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 91 
 on: Apr 16, 2015, 06:14 AM 
Started by Rose Marcus - Last post by Rad
Pope Meets Relatives of Pakistani Christian on Death Row

by Naharnet Newsdesk 15 April 2015, 21:22

Pope Francis on Wednesday met the husband and daughter of Asia Bibi, a Pakistani Christian woman sentenced to death over blasphemy charges, the Vatican said.

"I pray for Asia, for you and for all Christians who are suffering," Francis told Bibi's husband Ashiq Masiq and their 15-year-old daughter, according to the Vatican Insider website.

Mother of five Bibi has been on death row since a row broke out in 2009 with a group of women she was working with in a field.

They accused her of insulting the Muslim Prophet Mohammed, a charge she denies. Soon afterwards, she was jailed and sentenced by a court to death by hanging.

Bibi's death sentence was confirmed in October 2014 by the Lahore High Court.

Helped by an NGO to travel to Europe, Bibi's husband and daughter are seeking to rally support for their cause. They want European officials to take up the issue with Islamabad.

Last November, the EU parliament called on Pakistan to overhaul its blasphemy laws with a view to repealing them, saying they were being used to target Christians and other minorities.

Bibi is waiting for the final ruling of the Supreme Court.

Her case is set to go back to trial in May.

During the recent Easter celebration, Bibi asked Pope Francis to pray for her. Several months earlier, she had sent him a letter.

Pope Francis is widely seen as a champion of the poor and marginalized.

In 2010, his predecessor Benedict XVI had publicly called for Bibi's release.

While Francis has not made such a plea, he has called for the end of persecution of Christians in Pakistan and everywhere else.

Blasphemy is a hugely sensitive issue in Pakistan, with even unproven allegations often prompting mob violence.

Source: Agence France Presse

 92 
 on: Apr 16, 2015, 06:12 AM 
Started by Steve - Last post by Rad
Serbia Hits Back at HRW Claim that Police Harass Migrants, Asylum Seekers

by Naharnet Newsdesk 15 April 2015, 22:17

Serbian police routinely harass and abuse illegal immigrants and asylum seekers, Human Rights Watch said Wednesday, a claim immediately denied by the country's interior ministry.

The watchdog interviewed dozens of migrants and asylum seekers who "described violent assaults, threats, insults, and extortion, denial of the required special protection for unaccompanied children, and summary returns to the former Yugoslav republic of Macedonia," an HRW report released in New York said.

But the Serbian interior ministry rejected the accusations.

"Claims that migrants and asylum seekers presented to HRW are not supported by any evidence that would help to establish the responsibility of (Serbian) police and border police," a ministry statement said.

But HRW activist Emina Cerimovic said that "Serbian authorities should be protecting asylum seekers and immigrants, including children fleeing war and persecution, not allowing the police to victimize them."

"The authorities should put an immediate stop to police intimidation and abuse and hold those responsible to account," she said in a statement.

Between November and January the HRW interviewed a total of 81 asylum seekers and migrants, including 18 children, at various locations in Serbia and Macedonia.

Serbia is not a member of the European Union but has a land access to three members of the bloc -- Romania, Hungary and Croatia.

Thus illegal immigrants, namely from Afghanistan, Syria and Somalia, pass through Serbian territory on their journey towards the EU.

Many of those arrested by Serbian police claim the right to seek asylum.

Since the beginning of the year some 13,000 people filed asylum applications in neighboring Hungary compared with 43,000 in 2014, according to the Hungarian authorities.

Serbia lies on the so-called Balkans route used by criminal groups to smuggle people, drugs and weapons into Western Europe.

Source: Agence France Presse

 93 
 on: Apr 16, 2015, 06:09 AM 
Started by Steve - Last post by Rad
Armenian Troops Kill Azerbaijani Soldier in Fresh Clashes

by Naharnet Newsdesk 16 April 2015, 12:00

Armenian forces on Thursday killed an Azerbaijani soldier in the latest breach of a ceasefire between the arch-foes locked in a simmering conflict over the disputed Nagorny Karabakh region, officials in Baku said.

"Armenian forces have yet again violated the ceasefire and killed an Azerbaijan army warrant officer," Azerbaijan's defence ministry said in a statement without giving further details.

His death takes to at least 26 the number of people reported killed this year on both sides.

Armenia and Azerbaijan have been locked in a dispute over the Nagorny Karabakh region since a bloody war in the early 1990s following the breakup of the Soviet Union.

