Water Harvesting Strengthens Food Security in Central America

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Water & Sanitation

Angélica María Posada, a teacher and school principal in the village of El Guarumal, in eastern El Salvador, poses with primary school students in front of the school where they use purified water collected from rainfall, as part of a project promoted by FAO and Mexican cooperation funds. The initiative is being implemented in the countries of the Central American Dry Corridor. CREDIT: Edgardo Ayala/IPS

Angélica María Posada, a teacher and school principal in the village of El Guarumal, in eastern El Salvador, poses with primary school students in front of the school where they use purified water collected from rainfall, as part of a project promoted by FAO and Mexican cooperation funds. The initiative is being implemented in the countries of the Central American Dry Corridor. CREDIT: Edgardo Ayala/IPS

SENSEMBRA, El Salvador , Jun 23 2021 (IPS) – At the school in El Guarumal, a remote village in eastern El Salvador, the children no longer have to walk several kilometers along winding paths to fetch water from wells; they now “harvest” it from the rain that falls on the roofs of their classrooms.


“The water is not only for the children and us teachers, but for the whole community,” school principal Angelica Maria Posada told IPS, sitting with some of her young students at the foot of the tank that supplies them with purified water.

The village is located in the municipality of Sensembra, in the eastern department of Morazán, where it forms part of the so-called Central American Dry Corridor, a semi-arid belt that covers 35 percent of Central America and is home to some 11 million people, mostly engaged in subsistence agriculture.

In the Corridor, 1,600 kilometers long, water is always scarce and food production is a challenge, with more than five million people at risk of food insecurity.

In El Guarumal, a dozen peasant families have dug ponds or small reservoirs and use the rainwater collected to irrigate their home gardens and raise tilapia fish as a way to combat drought and produce food.

“We are all very proud of this initiative, because we are the only school in the country that has a (rainwater harvesting) system like this.” — Angélica María Posada

This effort, called the Rainwater Harvesting System (RHS), has not only been made in El Salvador.

Similar initiatives have been promoted in five other Central American countries as part of the Mesoamerica Hunger Free programme, implemented since 2015 by the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) and financed by the Mexican Agency for International Development Cooperation (Amexcid).

The aim of the RHS was to create the conditions for poor, rural communities in the Dry Corridor to strengthen food security by harvesting water to irrigate their crops and raise fish.

In Guatemala, work has been done to strengthen an ancestral agroforestry system inherited from the Chortí people, called Koxur Rum, which conserves more moisture in the soil and thus improves the production of corn and beans, staples of the Central American diet.

José Evelio Chicas, a teacher at the school in the village of El Guarumal, in El Salvador's eastern department of Morazán, supervises the PVC pipes that carry rainwater collected from the school's roof to an underground tank, from where it is pumped to a filtering and purification station. The initiative is part of a water harvesting project in the Central American Dry Corridor. CREDIT: Edgardo Ayala/IPS

José Evelio Chicas, a teacher at the school in the village of El Guarumal, in El Salvador’s eastern department of Morazán, supervises the PVC pipes that carry rainwater collected from the school’s roof to an underground tank, from where it is pumped to a filtering and purification station. The initiative is part of a water harvesting project in the Central American Dry Corridor. CREDIT: Edgardo Ayala/IPS

“The best structure for conserving water is the soil, and that is where we have to work,” Baltazar Moscoso, national coordinator of Mesoamerica Hunger Free, told IPS by telephone from Guatemala City.

Healthy schools in El Salvador

The principal of the El Guarumal school, where 47 girls, 32 boys and several adolescents study, said that since the water collection and purification system has been in place, gastrointestinal ailments have been significantly reduced.

“The children no longer complain about stomachaches, like they used to,” said Posada, 47, a divorced mother of three children: two girls and one boy.

She added, “The water is 100 percent safe.”

Before it is purified, the rainwater that falls on the tin roof is collected by gutters and channeled into an underground tank with a capacity of 105,000 litres.

Farmer Cristino Martínez feeds the tilapia he raises in the pond dug next to his house in the village of El Guarumal in eastern El Salvador. A dozen ponds like this one were created in the village to help poor rural families produce food in the Central American Dry Corridor. CREDIT: Edgardo Ayala/IPS

Farmer Cristino Martínez feeds the tilapia he raises in the pond dug next to his house in the village of El Guarumal in eastern El Salvador. A dozen ponds like this one were created in the village to help poor rural families produce food in the Central American Dry Corridor. CREDIT: Edgardo Ayala/IPS

It is then pumped to a station where it is filtered and purified, before flowing into the tank which supplies students, teachers and the community.

The school reopened for in-person classes in March, following the shutdown declared by the government in 2020 to curb the spread of the COVID-19 pandemic.

“We are all very proud of this initiative, because we are the only school in the country that has a system like this,” added the principal.

