Archive for May 2011
An international coalition of academics and environmental activists has launched a global campaign for the creation of a new UN convention to protect “mother earth”, Inter Press Service has reported.
With civil society groups and NGOs fighting a relentless battle against water pollution, loss of biodiversity, desertification, deforestation and climate change the campaign for a “Universal Declaration of the Rights of Mother Earth” has taken added significance. Maude Barlow, a lead campaigner for the UN convention has said: “We hope that one day a Universal Declaration of the Rights of Mother Earth will stand as the companion to the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights as one of the guiding covenants of our time.”
The campaign has also been boosted by the fact that the United Nations is commemorating two key environment-related events this year: the International Year of Forests and the beginning of the International Decade for Biodiversity.
“It took a long time to get the world to accept the Universal Declaration of Human Rights,” Barlow told IPS. “It will not be an easy struggle to have the rights of nature understood and adopted. But it will happen one day,” she predicted. Last month, a group of scholars and environmental experts from around the world launched a new book titled ‘The Rights of Nature: The Case for a Universal Declaration of the Rights of Mother Earth and Wild Law: A Manifesto for Earth and Justice.’
Addressing the UN General Assembly in April 2009, Bolivian President Evo Morales made a strong push for the proposed new Convention. And in December, the General Assembly adopted a resolution calling on all 192 member states to share their experiences and perspectives on how to create “harmony with nature”. A draft Universal Declaration of the Rights of Mother Earth was approved at the World People’s Conference on Climate Change and the Rights of Mother Earth in Cochabamba, Bolivia in April 2010. The draft declaration was formally presented to UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon in May last year.
Barlow told IPS the rights of nature are based on the notion that the natural world is a fully operating system, a community, with its own laws. It is therefore necessary for humans to construct laws that are compatible with the laws of nature. This means promoting human and community development in a way that protects nature and promotes sustainability, said Barlow, a former UN Adviser on Water.
“What might it look like if we created laws to give the earth and other species the right to exist?” she asked. “If we believe that rights are inherent, existing by virtue of our creation, then they belong to all nature, not just to humans.” Under a system that recognises the rights of nature, it would be unlawful to drive a species to extinction or to destroy a watershed.
Can India balance its distribution of sexes at birth, is the question asked by The Lancet, in its commentary on the findings of a study on female foeticide in India.
“The prospects seem grim,” is the answer. They have been grim from the onset of economic liberalisation, and the links between relative affluence and the demand for sex determination tests and selective abortion has for two decades now been a matter of concern for social and community minded doctors. [See ‘Putting Women First: Women and Health in a Rural Community’]
The counter-intuitive link between two key factors of development – more years of education and households becoming wealthier – and female foeticide have for long been an under-documented subject. This weakness in documentation has been surprising simply because, whether in the mega-metropolises of Delhi and Mumbai or in the cities and towns that are fast-growing, the number of ‘clinics’ providing sex determination tests has also grown. These are often camouflagued within a welter of signs advertising the features of a polyclinic, where the services on offer to middle class Indian families can range from liposuction to cardiac surgery to hip replacement. What else they do is well known, but not spoken about.
That is why The Lancet commentary has said that the demand for sons among wealthy parents is being satisfied by the medical community through the provision of illegal services of fetal sex-determination and sex-selective abortion. “The financial incentive for physicians to undertake this illegal activity seems to be far greater than the penalties associated with breaking the law. The market for sex determination and selective abortion has been estimated to be worth at least US$100 million per year, and the pervasive nature of the low sex ratio at birth suggests that this is not a consequence of a minority of errant physicians in a few states.”
I would say that this is an under-estimate of the size of the sex determination and female foeticide ‘industry’. Since the machinery required is relatively expensive (compared to the needs of a typical public health centre) and the clients are – as this study now helps makes clear – middle class urban Indian households who do not balk at the bill, this figure may under-estimate the true size of this illegal and ghastly business by a large degree. We don’t know how much because it is hidden.
