Category Archives: indigenous peoples

Who Cares about Western Sahara?

f Laayoune, capital of Western Sahar, satellite image from wikipedia

The European Court of Justice issued a ruling on Feb. 27, 2018 that a EU-Morocco fisheries deal was valid as long as it was not applied to the waters of the disputed Western Sahara territory since this would be a breach of its population’s rights.  Morocco controls most of Western Sahara and considers it part of its territory. It fought a 16-year war with the Polisario Front independence movement, which established the self-declared Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic.  The United Nations says the region has a right to self-determination and campaigners have sought to challenge the EU’s trade deals with Morocco in the courts because they include the desert region.  Western Sahara, a contested region since Spain withdrew from it in 1975,“does not form part of the territory of the Kingdom of Morocco,” the ECJ said.   Therefore, the region’s adjacent waters were not part of the“Moroccan fishing zone” mentioned in the treaty with the EU.

The court has said before that EU deals signed with Morocco could not include Western Saharan resources because its citizens had not been in a position to agree to its conditions. In February 2017, Morocco’s government said it would end economic cooperation with the EU if it did not honour a farming deal.  Though largely a desert region, western Sahara has significant phosphate reserves and offshore fishing grounds.

The ECJ’s ruling could disrupt not only EU fleets in the fish-rich waters, but also broader co-operation between European capitals and Rabat in areas including migration and terrorism. It might also have potential implications for other trade deals between the EU and countries alleged to breach human rights laws.

Excerpts from The ECJ Fishy Business, Financial Times, Feb. 27, 2018; EU top court: EU-Morocco fishing deal valid as long as not applied to W. Sahara, Reuters, Feb. 27, 2018

An Earth Bank of Codes: who owns what in the biological world

image from wikipedia

A project with the scale and sweep of the original Human Genome Project…should be to gather DNA sequences from specimens of all complex life on Earth. They decided to call it the Earth BioGenome Project (EBP).

At around the same time as this meeting, a Peruvian entrepreneur living in São Paulo, Brazil, was formulating an audacious plan of his own. Juan Carlos Castilla Rubio wanted to shift the economy of the Amazon basin away from industries such as mining, logging and ranching, and towards one based on exploiting the region’s living organisms and the biological information they embody. At least twice in the past—with the businesses of rubber-tree plantations, and of blood-pressure drugs called ACE inhibitors, which are derived from snake venom—Amazonian organisms have helped create industries worth billions of dollars. ….

For the shift he had in mind to happen, though, he reasoned that both those who live in the Amazon basin and those who govern it would have to share in the profits of this putative new economy. And one part of ensuring this happened would be to devise a way to stop a repetition of what occurred with rubber and ACE inhibitors—namely, their appropriation by foreign firms, without royalties or tax revenues accruing to the locals.

Such thinking is not unique to Mr Castilla. An international agreement called the Nagoya protocol already gives legal rights to the country of origin of exploited biological material. What is unique, or at least unusual, about Mr Castilla’s approach, though, is that he also understands how regulations intended to enforce such rights can get in the way of the research needed to turn knowledge into profit. To that end he has been putting his mind to the question of how to create an open library of the Amazon’s biological data (particularly DNA sequences) in a way that can also track who does what with those data, and automatically distribute part of any commercial value that results from such activities to the country of origin. He calls his idea the Amazon Bank of Codes.

Now, under the auspices of the World Economic Forum’s annual meeting at Davos, a Swiss ski resort, these two ideas have come together. On January 23, 2018 it was announced that the EBP will help collect the data to be stored in the code bank. The EBP’s stated goal is to sequence, within a decade, the genomes of all 1.5m known species of eukaryotes. ..That is an ambitious timetable. The first part would require deciphering more than eight genomes a day; the second almost 140; the third, about 1,000. For comparison, the number of eukaryotic genomes sequenced so far is about 2,500…

Big sequencing centres like BGI in China, the Rockefeller University’s Genomic Resource Centre in America, and the Sanger Institute in Britain, as well as a host of smaller operations, are all eager for their share of this pot. For the later, cruder, stages of the project Complete Genomics, a Californian startup bought by BGI, thinks it can bring the cost of a rough-and-ready sequence down to $100. A hand-held sequencer made by Oxford Nanopore, a British company, may be able to match that and also make the technology portable…..It is an effort in danger of running into the Nagoya protocol. Permission will have to be sought from every government whose territory is sampled. That will be a bureaucratic nightmare. Indeed, John Kress of the Smithsonian, another of the EBP’s founders, says many previous sequencing ventures have foundered on the rock of such permission. And that is why those running the EBP are so keen to recruit Mr Castilla and his code bank.

