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A recent report leaked from the European Commission appears to legalise covert tactics to justify the increasingly dubious environmental benefits of bio-fuels.[1] The document is directed at the issue of deforestation, which has become so heavily associated with bio-fuel production in the developing world. In countries such as Indonesia, Brazil and Malaysia, where attempts to take advantage of the lucrative trade in bio-fuel ‘feedstocks’ have seen dramatic growth, the cheapest land is often the most desirable. This has tended to be rainforest or other virgin tropical vegetation.

Efforts to introduce sustainability guidelines on bio-fuels have sought to reduce the attractiveness of such measures. However, the significance of the E.C. report is that it appears to offer a clause to protect plantations created on previous forest land.  The report states that, “A change from forest to oil palm plantation would not per se constitute a breach of the criterion,” of sustainability. The classification of dense palm oil plantations as “forest” allows companies to conceal an alteration of the vegetation, and in turn to retain their sustainability credentials. [2]

This has been an issue at the heart of the controversy over bio-fuels for some time. Their concept was initially hailed as a reliable green alternative to the use of traditional carbon-fuels. As developed countries have struggled to meet limits on transport emissions through difficulties in implementing new technologies, bio-fuels appeared to offer a means to buy time. With their ‘carbon-neutral’ credentials they were preferable to fossil-fuel based products and could be produced from a variety of sources. This latter point has also been of interest to developed nations seeking to ensure their energy security. On both these grounds however, the concept has recently been shown to be failing.

Although bio-fuels capture carbon-dioxide from their various feedstocks, hence offsetting the CO2 released through their combustion, this ignores the indirect costs of their production. The vegetation often cleared for their production in developing countries tends be prime carbon capture. Peat-bog wetlands and tropical rainforests are considerably more efficient in the process than other vegetation,  and are usually preferred for plantation cultivation due to their cost.[3] Adding to this are the direct impacts of the vegetation destruction, through the clearing and burning, which releases further carbon dioxide. Farming processes often compound these effects through the use of fertilisers, leading to the release of nitrous oxide gases which are 300 times more potent than CO2 as a greenhouse contributor.[4]

Bio-fuels were initially favoured by developed countries for their prospects of producing secure transport fuels. Dependence on foreign sources of fossil-fuels has characterised the energy policies of most developed countries since decolonisation and has consequently forced them to rely on unstable markets which have been subject to frequent price-spikes. Encouraging bio-fuel production as a domestic industry promised to provide greater stability through the internalisation of energy policy. Through internal subsidies and incentives farmers were encouraged to switch areas of land to bio-fuel feedstocks. The pattern was also hoped to alleviate some of the problems of cereal over-production and dumping associated with the C.A.P. (Common Agricultural Policy).Since these policies, EU domestic production rates alone have accelerated to 10 billion litres annually.[5] Intervention from the WTO however, has acted to limit this growth and encourage a more international trade. Arguing that incentives and subsides harm international trade and provide domestic producers with unfair trade advantages, the WTO has sought to encourage more pluralist production. It argues for the developing world, that this could, “generate significant economic, environmental and social benefits.”[6]

Whilst developing nations may wish to take advantage of this lucrative new energy market, they often lack the resources to finance such initiatives. The WTO has therefore argued that private finance should be encouraged into these areas. The beneficial climate, environmental concerns, and land and labour costs should all make external production an attractive prospect to investors.[7] Private investment has indeed followed these guidelines as countries throughout the world have switched to feedstock production. This policy has not only had environmental consequences, but also threatens to have significant human impacts.

A recent report by ActionAid has attributed growing problems of landlessness, increased food prices and approximately 100 million more people falling below the breadline, to the 10% targets sought by the E.U.[8] As millions of acres of land are taken out of food production in Africa, Latin America and Asia this has had a predictably significant impact on world food markets. Since 2002 global food prices have increased more than 140 percent and many claim this trend will continue as long as the production of bio-fuels is encouraged. ActionAid cites in its report an investigation by the IMF which attributed up to 30% of the recent price increases directly to bio-fuels. [9]A more recent report by the World Bank has challenged this figure, claiming that perhaps as much as 70% of the rises have been due to the shift of farming to energy markets.[10]

These reports pose significant implications for the accepted logic of the West’s green agenda. They implicate the smaller populations of developed nations as having a far greater impact on food prices than over-population in the South.  Production methods, with their significant environmental and human impacts, also appear to contradict the initial expectations of this fuel source as carbon-neutral and beneficial. It is not surprising therefore, that increasingly elaborate means are being found necessary to justify the continued expansion of bio-fuels.

