Truthout Stories Mon, 04 May 2015 05:00:29 -0400 en-gb Syria's Nightmarish Narrative

With military and political help from Saudi Arabia and Israel, the nightmare scenario of an Al-Qaeda and/or Islamic State victory in Syria may be coming true, as the army of the more secular Syrian government retreats and as President Obama seems frozen by indecision.

The Saudi-Israeli alliance, in league with other hard-line Sunni countries, is helping Al-Qaeda affiliates advance toward gaining either victory or at least safe havens in Syria and Yemen, highlighting unresolved contradictions in President Barack Obama’s policies in the Middle East.

Fueled by a surge of support from Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Turkey – and with Israel striking at Syrian government allies – Al-Qaeda’s Nusra Front and Al-Qaeda’s hyper-brutal spinoff, the Islamic State, are making major advances in Syria with some analysts now predicting the likely collapse of the relatively secular government of President Bashar al-Assad.

Saudi Arabia and Israel have made clear over the past few years that they regard the overthrow of the Iranian-backed Assad government as a geopolitical priority even if it results in a victory by Al-Qaeda or the Islamic State. But Obama, who has been unwilling or unable to rein in the Saudi-Israeli alliance, would then have to decide what to do with Islamic terrorists dominating a major Mideast nation.

Some of these Sunni radicals have shown that they will move aggressively toward slaughtering minority groups that they consider infidels, including Christians, Alawites and Shiites. The terrorists could leave the streets of major Syrian cities running red with blood – and give Al-Qaeda a solid platform from which to launch terrorist attacks against the West.

How Obama or his successor might respond to that is uncertain but it would be difficult for any American president to sit back and do nothing. Yet, dispatching another U.S. military expeditionary force to Syria to dislodge Al-Qaeda or the Islamic State from Damascus and across Syria would likely be a fool’s errand resulting in massive loss of life, costing trillions of dollars and promising little success.

Meanwhile, the neocon-dominated mainstream U.S. news media is already pushing the narrative that Obama’s failure was that he didn’t intervene earlier to overthrow the Assad regime so some  “moderate” rebels could have taken power.

But the existence of a significant “moderate” rebel army was always a fiction. As Obama noted in a frank interview with New York Times columnist Thomas L. Friedman in August 2014, the notion that arming the rebels would have made a difference has “always been a fantasy.”

Obama explained: “This idea that we could provide some light arms or even more sophisticated arms to what was essentially an opposition made up of former doctors, farmers, pharmacists and so forth, and that they were going to be able to battle not only a well-armed state but also a well-armed state backed by Russia, backed by Iran, a battle-hardened Hezbollah, that was never in the cards.”

Obama added that his administration had trouble finding, training and arming enough secular Syrian rebels to make a difference: “There’s not as much capacity as you would hope.”

Indeed, much of the U.S.-backed Free Syrian Army threw in its lot – and their U.S.-supplied weapons – with Al-Qaeda’s Nusra Front or the Islamic State in 2013. After that, Obama’s only realistic choice was to strike a pragmatic political agreement with Assad and cooperate with Iran and Russia in reclaiming territory from Al-Qaeda and the Islamic State.

Getting Rid of Assad

But that option proved politically impossible because the Israel Lobby and American neocons continued to press for Assad’s overthrow. They were aided by Obama’s unwillingness to release U.S. intelligence that undercut some of the major anti-Assad themes dominating the mainstream U.S. media. For instance, Obama could have revealed doubts within the U.S. intelligence community that Assad’s regime was responsible for the infamous sarin gas attack outside Damascus on Aug. 21, 2013.

Blaming Assad for the sarin attack, which killed hundreds of civilians, was a valuable part of the neocon narrative that prevented any détente with Assad. Yet, even as more evidence emerged that the attack was likely a provocation committed by rebel extremists, Obama balked at updating the initial rush to judgment – nine days after the event – fingering Assad’s forces.

As recently as last month, the Obama administration was still handing out those initial accusations to CBS’ “60 Minutes” and other mainstream media outlets, which simply regurgitate the outdated intelligence data rather than examine the newer evidence that points to a rebel “false-flag” operation designed to draw the U.S. military into the Syrian civil war on the rebel side. [See’s “A Fact-Resistant ‘Group Think’ on Syria.”]

Though Obama pulled back in 2013 from bombing the Syrian military, which could have opened the gates of Damascus to Al-Qaeda and/or the Islamic State, the President hasn’t been willing to override the “regime change” desires of his State Department, which remains influenced by neocons and their sidekicks, the liberal interventionists.

Now, despite the growing risk of an Al-Qaeda or Islamic State victory in Syria, Obama seems frozen by indecision over what to do, hemmed in by the Israel Lobby, the oil-rich Saudis and neocon politicians and opinion-leaders in Official Washington.

But the dangers of an Islamic terror victory in Syria grow by the day. In an article entitled “Rebel resurgence puts Syrian regime in peril,” the Washington Post’s Liz Sly reported that,

“A surge of rebel gains in Syria is overturning long-held assumptions about the durability of President Bashar al-Assad’s regime, which now appears in greater peril than at any time in the past three years.

“The capture Saturday of the town of Jisr al-Shughour in northern Idlib province was just the latest in a string of battlefield victories by rebel forces, which have made significant advances in both the north and the south of the country. …

“The battlefield shifts come at a time when the Obama administration has set aside the crisis in Syria to focus on its chief priorities: defeating the Islamic State militant group in Iraq and concluding a nuclear deal with Iran. Yet the pace of events in Syria may force the United States to refocus on the unresolved war, which remains at the heart of the turmoil engulfing the Middle East, analysts say.

“Iran backs ­Assad, Saudi Arabia backs the rebels, and a shift in the balance of power in Syria could have profound repercussions for the conflicts in Iraq and Yemen. ‘We’re seeing a game changer right now in Syria,’ said Jamal Khashoggi, a prominent Saudi journalist. ‘I think we are going to see an end to the Assad regime, and we have to think now about what will happen the day after, because the day after is near.’ …

“The revival of rebel fortunes is attributed to a large degree to the recent rapprochement between a newly assertive Saudi Arabia and its erstwhile rivals for influence over the rebels — Turkey and Qatar.

“Since inheriting the throne in January, Saudi King Salman has moved forcefully to challenge the expanding regional influence of Iran, Saudi Arabia’s biggest foe, most publicly by embarking on an air war against Iranian-backed Houthi rebels in Yemen. He has also acted to shore up the flagging and deeply divided rebels in Syria, in coordination with Qatar and Turkey, Khashoggi said.

“The result has been an unexpectedly cohesive rebel coalition called the Army of Conquest that is made up of al-Qaeda affiliate Jabhat al-Nusra, an assortment of mostly Islamist brigades and a small number of more moderate battalions. The coalition, which launched last month, has proved more effective than expected. …

In a commentary for the Middle East Institute, Robert S. Ford, a former U.S. envoy to Syria, said a regime collapse cannot be ruled out. The regime’s schisms, its battlefield setbacks and its manpower shortages ‘are all signs of weakness,’ he wrote. ‘We may be seeing signs of the beginning of their end.’”

More Israeli Airstrikes

Meanwhile, Israel has reportedly resumed airstrikes against Syrian military bases near Lebanon, possibly aimed at Lebanese Hezbollah forces cooperating with the Assad government in battling Sunni rebels. While refusing to comment directly on these reported airstrikes, Israeli officials have vowed to prevent Syria from transferring sophisticated weapons to Hezbollah.

An earlier Israeli airstrike killed a number of Hezbollah fighters and an Iranian general who was in Syria assisting Assad’s military. Israel also has arranged what amounts to a non-aggression pact with Al-Qaeda’s Nusra Front along the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights, with Israel even providing hospital care for Nusra fighters who then return to the battlefield.

More importantly, Israel has turned loose its powerful Israel Lobby in the United States to rally Republicans and many Democrats to obstruct President Obama’s efforts to work out an agreement with Iran to limit its nuclear program and clear the way for a more constructive relationship with the Shiite-ruled country.

Obama’s overtures toward Iran have alarmed Saudi Arabia, which views itself as leading the Sunni faction in the Middle East. The Saudi disdain for Iran even has led to the Saudis joining sides with Israel in an odd-couple relationship, since both countries now view Iran as their principal adversary.

As this relationship firmed up, Israel even began voicing a preference for Al-Qaeda’s militants over the relatively secular Assad government, which was viewed as the protectors of Alawites, Shiites, Christians and other Syrian minorities terrified of the Saudi-backed Sunni extremists.

In September 2013, in one of the most explicit expressions of Israel’s views, Israeli Ambassador to the United States Michael Oren, then a close adviser to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, told the Jerusalem Post that Israel favored the Sunni extremists over Assad.

“The greatest danger to Israel is by the strategic arc that extends from Tehran, to Damascus to Beirut. And we saw the Assad regime as the keystone in that arc,” Oren told the Jerusalem Post in an interview. “We always wanted Bashar Assad to go, we always preferred the bad guys who weren’t backed by Iran to the bad guys who were backed by Iran.” He said this was the case even if the “bad guys” were affiliated with Al-Qaeda.

