Truthout Stories Tue, 13 Oct 2015 12:44:13 -0400 en-gb Outsourcing a Refugee Crisis: US Paid Mexico Millions to Target Central Americans Fleeing Violence

As immigration has become a key issue on the campaign trail, we look at a startling new report that finds "the United States has outsourced a refugee problem to Mexico that is similar to the refugee crisis now roiling Europe." In her New York Times opinion piece, "The Refugees at Our Door," Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Sonia Nazario describes how the Obama administration is paying the Mexican government to keep people from reaching the U.S. border - people who often have legitimate asylum claims. We speak to Nazario about the harrowing stories she heard from Central American refugees in shelters in southern Mexico.

Please check back later for full transcript.

News Tue, 13 Oct 2015 00:00:00 -0400
The Democratic Debate: A Brief Field Guide

Will a policy discussion break out in the Democratic presidential debate tonight? Not if CNN's moderators can help it. Already the pundits are dreading an exchange focused on ideas rather than insults. No Donald Trump to bait and goad. No Carly Fiorina to provoke. CNN, which has turned itself into Trump 24/7 in search of ratings, has to be fretting about the falloff in viewers.

So, no doubt, the moderators will troll for trash. Sanders will be challenged about whether a "socialist" can win. He'll be cross-examined about his polemic excesses from five decades ago, as if this were a measure of character. The ersatz scandals burdening Hillary - the email server, Benghazi, the family fortune - will be reheated. We'll get horse race questions about why anyone thinks Hillary can be beaten.

Here's the reality behind the debate. Democrats are now an unabashed party of liberal social reform. The New Democrats - and their tacking to conservative tides - are no more. Democrats are no longer worried about wedge social issues. Instead they see social issues — from gay marriage to immigration reform to abortion and women's rights - as glue for their coalition. Hillary Clinton is free to unleash her presumed liberalism, divorcing herself from her husband's policies on gay marriage, mass incarceration, and eventually welfare repeal.

The Democratic candidates are also united around a populist lite economic agenda. Clinton, Sanders and O'Malley - the leading candidates - all support raising the minimum wage, guaranteeing paid family leave and sick days, and empowering workers to organize and bargain collectively. All support universal preschool and making college more affordable. All support action on climate change. All favor investing in rebuilding our decrepit infrastructure (although with massive differences in scale). All would curb the role of big money in out politics and champion voting rights reforms. The fight with Republicans is clearly marked.

But the leading Democratic candidates have major differences on the fundamental structure of our political economy. And money - big money in politics - is at the center of those differences. What should be done with Wall Street, and a financial sector that is dangerous to our economic health? How does the U.S. stop running ruinous trade deficits and make things in America once more? What is the scale of public investment needed to rebuild America - and who pays for it? How to we address the looming retirement crisis, curb prices in the most costly health care system in the world, provide jobs for and revive our urban wastelands? Should we continue to police the world? How do we end ruinous interventions that are draining our resources, costing lives, and undermining our security? What is a real response to climate change? And of course, how do we curb big money in politics if every winning candidate benefits from it?

So after the dreck, here are four questions that, if posed, might clarify some of the choices ahead of us.

1. The Economy: George Bush cut taxes, deregulated, ran up deficits and we suffered a recovery in which the typical household lost ground and inequality soared. Barak Obama raised taxes, regulated Wall Street and cut deficits, and we're suffering a recovery in which the typical household is losing ground and inequality is soaring. What three major things would you do differently than Bush and Obama to get this economy to work for the vast majority, and not just for the few?

2. Security: America and its allies spend more on their militaries than all the other countries in the world combined. We have over 750 bases across the world. Our fleets patrol the seven seas. We are involved in wars in Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, with drones attacking in seven countries or more. Is this necessary for our security? Or should we be cutting back on our military spending and intervention, and focus on rebuilding America here at home?

3. Breaking Gridlock: President Obama has advocated many of the economic reforms that you support, such as raising the minimum wage, raising taxes on the rich, increasing spending on infrastructure and universal preschool. All of his reforms are dead on arrival at this dysfunctional Republican-dominated Congress. What would you do differently that would give your proposals some chance of surviving?

4. The Safety Net: America's safety net is threadbare. Aid to mothers with dependent children was slashed in "welfare reform." Child care is unaffordable. Private pensions are rare, and our Social Security benefits are among the lowest of the industrial world. College, virtually free for the boomer generation, now buries millennials under unpayable debts. All this suggests we need not a bit more public spending, but a massive increase in public investment. Do you support that? If not, how do you address our public squalor? If so, how would you pay for it? Can we afford it?

What the mainstream media and CNN moderators have difficulty absorbing is that the center is unrealistic. Moderate policies - from Republicans or Democrats - won't succeed in addressing the challenges we face. Fundamental reforms - the very reforms the mainstream media considers off the wall, like single-payer health care or breaking up the big banks - are necessary. Moderate reforms have little chance of breaking through Washington's gridlock.

Politics has usual must change if anything is to be done. And that requires a powerful political movement - a political revolution if you will - that can take on big money, scour Washington's corrupt stables, and drive structural reforms. Tonight's debate isn't likely to acknowledge this reality, but it would be wise not to scorn it.

Opinion Tue, 13 Oct 2015 00:00:00 -0400
TPP Is "Worst Trade Agreement" for Medicine Access, Says Doctors Without Borders

"The TPP [Trans-Pacific Partnership] will…go down in history as the worst trade agreement for access to medicines in developing countries," said Doctors without Borders/Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) in a statement following the signing of the TPP trade deal.

The controversial agreement is the largest trade deal in a generation, bringing together 12 countries around the world including the United States to govern 40 percent of the world's economy.

Negotiations on the TPP deal, initiated in 2008, finally came to a conclusion on Oct. 5 in the southern US city of Atlanta. It includes a range of economic policies including lowered tariffs as well as standards for labor law, environmental regulation, and international investments.

"This partnership levels the playing field for our farmers, ranchers, and manufacturers by eliminating more than 18,000 taxes that various countries put on our products," said US President Barack Obama in a statement following the end of negotiations. He also noted that the deal has the "strongest" commitments on labor and the environment of any trade agreement in history.

