In an age of autocracy, meet the dissidents speaking truth to power
Strongmen are back in vogue, but these six people are determined to defy the despots
Mauritanian anti-slavery activist Biram Dah Abeid.
Maeve Shearlaw in Geneva
Wednesday 22 February 2017 12.14 GMT
These are trying times. We live in an age of autocracy when strongmen (they are almost always men) abuse their power to silence their critics, use brute force to stop people championing the vulnerable and rob people of their agency in the pursuit of power.
In a world flooded with triumphant nationalist statements and declarations of war, who speaks for the other side? Who is willing to risk solitary confinement and be torn from loved ones to speak for the voiceless?
We caught up with six dissidents, who have been been imprisoned for a total of 26 years and three months, to understand what it is like to speak out in the age of despots.
Biram Dah Abeid, Mauritania
“This is the worst it has ever been,” says Biram Dah Abeid, a tireless campaigner for victims of modern-day slavery, “because those who were supposed to defend and advocate for human rights were the free world, the western world, but now they are too weak … [as] the extreme right continues to rise.”
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To make things worse, he believes, in the Muslim world governments are behaving like the militant groups Boko Haram or Islamic State. “They aren’t accountable to anyone. Freedom, democracy, equality, these values are not important to them. They say they are against [militant groups], but really they act like them.”
A descendent of a slave, Dah Abeid has dedicated himself to freeing and reintegrating the hundreds of thousands of people estimated to be trapped in slavery in Mauritania.
The founder of the Initiative for the Resurgence of the Abolitionist Movement (IRA), which has picked up thousands of supporters, has pitted himself directly against the authorities. The campaigner has served three stretches in prison, his house and supporters have been attacked and, while he plans to return home this April, he knows his safety is not guaranteed.
Dalal Khario, Iraq
Dalal Khario, a young Yazidi woman from northern Iraq, can shed light on what it is like to live under one of the world’s most dangerous terrorist groups.
When she was 17, her village was razed to the ground by Isis and she was kidnapped and sold into sexual slavery for nine brutal months, during which she was married off to nine terrorists.
Khario was presented with the international women’s rights award at the Human Rights Summit in Geneva on Tuesday, but described the moment as bittersweet because her mother and sister were not there to congratulate her. They have yet to escape Isis.
Khario’s experiences were published in a memoir under the pseudonym Shirin last year. She starts to cry when she talks about failed attempts by the international community to rescue the estimated thousands being held by the militants.
“To the women and children being enslaved and raped: don’t be afraid because society will welcome you with open arms on your return, [even] the young and indoctrinated … I will fight for your rights, and myself,” she says.
Can Dündar, Turkey
Khario is not the only dissident at the summit separated from loved ones against her will. The Turkish newspaper editor Can Dündar had to flee his country after surviving an attempt on his life and a three-month stretch in prison for “revealing state secrets”. His wife, who tackled his assailant, remains trapped in Istanbul.
Dündar says people power can still prevail if it is undaunted. He believes the passion that led to the spontaneous eruption of protest at Gezi Park in 2013 has not disappeared despite the subsequent crackdown. “Those people [who stood against the president, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan] are still there and make me optimistic about the future.”
Taghi Rahmani, Iran
The Iranian journalist Taghi Rahmani has twin 10-year-old boys who only know life with one parent. After spending more than a third of his life in jail for his writing and political activities, he fled to Paris with his sons in 2012. His wife, Narges Mohammadi, also a journalist, is now serving a 16-year prison sentence in Iran.
“My family is never united. My children don’t understand why they can’t live together [and are] always afraid that I’ll be arrested,” says Rahmani.
Rahmani, like Dündar, was subject to solitary confinement, a punishment he regards as particularly cruel for freedom campaigners.
The summit was held to put the dissidents in the spotlight a week before the UN Human Rights Council is due to convene for its 18th annual meeting, but many there were happy to admit the international body is flawed.
Saudi Arabia, a country accused of indiscriminately bombing Yemen, and which bans women from driving, has a seat on the council.
Danilo ‘El Sexto’ Maldonado, Cuba
So does Cuba, a country that released Danilo “El Sexto” Maldonado from jail only four weeks ago.
Fresh out of prison, the artist describes the environment we live in as “medieval, with dictators who create distrust, without explaining why”. He has spent a total of four years behind bars for painting resistance art on the streets of Cuba, and says he was threatened with execution and had his food poisoned with sleeping pills.
Maldonado calls for people to make a lot of noise to champion people like him. “Dictators take advantage when people don’t know what’s happening,” he says, which is “why some of the most cruel dictatorships don’t have the internet, like Cuba and North Korea”.
Mohamed Nasheed, Maldives
Mohamed Nasheed, who was the Maldives’ first democratically elected president before he was overthrown by a coup, also calls on people to keep speaking for dissidents and for tourists to think twice about their holiday destinations.
