Opinion: Don’t Sell Sweden’s Vattenfall, Keep Coal in the Ground

Vattenfall’s lignite-fired power plant in Jaenschwalde, Germany, is Europe’s fourth biggest CO2 emitter. Credit: ©Paul Langrock/Zenit/Greenpeace

Vattenfall’s lignite-fired power plant in Jaenschwalde, Germany, is Europe’s fourth biggest CO2 emitter. Credit: ©Paul Langrock/Zenit/Greenpeace

By Hanna Leghammar
STOCKHOLM, Apr 30 2015 (IPS)

The Swedish government is in the process of pondering an important decision — whether to sell the vast lignite reserves of the state-owned Vattenfall energy giant or ensure that they stay in the ground. The decision will define Sweden’s commitment to tackling climate change.

Just a few days ago, on Apr. 27, Vattenfall stockholders gathered for their Annual General Meeting where the issue of selling the company was high on the agenda, according to Swedish radio station Ekot.“States have a responsibility to start leaving their fossil fuel reserves in the ground. What people all over Sweden and Europe are demanding is not only an end to expansion, but also the action of leaving them untouched” – Annika Jacobson, Greenpeace Sweden

“We are in the middle of a process to sell,” Vattenfall’s executive director Magnus Hall, who hopes to reach a deal already this year, was reported as saying. According to Hall, the Swedish government has given a clear mandate and support to Vattenfall in its plan to sell its ‘dirty’ operations.

‘Vattenfall’ translates into ‘waterfall’ and the company’s logo is an image of a sun and beautiful waves. While it plays on this imagery to build its brand, Vattenfall is emitting huge amounts of carbon into the atmosphere every day.

The company’s lignite mines and power plants in Germany – including the Jänschwalde coal power plant which is Europe’s fourth biggest CO2 emitter – are responsible for twice the amount of Sweden’s total annual carbon emissions.

The Swedish government is committed to keeping the rise in global temperature below 2℃ which, at global level, requires leaving 82 percent of fossil fuel reserves in the ground. Through Vattenfall, the Swedish state is the owner of more than one billion tonnes of carbon.

Now is the time for Sweden to assume responsibility and ensure that emissions from these unburnable reserves are never released.

Over recent years, Sweden’s actions have shown that it has the potential to play a leading role in transforming our economies to power the renewable future we need. But Vattenfall’s conduct – clinging on to an outdated business model – taints this picture.

Aerial view of Vattenfall’s brown coal (lignite) open pit mine in Jaenschwalde, Germany. Credit: ©Greenpeace/J Henry Fair

Aerial view of Vattenfall’s brown coal (lignite) open pit mine in Jaenschwalde, Germany. Credit: ©Greenpeace/J Henry Fair

When Germany decided to phase out nuclear power in the wake of the 2011 Fukushima nuclear disaster in Japan, Vattenfall faced a major loss of potential profits and sued the German state. The company’s coal operations across Europe are also taking a financial hit as the coal industry worldwide has entered a huge slump. More than half of Vattenfall’s coal power stations are old and particularly polluting.

In the run-up to the Swedish general elections last year, the parties that now make up Sweden’s ruling coalition committed themselves to stop the lignite expansion of Vattenfall, thanks to pressure from Greenpeace and Swedish environmental groups.

“States have a responsibility to start leaving their fossil fuel reserves in the ground,” says Annika Jacobson from Greenpeace Sweden, who has just launched a Europe-wide petition to that effect with partners at 350.org and Skiftet [Democracy in Motion]. “What people all over Sweden and Europe are demanding is not only an end to expansion, but also the action of leaving them untouched.”

In this crucial year for climate action – with the next U.N. Climate Change Conference scheduled in Paris in December – Sweden has the opportunity to raise its head and translate ambition into action by stranding its dirty coal assets.

Not selling Vattenfall and focusing on achieving a just transition to renewable energy would be a bold and unprecedented move by a nation state which has built up its own wealth and climate resilience on a fossil-fuelled economy. This would pose a challenge to other states, considering the impending deflation of the carbon bubble.

If, as Ekot reported, Vattenfall is about to be sold, this would be flying in the face of the overwhelming majority of Swedish people who want strong climate leadership from their government, giving the country the opportunity to act on its moral responsibility to keep fossil fuels underground.

A majority of Germans also want coal to be phased out – and there is fierce resistance to Vattenfall’s lignite mining and power plants in Germany’s Lusatia region.

“The earlier promise by Sweden not to expand lignite mining in Lusatia has given hope to a community of around 3,500 people that faced forced relocations as their villages stood to be destroyed,” says Falk Hermenau, a grassroots activist from Cottbus, the largest town in the region.

“By committing now to keep its coal in the ground, Sweden has the opportunity to be a driving force for a coal phase out in Germany and inject new momentum for climate action across the world,” he argues

The rapidly growing movement against fossil fuel extraction and climate disruption – and a steady flow of news reports indicating the end of the fossil fuel era – have injected a momentum that can change the dynamics in the months before the U.N. climate talks in December.

Any meaningful deal in Paris will need to require all nations to leave fossil fuel reserves in the ground – and people from all over the world are demanding this kind of leadership. Sweden can and must lead the way by committing itself not to sell Vattenfall’s lignite operations and rather #keepitintheground.

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. 

Watch What Happens When Tribal Women Manage India’s Forests

Women from the Gunduribadi tribal village in the eastern Indian state of Odisha patrol their forests with sticks to prevent illegal logging. Credit: Manipadma Jena/IPS

Women from the Gunduribadi tribal village in the eastern Indian state of Odisha patrol their forests with sticks to prevent illegal logging. Credit: Manipadma Jena/IPS

By Manipadma Jena
NAYAGARH, India, Apr 30 2015 (IPS)

Kama Pradhan, a 35-year-old tribal woman, her eyes intent on the glowing screen of a hand-held GPS device, moves quickly between the trees. Ahead of her, a group of men hastens to clear away the brambles from stone pillars that stand at scattered intervals throughout this dense forest in the Nayagarh district of India’s eastern Odisha state.

The heavy stone markers, laid down by the British 150 years ago, demarcate the outer perimeter of an area claimed by the Raj as a state-owned forest reserve, ignoring at the time the presence of millions of forest dwellers, who had lived off this land for centuries.

“No one can cheat us of even one metre of our mother, the forest. She has given us life and we have given our lives for her.” — Kama Pradhan, a tribal woman from the Gunduribadi village
Pradhan is a member of the 27-household Gunduribadi tribal village, working with her fellow residents to map the boundaries of this 200-hectare forest that the community claims as their customary land.

It will take days of scrambling through hilly terrain with government-issued maps and rudimentary GPS systems to find all the markers and determine the exact extent of the woodland area, but Pradhan is determined.

“No one can cheat us of even one metre of our mother, the forest. She has given us life and we have given our lives for her,” the indigenous woman tells IPS, her voice shaking with emotion.

Unfolding out of sight and out of mind of India’s policy-making nucleus in the capital, New Delhi, this quiet drama – involving the 275 million people who reside in or on the fringes of the country’s bountiful forests – could be the defining struggle of the century.

At the forefront of the movement are tribal communities in states like Odisha who are determined to make full use of a 2012 amendment to India’s Forest Rights Act (FRA) to claim titles to their land, on which they can carve out a simple life, and a sustainable future for their children.

One of the most empowering provisions of the amended FRA gave forest dwellers and tribal communities the right to own, manage and sell non-timber forest products (NTFP), which some 100 million landless people in India depend on for income, medicine and housing.

Women have emerged as the natural leaders of efforts to implement these legal amendments, as they have traditionally managed forestlands, sustainably sourcing food, fuel and fodder for the landless poor, as well as gathering farm-fencing materials, medicinal plants and wood to build their thatched-roof homes.

Under the leadership of women like Pradhan, 850 villages in the Nayagarh district of Odisha state are collectively managing 100,000 hectares of forest land, with the result that 53 percent of the district’s land mass now has forest cover.

This is more than double India’s national average of 21 percent forest cover.

Overall, 15,000 villages in India, primarily in the eastern states, protect around two million hectares of forests.

When life depends on land

According to the latest Forest Survey of India, the country’s forest cover increased by 5,871 square km between 2010 and 2012, bringing total forest cover to 697,898 sq km (about 69 million hectares).

Still, research indicates than every single day, an average of 135 hectares of forestland are handed over to development projects like mining and power generation.

