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The Latest: Twice Impeached, China Lockdown, Navalny Goes Home

Protest continue in Kolkata and across India against controversial agricultural bill
Protest continue in Kolkata and across India against controversial agricultural bill

Welcome to Thursday, where Trump becomes first president impeached twice, China goes back into lockdown, and a 45,000-year-old wild boar makes news. We also scan what sets "Made in Africa" ID tech apart.

SPOTLIGHT: D.C. TO ROME TO KAMPALA, DEMOCRACY IS A COUNTING QUESTION

At 6 p.m. local time Wednesday in Rome, while much of the world was transfixed on Washington, D.C., Italian reporters were huddled in a vast room of the nation's Parliament to witness another political crisis unfolding.

Former Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi announced that his minor party would pull out of the government, plunging Italian politics into deep uncertainty that may only be resolved with a new snap election. Pundits accused Renzi of acting for his cynical personal interest, trying to force out Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte to make space for his own comeback to the center of the political stage. Others noted that the announcement baffled Italians, who had just heard the news that their country had recorded 507 new COVID-19 deaths that day, pushing the toll past 80,000. Some argued that the far-right would win if the country heads to the polls.

Still, with all the melodrama, this governmental "crisis' is largely politics-as-usual in Italy, which has had 72 different government coalitions in the 78 years of its wobbly post-War parliamentary system. But despite all the instability, democracy itself is not in question in Italy.

Of course the "crisis' underway across the Atlantic is of another tenor, and order of magnitude. Just minutes after Renzi's announcement, the U.S. House of Representatives voted to impeach President Donald Trump — for an unprecedented second time — after the Republican leader incited a mob to block the counting of his election defeat in Congress. Five people died in the violence, and Trump continues to falsely insist that the election was "stolen" from him. The American presidential system of government, typically noted for its stability, has shown what happens when a president is particularly power-hungry. And yes, just a week before President-elect Joe Biden is slated to be inaugurated, democracy itself is in question in the U.S.

Meanwhile in Uganda, voters are heading to the polls Thursday in the aftermath of one of the most divisive election campaigns in recent history, with at least 55 people killed in related violence. The incumbent, 76-year-old Yoweri Museveni, has been in power for 34 years. The leading opposition candidate, the 34-year-old pop star turned politician Bobi Wine, said that the army killed one of his bodyguards and that he has been detained and prevented from campaigning several times. The government has also shut down the internet and banned international election observers. In Uganda, democracy is constantly in question.

A celebrated Italian political theorist, Norberto Bobbio, once remarked that democracy is a process by which heads are not chopped, but counted. It's always a good reminder of how crucial it is to respect the counting.

— Alessio Perrone



THE SITUATION: 7 THINGS TO KNOW RIGHT NOW

• Capitol riot aftermath: Donald Trump becomes the first president in U.S. history to be impeached twice, charged with inciting an insurrection on the Capitol. Meanwhile Airbnb blocks Washington, D.C. reservations ahead of President-elect Joe Biden's inauguration, as unprecedented military security is called in.

• COVID-19 latest: A WHO team of scientists has arrived in China to investigate virus origins. One in five English hospitals has hit capacity, Spain breaks an October record with 39,000 new cases reported yesterday, and Pope Francis fulfills ""ethical duty" to receive the vaccine.

• Ugandan elections: After a violent campaign with attacks on media and human rights advocates, Ugandans hit the polls amid an internet blackout. Yoweri Museveni is pursuing a sixth term against a former pop star half his age.

• Italian political crisis: Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte announces the resignation of two ministers over disagreements on allocating the 209 billion euro ($254 billion) EU pandemic recovery fund.

• Hong Kong arrests: Police in Hong Kong arrest 11 people suspected of helping a group of 12 pro-democracy activists, 10 of whom were subsequently arrested by China, in a failed attempt to flee the country.

• Tesla recall: The U.S. National Highway Traffic Safety Administration has asked Elon Musk to recall 158,000 cars over potential failure of display consoles.

• Oldest animal art: Scientists in Indonesia have discovered what appears to be the world's oldest painting depicting animals, dating back at least 45,000 years. The paintings of three wild boar were discovered in a limestone cave on the island of Sulawesi.


USA Today devotes its front page to Donald Trump's second impeachment after the House voted to formally charge the president with "incitement of insurrection" for his role in the Capitol Hill riots.


HOW FACIAL RECOGNITION TECHNOLOGY IS DIFFERENT IN AFRICA

There's a reason many Africans are wary of the identification technology: It doesn't work as well for people with dark skin. That's where Charlette N'Guessan, a young Ivorian researcher, comes in, writes Marie de Vergès in French daily Le Monde.

In 2018, 27-year-old Charlette N'Guessan joined forces with three other computer engineers. The start-up they founded has developed its own software, Bace API. To ensure that it would perform well with dark skin tones and be adaptable to the local market, the team relied on a very diverse data set, including a large sample of sub-Saharan African faces.

The development of this solution is intended to respond to very concrete issues. In 2017, cybercrimes cost African economies $3.5 billion, according to the Kenyan-based consulting firm Serianu. "Cybersecurity is a problem everywhere in Africa and even more so in the financial sector, because in our countries we have gone directly from cash to digital," says N'Guessan.

Ghanaian financial institutions are facing a massive problem of identity theft, and are losing hundreds of millions of dollars per year as a result, according to N'Guessan and her colleagues. To help combat the problem, Bace API provides banks and FinTech companies with a system to verify the identity of customers remotely using "live" (moving) photos to ensure that the person is real and not a robot.

At present, Africa is lagging behind in the creation of start-ups and AI technologies. A Stanford University report suggests that as of 2018, the bulk of AI investment was concentrated in 20 countries around the world. Not one of those countries is in Africa. "We need more "made in Africa" solutions instead of products from elsewhere," says N'Guessan.

➡️ Read more on Worldcrunch.com here.


22 million

China has put Shijiazhuang, Xingtai and Langfang (three cities in northern China's Hebei Province) under lockdown, following a new COVID-19 outbreak and the first death in months. The three cities are home to more than 22 million people.


Russia is my country, Moscow is my city, and I miss them.

— Russian opposition Aleksei Navalny has announced on social media that he was returning to his country at the end of this week for the first time since he was poisoned last year by a nerve agent. The activist has since been recovering in Germany from the assassination attempt he and Western officials claimed was organized by the Russian government.

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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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