Archive for September, 2012

September 28, 2012

Laos’ last chance to save last 6 river dolphins

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Posted on 27 September 2012

Gland, Switzerland – A tiny population of six river dolphins, isolated in a deep pool in the Mekong River on the border between Laos and Cambodia, will not survive long unless Laos takes immediate action to ban gillnet fishing in the dolphin’s range on their side of the border, warns WWF.

According to a new WWF report, Last chance for dolphins in Laos, more than 30 river dolphins have died since 1991 in and around the trans-boundary pool, with gillnets set by local fishers identified as the main cause. From January to April this year, WWF recorded over 100 separate gillnets in and around the deep pool area and as many as 188 on one occasion.

Cambodia recently enacted a law banning gillnet fishing in the entire pool and nearby areas on their side of the border. In Laos gillnet fishing is banned only in the deepest areas of the pool on their side of the border. While the dolphins are known to reside in the 1km² trans-boundary pool in the dry season they range more widely in the surrounding 5km² area in the wet season.

“Six river dolphins are swimming the gauntlet every day as they risk entanglement and death in the many floating walls of nets,” said Gerry Ryan, Technical Advisor with WWF-Cambodia and author of the report. “Laos must immediately ban gillnets from the entire trans-boundary pool area on their side of the border, throughout the whole year, or face losing the country’s last river dolphins.”

Freshwater Irrawaddy dolphins are critically endangered in the Mekong River, where their numbers have dwindled to around 85 individuals restricted to a 190km stretch of the Mekong mainstream between southern Laos and north-east Cambodia.

As many as 40 – 50 dolphins are believed to have once used the trans-boundary pool, with numbers falling to around 25 in the 1990s. The six dolphins inhabiting the trans-boundary pool are now believed to be an isolated sub-population, and do not move further up or down Mekong mainstem.

While dolphin numbers are shrinking, dolphin-watching tourism to the area is booming. Last year about 20,000 tourists are estimated to have visited the trans-boundary dolphins, with dolphin-watching tours from one of the two main sites in Laos more than doubling since 2008. In Cambodia, visitors to one of the two main dolphin-watching sites have increased nearly thirty-fold since 2005.

“Dolphins are a major tourist attraction and contributor to growth,” said Ryan. “Dolphin-watching tourism brings in much needed income to local communities that otherwise rely heavily on fisheries for subsistence and income. It is clear that saving the dolphins also means smart development.”

The river dolphins not only bring tangible livelihood benefits, they are also an important indicator of the health and effective management of the freshwater ecosystem, and their decline in numbers may reflect a declining trend in the broader ecosystem, which is heavily relied on by local communities.

“The loss of the river dolphins would not only greatly diminish Laos’ biodiversity, it would suggest a potentially devastating decline in the health of the entire river ecosystem, and likely declines in other species too,” said Ryan. “If Laos loses its remaining river dolphins it risks losing so much more.”

While gillnets represent the most immediate threat to the survival of the six dolphins, coordinated cross-border action is also needed to end illegal fishing and the use of explosives in the area, regulate boat traffic transiting the deep pool, and cancel the proposed large concrete pier and ramp at Anlung Cheuteal, one of Cambodia’s main sites for dolphin-watching.

“The pressures on this tiny population of river dolphins are immense, but as long as they survive there is hope,” said Ryan. “Urgent and strict protection efforts are needed to keep hope for the survival of this elusive icon of the Mekong River alive, without it hope will fade very fast.”

For further information:

Chris Chaplin, Media Manager, WWF International, +86 13911747472,

Sarah Bladen, Communications Director, WWF-Greater Mekong, mob: +84 1224 223 760

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September 27, 2012

Corruption still plundering forests in Laos for furniture

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Jeremy Hance
September 26, 2012

Deforestation in Laos for a rubber plantation. Raw logs from such deforestation often make their way to Vietnam. Photo by: Rhett A. Butler.

The forests of Lao are still suffering from widespread destruction with the government turning a blind eye to a thriving black market logging trade on the border of Laos and Vietnam, according to an update report by the Environmental Investigation Agency (EIA). Last year, the EIA found that powerful players, including the Vietnamese military, were plundering Laos of its forests for raw logs. Smuggled from Laos into Vietnam, the raw logs are crafted into furniture, which are eventually exported to Europe and the U.S. Now, over a year later a new report finds little has changed.

