Jordan’s LGBT Community Fears Greater Intolerance

By Mona Alami
AMMAN, Aug 31 2014 (IPS)

As the region is rocked by violence against a backdrop of the rise of radical groups, Jordan’s lesbian gay bisexual and transgender (LGBT) community fears that new instability in the Hashemite kingdom could lead to increased intolerance towards the community. 

The Jabal Amman historical district, crisscrossed by quaint streets, cafés and art galleries has become a hub for the Jordanian capital’s LGBT community.

“Jordan does not have any laws against homosexuality; it does not, however, protect civil liberties for people facing discrimination on basis of their sexual preferences,” says Madian, a local activist. “Jordan does not have any laws against homosexuality; it does not, however, protect civil liberties for people facing discrimination on basis of their sexual preferences” – Madian, a Jordanian activist

Despite the absence of any article in Jordanian law that explicitly outlaws homosexual acts, there have been several crackdowns on members of the gay community. “The targeting of the LGBT community is not something that is systematic, but it still happens from time to time,” says George Azzi, head of the Arab Foundation for Freedoms and Equality.

In October 2008, security forces in Amman “launched a campaign that targets ‘homosexuals’,” after security forces verified that they were gathering and meeting up at a park near a private hospital in Amman, according to a study on Law and Homosexuality: Survey and Analysis of Legislation Across the Arab World by Walid Ferchichit.

In the last few years, a few arrests have been made on the margin of private parties. Most of the arrests were made under the vaguely worded indecency law and the need to “respect the values of the Arab and Islamic nation”, although the arrests were rarely followed by formal charges.

The Hashemite Kingdom is an Islamic country, where homosexuality is considered as a sin. “Some members of the LGBT community have even been arrested for satanic worshipping,” notes Madian.

The basic form of social organisation in Jordan is heavily influenced by tribalism, which weighs on social norms and relations between people. “Members of the LGBT community fall prey to discrimination or violence not necessarily at the hand of the state but of society or their families,” says Azzi.

He recalls two members of the gay community who had to be smuggled out of Jordan to escape the wrath of their families who discovered their sexual preferences, and possible death.

Credit: LGBT Jordan on Twitter

Credit: LGBT Jordan on Twitter

“I know of four people at least who were killed in last few years for this reason,” says Madian.

He also says that while some victims have been the target of honour killings, others have been killed by gangs because they had to seek impoverished and dangerous areas for sexual favours to avoid the scrutiny of friends and families.

Nevertheless, despite such individual cases, the topic of homosexuality seems to be increasingly tolerated in Jordan. In 2012, a book called “Arous Amman” (Amman’s fiancée) by Fadi Zaghmout was published, featuring a homosexual character who was driven to marry a woman despite being gay.

Increasingly, Facebook pages and Twitter accounts are advocating gay rights and the LGBT community in the country.

“The LGBT community has been able to carve a space for itself in society, while staying away from anything that could raise its profile,” says Adam Coogle, a researcher at Human Rights Watch.

But, with social and cultural mores considering homosexuality a sin and unnatural, advocating rights remains a taboo in the Hashemite Kingdom, and LGBT activism a somewhat difficult task. “We tried organising a few years back by creating an NGO but our application was rejected by the Ministry of Social Affairs on the basis of the indecency law,” says Madian.

Gay activism has also become more challenging today due to the security situation prevailing in the region, worrying both activists and human rights organizations.

With Jordan home to thousands of Salafi Jihadists, it is directly concerned by possible rising numbers of home-grown members of the Islamic State. Members of the gay community fear that renewed insecurity could jeopardise their space in society.

“Nonetheless, members of the LGBT community are not alone in being concerned about Jihadist threats which also target secular people as well as religious minorities,” adds Coogle.

(Edited by Phil Harris)

U.N. Chief Applauds AoC For Building Bridges to Peace

By an IPS Correspondent
UNITED NATIONS, Aug 31 2014 (IPS)

Speaking at the Sixth Global Forum of the U.N. Alliance of Civilization (AoC) in Bali, Indonesia last week, Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon applauded the AoC for expanding its valuable work addressing the sources of conflict and planting new seeds of peace.

“I welcome its commitment to promoting inter-religious and inter-cultural dialogue,” he added.

These are essential tools to preventing and resolving conflicts. “I count on your support for efforts by the Alliance and by the entire United Nations system,” Ban said.

Addressing delegates, the High Representative for AOC Nassir Abdulaziz al-Nasser said: “As we look around the world, it is clear that identity-based tensions are a persistent source of conflict”.

Whether it is religion, culture, ethnicity or another vector of identity, brother is being pitted against brother, he added.