There are 40 families living in El Guarumal, but a total of 150 families benefit from the system installed in the town, because people from other communities also come to get water.

A similar system was installed in 2017 in Cerrito Colorado, a village in the municipality of San Isidro, Choluteca department in southern Honduras, which benefits 80 families, including those from the neighbouring communities of Jicarito and Obrajito.

Rainwater is filtered and purified in a room adjacent to the classrooms of the school in the village of El Guarumal, in the eastern department of Morazán, El Salvador. Gastrointestinal ailments were reduced with the implementation of this project executed by FAO and financed by Mexican cooperation funds. CREDIT: Edgardo Ayala/IPS

Rainwater is filtered and purified in a room adjacent to the classrooms of the school in the village of El Guarumal, in the eastern department of Morazán, El Salvador. Gastrointestinal ailments were reduced with the implementation of this project executed by FAO and financed by Mexican cooperation funds. CREDIT: Edgardo Ayala/IPS

Vegetable gardens and tilapias boost food security

About 20 minutes from the school in El Guarumal, following a narrow dirt road that winds along the mountainside, you reach the house of Cristino Martínez, who grows tomatoes and raises tilapia in the pond dug next to his home.

The ponds are pits dug in the ground and lined with a polyethylene geomembrane, a waterproof synthetic material. They hold up to 25,000 litres of rainwater.

“The pond has served me well, I have used it for both the tilapia and watering tomatoes, beans and chayote (Sechium edule),” Martínez told IPS, standing at the edge of the pond, while tossing food to the fish.

The cost of the school’s water harvesting system and the 12 ponds totaled 77,000 dollars.

Martínez has not bothered to keep a precise record of how many tilapias he raises, because he does not sell them, he said. The fish feed his large family of 13: he and his wife and their 11 children (seven girls and four boys).

And from time to time he receives guests in his adobe house.

“My sisters come from San Salvador and tell me: ‘Cristino, we want to eat some tilapia,’ and my daughters throw the nets and start catching fish,” said the 50-year-old farmer.

Cristino Martínez and one of his daughters show the tilapia they have just caught in the family pond they have dug in the backyard of their home in the village of El Guarumal in the eastern department of Morazán, El Salvador. The large peasant family raises fish for their own consumption and not for sale. CREDIT: Edgardo Ayala/IPS

Cristino Martínez and one of his daughters show the tilapia they have just caught in the family pond they have dug in the backyard of their home in the village of El Guarumal in the eastern department of Morazán, El Salvador. The large peasant family raises fish for their own consumption and not for sale. CREDIT: Edgardo Ayala/IPS

According to FAO estimates, the ponds can provide about 500 fishes two to three times a year.

The ponds are built on the highest part of each farm, and the drip irrigation system uses gravity to water the crops or orchards planted on the slopes.

Tomatoes are Martínez’s main crop. He has 100 seedlings planted, and manages to produce good harvests, marketing his produce in the local community.

“The pond helps me in the summer to water the vegetables I grow downhill,” another beneficiary of the programme, Santos Henríquez, also a native of El Guarumal, told IPS.

Henríquez’s 1.5-hectare plot is one of the most diversified: in addition to tilapias, corn and a type of bean locally called “ejote”, he grows cucumbers, chili peppers, tomatoes, cabbage and various types of fruit, such as mangoes, oranges and lemons.

“We grow a little bit of everything,” Henríquez, 48, said proudly. He sells the surplus produce in the village or at Sensembra.

However, some beneficiary families have underutilised the ponds. They were initially enthusiastic about the effort, but began to let things slide when the project ended in 2018.

A farmer proudly displays some of the tomatoes he has grown in the region known as Mancomunidad Copán Chortí in eastern Guatemala, which includes the municipalities of Camotán, Jocotán, Olopa and San Juan Ermita, in the department of Chiquimula. Water harvesting initiatives have been implemented in the area to improve agricultural production in this region, which is part of the so-called Central American Dry Corridor. The initiative is supported by FAO and Mexican cooperation funds. CREDIT: FAO Guatemala

A farmer proudly displays some of the tomatoes he has grown in the region known as Mancomunidad Copán Chortí in eastern Guatemala, which includes the municipalities of Camotán, Jocotán, Olopa and San Juan Ermita, in the department of Chiquimula. Water harvesting initiatives have been implemented in the area to improve agricultural production in this region, which is part of the so-called Central American Dry Corridor. The initiative is supported by FAO and Mexican cooperation funds. CREDIT: FAO Guatemala

An ageold Chorti technique in Guatemala

In Guatemala, meanwhile, some villages and communities are betting on an agroforestry technique from their ancestral culture: Koxur Rum, which means “wet land” in the language of the Chortí indigenous people, who also live in parts of El Salvador and Honduras.

