Thursday, August 30, 2007

Al Gore wins Indian tribal award
By Subir Bhaumik
BBC News, Calcutta

Mr Gore has ceaselessly warned of the dangers of climate change
Khasi tribes people in the Indian state of Meghalaya have decided to honour former US Vice President Al Gore for promoting awareness on climate change.

They say changes in the weather are devastating the picturesque hill state.

Traditional chiefs of the tribe will confer the Grassroot Democracy awards on Al Gore for his campaign for measures to stop global warming.

A spokeswoman for Mr Gore said he was "humbled" to hear of the award, but was unsure if he could attend the ceremony.

'Abode of the clouds'

The tribes people say that they also want to honour him for his award-winning 2006 documentary, An Inconvenient Truth, which they say dramatically highlights changes to the environment because of global warming.

Al Gore

The award will be handed over at the second Dorbar Ri (People's Parliament) on 6 October near a sacred forest at the village of Mawphlang, which has been preserved untouched for more than 700 years.

The award will consist of traditional gifts including local handicrafts and a "small amount of money".

"We hope Mr Gore would be able to bring global attention to what we are facing in our part of the world," Meghalaya parliament member Robert Kharshing said.

"This whole thing called climate change is affecting us the most."

Meghalaya - literally "Abode of the Clouds" - is home to the towns of Cherrapunji and Mawsynram, which vie for the title of wettest place on earth.

But rampant deforestation and global warming mean these areas are getting less rain, while the soil is not able to hold water that does arrive, environmentalists say.

Amelia Sohtun, husband and their 17 children
Khasis say they are under threat (Photo: Subhamoy Bhattacharjee)

They say that this is not only affecting the livelihoods of hill farmers who depend on sub-soil water, but has even resulted in shortages of drinking water, particularly during winter months.

"Meghalaya will lose the very meaning of its name because of drastic climate change caused by global warming," said Peter Lyngdoh, a local environmentalist.

The tribes people say that they are also at risk from a greater influx of migrants from neighbouring Bangladesh, where global warming has increased the demand for living space because large coastal regions have become submerged.

"Such huge influxes will reduce us to foreigners in our own land," says local politician Paul Lyngdoh.

Such fears have prompted the authorities to launch what critics say are absurd measures to reward tribal mothers with cash if they give birth to more than 15 children.

Photo ID cards for Indian cattle

By Subir Bhaumik
BBC News, Calcutta

Indian border guards say cattle smuggling to Bangladesh is thriving
Indian border guards are photographing cows in villages in the eastern state of West Bengal and issuing them with identity cards, officials say.

Border Security Force (BSF) spokesman GK Sharma said the move was meant to stop smuggling of cattle from India to neighbouring Bangladesh.

Mr Sharma said thousands of cows were smuggled every day from West Bengal.

India prohibits cattle exports, as beef consumption is frowned upon by the country's majority Hindu population.

Thousands of villagers in the state's Murshidabad district bordering Bangladesh are queuing up outside photo studios to have their cows photographed for the identity cards.

Some cattle identity cards have already been issued in the district's border villages.

BSF officials in Calcutta say if the pilot project works well in Murshidabad, where cattle smuggling is at its highest, the scheme could be extended to other border districts.

Smuggling networks

Local estimates say that between 20,000 and 30,000 cows are smuggled into Bangladesh every day from India, mostly through the state of West Bengal.

Indian cow

These ID cards can help us easily identify the cattle brought for smuggling
Surinder Singh,
Indian Border Security Force official

Exporting cattle is illegal in India, but cows are smuggled in large numbers to Bangladesh and Pakistan regularly, primarily for beef.

The smuggling is at its highest during Muslim festivals.

Traffickers bring the cows by truck to West Bengal from as far as Haryana and Punjab in northern India.

"The traffickers have a strong network in the border villages, where the cattle are kept in transit, before being sent across the border," said BSF official in Murshidabad, Surinder Singh.

"Locals are paid for that, so they have a vested interest in the smuggling. These ID cards can help us easily identify the cattle brought for smuggling."

People in border villages say having their cattle photographed is a problem because it requires them to take time off work.

But they have agreed to the identity cards to avoid harassment by the BSF and police who often raid villages in search of cattle waiting to be smuggled to Bangladesh slaughterhouses.