“We see this clearly in the heartbreaking violence in Syria, Iraq, Gaza, the Central African Republic, Nigeria, Myanmar, Sri Lanka among other places. Beyond these immediate crises, there are longer-term trends that present difficulties,” he said.

The AOC is in its seventh year of operations and the Bali event is the first global forum to be held under the leadership of al-Nasser.

The High Representative pointed out that conflict, deprivation, climate change, and the absence of economic opportunity are forcing millions around the world to leave their homes.

When people cross borders, he said, often little infrastructure exists to accommodate them into their new host societies.

Moreover, as migrants, they often face discrimination. Even if only at a small scale, we must face these problems and come up with viable solutions.

With a humble budget, the Alliance directly collaborates with individuals on the ground to come up with scalable models to address these problems.

In its work, the Alliance has placed special emphasis on the need to mobilize individuals across diverse communities, across fault lines. The Alliance does so with limited resources and a small staff.

Appealing to the U.N.’s 193 member states, Al-Nasser said: “The truth is that Alliance can do a lot more with its knowhow and relationships at both the grassroots and governmental levels, but it can only do so with your help and support: member States, communities, civil society, and the general public.”

“This is my main message to you, our friends in the media and the international community,” he added.

The secretary-general said: “I see many disasters in today’s world. The natural calamities are heart-breaking. What is most saddening in many ways, these man-made tragedies are even worse”.

He said too many of the world’s worst crises are driven by those who exploit fear for power. And “too many societies are fracturing along cultural, religious or ethnic lines.”

Wars begin in people’s minds, he said, and the way to peace is also through people’s hearts.”

He said the Alliance of Civilizations was created to reach the hearts and minds of people and build bridges to peace.

“I applaud High Representative Ambassador Al-Nasser for working with many grassroots groups around the world,” Ban declared.

Under his leadership, the Alliance is making a difference on the ground.

It is helping Pakistani university students take the lead in healing sectarian divisions. It is supporting theatre by Kenyan citizens to prevent young people from joining terrorist movements.

And it is encouraging Muslim-Christian volunteerism in Mindanao.

In Israel-Palestine, the Alliance works to join families from both sides who have lost loved ones in the conflict.

By having a dialogue with each other, they challenge their leaders to do the same, the secretary-general added.

New Technology Boosts Fisherfolk Security

Fisherfolk are one of the most vulnerable groups of people in India. Credit: Malini Shankar/IPS

Fisherfolk are one of the most vulnerable groups of people in India. Credit: Malini Shankar/IPS

By Malini Shankar
NAGAPATTINAM, India, Aug 31 2014 (IPS)

As the United Nations gears up to launch its newest set of poverty-reduction targets to replace the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) in 2015, the words ‘sustainable development’ have been on the lips of policymakers the world over.

In southern India, home to over a million fisherfolk, efforts to strengthen disaster resilience and simultaneously improve livelihoods for impoverished fishing communities are proving to be successful examples of sustainable development.

Here in the Kollam district of the south-western Kerala state,multimedia outreach programmes, using nationwide ocean forecasts, are bringing much-needed change into the lives of fisherfolk, who in southern India are extremely vulnerable to disasters.

“Despite having a 7,500-kilometre coastline and a marine fisherfolk population of 3.57 million spread across more than 3,000 marine fishing villages, India [has no] detailed marine weather bulletins for fishermen […].” — John Thekkayyam, weather broadcaster for Radio Monsoon
A fishing family earns on average some 21,000 rupees (about 346 dollars) per month but most of these earnings are eaten up by fuel expenses, repayment of boat loans and interest payments.

Savings are an impossible dream, and fisherfolk have neither alternate livelihood options nor any kind of resilience against disasters.

In Jul. 2008, 75 Tamil-speaking fisherfolk from the district of Kanyakumari in the southern state of Tamil Nadu perished during Cyclone Phyan, caught unawares out at sea. The costal radio broadcasts, warning of the coming storm, did not deter the fishers from heading out as usual, because they could not understand the local language of the marine forecasts.

Earlier this year, on Jul. 22, 600 fisherfolk sailing on about 40 trawlers went missing off the coast of Kolkata during a cyclone and were stranded on an island near the coast of Bangladesh. Only 16 fishers were rescued.

The incident revived awareness on the need for better communication technologies for the most vulnerable communities.

The Indian National Center for Ocean Information Services (INCOIS) is leading the charge, by uploading satellite telemetry inputs to its server, which are then interpreted and disseminated as advisories by NGOs like the MS Swaminathan Research Foundation (MSSRF) and Radio Monsoon.

Best known for its state-of-the-art tsunami early warning forecasts, INCOIS offers its surplus bandwidth for allied ocean advisory services like marine weather forecasts, windspeeds, eddies, and ocean state forecasts (including potential fishing zones) aimed at fisherfolk welfare and mariners’ safety.

