Tag Archives: right to information

Green Dams that Kill

Chixoy Hydroelectric Dam in Guatemala, image from wikipedia

A planned mega-dam in Guatemala, whose carbon credits will be tradable under the EU’s emissions trading system, has been linked to grave human rights abuses, including the killing of six indigenous people, two of them children.  Several European development banks and the World Bank’s International Finance Corporation (IFC) have provided funds for the $250m (£170m) Santa Rita dam.

But human rights groups back claims from the Mayan community that they were never consulted about the hydro project, which will forcibly displace thousands of people to generate 25MW of energy, mostly for export to neighbouring countries.  The issue has become a focus of indigenous protest in Guatemala – which has led to a march on the capital and severe political repression.

“At the moment our community is living under the same conditions as they did during the war,” Maximo Ba Tiul, a spokesman for the Peoples’ Council of Tezulutlán told the Guardian. “Our civilian population is once again being terrorised by armed thugs.”  Around 200,000 Mayans died or were “disappeared” during the civil war of the early 1980s, leading to the conviction of the country’s former president, Efraín Ríos Montt, in 2013 on genocide charges.

Augusto Sandino Ponce, the son of a local landowner who community leaders allege worked as a contractor to Montt’s junta during the civil war, is at the centre of new accusations of human rights violations. Last April Ponce and his bodyguards allegedly opened fire on a Mayan community ceremony in which families asked the Earth for permission to plant their crops. One local man, Victor Juc, was killed and several were injured. Ponce reportedly claims he was acting in self defence…

In a letter to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change’s (UNFCCC) clean development mechanism (CDM) executive board,  the People’s Council of Tezulutlán outlined a litany of human rights abuses in the region, including kidnappings, evictions, house burnings, attacks by men wielding machetes and guns, and the arrest of community leaders.  The council also says that an environmental impact assessment for the dam suggests that it would create a 40ft-high wall, flooding local communities and depriving them of access to water, food, transport and recreation.  In approving projects, the CDM board pursues a narrow remit focused on emissions reductions. The reign of terror in the Alta Verapaz region, falls outside it – as did similar events in Honduras….

Perhaps the most shocking incident took place on 23 August 2013, when two children were killed by an allegedly drunken Santa Rita hydroelectricity company worker looking for David Chen, a community leader in the Monte Olivo region.   Chen was meeting with the rapporteur of the Inter American Commission on Human Rights at the time. When the worker could not find him, he is said to have lined up two of Chen’s nephews, David Stuart Pacay Maaz, 11 and Haggai Isaac Guitz Maaz, 13, and killed them with a single bullet to one child’s head that continued through the throat of the other. The killer has since been killed himself.  The annual report of the UN’s High Commissioner for Human Rights implicitly blamed the approval of the dam project for the killings….

Eva Filzmoser, the director of Carbon Market Watch said: “We want the CDM board to take responsibility and establish a grievance and redress mechanism for local communities to appeal, ask for problematic decisions to be rescinded and gain redress. We will be pushing for this at the Paris climate summit to apply to all forms of climate finance in the future.”Efforts to reform the CDM were boosted last month, when 18 countries signed a “Geneva declaration” calling for human rights norms to be integrated into UNFCCC climate decisions….Signatory countries to the declaration include France, Sweden, Ireland, Mexico, Uruguay and Peru.

Excerpts Green’ dam linked to killings of six indigenous people in Guatemala, Guardian, Mar. 26, 2015

UK Nuclear Tests in Australia: Maralinga

landscape Maralinga site. image from wikipedia

In the mid-1950s, seven bombs were tested at Maralinga in the south-west Australian outback. The combined force of the weapons doubled that of the bomb dropped on the Japanese city of Hiroshima in World War Two.  In archive video footage, British and Australian soldiers can be seen looking on, wearing short sleeves and shorts and doing little to protect themselves other than turning their backs and covering their eyes with their hands.Some reported the flashes of the blasts being so bright that they could see the bones of their fingers, like x-rays as they pressed against their faces.