Chris Bowles


[1] http://www.telegraph.co.uk/earth/earthcomment/geoffrey-lean/7168296/EU-raises-biofuel-threat-to-rainforests.html

[2] http://uk.reuters.com/article/idUKLDE6191VX20100211?sp=true

[3] http://www.telegraph.co.uk/earth/earthcomment/geoffrey-lean/7168296/EU-raises-biofuel-threat-to-rainforests.html

[4] http://www.spiegel.de/international/world/0,1518,563927,00.html

[5] http://uk.reuters.com/article/idUKLDE6191VX20100211?sp=true

[6] http://www.bioenergy-business.com/index.cfm?section=features&action=view&id=10786

[7] http://www.bioenergy-business.com/index.cfm?section=features&action=view&id=10786

[8] http://www.guardian.co.uk/environment/2010/feb/15/biofuels-food-production-developing-countries

[9] http://www.guardian.co.uk/environment/2010/feb/15/biofuels-food-production-developing-countries

[10] http://uk.reuters.com/article/idUKLDE6191VX20100211?sp=true

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There is a new kind of war forming throughout the developed world, and those on the frontline are often journalists. A recent report by the Paris based media rights group Reporters Without Borders (RSF) has revealed a global trend of conflict between polluters and those reporters who seek to expose them. Throughout the world journalists have been increasingly suffering intimidation, violence, imprisonment and even death for their work.[1]

The journalist Mikhail Beketov was beaten nearly to death in 2008 for his coverage of a plan to build a new highway through Russian forest. In the Philippines, the radio broadcaster Joe Estriber was kidnapped in 2006 for his criticism of illegal logging in the Aurora province; he has not been seen since.[2] The report by RSF claims that whilst these attacks are often the work of criminal gangs, they also involve governments and international companies.

The importance which journalistic analysis has on setting government policy and agenda means that their involvement in environmental issues is extremely important. The collection and broadcasting of information to influence policy makers can be dangerous to those who hold vested interests in the exploitation of natural resources. Whether this be a local criminal gang benefiting from illegal trade, or a company colluding with government for business profit, journalists pose a potential threat.[3] In many cases, the report argues, the scale of the threat is such that it may require physical elimination.[4]

The power that these reporters wield is arguably due to the “enormous political and geostrategic importance,” which ecological issues have achieved.[5] With issues such as global warming, deforestation and species extinction reaching world-wide audiences there is a huge potential for environmental activism. Throughout the West, the preservation of the environment is perceived as an uncontroversial issue. However, in the developing world in which the ecological exploitation takes place, the documenting and reporting of these issues is highly divisive.

RSF argues that for the protection of both independent environmental reporting, and the reporters themselves, governments need to do more to defend this branch of journalism as a legitimate and necessary expression.[6] However, as many of the local or international companies would be unable to conduct their activities without the consent or collusion of governments, this aim seems distant. Restrictions and controls placed on journalists by the state are often some of the most powerful indirect tools used by polluters to suppress criticism.

On the home front, environmental reporting is suffering pressure from a more subtle, yet just as significant, form of censorship. Across the United States many newspapers and broadcasters have been forced to downsize or close their environmental departments as subscriptions and viewing figures apply pressure.[7] The readership of newspapers has steadily declined over the last two decades, and numerous surveys have found that the critical audience, that aged 22 to 44, “would rather channel-surf than read a newspaper.”[8] The result of this is that in attempting to attract viewers and readers quickly, many broadcasters simply cannot afford to establish extensive in-depth environmental reports.