“Oceanographers in INCOIS interpret the data on ocean winds, temperature, salinity, ocean currents, sea levels [and] wave patterns, to advise how these factors affect vulnerable populations,” INCOIS Director Dr. Satheesh Shenoi told IPS.

“These could be marine weather forecasts, advisories on potential fishing grounds, or early warnings of tsunamis. INCOIS generates and provides such information to fishers, [the] maritime industry, coastal population [and] disaster management agencies regularly,” he added.

This new system works hand in hand with community-based information dissemination initiaitves that shares forecasts with the intended audience.

John Thekkayyam, weather broadcaster for Radio Monsoon, told IPS, “Despite having a 7,500-kilometre coastline and a marine fisherfolk population of 3.57 million spread across more than 3,000 marine fishing villages, India [has no] detailed marine weather bulletins for fishermen either on radio, TV or print media.”

Radio Monsoon and the MSSRF multimedia outreach initiatives are the first such interventions aimed at fisherfolk safety and welfare in India.

Radio Monsoon, an initiative of an Indian climate researcher at the University of Sussex, Maxmillan Martin, ‘narrowcasts’ the state of the ocean forecasts on loudspeakers in fisherfolk villages, asking for fishers’ feedback, uploading narrowcasts online and using SMS technology for dissemination.

“As our tagline says: it is all about fishers talking weather, wind and waves with forecasters and scientists. It contributes to better reach of forecasts, real-time feedback and in turn reliable forecasts,” Martin told IPS. Information is passed on to fishers via three-minutes bulletins in Malayalam, the local language.

Ultimately all this contributes to enhanced safety and security for fisherfolk.

According to S. Velvizhi, the officer in charge of the information education and communications division at the MSSRF, “The advisories from INCOIS are disseminated through text and voice messages through cell phones with an exclusive ‘app’ [a cellphone application] called ‘Fisher Friend Mobile Application’.

“We also broadcast on FM radio in a few locations, we have a dedicated 24-hour helpline support system for fishers and a GSM-based Public Address system,” she added.

“More than 25,000 fishers in 592 fishing villages in 29 coastal districts in five states (Tamil Nadu, Puducherry, Odisha, Kerala and Andhra Pradesh), are receiving the forecast services daily,” Velvizhi claims.

On the tsunami battered coasts of Nagapattinam and Cuddalore in Tamil Nadu, fisherfolk have become traumatised by anxiety, a depleting fish catch, changes in coastal geography and bathymetry, increase in loan interests, threats to their food and livelihood security and loss of fishing gear and craft.

In this context, MSSRF’s community radio initiative using affordable communication technologies for livelihood security has become a game changer.

The information dissemination services undertaken by MSSRF include – apart from ocean state forecasts –“counsel to fisher women, crop and craft-related content, micro finance, health tips, awareness against alcoholism [and] the need for formal education for fishers’ children all disseminated through text and voice messages” according to S. Velvezhi.

Summing up the cumulative effect of the initiatives, 55-year-old Pichakanna in MGR Thittu, who survived the tsunami in Tamil Nadu’s Pichavaram mangroves on Dec. 26, 2004, told IPS, “Thanks to MSSRF interventions on community radio we have learnt new livelihood skills like fishing whereas before the tsunami we were hunter-gatherers or daily-wage agricultural labourers.

“Our children are now getting formal education, we have awareness about better health and hygiene and alcoholism has decreased noticeably; this has helped [eliminate] unwarranted expenditure on alcohol and improved our health, livelihood and food security for all,” he added.

“We also understand the significance of micro-finance, water, sanitation, health and hygiene, and most importantly, alcoholism is declining.”

Edited by Kanya D’Almeida

Ban on Nuke Tests OK, But Where’s the Ban on Nuke Weapons?

A nuclear test tower belonging to the United States in Bikini Atoll. Credit: public domain

A nuclear test tower belonging to the United States in Bikini Atoll. Credit: public domain

By Thalif Deen
UNITED NATIONS, Aug 30 2014 (IPS)

As the United Nations commemorated the International Day Against Nuclear Tests this week, Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon lamented the fact that in a world threatened by some 17,000 nuclear weapons, not a single one has been destroyed so far.

Instead, he said, countries possessing such weapons have well-funded, long-range plans to modernise their nuclear arsenals.”While nations still see a strong role for military options, including deterrence by force, then those with nuclear weapons will not be willing to relinquish them.” — Alyn Ware

Ban noted that more than half of the world’s total population – over 3.5 billion out of more than seven billion people – still lives in countries that either have such weapons or are members of nuclear alliances.