Authorities say crime syndicates find it easy to tamper with branding or tattooing of the cattle - hence the idea for photo identity cards which should be difficult to falsify.

Valid for two years, each laminated cattle ID card displays the picture of the animal and its owner. It also carries vital information about the animal, such as its colour, height, sex and length of horns.

It carries the owner's name and address and sometimes other details about the animal - like one "horn missing" or "half tail lost".

Monday, August 27, 2007

Astonishing tower collapse screams "No New Nukes!!"
August 27, 2007

A cooling tower at the Vermont Yankee Nuclear Power plant has collapsed.

A broken 54" pipe there has spewed 350,000 gallons per minute of contaminated, overheated water into the Earth. "The river water piping and the series of screens and supports failed," said a company spokesman. They "fell to the ground."

The public and media were barred from viewing the wreckage for three days. But when a Congressional Energy Bill conference committee takes up Senate-approved loan guarantees for building new nukes this fall, what will reactor backers say about this latest pile of radioactive rubble?

This kind of event can make even hardened nuke opponents pinch themselves and read the descriptions twice. Who could make this up?

Vermont Yankee has been in operation---more or less---since the early 1970s. Its owner is Entergy, a multi-reactor "McNuke" operator that last year got approval to up VY's output by 20%.

Required inspections revealed worrisome cracks and other structural problems. Entergy dismissed all that, but was forced to issue a "ratepayer protection policy" against incidents caused by the power increase. The guarantee expired earlier this month, not long before the collapse.

The tower came down amidst angry negotiations between Entergy and plant workers. A strike was barely averted, but VY's labor troubles are by no means over.

The reactor's output has now been slashed 50%. A public battle is raging over whether it can dump water even hotter than usual into the Connecticut River. Reactors in Alabama, France and elsewhere have been forced shut because the rivers that cool them have exceeded 90 degrees.

Yankee's cooling system, vintage 1972, centers on 22 (now 21) wood, fiberglass and metal towers that stretch for 300 feet, and are 50 feet high and 40 feet wide. The company calls this giant rig a "rain forest."

Operators admit to hearing "strange sounds" coming from its fans last week, but say Tuesday's collapse was unexpected.

Nuclear opponents who warned about such an event have been scorned by Entergy and its supporters. That something as apparently absurd as the spontaneous collapse of an entire cooling tower could actually occur underlines America's Keystone Kops reality of atomic operation and regulation. "We need to understand what happened," explains the Nuclear Regulatory Commission's Diane Screnci.

So does Congress. A definitive Conference Committee battle will be fought after Labor Day over an Energy Bill that includes taxpayer guarantees for $50 billion and more to build new nukes.

Meanwhile Vermonters will pay for this latest pile of radioactive reactor rubble. Maybe a "fall foliage" field trip to the Green Mountain State would do the Congress some good.

Harvey Wasserman's SOLARTOPIA: OUR GREEN-POWERED EARTH, A.D. 2030, is available at He is senior advisor to Greenpeace USA and the Nuclear Information & Resource Service, and senior editor of, where this article first appeared.

Sunday, August 26, 2007

Inside an Afghan opium market
By Bilal Sarwary
BBC News, Shaddle Bazaar, eastern Afghanistan

Opium being sold at Shaddle Bazaar
Opium sellers are wary of outsiders

Travelling on Afghanistan's main Jalalabad to Torkham road, you eventually arrive at Shaddle Bazaar, a market of around 30 shops in the eastern province of Nangarhar, on the border with Pakistan.

At first glance, it looks like any other normal market offering everyday goods.

But in reality, this is one of Afghanistan's biggest opium markets.

Farmers from Nangarhar and other adjacent provinces bring opium to Shaddle to sell. Much of it comes from Nangarhar and Helmand - two of Afghanistan's biggest opium-producing provinces.

Mud hut shop

Thousands of kilos of opium are bought and sold every day.

Sitting inside the shop tension between the drug dealers is visible - for a few minutes there is hot dispute and shouting over prices and the quality of the opium before the transaction is completed.

There are big scales in the shop, and the assistant weighs the opium on it - Gul Mohammad is busy counting out Pakistani rupees to pay for the opium he has bought from one of his customers.

In his mud hut shop he buys hundreds of kilos of opium every day and the smell of it is everywhere.

Outside his shop vehicles come and go - green tea is served constantly for the visitors.

