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An overview on the UN Declaration of Peasants and Rural Workers Rights

The UN United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Peasants and Other People Working in Rural Areas was adopted by the United Nations (UN) at the end of 2018 by a large majority (121 votes in favour, 54 abstentions, 8 votes against). This Declaration marks the culmination of a historic process: it is the result of nearly 20 years of mobilization of La Via Campesina and its allies, and 6 years of negotiation at the UN Human Rights Council.

The Millennium Project Task Force on Hunger has shown that 80 % of the world’s hungry people live in rural areas. Seventy-five percent (75%) of the one billion people living in extreme poverty in the world today live and work in rural areas. The global food crises of 2008 and 2009 and the corona virus that has been shaking the world since the end of 2019 have worsened the situation. Half of the people suffering from hunger are smallholders who depend mainly or partly on agriculture for their livelihood. Some 20 % are landless families who survive as sharecroppers or as low-paid farm labourers who often have to move from one precarious and informal job to another; 10 % live in rural communities with traditional fishing, hunting and herding practices. Women account for as much as 70 % of the world’s hungry people and the vast majority of them work in the agricultural sector.

Despite the existence of several international instruments for the protection of the civil, political, economic, social and cultural rights of individuals, the above figures indicating the number of people affected by hunger in rural areas have been increasing steadily. Discrimination against this category of the population continues. Studies on human rights violations committed against rural populations show that existing human rights instruments are not sufficient to protect them and that certain specific aspects of the condition of peasants are not sufficiently taken into account. The UN Human Rights Council therefore considered the need for a specific legal instrument to explicitly strengthen the rights of people living and working in rural areas very important. The result of this consideration is the “Declaration on the Rights of Peasants and Other people working in rural areas”.

In 2010, the Human Rights Council mandated the Advisory Committee to undertake a preliminary study on ways and means to further promote the rights of people working in rural areas, including women, in particular smallholders engaged in the production of food and/or other agricultural products.  In 2011 and 2012, the Advisory Committee presented this study identifying five main causes of hunger that particularly affect peasants and other people working in rural areas: Expropriation of land, forced evictions and displacement; Gender discrimination; Absence of agrarian reform and rural development policies, including irrigation and seeds; Repression and criminalization of movements protecting the rights of people working in rural areas Lack of a minimum wage and social protection. The recent phenomenon of global “land-grab” has added another dimension to these concerns as Governments and companies seek to buy and lease large tracts of productive land in other countries, for food to be exported back to their countries, or to grow biofuels to fill the petrol tanks of those in the global north. Supermarkets buy their products primarily from large producers who are able to supply larger quantities. Because of their market power, supermarkets often dictate discount prices. These low prices in turn lead to poor wages and a lack of protection for farm workers.

An important outcome of this declaration is a major step forward in the protections of the rights of peasants and other rural workers. The rights stipulated therein are conditions for the realization of the right to food of the target groups, including: the right to land; the right to seeds; the right to means of production such as water, credit and tools; the right to food sovereignty. Most of these rights are new and do not appear in any other human rights instrument. This is the case, for example, of the right to land, seeds and means of production.

States have a great responsibility to ensure that peasants and others working in rural areas fully enjoy their rights. In the context of the declaration, States have, inter alia, the obligation to respect and protect: they must not interfere with the realization of the rights of peasants; they must refrain from expelling peasants by depriving them of the resources they need to lead a dignified life; they must refrain from adopting laws that allow private actors to abuse the rights of peasants; they must avoid issuing environmental permits knowing that the authorized activity will pollute the land and water and affect the right to water or to food and nutrition. The declaration obliges States to adopt all necessary measures to prevent private persons, such as landowners or transnational and national companies, from interfering with the realization of these rights.

An overview on the UN Declaration of Peasants and Rural Workers Rights

Catholic girl in Pakistan in protective custody after abduction, forced marriage

Azoo Raja. Credit: Aid to the Church in Need UK.
Azoo Raja. Credit: Aid to the Church in Need UK.

CNA Staff,- Arzoo Raja, a 13-year-old Catholic girl in Pakistan whom a 44-year-old man allegedly kidnapped, forced to convert to Islam, and married, has been recovered and is in protective custody.

Raja, who is from Karachi, was kidnapped in broad daylight Oct. 13 by Ali Azhar, 44. Raja’s parents were informed days later by the police that their daughter had converted to Islam and had married Azhar, allegedly of her own free will.

Her parents filed a police report, and Jibran Nasir, the family’s lawyer, said the girl’s parents had filed a harassment petition on her behalf in late October.

Two weeks after her abduction, on Oct. 27, the Sindh High Court, based on statements the girl gave saying she was 18, ruled the marriage was valid and that Azhar would not be arrested.

The High Court reversed itself and ordered police to find the teenager Nov. 2, the BBC reported. She was recovered later that day and will remain in protective custody until a court hearing Nov. 5. Azhar was arrested the same day and was expected to appear in court Nov. 3.

Documentation has proven that Raja was born in 2007 and is 13 years old.

Child marriage is technically illegal in Pakistan, but courts typically do not enforce these laws. Sharia, which is used in some judicial decisions in Pakistan, permits a child to be married after her first menstrual period.

