October 18, 2013
Britain Looks to Fracking as North Sea Oil Dwindles
By STANLEY REED
BARTON, England — Driving down a bumpy country road in northwest England, one comes upon a bare patch the size of a soccer field at the edge of a peat bog. Workers are erecting a security fence and unrolling watertight film to protect the soil from chemical contamination. Near the middle is a big rectangular hole where a drilling rig will go.
Inauspicious as it may look, what happens on this patch of ground in the coming months could help determine the future of Britain’s, and even Europe’s, approach to shale gas. The energy source has made the United States, for one, suddenly self-sufficient in natural gas, but it raises environmental concerns that have made many countries on this side the Atlantic dead set against it. Shale gas is extracted by the technique known as hydraulic fracturing — or fracking, the harsh-sounding word that can stir the passions of the technology’s harshest critics.
In France, the nation’s highest court recently upheld the government’s right to ban fracking. In Germany, fracking activity is suspended at least until a new government is formed.
But within the European Union, Britain — struggling to confront its energy future as its North Sea oil reserves are depleted, dirty coal is demonized and nuclear power remains expensive and geopolitically fraught — stands out as the country in which the government has officially encouraged the development of shale gas. Prime Minister David Cameron has thrown his support behind shale gas drilling, hoping to reap some of the benefits seen in the United States.
John Blaymires, chief operating officer of IGas Energy, said the government’s support could reap big rewards for Britain, especially in the industrial Manchester-Liverpool region, where the soccer-field-sized bare patch is being readied in Barton. “There is another Aberdeen waiting to be created,” he said, referring to Scotland’s North Sea oil hub. “Manchester and Liverpool could be centers of excellence.”
IGas, one of the small British companies chasing big dreams of shale-gas riches, has assembled a large package of acreage in an area that geologists say looks particularly promising. The company plans to drill an exploratory well here before the end of the year. If it likes what it finds, the company would then probably apply for permission to hydraulically fracture that well, or others that they may also drill in the area, to find out whether there are strong enough gas flows from the shale rock to make further investment worthwhile.
On a recent day, Mr. Blaymires led a tour of the windswept site and another about a half-hour’s drive to the west, in Warrington, where the company is already producing methane gas from coal beds — a conceptually similar technique that is also still considered unconventional.
IGas was founded in 2004 mainly to develop coal gas. But the company now reckons that shale gas, which it thinks can be found at greater depths than the coal in the area, may prove more promising. Mr. Blaymires said that 2014 and early 2015 were shaping up as a “critical period” for the company and the industry. “In all likelihood, a number of wells will be drilled and fracked, and that will determine the commercial potential of shale in the U.K.,” he said.
If so, those will be the first tests of hydraulic fracturing in shale since another small company, Cuadrilla Resources, set off seismic and political tremors with fracking in 2011 at a site not far from Barton.
This summer, a well that Cuadrilla drilled in Balcombe, in the commuter country south of London, set off protests from environmentalists and local opponents that received enormous attention from the media; the fact that it was a conventional oil well, not a fracking well for shale gas, almost seemed beside the political point.
British environmental groups remain largely opposed to shale gas fracking, even though it has the potential to help reduce greenhouse gas emissions if used as a substitute for coal in power generation. Even more than seismic concerns, they worry about possible water pollution, noise and other disruptions.
But they say their greatest worry is that companies like IGas might actually succeed, turning shale gas into an abundant enough source of fossil fuels that it will reduce the incentive to invest in renewable energy sources like wind and solar power.
“We believe that if you care about climate change, you shouldn’t be looking for new fossil fuels,” said Leila Deen, head of energy policy for Greenpeace in Britain. “We believe you should leave it in the ground.”
The Cameron government is intent on encouraging the development of Britain’s energy resources, which is a reason that the chancellor of the Exchequer, George Osborne, played a prominent role on Thursday in announcing that Britain would welcome Chinese money into its nuclear power program.
In support of shale gas development, the British government has established an office of unconventional oil and gas and has indicated that it will set up a favorable tax system as well as rewards to help overcome potential local opposition.
In addition, the government is preparing the first licensing round of onshore leases since 2008 with a possibility that bigger players with strong balance sheets will be persuaded to play. The government owns all mineral rights in Britain although companies like IGas lease individual sites from businesses and farmers.
This year, the British Geological Survey published a survey estimating that a strip across northern central Britain had a very large amount of shale gas in the ground. The midrange figure was 1,300 trillion cubic feet, or 36.8 trillion cubic meters. If even 10 percent of that gas could be produced, it could satisfy British natural gas consumption for about 45 years at current rates. But how much can be recovered if any is unknown.
Shale gas deposits appear to be widely distributed around the world. Political, economic and social factors will likely loom large in determining what countries actually exploit these resources.
“We do have the rocks; we do have the technical capability,” said Peter Styles a professor of geophysics at Keele University. The question is “do we have the political will?”
Besides Britain, Poland so far seems to be relatively open to shale gas exploration. Not only does it have potentially promising underground deposits, but Poland is also trying to reduce its heavy reliance on air-polluting coal and on natural gas from Russia.
That is why when it comes to shale gas development, of all the European countries “Britain and Poland look the most promising in the next five to 10 years,” said Menno Koch, an analyst at Lambert Energy Advisory in London.
There would certainly be customers for the natural gas, not only for direct energy productions but as feedstock for the fertilizer and petrochemical plants at Merseyside, not far from where IGas is looking.
One of those companies, Ineos, a petrochemical company with operations in Britain, is watching the shale gas developments with interest.
“We have a clear view that the development of indigenous shale gas within the U.K. is essential for a competitive energy market and particularly for a competitive chemical industry,” said Tom Crotty, an Ineos spokesman.
IGas talks big numbers. The company’s chief executive, Andrew Austin, a former banker, estimates that it has as much as 170 trillion cubic feet of shale gas under its northern acreage. If it could recover just 5 percent of that amount, it would have about the equivalent of three years of current British consumption, or about $85 billion worth at today’s prices.
IGas already operates a pilot coal-bed methane site at a place called Doe Green in Warrington. Four horizontal wells have been drilled into underlying coal seams. The resulting gas is fed to power a generator, which feeds into the electric grid.
IGas also operates more than 100 onshore oil wells around the country. Those wells produce about 3,000 barrels of oil a day, but the company is betting that more shale resources lie beneath some of those oil fields.
IGas is no Big Oil behemoth, but essentially an energy start-up. For the 12 months ended March 31, the company, which is listed on London’s AIM small company exchange, reported revenue of £68 million, or $110 million, and a loss of £18 million, or $29 million.
Mr. Austin flirted with bringing in an equity partner last year to pay for the new wells. Instead, IGas raised £23 million in new equity this year and also floated a $165 million bond in Oslo this month.
After drilling two wells and fracking at least one, the company will look for a partner to bring capital and expertise, Mr. Blaymires says. He conceded that the shale gas quest “has proven a little more difficult” than he envisaged when he joined in 2010. “There’s nothing I have seen to date that says this can’t work,” he said. “We have to get some wells drilled and fracked to demonstrate that it is commercially practical.”
Mr. Austin and Mr. Blaymires say they think they may have a way of overcoming environmental concerns. They say that the British shale formations appear to be 3,000 to 4,000 feet, or 915 to 1,220 meters, thick — several times as thick as those found in the United States. Because of the presumed greater production of the formations, the executives say they hope to be able to drill many wells from a single site so as to reduce the environmental impact above ground. Hydraulic fracturing involves drilling down vertically, and then horizontally, creating fissures into which a combination of water and chemicals is pumped to force the gas from the rock. Mr. Blaymires said a single site could extract gas from an underground formation of four or five square miles, or 10 to 13 square kilometers.
The back-of-the-envelope economics look encouraging. A site with 10 wells, each with four lateral branches, might produce gas worth more than $1 billion at today’s prices during its lifetime, according to a study by the Institute of Directors, a British business group. But to bring in sand, water and equipment for fracking might, over 20 years, require as many as 31,000 truck visits to the site, the group estimates. The prospect of big rumbling trucks rolling through their communities is one of the reasons local people oppose oil and gas development.
Winning over local skeptics may not be easy.
Treading carefully as it parses its descriptions of what it is up to in Barton, IGas says on its Web site, “We are not hydraulically fracturing but just taking samples for analysis,” even though the company does indeed hope to frack the well.
The Salford city government, which has jurisdiction over the Barton site, so far is under the impression that IGas is looking for coal bed methane, not shale gas.
“What will begin soon, undertaken by IGas, is coal-bed methane exploration drilling. There is no permission for ‘fracking’ in Salford,” Ian Stewart, the mayor of the city of Salford, wrote in an e-mail. “Should the company or anyone else wish in the future to engage in ‘fracking,’ then they would have to seek separate planning permission from the council.”
This article has been revised to reflect the following correction:
Correction: October 18, 2013
An earlier version of this article misstated the midrange estimate of the British Geological Survey on shale gas reserves in a strip across northern central Britain. It is 36.8 trillion cubic meters, not 368 trillion cubic meters.
Iran opens doors to tourists as Rouhani fosters thaw in relations with the west
New atmosphere under reformist president sees visa rules eased with Chinese visitors a priority for sanctions-hit country
Saeed Kamali Dehghan
theguardian.com, Friday 18 October 2013 20.09 BST
With its ancient ruins, glittering mosques and spectacular landscapes, Iran is home to some of the world's cultural treasures, but ever since the 1979 revolution, these have largely remained unseen by international tourists. In recent years, the country's most high-profile visitors have been nuclear inspectors from the International Atomic Energy Agency.
Now, however, the new administration of Hassan Rouhani is taking steps to open up Iran to foreigners in an effort to improve its international image after the gloomy years under Mahmoud Ahmadinejad – and to bring in much-needed foreign currency to an economy reeling from years of sanctions.
Mohammad-Ali Najafi, a vice-president and the head of the country's cultural heritage and tourism organisation, said Iran was overhauling its strict immigration rules to ease or abolish visa requirements for most foreign visitors.
"From the next two or three months, I predict that the number of foreign tourists who come to visit Iran as a tourist will greatly increase," said Najafi in a telephone interview from Tehran.
Najafi admitted some senior officials had been concerned at the prospect of allowing large numbers of tourists – especially westerners – in without prior security checks, but said that since Rouhani took office in August Iran's tourism body had eventually secured their support – and government approval.
The authorities will divide countries into three categories, Najafi said. Tourists from countries in the first group will not need a visa; visitors from the second group will be allowed in without a visa as long as they are part of an organised tour group; and visa procedures for the third group will be eased – meaning that many will be able to obtain a visa on arrival.
"Western countries will most probably be categorised in the second or third group," he said.
The semi-official Isna news agency has reported that except for 10 countries, including Britain, the US, Afghanistan and Pakistan, foreign tourists will be able to obtain visas upon arrival at the airport.
In September, Najafi was with Rouhani as the president travelled to New York for the UN general assembly. That visit marked a huge breakthrough in relations with the US, with the first direct talks between American and Iranian presidents since Iran's 1979 Islamic revolution, and renewed hopes that a solution can be found to the stalemate over Iran's nuclear programme.
The trip also opened up the possibility of a boost for the country's tourism industry. "When I was in America, I personally met with a number of tour operators, mainly those who are operated by Iranians in the US or non-Iranians who have had experience in dealing with Iran in the past," Najafi said.
After he was sworn in, Rouhani initially nominated Najafi as education minister but parliament accused him of previously having sided with the opposition Green movement and refused to sanction his appointment. Instead, Rouhani made him a vice-president, a cabinet position that does not require a parliamentary vote.
Iranians have also seen encouraging signs of the thaw at home: high-profile political prisoners have been released and the media face fewer restrictions. Najafi said the new political atmosphere had already encouraged more visitors.