Though the deal has yet to be formally adopted by the signatories' legislative bodies, it has already received criticism from numerous civil society members, including MSF, whose main concern arises from the deal's provisions on data protection for biologic drugs.

Biologic drugs include any therapy from a biological source including vaccines, anti-toxins and monoclonal antibodies for diseases including cancer and HIV/AIDS.

According to the Brookings Institution, a US-based think tank, biologics are larger and structurally more complex than other drugs, making them more difficult and costly to develop. On average, biologics cost 22 times more than nonbiologics.

Due to these high costs, companies utilize data from the original drug creator to develop "biosimilars," cheaper, generic versions of biologics. MSF has stated that this competition is the "best way to reduce drug prices and improve access to treatment."

For instance, MSF treats almost 300,000 people with HIV/AIDS in 21 countries with generic drugs. These drugs have reduced the organization's cost of treatment from US$10,000 per patient per year to US$140 per patient per year.

However, in the US, biologics creators have 12 years of data exclusivity. During this period, the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) cannot approve a biosimilar that utilizes original biologic data.

Data protection rules vary in other countries, while Peru, Chile and Mexico do not have any biologics data rules at all.

As part of the TPP negotiations, the U.S. sought to include the 12-year protection rule. Trade ministers went back and forth on the rule, finally settling on a mandatory minimum of five to eight years of data protection.

As a result, biosimilars will not be able to enter the market in countries that previously had no restrictions. According to MSF, this will lead to high, sustained drug prices by pharmaceutical companies, preventing individuals and health providers from acquiring affordable and essential medicines.

MSF predicts that at least half a billion people will be unable to access medicines once the TPP takes effect.

"The big losers in the TPP are patients and treatment providers in developing countries," MSF said in its statement.

The organization urged governments and its legislatures to consider the consequences.

"The negative impact of the TPP on public health will be enormous, be felt for years to come, and will not be limited to the current 12 TPP countries, as it is a dangerous blueprint for future agreements," MSF warned.

News Tue, 13 Oct 2015 00:00:00 -0400
No, the Kochs' Political Spending Is Not "Reported"

On October 11, the elder Koch brother gave a rare interview to CBS Sunday Morning. Reporter Anthony Mason asked, "Do you think it's good for the political system that so much what's called 'dark money' is flowing into the process now?"

Koch replied: "First of all, what I give isn't 'dark.' What I give politically, that's all reported. It's either to PACs or to candidates. And what I give to my foundations is all public information."

This is untrue, according to documents obtained by the Center for Media and Democracy last year.

In addition to the hundreds of millions flowing into politics by way of the Kochs' network of foundations and funding vehicles like Freedom Partners, funds from the corporate treasury of Koch Industries - the second-largest privately held company in the world - flow into politics, and Charles' brother David is known to have written millions of dollars in personal checks to political groups each year.

None of this spending is publicly disclosed.

Koch and Koch Industries Donations Offer Snapshot Into Koch Network

Donations made by the Koch family foundations - the Charles G. Koch Foundation, the David Koch Foundation, and the now-closed Claude R. Lambe Foundation - must be publicly reported.

The Koch political network has also established a complicated array of funding vehicles, like Freedom Partners and the Center to Protect Patient Rights (now known as "American Encore"), to funnel hundreds of millions to politically-active nonprofits like Americans for Prosperity and American Future Fund. Although the original donors for these funding vehicles are kept secret, by law, these groups must disclose the grants they make to other groups, providing some insight into the Koch network's political spending.

In contrast, there is no public reporting requirement for donations directly from the personal bank accounts of David and Charles Koch, who together are worth an estimated $83 billion, unless donating directly to a candidate or PAC.

And, there is no public reporting of contributions from Koch Industries itself. Koch Industries is a closely-held company, so its majority owners, David and Charles Koch, do not have to publicly disclose how they use profits from the company's $115 billion in annual revenue to fund their personal political agenda.

Yet documents obtained by CMD show that that the Kochs themselves and Koch Industries are pouring millions into politics, with zero public disclosure.

These documents do not provide a comprehensive list of private Koch donations, but instead offer a glimpse into the nearly incomprehensible breadth of the Koch political universe. That universe goes beyond the $400 million the Kochs and their operatives raised and spent through the Freedom Partners/Center to Protect Patient Rights network in 2013.

It is likely that both David Koch himself and Koch Industries have given more to the groups discussed below and to others in additional years, but those records have not been made available.

Known donations from Koch Industries include:

In press releases, Koch Industries has tried to draw a line between its corporate interests and its owners' political interests. It states on the KochFacts website, for example, that "AFP and AFP Foundation operate independently of Koch Industries." Yet, it is now known that Koch Industries itself was pouring as much as $1 million each year into AFP during the early 2000s, the only years that such records are available, in addition to contributions from the Koch family foundations and David Koch himself. It is not known how much Koch Industries or the Kochs may have provided to AFP in more recent years, as the group has played an increasing role in elections and its budget has grown exponentially.

In some cases, donations from Koch Industries exceeded donations from the Koch family foundations. For example, in 2010, the Texas Public Policy Foundation - the State Policy Network affiliate in Texas that once counted Ted Cruz as a fellow - received $159,834 from Koch Industries, nearly double the $69,788.61 that the Kochs' Claude R. Lambe Foundation disclosed as giving to the group.

Known donations from David Koch himself include:

All of these contributions are in addition to millions of dollars of donations, cumulatively, from the Koch family foundations.

Opinion Tue, 13 Oct 2015 00:00:00 -0400
On the News With Thom Hartmann: 25 Percent of the World's Energy Will Be Generated by Renewables by 2020, and More

In today's On the News segment: According to a new report from the International Energy Agency, within five years, one quarter of all the world's energy will be generated by renewable sources; the Union of Concerned Scientists is worried about the political pressure that is undermining scientific research; a Scottish company has figured out how to transform waste from whiskey-making into an energy source; and more.

See more news and opinion from Thom Hartmann at Truthout here.