Although many blame this on the changes and trends in popular audience demands, it would be naïve to underestimate the importance of a two-way transfer. The audience does not merely set the agenda of the media, but the media simultaneously interacts with the public to influence their demands. When the majority of newspapers, broadcasters and other media outlets are owned by the same large corporate institutions, it is not surprising that their content matches the interests of industry.[9] That the audience is attracted to shorter and more superficial news is more a function of the monopoly control which a few institutions have over the media diversity, than one of the industry’s loyal response to audience demands.

Chris Bowles


[1] http://www.rsf.org/IMG/rapport_en_md.pdf

[2] http://news.yahoo.com/s/ap/20090917/ap_on_re_eu/eu_environment_reporters_threatened

[3] http://www.rsf.org/IMG/rapport_en_md.pdf

[4] http://www.rsf.org/IMG/rapport_en_md.pdf

[5] http://www.guardian.co.uk/media/greenslade/2009/sep/18/press-freedom-russia

[6] http://www.guardian.co.uk/media/greenslade/2009/sep/18/press-freedom-russia

[7] http://67.23.32.13/blog/david-beach/death-of-environmental-news

[8] http://findarticles.com/p/articles/mi_m1525/is_n1_v80/ai_16111817/

[9] http://findarticles.com/p/articles/mi_m1525/is_n1_v80/ai_16111817/

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The governments of Venezuela and Iran have signed a memorandum of understanding which pledges military cooperation and entails “training and mutual exchange of military experiences”. The accord was signed on Thursday 30th April following a meeting between Iran’s Defense Minister Mostafa Mohammed-Najjar and Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez. Brigadier General Mohammad-Najjar affirmed that, “Iran pledges its full support to promote the Venezuelan military’s defense capabilities in the framework of mutual defensive agreements”[1].

There has been increasing collaboration and solidarity between the two nations in previous years; past agreements include cooperation over oil exploration, the construction of low-income housing and assembling tractors and bicycles. Venezuela has been an outspoken defender of Iran’s right to enrich uranium for civilian purposes; the U.S. and its allies have repeatedly threatened Tehran over its nuclear policy, accusing the Persian state of attempting to acquire nuclear weapons.

Meanwhile the United States itself has the largest nuclear arsenal in the world, and Israel is believed to be the only Middle Eastern nation with nuclear weapons, although it refuses to disclose any information regarding its nuclear program. Former Israeli nuclear technician Mordechai Vanunu released classified information about Israel’s development of advanced nuclear weapons to the Sunday Times in 1986, with the newspaper estimating that Israel had more than 100 nuclear warheads and publishing photographs which Vanunu had taken in secret. Israel subsequently prosecuted Vanunu, having first kidnapped him in Rome; convicting him of treason and espionage and sentencing him to 18 years in prison. Vanunu served 12 years of his imprisonment in solitary confinement; longer than any other known prisoner in modern history[2].

Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez was briefly overthrown by an abortive coup d’état in 2002 before being reinstated just 47 hours later following a massive popular uprising. The United States had been quick to recognise the interim government which replaced Chávez, and members of the Organization of American States (OAS) went on record at the time stating that senior U.S. officials were “not only aware the coup was about to take place, but had sanctioned it, presuming it to be destined for success”.[3]

Relations between the United States and Venezuela have been tense since the election of Chávez in 1998, with Washington taking issue with the redistributive policies of the Venezuelan leader who has been keen to ensure that the country’s vast oil wealth is better-distributed among the country’s 28 million inhabitants.

The United States covertly sponsored numerous coups d’état throughout Latin America during the 20th century, overthrowing governments which have threatened its hegemony and commercial interests whenever forceful regime change has been viable. In 1970, a memo sent by then-National Security Adviser Henry Kissinger to President Richard Nixon just days after the inauguration of the left-wing leader Salvador Allende in Chile urged “regime change” in the South American nation, warning that Allende’s populist policies could serve as a “model” for other regimes and thus prove damaging to U.S. interests[4].

The memo, declassified in 2004, underlines the subversive means the United States uses to pressure governments of weaker nations into conforming to U.S. foreign policy objectives, and the perils which await those who refuse to toe the line.

Chávez has consistently pursued policies which conflict with Washington’s interests. Under an agreement with the Cuban government, Venezuela exports reduced-price oil to the Caribbean nation whilst Cuba furnishes Venezuela with desperately needed medical professionals and expertise.