"Over the past two months, many travel agencies have reported to us that the number of foreign tourists who have signed up to their Iran tours has increased a lot," he said. According to Najafi, four million foreign visitors came last year, mainly pilgrims from neighbouring countries such as Pakistan and Iraq who went to religious sites such as the Imam Reza shrine in Mashhad, a revered Shia site. "We don't have exact figures but we estimate that last year our tourism industry helped add some $2bn [£1.3bn] to our revenue," said Najafi. Now, Najafi said, the target was $10bn.
Chinese tourists are a priority. "World figures show that China sends more tourists to visit other countries than anywhere else," Najafi said. "With help from our embassy in China, we have spoken to Chinese tourism officials and we have invited a number of them to come to Iran."
Najafi hoped foreign tourists would become "ambassadors for the goodwill of our country and our people" in the world. "We have a secure and safe country in our region … but we in Iran should take the first step in persuading westerners that they should have no fear in coming to Iran."
Unesco has so far declared16 world heritage sites in Iran, which was historically referred to as Persia in the west up until the 20th century.
In recent years, Iran's culture and heritage have fallen victim to the political dispute between Tehran and the west, which has dominated the global discourse on Iran. Brandon Stanton, an American citizen who travelled to Iran last year, attracted attention on returning home by posting an itinerary, along with pictures of Iran, on the Human of New York photo blog.
"Americans are especially loved," he wrote with astonishment. "This was noted in every travel account that I read, and I can confirm the fact. You will be smiled at, waved at, invited to meals, and asked to deliver personal messages to Jennifer Lopez. American music, movies, and media are thoroughly consumed by the people of Iran."
Amos Chapple, a photographer from New Zealand who has visited Iran on a number of times, said the Iran he saw was utterly different from the one represented in the west.
"Every traveller I met felt the same way: they had arrived expecting hostility and danger, but ended up amongst the most cosmopolitan and generous people in the Middle East," he said.
"Having visited three times it's just heartbreaking to see what damage the sanctions are doing to ordinary people who have nothing but goodwill towards America."
Zoe Holman, an Australian journalist who visited Iran for the first time in 2003, said: "Despite the divisions between 'the Muslim' and 'the west' being projected in geopolitics by the 'war on terror' and Iraq war, I was surprised, and humbled, to discover that none of these prejudices seemed to have trickled down to affect Iranian attitudes towards westerners.
"I was struck by the cosmopolitanism of urban Iranians, their education, open-mindedness and their humorous irreverence for the religious regime which governed them."
The Foreign Office currently advises against all but essential travel to most of Iran. Unlike tourists, journalists – especially those working for the foreign press – are usually unwelcome in the Islamic republic.
October 18, 2013
As Iran Shifts, Hard-Liners See Threat to Battle Cry
By THOMAS ERDBRINK
TEHRAN — With the believers pouring out of the Friday Prayer site in Tehran, Ali Akbar and his friends sprang into action, hastily spreading posters of the American flag on the asphalt and switching on their megaphone.
“Death to America!” one of them yelled through the loudspeaker, as others urged the middle-aged men leaving the prayer grounds to stomp on the American flags. “Death to America!” the men shouted back, with a certain casualness that betrayed decades of uttering Iran’s most important revolutionary slogan.
As Iran’s new president, Hassan Rouhani, steers the country away from its confrontational posture toward the West, he is inevitably calling into question the bedrock anti-American ideology of the Islamic republic. That is turning the revolution’s leading slogan, “Death to America,” into a political battleground.
“These three words are the blood of our ideology,” said one of those leaving Friday Prayer, Mohammad Jahanbi. He said he had been a political prisoner during the reign of Shah Mohammed Reza Pahlavi and was a veteran of the bloody eight-year war with Iraq. “We must hold on to ‘Death to America’; otherwise, our revolution will be lost.”
But the current government has been calling for reasoned actions rather than slogans. “We can stand against powers with prudence rather than with slogans,” Mr. Rouhani said recently.
The issue gained prominence recently when the personal Web site of former President Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, a pragmatist who is close to the new government, published his older memoirs. Mr. Rafsanjani had indicated that the founder of the Islamic republic, his mentor and revolutionary comrade Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, had once hinted that “Death to America” could be eliminated if the conditions were right, just as relations could be re-established, if needed.
Mr. Rafsanjani was immediately attacked in hard-line newspapers, and state-run television broadcast a long program countering his claims, accusing “some” of insinuating the idea of duality in the stances of Ayatollah Khomeini. Mr. Rafsanjani issued an apology.
The affair quickly blew over, but it underscored the hard-liners’ fears about the warming relations between Iran and the West, not to speak of an ultimate normalization. While they officially support the current nuclear talks between the government and representatives of the “great Satan,” hard-liners are worried that Mr. Rouhani’s outreach could change Iran’s rigid political landscape beyond recognition.
After all, some have said, “Death to America” could be eliminated from the revolutionary discourse just as surely as “Death to the Soviet Union” was a generation ago.
And so they marched, a couple of hundred people in this capital of 12 million. American flags were burned, children waved portraits of President Obama with Dracula-like fangs, and security officers holding walkie-talkies tried to look inconspicuous.
While many, if not most, Iranians in the capital scoff at the “Death to America” crowd, anti-Americanism remains an important part of the Islamic republic’s ideology and legitimacy.
The state television program that criticized Mr. Rafsanjani cited a passage from the last will and testament of Ayatollah Khomeini, who died in 1989. “The U.S.A. is the foremost enemy of Islam,” it said. “It is a terrorist state by nature that has set fire to everything everywhere, and its ally, the international Zionism, does not stop short of any crime to achieve its base and greedy desires, crimes that the tongue and pen are ashamed to utter or write.”
The state news media give prominence to anti-American demonstrations, like a well-orchestrated outburst recently among Iranian pilgrims in Mecca, Saudi Arabia. This week, state television showed believers during Id al-Adha, the Islamic Feast of Sacrifice, who would almost not stop shouting “Death to America.”
Mr. Rouhani’s government has announced that it wants to conduct a public opinion survey on the advisability of its outreach to the United States. But it is unclear if this will happen, analysts say, because it would lay bare the ideological divisions in the Islamic republic.
A similar poll conducted in 2003 showed that 70 percent favored establishing ties with America. There was no follow-up, though, because the pollsters were jailed for several years.
In the Islamic republic, support of “the people” is often cited by all factions. But with the animosity toward the United States, things can get complicated. A majority of the Iranian electorate voted for Mr. Rouhani and his conciliatory international polices, while the revolutionary narrative prescribes that the fight against America is eternal and supported by all Iranians.
At the demonstration on Friday, the script played out like clockwork, as it has for the past three decades. About two dozen protesters worked themselves into a frenzy, and domestic and international camera teams and photographers zoomed in as the demonstrators set fire to an American flag.
As black smoke filled the air, they pumped their fists and let out a lusty “Death to America.”
An older man, wearing a black skullcap, a sign that he had been on the pilgrimage to Mecca, dragged a plastic poster showing Mr. Obama decorated with Stars of David and the word “oppressor.” As he was about to throw it on the fire, one of the young organizers of the demonstration stopped him.
“Don’t burn this,” he said. “We paid for this poster with public money. We need to use it for a very long time to come.”
This article has been revised to reflect the following correction:
Correction: October 19, 2013
Because of an editing error, an earlier version of this article misidentified the Web site that published former President Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani’s memoirs. It was Mr. Rafsanjani’s personal Web site, not the personal Web site of a hard-line general.
Narendra Modi to launch India's main opposition party's campaign with rally
The Hindu nationalist will launch campaign for victory in national polls next year with a major rally in state of Uttar Pradesh
Jason Burke in Delhi
theguardian.com, Friday 18 October 2013 15.59 BST
Narendra Modi, the controversial Indian politician, will launch the country's main opposition party's campaign for victory in national polls next year with a major rally in the northern state of Uttar Pradesh on Saturday.
This past week the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has been bolstered by two polls showing it has gained support since naming Modi, a Hindu nationalist who is one of India's most divisive figures, as its candidate for prime minister last month.
The world's largest democracy is likely to hold a general election – almost certainly the biggest such democratic exercise ever – in April next year.
Modi, three times chief minister of Gujarat, is a Hindu nationalist whose reputation has been tarnished by allegations that he failed to protect Muslims during sectarian rioting in Gujarat in 2002. The 63-year-old is however popular with the business community and among many urban voters.
"He is becoming a national pheonomenon – he has found a way to connect to people and is setting the agenda," said commentator Anil Padmanabhan, who writes for Mint, a local newspaper.
Major figures within the BJP appear to believe Modi's high profile gives them a chance at winning an outright majority at next year's polls, avoiding complex and difficult coalition building. Party strategists have told the Guardian they believe Modi appeals to younger voters who see "a can do-er" not an "autocrat", as critics depict him.
Analysts say that 120 million first-time voters in India will be crucial in determining if the current coalition – which took power from the BJP in 2004 – win what is predicted to be a bitter and close contest next year.
Half of Indians are under 26, with an even higher proportion in the big, poor northern states such as Uttar Pradesh.
The state has poverty levels worse than many parts of sub-Saharan Africa and the highest number of potential first-time voters in India with 23 million. They will account for almost a fifth of the state's 129 million eligible voters, the Times of India said.
Uttar Pradesh was also chosen by Rahul Gandhi, the 43-year-old scion of India's most famous political dynasty, to launch the ruling Congress party's campaign.
Congress party has led a coalition government for nearly a decade but is headed for its worst ever performance in a general election as it battles slowing economic growth and allegations of corruption, a survey by pollsters Team Cvoter for two television networks showed.
"There is a huge amount of cynicism about the government," said Padmanabhan.
The survey forecasts the BJP to pick up 162 seats nationally. The last Cvoter survey conducted in August, before Modi was named, forecast the party would get 130 seats, up from the 116 it now holds.
The Congress tally would drop to 102 seats from the 206 it now holds in the 545-member lower house of parliament – if voting in the election were to reflect the poll – conducted for the India TV and Times Now networks and released late on Wednesday.
A second opinion poll, released on Thursday, suggested the BJP could make major gains against regional rivals in Uttar Pradesh and neighbouring Bihar, though it was Modi who appeared popular rather than the party.
In Uttar Pradesh, which contributes more seats to parliament than any other state, the BJP would still emerge as the largest party, ending years of dominance by two local parties who draw much of their strength from specific communities, the poll, carried out by Nielsen for the Economic Times newspaper, showed. It predicted 27 seats for the party out of 80 at stake, almost three times its tally in the last election.
Survey respondents said riots last month that pitted Hindus against Muslims in Uttar Pradesh, killing at least 50, were likely to consolidate Hindu votes behind the party.
Elections are notoriously hard to predict in India, which has very complex demographics and thin margins separating victory from defeat.
A series of state elections in the coming two months may give an indication of how national elections will go.
Rahul Gandhi launches Indian election campaign with appeal to young people
Son of Sonia Gandhi promises to bring in 'young government' as analysts say 120 million first-time voters will be key
Jason Burke in Delhi
The Guardian, Wednesday 9 October 2013 16.07 BST
Rahul Gandhi, the 43-year-old scion of India's most famous political dynasty, has launched the ruling Congress party's campaign for re-election in polls due next spring with a promise to bring in a "young government".
Analysts agree that 120 million first-time voters in India will be crucial in determining if the current coalition, in power since 2004, can win in what is predicted to be a bitter and close contest next year.
Half of Indians are under 26, with an even higher proportion in the big, poor northern states such as Bihar and Uttar Pradesh, where Gandhi addressed large rallies on Wednesday.
Uttar Pradesh, which has poverty levels worse than many parts of sub-Saharan Africa, has the highest number of potential first-time voters in India with 23 million. They will account for almost a fifth of the state's 129 million eligible voters, the Times of India said.
