Korea in early October at the 12th meeting of the Conference of the Parties to the Convention on Biological Diversity (COP-12) where they will launch and review the Global Biodiversity Outlook 4 (GBO4), the latest global assessment of the state of biodiversity. As they review GBO4, they will see how we are all doing in achieving this vision.

The good news is that countries and civil society are making progress, and concrete commitments to implement the Aichi Biodiversity Targets are being taken.  Our current efforts are taking us in the right direction.

However, achieving many targets will require substantial additional efforts.

Additional pressures are being placed on the life-support systems of our planet by a greater population, by climate change, land degradation, over exploitation of species and spread of alien invasive species as a consequence of economic decisions that neglect to fully take into account the value of environmental assets and of biodiversity.  Extra efforts will be needed to overcome these human-made challenges.

What kind of actions need to be taken?  We now know that real change does not come from ‘silver bullet’ solutions, but from those strategies that simultaneously address the multiple underlying causes of biodiversity loss – subsidies that lead to overexploitation, habitat loss, climate change, inefficiencies in agriculture among others – while addressing the direct pressures on our natural systems.

There is an increasing need to develop strategic and sustained actions to address both the underlying and immediate causes of biodiversity loss in a coordinated way.  There is a need to mainstream biodiversity into policies and actions well beyond the sectors that focus on conservation.

At the Pyeongchang meeting governments will need to make additional commitments to ensure that their actions are effective and achieve the desired results.  They will need to agree to mobilise sufficient financial and human resources in support of such actions – increasing significantly current efforts.

The actions that are needed to overcome the loss of biodiversity and the ongoing erosion of our natural life support systems are varied: integrating the values of biodiversity into national accounts and policy, changes in economic incentives, enforcing rules and regulations, the full and active participation of indigenous and local communities and stakeholders and engagement by the business sector. Partnerships at all levels will need to be agreed and vigorously pursued.

At COP-12, events such as a Business Forum and a Summit of Cities and Subnational Governments, and meetings of Biodiversity Champions, will help to build the networks and partnerships needed to realise this.

These actions for long-term work take time to lead to measureable outcomes.  Direct action is needed now to conserve the most threatened species and ecosystems.  So, we will need to continue our work in establishing protected areas and expanding networks for terrestrial and marine areas.  We will need to work with partners to save the most endangered species.  We will need an urgent push for the protection of coral reefs.

Our immediate and our long-term efforts can and must be strengthened by understanding the critical links between biodiversity and sustainable development. Measures required to achieve the Aichi Biodiversity Targets will also support the post-2015 development agenda, and the proposed Sustainable Development Goals currently under discussion at the United Nations General Assembly.

In this way achieving the Targets will assist in achieving the goals of greater food security, healthier populations and improved access to clean water and sustainable energy for all. Implementing the Strategic Plan for Biodiversity 2011–2020 means already implementing our strategy for sustainable development.

The theme of the High Level Segment of the Pyeongchang meeting reflects this. For two days in October, over 100 ministers and high level representatives will discuss “Biodiversity for sustainable development.”

In choosing this theme, the government of Korea has made it clear we must continue our efforts to not only achieve the mission of the Strategic Plan for Biodiversity, but the social, economic and environmental goals of sustainable development, and to achieve human well-being in harmony with nature.

Edited by Kitty Stapp

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Boosting Incomes and Empowering Rural Women in Cuba

mar, 09/30/2014 - 11:54

A member of the Vivero Alamar Cooperative carrying ornamental plants at a nursery in a suburb of Havana. Access to employment is a problem for women in rural areas. Credit: Jorge Luis Baños/IPS

By Patricia Grogg
HAVANA, Sep 30 2014 (IPS)

Leonor Pedroso’s sewing machine has dressed children in the Cuban town of Florida for 30 years. But it was only a few months ago that the seamstress was able to become formally self-employed.

“My husband, a small farmer, didn’t let me work outside the home,” Pedroso, 63, told IPS. “I could only sew things for neighbours or close friends, for free or really cheap. According to him, jobs weren’t for women.”

She is now one of the beneficiaries of a project funded by international development aid that helps women entrepreneurs with the aim of closing the gender gap, as part of the economic reforms underway in this socialist Caribbean island nation.

Pedroso, whose main activities were running the household and raising the couple’s four children, did not have a stable enough flow of income or the knowledge to capitalise on her skills until she took courses in business plan development and management and gender along with other female entrepreneurs.

“I stood up to my husband, to do what I like to do, and now I am setting up a business in my home, to sell what I make and to teach young girls to sew and embroider,” she said with satisfaction, while waiting for the delivery of new sewing machines for her business.“I moved to where I could find work because I couldn’t let my 12-year-old daughter go hungry. Then I learned how to sell my harvest and invest the money I earn.” -- Neysi Fernández

She is now a new member of the local Producción Animal 25 Aniversario Cooperative.

The project, carried out by ACSUR Las Segovias, a non-governmental organisation from Spain, and the local Asociación Nacional de Agricultores Pequeños (ANAP – National Association of Small Farmers), with financing from the European Union, provides training and inputs to 24 women, including farmers, craftmakers and rural leaders.

The project, whose formal title is “incorporation of rural female entrepreneurs into local socioeconomic development from a gender perspective”, has helped women who have traditionally been homemakers to generate an income. It is to be completed at the end of the year.

The women involved are in Artemisa, a province near Havana; Camagüey, a province in east-central Cuba, where Florida is located; and the eastern province of Granma.

“In the past, men were seen as the breadwinners and the owners of the land, but women have started to understand what they themselves contribute to the family economy,” Lorena Rodríguez, who works in the area of projects with ACSUR Las Segovia, told IPS.

She said “machismo” and sexism continue to stand in the way of the incorporation of rural women in the labour market.

One of the women involved in the project is Neysi Fernández who, seeking a way to make a living, moved from her hometown of Yateras in the eastern province of Guantánamo to Guanajay in the province of Artemisa, where a family member offered her a piece of land to work.

On the four hectares of land she is planting cassava, malanga (a tuber resembling a sweet potato), beans, maize and plantains.

“I moved to where I could find work because I couldn’t let my 12-year-old daughter go hungry,” the 42-year-old small farmer, who married a manual labourer four years ago, told IPS. “Then I learned how to sell my harvest and invest the money I earn.”

According to social researchers, the problem of access to remunerated work is one of the worst forms of inequality in rural areas in Cuba. Women represent 47 percent of the more than 2.8 million rural inhabitants in this country of 11.2 million people.

The work carried out by the wives and daughters of small farmers – raising livestock, tending family gardens, taking care of the home and raising children – is not recognised or remunerated, speakers said at the third review meeting of the National Action Plan held in 2013 to follow up on the Fourth World Conference on Women in Beijing.

Only 65,993 women belong to ANAP, and they represent just 17 percent of the association’s total membership, according to figures published this year by Cuba’s daily newspaper, Granma.

Women make up 142,300 of the 1.838 million people who work in agriculture, livestock, forestry and fishing in Cuba, according to 2013 data from the national statistics office, ONEI.

The economic reforms undertaken by President Raúl Castro since 2008, with the aim of reviving the country’s flagging economy, have included the distribution of idle land under decree laws 259 of 2008, and 300 of 2012.

The objective is to boost food production in a country where 40 percent of the farmland is now in private hands, according to ONEI’s 2013 statistical yearbook.

But it is still mainly men who have the land, credits and farm machinery, and they remain a majority when it comes to decision-making in rural areas.

Given the lack of affirmative action by the state to boost female participation in rural areas, several civil society organisations and international aid agencies have been working to foster local development with a gender perspective.

With backing from the international relief and development organisation Oxfam, more than 15 women’s collective business enterprises will be operating in 10 municipalities in eastern Cuba by the end of the year. They include a flower shop, beauty salon, laundry, cheese shop, and several tire repair businesses.

With funds from the European Union, the Basque Agency for Development Cooperation and the Japanese Embassy in Cuba, the small businesses have been furnished with equipment and vehicles for transportation. In addition, the participants have taken part in workshops on self-esteem, leadership and personal growth.

According to sociologist Yohanka Valdés, the value of these projects lies in the strengthening of women’s capacity through empowerment and recognition of their rights.

“If an opportunity emerges, men are in a better position to take advantage of it because they don’t have to take care of the family,” the researcher told IPS.

Economist Dayma Echevarría says the female half of the population is at a disadvantage when it comes to the diversification of non-state activities in Cuba.

She says gender stereotypes in Cuba keep women in their role as homemakers and primary caretakers.

In one of the chapters of the book on the Cuban economy, “Miradas a la economía cubana” (Editorial Caminos, 2013), Echevarría says the lack of support services for caretakers is one of the reasons for rural women’s vulnerability when it comes to employment.

The recent process of land distribution has not translated into opportunities for boosting gender equality because it failed to foster active female participation, according to the expert.

At the same time, there are few Cuban women with the resources to set up their own businesses within the current regulatory framework.

Echevarría said Cubans were still waiting for the implementation of regulations that would enable more equitable insertion of women under the new labour conditions while incorporating a gender focus.

Cuba is in 15th place in the Global Gender Gap Report 2013, but in the subindex on economic participation and opportunity it ranks 66th out of the 153 countries studied.

Edited by Estrella Gutiérrez/Translated by Stephanie Wildes

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From Subsistence to Profit, Swazi Farmers Get a Helping Hand

mar, 09/30/2014 - 06:17

Processing baby vegetables at Sidemane Farm. Credit: Mantoe Phakathi/IPS

By Mantoe Phakathi
MBABANE, Sep 30 2014 (IPS)

Men in blue overalls are offloading vegetables from trucks while their female counterparts dress and pack the fresh produce before storing it in a cold room.

When another truck drives in, the packed items are loaded and the consignment is driven away again."Production is not a problem but getting access to the market is a challenge. That’s why you’d find farmers giving away their produce for free because that is the only way they can prevent it from being spoilt.” -- Betina Edziwa

Such are the daily activities at Sidemane Farm, situated a few kilometres outside the Swazi capital of Mbabane.

“The farmers have a contract to supply me with baby vegetables throughout the year,” Themba Dlamini told IPS.

In turn, he supplies Woolworths stores in South Africa with the vegetables, a business he said was very “sensitive”. Not only does his client demand high quality vegetables, but he has to be on time when it comes to meeting deadlines.

He bought the E1.6 million business from its previous owner in 2005 and he says demand has been growing each year.

“I’m competing with other suppliers from South Africa and Kenya,” he said.

The contracted farmers are critical to the survival of his business because the 90-hectare land that is cultivated by the existing farmers is no longer enough. He needs more farmers to supply him.

With a staff of 95, Sidemane currently exports 25 tonnes of vegetables monthly, although there is a potential to expand to 40 tonnes. But for the company to meet its growing demand, it needs to train more farmers. Lack of adequate funding was a limiting factor.

“When buying the farm, I took a loan and I was not in a position to get another loan until I finish this one,” he said. “It would have been difficult to expand without additional financial support.”

Last year, Dlamini applied and got an E380,000 grant from the European Union-funded Marketing Investment Fund (MIF), an initiative under the Swaziland Agriculture Development Programme (SADP). The Ministry of Agriculture implemented the SADP while the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) of the United Nations provided technical assistance.

From the MIF grant, Dlamini got a mini-truck, a generator and crates in which he packs the vegetables. The truck is very useful for transporting the vegetables and reaching out to farmers for trainings.

“We experience a lot of power cuts yet we deal with perishables. The generator helps to keep the stock whenever we don’t have power,” explained Dlamini.

He is one of 47 famers and agro-processors to benefit since 2012, said MIF coordinator Betina Edziwa. The project is the boost that many farmers needed to grow their businesses and improve their livelihoods.

“It has been realised that production for farmers is not a problem but getting access to the market is a challenge,” said Edziwa. “That’s why you’d find farmers giving away their produce for free because that is the only way they can prevent it from being spoilt.”