The politician, who has refugee status in the UK, says there are 1,700 opposition voices “at risk” on the small island paradise from a government currently “hellbent on reversing progress on democracy”. Nasheed spent a total of five years in prison, where he was tortured – a fate his father and grandfather also suffered.
Nasheed, however, does not believe the world is going “downhill completely” and encourages his fellow dissidents to “never give up. You might fall today; you might be tortured; you might be arrested. Keep yourself together and keep calm.”
Dündar and Rahmani agree. While Rahmani describes Donald Trump, Vladimir Putin and Hassan Rouhani as “barriers” to progress, he maintains that thinking on human rights has never been more advanced.
Dündar also sees the road ahead as bright: “There is another face of the world, a bigger family than the aggressors. If we come together in solidarity, we can push them back.”
on: Feb 22, 2017, 06:48 AM
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on: Feb 22, 2017, 06:43 AM
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'They are heroes': Angelina Jolie honours survivors of sexual violence in Cambodia
Actor says those now speaking up about forced marriages at Khmer Rouge tribunal will be supported
Angelina Jolie arrives for a news conference at a hotel in Siem Reap province, Cambodia.
Lauren Crothers in Phnom Penh
Wednesday 22 February 2017 03.38 GMT
Angelina Jolie has paid tribute to the survivors of forced marriage under the Khmer Rouge and pledged to continue advocating on behalf of women and girls who suffer from sexualized violence in conflict.
Jolie has spent the past few days in Cambodia, where her new made-for-Netflix film, ‘First They killed My Father,’ premiered on Saturday night in Siem Reap’s Angkor Wat temple complex.
Speaking at an event held by the British Embassy in Phnom Penh on Tuesday night, Jolie – who co-founded the Preventing Sexual Violence Initiative with former British foreign secretary William Hague in 2012 – welcomed efforts to prosecute the practice of forced marriage during the ultra-Maoist regime between 1975 and 1979.
“I’m of course very conscious of the part that played in the suffering of the Cambodian women in the genocide,” she said.
“I welcome the fact that the [Khmer Rouge] tribunal has begun to address this issue and I pay tribute to all the survivors in Cambodia, including those who have so bravely given evidence. I believe they are heroes to us all.”
An unknown number of women and men were forced into marriages by the Khmer Rouge as part of its plan to destroy traditional family structures and build up a new population of faithful cadre. Most were forced, at gunpoint and under threat of death, to consummate these forced unions. It was only in the past few years that testimonies from both women and men who survived this practice began to tell their stories, many of them in truth-telling forums set up by NGOs committed to bringing this kind of sexualized violence to light.
The crime of forced marriage has now been prosecuted at the tribunal as part of what is known as Case 002/02, but efforts are also being made to include rape outside of forced marriage in future cases that have yet to be adjudicated.
Tuesday’s event aimed to bring Jolie into close contact with the community working to highlight these issues in Cambodia, and she assured them in her remarks that she was “here to listen.”
“Please, please let me know how I can in any way further all the great work you’ve been doing and add to your voices,” she said.
Thida Kus, executive director of the Silaka NGO that promotes gender equity, said she was happy to be able to discuss how survivor testimonies can be used to shatter modern issues of gender-based violence.
“People still discriminate against women and look at them as just a sex object,” Kus said. “They don’t even realise women are human beings.”
Excerpts from an upcoming documentary commissioned by the British Embassy on forced marriage were shown, which British Ambassador Bill Longhurst said “will expand this knowledge globally and highlight the efforts of the [Khmer Rouge tribunal] in prosecuting crimes related to forced marriage and other PSVI-related crimes.”
on: Feb 22, 2017, 06:39 AM
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Satellite Eye on Earth January 2017 – in pictures
A sacred Tibetan lake, a crack in the Antarctic ice shelf and deforestation in Cambodia are among images captured by Nasa and the ESA this month
Click here to see all the pictures, and the stories that go with them. It's remarkable: https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2017/feb/22/satellite-eye-on-earth-january-2017-in-pictures
on: Feb 22, 2017, 06:36 AM
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What next for renewables in cities? – the expert view
A complex range of factors is shaping how and why cities adopt renewable energy, from costs to the need for stable power supplies
Wednesday 22 February 2017 08.03 GMT
As renewable energy projects are rolled out in cities around the world, we spoke to companies and organisations working in the sector to find out what’s happening and what to expect. Here’s what they said.
‘It’s cheaper than the alternatives’ – Sarah Chapman, CEO, Faro Energy
In an increasing number of cities around the world, businesses are switching to rooftop solar. The trend started in rich countries, where solar has been subsidised, but as the cost of solar has come down it has become cost-competitive in sunny cities from Rio de Janeiro to Delhi to Nairobi.
Companies with large energy demand and available roof space are making the switch not just because it’s greener but also because it’s cheaper than the alternatives. Where the grid is unreliable, it also reduces reliance on expensive diesel generators.
In countries like the US, Germany and the UK, the roll-out of solar has been fuelled by third-party ownership, which means the company doesn’t have to pay for the system upfront and instead pays monthly, as it would its normal electricity bill. This model is now starting to be adopted in some emerging markets and is making solar a viable choice for a much wider range of companies.
