Scientists identify deforested idle land as source of Indonesia “haze” fires


Author: Alisa Tang

BANGKOK (Thomson Reuters Foundation) – A month after Singapore was shrouded in a thick haze produced by Indonesian fires in June 2013, scientist David Gaveau went to the source of the smoke in Riau province to survey the charred aftermath.

News reports attributed the haze to slash-and-burn forest clearance to make way for oil palm plantations. But what Gaveau, a scientist with the Indonesia-based Center for International Forestry Research (CIFOR), discovered during his five days examining the still-smouldering ground on Sumatra island was different.

His team already knew from satellite images that over 80 percent of the burned 163,336 hectares was “non-forest” land - ranging from scrub and exposed soil to oil palm plantations with trees more than five years old - but they wanted to know what it really looked like.

So Gaveau and his colleague, Mohammad Agus Salim, met up with two drone technicians and snapped aerial images from seven burn sites around Riau. According to a paper published on Tuesday in Scientific Reports, they concluded that 57 percent of the burned “non-forest” land was made up of what they call “forest cemeteries”.

According to Gaveau, these areas had already been stripped of forest, but not yet converted for cultivation: “decapitated stumps, branches lying around, a lot of wood debris - you see the dead trees scattered about”.

The fires behind the haze were short-lived and confined to recently deforested peatlands in Riau, reflecting ongoing conversion to oil palm plantations, the researchers wrote in their paper.

In their pristine state, Indonesian peatland swamps are covered in lush tropical forests and are resistant to fire because the ground is wet year-round and the canopy keeps it cool, Gaveau said.

But when the trees are removed and the ground is drained for farming, this land rich in peat – decayed organic matter used as fuel in places like Ireland and Finland – becomes highly flammable.

“During a hot day, at noon, the dry peat soil becomes extremely hot, and all it takes are a few consecutive days of little rain for peat to burn” even in a wetter-than-average year, Gaveau told Thomson Reuters Foundation by telephone from Bali. That is what the scientists observed in June 2013, and also in February-March 2014.


Until now, transboundary haze events in Southeast Asia occurred during drought years with low rainfall, Gaveau said, pointing to the El Nino years of 1982, 1997 and 2006.

But migrants pouring into the region and using fire to clear land for cultivation have added another dangerous variable, he said.

Just over half the total burned area in Riau in 2013 - nearly 85,000 hectares - was on land allocated to companies for plantation development, but of that area, some 50,000 hectares was also occupied by locals or migrants.

The combination of large numbers of people searching for land and extremely fire-prone peat covered in wood debris “creates this mess”, Gaveau said.


Peat fires do not have the raging flames seen in wildfires in Southern California and Australia.

“It’s almost like they are flameless fires. It’s not like you have to run away, or the flame will kill you. People still go about their business,” Gaveau said.

However, smouldering peat releases much greater amounts of greenhouse gases per unit of fuel consumed than flaming combustion, he noted.

The CIFOR scientists found that the haze that has angered Singaporeans is due to these smoky fires on land that has remained idle for several years rather than slash-and-burn forest clearance, as commonly thought.

Pristine forests are deemed safe from fires, as are established plantations, because companies and landowners want to protect their assets. It is areas at the in-between stage that are particularly vulnerable.

Gaveau said the transition from forest to farmland in Riau is more complex than scientists had thought, and takes longer than the three years or so they had expected – for reasons they still haven’t worked out.

“What that means is that the same area can burn several times over the course of several years before it gets converted to agriculture. It keeps getting burned and burned and burned.”

This is bad news for Southeast Asia - and in particular Singapore, which has been so hard hit by the haze that earlier this month its parliament passed a bill proposing fines of up to S$2 million ($1.6 million) for companies found guilty of causing it, whether or not they operate on the island.

The smog caused by fires often leads to the closure of airports, and sometimes schools and offices too. It can trigger respiratory diseases, as well as eye and throat infections.

“It is not just city dwellers who are affected, but also, and most importantly, local people who live around these fires,” Gaveau said.

(Editing by Megan Rowling: megan.rowling@thomsonreuters.com)

Photo by CIFOR/David Gaveau


Aid agency roundup: Destroyed roads slow relief in quake-hit southern China

Author: Alisa Tang

BANGKOK (Thomson Reuters Foundation) – Aid workers are trekking for hours through mud and debris to assist survivors of a 6.3-magnitude earthquake that triggered landslides, blocking rivers and creating massive bodies of water that could unleash more destruction in southwestern Yunnan province.

Thousands of buildings were destroyed, buried under mud and plunged underwater by the series of disasters that began with the August 3 quake. The death toll has topped 600, according to Xinhua news agency, while blocked roads and aftershocks following the region’s strongest quake in 14 years are slowing aid and recovery.

"We could not take a bus or car to go there, so we walked sometimes on the way. The mountain was shaking (from aftershocks). We had to go around some areas, waiting for the road (to be repaired). We spent five hours (walking) from Ludian county city to go to Longtoushan township," Yan Hailin, programme manager for Plan International, told Thomson Reuters Foundation by phone on Friday from Plan’s base in Yunnan province’s capital Kunming.

Yan and his colleagues spent Tuesday assessing the damage, having driven six hours from Kunming, and setting off on foot when the road was no longer passable.

"A lot of local people have no place to live, and they just use tents outside of buildings, waiting for the local government or other organisations to support them and to get food, clean water," Yan said.

Save the Children staff said the government was repairing roads so more rescuers could get into the affected areas.

"The priority is rescuing people because there are still many areas not can be accessed," Zhang Houqi, Kunming-based project officer for Save the Children, said by telephone while travelling through the worst-hit areas in Ludian county.

On Thursday, Zhang and his colleagues reached more than 300 adults and children sheltering in a school in Yinchang village.

"Their houses were either broken by the earthquake or under water by the river," he said.

World Vision staff were also trying to get to Qiaojia and Huize counties.

"All the news is on Ludian, but two other counties are inaccessible, and we will be trying to access those unreached areas as soon as possible… we think there are needs there," Meimei Leung, World Vision China’s head of humanitarian emergency affairs said from the relief teams’ base in Tianjin, near Beijing.

