26 January 2008

Storm breaking on biofuels

By Andrew Boswell

On Monday, a committee of MPs, the Environmental Audit Committee (EAC), published a hard hitting report called Are Biofuels Sustainable?. Their answer for current biofuels was a resounding No!.

This may seem strange when biofuels have been promoted by government and industry in recent years as a way to help in the battle against climate change. Indeed, many people initially thought it sounded a good idea to substitute some petrol or diesel with a fuel processed from a crop as plants absorb carbon dioxide when they grow, and so biofuels should save carbon emissions. However, it soon became apparent it is not this simple, and that biofuel growing and processing can have many negative impacts. This column first predicted four years ago that these problems had not been properly analysed, and a storm was brewing as Europe rushed to biofuels.

This storm finally broke on Monday with the MPs' report calling for a delay, or moratorium, on the Governments biofuel targets because some biofuels emit more greenhouse gases than fossil fuels, and carbon sinks and rainforests are being destroyed in order to grow crops. The report states that current UK and EU policy is misguided.

Concerns belatedly started to reach the top of the EU last week when Environment Commissioner, Stavros Dimas, admitted that they "had not foreseen all the problems" that EU biofuels policy would cause. And just the previous week, Louis Michel, the EU Development Commissioner stated that he agreed that governments should impose an international moratorium on increasing biofuel targets because of the impact that growing crops for fuel has on food security in the poorest countries (see Biofuels may cause even more starvation).

Despite this split at the top, the Commission went ahead this Wednesday and published its draft EU Renewable Energy Directive that calls for at least 10% of biofuels at the pump by 2020 – a V-sign to the UK MPs and numerous other recent warnings on the environmental and social damage. This also shows a total disrespect to a wide coalition of civil society groups from South, representing those suffering most from the policy, who have consistently called, for over a year, for the target to be scrapped.

Democratic process was hard to spot here when UK biofuel targets, forcing all UK motorists to buy biofuels from April 15th, were set last October. Now biofuel issues are socially and scientifically complex, and involve complicated data about greenhouse gas balances, land displacement, food security, human rights. It is not possible even for those closest to the debate to keep up with everything. So you would think that MPs who have to decide on the targets for the policy would be well briefed and have plenty of warning. Think again!

17 MPs on a special House of Commons committee called a Delegations Committee made the decision after being chosen by an arcane procedure in the previous week that did not include informing the MPs themselves. I was surprised when I emailed the committee chair on the Saturday and he responded that it was the first he knew that he was chairing it. Subsequently, I spoke to several MPs prior to their debate on the following Tuesday. It was clear they felt inadequately prepared, one telling me that they only found out that they were on the Committee at 8pm on the Monday night. By law, councillors have to receive committee papers at least 5 working days ahead. It beggars belief that MPs were expected to make important decisions on such an intricate issue with, effectively, no notice.

The MPs felt rushed and Westminster cracks appeared when no opposition party MPs voted for the targets: it only passed as Labour MPs, some grudgingly, toed the Government line. This unease has turned to revolt with this week's report.

It is, of further concern, that the targets were passed after Junior Transport minister, Jim Fitzpatrick told the October Committee that he had "demonstrated that that is not the case" that biofuels development could lead to starvation and poverty. Yet he had been sent evidence that contradicted his amazing claim – evidence that emerged from many sources during 2007 including the WTO, OECD, and the UN. Later on 27th November when giving evidence to the EAC, he had apparently changed his mind as he told the EAC that "the Government is concerned about the issue of food security".

After this week's report, it is now time that Mr Fitzpatrick and his boss Ruth Kelly came clean. They must respond to the EAC report and abandon their targets to force motorists to consume rainforest destruction, starvation and climate chaos from April Biofools Day (April 15th).

19 January 2008

A mobile phone costing the earth

By Marguerite Finn

Every time we purchase a new mobile phone, we marvel at the latest technological wizardry encased in a handset even smaller than the one we had before! There's no time to think about what goes into the tiny, dazzling 'gizmo' resting in the palm of our hand. Something happened to me last Saturday that made me look at my mobile phone in a new light.

Two Congolese women, at a meeting hosted by the Women's International League for Peace and Freedom (WILPF), told us the real story behind the beautiful phones in our pockets. Marie-Claire Faray and Marie-Louise Pambu gave riveting accounts of the struggles that Congolese women face on a daily basis in the on-going war in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). I don't think any one of the forty people at the meeting would have been quite the same when they left as when they came in. We learned in harrowing detail of the atrocities suffered by civilians – mainly women, children and the elderly - in this endless war, fuelled and funded by our continuing demand for mobile phones and the paraphernalia of our IT-driven lifestyle.

What have mobile phones got to do with war in the Congo? The problem is our ever-increasing demand for the DRC's resources – in particular, the mineral coltan. Columbite-tantalum, to give Coltan its formal name, is used in the manufacture of capacitors for phones, MP3s and computers because of its lightness and electrical conductivity. Coltan stays stable at very high temperatures, reduces corrosion and increases heat resistance. It's the only thing capable of making tiny electronic gadgets work well and is present in every processor-chip device.