Faro Energy funds distributed solar projects in Latin America such as one on the roof of the new aquarium in Rio de Janeiro.
A US Department of Energy report (pdf) issued last year analysed the solar energy-generating potential of 128 American cities and concluded that rooftop solar could technically meet 39% of total US electricity demand.
However, while technically possible, the majority of Americans are unable to enjoy the benefits of solar ownership because, among other reasons, their rooftops are unsuitable, they are renters, or they can’t afford upfront installation costs. These factors are particularly prevalent in city environments and within lower-income communities, which make up 40% of US households but account for less than 5% of solar installations.
An emerging new business model, community solar, promises to break through those barriers by letting consumers buy or lease a portion of an off-site solar array – usually a project of tens or hundreds of kilowatts connected to the consumer’s local distribution grid – or its output with little or no money down and at prices below prevailing electricity rates.
Community solar faces a range of legal, regulatory and financial barriers, largely stemming from the attempt to fit this new model into a century-old system designed for utilities operating large centralised facilities. But a number of enterprising businesses are taking up the challenge and the prospects look good. While only 6 MW (paywall) of community solar were installed in 2013, today there are nearly 3 GW of projects in development. That means lots of new opportunities for entrepreneurs and options for urban residents to support renewable energy.
GW Solar Institute is a research facility focused on the economic, technical and public policy issues associated with the development and deployment of solar energy.
‘Commercial financing can assist’ – Justin Wimbush, associate director and head of renewables, Arup
In parts of the world where cities have a role in the purchase and selling on of electricity, they can require some or all of it to be sourced from local renewable energy generators. However, even with the recent significant reductions in the cost of technologies such as wind and PV, such arrangements may only work if adequate Power Purchase Agreements can be negotiated.
Other barriers to the development of renewable installations include matters such as the evolution of local legislation to allow the use of embedded generation – in other words, the generation of energy within the urban environment. Cities with weak or poorly maintained electricity networks are often reluctant to allow electricity to be exported from a building into the city’s electricity distribution grid, or will provide little or no financial return for such electricity, which may significantly reduce the viability of the installation.
This is particularly the case where the available renewable resource, such as sunshine, does not occur when energy is required, such as with many residential applications. Where energy storage can be made a part of the solution, this problem can be overcome.
Where financial barriers are hindering the development of renewable energy projects, commercial financing can assist. The London Energy Efficiency Fund, for example, funds renewable energy projects as well as energy efficiency projects. Innovative funding models such as the use of pay-as-you-go mobile phone type funding is now being used by some private sector developers to install renewables in previously un-electrified parts of the world, providing the local population with lower cost electricity compared to the alternatives, namely electricity from diesel generators.
Arup is an independent firm of designers, planners, engineers, consultants and technical specialists.
‘The main challenge is system stability’ – Morten Dyrholm, group senior vice president, Vestas
The main challenge for renewable energy adoption is no longer costs but system stability. How do we ensure that people, businesses and cities have the power they need when they need it?
Obviously we need the capacity to fulfil demand, but equally importantly we need markets that can provide the necessary electricity when the wind is not blowing or the sun is not shining. This means solutions that can help variable generation to interact more fluently with the energy system, such as storing electricity, managing demand and giving stability to the grid.
A good example is Denmark, which had a wind penetration rate of more than 40% in 2015. The recipe there includes strong transmission grids and effective and transparent power markets. Combining renewables with other generation technologies that easily can be ramped up and down, and the use of specialised wind-forecasting tools are also key factors.
Vestas designs, manufactures, installs and services wind turbines around the world.
on: Feb 22, 2017, 06:33 AM
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Farmers deliver stark warning over access to EU seasonal workers
NFU president says food will ‘rot in the fields’ unless government guarantees access to workforce
Romanians pick grapes
Tuesday 21 February 2017 18.37 GMT
Farmers have warned that food will “rot in the fields” and Britain will be unable to produce what it eats if the government cannot guarantee that growers will continue to have access to tens of thousands of EU workers after Brexit.
Meurig Raymond, president of the National Farmers’ Union, told the body’s annual conference in Birmingham that farmers and food processors, particularly in horticulture and poultry, were already having difficulty recruiting.
The value of the pound, which reduces the value of pay seasonal workers send home to EU countries, and uncertainty over longer-term UK residency rights are discouraging workers from eastern Europe. High levels of employment in countries such as Romania and Bulgaria are also squeezing the supply of workers.
The NFU said it needed government to help encourage workers from elsewhere to come to the UK to help with jobs like strawberry-picking and processing chicken.
Raymond said the industry would require 90,000 seasonal workers a year by 2021, on top of more than 250,000 permanent workers – more than three-quarters of whom now come from the EU.
He said that if just one in five permanent workers decided to go home an additional 50,000 staff would be needed, on top of the 85,000 seasonal workers currently required.