Tribal communities in Odisha are no strangers to large-scale development projects that guzzle land.

Forty years of illegal logging across the state’s heartland forest belt, coupled with a major commercial timber trade in teak, sal and bamboo, left the hilltops bald and barren.

Streams that had once irrigated small plots of farmland began to run dry, while groundwater sources gradually disappeared. Over a 40-year period, between 1965 and 2004, Odisha experienced recurring and chronic droughts, including three consecutive dry spells from 1965-1967.

As a result of the heavy felling of trees for the timber trade, Nayargh suffered six droughts in a 10-year span, which shattered a network of farm- and forest-based livelihoods.

Villages emptied out as nearly 50 percent of the population fled in search of alternatives.

“We who stayed back had to sell our family’s brass utensils to get cash to buy rice, and so acute was the scarcity of wood that sometimes the dead were kept waiting while we went from house to house begging for logs for the funeral pyre,” recalls 70-year-old Arjun Pradhan, head of the Gunduribadi village.

As the crisis escalated, Kesarpur, a village council in Nayagarh, devised a campaign that now serves as the template for community forestry in Odisha.

The council allocated need-based rights to families wishing to gather wood fuel, fodder or edible produce. Anyone wishing to fell a tree for a funeral pyre or house repairs had to seek special permission. Carrying axes into the forest was prohibited.

Women vigilantes apprehend a timber thief. Village councils strictly monitor the felling of trees in Odisha’s forests, and permission to remove timber is only granted to families with urgent needs for housing material or funeral pyres. Credit: Manipadma Jena/IPS

Women vigilantes apprehend a timber thief. Village councils strictly monitor the felling of trees in Odisha’s forests, and permission to remove timber is only granted to families with urgent needs for housing material or funeral pyres. Credit: Manipadma Jena/IPS

Villagers took it in turns to patrol the forest using the ‘thengapali’ system, literally translated as ‘stick rotation’: each night, representatives from four families would carry stout, carved sticks into the forest. At the end of their shift, the scouts placed the sticks on their neighbours’ verandahs, indicating a change of guard.

The council imposed strict yet logical penalties on those who failed to comply: anyone caught stealing had to pay a cash fine corresponding to the theft; skipping a turn at patrol duty resulted in an extra night of standing guard.

As the forests slowly regenerated, the villagers made additional sacrifices. Goats, considered quick-cash assets in hard times, were sold off and banned for 10 years to protect the fresh green shoots on the forest floor. Instead of cooking twice a day, families prepared both meals on a single fire to save wood.

From deforestation to ‘reforestation’

Some 20 years after this ‘pilot’ project was implemented, in early April of 2015, a hill stream gurgles past on the outskirts of Gunduribadi, irrigating small farms of ready-to-harvest lentils and vegetables.

Under a shady tree, clean water simmers four feet below the ground in a newly dug well; later in the evening, elderly women will haul bucketfuls out with ease.

Manas Pradhan, who heads the local forest protection committee (FPC), explains that rains bring rich forest humus into the 28 hectares of farmland managed by 27 families. This has resulted in soil so rich a single hectare produces 6,500 kg of rice without chemical boosters – three times the yield from farms around unprotected forests.

“When potato was scarce and selling at an unaffordable 40 rupees (65 cents) per kg, we substituted it with pichuli, a sweet tuber available plentifully in the forests,” Janha Pradhan, a landless tribal woman, tells IPS, pointing out a small heap she harvested during her patrol the night before.

With an eighth-grade education, Nibasini Pradhan is the most literate person in Gunduribadi village, in the eastern Indian state of Odisha. She operates a government-supplied GPS device to help the community define the boundaries of their customary land. Credit: Manipadma Jena/IPS

With an eighth-grade education, Nibasini Pradhan is the most literate person in Gunduribadi village, in the eastern Indian state of Odisha. She operates a government-supplied GPS device to help the community define the boundaries of their customary land. Credit: Manipadma Jena/IPS

“We made good money selling some in the town when potato prices skyrocketed a few months back,” she adds. In a state where the average earnings are 40 dollars per month, and hunger and malnutrition affects 32 percent of the population – with one in two children underweight – this community represents an oasis of health and sustenance in a desert of poverty.

At least four wild varieties of edible leafy greens, vine-growing vegetables like spine gourd and bamboo shoots, and mushrooms of all sizes are gathered seasonally. Leaves that stem bleeding, and roots that control diarrhoea, are also sustainably harvested from the forest.

Reaping the harvest of community management

But the tranquility that surrounds the forest-edge community belies a conflicted past.

Eighty-year-old Dami Nayak, ex-president of the forest protection committee for Kodallapalli village, tells IPS her ancestors used to grow rain-fed millet and vegetables for generations in and around these forests until the Odisha State Cashew Development Corporation set its sights on these lands over 20 years ago.

Although not a traditional crop in Odisha, the state corporation set up cashew orchards on tribal communities’ hill-sloping farming land in 22 of the state’s 30 districts.

When commercial operations began, landless farmers were promised an equal stake in the trade.

“But when the fruits came, they not only auctioned the plantations to outsiders, but officials also told us we were stealing the cashews – not even our goats could enter the orchards to graze,” Nayak recounts.

“Overnight we became illegal intruders in the forestland that we had lived in, depended on and protected for decades,” she laments.

With over 4,000 trees – each generating between eight and 10 kg of raw cashew, which sells for roughly 0.85 dollars per kilo – the government was making roughly 34,000 dollars a year from the 20-hectare plantation; but none of these profits trickled back down to the community.

Furthermore, the state corporation began leasing whole cashew plantations out to private bidders, who also kept the profits for themselves.

Following the amendment to the Forest Rights Act in 2012, women in the community decided to mobilise.

“When the babus [officials] who had secured the auction bid arrived we did not let them enter. They called the police. Our men hid in the jungles because they would be beaten and jailed but all they could do was threaten us women,” Nayak tells IPS.

“Later we nailed a board to a tree at the village entrance road warning anyone trespassing on our community forest that they would face dire legal consequences,” she adds. Once, the women even faced off against the police, refusing to back down.

In the three years following this incident, not a single bidder has approached the community. Instead, the women pluck and sell the cashews to traders who come directly to their doorsteps.

Although they earn only 1,660 dollars a year for 25,000 kg – about 0.60 dollars per kilo, far below the market value – they divide the proceeds among themselves and even manage to put some away into a community bank for times of illness or scarcity.

“Corporations’ officials now come to negotiate. From requesting 50 percent of the profit from the cashew harvest if we allow them to auction, they have come down to requesting 10 percent of the income. We told them they would not even get one rupee – the land is for community use,” recounts 40-year-old Pramila Majhi who heads one of the women’s protection groups that guards the cashew orchards.

It was a hard-won victory, but it has given hope to scores of other villages battling unsustainable development models.

Between 2000 and 2014, more than 25,000 hectares of forests in Odisha have been diverted for ‘non-forest use’, primarily for mining or other industrial activity.

In a state where 75 percent of the tribal population lives below the poverty line, the loss of forests is a matter of life and death.

According to the ministry of tribal affairs, the average earnings of a rural or landless family sometimes amount to nothing more than 13 dollars a month. With 41 percent of Odisha’s women suffering from low body mass and a further 62 percent suffering from anaemia, the forests provide much-needed nutrition to people living in abject poverty.

Rather than ride a wave of destructive development, tribal women are charting the way to a sustainable future, along a path that begins and ends amongst the tress in the quiet of Odisha’s forests.

Edited by Kanya D’Almeida

 

This reporting series was conceived in collaboration with Ecosocialist Horizons

U.N. Staffers Secure at Home, Moving Targets Overseas

Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon signs a book of condolences at UNICEF (UN Children’s Fund) headquarters, on the death of the agency’s staff members killed in the 20 April attack on a vehicle in which they were riding in Garowe, Somalia. Credit: UN Photo/Eskinder Debebe

Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon signs a book of condolences at UNICEF (UN Children’s Fund) headquarters, on the death of the agency’s staff members killed in the 20 April attack on a vehicle in which they were riding in Garowe, Somalia. Credit: UN Photo/Eskinder Debebe

By Thalif Deen
UNITED NATIONS, Apr 29 2015 (IPS)

When the United Nations spent over 2.2 billion dollars refurbishing its ageing 65-year-old Secretariat building, one of its primary goals was to strengthen security to prevent any violent attacks on the glass house by New York city’s East River.