A cloud hangs over Australia’s Monte Bello Islands after Britain tested its first atomic bomb
Much has been written about the health problems suffered by the servicemen as a result of radiation poisoning. Far less well-documented is the plight of the Aboriginal people who were living close to Maralinga at the time….”A lot of people got sick and died,” said Mima Smart, an aboriginal community leader.”It was like a cancer on them. People were having lung disease, liver problems, and kidney problems. A lot of them died,” she said, adding that communities around Maralinga have been paid little by way of compensation.  It’s a ten hour drive to the nearest big city, Adelaide. But people here say that the Australian government was wrong to let the tests go ahead and that Britain acted irresponsibly…

“They didn’t want to do it in their own back yard because their back yard wasn’t big enough,” said Robin Matthews, caretaker of the Maralinga Nuclear Test Site.”They thought they’d pick a supposedly uninhabited spot out in the Australian desert. Only they got it wrong. There were people here.”During the 1960s and 70s, there were several large clean-up operations to try and decontaminate the site.  All the test buildings and equipment were destroyed and buried. Large areas of the surface around the blast sites was also scraped up and buried.

But Mr Matthews said the clean-up, as well as the tests themselves, were done very much behind closed doors with a high level of secrecy.“You’ve got to remember that this was during the height of the Cold War. The British were terrified that Russian spies might try and access the site,” he said.  The indigenous communities say many locals involved in the clean-up operation also got sick.  Soil at the nuclear site grow so hot from the blast that it melted and turned to silicon has long been declared safe. There are even plans to open up the site to tourism.

But it was only a few months ago that the last of the land was finally handed back to the Aboriginal people. Most, though, say they have no desire to return there….And even almost 60 years on, the land still hasn’t recovered. Huge concrete plinths mark the spots where each of the bombs was detonate

Excerpt from Jon Donnison, Lingering impact of British nuclear tests in the Australian outback, BBC, Dec. 31, 2014

The Under-Reported War: Afghanistan and the American Democracy

Of all the news content in newspapers and on the Web, television and radio this year, Afghanistan accounted for about 2 percent of coverage, according to the Project for Excellence in Journalism, an arm of the Pew Research Center.  Six other subjects were given more sustained attention than the war there. In descending order, they were the economy in the United States; the unrest in the Middle East; the 2012 presidential election; the earthquake, tsunami and ensuing nuclear disaster in Japan; the killing of Osama bin Laden; and the shooting in Tucson in which six were killed and Representative Gabrielle Giffords, Democrat of Arizona, was critically injured.

The figures come from the project’s weekly monitoring of 52 major papers, news Web sites, TV networks and stations, and radio stations. The project uses that sample to show what is atop the national news agenda, and what is not.  In a year-end report last week, the project’s researchers noted that “despite a drop in coverage of the war in Afghanistan,” there was an increase in international news over all, owing largely to the war in Libya and the protests in Egypt, Tunisia and other countries. The United States’ withdrawal from Iraq accounted for less than 1 percent of all news coverage.  Since Pew started its weekly monitoring in 2007, the war in Afghanistan has never accounted for more than 5 percent of all news coverage on an annual basis. In 2010, Afghanistan accounted for 4 percent of all news coverage.  The United States has about 91,000 troops in Afghanistan now. For much of this year and last, about 100,000 United States troops were in the country.

The news executives that pay for bureaus in Afghanistan have had to contend with tight news-gathering budgets, safety concerns and, in some cases, a perception that American audiences are not interested in the situation.  The relative dearth of coverage has brought occasional criticism in the United States, particularly from those who recall vigorous coverage of the Vietnam War. “Other than in its early stages in 2001-2002, the American press has greatly underreported this war,” John Hanrahan, formerly the executive director of the Fund for Investigative Journalism, wrote in an essay for Nieman Watchdog in August.  “This paucity of reporting — the almost total reliance on just a few reporters — has stark implications for how the war is perceived back home,” Mr. Hanrahan wrote. “The fewer the reporters, the fewer the first-hand accounts needed for citizens to form knowledgeable opinions of the war.”