The system allows corn and bean crops to retain more moisture with the rains by combining them with furrows of shrubs or trees such as madre de cacao or quickstick (Gliricidia sepium), a tree species that helps fix nitrogen in the soil.

By pruning the trees regularly, leaves and crop stubble cover and protect the soil, thereby better retaining moisture and nutrients.

“Quickstick sprouts quickly and gives abundant foliage to incorporate into the soil,” farmer Rigoberto Suchite told IPS in a telephone interview from the village of Minas Abajo, in the municipality of San Juan Ermita, Chiquimula department in eastern Guatemala, also located in the Central American Dry Corridor.

Suchite said the system was revived in his region in 2000, but with the FAO and Amexcid project, it has become more technical.

As part of the programme, some 150 families have received two 1,500-litre tanks and a drip irrigation system, he added.

“Now we are expanding it even more because it has given us good results, it has improved the soil and boosted production,” said Suchite, 55.

In the dry season, farmers collect water from nearby springs in tanks and, using gravity, irrigate their home gardens.

“Many families are managing to have a surplus of vegetables and with the sales, they buy other necessary food,” Suchite said.

The programme is scheduled to end in Guatemala in 2021, and local communities must assume the lessons learned in order to move forward.

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Time to End Generational Injustice with a ‘Global Blue New Deal’ to Protect Oceans

Active Citizens, Biodiversity, Climate Change, Economy & Trade, Education, Environment, Global, Green Economy, Headlines, Labour, Poverty & SDGs, TerraViva United Nations, Water & Sanitation

Opinion

Credit: Australian Institute of Marine Science

PARIS, Jun 8 2021 (IPS) – Increasingly, youth are rising up to declare that they’ve had enough of the cyclical exploitation of the environment that jeopardizes their own future.


Youth activism through the Global Climate Strikes and Fridays For Future protests have helped spur revolutionary policy frameworks, like the Green New Deal championed by U.S. Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.

International organizations and sovereign governments have now interpreted the Green New Deal into frameworks and policies of their own; it’s clear that environmental policy led by youth has energized the discussion on global decarbonization and the social impacts of climate change.

However, the Green New Deal only mentioned the ocean once. We need to insert more Blue into the green transition.

Earth’s vast oceans are humanity’s single most important climate regulation tool. As governments coalesce around plans to quite literally save our species, we must recognize that there is no future without understanding the role the ocean has to play.

Beyond human life support, the ocean economy contributes to ecosystem services, jobs, and cultural services valued at USD 3-6 trillion, with fisheries and aquaculture alone contributing USD 100 billion per year and 250+ million jobs.

Our ocean, however, is overfished, polluted with plastic, and exploited for non-renewable resources like minerals and fossil fuels. This perpetuates a cycle of generational injustice and leaves youth to inherit an increasingly degraded environment with less and less time to restore it. Not only is this detrimental to progress at large, but our most vulnerable global communities, who contribute the least to global emissions, will feel the effects of our degraded environment the most severely.

Youth not only need to be proactive advocates for the SDGs, we need to hold the global community accountable to commitments they have made between nations and to youth as the greatest stakeholders in the future health of our environment.

Creating the “Global Blue New Deal”

In 2019, the Sustainable Ocean Alliance distributed surveys across its network to identify the key youth policy priorities for a healthy ocean and just future. We received 100+ responses from 38 countries in 5 languages.

Over the past year, SOA’s Youth Policy Advisory Council synthesized these into a youth-led, crowdsourced ocean policy framework: the Global Blue New Deal.

The first public draft of our Global Blue New Deal is being launched now, at the dawn of the UN’s Decade of Ocean Science for Sustainable Development, which aims to gather global ocean stakeholders behind a common framework to deliver “the ocean we need for the future we want.”

Youth want to contribute to the success of the Ocean Decade and call on the international community to recognize our policy suggestions as part of the solutions our planet needs.

The vision of the Global Blue New Deal is to “outline an ocean policy framework that integrates crowdsourced youth priorities that will be proposed to governments on international, national, and local scales for implementation.”

It is organized under four pillars, each containing specific ocean policy solutions.

In brief:

Pillar 1
Carbon Neutrality: Transition to a Zero Carbon Future

    1. End offshore drilling and invest in renewable ocean energy
    2. Decarbonize the shipping industry
    3. Reduce land-based marine pollution
    4. Transition to a circular economy
    5. Strengthen legislation and enforcement against ocean contamination

Pillar 2
Preserve Biodiversity: Apply Nature-based Solutions to Promote Healthy Ecosystems and Climate Resilience

    1. Support the global movement to protect 30% of the world’s ocean by 2030
    2. Enforce against non-compliance in Marine Protected Areas (MPAs)
    3. Establish a global moratorium against deep-sea mining
    4. Transition from “gray” manmade infrastructure like culverts and seawalls to nature-based blue carbon infrastructure including the restoration of wetlands, mangroves and marshes