Thom Hartmann here - on the best of the rest of Science and Green News ...

You need to know this. Within five years, one quarter of all the world's energy will be generated by renewable sources. That's the finding of a new report from the International Energy Agency, and it's being hailed as "a remarkable shift in a very limited period of time." In 2014 alone, almost half of all the new power capacity came from clean energy sources like wind and solar. And, in developed nations, renewables account for nearly all of the new additions to power capacity. That fact on its own is pretty astounding. And, it's enough to prove that making the switch to all-renewable energy is actually possible, regardless of what we hear from the fossil fuel industry. According to this new report, "Even in a lower fossil fuel price environment, the policy drivers for renewable electricity - energy diversification, local pollution, and de-carbonization aims, remain robust." In other words, even where oil, gas, and coal may be cheaper, there are other factors that drive the demand for clean energy. Although Republican lawmakers often point to major polluters like China and India as a an excuse to avoid acting on climate change, it is actually those same countries that are leading the world in the expansion of renewable energy sources. While we continue to elect people who refuse to admit that global warming is real, the rest of the world is doing something to address the climate crisis. Faith Birol, Executive Director of the IEA, said, "Renewables are poised to seize the crucial top spot in global power supply growth, but this is hardly the time for complacency." She added, "Governments must remove the question marks over renewables if these technologies are to achieve their full potential, and put our energy system on a more secure, sustainable path." This report makes it very clear that going to 100 percent clean, renewable energy is possible. The only question left is whether we have the will to fight for an all-renewable future.

Modern-day medical professionals often reject ancient remedies, but that may change after they learn about one of the latest winners of the Nobel Prize. In the 1960s, Chinese researcher Youyou Tu discovered a naturally-based compound, which became vital in the treatment of malaria. Although Western doctors didn't start accepting the treatment until the 1980s, the compound has saved millions of lives in the decades since that discovery. These days, most doctors and medical staff take the treatment for granted, but they may be surprised to learn that the medicine did not come from any high-tech laboratory. During their work back in the '60s, Youyou Tu and her team collected hundreds of herbs and extracts mentioned in ancient Chinese literature. According to the Nobel Prize committee, "Tu revisited the ancient literature and discovered clues that guided her in her quest to successfully extract the active component..." Thankfully for the millions of malaria patients around the world, Youyou Tu recognized the value in the ancient texts, and she wasn't afraid to follow her theories. The value and importance of modern medicine is immeasurable, but it's great news that this story may encourage doctors to take a second look at the treatments used in an earlier time.

A few weeks ago, General Mills told Congress that they couldn't make Wheaties if global warming made it harder for them to get wheat. Now, other food producers are joining that company to demand action on climate change, so they can make their products in the future. Last week, ten of the world's biggest food companies signed on to an open letter to Congress. They said, "The challenge presented by climate change will require all of us - government, civil society, and business - to do more with less." They explained, "For companies like ours, that means producing more food on less land using fewer natural resources. If we don't take action now, we risk not only today's livelihoods, but those of future generations." And, considering these are our biggest food producers, their livelihood has a pretty direct link with our future survival. Republicans in Congress may not listen to us, but hopefully they will take heed of the food industry's warnings before it's too late.

The Union of Concerned Scientists say that they're worried about the political pressure that is undermining scientific research. According to a new report from that group, scientists in all of our governmental agencies feel that political interests get in the way of their research. One of the study's authors wrote, "Many scientists told us that scientific decisions were being swayed by politics or that political influence inhibited their ability to carry out agency missions." That means that agencies like the Food and Drug Administration and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have to balance the political ideology of their bosses and colleagues with the need to protect the public from bad food or deadly diseases. Those are jobs far too important to be impacted by political pressure. The report suggests that more training may help reduce the political influence, and more transparency could help scientists keep politics out of their findings. These functions are far too important to be swayed by ideology, and scientists shouldn't have to consider the political environment just to do their jobs.

And finally ... Leave it to the Scots to figure out how to turn whiskey into energy. That's exactly what a professor in Scotland has done, and now his firm will build a facility to produce one million liters of this new biofuel. Martin Tangney's company, appropriately called Celtic Renewables, figured out how to transform waste from whiskey-making into an energy source. So, the UK government has award him with 11 million euros to continue his research and development of the new fuel. On their website, Celtic Renewables said, "Biofuels are essential in de-carbonizing the transport sector and demand for liquid fuel will continue to soar worldwide." As only 10 percent of the plant material used in making whiskey ends up in the final product, Mr. Tangney will use the rest to make a fuel similar to ethanol. We're still a long way off from whiskey-fueled cars on the roadway, but Celtic Renewables is about to find out if this is the biofuel of the future.

And that's the way it is for the week of October 12, 2015 – I'm Thom Hartmann, on Science and Green News.

News Tue, 13 Oct 2015 00:00:00 -0400
The New Battleground for Same-Sex Couples Is Equal Rights for Their Kids

When the Supreme Court invalidated same-sex marriage bans in June, the Justices acknowledged they had the kids in mind.

In the majority opinion, Justice Kennedy cited the infringement of the interests of children being raised by same-sex couples as one reason for the Court's ruling.

Who are these kids? An estimated 220,000 children under the age of 18 are being raised in same-sex families in the United States. Half are nonwhite.

Protecting Kids' Rights

My research, scholarship and advocacy efforts have focused on children, particularly black children, for the past 10 years. In an amicus brief filed in Obergefell - the Supreme Court case that ended same-sex marriage bans - my coauthors and I highlighted the legal and economic deprivations children in these families suffer when their parents can't marry.

We cited landmark Supreme Court cases that make clear that children should not be punished, stigmatized or discriminated against by government action.

Brown v. Board of Education, a landmark civil rights case, was one of the cases we relied on because it represents a high-water mark in the Supreme Court's recognition of children's constitutional rights. The plaintiffs in that case were black children asserting their constitutional rights against discrimination by state governments mandating segregated schools.

The Supreme Court cited our amicus brief to support its conclusion that constitutional protection of same-sex marriage affords children "the permanency and stability important to children's best interests."

