Saturday, August 24, 2013

Yasuni National Park Setback to Environment

Ecuadorean president Rafael Correa ended the Yasuni Ishpingo-Tiputini-Tambococha (Yasuni-ITT) initiative, a pioneering conservation plan to protect the Yasuni National Park in the Ecuadorean Amazons. His executive order on August 15 ended the plan which had been active for six years.

The Yasuni National Park in Eastern Ecuador covers an area of 9800 square kilometers. It is one of the world’s richest areas in biodiversity. It is home to many amphibians, reptiles and other flora and fauna. It is also home to the Ishpingo-Tiputini-Tambococha (ITT) oil fields which are estimated to have 800 million barrels of crude oil, one fifths of the total estimated reserves in Ecuador.

Location of the Yasuni National Park (Wikimedia Commons)
The Yasuni-ITT initiative was designed by the then Energy minister Alberto Acosta and was inaugurated in June 2007. Ecuador intended to leave the park undisturbed in exchange for compensation from the international community. In addition to the preservation of the park, it was estimated that the initiative would prevent 400 million metric tons of carbon dioxide from entering the atmosphere. The government hoped to generate funds of at least 50% of the profits that it would receive were it to utilize the oil reserves. In total it hoped that $3.6 billion would be raised over 12 years.

However, the Ecuadorean president was disappointed at the response. While some private contributors including former U.S. vice president Al Gore donated funds, it had little support from governments. Therefore, Correa lamented that "the world has failed us." Furthermore, he called the world's richest countries hypocrites who emit most of the world's greenhouse gases while expecting nations like his to sacrifice economic progress for the environment. "It was not charity that we sought from the international community, but co-responsibility in the face of climate change," Correa also said. Through his executive order, he liquidated the Yasuni-ITT trust fund formally ending the initiative. Correa added that only $336 million had been pledged, and of that only $13.3 million had actually been delivered.

Although it was hailed as an idealistic project, the Yamani-ITT initiative had several problems. Critics accused Correa of environmental extortion. Others were skeptical about what would happen to donations if the program collapsed.

The president assured that the oil drilling would affect only one percent of the area of the park, which may not reassure anyone. Some argue that building roads and other constructions in the area will inevitably lead to a much bigger environmental damage. However, whether Correa’s assessment is correct or not is immaterial. The fact that a popular leftist president chose development over environment has far reaching implications.

Under Rafael Correa, Ecuador was known for her progressive environmentalist measures. It is the first country which recognized the rights of nature by its constitution. However, some of his former allies predicted the coming change in Correa’s policies. Acosta, who was the architect of the Yamani-ITT initiative and was also instrumental in drafting the 2008 constitution, ran against him in the presidential election last February. Acosta lamented that Correa was almost his brother but had later deviated from the basic principles of revolution. He predicted that Correa was going to scrap the Yasuni-ITT initiative. “The infrastructure is already in place to exploit the oil," Acosta warned during the election campaign. "Correa takes credit for the ITT initiative outside of Ecuador. But in reality he doesn't feel comfortable with it. He's preparing to blame rich nations for not giving enough to make it work."

More than half of Ecuador’s current crude oil output is exported to the United States despite the political differences between the two countries. Meanwhile, Ecuador has also been a key recipient of Chinese investment and aid. China, an energy hungry giant, is seeking other sources of energy because of the volatile political situation in Western Asia. Therefore, China may have had a big hand in forcing Rafael Correa to backtrack on Yasuni.

After his presidential election victory in February, where he received 57 percent of the vote and after the death of Hugo Chavez a few days later, Rafael Correa was mentioned as a possible leader of the Latin American left. However his latest move has damaged his credibility as a populist leader considerably. Around 80 percent Ecuadorians oppose drilling in Yasuni National Park despite their president’s decision.

Monday, July 29, 2013

Koodankulam Nuclear Power Plant Controversy Continues

The first reactor of the Koodankulam nuclear power plant (KKNPP) went critical two weeks ago, despite two years of continuous protests by local population. This is the culmination of a process started over two decades ago and the protests against it have taken place almost from the time it was first proposed.

Koodankulam is located north east of Kanyakumari in the coast of the Mannar Bay. The Indo-Soviet inter-governmental agreement for the building of the power plant was signed in 1988 by the Rajiv Gandhi government and the Soviet Union. With the collapse of the latter, the plan had to be put on hold. Although construction started in 2001, it dragged on. Meanwhile, protests against the power plant also took place from the late 1980s onwards.