“As of 2014, not one nuclear weapon has been physically destroyed pursuant to a treaty, bilateral or multilateral, and no nuclear disarmament negotiations are underway,” he said.

There are still eight countries – China, North Korea, Egypt, India, Iran, Israel, Pakistan and the United States – yet to ratify the Comprehensive Nuclear Test-Ban Treaty (CTBT), whose ratification is required for the treaty’s entry into force.

Alyn Ware, founder and international coordinator of the network, Parliamentarians for Nuclear Non-Proliferation and Disarmament (PNND), told IPS, “Although I support the Aug. 29 commemoration of the International Day Against Nuclear Tests, I would place greater priority on the issue of nuclear abolition than on full ratification of the CTBT.”

He said there is now a customary norm against nuclear tests (the nuclear detonation type) and only one country (North Korea) that occasionally violates that norm.

“The other holdouts are unlikely to resume nuclear tests, unless the political situation deteriorates markedly, elevating the role of nuclear weapons considerably more than at the moment,” Ware said.

The CTBTO (Comprehensive Nuclear Test-Ban Treaty Organisation) is working very effectively on implementation, verification and other aspects even though the CTBT has not entered into force, he added.

Ware also pointed out the issue of nuclear abolition is more closely related to current tensions and conflicts.

“While nations still see a strong role for military options, including deterrence by force, then those with nuclear weapons will not be willing to relinquish them, and we face the risk of nuclear conflict by accident, miscalculation or even design,” warned Ware, a New Zealand-based anti-nuclear activist who co-founded the international network, Abolition 2000.

Kazakhstan was one of the few countries to close down its nuclear test site, Semipalatinsk, back in 1991, and voluntarily give up the world’s fourth largest nuclear arsenal, with more than 110 ballistic missiles and 1,200 nuclear warheads.

Ambassador Kairat Abdrakhmanov, permanent representative of the Republic of Kazakhstan to the United Nations, told IPS his country’s decision to withdraw from membership of the “nuclear club” was more a question of political will because “Kazakhstan genuinely believed in the futility of nuclear tests and weapons which can inflict unimagined catastrophic consequences on human beings and the environment.”

In 1949, Ban pointed out, the then Soviet Union conducted its first nuclear test, followed by another 455 nuclear tests over succeeding decades, with a terrible effect on the local population and environment.

“These tests and the hundreds more that followed in other countries became hallmarks of a nuclear arms race, in which human survival depended on the doctrine of mutually assured destruction, known by its fitting acronym, MAD,” he noted.

“As secretary-general, I have had many opportunities to meet with some of the courageous survivors of nuclear weapons and nuclear tests in Hiroshima, Nagasaki and Semipalatinsk.”

Their resolve and dedication “should continue to guide our work for a world without nuclear weapons,” he added.

He stressed that achieving global nuclear disarmament has been one of the oldest goals of the United Nations and was the subject of the General Assembly’s first resolution as far back as 1946.

“The doctrine of nuclear deterrence persists as an element in the security policies of all possessor states and their nuclear allies,” Ban said.

This is so despite growing concerns worldwide over the catastrophic humanitarian consequences of the use of even a single nuclear weapon, let alone a regional or global nuclear war, he added.

Currently, there are five nuclear weapon states, namely the United States, Britain, Russia, France and China, whose status is recognised by the Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty (NPT).

All five are veto-wielding permanent members of the U.N. Security Council (P5), the only body empowered to declare war or peace.

The three other nuclear weapon states are India, Pakistan (which have formally declared that they possess nuclear weapons) and Israel, the undeclared nuclear weapon state.

North Korea has conducted nuclear tests but the possession of weapons is still in lingering doubt.

Ware told IPS the health and environmental consequences of nuclear tests gives an indication of the even greater catastrophic consequences of any use of nuclear weapons in a conflict.

This is what has spurred countries like Kazakhstan to establish the International Day Against Nuclear Tests as a platform to promote a nuclear-weapon-free world, he said.

“And it has spurred Marshall Islands to take this incredibly David-versus-Goliath case to the International Court of Justice in The Hague (ICJ),” he added.

This has also given rise to the humanitarian consequences dimension, which has gained some traction and will be discussed at the third conference coming up in December.

But without increased confidence in the capacity to resolve conflicts without the threat or use of massive force, countries will continue to rely on nuclear deterrence, even if they do not intend to use the weapons, Ware said.

Thus, UNFOLD ZERO, which is promoting the International Day for the Total Elimination of Nuclear Weapons, is also advancing cooperative security approaches through the United Nations to resolve conflicts and security threats, he added.