It's argued that opium can be used for medicinal purposes

But you do not have to study what is going on too closely to notice the unusual - a man carries a big bag full of hundreds of thousands of Afghanis.

The dealers all carry pistols which they say is for their own protection.

Customers enter the shop bringing opium packed secretly, which they refer to by its nickname as maal. They are constantly on the look-out for government informers.

I am repeatedly asked not to take pictures of anyone's face, nor should I name anyone. The names of those involved in the drugs trade in this piece have been made up to protect their identity.

"We could get killed or arrested," says one of the few people in the shop willing to talk to me.

Europe bound

Some villagers, like 18-year-old Abdullah Jan, have to walk for hours before reaching Shaddle. The tiredness on his face explains it all - if he is stopped by government agents or bandits he would lose money that feeds his family for the entire year.

"I left at four in the morning and got here after four hours. I have brought 10kg of opium from my fields to sell."

After a hard bargain with Gul Mohammad Khan, the opium dealer, he is getting the equivalent of $1,400 - more than he can get for any other crop. He is one of hundreds of people who travel to Shaddle bazaar to sell and buy opium.

From here the opium is taken to the nearby mountains and villages in the border areas to heroin labs set up by local drug dealers, where it is processed into heroin.

Eventually, it will hit the streets of Europe.

The market first began to sell opium openly under the Taleban regime after they permitted the cultivation of poppies.

After the fall of the Taleban in 2001, the market has been raided several times but it has re-opened again and again.

In recent months, Afghanistan's elite anti-drug force has raided the bazaar with the help of foreign forces in the country - they made arrests and seized opium and heroin in large quantities. But they did not succeed in closing down the bazaar indefinitely.

Last year, Afghanistan's poppy production reached record levels.

The US state department's annual report on narcotics said the flourishing drugs trade was undermining the fight against the Taleban.

Powerful mafia

It warned of a possible increase in heroin overdoses in Europe and the Middle East as a result.

Poppy production rose 25% in 2006, a figure US Assistant Secretary of State Ann Patterson described as alarming. Four years after the US and its British allies began combating poppy production, Afghanistan still accounts for 90% of the world's opium trade.

Opium being burnt in Afghanistan
The authorities are trying to eradicate opium crops

The US has recently given the Afghan government more than $10bn in assistance, but most of the money will be spent on security rather than encouraging alternative sources of income.

For 45-year-old Gul Mohammad Khan being a opium trader is his way of surviving.

"If we had roads, clinics, factories and if there were job opportunities I would not do what I am doing now," he said.

For the past 10 years Mr Mohammad has seen many regimes and local officials come and go. His shop has been raided many times but he has never been arrested.

Inside, I am shown various qualities of opium and other raw material that are used to make heroin. Current prices are anywhere from 10,000 Afghanis ($201) for a kilo of dry opium - that is the best quality - to around 5,500 Afghanis ($110) for wet opium.

Target traffickers

According to officials, the mafia is powerful and strong.

"They are so strong that we sometimes find ourselves outnumbered fighting them," says Gen Daud Daud, the deputy minister of interior in charge of counter narcotics.

"In these mountains of Achin district and other border villages they have everything from heavy machine guns, rocket-propelled grenades and of course better vehicles and more money than we do."

Haji Deen Gul - who is selling 20kg of opium - is critical of the Afghan government and the international community for targeting the farmers. Instead he wants the traffickers to be targeted.

"They should target the ones who are selling the heroin to Western countries. I sell my opium to feed my family and from my heroin they can even make medicine. When I have water and roads provided to me, I will stop growing poppies."

Before I leave Gul Mohammad Khan's shop, he tells me selling opium is not ideally the trade he wants to be in.

"I don't want my children to be in this trade and I hope that some day the world will help us. Only then can we stop the opium trade."

Fight to save Olympic birthplace

Hill of Kronos burning

The hill of Kronos, overlooking Olympia, was engulfed by fire
Forest fires are burning inside ancient Olympia, birthplace of the Olympics, but firefighters have kept the site safe, Greek officials say.

Flames licked the edges of the original Olympic stadium and scorched the yard of the museum, home to one of Greece's greatest archaeological collections.

Fires have ravaged large parts of Greece, affecting the Peloponnese, areas around Athens and Evia island.