Approximately 400 people protested the decision at St. Patrick’s Catholic Church in Karachi, and Christians in other parts of the country protested as well. Aid to the Church in Need, which supports persecuted Christians, has provided legal and paralegal aid in the case.

Fr. Saleh Diego, vicar general of the Archdiocese of Karachi, condemned the court for ruling without properly investigating the circumstances.

“Whatever happened in the court was shameful and deplorable. It was all lies that the girl was being sent to a shelter home,” Diego said.

“The court, without checking or determining Arzoo’s age, ruled in favor of the abductors.”

The vicar general said there was a “disturbing trend” in Pakistan of Catholic girls being forcibly converted to Islam.

“Religious minorities living in Pakistan are concerned about the future of their daughters who are being converted to Islam,” he said. “But why only girls? Are our boys not good enough for religious conversion? Why are they not so easily converted?” he asked.

In February, the Sindh High Court ruled that a marriage between a 14-year-old girl who was kidnapped, forced to marry her abductor, and convert to Islam was not a violation of the Sindh Child Marriage Restraint Act.

The court found that as the girl had experienced her first menstrual period, the marriage was legal.

Pakistan’s state religion is Islam, and around 97 percent of the population is Muslim.

The country was designated, for the first time, a “Country of Particular Concern” in December 2018 for its religious freedom record by the US Department of State.

Catholic and other religious leaders signed a joint resolution in August 2019 encouraging the Pakistani government to adopt policies to protect religious minorities. It included 10 recommendations meant to safeguard the rights of minorities and women, and its signers included representatives of the country’s Muslim, Hindu, Sikh, and Baha’i communities.

The first point adopted in the joint resolution urges that the minimum age for marriage be made 18 years; the current marriage age for women is now 16.

The religious leaders also noted that “there is no forced conversion according to the Holy Quran.” On that basis, they urged legislation against abduction, sexual violence, and subsequent forced conversion to Islam, which acts they said do not propagate “the true spirit of Islam.”

https://www.catholicnewsagency.com/news/catholic-girl-in-pakistan-in-protective-custody-after-abduction-forced-marriage-85528

‘Madman’ digs for decades to bring water to dry Indian village

Laungi Bhuiya is now being hailed as the 'Water Man' and 'River Man' [Courtesy of Jai Prakash/Al Jazeera]
Laungi Bhuiya is now being hailed as the ‘Water Man’ and ‘River Man’ [Courtesy of Jai Prakash/Al Jazeera]

Gaya, Bihar – For nearly 30 years, Ramrati Devi had called her husband Laungi Bhuiya “mad” and tried everything, even denying him food, to get him to focus more on supporting their children and less on what seemed like an impossible dream.

The other villagers in Kothilwa, a parched and poor hamlet in a remote corner of India’s eastern state of Bihar, dismissed Bhuiya when he said he would bring water to them one day.

Kothilwa is about 80 kilometres (50 miles) from Gaya, the closest major city, and is home to nearly 750 people – most of them Dalits – who live in mud huts.

Dalits, formerly referred to as the “untouchables”, fall at the bottom of India’s complex caste hierarchy and have historically faced social marginalisation and discrimination.

A narrow unpaved road off a highway is the only way to reach Kothilwa, a village tucked into a barren landscape, rocks dotting its red earth, on which nothing except maize and some hardy pulses that need little water grew.

Bhuiya, who owns a small piece of land, always reckoned that if he could dig a canal to redirect the streams running up in the hills to his village – which only had a couple of wells for drinking water that were not enough for irrigation – he and others would be able to grow vegetables and wheat and support themselves.

Therefore, oblivious to his wife’s reprimands and the villagers’ taunts, Bhuiya, now 70, would head up into the nearby Bangetha Hills to dig.

He says he kept at it for nearly three decades, with rudimentary tools and a dogged determination.

“I was always angry with him for not caring about the children. There was never any money, never enough food,” his wife Devi told Al Jazeera.

Soon, Bhuiya came to be known in the village as the “madman” possessed by a dream of bringing water to the village. His son Brahmdeo said the family even took him to the village healers to exorcise him. Three of his four sons had migrated to other cities to find work.

But a determined Bhuiya kept digging. He knew water from the monsoon rains filled the many streams in the Bangetha Hills and that they could be diverted to the village.

For years, Bhuiya headed out for the hills to dig every day – a feat reminiscent of the epic efforts of Dashrath Manjhi, another Dalit from Gaya, decades ago.

After 22 years of cutting through Gaya’s Gehlour Hills using only a hammer and chisel, Manjhi in 1982 shortened the distance between his village and the nearest town from 55 to 15 kilometres (from 34 to 9 miles).

Manjhi’s feat earned him the sobriquet “Mountain Man”. The government released a postage stamp featuring him and Bollywood produced a biopic about him in 2016.

“I had heard about him and I thought if he can do it, why can’t I?” Bhuiya told Al Jazeera. “They all thought I was mad.”