Pillar 3:
Sustainable Seafood: Match Increasing Global Demand Sustainably

    1. Encourage sustainable governance of capture fisheries
    2. Enforce against illegal, unreported, and unregulated fishing
    3. Eliminate capacity-enhancing fisheries subsidies
    4. Provide a sustainable path for aquaculture
    5. Fund research and development of plant-based and cell-cultured seafood

Pillar 4:
Stakeholder Engagement: Include Local Communities in Natural Ocean Resource Management

    1. Ensure the sustainability of coastal ecotourism
    2. Promote ocean research and innovation, with a goal of mapping 100% of the global seafloor by 2030.
    3. Emphasize ocean literacy and capacity building
    4. Build stakeholder participation in ocean governance

We invite like-minded youths, scientists, policymakers, and other ocean stakeholders to visit https://www.soalliance.org/soablog/youth-led-blue-new-deal and help as we finalize the Global Blue New Deal ocean policy framework during our public comment period throughout July.

Each generation has inherited an increasingly degraded ocean environment with the poorest, most vulnerable communities feeling the impacts the most severely. This is our opportunity to rewrite the long history of compromising our ocean.

Mark Haver and Marina Porto are Chair and Co-Chair respectively of the Youth Policy Advisory Council of the Sustainable Ocean Alliance, the world’s largest youth-led network of ocean allies.

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People Power: Why Mobilisations Matter Even in a Pandemic

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Opinion

Credit: CIVICUS, global civil society alliance

NEW YORK, May 26 2021 (IPS) – It has been one year since the police murder of George Floyd, an outrage that resonated around the world. The killing forced people to the streets, in the USA and on every inhabited continent, to demand respect for Black lives and Black rights, proving that protest was essential even during the pandemic.


The Black Lives Matter (BLM) demonstrations are the latest in a great global wave of protests that started with the Arab Spring 10 years ago and continue today, seen in the brave civil disobedience people are mounting against Myanmar’s military coup and the protests against Israeli violence in Palestine, with people taking to the streets around the world to show solidarity and demand an end to the killing.

Millions of people are protesting because they can see that protests lead to change – the trial of the officer responsible for George Floyd’s killing was an incredibly rare event that would likely not have happened without protest pressure – and because mass mobilisations often offer the only means of resistance to repressive governments.

CIVICUS’s just-published 2021 State of Civil Society Report describes how decentralised movements for racial justice and gender equality are challenging exclusion and demanding a radical reckoning with systemic racism and patriarchy.

Threats posed by economic inequality and climate change are enabling people to connect across cultures, spurring mobilisations in many different countries. Today, not only in Myanmar and Palestine, but in Colombia, Lebanon and Thailand among many others, people are demanding economic opportunity, a real say in how they are governed, and an end to discrimination.

Much blood is being spilt in unwarranted violence against protesters by repressive security apparatuses acting on the behest of vested interests. Inarguably, the right to mobilise is being sharply contested because of its potential to redistribute power to the excluded.

Major political transformations in modern history have been catalysed through largely peaceful protests. Sustained mass mobilisations have resulted in significant rights victories including expansion of women’s right to vote, passing of essential civil rights laws, dismantling of military dictatorships, ending apartheid, and legalisation of same-sex marriage.

In the past year, despite the disruptions of COVID-19, populist demagogues have faced stiff resistance from people driven by a hunger for justice and democracy. In Brazil, thousands came out to the streets to protest against horrendous bungling by the Bolsonaro administration in its response to the COVID-19 pandemic which has resulted in a monumental loss of lives.

In India, thousands of farmers remain steadfastly defiant in camps outside Delhi to protest against hurriedly drawn-up laws designed to undermine their livelihoods and benefit big business supporters of Prime Minister Modi’s autocratic government.

In Russia, pro-democracy protests in several cities against the grand corruption of strongman President Putin have so alarmed him that he engineered the imprisonment of his most prominent political opponent. In Uganda, political opposition led protests have inspired people from all walks of life to stand up against President Museveni who’s been in power for 35 years.

In Belarus, protests by ordinary people displaying extraordinary courage helped bring international attention to an election stolen by Alexander Lukashenko, the first and only president the country has known since the present constitution was established in 1994.

Credit: CIVICUS

In the United States, the decentralised Black Lives Matter movement is spurring action on racial justice and the unprecedented prosecution of police officers engaged in racist acts of violence against Black people.

The movement not only helped dispatch a race-baiting disruptive president at the polls, it also had a deep impact beyond the United States by spotlighting racism in places as diverse as Colombia, the Netherlands, South Africa and the United Kingdom.

Notably, women-led movements are challenging gender stereotypes, exposing patterns of exclusion, and forging breakthroughs to lay the groundwork for fairer societies. Concerted street protests by women in Chile helped win a historic commitment to develop a new justice-oriented constitution by a gender-balanced constitutional assembly that will also include Indigenous people’s representation.