The United States continues to give refuge to numerous suspected terrorists wanted by Havana on suspicion involvement in attacks against the Cuban state, with the most prominent among them being Cuban-born Venezuelan Luis Posada Carriles. Carriles has himself admitted to taking part in the bombing of a Cubana airliner in 1976 which claimed 73 lives, and for which he was detained in Venezuela before escaping from prison in 1985.

Carriles has also been implicated in the bombing of hotels in Havana and an assassination attempt against Fidel Castro during a 2000 visit to Panama. Venezuela has repeatedly requested his extradition; calls which have fallen on deaf ears in Washington, leading to observers condemning the United States for its clear display of double standards in the ‘war on terror’[5].

In March, Chávez aroused the attention of the world’s media when he called the recently inaugurated Barack Obama “ignorant”, stating that his U.S. counterpart is uninformed of the “reality of Latin America” and urging him to “read and study”[6]. Obama had condemned Chávez for “exporting terror” and “hindering progress” in Latin America[7], to which the Venezuelan premier responded; “the real obstacle has been the empire that he today presides over, which has exported terrorism for nearly 200 years, has launched atomic bombs on innocent cities, has bombarded, invaded and issued orders to kill whenever they have taken the notion.”

In addition to the South American country’s pact with Iran, Venezuela inaugurated diplomatic relations with Palestine on April 27th. The South American nation severed ties with Israel and expelled its ambassador to Venezuela following the Zionist state’s three-week winter offensive in Gaza which left over 1,400 Palestinians dead and well over 5,000 wounded, causing $1.6 billion worth of damage to Gaza’s economy in the process[8].

Venezuelan foreign minister Nicolas Maduro stated that, “The people of Palestine can count on our eternal and permanent solidarity with their just and humane cause.” Hugo Chávez has said on record that he believes Israel’s onslaught in the beleaguered Palestinian territory constitutes genocide.

Tom Kavanagh


[1] Iran, Venezuela enter into military alliance, http://www.presstv.ir/detail.aspx?id=93122&sectionid=351020101

 

[2] Prisoner Support – Mordechai Vanunu, http://www.motherearth.org/prisoner/vanunu.php

[3] Venezuela coup linked to Bush team, http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2002/apr/21/usa.venezuela

[4] Kissinger Document Shows Pre-Emption in Practice, http://www.commondreams.org/headlines04/0205-07.htm

[5] Terrorist Luis Posada Carriles – AND THE DOUBLE STANDARD IN THE U.S. ‘WAR ON TERROR’, http://www.rethinkvenezuela.com/downloads/Posada%20Carriles.htm

[6] Chavez: Obama clueless about reality, http://www.presstv.ir/detail.aspx?id=89370&sectionid=351020704

[7] Venezuela’s Chavez calls Obama “ignoramus”, http://www.reuters.com/article/topNews/idUSTRE52L19G20090322

[8] ‘Genocide’ brings Palestinian embassy to Venezuela, http://www.presstv.ir/detail.aspx?id=92776&sectionid=351020704

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The conclusion of the recent G20 summit in London saw a range of polices and promises made in order to provide global and concrete solutions in the challenges of the financial crisis. Although the meeting included only the richest states in the world, they did not shrink from their responsibility to provide for the poorest. In order to prevent the financial crisis which is now being felt in the West from spreading to less developing countries and causing far greater economic and social hardship, the G20 agreed to substantially increase the financing of the International Monetary Fund (IMF). Dominique Strauss-Kahn, managing director of the fund, lauded this move as, “a powerful signal that the international community is committed to supporting these countries.”[1] A statement released by the London Summit 2009 details the new extensions of credit made available to the IMF. $750 billion will be made available over the next few years by the leading countries, together with an immediate injection of $250 billion of special drawing rights, additional allowances for trade finance and a sale of IMF gold will bring the total new funding to $1.1 trillion.[2]

 