"The first-time voters are very important but it all depends on the ability of the candidates and the parties to motivate them to go out and vote," said Swapan Dasgupta, an Indian political analyst.
Gandhi, vice-president of the Congress party, recently took on the old guard of the organisation, publicly opposing an executive order from the 81-year-old prime minister, Manmohan Singh, which would have allowed politicians convicted of criminal charges to remain in office and stand in elections.
About 30% of Indian lawmakers across federal and state assemblies have criminal charges against them, and following a supreme court order in July many faced being expelled from their seats, including government allies seen as important for electoral success.
The former management consultant and son of Sonia Gandhi, the widow of the assassinated prime minister Rajiv Gandhi and current president of the Congress party, said the order was "nonsense" and called on the cabinet to "tear it up". After some debate, the order was withdrawn.
The main opponent for Gandhi and the Congress party is Narendra Modi, the controversial chief minister of Gujarat state and prime ministerial candidate for the Bharatiya Janata party (BJP), a Hindu nationalist conservative party which held power before being defeated in 2004.
Modi's reputation has been tarnished by allegations that he failed to protect Muslims during sectarian rioting in Gujarat in 2002. He is however popular with the business community and among many urban voters.
"Both parties are attaching much importance to a campaign in tune with the aspirations and cultural mores of young people. The BJP aims to inject a bit of pop culture. The Congress seems to be going back to the 1970s slogans of 'banish poverty'," Dasgupta, the analyst, said.
Gandhi stressed the problems of poor, rural communities – historically the core support of Congress – in Wednesday's rallies but was careful to mention young people.
"In 2014, it will be a poor man's government, a government of youths. We will empower every section of society. I am not scared and there is no one to scare us," Gandhi told one rally in Rampur, 150 miles north-west of Delhi, the capital.
The Congress party hope that a pledge to massively expand India's huge food security subsidy scheme will offset the traditional swing against incumbents.
In another move many say is designed to bolster support before the polls, the Congress-led government last week ordered the division of the southern state of Andhra Pradesh into two, with a new state of Telangana, India's 29th, coming into existence.
However, electricity workers have shut down power plants across Andhra Pradesh in protest, cutting supplies to tens of millions of people and causing chaos. The workers are among thousands of people in Andhra Pradesh who have gone on strike, saying the new state will divide Telugu-speaking people, lead to cuts in the state budget and problems with water resources.
Scores of freight and passenger trains were cancelled. Hospitals and drinking water utilities in the state were operating with generators, while mobile phone services, gas stations and other businesses were also affected.
On Wednesday Digvijaya Singh, a senior Congress party official who is close to Rahul Gandhi, said the decision to create Telangana would not be reversed.
Indian police arrest crew of US-owned anti-piracy escort ship and seize guns
Crew of ship owned by US security firm AdvanFort charged with illegal possession of arms and entry into Indian waters
Associated Press in New Delhi
theguardian.com, Friday 18 October 2013 16.13 BST
Indian police have arrested the crew of a US-owned ship on charges of illegally transporting weapons and ammunition in Indian waters.
Eight crew and 25 security guards, including a British national, Estonians and Ukrainians, on board the MV Seaman Guard Ohio were arrested after they failed to produce documents allowing them to carry the weapons, a police official said on condition of anonymity.
The ship is owned by a Virginia-based security company, AdvanFort, but is registered in Sierra Leone. It was detained on 12 October and has been in Tuticorin port, also known as Thoothukudi, in Tamil Nadu state.
The ship's captain told investigators that the company provides armed escorts to merchant vessels travelling in pirate-infested waters in the Indian Ocean.
Police seized 35 automatic weapons and nearly 5,700 rounds of ammunition from the security guards on the ship, the police official said. The men were charged with illegal possession of weapons and ammunition and entering India's territorial waters without permission, he said.
Two of the crew members were not arrested and were allowed to stay on board the ship to carry out maintenance work.
AdvanFort could not immediately be reached for comment. The US embassy in Delhi said it had no comment on the matter.
India is very sensitive about the presence of armed security guards on merchant ships after Italian marines shot dead two fishermen last year. The marines were part of a military security team on a cargo ship when they fired at the fishermen, mistaking them for pirates. The two Italians are facing trial in India for the deaths.
Sinosphere - Dispatches From China
October 17, 2013, 11:39 pm
Amid Heavy Pollution, Beijing Issues Emergency Rules to Protect Citizens
By DIDI KIRSTEN TATLOW
Snappily titled the Six Stops and One Wash, a new and complex string of regulations by the Beijing city government is aimed at combating the effects of persistent, heavy air pollution on the populace. A major rule will take private vehicles off the roads on alternate days, depending on their license plates, when pollution is especially bad.
The new measures were announced Thursday as air in the capital was deemed “heavily polluted,” according to government air quality readings. Air pollution is a chronic problem in large parts of China.
The regulations consist of a system of four colored alerts that will kick in when heavy pollution is forecast.
The World Health Organization’s cancer agency, the International Agency for Research on Cancer, said Thursday that it was classifying air pollution as a Group 1 human carcinogen. Particulate matter, a main component of air pollution, was also being classified as a carcinogen, said the agency, based in Lyon, France. “Our conclusion is that this is a leading environmental cause of cancer deaths,” Christopher P. Wild, the agency’s director, said at a news briefing in Geneva, according to Reuters.
That puts both air pollution and air-suspended particulate matter with more than 100 other known cancer-causing substances in the agency’s Group 1 category, including asbestos, plutonium, silica dust, ultraviolet radiation and tobacco smoke, Reuters reported.
Beijing, along with much of northern China, suffers from consistently heavy air pollution that can be especially bad in the winter, when coal-powered heating systems are widely used.
The plan seems to rest on being able to predict pollution patterns with great accuracy.
When one day of “heavy” pollution, defined as an air quality index reading of 201 to 300, is predicted, a blue alert will be put in place and extra street washing will be carried out. Street washing is intended to hold down the dust that accumulates from things like construction activity and sand from the desert, though some here see it as a mostly cosmetic measure.
A yellow alert applies to one day of “serious” pollution, defined as an index reading of more than 300, and will also lead to extra street washing.
When three days of heavy pollution are predicted, an orange alert will be put in place and more action will be taken: factories will close, work on construction sites will stop, and the use of barbecues and firecrackers will be banned.
A red alert will be put in place when three days of serious pollution are forecast, leading to the full Six Stops and One Wash plan. As well as all the above measures, kindergartens and elementary and high schools will close, and cars will be driven only on alternate days; those with license plates that end in odd numbers can be driven on odd-numbered days, and those with plates ending in even numbers on even-numbered days. Some people can get around this rule, like those lucky enough to have more than one car with the right plates.
Xinhua, the state-run news agency, said this measure will cause about two million more people to squeeze onto public transportation. Extra buses will be deployed, and the subway will run for half an hour longer in the evening, it said.
While the plan has received quite a bit of attention already, with many people sending or forwarding messages with details on Sina Weibo, a Chinese microblog site, its usefulness is already being called into question.
“The target of getting this policy out there is the pollution,” said Manpaozhe Robin on Sina Weibo. “So the point is whether the odd and even car rule will solve the air pollution problem. I don’t believe this is a good policy. It’s a simple and crude measure that leaves the skies still smoggy.”
China has also announced a long-term plan to clear the air, but the government has warned it will not be easy or quick.
Another person, with the user name Jihe de dipan, said: “Starting from today, I will use my mobile phone to follow the air pollution index. Even though we are helpless against the serious pollution that worsens day by day, the least I can do is use my goodness and this record to warn my loved ones and friends to protect their health!” On Thursday, the person noted, “The air pollution level is 285.”
The Poseidon adventure: China's secret salvage of Britain's sunken submarine
A new book details how Mao's navy raised the wreck of HMS Poseidon, which went down with the loss of 21 lives in 1931
Jonathan Kaiman in Beijing
theguardian.com, Friday 18 October 2013 17.10 BST
When the British submarine HMS Poseidon sank off China's east coast 82 years ago after colliding with a cargo ship, the dramatic underwater escape by five of its crew members made headlines around the world.
But the episode was soon overshadowed by the communist insurgency already raging on the mainland, the Japanese invasion of Manchuria, and eventually the outbreak of the second world war. The world moved on, the wreck of the Poseidon lay 30 metres beneath the sea, lost to history.
Until now. A new book reveals that China secretly salvaged the submarine in 1972, perhaps to abet its then-incipient nuclear submarine programme.
Steven Schwankert, an American author and diving-company owner in Beijing, spent six years obsessively piecing together the submarine's story; his book about the experience, Poseidon: China's Secret Salvage of Britain's Lost Submarine, was released this month.
"When you start something like this, you say I'm going to start at point A and end at point B. Then suddenly you realise that point B doesn't exist, so you have to go to point C," said Schwankert. "The challenge wasn't to find the submarine per se, but to prove that the story of the salvage was correct."
Although Schwankert never found the exact reasons behind the salvage, he has a few guesses: perhaps fishing nets were getting caught on its periscope, or China, then deep into the Cultural Revolution, simply needed the scrap metal. Or perhaps the Chinese navy's underwater special forces salvaged the wreck as practice.
"In 1972, China's nuclear submarine programme was just getting started," he said. "If you have that kind of a programme, one of the first things you need to know is: if we lose this thing, can we recover it?"
On 9 June 1931, HMS Poseidon – one of the Royal Navy's state-of-the-art submarines – was conducting routine drills near a leased British navy base off the coast of Shandong province when it collided with a Chinese cargo ship, tearing a hole in its starboard side.
Although 31 of its crew members managed to scramble off before the submarine went down, 26 were trapped on board. Eight were stuck in the submarine's torpedo room, and over the next hour, they used a predecessor to modern scuba equipment to reach the surface – the first time submariners had used breathing apparatus to escape a stricken boat; until then, crew members had been taught to simply wait for help. Five of the men survived.
The incident made the front page of the New York Times, inspired a feature film, and changed maritime practice – the Royal Navy began adding escape chambers to submarines and expanded its research into treatment of decompression.
Schwankert first learned about the Poseidon while planning an underwater expedition to wrecks from the 1884-85 Sino-Japanese war.
He was fascinated by the vague descriptions of the Poseidon and sepia photographs that he found online, and set out to learn more, believing that the wreck remained on the seabed near Weihai, a port city in Shandong province. After a year of investigating, he began to have his doubts.
By combing through Chinese-language Google search results, Schwankert began to find online articles mentioning the salvage, including one on the website of the Shanghai salvage bureau. On one online forum, he found testimony from a man who allegedly saw the wreck being hauled on to the shore while swimming in the ocean.
China's foreign ministry confirmed later that the submarine had been salvaged, but refused to provide any details. "Some people have suggested that I go out there and look at the site anyway. I said how can you do that? How can you prove a negative?" Schwankert said. "Every indication is that they brought up the whole thing."
October 18, 2013
A Sri Lankan Journalist Eagerly Toes the Line
By GARDINER HARRIS
COLOMBO, Sri Lanka — HE calls himself the Rush Limbaugh of Sri Lanka, “except I’m not as obnoxious.” His critics say he should be hanged from a lamppost.
Rajpal Abeynayake, 50, is the editor in chief of The Daily News, the country’s largest English-language daily newspaper, which is wholly owned by the government. He is also the host of a morning radio program, and the two platforms make him the most influential English-language journalist in Sri Lanka.
His position atop Sri Lanka’s journalistic firmament has been assured in part because those who have criticized the government in recent years have been killed, intimidated or forced into exile.
Such a fate is difficult to imagine for Mr. Abeynayake, a gushing admirer of Sri Lanka’s president, Mahinda Rajapaksa, and his brother Gotabaya Rajapaksa, the defense minister. But leading a government news media organ can be a precarious job; his predecessor at The Daily News lasted only two years.