Edited by Kitty Stapp

The writer can be contacted at thalifdeen@aol.com

Europe’s Two-Time Turnabout on Syria/Iraq

By Peter Custers
LEIDEN, Netherlands, Aug 30 2014 (IPS)

Is this one of those rare occasions where policy-makers self-critically correct a gigantic blunder? Or is it a cold turnabout guided by pure self-interest?

On August 15, the foreign ministers of the European Union gathered in Brussels and decided that each would henceforth be free to supply arms to Kurdish rebels fighting Sunni extremists of the Islamic State in the north of Iraq. Even Germany which in the past had been unwilling to furnish military supplies to warring parties  in ‘conflict zones’, is now ready to provide armoured vehicles and other hardware to the Kurds opposing the Islamic State’s advance.

The decision of Europe’s foreign ministers may surprise some because, barely a year and four months ago, in April 2013, the European Union had lifted a previously instituted ban on all imports of Syrian oil.

Peter Custers

Peter Custers

Moreover, the lifting of this boycott was quite explicitly intended to facilitate the flow of oil from areas in the north-east of Syria, where Sunni extremist rebel organisations had established a strong foothold, if not overall predominance over the region’s oil fields.

The Islamic State was not the only Sunni extremist organisation disputing control over Syrian oil fields. Yet there is little doubt that the fateful decision that the European Union took last year helped the Islamic State consolidate its hold over Syrian oil resources and prepare for a sweeping advance into areas with oil wells in the north of Iraq.

The outcome of the recent Brussels’ meeting thus appears to overturn a disastrous previous decision. To underline the point it is useful to briefly describe the extent to which Sunni extremist rebels have meanwhile established control over oil extraction and production in both Syria and Iraq.“Is this one of those rare occasions where policy-makers self-critically correct a gigantic blunder? Or is it a cold turnabout guided by pure self-interest?”

The Syrian oil fields are basically concentrated in Deir-ez-Zor, a province bordering on Iraq. Whereas oil extraction in Syria has always been very limited in size if measured as a percentage of world supplies, control over the Syrian oil wells plus its refinery has become crucial for the financing of the Islamic State’s war efforts.

In neighbouring Iraq, oil reserves are not concentrated in one single geographic region as they are in Syria. The bulk of the oil wells are to be found in the country’s south, at great distance from the Islamic State’s war theatre in the north. Only one-seventh of Iraq’s oil resources are said to be located in areas controlled by the Islamic State on the one hand, and Kurdish fighters on the other. Nevertheless, recent reports indicate that the Islamic State controls at least seven major oil wells in Iraq alone.

Using expertise gathered after it established control over wells in Syria, the Sunni extremist organisation is able to draw huge profits from the smuggling and sale of oil. It is the Islamic State’s oil-backed armed strength amassed in two adjacent civil wars that has now sent shivers throughout the Western world.

If the European Union’s April 2013 decision appears to have helped trigger the Islamic State’s current success, the situation created is historically novel. To my knowledge, never before has a rebel force fighting a civil war in the global South been able to base its war aspirations on control over oil.

True, in most of the civil wars that have rocked Africa over the last thirty years, access to raw materials has been fundamental. Witness the cases of Angola, Sierra Leone, Liberia, Congo (DRC) and Sudan. It is also true that oil exports have been a specific mode of war financing, for instance in Angola and the Sudan.

Yet, in those cases, the state remained in command of the oil wealth. In Angola, the right-wing rebel movement UNITA relied heavily on smuggling rough diamonds towards financing its war, while the country’s oil fields were located at great distance UNITA’s war theatre.

In Sudan, oil fields are concentrated in the country’s south, that is, close to and in the region which was disputed by the rebel movement. But the regime of Omar Al-Bashir pursued an inhuman policy of depopulation through aerial bombardments, massacring hapless villagers and forcing survivors to flee. In the self-same process the rebels were deprived of access to people and oil.

Hence, strictly speaking there is no precedent for the oil-fuelled civil wars waged by Sunni rebels in Syria and Iraq.

Now – in turning from de facto supporters to opponents of the Islamic State – Europe’s foreign ministers have followed the U.S. lead, because the United States had just started bombardments of Islamic State positions in Iraq’s north.

Though loudly defended on the grounds of the Islamic State’s relentless persecution of minorities, the renewed U.S. military intervention is not devoid of self-interest. Uppermost in the minds of Pentagon officials is the nexus between oil and arms.

Shortly after President Barack Obama announced the withdrawal of U.S. occupation forces from Iraq in October 2011, the United States clinched a huge deal for the sale of F-16 fighter planes and other armaments to Iraq’s military, valued at 12 billion dollars. At least four in five of the top U.S. military corporations are beneficiaries of Iraqi purchases.