There’s no doubt India’s medical establishment must be held accountable on moral, social, and legal grounds for the staggering imbalance in India’s sex ratio, which the 2011 Census brings out in relief. [See the post on the first set of detailed state-level data is almost complete as a release from the Census of India, 2011 Census and also ‘A population turning point’.]
Although there have been efforts to increase the penalty for non-compliance on the part of technicians and physicians, the sluggishness of the Indian judicial system, and the absence of systematic record-keeping of births, will remain a major hurdle for effective implementation of the Pre-Natal Diagnostic Techniques Act. For example, 800 court cases against doctors in 17 states have resulted in only 55 convictions.
In The Lancet, Prabhat Jha and colleagues have presented a timely analysis of trends in sex ratio at birth in India, and show that the ratio for second-order births, conditional on the first born being a girl, fell from 906 girls per 1000 boys in 1990, to 836 girls per 1000 boys in 2005. On the basis of this finding, the investigators estimate that there have been between 3.1 and 6 million abortions of female foetuses in the past decade. This is an astonishing sum – the upper value indicates a per day countrywide rate of 1,640 abortions!
“In view of the unverifiable assumptions that are needed to derive statistical estimates of sex-selective abortions, the value of the analysis by Jha and colleagues is mainly independent confirmation of two important aspects of the sex ratio in India that have been reported previously with different data,” The Lancet has said. “The first is that sex imbalance at birth seems to be particularly concentrated in households with high education and wealth. This pattern suggests that dominance of the son-preference norm is unlikely to be offset, at least in the short term, by socioeconomic development. Second is that the overall problem of sex imbalance seems to arise throughout India, including in Kerala, which has often been characterised as a model state for social development and gender equality. The problem of sex imbalance seems to be a function of socio-economic status, not geography.”
[The Lancet’s recent coverage of public health and India has been rigorous and exemplary. See this post for its series of papers on India’s path to full health coverage.]
There is already coverage of the study and some analysis in the news media. Here is a selection:
Reuters has reported – Up to 12 million girls were aborted over the last three decades in India by parents that tended to be richer and more educated, a large study in India found, and researchers warned that the figure could rise with falling fertility rates. The missing daughters occurred mostly in families which already had a first born daughter. Although the preference for boys runs across Indian society, the abortions were more likely to be carried out by educated parents who were aware of ultrasound technology and who could afford abortions.
“The number of girls being aborted is increasing and may have reached 12 million with the lower estimate of 4 million over the last three decades,” said lead author Professor Prabhat Jha at the Center for Global Health Research in Toronto, Canada. “The logic is families are saying if Nature gives us a first boy, then we don’t do anything. But if Nature gives a first girl then perhaps we would consider ultrasound testing and selective abortion for the subsequent children,” he told Reuters in a telephone interview on Tuesday.
The Indian Express has reported – They analysed census data and 2.5 lakh birth histories from national surveys to estimate differences in girl-boy ratio for second births in families where the first-born child had been a girl. They found that this girl-boy ratio fell from 906 girls per 1000 boys in 1990 to 836 in 2005. “Declines were much greater in mothers with 10 or more years of education than those with no education and in wealthier households. But if the first child had been a boy, there was no fall in the girl-boy ratio for second child over the study period,” Jha said. The article authors said this suggests that selective abortion of female foetuses, usually after a first-born girl, had been more common in richer and educated families.
The Washington Post has reported – The study found that, from 1990 to 2005, the “sex ratio” of first-born female children in India did not change significantly nor differ from what was biologically expected. (In 1990, it was 943 girls per 1,000 boys, and in 2005 it was 966). However, in families whose first-born was a girl, the incidence of the second-born being a girl fell almost steadily over that period, from 906 per 1,000 boys in 1990 to 836 in 2005. During the period, the trend increased among families in which the mother had 10 or more years of education but did not change in families in which the mother had no education. The sex ratio fell especially sharply in the richest 20 percent of households, Jha and his colleagues found. The findings were the same in both Hindu and Muslim households.
