Saturday, June 16, 2007

China: First Starving Casualties of 'Biofuels'

China wants food first, not fuel
By Antoaneta Bezlova

BEIJING - A customary Chinese greeting from the years of rations and shortages - "Have you eaten yet?" - is being jokingly resurrected as the public watches the prices of key staples, particularly pork, soaring by the day.

Chinese economic minders, however, are not amused. Worried about social instability fueled by inflation, they have been mulling over whether to steady prices by using the state strategic reserve

of hundreds of thousands of live pigs kept at special farms for contingencies.

Disturbingly, this is the second time in seven months that the Chinese leadership has had to resort to the country's strategic reserves to stave off politically dangerous increases in food prices. In December, Beijing ordered the auctioning of some of the state wheat reserves to halt the rise in crops prices and prevent panic among the public.

"Almost every inflationary crisis in the past 20 years has begun with an increase in food prices," noted Xia Yeliang, professor of economics at Peking University. "Historically Chinese people have always regarded food as their first necessity. For people of middle age and the elderly, the memories of most recent times when food was lacking still endure."

The last big famine China experienced - arguably the greatest in human history - during the disastrous Great Leap Forward experiment with communist industrialization in the late 1950s, killed up to 30 million people. Since then, ensuring food sufficiency for the country's population of 1.3 billion has been regarded by Chinese leaders as a matter of national security.

Current hikes in both grain and pork prices are blamed on the same culprit - the ethanol industry, whose explosive growth has been gobbling up a growing share of China's corn (maize) harvest traditionally preserved for food and animal feed.

Having promoted the production of the environmentally friendly gasoline additive for years, Chinese economic planners now fear the sector has grown too much and too quickly, presenting them with an uncomfortable dilemma of choosing between the country's green agenda and its national food security.

Leadership fears were clearly manifested late last month when Premier Wen Jiabao visited a meat market in Xian, central China, to check the prices of pork. He called on local officials to pay pig breeders to increase production and tried to reassure the public that the situation was under control. As of mid-May, prices of pork were up by 43% compared with the same period last year, said the Agriculture Ministry.

Soaring pork prices have been partly blamed on outbreaks of contagious pig disease, which swept 22 Chinese provinces, killing 18,000 pigs in the first five months of the year and disrupting the pig industry. About a million pigs died from the disease last year.

Yet the root of the problem, according to officials, is not the disease. "The main reason is the big price increases of animal feed that began last June," Jia Youling, director of the Veterinary Bureau affiliated with the ministry, said at a press briefing this week.

Pig feed, which is made mostly of corn, simply followed increases in corn prices. Prices of the commodity have risen by up to 30% since the latter half of last year, according to the ministry.

What is more, producers have ignored a government limit on converting about 3 million tonnes of corn into ethanol a year and used up to 16 million tonnes of the crop in 2006, the ministry said in April.

China has been encouraging the production of biofuel such as ethanol and bio-diesel from renewable resources to satisfy the country's voracious appetite for energy and reduce its growing dependence on imported petroleum.

Biofuel is also touted as green panacea for environmental problems caused by oil. Chinese planners have made the development of green energies a key priority in the country's five-year economic plan. By 2020 they want renewable energy to account for 15% of the country's total supply.

While a relative latecomer to the biofuel market, in the past two years China has grown to be the world's third-largest producer after Brazil and the United States.

The National Development and Reform Commission (NDRC), China's top planning body, reported in December that the country's ethanol capacity had reached 10 million tonnes, or 10 times the amount approved for the four government facilities in Jilin, Heilongjiang, Anhui and Henan provinces.

The excess amount has been coming from a cluster of small, unlicensed producers, who sell their production to officially approved mills or oil refineries. Industry insiders say that just Jilin, one of the nine designated provinces where ethanol is sold, has more than 400 ethanol mills, all of them producing the fuel from corn.

Fearing that the explosive growth of the ethanol industry was making a serious dent in the country's grain reserves, the central government stopped approving new corn-based ethanol plants in December. This month it took another step, announcing that it would stop the production of ethanol from corn altogether.

Xiong Bilin, a senior official with the NDRC, said the State Council, China's cabinet, has decided ethanol should be developed without occupying arable land, large-scale consumption of grain, or damage to the environment.