Yerevan-backed ethnic Armenian separatists seized control of Karabakh and several other regions of Azerbaijan during the conflict that left some 30,000 dead.

Despite years of negotiations, the two countries have not signed a final peace deal following a shaky 1994 truce.

The predominantly Armenian-populated region is internationally recognised as part of Azerbaijan.

Karabakh's ethnic-Azeri community -- around a quarter of the population before the war -- was driven out.

Baku, whose military spending exceeds Armenia's entire state budget, has threatened to take back the disputed territory by force if negotiations fail to yield results.

Armenia, backed militarily by Russia, says it could crush any offensive.

Threatening a shaky 1994 truce, clashes between Azerbaijani and Armenian forces across their shared border and along the Karabakh frontline intensified last year.

Source: Agence France Presse

 94 
 on: Apr 16, 2015, 06:04 AM 
Started by Rad - Last post by Rad
Russia Police Raid Offices of Putin Critic Khodorkovsky

by Naharnet Newsdesk 16 April 2015, 13:43

Armed police on Thursday raided the office of a Russian rights group led by the exiled critic of Vladimir Putin, Mikhail Khodorkovsky, during the president's marathon annual phone-in session.

A group of police and special forces came to the Moscow office of Open Russia, a rights network led by Khodorkovsky, and searched the premises for protest fliers, Khodorkovsky's spokeswoman Kulle Pispanen wrote on her Facebook page.

"As we're preparing for the phone-in, masked men came to the office," Pispanen wrote. "They are looking for posters and fliers for a protest on April 19 that we were not planning to participate in and which has been canceled."

Moscow authorities refused permission for an opposition march on April 19, although activists said they may hold solo pickets instead.

Open Russia is Khodorkovsky's network of activists and journalists which aims to discuss alternatives to Putin's rule and is heavily critical of his policies.

The organization is run out of central Moscow while Khodorkovsky himself lives in Switzerland following his release from prison after a presidential pardon from Putin in late 2013.

Open Russia posted a scan of the search warrant on its website. Police said they received a tip-off that the group was producing "materials containing extremist calls" ahead of the planned protest.

The warrant authorized police to seize electronic equipment and accounting documents from the organization.

Employees of Open Russia wrote on social networks that the search was conducted by seven anti-extremism officers and 10 riot police armed with automatic rifles who were not letting them make phone calls.

The search began just as Putin was starting his annual televised question and answer session, which usually lasts for several hours and dominates all media coverage.

Khodorkovsky, once Russia's richest man who owned oil company Yukos, spent 10 years in prison due to two controversial convictions for embezzlement and fraud, which his supporters said were politically motivated.

Source: Agence France Presse

 95 
 on: Apr 16, 2015, 06:02 AM 
Started by Steve - Last post by Rad
Ousted Ukraine president's ally found shot dead in Kiev home

Oleg Kalashnikov was a member of Viktor Yanukovych’s parliament
Six Yanukovych-era government officials have died over last two months

Associated Press in Moscow
Wednesday 15 April 2015 22.59 BST
   
A former ally of deposed Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovych has been found shot to death in his home in Kiev.

The Ukrainian interior ministry said Oleg Kalashnikov, a former member of the Ukrainian parliament, was found dead Wednesday evening. It said he had died of gunshot wounds but did not say whether it was believed to be homicide or suicide.

Kalashnikov was a deputy for the Party of Regions in Ukraine’s previous parliament.

At least six former Ukrainian government officials from Yanukovych’s time have died over the past two months in various circumstances that police have said were most likely suicides.

Kalashnikov had taken part in protests in support of the pro-Moscow leader Yanukovych, who was ousted in 2014 after three months of mass demonstrations calling for his removal ended in a bloodbath.

Yanukovych fled to Russia, triggering Ukraine’s descent into conflict which has seen the annexation of the Crimea region by Russia and ongoing fighting in the east with pro-Moscow rebels, despite a February ceasefire.

 96 
 on: Apr 16, 2015, 05:59 AM 
Started by Steve - Last post by Rad
Finland after the boom: 'Not as bad as Greece, yet, but it's only matter of time'

As general election looms and recession enters fourth year, once boom city of Oulu has little faith in politicians after collapse of big timber and Nokia

David Crouch in Oulu
Wednesday 15 April 2015 18.30 BST
Guardian

A sudden flurry of spring snow has dusted the steps of an evangelical church in central Oulu, northern Finland, where about 100 people are crowded together for a Friday sermon.