“It is business as usual,” the report reads. “The plunder of Laos’ forests continues unchecked. A handful of powerful firms are still moving logs across the border, aided by murky exemptions from timber export controls apparently granted by the upper echelons of the Government of Laos.”

While Laos has banned raw logs from export, investigations by the EIA finds that this policy has become riddled with exceptions allowing well-connected government officials to aid the underground trade.

“Such exemptions are issued by a small group of senior officials in the central government, and can permit ‘special’ quotas of logs to be exported, usually in return for investment in and ownership of infrastructure and plantation projects across the country,” the report reads.

The report points to several well-connected companies for perpetuating the corrupt trade, including Phonesack, Nicewood, and COECCO, the latter of which is owned by the Vietnamese military. Raw logs are often paid for in cash, leaving little paper trail, and then resold across the border for much higher prices.

“There’s no justification for the Government of Laos to continue channeling resources into the hands of these individuals at the expense of its people,” EIA Forests Campaigner Tom Johnson, said in a press release. “Equally, the Vietnamese Government, as a professed ‘special friend’ of Laos, must stop the unsustainable pillage of Laos’ forests by its industry—not least by its Army.”

Laos has also become a center point for the illegal rosewood trade. Overexploited worldwide, rosewood cutting has been outlawed in many countries including Vietnam. However, the trade has now moved into Laos and Myanmar, with rosewood eventually making its way to China for crafting into high-end furniture and other luxury goods.

“Nearly all, if not all, of these rosewood exports are illegal or involve illegality at some stage in the chain,” reads the report.

Last month, Dr. Souvanhpheng Bouphanouvong, President of the National Assembly of Lao’s Committee on Economic Planning and Finance, announced that the Lao government was working on land reform issues, which could have major impacts on Lao’s forests.

“A new national land policy is a priority in Laos,” Dr. Bouphanouvong added. “Land disputes are a top concern of Lao’s multi-ethnic population, and as a nation, we cannot ignore this opportunity to address conflicts and alleviate poverty.”

The EIA recommends that Laos enforce its current raw log ban, close loop holes, and improve monitoring of log flows in the country. In addition, the country should seek aid through the EU’s burgeoning Forest Law Enforcement, Governance and Trade (FLEGT) initiative, which will make selling illegally logged wood products in Europe a crime, much like the Lacey Act has in the U.S. The EIA is also calling on the Vietnamese government to investigate companies allegedly involved in the smuggling.

As of 2005, nearly 70 percent of land in Laos was forested (16 million hectares). However, like much of Southeast Asia, primary forest has become a rarity in Laos; about 9 percent of its forest total (1.49 million hectares) is comprised of primary forest.

Related articles:
Vietnamese military illegally plundering Laos’ forests(07/28/2011) Dwindling forests in the Asian nation of Laos are being illegally destroyed and traded by Vietnamese companies with the Vietnamese army as one of the biggest players in this multi-million dollar smuggling operation, according to an investigation by the Environmental Investigation Agency (EIA). EIA agents went undercover as timber purchasers to discover a long trail of corruption and poor enforcement from the destruction of Laos forests to furniture factories in Vietnam to stores in the USA and Europe. Even a ban on exporting raw timber out of Laos has done little to stop the plunder of the nation’s forests for outside gain.

Laos announces crackdown on illegal logging, timber smuggling

(06/22/2011) Laos Prime Minister Thongsing Thammavong ordered authorities to crack down on illegal logging and timber trafficking in the midst of accelerating forest loss, reports the Vientiane Times.

Logging of primary rainforests not ecologically sustainable, argue scientists

(01/25/2012) Tropical countries may face a risk of ‘peak timber’ as continued logging of rainforests exceeds the capacity of forests to regenerate timber stocks and substantially increases the risk of outright clearing for agricultural and industrial plantations, argues a trio of scientists writing in the journal Biological Conservation. The implications for climate, biodiversity, and local economies are substantial.

UN: wild teak forests declining (03/28/2012) Wild teak forests continue to decline, threatening genetic diversity, while commercial planted teak forests are on the rise, according to a new assessment by the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO). Overall, teak forests have declined by 1.3 percent, or 385,000 hectares, worldwide from 1992 to 2010. Teak (Tectona grandis) is used for a variety of commercial purposes, including outdoor furniture and flooring.