Oren expanded on his position in June 2014 at an Aspen Institute conference. Then, speaking as a former ambassador, Oren said Israel would even prefer a victory by the Islamic State, which was massacring captured Iraqi soldiers and beheading Westerners, than the continuation of the Iranian-backed Assad in Syria.

“From Israel’s perspective, if there’s got to be an evil that’s got to prevail, let the Sunni evil prevail,” Oren said.

On Oct. 1, 2013, Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu hinted at the new Israeli-Saudi relationship in his United Nations General Assembly speech, which was largely devoted to excoriating Iran over its nuclear program and threatening a unilateral Israeli military strike.

Amid the bellicosity, Netanyahu dropped in a largely missed clue about the evolving power relationships in the Middle East, saying: “The dangers of a nuclear-armed Iran and the emergence of other threats in our region have led many of our Arab neighbors to recognize, finally recognize, that Israel is not their enemy. And this affords us the opportunity to overcome the historic animosities and build new relationships, new friendships, new hopes.”

The next day, Israel’s Channel 2 TV news reported that senior Israeli security officials had met with a high-level Gulf state counterpart in Jerusalem, believed to be Prince Bandar bin Sultan, the former Saudi ambassador to the United States who was then head of Saudi intelligence.

The reality of this unlikely alliance has even reached the mainstream U.S. media. For instance, Time magazine correspondent Joe Klein described the new coziness in an article in the Jan. 19, 2015 issue: “On May 26, 2014, an unprecedented public conversation took place in Brussels. Two former high-ranking spymasters of Israel and Saudi Arabia – Amos Yadlin and Prince Turki al-Faisal – sat together for more than an hour, talking regional politics in a conversation moderated by the Washington Post’s David Ignatius.

“They disagreed on some things, like the exact nature of an Israel-Palestine peace settlement, and agreed on others: the severity of the Iranian nuclear threat, the need to support the new military government in Egypt, the demand for concerted international action in Syria. The most striking statement came from Prince Turki. He said the Arabs had ‘crossed the Rubicon’ and ‘don’t want to fight Israel anymore.’”

Rallying Congress

During Netanyahu’s March 3 speech to a joint session of Congress, he further indicated Israel’s preference for the Saudi-backed jihadists over Iranian allies in the Syrian government. He urged the U.S. government to shift its focus from fighting Al-Qaeda and the Islamic State to fighting Iran.

Netanyahu depicted the danger from the Islamic State as relatively minor – with its “butcher knives, captured weapons and YouTube” – compared to Iran, which he accused of “gobbling up the nations” of the Middle East.

To the applause of Congress, he claimed “Iran now dominates four Arab capitals, Baghdad, Damascus, Beirut and Sanaa. And if Iran’s aggression is left unchecked, more will surely follow.” His choice of capitals was peculiar, however, because Iran took none of those capitals by force and, indeed, was simply supporting the embattled government of Syria and was allied with Shiite elements of the government of Lebanon.

As for Iraq, Iran’s allies were installed not by Iran but by President George W. Bush via the U.S. invasion. And, in Yemen, a long-festering sectarian conflict has led to the capture of Sanaa by Houthi rebels who are Zaydi Shiites, an offshoot of Shia Islam that is actually closer to some Sunni sects. The Houthis deny they are agents of Iran, and Western intelligence services believe Iran’s support has consisted mostly of some funding.

However, as part of the Saudi-Israeli campaign against Iranian influence, Saudi Arabia has bombed Yemeni cities from the air using sophisticated American-supplied aircraft while the U.S. Navy has supported a blockade of Yemen from the sea, including this past weekend turning back nine Iranian ships carrying relief supplies because of unconfirmed suspicions that there might be weapons onboard as well.

Though the Saudi leadership had agreed to peace talks urged by President Obama, the Saudi air force resumed its bombing of the Yemeni capital of Sanaa and other targets on Sunday. Despite U.S. intelligence support, the Saudi airstrikes have been largely indiscriminate killing hundreds of civilians and shattering some of Yemen’s ancient cities.

Another effect of the Saudi airstrikes has been to bolster the cause of “Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula,” an affiliate that the U.S. government has identified as the most dangerous Al-Qaeda branch in terms of sponsoring attacks on the West. With the Houthi rebels under Saudi bombardment, AQAP has succeeded in seizing more territory in the east and overrunning a prison to free Al-Qaeda militants.

The most immediate and severe crisis, however, appears to be unfolding in Syria where Al-Qaeda’s Nusra Front and the bloodthirsty Islamic State appear to be gaining the upper hand, with military support from Saudi Arabia and political cover from Israel.

News Sun, 03 May 2015 00:00:00 -0400
Is Russia Headed Towards Nuclear Disarmament?

Is Russia stepping up its game regarding the disarmament of nuclear weapons? This was the news last week when Russia sent a letter to a Non Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons Conference, describing the steps Russia has taken to fulfill the aims of the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT).

The NPT is widely considered one of the most encompassing arms treaties of all time. It has been signed by 190 states, excluding only Israel, North Korea, India, Pakistan and South Sudan. It stipulates that member states restrict weapons trade, use nuclear technology only for energy needs and cease the manufacturing of nuclear arsenal.

In the letter to the conference, Russia’s President Vladimir Putin assured members that, “We have reduced our nuclear weapons stockpiles to minimal levels, thereby making a considerable contribution to the process of comprehensive and complete disarmament.”

Putin went on to write that Russia, “plan[s] to continue this work, as well as maintain the balance between the development of peaceful nuclear [programs] and the strengthening of the non-proliferation regime, including the guarantees system of the IAEA [International Atomic Energy Agency].”

Yet while Putin stands by his claims made in the recent letter, it wasn’t long ago that the U.S. was accusing Russia of violating the NPT. At the same conference, John Kerry admitted that the U.S. and Russia are responsible for 90 percent of all the world’s nuclear weapons. However Kerry said that while the U.S. is trying to comply with the treaty, Russia has been playing by their own rules: “I want to emphasize our deep concerns regarding Russia’s clear violation of its obligations under the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty. We are urging Russia to return to compliance,” Kerry stated.

Meanwhile Russia had their own barbs to trade. Mikhail Ulyanov of the Foreign Ministry Department of Non-Proliferation and Arms Control told the U.S. to remember their own precarious position: “Accusing others of violating the NPT, the United States forgets that its own track record in this area is far from ideal.”

So who is right? Well it turns out, neither side is doing that much better than the other. A look at the Federation of American Scientists fact sheet shows us that while Russia has a few more nuclear weapons (Russia has 7,500 while the U.S. has 7,200), the U.S. has more weapons strategically deployed.

But the real shame is that the U.S. and Russia are busy pointing fingers at each other, because when these two sides work together on nuclear disarmament they can achieve some monumental goals.

The Megatons to Megawatts program, which started in 1993, helped to rid the world of the equivalent of 20,000 nuclear warheads. It was a 10-year agreement that took Russia’s highly enriched uranium and converted it into electricity in the United States. This helped Russia rid itself of excess weapons, while powering about 10 percent of the United State’s electricity needs. The program ended in 2013, and so far there have been no talks on reinstating a similar deal.

Regardless of how these two countries go head-to-head, there is evidence that Russia has been steadily reducing their number of nuclear weapons and complying with the NPT. An independent peer review of Russia by the IAEA in 2013 revealed, “the Russian Federation had made significant progress since an earlier review in 2009. It also identified good practices in the country’s nuclear regulatory system”.

Although many will wait on another independent review before taking Russia’s claims to heart, most can agree that anything that conforms with the NPT is a step in the right direction.

News Sun, 03 May 2015 00:00:00 -0400
Five Foods We Thought Were Bad for Us, Now Turn Out to Be Good

Remember when eggs were bad for us before they were good for us? Or when certain heart disease was the devil’s bargain we made for loving a good cheeseburger? You may be excused for the vertigo you experience from all the flip-flops, twists and turns written over the years about the goodness or badness of any number of foods. For all of the “scientific” studies of nutrition and health, the bottom line is that we know something about the food we eat. But truthfully, the science behind what we ingest and how it affects our health is in its infancy.

There are numerous reasons why we are get conflicting information, partly because of how some journalists interpret scientific reports. Most reputable research papers are broken down the same way. There is an introduction/background, a methods section explaining how the research was performed, a results section, discussion/conclusion, and finally a summary. Journalists for the most part, not being scientists and on tight deadlines, read only the summary, which may have less scientific jargon and be more readily digestible than the rest of the paper. Many a journalist has fallen prey to accepting the summary without delving into the particulars. The result is a headline that screams Coffee Is Great for Your Health! when it should have said Coffee Is Great for Your Health—If You are Middle Class, Have Health Insurance, Don’t Smoke, Exercise, and Your Parents Don’t Have Cancer!  

The problem is not always the journalism. Some studies are deeply flawed. Other studies cannot be duplicated and are therefore discredited. Sometimes the sample of people studied is too small. And then there are the studies sponsored by industries that have vested interests in the outcome. 

Dietician Andy Bellatti wrote on Lifehacker, that: 

"...increasingly, food companies are setting up 'institutes' (i.e. Coca-Cola's Beverage Institute for Health and Wellness, General Mills' Bell Institute) that are essentially PR efforts that oh-so-coincidentally frame these companies' products as healthful (or, in the case of soda, in no way problematic from a health standpoint). 