With a voluntary donation of nearly 100 million dollars from the United States as host country (in addition to its assessed contribution for the renovations), the United Nations has installed bollards and other security devices enhancing the entrances and perimeters of the campus where more than 3,000 staffers now work in a modernised and energy-efficient 39-storeyed high-rise building.”We hope [Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon] will recognise the fact that the U.N. has to start making some tougher choices about whether it actually has the means to be able to operate in dangerous locations and protect its staff.” — Ian Richards

The new security measures are expected to be in place by next year while the refurbishment that began in 2008 – financed by the 193 member states with assessed contributions based on “capacity to pay” – is virtually complete.

Acutely conscious of its security, the United Nations is also planning to empty and shut down its historic Dag Hammarskjold library building, keeping it permanently vacant, because of possible terrorist attacks from an adjacent roadway and an exit ramp from the highway – both of which the U.S. government is refusing to close down because it is “not feasible” to do so in a traffic-clogged city.

Still, say U.N. staffers, while they appreciate the protective measures in home territory, the world body has not placed as high a priority on their safety and security in emergency operations in conflict zones.

As international aid workers increasingly come under violent attack overseas, U.N. Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs Valerie Amos provided a candid assessment last week when she said “respect for the U.N. flag and the Red Cross and Red Crescent flag is disappearing.”

According to the latest statistics, attacks on U.N. staffers have continued to increase over the last decade – with a record high of 264 attacks, affecting 474 aid workers, in 2013 alone.

In early April, four staffers working for the U.N. children’s agency UNICEF were killed in “a horrific attack” in Somalia as a result of a roadside bomb destroying their minivan.

The increasing deaths and the continued attacks have prompted the U.N. staff union to call for the establishment of an independent high-level panel to review U.N. security.

Asked if the establishment of such a panel is at the discretion of member states or a decision by Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, Ian Richards, president of the Coordinating Committee of International Staff Unions and Associations (CCISUA), representing 60,000 staffers, told IPS the staff union is requesting Ban to set up the panel.

“So it is entirely his discretion. But we hope he will recognise the fact that the U.N. has to start making some tougher choices about whether it actually has the means to be able to operate in dangerous locations and protect its staff,” he said.

In a statement released here, the CCISUA said it has been 10 years since the United Nations Department of Safety and Security was created in the aftermath of the 2003 Canal Hotel bombing in Baghdad.

Employees at the United Nations headquarters in Baghdad, Iraq, search through the rubble after an explosion in 2003 that killed at least 17 people including the Secretary-General's Special Representative for Iraq, Sergio Vieira de Mello. Credit: UN Photo/AP Photo

Employees at the United Nations headquarters in Baghdad, Iraq, search through the rubble after an explosion in 2003 that killed at least 17 people including the Secretary-General’s Special Representative for Iraq, Sergio Vieira de Mello. Credit: UN Photo/AP Photo

Since that time, the United Nations has been the target of numerous attacks.

The Staff Union says is time to call for an independent high-level panel, modelled on two earlier U.N. panels, the Ahtisaari panel (2003, headed by former Finnish President Martti Ahtisari) and the Brahimi panel (2008, headed by former Algerian Foreign Minister Lakhdar Brahimi), to review security policies and procedures.

The panel should find answers to questions such as: Is the United Nations doing enough to protect its staff? Is the world body better off today in protecting its staff with the Department of Safety and Security? Is it subjecting staff to unnecessary risks with the “stay and deliver” policy?

The CCISUA has also sought answers to several other questions: What were the circumstances of the latest attack (in Somalia), and should anyone be held accountable for the gaps in security leaving staff vulnerable to those types of attacks?

Have politics taken precedence over proper security concerns, since stricter measures were not in place in Puntland, an area that has suffered deadly attacks and repeated threats by the Al Qaeda-linked al Shaabab, a terrorist group that has threatened and repeatedly attacked United Nations staff in Somalia in the past?

The 2008 Report of the Independent Panel on Safety and Security of U.N. Personnel and Premises Worldwide (Brahimi Report) noted that “Member States are not equally well-equipped to provide that security. Indeed, it is quite often in those countries where capacity is modest or lacking all together that the most serious risks exist. All the United Nations can and should expect from the host government is that it provides security to the best of its ability.”

“It is incumbent to the Organization in particular the Secretary-General, and the Department of Safety and Security, to fill in this void, including by ensuring that proper policies, procedures and standards are established and always followed – which in the instance of the latest attack would have born no monetary cost to the Organization,” the statement said.

The Staff Union thinks the secretary-general’s policy of “stay and deliver”, combined with “do more with less”, has shown its limits and has placed staff in more of a high-risk situation than at any time before.

Thus, the Staff Union calls on the secretary-general to immediately initiate a review of security policies worldwide and an investigation into the circumstances surrounding the latest attack on the organisation, so that future such attacks may be prevented.

“The Staff Union believes we owe this to all staff and the families of the victims. The Secretary-General, as chief administrative officer of the United Nations, has an inherent responsibility to seek to ensure the safety of staff,” the statement said.

Edited by Kitty Stapp

The writer can be contacted at thalifdeen@aol.com

Q&A: Comprehensive Ban on Nuclear Testing, a ‘Stepping Stone’ to a Nuke-Free World

Gamma spectroscopy can detect traces of radioactivity from nuclear tests from the air. Credit: CTBTO Official Photostream/CC-BY-2.0

Gamma spectroscopy can detect traces of radioactivity from nuclear tests from the air. Credit: CTBTO Official Photostream/CC-BY-2.0

By Kanya D’Almeida
UNITED NATIONS, Apr 29 2015 (IPS)

With the four-week-long review conference of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) underway at the United Nations, hopes and frustrations are running equally high, as a binding political agreement on the biggest threat to humanity hangs in the balance.

Caption: Dr. Lassina Zerbo, executive secretary of the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty Organisation (CTBTO). Credit: CTBTO Official Photostream

Caption: Dr. Lassina Zerbo, executive secretary of the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty Organisation (CTBTO). Credit: CTBTO Official Photostream

Behind the headlines that focus primarily on power struggles between the five major nuclear powers – the United States, Britain, France, Russia and China – scores of organisations refusing to be bogged down in geopolitical squabbles are going about the Herculean task of creating a safer world.

One of these bodies is the Vienna-based Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty Organisation (CTBTO), founded in 1996 alongside the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty (CTBT), with the aim of independently monitoring compliance.

With 183 signatories and 164 ratifications, the treaty represents a milestone in international efforts to ban nuclear testing.

In order to be legally binding, however, the treaty needs the support of the 44 so-called ‘Annex 2 States’, eight of which have so far refused to ratify the agreement: China, Egypt, Iran, Israel, India, Pakistan, North Korea and the United States.

This holdout has severely crippled efforts to move towards even the most basic goal of the nuclear abolition process.

Still, the CTBTO has made tremendous strides in the past 20 years to set the stage for full ratification.

Its massive global network of seismic, hydroacoustic, infrasound and radionuclide detecting stations makes it nearly impossible for governments to violate the terms of the treaty, and the rich data generated from its many facilities is contributing to a range of scientific endeavors worldwide.

In an interview with IPS, CTBTO Executive Secretary Dr. Lassina Zerbo spoke about the organisation’s hopes for the review conference, and shared some insights on the primary hurdles standing in the way of a nuclear-free world.

Excerpts from the interview follow.

Q: What role will the CTBTO play in the conference?

“Right now 90 percent of the world is saying “no” to nuclear testing, yet we are held hostage by [a] handful of countries […].” — Dr. Lassina Zerbo, executive secretary of the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty Organisation (CTBTO)
A: Our hope is that the next four weeks result in a positive outcome with regards to disarmament and non-proliferation, and we think the CTBT plays an important role there. The treaty was one of the key elements that led to indefinite extension of the NPT itself, and is the one thing that seems to be bringing all the state parties together. It’s a low-hanging fruit and we need to catch it, make it serve as a stepping-stone for whatever we want to achieve in this review conference.

For instance, we need to find a compromise between those who are of the view that we should move first on non-proliferation, and between those who say we should move equally, if not faster, on disarmament.

We also need to address the concerns of those who ask why nuclear weapons states are allowed to develop more modern weapons, while other states are prevented from developing even the basic technologies that could serve as nuclear weapons.

The CTBT represents something that all states can agree to; it serves as the basis for consensus on other, more difficult issues, and this is the message I am bringing to the conference.

Q: What have been some of the biggest achievement of the CTBTO? What are some of your most pressing concerns for the future?