Here is a summary of the humanitarian response in Yunnan. If your agency is involved in emergency efforts, please email us at news.foundation@thomsonreuters.com.


Plan, a child-focused NGO, is providing emergency care for children and families affected by the disasters, and is on standby to provide support for children.

Yan said Plan has met with government officials, parents, children and teachers to assess needs. On Sunday, four staff will go to Ludian with large tents, hygiene supplies and children’s art supplies to set up two spaces for children – one each in two villages in Longtoushan township.


The NGO has distributed coats, blankets, socks and clothes for children, as well as hygiene kits, and is planning to create child-friendly spaces.

“It’s quite important to provide children a safe space,” Zhang said. “Their parents are busy with the earthquake and recovery, and distributing relief materials.”


World Vision has distributed 50 tents for families, toothpaste, toothbrushes, towels, soap and sanitary napkins for survivors living in temporary shelters, and plans to deliver cooking utensils, mosquito nets, flashlights and other supplies.

The NGO will also deliver 500 packages that include toys for children, which Leung said have proven very helpful in the aftermath of other disasters: “Children really like receiving these child-friendly kits. They’ve lost everything, and this gives them something to hold on to, something that belongs to them.”

World Vision is working with a local partner to provide counseling and to offer education, play therapy and reading time. “The whole purpose is to help children have a normal life,” Leung said, noting that early reports indicate 94 schools have been damaged.


According to UNICEF, Ludian’s per capita GDP is one-third that of Yunnan province and much lower than the national average, with an average annual income per capita of less than $1 per day.

UNICEF has been asked by the government to provide medical supplies and equipment to support the recovery of hospitals in the region.

The agency is exploring purchasing equipment for babies and young children under 5 to be able to bathe with warm water.


Thailand launches women-only train cars after girl, 13, raped and murdered

Author: Alisa Tang

BANGKOK (Thomson Reuters Foundation) – Thailand’s national rail operator has introduced train carriages for women and children only following the murder and rape of a 13-year-old girl on an overnight train that sparked public outrage and calls for rapists to face the death penalty.

The State Railways of Thailand decked out one carriage per train - on its routes to Chiang Mai in the north, Sungai Kolok in the south, and Ubon Ratchathani and Nong Khai in the northeast – with dark pink curtains, instead of the standard light blue, and flower-decorated pink and white signs that read “Ladies and children only”.

The special carriages permit women and girls, as well as boys 10 years old or younger and no taller than 150 cm, and are staffed exclusively by women train employees and police.

“The railway is trying to boost confidence. If we did nothing, it would look like we were insensitive or didn’t care. We already have women staff, so why not do this and give women a choice? This way, women can travel without worrying,” said Kanya Maneesri, a railway employee who converts sitting areas to beds.

One female passenger said she felt reassured aboard the women-only car on a southbound train.

“I feel a lot safer now because before, the bogeys (carriages) were mixed with male passengers, and there were no protection measures for our safety. There were only curtains separating us,” said 18-year-old Katthaleeya Aroon, a university student on her way to Yala province near the border with Malaysia. “Now I feel more confident in travelling, and my family can allow me to travel by train with my friends.”

A railway employee since 2001, Kanya had previously worked on special carriages for women and children for four years until they were discontinued about seven years ago.

“We had to stop the service because most people come as entire families, as couples, or in entire tour groups. There are very few women who travel alone,” Kanya told Thomson Reuters Foundation amid the roar of train engines on the platform at Bangkok’s Hualamphong station, as she waited for customers to board the overnight train to Chiang Mai on Friday evening.

The rape and murder of the 13-year-old girl took place last month on a busy commuter route. Police charged a 22-year-old train cleaner with rape and murder, and say he confessed to taking drugs before committing the crimes and throwing the girl’s body out of the train.

“There have been cases of people being rude on the trains, but nothing to the extent of rape or anything like that. Most often, it’s just cases of drunkenness and rowdy behaviour,” Kanya said.

Thai media report almost daily cases of rape, murder and violence against women and girls, but reports of molestation and attacks on trains are rare.

The public health ministry recorded more than 31,000 cases of sexual violence in Thailand last year, though rights experts say the figure is likely much higher.

(Additional reporting by Juarawee Kittisilpa, Reuters. Editing by Katie Nguyen; katie.nguyen@thomsonreuters.com)


For Syrian refugees, easy arrival in Thailand but rough survival


Author: Alisa Tang

BANGKOK (Thomson Reuters Foundation) – Alaa’s time in Damascus was up. Security forces had arrested him twice in 2011 when he was a student in the Syrian capital. He felt lucky to be alive but feared for his family.

His father asked friends around the world for help and decided the family would flee to Thailand - a country that granted visas easily, but about which the family knew little.

In June 2012, Alaa’s mother and two younger brothers flew to Bangkok. A month later, Alaa and his father followed, leaving their four-bedroom home and all their possessions.

Alaa – who asked to be identified only by his middle name – is among hundreds of refugees and asylum seekers who have escaped Syria’s brutal civil war  by flying nearly 7,000 kms (4,200 miles) to this tropical Southeast Asian country.

Three years of conflict in Syria have killed 146,000 people, displaced 4 million and forced 2.8 million refugees abroad, mostly into neighbouring countries. Those who have fled further include 2,000 who are in Southeast Asia and India, according to the U.N. refugee agency (UNHCR).

Alaa, 28, and his family live crammed into a tiny studio apartment on the fourth floor of a nondescript eight-storey building in Bangkok. Alaa’s parents sleep on a bed, while their three sons have a sofa and blankets spread across the floor.

In the cool whir of an air conditioner and fan, with sunlight trickling in around clothes drying in front of the kitchenette window, Alaa spoke to Thomson Reuters Foundation about his detention in Syria, escape to Thailand, and plans to rebuild his life.


Security forces detained Alaa twice – in July and December 2011 – near his college, in a Damascus neighbourhood where there had been anti-government protests. They blindfolded him and drove him to a place where others were being held.

“I saw many people around me. Almost all of them were students, they were from college. They were wearing their uniforms… Some were in high school, less than 18 years old.