Despite this acknowledgment, the Supreme Court's opinion is preoccupied with the rights of adults and the expansion of the right to marry. It leaves children in same-sex families at risk.

Legal Challenges

Children born into same-sex families frequently are biologically related to only one parent, and the law recognizes only that one parent. The legal status of the child's relationship with her nonbiological parent varies from state to state.

Had the Obergefell decision been more focused on the rights of children in same-sex families, its ruling could have ensured that children's relationships with their nonbiological parents were legally recognized and protected.

However, the opinion failed to reference children's rights explicitly. As a result, as recent developments in state courts reveal, the rights of children in same-sex families remain vulnerable.

No Marital Presumption

The law referred to as the marital or paternity presumption automatically recognizes a legal parent-child relationship between children born into a marriage and their mothers' husbands - without considering biology. In most states, this law affords legally enforceable rights to both the father and the child.

A New York court recently ruled that the presumption does not apply to same-sex spouses, reasoning that the "presumption of legitimacy … is one of a biological relationship, not of legal status."

In Florida, three sets of same-sex spouses filed suit in federal court challenging the refusal of state officials to put both parents' names on their children's birth certificates.

Second-parent adoptions and parenting judgments, which are alternative ways of creating a legal parent-child relationship, could protect children's relationships with their nonbiological parents. However, even in the dozen or so states that permit adoptions by same-sex spouses, those adoptions are not always recognized in sister states.

Three months after the Obergefell decision, the Alabama Supreme Court refused to recognize a lesbian mother's adoption of her three nonbiological children granted by a Georgia court in 2007. The court reasoned that Alabama does not need to respect the adoptions because it determined the Georgia court didn't properly apply Georgia law when granting them.

Loss of Wealth

Even after the Obergefell decision, children are being deprived of important legal, economic and social benefits and protections that would result from a legal parental relationship with both of their parents.

Children in same-sex families are losing out on worker's compensation benefits, social security benefits, state health insurance, civil service benefits, inheritance and wrongful death proceeds. Denial of these benefits could deprive children of thousands - or in rare cases, even millions - of dollars.

Children can also be deprived of the benefit of parental decision-making authority when it comes to health decisions, securing a passport and registering for school.

Imagine a boy is being raised by two mothers. If his biological mother dies, his "other mother" would have no custody claim. The boy could end up in foster care.

Such laws can have a powerful and adverse financial and legal impact.

According to the Williams Institute, which the Supreme Court cited in Obergefell, same-sex families raising children are twice as likely to earn incomes near the poverty level.

Many of these children are already challenged by experiences informed by their race, ethnicity and socieoeconomic status. Depriving this demographic of important financial and legal protections renders them even more vulnerable. It also compromises the permanency and stability the majority of the Supreme Court recognized as important to children's interests.

The next round of litigation relating to same-sex families should focus on children's rights to legal parentage by both of their parents. Children should be the plaintiffs in these cases, and like the children in Brown v. Board of Education, their rights should command constitutional protection.

The Conversation

News Tue, 13 Oct 2015 00:00:00 -0400
Scientists Play Catch Up as New Chemicals Contaminate Great Lakes Birds

Stain repellent and fire retardant chemicals that scientists know little about are increasingly showing up in herring gull eggs around the Great Lakes, spurring concern for potential health impacts.

The gulls are considered a sentinel species, and the contaminants appearing in their eggs paint a picture of a shifting chemical profile in the Great Lakes, which holds about 20 percent of the world's fresh surface water. While legacy pollutants, such as mercury and polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), still persist, a growing list of esoteric pollutants is showing up in wildlife.

"With phase-outs of some past problem chemicals … we're now monitoring for and seeing new chemicals that may pose some of the same problems - being persistent, bioaccumulative and toxic," said Michael Murray, a staff scientist at the National Wildlife Federation's Great Lakes Regional Center.

Canadian and U.S. researchers studying herring gull eggs found a suite of different flame retardants and perfluorinated chemicals - mostly used as adhesives, stain repellents and lubricants - in samples collected in 2012 and 2013 across the Great Lakes basin.

The chemicals are "emerging" contaminants, so science on their effects is sparse and it's not completely clear what they might do to the health of birds. Scientists have linked some flame retardants and perfluorinated compounds to reproductive, development and behavioral problems in birds, but the research is limited and simply doesn't exist for some of the compounds measured in gull eggs in the recent studies.

The "first step is finding them [the compounds] and then finding out if we need to start being concerned," said Lisa Williams, a contaminants specialist with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service based in East Lansing, Michigan, who took part in the research.

As a "sentinel species," the herring gull's contaminant load is an indicator of the types of chemicals in other species that inhabit the same area, such as fish and bald eagles, Williams said.

For the flame retardants, which are chemicals added to products such as furniture, electronics and clothing to slow the spread of flames if they catch fire, Williams and colleagues tested hundreds of eggs and found 35 of the 53 compounds they tested for in at least one of the eggs.

There was some good news: Levels of seven polybrominated diphenyl ether (PBDE) flame retardants were about 30 percent lower than concentrations measured in eggs from colonies in 2006.

But three compounds - BDE-209, hexabromocyclododecane and dechlorane - increased significantly compared to eggs tested in Canadian colonies about six years before, suggesting that their use might be on the rise as PBDEs are phased out.

For the perfluorinated compounds they found six of the compounds they tested for in more than 97 percent of the 114 eggs sampled, including new compounds with a slightly different structure than the types commonly found in the past. The study was the first ever to report a perfluorinated compound used as an aircraft lubricant in a bird species. It had only been previously found in aquatic life.

The research on perfluorinated compounds was published in August in the journal Science of the Total Environment. The flame retardant research was published in the journal Environmental Research in September.

Such chemicals travel on air currents so the findings don't necessarily mean there are local releases to the environment. "Weather patterns bring them to cooler climates, they come out in rainfall and then often are not re-released," Williams said.

Since baby birds are exposed to contaminants present in the egg, the findings represent a "direct measure of exposure to developing bird embryos," Williams said. "It's often the most sensitive life stage."