This necessitated the need to create a funding mechanism to enable beneficiaries to buy equipment and get training to help farmers sell their products. The grants were not handed out in cash, but the farmers were given the equipment and trained in business management and marketing.

“Successful applicants were those working with smallholders or were involved in value-addition,” said Edziwa.

This is one government and development partners’ initiative to reduce poverty and food insecurity in the country, where 63 percent of the one million population lives below the poverty line, according to the 2010 Swaziland Household Income and Expenditure Survey (SHIES).

Given the high incidence of HIV/AIDS – with Swaziland leading the world at 26 percent of the productive age group – a lot of farmers took a knock.

This is the injection that many Swazi farmers needed to ensure that they are able to grow from just being subsistence to commercial agriculture, said Minister of Agriculture Moses Vilakati.

“The fund is in line with ministry’s approved strategy on diversification and commercialisation,” he said.

Although the disbursement of funds under the MIF came to an end in June, Vilakati said the ministry will establish an agribusiness section to ensure sustainability and expansion of the initiative through follow-up training, monitoring and evaluation of the enterprises and the farmers.

In a recent interview on the FAO’s website, SADP’s chief technical advisor, Nehru Essomba, said MIF is part of the broader SADP that has benefited 20,000 farmers in many other activities. One of the activities includes the rehabilitation of six dams for irrigation to support production, not only of crops but also livestock.

“We’re already helping more than 20,000 famers move from subsistence agriculture to a more sustainable high income-generating and market-led agriculture,” said Essomba.

It is a comprehensive approach in addressing the value chain, said EU Ambassador to Swaziland Nicola Bellomo on the same website. He said this programme links production, processing and marketing of the product, which is new in the country, a net importer.

“We are trying to develop a capacity and ability to export food,” said Bellomo.

And this is what Sidemane and many other famers are already doing.

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Lack of Accountability Fuels Gender-Based Violence in India

lun, 09/29/2014 - 20:32

Women in the north Indian village of Katra Shadatganj in the state of Uttar Pradesh, where two young girls were recently raped and hanged. Credit: Stella Paul/IPS

By Stella Paul
CHIRANG, India, Sep 30 2014 (IPS)

On a bright March morning, a 17-year old tribal girl woke as usual, and went to catch fish in the village river in the Chirang district of India’s northeastern Assam state.

Later that evening, villagers found her lifeless body on the riverbank. According to Taburam Pegu, the police officer investigating the case, her assailants had raped her before slitting her throat.

The girl was a member of the Bodo tribe, which has been at loggerheads with Muslims and Santhals – another indigenous group in the region. The tragic story reveals a terrible reality across India, where thousands of girls and women are sexually abused, tortured and murdered in a tide of gender-based violence (GBV) that shows no sign of slowing.

“We have a culture of impunity. Our legal system itself negates the possibility [...] of punishment in cases of violence against women.” -- Anjuman Ara Begum, former programme officer at the Asian Human Rights Commission
Conflict and a lack of accountability, particularly across India’s northern, eastern and central states where armed insurgencies and tribal clashes are a part of daily life for over 40 million women, fuel the fire of sexual violence.

According to a report released earlier this year by the United Nations Secretary-General assessing progress on the programme of action adopted at the 1994 International Conference on Population and Development (ICPD) in Cairo, violence against women is universal, with one in every three women (35 percent) experiencing physical or sexual abuse in her lifetime.

Of all the issues related to the ICPD action plan, ending gender-based violence was addressed as a key concern by 88 percent of all governments surveyed. In total, 97 percent of countries worldwide have programmes, policies or strategies to address gender equality, human rights, and the empowerment of women.

Still, multiple forms of violence against women continue to be an hourly occurrence all around the world.

A recent multi-country study on men and violence in the Asia-Pacific region, conducted by the United Nations, reported that nearly 50 percent of 10,000 men surveyed admitted to sexually or physically abusing a female partner.

In India, a country that has established a legal framework to address and end sexual violence, 92 women are raped every day, according to the latest records published by the government’s National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB).

This is higher than the average daily number of rapes reported in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, which currently stands at 36.

Sexual violence is particularly on the rise in conflict areas, experts say, largely due to a lack of accountability – the very thing the United Nations describes as “key to preventing and responding to gender-based violence.”

According to Suhas Chakma, director of the Asian Centre for Human Rights in New Delhi, “There are human rights abuses committed by security forces and human rights violations by the militants. And then there is also violence against women committed by civilians. No matter who is committing the crime […] there has to be accountability – a component completely missing” from the current legal framework.

An example of this is Perry*, a 35-year-old woman from the South Garo Hills district of India’s northeastern Meghalaya state – home to 14 million women and three armed groups – who was killed by militants in June this year.

Members of the Garo National Liberation Army (GNLA), an insurgent group, allegedly tried to rape Perry and, when she resisted, they shot her in the head, blowing it open. The GNLA refused to be held accountable, claiming that the woman was an informant and so “deserved to die”.

Another reason for the high levels of GBV in India is the dismal conviction rate – a mere 26 percent – in cases involving sexual assault and violence.

In 3,860 of the 5,337 rape cases reported in the past 10 years, the culprits were either acquitted or discharged by the courts for lack of ‘proper’ evidence, according to the NCRB.

“We have a culture of impunity,” Anjuman Ara Begum, a Guwahati-based lawyer and former programme officer at the Asian Human Rights Commission, told IPS, adding, “Our legal system itself negates the possibility or certainty of punishment in cases of violence against women.”

With a declining conviction rate, armed groups have been playing the role of the judiciary to deliver instant justice. In October 2011, a kangaroo court of the armed Maoists in the Palamu district of India’s eastern Jharkhand state cut off the hands of a man accused of rape.

In August 2013, the Kangleipak Communist Party (KCP) – an insurgent group operating in the northeastern state of Manipur – launched an “anti-rape task force”.

Sanakhomba Meitei, the secretary of KCP, told IPS over the phone that his group would deliver fast-track justice for rape victims. “Our intervention [will] instill fear in the [minds of the] rapists,” said Meitei, adding, “We will deliver stringent punishment.”

This is a worrying trend, but inevitable, given the failure of the legal system to deliver justice in these troubled areas, according to A L Sharada, director of Population First – a partner of the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) in India.

“What we need is a robust legal system, and mob justice hurts that possibility. In fact, such non-judicial justice systems are also very patriarchal in nature and ultimately against women. What we really need are quick convictions [in] every case of gender violence that has been filed,” Sharada stated.

According to the NCRB over 50,000 women were abducted across the country in 2013 alone, while over 8,000 were killed in dowry-related crimes. More than 100,000 women faced cruelty at the hands of their husbands or other male relatives, but only 16 percent of those accused were convicted.

*Not her real name

This story originally appeared in a special edition TerraViva, ‘ICPD@20: Tracking Progress, Exploring Potential for Post-2015’, published with the support of UNFPA, the United Nations Population Fund. The contents are the independent work of reporters and authors.

Edited by Kanya D’Almeida

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U.S. to Create National Plan on Responsible Business Practices

lun, 09/29/2014 - 20:14

By Carey L. Biron
WASHINGTON, Sep 30 2014 (IPS)

The United States will begin developing a national action plan on responsible business practices, following on several years of related advocacy from civil society.

The plan will detail how the United States will implement landmark U.N. guidelines outlining the responsibility of multinational businesses to respect human rights. While the United Nations has urged participating governments to draft concrete plans for putting into practice the guidelines, known as the Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights, thus far only three countries have done so – Denmark, the Netherlands and the United Kingdom.“What we’ll expect is what we’ve seen in the past, where industry is not going to want anything that’s binding.” -- Human Rights Watch’s Arvind Ganesan

Yet on the sidelines of last week’s U.N. General Assembly, President Barack Obama for the first time announced that his administration would begin formulating such a plan.

“[W]e intend to partner with American businesses to develop a national plan to promote responsible and transparent business conduct overseas,” the president stated. “We already have laws in place; they’re significantly stronger than the laws of many other countries. But we think we can do better.”

Obama suggested that clarity around responsible business practices is good for all involved, including industry and local communities.

“Because when [companies] know there’s a rule of law, when they don’t have to pay a bribe to ship their goods or to finalise a contract, that means they’re more likely to invest, and that means more jobs and prosperity for everybody,” the president said.

A White House fact sheet noted that the plan would aim to “promote and incentivize responsible business conduct, including with respect to transparency and anticorruption.” It also stated that the plan would be “consistent” with the U.N. Guiding Principles and similar guidelines from the OECD grouping of rich countries.

Additional details on the formulation process are not yet available, though observers expect a draft next year. For now, however, advocacy groups are applauding the president’s announcement as preliminary but significant.

“This could end up being a very important step, but now we’ll be looking to see how the U.S. articulates how it expects companies to respect rights at home and abroad,” Arvind Ganesan, the director of the business and human rights programme at Human Rights Watch, told IPS.

“More importantly, we’ll be looking to see whether this process results in any teeth – mechanisms to ensure that companies act responsibly everywhere.”

Task of implementation

In 2011, the U.N. Human Rights Council unanimously backed the Guiding Principles, which are meant to apply to all countries and companies operating both domestically and internationally.

Yet thus far, formal adherence to the Guiding Principles has been only stuttering. In late June, the council called on governments to step up the process of drafting national action plans.

The United States – which endorsed the June resolution – has been a key focus for many in this process, given the overwhelming size of its economy and the number of multinational companies that it hosts.

Further, U.S. companies have stood accused of a broad spectrum of rights abuse, from extractives companies poisoning local water supplies to private security companies killing unarmed civilians. Often, of course, such problems impact most directly on poor and marginalised communities in developing countries.

The Guiding Principles mandate that governments take on the responsibility to prevent rights abuses by corporations and other third parties. States are also required to provide judicial “remedy” for any such abuse.

This is powerful language, but it remains up to governments to decide how exactly to implement the guidelines. Here, watchdog groups are less optimistic.

While Ganesan welcomes the actions by the three European countries that have developed implementation plans, he has reservations as to how substantive they are.

“Few of them have any real strength,” he says. “While they ask their companies to adopt the Guiding Principles, none of them have put together any kind of mechanism aimed at ensuring that happens.”

In the context of the U.S. announcement, then, there is a sense of caution around whether the United States will be able to put in place rules that require action from corporations.

“We are thrilled to see the United States take on this important initiative,” Sara Blackwell, a legal and policy associate with the International Corporate Accountability Roundtable (ICAR), said in a statement.

Yet Blackwell notes that her office will continue to advocate for a U.S. action plan that goes beyond concerns merely around transparency and corruption.

Rather, she says, any plan needs to include “clear action on important issues such as access to effective remedy for victims of business-related human rights harms and the incorporation of human rights considerations into the U.S. federal government’s enormous influence on the marketplace through its public procurement activities.”

Voluntary initiatives

ICAR has been at the forefront of civil society engagement around the call for the development of national action plans on responsible business practice, including by the United States.

In June, the group, along with the Danish Institute for Human Rights, published a toolkit to guide government officials intent on formulating such plans. Among other points, the toolkit urges the participation of all stakeholders, including those who have been “disempowered”.

In his announcement, President Obama appeared to suggest that the drafting of a U.S. plan would rest on participation from business entities, though it is not yet clear how companies will react. (Three major industry lobby groups contacted for comment by IPS failed to respond.)

At the outset, though, rights advocates are worried by the examples coming out Europe, where governments appear to be relying on voluntary rather than rule-based initiatives.

“What we’ll expect is what we’ve seen in the past, where industry is not going to want anything that’s binding,” Human Rights Watch’s Ganesan says.

“They’ll be happy to agree to accepting human rights in rhetorical or aspirational terms, but they will not want any rules that say they must take certain actions or, for instance, risk losing government contracts. Nonetheless, there is now a real opportunity for the U.S. government to mandate certain actions – though how the administration articulates that will be a critical test.”