“The first time they made me stay just a short time – around two days. The next one, they made me stay … around one week.

“I was studying mass media, and most people arrested were in this department because they wished to show the true story in Syria, what’s happening.

“They threatened me by saying, ‘We will finish you’, or ‘We will finish your family.’ I heard many stories in Syria from my friends in college… Their families were finished because of one person.

“They just hurt me a little, by bad words, by slapping, by kicking.”


His father reached out to friends for help.

“He had a friend who had been living a long time in Thailand, and he recommended that my father come here, and told him he could help him to stay here. We didn’t know anything about Thailand. We had just heard about flooding in Thailand, earthquake in Thailand. Just in general - the news. He gave us flight tickets to come here.

“In Damascus, the easiest visa to get is from the Thai embassy. From Europe, America, Arab Gulf countries, it is impossible to get a visa.”

Alaa’s family tried not to attract attention when they left their home.

“Some people made the mistake that when they left their home… they took their car and took what they could, the stuff from their house. Then they are shocked or surprised when they find security guys waiting… They ask some questions to make you nervous, take you out of the car, and you don’t know what will happen. I didn’t make that mistake. I was very sensitive about that.

“We just took some money and some clothes, but everything else is still in the house. Our memories were kept at home. You can say this is the most valuable (thing) you have in your life, memories, you keep them at home and you leave for a reason: You want to stay alive.

“We left in a car, but did not go outside the city… We stayed in another home in Damascus, with family.

“First my mother and brothers left. Then after (one month), my father and I left after I made sure I could escape, because I was scared that maybe my name is on the list at the security centre. If they have your picture or your name at the border… they will not let you leave the country.

“When you take your seat in the plane, the plane starts flying, you see that you are so lucky… Even at the last minute … security could come inside the plane and capture you… I could have died inside Syria. No one is arrested twice and gets out alive.”


Alaa and his family have been living in Bangkok for nearly a year. Unable to speak Thai and lacking proper work documents, Alaa illegally found work teaching students Arabic. Each month, he earns up to 10,000 baht ($300) but pays 9,000 baht ($275) for rent and utilities for their studio apartment.

“We don’t save anything, we just stay alive… Now we are just waiting for our chance to leave Thailand.

“We are very lucky because we were accepted as refugees by the U.N… They will send us to Holland (the Netherlands) soon (in four months). The staff at the Dutch embassy are giving us courses to learn, and they are advising us what we should do when we get there.”

Alaa hopes to complete his university studies and rebuild what his family has lost. “Surely I will go back to my country again, but I have to rebuild what I lost… I have another chance in another country. When I make sure I do what I want, I will go back again, but I will go back stronger than before.”

(Photo by Thin Lei Win/Thomson Reuters Foundation)


Factbox: Martial law in Thailand - what it entails

BANGKOK (Reuters) - Thailand’s army chief, General Prayuth Chan-ocha, declared martial law on Tuesday after months of political unrest, saying he wanted to end the violence and bring rival groups together for talks.

Although life in the capital Bangkok went on much as normal, armed troops patrolled the streets, several television channels were suspended, a government security agency was dissolved and rival protest groups were ordered not to move from their camps.

Under a law enacted in 1914, Thailand’s army commander has the authority to declare martial law in the event of war or insurrection to maintain order and protect the country against internal or external dangers. Once imposed, it can only be revoked by the palace with a royal decree.

Following are more details on its provisions:

- In the area where martial law is imposed, the army assumes command over civilian authorities including the police and other state agencies.

- The military has full power to search citizens, vehicles, homes and buildings; it can inspect messages, letters, parcels, books and other publications.

- It can prohibit meetings or gatherings, restrict print and broadcast media and limit movement by land, water or air.

- It can seize assets that might be used to help “the enemy”.

- It can bar the possession or use of weapons and “communication devices”.

- If there are reasonable grounds to suspect a person is an enemy or has violated martial law, the military has the power to detain that person for investigation for up to seven days.

- While civilian courts still function, a military court may oversee cases involving offences committed while martial law is in place.

- The military has the power to enlist citizens to support its endeavours.

- So far, under the current martial law, the army has forced 10 satellite television channels to stop broadcasting, including stations run by pro- and anti-government groups.

- It dissolved the Centre for the Administration of Peace and Order (CAPO), the security body handling the protests that was overseen by the government, and replaced it with the army-controlled Peace and Order Maintaining Command (POMC).

- Martial law is overseen by the supreme commander of the armed forces, the heads of the army, navy and air force, and the national police chief.

- Martial law was last imposed around the country in 2006 after a military coup to oust Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra.

- Thaksin is at the centre of the present crisis, the power behind the government of his sister Yingluck Shinawatra, who was forced out by the Constitutional Court this month, and behind the acting government now clinging to office.

(Reporting by Pairat Temphairojana and Alisa Tang; Editing by Alan Raybould and Alex Richardson)


Armed men attack Thai villagers to get to controversial goldmine


Source: Thomson Reuters Foundation - Fri, 16 May 2014 12:04 PM

Author: Alisa Tang

BANGKOK (Thomson Reuters Foundation) – Hundreds of armed men descended on a village in northern Thailand and overpowered residents blocking the road to a goldmine said by locals to have caused environmental damage so that trucks could take ore away, villagers said on Friday.

Wearing black and white ski masks and armed with guns, knives and clubs, up to 400 men rounded up and beat 40 people, including women, in the Khao Luang district of Loei province near the northern border with Laos.

Environmental activist group Ecological Alert and Recovery - Thailand (EARTH) said at least 20 people were injured in the attack on Thursday. The unidentified assailants left on Friday.

"They covered villagers’ eyes, bound their ankles and wrists and beat them black and blue. They treated us like we weren’t human," one villager, Pauntip Hongchai, told Thomson Reuters Foundation by phone.

Residents of Khao Luang have for years contested the mining operations of Tungkum Ltd, a subsidiary of Tongkah Harbour Pcl. Villagers and activists say Tungkum – meaning  “paddies of gold” – has poisoned the creeks and waterways on which the communities rely for food, irrigation and drinking water.