On Sunday five bodies were found on Evia, bringing the death toll to 56.

Five fire trucks are protecting the archaeological museum, which houses sculptures from the Temple of Zeus and artefacts from the ancient Olympics, and anti-fire systems have been switched on, according to the secretary general of the culture ministry, Christos Zahopoulos.

A new fire protection and sprinkler system was installed at the Unesco World Heritage site for the 2004 Athens Olympics.

See map of affected areas

Culture Minister George Voulgarakis has arrived in Olympia to oversee the emergency effort.

"We don't know exactly how much damage there is in the Olympia area, but the important thing is that the museum is as it was and the archaeological site will not have any problem," he told Associated Press news agency as he visited the area.

A fire brigade spokesman said that six planes, two helicopters, 15 fire engines and 45 firemen had participated in the effort to protect the site.

However, villages and woodlands in the surrounding area were not so fortunate. The BBC's Malcolm Brabrant in the nearby village of Pelopi says that village after village succumbed to the flames and people began to flee for their lives.

An ancient Greek religious site dating back 10 centuries before Christ
Home of the ancient Olympics, first held in 8th Century BC
Was location of giant ivory and gold Statue of Zeus, one of seven wonders of the world
Olympics continued until banned by Roman Emperor Theodosius I in 394 AD
Place where Olympic flame is still lit

Inside a fire starter's mind

At one stage, the flames were racing at more than a mile every few minutes, our correspondent said.

One local villager, speaking to Greek television by telephone, told of the battle to save homes:

"We have no water, we are at God's mercy," they said. "Please tell someone we are putting out the fire with our own hands, we have no help. The village will disappear from the map."

Angela Katsiki, a resident of the village of Kolliri, near to Olympia, told the BBC that she was devastated about the damage the fire had caused to the surrounding area.

"Horrified, absolutely... sad, really really sad. This is the worse I've seen - I've seen other fires here, but this is the worse. It's completely destroyed the area."

Sun obscured

The rapidly advancing fires caught many people unawares. Those who left the decision to flee too late were caught in their houses, cars, or as they stumbled through olive groves.

On Sunday, officials announced that five more people had been killed by fires in Evia, an island north of the capital Athens.

Towns on the island of Evia were being evacuated on Sunday, with ferries carrying people to the mainland near Athens.

"The fire is racing towards the town," a resident of the island town of Aliveri told Greek TV.

This is complete hell. The front is 30km long and has now reached the first houses
Petros Filippou
Mayor of Kalyvia, Athens

In pictures: Fires unabated
Witnesses tell of fire horror

"We are leaving or else we will burn to death. There is no one to help us," he said.

Meanwhile Athens itself was shrouded in smoke that obscured the sun as several fires threatened the city's outskirts.

Houses and industrial buildings in the suburbs of Keratea and Kalyvia were destroyed.

"This is complete hell," said Kalyvia mayor Petros Filippou.

"The front is 30km (19 miles) long and has now reached the first houses. That's it."

At least 39 people were reported to have been killed in the worst affected region, around the town of Zaharo in the western Peloponnese, by a fire that broke out on Friday and quickly spread. Another four bodies were discovered in the central Peloponnese region of Arcadia.

International effort

The Greek PM has implied that many fires were started deliberately.

In a nationally televised address, Costas Karamanlis said: "So many fires breaking out simultaneously in so many parts of the country cannot be a coincidence.

Nasa picture of fires on Greece

The Greek fires are seen from space in this Nasa picture
"The state will do everything it can to find those responsible and punish them."

A 65-year-old man has been charged with arson and murder relating to a fire which killed six people in Areopolis, in the far south of Greece.

Two youths were also detained on suspicion of arson in the northern city of Kavala.

Mr Karamanlis has declared a nationwide state of emergency and said the country had to "mobilise all means and forces to face this disaster".

"Fires are burning in more than half the country," fire department spokesman Nikos Diamandis said.

"This is definitely an unprecedented disaster for Greece."

Emergency workers and fire-fighting planes from other European Union countries have joined the battle against the fires, and more help is expected from countries outside the bloc.

"Thirty-one planes and helicopters from various European countries and from Israel will be sent. We also have an offer of assistance from the American and Russian governments with whom I communicated yesterday evening," Greek Foreign Affairs Minister Dora Bakoyannis said.