The main concern of the protestors has been the safety of millions of people living around Koodankulam, a concern which increased manifold after the Fukushima disaster. The People’s Movement against Nuclear Energy (PMANE) points out that there are more than one million people living within a circle with a radius of 30km from the power plant. Opponents of the power plant argue that it is impossible to evacuate such a huge population in an emergency.

Furthermore, it has been alleged that sub-standard equipment has been used in the construction of the plant, which increases the apprehensions over safety. The PMANE states that the equipment and parts have been supplied by “discredited Russian companies such as ZiO-Podolsk, Informtekh and Izhorskiye Zavody.” It point outs that some officers of these companies have been arrested and sometimes even found guilty of fraud. However the plant director R.S. Sundar and other officials are confident that the safety levels are satisfactory.

Kudankulam Nuclear Power Plant Construction Site (April 14, 2009) Photo:Petr Pavlicek/IAEA

Protest marches, hunger strikes and other protest activities have been a part of life for the people in Koodankulam for two years. The authorities allege that PMANE is an organization which is manipulated by foreign financial backers. The PMANE hotly denies these charges and states that it is a people’s movement.

One major hope of the protestors was a Public Interest Litigation filed at the Supreme Court of India demanding that all nuclear power plant projects be stopped until safety measures and cost benefit analyses are carried out by independent agencies. However, the Supreme Court decided that Koodankulam could go on, stating that nuclear power is important for sustainable economic growth. The court further stated that the right to life and sustainable development should be balanced. It was of the opinion that various expert groups have stated that there is no radiation risk in the area.

However, the Supreme Court asked the Nuclear Power Corporation of India Ltd. (NPCIL) to comply with all safety measures and submit a report to the court before commissioning the power plant. The NPCIL submitted a report just one day before the initiation of the “boron dilution process” without waiting for the comments of the Supreme Court. Initiation of the boron dilution process marks the power plant going critical, which means it has started the process of nuclear fission reaction. It will be a matter of time before the reactor is fully active.

The Supreme Court judgment has not allayed the fears of the public. Writing an open letter to the Prime Minister of India and the Chief Minister of Tamil Nadu, Major General (retired) S. G. Vombatkere says that the KKNPP went critical “in contempt of people's well-founded fears for safety and health through calculated intransparency to the questions and issues raised by them.” He points out the fact that the NPCIL has not followed the Supreme Court’s directive. In an e-mail correspondence, ‘The Nation’ asked Major General (retired) Vombatkere whether this amounted to contempt of the court. “Though I am not a legal expert, I agree with you that this could be viewed as contempt of court” Vombatkere replied.

Critics also contest the assertion that nuclear power plants are economically viable. The high initial cost, the life span of only about 40 years, costs of maintenance and eventual decommissioning, safely disposing nuclear waste are all costly procedures. This and other concerns are still prevalent in the opponents of the KKNPP. Vombatkere mentions long-term health damage to people who live even up to 50-km away from it, long-term damage to the ocean environment from radioactive discharges and heat dumping, being a constant threat to safety due to substandard components, and being a radioactive blot on the ecosystem even after it is decommissioned as the main concerns.

Meanwhile, the fact that Koodankulam is situated relatively close to Sri Lanka has also raised some concerns in the island nation. In an event of an accident, Sri Lanka is likely to be affected. International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) Convention on Nuclear Safety stipulates that if a country is commissioning a new nuclear power plant in the vicinity of another country, the second country should also be provided with appropriate information for emergency planning and response. Indian authorities have reportedly not complied with this clause in the convention, despite being a member of the IAEA.

Thursday, July 11, 2013

Caribbean Sunshine for China-Xi Jinping’s Historic Visit to Trinidad and Tobago

Just after Sri Lankan president Mahinda Rajapaksa left China concluding a four day official visit in late last May, Chinese president Xi Jinping embarked on an official trip to the Americas. This would take him to four countries including Costa Rica, Mexico and the United States. But his first destination was the small Caribbean island nation of Trinidad and Tobago.

President Xi Jinping held talks with both Anthony Carmona, the president of Trinidad and Tobago and Kamla Persad-Bissessar, the Prime Minister on June 1. Meanwhile, leaders of about eight other Caribbean nations arrived in Trinidad and Tobago to meet the Chinese president. They included several small island nations as well as Guyana and Suriname.