The DRC, a country the size of Western Europe, has a variety of natural resources: gold, silver, zinc, copper, cobalt, diamonds - and 80 percent of the world's reserves of coltan. Yet the majority of inhabitants have very little to show for living in this resource-rich paradise. Seventy-five percent of the DRC's sixty million people live on an average of one dollar a day. Ten million have no access to drinking water and a similar number have no electricity. The DRC government doesn't exercise control over the eastern part of the country where coltan is mined. This area is controlled by foreign-backed, armed groups and the local inhabitants continue to be enslaved, raped, tortured and dispossessed, because of the greed and irresponsibility of international agencies involved in the coltan trade.

The DRC, a former Belgian colony, became independent in 1960. In 1961, the country's first Prime Minister, Patrice Lumumba, was overthrown with US and European support for a Cold War ally, Mobutu, and for the rich resources that would then be available cheaply, rather than used for Congo's own people and development. US policy toward Mobutu was rationalized on the grounds of "fighting communism" in Africa, but the US was more concerned with securing its own strategic interests in the region. For thirty years, the US propped-up the dictator Mobutu, providing more than $300 million in weapons and $100 million in military training. Mobutu used his US-supplied arsenal to repress his own people and plunder his nation’s economy until his brutal regime was overthrown in 1997. The DRC has suffered from resource wars and external interference ever since.

The deadliest of these wars took place between 1998 and 2003 involving troops from nine countries. Wars are not fought without weapons and the UK obligingly sold arms to Zimbabwe, Namibia and Angola supporting the DRC regime, while at the same time supplying Uganda and Rwanda who were opposing them. The war resulted in the deaths of 4 million people, mainly from disease and starvation. A further 2.25 million were driven from their homes. Although a peace treaty was signed in 2003, the fighting continues, as externally-sponsored militia run the mining and transportation of the DRC's minerals out of the country. The Rwandan army is estimated to have made $20 million a month by selling coltan pillaged from the mines in the Kivu region - enough to finance any war and provide little incentive for peace.

As the Congolese women spoke in Norwich, we became aware that what the DRC needs now is not more official reports on rape and human rights abuses, but for the war to end – and end now. This will not happen as long as we continue selling arms indiscriminately and frustrating the UN's attempts to end the slaughter (UN Security Council Resolution 1457).

Before buying your next mobile phone, ask your supplier – and your MP – if it's free from the blood of innocent victims – and remember to recycle your old one too!

12 January 2008

The lights go out in Gaza as the world ignores it

By Juliette Harkin

Following Bush's visit to the Middle East we will hear a lot about an Israeli - Palestinian peace settlement and how terrorist infrastructures are operating from Hamas-controlled Gaza and elsewhere to undermine this peace. You will hear little about the plight of 1.5 million civilians in Gaza, as politicians ignore them and the media focuses on the myth of peace. There can be no peace without justice and equality under the law and there can be no real peace by ignoring Gaza.

As President Bush prepared for his visit to Israel and Ramallah, civilian patients in Gaza were refused permission, on an appeal by the Physicians for Human Rights -Israel to the Israeli Supreme Court, to leave Gaza for life saving treatment. This ruling upheld the Israeli government's "security concerns".

Umm Rami told the UN news service how she watched her 21 year old son die of cancer and was "very sad and worried when he was dying here in our home in front of my eyes". Her son, Na'el al Kurdi, had his permit application to go to Egypt for treatment lethally delayed for security reasons. Those that have got further in the permit process have been subject to coercion and interrogation by the feared Israeli Shabak (security) as reported by the Israeli Physicians for Human Rights on their excellent website.

Decades of a destructive military occupation and administration of Gaza is well documented by academics like Sara Roy. Brave journalists like Amira Hass, an Israeli who lived and reported from Gaza and wrote a book Drinking the Sea of Gaza, have detailed the real situation of the Palestinian people in Gaza. The Israelis ensured the under development of Gaza through restricting planning in the area to avoid any permanent status for the Arab inhabitants – a mix of established Palestinian land owners and Palestinian refugees who fled in 1947-8.

In conversations with Israelis in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem I still remember vividly the perceptions some had of Gaza as a filthy place with open sewers where the people have brought their miserable state on themselves and where they dreaded serving for the army.

Fortunately I had my own very fond memories of visits to Gaza to counter the too often negative coverage and perceptions of this small but densely populated area of land. A day spent by the sea with Palestinian friends, in cafes and meeting families. The Palestinian students I stayed with were young aspiring women. From relatively well off families in Gaza, they found ways around Israeli controls to travel to the West Bank to study for their degrees. On my last visit to Gaza I attended a wedding on the beach.

The siege on Gaza intensified when the people voted in a democratic election for Hamas, the punishments were collective and disregarded international law. The repercussions play out in Gaza like some grim social experiment on how far you can push a population to the edge before it snaps. The anarchy in Gaza that ensued was inevitable and Israel responded by declaring Gaza a "hostile entity".