In Argentina, legislation to legalise abortion and protect women’s sexual and reproductive rights followed years of public mobilisations by the feminist movement.

Our research finds that, in country after country, young people are at the forefront of protest. Young people have taken ownership of climate change to make it a decisive issue of our time. The Fridays for Future movement which began with a picket in front of the Swedish parliament on school days now has supporters organising regular events to demand urgent political action on the climate crisis on all continents.

Present day movements are deriving strength by taking the shape of networks rather than pyramids, with multiple locally active leaders. Hong Kong’s ‘Water Revolution’ may have been repressed by China’s authoritarian might, but the metaphor of behaving like water – shapeless, mobile, adaptable – holds true for many contemporary movements.

Unsurprisingly, powerful people’s mobilisations are inviting sharp backlash. Protest leaders and organisers are often the first to be vilified through official propaganda and subjected to politically motivated prosecutions.

Many of the rights violations that CIVICUS has documented in recent years are in relation to suppression of protests. Persecution of dissenters, censorship and surveillance to stymie public mobilisations remains rife.

They are all part of a tussle between people joining together in numbers to demand transformative change, and forces determined to stop them. Yet, the principled courage of protesters who mobilise undeterred by repression continues to inspire.

Protests are about challenging and renegotiating power. To succeed they need solidarity and allies across the board. The responsibility to safeguard the right to peaceful assembly enshrined in the constitutions of most countries and in the international human rights framework rests with all of us. History shows us that when people come together as civil society great things are possible.

Mandeep Tiwana is Chief Programmes Officer at global civil society alliance CIVICUS.
The State of Civil Society Report 2021 can be found online here.

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UN Peacebuilding Commission must Prioritise Protecting Youth Activists Facing Retaliation

Active Citizens, Civil Society, Featured, Global, Headlines, Human Rights, IPS UN: Inside the Glasshouse, TerraViva United Nations

Active Citizens

Swedish teen activist Greta Thunberg has faced massive backlash for supporting the Indian farmers’ protests. (File photo) Credit: Anders Hellberg/CC BY-SA 4.0

Swedish teen activist Greta Thunberg has faced massive backlash for supporting the Indian farmers’ protests. (File photo) Credit: Anders Hellberg/CC BY-SA 4.0

UNITED NATIONS, Feb 25 2021 (IPS) – The United Nations Peacebuilding Commission must prioritise the protection of youth activists who face retaliation from state and non-state actors, said UN Youth Envoy Jayathma Wickramanayake.


Wickramanayake was speaking at the Peacebuilding Commission high-level virtual meeting on Youth, Peace and Security, where she outlined numerous ways the commission can assist youth activists around the world — especially with their grassroots efforts.

“I hope you will consider including young people in your delegation to building commissions, consult young people in your own countries to input to your work and, most importantly, ensure the protection of young people who you decide to engage with as we have seen many incidents of retaliation against young activists by state and non-state actors for simply deciding to speak up and working with the UN,” Wickramanayake, from Sri Lanka, told the commisison.

Other speakers at the event included Mohamed Edrees, chair of the Peacebuilding Commission, Allwell O. Akhigbe of Building Blocks for Peace Foundation in Nigeria and Oscar Fernández-Taranco, UN Assistant Secretary-General for Peacebuilding Support.

Wickramanayake comments come when youth activists are facing attacks and harassment online and offline. Swedish teen activist Greta Thunberg has faced massive backlash for supporting the Indian farmers’ protests, while Indian youth activist Disha Ravi was arrested because of her activism in support of the protests.

Wickramanayake further highlighted the importance of acknowledging and promoting local grassroots organisations working in the field of youth peacebuilding.

“Young people around the world are building national coalitions, conducting baseline studies and monitoring efforts in support of youth-led peacebuilding,” she said.

She added that these organisations require “adequate, predictable and sustained” financing to thrive but this was yet to be explored.

“I would like to challenge this commission today to consider what the peacebuilding commission can do to encourage this critical support and resources at the local level where they are actually making a big difference,” she said.

Wickramanayake recommended that the commission should not only support a “substantial increase in the financial resources” for peace and security, but it should also make sure that the resources go directly to youth working on “homegrown building strategies”. 

Mia Franczesca D. Estipona, from the Generation Peace Youth Network in the Philippines, also shared the importance of involving youth who are directly affected by issues such as conflict.

“In creating facilities for youth projects and capacity building for support, we must make an effort to directly engage with youths in areas affected by conflict, understand their work and how it contributes back to the community,” Estipona said. “This is highly important especially for community-based youths who have programmes and projects but cannot be sustained due to lack of access to funding and support.” 

Both Estipona and Wickramanayake emphasised the importance of representation and being inclusive of marginalised youths or those whose stories are often left behind.