“Quite simply, without a workforce – permanent and seasonal – it wouldn’t matter what a new trade deal [with the EU] looks like. Food will rot in the fields and Britain will lose the ability to produce and process its own food.”
However, Andrea Leadsom, secretary of state for the environment, food and rural affairs, told farmers at the conference they should invest in machinery to boost productivity and there was a need to find “the right balance” for both new and current EU workers.
“We must not forget that a key motivating factor behind the vote to leave the EU was to control immigration,” she said.
Leadsom said investment in improving productivity with technology would be part of the answer: “As I’ve travelled the UK, I’ve seen a whole raft of new technologies that complement the workforce.” She added there were “large number of farmers that are yet to seize these opportunities”.
Raymond told the Guardian that it was possible that robotics and other technology could help farmers reduce their reliance on labour. In its Feeding the Future report (pdf) published on Tuesday, the NFU put investment in labour-saving technology at the top of its agenda and said farmers were increasingly interested in the likes of mechanical harvesting of field vegetables, driverless tractors and robotics.
But Raymond said improving productivity with technology required heavy up-front costs and government needed to support that investment with grants, tax allowances or cheap loans. He said retailers and food processors must also offer longer-term contracts and guaranteed prices so that farmers could invest for the future.
He added: “A lot of the work, whether in horticulture, poultry or livestock processing is very manual. Yes there is automation and new technology but it is a people-based business.”
on: Feb 22, 2017, 06:31 AM
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The Evil has landed ...
Pig Trump to roll back Obama’s climate, water rules through executive action
By Juliet Eilperin and Steven Mufson
February 22 at 6:43 PM
President Trump is preparing executive orders aimed at curtailing Obama-era policies on climate and water pollution, according to individuals briefed on the measures.
While both directives will take time to implement, they will send an unmistakable signal that the new administration is determined to promote fossil-fuel production and economic activity even when those activities collide with some environmental safeguards. Individuals familiar with the proposals asked for anonymity to describe them in advance of their announcement, which could come as soon as this week.
One executive order — which the Trump administration will couch as reducing U.S. dependence on other countries for energy — will instruct the Environmental Protection Agency to begin rewriting the 2015 regulation that limits greenhouse-gas emissions from existing electric utilities. It also instructs the Interior Department’s Bureau of Land Management (BLM) to lift a moratorium on federal coal leasing.
A second order will instruct the EPA and Army Corps of Engineers to revamp a 2015 rule, known as the Waters of the United States rule, that applies to 60 percent of the water bodies in the country. That regulation was issued under the 1972 Clean Water Act, which gives the federal government authority over not only major water bodies but also the wetlands, rivers and streams that feed into them. It affects development as well as some farming operations on the grounds that these activities could pollute the smaller or intermittent bodies of water that flow into major ones.
Trump has joined many industry groups in criticizing these rules as examples of the federal government exceeding its authority and curbing economic growth. While any move to undo these policies will spark new legal battles and entail work within the agencies that could take as long as a year and a half to finalize, the orders could affect investment decisions within the utility, mining, agriculture and real estate sectors, as well as activities on the ground.
Trump, who signed legislation last week that nullified a recent regulation prohibiting surface-mining operations from dumping waste in nearby waterways, said he was eager to support coal miners who had backed his presidential bid. “The miners are a big deal,” he said Thursday. “I’ve had support from some of these folks right from the very beginning, and I won’t forget it.”
Bloomberg reported several elements of the executive orders Friday.
The greenhouse-gas limits on existing power plants, dubbed the Clean Power Plan, represented a central components of President Barack Obama’s climate agenda. The regulations, which were put on hold by the Supreme Court and are being weighed by the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia, direct every state to form detailed plans to reduce carbon dioxide emissions from such sources as coal-fired power plants, enough to decrease carbon pollution by about one-third by 2030, compared with 2005 levels.
Trump repeatedly criticized these and other rules aimed at reducing fossil-fuel use as an attack on the U.S. coal industry. Myron Ebell, a senior fellow at the Competitive Enterprise Institute who served on Trump’s EPA transition team, said the president “is fulfilling his campaign promise” by directing key agencies to shift course. Ebell warned, however, that undoing these rules “will take time. It could take days, months and years.”
One measure — lifting the moratorium on federal coal leasing — could take immediate effect. That freeze has been in effect since December 2015, and last month the Interior Department proposed major changes to a program that guides coal exploration and production across 570 million publicly owned acres.
Days before Obama left office, the Interior Department issued a report saying the federal government should explore options that include charging a higher royalty rate to companies, factoring in the climate impact of the coal being burned through an additional charge to firms and setting an overall carbon budget for the nation’s coal leasing permits. But the new administration has expressed little interest in pursuing these policies and appears to be opening up the option of coal leasing again without any preconditions.
The House has already passed legislation that would eliminate a BLM rule curbing the release of methane, a potent greenhouse gas, from oil and gas operations on federal land. The resolution, which needs Senate and presidential approval to take effect, uses the 1996 Congressional Review Act to reverse one of the final rules the Obama administration issued. While Trump administration officials have discussed whether to address methane regulation in the upcoming executive order, it may not be included in light of Congress’s recent action.