Mr. Abeynayake will soon pass his first anniversary as editor in chief, and he expects to have many more.
“I think, if I may say so, that they’re comfortable with me,” he said, referring to the governing Rajapaksa clan.
The Daily News is delivered free in Colombo’s high-end hotels, and its uncritical boosterism may surprise many of those coming to Sri Lanka next month as part of a meeting of Commonwealth heads of government. But Mr. Abeynayake is unapologetic about violating what many see as a basic norm of journalism: giving both sides of a story.
“We have a media that is far freer than that in the U.S., U.K. or the rest of the Western world,” he said in one of the many black-is-white statements he made in an hourlong interview. “Take the invasion of Iraq. Can you tell me whether the U.S. media was against it, including your newspaper?”
The reason Sri Lanka needs state-owned and state-dominated news media, he said, is that otherwise the government’s views would be ignored.
“A coterie of privately owned media could bring down the government by manipulating the news,” he said, “and that doesn’t do justice to those who elected them.”
Mr. Abeynayake cites Noam Chomsky and the government shutdown in the United States to defend Sri Lanka’s press restrictions. Many Web sites that are critical of the government are blocked in the country, and Al Jazeera’s recent coverage of elections in the country’s restive northern provinces was pulled from television channels.
“You cannot allow the freedom of the wild ass,” he said, referring to the animal. “And if media are manipulated to serve as the instrument of others’ agendas — like imperialists or multinational corporations — you need to counter that.”
NINETEEN journalists have been killed in Sri Lanka since 1992, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists. Among them was Lasantha Wickrematunge, the editor in chief of The Sunday Leader, who was beaten to death in 2009 by men on motorcycles who surrounded his car and forced him to stop. The police have no suspects in the case, which followed a series of other attacks.
Lal Wickrematunge, the editor’s brother, said in an interview that the Rajapaksa government was behind his brother’s death. The government has denied complicity.
Last month, Mandana Ismail Abeywickrema, a co-editor of The Sunday Leader, fled Sri Lanka after numerous death threats and a two-hour home invasion, during which the intruders carefully went through her files and held a knife to the throat of her 10-year-old daughter.
“The police keep saying it’s a robbery,” Ms. Abeywickrema said in a telephone interview, “but what robbers would go through my files and documents for more than two hours?”
Many journalists who continue to work in Sri Lanka say that a culture of intimidation prevents anyone from writing articles that are overly critical of the Rajapaksa family or the military.
“You really cannot question them,” said Dilrukshi Handunnetti, the senior deputy editor of Ceylon Today. “It’s just not allowed. You are expected to stay forever grateful that they delivered us from war.” Ms. Handunnetti described Sri Lankan journalism, including her own newspaper, as “a collective lame duck.”
Bob Dietz of the Committee to Protect Journalists said that attacks against journalists in Sri Lanka had declined in recent years, but that “the threat level is still remarkably high.”
“I think there was enough bad international publicity about the killings and assaults on individuals and media facilities that the preferred tactic has become intimidation,” he said.
The killings mostly occurred during the long civil war between the majority Sinhalese and the Tamil Tigers, a vicious insurgent group. The Rajapaksas ended the war in 2009 in a brutal wave of killing that cost the lives of about 40,000 people, many of them civilians, according to international human rights organizations.
DESPITE the atrocities, the Rajapaksas remain popular in Sri Lanka because they decisively ended a civil war that had destabilized the country for decades. Mr. Abeynayake dismissed the international estimates of the war casualties, and he said many of the journalists killed were spies for the Tamil Tigers.
“These were terrorists using journalism as a cover,” he said. “Terrorists get killed by governments, and, yes, that’s O.K.”
Mr. Abeynayake, whose father was a civil servant, was born in Colombo and attended St. Thomas’ College, a private Anglican school on Colombo’s outskirts that is one of the country’s most prestigious educational institutions. He studied engineering at the University of Missouri for two years before returning home to become a journalist. He has a brother who lives in Texas and works for Dell. He is unmarried.
His first stint as the editor of a government-owned newspaper, The Sunday Observer, ended in 2005 after just eight months when he wrote an editorial mildly disagreeing with President Rajapaksa.
“At the time, I wasn’t sure how they’d turn out,” Mr. Abeynayake said of the Rajapaksa government. “I was skeptical that these people could deliver. I wasn’t very comfortable with them in 2005. Now, I’m very comfortable.”
Mr. Abeynayake noted that no Sri Lankan journalist had been killed since 2009, and he said that those who had fled the country were either working as agents of those countries or were looking for free tickets out.
“They are economic migrants,” he said, “just like these people who get on boats to Australia.”
Mr. Abeynayake said that he and others at government-owned publications were no more constrained in their work than those at privately owned newspapers.
“All journalists to a very great extent are forced to toe a certain line,” he said. “In the end, you gravitate to a place where the management views are in consonance with yours. And I have gravitated to that place.”
He is keenly aware that his journalistic counterparts in the United States and elsewhere do not view his editorship and writings with favor. But that is because, he said, he has chosen to remain a loyal citizen of Sri Lanka.
“I will never win an award in the United States,” he said. “But if I went to the embassy and asked for asylum, everyone would love me.”
October 18, 2013
Soaring Crime Rate Takes a Growing Malaysia by Surprise
By THOMAS FULLER
KUALA LUMPUR, Malaysia — Malaysia’s population has tripled over the past four decades. Its largest city, Kuala Lumpur, a place once so sparsely populated that it looked like a botanical garden, has exploded into a cosmopolitan metropolis of shopping malls, luxury hotels and sprawling suburbs.
But with modernity and urbanization came an unwanted corollary: a soaring crime rate that has blighted Kuala Lumpur, previously considered one of Asia’s safest cities, and other urban areas across Peninsular Malaysia. It is hard to find someone in Kuala Lumpur today who does not have a story about a purse snatching, a burglary, or worse.
“Whatever defense we put up is not enough,” said Chong Kon Wah, a British-trained engineer who was burglarized twice at his home in the Kuala Lumpur suburbs and robbed once while in his car — all within 10 days in August.
Residents in middle-class and wealthy neighborhoods have begun to gate their communities, often without local government permission. And the demand for personal guards has soared, with the number of certified security companies nationwide more than tripling over the past decade to 712 from 200, according to the Security Services Association of Malaysia, which trains guards.
Last month, the United States Embassy in Kuala Lumpur sent a warning to American citizens here: “Remember to carry your backpack or purse on the shoulder AWAY from the road to prevent having it snatched by motorbikers.”
The possible reasons for a higher crime rate are a matter of debate — some say the country’s ethnic-based policies that favor majority Malays are partly to blame; others say the police force is corrupt and ineffectual. Even the extent of the crime wave in this country of 29 million people is in question.
Despite the widely held perception of a sustained crime wave, the government says that after doubling from 2000 to 2009, the number of reported cases of violent crime nationwide has declined sharply since then. Government officials say they have achieved the drop by adding police officers on the streets and security cameras and barriers along roads to deter thefts by people on motorbikes, as well as by studying policing methods in cities like New York.
But a series of high-profile crimes this year — including some against government officials or their relatives — have led the authorities to begin to acknowledge the depth of the problem. Since August, the police have arrested more than 11,000 people suspected of being gang members. And in a reversal of earlier changes meant to shed some of the country’s authoritarian legacy, the government last month passed laws that would give the police the authority to detain suspects without trial.
As worries rise, the opposition says the government is manipulating the statistics. Critics note that, after years of providing the public with data on murders, rapes, thefts and other crimes, the government has changed the way it presents crime statistics, focusing on what it calls “index crimes” rather than giving a detailed accounting. Tony Pua, an opposition member of Parliament, said he had “no confidence at all” that the figures were accurate.
The Malaysian government has also stopped providing crime statistics to the United Nations, according to Enrico Bisogno, the official responsible for compiling crime data at the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime.
But in response to a request from The New York Times, the Malaysian police provided detailed crime statistics that show the number of homicides over the past 12 years has remained relatively unchanged at about 600 a year. The data also show wide swings in some categories of crime, including a reduction in robberies using a firearm to 17 cases in 2012, from 722 cases nationwide in 2000. Another category, gang robbery, fell to 110 cases in 2012, from a high of 1,809 in 2010.
One crime that did show a steep rise was rape, with the number of reported rapes from 2000 to 2012 doubling to 2,964 cases.
Teh Yik Koon, a criminologist at the National Defense University of Malaysia, says it is widely accepted that crime rates are higher than reported, and she says one problem is a sense of hopelessness that the police can solve crimes.
“There are a lot of people not reporting crimes,” she said, “because they feel there’s nothing the police can do.”
In a country that has long relied on foreign visitors — investors and tourists — for a good share of its economic growth, Malaysia’s paternalistic government had consistently minimized the crime problem.
“If you try to make a fuss out of one or two cases, it will only worsen the situation and create a picture that the country is not safe,” Hishammuddin Hussein, who was home minister at the time, said last year.
But in the months since Mr. Hishammuddin made those comments, the string of high-profile cases in Kuala Lumpur and other cities has brought crime to the top of the political agenda.
Close relatives of the deputy prime minister and the chief of police were burglarized in separate crimes last May. The former head of a local bank was killed in July, and a top executive of one of the country’s most successful companies, AirAsia, was killed during a robbery in August.
When the house of Khairy Jamaluddin, a prominent politician and government minister, was burglarized in June, Malaysians got the straight talk from a government official many had been hoping for.
“The burglary is a reminder to all of us that crime is a serious problem in Malaysia,” Mr. Khairy wrote on his Facebook page.
This month, the home minister, Ahmad Zahid Hamidi, highlighted the government’s new get-tough approach in a speech in which he said it would “no longer compromise” with criminals, according to the news Web site Malaysiakini.
And in comments that drew outrage from the opposition, he said the police should “get the evidence” and “shoot first.”
Human rights groups say they are alarmed by a number of recent cases of criminal suspects who died in police custody.
Critics of the government’s approach say that amid what they call an obfuscation of crime statistics and the sudden crackdown, any real discussion of the roots of Malaysia’s crime problem is being lost.
They blame not only a police force that they view as corrupt and ineffectual, but also income inequality and the alienation of ethnic Indians who represent 7 percent of the country’s population, yet, according to the police, make up two-thirds of gang members.
Some suggest the government needs to modify the country’s seemingly inviolable preferential policies for Malays, who receive scholarships, cheaper housing and government contracts as part of a policy dating from the 1970s.
Ahmad Ghazali Abu Hassan, a professor at the National Defense University of Malaysia says the system of preferences for Malays “should be modified to address inequality within our society, without identifying race.”
Particularly in need of help, he said, were ethnic Indians. “I still believe that poverty is the root cause of this,” he said.
As the debates continue, Malaysians have begun trying to protect themselves.
Mr. Chong, the engineer who was burglarized twice, helped pay for a guard booth and two security guards for his neighborhood several years ago. Thieves stole the television inside the booth while the guards were on patrol.
“We told the police, ‘This is serious. The thieves are everywhere,’ ” he said. “ ‘Something has to be done.’ ”
A restaurant across from Kuala Lumpur’s domestic airport hired an armed security guard in May to deter would-be thieves after attacks on several restaurants in the area.
“A lot of people think it’s a gimmick,” said Terence Wong, the restaurant’s manager. “It’s too expensive to be a gimmick. And my customers say they feel more secure.”
Syria: dozens killed in clashes after suicide attack in Damascus
Attack by rebel forces on checkpoint in pro-government suburb of Jaramana kills at least 30 fighters, reports say
Staff and agencies
theguardian.com, Saturday 19 October 2013 13.42 BST
More than 30 combatants have been killed in a suicide bombing and ensuing battle at a checkpoint in Damascus, activists have said.
The blast came during an attack by rebel forces near the pro-government suburb of Jaramana, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SOHR) claimed.