"To make matters more confusing, these institutes have doctors, cardiologists, and dietitians on their payroll—as well as key media contacts—resulting in a health professional talking to media about, say, how soda is 'unfairly vilified.' Most times, the general public isn't aware that this isn't an objective health professional choosing to say that.”

Whatever the reason, once corrected, a study may come to conclusions that are diametrically opposed to previous studies. 

Here are five nutritional flip-flops, and a few more where the jury is still out.

1. Eggs. There was a time not very long ago when eggs were looked upon as cardiovascular time bombs. High in dietary cholesterol, it was said that eating a lot of eggs would result in gummed-up arteries and a high risk of heart attack. Most recent studies, however, cast these assumptions aside. Unless you are diabetic, there is no evidence that dietary cholesterol results in plaque building up in your arteries (studies on diabetics have shown possible correlation but nothing definitive).

In addition to protein, eggs contain lots of great nutrition, including omega-3s and B-vitamins.

Bottom line: Eat your eggs.

2. Saturated fat/red meat. Good and bad news about saturated fat has been bouncing to and fro like a ping-pong ball for several decades. One of our primary sources of saturated fat is red meat (burgers, steaks, beef hot dogs and the like). From the early- to mid-20th century, we were encouraged to consume lots of meat because it was a great source of protein, B vitamins and numerous other nutrients. However, in the 1960s, studies began to link saturated fat with heart disease and cancer.

Back and forth the argument went, as conflicting studies linked and unlinked the dangers of red meat consumption. People read and worried, accepted that meat was bad (although did not stop eating it), and rejoiced whenever news came out that maybe meat was OK. In 2014, a study out of Harvard, comprised of over one million people, found no link between the consumption of unprocessed red meat and either heart disease or diabetes. Another study out of Europe of over 450,000 individuals came to the same conclusion.

However, both of these studies did find a link between processed meat (hot dogs, cold cuts and the like) and disease.

Bottom line: If you want a burger, eat one, but think twice about that salami (processed meat) sandwich. But health reasons aside, the consumption of meat in the world sustains factory-farming of animals, which is the source of horrendous misery for billions of cows and pigs and is literally killing the planet because of the carbon, air and land pollution it creates. If you are concerned about that, and you should be, cut down on your meat consumption or stick to meat obtained from sustainable farming practices.

3. Butter. Butter’s stock has gone up and down for 150 years. As far back as 1855, people were told to use oil instead of butter. Like a close-fought basketball game, the duel between margarine and butter has been classic, but it seems that butter has finally gained the upper hand. 

The main beef against butter has mostly been that it is a saturated fat, which with prolonged consumption, would cause cardiovascular disease. The Harvard study referenced above seems to have put that fear to rest, and in fact it is margarine, with its high trans fat content, which studies have shown is the heart disease enabler.

Meanwhile, butter is a good source of fat-soluble vitamins like A, E and K2, and actually raises the good HDL level in your blood, while lowering the bad LDL. As for the extra calories? No worries. A 2012 study concluded there was no correlation between high fat dairy and obesity.

Bottom line: Butter your toast. But remember most dairy you consume comes from factory farms, so try to buy butter that comes from grass-fed cows.

4. Coffee. For many years, coffee was the victim of flawed studies linking it to cancer and heart disease. Problem was, these studies did not take into account other factors, like coffee-drinkers might also be cigarette smokers. The result was that many people gave up coffee, albeit reluctantly.

It turns out that the dark side of coffee was greatly exaggerated. Yes, there are negative aspects of coffee. It is addictive, so if you want to stop, be prepared for a couple days of wicked headaches. It is a stimulant, so if you overdo it, expect to be tossing and turning in bed. If you are pregnant, don’t overdo it. There is some small correlation (not causation) between coffee and miscarriages, but opinion is nowhere near what it used to be, and most doctors now think a small cup or two a day, even if you are pregnant, is not a problem. 

Now for the good stuff. Coffee is loaded with antioxidants (in fact, some Westerners actually get more antioxidants from coffee than from fruits and vegetables). Coffee enhances brain function (as do most stimulants), may protect your brain from degenerative diseases like Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s, and may ward off Type 2 diabetes and even liver cancer. Want more? There are studies linking coffee to a lower risk of depression and suicide and to a longer lifespan. (It is important to note that these studies are not causative, i.e. they do not show coffee causes a reduction in disease, only that those who drink coffee seem to have less disease.)

Bottom line: A cup of joe, please.

5. Avocados. Only a few decades ago the avocado was considered a sinful treat. As studies coming out in the 1970s and '80s extolled the dangers of fat, the poor avocado suffered in silence as it was swept up in the low-fat tsunami of scientific opinion.

What we know now, is that the creamy fruit (yes, it is a fruit, not a vegetable) is a source of mono-saturated fat that does not clog your arteries or increase your cholesterol level, and in fact helps sweep away the bad LDL in your blood.

Bottom line: Eat as much guacamole as your heart desires.

On the Fence

Red wine: For a long time, scientists struggled with the so-called French paradox. Why is it that the French, whose diet includes lots of saturated fats, still manage to have less heart disease than Americans? The answer, researchers declared, was red wine. Red wine contains an ingredient called resveratrol, which studies point to as an active agent in protecting the cardiovascular system. Wine drinkers celebrated and drank a lot of wine, secure in the knowledge that they were doing their heart a solid. Alas, it seems we jumped the gun, or goblet as it were. More recent research has shown that the amount of resveratrol in the bodies of wine drinkers was not sufficient to provide any cardiovascular protection.

Since we now know that saturated fat is not the grim reaper we thought it was, it would seem that the lower level of heart disease in France would have other causative factors. A more likely cause, we now believe, is the higher amount of fresh fruits and vegetables that the French consume, as well as the lower amount of processed foods.

Bottom line: Drink up, but not to excess. A glass or two of wine a day might not protect your heart directly, but it certainly reduces stress and that’s a good thing. More than a couple glasses, though, and you are doing your body more harm than good.

Salt: Considered a contributor to high blood pressure and resulting heart attack and stroke risk, Americans have long been advised to limit their salt intake to about 2,300 milligrams of sodium a day (about a teaspoon of salt). Since we routinely consume over 3,500 milligrams a day, salt has been considered a major culprit contributing to America’s cardiovascular woes.

Here’s the thing, though: when we limit our salt intake, the resulting blood pressure drop is generally minimal (120/80 may drop to 118/79), not really enough to make much difference. And limiting salt too much has its own risks, since the human body needs salt to function properly. Now a major study, called the PURE study, published in the New England Journal of Medicine has concluded that there is insufficient evidence to show that limiting salt intake has any effect on health. Moreover, people in the study who limited their salt intake had more heart trouble than those who did not. There is still debate going on over the PURE results, and the American Heart Association, as well as the American government, has stuck to its guns that limiting salt is the better choice, but it would seem that the old orthodoxy may be cracking just a bit.

Bottom line: If you have very high blood pressure, limiting your salt intake might be the wise choice (for the moment, anyway), but the occasional potato chip shouldn’t overly concern you. For people without blood pressure issues, worrying about salt might raise your blood pressure more than the salt you are unnecessarily worrying about.

Sorry, These Are Still Bad For Us

Bacon: Unprocessed meat good. Processed meat bad. Because of the good news about saturated fat, bacon lovers of the world rejoiced, and there have been numerous articles claiming bacon is now good for you. Sorry, bacon lovers, but bacon is a cured, processed meat. There is plenty of evidence linking consumption of processed meats to heart disease, cancer and diabetes.

Bottom line: No scientific flip-flop on bacon. Bacon tastes great and is very bad for you.

Sugar: It's bad for you. It was then, it is now. And it’s not just the tooth decay or the obesity or the diabetic risk; studies increasingly point to sugar as a culprit in inflammation, which may link to autoimmune diseases, cancer, heart disease, and more.

Bottom line: Sugar tastes so good, and it is hidden in so many foods. But cut down on the sweet stuff.

The overall takeaway is that today’s good food may be tomorrow’s bad food. So listen to the old saw: everything in moderation. And no matter what, no one will ever say too many fruits and veggies are bad for you. Eat lots of those and you really won’t need to worry too much about the rest.

News Sun, 03 May 2015 00:00:00 -0400
New York City Protesters Rally on May Day for Freddie Gray, Police Accountability

May Day protesters march in New York City on May 1, 2015. (Photo: Matt Surrusco)May Day protesters march in New York City on May 1, 2015. (Photo: Matt Surrusco)

Hundreds of people, including union members, students, socialists, immigrants and others, gathered in New York City's Union Square on May 1, International Workers Day, calling for a higher minimum wage of $15 an hour, justice for unarmed people killed by police and an end to deportation and detention of undocumented immigrants.

This year, May Day protesters in New York brought calls for an end to systemic racism and support for police accountability for the killing of unarmed civilians, especially people of color, to the forefront of the annual labor march and rally, with "Black Lives Matter" and the names of people killed by police written on signs, and chants calling for justice for the victims of police brutality or promises to "shut it down," a mantra of the Black Lives Matter movement.