Separately, Trump and his deputies are reopening a question of water policy that has bedeviled government officials from both parties for two decades. Two Supreme Court decisions that came down during the George W. Bush administration, in 2001 and 2006, spurred uncertainty over exactly which bodies of water fall under the federal government’s jurisdiction. The Bush administration worked on drafting regulations to address the issue, but once Obama took office the EPA began rewriting them. The current rule gives the federal government wide latitude to protect smaller tributaries as well as some, such as wetlands, that may be dry periodically, on the grounds that they still need to be preserved as critical water supplies.
But groups such as the American Farm Bureau Federation argue that the new restrictions could require farmers to pay significant fees to gain federal permission for filling in areas on their property and could halt some operations altogether.
Hunter and angler groups, however, have expressed concern about any rollback of the rule, which they say will preserve wetlands and other habitat that is crucial for outdoor recreation.
“If they have a better way to do it, we’re all for it,” said Whit Fosburgh, president of the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership. “But we want to make sure the wetlands and streams covered in the Obama rule can be covered in whatever they develop as a replacement. That’s our bottom line.”
on: Feb 22, 2017, 06:27 AM
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Aerosol study to look at great unknown in climate science
Australian scientists seek to understand how non-carbon aerosolised particles affect global temperatures
An iceberg in the East Antarctic basin, seen from a drone launched from the RV Investigator
Tuesday 21 February 2017 19.09 GMT
Australian scientists are studying air pollution and cloud formation in Antarctica in an effort to understand how non-carbon aerosolised particles impact on global temperatures.
It’s the first comprehensive study of the composition and concentration of aerosols in the Antarctic sea ice area, a region that influences cloud formation and weather patterns for much of the southern hemisphere.
The impact that aerosolised particles have on the global climate is one of the biggest unknowns in climate science, said a CSIRO scientist, Dr Ruhi Humphries.
The particles are formed by molecules clumping together to form groups of between one nanometre and 10 microns. Non-carbon particles reflect light and in some cases seed clouds, causing a localised cooling effect.
“You have warming effect caused by greenhouse gasses and the cooling effect caused by aerosols, and climate change is basically the difference between the two,” Humphries said.
Unlike greenhouse gases, which take a long time to break down in the upper atmosphere, aerosols disperse fairly quickly and have a shorter effect.
Because the process is poorly understood, it’s difficult to model the cooling impact increased aerosols caused by air pollution have on global temperatures.
Paradoxically, Humphries said, cleaning up industries could cause a reduction in localised cooling processes.
“As you improve how you burn your fossil fuels, you are producing less soot and less sulfur,” he said. “The sulfur is the big one. As you go to low sulphur fuels, you reduce the sulfur that actually produces those aerosols that reflect the sunlight.”
It’s hoped that understanding how aerosolised particles form and behave in Antarctica, one of the least polluted places on the planet, will provide a baseline for understanding how the process works in more populated areas. “It’s this really nice test place for normal atmospheric processes,” Humphries said.
The project is being conducted with Jack Simmons, a PhD student on board the CSIRO research ship Investigator, which departed Hobart for a 51-day voyage last month.
Instruments on the ship have taken continuous readings of atmospheric conditions since it left port on 14 January, and researchers will overlay that data with the ship’s mapping systems to create an accurate picture of aerosol dispersal from Tasmania to the Sabrina Coast. It is the most detailed set of observations ever taken in this region of Antarctica.
“We are trying to understand what the aerosolised particles are made of and what they look like, and their size and composition,” Humphries said. “That will funnel into how they interact with clouds, how they interact with radiation, and where they go.”
The information will allow scientists to create more accurate modelling, but Humphries said the number of variables involved in the process meant that manipulating aerosols to artificially manufacture cooler temperatures was “not a viable option”.
on: Feb 22, 2017, 06:25 AM
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Archaeology sheds light on Mongolia’s uncertain nomadic future
As a herding lifestyle practiced for millennia is threatened by contemporary climate change, archaeology offers a long-term perspective
Herders tend their flock in the midst of a winter storm.
William Taylor is an archaeology and anthropology PhD candidate based at the University of New Mexico
Around the world, traditional subsistence practices provide a resilient source of ecological knowledge that improves humanity’s ability to respond to environmental crises. In Central Asia, a herding lifestyle practiced for millennia is increasingly threatened by the speed and magnitude of climate change.
Although the global mean temperature is predicted to rise by 2C over the coming century, this trend will likely be more severe in high altitude and high latitude environments. In the subarctic steppes of Mongolia, nearly one-third of the population makes their living through migratory herding of livestock – sheep, goat, horse, cattle, camel, and yak. For these herders, the effects of climate change have been immediate and dramatic. Mongolia has experienced summer droughts, extreme winter weather, pasture degradation, a shrinking water supply, and desertification, leading to seasonal herd die-offs. These processes have a cascading effect, reinforcing other issues caused by human activity and globalisation.