But perhaps the true object of their devotion is inside black binliners by the door. Once a week, food parcels and a free meal attract a mix of unemployed men, single mothers and pensioners to the church.

The most highly prized items are packs of sausages just within their sell-by date. Shops used to donate meat, but now they too are feeling the pinch.

“There is a group of people in Finland that has dropped out of the employment market,” says pastor Risto Wotschke, whose example has encouraged other churches to offer food handouts.

The weakest economy in the eurozone this year might not prove to be Greece or Portugal, but Finland. The Nordic country is entering its fourth year of recession, with output still well below its 2008 peak.

The north of Finland, home to the “Oulu miracle” that was built on the twin pillars of plentiful timber and mobile phone technology, has been hit in particular. Although a paper mill still dominates Oulu’s skyline, jobs in pulp and cellulose have moved abroad, while the collapse of Nokia’s handset business knocked the guts out of the local economy.

With unemployment officially at more than 17% – almost twice the Finnish average – this once-booming city of 200,000 people has gone from a poster child of prosperity to a symbol of deepening cracks in the Nordic model.

“It’s not yet as bad here as Greece, but that’s only a matter of time,” says Seppo, a 43-year-old software engineer who lost job along with 500 others last summer after Microsoft, the new owner of Nokia’s mobile devices and services division, abandoned Oulu.

Seppo, who asked that his full name not be used, has since found work, but it is 375 miles (600km) away. Every Sunday night he leaves his family for a rented room.

“The public finances are completely screwed, it can’t go on like this,” he says, as he stands outside a polling booth on the outskirts of Oulu, where people are already queuing to vote early in Finland’s general election on Sunday. “The politicians are promising everything to everybody, but they won’t take any hard decisions until we are in a really deep crisis.”

Last summer was a low-point for the city, when Microsoft’s exit was swiftly followed by that of Broadcom, a US manufacturer of microchips for phones, taking a further 400 jobs. “That’s when the rest of Finland decided the Oulu miracle is over, the lights have gone out,” says Kyösti Karvonen, editor of the local newspaper, Kaleva.

Fewer jobs have meant slimmer wallets. Stockmann, the Finnish Selfridges, announced in February it would close its department store in Oulu. Meanwhile, a new flea market in the city’s indoor athletics arena drew 10,000 shoppers overnight.

    It will take a while for Oulu to bounce back. But there is a feeling that we have to do it, there is no other way.

Youth unemployment here is the highest in the country, says Maire Mäki, head of the city’s employment service, which encourages people to leave Oulu and seek work in Sweden and Norway. A controversial new nuclear power station in nearby Pyhäjoki, to be built by Russia’s Rosatom, will be a vital source of jobs, she adds.

Talk among the political parties is about cutting Finland’s way out of recession. The country has been a cheerleader for austerity in Europe; Olli Rehn, the Finnish economics commissioner in Brussels during the eurozone crisis, was accused of imposing a “Rehn of terror” on profligate southern EU states. Now with mounting public debt at home, Finns are bracing themselves for a taste of their own medicine.

Wages must not rise for the rest of the decade, early retirement should end and maternity support is too generous, says Juhana Vartiainen, head of the Government Institute for Economic Research in Helsinki and author of a recent review of Finland’s economy.

“We have to adapt the Nordic model to a more market model, like Sweden,” says Vartiainen. So concerned is he about the urgency of the problems that last month he quit the Social Democrats to stand as a candidate for the National Coalition party, the centre-right party of the prime minister, Alexander Stubb.

Stubb has warned that Finland’s “golden era” is over, and that the country faces a lost decade unless it makes far-reaching changes. But he leads a coalition with the left that has disintegrated over the past year, while failing to push through planned changes to healthcare and local government.

Finland is ill-equipped to face up to globalisation, Vartiainen says, while Finns are “extremely conservative and suspicious” of the market reforms he believes are necessary. The population over 65 is set to double during the next two decades; productivity has fallen behind Sweden and Germany, while trade with Russia has slumped owing to EU sanctions over the Ukraine crisis and the falling rouble. Vartiainen caused controversy in October when ihe appeared to compare the unemployed to “weeds” in a tweet.

At least Oulu is spared Finland’s problem with ageing. The city is a magnet for young people in the north and has one of the youngest populations in Europe. But when voters gathered at the weekend in the city centre to hear Juha Sipilä, a millionaire businessman whose Centre party is 10 points ahead in the polls, youthful faces were conspicuous by their absence.