  The injection of this new capital will come as a welcome relief to the bank, which has seen its revenues and balances falling in recent years. Despite continuing to attract investment from donor countries, it is not this capital which makes up the majority of the bank’s revenue. The University of Iowa’s Centre for International Finance and Development identifies loan repayments as the primary source of operational-cost income.[3] This is not surprising if the IMF’s fundamental nature is understood. The title ‘Fund’ is semantically deceptive, suggesting an operational capacity similar to the funds operated by charities. The IMF is however essentially a bank. It gains investment from donor countries and then derives its revenue, just as a high street institution does, through the repayment of loans to other countries at interest. In 1986 alone the repayment of interest totalled 2.7 billion (SDR) leaving a net profit for the bank of 1.3 billion (SDR).[4]

 

  The falling revenues for the bank are attributed by the University of Iowa’s study to the recent pattern of many countries in paying off their loan commitments. In December 2005 Brazil made the largest repayment in history to the institution when it completely paid off its $15.5 billion loan. This move represents a trend of many other less developed countries which have either fully or substantially fulfilled their debt obligations. The depletion of the IMF’s balance sheet has been substantial. In 2003 their total lending stood at 73 billion (SDR) whereas four years later this has been reduced to only 10 billion (SDR).[5] With the fall in lending the fund has been deprived of significant interest repayments, and as such its profits have fallen.

 

  Since the interest payments paid to the IMF are themselves partly returned to donor countries to pay the interest on their investments, the fall in lending has undoubtedly had a significant effect on the banking institutions within these Western countries. It is not therefore surprising that in this present climate of fiscal scarcity in the West some of the strongest pressure to increase IMF lending has come from the banking world. The Institute of International Finance (IIF), which represents some of the world’s largest banks, has lobbied the IMF and others to secure the new funding promised by the G20.[6] It is not apparently enough to wait for the governments of the individual countries to authorise the funding since the current need is so urgent. Instead the IIF is pressing for $500 billion of the funding promised to be extended to the IMF within 90 days of the end of the G20 Summit. In a statement released by the organisation they announced that:

 

“The Fund will need a new and more forceful approach to strengthen international coordination of macroeconomic policies to reduce global imbalances, fostering an open, fully global economic system.”[7]

 

With such significant pressure coming from banks, and the profits available to them if legislatures approve the funding, one might ask what benefit is extended to the less developed countries. Whilst it is true that a bank assists individuals in purchasing goods or services that they would otherwise be unable to obtain there are some significant differences between individuals’ and states’ debts. When an individual dies his debt is not usually passed on to his offspring, whereas this is certainly the case with a nation’s regime change. The sheer scale of the credit extended also proportionally dwarfs that made to individuals. Finally an individual is not obligated to change his living style or to purchase products only from companies tied or linked to the bank. Conditionalities remain however an essential determinate of whether a country receives ‘aid’, then tying it in future to the purchase goods from donor countries and to the opening up of its economy to the donor’s companies. All these differences make it unsurprising that the benefits sometimes enjoyed by individuals taking loans are not felt by the less developed countries that accept them.

 

A recent BBC report from Eastern Europe published the findings of a study by Cambridge and Yale universities. The study claimed to have discovered a link between the rise in tuberculosis cases and the acceptance of IMF loans.[8] It was argued that the pressure applied by the IMF to remove funding from public services and to open them up to private competition has resulted in a drastic reduction in the level and efficiency of care. The start of the TB increases appears to link directly with the start of IMF assistance and continues thereafter. Rates of TB have risen in these countries by an average of 16.6%, whereas they may have otherwise continued to fall by 10%.[9] With the results of this investigation and many others throughout the world on different issues of social welfare, it is not therefore surprising that in recent years so many countries have chosen to sacrifice other necessary expenditures to pay off their debts.

 

This situation has been criticised by charities and other NGO’s for many years, maintaining that the work of the IMF is often counterproductive and benefits often only the investing countries and banks.[10] There has been significant pressure in recent years from the campaign group Make Poverty History and Christian Aid to stop the UK from lending any capital tied to controversial obligations and it prevent lending until the IMF changes its policies towards debtor countries. In the climate which has developed over the last two years however, the pressure to decrease and control the IMF’s role in the world may be silenced. With an economic recession that is increasingly growing to include the entire global community, countries may have little choice but to again turn to the IMF and their foreign donors for assistance, whatever the cost may be.

 

Chris Bowles


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