‘We used to think he is possessed’

Last month, local journalist Jai Prakash had gone to the village to cover a story about the villagers building their own road to the village when Bhuiya came up to him and asked if he could show him a canal he had dug.

“He had dug a minor canal for irrigation. He said it took him nearly 30 years, so we went on my motorcycle to see it,” Prakash told Al Jazeera.

“In the monsoons, the water had come to the little dam the water department had constructed last year… Laungi Dam.”

As soon as Prakash’s story was published in a local Hindi newspaper on September 3, Kothilwa became a hotspot as journalists, political leaders, social workers and activists began flocking to the village to meet Bhuiya.

Bhuiya was able to dig a canal 3km (1.86 miles) long but hadn’t been able to bring it all the way uphill to Kothilwa, and was forced to stop digging a kilometre away from the village.

As news of his efforts spread, Bihar state’s Water Minister Sanjay Jha came to know about it and ordered the extension of the canal till Bhuiya’s village.

The day Al Jazeera visited Kothilwa, a man from a neighbouring village had walked into Bhuiya’s courtyard and was making a speech about the failures of the government.

A placard with an enlarged image of a cheque for 100,000 rupees ($1,365) presented to him by Mankind Pharma, an Indian pharmaceutical company, hung outside the door of his house.

On the same day, Bihar’s former Chief Minister Jitan Ram Manjhi visited the village and promised Bhuiya he would be recognised by the Indian president. Villagers present asked Manjhi for a hospital and a road to be built and named after Bhuiya.

That evening, Bhuyia, resplendent in a white kurta and dhoti with flowers in his hand, went to an auto showroom in Gaya where a tractor decorated gaily with balloons stood waiting for him.

It was a gift from Anand Mahindra, chairman of the auto giant Mahindra Group, who had heard through a local journalist’s tweets that Bhuiya was now dreaming of owning a tractor after having dug the irrigation canal.

“We used to think he is possessed,” his son Brahmdeo said.  “Things have changed now. We have some money we got because of his work.”

Bramhdeo says he now wants a fan, and maybe some clothes and good food too.

Meanwhile, Bhuiya’s wife Ramrati Devi watched as her husband, now being hailed as the “Water Man” and “River Man”, had been whisked away by a crowd of cheering villagers.

They had a good reason to be happy. This year, the village of Kothilwa was able to grow wheat.

https://www.aljazeera.com/features/2020/10/30/mad-man-digs-for-20-years-to-make-canal-in-remote-india-village

Pandemic exposes ‘hidden poverty’ in unequal cities

A Venezuelan migrant woman carries her baby outside a tent at a makeshift camp, amid the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) outbreak, in Bogota, Colombia June 8, 2020. Picture taken June 8, 2020. REUTERS/Luisa Gonzalez

BOGOTA, – From Bogota to Athens, the coronavirus pandemic has revealed pockets of once invisible urban poverty, prompting some mayors to target the cities’ poorest for new health and welfare measures, a top health official said on Thursday.

About half of the world’s population live in urban areas and city mayors are on the frontline of the COVID-19 response, often deciding when to introduce and lift lockdowns and taking responsibility for the running of hospitals.

Some mayors have become “urban health champions” introducing measures to help the poorest, World Health Organization Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus told a webinar.

“Nowhere has the impact of this virus been more evident than in urban areas,” Tedros told a virtual conference hosted by the Partnership for Healthy Cities, a global network of 70 cities.

“Bold action by city leaders has and will continue to impact the global pandemic response,” Tedros said.

Claudia Lopez, Bogota’s first women mayor, said the coronavirus had exacerbated already rising poverty rates since 2019 in Bogota and across Colombia, Lopez said.

Poverty rates in the capital of 7 million people have risen to 26% this year up from 15% in 2019, and unemployment has roughly doubled to 19% in a city where about half work in the informal economy, Lopez said.

But the pandemic has allowed city hall to identify and target “hidden poverty” in a “very unequal city”, Lopez said.

For the first time, the mayor’s office is directly funding monthly cash transfers to about 7,000 homes, a measure that will continue for the remaining three-years of her term, she said.

In addition, since late March, 80 km of new bike lanes have been added to Bogota’s existing 550-km (340-mile) network of bicycle lanes, easing congestion on buses and allowing essential workers to travel safely, Lopez said.

‘UNDER THE RADAR’

In Athens, mayor Kostas Bakoyannis said city hall has focused on providing healthcare and food for the most in need.

“For us the priority lies with those who actually are the most unfortunate … those who are invisible,” Bakoyannis said.

During the lockdown, Athens city hall set up a new shelter for the homeless housing up to 400 people, a shelter for drug addicts, and has delivered food and medicine door-to-door to tens of thousands of residents, he said.

“We have tried to relate to those who are under the radar,” Bakoyannis said.

“The pandemic actually brings into fore the structural injustices that exist within our cities, the poverty pockets .. and that is where we are obliged to put the most attention.”

COVID-19 test centres have been established in the city’s poorest neighbourhoods and mobile test units target areas with the highest rates of coronavirus cases, he said.

In Uganda’s capital of Kampala, deputy lord mayor Doreen Nyanjura said the hardest decision was putting three million people under lockdown in a city where most people rely on daily cash-in-hand earnings to buy food and pay rent.