Costumed protesters in Union Square. (Photo: Matt Surrusco)Costumed protesters in Union Square. (Photo: Matt Surrusco)

Protesters march in New York City. (Photo: Matt Surrusco)Protesters march in New York City. (Photo: Matt Surrusco)

Protesters listen to May Day speakers during a rally in Union Square. (Photo: Matt Surrusco)Protesters listen to May Day speakers during a rally in Union Square. (Photo: Matt Surrusco)

Earlier on May 1, prosecutor Marilyn Mosby announced that six Baltimore police officers involved in the arrest of Freddie Gray, a 25-year-old Black man whose spine was severed while in police custody, would be brought up on criminal charges, ranging from assault to second-degree murder.

"To the people of Baltimore and the demonstrators across America: I heard your call for 'No justice, no peace,'" Mosby said during a press conference, following a week of street protests, property damage, arrests and the imposition of a city curfew in Baltimore. "To the youth of this city, I will seek justice on your behalf." The six officers charged in relation to Gray's death are currently out on bail.

May Day protesters march along Second Avenue in New York City on May 1, 2015. (Photo: Matt Surrusco)May Day protesters march along Second Avenue in New York City on May 1, 2015. (Photo: Matt Surrusco)

A protester leans over a police barricade along the march route near Union Square in Manhattan. (Photo: Matt Surrusco)A protester leans over a police barricade along the march route near Union Square in Manhattan. (Photo: Matt Surrusco)

May Day protesters rally in Union Square on May 1, 2015, prior to marching to Foley Square. (Photo: Matt Surrusco)May Day protesters rally in Union Square on May 1, 2015, prior to marching to Foley Square. (Photo: Matt Surrusco)

In New York City, on April 25, David Felix, a 24-year-old suspected of robbery, was killed by a New York City Police Department (NYPD) officer when the officer and another detective went to Felix's residence, a home for people with mental illness, and a chase and scuffle ensued.

During the rally in Union Square, activists shared Felix's story, citing that some media outlets had said little about the man in the week following his death, beyond that he had mental health issues. David Felix's name has been reported incorrectly as Felix David by a number of publications, a May Day speaker told the crowd.

(Photo: Matt Surrusco)(Photo: Matt Surrusco)

(Photo: Matt Surrusco)(Photo: Matt Surrusco)

(Photo: Matt Surrusco)(Photo: Matt Surrusco)

(Photo: Matt Surrusco)(Photo: Matt Surrusco)

Although May Day's roots can be traced back to the US labor movement's struggles for the eight-hour day, higher wages and safer working conditions, it's not an officially recognized holiday in the United States. Traditionally a celebration for workers' and immigrants' rights, May Day's connection to struggles against police violence is also very much a part of its history.

In 1886, following the police killing of two workers at a Chicago labor rally, workers fought with police in Haymarket Square: "Someone threw a bomb at the police, killing at least one officer. Another seven policemen were killed during the ensuing riot, and police gunfire killed at least four protesters and injured many others."

Charles Helms wears his Occupy Wall Street patch on his jacket sleeve. It was given to him in September 2011, during the first few weeks of the occupation of Zuccotti Park in New York City. (Photo: Matt Surrusco)Charles Helms wears his Occupy Wall Street patch on his jacket sleeve. It was given to him in September 2011, during the first few weeks of the occupation of Zuccotti Park in New York City. (Photo: Matt Surrusco)

Union activists, like Charles Helms, recognize this part of labor history. "I want to let policemen know that there's more to a union than a blue wall of silence," said Helms, 68, an Occupy Wall Street veteran from New Jersey, who said officers must hold each other accountable and break the code of silence often upheld by police unions. "The police have to police their own."

A protester helps keep a chant going while marching on May 1, 2015. (Photo: Matt Surrusco)A protester helps keep a chant going while marching on May 1, 2015. (Photo: Matt Surrusco)

A young activist accompanies the Rude Mechanical Orchestra on vocals during the May Day march in New York City. (Photo: Matt Surrusco)A young activist accompanies the Rude Mechanical Orchestra on vocals during the May Day march in New York City. (Photo: Matt Surrusco)

A woman and child watch protesters march by along Second Avenue in Manhattan. (Photo: Matt Surrusco)A woman and child watch protesters march by along Second Avenue in Manhattan. (Photo: Matt Surrusco)

Around 5 pm, protesters began marching along a police barricaded route from Union Square, winding through Chinatown to Foley Square in lower Manhattan, the endpoint bordered by the New York City Supreme Court building, a few blocks from 1 Police Plaza, the NYPD's headquarters. By 8 pm, after youth organizers helped conclude the rally, a smaller group of protesters continued to march, back to Union Square, with police officers walking alongside them, to keep marchers on the sidewalk and out of the street.

(Photo: Matt Surrusco)(Photo: Matt Surrusco)

(Photo: Matt Surrusco)(Photo: Matt Surrusco)

(Photo: Matt Surrusco)(Photo: Matt Surrusco)

In Union Square, on Friday afternoon, Marvin Knight, 72, of Brooklyn, said he was at a similar protest in the 1960s, after a Black child was killed by a White NYPD officer and people rioted in Harlem and Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brooklyn.

"Fifty years later, it's still going on," Knight told Truthout.

Back then 90 percent of the protesters were Black, he said, but the majority of the May Day 2015 protesters were White. "Blacks got so many problems, they don't have time to protest," Knight said. "Every day is a protest."

(Photo: Matt Surrusco)(Photo: Matt Surrusco)

(Photo: Matt Surrusco)(Photo: Matt Surrusco)

News Sun, 03 May 2015 00:00:00 -0400
States Are Required to Educate Students Behind Bars, but Here's What Really Happens

Prison fence(Image: Prison fence via Shutterstock)When he was young, Cadeem Gibbs was really into school. Bright, curious, and naturally rebellious, he enjoyed arguing the opposing point of view in a classroom discussion just to see how well he could do it. “I was always academically inclined,” says the Harlem native, now 24. “I always wanted to learn.”

But there were plenty of stressors in his young life—a violent upbringing, a household in poverty—and the struggle to navigate them pulled him away from his education. He started getting into trouble and ended up in the juvenile justice system at the age of 12. That first contact with “the system” began a 10-year cycle of incarceration that ended only when Gibbs was released from an upstate New York prison two years ago, at the age of 22. He was just a sixth grader when first arrested, but he would never complete a school year as a free child again.

Americans believe that education is the great equalizer, the key that opens the door to a better future and lifts young people out of poverty. And this is true, to an extent—those who finish high school or college have lower unemployment rates and higher incomes than those who don’t. But while people who don’t complete their education are more likely to stay in poverty, they’re also more likely to come from poverty. In the 21st century, so-called reformers have emerged to prescribe everything from charter schools to iPads in order to boost poor students’ educational achievements.

Ignored is a trifecta of policies that prevent young people in poverty from finishing their education: high-stakes testing and the high-stakes discipline that comes with it; weak to nonexistent federal policy concerning education for those young people already involved with the juvenile justice system; and a lifetime of background checks that keep the formerly incarcerated from gaining degrees and finding jobs.

These intersecting policies, which push kids out of school and into a punitive legal system, are collectively known as the “school-to-prison pipeline.” But the individuals who emerge at the end of that pipeline, though criminalized, are still young people—a population that has a reasonable expectation to receive an education. So what happens to a young person’s schooling when he or she is taken out of the classroom and put behind bars?

For poor students of color, like Gibbs, the problems can begin early. These children were the target of George W. Bush’s No Child Left Behind law, which was passed in 2002. The law mandated 100 percent student proficiency in math and reading by 2014. Schools that failed to make adequate yearly progress faced a set of sanctions ranging from staff firings and restructuring the school, to turning it into a charter school or handing it over to private management. Terrified of missing the NCLB guidelines, schools got rid of students who might hold back their numbers. Suspensions, expulsions, and school-based arrests skyrocketed in the wake of the new law, pushing hundreds of thousands of students out of school and, frequently, into the justice system. Such policies disproportionately affect students of color and students with disabilities—compared with their white peers, black youths are three and a half times more likely to be expelled and, if arrested, nine times more likely to receive an adult prison sentence. Even though overall youth crime has decreased since 1999, youth punishment has not: From 1999 to 2008, the number of total youth arrests fell more than 15 percent, while the number of juvenile-court cases remained virtually the same, falling only 4 percent. This means that while fewer young people are getting arrested, they continue to be processed through the system at the same high rates.

When Gibbs was arrested for firearm possession at school, he spent time in both secure and nonsecure facilities while attending his court dates. He then landed in an “alternatives to incarceration” program at Children’s Village, spending a year there. A residential campus in Dobbs Ferry, New York, 35 minutes outside of New York City, Children’s Village serves young people from both the juvenile-justice and child-welfare systems. Although the staff acted kindly toward him, Gibbs says he felt discouraged and resentful. He was placed in a special-education class, which made him feel like there was something wrong with him. He had weekly counseling sessions, which he hated; he says he would go into each session and sit in complete silence while the social worker asked him questions about his life, refusing to say a single word for the entire hour. It’s only now, in retrospect, that he realizes that his silence came from a lack of trust. “I didn’t know I didn’t trust her,” Gibbs says. “I just thought I didn’t want to be bothered. I was angry. I didn’t want to be there.”