The state news agency Sana blamed "terrorists" for the explosion but did not give details of the number of casualties. The pro-opposition SOHR said 15 rebels and at least 16 soldiers were killed.
Rebels control much of the countryside around Damascus but Jaramana, a Christian and Druse area, is mostly loyal to President Bashar al-Assad. Opposition fighters have previously targeted ithe suburb with bombings and mortar rounds.
Elsewhere near the capital, Syrian forces tried to storm the suburb of Mouadamiya, which the army has blockaded for months, leading to a rising death toll from hunger and malnutrition.
UK-based SOHR said the checkpoint explosion, near the suburbs of Mleiha and Jaramana, was detonated by a suicide bomber from the al-Qaeda-linked Nusra Front.
Nusra supporters on Twitter, however, said the bomber had intended to blow himself up in the car, but instead got out before setting off the explosives inside. They said rebel forces had captured the checkpoint hit by the car bomb and were battling to take a second one nearby.
Syrian state television reported the blast but gave no death toll, saying only that several people had been killed or wounded in a "terrorist bombing".
SOHR, which has a network of activists across the country, said Syrian fighter jets retaliated by striking nearby opposition-held areas such as Mleiha.
Video uploaded by activists showed a huge column of smoke billowing up from the scene and the sound of fighter jets could be heard.
Rebels also fired rockets into Jaramana, a suburb held by the government, according to SOHR. It said the air force carried out four strikes on adjacent rebel-held districts.
More than 100,000 people have been killed in the Syrian conflict, which began with popular protests against Assad before degenerating into civil war and is now in its third year.
October 18, 2013
Corruption in Peru Aids Cutting of Rain Forest
By WILLIAM NEUMAN and ANDREA ZARATE
PUCALLPA, Peru — Afraid the police would tip off suspects, Francisco Berrospi kept local officers in the dark when he headed into the rain forest as a prosecutor to investigate illegal logging. Sometimes it hardly seemed to matter, though.
Even when he managed to seize trucks, chain saws or illegally harvested trees, judges would often force him to give them back, he said. Bribes were so common, he said, that one anticorruption official openly encouraged him to take them.
“The power of the logging industry here is very strong,” Mr. Berrospi said. “The corruption is terrible.”
More than half of Peru is covered by dense forest, including a wide stretch of the Amazon basin, which spreads across South America. Its preservation is considered central to combating global warming and protecting the many species of plants and animals found only in the region.
In recent years, Peru has passed laws to crack down on illegal logging, as required by a 2007 free trade agreement with the United States. But large quantities of timber, including increasingly rare types like mahogany, continue to flow out, much of it ultimately heading to the United States for products like hardwood flooring and decking sold by American retailers.
The World Bank estimates that as much as 80 percent of Peru’s logging exports are harvested illegally, and officials say the wood typically gets shipped using doctored paperwork to make the trade appear legal.
It is a pattern seen in other parts of the world, including the far east of Russia, where environmentalists have documented the rampant illegal logging of oak and other kinds of wood bound for the United States and elsewhere.
By The University of British Columbia School of Journalism
Hardwood timber from Russia’s Far East is being illegally cut and shipped to China to feed huge consumer demand for cheap wood products globally.
In September, federal agents in Virginia served search warrants on Lumber Liquidators, a major American retailer, in what the company said was an investigation into its importation of wood flooring products.
The company has been accused by environmentalists of regularly buying from a Chinese supplier that traffics in illegally harvested Russian oak. Lumber Liquidators disputes the claims, saying that it carefully monitors the origins of its wood.
Here in Pucallpa, a city at the heart of Peru’s logging industry on a major tributary of the Amazon, the waterfront is dominated by huge sawmills piled high with thousands of massive logs. They are floated in from remote logging camps, pulled by small motorboats called peke pekes, while trucks stacked with logs and lumber jam the roads.
A military officer stationed here to patrol the Ucayali River said that he had largely stopped making checks of the riverborne loads of timber, though the checks are supposed to be mandatory. In the past, he said, he had repeatedly ordered loads of logs to be held because they lacked the required paperwork, only to learn that forestry officials would later release them, apparently after creating or rubber-stamping false documentation.
In some cases, he said, loads of mahogany, a valuable type of wood that has disappeared from all but the most remote areas, were given fake documentation identifying the wood as a different kind.
“It’s uncontrollable,” said the officer, who was not authorized to speak publicly. Referring to local forestry officials, he said, “The bosses give jobs to people they trust and then take a cut of the bribes they get.”
Mr. Berrospi, who worked as an environmental prosecutor until August, recited a bitter catalog of frustrations. The local authorities are paid off by loggers to create or approve false paperwork, he said. On one occasion, he said, he was offered about $5,000 to stop an investigation. He reported it to a local prosecutor who specialized in corruption cases, but said he was dismayed by the response.
“Listen, in one year here you’ll get enough to build yourself a house and buy a nice car,” he recalled the other prosecutor saying. “So take care of yourself.”
Lucila Pautrat, director of the Peruvian Society for Eco-development, an advocacy group, said that despite new laws and the mandate under the trade agreement with the United States, the government had failed to tackle deep-seated corruption.
“There is a lack of interest, a negligence on the part of the authorities to regulate the forestry sector,” she said. “And, meanwhile, the wood keeps going out.”
The pressure to extract rare hardwoods and other lumber from the Peruvian rain forest has grown in recent years, as neighboring Brazil stepped up efforts to limit illegal logging, Ms. Pautrat said. She compared the situation to the drug trade, where efforts to crack down on cocaine production in Colombia have been followed by a big increase here in Peru.
“The pressure here grows,” she said. “It’s like cocaine. There is a constant demand in the market.”
Peru’s wood exports to the United States increased this year to $20 million between January and July, up from $15 million in the same period in 2012, according to United States Department of Agriculture data.
American officials say that Peru has made progress fighting illegal logging, but the persistence of the problem led the Office of the United States Trade Representative in January to demand stronger measures from Peru, including the swift prosecution of government officials and others who violate environmental laws.
While the United States, Europe and Australia have banned imports of illegally harvested wood, such efforts are often undermined by corruption and a lack of enforcement, said Kate Horner, a director at the Environmental Investigation Agency, an advocacy group in Washington.
“International demand for cheap illegal products is a main driver of illegal logging around the world,” said Ms. Horner, whose group has pressed the United States to seek stronger restrictions in Peru and recently issued a report accusing Lumber Liquidators of selling flooring made from illegally harvested Russian oak.
Cindy L. Squires, executive director of the International Wood Products Association, an industry group in Virginia, said that it was possible to operate responsibly in Peru, but that it required special vigilance. “This is not the kind of trading you can do from your computer at home,” she said. “You need to get out there and see.”
Mr. Berrospi, a bespectacled 45-year-old who carried antivenom in the jungle in case of snakebite, said officials in the Peruvian capital, Lima, had little idea of the obstacles faced by the country’s approximately 80 environmental prosecutors. Most investigations, he said, required traveling to remote areas, but his office had no boat or helicopter to reach logging camps inaccessible by road. Even getting a pickup truck required special permission, and he said he often had to pay for gas from his own pocket.
But his greatest frustration came from judges, who repeatedly sided with loggers, he said. In one case, he seized logs that he charged were part of a group of about 70 illegally harvested trees. But he said a judge had quickly ordered them to be returned to the logger.
“Do you know what the judge told me?” he said. “She said, ‘How am I going to send a person to jail or put them on trial for 70 little logs if I can see thousands or millions of trees growing here?' ”
In late May, Mr. Berrospi traveled over nearly impassable roads to a logging camp, seizing two tractors and three trucks. But local agencies refused to help find a place to keep them, so he had to return the machinery, he said. Then, a few weeks after he started his investigation, he said, the local forestry authorities restored the logger’s suspended permit without consulting him.
In the end, Mr. Berrospi said, his work made him such a “a stone in their shoe” that “the only thing they could do was get rid of me.”
He was removed from his job in August in what Antonio Fernández Jerí, the head of the environmental prosecutor’s office in Lima, said was a reassigning of personnel for “internal reasons,” though he praised Mr. Berrospi’s aggressiveness, saying that he had done a good job and that there had been no accusations of wrongdoing against him.
One investigation that Mr. Berrospi left unfinished involved Saweto, a distant Ashaninka Indian village near the Brazilian border. Edwin Chota, a resident who tracked a large load of logs transported by river from the village, said the barriers to enforcing environmental laws seemed overwhelming.
“There is no law,” Mr. Chota said, during a visit to the sawmill that held the stacks of massive logs that he had followed from his village. “There’s no money to investigate. There’s only money to destroy.”
October 18, 2013
Pickup Soccer in Brazil Has an Allure All Its Own
By SAM BORDEN
RIO DE JANEIRO — In Brazil, the ball is always moving. It moves on grass and on sand, on concrete and on cobblestone. Sometimes, during the rainy season, it even moves on water.
Organized soccer, the kind the Brazilian national team will play next year in the World Cup, is known as futebol (pronounced FOO-chee-ball) in Portuguese. But the pickup variety, the kind played in the cities and the countryside, is called pelada, a term Brazilian men also use to refer to a naked woman. One night last month, a hotel doorman waiting to play at a game in the Flamengo neighborhood here explained the odd symmetry this way: “Football and women,” he said, “are the only two things we really love.”
The doorman was idling beside an asphalt court. The court was lighted by three dim streetlamps and the glint of the moon. It was nearly 11 p.m., and in the distance, the lights of the Glória and Catete neighborhoods twinkled. Teams were divided into shirts and skins. Games lasted until one team scored a goal or for 10 minutes, with a cellphone alarm beeping to signal full time.
There was no crowd; just the bay on one side, the highway on the other and a concrete underpass, coated in graffiti and stained the color of dried lager, leading away from the court and back to the city. Before midnight, the game included students, day workers and beach bums; after midnight, busboys and waiters and valets arrived, kicking and running and sweating their way toward morning. Some played in sneakers or trainers. Others played barefoot, the blisters on their heels a nubby reminder of their devotion.
One of the players, a teenager named Lucas Daniel, did not have shoes with him at all. He played languidly, gliding up and down the court on his calloused soles. His team was beaten quickly. Afterward, he sat with his cousin Diego and pointed to the side of his foot. “My toe was dislocated once,” he said. “The ball hit it hard, and it just bent. It hurt so much, I cried.”
He laughed. “But then I pushed it back into place. And then I kept playing.”
Lucas and Diego watched the cellphone between them, waiting for their turn to play again. As they waited, they talked about another game, another pelada, with a visitor sitting nearby. This one was situated in the hillside favela where they live, Fogueteiro, up near the bohemian-chic neighborhood of Santa Teresa. Some days, they said, that game starts after breakfast. Some days, it finishes just before breakfast the next morning.
“We just play whenever,” Diego said.
“Remember the kid who played so much we called him Neymar?” Lucas said.
Diego shook his head. “What happened to him?”
Lucas shrugged. “I don’t know. He was scouted by a big team. I don’t see him anymore.”
They paused. That is the dream, of course, the fantasy. Romário, one of the greatest Brazilian scorers ever, played in the streets, too. So did Ronaldo. So did Rivaldo.
Sometimes, scouts come to the favelas and organize a game. Sometimes, a player is picked. Lucas said he once played for one of the junior teams of Flamengo, a popular Rio club, but it did not pan out. “I am too old now,” he said. (He is 16.) “So I just play.”
He and Diego looked at the cellphone, and their lips moved silently. Cinco. Quatro. Três. Dois. Um. “You want to see a real street game?” Lucas said to the visitor as the phone began to beep. “Come see us tomorrow. We will show you.”
Inside the Quadra
The ball moves differently in every city. In Rio, there are games on the beaches and in the favelas and on the aterro, the strip of land between the water and the road. Fred, the forward for the Brazilian national team who scored five goals at last summer’s Confederations Cup, grew up in Minas Gerais and recalled that sometimes the ball he played with was not even a ball at all.