By BRIAN STELTER, Afghanistan Low on News Agenda, NY Times, Dec. 25, 2011

Protests against Nuclear Waste Shipment from France to Germany

The police will deploy 19,000 officers to secure a shipment of German atomic waste from France to Lower Saxony next week amid expectations of huge anti-nuclear protests.  Kerstin Rudek, the chairwoman of a citizens’ initiative in the surrounding Lüchow-Dannenberg district has said the protests would be peaceful.  Nevertheless, police are expecting a hard core of 300 protesters to attempt to disrupt the rail transport, in what has become a regular game of cat and mouse between authorities and anti-nuclear activists who try to block the waste shipments.  The protests revolve largely around the future of the Gorleben depot, which is supposed to be a temporary repository for nuclear waste while German officials decide whether it’s fit to become a permanent storage site. Activists contend that the location is unsafe.

This year’s protests are expected to be particularly intense in light of the German government’s recent decision to phase out nuclear power after Japan’s Fukushima nuclear disaster and revelations that the nuclear industry attempted to influence public opinion before the 2009 elections through extensive lobbying activities.  Rudek said there would be “broad resistance from all age groups and social classes” including pensioners, farmers and children in a large demonstration of more than 10,000 people. Police spokesman Friedrich Niehörster said Rudek’s organisation had “not really distanced itself from violence.”  He said police would take swift action in the event of violence or attempts to disrupt the transport by, for instance, blocking rail tracks or attempted sabotage.  In previous years police have complained of staffing problems caused by the numbers needed to accompany the transports.  Last year massive protests temporarily delayed the arrival of nuclear waste in Gorleben, with some activists even attempting to remove railway tracks.

Police brace for huge nuclear waste protests, thelocalde.com, Nov. 17, 2011

 

Right to Information and the Rule of Law: Up for Grabs, India

Amit Jethwa had just left his lawyer’s office after discussing a lawsuit he had filed to stop an illicit limestone quarry with ties to powerful local politicians. That is when the assassins struck, speeding out of the darkness on a roaring motorbike, pistols blazing. He died on the spot, blood pouring from his mouth and nose. He was 38.

Mr. Jethwa was one of millions of Indians who had embraced the country’s five-year-old Right to Information Act, which allows citizens to demand almost any government information. People use the law to stop petty corruption and to solve their most basic problems, like getting access to subsidized food for the poor or a government pension without having to pay a bribe, or determining whether government doctors and teachers are actually showing up for work.

But activists like Mr. Jethwa who have tried to push such disclosures further — making pointed inquiries at the dangerous intersection of high-stakes business and power politics — have paid a heavy price. Perhaps a dozen have been killed since 2005, when the law was enacted, and countless others have been beaten and harassed.In many of these cases, the information requested in  volved allegations of corruption and collusion between politicians and big-money business.  “Now that power people are realizing the power of the right to information, there is a backlash,” said Amitabh Thakur, an activist and police official who is writing a book about people killed for demanding information under the law. “It has become dangerous.”

India may be the world’s largest democracy, but it remains dogged by the twin legacies of feudalism and colonialism, which have often meant that citizens are treated like subjects. Officials who are meant to serve them often act more like feudal lords than representatives of the people.  The law was intended to be a much-needed leveler between the governors and the governed. In many ways it has worked, giving citizens the power to demand a measure of accountability from bureaucrats and politicians.

When the law was passed, Mr. Jethwa, a longtime activist who nursed a lifelong grudge against those who abused official power, immediately seized upon it as a powerful new tool.  His objective was to stop illegal quarries near the Gir National Park, 550 square miles of scrubland and deciduous forest near his hometown, along the southern coast of Gujarat, India’s most prosperous state. The preserve is the only remaining habitat of the rare Asiatic lion. The animal is featured on the national emblem of India, and is considered by Hindus to be a sacred incarnation of Lord Vishnu.