A: The CTBTO bans all nuclear test explosions underwater, underground and in the air. We’ve built a network of nearly 300 stations for detecting nuclear tests, including tracking radioactive emissions.

Our international monitoring system has stopped horizontal proliferation (more countries acquiring nuclear weapons), as well as vertical proliferation (more advanced weapons systems).

That’s why some [states] are hesitant to consider ratification of the CTBT: because they are of the view that they still need testing to be able to maintain or modernise their stockpiles.

Any development of nuclear weapons happening today is based on testing that was done 20-25 years ago. No country, except for North Korea, has performed a single test in the 21st century.

Q: How do you deal with outliers like North Korea?

A: We haven’t had official contact with North Korea. I can only base my analysis on what world leaders are telling me. [Russian Foreign Minister Sergey] Lavrov has attempted to engage North Korea in discussions about the CTBT and asked if they would consider a moratorium on testing. Yesterday I met Yerzhan Ashikbayev, deputy foreign minister for Kazakhstan, which has bilateral relations with North Korea, and they have urgently called on North Korea to consider signature of the CTBT.

Those are the countries that can help us, those who have bilateral relations.

Having said this, if I’m invited to North Korea for a meeting that could serve as a basis for engaging in discussions, to help them understand more about the CTBT and the organizational framework and infrastructure that we’ve built: why not? I would be ready to do it.

We are also engaging states like Israel, who could take leadership in regions like the Middle East by signing onto the CTBT. I was just in Israel, where I asked the questions: Do you want to test? I don’t think so. Do you need it? I don’t think so. So why don’t you take leadership to open that framework that we need for confidence building in the region that could lead to more ratification and more consideration of a nuclear weapons-free zone or a WMD-free zone.

Israel now says that CTBT ratification is not an “if” but a “when” – I hope the “when” is not too far away.

Q: Despite scores of marches, thousands of petitions and millions of signatures calling for disarmament and abolition, the major nuclear weapons states are holding out. This can be extremely disheartening for those at the forefront of the movement. What would be your message to global civil society?

A: I would say, keep putting pressure on your political leaders. We need leadership to move on these issues. Right now 90 percent of the world is saying “no” to nuclear testing, yet we are held hostage by the handful of countries [that have not ratified the treaty].

Only civil society can play a role in telling governments, “You’ve got to move because the majority of the world is saying ‘no’ to what you still have, and what you are still holding onto.” The CTBT is a key element for that goal we want to achieve, hopefully in our lifetime: a world free of nuclear weapons.

Edited by Kitty Stapp

Opinion: Continuing the Centennial Work of Women and Citizen Diplomacy in Korea

Christine Ahn is the International Coordinator of Women Cross DMZ, a campaign of 30 international women walking for peace and reunification of Korea in May 2015.

By Christine Ahn
NEW YORK, Apr 28 2015 (IPS)

A century ago, the suffragist Jane Addams boarded a ship with other American women peace activists to participate in a Congress of Women in The Hague.

Christine Ahn

Christine Ahn

Over 1,300 women from 12 countries, “cutting across national enmities,” met to call for an end to World War I. That Congress became the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom (WILPF), which is now gathering in The Hague under the theme Women Stop War.

Just as Addams women met women across national lines to try and stop WWI 100 years ago, from May 19 to 25, a delegation of 30 women from 15 countries around the world will meet and walk with Korean women, north and south, to call for an end to the Korean War.

As WWII came to a close, Korea, which had been colonised by Japan for 35 years, faced a new tragedy. After Japan’s surrender in 1945, the United States proposed (and the Soviets accepted) temporarily dividing Korea along the 38th parallel in an effort to prevent Soviet troops, who were fighting the Japanese in the north, from occupying the whole country.

Japanese troops north of the line would surrender to the Soviets; those to the south would surrender to U.S. authorities. It was meant to be a temporary division, but Washington and Moscow failed to establish a single Korean government, thereby creating two separate states in 1948: the Republic of Korea in the south and the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea in the north.We are walking on May 24, International Women’s Day for Disarmament and Peace, because we believe that there must be an end to the Korean War that has plagued the Korean peninsula with intense militarisation.

This division precipitated the Korean War (1950-53), often referred to in the United States as “the forgotten war”, when each side sought to reunite the country by force. Despite enormous destruction and loss of life, neither side prevailed.

In July 1953, fighting was halted when North Korea (representing the Korean People’s Army and the Chinese People’s Volunteers) and the United States (representing the United Nations Command) signed the Korean War Armistice Agreement at Panmunjom, near the 38th parallel.

This temporary cease-fire stipulated the need for a political settlement among all parties to the war (Article 4 Paragraph 60). It established the Demilitarized Zone, two-and-a-half miles wide and still heavily mined, as the new border between the two sides. It urged the governments to convene a political conference within three months, in order to reach a formal peace settlement.

Over 62 years later, no peace treaty has been agreed, with the continuing fear that fighting could resume at any time. In fact, in 2012, during another military crisis with North Korea, former U.S. Defence Secretary Leon Panetta acknowledged that Washington was, “within an inch of war almost every day.”

In 1994, as President Clinton weighed a pre-emptive military first strike against North Korea’s nuclear reactors, the U.S. Department of Defence estimated that an outbreak of war on the Korean peninsula would result in 1.5 million casualties within the first 24 hours and 6 million casualties within the first week.

This assessment predates North Korea’s possession of nuclear weapons, which would be unimaginable in terms of destruction and devastation. We have no choice but to engage; the cost of not engaging is just too high.

The only way to prevent the outbreak of a catastrophic confrontation, as a 2011 paper from the U.S. Army War College counsels, is to “reach agreement on ending the armistice from the Korean War”—in essence, a peace agreement—and “giv[e] a formal security guarantee to North Korea tied to nonproliferation of weapons of mass destruction.”

Recent history has shown that when standing leaders are at a dangerous impasse, the role of civil society can indeed make a difference in averting war and lessening tensions. In 1994 as President Clinton contemplated military action, without the initial blessing of the White House, former President Jimmy Carter flew to Pyongyang armed with a CNN camera crew to negotiate the terms of the Agreed Framework with former North Korean leader Kim Il Sung.

And in 2008, the New York Philharmonic performed in Pyongyang, which significantly contributed towards warming relations between the United States and DPRK.

Christianne Armanpour, who traveled with CNN to cover philharmonic, wrote that U.S. Secretary of Defence William Perry, a former negotiator with North Korea, explained to her that this was a magic moment, with different peoples speaking the same language of music.

Armanpour said Perry believed that the event could positively influence the governments reaching a nuclear agreement, “but that mutual distrust and fear can only be overcome by people-to-people diplomacy.”

That is what we are hoping to achieve with the 2015 International Women’s Walk for Peace and Reunification of Korea, citizen-to-citizen diplomacy led by women. We are also walking on the 15th anniversary of the passage of U.N. Security Council Resolution 1325, which calls for the full and equal participation of women in conflict prevention and resolution, and in peacebuilding.

Women from Cambodia, Guatemala, Liberia and Northern Ireland all provided crucial voices for peace as they mobilised across national, ethnic and religious divides and used family and community networks to mitigate violence and heal divisions among their communities.

Similarly, our delegation will walk for peace in Korea and to cross the De-Militarized Zone separating millions of families, reminding the world on the tragic 70th anniversary of Korea’s division by foreign powers that the Korean people are from an ancient culture united by the same food, language, culture, customs, and history.

We are walking on May 24, International Women’s Day for Disarmament and Peace, because we believe that there must be an end to the Korean War that has plagued the Korean peninsula with intense militarisation. Instead of spending billions on preparing for war, governments could instead pour these critically needed funds for schools, childcare, health, caring for the elderly.

The first step is reconciliation through engagement and dialogue. That is why we are walking. To break the impasse among the warring nations—North Korea, South Korea, and the United States—to come to the peacemaking table to finally end the Korean War.

As Addams boarded the ship to The Hague, she and other women peace activists were mocked for seeking alternative ways than war to resolve international disputes.

Addams dismissed criticism that they were naïve and wild-eyed idealists: “We do not think we can settle the war. We do not think that by raising our hands we can make the armies cease slaughter. We do think it is valuable to state a new point of view. We do think it is fitting that women should meet and take counsel to see what may be done.”

It is only fitting that our women’s peace walk in Korea takes place on this centennial anniversary year of the first international act of defiance of war women ever undertook. I am honoured to be among another generation of women gathering at The Hague to carry on the tradition of women peacemakers engaged in citizen diplomacy to end war.