“I used to make a ball of socks,” he said. “I made one of cardboard. I made one out of plastic bags. Sometimes, it wasn’t even round. We didn’t care.”
He shrugged. “We would put two rocks or two sandals to make the goal. We would even play on a hill. The goal was always on top, and it was two-on-two or three-on-three, and you would fight to get to that same goal. It was fun. But if the ball went down, you had to run over the rocks.”
Pelada has always been a part of Brazilian culture, and it has adapted to the country’s changing face. In São Paulo, for example, the hub for pelada used to be on the edges of the city’s two rivers, the Pinheiros and the Tietê. Players would scamper alongside the water in games that were known collectively as futebol de varzea, or lowlands soccer.
As São Paulo developed into a South American business hub, though, it transformed into a vast city, a labyrinth of concrete buildings and tangled streets. That meant open space was at a premium, and so now games have frequently shifted to courts that are penned in on all sides by metal fences. These fake cages are called quadras.
One quadra sits at a traffic-heavy intersection in the Vila Maria neighborhood, a working-class area in the northern part of the city. The grass around the court is brown and dusty, and the door does not close all the way, so the ball sometimes rolls out toward the cars. Despite the conditions, there was a line of players waiting to play on a recent Saturday afternoon, their backs pressed against the droopy railings in the fence and their feet ready to intervene if the ball tumbled toward the open door. Water breaks — and bathroom breaks — were taken at the gas station across the street.
The game was oddly silent. With five players on each side, there were the occasional shouts for a teammate to pass the ball or a warning that an opponent was approaching. Otherwise, there were just the scuffs and scrapes of rubber soles on concrete. On this smaller court, shots and goals were more frequent than in the games in Rio. Games were played to three goals. No time limit was needed.
At first, the players were all male. This is standard; the vast majority of games feature only men. At this quadra, one player played in dress pants. Several wore Brazilian club team jerseys, like those of Corinthians and Palmeiras. Outside the fence, sitting on a wood bench, Anesio Cornelo watched his 12-year-old son, Robson, play with men who were two or three times his age.
“I think this is good for Brazilian players,” Cornelo said, sharing a popular theory. “They play this way, on the court. They learn how to touch the ball, how to control the ball. It is a lot faster here than on a field. They become more skilled than if they just played on grass.”
For the most part, that skill was not altogether evident inside the quadra. The game was mostly ragged, with little defending and even fewer moments of quality. It was only when a girl, Clara Chaves, returned from a water break at the gas station and rejoined the game that the level increased.
Chaves was wearing a Palmeiras shirt. She is 14 and plays for one of the club’s women’s teams in a regional league. She readily admitted that her league — and women’s soccer in general in Brazil — was a work in progress. There is no national league, and the most talented women, like Marta, a five-time world player of the year, earn livings abroad.
Still, Chaves dreams, just as the boys do, and she was sharp and aggressive on the court, chasing the ball deep into the opponent’s end. She played quick, slick passes to teammates on the attack. She scored two goals in about five minutes.
Chaves began playing at this court when she was 9, she said, and it took a while before she felt comfortable. Initially, the boys and the men targeted her. They pushed her. They jostled her. They tripped her, sometimes when she was so close to the fence that she would fall against the rusty metal. Sometimes, they directed a particularly vile homophobic slur toward her. The treatment brought her near tears at times.
On this day, though, she was the best player on the court. Her team won. Then it won again. Then it won again. For an hour, the only girl in the quadra never left the court.
“The boys treated me that way in the beginning because they think they have some right to play, like this is their neighborhood and they are the only ones who want to be here,” she said. “A lot of men think like that. Maybe someday it will change.”
Chasing the Dream
It must be said: the ball has always had meaning, always resonated far beyond a foot and a goal and a game. As just one example, some believe the roots of Brazil’s attachment to joga bonito, or the tenet that one must “play beautifully” or not at all, was born from the country’s long history with racism.
There was a time, the theory goes, when a dark-skinned Brazilian could not even touch a white man without fear of retribution or punishment. Because of that, some say, the silky, slippery, slinky feints and shimmies that Brazilian players hone while playing pelada were developed as a form of survival: the goal was to be able to get past an opponent without even grazing him, lest a societal code be broken.
Now pelada remains a form of escape. The notion of a poverty-stricken young boy’s finding fame and fortune after being discovered in a slum is shopworn, to be sure, but that is because there remains some truth to it: Brazil is annually among the nations exporting the most players to foreign professional leagues (nearly 300 in 2011 alone, according to a recent study), and hundreds more play for varying wages in the country’s league system.
In more remote places like Manaus, the main city in the Amazon, young players will often leave home, traveling south to bigger cities on the murky advice of a scout or representative from one of the country’s larger teams. There are no guarantees of success or even basic accommodations in these situations, and horror stories abound. In 2012, the São Paulo state club Portuguesa Santista was fined by a Brazilian court for endangering the safety of children, according to a report by the Brazilian investigative journalism center Publica.
The details were disconcerting: a dozen teenage boys had left their homes in Pará, in the Amazon, to go to the city of Santos on a promise from a scout that they could play in a youth tournament there. Once they arrived, they were crammed into a tiny room, given three mattresses to share and, over a period of several days, provided no food. Once the court intervened, Portuguesa Santista was ordered to either let the boys go home or put them in a proper hotel and feed them.
In many ways, though, it does not matter. Young boys will forever want to chase the dream, climbing aboard one of the countless small ships that leave from the port of Manaus, and sleeping in tiny hammocks hung from the ceiling for days until they arrive at the next stop on their journey to maybe, possibly, being discovered. To them, that is what pelada can represent.
“There is no famous player that everyone in the world knows who came from Manaus,” a talented young player, Kaleb Campelo, said one day in August. “But that does not mean there can’t be someday.”
Campelo was standing alongside a dirt field in Santo Agostinho, a neighborhood on the west side of Manaus known mostly for its drug trafficking and crime. A crumbling wall was the divider between the playing surface and a steep hill littered with garbage, plastic bags and the occasional needle. The game, which featured Campelo, 17, and other teenagers, was interrupted at least once when a stray dog ran through the middle of the action.
This was, essentially, organized pelada. Manaus is known for being home to the peladão, a huge soccer tournament and beauty pageant, but this weekend was more typical with two teams, wearing mostly matching jerseys, playing in the rough equivalent of a neighborhood championship.
The juxtapositions were striking: there was a referee but no real boundary lines once the chalk was shuffled away. There were coaches, but the players did not pay to participate in the game or to be a part of the team. There was a halftime, but once the players took a sip of water, they were destined to wear dust mustaches for the rest of the afternoon as the swirling dirt clung to their wet upper lips.
Some players, like Campelo, who fired home a goal for his team with a graceful volley, may well play their way out someday.
“But even if he doesn’t, and for the others who have no chance, it is not about that,” said Berg de Souza, a longtime government employee in Manaus who helps organize the games in Santo Agostinho. “There are about 50 players playing in these games. They would be drug dealers if they weren’t. Last year, there were gangs in the neighborhood. They would play on the field and fight on the field. There were guns. It was terrible.”
De Souza shrugged. “Now, it is a little bit better. I know some of the drug dealers. I organize things here. Sometimes, I even ask the drug dealers for money to help me get the games going, if I need it.”
Sometimes, the escape is more metaphorical. As the hub of the Amazon, Manaus is an industrial city where men work long days. Some haul heavy bags of flour and sugar up from the docks; others work in electronics factories or on the boats. Pelada is their haven, the only place and time that they can relax their shoulders.
In the East Zone of the city, in an area known as São José Operário, there is a sand pit carved out of a thicket of trees. Lizards hang from the branches. Araras, or macaws, chirp overhead. A tabby crawls out of an overturned refrigerator near the edge of the forest. The men who play at this field do not bother with lines to mark the penalty area or the touchlines on their 40-yard surface.
“We just know it by heart,” said Cleivison Correa, who plays almost every day after work. “Everyone just stops playing when they are supposed to.”
Games are held from Tuesday to Saturday. Players wait their turn to play, sitting on logs or felled trees. Newcomers are welcomed enthusiastically. “We need this,” Marcus Painaba, 28, said. “This game — when you live in Amazonas, this is where you go to be yourself.”
Lucas, the boy in Rio, played at the aterro until 5:30 in the morning. Then he went home and slept for a few hours. Then he got up and played again.
Around noon, he heard a commotion. The visitor from the night before was outside. Addresses in the area are murky, so the visitor had wandered through the streets that wind like cobwebs, climbing the hillside and asking neighbors if they knew someone named Lucas. Finally, a few women shouted his name down the alley.
Lucas waved. His neighborhood is pacified, one of the favelas in the city that has a perpetual police presence. This generally eliminates heavy drug trafficking and other serious violence, though muggings and lesser crimes are not uncommon. Still, the street nearest Lucas’s home is where children play, kicking a ball up and down the sloping road. The goals are multiple: to score; to show off one’s substantial ball-control skills; and to keep the ball from going down the steep stairs toward the bottom of the neighborhood or, really, anywhere else that would jeopardize the status of the game.
“One time, the ball bounced off the mirror of a car and knocked over an old lady,” Lucas said. “The neighbors complain a lot. They want us to stop and go to bed.”
But the boys do not stop. They never do. That afternoon, they clattered around a street barely wide enough for one car at time, bumping into curbs and walls and one another. They ran under wires dangling overhead. They sprinted up and down a hill so graded there were places where the ball, even though it was on the ground, could have easily rolled through a house’s window.
After a little while, Lucas said that it was almost time to go to a nearby quadra, a place where some of the best players in the neighborhood played. This was not a child’s game, Lucas said. Men played there, some who had even played for local professional teams. “The game is very good,” Lucas said.
First, he stopped at his family’s home. The entrance was up a thin flight of steps from the street and then down another staircase of 34 steps, with no railing on either side, that led to a door cut out of the hillside.
Fifteen people stay in this structure, which is roughly 35 feet from end to end and about 10 feet wide: Lucas, Diego, Eduardo, Ilza, Zé, Penha, Rafael, Felipe, Gabriel, Monica, Tonho, Raiane, Rennan, Edjane and Márcio. Lucas’s parents are housecleaners. He and one of his sisters look after the other children most days. He is not in school now but hopes to return this fall. “I have played football every day of my life,” he said.
Moments later, he led the way to the nearby quadra, up steps and then down steps, past the men carrying laundry baskets and around the corner where the dogs barked from behind a fence. Unlike in São Paulo, the quadra itself did not have a metal fence around it. Instead, it looked more like the top of an abandoned parking garage, its concrete walls covered in spray paint and its cracked floor dotted with water stains. On one side, the sheer edge of the mountain rose up and tendrils of long grass hung over the edge of a retaining wall.
Lucas walked up and looked surprised. There were a few children running around near one of the goals but no big game and no top players. Lucas turned to the visitor with an apologetic look on his face. “This is Rio,” he said. “Maybe they will be here later?”
He shrugged, sheepishly, and lingered for a moment by the entrance. But immediately, he began inching his way toward the children. They were running and spinning and passing and dribbling, and it was not long before Lucas was, too. It was as if he were drawn to the game, as if he could not resist. And maybe he could not. In Brazil, the ball is always moving.
Taylor Barnes contributed reporting from Rio de Janeiro and Jill Langlois from São Paulo, Brazil.
How young heroines helped redefine girlhood as a state of strength
Malala is one of a number of girls being idolised by adults – following a change parallel to the women's movement of the 1960s and 1970s
The Observer, Saturday 19 October 2013 12.08 BST
When Malala Yousafzai, the 16-year-old schoolgirl and youngest Nobel nominee, appeared on the Daily Show earlier this month, host Jon Stewart seemed, for the first time, disarmed. Later, he'd be left speechless by her eloquence but his first, stuttering words to her were: "It's honestly humbling to meet you. You are 16..."