Coincidentally, around the time when the U.S.-Iraq agreement on arms’ sales was sealed, the extraction of Iraqi crude was back to old levels, crossing the threshold of three million barrels per day in 2012. As the Iraqi government’s income from oil extraction and exports rose exponentially, U.S. and competing Russian arms’ manufacturers both lined up to bag the orders.

And there is robust confidence that the oil-and-arms nexus can be sustained – according to euphoric projections of the International Energy Agency (IAE), the body of Western oil consumer nations, Iraq holds the key to future increases in world production of crude!

Western policy-makers are feverishly espousing the cause of Muslim Shias, Christians and Yezidis, who are persecuted in areas of Iraq controlled by the Islamic State and, yes, there is no doubt that the Sunni extremist force is guided by a Salafi ideology that severely discriminates against religious minorities, whether Muslim or non-Muslim.

But at what point in the past have Western states consistently defended religious minority rights in the Middle East? The idea seems to have emerged as an afterthought of the illegal U.S. invasion of Iraq.

And are Muslim and Christian Arabs in Israel, Muslim Shias in Saudi Arabia and Bahrain – to name just some of the groups mistreated by the West’s close allies – likely to be charmed by the West’s resolve to save the Yezidis of Iraq?

In any case, it is high time that the policy reversals in Brussels be questioned.

To recap: a turnabout in relation to the twin civil wars in Syria/Iraq was staged twiceFirst, in September 2011, a general prohibition on investments in and exports of oil from Syria was imposed, affecting both Assad’s government and Syria’s opposition. Then, in 2013, the European Union shifted de facto towards a position favourable to Syria’s Sunni extremist rebels.

Although the European Union’s foreign ministers now appear to have realised their sin, the damage can no longer be repaired without a complete overhaul of E.U. policy-making towards the Middle East.

(Edited by Phil Harris)

*  Peter Custers, an academic researcher on Islam and religious tolerance with field work in South Asia, is also a theoretician on the arms’ trade and extraction of raw materials in the context of conflicts in the global South. He is the author of ‘Questioning Globalized Militarism’. 

Will Climate Change Denialism Help the Russian Economy?

July 2014 floods in Russia but authorities turning blind eye to climate change. Credit: takemake.ru

July 2014 floods in Russia but authorities turning blind eye to climate change. Credit: takemake.ru

By Mikhail Matveev
MOSCOW, Aug 30 2014 (IPS)

The recent call from Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev for “tightening belts” has convinced even optimists that something is deeply wrong with the Russian economy.

No doubt the planned tax increases (introduction of a sales tax and increases in VAT and income tax) will inflict severe damage on most businesses and their employees, if last year’s example of what happened when taxes were raised for individual entrepreneurs is anything to go by – 650,000 of them were forced to close their businesses.

Nevertheless, it looks like some lucky people are not only going to escape the “belt-tightening” but are also about to receive some dream tax vacations and the lucky few are not farmers, nor are they in technological, educational, scientific or professional fields – it is the Russian and international oil giants involved in oil and gas projects in the Arctic and in Eastern Siberia that stand to gain.

“In October [2013], Vladimir Putin signed a bill under which oil extraction at sea deposits will be exempt from severance tax. Moreover, VAT will not need to be paid for the sales, transportation and utilisation of the oil extracted from the sea shelf,” noted Russian newspaper Rossiiskie Nedra.“It looks like some lucky people are not only going to escape the ‘belt-tightening’ but are also about to receive some dream tax vacations and the lucky few are not farmers, nor are they in technological, educational, scientific or professional fields – it is the Russian and international oil giants involved in oil and gas projects in the Arctic and in Eastern Siberia that stand to gain”

Some continental oil projects were alsoblessedby the “Tsar’s generosity”: “For four Russian deposits with hard-to-recover oils [shale oil, etc.] – Bazhenovskaya [in Western Siberia] and Abalakskaya in Eastern Siberia, Khadumskaya in the Caucasus, and Domanikovaya in the Ural region – severance taxes do not need to be paid. Other deposits had their severance tax rates reduced by 20-80%.”

In fact, the line of thinking adopted by Russian officials responsible for tax policy is very simple. Faced with the predicament of an economy dependent on oil and gas (half of the state budget comes from oil and gas revenue, while two-thirds of exports come from the fossil fuel industry), they decided to act as usual – by stimulating more drilling and charging the rest of the economy with the additional tax burden.

There have been many warnings from well-known economists about the “resource curse” [the paradox that countries and regions with an abundance of natural resources tend to have less economic growth and worse development outcomes than countries with fewer natural resources] – and its potential consequences for the countries affected: from having weak industries and agriculture to being prone to dictatorships and corruption.