Wickramanayake highlighted the work of a colleague who promotes the voices of youth with disabilities and had reportedly briefed the Security Council on the situation in the Central African Republic by broadcasting the issue of youth, peace and security in sign language.

“[Their] organisation removes barriers limiting the participation of young people with disabilities in peacebuilding, actively mobilising the deaf community to act on Resolution 2250,” she said, referring to the UN Security Council Youth, Peace & Security thematic resolution that deals with the topic of youth from an international peace and security perspective.

Meanwhile, Estipona pointed out: “Many youth organisations have established strong programmes that truly represent and attend to youth who are in areas affected by conflict – their voices are most left behind.”

“We should pursue representation that truly represents and focuses on the collective efforts of youth as a community — and as a sector of society, not just as a different individual,” she said.

Other speakers at the event agreed with both Wickramanayake and Estipona.

Ambassador Rabab Fatima, the Permanent Representative of Bangladesh to the UN, said that it’s crucial to address the “distinct needs” of the youth as the world recovers from the coronavirus pandemic.

She highlighted the importance of access to education, sufficient funding, and including youth participation in peacebuilding as part of the “broader national policy framework”. 

Estipona said the engagement of the youth must be sustained in various stages of the process of peacebuilding: consultation, crafting, implementation and monitoring.

“Continuity of these efforts is still a challenge because they are constantly shifting priorities of stakeholders and leadership,” she said.

In offering recommendations on how to strengthen youth participation and involvement, Wickramanayake said there must be a periodic review of the efforts to increase engagement with young people.

“Accountability is key,” she said, “[we] want to hear your strategic plan. Also think beyond security and think about the intersection of peace, sustainable development, and human rights.” 

She also urged leaders to “walk the talk” – and prioritise the development of dedicated local, national and regional road maps and action plans.

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Mining giant Rio Tinto Face Environmental, Human Rights Complaint in Papua New Guinea

Active Citizens, Asia-Pacific, Crime & Justice, Development & Aid, Environment, Featured, Food & Agriculture, Headlines, Health, Human Rights, Indigenous Rights, Natural Resources, Regional Categories, TerraViva United Nations, Water & Sanitation

Contamination of rivers and streams by mine waste in the vicinity of the Panguna copper mine in the Autonomous Region of Bougainville, Papua New Guinea. Credit: Catherine Wilson

CANBERRA, Australia, Jan 4 2021 (IPS) – Local communities in the vicinity of the abandoned Panguna copper mine, have taken decisive action to hold the global mining multinational, Rio Tinto, accountable for alleged environmental and human rights violations during the mine’s operations between 1972 and 1989.


The mine operated in the mountains of central Bougainville in Papua New Guinea until 1989.

The complaint by 156 residents was lodged with the Australian Government in September by Australia’s Human Rights Law Centre and subsequently accepted in November, paving the way for a non-judicial mediation process.

“We and the communities we are working with have now entered into a formal conciliation process with Rio Tinto facilitated by the Australian OECD National Contact Point and talks with the company will begin very shortly,” Keren Adams, Legal Director at the Human Rights Law Centre in Melbourne told IPS.

Rio Tinto was the majority owner of the Panguna mine through its operating company, Bougainville Copper Ltd, with a 53.8 percent stake. However, 17 years after it began production in 1972, anger among indigenous landowners about contaminated rivers and streams, the devastation of customary land and inequity in distributing the extractive venture’s profits and benefits triggered an armed rebellion in 1989. After the mine’s power supply was destroyed by sabotage, Rio Tinto fled Bougainville Island and the site became derelict during the decade long civil war which followed.

The mine area, which is still controlled by the tribal Mekamui Government of Unity, comprising former rebel leaders, hasn’t been decommissioned and the environmental legacy of its former operations never addressed.

Now, according to the complaint, “copper pollution from the mine pit and tailings continues to flow into local rivers … The Jaba-Kawerong river valley downstream of the mine resembles a moonscape with vast mounds of grey tailings waste and rock stretching almost 40 km downstream to the coast. Levees constructed at the time of the mine’s operation are now collapsing, threatening nearby villages.”

Gutted mine machinery and infrastructure are scattered across the site of the Panguna mine in the mountains of Central Bougainville, an autonomous region in Papua New Guinea. Credit: Catherine Wilson/IPS

There are further claims that contamination of waterways and land is causing long-term health problems amongst the indigenous population, such as skin diseases, diarrhoea, respiratory illnesses, and pregnancy complications.

Helen Hakena, Director of the Leitana Nehan Women’s Development Agency in Bougainville’s main town of Buka, fully supports the action taken by her fellow islanders.

“It is long overdue. It is going to be very important because it was the big issue which caused the Bougainville conflict. It will lay to rest the grievances which caused so much suffering for our people,” Hakena told IPS.

The Bougainville civil war, triggered by the uprising at the mine, led to a death toll of 15,000-20,000 people.