Despite three straight years of bumper harvests, Chinese planners are still worried that fast-shrinking farmland could affect grain supply in the near future. Arable land is said to have shrunk by 8 million hectares between 1999 and 2005.

"The country will not approve new projects of food-based ethanol," Xiong told a development forum in Beijing last week. "The current four [state] plants engaged in making ethanol from corn are urged to switch to new sources."

This, however, might not see the end of corn-based ethanol production in the country. Chinese press reports say domestic corn processors are rapidly expanding their capacities to resume ethanol production when the government relaxes its stance.

(Inter Press Service)

Baghdad U.S.A.

Police crack down on 8 Mile

Norman Sinclair / The Detroit News

21 agencies from across area team up in effort to rid communities of drugs, prostitution, other crimes.

DETROIT -- Officers from 21 agencies today are wrapping up Operation Eight Mile, a three-day crackdown on drugs, prostitution and other crimes in communities bordering the Eight Mile corridor from Harper Woods to Farmington Hills.

The effort netted 67 arrests for offenses ranging from drugs to parole violations between 2-10 p.m. Tuesday, the first day. Traffic officers wrote 512 tickets, made 24 arrests and impounded 19 cars. The action continues until 10 tonight.

"I see Operation Eight Mile as an opportunity to get the police and community together to make the area safer," said Wayne County Sheriff Warren Evans, whose department coordinated the effort.

"A safe and vibrant Eight Mile corridor is critical to the region as well as to the image and perception of the area people have around the country."

Other departments include Macomb and Oakland Sheriff's departments; Detroit and State Police; officers from Harper Woods, Eastpointe, the five Grosse Pointe departments, Warren, Roseville, Hazel Park, Ferndale, Oak Park, Southfield, Livonia, Redford and Farmington Hills; prosecutors from the three counties; agents from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms; the U.S Marshal; the state Department of Corrections; and National Guard also are in the task force.

Evans said he realizes the impressive show of police and hardware during the three-day crackdown, including tanks and helicopters, will not end crime in the area.

"When you hit it that hard for a few days you get a residual drop off in crime and that's a benefit before there is any build up again," he said.

For example, police made arrests at a house on the Detroit side of Eight Mile using information picked up in Eastpointe and Roseville. With an undercover officer posing as a dealer, officers ticketed 45 people who were attempting to buy drugs there and seized 22 cars.

Macomb County Sheriff Mark A. Hackel said the public will see more of these collaborative police efforts in the future.

"Instead of just doing it one week out of the year, you are going to see it on a more continuous basis throughout the year," Hackel said.

Outsourcing Dirty Work in Baghdad

Iraq Contractors Face Growing Parallel War
As Security Work Increases, So Do Casualties

By Steve Fainaru
Washington Post Foreign Service
Saturday, June 16, 2007

BAGHDAD -- Private security companies, funded by billions of dollars in U.S. military and State Department contracts, are fighting insurgents on a widening scale in Iraq, enduring daily attacks, returning fire and taking hundreds of casualties that have been underreported and sometimes concealed, according to U.S. and Iraqi officials and company representatives.

While the military has built up troops in an ongoing campaign to secure Baghdad, the security companies, out of public view, have been engaged in a parallel surge, boosting manpower, adding expensive armor and stepping up evasive action as attacks increase, the officials and company representatives said. One in seven supply convoys protected by private forces has come under attack this year, according to previously unreleased statistics; one security company reported nearly 300 "hostile actions" in the first four months.

The majority of the more than 100 security companies operate outside of Iraqi law, in part because of bureaucratic delays and corruption in the Iraqi government licensing process, according to U.S. officials. Blackwater USA, a prominent North Carolina firm that protects U.S. Ambassador Ryan C. Crocker, and several other companies have not applied, U.S. and Iraqi officials said. Blackwater said that it obtained a one-year license in 2005 but that shifting Iraqi government policy has impeded its attempts to renew.

The security industry's enormous growth has been facilitated by the U.S. military, which uses the 20,000 to 30,000 contractors to offset chronic troop shortages. Armed contractors protect all convoys transporting reconstruction materiel, including vehicles, weapons and ammunition for the Iraqi army and police. They guard key U.S. military installations and provide personal security for at least three commanding generals, including Air Force Maj. Gen. Darryl A. Scott, who oversees U.S. military contracting in Iraq and Afghanistan.

