Ontario Racquet Club Increases Their Membership By 20% With Retractable Roof from OpenAire

OAKVILLE, Ontario, April 09, 2019 (GLOBE NEWSWIRE) — The $30–billion health and fitness industry in America has been growing by 3 to 4% annually for the last ten years. And, it shows no signs of slowing down, according to the IHRSA (International Health, Racquet & Sportsclub Association). In a Forbes interview, Crunch Franchise CEO, Ben Midgley, said that 20% of American adults have a fitness club membership and that number can easily double in the next 10 to 15 years.

One challenge health and fitness club owners and managers face is growing their memberships. While marketing and new equipment can bring in new members, the most sustainable way to increase club membership and, therefore, revenue is to make smart improvements to your club.

“Retractable roof structures give you the ability to open your facility up during warm weather and provide views to the outdoors. People have a deep need to go back to nature and what better way to do this than in a temperature–controlled environment with a translucent, retractable roof,” says Mark Albertine, the President, and CEO of the retractable roof system designer and installer, OpenAire.

Thousands of retractable roof projects across the globe are currently underway, many of which were YMCAs, municipal recreation centers, and other health and sports facilities.

“These clubs have been able to increase their memberships thanks to being able to offer year–round pool days, improved air quality, and a better experience for members. We predict that retractable roofs will become the status quo for the industry–leading health and fitness clubs in the future,” says Albertine.

A Case Study

The Ontario Racquet Club (ORC) has long been renowned for its outstanding indoor and outdoor sports facilities in the Greater Toronto Area. They wanted to expand their facilities to include a new aquatic center as well as exceed their members greatest expectations with their facility improvements.

OpenAire designed and installed a curved motorized retractable roof enclosure over the ORC’s new aquatic center, which boasts a 25–meter–long Junior Olympic pool, a brand–new patio, a small children’s splash pad, a BBQ pit, extensive lounge area, and a beautiful waterfall feature.

The new center with its retractable roof system allows everyone to enjoy ORC’s aquatic programs all–year–around. It was an instant sensation with members, resulting in a 20% increase in membership at the club.

The company’s retractable roof enclosures are all designed with energy–efficiency in mind. This means that despite the obvious aesthetic factor, they also offer up to 27% savings on energy costs, a perfect pool–temperature of 83 degrees Fahrenheit (28 °C) in any weather and guaranteed all–year–around use.

“The health and fitness industry is huge. Those who want to stand out above their competitors and increase their membership will find that a retractable roof can do just the job,” concludes Albertine.

About OpenAire
OpenAire has been designing and manufacturing beautiful, high–quality, retractable roof structures and skylights for 28 years. We bring unique designs to life from concept to installation, transforming buildings into sunlit spaces that customers love. Headquartered in Oakville, Ontario, OpenAire is approaching 1,000 projects throughout North America, Europe, and the Middle East. Some of our projects include unique and inviting restaurant skylights and enclosures, such as the Rooftop Bar at the Refinery Hotel in New York NY (which achieved the #1 ranking in the 10Best Readers’ Choice Award for Best Hotel Rooftop Bar 2015); the Crooked Cue Pool Hall and Pub in Toronto ON; Gusto 101 in Toronto ON; the WaTiki Brown Rock Restaurant in Rapid City SD; LOCAL Public Eatery in Toronto ON; The Beer Garden at Ballpark Village in St. Louis MO; Goose Island’s Beer Bridge at Fourth Street Live in Lexington KY; Restoration Hardware’s “RH Gallery” courtyard in Chicago IL; and Pizza Express in Jersey Isle UK. More restaurants projects are currently under construction, including Boston Pizza in Toronto ON, Kelly’s Landing in Toronto ON; Barcelona Tavern in Toronto ON; and MOXY in Washington D.C. To learn more about OpenAire Inc., visit https://openaire.com/ and follow us on Twitter. For more details on this project, please e–mail sales@openaire.com. 

For more information contact:
T: 905–901–8535 TF: 1–800–267–4877
E: sales@openaire.com

Photos accompanying this announcement are available at



World Bank Financialization Strategy Serves Big Finance

By Jomo Kwame Sundaram and Anis Chowdhury
KUALA LUMPUR and SYDNEY, Apr 9 2019 – The World Bank has successfully built a coalition to effectively advance its ‘Maximizing Finance for Development’ (MFD) agenda. The October 2018 G20 Eminent Persons Group’s (EPG) report includes proposals to better coordinate various international financial institutions (IFIs) in promoting financialization.