When he was released from that placement and tried to reenter the regular school system, Gibbs hit a number of barriers. Because it was near the end of the school year, he had to finish middle school at Children’s Village, taking a 45-minute bus ride from his home in Harlem to Dobbs Ferry every day. Even so, he was behind in credits from all the classes he’d missed while in custody, and it was time for him to start high school. “It took me a while to find a school,” he says. “No school would accept me.” He ended up at an alternative high school serving young people who had been suspended, expelled, or otherwise pushed out of their community schools.

This type of barrier to reentry is a common one for young people hoping to return to their schools after a juvenile placement. The high-stakes testing standards under No Child Left Behind prompt schools to exclude students coming from the juvenile-justice system. Because those students are likely to have fallen behind academically, their potential for scoring poorly on tests becomes a liability, creating a perverse incentive structure in which it’s better to exclude high-needs students than it is to educate them. School districts can refuse to accept the partial credits earned during the time a child spent in custody—and they can also refuse to re-enroll that student entirely.

Even for those who do get a meaningful education inside the system, the trauma of being detained can have a long-lasting effect on young people, who are still developing in crucial ways. “It’s life-changing—any contact is impactful,” says Elijah Tax-Berman, a high-school social worker at a New York City network of schools that serve young people involved with the juvenile- or criminal-justice system, as well those who are homeless or in foster care. Some of the schools in which Tax-Berman works have installed metal detectors, and he says that some students have stopped attending school because of the indignities associated with the search process. “It may seem like a little thing: ‘Take the wrappers out of your pockets, turn in your cellphone, take off your belt.’ But they’ve had such a negative experience, they’re so uncomfortable with it, that they stop coming to school.” For those students, the metal detectors at the front door act as a literal barrier to entry.

* * *

“A lot of kids go into juvenile-justice facilities, and that’s the end of their education,” notes Jessica Feierman, supervising attorney at the Juvenile Law Center in Philadelphia. Underlying this problem is a patchwork of dysfunctional local policies. “There is a huge degree of variability as to what happens to a young person, depending on what state they’re in or even what part of the state they’re in.” In some states, the youth agency that administers juvenile justice—in other words, the system itself—is also responsible for education. In other states, the responsibility is not in the hands of the state agency, but the local or county school district. “We found that both of those systems have some structural challenges,” says David Domenici, founding principal of the Maya Angelou Academy, the school inside Washington, DC’s, long-term juvenile facility. When school districts are in charge, juvenile inmates may not be a top priority for superintendents, who are busy overseeing all the schools in their district and ensuring that each is making yearly progress in the high-stakes education climate of No Child Left Behind. And when juvenile-justice agencies are in charge, Domenici adds, many of the facilities were set up decades ago as part of a “lock ‘em up” correctional approach in which school was also not a top priority. Then, “as an afterthought, people started to think, ‘Oh my gosh, we’re responsible for educating these people.’”

Being held in the custody of the juvenile-justice system can take a number of forms, from nonsecure residential placements (some of which are meant to resemble a homelike setting) to secure correctional facilities, or “lockup” for children. Only half of the young people in residential placements around the country reported having “good” education programs at their facilities, and less than half (45 percent) spent a full school day (at least six hours) receiving instruction. Those numbers come from the Department of Justice; its Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention surveys young people in residential placements across the country to assess their needs and the services they receive. The same survey found that a third of the young people in custody had a diagnosed learning disability. That’s seven times the rate of the general public-school population—and less than half were receiving the special-education services they have a legal right to. A stunning 70 percent of the young people had, like Gibbs, experienced some kind of trauma at some point in their lives.

And while a school schedule may operate on semesters or trimesters, juvenile placements do not—adding yet another logistical challenge not only for system-involved students, but for educators. “Kids come in and out a lot,” Domenici explains. Again like Gibbs, children are often transferred between several facilities before landing in a long-term placement, by which point they’ve missed weeks or even months of school. “And everyone just says, ‘Well, everyone in the whole District of Columbia is supposed to be on page 89 of their algebra book and chapter 16 of their humanities book,’” Domenici notes. That’s an unrealistic approach for any student, but especially those who have already had negative experiences in school. “I’m a very big fan of increased expectations for kids—but for kids who have been totally disengaged, we need to find a way to get them reengaged.”

To that end, Domenici has purposefully designed his school’s curriculum around themes that relate to their experience—relationships, change, choice, power, and justice. The academic year is broken up into eight units, and each unit has 22 days of instruction. Students earn credits for each completed unit, which means that even if they’re released in the middle of the school year, they leave with the credits they’ve accumulated during their time there.

It’s a simple solution to what Domenici describes as a set of deeply structural and philosophical problems regarding how to educate young people in the juvenile justice system. Beyond immediate trauma, system-involved young people often have other factors in their lives that prevent education from being the door-opener it’s understood to be. Obtaining a degree is hardly a guarantee of financial security for any young person, much less one who is living in poverty. “Our young people struggle with its relevancy,” says Tax-Berman. ”I struggle with them struggling with its relevancy. I can’t stand here and say, ‘You need to do well in school and everything will be OK,’ because it’s not [true]. You need to feed your family.”

According to Gibbs, that’s exactly why he kept winding up back in the system: The external circumstances of his life hadn’t changed. Not long after entering his alternative high school, he got into trouble again and was sent back to Children’s Village. When he got out the second time, it took him several months to find another school. He started at a regular city high school after the academic year had already begun, was expelled before the semester was over, and was arrested shortly after being expelled. By that time, he was 16 and an adult in the eyes of New York—the only state besides North Carolina that still prosecutes all 16-year-olds as adults. That meant he was headed to Rikers Island.

“It was terrifying because I was young, and I was around people much older than I was,” says Gibbs, who explains that even though youths under 18 are housed separately, they are frequently exposed to the adult population in common areas. “It’s like maybe [adult prisoners] might prey on me—and not even only that, but the corrections officers too.” Gibbs did feel targeted by the guards and other prisoners, but he did his best to cope and, upon his release, earned a GED on his own. At 17, Gibbs was arrested again on a drug charge and sent back to Rikers. He says he expressed interest in attending school while he was there, but was prohibited from doing so because he already had his GED.

In December 2014, the Justice Department and the Department of Education issued federal guidelines regarding correctional education in juvenile-justice facilities, outlining some of the key issues that the country’s 60,000 children in custody face in continuing their schooling. The extensive package addresses the educational and civil rights of students during their incarceration and through their transition back into the community. It’s “a critical step in helping increase access to education for young people involved in the juvenile-justice system,” says Jenny Collier, a project consultant for the Robert F. Kennedy Juvenile Justice Collaborative. A number of the guidelines reflect the struggles of young people like Gibbs; they include raising academic standards for those in custody and implementing more rigorous reentry programs to support those students as they return to their community schools.

But there’s an even bigger issue to address than those massive systemic obstacles, says Domenici: “There’s a big philosophical problem here. There clearly are a lot of people in youth facilities who want these kids to be successful and who believe in them. But there are plenty of people who believe that these are kids who have stolen cars, beat people up, chronically steal, whatever—and [that they] just don’t deserve to be in a great school.” This all-too-common way of looking at the issue prevents stakeholders from approaching the education of young people in juvenile facilities with the financial, organizational, and personal investment necessary to make it a meaningful experience.

* * *

Even if a system-involved young person manages to navigate these institutional barriers and external factors and succeeds in getting a degree, he or she will still face tremendous obstacles. Dina Sarver, a married mother of two in Florida, was arrested on three counts of grand theft auto when she was 15 and sent to a residential facility. The placement was a truly rehabilitative setting focused on pregnant teenagers, and Sarver says that it gave her the resources and support to get her life on track. After being discharged, she earned a high-school diploma and was accepted into an associate-degree program for registered nursing, where she hoped to become a nurse practitioner. At her second orientation, she asked the department manager about background checks and was told that a juvenile felony record was an automatic disqualification from the program. Sarver went on to complete a bachelor’s degree in healthcare management, but her final class required an internship, and that called for a background check. Only with the help of two public defenders who advocated on her behalf was she able to graduate.

Sarver is now 23. In Florida, most juvenile records are expunged when the offender turns 24 or 26, depending on conviction history and the offense. Until then, her record is available to any potential employer. Even after that, employers in certain fields, like those involving children, the disabled, and the elderly, still have a right to her expunged record. This is devastating for Sarver, who still wants to work in healthcare. “All these doors are closing in your face, and you don’t know what to do,” she says. “And sometimes it’s discouraging, because here you are, trying to do everything you can to become a productive member of society. I’m trying to get my education, become a better person, become a better mom, and I can’t do that because I’m so confined.” She can’t even go on her son’s field trips, because the school district runs a check on chaperones.

