Daily Archives: December 22, 2010

African Farmers Displaced as Investors Move In

In Beldenadji, Mali, a canal has been extended to irrigate land, part of an American aid initiative. Tyler Hicks/The New York Times

The United Nations and the World Bank say the practice, if done equitably, could help feed the growing global population by introducing large-scale commercial farming.

NY Times |  Dec 21, 2010

By NEIL MacFARQUHAR

SOUMOUNI, Mali — The half-dozen strangers who descended on this remote West African village brought its hand-to-mouth farmers alarming news: their humble fields, tilled from one generation to the next, were now controlled by Libya’s leader, Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi, and the farmers would all have to leave.

“They told us this would be the last rainy season for us to cultivate our fields; after that, they will level all the houses and take the land,” said Mama Keita, 73, the leader of this village veiled behind dense, thorny scrubland. “We were told that Qaddafi owns this land.”

Across Africa and the developing world, a new global land rush is gobbling up large expanses of arable land. Despite their ageless traditions, stunned villagers are discovering that African governments typically own their land and have been leasing it, often at bargain prices, to private investors and foreign governments for decades to come.

Organizations like the United Nations and the World Bank say the practice, if done equitably, could help feed the growing global population by introducing large-scale commercial farming to places without it.

But others condemn the deals as neocolonial land grabs that destroy villages, uproot tens of thousands of farmers and create a volatile mass of landless poor. Making matters worse, they contend, much of the food is bound for wealthier nations.

“The food security of the country concerned must be first and foremost in everybody’s mind,” said Kofi Annan, the former United Nations secretary general, now working on the issue of African agriculture. “Otherwise it is straightforward exploitation and it won’t work. We have seen a scramble for Africa before. I don’t think we want to see a second scramble of that kind.”

A World Bank study released in September tallied farmland deals covering at least 110 million acres — the size of California and West Virginia combined — announced during the first 11 months of 2009 alone. More than 70 percent of those deals were for land in Africa, with Sudan, Mozambique and Ethiopia among those nations transferring millions of acres to investors.

Before 2008, the global average for such deals was less than 10 million acres per year, the report said. But the food crisis that spring, which set off riots in at least a dozen countries, prompted the spree. The prospect of future scarcity attracted both wealthy governments lacking the arable land needed to feed their own people and hedge funds drawn to a dwindling commodity.

“You see interest in land acquisition continuing at a very high level,” said Klaus Deininger, the World Bank economist who wrote the report, taking many figures from a Web site run by Grain, an advocacy organization, because governments would not reveal the agreements. “Clearly, this is not over.”

The report, while generally supportive of the investments, detailed mixed results. Foreign aid for agriculture has dwindled from about 20 percent of all aid in 1980 to about 5 percent now, creating a need for other investment to bolster production.

But many investments appear to be pure speculation that leaves land fallow, the report found. Farmers have been displaced without compensation, land has been leased well below value, those evicted end up encroaching on parkland and the new ventures have created far fewer jobs than promised, it said.

The breathtaking scope of some deals galvanizes opponents. In Madagascar, a deal that would have handed over almost half the country’s arable land to a South Korean conglomerate helped crystallize opposition to an already unpopular president and contributed to his overthrow in 2009.

People have been pushed off land in countries like Ethiopia, Uganda, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Liberia and Zambia. It is not even uncommon for investors to arrive on land that was supposedly empty. In Mozambique, one investment company discovered an entire village with its own post office on what had been described as vacant land, said Olivier De Schutter, the United Nations food rapporteur.

In Mali, about three million acres along the Niger River and its inland delta are controlled by a state-run trust called the Office du Niger. In nearly 80 years, only 200,000 acres of the land have been irrigated, so the government considers new investors a boon.

“Even if you gave the population there the land, they do not have the means to develop it, nor does the state,” said Abou Sow, the executive director of Office du Niger.

He listed countries whose governments or private sectors have already made investments or expressed interest: China and South Africa in sugar cane; Libya and Saudi Arabia in rice; and Canada, Belgium, France, South Korea, India, the Netherlands and multinational organizations like the West African Development Bank.

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WikiLeaks cables: Bangladeshi ‘death squad’ trained by UK government


Members of the Rapid Action Battalion (RAB) have received training in ‘investigative interviewing techniques’. Photograph: Abir Abdullah/EPA

Rapid Action Battalion, accused of hundreds of extra-judicial killings, received training from UK officers, cables reveal

guardian.co.uk | Dec 21, 2010

by Fariha Karim and Ian Cobain

The British government has been training a Bangladeshi paramilitary force condemned by human rights organisations as a “government death squad”, leaked US embassy cables have revealed.

Members of the Rapid Action Battalion (RAB), which has been held responsible for hundreds of extra-judicial killings in recent years and is said to routinely use torture, have received British training in “investigative interviewing techniques” and “rules of engagement”.