Jomo Kwame Sundaram

MDB midwives of financialization
The MFD approach wants multilateral development banks (MDBs) to actively re-shape developing countries’ financial systems to better ‘complement’ global finance. MDBs have already urged developing countries to encourage local institutional investors by redesigning pension systems along lines inspired by US private pensions. Thus, MDBs have been:

    • influencing what projects are deemed ‘bankable’, probably prioritizing large infrastructure over smaller projects.
    • enabling securitization to transform bankable projects into tradable securities, generating more revenues and strengthening global finance.
    • persuading developing country governments to finance subsidies and other ‘de-risking’ measures designed by MDBs to guarantee private financial profits.
    • determining how developing countries supply securities preferred by transnational banks and institutional investors.

G20 financialization proposals
The main G20 EPG proposals for collaboration to promote financialization include:

    • IFIs working together to increase the supply of bankable projects and to share data and information to support infrastructure data platforms needed to securitize MDB loans.
    • IFIs should provide risk insurance to increase the number of bankable projects stuck due to high political risk. This requires government guarantees against ‘political risks’ to be more attractive to re-insurers.

As securitization of MDB loans involves tradable assets with different credit ratings for investors with diverse ‘risk appetites’, MDBs are being urged to securitize both private and sovereign loans, and to retain stakes in junior tranches to induce private investments.

Anis Chowdhury

MDBs no longer development banks?
While MDBs should follow recent advice for issuers to remain stakeholders by retaining shares of securitized tranches on their balance sheets, the implications are quite different when MDBs, and not private banks, securitize loans.

As originators, MDBs may politically pressure low- and middle-income country governments to provide de-risking instruments, including guaranteed income from securitized public-private partnership (PPP) infrastructure projects.

World Bank Guidance on PPP Contractual Provisions can burden states and citizens more than any trade or investment agreement or international law. States take on inordinate risk while its right to regulate in the public interest is fettered.

New Washington Consensus?
The Washington-based Center for Global Development (CGD) has similarly discouraged borrowing in its paper for the G20 EPG, ‘More mobilizing, less lending’. Instead, it proposes augmenting MDB private sector windows with special purpose vehicles (SPVs).

The CDG also calls on MDBs to use sovereign lending to promote reforms to make projects financially viable and to help finance the public share of PPPs. Hence, MDBs are pressuring governments to support the MFD with their own fiscal resources.

The recommendations will also make it more difficult to manage systemic vulnerabilities arising from the envisaged securities, repo and derivative markets to be officially promoted.

Various options promoted by the CDG thus involve high risk, high leverage, financialized investors as partners in international development, exposing the MDBs themselves to the vulnerabilities of the MFD approach.

Checks and balances?
The tendency towards concentration in asset management (with economies of scale and scope) is likely to result in US-based asset managers allocating finance globally using considerable institutional investments from developing countries.

The G20 EPG is not unaware that its proposal — to transform developing country financial systems to contribute to the global supply of securities — involves significant systemic risks. Nevertheless, it claims to be seeking to secure the benefits of open financial markets while mitigating systemic vulnerabilities.

Thus, it has called on the IMF to: develop and manage a framework for managing volatile capital flows; create a resilient global ‘safety net’ that can effectively mobilize resources to address financial fragilities; and integrate financial surveillance with an effective early warning system.

However, the EPG paper does not make the shift to securitization conditional on mitigating systemic risks. As its proposed safeguards are largely unrealizable or ineffective, its financial instability concerns do not mean much.

Although recognizing the dangers and vulnerabilities involved at both national and international levels, including the loss of effective sovereign control over financing conditions, the IMF supports the EPG proposals.

Despite the experience of recent financial crises, the IMF continues to preach that freely floating exchange rates can effectively buffer capital flow volatility, while capital controls should only be used after exhausting all monetary and fiscal policy instruments.

Why New York Should Not Decriminalize Sex Trade

By Taina Bien-Aimé
NEW YORK, Apr 9 2019 – Prostitution policies are bubbling up again in legislative circles across the United States, but few representatives seem to have much clarity on the issue. 2020 presidential candidate Senator Kamala Harris has given mixed messages on her thinking, while Bernie Sanders has said he simply has “no answer.”

At the state level, New York is moving even more quickly – and in the wrong direction. Recently elected Senators Julia Salazar and Jessica Ramos are proposing to fully decriminalize the sex trade, including pimping and sex buying.

They refer to it as “sex work,” a now ubiquitous term coined by sex trade proponents to normalize prostitution and masks its harms.

The sex trade is a multi-billion dollar global industry fueled by almost entirely male sex buyers who pay for sexual access to the most vulnerable people among us, almost always women and girls of color. It preys on individuals with histories of childhood trauma, ranging from sexual abuse to homelessness.