The most extreme decline in the probability of having a girl occurred in families in which the first two children were girls. In that case, the ratio of girls to boys in the third-born child was 768 to 1,000 in 2006. This came at a time when the average family size in India was 2.6 children — a huge reduction from earlier generations. The overall phenomenon of many more boys than girls among children under age 6 was once limited to northern and western India. Now it has spread throughout the country, Jha said. In 1991, about 10 percent of India’s population lived in states where the sex ratio for girls was below 915. Today, 56 percent of the population does.
[The paper is: ‘Trends in selective abortions of girls in India: analysis of nationally representative birth histories from 1990 to 2005 and census data from 1991 to 2011’ by Prabhat Jha, Maya A Kesler, Rajesh Kumar, Faujdar Ram, Usha Ram, Lukasz Aleksandrowicz, Diego G Bassani, Shailaja Chandra, Jayant K Banthia and is published in The Lancet, 24 May 2011.]
The alternative economics webcentre MacroScan has published my article on food waste/loss, food flows and food processing in India.
Here is the introductory text: “From the mid-term appraisal of the Eleventh Five Year plan onwards, central government ministries have been telling us that post-harvest losses in India are high, particularly for fruits and vegetables. The amount of waste often quoted is up to 40% for vegetables and fruits, and has been held up as the most compelling reason to permit a flood of investment in the new sector of agricultural logistics, to allow the creation of huge food processing zones, and to link all these to retail food structures in urban markets. The urban orientation of such an approach ignores the integrated and organic farming approach, as it does the evidence that sophistication in food processing has not in the West prevented food loss or waste.”
Tepco, the Fukushima nuclear power plant operator, has released a set of pictures showing the waters rushing into the nuclear power plant on 11 March, when the tsunami hit. There are 11 pictures in this release. They show dramatically just how the nuclear plant was battered, and remind us that this is the water of the wave that flung fishing vessels four kilometres inland.
These photos were taken from the 4th floor, of the north side of the ‘Radiation Waste Treatment Facility’. There’s more news archives and material on the Fukushima nuclear emergency page and in the running blog post.
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Images 3,4 and 5 show the ferocious maelstrom of water hammering its way through the power plant. Images 6 to 11 show some of the effects of the power of the tsunami, as it ripped away metal fixtures, threw cars around and exposed building interiors.
The ‘Zoo Project’ is a Franco-Algerian graffiti artist based in Paris, and who visited Tunis in March and April and created images of political struggle. As well as a series of murals, Zoo Project created 40 life-sized figures representing some of the 236 people who were killed in the uprising in Tunisia earlier this year.
This is a gritty, truthful, considerate and refreshingly public way to illustrate what happened in Tunisia, and the questions that remain. Here’s a selection from a terrific, socially highly carged gallery of street art. [Thanks to The Guardian global development news for posting this.]
By 2050, humanity could devour an estimated 140 billion tons of minerals, ores, fossil fuels and biomass per year – three times its current appetite – unless the economic growth rate is “decoupled” from the rate of natural resource consumption. This is the central recommendation of a major new study by the UN Environment Programme (UNEP), ‘Decoupling: natural resource use and environmental impacts from economic growth’.
Developed countries citizens consume an average of 16 tons of those four key resources per capita (ranging up to 40 or more tons per person in some developed countries). By comparison, the average person in India today consumes four tons per year.
With the growth of both population and prosperity, especially in developing countries, the prospect of much higher resource consumption levels is “far beyond what is likely sustainable” if realized at all given finite world resources, warns this report by UNEP’s International Resource Panel. Already the world is running out of cheap and high quality sources of some essential materials such as oil, copper and gold, the supplies of which, in turn, require ever-rising volumes of fossil fuels and freshwater to produce. Improving the rate of resource productivity (“doing more with less”) faster than the economic growth rate is the notion behind “decoupling,” the panel says.
That goal, however, demands an urgent rethink of the links between resource use and economic prosperity, buttressed by a massive investment in technological, financial and social innovation, to at least freeze per capita consumption in wealthy countries and help developing nations follow a more sustainable path.
Humanity is pressing up against the limits of a finite planet to provide resources like water, oil, metals and food, said a news report by IPS on the UNEP study.