Details of the training were revealed in a number of cables, released by WikiLeaks, which address the counter-terrorism objectives of the US and UK governments in Bangladesh. One cable makes clear that the US would not offer any assistance other than human rights training to the RAB – and that it would be illegal under US law to do so – because its members commit gross human rights violations with impunity.

Since the RAB was established six years ago, it is estimated by some human rights activists to have been responsible for more than 1,000 extra-judicial killings, described euphemistically as “crossfire” deaths. In September last year the director general of the RAB said his men had killed 577 people in “crossfire”. In March this year he updated the figure, saying they had killed 622 people.

The RAB’s use of torture has also been exhaustively documented by human rights organisations. In addition, officers from the paramilitary force are alleged to have been involved in kidnap and extortion, and are frequently accused of taking large bribes in return for carrying out crossfire killings.

However, the cables reveal that both the British and the Americans, in their determination to strengthen counter-terrorism operations in Bangladesh, are in favour of bolstering the force, arguing that the “RAB enjoys a great deal of respect and admiration from a population scarred by decreasing law and order over the last decade”. In one cable, the US ambassador to Dhaka, James Moriarty, expresses the view that the RAB is the “enforcement organisation best positioned to one day become a Bangladeshi version of the US Federal Bureau of Investigation”.

In another cable, Moriarty quotes British officials as saying they have been “training RAB for 18 months in areas such as investigative interviewing techniques and rules of engagement”. Asked about the training assistance for the RAB, the Foreign Office said the UK government “provides a range of human rights assistance” in the country. However, the RAB’s head of training, Mejbah Uddin, told the Guardian that he was unaware of any human rights training since he was appointed last summer.

The cables make clear that British training for RAB officers began three years ago under the last Labour government.

However, RAB officials confirmed independently of the cables that they had taken part in a series of courses and workshops as recently as October, five months after the formation of the coalition government. Asked whether ministers had approved the training programme, the Foreign Office said only that William Hague, the foreign secretary, and other ministers, had been briefed on counter-terrorism spending.

The US ambassador explains in the cables that the US government is “constrained by RAB’s alleged human rights violations, which have rendered the organisation ineligible to receive training or assistance” under laws which prohibit American funding or training for overseas military units which abuse human rights with impunity.

Human rights organisations say the RAB cannot be reformed, noting that its human rights record has deterioriated still further in the last 12 months. Human Rights Watch has repeatedly described the RAB as a government death squad.

Brad Adams, the organisation’s Asia director, said: “RAB is a Latin American-style death squad dressed up as an anti-crime force. The British government has let its desire for a functional counter-terrorism partner in Bangladesh blind it to the risks of working with RAB, and the legitimacy that it gives to RAB inside Bangladesh. Furthermore, it is not clear that the British government has ever made it a priority at the highest levels to tell RAB that if it doesn’t change, it will not co-operate with it.”

Amnesty International has also repeatedly condemned the RAB, while the Bangladeshi human rights organisation Odhikar has painstakingly documented the RAB’s involvement in extra-judicial killings and torture since the creation of the force in March 2004.

Asked to comment on the rights groups’ concern about the RAB, the Foreign Office said: “We do not discuss the detail of operational counter-terrorism cooperation. Counter-terrorism assistance is fully in line with our laws and values.” At least some of the British training has been conducted by serving British police officers, working under the auspices of the National Policing Improvement Agency (NPIA), which was established in 2007 to build policing capacity and standards. Recent courses for RAB have been provided by officers from West Mercia and Humberside Police.

Asked whether it believed it was appropriate for British officers to be training members of an organisation condemned as “a government death squad”, and whether courses in investigative interviewing techniques might not render torture more effective, an NPIA spokesman said the courses had been approved by the government and by the Association of Chief Police Officers.

“The NPIA has given limited support to the Bangladeshi Police and the RAB in technical areas of policing such as forensic awareness, management of crime scenes and recovery of evidence. Throughout the training we have emphasised the importance of respecting the human rights of witnesses, suspects and victims.”The purpose of our sanctioned engagement is to support the development and improvement of professional policing that supports democratic, human rights-based practices linked to the rule of law in countries that may have different laws, faiths and policing practices from our own.”

It is understood that there have been disagreements within the Foreign Office about the British government’s involvement with the RAB. Some officials have argued that the partnership with the RAB is an essential component of the UK’s counter-terrorism strategy in the region, while others have expressed concern that the relationship could prove damaging to Britain’s reputation.

Successive Bangladeshi governments have promised to end the RAB’s use of murder. The current government promised in its manifesto that it would end all extra-judicial killings, but they have continued following its election two years ago.In October last year, the shipping minister, Shahjahan Khan, speaking in a discussion organised by the BBC, said: “There are incidents of trials that are not possible under the laws of the land. The government will need to continue with extra-judicial killings, commonly called crossfire, until terrorist activities and extortion are uprooted.”