While criminalization of those bought and sold is extremely harmful, full decriminalization – or its close neighbor, legalization – of prostitution has also been a complete failure in the handful of places where it has been enacted.

A growing number of countries including Sweden, Iceland, Northern Ireland, Canada, Ireland, France, Norway and Israel have gone down a different path. Recognizing prostitution as a form of violence and inequality, they have removed penalties – and in most cases mandated services and exiting options – to those prostituted, while maintaining penalties on pimps, brothel-owners and sex buyers.

Taina Bien-Aimé

Known as the Swedish, Nordic or Equality Model, this progressive framework is founded on the principle of gender equality. It has gained traction from policymakers, sex trade survivors and feminist groups, proving to be the best policy approach for those caught up in this exploitative industry.

16-year-old Desiree Robinson was one of those girls. Soon after she ran away from home in 2016, Joseph Hazley invited her to live with him on Chicago’s South Side. A week later, he sold her online. That Christmas Eve, a sex buyer purchased her on the classified-ads site Backpage.com. He brutally beat her and slit her throat.

In April 2018, the FBI finally shut down Backpage.com after years of complaints and lawsuits, mostly by adolescent girls across the United States, who sued the website for facilitating their sex trafficking online. Its owners were found guilty of sex trafficking, money laundering and pimping, ironically thanks in part to the then California Attorney General Kamala Harris.

A number of similar websites immediately shut down on their own volition. The intensely profitable virtual sex market, which had facilitated Desiree’s murder, shrunk overnight.

Around the same time last year the Allow States and Victims to Stop Sex Trafficking Act, also known as FOSTA-SESTA, was enacted to help protect and support girls like Desiree. Its goal is to target websites that knowingly facilitate sex trafficking and pimping.

This removed a loophole under Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, which had given the owners of some websites immunity for criminal activity that they facilitated online.

Before 2018, if a trafficker specified his young victim’s age in an ad, Backpage coached him to use instead terms like “Lolita,” “New in town” or “Amber Alert.” Sex buyers, the website operators said, would understand she was a child. Section 230 said it was someone else’s content – and therefore their responsibility.

Instead of recognition as a tool to protect girls like Desiree, FOSTA-SESTA became a deafening rallying cry for supporters of the sex trade, whose primary goals encompass persuading the public that prostitution is a job like any other, and calling for its full decriminalization.

A key reason for this backlash is that the sex trade is massively profitable. 99% of Backpage’s global revenues – $500 million – came from the online ads for “adult services”, meaning prostitution and sex trafficking.

Craigslist’s “erotic services” classifieds brought in $122 million. Britain’s National Crime Agency accused Facebook and Google of making millions from advertising the exploitation of vulnerable women in brothels – and the technology industry poured millions of lobbying dollars to stop FOSTA-SESTA from passing.

Just as there is a gun or tobacco lobby, so exists the sex trade lobby, fighting hard to safeguard its financial interests.

False claims about what this vital law does are widespread. It does not jeopardize the lives of those who promote their own sexual services. In fact it does not apply to individuals at all, unless they operate websites that knowingly promote pimping. The report that people in prostitution can no longer exchange information about health is also false.

The idea that sex buyers cannot be screened under the new law is farcical. They never could be. Claims that potentially violent men are detectable online are laughable to any sex trade survivor with the scars and near-death experiences to prove it.

George Soros’ Open Society Foundations, a decades-long global funder of the movement to decriminalize the sex trade, including pimping, brothel-owning and sex buying, is now offering grants to anyone who will challenge FOSTA-SESTA based on these egregiously false claims.

And myriad media outlets inexplicably continue to irresponsibly copy and paste the same inaccurate information.

We have seen time and time again that those who hold the purse strings are experts in drowning out the voices of thousands trapped in the unfathomable pain and suffering the sex trade inflicts.

If New York – or any other jurisdiction – shows such a dire lack of compassion and decriminalizes pimping and sex buying, the ruthless market of flesh will explode overnight. Instead, state Senators should examine whose interests they are really representing.

Migrant Farm Workers, the Main Victims of Slave Labour in Mexico

Teenage girls harvest tomatoes on a farm in the state of Sinaloa, in northern Mexico. It is in this part of the country that migrant workers, mainly from the southern states, work in exploitative conditions facing serious violations of their rights. Credit: Courtesy of Instituto Sinaloense para la Educación de los Adultos (Sinaloa Institute for Adult Education)

Teenage girls harvest tomatoes on a farm in the state of Sinaloa, in northern Mexico. It is in this part of the country that migrant workers, mainly from the southern states, work in exploitative conditions facing serious violations of their rights. Credit: Courtesy of Instituto Sinaloense para la Educación de los Adultos (Sinaloa Institute for Adult Education)

By Emilio Godoy
MEXICO CITY, Apr 9 2019 – “They mislead the workers, tell them that they will be paid well and pay them much less. The recruiters and the employers deceive them,” complained Marilyn Gómez, a migrant farm worker in Mexico.