For a long time, however, economists have been keen on separating the economic and social impacts of fossil fuel dependency from the environmental and climate-related problems. But now, these problems are closely interconnected, and Russia might be the first to feel the strength of their combination in the near future.

Medvedev may not have read much about the “resource curse” but he should at least be familiar with the official position of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCC), whose Executive Secretary Christiana Figueres has said that three-quarters of known fossil fuel reserves need to stay in the ground in order to avoid the worst possible climate scenario.

One should at least expect this amount of knowledge from Russia as a member of the UN Security Council and it will be interesting to note whether the Russian delegation attending the UN Climate Summit in New York on September 23 will be ready to explain why, instead of limiting fossil fuel extraction, the whole country’s economic and tax policy is now aimed at encouraging as much drilling as possible.

However, it is not just the United Nations that has been warning against the burning of fossil fuels due to the related high climate risks. In 2005, Russia’s own meteorology service Roshydromet issued its prognosis of climate change and the consequences for Russia, stating that the rate of climate change in Russia is two times faster than the world’s average.

Roshydromet predicted a rapid increase in both the frequency and strength of extreme climate events – including floods, hurricanes, droughts, and wildfires. The number of such events has almost doubled during the last 15 years, and represent not only an economic threat but also a real threat to humans’ lives and their well-being,

Consider this summary of climate disasters in Russia during an ordinary July week (not including any of the large natural disasters such as the floods in Altai, Khabarovsk, and Krymsk, or the forest fires around Moscow in 2010):

“Following the weather incidents in the Sverdlovsk and Chelyabinsk District where snow fell last weekend, a natural anomaly occurred in Novosibirsk, resulting in human casualties … Two three-year-old twin sisters died after a tree fell on them during a strong wind storm in the town of Berdsk, Novosibirsk District.”

“The flood in Yakutia lasted a week and resulted in the submersion of Ozhulun village in Churapchinsky district last Saturday. Due to the rise of the Tatta River, 57 house went under.”

“Flooding in Tuapse [on the coast of the Black Sea] occurred on July 8, 2014 … [and] has left 236 citizens homeless.”

ar swept away in July 2014 floods in Russia. Credit: takeme.ru

Cars swept away in July 2014 floods in Russia. Credit: takeme.ru

Is it not worrisome that so many climate disasters have to occur before Russian officials start to realise that climatologists are not lying? Or perhaps they are simply not inclined to take the climatologists’ warnings seriously.

Another significant problem could arise for Russia if oil consumers start taking U.N. climate warnings seriously – and there is evidence that this is happening.

The European Union (still the main consumer of Russian oil and gas) has announced an ambitious “20/20/20 programme” – increasing shares from renewables to 20 percent, improving energy efficiency by 20 percent, and decreasing carbon emissions by 20 percent. The United States has decided to decrease carbon emissions from power plants by 30 percent. These are only first steps – but even these steps can help decrease fossil fuel consumption.

Fossil fuel use has only very slowly been increasing in the United States and decreasing in Europe in the last five years. On the other hand, demand for oil has continued to rise in China and Southeast Asia, and it is perhaps this – rather than the recent “sanctions” against Russia over Ukraine – that inspired President Vladimir Putin’s recent “turn to the East”.

But there are serious doubts that Asia’s greed for oil will continue into the future. China recently admitted that it will soon be taking measures to limit carbon emissions – for the first time in its history. China has already turned to green energy andled the rest of the worldin renewable energy investment in 2013.

Will other Asian countries follow suit? Perhaps – because they certainly have a very strong incentive. According to Erin McCarthy writing in the Wall Street Journal, South and Southeast Asia’s losses due to global warming may be huge, and its GDP may be reduced by 6 percent by 2060, despite the measures taken to curb its emissions.

What does this mean for Russia?

Well, if the oil-consuming countries meet their carbon emission targets, we can expect a 10-20 percent decrease in oil demand in the next ten years, maybe more. Any decrease in demand usually induces a decrease in price – but not always proportionally. Sometimes, especially if the market is overheated, even a small decrease in demand can trigger a drastic falls in price. Economists call such a situation a “bursting bubble”.

Today, the situation in the oil (and, in general, fossil fuel) market is often called a “carbon bubble”. Because of high oil prices, investors are motivated to make investments in oil drilling in the hopes of earning a stable and long-term income.

But once the world starts taking climate issues seriously and realises that most of the oil needs to be left in the ground, oil assets will fall in value. Investors will try to withdraw their money from the fossil fuel sector, and, facing a crisis, oil companies will be forced to decrease both production and prices.

If the “carbon bubble” bursts, Russia will be left with sustainable businesses (that are being choked by the nation’s own tax politics) and with a perfect network of shelf platforms, oil rigs, and pipelines (which will be completely unprofitable and useless). Thus, by making fossil fuels the core of its economy, Russia is taking twice the number of risks.