Cadeem Gibbs’s carceral experience culminated in a sentence served in an upstate New York prison, where he finally had access to books, magazines, and high-quality college courses. It was the most engaging educational experience he’d had since entering the system. He completed a human-services certificate program, maintained a high grade-point average, and accumulated a number of credits. When he was released last year, he enrolled at a community college—only to find out, once again, that many of the credits he’d earned didn’t transfer. “And I guess I’m at the point now where I don’t want to pursue a formal education. I’ve been kind of turned off by it,” he says. Instead, he’s been focusing on youth advocacy, such as the Raise the Age campaign fighting to change the state law that treats 16- and 17-year-olds like adults. He also works as a consultant for the Washington, DC–based Children’s Defense Fund. He remains passionate about education, but fears that spending more time and money on school won’t get him closer to his dreams, especially given his record.

“Things as menial as stockroom positions present challenges to you if you have a conviction,” he says. “So they kind of paint you into a corner—they tell you they want you to be militant and do all this time, and you come out and there’s limitations on the things that you can do.” Gibbs’s record can affect his ability to obtain public housing—even private housing if the landlord runs a background check. “The irony is, I still have to provide for myself,” he says. “So if I can’t have access to all these things, what am I supposed to do?”

Although he’s been doing well since his release, Gibbs worries about other people in the same position. “The uniqueness about me is that I kind of defied the odds and all that. Which is cool—it’s a great story,” he says. “But that shouldn’t have to be the case, because not everyone is going to think like me and navigate these obstacles.” Stories about those who have defied the odds, he thinks, leave out the vast majority of people who continue to be marginalized. “You’re talking about the lion’s share of the population that experiences this,” he adds. “This is what the day-to-day adversity is.”

The equalizing potential of education relies on the premise that it can open doors for every child who has access to it. But where does that leave the children whose lives consist not of open doors, but of locked ones?

News Sun, 03 May 2015 00:00:00 -0400
Want to Help Nepal Recover From the Quake? Cancel Its Debt

School children in Nepal's Matatirtha village practice an earthquake drill in the event of a natural disaster. A 7.8-magnitude earthquake in Nepal on Apr. 25, 2015, has endangered the lives of close to a million children. (Photo: Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade/CC-BY-2.0)School children in Nepal's Matatirtha village practice an earthquake drill in the event of a natural disaster. A 7.8-magnitude earthquake in Nepal on Apr. 25, 2015, has endangered the lives of close to a million children. (Photo: Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade / CC-BY-2.0)

The death toll has now passed 7,000, and there is no telling how much farther it will climb. Search and rescue operations in Nepal continued as the government and international aid agencies scramble to cope with the aftermath of a 7.8-magnitude earthquake that struck this South Asian nation on Apr. 25.

Severe aftershocks have this land-locked country of 27.8 million people on edge, with scores missing and countless others feared dead, buried under the rubble.

With its epicenter in Lamjung District, located northwest of the capital, Kathmandu, and south of the China border, the massive quake rippled out over the entire country, causing several avalanches in the Himalayas including one that killed over 15 people and injured dozens more at the base camp of Mt. Everest, 200 km away.

The United Nations says Dhading, Gorkha, Rasuwa, Sindhupalchowk, Kavre, Nuwakot, Dolakha, Kathmandu, Lalitpur, Bhaktapur and Ramechhap are the worst affected areas. In total, 35 out of 75 districts in the Western and Central regions of the country are suffering the impacts of the quake and its severe aftershocks.

Questions abound as to how this impoverished nation, ranked 145 out of 187 on the United Nations Human Development Index (HDI) – making it one of the world’s Least Developed Countries (LDCs) – will recover from the disaster, considered the worst in Nepal in over 80 years.

One possible solution has come from the Jubilee USA Network, an alliance of over 75 U.S.-based organisations and 400 faith communities worldwide, which said in a press release that Nepal could qualify for debt relief under the International Monetary Fund’s (IMF) new Catastrophe Containment and Relief Trust (CCR).

The IMF created the CCR this past February in order to assist poor countries recover from severe natural disasters or health crises by providing grants for debt service relief. Already, the fund has eased some of the financial woes of Ebola-impacted countries by agreeing to cancel nearly 100 million dollars of debt.

Quoting World Bank figures, Jubilee USA said in a statement, “Nepal owes 3.8 billion dollars in debt to foreign lenders and spent 217 million dollars repaying debt in 2013.”

Nepal owes some 1.5 billion dollars each to the World Bank and the Asian Development Bank, as well as 54 million dollars to the IMF, 133 million dollars to Japan and 101 million dollars to China.

“In order for Nepal to receive relief from the IMF’s fund, the disaster must destroy more than 25 percent of the country’s ‘productive capacity’, impact one-third of its people or cause damage greater than the size of the country’s economy,” Eric LeCompte, Jubilee USA Network’s executive director, told IPS. “It seems clear that Nepal will qualify for immediate assistance from the IMF.”

According to Jubilee USA Network, Nepal is scheduled to pay back 10 million dollars worth of loans to the IMF in 2015 and nearly 13 million dollars in 2016. Relieving the country of this burden will free up valuable and limited funds that can be redirected into the rescue and relief effort.

Strong emergency response – but is it enough?

“Time is of the essence for the search and rescue operations,” Under-Secretary-General of Humanitarian Affairs and Emergency Relief Coordinator Valerie Amos said Monday.

“The actions of the Government of Nepal and local communities themselves have already saved many lives. Teams from India, Pakistan, China and Israel have started work, and more are on their way from the U.S., the UK, Singapore, the United Arab Emirates, the European Union and elsewhere.”

The United States’ department of defense confirmed it had dispatched an aircraft to Nepal carrying 70 personnel and 700,000 dollars worth of supplies.

But it is unclear whether or not the immediate response will prove equal to the mammoth task ahead.

The U.N. Children’s Fund (UNICEF) estimates that 940,000 children from areas severely affected by the quake are in desperate need of humanitarian aid.

The World Food Programme (WFP) has been supplying emergency food rations, while the World Health Organisation has sent in enough medical supplies to meet the needs of 40,000 affected people, yet experts say much more will be needed in the weeks and months ahead.

Tens of thousands of people are sleeping in the open air in makeshift tents; almost all are in need of better accommodation, clean water, sanitation, tents and blankets, and improved medical supplies.

A situation report released over the weekend by the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) revealed, “In Kathmandu Valley, hospitals are overcrowded, running out of space for storing dead bodies and lack medical supplies and capacity. BIR hospital [one of the country’s leading medical facilities] is treating people in the streets.”

Scenes of devastation all around the country highlight the need for emergency relief, but do not do justice to the massive reconstruction effort that will be needed in the months and years to come.

“Nepal’s rebuilding efforts will take years and debt cancellation is a recipe for long-term financial stability,” LeCompte stressed.

“Since the IMF has clear rules in place and the financing available with their trust, aid [to Nepal] should come relatively quickly,” he added. “Unfortunately, with the bulk of the debt owed to the World Bank and Asian Development Bank, the rules for debt relief are less clear.

“It’s unfortunate that the World Bank, as a development institution, still has not yet released a plan similar to the IMF to respond rapidly to humanitarian crises. In the short term, the World Bank must offer a plan for grants and debt relief. I hope this crisis also motivates the World Bank to release their plans for a rapid response mechanism,” LeCompte concluded.

Edited by Kitty Stapp

News Sun, 03 May 2015 00:00:00 -0400
Cut Pesticide Use to Boost Yields? It's Worked for Millions of Farmers in Asia and Africa

Training Pakistani cotton farmers in pest management.Training Pakistani cotton farmers in pest management. (Photo: IPRI)

Pesticides are intended to be harmful. They kill pests, diseases and weeds. But some also harm humans and wildlife. Pesticides are a huge global business, worth around US$45 billion. Each year, 3.5 billion kilogrammes of pesticides are applied to food crops and their use is growing. Much use of this use is at best ineffective and at worst outright harmful.

In recent research we showed that farmers in Asia and Africa have been able to cut the use of pesticides while boosting crop yields, reducing costs and delivering healthier profits. Even the landscape surrounding the farms benefits. Each kilogramme of pesticide used in agriculture imposes €3-15 (US$4-19) of external economic costs on the environment, wildlife and human health – money spent by water companies to remove them from drinking water, for instance, or the loss of valuable pollinating insects.

Any reduction in use, therefore, saves farmers costs, but also benefits the wider economy too. Cutting out pesticides can be a no-brainer.

A different way of doing things

All pests have some natural predators and parasites and for farmers these are often free. Farmers can build their use into farm management and minimise or even replace synthetic pesticides. This is known as integrated pest management (IPM), an approach focused on manipulating the crop ecosystem rather than simply wiping pests out.

Through these farming strategies crop yields can be increased while reducing pesticide application and costs. Farmers get more and the environment wins too. Other research is increasingly showing that sustainable approaches in agriculture can both increase yields and improve the environment – whether the focus is management of soils, water, trees or livestock.

In our research, we analysed 85 IPM projects from 24 countries in Asia and Africa that were implemented over the past 20 years. We wanted to assess their productivity and reliance on pesticides.

Across all the projects we found yields were up by an average of 41% over periods of 1-5 years after project implementation, while pesticide use went down by 69%. This goes against the conventional assumption which states that pesticide use and yields are positively correlated – as one goes up, so does the other. Our results show otherwise. Most cases we assessed fell firmly into the top-left section of the below graph where pesticide use falls and yields increase.