Gómez, a member of the Mixteco Yosonuvico of Sonora Cerró Nublado cooperative and the mother of two girls, told IPS that the migrant workers are forced to buy whatever they need in their employers’ stores – “where everything is super expensive” – because they aren`t allowed to leave the farm.

“There’s no social security, no contracts, we work very long hours. They take advantage of the fact that people need work,” said Gómez, who began to work in the fields with her family at the age of 13, picking grapes and vegetables in the northern state of Sonora.”There is a recruitment chain in which the recruiters offer people work and an advance payment to draw them in, but there is no contract. In some places, they don’t get paid until the end of the work period.” — Mayela Blanco

The 27-year-old migrant worker and activist, who has worked sick and has frequently worked for more than 12 hours a day for just a few dollars, has harvested fruit and vegetables near the town of Miguel Aleman, part of the municipality of Hermosillo, about 1,600 kilometers north of Mexico City.

Her account illustrates the working conditions of migrant farm workers, who provide substantial returns to their employers and who put vegetables and fruit on the tables of Mexican and U.S. consumers.

They are generally peasant farmers who migrate temporarily or permanently from the southern states to harvest export crops in central and northern Mexico.

They routinely suffer violations of labour rights, and of their rights to housing, education, health and a healthy diet.

And they lack work contracts, adequate working conditions, social security and overtime pay, according to the report “Violations of the rights of agricultural day laborers in Mexico“, launched on Mar. 21 in Mexico City by the National Network of Agricultural Day Labourers, to which Gómez belongs.

In Mexico, migrant farm workers or day labourers are the main victims of slave or forced labour, according to this and other local and international studies. The National Network, made up of workers’, indigenous and academic organisations, has identified cases of labour exploitation, human trafficking and forced labour and/or services.

The latest National Survey of Occupation and Employment, from 2017, placed the number of migrant farm workers at 2.9 million, while the governmental Programme of Care for Agricultural Day Laborers put the figure at 1.54 million, plus 4.41 million family members who follow them as they move about.

The government of leftist President Andrés Manuel López Obrador, who took office on Dec. 1, dismantled the programme and has not yet put in place its successor.

Regional context

There are 1.95 million victims of slave labour in the Americas, five percent of the world total, according to the 2018 Global Slavery Index, produced by the non-governmental Walk Free Foundation, based in Australia.

Forced labour represents 66 percent and persons, especially women, in forced marriage, account for 34 percent. The region has, on average, a prevalence of 1.9 people living in modern-day slavery per 1,000 inhabitants.

Participants in the Network of Agricultural Day Labourers - including Marilyn Gómez (C) - take part in the Mar. 21 presentation in Mexico City of a report that illustrates the modern-day slavery conditions faced by migrant workers in Mexico. Credit: Emilio Godoy/IPS

Participants in the Network of Agricultural Day Labourers – including Marilyn Gómez (C) – take part in the Mar. 21 presentation in Mexico City of a report that illustrates the modern-day slavery conditions faced by migrant workers in Mexico. Credit: Emilio Godoy/IPS

And one-third of the victims of forced labour were in debt bondage, while the Latin America and Caribbean region accounted for four percent of all exploited labourers in the world.

While Haiti, Venezuela and the Dominican Republic had the highest rates, Brazil, Mexico and Colombia had the absolute largest numbers of people in situations of slavery.

In Brazil, Latin America’s giant, with a population of 208 million, 369,000 people were living in modern-day slavery, representing 1.8 per 1,000 inhabitants.

In Mexico, the second largest regional economy with 129 million inhabitants, 341,000 people were living in slavery conditions, or 2.71 per 1,000 people, while in Colombia, the fourth largest regional economy with a population of 45 million, the figure was 131,000, or 2.7 per 1,000.

Modern-day slavery includes human trafficking, forced labour, debt bondage, forced marriage, and commercial sexual exploitation, according to the Walk Free Foundation.

For Mayela Blanco, a researcher at the non-governmental Center for Studies in International Cooperation and Public Management, migrant farm workers in Mexico are vulnerable to falling prey to trafficking for labour exploitation.

“There is a recruitment chain in which the recruiters offer people work and an advance payment to draw them in, but there is no contract. In some places, they don’t get paid until the end of the work period,” Blanco told IPS.