Edited by Kitty Stapp

Caribbean Stakes Out “Red Lines” for Paris Climate Talks

A woman purchases fish at a market in Kingstown, St. Vincent. CARICOM leaders say fisheries is one of the important economic sectors already being impacted by climate change. Credit: Kenton X. Chance/IPS

A woman purchases fish at a market in Kingstown, St. Vincent. CARICOM leaders say fisheries is one of the important economic sectors already being impacted by climate change. Credit: Kenton X. Chance/IPS

By Kenton X. Chance
CASTRIES, St. Lucia, Apr 28 2015 (IPS)

When the international climate change talks ended in Peru last December, the 15-member Caribbean Community (CARICOM), a political and economic union comprising small, developing, climate-vulnerable islands and low-lying nations, left with “the bare minimum necessary to continue the process to address climate change”.

“The Lima Accord did decide that the Parties would continue to work on the elements in the Annex to develop a negotiating text for the new Climate Change Agreement. We wanted a stronger statement that these were the elements to be used to draft the negotiating text,” Carlos Fuller, international and regional liaison officer at the Caribbean Community Climate Change Centre told IPS.”We are looking to develop a position that will allow our heads [of state] to speak with one unified position on climate change.” — Minister James Fletcher

“We did not get the specific mention that Loss and Damage would be included in the new agreement, but there is also no mention that it would not be included. On Intended Nationally Determined Contributions (INDCs), we got an agreement that all parties would submit their contributions for the new agreement during 2015.

“However, we lost all the specifics that would inform parties on what should be submitted. We lost the review process for the INDCs and only those parties who wished to respond to questions for clarification would do so,” Fuller said.

The Lima talks forms part of the homestretch leg of negotiations ahead of the 21st Conference of Parties (COP21) of the 196 Parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), slated for Paris in December.

The UNFCCC is the parent treaty of the 1997 Kyoto Protocol, which has been ratified by 192 of the UNFCCC Parties. The ultimate objective of both treaties is to stabilise greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere at a level that will prevent dangerous human interference with the climate system.

At the meeting in Paris, parties are expected to sign a legally binding accord intended to keep human-induced global temperature rise within levels that science says will avert catastrophic climate change.

CARICOM negotiators are trying to avoid a repeat of Lima and are identifying the “red line” issues that are “sacrosanct” for their populations as they prepare for the Paris summit.

In preparation for the Paris talks, lead negotiators from CARICOM met here on Apr. 21, first, to prepare for an engagement of CARICOM heads with French President François Hollande in Martinique on May 9.

“President Hollande, I guess, is intending to meet with CARICOM heads to get from them what are the main concerns of Caribbean small island developing states and to see how he can develop some momentum, some consensus leading to Paris,” James Fletcher, St. Lucia’s Minister for the Public Service, Sustainable Development, Energy Science and Technology, tells IPS.

The Castries meeting brought together CARICOM lead negotiators and technical experts on climate change, Fletcher says, adding, “Our meeting was a meeting of technical experts to really refine what are our main positions, what are the issues that are sacrosanct for us, what are the red line issues, that, as far as we are concerned, any new agreement on climate change must address.”

Serge Letchimy, president of the Regional Council of Martinique, tells IPS that the regional summit in Martinique “is dedicated to preparation and mobilisation toward” COP 21 and will bring together states and territories of the Caribbean.

The regional summit aims to list the initiatives of the Caribbean region “which must be integrated in a ‘schedule of solutions’ adapted to the specificities of these territories,” explains Maïté Cabrera, a media relations official involved in the organisation of the Martinique meeting.

“It also aims to contribute to the writing of an ambitious and binding global agreement which must be adopted during COP21,” Cabrera tells IPS.

St. Lucia’s Minister for the Public Service, Sustainable Development, Energy Science and Technology, James Fletcher, says a climate change deal favourable to the Caribbean will help to protect the important tourism sector. Credit: Kenton X. Chance/IPS

St. Lucia’s Minister for the Public Service, Sustainable Development, Energy Science and Technology, James Fletcher, says a climate change deal favourable to the Caribbean will help to protect the important tourism sector. Credit: Kenton X. Chance/IPS

The Castries meeting of CARICOM climate change negotiators was also a stocktaking gathering at which officials examined the status of their proposals ahead of COP 21.

“Our negotiators have been involved in negotiations; the first round of negotiations was in Geneva this year. There are still negotiations to take place on a range of issues — adaptation, climate finance, loss and damage, Intended Nationally Determined Contributions and a range of issues,” Fletcher tells IPS.

“This really allows us to take stock of how the negotiations are going and what are the main issues and where we should be identifying with the negotiations,” he says.

A third element of the Castries gathering had to do with preparing for a meeting of U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon and CARICOM leaders at the CARICOM Head of Government meeting in Barbados in July.

“So, again, we are looking to develop a position that will allow our heads to speak with one position, one unified position on climate change in that meeting with the Secretary General, which, again, deals with climate change and climate finance.”

Fletcher is optimistic that the Caribbean will make progress on its positions on climate change ahead of and ultimately at COP 21, saying that the region has been “very united in its position on climate change”.

“If there is one thing I can say from the time I have been involved in this process is that Caribbean heads, Caribbean countries have all been united on our issues, there is no disagreement amount us,” says Fletcher, who has attended several COPs, including in Warsaw in 2013 and Lima in 2014.

However, he also identified areas in which the region can do more to shore up its negotiating ahead of Paris.

“I think what needs to happen a little more is coordination and this is what today’s meeting is about, ensuring that that coordination is there,” he tells IPS, adding that coordination worked well at the Third International Conference on Small Island Developing States (SIDS) in Samoa last year.

Fletcher tells IPS that at the Samoa conference “there was a very strong Caribbean presence and a very good coordinated presence to ensure that we were able to speak with the same voice and we attended all the meeting in numbers and that is what we are aiming for in Paris this year”.

He pointed out that the outcome of the Paris summit will have a direct impact on the residents of the Caribbean.

“We have been saying for a long time now that climate change represents an existential threat for small island developing states like the Caribbean, that we have to limit global warming to no more than 1.5 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels, and that anything above 1.5 degrees Celsius will cause catastrophic sea level rise, will cause warming of our oceans, will cause acidification of our oceans, which will impact our fisheries, impact our tourism sector, will cause reduction in water availability and that has impacts for agriculture, for ordinary lives, for availability and accessibility of potable water,” he tells IPS.

“Anything above 1.5 degrees will result in an increase in the severity and frequency of extreme weather events like storms and hurricanes. So, we have a very real stake in what comes out of Paris, and we cannot allow the Paris agreement to be one that we know will cause us to have a climate that is warming at a rate that is catastrophic for us, small island countries like ours, and low-lying countries like Guyana,” Fletcher tells IPS.

Edited by Kitty Stapp

Want to Help Nepal Recover from the Quake? Cancel its Debt, Says Rights Group

School children in Nepal’s Matatirtha village practice an earthquake drill in the event of a natural disaster. A 7.8-magnitude earthquake in Nepal on Apr. 25, 2015, has endangered the lives of close to a million children. Credit: Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade/CC-BY-2.0

School children in Nepal’s Matatirtha village practice an earthquake drill in the event of a natural disaster. A 7.8-magnitude earthquake in Nepal on Apr. 25, 2015, has endangered the lives of close to a million children. Credit: Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade/CC-BY-2.0

By Kanya D’Almeida
UNITED NATIONS, Apr 27 2015 (IPS)

The death toll has now passed 3,300, and there is no telling how much farther it will climb. Search and rescue operations in Nepal entered their third day Monday, as the government and international aid agencies scramble to cope with the aftermath of a 7.8-magnitude earthquake that struck this South Asian nation on Apr. 25.

Severe aftershocks have this land-locked country of 27.8 million people on edge, with scores missing and countless others feared dead, buried under the rubble.

“Nepal owes 3.8 billion dollars in debt to foreign lenders and spent 217 million dollars repaying debt in 2013.” — Jubilee USA Network
With its epicenter in Lamjung District, located northwest of the capital, Kathmandu, and south of the China border, the massive quake rippled out over the entire country, causing several avalanches in the Himalayas including one that killed over 15 people and injured dozens more at the base camp of Mt. Everest, 200 km away.