Those two statements sum up an internationally felt, two-part awe: first, how is she so brave and formidable and, second, how is she so young?
Malala has been a campaigner for girls' rights to education since she was 11, when she began blogging for the BBC about life in Pakistan under Taliban rule, but she became an international symbol of peaceful resistance and valour after an attempt on her life last year.
She has said that up until then, despite being told that she was a target, she couldn't believe that anyone would try to shoot a teenage girl. Instead: "I was worried about my father [also an activist] – we thought that the Taliban are not that much cruel that they would kill a child."
Her courage and her achievements are enormous regardless of her youth: she has defied arguably the world's most tyrannical and brutal regime and she not only survived an assassination attempt at 15, but was emboldened by it. In a speech delivered at the United Nations soon afterwards, she said: "The terrorists thought that they would change our aims and stop our ambitions but nothing changed in my life except this: weakness, fear and hopelessness died. Strength, power and courage was born."
All this is more than enough to justify the worldwide adulation she has elicited. But what makes her compelling even beyond this, and why she will endure, is the fact of her girlness. Like her, we all find the idea of someone shooting a child in the head unconscionable. But when that child is a girl, it seems more shocking: we are told that girls are vulnerable, more vulnerable than boys. More insidiously, we are told that girls are trivial, dismissible and inherently risible. The word "girl" remains something like an insult – to throw like a girl, to act like a girl, to cry like a girl.
US secretary of state Hillary Clinton seemed to acknowledge this girl-scorn and to celebrate its subversion when she joined the ranks of world leaders praising Malala. Speaking in April, she said: "The Taliban recognised this young girl, 14 at the time, as a serious threat. And you know what? They were right. She was a threat. "
Malala, then, is not just an emblem for peace: she's heralding a shift in the way we valorise and lionise girlhood.
Lorde, aka 16-year-old New Zealander Ella Yelich O'Connor, has not survived gunshot wounds to the head or been nominated for the Nobel peace prize, but she is, like Malala, now a near-global teenage heroine. (One who's just released a debut album aptly, if impudently, named Pure Heroine.) There isn't anything novel or remarkable about a teenager topping the charts – youth has always been pop's favourite commodity – but there is everything novel and remarkable about a school age pop star who speaks eloquently about feminism, cites writers such as Wells Tower and Tobias Wolff as influences, and references the relationship between Raymond Carver and Gordon Lish. Lorde's poise and precocity are at play in Royals, which has been the number one song in the US for the past three weeks. This has to be the first time that a critique of wealth – sly and knowing and lyrical and written by a schoolgirl – has found itself a number one hit.
Lorde has a fan, and vice versa, in 17-year-old Tavi Gevinson, who began her career at 11 with Style Rookie, a fashion blog so astute that national news outlets suggested it was written by an insider.
In the years since then Gevinson has deftly navigated her way from fashion world curio – a granny-spectacled cutie whom famous people loved having their picture taken with – to a global media powerhouse, a 17-year-old public figure idolised by as many adults as teens. Rookie, founded in 2011, announces itself as a site for teenage girls, but with some of the most enlightened interviews and columns around, it has found as passionate an audience among grown women. I'm nearly 30, but, like every woman I know, I read her website every day.
As the online magazine Slate put it recently: "People seem to recognise that Tavi Gevinson is doing great things for girls. The truth is actually much more impressive: She is doing great things. Adults need not turn to Rookie out of nostalgia or to experience catharsis. Read it because it is singular."
Among several grown women employed by Gevinson (her staff reportedly refer to her as "tiny boss")is 42-year-old Anaheed Alani, who has said: "I said I wouldn't work for anyone who isn't smarter than me, and it's still the case."
Of the many astute things to come out of Gevinson's mouth, this might be the most important: "Feminism to me means fighting. It's a very nuanced, complex thing, but at the very core of it I'm a feminist because I don't think being a girl limits me in any way."
Figures such as Tavi, Malala and Lorde – girls publicly admired for their convictions and the boldness of their actions – might help us all reclaim "girlhood" as a state of strength. Through them, we might start to think of the term "teen idol" differently. We might, in fact, upend it entirely. Because rather than pubescent celebrities adored by tweens (and monetised by the music and movie industries) for their non-threatening attractiveness, these are teenagers idolised by adults for their intelligence and courage.
Pop culture loves the kick-ass version of girlhood. It's a lineage that began in the girl-power 1990s with Buffy the Vampire Slayer and runs on to Xena: Warrior Princess and Katniss of The Hunger Games. But, to put it bluntly, these girl characters are presented as heroes simply through the violence they enact. They look cool doing it (Jennifer Lawrence smouldering down the sightline of a bow and arrow in The Hunger Games, an avenging Hailee Steinfeld toting a pistol in True Grit, or Chloe Moretz karate-kicking as a superhero in the Kick Ass movies) but, to borrow Malala's words: "If you hit a Talib with a shoe, then there would be no difference between you and the Talib. You must not treat others with cruelty and that much harshly; you must fight others through peace and through dialogue and education."
To put it another way, the heroism of peaceful activism is greater than the slings and arrows of outrageous badassery.
Consider Tuesday Cain, a 14-year-old who protested against the abortion laws in Texas with a sign that read, "Jesus isn't a dick so keep him out of my vagina" and was called a "whore" online. But, writing on women's website xojane.com, she said that the experience hasn't made her any less passionate "about fighting for a woman's right to choose and the separation of church and state".
Ilana Nash is an associate professor at Western Michigan University in the gender and women's studies department and the author of American Sweethearts: Teenage Girls in Twentieth-Century Popular Culture. I ask her why it is that the culture is yielding these real life girl-heroes now.
"Teenage girlhood has followed a parallel motion to the women's movement of the 1960s and 1970s," she says. "Just as it was a result of second-wave feminism for women to become political icons, so is it now possible for teenage girls to be admired and publicised as political agents. In other words, girlhood is starting, in a small way, to follow the same trajectory that adult womanhood has in the last generation."
She also identifies as a factor "the student-centred classroom" educational movement of the 1990s, whereby America's public schools put the student and his or her needs first.
"Our shift towards making young people a 'centre' of discussion," she says, "is that we are now more inclined to take seriously the actions of young people. When a young person of either sex does something politically amazing or socially powerful, we are more prone to give it headline space. Especially young females."
The artist Lorde beat to the number one spot is Miley Cyrus, but it would be reductive to take this as some kind of symbolic triumph of thoughtfulness over sexiness (as though the two are mutually exclusive). More noise, after all, has been made over Cyrus's body than Lorde's words. "It is still a world where sexiness and cuteness dominate our images of girls," Nash agrees. "The difference now is that it's no longer the only story being told. There is a widening of the discourse – discussing teen girls as political agents is now part of what is possible."
In a recent interview with Kamila Shamsie, Malala reflected on the Talib who shot her: "He was quite young, in his 20s ... he was quite young, we may call him a boy."
We might – and allowing him his youth is an act of almost superhuman magnanimity on her part. When she calls him a boy, she's virtually pardoning him. In contrast, when we now call her a girl we're simply paying her a compliment.
Astronomers fear ‘Christmas Comet’ ISON could disintegrate before predicted year-end ‘show’
By Agence France-Presse
Friday, October 18, 2013 5:40 EDT
An incoming comet that skygazers had hoped would provide one of the greatest celestial shows of the century, could be a fizzle.
So say astronomers tracking the eagerly-awaited Comet ISON as it races to a searing encounter with the Sun.
Formally known as C/2012 S1 (ISON), the comet was spotted by a pair of hard-working amateur Russian astronomers, Vitaly Nevski and Artyom Novichonok, on September 21, 2012.
It is called ISON because they used a telescope called the International Scientific Optical Network near Kislovodsk, in the northern Caucasus.
After the discovery was validated by the International Astronomical Union (IAU), interest in the enigmatic wanderer became huge.
Calculations showed that after looping around the Sun, the comet would become a blaze of glory towards the end of the year — a timing that gave it the tabloid title of “Christmas Comet” or even “Comet of the Century.”
But fears are multiplying that the great show will be cancelled.
Light signatures from ISON, which has just streaked past Mars, indicate the comet is about to break up, says Ignacio Ferrin, an astrophysicist at the University of Antioquia in Medellin, Colombia.
“This disintegration will take place before it reaches perihelion,” Ferrin told AFP in an email. Perihelion is an orbit’s closest point to the Sun, which ISON is supposed to reach on November 28.
“There are also predictions for disintegration at perihelion. But based on the evidence, the comet will not get there,” said Ferrin.
He explained that comets typically brighten as they get closer to the Sun, crossing a temperature threshold that causes their icy surfaces to evaporate, depositing water vapour, other gases and dust in their wake.
But, said Ferrin, the light curve from ISON slowed down and then remained practically constant, with no sign of greater brightness, as it raced forward.
This is a signature that matches four previous comets that have broken up catastrophically, he said.
“Comets in general appear to be quite fragile, and are observed to fragment or split,” said Duncan Steel, a visiting astronomer at Armagh Observatory in Northern Ireland.
“It has always been a good bet that ISON would do this, and there is now evidence that this may be now occurring.”
Cursed to wander Solar System
Comets are believed to be huge clusters of primeval dust and frozen ices, including water and organic molecules that, say some, delivered the building blocks of life to the infant Earth.
Doomed to orbit the Sun in periods that can range from years to many millennia, comets undergo thermal stress as they near the star.
Veterans that make short-period flybys, such as Halley’s Comet, appear to have a crust of silicates and “tarry” carbon molecules to insulate them from the heat.
But rare visitors such as ISON have no such protection, said Steel. Internal gases start to expand in the heat, stressing the crumbly “dirty snowball” structure.
Comets can also be torn apart by gravitational forces if they cross the path of a planet.
This famously happened with Comet Shoemaker-Levy 9, whose fate was dictated by Jupiter. Fragments of the comet smashed into the jovian giant in 1994.
Even if the gloomy predictions are wrong, ISON still has to survive the climax of its ordeal by fire.
A “Sun-grazing” comet, at perihelion, it will be less than 1.2 million kilometres (730,000 miles) from the surface of the star — just three times the distance between the Earth and Moon — and subjected to temperatures of 2,800 degrees Celsius (5,000 degrees Fahrenheit).
According to preliminary estimates by the Lowell Observatory and Southwest Research Institute in Arizona, ISON has a good chance of surviving the solar furnace and gravitational rip at perihelion.
Comets smaller than 200 metres (650 feet) across almost always are destroyed when passing at such a distance. ISON appears be between 1,000 and 4,000 metres (1,000 and 4,000 yards) across.
What, though, will be left of ISON after it has kissed the Sun?
Will enough remain for it to be a real comet? Or will it be just a sad, shrivelled lump?
“We have absolutely no idea,” said Patrick Rocher, of the Institute of Celestial Mechanics at the Paris Observatory.
Unhappy landing ahead for European satellite running out of fuel
By Agence France-Presse
Friday, October 18, 2013 16:15 EDT
A satellite monitoring Earth’s gravity field since 2009 will run out of fuel “in the coming days” and eventually crash, with little risk to humans, the European Space Agency said Friday.
About 40 to 50 fragments with a combined mass of 250 kilogrammes (550 pounds) are projected to hit our planet within weeks of the GOCE satellite running out of fuel, according to spacecraft operations manager Christoph Steiger.
“We are very close to the end,” he told AFP on Friday, when the pressure in the satellite’s fuel tank dropped below 2.5 bar — the minimum required for full operation.
Not yet known is when and where the fragments will impact — over the ocean or on land.
The pressure in the orbiter’s tank is expected to drop to zero no later than October 26 but the engine will likely stop working before then, said Steiger.