How will nomadic society respond to these obstacles? Archaeology offers a long-term perspective on the relationship between people and the environment.
In comparison to other parts of the continent, the grasslands of Mongolia are dry, cold, and inhospitable. Precipitation is infrequent and seasonal, making pastures susceptible to overgrazing. Horses, which can open snow-covered winter pastures for other livestock and move quickly over long distances, would have helped to mitigate the challenges of life in the Mongolian steppe.
Archaeologists have long been aware of the ecological advantages to horse herding and riding, and used them to develop explanations for the origins of nomadic cultures made infamous by Genghis (Mongolian: Chinggis) and Khubilai Khan. One popular archaeological theory championed by Russian scholar Anatoly Khazonov1 argues that more sedentary herders developed horseback riding and seasonal migration as a way to cope with prolonged drought during the late second millennium BCE. If mobile herding societies first coalesced during a centuries-long dry spell, contemporary climate trends might not seem such a fatal threat to nomadic life.
However, as researchers have acquired detailed record of ancient climate conditions, a different pattern has started to emerge –a link between wet, productive grasslands and the success of nomadic empires. Because water is the limiting factor for life in the Eastern Steppe, rain has a direct impact on the number of livestock an area can support. A recent investigation of paleoclimate records from the Tarim Basin of western China revealed that the great Mongol empire flourished during an anomalously wet period, linked to hemispheric cooling. “Increased carrying capacity for livestock translates into increased carrying capacity for herders,” says study co-author Dave Putnam of the University of Maine.
Putnam and colleagues argue that cooler, wetter conditions prompted the southern expansion of grasslands and made long-distance military travel on horseback through arid regions easier – favouring the spread of pastoralism, and facilitating the Mongol conquests.
Putnam cautions that their work only demonstrates a correlation, and more data is needed to demonstrate causality. However, other recent work implies that this pattern is far older than the Mongol empire.
Across the Mongolian steppe, bronze age standing stones are surrounded by dozens of small stone mounds, each containing the remains of a sacrificed horse. Study of these horses shows evidence for the region’s first nomadic horse culture circa 1200 BCE.
The first direct evidence for widespread mobile pastoralism in Mongolia dates to the late bronze age, around 1200 BCE. Researcher Jean-Luc Houle at Western Kentucky University studied this early nomadic period, and found little evidence for ecological stress. Instead, he argued that these herders, who may have practiced the first horseback riding in Mongolia, seemed to have a healthy diet and an economy with enough surplus animals to conduct conspicuous ritual sacrifices – at some sites, the number of animals killed reaching into the thousands. Houle’s current studies suggest that the Xiongnu (another early empire known for prompting construction of parts of the Great Wall) also rose to power during a wetter interval at the end of the first millennium BCE.
So if the first mobile herding societies (and many nomadic empires thereafter) developed and spread under a wetter climate, what does this mean for contemporary nomads facing unprecedented warming and desertification?
The answer may be surprisingly complex. One man I spoke with, Jantsankhorloo, lives near Terelj national park not far from Mongolia’s capital Ulaanbaatar. He has seen many new challenges in his seven decades as a herder, many of them caused by human activity rather than climate. He notes that urban expansion, fencing, increased animal populations, and more traffic near the park have damaged grasslands and made subsistence more difficult. In mineral-rich areas, mining has also depleted local water sources. More than dry summers and difficult winters, he worries most about the loss of traditional knowledge among the younger generation. Many young people have left the countryside for the city, and no longer learn the skills of horsemanship and animal husbandry. In the coming years, the success or failure of Mongolian nomadic life may depend in large part on how people respond to and mitigate these anthropogenic problems.
Modern technology has also impacted herding. Many herders living in the drier, flatter Gobi regions have abandoned horses for Chinese motorbikes – enabling them to move farther distances with their animals, and cope with easily overgrazed pastures. Critics denounce the practice as “lazy” and un-Mongolian, expressing concerns about the effect it may have on the environment and livestock health. Even as technology helps herders cope with changing ecological parameters, it may also have unintended consequences.
With this whirlwind of social and technological change occurring alongside the changing climate, it’s unclear exactly how the future may play out for nomads in eastern Eurasia. Nonetheless, it seems unlikely that wet and productive environment that accompanied the emergence of horse culture in the region – and some of its greatest nomadic empires – will characterise the near future. As arid conditions stretch further northward, Putnam sees many herders “caught between a desert and a cold place” – with less biomass translating into reduced forage, and a narrowing window for nomadic life. As climate change endangers Mongolia’s herding traditions, it also threatens ecological knowledge essential to our collective resilience to environmental disaster.
on: Feb 22, 2017, 06:19 AM
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Humans arrived in Australian interior 49,000 years ago, archaeologists believe
Site yields artefacts including tools and a bone from huge wombat-like creature that indicate human activity 10,000 years earlier than previously thought
Humans arrived in the arid interior of Australia 10,000 years earlier than previously thought, archaeologists working at a site in South Australia believe.
