Welcome to Monday, where the Myanmar generals are tightening their grip, new COVID variants are identified and a very ancient watering hole is discovered in Egypt. We also have a Die Welt piece on the dark side of the dream of moving out to the countryside.
• COVID-19 latest: Researchers have identified seven new variants circulating in the United States, with similar genetic mutation to the more contagious strains found in the UK and South Africa. WHO investigators in China have discovered signs that the initial outbreak in Wuhan in December 2019 was much wider than previously thought.
• Myanmar military coup tightens: As armoured vehicles appear in several cities, Myanmar's military junta rushes through a series of changes to its penal code, warning anti-coup protesters they could face 20 years in prison if they obstruct armed force. Meanwhile, Aung San Suu Kyi's lawyer has announced the pro-democracy leader will be detained for a further two days before a trial via video link this week.
• Trump acquitted: Bipartisan support is growing for the creation of an independent commission to investigate the Capitol riots after former U.S. President Donald Trump was acquitted on Saturday of inciting an insurrection. Seven Republicans joined all 50 Democratic Senators in voting guilty, but fell short of the two-thirds majority required to convict.
• Indian climate activist arrested: Disha Ravi, 22, has been arrested on charges of sedition and criminal conspiracy for sharing online "toolkit" with information on the farmers' protests, which had been tweeted by climate activist Greta Thunberg.
• WTO's new director: Nigerian economist Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala is set to be named director general of the World Trade Organization, the first African and woman to lead the WTO.
• Argentina mourns Menem: Argentina has declared three days of national mourning in honor of former president Carlos Menem, who has died at the age of 90. The charismatic leader served from 1989-1999.
• World's oldest brewery: Archeologists in Egypt discover what could be the world's oldest beer factory dating back about 5,000 years in Abydos, an ancient burial ground in the desert.
"Symbol of an era," titles Argentine daily La Gaceta, honoring former president Carlos Menem, who died at the age of 90.
How the dream of moving out to the countryside can backfire
Between the two lockdowns, Bianca Berlin and her family moved to the German countryside, to a village of 400 people in the Uckermark region, around 100 kilometers north of Berlin. Having access to nature, especially during the pandemic, has been priceless, the 34-year-old mother of two explains. "The girls can build dens and climb trees without fear of coming into contact with other people," Berlin says. "During the first lockdown, in the city, I only went to the park at eight in the morning."
Many families would envy the Berlins. According to a survey of 2,700 city dwellers carried out last November by the polling institute Civey, around a third dream of a life in the country. For 25%, this is a long-standing wish, while for 10% it has been sparked or strengthened by the coronavirus pandemic. Home-working is opening up new possibilities, and during the pandemic, life in the cities can feel a bit grim.
But whether the moves will prove to be long-term is another question. Anne Dirfad from Hamburg fantasized for years about moving to the countryside, and when her husband, who works in advertising, got offered a new job in 2019, they finally took the leap. But things didn't turn out the way they'd hoped and expected. "It wasn't meant to be," she now says. "We had a lot of trouble making friends. Families there kept to themselves, and children in the neighborhood often went to their grandparents' in the afternoon."
➡️ Read more on Worldcrunch.com
Iranian woman suspected of 700k theft after her "arranged" marriage
A 26-year-old woman in Tehran suspected of more than a dozen thefts began by befriending wealthy female targets. But the plot for her big payday would require setting the trap for a man.
Iranian newspaper Sharq reports that the woman, arrested last week for allegedly stealing 700,000 euros in cash and property, confessed to previous more modest thefts from the homes of 15 women in Tehran. Police identified the suspect as "Roxana," who admitted to befriending women in affluent neighborhoods and stealing items from their bedrooms, telling them she needed to "freshen up."
But her plans to target one particular well-to-do family would take a bit more time — and a much bigger lie. She aimed to seduce the family's son, and trick him into proposing marriage. The young man, Amirhossein, admitted to police that he "fell for her" fast.
Presumably to assuage concerns that she was after the family's money, the suspect rented an apartment in Farmanieh, an expensive district in northern Tehran, where the marriage proposal eventually took place, with unnamed accomplices posing as her family.
One day, she asked Amirhossein to wait for her outside the same rented flat for her to come outside. He waited for three hours while, according to police, she had slipped out of the building, gone to his family home and broken into the safe with keys she had stolen. She emptied almost 700,000 euros (3.5 billion tomans) worth of cash and valuables before being arrested. Amirhossein told police that Roxana had been "quiet and kind" right until the end.
➡️ Keep up with all the planet's police reports and plot twists on Worldcrunch.com
Monday's end-of-year tally in Japan showed that the country's economy shrank for the first time since 2009 due to the pandemic. Still, the Nikkei stock market closed above 30,000 yen mark for the first time since 1990 as figures showed that the recovery in the second half of the year was better than expected.
The world is watching.
— A jointly signed statement from Western ambassadors in Myanmar condemns the actions of the military and urges them to restrain from violence against protesters following the coup that overthrew the democratically elected government in the southeast Asian nation.
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?
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
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
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.