Cutting pesticides appears to work. (Chart: Pretty & Bharucha, Author provided)Cutting pesticides appears to work. (Chart: Pretty & Bharucha, Author provided)

The most significant innovation has been the deployment of farmer field schools (FFS) to spread IPM. These outdoor schools, which are run on principles of ecological education and learning through experience, don’t just teach farmers about new technology. They also boost ecological knowledge, problem-solving skills and teach farmers how to use their political strength.

FFSs have been set up in 90 countries and there are huge numbers of graduates: 650,000 in Bangladesh, 930,000 in Vietnam and 1.5m in Indonesia. Some 20,000 FFS graduates worldwide are now running schools for other farmers, having graduated from farmer to expert trainer.

IPM in practice

Across the 24 countries and 85 projects we assessed, various different methods were employed to achieve these results. In the irrigated rice fields of Vietnam’s Mekong Delta, predatory beetles are excellent pest-controllers, but are killed when sprayed. Research showed insecticide applications in the first 40 days of rice planting were counter-productive. Two million farmers therefore adopted a “no early spray” rule, which saved money and reduced pesticide use by more than half.

The melon fly is one of Bangladesh’s biggest pests. Rather than just spray the watermelon fields, simple pheromone traps were created using a male-scented lure in a recycled plastic jar or bottle with a small amount of insecticide. The results were spectacular: yields have risen 40-130% within 2 years, while insecticide use fell from 15 sprays per season to zero, meaning a healthy boost in profits.

Clever behavioural manipulation can also make some cropped areas unattractive to pests. In Kenya, the push-pull system design – vutu sukumu – means farmers mix maize with legumes and plant grass varieties on field borders. The maize pests are pushed away by natural chemicals released by the legumes, while their predators are pulled in by the natural chemicals produced by the grass borders. As it happens, the mix also suppresses the invasive and parasitic Striga, better known as witchweed.

Too complicated?

Despite the evidence, many still believe IPM to be too complex for farmers to understand – and explicit national policy support has been relatively rare. In the past 20 years, the only countries that have seen significant falls in pesticide use are the UK (down 44%), France (down 38%), Japan (down 32%), and Vietnam (down 24%).

Some pesticide manufacturers have even appropriated the FFS model to promote greater use of their products. There are good reasons for such push-back: in some countries local markets for pesticides have collapsed, such as in East Java in Indonesia.

IPM has remarkable potential but the job is never done, so investment in research and development must continue in the long term. Ecological and economic conditions change; climates change too. Pests, diseases and weeds evolve, new pests and diseases emerge (often because of pesticide overuse) and pests and diseases are easily transported or are carried to new locations, often where natural enemies do not exist.

The banana leaf roller is a very hungry caterpillar.The banana leaf roller is a very hungry caterpillar. (Photo: Scot Nelson/Flickr)In just the past few years we have seen the emergence of the banana leaf roller in India and Nepal, the invasive cassava mealybug in south-east Asia, cucumber mosaic virus in Bangladesh, tomato yellow leaf curl virus in West Africa and cassava mosaic virus and brown streak virus in Uganda. Each requires rapid and co-ordinated action. But working with nature’s services – rather than against them – offers new routes to success.

We have shown that millions of small farmers across Asia and Africa using IPM packages can deliver substantial reductions in pesticide use coupled with increased yields. Reduced reliance on synthetic pesticides delivers a range of on and off-farm benefits, including savings, improved public health and improved natural capital on and around farms. Yet, IPM, like other forms of sustainable intensification of agriculture, is much more than just a set of technologies. It is knowledge-intensive, builds social capital and so contributes to society too.

The Conversation

News Sun, 03 May 2015 00:00:00 -0400
Fighting for Our Oceans

In an era of seemingly unlimited threats to the environment, ocean health is one of the most urgent and severe challenges facing activists today. The oceans are under fire from almost uncountable ills, including rampant overfishing, ocean acidification, plastics pollution, oil spills and ocean dumping. Although the challenges are humbling, there are some activists who have faced them head-on, and with astounding success.

Ocean biodiversity(Image: Ocean biodiversity via Shutterstock)

In an era of seemingly unlimited threats to the environment, ocean health is one of the most urgent and severe challenges facing activists today. The oceans are under fire from almost uncountable ills, including rampant overfishing, ocean acidification, plastics pollution, oil spills, and ocean dumping, to name a few. But although the challenges are humbling, there are some activists who have faced them head-on, and with astounding success.

Jean Wiener and Howard Wood may live 4,000 miles apart, but their lives have taken many similar turns. Both grew up surrounded by water, and have a deep love of the ocean, expressed through years of snorkeling in Haiti’s tropical waters in Wiener’s case, and through chilly dives off the Scottish coast in Wood’s. Over time, both witnessed dire changes in their local coastal zones, and both responded by working tirelessly for marine protection. Through decades of persistence, both men built community support for improved marine management and helped shape stronger national ocean policies. And on Monday, both were among this year’s recipients of the prestigious Goldman Environmental Prize.

Growing up in Haiti, Wiener’s family spent every weekend at the beach, and he remembers being drawn to the water from the time he could walk. After attending college in the United States — where he fittingly chose to major in marine biology — Wiener returned to a changed Haiti, finding that the Caribbean waters had deteriorated while he was gone. In particular, mangrove forests were being decimated for use as fuel and coastal zones were being severely overfished.

Eighty percent of the population in Haiti lives in poverty. Local communities that use – and often deplete – natural resources are merely trying to get by. Recognizing this crucial link, and realizing that there were no other organizations addressing natural resource protection issues in Haiti, in 1992 Wiener established the Foundation for the Protection of Marine Biodiversity (FoProBiM), which combines coastal protection campaigns with economic empowerment.

Through FoProBiM, Wiener has worked with local communities to develop educational programs as well as conservation projects that provide a source of income for local residents. As Wiener put it, if you ask people to stop fishing or to stop cutting down the mangroves, “you are basically asking the person to stop making a living, but you need to provide an alternative.”

So Wiener has worked tirelessly to “revalue” the resources for communities. One example of this revaluation is the use of mangrove trees for beekeeping businesses. “Not only will [people] hopefully defend the mangroves against people who want to cut them down because they are making honey out of it, but in doing that they will also let the mangroves do their job to protect the coast, to protect them from storm surges and waves, to sequester carbon, and everything that mangroves do,” Wiener, 50, explained in a recent interview.

FoProBiM has also initiated mangrove reforestation efforts, coral reef restoration programs, and fruit tree nursery projects. By the end of this year, Wiener hopes to begin seaweed production and sustainable shellfish production programs, “things that can help the environment while providing a decent livelihood.”

The work has not been easy. Wiener admits that he has received threats from time to time, but emphasizes that once “the coastal communities understand that we’re not there to stop them from doing anything, we are there really to help them manage their resources better so that they can make a better living, they tend to come around.” He has also contended with an instable central government, including the 2004 coup d’état in Haiti. Without government support, FoProBiM faces ongoing difficulty in enforcing existing marine management laws (let alone updating them).

Across the Atlantic, Howard Wood noticed similar marine overuse in the waters surrounding the Isle of Arran, the island he calls home and the largest in Scotland’s Firth of Clyde. When Wood was young, the Firth of Clyde was known for its abundance of fish, protected by a 100 year-old ban on destructive fishing practices like dredging and trawling. In 1984, the Scottish government overturned the ban, and Wood noticed “significant declines” in marine populations within four to five years due to large-scale commercial fishing operations. Finding inspiration in New Zealand’s No Take Zone (NTZ) model, Wood decided to take on commercial fishing interests and the Scottish government and to set up a similar zone in the Firth of Clyde that would be completely off limits to fishing.

Although the root cause of overuse in the Firth of Clyde was different than that in Haiti, like Wiener, Wood found that community involvement and support were essential to success. So he and long-term friend Done MacNeish decided to found the Community of Arran Seabed Trust (COAST). “By 1995, we had realized that a couple of guys were probably not going to get very far,” Wood, 60, said. “It wasn’t likely to happen unless we really had the community behind us.” 

Believing that what is out of sight is often out of mind, Wood began taking underwater photos to show community members what was “going on under the water, all the amazing life there is, but also some of the destruction that was going on.” He also made a special effort to reach out to local fisherman in designing the NTZ. “We invited them all to a pub,” Wood said. “And we just said, ‘We would like to do a trial closed NTZ. Where would you think would be a good place? Would you support this? Where wouldn’t it affect you too badly?’ And … they all kind of came to one area.”

In 2008, after more than a decade of lobbying the Scottish parliament, that same area — in Lamlash Bay off of Arran’s southeastern coast — became Scotland’s first NTZ. So far, the NTZ has been a success, and sea life, including scallops and lobster, is rebounding.

In 2009, Wood enjoyed a second big victory: In a meeting with COAST, the Scottish government finally conceded that “the seas of Scotland are a public resource” and should be managed for more than just big commercial fishing interests.