"It's yet another piece of evidence of the failure of our chemical regulatory system," said Olga Lyandres, a research manager with Alliance for the Great Lakes, a nonprofit organization focused on restoration of the Great Lakes.

Lyandres was referring to the federal Toxic Control Substances Act, a law that regulates chemicals and the introduction of new ones. Many fault the law for not requiring robust testing of chemicals before they're widely used.

Lyandres said that some of these newer Great Lakes contaminants are on the radar of regional leaders. One of the goals of the Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement, a commitment between the U.S. and Canada to protect the Great Lakes, is to identify, prioritize and take action on problematic chemicals.

Both perfluorinated compounds and various flame retardants were on the most recent assessment as chemicals that require action. This could mean possibly dredging heavily contaminated areas, or finding industries contributing the chemical loads and stopping the release into the environment, Lyandres said.

For the time being, scientists have to continue playing catch up, Murray said.

"We're talking about thousands of chemicals potentially out there," he said. "We have clear limitations in our federal law in terms of what's required, and there are a whole lot of chemicals out there for which we have so little data."

News Tue, 13 Oct 2015 00:00:00 -0400
Fighting Racism From the USDA, Black Farmers Gain Power Through Co-ops

The Federation of Southern Cooperatives, a network of co-ops, almost all of which are composed of Black family farmers across the Deep South, is fighting back against institutional racism in the agricultural policies of the US Department of Agriculture, utilizing organizing, political advocacy and legal strategies.

Members of the Federation of Southern Cooperatives meet with USDA officials in Washington, DC, May 21.Members of the Federation of Southern Cooperatives meet with USDA officials in Washington, DC, May 21, 2015. The federation upholds a vision of local production for local consumption and seeks to defend the family land needed for that local production. (Photo: Bob Nichols / USDA)

The 2015 US Food Sovereignty Prize will be awarded on October 14 in Des Moines, Iowa. This year, one of the two winners is the Federation of Southern Cooperatives, a network of cooperatives, almost all of which are composed of Black family farmers across the Deep South. The federation upholds a vision of local production for local consumption and seeks to defend the family land needed for that local production. The second winner, the Black Fraternal Organization of Honduras, has a similar mission and values.

Institutional racism in the agricultural policies of the USDA is to blame for the loss of Black land.

Some of the Federation of Southern Cooperatives farmers continue working land that was deeded to their ancestors by the US government after they were freed from slavery. This is the case with Ben Burkett, president of the Mississippi Association of Cooperatives, which is a member of the federation. He farms the 164 acres that his great-grandfather was given by the government in 1889. Burkett still has the land title signed by President Grover Cleveland.

Composed of 35 agricultural co-ops, representing 12,000 farm families in 13 states from Texas to North Carolina - primarily Black, but also some Latino, Native American and white - the federation employs organizing, political advocacy and legal strategies to defend land. The federation also helps develop economically self-sufficient communities, assisting member co-ops to purchase supplies and find marketing outlets. Moreover, the federation offers financial and technical assistance.

The federation's work to keep land in the hands of small farmers is one of the foundations of food sovereignty, a framework of policies, principles and practices through which food systems are controlled by and serve the best interest of people instead of corporations.

Taking on the "Last Plantation"

In 1920, one in every seven farmers in the United States was Black. Together, they owned nearly 15 million acres. By 1982, however, Black farmers numbered one in 67, together owning only 3.1 million acres. (1) Racism, violence and massive migration from the rural South to the industrialized North caused a steady decline in the number of Black farmers.

Even for those who have long held onto their families' land, maintaining it today is a constant struggle. Historic patterns of racism and economic pressures in an agribusiness-driven food system have pushed many Black farmers off their land.

Burkett says he believes the co-op structure is the only way to survive as a farmer in the rural South.

Institutional racism in the agricultural policies of the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) - nicknamed "the last plantation" - is also to blame for the loss of Black land. Over the years, studies by the US Civil Rights Commission, as well as by the USDA itself, showed that the USDA actively discriminated against Black farmers. A 1964 Civil Rights Commission study showed that the agency unjustly denied Black farmers loans, disaster aid and representation on agricultural committees. (2)

In response, in 1997 and 1998, Black farmers - organized through the Federation of Southern Cooperatives and other Black organizations - filed class-action lawsuits against the USDA for unjustly denying them loans. The lawsuits were consolidated into one case, Pigford v. Glickman, which was settled in 1999.

However, due to delays in filing claims, nearly 60,000 farmers and their heirs were left out of this settlement. In November 2010, the US Congress passed the Claims Settlement Act, known as Pigford II, to compensate Black farmers who were left out of the first settlement. President Obama signed the Claims Settlement Act a month later, making $1.25 billion available for claimants in the form of cash payments and loan forgiveness. The final settlement allocated about $50,000 each to roughly 16,000 farmers nationwide.

"I never would have thought the government would actually pay anybody any money," Burkett said of the settlement. "At the beginning, I would say, 'You are never getting a dime.' But, I was wrong."

"Not as Good as We Want It to Be"

Over the years, each generation of the Burkett family bought more land, so that the original 164 acres has expanded to 296 acres. On them, under the name of B&B Farms, Burkett - with the help of his family - grows 15 different varieties of vegetables, as well as timber. Burkett says he believes the co-op structure is the only way to survive as a farmer in the rural South.

Speaking of Pigford and Pigford II, Burkett said he would have preferred that the money had been pooled and put into a trust to borrow against or to help new farmers. That would have provided future generations with some seed funding and current farmers a layer of security, he added.

In an interview, Burkett explains the rationale of the Federation of Southern Cooperatives taking a lead in the Pigford v. Glickman lawsuit:

The lawsuit was about discrimination in the county office of the USDA. I got a loan to buy my equipment, my seeds and fertilizers. I could not write any checks directly. I had to write a check and then somebody in the [USDA] office had to sign it. They were only treating black farmers like that, not white farmers. For example, if I wanted to buy $5,000 worth of soybean seed, I had to go find the seed from the Forest County co-op and get an invoice. I then had to go back up to the [USDA] office and get the check. They sign the check, I sign the check and then I have to take it back to the store. I'm just one they treated like that.