The idea of the code bank is to build a database of biological information using a blockchain. Though blockchains are best known as the technology that underpins bitcoin and other crypto-currencies, they have other uses. In particular, they can be employed to create “smart contracts” that monitor and execute themselves. To obtain access to Mr Castilla’s code bank would mean entering into such a contract, which would track how the knowledge thus tapped was subsequently used. If such use was commercial, a payment would be transferred automatically to the designated owners of the downloaded data. Mr Castilla hopes for a proof-of-principle demonstration of his platform to be ready within a few months.

In theory, smart contracts of this sort would give governments wary of biopiracy peace of mind, while also encouraging people to experiment with the data. And genomic data are, in Mr Castilla’s vision, just the start. He sees the Amazon Bank of Codes eventually encompassing all manner of biological compounds—snake venoms of the sort used to create ACE inhibitors, for example—or even behavioural characteristics like the congestion-free movement of army-ant colonies, which has inspired algorithms for co-ordinating fleets of self-driving cars. His eventual goal is to venture beyond the Amazon itself, and combine his planned repository with similar ones in other parts of the world, creating an Earth Bank of Codes.

[I]f the EBP succeeds, be able to use the evolutionary connections between genomes to devise a definitive version of the tree of eukaryotic life. That would offer biologists what the periodic table offers chemists, namely a clear framework within which to operate. Mr Castilla, for his part, would have rewritten the rules of international trade by bringing the raw material of biotechnology into an orderly pattern of ownership. If, as many suspect, biology proves to be to future industries what physics and chemistry have been to industries past, that would be a feat of lasting value.

Excerpts from Genomics, Sequencing the World, Economist, Jan. 27, 2018

Slavery Never Dies

The African Union on Friday urged Mauritania to make a greater effort to eliminate slavery after the country handed out lenient sentences to a family of slave owners in a landmark conviction….In a statement published online, the African Union (AU)’s Committee of Experts on the Rights and Welfare of the Child said that…Mauritania should also “give due regard to the issue of slavery and make the elimination… one of its priorities,” the pan-African body said…

Mauritania was the last country in the world to abolish slavery in 1981, and has one of the highest rates of slavery in the world, with 1 in 100 people living as slaves, according to the 2016 Global Slavery Index.  Slavery is a historical practice in Mauritania, where dark-skinned ethnic groups make up the main “slave caste”, often working as domestic servants and cattle herders. A new anti-slavery law in 2015 doubled the prison term for perpetrators to 20 years, but in its second prosecution a year later Mauritania gave two slave owners only five-year sentences.

Exceprts from African Union urges Mauritania to crack down on slavery, Reuters, Jan. 26, 2018

 

The Arctic through China’s Eyes

China on  January 25, 2018 outlined its ambitions to extend President Xi Jinping’s signature Belt and Road Initiative to the Arctic by developing shipping lanes opened up by global warming.  Releasing its first official Arctic policy white paper, China said it would encourage enterprises to build infrastructure and conduct commercial trial voyages, paving the way for Arctic shipping routes that would form a “Polar Silk Road”…China, despite being a non-Arctic state, is increasingly active in the polar region and became an observer member of the Arctic Council in 2013.

Among its increasing interests in the region is its major stake in Russia’s Yamal liquefied natural gas project which is expected to supply China with four million tonnes of LNG a year.

Shipping through the Northern Sea Route would shave almost 20 days off the regular time using the traditional route through the Suez Canal. COSCO Shipping has also previously sailed vessels through the Arctic’s northeast passage.