There are a growing number of studies on this phenomenon in the Mexican countryside, and there has been no improvement for day labourers.

The “2018 List of goods produced by child labor or forced labor“, published by the U.S. Department of Labor, includes reports on people forced to work in the production of chili peppers in Mexico.

“Many of these victims report being recruited by middlemen, called enganchadores, that lie to workers about the nature and conditions of the work, wages, hours, and quality of living conditions,” the document states.

Cases of forced labour in chili peppers production predominantly occur on small and medium-sized farms and have been found in states such as Baja California, Chihuahua, Jalisco, and San Luis Potosi, according to the report.

“Once on the farms, some men and women work up to 15 hours per day under the threat of dismissal and receive subminimum wage payments or no payment at all,” it adds.

Meanwhile, “Some workers face growing indebtedness to company stores that often inflate the prices of their goods, forcing workers to purchase provisions on credit and limiting their ability to leave the farms,” the report says.

In Mexico, the company stores on factories and rural estates in the late 19th and early 20th centuries were known as “tiendas de raya”, where the workers were forced to buy their provisions – just like the company stores of today.

The U.S. list also includes cattle ranches and peanut farms in Bolivia, textile factories and logging companies in Brazil, and Brazil nut harvesting and the logging industry in Peru.

Washington bans the entry of goods produced with forced labour, under the Trade Facilitation and Trade Enforcement Act, in force since 2016 and based on the old Tariff Act of 1930.

Since 2015, the governmental National Human Rights Commission has issued at least six recommendations for violations of the rights of migrant farm workers, which are non-binding proposals.

In one of them, issued in 2018 for violations of several human rights for trafficking in persons, such as child labour in the form of forced labour, the Mexican Commission highlighted abuses against at least 62 migrant workers belonging to the Mixtec indigenous people, including 13 adolescents.

The members of the indigenous group, originally from the central state of Guerrero, were harvesting cucumbers in the western state of Colima.

Of the 17 Sustainable Development Goals, number eight, which promotes decent work, sets among its targets the implementation of “immediate and effective” measures to eradicate forced labour, ban modern forms of slavery and human trafficking, and ensure the prohibition and elimination of the worst forms of child labour.

Despite some advances and international commitments, Latin America and the Caribbean are making only moderate progress in the fight against this phenomenon.

The Global Slavery Index gave the region an average rating of “B” and indicated that Argentina, Chile and Peru improved their status compared to 2016, while Brazil, Mexico and Central American countries remained the same.

Blanco says the conditions faced by migrant workers in Mexico are seen as normal and that they are not considered victims. “They run the risk of losing their jobs. We have not seen a response from the authorities,” she said.

Gómez, who is still a migrant worker harvesting fruit and vegetables but now in decent conditions, said the government should intervene. “The institutions don’t do what they are supposed to do; we are asking that they take action and ensure our rights,” the activist said.

The National Network made recommendations such as a census of employers, the monitoring of working conditions, a comprehensive programme to address the issue and a census of migrant workers.

Executive Director of the Geneva Centre: “The pursuit of economic gains from war, armed conflict and human suffering remains the 21st century’s greatest injustice”

By Geneva Centre
GENEVA, Apr 9 2019 (IPS-Partners)

Illegal arms exports and human trafficking adversely affect the enjoyment of human rights across the world including in the Arab region, the Geneva Centre’s Executive Director Ambassador Idriss Jazairy said at a panel debate held at the United Nations Office in Geneva (UNOG).

The conference entitled “Impacts of Illegal Economic Activities in Conflict Areas on Human Rights” was jointly organized on 9 April by the Permanent Mission of the Republic of Azerbaijan to UN in Geneva and by the UN University for Peace.

In a recent report by the UN Secretary General expressing concern about the “global protection crisis” which prevails currently, Ambassador Jazairy stated that the Arab region is a telling testimony to this situation.

Armed conflict and internal upheavals in Syria, Iraq, Libya and Yemen have resulted in the displacement of millions of people. Insecurity has thrown Arab countries into endemic poverty and unprecedented social decline,” the Geneva Centre’s Executive Director said.

With regard to illegal or undercover arms exports to countries experiencing armed conflict in the MENA region, Ambassador Jazairy stated that this exacerbate social instability and violence. “When arms end up in the wrong hands” – he noted – “they can have a destabilising effect on nations. Irregular and black-market arms trade have weaponised extremism in the Middle East.”

Referring to statistics from UNODA, Ambassador Jazairy remarked that the countries that are furthest from achieving the SDG targets are in, or emerging from, armed conflict and violence. In this regard, he appealed to governments and arms traders to commit to respecting and to fulfilling the provisions set forth in the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights.