Researchers excavating a rock shelter in the Flinders Ranges have unearthed ancient artefacts dating from up to 49,000 years ago – just 1,000 years or so after humans arrived in Australia – including burnt eggshells and stone tools. A bone from a now-extinct creature known as a Diprotodon optatum – a huge wombat-like marsupial – was also retrieved, offering the clearest evidence yet that humans interacted with such creatures.
The discovery of some of the earliest artefacts of their kind in Australia, including certain stone and bone tools as well as red ochre and gypsum pigments, has challenged ideas of how and when such items came to be used.
“The old idea is that people might have come from the East, from the Levant, out of Africa, and these modern humans may have come with a package of innovative technologies,” said Giles Hamm, first author of the research from La Trobe University, Australia. “But the development of these fine stone tools, the bone technology, we think that happened as a local innovation, due to a local cultural evolution,” he added.
Published in the journal Nature, the research reveals evidence of human activity 49,000 years ago in the Warratyi rock shelter - a site, discovered by Hamm around five years ago.
Hamm believes the new findings point to humans rapidly moving south after their arrival in Australia, before becoming “trapped” in the Flinders Ranges as the aridity of the region increased - a situation that could have driven the development of new tools and practices.
Excavations revealed artefacts including stone, bone and quartz tools, which the team painstakingly mapped to their locations within the layers of the deposit.
Radiocarbon dating of burnt eggshells found in the lowest layers - thought to be evidence of human cooking - revealed them to be between 45,000 and 49,000 years old; analysis suggests they came from emus and a large, extinct flightless bird. Dating of quartz grains provided further evidence of the shelter’s age, with the lowest layers dated to around 44,000 years ago.
Among the finds within the lowest layers was the discovery of red ochre on a stone tool - the earliest evidence for the pigment’s use in Australia, possibly for body adornment - and a bone from a young Diprotodon optatum, thought to have been brought into the shelter by humans. “I think the jury is still out whether humans really hunted megafauna, but it is incredibly interesting,” said Hamm, adding that people might have hunted the young, as they were smaller. It is unclear if the bone was from a meal or intended for use as a tool.
The discovery of the earliest examples of various tools - including a sharpened bone point thought to date from between 40,000 and 38,000 years ago - has also caused excitement, with many apparently more than 10,000 years older than similar artefacts found elsewhere in Australia.
Hamm told the ABC how he found the site with local Adnyamathanha elder Clifford Coulthard while surveying gorges in the northern Flinders Ranges.
“Nature called and Cliff walked up this creek bed into this gorge and found this amazing spring surrounded by rock art,” Hamm said.
“A man getting out of the car to go to the toilet led to the discovery of one of the most important sites in Australian pre-history.”
From the number of artefacts at each depth, the authors suggest the site was used infrequently from around 49,000 years ago, but saw a large increase in use around 40,000 years ago, and again around 18,000 years ago.
“Around 35 000 [years ago] we suddenly see again a decline in the use of the shelter,” said Hamm. “And we think that coincided with the onset of more arid conditions.”
“The site is really unique and it’s chock full of interesting stuff,” said John Alroy, a palaeobiologist at Macquarie University. The discoveries overturn arguments that people were unable to settle in the arid interior of Australia before megafauna were extinct and that humans did not have the means to hunt large animals, he added.
But Huw Barton, a bioarchaeologist from the University of Leicester has reservations. He suggests that the eggshells are not necessarily evidence of human activity, while small artefacts in the bottom layers might have trickled down from higher up - meaning humans might have first occupied the shelter nearer to 40,000 years ago, which would fit with evidence from other sites in the region.
Peter Hiscock, professor of Australian archaeology at the University of Sydney, also urged caution. “The dates are deeply anomalous and either they stem from an analytical problem or else they reveal a revolutionary shift in the chronology for ancient Australia,” he said. “Further scientific study must explore which is the most reasonable explanation.”
Indigenous Australians most ancient civilisation on Earth, DNA study confirms
Clues left in genes of modern populations in Australian and Papua New Guinea enable scientists to trace remarkable journey made by first human explorers
Hannah Devlin Science correspondent
Wednesday 21 September 2016 18.33 BST
Claims that Indigenous Australians are the most ancient continuous civilisation on Earth have been backed by the first extensive study of their DNA, which dates their origins to more than 50,000 years ago.
Scientists were able to trace the remarkable journey made by intrepid ancient humans by sifting through clues left in the DNA of modern populations in Australia and Papua New Guinea. The analysis shows that their ancestors were probably the first humans to cross an ocean, and reveals evidence of prehistoric liaisons with an unknown hominin cousin.
Prof Eske Willerslev, an evolutionary geneticist who led the work at the University of Copenhagen, said: “This story has been missing for a long time in science. Now we know their relatives are the guys who were the first real human explorers. Our ancestors were sitting being kind of scared of the world while they set out on this exceptional journey across Asia and across the sea.”