The president of the most populous country in the world chose to visit a geographically distant nation of just over 1.3 million people because of one crucial factor: Energy. Trinidad and Tobago is different from all other small Caribbean island nations due to its large deposits of oil and natural gas. It is considered to be an industrial country largely due to the industries based on fossil fuels.

Trinidad and Tobago, CIA World Factbook

China is a giant with a growing appetite of energy to sustain her industries. From 1993, when China became a net importer of petroleum, the need for energy has had a persistent effect on her foreign policy. China looked for new markets to acquire energy, sometimes even disregarding differences in political opinion. Meanwhile, she even went as far as escalating maritime boundary disputes with several East Asian and South East Asian countries for the control of regions with possible petroleum deposits.

As far as Trinidad and Tobago was concerned, China was a far away land, despite having diplomatic relations since the 1970s. The Caribbean nation was more close to the United States and Britain economically and politically. Meanwhile she is closer to India and Africa ethnically. But this was no reason for China to deter. She had entered contests of economic competition in a number of developing countries and ousted well entrenched rivals through her sheer weight of economic might. To paraphrase Don Vito Corleone, China made offers which these countries could not refuse.

There have been continuous discussions and speculations about the Chinese involvement in many African countries as well as some Asian countries. Meanwhile, Latin America and the Caribbean have also received increasing attention from the Chinese. In 2001, the then president Jiang Zemin paid a much celebrated tour of six Latin American nations. His successor Hu Jintao also visited the region several times. Therefore, the last fifteen years have seen a growing Chinese interest in the neighborhood of the United States. Little Trinidad and Tobago has also risen in importance for the Chinese. In the last six years, trade between the small island nation and the Asian giant has grown from US $ 174 million to US $ 450 million. China is increasingly asserting herself in the ‘backyard’ of the United States.

The Chinese rationale for the development of relationship in petroleum rich states away from the Middle East is sound. The Middle East is prone to political instability. The trade routes from there to China have two major choke points, the straits of Hormuz and Malacca. The Strait of Malacca was threatened by the activity of pirates just a few years ago. China remembers the earlier occasion when the access to Strait of Malacca was denied them five centuries ago. When the Portuguese captured Malacca in 1511, Chinese trade routes were jeopardized and China, which had a rich maritime history, retreated into a shell and slumbered. What was perhaps the most advanced civilization at the time started its long stagnation.

While the commodities traded are different today, the result will be the same if a resurgence of political instability or piracy interferes with the trade routes from Arabia to China. Without much needed energy, China will stagnate once again. This apprehension has driven them to find new petroleum resources in other regions and Latin America is one of them.

However, China has understood that trade is not the only tool in diplomacy. She has granted a loan to Trinidad and Tobago government to build a new children’s hospital. Meanwhile, a branch of the Confucian Institute would be opened with the aim of propagating Chinese culture in the island nation. With these acts of public diplomacy, China has made her intentions clear. She is there to stay. Do not be surprised if you see some Chinese cultural items in the famous carnival of Trinidad in a few years time.

Friday, July 5, 2013

UNASUR Leaders Denounce the Forced Landing of Evo Morales’s Plane

Leaders of five nations of the Union of South American Nations (UNASUR) gathered in an extraordinary meeting at Cochabamba on July 4 and denounced the forced landing of the presidential plane of President of Bolivia Evo Morales. The plane was forced to land in Vienna after four European countries reportedly denied air space on suspicion that former National Security Agency (NSA) agent turned whistle blower Edward Snowden was on the plane.

In a six point “Cochabamba Declaration” the leaders have stated that the restriction of the freedom of President Morales is a violation of the rights of not only the Bolivian people but of all South American people. They have also declared that this act sets a dangerous precedent in international law. It violates a basic principle in international law, the inviolability of a Head of State.

An Extraodinary Meeting held in Brasilia in 2008.  Antônio Cruz/ABr (Agencia Brasil). Wikimedia Commons.

The UNASUR leaders call on the governments of France, Portugal, Italy and Spain to explain the reasons for the decision to prevent the presidential plane of the Plurinational State of Bolivia overflying through their airspace. They also urge the four countries to offer a public apology.