Peace and stability and not weapons are over time the best investments in human rights,” the Geneva Centre’s Executive Director said.

In relation to the adverse human rights impact of human trafficking, Ambassador Jazairy highlighted that illegitimate or illegal economic activities fuel the growth of human trafficking networks and the unprecedented rise of people on the move.

Human trafficking originates where and when denials of human rights are prevalent. It is the modern form of slavery,” he said.

In relation to the MENA region, Ambassador Jazairy underlined that the “fragile situation mainstreamed by the arms trade has allowed human trafficking networks to exploit vulnerable and economically marginalized people.” In the case of Libya, more than 300,000 migrants and refugees have been exploited by smuggling networks and the value of human smuggling has reached USD 346 million per annum, it was remarked by the Geneva Centre’s Executive Director.

In this connection, he said that restrictive and over-securitized migratory policies further aggravates the vulnerability of people on the move. He deplored the recent decision by the EU to stop maritime deployments for Operation Sophia as it arrived “at a time when migration flows had been brought down to a trickle as compared to 2015.“

The recent building of embattlements at Europe’s borders runs counter to basic human rights which ‘Fortress Europe’ advocates with a straight face at the HRC. High-level European officials accusing NGOs of complicity with human traffickers when saving lives of people drowning, express this ultimate degree of callousness,” Ambassador Jazairy said.

In conclusion, the Geneva Centre’s Executive Director urged the world society to restore peace and stability and a climate conducive to the development of, and the respect for, human rights.

Rise in Cyberlaws Across Southeast Asia Spell Bad News for Human Rights & Democracy

This article is part of a series on the state of civil society organisations (CSOs), which is the focus of International Civil Society Week (ICSW), sponsored by CIVICUS, and currently taking place in Belgrade, April 8-12.

Josef Benedict is a civic space researcher with global civil society alliance, CIVICUS.

By Josef Benedict
KUALA LUMPUR, Malaysia, Apr 9 2019 – Around the globe, cyberspace has become the new battleground in the fight for the heart and soul of democracy. And Southeast Asia is fast becoming one of the global hotspots where the screws are being tightened on freedom of expression online.

Governments across the region have been passing legislation ostensibly aimed at regulating online space, often in the name of national security or to preserve public morality. But the laws mask a more insidious intention: the stifling of dissent and the silencing of views that deviate from the state-ordained line.

The trend of online restrictions is a continuation of the long-running campaign of free speech and media freedom restrictions that many states have been exercising offline. The effect of the legislation is to create a climate of intimidation and self-censorship in a space – social media – that has proven an effective tool in awareness-raising and mobilisation around rights.

It comes as no surprise that such tools of repression are on the rise in authoritarian-leaning countries such as Vietnam and Thailand – the former a one-party state, the latter ruled for the last five years by a military junta – in a bid to try and influence and control the popular narrative.

In Thailand, for example, a controversial cyberlaw was passed in February allowing the state to access anyone’s personal or business information, and to seize and hold any computers or electronic devices suspected of being used to commit cybercrimes.

No provision has been made for citizens to appeal such seizures. The purported justification is to prevent government websites and databases from being hacked, but the reality is that this law infringes on people’s right to privacy.

What makes it even worse is that this cyberlaw has not come out of nowhere – it builds on the existing Computer Crimes Act in Thailand, a draconian piece of legislation under which hundreds of activists have been prosecuted since the 2014 military coup for exercising their right to free speech online.

It is one thing to outlaw hate speech, expressed online or offline, that could potentially incite violence or discord. It is quite another when all elements of daily life and business are being policed and censored by an omnipotent Big Brother-like system, serving to chill free expression through a climate of fear.

But in Southeast Asia, such repressive laws are proliferating. Last year, Vietnamese legislators approved a cybersecurity law that tightens control of the internet.

Having come into effect in January amid widespread protests that saw demonstrators being beaten and arrested last year, it gives the government sweeping powers to censor social media posts and the authority to force global technology companies operating in the country to hand over users’ data, which they have to store locally.

Many of these laws are vaguely worded, are overbroad in their scope and are widely open to interpretation – and abuse.

Vietnam’s new law, by way of example, stipulates that it is a crime to post material online that “offends the nation, the national flag, the national emblem, the national anthem, great people, leaders, notable people and national heroes”.

Elsewhere, in states such as Malaysia and Indonesia with multiparty democratic systems of government, the iron fist regulating online activity is often more subtle but no less alarming.

