Geopolitics

Worldcrunch Today, Dec. 18: Nigeria Kids Freed, Putin's Laugh, Epstein French Arrest

Russian President Vladimir Putin's TV address on Dec. 17
Russian President Vladimir Putin's TV address on Dec. 17

Welcome to Friday, where the hundreds of kidnapped Nigerian students have been freed, Russia has been banned from the Olympics and French police have made a high-profile arrest in the Jeffrey Epstein sex trafficking probe. We also follow Yemen's itinerant honey producers as they (and their bees) dodge the stings of the country's ongoing civil war.

SPOTLIGHT: THE DOWNWARD SPIRAL OF "DIGITAL DEMOCRACY"

In a time of public impatience and online mobilization, Latin American governments are feeding frustrations with an outdated approach to political leadership, writes Gonzalo Sarasqueta, a lecturer at the ESAN business school in Lima, in America Economia.

Latin America is shaking. Peru has had the most recent flareup in a region heaving with discontent. Since last year, the streets of Santiago, La Paz, Quito, Buenos Aires, Bogotá and Mexico City have all gone aflame with indignation. And while each country has its own particular gripes, there are also certain institutional, social and political trends that may help explain these complex, multi-faceted convulsions.

To begin with, a large body of citizens feels their representatives are not defending their interests. As November's rioting in Lima showed, a good many Latin Americans do not see their demands shaping public policies. There is a significant breach between their expectations and the performances of their political leaders, regardless of ideology. Indeed, there are examples on both the right and left of governments failing to manage these sensitive scenarios.

The public is now better equipped, technologically, in terms of self-organization. Networking sites work as an escape valve for accumulating malaise, but also as a platform to organize and then act collectively. We are seeing hybrid social energies here, with online activism and strengthened presence outside. These dissenters know they are many. They feel it and, above all, communicate it in both spheres: online and offline.

As can be expected, regional democracies assure, to greater or lesser degrees, freedoms of speech and association.The problem, however, is that they lack the resources and leadership to turn this collective ire into new, regulatory norms to improve people's lives. In other words, our organizational system assures us the right to protest, but offers no solutions. This gap, besides exposing the system's flaws, feeds more discontent among people who feel they are ignored at the top.

The Greek researcher Zizi Papacharissi terms these disruptive groups "affective publics." They are typically transitory, intensive and spontaneous. The speed at which they throw up issues like transparency or gender equality are problematic for the institutional architecture of democracies, which is functioning in "analog" mode. Add to this the tensions of a prolonged pandemic period, and there is a clear sense of politics stuck in another time.

Yet the problem goes beyond mechanisms or resources. Latin American leaders are stuck in the electoral loop, with campaign thinking engulfing all their activities. All their proposals, pacts and timing are conceived in anticipation of the next elections. Our politicians do not see citizens so much as voters, for whom they concoct "winning" narratives. Meanwhile, the mid and long-term transformations the country needs can wait. It is the rule of now.

Sometimes, this gap between people and their representatives is filled by actors from outside traditional politics. They present themselves as the immediate solution to the crisis, and end up exacerbating problems with their two-sided, shortsighted and extremist rhetoric. In doing so, they inject more instability into weakened systems, and destroy the few points of consensus that existed on resolving problems.

The pandemic, in the meantime, has hastened the transition from "tele-democracy" to "digital-democracy." That will create challenges in Latin America in areas like decision-making, representing complex social fabrics and accessing new technologies. Renovation has become an imperative, which means renewal of institutional substance, and not just form. The future won't wait. Nor will those who feel left out.

— Gonzalo Sarasqueta / America Economia



THE SITUATION: 7 THINGS TO KNOW RIGHT NOW

COVID-19 latest: Following last week's European summit, EU leaders are self-isolating after French President Emmanuel Macron tested positive with symptoms of a fever and cough. Meanwhile, South Korea is reporting a virus surge, and the U.S. is set to approve its second vaccine, from Moderna, the Massachusetts-based pharmaceutical company.

Nigerian students freed: The jihadist terror group, Boko Haram, has handed over 344 schoolboys to the Nigerian military following last week's armed attack on a boarding school.

"Grave risk" from Russian hackers: The U.S. Department of Homeland Security suspects a Russian cyber attack has breached government agencies, critical infrastructure and private companies, including Microsoft. The U.S. energy department, responsible for U.S. nuclear weapons has confirmed a breach in security.

French arrest in Epstein probe: French modeling agent Jean-Luc Brunel was arrested in Paris as part of an ongoing investigation in connection to accused sex-trafficker Jeffrey Epstein.

Iran nuclear facility: Satellite photos show new construction at Fordo in its underground nuclear facility, 90 kilometers southwest of Tehran, amid tensions with the U.S.

Paris train attack trial: The terrorist who opened fire on a train from Amsterdam to Paris in 2015 has been sentenced to life in prison.

Russian Olympics ban: Russia has been banned from the next two Olympics as punishment for state-ordered tampering of doping testing labs. Russian champions not implicated in doping will still be able to compete as "neutral athletes."



"Isolated," titles French local daily La Voix du Nord about French President Emmanuel Macron who tested positive to COVID-19 and has gone into quarantine at the Versailles state residence.

YEMEN'S NOMADIC HONEY TRADERS FACE THE STING OF CIVIL WAR

Yemen's itinerant beekeepers must follow the flowering season. But this nomadism, essential for their bees to produce this liquid gold known around the world, is hampered by the nation's ongoing civil war, writes Louis Imbert in French daily Le Monde.

In war-torn Yemen, with its endless checkpoints and occasional explosions, no one travels as much as the beekeepers — migrating with their hives, chasing the flowers. Honey is a serious business in Yemen. In this sparsely industrialized country, with its dizzying winding mountain roads, this liquid gold is reputed to be one of the best in the Middle East, if not the world.

The beekeepers stay up-to-date with the situation of the war's front lines by way of WhatsApp groups. There is a very strong community spirit in this trade. Beekeepers travel in pairs or trios, but they need to talk to everyone else to find out where flowering is good, whether rain is causing flooding in the valleys, and where it's okay to congregate since the bees circulate between the hives.

Now throughout Yemen, men are leaving the cities, where jobs are scarce, to become farmers and beekeepers. "The market is flooded and our bees don't have enough to eat," says beekeeper Saïd Al-Aulaqi. Prices have fallen by one third since the beginning of the conflict in 2015, according to merchants in Atak. He now sells his production at 200 Saudi riyals per kilogram (44 euros), while better quality honey can be exported to Saudi Arabia at up to 130 euros per kg.

➡️ Read more on Worldcrunch.com here.



15 kilometers

A heavy snowstorm trapped more than 1,000 people in a monster 15-km (9.3 miles) long traffic jam near Tokyo, Japan.



They would have probably finished the job.

— Vladimir Putin laughed off a question about the involvement of Russian agents in the poisoning of activist Alexei Navalny, during the Russian president's annual press conference. He confirmed however that intelligence agents had been tracking the opposition leader's movements across the country at the time.



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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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