BBC

The Latest: Good News On Vaccines, Italian Envoy Killed, Djokovic's 18th

A devastating fire has consumed nearly 150 shanties in a slum in Bangladesh’s capital city Dhaka, but no casualties were reported.
A devastating fire has consumed nearly 150 shanties in a slum in Bangladesh’s capital city Dhaka, but no casualties were reported.

Welcome to Monday, where we have very good news on vaccine effectiveness, Myanmar protesters won't back down after police open fire and Edvard Munch turns out to be a different kind of scream. We also find out how AI is helping to preserve dying languages.

• COVID-19 latest: The U.S. death toll is approaching the 500,000 mark, the UK unveils plan to cautiously loosen its lockdown and Argentina authorizes emergency use of Chinese-made vaccine. A new study offers very good news about the effectiveness of vaccines to reduce serious illness from COVID.

• Myanmar coup protests: Massive protests continued Monday across Myanmar against the military coup despite increasingly deadly response from authorities.

• Beijing olive branch: A top Chinese official urged American counterparts to work together with Beijing to mend the damaged bilateral relationship between the world's two most powerful countries.

• Italian envoy killed: The Italian ambassador to the Democratic Republic of Congo and a military policeman have been killed in an attack on a United Nations convoy.

• Boeing 777 grounded: Dozens of Boeing 777 aircraft have been grounded in the U.S. and Japan after the dramatic engine failure of a United Airlines flight near Denver this past weekend.

• Bitcoin dips: Trading was down as much as 6% in opening hours on the cryptocurrency after a record-shattering week that saw Bitcoin rise above $58,000. Elon Musk, who has bet big on bitcoin, said on Saturday that prices "seem high."

• Madman Munch: The National Museum of Norway has confirmed that the mysterious graffiti on Edvard Munch's painting The Scream that read "Can only have been painted by a madman" was written by the artist himself.


USA Today devotes its front page to the grim milestone the United States is approaching with 500,000 lives lost to coronavirus.

Saving languages from extinction, with the help of AI

The world's linguistic heritage is facing a crisis just as serious as that of biodiversity. A French project is trying to save what exists in the Pangloss collection, powered by new tools of Artificial Intelligence, reports Yann Verdo in daily Paris-based Les Echos.

Across the earth, there are 7 continents and 197 countries. How many languages are spoken? The answer is around 7,000, but if this number surprises you, it's because you suffer from the distorted perspective that half of the 7.8 billion inhabitants of the planet express themselves or communicate through only about 20 of them (Arabic, English, Spanish, French, Hindi, Mandarin, Portuguese...), while the other 97% of these 7,000 languages have a total number of speakers that does not exceed 4% of the population.

Our world linguistic heritage, as rich it may be, is very fragile. The overwhelming majority of these 7,000 languages have no written tradition, and today are only spoken by a handful of old people. This heritage is both the fruit and the guarantor of humans' cultural diversity, and is no less significant than the biodiversity of plant and animal species. The crisis it faces can be considered the sixth major extinction that threatens the world.

This threat of massive linguistic extinction is what motivated researchers to create the Pangloss collection in 1995, named after a character in Voltaire's "Candide," whose name in Greek means, "all languages." This collection is to linguistic diversity what protected areas are to biodiversity. And soon the painstaking work of transcribing and translating a rare language before it disappears into oblivion could be greatly accelerated by the advancements made in Artificial Intelligence.

➡️ Read more on Worldcrunch.com


COVID kills off last of Juma, Brazilian indigenous tribe

An 86-year-old identified as the last male member of the Juma, a Brazilian tribe on the verge of extinction, died of the coronavirus last week, Rio-based daily O Globo reported.

Amoin Aruká died in a hospital Feb. 18 in Porto Velho, in the northern Brazilian state of Rondonia, where he was receiving treatment since earlier this month. Aruká"s people, the Juma, have plummeted in numbers from 15,000 several decades ago to four this year, having faced killings at the hands of miners and landowners, and disease brought into the area by outsiders. And now COVID-19 has taken a final toll on the Juma, along with other indigenous people. Madrid-based El Pais reports that COVID has killed 567 from Brazil's shrinking population of indigenous tribes.

Aruká had three daughters who married men of another nation, the Uru-Eu-Wau-Wau, which would make his grandchildren of mixed blood, the website Infobae reported. Yet, it added, they would have the right to live in a land enclave marked in 2004 as Juma territory thanks to efforts made by Aruká. Like other native lands, it observed, the enclave remains vulnerable to incursions by Brazilians — and to infection from the coronavirus.

➡️ Keep up with all the planet's police reports and plot twists on Worldcrunch.com

18

World's #1 tennis player Novak Djokovic won his 9th Australian Open title, which is also his 18th Grand Slam title overall, leaving him two behind the record held by two other active players, Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal.

I have carried these secrets with a heavy heart and remorsefully regret my participation.


— New allegations surrounding the death of Malcolm X have surfaced in a deathbed letter written by a former New York City Police Department officer who says he was forced by his superiors to frame security staff assigned to the African-American activist that left him vulnerable just before he was killed.

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Green

Ecological Angst In India, A Mining Dumpsite As Neighbor

Local villagers in western India have been forced to live with a mining waste site on the edge of town. What happens when you wake up one day and the giant mound of industrial waste has imploded?

The mining dumpsite is situated just outside of the Badi village in the coastal state of Gujarat

Sukanya Shantha

BADI — Last week, when the men and women from the Bharwad community in this small village in western India stepped out for their daily work to herd livestock, they were greeted with a strange sight.