September 25, 2012

Another dam on the Mekong in China

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Dr Milton Osborne is a visiting fellow at the Lowy Institute. He has been associated with Southeast Asia for more than fifty years since being posted to the Australian Embassy in Phnom Penh in 1959. He has held academic positions in Australia, the UK, US and Singapore. He was a consultant to the United Nations High Commissioner on Refugees in relation to the Cambodian refugee problem, and served as Head of the Asia Branch of the Office of National Assessments.  Since 1993 he has been an independent writer and consultant on Asian issues, based in Sydney, and has also been an adjunct professor and visiting fellow in the Faculty of Asian Studies at the Australian National University, Canberra. He is the author of ten books on the history and politics of Southeast Milton Osborne – 24 September 2012 3:32PM

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While there are continuing uncertainties as to whether a dam is going to be built on the mainstream of the Mekong at Xayaburi in Laos, Chinese authorities have just announced that the major dam at Nuozhadu on the upper reaches of the Mekong in Yunnan province has started generating electricity.

Nuozhadu is the fifth Chinese dam to be commissioned in Yunnan and it will ultimately have a generating capacity of 5500MW. For the moment only one of its nine generators is functioning, but all will be in operation in 2014. Like the already completed dam at Xiaowan (pictured), Nuozhadu has been built on an huge scale, with a dam wall rising 261m and a reservoir that will eventually cover 320sq km.

The official announcement in the China Daily is of more than passing interest, for two reasons. First, because it speaks of the newly operating dam as being one of seven Chinese dams on the upper section of the river lying within Chinese territory (it has previously been widely accepted that there would eventually be eight dams) and because it again repeats the claim that the Chinese cascade of dams will not effect downstream countries because only 13.5% of the water in the Mekong as a whole flows through China.

This claim has been discredited many times over, as I noted in my Lowy Paper, River at Risk.

Water from China is of great importance in sustaining dry season flow for the downstream countries, perhaps to a total of 40% of the river’s volume overall. So with each dam China builds there is the prospect of a greater diminishing of the flow, particularly as both Xiaowan and Nuozhadu will act as storage dams rather than having a ‘run of the river’ character.

There is no doubt that the commissioning of five dams in Yunnan province will have other long-term effects downstream, not least in relation to the amount of nutrient-rich sediment flowing down the river. There is also the likelihood that Cambodia’s Great Lake (Tonle Sap) will be reduced in area during the wet season, to the detriment of its current vital role as a source of much of Cambodia’s protein consumption through its vast bounty of fish.

China’s Mekong dams are so remote they receive little coverage in the Western media. Yet, like the more readily viewed sites for proposed dams in Laos and Cambodia, what is happening in China will eventually alter the productive capabilities of mainland Southeast Asia’s longest and most important river, a river vital to the sustenance of the 60 million people of the Lower Mekong Basin.

Photo by Flickr user International Rivers.

September 21, 2012

Restrictions on Religion Are Tightening, Study Finds

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Published: September 20, 2012

DAKAR, Senegal — Government restrictions on religion around the world were highest in the Middle East and North Africa, particularly in the period before the Arab Spring uprisings, a new study has found, underscoring a factor that fueled hostilities in the region and led to the rise of political Islam after the revolts.

The study, by the Pew Research Center’s Forum on Religion and Public Life, said that in 2010 government restrictions on religion were “high or very high” in most of the Arab Spring countries, where suppression of Islamist movements contributed to the uprisings and spurred subsequent incursions of Islamists into political power.

Restrictions in Tunisia went from “high” in mid-2009 to “very high” a year later, the study found. The uprising there began at the end of 2011.

In Egypt, restrictions were already high and edged up further between 2009 and 2010, the year before the country exploded. And in Yemen, where there also was an uprising, restrictions increased sharply over the same period.

Over all, the study found a worldwide rise in religious restrictions. It measured two basic yardsticks: a government restrictions index, and a social hostilities index. Government restrictions include moves by authorities to ban faiths and conversions, and to limit preaching. Social hostilities encompass mob violence and “religion-related intimidation or abuse,” such as harassment over attire.

The study found 15 countries with very high levels of social hostilities in 2010, up from 10 in 2007, with the new additions being Egypt, Nigeria, the Palestinian territories, Russia and Yemen. It noted that “in Nigeria, violence between Christian and Muslim communities, including a series of deadly attacks, escalated throughout the period.”