But the forest sits in a mineral-rich area of coastal Gujarat dotted with cement factories that churn out building materials to fuel India’s near double-digit economic growth. The limestone that lies just beneath the soil in and around the Gir Forest is an ideal component of cement. By law, the forest and a three-mile boundary around it are off limits to all mining activity. But quarries the size of several football fields have been cut deep into the earth in the protected zone.

This mining has had serious consequences not only for the forest preserve, but also for water used for drinking and farming. The thirsty limestone is a natural barrier between seawater and fresh groundwater. A recent state government report concluded that limestone mining had allowed seawater to flow into the aquifer, causing an “irreversible loss.”  Balu Bhai Socha, an environmental advocate who worked with Mr. Jethwa, said the pace of mining rapidly increased as the local economy boomed.

“The speed with which the illegal mining was going on, we realized, within 10 years they will clean out the whole forest,” Mr. Socha said.  Mr. Jethwa repeatedly filed information requests to unearth the names of those operating the quarries and to see what action had been taken against them. He discovered there were 55 illegal quarries in and around the preserve. One name stood out among the records of land leases, electricity bills and inspection reports: Dinubhai Solanki, a powerful member of Parliament from the Bharatiya Janata Party, which governs Gujarat.

Mr. Solanki, who had risen from the State Legislature to Parliament, was a local kingmaker and an imperious presence. He had the backing of the local police and bureaucrats, activists here said. Mr. Jethwa and many others suspected that he was the mastermind and principal beneficiary of the illegal mining operation.   In February 2008, Mr. Jethwa was attacked by a gang of men on motorbikes. He was beaten so badly that he had to be hospitalized. He immediately suspected Mr. Solanki.

“If someone attacks me, or kills me in an accident, if my body is injured — for these acts the Kodinar MLA Dinu Solanki will be responsible,” he wrote in a letter to Gujarat’s chief minister, Narendra Modi, after the attack.  His father begged him to stop.  “I cautioned him several times about the danger,” the elder Mr. Jethwa said. “But he used to say: ‘Forget that you have three sons and say you have two sons. Let me do my work.’ He would say, ‘My religion is rule of law.’ ”

Mr. Jethwa’s information requests found sheaves of correspondence between forestry officials and local bureaucrats showing that despite repeated efforts to shut down the quarries, the practice continued.  By last June, he felt that he had amassed enough evidence to file a lawsuit to stop the mining. He filed the papers on June 28. On July 20, late at night, he was gunned down, leaving behind a wife and two children  Because of his activism and the place where he died, practically on the doorstep of the state high court, political pressure forced an unusually swift investigation. Detectives used cellphone records to link Shiva Solanki, the nephew of Dinubhai Solanki, to the killing, and he has been charged with conspiracy and murder. He is accused of hiring a contract killer to murder Mr. Jethwa.

But few people believe that Shiva Solanki, who works for his uncle, could have carried out and paid for a contract killing on his own.  Anand Yagnik, a prominent human rights lawyer in Gujarat, said that the police had made no effort to investigate Mr. Solanki.  “The message that has gone out is that if you resort to your right to information to try to harass a political person, even after your murder, that man will go scot-free,” Mr. Yagnik said, seated below a portrait of Gandhi in his basement law office in Ahmedabad.  The police did not respond to repeated requests for comment on the investigation into Mr. Jethwa’s death. Mr. Solanki told reporters at his office here that because the case was under investigation he would not answer questions.

“You are welcome to sit here, have a cup of tea,” he said. “I will not say a word.”  Mr. Jethwa’s death has sent a chill through the community of activists here. Mr. Socha, the environmental activist, said that he now thought twice before challenging powerful interests and that he wondered if the risks were worth it.  “Our hearts are broken after his death,” Mr. Socha said. “You cannot fix the system. Everybody is getting money. If I give my life, what is the point?”

LYDIA POLGREEN, High Price for India’s Information Law, New York Times,-