Meanwhile, concerns around the potential laxity of the Guiding Principles have already led to a division among rights advocates as to whether a new international mechanism is needed. In a landmark decision at the end of June, the U.N. Human Rights Council voted to begin negotiations towards a binding international treaty around transnational companies and their human rights obligations.

Yet this move remains highly controversial, even among supporters. Some are worried that the treaty idea remains unworkably broad, while others warn that the new push will divert attention from the Guiding Principles.

Edited by Kitty Stapp

The writer can be reached at cbiron@ips.org

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Outgunned by Rich Polluters, Africa to Bring United Front to Climate Talks

lun, 09/29/2014 - 13:43

Mercy Hlordz (l), Akos Matsiador (centre) and Mary Azametsi (r) are all victims of climate change. Credit: Jamila Akweley Okertchiri/IPS

By Monde Kingsley Nfor
YAOUNDE, Sep 29 2014 (IPS)

As climate change interest groups raise their voices across Africa to call for action at the COP20 climate meeting in December and the crucial COP21 in Paris in 2015, many worry that the continent may never have fair representation at the talks.

The African Group noted during a May meeting in Ethiopia that while negotiations remain difficult, they still hope to break some barriers through close collaboration and partnerships with different African groups involved in negotiations."Most of our problems are financial. For example, in negotiations Cameroon is seated next to Canada, which comes with a delegation of close to a hundred people, while two of us represent Cameroon." -- lead negotiator Tomothé Kagombet

Within the Central African Forest Commission (COMIFAC) group, a preparatory meeting is planned for next month with experts and delegates from the 10 member countries, according to Martin Tadoum, deputy secretary general of COMIFAC, “but the group can only end up sending one or two representatives to COP meetings.”

Meanwhile, the Pan-African Parliamentarians’ Network on Climate Change (PAPNCC) is hoping to educate lawmakers and African citizens on the problem to better take decisions about how to manage it.

“The African parliamentarians have a great role to influence government decisions on climate change and defend the calls of various groups on the continent,” Honorable Awudu Mbaya, Cameroonian Parliamentarian and president of PAPNCC, told IPS.

PAPNCC operates in 38 African countries, with its headquarters in Cameroon. Besides working with governments and decision-makers, it is also networking with youth groups and civil society groups in Africa to advance climate goals.

Innovative partnership models involving government, civil society groups, think tanks and academia could also enforce governments’ positions and build the capacity of negotiators.

The United Nations Economic Commission for Africa (UNECA) has noted that bargaining by all parties is increasingly taking place outside the formal negotiating space, and Africa must thus be prepared to engage on these various platforms in order to remain in the loop.

Civil society organisations (CSOs) in Africa are designing various campaign strategies for COP 20 and COP 21. The Pan African Climate Justice Alliance (PACJA), a diverse coalition of more than 500 CSOs and networks, is using national platforms and focal persons to plan a PACJA week of activities in November.

“PACJA Week of Action is an Africa-wide annual initiative aimed at stimulating actions and reinforcing efforts to exercise the power of collective action ahead of COPs. The weeks will involve several activities like staging pickets, rallies, marches, and other forms of action in schools, communities, workplaces, and public spaces,” Robert Muthami Kithuku, a programme support officer at PACJA headquarters in Kenya, told IPS.

Others, like the African Youth Initiative on Climate Change (AYICC) and the African Youth Alliance, are coming up with similar strategies to provide a platform for coordinated youth engagement and participation in climate discussions and the post-2015 development agenda at the national, regional and international levels.

“We plan to send letters to negotiators, circulating statements, using the social media, using both electronic and print media and also holding public forums. Slogans to enhance the campaign are also being adopted,” Kithuku said.

Africa’s vulnerability to climate change seems to have ushered in a new wave of south-south collaboration in the continent. The PAPNCC Cameroon chapter has teamed up with PACJA to advocate for greater commitments on climate change through tree-planting events in four Cameroonian communities. It is also holding discussions with regional parliamentarians on how climate change can better be incorporated in local legislation.

In June, mayors of the Central African sub-region gathered in Cameroon to plan their first participation in major climate negotiations at COP21 in Paris. Under the banner The International Association of Francophone Mayors of Central Africa on Towns and Climate Change (AIMF), the mayors are seeking ways to adapt their cities to the effects of climate change and to win development opportunities through mitigating carbon dioxide emissions.

During a workshop of African Group of Negotiators in May 2014, it was recognised that climate change negotiations offer opportunities for Africa to strengthen its adaptive capacity and to move towards low-carbon economic development. Despite a lack of financial resources, Africa has a comparative advantage in terms of natural resources like forests, hydro and solar power potential.

At the May meeting, Ethiopia’s minister of Environment and Forests, Belete Tafere, urged the lead negotiators in attendance to be ambitious and focused in order to press the top emitters to make binding commitments to reduce emissions. He also advised the negotiators to prioritise mitigation as a strategy to demonstrate the continent’s contribution to a global solution.

But negotiations are still difficult. Africa has fewer resources to send delegates to COPs, coupled with a relatively low level of expertise to understand technical issues in the negotiations.

“Africa is just a representative in negotiations and has very little capacity to influence decisions,” Tomothé Kagombet, one of Cameroon’s lead negotiators, told IPS.

“Most of our problems are financial. For example, in negotiations Cameroon is seated next to Canada, which comes with a delegation of close to a hundred people, while two of us represent Cameroon, and this is the case with all other African countries.”

He said that while developed countries swap delegates and experts in and out of the talks, the Africans are also obliged remain at the negotiating table for long periods without taking a break.

“At the country levels, there are no preparatory meetings that can help in capacity building and in enforcing countries’ positions,” he said.

As a strategy to improve the capacity of delegates, COMIFAC recruits consultants during negotiations to brief representatives from the 10 member countries on various technical issues in various forums.

“To reduce the problem of numbers, the new strategy is that each country is designated to represent the group in one aspect under negotiation. For example, Chad could follow discussions on adaptation, Cameroon on mitigation, DRC on finance,” COMIFAC’s Tadoum told IPS.

With a complex international climate framework that has evolved over many years, with new mitigation concepts and intricacies in REDD (reducing emissions from deforestation), the Clean Development Mechanism (CDM), and more than 60 different international funds, the challenges for African experts to grasp these technicalities are enormous, Samuel Nguiffo of the Center for Environment and Development told IPS (CED). CED is a subregional NGO based in Cameroon.

“There is no country budget set aside for climate change that can help in capacity building and send more delegates to COPs. The UNFCCC sponsors one or two representatives from developing countries but the whole of Africa might not measure up with the delegates from one developed nation,” said Cameroon’s negotiator, Tomothé Kagombet.

The lead African negotiators are now crafting partnerships with with young African lawyers in the negotiations process and compiling a historical narrative of Africa’s participation and decisions relevant to the continent as made by the Conference of Parties (COP) to the UNFCCC process, from Kyoto in 1997 to Paris in 2015.

Edited by Kitty Stapp

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Tackling the Proliferation of Patents to Avoid Limitations to Competition

lun, 09/29/2014 - 11:30

In this column, Carlos Correa, the South Centre's special adviser on trade and intellectual property issues, argues that the global increase in number of patents does not indicate the strength of innovation but a weakening in the standards of what can be considered patentable. He calls for an intrinsically balanced system of protection of innovation that remains neutral in its effects on competition.

By Carlos M. Correa
GENEVA, Sep 29 2014 (IPS)

The steady increase in patent applications and grants that is taking place in developed and some developing countries (notably in China) is sometimes hailed as evidence of the strength of global innovation and of the role of the patent system in encouraging it. 

Carlos M. Correa

However, such an increase does not correspond to a genuine rise in innovation. It points instead to a major deviation of the patent system away from its intended objective: to reward those who contribute to technological progress by creating new and inventive products and processes.

The increase in the number of patents reflects, to a large extent, the low requirements of patentability applied by patent offices and courts. Patents granted despite the absence of a genuine invention detract knowledge from the public domain and can unduly restrain legitimate competition.

Low standards of patentability encourage a large number of applications that would not otherwise be made, leading to a world backlog estimated at over 10 million unexaminedpatents.

This problem affects various sectors. For instance, Nokia is reported to hold around 30,000 patents relating to mobile phones, a large part of which are likely to be invalid, while Samsung holds more than 31,000 patent families. A study covering various fields of clean energy technologies, including solar photovoltaic, geothermal, wind and carbon capture, found nearly 400,000 patent documents.“The steady increase in patent applications and grants … does not correspond to a genuine rise in innovation. It points instead to a major deviation of the patent system away from its intended objective: to reward those who contribute to technological progress by creating new and inventive products and processes”

The proliferation of patents is particularly high and problematic in the pharmaceutical sector, where large companies actively seek to acquire broad portfolios of patents in order to extend patent protection beyond the expiry of the original patents on new compounds. These ever-greening strategies allow them to keep generic producers out of the market and charge prices higher than those that would otherwise exist in a competitive scenario.

For example, the basic patent for paroxetine, an antidepressant, expired in the late 1990s, whereas ‘secondary’ patents will extend up to 2018.

Ever-greening strategies by one company often force others to follow the same pattern as a defensive approach.  The proliferation of ‘secondary’ or ‘spurious’ patents can impose significant costs on patients and public health systems.

Several measures can be applied at the national level to avoid the proliferation of patents on trivial developments in full consistency with the Agreement on Trade-related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS), because they fall within the policy space that World Trade Organisation (WTO) members have retained to design and apply their patent laws.

The most important policy that governments may implement is the rigorous application of the requirements of patentability, based on a thorough examination of patent applications. The TRIPS agreement neither defines the concept of ‘invention’ nor how such requirements need to be interpreted.

Thus, national laws may differentiate inventions and discoveries, and require that the former result from an inventive activity, thereby excluding pre-existing subject matter that is merely found, such as natural substances.

While some patent offices grant patents on the basis of legal fictions on novelty, there is no reason to follow such practices in other jurisdictions.

An example of this practice by some patent offices is to admit what are known as ‘selection patents’, whereby one of more items that were previously disclosed are independently claimed. This type of patents provide an effective means of ever-greening, because protection can be extended for the full length of a new patent, i.e. normally twenty additional years, despite the fact that novelty was actually lost when such items were first disclosed.

While some large patent offices, such as the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office, the European Patent Office and the Chinese Patent Office, seem to apply a lax inventive step standard thereby allowing for the granting of a large number of ‘low quality’ patents, there are strong public interest arguments to follow a different approach, particularly in developing countries.

A strict application of the industrial applicability/usefulness requirement, when provided for by the national law, may also contribute to prevent the grant of unwarranted patent rights.

This is the case, in particular, for claims on new medical uses, which are equivalent to claims over methods of treatment that have no industrial application or technical effect. The lack of industrial applicability may be a sufficient ground to reject such claims.

Given the policy space left by the TRIPS agreement to adopt their own definitions of the patentability standards, and to do so consistently with their legal systems and practices, governments can follow different methods to ensure that patents are granted only when there are sufficient merits under the applicable law.

Governments may introduce specific standards in the patent laws themselves. A notable case is the Indian Patent Act, as amended in 2005, which incorporated in section 3(d) specific standards to assess patent applications in the field of chemicals and pharmaceuticals.

In a case brought by Novartis (a Swiss pharmaceutical company) against the rejection of its patent application relating to a beta crystalline form of imatinib mesylate, the Indian Supreme Court held that the claimed invention failed in both the tests of invention and patentability.

The definition of the standards of patentability can also be made through regulations, including patent offices’ guidelines. A good example is provided by the guidelines on the patentability of pharmaceutical products and processes adopted by the Argentine government in 2012 to limit the ever-greening of pharmaceutical patents.

Finally, it is worth noting that in applying patentability standards, patent offices can differentiate, in line with the TRIPS agreement, among fields of technology in order to take into account particular features of specific sectors and public policies objectives, for instance in relation to the promotion of generic drugs.