Many people have fallen ill, said Nicha Rakpanichmanee, a research officer with EARTH. She said residents had symptoms of arsenic poisoning, with their skin turning black, and heavy metal poisoning that caused muscle weakness and numbness.

After tests by government agencies showed high levels of cyanide - used in the gold extraction process - cadmium and arsenic in local creeks, Loei health authorities in 2009 told villagers to stop drinking from Khao Luang waterways, and the following year told them to stop eating clams from one of the creeks, said Nicha, who has visited the area several times.

"After years of complaints and no action from any government agency to stop the contamination - and villagers felt the contamination was getting worse - the villagers set up a blockade late last year to block large trucks from entering or leaving the premises," she said by phone.

The blockade was destroyed twice, so after building a stronger wall, the villagers deployed rotating shifts of volunteersto sit in a thatch hut and guard it.


On Thursday night the attackers destroyed the barricade allowing 13 trucks carrying ore out of the village, residents said.

Wiraun Rujichaiwat, the wife of a local activist who was also beaten, said the attackers stole gold jewelry, cameras and mobile phones from the villagers. She said the police did not intervene.

"Two policemen came and then left. They didn’t do anything. They saw people being beaten and detained," Wiraun told Thomson Reuters Foundation from the police station, where she and other residents had gone to protest.

"People are ill. There are chemicals in the food we grow around our homes. We don’t want them mining here. We are against them, and we want them to stop."

Wang Saphung district Police Lieutenant Suthot Waenthongchan declined comment, saying only that he was learning more as villagers came to the police station to voice their complaints on Friday.


Tongkah Harbour did not respond to an email requesting comment on the attack and no one answered calls to phone numbers listed on its website.

On their website’s corporate social responsibility page, Tongkah says it is aware of the challenges developing countries face and assesses ways that its operations may impact local communities.

"Our aim is to give something back to the community and to set benchmarks to improve the lives of citizens… Tongkah’s goal is to be synonymous with corporate citizenship at its best."

Tongkah Harbour’s 2012 annual report indicates that Tungkum has mined six plots of land in Loei and plans to expand to 106 more plots of land throughout the province.

The company faces delisting of its shares from the Stock Exchange of Thailand for failing to submit financial statements. Its shares have been suspended since February 2012.


Ethnic Karen activist missing in Thailand after detention - HRW

Author: Alisa Tang

BANGKOK (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Human Rights Watch has said it is seriously concerned about an ethnic Karen activist who apparently disappeared after being temporarily detained last week at a national park southwest of Bangkok, and has urged Thai authorities to provide information about him.

Por Cha Lee Rakcharoen, known as Billy - who had been preparing a lawsuit against the authorities for destroying the homes of ethnic Karen living in Kaeng Krachan National Park in Petchaburi province - was detained and then released on Thursday at a checkpoint in the park, but did not return home afterwards and has not been seen since.

Local authorities have not disclosed information on Billy’s detention or evidence of his release, “raising grave concerns” for his safety, HRW said on Monday, noting that Billy was involved in a lawsuit against park officials, including the park chief who has been charged with involvement in the killing of another activist in 2011.

“The apparent disappearance of this prominent Karen activist demands an immediate government response,” said Brad Adams, Asia director at HRW.

Billy was detained while travelling from his village in Kaeng Krachan district to meet ethnic Karen villagers and activists to prepare for a forthcoming court hearing of a lawsuit filed by the villagers against the National Park, Wildlife and Plant Conservation Department, the Ministry of Natural Resources and Environment, and the head of Kaeng Krachan National Park, HRW said.

The villagers allege in the lawsuit that in July 2011, the authorities were responsible for the destruction and burning of houses and property of more than 20 Karen families living in the villages in the national park. When Billy was detained, he was carrying case files and related documents.

The head of the Kaeng Krachan National Park Office, Chaiwat Limlikitaksor, told Thomson Reuters Foundation that Billy had been taken for questioning on Thursday evening about an unlawful wild bee honeycomb and six bottles of honey alleged to have been found in his possession, but was released after questioning.

“I didn’t think it was a big offence, so I just let him go. There were witnesses, people saw me release him,” Chaiwat told Thomson Reuters Foundation by telephone.

Villagers and local activists have tried unsuccessfully to contact Billy, and on April 19 his family filed a missing person’s complaint with local police.

HRW fears Billy has been “forcibly disappeared” – the term used in international law when state officials take a person into custody and then deny holding the person, or conceal or fail to disclose the person’s whereabouts.

According to HRW, Chaiwat was charged in a separate case with masterminding the 2011 killing of Tatkamol Ob-om, a Thai activist from Billy’s network who had been helping Karen villagers report on alleged violence, illegal logging and poaching by park officials.

Chaiwat accused the activists of hounding him: “They are linking me to every single case. I can prove where I was and what I was doing. If I really did do wrong, then I would be in jail.”

Referring to the charges in the case that Billy had been preparing, Chaiwat defended the burning of the villagers’ homes.

“They trespassed on state property, chopped down trees that were hundreds of years old, and planted marijuana,” he said. “Come and see for yourself how they chopped down my trees, how they were planting drugs.”

HRW’s Thailand representative Sunai Phasuk said the use of excessive violence by park officials was not acceptable.

“We understand the duties of park officials to protect forests and animals, but they are using excessive violence against the ethnic Karen who lived in the park hundreds of years before the enforcement of the national conservation laws,” Sunai told Thomson Reuters Foundation.

“We have very serious concerns that Kaeng Krachan National Park has become a dangerous area for people who speak up for the rights of Karen villagers. One of them was gunned down and now we have another who has disappeared.”


Why don’t Myanmar log trade figures add up? Corruption, says NGO

Author: Alisa Tang

BANGKOK (Thomson Reuters Foundation) – Global imports of timber from Myanmar between 2000 and 2013 were three and a half times as large as the quantity it officially exported, proof of serious ‘criminality and corruption’ in the country’s timber sector, according to a UK-based watchdog that analysed the numbers.

Official figures published earlier this month showed that Myanmar exported 6.5 million cubic metres of timber from its forests between 2000 and 2013.