In both countries, laws governing the digital space seem intent on silencing criticism and dissent. In Malaysia, lawyer and activist Fadiah Nadwa Fikri was investigated under the the Communications and Multimedia Act for an article she wrote online that some perceived as being disrespectful to the country’s monarchy.

In Indonesia, activist and human rights defender Robertus Robet was detained for violating the Law on Electronic Information and Transactions after a video of him criticising the military was posted on social media platforms.

Further complicating matters in the region is when a government institutes laws that forbid what it construes as blasphemy or religious defamation. This turns the state into the self-styled arbiter of public morality and raises the spectre of modern-day witch hunts.

It’s becoming increasingly common for people who are peacefully exercising their freedom of speech on social media platforms across the region to be arrested, prosecuted and punished for criticising religion or “state ideology” – or even, in some cases, for promoting minority or LGBTIQ+ rights.

Amid the physical assaults, intimidation and threats of punitive action for not toeing the official line, there is a faint glimmer of hope: citizens and civil society in the region are railing against the curtailing of their online freedoms, and have made some significant gains.

The Thai Netizen Network managed to force some important amendments to the new cyberlaw before it was passed, in Indonesia a Constitutional Court legal challenge also led to progressive revisions to the restrictive legislation, and in Malaysia, civil society is lobbying the new government for similar amendments.

While Southeast Asia is certainly not alone when it comes to statutory moves to silence critics and quash online dissent in the name of national stability and security – similar censorship is being mulled or rolled out in China, Russia, in some European and African countries, and even the United States – the training and installing of actual “cyberpolice” in places such as Vietnam cannot be allowed to go unchallenged.

Media and citizens are being effectively gagged from having legitimate conversations through this social policing, potentially leading to increasing self-censorship, a stunting of vigorous intellectual debate and weakening of state accountability.

In the region and beyond, the crisis is of serious concern to human rights defenders and organisations, who see the grave implications for democracies. The issue is a key focus for more than 800 civil society leaders and activists seeking sustainable solutions at International Civil Society Week (ICSW), the largest global civil society gathering currently underway in Belgrade, Serbia.

It’s encouraging that David Kaye, the United Nations special rapporteur on the promotion and protection of the right to freedom of opinion and expression, has spoken out strongly against such cyberlaws and called on states to repeal any legislation that criminalises or unduly restricts expression online.

But it is also incumbent on all of us as civil society to deepen our national and international advocacy efforts in this area.

Civil society activists and rights defenders cannot afford to ease up on the pressure, as the quality of democracy is taking a serious hit due, ironically, to the sustained squeezing of the very space that holds such rich potential to deepen democracy – the digital realm.

Finding a Way to Food Sustainability

Central Texas Food Bank distributing food. Photo courtesy Central Texas Food Bank.

By James Jeffrey
AUSTIN, United States, Apr 9 2019 – There’s much to think about regarding food this month. April is Reducing Food Waste Month in the United States, as efforts mount here to reduce food loss and waste, while globally Sunday Apr. 7 was World Heath Day.

In dustbins across America, food is the single largest type of daily waste. More than one-third of all available food in the U.S. goes uneaten through loss or waste, a proportion replicated globally.

Increasingly there is an acceptance that when food is tossed aside, so, too, are opportunities for economic growth, healthier communities and environmental prosperity. The hope is that this can change through partnership, leadership and action, underpinned by education and outreach.

“There is increasing recognition of the need to sensitive and educate consumers, particularly in urban centres, to value food and reduce food waste,” Florian Doerr from the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the United Nations tells IPS. “Recognising that children and young people are the consumers that will shape the food waste scenario of the future, investing in their education to reduce food waste will help in creating a culture of change toward sustainably stemming the problem.”

Hence the work being done by the likes of the Barilla Center for Food and Nutrition Foundation (BCFN), a non-profit research centre studying the causes and effects on food created by economic, scientific, societal and environmental factors.

It has produced for the U.S.—as well as for another 66 countries—a food sustainability index profile that dives into all the relevant sectors, ranging from the likes of management of water resources, the impact on land of animal feed and biofuels, agricultural subsidies and diversification of agricultural system, to nutritional challenges, physical activity, diet composition and healthy life expectancy indicators.

“We want to provide tools for all the stakeholders involved, ranging from those deciding policy to students becoming better informed,” BCFN’s Katarzyna Dembska tells IPS. “The goal is to enable people to make more informed choices, both nutritionally and in terms of the impact on the environment.”

The stakes are high. Food production is the largest contributor to climate change (31 percent), exceeding the heating of buildings (23.6 percent) and transportation (18.5 percent), according to global estimates.