    A change of government won’t make any difference – new faces, same shit

Ilmari, 34, had only stopped for a free sausage handed out by election workers. He lost his job in construction three months ago, and while his benefits are 60% of his previous wage, it is not enough for his young family – his wife just finished teacher training, but when she went for a job there were 46 applicants.

“The overwhelming problem here is jobs for young people,” Ilmari says. “And when they don’t work there are social problems, like drink and drugs.”

Spiliä pledges to curb “reckless” public spending and create 200,000 private-sector jobs over the next decade, double the number Finland has lost since 2008. But Amine, 22, is unconvinced – her boyfriend has been out of work for two years. “A change of government won’t make any difference – new faces, same shit,” she says.

There is no doubting the potential for a new Oulu to emerge, with its young and skilled workforce. But the hi-tech startups in which the city is putting so much store are still in their infancy.

“We lost the game with mobile phones, it was awful,” says Juha Roininen, 40, who left the local steel industry to become a tech entrepreneur. Finns remember the previous economic crisis in the 1990s, he says, so they are wary about the future.

“It will take a while for Oulu to bounce back,” he says. “But there is a feeling that we have to do it, there is no other way.”

 97 
 on: Apr 16, 2015, 05:56 AM 
Started by Rad - Last post by Rad
Flying fish attack university rowers in St Louis, Missouri – video report

Guardian
4/16/2015

Students from Washington University in St Louis row along Creve Coeur Lake on 10 April when giant Asian carp begin jumping frantically out of the water surrounding them. The students were forced to stop rowing until the frenzy ended. The fish were believed to have begun swimming frantically because of the motion of the rowing boats

Click to watch: <iframe src="https://embed.theguardian.com/embed/video/us-news/video/2015/apr/16/flying-fish-attack-university-rowers-st-louis-missouri-video" width="560" height="315" frameborder="0" allowfullscreen></iframe>

 98 
 on: Apr 16, 2015, 05:53 AM 
Started by Steve - Last post by Rad
World Bank breaks its own rules as 3.4 million people are forced off their land

Review of World Bank documents reveals electricity, water and transport projects contravened safeguards designed to protect rights of indigenous people

Sasha Chavkin and Mark Anderson
Thursday 16 April 2015 05.01 BST
Guardian

The World Bank has repeatedly violated its own policies on protecting the rights of indigenous people by funding projects that forced nearly 3.4 million slum-dwellers, farmers and villagers from their homes and jobs over the past decade, according to documents seen by the Guardian.

The projects, into which the bank channelled more than $60bn (£40bn), aimed to boost electricity and water supplies and expand transport networks in some of the world’s poorest countries. But they have resulted in more than 1.2 million people in Vietnam being displaced over the past decade, as they made way for dams and power plants funded by the organisation. In addition, more than 1 million people in China were displaced by about $12bn of bank investment.

The bank has said its goals are to end extreme poverty and reduce income inequality worldwide.

World Bank lending: how the organisation rode roughshod over its own rules – interactive

The International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ) and other outlets, including the Guardian, reviewed more than 6,000 World Bank documents as well as interviewing current and former bank employees and government officials involved in bank-funded projects.

In many cases, the organisation did not follow internal policies and safeguards requiring it to monitor evictions caused by its projects and provide resettled people with new housing options and job prospects, the investigation showed.

In addition, many of the projects are fossil fuel-based, such as the coal-fired Tata Mundra power station. Since his appointment as president of the bank in 2012, Jim Yong Kim has committed the bank to addressing the challenges of climate change and reducing reliance on fossil-fuels. This week, he called for fossil-fuel subsidies to be scrapped and for a carbon tax to be introduced.

“There was often no intent on the part of the governments to comply, and there was often no intent on the part of the bank’s management to enforce,” said Navin Rai, a former World Bank official who oversaw the institution’s protection for indigenous people from 2000 to 2012. “That was how the game was played.”

In some projects, the bank’s ombudsman, known as the inspection panel, tried to quash internal inquiries into projects that had resulted in mass displacement, internal documents and emails show.

After the bank funded a project to improve water supplies, roads and power in Lagos, Nigeria’s bustling commercial hub, nearly 2,000 slum-dwellers in Badia East were evicted to make way for the scheme. They complained to the inspection panel, but the chairwoman, Eimi Watanabe, refused to open an investigation into the forced resettlement. She instead urged the plaintiffs to hold direct negotiations with the Lagos state government, which offered a small sum of money as compensation.

The bank said the panel had closed down the case because of “the progress made and speedy provision of compensation to displaced people”. Watanabe did not respond to ICIJ questions about the Lagos case.