"I'm kind of practicing what I preach here," Scott said in an interview on the use of private security forces for such tasks. "I'm a two-star general, but I'm not the most important guy in the multinational force. If it's a lower-priority mission and it's within the capabilities of private security, this is an appropriate risk trade-off."

The military plans to outsource at least $1.5 billion in security operations this year, including the three largest security contracts in Iraq: a "theaterwide" contract to protect U.S. bases that is worth up to $480 million, according to Scott; a contract for up to $475 million to provide intelligence for the Army and personal security for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers; and a contract for up to $450 million to protect reconstruction convoys. The Army has also tested a plan to use private security on military convoys for the first time, a shift that would significantly increase the presence of armed contractors on Iraq's dangerous roads.

"The whole face of private security changed with Iraq, and it will never go back to how it was," said Leon Sharon, a retired Special Operations officer who commands 500 private Kurdish guards at an immense warehouse transit point for weapons, ammunition and other materiel on the outskirts of Baghdad.

U.S. officials and security company representatives emphasized that contractors are strictly limited to defensive operations. But company representatives in the field said insurgents rarely distinguish between the military and private forces, drawing the contractors into a bloody and escalating campaign.

The U.S. military has never released complete statistics on contractor casualties or the number of attacks on privately guarded convoys. The military deleted casualty figures from reports issued by the Reconstruction Logistics Directorate of the Corps of Engineers, according to Victoria Wayne, who served as deputy director for logistics until 2006 and spent 2 1/2 years in Iraq.

Wayne described security contractors as "the unsung heroes of the war." She said she believed the military wanted to hide information showing that private guards were fighting and dying in large numbers because it would be perceived as bad news.

"It was like there was a major war being fought out there, but we were the only ones who knew about it," Wayne said.

After a year of protests by Wayne and logistics director Jack Holly, a retired Marine colonel, the casualty figures were included. In an operational overview updated last month, the logistics directorate reported that 132 security contractors and truck drivers had been killed and 416 wounded since fall 2004. Four security contractors and a truck driver remained missing, and 208 vehicles were destroyed. Only convoys registered with the logistics directorate are counted in the statistics, and the total number of casualties is believed to be higher.

"When you see the number of my people who have been killed, the American public should recognize that every one of them represents an American soldier or Marine or sailor who didn't have to go in harm's way," Holly said in an interview.

According to the logistics directorate, attacks against registered supply convoys rose from 5.4 percent in 2005, to 9.1 percent in 2006, to 14.7 percent through May 10. The directorate has tracked 12,860 convoys, a fraction of the total number of private supply convoys on Iraqi roads.

"The military are very conscious that we're in their battle space," said Cameron Simpson, country operations manager for ArmorGroup International, a British firm that protects 32 percent of all nonmilitary supply convoys in Iraq. "We would never launch into an offensive operation, but when you're co-located, you're all one team, really."

ArmorGroup, which started in Iraq with 20 employees and a handful of SUVs, has grown to a force of 1,200 -- the equivalent of nearly two battalions -- with 240 armored trucks; nearly half of the publicly traded company's $273.5 million in revenue last year came from Iraq. Globally, ArmorGroup employs 9,000 people in 38 countries.

The company, with headquarters at a complex of sandstone villas near Baghdad's Green Zone, is acquiring a fleet of $200,000 tactical armored vehicles equipped with two gun hatches and able to withstand armor-piercing bullets and some of the largest roadside bombs.

The U.S. Labor Department reported that ArmorGroup has lost 26 employees in Iraq, based on insurance claims. Sources close to the company said the figure is nearly 30. Only three countries in the 25-nation coalition -- the United States, Britain and Italy -- have sustained more combat-related deaths.

A Turning Point

In spring 2004, Holly built the logistics network for Iraq's reconstruction from scratch. The network delivered 31,100 vehicles, 451,000 weapons and 410 million rounds of ammunition to the new Iraqi security forces, and items as varied as computers, baby incubators, school desks and mattresses for every Iraqi government ministry. The network came to rival the military's own logistics operation.