During the 20th century, the rate of resource use has increased twice as fast as the increase in global population. Now, resources are being consumed at an even greater rate and are on pace to triple by 2050, the report calculates. Except there simply aren’t enough resources left on the planet to manage that – the average person in Canada or the United States currently consumes 25 tonnes of key resources every year.
Industrialised countries need to reduce their consumption by making significant reductions in waste and major improvements in the efficiency with which they use resources. At the same time, developing countries need to create new low-carbon, super-efficient resource use pathways for their economic development. Developing countries have to change their idea of what development means in a resource-scarce world. They need to forge a new resource- efficient, low carbon development path, said Mark Swilling of the Sustainability Institute at the University of Stellenbosch in South Africa.
There is a pressing need for sanitation in much of Africa, but instead of building expensive Western-style water treatment infrastructure, countries can use their wetlands and natural vegetation to provide the same service, Swilling, a co-author of the report, told IPS. “We will miss out on these kinds of opportunities if we follow Western development patterns,” he said.
Public infrastructure is the biggest determinant of future energy and resource use, said Marina Fischer-Kowalski of the Institute of Social Ecology in Vienna. North America’s infrastructure, including transportation, sanitation, food production and so on, are all high-energy, high-material-use systems, said report co-author Fischer-Kowalski. They were designed with the assumption of never-ending access to cheap and plentiful energy and resources. Efficiency improvements can be made but it is more expensive and limits to what can be done.
“According to the refugees, when water ran out people drank sea water and their own urine. They ate toothpaste. One by one people started to die. After waiting a day or so, they decided they had to drop the bodies into the sea.”
That is the account of Melissa Fleming, chief spokeswoman for the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), to a Geneva news briefing. In a UNHCR camp in Tunisia, agency workers interviewed three Ethiopian men who said they were among nine survivors from a boat that left Tripoli on March 25 carrying 72 people.
Their boat is the one that NATO warships ignored.
One of the Ethiopians interviewed said the boat ran out of fuel, water and food, then drifted for more than two weeks before reaching a beach back in Libya. Military vessels had twice passed the 12-meter-long boat, crowded to the point there was barely standing room, without stopping, he said. The first boat refused a request to board and the second just took photos, although he could not say where the vessels had come from.
Fleming said that the boat was among many believed to have left Libya without a captain, leaving the migrants to do the navigation themselves. “I have heard accounts that perhaps there has been a captain for the first 100 meters or so and then a small boat will take the captain back to shore. They provide the passengers with a compass and say ‘Lampedusa is in that direction. Best of luck’,” said Fleming, referring to the small southern Italian island where many refugees have headed.
One in 10 migrants fleeing conflict in Libya by sea is likely to drown or die from hunger and exhaustion in appalling conditions during the crossing, the UN refugee agency said Friday. Around 12,000 migrants have arrived at reception centers in Malta and Italy. An estimated 1,200 are missing and presumed dead, adding a further human tragedy to the thousands killed in three months of fighting to topple leader Muammar Gaddafi.
This week in 1936 the Mussolini regime’s declaration of an Italian empire in East Africa, upon its formal annexation of Ethiopia, increased tensions among the Great Powers, pushing the world closer toward a global conflagration.
The annexation was an open repudiation, said the World Socialist Web Site, of the norms of international law and the most devastating rebuke yet suffered by the League of Nations, forerunner of the United Nations, which had failed miserably to check Rome’s aggression. Likewise implicated were Britain, which had allowed the Italian war machine to pass through the Suez canal, and France, which was seeking to maintain Italian support for the Locarno Pact against Germany aggression.
In response, Britain sent a diplomatic mission to Hitler seeking Germany’s non-recognition of Mussolini’s conquest, while France remained oriented toward maintaining Italy’s support against Germany. With all of Africa now divided by the Europeans—the exception being small Liberia in the west—no further gains could be made on the continent without war among the European powers.
Today, Italy’s participation in the war stems from the fear that it could lose its influence in Libya to France, Britain and the United States. The Financial Times noted: “The Franco-Italian spat over immigration follows sharp differences over Libya, where Rome has been dragged into a war it would rather avoid, fearing a Paris-Benghazi nexus will freeze out its substantial interests in Libyan oil and gas”.