The investigation comes at a time when the bank is increasingly funding projects that require forced resettlement. In 1993, just 8% of World Bank projects were linked to resettlement. By 2009, however, the figure had risen to 29%, according to the bank’s internal review last year.

On Friday, the bank will begin its annual spring meetings, where new resettlement policies and safeguards will be debated. The organisation has pledged to respond to its critics with “the strongest, most state-of-the-art environmental and social safeguards”.

However, current and former World Bank officials are sceptical of the latest draft of the institution’s new policy, published in July after being shelved for months. They say the policies in the draft give governments more room to sidestep the bank’s standards and make decisions about whether local populations need protecting.

“I am saddened to see now that pioneering policy achievements of the bank are being dismantled and downgraded,” said Michael Cernea, a former bank official who oversaw the bank’s resettlement protections for nearly two decades. “The poorest and most powerless will pay the price.”

The Ethiopian government, which has repeatedly been accused of using World Bank funds to carry out forced resettlement, threatened local communities with violence if they criticised resettlement programmes when being interviewed by the bank’s inspection panel, according to a former World Bank employee.

“All the people had been instructed in advance of us coming,” said
Eisei Kurimoto, a Japanese academic who served as an adviser on the bank’s review. “And they had been intimidated in advance to tell us good things.”

Last month, the World Bank approved a new $350m loan to Ethiopia, which included support for the local government in Gambella. An Ethiopian government spokeswoman said: “Tens of thousands of Ethiopians, including Gambella residents, have benefited from successful resettlement, which is done on a voluntary basis.”

Last month, the bank admitted there had been “serious shortcomings” in implementing resettlement projects.

At the time, Kim said: “We took a hard look at ourselves on resettlement and what we found caused me deep concern. We found several major problems. One is that we haven’t done a good enough job in overseeing projects involving resettlement; two, we haven’t implemented those plans well enough; and three, we haven’t put in place strong tracking systems to make sure that our policies were being followed. We must and will do better.”

An open letter, issued on Wednesday by 85 NGOs, said the bank’s anti-poverty goals would not be achieved unless it addressed an “institutional failure” to ensure its projects did not adversely affect the world’s poorest people.

“The World Bank’s twin goals cannot be achieved when its own resettlement practices are impoverishing communities,” said Kate Geary, Oxfam’s land rights policy researcher. “Now that the bank has finally revealed its own assessment of its resettlement failures, it needs to do all it can to repair the damage done.”

 99 
 on: Apr 16, 2015, 05:50 AM 
Started by Steve - Last post by Rad
How Iran's Khuzestan went from wetland to wasteland

Iran’s most south-westerly province is facing dust storms, dried-up rivers and mounting pollution
An Iranian couple stands on the shore of the Arvandrud river as a heavy sand storm hits the city of Ahvaz in the southwestern province of Khuzestan.

Tehran Bureau correspondent
Thursday 16 April 2015 11.21 BST
Guardian

Out on the horizon, the blue sky darkens, turns a misty, golden yellow, and rapidly gives way to a shiny green, looking almost like a lagoon. Just for a moment everyone wonders if it’s going to rain, as temperatures drop and winds blow across the city. But the dust storms are about to begin. Soon a grey darkness will appear and no sky or sun will be visible.

In offices, homes and schools, adults begin to shut windows, doors and any vents. There is little panic. They are used to emergency drills from wartime, as the province of Khuzestan, south-west Iran, was a front line in the Iran-Iraq war of 1980 to 1988.

The recent dust storms that have overtaken the cities of Ahvaz, Soosangerd and Dezful are not a new phenomenon. They have been occurring on a smaller scale for years.

They are connected to overlapping issues, some extending beyond Iran’s borders, which are tied together in climate change and global warming. Pollution of air and water is contributing to long-term changes in weather. Horolazim and Shadegan wetlands, as well as Karun, Karkheh and Jarrahi rivers, the most critical water resources of the province, are depleted and contain unprecedented levels of toxic waste.

The lack of moisture in drying plains allows dust to rise before winds carry it away. While Khuzestan is best known as Iran’s oil-rich province, it also lies in the fertile crescent, on some of the earth’s best water and land. More than 1m hectares of its land are agricultural, and it provides the country with crucial crops during the cold seasons. But this is changing as the rivers die out.