Holly also discovered he was at the center of an undeclared war.

He assembled a small private army to protect materiel as it flowed from border crossings and a southern port at Umm Qasr to the 650,000-square-foot warehouse complex at Abu Ghraib and on to its final destination.

"The only way anything gets to you here is if somebody bets their life on its delivery," said Holly, a burly civilian with a trimmed gray beard who strikes a commanding presence even in khakis, multicolored checked shirts and tennis shoes. "That's the fundamental issue: Nothing moves anywhere in Iraq without betting your life."

The most dangerous link in Holly's supply chain is shipping. It requires the slow-moving convoys to navigate Iraq's dangerous roads. Holly erected a ground-traffic control center in a low-slung trailer near his office in Baghdad's Green Zone. The security companies monitor their convoys in air-conditioned silence, which is shattered by a jarring klaxon each time a contractor pushes a dashboard "panic button," signaling a possible attack.

On May 8, 2005, after dropping off a load that included T-shirts, plastic whistles and 250,000 rounds of ammunition for Iraqi police, one of Holly's convoys was attacked. Of 20 security contractors and truck drivers, 13 were killed or listed as missing; five of the seven survivors were wounded. Insurgents booby-trapped four of the bodies. To eliminate the threat, a military recovery team fired a tank round into a pile of corpses, according to an after-action report.

The convoy had been protected by Hart Security, a British firm that used unarmored vehicles. Within a month, another Hart-led convoy was hit. The team leader informed the ground-control center by cellphone that he was running out of ammunition. He left the cellphone on as his convoy was overrun.

"We listened to the bad guys for almost an hour after they finished everybody off," Holly said.

The attacks represented a turning point in the private war.

Holly vowed he would never again use unarmored vehicles for convoy protection. He went to his primary shipper, Public Warehousing Co. of Kuwait, and ordered a change. PWC hired ArmorGroup, which had armed Ford F-350 pickups with steel-reinforced gun turrets and belt-fed machine guns.

Other companies followed suit, ramping up production of an array of armored and semi-armored trucks of various styles and colors, until Iraq's supply routes resembled the post-apocalyptic world of the "Mad Max" movies.

Bolstered Tactics, Armor

ArmorGroup started in Iraq in 2003 with four security teams and 20 employees. It now has 30 mechanics to support its ground operation. "It's a monster," said Simpson, the country operations manager, strolling past a truck blown apart by a roadside bomb.

ArmorGroup operates 10 convoy security teams in support of Holly's logistics operation. The company runs another 10 to 15 under a half-dozen contracts, as well as for clients who request security on a case-by-case basis, Simpson said.

The company charges $8,000 to $12,000 a day, according to sources familiar with the pricing, although the cost can vary depending on convoy size and the risk. For security reasons, the convoys are limited to 10 tractor-trailers protected by at least four armored trucks filled with 20 guards: four Western vehicle commanders with M-21 assault rifles and 9mm Glock pistols, and 16 Iraqis with AK-47s.

The Western contractors, most with at least 10 years' experience, are paid about $135,000, the same as a U.S. Army two-star general. The Iraqis receive about a tenth of that.

"Every time I think about how it was at the beginning, arriving here with a suitcase and $1,000, and there was no one else around, it's just incredible," Simpson said. "Nobody envisioned that private security companies would be openly targeted by insurgents."

ArmorGroup prides itself on a low-key approach to security. Its well-groomed guards travel in khakis and dark blue shirts. The company's armored trucks are adorned with stickers issued by the Interior Ministry, where the company is fully licensed. Holly's former deputy, Victoria Wayne, said ArmorGroup turned down an opportunity to use more powerful weaponry as the insurgent threat increased.

"As a publicly traded company, they didn't want to be perceived as a mercenary force," she said.

But the company is under constant attack. ArmorGroup ran 1,184 convoys in Iraq in 2006; it reported 450 hostile actions, mostly roadside bombs, small-arms fire and mortar attacks. The company was attacked 293 times in the first four months of 2007, according to ArmorGroup statistics. On the dangerous roads north of Baghdad, "you generally attract at least one incident every mission," Simpson said.