The findings appear in one of four major human origins papers published in Nature this week, which together give an unprecedented insight into how humans first migrated out of the African continent, splintered into distinct populations and spread across the globe.
Willerslev’s findings, based on a new population analysis of 83 Indigenous Australians and 25 Papuans, shows that these groups can trace their origins back to the very first arrivals on the continent about 50,000 years ago and that they remained almost entirely isolated until around 4,000 years ago. “They are probably the oldest group in the world that you can link to one particular place,” said Willerslev.
En route to Australia, early humans would have encountered a motley assortment of other roving hominin species, including an unknown human relative who has now been shown to have contributed around 4% to the Indigenous Australian genome. Previously, scientists have discovered that prehistoric couplings have left all non-Africans today carrying 1-6% of Neanderthal DNA.
Willerslev said the latest findings added to the view that Neanderthals and other now extinct hominins, traditionally portrayed as low-browed prehistoric thugs, were “in reality not particularly different” from our own ancestors.
Adding to this picture, a second study found that the advent of modern human behaviours around 100,000 years ago, indicated by cave art and more sophisticated tools, does not appear to have been accompanied by any notable genetic mutations.
“Your genome contains the history of every ancestor you ever had,” said Swapan Mallick, a geneticist at Havard Medical School who led the analysis of the genomes of people from 142 distinct populations.
The study also suggests that the KhoeSan (bushmen) and Mbuti (central African pygmies) populations appear to have split off from other early humans sooner than this, again suggesting that there was no intrinsic biological change that suddenly triggered human culture.
“There is no evidence for a magic mutation that made us human,” said Willerslev.
Chris Stringer, head of human origins at the Natural History Museum in London, said the findings would be controversial in the field, adding: “It either means that the behaviours were developed earlier, they developed these behaviours independently, they acquired them through exchanges of ideas with other groups, or the estimated split times are too old.”
Willerslev’s study also resolves the apparent discrepancy between genetic findings implying that Indigenous populations have been in Australia for tens of thousands of years and the fact that the languages spoken by these populations are only around 4,000 years old. “You see a movement of people spreading across the continent and leaving signatures across the continent,” said Willerslev. “That is the time that this new language has spread. It’s a tiny genetic signature. It’s almost like two guys entering a village and saying ‘guys, now we have to speak another language and use another stone tool and they have a little bit of sex in that village and then they disappear again.”
Aubrey Lynch, an Indigenous elder from the Goldfields area, said: “This study confirms our beliefs that we have ancient connections to our lands and have been here far longer than anyone else.”
on: Feb 22, 2017, 06:12 AM
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Australian termites followed similar evolutionary path to humans, study finds
DNA sequencing shows insects crossed oceans then migrated from treetops to the ground to adapt to ancient climate change
Wednesday 22 February 2017 01.33 GMT
A new paper shows that the ancient ancestors of termites found in northern Australia crossed vast distances over oceans, and then followed an evolutionary path similar to humans, migrating from tree-tops to the ground.
Mounds sometimes reaching as high as eight metres and housing millions of individual insects are seen in the Northern Territory, Western Australia and far north Queensland, built by cathedral termites. Relative to the animals’ 3mm height and the average human height the termite mounds are the equivalent to four of the world’s tallest structure, the Burj Khalifa skyscraper in Dubai, stacked on top of each other.
Little was known about the termites’ origins until this research, said Associate Professor Nathan Lo, the co-lead author of the paper from the University of Sydney.
DNA sequencing showed that today’s cathedral termites descend from the first “nasute termites” to arrive in Australia up to 20m years ago from Asia or South America.
“It’s a strange result but we’re very confident about it,” said Lo. “The closest relatives of these mound-building termites in Australia are actually tree-nesting termites that live in Asia and South America.”
He believed that termites arrived in Australia after crossing long distances of ocean on plant matter following tsunamis or large storm events. The researchers found this colonisation had happened three times in the past 20m years.
These first settlers also lived in trees in coastal areas but over time began to build mounds on the ground and feed on litter and grass as they adapted to the arid conditions of northern Australia.
Lo said the termites’ relocation was driven by change in climate and environment after Australia shifted from a forest-covered continent 20m years ago to a much drier landscape.
As the forests succumbed to Australia’s dry conditions about seven to 10m years ago, the tree-dwelling termites sought more moisture in the earth, he said. “That’s why they started to build mounds.”
Humans would later follow a similar evolutionary path, said Lo, with our ancestors living in trees as recently as the last 4m years.
“These amazing mounds we see in the north of Australia, we didn’t know if they were 100m years old, 50m years old. Now we know it’s more likely that within the last 10m years that they’ve popped up.
“They weren’t here when Australia separated from Gondwana some 100m years ago – they evolved here relatively recently due to ancient climate change.”
The study, published on Wednesday in the Royal Society journal Biology Letters, was led by the University of Sydney in collaboration with Purdue University in the United States, the CSIRO National Research Collections Australia, the University of Western Australia and the University of New South Wales.