Once, ships ran up the Karun as far as Ahvaz and Shushtar, including those that in the early 20th century supplied the Anglo-Persian Oil Company or collected Iranian pilgrims beginning a journey to the holy Shia Muslim sites in Iraq. Now, looking at Karun from the top of Naderi bridge in Ahvaz, all you see is an almost green glow. Industrial waste and sewage from growing cities - Ahvaz, Mollasani, Shushtar and Gotvand - has taken its toll.

Further depleting Karun, water has been channelled to other provinces. During the Shah’s era, the first tunnel diverted flow to Isfahan’s drying Zayandeh-Rud. Since then, pipes and paths have multiplied to include waterways to Qom, Yazd, Kerman and new routes to Isfahan.

Khuzestan province is home to two wetlands, also in a critical state. “To the mid 1990s, the depth of water in Horolazim wetland reached ten metres and the natural bushes that grew all around it were as high as 13 metres,” Ahmad Savari, a professor at Khorramshahr’s Science University told Karun newspaper in February. “But hectare after hectare of the wetland was given away for oil extraction. The destruction of these environments is unquestionably linked to the dust storms.”

For the past decade, Iran’s government had insisted dust storms originated outside the country. This year, however, the Department of the Environment announced that most of the dust came from Iran. A former departmental official, Delavar Najafi, told local media that the drying of Horolazim was one reason for the storms, with a loss of water due to oil extraction around the wetland beginning just after the war with Iraq.

The drying out of rivers and wetlands in Khuzestan has changed the regional landscape in a way war never did. To drive out to Shadegan wetland 100km south of Ahvaz is to see Khuzestan change from farmlands and orchards, to barren desert, and suddenly to a marsh. Shadegan, one of the first international wetlands registered at the Ramsar Convention of February 1971, covers 300,000 hectares.

All across Shadegan lie green palm trees bearing the sweetest dates. Sheep, cows and water buffalo fill the plain. Birds, in their plenty, fly across the horizon and one may land on the back of a water buffalo, which will casually remain relaxed in the water.

Residents are mainly Arabs who get by through farming, keeping date orchards and livestock. They are not wealthy, especially those without a side business, which has become more and more common in recent years. Their liveliness is still contagious. Young boys play in the marsh with the water buffalo, children run around bare-footed with puppies. Women bake bread - with traditional tattoos on their hands and thin, loose black shawls wrapped around their heads.

Iran's complex Khuzestan region through the eyes of its children

But they are experiencing a jarring shift in their ecosystem. Villagers attribute the vast change to neyshekar, the sugarcane agribusiness. In 1962, Haft Tappeh, an area 15km south-east of ancient Susa, was turned into a 10,000-hectare sugarcane production plant. This reflected US influence after its embargo on Cuban sugar, an example of American involvement in Khuzestan going back to Truman’s Point Four Programme in the 1950s, when agriculturists lived in the more fertile northern regions.

After the Iran-Iraq war, another 70,000-hectare plant was established in the 1990s, south of Ahvaz. Side industries have included fibreboards, industrial alcohol and livestock feed. “Cane is not a crop native to the region, and the environmental consequences have been catastrophic,” says Reza Saeedi, an agricultural specialist who has worked in the area for 20 years.

Khuzestan’s Water and Electricity Company, a state body operating under the energy ministry, has repeatedly announced that pesticides and pollution from sugar cane production are a major source of water contamination.

The crux of the planning was carried out during the presidency of Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani between 1989 and 1997. “Build, build, build, develop without thinking of the consequences - that was the hallmark of the Rafsanjani administration,” says Saeedi. “It changed the face of this place from a wetland to a wasteland.”

In the years prior to the launch of the sugarcane industry, more than a dozen professors in the department of agriculture at the University of Ahvaz wrote letters predicting disastrous consequences, many offering alternatives. Most of those professors eventually left to work abroad, and one was forced into retirement. They objected for two main reasons: that pollution would enter Khuzestan’s water streams and that the project would require excessive use of water.

Sugarcane is a crop known for high water consumption, which often results in habitat loss and soil erosion. There was an additional problem: soil salinity was already high in areas planned for the project, and so required additional water to drain out.

Walking in the sugarcane fields today, you notice empty patches of the field, with white powder - salt - rising on the brown earth. These lands have been completely depleted, and are no longer usable.

The electro-conductivity (EC) of water is one indicator of its salinity, estimating the level of dissolved solids through the capacity of water to conduct electrical current. The EC level that sugarcane can withstand is 1.7 mS/cm (mili Siemens per centimetre) whereas the level is above 4 mS/cm in some areas around Shadegan and 17 near the water sources for the sugarcane plants.