Measures to accommodate these differences constitute a necessary response to the diversity of technologies and, consequently, a condition sine qua non for an intrinsically balanced system of protection that remains neutral in its effects on competition. (END/IPS COLUMNIST SERVICE)

(Edited by Phil Harris)

This column is taken from the author’s research paper on ‘Tackling the Proliferation of Patents: How to Avoid Undue Limitations to Competition and the Public Domain’, published by the South Centre (http://www.southcentre.int/research-paper-52-august-2014/).

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Blistering Drought Leaves the Poorest High and Dry

lun, 09/29/2014 - 02:50

A villager prepare to dig a deep well by hand in the drought-stricken village of Tunukkai in Sri Lanka's northern Mullaithivu District. Credit: Amantha Perera/IPS

By Amantha Perera
COLOMBO, Sep 29 2014 (IPS)

The last time there was mud on his village roads was about a year ago, says Murugesu Mohanabavan, a farmer from the village of Karachchi, situated about 300 km north of Sri Lanka’s capital, Colombo.

“Since last October we have had nothing but sun, all day,” the 40-year-old father of two school-aged children told IPS. If his layman’s assessment of the rain patterns is off, it is by a mere matter of weeks.

At the disaster management unit of the Kilinochchi District Secretariat under which Mohanabavan’s village falls, reports show inadequate rainfall since November 2013 – less than 30 percent of expected precipitation for this time of year.

“We don’t have any savings left; I still need to complete a half-built house and send two children to school. The nightmare continues." -- Murugesu Mohanabavan, a farmer from the village of Karachchi, 300 km north of Sri Lanka’s capital, Colombo
Sri Lanka is currently facing a severe drought that has impacted over 1.6 million people and cut its crop yields by 42 percent, according to government analyses. But a closer look at the areas where the drought is at its worst shows that the poorest have been hit hardest.

Of the drought-affected population, over half or roughly 900,000 people, are from the Northern and Eastern Provinces of the country, regions that have been traditionally poor, dependent on agriculture and lacking strong coping mechanisms or infrastructure to withstand the impact of natural disasters.

Take the northern Kilinochchi district, where out of a population of some 120,000, over 74,000 are affected by the drought; or the adjoining district of Mullaithivu where over 56,000 from a population of just above 100,000 are suffering the impacts of inadequate rainfall.

The vast majority of residents in these districts are war returnees, who bore the brunt of Sri Lanka’s protracted civil war that ended in May 2009. Displaced and dodging the crossfire of fierce fighting between government forces and the now-defunct Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) during the last stages of the conflict, these civilians began trickling back into devastated villages in late 2010.

Despite a massive three-billion-dollar mega infrastructure development plan for the Northern Province, poverty remains rampant in the region. According to poverty data that was released by the government in April, four of the five districts in the north fared poorly.

While the national poverty headcount was 6.7 percent, major districts in the north and east recorded much higher figures: 28.8 percent in Mullaithivu, 12.7 percent in Kilinochchi, 8.3 percent in Jaffnna and 20.1 percent in Mannar.

The figures are worlds apart from the mere 1.4 percent and 2.1 percent recorded in the Colombo and Gampaha Districts in the Western Province.

“The districts in the North were already reeling under very high levels of poverty, which would have certainly accentuated since then due to the prolonged drought to date,” said Muttukrishna Saravananthan, who heads the Point Pedro Institute of Development based in northern Jaffna.

Mohanabavan told IPS that even though he has about two acres of agriculture land that had hitherto provided some 200,000 rupees (1,500 dollars) in income annually, the dry weather has pushed him into debt.

“We don’t have any savings left; I still need to complete a half-built house and send two children to school,” he explained, adding that there is no sign of respite. “The nightmare continues,” he said simply.

Agriculture accounts for 10 percent of Sri Lanka’s national annual gross domestic product (GDP) of some 60 billion rupees (about 460 million dollars). In primarily rural provinces in the north and east, at least 30 percent of the population depends on an agriculture-based income.

Kugadasan Sumanadas, the additional secretary for disaster management at the Kilinochchi District Secretariat, said that limited programmes to assist the drought-impacted population have been launched since the middle of the year.

Around 37,000 persons get daily water transported by tankers and there are a set number of cash-for-work programmes in the district that pay around 800 rupees (about six dollars) per person per day, for projects aimed at renovating water and irrigtation networks.

But to carry out even the limited work underway now, a weekly allocation of over nine million rupees is needed, money that is slow in coming.

“But the bigger problem is if it does not rain soon, then we will have to travel out of the province to get water, more people will need assistance for a longer period, that means more money [will be required],” Sumanadas said.

In April this year, a joint assessment by the World Food Programme and the government warned that half the population in the Mullaithivu district and one in three people in the Kilinochchi district were food insecure.

Sumanadas is certain that in the ensuing four months, the figure has gone up.

Overall, crop production has decreased by 42 percent compared to 2013 levels, while rice yields fell to 17 percent below last year’s output of four million metric tons.

In fact, the government decided to lift import bans on the staple rice stocks in April and is expected to make up for at least five percent of harvest losses through imports.

The main water source in the district, the sprawling Iranamadu Reservoir – 50 square km in size, with the capacity to irrigate 106,000 acres – is a gigantic dust bowl these days, the official said. That scenario, however, is not limited to the north and east.

“All reservoir levels are down to around 30 percent in the island,” Ivan de Silva, the secretary to the minister of irrigation and water management, told IPS.

He attributes the debilitating impact of the drought to two factors working in tandem: the increasing frequency of extreme weather events and the lack of proper water management.

“In the past we excepted a severe drought every 10 to 15 years, now it is happening almost every other year,” de Silva said.

A similar drought in late 2012 also impacted close to two million people on this island of just over 20 million people, and forced agricultural output down to 20 percent of previous yields.

That drought however was broken by the onset of floods brought on by hurricane Nilam in late 2012.

“We should have policies that allow us to manage our water resources better, so that we can better meet these changing weather patterns,” he said.

The country is slowly waking up to the grim reality that a changing climate requires better management. This week the government launched a 100-million-dollar climate resilience programme that will spend the bulk of its funds, around 90 million dollars, on infrastructure upgrades.

Of this, 47 million dollars will go towards improving drainage networks and water systems, while 36 million will go towards fortifying roads and seven million will be poured into projects to improve school safety in disaster-prone areas.

Part of the money will also be allocated to studying the nine main river basins around the country for better flood and drought management policies.

S M Mohammed, the secretary to the ministry of disaster management, admitted that national coping levels were not up to par when she said at the launch of the programme on Sep. 26, “Our country must change from a tradition of responding [to natural disasters] to a culture of resilience.”

Such a policy, if implemented, could bring a world of change to the lives of millions who are slowly cooking in the blistering sun.

Edited by Kanya D’Almieda

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‘Youth Exodus’ Reveals Lack of Opportunities

lun, 09/29/2014 - 01:20

Samoan mother Siera Tifa Palemene receives financial support from her sons who emigrated to Australia and New Zealand for employment opportunities. Credit: Catherine Wilson/IPS

By Catherine Wilson
APIA, Sep 29 2014 (IPS)

The small South Pacific island state of Samoa, located northeast of Fiji, attracts tourists with its beaches, natural beauty and relaxed pace of life, but similar to other small nations with constrained economies, it is experiencing an exodus of young people, who are unable to find jobs.

Samoa has a net migration rate of -13.4, while in neighbouring Tonga it is -15.4 and in the western Pacific island state of Micronesia it is -15.7, in contrast to the average in small island developing states (SIDS) of -1.4.

In Apia, Samoa’s capital, Siera Tifa Palemene, a fit, active woman in her late sixties, is one of many mothers to have watched her children migrate to larger economies in the region.

Palemene presides over an extensive family, with five sons and five daughters. Four of her married sons, now in their thirties, live in Australia and New Zealand, where they work in construction and building trades, such as welding.

“A lot of our people are migrating overseas to earn a living, leaving behind their parents, so there are elderly people now who have no-one living with them." -- Tala Mauala, secretary-general of the Samoa Red Cross Society
“The salaries are too low here in Samoa and my children have large families,” Palemene told IPS, emphasising that one of her sons has seven children. “My sons want their children to get a better life because over here there are not that many opportunities.”

Contraceptive prevalence in Samoa is an estimated 29 percent and the total fertility rate is 4.2, one of the highest in the region. However, while the country has a high natural population increase rate of two percent, emigration reduces population growth to 0.8 percent. Emigrants residing predominantly in Australia, New Zealand and the United States number an estimated 120,400, which nearly matches Samoa’s population of 190,372.

Twenty years after the International Conference on Population and Development (ICPD) held in Cairo in 1994, many small island states are still striving for sustainable economic development, equality and employment growth to match bulging youth populations.

Despite stable governance, Samoa’s economy, dependent on agriculture, tourism and international development assistance, suffers from geographic isolation from main markets. It was also impacted by the 2008 global financial crisis, an earthquake and tsunami in 2009 and Cyclone Evan in 2012, which damaged infrastructure and crops.

Livelihoods for most people centre on fishing, subsistence and smallholder agriculture, as well as small commercial and informal trading, with an estimated 27 percent of households striving to meet basic needs.

International migration, therefore, is an important avenue to economic fulfilment for young educated people with increased lifestyle aspirations and there are benefits for family members living in Samoa, such as remittances.

“My sons send money to help out the family; this helps pay all the household bills, such as electricity, and to send the grandchildren here to school,” Palemene said. According to the World Bank, remittances to Samoa in 2012 were an estimated 142 million dollars, or about 23 percent of gross domestic product (GDP).

As Palemene’s offspring face more expenses with their own families, remittances are becoming infrequent.

“I know they have their families to support and that life overseas is very expensive with so much to pay for, but when I need it, I call them and they give me money,” she said.

Still, Palemene, who receives a state pension of 135 tala (about 57 dollars) per month, works as a housekeeper at a guesthouse in Apia for extra income.

She supports the decision of her sons to emigrate and is keen for them to “have their own good future,” but added, “The only thing is that I worry that something might happen to them when they are so far away.”

Elderly relatives who remain in Samoa also face vulnerabilities when the social safety net traditionally provided by the younger generation in extended families is diminished.

“A lot of our people are migrating overseas to earn a living, leaving behind their parents, so there are elderly people now who have no-one living with them,” Tala Mauala, secretary-general of the Samoa Red Cross Society, observed. So, in times of natural disaster, for example, they need extra forms of community or state assistance.

There are other losses for high emigration countries such as the outward flow of educated professionals, known as the ‘brain drain’, due to the lure of higher salaries in the developed world, making it more difficult to progress much needed infrastructure and public service development. In Samoa the emigration rate of those with a tertiary education is 76.4 percent.

According to UNESCO, remittances are also primarily spent on consumption, rather than contributing to productivity, and the state’s trade deficit has grown as families in Samoa with additional disposable cash demand more imported goods.

Palemene sees her children when they pay her airfare to visit them or when they attend family events, such as weddings, in Samoa, but she doubts they will return to live permanently in the beautiful Polynesian country.

This story originally appeared in a special edition TerraViva, ‘ICPD@20: Tracking Progress, Exploring Potential for Post-2015’, published with the support of UNFPA, the United Nations Population Fund. The contents are the independent work of reporters and authors.

Edited by Kanya D’Almeida

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Militarising the Ebola Crisis

dim, 09/28/2014 - 07:05

First shipment of the ramped-up U.S. military response to Ebola arriving in Liberia. Credit: US Army Africa/CC-BY-2.0

By Joeva Rock
WASHINGTON, Sep 28 2014 (IPS)

Six months into West Africa’s Ebola crisis, the international community is finally heeding calls for substantial intervention in the region.

On Sep. 16, U.S. President Barack Obama announced a multimillion-dollar U.S. response to the spreading contagion. The crisis, which began in March 2014, has killed over 2,600 people, an alarming figure that experts say will rise quickly if the disease is not contained.