Allan Campion, 36, who joined ArmorGroup after 18 years in the British infantry, said one of his convoys was recently attacked three times on a two-mile stretch outside Baghdad. One bomb exploded near the team leader's vehicle, but the convoy managed to continue, he said. Within minutes, another bomb exploded, followed by small-arms fire.

A firefight ensued as the convoy continued through the "kill zone," Campion said.

"We were still moving, so whether you've hit anybody or not, it's very hard to say," he said.

With the insurgents employing more-lethal roadside bombs, ArmorGroup has responded by changing tactics and spending $6.8 million to bolster its armor. Its new armored "Rock" vehicles are built on Ford F-550 chassis and are favored by ArmorGroup because of a V-shaped hull that provides better protection against roadside bombs.

Chris Berman, a former Navy SEAL who helped design the Rock for North Carolina-based Granite Tactical Vehicles, said its main deterrent is its twin gun hatches. "That gives you twice as much firepower," Berman said. "With two belt-fed machine guns in there, that's enough to chew up most people."

'Caught Up in the Mix'

Built on the site of a former Iraqi tank factory, the Abu Ghraib warehouse complex is known variously as Fort Apache, the Isle of Abu and Rocket City, a reference to when rockets and mortars frequently rained down on the compound.

The bleak, windswept facility consists of 64 buildings spread over a 1 1/2 -mile-long and half-mile-wide area; employees of Public Warehousing (now Agility) -- barricaded inside the fortress -- installed a driving range and a small fishing pond for entertainment. The perimeter is protected by double blast walls, guard towers equipped with belt-fed Dushka machine guns and uniformed Kurdish guards who answer to a military-style rank structure and carry AK-47 assault rifles.

Over the past two years, warehouse personnel "probably average four to six KIA a month and six to eight wounded a month," said Leon Sharon, the Falcon Security representative, dressed in a khaki military uniform with a "Falcon 6" patch identifying him as a field commander for the company.

"It's not a game," Sharon said. "People get killed here trying to go home. People trying to come here get killed because they work here. People on convoy escort get killed because of the materiel that we're shipping out of here. Truck drivers get killed because they get caught up in these ambushes. And you have security personnel who end up caught up in the mix. And the work has to go on as normal."

Attacks on Iraqi employees became so common that a trauma center was set up inside the main warehouse. Dozens of Iraqis, fearful of going home after work, live in barracks-style housing in the compound.

Sharon, 61, of Fort Lauderdale, Fla., is rail thin with a weathered, intelligent face shaped by chain-smoking and four decades of military work. He works out of a small office that is also his bedroom. A humidor sits on his desk. A U.S. flag covers his window. Cartons of Marlboro Reds are stacked behind him near a leather-bound copy of the Koran.

Sharon called Falcon Security a "private military company."

"When you have this many men, you don't manage it as you do a corporation. You manage it very much in the military style," he said. "My men aren't carrying potatoes; they're carrying AK-47s. It's not pilferage we're worried about. It's people storming the walls."

Falcon performs "a military-like role" in Iraq, he said, "with one key exception: We do not, and have no desire to, conduct offensive operations."

But even behind the blast walls, the private and public wars collide, Sharon said. Last year, insurgents attacked a passing U.S. military convoy on a highway outside the gates. Kurdish guards in one of the towers opened fire, killing two insurgents. "The Americans were thrilled," he said.

"All of the work that's being conducted here in Iraq by private security companies would have to be conducted by somebody, and that somebody is U.S. military personnel," he said. "If you had 500 soldiers here, that's 500 less soldiers that you have on the battlefield. And this isn't the only site. There are hundreds of sites around Iraq where you have private security. Where are you going to get this personnel?"

Sharon turns 62 in October. Asked when he planned to leave Iraq, he smiled.

"Last man here, please put the key under the door," he said.

Staff researcher Julie Tate contributed to this report.

'President' Tony Blair?

Push for Blair as new EU president

George Parker in Brussels, John Thornhill
in Paris and James Blitz in London

Financial Times
June 15 2007

Tony Blair, the British prime minister, could end up swapping Downing Street for a job as the first full-time European Union president, under a plan being actively touted by Nicolas Sarkozy, the French president.