The UNASUR leaders, through the “Cochabamba Declaration” have extended their support for the complaint filed by the Plurinational State of Bolivia to the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, for the serious violation of Human Rights and concrete endangerment of Life of President Evo Morales.  The declaration also supports the right of the Plurinational State of Bolivia to perform all the actions necessary steps before the courts and relevant agencies.

The leaders have agreed to form a Monitoring Committee, to take the necessary actions to clarify the facts.

Sunday, June 16, 2013

Valentina Tereshkova, the Seagull who Conquered Space

Today, Valentina Vladimirovna Tereshkova marks fifty years of her life as a celebrity. Exactly half a century ago, dressed in a space suit bearing the now long discarded Soviet Flag, she was propelled to space and to fame. The 26 year old former textile worker from Yaroslavl became the first woman in space on June 16, 1963.

RIA Novosti archive, image #66514 / Alexander Mokletsov / CC-BY-SA 3.0

Her father, a tank leader sergeant in the Soviet Red Army, died during the Winter War against Finland when Valentina was just two years old. This may have played a part in Valentina’s eventual selection to be the first woman in space. Her proletarian background as a worker and the fact that she was a child of a war hero is said to have partly motivated Nikita Khrushchev to make the decision to send her on the Vostok 6 mission that June. Her fresh looking face also helped as the Soviet leader noted that her image as the first woman in space would become a long time propaganda asset to the party and the state.

After Yuri Gagarin’s pioneering space flight in April 1961, Sergei Korolev, the head of the Soviet space program, came up with the idea of sending a woman to space. Five women were selected by the medical selection board in late 1961 for the program. In early 1962, they started their intensive training program which included both theory and practical components including rocket theory, spacecraft engineering, weightless flights, isolation tests, centrifuge sets, pilot training and parachute jumping.

After the success of the Vostok 3-Vostok 4 missions in August 1962, the Soviets came up with the idea of launching a similar project involving two women cosmonauts. However, this plan was revised in early 1963 to include one male and one female cosmonaut instead. On June 14, 1963, Vostok 5 mission was to carry Valery Bykovsky to space. Two days later, Vostok 6 was to carry the first female cosmonaut to space. In May, Tereshkova was selected for the mission with Irina Solovyova as the backup and Valentina Ponomaryova as reserve. Both Tereshkova and Solovyova took the journey to the Baikonur Cosmodrome in present day Kazakhstan, prepared for the space flight. Solovyova, the backup, was there to take Tereshkova’s place at short notice if an emergency occurred. Nothing unexpected happened and Tereshkova was sealed inside the Vostok 6. After a countdown of two hours, she was launched to space.

Tereshkova’s call sign during the mission was “Chaika” (Seagull). She orbited the Earth 48 times in the three days she was in space and conducted tests on how the female human body would react to space conditions. Despite all the propaganda, some suggest that her performance was criticized by some scientists in the Soviet space program. However, no other woman went to space for nearly two decades.

After her flight, Valentina Tereshkova became a valuable propaganda asset to the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (CPSU). Lucy Ash of the BBC has argued that “Tereshkova’s life was hijacked by the party.” Before the end of the year, she had married Andrian Nikolaev, the only bachelor out of the first five Soviet cosmonauts. This was perhaps the wedding of the year in the Soviet Union and Nikita Khrushchev himself gave away the bride. Their daughter, Elena Andrianova Nikolaeva-Tereshkova was the first child born to two space travelers. When the couple separated, it required the approval of the then Soviet leader, Brezhnev.

Valentina Tereshkova’s image has been carefully preserved, first by the Soviet regime and then by the Russian government. She held numerous posts in the CPSU and became a symbol of the Soviet Union abroad. She effectively became a useful propaganda tool for the party and the state. After the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, she lost her political positions but not her fame. Tereshkova later returned to politics as a member of the Russian Duma of the ruling United Russia Party. She is the deputy chairperson of its foreign affairs committee.

Despite being a politician for many years after her voyage in 1963, Tereshkova has not lost her passion for space. She meets with her fellow members of the female space program and is very interested in the activities concerning space. Recently, she expressed her willingness to travel to Mars, given the opportunity, even if it turns out to be a one way ticket. “We know the human limits. And for us this remains a dream. Most likely the first flight will be one way. But I am ready,” she said recently at a press conference in Star City, outside Moscow.