In the same period, countries around the world imported 22.8 million cubic metres of logs from Myanmar.

The Environmental Investigation Agency (EIA) discovered the multibillion-dollar “black hole” by crosschecking the official figures on log harvests and timber exports - published on March 10 by Myanmar’s privately owned Eleven Media Group - with data from aU.N. database and the Global Trade Atlas.

While the official export figure already indicates unsustainable exploitation of the country’s forests, the reality appears to be far worse, the EIA said in a report released on Wednesday.

“The published official timber export statistics significantly under-report the true volume of wood flowing through Myanmar’s ports and across its land borders,” the EIA said in its report, noting that the official figure accounts for only 28 percent of all recorded international trade in Myanmar logs, suggesting 72 percent of log shipments were illicit.

“Such a gap is indicative of widespread criminality and corruption in Myanmar’s timber sector.”

The EIA estimated the value of the 2000-2013 illegal exports at $5.7 billion - four times the country’s combined education and health budget for 2013-14.


The size of the officially authorised timber harvest - 11.2 million cubic metres - also falls significantly short of the import volumes reported by Myanmar’s trade partners, “which offer a far more reliable indicator than the Myanmar Government’s suspect data”, the report said.

“The Government’s official data on forestry and timber exports reveals endemic illegal logging and timber smuggling - crimes only possible through institutional corruption on a huge scale,” the EIA’s Faith Doherty said in a statement.

While the official figures do not indicate who is benefiting from the illicit timber exports, the EIA said, “The clear concern is that, regardless of wider political reforms, opaque and unaccountable forest resource allocations mean Myanmar still continues to haemorrhage valuable natural resources for the benefit of a small elite.”

Myanmar has some of Asia’s largest remaining expanses of forest, but its forest cover shrank from 58 percent of the land area in 1990 to 47 percent in 2010, according to Forestry Ministry data.

In an effort to save its remaining forests, Myanmar’s new reformist government has said it willban log exports from April 1, choking off profits in a sector that provided crucial funding to the country’s former military rulers for decades.

The EIA said the ban in itself was not enough and called on the government to: stop favouring its cronies in forest resource allocation; investigate and prosecute companies or government officials involved in illegal logging and timber smuggling; increase transparency in the management of forest resources; and ensure civil society involvement in the planned restructuring of the Forestry Ministry.


Foot and mouth disease spreads to cattle in North Korea - U.N.

Author: Alisa Tang

BANGKOK (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - North Korea is struggling to contain foot and mouth disease, which was earlier reported in pigs and has now spread to cattle, officials from the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) said on Wednesday after returning from a visit to North Korean farms and markets to assess the outbreaks.

North Korean officials originally reported to the FAO and the World Organisation for Animal Health on Feb. 18 that foot and mouth disease (FMD) had affected 3,280 pigs in an area near the capital Pyongyang and killed 369, FAO health officer Carolyn Benigno said on Wednesday after a week-long visit to North Korea.

FAO officials found that the disease was still spreading among pigs and was also affecting cattle on at least two farms in a remote mountainous region in southern Kangwon province near the border with South Korea, she said.

“Foot and mouth disease was first reported on Jan. 8, on a pig farm near Pyongyang, and continued to spread in pigs despite containment measures taken by veterinary services,” Benigno told reporters at a briefing in Bangkok. “The first report to us is that FMD was in pigs, but when we were there, we received reports that some cattle were infected.”

The FAO officials visited the Pyongyang market, pig farms near Pyongyang and one cooperative cattle farm, where they saw four sick cows with lesions.

“The team was able to confirm that the FMD outbreak in DPRK (Democratic People’s Republic of Korea) is still ongoing at the time of our visit,” Benigno said.

The FAO officials visited the DPRK after its chief veterinary officer requested emergency assistance to improve his staff’s ability to diagnose and control the disease, she said.

The FAO advised North Korea on basic control measures, including disinfecting farms and limiting people’s movement to prevent spread of the disease to other farms, and is now preparing to provide training on farm biosecurity, field and laboratory equipment and training in animal handling and collection of samples.


N. Korea may achieve self-sufficiency in cereals in 2014, FAO says

Author: Alisa Tang

BANGKOK (Thomson Reuters Foundation) – North Korea could, given the right conditions, become self-sufficient in cereals this year, after a sizable increase in harvests which has enabled it to reduce cereal imports by more than half from five years ago, a U.N. official said on Wednesday.

Hiroyuki Konuma, U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) assistant director-general and regional representative for Asia and the Pacific, also said the DPRK (Democratic People’s Republic of Korea) needed to increase output of protein-rich crops to fight malnutrition, particularly in the impoverished north.

“I think it’s not a dream that DPRK can achieve self-sufficiency by the end of this year, if there are good weather conditions, timely provision of fertilizer, availability of quality seeds, availability of fuel for electricity, irrigation pumps, incentives to farmers,” Konuma told reporters in Bangkok after a 12-day visit to North Korea.

He said that DPRK rice output grew 11 percent in 2013, while overall 2013 production of cereals - including rice, maize, wheat, soybeans – and potatoes rose by 4 percent.

“It is quite encouraging. This is mainly, according to our analysis, due to availability of fertilizers, expanded utilization of improved variety of rice seeds,” Konuma said, adding that North Korea is using two new high-yield rice seeds, Pyongyang 49 and Pyongyang 52.

The increase has sharply reduced the country’s reliance on cereal imports to meet its needs.

“In 2009/2010, it was about 800,000 tonnes imported requirement to meet the deficit, but last year to this year (2013/2014), the deficit has become much smaller - it was 340,000 tonnes,” Konuma said.

A crop increase could be hindered by problems in the production and distribution of good quality seeds and fertilizer, he said. North Korea produces less than half the fertilizer it requires and imports most of the rest from China.

Despite improved cereal production, hunger and malnutrition remain widespread in the DPRK, particularly in the poor, mountainous north, though the situation is significantly better than five years ago.