Mr Sarkozy is understood to have discussed the idea with other EU leaders ahead of next week’s European summit, Mr Blair’s last major international event as prime minister.

His support for Mr Blair taking on a big European job is a remarkable sign of Anglo-French rapprochement since Mr Sarkozy replaced Jacques Chirac as president last month.

German diplomats say Mr Sarkozy put his plan to Angela Merkel, the German chancellor, while EU officials say the French president has also touted his idea around other capitals, including Madrid. But the British prime minister remains unpopular with governments in countries such as Italy and Spain, which opposed the Iraq war. Mr Blair’s failure to take Britain into the euro will also count against him.

Mr Blair’s aides admit that Mr Sarkozy and other EU leaders have suggested the idea, but Downing Street insisted that Mr Blair was standing down from frontline politics on June 27. He has denied interest in the job.

Number 10 said talks on “theoretical” jobs formed no part of sensitive negotiations on a new treaty, which aims to establish an EU president and foreign minister in 2009. The new role of president of the European Council – representing the bloc’s 27 member states – would be a permanent replacement for the six-monthly rotating presidency of the EU.

One of Mr Sarkozy’s allies said they could not confirm the president was backing Mr Blair, but expressed support for the idea: “Why not? He is qualified for it. We want a politically strong Europe. We want a president who is credible.”

The president would have few formal powers, but would give the EU strategic leadership and represent the bloc on the world stage on issues such as climate change, bilateral relations and development in conjunction with the new foreign minister.

An FT/Harris opinion poll, out on Monday, suggests Mr Blair remains a divisive figure, with 64 per cent of Germans, 60 per cent of Britons and 53 per cent of French respondents saying he would not be good for the job.

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2007

Tuesday, June 12, 2007

Believe It or Not: Middle East Edition

Believe It or Not in the Middle East


When I was a schoolboy, I loved a column which regularly appeared in British papers called "Ripley's Believe It or Not!". In a single rectangular box filled with naively drawn illustrations, Ripley - Bob Ripley - would try to astonish his readers with amazing facts:

"Believe It or Not, in California, an entire museum is dedicated to candy dispensers ... Believe It or Not, a County Kerry man possesses an orange that is 25 years old ... Believe It or Not, a weather researcher had his ashes scattered on the eve of Huricane Danielle 400 miles off the coast of Miama, Florida." Etc, etc, etc.

Incredibly, Ripley's column lives on, and there is even a collection of "Ripley Believe It or Not" museums in the United States.

The problem, of course, is that these are all extraordinary facts which will not offend anyone. There are no suicide bombers in Ripley, no Israeli air strikes ("Believe It or Not, 17,000 Lebanese and Palestinians, most of them civilians, were killed in Israel's 1982 invasion of Lebanon"), no major casualty tolls ("Believe It or Not, up to 650,000 Iraqis died in the four years following the 2003 Anglo-American invasion of Iraq"). See what I mean? Just a bit too close to the bone (or bones).

But I was reminded of dear old Ripley when I was prowling through the articles marking the anniversary of the 1967 Arab-Israeli war. Memoirs there have been aplenty, but I think only the French press - in the shape of Le Monde Diplomatique - was prepared to confront a bit of "Believe It or Not".

It recalled vividly - and shamefully - how the world's newspapers covered the story of Egypt's "aggression" against Israel. In reality - Believe It or Not - it was Israel which attacked Egypt after Nasser closed the straits of Tiran and ordered UN troops out of Sinai and Gaza following his vituperative threats to destroy Israel. "The Egyptians attack Israel," France-Soir told its readers on 5 June 1967, a whopper so big that it later amended its headline to "It's Middle East War!".

Quite so. Next day, the socialist Le Populaire headlined its story "Attacked on all sides, Israel resists victoriously". On the same day, Le Figaro carried an article announcing that "the victory of the army of David is one of the greatest of all time". Believe It or Not, the Second World War - which might be counted one of the greatest of all time, had ended only 22 years earlier.

Johnny Hallyday, France's undie-able pop star, sang for 50,000 French supporters of Israel - for whom solidarity was expressed in the French press by Serge Gainsbourg, Juliette GrÈco, Yves Montand, Simone Signoret, ValÈry Giscard d'Estaing and FranÁois Mitterand. Believe It or Not - and you can believe it - Mitterand once received the coveted Francisque medal from PÈtain's Vichy collaborationists.