The 20-meter-high small hill that had formed at the open-cast mining dumpsite had suddenly sunk. Unsure of the reason behind the sudden caving-in, they immediately informed other villagers. In no time, word had traveled far, even drawing the attention of environment specialists and activists from outside town.

This mining dumpsite situated less than 500 meters outside of the Badi village in the coastal state of Gujarat has been a matter of serious concern ever since the Gujarat Power Corporation Limited began lignite mining work here in early 2017. The power plant is run by the Power Gujarat State Electricity Corporation Limited, which was previously known as the Bhavnagar Energy Company Ltd.

Vasudev Gohil, a 43-year-old resident of Badi village says that though the dumping site is technically situated outside the village, locals must pass the area on a daily basis.


"We are constantly on tenterhooks and looking for danger signs," he says. Indeed, their state of alert is how the sudden change in the shape of the dumpsite was noticed in the first place.

Can you trust environmental officials?

For someone visiting the place for the first time, the changes may not stand out. "But we have lived all our lives here, we know every little detail of this village. And when a 150-meter-long stretch cave-in by over 25-30 feet, the change can't be overlooked," Gohil adds.

This is not the first time that the dumpsite has worried local residents. Last November, a large part of the flattened part of the dumpsite had developed deep cracks and several flat areas had suddenly got elevated. While the officials had attributed this significant elevation to the high pressure of water in the upper strata of soil in the region, environment experts had pointed to seismic activities. The change is evident even today, nearly a year since it happened.

It could have sunk because of the rain.

After the recent incident, when the villagers raised an alarm and sent a written complaint to the regional Gujarat Pollution Control Board, an official visit to the site was arranged, along with the district administration and the mining department.

The regional pollution board officer Bhavnagar, A.G. Oza, insists the changes "aren't worrisome" and attributes it to the weather.

"The area received heavy rain this time. It is possible that the soil could have sunk in because of the rain," he tells The Wire. The Board, he says, along with the mining department, is now trying to assess if the caving-in had any impact on the ground surface.

"We visited the site as soon as a complaint was made. Samples have already been sent to the laboratory and we will have a clear idea only once the reports are made available," Oza adds.

Women from the Surkha village have to travel several kilometers to find potable water

Sukanya Shantha/The Wire

A questionable claim

That the dumpsite had sunk in was noticeable for at least three days between October 1 and 3, but Rohit Prajapati of an environmental watchdog group Paryavaran Suraksha Samiti, noted that it was not the first time.

"This is the third time in four years that something so strange is happening. It is a disaster in the making and the authorities ought to examine the root cause of the problem," Prajapati says, adding that the department has repeatedly failed to properly address the issue.

He also contests the GPCB's claim that excess rain could lead to something so drastic. "Then why was similar impact not seen on other dumping sites in the region? One cannot arrive at conclusions for geological changes without a deeper study of them," he says. "It can have deadly implications."

Living in pollution

The villagers have also accused the GPCB of overlooking their complaint of water pollution which has rendered a large part of the land, most importantly, the gauchar or grazing land, useless.

"In the absence of a wall or a barrier, the pollutant has freely mixed with the water bodies here and has slowly started polluting both our soil and water," complains 23- year-old Nikul Kantharia.

He says ever since the mining project took off in the region, he, like most other villagers has been forced to take his livestock farther away to graze. "Nothing grows on the grazing land anymore and the grass closer to the dumpsite makes our cattle ill," Kantharia claims.

The mining work should have been stopped long ago

Prajapati and Bharat Jambucha, a well-known environmental activist and proponent of organic farming from the region, both point to blatant violations of environmental laws in the execution of mining work, with at least 12 violations cited by local officials. "But nothing happened after that. Mining work has continued without any hassles," Jambucha says. Among some glaring violations include the absence of a boundary wall around the dumping site and proper disposal of mining effluents.

The mining work has also continued without a most basic requirement – effluent treatment plant and sewage treatment plant at the mining site, Prajapati points out. "The mining work should have been stopped long ago. And the company should have been levied a heavy fine. But no such thing happened," he adds.

In some villages, the groundwater level has depleted over the past few years and villagers attribute it to the mining project. Women from Surkha village travel several kilometers outside for potable water. "This is new. Until five years ago, we had some water in the village and did not have to lug water every day," says Shilaben Kantharia.

The mine has affected the landscape around the villages

Sukanya Shantha/The Wire

Resisting lignite mining

The lignite mining project has a long history of resistance. Agricultural land, along with grazing land were acquired from the cluster of 12 adjoining villages in the coastal Ghogha taluka between 1994 and 1997. The locals estimate that villagers here lost anything between 40-100% of their land to the project. "We were paid a standard Rs 40,000 per bigha," Narendra, a local photographer, says.

The money, Narendra says, felt decent in 1994 but for those who had been dependent on this land, the years to come proved very challenging. "Several villagers have now taken a small patch of land in the neighboring villages on lease and are cultivating cotton and groundnut there," Narendra says.

They were dependent on others' land for work.

Bharat Jambucha says things get further complicated for the communities which were historically landless. "Most families belonging to the Dalit or other marginalized populations in the region never owned any land. They were dependent on others' land for work. Once villagers lost their land to the project, the landless were pushed out of the village," he adds. His organization, Prakrutik Kheti Juth, has been at the forefront, fighting for the rights of the villages affected in the lignite mining project.

In 2017, when the mining project finally took off, villagers from across 12 villages protested. The demonstration was disrupted after police used force and beat many protesters. More than 350 of them were booked for rioting.

The villagers, however, did not give up. Protests and hunger strikes have continued from time to time. A few villagers even sent a letter to the President of India threatening that they would commit suicide if the government did not return their land.

"We let them have our land for over 20 years," says Gohil.

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