North Korea has relied on food aid since the mid-1990s, when years of mismanagement of the farm sector and natural disasters resulted in famine that killed as many as a million people. Critics say Pyongyang spends most of its little hard currency on maintaining a million-strong army and developing nuclear weapons and missiles instead of feeding its millions of malnourished people.

According to the FAO’s State of Food Insecurity report, an estimated 7.6 million North Koreans (31 percent of the population) were undernourished in the period 2011-13, down from 9.7 million (40 percent) in 2008-2010. The agency’s March 2014 report on crop prospects and food said that 84 percent of households had “borderline or poor food consumption”.

A key challenge will be to get food produced in the more productive south and west of the country to the north, Konuma said.

“How best can we make sure the food rations will be provided to poor people in those mountain areas? This is one of the most important areas the FAO and WFP joint food security mission will be following up closely and monitoring the situation,” he said.

The FAO will also work with senior officials to increase vegetable, fruit and livestock production, to boost proteins, vitamins and minerals in the country’s diet.

“One suggestion I made is to introduce backyard gardening and school gardening in the northern part of (North) Korea so that even in small yards, backyards of the house, people can grow small amounts of items, of fruits to supplement their diets,” Konuma said. “Our diet is not only calories, but protein is also important, vitamins, minerals… DPRK has to move to diversify its production to livestock, fruit and vegetables.”


Q&A with WHO: Cholera vaccine stockpile - a new tool to avoid needless suffering

Author: Alisa Tang

BANGKOK (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - The World Health Organization (WHO) has activated for the first time a new cholera vaccine emergency stockpile to protect hundreds of thousands displaced by conflict in South Sudan and living in temporary camps.

Although there is currently no outbreak of cholera - an acute diarrhoeal infection caused by ingestion of contaminated food or water - the risk is high due to poor sanitary conditions and overcrowding, the WHO said.

With WHO coordinating the campaign, Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) on Feb. 22 started vaccinations for 94,000 people in Minkaman camp in Awerial county, and the humanitarian organisation Medair was to vaccinate an additional 43,000 in camps in South Sudan’s capital, Juba.

Two oral doses of the cholera vaccine are required for an individual to be protected. The campaign begins with an initial round of vaccinations followed after a required 14-day interval by a second round. 

William Perea, the WHO’s coordinator for the control of epidemic diseases, spoke to Thomson Reuters Foundation by phone from Geneva about the emergency stockpile - which is managed by WHO, the International Federation of the Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC), MSF and UNICEF - as a tool to fight cholera.

Q: What is the cholera vaccine and the emergency stockpile?

A: The cholera vaccine has been around for a while. The first once was licensed in 1991.

What we are trying to do with the emergency stockpile is say… let’s create a stockpile that will allow access to countries that would have the need to use the vaccine. We had to put some conditions and criteria around the stockpile, otherwise it’s not manageable.

We have already more than 15 years of experience with emergency stockpiles of vaccines (for diseases) like meningitis and yellow fever. We used that experience that has proved effective to make vaccines available to countries that would not otherwise have access.

Q: Why is this vaccine not used more widely?

A: One of the main reasons for not using the vaccine is (some humanitarian aid sectors say) this vaccine will divert resources, and the problem with cholera is something that can be fixed with water and sanitation measures, and we shouldn’t use money on vaccines to control disease.

We at WHO… think it’s worth trying and seeing whether or not we can count on this tool and integrate it into a larger palate of control measures.

Q: When was the cholera stockpile set up?

We convened a meeting in 2012, and decided to establish this stockpile. By June, we were able to raise enough funds to establish a 2 million-dose stockpile. In July, we talked to manufacturers and started getting the vaccines around the last quarter of 2013.

We still don’t have the 2 million yet, because the manufacturers have not been able to produce the 2 million right away. We have around 1.5 million, and this is the first time we are using it.

Q: Where is the stockpile kept?

A: It’s kept at the manufacturing level (in India). We tried many things with (the vaccine stockpiles for) meningitis and yellow fever. We decided not to have a physical stockpile anywhere because of practical issues and issues with shelf life. We pre-pay for the vaccine, we set up procurement and logistics for transport and shipping in as short a time as possible.

Q: How much does this cost - both the vaccine as well as overall logistics?

A: The Shancol vaccine is around $1.80 a dose. Dukoral is a bit more expensive, around $4 to $5. Both vaccines are given in two-dose course.

The operational costs are related to shipping vaccines to the country, and making sure the vaccine is delivered to the people… between $1 to $2 additional per person, to make sure the vaccine is in the mouth of the people.

This is one of the things we need to document very well, but the experience we have is that operational cost really varies a lot. It can go from less than $1 up to $6.

Q: Where could the stockpile be useful?

A: The guideline for the vaccination is that it is for use in emergency situations, rather than prevention in cholera endemic populations.

However - again because this is the previous experience we have with yellow fever - if we know every year the vaccine has not been used for response to outbreaks because it was not requested or there was no need… our intention is to propose (the remaining vaccines) for preventive vaccination, to use them before expiration.

In WHO, we need to remind the world that for Latin America to control and eliminate cholera from the continent in the 1990s, we didn’t need the vaccine.

There are other things that can and should be done to control cholera, but… in situations where we know water and sanitation improvements will take longer and be difficult, (we can) try to use a tool that will help avoid needless suffering.

In camps in Iraq, or in Mexico where there have been outbreaks, they can control them without the vaccine because they have medical and WASH infrastructure and strong programmes that can deal with that without the use of the vaccine.

This is not the situation in South Sudan, where the WASH situation is so poor and healthcare limited - an outbreak would be catastrophic.

It’s not like yellow fever - if you don’t vaccinate, you don’t protect people, period. You have to vaccinate (with yellow fever), measles is the same. With cholera, it’s different.


Thai businesses rue political gridlock as economy falters

By Alisa Tang

BANGKOK, Feb 7 (Reuters) - Bangkok’s middle classes have been at the heart of a three-month protest movement to topple Thailand’s government, but as the strife drags on and the economy wilts the capital’s business owners are starting to feel the pain.

While the most committed say they are prepared to swallow the losses for as long as it takes, others say it is time for the protests to stop. No one is willing to bet on negotiations to end the political stalemate any time soon.