The United Nations says Dhading, Gorkha, Rasuwa, Sindhupalchowk, Kavre, Nuwakot, Dolakha, Kathmandu, Lalitpur, Bhaktapur and Ramechhap are the worst affected areas. In total, 35 out of 75 districts in the Western and Central regions of the country are suffering the impacts of the quake and its severe aftershocks.

Questions abound as to how this impoverished nation, ranked 145 out of 187 on the United Nations Human Development Index (HDI) – making it one of the world’s Least Developed Countries (LDCs) – will recover from the disaster, considered the worst in Nepal in over 80 years.

One possible solution has come from the Jubilee USA Network, an alliance of over 75 U.S.-based organisations and 400 faith communities worldwide, which said in a press release Monday that Nepal could qualify for debt relief under the International Monetary Fund’s (IMF) new Catastrophe Containment and Relief Trust (CCR).

The IMF created the CCR this past February in order to assist poor countries recover from severe natural disasters or health crises by providing grants for debt service relief. Already, the fund has eased some of the financial woes of Ebola-impacted countries by agreeing to cancel nearly 100 million dollars of debt.

Quoting World Bank figures, Jubilee USA said in a statement, “Nepal owes 3.8 billion dollars in debt to foreign lenders and spent 217 million dollars repaying debt in 2013.”

Nepal owes some 1.5 billion dollars each to the World Bank and the Asian Development Bank, as well as 54 million dollars to the IMF, 133 million dollars to Japan and 101 million dollars to China.

“In order for Nepal to receive relief from the IMF’s fund, the disaster must destroy more than 25 percent of the country’s ‘productive capacity’, impact one-third of its people or cause damage greater than the size of the country’s economy,” Eric LeCompte, Jubilee USA Network’s executive director, told IPS. “It seems clear that Nepal will qualify for immediate assistance from the IMF.”

According to Jubilee USA Network, Nepal is scheduled to pay back 10 million dollars worth of loans to the IMF in 2015 and nearly 13 million dollars in 2016. Relieving the country of this burden will free up valuable and limited funds that can be redirect into the rescue and relief effort.

Strong emergency response – but is it enough?

“Time is of the essence for the search and rescue operations,” Under-Secretary-General of Humanitarian Affairs and Emergency Relief Coordinator Valerie Amos said Monday.

“The actions of the Government of Nepal and local communities themselves have already saved many lives. Teams from India, Pakistan, China and Israel have started work, and more are on their way from the U.S., the UK, Singapore, the United Arab Emirates, the European Union and elsewhere.”

Early on Sunday morning the United States’ department of defense confirmed it had dispatched an aircraft to Nepal carrying 70 personnel and 700,000 dollars worth of supplies.

But it is unclear whether or not the immediate response will prove equal to the mammoth task ahead.

The U.N. Children’s Fund (UNICEF) estimates that 940,000 children from areas severely affected by the quake are in desperate need of humanitarian aid.

The World Food Programme (WFP) has been supplying emergency food rations, while the World Health Organisation has sent in enough medical supplies to meet the needs of 40,000 affected people, yet experts say much more will be needed in the weeks and months ahead.

Tens of thousands of people are sleeping in the open air in makeshift tents; almost all are in need of better accommodation, clean water, sanitation, tents and blankets, and improved medical supplies.

A situation report released over the weekend by the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) revealed, “In Kathmandu Valley, hospitals are overcrowded, running out of space for storing dead bodies and lack medical supplies and capacity. BIR hospital [one of the country’s leading medical facilities] is treating people in the streets.”

Scenes of devastation all around the country highlight the need for emergency relief, but do not do justice to the massive reconstruction effort that will be needed in the months and years to come.

“Nepal’s rebuilding efforts will take years and debt cancellation is a recipe for long-term financial stability,” LeCompte stressed.

“Since the IMF has clear rules in place and the financing available with their trust, aid [to Nepal] should come relatively quickly,” he added. “Unfortunately, with the bulk of the debt owed to the World Bank and Asian Development Bank, the rules for debt relief are less clear.

“It’s unfortunate that the World Bank, as a development institution, still has not yet released a plan similar to the IMF to respond rapidly to humanitarian crises. In the short term, the World Bank must offer a plan for grants and debt relief. I hope this crisis also motivates the World Bank to release their plans for a rapid response mechanism,” LeCompte concluded.

Edited by Kitty Stapp

Kenyan Pastoralists Protest Wanton Destruction of Indigenous Forest

Forest rangers putting out a fire at a charcoal burning kiln in Kenya’s Mau Forest. The future of the country’s indigenous forest cover is under threat but this has little to do with poverty and ignorance – experts say that it is greed which allows unsustainable practices, such as the lucrative production of charcoal and logging of wood. Credit: Robert Kibet/IPS

Forest rangers putting out a fire at a charcoal burning kiln in Kenya’s Mau Forest. The future of the country’s indigenous forest cover is under threat but this has little to do with poverty and ignorance – experts say that it is greed which allows unsustainable practices, such as the lucrative production of charcoal and logging of wood. Credit: Robert Kibet/IPS

By Robert Kibet
NAIROBI, Apr 25 2015 (IPS)

Armed with twigs and placards, enraged residents from a semi-pastoral community 360 km north of Kenya’s capital, Nairobi, protested this week against wanton destruction of indigenous forest – their alternative source of livelihood.

With climate change a new ordeal that has caused frequent droughts, leading to suffering and death in this part of Africa, the community from Lpartuk Ranch in Samburu County relies on livestock which is sometimes wiped out by severe drought leaving them with no other option other than the harvesting of wild products and honey.

“People here are ready to take up spears and machetes to guard the forest. They have been provoked by outsiders who are out to wipe out our indigenous forest to the last bit,” Mark Loloolki, Lpartuk Ranch chairman, who led the protesting community members told IPS.

They threatened to set alight any vehicle caught ferrying the timbers or logs suspected to be from their forests.Illegal harvesting of forest products is pervasive and often involves unsustainable forest practices which cause serious damage to forests, the people who depend on them and the economies of producer countries

Their protest came barely a week after counterparts from Seketet, a few kilometres away in Samburu Central, held a similar protest after over 12,000 red cedar posts were caught on transit to Maralal, Samburu’s main town.

Last year, students walked for four kilometres during International Ozone Day to protest against the wanton destruction of the same endangered forest tree species.

A report titled Green Carbon, Black Trade, released by the U.N. Environment Programme (UNEP) and Interpol in 2012,  which focuses on illegal logging and its impacts on the lives and livelihoods of often some of the poorest people in the world, underlines how criminals are combining old-fashioned methods such as bribes with high-tech methods such as computer hacking of government websites to obtain transportation and other permits.

Samburu County, in Kenya’s semi-arid northern region, hosts Lerroghi, a 92,000 hectare forest reserve that is home to different indigenous plants and animal species. Lerroghi, also called Kirisia locally, is among the largest forest ecosystem in dry northern Kenya and was initially filled with olive and red cedar trees.

It is alleged that unscrupulous merchants smuggle the endangered red cedar products to the coastal port of Mombasa for shipping to Saudi Arabia where they are sold at high prices.

“This is a business that involves a well-connected cartel of merchants operating in Nairobi and Mombasa,” said Loloolki.

In Kenya, the future of indigenous forest cover is under threat but has little to do with poverty and ignorance – experts say that it is greed which allows unsustainable practices, such as the lucrative production of charcoal and logging of wood.

“This forest is our main water catchment source and home to wild animals such as elephants,” Moses Lekolool, the area assistant chief, told IPS. “Elephants no longer have a place to mate and reproduce or even give birth, with most of them having migrated.”

According to Samburu County’s Kenya Forest Service (KFS) Ecosystem Controverter Eric Chemitei, “as a government parastatal, we [KFS] do not issue permits for transportation or movement of cedar posts. However, we do not know how they get to Nairobi, Mombasa and eventually to Saudi Arabia as alleged.”

At the same time, Chemitei told IPS that squatters currently residing inside the forest are mainly families affected by insecurity related to cattle rustling, adding that their presence was posing a threat to the main water towers of Lerroghi, Mathew Ranges, and Ndoto and Nyiro mountains.

He further noted that harvesting of cedar regardless of whether forest was privately or publicly owned was banned in 1999, and that over 30,000 hectares – one-third of the Lerroghi forest – has been destroyed.

Reports from INTERPOL and the World Bank in 2009 and from UNEP in 2011 indicate that the trade in illegally harvested timber is highly lucrative for criminal elements and has been estimated at 11 billion dollars – comparable with the production value of drugs which is estimated at around 13 billion dollars.