Only the president of France, General de Gaulle, moved into political isolation by telling a press conference several months later that Israel "is organising, on the territories which it has taken, an occupation which cannot work without oppression, repression and expulsions - and if there appears resistance to this, it will in turn be called 'terrorism'". This accurate prophecy earned reproof from the Nouvel Observateur - to the effect that "Gaullist France has no friends; it has only interests". And Believe It or Not, with the exception of one small Christian paper, there was in the entire French press one missing word: Palestinians.

I owe it to the academic Anicet MobÈ Fansiama to remind me this week that - Believe It or Not - Congolese troops from Belgium's immensely wealthy African colony scored enormous victories over Italian troops in Africa during the Second World War, capturing 15,000 prisoners, including nine generals. Called "the Public Force" - a name which happily excluded the fact that these heroes were black Congolese - the army mobilised 13,000 soldiers and civilians to fight Vichy French colonies in Africa and deployed in the Middle East - where they were positioned to defend Palestine - as well as in Somalia, Madagascar, India and Burma.

Vast numbers of British and American troops passed through the Congo as its wealth was transferred to the war chests of the United States and Britain.

A US base was built at Kinshasa to move oil to Allied troops fighting in the Middle East.

But - Believe It or Not - when Congolese trade unions, whose members were requisitioned to perform hard labour inside Belgium's colony by carrying agricultural and industrial goods and military equipment, often on their backs, demanded higher salaries, the Belgian authorities confronted their demonstrations with rifle fire, shooting down 50 of their men.

At least 3,000 political prisoners were deported for hard labour to a remote district of Congo. Thus were those who gave their blood for Allied victory repaid. Or rather not repaid. The four billion Belgian francs which was owed back to the Congo - about £500m in today's money - was never handed over. Believe It or Not.

So let's relax and return to Ripley reality. "Believe It or Not, Russell Parsons of Hurricane, West Virginia, has his funeral and cremation instructions tattooed on his arm! ... Believe It or Not, in April 2007 (yes, these are new Ripleys) a group of animal lovers paid nearly $3,400 to buy 300 lobsters from a Maine fish market - then set them free back into the ocean! ... Believe It or Not, in a hospital waiting room, 70 per cent of people suffer from broken bones, 75 per cent are fatigued, 80 per cent have fevers. What percentage of people must have all four ailments?" Believe It or Not, I don't know. And oh yes, "Geta, Emperor of Rome AD189-212, insisted upon alternative meals. A typical menu: partridge (perdix), peacock (pavo), leek (porrum), beans (phaseoli), peach (persica), plum (pruna) and melon (pepone)."

I guess after that, you just have to throw up.

Robert Fisk is a reporter for The Independent and author of Pity the Nation. He is also a contributor to CounterPunch's collection, The Politics of Anti-Semitism. Fisk's new book is The Conquest of the Middle East.

Sunday, June 10, 2007

A Death in Colombia: Dying to be Green

Biofuel gangs kill for green profits

Tony Allen-Mills, New York

HE survived decades of Colombia's murderous guerrilla uprisings. He lived through paramilitary purges and steered well clear of the cocaine overlords who swarmed across his rural region. It was something completely different that killed Innocence Dias. He died because the world is turning green.

The global quest for alternative sources of environmentally friendly energy has attracted high-profile support from American politicians, including President George W Bush and Arnold Schwarzenegger, the governor of California. Celebrities such as Daryl Hannah, the actress, and Willie Nelson, the country singer, are leading a campaign to promote green fuels.

Yet the trend has already had disastrous consequences for tens of thousands of peasants in rural Colombia. A surge in demand for biofuels derived from agricultural products has unleashed a chaotic land grab by a new breed of gangster entrepreneurs hoping to cash in on the world's thirst for palm oil and related bioproducts.

Vast areas of Colombia's tropical forest are being cleared for palm tree plantations. Charities working with local peasants claim that paramilitary forces in league with biofuel conglomerates - some of them financed by US government subsidies - are forcing families off their land with death threats and bogus purchase offers.