“Our residents had to choose either dying because of hunger or COVID-19 – and of course as leaders we couldn’t let our people go hungry,” Nyanjura said.

City hall distributed food parcels to those residents most in need. “That at least helped them to survive,” she said.

https://news.trust.org/item/20201029171648-bvzol/

Sharon Lavigne’s fighting faith on the bayou

Sharon Lavigne, right, joins a march organized by the Coalition Against Death Alley in Louisiana in October 2019. (Courtesy of Louisiana Bucket Brigade/Tom Wright)
Sharon Lavigne, right, joins a march organized by the Coalition Against Death Alley in Louisiana in October 2019. (Courtesy of Louisiana Bucket Brigade/Tom Wright)

Welcome, Louisiana — Last May, on the day she turned 69, Sharon Lavigne and three Protestant pastors hiked the levee beside the Mississippi River and looked across the highway at the lush sugarcane fields and wetlands where Taiwan-based Formosa Plastics Group planned to build one of the largest plastics factories in the world.

The 2,400-acre, 14-plant complex would worsen the area’s existing pollution overload, spewing cancer-causing chemicals into the air. Opponents say its environmental permits would allow it to emit greenhouse gases equivalent to the output of three and a half coal-fired power plants.

The complex would also disturb or destroy graves of enslaved Black people who were buried on the property, which was once a plantation.

A mile downriver from the Formosa site stands an elementary school, and a mile beyond that, Lavigne’s home.

Standing atop the levee, she and her companions recalled the Old Testament story in which Joshua circled the ancient city of Jericho and caused its walls to tumble. Lavigne and the pastors walked six times in a circle, reciting Psalm 23, and on the seventh, they raised their arms skyward and begged God almighty to stop Formosa.

A devout Catholic, Lavigne is at the forefront of a campaign to thwart construction of the plastics complex. Two years ago, she founded Rise St. James, a faith-based, grassroots group made up of residents of the Fifth District of St. James Parish, an area of sugarcane fields and historically black hamlets interlaced with pipelines and industrial facilities.

Backed by environmentalists and community organizations, the group is speaking out for Black communities in St. James that face a new wave of industrial pollution.

The group started with protest marches. When the coronavirus pandemic erupted, the activists adapted their strategies and message, pointing out that theirs is a struggle against environmental racism and linking it to national calls for racial justice.

The group’s Facebook posts include updates on actions and lawsuits against the corporation, articles on plastics pollution, video clips of parish council meetings where Formosa was on the agenda, and numerous clips of Lavigne urging local officials to rescind approval of the complex.

She often mentions God.

“If you are Christians, if you believe in God, change this,” Lavigne says in a Sept. 1 Facebook post. “I know you can’t sleep at night because you live in St. James, too. When I am poisoned, you will be poisoned, too. So I ask you to go back, to get on your knees and pray and ask God to put it in your hearts to go back and rescind this decision.”

The Formosa complex represents “an assault on human life at all of its stages,” says Jesuit Deacon Chris Kellerman of the Jesuit Social Research Institute at Loyola University New Orleans. In an Aug. 27 letter to the News Examiner-Enterprise, a St. James newspaper, Kellerman said ethylene oxide emissions from the facility would jeopardize the unborn, citing studies showing that exposure increases rates of premature births and miscarriages. He noted that adults and school-age children would also be at risk, and he mentioned the graves.

“And all of this without the express consent of the people,” wrote Kellerman, who urged local officials to “find other alternative ways of investing in St. James that won’t pose such an antilife, racist and existential threat to the parish.”

https://www.ncronline.org/news/earthbeat/sharon-lavignes-fighting-faith-bayou

Seychelles elections: How a priest rose to become president

Wavel Ramkalawan
W Ramkalawan

On his sixth attempt Wavel Ramkalawan, an Anglican cleric, has become Seychelles’ president ending decades in opposition, but as Tim Ecott reports from the Indian Ocean archipelago – he now has to bring the country together.

“After 43 years we have regained democracy. The road has been long and now we will reap its rewards.”

There was only the merest hint of triumphalism in President Wavel Ramkalawan’s acceptance speech as he addressed an audience of invited dignitaries assembled in the manicured grounds of State House.

His election marks a seismic change for the islands, where the presidency has been dominated by one party since 1977.

In front of the grand Victorian colonial mansion and accompanied by a military guard of honour, the 58-year-old was sworn in by the chief justice on Monday.

The new president is an ordained Anglican minister, and not surprisingly his overall message was one of peace, tolerance and an appeal for all Seychellois to work together for national unity, and to overcome the divisions of so many years of political wrangling.

Thanking outgoing President Danny Faure for keeping political dialogue open over the past few years, Mr Ramkalawan stressed the need for tolerance among the Seychellois people and appealed for what he called a return to civility, to a society where everyone says good morning to one another and where racial and social differences are put aside.

“Seychelles,” said the new president, “should be an example of tolerance for the whole world. We are 115 small islands in the Indian Ocean, but we are not insular.

“We will maintain friendly relations with all nations, and welcome help and assistance from our international allies whomsoever they may be.”