In a report on organised wildlife, gold and timber, released on Apr. 16, UNEP Executive Director Achim Steiner said: “There is no room for doubt: wildlife and forest crime is serious and calls for an equally serious response. In addition to the breach of the international rule of law and the impact on peace and security, environmental crime robs countries of revenues that could have been spent on sustainable development and the eradication of poverty.”

According to the KFS Strategic Plan (2009/2010-2013/2014), of the 3.4 million hectares (5.9 percent) of forest cover out of the Kenya’s total land area, 1.4 million are made up of indigenous closed canopy forests, mangroves and plantations, on both public and private lands.

The plan also indicated that Kenya’s annual domestic demand for wood is 37 million cubic metres while sustainable wood supply is only around 30 million cubic metres, thus creating a deficit of seven million cubic metres which, according to analysts, means that any projected increase in forest cover can only be realised after this huge internal demand is met.

Last year, Kenya’s Cabinet Secretary for Environment Judi Wakhungu said that KFS’ revised policy framework for forest conservation and sustainable management lists features including community participation, community forest associations and benefit sharing.

The policy acknowledges that indigenous trees or forests are ecosystems that provide important economic, environmental, recreational, scientific, social, cultural and spiritual benefits.

Nevertheless, illegal harvesting of forest products is pervasive and often involves unsustainable forest practices which cause serious damage to forests, the people who depend on them and the economies of producer countries.

Forests have been subjected to land use changes such as conversion to farmland or urban settlements, thus reducing their ability to supply forest products and serve as water catchments, biodiversity conservation reservoirs and wildlife habitats.

Meanwhile, the effect of forest depletion on women has been noted by Veronica Nkepeni , Director of Kenya’s Centre for Advocacy and Gender Equality, who told IPS that the “most affected are women in the pastoralist areas, trekking long distances in search of water as a result of the effects of forest depletion leading to water scarcity.”

Edited by Phil Harris    

U.N. Committee Gets ‘Unhindered Access’ to Azerbaijan’s Detention Centres – But Is it Enough?

Against the backdrop of serious human rights allegations, Azerbaijan is gearing up to host the first-ever European Games. Credit: ResoluteSupportMedia/CC-BY-2.0

Against the backdrop of serious human rights allegations, Azerbaijan is gearing up to host the first-ever European Games. Credit: ResoluteSupportMedia/CC-BY-2.0

By Kanya D’Almeida
UNITED NATIONS, Apr 24 2015 (IPS)

Months after being denied access to Azerbaijan’s places of detention, the head of the United Nation’s Subcommittee on Prevention of Torture (SPT) announced Friday that her four-member delegation had successfully conducted investigations of Azerbaijani prisons, police stations and investigative isolation units.

“The Azerbaijani Government this time enabled unhindered access to places of deprivation of liberty,” confirmed Aisha Shujune Muhammad, head of the SPT delegation, in a statement published by the Office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR).

“I can’t think of a single case of the ones we’ve followed – which largely are connected to political activists, journalists and human rights defenders – in which allegations of torture have been effectively investigated.” — Jane Buchanan, associate director of the Europe and Central Asia division of Human Rights Watch
As a state party to the Optional Protocol to the Convention Against Torture, Azerbaijan is obliged to allow independent experts full access to sites of detention, but last September the SPT was forced to suspend its visit after being prevented from inspecting some sites and barred from completing its work at others, “in violation of Azerbaijan’s treaty obligations”, according to OHCHR.

This month, from Apr. 16-24, SPT members visited a range of sites including pre-trial detention facilities, psychiatric hospitals, and social care institutions.

On Friday the subcommittee presented its confidential preliminary observations to Azerbaijani authorities, including recommendations for strengthening systems to protect those persons deprived of their liberty against torture and other cruel or inhuman treatment.

While welcoming the government’s cooperation, Muhammad stressed, “[The] State party has yet to guarantee all fundamental legal and procedural safeguards to persons deprived of their liberty, including access to a lawyer, a medical doctor, and to contact his or her family.”

Streets empty of political dissidents

The statement confirms what international watchdogs have been warning for the past few years: that ill treatment of prisoners and impunity, particularly with regards to political activists and journalists, is rampant in this land-locked nation of 9.4 million people.

“We have had long-standing concerns about conditions in detention and ill treatment and torture of people detained in police stations, in prisons and other facilities,” Jane Buchanan, associate director of the Europe and Central Asia division of Human Rights Watch, told IPS.

“We have huge concerns about fair trials and due process, so we don’t have a sense of optimism at all – nor do I read a lot of optimism into the SPT’s statement. I would not say the trajectory is good.”

She said the situation is particularly worrying for human rights defenders and the media, who are currently weathering a harsh government crackdown against any form of dissent.

In 2014 alone, Human Rights Watch (HRW) recorded over 35 cases of activists, journalists and human rights defenders who were detained or imprisoned on politically motivated charges.

Buchanan said other, local groups have longer lists, whose numbers are closer to the 100 mark.

Even these could be conservative estimates, as many of those who would otherwise be monitoring violations of human rights are now behind bars, or have fled the country to escape prosecution.

“The government is effectively shutting down mechanisms for transparency and accountability for all kinds of things including torture and ill treatment,” she stated.

Amnesty International’s most recent country report for Azerbaijan echoes many of these concerns, highlighting cases like the arrest on May 6 of Kemale Benenyarli, a member of the opposition Azerbaijani Popular Front Party (APFP) who subsequently alleged that she was “beaten, punched, dragged and locked in a cell, where she was kept without food and water until her trial the following morning.”

At the time of her arrest, Benenyarli was among a group of peaceful protestors gathered outside the Baku City Grave Crimes Court, demanding the release of jailed youth activists associated with the NIDA Civic Movement.

Amnesty also reported that another protestor arrested that day, Orkhan Eyyubzade, complained that he was “stripped naked, dragged by the hair, punched, kicked and threatened with rape after he engaged in an argument with police officers during his detention on May 15.”

Other allegations of torture in detention include the withholding of medical treatment, denial of necessary foods due to medical conditions, and the use of physical violence on the part of staff or cellmates, according to HRW’s Buchanan.

“I can’t think of a single case of the ones we’ve followed – which largely are connected to political activists, journalists and human rights defenders – in which allegations of torture have been effectively investigated,” she added.

At present, rights groups say over 50 political prisoners are being held in jails around the country, largely on trumped-up charges.

European Games: A chance to shine a light on injustice?

Against the backdrop of serious rights allegations, which have been escalating since 2012, Azerbaijan is gearing up to host the first-ever European Games under the auspices of the Olympic Movement.

Over 6,000 athletes representing 50 countries are scheduled to participate in the event, which will run from Jun. 12-28 this year.

According to the London-based Business News Europe, the games are budgeted at an estimated eight billion dollars, and billed as the “most spectacular show in Azerbaijan’s history.”

While the government of President Ilham Aliyev hopes to use the games to spotlight his country’s economic development, rights groups are pushing the European Olympic Committees and key National Olympic Committees to instead shift the focus onto human rights abuses and political prisoners.

The Sports and Rights Alliance, a coalition comprised of the likes of Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, Football Supporters Europe, and Transparency International Germany, recently submitted a letter to Patrick Hickey, president of the European Olympic Committees, arguing that the current crackdown on critics and dissidents is “at odds with key principles of the Olympic Charter that the European Games are meant to uphold.”

The Alliance also urged the sporting body to use its leverage with Azerbaijan to, among other things, demand the immediate and unconditional release of rights activists like Khajida Ismayilova, Leyla Yunus, Arif Yunus, Intigam Aliyev, Rasul Jafarov, Rauf Mirgadirov, Anar Mammadli, Ilgar Mammadov, and Tofig Yagulblu.

“Those participating in the European games being funded by the Azerbaijani government have a real obligation to speak out,” Buchanan stressed.

Among those receiving “funding” to attend the games is Britain’s team of 160 athletes. In February, the Guardian reported that the British Olympic Association (BOA) had admitted that the host country would cover the bulk of the costs associated with getting its teams to Baku.

