Indicators: Spring 2006
|Activist and organizer Irene Fernandez. Photo by Cesar Rangel|
As leader of the organization Tenaganita, Fernandez campaigns for the rights of foreign workers and women with HIV. Her work has given visibility and voice to the most disadvantaged groups in her country. As a result of publishing research on the mistreatment of migrant workers, she was arrested in 1996. The trial dragged on for seven years until, in 2003, she was sentenced to one year in prison, but is currently free with an appeal pending.
The Right Livelihood Award, known as the alternative Nobel, honors “those offering practical and exemplary answers to the most urgent challenges facing us today.”
Irene Fernandez shares the prize with Roy Sesana and his organization First People of the Kalahariin Botswana, honored for defending Bushmen land rights, and with trade activists Maude Barlow and Tony Clarke from Canada. Mexican artist Francisco Toledo also received an award for transforming his native Oaxaca into a center for arts and civic activism.
For more information on the award and its recipients, visit www.rightlivelihood.org.
Maryland's legislature has passed a bill effectively forcing Wal-Mart to spend more on employee health care. The law, which is the first of its kind in the U.S., requires large employers to spend at least 8 percent of their payroll on employee healthcare coverage or pay the difference directly into the state's healthcare plan for the poor. Wal-Mart is the only company in the state that currently fails the law's requirements.
More than 30 other states are considering similar measures. Labor unions, which pushed for the Maryland law, plan to target Colorado, Connecticut, and Washington state for similar laws, according to The Washington Post.
Under pressure from a global grassroots campaign, Bechtel Corporation has dropped a $50 million lawsuit against Bolivia stemming from the country's cancellation of a water contract. Bechtel is selling its 80 percent stake in Aguas del Tunari, the company that provides residential water service to Bolivians, back to the country for the equivalent of about 25 cents.
Bechtel, headquartered in San Francisco, brought the lawsuit against Bolivia after massive protests in Cochabamba in 1999 following large rate increases and the privatization of water. The Bolivian government canceled the contract with Bechtel in the wake of the protests, and the suit demanded compensation for losses Bechtel claimed it incurred.
The lawsuit was brought to the International Center for Settlement of Investment Disputes, a court of the World Bank whose proceedings are usually closed to the public. The tribunal operates outside of national laws; countries are not allowed to appeal decisions made by the tribunal, and economic sanctions can be brought against any country that fails to comply with the tribunal's ruling.
More than 300 organizations from 43 countries joined in a petition to the World Bank demanding the proceedings be opened to the public. Activists protested at Bechtel's San Francisco headquarters and its Amsterdam offices.
Bolivia's recently elected president, Evo Morales, the country's first indigenous president, has promised to nationalize the country's resources.
For the fifth year in a row, world solar panel sales grew by more than 40 percent in 2005. Other renewable energy sources, such as wind power and biofuels, also saw growth rates of 20 to 30 percent due to increasing petroleum prices and government financial incentives.
Large government financial incentives for solar were recently adopted in Washington state, California, Japan, Spain, Italy, and Portugal. In California, the goal is to put solar power in half of new homes within 13 years. The recently passed U.S. energy measure offers a tax credit of up to $2,000 for homeowners who install solar equipment.
In Washington state, a new law will allow homes and businesses to sell energy they generate renewably back to utilities at above-market rates, earning an even higher rate if the equipment is manufactured in the state. A similar program in Germany has made it the world's largest consumer of solar panels. Production of solar panels has not kept up with demand, driving up costs to the consumer by as much as 15 percent, and resulting in long waits. New industrial-scale solar technologies are coming of age, though.
California regulators last fall approved Southern California Edison and Stirling Energy's deal to construct the world's largest-ever solar power station using solar dish technology, which creates electricity from solar heat rather than photovoltaic panels. The 500-megawatt, 4,500-acre power project will produce more electricity than all other U.S. sun-power projects combined, and could be expanded to 850 megawatts.
Rising demand and tight supplies have caused the price of uranium to more than double in the past two years, from $14 per pound in 2003 to more than $35 per pound at the end of last year, according to the nuclear industry research firm UX Consulting.
Nuclear power plants, fueled by uranium, supply 16 percent of the world's electricity. As oil prices have risen and concerns about global warming have grown, a number of countries have announced plans to build more nuclear plants. China plans to build 27 new nuclear plants by 2020, India plans 17 new plants by 2012, and Finland announced last year that it would build what will be the first new nuclear plant constructed in Europe since 1991.
Uranium ore mining now meets 55 percent of nuclear power plant demand, with the balance made up by reprocessed reactor fuel and uranium from dismantled Russian bombs, according to the World Nuclear Association.
According to researchers Jan Willem Storm van Leeuwen and Phillip Smith, if the world got all of its electricity from nuclear power, the world supply of high-grade uranium ore would last four years. If lower quality ore is used, mining and milling the ore consumes more fossil fuel than if the fossil fuel were burned directly to produce electricity.
As controversy continues about whether global oil production is reaching its peak, two pieces of news suggest that one country experts thought would help meet growing world demand is already at maximum production.
According to Kuwait Oil Company chairman Farouk al-Zanki, expected increases in production from Kuwait's Burgan oil field are impossible, Bloomberg News reported at the end of last year. In January, the oil industry newsletter Petroleum Intelligence Weekly reported that it had seen Kuwaiti documents showing Kuwait's oil reserves were only half those officially stated.