“Right now, it is not possible to predict where it will happen, it could be anywhere. The closer we get to the reentry point, the more precisely we will be able to say.
“Roughly one day before (impact), one can exclude certain regions of the Earth. A few hours before, we will be able to tell with… a few thousand kilometres of precision.”
The Gravity Ocean Circulation Explorer (GOCE) was launched into orbit in March 2009 at an altitude of just 260 kilometres (160 miles).
It has stayed aloft thanks to its unusual aerodynamic shape and an ion propulsion system.
GOCE’s stock of 41 kg of fuel stood at about 350 grammes on Friday. When it runs out completely, the satellite will start losing altitude, become unstable and eventually de-orbit.
Most of the 5.3-metre-long (17.2-foot) spacecraft will break up at an altitude of about 80 kilometres (50 miles), said Steiger.
But about a quarter of its mass will survive, hitting the surface in a trail of fragments over an area of a few hundred kilometres.
“The risk is very small, but it is not zero,” said Fernand Alby, in charge of space debris and space surveillance at France’s National Centre of Space Studies (CNES) in Toulouse.
“Per year, it is estimated that about 100 tonnes of manmade space debris is reentering (the atmosphere), out of which between 20 and 40 tonnes survive reentry… and impact somewhere on Earth,” Steiger said.
In 50 years of spaceflight, there have been no casualties from manmade space debris reentering, he insisted.
“The risk of getting hit by such a reentering, manmade space debris is 65,000 times lower than getting hit by lighting. It is 1.5 million times lower than being killed in a home accident — falling down the stairs or something like that.”
The 350-million-euro ($465-million) mission has lasted twice as long as its initially scheduled 20 months.
Scientists say it has returned reams of data on Earth’s gravity field and ocean circulation.
GOCE was designed and built before 2008, when international recommendations were adopted that a scientific satellite must be able to execute a controlled reentry, or burn up completely after its mission.
Steiger said a global space debris coordinating committee was monitoring the satellite to predict its point of reentry, “and we are passing on the information to national authorities”.
[Image via Agence France-Presse]
The Christian Science Monitor Latest Curiosity feat: confirmation that Mars sent meteorite group to Earth
That's the conclusion of a research team studying measurements from the Mars rover Curiosity. Those measurements also indicate that the planet has lost at least half its atmosphere over the past 4 billion years, the team says.
By Pete Spotts, Staff writer / October 18, 2013 at 5:01 pm EDT
Mars has lost from half to 95 percent of its atmosphere over the past 4 billion years, a loss that turned a once-warm, wet surface into hostile environment for life, according to a new study.
Scientists base the estimate on measurements from the National Aeronautics and Space Administration's Mars rover Curiosity. The measurements are the most precise readings yet of two forms of the element argon. Argon doesn't react chemically with other elements. This makes it a relatively reliable indicator for changes in the atmosphere's thickness and composition over time, the researchers say.
With the exception of similar measurements taken by NASA's Viking landers, which operated from the surface of Mars from 1976 to 1982, scientists have had to rely on samples of Mars' atmosphere captured in Martian meteorites to make similar argon measurements. But those measurements could provide only a range.
The precise measurements that Curiosity has made fall squarely within the range and closely match the meteorite measurements – in the process, confirming that the meteorites are genuine pieces of Mars, according to the team reporting the results.
The origin of some Martian meteorites has been well established. But for a relatively new class, the evidence has been less clear. The measurements that the team made at Mars match the argon abundances in this class group.
“We really nailed it,” said Sushil Atreya, director of the Planetary Science Laboratory at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor and the lead author of the study, in a prepared statement.
"This is the first time we're getting these two isotopes from the atmosphere on Mars," adds Melissa Trainer, a researcher at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md., and a member of the team conducting the study.
The results are set to appear in an upcoming issue of the journal Geophysical Research Letters.
The isotopes, or forms, of argon in question are argon-36 and its heavier sibling argon-38. Similar argon measurements have been made for the sun and Jupiter. The composition of the sun and Jupiter is thought to most closely reflect the chemical makeup of the vast cloud of dust and gas that gave rise to the sun and planets some 4.6 billion years ago, Dr. Trainer explains.
Measurements point to a ratio of 5.5 argon-36 atoms for each argon-38 atom as the primordial abundance. Viking delivered a range of 3.6 to 4.5 for Mars. Curiosity's measurements point to a ratio of 4.2 argon-36 atoms to each argon-38 atom.
The measurements were taken with Curiosity's Sample Analysis at Mars (SAM) laboratory, tucked inside the rover's chassis. SAM analyzes samples of the atmosphere as well as rock samples that the rover's arm delivers.
The difference between the primordial abundances and those on Mars today seems small. But they speak to big changes, the researchers say.
Argon is heavier than other gases in the atmosphere – hydrogen, nitrogen, and oxygen, for instance. If a range of processes in the atmosphere are energetic enough to strip it of some of its argon, no doubt they can do a more thorough job on the lighter elements.
Indeed, results from SAM presented in July in the journal Science found that Mars' atmosphere has enriched levels of carbon-13 compared with lighter variants. That also testifies to significant atmospheric losses, the researchers noted at the time. Isotopes of hydrogen, nitrogen, and oxygen tell similar tales.
The SAM results published in July also included measurements of the relative abundance of argon-40 to argon-36. This measurement foreshadowed these newest results. But argon-40 comes from the radioactive decay of potassium-40; its abundance can vary over time in ways that make it less reliable than argon-38 as an indicator of the atmosphere's demise, Trainer says.
Several processes could have conspired to strip Mars of its atmosphere, Dr. Atreya explains in an e-mail. High temperatures in the upper atmosphere could have stripped the lighter forms of hydrogen. Isotopes of heavier elements could have been lost through collisions with charged particles streaming from the sun as solar wind. Mars gradually lost its planetary magnetic field, which would have deflected most of those incoming particles.
"Much more work is needed before we can sort out the various mechanisms," Atreya says, "but data on escape rates from MAVEN high up in the atmosphere would provide additional information that we can use, along with the data obtained by Curiosity on the surface."
NASA is slated to launch MAVEN (Mars Atmosphere and Volatile Evolution spacecraft), an orbiter designed to help uncover the history of the Martian atmosphere, on Nov. 18.
Click to view many images of the surface of Mars taken from Curiosity: http://www.csmonitor.com/Photo-Galleries/In-Pictures/Space-Photos-of-the-Day/Exploring-Mars-with-Curiosity#712009
India goes to Mars
By Alan Pickup, The Guardian
Saturday, October 19, 2013 6:26 EDT
Two projects taking advantage of a three-week optimum launch window for flights to Mars – including India’s first interplanetary mission
As the optimum period opens for flights to Mars, both India and the US are poised to launch Mars-orbiting craft. The US federal shutdown, though, threatened both missions, delaying them until the next launch window opens in 2015-2016. As it is, dispensations were granted to allow work on Nasa’s orbiter, Maven, to continue and to provide essential tracking assistance for the Indian probe.
The latter, Mangalyaan or Mars-craft in Hindi, is India’s first interplanetary mission and is to be launched from a site in Andhra Pradesh during a three-weeks window beginning on 28 October. Primarily a technology demonstration mission, it should spend 25 days in an elongated Earth-orbit before being boosted towards Mars, where it should enter another eccentric orbit next September. The science and imaging it will perform there is regarded as a secondary objective. Even so, it is remarkable that the project was only approved as recently as August 2012.
The launch period for Maven, or Mars Atmosphere and Volatile EvolutioN, opens on 18 November with its arrival at Mars also due next September. From an orbit ranging between 150km and 6,200km above the planet, it is due to investigate the planet’s upper atmosphere, studying how it interacts with the solar wind and how its gases and ions are escaping into space. Such mechanisms are crucial to understanding how the Martian climate and Mars’s precious water have evolved over time.
© Guardian News and Media 2013
The Christian Science Monitor
Tilted planetary system throws planet-formation theories for a loop
Scientists have identified a system of exoplanets that are arranged at a tilt to their home star in a find that upends planet formation theories.
By Elizabeth Barber, Contributor / October 18, 2013 at 1:25 pm EDT
Scientists have found a multi-planet system in which the planets are arranged at a tilt to their home star. The finding, based on Kepler telescope data, offers an unusual level of precise detail about a system of worlds thousands of light years afield from our own, while also highlighting just how much is still unknown about how planetary systems form.
“As we discover more planetary systems, we're learning about the variety of 'architectures' that they display,” says Steven Kawaler, the leader of the Kepler Asteroseismic Investigation and an author on the paper, published in the journal Science.
“Every system has a different story to tell,” he said.
The new system is orbiting Kepler-56, a red giant that is four times the mass of the sun and some 3,000 light years afield from Earth. Two of the star’s planets are in close orbit around it. Another, larger object is orbiting the star farther out – that object could be a planet, too, but scientists aren’t yet sure.
The Kepler-56 system, one of hundreds so far discovered in our galaxy, is normal so far as exoplanet systems go – which is to say that it is “normal” in that, like most of these systems, it is unfolding to look little like what it had been expected it to look like and to upend what we thought we knew about the universe.
In this system, the perplexing detail that has thrown astronomers for a loop is its off-kilter arrangement: the star’s equatorial plane is at a 45-degree tilt to the three objects’ orbits. Though tilted orbits have been found before, they have appeared just in single planet systems where a hot Jupiter – an enormous planet similar in size to our Jupiter but orbiting near to its star and piping hot – was the lone companion to a star. Based on prevailing evidence, scientists had though that this tilt-a-whirl architecture must be unique to systems with a “hot Jupiter.”
And that had made sense, since, unless a traumatic event pulls things out of whack, planets tend to develop in neat alignment with their star, forming out of the thin disk of dust and gas swirling around the central star. In our own solar system, the eight planets all orbit the sun at no more than about a seven-degree tilt from the plane of the sun’s equator.
Put a hot Jupiter into that system, though, and everything rearranges. That’s because the formation of a hot Jupiter is believed to be a traumatic event in itself. It’s not possible to make a Brobdignagian planet close to a host star, since sufficient cold is required for enough ice and gas to fuse together to build an enormous planet. So, much as our Jupiter formed, hot Jupiters must begin in space’s cold, dark reaches, far out from a star’s warmth.
But, unlike our Jupiter, these grown-big planets end up in orbit near to their star, after gravitational interactions with nearby objects push them inward. There, the giant planet will become a “hot” Jupiter in the sizzling glow of its star. It will also, in all likelihood, have an unusual alignment.
“This process is like a complicated 3-D billiard shot, often resulting in an orbit well out of the original plane of formation of the planet,” says Dr. Kawaler.
It now appears, though, that tilted planetary orbits are possible in systems that don't have a hot Jupiter. That’s a find that could revise the basics of planet formation theory, suggesting that it’s possible that other, intervening forces must be accounted for in how systems develop. In this case, the researchers propose that the gravitational force of the third outer object is responsible for the tilt, pulling the two inner planets in line with its own tilt. Just what that object is, though, is still under investigation, the team reported.
“The final configuration of a planetary system tells the story of the formation process,” says Kawaler.
“If all systems form through a quiet accretion process, then all systems should have planar orbits around their host stars,” he said. “Systems with tilted orbits – and the degree to which such systems are rare or common – tell us that the planet formation process itself is highly variable.”
The Kepler telescope’s hunt for exoplanets has been hobbled since one of its reaction wheels was declared un-repairable this summer. But astronomers still have heaps of data from the telescope’s four-year-long gaze at the solar systems beyond our own. On Wednesday, NASA added eight new exoplanets to its catalogue of far-flung worlds, four of them dug out of Kepler data.
To date, Kepler has helped astronomers find some 3,589 confirmed exoplanets and exoplanet candidates. As of this week, NASA has confirmed the existence of 919 exoplanets.