Salt entering the marsh has left its mark on villagers’ lives: water buffalo must live around fresh water, and Shadegan is increasingly becoming unsuitable for them.

Those who grow crops like grain, tomatoes or okra, have noticed the difference too. “My father has grown grain for decades but more and more in recent years it grows a bit, and then dies out completely,” says Karim, a 27-year old. Saeedi has heard farmers across southern Khuzestan say the same thing: “It’s the soil salinity that does this.”

These rapid changes have had monumental affects on wild life. In a survey conducted in 1971, researchers reported that the wetlands were an instrumental ecosystem for the province’s “almost 60,000 ducks and 4000 geese”. Another survey, in 1978, recorded 800,000 anatidae, the family of birds including ducks, geese and swans.

The marsh was existential to the winter migration of the Marbled Teal, the threatened bird of the Mesopotamian marshlands. Over 170 species of birds from 32 distinct families have been recorded by the Department of the Environment and various biologists and researchers: 120 are migratory birds, and 13 are globally threatened. Toxic waste entering the water has killed birds “by the thousands”, Iran’s Students’ News Agency has reported with hunting – long part of the local economy – declared illegal in the area due to the birds spreading diseases.

Wetlands were also once full of fish, with villagers earning an income from fishing across Shadegan. More than 30 species of wetland fish and 40 sea fish have been recorded. “The nearby fishing farms grow tilapia, which has made its way to the wetland and is somehow killing off all other fish,” says one fisherman, who is tall, with deep golden brown eyes and long delicate fingers, while carrying across his feet the scars and bruises of a life in the water. He cannot speak Persian, so talks in Arabic as his nephew translates. “Officials from the local Department of the Environment sent a specialist, but he was as dumbfounded as us. The tilapia can hide deep under waters, there’s no way to do anything, we’re losing fish by the week.”

Abdollah Tamimi, the parliamentary deputy representing Shadegan, last month blamed the wetland’s increasing salinity on the rapid rise in the number of tilapia. The dust storms are also taking the life of the date orchards, a quintessential part of this environment and directly tied to the livelihood of villagers. A local farmer, Jalil, walks around his orchard and pulls down leaves with large discoloured patches. This is a fungus called fusarium, linked to the dust.

“We can’t even touch the trees, if we try to climb them, they break into ash,” says Jalil, who fondly remembers years past when he was a successful grain and okra farmer. “Even during the war, the water was sweet and crystal clear.” One of the other leading pitfalls of the sugarcane industry was that villagers were coerced into selling their farmlands, says Jalili: “One day they showed up at my door and said they would pay me an insignificant amount for the land. I said I would not sell, and they said I had no choice.”

Jalil’s sons now work as drivers for the sugarcane company, among the 10,000 -12,000 directly employed while thousands more work in related or service industries.

The governor for the city of Shadegan has announced that water and soil salinity in the area “directly linked to the toxicity of industrial and sewage waste” is “destroying date orchards by the day”. There are over 13,000 hectares of date orchards in Shadegan, but the governor failed to give numbers, saying they were as yet inconclusive.

Another disastrous development for the wetlands have been the dams constructed in recent decades, which have left the waterbeds dry and helped exacerbate water and earth salinity. Gotvand Dam, opened three years ago to supply the sugarcane plants, lies on salt beds. An engineer who worked on Karoun Dam, completed in 1976, remarks: “We had done the research for the area around Gotvand dam in the 1970s, that’s why the dam wasn’t built then, we knew it would directly affect the salt concentration of the water. The numbers, the research, was all there but they built it anyway.”

The engineer is deeply critical of post-war water policy in Khuzestan: “There was only one dam in the province at the time I was working, now there are more than 14.” He shakes his head in bewilderment and explains that the consequences of building the dams were evident. “Our predictions match what actually happened almost completely. But no one went back to look at those calculations. Worse, they probably did and didn’t care.”

Saeedi believes the Chinese oil companies that came in during the Ahmadinejad years have further exasperated the water problem. ”Their technology was leagues inferior to the Europeans’, and they just razed the land.” He explains that to find oil, hectare after hectare of the plant species around Horolazim wetland were burned or bulldozed.

The loss of water in Khuzestan is not connected solely to policy within Iran’s borders. Turkey’s dams across the Euphrates and Tigris reduce the flow of water into Iraq and Syria, and so into the Shatt Al-Arab, the 200-km long river which borders Iran and Iraq. Shadegan wetland was also severely damaged by deposition of huge quantities of soot when Saddam Hussein’s retreating forces torched Kuwait’s oil wells in 1991.