Engineers projected that Burgan—second in size only to Saudi Arabia's Ghawar field—could produce 2 million barrels of oil per day for the next 30 to 40 years. Efforts to reach that level were unsuccessful, and al-Zanki says that 1.7 million barrels per day is the most the field will yield.
Kuwait's November 2005 production was 2.5 million barrels per day, down from a peak of 3 million in 1972. The country expects to spend $3 billion per year for the next three years on efforts to boost production. That figure is three times the current spending rate.
Felons who have served their sentences regained their voting rights in several states this past year. In Iowa, which had one of the nation's most restrictive laws on voting rights for ex-felons, Governor Tom Vilsack issued an executive order granting clemency to felons who had served their time and were not on probation or parole. The order could expand the number of Iowans eligible to vote by as many as 50,000.
In Nebraska, the legislature passed a law automatically restoring voting rights to those with felony convictions two years after they have completed sentences and probation or parole. The law will restore the voting rights of approximately 60,000 Nebraskans.
Rhode Islanders will vote this year on a state constitutional amendment that would restore voting rights to those on probation or parole. Laws restricting the voting rights of ex-felons deny the right to vote to about 4.7 million Americans, including13 percent of African-American men.
Difficulties are mounting for one of the top U.S. electronic voting machine suppliers. In December, Diebold shareholders filed several class-action suits alleging Diebold failed to disclose problems with its voting machines.
That same month, Walden W.O'Dell, chairman and chief executive of Diebold, resigned “for personal reasons,” according to a statement. O'Dell gained notoriety during the 2004 presidential campaign for sending a campaign letter pledging to deliver Ohio's electoral votes to George Bush.
Also in December, Diebold announced its withdrawal from the North Carolina voting machine market, saying it could not comply with the state's new requirement that voting machine manufacturers allow review of voting machine source code. Officials in Florida's Leon and Volusia Counties, and in St. Louis County, Missouri, announced that they would no longer use Diebold equipment.
California's secretary of state put certification of Diebold's machines on indefinite hold, pending further testing.
Two recent court rulings demonstrate that the decades-long, grassroots fight against corporate farming is far from over.
A Pennsylvania judge affirmed the validity of Belfast Township's Farm Ownership Ordinance, which prohibits non-family corporations and syndicates from owning or benefiting from farmland and from engaging in farming in the township. The September ruling may be appealed in court or reviewed by the state attorney general.
Belfast is one of 12 Pennsylvania townships that have adopted anti-corporate farming ordinances in response to the rise of corporate hog farms.
In December, a U.S District judge declared Nebraska's 23-year ban on corporate farming unconstitutional. Judge Laurie Smith Camp ruled that the ban violated the commerce clause of the U.S. constitution—because it restricts out-of-state corporations from investing in Nebraska farms—and the Americans with Disabilities Act—because it requires the owner of a family farm to perform day-today labor on the farm. A spokeswoman for the Nebraska Attorney General announced the state would appeal.
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration has banned the use of an animal antibiotic, in a first-ever effort to protect against drug-resistant infections in humans.
The FDA blocked the use of Bayer's poultry drug Baytril, afluoroquinolone drug similar to Cipro, an antibiotic used to treat people with serious cases of bacterial infection. The order affects only use of the drug on poultry and does not limit its use on other animals.
Baytril, first approved for sale in 1996, was used widely both to promote growth and to treat whole flocks of chickens and turkeys when one animal was sick. The Union of Concerned Scientists estimates that American livestock receive about 24.6 million pounds of antibiotics, about 75 percent of the nation's consumption.
The FDA has told the makers of at least three types of penicillin used on farm animals that they may face similar restrictions, according to Reuters.
In an effort to reduce selective abortion of female fetuses and stem India's growing gender imbalance (the country now has about 930 females for every 1,000 males), the Indian government has announced a plan to provide reduced-cost education to families with only a single, female child.
The plan would make secondary school free for such children and offer them scholarships of 2,000 Rupees, or about $45 per month, towards postgraduate study. Families with two female children and no boys will receive a 50 percent reduction in school fees.
A study published in the British medical journal The Lancet in January estimated that 10 million female fetuses have been selectively aborted in India in the last 20 years. The tendency to abort female fetuses increased with each successive girl a family already had; the “girl deficit” was even higher among educated women. Sex selective abortions have been banned in India for more than a decade.
The Maishima waste incineration plant in Osaka, Japan, is pioneering new uses for technology to dispose of waste with minimal air and land pollution and low energy consumption.
Together, the plant's filters, catalysts, and high-temperature incineration limit the plant's emissions to 10 percent of the national allowable rate for pollutants associated with acid rain, respiratory ailments, and smog and less than 1 percent of allowable dioxins.
Maishima generates electricity from the incineration process and saves about 400 tons of water per day by reusing wastewater and collecting rainwater. Plant vehicles run on natural gas, and the ash, which is typically sent to landfills, is treated for heavy metals, then used in road construction and land reclamation.
Most unusual for a waste incineration plant is Maishima's role as an Osaka landmark. Designed by Austrian artist and environmentalist Friedensreich Hundertwasser, the plant's brightcolors and unusual shapes annually attract thousands of visitors, who learn ways to recycle and reduce the amount of waste they generate.
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