In December last year the high court in Dhaka ruled that such killings must be brought to a halt following litigation by victims’ familes and human rights groups, but they continue on an almost weekly basis. Most of the victims are young men, some are alleged to be petty criminals or are said to be left-wing activists, and the killings invariably take place in the middle of the night.

In the most recent “crossfire” killings, the RAB reported that it had shot dead Mohammad Mamun, 25, in the town of Tangail, shortly after midnight on Monday, and that 90 minutes later its officers in Dhaka, 50 miles to the south, had shot dead a second man, Taku Alam, 30. Today the RAB announced it had shot dead a 45-year-old man, Anisur Rahman, said to be a member of the Communist party in the west of the country.

UK offers troops, EU seeks answers for snow chaos


Passengers queue as they wait to check-in for their flights outside Terminal 3 of Heathrow Airport in London, Tuesday, Dec. 21, 2010. Major delays and cancellations persisted Tuesday at European airports including London’s Heathrow, and on the Eurostar train link, leaving thousands stranded across Europe as Christmas approached. Predicted snowfall at Heathrow did not materialize overnight, allowing cleanup crews to intensify their work, but more than half the flights at Europe’s busiest international hub were expected to be canceled. (AP Photo/Matt Dunham)

Associated Press | Dec 21, 2010

By SHAWN POGATCHNIK

LONDON — The snow was melting off London’s streets, but Heathrow Airport told infuriated passengers it won’t restore full service until Thursday — five days after a five-inch snowfall turned hundreds of thousands of holiday plans into a nightmare of canceled flights and painful nights sleeping on terminal floors.

Travelers’ anger boiled over into politics as Britain’s prime minister offered to put troops on snow-clearing duty and Europe’s top transport official threatened tougher regulation of airports unable to cope with wintry weather.

“It’s pathetic — you would think this is a Third World country,” said 29-year-old Janice Phillips, who was trying to get back to Minneapolis. She sat next to her sleeping boyfriend, his head propped against a backpack, his mouth ajar. “All they’ve been talking about was this snow forecast. You would think the government could do a better job.”

“It’s not even snowing!” said 19-year-old Candie Sparks, who was trying to get back to Santa Fe, New Mexico. “It’s crazy.”

Days after a driving snowfall that ended Saturday after dumping five inches in an hour, the terminals at Heathrow were clogged Tuesday with passengers desperately looking at computer screens to see if they would be able to get to their destinations. So many people were sprawled on the floor that it was difficult to walk.

Some wore Santa hats decorated with vulgar signs making fun of their most un-merry Christmas.

Transportation experts said that after many years without heavy snowfall, underinvestment has left Heathrow and dozens of other airports across Britain and Ireland without enough equipment or personnel to cope with big storms.

“They have concluded they don’t need snow clearance equipment, so we don’t have the capability when bad weather comes in,” aviation consultant Chris Yates said.

He said airport operators in Helsinki, Stockholm and other snowy climes have the equipment and manpower to clear runways within 30 minutes and to remove ice and snow from aircraft stands quickly, while Heathrow lags far behind.

This was evident in the days after Saturday’s snowstorm, when airports in Frankfurt, Prague, Amsterdam and other major cities in mainland Europe bounced back more quickly than Heathrow, where the ice quickly hardened, making removal more difficult.

London’s Gatwick was hit by less snow and recovered faster than the larger Heathrow. Its runway reopened and flights were operating Tuesday night.

European Union transportation commissioner Siim Kallas threatened tougher regulation if performance does not improve. “Better preparedness, in line with what is done in Northern Europe is not an optional extra, it must be planned for and with the necessary investment,” he said.

Prime Minister David Cameron said his government had offered military assistance to the company that operates Heathrow, BAA Ltd., which thanked him but said it didn’t need the help.

Still, even as the second of Heathrow’s two runways reopened late Tuesday, officials said they needed “breathing space” to clear remaining snow, restart equipment and move planes and crews back into place. As a result, the airport would only operate about one-third of its normal flight schedule until 6 a.m. on Thursday.

Eurostar, the high-speed train that connects to mainland Europe through the Channel Tunnel, also could not cope, advising passengers throughout the day to cancel and stay home.

Outside London’s Eurostar terminal, the line of travelers waiting for trains snaked several hundred yards (meters) down the street from the station.

Inside, puffy-eyed passengers shuffled across the cold concourse, watching anxiously as the line periodically spurted forward. One older man played Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy” on his harmonica; the crowd livened up when he switched to the Swedish rock band Europe’s heavy metal anthem “The Final Countdown.”

By evening, Eurostar said it expected to operate a nearly normal schedule on Wednesday but said passengers who had missed previous trains would still not be able to travel.

Eurostar trains have been running with speed restrictions in both England and France as a precaution because of the snow.

Rail expert Christian Wolmar said Eurostar was being cautious after holiday-season breakdowns last year caused by powdery snow sucked into the engines of speeding trains. The entire Eurostar service was halted for three days when trains got stuck in the Channel Tunnel.