But decades of home-grown polices have exasperated the consequences of external factors, and worked to destroy the natural fabric of Khuzestan. Saeedi argues that the province suffers from a lack of political clout. “Khuzestan has never had a strong presence in the echelons of power,” he says. “We have no influential ministers, deputies, especially none who cares or has the political capital to take a stand against what is happening here.”

Residents in Khuzestan allege they are victims of discrimination and point out six of the current cabinet of president Hassan Rouhani are from Isfahan or are of Isfahani descent, whereas none is from Khuzestan.

Saeedi says that provinces like Isfahan, Kerman and Yazd have powerful people who extract water resources for their home province, putting short-term gain above the country’s long-term future. “It comes down to whether our policymakers see the bigger picture, to whether that minister or parliamentary deputy from Isfahan cares about what will happen here in the long run.” Saeedi bends down to point out deserted areas of the sugarcane fields where salt is clearly visible. “I doubt anyone cares what happens to this place.”

 100 
 on: Apr 16, 2015, 05:47 AM 
Started by Steve - Last post by Rad
Backlash as Belarus imposes ‘social parasite’ law to fine unemployed

New rules that effectively criminalise those out of work have been criticised as a Soviet-era throwback. RFE/RL report

RFE/RL, part of the New East network
Guardian
Thursday 16 April 2015 05.00 BST

Vital Yurchanka once ran a successful business selling shoes in his hometown of Homel, in south-eastern Belarus, but the deepening economic crisis in the country recently forced him to close up shop.

Under a new law, Yurchanka will have to pay $245 (£166) a year to the state in lieu of his taxes.

The legislation, known local as the “social parasite” law, has sparked dismay in Belarus, where many struggle to make ends meet. It has previously been described as a move to criminalise unemployment.

For Yurchanka the decree smacks of Soviet times, when “parasitism” was a criminal offence known as “tuneyadstvo” which, according to the Moscow Times, was based on the notion that “every able-bodied person has a duty to work and help build a utopian communist society.”

“This is like 1937. Go and work or we will force you to,” he said. “I think people will try to express their outrage and they will be right.”

    How can such a decree be passed when there are no jobs in the city?

The new rules, signed into law by Belarus’ authoritarian president Alexander Lukashenko earlier this month, aim to “stimulate able-bodied citizens to engage in labour activity and fulfil their constitutional obligation to participate in financing state expenditures.”

Adults who have not paid income tax covering at least 183 days of employment per year will be fined. Failure to pay will be punishable by additional fines and ultimately by detention, followed by community service.

According to the decree, certain categories of citizens are exempt, including students, parents caring for three or more children, minors, and people over the retirement age.

Yurchanka has launched an online petition on the popular website Change.org demanding that the controversial new law be scratched.

The petition says the fines violate the constitution, which protects the economic interests of citizens and bans the enforcement of community work without a court ruling.


The petition has already been signed by more than 25,000 people, many of whom are using the platform to vent their anger.

“So a woman who has three children is good, but a woman who has two children and who brings them up and takes care of the house is now a social parasite?” wrote one signatory .

“How can such a decree be passed when there are no jobs in the city?” wrote another.

Critics are also poking fun at the law with the hashtag, #придумайналогдлябеларуси (literally translated as “think up a tax for Belarus”) inviting users to propose their own, mock tax initiatives.

The Twitter account @Belaruski_front suggested taxing newborns: “Congratulations! You have given birth to another taxpayer! 3200! The cashier is on the first floor!”

    — Хранічэская Беларусь (@belaruski_front)
    April 11, 2015

    Теперь в роддомах будут говорить: "Поздравляем! У вас родился налогоплательщик! 3200! Касса на первом этаже! #придумайналогдлябеларуси

One proposed a tax on reading. “You read, you pay. Clever people are proliferating, the country needs workers.”

    — Юлия Владимировна (@Yui_Rim)
    April 11, 2015

    Налог на чтение. Читаешь - плати, поразводилось тут умных, стране нужны рабочие #придумайналогдлябеларуси

Another suggested imposing a tax on stargazing. “Look at the sky... It’s free but not in Belarus.”

    — Dima Gupenets (@Dimagrodno)
    April 11, 2015

    Смотрите в небо... Оно бесплатно но не в Беларуси - плати #придумайналогдлябеларуси pic.twitter.com/ADFu65xe1V

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