A lot of farmers, they go in and get their loan approved. This happened to me too. My loan was approved in February or March, but I didn't get the money until July 15th. That's cutting time. Planting is over. It was several things like that, that brought the suit about. A lot of black farmers went into the USDA offices and were denied. They wouldn't even give them the application for a loan. The USDA officers told them, 'You can't make any money farming, so ...' In the lawsuit, [denial of your loan] had to happen to you between '81 and '96. It was happening before then and it is happening now, after the lawsuit. That's just the price of doing business, I suppose.

They can pass a rule in Washington, D.C., [in the] USDA or Congress. Then it comes to the state of Mississippi. If the state says they don't want to do it, they don't have to do it. We have a [USDA] county committee made up of five farmers who do the hiring, the firing, and everything else. Those fellows up in Washington D.C. can talk, but they can't fire anybody. They cannot fire a soul in the state of Mississippi.

As long as it's set up that way, it won't change. I believe that in my heart. There are all kinds of laws about discrimination [that say] 'regardless of race, religion, creed or color.' Discrimination, morals, people's ideologies ... you can't make policy or legislate that away.

But, it is much better. I remember the '60's, I remember segregation and it is better now. Not as good as we want it to be, but not as bad as it was.

Because racism persists in the agricultural system, hurting the efforts of Burkett and other Black farmers, the Federation of Southern Cooperatives keeps fighting for equal justice through grassroots mobilizations, in the courts and through state and national legislation.

Burkett said, "Racism is still here in the marketplace and in credit, but we have learned to deal with it and not give up on changing the system. We struggle every day to bring about a change."



1. Public Broadcasting System, "Challenging the USDA (1980s and 1990s)," Black Farming and Land Loss: A History.

2. Public Broadcasting System, "The Civil Rights Years (1954-1968)," Black Farming and Land Loss: A History.

Opinion Tue, 13 Oct 2015 00:00:00 -0400
On Building Armies (and Watching Them Fail)

First came Fallujah, then Mosul, and later Ramadi in Iraq.  Now, there is Kunduz, a provincial capital in northern Afghanistan.  In all four places, the same story has played out: in cities that newspaper reporters like to call "strategically important," security forces trained and equipped by the U.S. military at great expense simply folded, abandoning their posts (and much of their U.S.-supplied weaponry) without even mounting serious resistance.  Called upon to fight, they fled.  In each case, the defending forces gave way before substantially outnumbered attackers, making the outcomes all the more ignominious.

Together, these setbacks have rendered a verdict on the now more-or-less nameless Global War on Terrorism (GWOT). Successive blitzkriegs by ISIS and the Taliban respectively did more than simply breach Iraqi and Afghan defenses. They also punched gaping holes in the strategy to which the United States had reverted in hopes of stemming the further erosion of its position in the Greater Middle East.

Recall that, when the United States launched its GWOT soon after 9/11, it did so pursuant to a grandiose agenda. U.S. forces were going to imprint onto others a specific and exalted set of values. During President George W. Bush's first term, this "freedom agenda" formed the foundation, or at least the rationale, for U.S. policy.

The shooting would stop, Bush vowed, only when countries like Afghanistan had ceased to harbor anti-American terrorists and countries like Iraq had ceased to encourage them. Achieving this goal meant that the inhabitants of those countries would have to change. Afghans and Iraqis, followed in due course by Syrians, Libyans, Iranians, and sundry others would embrace democracy, respect human rights, and abide by the rule of law, or else. Through the concerted application of American power, they would become different - more like us and therefore more inclined to get along with us. A bit less Mecca and Medina, a bit more "we hold these truths" and "of the people, by the people."

So Bush and others in his inner circle professed to believe.  At least some of them, probably including Bush himself, may actually have done so.

History, at least the bits and pieces to which Americans attend, seemed to endow such expectations with a modicum of plausibility. Had not such a transfer of values occurred after World War II when the defeated Axis Powers had hastily thrown in with the winning side? Had it not recurred as the Cold War was winding down, when previously committed communists succumbed to the allure of consumer goods and quarterly profit statements?

If the appropriate mix of coaching and coercion were administered, Afghans and Iraqis, too, would surely take the path once followed by good Germans and nimble Japanese, and subsequently by Czechs tired of repression and Chinese tired of want. Once liberated, grateful Afghans and Iraqis would align themselves with a conception of modernity that the United States had pioneered and now exemplified. For this transformation to occur, however, the accumulated debris of retrograde social conventions and political arrangements that had long retarded progress would have to be cleared away. This was what the invasions of Afghanistan (Operation Enduring Freedom!) and Iraq (Operation Iraqi Freedom!) were meant to accomplish in one fell swoop by a military the likes of which had (to hear Washington tell it) never been seen in history. POW!

Standing Them Up As We Stand Down

Concealed within that oft-cited "freedom" - the all-purpose justification for deploying American power - were several shades of meaning. The term, in fact, requires decoding. Yet within the upper reaches of the American national security apparatus, one definition takes precedence over all others. In Washington, freedom has become a euphemism for dominion. Spreading freedom means positioning the United States to call the shots. Seen in this context, Washington's expected victories in both Afghanistan and Iraq were meant to affirm and broaden its preeminence by incorporating large parts of the Islamic world into the American imperium. They would benefit, of course, but to an even greater extent, so would we.

Alas, liberating Afghans and Iraqis turned out to be a tad more complicated than the architects of Bush's freedom (or dominion) agenda anticipated.  Well before Barack Obama succeeded Bush in January 2009, few observers - apart from a handful of ideologues and militarists - clung to the fairy tale of U.S. military might whipping the Greater Middle East into shape.  Brutally but efficiently, war had educated the educable.  As for the uneducable, they persisted in taking their cues from Fox News and the Weekly Standard.

Yet if the strategy of transformation via invasion and "nation building" had failed, there was a fallback position that seemed to be dictated by the logic of events. Together, Bush and Obama would lower expectations as to what the United States was going to achieve, even as they imposed new demands on the U.S. military, America's go-to outfit in foreign policy, to get on with the job.