China’s increasing prominence in the region has prompted concerns from Arctic states over its long-term strategic objectives, including possible military deployment…The white paper said China also eyes development of oil, gas, mineral resources and other non-fossil energies, fishing and tourism in the region. China’s Belt and Road initiative aims to connect China to Europe, the Middle East and beyond via massive infrastructure projects across dozens of countries…

Excerpts from China unveils vision for ‘Polar Silk Road’ across Arctic, Reuters, Jan. 25, 2018

Sterilized Prostitutes

 3D printed reconstruction of the face of the Lady of Cao

Pope Francis on Janurary 19, 2018 criticized sterilization campaigns that have targeted indigenous people during a speech to Amazonian communities in Peru.  It’s a topic likely to strike a chord in a country where more than 300,000 women were sterilized during the 1990-2000 government of former President Alberto Fujimori. ..The pontiff decried organizations that promote “reproductive policies favoring infertility” and said some continue to advocate for the sterilization of women — even without consent.  Many of the women sterilized during Fujimori’s administration were illiterate and came from poor, indigenous communities. More than 2,000 later came forward to complain that they had been forcibly sterilized…In 1996 there were, according to official statistics, 81,762 tubal ligations performed on women, with a peak being reached the following year, with 109,689 ligatures, then only 25,995 in 1998 (bbc).

Pope Francis denounced sexual enslavement of women in the Amazon who are trafficked and forced into prostitution, saying the “machismo” culture cannot stand. …It is painful how “so many women are devalued, denigrated and exposed to endless violence.”  Many women work as prostitutes in the region’s bars, servicing clients who often work in gold mines and other extraction industries….

Excerpts from The Latest: Pope decries sterilization campaigns in Peru, Associated Press, Jan. 19, 2018

Case: In 1996, Peruvian public health officials threatened Maria Mamerita Mestanza Chávez with criminal sanctions if she did not undergo a sterilization surgery. Her partner ultimately agreed to the surgery. She was never examined prior to the procedure. After complications ensued, she was refused medical treatment and died at home nine days later. After domestic remedies failed, the Latin American and Caribbean Committee for the Defense of Women’s Rights (CLADEM) and two other Peruvian human rights group filed a petition with the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) in 1999 and were later joined by the Center and the Center for Justice and International Law (CEJIL). In 2002, the Peruvian government agreed in principle to settle the case. An agreement was signed in 2003 in which the government acknowledged international legal responsibility, agreed to compensate Mestanza’s surviving husband and children, and agreed to modify and implement recommendations made by Peru’s Human Rights Ombudsman concerning sterilization procedures in Peru’s government facilities.  (see center for reproductive rights)

The Right to Drinkable Water and Uranium Mining in the USA

image from http://postcardy.blogspot.com/2015/02/map-southern-utah-and-northern-arizona.html

[T]he uranium mining industry in the United States is renewing a push into the areas adjacent to Navajo Nation, Utah: the Grand Canyon watershed to the west, where a new uranium mine is preparing to open, and the Bears Ears National Monument to the north.

The Trump administration is set to shrink Bears Ears National Monument by 85 percent in February 2018, potentially opening more than a million acres to mining, drilling and other industrial activity….[T]here were more than 300 uranium mining claims inside the monument, according to data from Utah’s Bureau of Land Management (B.L.M.) office that was reviewed by The New York Times.  The vast majority of those claims fall neatly outside the new boundaries of Bears Ears set by the [Trump] administration. And an examination of local B.L.M. records, including those not yet entered into the agency’s land and mineral use authorizations database, shows that about a third of the claims are linked to Energy Fuels, a Canadian uranium producer. Energy Fuels also owns the Grand Canyon mine, where groundwater has already flooded the main shaft.

Energy Fuels, together with other mining groups, lobbied extensively for a reduction of Bears Ears, preparing maps that marked the areas it wanted removed from the monument and distributing them during a visit to the monument by Mr. Zinke, Energy Secretary,  in May 2017.

The Uranium Producers of America, an industry group, is pushing the Environmental Protection Agency to withdraw regulations proposed by the Obama administration to strengthen groundwater protections at uranium mines. Mining groups have also waged a six-year legal battle against a moratorium on new uranium mining on more than a million acres of land adjacent to the Grand Canyon…

Supporters of the mining say that a revival of domestic uranium production, which has declined by 90 percent since 1980 amid slumping prices and foreign competition, will make the United States a larger player in the global uranium market.  It would expand the country’s energy independence, they say, and give a lift to nuclear power, still a pillar of carbon-free power generation. Canada, Kazakhstan, Australia, Russia and a few other countries now supply most of America’s nuclear fuel.

The dwindling domestic market was thrust into the spotlight by the contentious 2010 decision under the Obama administrationthat allowed Russia’s nuclear agency to buy Uranium One, a company that has amassed production facilities in the United States. The Justice Department is examining allegations that donations to the Clinton Foundation were tied to that decision.