Behind the Christian sentiments expressed by the new president there is also political steel.

‘Pulpit politician’

This was his sixth attempt at the presidency, a journey that began when he first contested the role in 1998.

He had entered politics several years earlier, and was criticised by the government for making what they saw as political statements from the pulpit during the one-party state era.

He had come tantalising close to winning the presidency several times, and in 2015 lost to James Michel by only 193 votes in a second round of voting.

Referring to the years in opposition, and his five previous defeats in presidential elections Mr Ramkalawan quoted Nelson Mandela: “A winner is a dreamer who never gives up.”

In spite of the positive messages in his inaugural address, there is no doubting the divisions within Seychellois society.

It is precisely 43 years since the islands were subjected to a violent coup by Albert René, who overthrew the democratically elected government of James Mancham, the man who had led the islands to independence from the UK in 1976.

Amid his appeals for peace and harmony, President Ramkalawan pointedly paid homage to Gerard Hoarau, an opponent of René assassinated in London in 1985, and whose killers have never been identified.

Hoarau was not the only person who died or disappeared during the one-party era that lasted from 1977 to 1991.

Many of the crimes committed during that period were exposed publicly during recent Truth and Reconciliation hearings in Seychelles.

There is no doubt that those revelations harmed the chances of Mr Faure and his United Seychelles party in these elections.

United Seychelles is the current name of the former Seychelles People’s Progressive Front, which was in power when René so ruthlessly imprisoned and persecuted his political opponents.

For all its convoluted political history in the decades since independence, the 97,000-strong population of Seychelles now faces very big challenges.

The economy is heavily reliant on tourism, with around 350,000 annual visitors accounting for 65% of GDP.

Covid-19 has reduced tourist arrivals to a tiny trickle, and the economy has already shrunk by around 14%.

In addition, local non-governmental organisations estimate that approximately 10% of the working population, some 6,000 people, are addicted to heroin, and many are reliant on the government’s methadone rehabilitation programme.

As well as winning the presidency, Mr Ramkalawan’s party, Linyon Demokratik Seselwa (LDS), has also won a convincing majority in the islands’ national assembly.

They will have 25 seats to the United Seychelles’ 10. However, the president warned his parliamentarians not to become complacent.

“Just because we have won, we can’t sit back,” he said. “We need to carry on working hard, delivering what our people deserve.”

https://www.bbc.com/news/world-africa-54692210

There’s still time to act on climate change

A young woman wears an air-filtering mask and holds a sign while participating in the Global Climate Strike in New York City in September 2019. (CNS photo/Gregory A. Shemitz)
A young woman wears an air-filtering mask and holds a sign while participating in the Global Climate Strike in New York City in September 2019. (CNS photo/Gregory A. Shemitz)

Is it too late to change the course the world is on?

That’s a question that comes up more and more frequently. This week, I’ve heard reasons for hope, but also messages of urgency. That is, there’s still time, but we need to act now. And although the problem may look overwhelming, it can be broken down — like all the tasks on our to-do lists — into manageable chunks.

First, though, it’s important to understand where most of the greenhouse gases we humans produce come from and how we can set priorities for tackling them, with policies and our own actions. For an overview, check out this webinar by environmental scientist Jonathan Foley, executive director of Project Drawdown.

“Drawdown” refers to the point at which humans’ greenhouse gas emissions stop increasing and begin to fall. That is the point at which we step back from the edge, and Foley says it’s within our grasp.

Which human activities cause the greatest greenhouse gas emissions? As it turns out, electricity and food account for nearly half.

Generating electricity produces 25% of total human-created emissions, while agriculture, food and land-use change (for instance, destroying forest for ranching or to grow crops like oil palm or soybeans) account for 24%. So doing those things more efficiently and less wastefully would go a long way toward reducing emissions, Foley reasons.

For energy, that means not only moving away from fossil fuels — something to which Illinois Catholic bishops lent their support late last month — and increasing our use of renewable sources like the sun, wind and waves, but also retrofitting the world’s buildings, so they use less energy.

For food, it means wasting less, at home and in supply lines, as well as decreasing consumption of beef and dairy products. That’s partly because cattle belch methane and partly because ranching drives tropical deforestation.

While climate solutions require policy changes, there are many things we can do, as individuals and communities, by making lifestyle changes, encouraging others — and, of course, voting.

Revealed: chaining, beatings and torture inside Sudan’s Islamic schools

 Inside the khalwa in Sudan run by Sheikh Hussein, who died earlier this year.
Inside the khalwa in Sudan run by Sheikh Hussein, who died earlier this year. Photograph: Jess Kelly/BBC News Arabic

An April evening in the suburbs of Khartoum. After months of undercover work, I had learned to time my visits to khalwas, Sudan’s Islamic schools,to coincide with evening prayers. I entered while the sheikhs (teachers) and 50-odd boys dressed in their white djellabas were busy praying. As they knelt, I heard the clanking of chains on the boys’ shackled legs. I sat down behind them and started filming, secretly.