However, in Nigeria at least, the religious dimension is often superseded by, or a mask for, more complex underlying factors — elements not noted by the broad-brush, numbers-based Pew study. In the central region of Nigeria, for instance, where much of the ostensibly Christian-Muslim violence takes place, the mutually hostile groups are often motivated as much by disputes over land and longstanding ethnic friction as they are by religion.

The study found that increases in religious restrictions outnumbered decreases in all five major regions of the world, with sub-Saharan Africa scoring the largest share of countries with significant increases.

Over all, countries with “high or very high restrictions” rose from 31 percent of the total in 2009 to 37 percent in 2010. The Pew study found that 63 percent of countries had “increases in government restrictions” from 2009 to 2010.

Separately on Thursday, United Nations human rights investigators in Geneva said that more than 300 Christians had been arrested since mid-2010 in Iran, where, they said, churches operate in a “climate of fear.” Iran is given a score of “very high” on Pew’s Government Restrictions Index.

The Pew study found that restrictions also increased in Europe, like the Swiss ban on construction of minarets, and in the United States, noting a rising number of instances in which people were prevented from wearing clothing or beards, and problems in building places of worship.

A version of this article appeared in print on September 21, 2012, on page A7 of the New York edition with the headline: Curbs Found Tightening On Religion.

September 21, 2012

Libya Envoy’s Killing Was a Terrorist Attack, the White House Says

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Published: September 20, 2012
WASHINGTON — The White House is now calling the assault on the American diplomatic facility in Benghazi, Libya, a “terrorist attack.”

“It is self-evident that what happened in Benghazi was a terrorist attack,” the White House press secretary, Jay Carney, told reporters aboard Air Force One on Thursday. “Our embassy was attacked violently and the result was four deaths of American officials.”

Until now, White House officials have not used that language in describing the assault. But with the election less than two months away and President Obama’s record on national security a campaign issue, they have come under criticism from Republican lawmakers who say the administration is playing down a threat for which it was unprepared.

Mr. Carney offered the new assessment in response to a question about remarks by Matthew G. Olsen, director of the National Counterterrorism Center, who told a Congressional committee Wednesday that J. Christopher Stevens, the United States ambassador to Libya, and three other Americans had died “in the course of a terrorist attack.”

Asked if the president drew a connection between the Libyan attack, which occurred on Sept. 11, and the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon 11 years before, Mr. Carney said, “The attack occurred on Sept 11, 2012, so we use the same calendar at the White House as you do.”

In a highly charged political atmosphere, the mere use of the term “terrorist” is loaded, not least, as one administration official acknowledged privately, because the phrase conjures up an image of America under attack, something the White House wants to avoid.

Beyond that, different government agencies have different definitions for what defines terrorism, said Brian Fishman, a counterterrorism expert at the New America Foundation, a nonpartisan research group.

The classic definition, Mr. Fishman said, “is an attack by a nonstate group on noncombatants with the intent to intimidate people.” He said that another reason the administration was shying from using that term is because “they really didn’t know who did it.”

And the president, campaigning in Florida on Thursday, did not use the word terrorism when asked about the attacks.

Mr. Carney maintained on Thursday that Obama administration officials still were not calling the attack preplanned.

“According to the best information we have now, we believe it was an opportunistic attack on our mission in Benghazi,” he said. “It appears that some well-armed militants seized on that attack as the events unfolded that evening. We do not have any specific intelligence that there was significant advance planning or coordination for this attack.”Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said earlier in the week that there had been no intelligence warnings that an attack was imminent.

Mrs. Clinton said that F.B.I. investigators had arrived in Tripoli and that the United States, with the Libyan authorities, would find those responsible. She did not discuss any potential ties to Al Qaeda, but blamed extremists opposed to the democratic changes in places like Libya, Tunisia and Egypt for the violence and protests around the region generally.

On Thursday, Mrs. Clinton announced the creation of a panel to investigate the attack. The panel, called an Accountability Review Board, will be led by Thomas R. Pickering, a veteran diplomat and former under secretary of state. The board is authorized by a 1986 law intended to strengthen security at United States diplomatic missions.

“We are concerned first and foremost with our own people and facilities,” Mrs. Clinton said in an appearance at the State Department with the Indonesian foreign minister. “But we are concerned about the internal security in these countries, because ultimately, that puts at risk the men, women and children of these societies on a daily ongoing basis if actions are not taken to try to restore security and civil order.”

A version of this article appeared in print on September 21, 2012, on page A8 of the New York edition with the headline: U.S. Shifts Language On Assault In Benghazi.

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