“If we consider nuclear a clean energy, if people are serious about that, domestic uranium has to be in the equation,” said Jon J. Indall, a lawyer for Uranium Producers of America. “But the proposed regulations would have had a devastating impact on our industry.” “Countries like Kazakhstan, they’re not under the same environmental standards. We want a level playing field.”…

In Sanders, Arizona, hundreds of people were exposed to potentially dangerous levels of uranium in their drinking water for years, until testing by a doctoral researcher at Northern Arizona University named Tommy Rock exposed the contamination.  “I was shocked,” Mr. Rock said. “I wasn’t expecting that reading at all.”

Mr. Rock and other scientists say they suspect a link to the 1979 breach of a wastewater pond at a uranium mill in Church Rock, N.M., now a Superfund site. That accident is considered the single largest release of radioactive material in American history, surpassing the crisis at Three Mile Island.

It wasn’t until 2003, however, that testing by state regulators picked up uranium levels in Sanders’s tap water. Still, the community was not told. Erin Jordan, a spokeswoman for the Arizona Department of Environmental Quality, said the department had urged the now-defunct local water company for years to address the contamination, but it had been up to that company to notify its customers….The town’s school district, whose wells were also contaminated with uranium, received little state or federal assistance. It shut off its water fountains and handed out bottled water to its 800 elementary and middle-school students.  “I still don’t trust the water,” said Shanon Sangster, who still sends her 10-year-old daughter, Shania, to school with bottled water. “It’s like we are all scarred by it, by the uranium.”

Excerpts from HIROKO TABUCHIJAN,  Uranium Miners Pushed Hard for a Comeback. They Got Their Wish,  NY Times, Jan. 13, 2018

Jumping off the Edge into the Ocean: Hydrazine

Europe’s space agency is defending plans to launch two satellites that would drop a rocket stage likely to contain highly toxic fuel in some of the most ecologically sensitive waters of the Canadian Arctic… North Water Polynya between Baffin Island and Greenland Inuit have said those plans treat seas…as a garbage dump.

On October 13, 2017, the European Space Agency plans to launch the Sentinel 5P satellite, an environmental probe designed to monitor trace gases in the atmosphere. A second launch of a similar satellite is planned for 2018.  The second stage of both rockets are expected to splash down in water that is part of Canada’s exclusive economic zone.  Both will use Soviet-era rockets fuelled by hydrazine. The fuel is a carcinogen and causes convulsions, nervous system damage, kidney and liver failure in humans.

Hvistendahl, representative of European Space Agency, said unused fuel will be destroyed before it reaches the ocean. Re-entry temperatures are much higher than hydrazine’s boiling point, he said.  “The structural parts lose their integrity and, by melting, the destruction of the stage occurs. Six kilometres above ground the propellant components have completely burnt up.”

Michael Byers, a Canadian academic who has just published research on the launch in a top Arctic journal, questioned those assurances.  “The ESA is making lots of assumptions about what happens to the residual (fuel) in these returning rocket stages,” he said Friday in an email. “Unless they have real science that proves their assumptions, they should not be taking chances with Inuit lives and the Arctic environment.”  In his paper, published in Polar Record from Cambridge University, Byers cites extensive evidence suggesting that instead of burning, hydrazine forms fine droplets that settle on the Earth below.  Byers quotes a UN report that found “the products of combustion and non-combusted remains of fuel and oxidants falling from the height of 20–100 kilometre spread and land over thousands of square kilometres.”The rocket stage could be carrying up to a tonne of unused hydrazine as it falls, the paper says.  It will drop into the North Water Polynya, an 85,000-square-kilometre ocean that is free of ice year-round. It shelters most of the world’s narwhal, as well as about 14,000 beluga whales and 1,500 walrus, bowhead whales, polar bears, seals and tens of millions of seabirds…

In his paper, Byers points out there have been 10 such launches dropping rocket stages into the North Water Polynya over the last 15 years.  Nearly every country in the world, including Russia, has stopped using hydrazine. He said Europe launched a very similar satellite earlier this year with a rocket using a much safer fuel.

Excerpts from European satellite splashdown in Canadian Arctic probably toxic, Canadian Press, Oct. 6, 2017.