I began investigating after allegations emerged of abuse inside some of these schools: children kept in chains, beaten and sexually abused. Khalwas have existed in Sudan for centuries. There are more than 30,000 of them across the country where children are taught to memorise the Qur’an. They are run by sheikhs who usually provide food, drink and shelter, free of charge. As a result, poor families often send their children to khalwas instead of public schools.

I had been working as a journalist in Sudan for five years, but this was the first time an assignment really felt personal. I was taught at a khalwa: a place where I would try to get through each day without being beaten.

In 2018, I began what would become a two-year investigation with BBC News Arabic and take me to 23 khalwas across Sudan. Before proper undercover equipment from the BBC arrived, I taped my phone inside a notebook, to secretly film.

Despite having gone to a khalwa myself, I was shocked by what I found. I saw children – some as young as five – beaten and shackled like animals. One boy with deep, raw wounds around his ankles told me: “We can be in groups of six or seven all chained together, and they [the sheikhs] make us run around in circles. Whenever one of us falls over we have to get up again because they keep whipping us … They say that this is good for us.”

One of the worst experiences I had was in 2018 at Ahmed Hanafy, a well-respected khalwa in Darfur. In a study room, under a hot corrugated iron roof, a small boy was held down and whipped more than 30 times by a teacher. The only sound in the room was the lashing of the whip and the boy’s anguished cries. I wanted to grab the whip and hit the sheikh, but I knew I couldn’t. When I later contacted the school, the sheikh confirmed they do beat children but denied this incident ever took place.

Another disturbing case was that of two 14-year-old boys, Mohamed Nader and Ismail. When I visited them in hospital they were lying on their stomachs, unconscious, their backs stripped of flesh. They were beaten and tortured so badly they nearly died.

“They kept them in a room for five days without food or water,” Mohamed Nader’s father, Nader, told me.

“They rubbed tar all over their bodies. [Mohamed Nader] has been so badly beaten you can even see his spine.”

I had filmed inside the same khalwa where this had happened, al-Khulafaa al-Rashideen, run by a man called Sheikh Hussein. The conditions there were the worst I had seen. Most of the boys were shackled and teachers hovered over them with whips in case they made any mistakes. One student pointed out a room with barred windows, which he described as a prison. It was the room in which Ismail and Mohamed Nader had been kept.

I kept in regular contact with the boys. Several months after the attack, as we played on a PlayStation together, Mohamed Nader began to tell me what happened when he was caught trying to escape with Ismail.

“They tied me up and laid me on my stomach before whipping me”, he said. The beatings went on for days. “A lot of people came to beat us while the rest of the khalwa was asleep. After that, I don’t know what happened, I woke up in the hospital.”

The police charged two teachers with assault, who were later released on bail. The khalwa remained open.

As he stared at the screen, Mohamed Nader said: “There is rape in the khalwa. They would call you for it, in a macho way.” He said the smaller or weaker boys were abused by older students.

Mohamed Nader and Ismail were not sexually assaulted, but several other people also told me that rape happened in the khalwa under the management of Sheikh Hussein.

When I returned to the khalwa to talk to him, Sheikh Hussein admitted that it was wrong to imprison children, but maintained that shackling was “packed with benefits” and that “most khalwas use chaining, not just me”. He told me he had stopped using chains and that “the prison” was now a storeroom. When I asked about allegations of sexual abuse he became angry, categorically denying these claims and accusing me of attacking the Qu’ran.

The sheikh died in a car accident earlier this year.

The new transitional government is now conducting a survey of all khalwas in Sudan. The minister of religious affairs, Nasreddine Mufreh, said they would be reformed. There should be “no beating, torture, violation of human rights or children’s rights whatsoever” inside khalwas.

When I told him about the abuse I had seen, he replied: “The old regime didn’t have laws regulating khalwas. I can’t solve a problem caused by 30 years of the old regime overnight.”

With the influence that sheikhs hold, it’s rare for families to seek justice. However, Mohamed Nader’s parents have decided to press charges. Although the public prosecutor’s office is obliged to look into all cases of violence against children, Mohamed Nader’s parents have had to hire a lawyer to fight their case.

On the way into court his mother, Fatima, said the 2018 revolution had made her more optimistic: “In the past, we had no rights but now it’s different. With the new government, we will get our rights, God willing.”

After several hours inside she emerged disappointed. One of the defendants had failed to turn up and the hearing was postponed. The teachers accused of beating the boys still haven’t entered a plea. The khalwa is now run by Sheikh Hussein’s brother who told me that under his management the beating of children would not be tolerated.

Mohamed Nader and Ismail are on a slow road to physical recovery. But thousands of other children across Sudan are still at risk.

https://www.theguardian.com/global-development/2020/oct/19/revealed-chaining-beatings-and-torture-inside-sudans-islamic-schools

Illegal logger turns firefighter to defend Indonesia’s peatlands

Setiono Ono stands with equipment to help extinguish small fires at the office of the Rawa Mekar Jaya community fire organisation on September 1, 2020. Thomson Reuters Foundation/Harry Jacques

SIAK, Indonesia, – Setiono Ono pauses his morning wildfire patrol near the northeastern coast of Sumatra island at a small timber dam between a logged area and an oil palm plantation.