"I just want these protests to end," said Pornthep Chaisri, manager of Indie’s Kitchen restaurant in the Silom business district near one big protest camp, which has seen customer numbers fall by around 80 percent.

"It’s not good for business, or for the safety of those of us working in this zone. Some of my employees have to walk 5 km to get to work because buses can’t get in here."

The protesters want Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra to step down and an unelected “people’s council” to push through unspecified political reforms. To achieve that they have blockaded big intersections in the capital and forced ministries and state agencies to close.

Yingluck called a snap election but voting was disrupted on Feb. 2 and she looks likely to head a caretaker administration for many weeks yet, unable to take policy decisions and needing permission from the Election Commission for much spending.

"We’re trying to find a channel for dialogue but we’re not talking to the protesters or the government," said Payungsak Chartsutthipol, head of the Federation of Thai Industries, one of several business groups that have tried to mediate.

He said his organisation might appeal directly to the Election Commission to get certain budgets approved.

"The impact on business is not just in the protest areas now. It has spread much further. Merchants are being affected, and people can’t sell … Whether it’s hotels or small vendors, everyone is affected," Payungsak said.

A university survey released on Thursday showed consumer confidence, which reflects views on the economy, jobs and future income, fell to a 26-month low in January.

Thailand’s central bank slashed its growth forecast for this year to 3 percent last month and warned it could be lower as the unrest, which began in November, had affected consumption and investment.


In those areas where traffic has been blocked since a “shutdown” began on Jan. 13, shops and restaurants have lost from 50 to 80 percent of their business.

Chai Srivikorn, president of the Ratchaprasong Square Trade Association, home to upmarket malls and hotels, said daily retail sales in the area had fallen by 60 percent and hotel occupancy had dropped to 20 percent from 85-90 percent.

Protest leader Suthep Thaugsuban is popular in Silom, drawing cheering workers from their offices whenever his supporters march through, and some local business people back him.

"If my business fails and the government falls, too, then I’m willing to make the sacrifice," said the owner of a tea shop in the posh Dusit Thani hotel right opposite the protest camp, declining to be named. His business was empty and he was enjoying a smoke in the cigar shop next door.

Customers had dropped by almost three-quarters, but he shrugged off the losses. “It’s not such a huge impact that it would affect my business so much. This is just a hobby,” he said, waving his hand through the air dismissively.

In a nearby women’s clothing boutique, where sales have dropped by a half, Tanawan Khontanarak fumed at such indifference.

"Those people are rich, but we’re not rich. If my store is ruined, then I’ll die - not just me, my entire family," she said bitterly, pointing towards the protest stage.

"My suppliers tell me the same thing: ‘Be patient.’ But if I don’t have the money to pay them, will they be so patient with me? I don’t think so. They say, ‘When the government quits, things will be better,’ but I don’t think they will be." (Additional reporting by Khettiya Jittapong and Amy Sawitta Lefevre; Editing by Alan Raybould and Alex Richardson)


Rohingya Muslims fleeing Myanmar become “merchandise” in Thailand - HRW

Author: Alisa Tang

BANGKOK (Thomson Reuters Foundation) – Rohingya Muslims fleeing by boat to escape violence in Myanmar’s western Rakhine state have become “lucrative merchandise” for authorities and traffickers in Thailand, Human Rights Watch (HRW) said, as a fresh bout of bloodletting in the volatile state prompted demands for an investigation.

The U.S. and U.N. have urged Myanmar to investigate reports that security forces and Buddhist mobs attacked Rohingya in Rakhine state’s Maungdaw township earlier this month. The government has denied there has been any mass killing.

The number of dead has not been confirmed, but advocacy group Arakan Project put the death toll between 10 and 60, while a statement from U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay put the figure at more than 40.

Pillay’s statement said the U.N. has received “credible information” about the violence in Du Chee Yar Tan village, which began on Jan. 9, when local Rakhine villagers attacked and killed eight Rohingya Muslim men. On Jan. 13, Rohingya villagers captured and killed a police sergeant, while later that evening, police and local Rakhine killed at least 40 Rohingya Muslim men, women and children, it said.

Medical charity Medecins Sans Frontieres said on Friday it had treated 22 people who had apparently been wounded last week around the time of the reported massacre.

HRW said on Friday that it had received reports that police have “orally issued a blanket order permitting the arrest of all Rohingya men and boys over the age of 10 in the area.”

The incidents could not immediately be independently verified because the areas are off limits to journalists and the government strictly controls access by international aid groups.

Any deaths this week would add to the tally of at least 237 people killed in religious violence across Myanmar since June 2012, which has also displaced more than 140,000 people. Thousands of Rohingya have fled Myanmar aboard rickety boats, making perilous voyages across the Indian Ocean in the hope of reaching safety as refugees.

The exodus of Rohingya by sea has created a profitable enterprise for authorities and traffickers in neighbouring Thailand, HRW’s Thailand researcher Sunai Phasuk told a news conference in Bangkok.

He said Rohingya boats were intercepted, the migrants put in custody and deported “unofficially right into the hands of traffickers.”

“Throughout this process, there is a profit to be made by any agency involved. Rohingya have become lucrative merchandise for Thai officials guarding the border by sea and by land, and those in charge of enforcing immigration law all have benefited from the plight of the Rohingya,” Sunai said.

In-depth reports by Reuters and Thomson Reuters Foundation have detailed theapartheid tactics being used against the Rohingya, the resulting mass exodus by boat, as well as their falling prey to human traffickers in Thailand.

Human Rights Watch warned that sectarian violence in Rakhine had “metastasised” around Myanmar.  “In previously fairly stable areas, where Buddhist and Muslims coexisted for a very long time, you really saw organised but also spontaneous and organic anti-Islamic feeling,” Myanmar-based researcher David Mathieson said at the news conference in Bangkok.


Myanmar releases 96 former child soldiers, jails one for desertion

Author: Alisa Tang

BANGKOK (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - The Myanmar army has released 96 more former child soldiers as part of its effort to prevent and end underage military recruitment, the United Nations said, while news emerged of a former child soldier being sentenced to one year in prison for desertion.