The people of Bougainville believe that Rio Tinto has breached the OECD Guidelines for Multinational Enterprises by failing both to take action to mitigate foreseeable environmental, health and safety-related impacts at the mine and respect the human rights of the communities affected by its extractive activities. The Human Rights Law Centre claims that “the mine pollution continues to infringe nearly all the economic, social and cultural rights of these indigenous communities, including their rights to food, water, health, housing and an adequate standard of living.”

“While we do not wholly accept the claims in the complaint, we are aware of deteriorating mining infrastructure at the site and surrounding areas and acknowledge that there are environmental and human rights considerations,” Rio Tinto responded in a public statement.

“Accepting the AusNCP’s ‘good offices’ shows that we take this complaint seriously and remain ready to enter into discussions with the communities that have filed the complaint, along with other relevant communities around the Panguna mine site, and other relevant parties, such as Bougainville Copper Ltd, the Autonomous Bougainville Government and PNG Government,” the statement continued.

In 2016, Rio Tinto divested its interest in Bougainville Copper Ltd, the operating company, and its shares were acquired by the PNG and Bougainville governments. Simultaneously, the corporate giant announced that it rejected corporate responsibility for any environmental impacts or damage.

Panguna mine’s copper and gold await political settlement before extraction can resume. Credit: Catherine Wilson/IPS

Mineral exploration in Bougainville in the 1960s, followed by the construction of the Panguna open-cut copper mine, occurred when the island region was under Australian administration. It would subsequently become a massive source of internal revenue Papua New Guinea, which was granted Independence in 1975. During its lifetime, the Panguna mine generated about US$2 billion in revenue and accounted for 44 percent of the nation’s exports.

The mining agreement negotiated between the Australian Government and Conzinc Rio Tinto Australia in the 1960s didn’t include any significant environmental regulations or liability of the company for rehabilitation of areas affected by mining.

There has been no definitive environmental assessment of the Panguna site since it was forced to shut down. However, about 300,000 tonnes of ore and water were excavated at the mine every day. In 1989, an independent report by Applied Geology Associates in New Zealand noted that significant amounts of copper and other heavy metals were leaching from the mine and waste rock dumps and flowing into the Kawerong River. Today, the water in some rivers and streams in the mine area is a luminescent blue, a sign of copper contamination.

Bougainville residents’ action comes at the end of a challenging year for Rio Tinto. It is still reeling from revelations earlier this year that its operations destroyed historically significant Aboriginal sacred sites, estimated to be 46,000 years old, in the vicinity of its iron ore mine in the Pilbara region of Western Australia. The company’s CEO, Jean-Sebastien Jacques, has subsequently resigned.

Nevertheless, Adams is optimistic about the corporate giant’s willingness to engage with Bougainville and PNG stakeholders.

“In the first instance, we hope that this non-judicial process will help to facilitate discussions to explore whether Rio Tinto will make these commitments to address the impacts of its operations. If not, then the communities will be asking the Australian OECD National Contact Point to investigate the complaint and make findings about whether Rio Tinto has breached its human rights and environmental obligations,” the Human Rights Law Centre’s Legal Director said. A full investigation, if required, could take up to a year.

Ultimately, the islanders are seeking specific outcomes. These include Rio Tinto’s serious engagement with them to identify solutions to the urgent environmental and human rights issues; funding for an independent environmental and human rights impact assessment of the mine; and contributions to a substantial independently managed fund to enable long term rehabilitation programs.

Otherwise, Australia’s Human Rights Law Centre predicts that “given the limited resources of the PNG and Bougainville governments, it is almost inevitable that if no action is taken by Rio Tinto, the environmental damage currently being caused by the tailings waste will continue and worsen.”

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USA Downgraded as Civil Liberties Deteriorate Across the Americas

Active Citizens, Civil Society, Environment, Global, Headlines, Human Rights, TerraViva United Nations

Opinion

Débora Leão is a Civic Space Researcher at CIVICUS, the global civil society alliance. She has a Master of Public Policy degree. Prior to joining CIVICUS, Débora worked on advocacy and research related to civic participation, urban development and climate justice.

 
Suraj K. Sazawal serves on the board to Defending Rights & Dissent and is co-author of ‘Civil Society Under Strain’, the first book to explore how the War on Terror impacted civil society and hurt humanitarian aid.

Protests in New York City against racism and police violence, following the death of George Floyd. Credit: UN Photo/Evan Schneider

São Paulo/ Washington DC, Dec 15 2020 (IPS) – Few images better illustrate the recent decline in civil liberties in the United States than that of peaceful protesters near the White House being violently dispersed so Donald Trump could stage a photo-op.


Moments before the president emerged from his bunker on June 1 to hold a bible outside a boarded-up church, federal officers indiscriminately fired tear gas at people who had gathered in Lafayette Park to protest about the police killing of George Floyd. This was far from an isolated incident: nationwide protests against systemic racism and police brutality have been met with widespread police violence.