Water the colour of charcoal is leaking out from the dam along a narrow canal cut to drain the surrounding peatland.

The dam, built by the local community here in the Siak regency of Riau province, is one of thousands of canal barriers constructed in recent years to protect Indonesia’s peatlands, seen as critical in the fight against climate change.

“We need to fix this,” said fire patrol leader Setiono, 40, before heading into the patchy forest with two other volunteers.

Peat accounts for about 3% of the world’s land surface, but peatlands store more carbon than all other terrestrial vegetation combined, according to the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN).

When peatlands burn, they release carbon into the atmosphere, accounting for almost 6% of the annual carbon dioxide emissions fuelling global warming, the IUCN says.

Indonesia is home to more than a third of the world’s tropical peat, giving it a key role in safeguarding the carbon-rich ecosystem.

But in recent decades, its peatlands – 10 metres (33 ft) deep in places – have experienced rapid conversion into valuable commercial plantations to meet rising international demand for palm oil, pulp and paper.

That has helped lift small farmers out of poverty but also brought urgent environmental and public health risks.

Plantation trees fare poorly in drenched soil, so companies have dug thousands of kilometres of canals to drain off water.

But dissecting the landscape with these canals has dried it out and increased peatland fires, which smoulder underground for long periods and can often be doused only by heavy rain.

The threat is highest when climate patterns prolong Sumatra’s main dry season beyond September, as in 2015 and 2019.

In 2015, fires burned about 2.6 million hectares (6.4 million acres) of land in Indonesia, an area 20 times larger than Los Angeles, about a third of it peat.

But in Setiono’s village, there have been no fires since 2017 – which many here attribute to the former illegal logger.

After leaving middle school as a teenager, Setiono spent almost a decade of his youth cutting down trees and dodging tigers and police in the peat forest he now looks after.

He suffered frequent injuries and was hospitalised after a chainsaw slipped and tore through his thigh. Eleven other illegal loggers he knew were jailed.

He guesses he felled more than 100 trees in the forest near the leaking dam.

“For me this is strong motivation,” said Setiono. “The bottom line is that I used to destroy nature.”

COMMUNITY SHIELD

Setiono now heads the Masyarakat Peduli Api (MPA), or “Fire Care Community”, for Rawa Mekar Jaya, a village on the north coast of Siak about 150 km (93 miles) west of Singapore.

Community fire initiatives began in Indonesia under pilot schemes in the early 2000s, before the government formally established the MPA programme in 2009.

At the peak of the 2015 fire crisis, state firefighters worked morning to night as power lines burned and schools closed for a month under a blanket of toxic haze.

“Everyone had respiratory infections, coughs, breathing difficulties,” Setiono told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

A study by Harvard and Columbia universities indicated the 2015 air pollution could have caused 100,000 premature deaths.

Setiono heard about the community fire prevention programme that year and travelled to Pekanbaru, the provincial capital, for a month’s basic training.

Five years on, he has built one of Riau’s largest village fire brigades, with no dedicated funding.

Donated fire hoses and generators are stacked ready in a garden shed next to his red-brick bungalow.

Other equipment is stored a short drive away at the fire brigade’s office, surrounded by dark sumps and pineapple plants.

MPA members keep bees, using proceeds from honey sales to fund the community organisation.

“If there is a fire and smoke enters this village, then our children could become asthmatic,” said MPA volunteer and father-of-two Suroso Lilik, 37.

The group convenes every morning to check on the 16,800-hectare area it is responsible for.

Its 25 volunteers work in shifts, patrolling the river on a small barge and traversing degraded fields on foot.

“Our village is ours,” said Setiono. “If we don’t (do this), who else is there?”

https://news.trust.org/item/20201016070657-sjncd/

In Africa, farmers learn new methods for facing drought, floods

Oscar Singo stands in the field of cabbages he grows to feed his livestock, a technique he learned at a Catholic Church-run farmer training center. (Tawanda Karombo)
Oscar Singo stands in the field of cabbages he grows to feed his livestock, a technique he learned at a Catholic Church-run farmer training center. (Tawanda Karombo)

Bulawayo, Zimbabwe — In the sweltering mid-October heat of Matobo, one of Zimbabwe’s hottest and driest districts, Spiwe Moyo tended her ripening tomato crop. Nearby, underneath a baobab tree, a few emaciated donkeys and a small herd of skinny cattle take shelter from the blazing sun.

Along with the onions, vegetables and green beans grown by other communal farmers as part of the Evergreen Community Market Garden, Moyo’s tomato crop is a virtual oasis of green, surrounded by bare red soil that receives little shade from the sparse leaves of the mopani trees and a few patches of dry grass long desolated by the high temperatures.

Despite the punishing heat, unfriendly surroundings and daily struggles for water for humans and domestic animals, she beamed a smile when she spoke of the prospects for her crop, which will ripen in the next week or so.

“I am just weeding out the crop and inspecting for pests and other diseases, because in this hot weather, crops can suddenly suffer diseases or pest attacks. We only water the crops in the morning or evening, to conserve the water,” Moyo told EarthBeat in an interview at the garden.