The soldiers’ release on Saturday was the largest since the Myanmar military signed an action plan in June 2012 with a U.N.-led task force under which a total of 272 former child soldiers have now been freed.

However, the Irrawaddy Burmese news website reported on Wednesday that one former child soldier - recruited in 2009 at age 17 - was arrested in December and sentenced on Jan. 7 to one year in prison for deserting his unit.

Critics say the army’s efforts under the accord, reached with the task force comprising U.N. agencies and the NGOs World Vision and Save the Children, have been insufficient.

Human Rights Watch child rights expert Jo Becker said last May that a year into the action plan, “the Burmese military has failed to meet even the basic indicators of progress.”

U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon said in a report also issued last May that while underage recruitment continued, there appeared to be a steady decrease, with 172 verified cases in 2009, 134 in 2010, 123 in 2011, and 32 in 2012. Most recruits were 14 to 17 years old, but some were as young as 10.

“Recruiters continued to target working and unaccompanied children at workplaces, bus and train stations, ferry terminals and markets and in the streets, and orphans and non-working children in home villages and wards,” the report said.

Non-state armed groups similarly recruit and use children, the United Nations said, and it urged the seven listed non-state armed groups also to sign up to their own action plan with the task force.

In an email interview with Thomson Reuters Foundation, Bertrand Bainvel, the UNICEF representative in Yangon and co-chair of the task force, responded to questions about the child soldiers released. Here are excerpts of his responses.

Q: How were these child soldiers discovered?

A: Some of the discharged children have been identified by the Tatmadaw (Burmese army) themselves, by the battalions and training schools, through the review of their own records and through the self-identification of children in the army.

Some children have also been reported by families and communities to the ILO (U.N. International Labour Organization) complaints mechanism.

Other children have been identified through a CTFMR (Country Task Force on Monitoring and Reporting on grave child rights violations).

Q: How were they forced or lured into soldiering?

A: Some children joined the armed forces while others have been forced or deceived into joining.

Some children have been deceived into joining the armed forces, indicating they were enticed by individual soldiers or by civilian brokers with the promise of jobs and a good salary, and then forced to enlist. In some cases, underage recruits indicated they only became aware of their official recruitment after receiving uniforms or being sent to training school.

Families are sometimes unaware that there are restrictions on children serving in the armed forces. In response to this, the joint action plan also focuses on prevention of recruitment and awareness-raising across the public at large.

Q: How many children are still being used by the Tatmadaw? Are children still being recruited, and is this a problem from the central government level, or more in the provinces, where perhaps policies have yet to reach?

A: No verifiable data exists on the number of children recruited by the Tatmadaw. However, we know that from 2004 to December 2013, 760 children have been demobilised from the Tatmadaw and over 400 provided with reintegration support back into their communities.

Instructions and directives have been given from central level to stop the recruitment of children in the Tatmadaw but challenges may still occasionally arise on the implementation level.

The public can report the recruitment of children through a CTFMR-operated hotline, 09421166701 or 09421166702, from 7 am to 10 pm. A call back service is provided for broken calls and missed calls outside these hours.


Authorities detain two men suspected of trafficking 16-year-old girl in typhoon-hit Philippines

Author: Alisa Tang

BANGKOK (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Philippine social welfare authorities earlier this week detained two men trying to fly out of typhoon-devastated Tacloban city with an unrelated 16-year-old girl, a U.N. spokeswoman said, raising concerns about the trafficking of minors in the chaotic aftermath of the disaster.

U.N. refugee agency spokeswoman Vivian Tan said the incident - the first such detected by authorities since Typhoon Haiyan hammered the central Philippines on Nov. 8 - was not a clear-cut case of trafficking.

A Department of Social Welfare and Development (DSWD) official at the Tacloban airport Migration Outflow Desk on Monday spotted “a 16-year-old girl travelling with two adult men she did not seem to be related to,” Tan said.

DWSD officials, registering displaced people travelling to Manila, saw that the girl’s family name differed from those of her companions on the forms they filled in.

“When the names of the trio didn’t match, DSWD brought the girl aside for further questions. She admitted she did not really know the men, who offered to take her to her parents in Manila,” Tan wrote by email late Wednesday night from Tacloban. “But from what I hear, her story has been quite inconsistent so the authorities don’t have the full picture yet.”

Tan, who confirmed the details with the DSWD official on Thursday morning, said the girl was in the DSWD’s care, and police were investigating the case. It was not clear if the men were still in detention, Tan said.


Child protection agencies commonly warn that after disasters or during emergencies, children are at elevated risk of trafficking, exploitation and abuse, especially if they have lost their parents.

After fighting between government forces and separatists displaced more than 100,000 in the southern Philippines, a 6-year-old girl was raped in September at an overcrowded evacuation centre in Zamboanga - a city known to be a human trafficking route.

“After disasters such as the earthquake in Haiti and the tsunami that affected Indonesia and Sri Lanka, many children who had lost or been separated from their families were trafficked and forced to work, provide sexual services or beg on the streets,” Emily Pasnak-Lapchick, a fellow with the End Trafficking project at the U.S. Fund for UNICEF, wrote on the agency’s website.

“It is estimated that thousands of children were trafficked in the aftermath of the earthquake in Haiti. With a large youth population spread over more than 7,000 islands, the situation in the Philippines after Typhoon Haiyan has the potential to be even worse.”

Typhoon Haiyan killed more than 5,500 people and displaced 4 million, of whom UNICEF estimates 1.8 million are children.

Guidelines to ensure children do not become victims of trafficking include the following:

  • Conduct a rapid assessment of the situation of children.
  • Prevent the separation of children from caregivers and facilitate the identification, registration and medical screening of separated children, particularly those under five years of age and adolescent girls.
  • Ensure that family-tracing systems are implemented.
  • Provide interim care for separated children until they are reunited with their families, placed in foster care, or other long-term care arrangements have been made.
  • Ensure that children who are travelling during emergencies are with their parents or other primary caregivers. The government can put a temporary moratorium on the adoption of children until all children can be properly identified and the process of family tracing is completed.
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