Edited by Kitty Stapp

Two Years After Rana Plaza Tragedy, Rights Abuses Still Rampant in Bangladesh’s Garment Sector

Most of the roughly four million people employed in Bangladesh’s garment industry are women. Credit: Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers and Exporters Association (BGMEA)

Most of the roughly four million people employed in Bangladesh’s garment industry are women. Credit: Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers and Exporters Association (BGMEA)

By Kanya D’Almeida and Naimul Haq
DHAKA/UNITED NATIONS, Apr 22 2015 (IPS)

Some say they were beaten with iron bars. Others confess their families have been threatened with death. One pregnant woman was assaulted with metal curtain rods.

These are not scenes typically associated with a place of work, but thousands of people employed in garment factories in Bangladesh have come to expect such brutality as a part of their daily lives.

“I have faced many cases, and been arrested and jailed seven times […]. The only charge they bring against me is raising my voice in favour of the workers.” — Mushrefa Mishu, president of the Garment Workers’ Unity Forum
Even if they don’t suffer physical assault, workers at the roughly 4,500 factories that form the nucleus of Bangladesh’s enormous garments industry almost certainly confront other injustices: unpaid overtime, sexual or verbal abuse, and unsafe and unsanitary working conditions.

Two years ago, when all the world’s eyes were trained on this South Asian nation of 156 million people, workers had hoped that the end of systematic labour abuse was nigh.

The event that prompted the international outcry – the collapse of the Rana Plaza factory on the morning of Apr. 24, 2013, killing 1,100 people and injuring 2,500 more – was deemed one of the worst industrial accidents in modern history.

Government officials, powerful trade bodies and major foreign buyers of Bangladesh-made apparel promised to fix the gaping flaws in this sector that employs four million people and exports 24 billion dollars worth of merchandise every year.

Promises were made at every point along the supply chain that such a senseless tragedy would never again occur.

But a Human Rights Watch (HRW) report released on the eve of the two-year anniversary of the Rana Plaza disaster has found that, despite pledges made and some steps in the right direction, Bangladesh’s garments sector is still plagued with many ills that is making life for the 20 million people who depend directly or indirectly on the industry a waking nightmare.

Based on interviews with some 160 workers in 44 factories, predominantly dedicated to manufacturing garments sold by retailers in Australia, Europe and North America, the report found that safety standards are still low, workplace abuse is common, and union busting – as well as violence attacks and intimidation of union organisers – is the norm.

Violation of labour laws

Last December the Bangladesh government raised the minimum wage for factory workers from 39 dollars a month to 68 dollars. While this signified a sizable increase, it was still less than the 100-dollar wage workers themselves had demanded.

Bangladesh exports 24 billion dollars of garments every year. Credit: Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers and Exporters Association (BGMEA)

Bangladesh exports 24 billion dollars of garments every year. Credit: Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers and Exporters Association (BGMEA)

Furthermore, implementation has been slow. According to Mushrefa Mishu, president of the Garment Workers’ Unity Forum representing 80,000 workers, only 40 percent of employers comply with the minimum wage law.

She told IPS that women, who comprise the bulk of factory workers, form the “lifeblood” of this vital industry that accounts for 80 percent of the country’s export earnings and contributes 10 percent of annual gross domestic product (GDP); yet they have fallen victim to “exploitative wages” as a result of retailers demanding competitive prices.

Indeed, many factories owners concur that pressure from companies who place bulk orders to scale up production lines and improve profit margins contributes to the culture of cutting corners, since branded retailers seldom factor compliance of safety and labour regulations into their costing.

“[These] financial costs [are] heavy for the factory owners,” Meenakshi Ganguly, South Asia director for Human Rights Watch, told IPS. “They argue that a small compromise on the profit margin can go a long way in helping Bangladesh factories achieve compliance.”

Wherever the blame for non-compliance lies, the negative consequences for workers – especially the women – are undeniable: an April 2014 survey by Democracy International found that 37 percent of workers reported lack of paid sick leave, while 29 percent lacked paid maternity leave.

Workers who are unable to meet production targets have their salaries docked, while HRW’s research indicates that “workers in almost all of the factories” complained of not receiving wages or benefits in full, or on time.

Forced overtime is exceedingly common, as are poor sanitation facilities and unclean drinking water.

Collective bargaining – a risky business

Faced with such entrenched and systematic violations of their rights, many garment workers are aware that their best chance for securing decent working conditions lies in their collective bargaining power.

Although the Bangladesh government raised the minimum wage for garment workers to 68 dollars a month, activists say only 40 percent of employers comply. Credit: Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers and Exporters Association (BGMEA)

Although the Bangladesh government raised the minimum wage for garment workers to 68 dollars a month, activists say only 40 percent of employers comply. Credit: Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers and Exporters Association (BGMEA)

But union busting and other anti-union activity are rampant across the garments sector, with many organisers beaten into submission and scores of others terrorised into keeping their heads down.

Although Bangladesh has ratified International Labour Organisation (ILO) conventions 87 and 98 on freedom of association and collective bargaining, those who try to exercise these rights face harsh reprisals.

“I have faced many cases, and been arrested and jailed seven times but later released because they found no [evidence] against me,” Mishu, of the Garment Workers’ Unity Forum, told IPS. “The only charge they bring against me is raising my voice in favour of the workers. Whenever we raise our voices against the garments factory owners, instead of negotiating with us they apply force to silence us.”

Mishu’s testimony finds echoes in numerous incidents recorded in HRW’s report, including an attack in February last year on four activists with the Bangladesh Federation for Workers Solidarity (BFWS) that left one of their number so badly injured he had to spend 100 days in hospital.

Their only crime was helping employees at the Korean-owned Chunji Knit Ltd. Factory fill out union registrations forms.

Other incidents include a woman being hospitalised after an attack by men wielding cutting shears, activists threatened with death or the death of their families, and one organiser being accosted on his way home and slashed so badly with blades he had to be admitted to hospital.

“We find that factory owners […] use local thugs to intimidate and attack union organisers, often outside the factory premises,” HRW’s Ganguly explained. “And then they blithely disclaim responsibility by saying that the attacks had nothing to do with the factory.”

In one of the worst examples of anti-union activity, HRW reported that an activist named Aminul Islam was “abducted, tortured and killed in April 2012, and to date his killers have not been found.”

Although hard-won reforms have raised the number of unions formally registered at the labour department from just two in 2011-2012 to 416 in 2015, overall representation of workers remains low: union exist in just 10 percent of garment factories across Bangladesh.

Factory safety

Ganguly told IPS that because the Bangladesh garment industry grew very rapidly, “a lot of factories were set up bypassing safety and other compliance issues.”

Between 1983-4 and 2013-14, the sector mushroomed from just 120,000 employees working in 384 factories to four million workers churning out garments at a terrific rate in 4,536 factories, which run the gamut from state-of-the-art industrial operations to “backstreet workshops” and everything in-between.

Unchecked expansion in the 80s and 90s meant that many of these buildings were disasters waiting to happen. While incidents like the 2013 Rana Plaza collapse and the 2012 Tazreen factory fire, which killed 112 people, have largely taken the spotlight, a string of similar calamities both before and after suggest that Bangladesh has a long way to go to ensure worker safety.

Figures quoted by the Clean Clothes Campaign point out that between 2006 and 2010, 500 workers died in factory fires, 80 percent of which were caused by faulty wiring.

Since 2012, 68 factory fires have claimed 30 lives and left 800 workers injured, according to the Solidarity Center.

Atiqul Islam, president of the industry’s leading trade body, the Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers and Exporters Association (BGMEA), told IPS that factory owners are taking far more precautions now to ensure that preventable or ‘man-made’ disasters remain a thing of the past.

Before the Rana Plaze incident, he said, there were only 56 inspectors overseeing thousands of factories. Now, there are over 800 inspectors, trained by the International Labour Organisation (ILO) to keep a check on the many operations around the country.

Indeed, regulations like the Accord on Fire and Building Safety, an initiative carried out on behalf of 175 retailers based primarily in Europe, which is overseeing improvements in over 1,600 factors, as well as the Alliance for Bangladesh Worker Safety that is looking into improvements in 587 factories at the behest of 26 North American retailers, indicate progress.

But as Ganguly said, “Much more needs to be done to ensure worker rights.”

For a start, experts say that proper compensation must be paid to survivors, or families of those who lost their lives due to negligence in the Rana Plaza and Tazreen Fashions disasters.

As of March of this year, only 21 million dollars of the estimated 31 million dollars’ compensation has so far been pledged or disbursed. HRW also found that “15 companies whose clothing and brand labels were found in the rubble of Rana Plaza by journalists and labour activists have not paid anything into the trust fund established with the support of the ILO to manage the payments.”

Edited by Kitty Stapp