First, it risks ruining the climate, and second, it risks ruining its own economy. It looks like Russia will lose at any rate: if the leading energy consumers are unable to decrease their oil consumption, the climate will be ruined everywhere, including Russia. If they manage to decrease their dependence on fossil fuel, the Russian economy will be ruined.

This certainly is not looking pleasant, especially if we add in the high probability of a major disaster like the Gulf of Mexico Oil spill happening in the Arctic, as well as countless minor leaks possibly occurring along the Russian pipelines.

But maybe Russia just has no other alternative to an economy dependent on fossil fuels?

In that case, perhaps it is worth mentioning a recent article by Russian financier Andrei Movchan in the Russian Forbes magazine. Movchan convincingly shows that the Achilles’ heel of the modern Russian economy is its extremely underdeveloped small and medium-sized businesses. And it looks like the current tax plans would literally exterminate them.

If Russia were able to reverse this tax policy and make small businesses play as big of a role in the economy as they do in the United States or Europe, there could be economic growth comparable to the growth expected from oil and gas – without all the frightful side effects of an economy driven by fossil fuels.

Sounds like a dream, but the first step to making it a reality can be simple: get rid of big oil lobbying in the government and try to reform the taxation system to suit the interests of Russian citizens instead of the interests of the big oil corporations.

(Edited by Phil Harris)

* Mikhail Matveev is 350.org Communications Coordinator for Eastern Europe, Caucasus, Central Asia and Russia

Mattson Technology to Present at the 2014 Gateway Conference on September 4

SAN FRANCISCO, CA—(Marketwired – Aug 29, 2014) – Mattson Technology, Inc. (NASDAQ: MTSN), a leading supplier of advanced process equipment used to manufacture semiconductors announced today that J. Michael Dodson, the company's chief operating and chief financial officer, is scheduled to present at the 2014 Gateway Conference.

The 2014 Gateway Conference will take place at the Palace Hotel in San Francisco on September 4. Mattson Technology is scheduled to present at 8:00 a.m. Pacific time with one–on–one meetings held throughout the day.

The investor presentation slides, as well as a live and subsequently archived webcast of the presentation, will be made available on the investor page of Mattson Technology's website, http://www.mattson.com.

For additional information or to schedule a one–on–one meeting, email your request to schedule@gateway–conference.com or call Chris Tyson at (949) 574–3860.

About Mattson Technology, Inc.
Mattson Technology, Inc. designs, manufactures and markets semiconductor wafer processing equipment used in the fabrication of integrated circuits. We are a leading supplier of plasma and rapid thermal processing equipment to the global semiconductor industry, and operate in three primary product sectors: Dry Strip, Etch, Rapid Thermal Processing and Millisecond Anneal. Through manufacturing and design innovation, we have produced technologically advanced systems that provide productive and cost–effective solutions for customers fabricating current– and next–generation semiconductor devices. For more information, please contact Mattson Technology, Inc., 47131 Bayside Parkway, Fremont, CA, 94538. Telephone: (800) MATTSON / (510) 657–5900. Internet: www.mattson.com.

Safe Harbor” Statement Under the Private Securities Litigation Reform Act of 1995: This news release contains forward–looking statements. All statements other than statements of historical fact are statements that could be deemed forward–looking statements, including but not limited to statements regarding the company's financial and operational projections and performance, technology, product performance and reliability, anticipated demand for the company's products, ability to convert new market opportunities and plans, strategies and objectives of management for future operations. Forward–looking statements address matters that are subject to a number of risks and uncertainties that can cause actual results to differ materially from those expressed or implied by such forward–looking statements and assumptions. Such risks and uncertainties include, but are not limited to: macroeconomic and geopolitical trends and events; end–user demand for semiconductors; customer demand for semiconductor manufacturing equipment; the timing of significant customer orders for the company's products; customer acceptance of delivered products and the company's ability to collect amounts due upon shipment and upon acceptance; the company's ability to timely manufacture, deliver and support ordered products; the company's ability to bring new products to market and to gain market share with such products; customer rate of adoption of new technologies; risks inherent in the development of complex technology; the timing and competitiveness of new product releases by the company's competitors; the company's ability to align its cost structure with market conditions; and other risks and uncertainties described in the company's Forms 10–K, 10–Q and other filings with the Securities and Exchange Commission. Specifically, Mattson's actual net sales and net income per share for each of the fourth quarter of 2013 and the first quarter of 2014 could differ materially from expectations, and are subject to adjustment. You are cautioned not to place undue reliance on forward–looking statements, which speak only as of the date of this announcement. The company assumes no obligation to update the information provided in this news release.