Rather than midwifing fundamental political and cultural change, the Pentagon was instead ordered to ramp up its already gargantuan efforts to create local militaries (and police forces) capable of maintaining order and national unity. President Bush provided a concise formulation of the new strategy: "As the Iraqis stand up, we will stand down." Under Obama, after his own stab at a "surge," the dictum applied to Afghanistan as well. Nation-building had flopped. Building armies and police forces able to keep a lid on things now became the prevailing definition of success.

The United States had, of course, attempted this approach once before, with unhappy results.  This was in Vietnam.  There, efforts to destroy North Vietnamese and Viet Cong forces intent on unifying their divided country had exhausted both the U.S. military and the patience of the American people. Responding to the logic of events, Presidents Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon had a tacitly agreed upon fallback position. As the prospects of American forces successfully eliminating threats to South Vietnamese security faded, the training and equipping of the South Vietnamese to defend themselves became priority number one.

Dubbed "Vietnamization," this enterprise ended in abject failure with the fall of Saigon in 1975. Yet that failure raised important questions to which members of the national security elite might have attended: Given a weak state with dubious legitimacy, how feasible is it to expect outsiders to invest indigenous forces with genuine fighting power?  How do differences in culture or history or religion affect the prospects for doing so? Can skill ever make up for a deficit of will? Can hardware replace cohesion? Above all, if tasked with giving some version of Vietnamization another go, what did U.S. forces need to do differently to ensure a different result?

At the time, with general officers and civilian officials more inclined to forget Vietnam than contemplate its implications, these questions attracted little attention. Instead, military professionals devoted themselves to gearing up for the next fight, which they resolved would be different. No more Vietnams - and therefore no more Vietnamization.

After the Gulf War of 1991, basking in the ostensible success of Operation Desert Storm, the officer corps persuaded itself that it had once and for all banished its Vietnam-induced bad memories. As Commander-in-Chief George H.W. Bush so memorably put it, "By God, we've kicked the Vietnam syndrome once and for all."

In short, the Pentagon now had war figured out. Victory had become a foregone conclusion. As it happened, this self-congratulatory evaluation left U.S. troops ill-prepared for the difficulties awaiting them after 9/11 when interventions in Afghanistan and Iraq departed from the expected script, which posited short wars by a force beyond compare ending in decisive victories. What the troops got were two very long wars with no decision whatsoever. It was Vietnam on a smaller scale all over again - times two.

Vietnamization 2.0

For Bush in Iraq and Obama after a brief, half-hearted flirtation with counterinsurgency in Afghanistan, opting for a variant of Vietnamization proved to be a no-brainer. Doing so offered the prospect of an escape from all complexities. True enough, Plan A - we export freedom and democracy - had fallen short. But Plan B - they (with our help) restore some semblance of stability - could enable Washington to salvage at least partial success in both places.  With the bar suitably lowered, a version of "Mission Accomplished" might still be within reach.

If Plan A had looked to U.S. troops to vanquish their adversaries outright, Plan B focused on prepping besieged allies to take over the fight. Winning outright was no longer the aim - given the inability of U.S. forces to do so, this was self-evidently not in the cards - but holding the enemy at bay was.

Although allied with the United States, only in the loosest sense did either Iraq or Afghanistan qualify as a nation-state. Only nominally and intermittently did governments in Baghdad and Kabul exercise a writ of authority commanding respect from the people known as Iraqis and Afghans. Yet in the Washington of George Bush and Barack Obama, a willing suspension of disbelief became the basis for policy. In distant lands where the concept of nationhood barely existed, the Pentagon set out to create a full-fledged national security apparatus capable of defending that aspiration as if it represented reality. From day one, this was a faith-based undertaking.

As with any Pentagon project undertaken on a crash basis, this one consumed resources on a gargantuan scale - $25 billion in Iraq and an even more staggering $65 billion in Afghanistan. "Standing up" the requisite forces involved the transfer of vast quantities of equipment and the creation of elaborate U.S. training missions. Iraqi and Afghan forces acquired all the paraphernalia of modern war - attack aircraft or helicopters, artillery and armored vehicles, night vision devices and drones. Needless to say, stateside defense contractors lined up in droves to cash in.

Based on their performance, the security forces on which the Pentagon has lavished years of attention remain visibly not up to the job. Meanwhile, ISIS warriors, without the benefit of expensive third-party mentoring, appear plenty willing to fight and die for their cause. Ditto Taliban fighters in Afghanistan. The beneficiaries of U.S. assistance? Not so much. Based on partial but considerable returns, Vietnamization 2.0 seems to be following an eerily familiar trajectory that should remind anyone of Vietnamization 1.0. Meanwhile, the questions that ought to have been addressed back when our South Vietnamese ally went down to defeat have returned with a vengeance.

The most important of those questions challenges the assumption that has informed U.S. policy in the Greater Middle East since the freedom agenda went south: that Washington has a particular knack for organizing, training, equipping, and motivating foreign armies. Based on the evidence piling up before our eyes, that assumption appears largely false. On this score, retired Lieutenant General Karl Eikenberry, a former military commander and U.S. ambassador in Afghanistan, has rendered an authoritative judgment. "Our track record at building [foreign] security forces over the past 15 years is miserable," he recently told the New York Times.  Just so.

Fighting the Wrong War

Some might argue that trying harder, investing more billions, sending yet more equipment for perhaps another 15 years will produce more favorable results. But this is akin to believing that, given sufficient time, the fruits of capitalism will ultimately trickle down to benefit the least among us or that the march of technology holds the key to maximizing human happiness. You can believe it if you want, but it's a mug's game.

Indeed, the United States would be better served if policymakers abandoned the pretense that the Pentagon possesses any gift whatsoever for "standing up" foreign military forces. Prudence might actually counsel that Washington assume instead, when it comes to organizing, training, equipping, and motivating foreign armies, that the United States is essentially clueless.