Obama’s announcement comes on the heels of growing international impatience with what critics have called the U.S. government’s “infuriatingly” slow response to the outbreak.

Assistance efforts have already stoked controversy, with a noticeable privilege of care being afforded to foreign healthcare workers over Africans.

The U.S. operation in Liberia warrants many questions. Will military contractors be used in the construction of facilities and execution of programmes? [...] Will the treatment centers double as research labs? [...] And perhaps most significantly for the long term, will the Liberian operation base serve as a staging ground for non-Ebola related military operations?
After two infected American missionaries were administered Zmapp, a life-saving experimental drug, controversy exploded when reports emerged that Doctors Without Borders (MSF) had previously decided not to administer it to the Sierra Leonean doctor Sheik Umar Khan, who succumbed to Ebola after helping to lead the country’s fight against the disease.

The World Health Organisation (WHO) similarly refused to evacuate the prominent Sierra Leonean doctor Olivet Buck, who later died of the disease as well. The Pentagon provoked its own controversy when it announced plans to deploy a 22-million-dollar, 25-bed U.S. military field hospital—reportedly for foreign health workers only.

One particular component of the latest assistance package promises to be controversial as well: namely, the deployment of 3,000 U.S. troops to Liberia, where the U.S. Africa Command (AFRICOM) will establish a joint command operations base to serve as a logistics and training center for medical responders.

According to the prominent political blog ‘Think Progress’, this number represents “nearly two-thirds of AFRICOM’s 4,800 assigned personnel” who will coordinate with civilian organisations to distribute supplies and construct up to 17 treatment centres.

It’s unclear whether any U.S. healthcare personnel will actually treat patients, but according to the White House, “the U.S. Government will help recruit and organise medical personnel to staff” the centres and “establish a site to train up to 500 health care providers per week.”

The latter begs the question of practicality: where would these would-be health workers be recruited from?

According to the Obama administration, the package was requested directly by Liberian President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf. (Notably, Liberia was the only African nation to offer to host AFRICOM’s headquarters in 2008, an offer AFRICOM declined and decided to set up in Germany instead).

But in a country still recovering from decades of civil war, this move was not welcomed by all. “Every Liberian I speak with is having acute anxiety attacks,” said Liberian writer Stephanie C. Horton. “We knew this was coming but the sense of mounting doom is emotional devastation.”

Few would oppose a robust U.S. response to the Ebola crisis, but the militarised nature of the White House plan comes in the context of a broader U.S.-led militarisation of the region.

The soldiers in Liberia, after all, will not be the only American troops on the African continent. In the six years of AFRICOM’s existence, the U.S. military has steadily and quietly been building its presence on the continent through drone bases and partnerships with local militaries.

This is what’s known as the “new normal”: drone strikes, partnerships to train and equip African troops (including those with troubled human rights records), reconnaissance missions, and multinational training operations.

To build PR for its military exercises, AFRICOM relies on soft-power tactics: vibrant social media pages, academic symposia, and humanitarian programming. But such militarised humanitarianism—such as building schools and hospitals and responding to disease outbreaks—also plays more strategic, practical purpose: it allows military personnel to train in new environments, gather local experience and tactical data, and build diplomatic relations with host countries and communities.

TomDispatch’s Nick Turse, one of the foremost reporters on the militarisation of Africa, noted that a recent report from the U.S. Department of Defense “found failures in planning, executing, tracking, and documenting such projects,” leaving big questions about their efficacy.

Perhaps more importantly, experts have warned that the provision of humanitarian assistance by uniformed soldiers could have dangerous, destabilising effects, especially in countries with long histories of civil conflict, such as Liberia and Sierra Leone.

At the outset of the crisis, for example, efforts by Liberian troops to forcefully quarantine the residents of West Point, a community in the capital of Monrovia, led to deadly clashes. Some public health advocates worry that the presence of armed troops could provoke similar incidents.

The U.S. operation in Liberia warrants many questions. Will military contractors be used in the construction of facilities and execution of programmes? Will the U.S.-built treatment centers be temporary or permanent? Will the treatment centers double as research labs? What is the timeline for exiting the country? And perhaps most significantly for the long term, will the Liberian operation base serve as a staging ground for non-Ebola related military operations?

The use of the U.S. military in this operation should raise red flags for the American public as well. After all, if the military truly is the governmental institution best equipped to handle this outbreak, it speaks worlds about the neglect of civilian programmes at home as well as abroad.

This article first appeared on Foreign Policy in Focus. You can read the original version here.

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

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Arms Trade Treaty Gains Momentum with 50th Ratification

dim, 09/28/2014 - 06:17

State parties to the Arms Trade Treaty (ATT) are obligated under international law to assess their exports of conventional weapons to determine whether there is a danger that they will be used to fuel conflict. Credit: Karlos Zurutuza/IPS

By Joel Jaeger
UNITED NATIONS, Sep 28 2014 (IPS)

With state support moving at an unprecedented pace, the Arms Trade Treaty will enter into force on Dec. 24, 2014, only 18 months after it was opened for signature.

Eight states – Argentina, the Bahamas, Bosnia and Herzegovina, the Czech Republic, Saint Lucia, Portugal, Senegal and Uruguay – ratified the Arms Trade Treaty (ATT) at a special event at the United Nations this past Thursday, Sep. 25, pushing the number of states parties up to 53.

As per article 22 of the treaty, the ATT comes into force as a part of international law 90 days after the 50th instrument of ratification is deposited.

“We are dealing with an instrument that introduces humanitarian considerations into an area that has traditionally been couched in the language of national defence and security, as well as secrecy." -- Paul Holtom, head of the peace, reconciliation and security team at Coventry University’s Centre for Trust, Peace and Social Relations
According to a statement by the Control Arms coalition, “The ATT is one of the fastest arms agreements to move toward entry into force.”

The speed at which the treaty received 50 ratifications “shows tremendous momentum for the ATT and a lot of significant political commitment and will,” said Paul Holtom, head of the peace, reconciliation and security team at Coventry University’s Centre for Trust, Peace and Social Relations.

“The challenge now is to translate the political will into action, both in terms of ensuring that States Parties are able to fulfil – and are fulfilling – their obligations under the Treaty,” Holtom told IPS in an email.

So what are the requirements under the ATT?

ATT states parties are obligated under international law to assess their exports of conventional weapons to determine whether there is a danger that they will be used to fuel conflict.

Article 6(3) of the treaty forbids states from authorising transfers if they have the knowledge that the arms would be used in the commission of genocide, crimes against humanity or war crimes. Article 7 prohibits transfers if there is an overriding risk of the weapons being used to undermine peace and security or commit a serious violation of international humanitarian or human rights law.

In addition, states parties are required to take a number of measures to prevent diversion of weapons to the illicit market and produce annual reports of their imports and exports of conventional arms.

The treaty applies to eight categories of conventional arms, ranging from battle tanks to small arms and light weapons.

The successful entry into force of the ATT will be a big win for arms control campaigners and NGOs, who have been fighting for the regulation of the arms trade for more than a decade.

When Control Arms launched a global campaign in 2003, “Mali, Costa Rica and Cambodia were the only three governments who would publically say that they supported talk of the idea of an arms trade treaty,” Anna MacDonald, director of the Control Arms secretariat, told IPS.

NGO supporters of the treaty often brought up the fact that the global trade in bananas was more regulated than the trade in weapons.

The organisations in the Control Arms coalition supported the ATT process through “a mix of campaigning, advocacy, pressure on governments” and “proving technical expertise on what actually could be done, how a treaty could look, [and] what provisions needed to be in it,” MacDonald said.

All of the legwork has paid off, as the treaty will become operational far earlier than many expected.

Today’s 53rd ratification is just the start. So far, 121 countries have signed the treaty, and 154 voted in favour of its adoption in April 2013 in the General Assembly.

“There’s no reason why we would not expect all of those who voted in favour to sign and ultimately to ratify the treaty,” said MacDonald.

Sceptics contend that the worst human rights abusers will not agree to the treaty. For example, Syria was one of three states that voted against the ATT’s adoption in the General Assembly.

However, MacDonald believes that once enough countries join the ATT, the holdouts will face an enormous amount of political pressure to comply as well.

With a sufficient number of states parties, the ATT will “establish a new global standard for arms transfers, which makes it politically very difficult for even countries that have not signed it to ignore its provisions,” she told IPS.

MacDonald cited the Ottawa Convention, which banned anti-personnel landmines, as an example.

Many of the world’s biggest landmine users and exporters have not joined the Ottawa convention, but the use of landmines has fallen anyway because of the political stigma that developed.

Much work remains to be done in the months before Dec. 24 and in the upcoming years as the ATT system evolves.

States will need to create or update transfer control systems and enforcement mechanisms for regulating exports, imports and brokering as well as minimising diversion, according to Holtom.

“There are a lot of issues to be discussed before the Conference of States Parties and it will take several years before we can really see an impact,” he told IPS. “But we need to now make sure that the ATT can be put into effect and States and other key stakeholders work together towards achieving its object and purpose.”

The first conference of states parties will take place in Mexico in 2015.

Participating countries must provide their first report on arms exports and imports by May 31, 2015 and a report on measures that they have taken to implement the treaty by late 2015, Holtom said.

No matter the challenges to come, the simple fact that arms trade control is on the agenda is quite historic.

“We are dealing with an instrument that introduces humanitarian considerations into an area that has traditionally been couched in the language of national defence and security, as well as secrecy,” said Holtom.

On Thursday, U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon claimed, “Today we can look ahead with satisfaction to the date of this historic new Treaty’s entry into force.”

“Now we must work for its efficient implementation and seek its universalisation so that the regulation of armaments – as expressed in the Charter of the United Nations – can become a reality once and for all,” he said in a statement delivered by U.N. High Representative for Disarmament Affairs Angela Kane.

Edited by Kanya D’Almeida

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Iraq Looking for an ‘Independent’ Sunni Defense Minister

sam, 09/27/2014 - 09:54

By Barbara Slavin
WASHINGTON, Sep 27 2014 (IPS)

Iraqi President Fouad Massoum said this past week that the government was looking for an independent Sunni Muslim to fill the post of defense minister in an effort to improve chances of reunifying the country and defeating the group that calls itself the Islamic State (IS).

Massoum, in his first extended comments to a U.S. audience since his recent selection as president of Iraq, also said Sept. 26 that Iraqi Kurds – while they might still hold a referendum on independence – would not secede from Iraq at a  time of such major peril.

“Today there is no possibility to announce such a state,” Massoum, a Kurd and former prime minister of the Kurdish region, told a packed room at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York.

“Forming a Kurdish state is a project, and a project like that has to take into account” the views of regional and other countries and the extraordinary circumstances of the current terrorist menace to Iraq.

Kurdish threats to hold a referendum and declare independence were widely seen as leverage to force the resignation of former Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki. Maliki,also under pressure from President Barack Obama’s administration, Iraqi Sunnis and Iran, stepped down to allow a less  polarizing member of his Shi’ite Dawa party – Haider al-Abadi – to take the top job.

Abadi, however, has been unable so far to get parliament to approve his choices for the sensitive posts of defense and interior ministers. Queried about this, Massoum said, “There seems to be some understanding that the minister of defense should be Sunni and there is a search for an independent Sunni.”

As for interior minister, Massoum said, they were looking for an “independent Shiite” to take the post.

For the time being, Abadi is holding the portfolios, but unlike his predecessor, who retained them, has clearly stated that he does not want to assume those responsibilities for long. Massoum said a decision was likely after the coming Muslim holiday, the Eid al-Adha.

The Iraqi president also said there was progress on a new arrangement for sharing Iraq’s oil revenues, a major source of internal grievances under Maliki. A decision has been made that each of the regions will have representation on a higher oil and gas council, Massoum said. He also expressed confidence in Iraq’s new oil minister, Adel Abdel-Mahdi.