Building on their successes in Haiti and Scotland, Wood and Wiener both set their sites on establishing Marine Protected Areas (MPA) around their islands. Once again, both men prevailed. In 2014, the Scottish government established 30 new MPAs, including one proposed by COAST, which buffers Arran’s NTZ and is Scotland’s first community-proposed MPA. And in 2013, after 13 years of work by Wiener that included drafting a legal framework for MPAs in Haiti, the Haitian government established two MPAs protecting roughly 10 percent of the country’s territorial waters.

The work doesn’t stop there for either Wiener or Wood, as on-the-ground management and enforcement continue to pose challenges. Wood notes that scallop dredging is permitted in 70 percent of the Arran MPA, completely undermining its value. Yesterday, COAST launched a new campaign targeting this policy. And Wiener will continue work to development management plans for Haiti’s MPAs.

Recognizing the power of local, community-based activism, every year the Goldman Environmental Prize honors six grassroots environmentalists like Wood and Wiener for their perseverance in environmental advocacy. Now in its twenty-sixth year, the Goldman awardees receive financial support for their work, as well as global recognition of their efforts. For Wood, “winning the Goldman Prize couldn’t have come at a better time,” as it has increased publicity of COAST’s new campaign.

For Wiener, the award will provide much appreciated financial help, and perhaps a break from fundraising. “The Goldman prize here will certainly go a long way towards letting us take a much needed, deep breath … [and] to get our toes back in the water.”

Here’s to hoping that both men have a chance to don their snorkel masks and diving gear and enjoy some well-deserved time in the oceans they have helped rejuvenate.

News Sun, 03 May 2015 00:00:00 -0400
Plant Flares Could Pump Out More Pollution Than Previously Thought

A new method of estimating air pollution from flares at refineries and chemical plants, released under court order by the US Environmental Protection Agency this week, could mean that earlier tallies substantially undercounted the tons of chemicals pumped into communities.

Flares are used to burn off gas, a process that releases some volatile organic compounds - VOCs, which can harm health and contribute to lung-damaging smog. The Environmental Integrity Project, an environmental law group that sued to press the EPA to reconsider its emissions figures, said the new calculations suggest that factory flares likely belch four times more VOCs than previously thought.

The EPA did not release an analysis of how the new guideline changes the pollution picture. Officials there cautioned that previous national tallies included numbers from firms that used their own estimation methods, not just those that used the EPA calculation. But the new guideline is about four times higher than the old one, the agency confirmed - and because the old method also counted some non-VOC substances, the real gap is even larger.

Environmental advocates say they hope the change will yield information that more accurately reflects what's going into the air. Many companies estimate their emissions rather than measuring them directly, the Environmental Integrity Project said.

The group said it calculated that the annual health costs imposed by refinery flare emissions alone likely tops $120 million in medical bills and other expenses - most of which comes from additional pollutants that had not been previously accounted for.

"By recognizing that there are much higher emissions and health impacts from flares, I think there will be much more priority put to finding ways to reduce these emissions," said Sparsh Khandeshi, an attorney with the Environmental Integrity Project.

The group's lawsuit - on behalf of several Texas and Louisiana organizations - prompted a court-ordered deadline of April 20 for the EPA to reconsider its decades-old emission guidelines. The updated figures, issued late that evening, suggest that flares from US refineries alone are likely sending about 50,000 tons of VOCs into the air each year, rather than the approximately 13,000 tons the EPA calculated last year, the Environmental Integrity Project said in an analysis released Tuesday.

The American Chemistry Council, which represents the chemical industry, declined to comment on the new guidelines or their implications. The American Fuel & Petrochemical Manufacturers, another trade group, did not respond to requests for comment.

Advocacy groups involved in the lawsuit over the calculations hope the end result will be reduced emissions. Companies could recycle more gas, putting it to use instead of flaring it, they say.

"Members of industry have a saying: 'What gets measured gets improved,'" Adrian Shelley, executive director of Air Alliance Houston, said in a statement. "Only by accurately measuring emissions can we reduce pollution and protect public health."

The Center for Public Integrity in recent years has extensively investigated air pollution, finding hot spots across the country and smog in unexpected places.

Flares aren't limited to chemical plants and refineries. They're also used at oil and gas drilling sites across the country. But the EPA said in a statement that its new guidelines shouldn't be applied to production sites because those flares can differ from ones used by manufacturing plants - and because emission-control requirements are looser for some production sites than for refining and chemical manufacturing facilities.

Juan Parras, director of the Texas Environmental Justice Advocacy Services, one of the nonprofit organizations included in the EPA lawsuit, said the ideal would be zero emissions - for companies to capture all their waste.

Until that's possible, he wants to see reductions. The health of people living in nearby communities depends on it, Parras said.

"We have never said that to change a process or a system of operation is not costly - certainly, it's costly," he said in an interview. "But we also believe they make enough profits and enough money to fix up what they're building, and they can build it a better way." 

News Fri, 01 May 2015 11:43:31 -0400
Rwanda: How to Deal With a Million Genocide Suspects

Twenty-one years ago - on April 7, 1994 - the genocide that would kill up to one million people in Rwanda began. Another million individuals would be implicated as perpetrators, leaving Rwandans and many others to ask: how does a country begin to bring so many suspects to justice?

In 2002, the Rwandan government created the gacaca - or "grass" in the country's official language of Kinyarwanda - court system to tackle this enormous problem. Based on a traditional form of community dispute resolution, the gacaca courts functioned for ten years - until 2012.

Despite receiving much international attention at their outset, little is known about what the courts actually accomplished. This is surprising. For the past three years, I have been analyzing court data and conducting research in Rwanda to better understand this unique legal system whose punishments for the "genocidaires" (or those involved in the genocide) would likely be seen as light in many other countries.

Creating the Courts

In the aftermath of the genocide, Rwanda's basic infrastructure and legal institutions were in shambles.

Trust in public institutions was low. This was hardly surprising, as government institutions had been involved in the planning and execution of the genocide.

The United Nations was quick to create the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda (ICTR) in 1994 to "prosecute persons responsible for genocide and other serious violations of international humanitarian law committed in the territory of Rwanda and neighbouring States, between 1 January 1994 and 31 December 1994."

But, the ICTR could only handle a fraction of the perpetrators (to date 93 people have been indicted by the ICTR), leaving Rwanda's legal system overwhelmed by the vast number of citizens suspected of committing genocidal crimes.

Time was of the essence. Rwanda's prisons were well over their capacity. It was clear that it would take decades to try all of the cases.

It was in these circumstances that Rwanda's new political elite launched the gacaca courts as an ambitious transitional justice project to address crimes of genocide.

In 2002, the pilot phase of the project began. Following tradition, community members elected panels of judges to preside over trials within their communities. All adult Rwandans were expected to participate. Unlike the traditional gacaca courts, however, there was strong involvement from the state.

A 30,000 Foot View

After the pilot phase, the gacaca courts began operating in communities throughout Rwanda. Weekly trials were held in public meeting spaces - typically open fields, local stadiums, or empty market places. Ordinary Rwandans participated as judges, witnesses or spectators.

In total, an estimated one million people were tried within the gacaca courts. Each defendant could face multiple trials for 1) planning, inciting, or supervising the genocide; 2) killing or committing other acts of physical violence; or 3) committing crimes against property, such as looting or theft.

When the courts closed in June 2012, nearly two million trials had taken place. The majority of trials (86%) ended in a guilty verdict, though appeals were also possible.

People convicted of crimes against property were typically ordered to pay the victim (or their family) restitution for the damage. Others reached a court-approved settlement with the victims of their crimes. This often involved work for victims and communities, such as building houses and schools.

Those convicted of more serious crimes faced prison terms ranging from a few months to life - the harshest penalty since the death penalty was abolished in 1998.

The average prison sentence was 19 years, though there were also various mechanisms to reduce sentences, due in large part to prison overcrowding.

For example, almost one-third of those given prison sentences were allowed to spend half of their sentence performing community service, such as constructing roads, building schools and homes, and planting gardens - sentences that likely sound very light for convicted genocidaires. A few even received amnesty if they confessed their crimes, a move which some suggest was linked to issues of prison overcrowding.

Gacaca Today

As Rwandans reflected on the gacaca courts in interviews with me, many expressed positive views of how the courts operated. Others pointed to shortcomings, suggesting that the courts are an example of victors' justice and lamenting that many judges who were initially elected were later accused of participating in the violence themselves.

By Western legal standards, the gacaca courts had serious limitations. The defendants did not have legal representation and standards of evidence were questionable. People were also given lighter sentences if they confessed, which placed a premium on confessions and may have even encouraged false ones.

Overall, the courts endeavored to strike a balance between formal and informal, community-based and state-driven, traditional and contemporary, and punitive and restorative.

As such, the system occupied a unique place not often encountered by traditional legal systems. Indeed, responses to mass atrocity have often been top-down, and hybrid community-based models are relatively new territory.

Gacaca's complexity and uniqueness inevitably had shortcomings. That said, the system's ability to prosecute a massive number of suspected perpetrators in a devastated post-genocide environment is an accomplishment in itself. In fact, other countries could perhaps learn from the goal of integrating punitive responses (like prison sentences) with more restorative ones (like community service).

The Conversation

News Fri, 01 May 2015 11:34:06 -0400