The Libyan oil and gas reserves are a powerful motive for the Italian bourgeoisie to participate actively in the inter-imperialist struggle over their North African neighbour. Italy draws a quarter of its oil imports and ten percent of its natural gas from Libya. The energy group ENI has invested billions of euros in assets in Libya. Until the outbreak of open hostilities, Italy was the largest foreign trade partner of Libya, the largest buyer of its crude oil, and one of Gaddafi’s largest arms suppliers.
Good job by FAO on this topic, an extremely important one. ‘Global food losses and food waste’ is the title of a new report by FAO and it is an eye opener indeed. FAO has said that food waste is “more a problem in industrialised countries, most often caused by both retailers and consumers throwing perfectly edible foodstuffs into the trash”. This is true, but only partly.
It is in fact a problem of societies that have industrialised their food handling, processing and retailing systems to the average level that is seen in the OECD economies, and that this problem is therefore as much visible in the urban food consumer markets of say Sao Paulo and Mumbai and Jakarta as it is in North American or west European cities and towns.
The study has shown that per capita waste by consumers is between 95-115 kg a year in Europe and North America, while consumers in sub-Saharan Africa and South and Southeast Asia each throw away only 6-11 kg a year. The ‘only’ is relative of course. If these averages are mapped to populations and their food wasting habits, then for Bangladesh in 2011 we have a total wastage of 1.275 million tons! What was the total harvest of vegetables in Bangladesh in 2008? It was 1.1 million tons (FAOstat)!
Total per capita food production for human consumption is about 900 kg a year in rich countries, almost twice the 460 kg a year produced in the poorest regions. In developing countries 40% of losses occur at post-harvest and processing levels while in industrialised countries more than 40% of losses happen at retail and consumer levels. Food losses during harvest and in storage translate into lost income for small farmers and into higher prices for poor consumers, said the report. Reducing losses could therefore have an “immediate and significant” impact on their livelihoods and food security.
There are wider connections between food loss + waste and natural resources and energy. Food loss and waste also amount to a major squandering of resources, including water, land, energy, labour and capital and needlessly produce greenhouse gas emissions, contributing to global warming and climate change.
What can be done? For a start, selling farm produce closer to consumers, without having to conform to the quality standards of retail markets, is a good suggestion. “This could be achieved through farmers’ markets and farm shops” said the report, which is in fact one of the strengths of the Transition movement in the West.
The real problem lies in the retail labyrinth in urban areas, particularly in fast-industrialising Asia. Here, in rather myopic copycat fashion without any learning having taken place, food is wasted due to quality standards that over-emphasise appearance. My guess is that this report will not have reliability of the kind it ought to for India and China, simply because in Asian cities and towns, a large network of scrap vendors (for food too) exists which will place food rejected by the retail markets into channels used by the urban poor, by small roadside eateries and by micro-businesses in the informal food processing industry.
What the study is cler about is that “consumers in rich countries are generally encouraged to buy more food than they need”. The ‘Buy three, pay for two’ promotions are one example, while the oversized ready-to-eat meals produced by the food industry are another. Restaurants frequently offer fixed-price buffets that spur customers to heap their plates. Generally speaking, consumers fail to plan their food purchases properly, the report found. That means they often throw food away when “best-before” dates expired.
There are some useful numbers in here. The study has shown that the per capita food loss in Europe and North-America is 280-300 kg per year. In Sub-Saharan Africa and South and Southeast Asia it is 120-170 kg per year. The total per capita production of edible parts of food for human consumption is, in Europe and North-America, about 900 kg per year and, in sub-Saharan Africa and South and Southeast Asia, 460 kg per year. Per capita food wasted by consumers in Europe and North-America is 95-115 kg per year, while this figure in sub-Saharan Africa and South and Southeast Asia is 6-11 kg per year. Food waste at consumer level in industrialised countries (222 million tons) is almost as high as the total net food production in sub-Saharan Africa (230 million tons).