Asked whether Iraq would split into three countries – as Vice President Joe Biden once recommended – Massoum said there might be an eventual move toward a more confederal system but “partitioning Iraq … into three independent states is a bit far-fetched, especially in the current situation.”

Massoum began his remarks with a fascinating explanation of how IS – which he called ISIS, for the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Shams – came into being. He said the group began “as a marriage” between nationalist military officers and religious extremists that took place when they were in prison together while the U.S. still occupied Iraq.

The notion of combining Iraq with the Levant – made up of Lebanon, Syria, Palestine and Jordan – is actually an old Arab nationalist concept, Massoum said.

As for the religious aspects of the movement, Massoum traced that to the so-called Hashishin – users of hashish. This Shiite group, formed in the late 11th century, challenged the then-Sunni rulers of the day, used suicide attacks and were said to be under the influence of drugs. The English word “assassin” derives from the term.

“Many times these terrorist practices [were used] in the name of a religion or a sect,” Massoum said.

He praised the United States for coming to the aid of Iraqis and Kurds against IS and also expressed support for the recent bombing of IS and Jabhat al-Nusra positions in Syria. But Massoum sidestepped repeated questions about whether such strikes would inadvertently bolster the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

“Hitting ISIS in Syria should not mean this is to support the regime or as a beginning to overthrowing Bashar al-Assad,” Massoum said. “That’s why the attacks are limited.”

Asked about Iraqi relations with Iran and whether the Iraqis and Kurds were serving as go-betweens for the United States and Iran in mutual efforts to degrade IS, Massoum noted Iraq’s historic relations with its neighbour and that Iraq also had common interests with the United States.

“We don’t look at America with Iranian eyes and we don’t look at Iran with American eyes,” Massoum said. He evaded questions about Iran’s military role in Iraq, saying that while he had heard reports that Quds Force Chief Qasem Soleimani had visited the Kurdish region, requests for a meeting were not fulfilled.

As for Iranian military advisers who were said to have helped liberate the town of Amerli and relieve the siege of Mt. Sinjar, Massoum said, there were “many  experts” who had come to help the Kurdish peshmerga forces.

Massoum attributed the collapse of the Iraqi army at Mosul to poor leadership, corruption and decades of setbacks starting with Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Iran in 1980. This was followed a decade later by his invasion of Kuwait and subsequent refusal to cooperate with the international community.

“These blows all had an impact on the psychology of the commanders and soldiers,” Massoum said. Iraqi armed forces have gone “from failure to failure.”

The president confirmed that under the new Iraqi government, each governorate will have its own national guard made up of local people. This concept – which may be partly funded by the Saudis and other rich Gulf Arabs – is an attempt to replicate the success of the so-called sons of Iraq by motivating Sunni tribesmen to confront IS as they previously did al-Qaeda in Iraq.

Asked what would happen to Shi’ite militias – which have committed abuses against Sunnis and helped alienate that population from Baghdad – Massum said the militias would eventually have to be shut down but only after the IS threat had been eliminated. He did not indicate how long that might take.

Massum was also asked about reported IS plots against U.S. and French subway systems. Abadi earlier this week made reference to such plots, but U.S. officials said they had no such intelligence.

Iraqi officials accompanying Massoum, who spoke on condition that they not be identified, said Abadi had been misinterpreted and was referring only to the types of attacks IS might mount in the West. Massoum warned, however, that “sleeper cells” in the West as well as in Iraq might be planning terrorist attacks.

Asked about Turkey – which has been reticent about aiding Iraq against IS – Massoum, who met at the U.N. this week with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, said he expected more help now that 49 Turkish hostages in Mosul have been freed.

Massoum also urged Turkey to do a better job vetting young men who arrive there from Europe and America, and prevent them from reaching border areas and slipping into IS-controlled areas in Syria.

Edited by Kanya D’Almeida

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Zero Nuclear Weapons: A Never-Ending Journey Ahead

sam, 09/27/2014 - 03:48

By Thalif Deen
UNITED NATIONS, Sep 27 2014 (IPS)

When the United Nations commemorated its first ever “international day for the total elimination of nuclear weapons,” the lingering question in the minds of most anti-nuclear activists was: are we anywhere closer to abolishing the deadly weapons or are we moving further and further away from their complete destruction?

Jackie Cabasso, executive director of the Western States Legal Foundation, told IPS that with conflicts raging around the world, and the post World War II order crumbling, “We are now standing on the precipice of a new era of great power wars – the potential for wars among nations which cling to nuclear weapons as central to their national security is growing.”

She said the United States-NATO (North Atlantic Treaty Organisation) versus Russia conflict over the Ukraine and nuclear tensions in the Middle East, South East Asia, and on the Korean Peninsula “remind us that the potential for nuclear war is ever present.”

"Now disarmament has been turned on its head; by pruning away the grotesque Cold War excesses, nuclear disarmament has, for all practical purposes, come to mean "fewer but newer" weapons systems, with an emphasis on huge long-term investments in nuclear weapons infrastructures and qualitative improvements in the weapons projected for decades to come." -- Jackie Cabasso, executive director of the Western States Legal Foundation
Paradoxically, nuclear weapons modernisation is being driven by treaty negotiations understood by most of the world to be intended as disarmament measures.

She said the Cold War and post-Cold War approach to nuclear disarmament was quantitative, based mainly on bringing down the insanely huge cold war stockpile numbers – presumably en route to zero.

“Now disarmament has been turned on its head; by pruning away the grotesque Cold War excesses, nuclear disarmament has, for all practical purposes, come to mean “fewer but newer” weapons systems, with an emphasis on huge long-term investments in nuclear weapons infrastructures and qualitative improvements in the weapons projected for decades to come,” said Cabasso, who co-founded the Abolition 2000 Global Network to Eliminate Nuclear Weapons.

The international day for the total elimination of nuclear weapons, commemorated on Nov. 26, was established by the General Assembly in order to enhance public awareness about the threat posed to humanity by nuclear weapons.

There are over 16,000 nuclear weapons in the world, says Alyn Ware, co-founder of UNFOLD ZERO, which organised an event in Geneva in cooperation with the U.N. Office of Disarmament Affairs (UNODA).

“The use of any nuclear weapon by accident, miscalculation or intent would create catastrophic human, environmental and financial consequences. There should be zero nuclear weapons in the world,” he said.

Alice Slater, New York director of the Nuclear Age Peace Foundation, told IPS despite the welcome U.N. initiative establishing September 26 as the first international day for the elimination of all nuclear weapons, and the UNFOLD ZERO campaign by non-governmental organisations (NGOs) to promote U.N. efforts for abolition, “it will take far more than a commemorative day to reach that goal.

Notwithstanding 1970 promises in the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) to eliminate nuclear weapons, reaffirmed at subsequent review conferences nearly 70 years after the first catastrophic nuclear bombings, 16,300 nuclear weapons remain, all but a thousand of them in the U.S. and Russia, said Slater, who also serves on the Coordinating Committee of Abolition 2000.

She said the New York Times last week finally revealed, on its front page the painful news that in the next ten years the U.S. will spend 355 billion dollars on new weapons, bomb factories and delivery systems, by air, sea, and land.

This would mean projecting costs of one trillion dollars over the next 30 years for these instruments of death and destruction to all planetary life, as reported in recent studies on the catastrophic humanitarian consequences of nuclear war.

She said disarmament progress is further impeded by the disturbing deterioration of U.S.-Russian relations.

The U.S. walked out of the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty with Russia, putting missiles in Poland, Romania and Turkey, with NATO performing military maneuvers in Ukraine and deciding to beef up its troop presence in eastern Europe, breaking U.S. promises to former Russian President Mikhail Gorbachev when the Berlin wall fell that NATO would not be expanded beyond East Germany.

Shannon Kile, senior researcher for the Project on Nuclear Arms Control, Disarmament and Non-Proliferation at the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI) told IPS while the overall number of nuclear weapons in the world has decreased sharply from the Cold War peak, there is little to inspire hope the nuclear weapon-possessing states are genuinely willing to give up their nuclear arsenals.

“Most of these states have long-term nuclear modernisation programmes under way that include deploying new nuclear weapon delivery systems,” he said.

Perhaps the most dismaying development has been the slow disappearance of U.S. leadership that is essential for progress toward nuclear disarmament, Kile added.

Cabasso told IPS the political conditions attached to Senate ratification in the U.S., and mirrored by Russia, effectively turned START (Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty) into an anti-disarmament measure.

She said this was stated in so many words by Senator Bob Corker, a Republican from Tennessee, whose state is home to the Oak Ridge National Laboratory, site of a proposed multi-billion dollar Uranium Processing Facility.

“[T]hanks in part to the contributions my staff and I have been able to make, the new START treaty could easily be called the “Nuclear Modernisation and Missile Defense Act of 2010,” Corker said.

Cabasso said the same dynamic occurred in connection with the administration of former U.S. President Bill Clinton who made efforts to obtain Senate consent to ratification of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT) in the late 1990s.

The nuclear weapons complex and its Congressional allies extracted an administration commitment to add billions to future nuclear budgets.

The result was massive new nuclear weapons research programmes described in the New York Times article.

“We should have learned that these are illusory tradeoffs and we end up each time with bigger weapons budgets and no meaningful disarmament,” Cabasso said.

Despite the 45-year-old commitment enshrined in Article VI of the NPT, there are no disarmament negotiations on the horizon.

While over the past three years there has been a marked uptick in nuclear disarmament initiatives by governments not possessing nuclear weapons, both within and outside the United Nations, the U.S. has been notably missing in action at best, and dismissive or obstructive at worst.

Slater told IPS the most promising initiative to break the log-jam is the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN) urging non-nuclear weapons states to begin work on a treaty to ban nuclear weapons just as chemical and biological weapons are banned.

A third conference on the humanitarian consequences of nuclear weapons will meet in December in Vienna, following up meetings held in Norway and Mexico.

“Hopefully, despite the failure of the NPT’s five recognised nuclear weapons states, (U.S., Russia, UK, France, China) to attend, the ban initiative can start without them, creating an opening for more pressure to honor this new international day for nuclear abolition and finally negotiate a treaty for the total elimination of nuclear weapons,” Slater declared.

In his 2009 Prague speech, Kile told IPS, U.S. President Barack Obama had outlined an inspiring vision for a nuclear weapons-free world and pledged to pursue “concrete steps” to reduce the number and salience of nuclear weapons.

“It therefore comes as a particular disappointment for nuclear disarmament advocates to read recent reports that the U.S. Government has embarked on a major renewal of its nuclear weapon production complex.”

Among other objectives, this will enable the US to refurbish existing nuclear arms in order to ensure their long-term reliability and to develop a new generation of nuclear-armed missiles, bombers and submarines, he declared.

Edited by Kanya D’Almeida

The writer can be contacted at: thalifdeen@aol.com

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Championing Ocean Conservation Or Paying Lip Service to the Seas?

sam, 09/27/2014 - 02:32

President Obama's closure of waters around three remote Pacific islands will allow Honolulu's s long-line fishing vessels like this one to continue to fish the fast-dwindling bigeye tuna. Credit: Christopher Pala/IPS

By Christopher Pala
WASHINGTON, Sep 27 2014 (IPS)

President Barack Obama this week extended the no-fishing areas around three remote pacific islands, eliciting praise from some, and disappointment from those who fear the move did not go far enough towards helping depleted species of fish recover.

Last June, Obama had proposed to end all fishing in the Exclusive Economic Zones (EEZ) of five islands, effectively doubling the surface of the world’s protected waters. But on Thursday, he only closed the three where little or no fishing goes on, making the measure, according to some experts, largely symbolic: the Wake Atoll, north of the Marshall Islands; Johnson Atoll, southwest of Hawaii; and Jarvis, just south of the Kiribati Line Islands.

