Geopolitics

Worldcrunch Today, Dec. 15: Dutch Lockdown, Barr Resigns, Jakarta Burials

Watching the solar eclipse on the shores of Lake Villarrica, Chile.
Watching the solar eclipse on the shores of Lake Villarrica, Chile.

Welcome to Tuesday, where Trump's Attorney General resigns, Somalia cuts diplomatic ties with Kenya and we meet one weird-looking dinosaur. Meanwhile, t'is the season to look at how the world is getting ready for a very special kind of Christmas.

SPOTLIGHT: EUROPE IS RIGHT TO CALL UP BIG GUNS AGAINST BIG TECH

Europe is moving forward in a united front to force Big Tech that could lead to a historic showdown on the future of how the digital economy functions. This, writes David Barroux in French daily Les Echos, is a good thing:

Facing the rise of Big Tech, which by now has crossed the line far too many times, European states had forgotten the three basic requirements that make any police force effective: political will and backing; the right laws to give it the means to take action; and, finally, it needs to be armed.

But now, the European Commission has finally decided to act by presenting the Digital Market Act and the Digital Service Act — two texts with historic significance.

For the first time, Europe is declaring that Google, Apple, Facebook, Amazon and the other digital giants of today and tomorrow aren't players like the others. Twenty years after the emergence of the Big Four, big tech companies are no longer children who can be left unattended, but adults who must be supervised. These acts aren't about preventing them from continuing to grow or cutting them into pieces, but rather a way to make sure that they don't abuse their dominant position and accept that they have special responsibilities.

No one can deny it: Big tech companies have achieved unparalleled economic and technological power. They are everywhere in our daily lives and have become essential for consumers, citizens, companies and states — up to the point that they are now platforms which, by making the best use of billions of pieces of personal data, can slow down the emergence of competition, promote their own services or wield viral influence on the democratic debate. They are both systemic and specific players.

For years, these digital players have tried to make us believe that the online and offline worlds aren't the same, that it's impossible to enforce the same rules in a real and physical world as in a virtual and digital world. But this argument is no longer relevant: Just as banks contribute to the fight against dirty money or the media battles against fake news, big tech companies are rich and innovative enough to be subjected to an obligation of both means and result.

No single state in Europe could alone face such giants, supported by the United States government, which retaliates as soon as the question of the Tech Giants' power is challenged. Europe is right to go on the offensive by combining its members' forces. While it is arming itself on the legal level now, it will also have to create a specific police force to take concrete actions to monitor and, potentially, to sanction.

— David Barroux / Les Echos



THE SITUATION: 7 THINGS TO KNOW RIGHT NOW

New Zealand daily The Dominion Post dedicates its front page to the news that the country's cabinet has agreed to allow quarantine-free travel with Australia in the first three months of 2021.

PREPARING FOR A WHOLE DIFFERENT KIND OF CHRISTMAS

After a year that's been as trying as it is troubling, the holidays are finally upon us, and for many there's a temptation to treat the upcoming festivities as a welcome catharsis. But for governments, this "most wonderful time of the year" represents a real conundrum: How to allow for some much-needed Yuletide joy while at the same time, taking steps to keep the New Year from beginning with a new surge of coronavirus cases.

Christmas bubbles: The UK will also allow people to gather, but only for five days, between Dec. 23-27, with a larger window for Northern Ireland to give more time to people to travel between the nations.

  • This "Christmas bubble" should not include people from more than three different households, the government guidelines read, adding that one person can only be in one such group and cannot change afterwards.

  • "A fixed bubble is a sensible and proportionate way to balance the desire to spend time with others over the Christmas period, while limiting the risk of spreading infection," the government says.

  • The guidelines also recommend that UK citizens celebrate Christmas in other ways — digitally, for instance, or by meeting outdoors.

Santa's out-of-work helpers: Finland, world famous for its Santa Claus Village in Rovaniemi, Lapland, has imposed strict travel restrictions for foreigners.

  • Citizens from all European destinations other than the Vatican are currently subjected to a 10-day self-quarantine when entering the country. Either that, or they have to submit a negative coronavirus test certificate that is less than 72 hours old at the time of arrival, but which will only allow them to stay for a maximum of three days if they don't self-isolate.

  • Clearly, though, the restrictions are a blow to the country's winter tourism industry, which relies heavily on overseas visitors. "For the period mid-March 2020 to March 2021 we estimate around 700 million euros in tourism revenue loss and 5,000 fewer tourism-related jobs in Lapland," Sanna Kärkkäinen, CEO of Visit Rovaniemi, told Yle. The region is trying to attract domestic tourists, but tourism promoters believe this will not be enough to compensate for the huge losses.

  • The Finnish Parliament's Constitutional Law Committee has recently rejected a proposed testing-based model to allow visitors to enter the country for non-essential purposes, frustrating winter tourism businesses even more.

Prudence in Palestine: For obvious reasons, Bethlehem — Jesus Christ's birthplace — is usually buzzing with activity at this time of year. But with international pilgrims banned, and restaurants, hotels and souvenir shops closed, Christmas celebrations in the Palestine city will be noticeably subdued this time around.

  • The famed Christmas tree lighting service will be limited to just 15 guests, while the Midnight Mass, normally attended by religious leaders and hundreds of pilgrims, will be scaled back. The event will be broadcast live for the general public.

  • The Palestinian Authority has imposed a new nighttime lockdown from 7 p.m. to 6 a.m., which could be extended through Christmas if the number of infections continue to surge.

Silent nights: Catholic church officials in Manila, the capital city of the Philippines, have announced Christmas carol activities will be banned, The Philippine News Agency reports.

  • Churches were asked not to organize carolings in order to "protect the public and the choir members' as according to experts, the virus could easily spread through singing, officials say.

  • Christmas carols are an important part of the holiday traditions in the Philippines, a predominantly Catholic country which celebrates the world's longest Christmas season, from Sept. 1 to New Year's Eve.

➡️ Read more on Worldcrunch.com here.


+61%

There were 61% more burials in the Indonesian capital of Jakarta in the first 10 months of 2020 than in the past five years, a new study reveals, which suggests that the metropolis' real coronavirus death toll is far higher than the official 2,963 casualties recorded.



And so, now it is time to turn the page. To unite. To heal.

— President-elect Joe Biden says after the Electoral College confirms his victory over Donald Trump in the Nov. 3 presidential election.

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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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