The water comes from a solar-powered well funded by Catholic Church organizations. Without it, she says, “there would be no green crops to talk about, as the rains are not sufficient.”

There has been practically no rain in the past two years in this arid part of Matebeleland South province, in southwestern Zimbabwe. This year, however, rains came suddenly, a month earlier than expected. Experts say that is one of the uncertainties caused by climate change, and it has combined with other climate-related disasters that have made food scarce in southern Africa.

Climate change has caused as many as 86 million people across sub-Saharan Africa to migrate from their land, according to a September UNICEF report. And drought and climate change are creating critical food scarcity for more than 11 million people in nine southern African countries, the report says.

In an effort to head off water wars and help farmers adapt to the changing climate, various Catholic agencies, including the Irish aid agency Trócaire, Britain’s Catholic Agency for Overseas Development, or CAFOD, and Catholic Relief Services, the U.S. bishops’ aid and development agency, are funding agro-ecology learning centers and solar-powered community wells in southern African countries, including Zimbabwe, Malawi and Zambia.

At the centers, which blend sustainable agriculture techniques with indigenous farming practices, local farmers learn skills such as contour plowing, drip irrigation and organic pest control, as well as practices such as “intercropping,” or combining multiple crops in one plot.

As a result, communal oases of green are appearing in various areas, as “model” farmers share their new knowledge with their neighbors.

“The seasons are changing and we are seeing the impact of climate change, because we usually have the first showers in August and at the end of October we then get the first planting rains. But in the last two years, there have basically been no rains here,” said Felix Ncube, who is a member of the management committee of St. Joseph’s Agro-Ecological Center in Matopos.

Committee members run the learning center and also train other people in the community, passing along their new knowledge to other farmers.

The problems related to climate change are worsened by unemployment and food insecurity, Ncube said. Although Caritas and the World Food Program assist the community with relief kits, they distribute aid only to the elderly, leaving younger people desperate, he said.

“The youths here have nothing to do to feed themselves or take care of their families, so they end up cutting down trees as a source of energy [for brick-making kilns], and this is contributing to the arid conditions in the area,” he said.

Because deforestation can affect local rainfall, the Catholic groups working with farmers hope that slowing the loss of tree cover will also help ease some of those conditions.

Competition for farmland and demand for charcoal both lead to deforestation. In Zambia, the Mother Earth Center, a sustainable farming project run by Comboni Sisters, encourages farmers to reforest their land.

The center trains farmers to combine agriculture with forestry, as a means of diversifying the tree and plant cover on their farms. This helps promote preservation of native tree species and also makes the farmers better prepared to withstand drought and floods.

Because of the high cost of electricity, charcoal is commonly used for cooking and heating in low- and middle-income households, even in cities, Sr. Annes James, who runs the Mother Earth Center, told EarthBeat in an email.

“Little or no investment seems to be made fast enough in the area of solar energy, despite the abundant sunshine enjoyed in these parts all year-round,” she said.

In Zambia, the drying and shifting flows of rivers are evidence that the effects of climate change are already at play in the region, Jesuit Fr. Andrew Simpasa, director of the Kasisi Agriculture Training Center in Lusaka, Zambia, told EarthBeat.

As seasons change and water sources dry up, disputes over access to water access are emerging and are projected to worsen.

“In Zambia, the Chongwe and Ngwerere Rivers, which were once a catchment area for providing irrigation water for farms located on the eastern side of Lusaka city, have now become perennial rivers,” Simpasa said.

“This has caused water access disputes between commercial farmers, who have the machinery and equipment to domesticate the water, and small-scale farmers who struggle to access irrigation water during the dry season,” he added.

In Zimbabwe, Gwinyai Chibaira, agri-livelihoods project manager for Catholic Relief Services in Zimbabwe, has seen successive droughts and floods wipe out farmers’ crops. Even so, when the agency launched an agricultural training center in 2013 in Beitbridge, near the border with South Africa, only four farmers signed up, he said.

Now about 100 households have participated in the training programs, learning to grow fodder for livestock such as cattle and goats. They can then sell the animals to support their families and reinvest in their farms.

Oscar Singo, 36, has gone a step further. Besides growing fodder and cabbages for his herd of cattle, he buys animals from others and fattens them before auctioning them off.

As the climate changes, experts recommend planting earlier to reduce the risk of heavy storms and flooding before they can harvest their crops. They also encourage farmers to plant trees and other vegetation to retain moisture and create additional windbreaks, and to ensure that cattle and goats do not devour newly planted trees and other vegetation.

In Beitbridge, farmers find that fodder crops serve as animal feed, help avoid erosion and provide an additional source of income.

Timothy Ngulube, a 60-year-old livestock farmer in Fula, a village near Beitbridge, hopes to earn enough to install his own solar pump to irrigate the fields where he grows crops to feed his animals on his landholding of less than four acres.

“I used to grow tomatoes and maize,” he said, “but it is getting dryer and hotter here, hence I have to focus on livestock, which is resilient to these dry weather patterns.”

https://www.ncronline.org/news/earthbeat/africa-farmers-learn-new-methods-facing-drought-floods