Fishing of fast-diminishing species like the Pacific bigeye tuna was allowed to continue around Howland and Baker, which abut Kiribati’s 408,000 square km Phoenix Islands Protected Area, and Palmyra in the U.S. Line Islands.

“If we don’t have the fortitude to protect marine biodiversity in these easy-win situations, that says a lot about our commitment to oceans." -- Doug McCauley, a marine ecologist at the University of California at Santa Barbara
Many press reports said Obama had created the largest marine reserve in the world. In fact, he would have done only that if he had closed the waters around Howland and Baker. Since these waters adjoin Kiribati’s Phoenix Islands Protected Area, itself due to be closed to commercial fishing soon, the two together would have created a refuge of 850,000 square km, twice the size of California.

The biggest marine reserve in the world remains around the Indian Ocean’s Chagos Islands, which Britain closed in 2010, at 640,000 square km. Scientists say that to allow far-traveling species like tuna, shark and billfish, protected areas need to be in that range.

But after fishing fleets in Hawaii and American Samoa protested, Obama backtracked and allowed fishing to continue unabated in the two areas that have the most fish, Palmyra and Howland and Baker.

“We missed a unique opportunity to do something important for the oceans,” said Doug McCauley, a marine ecologist at the University of California at Santa Barbara. “I can’t think of anywhere in the world that could be protected and inconvenience fewer people than Palmyra and Howland and Baker.” According to official statistics, only 1.7 percent of the Samoa fleet’s catch and four percent of Honolulu’s comes from those areas.

“If we don’t have the fortitude to protect marine biodiversity in these easy-win situations, that says a lot about our commitment to oceans,” added McCauley.

On Thursday, Obama extended by about 90 percent the no-fishing zones in the waters around Jarvis, south of Palmyra and outside the range of the Hawaii fleet: Wake, which is not fished at all and lies west of Hawaii, and Johnston, south of Hawaii but far from the so-called equatorial tuna belt where the biggest numbers of fish live.

The three are more than 1,000 kilometers apart from each other and their newly protected waters add up to about one million square km.

“That’s a lot of water,” said Lance Morgan, president of the Marine Conservation institute in Seattle, who had campaigned for the closures. “Obama has protected more of the ocean than anyone else.”

Morgan pointed out that it was in his sixth year (as is Obama now) that President George W. Bush created the first large U.S. marine national monument around the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands, and it was in the closing days of Bush’s second term that he created several others in U.S. overseas possessions, including the five in the Central Pacific.

“Podesta said Obama’s signing pen still has some ink left in it, and I hope he’ll use it,” Morgan added, referring to a remark White House Counselor John Podesta made to journalists last week.

Bush, like Obama, had also initially proposed to protect the whole EEZ of the Central Pacific islands, but after fishing companies and the U.S. Navy objected, he ended up limiting the marine national monument designation to only the areas within 90 km of the islands.

The move protected the largely pristine and unfished reefs but left the rest of the EEZ open to U.S. fishermen. This time, a source familiar with the process told IPS, the Navy had made no objections to Obama’s original proposal to close the whole EEZ of the five zones.

But Kitty Simonds, executive director of the Honolulu Western Pacific Fishery Management Advisory Board, a leading voice in Hawaii’s fishing industry, had vigorously opposed the proposed closures, telling IPS, “U.S fishermen should be able to fish in U.S. zones.”

Obama’s declaration that turns the whole EEZ (out from 90 km to 340 km) around Wake, Jarvis and Johnston into marine national monuments notes they “contain significant objects of scientific interest that are part of this highly pristine deep sea and open ocean ecosystem with unique biodiversity.”

But the declaration does not mention that overfishing in the last decades has reduced the tropical Pacific population of bigeye tuna, highly prized as sushi, to 16 percent of its original population, while the yellowfin is down to 26 percent. About 80 percent of the tuna caught by Hawaii’s long-line fleet is bigeye. The stocks of tuna are even more depleted outside the Western and Central Pacific.

“In a well-managed fishery, you would stop fishing and rebuild the stock,” said Glenn Hurry, who recently stepped down as head of the international tuna commission that manages the five-billion-dollar Pacific fishery.

The fishery’s own scientists have called for reducing the bigeye catch by 30 percent, but the catch has only grown. Honolulu’s catch of bigeye was a record last year.

“It’s too bad these areas (Palmyra and Howland and Baker) weren’t closed,” said Patrick Lehodey, a French fisheries scientist who studies Pacific tuna. Absent a reduction in catch, he said, “Our simulations showed that to help the bigeye recover, you need to close a really big area near the tuna belt.”

Edited by Kanya D’Almeida

 

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Cuba’s Sugar Industry to Use Bagasse for Bienergy

ven, 09/26/2014 - 11:08

By Patricia Grogg
Sep 26 2014

Cuba’s sugar industry hopes to become the main source of clean energy in the country as part of a programme to develop renewable sources aimed at reducing dependence on imported fossil fuels and protecting the environment.

The project forms part of the plans for upgrading and modernising sugar mills that have been opened up to foreign investment by Azcuba, the government business group that replaced the Sugar Ministry in 2011. Traditionally, sugar mills have generated electricity for their own consumption, using bagasse, the fibrous matter that remains after sugarcane stalks are crushed to extract their juice.

In a conversation with Tierramérica, Azcuba spokesman Liobel Pérez defended the production of energy using bagasse as a cheap, environmentally friendly alternative. “The CO2 [carbon dioxide] produced in the generation of electricity is the same amount that the sugar cane absorbs when it grows, which means there is an environmental balance.”

For now, the production of ethanol as a by-product of sugarcane is not being considered in Cuba, although some experts argue that the biofuel could reduce consumption of gasoline by farm machinery and transportation and thus limit atmospheric emissions.

“That is one of the issues being discussed and analysed by the government commission created to study the development of renewable energies,” said Manuel Díaz, director of the Cuban Institute of Research on Sugar Cane Derivatives. The official did not, however, rule out the possibility in the future.

“Even if it is not the definitive long-term solution to the consumption of automotive fuel, ethanol is an important factor and contributes to reducing fossil fuel use, and if it does not run counter to the use of land for food, it could be, it seems to me, an alternative that each country should analyse depending on its specific characteristics,” Díaz said.

The sugar industry currently accounts for 3.5 percent of electricity generation in this Caribbean island nation. A target of the plan to boost energy efficiency is for around 20 sugar mills to generate a surplus of 755 MW by 2030, to go into the national power grid.

That would raise the proportion of electricity produced by sugarcane biomass to 14 percent by 2030. The overall aim is for 24 percent of energy to come from renewable sources, including wind power (six percent), solar (three percent), and hydropower (one percent).

Currently, renewable energy sources only represent 4.6 percent of electricity generation; the rest comes from fossil fuels.

The gradual installation in the sugar mills of modern bioelectric plants needed to achieve that goal requires an estimated investment of 1.29 billion dollars, which Azcuba hopes to obtain from government loans or foreign investment.

“If we don’t find a loan we will get foreign investment,” said Jorge Lodos, business director for Zerus SA, a subsidiary of Azcuba. The executive told Tierramérica that the first two companies to enter into partnership with Cuba in the sector included the bioelectric plants in their plans, to boost energy efficiency.

The first of the plants that run on sugarcane biomass will begin to produce energy in 2016, Lodos said. It is to be built near the Ciro Redondo sugar mill in the province of Ciego de Ávila, 423 km from Havana, by Biopower, a joint venture established in 2012 by Cuba’s state-run Zerus and the British firm Havana Energy Ltd.

During the December to May harvest season, the plant will use sugarcane bagasse from the nearby sugar mill. The rest of the year it will use stored sugarcane waste and marabú (Dichrostachys cinérea), a woody shrub that has invaded vast areas of farmland in Cuba. The projected investment ranges between 45 and 55 million dollars.

Meanwhile, the Compañía de Obras e Infraestructura (COI), a subsidiary of Brazilian construction giant Odebrecht, reached an agreement with the Empresa Azucarera Cienfuegos, another Azcuba subsidiary, to jointly administer the 5 de Septiembre sugar mill in the province of Cienfuegos, 256 km from the capital, for 13 years.

In this case, the commitment is to bring the productive capacity of the sugar mill back up to 90,000 tons of sugar per harvest, or even higher.
Lodos said investment in the project would surpass 100 million dollars, and would also include the construction of a bioenergy plant.

These two sugar mills and the Jesús Rabí mill in the province of Matanzas, 98 km from Havana, will generate the first 140 MW of electricity in the medium term.

Havana Energy and COI opened the door to foreign capital in Cuba’s sugar industry, just as investment has already been welcomed in other sectors of this country’s centralised economy. “Foreign investment requires mutual trust,” Lodos said.

The socialist government of Raúl Castro estimates that the country needs between two and 2.5 billion dollars a year in foreign capital in order to grow and develop.

Of Cuba’s 56 sugar mills, six of which are now inactive, Azcuba has opened up 20 to foreign investment. The initial priorities are the eight built after the 1959 revolution.

Although ethanol production is not among the plans to be offered to foreign investors, many experts believe prospects for selling the fuel are good.

“It is not expected to be included in the programme,” Lodos said. “None of the minimum conditions required to introduce foreign investment are in place. It would not involve large amounts of capital or technology contribution, and it would not be for export or to replace imports. Today it isn’t on the business menu. But it might be tomorrow.”

Cuba produces alcohol in 11 distilleries, which are also to be upgraded, for pharmaceutical use and the industry that produces rum and other alcohol.

Cuba’s once-powerful sugar industry, which produced harvests of up to eight million tons, hit bottom in the 2009-2010 season when output plunged to 1.1 million tones – the lowest level in 105 years.

The industry currently represents around five percent of the country’s inflow of foreign exchange.

The hope is that the modernisation of factories, machinery, transport equipment and other resources will boost yields and bolster production, along with the increase in the planting of sugarcane. Last year 400,000 hectares were planted and production in the 2013-2014 harvest amounted to over 1.6 million tons.

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

Edited by Estrella Gutiérrez/Translated by Stephanie Wildes

 

Living on a Ballpoint Pen in Kabul

ven, 09/26/2014 - 07:14

‘Copyists’ (transcribers) on duty in downtown Kabul. Some 66 percent of Afghans are illiterate, with figures reaching 82 percent among women. Credit: Karlos Zurutuza/IPS

By Karlos Zurutuza
KABUL, Sep 26 2014 (IPS)

Seventy-year-old Mohamad Arif still earns a living in the streets of Kabul. He prepares all kind of documents for those who cannot read or write – in other words, the majority of people in this country of 30.5 million people.

“I was a Colonel of the Afghan Air Force but I can barely survive with my pension. I had no other choice but to keep working so I took this up 10 years ago,” Arif tells IPS during a short break between two clients.

"People usually want me to write a letter to a relative, often someone in prison. However, most show up because they need us to fill out official forms or applications of all sorts." -- Seventy-year-old Mohamad Arif, a transcriber in Kabul
Arif says he has two sons in college, and that he only leaves his post on Fridays – the Muslim holy day. He spends the rest of the week sitting in front of the provincial government building, in downtown Kabul. That’s where he has his umbrella and his working desk, also essential tools for the rest of the transcribers lining up opposite the concrete wall that protects the government compound.

“People usually want me to write a letter to a relative, often someone in prison. However, most show up because they need us to fill out official forms or applications of all sorts,” explains the most veteran pen-worker in this street, just after his last service, which earned him 50 afghanis (0.80 dollars) for a claim over a family inheritance not yet received.

In its National Literacy Action Plan, statistics provided by the Afghan Ministry of Education speak volumes: some 66 percent of Afghans are illiterate, with figures reaching 82 percent among women.

At 32, Karim Gul is also illiterate so he’s forced to come here whenever he needs to tackle an administrative process. The problem this time is that he sold a car but he has not yet been paid.

“My parents came to Kabul from Badakhshan [a north-eastern Afghan province] when I was a child but they prevented me from going to school. They said the other children would laugh at me,” recalls this young Tajik, who thinks he is “already too old” to learn how to read and write.