The consequences of climate change on agriculture and human health are one of the most significant problems we will face in the coming years, says the World Health Organization (WHO), due to the increase in temperatures and atmospheric pollutants. According to recent estimates, air pollution in Italy causes the death of over 90,000 people a year, a record in the European Union (EU).

“People are starting to realise that the food system is built into so many other sectors,” Brian Lipinski from the World Resources Institute tells IPS. “Agriculture has implications for land use, what we eat, and so many other aspects of our lives.”

The double food and environmental pyramid model developed by the BCFN Foundation emerged from research and an evolution of the food pyramid, which forms the basis of the Mediterranean diet. Photo courtesy BCFN.

Given the differences in food and agriculture systems and various inputs across different countries, Dembska notes that it is important users of the food index try to dig deeper and explore the underlying thematic pillars and indicators to learn more about how each income group performs within individual areas of food sustainability.

“When people are inserted into an overall food system that is not sustainable, it makes making sustainable choices harder,” Dembska tells IPS. “We want to draw attention to issues that may be well known to those in areas such as public health but might not be as appreciated by policy makers, but who are connected to the relevant sectors—then there can be more of an integrated approach.”

While much of the discussion about food wastage focuses on developed countries, the situation is more complicated.

“In poorer countries there is not so much food waste at the consumption end, rather it’s more a case of food loss at the farming and storage stages, as they don’t have the required infrastructure yet,” Lipinski says. “Rather than singling out countries for blame, it’s more helpful to look at and think about the trend of how as incomes increase as countries develop, the wastage shifts downstream to the consumer end.”

In addition to the educative likes of BCFN’s food sustainability index to shed light on these sorts of trends, other practical measures are gaining traction. Increasingly shops are opening up to selling lower-quality foods, such as fruits and vegetables—sometimes called “ugly” because they do not meet high quality standards such as size, colour and shape but are safe to eat—at reduced prices.

Other initiatives—including social media and other public awareness campaigns—are focusing on providing more information about safe food handling, proper food storage in households and better understanding about “best before” dates in order to prevent and reduce food waste.

“There’s three parts to why food sustainability is important,” Lipinski tells IPS. “It’s good for you, it’s good for others, and it’s good for the world—it’s good for you because you save money; it’s good for others if you redistribute food that otherwise would have been wasted; and it’s good environmentally because then all the resources that went into getting the food to you aren’t being thrown away either.”

Around the world, one in 10 people is estimated to have to choose between spending money on food or healthcare, a conundrum that many Americans face due to mounting living costs.

“In a city like Austin, there is increasing prosperity, but at the same time there are people being left behind,” Angela Henry, from the Central Texas Food Bank, part of Feeding America, a nationwide network of 200 food banks providing hunger relief across the U.S., tells IPS. “There’s a viscous cycle of food insecurity and health disorders—lack of nutritious food leads to stress and makes it difficult to cope and manage your illness, which leads to more complications personally and professionally.”

At the same time, America and many other countries are facing increasing levels of obesity, a major cause of non-communicable diseases such as heart disease, diabetes and respiratory illnesses, which are estimated to cost the world economy two trillion dollars per year (2.8 percent of global GDP).

Despite the overall scale of the challenge, those such as Dembska note that it doesn’t necessarily take drastic actions to achieve eating in a more sustainable way, as all the guidelines are out there already, as illustrated by the “food and environmental pyramid” model.

This highlights the extremely close links between two aspects of every food: its nutritional value and the environmental impact it has through the stages of its production and consumption. Healthier foods that people often don’t eat enough of, such as fruit and vegetables, tend to have lower environmental impact, while foods with a high environmental impact, such a red meat, should be consumed in moderation because of the effects they can have on our health.

“In almost every country of the world, the multiple burdens of malnutrition include caloric deficiencies, micronutrient deficiencies—hidden hunger—overweightness and obesity are putting ever-growing costs on health care systems,” Doerr says. “The majority of wasted foods are perishable, nutrient dense foods like fruits, vegetables, dairy products and fish, which can help tackle all these forms of malnutrition.”

At the same time, another important aspect is to start to look at things differently, says Lipinski. He notes how when people throw away food that has become squishy or mouldy they don’t necessarily look on it as wasting food.

“But you did something, whether it was buying too much food which meant you didn’t eat it in time, or that you forgot about at the back of the fridge,” Lipinski says. “So there are many different points where change can occur.”

As the numbers show, food and the health of ourselves and the planet are deeply connected and impact the financial costs we pay for medical care, as well as potentially deeper costs in terms of a viable future for humanity.

“The main message is that if you want to be sustainable then choose a healthy diet,” Dembska says.