Since May, the CIVICUS Monitor, an online platform that tracks fundamental freedoms across 196 countries, documented dozens of incidents where law enforcement officers, dressed in riot gear and armed with military grade-equipment, responded to Black Lives Matter protests with excessive force. These include officers driving vehicles at crowds of protesters and firing tear gas canisters and other projectiles at unarmed people, leaving at least 20 people partially blinded.

Throughout the year, journalists and health workers, clearly marked as such while covering the protests, have been harassed and assaulted. In one incident caught on live TV, a news reporter and camera operator from Louisville, Kentucky were shot by police with pepper balls while covering protests over the police killing of Breona Taylor.

This sustained repression of protests and an increased crackdown on fundamental freedoms led to the USA’s civic space rating being downgraded from ‘narrowed’ to ‘obstructed’ in our new report, People Power Under Attack 2020.

This disproportionate response by law enforcement officers to protesters goes beyond what is acceptable practice when policing protests, even during an emergency. Under international law, people have a right to assemble freely. Any restrictions to this right must be proportionate and necessary to address an emergency or reestablish public order.

The systematic use of excessive force and tactics such as kettling and mass arrests to enforce curfews raise troubling questions about the role of law enforcement agencies in responding to mass protests. The use of such tactics is contradictory to the alleged goal of maintaining public safety and health as they escalated tensions and prevented people from dispersing in a peaceful manner.

Even more concerning, they relocated protesters from open, outdoor spaces to police stations and other indoor facilities that often lack adequate space to allow for distancing, placing people at heightened risk for exposure to COVID-19.

Black Lives Matter Protest June 2020 Washington, DC. Credit: Geoff Livingston // creative commons

While recent brutality against protests for racial justice is concerning, the decline in basic freedoms in the USA began before this crackdown. The repression seen in 2020 was preceded by a wave of legislation limiting people’s rights to protest.

In recent years, several states enacted restrictive laws which, for example, criminalise protests near so-called critical infrastructure like oil pipelines, or limit demonstrations on school and university campuses. Increased penalties for trespassing and property damage are designed to intimidate and punish climate justice activists and organisations that speak out against fossil fuels.

In the wake of Black Lives Matter protests, some of the ‘anti-protest’ bills introduced this year seem particularly cruel, for instance, by proposing to make people convicted of minor federal offences during protests ineligible for pandemic-related unemployment benefits.

Growing disregard for protest rights underscores wider intolerance for dissent. In parallel with restrictions on the freedom of peaceful assembly, the USA also saw an increase in attacks against the media, even before Black Lives Matter demonstrations erupted. Over the past three years, the CIVICUS Monitor has documented the frequent harassment of journalists by the authorities and civilians while covering political rallies or when conducting interviews.

Correspondents critical of the Trump administration or reporting on the humanitarian crisis in the USA/Mexico border region sometimes faced retaliation; documents obtained by ‘NBC 7 Investigates’ in 2019 showed the US government created a database of journalists who covered the migrant caravan and activists who were part of it, in some cases placing alerts on their passports.

In January 2020 a journalist was barred from accompanying Secretary of State Mike Pompeo in an official trip to Europe after Pompeo objected to the questions by another reporter from the same outlet.

The harsh treatment of people wanting to express themselves and the decline of civil liberties is part of a broader global decline in fundamental freedoms. Our new report shows less than four percent of the world’s population live in countries that respect the freedoms of association, peaceful assembly and expression.

Each country’s civic space is rated in one of five categories: ‘open, ‘narrowed, ‘obstructed,’ ‘restricted,’ or ‘closed’. The USA was one of 11 countries downgraded from its previous rating.

In the Americas, three other countries showed significant declines: Chile and Ecuador were downgraded to ‘obstructed’ and Costa Rica’s rating changed to ‘narrowed’. In the first two countries, as with the USA, rating changes reflected unnecessary and disproportionate crackdowns on mass protest movements.

Violations of protest rights were common across the region, with detention of protesters and excessive use of force among the top five violations of civic freedoms recorded this year. In addition, the Americas continue to be a dangerous place for those who dare to stand up for fundamental rights: across the world, 60 percent of human rights defenders killed in 2020 came from this region.

Stopping the erosion of fundamental freedoms requires a robust response. Governments must take steps to repeal legislation restricting the freedoms of association, peaceful assembly and expression and make sure those who violate these freedoms are held accountable.

In the USA, the incoming Biden administration must actively work to reverse the narrowing of civic space. To rebuild trust between people and law enforcement, for instance, the Department of Justice should investigate misconduct and discriminatory practices at local police departments.

The authorities must engage with civil society and human rights defenders to create an environment where they are able to fulfil their vital roles and hold officials accountable.

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