Customers like him need only wait a few minutes before they’re attended to. The copyists – fifteen in total here – are experts in their trade, but probably none more so than Gulam Haydar, a 65-year-old man who has worked for decades behind the high wall.

‘Copyists’ (transcribers) in Afghanistan can earn up to one dollar for each letter or document they prepare for their illiterate customers. Credit: Karlos Zurutuza/IPS

“I was a civil servant until I retired eight years ago but I had to keep working to survive,” this Kabuli tells IPS. His age, he adds, does not allow him to conduct any physical work, so this alternative came as “holy salvation.”

“Prices for all of us range from 20 to 100 afghanis [0.30-1.7 dollars] depending on the request,” explains Haydar, adding that his monthly income varies accordingly. In any case, he says, the amount he receives helping his illiterate countrymen and women is “far better” than the average 203 dollars an Afghan civil servant gets monthly.

Sitting next to him, Shahab Shams nods.

“I just get enough to survive and to send my two children to school,” says this 42-year-old man, who has spent the last 13 years in his post.

“In Afghanistan there is no work for anybody. Besides, corruption is rife,” adds the copyist. “You constantly need to pay under the table for everything: to get your passport or any other official certificate; to enrol your children in school; in hospitals, in every single government building,” laments this man with a degree in engineering from the University of Kabul. It was never of any use to him.

Starting from scratch

According to a joint survey conducted by the Afghan High Office of Oversight and Anti-Corruption (HOOAC) and the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), half of all Afghan citizens paid a bribe in 2012 while requesting a public service.

The 2012 study said most Afghans considered corruption, together with insecurity and unemployment, to be “one of the principal challenges facing their country, ahead even of poverty, external influence and the performance of the Government.”

Interestingly enough, such surveys also reveal that corruption is increasingly being considered an admissible part of day-to-day life. About 68 percent of citizens interviewed in 2012 said it was acceptable for a civil servant to top up a low salary by accepting small bribes from service users (as opposed to 42 per cent in 2009).

Similarly, 67 percent of the Afghan citizenry considered it “sometimes acceptable” for a civil servant to be recruited on the basis of family ties and friendship networks (up from 42 percent in 2009).

Leyla Mohamad had no chance whatsoever of ever becoming a civil servant. While it is no longer strange to come across female workers in the administration, illiteracy still poses an insurmountable hurdle. From under her burka, Mohamad explains she wants to denounce an assault she suffered in broad daylight, while she was accompanied by her three children, the oldest being just 10 years old.

“Every day we hear several cases like this one,” Abdurrahman Sherzai tells IPS after filling Mohamad’s form. “Too much time was lost in the failed election process and the economy has stalled because many companies and businesses depended on government subsidies. Eventually, sheer desperation leads to attacks against the most vulnerable [members] of society,” notes Sherzai, moments after being paid for the service.

After a presidential election that took place on Apr. 5, followed by a second runoff on Jun. 14, a fraud allegation forced a full ballot recount.

However, contenders agreed to share power on Sept. 21 so Ashraf Ghani was announced as the new Afghan president with his challenger, Abdullah Abdullah, joining him in a unity government. Despite the two runoffs and the painful audit process, no results of any kind will finally be published.

It was the Afghan Education Minister himself, Ghulam Farooq Wardak, who assured IPS that “none of this would have happened” were Afghanistan a fully literate country.

“But also bear in mind that we literally started from scratch, with a 95-percent illiteracy rate only 12 years ago,” the senior official underlined from his ministerial office.

But current statistics, he claims, lead to optimism. “We’ve gone from just a million children in school 12 years ago to nearly 13 million today; from 20,000 teachers to over 200,000,” asserted Wardak, adding that 2015 “will be the year for full school [enrolment], and full literacy in Afghanistan will be a reality in 2020.”

Edited by Kanya D’Almeida

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OPINION: How Obama Should Counter ISIS

ven, 09/26/2014 - 06:52

Emile Nakhleh is a Research Professor at the University of New Mexico, a member of the Council on Foreign Relations, and author of ‘A Necessary Engagement: Reinventing America’s Relations with the Muslim World’.

By Emile Nakhleh
WASHINGTON, Sep 26 2014 (IPS)

President Obama’s speech at the United Nations on Sep. 23 offered a rhetorically eloquent roadmap on how to fight the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS). 

He called on Muslim youth to reject the extremist ideology of ISIL (as ISIS is also known) and al-Qa’ida and work towards a more promising future.  President Obama repeated the mantra, which we heard from President George Bush before him, that “the United States is not and never will be at war with Islam.”

There is no argument but that the Islamic State must be defeated.  But is the counter-terrorism roadmap, which President Obama set out in his U.N. speech, sufficient to defeat the extremist ideology of ISIS, Boko Haram, or al-Qa’ida?  Despite U.S. and Western efforts to degrade, decapitate, dismember and defeat these deadly and blood-thirsty groups for almost two decades, radical groups continue to sprout in Sunni Muslim societies."As the United States looks beyond today’s air campaign over Syria and Iraq, U.S. policymakers should realise that ISIS is more than a bunch of jihadists roaming the desert and terrorising innocent civilians. It is an ideology, a vision, a sophisticated social media operation and an army with functioning command and control"

The President also urged the Arab Muslim world to reject sectarian proxy wars, promote human rights and empower their people, including women, to help move their societies forward. He again stated that the situation in Gaza and the West Bank is unsustainable and urged the international community to strive for the implementation of the two-state solution.

The President did not address Muslim youth in Western societies who could be susceptible to recruitment by ISIS, al-Qa’ida, or other terrorist organisations.

Arab publics will likely see glaring contradictions and inconsistencies in the President’s speech between his captivating rhetoric and actual policies. They most likely would view much of what he said, especially his global counter-terrorism strategy against the Islamic State, as another version of America’s war on Islam.  Arabs will also see much hypocrisy in the President’s speech on the issue of human rights and civil society.

Although fighting a perceived common enemy, it is a sad spectacle to see the United States, a champion of human rights, liberty and justice, cosy up to Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Bahrain, serial violators of human rights and infamous practitioners of repression. It is even more hypocritical when Arab citizens realise that some of these so-called partners have often spread an ideology not much different from what ISIS preaches.

These three regimes in particular have emasculated their civil society and engaged in illegal imprisonment, sham trials and groundless convictions.  They have banned political parties, both Islamic and secular, silenced civil society institutions and prohibited peaceful protests.

The President praised the role of free press, yet Al-Jazeera journalists are languishing in Egyptian jails without any justification whatsoever. The regime continues to hold thousands of political prisoners without indictments or trials.

In addressing the youth in Muslim countries, the President told them: “Where a genuine civil society is allowed to flourish, then you can dramatically expand the alternatives to terror.”

What implications should Arab Muslim youth draw from the President’s invocation of the virtues of civil society when they see that genuine civil society is not “allowed to flourish” in their societies? Do Arab Muslim youth see real “alternatives to terror” when their regimes deny them the most basic human rights and freedoms?

The Sisi regime in Egypt has illegally destroyed the Muslim Brotherhood, and Saudi Arabia and Bahrain have used the spectre of ugly sectarianism to destroy the opposition.  They openly and viciously engage in sectarian conflicts even though the President stated that religious sectarianism underpins regional instability.

In his U.N. speech, Field Marshall Sisi hoped the United States would tolerate his atrocious human rights record in the name of fighting ISIS.

Human Rights Watch and other distinguished experts sent a letter to President Obama asking him to raise the egregious human rights violations in Egypt when he met with Sisi in New York.  He should not give Sisi and other Arab autocrats a pass when it comes to their repression and human rights violations just because they joined the U.S.-engineered “coalition of the willing” against ISIS.

Regardless of how the air campaign against the Islamic State goes, U.S. policymakers will have to begin a serious review of a different Middle East than the one President Barak Obama inherited when he took office.  Many of the articles that have been written about ISIS have warned about the outcome of this war once the dust settles.

Critics correctly wondered whether opinion writers and experts could go beyond “warning” and suggest a course of policy that could be debated and possibly implemented. If the United States “breaks” the Arab world by forming an anti-ISIS ephemeral coalition of Sunni Arab autocrats, Washington will have to “own” what it had broken.

A road map is imperative if a serious conversation is to commence about the future of the Arab Middle East – but not one deeply steeped in counter-terrorism.  The Sunni coalition is a picture-perfect graphic for the evening news, especially in the West, but how should the United States deal with individual Sunni states in the coalition after the bombings stop and ISIS melts into the population?

As the United States looks beyond today’s air campaign over Syria and Iraq, U.S. policymakers should realise that ISIS is more than a bunch of jihadists roaming the desert and terrorising innocent civilians.  It is an ideology, a vision, a sophisticated social media operation and an army with functioning command and control.

Above all, ISIS represents a view of Islam that is not dissimilar to other strict Sunni interpretations of the Muslim faith that could be found across many Muslim countries, from Saudi Arabia to Pakistan. In fact, this narrow-minded, intolerant view of Islam is at the heart of the Wahhabi-Salafi Hanbali doctrine, which Saudi teachers and preachers have spread across the Muslim world for decades.

Nor is this phenomenon unique in the ideological history of Sunni millenarian thinking.  From Ibn Taymiyya in the 13th century to Bin Ladin and Zawahiri in the past two decades, different Sunni groups have emerged on the Islamic landscape preaching ISIS-like ideological variations on the theme of resurrecting the “Caliphate” and re-establishing “Dar al-Islam.”

Although the historical lines separating Muslim regions (“Dar al-Islam” or “Abode of Peace”) from non-Muslim regions (“Dar al-Harb” or “Abode of War”) have almost disappeared in recent decades, ISIS, much like al-Qa’ida, is calling for re-erecting those lines.  Many Salafis in Saudi Arabia are in tune with such thinking.

This is a regressive, backward view, which cannot possibly exist today.  Millions of Muslims have emigrated to non-Muslim societies and integrated into those societies.

If President Obama plans to dedicate the remainder of his term in office to fighting and defeating the Islamic State, he cannot do it by military means alone.  He should:

1.  Tell Al Saud to stop preaching its intolerant doctrine of Islam in Saudi Arabia and revise its textbooks to reflect a new thinking. Saudi and other Muslim scholars should instruct their youth that “jihad” applies to the soul, not to the battlefield.

2.  Tell Sisi to stop his massive human rights violations in Egypt and allow his youth – men and women – the freedom to pursue their economic and political future without state control.  Sisi should also empty his jails of the thousands of political prisoners and invite the Muslim Brotherhood to participate in the political process.

3.  Tell Al Khalifa to end its sectarian war in Bahrain against the Shia majority and invite opposition parties – secular and Islamic – including al-Wifaq, to participate in the upcoming elections freely and without harassment.  Opposition parties should also participate in redrawing the electoral districts before the Nov. 22 elections, which King Hamad has just announced.  International observers should be invited to monitor those elections.

4.  Tell the Benjamin Netanyahu government in Israel that the situation in Gaza and the Occupied Territories is untenable.  Prime Minister Netanyahu should stop building new settlements and work with the Palestinian National Government for a settlement of the conflict. If President Obama concludes, like many scholars in the region, that the two-state solution is no longer workable, he should communicate his view to Netanyahu and Mahmoud Abbas and strongly encourage them to explore other modalities for the two peoples to live together between the River and the Sea.

If President Obama does not pursue these tangible policies and use his political capital in this endeavour, his U.N. speech will soon be forgotten.  Decapitating and degrading ISIS is possible, but unless Arab regimes move away from autocracy and invest in their peoples’ future, other terrorist groups will emerge.

Over the years, President Obama has delivered memorable speeches on Muslim world engagement, but unless he pushes for new policies in the region, the Arab Middle East will likely implode. Washington would be left holding the bag.  This is not the legacy the President would want to leave behind.

(Edited by Phil Harris)

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

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