Gaza is effectively living under a new kind of occupation where Israel controls who lives and who dies and who works and who doesn't. Gaza is facing a humanitarian crisis and the world has turned away. The Israeli government, sole supplier of fuel, has cut supplies, yet again, in direct response to rockets fired from Gaza into Israel. Ma'an, a private Palestinian news agency reported that Gaza "will be without power for at least eight hours a day because Gaza's power plant does not have the fuel it needs to run at full capacity". Interruptions in the supply of power can be life threatening and cut essential hospital services, sewage works and water provision for a population that has 80% living below the poverty line.

On the Al Jazeera English website reporter Mike Hanna said of Bush's visit to the West Bank that: "If the US president's motorcade ever traveled in Gaza City … he would see the medical supplies that have stopped coming in to Gaza, the shortage of fuel following the Israeli decision to reduce the amount of fuel piped across the border and the periodic shutting down of the power stations. If George W Bush ever came to Gaza, he would see the ordinary people who do not fire Qassam missiles over the border into Israel. He would experience the darkness of an existence that Gazans believe results from the collective punishment of a civilian population supposedly prohibited by international law."

5 January 2008

Elections will not save Pakistan

By Liam Carroll

You have to feel sorry for the people of Pakistan and Afghanistan for being the undeserving victims of huge geopolitical forces that are way beyond their control. Zbigniew Brzezinski, Jimmy Carter's National Security Advisor, used to brag that he had brought down the Soviet Union by hatching the plan to "bleed Moscow in the soil of Afghanistan" way back in 1979. The 'freedom fighters' that the United States, Saudi Arabia and the Pakistani military brought to Afghanistan for the so called anti-Soviet Jihad included Osama bin Laden and thousands of others who formed the group al Qaeda that is linked to the current number one suspect for the murder of Benazir Bhutto, Baitullah Mehsud.

One could argue about the merits or otherwise of assembling militants from across the Muslim world to fight in Afghanistan, however one would be hard pressed to find any virtue in its legacy. One cannot avoid noticing the terrible ironies as the US attempts to pressure the Pakistani military to seek and destroy the militants that they had both collaborated to bring to Afghanistan in the first place.

Leaving the historical context aside though, people are of course asking what are the options for helping Pakistan avoid further destabilisation. One option, and the most likely one to be adopted by the US led coalition forces, would be more of the same. This runs along the line of pressuring the Pakistani military to assert their control over the tribal regions bordering Afghanistan, where the US believe al Qaeda and the Taleban are taking refuge.

The Pakistani military are, quite rightly, reluctant to engage in a full scale civil war with their fellow countrymen, many of whom have done nothing worse than to be overrun by Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan’s 'freedom fighters' from the previous US campaign.

Secondly, while casualties are already in their thousands (soldiers and civilians) any escalation by the army has been matched by an increasingly effective and sophisticated bombing campaign by militants in the heartland of Pakistan, greatly adding to the countries instability.

Thirdly, the increasing violence has gone hand in hand with a growing radicalisation of the tribal area as well as of many young students up and down the country. Being the largest landowners, property developers and industrialists in the country, the military is of course quite sensitive to the risk of further instability and will thus probably maintain a show of counterinsurgency without serious escalation.

The overwhelming call to respond to the recent attacks then has been to follow through with the 'democratic process.' While the response seems appropriate, an awareness of the scale of the challenge seems woefully lacking.

Starting with the obvious, what sort of democratic party selects their leader by bloodline, as the Pakistan's People's Party have just done (selecting Benazir's 19 year student son)? By all accounts the PPP is the most progressive party as well. Nawaz Sharif's and President Musharraf's parties are essentially representatives of elite cadres with very little popular support, and given the history of vote rigging in the country even their low poll ratings are suspect.

More fundamentally of course, endemic corruption aside, there is a consensus that the military runs the government and will surely continue to do so for some time into the future. Any civilian contribution to government has always been just that, a contribution.

Also fairly fundamentally, the Supreme Court Chief Justice remains under arrest for trying to uphold the constitution and the lawyers who complained are all in jail

The alternative approach would be to call for a cease-fire and wholesale reform of the military government. There are some good reasons why this might help.

A number of analysts have pointed out that al Qaeda is failing to win support for its extreme brand of militancy anywhere across the Muslim world. In poll after poll, whether in Lebanon, Algeria, Saudi Arabia, Egypt or Indonesia, al Qaeda is recorded as being feared and disliked. Indeed, political scientist and pollster Shibley Telhami says "many people would like bin Laden to hurt America, but they do not want bin Laden to rule their children."

Al Qaeda appears to thrive on war and anti-Americanism, but in peace-time they have nothing to offer and can accumulate no popular support. Only in Iraq, Pakistan and Afghanistan have they been able to radicalise the local population, mostly on the back of US/NATO excessive use of force. Many people appear to have pinned their hopes on the electoral process to stabilise Pakistan – the real problem however is the war, but very few people in this country are saying so, something that only seems to happen when they have the benefit of hindsight.