"The paramilitaries are not subtle when it comes to taking land," said Dominic Nutt, a British specialist with Christian Aid who recently visited Colombia. "They simply visit a community and tell landowners, 'If you don't sell to us, we will negotiate with your widow'."

Dias was one of several landowners around the remote settlement of Llano Rico who decided not to abandon his property when the paramilitaries first moved into the area. "My father felt protected because he had a local government position," said his daughter, Milvia Dias, 29.

Even when paramilitaries warned the villagers that if they stayed they would be considered left-wing guerrilla sympathisers, Dias refused to be bullied. "He had cattle and land and one day, after all this happened, he went out to fix a hole in one of the farm's fences," his daughter said. He never came back. A search party found him with his throat cut and seven stab wounds in his torso.

"We held the funeral at 5pm the same day and we ran away the next morning," said Dias. The land is now covered in palm trees owned by Urapalma, a Colombian enterprise that has repeatedly been accused in court proceedings of improperly invading private property.

Nutt said last week that he had heard stories of paramilitaries cutting off the arms of illiterate peasants and applying their fingerprints to land sale documents. In many cases, Nutt added, the land is collectively owned by indigenous people or Afro-Colombians and protected by federal laws that courts seem unable or unwilling to enforce.

There is no reliable estimate of how many thousand acres have been appropriated, or how many of the 3m Colombians who have lost their homes since 1985 were forced out by the palm oil business.

Washington has been struggling for years to persuade Colombian farmers to turn their backs on coca leaf production in favour of other crops. Desperate to find energy alternatives to expensive and politically volatile sources of Middle Eastern and Venezuelan oil, Bush is also advocating a global increase in biofuel production.

Alvaro Uribe, the president of Colombia, has urged local palm oil producers to more than double the land they have under cultivation within four years. Uribe's critics complain that he has effectively given a green light to paramilitaries.

At a congressional hearing on Colombia last week, Luis Gilberto Murillo-Urrutia, the former governor of Choco province, told a House foreign affairs subcommittee that US trade policy was likely to "generate an expansion of palm oil cultivation in Afro-Colombian territories . . . there is evidence that palm oil companies, taking advantage of the vulnerability of Afro- Colombian people, have been taking over lands illegally".

For Don Enrique Petro, 67, formerly a wealthy landowner from Curvarado, growing international awareness of the human cost of a green conscience has come several years too late.

"I arrived in Curvarado 39 years ago with my wife and five sons," he said last week. He bought a patch of jungle and slowly transformed it into a 30-acre spread with 110 cows, 20 bulls and 10 horses.

He lost two sons and a brother to the guerrilla wars and in the early 1990s fled his land for five years. When he returned, he found a right-wing paramilitary group in control. "They said they wanted my land to fight the guerrillas," Petro said. "They were lying. It was so they could grow palm on it and make money." Petro refused to sell up. He claims he was eventually taken prisoner by the paramilitaries and, when released, found his land had been planted with palm trees belonging to Urapalma. The company has denied that it is cooperating with paramilitaries or acquiring land illegally.

The world's demand for alternative fuels is unlikely to diminish, but Nutt argued that biofuel consumers should put pressure on Colombia to return stolen land.

Celebrities such as Hannah are beginning to distinguish between palm oil and less controversial biofuels such as ethanol, which is derived mainly from corn.

"I want biofuels that are grown and produced in a sustainable manner," said Hannah, who leads a pressure group which is lobbying for US government standards on green fuel production. "I would not buy biodiesel made from palm oil."

Have your say

As much as all of the concerns expressed are valid, another sustainability factor we should endeavor to respect is the "food miles" content of the finished product. Raw materials transported thousands of miles, however sustainably produced, are far less desirable than using a home grown oil bearing crop that doesn't feature in the human food chain. Better yet, recycled waste vegetable oil, as is accomplished here in my corner of California.

Michael, Santa Cruz, California

As an American, I have to wonder if Hannah has ever heard of the Roundtable of Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) or the Palm Oil Truth Foundation? Surely if palm oil is produced in a sustainable manner and yields higher output with less land it makes sense to use biofuels from palm oil?

"I would not buy biodiesel made from palm oil." Hannah says - hmm, probably more to do with protectionism than real concern for the environment!

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