Exceptions may exist.  For example, U.S. efforts have probably helped boost the fighting power of the Kurdish peshmerga. Yet such exceptions are rare enough to prove the rule. Keep in mind that before American trainers and equipment ever showed up, Iraq's Kurds already possessed the essential attributes of nationhood. Unlike Afghans and Iraqis, Kurds do not require tutoring in the imperative of collective self-defense.

What are the policy implications of giving up the illusion that the Pentagon knows how to build foreign armies? The largest is this: subletting war no longer figures as a plausible alternative to waging it directly. So where U.S. interests require that fighting be done, like it or not, we're going to have to do that fighting ourselves. By extension, in circumstances where U.S. forces are demonstrably incapable of winning or where Americans balk at any further expenditure of American blood - today in the Greater Middle East both of these conditions apply - then perhaps we shouldn't be there. To pretend otherwise is to throw good money after bad or, as a famous American general once put it, to wage (even if indirectly) "the wrong war, at the wrong place, at the wrong time, and with the wrong enemy." This we have been doing now for several decades across much of the Islamic world.

In American politics, we await the officeholder or candidate willing to state the obvious and confront its implications.

Opinion Tue, 13 Oct 2015 00:00:00 -0400
Premature Birth and Problem Pregnancies Near Fracking Wells

For a problem-free pregnancy, don't live near here. Marcellus Shale rig and gas well operation on Ridge Road in Jackson Township, PA, operated by Rex Energy.According to a new study, for a problem-free pregnancy, expectant mothers should not live near fracking operations, like the pictured Marcellus Shale rig and gas well operation on Ridge Road in Jackson Township, Pennsylvania, operated by Rex Energy. (Photo: WCN 24/7 / Flickr)

Expectant mothers who live near natural gas fracking wells are 40% more likely to give birth prematurely and a 30% increased incidence of 'high-risk' pregnancies.

The finding comes in a new study by Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health published in the journal Epidemiology which examines the health of Pennsylvania residents both near to and far from gas fracking operations.

"The growth in the fracking industry has gotten way out ahead of our ability to assess what the environmental and, just as importantly, public health impacts are", says study leader Brian S. Schwartz, MD, a professor in the Department of Environmental Health Sciences at the Bloomberg School.

"More than 8,000 unconventional gas wells have been drilled in Pennsylvania alone and we're allowing this while knowing almost nothing about what it can do to health. Our research adds evidence to the very few studies that have been done in showing adverse health outcomes associated with the fracking industry."

Pennsylvania's fracking industry has been booming since 2006, when the state had fewer than 100 unconventional gas wells.  Now in 2015 there are more than 8,000. At the industry's peak in 2011, 1,900 new wells were drilled.

Health officials have been concerned about the effect of the drilling on air and water quality, as well as the stress of living near a well where just developing the site of the well can require 1,000 truck trips on once-quiet roads.

New York State has banned fracking altogether and there is a moratorium on it in Maryland, Pennsylvania has embraced the industry.

A 40 Percent Increase in Pre-Term Babies

For his study, Schwartz and his colleagues analyzed data from Geisinger Health System, which covers 40 counties in north and central Pennsylvania. They studied the records of 9,384 mothers who gave birth to 10,946 babies between January 2009 and January 2013.

They compared that data with information about wells drilled for fracking and looked at how close they were to the homes of the pregnant mothers as well as what stage of drilling the wells were in, how deep the wells were dug and how much gas was being produced at the wells during the mothers' pregnancies. Using this information, they developed an index of how active each of the wells were and how close they were to the women.

The researchers found that living in the most active quartile of drilling and production activity was associated with a 40% increase in the likelihood of a woman giving birth before 37 weeks of gestation - considered pre-term.

There was also a 30% increase in the chance that an obstetrician had labeled their pregnancy 'high-risk', a designation that can include factors such as elevated blood pressure or excessive weight gain during pregnancy. When looking at all of the pregnancies in the study, 11% of babies were born preterm, with the majority - 79% - born between 32 and 36 weeks.

The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says that preterm-related causes of death together accounted for 35% of all infant deaths in 2010, more than any other single cause. Being born prematurely is also a leading cause of long-term neurological disabilities in children. Preterm birth cost the US health care system more than $26 billion in 2005, they say.

Policymakers - Proceed With Caution!

While the study can't pinpoint why the pregnant women had worse outcomes near the most active wells, Schwartz says that every step of the drilling process has an environmental impact.

When the well pads are created, diesel equipment is used to clear acres of land, transport equipment and drill the wells themselves. Next, drilling down thousands of feet and then horizontally many more thousands of feet requires heavy equipment to break up the shale where the gas sits.

Hydraulic fracturing (fracking) then involves injecting millions of liters of water mixed with chemicals and sand to fracture the shale. The fluids are then pumped back to the surface. The gas itself also releases pollutants.

Schwartz adds that having a well developed nearby results in increased noise, road traffic and other changes that can increase maternal stress levels.

"Now that we know this is happening we'd like to figure out why", he says. "Is it air quality? Is it the stress? They're the two leading candidates in our minds at this point."

The industry has now slowed down as gas prices have declined from $12.11 per thousand cubic feet in 2011 to $3.69 per thousand cubic feet in July. The state is on track for fewer than 500 new wells in 2015 compared to 2011's 1,900, says Schwartz. But he predicts the economy will again shift and fracking will again be back in favor.

And he believes policymakers must understand the risks as they make decisions on future wells. While the research is still in its infancy, Schwartz says everything that has come out so far should give decision makers cause for concern:

"The first few studies have all shown health impacts. Policymakers need to consider findings like these in thinking about how they allow this industry to go forward."


The paper: 'Unconventional Natural Gas Development and Birth Outcomes in Pennsylvania, USA' by Joan A. Casey, David A. Savitz, Sara G. Rasmussen, Elizabeth L. Ogburn, Jonathan Pollak, Dione G. Mercer and Brian S. Schwartz is published in Epidemiology.

The study was funded by grants from the National Institutes of Health's National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences (ES023675-01, ES071541), the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation Heath & Society Scholars Program and the National Science Foundation Integrative Graduate Education and Research Traineeship.

News Tue, 13 Oct 2015 00:00:00 -0400